Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

Two questions

My first question is, what is the use of being alive? We were both alive, Sombabu and I . He put away things in the kitchen. So did I. He loved sitting in the library almost as if to be able to take a coffee break. That’s me when I work. He called twice from Providence the day I was leaving Delhi to come back, to say, “Don’t forget the sweets.” That’s all that’s on my mind too, the day I am leaving Delhi.

So if he’s not here, what sense does it make? I am not here either, am I? If not today, then tomorrow?

And what is this about people fearing death? What is to fear? It’s only a disappearance, an exit, isn’t it? Where do you learn that you hang around on the stage for ever and ever?

My second question is, when am I going to finish my damn book? The folders are called ‘book 2008,’ ‘book 2011,’ and now ‘book 2013.’ It’s all the same book. It’s now 2014. I decided it wasn’t working out and went back to ‘book 2006.’ That seemed to work except now I am stuck midway. I will not create another folder. Sometimes I feel as if I am Sunil, who would just keep revising and revising—but at least he ended up with a superlative book. Mine? I keep re-reading what I have written, loving it or despising it, then pencilling in a few changes, then typing them in, then forgetting the chapter and a few days or weeks later, re-reading it again.

I miss Sombabu. I was stuck exactly like this in my writing in 1976. I don’t know what he said but he said something and all the grounded gears started turning again. He just could not bear self-pity, or what he called nalish, complaint. But I have no idea what he thought about death, or, more relevantly, about the fate of the person left behind. Maybe he would still say, abar nalish korchho?  Complaining again, are we?

sigh

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

Travel on

Portland is one of the most laid back cities in the US. Coming back to the US after even merely ten days away, in Amsterdam and India, you get a shock. People in official places are casual and chatty, ordinary people have a thick veneer of friendliness. The Delta person at the counter joked with the passenger ahead of me, “Let’s see what we can do for you.” She radiated a suburban domesticity. The passport control officer was kindly and after one question to me that seemed to open up broader vistas, decided he did not want to pursue them and quickly stamped the papers and dismissed me. His body language and expression suggested a comfortable existence into which few coloured people or immigration problems impinged. Many security and airport personnel stood around the airport very relaxed, holding big containers of soda or coffee.

Europeans are also friendly, but cliché as it may sound, they are so in a reserved way. They do not smile all the time, and they do not make personal comments meant to bind you together in a community of like-minded individuals all most comfortable when nothing challenges the community, not one different anything

On top of this easy democracy is the relaxed attitude of Portland. So coming back to the US through the port of Portland, as they call it, was a double whammy.

KLM is an odd mixture of the courteous and hospitable, and the severely official. If you were to do or make the least suggestion of anything out of the norm or which simply confused them, there would be grimness unadulterated and they would block their minds to seeing you as a normal person with perhaps a different need. But if you are recognisable to them in one of their several categories, their impeccable socialisation into an equality (of sorts) and fairness will ensure courtesy. Why I say an equality ‘of sorts’ is because there is always an undercurrent, not directly of racism, but a suspiciousness of coloured people, at least those with a different body language to that of Europeans. There is a guardedness, one that expresses itself in more carefully enunciated speech and a kind of alert watching.

Then there is the “Classical Music” conundrum. Why is Indian classical music available nowhere in the world, such as on no flights?

Maybe I should write to Mody while he is there in the Prime Minister’s bungalow and pursue some of these harmless things like promoting Indian classical music globally.

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 26, 2014

The Precariousness of Pleasure

I am going to watch a horror movie—I may not be precise about genres, so not ‘horror’ technically speaking—about a concert pianist who receives a mystery note that he has to play or die. Or something like that.

Suddenly, I was aware of the Precariousness of Pleasure.

On the way in to the plane, standing by the sign that said “Economy 41-56,” as opposed to “Economy blah-blah-blah,” and “Economy-whatever-else” and “Business,” I had to think, “After freaking forty four years (I had to correct that from a casual ‘forty’ to make it more precise) of international travel, this coming year I am going to get into the “Business” line.” And I see the faces and hear the voices of Irfana and Nandini saying, “yes, ma, you deserve it.”

Then, I settle down. For the thousandth time, I take out what I need “on the way.” My laptop, of course, and three levels of work—writing, teaching, pleasure. Oops, the last is not my work. But of course it is. My duty in life.

Then we passengers change some seats, we spread around. Again I get two seats; I travel at such odd times. I break open the blanket and the earphones, immerse myself in the pleasures of soft warmth and “Latest movies”—they mean “Latest Hollywood movies.” Actually, I wrote a letter to KLM once, lecturing them on their meal option, very critical—they only had beef and chicken—and I said, wonderful Dutch brethren, true you have never been colonised (except by the sea), but which world are you living in? Now I should write a letter again, saying thank you , that you offer all these Dutch alternatives, hurray for Dutch, even Double Dutch, and in movies too, I see now that you are actually postcolonial.

Then the stewardess comes around for drinks. And I say my usual, “Gin and tonic.” Not because it is the most brilliant drink on earth, it is certainly delicious, but it is—ha ha, mine. When Lisa says in My Fair Lady that she had it with “my mother’s milk,” it rang a bell. She—the stewardess, not Miss Doolittle—gives a packet of meaty, salted almonds. I devour the whole packet, sipping my strong gin fast.

The food is offered, an ungenerous choice between beef and pasta. When I ask for beef there is a flicker on her face as if to say, which she would stoutly deny if asked of course, “Beef? Are you sure? Aren’t you the brown Asian, Indian kind of person for whom we have the vegetarian option?” You are so right, madam, but vegetarian is something the wonderful Dutch have not understood. For breakfast there is the magnificently primitive non-option of a tray of omelettes and sausage. I spoon it all down. Ever since Sombabu looked up at a plane in the sky and said, “I love to eat on aeroplanes” to one of his little daughters by his side, I have taken pleasure in all meals served on board.

