Saturday, January 30, 2010

What's In A Name?

Have been mulling over the use of first names for quite some time now. Having come from an eastern culture where addressing one's elders by their given names is unthinkable for that matter, I have had my own measure of culture shock and eventual acceptance in this regard during my thirteen plus years of living in North America. Having grown up in India, I always addressed my teachers with a great deal of respect and would never have dreamed of calling them by their first names. "Maadhaa, Pidhaa, Guru, Dheivam" (Mother, Father, Teacher, God) the dictum goes, indicating their hierarchy of importance in the cosmic order of things (or people?), and since the teacher preceded even God in that order, one always addressed the teacher with the greatest deference, as "Sir", "Madam", or "Professor".

The same can be said for addressing anyone older in years, be it a sibling, friend, colleague, relative, or neighbor, and there was always a respectful term of reference that was used while talking to them. Having moved to the United States, one of my greatest culture shocks came when I enrolled at university in California, and my professors asked me to call them by name. It took me considerable effort and time to be able to do so, and because they insisted on it, I did manage it by and by, though I initially found it very awkward to look them in the eye and call them "Judy" or "Robert" or whatever. Then there was my sister who called her parents-in-law by name; they being Caucasian and she having lived in the US for nearly three decades, it was quite OK for her to do so, but it sounded rather strange to me at first.

Then I became a College Instructor myself and started calling my Dean "Prof. Smith," only to be promptly reminded to call him "Jim." Now I have grown accustomed to all my students calling me by name, and even with the odd one who does otherwise, I go, "Please feel free to call me Olivia." Even the kids in the neighborhood call me by name and now it all sounds perfectly natural to me. My son calls his friend's Mom "Lisa" and tells me it's nicer than having to call her "Mrs. Jackson." He does address his teachers at school as Mr. or Ms. So-and-So, but I guess when he enters university, his Professors might ask him to call them by name. It all depends on how one wants to be addressed, I suppose.

Being active on a social networking site, I have reconnected with many of my students from back home where I used to teach the undergraduate and graduate English Literature students. Most of them still respectfully address me as "Ma'am" and interestingly enough, I have discovered that I'm only 2 or 3 years older than my older batch of students. Though I have asked them and the other younger ones as well to call me by name, it is very difficult for them to do so. I understand how strange and awkward it is for them to get rid of such a culturally rooted and deeply ingrained habit. Maybe it doesn't matter much to me now because I've been away from my place of origin for too long.

What's in a name, I ask?!? But not so for my students from India, I suppose, and I respect them for that!!!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Cousin's Recollections Of His Uncle

Alfred Gunasekaran, Ruston, LA, USA

This is only a short account of Mr. Samuel Durairaj, with whom I was acquainted for about 35 years, and a testimony to the rosy picture that his own daughter, Olivia Kanna has painted about his life as a tribute to her late father, an erudite man, who led a simple, religious, yet bold life, which he inherited from his parents. Samuel Durairaj was born ca.1928 in an ordinary family, in a place often termed as the granary of South India, and he was not far from our own family circle. He was the eldest brother of my mother, and I am the last and the eighteenth grandchild of Samuel’s parents.

Mr. Samuel Durairaj was indeed a self-taught scholar. Being the eldest of a half a dozen siblings, and when electricity was not a common household thing, he and his siblings grew up with a meager amount of basic supplies, including food and other necessities. Every day evening, after Samuel and his siblings came from school, they had to do the usual evening routine in the house,… not a usual task everyone will think of... Samuel’s mother, my grand mother, had an unusual interest and insatiable love for pet animals… she had cows, sheep, chicken, turkey, dogs, parrot, you name it…. The house used to be a mini zoo… no exaggeration..! All the children had to clean the house, take care of these delicate life stocks… prepare food, wash clothes, etc… All these children would have been qualified instantly to become the “dirty job heroes”. Samuel’s mother had also arranged for someone to come every day early in the morning to milk the cows. It was in those days, Samuel and all his younger siblings had had to finish their homework with a portable hurricane lamp or candle light. Being the eldest son, Samuel had to wait patiently for his turn almost for everything…Samuel never used his first-born rights to compete with or snatch the study lamps or any other things from his younger siblings... Samuel used to wait until all his younger siblings finished their work and get to bed by ten o’clock in the night. It was only then Samuel would start his reading undisturbed in those days... From childhood onwards, he seemed to be very enthusiastic about learning and fascinated by books, and entranced by the idea that knowledge is power, which he could transfer to his own children later in his life. Being the first born in the house, and that too, as a male child, he would have been given an agenda to support the family, the tradition that continues even now in millions of families in India.

