Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 24, 2017

My three requests from my village buddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 17, 2017

Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | May 1, 2017

1st May

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Nita Kumar | March 16, 2017

A home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 14, 2017

My mother’s hum

We have come to Goa to remember mummy. In 2013 we had all been here. Mummy was quiet and content. The sand was too soft for her to walk on comfortably. The food was all overpriced, albeit delicious. We lived in a shack with four beds on a bare floor, the roof of thatch, the bathroom without a roof at all. Agonda Beach stretched out across the whole line of vision and the shacks stretched out on the other, face to face, and there was nothing to see but the ocean.

Mummy is a very particular lady and all these things were potentially things that could have disturbed her, especially the prices. They must have. The measure of her happiness was that she did not voice a single problem, difficulty or objection. The roll of the ocean was met by a hum of contentment from within her.

I recognised the hum well. It usually came on a holiday. In 1970 we drove around Europe in our Mercedes, daddy at the wheel, mummy navigating, Sunil and I at the back, at the beginning and end of our teen years. We went to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Poland, twice. We spent many days each at Warsaw, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Interlaken and Vienna. We all loved it. But mummy was the one who made the whole car hum.

The same hum was in the house when we would go to Mussoorie. Her bedroom and bathroom were set up impeccably, then were the dining room, drawing room, dormitory, other bedrooms and kitchen. Accounts were kept, outings were planned, stored stuff was aired and repairs undertaken. Between it all, we feasted and napped and played games and drew.  We came home from a day’s trek to find a  lovely tea laid out and that mummy had been on a petite trek of her own. Hashi frisked around and dug holes. A dream holiday.

The one to beat them all was the one in 2014 in London. We had a town house for two months. Mummy was there for a full month. She had her own room, with her aromatic pooja, her dressing table, her closet of clothes. She had the additional challenge of walking down half a flight of steps to the bathroom at least once a day and another half a flight to the kitchen for meals or the living room to watch TV. She always loved challenges. We also walked a lot. Every day she and I would go to a nearby pub to eat and drink and write her memoirs, which she would dictate and I would type.

The hum of contentment on that holiday was probably one that you could hear all over London.

I wanted to hear that hum again. In just two days it will be one year that she is not physically with us. But there are places that have her presence. If you listen, you can hear her hum.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 1, 2017

A New Year’s Dream

I awoke to an impressively clear memory of a dream in which I was giving directions regarding where my office would be. There is some construction started on the second floor of the school in Betawar. The roof will be cast in places and open verandahs and spaces will be there in the rest. Towards the river I imagine an open verandah for a cafeteria where people can eat but also linger over a cup of tea and work. It will probably have strong winds and that may be a problem, so we should plan some enclosure, but there will be the whole vista of the river spreading away.

In my dream, however, I seemed to have chosen the space—the ‘best’ space because of the river—for an office. I was giving directions to the mistri and the mazdoors and, on the side, to my staff as well.

One needs an office. In the best space. I am shocked at how often the planning for what is obviously the most important activity in one’s life, research and writing, is the weakest. I have managed off and on for long periods of time with dusty uncomfortable spaces to write in, bad chairs, worse desks, rotten filing cabinets, inadequate files and folders, no efficient staff to help, and no fun air cooling or view from the window or flowers on my desk or nice stationery. Whereas, for other activities, eating, or sleeping, or bathing, there may not be a brilliant plan but at least a better one.

This New Year’s therefore, the goal being to complete several books, I am going to begin with gifting myself an office/study space that is good for me on every criterion and that will not make me look back with bemused regret, “Why did you ever decide to work in these conditions?”

I’ll bring my framed sketch of Don Quixote in his library for the new study. It shows the Don astride his mangy steed, armed and waving his sword, surrounded by books literally peeling off the walls. It gives you a feeling of comfort because whatever may happen to libraries and their collections, Cervantes’ book has survived every test of time, has it not?

I’ll saw off the legs of my present desk so that it is the right height for my laptop and the table’s edge does not graze my wrists as I type away, no doubt decreasing my speed and concentration unbeknownst to me.

I’ll choose me a chair of the scores I have to choose from that is both straight backed and ultra comfortable, a tough combination, and one that also has space to put my legs up if I wish since I have this proclivity towards swollen legs if they always dangle.

The desk and chair should of course face a window. The window—the french window I always call it—should be as large as a whole wall. Will the doors be folding or sliding? I prefer the former—as long as they can open up the room to the outdoors to the maximum. Outside will be trees and plants and forms of green all around. There will be partial shade and cane chairs and tables under it for a cup of tea and a relaxed read as a change from serious work.

The desk, I forgot to say, would not be just a small one for typing. At a right angle to it is the real desk, old-fashioned, of gleaming wood, spacious, with the usual suspect piles of “things I am working on.” More than these piles I am suspicious of desks that are too sleek and modern and desks that are uncluttered, and particularly those that are so clean that they have nothing on them but a computer.

There can also be no neatness around. Bookshelves obviously have to be spilling over. Every book has a used, even tired look as it bristles with post-its or thumbed pages. Stop. Now I am getting confused with my present study’s look. In the new one, there will be wonderful, strong shelves. They will hold the books snug and they will be so many in number that I will never have to despair of where to fit in the other books lying around.

Interspersed with the shelves will be a diwan or two—you know, just to stretch out when the moment needs it.

There will be lamps galore, on my desk and on the floor. Even more than the lamps, there will be plug points galore.

The whole place will be maintained by an invisible hand. When dust collects that hand will magically get rid of it. It will go behind furniture, into the backs of books, the coils of wires, the cobwebs on high, the glass and the fabric. The cleaning will happen on its own and regularly and never will I have to give it a thought.

Now for the files. My imagination fails me. If in yet another cabinet, after the many that already are chock-a-block, then will I ever see them again? Whenever I need any files I first pull them out and pile them around so I can see them at a glance. I cannot find them directly from inside a drawer.

For the files I have to go through another round of sleep and get another dream.

Is there a river in this vision? Truth be told, there is not. If I could look up and see such a beautiful sight, my mind would just run away with me and I would never concentrate on the thing I am working on.

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.

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