Saturday, November 19, 2011

The gold earrings

I was forty years old when I went back to Nazareth.
We drove up the hill and the thought struck me that this was an ideal location for a convent – secluded, and surrounded by natural beauty and pure air. But my chest was heavy and my breath uneven as we drove through first one, and then another, set of unguarded gates.
It was thirty-four years since I had last been here, but nothing had changed. We stood in the courtyard and the air was still, faintly scented with eucalyptus, interspersed with mild hints of sewage that wafted in on the fresh breeze – just the way I remembered. It was the same yellow building with brown window frames and balustrades. The odd bird chirped in the background.
Slowly, I climbed the wooden flight of stairs leading up to the flagstoned veranda that encircled the building. I clutched myself, reluctant to put a hand on the wooden rail which, I noticed, had been polished to a lighter, brighter brown than it used to be. There was nobody around.
Walking to the front end of the building I tried to look inside the small dormitory but the curtains were drawn. They were drawn in the big dormitory too. I would have liked to see whether the inside also looked the same – but really, all I had to do was close my eyes and I’d be back in there. One was a long, thin room with a row of cots placed next to each other from one end to the other, with a chair between each. The other was a hall with rows of beds. For two years these rooms were my home. The funny thing is, all the other girls, who were pretty much the same age as I, seemed to be happy and at peace. But I was not. I can remember lying in my cot at night, everyone fast asleep, utterly miserable and wanting nothing but to go home. The wind whined through the trees and rattled on the window panes. It was a ghost – of course. It was heart-liver-kidney, the famous heart-liver-kidney, and it had come to get me! Instead of risking a trip to the toilet, I would ease my bladder right where I lay. But in the cold Nilgiri night, the sheets would soon turn icy and I would be shivering for more than one reason. I remember trying to crawl into my neighbour Gopika’s bed for warmth and safety but there wasn’t room for two and she soon elbowed me out.
The ayahs hated me, the one who so often created a messy puddle under my bed and I can remember my relief on the days when it had dried by morning. But heart-liver-kidney was not something that would evaporate. For the next twenty years and more, I experienced terror in the darkness and never slept at night without a light on.
I can remember being a nuisance to the ayahs at bath time too.
Ooty was a water-shortage zone. So we could only have a bath twice, or sometimes once, a week. This was a simple and accepted fact of our lives; I can’t remember ever considering anything amiss or having an ‘I could use a bath!’ feeling. There were times when someone would be sent around the classrooms to ask all boarders to come out because the water was running in the taps. We would troop into a large, steamy area lined with white tiles, and line up. The bathtubs bore the legend ‘Shanks’ – perhaps a Victorian bathroom-fittings company which shipped commodes, basins, sinks, tubs and other such items out to the colonies; they were everywhere in the Nilgiris.
I think you had to be over a certain age to be entitled to bathe yourself. Water ran from the tap into a large aluminium bucket and an ayah would pour water with an aluminium cup over the child sitting down in front of it. It was an ordeal because the water was always too hot. When I begged them to make it cooler, they would sneer that it felt fine to them. Extra-hot water brings that desolate feeling over me even now.
Another important consequence of the water shortage was that we were often caught in the toilet when the taps ran dry. We were allowed to go to the ayahs to collect a daily quota of eight squares of toilet paper. But there were times when someone would need the loo urgently and rush in, begging a friend to go fetch the paper. And we’d run and look for an ayah but often enough no one would be there; sometimes we’d find one but she would say the cupboard was locked, or the toilet paper was over. When that happened, it was a practice to scour the grounds for ‘rubbish paper’ and go pass it under the toilet door to the desperate one waiting inside.
Another ritual was the weekly letter home – it was compulsory. There was a particular day and time set aside to write home to parents. In my first few weeks of boarding school, I suppose I was writing letters which expressed my desolation and begged my parents to come and take me away immediately. I suppose the school authorities frowned on such subversive communication. All through my life, until email weaned the writing habit, I had something in me which made me start every letter with, “How are you? I am well and happy.” But “I want to go home” became the theme of my life and pretty much every moment of time in those two years was focussed on it. It was to remain the motif of my life for endless years to come.
Years later, when it so happened that I was about to inherit two very sweet little children just a few weeks before they were to join a boarding school, I refused to send them away. Looking back down the years I wonder to myself whether that really was such a good decision. Maybe they would have gained from the experience – maybe it would have made them stronger, better people. I know my boarding school experience was filled with pain and loneliness – but looking back I can see how those days of spartan living and deprivation built me to be who I am. Many friends I made in later life spoke of similar traumatic boarding-school experiences; fine, balanced and perfectly sensible people they were when I knew them. However, when the time came to send my own kids off to be built in the same way – I didn’t have the heart to do it. I did not want any children, ever, to endure the pain I had.
Sitting in class, I often excused myself to go to the toilet and walked instead to the lawn on which I could stand and stare at the gate just in case my parents happened to be coming to visit me.
In those days, my father worked in the Annamalais, a six-hour drive on steep, winding roads that could make a sailor ill. This was the reason I was away at boarding school – there were no schools near us. No hospitals, either – my brother was born in the guest room of the manager’s bungalow at High Forest Estate (Mudis P O).
On one miraculous occasion our little red Herald did indeed drive up the hill and come through the gate as I stood and waited! I was so surprised, so ecstatic and disbelieving, so completely overcome with emotion and shyness that I ran away and hid. I suppose my parents were just as dismayed, confused, and unhappy. To my everlasting regret, they waited for a while for me to come back and then left.
