Thursday, March 05, 2009

A known memory

We heard the cow mooing angrily and galloping down the dusty path long before we saw it. A hysterical female voice shrieked at us to get out of the way. We flung our heads around wildly, trying to locate where the cow was coming from and ran helter-skelter away from the dust cloud.

We were a gaggle of seven-year-olds on the way back home from school and for a few minutes the connoisseurs of pure, unadulterated panic. We regrouped in the middle of the path in the wake of the errant cow and her frantic owner. Still shaking, we looked around uncertainly, mutely debating whether to continue on or wait for evidence of the all-clear.

The rest of the details are lost in the recesses of my memory, but suffice to say we all made it back home safely that evening.

The two years we spent in Kuppam, in Andhra's Chitoor district, could well belong to someone else. It all seems so far away in distance and time. Except that while large patches are missing from my memory bank, certain memories still clamor for attention. They just come and wait until I deal with them. There is no pattern or time table. But it is also the distance of time and space, and conscious effort, that makes the memories malleable, amenable to being organized.

During our time in Kuppam, I was six and seven, my brother was two and three, my dad was a bank manager and my mother was the underpinning that held our itinerant life together. We moved every two years, following my dad wherever his job postings took him.

For the first time and really the only time in all the years we moved from town to town, our home was right on top of my father's office. The entire ground floor was the bank and the entire top floor was our home. As you can imagine the house was massive. Certainly larger than anything we had lived in up to that point. Huge bedrooms, a large living room, a separate dining room, a fantastic kitchen and sprawling terraces in the front and in the back. There were two problems as far as I can remember. One, the fact that we were right on top of my father's workplace and two, the monkeys.

First, the house. In those days there were no mixer-grinders. My mom ground batter and made masala powders the old-fashioned way - with stone grinders by hand. The first few times she tried it, an office boy from the bank would come bounding up the stairs, quaking in his bare feet, probably cursing his fate at having to convey an angry message from his boss, the "Saar", to the boss' wife. The grinding made a godawful noise downstairs. Plus my dad could not have relished the thought of everyone knowing what was cooking upstairs.

Second, the monkeys. They were everywhere. They were bold. Sometimes they were aggressive. It was a delight to watch them go about their life - taking care of the babies, grooming each other (although it was slightly gross when they ate the lice. Ugh!), fighting, playing. But you could never tell when they would get aggressive. So when the monkeys came out, we stayed in.

And for the only time ever in all my academic life, I went to school for two years in the servants' quarters, stables and barns of one of the lesser known palaces of India.

To my seven-year-old eyes, the front of the palace was an awesome sight although years of neglect had rendered the edifice a mere shadow of a palace - with pock-marked walls, broken doors, crumbling steps - whose former glories could only be imagined. Countless small arches in the deep yellow exterior walls offered a peep into mystifying darkness. It was made very attractive by the fact that we were forbidden from setting foot in the palace. It was still occupied by a lone man, a descendant of royalty we were told, and he hated having the kids mess up his space with food crumbs. So we reluctantly stuck to the back of the palace, which I must say was pretty memorable on its own.

The Yvonne Douglas Primary English School (which we pronounced as Why One Douglas...) was started in the memory of the wife of Mr. Douglas (I cannot remember his first name). The only English-medium school in town, it was run by Mr. Douglas' two children. As far as I knew, all Mr. Douglas did was walk around the school with a fly swatter in his hand, swinging it wildly at insects big and small, real and imagined.

Ms. Douglas spent ten minutes every day during assembly teaching us the difference in pronunciation between words starting with 'v' and 'w'. She taught us to bite our lower lip for the 'v' and pucker our lips into a circle for the 'w'.

One day, she noticed a boy wearing all black. The boys were supposed to wear khaki colored shirts and shorts. So she called him out and asked him why he was wearing black. The boy looked confused and said, "I am wearing khaki colored clothes." Back and forth they went, she asking why and he repeating his assertion. Then it finally dawned on one of the Indian teachers - 'khaki' means 'crow' in Telugu. So the boy's family thought they had to get him black colored clothes.

