Saturday, August 11, 2012

Impulsive Living

Why this, why now?

Having thought about many forms and many avenues for what is going to follow, I have finally settled on a blog. This is going to be about my life, and I am not making excuses for wishing to write about it. It has been a varied life, mostly happy, mostly predictable, and yet unique because it is mine.

Right now, for a few important reasons, I have begun to feel that time is indeed short. If not today, then someday, someone is likely to want to know how I came to be remembered in this way or that, and whether what they have heard is the way I might have seen myself.

So, I am gliding on this slippery surface, telling stories from my life, truthful in the sense of everything having happened in my conscious world of being, and factual in content. I have a very poor record of keeping journals and so I am likely to be inaccurate in specific details.

To begin a series of stories, then, here's one about a farewell. Remembering the farewells I have said comes naturally to me at this time. I have reason to be nostalgic, I have a longing to connect up with "lovers and friends" that went before, and I have the impulse to set these anecdotal stories down.

So, then, a story of a farewell.

Was I even six when I was put on a train in Chennai (then Madras), with an aunt?--my father's third of five sisters--to spend an unspecified number of months or years with her and her family in a small southern Indian town called Sivagangai.

When the train was pulling out, my little sister, then only four, a sweet, slight girl with curls and my dearest companion, wailed out my name. It rang in my ears for a long time overlaying the shrill whistle of the steam engine that pulled our train south, away and away from Madras. I don't remember what my mother said or how she looked, I don't remember my father saying goodbye, I certainly have no memory of my older sister and brother, although I know they were all there to put me on the train.

I wasn't unhappy or anxious, I wasn't excited. I just got on the train, having been told that I would live with my aunt and go to school from her house. And that's exactly what happened for two years.

That's how it transpired that I grew up to be a Tamil girl in some sense, attending a small girls school in a small town, learning cultural traditions of a Brahmin family as well as those of a far from urban town where weekly markets and annual temple fairs punctuated slow-paced times.

I don’t really know how many trips I made back to Madras through the two years I spent with my aunt and her family. The household consisted of my aunt and her husband, their two unmarried daughters, and the first son of their eldest daughter, who was being looked after by the grandparents, presumably because the son-in-law was in a state government job that caused him and his family to move from one town to another at fairly regular intervals.

The two cousins whom I met for the first time were wonderful influences on me then, and they have continued to be close to me. They are now over seventy, both of them, and we have occasions to meet pretty regularly. They were different from each other – the younger one, Lakshmi, dressed well, enjoyed dancing to Tamil film songs, paid a good bit of attention to make-up: eye make-up and prettily drawn bindis with dots and halfmoons and the teardrop, and her sister, Gnanam, was indifferent to make-up and dressed in the most practical way possible. Thanks to Lakshmi I have had the pleasure of having my braid woven with the fragrant cactus called Thazham-poo, and having my hair done in the various fashions of the day, perhaps inspired by the styles one saw in the movies. Oh, and it was mainly thanks to her, too, that I saw Tamil movies pretty regularly. Gnanam and Lakshmi would go to the one movie theatre in town with me and their nephew (Tyagu), armed with drinking water and biscuit. We bought tickets for the “bench seat”—no back to lean on, just a bench. The movie would barely be into the first round of tears and melodrama when I would promptly fall asleep and my prone little body would be lovingly held on the two sisters’ laps.

Gnanam was an intellectual and radical thinking young woman, not willing to conform to norms of behavior expected of girls in those days. She questioned many practices even then, and I remember how she once angrily pointed out to everyone in the house that the term we used to name the women who was our domestic help was crude and that, in any case, we ought to refer to her by her name, which we all knew was Poornam.  Some things have a way of etching themselves in one’s memory.

Both Lakshmi and Gnanam completed their first college degrees. They were well-trained singers with mellifluous voices. Gnanam was  an avid reader and they were fluent in Tamil, English, and knew a certain amount of Hindi, having taken courses with the then much in vogue Hindi Prachar Sabha.

