Saturday, May 21, 2011
The First Kiss: To My Children 15
I got second group for my pre-degree course. One needed a lot of marks to get the coveted first and second groups. I was bad at mathematics and becoming an engineer had been already ruled out. And a child from a good family should become a doctor, if not an engineer, hence taking up second group for pre-degree was a must for me.
You may think that I also wanted to become a doctor at that age, especially after spending a few months with my father in two different hospitals and going through all those experiences of disease, suffering and death. At that tender age one should have thought ideally and idealistically about becoming a doctor. After seeing my father’s doctor, the nephrology specialist taking bribe without any qualms, I should have thought of becoming a doctor who would never accept bribe and would work for people.
But somehow, it did not work in this way in my case. There were a few reasons for me developing an aversion for a doctor’s career. First of all, I had decided to become a writer ( I still remember the scene of me telling my father that I would become a journalist one day). I did not know what kind of life a journalist would lead. But it was fascinating to be a journalist. I could see my name printed in newspapers and I could write on behalf of people and even I could become the voice of the people. You may think that I am boasting and may wonder how a child could think in those lines at that tender age. I would explain how it happened and how times were different.
During my childhood there was a program in All India Radio called ‘Balalokam’. It could be roughly translated into the ‘Children’s World’. There used to be a voice that pretended as the ‘uncle’ of children all over the world. Today I look back and analyze that sound as the voice of the state that had decided to indoctrinate the children of that time with ideas in order to become confirming citizens. This voice used to tell us how to be good. The Uncle in the Radio had a very fascinatingly clear voice. Perhaps that was one reason why I wanted to become a radio broadcaster at some stage and got almost selected to the All India Radio. Though I could not get the coveted job as a new caster at that time, later I became a news reader in All India Radio, Delhi. I would tell you that story when the appropriate time comes.
The Radio Uncle told us everything about good living, having good behavior, being compassionate and so on. He talked to us in snippets, anecdotes and maxims. This voice had a great influence on us as children. The other thing that influenced us and initiated us into the world of philanthropy and social service was the membership to a club called ‘Balajana Sakhyam’ (The Friendship of Children). Initiated by the famous Malayala Manorama Group, these Friends Clubs were all over Kerala. When I was a primary school student, it came to our village too. Soon we were all part of that Friends Club. Another uncle deputed by the newspaper establishment visited the children’s gathering from the neighborhood during Sundays and spoke to us about life, science, social service, reading, writing and so on.
Years later I realized the politics behind such organizations and clubs. Malayala Manorama was/is owned by a Christian group. In our village, as there were no Christians (in our neighboring village had a dominance of Christians) we all read either Mathrubhoomi or Kerala Kaumudi. At that time, as children we did not know how these newspapers operated amongst the communities. During the independence struggle itself, these newspapers had become partisan papers for the communities that they were standing for. Nationalism was the only agenda that these papers voiced together. Otherwise, most of the newspapers worked for the sub-nationalisms, religious and caste interests. Mathrubhoomi represented the Nair sentiments and was very popular in the northern part of Kerala. Kerala Koumudi represented another predominant caste, Ezhava and it was very popular in South Kerala.
We read Kerala Koumudi and Mathrubhoomi. Balajana Sakhyam came to our village as a ploy to spread the circulation of Malayala Manorama amongst the people in the village. Children have always been the soft targets of organizations. Any marketing would be successful if it approaches families through children because children are the nastiest but the most successful negotiators in the world. With their innocent smiles and horrible shrieking they could even win wars (I am wrong here. Innumerable number of children have been sacrificed all over the world every since the history of the human kind, in the name of wars and conquests).
Malayala Manoram found soft targets amongst us and it came to teach us the need for good life and good thinking through these Friends Club. So it was natural for any child at that time to think about becoming a catalyst for social service whether it could be in the form of a doctor or engineer or a journalist. My choice was to become a journalist.
But when my father was first admitted to the hospital I had toyed the idea of becoming a doctor. Then experiences taught me to forget it altogether. As I said in the last chapter, I used to go to the doctor’s house and give him bribe twice in a week. My mother used to give me very fresh notes in a very fresh envelop and instruct me to give it to doctor’s hand without crumpling it. I used to wait at the portico of the doctor’s house along with several ill fated people with their own or their relatives’ kidneys damaged. When the doctor came and when my turn came I went inside the room and handed over the envelop. He, then would pick up my father’s case sheet and cursorily glance over it. Then he could smile at me and say that he would see everything going fine with my father.
