Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 3, 2018

Providence in 1987

I had an excursion into the past today. I lunched with a young colleague in my department who had been appointed a year and a half earlier, in my time as Chair, and then I had taken leave and been away for precisely the year and the half that she had spent here after joining. So I wanted to find out how she was faring and had finally planned the lunch with her. I knew she had a Japanese background, though she is of Chinese birth, and chose a Japanese restaurant, I not being fond of Chinese food either so not considering that a choice.

She liked the restaurant. I watched with interest as she ordered a dish she particularly recognised, pronouncing it expertly, and gave me guidelines as I fumbled around the mostly unfamiliar menu. Somehow it was easy to ask her all kinds of things, including what I had failed to ask in a previous visit to the restaurant because my companion had been an older person.

How young she was, though, was unknown to me. At one juncture in our conversation I mentioned the year of my Ph.D. “Oh!” she said. “I was not even born then!” She was exactly the age of my younger daughter.

That threw me back into a flurry of memories. One year after my Ph.D….in my thirties….where had I been? What had I been doing?

I had a post-doctoral position at Brown. How little they paid in those days! But my husband, two daughters and I could not have been happier. We had a lovely apartment, the ground floor of the house of a colleague with whom we shared the back door, the basement and its washing machine and dryer, and the driveway. There was a Woman’s Club at the university that kept old furniture for rent to people like us. We got the basics. Our colleagues took us shopping and we bought the rest, including our first round of groceries. After that, we walked. We started at Brown in January and got our car only in August.

January! Providence was under a blanket of snow. Because it is not flat but on a hillside, or several hillsides, the snow looked even thicker and lumpier than it was. Our windows had double panes but our heating bills were several hundred dollars a month. One daughter was five and a half, kindergarten material. The other was barely two months old. Whenever we went out for anything, say dropping Irfana to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School’s kindergarten, little Nandini was bundled out too.

Day and night were one—a grey light through the windows; noisy, warm, vents doing their thing inside; many lamps, carpets and children’s things all around creating their own circles of warmth; and us up at all times. The baby awoke at 4 am and we were all up, playing music, reading, eating. I had to teach only one class, at 6 pm. I had already revised my dissertation the year after my degree and it was making its way in the press. I was invited to conferences and wrote papers. I was called to campuses to present my work and did that. I was short-listed for every position in my field that I applied for and travelled up and down the country. I was in the Providence airport every month.

It was all so easy, so smooth, so much fun. We spent the summer in India, when Nandini learnt to walk. We got a car on our return and spent the Fall apple-picking and picnicking. Irfana was in grade one, reading voraciously. Nandini was one year old and qualified for a baby-sitter. I became more active on campus. We didn’t take children everywhere any longer. We went out for lunches and dinners and entertained actively. We also had friends elsewhere and drove regularly to Bridgeport and Fairfield, Boston and New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All that time, I am trying to remember, I must have been writing and thinking about my work. We were in Providence from January 1987 to December 1990. My first book was proof-read there and out in 1988. My second book was submitted, revised and re-submitted there and out in 1992. My third book, an edited one, was planned and put together there, and came out in 1994. There were at least five conferences and lectures every year and about the same number of book reviews and incidental appearances. The second research project that I had completed after the Ph.D. (well, not ‘completed’) was beginning to appear in talks and presentations.

All this happened because I had no great plan or ambition. All I knew was that I had to keep busy with my research and my writing. I could not have conceived of a break or gap so no break or gap appeared. I had not much interest in a tenure-track job in the US and we were only conspiring as to how to go back. All we knew was the attractiveness of research grants and we worked hard and got one each for after the Providence stay. It was fun.

As part of this flashed through my mind and part was touched in passing, I had little to say to my young friend at lunch time. My own experience had been so specific, so different, so atypical of the newly minted Ph.D that there was little advice to give her. I was from India and actually wanted to go back. I enjoyed the post-doc but had no desire for an assistant professorship. I loved completing my two books and getting the third one ready but now wanted to do other things. My teaching was my calling and my courses the best ever. I enjoyed my motherhood to the hilt, little baby, young girl, both. I was so young! I could stay up, stand up, jump around, walk on—all for as long as I liked.

But all this happened, finally, because Sombabu willed it so and made it happen. He was there all the time, with Nandini, with Irfana, with me. He wanted me to have my career. He planned things of secondary importance around things of primary importance. He gently pressed and pushed me to complete tasks that I thought I was doing naturally. He cooked and he cleaned and he did a lot of laundry and he fed us all and he came with me or he stayed at home but talked to me about it all. All along he kept playing his sitar and getting it into the ears of the two girls.

