Saturday, 12 September 2015

A daughter remembers

People in our grandparents' generation didn't share our obsession with recording the time of events. Probably they were more concerned with using it well, apart from the logistical difficulties of documentation or challenges like illiteracy. Approximations were good enough for them, as it was for Bela Rani Haldar who had told her daughter, Kavita, now forty, that she had got married to Abhiram Haldar around the age of seven. Kavita works in the city as house help but her mother's 'job' was in the village. Bela's spouse had a government job but the childhood playmates enjoyed working on the fields together, after he would come back from work in the evening, or around 3 or 4 in the morning, before he left for office.
Bela's job wasn't restricted to working in the house and the fields. Today women in villages manage the house, the fields and the cattle but the decision-making power usually remains with the man. Bela was the business manager who assigned duties to all the other members of the household and they, in turn, had to report to her. For as long as Abhiram lived, they took the decisions together and after his death it was Bela alone. Her daughter-in-law had the primary responsibility of cooking but as there was a lot of work to do Bela did help with milking the cows, giving them fodder and sweeping the courtyard. After the work in the fields was done, she would weigh and give vegetables to her son to sell. In the village, word got around if someone wanted to sell or buy something and you just went to the person's house and completed the transaction. Or they would come to you if they got to know you were looking to sell something.
Apart from the produce of the fields, she would sell milk, cows and also bamboo, selling this last item every year around Dussehra, so new clothes could be bought for the family. People would buy them to do collective fishing, by putting all the poles in water and then cast nets to catch the fish. There was also a big boat in the Haldar house which was let out all the year round. Bela would keep the money earned from it for the Mansa Devi pooja. It would be a big occasion and a feast would be thrown by the Haldars for the entire village. Bela Rani was in charge of all the money earned by the household.
When she got time from work, she would invite neighbours home and have tea with them. If she got to know of someone doing a pooja in their house, she would go and attend. If there was news of a death in the neighbourhood, she would spend a few hours there. She would also spend part of her time at home doing pooja.
After her daughter got married, her sons continued to live with her. But when her spouse died and as Bela entered old age, things changed. She could no longer work in the fields for too long. Still she was the one managing them. For what she could not do alone she would hire labourers and supervise them. Then she came back late at night and cooked for everyone. No amount of scolding from her would induce the sons to take charge. At times she would get so frustrated that she would leave without informing them and reach her daughter Kavita's house in Delhi. Kavita was allowed to tell her sister about this but not her brothers. In about ten days, the brothers would come looking for her. With much reluctance, Bela would return because she did not want her sons to create a scene or abuse the son-in-law who had always treated her well.
Kavita's daughter and Bela's nineteen-year-old granddaughter Deepika, adds, "Not because they had been missing her but because they were afraid that if Dida [maternal grandmother] stayed here we would get all her property." Deepika spent her childhood with her grandmother and was her pet. "My grandparents had toiled hard and left so much behind. If my uncles had any sense, they could have made much of it."
Two years ago, on the twelfth death anniversary of her spouse, Bela said that she was not feeling well. She had fasted for two days before that to perform some rites for her decesaed partner. In a while she passed away quietly, when she was a little over seventy.
As it happened, her sons' concerns over the property going to their sister had been in vain because Bela did not leave it to anyone. Kavita remembers that Bela, who never discriminated against her daughters, used to say it would have been better if instead of five sons and two daughters, she had had seven daughters, for with them you can have peace.
In Obitopedia, 12 Sep 2015.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

My friend Vasu

Vasu with his grandson, Rahul

In February 2010, sitting next to me during tea time in Tilonia village, Rajasthan, where he lived and worked as a member of the Social Work Research Centre, Vasu smirked, "Most people here are scared of me, you know." As a hobbyist who challenges smugness, I was quick in dismissing his claim,"Oh, please. That's not going to work on me." With his towering frame, longish, grey hair and gruff exterior, 'Vasu Baba' did seem capable of swallowing some pestering woodpecker alive when he knitted his brows. But we also resort to issuing disclaimers about ourselves as part of our vulnerability. His warning probably meant that he couldn't be bothered with, as Wodehouse put it, 'ordering his behaviour according to the accepted rules of civilised intercourse'. But that didn't change the fact that he was a captivating conversationalist. I could listen to him at length and not get bored. After this first tea-table talk we had, I was flattered that he decided I was a 'match' and could be allowed entry into the friend zone.

