Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 1, 2015

Mahesh chacha

In 1926, when Mahesh chacha was born, Kachehri Road, Lucknow, must have been a gracious place. George VI was on the throne and had had a successful, indeed glamorous tour of India some years previously. This tour and its climactic darbar, helped fashion in upper class Indians an identity for themselves as special, with oriental glory. The patriarch of Kachehri Road, Ram Prasad Verma was given the aristocratic title of “Rai Bahadur” by the British. His children always quoted that. A prominent lawyer,  he worked for clients who occupied the topmost rungs of the social ladder. He lived in style and dressed like a gentleman.

His family flourished. There was one beautiful daughter, Sarojini, and two handsome sons, Ramesh and Naresh, before the equally handsome Mahesh, and two more sons, Durgesh and Suresh, and four daughters, Rishi, Nirmal, Santosh and Asha, to follow. All the girls were fair, the boys dusky (as girls and boys should be), with Kachehri Road noses that could not be missed, all tall and broad shouldered, with expressive faces, and a wit and an ironical style that set them apart. Only their mother, Binodini Devi, did not survive much after the last of them to enjoy this healthy, happy, burgeoning family of ten children.

I picture her as the essence of motherhood, giving out love, support, succour, food, literally the pallu of her sari for her children to wipe their hands on as they took their places at the dining table. I see her as a fount of energy and humour as she scolded and questioned, aided and improvised, living up to the name she was given by all, “Bhabhi (sister-in-law),”  more even than ‘mother’ which no one called her. Whatever every child became was largely thanks to Bhabhi.

Maybe Kachehri Road was the mother. A house that embraced you as you enter, then put you on one knee or the other, took you into its lap, let you climb all over and tumble down, all the time maintaining a serenity and bountiful generosity. You want to fly kites? Climb right up to the “fifth floor” on the roof, the platform reaching up into the sky. You want to curl up and read on a window sill? There are four beautiful spots with coloured glass panes to choose from, all fronting the magical street called Kachehri Road. You want to find some hidden treasure? There is rumoured to be some hidden in the puja room off the side room (belonging to Asha) near Baba’s bedroom.

The children must have run around from room to room, hiding, playing, studying, growing up in this mother of a house, observed and attended by Bhabhi, Papa, and sundry maids and servants. These last are all faceless to me except for Dhani Ram with his knobbly knees under his white dhoti, his gentle eyes, his warm smile; Moti; and the later Ram Awadh.

After Bhabi died, the house changed, giving lie to the idea that it was the mother. Only she had been, and the house now looked only a reflection of the father. The woman’s touch went missing. Rooms has a ramshackle look, the tops of cupboards were never cleaned, window panes not scrubbed. Dhani Ram reigned more in the kitchen. The younger children, Asha, Suresh, must have felt half-orphaned and looked, sometimes in vain, towards their daddas and jijjis for parenting. But such had been the parenting that everyone did well in life. All came to be well employed and well married, “well settled” as we say, and started their own families.

Mahesh studied and studied. Like most good students, he played hard too. He could deliver a mean cricket bowl and badminton serve. He could apply English romantic poetry to the beauty of actual people around him. He could get transported by music and dance. All this seemed especially appropriate as he was joined in wedlock to the beauty Meera from Bihar, a singer and narrator of no mean standing.

Mahesh writes about the experience of being in the railways, an officer in the new India of the late 1940s,  with everything British in the structure he became part of save the British themselves. It took many intellectual, creative, talented young people like him most of their lives to restore the balance between the ‘West’ that had formed them—twenty one years after all, in his case—and the ‘East’ that they knew they were part of, that was all around, that was enticing and promising and equally them.

I am twenty five years younger than him. I knew Mahesh chacha as a child of course. Sometime in 1958 we visited Calcutta and stayed in a flat high up with them, and I went playing in the park downstairs. Going back from Calcutta is memorable because it was my first ever time on a plane, and Calcutta and my chacha’s place were all equally metropolitan and impressive. The first time I really spent time with him, however, was when I was 23, back after years abroad. I went and lived with them on Landsdowne Road in Calcutta for a full month. My chacha and chachi after all. I landed up uninvited, made myself at home, and stayed on. None of  my four cousins, Dimpu, Pappu, Bittu or Baby, was then married. The house was a gracious bungalow, reminiscent of Kachehri Road, as I am sure Mahesh chacha also thought. That the house was gracious meant that it had huge bay windows with shutters to look out of and stood upright three stories in old-fashioned Tagorean splendour. That the house was large meant not only that it had half a dozen bedrooms but that it needed constant dusting and tending. Meera chachi would go on a battle round morning and evening. Calling out to servants, she would get every corner of the house cleaned and scrubbed. She was a shy, bold, affectionate aunt, who left us suddenly and all too early, a victim to carelessness during trouble with diabetics.

What was extraordinary for me in this one month stay was not that I simply lived there with Mahesh chacha, Meera chachi and my cousins, happy to be a part of the family and being treated completely as one, but such was the one-ness that my father wrote to me when the month was over that he had heard (from his brother Mahesh) that there was some young man in Calcutta who I was apparently interested in. Such protectiveness. Such family-ness. I was surprised and proud to be the object of so much scrutiny.

It was not this young man but another young man who I had my eyes on, and once he and I got married, Mahesh chacha took us both under his wings. He was delighted that Sombabu was an academic and a musician. He organised sitar concerts for him, including in Birla Academy and at Rupali Talukdar’s house. He called us to his Club. He introduced us to people. He took us to Mamta Shankar’s house, of Uday Shankar fame. He knew everyone in the art and literature world, to say nothing of politics and commerce. He acted as our local guardian in Calcutta, finely in tune with our musical, literary needs.