I am excited to see another movie. I leaf through the magazine and learn a lot about KLM but they have no list of movies. It is on the screen of course. I play around with the buttons. Finally I watch something on the Spartans’ war with Xerxes. It is the most extraordinary exercise in fiending the Asian that is imaginable. I could show it to my class. There are too many things to show my class. Good to know that the Europeans had the same values then as they pride themselves on now and that Asians had the same values then that they never had then or now. By the way, the Persians were and are fine boned, light skinned people, not the swarthy, dark generic ‘Asian’ that the film portrays. As for Xerxes’ numerous piercings and metallic jewellery….I could die laughing but there is enough death in the movie and absolutely no humour for us to not bring the two together.

I slept.

When Chekhov says simple things like that, “It’s raining,” “They’ve gone,” he produces ultimate despondency. The world turns black and your spirits sink. Simply with two words. Dyozhd idyot. Oni viezli. My teacher Natasha Ivanovna’s husband Valeri Vasilevitch, said casually that that was what Chekhov was the master of. Ever since then I occasionally say Dyozhd idyot (It’s raining) to myself to taste it.

Then I read our student Pallavi’s journal when she was about twelve. At the end of the description of the day she’d write “I slept.” It took me several pages to realise that she didn’t mean it in some profoundly ironic, Chekhovian sense but was in fact simply recounting what she literally did.

I, too, slept. Literally. Usually the act would have been Chekhovian. I would have pondered on the mystery of existence, where I was coming from and where I was going and why and how to understand myself better. I was wonderously light-minded this time with no existential burdens. I had little patience for Chekhov and his endless “Who am I?’ “But who am I?” If Uncle Vanya had appeared in front of me I’d have simply told him to go off and teach some children instead. Or some rats.

Yes, so I have been watching Uncle Vanya and reading Racso and the Rats of NIMH. Both are precisely about the same thing: how to find a meaning in life beyond just eating, sleeping and burrowing around.

So the flight, I was saying, has been this series of pleasant experiences. You know why? Because I was in this ordinary economy seat hankering after business class. If I actually had the business seat, I would have been bored witless like the Russian aristocracy, or the city mice in Racso. The food would have been marvellous—well, maybe not the KLM food but Sombabu’s benign interpretation of it—the seat would have been everything the body desired, the little touches would have made your heart sing. But all the time there would have been a disdainful curling of the lips. “That’s all there is to it? This much-flaunted experience when you reach the top of the pyramid?”

There is a boredom that comes with privilege that I would never exchange for the little pleasures, and the unfulfilled wishes, that you have as an ordinary person travelling ordinary class. That’s what I call The Precariousness of Pleasure.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 20, 2014

Managing our school in India

This is the twenty-fifth year of our school, a good time to muse on many parts of our experience.

In the year 1990, when the school began, we had classes pre-Nursery to 5. I was the one who devised the curriculum for each.

For the pre-school, I went by what I had learnt from bringing up my children, then nine and four, through seven and two years of school, respectively. Irfana had gone to Hyde Park Pre-school Program from age three to four, and had gone to Kindergarten and grades one, two and three in Providence, RI. She had studied in Rajghat Besant School in grade 4, and in the middle of many different classes in Loreto, Lucknow. These four places, Chicago, Providence, Rajghat and Loreto comprised three different kinds of knowledge. And before them all, Irfana had been for one year in a Parents’ Co-op.

In the Co-op I learnt to respect children. We had these five children and even when the parents had left them to one home each day of the week, they were in fact always looking over the host’s shoulders. Everything could be discussed in the meetings, which were frequent. So, even if initially it may have seemed to be a game, how children were treated, time and peer pressure wore away my habits. Every child had a personality, had personal dignity, expressed in preferences and reactions—and we were to respect these. Connor liked cars and still wore diapers, Victoria liked cheese and her curly hair, and Stephen liked to pick his nose and eat his snot.

Equally, I learnt to plan. If you did not have a plan, you would suddenly have a house full of children and be helpless before them. I was also embarrassed to find that far less qualified parents than my husband and me always had a plan in place for the day they were the caregivers. Out of shame and peer pressure, we too started to plan. Once we did it, we liked it, and could not do otherwise.

In Hyde Park Pre-school, I volunteered and observed. They had three classes, two, three and four year olds’. They used the upstairs of a church unit, a corridor and three rooms and an office. It was expensive, as all pre-school programs in the USA are. Here I learnt that there is a procedure to everything, a vocabulary, a set of duties and results. I learnt actual content, that three year olds coloured between lines, cut and pasted, did gross motor and fine motor activity.

In Providence, Nandini started going to a Pre-School for the whole day. Initially she cried at being left, as had Irfana. Then she was in her element. In this pre-school I understood how the physical space was supposed to look. A bare, carpeted space with a mezzanine in one corner. Shelves and boxes of toys and manipulables. Low desks and kid-size chairs. Blocks and wagons. Paper and crayons. Child-friendly bathrooms. Many assistants. Parents talking to teachers and assistants as they drop off and pick up their children. Nandini standing in the middle of the room with her hands in her pockets, like a gang leader, wondering, “So where should I start today?”

Irfana was meanwhile in Kindergarten in Martin Luther King Elementary. It was interesting that by that time I understood enough of the American aims and methods to realise that this kindergarten was a little basic. They did all the same things by then familiar to me, but they did everything mechanically. Irfana’s social life in the classroom was more interesting to her than anything that came from the teacher.

When we set up our school, we put all the right materials in our pre-school classes. I personally taught in one full time and guided the teachers in the others. For years we gave them in-house training, since they had never had relevant training before. This I learnt from scratch. This I taught myself. This is something I had never observed and picked up.

I was extremely gentle initially. I was a friend to my teacher-students. I would suggest something with anecdotal backing, broad smiles, and the hint of an apology. I considered them my colleagues and was apologetic that I was teaching them. I was alarmed to be the reformer-educator-moderniser and would rather they all magically rose to the level of the imaginative, innovative teachers we needed.

It took years for me to face my failure and acknowledge that the method was entirely too subtle and grossly inappropriate for what I wanted to achieve. I then tried to plan more carefully.

Some teachers did begin to understand, through my growing interactive techniques and use of materials and spaces, how to, say teach Maths in Primary classes, or beginning English reading and writing. The success, even if partial, was immensely encouraging. I began to believe that teachers’ education is indeed possible, and also to glimpse that success in it was directly related to the educator’s comprehension of the level of the teacher-students and the degree to which she was willing to labour over her planning.

