Thursday, March 22, 2007

Early School Memories: A name, a trick and some numbers

I didn't know. In fact I had no idea. Staring at me was the white of the paper that seemed to mock me. I thought I could hear it cackling madly at me, though now that I think of it, there might have been a tinge of sympathy in that mockery. I felt miserable, and foolish, and confused. I couldn't believe that they would ask such a difficult question on the very first day. I had walked into my new classroom quietly. It was the second door to the right on the first floor. I couldn't read very well at that time, but I have come to believe there must have been a board that said ‘Class I – C’ on that door.

“What is your name?” my new teacher asked.

I looked at her. I remember her smile; it somehow seemed to make her face glow with some unknown joy. I remained quiet. I could feel the eyes of my classmates inspecting the newcomer.

“Son, tell us your name. Don’t you want your new friends to know who you are?” she said, still smiling.

Someone laughed, or barked, or at least made a noise distracting enough that it gave me a moment to think of what was in front of me. What was my name? Well I was sure I had heard that question before, but strangely, I didn't recall ever having answered it. My Dad, or my sister, someone was always around to answer that question, saying words whose alphabets I was yet to learn.

I looked up to see my teacher. Something behind that smile had changed, though I couldn't say what. Maybe she looked concerned.

I just stood there, unsure what to do. I didn't know. In fact I had no idea.

I came back home. I told mum about what had happened at school. I put to her the question that was puzzling me from when I first heard it.

“Mamma, what is my name?” I asked her. I don’t know why but I felt that somehow knowing my name was rather important; something I should know.

She looked amused. She too smiled, but somehow for a child yet to know his name I could now distinguish different smiles. Her smile was different from the one I saw on my new teacher. I remember wondering at that moment whether a smile can perhaps be rude sometimes.

I asked mum again. She told me my name. I told her it was too long. She then wrote it down for me. I couldn't spell much at that time. How was I to remember it? She taught me a trick.

“Look at the cover of your books. I have written your name there. Just copy it.”

That was the first trick I learnt.

I went back the next day with renewed confidence. I was ready to answer anyone who wanted to know my name, and what’s better, I could spell it, given enough time. On my way, I made it a point to tell the second door on the right that I had a name.

But no one asked my name. The teacher had proceeded to the next lesson. Number-names. I remember feeling indignant at being replaced by numbers. My name was discarded to yesterday, now everyone just wanted to know the name of numbers. But numbers turned out to be slower than me when it came to divulging their names. To begin with, each number had a different name. Some sounded similar, others completely different. And the names itself were peculiar. I recall thinking to myself how sorry I would feel if my name was ‘eleven’, or ‘thirty-two’. Thank god it wasn’t.

School used to get over by one in the afternoon. My aunt came to pick me up. I coaxed her into buying me some candy from the vendor outside school. He made such beautiful patterns with the sugar candy. Others had also noticed his craft, and he was much in demand. He was smiling too, reminding my of my teacher; they smiled quite alike. Numbers fresh in my mind, I strained to hear the price, but was disappointed when he just said, “Dus Rupaye”.

My homework for the day was to write number names from one to hundred. I didn't know them. I promptly asked my mum to help. But this time she didn't have a neat trick to overcome this problem. All evening I tried to complete my homework, but simply could not. I went to sleep without writing anything. I was nervous. I think I even had a nightmare involving some numbers.

“I don’t want to go to school.” I said the next morning. How could I face that smiling teacher without doing my homework?

My mum and my aunt tried to convince me to go to school. It was a routine thing for them. I was never fond of school.

“What is the matter?” my dad called from the other room. A minute later he came in. I was crying by then. Everyone finally gave in. I didn't have to go to school. I spent the day playing with the watchman. The same happened the next day.

In the evening, I overheard my mum and dad speaking about me. They seemed concerned.

“Now look at what your idea has done. He doesn’t like school now. He just refuses to go.” My dad was telling my mum, who looked worried.

“I know. It wasn’t a good idea. I thought….”

“Well, what’s done is done.”

The next day my mum came with me to school. She told me she was taking me to her office, and I believed her. But we went to school. I wasn’t all that worried. I was not in my uniform and it was well past the school hour. We met another women in the school who was “Principal ma’am”. She was smiling too. I fought hard to suppress a yawn in return. Smiles were boring.

I waited outside her room while my mum spoke to her. She came out and took me to another room. We met another women. She had an abnormally big nose and had a very peculiar way of dressing her hair, something like a ponytail. I laughed when I saw her. I stopped laughing when I was told she was to be my new teacher. She smiled. She just thought I was a very cheerful kid.

