In Memory of Emily Bronte My words, from The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions (no longer in print), 2001, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Reclusive visionary, Mystical, passionate scribe, Decipherer Of the troubled human soul: Austere guide of Love, That triumphs over evil, And outlasts Violence, indifference, strife, Even death itself, Your haunting legacy lives on.
“Sixteen per cent of #youngwomen aged 15 to 24 experienced….violence in the past 12 months.”
When words fail you, as you are interrupted again, and yet again, just smile, sip your wine, nod – a simple tactic to ward off discomfit. The danger, you see, dear young woman, is being articulate, radiant, engaging with intellectuals at literary soirees, seminars or pre-dinner cocktails.
Play up your charm, flaming red lips others may lust for, or the heavy kohl outlining your doe eyes in a subtle invitation with your endearing smile, that lock of unruly hair curling just below your danglers. Examine his eyes – as time wears on. Do they betray his inebriety? Or masked displeasure?
Or sheer affection? The choice is yours, dear young woman, to indulge your fantasy this warm summer’s day, or as dusk gently sets. A night of passion with a stranger, who may love you, or hurt you, scar you, Remember- the choice is always yours.
The Canvas – A collection of short stories rendered from Telugu.
By R.S. Krishna Moorthy & N.S. Murty.
Published by VAKILI, March 2019, pp 305.
The title of this anthology, the third in a tetralogy, a sequel to The Palette (published in 1999) and The Easel (2015), is apt, for we are introduced to twenty-two authors. It cannot be classified neatly by theme or structure, for the canvas has been composed with many movements.
N.S. Murthy in the Preface states he and his late uncle, R.S. Krishna Moorthy, “as translators our selections are more focused on the content than on styles and movements….a good short-story makes us think, challenges our faith, touches our finest and sensitive feelings”. Women writers have been included, unlike in the earlier editions.
There are no set rules for short fiction. An awareness of the cultural context does enable the reader to feel empathy for the characters and their fatal flaws or predicaments. Jhumpa Lahiri, remarked upon her first set of short stories that she often felt uncomfortable in making her Bengali characters speak in English – basically ‘in translation’. She learnt about India from her parents. Identity plays a vital role in literary tradition worldwide, as in, for example, The Dubliners by James Joyce, with its 15 short stories on the Irish middle-class. Regional and national identities are evident in the women characters in this diverse collection of short stories, while their predicaments are a recurrent theme, conflated with the eclectic styles of the writers. The discerning ‘global’ reader will be curious to learn more.
The setting in the first story by a Telugu writer is overseas. It introduces us to David, a polite taxi driver, in ‘My Goal is to be on the Move.’ He drives an elderly lady to her final destination by a circuitous route at her bidding, refuses to be paid, in gratitude for all the experiences along the way. It ends with the realisation that “a page in my life had turned.”
‘The Gun’ is also set overseas. The parents are shocked when their 10-year-old son asks for a gun, “just to shoot.” He has two local friends who encourage him to use the “n-word” and is in a dilemma when he likes the coloured boy who joins their class. Racism rears its ugly head. The child takes an important decision, his coming of age, after a shooting incident at school.
In the surreal ‘Arm Stump’, the main character says the “whole world is crippled overnight.” An interesting comment here is on corporate culture, where leave is not granted easily, even to seek the re-attachment of an arm! Realisation dawns that the reason for losing a limb is the punishment for a social wrong.
Women, conjugal relations and tradition are questioned in ‘The Fifth Wall.’ A widow’s ad for a companion barely three months after her husband’s demise draws ire from their daughter. The mother, Sarada, accuses the daughter of driving her from one boundary to another.
The plight of a young widow is poignantly narrated in ‘Lighting Under Her Feet.’ Rukamma “takes the all-important turn”, after being shabbily treated by her own family members, who pile tasks upon her from early morning till late at night. She hears about remarriages in a grove outside the village and suddenly flees.