Why was I sent to go and live with my aunt in a small town, when my parents continued to live in Madras, with its advantages of good schools and plenty of opportunities to see new things? It turned out that when my aunt saw me on her visit to Madras, she thought I would be a good companion for her grandson, who, as I said was being brought up by her. That little guy—my senior by a year—was being a handful, not much good at school work, getting into scrapes and so on. I don’t know how much of a positive influence I was to him, but I know that I went ahead in my early education thanks to his evening tuitions. He wouldn't sit still but I would hang around with him and his teacher, absorbing what he was being taught. I guess I was in class 2 by day and class 3 by evening.

It is sad to have to record here that Tyagu died about 4 years ago, probably when he was just under 60.

One of the sharpest and clearest memories I carry from those childhood days  is of the carnival or street fair that used to bring villagers from near and far to our town for a few days together. In a large open space not far from where we lived, every evening and night there would be folk events—dances, music, and acrobatic shows. I bet there were booths galore with doodads of all description. The best entertainment would take place after dark, and Lakshmi once took me to see the “false-leg horse” dance and the dance of the nomadic tribals, whom we call the kurava people.  I also saw the karagam dance one of those nights. I was woken up from sleep to enjoy the spectacle and I remember, I was carried by Lakshmi on her hip. This dance involved many colourfully dressed and brightly made up people who danced with several multi-hued earthern pots stacked like towers on their heads. I remember this event with special fondness because, on the morning following, I woke up and complained bitterly that I hadn’t been woken up at night to see the karagam as promised. It took Lakshmi much convincing before I could vaguely recall going out at night perched on her hip.

Whenever I returned to Madras, and I can hardly remember how many times it was, I used to regale my little sister with tales from the exotic boon docks.

Recently in 2010, when Radha—my younger sister—and I spent a few days together in the US, she told me that she has felt torn away from me more than once. The first of those times was when she was barely four and I wasn’t even six.

As distinctly as I remember my very first goodbye and a long separation from my immediate family, I have no recollection of what I felt when I left Sivagangai in 1956, when father moved to New Delhi on a new assignment as assistant engineer in the Posts and Telegraphs department with the government of India.

Goodbye BSc, goodbye, and a good thing, too

In 1965, in the month of December, I sat at a window seat in a long-distance train to New Delhi, not knowing if I was giving up my BSc degree for good or if my move to study Russian in New Delhi was going to be temporary.

Bidding farewell to Osmania University Science College was a key turning point in my life, and much of what I am today I owe to my father’s inspired decision to help me focus on my Russian.

At some other point, when the goodbye stories are done, I might write about the king of impulsive decisions my father, whose instinct guided him to do his very best for me.

Aeroflot, June 1971...

There should have been more tears that evening, when Adama and Suleiman said their farewells with long hugs, but I don’t recall feeling sad. Four years in Moscow came to an end with a bang. I was leaving the USSR with degree in hand, one full year ahead of my peers, having accelerated my study program in Russian Philology. Someone – must have been Dharam Vir – suggested that we both try to complete our degrees in a shortened time by taking more courses, and I did.

I was returning to India for a short while, about six weeks, after which I was headed for the USA, to begin a doctoral study program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

That opening  to go to the USA came about because many people and many disconnected events came together. First, I went to the USA for a holiday in 1970, having saved a handy amount of money in Russian roubles (which had little value—not being the hard currency equivalent—outside of the USSR and therefore perfectly worth spending on a transatlantic flight).

During that visit, I visited Prof Robert Louis Jackson at Yale University with a note from my mentor in Moscow, Dr. M. P. Gromov. Jackson encouraged me to apply to Yale, if I was going to pursue a PhD. In September 1970, when I returned  to Moscow for my final year at Moscow State University, I met David Maxwell, then a graduate student at Brown University, who was on a year-long research visit at Moscow State University. He strongly encouraged me to apply to Brown University. I toyed with the idea of continuing in Moscow and registering for a PhD with M.P.Gromov, who candidly supported the idea of my going to the USA for further advanced research and study. 

