Boo boo in select company

Boo boo in select company
Something to say?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Journey into the Unknown

Makeni - A friendly-sounding name, I thought, when I accepted the Lecturer's post in Makeni Teachers' College In Sierra Leone. It was 130 Kilometres from Freetown. Not too far to feel lost.

   Hanging around in Freetown in the first five days, going from one introductory visit to the Ministry of Education and the British High Commission, to another, I was beginning to feel more and more important with each day. Though I was demoted when I reached the BHC - instead of the reigning delegate of the Queen, it was one of his minions I met, the First Secretary. Overpoweringly large office, starched white shirt on the man, blazer hanging on the chair (clearly we did not merit the donning of the blazer) and the non-committal look. It was obvious this was one chore he wanted to get done with quickly.The air conditioner hummed and I remember thinking, you didn't need it with him sitting there.

   When the formalities were finished, Mike, my boss announced. 'Time to go to Makeni.' My official Landrover was still coming from wherever Landrovers go to birth, but a new Ford Capri stood in. And an old Landrover of the Head Office in Freetown. I travelled in the Capri with Charlie, the driver, and my stuff travelled behind in the Landrover, tilting and dancing all the way over the potholes. The Capri just jumped about.

   Mrs Stanley, our Office Manger, had been reassuring. 'We've send you with the single kit' she said. The single kit was a huge trunk which filled the back of the Landrover and there was enough stuff in it to go to the North Pole and back: crockery, cutlery, linen, blankets, water bottles, fans... We saw the Landrover occasionally behind us when the dust cleared.

   The tarmac was ancient history. The pot holes on the Freetown Lunsar Road were so deep you had to travel in second gear for most of the journey. Actually we travelled on the sides of the road: it was the middle that had been destroyed. When cars came by the dogs sleeping cannily in the middle of the road, got up and strolled over to the sides for a moment. Then they returned to the safe middle where traffic could not travel.

   I had no idea what to expect. Getting past the Okra hill, half an hour into the drive, so named because the road was as slippery as the inside of that vegetable, was an experience. You were on the edge of the hill and when lorries came from the opposite direction, you slowed down and prayed. The Landrover tilted precariously and seeing my clenched hands, Charlie remarked, 'They can tilt to 45 degrees without overturning.' He didn't slow down, I noticed.

   Half way to Makeni the first tyre on the Capri went. The drivers got out, stretched, drank water, and looked at the tyre. The next one went a few minutes later. They put the spare on. 'Where on earth can we get the tyre fixed?' I asked. 

   'Tubeless,' Charlie said. 'We'll manage.' And we did just about, limping into the College campus at four in the evening.

   'Shouldn't we be looking for somewhere to fix the tyres?' I asked. The Capri was going to be my transport until the monster Landrover arrived.

   'I'll come back tomorrow with ordinary tyres,' Charlie said.  'This is no good in this place.' And he was as good as his word. I was beginning to see how well the British Council looked after its staff.

   My home was in a shabby three-storey building, which hadn't seen paint in years. A woman had put up a stand in front of the entrance to sell cigarettes and matches. Her baby crawled around on the floor near her.

   I was expecting Paul, the British Council's English Lecturer, to welcome me. But what I got was a crowd of local women and children. They followed me up to my third floor flat and stood around looking at me. Someone produced a 'soda.' In this case a Fanta.
'Paul is gone to the waterfalls with his girl friend,' they said. Right.

   'I wanted them all to go away, so I could shower. My blouse was sticking to my back and sweat was pouring down into my eyes and down through my bra. Someone read my mind when they saw me looking in the direction of the bathroom. 'The water will come at 7,' they said.

   I walked around the flat, children tagging along. The bedroom was tiny and the slats of the bed had given way. The mattress sagged in places. I lifted it and had a look. I wished I hadn't. There was toilet paper stuck to the wall near it with slimy looking stuff on it. I went in search of the kitchen.

   The kitchen was the kind where only one person could go in at any one time. A narrow passage to the sink and a cooker on the right. It was clean and the cupboards above were pristine. The bathroom was a shower cubicle with a toilet and wash basin. Without water.

   'What have I got myself into?' I thought. Paul may have some answers.

   The drivers left and the crowd melted away slowly. I sipped the Fanta out of the bottle too tired to open that enormous trunk sitting in the middle of my tiny sitting room.

   'I'll manage,' I thought. And in the end I did. I loved Makeni and it was my best posting. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cars and Me

I have this theory that our cars say something about us. Particularly the inside of the cars. Kitta's  dilapidated chariot is full of empty KFC cartons and coke cans. Mixed in with that there are papers with Maths scribbles all over them in his thin handwriting. Raghu prefers to take a bus if he can and leaves his car behind. Nothing of him is to be seen in his sixteen year old Micra because he is rarely in it. It is often being used by Manju. Manju's Landrover has little-girl things belonging to her daughter: magazines with ends curling from the damp, odd bits of Asha's toys and books abandoned after reading. My Honda, also 16 years old,  smells of compost and garden things. There is black mud in the back seat and fallen leaves.The Honda is now gone to the car graveyard.

   In 2009, I went to my local garage in India to sell my Tata Safari. It was now eleven years old. The owner of the garage was a family friend and he said it gently: you might get a sale if you paste lots of hundred rupee notes on it. Since then I've rented cars when I go to India. Much simpler.

   My first car in the UK was an old Morris Minor of green-black hue, the colour of cow-dung Indians would say, which I bought from the Lab Assistant at the school where I worked. I loved it. It cost me £240 pounds. Cheap you'd think. But my take-home salary was 120 pounds a month, so I had to borrow from the bank and repay painfully at £20 pounds a month. The car was well worth it and lasted for six years until a man in a hurry drove straight into it at a cross-road in Basildon. He apologised profusely, admitted liability and two days later changed his mind. He owed me for a very long time.

   I was also in a hurry: I was taking my son to his Cambridge entrance exams and I could not hang around. A policeman visited me the evening of the accident for information. He wouldn't talk to me. Naturally. A woman and Indian at that. What would she know about cars? forget the fact that she was driving. So he harassed my son till he got fed up. 'Why don't you talk to my Mum?' he shouted. 'She was driving.'

   The Morris was a write-off and I needed wheels to get me from Laindon to Wickford and back every day. I bought a three-year old Ford Escort for £1600. I had gone up in the world, courtesy of the 1000 pounds Kitta saved up from his holiday job at the Social Security, at nineteen pounds a week. Riches! I kept the car and drove it into the ground. My friend, Bill, often borrowed it and when he was 87, he drove the Escort straight into another vehicle. It scared him so much he handed in his driving license. He died two years later of a stroke. He often said he may have had a black-out when he had that accident.

   My next venture was a VW Polo, again three years old. It went on for ever. Meanwhile I had gone overseas to work for the British Council and my children were all drivers. The British Council let me play with one Landrover after another, the short ones and the long ones. I carried so many colleagues around in them that I sometimes had to kick the back door in to get it to close. I fell in love with Landrovers, lazy hand brakes, leaking roofs and all. 

   On the road to Gbendembu, 27 kilometres from Makeni, the path was narrow and it was rocks all round. Huge boulders on the track and even bigger ones on either side. I did that trip once a week. As the landrover tilted at 40 degrees, I could rely on a flat tyre. I carried a long iron rod with me to put into the spanner to act as a lever. I jumped on the rod to undo the nuts on the wheel. Then I would call the urchins in the neighbouring huts to help me lift the tyre.

   Today I avoid driving but I like to think I can still do it if I want to. Like so many other things that have gone with time: walking fast, chasing after Asha, runng up the stairs, carrying the shopping...

   Let's not go there.





Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Foolhardy or Courageous?

In my intrepid days, when I strode the world like a Colossus, (as Mark Anthony said of Caesar), a trip to Nigeria would have been a minor matter. Like catching a bus to the Whitgift Centre. After all I had lived in Nigeria for five years, what could surprise me? 

