Paan & the Mesabji

A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.

During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.

In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.

Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.

The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.

He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.

* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.

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The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!

The grey mist

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author was talking about depression. Not for the first time I was struck by how misunderstood this is as a phenomenon. Even the name is misleading: depression – at least in my experience – is not so much an experience in which you feel ‘low’, as one in which you feel distant, separated even, from the world on the one hand and yourself on the other.

I suffered a serious bout of depression a few years ago and my most vivid memory, in so far as you can describe any memory from that period as vivid, is of sitting in a restaurant by the river with a friend and looking through the window at the people outside. I felt as if some invisible but unbridgeable chasm separated us; almost as if we were in two different worlds. Actually, it was as if I wasn’t really in the world at all. My emotions seemed to be enveloped in a kind of grey mist and I just couldn’t find them, no matter hard I tried.

The only way in which the depression lived up to its name was in its effect on my energy levels. I couldn’t run or exert myself in any way that required enthusiasm. Fortunately, walking – always one of my favourite things – was still possible; and so I would force myself to go out each day and walk as far as I could along the river.

This was during the ‘acute phase’, the five weeks I was off work. The depression lasted for about six months in all and for most of that period I had to work or at least try to. Looking back it’s clear I should have stayed off longer but, like many people afflicted by ‘the black dog’, the two feelings that didn’t desert me were shame and anxiety. The absence of physical symptoms – or at least symptoms that can be definitely attributed to depression – tends to make you feel like a fraud, or as though you’re perceived as a fraud by others. Returning to work before you’re ready is one of the ways in which you ‘apologise’ for your illness; and also one of the ways in which you try to hide it.

Signing up for prescriptions of anti-depressants is another way. This has the additional benefit of legitimising your sickness (you wouldn’t be taking ‘medicine’ if you weren’t ‘ill’); and provides everybody – including you -with the reassurance that something is being done. I know that for some people the drugs do work, but for me it was definitely more a case of showing willing. I didn’t notice the slightest impact on how i felt; whereas when I came off the drugs the withdrawal effects were, by contrast, all too noticeable.

In the end, the depression didn’t ‘lift’ any more than it ‘descended’ on me. What happened was simply that the mist cleared and the chasm narrowed; and I began to feel not necessarily more cheerful, but just something.

The next bend of the river

I was always running away from home as a child. Not, as you might assume, because i was desperately unhappy, but because i was desperate to see the amazing world i was sure was just round the next bend of the river. Or maybe the next bend after that. I was a keen reader of adventure stories of all kinds, especially those involving the Famous Five; but my great inspiration was a film (or possibly a TV programme) i saw about a boy who ended up living by himself next to a river in a forest. I think it might have been set in Canada, but what did that matter? There was no doubt in my mind that there was a forest just as vast, wild and magical just a bit further along my river. If only i could get there.

Two attempts at reaching it remain in my memory. On the first occasion i ran away with my brother. We planned it all quite carefully and made a stack of jam butties to keep us going on our journey. A mile or two along the river we discovered we were already hungry; so down we sat and ate a butty each… and then another. In no time at all they were all gone – much to our surprise. We’d never really thought about how many we would need for our trek; four had seemed quite adequate. Still we continued on and on, past E_____ village and into the uncharted territory which lay beyond it. I was starting to get quite excited. I had never been so far along the river before and was convinced we must be nearing my much imagined forest – after all, we’d walked miles! Then disaster struck: we encountered nettles. I was determined to carry on (we were so close!) but my brother started to cry as he was repeatedly and painfully stung. Our memories differ at this point, it has to be said: he is convinced that he (and only he) was wearing shorts, whereas i am convinced that we both were. Anyway, we were both starting to get hungry and so we turned back. End of attempt.

Later i tried again, this time with our dog Sally. Alas, the adventure was over even more quickly! First of all, it was impossible to get Sally to grasp the seriousness of our quest. She kept wandering off. And then only a mile or so along the river she decided to go for a swim (she loved swimming), but unfortunately then discovered that she couldn’t get back out; the bank was too steep and too slippy. There was no alternative: i would have to get into the river and help her. So i did. I hauled her, i pushed her and then i hauled her some more – all of this with no help from Sally herself. She seemed to think the whole thing was a game and didn’t appreciate that i was trying to get her out of the water. By the time she was back on dry land (none the worse for her ordeal) i was wet, cold and tired. And hungry, the food having been eaten even more quickly than the last time. Note to small would-be adventurers: provisions do not last long when they’re shared with a dog.

Perhaps i made more attempts, i’m not sure. In the end though my mission was doomed. Not just because the forest wasn’t there – although i grant you that was a factor – but because i was growing up. The geography of the real world was supplanting that of the imagination.

A limerick about a lemur

A lemur in far Madagascar
Was partial to partly cooked pasta
When asked was it more
Healthy when raw
He said, “Well it helps me go faster.”

Found this limerick* in a book of email correspondence between me and a friend. It’s the first entry in the book, which she made as a keepsake for me, and is dated the 15th August 2000.

What a decade it’s been! I don’t just mean the big things which have happened during that time: that relationship, the MSc, the depression; but the small things too: the subtle changes in hopes, dreams and fears. Still, i remain fortunate in my friends and our conversations. And whether or not i remember to say it, i remain deeply grateful for both.

* One of my better efforts. You would not want to read the worse ones, believe you me.

The blue sky

I was sitting on the train today feeling very annoyed with myself for my low mood. I cast about in my mind for something to kick me out of my eeyority and up came my very best memory: the day of the blue sky.

It was summer in the late 70s. I was ten years old and had gone down to the river by myself. After wandering along the bank for a while i’d ended up on a strange man-made hill that (looking back as an adult) I realise was probably built to hide some industrial monstrosity or other. And it was on that hill that I looked up and saw… the most perfectly blue sky. Right there and then i thought to myself (in that earnest way of ten year olds): ‘I must never forget how blue this sky is, how beautiful.’

I sat there feeling sad about all the people who had never lived to see that sky or who hadn’t yet been born or who were somewhere else in the world where that sky wasn’t visible. ‘If i hadn’t been here right now,’ i marvelled, ‘I wouldn’t have seen it either.’ Many times since then i have returned in my mind to that hill and that sky, keeping the memory alive with my visits. It was only today though that i suddenly connected it with another memory from earlier the same year: the day of my tenth birthday, when I woke up elated to finally be in double figures. This was what separated the kids from the grown ups in my mind. I’d finally made it!

Yet no sooner did i experience this wave of joy at my new found ‘maturity’ than it was overtaken by another wave, this time of sadness. Because at that moment i realised that once you leave single figures there is no way back. Time moves in one direction only and takes you with it. For the first time in my life i had the sense of things being lost, of leaving bits of your life behind forever. I noticed for the first time the way that time seems to speed up with each passing year and i was frightened.

By contrast, just two years earlier at the age of eight, i’d walked past a group of Fifth Years as they poured out of the local high school and thought to myself in despair: ‘I’ll never live long enough to be sixteen!’ Not because i thought i was in imminent danger of death, but because to me at that point in my life, time was something that seemed immensely slow moving. It had taken so long to get to the age of eight, i couldn’t imagine accumulating enough life to reach an age which was double that. As for memories, i didn’t worry about losing them because i was barely aware of having them.

In just two years i’d made the transition from a creature of the present to a person with a past, one that i was already aware was vanishing. And so on that hill i tried to fix a moment forever. In a way i succeeded, in a way i failed. I remember the moment: the intensity of feeling. I even remember the hill and the river. But the blue sky? Today i realised it was gone.