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.
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.
This blog is for a dear friend, confidante and boss. When I was going through a particularly bad patch, Shiva said to me “ these are horrible things to happen to a person. True. But, your life is too large for you to let such small things come in the way of living”. And yet he let something as trifling as malaria get him. At the risk of sounding clichéd, without Shiva I wouldn’t be where I am now or writing this blog at all. Even if I have known him only for a year, I am glad I knew him at all and I wish I had known him for longer. This blogpost, that I wrote a week ago, is about this city, Bangalore, where I have shifted for a month now. My being here, doing the job that I do, and living a different life is partly due to Shiva. Shiva Dhakal, you had no business to go.
It has been a month since I shifted to this city. A city, that now, seems full of glass office buildings and a city that is reeling under the impact of The Great IT Exodus. Bangalore is where my grandparents settled after my grandfather’s retirement and have lived there since, some 30 years almost. Which means I have been visiting Bangalore almost every holiday? For me, Bangalore meant a good time, my grandparents, no school, vacation, cousins and friends to play with, relatives, and all that is old and traditional.
This time it is different. I am here on work. So good times are fewer and farther between. But they still are in steady supply.
For a start, this city of parks has not changed much in that respect, at least in this neighborhood. I remember going to Krishnarao park with my grandfather and playing in the playground there. I now go to the park for my walks. A multitude of health conscious folk and gossip lovers descend on the park every morning rather early and traverse the same circular path every day. Down the road is Lalbagh which I go to off a Sunday. This vast and beautiful space of greenery and trees and lakes is truly exotic for this Bombayite. To have them so accessible is a dream come true. Shiva loved nature, he would have loved Bangalore.
Over the past few weekends, I got to check out three places to eat. First, with Aparna, Vinita and Sruthi, I had a hungry breakfast at Vidyarthi Bhavan. We waited for close to 30 minutes standing like hawks over other people having breakfast and keeping a look out for emptying seats. When we finally did sit down, we were famished. We had the idli, vada and masala dosa. The masala dosa and the filter coffee were to die for. Definitely, a must if you are in Bangalore any time. Second, I went to Maiya’s for lunch with Nikki. We went up to the Gujarati part of the restaurant. The food was good but not great. I mean, nowhere near those awesome Gujarati thali places in Bombay like Samrat and Panchvati. Koshy’s, on the other hand, was a delectable find. I went there with Sam and a brood of her lovely friends. It is this really old café-type setup, famous for its kerela food, but I had their fish and chips which was also good. Shiva loved fish, he would have enjoyed this place. Also this marked my first drinking outing in Bangalore. Sadly, when I asked for more rum and coke, I was told it was too late. That’s right, Bangalore closes all liquor by 11.30. Shiva would have laughed at such a rule and wondered how I lived here. Shiva would have enjoyed a gastronomical exploration of this city. Shiva loved food.
I must tell about my first client at work. Yes yes, there are things like client confidentiality and all that, so no names and such, but still it makes for an interesting story. It’s a hospital that is looking for marketing solutions. They are a ‘boutique’ hospital. And I had to google that myself. Meeting up with the COO was even more interesting. He waxed eloquent about what the hospital offers and why the prices are so exorbitant (because of the state-of-the-art technology etc). And then, he launches on healthcare in India, how ‘Indian’s culturally don’t care about people dying on the street. Thought running through my head: how posh for a man so concerned about public health and the ‘Indian mentality of not caring’ to be heading such an exclusive luxury facility? Shiva would have wondered what I was doing with ‘boutique’ hospitals and laughed at my predicament. He would have said, “ its ok. You can do it”.
This weekend, I spent at Valley School, that alternative education school of the Krishnamurthy Foundation Institute (KFI) in the beautiful, green outskirts of Bangalore. I had gone there for a workshop on rhythm, art and movement. There was dancing, singing, carpentry and drawing and painting. All of which I did. The greenery of the valley beckons and I see myself a frequent visitor there. If Shiva had come for this, he would have escaped to visit the villagers and break bread with them assuming they would have some delicious food.
While there, I learnt this beautiful Bengali song, that I reproduce here
Khwaja’r name pagol hoiya
Phiri ami Ajmer giyago
(Eto Kore daklam tare)- 2
Tobu dekha pailam na
Pagol Chhada duniya cholena (hai re)
*(Tui pagol tor mon-o-pagol)-2
Pagol pagol korish na
Pagol chhada duniya cholena (hai re)
(Murshid ache deshe deshe
Ei jogote koto beshe re)- 2
(Dhorte parle pabi re tui)- 2
Behest- er-I nazrana
Pagol chhada duniya chole na (hai re)
Tui pagol tor mon-o-pagol *
The meaning, in a gist, is that in searching for god/ultimate/truth, I have become crazy. I have looked everywhere and haven’t found it. I even went to Ajmer but to no avail. But that’s ok. Without the mad people/ madness, the world wouldn’t run. You are mad and so is your heart, don’t call other people mad because without the mad, the world wouldn’t run. There are many Murshid (philosphers, guides, guru, teachers) in different forms in the world everywhere. And yet you dont see the ultimate until you do see it.
Shiva has been one of my Murshids . I am unable to keep track of all that is lost by losing him.