‘Choose Marriage or Education’

As a teenager, Madhur Anand’s mother takes heed of her father’s final words and becomes a teacher.

Madhur Anand | Brick | Fall 2017 | 18 minutes (3,526 words)

May his head burn! Your words are rocks thrown at my forehead! I will peel her skin off! Threats and insults like these do not sound that bad in their native Punjabi. Even when they are directed at loved ones. Even when they come from your own mother. The pronouns are catalysts for combustion, a quick, irreversible reaction, with only ashes for proof. However, an English word like partition can sit in an Indian’s mouth for hours, or even for a lifetime, in motion toward something shapeless, and then melted, gone. Sometimes partition represents a noun (a broken door), sometimes it is a verb (to divide into parts), but it is never clear who is at fault. An Urdu poet once called partition a birthday party for anonymous and a funeral for unanimity. A mathematician saw it in his mind as a fractal, a Koch snowflake, a continuous curve without tangents. A political scientist speaks only of before-and-after maps, the thick red Radcliffe Line. Nobody ever truly understands one another. Translation is never simple.

***

Mother makes chapattis. They are perfectly round, a circumference entirely calculable by first measuring a tangent, thanks to the discovery of constants. The first one she makes is reserved for the Brahmin, who will come later in the day to pick it up. The last one she makes is for a crow or a dog, whoever comes first. The rest are for us, but there must always be one left over at the end of the day, reserved for nobody, for nothing. That is how Mother would define abundance if she knew the word in English. How she achieves it, on the other hand, is a mystery. I am already bathed, dressed in my salwar kameez, and outside, content to throw five nameless stones onto the cement floor. I grasp them in my fist in groups of one, two, three, and then four while tossing another straight up. That one will fall either where I want it to or where it will. I hope for intersection but do not worry too much about the outcome. The five of us are here now. Mother, father, sister, brother, and me. There will come a time when I will be the only one left of us. Still up in the air.

***

The neighbors are distant; everyone still feels like a refugee. One knocks on the front door and shouts, Bapu par goli chal gayi! Bullets got Mahatma Gandhi. Bapu is the Gujarati word for “father.” The remaining Hindi is passive, lacking in the gory details that got dropped as the news travelled by word of mouth to us from Birla House in Delhi. I try to build my own image by asking Father questions. Where? Three holes in the chest. How? Father starts to cry. He says it does not matter how because that is how kismet works. Pulling the trigger is linked to other destinies. Life is an eternal and universal sea with a surface as rough as Himalayan peaks. That is why no amount of knowledge can predict the trajectory of such bullets. Not even the theory of ballistics. Father uses the English word because he does not know the Hindi one and reminds us we must still pay attention to those subjects in school. This is enough to focus my mind. I picture an equilateral triangle: three black dots on a white handspun-cotton background. No blood. What is important, Father tells us, is that Bapu chanted Hey Ram three times as the bullets went in. For the next few days, as the news continues to spread, Indians everywhere cry and whisper Hey Ram. Us Hindus believe Bapu needs 10 million Hey Rams to receive moksha. Which he does, easily, because in 1948 there are at least 345 million Indians on the planet. When Bapu is liberated from the cycle of birth and death, India is still an infant learning how to speak.

***

 

When Father himself dies four years later from diabetes at home in his bed, Mother does not whisper, Hey Ram, but instead says, Mai margi. I am in no mood for Punjabi metaphors. I take her words — I am dead — at face value, which is what leads me to Bapu Industrial Home and its promise of training in life skills. I am 13, old enough to get a job, old enough to get married, and most importantly, old enough to save Mother’s life. I think that is what life skills must ultimately do. Mother and I travel by tonga, and I cannot help but notice the tongawalla’s lethargic movements. I wonder what skills are required for his profession other than being male. He holds the reins too loosely to be a leader. He looks too thin to do any real labor. He is not even a good businessman. The fare negotiated is exactly halfway between what Mother initially offers and what he initially quotes. From his reluctance to get going, even the horse seems to think the tongawalla can do better than that. I take it upon myself to accumulate 10 million Hey Rams for my father. There is no time limit, and I intend to live long. I spend the entire tonga ride chanting Hey Ram.

