It continues past midnight from early dawn- Street sounds. Motorbikes burn rubber down narrow lanes teeming with transport, rattling mudguards vie with bursts of loud exhaust fumes. Drivers honk maliciously- Yes, I see your distorted faces hurling abuses at the passersby – or the neglected helpless strays, that yelp in unwanted pain, the clamour continues. Stop. Please. Let me hear the chimes of a distant chapel, the call to prayers, the tinkling of bells at the temple. Let me read my book in peace, perchance later, be induced to sleep? JMT 14 February 2021
Indian Literature Journal, Issue 319, September-October 2020
A book review by U. Atreya Sarma, a bilingual poet, reviewer, translator and Chief Editor of Muse India.
“A Fictionalised Memoir with an Exotic and Diplomatic Touch – The stories in the book offer their own mental pabulum and messages, explicit or subtle….they have an ‘experimental structure’ of their own. Aren’t most of our lives like that, anyway?”
Pitru Paksha is the fortnight of rememberance of one’s ancestors in India.
I have often marvelled at the determination of my great, great grandmother, Radhika Devi.
In accordance with customs prevalent in the late 19th century, she was married at the age of 9 to her young husband of 14. She was meant to go to her husband’s village after she attained puberty.
Karma decreed otherwise.
Radhika became a child-widow. She was fortunate. Her parents and brothers cared deeply for her and she remained in their home for a few years. Against their wishes, we are told in my grandfather’s memoirs, she decided to go to her husband’s family in Panchapalli, a village in what is now the district of Jagatsinghpur, in Odisha.
I quote here from my father’s memoirs, The Casquet of Remembrance, by Dr.Justice Braja Nath Misra.
“She lived a very simple, chaste and virtuous life and observed all the rituals and pujas that a Hindu widow was required to perform. Her brothers who loved her very much often stayed with her for two to three months and helped her in cultivation of her husband’s agricultural lands.
Soon Radhika realised that being a widow, she ought to take a son in adoption to continue her lineage and look after her house and landed properties after her.
Around the age of 21 years she requested her husband’s younger brother, Banambar Misra, to give his second son Dayanidhi, who was then aged about 4 years, for adoption by her. After Banambar Misra acceded to her request, she changed Dayanidhi’s name to Chintamoni and adopted him in 1861.
She was very interested in providing proper education for Chintamoni and got him admitted to the government Upper Primary school at Panchapalli.
Chintamoni was the first and only Brahmin student of that school.
This step was unprecedented.
The entire Brahmin community at Panchapalli was infuriated and offended that Chintamoni had joined a government school. They took a rigid decision so as to discourage other Brahmin boys from joining the government school and excommunicated Radhika and Chintamoni from the Brahmin community.
The ban remained in force for about five years, but Radhika and Chintamoni did not bother. Both mother and son carried on as before. Chintamoni completed his studies at the government school and passed the Upper Primary exams. He next studied at the Middle Vernacular School at village Punanga for two years.
After passing his Vernacular examination being eligible he joined the medical school at Cuttack, where the subject of medicine was taught in class in Oriya, the local language.
However, again there was very strong and loud protest from the Brahmin community at Panchapalli, as studies at the medical school involved dissection of dead bodies.
This time Chintamoni did not fight, but gave in as at that time Radhika was all alone in the village while he was in town at Cuttack. He left the medical school and joined the Upper Primary School as a teacher.”
I have always admired how my great great grandmother adopted a child and helped him study. And later, how my great grandfather did not wish to leave his mother alone in the village.We learn of their deep love, compassion, determination and sacrifices.
As dusk falls on the eve of India’s Independence Day 2015, there is a sense of calm in our hearts for the first time in 13 years. We are gazing onto our new patch of garden in Bhubaneswar, having come home and we do not have to go over each minute detail in preparation of a Flag- Hoisting at India House! In fact, it had always been busy, busy, busy… on the eve of Independence Day, for over three decades. My recently-retired husband would spend hours checking the morning rituals, including the repast for all the Indian citizens overseas (no trust in me?!) – this was tricky as an Open Invitation is placed in the newspapers, so we could expect from a 100 to 400 persons or in the thousands in some countries! Caterers were always asked to be on standby for refills!
