Miriam James

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Miriam was born in 1900, in a small town in Punjab. Her mother, a widow, had converted to Christianity before her birth. I do not recall her mother’s name, but since Miriam went as Miriam Shaw, I guess I’ll just call her mother¬†Mrs. Shaw!

Mrs. Shaw must have been a forward-thinking woman, an exception in that era when girls, in India, in most cases, were not allowed a formal education. Although she was illiterate, she was intelligent. She had a family to support and while she wasn’t poor; she was not a lady of ample means either.

To augment her income, she lent out money; loaning money at a fixed interest. She kept meticulous accounts although she had never been to school. Miriam was fortunate to be born to such a woman.

Mrs. Shaw decided that her daughter would have a good education. She sent her to study at a boarding school in Andrew’s Ganj in Delhi. Miriam completed her Matriculation there. Having studied in Delhi, she learned English too. This was an asset as her children learned the language even though they studied in small town Government Schools in Punjab.

Miriam’s education also served in getting her an educated husband. She married Bernard James, a teacher in a government school. Teachers, in those days, were highly respected members of society, especially in small towns. (And Bernard went on to become a senior teacher).

Their position as teachers also ensured that their larders always overflowed with the offerings and gifts of grateful parents and students. It would have been very rude to refuse the gifts of grain, ghee (clarified butter), fruit, farm-fresh vegetables which they brought to the home of the teacher. This was¬†“Guru Dakshina,” a¬†gift of gratitude from a student to a teacher and not a bribe for favors of any kind. It was unthinkable to attribute any such base motive to these gifts.

Miriam and Bernard had ten children; five boys and five girls. Owing to her mother’s precedent of not discriminating against the girl child, all of Miriam’s daughters had a sound education too along with their brothers.¬†The eldest daughter joined the Army; Women’s Auxiliary Corps – India (WACI) in the forties. Two younger ones became teachers, and both retired as Headmistresses. One died young, and the fifth didn’t work opting to marry a Naval officer and be a housewife.

After Bernard became a senior teacher in the Government High School, he moved to Mission Schools. He rose to the post of Inspector of Schools (mission schools). Their second child, Jason, was my father.

Miriam was a woman of substance. She had grit, determination, strength, perseverance, and all this coupled with her pragmatism made her one formidable force. To understand how progressive she was and how adept at adapting, I will have to recount this story I would make her tell me over and over again when I was a little girl.

Grandpa would be out of town often when he was on an inspection tour. This left Grandma alone with the children, and not safe and secure as their house stood by an orchard on one side and fields on the other. Times were a-changing and petty crimes like thefts were on the rise. Grandpa had already dealt with a few attempts of thieves to scale the boundary wall on the orchard side. But Grandma didn’t scare easy. She didn’t fret and rose to the occasion.

To protect the home and family, she devised a plan to have Grandpa always at home! Since keeping him back physically was not possible, it had to be a ruse. Whenever he went on a tour, that night, Grandma would wear his¬†“pagri” (turban), light the “hookah” (hubble-bubble) and sit up through the night until daybreak, smoking the hookah.

She hoped that the glow¬†of the embers and the silhouette of a turbaned person would mislead¬†anyone peering over the wall into believing it was a man. However, one day, some daring men decided to take on the ‘lone man’. Bad idea!

Grandma, ever alert, heard¬†the sounds of furtive movement and whispered voices behind the wall. Thieves! Before they could get a hold on the top of the wall and heave themselves up, she was waiting and ready, armed with a big, thick¬†“lathi.” The moment the first head appeared over the edge of the wall, she struck with all her strength and let out a full-throttled war cry! This sudden, ferocious attack not only took the men by surprise but also woke up my father and his elder brother.

Although they were in their early teens, both were tall and had robust physiques. They were quick to gauge the scene. Both were on top of the wall in a jiffy with lathis (stout sticks used for self-defence in India) hurling warnings and threats of dire consequences at the retreating backs of the thieves.

