being brown


The Bright Idea

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.


New Book Blog

Check out my new block on books I am reading or have read.

Wafting through the bookshelf

Sexuality and its discontents

Recently, because I had an ongoing (it was something that surfaced on and off over the course of three weeks) argument about sexuality with P, I decided to speak to A for an outsider’s perspective. After listening to my version of the debate, A, first, felt that I was confused about sexuality and I was projecting that on P. ( yeah! I have friends who can be brutally honest!). Her second observation was that if P was, herself, from a sexual minority community, she would consider it an affront if I had something to say about sexual minorities ( ofcourse, A assumed that P assumed that I was heterosexual). I didn’t know if P was heterosexual or not. So this was a moot point.

The argument itself was on semantics. What word would one use to describe something? But during the course of the argument, P said, ‘ in most homosexual relationships, one partner plays the role of a woman and the other the man’. This raised red flags in my mind, because for one, it isn’t true and for another, it smacks of heterosexual morality being reproduced in homosexual relationships. Subsequently, from context, I discovered that P was specifically talking about sex between men and transsexuals. The whole impasse between P and me was the result of the imprecise use of words. Clarity regained seat, and all was well with the world.

P had the best interest of sexual minorities at heart. She even worked with some of them. In fact, while she was talking to me she said, ‘ why should the knowledge of someone’s sexuality, what ever it is, affect our behavior in anyway?’ And i am in complete agreement. But, in our enthusiasm to be inclusive and non-discriminatory, we tend to categorise all sexual minorities in to one category, losing critical nuances and tending to generalize within the category. Hence, P’s sweeping statement and my overwrought reaction to it.

But A had brought up an interesting question. By virtue of ‘appearing’ heterosexual, do I automatically lose credibility in discussions concerning sexuality?  If yes, why? Is it beyond comprehension that some one with a majoritarian inclination should actually understand the nuances in a discussion about a minority? Or is it that such a person really cannot understand those nuances? In corollary, do gays always and fully understand the issues that concern lesbians and transsexuals? What do you think?

Of National Integration, Salwar Suit Uniforms and the like- The Kendriya Vidyalaya Story

My friend M said, ‘ you remember how we used to tie our sweaters at our waist because we thought it was cool?’ I smiled vaguely. She said, ‘ didn’t you do it? I mean it was all over schools in Bombay.” ‘ But I wore salwar suit to school,’ said I. She was surprised. ‘ What do you mean? Didn’t you have a uniform?” I said, “ of course. That WAS my uniform. White salwar, navy blue kurta and white dupatta.” She seemed taken aback. I explained, ‘I studied in a central government school. Kendriya Vidyalaya. We had navy blue skirt and white blouse as a uniform option. Each school decided which one it wanted to go with. So when I was studying in Mumbai, we had the skirt-blouse alternative and when I shifted to Goa, salwar kameeze was mandatory.” M looked as if she had discovered a new side to me, the government school side.

Making salwar kameeze cool!

There is a whole section of the population that is oblivious to the Kendriya Vidyalayas,  that family of schools started by the Central Government to make quality education available to the children of central government employees who were regularly afflicted by that unique woe- a transfer. Affiliated to the CBSE, these schools ensured a uniform syllabus and teaching method across the country, external to the State Government’s education initiative. They are usually affiliated to one or the other of a  central government institution. Both of the KVs I attended were attached to Navy bases and our classes were inundated with children of Naval personnel, officers and sailors alike.

That is perhaps what I loved most about school. India’s plurality was reproduced in all its splendor in our classroom. I had friends from every region, linguistic background, class, caste and religion. In keeping with its goal of spreading national integration, we spent one whole period in the week singing songs of national integration. Some beautiful, some moralistic, some outright jingoistic, they were all melodious and lent themselves to group singing.

There is a lot wrong with the KVs. For starters there is the abysmal standard of English.  A number of non-traditional course options were unavailable to us and that is perhaps, KV’s biggest failing. But I am going to keep those for another post.

For now, I am content reminiscing about my teachers. Every school seems to have that eccentric teacher, the zealous teacher, the indifferent teacher, the mean teacher and more. I remember one biology teacher RK boiling her tea over the laboratory spirit lamp. I remember one dedicated history teacher, GG, whose passion for history gripped me. I remember my sincere and dedicated class teacher, P, who took it upon himself to rid me of the evils of ‘proudness’. I remember the womanizing PT teacher whom we called Pitwa ( I am not sure how this moniker was decided upon). I remember one English teacher who was inspiring and another who knew no English. I remember one Physics teacher who believed in me even as I flunked his class. I remember one Math teacher, who, in reaction to the linguistic nationalistic sentiment of the time, took one class in Tamil- just to prove a point. I remember another Math teacher who also came home and tutored me and another friend. Tutoring two unresponsive, giggling, shy, teenage girls is no joke and we were the absolute worst kind.  It is a testament of his valour that he showed up every time without fail. And I remember that quiet yoga teacher who listened to all my adolescent trials and tribulations.

