What is an asset to life? This short story dedicated to the narrator’s sister answers it
Sneha Sudha Komath
My earliest memories are of my sister’s childhood. Of her riding back and forth on the hinged gates of our house in Mysore. She would call out to neighbours, passers-by, and especially the old Malayali postman, who always gave a patient ear to her complaints about the unfairness of the world. Here she was getting “bigger” by the day, and yet every day she was told that she needed to get much bigger before she could be admitted to a school. How much bigger do they want me to be, she would complain in exasperation!
Before you raise questioning eyebrows at me, dear readers, let me explain. Yes, it is true that I wasn’t born then. But memories are strange intangible creatures. They worm their way into the recesses of one’s mind and capture it in inexplicable ways. These images are imprinted on the canvas of my memory as though I had personally witnessed them all. Perhaps, my active imagination created them from the stories I had heard. Perhaps I conflate images from my own childhood with hers. But, I can still clearly see my sister swinging on the gates of our house in Mysore.
That was a long, long time ago, in another era, when the South Indian city of Mysore was still arguably the best-kept city in India. It still had many of its roads illuminated by the kerosene-based street lamps that the Maharaja had installed, and which were individually lit every evening by lamplighters who came on their bicycles with ladders in tow. Horse carriages or tongas still plied on the roads, and specially employed municipality employees worked round-the-clock to keep the streets free of horse droppings and other littering. Those were also more leisurely times, times of greater trust and reciprocation. When middle-class parents had not yet transformed into the anxious and obsessive helicopter parents that they are today when letting children play on their own or out of the sight of adults was normal, and children were allowed to still be children. So, Achi swung on the gates at the entrance of the house all day, talking to passers-by, while my father was in the office and my mother was busy with household chores.
My young parents had shifted from Bhilai in Central India a couple of years earlier. My father’s first job had been at the Bhilai Steel Plant. He was amongst the first group of engineers who had helped set up the Plant. Since it had been built in collaboration with the USSR, or the Soviet Union, as it was more popularly called, they had been trained by the Russians for the job. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, had inaugurated the Plant and treated all the newly trained engineers with great courtesy, my father would frequently recall with pride. But as with many such institutions, within a few years of its management changing hands, interpersonal issues began to surface. Several among this early batch of engineers began to look for other options. For my father, the last straw had been a denial of leave to go see his firstborn daughter in Kerala.
Achan had no memory of his own father, who had died of a fever when he had barely turned two. Cameras were yet to become commonplace in the interiors of Kerala, and there were no photographs or paintings that could help preserve a pictorial memory. Achan struggled to make his way through the rapidly changing world without his father’s steadying hand. He yearned to be a hands-on dad and to create a lifetime of memories for his own children. So, to be kept away from his daughter so unreasonably became unbearable with each progressing day. After waiting a whole year for the elusive leave, he had finally reached the end of his tether and called it quits, opting for the Indian Railways instead. His first posting was at Mysore. He brought his little family to the official quarters in the railway colony, where my mother’s social skills and their daughter’s happy chatter helped them transition into a new way of life.
The only slight hitch they faced at first, was with their little one’s lack of acquaintance with her father. Indeed, even when she was just a month old, Achi had the extraordinary ability to sense her mother’s touch. If Amma’s hand, placed gently over her, was replaced by another, the little one would kick up a storm. And for the next year and a half, she had remained extremely shy of strangers, constantly looking towards Amma for reassurance. So my parents had been extremely anxious about how my sister would cope in the new home with my near-stranger father as the only other member of the household. At first, little Achi followed Amma around, hiding behind her sari and peeping out often at this friendly new stranger in her life. But slowly and patiently Achan had won her trust. She began to emerge from her hiding place long enough to get him his pair of slippers when he returned home from the office or to bring him a glass of water before scuttling back to the haven behind the sari, where she stayed for most of the evening. It took several more weeks for her to start playing with him or to share her toys with him.