Gromov was a dissident in Brezhnev’s USSR, and while he saw the value of someone like me acquiring fluency in Russian and a basic grounding in Russian linguistics and literary  history at Moscow State University, he said that my interest in literature and literary theory would gain much if I went to the West, where the study of literature did not suffer the restrictions and suppression imposed by state ideology. (It is odd that I am able to speak of Gromov openly today--when I was his student, I would have been circumspect and tried to conceal his identity to protect him. Times did change).

How I wrote my applications and how I filled in my financial need forms, corresponding between Moscow with its postal censorship and the USA with its negative bias towards the Soviet Union, and managed to get accepted at two US universities with financial aid is the story of an innocent abroad. Because it doesn’t fit into the good-bye tales, I shall not digress to tell that tale.

The immediate prospect of a PhD program awaiting me certainly must have helped me leave Moscow with fewer tugs than my normal emotional self might have otherwise occasioned.

An incredible thing awaited me, though, when I got on the Aeroflot flight to Delhi at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.

I was among the last to board the plane as friends seeing me off were hugging and kissing me, all of us gently suffused with Soviet champagne. I had flowers in one hand and a rectangular, black airbag with the Maharaja insignia in another. I walked the length of the aisle to the seat assigned to me, and it was a middle seat. As I tried to find a place for my bag and manage the bouquet of flowers, my eye stopped on the man in the aisle seat. That man was looking at me with a big grin, waiting for my nervous high to subside.

When I saw that my crazy friend Jim MacDonald was sitting in the aisle seat next to my middle seat, there was no way my excitement was going to die down. He was travelling from the USA to Delhi for a year to continue his research work for his PhD in Anthropology. Jim and I knew each other from the summer I had spent in the USA, just a year or so ago.  He was a sweet guy, an original, completely comfortable in Varanasi, a city he loved, typically counter-culture in appearance and entirely radical in outlook. He smiled a lot, he drove a cab in New York during the summer to make a living, while registered for a PhD at the Univ of Hawaai in Anthropology. 

We met in Ann Arbor, at a summer program for India-bound students of US universities, where Jim was a resource person for a while. He took me to a Blue Grass concert, where I sat on a blanket with his group of friends and listened to music I didn’t much relate to and an ambience I found magical. I might have been the only person to have been high on second-hand fumes of regular grass.

Jim and I met again in New York, when I was getting ready for my return to Moscow at the end of my US holiday. He took me to Central Park one afternoon for lunch, where for the first time I saw two waiters sashaying up to our table—one to help us choose our wine and the other to introduce us to the food. Ah, I had my first sangria with Jim there. The waiters looked not much different from Jim—they were young, happy, jean-clad, I think, long-haired (naturally) and everything one imagined youth to represent in the years immediately following the sixties.

So Jim was going to be my travel companion.

After the squeals of delight and exclamations of astonishments were done, I got mad at Jim for not telling me in advance of his transit through Moscow. “But Papu,” he pleaded, “I tried to call you from the transit lounge. Ask this guy,” he said and sought support from the Indian man at the window seat. Quickly assuaged, I set about enjoying the flight in Jim’s company, and over a small bottle of wine, we decided that he would go to spend his first days with me at our home, knowing full well that I would be met at the airport in festive spirits. My parents had by this time in their lives got used to the various friends we would bring home for “crashing”.

Within six weeks of returning to India in June 1971, I prepared for my next good-bye. I think I left on August 10 of that year for the USA, to begin my studies at Brown University that would culminate in the PhD degree, which I was awarded in June of 1975.

Mystical Migration

During the weeks before it was time for me to once again pack a suitcase for the long haul, my parents took Radha (my youngest sister) and me to Kashmir on a most fun trip for a week. We travelled by train and bus, rode horses, and frolicked in the summer rain in Gulmarg. As was his wont, my father bought jewellery and trinkets without any concern for his budget. I recall he bought me and my sister beautiful necklaces made with semi-precious stones. And at that time, I fell in love with a small black piece of polished gun-metal that I wanted to be set in a gold ring for myself. And my father promptly bought it.

So, what’s impulse shopping and my dad’s pampering of me got to do with a mystical migration? And whose was this mystical migration?

