Stories of joy, pain and everything in between, of ordinary people overcoming life’s challenges!
Of Swans and Songs
Releasing on 5 August 2019
Some days ago a friend and I were chatting philosophically about our ability to let go. Later, as I pottered about the house, the two catch words flitted in and out of my mind, playing hide and seek as it were, raising questions. What exactly did they mean? Forgoing our claim to who and what we believe is ours? Stop wanting things badly? Freeing our personal spaces of emotions, attachments, habits? Of the way we live? And can we really do that?
This chain of thought actually had its origin in an earlier, prosaic question: what when we grow old? Our physical strength waning, would we still want to or, for that matter, be able to live the way we do now?
Some years ago my husband and I had built a moderately biggish house, and ever since we settled in we have been collecting bits and things, pieces of furniture, curios, paintings, souvenirs from our travels, new pots for the garden and varieties of plants. Walls and spaces change appearance and character, welcoming new additions and new arrangements. And all the while getting stamped with us and our evolving stories.
I look around today and I see all the history and sentiment. That corner table, that brass pot came from my grandmother, that paper-weight used to sit on my father’s table, that stone Vishnu stood with pride in my parents’ house, those copper vessels belonged to my husband’s grandparents, that creeper grew out of a sapling that had first been planted by my mother in her garden, that Diwali lantern had been picked out by our daughter, that delicate glass egret had been her gift to us. We had picked this mosaic frame from our holiday in Jordan, that vase from Beijing, these figurines from Athens, those platters from our year in Sydney. Every single thing has its own story. And I wonder, after us, where will all these witnesses of our lives, our history, our journeys go?
Well, as we know, ancient Indian philosophers defined four stages in a human being’s life. In the first, as a student, he gathers knowledge and skills. In the second, as a householder, he plies his trade and tends to his family. In the third, he prepares to detach himself from all worldly pursuits. Finally, in the fourth, he leaves behind all that he has created and collected, material and abstract, in search of his own creator. And while I believe that I am still in the second, there are times when I think I hear the call of the third. Loud and close.
I remember my mother attending discourses on the Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads, poring over her copy of the Dnyaneshwari much before she was of the age I am now. I remember her parting with some of her sarees, her jewellery, giving this one to this daughter, that to that grandchild. I would look on, noting the changes in my parents’ lives, their hunger for things abating, their own personal collections dwindling, happy with less and less. I recognise and appreciate similar symptoms in my friends and contemporaries. They are handing over charge to their future generation. And I ask myself: am I ready?
There are also times when I have an urge to surrender to practicality, to ease and convenience, to move into a smaller, compact space, one that I can manage simply on my own even with my sulking knees and temperamental back. But something in me resists, tenaciously clinging to this house and all it holds.
So how does one really let go? A favourite teacup chips and breaks and I am morose. A book bought and read long ago is misplaced and I grow restless. An old family recipe is lost and I despair. We invest so much of ourselves in things around us, and they in turn brighten our lives, satisfying some need or other. Parting with them is like parting with old dear friends.
But part we must. Or so they say. We have to let go, of both people and possessions, our family, our friends. Through the relentless cycle of life children are born and the old die. We celebrate, we mourn, we move on.
My daughter holds my hand and learns to step out in the world. I am her mother, teacher and guide. Slowly but surely, she blossoms into a beautiful adult, with a mind of her own, her own opinions, her own tastes, her own view of life. And then she needs me less and less. So I have to school myself to lessen my claims on her time and attention. I have to let go as she has to leave. Her bedroom in our house looks empty and forlorn. Her smiling pictures adorn the niches in the cabinets along the wall and I look at them longingly. Her breakfast cup still catches my eye every morning and I wonder whether she has had her tea. I routinely wash her towels and bed-linen, fluff out the pillows she used to rest her head on, keep her room in readiness. And I cling to the few days she spends with us when she visits, to the sound of her laugh, of her voice humming the latest song, her light step, her loved face.
My parents grow old. I watch them die. I have to let go. I have no choice. But I cling to their memory, the sounds of their voices when they called my name, their furrowed brow reading the newspaper, the pleasure in their eyes when talking with me. I have my father’s old handkerchief, a bottle of the eau de cologne he was partial to, his copies of P.G. Wodehouse, photographs of his bespectacled wise face. My mother’s old sarees, her copies of Kalidas’s oeuvres, her favourite Ikebana vases, the glass she would drink water from and which I still reach for first thing in the morning. My dear sister suddenly leaves her earthly space but her smiling face greets me from my bedside table when I awaken every morning, the echo of her voice still ringing in my ears, as if calling from the faraway land she probably is in now, reaffirming that close bond that was once exclusively ours. All mementoes of them, of their wonderful time on earth, their wonderful stories, their love for me that still endures, magically transcending space and time. Still nurturing me.
