Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Who Else Am I Not? Part Two- “Are you from India?”

A week later, I stood in front of a dilapidated building. My father said it was to be my new school.

In the 1970's, Nagaland had a lot of Christians, but surprisingly, not the kind of schools that the missionaries built in hill stations and other parts of India. The Indian government was hated, and therefore, not allowed to do much.

We had just arrived a few days ago to Mukokchung, and had settled into a nice big wooden house on stilts, in a little valley surrounded by hillocks.

We were to share it with another family from my father's organisation.

The road trip from Mariani to Mukokchung that usually took three hours, had taken us five, as just out of the town had occurred a mud slide. I have never again seen such a huge pile of soft silky light brown mud.

I distinctly remember how peaceful the long line of vehicles on both sides appeared. No honking, no gathering of irritable people desperate to get to the other side. Loved ones would simply assume the best, not the worst as is the case now.

Laden with memories of the vast expanse of my previous school, with its sunlit classrooms, manicured lawns, and pretty little flower beds, I looked with distaste at the structure my father now ushered us into.

My brother and I wrinkled our noses at the smell in the ‘office’ of the dishevelled ‘principal’, and giggled, silenced by the stern look on our father’s face.

Soon, both of us were escorted  to our respective classrooms.

I looked around for polished desks with small attached seats that I thought every classroom would have,  only to find rough long wooden tables, with one long bench shared by ten or twelve children. The ground was littered with pencil shavings and paper.

I noticed, many of the children were wrapped in red and black shawls, some of which were faded (I don’t think the school had a uniform).

They looked at me in my yellow frock curiously,and when the teacher read out my name haltingly from a slip my escort was carrying, there was much laughter and giggles. It was deja vu time.

The girl I sat down next to (I don't recall her name. In fact I don't remember a single person's name from that school) asked me, "Are you from India?"

I took my time to reply, as I wasn't sure. My concept of India was vague at the time.

"No, I'm from Kalimpong."

That broke the ice, and though I was very different in many respects ( I wore frilly, sometimes starched frocks to school, while many children wore either the tribal dress or jeans, which the missionaries got them),I was accepted very soon, as my English, Math and Science was the best in class, thanks to my three years with the scottish nuns.

Although I gained the respect of my classmates easily, there were many things about my new friends that invoked envy in me.

I noticed that the world (comprising, for me, of Kalimpong and here) was full of girls and boys with black straight silky hair, skin that was hairless and smooth, and eyes that were small and sparkling.

I spent many hours in front of the mirror pulling the corners of my eyes upwards in a slant, to see how I looked.

I felt like the ugliest creature in class, with my strange large eyes, hairy arms and legs, and curly long hair that my mother dutifully made into two long tight plaits every morning.

My prowess in class did assuage some of my feelings, but deep down I wanted to look like the rest so much!

The one thing that I was glad was different from ours was their food.

Once, on a holiday, I asked my father to drop me off at one of my school friend’s house to play. It was raining, and the evening air was full of little bugs flying all over, and crowding the streetlights.

My friend’s mother called out to her and gave her a little mug, with some instructions. She ran about with the mug in hand, trying to catch as many little bugs as possible.

"This was a great game", I thought, and joined in, collecting as many as I could till the mug was full.

We handed the mug over to her mother, who then, to my horror, proceeded to fry them in hot oil! All for my benefit!

My vegetarian mother, equally horrified at the ‘honour’ accorded to me, forbade me from visiting other friends’ houses, and didn’t wish to entertain them either.

The hillocks around our house had little huts on them belonging to the labourers who worked on the roads that my father’s organisation was building.

Every evening, they burnt their wood fires, and cooked rice and (I learnt later, after the loss of our Alsatian, Peter) sometimes, dog meat.  While waiting for it to cook, they strummed their guitars, and sang quaint songs I had never heard.

I noticed that every family for miles around, rich or poor, owned a guitar.

The sight of the beautifully burning fires lighting up the night sky is still fresh in my memory.

The knowledge of how different we were perceived to be was brought home in a rather unwelcome fashion one summer night.

That night, three or four men quietly broke into our house via the back bathroom door, with the intention of causing bloodshed.

The Naga insurgency was at its peak at the time, and my father's organisation was part of the Army, which was hated by the insurgents.