As she began to relax around Achan, her language skills dramatically improved. Suddenly, she was talking nineteen to the dozen to the part-time maid who came home to help with mundane chores, to the dhobi working across the road, to the vegetable vendor passing by, to the postman who came to the colony every day, to the doctor couple next door. And my parents immediately found themselves settled in and well accepted by the neighbourhood. Her angst at not going to school, which became instituted into the family legends eventually, was the new topic for all their amused visitors, who felt compelled to take the child’s side and pretend to chide my parents for it. Every morning, before Acahan left for the office, Achi would be all dressed up and ready for school. She would empty her basket of toys and stock it up with the books or magazines that she saw around the house. Then placing the basket at the entrance, she would haul herself up the railings of the gate, and lift up its latch. Swinging back and forth on the pretend ‘school bus’, she would then greet other school-going children and their parents, telling them about what she would do at school that day. Finally, yielding to her eagerness to get to school, my parents took her to the nursery school nearby and sought admission for her. Luckily, schools were not too rigid about the age of admission and Achi, proudly clad in her new school uniform, was off to school at the age of three.
The school expanded the little child’s social world and further improved her language skills. Achi was speaking English and Kannada fluently in addition to the Malayalam she already spoke at home. The ease with which she picked up the languages, especially Kannada, as compared to the adults at home, was a point not lost on anyone. When they were next transferred to Gooty, Achi was admitted to the first standard at the railway school, and in a completely matter-of-fact manner, she picked up Telugu along with Anglo-Indian English. Soon, the six-year-old doubled up as the Telugu translator for her Achan, whose language abilities were no match for hers, and as the language instructor for her two younger sisters, who grew up speaking multiple languages right from the start. Achi’s language and comprehension skills were sharp, earning her a double promotion to the fifth standard from the third, and putting her a year ahead of her other classmates. In the four years that she spent picking up Telugu, Kannada began to fade away. Although, many years later, Achi would discover that she could still read the script just as she could read Telugu and Tamil much after she had stopped speaking them.
Their transfer to Trichy, and later for a brief period to Madras (or Chennai, as it is presently known), meant that the middle school girl had the challenge of socially fitting in yet again while also picking up another new language. But both challenges came with very different levels of complexity now. The social terrain was more easily negotiated, especially with two little sisters in tow. Within a month, Achi was leading a whole bunch of rambunctious children from the neighbourhood in their evening games at the park. Playing on the slides, see-saws, merry-go-rounds and swings, helped forge bonds between complete strangers. Spinning on the turnstile gates at the entrance, swinging from the long hanging banyan roots, playing make-believe games and attending pretend parties in the park, got gradually added to the list. So well-bonded was this motley group of kids that they even managed to organize monthly cultural events for the families in the railway colony and use the funds raised from ticket sales for special treats for the children in the park.
Learning the Tamil script, however, required much harder work. Firstly, it did not resemble anything that she already knew. And, the level of language skills expected of her was much higher. No doubt, she would have to cover a much greater distance on this front and it would require significant additional efforts after school. There were talks of tuition classes at home. This was well before the craze for medical and engineering admissions had taken over the South of India, well before the times when attending a tuition class was the norm or even an issue of prestige. Children who needed additional home tuition were generally considered the laggards of the class. But Achi was smart enough to know that she needed the tuition classes. Indeed, she took the news of the impending tuition with a maturity that far exceeded her age. Perhaps this came from her multiple cultural experiences, or from the fact that she was accompanied by a younger sister and throwing a tantrum in front of her would have repercussions for her position of authority with respect to her siblings. No matter what the motivation, Achi began receiving after-school tuition lessons. But secretly. After all, she couldn’t endanger her hard-won leadership position amongst the gang of kids at the park! With some smart jugglery of time schedules, her place in the local hierarchy remained unchallenged. And from being placed at the bottom of her class, Achi steadily advanced to the top of it. The month that she was declared the class topper of the seventh standard, our father’s transfer out to Aligarh was announced. And Achi, ever the doughty spider, would begin her climb once again from the bottom of her class.
Aligarh, to her, was a social and cultural bewilderment. The sensibilities of those in the North of India were very different from those in the South. Girls wore pants here rather than the skirts that she was used to, and she would have to learn to get comfortable in a costume that she had frowned upon until recently. Her well-oiled plaited hair, a matter of pride previously, now made her stick out like a sore thumb and become a subject of mockery. Teenage boys and girls intermingled far more freely in Aligarh than they did in the South, which meant that she would have to constantly deal with mixed messaging between home and school. But even if she did manage to deal with these socio-cultural issues, there would still be one major challenge that would have to be dealt with more creatively than before, the challenge of language.
