Friday, December 28, 2007

You Cant Always Get What You Want

The papers have been reporting a furore over the outcome of yet another reality show on television. The losing finalists have alleged that the result was unfair and have filed a police complaint against the TV channel.(
The fondness for 'reality shows' is symptomatic of a world in which it is believed that everyone is entitled to win; that anyone can become a star. That isn’t a very realistic belief, but it is fostered from an early age.
Parents allow their children to win every game that they play against them. At children’s parties they ensure that every child wins a prize for something or the other. No one is left out when the goodies are handed out. Losers don’t have a place in today's world. Winning is so important that it is facilitated in the make believe world, every time.
But it doesn’t stop there.
There are schools where every child wins the 'Best Student' award -- by rotation. Children who take exams and don’t get the marks they expected accost their teachers and demand a review of their work. Parents often join them in heckling the teachers and the school authorities. In one extreme case, the parents of children who'd failed an examination gathered outside the school and refused to let the gates open until the results were 'reviewed'. The school gave in and promoted half of the failed students. ( would those young people have learnt from this experience? That they are good enough to decide what they deserve and then get it by any means?
No one is willing to be judged by their capabilities or their limitations, but everyone wants to be accepted at their own valuation. How is it possible?
'Judge not, lest ye be judged' has given way to, 'Judge not me, for I am judge enough'.

Surely the adults who grow out of this kind of childhood will have expectations of winning everywhere. We are a civilization that is waiting for prizes, freebies and goodies at every corner; because we think we are entitled to them. We are unable to handle disappointments, or worse, defeat. Take a look at the raging mobs that take to the streets after lost elections or lost cricket matches. Take a look at the numbers of disappointed students committing suicide after exam results are announced. Take a look at the rising numbers of cases of depression.

The older religions preached acceptance. At its worst, their outlook was fatalistic, and human beings were perceived as helpless victims in the hands of the gods -- who were very often personifications of the elements. Life on earth at the time when these beliefs were taking shape, and indeed even much later, was a daily struggle for survival : for food, for shelter, and for medicine. Human endeavour often met with defeat. Tragedy strengthened the human spirit and the resolve to fight and win.

In an age when every material thing appears to be so readily available and within reach, it becomes difficult to accept that there is still much that can’t be bought or had for the asking.
Expectations are big, and so are disappointments. The new lifestyle gurus preach the old mantra of acceptance, equanimity and austerity. Will we ever learn?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Rover:Circulating Library

When I met one of my great nieces, a charming three year old, I thought she was just the right age to have a pet dog or a kitten. Jaisri, her mother, told me how much she'd like it too, but she also said it would be very difficult to keep and care for a pet in their flat in London. It would be even more difficult to find someone to care for the pet when they went away on holiday.

Now that is a point. Who would take on someone else's dog for a few weeks?We had a friend, Dada, who kept a Great Dane. Dada's leave was due and he went to another friend Joy's place to ask him if he could take care of his dog for a month when he was away. Over drinks and dinner, Joy, a really good natured chap, agreed. Dada invited Joy around to make the necessary introductions. Joy took one look at the valued pet and told Dada that he, Dada, could stay with him for a month, or two, or even six, but as for the dog, well, why didn’t he just send the dog on leave instead? Joy told the story with great enjoyment, stretching his arms out wide to show us how large the Great Dane was!

There are some people who dislike animals and some others who swear a home with a cat or a dog smells distinctly nasty.It isn’t easy for dog lovers to understand how anyone can dislike, or worse, actually be afraid of dogs! I was terrified of dogs and swore I'd never have one, when I was in my twenties. My husband, Mohan, who doesn’t believe in wasting time with words, simply brought a pup home one day and made me forget my fear of dogs completely in a few weeks’ time. That was really gutsy of him -- had the experiment backfired, I wouldn’t have let him forget it in a hurry. It isn’t possible to do things like that in a big city where living space is limited, where all the adults go to work, and where a family travels a lot.

My Dad once propounded the idea of a sari library for ladies who believed in never repeating a sari to a party. That was a very long time ago. His term 'Sari Library' was a hit, and I remember how tickled his listeners were! Why not a Pet Library? How wonderful to be able to borrow a dog! To take a dog home for some time every day!

First, there would be training; in this case not for the dogs alone but for the people who wanted to take them out. A trainer would teach you the basics of caring for dogs, and you might have to clear a test before you became a regular member. There could be a short term issue scheme, where a dog could be taken out for the evening, just to play with, for a few hours. Then there could be a scheme – for advanced readers -- where a dog could stay with a family for a few days and nights. It could be brought to their home every day first, and then be fed a meal, in its own bowl, over there. It could then be moved in, with its own bedding, for the number of days settled upon. A trainer from the Library could look in once a day to see that all was well.Experts would be on the lookout for additions to the library, and they would pick up little pups to train to go 'visiting' once they were old enough. (Even the new additions to this library would be, well, dog-eared!)

