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.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 7, 2014

Kafka and the Universe

7th March—the date I thought I would never see in Claremont, because of the elaborate plans to be away. The suitcase lies yawning, half packed, with stacks of neat stuff around it to be put in systematically when the signal is given. It’s ridiculous to finish packing a suitcase when you don’t know when you are travelling, or now, where you are travelling to. If I don’t go to Oxford, there is no point in taking all this stuff which was brought from India to begin with to be taken to Nandini.

I was supposed to have left the night before last for a small stop at Oxford, on the way to Berlin for the nice conference to which I was giving a special address. Everything is in place, except that the British Consulate has not returned my passport and has nothing to say in explanation or enquiry. I have sent dozens of e-mails and have heard nothing to the point and have no idea when to expect my passport back. I have cancelled tickets, shame-facedly informed those expecting me, and am, literally, sitting here in the dark.

I am thinking of Kafka. I have often thought, even with my personal tragedies, perhaps because I “survived” them—who knows what that means?—that I am “deprived” of the knowledge of the really bad. That I can never understand Kafka, for instance, because I can never become so powerless.

So maybe this experience is a little education in that direction. I am virtually a prisoner. Take away a person’s passport and she is helpless. Soviet, maybe Chinese, certainly Cuban, citizens must have had this experience in the past. But their expectations were different. Mine are of an equal citizen in a functioning democracy visiting a country also boastful of itself as a democracy, trying to visit a country that is famous as the oldest constitutionally functioning system in the world. They have all conspired to reduce me to pulp. Or a wimp. Who is withdrawing step by step from the height of expectations she held of herself in this world, and with every retreat, is whimpering and pleading for yet smaller rights, but just something, anything. The erosion of rights and self-respect is remarkable. You cannot stand tall and proclaim who you are and what you must have if total silence greets you at the other end. Your voice falls lower and lower and then you barely whisper.

But what could the British Consulate want from torturing me like this? I am not their citizen and do not need to be kept in check. I am, however, pounding on their doors to be let in. Maybe my case is a little too strong and these cases arouse hackles. Why does she insist so much? Why has she sent her previous three passports? She has visited Britain so many times—obviously she has been trying again and again to go there. What is this Claremont College? Obviously the letterhead is made up. Anyone can make up a letterhead. What is this conference? This research? Enough details are not given. Then she has a daughter in England. She should have applied for a Child Visitor visa.

What am I meant to learn? What is the Universe trying to teach me?

At one level, it is the mundane lessons that my mother and my teachers failed to teach. Plan carefully, revise everything, do not hand in your papers until you have gone over them—fourscore and ten times over. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be careless.  Somewhere there is small print. Stop thinking of yourself as this special person (because of your education) who does not need to waste her time on the small print. That is exactly what will trip you up.

At another level, it is the wise old grandmother Universe who knows the secret no one else knows, that I am behind a bunch of different work and will suffer for the delay and incompleteness of each, and am thinking naively that nothing will happen and I can postpone further, but that’s not how it works. So it (she) is quietly giving me the time to complete everything while making it seem like an accident that now I have the time to do so.

At yet another level, there is a yet bigger presence somewhere behind this Mother Universe which is reminding me of what I already knew but was maybe in danger of forgetting. That nothing can finally affect you. You are, as Kabir sang, a bubble. Lay your plans as you may. You can be burst into nothingness at any instance.

I know this. It has happened to me. There is nothing abstract about the idea at all. When my bubble burst not so long ago, I realised that in the future I would have few illusions about the certainty of things. My disappointments would correspondingly be fewer, and maybe non-existent.

Then I drifted. I built up little empires, shored my banks, toted up my accounts. I began to live and think like someone who has never glimpsed the truth but actually believes that she can control what happens to her.

So this is a gentle reminder that no one can and the worst foolishness in the world is to believe that you can. No regret can be greater than the initial moment of realising this simple truth—say it, say it—as at the death of a loved one. No disappointment has any meaning after that.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 6, 2014

Alternative Modernities

Irfana is ill. She has dengue fever. She just looked it up. It lasts for just 4-5 days, though she has now had it for a week. There is no cure for it. She has to rest and suffer and it will pass. Then she will be week for two weeks or so. At least we know what it is. For four visits to the doctor, he was tentative and experimental, like the guest who comes for a meal and instead of eating properly, says politely achha, chakh lenge (all right…I might take a bite.) After five tests turned out negative, it was we who pushed the doctor to prescribe this dengue fever test.

He: “It’s nothing. She does not have malaria or typhoid, and her chest is clear.”

We: “Does she need to take another test? What is it? The fever is continuing for a week.”

Irfana: “It does not feel like a regular fever. This is something different. My head feels funny.”

He: “It will pass once the disease is over.”

We: ?

He: “You should keep taking your medicines.”

We: “What about the dengue fever test?”

He: “Yes, you can take that.”

We: “Should we?”

He: “Yes, you can. The chances are small. The time for dengue fever is over. We are seeing fewer cases of it now.”

We: “Oh, so it’s not necessary?”

He: “No, you can take it.”

And so on. As we wound our way down to the basement of the hospital where the tests are done, we were not sure whether this expensive test was needed or not. The doctor had left us with the impression that he could not say “no” to us after we had suggested it.

But it was positive. So we will go back tomorrow and see whether more tests and medicines are needed, even though online it says that there is no cure and it passes on its own.

Drat that one mosquito whose one bite caused it.

BHU is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Madan Mohan Malaviya. It seems to have happened rather abruptly, because surely such a thing should be celebrated for the whole year? They seem to have had a committee meeting in which the VC, let’s suppose it was him, told all the heads of the department to go out and organise something, sparing no expenses. He announces a generous budget of anywhere from half to a crore. About ten departments take him up on his offer and get five to seven lakhs each. The rest goes to lighting and beautification of the campus.

If you go there now, there are people busy painting the brickwork yellow and black, cleaning the sidewalks, weeding the roadsides. The departments who took up the offer rather imaginatively opted to hold an international conference each. I have already come across the Management one, the Labour Economics one, the Sanskrit one, and the English one. Some departments have pink and white tents in their compounds, some have bagged halls. Visitors are being received from the airport and driven around. Student volunteers are rushing to and fro, organisers are looking worried, and caterers are as happy as little bunnies.

During tea, you get, not just tea or coffee and biscuits, but a whole platter of alu chop, mithai, dalmoth, biscuits, and a little plastic cup of bad tea. Looking at the plastic cup, I wish it could have been done more aesthetically and, of course, that the tea were edible.

I go to the English Department conference, properly in the new Centre for Inter-Cultural Studies. It is on Alternative Modernities and is interesting enough. Arjun Appadorai suggests that there should be an understanding of many secularisms as there is of many religions. Ashis Nandy says, provocatively, that he would rather there be bad but ethical science than there be good but unethical science. He would rather fight the village astrologer or the shaman than the Nazis or the colonizers.

Others say interesting things too but I want to go back to Irfana with her fever, so I leave. I have strong thoughts on the subject of the conference so can’t listen to too much either without getting impatient. I have presented papers, in the past, on “Learning the ABC of Modernity” and “Learning Modernity? The technology of Education in India” and on the modernity of Banaras itself. My papers are also called “A Post-colonial school in a modern world” and I am now writing a book on the subject.

