Thursday, June 03, 2010
“You don’t know ji. If a mother does not teach her daughter properly, what will her in-laws say? All this education does is make a woman crazy! Just look at Shanno.” She would whisper the last word, like it was an expletive.
I pretended not to listen as Bauji and Biji spoke on their separate chattais. Shanno Chachi was so beautiful.
She had flawless skin, brown eyes lined with kaajal, and long hair which was covered with her dupatta. She and Chachaji didn’t have any kids yet. Shanno Chachi always hugged me. She always took my side when Biji scolded me.
Bauji felt us girls should go to school with our brothers. It was part of his faith in the work of Pandit Nehru.
My sisters, Pinky, Khushi and I would get excited when we thought of more little kids around the house. Our elder brothers, Karan and Veer only cared about farming.
We had moved to Amritsar when I was 6 years old and the country was cut into parts by the partition. Karan and Veer were ten and fifteen. Bauji says we had to travel in kafilas for days in order to reach the outskirts of the city. We lost two of my young brothers, Ravi and Vijay, during the journey. In the chaos of the crowd of grandparents, cousins, uncles and young aunts, vessels, animals and children, each person thought they had gone with the others and when we reached the refugee camp, we could not find them. Biji cried so much, she says, she could have filled up all the five rivers of Punjab. At the time, Pinky and Khushi weren’t born, so I became her Laddo, her favorite.
My Chachaji, Bauji’s younger brother, was 22 at the time of partition. He was young and strong, tall and broad, with a thick black mustache. From four years after moving to Amritsar, I have memories of Shanno Chachi. She used to spend a lot of time in the upstairs room, in the far corner of the kothi. She was sweet and kind to everyone.
Our kothi was huge compared to our neighbors. Bauji said he got only about half of what we had in Lahore. “Still,” he said, “be thankful we didn’t have to go to Delhi and live in some camp for many years. A Muslim family used to live here, and then we had to trade countries”.
Ever since we came to Amritsar, our Dadaji rarely left the house. He told us stories of Lahore and missed his friends from the government college there. His memories shaped my images and became my memories.
“Puttar, our mohalla was inhabited by all communities, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. There was a very gentle, pious, Muslim lady named Bibi Nishan, who was living there with her two sons. In our younger days, those boys, along with other children of that community as well as ourselves used to collect in the evening at an open place in the mohalla and play gulli-danda. There was never any quarrel among us. We always addressed Bibi Nishan as Massiji, and our Mataji was addressed by her children as Khalaji. The society, as a whole, was a well-knit unit. The intimate affection surging from the hearts of the people for each other was abundantly visible.”
Dadaji was just about to celebrate his retirement when we had to leave Lahore and make the 50-kilometer journey by foot to reach Amritsar. Although all of us adjusted to life in Amritsar, Dadaji never did.
Shanno Chachiji and Hemant Chachaji began going on long walks in the evening. Her long braid would hang below her dupatta. She would look at Chachaji shyly as he talked about his textile business he was starting. Biji would shoo us away when we tried to follow them.
Six monsoons came and Chachaji and Chachiji had 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls; the house was full again. I was sixteen. Even Biji had warmed up to Chachiji and was encouraging us girls to study further. Biji gave Chachi all types of unsolicited advice, ranging from child rearing to the right types of masala for the dal.
Chachi always smiled and said “Yes, Bhabhiji”.
On a grey winter afternoon, I was walking home from school with Khushi. We saw a group of women standing outside Nandu Grewal Uncle’s house wearing dark khaki saris and uniforms.
“Mr. Grewal, we have reports that you have been keeping a Pakistani woman in your house since 1947. We are from the Commission for Women, Central Government. We are in the process of repatriating all the abducted women to their native countries. It is our duty,” said the taller woman with sindoor in her hair parting.
“Madam,” Nandu Uncle started, with his voice low, “there is no woman from Pakistan living in our house. Our whole family traveled here from Pakistan, lost many relatives, but did not bring anyone here. Aren’t you about 10 years too late?”
“It is the duty of our country to repatriate each Pakistani woman back to her country” she said as she left.
We walked home and were talking about it casually when Biji heard and grabbed us. “What did you say?
Who is here?” she looked scared and confused. We told her what we had heard, and she immediately called Bauji, Chachaji, Chachiji and went upstairs. They spoke in hushed voices. I heard crying and Chachaji’s voice placating Biji and Chachiji.
The next day, the same tall woman from the Commission was at our door.
“Mr. Khosla, is there a Shenaz Khan living here? Age about 30 years?” she inquired once Bauji opened the door. He brought his full body weight to the door; we all hoped that his wide shoulders could keep their probing eyes out of our life.
“Madamji, we have been living here for many years. There is no one with that name here. You Dilli-wale have nothing better to do with your time than to harass refugees who are the victims of this country’s policies?”
Bauji spoke loudly; his voice did not quiver.
“Sir, we have a report filed from the family of Miss Shenaz Khan. She was last seen in Lahore 10 years ago. Her family has been looking for her for many years. Sir, we don’t want to disturb you and your family, but this is an order from the highest Commission for Women in India. We have been told Shenaz has a distinguishing birthmark on her back, as her parents have described. Our lady officer would like to check your sister-in-law, Shanno.”
Biji flinched as we all tried to grasp what was happening. “Please,” Biji said.
“Madam, we cannot leave until we have this verified. If we are wrong, we will surely leave. Please let us return their girls so ours can come back,” said the tall woman.
Shanno Chachi came down the stairs with her cherubic young son on her hip.
“Hold him,” she said as she handed him to me. He was fine without his mom, but I had to swallow hard to push the lump in my throat down further.
I knew the birthmark. When Chachi had me massage her back, she would slide her kurta to the side and it looked like 10 inch pink boundary that split her back. We all didn’t know what was happening.
Chachi and the lady officer came downstairs. Chachi’s eyes were red, but there were no tears. The lady officer seemed smug, unaware of the consequences of being proved right.