Samuel’s house was indeed a power house of knowledge with lots of books in a small library. Nearly four decades ago, when I was a small kid, I used to like to go to Samuel’s (my uncle’s) house to see the beautiful books about animals, fishes, and so on, … just to see the pictures in those books. His house was the only outlet for all the small kids to learn about wildlife, marine life, etc… when television was not very ubiquitous in those days. Many families are gifted to have a prodigy child, and some families are even more blessed with more prodigies. Certainly, Samuel’s family is one such family, as Samuel himself was a prodigy in his parent’s house.

The funniest thing I could remember about Samuel Durairaj was that just because he had some bad dreams one fine night, when he left the house next day morning to work, he advised his youngest son Gladius not to go out of the house that day. Whether it was a divine intervention or psychological fears that made Samuel Durairaj to take that decision that day was not known, but a father’s decision to protect and save his son will always be remembered and told for generations. Even funnier was that when Samuel’s son, Gladius stayed at home and started washing clothes near the well in the house, his elder sister, Millicent, uttered, “You don't go near the may even fall...”. That was hilarious… ! As I think of it now, it might just well be another divine intervention..!

These are just my random thoughts, that resulted from some of the stories that my mother told me as her childhood memories, that would concur with Olivia’s memories.......!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hope For Haiti!!!

The scenes of desperation and distress coming from Haiti these past ten days have been overwhelmingly heart-rending and gut-wrenching. After the monstrous 7.1 on the Richter scale earthquake to hit this impoverished island nation, it has been too horrible to comprehend the enormity of the devastation that has left 90% of the people in and around Port-au-Prince homeless. Entire villages have been decimated, only 50% of the buildings are left standing, and the dazed survivors have no time left to mourn their loved ones. Government sources state that an estimated 111,000 plus people who were killed in this apocalyptic quake have been buried in mass graves so far, and noone honestly knows how many thousands more still remain under the collapsed, mangled mountains of debris. After ten days of search and rescue, the government has officially halted those missions and is now focusing on rehabilitating the survivors. Yet, defying all odds, nearly 132 survivors have been pulled out of the rubble so far, the most recent ones being an 88 year old woman and a 22 year old man who were discovered and pulled out on the 10th day yesterday.

Death the Leveller has been quite impartial in Haiti with regard to age, gender, class, or whatever. From the President to the common man to the escaped convict, all are on the streets right now, which brings me to question the meaning and purpose of life and why there has to be so much suffering in the world. Answers to these we will never know. However, needless to say, more than just witnessing the death and destruction and desperation in Haiti as shown on TV, the unaffected in the rest of the world are morally linked to the survivors left behind in Haiti and it is our greatest responsibility to reach out to our fellow human beings in distress. The Hope for Haiti telethons, both in the US and Canada, have raised millions of dollars from the public to rebuild Haiti, and with governments pitching in, celebrities putting their money where their mouth is, and altruism running high in the rest of the world, hope is not lost for Haiti!

Humankind has always been known for its resilience and determination, and it is my firm conviction that Haiti will rise from the ashes with all the overwhelming global support it's receiving right now. Each one of us needs to do our part, however little it might be, and realize that the rehabilitation of Haiti is not a one time thing, but a prolonged endeavor for months and years to come. We lead increasingly narcissistic and exhibitionist lives in today's world, but here is the chance for all of us to transcend the pettiness of our self-absorbed lives and be proactive in rebuilding Haiti. One knows not how many more apocalyptic events are to unfold on our planet yet, but as long as we rally round and reach out to those fellow human beings in distress, there is plenty of hope yet for the world and humanity in general!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Childhood Reminiscences Of Thanjavur

My father hailed from Thanjavur or Tanjore as the British anglicized it, and my memories of this ancient historic city from my childhood are both vivid and fading. My paternal grandparents lived in this city for most of their lives, and my father being their eldest son, we would dutifully visit them every summer, making the long-awaited trip by train from Madurai, down South. My father was an officer in the Indian Railways and this entitled our family to travel for free throughout the length and breadth of India, so needless to say, we availed of this privilege extensively, Thanjavur becoming one of our regular jaunts every year. The excitement in the children was palpable as the train neared the city, and almost always, we would take a horse-drawn carriage (kudhirai vandi) from the station to our ancestral house. We children would pile into the carriage, scrambling to be seated next to the driver and the horse. If that was taken, then we would vie with each other to sit at the back, with our legs hanging out of the carriage and swinging in unison to the motion of the carriage as the horse sped off.

My memory of the house in which my grandparents lived is of this huge, palatial building with an equally imposing flight of steps and massive columns or pillars that supported the vast verandah. As a child, it was one of my favorite pastimes to compete with my assorted cousins to see who could get their arms around these pillars and have their fingers touch. It was always impossible for me to do just that, and if my memory serves me right, the pillars were so huge that even the older children couldn't accomplish that. The house was sprawling, built in the colonial style of the day, and I would gaze up at the ceiling and marvel at the huge wooden rafters that ran along the entire length of the ceiling. The furniture too was typically British, and there was an armoire in the living room that occupied a pride of place and was always kept under lock and key. It contained a treasure trove of biscuits and cookies sent by my aunt who lived in Singapore, and we children would wait for my grandmother to open it and give us our treat of goodies for the day. And the child who pleased my grandmother by behaving well or helping her out would get something extra as well.

The dining room and the kitchen were sunken and we had to go down a set of steps to access these rooms. I used to love the smell of the woodfires in the kitchen, its cosy warmth, and the aroma of food wafting out of it the entire day. No electric stoves, no food processors, but elementary, basic ways of cooking that warm my heart to this day. I would sit next to Bommi, the maid, as she ground the spices for the masalas for the various dishes, and chat with her as she asked me about my school or the temple or some such thing in Madurai. Chopra, the farmhand, would feed and milk the cows in the side yard, and it was always fascinating to watch him at his chores as he occasionally allowed us to give him a helping hand. There was fresh milk aplenty from the cows and people in the neighborhood would come to buy milk from us, pausing to chat with my grandmother as she supervised the servants measuring out the milk. I also remember the hay being stacked in mountainous piles and we children would take enormous pleasure ascending and sliding down these mini mountains and combating the itch it gave us later on.

The best part of my visit to Thanjavur was the weekly visit to the sandhai, the local version of the farmer's market. My grandmother being a teacher at the local school, all the vendors knew her personally and would ask her about their children's performance at school as she stopped at their stalls. There was no bargaining for Grandma because she always got the best deals there. The vendors were all very respectful towards my grandmother and the kid who accompanied "Teacher Amma" would always get a handful of free stuff, like peanuts, gooseberries, achu vellam (small cubes of jaggery), porikadalai (fried, split channa dhal) and other eatables. Each grandchild got his or her turn to go with my grandmother to the market, and we were all eager to do so only because the trip always ended with her buying us a tall glass of "Gunakudi Dhasan", a local sherbet of sorts made out of roots and herbs such as nannaari and vettiver. With a specially concocted essence and large chunks of ice in it, the sherbet was heaven to us kids. Grandma was an expert at cooking fish and crab, and she would pick and choose the best that was for sale, only to return home and cook a veritable feast for all of us. She had a special clay pot to cook the fish curry in, and she always stated that fish tasted best cooked in a clay utensil rather than a metal one.

We would also make a visit to the family fields outside Thanjavur where rice was cultivated. To us city-bred children, the walk in the fields was delightful as we traipsed along on the mud pathways amidst the flowing green paddy fields, dipping our feet in the irrigation canals or watching wide-eyed the tiny field crabs scuttling away from our trampling feet. Harvest season is another vivid memory, the farmhands cutting and threshing the paddy, separating the rice kernels from the chaff and filling huge gunny sacks with the rich grain to be transported back home. There was a special room like a granary of sorts in my grandparents' house where all the sacks of rice were piled high up to the ceiling. My grandfather being asthmatic, he would relax on the verandah at nightfall in an easychair, as we children squealed and yelled, running around playing our childish games. Grandpa always had dosais (crispy rice and lentil crepes) for dinner while the rest of the family ate rice, and only the younger ones, myself included, would get the golden brown dosais as a special treat.

Thanjavur having been the seat of power of the Chozha dynasty, it had its own palaces, forts, temples and other historic structures. The Thanjai Periya Koil, one of the famous temples in Tamilnadu, boasts a huge nandhi or bull hewn from a single piece of rock, and I remember gazing at it with awe, myself so puny and insignificant beside its gargantuan size. I had such an idyllic time in Thanjavur which all came to an end after my grandfather passed away. My grandmother became too old to live there alone and eventually moved to Madurai to be with her children. Only my father's younger brother lived there, and he too moved to Madurai for good after his wife passed away. Visits to Thanjavur slowly became a thing of the past, only to remain alive in my memories. As the years have gone by, some of those memories are fading as well. If only I could relive those good old days again, how glorious it would be! How sad that my son has no idea of his mother's childhood spent in Thanjavur, except from a few paragraphs written by her and an occasional story or two recounted to him in the midst of our busy lives!

If only we could all be transported back to the past!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Decade In Retrospect!

Retrospect...what a hive of memories one becomes! As I reminisce about the past decade, a myriad of memories come crowding into my mind. The most life-altering changes have taken place in my life these past ten years, both good and bad. The upheavals have been many, as have the moments to savor, and I'm truly thankful to God for helping me weather both the ups and downs in life. As I set foot in the second decade of this millennium, I only pray that His grace be with me and my family in the coming years. Hope, as always, reigns supreme, and my heart yearns for a better tomorrow!

The major change in the last decade was our immigration to Canada from California. Having lived in the US for six years, it was my idea to make the big move here. The husband, though hesitant initially, finally acquiesced and was quite caught up with the idea after all the initial research about Canada. I have lived these past six plus years in British Columbia, one of the most beautiful regions on the planet, in a peace-loving country with an idealistic government that welcomes immigrants with open arms. Needless to say, I am now a proud Canadian citizen, having embraced this wonderful country with all my heart and soul! If anyone had told me at the beginning of the decade that I would be a Canadian citizen by the end of the decade, I would've simply laughed and poohed poohed the idea as preposterous. Strange, how and where life takes us!

On the down side, I have lost two very important people in my life, my beloved mother and my dear father-in-law. The heartache has been too much to bear this decade, both of them dying three years apart. The times were traumatic in the aftermath of seeing my loved ones suffer and perish. Death was a merciful deliverance to them, putting an end to all their suffering, yet for those of us left behind, their passing away was emotionally crippling and devastatingly sad.

Another bold move I had to make was to quit my Assistant Professorship in India. I had been on a long leave of absence while I lived in the US and subsequently moved to Canada. Three years into the decade, it was time for me to make a final decision professionally, and I resigned from my privileged position in academia, painful though it was. This is one thing that I still do regret. I am to this day filled with remorse for having given up that which I loved the most, teaching English Literature to both the undergraduate and graduate students back home.

Our blessings these past years have been many...good health, good jobs amid the raging recession all around us, a home to call our own in our new country, a brand new environmentally friendly car in the last year, and of course, friendships that have sustained us through the years. I was able to go to University for four certificates, take a course to hone my writing skills, and above all, have the courage to venture into blogging territory. Being roped into the social network of Facebook was another milestone for me this decade, and surprisingly enough, my French Professor, Ms. Maida Gonsalvez (now Thomas), from my undergraduate days, found me on the network. Through her, I've been able to reconnect with my undergraduate friends - Margaret, Hema, Cynthia, Fatima, Madhavi, Bhuvana, and Thenmozhi - and that too after 29 years !!! What a way to end the decade!

The kid has entered his 14th year now, the husband and I are counting 22 years of togetherness, and looking back, this past decade has not been too bad after all. Changes, upheavals and all, life has been generally good, and I look forward to the future with undying optimism and never-ending hope!