Check out my book review of The Sense of an Ending here
The year was 1927 or 1928. Or was it 1929? Not too sure. A little girl not more than 8 or 9 years old was playing outside her home in Kumbakonam, a small town south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Her hair was drenched in warm coconut oil and held in two tight braids. Two flamboyant ribbons were generously tied around the two braids into large sloppy bows. She had on a cotton long skirt and blouse, that ubiquitous little-girl attire, Paavaadai Choka. It was evening. Suddenly, her father emerged on the road outside and she ran to the gate to greet him. Affectionately, he placed his hand on her shoulder and braced himself to field all the questions his little girl launched at him. As they conversed, they both moved inside the house. He sat down to a snack of freshly prepared hot idlis that his wife had brought from the kitchen. The little girl sat on his lap, regaling him with school stories until he finished his snack.
After having poured her heart out, Ambuja ( for that was the little girl’s name) ran away to resume her play. Her father, an English professor in a college in Kumbakonam turned to his wife and gave her the news. He had been transferred to Patnam. The word itself meant city but those days that meant only Madras, now called Chennai. At dinner, the couple broke the news together to their children. While the younger boy was too small to understand, Ambuja was delighted. The big city, at last! Oh and she will learn English. Kumbakonam had only Tamil medium schools those day and she was in one. Her Tamil was good but being her father’s daughter, she had this strong urge to speak English like him and have conversations like him. This move to the city meant getting admission into an English medium school and her dream seemed that much closer.
Her mother, too, had dreams. Moving to the city meant some lifestyle changes. Changes for the better, mostly. Oh how she would dress this precious first-born of hers so that she could go like an English child to school. No more these long skirts and tops that everybody in villages wore. She would choose the finest cloth and stitch her daughter the finest frocks with lace and satin ribbons.
That summer was a busy one. Ambuja’s mother was preoccupied making a whole new wardrobe for her daughter. On a Professors salary, there were times that she felt she was going overboard. But a little chat with her husband would usually set it right. Ambuja’s father did not want his daughter to want for anything and a little something here and there that might require a small sacrifice from him was something he would gladly do. And so it was that the frocks were stitched, gowns bought, and matching socks and shoes and hairclips sought.
The family moved to madras just in time for the start of the new academic year. Due to her excellent grades, Ambuja had no problem getting admission in school. And then it was time for first day of school. Mother and daughter were excited. With a gleam in their eyes, they went about getting ready for the school in Patnam. After getting ready, they both looked with satisfaction at the mirror in front of them. Yes. That reflection was exactly what they were both aiming for. She looked like a little brown English school girl. With confidence oozing from every pore, mother and daughter set out to school.
Mother left Ambuja at the door of her class room. She strutted into her class and sat at a bench only to discover everyone else around her in the much maligned Paavaadai Choka, their hair, oil-drenched and in two plaits and simple sandals on their feet. ‘Why! They all looked like the village girls!’, she exclaimed in her head. And then the distressing thought struck her that this might not be an English medium school after all. She knew her father would set everything right. But how could he make such a terrible mistake, in the first place. Her mind was so full of these thoughts, she was hardly able to concentrate on the lesson taught.
But she was a good student so she forced her mind away and towards the lesson. To her surprise the lesson was in English. She didn’t understand a word. Miserable! How was she to keep up her good academic run if she doesn’t understand a word the teacher said. And worse, everyone else was responding in English. All these girls in their long skirt and blouse, looking no different from the village girls, were actually speaking impeccable English, with the teacher and also with each other.
Ambuja, a vision in her lacey frock and socks and shoes, was by this time almost in tears. As she felt the other students’ eyes boring into her, her consternation increased. She wished she could sink into the earth. But no such luck. She gulped back her tears and somehow, managed to survive her class.
Back home, in a fit of rage, she threw her school satchel one direction and kicked of her shoes and socks in four other directions. She burst into an inconsolable volley of tears and sunk into her mother’s arms. Her mother calmed her down at last. Together they decided, not for them this show and pretence. And when her father came home, she asked him to teach her English. He gathered her in his arms and said, ‘ oh why not! We will start today.’
Ambuja is my grandmother. May be I should say ‘was’, because she passed away in January this year at the age of 91. Nothing deterred her on the academic front after this. At the end of that school year, she received a prize for getting the highest overall percentage across all the classes. She not only mastered the English language but read novels and books in it until almost two years before her death when her faculties began to fail her. The last book she read in our house- perhaps this was the last book she read ever- was Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’. She and I had a quiet and hilarious conversation about it after. But that is for a different blog post.
I wasn’t around in 1927 0r 28 or 29. I have liberally used my poetic license. And I dare say, my mother too, whom I heard this story from in the first place, has used hers. Needless to say, this is only an attempt to capture my grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of those times.
Cousin R and I were born a month apart to a pair of sisters under the vigilant supervision of my grandmother. So Cousin R was my first peer ever and perhaps, the first person I felt older and therefore, indulgent, towards. All this meant that Cousin R and I have a very special relationship. The most outward manifestation of this ‘specialness’ is the seemingly unprovoked mirth that the two of us burst into when we meet. Lasting for minutes (sometimes hours on end), just a suggestive nudge would send us into peels of laughter that we cannot recover from for days. Infact, we have discovered that there are only two ways to check such outbursts; putting large distances between us and the absence of the other from our memory. Both solutions are rather tricky because the more we tried either, the more intense the memory of the other became.
