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.