Returning to school from vacations was the most desperate trauma of all. As we drove up that beautiful hill, my heart sinking deeper and deeper into the ground, we passed a house that had a scarecrow on its terrace. It was a lumpy creature, all stick and rope, wound round with an old banian and bony arms poking out at right angles. Whizzing past, my dad would point at it and jovially call out, “Look, Jesus Christ!”
This was part of our routine and though I knew it was funny, it never made me laugh. What I felt was a horrid stab of disloyalty, and guilty fear that the nuns (who hated me) would find out. It was beyond my emotional range in those days to have negative feelings towards my parents, rare and precious commodity that they were. Still, I couldn’t help wishing that my dad wouldn’t make jokes about someone as wise and wonderful as Jesus.
On one occasion, as my parents said goodbye and tried to get back into our little red Herald, I screamed and clung to my mother, imploring her not to leave me, and a nun prised us apart with words and a tone that live on in my memory:  “Sacrifice, my child, sacrifice! You must learn to sacrifice! Remember our good Lord.” I was only five, but it struck me through the depths of my despair that this was a ridiculous thing for anyone to say.
The feeling of deep sadness never left me. I’ve been told that I would wail and scream loudly for my mother, father and brother; my brother, then three years old, would occasionally advise our parents that I must have become one of the big girls by now so they should probably go and bring me back home. I meanwhile was spending the large part of each day crying – sobbing silently, unable to find solace in any activity or person. A time came when I stopped protesting, realising that it was no use.
One day, sitting alone on the floor of an empty classroom, feeling as wretched as usual, I played with the screw of my earring. It was a link with my mother and rolling the screw back and forth consoled me a little. It was she who would carefully remove and clean my earrings every time I went home for the holidays. Replacing them was a ceremony of minor torture, slightly fraught with tension. My head in my mother’s lap, I would feel her bring the tip of the stud close to the slightly-stretched skin of my ear and, just as I started feeling relieved that this time it wasn’t going to hurt, there would be a sharp unpleasant moment before it slid in.
Other times I would lie like that and she would peer into my hair checking for lice, groaning in despair as she pulled each one out and killed it with a sharp “tick” between her thumb nails.
Head lice were a routine part of our lives and I always went home from school with a head full. One Christmas vacation I took them along with me to my grandparents’ home in Bombay and infected a baby cousin. How her mother hated me and my lice! How embarrassed my mother was that her daughter had caused this disgusting thing to happen!
Head lice were not the only infection I contracted. I spent pretty much all of my second year at Nazareth in the school infirmary – from where I was fortuitously sent home three times, first with measles, then chicken pox, then jaundice. One of the favourite items on the infirmary menu was boiled eggs, which were served with ketchup. Jaundice victims were administered boiling hot barley water to drink. The flavour of these items, spreading through my taste buds, still has the power to make me feel mighty sorry for myself.
The jaundice was only diagnosed after I had vomited three times, after three consecutive meals. On the third occasion, it was after a scrumptious dinner of fried eggs – a special treat. “But you never liked eggs!” my mother told me years later, unable to bear the thought of the wretched situation which had suddenly made me consider eggs, which I had always hated, to be delicious food. This third vomiting episode also gave me an image of myself at age six which would form a metaphor for my childhood: sobbing under the dining table, trying to clean my vomit with a fork. The ayahs had been insane with rage and insisted I clean my dirty mess myself.
Sitting on the classroom floor that day, I twirled the stud in one ear, and its two separate parts suddenly came loose and slid to the floor where they rolled giddily to a gap between two wooden planks and slid neatly through. The old Ooty buildings are built on pits dug in the ground and the wooden planks often creak when you walk. In the middle of darkest night, most likely it was old heart-liver-kidney foraging for its next meal!
Squinting between the floorboards I could see the two bits sparkling up at me. In a daze, I started rolling and playing with the stud in my other ear. Very soon it had fallen down and rolled into the gap too. I could see them there but for some reason believed that they were lost forever. It never struck me that I could tell someone to help me get them out. Even when my mother came to take me home next and saw with shock that my gold earrings had disappeared, and assumed them stolen by one of the villainous ayahs, I didn’t have it in me to explain.
Forty years old now, I walked around the building, wondering why there was no one around. Perhaps the old feelings that were rising in me now would have subsided if there had been children playing cards on these steps or swinging from these banisters the way we used to, but using the words of their generation, dressed differently, playing different games, their hair done up in different styles. Their perspective of me as an old, boring person from another world would have reminded me of whom and where I really was, and protected me from being swamped with these childhood feelings.
I walked around, looking for someone. The veranda ran the length of a large hall. By now, I was determined to get inside the classroom on the other side of the hall where I had dropped my earrings. But all the doors leading to the hall seemed to be locked shut. There were no curtains here and I could peer in through the small panes of glass on them and see the classes beyond. It was uncannily the same as I remembered. Walking around the side of the building I now came across a large room in which a number of teachers sat around a big wooden table. No one looked up or acknowledged me in any way. It occurred to me that Nazareth was really not a place where I had any experience of being cared for – truly, nothing had changed!
So I kept walking until I was right outside the classroom in which I had dropped my earrings. From the windows on this side I could look right in. What a surprise to see that it now had a shiny tiled floor! Perhaps someone had seen my earrings glinting through, and decided to pull up all the wooden boards, excavating for more gold. Perhaps they had never been found; swept away in the construction debris when the flooring was replaced. In any case, after thirty-four years I had to face the fact that my gold earrings were gone forever.
some parts of this first appeared in Outlook magazine on 19 November 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Turning Fifty

