Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Remembering from the margins 11 - Music lessons

I come from a musically talented family. My paternal uncle had had a brief stint with playback singing in the nascent stage of Malayalam cinema. Another uncle who died young was said to be a wizard with musical instruments. The story goes that he used to try all sorts of stunts with them - playing tunes on the harmonuium with his nose being the least difficult of them all!!!!!!!!!!!
All my siblings were comfortable in the world of music. So was/am I- to say we were comfortable, I guess, is an understatement. We love it – given the choice and encouragement, some at least would have taken up professions in it – but in our conservative Syrian catholic culture music , though encouraged, was always secondary to more important, serious pursuits.
Fortunately for us, our parents believed that proficiency in music was a desirable accomplishment. So some sort of music teacher would be in and out of our house all the time. Carnatic music was not our favourite ‘cos of the absence of glamour in our young doubly colonized world filled with western pop and hindi film music. So, when the Bhagavathar came to give lessons in Carnatic music to my two brothers immediately older and younger to me, the tendency was always to find reasons to get rid of him for the day. But getting rid of him, they never succeeded in - father would get into a fit of rage at the very suggestion. So they would sit thru it. I used to take the coffee up to the room where the classes were held. On one occasion, I saw my bothers making comical faces when the Bhagavathar, on their request, was rendering a piece, with his eyes rapturously closed. When he opened his eyes at the end of it, my brothers had appropriate expressions on their faces – soulful, ecstatic which seemed to me more comical than the faces they were making! But the Bhagavathar was immensely pleased by their response and went away a happy man that day. However, on another occasion, he opened his eyes midway and caught them red-handed. Needless to say, he reported the case to my mother. Guess that’s when mom decided the she would no longer be the cause for casting pearls - - - - - - -
But I was not as lucky as my brothers. It was at the beginning of my fifth standard that my mother got the bright idea that I should take piano lessons. I was not against the idea. I was given to a lot of day dreaming and I soon began to imagine myself at the piano before a large and distinguished audience and then the thunderous applause at the end of the performance. The idea really appealed to me. So it was that I was taken by my class teacher to Sister Redempta, one of the two music teachers we had in the convent school.
I saw Sister Redempta and my heart sank. I had just that morning finished reading an illustrated Sleeping Beauty, and sister reminded me of the picture of witch Malice kicking the cat out of her way!!!! Sister Redempta must have been six and a half feet long, or so she seemed to the diminutive person that I was. At least, she was the tallest person I had ever seen in my life. She was thin as thin can be. Her aged and lined face tapered down to a sharply pointed chin with a few long gray and black hair on it. She wore the dark brown habit of the nuns and wore stiletto heeled shoes. I had never seen a nun wearing stiletto heels and they fascinated me. So I stared at her shoes and she jumped up and down in a flurry thinking some reptile was heading towards her feet. Then she looked unpleasantly at me for making her do a violent tap dance.
Sr. Redempta was all that I was terrified of. She spoke no Malayalam. She was strict. She never, never, smiled!!!! And she had a temper. A terrible temper. She used to rap me on my knuckles when I repeatedly made the same mistakes. I was too scared to tell her I made them because I was terrified of her and so was extremely nervous. In fact, I had never conversed with her – couldn’t think of doing such a thing. In fact I couldn’t think of anyone having a normal conversation with her.
Things were ok in the initial days. Then as the lessons became tougher, and she got impatient and I got nervous and made mistakes and she got angry and angrier, life became a nightmare for me. I tried telling my mother that but she paid no heed to it – she thought I was acting up. The worst part was, the music lessons were from nine to ten. The students who came early to school would shout and yell and play orange salami, be quick, the king in the palace lost his ring etc etc, and there I would be sitting beside the scary Sister Redempta, being shouted at, rapped on the knuckles.
In my sixth standard it was worse. My music lessons were in the ante room of my class room and there was only a parapet high jhalf wall partition between these two rooms. My class mates would lean on the half-wall and watch my ordeal. This would make me even more nervous. And to make things worse, I was a being trained for the second grade Trinity College exam, and the pressure to perform was very high. So I would keep on making mistakes, Sister would keep gettig angry - and one day she grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me like they describe in the Enid Blyton books –shook me and shook me as if I were a rag doll and my friends laughed and laughed and Sister Redempta got more and more disgusted. Finally she let go and I collapsed on the key board with a loud jarring sound. She got up and went away in disgust. And I picked myself up and continued practice with whatever dignity I could muster. Left to myself, I didn’t make a single mistake! I pleaded with my mother to permit me to discontinue my piano lessons. She agreed but said I should appear for the exam and then only give it up. Unfortunately, I cleared the exam with Honours and my mother changed her mind. After all promises to children are meant to be broken ‘cos parents know best.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bush at kolahalamedu or Teachers' day out