His plans bore fruit. He wanted me to flower into a successful academic and it happened. He wanted us to enjoy New England and we did. He wanted the two girls to feel they were totally nurtured and secure and they were. Lest you think that I am romanticising him—he needs no romanticisation. He was a full-blooded romantic who lived out a romance of a life for all of us.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 17, 2018

The trouble with children

In disentangling the discourse of children and education in India, I argue that the discourse is a dual or double one. Mythological stories, fiction, people’s unprepared utterances, more serious discussions, all claim that a child is a mine of resources and can achieve anything. The larger discourse of agency in India supports this idea. In this bigger version, your will is supreme. By saying “I will,” you achieve your purpose. Accompanied, did I fail to add, by excruciating practices of self-discipline and self cultivation. All those practices produce the tapa to give so much energy that you can, literally, do anything you will.

This larger idea is what produces the idea of a child, a child being up to modern times, only a miniature adult, as being potentially anything, a creature infintely realizable. Then occurred a social change in nineteenth century India. A colonial education, new in structure and ideology, was introduced, together with the English language. In order to deal with this over-ambitious, under-planned policy that was supposed to trickle down from the top to the bottom, people at every level adopted various strategies. These included: extra tuition for students, the production of guides and ‘keys’ to aid studying, rote-memorization, and treating the textbook and the syllabus as gods that could not be challenged. These strategies and the policy and structural changes that produced them, were not discussed and debated openly. The colonial government was a controlling and censoring one, and Indians were distracted from an interest in children or education by the larger challenge of a nationalist movement.

Consequently, these strategies were unarticulated, un-discussed, and came to seem mysterious. Some children seemed to succeed in the new educational ventures and some seemed to fail. Since the science of it, the reliance on certain tools, was not clear, it seemed like a magic or alchemy. Combined with the older idea of the power of the will, the discourse of learning now became, “Anyone can do it if they want to.” But remember that earlier a process and a technology had been spelled out (bodily discipline) and now there was a technology (textbooks, guides, tutors and rote memorisation) that was not spelled out. The not-spelling-out made the technology into an alchemy.

As a result of this new mystification of what produces success in learning, those who fail to learn are similarly made mysterious. There is something about children who fail that makes them fail. Since responsibility must be attributed to something—there cannot be a vaccuum—it is ascribed to the family, to the genes, if you will, of the problem child. Again, nothing clear is said about the families that produce failures. They are not distinguished by caste, though caste is sometimes mentioned. They are distinguished often by class, but many exceptions are allowed. It cannot be their Indian-ness as it was in British colonial times. An ambiguity pervades the discourse. Terms like neech qaum, pichhre hue varg, chhote log, garib tapke are thrown around (lower castes, backward classes, small people, poor levels). If questioned directly, “Does caste lead to a failure to learn? Does poverty?” the person using these terms will be evasive and defensive. Speaking the language of modern Indian secular democracy he/she will say, “No! Of course, whoever wishes to learn can learn.” Then, speaking the language of their common sense, they will say “Yes! Because, you, see, not everyone is the same. Not everyone can learn.”

So that is the double discourse of the child. Everyone can learn. But not everyone can learn.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 16, 2018

The geographies and temporalities of the pre-modern and modern

Two stark contrasts. First, I phoned my lawyer in India. He sits in his chamber only at 8 pm at night, as do all lawyers in India, because they attend court in the morning. That suited me, sipping my cup of tea twelve and a half hours behind India. Rudra Nath Tripathi, the lawyer, speaks in a civil tone and is difficult to provoke, though an observer might say that I try my best.

“Rudra ji, when is our court date?”

“6th March.”

“You said you were going to phone us and tell us the date. What happened?”

“Well, I was going to phone you, closer to the date.”

“Oh? But suppose we planned to be out of town just on the 6th, 7th, 8th of March? Because we did not know twenty days before?”

“No, no, there is plenty of time. Anyway, now you know.”

“Yes, but only because I called you. Why didn’t you phone, as you said you would, just as soon as you got the date?”

“You should just come in. Phoning is not enough.”

“I did come in, twice. That’s when you said, “I’ll phone you.””

“Oh, well, whatever.”

At the end of the conversation, I eat humble pie, because he is my lawyer and if pushed beyond a point, will stop doing everything.

Just after this I went online to the Consulate of Italy in Los Angeles to apply for a tourist visa to Italy in May. The site led me through a few different links to an appointment in March for one visa, to last twenty minutes, to be preceded by getting all documents ready in duplicate, to be confirmed three to ten days before, and to be attended in person, in time. Many other points were listed, each reiterated and emphasised, with a clear undertone of a threat for not fulfilling the conditions outlines as well as a value judgement about your understanding in not fulfilling the conditions.

The whole site was designed with careful consideration of an average intelligence, average calculating abilities, typical mistakes, ridiculous gaffs , usual lapses in memory, the normal fears and weaknesses of normal people, and the patterns of trouble that expensive Consulate offices can have from random visa-seekers. The site reminded visitors that theirs is a free service, that is, that the tax payers of Italy were paying for everything that I was doing with the Consulate.

Now, of course, sites are all programmed in the same way and even my lawyer’s office in India can develop a site like that. Indeed, many Indian businesses and institutions do have wonderful sites, and you can get fooled into thinking that they are actually as efficient as their site shows them to be. So, a part of this is just technology.

