Ambition

Who am I? Remember seeing a mid 40 aged man with thick black glasses, well ironed white shirt and dark brown pant? Yes, I am that common man from Indian public places. I’ve lived in the semi-village town for 30 years now. I just decided to recollect one particular story with you today. I’ve always been a pious man. I go to temple every Saturday to pay my ablutions to Perumal. Oh yes, I do strongly believe he is taking good care of me and that I am always and will be answerable to him. My religious views aren’t that important but what is of interest is this one lady just outside the temple. I don’t know here name, but I’ve called her Akka (elder sister) and she calls me Thambi (younger brother) from time immemorial, although I believe she is as old as me. 

Akka came to the town around 25 years ago, in extremely dirty clothes with her father and mother. Very soon, due to some rifts, both her parents were killed which left her to herself. I don’t remember seeing her for a couple of months after that, but later she started sitting right at the entrance of the temple, selling flowers to offer to the god. I could clearly see she was scared of her surroundings. Nevertheless, pious as my parents were, and something charming about her, I went towards her. “Need some flowers? These are Perumal’s favourite.” and I would buy some from her, even though I never really understood why a temple should be littered with flowers. Eventually it became a habit to buy flowers from her, much against my better judgement. Was it to just talk to her for a brief while? From shyly going to her to buy some flowers, we grew to “Akka! Did you know that a new pan shop is coming up near my house?”, “That’s great thambi! Here you go, your flower garland. Yeah, you can pay me towards the end of the month. I might make some gulab jamun tomorrow. I’ll get some just in case you decide to visit the temple”. I grew really fond of her. She was a very hard working soul. I have always been well off in terms of economic status and hence there was always a tinge of condescension for people who I thought did not have a goal in life. It never stopped me from socializing with them, but I always assumed a morally higher ground.

One fine day, she got married. I couldn’t stop crying when I came to know that she was leaving the town to go and live in the city. Her husband was a cobbler and he was planning to open a huge shop. She came to our house standing at our doorstep sheepishly. My mother took her in fondly and asked her to sit, while she went and fetched me. I won’t come, as I was angry with her for leaving the town. But I got around and went to meet her and gave a warm hug. She said nothing and left. My life was as usual after that. Over the next couple of years, I finished my polytechnic and was thinking of a career path.  Years passed as I sat and contemplated about it, but eventually decided to open an electronics shop in our town for the time being. I did that for almost ten years and was beginning to start getting exasperated with the stagnation in my life.

I was as usual going to the temple one fine Saturday when I saw a familiar face selling flowers in a basket. Akka was back. She had a small boy beside her curiously nibbling a raw mango slice. I went to her with a questioning face. She looked at me intently and we both smiled. I knew something went wrong but I never wanted to ask what it was. I was very happy that she was back in town. “Thambi, why don’t you try this new garland? It’s made thicker than usual.”, “Yes Akka. Add it to the monthly ledger will you?”, “Sure. Oh and might make some payasam next week. Will get some for you.” Life was back on track.

I very closely saw that boy grow up, as he was with his mom in the evenings. She seemed to be working harder now, almost as if she found her life’s calling. For all the fondness I had for her, I never really appreciated that she had no goal in life. Or so I thought.

Over time, her boy grew up to be a strong and well educated man. He was very courteous with me but also exuded great confidence. In the mean time, Akka also grew economically. She bought a table instead of a small basket for flowers, then two tables and finally a small hut where she sold all temple items apart from flowers. She was the same with me though, the caring elder sister, offering sweets every other week and telling me stories about how her boy was performing. 

So that gets us to this day. A fine Saturday evening when I decided to go to the temple as usual. Again, I saw Akka and went to her. Today I was particularly pensive about my life and the choices I made, but wanted to talk to her anyway. “Thambi, I heard you are thinking of closing the shop and going for a government post? I think it’s a great move. Here, take this coconut and camphor. No no! It’s from me, I won’t add its cost to the ledger. I am planning to buy a new shop new Malayappa temple. I’ve been approached by some to offer them some work, so I thought this is a nice way to go about things.”, I was listening carefully and suddenly asked her, “Akka, do you not have a huge goal in life?”. She seemed taken aback and visibly confused. “What happened Thambi?”, “Akka, I always see you selling flowers or other paraphernalia. Did you ever think about your goals, ambitions and so on? Don’t they bother you? Doesn’t it bother you that you are stuck here, selling flowers?”. She smiled, the sweetest and the most innocent smile I saw in ages. “I do have Thambi. I have goals, ambitions and I am stuck here only for those.”. It was my turn to be confused. “What are you saying akka? You never spoke to me about these things? What is it? Do you wish to live in the city and work somewhere?” “No Thambi, my ambition is here. Turn around, and see who is walking towards us”, and there I saw her son walking confidently towards us. “Greetings to you uncle! Amma, I may have gotten a job in a near by city. I think it’s a marvelous offer. I won’t work there for long, but I think I’ll get to learn some new tools. What do you say uncle? Do you think I should take a leap?”. I smiled. I found my answer.

