being brown

Posts tagged “Experiences

Little English School Girl

Fiery

Fiery

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 wore 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 hair-clips 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 lacy 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 pretense. 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.’

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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 or 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.


The Curious Case of Cousin R and I

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?
Me: Mumbai
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?
Me: Bandra
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?
Aunty: yes
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.


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?


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.


Literature at its shocking best

When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!

Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.

My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry.  The first poem I read of hers was

Becoming a Brahmin

Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,

Advaita: The ultimate question

Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,

An Angel Meeting Me

Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,

Mascara

oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,

How they prostitute a poem

By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”

But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones.  Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.

Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.


Coloured? I am!

I have learnt that in Tamil if you hear, “nalla colour da, macchaan” (“good colour dude”), it is usually a comment made by a guy to another guy about the skin colour of a passing lady who is ‘fair’. What a contrast to what ‘colour’ means in the western world of skin tones.

In yesterday’s episode of Neeya? Naana? Host Gopinath began the show by asking participants to describe the specific features that made them beautiful. Interestingly, nobody mentioned skin colour as their single most defining feature of beauty. Responses included features, smiles, vivacity, etc. The next question was which colour (fair/dusky- the dark people would rather be called dusky than dark!), they thought was beautiful and why? The answers came pouring forth. I watched as self-assured women made a case for what they perceived to be their own skin colour. ( interestingly those who considered themselves ‘fair’ wouldn’t pass for fair in Bombay.They would possibly fall under that unique category of skin colour exclusive to India, wheatish)The ‘fair’ brigade said that all kinds of colours suited their skin tone; all kinds of jewelry, from gold to silver to platinum showed up on their skin tone; their skin tone gave them an educated look; it provided the trump card in most arranged marriage situations. The ‘dusky’ brigade said that they could in fact carry off light coloured clothes the way their fair sisters couldn’t; their skin tone allowed for a clearer definition of features; their eyes and teeth shown in contrast to their dark skin. Political incorrectness to the hilt, sure! But the candour must be applauded!

In a country that is obsessed with skin colour, I thought this show was imperative. Fair & Lovely and Fair & Handsome are doing extremely well here and the reason might have a lot to do with the pursuit of that elusive Caucasian colour.  And instead of some kind of simmering resentment among the young, airing politically incorrect opinions out in the open might just do the trick.