   But now, I dread to think I have to travel to Nigeria. I have unfinished business there. The last time I went that way was in 1994, returning from a Gender in Maths (Numbers with little spokes straight or sideways at an angle?) conference in Quebec City. I had been full of vim and professional certainties. But the experience at Lagos airport was unpleasant.

   The queues, if you could call them that, were long and untidy. Near the check-in counters the anxious travellers were milling around without direction. Nobody could find the forms to be filled before you were released out of that airport Babel. The man at the counter had several stacks of A4 size forms next to him and he doled them to each passenger when they reached him. They then filled them up laboriously and he processed it. Each person took a good ten minutes to be waved through. I was in transit, I had forty minutes to catch my connection to Entebbe and nothing was happening my end.

   Between the passengers and the forms to be filled there was a low two-foot-wide wooden bench, about knee high. I climbed the surface to the other side when the man was not looking, grabbed a sheaf of forms and distributed it to all the men and women in the queue. Then I helped the passengers who were struggling with the form. At least they would now be ready for the officer when they reached the front of the queue.

   There was a Canadian lady in front of me and we both came to an unspoken decision almost simultaneously. She stood aside and shouted to the queue in a school marm voice. 'Right. Line up properly.' She made sure there was no pushing and shoving and no bunching up. When she reached the front, (the queue was moving forward fast now) she turned to me and said, 'Now you take over.' So there I was managing traffic in the middle of Lagos airport.

   In the eighteen years since I did some sillier things in my ignorance. On my first morning in Kampala I drove on the right side of the road, out of the College in Kyambogo.; I had just come from Sierra Leone, where you did just that. Three armed guards with machine guns came slowly towards me and stopped my vehicle. Prayers time, I thought; Idi Amin was not long gone from that lovely country and AK 47s always make me feel sub-human. I squirmed, explained myself and was let off with a warning.

   When I went to Makeni from England in 1983 I drove round the little roundabout in the town the wrong way round too. I should have been going right. A little Sierra Leonean urchin came up to me with a scrap of paper. 'You will die if you drive like this; maybe you come in for  some coffee,'  was scribbled on that paper.Who can resist such an interesting invitation? 'Who gave you this note?' I asked. He pointed to the hardware store opposite the roundabout . Thus began a life-long friendship with the Abihanna family. Their home became a place I drove to when I was alone or tired or merely wanted to eat food cooked by someone else.

   I haven't seen them for twenty-six years, my friend Marie, her husband, Simon, or her father and brother. But next year I shall travel to Journieh to meet them all again. Some friends are very special. 

   Marie's son Susu owes me for all the times he peed in my lap. And for the many command performances of 'Hello, is it me you are looking for?'  Marie danced in their sitting room while I sang and little Susu, now definitely Joseph would go to sleep in her arms. 


   Fireflies: Foolhardy or Courageous?Fireflies: Foolhardy or Courageous?

Friday, 2 November 2012

Untidy Lives

Mary was always the leader; Mani followed. Mary-Mani club was the bane of my life when I was in Luanshya, that lovely mining town with its nine-hole golf course and beautiful mining houses set well back in manicured lawns.

  In 1973,  Balan, my ex husband had a graceful, old, rambling, house there and I visited now and then. Mary and Mani were then nine and seven, both ready for the next adventure. Today they are in their late forties. With children, mortgage, in Mary's case, husband - all the appurtenances of growing up.

   Mary is the daughter of Thankamma, my friend who died in 1996. In Zambia Thankamma and I had a mutual help society. We looked after each other's children and without the assistance of husbands, managed a decent life. She was a widow of long standing and I had just left my husband and started living alone in a flat in Ndola. Luanshya was half an hour by car away.

   In the way that children make clean splits impossible I had too much residual business in Luanshya. There was our dog, Lassie there, my former steward was now working for Balan and mutual friends had still not decided who to take sides with.

   Thankamma and I often travelled to Lusaka together, children tumbling around at the back of the car and us gossiping over that cacophony. In Lusaka we stayed at the education department guest house and enjoyed ourselves shopping at ZCBC and ZOK. In those days you could get St Michaels good there and we bought trouser suits and children's clothes. Trouser suits had arrived in Zambia just about the time it became pass'e in the West. How were we to know? 

The Luanshya house came with my ex-husband Balan's job. It had three outhouses and a sprawling, untended garden. The steward, Fison, lived in one of the outhouses with his family of four children. The other two were vacant one - room sheds.There the girls decided to make their club. Glasses, cups, plates, spoons... things just disappeared in there and came back a few days later dusty and mangled.

One day they decided to take a broom to the room. They did a bit of sweeping and abandoned the place. As soon as the dust hit the noses, that is.

But they still had the Blue Moon Hotel (Mary was creative with names.) as well. This was inside the house on the top shelf of the linen cupboard, which was where you kept pillows and blankets.. They had to climb up to get there, sheets and other paraphernalia of house-keeping trailing from short arms. The pillows and blankets got dumped on the floor in passing. If you looked up on your way to the bathroom you saw two little heads - one a curly mop-head, the other largely occupied by two saucer eyes.

Mani got into trouble with me now and then, with Mary in the lead. Once I caught Mani sliding down the concrete banisters outside my second floor flat in Ndola. If she fell, she would have broken her head. She, of course, blamed Mary. I couldn't slap Mary, so I slapped Mani. Mani says that is the only time she remembers me slapping her. Should have done it oftener,  think, now. She insists the worst part of it was I pulled her trousers down, with her knickers, so that the slap met backside.

Looking back, those two girls grew up wild, except when confronted by their mothers. Balan's compound had a huge Poinsettia tree and they spent a lot of time under it. I worried that the pap would be poisonous. When I went for a walk in the evening  I had an entourage of two girls and a dog. Our Lassie. Lassie always left half-way to run back home when the feeding time came.

I did a part-time teaching job at the local technical college when I was living in Luanshya over a long Christmas vacation. Lassie would walk me into the classroom. I would pretend I didn't know her.

Once friends of the children came visiting because it was a birthday. Whose? I don't remember. I made a cake, and Tarun, a guest, then about 12 years old, decided to decorate it. Balan ran a bachelor home usually, so Tarun had difficulty finding the things he needed. The message on the cake was done in purple when the pink colouring ran out and there was no room to write anything after 'happy birthd.' The rest came in very small letters below. Lassie ate that cake up long before it got to the table. Just as well.

Balan pulled his hair and muttered at the vandalism in his store. But the girls were a force of nature. In those days Zambia had a shortage in many necessary things - like toilet paper. So Balan's frustration was more than justified.

The whole set-up was untidy the way separations can be, nothing quite de-linked, no certainties anywhere for anyone. And I didn't care to bring any order into that existence, dysfunctional as I was at that time.

I returned to Zambia twenty years later, in 1994, as a Maths adviser in a DFID education project. The British Council project transport was a long- wheel -base Landrover. I had a workshop in Luanshya and decided to take a look at that old house of Balan's. I was sure that the Landrover would be my credential to get into that compound.

A six-foot brick wall and tall metal gates now hid the house from view. I honked many times, but the guard who finally opened the door wouldn't let me in. Zambia had become a very scary and dangerous place and no one opened gates to unknown vehicles. Gone were the days when I could sit on the veranda ledge and read the morning away, watching the cars come and go in the house opposite.

I finally got out of the car and went up to the guard and begged to be allowed inside. I explained my connection with that house. He let me in reluctantly. The house looked diminished and dull. There were a great many children about - clearly the extended family of the Zambian owner were now living in the outhouses. The Poinsettia tree, which had caused me such grief had grown and spread. The rear wall of the house on which I had practised tennis still bore the scars of years of misuse by people like me.