I had a long discussion with one of my friends about how ambition means differently to different people. This story is something I concocted for the same reason. So I wish to give my friend credit for this post.

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A traditional tour

What do you do when you are jobless for three months? Go wherever your mom takes you of course. So did I. I went to a remote village called ‘Pothunuru’, which is around 150 KM from Kakinada, the place where my maternal grand parents live. The occassion was the marriage of a distant cousin. Primarily, I wanted to roam around in the farms and perhaps drive a tractor (I have had this penchant from the time I was born. There was a tractor in front of our house in Bangalore when I was 1-2 years old). However, neither of this was possible due to the extremely busy schedule. We stayed for a total of 24 hours and it was quite an experience. It was not just joy that was contained in this experience, but a lot of pain.

Before I discuss the traditions, I would like to state that hospitality extended by my uncles was top notch. I was touched by their kindness and their happiness on seeing me around. My uncles are four brothers. The marriage was the first uncle’s daughter’s, who had completed her B.Sc and was in the first year of MBA. The second uncle, perhaps knowing I liked working, decided to make me run a few small errands. On the other hand, the third uncle was not ready to give me any work, since I was their guest and guests don’t work. The fourth uncle, the most active and the busiest, made sure I was getting to roam here and there. What impressed me was their collective working. While the marriage was in the first house only, it hardly felt like that. It was like four elders toiling a lot for their child, something I wouldn’t see very often in cities. Further, the aunts were also extremely hospitable. What more, all the people were quite kind. This made me wonder, does a cosmopolitan atmosphere lose a sense of down to earth attitude and kindness? Perhaps yes. Anyways, I can’t really argue much, since the districts of East and West Godavari are very famous for their hospitality.

Since I was a boy and boys don’t directly participate in the marriage process, I was roaming here and there, running errands, trying to keep myself busy. However, as evening approached, I was totally free and decided to look at some of the events of the day. Quite mundane and archaic. That is how I understood the events. The first one was what is called in English as ‘Nail Cutting’, where, after a long period, the bridegroom’s nails are cut in the public, perhaps telling the whole world that she is going to get married soon. Isn’t it enough to see the thread around the neck? Or that she is roaming around with her husband? Part of the same event involved making her sit between four wooden cart logs. When I asked my aunt why it was done, she did not have an answer. I guessed that the first time this was done, it was because they wanted some form of boundary to assert the importance of the bridegroom and that these cart logs were all they found immediately. You see, this is now mundance and archaic. Why do we follow it? Is it blind faith? More than that, I see it as a fear of the unknown. That doing something against the ‘tradition’ might have very bad repurcussions. Similarly, the follow up event was bathing her. This involved, bringing five pots of pond water with great pomp and show. Once again, perhaps this was how it was done long ago, when that was the only method to get water for bathing.

A small detour here. I will tell a little about my aunt, about whom I mentioned above. She is my mother’s sister and in all terms, opposite to her character. While my mom is bubbly and has a tendency to follow the society, my aunt is quite reserved and believes in education. She is quite patient when it comes to answering my weird questions and I think she is quite knowledgeable about our tradition, and hence, she is my target at most of the times. She was married when she passed 10th class, thirty years ago. I guess she was lucky that she got a very supporting husband. She pursued law and even attempted civils but she was not successful, due to medical reasons. But she is a good lawyer and takes up a civil cases. All her three daughters, who are quite close to me, are highly qualified engineers and doctors. I can give the credit to my aunt, who is very supportive of education, as well as my uncle, who is perhaps one of the best fathers. Not just that, my aunt has helped a lot of her maids to pass Bachelor of Arts examinations. She also appreciates me when I question our traditions, our religious books and law in general. But is telling about my aunt in this article relevant? Yes it is. She is one reason I can still have some faith in our system. She is one person I can turn to and tell that there is bad in this society and that education (please don’t confuse education with mere literacy) can help reduce this problem. You will also realize at the end of this article that she is in stark contrast to another case study I am going to present in the coming section.

Coming back to our discussion, does this notion of tradition hurt? On the surface, it might not seem like. Following a bunch of not so harmful traditions does not really seem to hurt. Perhaps not and perhaps yes. I might not be able to see the immediate effect of these traditions, so I won’t comment on them much.

