I have never heard my mother singing a Hindi song though she sang moderately well, especially when she used to sing lullabies for us. Those were in Malayalam and when my mother lost the original lyrics she created her own words and sang without losing the rhythm or meaning. Never trained in classical music, she at times attempted singing some Carnatic music pieces emulating the swaras and jatis with exaggerated action that made us laugh like little angels did in heaven. Though my mother never sang Hindi songs, she was/is a graduate in Hindi. I have never heard her speaking in Hindi and whenever she tried, as she made a few shorts visits in Delhi, she failed miserably. She started off in Hindi, got entangled in English and sought rescue in Malayalam. When she spoke Hindi she made more gestures than words so that the listener could get what she exactly wanted to convey. I used to wonder how my mother managed a graduation in Hindi or why she chose Hindi as a main subject for her graduate studies.
Growing up in late 1960s was not so exciting. There were not too many options for my mother or her sisters to pursue. If she passed the tenth standard (in the British education system it was called Sixth), a woman, if she was really career oriented and her parents were really keen on getting their daughter ‘educated’ and self reliant, could have pursued a graduation or joined a course called TTC- Teachers Training Course. If you are not immediately married, a teacher’s job is the right career option for you. If a woman was not married off by the age of sixteen or ‘sweet’ seventeen, she could pursue an intermediate course and then a graduation. Most of the girls of my mother’s time failed in crossing the final hurdle, that is SSLC or Sixth or Secondary School Leaving Certificate course which is equivalent to today’s tenth standard. They failed deliberately, I think because they knew that whether they passed or not they would be married off, then why burn all those midnight oil? Why take risk? There was a saying in the village economy that if a girl was not doing well in her studies, her natural place was either in the kitchen (literally, near the stove) or under a wheel. Wheel here connotes the mechanical device which made coir ropes. As our villages were making coir products, rotating the wheel was one of the job options that girls kept in mind.
(a type writing institute in Kerala- illustration purpose only)
All the families did not need an additional income. So a girl who had failed in the tenth standard was considered to be ‘standing houseful’. That means she was ripe enough to be married off. Parents used to ‘lose sleep’ over this houseful girl/s. So till a proper alliance came on the way, she was sent to learn type writing. Type writing institutes were the study centres which remotely and crudely resembled today’s computer labs, where most of the boys and girls went to learn this technique of typing and short hand which would assure them a clerk’s job in future. Girls were sent to type writing institute to pass their time fruitfully, and at the same time it provided them with a couple of free hours daily in which they could flaunt their beauty to the expectant road Romeos waiting for them. There was a consensual acceptance from the parents’ side to display their daughters publicly in this way so that some eligible bachelors’ eyes would fall upon them on the right time. In those days of primitive technology, girls used to elope with either tuition masters or type writing institute masters as they were the only lucrative options available in the village. Those daring ones used to eye the bus drivers, conductors and cleaners, in that order. As they led a static life, any men who moved out of the village was a thing of wonder for them and they just wanted to see the world with them. Parents often told marriage brokers to keep an eye on their girls and in turn these marriage brokers worked as mobile CCTV cameras for the parents, obviously for a fee.
My mother was not one of those girls. She never went to learn type writing. May be my mother did not think about herself as a beautiful young woman. She came from a very ‘busy’ background that she found very little time to deck herself up or maintain her looks. May be because she had very low opinion about her looks she did not think she could become a ‘typist’ in future. Besides, she had passed the tenth standard with good marks. Beauty became an important pre-requisite for the type writing female students because in the popular narratives of that time used to show women of exaggerated beauty as typists, stenographers and private assistants to the bosses. Hence, those village girls who thought themselves as women capable enough to give completion to the film actresses stressed less on studies and pressed hard on the type writing keys. If they could pass the lower and higher grades in type writing, even without passing the tenth standard, they could become typists and office secretaries. Their beauty and looks compensated their lack of education. My mother thought she was not so beautiful (but in my eyes she is very beautiful) and she opted not to learn type writing. Then one may ask why she decided to study Hindi language and literature as her optional subjects for graduation.
(Women's convocation picture- illustration purpose only)
The answer is any subject would have been good for a graduate then. If you are exceptionally good at science and mathematics, and your parents had good money, you could become a doctor or engineer. But it was a time when women were supposed to become educated homemakers than caregivers for a larger population either by becoming a doctor or engineer. Women with a graduate degree was a much sought after ‘property’ in the marriage market then because the bridegroom could boast that his would be wife was well educated and also she had the potential of becoming a clerk in a government office, which added to the aggregate income of a growing family. Also a graduate woman could go for a B.Ed, bachelor of education, which qualified her to become a teacher. While the TTC teachers became primary school teachers, B.Ed holders could become upper primary and high school teachers. It also eased the burden of the parents because they could bargain for a reduction in the estimated dowry for their daughter in the marriage market, citing the potential of her ability to earn in the near future as a teacher or a clerk. My mother might have had the same idea in her mind while taking admission for a Hindi graduation.