But I have been in person to the Consulates of Germany, Denmark, Holland, France and Norway. The sharp ladies and gentlemen working there wasted no extra word, had their eyes on their clocks, used a combination of the rational but also the human, and made complicated, pre-planned connections to complete their job. True, they had a jagged edge to their civility from working in boring jobs, worried about their compensation, and stuck in artificially lit offices the whole sunny day. But they were super efficient. If anything were to go wrong, they could be held responsible. The British Consulate excepted and I will tell that story separately. These Europeans had no debris in their heads about the linearity of their mission: a straight line from where the petitioner for their services stood to the provision of that service. Each step was marked, each distraction waved aside, each obstacle planned for, the timing worked out to the half-hour and the results placed in sight.

Obviously, the Italians, especially the Italians, are not genetically programmed like this. For some eight generations they have simply had it drilled it into their heads that this is how the world must run. Indians, by contrast, have had not a single generation of it yet, nor is it even in sight. They might never do it  because it stems from a realisation of the crucial importance of rationalisation. Indians seem to be managing, in a huge conspiracy they have put together, without rationalistion. There could be a political  revolution and a radical party of Rationalisers could take over the country and put to death all the foot-draggers, but short of that, no gradual change is discernible.

It seems simple enough. If you were to study the layouts of, say, the DMV office (or any government office,) Bank of America (or any bank,) Kaiser Permanente (or any medical provider,) and Toys R Us (or Target, or Best Buy, or any warehouse type of shop)—you would immediately recognise what, spatially, rationalisation consists of. It would need only the simplest, even a cursory, study. The principles do not have to be invented, just applied to another place.

But for us in India there is no will and no desire to do so. Linearity must mean a wrenching from some other logic. It must mean imposing an understanding of the world that is not only difficult because not natural, but painful because it directly contradicts something more meaningful.

As I write, I realise that I am swaying from my initial mission of praising the Europeans and condemning the Indians. The unattractive figure of my lawyer is being replaced in my vision by the sweet figure of Kanti, the cook. I would hate for her to be transformed into David, the chef.

But why? Maybe they have more in common than is apparent. Maybe Kanti is more ‘modern’ and David more ‘not-modern’ than seems to be the case. Maybe the Europeans in the consulates don’t joke and laugh because language is a tough thing and these particular ones are in the visa business where they are taught to worry about which next brown person will escape the paperwork and take illegal sanction in their country.

I need to think this through more. I need to refresh my thoughts by going on a holiday.

To Italy.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 16, 2018

The mythology that could have been science fiction

Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I took up her books to read and re-read. Amish, as he calls himself, was announced as visiting nearby and I was teaching the Ramayana so I re-read his The Scion of Ikshvaku. Some thoughts.

What is wonderful about Ursula Le Guin’s writing is that it is loaded with detail. Not as in Arundhati Roy, hammer, hammer, hammer. But as in the best of realist fiction, with a little verb here and an adjective there. It is not the no-nonsense self-important realism of a Bharati Mukherjee, Ernest Hemingway, American creative writing class. “The lane was dark. I stumbled along.” She would rather say, “The night was smoky with darkness. He stumbled along, bone-weary, expecting no light to shine through the darkness, yet with a flicker of hope in his heart.”

That brings me to my second point. She uses warm, intimate words and phrases: the heart, the legs, water, land, fire. Not in the ways they could also be used in science fiction, to denote power and suggest evil or at least mystery, rather in ways that do suggest power and mystery, but as wound up in the friendliness of, or at least our comfort with, the universe.

Her work is about us. What we would also think and do under the circumstances.

So, amazingly, I do not feel alienated from Ged’s wandering around among the cold rain and snow, his battles with fierce winds and waves, his pursuit of the dark shadow over places that no one goes to—in short all those physical trials that turn me off in a James Bond adventure, or even Sherlock Holmes now. In Le Guin, the bettles with harsh conditions under no-food, no-water circumstances feel doable and definitely readable.

What is so not wonderful about Amish’s writing is that he is devoid of details. He has a stock of cardboard characters called Dashrath, Kaikeyi, Ram, Sita, etc. None of them have an ounce of life in them. They do not speak anything real or act as if they were real. Why did he not infuse them with life? Obviously he does not know how. Nor does he want to learn. He tells us in an interview that he reads non-fiction, not fiction. Compare the Wikipedia entry on J.K. Rowling, on the influences on her I believe (yes, a separate entry), in which she mentions scores of authors she likes and has learnt from and been influenced by.

Amish thinks that the plot is all. There is no question that he is inventive about the plot. His Ravana is a successful banker and trader who controls the economy of India through his sheer intelligence and purposefulness. Dashrath is a loser. Ram is condemned by the citizens of Ayodhya, and is such a stickler for rules that after he is party to the detonation of an atomic weapon to defend Mithila, he claims fourteen years of exile for himself. Sita is a warrior. The rakshasa as well as the monkeys and bears, are all humans excommunicated from mainstream society because of birth defects, and angry and keen to conspire and take revenge.