Modernity, as the cliché goes, is coming out of my ears.

What I think is this: it’s too many words. Words, words, words. We will never figure out anything like this. We should have a simple set of agendas and plan of action. Such as: how can we make those children who simply want to be “modern”—in clothes, behaviour, lifestyle—also free to be other things and to be reflective and critical and funny and creative? That’s what my agenda is. Otherwise we privileged people are debating away about words while all the time we live happily in several worlds, and there are those who are stuck in one and all they long for is to touch the hemline of the other, and they have no idea, and no hope, of ever debating anything and certainly of picking and choosing between alternatives.

So, in Southpoint school, we recently performed The Merchant of Venice in Hindi. Eight children, doing a few multiple roles each, brought Shakespeare to life in colloquial Hindustani, the characters transferred from the Mediterranean to North India. The new people were called Razzak Ali, Mehjabeen, Anwar Hussain and so on. The children playing them were from poor weavers’ families, a tailor’s, an unemployed mazdoor’s, and two without fathers whose mothers depended on their natal families. They were children who would otherwise have swotted in some boring school, got turned off studies, dropped off, and taken to some semi-skilled low-paying work to make survival possible for the family.

Here, they performed The Merchant of Venice. They were a team that knew that they were trained, skilled and competent. They roused laughter and admiration and for one hour kept an audience of hundreds enthralled. They knew pages of dialogue and knew that they were delivering it in a trained way. They also understood the story and felt ownership over it: greed, rivalry, persecution, anger, revenge, love, competition, justice, intelligence, beauty and fulfilment. It was as if they had the power to create truth. Everyone acknowledged them as young masters of a profession and they knew they had achieved something wonderful.

For working class children like them to have performed Shakespeare in Hindi and be so respected and empowered is an alternative modernity.

There is no point in debating the desirability of the alternative. That is the only kind of modernity for us in the non-West that is possible. The hospital and the doctor that Irfana had to suffer were perfect examples of derived and imitative modernity. A huge box of a building with a poor imitation of everything that a Western hospital has, but Indian people manning it with inadequate and unreflective training about their work, consequently a shabbiness and looseness in everything. Why do people like to imitate modernity, even when they can see that it does not work? Why not worry about how to achieve the alternative? My—our—answer to that: give actual respect to the desires of individuals by trying to offer them all the opportunities for reading, exposure and creation that all the privileged people in India experience. The children’s Merchant of Venice was a conference on Alternative Modernities.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 6, 2014

Community versus fantasy?

Community versus fantasy? In a nutshell, this is a crucial question we considered today.

First, in the teachers’ workshop at Southpoint, we discussed two important aspects of the curriculum: how to begin and conclude a class. The beginning was to always be “oral.” All too often a teacher begins by entering her class, asking her students to “open your copies” and starts writing on the blackboard something for them to copy. She does not tell them what the plan is, does not greet them or acknowledge them in other ways, and does not make an effort to get them interested in the topic of the day.

We have to change all this, said I, leading the teaching workshop. No matter what, you must begin with a discussion. Nor should the discussion be the familiar litany of “What is your name? What did you eat for breakfast today? How did you come to school? What did you see on the way?” Whatever the topic may be, eg the ubiquitous one of ”transport,” that at least three teachers had told me they were doing at present, it could rise above these ghisa-pita, simplistic approaches.

No question but I worked hard to bring smiles to their faces. I told them the importance of using jargon words like “curriculum” instead of making loose statements such as “the children were taking a lot of interest in this” and “they had a good response to this.” I know, by the way, that these seem like harmless, even meaningful statements, but my battle is to make them plan every step in their classroom more, and even more, to reflect on everything they do in more technical language. To emphasise the importance of language, I joked about changing Mamta’s name to “Pintu”—-that produced smiles.

There were many techniques to stimulate discussion. I am haunted by a thesis of Kieran Egan, that children’s imagination is routinely stunted in schools by mistaken teaching notions of “development.” He argues that it is not true that children’s brains, or minds, “develop” over age. For some things, such as art or poetry, they are at their peak in earlier years and decline with age, until in adulthood, the minds are the least developed. The evidence lies, among other things, in children’s appreciation of fairy tales, where they can apparently engage with complex emotional issues presented through characters they could never encounter.

So, while presenting some techniques to stimulate discussion—bringing an object, starting a debate, brainstorming, going outside or looking outside—I told our teachers that we favoured the “community” approach because it was underplayed in India and children did not learn to observe around them or interact with everyday things or apply those observations to what they were learning in school. But we favoured even more the “fantasy” approach where instead of simply talking, taking the transport example, of whatever they knew, we talked about what could be or whatever their imaginations could produce. They were not in fact two opposing sides, community and fantasy, though I had presented it as such. I hastened to add that there was a transition between them. Much of what could be said about transport was in fact mysterious for children and had to be researched, not least by the teacher first. Instead of simply “how did you come to school?” the lead question could be “Let’s look at everything in our classroom. How did it get here? The bricks, the cement, the glass, the wires, the tiles?”

After the teachers’ workshop there were meetings with individual teachers. Then we went through three acts of a play in progress, acted by class X and Azim, in IX, and watched by the teachers. This was The Merchant of Venice translated into Hindustani and located in present-day Banaras. All by chance, it illustrated beautifully this community-fantasy paradox.

The characters in the play now had Muslim names and dressed as Muslims, with fezes and skull caps, pyjamas and lungis. They had nice Urdu inflexions and greeted and parted with salam-alequm and Khudahafiz. Coincidentally four out of the eight children were Muslims, one from a weaving family, one from a butcher’s, one a trader’s and one from an ex-weaver’s, presently unemployed family. All that also rang a bell because the play talked about commerce and trade, wranglings with money and the need for justice. Because Shakespearean England was not very removed from contemporary small-town India in certain respects, the play sounded “natural,” as if the children were talking about their own lives.

We had come back to “community” via “fantasy.” In order to talk about Muslim “difference,” love and hate, plotting and revenge, competition and disappointment, we used a faraway story in space and time that the children first read, in a language not ours and with characters called Bassanio and Antonio. We modified everything a bit with a friendly translation but kept true to Shakespeare’s intentions—and emotions and humour. Via this discursive route, the children discovered and talked about themselves. There was no way to measure what happened, but big things did.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 6, 2014

There is bad news about literacy in Rajasthan

The Bachelor of Education degree that teachers are supposed to have is quite an impressive degree. It covers every facet of education, keeps being updated with the latest knowledge, and is taught typically by experienced professors. I refreshed my data on B. Ed. classes recently. There was almost nothing I could have said was missing in their content and needed adding. With my thirty year old research into what teachers need to know and what good education should be about, there was nothing I would have added to the current B. Ed. Curriculum.

The problem lies in that the whole system of education in India, top to bottom, consists of rote learning, and passing examinations. Thus the young men and women sitting in the B. Ed. Auditorium are immersed in a discourse and a value system that has no loophole at all. For ten to fifteen or more years already, they have identified ‘learning’ with ‘rote learning from notes.’ Their teachers likewise. In the topic “Introduction skills” under “Micro Teaching” the lecturer begins dictating her ten points and all bend down to write. All B. Ed. Colleges are the same, from top to bottom.

