Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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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

Anua

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!