The next I came to school. I was curious about my new teacher. I think I came to think of her more as a clown than a teacher. The watchman was old and he couldn't play very well. I decided school wouldn’t be that bad after all. And I turned out to be quite right. No numbers, no names, no number-names and surprisingly no smiles either. It was back to business. We started with the alphabets. Now this I knew very well.

A few years later I came to know that when we had shifted to Dehradun, my mum, ever so hopeful of my genius mind, had put me in first grade a year before I should have, skipping prep grade which she thought unimportant. “Thank god for that”, I thought after I came to know, “I thought I was unusually slow at school!”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Something i wrote long back....

I dont remember when exactly i wrote this... seems ages ago... i left it unfinished then... and now i cant complete it... 

If I must eye the sunset, and to earth I must fall,
robed in lives woven not by my hands; and beckon
the fire within, will the ice around melt and fall?
For my shoes were never meant to tread the clouds.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Last of the Bangaloreans

2nd November '06:

I lived the past nine years of my life in a city, which, officially, ceased to exist from yesterday. Strange.

I remember my arrival in Bangalore; it was a lovely evening (our train having arrived four hours later than scheduled). I was only nine years old, but I still remember that it was quite pleasant for a June evening, having just escaped the furnaces of Madras (now Chennai) and Delhi (which, come to think of it, might become 'Dilli' any day now). In nine years I saw, heard and felt much of the city, at the same time growing up and being shaped by silent forces at home, at school and on the streets. All this time it never bothered me that I was in a city called Bangalore; what mattered was the feeling of being in the city itself. Clean roads, lush greenery and a quaint lifestyle in the quiet suburbs form my first recollections of Bangalore nine years ago. 'Pensioners' Paradise', 'Garden City', 'Silicon Valley of India' and 'Pub City', all living side by side, in perfect harmony. That, statistically, was the Bangalore of three million people, while today, it's a city of six million, and things sure have changed.

Chocked roads, polluted air and fast disappearing greenery, coupled with spiraling crime rates are what the media today uses to describe the Bangalore of today. I don't know how much of that is true and how much propaganda, but one look at Bangalore and one can feel that there is something wrong. I don't intend to scrutinize government policies and development projects (or the lack of them) to point out to the root of these myriad problems ailing the city. They are simply too complicated. But when you are gnashing your teeth in hour long traffic jams in a city that is the economic sensation of the world, you wonder what went wrong. A long overdue international airport (replacing the bus adda look-alike terminals of today), an always just-about-to-start-but-never-quite-starting metro rail project, and sometimes even basic amenities like drinking water and electricity are the pitiable demands of a city that is the pioneer of the new economic boom of this country. It is a time when everyone in Bangalore is frustrated with the lack of progress and wants change. And there was change. The government decided to gift the city something they believed it needed the most: a new name, Bengalooru. Thank you very much.

I don't intend to argue with the leading minds of the day who thought this over and decided the change to be necessary. I believe, in my little scope of thought, that in rewriting history, in going backwards, there is nothing we gain. It is high time for us to broaden our minds, discard our colonial baggage and accept what happened as a learning experience in retrospect. In this regard, it is not the matter of whether we call it Bangalore or Bengalooru; it is what we are doing to it. After all, we can't complain over the change, since most Kannada speaking inhabitants have always called it Bengalooru. But I wonder how many of the educated English-speaking urbane 'Bangaloreans' will have the courage and confidence to speak of their new identity as 'Bengaloorians' without smirking and adding how 'ridiculous' it sounds. They are perhaps the same people who would buy Nike and go to McDonalds, even if their Indian alternatives were cheaper, better and healthier.

Yet all this is frankly much ado about nothing. Mindsets will change, or be changed, and one can yet imagine a future where traveling from M.G. Road to Majestic in a plush AC metro coach in ten minutes would be a reality. But please forgive those of the generation like mine, which grew up in the Bangalorean identity, if ever they accidentally blurt out 'Bangalore' while going back to their roots. Maybe this transition would not be as hard-hitting as the partition of India during independence, when similarly the change of a name was a matter of identity, but I still cannot say for sure if I may not feel a bit betrayed at the prospect.