The Pet Library could also work well for people who wanted to find temporary homes for their pets when they were away on holiday, and for those who just wanted someone to walk their dog in the evenings!

I hope someone is enterprising enough to pick up this idea and make it work!I can only foresee one problem and that is of a child, or children, refusing to return the pet to the library! How would one explain the idea of temporary ownership of a dog to a child? That would call for some thought. Parents, work your way around this one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Reflections of an Evening

In Delhi, in the seventies, we used to look out for sunsets in the monsoon and post-monsoon months of August and September without fail. In a big and dry city like Delhi, rain was incredibly energetic. It was always a bonus; it brought high spirits, and it spelt romance. Spells of rain never lasted too long, and when they ended by evening, we got the additional treat of a sunset to enjoy and remember.

Evening curfew for a young girl like me in those days was lighting-up time. As soon as the street lights came on, I had to be home. What lovely late evening twilights we had. The light would fade slowly and grandly out of the sky, lingering until the clouds and trees were dark silhouettes. In my imagination, those banked up clouds on the horizon, black and purple masses, were mountains. The return home at the street light hour was followed by prayers in the back verandah. The puja was in the store room that opened off it. The back verandah would be lit only by the fading daylight and the storeroom was beautiful in the dark. It was comforting and yet exciting, and there were many smells that filled it: the sharp smell of the scrubbed brass villakku or the smoky smell of burnt oil wicks, the scent of goodies stored in big biscuit tins, and agarbatti, which dominated, and then took over my senses with its calming effect so that my troubles -- homework undone or a test the next day-- would be washed away. Only the comfort and the safety of my parents' home would remain.

It was remarkable that one could connect to nature in such a profound way in the heart of Delhi.

That was a long time ago, and the habit of enjoying a few quiet moments gathering one's thoughts at the end of the day remains. On some evenings, the day seems to die, and it has a melancholy feel. On other days, there is only a feeling of peace. Today, I was sitting outside our house and looking at the Bhutan Himalayas, purple and black masses against the Northern sky, and I dreamed they were the clouds of my Delhi childhood. One peak stood out sharply defined, perfectly symmetrical, and in the foreground, a gulmohar leaf swayed in the silent breeze. It could have been a calendar picture of Mt.Fuji with a leaf etching in front.

It rained all afternoon after an incredibly hot and sticky morning. The thunder was deafening and it was a really dramatic, high intensity storm. It cleared the air magically. By four o'clock, the sky was washed blue and the hills stood out in clear relief. I walked down to the National Highway -- a straight road leads to it from my house - at about five o'clock, with my head turned right to see the hills. They were silhouettes; I couldn’t see the trees on them at all, but I could see the ranges layered out distinctly. Where the sky met the hills, it was a lighter blue than anywhere else; almost whitish, and luminous. The silence that settled around this spectacle made me imagine it was a pre-dawn scene, as if something big was about to happen soon.
Back from my walk, I sat outside on a swing, with our patient and undemanding dog Simba at my feet. There was a gentle breeze blowing. Birds had returned to their nests and fallen silent. A truck rumbled past on the highway, but it wasn’t an unwelcome sound.

The sound of children playing somewhere in the distance was missing today. It is a typical evening sound. Once I was among children who played in the evenings out in the open, watching anxiously for the lights on the lampposts. Then, as a young adult, I remember sitting and daydreaming on the front steps in the evening and listening to a sad song about a lonely man watching the children play. I sit alone now and the children who played in this garden when they were little have left home. Home and childhood may seem very far away to them too. The complete tranquility and simplicity of those childhood years is lost for ever, but at moments such as these, one can recapture traces of it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Same Garden, Some Other Time

(Diary Entry for March 19th -- A Thank You Note to Raja, my garden's patron/sponsor, which never got completed or sent. No doubt I was lazing in the sun gawping at the flowers.)

This year I've felt as if I lived in Buddha Jayanti Park, with the abundance and profusion of flowers around here. The Phlox, Calendulas and Snapdragons are each one and a half times the size of normal blooms. It is a garden of enhanced sensory delights, with everything bigger, better and brighter than its everyday self. It’s like 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, or 'Magical Mystery Tour', or some garden Lewis Carroll may have created where a flower could turn around and stretch its limbs luxuriously or even growl if we get too close.

Keats was a great guy for descriptions and I think he must have imbibed some of the stuff that gently assists the imagination. He could sit for hours and stare at a patch of sunlight on a wall, perfectly entranced. This was in Italy, where he went for the sunshine when he was dying of tuberculosis. I learnt all this at Mrs Malathi Verma’s lectures in college.I listened to her with my mouth open I’m sure.