There were two outcomes from this strategy: There were no more attempts at theft and, Grandma became a regular hookah smoker!

 

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This is an Arabic hookah and not the kind my grandparents smoked. Theirs had a clay cup for tobacco and a brass water compartment at the bottom to hold the water. I couldn’t find a pic of the ones that were in Punjab at the time.

 

From then on, it became a common sight to see her puffing away at her hubble-bubble, not only in the night but in broad daylight too. She and Grandpa always had their lighted hookah between them and would take puffs alternately while they chit-chatted or shared their silences. I had the privilege to see them like this when we moved from the city and returned to our town. I was just a girl, but it impacted me.

It was such a wonderful sight to see. So much of togetherness oozed out of these moments. That grandma never felt the need to smoke the hookah in hiding and indulged in her newly formed habit with undisguised enjoyment, speaks volumes about her zest for life.

In pre-independence, rural India, Miriam was a rare gem in her class.

‚ÄúTo all those who care,¬†You can’t forever.¬†
Time steals the years, And your reflection in the mirror.
But I can still see the story in your eyes, And your timeless passion that’s never died.
While your skin became tired, Your heart became strong,
The present became the past, And your memories like a song.
And though the moment at hand is all that we have, 
You’ve taught me to live it like it is our last.
Since two words don’t say ‚Äėthank you‚Äô the way they are meant to,
I’ll try all my life to be something like you.‚ÄĚ -Crystal Woods

 

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Little Things Are Big Things

“There are a lot of little lessons that can be taught around the home without sitting a child down and boring them to death with your philosophy of life.”¬†-Helen McRoy

Lot has changed from the time I was a child back in the late-fifties until now! Put down in years like that, I feel ancient!¬†But that’s the point, it makes me all the more thankful for a childhood which was less materialistic, and people had an abundance of time to do whatever they had to do.

In our time, parents didn’t substitute quality time with the children by overloading them with presents. At least my parents didn’t. One can argue that we weren’t ‘rich’ but again we were not ‘poor’ either. And neither did they try to compensate their absences with gifts or promises of making it up to us by taking us somewhere or treating us with some goodies we relished. We took their absences in our stride. They explained that they had to do things that required their time and attention so we would have to be ‘good’ and listen to Mary or Teresa or Ammachi or whoever was the nanny at the time. And that’s how we came to understand that occasionally our parents would have to take time out for themselves too. We accepted, cheerfully, the time we had to ourselves.

Our parents encouraged us to play outside more than inside the house. They had nothing to fear if we played outside Рin the garden or with our friends or if we went cycling down the street or skating in the skating rink nearby. Our playtime got divided into Рoutdoors and indoors. Indoor games were fun. We had a collection of board games that we played competitively quite often.

Today, adult supervision is a must at all times even if the kids are playing in the front or backyard. Besides, children nowadays possess too many gadgets to keep them holed up inside the home. The times, they are a changing!

Reading story books, general knowledge books became a¬†bedroom pass time and discussing what we read or learned or didn’t understand became talks around the dining table at mealtime – Sobremesa.¬†Sadly, I don’t get to see much of this these days. Everyone is either in a hurry to eat and vamoose or then, watch something on the TV, iPad or smartphone while they eat instead of talking to each other and sharing their day or experiences.¬†

Our conversations remained light,¬†humorous, interesting and informative without being heavy. With the great meals, mummy served us, we’d get a good helping of stories and food for thought from daddy. We never hurried.¬†

It was quality time for us.

Materialism wasn’t as big a thing in our day. Today the ‘things’ one owns define who you are – your social status, the rung you’re on… and that has formed value systems. It wasn’t funny how someone told me that I had “middle-class” values! A ‘fresher’ in college, I had no exposure to this whole new world outside our traditional upbringing and social milieu. To be honest, I didn’t quite get what they meant by ‘middle-class’ values!¬†

I imbibed my values from my parents, teachers, church, and nobody had tagged any of these as ‘middle-class’ values. I learned a new thing. Values had different levels or standards. I observed the differences that marked the values of the various social strata.