And so on. The inventiveness is intriguing. Much of the time it makes you want to read on. I have certainly read all of Amish’s books, in this case twice (it must have been so bad that it left no mark on me until I read it again and faintly recollected some parts). I can be made to read bad books, just as I eat laddus and cheap sweets on a railway platform because I need the sugar. In both cases, the thing consumed is bad without qualification. You have to be clear that it’s not the thing itself but some need in you that makes you see it through.

Amish may certainly be allowed to be a best-seller. He should just not be mistaken for “a Tolkien” or among India’s “best” or even “good” authors. The pity is both that he is not critically received and put into a context, but also, since he does not read (is not educated in his field) that he does not, can not,  acknowledge the niche he belongs to.

It is not that of Ursula Le Guin. I am sorry for Indian mythology which needs a contemporary voice sometime soon, as Celtic, Welsh, Scandinavian, etc. mythology has found.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 3, 2018

Retrieved from 2005, today being Sombabu’s punya tithi

I miss Sombabu more than ever before.  I see him walking around the school.  I see him taking decisions, being brusque about all questions until he has completely decided.  I see him quietly excited, asking indirectly for ideas or springing the surprise of his own idea on us.  I can see him so completely that sometimes I feel as if I am him. I can feel him from the inside, as he sits at the office desk, he talks to people, he opens the filing cabinet, he walks around.

But I can never be like him in the most fundamental way.  When he was being him, I was there for him to bounce himself off.  Now, if I sit in the office being him, never can Nita enter to pop a question or make a comment.  It is as if I miss Nita.  Never can I be a complete I any more. If I am myself, I miss him.  If I am him, I miss myself.

I miss him specifically for decisions involving money, construction, management, evaluation of teachers, strategies, planning.  He had a short-term and a long-term view on everything.  He loved to strategise.  He also liked to hang loose and play it by ear. At the end of it he had a perfectly formed, rounded off, nugget of a  proposition.  He did not, like me, say plaintively, “I do not know.”

I miss Sombabu when I talk to musicians.  They are laconic, smile and bow and assent, rather than say anything.  They sit quietly and judge, or maybe they sit quietly and judge nothing at all, think nothing at all.  He would sit quietly with them.  He asked a few key questions that I have imbibed.  But I lack the larger mental map he had of who is what and where and how little fluctuations and changes are taking place.  I can ask about talim and being a shagird and who is it when I hear a new name—all the things I heard him doing—but I don’t know how to compose it into a picture.

And there are suggestions I totally miss, though I suspect they are floating in the air.  One musician wants actually to be told more; he is suggesting, “I am all ears; tell me your ideas.”  Another wants to join in to the proposed scheme no matter what.  He is desperate to not hear more because that suggests that he has not been understood.  His cooperativeness, his complete submission, is in doubt.  Yet another wants simple respect, and I am treating him as a junior.  Another wants the privilege of being a junior and a student which I am denying to him by using aap.  And there are a lot of suggestions about programmes I can organize, classes I should have, or unspecified activities I must undertake.

Sombabu wanted something really good for the musicians. In terms of importance he understood that the first thing must be security.  We made the Society for Arts and Music (SAM) in 1976 to collect through concerts money that could be banked and used to provide a kind of pension to those who had no savings. He believed all musicians were like that because those he knew intimately, his old teachers in West Bengal, then master moshai in Delhi, then Nikhil Banerjee, all were poor savers and lived in surprising poverty and insecurity.

If I think what I can do for them, I am perplexed because apart from this SAM we never discussed anything specific.  My ideas are vague. I don’t know whom to ask and how to rally around supporters. Suppose I have an endowment of Rs two lakhs.  That will give me an annual return of Rs twenty five to fifty thousand or a robust two to four thousand a month. If I spend another goodly amount on a beautiful music room and some three musical instruments more, then if I keep two advanced teachers in sitar and vocal, and give two students scholarships for advanced work, thus: Rs 1500 and Rs 1000 for the teachers, free learning for the students, we can happily manage.

But what would we be achieving?  These musicians are constantly asking for work, though they would rather have programmes.  They will not say it but they would be pleased only with concerts.

Vinod Lele came to meet me today, the meeting a microcosm of everything that musicians and I are conversing on at present.  I asked him about his service in BHU, about the Music College itself, the level of teaching, his family, his own talim, and his wife and children.  He answered everything pleasantly and we were comfortable talking.

Then he asked, “Didi, tell me, these people who come over from America—they arrange workshops there, don’t they?”  He could as well have said, “Tell me how I can go to America.  I have heard that term “workshops”.”

I said, “Well, since you are asking, let me tell you all about it.  There are groups and associations all over the US.  But our music really has not made the impact it could and should have made.  Our great maestro Ravi Shankar merely made himself famous and not Indian music famous.  No one there considers Indian music to be part of the classical music of the world.  They go to hear Ravi Shankar play not to hear Indian music.”

