Anil’s story- Chapter nine: A stressful time-India and Philippines-1981 to 1983
Source: Google photo of Sri Ram Pur religious fair, the biggest in the world
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It was the month of December of 1981 when we left Mali for good. My old friend Pierre and Monique lived now in a small village called Domremy aux Bois a few hours north of Paris, so we decided to see them on our way to India. I had not seen them for over 8 years or so but we had kept in touch while Pierre and Monique lived in Daloa in the Ivory Coast. I wanted Jasmine to meet some of my friends and they too were eager to meet with my family and children.
We had arrived in Paris in the winter but were not very well prepared for the extreme cold weather. My first job was to find quickly a hotel room which we found near the rue de Bac downtown. It was not a good hotel, but the location was good. Jasmine went to the church nearby where the body of St. Catherine Laboure was preserved in a niche. This belonged to the Order of the daughters of Charity to which her sister belonged. The Pili high school of Camarines Sur in the Philippines was named after this saint so Jasmine was very happy to visit the place in rue de Bac.
Jayanti and Ashis were very surprised to see a Santa Claus in the supermarket handing out the grocery bags that we had paid for. They thought that the Santa was giving us the Christmas gifts. They were innocent and did not know about the commercial Santas in Europe and America. They also saw some Portuguese or Spanish people dressed as Three Kings of Biblical times begging for money in the streets. It was all very new to them.
I had other problems to worry about. The airlines had not confirmed our seats and were reluctant to do so citing Christmas rush and full bookings, but I found the Swiss Air more sympathetic. They sent telex to their Geneva office to request four seats citing two small children and demanding priority. I was still wondering what would happen, but the good news was waiting for us when I returned to the hotel. The Swissair had called to say that they had confirmed our seats, but they could only fly us to Bombay. I did not care. We were going to India via Geneva and Zurich.
Now we were free to proceed to Ligny en Barrois where Pierre would pick us up. He had not changed a bit and still had his scraggy beard and the old beat up BMW. We were glad to see each other after so many years and soon left for Domremy which was some 12 kms away tucked away in a rural area.
Pierre had bought an old farmhouse there that he was renovating slowly during weekends. Monique was still the same beautiful and vivacious Monique I had known in Mostaganem, but the kids had grown up. They instantly adopted Ashis and Jayanti and would not let them out of sight.
It was a novel experience for Ashis and Jayanti to see the snowfall like combed cotton and cover everything. We lit up the fireplace and reminisced about the good old days and caught up with the news about people we knew. Monique had taken up weaving and made beautiful clothes on the loom that Pierre had assembled for her. Kids were going to school where Pierre taught.
Their house was full of artifacts they had collected over the years in Africa. There were precious ivory and ebony carvings and masks from the Ivory Coast but Monique sighed and said that the village folks were farmers who had never gone anywhere and failed to appreciate finer things in life like art or museum like collection of African handicrafts.
I went around anyway to see the village and meet with some folks who enthusiastically coddled their piglets to show me, and one farmer even showed me his milking machine. He knew about poor India where they had probably never seen such machines. I knew exactly how Monique felt. She was a sophisticated woman of art and culture living in an unsophisticated village where the most important news of the day was the birth of piglets.
The village was picture pretty with meadows full of brown cows, streams full of fish and deers could be found in the forest nearby but it was very rural and definitely not a place for the likes of Pierre and Monique, but they stayed and improved their farmhouse bit by bit. She told me that one day she went to the village church and sat in the front row not knowing that it was reserved for the rich farmers whether they came or not. They gave her dirty looks and made her feel that she was out of place which she was and stopped going to the cold stone church.
But his house was nice and big. He had installed a nice bathroom and the fireplace made the house seem cozy. I noticed that one of his chairs needed fixing so together we shaped a new leg for it while their dog kept leaping at us to my great annoyance. But it was good to see them and sad to leave not knowing if we would ever see them again. Probably not.
We were lucky once again because at the New Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy they told us that they may have to shut down all flights due to heavy snowfall soon but our flight to Geneva left on time. We had to change plane there, but the computer malfunctioned while we waited impatiently to get the boarding cards which were finally handwritten by the agent. We boarded the plane to Zurich in the nick of time but Zurich to Bombay flight was on time and we arrived in India without any hassle.
