Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 13 March 2015

The year I got my husband back

Two or three months into our life in Nigeria, after five years of being married, I got my husband back. It was not planned.

   The provincial Office of Works started every morning at 7.30 and finished at 2.30, in the afternoon. I believe it was a system set up by the British to get the day's work done before the heat became oppressive. Balan, my husband, had nowhere to go except home at that time. He had no Sri-Lankan drinking pals as he had left his usual crowd at home in Colombo.  I actually liked most of them, gentle men, who dropped off from the group that frequented the Saracens Sports Club one after the other when they got married. Balan merely replaced one drop-of with another person to drink with.

   However, in Ikot ekpene, Balan had to start reorganising his life and routines. The boys, two and four years at that time, began to see him before they went to bed.  He talked with me about his work and his colleagues. I often thought I had been a huge failure in wife-terms. If a husband simply does not want to come home after work, what can you do? Surely there must be something wrong with me?

   I tried a few tricks. I'd ask him to send the car to me in the afternoons to go shopping into town in Colombo. He would do that, and Francis, the driver would come to pick me up around three in the afternoon, after Jane, our Ammeh (maid) had taken the children over after her lunch-break. I'd wander around in Pettah, (Fort was way beyond my means) and buy nothing except the odd T shirt for my sons, which stretched out of shape in the first wash.

   At the end of the half-hearted shopping, at around 5.15, I'd ask the driver to go to Balan's office. The offices of Walker Sons and Co. would be just beginning to disgorge its staff. I would send Francis up to tell Balan that I was downstairs and would he like to come home? He invariably told Francis to take me home and bring the car back after. My ruses never worked. The driver would look faintly sorry for me. I think he sussed me out.

   With the babies coming within the space of two years I had lost all connection with my first love - books. I admitted defeat with Balan and started looking for books to read. My father said that as long as he did not chase after other women, beat me up, or fail to provide house-keeping money, I was well-off. So much for a concept of marriage in those times in India.

   I often remember those years in Ikot ekpene, from 1962-'65, as the best years of a rather unremarkable marriage. In my youth I asked for so little, like many young Indian girls from Kerala. But in 1962, I started writing and sent off my article on education to a magazine published in Lagos.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Ikot ekpene - far from 'civilisation.'

I should have settled-in easily in Ikot ekpene - after all I came from a tiny one-horse town in Kerala. Thalassery, to be precise, on the coast of the Arabian sea, where in spite of all my wanderings, my heart resides, and I feel is the only place and people amongst whom I really belong.
  Just like my new home in Ikot ekpene, Thalassery did not have electricity when I was growing up and it did not boast running water either. Except the water that ran off the eaves in the monsoon, that is, enough to flood the front yard and the gullies behind the house. Many a rainy day, I have watched the water level rise slowly to reach the top steps to our veranda -- will it, won't it? With no television or radio, it was a pastime sitting on the torn up planter's chair, where us children had to create our own pastimes. 
  When that got boring I would run to the back of the house and watch the pink-brown flood-water gushing downhill from the rise at the back of that stretch of coastal land where the English had established a European Club (no Indians allowed). The water would bring with it upturned shit-pots, uprooted banana trees, coconut fronds and the odd dead goat, rushing at great speed to waste ground below.
  I was better off in Ikot ekpene; there was a water closet, if we could get the water connection to our house going. My husband, Balan, rushed off to the office, rounded up the caretaker, Sunday, and soon the water was flowing in the taps. Rust-coloured water, gradually getting lighter till it flowed colourless as I stood over it. It tasted metallic, but otherwise definitely like water.
  A messenger from the office, a young man called Solomon, went shopping and brought back bread and tea, blue-band margarine (that staple much-maligned substitute for butter) and other essentials. The milk came out of tins - we had a choice of Dutch Baby milk powder or Peak Milk. The kerosene 'frig with the pan-handle shaped kerosene container looked risky but had built up a frost overnight.
  Solomon also told us not to drink water without boiling it --for many minutes -- he insisted. I had to make an executive decision here. All my life I had drunk the water from our well at Thalassery without boiling. When it looked less than pristine, (i.e. when a dead frog or rat floated,my aunt dropped Potassium permanganate crystals in it and declared it clean after a day. Now I needed to get precious about this? I suspended that decision for then. Too many to make!
  I was rapidly feeling better. Now I could bathe the children who had gone to bed grimy, and wash the dust out of my hair. I battled with the beast of a stove in the kitchen, burning packing-paper in it, trying to light the bits of wood on top. After much smoke and tears and charcoal on my nose the water boiled (never mind the black kettle.) and I made Dutch Baby milk for the boys, and tea - lovely home-making tea for me. I was ready for Ikot ekpene.
  'I must get to the shops,' I said to Solomon who had hung around, and waded in with lighting the recalcitrant cooker, in moral support. He looked sheepish. 'Only market, Madam,' he said. 'No shops in Ikot Ekpene. For shop you go to Aba.'
  In the goody bag  brought by Solomon there were tins of meat balls and spam. We warmed them up for lunch. In the afternoon, we went to Aba, an hour away and came back loaded with everything we needed except fresh meat, and then some more. It was like preparing for a siege.
  At dusk, after the children went to bed, we sat out in the front of our house, the now-restored Tilly lamp casting a bright light in a corner of the sitting rooms. The garden was full of dappled shadows and it was very quiet. We did not talk; we were tired, but the life ahead had improved considerably from the previous day..