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Three thousand stitches, p.3
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       Three Thousand Stitches, p.3

           Sudha Murty
 
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  I nodded meekly, suddenly humbled.

  My first day of college arrived a month later. I wore a white sari for the first time, touched the feet of all the elders at home and prayed to Goddess Saraswati who had been very kind to me. I then made my way to the college.

  As soon as I reached, the principal called me and gave me a key. He said, ‘Here, Ms Kulkarni, take this. This is the key of a tiny room in the corner of the electrical engineering department on the second floor. You can use this room whenever you want.’

  I thanked him profusely, took the key and immediately went to see the room. I opened the door excitedly, but alas! The room had two broken desks and there was no sign of a toilet. It was so dusty that I could not even consider entering it. Seeing me there, a cleaner came running with a broom in his hand. Without looking at me, he said, ‘I’m so sorry. Principal Sahib told me yesterday that a girl student was going to join the college today, but I thought that he was joking. So I didn’t clean the room. Anyway, I will do it right now.’

  After he had finished cleaning, I still felt that the room was dusty. Calmly, I told him, ‘Leave the broom here and give me a wet cloth, please. I will clean the room myself.’

  After cleaning the room to my satisfaction, I brushed off the dust on my clothes and went to class.

  When I entered the room on the ground floor, there were 149 pairs of eyes staring at me as though I were some kind of an exotic animal. It was true though. I was the one hundred and fiftieth animal in this zoo! I knew that some of them wanted to whistle but I kept a straight face and looked around for a place to sit. The first bench was empty. As I was about to sit there, I saw that someone had spilt blue ink right in the middle of the seat. This was obviously meant for me. I felt tears threatening to spill over, but I blinked them away. Making use of the newspaper in my hand, I wiped the seat clean and sat on a corner of the bench.

  I could hear the boys whispering behind me. One grumbled, ‘Why the hell did you put ink on the seat? Now she may go and complain to the principal.’

  Another boy replied, ‘How can she prove that I have done it? There are 149 of us here.’

  Despite feeling hurt, I did not go to the principal to complain. He had already warned my father that if I complained, these boys might persist in troubling me further and I may eventually have to leave the college. So, I decided to keep quiet no matter how much these boys tried to harass me.

  The truth was that I was afraid of being so troubled by the boys’ activities that I would quit engineering altogether. I thought of ways to stay strong—physically and mentally. It would be my tapas, or penance. In that instant, I resolved that for the next four years, I would neither miss any class nor ask anyone for help with class notes. In an effort to teach myself self-restraint and self-control, I decided that until I completed my engineering degree, I would wear only white saris, refrain from sweets, sleep on a mat and take baths with cold water. I aimed to become self-sufficient; I would be my best friend and my worst enemy. I didn’t know then that such a quote already existed in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says, ‘Atma aiva hi atmano bandhu aatma aiva ripu atmanah’.

  We really don’t need such penance to do well in our studies, but I was young and determined and wanted to do all I could to survive engineering.

  I had good teachers who were considerate and sought to look out for me in class. They would occasionally ask, ‘Ms Kulkarni, is everything okay with you?’

  Even our college principal, Professor Khanapure, went out of his way to inquire about my welfare and if any boys were troubling me.

  However, I can’t say the same about my classmates.

  One day, they brought a small bunch of flowers and stuck it in my plaited hair without my knowledge when the teacher was not around. I heard someone shout from the back—‘Ms Flowerpot!’ I quietly ran my fingers through my hair, found the flowers and threw them away. I did not say anything.

  At times, they would throw paper airplanes at my back. Unfolding the papers, I would find comments such as, ‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen or in medical science or as a professor, definitely not in an engineering college.’

  Others would read, ‘We really pity you. Why are you performing penance like Goddess Parvati? At least Parvati had a reason for it. She wanted to marry Shiva. Who is your Shiva?’ I would keep the paper planes and refrain from replying.