“The next step will be for you to meet your parents on Grand Trunk Road at Wagah Border,” said the tall woman.
“No, this is my family now. I don’t want to see them,” Chachi said. Everyone was crying now. Her moon faced son, playing in her arms quietly, gurgled and played with his mom’s necklace. “I have forgotten everything with them and I just want to be here”.
“Miss Khan, please fill out this form. We will take you to meet your parents tomorrow morning. You will go alone,” she said, looking straight at the angry Chachaji.
“My name is Mrs. Hemant Khosla!!” Chachi cried and left the room.
After the woman and her officers left, Bauji sat all of us down to make sure our imaginations were not misinterpreting what had happened.
“Children, you are now old enough to know the truth,” he started. I stared at him for a minute. He looked older than I had ever seen him before. “During the time of partition, there was a lot of chaos, rumors and fear mongering. The British scoundrels gave the nation hardly a few weeks to selectively divide itself. Parents of young girls feared for the safety of the entire family. Many parents killed their daughters with their own hands to avoid the humiliation of rape and molestation,” he stated. We lowered our heads in shame. Bauji had never mentioned such words in front of us.
“This was not just Muslims, but Hindus and Sikhs like us. Each family had to take critical decisions with very little information or time,” he paused for a beat.
“But Bauji, is Chachiji…?” Khushi started.
“Wait puttar, let me finish. In Lahore, as your Dadaji has described, we lived in a beautiful colony with Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. No one ever imagined having to leave. Next door, there was a family whose daughter was good friends with your Nirmala Buaji. When Partition was announced, a Hindu mob had gathered outside their home and their daughter was playing at our house. We immediately told both girls to hide. Her parents, after that incident, decided that they would leave Lahore and go to their native place of Karachi. They still had relatives there and did not want to remain in Lahore with the border being so close.
They had prepared their kafila as well. The parents then heard what was happening during the journeys of travel, on train or by foot, the rape, disfigurement, the humiliation of young women in front of family members. It was just too horrible to hear. We heard loud yelling from their house and Nirmala ran over crying.
“They want her to kill herself” she told us.
“Your Dadaji went to their house and tried to talk to them but could not reason through their fear. Frustrated and sad, they said they would rather leave her behind than take the risk of losing their other family members in the journey. We decided, as a family, to take her with us. After all, we had your Hemant Chachaji and other uncles with us. Shanno was distraught that her family would take such a step against her. Still, she agreed to come with us. Despite the heat of August, we had to take precautions to protect Shanno and Nirmala’s modesty. We had them wear 3-4 different salwaar kamizes. Your Dadiji ground up pieces of glass to be kept around their neck, with red chilli pepper, in case they were attacked. We wanted them to be prepared in case the unthinkable happened.
When Shanno came to us, she was scared and sad. She and Hemant started to like each other, so they were married. She believes in our religion but we never had her stop practicing her faith. We encouraged her to keep in touch with her family, but she never wanted to. Slowly, she took our family as her own and started her own with your Chacha.” Bauji stopped, exhausted from re-living a difficult time.
I looked over at the others, everyone was crying. “But what now, Bauji?” Khushi asked, breaking the sadness.
“Now, nothing,” Chachiji said. “I don’t want to see them. Why are they looking for me now? Didn’t they want me dead?”
“Shanno,” Bauji said, “you should see them at least. They are your parents. Let them know you wish them well”.
The tall woman and her team from the Commission on Women came promptly at 10 a.m. Shanno Chachi still didn’t want to go. We asked them what would happen next.
“We will inform you when we return,” they said.
“At least let me bring my husband and children. They should see my family now,” Chachiji pleaded.
“No madam. Rules are strict. No children or family,” she said, and they left.
Hemant Chachaji was raging. “We should have hidden her as soon as we found out,” he said, pacing. “How can she face the family that wanted her dead?”
“Hemant,” Bauji said, “How long could you hide her? Don’t worry. She will be back soon. Those are her parents after all; they had to make some difficult decisions.”
We were all confused and angry. Chachi was travelling to Wagah Border in a van tomeet her past, which time had helped her forget.
She returned that evening with a different woman, a social worker. Visibly disturbed, she ran to her room. Chachaji followed her.
The woman introduced herself as Kamlaben Patel, who was working with Mridula Sarabai, in charge of the Recovery Operation, Women’s Section, Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation. Rameshwari Nehru, Pandit Nehru’s sister was the honorary advisor.
Kamlaben told us that Shanno Chachi had met with her parents and they wanted to take her back to Karachi with them. “They regret the decision to leave her behind and don’t want her living in India. They have even arranged her marriage with a young man who understands her circumstances. They don’t want her children there, since they were not raised as Muslims,” she stated.
“No!” Shanno Chachi protested, “This is my house, this is my family. You are ruining my life.”
Bauji tried to reason with Kamlaben, “look Madam, no one abducted Shanno. She came and married of her own will. We have never ill-treated her. I understand the need of recovering the women who were forcibly abducted. We think your commission is doing valuable work, but in this case, it’s been 10 years since the Partition and Shanno is a mother herself. Do want to uproot another family?” Bauji was trying to appeal to Ms. Patel’s rational side.
“All valid points, Mr. Singh, but Shenaz is a Pakistani, she must be returned to her country. It is a matter of national pride! We need to get our women back from Pakistan as well. We will pick her up in the morning to bring her back to her family.” Kamlaben said sternly.
Bauji let us in on the adult conversation after Kamlaben left. “Shanno, what happened there?” he asked.
“Bhaisab, my brother, father, mother and uncle were all there. They had decided to stay in Lahore and said ever since I left, they felt cursed,” Chachi said. “I told them about you all they got very angry. They said this was your plan to get me married to your brother. I said they were wrong and that we were all happy. They said they had been looking for me for years. Now it is time for me to go back, they said. I told them about my children, my family. They said it does not matter; the government will cooperate with us. I just screamed at them, what is the point now? You lived so many years without me! They didn’t agree and said they would formally press charges to get me back, without my husband or children,” she said, weeping.
