If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 13 April 2009


The folding umbrella was yet to appear in Indian markets. Umbrellas were long, slim and sexy. And I had grown up in a place where people held closed umbrellas by their handles, that is, upside up. But I never stopped to think about it until arriving in Kerala.

If technology has given us conveniences like collapsible brollies, it has taken away some too. One of them is the low flying commercial aircraft. In a bright December morning, I changed plane at Chennai and boarded a made-in-India Avro. There were no hatches above the seats, our hand luggage was dumped at a corner of the cabin and secured with a net. In Kerala, our plane flew low over a lush green sea, barely metres above the serrated fronds of millions of coconut palms. Through occasional gaps in the foliage, you could also see meandering rivulets, tiled roofs, churches-mosques-temples with glistening sandy compounds, schools, and children cheering lustily at the aircraft.

It was a time when I still smelt of college. Back home, when I had landed myself a job in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, I took out an atlas. Putting one prong of a compass on my hometown, Kolkata and the other on Thiruvananthapuram, I drew a circle with Kolkata at the centre. The circle included Lahore, the Yangtze River, Nom Pen and Hanoi.

It was to be my first day in office and I left my hotel nattily dressed, in a grey business suit. As I walked out into the road, I realized it had been a mistake; I stood out like a joker in a stream of men and women in sparkling white dhotis and saris. Not a pair of trousers to be seen anywhere …. People around watched me with bemusement, and the local mongrels, with suspicion. There were a lot more office-going women on the streets than one would find in North India. The men invariably had pencil thin moustaches and the women, shocks of beautiful long jet black hair.

It was a pleasantly sunny morning but both men and women, each one of them, carried an umbrella, holding them – for some curious reason – upside down.

My office-to-be was in a quiet corner of the town – a small branch office of a bank with a few people behind a counter – none in front – and a lonesome man sitting in a glass cabin, the door to which proclaimed in three languages that its occupant was the manager. My future boss: an old man slouching behind a pile of registers, smoking a poor man’s bidi, and observing me with a glint in his eyes. A three-piece suit obviously makes a different impression upon a banker compared to what it does on the common man or mongrel. He stubbed out his bidi quickly, stood up and offered me a seat. Then he lit a long cigarette with flourish and asked me what he could do for me. When I said what he could, his face fell. Without more ado, he put out his cigarette, put it in his drawer carefully, and fished out the half-burnt bidi from the ashtray to light it again.

Exchange of pleasantries with the boss was followed by an introduction to my would-be colleagues. I was taken around as someone who had come all the way from the North-east to join the bank. The men were friendly and enthusiastic; they shook my hand firmly. When it was the turn to meet the only girl who worked there, I committed a second, and a rather serious faux pas. As she was shaping up to do a namaste, I grabbed her right hand and shook it vigorously as if I felt obliged to return the warmth conveyed by her male colleagues. A hushed silence descended on the premises, the girl blushed violently and I was politely escorted away.

I didn’t know that let alone shaking hands, you were not even expected to sit next to a member of the opposite sex on a public bus in Kerala. The neighbouring state of Tamilnadu had stricter rules. Seats on one side of public buses were reserved for women, deferentially called ladies’ seats, like anywhere else in India. But unlike elsewhere, a low railing ran along the centre, enclosing an area, which for want of a better word, I would call the ladies’ stand! A man sitting on a ladies seat or standing in the area reserved for women would be penalized. However, I am not sure if there was any penalty for violating the ladies’ airspace.

My ignorance of the cultural nuances of my hosts cost me dearly. In office, I was marked as the guy who shook hands with Rani Joseph! Yet, the gravity of my crime didn’t quite sink in until much later. By then, I had become chummy with my boss and the rest of the crowd, including the girl under reference. One evening, while my boss and I were sharing a drink, he told me, ‘Forgive me for asking this question – you seem to be a normal fellow – tell me, how on earth you could shake hands with a girl? I can even try to understand the psychology of a rapist, but what kind of perversion is that?’

People from some other countries might consider the phrase elected communist government an oxymoron, but it is a political reality in India. Kerala was the first state to have elected a communist government in 1957. It was a watershed in modern history: for the first time anywhere in the world, communists came to power through the ballot. It was a working class government headed by a man from the upper crust of the social elite, who had personally fought many battles against the caste system. But communism hadn’t apparently impacted upon the people’s behaviour very deeply. A rather high barrier between the genders was just one aspect. Often, on meeting a new person, the first question that I would be asked was, ‘Which caste do you belong to?’ And the second: ‘How much is your salary?’