Now when I hear that “teachers can’t do __. They are hopeless at __,” I think to myself, not too kindly, “Yes, ma’am (it’s usually a Principal speaking), that’s because they have not been taught properly.”

Together with this confidence, however, goes a lot of modesty. At the very time that some teachers were learning from my labours, there were others who were looking attentively at me, nodding, participating—only to go on to never applying anything of what they had certainly understood in their classes. Again, I am a nice person and it took me longer than necessary to acknowledge that there was a certain relationship in the school that made it rational for them to cut corners and not actually follow policies. I was also naïve, still. Instead of pushing some important methods as ‘rules’ or ‘policies,’ I still presented them as suggestions. Teachers still remained my respected colleagues and trusted peers.

One huge problem in Indian schooling that I have encountered first-hand for twenty-five years is that, no matter how brilliant a curriculum you design, the teacher could sabotage it. He/she (I am really reluctant to be anti-gender hierarchy by using a ‘she’ normatively as I would otherwise do, because in teaching there are mostly she’s, and these disappointing trainees I am thinking of were in fact mostly he’s) might do so in a number of ways.

You ask for a weekly submission of their planning. He will submit something week after week that is so obviously just a summary of the chapters of the book that it’s like a clear message to you, “You want me to plan? See if you can make me. I’ll take five minutes and write down the topics from the contents page of the text book.” You explain to him again, knowing he is intelligent and understood the first time. He nods, smiles, and does the same thing the next week, and for every week for months to come. Your choices are: fire him—a limited choice, since with this choice, you might end up always firing everyone; do the damn planning for him, or, same thing, sit with him and dictate and waste your breath explaining—can you do this each week?; excuse him from the planning and hope to shame him into cooperation. I am sure there are other, smarter methods I could have tried, but what actually happened was the last.

Then there was the retiree, as I thought of him. You have discussed from many angles the problems of class management, the school’s philosophy, the nature of the child, how to create a certain culture and milieu in the class. Yet when you go to the classroom, the teacher is following none of this. He is shouting at the children, striving to ‘discipline’ them in pathetic ways. They are louder and more disrespectful by the  minute—all thanks to him. He then retreats and let them act free, teaching almost nothing. Yes, he just sits there. The children run around tossing their books in the air, a party in each period. The teacher would turn the tables neatly: “What can I do? These children are so ill-behaved.”

Then there are those teachers who decide that enough is enough with all the imaginative and creative stuff and they will get to the brass tacks now and they totally subvert the teaching ideas gone over and over. They take the textbook and they make the children read repeatedly. They dictate answers to questions. They put up meanings on the blackboard. They give dictation. They put red marks on the copies. They bark and they threaten and they preach moral outcomes and praise and criticise shamelessly.

This was perhaps the worst of all. Why, why would one start and run a school premised on change, only to be thrown back into the pit by one recalcitrant young person who thought she was too smart for you?

I am sounding antagonistic, but really my problem even at that point was that I was not strict enough. These were very young people, far younger than me, far less qualified, far less trained and experienced. It was simply my ignorance about what constituted ‘management’ and my misplaced ideas about equality and collegiality that produced this dreadful situation.

To be continued…. How this is ‘postcolonial’….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 19, 2014

The child in the city

Have you seen the staggering numbers of children and youth in an Indian city? Yet—how is the child present in the city? In these new cities of modern India, bravely building up towards the sky, clogging their roads with larger and larger fume-spewing vehicles, covering any empty sky-space with hoardings that persuade you to but a flat, buy a car, and yes, choose a certain school or coaching centre for your child’s education or your own further education?

There are no spaces for the child in the city. There is typically not a single park or museum where children are specifically catered to with spaces and resources. There is no Children’s Museum in a city, apart from the ones in the metropolises dedicated to science and to toys or dolls.  There is no Children’s or Community Library (of course.) There is nowhere children from 4 to 14 could walk, or sit, of listen to something, read something, or watch something. Middle class children stay indoors and watch TV or play computer games. Working class and poor children play in the streets or in vacant spaces near their home. Occasionally they go with their families or a parent for shopping or another job. Otherwise they participate in the same activities as adults: going to malls, eating out, watching movies, or visiting other families.

Are children bored? Of course not. They have an active life of the imagination. They presume the adult world is theirs as well. They have nothing to compare with so cannot imagine, and do not miss, a city in which there might be safe walking areas, parks they could run and play in, museums or performance places, libraries or activities. They find company within the family, neighbours and streets. When asked what they do after school, children typically answer, “Home-work” or “Study.” There is no ready vocabulary for the variety of things they actually do and it is safe for them to thus imagine what the adult wants to hear when she is asking such an unusual question (most adults ask, “What do you like to study?” not “What do you do in your free time?” since the child is not expected to have “free time” or at least to not make a worthwhile use of it.)

There are some actively damaging things going on in the city. Companies have launched competitions for children which take place publicly in malls. These include loud singing and dancing contests with a low premium on talent or creativity and a high one on self-confidence aligned with the number of hours a child might be glued to the TV and learnt up the songs and dances. The events, judging from their loudness and location, are single-mindedly publicity efforts by the company and not child-centred in concept or delivery.

I would also say that the absence of any other projection of children but as consumers, where they are shown with an adult promoting water filters or refrigerators, or by themselves promoting banking or investment, is itself a negative move on the part of the city.

Adolescents are also not bored. Most have cell phones now and make the optimum use of them. They feel as if they might be free, as if they might have choices in the future. As long as they stay in peer groups, the pleasure of the company and the humour and solidarity that accompanies peer group activity can allow them to shut an eye to the reality. Their level of education and exposure is so low, for the most part, that they too cannot compare with what could exist, what they could have. These possibilities include reading randomly, watching a range of things, listening to an equal range, going places, being counselled and mentored on life choices and career paths, holidaying by perhaps earning and saving up, dancing and partying without guilt.

