Saturday, June 16, 2012

Looking at the NCERT cartoon controversy through the prism of class

So much has been said – in English – about the lack of a sense of humour in Dravidian Tamils by reader-commenters in the English newspaper, 'The Hindu,' and commentators elsewhere.  However, few have understood how the anti-Hindi protests of 1965 aimed to bridge the gap between the socioeconomic classes by opening up access to the English language in Tamil Nadu and beyond. Fewer have connected how, by not illustrating this nuanced principle and urgent strategy for better economic prospects, the cartoon does a disservice to the protesters and to the history of Tamil Nadu . Instead, those who opened the doors are discussed, by some Tamils and non-Tamils alike, as uncouth trouble-makers with nothing more than political self-interests.  So much have we advanced since those days when English was available mostly to the elites; so much have we taken for granted the middle- and working-classes' economic potential in the English-speaking world! 

I say, let NCERT keep that cartoon in that textbook. Let us give history a chance to laugh at two Tamil leaders, Rajaji and Bhaktavatchalam, who were embarrassingly out of touch with the educational needs of the masses. I am assuming, of course, that history will give R.K. Laxman--the cartoonist who grew up in a family that mostly conversed in English--the benefit of doubt regarding awareness of class issues. I regrettably do not.

The auto driver who shared his dreams

There was once an auto-rickshaw driver in Vadapalani, Madras, who had completed a hand-written novel in Tamil. He grew up in a small town and moved to Madras after his marriage. When I met him about 15 years ago, he appeared to be in his thirties.

He knew my mother as she often came to the rickshaw stand where he was parked, along with his fellow drivers, waiting for fare-paying passengers. He had driven my mother on her many trips to buy material for her clothing boutique and make occasional deliveries to her customers all over Madras. He knew that my mother lived in the big white house and that I was the daughter "from America." That I was well-known in my neighbourhood was a given in the 1980s, but it was now the late '90s and I was touched that I was not yet forgotten.

His questions about my life in America started even before he turned the auto onto 100ft. road (I had hailed his auto just near Kamala Theatre). What I had to say about my student lifestyle, how I compared America with Russia (having previously lived there), what I had in mind for my future -- all such topics interested him. I answered politely without a hint of the impatience and reticence my own family members were guaranteed to receive when they posed similar questions to me. When we arrived in Adyar, he wanted to know if he should wait to take me to my next destination. "OK," I said and promised not to keep him waiting too long. In less than half-an-hour, we set off to Saidapet. By the time we arrived at my next destination, I was tired from all the questioning. I paid my fare and was eager to take leave.

A couple of days later, my grandmother announced, with enough of a critical note infused into her voice, that an auto-rickshaw driver was asking for me at our gate. I was getting ready to go out for the evening with some new and old friends. I recognized the driver right away. "I wanted to show you something," he said. "OK," I said trying not to show I was distracted. My friends were probably already on their way to pick me up and I still wanted to gather a few things. From inside a plastic bag, he pulled out two thick, dog-eared student notebooks.

"I wrote a book," he said. "Here, take a look."

I took the notebooks in complete politeness and flipped quickly through the pages. The writing in Tamil was neat and appeared easy to read to anyone with an interest in reading it. I am embarrassed now to recall that I was somewhat restless on the inside and lacked exuberance about this novel he must have written with such sincerity and dedication. Perhaps he had always felt the urge to write but apparently, one fine day, he had been inspired enough to stop, buy a notebook and write down a story based on a couple of passengers he had driven that day. After that, his book grew, absorbing the collective experiences of the auto-driving community. He also had with him a hand-written manifesto on Indian development in a third, ruled notebook. This manifesto, he said, contained all his visions, objectives, policies and procedures for India's future and development.

I was, then, too young, somewhat indifferent, and clearly unimaginative to absorb how unique a person he happened to be, with his not-so-common dedication to pen his thoughts, observations and feelings. Not yet curious about the world of writers, I was just another middle-class kid looking forward to meeting up with friends and having 'a good time.'  So I hardly did justice to the first page of his hand-written book and, although he must have valued me enough to share his passion and likely hoped to spend some time talking about his book, I don't remember an animated conversation. Now years later, I cannot remember the faces I met at the evening's party, the conversations that I must have had, the inevitable cute guy in the room that I must have glanced at shyly and surreptitiously. But I remember that unpublished Tamil writer's pride and eagerness well, and often regret not paying more attention to his interest. Maybe I could have asked him to lend me his books to read them at my own pace.  Maybe I would have been one of his first readers, if not his very first reader.  I would have come to know what hopes and dreams an auto-driver had for his country.  Now, belatedly, I want to know the names of his characters, the languages they spoke, and the reasons they captured his attention. And I want to ask him the all-important question: does he know how to get his books published?

If only I can go back in time.  If only I had bothered to remember his name.

Stories from the former Soviet Baltic states

Library sales are treasure troves where one finds the most captivating books and novels from yesteryears, away from the influence of marketing forces and contemporary reading trends. The latest find for a mere 25 cents is here to stay on my shelf long enough for my children to grow up and read. It is a copy of 'The Graywolf Annual Nine: Stories from the New Europe (Graywolf Annual) (Paperback)', published in 1992.

Three of the nine stories printed here are from the former Soviet Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. 'Man needs dog' by Regina Ezera is my favorite, although several others follow closely as second.

The act of touching others' feet

Watching an old Tamil movie clip on Youtube the other day, I was once again witnessing the grace and humility with which most women kneel or prostrate in front of their husband's feet.