This became a disgusting experience for me. Week after week I went to the doctor’s house and handed over the money filled envelop. At the age of fourteen, I realized that becoming a doctor was one means of amassing wealth. If you became a doctor, you could buy houses in the city, you can drive an ambassador car. Your children could study in good schools and you could lead a very sanitized lives. I used to think that doctors are extremely hygiene conscious. In their fresh white overcoats and stethoscope, they looked like saviors of the world. But from the close quarters I realized that things were different in a doctor’s life.
Trivandrum Medical College where they taught the future doctors was in the same premises of the Medical College Hospital. Once in a while I used to loiter around this campus, go and sit at their canteen and watch the behavior of the future doctors. I did not find anything special. I did not find them awe inspiring. Most of them looked in fact very ordinary. What made them different from others was their white over coats. You become distinguish with your uniform. This is one kind of arrogance that they used to flaunt. Only thing I noticed amongst the girl students was that they all wore sarees and wore spectacles. Several of them had braces on their teeth. Most of them looked impoverished and skinny (they must have been health conscious and dieting). They all looked studious while the male students looked lewd and vulgar on their Jawa and Yezdi motor bikes. Many of the girls students came by the college bus, which was painted with pale yellow color with the symbol of a pair of copulating snakes on either side of it belly.
One day would I also go by this bus, I used to wonder. But I never wanted to do so. The yellow buildings of the Medical College were not attractive at all. All the institutional buildings have that kind of coldness and detachment, I realized many years later. Institutional buildings are designed to be unfriendly. They look like those gloomy people who keep a lot of secrets with them.
During the summer days, yellow flowers from the trees covered the pathways to the medical college. I used to walk along these paths as a lonely young boy, hating everything related to the profession of medicine.
The last nail in the coffin of my medical thoughts came in the form of a lady doctor who was an assistant to the nephrologist. She had buck teeth and always wore a brace and thick reading glasses. Fair skin was her only asset and rest of the things were not palatable to look at. She knew that despite her successful career as a nephrologist, she was an ugly duckling. The people, especially women who know that they are not good looking develop a special arrogance, which would bring attention to them, which otherwise they are unable to command.
This lady doctor knew that only being arrogant and aloof would bring attention to her. So she behaved as if she were someone directly from Venus. She came to the wards very rarely and mostly spent her time in college rooms and dialysis centre. I saw her only when I went to the dialysis centre with my father. For some reason, she hated me. I don’t know why. She shooed me away when she saw me standing at the door of the dialysis room. She screamed at me whenever I asked how my father was doing inside the dialysis room.
I couldn’t figure out why she was angry on me. Perhaps, she was angry with the whole world. Or she was not getting enough bribe as her senior used to get. When she was not around the assistants in the dialysis room used to let me go in and see my father lying on bed with tubes going in and coming out of his body. He used to be almost unconscious at that time. A couple of times he used to develop fits and it was a very difficult to scene to watch.
When it came his face muscles stretched to the sides, his eyes went blank and his legs and hands shivered like as if he were getting electrocuted. Doctors told me that fits came because of the chemical changes in the body that send electric like signals to the brain. On one occasion, when my father was writhing, I looked at the drip stand, holding his hands tightly and found the drip was going very fast. As I had heard that the fits were caused by chemical changes in the body I presumed that it must be the speed of the drip causing fits in my father’s body. I was asking about this to the nurse there and suddenly the lady doctor came in side the room. She gave me a dirty look. I mustered up all my courage and asked her whether it was the drip causing fits to my father. She looked at me through her thick glasses. Her eyes were two burning holes.
One of the doctors in the gynecology department in the medical college was my mother’s classmate. This lady doctor knew that my mother was in touch with her. So straight away she went to my mother’s friend and screamed at her. How dare a young boy like him advice a doctor, was her complaint. My mother was informed of the situation and I was barred from going anywhere near the dialysis department. My mother advised me to avoid crossing paths with the lady doctor.
I hated the medical profession. Then why did I pick up second group as my subject for pre-degree course? Looking back, I could say only that I was just sixteen years when I joined pre-degree and like any other boy of that time, I too was vain and believed that taking up third or fourth group would put me into shame. Otherwise I did not have any faint intention to give medical entrance after pre-degree and become a doctor, as the family members wished or believed.
