Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 19, 2016

Why I would not want to live full-time in India

Because I get tired and annoyed with the performance of everyone around. Sometimes solemn, sometimes silly, often amateurish, frustrating because equally and breathtakingly masterly, much of the time imitative—it drains me to keep interpreting and thereby defending everyone’s role playing. I want to be at liberty to say, Enough. I do not like this chatter and this presumption of reality and this acting out of platitudes and this conviction of rightness. Also this ridiculous, cute little-boy masti and let’s-drink-a-kulhad-of-chai. A good performance, as performances go, but seriously unlikeable.

So, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, pardon my cliche, to still love and be amused by, to suffer with and take seriously, the complicated performances of Indians, I would like to escape periodically.

But what about the question, Why would I not want to live full-time in the USA? Now that’s a non-question since right from the beginning I have given an implied answer. It’s not home.

Here’s a different answer. I dislike its performativity as much. Almost no American is able to see through their own role-playing, their own echoing of normative ways to speak and act, their total non-reflexivity that they are supremely imitative. They are not interesting companions. They are not funny. They jump to a solidarity that is oppressive. No, thank you very much. I do not worry about Mondays. I do not detest salt and sugar, indeed I lap up the latter. Nothing happens to me, nor do I keep awake on drinking tea or coffee. I am not busy. I am not tired. I love my mother and I think my children love their mother. I don’t think desserts are to be resisted or that chocolate—or strawberries—are the world’s most tempting thing. I hate it that you believe in race and hate the very term and idea of it. I pity you for your lack of imagination in clothes. I wish you did not keep saying, and apparently thinking, that you were the richest and most powerful in the world.

It would be wonderful to keep shuttling between the two countries, inadequate as each is. Only, with age, that’s not quite practical. Nor would you achieve any serious goal until you focused—meaning you had one study, not two; one library; one accountant, one doctor, one—home I guess.

I did this whole exercise for nothing since, given an equal balance of things to escape from, the only criterion that is left is—which place is that elusive yet quite definite thing, home?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 19, 2016

In the palm of your hand

You remember the feeling you sometimes have, that what you are experiencing is carrying you afar and away, opening doors and avenues, and you are tingling with the pleasure of discovery and learning? It could happen in a natural setting, and often when listening to a talk, reading a book, watching a performance, being part of a group or an event.

The opposite is when it is a circumscribed, timid event. You know what it is all about before it has even properly begun. You are not really interested; you are not aroused. Nor are you put off. You know where the thing’s littleness comes from. What you do is suffer—for its amateurishness; it is, somewhere, part of you.

It is in the palm of your hand.

The Lucknow Literary Festival is such an event. For sixty years I have seen a tented set-up exactly such as this space I am sitting in, called “Jalsa.” It has a stage on which is performing a qawwali troupe. On two sides of the pretty tent of silk and nylon are stalls for food. Stalls that I grew up with. There are garbage cans, but as always for decades, plates and napkins spot the lawn. The speakers are too loud, the singers too strident. The whole thing is tuneless. The audience knows no better.

Inside, there are two spaces, “Anjuman” and “Mulaqat.” They have book launches and discussions. While a book is launched, the whole thing is about sycophancy. The speaker is unlimited in her flattery, flower bouquets are given in a servile way, cameramen clog the front as if there was no etiquette to anything. The introducer goes on and on as if she did not understand the word ‘boredom.’

There are second rate paintings up in an unaesthetic row. People come and go, talking not of Michelangelo, but of other people and the “nice atmosphere.”

The so-called “Food Court” looks bare with only four stalls in a huge space where stall-keepers who were supposed to flock did not come, probably because they rightly guessed that the audience would not be flocking either. The stalls offer biryani, roti-chicken, pizza, burgers, rolls, and cakes and tea and coffee. It is pathetic and almost sweet. It is a college fete that I have been to a hundred times. It is pure amateurishness.

Certainly, there are new developments. There are large flex banners. There are TV screens that bring a speaker right up to you. There are glowing lights and sound systems that boom. Somehow, all this newness pales before the familiar old features. What is unchanged is more, and more dramatic: the body language of people, the lethargy infesting the atmosphere, the absence of a solid bedrock of values and concepts—in this case, who reads? why read? how to push reading, books and literature? how to have fun with them?

My Lucknow. My Uttar Pradesh. When will it grow up from what I knew as a child?

Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 9, 2016

The Rong and the Wright

Assorted people are routinely setting fire to garbage piles to get rid of the garbage, creating in turn toxic clouds of smoke that generously swamps our house. Reports tell us that Delhi, followed by many cities of India, has air that is several times over the acceptable limit of pollution. Citizens are warned to wear masks and keep children indoors. Just a while back the warning was about mosquitoes and possible dengue and chikanguniya fever. People were warned to keep limbs covered and again keen indoors. In the halcyon days of the past, the main problems only used to be dust and sunburn, neither of which, together with mice, lizards, cockroaches, mosquitoes and flies, comprised an active threat of any kind. The past was all the way until just a year or two ago. The present is the horror of today.