I wrote this piece for the college magazine. The editors thew it out. Gross, they said. And that too writing such things about teachers!!

Dr. Sister Marty was in her elements. From the word go, she had the mike in her hand, entertaining the excursion group with her mock performance as a tourist guide. It was the teachers' day out and we decided to really let our hair down. No wards and so no need for any masks. No image to live up to - all worries of household management left behind for the day with the husbands. An unreal situation - too good to be true - so there we were, singing our way to our destination Kolahalamedu.

Dr. Sr. Marty saw to it that there was a never dull moment, or a silent moment. Her running commentary, the deliberately stilted language sent us into peals of laughter. We were looking for the slightest excuse to burst into laughter - suddenly all seemed to realise that laughter is the best medicine for all teacher specific ailments - - - --

Now, what are they? these teacher specific ailments? Well, they manifest in different forms . So it's easier to talk about the cause. I guess, it has to do with the teacher being condemned to the same wrong side of the desk throughout her career. And that side of the desk throws up certain expectations. We are perfect - the role models for the wards. And so we are for ever tucking our clay feet away from the sight of the students - does anyone realise what an awkward predicament it is to be obsessed with keeping one's feet out of sight?

And then again, the teacher is the friend, philosopher and guide, all rolled into one. To have such a mighty role thrust upon her on the day the mantle of a teacher falls on her in her early twenties is a terrible thing to happen - the wonder of it is we didn’t crack up under this burden of expectations. Her survival instincts, however, always come to her rescue - she changes her stripes to merge with the environment. The young girl who believed in freaking out suddenly learns to ostentatiously look askance at the very mention of the very term. She learns to mask her speech with euphemisms. She learns to hide her real self behind the mask, which seemed to appear from nowhere. She discovers a dimension to herself, which she didn't know existed. She sometimes marvels at herself - at the way she grew into an image. At other times she feels revolted by the hypocrisy of it all. The fluctuating moods, however, never surface - all glee & grimace are well hidden behind the mask. The MASK - it's like the pair of glasses, which is not a part of you but is very much part of you. That's not you but you are not you without it. You can't function without it.

So, back to Kolahalamedu. Guess it's the freedom from the mask that made us giggly headed. Some had come in the outfit forbidden for teachers - the salwar suit, and all the way to the hills we screamed and yelled the way students do when we shepherd them on their excursions. We played anthakshari. You should have seen the way teachers were grabbing at the mike to belt out the songs!!!! We discovered that one of the youngsters was an excellent singer and were exaggeratedly excited about it. The mike went around while the teachers shared jokes, experiences, and we laughed at each of them, whether they were funny or not.

We were approaching Kolahalamedu. Sr.Marty resumed her commentary and then - - - - dropped that statement.

'There are bushes at Kolahalamedu"

She is a Botany prof. Must be of botanical interest, I thought.

Her commentary continued without any more references to the bushes. She waxed eloquent on the beauty of the landscape and spoke of the glory of living close to nature. Then, as the bus reached the destination, she said “Bush, Bush".

I was confused.

I racked my brains. Could it be something like the burning biblical bush? After all Kolahalamedu was just a stone throw from Kurusumala Ashram. Or could it be some far fetched reference to the American president, who, despite himself, dominated our imagination for all the wrong reasons? No way!

The bus stopped. Sr. Marty announced one last time “Bush, Bush".

The teachers alighted. Wisdom dawned on me as I saw them go up the hills and each disappear behind a bush.

