When I was about fourteen years old, my father decided my school was just not doing enough; there was so much the school could not teach me. it was part of his mission to fill that gap, to educate, improve, and generally make me fit to manage the twentieth century, (and totally unfit to marry a local Nair man). I resisted that mission vigorously when he was not looking; I just wanted to be like all the other girls around, relaxed, uneducated man-fodder.
One of his original ideas was to train me to speak fluently and lucidly in public, in both Malayalam and English. Mmm. On a lazy Sunday morning when I should be picking green mangoes from the compound behind our house, he would summon me.
The lesson would begin on the front veranda of our house -- one prong of a many-pronged attack. This involved me standing six metres from him, on our walkway to the front-gate, and speaking on a topic he would set. He would stand on the veranda and instruct. I had five minutes to prepare. He was a demanding teacher, teaching me to ‘throw’ my voice, slow down, look at him, not mumble… Topics included Freedom, Non-violence, Books I liked and Why…
Father dictated what I read and supervised that process. When I finished reading a book he had instructed me to read, I had to do a little review in a note-book and show it to him. I often tried to copy the blurb at the back, but he found me out very quickly. ‘I am not looking for second-hand opinions,’ he said. ‘I want you to think for yourself – not trust others.’
With poetry, he was more demanding. I had to memorise four lines of the book of that week and recite it to him. Karuna by Kumaran Ashan was his favourite. Karuna was the story of Vasavadatha, a beautiful prostitute in Madhura. I enjoyed that story in verse; she sounded feisty. In Memoriam was another matter. For the rest of my life I have kept a safe distance from Tennyson. Including the bewildering Lady of Shallot.
Interestingly my reading speed in both Malayalam and English grew exponentially, and my memory blotted up anything that came along, without discrimination.
Our walk-way was a public place, and when I had to perform, passers-by would stare. For audience, I generally had the crows on the coconut tree, the ownerless cats going from house to house at the time the fish parted with their heads every morning, and two or three children from around the neighbourhood, who would stand and gape at this unusual girl and her even more unusual father. I hated all of this, but there was no escape. In school and college later, however, I became the star debater.
My father enticed me into his activities (all except swimming) and now, in my eighties, I find I have a variety of diversions to call upon when time hangs heavily, and I am looking to escape my writing. In old age, I have a large savings account of varied activities that I have banked, under duress, for my old age. Not to mention a greedy reading speed.
Gardening, which is a favourite occupation of mine, works every time. Though, at the time, I joined in the gardening, reluctantly. Achan usually planted red spinach, green spinach, aubergine, beans and Okra. There were also the climbing beans, the centre-piece of the garden. He and his best friend had an ongoing competition about whose beans did the best each year.
My father would send me out to water the vegetable-patch every evening in the summer. Water had to be drawn from the well and carried in pots to the garden in front of the house. I was supposed to join the young boy who was our gofor, as it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to do it all on his own; also, I should spend hours weeding with him, when I would rather just be. I was a teen ager then, but Achan made no concessions to the alternate world of teens, which my granddaughter, Asha, now inhabits with such panache.
I would hitch up my ankle-length skirt, along with my reluctance and draw water from our well, tugging at the rope-and-pulley system. Physical exertion was meant to be ennobling! But, all it did for me was drench me from waist down. My skirt would start getting entangled in my legs; periodically, I would need to stop and wring the water from the bottom of it. Neighbours and family looked on in astonishment in those years at this father-and-daughter team; girls were not meant to be going everywhere with fathers. And fathers, as the alpha males in the house, were not meant to take any notice of daughters. Also, digging, weeding, watering, were not occupations of middle-class females. You had maids and helpers for that, didn’t you? What was Vakil’s daughter doing, joining in with the garden-boy?
The garden boy, was a priceless urchin. He could disappear into thin air if he heard my father’s footsteps approaching, with what he imagined was instructions about the watering. I knew where to find him though he changed his hidey-holes on a regular basis.
‘Don’t want to get your skirt wet, do you?’ he’d ask innocently. ‘We could do it early tomorrow morning before your bath.’
There were in fact a few rules in our house regarding house-boys. No shouting at them and don’t ask them to do anything you are not willing to do yourself. If they were young they had to be fed when the children of the house were fed. I believe he adopted all of this from Mahatma Gandhi; in practice the women who ran the kitchen ignored him with impunity because he never went anywhere near the kitchen. He had a little hand-bell near him to summon the kitchen for tea or coffee and electric bells strategically placed on the veranda and bedroom walls to do the same.