In this horror-time there are further slippages of control. Earlier the main problems were electricity and phone failure, and an availability of products limited to Indian manufactures. Today, as I learnt in a meeting of parents of Kindergarten children, the main problems are that five-year olds are addicted to playing games on their mobile phones and to watching certain shows on TV. Some parents giggle fondly as they recount how their child will not let them be if the gadget is not handed to them, and describe the tantrums thrown if the need is not exactly satisfied.

Meanwhile four people a day on an average talk to me of their growing poverty in the face of rising prices and, what goes unsaid, expectations. Their medical needs are larger than ever, while costs are higher, mostly because of the collapse of the socialist state in India. Any pretense of subsidizing the poor with the necessities of life is gone. Rationing of essential food grains, oils and sugar, still continues. But it is sad to think of the huge, unbridgeable distance now between the poor who still use their ration cards and the rich who can buy whatever they like in the world, literally in the local market. The worlds of the rich have shot through the ceiling and the walls to encompass the universe. Those of the poor have shrunk so much as to barely leave them with space to have backbones.

Everything seems wrong in the India of today: the environment, the consumerism, the disparity in wealth. What about arts and culture?

If Banaras is any example, corporate support is readily available for the the arts. There is more music on the ghats than ever before. It is dazzling. There are literally hundreds of lights for a concert, giant screens to project the artists, silk cushions for the audience, perfect sound reproduction. It would seem uncharitable to complain were it not that the dazzle overpowered the music.

And all the time the peanut seller, the jhal murk walla, the little vendors of this and that, and most of all, the poor artisans and serving people, bend lower, in helpless awe and uncertainty before this dazzle. They labour away for a pittance–perhaps a  monthly wage that is the equivalent of what a new citizen of the new India pays for a good dinner.

We shiver with the feeling that something is Wrong. But since we can’t exactly place what it is, we can’t make it Right.



Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 7, 2016

The historian as packer

I grit my teeth and gird my loins and set to work. I have to pack eleven rooms, four verandahs, two garages, three store rooms worth of stuff. It’s not just stuff. It is, on the one hand, exquisite carpets, sofas, linens, paintings, lamps, books, crystal and china. It is also drawers, shelves, files and cupboards full of memories, records, photos, letters and documents. And hundreds of bags, pouches, cases, containers, to put every little thing.

Pir Ghulam and Radha are my two assistants. They work from 8 to 1, then officially vanish. I am, as always, taken by surprise, and continue working through, expecting them any moment. Then it dawns on me that they are resting. I try to rest too. But uneasy lies the head etc. As I finally am ready to drop off to a little nap, Piru looks in. “What should we do?” he asks brightly. I groan. It is three and their rest is officially over.

It takes us all morning to do shoes. I am alarmed at how carelessly Piru wraps things and how casual Radha is about mixing separate categories of things and then forgetting where anything belongs. I try to show them ways of doing things, but half-heartedly, and they are half hearted out of my half heartedness. Privately we are all three grateful that we are soon parting company. It is slow going. After what seems ages, two cartons are ready, one with “Shoes—others’,” and one with “Shoes—mummy’s” further divided into good ones and not so good ones, ones with heels and ones without, outdoor ones and indoor ones. In two separate bags go clogs and rubber chappals.

We take a break. Radha cooks me some potatoes for lunch. Piru goes for namaz. I read Northanger Abbey. I am convinced that Jane Austen’s 1810s England is, almost an exact one century later, mummy’s 1930s India. Like a novel’s heroine, I sit in the shadows of a spreading tree, eating a plateful of potatoes with a fork and drinking coffee, watching squirrels and insects, embalmed by a hushed but active greenness all around.

After the break, the lunch, and the rest is over, and I have been bullied by Piru to stir myself and fall to, we put moth balls in all the suitcases and label them. There are twelve outside in a row and five in the store room. It’s sweet and pathetic how we deal with these tough inside ones.

Piru       We have to bring them down and take them out.

Radha    Well….

I               How heavy are they? Piru, can we get a labourer for the day and then just do it all at one go? Who went the last time to get a labourer? Could you go tomorrow?

Piru         Yes, of course I can go if needed. But we have to remove them. No matter when we do it, it has to be done.

Radha     Well….

I               Oh Piru, stop being such a bahadur. You know they are heavy. Just get a labourer.

That resolved, we decide to tackle the files instead. The wooden cupboard is chock full of files and if they are not removed, the cupboard will not budge, and if the cupboard does not budge, the suitcases in the store room are not going to be brought out by anyone, labourer or not.

Tackling the files means that I have to rapidly survey each file handed to me, with growing impatience, by Radha. I have three seconds to decide whether to throw it in the gigantic dust bin that has been provided for me by Piru, its size significantly chosen from a range of choices; or to decide to keep  it, in which case I pass it to Piru who arranges it in a carton.