From checking that the sound systems were tuned, with a lot of help from our son, to choosing the patriotic songs to be played and checking the metal detectors that sadly entered our lives overseas, even tying the cloth-bunting colours of our Flag on the tents, no detail was too small to attend to. Yes, I have been told by many he was an unusual High Commissioner/ Ambassador — one “…always fond of working tirelessly , both at the mission and the gardens of the residence!” Then he would ponder over his words for the speech to follow the President’s speech. Finally, that final ‘just checking’ that the rose petals fell gently to the ground as the Flag was unfurled…supervising and standing with the workers, even long after they had left, sometimes till midnight. What thoughts coursed through his mind? Each day in ‘govt. service’- as it is fondly called in India, dedicated to his home-land and its citizens overseas, the PIOs – People of Indian Origin, and local dignitaries and diplomats…quite daunting, I would imagine.
At India House Nairobi
I never intruded into those precious moments of reflection and stillness. From Madagascar with Comoros, to Uganda with Rwanda and Burundi, to Kenya with Somalia and Eritrea and earlier, from Korea to Finland and then to the isthmus of Panama and Sri Lanka — our moments with the Indian diaspora, have been etched into our hearts. I still recollect with fondness my very first Independence Day celebration overseas. We were called to prepare two thousand gulab jamuns and samosas, as there were no proper Indian caterers at the time. It was hard work, but we had a wonderful time — singing, cribbing but generally bonding in the large kitchen! Luckily, we managed between all the spouses and the India House chefs. Till today, the sight of a delicious gulab jamun or samosa makes me cringe a little bit!
At last year’s Independence Day (*2014 ), sitting on the ramparts of Red Fort as the new PM Shri Modi spoke of his vision for India, once again that pride in our country filled me with hope, despite its burden of over a billion people, illiteracy and poverty, for we never give up. Incredible India has miles and miles to go, but we do keep moving.
GET INSPIRED, PERSONAL GROWTH, MY STORY
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Forty five days into #Lockdown – Hemingway’s title For Whom the Bells Toll comes to mind, as apt for our workers seeking to get home to their villages, as does the novel by Camus –The Plague, which journalist Nirupama Subramanian writes of in her article, The MoralContagion, in the Indian Express, May 5th. “..what can we learn from this work by a French writer from another era whose work strikes a chord at so many levels with our present situation?’, she asks. Lalit Surjan , chief editor Deshbandu Group of Publications, cites on Twitter, the novel Jungle by Pulitzer Prize Winner Upton Sinclair, written in 1906. This novel revealed the shocking exploitation of immigrants and the unsanitary conditions of labourers in the meatpacking industry, in the United States. How have conditions improved after more than a century in India? Our workers carry out their tasks in all-weather, most without proper safety gear, only to end the day’s labour with a pittance and no real shelter over their heads. They are forced to live ‘huddled’ together – for instance -on construction sites, all over our country.
We must hope that corporations will have had the #Lockdown phase to rethink policy for their workers.
28th March 2020
The images of ‘migrant’ workers, carrying a few belongings, walking away from the city of Delhi in throngs, in late March, has filled me with such dark despair. I could not help but wonder what thoughts must be flitting through their troubled minds, in these desperate times – with the fear of imminent death from the COVID19 virus, far away from their villages?
Why use the term ‘migrant’? These workers travelled to another part of their own country, to earn better wages.
And what about those who live by themselves, their angst…?
Disquiet in Isolation
Are you scared of being alone too long with thoughts that spill over from the past, memories drowned, you do not wish to dredge? Are you scared of being alone too long with whispers from empty corners, visions that float unbidden, like dust rising with the breeze, you cannot yet evade? Are you scared of being alone too long tomorrow, with premonitions, uncertain of the infrequent shadows walking beside you, if any, for they may all be unknown?
Breathe deeply, Inhale, exhale- Angst is just another word.
How Languages Changed My Life is a collection of stories exploring the importance of languages in shaping the lives of individuals and communities around the world. It brings together writers and musicians, politicians and activists, teachers, students, scientists, comedians, and sportspeople whose experiences are both unique and exemplary. The first-person voices are conversational, intimate and uplifting, but also often very funny and deeply moving.
This book is for anyone who loves real-life stories; is interested in languages, culture, and adventure; and believes in global citizenship. It embraces more than forty different languages and offers a kaleidoscope of individual views that collectively make the case for linguistic diversity being as essential to our survival as biodiversity.