There were lovely quiet moments too. He would sit in his book-lined study and gazed out. When you came, he would keep you for several hours, discoursing on ideas and authors. He may have been in the Railways, but that was simply an accident. His heart was in literature and philosophy. Like my father Naresh, Mahesh had been, but even more than him, he remained, a literary aesthete.

When my father-in-law died, Mahesh chacha came to my in-laws’ house in Srirampur. He sat in his dhoti kurta, solemn and ritualistic, eating his puri-sabzi. He and my father-in-law were one of a kind, solemn and ritualistic. I can see their respective upright figures gesturing regally, fingers poised over a pattal. Servers would hover around.

When Meera chachi died, he came to Banaras, the correct place to perform certain funerary rights. I have a picture of him with his head shaved, holding a little copper lota wrapped in red in his hands, his eyes closed, head raised to the sun in prayer.

He came again also, now to Sarnath  to attend someone’s book launch, now to an educational centre run by an old-time friend. He stayed with us, ate with us, sat on rickshaws with us, and spread his affection around. In Calcutta, his patronage of his niece was so undisguised that as he went around at a high class reception with ambassadors and councillors introducing me, a gentleman stopped him short at one point to say, “Yes, Mahesh, yes. I have met your niece already.”

When he retired I observed that he turned, not away, but also, from anglophile leanings in literature to a gradually stricter Vedism. Not only did he like to listen to chanting in the morning now, his speech was also peppered by an ancient Hindu bearing. It was all quite astonishing and charming and I often cited it in academic circles as a sign of the new India, more modern but more ancient, all at the same time.

Finally, about four years ago he arranged a fancy lecture for me in Calcutta. I was the expert on Educational Management. His intensity for thinking, spreading the word, networking, doing, was indefatigable. What I remember of the occasion is the special Mahesh chacha intimate touch on a younger team member’s elbow to make him bend down to hear an instruction. I thought, “In this gentleness, he puts the monks to shame.” We were in Ramakrishna Mission.

Mahesh chacha is no more. 1926-2015. Even if I live for several years more, I am diminished today.

“…never send to know for whom the bell tolls—it tolls for thee” (John Donne, 1572-1631).

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 11, 2015

Birthday over!

If you want to feel special, the best thing to make you feel that, is your birthday. I am wrong—it is to have people who care for you make you feel special on your birthday. My absolute sweetest memory must go as far back as school, perhaps class IX. Another girl, in another class, had the same birthday. We felt special the whole day long, looking at each other, comparing notes non-verbally. The next day she said to me, “Birthday over!” That really put a seal on our pleasures of the day before.

And what were they? What are they ever? Cards, presents, birthday wishes, cake and food, giggling friends giving you a surprise, some hugs, lots of emotion.

But you were born. And it’s nice that people can fuss around you for that reason. IN this I am twice bless’d.

Yesterday, here’s how my birthday went.

At 8 am I made German pancakes in memory of my friends Gay and Eileen Haas. I was as close to them as I have been to anyone, especially Eileen, from 1972 to 74 while living in the same place, and then well until 1999 even while in many different places. The same place was Bridgeport-Faifield in Connecticut (today I read in the LA Times Obituary column of the death of Larry Brezner, producer of comedies, who had studied at the University of Bridgeport, as I have, a rare and unknown place otherwise). Sitting here in Southern California, my Connecticut seems like a dream. Gay and Eileen are no more and how I wish I could have met them once more before they died. On some of the many times that I stayed over at their place, Gay made German pancakes for breakfast. I can see them and taste them right now. Every now and then the memory gets overpowering and I make them.

We sat outside in our bower to eat. Disappointed with our brown-ing garden, we went out and bought plants and soil a month back and I have been watching and nurturing them more than if they were my children. They have responded with love and well-being. They were nodding all over our angan (atrium/courtyard/patio) and veritably singing a chorus of birthday hymns.

Then I turned to duty. Something was not right with our car and the plan was to drive to a beach and then to a show in LA. I had to get the car looked at. So, reluctantly, at 10 I went off to Sears armed with my laptop. Because I was willing to sit and work, they took their time. Two hours later, they told me that it could not be done on the spot, the problem was one that would take eight hours to fix. I went home and we looked up car rentals.

The nearest place was in Ontario, a good twenty minute drive away. As Irfana and I drove there, our car felt fine. It seemed to have recovered. Then I remembered that the Sears people had seemed suspiciously non-informative. Maybe things were not different to India where you could trust (!) a mechanic to tell you that something was grossly wrong and would cost you thousands because you simply didn’t know better. These people had said “Thirteen hundred dollars” and I had been too shocked to react, but now was feeling distinctly unsure that it needed so much repair.

However, the birthday spirit triumphed, by which I mean that it is supposed to bring out the best in you and it did. “You are prone to rashness,” I told myself, and told Irfana to tell me, “Don’t be rash now.” So we went to Hertz, then to National, and got our car, smelling, feeling and driving like all rented cars always do, that is to say, as smooth as butter, as clean as newness.

Irfana and Nandini had meanwhile put out the most artistic–gauzy, pink and white, with bows and trims–display of a pile of presents on the carpet! I had to protest. A woman of my age getting such a mound of mysterious, wrapped gifts! We simply should not be following this ritual any more! The first, littlest thing was a gift card to Yogurtland where I must have taken them all too often. The next two things were manga novels. I know I am developing a taste for these and I think I will soon be irrevocably hooked.

It was getting late. Google maps warned us that both our roads to the beach had accidents and would take double the usual time to traverse. Quick changes in plans. Disappointment sought to be converted into positive outlooks. We would just go downtown, to Grand Park and streets around. We would walk and dine in Petit Paris and go to see Hamlet by the Four Clowns, instead of just spending hours on the road.