The files go far, far more slowly than even the shoes. I am not a ditherer. I make up my mind in seconds and never look back. The problem before me now is a historian’s. Each time I make a move to toss out something, a voice whispers, “Remember! This is exactly the kind of record you weep at not being able to find.” How much space does a file take? I ask rhetorically and pass it on to Piru to try and exactly discover.

There are files for taxes, for investments, for policies. There are letters received and carbon copies of letters sent. There is letterhead paper of different designs and there is carbon paper. There are copies of speeches made and events inaugurated. There are notes and jottings. Daddy’s files include confidential reports on districts. One contains a list of names of Phulan Devi’s gang. Mummy’s files contain recipes, embroidery and knitting patterns, and even French lessons. She kept the detailed plans for the annual parties hosted by them. They are also in Police and Intelligence labelled folders, as are daddy’s. There are Cantt files and HUF files and registry of old sculpture files. With each one I review, I imagine, if not a complete chapter in a book, at least an argument on a page. I treat them with reverence–they are all bound in red tape.

My friend Kirti’s arrival breaks up the party. I long to abandon it all and go and sit in a decent living room over tea with her. I steel myself and have a chair put for her in the office. We keep working. She gives us moral support. She is both a frequent packer and home-mover, and a historian. She encourages me to save things and protests about the little that I do throw away, usually because I do not like that particular bank or investment place.

Thus is history selectively made.

Today is the first, and maybe last, time that the document lecher who bemoans the absence of documents finds herself on the other side: contributing to that absence of documents.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 9, 2016

Re-living, re-dying

I am sorry I undertook this precious project. I wrote a story about Mummy and Daddy, Sunil and myself, Shankar and our lives together. I made it into a script and persuaded “my team” that we could make a movie out of it. Irfana and Gaurav took it on as artists, but I was the driver behind the finance and determination. Why? I had the thought that it would commemorate mummy and her life, preserve the memories of everything for us, take away the pain of her loss, that it would–save me.

Every day now, and this is the fifth month of the making of the film, I realize that I was wrong in this plan.

The film is surely being shot. Irfana and Gaurav are exemplary artists and, the rare combination, terrific managers. We are lucky in our crew, and blessed in our staff. So many things have happened as if by magic, such as the whole hearted support of the Police Department of U.P. It’s as if mummy was spreading a hand of benign protection over our venture.

But she is also saying, “Nita, pain is not something you can make a plan for. It will not go away through a project.”

Or rather, she is not saying this so much as just making it clear to me through the evidence of her life and personality. Rich evidence, of what she thought, wanted, worried about, loved and felt. Dozens of drawers, cupboards, shelves, trunks and tables full of the evidence. I feel deflated as I try to turn even one layer of this into a cinematic event. I watch the camera monitor as six to seven scenes are shot everyday. My heart saddens at how simple, flat, static, ordinary that rich and exciting life seems on the screen.

I plead with the cameraman. “She is supposed to be overbearing, fussy, domineering. Can’t we put this across with some kind of visual symbolism?” I explain to Irfana, “Be simple. At this age she had not travelled anywhere. She was born in one place and lived in another.”

I want to run away to my laptop, to write instead. Mummy was familiar with it and appreciated it. Although even with it she did not know that it could be used, it could be tried to be used, as a means to deal with pain.

If she had, she would have said, “Uh-oh. It won’t work.”


Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 13, 2016

Roddy Doyle and my mother’s death

I am sitting here wondering how to manage my grief at the sudden departure of my mother. Shehnaz teases me. “Sudden? When is death not sudden?” Like me, she has lost her husband and both her parents one by one in the last decade or so. “Well, when you know that someone is going to die,” I say. “I don’t know about that,” she laughs. “One day we are alive—one moment we are alive, and the next we are dead. What could be more sudden than that?”

She knows what I mean and is just trying to make me feel better. Just as Gautam Buddha did with the woman with inconsolable grief who had lost her son. He told her to collect a grain from every house in the village who had not lost a loved one. She came back with an empty bowl. But an uplifted spirit, knowing that so many hundreds of people were exactly in the same place that she was, sharers of her grief.

So last week I focused on Buddhism. I read a lovely article which explained how there were different ways of thinking, and that to go on our perception and inference was simply faulty, as it was to have concepts and essences. That there was a temporal, fleeting quality to everything and that was all we could, finally, know. Of course I am not even beginning to explain it, since at the heart of it, language is useless, and there is a different way of thinking for us and for those that are enlightened.

I got some solace in thinking that my mother was not, after all, essentially my mother. As I had known for some time, she was at heart a little girl who had gone through a lot in her childhood, good and bad. The bad, and some of the good, had hardened her to become precociously adult, thus turning her into a ‘mother.’ But even then she had her crazy side to her. Then she became older, a grandmother, and a President of an organisation, and gradually her beautiful straight figure got bent over. There was no essence in her life….and that continues in a path after her death.