Keats has captured the stupor that arises out of satisfaction. That comes to mind when I roam around a garden which is full of overpowering scents as well as the slight, not unpleasant smell of the first trace of rot that sets in with fulness. 'Ripeness' was an idea that Keats loved. The beauty of excess is one of a kind. He talks of trees whose boughs are bent with the weight of fruit. To watch the profusion of flowers overflowing from pots and boxes, to see stalks that are bent over with the weight of their over ambitious and utterly voluptuous blooms is a delight to be savoured in the same spirit; in the atmosphere of self indulgence.

His 'To Autumn' is all about the beauty of a natural idyll where every growing thing in nature has reached its prime and is just moving past it. The word that comes to mind is 'surfeit'. There is this marvellous sense of having over indulged.The bees themselves in Keats' poem are opiate and drowsed.The repeated cold spells we've had through late February and early March have kept our blooms alive and bursting out of their beds and borders. Had we had normal weather, the plants would have been scorched by an already relentless sun. Funny to think that that is really the reverse of what happens in Keats’ poem, where extended sunlight is a bonus!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Idylls in the Park

The best ever, the garden where I wrote this piece

Anyone who has access to a garden or a park is lucky.

I think of a garden as a thing of wide open spaces, trees, shrubs and flowers. Only a lucky few own such places. A walled patch of grass with a few rigid flower beds is no substitute. An ideal garden should not be perfect. The mind must be as free to wander in a garden as a body is. A garden must nudge the wanderer’s imagination, and not overwhelm the mind with impressions. It must not aim for perfection, or it loses its individual character.

Jane Austen uses the analogy of gardens most effectively to illustrate her ideas on morality and human nature. In Pride and Prejudice, the gardens at Rosings, the stately home of Darcy's forbidding aunt Lady Catherine de Burgh, are monumentally artificial and reflect both snobbery and sterility. On the other hand, Darcy's home, Pemberley, is a place where the natural order prevails and where Nature takes precedence over design. Pemberley becomes a metaphor for all that is good in England and in society. Jane Austen abhors artifice in natural surroundings as much as she does in human nature. In all her books, a perversion of the natural order reflects a perversion in human nature.
Indian Sage makes up this beautiful border

Of course, there are anomalies inherent in the very idea of a garden – it is something cultivated after all, and it requires skilful cultivation to preserve the appearance of the natural. In all fairness, human nature must be similarly 'cultivated' with education and good manners.

A good garden should have nothing artificial in it. Fountains, bridges, walkways, arched gates, and so on simply ruin a good garden. I would exclude ponds from this list if they are water-lily or lotus ponds and are in use as such. A garden, I feel, should follow a strictly natural course; that is, it should have in abundance the vegetation that is natural to the region.

Experts who have studied the trees of Delhi have discovered that a large number of alien species were imported over time by successive rulers. However, the 'sarkari' roundabouts, gardens and parks of Delhi are good examples of sensible selection and planting.

All of North India has a cold season, the season of flowering annuals. Gardens everywhere display bright and beautiful blooms, starting with chrysanthemums from mid-November, and going on to dahlias, calendulas, asters, pansies, phlox petunias, and sweet peas, that bloom till March. I stop with a few names because I could go on in a breathless litany. When I was younger, I lived for the cold weather season, when I could start planning and planting my favourites, including some flowers I remembered from my childhood home like hollyhocks, sweet sultana and verbena, and linums and Californian poppies that reminded me of the gardens in school.

As the years have gone on, I have begun to appreciate the true value of 'native' vegetation in profusion in the ‘off’ season – say during the height of the monsoon when flower beds are empty. Ixoras, hibiscus, musandas, cannas, ground orchids, arum lilies, portulacas, coleus, begonias and sanchezias, stray balsams and crocuses in huge batches of pink, white and yellow simply grow without any assistance. The 'common’ variety of gardenias that are used for Puja fill the bushes with white blooms and we don’t miss the hibiscus and frangipani that grow only when there is sunlight. Heliconias and tiny ornamental bananas grow like a small forest without any help at all.

Unseasonal chikoos were the sweetest surprise of this year’s monsoon, and huge green limes added colour and flavour to dull grey days. There were guavas, but the parrots in our garden are as bright and lovely as the fruits, and they get to them before we can. I like the idea of the garden being a home to birds and other creatures, as well as a refuge and source of delight to human beings.
Where Simba ran free and was laid to rest in 2018

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Guilt Hormone : An appeal to women to stop revelling in guilt!

