Monday, May 16, 2011
1984- I Became a Man: To My Children 14
Between my school final and the revolutionary days of pre-degree there was a phase where I lost and found myself and my life. 1984. Somehow this year has a very important role to play in my life. As you know, George Orwell had written a novel with the same title (1984) in 1948. Orwell had envisioned a world where the state intruded in every aspect of human life. The authorities could make surveillance through special devices. Even you could not kiss your partner without the knowledge of the authorities. And if you rebelled, you could be forced into oblivion by a special department. In such a totalitarian state, citizens could have been constructed and de-constructed the way state wanted them to be. Orwell was just inverting the digits of the year 1948 in order to reveal a dystopian future. In 1984, India had not become a totalitarian state. People were enjoying a lot freedom that the Bajaj scooters and Doordarshan could give them.
Today, with the introduction of the unified identity cards and the recent declaration of the central government that it is going to track any phone calls made by any citizen in India, we come to have the same feeling; we are no longer private people. We are the properties of the state and we could be shaped and re-shaped by the ideology of the state. We may rebel in certain ways and we may give auto-suggestions to ourselves that we are free. Yet so long as we remain the citizens of a modern nation state our freedom is going to be curtailed. It is going to be the complete fruition of the super market theory in which the market makes you feel that you have immense variety of commodities to choose from. And you do choose ten out of the hundreds. But you don’t know that your freedom to choose from amongst is limited to the given hundred and that hundred is designed and regulated by the corporate houses. Free citizenship today is a limited affair which ironically gives the illusion of complete freedom within a country, which is supposedly free and democratic.
In March 1984, I was supposed to give my school final examination. I was well prepared and was doing combined studies with my friends. Today, I don’t understand this notion of combined studies. When you are combined with your friends, you basically don’t study. To study you need to be alone. You may differ because today to study you don’t need to sit in a place at all. Virtual learning possibilities are now every where. So at the age of fourteen, you sit with a group of young boys to prepare for the examination, and what you do is a lot of chatting. Between chats and joking, we studied. I had this habit of reading comics a day before the examinations. It was a psychological reaction to push the fear of examination out of my mind. I did not touch any text books on the examination eves. Instead, I fished out old story books, comics and graphic novels and read them happily.
School final examination in Kerala used to be like Monsoon that comes right on the first of June without fail. School Final Examinations came right on March 12th and it was over by 20th of March. Suddenly you feel like grown up and you take extra care to blacken your facial hairs that have been playing hide and seek with you for the last few years. You look at girls with desire. You tried to speak in a gruff voice, which the listeners always took as a false voice and laughed. You take pride even on your pimples. You fold your lungi a few inches up as if it were a declaration of your manhood. You don’t even remember that you were just a boy till yesterday. School final examinations bring all the difference.
A couple of days before the school final examination, at home I developed some kind of nausea. I started vomiting. During those days, retired from the government service my father was running a parallel academy named ‘The Best’. The graduates in the village doubled up as teachers in the morning and evening hours and rest of the time they worked for political parties. When a teacher was absent in The Best Academy, I was given the charge of that class. Even my mother was called out from the kitchen to take some classes. There used to be more than hundred students studying in this academy, which used to function from thatched sheds in our property.
When I was vomiting, the teachers were there around. They took me to a hospital in the near by town and the doctor diagnosed me with jaundice. Throughout the night I was vomiting and running high fever. My parents were worried. Somehow, I was feeling relieved as I was temporarily saved from the exams. The doctor advised me of complete rest as the disease could affect my liver in a bad way. After three days I was discharged. Once back in home I felt completely recovered and I just wanted to get out of that situation. But now the whole village was concerned about my health. Friends and relatives came in a regular stream as in any house a school final student was given special treatment as if he or she were a bridegroom or bride. In my case, I had been instance of tragedy for them. It was almost like listening to the tragic news of a bride’s death on her wedding eve.
So they came, consoled me and my parents and most of them talked about the historical loss that my parents would have as I had missed the examinations. They pointed out that I was the best student of the village in that year and I was supposed to be topper of the school. They told my parents that they even expected a state rank from me. And they boosted the morale and pride of my parents by saying that our village was going to get a doctor out of me and now it is delayed by another year. Lying on bed, I listened to all these and I was feeling funny about the whole incident. I was completely cured though the doctor had advised me to take rest for one month and eat a lot of cold food, now without the burden of the examinations, I felt normal and I wanted to go out and lead a normal life. For me going to library, temple ground and meeting friends was essential to lead a normal life. Now confined to bed and books, I thought I was really sick. I looked at the magazine covers where beautiful women stood smiling. They invited me to their world and in that world of pleasures I lived a like a king with innumerable beautiful damsels while my friends sweated their life out in the examination halls.
With a quirky visit of jaundice I had lost a few opportunities as my neighbors and relatives had mentioned. First of all, if I had become the school topper, my name would have been included in the list of fame on the main wall of the school. I would have received so many awards and prizes instituted by individuals and organizations to boost up the high ranking students from the village. Now I missed all that. The local tutorials would have published my photographs in their notices in order to attract students to their institutes. They would say, the topper is from our institute, you join us you also would become a topper. If you had topped in the exams you would have naturally got the first group or second group in the pre-degree course, which could take you to the world of doctors and engineers.