Sree Narayana College, Sivagiri, Varkala was the college where I joined as a pre-degree student. This college was established by the SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham) Trust as a part of spreading higher education amongst the Ezhava caste. Sree Narayana Guru was a social reformer, religious scholar, philosopher and poet who lived during the later part of the 19th century in Kerala. Sree Narayana Guru was one of few philosopher revered both by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.
In one of his daring acts, Narayana Guru consecrated the idol of Lord Shiva at Aruvippuram in 1888. The Brahmins were agitated. They questioned him for defying the Hindu cannons. Calmly Guru gave them the answer, “I consecrated an Ezhava Shiva.” Sree Narayana Guru was one of the greatest influences in the intellectual and social life of any Malayali.
Sree Narayana Guru breathed his last at Sivagiri, Varkala, a hill which he had chosen to build his Ashram, in 1928. The college too was established in the vicinity of Sivagiri Hill.
Alighting at the Varkala town, we had to walk almost four kilometers to reach the college. Private buses used to ferry students to college but often they were over crowded. Most of the teachers came from Trivandrum and they came by a tempo traveler. The students got concession tickets to travel in private buses and at times the buses refused to go to the college citing various reasons. There used to be regular students strikes and breaking window screens of the buses to retaliate the bus owners’ arrogance.
Hence, most of us preferred to walk. We walked in groups and at times alone. Girls walked only in groups and most of us carried lunch boxes. Boys never used to carry bags because they found it a shame to carry anything in the shape of a bag. So they all carried their books and a lunch box over it. Lucky students did not bring their lunch along. As they got sufficient amount of pocket money they ate from the college canteen. Boys behaved strangely as they thought that bringing lunch boxes to the class room was a shame. So they brought it till the college gate and kept it in a bakery near by. The owner of the bakery allowed the boys to keep their lunch boxes there because once in a while these boys ate a cake or drank a soft drink from there.
On the way to the college we used to cross the Varkala Thurappu (Tunnel), which was the main water way of Kerala. It was lying disused then. On our right we could see Sivagiri Sarada Math (which was established by Sree Narayana Guru) and at the top of the hill the great Samadhi of Guru himself. We crossed a few fields and reached the main road to the college. On our right again we could see the Gurukulam (established by Nataraja Guru, the illustrious disciple of Sree Narayana Guru) and on our left we could see the Sivagiri High School, where incidentally, Shibu Natesan completed his schooling.
If we came through the hills and a few hamlets we reached the college from behind and we had to cross the large football ground of the high school. You could always see students hanging out in groups in these ways. Girls wore long skirts and blouses. Most of the senior students wore half sari, which means a long skirt, a blouse and a piece of clothe that runs around the body to cover the bosom. Bachelors final year students wore sarees. Churidaar was rare and if some girl wore churidaar, she would remember that day for her life. Boys gathered around her to boo her.
Whenever I think about such scenes I remember a historical incident that happened in Kerala. Till the early part of the twentieth century, in Kerala women never used to cover their breasts. As it was a general culture nobody took it as an offence or obscenity. But the social reformers thought that (must be after the British rule following the Victorian morality and Puritanism) they should make the women aware of their own rights to cover their bosoms. So there was a huge campaign to make the women aware of wearing blouses. A few progressive women came forward to wear blouses. And to spread the word many women wore blouses and came out in a procession. It is reported that the men were looking at their covered breasts so intently that the women felt so ashamed of the blouses, they removed them and tucked them under their arm pits and walked easily without blouses!
When I joined Sree Narayana College in Varkala in 1985, something else was happening in the educational sector in Kerala. The then Congress government forwarded the idea of separating pre-degree from the colleges and by creating a separate pre-degree board for conducting examinations. Previously, the pre-degree examinations were conducted by the University itself. It was adding burden to the universities, which were meant for higher education. After separating the pre-degree course from the colleges, the government thought, these courses could be taken back to schools though the examinations could be done under a different board.
This created one of the greatest stirs in the educational sector in Kerala. The left parties opposed it vehemently and the students’ unions led by the left parties held out strikes every other day. There used to sporadic strikes in those days. Generally, the parties or unions announced the strike days through newspapers so we avoided going to college. But most of the days, the strike happened just like that. By the second period the classes were forcefully disbanded by the student leaders. And we all walked back to the town, got into buses and went back homes. The smarter ones got into the movie halls and watched movies, which were pepped up by the reels of blue films.