I felt sad, lost. Balan had died in 1986 and those old battles with him now seemed a waste of living time. In between I had forgotten all the reasons why we quarrelled. I was well into middle age. The only thing I was certain of was that I liked my life better as a single. I was not good wife material. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

An Old Women whom I Owe

No, I am not talking about me or Mani, my cousin, who is equally ancient. This is about another woman in my life, who is long dead, and I have always felt, never got (from me) the acknowledgement she deserved. In passing this is also a comment about our matrilineal society (Marumakkathayam), which was abolished more than sixty years ago

     Chiruthai Velyamma: Her name was Sreedevi, but all of us called her Chiruthai. She was my father's eldest sister, who managed my home after another sister, Edayi, a spinister, died early, of stomach ulcers. Mother of course, was never in the picture having died of Tuberculosis at the venerable age of eighteen!

     I called Edayi, (Her real name was Narayani, but everyone called her Edayi.) Ammamma to begin with. Later when I got fed up of not having a mother I made a unilateral decision; I started calling her Amma. She had no opinion on either, having spent her life looking after other people's children, and went on in her unflappable way to make sure that three children, (my father's brother's children, Mani and Appettan, and I), were fed regularly (albeit on conjee and moong in various forms)  even when my father went to jail and the money supply dried up. It was a classic case of loaves and fishes. My father's brother was caught up in the war in Singapore and we didn't see him or hear from him for six years.

     When Amma died I was scared. Who was going to look after our household? Father had come back from jail, but he had to work. Also he was hard to pin down in one place, pieces of him were distributed thinly over so many friends, extended family and Congress party workers. Chiruthai Velyamma had come to look after Edayi during the last few weeks of her life. So I confronted Chiruthai one morning. 'You are going to stay, aren't you? I asked'. And she stayed.

     When I grew up she taught me how to handle my periods and the facts of life, painlessly. I slept beside her as she narrated the stories from Ramayanam and Mahabaratham, while she searched my scalp with two fingers for nits. Those stories live with me and are part of my personality. They gave me a cultural starter kit for life before I reached ten years.
 When I was studying for my B.A, she made black coffee with ghee (milk would have run out and there was no 'fridge anyway.) in it and left it in a flask. At four in the morning she got up and made me coffee again. 'You need to sleep,' she'd say. 'Your brain won't function in the exam hall.' (It didn't function anyway.) So we'd make a pact. I would catch a quick nap from 4 to 6 and she would wake me up at 6 again.

     When I had my first baby and I did not know how to hold him, she would sit me down on a mat and give him to me to hold carefully. She was in her sixties by then, but she sat on a palaka, a wooden stool, and bathed him daily, umbilical cord and all. At birth, Kitta's cord protruded when he screamed and I was frightened to go near it. He also screamed a lot.

     She became widowed, she told me, in her early forties. She had married a rich landowner when she was twenty years old and had four daughters. She was his second wife. When he died, the custom was that she should leave her husband's ancestral home before his cremation. So they put her in a bamboo-and-rope stretcher and carried her home, three little girls following the procession. One was already married.

     After that she was dependant on her brothers for support. For five rupees to support her pan habit, she had to ask my father. I used to feel sorry for her humiliation. Still she always spoke with love, of her husband. He was kind and gentle, she maintained. It was just the law that his wealth should go to his nephews and nieces, not to her.

     This woman was intelligent and caring, but they laughed at her and treated her with contempt because she came to them empty handed for succour. She was one of the casualties of that ancient system.

     I am glad, that in her later life, until she died, I was able to treat her with respect and gratitude. I am sorry that I was far away when she died. I should have been there.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Uncertain Writing

Writing is like giving birth, I think. The long gestation and the urge to finish it and get it out there - does that sound familiar to women, at least?

     I am tired of this present project. I have written it many times, edited it even more times and when I blink, another apostrophe turns up in the wrong place, a word has lost its last letter in my hurried typing... Remind me never to start another novel again. Pure purgatory.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Royals

I am nicely tired of listening to wall-to-wall coverage of the William and Kate bandwagon. The media dances around them with their obsequious smiles and forgets to report on the real event: the visit by a future Prince to Solomon Islands. I want to know who is sitting next to him, what they are saying, how it will affect our future policy with this island. But what do we get, ad nauseum? William and Kate and those unfortunate photos.

     Don't get me wrong; I rather like Kate. I like that she doesn't pose or reinvent herself as a clothes horse. A nice-looking woman, who does not use hair spray. And William? There's nothing much  to say about William really.

     If that nameless photographer intruded into private premises, he should be dealt with by the justice system. But why do I want to hear every note in this opera?  Get on with it, press people. You have a job to do. There's Gove and his education turnaround, there's the EC making threatening noises and we'd rather hear about those things. Kate's troubles are not my concern. I don't want to hear about them. Nor do I care what transpires.

     All this brings me to the subject of the British Monarchy, which raises its head now and then from a forgotten corner of my mind. It is impossible not to have a sneaking respect for the Queen. I have always liked her. A grandmother who is doing a good job being that. All the public things she does, she does because this is what the country pays her to do. She can resign and hand over to Charles (Oh my God) any time she wants. So let's not get too excited about her devotion to duty...

     I felt rather sorry for her during the Olympics having to wilt in public at the opening ceremony. And I felt sorry for the Duke, who got ill after having to perform at the age of 91, on that barge and at other functions that week. Leave the man alone, for Heaven's sake. I wouldn't last a day in their roles. 

     What if someone paid me a huge amount of money - and respect - to do all those things? I'd still say no. At two in the morning it's my bed I want, and I am a lot younger than the Queen.

     Seriously - am I supposed to feel great loyalty to any person who comes to the throne, when I know all about their shenanigans in the past, thanks to that same media I moan about? Charles and Camilla? Good luck to them, but after our present Queen, I would be totally republican in my attitudes.

     Harry is another matter. Despite his cock-ups (forgive the pun) he is a natural with the people of other countries. It was a pleasure to see him on his tour. He was totally at ease with the people around him. Hooray Harry!

    Why on earth do we need a Royal Family for when we have a Cameron and a Milliband?


Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Demise of the Sari

I hate to think: in Thalassery it's come and gone, in my lifetime. Taken over by that North Indian aberration called The Salwar-Kameez. Now I know it has its uses, stress on USES, but God help me, what an ugly costume!

   The only people who look good in a kameez are the people who would look good in anything anyway. It makes the rest of us look podgy - more podgy than ever - and yet millions of nice Indian girls declare allegiance as soon as they start talking.

   So the history of the sari - this graceful garment that has been side-lined by the 21st century:
In my house in Thalassery, when I was growing up, there were three women, and all wore mundu and veshti. White of course. Achamma did not wear a blouse but the others did. Achamma did not wear a veshti either, come to think of it. She was topless. If a man entered her vicinity she took a little thorthu and threw it over her left shoulder; she was not concerned where it landed or whether it hid anything. Her dangling pouches were a constant given of my childhood.

   All the women in neighbouring houses were similarly dressed. We were too backward or too poor to think of saris. After all you could get a mund-veshti outfit for three rupees and the sari was a luxury, compared. And it needed under-skirts and blouses to match - sort of. We did not know too much about matching then.

   But then, once every two or three years my uncle's wife, Ammu Velyamma, would arrive from Malaya. Her suitcase - that itself a wonder as it was made of leather and quite beautiful compared to our tin trunks - would contain a rainbow of saris, georgette and chiffon and all things in between. Mani, my cousin, and I, had access at will; we draped it on us and happily tripped over it, till she packed up and went, a whiff of other lands and fashion, which had briefly lighted up our lives. I also liked that she did not show too much respect for the men around - she talked to them on equal terms and they listened. I don't think the women at home liked her much.