During those days all the parents dreamed of their children becoming doctors or engineers. To become an engineer, you had to study mathematics, physics and chemistry (which is called the first group) and to become an engineer you had to study (physics, chemistry, zoology and botany). As all the parents wanted their children to get first or second group in the pre-degree course, there used to be a great demand for higher marks in the school final examinations. If you were proficient in music, dance and sports, you would get a few extra grace marks, which would add up to your total marks in the school final and help you to get seats for the first or second group. So most of the parents were making their wards to dance, sing and jump. Poor kids toiled like slaves only to become future journalists or housewives. In this hierarchy, third and fourth group were, if I use the caste hierarch, kshatriya (warrior) and vaishya (merchant). Third group offered history and economics as main subjects. Fourth group offered commerce and accountancy as main subjects. The sudra (pariah) of the pre-degree course was fifth group, which offered home science and god alone knows what as subjects.
Hence, those who got into first and second groups behaved as if they were Brahmins. Third and fourth groups lived a few paces away from the former groups. The last group students mostly pretended that they don’t exist or even if someone asked which group they pursue they lied. Some of the students stopped their education completely as they got the news of getting only the fifth group. And most of them committed suicide or got married and called it a day.
Now, there was one whole year before me. There was no need to make special efforts to prepare for the exams in the next year as I was already prepared. So I read and read, wrote things and my diaries were filled with writings. Today, when I go through them, I could see the mind of that fourteen year old boy, who was feeling cabined, cribbed and confined in his own body and mind. He was waiting to be liberated. I wrote so many poems and stories. I wrote a lot of letters to Shibu Natesan. I met my friends and discussed literature. The young boys of the time did not have anything much to talk other that what they had read.
My father was not keeping well. He had health problem even when he was in his service. He used to get admitted to hospitals once in a while. I was accustomed to those hospital trips and seeing him in bed, totally spent and weak. But this time, in 1984 May, things had gone really bad for him. He was bed ridden and after a few check ups he was diagnosed of kidney trouble. His kidneys were failing and he was having sugar and blood pressure problem. First he was taken to a new hospital in Trivandrum where he spent one month and regained his health for a while only to fall ill again in a month’s time. Sometime in June, he was admitted to the Medical College Hospital in Trivandrm.
Failing to appear in school final exams was turning out to be a blessing in disguise not only for me but also for my family. During all these hospital sojourns I was with my father, literally living in the corridors of the hospitals. In the Cosmopolitan Hospital in Trivandrum, as it was a newly built one, there were only very few patients. I used to sleep on a hospital bed next my father’s. Rest of the time I ran around doing errands; brining hot porridge for my father, taking his body fluids to laboratories, bringing tea and snacks for the visiting relatives and so on. Rest of the time, I sat near my father and read out things to him. I liked the life of that hospital. There were two young nursing assistants; Mony and Aisha, both of them were beautiful young girls. They wore pale yellow sarees. Mony wore a pair of thin and round framed spectacles. They too liked to talk to me. In the evenings I used see Mony standing by a window on the third floor of the building where my father’s ward was, and looking at the setting sky. She used to look very sad. Initially, I hesitated to go near and ask the reason for her sadness. Then one day I spoke to her. She was sad for no reasons. “These evenings fill me with loneliness,” she told me. She was right, evenings were the saddest of all times.
Medical College was a different experience for me; I should say, it was the beginning of my life changing experiences in 1984. I was supposed to take second group and become a doctor as people believed. Now, even without appearing for the final examinations, I was there in the Medical College but for a different reason. One fine morning, we reached the Medical College premises and we were referred to a doctor named ‘Krishna Kumar.’ He was a Nephrologist. I was learning new words. This doctor admitted my father into Ward Number 22. I cannot forget this ward because it was the only ward in the Medical College where the patients who had kidney problems were admitted and treated.
Dialysis was the only way to keep my father alive. They would make a hole below the abdomen with a catheter and they would put a tube to the kidney through this hole. Through this tube they would pass a medicinal fluid, which would take a few hours to go in and once it is gone in, the plastic bag is inverted and kept below the bed so that through the same tube the fluid could come out and get collected. Before the process began, my father had to go through different tests. I went from one laboratory to the other, at time carrying the fluids, at times carrying the results and at times carrying envelopes filled with money, which were meant for giving to different doctors and assistants as ‘bribe’. I used to go to the doctors house, which was almost a kilometer away from the hospital, in the evenings only to hand over the envelop that contained money. The next morning, the effect of these envelops showed in the face of the doctor who came for the rounds. He smiled at my father, touched him and spoke a few words of encouragement.
