The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Ravi Kumar

WorldVoices: Ravi Kumar, Host

Memories, Stories, Values of My Ancestors

The Hindu tradition from which I come teaches that when we die, we are reborn, that the soul transmigrates to a new body, that how we behave in this life (karma) dictates the next life. But Hindus cannot describe where and when the soul takes on a new body or what shape, where and what kind of life this transmigrated soul will have. It seems that nature never precisely duplicates itself, that even in the things that seem most alike, like leaves on a tree or thumbs on a person, there will be some miniscule difference to tell the tale of individuality. Each person is unique in his or her way. Each will have a story to tell and each story will be unique. Such is the variety in nature.

It is with such thoughts that I miss my parents. When they were alive I took them for granted. I must have presumed that they would live forever. I never told myself that a time would come when they would be no more. I did not consciously visualize that one day they, in their uniqueness, would be gone and that there would be no way I could talk to them anymore, ever. Death is so certain, so final, so irreversible. Yet like fools we keep thinking that we are immortal and that death will not happen to us. How I wish I had asked my parents to tell me more stories of their lives. I wish I had asked for more, but I can say here what I remember.

My mother once told me that she gave birth to a son before me, her first child. "How handsome and fair he was," she said. My mother said she had no idea about how to give birth. She experienced this the first time without any theoretical knowledge. The boy died soon after his birth, which took place at home with the assistance of a midwife, who seems to have been incompetent and was blamed. The midwife ran away, never to be found again.

I never asked why the ladies of the house did not help my mother. What about her own mother in whose house the delivery took place? Was she not there? Was she not already highly experienced, having had four sons and two daughters herself? Why was my mother not knowledgeable, considering the presence of older experienced ladies in the household? Was it because talking about such things was taboo in those days? I will never know because I never asked my mother. She told me that when I was to be born, she was well prepared, to ensure that nothing went wrong. I can only, in retrospect, think how brave she must have been. But that became more obvious to me as I watched her while I was growing up into a big boy and when she let me go into the Air Force and become a fighter pilot without ever expressing her concerns, which she must have lived with for all the time I was flying.

When I was a young fighter pilot, one day my family's household heard a news item on the radio that one R. Kumar was killed in a crash. The whole family went into panic. They tried to connect to my air force base by telephone. The phones in the 1950s in India were very unreliable and slow. My mother sat next to the phone the whole night waiting for information. My brother tells me that she was under tremendous stress and could not be reassured that it might be a mistake. By morning they were given the news that I was alive and well. Thinking about it now makes my hair stand on end. But at that time I was happily oblivious of the happenings in my home.

My father spent his early childhood in the village that had been our ancestral home. I know very little of his life there except what he told me. He was a very playful child and darling of the household, the youngest of all the siblings. He was very fond of his eldest sister, and she in turn doted on him. She was perhaps 18-20 years older than him. She became a child widow and returned to the household to live her life. Father must have had very fond memories of her, as he was loved by her, and he felt that love all his life. Unfortunately she died as young woman like so many people living in villages in ancient India died, for lack of basic medical facilities. My father never forgot her. Many times I heard him reminiscence about her.

My father told me that, as young man, he was very fond of playing cards with his friends in the village where he was born and spent his childhood. He had very fond memories of the village, which he had left to go to high school and college and then to find a job as a teacher. But he must have kept going back to the village for holidays and to be with his parents. During these holidays he played cards and had fun. He used to recall to us, his children, the memories of those days, which were mainly happy memories. In particular he would recount the hilarious uttering of his friends when they could not win a game even though they had a good hand. If I were to translate those words into English, they would go something like this: "Even if I was to stand in the holy river Ganges on one leg and pray facing the sun, I would not be able to win this game." I know the exact words in Hindi, uttered by his friends, but a translation cannot adequately convey their precise meaning and underlying humor.

Someone from the village composed a poem extolling the virtues of this village. My father would recite the poem whenever he felt happy at remembering his younger days. When he was almost 90 years old, I saw him sitting with my older cousin, who was only a few years younger than him, intensely sketching a map of the village. From their memories they were discussing locations of their joint family home, the temple, the village pond and various other houses and shops. I regret that I did not preserve that map.