In Aligarh, she needed to study two additional languages at school besides English. Her Tamil was quite useless here. The only options available were Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit! Tamil Nadu’s history of anti-Hindi agitations had ensured that Hindi was completely missing from the public sphere of the state. Achi had absolutely no exposure to the Devanagari script in which she would have to study either Hindi or Sanskrit. After much deliberation, it was agreed that she would take Hindi as her second and Sanskrit as the third language at school. That way, mastering a single script would help her deal with both the languages in the school curriculum.
Master Sunder Lal, or Masterji, began to come home every evening for the tutoring lessons. He was an extraordinary gentleman, a retired teacher who carried a well of infinite experience and patience within him and a few interesting personality quirks. As age caught up with him, his bicycle made way for a walking stick, but nothing kept him from his daily classes. He would call out to us from the gate, to give us the time to get our books ready, while he slowly ambled indoors. Once settled comfortably in a chair, he would place on the table his sparse possessions: his Gandhian cap, a pocket watch, a frayed wallet, a handkerchief and a pouch of smelling salts. Then he would sit down to teach while sipping a cup of tea. For several years after we had moved out of Aligarh, we continued to mimic his unique mannerisms while drinking tea: inhale, take a quick loud sip, turn your head away, exhale. Masterji feared that he would be poisoned by the carbon dioxide if he exhaled into his teacup. Masterji was also a storehouse of stories that he would combine seamlessly with his lessons. He had been a very enthusiastic freedom fighter and a student of history. And his narration of the world wars, of the Quit India movement and the Dandi March, were punctuated by urgent enthusiastic sniffs of the smelling salts, whose strong pungent smell lingered in the air long after his lessons had ended.
Masterji was also an Urdu language enthusiast. Like most men of his time, he had received his formal education in it and considered Urdu his mother tongue. It was the language of culture, of tehzeeb. Not only did it give birth to some of the most beautiful poetry of the world, but it was also poetry itself. How could we be so close to it and yet so far away? Achan patiently sat Achi down and explained. We cannot leave behind many riches for you, nor will you inherit much property from us. What we can do is provide you with a good education. And an exposure to the world and its diversity that few others of your generation have. These will be your assets when you set out into the world on your own. Thus, Urdu came to inhabit that unstructured space between home and school, the tuition class. Diction and pronunciation became the focus. Handwriting became an artist’s delight. English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Urdu began collaborating. Connections were forged. Each helped the other grow and flourish in the minds where they were planted. We saw no inherent tensions, no contradictions between them.
But the mention of tuition at school was still forbidden. We continued to live our double lives. Especially Achi, who had no intentions of carrying the label of phisaddi, or incompetent, in addition to the label of Madrasi, an epithet that labelled all South Indians at once as lesser creatures, and was already proving hard to erase. At school, she worked doubly hard for acceptance. Her hairstyle changed, her fashion sense transformed, even her Anglo-Indian English accent began to have its polished edges rubbed off to acquire a more desi veneer. To make friends, she began playing hockey, a game that she actually found rather dangerous. Once again having younger sisters in primary school proved to be useful, even though this came accompanied by an unavoidable ‘nuisance factor’. Indeed, it was the nuisance factor that made them ‘useful’. Any tardiness on their part was automatically brought to her notice. Their incomplete homeworks, absent classwork books, or missing stationery, all became issues for her to deal with. She hated being summoned by the primary school teachers. On the other hand, this ensured that all the teachers in school got to know her by name. She was no longer the “new girl”. Classmates saw the chinks in her armour and liked her for it. They began to include her in their games and conversations and she gained a new circle of friends.
Over the next three years, Achi climbed steadily through the ranks once again. By now, she was accustomed to this and took it in her stride. When the high school board exams arrived, she was once again amongst the top students of her class. When her board results were announced she was given a wristwatch by our parents, not merely to mark her moment of success, but also to mark her crossing the threshold of adulthood. She was now in control of her life, and her time. Sporting her new wristwatch and exercising the new-found adulthood, Achi cycled off on her own to seek admission to the pre-degree course in biology at the University. At dinner that night, Achan asked, what language will you study? She smiled as she replied simply, Urdu.
Sneha Sudha Komath is a scientist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has also written on gender issues in science. Birding and fiction are her hobbies.