Teachers, like many other adults, develop an understanding of a dualism, a difference between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’. They are comfortable with Doublespeak. It is quite typical for a teacher and even Principal to keep reciting the virtues of Montessori methods with a finesse that would make you sure that that’s what she practised. You go to her classroom. The children sit in straight rows on hard benches facing a blackboard from which they copy ad infinitum A-B-C, 1-2-3 and ka-kha-ga.

The marks that they receive in their B. Ed exams compensates for the graduates for any compulsion to apply the knowledge they also receive. Nor is it demanded by the average school administration. There is no reward for putting the knowledge into practice. There is no consequence for not doing so. In a situation where no teacher is putting the nice theories of teaching into practice, the novitiate, even if full of energy and maybe idealism, quickly overcomes potential marginalization by conforming. Surely there are exceptions. I would say that in my one hundred schools I found eight teachers in seven schools who at least worried that they were not putting their knowledge to use in the classroom. Others had the knowledge and also the conviction that there is a gap between what is known and what is done.

This has been the state for a few decades. Then the government decided to introduce several aspects of progressive education, such as doing away with written examinations and grades for primary classes, and including other methods of teaching apart from the textbook-based, note-copying, exam-oriented one. Rajasthan is a state where this has happened for quite a few years now. Why would education worsen rather than improve?

There are several parts to the answer, but the most important one is this. All over the world teachers find it more challenging to run a progressive rather than an authoritarian, a child-centred rather than a teacher-centred classroom. That our teachers find it difficult is hardly surprising. Nor should it shock us that teachers whose whole education has been in the older system, including the formative B. Ed., are unable in their maturity to suddenly transform themselves into practitioners of a new system. The only people currently doing this in our society are perhaps those who run private enterprises. Others who seem to be doing so are doing so under duress, or because of well-defined economic pressure. Teachers are expected to teach differently only because the new system has been stated to be better. That it may be better for them professionally, in terms of job satisfaction, for promotion and reward, and because it would achieve their aims better, is left murky.

So at least I learnt from my informants in Rajasthan. In some four private and three government schools I learnt that the new system was bad and was going to ruin children. They would learn little and forget what they already knew. Standards would fall in reading, writing and arithmetic because if you have no exams and no grades, that’s what happens. You can’t apply the same methods across the board. Some children need more disciplining and homework. Some have families that support their studies, others have chaos at home. Teachers were surprisingly vociferous in their predictions of disaster—that same disaster that newspapers report has occurred.

There is also report of a standoff between the report-makers, ASER, who claim that progressive education is in fact at fault, which is the teachers’ perspective, and the government spokesmen, who claim that there is no such problem inherent in the educational reforms—which should be all our perspective, taking the side of children.
Because of course you must have different methods of learning and testing, no exams and grading in primary school, more activities and projects, and a more open curriculum and classroom.

But this must come from the teachers, not the government. The many workshops teachers attend must have this agenda first and foremost: ideologically, undo and unpack the formed ideas of teachers; and technically, give them sufficient persuasive content to make them feel confident of the new ways of teaching. And, the B. Ed. courses must become the first training ground, where this new, exciting system is first introduced.

Vayu Air, the husband
Vayu-ani his wife
Vayu-mey his older daughter
Vayu-ni his younger daughter
Narad the messenger, also the doctor
Shiva the Great Lord
Parvati his wife
Ganesh his older son
Kartikeya his younger son
Durbasha-Muni the sage who, losing his temper, curses

The scene is a domestic one. The room has rugs on the floor for the children to play and work on, a cosy table on one side, some kind of a hearth at the back on which a kettle boils. From the windows and doors can be seen ample scenes of the mountains. It is really high up. Occasionally a noisy draft blows in from the windows or open door. Everything is proper and in place, but personal, intimate, exuding happiness. Effort must be made to not ‘orientalise’ the scene with bright fabrics, pottery, etc. if anything, the place can be given a ‘Swiss cottage’ look.
Vayu is dressed in pale, off-white colours: lemon, fawn, pale gold. He wears robes, an Indian dhoti-kurta or something more imaginary. He looks cool, as if, if you touched him you would be chilled. His wife is brisk. Throughout, even when she sits and talks, she is also doing something else (fixing the cutlery, picking up something from the floor), the archetypal professional cum housewife. She is obviously responsible for the order in the house. The two children, about nine and five, play on the floor, busy, even while they talk to the parents. The older daughter is writing or drawing, and occasionally gets up to act out or dance out some idea that she is apparently working on. The younger one is making things, like a very young designer or engineer. It is morning; maybe the sun is rising.