Irrespective of age and background, whether as first-time learners or professional polyglots, all our storytellers testify to how languages have inspired and empowered them. How Languages Changed My Life is a book for our times, reminding us that what we have in common is always greater than our differences.
“My apologies, dear Reader, sometimes I listen, to learn, not judge……It was at the last Ladies Luncheon…”.
There are passionate voices extolling the virtues of professions over motherhood, of choices made, with the support of a husband or joint family, but are these coloured with a twinge of melancholy or is it guilt?
A doctor has to make a choice between serving her patients and her children. A business woman does feel pangs of unhappiness as she juggles her dual roles, while the two male ‘spouses’ at the lunch offer us balanced views on the topic. Education, one says, is what will help. Another lady reveals her husband asked her to stay at home with her children and she professes no regrets. There are smiles as she deftly averts her eyes and looks across the group, with just a glint of knowledge in her eyes.
A young wife then says, “One of America’s highest paid women executives has recently created a furore with her choice of words: “I don’t think women can have it all…..”
The group sighs in unison!
But wait, I muse, there is one person missing here – yes, a home-maker, one who is thrust into such a role by circumstance, not choice. I could be referring to myself here, as someone who has travelled across continents, resided in seven countries and the homeland, over the past three decades following my husband to his postings. Being in the foreign-service family is fascinating, vastly challenging in certain countries for the civil servant, but even more so for the ‘spouse’.
The government has graciously granted the spouse leave to work, within specific parameters that pose no direct or indirect conflict of interest. This is a given- to uphold the dignity of our country at all costs. However, jobs are not easily available in certain countries or at the time of a posting. Then there is the question of the existence of double-taxation. Then employers are not usually impressed with a chequered experience table. How may one fill in all the years given away to the family as a wife and mother? Some spouses are delighted to be home-makers and care-givers. Others decide to pursue their ambitions, in India, or even overseas. Some stay on, fulfil all their duties unstintingly, but often sit down and have a good cry, especially as the days turn to months, then years and the decades fly by.
Till it is time to return home, perhaps to retire, or fade into oblivion? The husband will retire as a Distinguished Citizen of India. The wife, who has worked unstintingly behind the scenes in varied roles supporting her husband, what will she be remembered for?
At this point in time, regrets? Perhaps a few. Remorse? I do not think so. A sense of guilt? Why? Did she not ‘have it all?’ The children are all grown – up, in their chosen fields, given the choices that she could not have made without upsetting the earlier generation. It is a hard cogged wheel that turns exceedingly slowly and painfully, for some of us. The question I am underscoring here is: why should I feel guilt for not having a career, if I stayed with my spouse and children, for not contributing to the monthly single-income? Does not earning make me a ‘bad’ mother? Has my unhappiness at not having a career or pensionable job lowered me in their esteem? Do they think that I ought to have been like some of my University batch mates, in high places- how did they manage to balance marital matters and motherhood with a profession?
Destiny, Karma ,call it what you may, or just the sheer outcome of having made the choice of getting married.
The questions and answers, not just at that Ladies Luncheon but also on TV panel discussions are difficult to answer or compartmentalize neatly.
Today, in urban India, young adults in their late-twenties or mid-thirties are quite happy to be professionals and single. They may accept their parents’ concern, or their opinions in their stride, but may not heed their advice. They are not afraid to voice their opinions either. Just chill! These are the smartphone kids, the short-texting generation, no voice calls really required. They are at ease anywhere- nationally or internationally. They traverse spaces with verve. Their parents are often stuck in limbo between two generations – two World Wars, Vietnam and the missions to the Moon. Now it is Mars. Unable to come to terms with this distancing or rather ‘my space’ or ‘my time’ or just plain ‘let me be’? Understandable, as today is fraught with a myriad deluge of issues. They need time to think, to gauge points of view and then arrive at their conclusions. We need to understand their anxiety and allow them to take their stands. They are the youth of today, the future is theirs to know.
Many have just barely escaped the vulnerability of adolescence.
What worries me is whether they are able to share their anxieties with their companions, in order to be happier or calmer and move forward. If they may overcome peer-pressure and the ticking of the biological clock. I cannot be sure if ‘guilt’ figures in their thoughts, given their independence and their choice of friends and careers. I can only wish them well, in whichever role or roles they choose and keep them safe in my prayers.