So we left the remaining dozens of presents and drove off.

I got to sit at the back which is in itself a holiday. I got invited to talk about myself, about my sabbatical next year. What could be a pleasanter topic! I floated away on the dream of the book I was going to finish researching and writing. In the middle I was going to make a movie, “Murder in Mussoorie,” based on a novel that I had written years ago and was going to turn into a script.

We reached LA. We felt so much love for it as we walked around that another plan was immediately put into place. When I left for my sabbatical, I would leave Claremont as well, keep things in storage, and come back to take an apartment in LA. I would commute to Claremont and have the whole wonderful city to wander around in. When planning these things, one typically forgets that the part of the metropole one is enjoying is not the exact same part, or even kind of, that one will get to live in. But then I remembered my one year stay in Cambridge, Mass. and I had lived in an apartment right on Massachussetts Avenue, a five minute walk from Harvard, opposite the quantest second-hand book store. See my blog on an ethnographic train of thought on Cambridge!

We strolled around and watched children playing in their two inch shallow pool for a long time. Theirs was unadulterated happiness. Then to Petit Paris.

In some restaurants you can be left more alone than in others. In others there is more of a performance and the waiter with his niceness, in this case his strong accent and foreignness, can keep pushing you into co-performing until you either resist and return to your own conversations, or give up and do it, and later wonder what happened. Though not a foody, I love good food. I love the atmosphere of well appointed and well conducted places even more. Petit Paris was and had, both. So I was as happy as a humming bird. We drank expensive wine and ate wonderful dishes. And created various scenarios in which the waiter was a visitor from France on a J-1 visa, or a good actor at his evening job. Nandini’s lobster order got confused with another lobster order and straightening that out took some time.

If the German pancakes had been in memory of Gay and Eileen, I ordered escargots for starters in memory of Alice Thorner. On a visit to Paris in which I stayed with her, she took me out for dinner the first night and we ate escargots among other things. I awoke in the morning listening to birds outside, happy though my suitcase had been rifled on the way and my camera and leather gloves been removed, the taste of the diner in my memory. I associate happiness in Paris with buttery, spicy snails. Walt Disney has overdone the work of making all little creatures, many of whom we eat, lovable.

We hadn’t given ourselves too much time. We could have lingered over our meal a good hour longer. But we straightened ourselves, checked our phones  and realised we had to not walk fast, we had to run. Three dressed-up women tripping along deserted sidewalks that, shoot, went up. Midway to the theatre we realized that there was so much distance yet to cover we had better take our car. So we re-routed ourselves to the parking lot and reached the theatre in two minutes. Nandini and Irfana were sent in by me and I took over the wheel to park. I knew that difficult that it would be for me, it would be still easier than for them, especially with my additional dose of rashness and risk-taking. I parked, sshh, in a mattress store’s private parking. Nothing happened and no more tickets have been added to my collection.

Hamlet was a gem. The ghost of Shakespeare himself was present on the stage, approving of the slapstick. But the truth was that clowns and clowning is sad. The actor is presenting the dilemma and everyone is laughing at its absurdity and fallacy, but all the time he is also saying, “See? We cannot do anything about it. We will all still die. We can only laugh.”

Life is long enough for a laugh. I have decided to claim that I am seventy now, which will buy me some extra years. With which I conclude my birthday dissertation. And I still have the remaining presents to open!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 12, 2015


Jaunpur is a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh.  It is incredibly ugly, with buildings of odd shapes in odd plots, standing often in pools of stagnant water or garbage, objects of pride no doubt to their owners, but objects of contempt from any architectural, environmental, social or political point of view. The ugliness of Jaunpur extends to its filthy streets, its garbage-ridden lanes, its lack of trees, its cheap hoardings and signboards, its air of stagnation.

Jaunpur is not stagnating, however.  It is moving forward, keeping up with the nation, imagining and constructing, not only buildings of dubious quality, but also young citizens.  We went to visit a school called Radhika Bal Inter College.  This was in every respect a building typical of Jaunpur: ugly, odd-shaped because constructed in parts and seeking to save on costs, and surrounded by dust and garbage. No one had thought to plant a tree in the little space at the entrance. No one had imagined creepers climbing up its sides to hide its faults.  The back field was bare without a trace of landscaping or gardening, and blowing around with plastic bags.  The new Science ‘block’ could have been beautifully painted; instead, it was somber, and untidy with large-sized messages in Hindi and English about morals that young people should remember.

The school was a happening place.  We went because we have been running a school for fifteen years and have made it green, attractive, a dynamic centre of learning, bursting with new ideas and efforts.  But we have not got the affiliation to CBSE that we sought. Radhika Bal Inter College has.  It has four kinds of affiliations and is going to get two more.  We have slightly over a hundred children. It has over one thousand.  We have budgetary problems and build carefully and imaginatively. They boast that they build the biggest possible classrooms and have purchased more land and will now build yet more and so on and on.

The manager and principal of the unattractive school are proud of their achievements, their visions, and their competence.  On our side, we have our vision and our achievement, but are aware of our lack of competence—since we have failed to get the desired affiliation with CBSE.

We showed them the file returned by CBSE with a letter that listed about twenty points that we should take care of.  It started with, “Buy two acres of land, build a new school, get a new No Objection Certificate, hire new teachers….” and ended with “There are not enough books in the library.”  The Principal, Manoj Singh, who had taken on the work of helping us, murmured, “apki file men to dam hi nahi hai.”  We squirmed.