Vayu Devi, did you make the tea?
Vayuani brings a teapot and cups to the table and systematically pours out tea through a strainer, asking with a gesture if he wants sugar or honey, lemon or milk. They obviously know each others’ habits and like to do things just so. ‘Devi’ and ‘Deva’ are their loving terms for each other. No one can guess whether they mean the literal ‘god’ and ‘goddess’ or something more like ‘my darling’ and ‘sweetheart.’ They are very matter-of-fact with each other and as they talk, reach for the newspaper.
Vayu Excellent. You made good tea, devi.
Vayuani Thanks to you, deva. No tea without fire. You have given us the excellent thing called fire. We can now boil water and do a hundred things.
Vayu Ah, agni. My friend fire. He loves me. He does not want to be around if I am not there. He told me this funny story. They insisted on shutting him up in a little glass jar without me—and he got so upset he just curled up and disappeared.
Vayu-ni (busy, hardly looking up) Mummy, daddy! But remember, I invented the smart way to make the water boil!
Vayu Uh-oh. One thing is not done.
Everyone slightly freezes, waits. He gestures to the little girl who comes to him. He kisses her elaborately. Everyone smiles and goes back to what they were doing. This is a familiar ritual. The girl is patient, the father beaming.
Vayuani Yes, Vayu-ni, if you compress the power of the air, a new power is created. Now be careful about the use of words. It’s actually a discovery and not an invention. It’s correct name is ‘steam.’
Vayu What else have you invented—I mean, discovered, little one?
The little girl is surrounded with half-made inventions, pieces of things, including tell-tale pulleys and gears, cardboard, metal, wood. Most of all, she is very busy and concentrating.
Vayuni Oh nothing. I made this simple box….
She shows a harmonium, ie., a little organ, which has to be pumped and when the bellows fill with air, magical sounds can be made by pressing keys. She shows and plays it, and enchantment fills the air.
Vayu-mey Nice sound! It’s not just a simple box. Let’s play those notes in a pattern. (plays.) They are making a raga. I want to call this raga “Bhairav.” “The morning.” (she is restrained, but moved. The mother is ecstatic.)
Vayu A pumping instrument is good, daughter. Make more things! You know that apart from pumping the air, you can move it in other ways, right?
Vayu-mey You can blow it! You can make it vibrate! You can exhale it and sing!
She imitates each kind of instrument and then sings.
Vayu (amazed) Well! You’ve made these instruments?
Vayu-mey No, daddy. You know I don’t make things! I just imagine things, (aside) and not only things. (back to him) I draw them. I write about them.
Vayu Of course. Uh-oh. One thing is not done. (repeats his kissing act with the other daughter. Everyone sees it through.)
Vayu-mey Okay, but can I tell you what happened? I explained to our Science and Technology teacher how I thought these instruments could be. I called the blowing one bansuri and the vibrating one veena. And guess what? He made them! They are beautiful! You have to come to our school and see them. He has put together a whole orchestra and everyone is playing these different instruments. There are now many kinds of wind instruments and many kinds of strumming instruments. And I get to sing.
Vayu (to his wife) H’m. so there is politics in that too.
Vayuani What politics? Come on. You see politics everywhere. (to her daughter) Is that the teacher Vishwakarma? (The daughter nods.) (to Vayu) You know that Vishwakarma is crazy. He is always making more and more ambitious things.
Vayu That’s fine. He is welcome to. But, instruments and such—he should at least invite me to the orchestra opening.
Vayuani That of course. You should be the Chief Guest. Without you…. I am going to send a note to the school. No, no, not about this…. (changing the subject) So what are your plans for today, deva?
Vayu (stands up, re-arranges his robes, moves around slowly) I am not feeling that good. I’ll do some gardening. I want to fix that photosynthesis thing and make sure that every single thing can grow as well as it possibly can.
Vayuani Really? Is there a problem? Why do they have so many problems? Soil, water, air. It should be simple.
Vayu No, no problems, everyone is learning. Everyone is just learning. That oxygen, carbon dioxide thing is tricky. Anything slightly complicated and most people don’t want to face it. If I did not look, they would start behaving as if these gases acted the opposite of the way they do.
Vayuani Maybe they need to chant the right mantras. I think I know the one…
Vayu No, I don’t think so. They simply have to understand.
Vayuni I know! They could build a bubble around themselves of something or the other—and build a box…
Vayu-mey … called an “air conditioner.” That means you condition the air. That means you take a whole big building, or a whole city, or a whole part of the world and just make its air the way you wanted it to be.
Vayu and Vayuani both look at them, disturbed.
Vayu A whole city….a whole part of earth….?
Vayuani That crazy Vishwakarma building new things—I can see it…. I am going to go in and talk to their teachers. The children could be learning how to invent—well, more trees and jungles. Learning more mantras.
Vayu-mey Oh, mummy. Why not do something different? There are so many trees. Can I tell you about one of my teachers? His name is Maruts. He was telling us about this wonderful box that can go up in the air and move…
Vayu Well, daughter, we all have our chariots that do that, don’t we? Do you want to come for a ride?
Vayu-mey No, no, this is for everyone. So that no one needs to be stuck in one place. You get up and go where you like.
Vayuani Did he discuss some problems….such as with fuel?
Vayuni What is foo-el?
Vayuani Well, if you don’t use horses, you need to mine the earth and get some things from there. That’s the fuel, the thing that the box will fly with. Then when everyone is using that fuel, it will finish. And while it works it will spit out bad gases.
Vayu-mey I don’t think it matters much, mummy. I don’t think Mr Maruts or Mr Vishwakarma or the rest of them care about all that. And I don’t care either. I think it is exciting. I can’t wait to have it.
Vayuani I have to come to the school and speak to them…. (looks vaguely around for her calendar; then shrugs and leaves it.)
Vayu And what are your plans today, devi?
Vayuani Well you can do your gardening, and I am going to do my favourite thing. I have to collect some more data and finish up my paper.
Vayu Is that the one on the Coronation Sacrifice? Remind me what it’s on, devi.
Vayuani The Ten-Horse Sacrifice. “The different mantras in the Vakravad Upanishad and the Chalak Upanishad signalling a shift in the implications of the Ten-Horse Sacrifice.” It’s fascinating. You want to hear a story? When King Mahaprasad set off for the Sacrifice….. (her voice becomes a chant or a hum and music can take over for some seconds. Her family gathers around and listens.)
The spell is broken and they shift away to their respective jobs. The two girls put on their coats and boots murmuring “We have to go to school.” The father helps them button up. Both parents see them off with exhortations to look out for the three-headed boar and the slippery ice on the slope.
Vayu sits down exhausted. He is looking pale and is progressively sicker. His wife clears up and does not pay much attention. He sighs deeply. Then she looks at him.
Vayuani What is it, deva?
Vayu Maybe I should see a doctor. There is this heavy feeling inside me. I know nothing is wrong, but still….
Vayuani Oh, of course nothing is wrong! You should be your own cure. Go out for some fresh air! Talk to the plants, fly among the trees, strum some strings, ripple the waves!
Vayu That does sound good. Do you want to come with me? We could have a holiday today. No, I know you have to work.
Vayuani Yes, I must work. No holiday for me. My editor has reminded me about the deadline. I have already missed it once. He will be angry like Durbasha muni if I am late again. You’ll be fine.
Durbasha muni enters. He is a sage, skinny, ascetic, bare chested, carrying a pot, with a habit of flinging out one arm overhead, ready to curse or bless.
Vayu Yes, I will be fine, won’t I? (he starts going towards the door, falters, stops, sits down, puts his head down on his outstretched arms on the table, immobile.)
Vayuani Oh, deva. What is it? What is it?
Durbasha What is it? It is a curse. He did not listen. You did not listen.
Vayuani But what? What did we do?
Durbasha What did you not do? Shall I tell you, now that you have summoned me here by invoking my name? You: you were busy with your studies, rushing here and there for conferences. Did you ever pause to ask, can my research be at least a little bit about the problem creeping up around me? Did you pay attention to the infection getting into poor Vayu’s body, while you kept the inside of your house so spick and span?
Vayuani (stroking Vayu) What infection? Where did he get it?
Durbasha Just neglect, my dear. Gross neglect. And even worse, you realised that your children were learning the wrong things but did not interfere. You should have known better!
Vayuani We need a doctor! (She stands absolutely still, closes her eyes and pronounces: “Narad muni” three times.)
Narad, a muni or sage, appears. He carries a stringed musical instrument that he occasionally strikes to give emphasis to what he is saying. He is also dressed in robes and could be fat or thin, tall or short, clean shaven or with a long beard, as wished.
Narad looks at the collapsed Vayu, hits many notes, and speaks in a deliberate prophetic voice.
Narad I am not saying this is good or bad. I am not telling you what to think. But—narayan, narayan! (this chorus phrase may be replaced by another one)—there is a turn we are taking in our history.
Vayuani What has happened? What is going on? How is Vayu?
Narad Vayu has succumbed to a fatal weakness—narayan, narayan. It is what happens in a certain time-cycle. Some trends have been set in motion.
Vayuani What trends? What are you talking about? Can’t you do something for Vayu?
Narad Others will talk about it soon enough; I do not need to. They will say: “Over-use of resources.” “Crazy technological development.” “Love of abstract thoughts and words that actually hide the truth.” I don’t like to say it. Vayu? Vayu will be all right.
Vayuani He will? He is?
As if on cue, Vayu raises his head and, still groggy sits up, saying something like “Where am I?” if that had not been such a cliché.
Narad Yes, of course, he will be all right. There can be nothing in this world, at least, without him, if there can in the other worlds. He is essential to life and so he will live.
Durbasha (roars) That’s no logic. You cannot take away one of my curses. As you sow, so shall you reap. Karma. The law of the universe.
Vayuani Aha! But here’s the value of a good education. I know that even if you cannot take away one of your curses, you can modify the curse. So please hurry up and do so.
Durbasha Humph. Vayu will not die, but he will no longer be worshipped as himself. He will no longer be one of the gods. No one will perform a sacrifice to him or chant a mantra for him. No one will love him, adore him, fight for him, or die for him. Instead—
All What??
Durbasha Instead, people will worship the products that work because of him, forgetting him entirely. The steam engine, the bellows, the boxes that fly, the boxes that condition air, the boxes that work because of other things that work because of Vayu. Everyone will worship and worship these things until they do finally poison him and themselves, and all perish.
He flashes his dread outstretched fingers at the end of his long arm and stalks off, an image of doom.
Narad Narayan, Narayan. As I was saying, the time has come. It is not Durbasha’s fault. He cursed you to remind you of what you could have done and did not do.
Vayuani I am going now!
Vayu (weak, recovering) Where are you going, devi? Sit by me instead.
Vayuani No, I need my friend Parvati. (closes her eyes, repeats “Parvati, Parvati” and the latter enters, together with her husband Shiva and her sons Ganesh and Kartikeya.) Dear Parvati, we have to go to the children’s school. Please make yourself comfortable, Shiva, namaskar to you! Vayu is weak and will be happy to have your company. Children, you can play with the girls’ things and use their crayons and whatever you like. They will be back soon. Parvati, we have to go.
The two women leave. The two boys take over the girls’ materials and start inventing and designing with alacrity.
Shiva I was always against schools. Real education is in nature. What happened to you, old pal?
Vayu I caught the disease of Durbasha’s curse. I will no longer be worshipped. Only the things that run with my help.
Shiva Do you have some ale? Thanks. Cheers! If it is any consolation, that’s what happened to me. No one knows the real me any longer. Instead they worship me as this stone shaft that is such a terrific symbol that no one knows what it symbolizes!
Vayu That’s the end of the glory then?
Shiva As Narad has taught us, worship rises and falls. You are not in favour now, but other things are.
Vayu Maybe our children can save the day?
Shiva I don’t think so. But maybe their children’s children’s children. Cheers!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 26, 2014