Hemant Chachaji was enraged, “well, if being a Muslim is that important, I will convert! Why separate us now?”
“What if they run away?” suggested Biji.
“Each city with repatriation cases has high security. I already tried legal and illegal routes,” said Bauji.
“We can’t just sit by and watch this happen,” Bauji said, but we had run out of alternatives.
Usually we slept in the baramda when it was hot outside. Tonight, Chachaji and Chachiji slept alone in the room upstairs. Their light was on all night. No one slept.
The roosters started at 4.45am and we all got up to draw the days’ water from the hand pump. The morning was crisp and cool, the sun rising slowly, with lethargy.
Chachiji made her special aloo parathas that morning. We all ate more than our fill, gulping it down with lassi. The morning was passing so fast, but each minute passed with the sodden feeling of a pending monsoon.
The knock at the door came at 10am. Kamlaben had a van full of other women in the back, crying and cursing her.
“Ruining another girl’s life. You crazy people! May God curse you and your family,” one said to Kamlaben. Others wept and cried for their children.
Shanno Chachiji was determined not to cry. “I will come back,” she said sternly, “for you and my children”. She looked at Chachaji who was holding her hand tight. Kamlaben pulled her. “Lets go Shenaz.”
We had all tried to reason with Kamlaben, plead with her, even tried to bribe her, but she held strong, as if the entire nation’s sovereignty depended on her.
“Leave me with my family!” was the last scream we heard from Chachiji as the van drove away. And we never saw her again.
We all tried to appeal to the government to get Chachiji back. Chachaji must have sent hundreds of letters to the old address. We didn’t know if anyone had received them.
Six years later, at my wedding, I looked at my dear Chachaji, visibly aged, refusing to remarry, raising the kids himself. Chachiji was a close memory for all of us. The chili from her parathas fresh in our mouths, her children running around. Her long braid probably had some grey hairs now. We all thought about her and hoped wherever she was, she was ok. At least we had symbols of Shanno Chachiji around us. She, well, she just had herself.
Monday, August 04, 2008
On your mark- the milkman rings the doorbell
Get set- the municipal water pours through the tap into the large bucket
Go! The pressure cooker whistles for the 4th time
These sounds, along with the sunrise, symbolize the start of an Indian morning. The milkman has replaced the roosters by ringing the bell at 5:45a.m. “One minute” the mother says, rising out of bed so quickly, you wonder if she actually was sleeping. Drowsily, she grabs the steel bowl and stumbles around and over sleeping kids, husbands, in-laws and pets.
The milk is then placed on the stove and waits for a boil. The chai is made separately as the vegetables are cut to put in the pressure cooker. The cooked vegetables, which take 4 whistles in the pressure cooker, will be packed in the tiffins for school or work. Chai is shared by adults who are planning their day. Husband and wife sit and read the news before the children need to be woken up. They discuss the needs for the day, he gives her some extra cash for household expenses and she reminds him that the electricity bill needs to be paid this week. The eldest child, who is preparing for admission into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), has been up since 4 a.m. reviewing her math homework.
The younger children lazily rise out of bed, as if each one of their body parts is waking up separately. They take slow baths until their mother knocks on the door to advocate for waiting siblings. Children step into neatly pressed uniforms: skirt and white shirt for the girl and pants and white shirt with tie for the boy. Boots are polished while toast is being buttered and milk is cooling after adding two heaping spoonfuls of sugar to the tall glass.
The room echoes with “Mumma, where is my…?” is filled in for bags, socks, pencil cases and homework. As the mother quickly steps in to locate the item, not missing a moment in her the routine, she quickly finishes packing her husband’s lunch- which include roti, daal, subji, rice and some sweet snack. She ensures the children look fresh, clothes clean and pressed and Pond’s talcum powder glistening around their chins, looking like slight white shadows around their moon shaped faces.
A comb divides long hair into ropes of ribbons in the daughter’s hair. The son’s hair, still wet and slightly oiled, is smartly parted on the right, sending curly waves floating to the left.
Backpacks filled with heavy books and water bottles that have been refilled and tightened twice will accompany the lunch of aloo and puri* for the children. Included will be Rs.1 for a snack of chickee at the recess. The mother gathers her belongings and gets ready to walk the children to school. She prepares breakfast and lunch for the father who has just finished the business section of the Times of India and is ready to step into the bathroom and the stove warmed water for him. She looks in the mirror to check her bindi and her mangalsutra. The pleats in her sari are checked again as she reminds the husband to finish up with the paper and get moving quickly. If he is late, the morning train ride on the local train is going set him in a rotten mood for the whole day.
She packs her purse and small umbrella in a plastic bag—an essential item for the monsoon season. The children trot next to the mother as they dodge sidewalk vendors, paan walas, samosa walas, coconut and fresh juice vendors, stray animals, people waiting for the bus, aunties haggling for vegetables for lunch, aggressive pedestrians and uneven sidewalks. When they finally reach the school, the mummys all gather at the gate, their saris perfectly pleated colors in pastels, primaries and geometric shapes. They stand together until each one of those braids and round faces disappear into the building.
Heading back home, she quickly picks up some fresh fruit from the vendor, haggling with him a bit for the right price. She waves hello to her friends headed in the other direction and rushes back home. Her husband just finished his breakfast and is ready to leave. The eldest daughter got herself ready and started the washing machine before she left on the local bus. Her mother-in-law is slowly finishing her morning ablutions and preparing for her pooja and will hang the clothes out to dry later. She grabs her bag for work and heads out after taking the blessings of the diya she lit in the early morning after her bath. As she heads to work on the local train, she checks her wristwatch, its 7:58—just in time for the morning local.
[From 2004-2006, I lived in India while working for a non profit organization in Mumbai. Since 2008, I have started another position that brings me to India quite frequently. This isn’t a snippet of just one family’s life, but rather an amalgamation of my observation of different families during my long term stay and short term visits to India.]