Tea and samosas arrived.  Manoj Singh bent over the file more seriously, began to tick off items. He rang his bell. “Bring me some paper from the press,” he said. I rolled my eyes mentally.  An office without a sheet of paper.  Mine had reams….Still, he had got the affiliation and we had not.

“Are the two plots separate or one?” he asked. Our present school was in an under-one acre space. Our projected school was in a two-acre space, as mandated, ten kilometres away.

“Two,” I said.  “I want to show the larger one, and say that the present one is the city office….”

“No, no need for all that.  Just say one. The big one.”

“But, but,” stammered I. “There is nothing there, only some construction….”

He shook his head in a dismissive way. “Show it as one plot, otherwise you will need a separate NOC and all that.”  There was a lady sitting next to him who nodded and echoed him.

“Next. Classrooms?  How have you responded?”

“I have shown that they are the right size.  They actually are.  I had just included some extra ones. Shown that our library is in two parts, stacks and reading room.”

“No. You have to break the wall between them; have one room.”

We protested, describing the rooms, defending the vision of our beautiful library with its sunny windows, its clean linoleum, its shelves of books.  He shook his head categorically, repeatedly, “No.”

He looked at the budget for the library. “Too small.  Show fifty thousand.”

“Our books are donated,” said I with dignity. “Where would we have fifty thousand to spend?”

He smiled slightly, paid no attention, and moved on to the next point.  He had a nice smile.  All the time he was talking to us, visitors came to see him, shook hands with him and sat down nearby.  He gave them his nice smile and then continued our work.  They sat around and left.

We came to the tricky question of the teachers.  I began to explain the problem. He cut me short and on the newly arrived sheet of paper began to jot down his points as he spoke.

“You must show one and a half. Thus, eight for the primary—you can’t have seven and a half—five for the secondary. Then, clerk, librarian, physical instruction teacher.”  As we looked at each other, he added. “They must be all qualified. Remove this person, and this, and this.”  He slashed ruthlessly through our list.

“We cannot find so many trained teachers.”

“I will give them to you.  Show all of them.”

His giving of teachers meant his loaning of their names to show on our list. Then he drew up their expected salary, with 50% DA.  This salary had to be shown as transferred through the bank.  How does one pay three to four times the affordable amount legally through the bank?  He did not meet our eyes. “Yes, you have to show that.”

“You mean, get them to sign on a false amount?”


“You mean, pay them that amount, and get it back?”


We came to the tricky question of students.  he grimaced at our list of the actual numbers in our classes. “You have to show at least forty.”

“Forty?  How?  From where?”

“Well.  Put in names.  Show them on the rolls.”

“And when the inspection team comes?”

“You can show some extra children.  You can show that many are absent.  That they have gone off on an excursion.”

We looked at each other, and fired by the dramatic quality of the first suggestion: show some extra children, discussed how that could be done.  It was absurd.  I went into an irrelevant discussion of its absurdity.  Manoj Singh simply shook his head.

The question of staff.  He slashed through our lists again. “Don’t bother to show any of these.  Just put one clerk, one peon.”

“But we have all these….”

“Forget it.  The more extra you add, the more they will have to question.”

The lady by his side sat and nodded and echoed everything he said.

Similarly, he demanded that we leave out every other claim we made or asset we had which did not satisfy the bare minimum.  No, a little elaboration was needed.  He looked severely at our Management Committee.  “No offices?  You have to have office bearers.”

“Oh really?” We started noting. “Which ones?”

“Chairman. Deputy Chairman. Manager.  Secretary to the Manager. Deputy Manager. Secretary to the Deputy manager.  Treasurer.  Vice-Chairman. Secretary….”

We watched as Manoj Singh wove the most fantastical discourse of what this school was like that was submitting an application for affiliation to the CBSE.  We were proud of our school and its features.  He dismissed almost every one of them and constructed his own imaginary edifice in its place.  He did not pause or blink but went on constructing and constructing.  He was totally disinterested in a metacommentary.  When I said, “You mean the whole population of India is making up facts and living out a falsehood?” he did not look up, meet my eyes, or smile.  He shook his head as usual, denoting assent, and carried on.

When we finished, we were left with a packet of utter falsehoods, all our truths having been swept under the carpet. We were now launched on the path to convince the CBSE with forgery and playacting that we had all the features they required in a school.

As we left the school—the lady next to the Principal turned out to be the director of the school, and his aunt—we looked again at its ugly exterior in its filthy surroundings.  The Manager saw us looking and repeated proudly how he had built it and nurtured it.  They were all bursting with pride about their school.  They and we inhabited two different worlds.

We walked through the narrow garbage-ridden gali to the main road.  I thought, “My India.  I like this place.  Such wonderful human beings. And they survive in spite of the system. This sky, this sun, this garbage.  All mine, lovely.  And so much to be done. I wish I could just stay here and do it.  So much to write about.  Such absurdities, such Dickensian incredible reality.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 12, 2015

My India–(written on 30th July ’15)

India put on a good show for me today.

Our house, fitted out in a way that pleased us well, therefore of course good for guests, was complete on time. What if the window pane had not been replaced and the dining chair cushions were missing….and some lights did not come on….There was plenty that worked and was comfortable and pretty and downright nice.

Coming home from the airport was easy. The night was pleasant and not a single mosquito raised its head.

In the morning it was so easy to take two autos to the Metro station. The metro felt impressive. Even though we stood and went and this lasted for about eighteen stops, there were these new tall buildings to see with different designs and some fancy names if they were hotels or offices. Inside, the metro was equally impressive. All the young Indians wore casual jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, carried backpacks and had their ears plugged into music. All looked incredibly cool. At the same time, there was no discernible loss of Indianness as one looked around. There were enough Indians wearing salwar kameezes or saris, Indian style gents’ pants and shirts—and all who did not have earplugs and were speaking to each other were doing so in different Indian languages.

