On fear: The Skinning Tree

A couple of days ago I finished reading The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen, a very evocative account of life at a boys’ boarding school in pre-independence India. Before I tell you more about it, here is an excerpt from the book, where a very young Sabby is being sent away from Calcutta to boarding school in distant Gaddi during the Second World War, for fear of a Japanese invasion.

“The closing of the windows had the effect of weakening his link with home. There was nothing to see outside now but the odd lantern burning in a hut somewhere in the distance and the light from the carriages running along the rails of other tracks and his reflection in the window. He was going goodness knows where and he could not banish the feeling of being alone. He tried to keep on seeing himself in Cal. Sabby didn’t know what exactly his fears were but there seemed to be a lot of them crowding in on him. The world outside was coming right up close in that square and dimly lit compartment. He could not banish thoughts of loneliness from his mind as he could in Cal, make all the dirt and trash and disease, the misery of the city and the crowds he did not want to have in his world disappear. He could not even think of running away to England where he would be among his friends.”

“England” is not a geographic/political entity here. It is an imaginary place in Sabby’s Cal, whose boundaries are the gates and the walls of his grandmother’s property. So, when he goes out on his own with his much wiser friend Henry Douxsaint and gets lost in the crowds on the road, he is petrified. You remember what it is like to be among strangers, cold eyes, unfamiliar bodies threatening to sweep you away. Sabby is terrified of being taken to a basti nearby and being forced to beg. The few seconds that he is separated from Henry for before they find each other again must have felt like a lifetime.

Srikumar Sen brings the fears and the disappointments of childhood to life very vividly. The bullies make Sabby want to cry; the Brothers in their white habits can whip out the strap any time. He hopes that the Easter vacation will make things easier, but then something unforeseen happens. You know what it’s like when vacation plans are thwarted by unexpected circumstances: how do you make a little boy understand when his only concern is to have a good time and the rest of the world doesn’t matter?

The boys at Gaddi can be generous with one another, but they can also be cruel. They talk of murder and killing freely. They don’t feel for people who they think can get them into trouble. Sabby feels soothed by chapel and hymns and the picture cards of Jesus he is given when he is troubled, but has his peace disturbed by the constant fear of punishment he lives with – what if his shoes aren’t cleaned well enough or his counterpane hasn’t been folded correctly? It is a strange world, one I can’t comprehend either. Who should be held responsible, then, for what happens at the end?

For a few days as I read the book, all the dormant fears of childhood came back to life, and they mostly seemed to revolve around school. I haven’t ever seen a strap or a malacca, but I remember the wooden and steel scales that some teachers brandished, the mortification that accompanied even a minor deviation from expectations in terms of marks and ranks. You’d see classmates upbraided in public and feel helpless about it. A slip from your usual level? Why, you must have neglected your studies. You don’t forget your tiffin box at home, why do you forget to do your homework? Why do you need a fancy pen when you can’t do your sums correctly? You can’t protest about too much homework, because you don’t know what is good for you. When you are an adolescent and things get tougher, when you are trying to make sense of certain mysteries, you should know that you are being immoral. Don’t snigger when you are studying about reproductive systems: if you do, it means you have evil thoughts running through your head. (It didn’t matter that we were thirteen and uncomfortable with the changes in our bodies. We couldn’t talk about them. In a co-ed school, it led to some very awkward situations.)

We grow up with fear. Its nature changes as we grow older and gain more control over some situations, but it never seems to go away. I still wake up in the middle of the night, troubled by dreams of having forgotten most of the answers in an important exam. I remember the collective chill that always descended on classrooms when teachers brought along corrected answer sheets- a silence worthy of an operation theatre. But this constant fear might have prepared me for the present, for more grown-up challenges. When I’m slightly apprehensive about something, I think of the pre-engineering years and everything is all right again. I’ll also think of Sabby now, and be glad that I wasn’t sent away to an unfriendly place in anticipation of a war I didn’t understand.