Alu-gobhi and other memories of food

Alu-gobhi. I got up thinking of Shankar’s alu gobhi. It was cut small, crisp but not burned, fragrant with spices and tangy with tomatoes, glistening with peas. It was the perfect part of lunch on a winter day. Somehow it was always a holiday for me as I regarded the alu gobhi served up. Somehow we were always eating outside on the verandah, or under the shade of a sun umbrella.

As with everything else I recount from my childhood, I realise that here, too, it is partly about the thing, and partly about my mother’s impeccable arrangements: the table, the umbrella, the ordering of the lunch.

[This time, when I am back with her, instead of always reprimanding her for fussing, I will conspire with her, “Let’s fuss more. Let’s make it all just so, as it was in my childhood.”]

The arrangements, and the alu-gobhi aside, I did not care for the food at home that much. The rest of the winter lunch would have been dal, meat, salad, and rotis folded up with ghee inside, afterwards a pudding. It was all too rich and intense for me, had always been for my child’s stomach. I often say that it’s when I stayed with my nana and nani at the age of nine and ten, that I learnt the joy of vegetarian food. They had hearty vegetables, dahi, panir, many dals, and rotis and parathas of an unmatched delectability. There were no puddings. There must have been mithai, and I remember the home-made kulfi. It’s completely true about learning to eat. After staying with them, I knew what I did not want to eat, and what I did.

Their dining table was in the middle of a vast room, with sundry cupboards, stools and tables along the sides. Nani always observed that the houses they lived in—typically the District Judge’s—were of a size to give her aching legs from walking around the rooms, and a headache from trying to fill them up with arrangements of furniture. Their furniture was heavy and there was a lot of it. In my child’s eye, and practice, there was more than enough for fortresses and whole cities. But it was defeated by the size of the rooms. Finally, I know what she meant—every room had an island of usable things in the middle and the outposts were assorted materials.

I wonder what the British had done with their gigantic bungalows?

To remember my mother’s dining tables makes me want to add, “in Meerut,” “in Agra,” “in Kanpur,” “in Banaras,” “in Lucknow.” Since nana and nani lived in Allahabad, these are my KAVAL towns, the five largest cities of my Uttar Pradesh.

In Meerut, mummy set up a veritable nursery for Sunil and me. This included a separate small table to eat at, with two small chairs. Our plates had little birds perched on boughs of flowers. I don’t remember liking anything much I ever ate, and Sunil liking only ketchup.

What had mummy, the mother in her twenties, desired to re-create for her cherubic little children?

In Agra, the dining room was cosy. There was a jali ki almari, or what my mother-in-law was later to call “the meat safe.” But there must have been a fridge also, it could not possibly have been the days before one, because even earlier in Meerut I remember going up to the fridge to check on my store of chocolates brought back from the fairyland called Mussoorie. But it was the days before a faucet and sink. We had a contraption that hung on the wall and had a tap, and under it was a bowl to wash in, padded with leaves so that the water did not splash. A lovely green piece of the outdoors inside our home. Brushing your teeth in this basin was an adventure as you watched where the spit-out toothpaste froth swirled and went.

The only food I vividly recall from those days are the puddings, especially the crisp ones that I could scrape at the edges. I also started liking fish in Agra, with hesitation. Shankar made it once a week, with potatoes on the side, and my taste buds slowly acknowledged that fish and potatoes were made for each other.

And I cannot forget the Saturday treats. I was home by eleven. As I dumped my bicycle and ran inside, I screamed “Shankar!” He, all ready, served me macaroni and scrambled eggs. At different times in my childhood he had me hooked on fried toast and just toast with a lot of butter with omelettes. I was a big built child, one I called “stout” once I had learnt the word, and it was my mother and Shankar’s fault.

But no doubt they bequeathed to me a gift of basic constitutional health. The food was balanced, nutritious, well cooked and wonderfully presented, regular, not actually wrong or too much.

In Kanpur, we had a ballroom of a dining room with wooden floors, fireplace, and a large dining table. In the winter, I remember lunch out on the lawn or on the verandah. In the summer, I remember it on white sheets on mattresses on the floor of their khus-cooled bedroom, with lots of home-made ice cream and sliced mangoes. My friend Veena came over one noontime on a winter holiday day. I could see everything through her eyes. A mother elegant in her chiffon and pearls, guiding the setting up of lunch under an umbrella on the lawn. Servants carrying out dishes. Cane chairs, cushions, dogs, serenity. My mother said to her, “Stay for lunch?” She could not and was served a cup of coffee. It was all beaten up and frothy, the cup delicate with the perfect spoon on the side. There was a swinging sofa seat outside and the lawns sloped away to the river.

In later years, the subconscious reading of that same scene was to inspire the beginning of my would-be novel, A False Start. The woman narrator is about to narrate her childhood and first wonders where her attention to fine details, to pleasing everyone with her service and arrangements, her total need for appreciation on these fronts—where in her childhood did all this come from? In my novel I proceed to describe the convent life that bred thoughts of feminine perfection and service. But in fact, the inspiration for this character was from my mother (or, more accurately, a merging of her and me), and for her, her formation must have been in the home, at the hands of mostly nani, or maybe her larger home, with her own grandparents, aunts, and cousins. I must ask her about this.

