Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Fragments of a Life

Fragments of a Life

A strange life taking me to places and experiences I did not seek. So I pick bits; I examine them carefully. I have to be careful not to give too much of myself away.

  I was twenty-six years old when I made that uncertain leap from Sri-Lanka (Ceylon then) to the ‘bush’ in Eastern Nigeria. I remember that journey into the unknown.

I had two little boys in tow and a nervous husband. It was June of 1962 and there had been a slow exodus of professionals, mainly teachers and engineers from Ceylon to West Africa for two years.

  The salaries were way beyond what we could get in Ceylon and it would be hard currency, when it was sent to UK for safe-keeping in good old Barclays. For a while the Ceylon government impounded the passports of qualified engineers who were rumoured to leave. After a while they stopped, unable to plug that steady leak. Most of these men and women never went back to live in Ceylon; they ended up in the UK. They brought with them the aspirations of the parents to gain educational qualifications, work hard, buy homes and prosper. Their children put down roots in the UK and became as British as the locals, sometimes more. George Alagiah, for instance, was one of them.

  The Ceylonese who came to the UK were mainly Tamils, eager to get away from the communal strife in Ceylon as well as the invisible discrimination against them in their professions. But my family was Indian, ironically, second generation Ceylonese who had emigrated from India when India and Ceylon were all colonies of the ubiquitous British..

  What no one told us was the fact that apart from three sizeable towns, Enugu, Port Harcourt and the half-way house of Aba, most of the rest of Eastern Nigeria were small settlements. We travelled to Ikot Ekpene, four hours by car from Enugu in the June of 1962. We had no idea what we would find at the other end.

  A Ministry of Works Jeep carried our scant luggage – the magic of possessing so little – two suitcases and a small crate of old kitchen objects and Indian spices. Most of the roads were red mud-roads, kicking up dust as the cars went, so we travelled in front of the Jeep, bestowing our dust to them.

  We reached the compound where we were to live late in the evening. Our home to be was a lovely colonial house, spread on one floor in an acre of untended land. A path past our house went to the home of the Scot my husband was taking over from – Gordon, the water engineer in residence.

  Our house had neither water supply nor electricity. The kitchen had a cast-iron Garran Dover stove, the walls black around it. Bricks and firewood were scattered on top; I took one look and closed the door on it. The boys were tired – Kitta, at four, had sat on the floor of the back of the car reciting ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ through the journey, and Raghu, at two, had cried from start to end. He hated all this changing of homes and being whisked about. I sat in front and ignored both of them as I had my own issues.


 Our escorts in the Jeep rushed off to the local market and came back with bananas and bread. We ate that and washed it down with Fanta orange. I did not know how to light the Tilly lamp left by the previous resident. My husband tried, and the filter tore immediately. We pushed everything away and let the men who came with us drive back to Enugu, before opening suitcases and looking for sheets and pillowcases. Sleep was indicated, anything to escape all the questions about making a home.

Thursday, 12 February 2015


Yet another excerpt from Shards of Sunlight.  Indu waits for her father to come back from jail.