  There was a famous student-friendly activity in our college known as ‘fishpond’. Rather than an actual fishpond, it was a fish bowl that carried a collection of anonymous notes, or the ‘fish’. Anybody from the college could write a comment or an opinion that would be read out later on our annual college day. All the students would eagerly wait to hear what funny and witty remarks had been selected that year. The designated host would stand on the stage in the college quadrangle and read the notes out loud. Every year, most of the notes were about me. I was often the target of Kannada limericks, one of which I can still remember vividly:

  Avva avva genasa,

  Kari seeri udisa,

  Gandana manege kalisa.

  This literally translates to:

  Mom Mom, there is a sweet potato,

  Please give me a black sari and send me to my husband’s house,

  This is because I’m always wearing a white sari.

  Some of the romantic north Indian boys would modify the lyrics of songs from movies like Teesri Kasam:

  Sajan re jhoot math bolo

  Sudha ke pass jaana hai

  Na haathi hai na ghoda hai

  Vahan paidal jaana hai.

  This can be translated as:

  Dear, come on, don’t lie

  I want to go to Sudha

  I neither have an elephant nor a horse

  But I will go walking (to her).

  All the boys would then sneak a glance at me to see my reaction, but I would simply hold back my tears and try my hardest to smile.

  I knew that my classmates were acting out for a reason. It was not that they wanted to bully or harass me with deliberate intention as is the norm these days. It was just that they were unprepared—both mentally and physically—to deal with a person of the opposite sex studying with them. Our conservative society discouraged the mingling of boys and girls even as friends, and so, I was as interesting as an alien to them. My mind justified the reason for the boys’ behaviour and helped me cope. And yet, the remarks, the pranks and the sarcasm continued to hurt.

  My only outlet in college was my actual education. I enjoyed the engineering subjects and did very well in my exams. I found that I performed better than the boys, even in hard-core engineering subjects such as smithy, filing, carpentry and welding. The boys wore blue overalls and I wore a blue apron over my sari. I knew that I looked quite funny, but it was a small price to pay for the education I was getting.

  When the exam results were announced, everyone else knew my marks before I did. Almost every semester, my classmates and seniors would make a singular effort to find out my marks and display them on the notice board for everyone to see. I had absolutely no privacy.

  Over the course of my studies, I realized that the belief ‘engineering is a man’s domain’ is a complete myth. Not only was I just as capable as them, I also scored higher than all my classmates. This gave me additional confidence and I continued to not miss a single day or a single class. I persisted in studying hard, determined to top the subsequent examinations. In time, I became unfazed that my marks were displayed on the notice board. On the contrary, I was proud that I was beating all the boys at their own game as I kept bagging the first rank in the university.

  My ability to be self-sufficient made me strong and the boys eventually started to respect me, became dependent on me for surveys and drawings and asked me for the answers of the assignments. I began to make friends and even today, my good friends include Ramesh Jangal from the civil department, my lab partner Sunil Kulkarni, and Fakeer Gowda, M.M. Kulkarni, Hire Gowda, Anand Uthuri, Gajanan Thakur, Prakash Pad
aki, H.P. Sudarshan and Ramesh Lodaya.

  I will never forget my teachers: L.J. Noronha from the electrical engineering department, Yoga Narasimha, a gifted teacher from Bengaluru, Prof. Mallapur from the chemistry department, Prof. Kulkarni from hydraulics and many more. Between my classes, I also spent much time in the library and the librarian became very fond of me over time, eventually giving me extra books.

  I also spoke frequently to the gardener about the trees that should be planted in front of the college, and during my four years there, I had him plant coconut trees. Whenever I go to B.V.B. now, I look at the coconut trees and fondly remember my golden days on the campus.