I was curious at that age. I had just crossed fourteen and was looking at everything with fresh eyes. Now I was seeing the dance of death before me. We spent around five months in the Medical College. All these months I lived in the Ward Number 22. I became almost a member of that ward. When I went out to buy things for my father, other patients also asked me to get things for them. I was in a way courier between the ward and the world outside. Age, religion and caste became immaterial and irrelevant in the Ward number 22. I used to look at the vacant bed next to my father’s, where a person whom I knew for the last two months was lying till yesterday and today he was gone. I used to accompany dead bodies in ambulance. This happened because most of the time, women only waited for their ailing husbands. When they breathed their last in the mid of night, I was the only person to help them out. I went out to the public telephone booth, phoned their relatives, went to the ambulance department to arrange one for taking the dead body. I did it with some kind of detachment and I never felt I was doing something very important.
When my mother waited at my father’s bed during the day times, I sat in an unused lift behind the ward number 22 (this lift was mainly used for taking the dead bodies out in a stretcher trolley) and read books that my cousins brought for me. I had taken my text books along when I came from home. So at times I read my text books. I found them immensely boring as I was reading them for the hundredth time. I did not write anything during those five months. I never had the time to write. Either I was sitting with my father or with other patients. We, as a family got almost a seniority in that ward as my father was still fighting it out with death. Many came and went on trolleys. Some nights used to be horrible. There would be a security check. The senior security officer would come to the wards with his assistants and wake all the extra stand bys and throw them out. My mother had the official sanction to be in the ward. Many people like me used to come and stay in the corridors of the wards during the nights. I had spent several nights on the road side or in front of the ‘medical college’ as a result of the mid-night security check up.
But I never used to feel insulted or disturbed. I had accepted this life in a hospital ward and once in a while on the road side as a part of the game. Years later, once again I thought of all those days and my life in and around the hospital and laboratories. That time I was doing my graduation in Trivandrum. My mother had some problems with her health and the gynecologist told her that it was time for her to remove the uterus. She was admitted to a private hospital in Trivandrum. She was operated upon and the uterus was removed. Later one of the nurses in the clinic (I still remember her name, Meharunnisa. I had written a love poem for her) gave me a small plastic container and asked me to take it to a laboratory which was a few kilometers away from the clinic. I took the plastic jar in my hands. It was warm and was covered with while paper. Meharunnisa handed over a paper and file. Once she turned back I unwrapped the paper and found the contents in the jar. It was my mother’s womb, now minced to pieces. It was where I was formed as an embryo. It was still warm and they wanted to know whether there was some cancerous growth in it. I looked at it for a while and got into a bus, holding my mother’s womb, no my womb in my hands.
I used to think that it was an usual incident. But later on I found a story written by someone in a Malayalam magazine, relating the same situation. After reading it my friend and artist, Gigi Scaria called me and told me how he felt while reading the story because he also had a similar experience. I told him mine. We concluded that there must be a lot of young boys even today must be carrying their mothers’ minced wombs in a plastic jar and heading towards some laboratories. In Hindu mythology, puthra or puthri means the one who saves the soul from a ‘hell’ called ‘pum’. Parents have their own hells and children save them from their hells. And at times, these children create new hells for the parents. That’s why, in Adhyatmaramayanam Kilippaattu (the Malayalam version of Ramayana) by Ezhuthachan said, ‘If there are no children/ That is the only worry/ But when children go berserk/ Worries increase/Even in the death bead/ Souls cry out on the concern for children.’
These hospital experiences gave me a new status amongst my cousins. In the family whenever someone was admitted to hospital, I was called as a stand by because they all thought I was an expert in handling hospital affairs. Though I was a rebel, I immediately accepted such invitations from the family members because these outings gave me opportunity to be on my own, venture into the city at night and explore the world of illness and human sufferings with a vengeance.
On 6th October 1984, my father, Vakkom K. Lakshmanan breathed last in the Ward Number 22 of Medical College Hospital. I knew he was dying. I was standing just behind his cot with the relatives and my mother standing around him. A few days back Shibu had come from the college and made a drawing of my father, his uncle. This time I did not want to look at the face of my father. One young nurse came and held his hands, checked his pulse. When she turned to go, my father grabbed at her hand and murmured, ‘Please don’t go.’ The nurse knew what was happening. With a smile on her face and sadness filled her eyes, she stood there, holding my fathers hand. Then he turned his eyes towards my mother and to nothing and then everything went nothing for him.
Life had changed completely for me. I became fiercely independent as I felt I was grown up several years during those seven months. After fifteen days of my father’s death, my mother sent me to join a private tutorial college in Varkala where I could refresh my school final lessons again. I started smoking and fell in love with women, or I thought so.
On 31st October 1984, by afternoon, suddenly, the head of the tutorial college where attended classes rushed to the class room and said, ‘you may all go now and reach home fast.’ I could not understand what was happening. Then he said, ‘Indira Gandhi is assassinated.’ Indira Gandhi dead, I could not believe my ears. Slowly, we got the news. Mrs.Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh body guards. India stood still for a moment. Then like a monster with its own will started reacting to the incident.
I did not know the carnage that followed Indira Gandhi’s death till I read the newspapers in the following days. But on that day I was looking for my sister who was doing her pre-degree course in Varkala. I went to the junction where she used to come and board the bus. Finally she came with her friends.
Buses had stopped plying. Trains had stopped running. We started walking. We walked towards a future without Indira Gandhi.
I had already been walking towards a future without my father.