Boo boo in select company

Boo boo in select company
Something to say?

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.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Of Men and Magic Moments

I phoned my friend, Shoba because I could do with a little hard-headedness. My cousin had just told me, a week ago, that my long-ago love had died two years ago. And I didn't even know. How could we both have lived in Kochi for years and not known of the other? I felt diminished as though a tear had appeared, again, in the fabric of my tattered psyche.
   Of all the men that passed me by or dumped me, he is the one that has stayed in my head for all these fifty-eight years. A slight man, full of words like me, determined to improve the world, he used to say. And slightly eccentric, definitely not the usual Malayali man. He introduced me to the writings of Vivekanada and we discussed Rajayoga. For heaven's sake!
   A Malabar courtship: we never met without an advance security detail of relatives hovering around. But none of them really knew English and we had that. And books.
   He sent me novels. The one I remember most is 'An Indian Day,' by Edward Thompson. It carried a sense of purity and purpose, and wisdom that I needed badly. I was nineteen, naive and extremely silly. Our dialogue was conducted with letters, sometimes two a day, delivered by Gopi, our postman, who had brought letters to our road, forever. He tilted slightly from the weight of that red post-bag and I would wait at the back of our house to see him come. On occasion there would be two a day; these came on red bicycles, with bells, by Express Delivery. I felt well-loved and cherished. But a mobile phone would have come in handy.
   And then the letters just stopped. No one told me why, so I made my own reasons. Top of them being how I was not really attractive to men, not wife-material.
   I asked Keshavettan, my confidante, why. 'I'm fair,' I insisted. 'That's pretty, isn't it?' And he pointed to the kitchen wall.. 'That wall is white too. I wouldn't call it pretty,' he said. Thus he destroyed forever my confidence in my looks. But he had a point.
  There were so many puppy-loves before. When I was fourteen there was a young man who came to our house to sit his S.S.L.C exams. I saw him only when Velyamma served him dinner on the floor, on a tin-plate, in front of my study-desk. I was flushed and excited, he was so handsome; I would lift the flap of my desk and hide behind it till his meal was over. After the exams he went away. Bala-something-or-other. He was an incipient doctor, I found out later.
   There were several Balas after that. A just-gowned lawyer, a police officer who dazzled in his Khaki shorts and his arrogance, a commandant, he called himself, and a young man who played tennis on the District Court premises. We, Mabel, Ida, Mani and I,  took a short cut every day walking home from College. His forehand ended up in the nets when I walked by and I was pleased.
   Where did all of them go?
   And then there was Ron, much, much later in life. For him I am eternally grateful. My husband, another Bala was rapidly becoming history by then. My husband did not deserve me. With a nice Malayali woman, he might have been a lot happier and his marriage might have lasted forever. But he got me- there's the wonder of arranged marriages for you.
   Ron was short and bald and sizzling with the next thing to say, to do. He was naughty and hysterically funny. He had a desperate need to love and it was not important to him whether he was loved in return. I lost him to the width of the Atlantic Ocean when he went to work in The Caribbean and I stayed back in the UK.
   He transformed me. I came of age. I could now take on the world - and I did.
   At seventy-six I can only remember the two that counted. The others are ghosts without outlines.
   I am thankful I had those two. But Shoba is right. Maybe that eccentric young man stayed in my head because we never really got it together. Babes in the wood!  Before the time of mobile phones and e mails, remember.