Redolent Memories

Trysts with spellings

Like any proud father, I like to boast of my child’s achievements. Unfortunately I must also confess that my parents had very few opportunities to feel proud of their son.

However touchwood, my daughter Yaamini or Ammu as we call her, who has just turned eight has indeed given me enough moments of joy and pride, that validate and vindicate our decision to bring her into this world.
Latest one have been her successes at Spelling Bee competitions at school, district and state levels. Though she never won any of these rounds, she did well enough to make the cut at every stage for the nationals, all without any preparation.
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In 1979, my family moved to Kochi, when my father was posted at the Government Hospital, Ernakulam. Till that time all his postings were at rural places mostly in Trichur district. I was almost 7, when we moved to Ernakulam or as it’s known better to rest of the world — Kochi.

Between 1977 and 1979 my mother, sister and I shuttled between my mother’s parents home and my paternal grandfather’s home, as my father decided it was time he specialized in something and was away for his post graduation.

My paternal grand father was bit of an aristocrat, and my sister and I were home tutored. So we never went to a nursery, kindergarten or a pre-school. I was enrolled into a nearby government school in my grandfather’s village. And it was a big deal at that time because it was the same school where my father, and aunt( my father’s sister) studied. Also it was the alma mater of a number of other relatives. So when the next generation also joined the school, there were automatic spurts of nostalgia among everyone, and just about everyone had a story to tell me.

However, I don’t remember going to that school much. I already knew everything which was being taught because the two years of home tutoring we had essentially covered the first standard text books. I was naturally bored, and the class teacher who also happened to be our neighbor graciously allowed my mother to take me whenever she chose to, to her home.
The school was a Malayalam medium school, and we never had any exposure at that time of the English language.

So when we moved to a large city, again my parents chose to enroll us in the nearest government school, and I joined mid-way in second standard, while my sister started off her first standard there. My parents at least at that time never really cared, both of them were educated in a Malayalam medium school, and back in late seventies education was still not commercialized. My father was quite proud of his roots, and was of the opinion that talent and hard work are more important than the school.

However over the next couple of years, he figured that only his children were in Malayalam medium, while all his peers had enrolled their children in English Medium. So in my fourth standard I switched to English Medium, after two months of preparation by a home tutor during the summer holidays that preceded the new academic year.

Once I completed my fourth standard as one of the outstanding students of the class, everyone pressurized my parents to enroll me into a better school.The school of choice was Rajagiri High School, which at that time was a boys school run by missionaries of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate(CMI).

It was also one of the most prestigious schools of the district and getting admission was tough, and involved an entrance examination.

This was the first competitive examination in my life, I had barely learned to read and write English, and was under prepared. Naturally I did very poorly and did not qualify. If I remember right I scored 7 and 9 in the two tests. My father had to then cough up Rs 5000, a princely amount those days to get me an admission.

So when I joined the new school, I was filled with a number of inferiority complexes. I could not speak a sentence in English, and the school had a rule that students to speak in English inside the campus unless it was the Hindi or Malayalam classes. Many in my class knew how to speak the language fluently, and quite a few of them spoke without the typical Mallu accent. I was convinced I did not belong there, because I had scored very poorly in the exams, and my father had to commit the grievous sin of paying monies to get me through.

I also met many kids who came from the wealthiest families of the city. I always thought we were very poor, because that’s what my mother wanted us to believe.

Our teachers were very strict. School management believed that corporal punishment was the only way to discipline a bunch of unruly boys. Teachers used to beat the kids with canes on just about any part of the body. The school staff room had an assortment of canes of different sizes, and even thick rulers which were weapons of choice of assault for the teachers.

Each teacher had a peculiar manner of punishment. The styles of caning and the rhythm in which they caned, were often mimicked in the classes. Serious mischief would lead to more serious punishments. This included making the student kneel in the hot sand pit used for long jump and high jump in the large play ground for an hour or even more. I have seen many students walking back sun burnt with blisters on their knees.