I only know that we all need to adapt to circumstances, at every stage in our lives. And that a supportive husband, in-laws, parents, friends – these are the positive blessings in our lives.
And that women should not feel guilty about their choices.
Every day one fact stares us in the face – in this our homeland – the horror of crimes against women and children. No longer hidden away in dusty storerooms or barnyards, thrown into the depths of village wells or rivers, but right in our faces on national media. Can anyone, male or female, turn away from the horrific sight of those two young girls, hanging from a tree? Their hair tied in pigtails, thin young girls, dressed decently in traditional salwar-kameezes – yet to blossom into womanhood. Perhaps some macho types will shrug it off as what they deserved. Whether it is an honour killing for marrying out of caste, or for giving birth to girls (why is it still not public knowledge that it is the MALE chromosomes that determine the sex of a child?), whether it is for not receiving enough dowry or for answering back in justified distress or just to show a family that does not conform within a village what atrocities lie in store for its members… the list is endless. It is futile to even try to attempt to make those rapists pay for their heinous acts. Is there strength in numbers? Yes, when such crimes are committed. It gives those villains a sense of power, even to throw acid in someone’s face for having not accepted unwanted or uncalled for advances.
Is this who we are? A nation of listless citizens, not wanting to be involved in someone else’s tragedy?
Psychologists have long spoken about repressed adolescence in India. Most families are over-protective of their daughters yet may have sons who need to teach a fantasy-girlfriend a lesson like they do in the movies. But movies are mostly fictional but who will drill this fact into the heads of most of our people, no matter how much or how little they are educated?
No, it is not right to punch someone in the face for an insult, or eve-tease with whistles and cat-calls, even if a handsome hero or pretty heroine does it onscreen. No, it is not right to seek vengeance on a family over disputed land. Neither is it right to beat up the competition in winning the heroine’s heart or to rob banks and rich-guys, putting it simply, for the ‘better’ of the community in the village or chaawl or basti. Our TV serials are not helping either, with difficult sasumaas trying to interfere in a couple’s life and all sorts of unimaginable twists and tales.
Our rural and urban viewers are equally susceptible.
No, it is not right to admire vigilante justice or kangaroo courts that administer physical justice and humiliation, even if our film industry indulges in such fancy. But the public is fed up of the months, even years in courts, waiting for justice. In the meantime, the culprits are fed daily, allowed to exercise, meet visitors… until in the crime is often diffused by this sense of distance. This is inexcusable. Prompt justice is necessary for such heinous crimes. Laws need to be amended. We wait in anticipation for change.
But wait, does education not play a role on what is morally right and acceptable?
Can rape be defended on the grounds of meting punishment for an alleged grievance? This is the message that seems to be going out to the world.
Why are such subjects not introduced in national schools or adult literacy classes? We now have classes on agriculture beamed into rural community centres.
India must protect its own especially its young girls and boys, as boys are vulnerable too and not enough is spoken on their behalf.
Our children must be safe at school and their environment. CCTV cameras are all very professional but we must have responsible persons monitoring these visuals carefully not chatting and going to the canteen for chai whenever they wish to. Accountability is not a strong word in India. School managements must ensure safety for their pupils. One washroom attendant is not enough and background checks are very necessary, prior to hiring. Many international schools overseas insist on a mandatory police verification that is mentioned in advertisements for educators and non-teaching staff.
Then as parents, we need to keep our children safe at home. We cannot be suspicious all the time of relatives or friends, but need to question ourselves if they make our children uncomfortable. This may be just out of shyness too, but it is important not to overlook a child’s concern. I am not stating that every smile or pleasant exchange of words is sinister, but we need to prepare our children to grow up and fend for themselves in this unpredictable world.
Coming back to that particular Ladies Luncheon , “It is your turn, now, Jay”, I was startled out of my reverie over the past hour, smile sheepishly at no -one in particular to begin on the topic of Living Overseas and the other side of Domestic Servitude.
The recent outrage on Social Media over salaries paid to domestic helpers overseas by Indian government officials has a spate of ‘holier than thou’ undertones. While no-one is above the law and indeed, must respect the law of the land, let us look closer home.