The theme of girls sold by parents, doomed by circumstances of birth, sent to brothels and their agony at being told not to return, remains relevant in the villages of India and in the poorer nations of the world.
The sardonic portrayal of an ‘intellectual’ by his younger sister, in retrospection, after he fails to live up to her expectations in being liberal-minded when she wishes to marry out of caste, is all too familiar in the Indian context.
Marriage as a social contract versus the ‘Live-In’ arrangement is taken for granted by the male character in ‘A Protean Beauty.’ He enjoys friendship with women, but fumes in anger at expectations of “emotional bonds” and “unwavering relationships.”
There are two enigmatic soliloquies in this collection. In ‘A Stammerer’s Soliloquy’, the protagonist begins to read voraciously to quell the sorrow of his ‘lonesome life’, one of insults outside the home and beatings from his mother. “We should look if the works reflect, even cursorily, the abundant human drama and tragedy so pervading in life.” Each book taught him a lesson. Listening to the radio comes with the realisation of “every language has beautiful vocabulary” and he equates mispronunciation with stammering.
‘Death Sentence’ was published 70 years ago, an ironical soliloquy of an innocent victim implicated in a crime, who bemoans he is well-fed in the prison while his family starves or may have died. He blesses the prison staff for feeding a man “starved for life.”
Mental health is gently depicted with a story within a story in ‘The Sea’.
At variance in these stories is the one on Time Travel! In ‘Sanjeevarayadu’, the protagonist flits between parallel time-zones, as he tries to save the wife of his hero, the Poet Laureate, who is named at the very end, with tablets for tuberculosis.
The reader is made to confront complex, conflicting thoughts on restrictive tenets of the immediate community through a vast range of voices. The order of the stories is disconcerting, as the setting changes swiftly, like an artist’s brush strokes – spaces may be filled in later. It does, however, give pause for introspection, the irregular syntax notwithstanding.
The Canvas not only offers glimpses of life, ranging from the ironical to the philosophical, with humorous or ironical portrayals of characters within a regional cultural context, but also underscores the nuances of local customs, prejudices and dilemmas. Translations are now being termed cultural communication between communities and countries, across continents. This collection is a boon for trilingual speakers in India, instructed in the English-medium at school and University and are vital for our vibrant cultural diversity and literary tradition.
Redefining loneliness and coping with being solitary, as someone involuntarily ‘unmarried’— a widow – over the past 14 months has been difficult. Losing your husband who had been with you through thick and thin, in good times and sorrowful ones, through fits of anger and angst, how may I even begin to count the ways?
Of not reaching for two large mugs and two different types of tea? On the lighter side, elaichi chai vs Earl Grey, 1 tsp of sugar vs 3, deep fried potato chips, deep fried parwal… all that ‘bad cholesterol’ stuff, fades into the shadowy landscape of my mind, as I greet each day at a different time. No, I do not wake up at the crack of dawn if I have been battling shadows in my restless dreams, my eyes have their own REM and I often awake drenched in sweat.
At 65, I can say this out loud. I would not have dared to earlier, when a woman’s fears and anxieties were brushed under the carpet. Who had the time? Wake up, get breakfast ready, pack lunchboxes, cook, clean, iron too’, with or without a helper. Salaries were usually spent by the 20th of the month, forget about a counsellor’s fees.
The first lockdown was announced and began on March 25th, 2020. My mother’s 81st birthday. I could not travel to see her, as I had been doing, over the past decade, even coming in from overseas. Was it fear or anxiety? She has two adult daughters living with her now, one a doctor, so that fact is always so reassuring that she is very well looked after.
The first lockdown lasted 68 days. It was hard not to answer the weekly long doorbell ring, announcing the arrival of my daughter. The warmth of her smile always soothed me, as the memory of it does now, over 14 months later. Come rain, hail, or shine, she would come to see me, and my loneliness would take the back seat, as I soaked in her words. My son is far away and his memories flit into our conversation so naturally. Then she must leave, and I am alone again.
