Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The price of pencils

I happened to win the second prize in a writing contest organized by Helen Chen (thanks very much to her for putting it all together) and sponsored by the Rochester Public library (in Minnesota). The contest was open to the public; it was judged by some writers who live in the region. The theme was family, broadly interpreted, and the entry had to be no more than 1200 words. My submission is below; it is a memoir from my days in Ahmedabad in western India.

It was through pencils that I came to know of the financial insecurities of my parents. I was in primary school, and we were allowed to use only pencils for our daily work. I was careless and lost so many of my pencils that my mother hid them in the closet; she scolded me severely every time she lent one to me. I learned to value pencils: each one sharpened unevenly with a knife and used until it was a stub that you couldn’t grip anymore. But I learned to value them even more after my father made it clear to me one afternoon – unequivocally and in dramatic fashion – just how much their price was and what that price meant to him.

That afternoon, I rode my bicycle to the stationery store to buy a new packet of pencils. I chose the usual bonded lead ones; the red and black stripes on them smelled wonderfully of paint over wood. When I returned home, the change I thought I had brought back was missing. It was only five rupees – just more than ten cents today, but money nevertheless. My parents weren’t happy. My father and I went back to the stationery store; something in his demeanor suggested that my folly had been a serious one. We asked the cashier, a dark man with glasses, if I had left behind my change. He searched the cash register perfunctorily and shook his head.

My father took me just outside the store.

“Where is the money?” he asked me.

I was trembling; I had no answer. My father scolded me only rarely but I had always feared his silences more than I feared my mother’s frequent reprimands.

“Where is the money?” he asked again, louder this time, and slapped me.

I began to sob uncontrollably. The stationery store and the shops around were busy with people who were now beginning to look in our direction. I was conscious of their presence; it worsened my humiliation and helplessness. My father slapped me again.

The cashier, who had been watching all this and who perhaps wasn’t too enamored of publicity of this sort, called us and said that he wouldn’t mind giving us the money. My father might have taken the money – I am not sure. Strangely for such an eventful day, I do not have any memory of what followed afterwards. The incident itself stands out in my memory, but nothing immediately before or after it has stayed with me.

It was only later – the passage of time having put distance and perspective on things – that I began to understand the anxieties that had swirled to a focus that afternoon.

We lived at the time in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in western India. My parents had emigrated to Ahmedabad from the south Indian city of Chennai, in Tamilnadu, a few years ago. For nearly three years we had been tenants on the upper floor of house owned a joint family, but my parents had always wanted a place of their own. Veedu, or home, was at the heart of their middle class aspirations.

My parents soon bought a cheap, small flat in an area slightly away from the city-center of Ahmedabad. But almost immediately after we moved into the flat, my father had trouble at work and lost his job.

And my parents began to have doubts about their decision to buy the flat: it was unsettling to them that the owners of the other flats in the complex included a chauffeur and a maidservant. My parents were Brahmins, and their caste had given them a high sense of their worth; they felt uneasy living among people of other, traditionally underprivileged castes, who, in the decades after India’s independence, had slowly begun to assert themselves. Had my parents been in Chennai, walking its familiar streets, speaking a language they knew well, their extended families in the area always a comforting presence; in Chennai, such social changes might have been easier to absorb. But in Ahmedabad they felt they were alone.

The only Tamils who lived in close proximity to us were migrant workers who stayed in a messy slum that sprawled adjacent to our flats; they lived in huts that were a haphazard patchwork of sackcloth, wooden poles, and tarpaulin. They too had made an uncertain journey like my parents from southern India. But their poverty meant that we would always avoid them. Their Tamil, my parents said, was the Tamil of the slum: coarse, rough and loud. And we couldn’t speak our Tamil loudly for we feared that if they heard us, they would come knocking at our door, asking for money that my parents were struggling, and mostly failing, to save.