When thinking of it, I understand that my mother had taken Hindi as an optional subject because many women found this as an easy subject to pass. Why so? The educational hierarchy in Kerala had been in a peculiar way for a long time. As I mentioned elsewhere, the toppers went for science degrees which helped them to become either doctors or engineers which eventually transcended their social and economic class. Second option was given to English literature, which most of the students could not pursue because of their lack of proficiency in the language. A few of them opted for the regional language, that is Malayalam, for graduation which assured him a post either in college or school as a teacher provided they could gain further degrees in the same subject. Economics was not studied the way students opt for it now. Commerce was looked down up on and only male students who had an idea to leave the native place looked at its possibilities. Home Science was a later introduction which had prepared women to become good homemakers. Hindi was a suitable option for two reasons; it gave three assurances in the job front; a clerk, a teacher or a professor. And Hindi was the national language. It also prepared you for Bank tests. But in my mother’s time bank was one of the last options. What made many women take up Hindi as their optional subject was this; Hindi being the national language, the central government had a policy to spread language all over India. There were public and co-operative agencies set up for spreading the awareness of Hindi language. So anybody opted for Hindi language, in a way was expressing their solidarity with the national cause. And above all, the passing percentage was subsidised. You could pass even if you scored less. I think so. I have never asked my mother about it.
(an old steam engine)
I grew up in a house where there were two prominent photographs mounted, framed and hung from the wall. The first one was in the front room (which was not called a drawing room then), placed next to the large clock wound everyday dutifully by my father, and it was a big portrait of my father. It showed a young man with dreamy large eyes and thick moustache and clear jaw bones and well shaped lips and ears. His hairline was slightly receding but it showed thick blackness. Though I had never seen my father like that in real life, I liked this portrait. As it was hung from the wall in a forty five degree angle, as a child I could see reflected myself on the glass frame of that photograph. I had invented a game for passing my time by standing in front of that portrait (to look at it I had to look up) and see my image merging with my father’s face. I used to imagine that it was my portrait. Today when I look at the mirror, I do not see myself but I see my father there. The second game was looking at the dial/face of the clock. It was a wonderful pastime to see how the large pendulum oscillated with a tick tock sound and the needles moved with a mild jerk. Children generally played this game as I could see a similar scene in Anantharam, a film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, many years later, when I myself was a graduate student in Trivandrum.
From the front room one moved to the second room which automatically became a bedroom at night and playing room for the day. It was called an ‘idappura’ (a room in between) and stood between the dining cum kitchen and the front room. It had a wooden attic and our first ceiling fan (A GEC Gold Like) was fitted from this attic. Above the door that leads to the kitchen (so meaningfully?) there was the picture of my mother as big as my father’s portrait. While my father’s photograph was a close shot of his bust, my mother’s photograph was a medium shot where I could see her standing tall and proud with a lawyer’s gown and a roll of certificate in her hand. This was a convocation photograph. All the graduates of that time took this kind of studio photograph, a sort of show off and kept it in the house so that the guests and visitors knew that the lady of the house was a graduate. This used to give them immense pride. In the picture she stood awkwardly, holding her lips tight in tension as well as in an effort to keep her buck teeth well within the boundaries of her lips. As I look at the photographs that she has taken later on I could see her growing up in stature and confidence and the earlier awkwardness giving away to a newly found confidence and grace. This photograph has been there for a long time and even today one could see that in our old home. I do not know whether seeing it every day at least once gives her any remembrance of those good old days or has it become a habit and has become one of those old discarded things though not moved from its original position because one could not find a suitable place for it to be removed and forgotten.
(Sunil Dutt and Asha Parekh- illustration purpose only)
Between my mother’s home and the college that she studied there was a distance of forty kilometres. The railway connected the two destinations in one hour. Today the same distance could be covered in twenty five minutes by a fast train. She studied in the Women’s College in Trivandrum. Near Vazhuthakkadu, in the heart of the city, this college is an illustrious one established by the Travancore kings for encouraging women’s education. My mother left home early in the morning with a few other students and office goers, and took a shuttle train that ran between Quilon and Trivadrum (Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, two district centres). She packed her food in a seasoned banana leaf and covered it with an additional paper and she continued it till she could manage to gather money to buy a proper tiffin career. My mother had started wearing half saree (a combination or long skirt and a diagonally worn piece of cloth) when she was in the school final and in the intermediate classes. And when she went to the college, she started wearing sarees. She remembers that those sarees came as hand-me-down pieces. A couple of them were bought by her father for and a few others came from the two elder sisters. The trains were not driven by electrical engines or diesel engines. They were good old vintage steam engines. The compartments were rickety and my mother reached college covered in a layer of dust and soot. She came back home by seven o clock in the evening, and took charge of kitchen along with my grandmother and sisters. She studied, whenever she could but most of the studies were done in classrooms only.
I never asked her whether she had a boyfriend at that time or not. Even if there used to be graphic depiction of love and sex in the movies and novels that she had seen and read, I do not have any reason to think that she had any inclination towards boys of her time because in those days good girls from decent families were not supposed to even look at other guys whom they happen to see in train, town or college. But I think this libido drive was less amongst people in those days (who knows) for I found that my mother had very good friendly relationships with many men. Whenever my mother meets a man of her age in the bank or street, they talk with such cordial feeling and care for each other that I wonder how they become such thick friends. Her answers shock me at times: He is X or Y. He studied with me in the village school. He is so and so, he studied with my younger brother (my uncle) and he used to come. He is so and so. We all used to go to the railway station.” They all came from the same village and they all cared for each other. My mother got married in the same village and the village became her own place where people not only identified herself as so and so’s daughter or so and so’s wife, but also as so and so’s mother. But I am happy that above all these acknowledgements, she is known to the village for her own merit and status. Though she takes a lot of happiness to say that she is so and so’s wife and so and so’s mother, I still feel a lot of happiness to say that I am my mother’s son. Even at the age of forty five, when I accompany my mother somewhere, to a relative’s place, or a temple or a friend’s place, I prefer to stand a step behind her, if possible holding her saree’s edge and if need be hiding behind it.