Why do some of us get so upset when the maid fails to come, one day in a week or month? Maybe she was tired, had caught a cold or was ill with fever, or perhaps her child was sick? Or maybe her husband ill-treated her and she had bruises on her face and did not want you to see them? Or maybe she lied.
How many of us feel that what we pay our domestic helpers is adequate? Inside a ‘society’ compound, salaries are usually on par. The younger generation is advised to pay the average salary so there is little room for discontent among the domestic workers.
Then, as they arrive for work, we make them remove their footwear, even in winter. True, in ancient times this was the norm and still is, in many South-East Asian societies. The inside of the house ought to remain clean and the dust from the streets should remain outside. However, we all walk in with our shoes on.
Then the constant drill begins: “do this properly, you never sweep under the chairs”, “dust properly”, “I can’t find something, you must have taken it” and on and on until the end of the working day (whenever that may be, after 12 hours maybe?)- tinnitus voices. We pile up dishes in the kitchen. We dump clothes in buckets. We leave the cleaning-up for the domestic helper.
Circumstance, not choice is what determines a person’s life of domestic servitude.
Woe betide the helper if she “answers” back. This is not acceptable, for as a domestic helper, she apparently must remain mute. She must not display friction or any emotion (tears are acceptable) that would upset the lady of the house, even the children.
Do we even think of sitting her down for five minutes, with a cup of tea and talking to her as a human being? Perhaps we do, but never seem to find the time to do so regularly. I do not think the topics would always revolve around money. Perhaps the dialogue would focus on the ups and downs that life imposes on each of us, in varying degrees. To listen is to help a person through her sorrows.
How many of us actually give our helpers money for healthcare, hospitalization or an amount as pension, when they too old to work? Yes, the odd paracetamol tablet is usually given out of a selfish motive, so that the helper recovers quickly (however temporary the relief) and completes all her chores.
What are average salaries in the cities of India? Do corporate executives who earn five times the amount government officials do, pay their domestic helpers five times extra?
Over the past three decades, I have usually hired local helpers for a few hours daily, or three times a week, depending on the country my husband was posted in and abiding by its laws. This is of utmost importance. I do not believe in signing a contract in India stating the monthly wage, while the minimum wage overseas is at variance.
Many countries insist employers pay monthly Social Security instalments for domestic helpers. This is checked prior to a person’s departure from the country and receipts from the Social Security office are required for the full tenure in the country.
For example, over twenty years ago, we paid the average salary of US 300/= per month to Rosa, our helper in a Central American country and forever breathed easy, as this was the ‘going rate’ locally, for all diplomatic families and included social security. However, this was far, far more than the allocated amount given to us in the foreign allowance. It was really difficult making ends meet those days, with three children, but we had to. And we were blessed with children who helped in our chores in many ways ….the two elder girls baby-sitting their brother, helping hang up the laundry…even raking autumn leaves when much younger. Or shovelling snow with their father…bless their hearts, and later, our son who is more than a decade younger than his sisters, setting up stages, recording patriotic songs, checking the loud speakers, creating power-points …memories and gratitude forever in our hearts . And, I often told friends in India, tongue in cheek – “Some of us mere ‘spouses’, look after residences, plan menus, cook, lay tables, wash dishes at times all for free!!!”
People do not understand what it takes to work for one’s country, for average salaries, especially so before the past decade, when the young generation in the corporate sector were making five times the amount in India!
It is a certain ‘bent of mind’!
The ‘wrong-doings’ by some in the ‘service’ is disheartening to the rest of us.
The media too, plays its part in highlighting certain issues that trigger a long-list of complaints in other areas that have remained dormant.
An Indian diplomat overseas is still your average Indian at home in Delhi. It is that simple!
We need support from our own! Life overseas is not just a series of diplomatic parties, sipping champagne or apple juice, clutching crystal stems and wearing designer clothes! Life is often hard, as we live our personal lives too and miss our extended families, our friends and really do not have ‘shoulders’ to cry upon.
In these pandemic times, we are compelled to focus on priorities at any given moment. The past may arise in unbidden thoughts, with happy or sorrowful memories. Yet it is the present that redefines it, in the form of consolation or catharsis.
When The Emperor of Maladies erupts and disrupts Life…… a cached text version of my article on Huffington Post India.
