Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Individuality and the Poor Man's Culture

Ok, hands up all of you who've ever received this kind of encouragement from parents or teachers. I get the feeling somehow that this might be more socially divisive than we realise. Meaning it's dependent on the kind of society we grow up and live in.

From what I see of young people around me, I'd say practically none have ever been actively fed on an idea like this. In fact, I'll stick my neck out to claim that a clean 100% Mizo parents swear by the go with the flow school of parenting. Case in point - many years ago, our Sunday School dept teachers had made plans to spend a day out together on a picnic. But on the morning of D day, someone in the church community died and some of us hastily met to decide whether to cancel or go ahead with our plans. I hadn't been terribly enthusiastic about the outing anyway and it seemed quite wrong to go goofing off when there was a funeral of a fellow church member to attend. But out of around 25 people, only three or four opted to cancel, and the rest all went off picnicking. One said later that he'd gone despite qualms about it because his parents had always drummed into him the line that in crunch situations, he should always go with the majority. The soft, safe option that many parents take pains to teach their children.

It's a different story when you watch children in more affluent societies. Like with the American Idol no-hopers. They bellow horribly like landlocked water buffalos deprived of H2O on a hot day but swear that their parents, family et al have always told them they're wonderful, super talented and unique. And they believe the hype so completely, they can't take the truth that they can't sing to save even one of a cat's nine lives.

Parents in affluent societies where career choices are as numerous as the sand tell their children they can be anything they want. Try out even the quirkiest job they can think of. After all, there's easy money everywhere. In India though, parents expect their kids to be doctors or engineers. That's where the moolah is, alongwith public respect and recognition. In Mizoram, parents want their kids to hold government jobs, play active roles in the church and stay out of trouble. Trouble being everything from crime and jail to holding opinions that are too radical and unpopular, sticking out your head too much and rocking the boat. With the fairer sex especially, you're expected to hold your head down and never let on you have a higher IQ than all your bumpkin beaus put together. Shame, girl, do you want to frighten off all prospective husbands and remain a lonely spinster forever?!

Of course, times change. As social communities gradually move up the scale in terms of economic prosperity, public opinions also slowly evolve. But a paradigm shift is an excruciatingly s-l-o-w process. Which is why I don't think we'll see Mizo parents and teachers encouraging individuality in their young ones just yet. Instead all we can expect to see are more run of the mill products who do everything that everyone else does, never rock the safe boat, always live respectably within a marginalised circle and never ever venture to even flutter their wings outside the box. Like yours truly here. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Down but not Out

13 days after surgery, and a week after coming home from hospital. I've been meaning to make a new blog post but I just couldn't sit long enough. My first day home I actually sat for over an hour before the computor. Bad idea. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Ours is an upstairs, downstairs house and with my room upstairs, I was stuck here for 6 days because traipsing up and down steps, I was told, is strictly a no-no too soon after ovarian surgery. It jars the incisions inside, so the nurses said. As of last evening though, I've been slowly inching myself downstairs and upstairs, and feel terrific. Maybe the kitchen is the most home-like place in the house, I don't know, but I feel like I'm really, really home there.

I make a really bad nurse and an equally bad patient. I quickly get tired of everything. Reading, watching TV or stuff on a laptop in bed, even sleeping too much makes my butt ache. My hormones too got into the act, going into overdrive for a few days. Sigh.

When I first went to the doctor, it was because...hang on, STATUTORY WARNING: if there are any guys reading this who can't handle women's stuff, close the page right here! My period went on too long. Not a heavy, gushing one but endless spotting. By day 7, I knew I had to see a gynae but with a cold and its accompanying aches, I made it to him only on day 11. And when he said I had to take a pelvic ultrasound test, I was pretty sure all my vitals would come out normal, normal, normal and he'd sit me down and say, "Ah madam, welcome to your menopause!" Instead, the tests said I had a clearly defined ovarian cyst, sized 6 to 5 cms, and the doc said all cysts above 5 cms were better off surgically removed. And that was it.