My English teacher during the first year (fifth standard) was an old gentleman named MM Mathew. He was well into his sixties and was due for retirement. His minor punishment was to pinch the children on their ears till it became red or the child cried. When he was really angry, he used to take the compass from the pencil box usually used to draw circles and arcs, and squeeze the tender ear lob of the child between his thumb, the pointed tip of the compass and his forefinger, till it started bleeding.

We used to have regular class tests. So in the second month of my first year at Rajagiri, we were given a test on spellings. And I spelled the world ‘little’ with one missing ‘t’’. And our teacher did the compass act, which created a scar that’s still there on my left ear lobe. Though my parents never reacted to the incident, he was asked to retire at the end of the term when some other parents complained to the school management when their ward’s ear lobe developed an infection scarred by the compass tip.

Spellings were never my forte, and even today without the help of a word processor I cannot write a paragraph without making a mistake.

So it’s indeed a proud moment for me when my daughter has qualified for the nationals of a spelling bee competition. When I was driving along with her for the State finals, I asked her the spelling of the word “little” and she mocked me for asking the spellings of such simple words. All I could do was smile, smile more than a little.

Categories: Redolent Memories, Roots | 2 Comments

Lost City

Whenever emptiness fills you, for no reason that you can put a finger upon, it results in suffocation. At least that’s my case. Being suffocated with emptiness is almost a paradox, but for the one who suffers from this malady, it’s often like being clinically depressed.

I have been in Kerala for the past week or so. Since my phone has nearly given up the ghost, there are few callers to disturb me. Over all, so far it has been a welcome break. I have spent quality time with my mother, catching up on good old Malayalam television channels, and almost subconsciously inhaling the festive spirit of Onam. I do not celebrate Onam any more since I lost my father on Onam four years ago.

The weather in Kerala has been unusually cool this year, considering it is the last week of August. Usually the monsoon clears up by Onam, and the weather is warmer. This year, however, the rain gods have played truant, and the delayed showers have kept mercury levels low for most of the week.

My home in Kochi where our family moved in 1990 is special not just for nostalgic reasons, but also because you can feel completely disconnected with rest of the world when you are inside the house despite it being in the center of the bustling city.

My mother has over the past few years, developed into a very competent gardener. She keeps a dainty little garden that includes a small fish pool.

While the entire universe seems to be working towards relaxing me, I have been sensing some silent, yet abnormal internal turbulence that’s constantly building a vacuüm.

Whenever I am unhappy, disturbed, or sense any negative emotion, I try an exercise that my mother taught me many decades back. I try figuring out the reason for the negativity and focus on it, and that almost always gets me back on track.

However the emptiness I have experienced over the past ten days or so is inexplicable. Any attempt to seek the reason has been futile, and it has started bothering me. I am not feeling sad. In fact, I was catching upon several simple joys associated with my home.

But I suddenly felt an urge to take a time machine, go back into the good old eighties and early nineties, when Kochi was much smaller, and when in many ways it was a city I owned. Those were the days when you knew every street of the city. I had cycled through practically all the navigable roads. I had explored the darkest alleys of the city’s underbelly without feeling a bit afraid.

Today I am scared to drive a car through the city traffic. I did some amount of walking mostly alone or sometimes with my old classmate Sreekanth Das. And every time I started missing some of those old land marks, I felt something dying inside me.

I hate being nostalgic. But I realized that somewhere the reason for my irritable need for some soul-searching was the city which I have lost over time.

I miss the good old Kochi, the smiles of a generation that has died over time, and the laughter of the generation that I grew up with. I miss the grounds, the parks, the libraries, and the cricket clubs.

I badly miss people who once meant a lot to me, but have moved away with time. People whom I have lost for no fault of theirs.

Above all, I miss being me. 