Tiffin: Portable steel containers
Roti, daal, subji: Leavened bread, lentils and cooked vegetables
Aloo and puri: Cooked potato dish and fried bread
Chikee: Peanut brittle
Paan walas and samosa walas: Paan is a mouth refresher made with betel nut and an edible, paan wala is someone who sells paan
Samosa is a deep fried potato dumpling eaten as a snack in India, samosa wala sells samosas
Mangal sutra: (necklace symbolizing her marriage)
Diya: A lamp that is lit during a pooja, can be a form of a blessing
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Get set- the water pours through the tap
Go- the pressure cooker gives the seeti for the 4th time
The Indian morning begins. The milkman has replaced any likely roosters by ringing the bell at 5.45am. “Ek minute” the mothers say, rising out of bed so quickly, you wonder if they actually were sleeping. Drowsily, she grabs the pathila and stumbles around and over sleeping kids, husbands, in-laws and pets.
The milk is on the stove and waiting for a boil. The chai is made separately as the subjis are cut to put in the pressure cooker. The cooked subjis, which take 4 seetis and will be packed in the tiffins for school or work. Chai is shared by adults who are planning their day.
Children lazily rise out of bed, as if each one of their body parts are waking up separately. They take slow baths until their mothers knock on the door to advocate for waiting siblings. Boots are polished while toast is being buttered and milk is cooling after adding 2 heaping spoonfuls of sugar to the tall glass. The room echoes with “Mumma, where is my…?” is filled in for bags, socks, pencil cases and homework. As the mother quickly steps in to locate the item, not missing a step in the routine, quickly finishes packing everyone’s lunches. She ensures the children look fresh, clothes clean and pressed and Pond’s talcum powder glistening around their chins, looking like slight white shadows around their moon shaped faces.
A comb divides long hair into long ropes of ribbons in the daughter’s hair and the boy’s hair, still slightly wet and slightly oiled, is smartly parted on the right, sending curly waves floating to the left.
Backpacks filled with heavy books and water bottles that have been refilled and tightened twice will accompany the lunch of aloo and puri. Included will be rs. 1 for a snack of chickee at the recess. The mother gathers her belongings and gets ready to walk the children to school. She prepared breakfast and lunch for the father who has just finished the business section of TOI and is ready to step into the bathroom and the stove warmed water for him.
She packs her purse and small umbrella in a plastic bag—an essential item for the monsoon season. The children trot next to the mother as they dodge hawkers, paan walas, chaat walas, coconut and fresh juice vendors, aunties buying subjis for lunch, aggressive pedestrians and uneven sidewalks. When they finally reach the school, the mummys all gather at the gate, their saris perfectly pleated colors in pastels, primaries and geometric shapes. They stand together until each one of those braids and round faces disappear into the building, blessed with the promise of a new morning and touched by the hopes of their mothers.
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Amongst the greatest of the names of Shiva is Natraja, Lord of Dancers, or King of Actors. The Cosmos in His Theatre, there are many different stops in his repertory, He Himself is actor and audience-
“When the Actor beateth the drum,
Everybody cometh to see the show;
When the Actor collecteth the stage properties
He abideth along in His happiness.”
The root idea behind all of Shiva’s dances is more or less one the name, the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy. Whatever the origin of Shiva’s dance, it became in time the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of. Three of Shiva’s dances are explained below:
The first is an evening dance in the
“Placing the Mother of the Three Worlds, upon a golden throne, studded with precious gems, Shulapani dances on the heights of Kailasa, and al the gods gather round Him:
“Saraswati plays on the Vina, Indra on the flute, Brahma holds the time-marking cymbals, Lakshmi begins a song, Vishnu plays on a drum, and all the gods stand round about:
“Gandharvas, Yakshas, Patagas, Urgas, Siddhas, Sadhyas, Vidyadharas, Amaras, Apsarases, and all the being dwelling in the 3 worlds assemble there to witness the celestial dances and hear the music of the divine choir at the hour of twilight.”
This evening dance is also referred to in the invocation preceding the Katha Sarit Sagara.
In the picture of this dance, Shiva is two-handed, and the co-operation of the gods is clearly indicated in their position of chorus. There is no prostrate Asura trampled under Shiva’s feet. No special interpretations of this dance occur in Shiva literature.
The second well-known dance of Shiva is called the Tandava, and belongs to His tamasic aspect as Bhairava or Vira-Bhadra. It is performed in cemeteries and burning grounds, where Shiva, usually in ten-armed form, dances wildly with Devi, accompanied by troops of capering imps. Representations of the dance are common amongst ancient sculptures, as at Elura, Elephanta, and also Bhuvaneshawara. The Tandva dance is in origin that of a pre-Aryan divinity, half-god, half-demon, who holds his midnight revels in the burning ground. In later times, this dance is in the cremation ground, sometimes of Shiva, sometimes of Devi, is interpreted in Shiva and Shakti literature in the most touching and profound sense.
Thirdly, we have the Nadanta dance of the Natraja before the assembly (sabha) in the golden hall of Chidambram or Tillai, the center of the Universe, first revealed to gods and rishis after the submission of the latter in the
In the forest of Taragam dwelt multitudes of heretical rishis following of the Mimamsa. Thither proceeded Shiva to confute them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman, an Ati-Sheshan. The rishis were at first led to violent dispute amongst themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Shiva, and they endeavored to destroy Him by means of incantations. A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires, and rushed upon Him; but smiling gently He seized it and with the nail of His little finger, stripped off its skin and wrapped it about Himself like a silken cloth. Undiscouraged by failure, the sages renewed their offerings, and produced a monstrous serpent, which, however, Shiva seized and wreathed about His neck like a garland. Then he began to dance; but there rushed upon Him a last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf, Muyalaka. Upon him the God pressed the tip of His foot, broke the creature’s back, so that it writhed upon the ground; and so, His last foe prostrate, Shiva resumed the dance, witnessed by gods and rishis.