What I could not quite evoke in my imagination was, what was the path after death? All I had in my mind was the pot of ashes that a picture showed Sunil, Umang, Nandini throwing over a bridge into the Gomti. My mother a pot of ashes? My imagination and my whole brain would screech to a halt.

Where the Buddha could not hold my hand and help me over the chasm, Roddy Doyle stepped in. He creates a woman, Anastasia, called Tansey (I forgot to add, formally, in his 2012 book A Greyhound of a Girl, Amulet Books, New York.) She has a little daughter called Emer who she has just started learning to be the mother of. She is twenty four and her daughter is three. Love fills their relationship and brims over. Tansy loves to hold Emer and Emer loves to be held by Tansy. Within a few minutes of one day sitting together, Tansy shows signs of catching the flu, takes ill, goes to bed and never arises. She dies without Emer ever seeing her live again, just her dead body and still face, the eyes covered with coins.

Emer grows up on the farm they live on and meets someone in her early twenties and marries him. They have a daughter called Scarlett. He is from Dublin and they move there. Her husband dies and as an older woman she lives with the grown up Scarlett and her husband and daughter, Mary. Emer is old and hospitalised as the story begins and the family visits her everyday. The husbands are not sketched out much, and often they only read the newspaper, go for a walk and smoke, or ask questions. There are brothers too in each generation and they are real people with real problems but they too are on the side.

The story is about the four generations of women: Tansy, Emer, Scarlett and Mary. The story is told from Mary’s eyes. She is worried about her grandmother’s death. Scarlett is worried about her mother’s death. Emer had already lost her mother when a child and is haunted by that. Tansy died without fully being a mother and is therefore a ghost, someone who did not die a natural or easy or final death.

There are so many differences between this story and mine. I have just lost my mother. She did not linger in hospital as Emer did. Emer worried about dying. She would close her eyes and wonder if she would ever open them again. But was that why mummy kept her eyes wide open, even at night? Why she could not sleep well and yet dozed off at all times of the day and night?

Mummy was very disturbed when she lost her mother, unexpectedly, after routine hospital tests. This was back in 1981. When she visited us in Banaras we took her to the grandest Ayurvedic doctor in the city. He discussed her case with her for a long time, as they do, and he focused particularly on her mother’s death, which at that time made no sense to me.

Like Tansy, I too have daughters that I worry about leaving. I am three times older than her when she suddenly died, but my daughters are like the children to me that she left behind. I can see their sad faces as they look at my closed eyes and unbreathing chest the day I die. They are not helpless, however, and I don’t need to hang around as a ghost. But I can definitely worry, and know that it’s all right to worry, and that with all the worrying and love, it will be all right for them. I have to act the ghost now and rid them of the fear of death, of the loss of a loved one.

Of course, in order to do that, I have to first accept the ghost of my mother telling me the same thing.

There are four generations of women I live within. My biggest questions “What does it mean to me that my mother left me?” and “What will it mean to my daughters when I leave them?” are miraculously answered. Different as it is to mine, the Roddy Doyle story tells me.

It means, to be reductive if I may be indulged in being, that I will manage, and they will manage, because of the love already given. We will all “be grand.”

So, being what I am at home, is that in addition to having some answers, I swim in a sea of love for Ireland and Roddy Doyle. Though I can transport myself back to Buddha territory, thanks a little bit to some brilliant Manga, I can transport myself still better to Wexford, Gorey and Dublin. The places are alive and well and I know them!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 6, 2016

Mummy’s obituary

How I hate and protest the term; how angry I am about her letting go; how I want again the sheer physicality of her, to bury my face in the folds of her sari (her at 25) and to lead her by her soft hands, her many layers rustling besides me (her at 85). No one has the right to transform themselves into a pot of ashes. Sunil could participate. He joined in her decision and said, “Mummy, you should now let go….” But I wasn’t there. I was not asked. I was tricked. Having not thrown a tantrum when she was twenty five, I want to throw a tantrum now.

But I did throw tantrums, several times over. Mummy was no exemplary mother. First, she managed to severely discipline my brother and me. In each case she ensured, through her own cunning, that we emerged as solemn scholars, unfitted for any other kind of work. Our foundations were laid as good students, who read with pleasure, wrote easily, loved to enquire, talked and debated endlessly. Talked and debated, h’m. Mummy must have realised that she had done too good a job. She loved discoursing as well, but was often impatient with our style of discourse. She thought it pedantic and futile in its meandering endlessness. We thought hers savoured of prejudice and superficiality. She may even have re-thought her commitment to our scholasticism. It led directly to, in my case specifically, a neglect of my appearance, my home, my possessions. She spent a major part of her life trying fruitlessly to reform me and bring me back to the path of cleanliness, decency, feminine attractiveness, and severe domestic planning.