I remember nothing of what I ate at breakfast anywhere. It must have been different kinds of eggs and a lot of toast. Did I drink anything? Milk, no doubt. Was there any fruit? I remember none except mangoes. Bananas never crossed our threshold, I could have had an orange only on a picnic, and some other fruits were purely Mussoorie’s: cherries, plums, peaches, apricots.

But in class X I lived briefly in the boarding, out of sheer insistence, even though the family was right there in the same city, even walking distance from Loreto. When I came back to live at home, I had well developed ideas of what I preferred to eat, for breakfast at least. A boiled egg, two toasts with a lot of mixed fruit jam, a cup of cold milk in well beaten up coffee to simulate cold coffee. This was the Loreto hostel breakfast (for those who took eggs and milk) except that they had special rolls and not bread, but no one could trace where those rolls came from.

The last word should be for the pulao on Sundays. Light brown and fragrant, it had pieces of mutton and tasted just right. With it was a potato raita and an imli chutney. Never one for rice or rice dishes, I made a dish of my own with mostly the raita and chutney. Daddy looked at it, not without appreciation, “Are, tumne to chat bana li!” Maybe he liked my different ways of eating, as I did his, with his heavy cream in his corn flakes and double egg fluffy omelettes?

I have never confessed to this, but I hate biryani because it has taken over from the delectable pulao I knew. No one remembers or cooks pulao any more. But that was me, and biryani did not exist in my childhood. It is nothing less than the Mongols destroying Delhi, albeit the Mongols had a culture of their own.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 10, 2013

About an hour before 10th October

Yes, her birthday, but even as she still can feel that little-girl special feeling, it’s getting of an age when she looks around at people and thinks “He’s young” and “She’s young.”

At the Security check there was a sign saying, “If you were born before this day on this month in the year 1937, you may….” Either take off your shoes or not take them off or keep your jacket on or whatever.

She actually had to calculate—how many years would it be before the year written on that sign said 1951? At that point, how would she be walking….hobbling? what would she be able to carry?

Where would she be going?

But of course there would be no such sign. The world was hurtling forwards too fast for anything that was a technology today to remain the same 14 years later. 14 years before, google had just appeared and facebook had not been dreamt of. But , then again, airports had been just the same. The Dutch were so advanced that when she had lived there in the Netherlands in 1999 and been charged for speeding once and had disregarded it, when she passed through Amsterdam  in 2003 just to transit, they pulled up her speeding ticket! On the airport computer! And refused to let her either go in or out or through or beyond the country!

That was one exercise of control and disciplining that has hardly been bettered in the last 14 years. Readers, she went to two different ATMs in the airport and paid up in a hurry—now four and a half times more than the original fine since the Dutch, of course, needed her money so desperately. Not to be racist, ageist, sexist, but only to celebrate her old birthday, she recollects: those militia at the airport who stopped her were square jawed, pale, with cropped blond hair and glittering blue eyes—and they were really young.

Her friend Lyuda in Moscow had whispered to her as they passed some Soviet militia, “Ponimaesh. Oni ochen mladshee. Ix preglashaet kogda oni prosto iz shkoli  (You know, they are very young. They are recruited [by the Soviet state] when they are barely out of school.” Lyuda also suggested other problems with their recruitment, but she was a rebel before her time, observing all the cracks in 1971, way before the Soviet Union collapsed.

She, our birthday person, need not worry about not having seen enough history. Everyone sees enough. What has she built up in history? Is the more interesting question.

Her labour and her sweat and blood have built up generations of educated Americans. If she looks at the checkerboard of scholarship and academic activity in the USA, why, there she stands. In thirty five years she has been to scores, hundreds, of conferences, lectures, visits to campuses, taught thousands of students, talked, written, published, researched, oh god, contributed, contributed, contributed. She thinks she is not in the rat race but really there is no other pace.

But her actual contribution? Well, she has amused some people. At least two told her of laughing aloud as they read her stuff. Two others insisted that she had formed their research careers. Two others acted speechless when addressing her. Many others were polite and respectful. She seems to have made the mildest of dents with her writing.

The most beautiful compliment, however, was paid when in a library, she cannot remember which, where, she opened a journal that was simply lying before her. Vaguely, she remembers she had time to kill. The part of the library she had found herself in was sunny and comfortable. She always liked journals. Maybe she should look at one. She opened one. A book review caught her eye, on some aspect of working class culture in India. She read without too much focus. She turned the page. She read, “ But the author is not some Nita Kumar to be able to depict the lives of people…..”

It is embarrassing to not remember more or clearly. It is because of the same reason that has been ticking away from the age of consciousness, life is a beautiful dream. If you take it seriously, it is still more beautiful a dream. If you take it as a dream, it is doubly a dream. Ah, beauty….

Wherever that philosophy came from, now she stretches out her arm to her mother, when all her life she had done so to her father, with his books and his recitation of poetry, and her mother with her helpless look confronted with the written word.  The domesticated, disciplined, mother, who it took her forty years of scholarship to realise was not that by choice and who has that little girl hidden in her that it is worth trying to write a book to retrieve.

So, we know by now that she has been through the Security Check, has passed her time devouring sundry wines of California, has noted that the bartenders are young and cute and terribly old fashioned in their lingo and behaviour, and is on her way somewhere in an airport unchanged for 14 years.  She will spend her birthday totally, 22 hours of it, but all 24 of it if you go by local times, on the plane.

Except, wait. She has come back full circle, like the Indian intelligentsia she studies. She had always wanted to shake off the colonial legacy, blah blah, and discover her Indian-ness, blah blah blah, and therefore celebrate her birthday the Indian way. When she was born, her mother told her—the lying-in (sweet term) was at home—the uncle, young Ishan mama had been to the Ravan dahan, the burning of Ravana’s effigy. Look, everyone should know the story—I mean you poetic New Yorkers. What is the point of being this cosmopolitan intellectual if you don’t know the story of Ram???

So, her birthday is on Dasehra, the day of Ravan’s defeat and the day of the ritual burning of the effigy of Ravan. Ishan mama’s visit to the celebration proves it. Now that she is properly Indian as everyone in that long line of “the new Indian intelligentsia” has tried to be, she can stand up and declare, It’s not 10th October, friends.  The birthday is on Dasehra Day.

And she’ll be in India on her birthday!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 12, 2013


In an old-new house—she didn’t know what kind, she didn’t care—sat the girl, not so little, not so big, twelve, thirteen, learning her Shakespeare.

She didn’t know when he had lived, where he was born—oh, she did know that, the place called England. Wherever.

She only knew that they had to learn the speeches.

It was fun to learn and she was a good learner. It was good to stand up and recite. It was nice to go skipping along and repeat it to yourself.

You get up early, you sit ensconced on the diwan in the front verandah. The newspaperman comes at 6 and you stick out your hand for the paper. No throwing needed. You get back to your Shakespear. You glance at the paper. Nothing in it makes sense. Sir Toby Belch….does.