The isolation is disturbing when images of people, known and unknown, struggling in the pandemic, the pleas and cries for help – hospital beds, blood, oxygen – invade your life. This stays in your mind, long after tears have been shed in bewilderment at the futility of it all, the roll of the dice – what IS this virus that cannot yet be pinned to its origin? As the eerie stillness of the present lockdown surrounds me, I breathe erratically, as I see the shrouds in pictures, the wisps of smoke arising from hurried cremations, or half-burnt bodies being thrown surreptitiously into the rivers, caught on camera on someone’s smartphone. I reach out at night to the space beside me on my bed, where he once lay, but he has been gone for over 4 years now and cannot assuage my fear of the unknown, of what each new day will bring. Sickness or sudden death. I search for his shadow in the lonely darkness.
Dawn breaks now with the realisation that I will not actually ‘see’ anyone the whole day. Phone calls, yes, Video calls, perhaps. I open the door to the one balcony I often stand in and look down on the street below. The greystone multi-storied buildings are as stark and depressive as the present bleak atmosphere of uncertainty. Mid-afternoon the sun shines brightly, as I gasp for air, so grateful for being able to soak it in. Suddenly the image of baby Olive Ridley turtles scampering towards the sea brings a smile to my face.
It is time to clean the flat, answer or return a few phone-calls, cook something. So grateful to the delivery personnel of suppliers of essential groceries. Wash, sanitise, air (the items), sanitise and double mask-up before opening the door. A sigh of relief as I sink into the old sofa, read the headlines on my desktop, search for a binge-worthy serial to while away the afternoon. I must complete reading the three books I began a while ago; I cannot quite recall when. I need to write again – this is my first bit of free writing in over 3 months. I have had to regret participating in a few webinars, due to my wifi buffering, that disturbed my thoughts and the viewers! Endless anxiety! But I am never bored. Worried, yes, but not bored. I am in constant touch with friends and family. We raise each other’s spirits. There is always Hope. And the indomitable human mind. Let me end with an everlasting quote from John Milton (1608-1674).
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”
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
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.
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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.
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 “
What Not Words, the fourth book by Jayshree Misra Tripathi – a holder of MA (English Literature) among others, and a career diplomat’s wife – may be called a fictionalised memoir with an Indian, diplomatic and diasporic touch. The stories in the book do have settings, characters and conflicts offering their own mental pabulum and messages, explicit or subtle. Not, however, necessarily laced with the usual elements of suspense, climax, catharsis and denouement, they have an “experimental structure” of their own. Aren’t most of our lives like that, anyway? Now let’s vignette the stories section-wise. ‘Tales From Long Ago’ This section has five stories on family and friendly relationships set in the second half of the 20th century. Reluctant to vegetate in the shadow of the earning male-heads of the joint family and eat out of their hand, a young semi-educated widow with self-respect and two little children, yearns to be financially independent, swims against the tide, turns into a seamstress and educates her children well. This, in a milieu where middle-class women didn’t have much freedom. Finally, what happens to the family, you have to unfold the suspense for yourself, dear reader. Youth (18 to 24 years) are normally in a transitional stage of mental maturity. While boys tend to be assertive and have their own way, girls tend to be the opposite and their submissiveness could make or mar things. Though brought up in a same environment, we find differences in merit and attitude among the siblings.
Love triangles are not rare with a Jezebel dominating the scene and the legitimate wife groaning in emotional turbulence. The spousal incompatibility adversely impacts the children who would form their own opinions about their parents. We see families where the spouses don’t see eye to eye but have an eternal cold war raging between them, and their only companion and relief is their own separate cable TV set [and nowadays the mobile phone/ iPad/ tab]. Sometimes, finally, if good sense prevails, one of them takes the initiative to break the ice and it succeeds. Thank god, they weren’t hasty to divorce.