The reason, I found out, was that we weren’t the members of any social club, liquor was a no-no, swearing was a no-no {my father a Navy guy would say ‘ruddy’ when he wanted to say ‘bloody’. Yes, even ‘bloody’ would raise my mother’s eyebrows up to high heaven! Ours was a very traditional ‘Christian’ upbringing influenced by European missionaries.¬†

We weren’t allowed to sing certain songs that had even the slightest reference to anything with sexual undertones. And ‘sexual’ undertones’ for my parents¬†could mean “lipstick on your collar” or “1 and a 2 and I love you let’s play the game of love!” The list was long. Singing wasn’t banned, however. We could sing and trust me there were many songs we sang. But the music that kids my age were listening to wasn’t what we listened to at home.

It was the same with dressing. Mummy had her own ideas how we should dress as ‘young ladies’. And though, I didn’t tow the line always, I stretched the limit, but I wouldn’t go that far as to create a scene at home. I refused¬†to accept invitations to any place my so-called friends invited me. Our middle-class values kept my necklines higher, my hemlines lower than theirs. No, I wasn’t granny-ish! Only a ‘different’ fish in their kettle.

Suppression gave way to expression as we grew older. We became assertive and things relaxed but it also brought in hypocrisy!

We learned to have dual lives. We wore many masks! One for church on Sunday. One for all church parties. Another for school, an upgraded one for college. You see, by that time we had moved from our one-horse town, in Punjab, to the Capital city. Life, as it was, transformed.

Schooling from grade five onwards had been in a public school in a small Air Force station. However, in the eleventh grade {Higher Secondary as it was called then}, we moved to the city. Not that the capital city was modern by any ‘city’ standards. It was a bigger and better life in terms of civic amenities, and infrastructure and other provisions, but attitudes and mentalities were yet to broaden as they have today. Whatever, for me it was a huge difference –

  • Academics: better quality of education because of a better teaching staff.
  • Social: I was meeting kids more to my liking and interests and I had a social circle outside of school. We had a church where the services were in English and I could understand what was going on. And a youth group!
  • Opportunity: Better colleges and university.
  • Environment: Huge differences all around.

Situations, circumstances, and needs change with time and there are many new demands that come with change. So it was with us too. However, looking back, I realize what a great part these restrictions played in my life. The strict discipline on how I had to walk, talk, sit, stand, express myself especially while talking to elders inculcated respect in us. Please, Thank You and Sorry were words we learned to use in abundance. 

Everything had a time and a place and everything was done in time and put in its proper place. Because we had servants, this was a very important lesson we learned. We could not fling our things about for the servants to pick up after us.

Discipline, not only in the way I conducted myself but also in my daily routine has seen me through the most difficult periods of my adult life. Time management, prioritizing, organizing came to my rescue when I needed it the most… and with ease. No surprises here, it had always been a way of life for me!

All the times I was checked for not saying ‘Thank you” and showing my gratefulness¬†when I was a small girl, taught me gratefulness for the littlest things that someone did for me; to be thankful for the little things I have instead of miserable for what isn’t there. This lesson on gratitude that zoomed over my head as a girl {I said ‘thank you’ because it was expected of me!}, seeped into my heart and I realized what a wonderful lesson it was!

I realized, much later, what my parents wanted to teach us about living with discipline, values, and boundaries. Precepts are the guidelines for a good life and provide a solid foundation on which to build our lives. 

These values helped to build up our¬†character so we’d not get blinded or mislead by the bazillion theories, advice, suggestions,¬†and influences we’d meet on the journey through teenage years and young adulthood.¬†

In hindsight, I see how stupid it was for me to have felt the way I did, it wasn’t necessary.¬† My friends were fine with me and those who didn’t¬†accept me couldn’t be my friends, anyway! Not that clear or simple to a naive sixteen-year-old then. Instead, I allowed myself to feel ‘less-than’ and lowered my self-esteem. So I resorted to donning hypocritical masks. The dichotomy created cognitive dissonance and my life did not go the way I wanted it to. Not being me, troubled me.