Vinod Lele listened eagerly and nodded.  As usual, when I spoke passionately I convinced myself of everything I was saying and increased the rhetoric perceptibly with every word I spoke.  Of course that’s what it was.  Those in power had the responsibility of looking after everything in their empire and they should attend to every part of it and its future.  Ravi Shankar had been shot into fame by chance and had then become head of the Indian music empire.  But what did he do?  He merely looked to his own interests and not only did he not think of what he could do for the empire, he consciously focused all his energies on making only himself bigger and richer.  Everyone else in his empire suffered or stayed exactly where they were, which itself is a suffering in changing times, and after his heyday there was nothing left for them because he simply had not built it up.

I did not say so much however, so elaborately.  I did not want to appear a Ravi Shankar-basher. No one would understand it.  They would think that it was the voice of jealousy instead of thinking that I was a success myself.  They would, most of all, not understand the point I was trying to make, that there was a constructive idea to think about that had not been thought of yet.

So I concentrated rather on the constructive idea.  I told Vinod Lele that we wanted to expose Indian musicians to various stages, abroad and in India.  For this we had to proceed seriously. Musicians should join the Nirman network and all proceed carefully. What was written to potential organizers was to be monitored carefully; the first letter made the most important impact.

At the end of the declamation, Vinod Lele was convinced, and so was I.

Today, Nandini had gone to her music lesson so I took her class for the Reading Period.  They distributed books seriously and proceeded to read.  My heart ached at the evidence of Nandini’s care for her students, her planning and experimentation….I decided to break the wall that still made a kind of corridor for those passing by and thus extend the room.  Then there should be a linoleum making a permanent sitting on the ground.  There should be a spotlight or diffused lighting to make it cosy to work by.  There should be plants and an Activity Centre.  There should be a sense of excitement among the children about belonging to their class.

I had left my class for two days and given them a test to do during that time.  I have not dared to correct or look at their test yet.

Meanwhile all by itself and without my trying, a way of teaching class VIII History emerged for me.  The problem, again, is this.  They do not understand the chunky prose they have in their textbooks.  Even for sophisticated students from English-speaking homes, say Sikandar, there would be several words to look up or ask about.  For my students there are sometimes six in a sentence.  The very heading of the chapter is “Administrative Structure, Policies, and Impact of British Rule in India (1757-1857)”.  Then, words having been explained, they still don’t have a clue how the authors’ minds are working. They are eager and ready to guess about any question asked them but cannot really know what is assumed.

So I adopted a three pronged strategy.  I explained the title fully first, taking twenty minutes equally divided between ‘administrative,’ ‘structure,’ ‘policies,’ and ‘impact.’  Oh yes, and why dates are important.

Then, as I told them would be first, I described the events as a story.  That is, I narrated them in Hindi—and we all enjoyed ourselves hugely.

The third part of the approach is to do ‘Vocabulary Words’ where they go through all the difficult words in context. They either find at least three or four words that mean the same thing or they ask elementary questions from the context that exemplify the meaning of the words.  Thus,  “Was the rule by the East India Company different?”  “Yes, the rule by the East India Company was unique.”

At the end of the day

I could have wept.  I had hours of intense evidence that Sombabu must have been so bothered, so frustrated and hopeless, at exactly the kinds of things going on today except that by now I was already aware of the problem, so able to see it in perspective, whereas he must have felt overwhelmed.  And I had such a beautiful family to share everything with, whereas when he experienced all this the children were too small to be companions and I was away a lot.

I could imagine Sombabu after a day like mine reaching home and feeling, shit.  All I want to do is lie down with a book. Which is exactly what he would do.  He would disappear in the world of a best-seller.  An hour or two later he would arise, change, and go off on the next round of work, some equally frustrating trip to the lawyer’s or the accountant’s.

I remember how he did not want to discuss all those trivial things which were the ones making him frustrated and hopeless.  He wanted rather to talk about science and art.  He needed desperately to feel as if he was still the person he wanted to be in the life he wanted to be living.

Now I can afford to discuss for hours the school and Nirman because I have the privilege of knowing from his experience that these frustrations will always be around, and therefore they should not be allowed to disturb one.  I again have my beautiful family to discuss with which is what he should have had.  And, sadly, we all have his absence to recover from, partly by filling the space with ideas and dreams.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | August 9, 2017

A Police Station

We drove to Betawar with three teachers. The little red Maruti bumped along the Bhagwanpur road to the highway, the “bypass’ and then the village road to Betawar.

We dropped off the teachers and left for the thana. On the way we picked up Saubhagyavati. This is the lady who sold us a plot of land in 2010 for a goodly sum. Two years later we discovered that she had done a satta of that land to Suresh Tiwari. A registry–benama–such as we had done, gives you official possession. A satta is a kind of advance given as a promise to buy the land and also has legal status. This Suresh Tiwari had been making noises for two years, but we only gradually understood that there was something to his protests. He started a litigation in the district court against us. This continued for three years and neither she nor I showed up in court. Finally at the end of three years I happened to ask a lawyer what was up with all this litigation business. He said sternly that we had lost because of our non-appearance and that Suresh Tiwari had had an order passed by the court in his favour. In other words we had paid Saubhagyavati for nothing.