(Published in The Statesman, 6 February 2006. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

Why do we women feel guilty about so many things? We almost seem to enjoy taking the blame for anything that goes wrong, and we constantly try to appease those whom we imagine we have wronged. Invariably, these feelings arise in connection with our husbands and our families!

I just spoke to a fifty something grandmother who is an amazing woman, mother and sister -- my sister, in fact. She is brilliant at her work and at home, and she makes new friends every day--and keeps them. She built her career from scratch, starting to work full time for the first time at the age of thirty-six. She is now an expert in her field and works six days a week when she's not working seven, for about ten to fourteen hours a day. She travels extensively, inside the country and out, and sometimes does four trips a week if the need arises. Her work centres around cancer patients, and she brings hope, happiness and very often a chance of life to thousands of people. She was feeling guilty that she doesn’t spend enough time at home!
As someone who hasn’t worked full time in the last twenty years, I've always admired her drive, her energy, her discipline and her sense of commitment. Also her confidence and her complete lack of vanity. She can do with three hours of sleep in a night if someone--friends, family or anyone connected with work--needs her. She keeps in touch with patients over the phone and answers every call with a smile in her voice, no matter what time of the day or night the call comes in. And there are scores of calls in a day.

I'm amazed at the complete absence of the self congratulatory in her character, but I am stunned at the way she pulls herself up when she feels she has hasn’t done enough. I sometimes think that if she'd been a man, she'd have come home grouchy, stomping and yelling at everyone to keep quiet, switch off the TV and answer the damn phone for a change! I can’t understand why she feels guilty about anything. Once, she told me she felt bad that she didn’t make all her Diwali sweets at home as she used to before she started working. I asked her how many women she knew who made their Diwali sweets at home had done even a fraction of the things she did, and how many women made Diwali sweets at all when you could go out and buy them. And were Diwali sweets that important anyway?

It isn’t silly or funny that cooking-- or not cooking--is one of our greatest guilt trips.
I have apologised to one or the other of my children at the end of a meal which didn’t really taste just like mother (and gosh, in some cases my mother, not theirs) usually makes and I have actually promised to make it up to them! Now the important thing here is that the guilt doesn’t arise out of an accusation, it comes from within. What gives birth to it? Generations of voices in our blood, telling us we have to be good, we have to take care of home, husband and children, and put ourselves last? Possibly. The woman I'm talking about is loving, caring and competent and doesn’t have anything to reproach herself with. But the guilt has woven itself into our characters and really, life seems to lose something without it!

Guilt alone is pardonable (Oh great, now we have to feel guilty about feeling guilty!) If we feel a twinge of it, we can pull ourselves up and tell ourselves to snap out of it and quick. It's appeasement we've got to watch out for. Sometimes you slave and kill yourself over something that nobody really wanted or expected. And you end up feeling that no one appreciates what you do. That leads to a whole new set of complications.

Some solutions:
Tell yourself -- and others, when required -- that you are a person, not a service.
Remind yourself that no one is paying for the service, it is all about caring and sharing in a family.
If it must be called a service, well, then somedays service can and will be lousy; it tends to be in so many places. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes.
If some people are impossible to please, stop trying to please them.

And last, put your feet up once in a while and reflect.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan

We have some beautiful old bungalows in the Dooars. Not all of them are cared for as they should be, because they belong to gardens which have, sadly, closed down.

Living in tea as we do, we tend to let ourselves be ruled by a code. It's not 'done' to barge in to a garden without informing the manager beforehand, not if you're going to take a look at a bungalow on his property. But what do you do when there is no manager? You barge in anyway. I first heard about the beauty of Samsing Bara Bungalow soon after I got married, twenty years ago. Someone asked my husband to be sure to take me there, as it was 'One of our best bungalows in the Dooars'. Samsing had belonged to Duncans, the company for which my husband then worked, and it had been sold a short while before I came to Dooars. People I met from Duncans spoke as if they'd lost a limb when they spoke of its loss. Soon after, however, the GNLF agitation took off and Samsing was one of the hotbeds of trouble. Perhaps Duncans was better off without it anyway! No one spoke of it now. Samsing borders on Darjeeling. Now that I've seen that border for myself, I realize that crossing over from Darjeeling District into Samsing Tea Garden would have been the easiest thing for the troublemakers to do.

To my surprise, our driver knew how to get there. My brother, who is a keen traveller and who shares our love for the Dooars, was with me. Within an hour of leaving home we were at the garden. I felt a little foolish, not at the thought of going off just to see a bungalow and not someone living in it, but at the thought of having lived so close to this place for so many years and never having been there! Chulsa subdistrict is one of the prettiest places in the Dooars. The Dooars wind from the banks of the Teesta eastward, bordered on the North by the Himalayas. Darjeeling District ends when you cross Chulsa forest, and the hills to the North are then Bhutan hills. Chulsa's gardens are up on a hill, and you get a lovely view of the plains from many of them. I'd been told that Samsing offered something even better, a view of the Darjeeling hills.