   I was fourteen when I first asked my father for a sari. I had graduated from thick and rough Khadar skirts and blouse only recently and this was definitely a bridge too far. But Meenakshi, Jaya and Uma, in my class wore saris to school and I wanted. I blamed my mother for dying - she could have told my father how sari time had come. My father, however, looked amused and scared at the same time, if that is possible.

   Finally I got one when I was almost fifteen. It was white nylon and had huge roses on it - the print more curtain than clothes. What did I know! The problem was it tumbled; it refused to be tucked in anywhere. Wherever you tried to secure it, it escaped, and in inconvenient places, like in front of a roomful of strangers. There is a class-photo of me in that recalcitrant garment; you can see I was more concerned with the sari than the photographer. The class is looking at the lens, but I am somewhere else.

   I learned about the deft use of a nappy-pin much later.

   Now, when I go to Thalassery, the women, all except the Ammammas are in salwar kameez. Like a tribe of penguins. The thing is, it can look great on top of leggings - if you have the legs for it. It also looks great as harem trousers if you dare wear a short, very short ,top and show your belly button. I don't think Thalassery is going to get that far, ever. Is it?

   So who wears a sari now? Well, it is taken out and aired and exhibited at weddings, like a form of extinct life. Women get married in it. But mostly they spend their lives in a nightie, a smocked kaftan , with a frill at the bust for modesty.

   Now that I live in England, I long for sari weather. I have a wardrobe full of saris though I live in Kaftans and trousers and such like. They do nothing for me, only exacerbate my inferiority complex about my existence here generally. When I wear a sari, I glow; I put a pottu on my forehead and a large flower in my hair. I am on top of the world.

   But - this year, I have worn a sari exactly three times. Right, here we go. Tomorrow on, I'm going to wear a sari, every day. If it gets muddy in the garden, it shall be hitched up as we used to do when we played throw ball or tenni-quoit in College.

   Once I played tennis in a sari, in the school were I taught; this was in 1978. My opponent , my Head of Department, insisted the ball bounced twice under my sari before I got the shot in.


Thursday, 26 July 2012

Lakshmi Saghal

Lakshmi Saghal - she died this week at the age of ninety-four. What a woman!

  Took me back to that day in August 1949, when she came to Thalassery. Harvest was over but the field known as Konor Vayal was still untidy. Dry tufts of rice stuck to the soil. So the clods were turned over very quickly - and sloppily - for the big meeting on her behalf. 
     She would address the crowds in our little town. The objective was to raise money for the forthcoming general elections on behalf of the Congress Party. Because the ground was uneven, reed mats were brought in and rolled out over the soil,our version of the red carpet.  (Where did so many come from?) They could not sit flat because the mud was all over the place.

     Mani and I , like many other children, were given little cardboard boxes, with a slit at the top, and instructed to collect donations from the crowd. I remember stumbling over the mats as I went from line to line of people sitting on those mats. Nobody really had any money those days, so the haul was meagre.

     We were allowed to wear our best dresses - shiny cream frocks with silver thread running through it. Naniechi tied my hair up in two big bows on the left and right of my face - I felt perfect.

     As payment for our efforts we were allowed to meet Lakshmi later, after the speeches and the felicitations. She was accommodated overnight in the house of a lawyer near our house and she met all of us in his sitting room upstairs. My impression was of grace and confidence.

     I remember her as young and very pretty. She had curly hair in a short bob, which was unusual in our little town. Bobs were for white women and the Anglo Indians, not for Hindu women. And Lakshmi was definitely neither Anglo Indian nor White.

     I had read much about her - she was known as Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan. Apparently she was a pilot in Netaji Subhas Chandra Boses's notorious Indian National Army. She was all those distant things, which were on my unreachable horizon.

     Of course the INA got a bad name because of its association with the Japanese army. Quite rightly too. But Gandhi and Nehru knew full well the dangers that the INA would lead India into and they made their voices heard.

     Bose split from the Congress party and went away. But it must be said that Gandhi's strategy of non-violence worked only in part. Violence broke out all over the North of India in 1947. The concerted punishment meted out to those caught rioting against Britain was terrible. The War was the excuse for this lack of moderation. And many Indian men and women believed that retaliation in kind was the only way India could persuade the British to get out.

     In retrospect I still believe non-violence is the most effective form of protest if ordinary men and women can sustain it under severe pressure. Last summer's riots in London are a case in point. Would it have been better for the protesters to lie down on the roads and take what came their way? Certainly the looting and running amok achieved little. Perhaps strong and intelligent leadership was missing.

I followed Lakshmi's life wherever I could find information about her. I rejoiced when she married Saghal, one of Bose's triumvirate. I am sorry to see her go, but she had a full and interesting life. What more can you ask for?



Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Colours of Words

I suppose we all do many kinds of writing. I'm thinking of honesty in connection with my writing. And where the writing comes from.

     I try to create fiction, but the fiction has its origins in reality. I cannot write about places or sense-images that I have never experienced. I'm sure I could pretend, for instance, that I am there in China, when I write about it. Fact is any number of books and videos will give me the details I need for the project. But no - I am not good enough for that. I would struggle and slip and lose confidence.

   Making fiction is a creative process - by definition.  Let's say, I have two people in my story discussing something mundane, such as the washing up, and I think, 'Is that what she would have said? at that moment, considering her character, her lineage? Decisions to make: would she have said 'I can't do that' politely, or maybe, just an obstinate, can't? What did that place smell of? If they are in the kitchen, did it smell of shallots or stale egg? What was the texture of the kitchen surface? I can play God and make up all these things.  That's the fun part.The words in this situation would have been neutral beige, like a great many British drawing rooms.

      Then there are flaming red words: anger exploding all over the room.  Rage has to be  - orange - red- incandescent white at the end. Purple, I think is about passion and gray about depression and that dull, barely-alive feeling. The words I like best are the green ones, about the outside, the calm, I-like-this-world words. In Kochi there are many of those. Life is slow, relaxed, like the small boats out on the back waters.

     However, in fiction there is no honesty. There is no transparency. Whereas the blog is all out there. No room for prevarication here, especially if I am writing for my Asha Molu.

     Whether blog or story the origins are the same. Thalassery the main provenance, the truest one. There, the colours are those of sunshine, of light splintering on the veranda-edge, of puddles catching the rays to show small rainbows. 

    There must be a lot of mud in it somewhere as well: we went to school and college bare- footed, we didn't own slippers or shoes. What was the point of them in that constant wet? And then again, the houses did not have lawns, they had compounds, which were dug up every year to make the coconut trees and other produce grow well.

    There were strict rules about where we left that mud from outdoors. After school we were not allowed indoors without washing our hands and feet in water from the brass kindi spout. The kindi full of water was a permanent reminder at the edge of the veranda. 

     Years later, in remote Kamakui, in the north of Sierra Leone, I was at a workshop. Our lunch of fish and rice had been consumed, but there was little water to wash our hands. The man in charge dispensed it in a dribble from a pot, carefully. Watching me wash my hands he said, 'You have done this before, haven't you?'