Shri Natraja images represent Shiva dancing, having four hands, with braided and jeweled hair of which the lower locks are whirling in the dance. In His hair may be seen a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the mermaid figure of
The dance, in fact, represents His five activities (Panchakriya) viz: Shristi overlooking, creation, evolution), sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tirobha va (veiling, embodiment, illusion, and also, giving rest), and Anugraha (release, salvation, grace). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Bramha, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshvara, and Sadashiva.
Creation arises from the drum, protection proceeds from the hand of hope; from fire proceeds destruction; the feet hold aloft gives release. It will be observed that the fourth hand points to this lifted foot, the refuge of the soul.
We also have the following from Chidambra Mummani Kovai:
“Oh my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of thy creation. All these worlds are transformed by Thy hand bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of casuality. It is thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork.”
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
We didn’t know for sure.
We had only heard rumors.
There was this teacher.
She taught the fourth grade.
She had a piano in the room.
She was fun.
The rumors were confirmed when I became best friends with Michelle, the girl who lived across the street. Michelle lived in my fantasy world: an only child living with her grandparents and single mom plus an entire room covered with posters of Kirk Cameron and Debbie Gibson. Her grandfather had installed a five-tier shelf on the wall, which in my eyes, was a modern day Barbie Bungalow. She had everything I ever wanted. To escape the tailgating of my 5-year old sister and torture of my 12-year-old brother, I went to Michelle’s house. Her house was quiet, she had her own room, and she was one grade ahead of me.
“Then she played the piano and we sang songs for the rest of Friday and we had no homework for the entire weekend,” she said as we dressed Barbie for a night on the town with her anatomically incorrect lady friends. “Let’s go to your house now, what is your brother doing?” She was also bossy and liked coming to my house for some reason.
As we played, I thought about the torturous Mrs. Hanlon and all the homework I had over the weekend. Third grade isn’t all bad, I thought. Then I remembered how we had spent last Friday. Ronnie B had said the F-word and Mrs. Hanlon’s sharp sense of hearing had picked it up. I don’t even think anyone really knew what it meant. As she pulled him to the back of the class, none of us let our heads turn in the direction our eyes were dragging us. We heard grunting and some type of struggle. I pictured Ronnie being strangled. In that moment, I tried to erase every swear word my older brother’s friends had taught me, feeling it would only bring us to the same unfortunate fate that befell poor Ronnie. I should’ve been nicer to him, I thought, it wasn’t his fault he looked funny.
My thoughts were interrupted, as I smelled Mrs. Hanlon’s strong perfume as she walked by. We quickly turned to look at Ronnie when she was in her office. He was alive! He looked like he was picking something out of his mouth. In horror, we saw there were teeth marks on the bar of soap next to the sink! None of us dared to utter a breath of support. Traumatized, we continued our work in silence. Mrs. Hanlon never said a word about if but the tone for the rest of the school year was set.
“…then she took our pictures and gives us stickers on everything. We also have parties all the time,” Michelle continued as I felt a twinge of jealousy for not being in the 4th grade and not having a beautiful Barbie house.
As I walked through the halls of Elm Park Community School, dreading Mrs. Hanlon’s bright red curly hair and how sometimes she would make us scratch her back, I wondered about the 4th grade. Was it really all Michelle said? Did they really have fun and read great books? Well, I thought, I just have to pray real hard and hope I don’t get Mrs. Cook or Ms Sullivan, it had to be Mrs. Coulter, it had to be.
Third grade passed without any more traumatic events. Michelle and I continued to play after school and Ronnie was never really the same. He still caused trouble, but the tone of the class was very somber, perhaps due to the intense social fear she inflicted on us every day. The upcoming summer vacation would have been fun; if our parents didn’t put us in summer school every year. Mom and Dad decided the school year was too short in America. When we tried to explain what summer school was in the States, we were punished with memorizing times tables for any spare time we might have had. As the summer ended, I was ready to go back to school, but I was both nervous and excited.
The school auditorium was dark as we sat down to wait for our names to be called by the teachers. I cringed and said a silent prayer for anyone who had been called up by Mrs. Hanlon. Her hair color had changed, I observed, but I then was distracted. Mrs. Hanlon walked away with her class and another woman stood up. I didn’t have to strain my neck to see because she was so tall. It was Mrs. Coulter. As she began calling our names, I cursed my ancestors for always landing me up at the end of every line with a last name that began with a V.
“Nevra, Ronnie, Joanna, Elia”, as I heard my friend’s names I hoped I was not far behind. She got to the end of the page as my heart pounded in my ears. As she looked up, I thought she was done. No, it can’t be, I prayed all summer! Thank god, she was trying to pronounce my name “and Meenakshi”. I wanted to jump up, scream with joy, and maybe even hug Ronnie. Calmly, I walked to the end of the line and watched the disappointed faces of the fourth graders left behind.
Fourth grade was one thousand times better than I had imagined it in the best of all my dreams and Michelle’s detailed accounts. To make it even better, Mrs. Coulter had chosen me as one of her favorites. As part of the privileged six, we were seated closest to Mrs. Coulter, on hand to perform miscellaneous errands as needed.
I was never sure why I was one of Mrs. Coulter’s favorites. Maybe she saw there was something extremely eccentric about this little Indian girl who always wore two braids to school and loved to stay after school to wash the chalkboards. Overall, the year was fantastic. My grades, always A’s and B’s, were now A+’s. I read books at the 6th grade reading level and won a drawing contest. In addition to a supportive learning environment, Mrs. Coulter arranged several pen pals for us for a wider cultural experience. Some of our pen pals were located on a Zuni Reservation in New Mexico. Many of us came from working class families, and Mrs. Coulter taught us the value of helping those less fortunate. We all donated a gift to our pen pals when Mrs. Coulter hand delivered them to New Mexico during April vacation.
Every day we read stories and wrote some of our own. Fridays were filled with songs and music from all over the world. The classroom was inherently different from the others. It was decorated with the brightness of our dreams. There were letters from pen pals, book reports, photographs, and creative projects. She introduced us to her favorite teacher, Mrs. Anne, a 90-year-old woman who still visited Mrs. Coulter. I knew Mrs. Coulter would remain my favorite teacher forever too. Happiness radiated throughout the room. Even if Ronnie was being bad, I don’t really remember because I was too busy being happy.