Now, when I visited her with Gaurav the other day with the intention of warning her that I was about to file a criminal case against her for having done a registry with us of a perviously bespoken plot of land, she won us both over by declaring that she had never done a satta of that land to Suresh but of another plot and that he had tricked her about this as well as other things in the past and that she was out to get revenge. So we were taking her along to the thana to testify. She adopted Gaurav and called him bachwa.

The thana was tucked away a long winding village road drive away. The Station Officer sat, not in the old thana building at all, but in a modern, air-conditioned room. He wore five rings on his right hand and in the one and a half hours we were there, answered fifty phone calls in the middle of talking to us and talked and listened to ten other people eneterng and leaving his office with freedom. So much for rule and order. His sub inspector, a female, acted like a child before an angry schoolmaster with him and kept calling him “sirji.” His air was that of a king.

I could see behind him his past: a spoilt son of a wealthy Brahman family who everyone praised for his looks and his brains. Once he developed the ambition to sit for the Police exams, he prepared systematically for them to get his chest, running speed etc. just right. He qualified. His life was made. Now he could lord it over everyone—including me, twice as old, thrice as educated, four times as wealthy, ten times more privileged. He made any kind of income he wanted—it is notorious how large the bribes are that an Inspector can take. He was riding high.

Anytime we spoke, he interrupted. Then he said sweetly when we asked him to let us finish, “Of course. I am here precisely to listen to you.” Then he began interrupting again. He might have been gauging who was the more profitable party to support, or he may have decided long ago that his interests lay with his fellow-Brahman, fellow male, fellow villager, Suresh Tiwari. I could not decide and between that, and watching the weird going-on in his office, I was kept interested.

Then our patience wore thin. An hour and a half later, the combination of the hierarchy, the masculinity, the lack of professionalism, the absence of any rules or systems, the glaring, menacing corruption, the utter stupidity of it all, became too much for us and we left.

Tomorrow I have to meet the SSP and a lawyer, and the day after tomorrow another official and another lawyer. And I will never go to Rohaniya thana again.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 24, 2017

My three requests from my village buddy

“I used to think I’d make one lakh one day. I’d have done a huge thing. I would work hard and use my brains and earn one lakh! Then God gave me with such an open hand….[laughs out aloud] it just came and came. Now who would believe that I, Pandhari Yadav, just starting off with some buying and selling, would become such a seth (respected merchant)?

“I have a hundred worries. My [tractor] driver said he is going  home for two days. He hasn’t come back. The worker in the field up and vanished. At night the neel gay broke into the boundary and crunched up half the field.

“[Laughs]. But after six, with your blessings, I have no worries. I don’t give anything a thought. A quarter bottle. Half a bottle. That’s my habit. [Laughs]. I can tell you now. [Laughs]. No worries.

“You should also drop the worries. Forget this 17 biswa—40 biswa—plots. Go on your trip. Have no worries.

“Right now the only worry on my mind is the wedding. Yes, my daughter. [Laughs]. Ours is a dehat ilaka (the boondocks). Everyone there only watches and comments, “Oh, she isn’t married yet? That one is married and that one is married, and she isn’t married?” So I have just one worry. Just one worry. The marriage.

“Yes, yes, I have two daughters. This is the younger one. I am not planning to get the older one married just now. Uska dawa chal raha hai (She is on a course of medicine). She had pain in her chest and her back. She became very weak. She needs to get well first. The younger one needs to get married. It’s not easy to find a bridegroom in our biradari (caste) who is as educated as she is. She is easily more educated than most of us. She has done—what is that degree after Inter?—she has done that.

“What is your third problem? One is the levelling of the plots. I spoke to the JCB guy. He says, “Sardar, I charge one thousand an hour.” I said, “Don’t tell me that. Come, agree to do it for eight hundred.” So it went. He said one thousand, I said eight hundred. Then he said 950 so I said 850. I think I can get it done for 900. How many hours? I think it will take a good sixteen hours. Yes, as much as that. That’s fine about the payment, didi. I’ll take it from the office. It’s fine about Manoj not being there to watch it. I’ll make the guy tell me when he starts and when he finishes. Yes, yes, Ramesh and all can be present. I’ll tell you when the machine is available. He said it would be two or three days.

“So that’s one thing. Then your guard situation. You need a man full time, or two men, morning and night each. I don’t want to give you anyone from that village. You understand. You can never trust them completely. Tomorrow something will be missing—even a chair or table—and it will be my responsibility. Who knows who they are allied with and how they get swayed. It’s best to get someone from another village. I am thinking of Chimranpur. That’s what I will do. Yes, I understand you need someone rightaway. So I will get someone local for now and then go to Chimranpur and find the right person.