some days after the party
turfing out the drooping flowers
and thinking
that one day
soon enough
that fate of the flowers
awaits us too …

Monday, September 5, 2011

You can always find something to laugh about

One of my enduring memories of my father’s illness is of his morning walk. Glancing out of my kitchen window, I would see him shuffling along with an attendant’s support, and my heart would contract. He had been a tea planter, walking ten miles effortlessly in the course of a day. To see him reduced to a doddering, inarticulate wreck decades in advance of his time was not something I ever got used to.
In another haunting memory, my son, then ten or eleven, newly enamoured of the daily newspaper, runs toward me excitedly waving a headline and shouting, “Look, Mumma! New cure for Parkinson’s!” I would sigh and hug him.
We had learnt long before that Parkinson’s does not have a miracle cure. It is a cruel, unpredictable disease that manifests in symptoms as unique to victims as their fingerprints. Tremor, rigidity, and slowness come in varying degrees, compounded by other symptoms.
My father endured long bouts of acupuncture, then Ayurveda, to no effect. ‘Stereotactic’ surgery gave him temporary parallel vision. One eye flopped over. A photograph of him with an eye patch at my cousin’s wedding serves as a permanent reminder to apply caution in the matter of proselytising doctors.
In 2001, I watched in silence as a colleague was seduced by one of those newspaper headlines. He borrowed Rs3 lakh for an operation to cure his father, determined that he wouldn’t suffer what his Parkinsonian uncle and aunt had: falls, broken bones, agonies while bedridden, and premature death. Tissue was implanted. In three months he succumbed to multiple infections and went from bed straight to crematorium. The headline hadn’t clarified that a patient on immunosuppressants would require a sterile environment.
But my dad was surrounded by knowledge and care. One of the first things he did was subscribe to the Parkinson’s Disease Society newsletter. While publishing research results cautiously, it offers advice on coping with dignity while adapting to the clumsy stranger gradually invading your body. His diet, medication, and physiotherapy was monitored by his most devoted attendant, my mother. She was no-nonsense Matron, setting impossibly high quality standards for the ones we hired. She made sure he ate all that we did – as he grew older and his teeth gave way, she would grind each delicacy separately. And my dad knew how to minimise damage when he fell, a poignant reminder of his days as a sportsman. So in twenty-six years, he broke only one bone.
When he lay in hospital, adapting to a synthetic-blended femur ball, my brother and I, our spouses and children, visited, gushing with affection and little treats, to which he responded well, being a man who was easy to please. Fifteen years into the disease, conversation was a chore. By the time he worked up a few words, the other person would have given up. We tried our best, but it was a protracted process.
He passed the time playing chess. To move a piece he’d recruit his opponent’s help, relaying instructions through cryptic signals of eye and head. One day, as a lovely young physiotherapist manipulated his limbs and led him through breathing exercises, another young woman in a white coat peered around the door, scolding: “That’s my patient!”
His face expressionless (another symptom of Parkinson’s), he mouthed, in hoarse, gravelly tones: “Turf wars!”
I guffawed aloud, delighted as much with the joke as with his still-vibrant sense of humour. They turned wary, uncomprehending eyes on me.
Sadly, the stretch in hospital was followed by bed sores, and took months to heal. My mother dusted antiseptic powder and made sure he was turned every half hour. We watched helplessly when he groaned in pain, and she alternated kind caresses with stern orders to behave.