Those years, when I was growing into a young adult, I tended to be afraid of the dark or to sleep in a room by myself. I also experienced nightmares. I mentioned this to a frequent visitor and who was welcome in our family’s midst. He was an ascetic, a spiritual mentor for my parents, and in some ways a gentle friend to me. He told me to wear on my person something made of iron or at least put a bunch of iron keys under my pillow at night to get rid of my fears. I didn’t think much of it and let it go. When I returned from Kashmir, however, when I showed him my elliptical "gun-metal" piece to be mounted as a ring, he smiled widely and said that now I would wear something with iron all the time on my person, and it would help, adding that the metal I had bought was iron ore and not gun metal. He was right.

This older friend and quiet mentor was among the very last to say goodbye to me when I left for the USA from home. Everyone in our family accompanied me to the airport, while he remained home. As I bade him farewell, he did something most unexpected. He took me by the shoulders and said that he was conveying all his energy to me or some words to that effect. I was taken aback because he was an ascetic and tended never to touch another person, and certainly not females.

We never saw each other again, because he died in a car crash within a few months of that goodbye.
Once in a while, when things get too big for someone in my circle to handle and I find myself out of my depth in offering worthwhile assistance or cure or remedy or comfort, I think of that moment and wonder if it is time to call upon that energy he said he was transferring to me.

This is a memory of an event in my life I have shared with no one, until now.

No wristwatch, no golden handshake

My 20 years at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL) began with a bang and ended in a whimper. That long stint was a gradual downward slide for me in every way, and most significantly in my personal intellectual advancement.

My good fortune continued for me when I returned to India in 1975. My younger sister Radha had spoken about my imminent return to India with a faculty member at the CIEFL – M.P.Pande – who had written me an aerogramme while I was still at Brown, suggesting that I apply and register as a Pool Officer with the Council for Industrial and Social Research, which I promptly did. Thanks to that step, and thanks to my uncle in Delhi, who tenaciously followed up on my file, I was able to begin my career as a faculty member within 6 weeks of returning from the USA,  at a prestigious academic center in Hyderabad, India.

When I left that place in 1995, there was no farewell. I might as well not have ever been there. I remember filling out my No Dues Form, having it signed by heads of various sections, and collecting a cheque reflecting terminal benefits due to me.

I didn’t feel pang as I walked out of the gates. I have never missed the place since.

Is that story of 20 years falling into an abyss without so much as an echo  worth telling? I don’t think so.

Nine Years in Nigeria

We like to joke that we went to Nigeria in 1989 because there was the promise of an end to military rule there. We knew about the rich cultural life in that country, their vibrant intellectual community of scholars, writers, and musicians. Oddly though, we went there and the military again returned to power. The nine years we spent in Ibadan gave me much personally—lasting friendships, a chance to learn many new things, and yet, life for the people of that country became a struggle and strife.

We were ready to move on for professional reasons in 1998, and what should happen but military rule end. Democracy was returning to Nigeria.

Our goodbye was prolonged. We had a whole settled life there. Treasures of our son’s school work, the odd memorabilia that had accumulated in bits and bobs, a large collection of movies on videofilm, clothing in brilliant splashes of colour, and large carved furniture in beautiful wood were packed. I was sorting out old used clothes from years of simply shoving things in the back of a closet. There was a bundle of things that I thought were entirely and completely worthless, and requested Friday, our gardener, to throw it away. He wouldn’t. Instead, he sat down, and painstakingly sorted out everything in neat piles—Kartik’s shorts and underpants, stained T-shirts, my ragged kurtas and cholis, old pillowcases and such—and explained to me that he would take it to his church to distribute to women who had given birth. He told me that rags to wipe were not easy to come by. And then he said that the women would bless me.

I had my own fantastic farewell in a garden that came into being largely at my initiative, with the support of the community. It was a marvelous potluck. The spouses group in which I was active gave me a custom printed batik table cloth. It is a beautiful blue with bright motifs, and my name printed on it.

When we left, Kartik took off for Spain for a short-term intensive course in Spanish in Malaga, and we headed out for Hyderabad. After a short break in India, Mohan was scheduled to move to Muscat on a teaching assignment, and Kartik and I were going to Kodaikanal for his senior year at Kodiakanal International School, where I was going to be a volunteer teacher for the second year running.