This is what I wrote as a comment on Sepia Mutiny's blog a few years ago on the art of prostrating:

I come from a very irreverent family. As far as I know, 3 generations of my kin have not lowered or bent their spines for another human; not once. So as an outsider looking in on adult-children expressing their love, gratitude and respect for their parents (or gurus, as in Bharatnatyam gurus or aged tuition-masters), I cannot help but wonder if I am missing out on a very unique and beautiful expression of the parent-child (or guru-sishya) relationship. When done right, the gesture is akin to an art form; the body expresses so much: complete surrender of the ego, near-rapturous attention, utter devotion.

Of course, not everyone is picture-perfect enough to feed my romantic notions of this tradition. Some, especially the men, are as stiff and awkward as I will be if pushed onto the catwalk and expected to sashay in a seductive manner in front of hundreds of strangers.

In my circle, the only times I get to witness similar uninhibited, gracious public displays of highly-esteemed relationships are when the adults are interacting with cuddly toddlers, brand new loves, potted plants and furry pets. And not necessarily in that order.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nature vs nurture vs the random factor

My girls are preparing to audition for one of the local annual musicals. While looking for a video to teach (steal, basically) some easy routine, we came across the Cimorelli. They are a family of 6 sisters and 5 brothers. The sisters have their own You tube-assisted presence in the tween world and have gone on to be signed up with some label (or something; music world terminology/jargon eludes me). I am quite taken up with their story--they are home-schooled, and taught classical piano and voice lessons including barbershop quartet by their mother who was a music major in college. And I can't even get past wondering how the heck does she manage to feed a family of 13? What does she drive to get the family from point A to point B? A mini-bus?

But future celebrity-watching apart, I am fascinated with the thought that here is a natural, real-world experiment to add to the discussion about nature vs nurture fractions to outcomes big and small. Here, the Cimorelli sisters all have the same nature (genetics), same nurture (learning environment and opportunities). But then each child also has something unique that separates one sibling from another. The random factor. The X factor. I personally see a/an (admittedly) subjective hierarchy of talent, attractiveness, stage presence, and oomph, if I may, among them. My money is on one child. And then another.

And finally, I want to admit that another level of my fascination lies with the mother. What patience, what dedication, what strategy! What ambition! And I don't mean that last one in a negative way. I have spent enough of my life and energy hoping to earn something special (apart from a pay check), to make something of myself, in return for all the time I invested in working for others, with others. As the first woman to have gone to college and to have earned a university degree in my family, this is as far as I have gotten to understand and express my ambitions for my own life. But I never felt the desire to invest in my own family, teach them, train them, and to trust with all my heart that success in some form would be possible all on my own (with a little help from this new world with new technology). And even when I watch home schooling parents around us, for example, all I conclude is that it would be impossible for me to give my all just to my family. I need my distance from them; my children need their distance from me. I realize that I am prone to thinking, believing that my children need to take their chances learning from others--the others that are presumably more knowledgeable, more powerful, more different than me. But this Cimorelli mother seems to have discarded all such notions, all conditioning of such mindsets. And, devoid of self-doubts (if any), she has managed to come out the other end somewhat triumphantly. Hats off, Ma Cimorelli.

Watch the Cimorelli cover "Price Tag" by Jessie J and B.O.B here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Vadapalani, the neighborhood I hated to love

'Dispatches', the CBC radio show, brings the world to my Winnipeg kitchen every Sunday evening, while I try to cook and get somewhat ready for the coming week. Two weeks ago, they brought nothing less than my old neighbourhood, Vadapalani, to me. The last time I saw this west Chennai neighborhood and its inhabitants so clearly and vividly, even across the miles, was in Kiev, while watching a Kamalahaasan movie (dubbed in Russian). Several extras in the movie were faces I recognized from my neighbourhood streets -- some I had known slightly better than others; some would have known me right back as 'the engineer's daughter' or as 'the girl with the white dogs.' It was surreal -- then in Kiev, and that Sunday here in Winnipeg, to realize how every cell in your body is attuned to every sound, every background detail, every bit of news about the multi-layered neighbourhood you once walked about fearlessly, despite, and because of, your privileged position.

While it was my father who made the aggravating decision to live in Vadapalani, away from the "upwardly-mobile" middle-class folks, it was my mother, despite her displeasure and unhappiness at having to make it her home, who made friends effortlessly, without judgement, with people the Madras middle-class wouldn't even look straight in the eye. I can't honestly say that we knew any sex workers for sure but the early polyandrous women and polyamorists I knew were neither economically-independent, socially-liberated, highly-educated white (black or brown) women in Europe or North America nor the Draupadis of Hindu Mythology. They were cheerful characters like Omana, the partner of the dance-teacher/choreographer Paulose, and the Malayalee Catholic woman whom I simply knew as Annama's mother and who always had a smile for my mother and me, even as she was arguing with her second-and-kinder husband, a stunt man.

The last time I was in my parents' home in Vadapalani, I couldn't tell if all these people, interesting enough to populate a Vikram Chandra novel, had moved out of the neighbourhood or had moved into the new middle-class apartments that have sprouted all around. But I hope they haven't been forced out to make way for those who assume they are too good to live among the people who made Vadapalani/Kodambakkam their home in the '70s and '80s.

From Dispatches:

"Help for Kids of India's Sex Workers"

Audio can be found here:

The lure of stardom has been the downfall of more than a few actors drawn to the bright lights of Hollywood. For every one star that emerges, dozens fall. Some, right to the bottom. You don't hear their story very often. India's huge film industry has a similar allure, and similar casualties, with a cultural twist. And we can tell you their story. And how some are trying to catch them when they fall. This one begins with the CBC's Priya Sankaran in one of India's key film production centres."

Photo from Arcot Road Times.