***

I choose training in tailoring and embroidery for myself, and hosiery for Mother. She starts out making socks on a Singer knitting machine. She picks up the techniques quickly, alternating phases of pulling at threads and turning a crank, everything always in clockwise rotation. She tells me she likes the circular motion, how it feels like she is going nowhere, and then suddenly she is done. She learns to hand-knit thick sweaters in popular solid colours. Cream (for cream), plum (for plums), or forest green (for the pine forests of the Doon Valley’s surrounding foothills). She tells me she enjoys how the linear movements of her hands make her thoughts nice and simple and slow down time. As for the finished sweaters, she can never take money for them. She has heard of Sister Mother Teresa helping lepers in Calcutta. She distributes her sweaters to neighbors, insisting that they try them on first for size to prove her estimates are correct. I make elaborately embroidered one-of-a-kind monogrammed handkerchiefs. I count the petals and leaves along the borders for what I think is an added luxury: perfect symmetry. I finish them with an equilateral triangle defined by three tiny red hearts. I sell them to friends and strangers for four annas apiece. Each sale could buy me three pieces of hard candy from the candywalla. But four handkerchiefs mean one rupee. Four rupees mean one Tenali Raman book with its useful stories on how to outwit kings, gurus, and men. I buy nothing. Successful application, I learn, is not everything in life. Each participant in Bapu’s training program must also complete a theory workbook — the mechanics of the knitting machines, the geometry of cutting patterns, the physics of stitches. Mother never learned to write in Hindi, so I do all the theory for her, including signing her name on the assignments. I make my handwriting far worse for my own pages so the administrators can see a difference between young and old. I realize it is much harder to try your worst at something than to try your best at it. I learn to never want to do that again.

***

My first real job requires neither tailoring nor embroidery skills nor fake signatures. I work as a teacher’s assistant at a private school in Anand Chowk. The administration writes down on see-through receipts that they pay me 60 rupees per month, but they only give me 30. I accept their need to inflate my work. I sign my true signature and add three hearts so they know I am content. The job is to make sure children write neatly on their slates, that their simple sums add up. When they do not, we use blocks of clean clay, mitti, to wipe and start again. One day, a girl comes to school without any pieces of chalk. When I ask her why, she says her mother ate them, like cookies, dipped in wet mitti, because she has a baby in her tummy. I buy her a new set and tell her to hide them from her mother. Because even a loving mother can be transformed into the enemy of her school-aged daughter, succumbing to new cravings originating in the womb. It is then I remember Father’s words to me before his death — Choose marriage or education — and I begin to prepare for high-school studies. I get home from work, eat one paratha, drink one glass of milk, and head back out into the evening, my bike left at the side of Onkar Road to save time. The Guruji there says I do not have to pay the fees, but I negotiate because I do not want pity: “If you take ten rupees from everyone else, then take four from me.” Guruji is also a psychologist. One day he reads my face and says, “This girl is going to be something. She has great kismet.” There is no one around to hear it, so I do not believe him. That night, when I return home, rain starts to fall in buckets just as I arrive safely onto the veranda. For a moment, I feel as though I have stepped into my future. But I run back out into the rain and force myself to get drenched with the present. I apply for elementary teacher training at a nearby college. My application is rejected despite Guruji’s glowing reference. The administrators say, “This is not for you, munni, you are too young,” as though they do not know about life skills. I get into the next college by lying about my age. They want me to be 17, but I am 14, so I say I am 16, and they accept. One month, I cannot pay the seven rupee a month tuition, and they do not merely threaten to remove my name; they remove it. Even street children warn the birds by yelling Shoo! before they fling stones at them. I have to borrow money from one of my students’ mothers to get back in. The mother asks me to make the teachers give her daughter extra marks. Her daughter is neither bright nor pretty. I tell the mother I will, but I am only a teacher-in-training and have no say. So I owe her, like a rainbow owes meteorology.