What is the third thing? H’m. Bamboo. So there are two clumps on either side of the nala. If you cut this one—and it’s just a few metres from your land, it could have been on your land but it’s a few metres away—the Tiwaris will come and create a problem. If you cut from the other side, Ramesh will come. He will demand payment. So I tell you what. On the other side of the river there are clumps and clumps of bamboo. The fishermen will cut poles for you. How many do you need? Call Shital [the carpenter], ask him.

“Shital? Shital! Tell me exactly. Don’t say sometimes ten and sometimes twenty. H’m, twenty, as many as twenty. Shital, if you need twenty poles, come with me across the river. We will ask the fishermen to give us twenty poles. It cannot cost more than a hundred rupees each. Much cheaper than the market. I know, there it’s Rs 240-250 each. On Monday, when you reach on Monday, give me a call and I will go across the river with you.

“So, didi, should I make a move? All the things have been taken care of, right? Yes, I’ll call you about the guard immediately today and about the JCB when he is ready.

”Namaste, didi. Namaste. [Laughs and leaves]”

Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 17, 2017


To understand childhood, I have to collect everyone’s oral histories. So far I have my own.

As a child I was only reprimanded for what I did wrong, never taught directly how to do the correct thing. Which was a pity, because this process was long-winded, so indirect as to sometimes miss its target, and inclined towards sarcasm and the judgemental.

For example, as a child I should have held myself straight and not stuck out my tummy. I should not have slurped drinks through straws, disguising my nervous shyness with the excessive bravado of making sounds and bubbles. I should have looked periodically in the mirror and not be caught with grimy eyes or cheeks. I should have spoken when spoken to and not clam up. I should have been bright, witty, loquacious. As you can guess, I was the opposite of the desired things, but these desired things were never taught to me. I was only criticised for doing or being their opposite. This, too, was done not in a friendly, mentoring way but with adult, competitive equality.

Later, with sociological training under my belt, I understood, “Ah, this is what family or sub-caste socialisation means. There are cultural norms so taken for granted that the way to pass them on is as nature, not culture. You don’t say, “Do this.” You simply assume that it’s the only thing to do. Of course the child deserves a verbal whipping for not knowing that.”

There were perhaps two or three instances in my entire childhood when my parents, or uncles and aunts gave even an oblique kind of direct lesson in ethics. Once when mummy was laid up with a fractured collar bone in the summer holidays, daddy was away in his office, brother dear was too small to be of help, I actually asked if I could go to a friend’s house for the day. I was summarily refused. Later, my mother lectured, “What would I have done at home alone? Depended on the servant? Asked him for a glass of water?” The lesson was very oblique indeed, and quite unconvincing to my aching-to-ne-with-a-friend self. I was never asked for glasses of water. In our house, from when I was born, I had only seen servants do all the work, not family members, and certainly not children. What on earth could I be being taught? That servants should be always deemed imperfect, that blood was thicker than water (a popular cliche then), that women were helpless and needed to hold together, that a daughter could be, should be, her mother’s best friend. Oh, so oblique.

A lesson I liked had come from my tauji, also my favourite uncle. A few times, he raised his eyebrows at my nervousness or caution, say in playing chess or expressing shyness at greeting a stranger. “Sher ka bachcha? (A lion’s cub?) You have forgotten that you are a sher ka bachcha?” In other such figurative language he taught me that I was supposed to not be afraid of anything in the world—because we were the rulers of the jungle. It was all terribly delicate, since he was a fragile man in a hyper-starched-and-wrinkled chikan kurta and pajama, his right thumb and forefinger artistically touching each other as he spoke. The kind of man who would swiftly retreat if he actually caught a whiff of a lion, or even a cub. He was teaching me that bravado lay in attitude, not physique or actual training. That the world was ruled by discourse.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 1, 2017

1st May

The month of my first child’s birth! The month that life changed irrevocably for me and my husband.

I looked at him curiously the day after her birth. “He has changed. He will never be the same again.”

What did he think about me? If a new air descended upon him as the pater familias, did that happen to me also? I watched over my clan at the airport—something about baggage and bundles make you particularly vulnerable—and said, “My family. My husband. My daughter.”

Now the child is going to have her own child. Things are so different that now you can’t tell her anything about motherhood. She has looked it up online already. But things are also the same. You still can’t find the right doctor or the right hospital. You are still torn between returning to America and staying on in India. You are still nauseous and confused about what to eat. You waste food. You overeat. You long for unknown tastes. You keep your familiar nuts handy. Funny that the little creature creating so much turmoil inside me once upon a time, now has a little creature inside her giving her a hard time.

How will my child’s child be? Fifteen years from now, if my heart, my lungs and my brain keep up till that time? Why, she will be my friend of course. Just as when my daughter was born I already imagined her advanced in years, my friend.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 16, 2017

A home

I walked to SDA—Safdarjang Development Area. Sombabu said the name in a special way. He really liked the place. He liked Hauz Khas even more and changed houses four times there, not moving out. But after that he liked SDA, where we lived in the second year after our marriage.