What does the city wish for its children? Overall the question has no meaning because the idea of ‘children’ as someone to plan and wish for has not arrived in India yet. Children are undoubtedly loved, worried over and worked for. But that there could be a plan for them that addresses their various needs is a particularly modern notion that is not part, yet, of Indian modernity.

Having acknowledged that, there are still areas that require less complacence. Developers do not accept that while they market new residences, they have to conceptualise a family with children of different ages. A swing, a slide and a patch of grass makes, for them, a good apartment complex. Manufacturers have not woken up to the huge market that is the children of India. Advertisers are ridiculously unimaginative and, as goes with the territory, uncaring. Civil society is at its best negotiating problems of water, electricity, and sewage removal shortages; it has no time for what it would consider higher matters of infrastructure such as a park, a library or a museum.

Private citizens have no clue of anything idealistic and almost no wishes except to follow marketing trends to their best advantage. Ambitious parents want many services from their children’s private schools, including superficial counselling. Lower class parents always say “I have no idea” when asked what their hopes for their children are. They are more anti-children than before because they sense a new assertion of children’s rights through their consumption of a range of new clothes, accessories, and cell phones. These rights, as they see it, take the form of less respect for elders, a shrugging off of old disciplinary structures, and an exploration of freedoms.

What would children and adolescents have if they could? We have not even begun thinking of it yet.

But whatever it is, it’s for us adults to decide and to do. We are the ones who have built the cities and its spaces, and conceptualised and produced its life. Why would we not do more for our children?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 16, 2014

creative thinking?

Message for the day: Be creative in your thinking!

Inspiration from ‘our’ culture: when Gandhari hears that her husband-to-be is blind from birth, she decides to blindfold herself for life so that she will totally share his life.

Twice she corrects her thinking radically. She adores her oldest son, Duryodhana, and for the longest time, cannot imagine that he could be evil or horrible as a person. Then, one day, she is pushed over the brink. She tells herself, “I was blind [sic] in my love for my son. I refused to see the reality. But I will admit it now.”

The second time, she cannot overcome her grief that all hundred of her noble sons have perished in the war. The Pandavas come to her and she cannot not be angry at them for not having spared her even one son. Her anger makes a little glance from her eyes falling on Yuddhishtar’s toes, shrivel them up blue. The others shift back, Amar Chitra Katha tells us, alarmed. But then she controls herself, “They have also lost their sons, all five of them. There is no one who has been spared.” She consoles them for their losses and in that finds a plank to fight her own sorrow.

That’s creative thinking. At other places in the Mahabharata too, you are surprised at how people reason, and not only Krishna, the subtlest dialectician of them all, but Kunti, Dhritarashtra, Shakuni, Arjun, Draupadi, and lesser characters. They are all highly intellectual people to whom the world is largely a challenge in understanding, reasoning out and articulating.

I have only a tiny problem which brought me to this topic of creative thinking. I am supposed to go to a Women’s Studies reception in half an hour. It is blazing outside—105 degrees I believe—with no shade to walk under from here to Scripps. I am cool at home, comfortable, with my work open in front of me and the work is immense. I will be fine skipping the event and staying home instead. Or, I should resign myself to attending the event and just go. In neither case am I happy. I should be able to make myself two happy choices, through creative thinking, in place of which I have created a web of suffering.

No character from the Mahabharata would have put on such a poor show.

So, here’s a revitalising injection into the thinking process:

If I go, I get to eat strawberries dipped in chocolate—Scripps being a strawberry-pradhan college.

I get to have a fifteen minute walk in either direction. I can skip the club and consider that my exercise of the day. It’s good to be different.

I will no doubt meet at least one interesting person. If I focus and look smart, maybe some student or colleague will find me interesting.

This is the kind of thing I am in America for, right? True I have done this kind of thing scores of times over, but I was never wide awake; I was in a dream. Now I can put on my ethnographer’s antlers and see everything bright and clear, as if I am having a huge adventure and nothing is to be taken for granted, everything is to be learnt.

If I don’t go, I get to drink my tea any moment now, with biscuits.

I get to go to the club for Zumba.

I can read the missing part of chapter 3 and put it back in a good way, thus finishing off with three and being all set to tackle four tomorrow. Three is such an important chapter; how could I think of jeopardising it in any way by breaking my chain of thought?

God bless Scripps and the Claremont Colleges, but they are only a speck on the surface of the universe and our lives, and I have a larger holistic plan of things to do. My ration for Claremont events can be two a week. Last week it was the library lecture and the Athenaeum dinner. This week it is another Ath dinner and a Bridges concert. Enough.

Do you notice how I have lapsed from my interest in creative thinking to the familiar pros-and-cons approach of the even-tempered rationalist who has some ambitions but a great deal more of just obligations towards the world? That’s not Kunti or Yudhishtar, and it’s certainly not Bhim. Their hunger for a kingdom was just a metaphor, right? Right?  We should all be fighting for our kingdoms.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 3, 2014

The Dublin Sequel

Many of the readers of my blogs loved the one in which I lose my passport in Dublin. They liked it so much that I thought I must give them a sequel. So I managed to go and lose my ‘green card’ in Delhi. Readers will be pleased to note that I followed all the same steps: got worked up to a frenzy, almost losing my renowned calm demeanour; harassed people to aid and help me; waited and worried at the Police Station and the Embassy—and finally managed to leave the country. This time, not the next day but a week later. And not on having found my documents but finally succeeding in getting them replaced.

I could try and be funny, but it was actually only painful.

I had checked in at the excellently ‘manned’ counter of British Airways. It was eight in the morning, faces were fresh and bright, I was hardly paying attention to anything since there was nothing to particularly attend to. Travelling long distance is easy. I mean, how much oftener could a person travel than I do? In 2014 itself, once in January, four times in March, once in May, twice in June, once in July, twice in August….I (figuratively) yawned. I read novel after fat novel. I was in love with Hillary Mantel.

Yet, for all this international travel, what I don’t have is a separate wallet for passport, travel documents etc. I think the reason is that in my twenties I despised those faux leather things they tried to sell in the name of ‘travel planner’ with pockets for everything. So bourgeois. I do it the bohemian way. I stack up the cards I don’t need and put a rubber band around them and put them in a safe place, and replace them in my wallet with the cards I do need. Then I reverse the process. In the middle the packed-up cards in the rubber band repose in the back of a suitcase, or in my cupboard, or simply on the desk I am using. It may sound inefficient but it has worked so far.