All things Schumacher

Around 2003-04, I remember spending several hours agonising over what I liked better: books or F1. It was an important question and I needed a clear answer to resolve the tangle in my head. For the first time ever, F1 trumped books and as I admitted this to myself a little sorrowfully, I knew there was only one reason for this anomaly – Michael Schumacher. The resounding victories since 2001 stamped Ferrari’s dominance on the sport, and while new pretenders came in, Schumacher’s aura refused to leave even after his retirement.

I have already written quite a few times on this blog about what the Schumacher years meant to me. It wasn’t just about his race victories, but also the discipline and the hunger. My year revolved around F1 calendars; the drivers had their tests on Sundays, I had mine on Mondays. Their winter testing for the start of the season in March was analogous with my preparation for the final exams of the year. The competition and the struggle to reach or stay at the top were things I was experiencing in academics, albeit at a much smaller scale. F1 ceased being “just a sport” to me. Which is why, when people think I’m silly to worry so much about an injured German fighting for his life in a distant hospital, I don’t know how to explain things to them. Some people just won’t get it because they’re too practical or have never idolised anyone or don’t feel as strongly about things. To each his own. But when a man has defined a sport for you to such an extent that its qualities have sometimes been inseparable from life, and inspired you not just through his skills but as a human being, you feel the pain very deeply when you know he’s lying in a coma.

Many of us, all around the world, are praying hard for Michael Schumacher. Messages of support floating around on the Internet remind you how much he has influenced people everywhere. You wake up in the morning with a knot in your stomach, not knowing what has happened overnight. Here in India you have to wait till 3.30 in the afternoon for the morning updates from Europe. Three such days have gone by and the situation is still unclear. But every tiny bit of positive news is a great encouragement and source of strength. It is a relief to be able to discuss things with friends and to have sensible men like Gary Hartstein around, breaking up complex information and answering questions patiently. Michael Schumacher is an all-encompassing thought again, only in a sadly different way. Thankfully the petty stories are beginning to fade away and the regular suspects are done with their foot-in-the-mouth remarks. We now have to settle in for a long, patient, optimistic wait and send out our telepathic messages like we did when he was in a tight spot on the circuit. He has to hear us.

The Eastern Years

“Every time I go home,” says my friend, “I see your house, and Sangeeta’s, and Alaap’s, and Debraj’s. All of you have left, but my parents are still here. You can’t imagine how nostalgic that makes me feel.”

Bokaro feels very distant now. I was six and a half when we first moved there, not quite caring that we were leaving behind a town we had spent six years in. I didn’t know what attachment meant at that age. A transfer was about adventure- a new town, new friends, new school. I joined after the term had already started, and on the first day made two new “best friends”- which meant that, when the English teacher asked us to write a paragraph titled “My Best Friend”, I ended up writing about two new friends. The teacher wasn’t happy and I had to write it again.

But the real best friend was somewhere else. We first met at the bus stop and started talking to each other, realising that we lived close enough for me to join her group at the playground every evening. We were in the same class but not the same section and barely saw each other at school, but we spent a lot of time together in the evening, playing, sharing our secrets, getting our dolls married. Life was as easy and happy as it could be. Exams came and went, but we had other important things to worry about it- which birthday parties should we attend? What gifts did we want to give? I distinctly remember some pink-and-green Milton water bottles being very popular.

It didn’t really bother us then that where we lived wasn’t considered safe. People avoided going out after dark as far as possible- why risk getting mugged? One morning we heard that a man had been murdered at our bus stop. I don’t know if it really happened: 24X7 news channels didn’t exist then. Cable TV was expensive but we had it because there was little else to do- of course, there didn’t seem to be much except endless re-runs of The Bold and the Beautiful, occasionally The Crystal Maze on Star TV. Zee TV had a loud version of Snakes and Ladders, Antakshari and dubbed telecasts of a serial called Celeste. My friend next door refused to come to play on Sunday mornings because he wanted to watch Chandrakanta. My own special TV time was Sunday afternoons- remember when the Bournvita Quiz Contest had the Bookworm and a special guest on every episode? The present version isn’t half as interesting or competitive.