These things – the feeling that the neighborhood wasn’t nice; our forced lowering of voices, to stay incognito from the Tamil migrants who lived in the slum– these things were seemingly minor annoyances, but they weighed heavily on my father. My father was the only one who earned; he felt acutely responsible for how things had gone. He had invested savings from his previous job in the flat but he was now out of work. He pedaled twenty-five miles every day on my bicycle to an industrial town called Naroda in search of part-time jobs; he came back dejected and sweating profusely.

The incident with the packet of pencils happened around this time; and to my father, my carelessness, the easy way in which I lost my change, was an insult; it mocked the situation we were in. And it probably also mocked his efforts in a very personal way.

Our troubles continued in years that followed: my father found and lost jobs and we hopped through other cities in western and central India, each move necessitating difficult adjustments. All this time my father never spoke to me of that afternoon. It was only much later – more than a decade and a half later, just three years ago in fact, when our position was relatively secure – that he brought up the topic.

“Do you remember the afternoon when I hit you?” he asked, his face and his voice full of regret. His intent in asking the question partly might have been to see if I’d retained any rancor from what had happened. Since I was aware of this, I tried brush the whole issue aside, so I could convey, indirectly, that I had not carried along harsh feelings.

Our conversation, because of the awkward nature of the topic, didn’t proceed further. And so I wasn’t able to express to my father that that afternoon in Ahmedabad was important. Until then, I had been only peripherally aware of the difficulties that my parents faced; I had shut them away as only children absorbed in their own worlds can. But from then on, my parents’ situation was mine; their hopes, concerns, excitements, disappointments were mine as well. In its own inadvertent way, the incident with the packet of pencils had brought me closer to their world. And if only my father were to know of this, the guilt of that day might weigh less heavily on him.


Pallavi said...

o hari this is one of the most touching anecdote that i have read in while...and somewhere deep down can relate to it. well done! and congrats on winning.

Hari said...

Thanks, Pallavi - I had always wanted to write about this experience. And I am glad that it's something one can relate to.

Senthil said...

Wow, man - very well-written. And yes, all of us here with middle-class upbringings have had such experiences... except that we wouldn't be able to put it on paper as well as you have. Nice!

Hari said...

Thanks Senthil for your wonderful compliment. I'll probably bask in it for a long time :)

Of other things: It's nice to have you blogging again. For a while I was wondering if you would ever return again; I very much miss the great pictures you generally put up on your blog.

Kartikeya said...

Tremendous writing! Im very glad you wrote this and even gladder that someone read it and gave you a prize.

cheers and congratulations...


Hari said...

Thanks very much Kartikeya - good to have to you here. This is the first time I've won a prize for something to do with writing, so it's special.

It must be a busy time for you with the World Cup going on, and so much to post on. I'll be at your blog regularly as usual for all your analyses :)

sundevil said...

Hari, Congrats. Awesome work. Very lucid.
It is truly amazing how you put complex emotions on paper. Well, not quite paper. But, you get the point :)

Hari said...

Thanks, Sundevil!

Shashi said...

Hey Hari, I just stumbled upon your blog. Glad to see you are doing well, and certainly writing very well. Congratulations!

Hari said...

Hey Shashi,
Thanks for your comment; great to hear from you! Where are you based now? My email address is hari dot balasubramanian at gmail; do let me know know your contact information and we can catch up...

Yangkuei said...


I didn't know you can write such good story. I am touched by your story very much. It's much better than most of books that I have been reading recently. From your story, I can almost picture the scenes and image your feeling. Very well written! I am very proud of you.


Hari said...

Hello Vivian,
Nice to see you here! And thanks very much for your comments!

bikster said...

hoyhoy hari.. i had to drop by and see what u were up to lately.. congratulations.. i liked it.. very emotive.. keep to your writing like you always have and hope to see some books out there at some point from you..

Hari said...

Hey Bikram,
Great to hear from you! Thanks for the comments...Yes, I am hoping too that at some point there'll be some books :)

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Yeturu said...

Pencils sound so forlorn... yet you weaved a wonderful emotion around it... yes they were very precious for us too. when one got small to hold we inserted in pencaps and used... those were indeed wonderful yet simple days.
cheers mate you made go back to my pencil days ...
Vijay Sarathi