Now we had to get on a flight to Kolkata but there was a nasty surprise waiting for us here. The agent said that our names were not on the list. This was the last straw. I had brought my family all the way from Bamako and had confirmed tickets, so I made a great fuss and insisted. Soon another agent appeared and said that there was a mistake and gave me four boarding cards. All is well that ends well so now we headed for Kolkata where Annapurna was to meet with us and together, we would go to Darjeeling for a vacation. I wanted to show Jasmine and the kids the majestic Himalayas and the snow-covered peaks of Kanchenjunga.
Nirmal at that time was posted in a small town in Bihar state so we decided to visit with him there after our trip to Darjeeling. Annapurna arrived in Kolkata on the dot so soon we left for Siliguri from where we would take the toy train to Darjeeling. This toy train is really like a toy train that a small engine pulls up the steep gradient huffing and puffing while an attendant sits in front of the engine sprinkling sand on the tracks to get more traction.
It is a relic of the British past and a great favorite of tourists, but we were out of luck. The train was not running so we took a taxi all the way to Darjeeling passing through and slowly climbing all the time lovely green hills full of tea plantations, pine forests and cute red tiled houses. This is the place famous for tea in the whole world. We could now smell the crisp mountain air laden with the scent of pine trees and see the deep blue skies full of cotton like clouds. It is truly beautiful.
At 7000 ft above sea level Darjeeling is always cold and cloudy but we found a nice hotel. The clouds would come in through the windows and soak your clothes if you forgot to close the windows tight. It was a novel experience for all of us but especially Jasmine and the kids. Only poor Annapurna hated going up and down the hills to go anywhere because she was obese and easily tired.
Still, we had great fun and went to see the famous sunrise on Kanchenjunga that tourists from all over the world came to see. It is spectacular but only if there were no clouds obscuring the peak. As our luck would have it, we did not see anything spectacular at all due to heavy clouds, but the touts always said it was fantastic the day we did not go. They practically broke down your door trying to wake you up at 4 am and bring you to the Tiger Hill to see the sunrise of course for a hefty fee. The rudy cheeked hill women made hot tea by the roadside for the tourists and put cardamom in it.
Cardamom and many exotic spices grew abundantly in these verdant hills but the most valuable crop was the tea that the British had introduced long ago. It not only grew well here, it produced the aroma that was unmatched anywhere. It was the number one export of the country and employed thousands upon thousands of hill people who worked in innumerable plantations picking tea leaves and tending the gardens.
We were told that the best quality tea leaves were the tiny leaves that only small children with nimble fingers could pick. They had never heard of anti-child labor laws here but mostly it was a women’s job who carried enormous basket on their backs and picked tea leaves while singing hill songs together. The cool climate, the white clouds and the emerald, green manicured hills where colorfully dressed hill girls and women wearing silver jewelry picked tea leaves and sang their eternal songs was out of Arabian night storybook.
But there was a dark side to Darjeeling at this time that we soon saw in the insolent and arrogant behavior of Nepalese people who had settled here. There was an undercurrent of tension here that would explode in a few years to cause widespread unrest among these people. I still do not understand what their main complaint was, but it destroyed the tourist trade that was the mainstay of Darjeeling and brought poverty and misery to people.
I understand that the situation has improved since then, but we felt uneasy and after staying a few days left for Kolkata. We visited the Buddhist monasteries run by Tibetan and many such sites like Mirik lake where the government was developing bungalows and parks for the tourists, but some local visitors were dirty people who threw garbage around and did their toilet in public places. It was disgusting.
The Batasia loop, the Tibetan handicraft center, the mountaineering institute set up by Tenzing Norgay who climbed the Everest with Hillary were many places we visited. We also visited a tea garden and Jasmine saw the tea being picked, dried and processed there. The air was full of aroma of dry tea that they also sold there at half the market price, so we bought some.
The road passed by very close to Nepal border where the tourists went shopping illegal umbrellas and other cheap things. Why would anyone get excited about umbrellas or trinkets was beyond me, but Indians were crazy about anything imported even if of shoddy quality. The taxi driver had many hidden places under the bonnet to hide the contrabands from the prying eyes of the customs officers, but we were not impressed.