The second of course is a pan-Indian query; in some places, people might even ask you how much you made under the table! But one facet that bore an unquestionable imprint of communism was the political rallies and processions that were, and still is, an integral part of life in Kerala.

I stayed in a hotel and was looking for a house, which was not easy to come by. The community of landlords there firmly believed that every bachelor was a philanderer. One afternoon, as I was about to cross MG Road, the main thoroughfare, I was stopped by a procession. I was hungry and eagerly waited for the jatha to end as my destination on the other side was the Indian Coffee House, where I would snatch a quick bite during lunch break.

Suddenly, a fight broke out between the men in the procession and their unseen political rivals. Both sides started pelting brickbats and soda-water bottles. The passers by vanished in a trice and the shops downed their shutters. I took shelter at a corner created by a building jutting out into the road. Not a safe haven, but the best available under the circs. Not one non-combatant was on the road, except for me and a stately woman in her late-fifties. She was standing beside me and surveying the situation with obvious disdain and unconcern. She was beautiful, tall, dark and in a white sari. After some time, there was a lull on the street and a far-away siren signalled the advent of police vehicles.

My companion told me something, not a word of which I could understand, except “police”. But I could notice a trace of anxiety in that remarkably calm person. In a flash, I understood what she meant, ‘Brickbats might have missed you, but the police lathis won’t.’

I was still wondering what to do when she caught hold of my arm and pulled. She walked remarkably fast for a woman of her age and led me along some roads and narrow alleys to her house.

That is how I met Saraswati Amma, an extraordinary materfamilias, and found a roof over my head in Thiruvananthapuram.

Before going to office the next day, as I dumped my backpack and suitcase in a small spare cottage in Saraswati Amma’s compound, I saw a big moustachioed man vigorously washing clothes in the open. He was Manian, Saraswati Amma’s son-in-law. As Manian was washing, his wife Savitri left for office. Quite a few of the household chores were his responsibility. Besides washing clothes, he would wash their three-year-old son, Kuttan. Every morning during my stay in the house, Kuttan would run around the compound shouting “Kulikkyaenda!” on his tiny but athletic legs. Papa would run after him. Manian was rather stocky, and his son would often outwit him with sudden turns and deft dives.

Of the few Malayalam expressions that I somehow picked up, “I don’t want to take bath” was the first. Saraswati Amma’s elder son, Govindankutty lived with his in-laws, which was referred to as his wife-house, in a literal translation from Malayalam.

She served me a steaming cup of frothy tea and a boiled plantain. The curious combination came as another minor culture shock.

Originally, the Nairs (or Nāyars) were a martial community, who were feudal lords, land officials and members of the militias that protected the tiny Kerala kingdoms before the British conquest in 1792. Later, they did exceedingly well in education and have become successful in all the vocations that educated Indians normally take up. Earlier, the community was matrilineal. A Nair family owned property jointly and included brothers and sisters, the sisters’ children, and their daughter’s children. As property passed by inheritance to the female offspring, Nair women had an important position in the family. But the legal head of the family was the oldest man, traditionally known as the Karnavar. Interestingly, neither the Karnavar nor the senior-most woman wielded absolute power. Rather, they were two fulcrums in the family power structure.

This system has been abandoned over time and Nairs have switched over to the patriarchal structure of kinship and inheritance. This story is about a time when the past overflowed into the present. Saraswati Amma, whom I started calling just Amma, was the undisputed mistress of what she surveyed.

Her husband, Kunjukrishna Kaimal was a happy-go-lucky fellow who was contented to play the second fiddle to his wife. His face, criss-crossed with innumerable lines, was always smiling. A former serviceman, he had seen action in North Africa and the Middle East. He had walked down so many roads that you could safely call him a man. And as it often happens, varied and trying experience invested him with a calmness and self-assurance that nothing could upset. He had accepted with quiet dignity the fact that his second son was physically and mentally challenged.