We left a life behind. Most of all, much of Kartik’s childhood was all about Ibadan, Nigeria, in many ways.

To India!

1975. PhD behind me.

I always knew I was going to return to India at the end of my education abroad. I could have, I suppose stayed on in the US for a year on my visa for what was called practical experience or some such. I decided I wouldn’t because, in June 1975, Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared emergency in India. I had no idea then how long we as a nation would have to live with our civil liberties suspended, and what it effects it might have on people such as myself, who were living abroad. 

I have never been politically well-informed and I don’t have either a critical or insightful understanding of popular movements. All I knew was that I wanted to be back in India before Mrs. Gandhi completely destroyed our spirited but muddled democracy into her fiefdom of repression. 

I was ready one fine afternoon in August with my suitcases packed, ready to leave Providence for Boston, to catch a flight to London. I had planned stopovers in Rome and Teheran as well after 4 days in London.  Three buddies, all males, came along to see me off. Brown university had emptied out for the summer by then.

John Kasik who taught me to drive, and who celebrated my PhD defence with the greatest gusto, had treated me to a farewell luncheon on the day of my scheduled departure, replete with cocktails. Friends Vikram and Hashim arrived to put me on the bus to the airport. My ethical standards being questionable about what are legitimate souvenirs, I simply locked my room at Harkness House and put the keys in my pocket. I still have the keys.

The guys hauled the suitcases down two flights of stairs, only to find that the gate nearest to us was secured with chains and a sturdy lock. So, John encouraged me to climb the wall by the gate and jump over to the other side. Between the three men, the suitcases were thus transferred as well. I couldn’t jump—there was the alcoholic buzz and the overt excitement and underlying emotions of a huge transition in my life. The wall was high. With cajoling and some serious cheering from passers-by, I dropped down, to be caught by sturdy John.

In London, the bus driver at airport said, “Hop in, ducky,” to me. I stayed with Gulshan Dewji (a friend of Prof. Amor y Vasquez, Pepe to friends, what a dapper hombre from Spain) and her husband in Croydon.  In Rome, I flooded the bathroom at Hotel Michelangelo . In Teheran, I spent ten days in the company of Stuart laughing at his puns and being subjected to his practical jokes. I bought pirated cassette tapes of the Carpenters and Paul McCartney and Let it Be by the Beatles in Iran, and saw an Indian style toilet in Isfahan, as if it was a preparation for my return home.

And, when I landed in Madras, my sister (Radha has always been there at momentous occasions) pointed out Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri who were waiting for their baggage.

It was great to be home, ready for the working world, full of oomph about the future, my years abroad a great adventure.

At the right time
Teaching high school between 1997 and 2009 (with a gap of 2 years, when I thought I had retired from full-time work) must count as the happiest years in my active working life. Every single day of working with a group of young students ended for me in a high. I wish I had written down the insights I gained about teaching in general, about particular texts we studied in the IB English class, or even about  the rare frustrating class. Why high school teaching gave me the greatest sense of fulfillment and set me on a  course of personal education is a big story that I don’t know right now how to tell.

I worked in Muscat with a woman I have come to admire and for whom I feel great affection. She was the head of the school where I taught literature and theory of knowledge to 16 to 19 year olds.

Inspiration, hard work, reciprocity, fun, heartache, and challenges that I experienced with the students in  my classes as well as with the colleagues with whom I worked closely, made that school my complete world. I had energy, stamina, creativity, and discipline to justify the trust the school placed in my commitment to the school’s mission.

And yet, somewhere in 2008, I began to feel that it was time to quit. My enthusiasm was beginning to fade and I feared that all too soon a time might come when I would be tolerated only because I had been a strong and dependable member of the teaching faculty. Nothing in the school had changed. If anything, there were new opportunities and planned growth for the staff to thrive. It was me. I had begun to feel the symptoms of age.

I left that wonderful work environment with such goodwill as I have never known. A dear colleague, with whom I taught parallel courses in English, wrote an elegy as a farewell speech, in which he said that our days together were spent “teaching on the edge of bliss.”

