being brown

Posts tagged “life

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.’

_____________________________________________________________________________________

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.

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The Gaze

The Gaze

I picked up The Gaze after listening to a speech by the author on TED talks. I usually give a   book 50-100 pages to draw me in. And the first couple of chapters were bleak. I didn’t quite understand what was happening and where the plot was headed, mostly because I was busy deciphering a rather confusing narrative. But instead of putting me off, it challenged me to stay on as if to say, ‘see if you can make sense of me’. And I was equal to the task. I decided to let go of the plot- one of the reasons I was getting bogged down was because I was trying to tie it up with the back cover blurb- so I let go of what I had read there. And I just focused on deciphering the narrative. Which was the best thing I could have done. Shafak has a delicious narrative style that sometimes makes you want to re-read sentences/ phrases and sometimes read them aloud (making everybody around you think you are slightly cuckoo). She effortlessly goes back and forth in time and space and has us surrounded not only by people who are stared at but also the quintessential voyeurs i.e. all the rest of us, both men and women.

And it is in this circumstance, when the reader is surrounded by all these fantastic –cum-terrible-cum-wonderful creatures and voyeurs, that she introduces the Dictionary of Gazes. And who better to obsess over it than B-C, the dwarf. The words that go into the Dictionary of Gazes now appear intermittently throughout the novel.

So, in short, I loved reading this novel. And here’s why. The narrator of the story is nameless. This is a brilliant way of telling you that this character is a ‘nobody’. When you name something, you give it that much more importance. In this case, the idea communicated that the character had a really low self-esteem not least because she was obese. The only other place that I have come across the use of the nameless narrator is Ghosh’ s The Shadow Lines.

There are a couple of chapters that go to 18th century Siberia and 17th century France. Shafak is describing the origins of two spectacles that form part of an exhibition of spectacles in 19th century Turkey. Before delving into these background stories she introduces a caveat in the previous chapter suggesting that the reader can skip the following chapter completely if she so wished. I didn’t. Personally, I loved both chapters because it gave a background to something I wasn’t quite comprehending. But more importantly, both of them was talking about some violation that had taken place that had led to the creation of these spectacles. But I also think that her suggestion was interesting. Towards the end she says there are many ways of telling a story and repeats the stories without the key violation. There is no spectacle that is created, rendering both stories useless. One is left wondering if the reader could really have left out those two chapters in her reading. I will never know.

Finally, her language is full of imagery. I also found some ( not too much) similarities with ‘magical realism’. Both of these made the reading so much more engaging. Sometimes imagery is easy to get but this kind of imagery was challenging, and so there was a continuous dialogue with the reader. Her language was also whimsical at times. This was one of the things that took time getting used to. But in the end, it was also one of the things that made the reading challenging and interesting.

A final caveat- this is a translation from the Turkish original. I am not sure how much of the ‘challenging’ aspects of the language of the book comes from it being Turkish and how much from it being an inefficient translation ( if it is). Perhaps someone who knows both languages can tell. But I do wonder how much was lost in translation.


Work Monotone(ou)s

Wistful monotones emerge from my keyboard

I look down to see whats causing them

Only to feel silly for,

These are my fingers

Flying over the keyboard

Causing the monotones.

Listless monotones emerge from my keyboard.


Ranting!

Ok! This has to be written about. I am fuming. My heart is racing. I feel like I am being choked and stifled. Why?

Because the Bangalore Municipal Coproration doesn’t allow me to do the one thing I want to do ( I need to do to retain my sanity) at any other time than 3.30 PM to 4.30 PM. Unfortunately, that’s when I have to be hard at work. But fortune has nothing to do with it.

One of the main reasons that my shift to Bangalore wasn’t bad was because the Bangalore Municipal Swimming Pool was but 10 minutes away from home. I went there on Saturday evening to find out the timinigs, now that the winter is well and truly on retreat. And I realized that the pool is open from 6.00 AM on wards. Also there was a 3.30 – 4.30 ladies special batch. The rest of it was general. I mentally noted the timings and resolved to come by on mornings before work.

I went there this morning, sharp at 6.00 AM. And I was told the ladies batch was at 3.30. I said I knew it was, but I wanted to go in the general batch. Errrr…the person at the counter looked taken aback and said, but that’s only for gents. A little more debate with him, I was proudly told that this has been the rule for the last 25 years. I asked then isn’t it time to change the rules considering lost of women work now. He asked me to come at 10 AM (another impossibility for working people) to speak to the officer in charge. (seriously, I have never hated anyone as much as I have hated him for no fault of his).