In short, as a non-exemplary mother, she did not try to find out ever about my or my brother’s preferences or choices. We were always wrong. When I erred as an adolescent in my choice of friends, including of what went for boyfriends in those early days, she was un-forgiving. When I eventually had real boyfriends, they had to be a secret from her. When I brought one home, she as good as chased him out. When I sent over another to meet her, she presented him with a pair of ‘platform’ shoes because he was shorter than me. When I married him, it was years of nagging at me as to what he did not do well and what was wrong with him and how I should make sure to bring him to heel, or equally, to play the game of pleasing him.

But then there was a miracle. At a certain turn in her life, she accepted me and then began to celebrate me. She boasted to her friends once that when I had joined my parents for a summer vacation, I had arrived with a suitcase full of books. She sat and read every book I wrote from cover to cover. She did not allow me, suddenly, to dabble in any domesticity, even to serve her a meal, because I was now, clearly, seen as meant for higher things.

At every stage I, the non-exemplary daughter par excellence, kept up a running quarrel with her. I was never right, but she was certainly never right. That quarreling kept us friends. It also kept us smart. In all the chaff of the things she threw regularly at me, I learnt to find the wheat, and it served me well. In her later years, she often sat me down for advice on her office work and listened carefully, separating no doubt the wheat from the chaff in what I was pouring forth.

Mummy taught me to dance. At four, my lanhga slipping off my navel, my feet tripping on the sudden silk underneath them, I remember swirling to mohe panghat men nandlal chher gayo re, mohe panghat me…..And whose is that shadow that towers over, now holding my hand, now turning me around, keeping the beat, teaching me where to put my arms to hold an overhead pot…? My mother must have danced with me. She was only twenty-four, practically a child herself.

Whenever music played, she sang quietly under her breath. I was surprised a thousand times over as to how tuneful she was. I was angry with my grandparents. She was taught a little dance, a little vocal music, a tiny bit of violin, some art. Then, like good puritan kayasthas, they married her off before she could even graduate. And they instilled a fear of the arts in her, so that she not only could never continue to learn, she could never let me learn after, each time, a few years. The longest I learnt anything was the piano, thanks to the nuns.

Given that, it is a miracle that she tolerated, and indeed got along so well with, a musician son-in-law and two artist grand-daughters. She sat behind him and played tanpura and told everyone grandly that her son-in-law was a professional sitarist. She would have desperately liked to see me perform, I am sure. She came in enthusiastically on hearing the strains of tabla playing coming from our room and could not help saying, “Oh, it’s Som! I thought it was Nita!”

She painted scores of oil colours. I will never have space for even half of them in my home. I have seen them all my life, and they are totally inside me so maybe I do not need them at all.

Nor do I need all the fancy, fancy crockery. At a memorial for her, if I wanted to serve everyone in her style, I would need beautiful plates, heavy silverware, starched embroidered serviettes, a table for lords and ladies….I start doing that, motivated by being true to her memory. But I can’t. And the truth, whatever it is, lay between us, her proposing, I disposing, her: this is not correct. I: yes, it is! Her: let’s fix this. I: no, mummy, it’s fine. Thus it continued until I learnt a lot (or a little?) from her, she a little  (or a lot?) from me, and we came to a stable equilibrium.

I am getting over my anger as I remember little parts of our lives together. I see us more as equals. If I do not romanticise her, if I remember the many years we had together, that is, remember my age, then parting and death becomes more normal, more manageable. She was so herself and she lived to the last as she was, never yielding the process of going on learning and learning and learning. Never giving up the stubborn, curious child inside her. Never stopping to sing and dance.


Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 22, 2016

The many deaths of my mother

My mother would cough and I knew she was going to die. All little boys and girls expect their mother will die and so did I live in that constant fear.

In my childhood she had a permanent cough that appeared immediately when she uncovered her chest. So her bath times comprised one long bout of coughing. I would be studying or playing and could hear the call of doom in the background.

There are many ways of coping with death, and one way is to prepare for ages by constantly imagining the death to come. In this way my mother died several times for me before her actual death last Saturday.

A horrible tumour grew in her stomach sometime in 1967. Her stomach swelled unnaturally. She had to get sari petticoats made with a special slit on the waist so that they could be pulled up. Some were passed on to me and I still own them, and because I once unthinkingly gave one as a model to a tailor, the feature took soil and now all my petticoats have a slit originally designed in 1967 to cope with her stomach tumour.

She had to have a major operation, during which we, the children, were shipped off to cousins for the summer. I thought I may never see her again. But there she was, recovered, now slim and more beautiful than ever.