Not a single Indian looked impressed with the new globalisation or modernity, merely bored. Everyone is as habituated to the speeding metro trains, its shining stations, its escalators, its advertisements for online buying, and to their smart phones, their sneakers and tights, to ATMs and apps—as if they had grown up with them. And being so young, many people almost have. I used to be annoyed at this, that young people did not know or care what India used to be like. But today I felt proud. When you are with a group of Americans, as I was, you are happy that you are in such a complex, mixed place as India is today.

Outside, of course, dirt and garbage reigned, the traffic ran helter skelter, drivers bargained stubbornly and beggars drove you insane. I tried not to think of the poor education, the terrible inside lanes and neighbourhoods, the unemancipated values of the middle class.

The new India seemed to dominate over these left-over problems of the old.

We got off the metro and took autos to Teen Murti. As beautiful as ever, it gazed out in lonely dignity over its vast compound and aged spreading trees. I tried to forget whose house it had been and focus on it as a lovely old thing which housed some treasures lovingly arranged by people who cared. There were wonderful photographs and letters. Everything was clean and orderly. The narrative held together as you went from room to room. True, the toilets were unusable and the canteen a strange mixture of well-planned service of basic North Indian (rotis or chola bhatura) and South Indian (dosas, idlis and baras) fare, and unplanned, uncomfortable and ugly seating. But for the former you could just control yourself, and for the latter you could overlook it.

In truth, the Nehru Museum was excessive in its mowed lawns stretching till the horizon and its total unused acreage all around. But it was also peaceful, with peacocks meowing, and green and friendly. I had given my lecture on the construction of the Indian nation state and the invisibility of class and gender divisions, so we could afford to relax and enjoy the setting. I had also told my students how we were in Lutyen’s Delhi where everything had been built to impress in a particular way, and that there were other Delhis to explore later.

Another auto ride took us to Kasturba Road, to a panel discussion on trafficking at the American Center. One of us did not have her identity card. They were correct to insist and be particular enough to have her wait outside. But I was proud of the fine-tuned Indian flexibility that somehow got her permission to enter.

I expected the discussion on trafficking and human rights violation to be depressing. It was the opposite. The police officer spoke of the initiative taken by the Ghaziabad police to save lost children and investigate the unregulated shelters and placement services that kept and supplied children. Yes, the police, in most such matters, are insensitive, untrained and downright uncouth. But they were trying and had recovered some six hundred children.

The journalist spoke of the reporting she did on human rights violation and described in detail one particular rape and battering case in Delhi two years ago.

The social activist narrated in an intensely personal way how she had discovered brothels in Delhi and started working towards restoring their sex workers to some semblance of dignity and self-support.

There were others too and it went on for too long for me. The chairperson decided that he needed to summarise everyone’s speeches and doubled the effort. The event itself was oddly located, in the middle of the library, so that those who were working had to drop their books and listen or force themselves to somehow ignore the loud talk and keep on reading. The tea afterwards was in a bare basement next to the toilets where there was meagre effort at beautification.

But each person on the panel spoke clearly and correctly. They had interesting references and were masters of their area of work. Their accents and figures of speech were very Indian, but ‘Indian’ has long become equivalent to many different versions of accents and intonations and not one sound or style.

I was proud, again.

The flag flew everywhere at half mast because Abdul Kalam had died the day before. But for me the flag was flying proud and high.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | September 9, 2015

Becoming a scholar

My eyes fell on the bookshelf next to my bed as I awoke at just after 5 am. Schooling Islam read the title. Accompanied by a hundred other tomes all proclaiming strong, sturdy scholarship.

Since when had I become such a scholar? That my life revolved around research, ideas, arguments? That I slept surrounded by books and arose—this seemed the most significant thing—to have my eyes alight on one of these—debates. The Great Indian Educational Debate. Some of the books I had reviewed. Some had been purchased because I had needed to use them. Some were simply around for a long time, their ancestry lost in the mists of time. Did I need to be so surrounded by them?

Who was I after all? A young girl who had wanted to do different things, including to sing and dance, to work with people, to travel and observe, to run and catch and swing. Sometime in the beautiful city of Agra with the domes of the Taj Mahal winking at me, I had been caught in an invisible net and my body disciplined into studying. Even my dance teacher commented on it. I was reading aloud and had not noticed that he had come. He watched me for a few minutes, then commented, “If you could do your tihai as you can read—wah, you would be a great dancer.” The feeling that I had in that passing moment that yes, a dancer is what I want to be, did not last.

There was no support for it. You could say that well, I had dance teachers. My first one was a Manipuri teacher, my second a Bharat Natyam, and my third a Kathak teacher. None of them cared for me nor I for them. The dance I imagined myself doing was different to what I was learning with them. The first one abused me, me all of nine years old, and I have never told anyone this before now. My parents would only blame themselves for trusting him, and I am only angry, nothing else. The other two treated me as a mindless child who they simply had instructions to teach. They never seemed to look at me or correct me, except mechanically. They conveyed to me that I was so awkward and graceless they could not be bothered. I knew their mind was elsewhere and they were waiting to get out of there.

I took to studying because that is what my parents wanted. Even then I was surrounded by books. There were my father’s. Then I was always getting presents of books. They expected me to read, praised me for reading, gave me plenty of time to read. True I had no companions as I did not in dance—or sports, or anything else—and I had no good teachers, as I did not in dance. It was the overall ambience of the home: Study! Never mind about anything else! You like to paint? To play? To sing? Hahahahaha. That’s just good for a laugh and a pat on the back.