One day, just like that, I decided I didn’t need masks. I am¬†not ashamed of who I am nor do I want to fit in by being someone else. Standing for my¬†values and convictions mattered and what people assumed about me, didn’t matter, and if I didn’t stand for something, I’d¬† eventually fall for anything.

I discarded my masks and relieved myself of that unwanted burden.

These little lessons imbibed in childhood, the snippets of memories that strengthen and reinforce the learning are the really big things in life. 

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Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.‚Ä̬†
‚Äē¬†Mahatma Gandhi

 

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It Takes a Certain Kind to be Unkind

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It had been a beautiful day. A great picnic, at an incredibly scenic place. Lush greens, woods of oak and other trees I don’t know of, a lake, a hundred-year-old hacienda, a cottage with roses growing all around. Marvellous people, an extravagant potluck lunch, bonhomie…and then it was time to wrap up on this high note of pleasure. But nothing perfect lasts forever – forever? This didn’t even last through a picnic!

As I gathered my things: crockery, cutlery etc and put them back into my bags, one of the bags – the bigger one – toppled over knocking another smaller one off the bench on which some of us had placed our stuff. I was engrossed in what I was doing, getting out my medicines which I had to take at that hour, and I didn’t register the sound of anything falling off. In my favour, I could add that in the cacophony of many voices, about thirty odd people talking, I didn’t notice what had happened. That is until a rude, strident voice cut into my reverie – if reverie it was.

“Look what you’ve done! You dropped my bag!”
I snapped out of wherever my mind had been and saw this rather heavy woman stomping up to where the bench was, looking like a thundercloud.

“But I didn’t!” I said wondering what she was talking about.
“Yes,” she insisted, “you did. There look,” she retorted hotly and pointed to the ground.

“oh! I didn’t know. I’m so sorry,” I added with genuine remorse.

I proceeded to pick up her bag, which was a difficult task as I had to be careful not to hurt my back and also my left arm and shoulder which were recovering from an injured tendon.

“And all my cutlery and glasses too…You dropped everything!” she continued.

It took a lot of self-control not to talk back to her. I was on the edge by that time. Her attitude was accusatory, her tone was derogatory. I shifted my mind to a small prayer for patience and self-control. I needed help!

I picked up her bag and handed it to her, and also the tray under the bench which was the only thing that had any cutlery and a couple of glasses in it. The spoons and knives were dirty as were the glasses.

“The cutlery is dirty!” I said.

“That cutlery isn’t mine,” She spat, and grabbed the bag, stared daggers at the tray and its contents, “And neither are the glasses.”

“Well, ok, I’ll just put it back where it was. So it appears nothing fell out of your bag! And I didn’t deliberately drop your bag, but still I’m sorry about it,” I said and continued calmly with whatever it was I was doing before her rude intrusion.

I wondered later in the day when I was back home, why people like her were so rude, unkind, and demeaning. And I also wondered what would have happened if I had spoken to her in the same way. Apart from ruining the entire day, as she almost did mine, it would have caused bad relations which would have triggered much negativity into the group. Invariably there would have been a side that thought she was right and one that supported me¬†though I admit the ones for me would be a minuscule¬†group. I don’t really ‘belong’ here. I am the foreigner trying to adjust. While almost everyone is extremely nice, friendly and helpful I am quite sure if it came to taking sides, I’d not have many on mine. I understand that. One stands with one’s long-standing friends and colleagues.

I’m so thankful I didn’t react to her in kind. It would have triggered an outpouring of unwanted vitriol. That’s how hatred, bitterness and resentment brew. It was better to respond with courtesy. I don’t know her story so I can’t say I know where she’s coming from, but from experience I can say I have an idea. We can only give out what we have inside of us. It takes a certain kind to be unkind with no apparent cause.