I cannot find the house. I tried to trace the way that I would emerge from our home after breakfast and set out, to the archives or a library. The way is still in my memory but the geography has changed. The girls’ hostel that was opposite us has disappeared. An ugly, large, almost obscene school has come up, of solid stone, pink and red, its size mocking my puny educational efforts. Our house was three stories and we lived on the second floor, the doctor owner couple on the ground floor and perhaps another tenant on the first floor. We had two nice rooms, each with an attached bathroom and a separate kitchen. Everything opened to the wide roof with flowerbeds at the edges. We used the roof as much as the rooms. We sat and ate there in autumn and winter, spent mornings and evenings there in summer, and entertained there in all seasons. A few times we had a music baithak there. Once we even had a tent. There is a picture of master moshai at this concert, taken by a Japanese journalist and published in a Japanese newspaper.

The kitchen was nice. We both cooked there. We did not have a cook that I can remember. I made apple pie and pumpkin pie in a dome shaped aluminium oven that was placed on the gas burner. We made mayonnaise and Russian salad. I made borsch and Sombabu made dahi baingan. Who made rotis, I cannot remember, or did we always have rice? In the house before, Gulmohar Park, I tried to make them but could never produce more than four or five which left us always underfed and hungry. I know we often had seedy bread from somewhere.

Komi has worked hard to become non-attached and therefore not suffer. I am not suffering. I am just feeling. Of course it is all right. I know that people must die. They die without goodbyes, without telling you they are going and will not return. You have hardly relished the moment when it is over. Like the evenings over our gin and tonics.

Sombabu and I always had a drink and an early dinner. Then we settled down to work. He would play. I would read some quasi-Marxist book on India to understand my country better. Our room was clean, spick and span. We had few possessions—an old, sweet, flowered carpet given by nana, a sofa set of Scandinavian style given by mummy, two beds, two desks with shelves designed by us, wedding gifts including a tea trolley, pictures, books, lamps, some Belgian bric-a-brac. We never lived so simply again, unless you count the one year in Trumbull when we lived out of cardboard boxes and second hand things which therefore does not count. In SDA our living was simple but bourgeois and we were proud of our little home.

This after dinner time was pure pleasure. There was a boy called Amardev who worked for us and lived with us, the nephew of Anjali’s parents’ cook. He must have been ten or twelve years old. He would sit with his books and study while Sombabu played and I poured over my India studies. Amardev had a bird-like trill. He could re-create any tune in perfect pitch. We all went to Anandmayi Ma’s ashram near Dehradun once. We all heard the bhajan singing there. On our return Amardev would sing under his breath a perfect rendering of the bhajans. He was like a happy, singing bird. He must be fifty years old now, somewhere….

Our life was not untroubled. The biggest trouble was Chandana’s. Sometime around then, when she was  maybe twenty, just finishing college, she took a job teaching Bengali in a school or college near home in Srirampur. The experience was traumatic. Her mind slipped from its tracks. She developed acute persecution neuroses. She would pull out her hair, mutter to herself about people saying and plotting things about her, look around wildly, not hear you if you spoke to her, and in general be tuned out. We began taking her to psychologists and psychiatrists, giving her therapy and medicine, talking to her, making schedules for her, discussing her between us. Every day was a new trial and a new set of resolutions. One of the steps we took was to talk to Pradeep, a family friend who wanted to marry her, about her problem. He wanted to look after her and promised to do so. The wedding was fixed. Chandana had long spells of normalcy and all this must have happened during one of them. Doctors, too, gave all kinds of advice, and a clear one was to get her married, no doubt to occupy her and distract her. But this did not turn out well in all respects. She was not ready to be a homemaker or a partner in life. She did have two sons and they turned out well. They have  good jobs now and look after their mother. But Chandana had an amazing set of trials. I wonder what we could have or should have done. Sombabu spared no efforts and it’s fair to say that for fifteen years at least dedicatedly and then for almost another fifteen as best he could, he worried and worked for her.

Were there other troubles in our life? We would have said no. Sombabu would have said, “I have my sitar.” I would have philosophised about something or the other. In any case, when you are only interested in The Revolution, things are supposed to become worse before they become better so nothing counts as a trouble.

Delhi was a pleasure to live in. We loved hosting guests and at least once a week were cooking up a storm to have over our colleagues, our musician and academic friends, relatives, college friends, slight acquaintances, old school buddies, even my parent’s friends and staff members we loved. Equally, we were infatuated with walking around, eating here and there and visiting people. We went to every musician’s house, whoever there was in Delhi—Sombabu knew them all. We dropped in at publishers and historians and economists and friends of friends and friends of relatives and relatives of friends. We had insatiable curiousity and interest in people. Delhi felt like our own little city which we traversed in all its parts and felt comfortable in.

I am sitting in a park that did not exist then. The road beside it did not exist. All these grand houses around did not. What did exist was this life of ours in the house I can perfectly remember but not find.

This life is not a dream. I am not making it up. It happened. It happened forty years ago.

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