One day after school, I was playing with my sister and the children my mom would baby-sit when the doorbell rang. My mom was on the phone so I answered the door. It was Mrs. Coulter. Slightly embarrassed, I let her in. My mom was cooking and the smell of onions, ginger, and coriander filled the house. What if she thought our family was weird because we were Indian? Whose teacher came to their house anyways? Was there enough time to call Michelle and ask her what to do? Mrs. Coulter rushed in and started speaking to my mother.
“I am so sorry to disturb you Mrs. V, but my car broke down, and I would like to use your phone”, she said.
My mother led her to the phone and put the little kids in our small spare room. I watched quietly from behind the door as Mrs. Coulter called her husband. When she was done and Mr. Coulter on the way, she patted me on the head, thanked my mother and left. The next day at school, I wondered if the entire school would know my mom cooks with onions and we have lots of little kids in the house. Instead, before I left for the day, Mrs. Coulter called me in the office. That had never happened to me before, maybe I was in trouble for something, maybe being a mean sister. I made a mental note to try to give my sister to Michelle as soon as possible- perhaps she would be treated better at the Barbie Bungalow. Relieved, I saw a big box gift wrapped on her desk.
“Give this to your family and send them my thanks” she said. There were cookies in the box for everyone.
As the school year was coming to an end in May, my parents decided it was time to take a trip back to India. It had been five years since we came to America and none of us had been back since. This was of particular importance to my mother who had received a call about her father’s death a year back, and in mourning was unable to be with her brothers and sisters. She was eager to go back, we all were. I looked forward to my paternal grandfather’s stories about Krishna, Rani Jhansi, and the Ramayana. My grandmothers would admonish us for out loud laughter while torturing cousins. As an added bonus, this would mean no summer school. However, we had to leave on June 7th in order to get cheap tickets so the whole family could go.
“June 7th? June 7th?! I am going to miss school! Mom, can’t we leave after school is over?” I pleaded with my mother but realized she was too busy packing the suitcases.
“Geek,” hissed my brother under his breath.
I ignored him and went to speak to my father. He was always going on about the importance of studies, furthering one’s education in the land of opportunity, I thought it might be a good time to remind him of the great American dream: going to school until June 23rd.
“Dad, please, I don’t want to miss school,” I asked quietly.
“I am sorry Meenakshi, but this is the only time we can all go, and I have already bought the tickets. But don’t worry beta, we’ll make sure we get all the extra homework from Mrs. Coulter before you leave,” he said calmly. Walking away, I thought about all the fun I would miss.
Mrs. Coulter was very understanding. She explained she was teaching 5th grade next year and I would be in her class. She also declared my last day of school would be spent as a bon voyage party for me where everyone would make cards and wish me well. Star of the day, I could handle it. And, since she would be teaching the 5th grade, missing 1 month wasn’t so bad. Ahhh, the 5th grade, I would be coasting along in another year of the privileged six. At the end of day, she took my picture with her and I tearfully said goodbye. Mrs. Coulter took my grandfather’s address and promised to write.
The trip to India took us to the Taj Mahal in Agra and we visited relatives in the northern hills. Air India managed to lose five of our suitcases, so it was a good thing we had ten. It sure beat summer school and the scorching sun gave us an excuse to lie under the slow fan all day and read Amar Chitra Kathas. I missed Mrs. Coulter and Michelle. Mrs. Coulter sent two letters, the second one of which said there was a change in her plan. She was going to be teaching at Flagg Street School the next year and she didn’t say why, at least I don’t remember. As the monsoon rains pounded the pavements of city streets in India, I nervously waited to go back. Why was she leaving? Who could possibly replace her?
Once I got back, things were different. Michelle and I didn’t play Barbies anymore; apparently, sixth graders found Barbie to “so fifth grade”. Some friends had moved, others were in different classes. All divided, Mrs. Coulter gone, Elm Park seemed dark and cold. No one liked her replacement, and it didn’t really matter how nice she was, I would have missed Mrs. Coulter just as much. Fifth grade was just different, and we were forlorn; for all the dreams we had with her didn’t exist anymore. She did keep in touch for the first half of the school year. After the holidays, there was little word from her.
In May of 1988, Memorial Day Weekend, Michelle called me. She had heard Mrs. Coulter had cancer of the liver. She had just been diagnosed. I hung up the phone and sat down, I didn’t even know what cancer was. I had heard of it before, but what did it mean? My father said he would take me to the hospital on Monday morning to visit her.
“She’ll be ok, right Dad?” I asked as he was leaving the room.
“I hope so, Meenakshi”, he said quietly.
Early Monday morning, Michelle called me again. Mrs. Coulter had died, because the cancer had spread. I told my mom and she wrapped me in her arms, tightly. The tears began and continued to fall. This was the first person really close to me to die. Her wake was filled with her students, young and old. She wasn’t more than 50 years old. Her love for teaching had consumed so much, yet her body was unable to sustain itself.
Even though I felt I was her favorite, this was a special talent she had। Everyone felt special to her. She had brought to us, through her words, her teachings, a light. A special light, which still continues to grow inside me. Almost 20 years later, I know she helped me feel intelligent, secure, and simply happy. Mrs. Coulter’s spirit still inspires me and will never be forgotten in the soul of my fourth grade heart.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
This version was published in abcdlady.com. Its a bit modified from the original.
Riding the Mumbai Locals-Ladies Style
After spending 27 years of my life in the United States, I moved to Mumbai for two years to work for a non-profit organization called AVSAR India (Alliance of Volunteers for Service, Action and Reform). The organization recruited volunteers to work in Mumbai for local organizations and part of my job was to orient volunteers (mostly from America or Canada) to Mumbai. This experience led to my discovery of the wonderful world of the local trains of Mumbai.
