Like my older brother and the cousins before me, I was born on a farm. But unlike them, our family left the warmth of my grandparents’ tharavadu (ancestral home) quite early on to live where my father’s work took him. We visited only during summers.
No matter how far we went from that small village in Kerala in the south of India, the memories of those warm summer days remained the most vivid in my heart – the smell of freshly harvested paddy, the idle chatter of women in the kitchen, the monsoon rains, the sound of cowbells, stealing bananas from the attic and swimming with my cousins in our pond.
I had a childhood rich with nosy uncles and over protective aunts who advised, admonished, prodded and provided for us under the watchful eyes of our grandmother. I grew up being told to be respectful of our tradition, to follow what the elders told us and that there would always be family around. I spent many afternoons lying on the veranda, on my granny’s lap finding comfort in the smell of her starched white mundu, (traditional attire of elderly women in Kerala) listening to her soft voice.
Then we moved to West Africa. Of our life in Ghana I recollect a colonial, white villa on a hill with a porch and big, bright marigolds swaying in the wind; sitting for hours reading Enid Blyton books and pretending to be Gretel, or Nancy Drew looking for trouble. Eventually I found a rowdy gang of 11 brothers in our neighbourhood to carry out mischief with.
On Saturdays we had parties at home when my brother and I would sneak around unnoticed and drink up leftover beers from the guests’ glasses. On Sundays our father took us to the open market in Cape Coast where big-breasted women in colourful kente headdresses called out : “Oburoni !” (foreigner) and pulled my cheeks as we tucked into fried ripe plantains.
It was a perfectly idyllic existence. Then my brother got sent away to a boarding school in India and I lost half my bearings. I lurched into books, preferring melancholic classics like Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, and when overcome with grief wrote my own stories in little scrap books made out of leftover pages from old diaries. Most were sad and forlorn tales of an abandoned child.
By then trouble was brewing. In a country of such beauty, rich earth and peaceful people that there could be conflict was inconceivable to me as an 11-year old. But following a coup, the head of state, General Acheampong and several others were executed in a military barrack in June 29, 1979, as the country watched in stunned disbelief.
I remember a helicopter with Flt. Lt. J.J. Rawlings, thundering over our government primary school kicking up dust and bits of grass as throngs of excited children ran out of classrooms to wave at their new leader.
Soon, I too was packed off to a boarding school near my hometown in Kerala. Without my parents, for the first time I felt orphaned in my own country. New school, no friends, strange rules and an alien curriculum to boot, I was put under the tutelage of moustachioed matrons who found it convenient to dull our minds with incessant prayer and worship.
Worse, I was allowed to go home to my aunts only for term breaks. My entire world of fun and frolic came to a standstill as I struggled to fit in. In time, I got over the embarrassment of awkward attempts to read sign boards in my native language, learnt how to leap into a slowing bus to ‘catch’ a seat, and importantly feign confidence. But I never did fit in.
I remember on my first day in graduate school for Dentistry, I got bullied by my own classmates who pretended to be seniors and got laughed at for telling our lecturer I got caught in traffic, walking from one block to another. It was true but I was already a joke.
The friends I made say they find my wide-eyed naivety, endearing. For me, it has always been simple – follow my heart. If it feels right, no matter what the rest of the world says, do it !
I walked out of home to marry a man I barely knew for six months. I left a profession in dentistry to follow my husband to Egypt. I followed my earnest passion for writing and eventually got published across Cairo, Dubai and India, including a stint with Egyptair’s inflight magazine.
When I had had my heart’s content, I found a job developing business for a travel company in Cairo that took me across the world selling Nile cruise packages in Kyoto and Red Sea diving to the Czechs until the Egyptian revolution of 2011 overthrew Hosni Mubarak and brought the country to a standstill. I returned home to India for the second time, in tears.
As I take stock of my life and my writing, I realize my strength lay in chronicling the memories of those years, of the lives of ordinary people who came in, went away or stayed, and of those extraordinary times that I was fortunate enough to have been through.