Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Tuesday, 8 January 2013


My first serious journey was a trip to Madras in 1953 to attend a debating contest. Before that I had gone to Madras twice as an infant, once to visit my mother on her death-bed when I was not quite three years old and she was eighteen. After that I went once again - my father taking me to see my maternal grand parents a few months after my mother died. That was the extent of my other worlds.
   So when I became engaged to a man who lived in Colombo, I had to consider this concept of overseas. 'Faren' as they called it. Colombo just did not cut it. It was too near, the people looked like Indians and even the language spoken in parts was Tamil, albeit a purified version of it. Across the Palk straits, but not overseas, I concluded.
   There was definite cache't attached to going overseas after marriage. It was a rare thing and Dubai was still a big hot desert, bubbling with oil underneath the sands and awaiting its glory days, when Indians would flock there. I took Colombo in my stride.
   When I got off that Fokker Friendship aircraft of Air Ceylon and walked into Ratmalana airport, I was quite blase'. What struck me first was that they were all Indian, but several shades darker. My just-unwrapped new husband's two bachelor friends were there to meet us, looking sheepish at this betrayal by their friend - getting married for heavan's sake!
   M.G C.P. Wijayatilleke was jet black and Frederick Mahasinghe was only half a shade paler. Both, I later learned, had changed their names from Burgher-sounding to Singhalese. The C.P. in Wijayatilleke stood for Cecil Pereira, and after independence in Sri Lanka he was not owning up to that one.
  The five years I spent in Ceylon did not convince me of anything different regarding Ceylon. Ceylonese ate the same food more or less (substitute coconut milk for ground coconut), the women wore saris (occasionally with the gathers at the back in Kandy) or Chitha, not that different from the lungis working women wore in India. Mind you, they went all out with their tops - the hethe. Huge puffed sleeves, a waist clinched tight and the bust displayed proudly under a skin-tight blouse.
   My first real trip to genuine overseas was in 1962 to Nigeria. This was just after Nigerian independence and they recruited teachers, engineers and doctors from India and Ceylon. There was a real exodus until the Government of Ceylon threw a tantrum and refused passports to those technocrats who wished to go to Nigeria or Ghana.
   Now this was definitely overseas. I couldn't wait to get there. I had read Gunther's Inside Africa and was ready to get close. I went to my father's home in India and started shopping frantically for saris and spices. Saris which I would not get in Nigeria and spices essential for curry - mustard seed, cumin, fennel and the like. When I hauled my tired self home from another shopping trip laden with clothes and linen, my father would look at me quizzically.
   Until one day he could stand it no longer.
   'They do wear clothes in Africa now-a-days, I believe. Can't you just wear whatever they wear?'
   A slow drip-drip of common sense from him as normal, throughout my life.
   He was annoyed also at the many Indians who turned up with addresses of their families in Africa - never mind they were in East Africa, nowhere near Enugu, where I was headed. Finally he had enough of that too.
   'Look, Anandam,' he said tersely. 'If you want to see more Indians, there are 600 million of us here. Why go anywhere to see them?'
   I learned my lessons, made friends with my colleagues and neighbours in addition to the Indians and Ceylonese in Nigeria, wore the African cloth in the garden and at home often and was immensely enriched in my life.
   The spices were confiscated by Lagos customs and never reached my larder. For a long time, I cooked without.
   I enjoyed the experience of Nigeria so much I subsequently lived half my working life roaming around in Africa. I was forever at home there.

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