My father bought me my first can of Coca Cola in Bokaro. It was quite a novelty in that little town, almost an event, to be a part of this act of ‘economic liberalisation’. Come to think of it, things were so different then. We didn’t have a telephone at home and would go to the STD booth on the main road to call my Grandmother- only at a particular hour, though, to make calls at one-third the usual rate. Until then, we had communicated with her and other family only through letters. For all our relatives in the south knew, we were on the other end of the planet. They didn’t know what Chhath or Teej was, or why Walls ice cream on trips to Hyderabad was such an exotic delicacy for me. I only wish I’d been old enough then to understand the culture of Bihar (or Jharkhand) better.

Bokaro gave me the first taste of winter- not that it wasn’t cold in Madhya Pradesh, but I remember this better because of the nice bottle-green scarves and gloves, and eventually the blazers that we were allowed to wear once we were all grown-up and in Class 4. Until then, we depended on being extra nice to the senior girls so they would let us wear their blazers on the bus rides home: such a status symbol!

I left Bokaro in 1996. I stayed in touch with just one friend, who kept writing to me even when I was ridiculously lazy and sent me cards on my birthday. We never spoke much about other people because having been in different sections, we didn’t have many friends in common. Then one day, an impulsive search on Facebook brought me back in touch with many classmates from all those years ago, and I was really surprised to learn that they had remembered me- I saw myself only as this person who had drifted in and out of their lives without staying for the momentous occasions. I had once competed fiercely with them for ranks in class- it is a little amusing now that we’re all grown up to think that we had such skirmishes over marks. Getting back in touch with them, it wasn’t like nearly 15 years had passed- all of a sudden, it just didn’t matter that we were all responsible (?) adults.

Having moved around a fair bit, I’ve never had the chance to feel like I’ve put out roots anywhere. However, knowing that these friends from childhood are still around, even though I know little about them, is reassuring. I am probably meant to have a nomadic life for some reason- I’ve studied and worked in six different cities in the past five years. And when you’re caught in the turmoil that constant change can cause (which seems inevitable now), it’s nice to know that you can call someone after six months or two years and pick up where you left off.

Enjoying an Apology

You normally apologise because you are genuinely sorry about something you have done, or because someone else wants you to. Here is an excerpt from LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables – this is the apology that eleven-year-old Anne Shirley made after flying into a rage in front of Mrs Lynde, to appease the Cuthberts who had adopted her.

“Oh, Mrs. Lynde, I am so extremely sorry,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “I could never express all my sorrow, no, not if I used up a whole dictionary. You must just imagine it. I behaved terribly to you—and I’ve disgraced the dear friends, Matthew and Marilla, who have let me stay at Green Gables although I’m not a boy. I’m a dreadfully wicked and ungrateful girl, and I deserve to be punished and cast out by respectable people forever. It was very wicked of me to fly into a temper because you told me the truth. It WAS the truth; every word you said was true. My hair is red and I’m freckled and skinny and ugly. What I said to you was true, too, but I shouldn’t have said it. Oh, Mrs. Lynde, please, please, forgive me. If you refuse it will be a lifelong sorrow on a poor little orphan girl, would you, even if she had a dreadful temper? Oh, I am sure you wouldn’t. Please say you forgive me, Mrs. Lynde.”

Anne clasped her hands together, bowed her head, and waited for the word of judgment.

There was no mistaking her sincerity—it breathed in every tone of her voice. Both Marilla and Mrs. Lynde recognized its unmistakable ring. But the former under-stood in dismay that Anne was actually enjoying her valley of humiliation—was reveling in the thoroughness of her abasement. Where was the wholesome punishment upon which she, Marilla, had plumed herself? Anne had turned it into a species of positive pleasure.

And later, as Anne and Marilla Cuthbert walked home: “I apologized pretty well, didn’t I?” she said proudly as they went down the lane. “I thought since I had to do it I might as well do it thoroughly.”

