being brown

Posts tagged “nostalgia

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.


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.


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.


Nostalgia

Nostalgia fills me up,

Like porridge fills a cup.

Viscous, slow-moving slime,

Twisting through my frame,

seeping into every cavity,

gagging every pore,

Rising in my throat.

At the throat,

it pauses,

As if to ponder,

To seduce

Or to throttle.

Nostalgia seduces her kill