As I walked back, the tears welled up in my eyes. I have been turned away from places because of rules before. But this cut too close to the heart. Quite literally, me outside water is like fish outside water.

Heres what I think happened?

Theres the general timings for men, women and children. And theres the ladies special timing. Both rules made 25 years ago by men in the largess of their hearts. ( their generosity just bowls me over). Over the years ladies have been using that exclusive time slot not venturing to go another time. So it soon became the ladies slot and the gents slot. I am sure if we were to unearth the dusty rules, this is what we would find.

Apart from the obvious implications of this to women, women’s’ development, feminism and the general gender sensitivity of the government, what this also says is that women are not expected to take on exercise/entertainment that requires them to strip to the bare minimum.

Bangalore, grow up!

P.S. part of me wants to take this up with the authorities. But I am afraid I will end up slapping someone…or worse.


सातवाँ खून किस का था?

I just  had a wonderfully lazy weekend thanks to Nikki. Our lethargies were in sync and we liked nothing better than to eat huge amounts of macaroni and cheese and watch tv and talk. And that’s what we did.

But we did venture out Saturday evening to watch the movie सात खून माफ. Now, this seems like a thriller, what with murder (and 7 at that). But it isn’t. It’s a movie about a woman who marries several times and each time she kills her husband . There’s no suspense about the murder. The movie just describes the characters of the woman and the husbands and we are told exactly why she kills them each time and exactly how she does it.

Due to a pantheon of brilliant actors doing husband roles, I think Priyanka Chopra’s talent also came to the fore. She seemed to have absorbed  some acting lessons along the way. In order, the husbands were Neil Nitin Mukesh ( tolerably good acting), John Abraham ( the absolute worst ever), Irfan Khan ( brilliant as ever), Anu Kapoor ( really awesome, his character was so mean and small and cheap, must have taken some fortitude to play that character), and a Russian dude ( I don’t know his name, and acting wasn’t very noteworthy) and the ever finest Naseeruddin Shah. The narrator of the story is a young boy played by Naseerudding Shah’s son, who was a child growing up in Priyanka’s house.

Priyanka’s character, one feels, is undergoing this spate of bad luck that she seems to always end up with men who abuse her, physically, mentally, and otherwise. She seems to always fall for the men with horrible vices that makes her want to kill them. And so each time she finds out about their vices she begins to plan their murder aided and abetted by a loyal staff consisting of a nurse (played by Usha Uthup), a butler cum chauffer and a jockey. Finally though, we are left wondering which the seventh husband was. Which was the seventh murder? Nikki and I really liked all aspects of the movie until we came to the end. As Nikki said it almost seemed as if the script writer had to answer an urgent call of nature and ended it abruptly.

Konkana Sen gives a memorable performance to a really small appearance, as usual. And the surprise element is that Ruskin Bond makes a cameo appearance. ( The story is based on his short story). A good word must be put in about the music. Its lively and each song is mod appropriate.Overall, please go watch it. Its great!

And do tell us which was the seventh murder.


Will Peter go back?

The rather amazing turn of events in international politics serves as a reminder that even if you are saturated with ideas of revolution and political upheaval, so much so you suddenly yearn for stability when there’s been nothing but simply because you have been thinking about it for ever and you are exhausted, it’s still a need, a romantic one, but inevitable never the less. It also tells you that people are more like you than not, something that comes as a surprise because everybody you meet thinks you are crazy. Just shows, it is not that the world is small but YOUR world is small.

The secession of South Sudan is one that has me interested. Sudan has had its share of trouble. Obviously, I am slightly more clued into her Darfur angst than her South Sudan angst, the former having received lots more international deliberation than the latter. Here’s what I knew about South Sudan

  1. There’s been unrest for quite some time now.
  2. it’s been bloody
  3. South Sudan has all the oil
  4. South Sudan has the Christians while Khartoum has the Muslims

Peter told me these things. I haven’t verified them. But I took them to be one version of the reality as seen by a South Sudan student refugee.  Peter was in the students’ hostel I was staying at in Oslo during my 6 month student stint there. I had chosen this one particularly because it was cheaper than the rest. I soon realized that cheap meant a whole lot of fellow immigrant students and refugees as housemates. In fact, the area where I stayed was full of black and brown people of all kinds of nationalities with Pakistani and Indian store owners.

