Monday 27 February 2012

Retold: A tale of endurance – I

This is a true story, though of course I have taken certain liberties with it.

Smita was the youngest of nine siblings. She lost her father when she was not yet two years old.

The onus of bringing up all the brothers and sisters fell on her Bhai Sahib, a young man who had barely sprouted a moustache. He fought life valiantly, studying and changing jobs till he got a reasonably well-paying one. Then he began marrying off his sisters one by one. In a North Indian family, each marriage tells heavily on its finances.

He married late, his wife a patient woman who managed to work things out with his widowed mother and six sisters. The mother herself had to bow to destiny and live off her eldest son. The other two did not deem it their duty to help with family affairs, and went their own ways once they picked up jobs. She was strong of spirit, but kept it on leash for the sake of her sole breadgiver. 

Her son took his responsibilities seriously, attending to familial obligations towards his married sisters and trying to do his best for the unmarried ones.

Smita was simple and unassuming.
By the time Smita was of college-going age, Bhai Sahib had almost exhausted his resources. She was grateful for all that he’d done, and was an undemanding sister. Fees and a few textbooks were all she sought from him. To his credit, he did not demur one bit on those.

She tried to make herself useful at all hours, up at crack of dawn and the last to go to bed. She economized in every way she could. She stitched her own clothes, often walking miles to college when she ran out of money, and stealing a little time each day from work to study.

Smita was a warm and vivacious friend, full of goodness and humane to the core. She grew particularly close to a classmate whose parents had begun treating her as their elder daughter. The father took as much interest in her studies as his own daughter’s. He encouraged her to read, and to accompany her friend on her frequent library visits. With ample books now within reach, Smita became a voracious reader. This improved her language skills, and introduced her to new worlds as well.

Both girls completed their studies. Her friend took up a job. Aspiring for government service, Smita tried to study for competition exams. Having no recourse to reference material was a big stumbling block, but her friend’s father quietly arranged for that as well.

Meanwhile, fulfilling his last fraternal duty, Bhai Sahib found a match for her. It was time to leave her city life behind for an unknown man living in a small, unfamiliar town.

More next week

Friday 17 February 2012

A melody from the past

He was not yet 20 when he moved to Delhi to take up a job. India was still undivided then.
He had done his schooling and graduation out of hostels in what is now Pakistan. He would beam from ear to ear as he related his youthful pranks, his cheeks turning brilliantly rosy. Times without count he narrated how their stern warden shone his torch into their eyes to assure himself they were asleep, and how they scrammed the moment his back was turned. How his best friend beat up a roommate for stealing his alarm clock, and how in turn he had taken the rap (literally, a thick wooden stick) for him. How movies were such a big thing in those days, how they travelled by train to Lahore just to watch one.
Hostel at school meant living on a sprawling campus outside Sialkot, many many miles from home. It meant being hustled out into the icy, windy open for a bath at 4 in the morning. The boys queued up for their bucketful as a bull walked around a deep well to work a wonderful contraption that brought up warm water. The tinkling of the bells slung around its neck could be heard for miles, he’d say.
Bath over, teeth chattering, they would dash indoors for the hot milk served in big earthen mugs. He’d go into the campus gurdwara to say his prayers, his friend completing his namaz separately. Then they got together for the sumptuous morning meal in the hall. All vegetables came from the institution’s backyard.
Food was served in generous doles, but those wallops of ghee on top came from tins the boys had fetched from home. The tins were zealously guarded, for not all could afford them. His friend had no tin of his own, so half the ghee his grandma so lovingly packed for him would go into his friend’s plate. They also shared precious dry fruits and nuts, woollens, books, stories, smiles and tears. He was quite brash, even foolhardy; his friend was reticent and in his cool-headed way the perfect foil to him.
Time whizzed by. They turned into fine young men, skipping classes to play hockey and then attending extra classes together, visiting home once in a fortnight or two. Through the bone-chilling cold and the searing heat, the two were inseparable at school and on their journeys home and back.
In the cruelly hot summer, they would sneak out for a splash in the nearby canal. When it was time to head to their respective villages, each would carry his slate and books on his head and firmly hold the other’s hand as they crossed the fast-flowing river that cooled their dehydrated bodies.
Then school-leaving time arrived. The two were perched on their favourite spot on the boundary wall, sharing a packet of roasted peanuts.
It was the usual, silent camaraderie they enjoyed. Suddenly his friend spoke up. “Will you remember me after today?” he asked tremulously. “Of course, no question,” pat came the reply.
“I’ve always dreaded this day. I have written a nazm for you, brother,” his best friend said, pulling out a scrap of paper, and forthwith recited a beautiful but melancholy melody.
Recalling that forlorn voice inevitably brought a quiet mist to his eyes. “We were always together, but I had no idea till then that he could compose, or sing. Somehow, that day, he was so sure we were parting for ever.”
With a faraway look he’d recall bits of the poem. “I went away to college, he back to his village. I always thought one day I would look him up, till Partition happened and that path I thought would wait for me disappeared without trace,” said the man who had moved to Delhi.
He lived for seven more decades, but did not get over the childhood buddy he couldn’t meet again. Deprived of their farmland and all other property, locating his family and his wife’s after a traumatic separation, helping them all resettle, these were like a bad dream after some years. What he never forgave the Partition for was eliminating any chance of reunion with a friend who wrote a nazm only for him.
He was my father-in-law.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Retold: The story of a very educated mother - II

Ma was as kind as she was forgiving. Her servants made endless demands on her time, of which she gave freely. She knew in minute detail their family history, financial situation, how their children had fared at school, whose husband was an alcoholic, which driver was a tobacco addict, and so on.