     Should I add mud to the colours of my words? Chocolate brown with flashes of palm green.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


I have not written for a few days - I am busy finishing my second novel. The thing is a mess. Needs about twenty edits and I am into the second.
     303 pages and 76000 words, straight from the heart - or somewhere close by.
   It is like the last clumsy weeks of pregnancy. Cumbersome and dull - waiting for something.
   The title eludes me too. Not a clue as to what I shall call the damn thing. Any suggestions?
     Set mainly in the war years in Thalassery and then through to 1960, ending after the communal riots in Ceylon of that decade, it traces the life of Indu, a little girl whose father is jailed for being a freedom fighter.. Quite autobiographical in the beginning and after that not at all.
   A journey of the mind and heart - what shall I call it?
     Wish me well.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Other Places - Other People

I was at the local branch of the Women's Institute the other day. I have a huge amount of respect for the ladies, who come in and create an enjoyable morning for themselves. They, like me, are old people, the oldest will be a hundred this year. Yet they are not sitting at home with a rug on their knees; they meet, sing songs (It was Jerusalem last week. 'Open the doors to get some air in so, we can sing heartily,' the Chair called out.) take part in competitions, invite guest speakers in, do good deeds. Wonderful!
   Last week the speaker's topic was Sri Lanka. It was sound-and sight and the snapshots of Nuwara Elia (where I spent a cold and bewildered honeymoon), Dambulla, Galle... with brief descriptions, enthralled me. I was notalgic. Must go to Colombo when I am in India next, I decided. What a beautiful country that was before the communal riots made an inglorious scramble of it. I had spent five years of my just-married time there, living in Colombo and in Jaffna, before the North became a no-go area. In the visiting speaker's map of Sri Lanka, a chunk of this end of the country was coloured yellow with warning stripes. He did not go there, he said.
   The surprising thing, for me, however, was that three or four women out of the assembled had been on holiday in Sree Lanka already. Thirty years ago, when I came back on leave from various parts of Africa, most of the ladies I met had never heard of those places. They imagined, many of them, that Africa was a big mass of uneducated, rough people.
   On one visit to England I was invited by my friend Chris, a sometimes tennis partner, to spend the weekend at his house. He had done a barn conversion for his two teen-age daughters and this was house warming.
   At the end of the evening I loped off from the barn, which was rapidly turning into a dance floor for the young, to the kitchen to help with the washing up.
   Two old ladies were already there, elbow deep in soap suds.
   'Can I help?' I asked.
   'Oh, no. You don't want to do that. You've just come for a holiday and you don't want more work of this kind.' They beamed in unison, hands in the sink and backs sideways to me.
   'Actually , in Kampala, the maid does all this for me.'
   'The older one thought for a moment. 'That's all the poor dears can do, isn't it?
   I was about to explode when a strong arm clamped my shoulder down.
   'Out,' Chris said. 'Now  you can shout at me, but not in front of them.'
   I laughed out loud, thinking of the Ugandans I worked with in Kampala.
   A rarefied place that was. As I was the Maths Adviser on a project I worked with the University of Makerere Maths department on many things: Curriculum reform, Teacher Training, Maths Magazine... The boys/ men were awe-inspiring.
   The Head of Department once appeared on Uganda TV with me and I remember his measured answers to the insane journalist who quizzed us without knowing a thing about the Project or Maths.
   Then there was Peter: he had completed a Ph.D in Pure Mathematics at Edinburgh a year before and had worked with my son, Kitta, who was doing similar things there. He was also the chief collaborator with me on the Maths Magazine. In addition to all this he ran a Computer firm, to supplement his income, when the University forgot to pay his wages.
   Francis was another revelation. Francis already had a Ph.D in Applied Mathematics when he went to Bangalore to do another Ph.D. In Computer Science.
   'Why another one?' I asked.
   'The British Council offers a five-year scholarship; why waste it?'
   He did not come home for five years and his wife forgot him - for good. He didn't blame her.
   I met him for the first time in the foyer of Peter's computer firm. He had just been interviewed and as he walked out I could hear a South Indian English accent. When he appeared before me and I spoke to him, he nodded his head almost in a parody of the way Indians are depicted in British Comedies.
   His hobby was writing programmes for computer games, while he created software for banks for Peter and taught Applied Maths at the University.
   How little the British knew then about the Africans. Looking back, how lucky was I, to meet all of these people in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Nigeria and Zambia. I enjoyed their humour (Descriptions of shells over their lodgings as Musoveni's army came marching in, sowing AIDS and  driving Amin out of Uganda. They had been playing Cards, so they dived under the card table.).
   I think all young people should be funded to travel widely - that kind of learning cannot be achieved by sitting in a classroom. Not even Google or Wikipedia can stretch quite that far.

Monday, 11 June 2012

What would I do Without Books?

A friend of mine wrote a blog about how she was surrounded by books as she grew up. Today she is a successful writer and her short stories are little gems - they shine when they catch the light.
     Made me think: how did I get to become a reading addict?
     In my house, as I was growing up, there was the Mahabharatham and the Ramayanam - two musty tomes, pages sticking together in the rainy season, and smelling of mould. In the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, the month of deluge, my aunt read them morning and evening, loudly in a sing-song voice, to keep the demons away. There was also a smaller book called Narayaneeyam, which I never quite figured out.
     Like many Kerala children I grew up on the stories of those very human gods. Like the story of one promiscuous god, Indran,who slept with Valmiki's wife and was cursed by him in a most appropriate manner. He sprouted myriad penises all over his body and had to go into hiding. Unforgettable.  Velyamma, my aunt, would probe my hair for lice and nits , while I was in bed next to her, and she related the stories she knew. I even learned the facts of life from her, painlessly.
   But children's books? Not a single one came my way. No comics, no picture books, zilch.
   The Indian Express ran a comics page once a week. This was a coloured page and had magicians and supermen in it. I waited for that Sunday paper through the week.
   I was twelve by the time I started reading seriously. The upper forms in the Sacred Heart High School had access to a small, glass paned almirah of story books. These were placed in the corridor, outside each classroom and if it was a good day for Sister Cordelia, she would unlock the almirah and let us loose. They were fairy stories mostly and abbreviated classics: fables about King Arthur, Lourdes and such like. 
     We were not allowed into that corridor without a chaperone as the The Mission High School was just across the road and its corridor was parallel and only five or six  metres away from us.  That school - God knows why- had a nasty reputation in those days. As if the boys - who never noticed us anyway- could molest us across the road.
   I went through my first almirah like a bush fire in summer. Fairy stories from Europe full of vampires and angels. Sister saw me delving one day and pointed to more books on the same shelves. 'Read that and that and that...' I said. She was irritated. Reluctantly, she moved to the next almirah and let me search. By the end of the year I had gone through all the books in that corridor: Anne books, Angela Brazil books and similar. My hunger had become insatiable.
   Today I remember that immersion in books, like a baptism, and what it has meant to me all my life thereafter. And I wonder how is it one child joins the votaries and others in the same house don't? My daughter reads like me, but my sons, who grew up in my household, with books everywhere did not take to reading, Beyond the sports pages of newspapers that is. What will they do when the delights of youth are history and old age hovers?
     My reading changed colour as I grew older. I started on the biographies in my father's small rotating shelf. He dumped Roamaine Rolland and Tolstoy in translations on me; I did not make too much sense of them. But I persisted with Anna Karenina and others like her. When Shaw arrived at sixteen or so, he was a huge relief. I read and re-read those scene settings and enjoyed every word, even though the book was huge and the print tiny. However, I could have done without Tennyson's In memoriam.
   There were the Malayalam books as well: Ashan and Pottekad and Vallathol. What a feast!
   When my father saw my intent he brought in Joad and Russell and the travel writers. I remember the excitement of Inside Africa by John Gunther and Red Star over China by Edgar Snow. I wanted to go to all those places and see all those people. The next day if possible. When I started travelling in later life, it was like, 'I know you. Hello friend. Anything changed here since I talked to you last?'
   Today, at seventy-seven, the books are my fall back. I read good, bad and indifferent. Some I throw away in the Oxfam basket if the writing is excruciatingly bad. Good writing is almost all I ask for in books. The content is secondary. I am looking for that banquet of words and phrases. Some, I keep in my bedroom for re-reading. I think I have read Midnight's Children four times. But if I had nothing to read I would read the ads in newspapers, I am sure. I have done that once, in Blantyre, on a rainy weekend.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Anua Hospital