Back in Kolkata, we decided not to visit the birthplace of my father in the village about 40 km away and went to Bihar to see Nirmal. The train ride from Siliguri and from Kolkata was exhausting in the heat of the plains but we arrived in the small town where Nirmal and his family was staying. Mom was also with them so we all rested for a while before heading towards Sri Ram Pur. Nirmal was a gracious host and arranged for a picnic, but Sabita was still the same and looked unfriendly.
Annapurna liked the warmer climate of the plains and disliked the cold weather in the hills where she often complained of dizziness, so she was happier. We were thinking about what to do now. The kids needed schooling and we needed to stay put in one place for a while I sorted out our future so Sri Ram Pur seemed like a logical place.
This was perhaps the most trying period for Jasmine. Visiting the folks for a few weeks was one thing and staying in Sri Ram Pur was another. Sabita had never liked her and was openly jealous of her. I was there to protect Jasmine from hurt and told her that it was a blessing she did not speak Bengali. Sabita was poor in English so that too helped but not that much.
In Sri Ram Pur we got Ashis admitted to St. Joseph school where the headmaster was impressed by his English not knowing that it was his first language. Jayanti was too small to be admitted there but she went around the table chirping ba ba black sheep and other rhymes oblivious to the smiles of the headmaster. She was adorable. She too was eager to go to school, so we got her admitted to a nursery school where she learned to sing a few Hindi rhymes and other things.
The first day of school was difficult for both of them and they cried but soon got used to going to school and greatly enjoyed it. Ashis started learning the alphabets and slowly but steadily developed beautiful handwriting while Jayanti mostly sat with Hindi speaking children trying to understand a strange language that she could not fathom. Ashis’s classmates did not speak English either, so he felt isolated but his teacher, a young compassionate lady took him under her protection and care realizing that he was a special child.
At home Jasmine felt the same isolation as before and longed to return to the Philippines but I tried to make her stay in India as comfortable as possible and converted the old kitchen into our bedroom, the room next to it renovated for the kids and bought new furniture, electric fans and many other things. But lonely she remained as no one tried to be her friend. She tried hard to please Sabita and mom but did not succeed. Our living quarters were separated from the rest of the house by an iron door that was locked at night by them making our isolation seem more complete.
I busied myself with painting the house and fixing mosquito screens. We were not used to mosquitoes and flies although the others did not care. My aim was to make Jasmine and the kids comfortable because it was their first prolonged stay with my folks, but she often cried silently because they misunderstood her. The great cultural barrier seemed greater now. Mom was aloof to Ashis and Jayanti although she caressed Sabita’s daughter.
One day Ashis eagerly tried to show his grandmother his new school uniform, but she put it aside ignoring him. He was only a 4-year-old child who was baffled.
My heart cried out for the innocent children, but it hurt Jasmine the most. She became pale and sickly making our family doctor very concerned and one day gave her tablets of valium to make her sleep and less tense. I bought her vitamin tablets and energy drinks but that too did not help. I had brought her and the lovely innocent children into this nightmare so felt terribly guilty and desperately tried to get a job somewhere so that we could all leave.
But no one cared in India for a person of my background. You did not get a job in India because you were qualified. You got a job because you knew someone. I did not know anyone. I no longer understood this country where I was a complete stranger now. My folks in the past had complained that I never tried to find a job and settle in India because I did not want to live in India but that was not true. I came and was trying hard.
I shielded Jasmine and the kids as much as I could but often that was not enough. The summer months were the only respite we all got but it worsened once Sabita arrived in July from Bihar. Only Annapurna showed sympathy to Jasmine and loved the kids, but she had to go back to her job in another town. Even Parvati showed callousness towards Jayanti when she refused to sew her a blouse. Jasmine’s fault was that she wanted a blouse that covered her stomach completely. Indian women wore blouses that looked more like a bra.
We were shocked at this attitude of Parvati but kept quiet. They were hurting a saintly girl who was innocent like a child and was trying hard to please my relatives. What was worse was the Sabita often compared Ashis and Jayanti with her daughter who was better in every respect according to her. She even wondered aloud what did I see in Jasmine to marry her. It was in Bengali, so Jasmine thankfully never knew what it was that she said.