During the first Christmas I was there, the school decided to put up a play about the birth of Jesus. Someone had the bright idea of including live goats in the play. During one of the rehearsals, the goats got so scared they pooped on stage. As you can imagine, that idea was scrapped in a hurry.

The most excruciating part about school was having to learn a new language from scratch. I had studied English and Kannada before, but now I had to learn to read and write Telugu. And because we moved in the middle of the school year, I had to get all my subject notes up to date, which meant pages and pages of writing. I remember just putting my heard down in my arms at the dining table and having a good bawl, with all my notes spread around me, my mother holding me and trying to comfort a tired soul.

Also for the first time I remember lying to and manipulating my parents.

The town had one big cinema tent. The entire town - rich or poor - congregated under that one tent for movies big, small, super hits, also-rans and everything in between. One day a friend asked if I wanted to go with her to watch a movie the whole town was buzzing about. To a seven-year-old it was mighty tempting. I ran up to ask my mother. She said no. So the friend suggested I ask my dad. My dad, who never involved himself in any of these sorts of decisions, absent-mindedly nodded his head and I was off. I wish I could tell you that I was influenced, nay corrupted, by my friend, but that would not be the entire story. All I could see at that moment was me in that movie tent. I did not think about obedience or consequences.

When I returned home later that evening, my parents were waiting for me. Their eyes brimmed with disappointment and sadness. I remember very clearly being stood there in the living room and handed down THE RULE. If one of them said no, I was not to go running to the other. I was to simply assume that the other would say no too. And they stuck to it. They never played one against the other. As far as the children were concerned they were one.

Most of all, those two years are memorable for that idyllic small-town life that is the stuff of sepia-toned novels - the weekly village fair ("santha") was a big to-do when farmers and traders from the near-by villages congregated in town; when my brother became ill, we had to get him on a train and take him to Bangalore because there was no one in Kuppam who could tell why his fever wasn't going down; a carpenter who lived and worked across the street from our house just took it upon himself to make a toy bullock cart for my brother; summer nights were spent under the stars on the terrace or whatever open space you had around your house; festivals were a communal affair - everyone had their little rituals at home, but mostly everyone congregated in a central place to celebrate them together; bicycles and mopeds were popular, four-wheelers rare - everyone just walked wherever they needed to get to.

We moved to a lot of other cities and towns after Kuppam and each comes packaged with its own memories. But for me our time in that town signifies the beginning of the memories of me as a being separate from my parents, as someone who experienced a set of events distinct from anyone else in my family, and was able to recall them years later.


Anuradha Shankar said...

Hi Sujatha,
reading about your memories was wonderful!! the part about the goats was hilarious!!!

Kavi said...

That was a wonderful account ! Enjoyed it thoroughly. Why One Douglas is typical of us to pronounce ! Whoever invented names with spell like Yvonne !!!

The goat show was such a cracker !! I was rolling !!

And ofcourse, the Khakhi is so congrous to small town innocence and experience !

I know Kuppam. I have been there. And your writing gave Kuppam a Malgudi like feel !


Sylvia K said...

Sujatha, I loved reading about a time in your childhood. We have grown up in two different worlds that have recently crossed and I feel so good about that. Thank you for sharing your memories!

Nino's Mum said...

Loved the last line: and what a memory milestone to associate with a place and a time, no?
I totally and vividly imagined the office boy's expression as he came up to tell your mum her grinding was, erm, a little too loud! priceless :)
makes me yearn for the simpler life. does it make you wonder if our kids live less interesting lives today?

Choxbox said...

lovely suj. weirdly, earlier this week i met someone who told me her native place was kuppam!

the khaki/kaaki confusion is so funny!

also wouldn't telugu be super easy if you knew kannada and vice-versa? i did telugu at school and am now helping n3 with kannada so will be useful if you could elaborate a bit here. thanks!

also this is what i find - as n3 grows older i can recollect incidents from my own life at the age corresponding to n3's current age. something similar in your case?

Anonymous said...