It is one thing for a young girl to revel in a dramatic apology she has been forced to make while being wholly unrepentant, but quite another for a grown man, a journalist who has made his career by calling people out on their lack of honesty. Clearly, ideals exist so that everyone else can live up to them.

Short stories from the Diary

As a girl, I spent most of my time with my nose buried in books. I wanted to go ice skating with the March sisters in Massachusetts and eat russets- I didn’t care much for apples, but this word had a ring to it- by a cosy fire in Avonlea, or watch the snow falling on a birch-lined road. Because it wasn’t possible in tropical Vizag, I decided to write my own stories and set them in countries I read of.

A few people have told me I should perhaps try writing proper stories, instead of rambling on incoherently- they don’t use these exact words, of course, because people are often more polite than I give them credit for. But you’ll see now, as I tell you of my various brushes with fiction, why I prefer this disjointed style that doesn’t tie me down to a commitment I can barely ever keep. My threadbare plots would never go too far in serious literary circles, and padded with the inanities that I am fond of, they’d be nothing short of sheer torture. But because I spent a good deal of my growing-up years writing stories that will never see the light of day- a massive, serious investment for someone who went around telling people she’d be a writer when she grew up- I might as well tell you how unintentionally comical they turned out. Here is a selection of plots.

Romance
It was never really my forte, and I often laughed at romantic scenes in movies (I still do). But after crying over The Call of the Wild, I was so moved that I decided I wanted to write a story with Canada for a backdrop. The similarity started and ended with the cold, snowy setting. My story featured a deeply in love French-Canadian couple (note the hint of exoticism). The woman was dying of cancer or something else, and her husband was summoned to her hospital bed during a raging storm to be by her side in her last moments. But wonders of wonders! As he whispered goodbye in some words I shall not repeat here, her eyes flickered open and she came back to life from the brink of death. I’m sure they lived pretty long afterwards.

Drama/Tragedy
Home turf. In the early years, I wrote about queens dressed in sequined pink velvet gowns, with diamonds all over their person. This was followed by the conversion of Jane Eyre into a poem, but the crowning glory was a sequel I wrote to Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci. While the poem featured a fairy-lady who seduced men and left them hopelessly in love with her, my story was about a soldier who was somehow immune to her charms but played along and went to her grotto. There, as they were about to “lie together”, as Homer would have put it, the soldier pulled out a dagger and stabbed her to death, even as her ruby blood flowed and the mountains rang with her shrieks. Vestiges of Greek tragedy seeped in as I was reading snatches of The Odyssey around this time.

See also: The Pirates of the Pacific

The Detective Novel
Only slightly less ambitious than my MA dissertation, this was to be my magnum opus and comprised several chapters. When I was about twelve, the purpose of my life was to read as many Nancy Drew novels as possible, so it isn’t difficult to see where the “concept” of this story originated. It featured three American girls hot on the trail of a jewel thief following an engagement party, weaving in numerous peripheral characters so that I could use my dazzling skills to describe their titian hair and aquamarine eyes. When they were not solving the mystery, they were driving around in a blue car and eating ham sandwiches, scones and chocolate cake, and drinking gingerbeer- which seems to have been my way of paying homage to Enid Blyton. Each chapter ended on a tantalising note: the ringing of the phone broke a deathly silence, a knock sounded on the door, or a friend ran into the house crying.

Eventually, the clues led the girls to a wedding where an inopportunely timed snatch landed the thief in hot water. A diamond necklace was stolen and discovered in the thief’s elaborate chignon, turning the girls into instant superstars. All my protagonists (and the criminal) were women, and the cross-cultural influences clearly heralded globalisation.

These, then, are some of the very silly stories I wrote. But I worked very sincerely, spending an hour on them every evening after finishing my homework, even illustrating them. And I’m quite sure I’d have written them even if I knew they’d sound ridiculous some day. I don’t often let practicality get in the way, and it’s a good thing you can’t read my thoughts.