The train lines in Mumbai run north to south with some variations. The three lines are the Western, Central and Harbour lines. It has been observed that at present about 5,000 people cram into trains with the capacity to carry only 1,700 passengers. The suburban railway began operation in 1857 and is considered the oldest railway in Asia. Total ridership is estimated at 6.1 million daily.
The dubbas or ladies’ compartments are at the front, middle and end of each train. It’s easy to find the dubbas at the train station because you see a multitude of blood red, peacock blue, lime green and haldi yellow on saris, jeans, tops, purses and shoes. The ladies’ compartments were most likely created to save women from various forms of sexual, visual and verbal harassment that one of mixed genders could bring. Although Mumbai is quite safe (generally speaking), it’s always safer for a lady to retie her sari, put on make-up or gossip with the gals without the roving eyes of their male counterparts. The ladies’ compartments are still usually not large enough to accommodate the waiting crowd of ladies, so where you sit or stand usually impacts your experience on the train.
Standing in the breeze of the doorway of the train provides anonymity of the best kind. I once saw a young woman crying there. She wasn't weeping, but there were big tears rolling down her round cheeks. I wanted to say something, but it felt like she needed to be alone and anonymous in that crowd. Perhaps someone had broken her heart at Churchgate (south Mumbai) and she needed the ride to gather her thoughts before going home to her family in Andheri (a suburb of Mumbai).
When the trains are crowded, averting your eyes is difficult because you can only look at the person squashed up against you (or, more specifically, you can look at her hair, arms, sari, cell phone, purse or whatever is directly in sight). Pieces of flesh (butts, breasts, thighs, arms, knees, elbows) are haphazardly forced upon one another, and the commotion of a lost dupatta (scarf usually worn with traditional Indian dress), umbrella or child usually takes over until the item is returned to its original owner. Women and children squeeze up against the doors, in the aisles, in the benches and anywhere else there is an iota of space available.
The Western, Harbour and Central lines all have their regulars: beggars, saleswomen and men (either young adults or handicapped), entertainers, street children and food vendors. They are as timely as the trains. There is never any peace, especially if you want it. All around you hear:
"Kela Dus Ka Char" (Four bananas for Rs.10)
"Cleeeps, fine cleeeeps" (Fine hair clips)
"Seeng-phali, Seeng-phali" (A local word for roasted peanuts).
Although there is a first-class compartment, the random mix of women who ride the second-class compartments is as diverse as the colors that the women wear. When else would Desi housewives, school teachers, bais (maids), ayahs (nannies), vegetable and fish sellers, investment bankers, college students, transvestites and social workers ever find themselves together in such an intimate situation?
I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of social classes on the Mumbai local trains. With five rupees for a second-class ticket compared to over 70 rupees for a first class one, the price of a first class ticket from Bandra to King's Circle is virtually unaffordable for the average Mumbaiite. Most second-class riders will say, "In first class, you are being pushed in the same way by more expensive elbows. Tch, tch, what a waste." I agree.
The most striking observation I made while riding the trains, however, was of the power of progress. I arrived at Bandra Station in Mumbai in July 2004, and beyond track seven, I saw a family living a tenuous existence. Their shelter consisted of a tent made of plastic and cloth, precariously supported by uneven wooden poles. By the time I left in March 2006, the same family had turned the tent into a square shed, with four walls and a roof. Perhaps they still don’t have access to running water, health care or a toilet, and maybe they are living on land that is not legally theirs. But in the struggle for basic human rights—food, shelter and clothing—possessing one of them is certainly a start.
During my two years in India, I was able to be a part of the place I always called home. Navigating the public transport system taught me so much about the different worlds that exist within India and Mumbai. I will always carry the memories of the people and the place with me.
Back on the train in Boston, I sleep and my thoughts drift off to another time and place. There is very little interaction with the other passengers on the train and very little noise. The train conductor smiles at me and says “Good morning.” I recognize some other passengers, but we don’t talk. Then I miss the voices of the ladies compartments on the local trains of Mumbai, for that is where I really learned about India.
Meenakshi works as a Public Health Analyst in Boston. She would like to dedicate this piece to her grandfather, Bauji, for always inspiring her to "seek thy self" through writing. You can read her blog at transformintobeauty.blogspot.com. To volunteer in India, please visit www.AVSARIndia.org.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Sitting at a crowded concert in
The train lines ran north to south with some variation. The three lines are the Western, Central and Harbour lines. At a recent court hearing for more trains, it was observed that at present, about 5000 people are crammed in trains having capacity to carry only 1700 passengers. The suburban railway began operation 1857 and is considered the oldest railway in
The ladies compartments (dubbas) are at the front, middle, and end of each train. It’s easy to find at the stop because you see a multitude of blood red, peacock blue, lime green and haldi yellow; in the forms of saris, jeans, tops, purses and shoes. The ladies’ compartments were most likely created to save women from various forms of sexual, visual, and verbal harassment that one of mixed genders would bring. Although, as a city,
If your stop came early, you got to share a bench from Churchgate to Bandra with three average sized women comfortably. If your stop came later, you would run the risk of squeezing half an ass cheek on the corner of the bench. Not comfortable when some women had a hard time balancing themselves and ended up squeezing you in the corner, pressed up against the metal bars of the window. I always marveled at how physically incapable some women were of asserting their half-an-ass cheek and would still sleep with the corner of the bench so intimate with their posteriors.
Some of the ladies riding the
When the promiser gets up to prepare for the exit (usually two stations before) the promisee quickly squeezes in, and the others adjust, regardless of size. The promise is made by the traditional Indian half-nod, half-shake that confuses EVERYONE. It’s more of an ‘ok’, but it looks like a ‘no’, or ‘I don’t know’.
Some women didn’t want to sit on the bench. I always wondered about some women that chose to sit near the door of the train. They were usually of lower socio-economic status, but I never thought they sat there because of that. Standing in the breeze of the door, this location provided anonymity of the best kind. I once saw a young woman crying there. She wasn't weeping, but there were big tears rolling down her round cheeks. I wanted to say something, but it felt like she needed to be alone and anonymous in that crowd. Perhaps someone had broken her heart at Churchgate and she needed the ride to gather her thoughts before going home to her family in Andheri.
