Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 11 November 2011

Need and Want

Growing up in Thalassery (Kerala State, India), which Jan Morris, the travel writer, elevated to the status of the most boring town she had ever passed through, on the strength of seeing the railway station in the early hours of one morning,I never felt cheated. And boring it certainly was not in 1942. How could it be, for a little girl of seven years, when the Second World War was spreading like wildfire to the Empire's outposts and new rules and regulations were being made and unmade constantly about how small-town India should behave:
There was the air-raid siren. At nine in the morning and six in the evening, every day. This was supposed to alert us to an air-raid when it happened. Us children barely knew the shape of an aeroplane, as we called them then. Very occasionally one glided slowly and majestically far above us and all of us children, my cousin the same age as me and her brother, four years older, would rush out screaming, 'aeroplane, aeroplane.' The sun on silver made that toy shape gleam and we had to shade our eyes and struggle to see it against the brightness of the day. The cats and dogs followed us because they knew there was general excitement and something rare was happening.
Then there was the ARP man - a new daily figure in our lives. We called him Ayaarpee. He wore a khaki-and-white uniform with shoulder stripes, which he was immensely proud of. He came daily at dusk to remind us to observe the strict blackout prescribed. Kerosene was rigourously rationed anyway, and since we could not afford to buy it on the black market, light was a non-issue.The house was uniformly dark except for a small hurricane lantern and a miniscule home-made bottle-lamp with wick plugged in through a metal top. These were carried from room to room as needed.
The house did not have curtains either - the number of houses in Thalassery, which boasted curtains was minute and could be counted on the fingers of one hand. My aunt generally sat Ayaarpee down on the veranda bench and gave him a cup of black coffee when he arrived. Milk was another thing we did not have a great deal of, so no milky white coffee.
My father was one of three ring-leaders who had organized protest against the 'British Raj' and had been taken away to some unknown jail. Since he was the only earner in the family we had to live on the thirty rupees a month the government gave us as an allowance to replace his income.It was equivalent to about £2.50.
Surprisingly we did - with a little help from our friends, as they say. Help as in a few half-sacks of rice sneaked in from the village, though it was a criminal offence to transport rice in this manner during the war. We grew our own vegetables too: okra , brinjal and spinach. Fish went off our diet except when we had visitors for meals.
New dresses just did not happen. There was cloth rationing for one, but we did not have the money even to buy the few uninspiring ration-yards. When our school clothes got old and torn they were cut up and made into blouses for the older women of the house, the women who managed our man-less existence. The only worry that nagged at me those days was my aunt's constant murmur about school fees, and how would she find the money for that every month? It was significant that this uncertainty did not apply to my male cousin. Girls' education was considered a luxury at that time. Many years later it was still considered a handicap in the marriage market.
In 2008, the world-wide recession hit India and many youngsters in glamourous IT posts in Bangalore and Hyderabad and elsewhere suddenly lost their jobs. Some had to take a 50% cut in wages and were relieved to just do that rather than become unemployed. Overnight they could not pay the mortgage on their bachelor pads, their cars, cell-phones, TVs and everything else, which had been bought on credit. Sadly they had no experience of hard times and were totally lost.
My cousin sister and I, now in our seventies, would gossip about this phenomenon, sitting on my veranda in Kochi, sipping tea. 'A small recession is a good thing - just to get the new generation to distinguish what they need from what they just want, want, want,' she would insist.
We felt virtuous for our limited wants. Many years after the war we still loved our simple moong dhal curries and spinach. Those long-ago times had instilled spartan habits, which we reverted to seamlessly when austerity was needed.
The sad thing is consumerism all over the world, India included, has reached a point of no return. It is faintly obscene. Now the recession this year seems a looming disaster, one that could be averted if we did not live off our plastics all the time. As Gandhiji said, 'No man can live in more than one house at a time.' Or use three laptops and two mobiles.

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