When I remember my twelve-year old self, I am at a loss as to what happened. Did I have the scholar in me or was it moulded out of raw clay? When did I seriously imagine I would spend my life with books, books and more books?

Right up to college I thought I could sing and dance. I played the piano, learnt a bit of guitar, sang with friends and even in plays. Studies barely touched the surface of me. In the next two years I thought worriedly about being a writer. There was snow, there was a mysterious language, there was history. But there was no one to guide me, and a dozen people to question my choices.

Then I went to graduate school, in the USA.

I think if I had done my M.A. in India, I would have escaped. The M.A. would have been superficial and left my core untouched. But at the University of Bridgeport, I became part of a finely crafted system, where every little thing I was asked to do and did, had utility and meaning. In spite of all my tendencies to stand at the margins and observe, I was sucked into the vortex. I was fashioned from inside out. I imbibed what it meant to be a graduate student and lived it out. I was a Teaching Assistant for two years and learnt the craft of college teaching. I learnt what was research and what was argument. I learnt how the body moved and the face looked and what was the social life of the animal called the academic.

I began to like it. I still think that I liked it because it was the one thing I came to know well. Had I lived and worked in a community of performers, I would have loved to perform even more. I became a scholar because that was the job I was taught to do—and I was never taught any other job. And because a graduate programme in the USA is a fine thing.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | April 30, 2015

HMS Pinafore

Like a gift from heaven—the whole H.M.S. Pinafore is being played on the radio! It was performed sometime in my schooldays, but I cannot remember when or where, and if I had a part, and what was the part. But I can sing along though it was over fifty years ago, and I made our children at Southpoint do an adapted version of part of it—but that, too, was over twenty years ago.

I sail the ocean blue

And my saucy ship’s a beauty

I’m a soldier man and true

And attentive to my duty

He’s a soldier man and true

And attentive to his duty

And I am one of the millions  blessed with the knowledge of the beauties of the literature and music of the British Isles—through no effort of mine. I often think of the chain of which I am a link, and I begin with Mahadev Govind Ranade as the first link, seven generations ago.

Yesterday I picked up A Winter’s Tale since I had gone to a performance of it a week ago. First I lost myself in the superlative Introduction by, I thought Frank Kermode, only to discover that it was by a professor at Tufts. She summed up the language, life, theatre context, and plays of Shakespeare in a concise way that kept one glued to it until its last word.

But what I thought as I began the play, all armed and equipped by the wonderful Introduction—oops, here comes the Admiral, KCB

And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts

His sisters and his cousins

Whom he reckons by the dozens

His sisters and his cousins and his aunts!

So I am reading my Shakespeare and I am suddenly thinking, how did I come to know English as my own language? Now, reader, you may find this stuffy and boring, but understand, it’s the question that occurs to me so often because of my multitude of dealings with those who would love to know English and they just can’t.

No one did anything specific with me. It just happened. I remember being eight or so and holding a Girls’ Annual in my hands. This is one of those bound volumes with pictures of pretty English girls in frocks such as no Indian tailors can make, walking on the cliffs and moors. Then they go back to their boarding schools. I can remember a time when I held the book—and I couldn’t read it. I turned the pages. I looked at the pictures. I could not read it. I can remember a time when I went into the ‘box’ in a cinema hall, some English movie or the other showing—and I could not understand it. Whereas with the book, it’s enough of a pleasure to even hold it and feel it, with the movie, my eight year old me is annoyed, and the darkness around holds no compensation.

So, what happened? It’s important to know. If I can pinpoint the secret, then we’ll know how to produce the same results for everyone, won’t we? But—there is no secret. I held the book every day and one day I could read it. They gave me books on every birthday (there are some I never did read, that I still have not read—Water Babies). They expected me to read without a word being said on the subject. I had time galore. Nothing was offered to me to do with my time—just my room, my time, and the books. My father owned a lot of books and there were charming shelves of books in our house, but I never noticed them until I was considerably older. Yet, they were there in the background, and must have made books a part of life.

And my school? Didn’t my school teach me to read? I am afraid that when I think of my school at that age, I remember the desks, wooden and solid, opening to disclose a room for all one’s books and pencils and ink pot. I remember the classroom, full of girls, stuffed with them, but still like home. I remember my teacher, one thin, one stocky, both of them strict but also occasionally bemused. Miss Wilson and Miss Cariappa. I can remember the feel of my tunic and my tie. But I can remember no lesson. I can remember no activities—there weren’t any. The homework made more of an imprint but is also clouded and imprecise. No, I have no clue how I learnt to read.

Persistence must be the key. And desire. And a certain taking-it-for-granted.

Another thought crosses the mind. Again, without any desire to do so, I am in the midst of this east-west thing, the albatross around my neck. The thought is that at precisely that time of my life, suppose there had been no English, and it was my mother tongue, Hindi, that I was learning, getting books to read in, staring at the illustrations of, and dreaming about? What would have happened?

Well, let’s keep it for another day. For today, for this evening, I am crazy with happiness that English is my language.

I need to have HMS Pinafore belong to me!!

For he himself has said it

And it’s greatly to his credit

That he is an Englishman

In spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

Ah, fickle heart. Fickle politics.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 29, 2015


Yesterday I made the truly bad mistake of going to see a movie called Cinderella. I imagined that it would be some post-post-deconstruction of the Cinderella story, and whatever it would be, was sure to be fascinating.

Instead, I moved and turned in my seat for two hours muttering, “This is awful.” There was the same old story, without a single nuance, a single whit of interpretation. It was made by Disney, but I was cheated out of the cleverness of all their other fairy tales. Why had they made this idiotic movie?