My third child, Ranju, was born in Anua hospital, near Uyo in Nigeria.  Near as in twenty minutes drive into the unchartered 'bush.'
    At the time we were living in Ikot Ekpene and I was getting huge, like a beached whale. The baby was reluctant to appear according to the doctor's schedule, so I got more and more anxious. Anua hospital was  a good hours drive away from Ikot Ekpene and not a safe propostion if labour started in the night.
  I consulted with Sister Cecilia at Anua and she said, 'Haven't you got any friends you can stay with near by? Better be within ten minutes of us.' Mmm...
  There were the Dharmapalans. They were my closest friends in that area and they lived in Obot Idim, working in a small Secondary school, also miles away from anywhere. But I was reluctant to ask. It would be me, my husband, and two boys for an indefinite period of time. It could test the deepest friendship. One day, Padma, the better half of the Dharmapalan partnership turned up at Ikot Ekpene.
   'Can't stay here an hour away from the hospital. Look at you, getting more and more enormous. Come and stay with us.' That Kerala grace, which is almost disappearing from Malayalees now; she made it sound easy.
   She looked at her rather less generous husband, but he could not refuse in front of us.
   'Yes, sure,' he said uncertainly.
   'Come out quickly, baby,' I prayed. We moved to Obot Idim.
   One week passed and then another. I was now three weeks overdue. Padma looked after me as though I was her sister. We wandered round her garden where she had planted red cheera in between Cosmos and Marigolds. The almost maroon leaves of the spinach lent a splash of colour to the rest of the border. When she needed some for the kitchen she cut the tops off and let the stumps sprout leaves again.
   She had brought a Tamarind plant all the way from Palakkad and this grew in the compound too. She had been in Food Storage in India and had a deep respect for edible plants of all kinds. We shared this enthusiam for the garden.
   'We've introduced Tamarind into Nigeria,' she would say happily. However, life was not easy in Obot Idim.
     'Let's go back home,' I often whispered to my husband as all four of us crammed into an iron bed that sloped at the sides. 'Baby will come out when it is ready.' Every time I got out of bed, I would nearly topple, my centre of gravity having its tantrums. But we stayed. Even though we had the one bed in the house and the Dharmapalans were sleeping on mattresses, on the floor, in the living room.
   When labour began it was a relief except the time was a little inconvenient. The men got out of bed and two cars drove to Anua at two in the morning in convoy. In case one had a flat tyre or a break down. There were no street lights within calling distance.
   Looking back I am astonished at the situations I breezed into those days without thought. Was I just young and ignorant or plain foolhardy? It was a relief to drive into Anua hospital where the generators hummed and lights blazed. Sister Cecilia took bearings and put me on a trolley and wheeled me straight into the delivery room.
   Ranju was born a few hours later, a huge baby with the most placid temperament you could imagine.
   'After feeding her, tickle her sole and wake her up before you put her down,' Sister advised. I did that and she learned to put herself to sleep, without being rocked or carried. I learned a lot from Sister.
   Some nights I felt a bit eerie, on my own, in the dim night light. There were always sounds of activity in the corridors. More deliveries and treatments all around.
   One night I was terrified. In the room next to mine a woman screamed through the night - long, mad screams that went on and on. I stepped into the corridor not knowing where to hide.
   Suddenly Sister was at my side. 'Just a woman in Eclampsia,' she said. She sat down on my bed when she saw my terror. 'She'll live. The pressure will come down and she'll be fine.' She stayed till I calmed down.
   When I left the hospital Sister gave me a five-pound tin of light milk so I wouldn't gain weight. She also gave me a diet sheet. That was one pregnancy after which I did not look like a porpoise.
   I often think of that hospital. Deep in practically a forest with no diversions, those nuns worked selflessly. Three years later when the Biafra war broke out, they left Nigeria. Did they go back? Did they train some Nigerian nurses to take over the management? I hope so.
   My life has been full of little kindnesses from strangers. Padma was one of them, Sister Cecilia another.
   How blessed have I been!



Monday, 7 May 2012

Amazing Grace

I am not anxious to write about Grace, because it is a sorry tale. She was my maid in Kampala in the years '88 - '94. When I left she interviewed the people who wanted to employ her, such was the demand to win Grace. Diplomats, aid-workers and many others queued up and I didn't have the heart to tell them that what she was with me might not be quite what she was with anyone else. We had a special kinship, myself, Grace and my daughter.

   She didn't know a word of English when she came to me within a week of my moving into my new home on the Kyambogo campus. So we communicated by sign language and a few Luganda phrases I painstakingly learnt. When the bed had to be made, I took one end and she the other. Soon she managed to get the duvet cover the right way in, though she disappeared inside it sometimes.

   I carry a mental picture of that first day: A small person in a deep pink skirt and a green blouse, which I soon found were the only clothes she had besides her work clothes. But she had style. The scarf wound round  her head on days when she had not plaited it had a certain Je ne c'est quoi about it. I gave her a few oddments from the wardrobe my daughter had left behind on one of her visits. She blossomed. Soon the neighbourhood got envious.  Quite something, isn't she? they murmured. 'You spoil her.'

   Within six months she had learned to make samosas, dosha, sambar and chutney. She watched me and got the hang of arranging flowers in the vases. Like me she loved the garden, so when I went into my lawn she'd follow with hints and comments.

   Sometimes, after a long Sunday at tennis I would invite the whole crowd to dinner at my place and I would phone Grace with the menu. The men would get restive when they saw me hanging about at the club, not rushing home to cook their dinner. 'All in hand,' I'd say and it was so. When the procession of cars arrived home the food would be ready, table laid, fresh flowers in the vases and towels in the bathroom changed. What a girl!

   Seemed a pity such a clever minx was illiterate, so I sent her off to read and write. The day she signed her name and wrote her first few words, we thought there was nothing she couldn't do.

   One day she brought me a red begonia in flower. It was beautiful. 'Where did you get that?' I asked. She tossed her head in the direction of my neighbour.
   'They come to us - they take all our plants and you give them everything. He don't give us something. So I take it.'
   'That's stealing, Grace,' I said weakly. Indeed she had trouble with the whole idea of ownership and theft.

   In the first few months she stole my sugar and my cooking oil. When I found out I gave her some more sugar and a jar of oil. 'You can ask me if you need more,' I said not looking at her.

   A few plastic containers disappeared from my house.  ' Look for the boxes, Grace,' I said. 'I'll need them when I get back from College.' They reappeared.

   After a few months she got the idea. She stopped taking anything of mine. Or so I thought. I could leave money on the surfaces and she wouldn't touch it. But my daughter's pinafore went missing.

   I was under the impression that we were a team; I sat down and cried. The driver, John, came upon me crying and gave her a thorough scolding. 'The woman treat you well. Is wrong you take things from her. You ask and she give you.'

    After that Grace never took anything from me.

   One day I noticed she was getting fat round the middle. 'What are you eating?' I asked. You are getting big.'
   'No Madam. I pregnant,' she answered beaming. It turned out the father was a married wood work lecturer on the campus.
   He made her a bed; what could be more appropriate! But his wife went into her home and burnt it down. 'So he make another one,' she said, unfazed.
   One day I found her half way up the chain link fence at the back of my house. She was then nine months gone. 'Grace, your stomach.' I called out. She ignored me and jumped over. She had some scores to settle with the next door maid, who'd called her names.

   Grace was on maternity leave when I sprained my ankle. How did she come to know about it? She turned up to do the housework and stayed till I was better. When she left to resume her leave, I called out my thanks. 'For nothing,' she said.

   Recently I met up with some friends from Uganda.
   'She's dying,' they said. 'The usual disease.' They avoided mentioning the name of that scourge. One of the many women who die in Uganda because the men cannot keep it in their trousers.


Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sepia Stills

Testing my memory: like sepia photos because a great proportion of life was lived in the gloom of rooms with small wooden shutters. Electricity arrived only in the late forties and then it was considered a huge luxury. To be used sparingly and with due awareness of indulgence.The forty watt bulbs pushed the darkness to the corners of the rooms, where in my imagination the ghosts lived. 
   Alongside were the cockroaches and the bright orange tree frogs, which hopped around the veranda and indoors when they could. We caught them with cloth wrapped round our hands and threw them out into the compound, from where they hopped back in due course. When the monsoon came and the front yard was flooded, the frogs came in droves like refugees seeking campsites and we filled buckets with them.
   Most of that memory is in stills. Achamma's (father's mother) hair, golden in old age rather than merely gray. 'You look like a madamma,' I would say to her and she , as usual, ignored us girls. She only heeded Appuettan, her pouthran, that almost divine gift of a son-of-a-son who would perform her funeral rights. As it happened she went mad long before she died, so what was left was a brittle old woman, given to crazy impulses.
   It was the loss of her sons, they said, that sent her round the bend. She had contempt for her three daughters who came first and looked after her all her life; her sons went off to study, to work, to find adventure...
   My father, the youngest, Raghavan, was recalcitrant, devoting his life to politics, which in 1940 meant speech-making, imprisonment, loss of livelihood and absence of family life. Her eldest, Appa, died of small-pox when he was still in his early twenties. He was trying to start an English Newspaper in Madras, before Indian Express or Hindu came by. 
   The middle one, Shankaran, was the crafty one. He ran away to Ceylon and from there, to Malaya, got himself an education and became a physician in the rubber estates, owned by the British. A man of great humour he had incredible stories to recount about his life there, which went on right through the second world war. He lay low during the Japanese occupation and hung a big photo of Netaji on his living room wall to escape their summary justice. 
   My father's nephew, Balan, who had gone to Penang to live with his uncle, Shankaran, escaped the war in a Japanese sub-marine pretending to be a spy. He disappeared to his village as soon as he could get away from the Special Police in Madras, who had found him on the beach, burying his rubber dinghy in the sand.One evening he turned up in our house in Western clothes, including a waistcoat over his shirt. 
   My uncle in Penang sent his children home to go to school and they escaped the war. But they were orphans for that period and by the time their parents came home in 1946 (with trunk loads of worthless Japanese currency and yards of white parachute silk) the children had lost all faith in them.
   Through the rationing, the poverty after the men disappeared in various directions, the diseases like small pox, cholera and plague, which were still rampant, there is no recollection of real deprivation. We were quite happy in our threadbare clothes, our monotonous food and our nothing-to-look-forward-to lives. I suspect the total absence of any real discipline after my father went to jail had something to do with it.
   I remember the foul herbal medicines I had to drink by the cupful to ward off the pox when it struck the neighbourhood. My grand mother forced lemon juice down us to fight the cholera and the plague. Since sugar was scarce she put lumps of jaggery in the lemon juice. This would not melt. She also put down cow-dung water in coconut shells on the walkway to the house to ward off the bad she-devil, Mariamma, who apparently brought the diseases.
   When the plague came the migrant family camped in the empty, unfinished house opposite ours died one by one. The municipal shit cart came and took the corpses away. In the end not one survived. The three of us, Mani and Appu, my cousins, and I, watched with some trepidation.
   Schools abolished examinations because paper was in short supply. I was in class four and this was liberation - I was an indifferent student at that point.
   People died in our house: my father's mother of madness, age and desperation. I remember her hands swelling up and getting dark pink. She burned as though someone had lighted a fire inside her. She went quietly; her daughter had to hold a mirror to her nose to see whether she had stopped breathing. We dipped the sacred thulasi leaves in water and gave her drops on her lips at the end.
   Later my aunt who ran the house died of stress and hopelessness. My father was released on parole for a week or two each time. He did not even have time to mourn. He seemed not of the house.
   So much to remember, to record before my memory goes. I still remember the names and the faces; I understand the names go first. Some names I would be glad to forget.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Eastern Nigeria - Enugu

Today you mention Nigeria and what comes to mind? Oil bursting out of Port Harcourt -sometimes out of the road-side pipes too- and the abduction of oil workers for ransom. People dying when the local poor try to syphon off some oil from a gushing leak, which becomes a raging inferno. They believe the oil is their's, not the property of oil companies or corrupt politicians. They have a point.
   Money laundering, big time, is another quick association. (Hardly a monopoly of Nigerians, I must add.) The flowing Agbadas made from rich Kente cloth, on tall, confident men, striding the world with authority is another image that comes to mind.
 Still Nigeria must be wealthy now, I console myself. The Nigeria I remember from the early sixties was struggling to get its head above water.
   In 1963 Balan, my husband, was transferred from Ikot Ekpene to Enugu, the head quarters of Eastern Nigeria as the state was then known. From tilly lamps I graduated to full-time electricity. In this town there were phones and fans, fridges that ran on electricity, not kerosene, and broad, graceful avenues , near Works Road, where we lived. The Ministry of Works was within calling distance and my best friend Dorothy lived five minutes of a quick walk away.
   Dorothy,was like me, a misfit, an English girl from Upminister married to a Sri Lankan. And what was I? A square peg in a Lanka-shaped hole, a girl from small town Thalassery married to a Colombo Sri Lankan who thought he was an Indian,, whose first language was English, second was Singhalese, and Malayalam, my mother tongue, came an inefficient third. Still, he could quote Latin with ease because along the way Royal College, Colombo's elitist school, had made sure he was ready for the Western World, albeit a vanishing one.
   The land and the roads in Enugu went up and down. The Catering Rest House where we were initially housed had a football field sized depression next to it. This was full of wild brush and many-hued birds. In the cold harmattan of January, the dry brush moved as one and the breeze that reached me on the verandah of the guest house chalet smelled of dry grass and unknown herbs.
   I got a job at another Catholic Training College. (What was with me and Catholic Nuns?) At Holy Rosary College, Enugu, I felt I was a veteran at teaching and had the temerity to teach Bharatha Natyam to the girls.
   The nuns here lived a sparse life; we exchanged vegetables from our kitchen gardens and my boys went to the adjacent Sancta Maria Primary School, which was our Practising school. On teaching practice exercises I would often slip away to find my sons playing football or learning to read. My eldest, Kitta, was especially fun to watch. There would be twenty-three boys chasing the ball in one direction, and Kitta sauntering off in the other. Lone man, the teacher said to me once, and nothing has changed since.
   It was a good life for us, though the poor among the Nigerians struggled to survive. An abiding image of that time is of the women selling groundnuts on the road side, sitting on little rickety wooden stools with an equally rickety table-tray in front of them. There would be little toddlers and sometimes an infant on a piece of colourful cotton cloth on the grass next to her. This was part of the scenery, there was one under the orange tree behind my house, next to the main road.
   'For my sons to go to school' they would say smiling, if I asked. 'And the daughters?'
   'I make bride-price for them. Boys. Dey help me.'
   'Their father will help, won't he,? I ask.
   'He good man,'
   Another grin. 'Fathah. He have many children, many wives. He make house for me. And de junior wives.'
   Ah, well. What did I know?
   I, married to a Sri Lankan by place of birth as well as inclination, staggered uncertainly between the two cultures, Indian and Sri Lankan, a little dazzled by the sheer social energy of this group, suddenly with money to spare. Every family had a new car; many learned to drive in Enugu. Our trips to and from home countries were paid for, and on the way we stopped off at Aden and Bahrain and bought the inevitable bling. We also did quick trips to England and Europe and came back with M and S cardigans for the harmattan cold and expensive underwear. There was a crop of new babies - prosperity may have incubated them in that atmosphere of content. The Singhalese and the Tamils nurtured their sectarian grievances and quietly hated each other. I was an outcast as I had no one to hate.
   We joined the Enugu Sports Club and spent weekends  playing badminton. Or learning to play tennis.We tried to do the High Life, clumsily compared to the Nigerians. For me it was enough to watch the dance floor when the drums started. How did the fat, short ones among the Nigerians suddenly get transformed and melt into that rhythm?
   The Nigerian Pound was worth a British Pound. Food was cheap: four shillings for a pound of beef and a whole household could eat for a hundred pounds.Our children learned expensive pastimes and had Fisher-Price toys.
   You can see many of these children in the UK now, successful doctors, engineers, accountants, with a deep, inherited respect for education. George Aligiah of the BBC is the son of an engineer who went to Ghana rather than Nigeria.  The exodus of Sri Lankan engineers to Ghana had started a year or two before they started to go to Nigeria. The result was so painful for Sri- Lanka that the Government, at one time, impounded the passports of professionals who applied to leave.
   So the Biafra war, when it happened was an earth quake in paradise. All of us had to leave in a hurry. We ended up in the United KIngdom, most of us; we were no longer good for the meagre lives available then in our countries.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ikot Ekpene