People come and go. Relationships form and break. Friendships wax and wane. Life goes on. I treasure every moment, every memory, every association. I treasure all that was then as I do all that is now.
I treasure this house, its walls which have seen us grow as a family, has heard our story, of the turns our lives have taken, of the choices we made. Its rooms where we have loved, laughed, dreamt, wept, argued, fought and reconciled. Its floors where we stood resolute, rooting ourselves in our origins while aspiring for the new. The door that steadfastly shielded us, held us safe from the storms that battered the world outside. My space, where I claim me for myself, for us and ours.
I treasure all my family heirlooms, my family portraits, my father’s wristwatch, my beautiful mother’s beautiful photos, the diary my sister gave me to scribble in, the saree my husband bought me on our first anniversary, the little egret our daughter gifted us, the books and artefacts, pots and pans that relatives and friends have gifted us, the little knick-knacks we have collected. I am in them and they are in me. Leaving them, detaching myself from them is like closing chapters, locking away the memories we made, putting them in boxes never to be opened again, denying that we lived thus. I cannot do that. I do not want to do that.
I cannot and will not let go of all I have gathered, all my people, all my memories, all my experiences of all my yesterdays. I want them with me as I walk into my tomorrows. And, happily, they too choose to stay with me. They don’t let go either.
Today, 10th of July, would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. It’s only befitting that I share pictures of her daughter’s creation, Of Swans and Songs, on this day.
Happy birthday, dearest Ai!
Ever since I started writing I have been questioned off and on about my choice of language, English. There are those among my circles of family, friends and acquaintances who are puzzled as to why a person born and raised in a Maharashtrian family, who has been living in Pune for the past several decades, and who is reasonably capable of articulating her thoughts in Marathi should opt for English when formalising them in print.
I try when I feel patient enough, which is rare, to explain the linguistic particulars of me and myself. I grew up in Jamshedpur where my father worked for Tisco, now known as Tata Steel. I went to school there with my older sisters and many other children from families that hailed from different parts of the country. All working in a town far away from their native origins, all building a cosmopolitan community or a prototype of an integrated nation, all happily melding their respective ethnicities in one melting pot. Our mothers would speak in different native tongues at home and all of us young children searched for the one bridge that could effectively and happily connect us all. Our parents opting to send us to a school that taught in English, that bridge was forged and we were joined.
So that was that. English came home and stayed. But not as a guest. Rather, as one of our own. On par with our own maternal languages. My mother befriended languages as we do people and soon she too was reading Shaw and Cronin and Maugham and Christie and Wodehouse just as we were, and as easily as she still read her Marathi litterateurs and the Sanskrit verses of her favourite Kalidas. While we were and still are fluent in Marathi, Hindi and English, the last soon became our default medium of discourse, of all debates and discussions. At home and outside it.
English still is my language of thought and action and emotion. And thence of writing. Of course, I’ve borrowed words that belong to our own soil and have blossomed under our own sun. I still adhere to calling our ubiquitous aromatic kadhi limba or kari patta by their Marathi or Hindi names, rarely referring to them as curry leaves, and most certainly not when I’m actually tossing them in hot oil. Or, jhootha/ushta is just that and I know no English equivalent that expresses its exact or entire intent. Just as chit, loot, pyjama, bangle, bungalow, veranda and so on were incorporated by the British into their dictionaries, I’ve added my own selection of Hindi and Marathi words and catch phrases to my everyday parlance in English. My own version of fusion.
But I look around me and I find a peculiar paradox.
On the one hand, I see an increasing embracement of English as one of the necessary tools in today’s economically imperative globalisation. With the ongoing technological revolution and its windfall of information access on devices that can fit into our palms, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to say that we hold the world in our hands. But that world doesn’t necessarily speak nor understand the languages we grew at home. The ones we call our mother tongues. Out there we have Chinese (Mandarin, as its most popular variant), Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Russian and Japanese. And, of course, English, with which we are already familiar and have heard spoken in our midst since the past couple of centuries and more. From which words like officer (afsar), hospital (aspatal), captain (kaptaan), bottle (botal) and so on had already been lifted, modified and made our own. And from which today words like enter, search, like, copy, paste, send, share and such similar virtual commands have swiftly slid and seeped into our native tongues and are used indiscriminately even by those who have never stepped into a school and would hardly appreciate the foreign origins of parts of their everyday lexicon.
