What “small town” India taught me: A love for all humanity

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Indu Ramesh – WNN SOAPBOX

Poomparai Village sits on the the foothills of the Sahyandri Mountain range

Poomparai Village sits on the the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountain range in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu, India.

(WNN) Bangalore, INDIA, SOUTH ASIA: I had to go. I had to go and visit my beginnings. It was decades since I had seen the town, nestling in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountain range.

I remembered very fondly, the small tank full of water which was also the meeting place of the womenfolk of the town. The steps of the tank leading down to the water would be full of women with their copper and brass pitchers. Some would be washing the vessels in one corner with a handful of ash from the woodstoves in their kitchens and also a bit of tamarind to give the vessels a shine.

After washing the vessels the women would go to the other end of the steps. Then they would fill the pitchers with water, hoist them on their waists and walk back to their houses in small groups. The Brahmin Street was about half a kilometer away. The younger women would be talking about their mothers-in-law, laughing at some bawdy joke which someone had made or making plans for the next festival, be it Sankranti or Ugadi or Ganesh puja. That picture of groups of women walking with their sari pallus getting wet by the wet laundry they were carrying on their shoulders had remained in my mind for decades.

That memory was haunting me all these years wherever I would go, during whatever I would do.

It was really a very small town. There was a high school, a local funded hospital along with a doctor who had to come from somewhere else and could never fit into the town’s life. The headmaster of the high school was perhaps the most educated person. Like Tehsildar, the school inspector, they were all outsiders and had their own group. A high point of their day was to go to the small railway station at one end of the city and watch the arrival of the train from Bangalore.

Standing at the station they would know if any high official, from a high office, would be traveling the train on his way to district headquarters the headmaster and the school inspector, and others, would gather in front of the train’s first-class compartment. As soon as the train stopped they would pay their respects to the high official who would get down from the train and talk to them. Standing, looking and listening to this high official respectfully it was only until the high official had gotten back on the train that the train would start to move.

As the train left the station the high school headmaster would talk to the train station master before leaving to the house of one among them to play some cards. Sharing news later that night at dinner the headmaster would comment on “that important official.” Yes he was on the train and yes he came to share some news from the seat of the government office in Bangalore.

My father was one of those officials

As he shifted from one small town to another every three years or so, he came to this place I came to visit.

When I attended a government girl’s school I had no trouble in my studies. Just  across the street was my father’s office. Because he worked in the same department as the teachers in the school they were very friendly.

One morning my mother suddenly discovered I could sing, as she arranged for our school music teacher to begin to teach me music. So it was that every evening I would go to the teacher’s house near the town water tank; learn music for an hour; visit the temple nearby; and come home.

All my friends were from the local school. They thought I was peculiar because I wore clothes which Father would bring back from Bangalore when he went there on his ‘official’ work. I had relatives in the capital city. Sometimes they would come visiting us. That was when the whole town would ogle at them because of their very modern clothes. Some of them even spoke English!

Believing that a ‘big bad world’ existed outside the town, my friends enjoyed talking to each other about everyday happenings in school. They talked about a new teacher or something else happening. But we hardly ever knew what was happening at home since the newspaper from Bangalore came the next day and we children got to see it right after the adults. Anyway the stories in the newspapers were so outlandish for us we never believed them!

With three years up Father was shifted to a smaller town. This new place was located deep in the wet region of the Western Ghats of India, with a population that rose to 1,000 as our family lived there. It was the beginning of the monsoon when we first reached this place in a rickety old bus, open on all sides. The bus windows were secured by a tarpaulin to keep out the rain as an incessant rain beat down.

The country road was muddy

All I could see out of the tarpaulin was water flowing as the wet green leaves of the trees on the side of the road brushed my face and I lifted the edge of the tarpaulin. Mother had packed a basket with all sorts of fried eatables to keep me and my three brothers busy during the bus ride. She opened the basket and passed the eatables around. They had lost their crispness and tasted like cardboard, but we ate them anyway.

That memory of the cardboard tasting chakli haunted me as I was walking in a man-made forest outside Frankfurt, Germany some 35 years later. This memory haunts me even today!

Our new town had no train service. All Father could do in the evenings was to play badminton for a while, then sit in the clubhouse and play cards. The town had no electricity as ‘peons’ were used to go to the clubhouse with lanterns to help bring back the bosses to their houses.