So, on the eve of this journey, I sat in my room, undid the cards and stuck them in my wallet, starting with my passport, then credit cards, green card, drivers license, medical insurance, etc. etc. I packed up in turn the Indian credit cards, pan card etc. It didn’t take a minute.

I had checked in and had turned around to go. The smart young woman behind the counter was training a new person so was busier with her than with me. As a postscript she added to my back, “Can I have your green card please?” Bored, I gave it to her.

She handed it back. “This is not it.” I had the weirdest physical sensation, as if the bottom had fallen out from my stomach region, as when your elevator might lose control and dash down to the ground. I knew in that split second that I did not in fact have my green card. The green card was in a jacket, a little white case of a smooth paper, that had a problem in a corner so that it was difficult to insert the card in without a struggle and I derived pleasure form watching all the solemn passport control officials of the world humbly struggle at this before managing the insertion and returning my card to me. I had given her another card in a jacket, and that was the wrong card but it was the only card I had in a jacket. When she said “This is not it,” I knew I could search and search but I had no other card in a jacket.

She was the best kind of professional—humane. Usually it is women, not men, who achieve this perfect blend of the professional and humane. She let me search. While I searched my bag, she kindly searched my wallet. While I searched my wallet, she took over my bag. She made a bare murmur of “May I?” Then got my suitcase back and invited me to search comfortably. Heart sinking, heart sunken, I searched without conviction. I fumbled for my phone. “Let me call my daughters,” I said foolishly. “They know my habits.” “You remind me of my mother,” she smiled encouragingly at me.

Irfana had just landed at Mumbai and not gotten connected yet. She still had the wrong sim card in her phone. Nandini was in the throes of sleep. I forgot that it would be four a.m. for her. She could not help.

I was turned over to the trainee and gently moved to one side. My luggage tags were removed and my boarding pass torn up. The trainee was a radical sort. As I fumbled inside my suitcase once more, she suggested, “Should we throw everything on the floor?” I thought grimly, “Very funny, kiddo,” and shook my head. It took some time for them to escort me out because there is a whole procedure to reversing the official entry inside an Indian airport.

Now what? I took a taxi to the American Embassy. I knew that the card had to be replaced with a travel document of some sort that would allow me to travel. The consular section where these things are done was invisible, literally a hive hidden behind a swarm of bees. There must have been hundreds of people thronging the entrance to the visa and passport services. They were not standing in line, they were pushing at the cordons around the entrance.

The ‘system’ was ‘down.’ Nothing could be done that morning. I stood on one side and waited. I knew in my hunting-gathering bones that you don’t just believe something and go away, you hang around for the ambush, for another sight of the prey. And sure enough, the crowd gradually thinned as people put their tails between their legs and went away and only a few stalwarts like me remained. I went into an unnecessary narrative about my plight, knowing it was pointless, but needing to talk, and the guard nodded wisely. He was just a young man, probably from Bihar, trained up and uniformed up for the job, but he was a nice man. He took my passport and went to the phone that hangs at their desk. I was full of hope.

But no. The person who handled these things was not at his desk.

Reader, I am ashamed to say that I threw a tantrum. As I did so, I realised why children have faith in tantrums. I simply wanted attention. I wanted him, and all the six guards there, to realise that I was a special, distinct case, and they somehow had to do something for me, that I was not going to take that kind of an answer lying down, that I would fight to the finish, that I was a worthy adversary, that they had better look out, that I would do—I didn’t know what, but I would do something. The only think I could do was rave and rant.

The whole tenor of what I said standing there over the next hour, and then over the next five days, was, “But there must be something to do? Surely there is something to do? How can there be nothing to do?”

The guard advised me to call the embassy number. The receptionist at the number called the same desk the guard had. The first time there was a voice mail. I left a jumbled message. Then they disconnected or switched off the voice mail. I called a dozen times again, and there was a sickly, downward spiralling tinkle to the phone ring as it was proved to me again and again that there was no one at the desk.

I thrashed around, paced around, stamped around, screeched and shouted, then whispered and pleaded, “Surely there must be someone else? When will this officer come back? Can I not speak to anyone?” The answer was no, we don’t know, there is no one else, we can’t say, no, no. no. I finally left with ‘Kafka’ ringing in my ears.

I went to the Police Station. It was calm and orderly. The main inspector at whose desk I sat was fast as well as poetic. As if he were an E.M. Forster character, he recited a couple of Urdu verses during the course of the work, humming the rest of the time. He had his subordinate, sitting next to him, write my FIR. This charming young man called him ‘janab.’ They were not native Urdu speakers however. The inspector was from Ballia but had lived in Delhi now for decades. I imagined him, going home to his village once a year, with presents for everyone, being treated like royalty by his family.

FIRs are now typed and printed on the computer. It took one hour but I had lots to observe in a Delhi Police Station and was quite happy. They made me feel as if the Force was behind my cause and I left full of optimism.

Later that day I e-mailed my college and got immediate responses, much like the Police force. I was gathering up my army. But the other side was an unbreachable fortress. On Monday they told me that the missing officer would be back Tuesday or Wednesday. On Tuesday they said Thursday or Friday. On Tuesday evening I got in an appointment with ‘Information’ for Wednesday. On Wednesday they said not to be foolish but wait until Thursday or Friday, on no account to try to contact anyone to support my cause, it would all be pointless, there was a procedure, and yes, indeed, it was in the hands of one man, but he would be back. On Thursday they said no way. On Friday they said, no, not yet.

It was then that I glimpsed this man, sailing away on a yacht somewhere, calculating, in a way all too familiar to me from my long management experience, that if he could just stay away a few more hours, the long weekend would be his as well. Monday was Labor Day.