One time I thought she was on the verge of death by suicide. My imagination went on a rampage. The occasion was rather interesting. My young brother, Sunil, maybe nine, had swallowed a piece of a blade and there was a chance that he would be internally injured. I came home from school to be told this news. Then I saw my mother laughing at something. I thought, “She has gone crazy. She cannot cope with the possible death of my brother. She is laughing madly. Next she will commit suicide.” Sunil was given cotton sandwiches to eat, which successfully surrounded the piece of blade and the dangerous object was expelled ceremoniously. No one died, or even went mad.

There were other times I thought my mother might die of heart break. When not more than five, I made the mistake of inviting her to a school play on a certain day and time. She dressed up and applied her makeup. I stood and watched. But I had got it all wrong. The play was over and there was nothing to see. My poor mother. I was sure she would not survive.

Then she had a collar bone fracture and seemed to not get cured for ages. She lay in bed, helpless. All the power and charm that characterised her for me disappeared somewhere and she stopped figuring in my life for uncountable days. Maybe she had died? a voice whispered. Maybe she is going to? Because my father, like many fathers, did not know what else to do, he bought me books as a present. That seemed to me a sure sign of the impending fate of losing my mother.

Well, the longer I write in this vein the more stories I will churn up. Soon, fact, fiction, memories clear and hazy, will all mix in a cauldron in the bigger discourse of “the death of my mother.” It’s nothing to go on about—because it has now actually happened. This one strategy of preventing it by pre-imagining it did not work at all.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 18, 2016

The half-done and the half-finished

Mummy is not one to say, “Stay with me.” She is always “all right” as she is. On the phone she says with extraordinary brightness to “Kaisi ho?” “Bilkul think hain.” Without directly lying, she manages to give a twist to her report on blood pressure, foot swelling, night’s sleep etc that makes it always seem all right.

On the 10th too, she did not stay “Don’t go” as I was getting ready to leave. But there was something new in the air.

First, she got her diary and began flipping through it. She often got one of her diaries out, to remind herself of something or note down something. In one she had pages and pages of her accounts. Everything was meticulously updated. She tried often to explain the figures but sheer disinterest and the seeming irrelevance of it prevented me from ever paying enough attention. In another she wrote down the dates we ever mentioned to her. They were many and confusion was natural. “When did you say you are coming in December? How long will you stay? When will you be in Lucknow? When will you go to Delhi?” The standard answer, “I haven’t got my tickets yet, but around—“ made her write down tentative dates several times over and check and re-check to remove the blur.

This time when she got her diary, I assumed it was more of the same thing. I did notice, fleetingly, that she continued for longer and seemed more determined. She even gave a little laugh as she came to a grand total of some kind with her savings. She even said something like, “— lakhs.” At which I imagine I turned more determinedly to the book I habitually kept in my own hands.

Then, mummy began to talk about keys, cupboards and objects. She mentioned jewellery, both in her bank locker and her safe at home. She talked of the water pump and the tin sheets on the garage—because with her usual alertness she had overheard a conversation I had with people back in Banaras about these two things. In each case she said, “You must take….”  I turned further towards my book.

She continued to talk about furniture and bigger objects. She gesticulated to everything around in the TV room, such as a wall cabinet, fondly designed for different-sized books, videos and photographs, TV and music system. All I had always begged her for was the old photographs, claiming I would copy or scan them and bring them back. She had been cautious. I was careless with the few I managed to take. She never stopped reminding me about them. She remembered every little object in any case and I had long lost any even mild interest I may have had in anything in her house. So when she began to talk about her things, I was surprised. The statement that “Most of these things will have to be sold here” was brand new. The last time that we had discussed any of her larger objects, photographs aside, was at least ten years ago when I, with perfect self-centredness, had suggested that I might take the piano to Banaras since I played it and she didn’t. She had growled at me and I had been reassured that everything was normal.

On the 10th, all this talk of mummy’s must have made me nervous. So nervous that I pretended she was being silly. I was sure that something strange was up with her when I found a movie on TV and discussed it with her and she was not listening. I asked her, “Which is your channel? What would you rather watch?” And for the first time in her life she said, “I don’t feel like watching anything.”

All I had to do was to probe her feelings. What do you feel? What are you worrying about? Then I should have talked to her about the three big things on her mind: her retirement, her house, her health. On each we had substantial thoughts to share. She had just decided to retire after a total of twenty nine years of work, twenty five in her present organisation. Of course she needed to talk about it. We should have talked for two hours, not two minutes as probably happened.

When I think about it, I blame her again. Why so stoical? Why so strong? Why not jerk me away from my silly book by saying, for once, “Nita, talk to me.” Instead, she wanted the world to be normal, which meant that I would sit and read, talking briefly to her now and then, eat, and leave for the night train, and she would throughout take care of me, not I of her. Yes, to the last drink. She said “Will you have a scotch?” She ordered soda. She gave keys for the bottle to be brought out since the scotch was kept only for the likes of me. I sat there with my drink, my legs crossed in a manly way, exactly as Mother Bernardine had warned me I should never cross my legs.

