Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
Something to say?

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.