I can think of two positive points. One is the lush, lavish sets. There was nothing left undone to re-create a certain feudal, Western hand-crafting aura. The prints of the fabrics, the lace and embroidery, the ribbons and bows, then the cords and buttons—every character was clad in what is the ultimate fantasy of the Western consumer today, of the kind that shops through rare catalogues. The furniture and staircases and insides of rooms looked appropriately grand, or richly encrusted, or if a cottage, winsomely beautiful. Unfortunately, the camera moves fast, and cannot linger—though this one, as with boring movies, seemed to do so—so all that labour of planning the costumes and sets is a bit wasted. But objectively speaking, the effect is grand.

Except that—it would have been so for me fifty years ago. I have had it up to my nose with this western nostalgia for the little cute mice nibbling cheese, the baskets of rush with fresh eggs in them as the goose and the gander waddle past, the touselled blond hair and the freckled cheek and nose of the country girl in her cotton print dress. Earlier that day I was listening to a waltz from Swan Lake and I was actually sad. I had gone through so many rounds of enjoyment, appreciation and admiration of it—and now there was only resentment. It had eaten up too much of my life. All of Western art and literature had. Now that I wanted to be in a different metier, work with Indian people, in their languages, know their arts and poetry, now there was too little time. It was as if I had been a bonded labourer who had to work first for the larger part of her life in the service of the West and was now released to go where she pleased. The Swan Lake waltz was my golden chain that I had mistaken for my freedom and my love. I listened to it with fascination but a twisted smile.

The lushness of the Cinderella story’s beauty did not win me over and only tired me with its exhausting repetition of all-too familiar themes. But the second strong point about the movie was that without the caricaturing emancipation of other Disney heroines, the character who played Cinderella had some guts. Not a whole lot, and not necessarily intelligence, but some guts. She had a mantra from her dying mother, “Have courage, and be kind,” which she repeated in an interesting way. One could see how it could go easily overboard with the constant smiling and politeness that many Americans display, as flimsy and brittle as tin foil, but with her there was a thoughtfulness and a self-disciplining. Because to have courage and to be kind is in fact not always easy. I can see her confused look as an ugly beggar asks for some bread and milk, and she sighs and brushes her tears away and says, “Yes, I can find you some.” That look I liked. But Bonham Carter as the beggar-turned-fairy godmother? Anyone could act the way she does. Were they serious?

All in all, there was no point to the movie that I can think of. Nothing interpreted, nothing presented, no points of view, no debates or conflicts, no one reflecting on anything, no one conscious of what, who or why. Just more and more grandeur, castles in the sky, rosy and saccharine-sweet visions and talk, stars bursting in the firmament, everyone gasping as the prince and princess kiss….the simplicity of it was stupid and the crass commercialism of it quite objectionable. I could throw rotten tomatoes at the screen.

I strained to overhear my neighbours’ comments as we left the hall. “It was lovely,” said one. “I could see it again,” the other agreed. I want to say, I puked.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 27, 2015


Betty, my friend.

Oh, if I was to think of myself, I am tired of receiving news of death on flights. I am sitting—like a fool—at Heathrow, eating and drinking and e-mailing, and receive news of Betty’s passing away. Oh, oh, oh.

Once again, I fooled myself into thinking I had time. I was going to go to some plays with her. I was going to drink coffee with her—I can see her across our capuccinos, and we would comment on the play and the playhouse, dissect the performance, complain about the parking, and I would drop her back. Because she hated to drive and I loved it, that is, am habituated to thinking that I love it. Drop her at the house that I recognized because of the two big concrete vases outside on the garden.

Again and again Betty and I had done this.

In the middle we would talk about India, about her projects and mine, and in the manner of those who share the fundamentals, we did not ever have to explain or justify anything we did. We loved India in similar ways and there was no way to put it into words. Anything we said evoked our laughter, and pathos, and our love, and our concern, and our intention to do something there.

We would talk about Shakespeare, or Moliere, or Beckett or another playwright, and Betty was so generous. It was her territory, not mine. But she had limitless respect and patience and heard any ravings on my part as if I had any right to rave. Then she would gently tell me some necessary part of history, or context, or technique.

We would talk about Claremont, gossiping away as only colleagues can. We had widowhood, and musical husbands, and dancing children, and solitariness in progressing age, in common.

That is a lot.

We never had to say anything, as it were, but wryly gravitated towards each other. And all the time thinking, as we told each other, “We are so busy right now. We must find more time together.”

Foolish us. Foolish me. Betty is at rest and I am looking around, thinking, what was I thinking? Once again, that I had unlimited time with someone?

It is true once again, ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 27, 2015

The musicians at rehearsal and the concert

It was enough to hear; one did not need to see anything. As the instruments tuned up, a great wind blew through the universe. The depth and resonance of the sound was shaking. The tunefulness of the slightest note could overpower you.

I kept doing my work because the musicians had to be fed. I was carried aloft on the music. If I had paused to think of the cooking, I would have had to run away, because I was tired and there was nothing interesting to cook. One can of cholas, some frozen ‘meatless meatballs,’ some soggy spinach, some expired yogurt. I have no memory of the cooking, only the trumpets blowing on the other side of the bend in the room. The three of them, the sitar, sarangi and tabla, were perfectly matched.

I was in my element: feed the musicians. After two hours of playing, they came matter of factly and sat at the table. No one wondered at the four dishes that had appeared, together with raita, chatni and achar. They all gossiped long and hard about who had learnt what, from whom, and how, two of them touching their ears whenever a veteran was mentioned.

The next day, at the concert, the cavernous size of the room took away some of the deep resonance that I had heard at home. They did not manage to build a tunnel through the universe, as I had felt then. They were musically perfect, but could not conquer. They were still together, but with an effort. They looked at each other, watched carefully, and kept up tentatively. They smiled at the audience and bowed at the applause, but their spirits did not soar.

