Life of Pre
Reading Yann Matrel’s ‘Life of Pi’ is like reading my own story. In a way. Not that my father was a zookeeper or that I crossed the length of the Pacific with a Bengal Tiger at an arm’s length. The semblance begins and ends with the way Pi is introduced to 3 religions at almost the same time!
You see my very first prayer was a ‘Kalima’. My first school being a Muslim school in an essentially Muslim town called ‘Adiramapattinam’ located right at the coast of Bay of Bengal. The morning muslim prayer at school comes as no big surprise. But that being ‘my’ very first recital prayer is!
To me Adiramapattinam seems like a town, as I recall now, far removed from the rest of the world. Yet that was hardly the case. The town thrived among the trading communities who travelled to the Persian Gulf, Malaysia, Singapore or where ever one believed the greener pasture was! It is believed that the muslims from Egypt were the first to arrive there and married the tamil locals and voila, a brand new community is born! Although in my memory it stays as a quiet town next to the sea where nothing ever happens!
It is curious that although we lived there for 2 years, we never once saw the sea. Everyone spoke about the sea and to me ‘the sea’ was a far away place. I thought I had to cross the ocean to see the sea. Or some such muddled up thoughts filled my simple head. It will take another five years and a completely different town to let me in on the secret of the sea, the beach, the ocean and the smell of fried fish which succeeded in violating my very being.
Anyway people of this town however were simple, courteous and extremely friendly. I vaguely remember large uncles in shiny blue shirts and white dhotis smelling like they have just bathed in perfume bringing all sorts of goodies from across the ocean. Translated, Dubai! Via a big white ship no doubt! Cup and saucers made of glass, small bottles of perfume closed with a cork, shiny cloth material, wallet for my dad, shinier sarees for my mom which would eventually be regifted might I add!
Step outside the house and ours being the first on the street one could see the entire street by just craning the neck forward like an ostrich. I even remember the way how our house looked like from the outside. A modest house with a little greet gate on the outside which was perpetually left open. A wide walkway in the middle with tiny gardens on each side leading up to two steps and the door. A green or a blue one I am not sure. The part I loved the most of course was the big, really big open play ground that lay right across our street. I don’t remember ever to have played with ever a slipper on. Bare foot on red mud, drenched in dirt, sweat and glee! I remember running with my brother, breathless and always in the mood for chasing games (Odipuducchu). ‘Tag - you’re it’ my daughter calls them now with her brand new Nike shoes :( (Sometimes she removes her shoes and her socks while playing in the well-maintained playroom vexing all those other mothers who have instilled good habits in their young ones! :P)
And then of course the unforgettable sweet muslim lady Who lived 2 doors down and who gave me dried lemon pickles from that big clay jar one day. Which, I later realised, to my horror, housed dried fish (karuvaadu) at the bottom topped by a pickled lemon layer as a preservative! One of which was in my mouth! I remember the way I slurped on those long juicy twisted lemon wondering why mom never made these for me. The sweet lady asked me whether I’d like some more and I nodded. She filled my open palms with more twisted lemon and my mouth watered at the prospect of eating all of those eventually. I walked towards my house carefully carrying my priced possession, all the while chewing onto one, with a small bit treacherously poking out of my mouth while saliva dripped at its tip. When I reached home however, my mom very gently broke the truth about the pickle’s lifetime until it had reached my mouth. She was very kind about the whole thing and wondered the truth aloud. But it was enough to gag my mouth and forever refuse to eat anything offered by anyone! You see even at that very young age I was a devout vegetarian. I couldn’t bear the thought that I had enjoyed something that had preserved a dead creature!
But I digress, yes the first prayer was a Kalima. I was so proud of it.
“Onram Kalima, Abdul Kufri, Laa hi Laa haa, illal laa haa, Mohammedu ra suill ill laa haaa,”
I recited all 5 Kalimas full throttle whenever it was asked of me at home. I knew them by heart in Tamil. My dad’s muslim friends in shiny blue shirts approved and swore that even they did not know all 5. And here I was a 4 year old Hindu Brahmin ‘girl’ reciting Kalimas with such reverence and gait. My school day began with the Arabic class. Writing Aleef, bae, thae…. from right to left, from right to left we got reminded incessantly. And then I forgot. All of it. Just like that!
It seems so abrupt now. My dad’s promotion and transfer to another small town, called Dharumapuri. I promptly transitioned to 1st standard at the best Catholic school in town reciting ‘Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done….’ with equal reverence every morning! All the while unaware of numerous sanskrit prayers available for recitation at my disposal.
I think my parents were super cool about the whole mixed up religion I was growing in. Democracy and liberty at its best!
Today when people here try to scare me saying that my daughter learn her ‘Indian’ language and not be influenced culturally, all I do is nod and pooh-pooh them in my mind. I want to scream and say that it was what one might call, ‘experience’! :)