It’s been a while since I read Rudyard Kipling – more than forty years, I think. Yet the music of poetry ensures that I can, to this day, recite an entire poem about keeping my head when all about me are losing theirs, without missing a beat. Whether I can fill the unforgiving minute remains to be seen. My relationship with other Kipling poems and stories, notably Gunga Din, is more complicated. It might have something to do with having a preference for R.K Narayan instead of R Kipling when I was younger. Or it may have something to do with the elderly gent who quoted Gunga Din at me in a Perth bookshop a long time ago and expected applause or at the very least, gratitude.
Or again, it might have something to do with my grandfather.
He takes me for a walk every morning before school. I am probably six years old, because he dies the year I turn seven. He wears a top hat and carries a walking stick. There is a fob watch chained to a striped waistcoat. We stop by a bench outside the local park. He sits down. ‘There was a sign here,’ he says, ‘before you were born. It was painted on. It said – no Indians and dogs beyond this point.’ He scratches his goatee and ruffles my hair. ‘They used to call us Gunga Din. We had to call them Sahib. Do they teach you Gunga Din in your school?’ I shake my head. I have no idea why he cries and I wonder who Gunga Din is.
It is much later that I discover the power of the written and spoken word. How and when we are named and un-named. When our names are considered too much trouble to be pronounced correctly, or at all. When our children can’t wait to shed our ethnicity and our language so they won’t stand out, like we do. When we are told our food or clothing or skin is exotic, and we don’t know how to react. Because our understanding of the word exotic has something to do with dancing, and not in a good way. When we read the masters who write the classics, we discover more words that describe people like our grandfather. Words like disorderly and native and mutinous and confused. We learn that civilisation comes at a cost and the price our fathers and mothers had to pay was their freedom. We are told we don’t know what to do with freedom anyway – look at the anarchy, the violence, the chaos in our motherland. At least there was order in the Empire along with roads and railways. And we mustn’t mind the Kiplings and the Forsters and the descriptions of our men as dangerous and lustful and our women as weak and mute. After all, isn’t it ironical that we resist them in their language?
And so we adjust to dreaming in a single language and smiling when English relatives remind us to visit Kipling’s house when we are next in Sussex.
When we were seventeen we knew everything. We knew our lives were complicated. We knew our parents would never understand our darkest thoughts. We knew how much hearts hurt when they break. And in between listening to moody romantic music and flicking our long hair back over our shoulders we pretended we didn’t care about anything. On wet windy mornings we loitered by the stone arches of our old college, reluctant to climb the stairs to our education. Never again in my adult life would I know things with that certainty.
Reproval from adults, including teachers was swift and stinging. And we minded that. We really did. Some of us had just been unlocked from the high walls of our all girls convent school and needed to negotiate this new world in which strange boys looked at us and our hearts felt those looks. Our brothers had not prepared us for this. Our fathers were planning our marriages and the careers of our brothers. Our mothers massaged our hair with coconut oil and adjusted our scarves over our shoulders in an attempt to make us look androgynous. They told us honour was more important than a degree in English or Economics. Our aunties told us to stop riding bicycles because we would grow muscles in our legs like boys, and who would marry a girl with tough thighs?
So we formed gangs because there was safety in numbers. Gangs of girls looked at gangs of boys across stone arches, culverts, corridors and peepul trees. Occasionally a boy and a girl would saunter across, towards each other and away from us, and we marvelled at their boldness and envied them. On the threshold of a future we couldn’t predict, we held on to the present and felt the pang of every moment that denied us our inarticulate feelings. Especially when those renegade boys and girls, sparkling with fresh knowledge, told us not to let our schooling interfere with our education and we sighed with discontent.
Our parents thought we were getting an education. We indulged them by masquerading as their obedient children and hiding from them the things that really mattered to us. Like our future. Our souls. Illicit conversations. Invincible convictions. And how we were going to sneak away to see a movie at Empire Talkies without them finding out. Even then Empire Talkies was derelict, mouldy and crumbling but it had wide chairs and screened smart English movies some evenings.
And now my daughter is older than I was then. I have raised her many thousands of miles, languages and associations away from where I was raised. To her, my hometown is a distant, exotic place with eccentric characters who speak many languages simultaneously and English with an accent. She grew up in a fiercely bright coastal city with the sun in her eyes and sea water in her hair. Here the ocean is blue and cold and familiar and she shows no fear when she treads water after a summer swim. I grew up landlocked, watching in dread and fascination as a muddy river rose and burst its banks in the monsoon. She doesn’t have to worry about being whistled at when she walks to school or avoid brothers and cousins lurking outside Coffee House, asking awkward questions. She will not be told off by the college peon for sitting on the culvert like an orphan when everyone else has gone to class. But she will always be told that the best food in the world is served in a dark hut with wooden benches, where we queued patiently, day after day, pooling our money; where, really, our education was completed.