Categories: Redolent Memories | Tags: | 2 Comments

Thoughts on an Independence Day

Today was the 65th Independence Day anniversary of our country.

To me it was a holiday well spent with my daughter. I always cherish days when I can spend most of my time with her. We get to learn a lot  from each other. Rather, I get to learn a lot from her, and I try to teach a few things with indifferent rates of success.

When I was a kid probably about her age, I was fairly politically aware growing up in Kerala. My paternal grand parents were staunch Congress loyalists, my mother was a communist sympathizer, my aunt’s family was supporting Janata party (this was the late seventies and Morarji Desai would have just stepped down). There were political discussions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And kids learn a lot by listening to adult conversations.

I spent a lot of time with my paternal and maternal grandparents during childhood, and there were no televisions. People had time for children, and I guess by five years, I knew more about the puranas than what I remember today.

Back in the late seventies, we still had a couple of generations around, who knew life during pre-independence, who had seen the freedom struggle at close quarters. There were one or two freedom fighters (no leaders, just Congress workers during the forties) in the family too. Hence I had heard stories of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Bhagat Singh and others by the age of seven. We used to have comic books on their lives. They were my heroes, unlike Spiderman, Shinchan, Doramon and others whom my daughter idolizes.

Today probably for the first time I decided to check Ammu’s political quotient. I have always had discussions with Ammu on subjects she wanted to listen to or know about. But this time around, I wanted to have a chat with her on some thing which I think every child in this country needs to know about.

I wanted her to understand  the day’s significance. I wanted her to understand what independence meant to all of us. I wanted her to understand that this was not just another holiday. But then, she is a child who barely knows what India means. For her, life so far has been one bright, colorful joy ride, where she has been protected and completely cared for.

I was thankful that while she has heard of Mahatma Gandhi somewhere, she does not know who he is and what his contributions are. She has not heard of the freedom struggle except for a casual mention that one of her senior friends from school is to bring pictures of freedom fighters pictures to school the next day.

How do you explain what independence and freedom means to a child in 2012? I tried telling her about how people from an alien land called the Great Britain ruled over our country. She could not understand what it means to rule over another. Then I explained to her that we fought against them, that thousands lost their lives, and many more were jailed by the British police. I told her what a great man Gandhi was and she asked me –
“Did Gandhi have soldiers?”
“No. He did not have soldiers.”
“Then how did he fight?”
“Well, he did not fight. He believed in not fighting.”
“But you said he fought for freedom. And now you say he did not fight!”
“Yes. He got us freedom, by fighting with the British, without fighting them physically. He did not like violence. He did not like to hit, beat, or fire guns at people. He said that if you do not fight physically, the enemy will give up fighting with you after some time, and will try understanding you.”

She gave me a confused look. I gave her a discourse of about three-minutes using examples that I believed a child could understand and introduced her to the principles of Ahimsa and the larger values that Gandhi stood for. I told her the famous story of Gandhi showing his other cheek when someone slapped him.

She was silent for some time.

“But you have told me that if a kid hits me, I should also hit back. I should not cry and be a coward. That’s what even the Karate teacher has taught me. But now you say Gandhi said otherwise.”

I did not have answers, and luckily our dog Sheero distracted her, and the conversation ended there.

I have enrolled her in a Taekwando class, because I wanted her to learn self-defense. I wanted her to be self-reliant. I wanted her to have some physical exercise, and a sense of self-esteem. I don’t want my child to become a victim tomorrow, without putting up a fight against someone who might try to harm her.

Gandhi was never against self-defense. In fact, he supported the British whole-heartedly in the first World War. He even said that as a subject of the empire he enjoyed the protection of the empire, and so he supported the war effort. He did use support for the Second World War as a bargaining tool with the British. More than a million Indians fought in the wars.

Perhaps I am not a good story-teller, or my grandparents and other kin during the seventies knew how to tell stories, make a child politically and socially aware, and implant seeds of patriotism in him.

