Memories of India

1.

When I reach Bangalore, at the end of April, the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament is on. One or two matches each day are broadcast live on TV, and my father follows them all. Early on I’m reluctant to join him. Once an avid follower, I lost touch with cricket after moving to Germany in 2000. I know none of the youngsters playing today. And watching the game’s new T20 format — a truncated form of the one-day match, which itself is a shorter version of the gloriously slow-paced five-day match — is like being served a fast-food leftover in place of a five-course meal.

But my father’s enthusiasm draws me in. I sit with him for a few overs every match, and then, as the teams and players grow familiar, I begin to watch matches from start to finish.

After all these years the game looks different. The pace is quicker, new rules have emerged, TV commentators sound more relaxed, miniskirted cheer girls have entered cricket stadiums (but are separated, wisely, from the spectators). Players from different countries now play together, as in professional soccer leagues, and watching an Indian player spur on his Australian teammate makes you wonder why they didn’t think of this before.

I’ve heard of politics entering cricket, but watching both cricket and politics on TV I find that they borrow from each other, and the metaphors sometimes cross over. A cricket commentator speaks of a “Modi Free Hit”, an election analyst announces the “Man of the Match” from BJP.

2.

Early in the visit there is a pooja at home. A fire ceremony to ritually mark my father’s 70th birthday. Five priests arrive at 9 am, carrying several rangoli colours, apples, oranges, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, rice, mats to sit on, a portrait of Adi Shankaracharya, a metal vessel to contain the fire, and other paraphernalia. They look young, all in their forties, and seem modern. When the pooja is on, mantras and shlokas from the main priest holding us in a trance, two of his colleagues sit texting on their smartphones. One also urges me to click photos during the ceremony, and offers to take a few himself.

After pooja the caterers carry in the dishes for lunch. We’ve given cooking instructions appropriate to the religious occasion (no onions, no garlic, and so on), but watching the caterers unpack, three priests decide to skip the meal. The food, they say, has been touched by someone from a lower caste, perhaps a shudra.

My mother springs into action, quickly prepares new dishes to appease these priests. I am angry, ready to burst, but this is not the moment to create a scene.

The incident leaves behind an unpleasant taste; payasa at the end of lunch is bland. Caste, it seems, is still the fault line of society in urban India today. India changes, yet remains the same.

3.

A visit to the Madiwala market brings back memories from childhood. The market in memory is suspiciously clean; this one, a long line of shacks adjacent to a main road, is filthy. Rotten fruits and vegetables lie scattered on the road. Cows lazily walk through the refuse, occasionally picking something.


market


My father bargains with the banana vendor, the jackfruit vendor, the coconut vendor. There is no real haggling: this is simply a ritual. He bargains because if he doesn’t, my mother will nag him about it. To me, bargaining here seems misdirected. These vendors barely eke out a living selling fruits and vegetables — why deprive them of a few rupees, when we happily dole out hundreds or thousands at shopping malls, in branded outlets? Bargaining in such malls would save us more, and would not really make those businesses poorer.

But is bargaining about these things? It is a habit, a custom, a timeless transaction with vendors on the street, or at small stalls in busy bazaars. And the vendor there expects it. So when an NRI shies from asking five rupees less for a kilo of potatoes, a hint of surprise glazes the vendor’s eyes. It does not last long: the next customer is already complaining about the price.

4.

One evening I visit Ajji, my grandmother. I find her sitting on a chair in the living room of my uncle’s apartment, eyes fixed on the opposite wall, hands limp between her thighs. Her blue nightie is a sharp contrast to the silver of her neatly-combed hair. In that small, slumped figure, the droopy eyelids stand out. When we enter she looks at me like a baby learning to focus its eyes. Then she asks my uncle, “Who is this?”

Ajji will turn ninety this year. It is hard to describe the state of her mind. She remembers incidents from the distant past with startling clarity, naming people, places, and dates, but she cannot recognize many of her children and grandchildren. She forgets where she is, says she soon plans to visit Tiptur (her hometown, a hundred and twenty kilometers from Bangalore, where I was born), and throws tantrums each day when it is time to feed her. A full-time nurse cares for her daily physical needs. She lives, but it is fair to ask if she is alive.