I began to hate Sri Ram Pur. I had lived away from Sri Ram Pur for nearly 14 years but now realized that we had absolutely nothing in common with them anymore. They did not understand us or even try. I could not talk to Nirmal any longer because he showed open contempt for the western ways that he thought I had picked up by speaking in English etc. but felt very defensive about India, good or bad. He was like those super patriot Americans in DC.
He often flared up when we said that the people defecating openly by the railway tracks in plain view of the passing trains gave bad impressions to foreigners who came to India for the first time. He said it was better than the half-naked women lying on the beach in America although the analogy failed to clear up in my mind. We had really grown apart in every possible way and there was no meeting of the mind based on logic. The point was that they felt ill at ease with us and our view of the world that they could not share being tradition bound. It was the typical us vs the rest syndrome.
We had traveled to many parts of the world and had lived in many places, but it did not mean anything to them because they lacked curiosity. They said that it did not matter to them what happened outside India, but I suspected it did not matter to them what happened in India as well. They lived in the small confines of their homes and a few people they knew. Politics never interested me and one could not discuss weather for long, so we fell silent and slowly but definitely an invisible wall came up.
What was very surprising was that no one wanted to know anything about Jasmine or about her family. They did not know that she was a college graduate and had majored in accounting or that she had worked in banks holding important jobs. They did not know anything about her family and did not seem to care. Sabita did not believe that Jasmine was knowledgeable about child rearing or their health care, but Sabita was as ignorant as a doorknob on any matter let alone childcare but never admitted.
Jasmine waited patiently to be asked but they never did. Later I began to understand that the root cause for this aloofness and jealousy was perhaps the fact that Jasmine was beautiful, tall and educated and now well-traveled so in her presence Sabita felt inferior and tried to hide it by showing negative feelings. Our children were also beautiful with very good manners and that too grated on her when she compared her daughter to them. There were many reasons but none of them are important now.
My mother walked a tightrope. She could not be seen siding with or favoring her younger and obviously rich son because she was taken care of by Nirmal and his hateful wife who would do so until she died. I think Nirmal was less concerned about such things, but his wife was not, and it was she who controlled Nirmal totally.
Their marital relationship was very different from ours. Nirmal being a peace-loving person by nature had surrendered to his wife long ago who now dominated his life by deciding everything for the household, but she had no such control over us. I think she resented it. She seldom spoke but we all felt that she was behind every decision ever made. I had seen what had happened when Nirmal voiced his objection. She simply packed up and left for her father’s house nearby. Then Nirmal had to go and placate her in order for her to return. This is what I suspected what happened in arranged marriages where women tried to get the upper hand. Their relationship was not based on love and mutual understanding.
I remembered Nirmal to be interested in playing guitar and had bought for him a magnet for his electric guitar in Kolkata but now it collected dust. He liked music so I bought an expensive stereo from Algeria that was the first in the community and had given him a Kodak carousel slide projector and many slides from many countries to enjoy. They too collected dust. He used to paint and make beautiful clay figurines because he was an artist but now, he sat in one corner reading newspaper. His wife had killed the artist in him as surely as the Sunrise. It was sad.
He sometimes mused that he regretted not having a companion to his heart who could understand and appreciate finer things in life. Sabita was a devoted wife and knew his daily routine and what he liked to eat. She cleaned his shirt and prepared his meals so that he could leave for his office on time. She waited at the gate at 5.30 pm for him to return everyday. She was devoted of which there was no doubt.
But whenever I tried to get him interested in doing things that I knew he loved most, his eyes sparkled for a while before they dimmed again. He had paid a price to have marital peace, but he was often very irritable and showed it over very simple reasons like a missing button from his shirt or a hole in his sock. He was the lone male in a household full of females and often felt his frustrations. A Bengali household full of women even though related could be a tense place as they never openly fought with each other but kept their differences simmering over many years.
I learned that they remembered what one had said twenty years ago and made an issue of it if they wanted to. Their vindictiveness had no end which was hard for me to understand. Jasmine was innocent like a child and was often baffled at the simmering of tension that needed only a slight excuse to come to the surface.
She was also very surprised at the two facedness of Sabita who would hug a visitor in obvious delight and start cursing in vile words when the visitor left. In fact, it turned out that she had very few good things to say about anyone making us wonder what she said about us to others behind our back.