Here I made brand new friends again from the now new high school I attended. Kamala came from a village outside the town and was not available in the evenings. But she could be depended upon to win in an argument with the boys on any subject. She had a voice and a vocabulary that the hardiest of the villagers were afraid of.

Nagarathna came from a farming family as she milked the cows and distributed it to her customers. She had no time to spend with me. But she could tell us stories of ghosts in the forest, or the peculiar flowers and fruits we found in the forest during our holidays. Savitri was, like me, an outsider and could be depended on to spend sometime with me ’til her grandmother called her home.

There were also some boys like Fernandes, Srinivas and Nagaraj who played with me, or took part in the debates and discussions in school. Some of them would come and talk about books we had read. Or we would come together to plan a play or a saraswati puja in school.

After three years in that small town we had to move again. I said my fond farewells promising to write to everybody, as I got into the bus to come to the capital city.

Doorways in Old Delhi, India

Each doorway is different in Old Delhi’s classic Naugharana lane, an oasis of calm on the edge of the bustling Kinari Bazaar. Image: Alan Morgan

College was a revelation

Everybody there was speaking English!

There were so many girls, so many teachers, so much happening in the city that my letter writing became less and less frequent. And over the years it stopped completely. Even then all I needed were my memories: a sudden shower which drenched me, the smell of champak flowers, or the sight of people eating out of leaves like the ones we used to collect from the forest. Even to hear a folk song somebody sang during a function in college stirred my memory.

They say time does not stop for anybody. It did not stop for me.

I finished college, got married, went to Delhi, took up a job and fully engrossed myself in a family and everything it entails. But somewhere in the back of my mind was the picture of Kamala whirling a rope around her to call the cows home; of Nagarathna measuring milk out of her brass pitcher and pouring into somebody else’s vessel; of Fernandes arguing that industrialization was best for the country because we could easily live by bread and not grow rice or engage in agriculture of any type.

I remembered so clearly the yearly festival of lights which was the highlight of our lives,

Fernandes, like most of us, had never seen wheat. We did not know then that bread was made out of wheat. On rare occasions when we had to sing together Fernandes would always want me to begin singing first as he joined me from the second note. It was the same way Srinivas would come and ask me what story book should he read. It was the way Nagaraj managed to make Ganesha idols out of clay for all of us as he collected clay from the quarry outside the town.

These were the images that never left me

Going back so many years later, I had never even talked about those images to anybody until now, not even to my family. Now, only now, have I brought up this topic. After some forty years of staying away in Bangalore it happened. Even Bangalore had changed beyond my understanding. I could not recognize our college or the street where I lived. The roads which we used to walk from home to college and back had turned into busy thoroughfares with so much traffic it was scary. Here people dressed differently, spoke differently, as the special old time feel of the city could be found only in some sections of the city.

It was while talking about all these changes that I mentioned my wish to see my little town in the middle of the rain forest among the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains.

My family laughed at first. And it was my young nephew who said, “You can’t go back.” When I asked him why, he told me that the small town that was etched in my memory had grown. He had been there for some work and it was “nothing like” what I had described.

I was heart broken, but still wanted to go, and everybody wanted to come with me.

I had a tough time telling them that this trip was something special, something very personal and only I could make it. I looked up at the railway tables and found that the railway line still had not reached my little town, even after 50 years! My family told me the bus ride would be too tiring, so I hired a car with a dependable driver who would also look after me.

As we set out on a bright morning fully prepared for the journey I fished writing out the addresses of my friends from old papers I never even knew I had saved. Now kept looking at them over and over again. The journey was not very eventful.

We stopped for breakfast after a hundred kilometers and continued our journey through the National Highways. I kept looking out for a thick forest along the road, but my driver told me he had been traveling that way for a decade and the only thing he saw was a forest that was developed by the government full of eucalyptus trees.

We stopped for lunch in a town I had passed long ago

“Oh yes,” mentioned the driver, among a plethora of signboards along the way.

”There is a forest of them alright, selling everything from building sites to TVs to mobile phones,” he continued.

Carried along with my mother in a rickety bus to the only hotel in the town where mother and I were asked to go into the kitchen to eat, because we were not expected to eat with those considered better, the ‘Janata’. Today the place is transformed into a busy place, with a Medical college. I could see it was an imposing building on top of the hill outside the city. The driver told me that the city now had 11 colleges, all attracting students from all over the country.