Soon, I too followed suit.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Thirty years ago, when the name Whitefield was mentioned at home as a possible place to relocate to, it was to me just an English sounding name in the neighbouring state. Little did I think then that this sleepy little suburban village of Bangalore would create in me feelings of such intense nostalgia even today, a quarter of a century after leaving that place.
Strangely enough, not everyone residing in Whitefield responded to the place the way I did. Many who did not belong there but lived there for reasons of employment had plenty to complain. ( If all you need from life is bread, butter and beef, then Whitefield is just the place for you, Mr. Godrej used to grumble). But to me, time seemed to stand still – I seemed to have gone back some seventy-five years to a corner of colonial India where a number of Englishmen (who did not return to their motherland) settled down for a retired life.
Not that there was a single white man or woman in Whitefield – at least there were none to my knowledge. But there were a few hundred old Anglo Indian couples living there, and many of them had a Briton for an immediate parent. Far away from the rush of the city, they lived clinging to their British ancestry. They read with avid interest British newspapers and magazines (usually back issues) and maintained a non-native life style. Their homes were the most breathtakingly beautiful cottages that I have ever seen. They maintained them with fierce loyalty and whitewashed them during Christmas.
As you passed those cottages, aromas, which triggered off memories of food that you have never eaten but only read of, greeted your nostrils. In the beautiful little church that stood on a small hill, there was English service everyday in the morning and evening. The couples in their seventies, eighties and nineties attended the evening service. I remember the formidable Mrs. Tipsol, a widow who walked smartly despite her eighty odd years, leaning ever so slightly on her stylish walking stick. She would nod her cropped snowy head briskly at every passerby who dared to greet her. She would purse her scarlet lips in deep thought as she played bridge in the Whitefield Recreation Club. She would threaten with the walking stick the measly dog, which followed her wherever she went but would never beat him.
I remember the Chartons who were on the brink of ninety. They teased each other and were still very much in love! I can never forget the twinkle in Mr. Charton’s eyes when, in reply to my polite query, he said, “Dying inch by inch, my dear, inch by inch”
After the church service, some of the couples walked to the maidan of the Inner Circle to sit on the stone benches, while some disappeared into the Recreation Club. By seven, most went home to supper and then to bed. Most of them had resisted the TV – perhaps for fear it would shatter their make-believe world.
The Inner circle comprised cottages built in a circle around the maidan. There were a few huge, shady trees that flowered in blue and violet and yellow and flame and white. The sight took one’s breath away. The neat broad mud road that ran round the maidan was bordered by amazingly out- of- this- world cottages. The sheer fairy tale beauty of the sight brought a lump to my throat. For a mind reared on illustrated nursery rhymes and Grimm’s fairy tales and Enid Blyton, Wordsworth and George Eliot, the Inner Cirle was an impossible dream come true.
The locals too somehow fitted smoothly into the picture. The Kannadiga maid who came sweatered to my house at 6am on misty mornings greeted me with a ‘Morning Ma’am’ and used most naturally English words like garlic, mutton, onion, and parsley, and could prepare to perfection soups and jelly, country captain and apple pie!
I lived for five years in a cottage with low roof and a fireplace, in the heart of a five-acre orchard. My heart skips a beat when I remember the sound of the breeze gently rustling the leaves with its mild hum at night. My immediate neighbours were a couple, both above eighty-five, both half English. They rarely invited us in but were very cordial over the wall. Mr. Rodney could be seen even at noon in his pyjamas, sitting on the stone bench under the huge shady tamarind tree. Mrs. Rodney was often seen at the door of the cottage with a ladle in her hand, yelling at her husband.
I remember with amusement the day he called me excitedly with the ‘great news’. “Big wedding coming, Molly”
“Yes, Mr. Rodney? Whose?”
“ You didn’t know?”
He opened a magazine at a full-page picture of Princess Anne and her fiancé. I smiled politely.
“ You are not excited?”
“ Oh, yes, I am, Mr. Rodney”.

Today, not all my newly acquired desi sentiments can stay me from paying this tribute to Whitefield of yesteryears. I hear that Whitefield is horribly crowded today, and many of those couples I knew have been laid to rest. Those dream cottages have given way to high rises. I shall never go to Whitefield again. I want to preserve it in my memory as a relic of what I today describe as the hated imperialism. No amount of theory or patriotism can mute the singing of my heart when I look back at those five years in that sleepy village. For, nostalgia for an imaginary world created by Jack and Jill, and Polly of the kettle fame, found fruition in my life during those years.