  The four years passed quickly and the day came when I finally had to leave. I felt sad. I had come as a scared teenager and was leaving as a confident and bright young engineer! College had taught me the resilience to face any situation, the flexibility to adjust as needed, the importance of building good and healthy relationships with others, sharing notes with classmates and collaborating with others instead of staying by myself. Thus, when I speak of friends, I don’t usually think of women but rather of men because I really grew up with them. When I later entered the corporate world, it was again dominated by men. It was only natural for my colleague or friend to be a man and only sometimes would there be women, whom I have got to know over many years.

  College is not just a building made up of walls, benches and desks. It is much more intangible than that. The right education should make you a confident person and that is what B.V.B. did for me.

  I later completed my master’s programme from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Yet, B.V.B. continues to have a special place in my heart.

  When my father passed away due to old age, I decided to do something in his memory. He had allowed me to go ahead and become an engineer, despite all the odds and the grievances he had heard from our family and society. Thus, I built a lecture hall in his memory in our college campus.

  Whenever I go abroad to deliver a speech, at least five people of different ages come and tell me that they are from B.V.B, too. I connect with them immediately and can’t help but smile and ask, ‘Which year did you graduate? Who were your teachers? How many girls studied in your class?’

  Now, whenever I go back to the college, it is like a celebration, like a daughter coming home. Towards the end of the visit, I almost always stand alone in the inner quadrangle of the stage. My memories take me back to the numerous occasions when I received awards for academic excellence. I then spend a few minutes in front of the notice board and walk up to the small room on the second floor of the electrical engineering department that was ‘Kulkarni’s Room’, but no longer dusty now. I remember the bench on which I sat and prepared for my exams. My heart feels a familiar ache when I recall some of my teachers and classmates who are no longer in this world today.

  And then, as I walk down the stairs, I come across groups of girls—chatting away happily and wearing jeans, skirts or traditional salwar kameezes. There are almost as many girls as there are boys in the college. When they see me, they lovingly surround me for autographs. In the midst of the crowd and the signings, I think of my parents and my journey of fifty years and my eyes get misty.

  May God bless our college, B.V.B!

  3

  Food for Thought

  Rekha is a very dear friend and our families have known each other for generations. Since I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I decided to visit her. I picked up the phone and dialled her number.

  Her father, Rao, who is like a father to me, picked up the phone. ‘Hello?’

  We exchanged greetings and I said, ‘Uncle, I am coming to your house for lunch tomorrow.’

  Her father, a botanist, was very happy. ‘Please do. Tomorrow is a Sunday and we can relax a little bit. Don’t run off quickly!’ he replied.

  In a city such as Bengaluru, going from Jayanagar to Malleswaram on a weekday usually takes a minimum of two hours. Travelling on a Sunday is much easier because it takes only half the time. When I reached her home the next day, I could smell that lunch was almost ready, and yet the aromas wafting in from the kitchen indicated to me that the day’s menu would somehow be different. None of the typical Karnataka dishes were laid out on the table, and the cuisine was, in fact, quite bland for my taste.

  ‘I may wear a simple sari but I am a foodie, Rekha! Is the lunch specially arranged so that I don’t come again?’ I joked, as one can with an old friend who will not misunderstand and take offence.

  Rekha’s father laughed heartily. ‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘Today is my mother’s shraddha or death anniversary. On this day, we always prepare a meal from indigenous vegetables.’

  ‘What do you mean by indigenous?’ I was perplexed. ‘Aren’t all the vegetables available in our country indigenous, except perhaps ones like cauliflower, cabbage and potato?’

  ‘Oh my God! You have just begun a wrong topic on a wrong day with the wrong person!’ exclaimed Rekha in mock dismay. ‘After lunch, I think I should just leave you with my father and join you both later in the evening. This will take at least four hours of your time.’

  I knew that Rekha’s father was a botanist, but it was then that I realized that he was passionate about this subject. Though I had known him for a really long time, I had never seen this facet of his personality before. Probably, he had been too busy during his working years while we had been too busy playing and fooling around.

  ‘Is this really true, Uncle?’ I asked.

  He nodded.

