by Mathangi Krishamurthy
Sometime this year of 2014, my father will retire, ending thirty odd years of service tending and minding a chemical factory. We will also concurrently end what I consider my foundational era, and will have to stop inhabiting a particular vision of the Indian nation-state.
For years, my answer to that most ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” used to be a really long sentence. “On the National Highway Number Four from Bombay to Pune”, I would begin, “somewhere between New Bombay and Lonavala”, I would continue, “…it's a two-pony town”, I would cautiously insert before ending with, “Rasayani; I'm sure you haven't heard of it.”
My one important memory of Rasayani – the place named after the word ‘chemical' in Hindi, “Rasayan” – is of snakes. I remember waking up one morning, being called out to excitedly by many voices, one distinctly my mother's. And I cautiously stepped outside, to see a man hurling a snake by its tail into the distance. Some kind of pioneering and slightly mad community we must have seemed in my newly anointed Rasayanic head.
I was four or five and we were a bunch of young families, newly imported to one more example of the nation-building spirit of the pre-1991 Indian nation-state, the industrial township. Or in other words, as literature across the world calls it, the company town.
The sociologists Rex Lucas and Lorne Tepperman in their groundbreaking 1971 study “Minetown, Milltown, Railtown”, define company towns as “closed communities owned and administered by the industrial employer” and as a place where everyone, and ominously, the company, knows everyone. Rasayani is a many-company town harboring competing closed communities. Or as we called them, colonies.
Ours was a rather stellar example of such a form of administration, not just determined by the company, but by a Foucauldian middle-classness. Twenty-five odd families commandeered more or less uniformly by engineer fathers occupied a large rectangular gated complex often whispered about as a former cemetery (this in ghost stories to us children liable to run around everywhere at odd hours of day and night). Company personnel were assigned houses according to the seniority of the father's position in the company hierarchy. All personnel were men, except maybe an odd secretary or two who didn't live in the colonies anyway. People had names and then they had designations. The two were inseparable and determined all manner of conduct. Their positions, their spouses' conduct, and their children's comportment were matters of everyday and long-term import.
The colony had apartment complexes and independent houses, some of which also doubled up as a kindergarten and a club. For the first two years of our residence, I trotted downstairs to school. As the men moved up the industrial chain, their houses moved from C to B to A. As did we. We got taller and older, and were rewarded additional rooms. In 2014, my parents occupy the largest quarters in the A block. Four grand bedrooms and a total of two people.
The identity that I held dear for a large part of my life was that of being an inmate of Bombay Dyeing Colony (West). As opposed to Bombay Dyeing Colony (East). The “West” was important. It signified many things that were maintained, relished, protected, and touted. We were good children for one. We listened to the adults for another. The adults listened to one another, in order of designation. Our lawns were manicured. We watched English movies and had large posters of Madonna and Michael Jackson on our bedroom walls. We swarmed the large guesthouse once a month to steal promotional flyers sent by soda companies advertising Campa Cola, Gold Spot, and Thums-up. Coke had been banned in India.
The chairman of my father's company was rumored to have gifted the community our sole Video Cassette Recorder, the much coveted VCR, maintained under lock and key by the club secretary (one year, my father). This VCR would be duly dusted out once a week so the selfsame secretary could play for us one of his carefully curated movies. Also, all the kids knew the chairman's name. We also knew that he was Jinnah's grandson. I struggled to piece this information into my otherwise uniformly conditioned patriotism. We peeked out of our windows from a distance when he came to “inspect” the colony. Even when we were old enough, and it was his sons who made the rounds, we peeked. For other reasons this time around. But to return to the VCR, our movie nights on Saturday visited one genre after another; romantic comedies, general (clean) comedies, World War I and II (my father's particular poison), and of course, not to forget the slightly sneered down years of the Hindi family drama. Every Saturday evening, as the movie was screened, my mother would drag me back midway to bedtime. I have fond memories of many unfinished films. Rasayani had no videocassette parlours. The driver of the one matador van that made the rounds to our hallowed head office in faraway Bombay would be given a list of names so he could procure a video cassette tape. One week, he was asked to bring us “Mirch Masala”, an art film starring the very intense Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil. He brought us fine Kashmiri chili powder instead. For years, it was a running joke.
We played badminton in a former cement godown that functioned as a sports centre and club. The ceiling was too low and our shuttles would bounce against it all the time. To this day, I have trouble aiming high. Identities depended on being good at badminton. Three hours a day, we honed our skills. We also honed our colony-ness in watching who ceded points, who fought them strongly, and who sprinted across the length of the court to pick up shuttles for their managing directors.