A couple of weeks ago, Cousin R and I decided to make a hurried visit to Amritsar since I was in the neighbourhood. As we had booked Tatkal tickets from Delhi, our berths were in different corners of the compartment on the Golden Temple Mail. This train had already spent 24 hours enroute from Mumbai and much of the other births were occupied. We sat on one of the seats and waited for the TC to come and give us a birth near each other if possible. A large, curious lady sat opposite us, so evidently spoiling for a chat.
Aunty ( using the term of respect for any older woman in India, we called her Aunty): Yes yes! Sit here . sit here. Can you imagine otherwise???? What if a sardar comes and sits here!!!!
There was something so comical about this comment and the way she said it, both R and I smiled. This should be fun!
Aunty: Where are you from?
Aunty: Oh ! Where in Mumbai? I am from Meera Road
Me: Kanjur Marg. Its near Powai.
Aunty: Acha. Good good. Where do you work>
Me: I work for an NGO
Aunty: Good good. Where is your office?
Aunty: Oh Bandra East?
Me ( a little confused that she should know where my office was): Yes.
Aunty: oh there’s a big ONGC headquarters there.
Me: Yes! I work very near that.
Aunty: How is the work atmosphere there?
Me (confused): In ONGC?
Me: how should I know?
Aunty: Arey you just said you work there!
Me ( through the corner of my eye I see that Cousin R’s body is convulsed with silent laughter): No no! I work in an NGO!
Cousin R couldn’t quite keep it inside. So she excused herself, saying she thought she spotted the TC somewhere and ran through the rest of the compartment hollering like she was the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre! I regained my composure ( distance between us, atlast!).
Aunty, unfazed, continued to talk.
On seeing a child near the door she said in Hindi, “ arey Sardar ka bacha dekho, sardar ka bacha’ ( Oh look, it’s a Sardar’s child, a sardar’s child) and proceeded to laugh helplessly. Cousin R, having returned from ‘seeing the TC’ couldn’t help herself once again. And this time she didn’t even try! She burst forth and I couldn’t help myself either. We both held our stomachs and laughed. Aunty, a little confused at our outburst, decided the best course of action was to join us and good naturedly, she giggled along. I apologized, lest she should take offence, “ aunty, we both are known for giggling. So please don’t take offence, we just find these situations funny and then once we start, we cant stop!’
As the night advanced, she kept up a constant flow of funny comments and we continued to laugh. She asked Cousin R what she did and when Cousin R said she was doing her PhD, Aunty smiled vaguely and said, ‘ these days girls are also studying a lot’. Cousin R and i were convulsed once again. Suddenly, she grew serious and shushed us saying, ‘ I am going to call my aunt in the US, so you be quiet.’ After a long conversation with her aunt in the US in which she reassured her about the latter’s son’/daughter’s marriage etc, she cut the call and we could resume our raucous laughter.
As I tucked myself to sleep that night, the giggles gradually fading as sleep took over, I racked my memory for a similar situation in the past, where Cousin R and I had been afflicted in public. What had we done then? How did we control our laughter even as people provided an abundance of provocation around us? In short, how do we travel together, normally, without making people feel that we were two run-aways from a mental hospital? I found no such memory. Cousin R and I have never travelled together, ever. Note to self: need to do more journeys with Cousin R.
Guest post by Rukmaja Varadan
Hundred years ago, life was different, especially for children, with less of parental ambition obstructing their freedom. Though this was the order of the day, even among them, there were parents who never ever scolded or chastised their offspring. So kids could act without fear and do things without the parental arm pulling them away from potential danger. This family in Chittoor was particularly non-judgmental , giving kids a free hand in their choices. A small chap, all of five, in one of the hand-me-down shirts of an elder sibling, as was the rule those days, covering all of him, stood at the doorway one day watching the traffic. Suddenly, he decided to go browse in the neighbourhood . As he left for the open, a few steps down the road, being very intelligent, he thought, for him to come back to his house, he needed some landmark. He thought for a minute a hit upon a bright idea. He pissed at his door step and ventured out , sure of himself. How he found his way back is a mystery but that he did come back is certain, for it was just the other day his centenary was celebrated on April 25th, 2012. His name? V.K. Narasimhan
V.K. Narasimhan is my grand-uncle, my grandfather’s older brother. A well-regarded and fearless journalist, he was, by all accounts, an interesting person. My grandmother, Rukmaja Varadan, his much younger sister-in-law, looked up to him.
On the occasion of his centenary, his son published a book, God’s own Marxist. Apart from containing VK Narasimhan’s own writings, the book included reflections by contemporaries, colleagues and relatives. My own father wrote his reflections on his uncle. And my grandmother wrote the above story. Interestingly, her anecdote didn’t find a way into the book. ( More interestingly, while it included stories by sons, sons-in-law, grandsons and nephews, it did not include stories by daughter, daughters-in-law, granddaughters or nieces). While the female voices were conspicuously absent, my grandmother’s story was excluded on two grounds. One that it wasn’t an anecdote that she could possibly have direct experience of. The other that it was talking about something as mundane as ‘pee’.
If it is simple squeamishness, as the second reason implies, it reminds me of Milan Kundera’s exposition on Kitsch, the absolute denial of shit, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Gods too, since they have mouths, will shit. Marxists too! To me this tale is not only about an intelligent boy using his creativity to solve a problem, but it is a charming tale of a young boy growing up a hundred years ago.