In fact Sir Toby is ridiculous. Who knows why he says the things he does. Prithee. Marry. She does not know that she will grow into an adult who will say those same things. Almost. She will say, “What may this be, pray?” she will say them to others who will understand her perfectly because they speak the same language.

She does not also know what else will happen.

She will grow up to ask one day, Why did we learn up Twelfth Night? Why do I know the speeches by heart?

Why did I want to learn it up? What did I think I was doing? What did I think was going on??

She does not know that she will write a proposal to study “Shakespeare in India: the monster called English.” (That dramatic turn may have come from Shakespeare. Lagao ‘monster’.)

She does not know that she will be so put off by the loss of knowing Shakespeare so closely when people around you don’t that she will set up a school just to teach English well to everyone!

I mean, not only did she first learn up Shakespeare, for some half of her life till fifteen, she then spent half the rest of her life unlearning all that.

Was there anything bigger in her life than Shakespeare?

No, not unlearning. Who is she anyway?

Isn’t she the plain-faced girl, then and always, who knows her Shakespeare?

Knowing her Shakespeare made her stand first in class. It made her feel like a leader. It gave her the special scrutinising look that others did not have. She was the cleverest, the smartest. Once she knew her Shakespeare, she could do anything. Everyone loved her and she was off!

But also. Knowing her Shakespeare means she inhabits a part of foreign territory. She has annexed what was not hers. Now she can wander further and further afield. Nothing is foreign after you have conquered one part of foreign land. Nothing nothing nothing. Let others love her or not, she is off!

Is she proud? No. Because Shakespeare was not grand or bombastic. He was just—speeches. She does not know that she will one day watch the plays on stage, again and again on video, hear them on tapes, and realise—this was the Shakespeare I learnt up.  But—why are they saying it so funnily?

Even when she met Sombabu, something inside her was judging, how well does he know English? (Shakespeare?) Will he say ‘pattis’? (He did).

Even when she loved him, it was because he switched to Bengali and she sighed, This is what I have to do. Screw Shakespeare.

Inside her outside her it was always there. Together they made a plan to start a school to teach everyone Shakespeare.

Now her latest plan is to start a club in Banaras to learn, perform, discuss, and enjoy Shakespeare.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 12, 2013

Mummy in the hospital

You can only take medicine after you have eaten something. But you can only eat after you have done your puja. And you can only do your puja after you take a bath. And you can only take a bath after the bathroom has at least been cleaned. The cleaning lady of the bathroom, who is highly specialized as everyone naturally is, is awaited. In the same hospital structure, the nurse who has to give the morning medicine is bad mouthing us for not getting our act together and being ready to take the medicine.
It is a whole full-time activity to take medicines on time. Mummy seems to have a few dozen to take. As soon as one round is finished, it is time to persuade her on the next two or three. Some are innocent, little white or peach-coloured pills. Some are little missiles full of powder that are a whole project to swallow. Some are giant flat pills that seem designed to challenge the throat swallowing muscles.
And then there are all the packed syringes that we purchase by the dozens, each disposable, each fierce with a long needle shaft and a thick tube with double plastic casing. The nurse plunges the steel rod into a medicine bottle and sucks in the liquid inside. Often there are froth and bubbles. The syringe is then plunged into the permanent reception machine on her forearm. Mummy can sit and watch the medicine travel through the syringe tube, the reception area, into her vein—and she can feel it thereafter, and the way she winces, it can hurt.
Yet, mummy takes all her fifteen medicines obediently. She never argues or says ‘no.’ She only says no to food. When told that the food will do her as much service as the medicine, she shakes her head in annoyance at the vacuous argument.
I began to keep a log of her eating habits. Yesterday’s tells us: half a banana, one cracker and one mouthful of eggs and toast for breakfast. For lunch, five spoons of chicken spoon with a bit of shredded chicken in it. For dinner, four bites or so of vegetable and khichri. Six tiny pieces of mango and half a finger of a Kit Kat are little snacks in the middle.
Actually, this is a huge improvement. This is pretty good. Ever since her last major fall and injury, mummy’s diet has shrunk day by day until, I calculate, if she needs 1200 calories a day, she gets about 200. She is already becoming bones and skin, and if we cannot control this somehow, will be reduced to a skeleton.

