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“I remember …” – A tribute to my parents

by Urmila Subbarao

“How come you have no girl friends?” I tease my twenty three year old.

“Maybe I’m not interested in girls,” he retorts, grinning. My husband looks intrigued, then horrified. I am not. I refuse to be and I am prepared – for anything. I know I have to be. My entire life has been a learning experience in acceptance of change, of differences and the practice of tolerance – an invaluable inheritance from my parents.

When India got her independence in 1947, the creators of her Constitution decided to acknowledge and accept the realities of the Indian social system and reorganized the country into a federation of states demarcated on linguistic basis. When the reorganization came into force in 1956, our family relocated from British administered Madras to the newly formed state of Kerala. Five years old and in the first year of school, I sat through a census of communities conducted in our classroom without a clue as what it was all about.

My father was livid when I reported the incident. “Here we are, trying to bring up the kids without all these divides and the damn government insists on highlighting them,” he complained.

And yet, it was the same Dad who pacified us when we got agitated at the discriminating behaviour of the Brahmin ladies during visits to the local temple. They would shoo us ‘low caste’ kids out of their way as they walked dripping – after their purifying dip in the temple tank – to the sanctum sanctorum to ensure that we did not accidentally touch them and desecrate their purity.

“Too late to expect them to give up an entire lifetime’s practice,” he told us. “Let’s just ignore them and carry on with our lives.”

We somehow never got the opportunity in our childhood years to acquaint ourselves with the details of what my parents had lived through during their childhood and growing up years. It was much later that I had my first detailed lesson in Indian social history when the occasion arose.

Having cleared the written exams for joining the Indian Civil Service, I was appearing for the selection interview. The Interview Board queried me on an essay submitted for a State level competition for which I had won the top award; the topic was “A Blueprint for the Ideal University”. One of the points I had argued was that, if the best brains were to be encouraged and put to use for the country’s benefit, it was time to jettison the reservation policy.

Through this policy, the government earmarked seats in professional colleges and positions at the higher echelons in government jobs for candidates who belonged to the ‘reserved’ categories as listed in the Constitution.

The Interview Board was determined to make me rethink my stand.

“You are from a backward class yourself. Would you have been appearing before this Board but for the reservation policy?” queried a Board member.

“I have not enjoyed the benefit of reservation at any time during my student life,” I protested, “and am here entirely on the basis of merit in performance.”

During the subsequent post mortem of the interview, I tried to justify my stand to my father who took the opportunity to explain the reasons for incorporation of the affirmative action provisions in the Constitution and the justification for it.

“It is like a handicap in a race,” Dad explained, “… done to make the contest more equal by offsetting the special advantages enjoyed by the more privileged over the less. Fortunately, you never had to experience the ignominy of untouchability as it was practiced during our growing up days,” he said. “ I had to walk six miles one way to attend school since we did not have one in our village. I used to take lunch with me in a tiffin box and eat it in the open since we were not allowed to enter the dining space provided only for the higher-caste students in a nearby thatched hut. The first day of the monsoon rains, I realized to my horror that I would have to stand in the dirt and slush and have lunch from the tiffin box slung on the curved handle of my open umbrella. I refused to carry lunch with me to school from then on. It was too humiliating.”

He told me about traveling away from home as a member of the school’s hockey team and having to check into hotels under false pretences as a Brahmin.

“Do you know that we were not allowed to enter temples until the Temple Entry organized by Gandhiji ? Women who belonged to our Ezhava community had to go barebreasted in those days and, at most, were only allowed to use a light cotton wrap over their upper bodies. Public eating places insisted on separate seating for the lower classes and earmarked utensils for their use.”

I listened, horrified, to the litany and never forgot.

It was against this background that my parents had joined professional colleges on the basis of academic merit and acquired professional degrees at a time when formal education was mostly the prerogative of the higher castes. My mother and father were attending medical and law schools respectively in the more cosmopolitan Madras when they met and decided to get married. It created quite a stir at the time, even though they belonged to the same home state of Kerala, for they were marrying across the borders of the erstwhile princely kingdom states of Travancore and Malabar. In those days, it was almost like an intergalactic union!

They lived through a period in Indian history which saw revolutionary changes sweep across the entire nation. How could my parents have remained untouched ? They opted, however, to move forward by creating their own brave, new world where their children would not have to bear the burdens of the past.

For me personally, what seems more important is the conscious effort that they made not to pass on to us children the hurtful memories of a past we had never experienced even while guiding us to a more tolerant future.

And yet, I realise – at this stage in life and from this distance – that, when you live within a social environment, the elbow room available for doing your own thing is ultimately limited. How does one push back those limits without alienating the rest of the world – be it family, community, social circle, the peripheral universe within which you exist ?

In retrospect, I also realize that consciously or instinctively my parents practiced their ‘liberalism’ within well defined restraints which were made clear to us from the very beginning. There was an unwritten but implicit behaviour code which placed studies at the top of our daily agenda, followed by extracurricular activities which could be facilitated within the time and space constraints of a large family. So there were weekly visits to the library and music classes at home and a movie outing from time to time depending on the availability of adult escorts.

It was understood that all of us – the five daughters and only son – would pursue higher education and acquire jobs. We girls were also told in non-ambivalent terms that our education would be the only dowry at the time of our marriages since there was no family wealth – inherited or accumulated – to buy off potential suitors. And, although not openly stated, it was understood that the family would not be averse to self-chosen matches – at the appropriate time.

All six of us have married outside our community, caste and linguistic state. One of my sisters married a divorce and we have adopted the additional niece, making space for her within the family circle and the family e-group. We have had a last minute broken engagement and a marriage to which the rest of the family were not invited. Any one of these would have by itself been adequate grist for the gossip mills. But my parents stood firm and together through the good times and the not-so-good times, presenting a united front to the rest of the world.

And these are the things I try to remember when setting standards for living my own life – to be openminded, tolerant, forgiving. Hold strongly to your beliefs without thrusting them on others. Speak out what you believe, express what you feel and live what you think and say. Stand firmly by family and friends but without compromising your own beliefs even while accepting theirs. It is tough at times but certainly not impossible.

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