Once we entered the garden we started climbing downhill. I'd imagined we'd go higher and higher and probably find the bungalow on a peak. We wound down until we were just a few hundred feet above ground. We saw a large number of happy looking schoolchildren on their way home from school. There were signs of life and occupation everywhere, and it didn't look like an abandoned garden. We found that we'd reached the bungalow sooner than I expected. Like many Bara Bungalows of old, it presented its rear to approaching onlookers! There was a lovely old set of gateposts, solidly built, and surprisingly, freshly coated with choona. The gates were locked but were opened as soon as the driver uttered the magic words, 'Bagaan ka Memsaab aaya hai.' The road wound up from the gate, to bring us to the front of the bungalow.
It came as a shock. We were at the edge of a precipice. The front lawn just fell away into a gorge, and this huge hill loomed in front of us. What a location for a bungalow! It seemed to stand at the edge of the world. Ahead, there was this beautiful hill, with one face sloping down into the plains, covered in tea, and the remaining area terraced into paddy fields. We were quiet, and struck with wonder. That hill in front of us must be a part of Darjeeling. The bungalow servant who'd been sweeping the compound confirms this. The garden on which we look out is Kumai, which is at one end of Chulsa forest, but falls, interestingly, in Darjeeling District.

I turn to face the bungalow. To my relief, it isn't a crumbling old ruin. Far from it. It is a chang bungalow, and there are beautiful arches supporting the structure, no ugly stilts. The lower portion is covered in a beautiful dark green creeper. Grand steps lead up to the verandah and the house looks majestic. Its proportions are pleasing to the eye. It is majestic, but not pretentiously imposing. In short, it looks like someone's house, where you might live or visit, and not just a bungalow.

If you could allow yourself to see the house in your mind's eye as it might have been many years ago, with its roof freshly painted and potted plants all over the verandah, you'd think what a proud hostess the lady of Samsing would have been.

The house must wait, while we walk out on the lawn, towards the edge of the compound. Mercifully the compound isn't fenced in. There are blooming bougainvilleas there instead, and what we in North Bengal tend to call a 'Bhiew Point'. When we reach the middle of the lawn, we hear the river. I wonder what it must have felt like, for all the lucky people who ever occupied this house, to live in the Dooars and look out over Darjeeling, and to have the Murti river flowing in a gorge hundreds of feet below you, at the edge of your own garden!

We reach the view point and look down into the deep gorge and see the lovely river rushing past. Again, I get the feeling of being at the edge of the world. There is nothing now but the hills and their silences, and the gurgling music of the river. It is a moment of perfect peace. I wish I could hold this forever. That is not to be, of course.

Here is the eighty five year old mali come hurrying out from somewhere at the sight of visitors. He wants to talk about old times. The words, 'bagaan ka memsaab aaya' have worked their magic again. He is delighted when my brother greets him with a smiling namaste and congratulates him on his lovely garden. The old man shows us the camellias he'd planted and tended. There were so many colours then, he said, and now all the bushes have been pruned and never bloom at all.

With a silent apology to the spirit of the house for intruding, we climb the steps and enter. We cant help stopping to gaze at the lovely view again. But there's much to look at in the verandah, too. The tea table is lovely, large and circular, with beautifully carved legs. There are matching chairs. All they need is a bit of restoration. The floors are wooden, lovely and even, with no sign of warping or damage, even though they haven't seen a tin of polish in many years! A TT table stands in the verandah. One can imagine what happy afternoons children would have spent here. We could see the steps that had been cut into the lawn leading to the tennis court on the right. All that's left of it is one wall.

In the drawing room, we ignore the torn curtains and sagging upholstery and look instead at the beautiful French windows. We come across another delight—a chest, which a Chinese carpenter had made. The former paniwala who's showing us around opens it for us with some pride and shows us that it used to be a liquour cabinet! The dining room has some lovely old pieces which , we are told, were the work of the same 'Chinia Mistry'.The French windows in the drawing room and master bedrooms must have filled the house with light and air, and there must have been so much to look at, out in the compound.

Each room has a fireplace and all the bedrooms have skylights. The skylights are interestingly constructed, and no direct rays of the sun would have entered the rooms. Each skylight is carefully covered in wire mesh from the outside—surely to keep out bats and birds! The chimney stacks on the roof are beautiful too. We were pleasantly surprised to see that all the walls were freshly painted. This was done courtesy a film unit, we are told, which was stationed here some weeks ago to shoot a Bengali film.