***

When the school year ends, I am sent to a month-long camp — Samaj Sudhar Samiti — for the improvement of a remote village, Nehrugram. Gardening, agriculture, building roads, education of the illiterate children. The woman who organizes the camp is a highly educated MP. She is still a devout follower of Bapu and continues to wear only Khadi clothes. Nevertheless, she accepts my hand-embroidered machine-spun handkerchief gift. In the field, I discover I know instinctively how to plant flowers, to space them far enough apart for breathing room, close enough for pollen exchange. The garden plot is like a square of cloth, and I have learned that decoration must be both beautiful and functional. The MP is pregnant, expecting her fourth child, perhaps because the first three are girls. The last I hear of her is from Mother: she went for the delivery, they gave her an overdose, and they took the baby out. My mother says these three phrases in quick succession, as though time and causation are the same thing. I get depressed, but I do not use anything like the word depressed because I do not know the meaning of it yet, and the closest thing in Hindi translates to “sinking heart.” What was all her education about?

***

I become a full-time teacher at the age of 16 (18 on paper) at my former junior high school because I know the superintendent. At breaks I drink unsweetened nimboo sherbet. There is a control on sugar. My former teachers use ghur for their tea in the staff room. I tease them: Do you really need to have tea if you cannot afford sugar? They like me even less. They already know I am underage and that my English is weak. They watch me like hawks. I buy a book of English translation for six annas to shield myself. I borrow a copy of Radiant Reading to use for my class. The cover is a muted orange, like mango-colored chalk. At the bottom of the cover are the words Allied Publisher. I pronounce it “al-eed” in my head for years and then only once out loud, in the staff room. I am told that my pronunciation is part of why the British gave up on India. I think that might be a good thing, but I correct myself. The first story in the Radiant Reading book is by someone so famous, I tell the children, he needs only one name. I do not admit that I have never heard of him. The most difficult five words to be found in the story appear at the outset in bold, floating across the page in a zigzag pattern:

trussed             refusal             obliged

wrath         impudence

I know none of them, and my book of English translation does not contain them. I pronounce them anyway, as if they are enigmatic Sanskrit mantras for communicating with God. The first one is easy because I hear the word trust. I assure the children the meanings will become apparent in the context of the story. We read the short story together, out loud, each child taking a few sentences. The story goes more or less like this: A nobleman is out hunting with his hawk. The hawk gets him a crane, which he throws into a bag to bring back to his villa to have cooked for his dinner. The nobleman’s cook has a friend who, unable to resist the smell of the cooking bird, begs the cook to give him one of the crane’s legs to eat. When the nobleman sees the cooked crane with the missing leg and asks the cook about it, the cook insists that the crane only had one leg to begin with. The cook tries to prove his point by taking the nobleman back to the river where the crane was hunted. They come upon a number of cranes in the water, standing on one leg, asleep. The cook says, See! They all have only one leg! The nobleman yells, Shoo! and the cranes put down their second legs and fly away. The nobleman scolds the cook, who then asks the noblemen: Why did you not yell “Shoo!” at the dinner table earlier today? How do you know for sure that the cooked crane would not also reveal its second leg to you then? You see? You too have wasted my time, Sir. The nobleman accepts the cook’s wit in exchange for forgiveness.

***

I later ask Guruji how to use a hawk to catch a crane. He says, “With falconry.” A wild hawk must first be blinded to get accustomed to the human voice and dependent on humans for food. Its eyelids are sealed, a stitch of linen on the lower lid. A hound is needed too, to mediate. To prevent the crane from thrashing around and damaging the hawk, which is after all the more delicate of the two birds. He tells me rich people do it as a sport. He tells me there are only two men in Dehradun who still know the art of falconry: a man named Sirdar Mohamed Osman, a descendant of the king of Afghanistan, and his father. They walk through their neighborhood of Dalanwala, the birds on their fists and their dogs beside them. The birds are known by name, the most famous of which is Kali Rani (Black Queen). And just when I think Guruji knows everything, he says, “Enough of this talk about birds and death. Tell me, how is it that you have not gotten chopai yet?” To have chopai means to have four legs — as in getting married. I am shocked. Despite all his knowledge, Guruji does not seem to understand the simplest thing: it is marriage or education. But I do not have a witty response, only a mental image of embroidered eyelids.

