Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Drunkard's Daughter

The years spent in Middle School (5th to 7th year of education) were indeed wonderful days. General economic conditions in the early 1960s were difficult.  Aftereffects of Indo-China war of 1962 and Indo-Pakistan  war of 1965 had added to the misery.  As students, in the age group of  11 years to 14 years for most of us, we were hardly in a position to understand that.  We lived in our own world and school days were merry days and playful as usual.  Lunch break at 1.30 PM was eagerly looked forward to by all my classmates and I was no exception.  Students coming from nearby houses would run home to have a quick lunch and return to school for post-lunch classes.  Those staying away from the school had to perforce stay in the school compound and eat lunch from the boxes brought with them in the morning while coming to school.  Of course, there were many who did not have the luxury and practice of having lunch.  They were used to food only twice a day; before coming to the school in the morning and in the evening after returning from the school.  This had its own advantage; they never suffered from indigestion and related ailments.

For the children staying back in the school compound during lunch time, there were other activities.  Playing cricket or football was one of them.  There was no practice of giving pocket money to children in those days mainly because the pockets of the parents themselves did not have any money in them.  There were a few kids from relatively affluent families who carried small change in their pockets.  They had  attractions just outside the school gate abutting the main road of the town.  Two carts carrying items for sale beckoned them.  One of them carried groundnuts and uppukadale (salted chana) and the other laden with cut fruits available in the season.  Uppukadale and Groundnuts were acceptable, but we had strict instructions not to touch the cut fruits.  The threat of cholera was always lurking round the corner.  My mother's advice was soft and firm.  If any child in the family is tempted to eat any fruit sold on the cart, she should be informed.  She would arrange for getting the item and serve it at home in hygienic conditions.  If the instructions were violated and someone fell sick, she would not take care of them.  The threat was enough and there was no need to test her resolve.  We understood her perfectly and she ensured that the instructions were always complied with.

The cart with cut fruits was tended by one Hanuma.  He would procure the seasonal fruits like Guava, Mango, Jack fruit, Papaya and Watermelon.  Pineapple and Apple were also seen but rarely.  Mother's instructions were not to touch them; there was no ban on watching him clean and cut the fruits.  He was an expert in his trade and probably worth an award these days when everything is measured and awards given away.  He had his tools - knives of different sizes and shapes to handle the variety of fruits ranging from the hard and thorny jack fruit to the softer fully ripe papaya.  Processing activity of cutting and arranging the fruit pieces went on simultaneously with the sales activity of handing over the cut pieces to children, collect coins, count them and store them below the gunny bag table cloth.  He did brisk business during the lunch break and moved away to the nearby bus stand once the children got into their classes.

Hanuma was a hard working man and was always involved in some work or the other.  He had a small plot of land by the river side and grew vegetables there round the year.  After harvesting them for the day's sale he would proceed with other errands like sale of cut fruits.  His wife Ramakka carried the vegetables basket on her head selling them from house to house in the morning.  The quality and freshness of the vegetables ensured that there was no carry over of inventory for the next day.  Between them they earned a decent wage.  But the one weakness of Hanuma ensured that the family always lived in abject poverty.  Drunkard and inebriate are terms for a person who drinks hard liquors habitually. Drunkard connotes willful indulgence to excess. Inebriate is a slightly more formal term than drunkard.  Dipsomaniac is the term for a person who, because of some psychological or physiological illness, has an irresistible craving for liquor. The dipsomaniac is popularly called an alcoholic.  Hanuma was probably all of them.  He loved his family but it appeared he loved his evening drink even more.

Ramakka suffered silently and somehow managed the family affairs.  All her efforts to bring round Hanuma failed.  One evening she appeared before our house and wanted to see my father.  He had just returned from school and took his usual place in the front yard.  Their conversation went on like this:

"Swami, Hanuma's drinking is killing us.  Why don't you help me?"
"How can I help you, Ramakka?"
"Hanuma respects you a lot. Please advise him to give up drinking."
"I have advised him many times.  Every time I talk to him, he promises not to drink again.  But he does not stick to his promise.  His friends are not good.  He also cannot resist the evening drink."
"Then what is the way out for me?"
"We have to keep trying and hope for the best.  By the way, who is that girl hiding behind you?"
"This is our daughter Saraswati, Swami."
"How old is she?" 
"She is six years old, Swami."
"Have you admitted her to school? All children at this age should attend school."
"What will she do with school, Swami?  She helps me with household work and selling vegetables.  That is fine with me.  Hanuma also wants the same."
"Do not talk nonsense.  Do not spoil her life.  Bring her to school tomorrow.  I am the headmaster.  I will admit her to the school.  Ask Hanuma to meet me in the morning."

Hanuma duly arrived in the morning.  The discussion went on like this:

"Swami, It seems you wanted to see me."
"Yes, Why have you not put Saraswati in school?"
"What is the use of school for us poor people, Swami.  Moreover I cannot pay school fee."
"No need to pay any fee.  I will get her fee waived by the Government.  I will get her free uniform from Headmaster's quota.  I will also arrange for books from some other students who are promoted to the next class.  You have no excuse.  She should be in school by the time I reach there."
"Swami, should I really do it?"
"Yes, otherwise I will get you arrested by the police for violating government order."