From being Maalkin (mistress) to them, she became Maanji. It irked me, for she was still young and these grown-ups addressed her as if she was so old.

I was surprised to see her with books one day. She’d arranged for a tutor to teach her accounting. “These workers are wretched fellows. They don’t know how to run their households, so I’m going to do it for them.”

Next week, she led in a servant loaded with more books. “I have enrolled for BA from the open university,” she told me blithely.

Pa watched in bemused silence, not discouraging her but never offering a word of encouragement. I think he believed she would not be able to keep at it. It took her four years, but we gave our final exams together. She did exceedingly well.

Close as I was to my mother, on the subject of Pa and her relationship there was an unspoken bond of silence. She ignored it when I stiffened in disapproval of his indifference, but never was I allowed to utter a word defending her or critcizing him.

Ma developed a strong, loyal following of her own. Those in our employ wouldn’t dream of leaving her household. And a crowd would collect around Maanji when she stepped out. All the time she could spare from her studies, she spent among slum dwellers or orphanages. She’d give away clothes, household goods, spare furniture, but never money. She would teach them to be thrifty, to give up smoking or drinking, to send their kids to school, to buy insurance.

Pa was posted out of town twice for short periods, but we did not move residence with him. Our studies were a big factor ... so was her growing commitment to the social cause.

When I was filling my MA admission form, she announced that she wanted to study more too. She drew a lot of attention not only because her daughter studied in the same college, but also because many already knew of Maanji. Even later, she kept adding short professional courses to her portfolio.

By the time I took up a job and settled into marriage and family, Ma had acquired a redoubtable reputation owing to her untiring work. Despite her big red bindi and simple cotton sari, the hoi polloi feted her. Every local politician, bureaucrat and social worker wanted to be in Maanji’s good books.

The tables had slowly turned on Pa, who was now relegated to the fringe. Ma did not ever flaunt her newfound individuality or her growing social status. She would not hold any meeting at home. She kept house diligently, hosted his parties with as much humility and without rancour, but the parties themselves were turning into lame affairs.

When he retired, she saw to it she was home to make his evening tea herself, but communication between them was still restrained.

Ma died in harness, so to say. Till the end she was busy with seminars and conferences, was being invited to inaugurals and to give away awards. She became the voice of the poor, but never asserted herself where Pa was concerned. 

He never opened up to anyone on the subject, but I watched a grudging pride replace the near-contempt he had had for her. To my eternal regret, though, he did not once pay her a compliment. Or she would have certainly told me, just that one time.


Friday 3 February 2012

Retold: The story of a very educated mother – I

Her voice tinkling with laughter, my little daughter would hug me and chant, “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets … Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.”
This story, though, is about a mother who decided to get educated in her late 30s. I have not met for many years the friend who told me about her Ma. I have just a sketchy recollection, so I am fleshing it out somewhat in my own way. If you happen to read this, my friend, forgive me for the fiction part:
Ma, from my digital sketchbook.

Strange as it may sound, my mom and I enrolled for our post-graduation together.

It must seem an awkward situation to be in – walking into college to study with your youthful and much prettier mother. But for me there couldn’t be a prouder moment.

Pa held a plum job in the state capital. An ambitious government servant, he lived only to network. As his first-born, I had long got used to his hectic way of life. If he wasn’t partying out, he would call over streams of like-minded colleagues for drinks and dinner.

The most difficult part for Ma used to be playing the hostess. She had grown up in a small town, never been to college and had little exposure to city life. My father had no qualms apologizing for Ma’s lack of sophistication and “the right background”.

It was as if, had he known he would get into officer cadre at the first try, he would have taken a more qualifiedbride. But in those days of arranged marriages at an early age, he was a husband and a father much before he struck gold.

Ma took his veiled and not-so-veiled barbs in her stride. She devoted herself entirely to raising her daughter and two sons.

To his credit, Pa saw to it that we went to the best school, the best college. Apart from that, he was an indifferent sort of father – on call, but preferably not to be called upon.

We had a retinue of servants and drivers. I believe this was Pa’s way of absolving himself of all his duties by her. He rarely accompanied her out.

I became her constant companion by default. Not just a deep mother-daughter bonding, but also standing in for my father when he ought to have been at her side – at my brothers’ school, when they were taken to the doctor, on unavoidable social calls, when she fell ill, when guests arrived in hordes.

More next week.