Nursing help, a fledgling industry, presents ludicrous schisms between front-office sales and back-office service. Promising angels of mercy, the bureaus in my city dispatched louts off the street who slouched and scratched their bottoms. They arrived, if at all, long after the night-shift helper – an angel of mercy, a woman – had left. One man arrived just in time to help me through a toilet crisis. He shook his head, muttering repeatedly, “Oh my god, what a nuisance!” and luckily slipped away, without notice, before I slapped him. Even those with hospital experience would collect a tidy lumpsum after a few days and stay home to booze it up. Nilesh, gentle and proficient, lasted a good stretch until one day he tootled off on the mali’s bicycle and never came back. The bureaus are still calling, a year after I don’t need them any more.
My father had been diagnosed at fifty. He was seventy-six when he died last year. We sat with the body, reflecting. He had suffered so much in the last few months that I felt glazed with relief. Only later would I mourn the loss of someone who could feel my pain; whose quiet courage had given me the strength to face the challenges of my own life. There’s no tonic more motivating than a father’s pride, even when the silent glow is barely perceptible behind an impassive, Parkinsonian face. I said, “D’you think he’d have liked us to have an Irish wake?” “What’s that?” asked my daughter. “No idea,” I replied, “I think they stay up all night drinking and dancing.” “Oh,” she said, deadpan, “I thought that was called Friday night.”
It was his genius for spotting the comic heart of a situation that had taught us to take our troubles lightly. We turned to him, anticipating the characteristic half-smile, but he lay still and unresponsive. The current Economist, subscription a thoughtful gift from my brother, remained unopened.
When I was little, my father gave me stylish haircuts and the other plantation wives begged him to do the same for their daughters. “Can’t smack them if they fidget,” he explained, by way of polite refusal. My brother wept copiously when he told us about Oliver Twist, Sohrab and Rustom and others – while I reached for another cutlet, thinking, “Life is tough, get used to it, er, Portia.” He had a tuneful singing voice his grandchildren would never hear. We lived in the house on the hill, and he was lord of all we surveyed. Years later when I visited with my kids, enthusiastically pointing out my old carved rosewood cupboard and an iron stove just like the one we’d seen in the kitchen of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, people remembered him as the one who rode through the fields with our dog balancing coolly on pillion.
If we ever saw a quivering, dribbling, old man my father would shudder and say, “Poor fellow! I hope I never get that way.” In later years we never pre-empted disease; never made flippant statements about health.
By saying, expansively, “You can be anything you want,” he gave me freedom of choice, appreciation of competence – and permission for situational nonconformity. At boarding school, I once received a letter containing something he’d liked and typed out, with a note saying I should read and pass it on to my brother: “Ten lessons for my sons”. I suppose it was this, compounded by my brother’s unremitting generosity, which had me performing his cremation rites.
As we grew older, and he became more disabled and dependent, he became our role model of dignity and gracious acceptance. We learnt from him that it was possible to be a responsible person and participate in the joy of living even within the narrowest parameters. As his ability to communicate reduced, we learnt that silent dignity carries its own message. Those around him, many who had never known him as we had, full of humour, kindness and vitality – even strangers – continued to respond to him with the same quality of affection and regard that he had always drawn.
My father left me with a room of my own: a position from which, as Virginia Woolf eloquently observed, one’s publishers’ political affiliations are of little consequence. Embroiled recently in a compromising hospital procedure, I drew courage from the memory of his stoic bravery when faced repeatedly with worse. It struck me that his real legacy was the comprehension that disability cannot prevent anyone from living life to the full, with good humour, wit, and dignity.

