Of Cabbages and Kings

January 13, 2007

N. Emily Bai

Filed under: Fiction, Random musing — Chinmayi @ 5:57 pm

is a very curious name. The lady that came to record my name in the Voters Register signed ‘N. Emily Bai’. I liked her… her crisp sari, twinkling eyes and efficient manner. You’d never imagine that she’d spend all day trudging from house to house  waking up grumpy people, and trying to look and sound professional with hairy men in hole-ridden pyjamas who are wholly absorbed with chomping down their breakfasts and so on.

Anyhow, to get back to the name…Bai suggests that she’s from way up north..Gujarat or something. The initial ‘N.’ instead of a family name, is a Tamilian practice  – way down south. If she were just N. Emily, that would make sense – a Tamilian Christian.  Emily Bai without an N. would be a Gujarati christian (I just realised I’ve never heard of a Gujarati Christian).  But N. Emily Bai is a name that very definitely has an intriguing story behind it. 

A story like perhaps…

Thangam worked at her father’s department store, on a dusty street in Chennai. She was dark skinned, Thangam. A dusky beauty to anyone that believed that the phrase was not an oxymoron. But irrevocably ugly to her family and to everyone that lived along that dusty street in Chennai, in a country that never quite shook off some of the side-effects of its colonial hangover. ‘So black’, they would say to her, ‘no one will ever marry you’. For years, her mother insisted on daubing white face-powder over her ebony cheeks in an effort to ‘make it better’, so she looked like she spent her days cleaning chalk-dust off blackboards. She rebelled of course, and the powder was locked up. Eventually, she got used to the idea that she was ugly – she did not expect to be noticed. She developed a nice manner, so most people were not cruel to her because of her face – some still were, but she learned to handle it. Her father was steadily collecting money – it would take a fairly handsome dowry to convince one of the neighbourhood mechanics to marry his dark daughter.

Nilesh was a light-skinned guy with pleasant ways and a ready smile. Naturally, the people on the dusty Chennai street did not actually trust the man – for one thing, people from the North ought to stay in the North and not walk around plaguing respectable people with their obnoxious Hindi. And for another, what was a North-Indian electrician doing down south anyway…the man had to be running away from the police or something. But his manner was so irreproachably nice that they had to be civil to him, and they had to grant that he certainly appeared a decent man.

In retrospect, they realised that it had never occured to them that anyone could possibly fall in love with Thangam. All the ‘pretty’ girls were locked up and guarded jealously, but Thangam was always accorded the same carelessness with which people treat battered old vehicles – no one’s going to want it badly enough to bother stealing it. So when Nilesh married Thangam, it was a double-scandal. That she married outside the community…and that it was ‘ugly’ little Thangam whose dark face did not belong in a love story. They cut her off in their outrage. 

Thangam became Emily – when she joined the neighbourhood church in an effort to find herself a community. ‘Everyone is equal before the Lord’, they told her. And she joined. N. Thangam became N. Emily Bai because they insisted that she should have a last name, and because she was in a hurry to comply with all their demands so that she would find herself acceptance. N. Emily found, once inside the church that some boundaries are drawn more clearly than others.  Thangam might have crossed over to Emily easily but a marriage to a North-Indian, without your parents consent was as taboo in a church as in a temple. So she had a new name, but no new friends. And the idol-worshippers and church-goers on the dusty street presented a united front in their antipathy towards the couple.

She gave up on the dusty street and moved to another city, so that she would never be tempted to return. N. Emily Bai and Nilesh Bhai set-up house in Bangalore on a lane where the boundaries between the North and the South were fairly weak. She joined the Goverment and went from house to house recorded personal details – she learned about all sorts of boundaries, of caste and religion and region and other things. She saw living rooms of every colour and size imaginable. Nilesh worked on their new street. Those that spoke Hindi liked him, and those that didn’t liked his wife who was an ever-willing interpreter. She spanned the city – peeking briefly into everyone’s live, taking back polariod-picture memories with her. His territory was the neighbourhood, and he knew it down to the last detail – whose chair had one short leg and whose grand aunt had cancer. For years they spoke in halting phrases, making signs to explain themselves. Gradually they learned eachother languages, but oddly…neither ever had a problem understanding the other.


1 Comment »

  1. that is a lovely story 🙂

    Comment by pinkjellybaby — January 14, 2007 @ 3:32 pm

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