There were banners on the road, advertising meals from the north especially for students. We stopped at one place and went in to eat lunch.

I could have gotten the same lunch of chole, bature, daal and palav anywhere in Delhi or Jaipur or Sonepat! Where was the old Mysore recipe of sambar and rice and fragrant rasam and papad and bonda? The waiter was a tamilian who did not understand my Kannada accent at first and then he said, “nobody eats that kind of food here.”

I shut up and finished my lunch as we started on the road again.

It was seven in the evening when we reached my small town. There was a hotel near the bus stand. They had rooms for us. I took a bath, had dinner, and rested my weary bones.

Vegetable market Mysore, India

A lone woman picks something out that she wants to buy in the Southwestern India Devaraja Fruit and Vegetable Market in Mysore.. Image: PnP!/Flickr

The next morning was bright

As the TV in the lobby downstairs was tuned to BBC World, people having breakfast watched the world news. What a change from the days when the Kannada newspaper from Bangalore came to us the next day. After breakfast we set out to the post office and I spent some time with the post master trying to find out if the addresses I had were still valid.

They were not. My car and my talk with the postmaster drew the attention of some others waiting to buy their post cards, etcetera. One of them was an old man and I thought, “Maybe he could help me?” It took me sometime to explain what I wanted, but once he understood he agreed to help me. He invited me to his house and we started walking slowly along the main road-very grandly, on this road called the Mahatma Gandhi Road.

I looked around and found everything new.

Remembering the talk of naming a road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi when I was in school I never gave it much thought. This was because the main road was the main road. The place where the buses stopped on the road in front of the small hotel run by the Kamti family used to be called simply the Kamti Bus Stand, as if they owned it!

He started asking me questions. The old man was named Rama Rao. And  I told him about my father; my being in the school; and my classmates and friends. Poor man, he could not connect the names and was feeling sorry when I noticed a sign board in front of a fairly big shop selling electronic goods. It said Rajendra Prasad Enterprises.

I stopped and asked my guide if it was owned by the same Vaishya family who owned in my time half the shops on the main street. Everybody in town bought everything from them.

My guide too had stopped by now saying, “Yes, this family has been in town ever since the government offices were moved here from the ‘Old Town’ a hundred years ago.”

Suddenly I remembered visiting the big family

With my mother for the naming ceremony of two children whose own mothers were two daughters-in-law who had delivered babies in the same week, their ceremony was a big festival. Most of the women of the town had been invited to the function. At the time I was struck by the patriotic fervor of the family who named the children Babu Rajendra Prasad and Sardar Vallabh Bhai. When I commented on it my mother said, “How difficult it would be for the children to live up to the famous [Indian] names!”

This must be the same Rajendra Prasad I knew who owned the shop I knew. As I went into the shop with my guide following me it took a while for me to explain my visit. The young man at the front of the shop must have thought I was slightly crazy. But then he said I should talk to his father in the office at the back. We went in and found a very successful looking man, dressed in a gold bordered dhoti with rings on all eight fingers.

The office had many pictures on the walls, some of Gods, some of people. I had no difficulty recognizing one of the people in the pictures, Venkatachala, who was my classmate in school who forever used to borrow my notes to study.

He could out talk anyone on earth.

Father had said he was fit to be a politician. It turned out that he was a politician of sorts, who had become the municipality president where he held various other elected posts. Rajendra Prasad wanted us to go and meet this uncle of his. I was overjoyed. I remembered the way Venkatachala used to do, and undo, the strap of his wristwatch, as he kept checking the time every three minutes. How we envied him his money. That was when he knew that we knew. He was the only one with a wrist watch in our school.

But Venkatachala had changed. Naturally, it was 50 years since I had seen him. I could not expect to see the same cocky all knowing youngster of those days. He took his time to recognize me; then was profuse with his welcome; and genuinely happy to see me. My guide wanted to leave me there and go, but Venkatachala made him stay on.

Since my guide was some three years junior to us he knew most of the people in town. I started asking questions. And they were very impressed by my story. They said they felt proud of me.