 6

Three months passed quickly and Achan’s (father's) absence gradually became a fact of life.  Devi  (aunt) got up much earlier than Achan every morning, so Indu also stumbled out of bed at dawn. Her first job was to help Devi roll up the sleeping mat they shared and put it away in the corner of their room.
   Now Indu had plenty of time to day-dream between waking up and going to school. She was sitting on the edge of the veranda steps one day, watching the leaves of the jack-fruit tree drift to the ground in the cool November winds, when her grand mother grabbed her and pulled her up. Ammini clutched Indu’s hand in a tight, prehensile grip, as she shuffled forward, dragging the girl with her.
   ‘Va. Vegam va,’ she said. Come. Come quickly.  Ammini, gasped with the effort of pulling her along.
   They went down the short path from the veranda leading to the front gate. Indu looked up at the woman’s face. Ammini never ventured out of the house this early in the morning since as far back as she could remember; she wouldn’t even come out of her bed. It was the time when the parachi women, the untouchables, sneaked into the backs of houses to collect the shit pots and carry them to the municipal hand-cart, which they pushed along from street to street. Ammini hated seeing the night-soil women with their foul cargo walking past; she always said they were like a bad omen: if you started your day with seeing one, the remaining hours would be full of misfortunes.
   What was Ammini doing? Indu tried to slide her fingers out for a quick getaway, but this merely made the old woman tighten her grip and pull harder.
   Ammini was having trouble walking: she was bent over like a question mark, wincing as her arthritic stick-legs negotiated the uneven path. She wore a mundu, a soft, white ankle-length cloth, wrapped round and tucked tightly into the hollow of her concave waist, above which her shrivelled breasts dangled. This was all she would normally wear inside the house. However, today, a thorthu, a thin white towel made of coarse cotton, was thrown over her naked shoulders carelessly, a minor concession to the outside world of men. It hid nothing although she kept tugging it over her breasts as she walked.
   Indu kept looking back at the veranda of the house, hoping someone would notice, but no one did. Ammini reached the end of the walkway and hesitated at the iron gates, in front of the steps leading down to the dusty road. In the house opposite a young woman was drying her waist length hair in the morning sun, slowly, sensuously, as though she had the whole day to do this.
    Ammini pushed at the gate feebly, glancing back to the house as she did so, and squeezed through, pulling the girl along with her. As she looked at the wide, endless-seeming road in front of her, she gulped and her breath quickened.
   On Indu’s left, the owner of the dabba next to her house, was dismantling his shop front, one plank at a time, ready to put out his wares.  He arranged the planks in a neat stack, leaning against the wall at one end of the shop. While Indu watched, he went inside for a moment and came out with a big aluminium pot. He peered into it, then rinsed the dregs left over from the previous day by swirling them around and threw the remnants on to the road.
   Indu glanced at the road uncertainly - she could step on it now if she wanted, something she was never allowed to do on her own. The most she ever managed was swing in a half-circle on the gate when no one was watching. Now Ammini had dumped her into this forbidden world where there was so much happening.
   ‘Poicko,’ she said, go, giving Indu a shove. ‘No need to wait. There is nothing here for you.’
   Indu tugged at her white night-slip in a sudden access of modesty now that she was standing on the road, and tested the dry, powdery soil with her bare feet. She put her right heel down and turned round on it, drawing a circle in the mud with her big toe. The soft, red dust rose, making Ammini sneeze as she darted quick, furtive glances left and right, then pushed the girl on to the tarmac, letting go of her hand.
   Down the hill, where the road levelled out towards the Kuyyali River, a bus screeched to an unscheduled stop to pick up a passenger who had held out his arm for it.
   ‘There,’ the old woman said. ‘They have tied your father behind that bus and they are dragging him. The police are killing him. Can’t you hear him screaming?’ She covered her ears with her hands as if to shut out that screaming, which Indu couldn’t hear. ‘He is not coming back,’ she added grimly, almost to herself.
   She pushed Indu again. ‘Poicko, vegam poicko.’ Go quickly¸ go. To your mother’s house. They will look after you.’
   Ammini looked around distractedly before shuffling off towards the house with the air of a job well done. Indu stayed on the edge of the road looking around, as the morning came into focus like a slow-developing film. She looked towards the bus, which had started moving again, searching for her father, but didn’t see anyone being dragged behind it.
   On the crest of the hill, Thalassery’s resident madman, Vasu, was doing his usual morning duties, picking up the litter from the sides of the road and depositing each find neatly in the middle. Occasionally, he kicked up the dust with his toes as he tried to dislodge plantain peels stuck into the dirt. He talked to himself all the time as he made his zigzag way up the hill, often going back some distance if he had missed an empty cigarette box or a torn banana leaf. Indu was engrossed watching his morning trail.
   As he approached, Indu got back on the walkway to the house, poised for a hasty retreat if he pursued her. Today had started badly, she decided, it was an anything-could- happen kind of day. However, Vasu did not look at Indu; he shuffled past muttering to himself, ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Sindabad, Congress Party, Sindabad,’ holding up a dry banana frond like a flag.
   ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Sindabad,’ Indu tried out tentatively. Not satisfactory at all. She picked up a banana frond from her garden and held it up as she marched back to the house. ‘Congress Party, Sindabad,’ she shouted more enthusiastically; now she had a flag to wave, it felt much better.

When Indu got back to the veranda, she sat down on the cement steps and laid her flag down carefully at her feet; something was bothering her, a stray unease like a hovering mosquito. So she poked her right thumb into the seam of her white sleep-in slip, where the stitches had come out. When Indu felt threatened in any way, the hole in that seam got bigger.
   She looked at the shards of sunlight dancing on the steps where she sat, as the leaves of the coconut palm overhanging the veranda moved in the wind. The cement floor under her near-naked behind was rough with grit and cold on her thighs. She cast a glance towards the south end of the veranda, which her father had made his domain. There he used to talk to his clients, bargain for fees and write up his files. The rickety wooden bench on which his clients sat had one front leg shorter than the others; it jumped up and came down with a thud when they sat on the end alerting Indu and Mani to be especially quiet as Gopalan worked with his clients..
   The single chair with the adjustable back was Gopalan’s, and no one else used it except he, even when he was not around. The backrest had a top layer of plywood with a yellow flower design on it; the plywood was peeling off in places and sometimes it had left red imprints on her father’s pale skin. Looking at the chair Indu remembered his morning smell of Chandrika Sandalwood soap and Wills Navy Cut cigarettes.
   Indu walked over to the chair and looked more closely; her legs had taken her there without any conscious decision on her part. She passed a finger over the yellow design and climbed in, sniffing for her father’s smell as she did so, but all she got was dry wood.
   Lying back, she listened to the neighbour’s children getting ready for school at the well in their compound– the plop of the scoop made out of arecanut fronds as it hit the surface of the water, the clatter of old Ovaltine tins and zinc buckets as the children bathed, the shouts and admonitions of mothers as they coaxed and cajoled the tribe to clean their teeth, bathe and change for school. She curled herself into a ball, put her head down on the arm of the chair and closed her eyes.