I have a good friend who'd just a couple of weeks earlier had the same kind of surgery but her biopsy result suggested cancer and her gynae sent her rushing off to Mumbai. I was terrified that would happen to me too and despite the doctor's assurance that mine didn't look malignant, I had a few rough moments. But thank the Lord, all I did have was a harmless cyst. Meanwhile, my friend had her first dose of chemotherapy last week. Please pray for her.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lunatic and Memories of Shillong

This past week, between sniffles and lazy lie-ins, I got to read this brilliantly written novel called Lunatic in my Head by a young woman named Anjum Hasan (Penguin, Dec 2007). Sometime last year, Mona Zote had sent me an issue of a poetry mag called Carapace which featured my favourite poem of hers, as well as this fantastic poem titled "The Last Winter, But" by the said Anjum Hasan. The structure of the poem just blew me away but I assumed she was probably one of those very high-brow, middle-aged looking eggheads with uncombed, scruffy hair. Recently, I googled her down and found that she was actually a young, pretty woman who'd grown up in the same place I did, Shillong. Now Shillong and the name Hasan rang a bell so I quickly made inquiries and discovered that Anjum was the daughter of one of my teachers at university, the laconic Dr (now Professor) Nurul Hasan. I remember him as a complete Thomas Hardy maniac with a gangly frame who'd come in and sit with his legs crossed, talking non-stop in the same tone of voice about Tess of D'Urbervilles, William Golding or Jane Austen, all the time kicking the air with one foot under the table and never really minding if the class wasn't quiet or paying him a great deal of attention. He was a brooding intellectual who approached things from the opposite end of the stick and gave us home assignments on topics like Lord of the Flies as an anti-modern novel or Pride and Prejudice as an anti-ironic novel. Despite his obvious knowledge, however he didn't inspire us as much as he might have because he was so close-mouthed and uncommunicative, and didn't exactly give off warm, welcoming vibes. It's wonderfully in keeping with the scheme of things though, that his daughter (and a younger sister Daisy who's reportedly also written a novel) should have inherited their father's formidable little grey cells.

Lunatic brings back many memories of Shillong where my family had fled Mizoram in the wake of the insurgency movement in the mid 60s. My father had been a high-ranking young officer then and after a while, had gone back to Aizawl with my mother, leaving four very small children (us 2 sisters and a male cousin) with my maternal grandparents. We lived in an assortment of houses, ranging from a Mizo family's ground floor tenement to a little cottage near a pretty field to a larger house in Nongrim just next to the Khasi section of Auxilium Convent. There had been many Mizo families then, many like us, on enforced self-exile due to the political instablity back home. Of course, Shillong was always the most cosmopolitan place in the Northeast even then.

I'd started my education at Auxilium and later shifted to the all-girl Loreto Convent. Loreto was, hands down, the most snobbish, stuck-up, snooty schools I ever went to. I remember lunch time when we'd take our little tiffin boxes to the lunch room or whatever it was called, and eat furtively with our right hands while with the left, we kept a tight grip on the slightly ajar lids of our boxes so that nobody could see what we were eating. Another memory I have of LC is funnier. My grandparents had instructed my older sister to always make sure she shepherded us younger ones home, so there we'd stand at the bus stand at Dhanketi and my older sister, always a voracious reader, would bury her bespectacled head in a book, usually an Enid Blyton, and never pay attention to the buses coming and going. So bus after bus after bus would sail by and we'd only eventually make it home when it was almost dark. Finally, grandma strictly forbade my sister from reading at the bus stand or until she'd brought us safely home.

Though I never knew Anjum Hasan personally, from what I do remember of her family, I can see that she weaves in many personal details of herself and her folks in varying degrees in her three protagonists. Like their little house just above the Fire Brigade bus stand which was opposite A la carte restaurant, and for anyone who knew/knows Dr Hasan, he's been immortalised quite unmistakably in the character of Mr Das. But despite the interest and hype about Anjum's Lunatic bringing the largely little-known and often ignored Northeast into the Indian literary mainstream, a word of caution. This is the Northeast through the perspective of someone who was born and brought up in the Northeast certainly, but to whom the distinctive essence of the Northeast must forever remain impenetrable because she is, as she keeps putting it, a "non-tribal". Never liked that tribal/non-tribal terminology and even while I understand perfectly well that the theme of the book runs along precisely those lines, I'll stick my head out and say I like Anjum the less because of her obvious inability to transcend the socio-cultural divide.

Her poetry though is immaculately faultless, and I include here the poem that first made me sit up and take note of her. Just love the innovative pattern of these lines.

The Last Winter, But...

This longing to get to the end of things,
I just walked everywhere, eating dust.

It was December and the light had changed,
Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit.

I just walked everywhere, eating dust,
Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...

Sunlight ripening like squares of rare fruit,

Every city street still resistant to habit.

Thinking, this will be the last winter, but...

I have explanations to offer myself.

Every city street still resistant to habit,

And barefoot women wanting the time.

I have explanations to offer myself,
Firmer than the day's jelly shadows

And barefoot women wanting the time,

The afternoon's sounds like, like a new alphabet.

Firmer than the day's jelly shadows,
That place where all sentences hold good,

The afternoon's sounds, like a new alphabet,

This longing to get to the end of things.

PS I'm going to hospital to have an ovarian cyst removed on Tuesday. Please, everybody, say a little prayer for me.