On the other hand, I also come across a bristling resentment against the very same language. It is seen as an obdurately surviving relic of our unhappy colonial past. A need to refute a language that was once taught to the ruled subjects to produce men that could effectively serve their royal British Majesties. A vestigial emblem that reminds us of of our political enslavement and economic plunder. That we should choose to express ourselves in that language could, according to resurgent nationalists, only indicate an abject but resilient colonised mind-set, a reluctance to right past wrongs, and an apathy in restoring pride and prestige to what was and is home grown. Moreover, they remind us, English was and is essentially elitist, a dividing tool, the separator of the socio-economically and politically powerful classes with high prestige quotients from the masses who are more comfortable expressing themselves in their own respective vernaculars. The still entrenched divider between the rulers and the ruled, perpetuating cruel condescension. A passport to vacuous snobbery. Shame! Times have changed, they remind us. Be Indian. Speak Indian.
But I have never regarded English as un-Indian. On the contrary, it is to me my means of communicating with my Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kashmiri, Bengali, Bihari, Odiya, Malayali friends. All kaleidoscopically Indian. To easily understand and be understood. To share. To bond. To commit. My national integrator. Very early on I could guess who was a Tamilian, who a Bengali, or a Gujarati, or a Punjabi, just by hearing their unique accents, their elongation of certain vowels, their suppression of certain consonants, their distinguishing phonetics, diction, typical mix-ups in syntax, their own respective native tongues stamping their identities with authority on the adopted one. But that just added bags and bags of fabulous flavour. And helped us appropriate what was once foreign as one of our own. Indian English.
And what exactly and uniquely is it to speak indigenous Indian? Tamil? Bangla? Dogri? Marathi? Which variant of Marathi, the one spoken in Mumbai or Nagpur or Kolhapur? Or the one that Pune superciliously believes to be its sole chaste avatar? Our much touted diversity could actually become a stumbling, if not dividing block, if we chose to revert exclusively to the homespun. Hindi, that was once adopted as our national lingua franca has really not made the inroads expected. There are those that disdainfully look down upon it or plainly refuse to speak it, much like the French refuse to speak English, fearing that giving way to the language of the northern plains may swamp their own particular ethnicities. Linguistic roots are a matter of ethnic pride and nobody can or should be expected to surrender that. And the longstanding power tussle that festers beneath the stitched bonhomie of states comes up front and close, because yielding precedence of one’s language to another’s is as susceptible to tensions as relinquishing water from rivers. The lingual divides flare up and subside intermittently, either spontaneously or deliberately, depending on who is looking to catch the eye and ear of the public and therefore looking for an inflammatory grouse to vent.
Then, what to do? How does this paradox get resolved? I can switch easily between Marathi and Hindi and English. But can we all? And is that even enough? How do I gain access to the ideas that could enrich my life but have been expressed in languages beyond the reach of my comprehension? Much is lost in translation, I agree, but that remains my only realistic hope of understanding what, for example, the farmer in that remote corner of the northeast thinks about the rest of his country and countrymen. On the other hand, the local municipal school’s watchman’s daughter who aspires to be a computer scientist was stumped by the standard of English in her text books. Why have not our books been written in my language, she asks in frustration. Really, why haven’t they? Or, for example, why hasn’t that Bible of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy, been translated into all our regional languages yet? Why should a girl who has studied in Marathi all her schooling life suddenly be expected to improve her English skills just so she can pursue her specialised academic interest? But the committed and motivated girl that she is, she buckles down and does, confidently melding her learned English medical jargon with her instinctive Marathi when giving instructions to the nurse assisting her in getting our babies born. Like that only.
And so this conundrum of languages continues and we trundle along speaking bits of this and bits of that. And get by. Make do. Our language jugaad. I chat with my neighbours in Marathi, sing in Hindi and write in English. And when I tell the weaver in distant Kanchipuram who has been modestly making ends meet while always gloriously making Indian that I want a beige coloured saree with a dull gold temple border, I know that, for all our proud espousal of our linguistic roots, he and the traders representing him are familiar with all the key English words. So I don’t need to learn Tamil, nor he Marathi. It’s business, baba! Just click on picture, press like and send. Simple.