Today for a child growing in a middle class family, Ammu is not really exposed to the real world. Her parents struggle to give her every comfort that they can probably afford. She is emotionally protected by her ecosystem at school and the neighborhood.

How can such a child understand what it means to be treated as a second class citizen in their own country? How can she understand that several thousands laid their lives in achieving a dream called Freedom?

Today my Facebook page was full of dedications, trivia, and messages related to independence. There were few jingoistic posts too. Tomorrow people would forget this Independence Day and move ahead.

My good friend Aubrey Almacs feels that we must mourn our Independence Day and call it a Partition Day. I partly agree with him because partition was one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century at least in South Asia.

Many of my friends who are in their mid-thirties and early forties are cynical. They feel that we have not achieved anything from our independence. They blame our democratic system, and they abuse our freedom fighters. Today Nehru is squarely being blamed for the Kashmir issue, Gandhi is blamed for our attitude towards dealing with political issues. Many feel that his philosophy of Ahimsa has made us a soft nation. Congress leadership is blamed for the partition.

I really don’t know. For the moment I am confused, like Ammu was a few hours back. I feel I have a great sense of history, reverence for the contributions of people who fought for a change. I would like my daughter to inherit a bit of that sense and reverence. But I really don’t see that happening.

Every Independence Day once we had a TV at home in the eighties this video used to play. I grew up listening to and learning this song. That is, till satellite revolution took over in the nineties and we could easily flip channels.

Categories: Random Thoughts, Redolent Memories | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little

These days I remember a lot of people whom I have lost in my life. These include those I lost to the inevitable truth called death, but also those who simply slipped away into oblivion because I have never been very social.

Rigours of living in Bangalore, trying to cope with the complexity called life, juggling between different roles that I need to play is not easy. Keeping people around me happy is the toughest job and I keep failing at that more than often.

Life was much simple when you were growing up. There was no responsibility, and no one depended on you. You were almost in a cocoon, so comfortable, and very care-free. The only pressure on you was to study and do well, which I guess I never did after all.

Last October, my daughter, Yaamini (Ammu) turned six, and she’s growing into a fine young lady. I am also glad to report that she is showing incredible maturity for her age. These days I try to spend some quality time trying to educate her on some hard facts of life. So far she has had a very protected childhood. It has been luxurious compared to what I had.

I now realise what my parents went through when we (that’s my sister and I) were growing up. I always used to wonder why they were so tense and worried about us. I am seeing similar patterns in me.

Till Ammu was about five and a half years old, she was regarded  as just a bundle of joy, someone who could just waken you from the deepest and darkest of dumps with just her voice, or presence. All you wanted to do was hug her, kiss her, and make sure that she kept smiling. Everything she did brought you happiness, and you wanted to laugh with her, and cry with her. Even when she threw tantrums, frustrated you with her illogical demands, or made a mess of the house or her dress all you wanted to do was cajole her.

However these days, I see that we are having real conversations that are no longer inane, gibberish, or trivial. She is raising queries that cannot be explained or addressed through baby chat any more.

Sometimes she wants me to treat her like an adult, and not brush away her concerns like I used to do before. At other times, all she wants is that I play with her, indulge her in palaver, treat her like a three-year old.

When you see that your child is growing, developing her own individuality, own little personality, you also have a feeling that you are losing a part of you inch by inch. Today she is dependent on you. Tomorrow she will not be, and that very thought results in a selfish feeling of sorrow.

My mother always used to tell me that her best time was when her children were really small. Yes, we were a handful, but everything about us gave her joy. And as we kept growing, we brought more misery and worries.

I am scared that as time passes by, as my relationship with Ammu transforms, a part of me will start to die.

Life does come a full circle.

This is my 25th post, and for all those who have stopped by, here’s one of my all time favourite songs,  a video created to celebrate the life of a very special star.

Categories: Redolent Memories, Roots | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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