  Since I come from a farmer’s family on my paternal side, I have always had a fascination for vegetables. I knew vaguely about the things we could grow, the seasons to grow them in and the ones that we could not grow, including the reasons why. However, whenever I broached the subject with friends interested in agriculture and farming, I never really received a proper answer. Finally, here was a man more than willing to share his knowledge with me! I couldn’t resist.

  ‘You know, Rekha,’ I said, ‘it is difficult to get knowledgeable people to spend time explaining their subject matter to others. Today, Google is like my grandmother. I log on to the website any time I require an explanation of something I don’t understand or want to learn about.’

  ‘Right now, you are logging on to an encyclopaedia,’ Rekha smiled and glanced at her father affectionately.

  The conversation drifted to other subjects as we ate lunch. The meal constituted of rice, sambar without chillies, daal with black pepper and not chillies, gorikayi (cluster beans), methi saag, cucumber raita and rice payasam. It was accompanied by udin vada with black pepper. There was pickle and some plain yogurt on the side too. After we had eaten this lunch well-suited for someone recovering in a hospital, Rekha’s father said, ‘Come, let’s go to the garden.’

  Rekha’s family owned an old house in the corner of a street. Her grandfather had been in the British railways and was lucky enough to buy the corner plot at a low price and had built a small home with a large garden there. In a city like Bengaluru, filled with apartments and small spaces, the garden was something of a privilege and a luxury.

  Uncle and I walked to the garden while Rekha took a nap. He settled himself on a bench, while I looked around. It was a miniature forest with a large kitchen garden of carrots, okra, fenugreek and spinach—each segregated neatly into sections. A few sugar canes shone brightly in front of us while a dwarf papaya tree heavy with fruit stood in a corner. On the other end was a line of maize as well as flowering trees such as the parijata (the Indian coral tree), and roses of varying colours.

  ‘Uncle and Aunty must be spending a lot of time here making this place beautiful,’ I thought. ‘All the trees and plants seem healthy—almost as if they are happy to be here!’

  ‘Do you think that all the vegetables we have around us are from India? Or are they from other countries?’ he asked out of the blue.

  I felt as if I was back in school in front of my teacher. But I wasn’t scared. Even if I gav
e him a wrong answer, it wasn’t going to affect my progress report. ‘Of course, Uncle! India has the largest population of vegetarians. So, in time, we have learnt to make different kinds of vegetarian dishes. Even people who eat meat avoid it during traditional events such as festivals, weddings, death anniversaries and the month of Shravana.’

  ‘I agree with your assessment of everything, except that most vegetables are grown in India. The truth is that the majority of our vegetables are not ours at all. They have come from different countries.’

  I stared at him in disbelief.

  He pointed to a tomato plant—a creeper with multiple fruits, tied to a firm bamboo stick. ‘Look at this! Is this an Indian vegetable?’

  I thought of tomato soup, tomato rasam, tomato bhat (tomato-flavoured rice), sandwiches and chutney. ‘Of course it is. We use it every single day. It is an integral part of Indian cuisine.’

  Uncle smiled. ‘Well, the tomato did not originate in India, but in Mexico. It made its way to Europe in 1554. Since nobody ate tomatoes over there at the time, they became ornamental plants because of the beautiful deep-red colour. At some point, there was a belief in Europe that it was good for curing infertility, while some thought that it was poisonous. The contradicting perspectives made it difficult for this fruit to be incorporated into their diet for a long time. Its lack of value must have been a real push for initiating Spain’s tomato festival, where millions of tomatoes are used every year to this day. A story goes that one business-savvy European surrounded his tomato plants with a sturdy, thick fence to show his neighbours that the fruits were not poisonous, but rather valuable and thus desirable. Gradually, the fruits reached India and began to be used as a commercial crop, thanks to its tempting colour and taste. It must have come to us during the reign of the British. But today, we cannot think of cooking without tomatoes.’

 
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