The previous day we had gone to her office and the retirement decision was made final by talking to her secretary. He argued and she listened, but when I argued back, she stuck with me and the decision. He was trying to work on her emotions, saying things like, “How will we all manage, madam? The organisation will go to pot.” I finally said, “Fine, let it. My mother needs a rest.”  She did not deny it, to my surprise. But I should have relieved her worries with talk the rest of the evening. What would she do now? How would she make her time meaningful? Where would her bountiful energies be channelled?

The next day I organised the house papers, had them copied and handed them over to a cousin who was going to look into a legal settlement for the house. Mummy was going to leave the house she had lived in for thirty five years, the house she had made from a ruin to a jewel. She did not express a moment of wonder at the size of the decision, at the emotional cost of the move. We did not talk about it, just did all the practical work of arranging the papers that had all fallen on the floor at the copier’s and were a merry mess. We should have spent another two hours in discussion of all those plans I took for granted but we never really went over in detail—that she would come and live in Banaras, that she would be made comfortable there, that she would have things to do, that we were so looking forward to it, that we loved her presence amidst us.

If only, if only, if only I had talked about all this. I had the whole evening, wasted on TV, two scotches, some book. Those damned books. I hate my books. They are the real drug. At the time my mother needed me most, they left my work with her half done and half finished. So what if I took care of her retirement announcement and the paperwork for her leaving the house? I never took the trouble to reassure her mind of the many, many questions that it must have harboured about these major changes.

So what that she did not once say, “Nita, don’t go. Stay with me. Talk to me?” It would have to be a different kind of mother to say that. I knew that was what she wanted. I knew. And I was punishing her for her inability to say it. I was abandoning her to her fictitious strength. Oh, mummy.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 17, 2016

Mummy, 16th Jan.

Then there was a second meeting that led to mummy’s loss of the will to live.

This was with my cousins, mummy’s nephews and nieces, on the subject of decisions about property held jointly under that majestically named edifice, the “Hindu Undivided Family.” You ‘start’ an HUF. You start it with the hope that inspires all namers, that by naming a unit by this name you will magically create an entity that will remain ‘undivided’ and a ‘family.’ The ‘Hindu’ is irrelevant, unless you count the image of a tulsi plant blooming in the courtyard of the HUF property.

In this case the HUF had been started by Rai Bahadur Babu Ram Prasad Verma. He and his five sons were members of it. He passed away in 1973. At the time of his death a list of some ten houses could be shown as part of the HUF. Today there are two, Kachehri Road and Kasturba Road. Of his five sons only one remains, the youngest, Suresh, and he was not present at the meeting. Of his daughters-in-law four had remained till just the other day, then there were three. One was in her nineties and indisposed. One was Suresh’s wife and like him, absent. The only one there was mummy. The only one from that generation of ten, of whom four were alive. In case one wonders, there were five daughters as well, apart form the five sons. But they do not have a share in the ancestral property. In those days daughters were given a fond but final gift at the time of their marriage and no legacy was expected.

Of cousins, there were the siblings Sunil and myself, and my two daughters, Irfana and Nandini; the brothers Dimpu and Bittu, Dimpu’s wife Neeru and Bittu’s son Angad; Madhu and her husband Sushil. Of the five brothers, three ‘units’ were represented, two had no one to represent them. We pretended that there was consensus and we somehow spoke for all.

The meeting was hardly controversial. We exchanged old stories as families do. We asked about each other’s health, work, children and grandchildren. We voiced love and caring for everyone of us, present or away. We collectively mourned Raman chachi and Anil dada’s deaths, both within the last week.

Yet this meeting must have been an amazing strain on mummy. Because she is always so full of strength it is difficult to ever know how she feels. But, if I could translate a subtext in the whole idea of the meeting at all, it was, “You, Suniti chachi, are occupying a house that belongs to the HUF without giving anyone else a share in it. We demand a share.”

Sunil and I set to work to deconstruct this text. I had done this in several emails and two meetings already, having taken on the mantle of the spokesman of our ‘unit.’  I repeated myself.

According to the documents in a fat file kept in my parents’ bungalow, called most often “Kasturba Road” by everyone (when not getting rancorous and calling it emphatically “my grandfather’s property”), the house was built around 1930 and rented out to the military. Perhaps such things were good investments. Almost fifty years later, the documents attest, my father, Naresh Kumar, petitioned the military to have the house de-hired from their use for his personal use. He, a Police Officer, indeed an Inspector-General of the Police, the highest rank in the service, was posted in Lucknow and needed a house to live in. He was then staying temporarily in two rooms at Kachehri Road, the ancestral property, and after that in a government bungalow.

Many letters follow. Daddy writes to various officers to help him with his request. They all reply, “Dear Verma,” etc., promising him help in his legitimate venture. The HUF supports him, my oldest uncle Ramesh, its karta, that is—another wonderful name—active head or agent. The letter writing goes on for almost two years. Naresh occasionally exhibits impatience and wonders why there is no progress on his case. He asks for more help from more people. They all continue to promise him help. No doubt the case is inching forward.