The kitchen, at the end of the house, is beautifully sunlit. What feasts must have been prepared here for catering at Chulsa Club! What grand parties Samsing would have hosted! It looks like a house where people lived happily. There is a sense of its being ready for occupation again in spite of the shabby curtains and unpolished floors.

We in tea are a little behind the times when it comes to evaluating the riches that we hold. In a world that's raring to buy nostalgia, aren't we sitting on a gold mine? 'Shall we buy this house?' asks my brother. Just the house, not the troublesome garden, of course, he adds. Well, just suppose we did. And we had a tea bungalow running, you know, for tourists who'd be willing to pay a packet for the entire tea experience, with all its ceremony and style.

Breakfasts at nine, complete with fruit and juices from a newly invigorated Mali Bari. Carefully planned lunch menus, curries alternating with cold spreads. Bearers in spanking new livery, with the Samsing crest. Someone dressed up as Burra Saab coming stomping in and changing out of his kamjaari shoes, eating his meal and entertaining the guests with tales of the leopard in Section No.6. Only to dash off in his jeep again, to cool his heels and rehearse the dialogues for his next appearance, at tea time. English tea, presided over very correctly by a very proper Burra Memsaab, but served with Indian hospitality, nice and warm. Can you picture it all? We laugh at the way we let our ideas carry us away, but we realize there is a market for this kind of thing, and that it could well save Samsing!

I wept for a lost world when I stood at the view point overhanging the Murti. Sometimes a place can do a lot to you. It doesn't really need people in it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tee Time Tale

(Published in The Statesman, December 26, 2005. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

In all my forty three years, I've never won a prize at games. And today, a beautiful November Sunday, I won at golf (category: Novices and Beginners). It amazed me and it has stunned my family into a respectful silence.

I spent my entire school life trying to get out of the way of basketballs, soft balls and cricket balls that classmates aimed at me. With one hand holding my spectacles in place, I would run to a corner of the field and look out anxiously for missiles. There was a reason why I didnt get into trouble with the PT and games teachers. One rainy July morning when we were in Class V, PT had to be taken indoors in a classroom. The teacher gave us a dictation test of sports related words. I was the only girl who could spell 'Calisthenics' and 'Eurythmics' in a class of forty. That didn’t actually win me exemption from the dreaded ball games, but the teachers tolerated me and ignored me until I passed out from school. It was a great relief to me.
I'm no sportsperson, and I'm a terrible traveller as well, which is why it is hard to believe that the prize that was awarded to me was for the best Long Drive.

I didnt play the match. Those who did played 36 holes over two days. I only entered for the long drive, pitch and putt competitions at the insistence of friends who wanted me to do it for a lark. I wasn't so sure. Go and make a fool of myself on the golf course in front of all those people? I said yes, anyway, getting carried away by all the high spirits and good natured fooling that always goes on at Ladies’ Meets. My old friend Lizzy has a kind heart and she knew I was really feeling terrified deep down inside. She took me aside, pressed a club into my hands and spoke to me calmly and patiently before sending me out into the field. Her words played over and over in my head. 'Eye on the ball. Forget everything else. Just keep your eye on the ball.' My guru's advice paid off.

It was Wodehouse's stories that first attracted me to golf. His golfing stories capture all the beauty of the links: the expanse, the sense of leisure and the silences. The golf courses in the Dooars, where I live, are all located below the foothills of the Himalayas, and two or three of them lie along riverbeds. There is a sense of nature in repose on these courses and I have enjoyed many walks on them. Needless to add, when there were no golfers sending balls whizzing around me.

There is a woman in a Wodehouse golf story who is a tennis player. The hero, a strong, silent four handicapper worships her, but vows to make her a golfer before he weds her. On her first session on the course, she tees off without a care. To her amazement, her ball sails away for yards and yards. She is hooked to the game for life.

I too hit the first ball without a care. After all, I had nothing to lose. Everyone knows I'm no golfer. I saw it sail away into the distance in a perfect arc as if it had a life of its own. Disbelieving and filled with wonder, I attempted the next shot. And went to pieces, trying to live up to my own performance.

Shot number 2 was disqualified. At number 3 I pulled myself up a bit -- with friends yelling encouragement -- and managed to achieve contact; a feat in itself, and distance, if not direction.Direction -- yes, I have a sense of one as of today. I have an answer to that question that all unemployed people dread, 'What do you do ?' I shall say, 'I play golf'.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Late Reading of Henry James' The Portrait of A Lady

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

Isabel Archer is a woman of high intelligence who meets a series of people who feel that she has a great future. She hasn’t the means or the opportunity to make this happen. She doesn’t even desire it. A number of people, who begin to love her after they get to know her, become providers and facilitators. She lacked exposure; she is taken under her aunt's wing and she travels abroad. She lacked means; she is bequeathed a fortune. She lacked opportunity; a number of well endowed patrons and suitors offer her all they have. She is empowered.