“Dementia seems like an especially humiliating last stop on the road of life. There’s no way to do it in style or dignity.” This is from a recent article in The New Yorker. During some of her more lucid moments, Ajji senses the loss of dignity. She asks (I’m told) why she should live like this, why God does not take her away. But there is no easy exit. Her body, though frail, stays healthy, while her mind goes to pieces.

My uncle reminds Ajji who I am. Then, although her face remains impassive, her voice changes: “Oh, it’s Manu! How are you, my dear?”

I sit beside her and take her hand. It feels like a lump of soft clay in a thin plastic wrapper. I ask her how she is doing.

“What’s there with me?” she says, “I simply do all the cooking each day, that is all.”

My uncle laughs, and teases her. “Yes, just like I do all the household cleaning, right?”

There isn’t much to say to her. The conversation moves on to my cousin’s forthcoming final exams, my aunt’s classes in the school she teaches at, the recent IPL games. Ajji sits through all of this, silent as a pillar. I ask her if she wants something to eat. No, she says, shaking her head.

When it’s time to leave, she says, “What’s the hurry? Sit for a while longer.”

My uncle tells me that this is unusual — she normally does not care much for visitors — and that it means she likes me. We sit down again.

Then, of her own volition, she says, “You know I used to make you sleep on my lap the first few months of your life.”

It is true that I spent the first six months of my life in Tiptur, with my mother and my grandparents while my father was abroad, but I am not aware of this little detail. I realize I’ve never asked my mother about my first year; who wants to know how one was nursed in those early months?

Forty years later, Ajji is the one who needs nursing. She is the baby in the house, but her future holds few bright spots.

5.

QUEEN-2014

Queen was the Bollywood movie everyone was talking about. I went into the cinema hall not knowing what to expect; two and a half hours later I left lighter, buoyant.

The movie’s independent-liberal-Indian-woman theme was mirrored in advertisements I saw on TV during the IPL games. Ads where women rebelled against their husbands treating them like home-appliances; ads where the woman travels alone, while her mother wonders how she’ll manage without the husband; where a granny chooses hot pants for her adolescent grand-daughter. The traditional roles adopted by middle-class Indian women have changed, they seemed to say.

Perhaps the ads captured the zeitgeist of urban India today, but one wonders if much has changed. The ads themselves offer a clue. They were explicit in highlighting the new role, as though sketching the Indian woman’s ideal future, instead of subtly revealing their present. When this role — of the woman who is equal to or more than the man in her life — emerges naturally in advertisements, without calling attention to the difference, we’ll know that urban India has changed. Until then, it’s probably the woman who does the ironing, prepares fruit-juice for her husband, and grinds three types of chutney. Just as her mother did.

My mother would have found the ads outdated. She watches her son do household chores, and observes her daughter-in-law carry on the matriarchal tradition inherited from her ancestors in Kerala. These days when I offer to load the dishwasher or clean the dining table, while my wife is out in the sun shopping in Commercial Street or visiting friends in Indiranagar, she does not protest anymore. If you ask my mother, the Indian woman’s future is already here.

6 Replies to “Memories of India”

  1. That was a fascinating read. I always enjoy your posts. I am interested in the changing roles of women in history. In reading about Colonial America I learned that the role of women in puritan society of the 17th century was completely confined. They actually liked it when they were kidnapped and taken to New France. Women there had many more opportunities.

    1. Anne, I always enjoy your posts too.

      About changing roles of women in history, you must have seen a lot through the eight decades of your life. I look forward to reading about it someday.

  2. Enjoy reading this post so much..it captures everything about visits to India which sticks in your minds eye….so fascinating to read about your Grandmother….

  3. This blog reminds me of my two-year stay in India. The favorite sport of Indian people is cricket and I remembered of the cricket match which was held in the school where I studied for two years. The weather was fine and cool and the field was magnificent. I supported my class mates while they played against students of another school. I learned the rules of that sport which was new to me and this made to bond ties with my class mates.

    The blog also relates about Indian cuisine and my memories go back instantly to the different dishes I discovered and tasted there. I discovered that vegetarian food can be very appealing since the school operates under this concept. Although I loved the non-vegetarian, ‘butter chicken’ being my favorite dish, my friends taught me how to mix different spices like the ‘chat masala’ to the vegetarian food which was served within the school campus and made me enjoy those dishes equally. From then on lunch was a time where I shared the food of my friends and where our friendship grew.

    For sure I share the same tastes with the author of this blog, sports and cuisine of India for which I am still passionate of now.

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