I think of that period, coming at the end of my working life, as the best years of my education when I began to savour the joy of learning. 

Growing away

In much of india, I suppose, but certainly in the community of Tamil Brahmins in which I grew up, there is a tradition of venerating married women whose husbands are alive. It is the opposite of treating widows with disdain and disrespect.

In some families, as for instance in my aunt’s at Sivagangai where I spent two of my childhood years, if memory serves, this event of venerating married women occurred at least once a year. I wouldn’t know if the date followed a calendar. In addition to the annual celebration, there was always a day set aside for celebration of the married status of women prior to major rites of passage, such as a wedding or a young boy’s initiation into brahminhood.

At this event, a delicious feast was prepared and served to invited women, who were welcomed with much ritual symbolic adornment of their feet in beautiful  red , and flowers in their hair. It was a women only event, usually without the presence of a priest, signifying to me that this ritual event was a custom rather than  a religious rite.  The women were dressed in saris wrapped in the traditional style, with faces aglow with the remnants of turmeric paste used to exfoliate dull skin, and every woman wore an attitude of playful triumph because for once men were excluded from the goings-on. Unmarried prepubescent girls were especially welcome, perhaps as these girls represented virginal purity.

The point of this ritual was to offer personal prayers—not the prescribed age-old vedic chants—to all departed women in one’s family, who had had the good fortune to predecease their husbands. These privileged female ancestors alone were remembered formally before important events to invoke their blessing.

Widows were not welcome. Departed widows were not remembered or their blessing invoked. 

If there were widows in the family, and there usually were, they kept themselves out of sight and ate the meal when the celebrants had feasted. These widows, however, were not barred from cooking the elaborate meal.

I might have been 16 or 17 when this event began to trouble me. It took me another ten years to state to my family that I would have no part in a ceremonial event that explicitly sought ancestral blessing for a woman about to be married to pray that her life would end before her husband’s.

Whether my parents and my siblings talked about my vocal objections to this ritual (and objections to other rituals that I could not accommodate in my developing awareness of dogma, and convention passing  for  religious faith) I don’t know. We didn’t have too many arguments, though. For the most part, my parents certainly let me be.

I didn’t quite break away from the entire event for a long time, but by my late thirties, somehow I  had conveyed to everyone in my family that I was not to be included in the invited group of venerable married women to be feted and feasted. I  dropped in at my sister-in-law’s home once as recently as 10 years ago, when she was holding this ritual, and helped with the cooking, serving, and when one of those assembled asked me why, as a close member of the family with over 20 years of marriage to elevate my status, I didn’t join the celebrants, I was able to explain my ideological opposition against it, but that I was there to have a chance to meet the women of our extended family.

This was a goodbye that evolved.

An inheritance of change

In the preceding story “Growing Away” I might have given the impression that I was the first in my family to be a free-thinking radical individual, who dared to move away from things that had ossified or simply needed to be phased out in our traditional ways.

Just imagine that in 1967, my parents were looking out for me and my intellectual development, to the extent of letting me travel to the USSR for a projected five-year course of study.

My mother who was educated at home by tutors and married at age 14, was an intellectual giant, who read classical works in Tamil, Sanskrit, and English with sharp critical appreciation and a trance-like immersion into the writing itself.  Her erudition and intellectual refinement changed our lives—the lives of her children, that is—forever on the evening after we cremated her body. She had left us instructions to do away with all and every form of religious observance beyond the cremation, including the annual day of remembrance that is ritually observed for departed elders with Vedic rites in nearly every family I know. The obligatory ten-day mourning period of religious rites officiated with priests in attendance never happened. Her guidance and belief changed a huge thing forever in our lives.

My father was not yet 20, when in conservative Madras, he did away with the tuft of long hair worn in a knot at the nape of the neck, returning home one day from college—as the story goes—with his hair cropped short.  Soon thereafter, many in his circle of friends followed suit.

And it was not merely in matters of personal choice that my parents left me and my siblings an inheritance of courage, will, and freedom to change.

More to come...

1 comment:

linda niles said...

fascinating although I await a sad aspect to this and worry a bit about your feeling time is of the essence to write this down. I'd love to hear more about your father.