It is only when writing this now that I realise our mail exchanges were curiously in polite, correct Hindi, though when we met we mostly talked in English. Maybe it was the language of Tilonia that had percolated in our correspondence, since that was where our friendship began and that is where we would meet. We had met during the Lok Utsav, a festival of traditional Rajasthani music, organised by the SWRC. And music remained a constant motif between us. A guitarist in his youth, he was into a variety of music. I would send him the latest Hindi film songs that showed some innovation in music and lyrics; he introduced me to Alexi Murdoch's 'Orange Sky'.

Whenever Rajasthan went through dry spells, concerned for his Tilonia family in particular and for the state in general, he used to ask me to send clouds. I would go through a speedy, willing suspension of disbelief and convenient resurrection of belief to fervently add my prayers to his wish. A remarkable number of times, it worked. We would share solidarity when we would be sick and working, when I would be editing and he would be writing funding proposals for the organisation, and make plans about when we would meet next. Though he wasn't usually supposed to travel and exert himself, during one of his better days he came to Delhi and stayed at my place. Another friend had come over, but Vasu, naturally, was the life of the party, revelling in the conversations and jubilant that he had finally been able to visit the city after so long. Though he was the one living in a village, he was aware of national and international developments better than many of us were. He would draw for us significant connections between these happenings. I was once editing a dull, academic book on the Sri Lankan political history. When he heard about it, he said he doesn't know much about the issue but what he did think was . . . And thus he managed to make me take a more active interest in the book. His pro-poor stand was clear as he challenged Adam Smith:

The Market…
is it that bad?
well, Adam Smith thought that all nations were wealthy 
but poor guy, he forgot to fly to Bangladesh 

Cos if he did 
would have got the Nobel Prize 
for self-help groups 
making self-help nations 

I turned to his consistent friendship during ups and downs in personal relationships. I wouldn't share details and he wouldn't poke and prod. But without saying anything he would reassure through his mere presence. He had that kind of immaculate grace. Indignities disturbed and saddened him. For a free spirit like him it was difficult to be restricted to one place because of being unwell and he would often grow irritable, and later guilty. Worried about something he felt he shouldn't have said to a couple of people, on World Forgiveness Day (until then I didn't know one existed), he wrote to many of us asking for forgiveness for anything hurtful he might have done or said. On days when I was struggling not to get sucked into a quagmire of editorial work, he would patiently enquire after me without feeling offended that I couldn't reply to his last two mails. As we grow older, we all know how valuable someone like that is, who would regularly check to see if all's fine with your world. Yet he always talked of being grateful for the people in his life: his Tilonia family; his daughter, son-in-law and grandson; the friends he made while working with SWRC and his JDs (judwaan dost, or twin friends, who, he said, were like his own extended self), of which I was proud to be one. He would say that as JDs even when we weren't talking we were connected by ESP (extra-sensory perception).

In his friendship he was characterised by absolute generosity of heart. Soon after our first meeting, I had joined a new workplace and was still getting to know my colleagues. Vasu made the job smooth for me by sending a packet of balushahis to my office, distributing which I said my hello to all the staff members and found my driving trainer, who was also to become a great friend later. Since the person from Rajasthan who had come with the sweets was wearing a turban, many in office assumed I was from that state, and in a way I was too. Vasu had also remembered to send some chai masala, because I was a fan of the tea I had at his place. He was a special common bond between me and my partner, who shared with Vasu his interest in music and cricket, and memories of an angsty youth.

One of my teachers had rightly talked about how it is easier to give solace to someone in sorrow but tougher to share their happiness, to feel it for yourself. Vasu had the knack and I sorely miss sharing my happy days with him. When someone goes, there are always thoughts of how you could have spent more time with them. But like Vasu I guess I should always count my blessings and remember how fortunate I was in having known him, as my Bollywood-ish mind imagines him strumming under the orange sky. When I recently spoke to his daughter Shruthi, she shared this feeling of being exceptionally lucky to have been a part of his life, "He taught me how to be accepting of all people and circumstances and this has been the most valuable lesson I have ever been taught."

On one of his birthdays, I made him a blog and he wrote over a hundred existential, dark, lyrical, witty posts on These are some lines from his poem 'Snapscapes':

Sepia prints memories mutations . . .
Trillions of bubbles in the air
Was it your breath that you blew?
No commotion, softly she comes
The harbinger of all that you dreamt
Daylight beckons, starshine travels . . .
Picture perfect reams of scenarios
Captured snapscapes.

When I type Vasu's name, auto-correct tells me to change it to 'vast'. For a change, auto-correct is not entirely off the mark.

In Obitopedia, 28 Aug 2015. 

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