This is a beautifully written account and was wonderful to imagine the scenes. I so totally wish you were able to put up related pictures - especially of the school! :)

Suldog said...

Thanks for the kind words over at my place. This is an interesting blog. I'm always fascinated by stories of growing up in a culture different from my own. Nice job.

Jinksy said...

A fascinating description of a childhood so different from my own in war time Britain. I loved your account.

Altoid said...

What a quaint little town experience this sounds like. I am with Kavi, definitely had a tinge of 'Malgudi' in it.

And I never thought about it this way Suj, now that you mention it...I think there is a point in time where your memories and experiences develop an individuality that sets you apart from the family unit. Separate, but together :). Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sujatha! Brought back my childhood memories. My father had a transferable job too, although we moved only inside karnataka. I can totally relate to your post.
Each place we moved has a special place in my heart. I wish i could go re-visit those places and re-live those memories! I think someday i will.

Debbie said...

This is an amazing story. You paint such a vivid picture of such a different culture than I am used to. Wonderful.

Sands said...

Nice post. Jogged fond parallel memories in my own head when I read about the movie and the monkeys :)

Doli said...

Lovely blog. I just finished reading all your posts :)

JD said...

chanced upon ur blog today. Your memories rubbed off on me too and I went back to my childhood days :-)
will keep coming back

Anonymous said...

wow, what a vivid account! great reading.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Sujatha! It took me back to my own childhood days and the summers spent with my maternal grandparents on the outskirts of Vishakapatnam...

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Lovely Post !
Its the age ... all of 6 and going 7 ... thats when you start understanding the events as you see them as against what is told to you :)

Lilly said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post about your early memories. Those monkeys osund rather frighteining. I have read Ugich's account of them too. I look forward to reading more about your life. Cultures are so different but people are essentially the same. The world is truly a small place isnt it?

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Anu, thank you!

@ Kavi, Kuppam is on the Bangalore-Chennai line. I remember vendors on the platform shouting, "Coffeeteapaaal", ten times in a row! :)

@ Sylvia, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

@ NM, thank you! Yes, definitely simple. I wouldn't mind going back myself - for a few days. :)

@ Chox, no these memories have a life of their own. Not really connected to C at all. His life is so different from mine. :)

About Telugu, I think it's one thing to work with the similarities between Kannada and Telugu as an adult and teach a child, but quite something to be six or seven and be faced with reams and reams of notes to copy and basically 3 years of work to make up in the span of a few days. This was made worse by the fact that because I was ahead in all the other subjects they bumped me up past second grade where I should have been to third. Not a pleasant experience. :)

@ Mschillpill, you don't know how much I wished for that too! I certainly don't have them here with me, but I called my mom to ask what the girl's uniform was in that school and she couldn't remember either and felt sorry we didn't have pics of us in uniform. :(

@ Suldog, thank you!

@ Jinksy, would love to read accounts of your childhood as well. Have you already written about them? Will go check. :)

@ Alty, thank you sweets!

@ Lak, would love to read about your experiences too!

@ Debbie, thank you!

@ Sands, glad this reminded you of the good times. :)

@ JD, welcome to my blog!

@ Doli, thank you so much! I really appreciate you reading.

@ Ra, thank you! Computer ok now?

@ Siri, thank you! I'm so glad this reminded you of good things. Anya's going to have such a different life, no?

@ CA, thank you!

@ Lilly, thank you and welcome to my blog! Totally agree about the cultures being different and people being the same.

Frankie Anon said...

What a vivid description--I've never been to India (it's on my list!), and I will never get to visit the India of your past, but your account makes it come alive. Your writing itself achieves a sepia tone. I really loved the line "it is also the distance of time and space, and conscious effort, that makes the memories malleable, amenable to being organized." This has been my experience, both as I blog and write a memoir. That malleability is often maddening, and that conscious effort is sometimes hard work, indeed!

Sujatha Bagal said...

Frankie, thank you for reading this. Absolutely loved the fact that you noticed that line. And am so looking forward to reading longer pieces of your writing!