Driving in the high Western Ghat mountains of India

On the road high in the Western Ghat mountain region of India. Image: Thejas Panarkandy/Flickr

I wanted to know about the friends I had left behind

Then Venkatachala started telling me the stories. Fernandes, who wanted to get out of town and join a merchant ship, was drowned in the sea when his ship collided with an oil tanker in some distant ocean. Nagaraja was given his father’s job when the father retired. But there would be no more making of beautiful images for him. He was only interested in making money, somehow or the other, and was caught by the authorities while taking a bribe. Losing his job and when he came out of jail nobody would talk to him. He died a lonely death.

After college, in the nearby district headquarters, Srinivas worked in a newspaper. Even now he is considered the angry young (old?) man of the town questioning everything that happens. Kamala the fearless, ‘she of the loud voice’, committed suicide when she was called a troublemaker by somebody. Nagarathna married a distant relative and went to Bombay, where she has lived ever since. Coming home every two years to show off her Bombay clothes and children, who don’t understand the local language, Nagarathna goes back after calling the town a backward place. Savithri who used to be like a mouse is now following the world’s oldest profession. Her house is the town’s red-light area.

It took me sometime to digest all the information. As far as Kamala goes I thought she could take on the whole world, but she gave in. Savitri was the gentle docile soul who had difficulty talking to people. But now she is a brazen whore. Fernandes was the type who could go on forever. But did not.

When I shared what I had heard Venkatachala thought for a while and said, “Who knows what is going to happen next? Remember all your mother ever talked about was how you will get married and look after children? Here you are, traveling all over the world, sophisticated and so sure of yourself. Who knows what happens to us and when? Life’s travels will take us everywhere.”

“I remember thinking I would get out of this place and never come back. Twice I ran away. Once they caught me in Calcutta sleeping on the footpath, too poor to even buy a ticket back. Once again they rescued me from Banares, where I got involved with a dancing girl who I thought was all that I wanted in life,” he continued.

“She cleaned me out and even wrote to my family to come and take me away because I was hindering her business! Today I am a respectable citizen of this town, some kind of a leader. People come and ask me for my advice and opinion on all matters, be it the new sewage system or the building of a girls hostel,” added Venkatachala. We went on like that for a while as my guide said goodbye and left.

Venkatachala’s wife served us lunch in the dining hall. The hall was added to the old house by his grandfather who used to feed 35 to 40 people at one time.

The journey back to Bangalore

“Today I don’t sit here to eat,” Venkatachala shared. “It makes me feel sad,” he continued. “I used to grumble about all the cousins, distant relatives and even people I did not know who came to sit down and eat here. Grandfather never questioned anyone’s presence. Everybody was welcome; everybody was fed; and nobody was asked how long they were going to stay. Today I am alone in this house with my wife. This hall echoes with the sounds of yesterday. But people want to be on their own. They want fancy houses. They play the TV when they are eating on small tables who can only sit six people, so they don’t encourage more people in their dining rooms. Life has changed, really changed,” he added.

As I took leave of my fifty year old friend I felt sad and a bit overwhelmed by the changes in the small town I had carved in my mind. I got into a taxi as we started the journey back.

Sharada, Venkatachala’s wife, had packed a basket with fruits, papads made at home, and some fried stuff.

When I was in school I had seen her.

That was when her parents did not want her to go to high school. The argument was that it would be difficult to get her married if she studied too much. My friends at school had laughed at that.

Today, with only an eighth grade education, Sharada looks so graceful and full of peace and contentment. She never left the small town where she was born. Knowing Venkatachala, I can imagine the kind of problems she must have faced in her married life. But nothing seems to have affected her. She is a serene, happy woman.

Life’s journey can take all sorts of twists and turns and leave us where we least expected. Agree with me?

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“Walk the walk, talk the talk,” says broadcast journalist, writer and Bangalore, India based author Ms. Indu Ramesh. As a seasoned three decade reporter for radio, including work for the now Canada based 28-year-old radio production network called WINGS – Women’s International News Gathering Service, Indu’s work speaks to the heart of women’s issues covering power, independence and women’s empowerment inside India. Through WINGS Indu’s work has reached over 300 radio stations around the world, including U.S. based Pacifica Radio affiliates, as well as other global radio stations in Canada and oversees on Radio Free Europe, as well as other radio stations. As author of her more recent 2014 ebook, “Four Tales and a Lifetime,” Ramesh has dedicated her life to speaking truth with an avid sense of humor and a deep love for humanity. Her work today covers society and women in a unique and unforgettable style that can also be seen in numerous in-print magazines inside India.

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