And of course, I wonder if the American workers' nightmare would now like the sound of being 'bengaloored'.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Traditions are made

“… Every written word is a part of the silken strands that a spider weaves inside the hidden box; its strength of steel binding fortune to the corpse of freedom, while the unwary seek their destiny in the webbings of time…”

Tradition. Strange how the word resonates in our minds; its vibrations traveling deep down the path of time to string the cords of human history.

I heard somewhere that spiders are symbols of fortune and love in Japan. Japanese women followed a tradition of keeping a spider in a box, which was hidden, and once the creature has spun its silken weave, the pattern of the web was used to interpret ones’ fortune. Perhaps it was some such spider that the forlorn king saw in a cave, untiring in its effort to climb the wall in spite of dogging failures. I don’t know if all this would have meant much to the spiders; they seemed to be carrying on quiet well with their focused task of spinning an endless web. How ignorant the little spider is of the web of intrigue that tradition has spun around its simple existence….

With the onset of spring, the grand calendar of Bengali festivals comes to the auspicious day of ‘Basant panchami’; the fifth day of spring. Traditionally, the day is marked for the worship of the goddess of learning, ‘Saraswati’. The religious strictures associated with worship of deities are rather relaxed on this occasion, reflecting the benevolence of the goddess herself. The students take the initiative in the preparations for this festival, and I suppose this was the reason why students never got the time to study on this day, busy as they were with the festivities on the day of learning. Oddly though, I don’t seem to see spiders taking a moment off their labors to admire their own handiwork; they simply keep spinning. When I asked a friend why is it that nowadays no one seems to study on Basant Panchami, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, everyone does so. I thought this was the tradition.”

I don’t know what exactly is the meaning of tradition, though I have often encountered it, suddenly springing on me from invisible traps as I view the world from my myopic spectacles of rationality. I once asked my dad why is it that during ‘Bhai Phota’ (yet another festival, one where sisters bless their brothers and pray for their long lives) that we sit on the floor for the ceremony, and not on chairs. “It only leads to a lot of discomfort” I remarked, knowing perfectly well that I was headed straight for some invisible wall of convention. “We cannot do that,” my father said, quiet helplessly, “That would be against tradition.”

Perhaps it was from that day that I lost the innocence that cloaks tradition in the minds of the ignorant. The fast that I performed every year for the Kali pooja seemed to prick with the thorns of tradition, even though my reason for the fast was to merely do the opposite of what the elders had said: that no child be allowed to observe a fast. Now that they had quite settled with the fact that I would fast for the pooja, my new enlightenment refused to submit to mere superstition, and, rationality triumphant, I refused to fast that year, giving the elders yet another opportunity to condescend on the “ridiculous rebels that all young people are.”

I cannot agree with the elders, and yet I cannot quite appreciate my friend, a certain Bengali, for whom that term of identity ceases to matter beyond the mere providence of his birth to Bengali parents. He was born in Bengal, educated in Bengal (in a posh Anglo-Indian Catholic School), and yet his broken Bengali, picked up from rickshaw-wallas brings me to fits of laughter every time he attempts to speak. Unabashed by the laughter, I remember how he always smiled and said, “What would it matter if I knew bangla? I speak English at home and school. I don’t need to know bangla. Why should I bother?”

Perhaps in my college this will be operated upon as a post-colonial mindset, but to me it seemed perfectly rational. While I beg to differ with proclamations stating English as the ‘language of the future’ or the ‘language of progress and development’, I also acknowledge that in a world fast becoming a global village, this generation, this new millennium’s brood, has every right to have the freedom of choice over their identity, or as much as possible in this world where we all emerge with pre-conditioned identities. Gandhi only wanted his windows open, to let the breeze of other cultures permeate his home, yet he could hardly have pictured the coming storm of globalization, with its wild and uprooting ferocity. I wonder sometimes what great treasures have already been swept away from my house by this restless storm.

This new storm banged open the door of my mind, and I spent my time pondering over this uncanny battle of the individual versus the power of globalization, with the wreckage of tradition hinged to the frame of identity. It was simply inconclusive, I concluded, but remained restless all the same.

The spiders in my room, largely unaware of my existence, captivated me with their endless weaving and the endless traditions attached to them. The same Japanese also believed that seeing a spider in the morning signaled the beginning of a romance. I see them every morning, and regret the romances I missed for my earlier ignorance. Perhaps I was in some such mood when I heard my cousin, who wanted to marry a Punjabi Sikh girl, against, as his mother claimed, all family traditions, saying, shortly before his grand wedding, “Ma, traditions aren’t simply followed; sometimes traditions are made.”