‘Tales From The Diaspora’ This section contains three stories happening in East Africa, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Here we come across a character DC. Jayshree tells us that DC stands for ‘Distinguished Citizen of India’ and the President of India mentions so of the Indian diplomats from Indian Foreign Service, in their credentials. The book brushes up our knowledge of history. A good number of Indians had immigrated to East Africa more than two centuries ago. They braved it out in an alien clime, struggled across generations and made it good. “You know, my grandfather used to ride a bicycle and go very far to sell things… Very hard work. He was poor. But my father built a 25-room house on the coast. God is great,” recounts a lady philanthropist.
Coming to the East Africa of “pot and political rallies” of 1970s, like how every rose has a thorn, the prosperous Indian origin Africans now and then become a target of the ethnic rebels who kidnap them for ransom or even murder them. “But this could be anywhere in today’s world.” In a situation where some people try to leverage their connection with diplomats for a scoop or favour, wives of diplomats display tact and political correctness. Well-educated and accomplished, they channelize their energies in a manner that is kosher.
The word ‘Serendipity’ in the title of a story with a Sri Lankan background tickles our linguistic bone. Deriving from the Persian ‘Sarandip’ which in turn comes from the Sanskrit ‘Simhala Dweepa,’ it means ‘The faculty or fact of making fortunate discoveries by accident.’ This “beautiful exotic land” where the traders from India came in the second century BC has occasionally come to be bloodied with robberies and assassinations, rues the writer. Of course, no country is free of such crimes. And she compliments the “socialites in Colombo” for their “witty and fun loving” nature and the unique way the Sri Lankan women wear their sarees “with an heirloom brooch, studded with rubies, pearls and sapphires.” No wonder, since Serendipity is “renowned for its precious and semiprecious stones.” Alongside, we see youngsters from low-income groups slogging away right from their teens. In course of time, their own experience becomes their teacher and motivator; they want to have their own small pleasures, love and marriage. But they are obliged to sacrifice them for the sake of the families they come from.
Madagascar is “the fourth largest island in the world” where “Indian traders arrived… in the 19th century, mainly from the western coast of Gujarat.” But for the “worrisome” and “unusual political unrest” at the given time, it “is a peaceful country.” Owing to the prevailing political turmoil, the lives of the narrator’s family hang on a Damocles’ sword. An interesting local custom is “the Famadihana, the turning of the bones, an ancient ritual that is a second burial. Held every ten years, the bones are taken out from the grave and wrapped in new hand-woven silk, called lamba.” This curious ritual involves a sacrifice (zebu) and a bunch of varying do’s and don’ts (fady). “There must be no silence during this ancestral worship” and they believe in “destiny, Vintana, like our Indian Karma.”
‘And So, Dear Reader, As We Near The End…’ This section comes with three stories. We have an eerie tale of tangled espionage – involving a Somalia based Indian diplomat and an executive from the Research and Analysis Wing and their cohorts – with incredible twists and turns. This tale has a fleeting flashback into the ugly days of Emergency ‘Shocking betrayals’ with friends “missing for days, then back with bruises and swollen faces.”
We have a few hilarious moments with a wanton mix up of ‘Oriya’ and ‘Orissi’ and a play on the word ‘abroad’ during the course of ragging in Delhi University. We also witness friendships of various types with antics of one-upmanship, streaks of jealousies and attitudinal differences due to different socio-economic levels of the school/college students. And their idiosyncrasies, peccadilloes, jealousies and snobberies segue even into their later lives when these ‘divas’ have their glittering annual get-togethers.
We come to know of the “famous Bhaumakaras” of Kalinga – a dynasty of warrior widow-queens [736 AD to 945 AD]. “Jainism evolved during the early rule of the famous Bhaumakaras,” says the author, but history has it that Jainism had declined by the beginning of the Christian era, and what the early Bhaumakaras patronised was Buddhism and not the bygone Jainism.
Joint families breaking into nuclear families is no longer odd, for in the contemporary life, even the nuclear families are getting atomized with each member living separately with their disparate tastes and values. Finally, we have an Indian character, deft and dynamic. Rooted to the ground, she spurns a lucrative offer to work in the USA, and stays back in her homeland, India, to take care of her needy family. A sublime ending!