He soon became a friend and guide. Those days, I would sleep early, 10 PM used to be midnight for me. Once, Kunjukrishna Kaimal pulled me out of the bed and took me to a Kathakali performance, which ended at sunrise the next day. On Sundays, he would sometimes take me out to see Kalarippayattu, a martial art form practised in Kerala. The performances used to be brilliant exhibitions of power and agility, where two lithe contestants dressed only in dhotis would jump high in the air and perform stunning acrobatics with a sword and a shield. Incidentally, Kalarippayattu had been almost an exclusive domain of the Nairs, a part of their martial traditions.

The four walls of my room were decorated with 43 framed photographs of Saraswati Amma’s forebears and members of her extended family. Being from a nuclear family, I initially felt the somewhat atavistic exhibition was ridiculous. But later, I realized that, as someone from a family that had been displaced during the Partition of India, and that had later splintered into many tiny units, I didn’t know what words like family meant to an archetypal Indian. Perhaps, in a desolate village in what is now another country which I have never seen, there was a house with similar snapshots of people with some of whom I bear a striking resemblance.

Although it was not part of the deal, the morning cuppa started coming to my room every day. Then the breakfast. Occasionally, Amma would call me for dinner too. Human relationships develop in imperceptible silence, like dewdrops falling on a meadow. One evening on returning from office, I found the forty-fourth framed photograph on the wall: yours truly flanked by a beaming Kunjukrishna and a stiff Amma.

Next year, the monsoon hit the Kerala coast punctually on the 1st of June with a deluge. And then it rained continuously for sixty days.

There is much similarity among the modern Sanskrit-based North Indian languages. The Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have a different origin. As a Bengali, although I can make some sense when Assamese, Oriya, Marathi or Gujarati is spoken, I couldn’t understand a word of Malayalam. In Amma’s family, everyone except her spoke some English. Being an ex-serviceman, Kunjukrishna spoke better Hindi than I. Only Amma, her youngest offspring and I didn’t have a common language to share.

Towards the beginning of the sixty-day rain, one evening, as I was leaving for supper, Amma stopped me. I didn’t follow a word she spoke, but I could understand her as lucidly as I did on the first day, ‘You shouldn’t go out in this rain. Come in and join us for dinner.’

I, in Bengali: ‘No Amma, I have been taking advantage of your hospitality. Let me go.’

She smiled, ‘You shouldn’t defy elders. Come in.’

It was a command.

Such bilingual, or rather, non-lingual conversations became routine over time. Despite her total ignorance of Bengali, she began to understand me perfectly. And I tried to reciprocate.

The fact that her last child had been born with congenital problems cast a shadow of perpetual sadness on Amma’s beautiful face. Gopalan was around twenty. He could move around with difficulty and had the mind of a three-year-old. As he had been born with a cleft palate, his speech was garbled. His parents and siblings alone could understand what he said. And he painted beautifully, mostly with bare fingers.

One day, when no one was around, Amma called me. She put her hand on Gopalan’s shoulder and said something about him. The only other words that I clearly understood were Kamakhya and Guwahati: ‘I want to share something with you in confidence. Please don’t discuss this with anyone. Manian told me there is a god-man in Kamakhya who has done many miracles. He lives near Guwahati. Can you take Gopalan, his father and me to Guwahati?’

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it would be pointless to take the sick child and the old man to the other end of the country looking for a fraud. So I said, ‘Yes, of course, I can.’ After some thought, I added, ‘Why don’t we organize an exhibition of Gopalan’s paintings?’

Neither the trip nor the exhibition ever materialized. A week later, my father died at the age of 57 after a massive heart attack. After years of struggle and many bitter failures, he had been able to set up a fairly successful business venture. It was not grandiose, but neither was it small enough to be abandoned. Besides, we had to think of his twenty employees. As the only offspring, I had to step into his shoes.

The day I left Thiruvananthapuram, Amma said nothing. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that her relationship with me was beyond words.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Let them play now

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, the child star of Slumdog Millionaire, was slapped by his father for refusing to give interview to media. “The 10-year old child, who was plucked from a Mumbai slum to play the young Salim in the multiple Oscar winning movie, has been living amid constant media scrutiny since his return home from Los Angeles. Tired after a long flight, Azhar wanted to go to sleep and refused to oblige the media. His father, Mohammed Ismail … got infuriated and slapped him. "I was being naughty. I did not want to give the interview as I was tired so he slapped me but he loves me,” said Azhar." (The Statesman, 1 March, 2009)

Azhar’s father’s reaction deserves scrutiny, but before that, one must say that the child’s response was amazing. If indeed this was not a tutored statement, the boy exhibited extraordinary poise, maturity, and self-control.