Hanuma was afraid of government and police.  He did not even think of checking with someone.  He complied with father's orders.  Saraswati was admitted to first standard at school.  She was better than average in studies.  She passed her examinations every year.  By the time she came to High School, I had left the town and was working in a far away city.  On one of my home visits I learnt that father had arranged for her learning typewriting and shorthand in the local "Institute of Commerce". The Institute head was persuaded to give her a slot in the early morning class when the attendance at the institute was thin.  No need to mention that the fee was waived by him.

The last I heard of Saraswati was that she had secured a job as a Stenographer in the State Government and working in a building near Vidhana Soudha (State Secretariat). That was thirty years ago.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Post Cards and "England Letters"

A post card was the most popular medium of communication between two places in the country some five or six decades ago.  An area of about 20 square inches on one side and half of it on the other side was for messages.  The remaining one fourth was reserved for writing the address for delivery by the post man at the destination.  If more space was required for writing the message, one could use the "England Letter".  Its actual name was and is "Inland letter", but it was referred to popularly as the "England Letter", especially in the rural areas.  One reason probably was because the England bosses ruled the country for a long time and the other was due to the two words sounding similar.  The third brother of the family, envelope, was considered expensive and reserved for official communications and rare occasions when sheets of paper were used for writing or to enclose some document etc.  There was a fourth brother of the family available for sale at larger post offices; special envelopes for carrying letters abroad, popularly known as "Foreign letters".  All of them are still in use, but have been replaced to a large extent by electronic communication medium like e-mails.

As a young boy I was fascinated to find that such cards and letters reached the addressee in a distant place.  Whenever the post man came to our street, we children would go behind him till the end of the street to find out which houses received letters that day.  One other thing that pleased us most was when the post man brought money orders.  My mother received two money orders (MO) every year; her two younger brothers always sent a M. O. to her a week before the Gowri-Ganesha festival.  The message part of the MO given to her with the money by the post man contained the usual request for utilizing the money for purchasing pooja items for the festivals.  The earliest MO amount as I remember were five rupees and increased to ten rupees in due course.  This sending and receiving of MO, however small the amounts were, was given high importance by both the senders and receivers and was a symbol of the bond between brothers and sisters.  One of our neighbors was working in a far away city and his wife would wait for the arrival of the post man in the first week of the month, bringing the MO sent by her husband for household expenses.  The post man would come promptly and deliver the money.  She used to keep a four Anna coin (quarter of a rupee) ready and gave it to him after receiving the money.  For quite some time I believed that it was part of the postal procedure.  It was much later that I learnt that this coin was actually a tip and it meant "To Impart Prompt Service"!

Those were the days of very low literacy and many villagers used to come to see my father and seek his help in writing letters for them.  My father would purchase postal stationery during his visits to the nearest big town and keep a stock of post cards, inland letters and envelopes to meet the requirement of the villagers.  Sunday mornings were busy times with many illiterate people from nearby villages coming for getting their letters written by him.  Some of them brought inward letters (letters received by them) and ask him to read them over.  Then the reply was to be decided and written by him.  As the letter for one villager was being written, others would sit below the tree in the front yard and patiently wait for their turn.  The process of writing a letter would start with inquiry about the addressee and contents of the message to be written.  There was no particular order in their answers and it was left to him to bring it into an acceptable form of communication.  He would write the letters, read them over to them and then mail them.

Whenever my father sat down near his small desk for writing cards or letters, I would take my place next to him and keenly observe how he went about it.  When I was in primary school, I was not allowed to touch any of those things; the desk, cards and envelopes or the pens.  As I moved to middle school, I was permitted to help him with placing the desk in its place, filling the pen with ink, pasting the inland letters with gum and finally going up to the post box to mail those cards and letters.  When I was sent to post the letters for the first time I was told to put the letters in the box and salute the post box so that the letters were delivered promptly.  I did this faithfully for sometime until I realized that the instructions were in jest.  During my first year at High School I was assigned to write the letters for the villagers under his watchful eye.  He would then scrutinize them and approve their mailing.  Once he was satisfied that I could do a good job of it, he delegated all the writing to me.  Literacy level improved by that time and the number of villagers coming for such errands also declined.

My father always wrote the address on the cards and inland letters first and thereafter went about inking the messages on them.  After observing this system, once I asked him why he did so.  In response to my question, he told me a fine story.

Those were the days of early marriages.  One village boy was married immediately after he finished his metric examination.  He was about sixteen years of age and his wife was studying in middle school.  He was sent to a city for pursuing his college education.  His father had instructed him to write a letter every week to inform the progress in his studies.  He had to comply with the instructions of his father.  The boy himself wanted to write to his young wife.  (He was probably reading "Mysooru Mallige" of the famous poet K S Narasimha Swamy!).  He bought two inland letters from the post office and wrote to his father as well as his wife.  The contents of letter to father conveyed that he was fully concentrating on his studies and his mind was occupied by only this and nothing else.  The letter to his wife had the opposite message: he was always thinking of her and had no interest in the studies.  He even expressed annoyance with the father for not allowing him to stay with the newly wed wife and forcing to go away to a distant place for studies.  Both the letters were fine in their own place.

He had no habit of writing the addresses on the inland letters before writing the contents.  The letters were sealed with gum before the address part was completed.  While writing the addresses on the two inland letters, he wrote the address of his father on the letter written for his wife.  The letter meant for his father was mailed with his wife's address on it!