‘NANEE’ AND THE TOUGHEST GENERATION

“Put up for song,” she would say.

We rushed to tune in the battery-powered transistor radio for music from India, which came on at 6 p.m. on one of the two local AM stations.

At 6:30 p.m., the other frequency aired oriental songs, and we quickly switched to catch the staid announcer introducing his selections.

It was a principal manner by which my maternal grandmother connected with the far-off land from which her own parents had come and for which she had an enduring emotional bond.

She was a first generation descendant of indentured labourers, and had been wistfully told alluring stories of the culture, cuisine and lifestyle of the country they had left behind.

My grandmother (we reverently called her “nanee”, the appropriate Hindi term) would never set foot in India, but she carried a torch for the distant land, longingly pondering about relatives across the so-called “kala pani.”

They may have been fleeting, but the radio programmes gave my grandmother – and her generation of descendents of Indian émigrés – a semblance of tangible attachment to the country she airily considered the “mother land.”

She practised as many of the inherited mores and customs as she could, because of her socialisation and in deference to the distant country from which her parents migrated.

The recipes, forms of worship and various traditions had been both practised by her elders and orally passed on.

Her Hindu pundit, regrettably, did not appear well-versed in the scriptures, and would stammer “uh-huh” whenever he came upon words or phrases with which he was not acquainted.

The whisper was that he was “Uh-huh Pundit.”

My grandmother’s limited time away from the fields and household duties allowed her to see only a few Indian movies, and afterward she would contemplate on the verbal exchanges and the way of life.

Movies of the era were usually tearjerkers about society and family relations, and one occasion my grandmother became impassioned about the wrongdoing being enacted.

At home later, she protested: “He wrong to do she dat!”

As an act of modesty, she routinely wore an orhini headwear, and, in conversations with others of her generation, she interspersed broken Hindi with equally halting English.

She did not have much schooling, because – like many of her era – she was made to toil in the fields, in order to assist in putting food on the table.

Some of her mishmash expressions amused the family, especially the youths, and she responded in a good-natured manner to our tease..

“He donkay-dam!” she protested about a carefree young man.

It was her coarse adaptation of the term “don’t-care-a-damn.”

She pointed to swirling liquid in a glass container at a shop in the nearby town, and queried: “What is dat dutty water about?!”

“That is orange juice,” the attendant patiently explained.

But her family values, strong work ethic and unquestioned morals dwarfed her absence of formal education and lack of sophistication.

Like others of her time, she was a respected matriarchal figure, with unspoken moral authority and undoubted loyalty to her family.

She was routinely up by 3 a.m. and had a full day that ended at nightfall.

If her generation was conflicted and emotive over dual national loyalty, her rural setting created double jeopardy.

Like several other countryside communities, her village was a harsh victim of rural neglect, for years being denied electricity, potable water, good infrastructure, fair jobs and other features of decent living.

Because the political elites did not draw support from these far-off settlements, they were sidelined for development, and daily existence was an arduous task.

An improvised box cart was used to transport pails of water for daily needs.

Television and household utensils powered by electricity were luxuries they read off.

A sustainable, rewarding job was just a concept.

A telephone, household furnishings and a vehicle came several years later.

But my grandmother was equal to the challenge: She was gritty, ambitious and purposeful.

Fancy meals, good clothes, decent jobs, cars and other features enjoyed by the upwardly-mobile were for “town people.”

She and others of her ilk may well have been the toughest generation, being made to combat the anguish of a transported people and the desertion and alienation of the local ruling regime.

She was determined that the next generation must do better, and was a drill sergeant in insisting on skills training.

And, yes, she applied popular adages of the era.

“What eh meet yuh, eh pass yuh,” she would remark, about looming difficulties.

And “friends does carry yuh but doh bring yuh back” about fair-weather associates.

“Time longer dan twine” spoke about the virtue of patience.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, my grandmother was deeply perplexed and wondered whether that landmark event would affect the planting season and the waves in the oceans.

She cooked simple meals in a chulha (earthen fireside), and on evenings, she prepared tea and drank from an enamel cup as she lapped up the radio music.

A generation after her passing, I am still daunted about how resilient and good-hearted she was despite her conflicted and difficult life.

My grandmother and others of her time must have an honourable place in our history.

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