What was my mother like as a young woman? Here is a glimpse of my mother's haughtiness. One day, before she was married, she was traveling by a horse-drawn carriage (tonga) sitting in the back, facing in the opposite direction of the carriage's movement. A young boy on his bike started following the tonga and whistling at her. She made the tonga driver stop the vehicle, got down and caught hold of the boy's cycle, forcing him to dismount, and gave him a hard slap. The poor boy ran away, and mother continued her journey.

Another story that kept all of us amused and my father delighted, was my maternal grandfather's quest to find a suitable boy for my mother. Although my mother was not highly educated, perhaps only up to high school, my grandfather wanted a highly educated, meritorious boy for mother. My grandfather was the finance minister of the kingly estate of Alwer in North India when the British ruled India, and he must have had influence. He supposedly sent out letters to Vice Chancellors of Universities in Northern India asking for the names of boys who had stood first in post-graduate examinations. The upshot was that the name of my father was offered and, as they say, the rest is history. My father sometimes would tease my mother about this, and we would all have a laugh.

Mother told me stories of her early married life. When they got married, my father was still unemployed. Two of father's elder brothers' wives had died, leaving behind a brood of children ranging from teenagers to a four-year-old. One of these brothers had moved out from the village to a town nearby to acquire higher education and later to become a school teacher. All the youngsters of the joint family had one by one come out of the village to live with him and go to high school and later to college. My father had been one of them. Mother came to this family as a bride with overwhelming responsibilities to assume. She told me how her father instructed her that, in shouldering her new role as an anchor of a family where elder women had died leaving behind children to look after, she should never be found wanting.

She told me how she had to stitch shirts, pants and underclothes (there were no readymade clothes that the family could afford), pack lunch boxes, cook, clean, manage expenses with the meager salary of one man who supported the entire family of seven to ten people living in a cramped small house, and bear the tantrums of the four-year-old who had lost his mother. She told me stories of how some of the teenagers rebelled, sulked, and shirked from work. To expect the same from a new bride of today is beyond imagination.

My mother was from Delhi, the capital city of India. When she got married and came to my father's village, she was looked upon as something alien and perhaps feared by the elder ladies of the household. For they had lived all their lives in the small village and had not been to a big city. My mother described how she was labeled as Dilliwali, meaning someone from Delhi. Mother must have relished the importance given to her, but was brought up to accept her role and position as a wife and as a somewhat junior member amongst the elders. Although she was from Delhi, her upbringing was very orthodox. Her own mother was not highly educated, and her father believed in the role of women as housewives and caretakers of the family. My father, although from a village, had been to college, where he excelled and acquired a post-graduate degree. They were both brought up to be fully committed to their marriage, and I do not think there was much conflict between them. Of course, their personalities differed. She was more decisive, firm, strong-willed and straightforward. He was more relaxed, soft and tolerant. They adjusted to each other admirably, and whatever conflict there was did not turn into anything serious. One of the strong reasons for this was cultural: the woman understood that the husband was boss and both understood that persons who married were destined to be together for life.

After her marriage, my mother was to become the center of all decision-making and organizing activities, not because she was more educated than the other women of the household and came from a big city, but because she was inherently a leader, hard worker, organizer and because she was able to make decisions. With these characteristics she obviously had to take initiatives. When the household was suffering due to lack of proper drinking water, she asked for a well to be dug in our village house compound. Her wishes were immediately granted by the menfolk.

This was perhaps in the 1940s, as I remember how the ground was broken and how the children played in the mud all day long. The well became the center of activity in our household. Women would draw water by lowering a bucket attached to a rope and pulling it up full of water. Perhaps a pulley system was installed later to ease the physical burden of hauling a bucketful. But this was much better than having to fetch water from distant wells or rivers and carry the pots of water on their heads. Mother never did that, as my grandfather was rich enough to employ some servants. That well probably exists even today, serving the needs of those generations who continue to live in that house.

Around the age of three or four I fell seriously ill. My liver was enlarged. Mother told me that they went from pillar to post to find a cure for me. Nothing worked. I remained ill for two or three years during which I was not allowed to eat certain foods I liked. At one stage she said I was so ill they thought I was about to die. When someone is about to die he/she is taken down from bed and laid on the floor. That is what they did to me. But I survived, in no small measure because of the care and tenacity of my mother. Finally, they found a cure from a doctor in southern India, and I recovered. She told me the stories of those days, but she did not want to dwell on hard times, and I did not persuade her. Now I wish I had asked her many questions.