However, there is another tradition which I want to comment on in the context of Indian marriages, in particular, in our clan. The marriage as an institution itself! During this whole process, I got to know that another of my cousin, who just cleared her 10th standard, was looking forward to work as a civil servant. I thought it would be a good social experiment to brain wash her and find out what she was actually thinking. I found out that she is quite naive (of course, for her age, I can’t expect anything more. At that age, all I wanted was a new bike!), and that she had some altruistic views. She wanted to start an orphanage sometime down the line. She wanted to bring drastic changes in low level administration by being a collector. Noble thoughts. I showed her the dark side also. I told her that she might get bumped off in the process, or that her most loved one’s might get bumped off. She was undeterred. Strong personality. She was ready to resign if she had to choose between that and getting corrupted. Confused little child? I was impressed. I was almost going to congratulate her on her ambition, since I don’t know any girl in my family who wanted to work in the administrative wing. Then came the jerk. Her mother wanted to get her married as soon as her 12th grade got over. That, in my view is a crime. Can’t she have the liberty to choose when to get married? Actually not. The society is constructed in such a way that, if a girl does not get married early, her chances keep reducing exponentially, not something the parents would want. Let us, for the time being, tolerate this ‘tradition’. Now, this in itself should not be a roadblock for her ambition. Contrary to this, this is the greatest roadblock. The husband will not(statistically high chances. 9/10 husbands) allow her to study, since she might start commanding him! Bleh, that is not true you might say. One of her own uncle prevented his wife from continuing her education! This is not a one in million case but one less than a million in a million case! I had to agree with her. I could see that a child who has a noble ambition with a strong personality is being denied her right, because the society does not agree.

Now tell me. Is our tradition correct? What are we trying to safeguard? Whom are we trying to control and why? What are we trying to prove? Are we in a position for bringing change, or are we helpless?

Our tradition is not correct. It is archaic and does not apply in this age. Any tradition that prevents education is wrong. We are trying to safeguard our ego, our old notions, our head in the public. We are trying to control the helpless for this purpose, as we have been taught that the bread winner is always the supreme of the house and that the woman should be multiple levels below him. Education is seen as a threat to his power. Can’t they see that it will only help the family? Unfortunately, we can’t change this construct. It is so deep in the society that trying to mend it will only make you bleed. It is a viscious cycle and it has no exit. For the first time, I am apologetic of my clan. Nope, no one in my clan, except a few, share these views and I will get rebuked, if not beaten for saying this. So what do I do? I write an article, pouring out all my frustration and shut up. Welcome to my society. Where giving Rs. 1.5 crores of dowry is seen as a prestige well earnt but spending more than a few thousands on education is seen as an investment wasted.

Small things

Is your day made up of big achievements or small happy moments? Quite a mix right? But if you see on an average, it is the latter. I will be putting some of my thoughts in this post and expect it to be quite fragmented.

Many a times, I found that the shop helpers or the errand boys in our college messes tend to be alone, working and being shouted at by irritated students. We cannot always hold the students at fault, since the heat does take a toll. However, it is not fair to treat them that way. What more, they do find themselves quite lonely at times. Unconsciously, I have a quick conversation with them on a very light vein. Talking about bland mess food, or the heat in the city, or perhaps that the day is quite windy. I have seen them go happy for some time.

The guy at the lime soda stall, a Bihari is an awesome guy. I talk to him a lot about his city, my home town and how the heat is at our places(Yes you observed right, heat is the discussion most of the time, thanks to Chennai). I always compliment him for the excellent soda he makes, or let it just pass when the soda is hardly cold.

Our hostel zone has a cycle repair person who is almost mute. He is considered arrogant by a lot, since he outright rejects requests for repairing cycles when his shed is full.  For some reason, he does not do that with me. We have a good rapport. I quite easily understand what he means by his sign language. We say hi to each other when we meet at some other place.

The much talked about barber talks? Of course I do that too. The barber shop I go in Hyderabad is an M.Sc pursuing student, who talks a lot to me about life in Chennai, studies in general, latest movies (and my inability to comment on them as I hardly watch movies) and the politics.

It is not the costliest dinner you have one day that makes you happy. It is these small socializing events that make our day. A parting message by our close friend. A warm hug from our friends when we achieve something. Cousins calling up when you feel that you always wanted an elder sister. A small talk with a shop keeper. It is these small things that make my day. Perhaps this is a trait I have inherited from my father, who has enemies at his official level, but is revered in the driver and the helper circle (and the barbers too).

So if you want to make your day, go ahead and have a small chat with the coffee shop person. Perhaps buy a coffee for him and ask him to savor it along with you. Or buy a bunch of books for a driver who wishes to learn. Make your day with these small things.