Leap Of Unfaith: Letting Go Of My Husband
It has not been easy inhaling and exhaling these past 240-odd days.
HUFFINGTON POST INDIA
10/04/2017 3:37 PM IST | Updated 01/06/2017 10:06 AM IST
Eight months ago. The thunderbolt from yonder. If you believe in that. Karma? DNA. Biomarkers. Utter despair. Then, hope. Trials. Tribulations. Against all odds.
Of having to explain to family and friends.”What? Were there no symptoms?”
“Why didn’t he see a doctor?”
He was like that, a stalwart—he bore pain, physical and mental, like a stoic.
The sheer exhaustion of having to go over facts, day after day, even while in hospital, listening to tales about those who had conquered the big “C” and were living “quality lives’, of being admonished for not getting second or third opinions in India and overseas, for not having sold all our modest possessions and gone across the oceans… of having somehow failed as a wife in not recognising the symptoms, for not insisting on medical examinations… mea culpa.
My parched lips were not due to thirst. Then there was the uncontrollable puking, the tears that flowed when I was alone, through restless nights, checking him every hour…
I was content with the results “Super Watson” threw up, sifting through the 8000 papers that are published daily worldwide. After intensive research—the results corroborated what the doctors had told us and the medicines prescribed, except one, but that had serious side-effects, including raising blood pressure. Which is why it had not been prescribed.
I learnt a new word—a big thing for a teacher of English Literature—”metastasis”. I fumbled over the pronunciation. Was it due to the fact that I knew the outcome? Then the concern from well-wishers on the “prognosis”? The word bothered him too and we often smiled in unison. Till the big “C” began its tenacious onslaught.
The fear as each chemo session drew near C1 Day 1 + C2 Day 8 = One Session X 5 over the weeks.
Pardon me, that expression is now frowned upon and we must use the term “infusion”, in respect. Full blood tests were required with checks for creatinine levels… and the lab technicians were unable to draw blood, prodding and poking, leaving blood clots all over—to the desolate anguish and pain of both the patient and those that loved him. The need for blood transfusions as his “vital signs” began to flag. Each intrusion caused excruciating pain in my abdomen and my heart ached… heartbeats—did they pound louder than I cared to acknowledge?
My parched lips were not due to thirst. Then there was the uncontrollable puking, the tears that flowed when I was alone, through restless nights, checking him every hour, or the aphthous ulcers that erupted far more frequently than in the past two decades.
Our daughter grappled with her grief and found the strength to keep us afloat. Even guided and helped me push a stretcher through teeming crowds as no orderly was available to take him back to his room.
Our son came as often as he could, braving 30-hour journeys from the African continent and made my husband smile from his heart, their conversations lasting well past the midnight hour.
My grief paled in comparison to his suffering. The biopsies, the frequent x-rays, the waiting for hours for his turn… The burning inside his body, the fear of the unknown, the ultimate truth that he would not see his children grow older. The loss of his muscles, the unbearable moment when he could not get up on his own or turn on his side—the indignity of having others heave him up, calling himself a pitiful specimen, wanting to get out of the hospital, yearning to go home.
Two nights. At home. His own bed. To the familiar sounds of the roller-birds and the black-crested bulbuls… he breathed his last.
We decided… the day he stopped speaking, but opened his eyes when he heard his name. The tears he cried through closed eyes as he could not do namaskar to the orderlies who helped him into the ambulance, the sound of the siren as we rushed through the traffic in Delhi—all too surreal. As my heart pounded, our daughter held our hands and kept us going right into the air-ambulance she had arranged for, with some help from his college friend.
Through turbulent weather in the small charter plane, with the doctor and attendant who kept checking his vitals, till the plane touched down in our home-town.
“We are home.” He opened his eyes ever so briefly.
Two nights. At home. His own bed. To the familiar sounds of the roller-birds and the black-crested bulbuls that chirped outside his parents’ room that he had painstakingly cleared, having restored the original colour of their wooden beds, he breathed his last—after two nights. With his daughter beside him, reading him excerpts from a book he liked, some news of the world, of how much he had done for his children and his beloved country—thirty-six years in government service and how proud they were of him.
The last sigh. No, I am not moving forward just yet. I need to take deep breaths. It has not been easy inhaling and exhaling these past 240-odd days.