***

In spite of his shortcomings, I continue to study under Guruji. Mother sits with me, knitting a sweater, and when my eyes close, craving the blindness of sleep to go hunting for ignorance, she wakes me up and asks if she can make me a cup of green tea. I start drinking black tea only later. Like most things in my life, I will not like it at first but will get used to it. I attempt my bachelor of arts. Some of my college classes, like Transportation, are full of boys — there are only three girls. Two of us sit high up in the last row. One girl sits up front. She is a boys type of girl. I never talk to the boys. I have chosen education. Then I get back my grades. I fail one subject, English. I must go to a neighboring city, Meerut, to retake the exam. Mother and I travel by train overnight in second class. Mother collects water at the platform so we can wash our faces upon arrival. I watch as she pumps the push cock into a large leather flask and notice the Saaf Mitti sign above an adjacent cement tub. I remember the student I bought chalk for. Her mother ends up having another girl, who dies before her first birthday. The neighbors suspect murder, but no one will attempt to prove it. On the train, the Paani Pande comes by to offer us cool drinking water. Mother tells him to give me extra, explaining the reason for the voyage. She knows that because he is a Brahmin, his gesture, like my buying chalk for a student, will bring me good fortune. Three weeks later the results are published in the newspaper, which says I passed, but then the mark sheet comes in the mail: I failed. The ground beneath me starts to walk. This time I must redo the entire English course completely. One of my teachers lives right beside the college. I must go, with my head covered simultaneously in shame and disguise, and stay there overnight so no one notices me going to class every morning. I borrow saris from my friend Bhabi in colors I would never wear. Every morning leading up to the exam, I stop at the Hanuman Mandir and offer prasad: flowers, some fruit. In other words, I keep my head covered from morning to night for weeks. Then I pass.

***

One day, I am walking with my bike and Mother to the market and a woman I do not recognize stops us. “Listen, panji, I like this girl, bahut sharif. She minds her own business.” It turns out there is a boy behind this compliment who is in the truck business and “lives like a royal family. Needs a good girl.” Mother flatly responds, No. Bhabi’s mother is envious. “If it were my daughter, I would never say no to him.” Another boy is suggested. Engineer, widowed with a four-month-old baby. No. There is the pilot who lives in Agra. He is Father’s previous wife’s aunt’s son. (Father’s previous wife died in childbirth.) The boy’s aunt comes to visit us at home: “You have to say yes before I leave.” No. Because we are related. “Plus, I don’t want to give my daughter to a pilot. That’s dangerous.” Three suitors, three tiny hearts I stitch onto cotton, pen onto letters, with no sentimentality. Then I do get married in the winter of 1967, at the late, fake age of twenty-five. One year later, I take an airplane to Paris and then to Montreal to join my husband, who has gotten a visa and a job as a teacher right away because of his education. The pilot talks of wind speeds. The total travel time keeps increasing until we arrive. A few months later we take the train to the small gold mining town of Geraldton (Hey Ram). Night comes before I have the chance to see the sun. I am told never to walk alone in the dark because of “Indians.” The next morning, with my head wrapped in a shawl, I step out onto the balcony of the motel room that temporarily houses us. It is thirty below. The view: snow, a wide road, and not a single human. My arteries constrict from the cold. My heart beats faster. The religious man who shot Gandhi twenty years ago must have taken into account the effects of heart rate when he took aim. Three bullet holes in the chest, which father attributed to destiny, and I to the triangulation of past, present, and future. Three minutes later, I am back inside, my hair frosty white at the temples and the words trussed, refusal, obliged, wrath, and impudence forming on my tongue, transient and symmetric, like ice.

***

This essay first appeared in Brick, the biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Madhur Anand and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.