Mother was a very emotional person, yet able to take the ups and down of life with courage. She would sometimes go into a fit for some small reason (for example, Tika, our servant, not obeying her) and lose consciousness. She would have a sort of epileptic attack, and it took us half an hour to rub her curled feet and closed wrists to loosen her tensed body and revive her. But later in life, when she was in her 40s, she overcame this affliction.

What ambitions did my father have as a young man? Father was a brilliant student. He stood first in the university post-graduation examination. He was preparing for a prestigious career in the Indian Administrative Service. But on the day of the exam, he developed a high fever and could not take the test. That is all I know. Why did he not try again? What held him back? He was very intelligent. He would have cleared those exams easily. Maybe he was timid about facing the panel of interviewers who were supposed to be urbane, sophisticated, English-speaking, upper class British gentlemen! Was it so? I will never know.

My father told me stories of his father and eldest brother, who was much older than Father and was a business consultant/confidant of my grandfather. My father described the interaction between the two of them with some relish. Grandfather was a landowner and a moneylender. This profession acquired a bad name. Many Hindi films have depicted stories of how moneylenders and landowners sucked the blood of the poor in Indian villages. But Grandfather was not like that. However, he and his eldest son kept a close watch on the debtors. One day father, who was only a small boy, heard them talking in whispers using the choicest abuses for the defaulters. That was perhaps part of the way they expressed themselves without meaning any harm to the debtors. Father used to have a hearty laugh remembering those words and telling them to us.

Father also told us of the generosity of his father. It seems that there was famine in India in the early 1920s. Northern India was in the grip of a devastating food shortage. Hoarders were making extraordinary profits at the expense of poor folks who were dying by the hundreds and thousands. My grandfather, being a landowner, had a warehouse where grain was stored and sold to convert into cash. When famine struck, grandfather opened the gates of his warehouse and distributed grain to the poor. I believe that he gave it away, but perhaps he sold it at cost. Whatever the truth is, one thing was certain. He did something no one else did in those hard times. Our village did not suffer hunger, and for this the villagers remained grateful to him and started calling him a saint. He earned a lot of respect and was more or less revered by the villagers. Then, I vaguely remember a day when my father took me to see my grandfather lying sick in bed. I was very small. The room was dark, and I have no recollection of his face. He must have died soon after. I never saw him after that day.

My father's eldest brother and his two sons started a small business in another village. Over the years these two sons made the business into a flourishing enterprise, built a house and acquired a reputation for fair business practice with high family values and moral leadership in the community. They also ensured that the house they built became a home for rest of the family of brothers, sisters and their children. Anyone in the family could go there and be welcomed, find love and acceptance. A lot of credit must go the wives of these two brothers.

My father and his second eldest brother moved out to another city to acquire higher education and get jobs. They too were highly respected and self-sacrificing men. As time passed, that migration from the village, in some ways forced upon the family, resulted in the next generation producing two Generals/Brigadiers in the army, two foreign-qualified architects, an Air Force pilot, a world-renown scientist, three engineers, a few teachers, three doctors, a few business men, IT professionals and managers.

And then another migration took place, this time to the USA. Today there are men and women in the USA, children of the family of my grandfather, who are software professionals, architects, managers, lawyers, doctors and engineers. Some of them have been to Ivy League schools, and almost all of them have excelled in their fields. Sometimes people tell me this is because of the saintliness of my grandfather, that our family is being rewarded by God for the good deeds done by Grandfather. He did set very high standards for his children, not by force or intention, but by personal example of a saintly nature, and they in turn set high standards for their offspring, once again by personal example. I like to think that the value system inculcated in the village by my grandparents has continued to percolate down to my children's generation, which has also done well. They, in turn, are trying to infuse the same values in the children born here and growing up here. However, the world has changed so much in circumstances and environment that by these changes, much of the ancestral culture will inevitably be lost.