That is called “the tipping point.” I saw with furious clarity that I should never give up, that like Babar or Humayun, even when all the odds were against me and even my own soldiers had refused to fight further, I had to make one last push. I swallowed my pride and wrote again to my one slender Embassy contact, well after we had said, “Fine, goodbye, thank you.” I put my soul into it. How could it be, I asked with dignity, that the Embassy had had no knowledge that the one single officer in charge would be absent from work from Monday to Friday, followed by a long weekend? How was it possible? Could I not have been told?

I checked my e-mail for a reply every minute. I sat at the dining table ostensibly talking and typing, but my soul was battering away at the fortress. I did not acknowledge, even to myself, that I did have alternatives planned. In my diary I had planned, “Get documents on Friday, do ___. Get them on Tuesday, do ___. Get them on Wednesday….” and so on for another whole week. In my notebook was a detailed plan of action. I was going to achieve a lot if they could not do my work. But by God, they had to do it.

And the e-mail did come. I picked up and left. I sailed into the Embassy. There was the person, back from his sailing trip by the might of my will power. He took what I needed to give and told me to pick up my documents the next day. Saturday? Yes.

As I lingered on the pavement outside, wondering if that was an ice cream cart I saw around the corner—when the crowds are large the ice cream carts are right there—a guard came up to me and said, “Can you wait? They called to say you can pick up your letters right now. There’s a long weekend coming up….”

I waited, of course, and got what I needed within the hour.

I will never know, nor do I expect anyone to know, how it works. I firmly believe that if you put your whole will behind it, you get it. I have this idea from Hindu mythology, but also from the American myth of I-can-do-whatever-I-want, but most of all from my hunting and gathering ancestors, who never actually rested when they were in need of food. They knew you can get a prey only by terrific coordination of the mind, body and will. You have to look sharp and jump and nab. You have to focus.

Well, so long from California, till what I hope will never be the next account of my losing any travel documents whatsoever, much as you enjoy reading about it….

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 23, 2014

Ramesh’s daughters and son

There’s Ankita, the oldest, maybe eight, strictly his niece, but he treats her as his daughter. There’s Anoushka, maybe six. She is unspeakably cute. Her laugh gurgles forth like a waterfall, tinkling and irrepressed. She has dancing eyes, a sweet dark face, and a little girl’s body that makes you think, “Ah, I know why the Creator chose this design. What could be more balanced and wholesome?” She wears little dresses and sandals and runs and runs around the campus. Ankita, older, runs and laughs less, but we can hear her voice and her full participation in all the games.

And there’s the young Sahil, just arrived from the village. The other two have been on campus for two years. Everyone is accustomed to them standing around, running and playing and prattling, Anoushka’s laughter, Ankita’s speech. Sahil is so new, you have to stare and remind yourself, “Er—now he’s here too.”

He has a wicked face. His eyes are slightly mis-aligned, making him an imp. They are bright as buttons. His mouth has a perpetual grin, but altogether his face looks quizzical as if he is in a great game with you, and out to win. No dialogue, just a joust. He is four years old. Unlike the girls, he hits you. He peeps into glass windows. He bolts and unbolts any door he sees, locking people in, or out.

Of course he is welcome to come and live with his father Ramesh, as the two girls were two years ago, and to blossom and grow in the place. The trouble is this.

Anoushka does not laugh now. Ankita, if possible, is quieter still. Neither of them run around and play. They move quietly, in a shadowy way. I smiled and joked with them. They looked wary and did not respond, as if I might had made a mistake. Did I really mean to address them? Wasn’t I supposed to now pay attention only to the brother, who was cute, bold, smart, so special? They looked at me as if I was a stranger. I read the unspoken in their behaviour and turned cold.

Sahil had done something odd. I proceeded to explain to him in a comradely way “what we do and what we don’t.” I then pointed to them and said, “Your didis will explain. They will take care of you. Listen to them.” They began to sidle away. I stopped them and said, “Anoushka, tell Sahil, “Sahil, don’t do this.”” Anoushka looked blank, her eyes dull, staring past me. She had never heard of such an idea. She had never addressed Sahil in her stature as didi, with him as her younger brother.

I asked Ramesh in an exploratory way why he had spoilt his son so completely, whereas he had made his two girls into happy, laughing, but also nice little people who could talk to you and listen to you. Why was Sahil performing and expecting attention all the time?  Ramesh did not get the question. He said proudly, “Oh, he is something. I have no idea how he became like that. You won’t believe it. Here he is tame. Back in the village he could run two miles away. He won’t listen to anyone”

Henry the Eighth, h’m.

I could guess that the girls were as unimpressed as I was by the special-ness of the boy. But unlike me, they were resigned to his status and had retreated into fast-growing shells. They were well on their way to becoming, not innocent children busy playing and laughing, but progressively aware of their difference to him, that they were perchance girls and he a godly boy, putting on that mantle of shyness and timidity that we see all around us in girls.

Sahil, it’s not your fault, but for your own sake—here we come.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | June 13, 2014

Losing my passport in Dublin

10th June ’14

My laptop got stolen yesterday in Dublin town. As I stood around for four hours in police station and embassy I lived again and again what the thief would feel. When he opened it and gawked at the screen picture. He wouldn’t give it the time of day. Just another picture. He wouldn’t stare at it every time you open it like I do. Interested anew in the unmatched expressions of Irfana, Sombabu and Raghav. Irfana is on top of things. She understands and she cares. She is self-conscious about her position but thinks that she can make herself comfortable in it,  and in any other position.

Sombabu draws a huge breath inside. My children. My place. My work. My efforts. He has spent decades mastering his breath, his thoughts, his emotions, his body. He still loses his temper. But he does not feel depressed. Or confused. These are huge achievements. He looks out typically at the world as he is doing here, chin up, a smile, cool, comfortable, full of an utterance he has yet to formulate.

Raghav knows that he was a failure which is why he was put in this school, this miniscule school with a class of two for him. He knows what the world is, where he is in it, but he also knows, they are good people. I am still a failure but oh, who cares?

Then I wondered, when will the thief find out my name? When will he begin reading my blogs, journals and miscellaneous writing? Will he ever open folder x and folder y? Of course he won’t. And as for my four books, he will never discover them, nor the rest of the world.

