being brown

Posts tagged “memory

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.


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.


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.


The Apology of the Metamorphosee!

She should have been an actress! Every opportunity she gets, she perfects the art of doing or saying something she doesn’t mean. It had become  entertainment. The only downside, she reflected, was that the better she got at it, the more she did it and the more fake, or to use Holden Caulfield’s word, phony, she seemed.

The last few months had offered her lots more opportunity for ‘acting’ than ever before. She had changed jobs, cities and careers leaving everybody but herself in a tizzy. From social work, she started working for a corporate. From being solely in activist circles, she was rubbing shoulders with men and women in IT and business. A cousin asked her in jest, “ So how come you have gone to the dark side?” What he was asking  was , “ Why this drastic change in career?” She didn’t know it then but his words were an ominous sign of what was to come from friends and acquaintances everywhere.

And sure enough, so many people have since raised their eyebrows and expressed shock and horror at her seemingly sudden change in jobs. An activist friend even said, “I see this decision of yours as reflecting some kind of disillusionment that you have felt work-wise and I really believe you should talk to somebody about it. Otherwise what in heaven’s name will prompt you to take such a job??” Another friend said after some consideration, “ I get you need a break from all this. But I think I will really worry if you stick at this corporate job for more than two years. I think I will give you a year and start questioning you after.” Another activist acquaintance, who rarely ever spoke to her, tried initiating a conversation, obviously to make sure she had heard right and to intervene if possible.

Because, obviously she was in need of ‘intervention’. There can be nothing logical or rational about this decision and she must be very very disturbed to have taken it without giving it much thought. Because obviously, she hadn’t deliberated on it and it was clear that it was an impulsive decisions because she hadn’t spoken to anybody about it.

Forget the activist world, an uncle from the ‘normal world’ asked what this huge change in career meant? Which is a normal enough question, because well there has to be some reason why you stop hanging around with ‘activists’ and start becoming a ‘corporate bitch’. In fact, his opening statement was, “ What is this I hear? Why have you joined a business consulting firm when you have worked with the likes of Ms Blah Blah ( name of activist).” Detecting some discomfort from her side, he went on, in a soothing, compassionate voice, about the metamorphosis she was going through, about how her grandfather held on to his ideological beliefs whatever else he did for his career and about how it is ok to compromise. Because, obviously she was compromising.

To be fair, she didn’t protest either, finding it more convenient to go with people’s assumptions than to launch into a philosophical discourse about her decision. So, she dons a melancholic mantle; she wears a face that looks as if this decision has squeezed every ounce of emotional energy out of her; she punctuates her conversations with heavy breathing and supersonic sighs, she nods profoundly when people say, “its ok. We all make compromises;”and, she looks appropriately down at her feet  while talking of this decision. She is  not clear how successful her acting is or whether she is good at it at all ( She loves it, though. And despondency always came naturally to her).

Eyes darting hither and thither, furtively,  hands cupping mouth, whispering, she lets out another of those supersonic sighs, whispering, “forgive me, but I don’t feel like I have compromised anything. I wonder what kind of an activist that makes me?”


When Sedition became Sexy

Arundhati Roy had a case of sedition filed against her. She is a sexy woman but that didn’t make sedition sexy. It just made the government look silly. Binayak sen, though, was charged with sedition and waging war against the Indian state; he was committed to life in prison for the same and that made sedition sexy.

Victim of national paranoia

Victim of national paranoia

The equanimity with which some people are taking this horrific tale of injustice is mildly unnerving. On Barkha Dutt’s show, We the People, the ‘oh so reasonable’ Swapan Dasgupta, with his impeccable English concedes that even if Sen was guilty of sedition, the penalty is over the top. However, do not lose heart, he says. Because, as another guest points out, the Indian judiciary has a redressal system that is good enough to set wrongs right. Of course, he meant that the case will go on appeal and a higher, saner court will topple this ridiculous ruling. Little regard is given to the fact that the man will, in all probability, lose many years of his life, looking for justice in this remarkable judicial system that has mechanisms of redress. Suffice it to say, the time spent in different courts will amount to his lifetime- the sentence for life is not looking that ridiculous, is it?

Swapan goes on to say, the magistrate has just interpreted the law and there is no need to think that the Chattisgarh court is in some kind of conspiracy with the government to put Binayak Sen in prison. He is trying to remove the political context from the judgment because civil society assumes that context and that’s why it is outraged. But 10-15 minutes in to the discussion, he contradicts himself when he says that the judgment has been taken with a context in mind. The context being that some number of people, police and civilians were killed by the Maoists. Indeed the judge seems to have said something to the effect of how he would normally have been sympathetic had it not been for the larger issue of Maoism. This convenient politicizing and depoliticizing is what makes Swapan the hawk that he is.

Harsh Mander, also on the show, amply illustrates the paranoid context that really is in play in this judgment. He alludes to a POTA-type draconian law that makes the way the evidence has been assessed and evaluated or used questionable. This law is specific to the state. In the commercial break during the Big Fight programme, an ad by the Chatisgadh government was aired. It was an animation advertisement about the terror unleashed by the Naxals and how the Government of Chattisgadh itself is inclined towards ‘jeeney ka haq’ or the ‘right to life’. If it is true that the sessions court judge himself conceded that he might have been more lenient had the situation been ‘normal’, he is himself setting the paranoid tone for the context. His own argument is in line with the Government of Chattisgadh.

This paranoid response of a state, both legislative and judiciary, to an innocent man’s ( forget his service to the less privileged) is eerily reminiscent of that other witch-hunt in another ‘democratic’ country spear headed by McCarthy. And, like in that other case, it just shows the failure of the state.


My Murshid

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.