Many people said later how much they enjoyed it. My own enjoyment was diluted because I had heard such a powerful sound the night before, of which this was a weak rendering.

I could also see them, as I did not the first time. When you can see, you get distracted.

The sarangi player did not look good. He did not have a wise or collected face that reflected an inner life. He did not seem to focus or get lost in his music. He bent down as he played and glanced up at the audience in the familiar musician way, but the pain and furrowed brow of a Ravi Shankar was missing. The slight smile and exuberance of Nikhil Banerjee would have been good. The bounce and beauty of Som Majumdar was certainly not there. Instead, there was a very ordinary man with nothing exceptional about him, drawing some rather musical sound from his instrument, undoubtedly because he had been taught well and made to practice and practice until he could do it in his sleep. But the magic of the music or the greatness of the discovery that it could be made by human hands, were not showing on his mien.

A colleague M— next to me sat down with a giggle into an unfamiliar posture on the ground. When I commented on his courage in doing so, he said, “Oh, that’s because I am a musician.” I asked, “What do you play?” He: “Oh, so many instruments.” More giggles. Well, I thought, maybe a musical evening brings out the music in everyone.

On the other side of me, I was wondering why C— and D— would bend their heads down on the sheet in what yoga instructors like to call the “child’s pose.” Then I realized that they were in splits of laughter. At first I felt it was extremely perspicacious of them to enjoy the music so much—would I could let myself go like that! Then I got confused, because they kept laughing and laughing. It must have seemed like a huge clowning act for them and I guess they showed their appreciation.

Behind me a new-found brother and sister would occasionally go, “kya bat hai!” and “Wah!” They were my colleagues from Pakistan. All around, some listeners were smiling and bright-eyed. Others looked grave and meditative.

Then it was over, and never mind that it was California, there was the same standing around on the sheets, shawls drooping, reluctance to pack up, the stage full of knick-knacks calling for attention. People coming up and introducing themselves, nodding vigorously, grinning, shaking their heads to agree. I packed up the food, then I packed up the sitar, then I kept moving around until I infected the group and they all moved.

Paul had taken up, in the second half of the concert, Sombabu’s sitar and said, “Last evening Nita asked me to tune this sitar. I am honored to be handling such a beautiful instrument. It is made by the chief sitar-maker of India, who is no more. I am honored to play it in the memory of Nita’s late husband, Som Majumdar.” He tripped slightly over the name and I know that he had tried hard to memorize it and get it right.

I was embarrassed at the sudden opening up of a private world to the public. Paul thanked me and everyone clapped. I was in the very first row and did not turn around.

As we got into the car, Paul whispered, “He would like some Scotch. Do you know where we can get some/“ “It’s fine,”  I said in reply. “I have some at home.”

I discovered that the bottle said, “American Whiskey.” I had a moment of trepidation. I don’t know why I give people so much credit. K— would have had anything with those fumes.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 8, 2015

The Final Chapter

I gave myself time to write the final chapter. The style of writing for this book has been to take three to seven previous versions and to try and put them together. The Lord save you from such a fate. I knew I would have trouble with the Conclusion because when I came to it, all I was doing was planning it. I get up early and work. Well, I’d get up and sit in the dark against my pillows, and plan. Then I’d exercise and plan. Then I’d eat breakfast and plan. Finally, I’d have to go to my office and to classes, and would make sure to keep myself busy. And in the evening I’d sit in the jacuzzi and plan. Back to bed, listen to music and plan.

So, I decided to take a brilliant step. What if I did not look at the four earlier versions on my desk next to me, full of pencilled squiggles, each crying like a starving child in a household gone to pot? I mean, children not in real life, but in a bad movie? What if I walked out on all of them and set up house somewhere else, with a clean slate?

Nothing like really believing in yourself. If you had written those four versions in the past, you could write a brand new one today.

So here’s my Conclusion to my book on Indian Education, I mean in a short paragraph, not in thirty pages as it actually is (I mean, will be).

When I enter our school in Banaras, I am torn. On the one hand, we have done great things. Intezar, Prema, Shivani, Ejaz, Aquib, Anupam, Azim, are all the kinds of children I would have liked to have educated–and there they are. Sixteen to eighteen years old, ready to finish class XII and move on. What is my test? I can joke with them. I am relaxed with them. They and I laugh together; we are at the same level. But there are so many structural problems. Where will they go to study further, or train, and make or find jobs for themselves? We wanted to have counseling in our school for them, and different people did it variously, but each left, demonstrating profound non-commitment and irresponsibility. Then, each classroom is nice and there are things within it and going on in it that are truly better, more beautiful and more sincere than in all the schools I have visited. Yet, we don’t have the right size building. We don’t have the right playgrounds. We don’t have the professionals to teach the arts. We do not have the endowment to have all this. Again, structural problems. If we could have the state NOC, we could have the CBSE, and a better balance and number of children. But the clerks are sharks. They want huge bribes. They have made a game of losing our file, avoiding meeting us, pretending that something is wrong, manufacturing yet a different shortcoming, and on and on. In the absence of this structural support, we are torn, wasting our time on these matters rather than spending it on teachers and children. We have a lovely curriculum–but will it die out with us? We have the secret of training teachers–but how to multiply that a thousand-fold? In my eight chapters, I have described what is wrong with curricula, spaces, teaching, approaches to the child, and so on, all around. In running our school, I have learnt how to fix it. Not overnight, but over twenty five years. The two questions now nagging me are: what about the structural problems? And, how does one replicate our process?

As you see, it is not a Conclusion, it is the Beginning. As they used to say in bad Hindi movies, but this is real life.

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