None of her friends, relations or acquaintances believes she has a fault. Her creator, however, distances himself (and the readers) from Isabel and we see her with all her faults. This is the strong point of this novel. Isabel is wilful, opinionated, misguided and blind to several things which are obvious to characters with far less intelligence. She has lofty ideals and her goal in life is an idealised abstraction of perfection. She loses touch with reality, transferring her perceptions to other people's minds. She isn’t so much the innocent abroad as the self deluded victim of her own flawed, blinkered vision. However, these are only aspects of her character.

In spite of every opportunity and sufficient means, Isabel proceeds to make a horrible mistake and marry a fraud who only wants her fortune. She makes errors of judgement and befriends all the wrong people. A few years after a brilliant future was predicted for her, her young life is a mess, and all prospect of happiness ruined.

There are people who do things, and there are people to whom things happen. For the first time, I saw this novel as the tragedy of the people of the second kind. Could Isabel have prevented the disaster which overtook her life? Can anyone control the direction which life takes?It isn’t just the flaws in her character which lead to all her suffering. It is also the series of unfortunate events that follow one after another. Things 'happen'. Besides, the world is full of 'other people', and their actions affect every individual. No one can control the entire world around them and if things go wrong, it isn’t always for want of trying.

And yet, at every point Isabel had a choice and made the wrong choice. Would the right choices have guaranteed that she lived a life without sorrow? That's too metaphysical a question for this train of thought! The people who care for Isabel feel betrayed by her unrealised potential and unfulfilled promise. The seeds of greatness are gone to waste. There are many Isabels in real life. There are artists and performers, or sportspersons or leaders who never quite make it to the top or anywhere near there. For those who watch them with a sense of expectation, it is tragic.

Of course, both greatness and tragedy are perceptions, not absolutes. Isabel was perceived to be great. Readers of the novel perceive the conclusion as a tragedy. The character herself may think otherwise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cricket : Only Make or Break?

Why does cricket bring out the worst in our characters? Why is there such a disproportionate involvement in the outcome of the World Cup matches? Why is there such an exaggerated display of public idolatry? It is matched only by the equally huge waves of hatred against fallen idols when they fail to perform. Why does the public need icons whom they can love and hate at the same time?

The miserably tasteless and jingoistic TV commercials in the run up to the World Cup are followed by an outpouring of wrath and hatred against team members at the first defeat that they suffer. Everything is larger than life. The emotions, from euphoria to rage, are unnaturally overplayed and expectations from the players are exaggerated. Undoubtedly, the players should do their best; they should play honestly and honourably, and above all, for the sake of the team and the country. Let's pause and remember that it is a game, and that victory and
defeat can surprise any of the teams!

There is this tidal wave of hatred and violence against the absent cricketers and sometimes there are attacks upon their homes. The burning of effigies and posters has now become such a thing of routine that it is almost considered acceptable behaviour! Scathing and vituperative remarks are aired everywhere about the volume of earnings of each player from endorsements. Allegations that a player's attentions were all diverted towards his endorsement campaigns are aired freely and resentful comments are made about the 'lavish' lifestyles of these 'stars cricketers'. It reflects very poorly on the Indian national character.

Why do the television news channels give so much coverage to the screaming, outraged men who burn effigies and posters in a wild ecstasy of rage? It is a frightening image. There is an ugly aggression in the men as they turn upon symbols of the absent targets of their emotion. These are probably men who brawl and beat their wives, or terrorise all the members of their families in their little tin pot kingdoms at home where their victims shiver and shuffle around them, dreading their displeasure and submitting to the misery of routine oppression.

A cricketer who plays for the Indian team does earn a lot of money but the public doesn’t pay for it all. Why not turn this inner rage and frustration against those who must learn to fear it? This anger is dangerously destructive and it betrays an inner sense of inadequacy and under achievement. It should be sublimated into a positive energy which is directed against evil forces that can and should be eradicated from our social and political environments. I'm talking about those who are elected to public office, who promise to work for the public good, and who are paid from taxpayer's money. Why doesn’t the public react with righteous rage when these 'stars' cheat and rob and fail to perform at every occasion?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reign of Error -- or, Rule of Flaw ?

(Published in The Camellia, April-June 2007. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

The number of people who speak bad English with ease never ceases to amaze me. They are often as fluent as their language is flawed; they are confident and completely unselfconscious. Many of them are on television and FM radio, addressing thousands and thousands of listeners, and they are either unaware of the mistakes they're making, or they just don’t care. This is in contrast to the many who still bother to check up with a reliable source every time they're in doubt over the meaning, pronunciation or usage of a word, or have to use some new or unfamiliar word.