As all archives do, this one subtly produces a set. The times are gradually illuminated, letter by letter, as by lighting on a stage. The letter dated June evokes loo, the one dated January the cold fog. Dictation is being taken by the stenographer in his bush-shirt who then retreats to his office and hammers rapidly at his machine. Officers strut around, often in uniform. They meet on social occasions, followed up by letters that greet and congratulate, and then in the second paragraph, make the request for help. The requesting officer goes home, drinks his tea, smokes, does not talk in detail to his wife but enough to get over the day’s fatigue. Then he takes a walk, and as he walks up and down the back verandah, he recites poetry to himself. His poetic imagination often peeps through in his letter-writing.

The wife appears as an absence from the archives. Why was he asking for the house anyway? Only for his family, his wife and children. And when it does come through, she is the future of the archives. She single-handedly makes it habitable, then enviable. Thirty years later when the family expects a share in it, it is largely because it is not a prosaic cantonment property any more, but a jewel setting itself off in a green nest, all produced by the wife.

At that time, 1978-80, assorted people from the family must have lived in Lucknow. Tauji, the Ramesh uncle above, did, with his family. Daddy did. Mahesh and Durgesh chachas lived in Calcutta and Delhi respectively. Suresh chacha was in Calcutta too, though soon to return to Lucknow. Yes, daddy’s five brothers had the unmatched rhyming names of Ramesh, Naresh, Mahesh, Durgesh and Suresh, all called babus. Their wives had the pretty names of Lila, Suniti, Mira, Raman and Geeta. The photographs of the five couples at a Rakshabandhan lunch could shame the couples of the self-important Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.

What daddy was doing could not have been done in any other way. He was de-hiring the house, that is getting it back from the renters, with the plea that it was needed by the family, that is himself. No abstract argument would have worked, such as, “The house is ours so give it back.” Only a concrete plea would work, such as his, demonstrating that there was he, a government official, there was no home for him, and then there was this house that could have been his home but was occupied by the same government (that he worked for).

His petition was accepted. He was given the key and the delivery of the house in May 1980. It was always cited by him and everyone else everywhere as HUF property. But no one in the family apart from him needed it. No one was there and the question did not arise. The cantonment board paid a few hundred rupees each month in rent and daddy continued to pay that, dividing it carefully between the four brothers who should each get their share. There is a letter to Raman chachi after her husband’s death asking her where he should send the rent cheque.

The letters are many, even if some are lost. They are in carbon copies, that is to say, very flimsy paper, when originating from him. They are on government stamped, linen paper when originating from the Auditor-General or other addressee or colleague of his. They are all typed manually and signed in a cursive that did not go beyond his generation. There are some drafts and superseded letters. After several forays into this archive, I began to know it and to understand the pattern in it, as with any archive. I love archives and I could see a sentiment originating for this one.That it was my father’s story made it all the more interesting.

The rest of the family, such as my cousins gathered at the 3rd January meeting, knew only vaguely about this history. Their allusions to it ranged from “Everyone deserves to have a share in this joint property but only one person is enjoying it,” and “We need to sell it and divide the profits, and here is a buyer I know,” to “We all love each other and there should be no problem in making a family settlement.”

So, Sunil and I, both historians coincidentally, hacked away at various unstated accusations and propositions to reconstruct how there would actually be no property had it not been de-hired by daddy, how the military had agreed to de-hire it on condition of it being returned after the particular use for which it was de-hired, and how “one person” was “enjoying” it simply because she was the spouse of the now deceased occupant of the house to whom it had been de-hired. No one else had ever expressed any wish to live in it.

But now that the HUF would like to sell it, some of this history had to be addressed. An important legal step had to be taken, hopefully less long-winded than daddy’s original one in 1978-80. The military had to be persuaded, or whatever should be the right verb here, to give it permanently back to the Verma family, for whatever the family wished to do with it.

The arguments and discussions wound around in circles and eddies. Mummy sat, mostly silent. She did not reply to every veiled accusation. She did not correct mis-statements. She could see that Sunil and I were active. But she must have felt—what?

I think that she felt, “Let me just pack up and depart.” Like Mrs Moore in A Passage to India she must have thought that the universe was too big and too grand for such trivialities as were being discussed in that drawing room. It probably occurred to her that God or the Supreme was manifest everywhere and that humans like us were truly blind if we thought that the distinctions we were muddling through actually mattered. She must have felt a gradual distancing from these petty concerns, a sense of “what will be will be,” a resignation to let actions face their own consequences. She must have experienced a little fatigue: “What does it matter?” Mrs Moore thought, “What a fuss about marriage! What does it matter—love in a cave, love in a church…” Mummy might have thought, “What a fuss about a house! What does it matter—live here, live elsewhere, in this body, in another….”

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