Obviously, the same cannot be said about his old man. He behaved boorishly, but from whatever little has been reported, it would be unfair to judge him. He may or may not be one of those numerous parents who want their offspring to go for the moon, and if an exceptional one does reach there, are too eager to cash their success.

You see these parents – mostly mothers – taking their sons to cricket “academies” on Sunday mornings. I have observed these boys’ faces closely. Very often, joy and anticipation are missing on them. Maybe, for them, it is just another round of “private tuition”, a few more hours of drudgery. It cannot be otherwise if it’s thrust upon them. And sadly, most of them will disappoint their parents. After all, there isn’t room for so many Tendulkars and Gangulis. And in the process, they miss out on enjoying sports, a primary source of happiness in our childhood.

You also see these parents on reality TV contests. They show real people all right, but these gaudy shows reflect only a sad kind of reality, the reality of our greed. These parents pressurize their kids to win at any cost. Some of them even fight with the judges if their children’s results aren’t satisfactory. In these shows, children are publicly abused and humiliated by some stupid judges, for no fault except not reaching the ethereal standards arbitrarily set for them. That most of these judges are leading lights of our cultural establishment is perhaps the best proof of the poverty of what goes on in the name of culture in our society. It is also possible that the show organizers deliberately encourage vicious criticism in order to spice up the show, in absolute, appalling disregard for the young participants.

In a more perverted form of these competitions, there was one where the judges didn’t select a winner, but at every round, threw out the participant that scored the lowest marks. In that contest for the loser’s crown, no one seemed to care how much damage was done to the psyche of a small child when his or her failure was telecast to millions of homes. I have used the past tense in expressing my opinion here because I stopped watching televised contests in early 2008, after suffering a particularly disgusting episode. But I guess they haven’t changed for the better. What has?

Critics and other experts often botch up while assessing creative art. Everyone knows that Van Gogh sold only one picture and got hardly any recognition while he was alive. But the case of Henry Rousseau (1844-1910), a French artist, is less well-known. For some critics, Rousseau was the annual laughingstock at Paris art exhibitions. Yet, he was later admired by leading lights like Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. You can see his works in famous museums; some of his paintings such as The Sleeping Gypsy and The Dream (the one somewhat incongruously at the head of this post) are widely recognized as masterpieces. Despite belated recognition, Rousseau died in grinding poverty.

We will never know how many musical talents the omniscient experts have managed to destroy. But that number would be relatively small. A much greater number are irrevocably damaged by parents who try to undo their own failures by burdening their children with absurd weights of expectations.

Once there was a controversy in England about what should be taught to children of different age groups. Experts offered conflicting opinions and a storm raged for months. Joining the debate, D. H. Lawrence wrote a letter to the editor of possibly The Times. The subject was: About the nine-year-old. The two-line letter said: Let them play now. Life will teach them what to learn, later. (I am quoting from memory; the words used by Lawrence might have been slightly different, but the message was the same.)

It’s time our parents let their children be children. Nothing helps a child better than a healthy and happy childhood.

And that doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be encouraged to work hard and excel. After all, it is because of the training to work hard that our professionals are making a mark all over the world. (This is true for Chinese expatriates too.) The point is: Shouldn’t children have the freedom to choose their calling? Parents only need to educate them about the available options and provide the infrastructure. It could be gilli danda for one and chess for another, and photography or literature for someone else. There are infinite ways in which children can make their lives enjoyable and fulfilling at the same time. Why only cricket, or vocal music?

And should parents turn a child’s hobby into a pitiless machine that produces champions but destroys childhood in the process?


Postscript: There are sensible parents too, although apparently they are a small minority. It is possible that Azhar’s father is generally sensible. Perhaps he was dazzled by the unfamiliar glare of the limelight. And he is unlikely to know how tiring a flight from Los Angeles to Mumbai could be. (Did he accompany Azhar to Los Angeles? The report is silent on that.) But what can be said about the journalists who pestered the little child for an interview when he was tired, sleepy and jet-lagged? In the cut-throat competition to increase readership / audience, journalists are quite capable of bypassing normal human decency. The Times of India even published a photograph of a crying Azharuddin. Should they have intruded into the child’s private space at such an hour of misery? Should anyone treat human suffering as saleable commodity?

Kolkata, March 2009