And then, there is the amount of badly written English that is all around us. Our newspapers and magazines provide scores of examples every day. Do you grit your teeth or wince every time you read the words ‘Whole Seller' , 'inspite', 'despite of'', 'as because’, ‘ more better' or 'Wel-come'? I even came across ‘the latter of the three'. Sometimes the repeated instances of wrong usage confuse me and make me wonder if I'm the one who's in the wrong. The most recent example of this that I've come across is 'calling it quits' which now seems to be used to mean quitting. Doesn't it mean the same as 'bury the hatchet'? But when errors abound around you, it is easier to assume that you are mistaken and that everyone else is right. And eventually, the mistake which irked us at one time simply passes into daily usage and nitpickers like me carry on collecting new examples to share with fellow sufferers!

Whatever anyone's response to the incorrect use of the language, there is a question which comes up : how important is it to speak and write perfect English ? Secondly, what is perfect English? Is it-- or isn’t it -- enough to make yourself understood, to communicate facts and convey information correctly? Must we condemn Hinglish or Punglish, and then Japlish, Chinglish and Spanglish as well? Purists are a tiny minority and the English language has relaxed its rules so as to become more inclusive. It wouldn’t proliferate or evolve if it didn’t. It is a most democratic language today.

English is everywhere around us, not only in recorded forms of speech and in print, but on shop and road signs and packets of products of soap, salt and biscuits. So even people who have never been taught to read English identify these products with ease and learn to read these names, at least. It is quite a remarkable thing when you think of it. Suppose one of the by products of the Freedom movement had been an eradication of all the signs written in the coloniser's language?

There was a time when English was only for the privileged classes. Members of the privileged set received a good education and a good deal of exposure to the culture of England. They developed to some extent an English outlook arising from their familiarity with English books and ideas. So there was this Indian self, and an English sensibility that many people developed. In British India, and for some decades after, there was much confusion in the minds of educated, thinking, individuals. V.S.Naipaul has made this conflict of dual identities one of the key issues in his wonderful novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, which I read again and again in my youth. I would have died before I read a Tamil magazine, however. An entire world is now shut out for me because of this refusal to learn to read my mother tongue. As youngsters we were dedicated enthusiasts of Western Music as well. (And that is where America displaced England in our hearts.) It shocked me when I realised some years ago that this post colonial conflict of identities is a complete non issue in today's world. By the time my children grew to the age when I wanted them to read A House for Mr. Biswas, I realised there was nothing there that they could relate to or find relevant.

Besides, it is America, and not England, the country of our former rulers, that has become the centre of the English speaking world.

The use of English, correct or incorrect, doesn’t interfere with anyone's sense of ethnic or national identity any longer anywhere in the world.

We Indians have a very deep love for this language. There's a sense of national pride in the numbers of English speaking people in the country, as opposed to countries where the majority of people speak only their own language. People who speak in English in our country are still a privileged lot, in a way. They are trusted and respected. They command instant attention when they speak. They’re considered 'smart'. Knowledge of English is seen as the gateway to a better life, generally.
That is why there are generations of children of uneducated parents who attend English medium schools. They receive instruction in English not only as a subject of study, but as the sole medium for learning about and understanding the mysteries of the universe. I have taught children like these and they often submit essays where every sentence is a set of correct words strung together incorrectly. At every step, the child thinks in the language which is spoken at home, and then translates. It is a laborious process and it makes for laborious reading. It is foolish to try and teach them the Queen's English. We must hope for simpler and more functional versions of the language for the sake of children like these.

I wish I could forget my days of English Language teaching and completely ignore all the mistakes that just leap out and scream for my attention every day.

16th March, 2007
I was happy to read the piece below in today's 'TheStatesman'. It makes an appeal for an easy to learn brand of the English language based on the needs of the students. Here it is :

‘Teach Hinglish & Chinglish’
Press Trust of India LONDON, March 15: Newcomers to Britain should not be taught English but cultural mixes such as Hinglish, Chinglish and Spanlish which should be part of the curriculum, a think tank suggested today. The Demos think-tank considered “Imperial” English out-dated and believed it should adapt to the global reach of the language. It said the English taught in schools should have a much more global flavour. It said the government’s call for newcomers to learn standard English are misplaced. “Instead, they should be encouraged to learn blends such as Hinglish (Hindi/Punjabi/ Urdu-English), Chinglish (Chinese-English) and Spanglish (Spanish-English) which is widespread in America, where it is also called Tex-Mex.” Earlier this week, Commons leader Mr Jack Straw said Asian women should learn English before being allowed to settle in the UK. Without it, he said, they would find it impossible to integrate or work. But the Demos report said the language is no longer the preserve of the English, who are “just one of many share-holders in a global asset”.