Ikot Ekpene. The Canadian technician who worked in the Water Engineer's Department with my husband, Balan, called it 'He Got a Penny.' The slight contempt in his voice and the idiotic grin that went with it enraged me. Two years later he drove his car into a tree on the side of the Uyo road and all I could think of was what a racist he had been.
   Work for my husband, indeed for all workers, started at seven -thirty in the morning and finished at two-thirty in the afternoon. Schools finished at one, but my children were still toddlers. For the dedicated drinker there was a whole afternoon to drink away.
   What was there to do in this little town, which had one small street around the local market? No cinema, no retstaurants, no friends yet to socialise with. Not even a good road to saunter on and definitely no shop windows to stare into. As for the white families, of which there were all of two then in Ikot Ekpene, they drove to Aba, thirty miles away, or Port Harcourt, even further. Sixty miles was nothing for a man who wanted his Becks beer and like-minded friends to drink it with.
   For me there were no book shops, no magazines, not even a newspaper. Come to think of it, no electricity either. After dusk we, my family and I, congregated round the tilly lamp and waited for a reasonable hour to go to bed, mostly around nine at night. Through the long day, I wore a sarong and took a scythe to the long grass in the huge front garden. I planted cannas in never-ending lines and talked to the tall hibiscus trees in front of the living room window. My boys fought over the one tricycle they owned and played in the soil I dug out for the cannas
   Then I hit on a great idea. Work. Why could I not teach like all the Sree Lankans and Indians scattered across Eastern Nigeria, teaching everything including Religious Education to Nigerian children. I persuaded my husband to approach the nearest school for a job for me. I fancied teaching English and Mathematics.
   The nearest educational institution turned out to be a College of Teacher Education run by American nuns. They told Balan I could start immediately, if I was all he claimed I was, but could we see her first.
   So Balan sat me down and explained how to get to the College. 'Down the bush road to the left as you leave the compound and when you reach the main Aba Road, cross, and the College is in front of you.'
   'How do I know the Aba Road? I asked. 'There is no other road within miles,' he said, a trifle impatiently. So off I went the next day in search of the Aba Road. I had picked out a blue handloom sari for the interview and there was red hibiscus in my hair. The bush road turned out to be a slope down which rain water gushed when it rained and by the time I had walked the ten minutes to the College, I was drenched and my sari was wrapped inelegantly round my ankles.
   The nuns didn't lose a beat when I turned up, wringing water out of my sari end and the hibiscus crushed into my kondai. My teaching assignment was Julius Caesar to year 1 and Arithmetic to the whole school. Easy peasey, I thought. But I had not bargained for the humungous culture shock - on both sides.
   First working day in my young life: This time I wore an orange sari and as I walked along the long drive from college gates to classroom, I plucked orange-pink bougainvillea and stuck it into my hair. When I wear flowers in my hair there is an immediate surge of self-confidence. I am no longer ordinary. Much later I would think, Aung Sang Suukyi is the only one who comes close to understanding flowers-in-the-hair magic. Pity I don't look like her, though.
   The forty girls in front me in my first classroom stood up to greet their Principal and the new teacher. 'Good Morning Sister, Good Morning Miss,' they sang in unison. A brief introduction and Sister floated away, white habit swishing down the parquet floors of the corridor. The girls stared at me, my sari, my hair. They had never had an Indian teacher before.
   All the girls had plaited hair, which stuck out from their heads like crowns of thorns. The uniform was white blouses and dirt-brown pinafores, which did nothing for their smooth mahogany complexions. In my mind I whisked that brown away and substituted emerald green. And perhaps, that hem could be a little higher, but school rules said the dress had to skim the floor when they knelt for prayers.
   They prayed often: at the start of each lesson and at the beginning and the end of the school day.
   That College was a revelation and I spent some of my happiest days teaching there. Watch out for the next blog for a different Nigeria than exists now.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Morning Glory

Peter and I didn't like each other that much. But he lived next door and we suffered the aura of disapproval between our two homes..It hung like a dirty smell you could not get rid of.
   He had good reason to dislike me: my puppy, Leone (named after Sierra Leone, where I worked for five years) regularly wriggled under the chain link fence between our houses, and the shrubbery bordering it, to go marauding in his garden. Marauding as in dig up the Impatiens and Begonia, steal slippers for chewing up, leave disagreeable offerings on his neat, shining lawn.
   But we had something in common, Peter and I. We were both keen gardeners; we found the Uganda morning sunshine irresistible. Out we would tumble on to our lawns. Our grievances were briefly suspended on those special mornings in Kampala when the sun shone, the lawn was silver and the air translucent. On such mornings we would call out to each other, 'What a morning,'  and actually smile and feel fraternal. We knew we were blessed. And it was unthinkable that you could carry annoyance around with you for anyone or anything.
   I have often thought Uganda has the finest climate in the world. Not too cold, not too warm, through the year. Stick a walking stick in the ground and it would sprout. And when the morning sunlight caught the multi-coloured foliage of the succulents and the slightly wet blooms of the many-coloured Cannas, they shimmered.    The people were kindly too unlike Kenyans over the border.
   We had a saying in the British Council: many of the African men and women we sent out to the UK on scholarship, from various countries, would predictably fail to return when they had finished their studies. They went to the U.S or melted seamlessly into that huge mass of nameless people who became illegal immigrants. But the Ugandans always came back. How could you give up on that country, if you were born there?
   Sierra Leone was another kettle of fish altogether. The mornings were harsh and the temperature into the mid-forties by the time I started walking the short distance from my flat to the lecture rooms. It was an act of courage; you had to mentally prepare for it, girt your loins, bring forward the stiff upper lip.... In the afternoons you stripped to whatever you could get away with. Which was near nothing. And of course there was no water on tap till the pump opened for a brief half hour in the evenings.
   The place had its moments though. The water came in the mornings, very early, and the women would go out with buckets to collect it. Kargbo next door would get his radio out and High-Life would blast forth from his balcony. The radio was his pride and joy and all others in the flats had to know about it. Until David Thornton reached the point of no return. He would be in adviser - dreamland at six in the morning, sleeping off a heavy evening at Pa Kargbo's verandah-bar. (Yes - he was also called Kargbo. Like the Nairs in Kerala, Kargbos and Banguras abounded in Makeni,Sierra Leone, where I was posted from '83-'87) He threatened to drop the radio in a bucket of water if he heard it at that time. David had his uses.
   If I had my pick though, I'd still opt for those lazy June mornings in Thalassery, smells of Dosha and Sambar wafting from the kitchen, the sun playing hide and seek with clouds, occasionally giving up for the rain to come pelting down. The fishermen would be trotting past with his fresh head load and the girls would be walking to school, long plaits swinging suggestively well below their waists. A place to watch the world go by.
   The women with the huge watermelon baskets and the red-spinach vendors came after the school crowd, followed by the black-and-white important looking line of lawyers, gowns flowing behind them. They looked neither left nor right as their 'status' decreed. Until a bus scattered them, hurtling down the road with murderous intent.