Two pieces of great writing

Recently, in a span of a week, I read two articles that to me meant all that writing is supposed to mean. The first was Vinod K. Jose’s analytical look at Narendra Modi in The Emperor Uncrowned. And the second was K.P.Sasi’s reflections on his father, a veteran Marxist, and the journey of Marxism in the country in K.Damodaran: An Unfinished Chapter. The subjects themselves are very different. While the former is written by a journalist about a controversial ( fascist) but extremely successful politician, the latter is a more heartfelt critical reflection by a left-leaning film maker about his father and the politics of his time. Both articles, however, raise two all important and all-consuming contemporary questions ‘ For whom, this Development?” and “ is there anything in the world that can excuse mass killings- ever?” Enough about the content of the articles; I will let you read the articles yourself to determine their merits.

However, what really makes me sit up with both these articles is that, they embody the best things in writing. K.P. Sasi’s article is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgia-ridden eulogy. Not only is it looking at the father with a critical eye, it makes parallel critical observations about communism in Kerela, India, the USSR and the world in general, making that subtle but significant link between the personal and the political. Along the way, he also makes important observations about the current state of organised Marxism in India- what is, essentially, an outsiders view of a movement in which he is well enough invested ideologically, to have reasonably high expectations. What is beautiful is that he uses Marxism as an analytical tool to scrutinize the movement and its personalities!

Vinod K Jose’s article is laboriously researched. It makes all the right linkages and demonstrates journalism at its best. Complexities of life and personality gives perspective to a man who is, for the most part, known either as ‘the best thing that happened to Gujarat’ or as a ‘mass murderer’.

Finally, contrary to contemporary aesthetics of web writing, both articles are long. I am a slow reader and I took almost half an hour to read each. So this is where I will have to disagree with contemporary internet aesthetics and say this- some subjects cannot be written about in bite-sized pieces.

Now, I urge all of you to read these articles. If you have time for only one, do read the K P Sasi article! And tell me if it didn’t move you.

Chomsky and Prada: The fun in stereotypes

Who wants to be Prada?

Who wants to be Prada?

“Do you realize? To dad, you are Chomsky and I am Prada”, said my sister A.

Chomsky, A Caricature by Iain Harrison

Chomsky, A Caricature by Iain Harrison

My father  had just asked her for some fashion advice over my head. Earlier in the day when he asked me for some political opinion, I had provided it. And this was what prompted my sister to make this observation.

Neither of us were flattered by the compartments my father had, oh so conveniently, set us down in. A didn’t want to be just a fashion house . And I, definitely, didn’t want to be compared to an ageing geek (no offence to either the ageing or the geeks).  But this wasn’t new to us. When I showed faint interest in History during high school, my desk was inundated with history books. When I studied Literature in college, all the English novels that my father bought, found their way to my room. And when A studied Math, everything to do with mathematics were delivered to her table. Once, in a fit of passionate protest, A took all the novels to her room and I was left with books on science and mathematics. The mother was not excluded from this bracketing exercise. When she did a course on Instructional Design, she found many books on ID on her work space. Sometimes, the straitjacketing can be complimentary. My father appreciates A’s wit and humour so much that he calls it a ‘brand’.

But all this says something significant about stereotypes. And no it isn’t that they are here to stay. That we all know. But, more importantly, stereotypes are caricatures. And caricatures are fun. But that’s also all they are.

All in a nimisham

The heart ( or perhaps the mind; to me the two are the same) has a strangely cruel way of reminding one of happy-sad things from memory. First, something in the recent events triggers it off; then you remember something someone said or did; and finally you remember that that someone is no more. And all this in a space of a ‘nimisham’. Nimisham is a Tamil word that finds its roots in Sanskrit. And while it translates to a minute in popular parlance, it literally mean ‘the blink of an eye’.

It is in such momentary lapses into memory that I remember Shiva, my Murshid. And they have been more frequent in the last few months. First, when I quit my previous job and moved back to Mumbai. My first thought was to call and tell him I am back, not only to this city but also to take on the kind of work I was trained to do; indeed the kind of work that I was doing with Shiva before. Second, when I interviewed for a job, I met someone who knew him. Third, moving homes meant sifting through old ‘rubbish’ and a chance work-related document reminded me of him.

To some, Shiva’s memory is a constant companion, like a shadow. No. it cannot be a shadow. Shadows don’t hurt. It is like the sciatica, a constant ache around which you work and fashion your behavior. It might give you a limp or a stoop. But to me, as to some other people, Shiva’s memory will be the sudden  prick of a tattoo needle as it pierces the skin. Involuntarily, it will draw tears and it will leave just as suddenly, healing until the next onslaught.

It has been more than a year now when, rather unceremoniously, Shiva decided to leave the world. And I am suddenly reminded of his brightly coloured red, orange and yellow, striped rug that doubled up as a shawl. At first sight, I fell in love with it. I told him I thought it was beautiful and that if he ever thought of parting with it, he should give it to me. He smiled shyly and looked at it, feeling it lovingly. And he said, “ this was bought in Kenya by a very special person. And you can take any of my other possessions…but this…I am sorry, I will never part with it.” His eyes had a strange twinkle and I turned away to suppress a snort. ( I am sorry, at that time I had no patience for any kind of mawkishness). Today, I remember this and a soft feeling washes over me. I wonder where that shawl is now. Whoever has it, I hope it brings them the happiness it brought to him.