The doorway also provides a peek into the morning abulations of the population of Mumbai that does not have access to a toilet. Women are never seen, due to shame factors, must go out between the hours of 2-5am. (Once on a CNN interview, Shah Rukh Khan said he felt the plight of women needing toilets and that would be his platform). I guess we can say alvida to that idea! Anyways, the doorways also give you insight into how people live in slums along the train tracks. It gives you an enormous amount of perspective to see how life isn't all about what is happening in YOUR life. It’s a great perspective builder. SO, staying near the doors is great, if you want some breeze or to peep life on the other side of the tracks.
Being near the doors isn't a choice during rush hour (9-11am and 6-8pm). At that time, it was a battle of survival of the fittest and meanest. It can be likened to herding water buffalo or arriving at a Nirvana concert en route to your job at the frozen yogurt store. The strangest thing is that even during off-peak hours, there is still the same amount of pushing. After seeing grandmas utilizing their emaciated biceps to push children on to the train I realized this was not the time to be polite or reflect on the wonders of Incredible India! Hell no, these women were on their way somewhere and you weren’t about to get in their way.
It seemed that even the mothers forgot they were mothers once too when they pushed women with children on the train. In a crowd that often made me want to cry for my mother, the sound of children crying often laced the chatter on the train.
Each line has its regulars: beggars, saleswomen and men (these men were either young adults or handicapped in some way), entertainers, street children, and food vendors. They were as timely as the trains. There was never a dull moment, especially if you wanted one. Their sounds were all over the place:
"Dus Ka Char"
"Cleeeps, fine cleeeeps"
"Tickly, ohhh tickly"
On the Western Railway, there was a middle-aged man, with a pleasant face who sold time cards on the trains. He happened to have no use of his legs, he traveled on his hands. He saw the world from the ground up. These people were not beggars, they were entrepreneurs with traveling shops selling snacks, soaps, scissors, pens, notebooks, fish, fresh vegetables for dinner, fruit, hair clips, roasted peanuts (shelled and otherwise), lipstick, earrings, payal, manglasutras and on occasion, clothing.
So if you had to:
1.) Make dinner but forgot the subzi
2.) Lost a button and needed a safety pin
3.) Wanted to buy your kid an after school snack
4.) Had the desire to look like a married woman (female or hijra)
5.) Needed to kiss up to your boss with a cheap pen
...you would be all set.
SO, now that you have fought your way on to the train, proudly claimed a seat, silently cursed the next 7 generations of the grandma who pushed you, and purchased some sabji for dinner, there are only a few more things you can do for "time pass" until your station comes.
Clearly, for someone needing to pass the time on a trip from Dadar to Borivili, running into your neighbor's aunt's bahu's cousin was VERY exciting. SO exciting, that you found it very necessary to express your excitement by increasing the volume of your voice to a decibel level that would cause immense, piercing pains to anyone within 30 feet of you. I don't have a source for this, but I remember reading that the frequency at which women talk on a
It’s not just the volume, but the pitch. Three or four women, speaking in a high pitch at max volume can drive fellow passengers to seek solace in other parts of the dubba. If it is too crowded, daggers are distributed from the eyes until said activity is reduced or ignored. Perhaps I am overly sensitive in my hearing, but it doesn't really seem to bother the others riding the train that much.
If you don't have anyone to talk to, you can always do the universal Indian past-time, staring at each other. I would love to do a study on why it is totally considered ok to burn a hole through someone with a Care Bear Stare. But its kind of fun when you get used to it. The gaze usually starts at your face and works its way down. Mostly people end up staring at your face or your feet. If your gaze goes up, you can see the grimy dust that has accumulated on the deceptively placed fans and over to the connecting men's dubba. The men's dubba is connected with a metal mesh/net type thing that is meant to be a barrier but more so provides a voyeuristic view into the ladies dubba. For all the men that are curious about the various, mysterious activities of the women's compartment are treated to dirty looks and turned backs.
When the trains were crowded, the staring was harder because you literally could only look at the person squished up against you (or more specifically at their hair, arms, sari, cell phone, purse, or other randomly placed accessory. Plus with the parts of flesh (butts, breasts, thighs, arms, knees, elbows) haphazardly forced on one another and the commotion of a lost dupatta, umbrella or child usually took over until said item was returned to its original owner. Women and children were squeeze up against the doors, in the aisles, in the benches and anywhere else there was an iota of space available. This is when the fights happened.
The fights ranged from light-hearted to serious. The random mix of women who rode the second class compartments were as diverse as the colors they wore. When else would desi housewives, school teachers, bais, ayahs, vegetable and fish sellers, I-bankers, college students, transvestites, and social workers ever be together in such an intimate situation? However, the various stresses on some of these women would crescendo when someone was inadvertently or advertently rubbed (or pushed) the wrong way. The best story I heard was about a woman who was blocking the doorway. (Side note, this can be very annoying for those trying to get on, but almost necessary for those who need to get off at the next stop, most people make adjustments). This woman did not. Things got ugly.
"MOVE OVER" one woman shouted at her. She barely budged.
The other woman was not hearing it, "you are so stubborn, and you can't even let us in. You probably don't even let your husband in!" At this point everyone burst out in laughter.
However, people do get into fist fights, and are subsequently broken up by the others on the train. A friend was once in between a dishoom dishoom fight, and in trying to break it up she was injured as well. Even though I have mentioned the fights, it’s only meant to give an overview of all the various happenings on
And some final observations..
At ANY and ALL times of the day, the men's compartments are jam packed. There are at there are 6 women's dubba's then there are 12 for men. What are these guys doing? Don't they have anything to do? Why are they on the train at all hours of the day? Ya, tell me.
I really enjoy the juxtaposition of the classes in the
The biggest thing I learned from riding the trains was the evolution of progress. When I arrived in