I knew I had a copy for almost everything, thanks to Irfana’s fine stratagem of copying everything somewhere back in May. But I don’t know where. And I stopped thinking of going to a store, buying a laptop, setting it all up, retrieving my stuff bit by bit. Stopped thinking because it was so tiring.

Did the thief know what a useless laptop it was? No, he would admire it, as we had initially done in the shop. And I had provided him with the cord and everything, neatly folded and velcrosed up.

My mind turned to my greater problems. My passport, my visa, my green card. In that order. If I didn’t have my passport, I could not travel the next day. If I did get a replacement, as embassies were obliged to give their citizens, how would I still get the British visa? Why would they simply give me a new one in a new blank passport when the old one had been like pulling teeth? The green card was easy. A few phone calls to Adam Green and he, bless his professional heart, would know exactly how to do it. And I had over two months.

My brain worked slowly. There were three phases. In the first one, I was slowly overcome by a cold fear, as I stood in the library and realised what had happened. I had laid out my stuff on a table and chair and walked off with my wallet for a cup of tea. I had walked many blocks to reach the elusive Pierce Street Library and need refreshment. The sign said “tea room” upstairs and reading room below. Before beginning the day’s work, I needed to go upstairs.

Had the lady I spoke to been different, nothing would have happened. She looked so hospitable, so welcoming, told me there was free internet everywhere, that I was welcome to sit anywhere I liked and work. She gestured towards a table and I walked to it and joyously laid out my things. It would have been ungracious to not do so, after her welcome. She could have said, “This is a really crime-ridden area. Be careful of your things.” She did not, and gave me quite the opposite impression—“This is a lovely place. Enjoy it. You are in safe hands now.” I could not have laid out my things. The table she gestured to and that I went to was under the eyes of the desk she sat at. There were at least three or four librarians at work. All the guests were busy with computers and books.

The tea room was full of natural light and had power plugs. I wished I had brought my laptop up. Then I started reading the Irish Times and went through two and a half cups of tea while I went through its pages. Uma Malloney had an excellent piece. I made notes. Finally, refreshed, I went down.

I smiled to see my laptop gone. What nice librarians. They had felt it wasn’t safe so they had put it away. My bag as well. Strange they had left the shopping bag out. They must have realised it had nothing much in it. I went smiling to the desk, and spoke, as sometimes happens, to two people together which annoyed them. It took a minute to make it clear that they had not picked up anything, that my things were in fact, stolen.

One of the two became very proactive and also protective. She called for the security guard but he was on lunch break. She gave me the address of the police station and told me to go there. She made me write down the details on a piece of paper and thanks to Jonah, I could give her a phone number as well.  After the guard’s lunch break they were going to look at the security camera’s video. Meanwhile, I should go and file a report. She seemed confident that with the video they would be able to find the thief. There seemed to be known criminals operating in the area.

The second phase began in the police station. There was a line and it moved slowly. When it reached me, it crawled to a stop. Others had come for routine passport applications. Mine was a whole theft. The police man slowly and carefully wrote down a few facts. He chatted with me in a relaxed manned, one dozen pairs of eyes eating into my back as I stood at the counter. He told me with a kindly smile, at least four times, “Oh, that area! We consider it a very bad area.” Thanks a lot, I thought. This same morning I had been walking around Dublin, humming to myself, “Oh Dublin! Wonderful city! Go anywhere—everywhere’s nice. Sit anywhere—places galore. Sit and work—such a wonderful atmosphere. Thank you Dublin!” And, because someone had mentioned it, I chose to go to Pierce Street Library, thinking further, “I’ll look at every library in the city.” I knew of five, and I did end up going to four. The fifth one, inside Trinity, used to have tourist lines a mile long. I am sure there was another entrance or another section but I did not bother to find it. I went to ILAC library, to Beatty library, to the National Gallery and to Pierce Street.

The policeman reminded me of Nikos. He got the Indian Embassy’s address for me, tried to call them, told me to just go, found the directions on his phone, took my details again, made sure someone had gone down to the library, told me he worked till 10 at night and yes, I could come back, gave me his name and number, and after what seemed to be an hour—turned to the next in line.

I was sorry, as I walked away, that I had not turned to the line of people and apologised for taking so much time.

The taxi driver knew where the Indian embassy was. I could have hugged the tricolour flag as I entered the building. Phase three began. The place was crummy, with a dirty carpet and disorder in the pile of tourist pamphlets heaped on one side as soon as you entered. An arrow directed me to the basement, where sat an ID Tiwari kind of person at a dining table, obviously not at work. On one side was a counter with glass shutting out the office behind, a little hole for applicants to speak through. I started in English, then switched quickly to Hindi.

The man and then the woman at the glass window, did the usual Indian things. They repeated what I said slowly. They looked and sounded perplexed. They were like lay passers by I might have accosted to explain my problem. They denied that anything was possible. I said, “Do it!”  as I fell into familiar Indian-ness myself. They then asked, “Give us your passport number.” I got busy trying to remember and to phone Nandini to look it up for me. They got interested in the project. They encouraged me to guess and with every combination I came up with, they searched. They found it. They then discussed the whole thing in detail among themselves, mostly how their software worked.

Then they explained that this being a small embassy, they did not have the facilities to issue fresh passports here. Those could only be made in India and took 5-6 weeks. What they could do was give a travel document. However, that was good only for travel to India. I had seen those words at entries into countries and such places and had a hope, though an ever diminishing one, that this travel document might let me enter Britain, maybe for just one day, to collect my money and suitcase and so on. I told them to let me see the officer in charge. They said the usual Indian things like, “Ab apko kah to rahe hain, baith jaiye. Jab vo khali nahin hain to apko kaise jane de sakte hain? Ap hi bataiye?” They were full of rhetorical questions: “How can that be? How can we do it? I can’t force you into his door can I? When he is not free what am I to do? Why don’t you sit down?” My research brain ever alive, I made mental notes of everything, even while another part of that brain kept pushing away anything extraneous and wept, “FOCUS.”

I of course paced and did not sit down. I was afraid the officer would escape if I did not stay on my feet. I had a lot to plan as well. H’m. Ask Trinity if I could stay on for another five days. Go for just one day to London. Collect my cheque, my suitcase. E-mail Naveen to change my ticket. E-mail him also to make a UK visa appointment for me too since I would need a fresh visa. Make an emergency passport appointment for me as well. E-mail Maurice to say, “Please tell me where to find another key to your house. The key you gave me is lost.”