The men managed the factory, and the women, the colony. The inside and outside of the nation that I later learned from Partha Chatterjee's work in “The Nation and its Fragments” came fully solidified in my always already nationalized head. The gardeners were given instructions by the women, as were the drivers. The women waited everyday for their children to return home from their school 25 odd kilometres away in another industrial town, Khopoli. It was the closest English-medium school. The educational institution five minutes away had refused to take us in as it had been set up to cater to one specific colony only. Even in our faraway school, we were known as the kids from Bombay Dyeing. Some of us were sent off to boarding school. The rest of us traveled the highway. My very useful skill of being able to nod off in any moving vehicle that I am not driving was carefully built over multiple school trips. We took particular pride in being able to spot one accident every day. One hallucinatory afternoon, we saw a man chasing another, sprinting across the highway with a bloody knife. Our driver sped away. The drivers were our friends. Even as we were warned by our parents not to accept the food they offered. Or the ice creams they bought us.
We spoke English. We chanted “Hello” to the varied uncles and aunties that crossed our paths unlike children in the neighboring colonies who said “Namaste”. Most of us had little or no contact with people in the world outside our gates, and very few of us spoke the local language Marathi. I learnt to say “Namaste” again as an adult while in yoga classes in the US. Every fiber protested. Most often, I would merely cup my palms at the end of each class.
We lost electricity frequently and were constantly stymied by torrential rains. Many school exams were studied for under kerosene lamplight and candlelight. Going to school was a daily struggle even though most of us were happy to use weather, distance, and stomach aches as regular excuses for absence. One exam day, my father accompanied us and had us disembark while he ushered the matador van over a broken bridge to get us to school on time. The matador van was the most common form of community transport.
The Indian nation-state that I now attempt to unpack in my daily work and research was for years a mirror of my daily life and rituals. Name, place, animal, thing, all assigned to its due location and role. The daily national anthem, history textbooks on Shivaji, the all-important mandate of securing the first rank at school, and the ways in which progress and progressiveness came pre-defined through a rigorous set of moves. Changes in national fabric showed up at regular intervals. Color television, cable television much later, and Radio Ceylon and genteel and melodious Hindi music giving way to the nineties and remixed Bollywood music. The locking of our gates post the Bombay bomb blasts of 1993. The whispered talk of “those people” and “they had it coming” in our otherwise benign school corridors from otherwise benign classmates. My horrors at various misrecognitions come to roost.
It is now 2014 and the colony is no longer in landscaped order. Clusters of bougainvillea and periwinkles still run amok and the drainage canals still run next to the houses, overflowing in the monsoon. The kids don't run paper boats in the brown waters though. We used to make tunnels and rivers on the sandy bed in the playground and drag the main pipe off the large lawn to fill it up. The sands have now been dredged. The playground lies in overgrown and rusted disrepair.
The words socialist India or an old middle-class I find to be insufficient markers and rudimentary frameworks. Only some forms of description I now consider equal to talking about those forms of life that have to be analyzed in their wake. It is more interesting for me to ask as to what are the accoutrements of childhood and how do they make us who we are? How do we narrate ourselves? And finally, lest we forget, what is the moral of the story?
Soon, I will no longer be able to call Rasayani my “permanent address” on government forms. My directionality will suffer as will one part of my hybrid and usually directionless identity. Now, in this fading scenario, and more so with the threat of being rendered properly and finally homeless looming large over adult life, one wonders how to protect this childhood placefulness. Or is it time to let it go?
Nowadays, we live as if we are threatened. Adulthood, we have discovered, is not all that it was made out to be. We are all far from home. My childhood companions are all located outside the country or in cities. I have lived in ten different houses and five different cities.
They say love is about harking back to some childhood notion of protection. And I suppose, so is home. Bombay Dyeing Colony (West) was my protection. It brought to my life a certain place-full-ness, an acknowledgement of what it means to be in place. For seventeen years of my life, I was taught to be in place and know my place. Since leaving home, I've spent the rest of my life learning the fine art of being out of place. Yet, the lessons of childhood wear down hard. I am usually in place. Or at the least, I am a good pretender.
As I was writing this essay, I came across these remarkable photographs by a visual artist called Chino Otsuka, who has spliced herself as an adult into her childhood photographs. The effect is both uncanny and poignant.
As an adult, I would be remarkably out of place were I to insert myself into my childhood home. I am out of place, out of gender, and out of touch. People from the colony would not have known how to deal with my adult self. I would most definitely have been denied membership. I now live in another colony, which is surprisingly reminiscent of my childhood home. I am asked everyday as to my husband's existence and it is assumed that I am here because of my non-existent husband's job. I protest soundly. My childhood self is unwilling to leave one colony, even as my adult self wants to abandon another. But now, such abandonment is not possible because I can no longer go back and inhabit home. The home where my name is up on the school board, the home where people know me as my parents' daughter, and the home where I knew so clearly what it meant to be middle-class.