I’ll finish with a few plots that I never really developed, partly because I had not the vaguest idea about the ambitious backdrop I was trying to give them.

Religious charlatans and escapades
A woman finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue at an ashram, where she goes to find peace under a stunning Godwoman. Instead, she uncovers a major drug racket.

Russian spy thriller
Two fugitives flee along the Volga. I can’t remember what they were running away from, or where they were going to find themselves. This must have been when I was getting interested in Robert Ludlum or heard of the KGB, and decided that I had to add a story set in Russia to my repertoire.

Political thriller
A man finds himself in prison because he gets on the wrong side of a powerful political group. Only his lawyer sister can save him now.

Fashion
Excited at India’s success in the beauty pageant industry of the 90s, I was very fond of “designing” evening gowns and swimsuits, even before I could really grasp what a woman’s body meant. But words always took precedence with me, and I began a story about fashion sabotage. Now that I come to think of it, it was also inspired by a Nancy Drew mystery.

We’ll talk about the actual horror stories some other day.

On some irrational dislikes

As someone entering her late twenties, I sometimes get rather despondent about the fact that sportspersons keep getting younger, and it will gradually become difficult to find someone to idolise and place on a pedestal. It might sound silly, but I have always liked my heroes to be older than me, perhaps because it gives me hope that it still isn’t too late and I have plenty of time to do something remarkable. And then, because most of my idols have been male, I wonder if our predilection for younger woman-older man pairs isn’t spilling bafflingly into my hero-worship. But just to shoot this half-baked theory down, I’ll have you know that my current idol is Monisha Kaltenborn, head of the Sauber F1 team.

I spent a good part of my teens loving and hating sportspersons with a passion. I graduated from pasting newspaper photos of Steffi Graf on my bedroom wall to including “Michael Schumacher for World Champion” in my wishlist at temples. Anyone who drove for Ferrari was a man worthy of worship; Williams, McLaren and Renault drivers were mere pretenders with an evil agenda. When Schumacher retired and ex-enemies Kimi Raikkonen, and later Fernando Alonso stepped into his gigantic shoes, I didn’t really mind because they were drivers from the old days. They were men who had started out as young upstarts even as Schumacher entered his twilight years, and brought with them a sense of familiarity, writing themselves into a chapter of my girlhood. It was reassuring to know that they were older than me, and that I would also perhaps be doing something very exciting when I was their age.

Then came Sebastian Vettel, a warrior from a new age. That he was very young and fond of milk when he arrived wasn’t a problem. That he was only slightly younger than me was. I felt the same way about Maria Sharapova, and it was ridiculous because I never wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to write, and an aspiring writer has quite a range of ages to find inspiration from. Sportspersons, on the other hand, have to start peaking while they’re young, and if you have drawn strength from their feats as a youngster, these stories of success sometimes sound almost like a warning bell. They remind you of the dreams you regaled yourself with more than ten years ago, the promises you’ve forgotten to keep, and the places you haven’t seen. You think of the wild hopes that you allowed yourself, not allowing pragmatism to interfere. I kept myself going in the pre-engineering years by dreaming that once I had my engineering degree, I’d be miraculously picked up by an F1 team for some skill that I wasn’t yet aware of. Now, I feel just a little ridiculous indulging in far-fetched dreams. You don’t have to be unhappy or dissatisfied with your life to feel that way; you are just reminded sometimes that things worked out differently, but not worse, than you imagined, and it might have been nice to work with a Formula One team after all.

For some inexplicable reason, I don’t really mind when people about ten years younger than me do spectacularly well at a sport they’ve chosen- I suppose I treat them as the next generation, and therefore as recipients of very different opportunities, growing up in an environment more conducive to their dreams, even if this isn’t entirely true. You might want to tell me it’s plain jealousy, and I’ll agree with that, but I’m sure that’s not all. I’m also certain that I’m not the only one who dislikes the twenties for being all grown-uppish.