So much to think through. And at each step, to tell myself, “Think carefully. There can always be another option. A better choice than the one you are making.”

As I was finally sent to the officer’s, I realised miserably that the British would not in fact let me in on the strength of a “travel document” which would in fact be a piece of letterhead with my photograph, now-found passport number, and the seal of the second secretary, Indian Embassy, Dublin. All the time I had been thinking of passport-related things I had been thinking of a novel in which the smuggling and frauds intended are committed with just such a story as mine.

Then I had been thinking of all the good things I could get out of this experience, all the knowledge I was getting, etc etc. and I had to acknowledge that it would be a huge expense and  a lot of extra time to put into replacing my stolen things, and it was all going down the drain.  It was time to grow up. There was no point fooling myself that this was educational in any way. I communicated with the thief, “Man, why don’t you throw the passport, so useless to you, into the police station and go off with your 1000 dollar haul in the form of an actually useless Samsung laptop?” I communicated hard, “JUST DO IT.”

As I sat in front of the second secretary, Ravi Chandra, just made the first secretary, waiting for him to finish with his phone call, my own phone rang. I had talked to Nandini a half dozen times and thought it was her. When the phone said “unknown” for the incoming call, my heart jumped. Let it be the nice policeman, buzzed a prayer inside. It was. They had found the bag. I could not guess how or where and I did not ask. I said that I would get there right away. The second, I mean first, secretary, prompted me—having grasped everything from my hums and haws—to ask if the passport was there, safe? I asked. It was.

I didn’t go right away, however. I waited and chatted. I told him how the embassy needed improving. I translated my thoughts of the last hour and a half into tactful language. The thoughts were, “What a horrible place. Everything is horrible, the carpet, the walls, the approach, the system, the people, their speech, the soft boards, everything. What a bad face of India. And it hasn’t changed in the forty years that I have been seeing Indian embassies.” What I said was, “I know how you could train your staff to make it a nicer experience for those who come into the place. I work on this you know.” And other such friendly things.

Then I ran as fast as my feet could carry me, blessing the thief, blessing the Lord, blessing the librarians, and most of all blessing the policemen of Dublin. I JUST ADORE DUBLIN.

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 7, 2014

Backward and forward, past and present

Muslims have a bad press. Jews used to have a bad press, then they got savvy. Hindus? Hindus have a terrible press, among, often, their own co-religionists. The last is what we call primary research. The first two are secondary research. This is only about the first.

In a talk yesterday, the speaker from the Yuval Ron ensemble narrated stories of the high classical period in Spain, produced by the influence of Muslims from the Middle East, when the rest of Europe was in darkness. Andalusia in Southern Spain was introduced to libraries, knowledge, philosophy, music and the arts. The Muslims had reached heights in these fields. In one of the stories he told how a certain musician (Zreyd?) had travelled “to the furthest corner of the world”—that is, as then known, southern Spain. There he had taught and performed music and brought light to Christians and Europeans.

The speaker’s tale was after my heart. It was emancipatory. He gently chided the West for not recognising the parts of its legacy that came from the Middle East. He made the strong point that Christianity had been intolerant and Islam enlightened. He was also a natural story teller who kept the audience enthralled. There was a knock on the door. “Who’s there?” asked the Sheikh. It was the spy. Who else would come knocking like that at night? “Your majesty,” said the spy. “You have been tricked.” I want to tell stories like that! To talk slowly, and not be afraid of repetition.

Then there was the q&a. My hand went up. I was genuinely curious. “Why did the great musician, if he had to be banished “to the furthest corner of the world,” chosen to go west and not east? By the 8th and 9th centuries, there was already Islamic culture in northwest India and Arabs coming and going for trade, building mosques and learning and teaching?”

I should have known. When someone tells a good story your defences come down and you want to think, “Ah yes. YES.” Then some detail in it clicks home and you know you have to ask a question. And that reveals that the great storyteller does not know. And while fictionalizing is perfectly fine, he should not presume to lecture an adult audience—maybe even children—on supposedly historical facts.

He went as far as to say that the heights of Islamic civilisation came down when the Muslims were banished from Spain. Oh, there were the Ottomans….he hesitated. …They were pretty advanced in culture….He moved on quickly and reiterated the point that after the fifteenth century, Muslim civilization was in decline. He was emphatic. The storytelling magic was gone and he was pedantic, and now, stubborn.

I asked, “What about the Mughals? It was precisely in the 16th and 17th centuries that Islamic culture was at its peak in another part of the world, South Asia.”

He had apparently never given it a thought. Not to be unkind, but he may have seen some Bollywood movies. I hear they are popular in the Middle East. He smiled charmingly at me, this obviously Indian woman in an Indian garb, asking obviously personal questions about the only part of the world she knew and cared about. “Yes, there was an Indian King who was Muslim I think. He was great, very liberal….tell me who I am talking about…?”  I did not answer. He said a few more things. “Akbar,” I said briefly to forestall him saying “Taj Mahal.” “Yes, yes, Akbar Khan! Akbar Khan!”

The day before I had given a mid-term exam to my class with a simple question, “What was the difference between the Turks and Afghans?” Meanwhile, Jalaluddin Akbar sighed and shifted and turned over in his grave as the speaker bounced out a few more Akbar Khan! Akbar Kahn!-s

I really don’t know what lesson to draw from all this. I will follow Irfana’s lead, who is potentially more radical than me. She says that finally, everyone wants to be oriented to the West. Everyone wants, even if they were left out in history, to be finally only accepted back by the West, to be given their rightful place, to be acknowledged and respected again.

They don’t really have an idea of themselves and their place, and certainly not of any solidarity between the different kinds of groups and people left out of history. In the great “Muslim, Jewish and Christian Harmony in the Golden Age of Spain,” as the talk advertised itself, the three parts were not equal. The story was one of poor, underestimated Muslims and how their past should be acknowledged by the great Christians and now Jews of the West.

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers