The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–Overall Winner 2014
The day of the competition drew close, and preparations were in full swing. My father, having spent two hours on a precious Sunday morning had painstakingly translated the story of Cinderella, so that a four year old me could recite this story in e Hindi recitation competition in my school.
I had not exercised any choice whatsoever, as my Hindi teacher had thrust me with this seemingly arduous task of reciting the story in a language that was not unfamiliar to me, but one that was simply difficult. The story had to be recited in a slightly formal Hindi, and not in the Hindi was familiar with.
After we had moved to Hyderabad, I had picked up the beautiful, and to the untrained ear, often slightly amusing amalgam of Hindi and Urdu, with a tad bit of Telugu randomly thrown in. This queer dialect, in which my friends and I conversed, was formally known as Dakhni. I had become proficient at it, and so, the pure Hindi in which I was supposed to recite the story was rather unfamiliar to me.
My father had translated the story for me, and had given me two sheets of paper in which was written the fairytale in Hindi. I could only try to read it. To test me out, he recorded my story telling, which I duly recited in Dakhni, and as much “pure Hindi” as I could muster, discarding my father’s script entirely.
He first connected a pair of headphones with a microphone, to what was then a cutting edge desktop, a white box that ran on 256 MB RAM. I had used this contraption several times. Being a die-‐hard fan of Shah Rukh Khan, our family of three often entertained itself by listening to my rendition of some of his famous hits. I sang only what I thought was the lyrics, and belted out Baadshah, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, and other chartbusters. Indeed, Bollywood deserves more credit for my South Indian tongue picking up Hindi, than the textbooks containing the beautiful stories of Premchand.
I recorded my story, nervously, but also enjoying myself. I asked my father for help when I needed it, and I echoed him as he prompted me in the background. I was done in within a minute. My father called my mother in, made her listen to it, and it seemed to have provided them their quota of comic relief for the day. My mother hugged and peppered me with kisses, as Appa stroked my soft four-‐year-‐old hair.
This was what they heard: “Cinderella dance kar ke, chale gayi…12 O’ clock ko…Aur next time Duke aake bola jab woh ummm..’ at this point I needed help ‘shoes-‐ag yen heltare?’ I whispered to my father in Kannada. ‘Chappal, jootein, correct size ke…’ I trailed away. ‘Jiske paaon mein joot baithata’ (for baith tha tha) ‘Usko Shaadi karliya bolke. Ek ko bada hai, ek ko chota hai. Cinderella bolti “main dekhtu?” baad mein, umm Cinderella ko shaadi kar ke, chalegaya. Dhanyawaad!’.
Even after my loud and clear enunciation of gratitude for an imaginary audience, I felt I was not quite done. ‘Tab chale jata bolke, aur, Cinderella, dance kar di’ I ended. The competition never quite happened, but this recording has survived for sixteen years, and continues to give comic relief to all those who listen to it. At that time, unbeknownst to me, dare I say almost behind my own back, I had internalized Dakhni, and also the street culture it represented. I walked with a swagger, played with children who were from middle and lower middle class families, ate roadside sweet-‐meats, and could not possibly care any less about anything. Culture found me, when I was in my kindergarten, and I just went with the tide.
I put on my ethnic wear, a set of Kurta Pyjamas, grabbed my Dandiya, bid my parents goodbye, and disappeared into the night to uphold the tradition of dancing Garba with my friends in the Garba ground in IIM-‐A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad), where I had been living for three and a half years.
I had completely forgotten Dakhni, which had made way for the more commonly spoken Bollywood Hindi, complete with cuss words and fairly graphic obscenities. The textbook Hindi was still my Achilles’ heel. I was more comfortable, however, with the language of the privileged faculty kids-‐English. I let go of Kannada, and conversed with my parents in English, much to my father’s annoyance.
As I reached the Garba ground, I beheld the faces of my partners in crime-‐Ritwik Pandey, Aarit Ahuja, Badal Chandra and Ishaan Pathak. We fenced for a while with the Dandiya, unintentionally hitting each other’s knuckles. And then blared the terrible sound from the cheap speakers. We formed a giant circle, and swayed and frolicked to the cacophonic Garba music, kicking up a dust storm as we did so. This happened all night, and my gang usually stayed as long as the parents allowed. We then had to go home, to bed, so we that we could be alert enough at school the next day.
This madness would usually happen for eight nights, by which time, the dust would have given me allergies. I managed only once to not fall sick till the ninth day, the day that was a grand finale to this festival. On this day, people generally dressed themselves in the authentic Gujarati dancing costumes, and danced in the lush greens and grandeur of the Louis Kahn Plaza, named after the famous architect of the campus.
Throughout my life in IIM-‐A, never have I seen a non-‐Gujarati robe himself in a full Garba costume for all the first eight nights and dance. In fact, even the Gujaratis only danced in T-‐ shirts and jeans, because, In the protective confines of the campus, life was more luxurious, privileged, and in retrospect, a bit boring, and lacked one single identifiable culture. IIM was a melting pot of traditions, and while I was aware of the many differences in culture and tradition within the campus, never did I imbibe any trait, like I had internalized the street culture of Hyderabad.
I may possibly have internalized a ‘Gujarati form of life’, if you will, had I not been so privileged and protected. Grounds across the city, outside the campus that is, enforced the Garba costume as a dress code, without which, one would not be allowed to dance. I was never a part of this culture, and was probably culturally a bit distant.
My father and I arrived in Ranga Shankara, on the festive day of Ugadi, to witness Ranga Ugadi, a day dedicated to the retrospectives of a particular author. This author that year was Chandrashekhar Kambara, and his plays were staged, and questions were posed to him. This was a break from my usual, TV filled holidays.
We were greeted by a very bitter prasadam, made out of neem, that was green in color and which looked a lot like my mother’s delicious coriander rice. My father interacted with many litterateurs, and I, silently, and in awe of my father, tagged along.
I had been to Ranga Shankara several times before, and on one occasion, I had been sent there to write a thousand- word-essay about my experience there, which was to be submitted to my English teacher. I had never witnessed a day like this, where all the activities were planned around one author.
The siren blew, and there came a hush in the audience. The anchor walked on stage, and introduced us to the celebrated author in eloquent and well-‐enunciated Kannada. She had discussed all the events, the last of which was to be conducted by my father, a question-‐ answer session with Kambara himself.
The celebrations began, as the lights dimmed, and artists took their positions on the stage, ware of the ghostly audience, not quite able to see it.
She began singing. B. Jayashree had a powerful voice, though I recognized her from her presence in my grandmother’s favorite serials. She was then joined by the chorus, and thus began Karimayee, the day’s first play. The actors were fabulous, as was the direction, although I noticed an air of discomfort from Arundhati Nag, who was sitting a few seats from me. She squirmed uneasily, as the actors smoked on stage, as a part of the play of course, thus almost ruining the stage floor of the theatre she had co-‐founded.
The play ended with a roaring standing ovation, as the cast members were introduced. B. Jayashree was the last to be introduced, and, as if her talent for acting were not enough, it was also announced that she was the director of the play.
The story of the play was set in rural North-‐Karnataka, and displayed a culture that was most unfamiliar to me. The director and her actors brought this to life, and therefore, I learnt to appreciate a culture that was not quite my own. I had been to Ranga Shankara before, but on that day, the sheer diversity of cultures portrayed within the gamut of the Kannada language overwhelmed me. From then on, I became sensitive to differences in culture, although I could not imbibe them.
My living in Bangalore had been fairly sheltered, as I had imposed upon myself a house arrest of sorts, refusing to go out, even though my parents begged me to do so. I had barely any friends, and became a television addicted introvert, good for nothing. When I started going to Ranga Shankara, I only became more aware of the various differences in culture. I was, and continue to be, illiterate in Kannada, and have been sent to privileged schools outside the city, where I again spent time with children as well off and as blissfully ignorant as I.
I seem to have transversed the spectrum, in some sense, of discovering culture. In Hyderabad, I soaked up the cultural environment surrounding me. I imbibed it, internalized it, yet until now, never quite appreciated this fairly humbling fact, that a four-‐year-‐old self could absorb more than a twenty year old me. In Ahmedabad, I slowly gave up the absorption of culture and my mind gradually became sensitive to changes in culture, although it could not fully appreciate these variations. In Bangalore, I lost my ability to absorb, but my mind could appreciate minute cultural differences Culture found me in Hyderabad, and we, lost touch in Ahmedabad, although I found culture again in Bangalore, but, culture and I could not quite look in the eye and converse with each other the way long lost friends do.