A question may be asked as to what I acquired from my parents and my grandparents. I was selected to undergo training at the National Defense Academy when I was 16. That world was so different from my home that I must have remained in a daze throughout the academy days. Pride of wearing the uniform and being labeled as a success by my peers must have kept me going. After two years of training at the Academy, I was sent to the Air Force flying college to acquire a completely new skill and to merge into a force of fighter pilots who not only were required to be aggressive but were carefree and morally somewhat loose. Life in the Air Force was completely alien to the way I was brought up. Alcohol and tobacco, which were completely forbidden in our family, became part of my life. I did my best to fit in and to be "one of the boys." The pride and prestige of being a pilot kept me afloat in a world where otherwise, I might have drowned. What kept me going is a mystery.

From my mother I learnt the value of hard work, organizational ability and compassion for those less fortunate than I. She was a dominant figure in my life and that of my siblings. Perhaps we feared her. At the same time we were undoubtedly loved by her. Even when I married, I depended on her to take care of my wife during pregnancies. If someone was sick, we knew that mother would handle the caretaking bravely and competently. She also put a lot of faith in God. But she did not insist that religion be foremost in our lives. One needs to have faith in a higher power to face difficulties in one's life. We put that faith in our mother.

Father was different. First, we never feared him. We just loved him. He was always the most caring, kind and self-giving man, wanting to do whatever was possible for his family, relatives and friends. Like my mother, he never demanded anything for himself. He trusted everybody. I never heard him criticize anybody. I did not learn this trait from him, though I am critical of people, and many times I express it. Perhaps that trait came from my mother. However, I inherited a trusting nature, tolerance and love of art from my father. He was very fond of poetry and could recite many poems by heart in Hindi, Urdu and English. Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was his favorite. He told me that he named me (Ravindra) after the poet's name. That happens to be my only resemblance to the great man, but I am pleased to have his name.

The Air Force ordered my transfer to various bases 18 times in my first 22 years of married life. I had to move my entire household sometimes all the way across India from North to South and from West to East, including a two-year tenure in Iraq. Many of the bases had no schools. Iraq was one such place. When it became impossible to continue my two elder children's education by keeping them with us, I had to send my elder daughter Ashima at age eight to my parents' home, where she could be placed in a school and have some continuity of education, and my son Ashwini at age ten to Rajasthan, where one of the best boarding schools of India is located. Once again I looked to my parents to take care of me by taking care of my children. Ashima and Ashwini spent about six to seven years away from us.

Ashima has very fond memories of my parents. My father would play cards with her, fetch her from school on his bicycle and get her ice cream. Whenever she was scared, he would tell her in Hindi words, "Don't be scared. You are a fighter pilot's daughter." He kept her courage up. She was a child only termporarily separated from her parents. Yet for me, thinking in retrospect, she was at home in the safe hands of my parents. I did not worry about her. My son also found a home at my parent's house whenever he came for summer or winter break. The children do not talk much about their ordeals away from home at that young age. But I know I made the choice for them and that the Air Force forced it on me. Except for my parents and the family closeness of the culture in which I grew up, I do not know how I or my children would have coped up with the personal sacrifices made necessary by the Air Force.

My parents led a selfless, undemanding, hard life with very few possessions. But they built a nice house, which became the focus of our family. When they were alive, we would return to it from wherever we were as grownups and immediately be enveloped in the warmth and affection of Mother and Father. This was so even for their grandchildren. They worked hard to nurture the family and to include extended family. Mother and Father set us an example of selflessness, integrity, truthfulness, service and compassion. I can never know fully what they did for others or how they suffered. What they did for the family, including extended family, was there for even the blind to see and learn from.

My father had read Gone with the Wind. He was fascinated with Atlanta. When he came to know that I was to live in Atlanta, his face lit up. In his mind Atlanta was the Atlanta of the book. He asked me many questions and he said he wanted to visit the USA and see Atlanta. He was then 86-88 years. I did not know if he could stand the journey. I was a struggling recent migrant, dependent on my children. I had no resources or means of providing health insurance to take care of him if he fell ill, which at his age was a distinct possibility. He urged me to take him to the USA, saying that I was the only one who could do it. But I could not do it. This is a regret I have to live with all my life. I did not fulfill this desire of my father in the last years of his life.

There is much I observed about their lives. I can tell many stories. But those would be my stories. Here, I am trying to relate only what I heard from them about their lives. In the end I find there is so little I asked and so little they told me. Yet somehow I have a sense of knowing them well and of them living on through their values in my life.

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Copyright 2011. Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.