As children we were blissfully unaware of this fact. I just remember waking up that night by the screams and shouts coming from my parent’s bedroom.

On hearing the commotion, my father's colleague and another friend who was staying the night, rushed in to my parent’s bedroom, to find my mother, shaken and alone.

My father, not one to be scared easily, had momentarily overpowered one of  his assailants. When they all ran back, out from the bathroom door, he followed them in hot pursuit!

He managed to catch that one guy. After interrogation, in a week's time, the rest were caught too.

Post this incident, it was considered too dangerous for us all to stay in town, so as quickly as possible, some makeshift accommodation was constructed for us near the project office, and we were shifted there.

Childhood is a time of flexibility, and I had settled in beautifully in my strange new surroundings, but, my parents, it seems, couldn't quite adjust. So, in just a matter of ten months, we were all packed and on the move again.....

To be continued...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Who Else Am I Not? Part One-"What's not in a name?"

There is a saying that if we wish to understand life, the answer to just three questions can reveal all:

1. Who am I?
2. Where have I come from?
3. Where am I going to?

In today’s time, when the nation with its demands for separate statehoods simultaneously splits itself along hitherto non-existent seams, while appearing to be united and secular, I often find myself plagued by the first question.

If you know me by name, I appear to be a female Hindu Kayasth. Yet, my mind cringes at the thought of all the stereo types that most people imagine when they hear my name or meet me for the first time.

Being born to a UP man and a Haryanvi woman, raised in different states in the North East of India, living for the past 25 years in the west and south of India, loving Hindustani Classical music as well as Western Classical and Carnatic, I find that I’m at the same time part of all groups, and also a part of none.

Similarities and differences are two sides of the same coin. So, I thought, in order to find out who I am, let me first discover who I am not.....

Here is the first post in a series towards that end.....
 "What's not in a name?"

There was something funny about my name.

The teacher ran through a list of names like ‘Karma Choden’, Deki Wangmo’, ‘Sonam Tsering’, ‘Charmaine Jones’, and similar other names. Then , a pause, and very carefully, as though trying out a new tongue twister, ‘Smita ************.’

This was my first day at school at *****************, Kalimpong, a boarding school that also allowed day scholars, in the year 1969 or was it 1970?

I forget which, but that trivia is insignificant.

What’s significant is that I felt different that day, and I didn’t want to be different.

Being too young to know that one can take all one’s grouses to God, without fear of reprimand or a shouting at, I went home and cornered my mother. Why on Earth did I have such a funny name? I wanted it changed at once!

How should I do it? Should I tell all our neighbours, friends, my younger brother, my father’s friends, or would she and my father do it. Why was I named by them? Shouldn’t I have some say in what I would like to be called for the rest of my life?

I wanted it to be Sonam Caroline Wangmo.

That way it would be better than all the others.

I raved and ranted, to no avail. She just gave me an exasperated look that turned into a dismissive one, and carried on shelling peas. Even at that age, I could sense that I shouldn’t try my luck too far, as she would take just one second to decide whether she could pause long enough in the rapid disembowelment of the peas to give me a whack on my behind.

I returned to school the next day, determined to tell my new classmates my chosen name.

Once there, however, I soon forgot all about it, as we all found a surprise waiting for us in our desks. Each one of us had been gifted an old, empty little metal tin by our teacher, to keep any odds and ends that we liked.

Each tin was different, mine had been an old tea container (in those days, tea mostly came in metal tins), red, with a black pagoda on the top and also on all the sides. Some of the others got old tea tins as well, while some got biscuit tins, and a few got toffee tins.

Mine was one of the prettiest, and soon everyone knew my name in the class, as they tried hard to get me to part with my tin. I realised that it didn’t matter if I was Miss Unpronounceable for them as long as I held on to that tin, so I guarded it zealously.

Three beautiful years in one of the prettiest school properties later, it was time for my father to move. The orders were for him to move to an unheard of tongue twister of a place, Mukokchung, in Nagaland.

With packed boxes painted black, that displayed the neatly stencilled name of my father, where we were boarding the train (New Jalpaiguri) and where we were going to (Mariani-in Assam, the last point the train would take us to), we all headed for Nagaland. Little did I know that the comfort I had arrived at after three years of being ‘Smita *****************’ would be short lived.

To be continued.....