My very first friend was Moufid, an Iraqi who took me under his wing immediately and introduced me to the rest of my housemates. That’s how I first met Peter. He was studying tourism Oslo University. Both Moufid and Peter new better Norwegian than English. I suppose that helped them survive better. Also, the Norwegian government invested in giving their refugee population free language lessons. Apparently, they also taught their refugees how to cook and clean so that they can live independently. That’s what Peter told me as he gave me some channadal cooked like Indian dal with no spices and only salt. We ate that with some bread. And he told me how when he came to Norway, he didn’t know the first thing about cooking. Customarily, his mom and sisters cooked.

Peter had been here for more than 10 years now and had become well adjusted to the Norwegian independent way of life. He had made good friends. Some of his family was also here. He couldn’t go back any time in the near future, he said, because there was an arrest warrant for him in South Sudan. He had participated in anti-establishment activities at home. His eyes welled up when he said he missed home.

It’s been more than three years since I saw Peter last. I wonder if with all that Norwegianising that he has been through, he will ever come back to South Sudan for anything longer than a short term visit. Now that this is a new country, will he take on the difficult task of building the nation? Has the nation lost its refugees forever?


Unknown wars in unknown places

One of the strongest images I have of Egypt (other than the museum and the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings) is the overwhelming presence of the Egyptian police. In white pants and white shirt like Indian naval officers (the only difference was that the shirt was not tucked in but was held by a black belt), these well built, hawk eyed, men were everywhere. On the streets, in the museum, at the railway station, at the pyramids, in the Valley of Kings – everywhere!

We were waiting for a train at Cairo station. The train was to take us to Aswan (where Agatha Christie stayed as she wrote Murder on the Nile). At Aswan we were to board a cruise that sailed on the Nile all the way to Luxor. We had arrived at the platform slightly early, which meant that we had to wait and entertain ourselves as best we could. The station was like any railway station in India (less crowded, of course). A whole lot of people were waiting about for trains; some families, some individuals, no individual women though. The platform was dirty and there were quite a few stalls selling snacks and other knick-knacks. In fact, we felt quite at home.

My father asked one of the policemen about our train and he said it should come in sometime but there were two trains due before ours. Did I mention there were police men to the tune of one for every 100 metres at the platform? In fact the station was so well secure, the car that carried us to the station was stopped for security check and our driver had to tell them who the car belonged to, who we were, where we came from and where we were going. As a family, we look pretty harmless so after a cursory glance at our faces we were allowed to pass.

My sister and I decided to take a walk down the length of the platform seeing that we had quite a bit of time on our hands, to do with as we please. As we walked the length, we realized that a lot of the men that had gathered at the station were in military uniform. With their large rucksacks and their huge metal boots, they looked ready to jump into war. Back at ‘campsite’ (where mum and dad were standing with the luggage), I asked if Egypt was in some kind of war. Mmy father answered in the best way he knew (read longest way). Apparently, Egypt had had/has forced conscription of males in the military until sometime ago. Not sure if the practice continues now and definitely not sure if it will continue after the revolution. Now, forced conscription is one of the things that interest me immensely. The reasons would make for another blog post that I would save for another day.

One of the primary things that interests me about forced conscription is the individual’s own perception of this kind of conscription. And as I watched the young men, some alone, some with their families waiting for a train, the writer in me was building for each one, a story. Sitting atop our luggage, I removed my camera meaning to store this poetic picture for ever. I did not focus on anything in particular but wanted to catch the length of the platform with atleast some of these men with their romantic baggage. And as I held out my camera, I heard my father saying that its against the law to take pictures in public places like the railway station. But I had already clicked and as I clicked, I saw the severe expression of the policeman in the screen of the digital camera staring right at me. He slowly moved forward a couple of steps, raised one arm and shook his finger from side to side, scowling all the time. I meekly put the camera back in the bag and realized that being a girl just saved me some uncomfortable moments. That and the fact that mum, dad and sis exude a certain respectability that the policemen read as ‘good people’. Moreover, my father looked ready to give me up to the policeman, if need be.

Well, in a rather anti-climactic turn of events, the already full military train arrived and the platform turned in to this long film strip of goodbye scenes. As men packed into it like sardines in a tin, Egypt’s military strength left for unknown wars in unknown places for an establishment they may or may not have loved.