For me these strikes were a blessing in disguise as I was getting phenomenally bored by the subjects that I was studying. The zoology teacher taught zoology by reading straight out of book. It needed special efforts to keep the eyes open during the afternoon classes of botany and zoology. Physics and chemistry were equally boring. I liked only the language classes. My first language was English and the second language was Malayalam. We had the option to take French or Sanskrit as the second language and I had opted for Malayalam.
As I had genuine interest in the languages I had finished the text books by the beginning of the year itself. My Malayalam teacher came and recited the poems and explained it. In the meanwhile, as I had already covered the lessons, I teased my classmates by poking at them. I became a real nuisance for that particular teacher and one she made me go out of the classroom. But before that she asked me a few questions from the lesson that she was teaching on that day. I gave her prompt and right answers which baffled her a bit. Though she was challenged by my arrogance (which I think was totally unwarranted), she dismissed me from the class and cursed me by saying that you will never survive with language. May be she really did not mean by that curse. Whenever I sit to write anything, I remember that teacher with a lot of fondness.
I did not have too many friends in the college. There was one Jayaprakash he was very good at cracking jokes. There was Sabin, who was a good cricketer and was extremely sophisticated. There was Sri Sabin who used to stay in the Gurukulam and used to sing pretty well. I could recall a few faces but most of them remain vague now.
When the classes were disbanded during the strike days, I walked alone and went to the Gurukulam compound, sat there and read. When Gurukulam was not that appealing, I went to the Sarada Math at the Sivagiri Hills and sat under the cool shade of a huge mango tree. I always had library books with me. I sat there and read. Sometimes I climbed the hill to go near the Guru Samadhi. I sat there and contemplated; mostly about women.
I wanted a girl friend. I fell in love with a few girls. One of them was immediately married off. It was scandalous for all of us as he was in the first pre-degree and she got married. Her parents should have been arrested for the charge of child marriage. We never met her afterwards. There was another girl who was my classmate and she used to talk to me with some kind of fondness. Like any other boy of that age I too mistook for love and wrote a very bold love letter and gave to her. That was the last day she spoke to me. She never looked at me after that incident.
My days during the first year went off almost eventless apart from my intellectual training under Shibu Natesan. Reading was the mainstay. During the second year, one of the strike days I was walking back to the town through the hamlets. A group of senior girls were walking just ahead of us; we were two. One girl in saree, dark and tall and held her books with both hands almost near her waist particularly caught my attention. I walked with quick steps and overtook her from the right side. Then I turned back and asked her name. She gave me a defiant look. And they were laughing. As you know it is the most insulting thing in the world; you express something to a girl and she mocks at you by indulging in a group giggling with her friends. It was exactly what she did to me. Crestfallen I withdrew from the scene and started walking with my friend. After ten minutes or so, I saw the same gang of girls standing near a well and drawing water from it and drinking. Once again I approached her and asked for some water. This time, she was much compassionate. She gave me water and a smile too.
Later I came to know her name. She started liking me. She addressed me with respect despite the fact that she was three years senior to me. She was in love with me. I went near to her class and stood with her. Standing with her was a fulfilling experience. Those days love means standing together in the corridors of the college. Some guys from her class did not like me standing with her. They threatened me with dire consequences. But when you are in love you dare even the worst.
The days were running out. She was in final year B.Sc Chemistry. Both of us had to do a lot of class works. I spent my days in laboring on making science records, which was mandatory for the science course. I always wanted to stand with her. One day, that beautiful day she came in lavender color saree. She had long cascading hairs that covered her waist. She held her books in the peculiar way that gave her a special charm. I saw her walking into the college with friends. Her eyes were looking for me and I was waiting to see her looking for me.
We met and we knew that it was our last meeting day. The college was closing for study leave. She stood near to me. I could smell her fragrance. She told me that her family came to know about our love affair. I told her to wait for me till I finish my education. I did not know the impossibility of my words.
She lowered her face and stood before me. Her big eyes were wet with tears. I touched her chin and raised her face up to mine and on her forehead I sealed my promise of love with my lips. That was the first kiss of my life.
Not on the lips. But on her forehead.
In silence she walked away from me. I still could see her gait and the grace of it.
I got a few letters from her after that and later on I came to know that she was married off in the very next year itself.
She is the one perhaps I want to meet once again in my life.