The hospital
There are the following hospitals in Lucknow. At the top is Sahara, the kind of hospital that anyone who has money goes to, the kind that the well heeled of the Middle East come to India to get a rest cure at. One can imagine it perfectly. Glass and steel and whistling doors and lifts and sparkling lobbies and corridors like a five star hotel’s. Private rooms that make you never want to recover. Bills that match the cost of wedding jewellery—sorry, these comparisons are out of my league. Let me say, bills that you could buy a plot of land with.
We had decided to take mummy to Sahara. Sunil said that it must be like the Max Hospital in Delhi, which is where he would have taken her if she were in Delhi. I agreed. Then some new information came to light that influenced us.
Rashida is one of my best friends in Lucknow and the very best with a medical connection. She told me to try out PP Hospital which is where she had taken her husband Zaheer when he had suddenly had a paralytic stroke. He had been attended to in KK by one Dr N K Shah, his classmate. Yes, I have, sigh, changed some names on a second thought.
I took mummy to see Dr Shah. Dr Shah endeared himself to me by his aesthetic sensibilities: he had a small, closed office done up like a businessman’s suite. Inside it, as I discovered soon, he had another room with a comfortable bed, large TV, table and chair for eating, and shelves for bric-a-brac. All around on the walls were certificates and awards. Both rooms were over-chilled.
He endeared himself to me further by his bedside manner. He asked mummy briefly about her accident. He looked at her bruises and told her they would all vanish gradually. “It will become red, then yellow, then blue” said he of the black biggy on her face. He waived away the idea of any medicines, even a pain killer. All the time he was condescending and impatient with her. He was proud, as if he was intelligent and knew how much success that had brought him once he had selected the right profession and worked hard. He looked as if he had a nice kitty in various banks, a wife that obeyed him, children who had all done well and whom he could boast about, and a terrific plan for his post-retirement.
As it turned out, he was the owner-director of PP Hospitals. He was called the ‘bara sahab’ there and spoken fervently as a grand old man who had practiced surgery as the head of the King William Medical College for fifty years. He was immensely experienced and trusted.
Rashida was in favour of PP Hospitals because of Dr Shah. But Sunil had another friend and colleague, whose brother had a hospital. Mr Azim was very well disposed towards us, somehow. He loved Banaras, and if someone loves Banaras, it is not too far fetched to think that they love me. This hospital, called Zindagi, was some rungs down from Sahara. It was basic, with everything that goes with that. ‘Basic’ in India means dirty, crowded, pre-modern. Staff members lounge around untidily and speak in tongues. Chairs may be broken and glass panes dirty. Doctors will be drinking tea out of chipped cups. Patients will be sitting in bundles. Attendants may be sleeping—everywhere. The opposite of Sahara, or just a step away because definitely superior to the government hospital. I am not passing judgement because Azim sahib himself said as much as the above to me, adding, “We do provide good service.” I agree fully with that.
One rung above Zindagi is Saver, where Dr Raza sits. Dr Raza is mummy’s colleague in charity. Saver was all right and Dr Qureshi who talked briefly to me about mummy was all right.
But when mummy’s breathing started giving trouble on Friday and I had to take the decision on the hospital on Saturday, I chose PP. mostly because although it was Saturday night and Rashida had many anecdotes about how Lucknow doctors did not work on Saturday nights, she also said that she could ensure we got good service. So, Sunil and I, over many powwows decided that a) Sahara had no personal contact, b) Saver was too far and too unknown, c) Zindagi was unhygienic and poorly equipped, and d) PP was trustworthy because of friends, even if not fancy.
And two days later, that’s where we were ensconced. Mummy was twice in the Intensive care, once upon coming, once post-surgery. I overheard the nurses at their station talking about someone who was a “V.I.P. patient” and guessed that was her. Dashing in and out of Dr Shah’s office, after all. And Zahir addressing everyone as “beta.”
The first ICU experience was excruciating. Mummy was suddenly on a rolling, high, totally hospital bed, with an IV drip on one side, a tight blood pressure monitor on the other side and an oxygen mask on her face. She was not amused. The doctors were hearty, if hasty. “How are we today, mother?” they might bustle, then turn away without pausing as if already experienced that a reply was not be awaited. An occasional ayah joked as well, but more sweetly. I, with all my admiration for vox populi, was not amused either. I was fresh off the train, without changing or even washing my hands. I had eaten a sandwich last, at 7.30 pm, inspired by Vandana or Angela who said, “Ma’am, you should have this last sandwich. You’ll be going to the hospital and all.” I hadn’t thought I would actually be going to the hospital so soon but had been wise enough to eat it.
The night had passed with me sitting on the high steel stool provided by each bedside in the intensive care ward. My head would drop, I badly needed sustenance, and there was none. I was not exactly hungry but kept dreaming of things to eat. I hate milky tea but I dream of it when tired. I imagined a cup with a biscuit on the side. A trip down the road by Ramu resulted in his return clutching a plastic bag full of tea. I sent him packing. I would have gagged if I had to drink tea from out of a plastic bag. A few hours later, walking up and down the driveway to keep awake I decided to track down the tea shop myself. I peeped around the hospital gate. In front was a huge garbage dump. Some figures were already picking out from the garbage piles. It must have been already 4 am at least for all this to happen.
But I was not destined to reach the tea shop. The street was covered with running water and I was sure it was the drain overflowing. Nothing—no longing for a hot beverage, no tired soul in need of a desperate pickum uppums, could have made me cross that river of fire. I went there at 1 am, 2 am, 3am, 4 am, measuring desperately with my eyes the high spots between the drain water that I could step on were I to take the desperate measure of crossing. At 5 am, I gave up my civilisational niceties, and crossed.
Never was there a tastier tea and biscuit than what I found on the other side.
Back a few hours: the hospital fell asleep one by one, and all of them by one at night. The nurses slept on the extra beds. The sofas outside were covered by bodies—some ayahs, some attendants. I considered stretching out on one of the rexin sofas, hot no doubt and sticky with the feel of the last body on it. I could not do it and while I stood and stared, the empty spot was taken. Two floor fans whirled crazily at the sleeping people. I had to pass one or the other en route to the door to go outside to the driveway to go to the gate to consider crossing the rubicon. The fan would blow my hair totally askew and into my face and was the single one thing I detested the most.
The air conditioning in the intensive care ward was severe. Muggy as the hall with the whirling fans was, it was a relief to escape to it from the freezer effect inside the ward. Between the cold, the steel stool, and the beeping machines all around, the ward was a veritable torture chamber. I could have withstood it with something inside me—and the only thing one imagines in India is hot, sweet tea, certainly not a shot of whiskey or brandy—but that was denied me, making it the fourth sore point.
Mummy, too, disliked everything bitterly. She sat up, mostly with angry eyes, and refused to rest. Maybe she was too uncomfortable to do so, but she did not want to do so either. It was as if she was saying, “Torture me as you like. I will fight it with my will.” When someone came with yet another injection or reading, she followed their movements with her eyes and exchanged looks with me that stated, “See? See? I was right. They are fools and buffoons.”
Unfortunately, I was not the right person to reassure her and make her relax in the surroundings she was put in. not that I thought the staff were fools or buffoons, I thought that mummy was justified in involuntarily protesting from the depths of her soul. Someone who manages their surroundings so carefully to the last detail cannot suddenly be thrust into a new and imperfect surroundings and be expected to accept that as satisfactory. If there is anything mummy is, she is true to her principles.
With that we come to
The organization.
Since I run an organization, I am now sensitive to the way any organization is run. I cannot bump into one without judging it at one glance.
Most places in India are dirty. They are dirty in an ingrained way. They are grubby on the surfaces, streaked with dirt wherever there are grooves, caked with mud on the less-exposed surfaces, and collect whole estates of dust in corners. Once you know this, and once you have supervised the cleaning of any one such place, you cannot ignore it around you elsewhere—it stares you in the eye and pokes you in the gut. Because you don’t think any more, “This is natural. This is India.” You just think, “Wow. What a field of work. Just give me the person with the mop and duster.”
Curiously, by one of those wonderful coincidences, Rashida feels the same way. She and I were standing outside the Operating Theatre while mummy was inside. She started by saying, “What this hospital needs is someone like me to manage it.” Then there was no holding back. She told me how she could not stand dust and grubbiness. I nodded vigorously. Then she said, “Tell me. Can people not see it? Why?” Which enabled me to start off on my favourite themes of culture versus power, and education versus lack thereof.
Then there was the casualness of the staff. The second time we were in the Intensive Care, there were four times in rapid succession that I had to instruct the nurses or interns in their own business. One was unable to put on the oxygen mask and remarked laughingly, “This is what always causes confusion!” Another looked at the BP monitor when we pointed out that there was something wrong and the BP should not have been falling so low and said “No no. there’s nothing the matter.” Then the doctor was called by us and immediately started flurrying around and gave a shot and took quick action.
Rashida asked testily, “How do you tell a doctor from a nurse?” because a whole lot of very young people were clustering in the central desk area all with white coats. I said that these were all nurses; you could tell from their behavior. Rashida asked them, not satisfied perhaps because their coats were so official, “Are you nurses or doctors?” They giggled “Nurses” and pointed to someone, “Doctor.” I elaborated on my theory, “The doctors are more serious.”
All I had against the young people in coats could be summed up in one word: casualness. They did not look at you. They were alert only to each other. They smiled into different places in the room and shared private jokes continuously. When doing something, like getting an injection ready, they would keep up their conversation with a colleague at the next bed and look away from the work. Patients did not exist for them. They could have been at the market or at a party.
This was not Gray’s Anatomy. The place was not impeccably clean or orderly. Everything was not happening on schedule. Everything was not in control. Less casualness and a determined efficiency could have taken away part of the sting of the natural disorders, including the bad electrical fixtures everywhere and the bad plumbing in the bathrooms, but as it was, the staff’s behavior only exacerbated them. There seemed to be one package deal: indifference. And indifference in a hospital, particularly the Intensive Care ward, gives you the scares. It is not amusing.
No, I may try my best, but this piece of writing cannot be amusing.

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