Parts of this first appeared as ‘Living with Parkinson’s’ in Open magazine on 5 Sep 2011

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Madam's Life

Once upon a time I fancied myself an intellectual, and put on airs and pretended, like so many others of my generation, to read Sartre, Joyce and others which today’s under-thirties would disdainfully dismiss as ‘books’. Then one day I noticed that weeks had slipped into months and years and all I’d done, day after day, was iron three even-sized but gradually expanding sets of school uniforms (and pajamas, and play clothes) fill three water bottles (and snack boxes, and lunch dabbas). Life blurred into a haze of endless bottles of white shoe polish, unit tests, twice-a-week home-baked chocolate cakes, lazy Saturday afternoon ice lollies and Disney movies, with nothing but some intermittent mommy violence to break the monotony.
It struck me that I might easily lay claim to the title of The Erma Bombeck of Pune. After all, we live in a city of pompous epithets – the self-important Oxford of the East that generates hordes of postgraduates who cannot distinguish an apostrophe from a garden spade.
A phase of adventure tourism began and life became a confusion of grave responsibilities and impossible commitments, with stress-induced ailments resulting in major surgery.  Meanwhile, grouchy bad temper had submitted to a sanctimonious streak and I’d become a Reiki Master.
Shouldn’t that be Reiki ‘Mistress’? my friend Amita frowned. But for various reasons I wasn’t that keen to be called a mistress – though now that I think about it, I’ve been called ‘Madam’ for long enough with great forbearance. People recognize me at forty paces – even on the telephone if you want to know the awful truth – as ‘Madam’, and I’ve learnt to live with it and keep smiling.  We’re a tiny and sadly marginalized community, us Madams, with our headaches and bridge mornings and afternoon naps, especially these days with attrition figures in the household-help industry marching ahead of the IT and even BPO sectors. Speaking on behalf of the Society of Highly Opinionated and Amply-endowed Madams (SHOAM), Maharashtra chapter, I encourage the government to set aside some kind of reservations for us too. In fact, if I was Chief Minister (and believe me, you could do worse) I would go right ahead and allot separate parking spaces for Madams whose drivers didn’t turn up for work that morning.
As CM, it would also be my pleasant duty to publicize the sensational, path-breaking research of an internationally reputed agency which intimately relates poor driving manners to sexual dysfunction. Men who broke through traffic lights were shown to suffer premature ejaculation. Road hogs who swerved, cut lanes, and shoved small fry out of the way were observed to have the most hilariously teeny-meeny wedding tackle. Those who used the cell phone while driving, the report elaborates, had been blatantly cuckolded many times over. And those who senselessly blared their horns were, naturally, those who leapt onto their beds with hope and anticipation but never managed to actually get horny.
Parts of this  appeared in Saaz ki Awaaz under the title Sallying Forth in Times of India, Pune on 13 Jan 2011