Who says things are relentlessly bleak though? For every Sebastian Vettel, there is a Monisha Kaltenborn, and it’s more rewarding to be silly than to be practical. Like Anne of Green Gables said in an entirely different context, “…I’d rather look ridiculous when everybody else does than plain and sensible all by myself.”

Hyderabad, Chapter X

The potholed road has jolted me awake; it feels like being on a camel’s back, rising and falling as the bus struggles along roads ravished by the monsoon rains. A few rows ahead, a man clears his throat noisily and spits- where? This is an air-conditioned bus and the windows can’t be opened. This worries me (what would Ignatius Reilly have said?). I decide to concentrate on the stars instead, plenty of them against a very dark sky, both of which I haven’t really seen since moving to western India over three months ago. The western skies are funny, darkness doesn’t set in until very late, and then it is only a half-hearted sort of night, not the velvety blackness that makes the stars glitter and inspires poetry even in those who can’t write any.

The newly laundered blankets give off a sickening odour; a little while ago, I thought it was someone’s sticky hair oil. Two men share a laugh in front of a little tea shack lit by a solitary bulb. How can there be a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere? (There can be a tea shack in the middle of nowhere, though, make no mistake- just as there are people selling dosas at Nathu-La pass, as I have recently learnt.) Perhaps there’s a railway crossing ahead. I’d like to hear a train cut through the night, hooting and shuffling rhythmically as it bears its cargo of things and hopes and dreams to goodness knows where. But then I won’t be able to hear anything probably- not in this bus which hermetically seals in sighs, snores and stale air.

******

The house at Hyderabad isn’t as large as I thought it was when I was a schoolgirl. The backyard isn’t quite an orchard, and the tank looks painfully tiny to be the sprawling lake that I used to imagine it was, as I pretended to be a boat-girl, a long wooden stick serving for an oar. I made up my own songs and sang them to the trees that slipped by, consorted with the birds and shared special secrets with the water. I dug for “shells” in the mounds of sand left over from some construction work and tucked them away in the purple satin lining of a maroon velvet jewellery box. I wrote stories peopled with handsome princes and gorgeous women in silk and velvet gowns. Oh, I loved the idea of luxury. I feel silly about these memories at times, but I can’t really laugh at that little girl because I still live in my head quite a bit. See, that’s how I can be in Hyderabad whenever I want!

Do you know how, when you’re young and people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, you have a ready answer? Untroubled by any consideration of degrees, capabilities and money, you can easily say teacher or doctor or space scientist. At that point, you don’t realise that you cannot for your life stick a pin into a dead frog or really comprehend Newton’s Laws, and you’re always brimming with hope and promise. Upwards of fourteen, every age is a spoilsport.

The upside to being older? I appreciate Hyderabad better now, and take delight in the beautifully mixed culture that has evolved there. As our bus winds through the city on its way to the outskirts (we are now on the return journey), the skies open up and there is a flurry on the streets. The mosques begin calling the faithful to prayer, male voices overlap in the air, different tunes for the same purpose. Women in burqas hold hands as they hop carefully over culverts and the pools that have already begun forming on the roads. That Eid has just been and gone is evident from the hoardings that various political parties have strategically put up. We pass a line of stalls- kafan shop, agarbatti shop, attar shop. Whitewashed minarets rise from behind them, and a young man watches thoughtfully at the door of the mosque as rainwater gathers in the courtyard. In India, we preserve our traditions over centuries, as we do the infrastructure. See a pothole? Fill it and forget it. The Indus Valley Civilisation with its paved cities must be a myth.

Standing away from the road, separated from a line of shops, is a clean, shiny Zoroastrian Fire Temple. I peer into the dark to understand what the shapes on the sturdy pillars are- they look like lions, but with moustachioed human faces. Zoroastrianism. Persia. Iran. Irani chai. I think of the hordes of people who have migrated in the centuries gone by, crossing vast swathes of land, settling in distant countries but keeping their links with ancient tradition alive. Hyderabad has absorbed all these influences so well, culturally it could be in almost any country this side of Asia.

I want to see the rest of the world, but I think I must start at home.

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