The Sri Ram Pur household lived for only one reason. It was to serve the needs of Nirmal who was the bread earner so everything else became secondary. For example, we had to wait until 10 am to get any breakfast until Nirmal left for his office and the daughter left for her school. She did not care if Jasmine and the kids were hungry because her first duty was to her husband and daughter.
I therefore bought bread, jam, jelly etc. so that Jasmine could have early breakfast. She was not allowed into the kitchen to help herself. If I bought sweets or fruits for everybody, Sabita would ignore it because it did not come from Nirmal. She even ignored the pooja sweets that I brought from the Holy temple of Viswanath in Benares that I had gone to see once. No Hindu worth his salt dared to ignore the offerings from the Temple of Viswanath but Sabita did not believe it. She did not consider me religious enough to offer worship to Shiva.
She openly said that she did not like guests who stayed because it meant extra work for her. It perhaps included us although she did not say that openly. Jasmine learned that she had to be self-dependent if we were to stay in Sri Ram Pur. So, she prepared the kids for school early in the morning and their lunch boxes. Our lunch was still served at 1.30 pm or later but we learned to cope. We always reminded ourselves that it was not our home so we had to adjust to others as best as we could .
I kept fixing the house and looking after the needs of Jasmine and the kids. Only my cousin and his wife came once in a while to talk to Jasmine or invited her to their house. I took her out for long walks when she poured out her frustrations and difficulties, but I was also helpless.
I had written to many potential employers, but they did not reply. The New Delhi office that offered employment for returning Indian scientists like me gave me hope and said that they were processing my application and would soon answer. In fact, one day a policeman came to tell me that my appointment was due soon because my police clearance had been sent already to Delhi. I became hopeful. It was our way out of this mess.
Some people began to talk to us in a condescending manner saying that I was indeed on a prolonged vacation so all these experiences finally laid the groundwork for the ultimate decision that we would soon make of leaving India for good, but we were still a few months from it and did not know it.
It was a period of trial for the four of us and specially so for Jasmine who endured it more bravely than us. It made me appreciate her more. We became closer to each other since we understood that our bond of love was also our protection against hurt feelings.
Then one day in October of 1982 we received a telegram from the Philippines. Jasmine’s father was in the hospital and in a very serious condition. Her sister wrote that he had only days to live and wanted to see Jasmine. She cried a lot and urged me to return to the Philippines immediately. But mom thought that Jasmine was using the telegram as an excuse to leave India and perhaps her father was not sick at all.
It was truly shocking. I did not expect it from my mother but had a suspicion that it was Sabita who had sown the seed of doubt in my mother’s mind. I did not take long to make my decision. Jasmine was surprised when I told her that we were all going back to the Philippines immediately. The same night we boarded a train for Delhi via Meerut although I had fever. Our family doctor gave me some medicine to take on the train. In Delhi the very next morning we went straight to the Philippines consulate and Jasmine convinced the consul to issue the three of us visas right away.
Then we went to the airline and confirmed four seats on a flight from Kolkata which they did after sending urgent telexes to Hong Kong. We were cleared to take off in three days' time. Then we went to the passport office to get a clearance for the kids which they stamped right away. Then we went to the income tax office and got a clearance for me because any Indian who stayed over three months had to get a clearance. We accomplished all of these tasks in a few hours that normally took many days and took the train back to Sri Ram Pur right away.
The next day I got the transfer certificate for the kids because they were now going to study in the Philippines and never coming back to India. Jasmine started packing right away. Our stay in Sri Ram Pur thus came to an abrupt end and we soon left for Kolkata by train from where we would fly to Manila via Hong Kong. It was the wisest decision I would ever make. This time there was no doubt that we will never come back.
It was clear that our children could not grow up in India and Jasmine could not stay. The government of India finally offered me a job but it came too late. I could not accept it. The Sri Ram Pur folks sensed that it was a definite departure for us but kept quiet. I think my mother realized that we faced an impossible situation in Sri Ram Pur although I had tried my best to settle. But that was not to be. Our destiny lay elsewhere.
Soon we left India and the bad experience behind forever and flew towards the Philippines for possibly a new life and a new beginning. We had no plans other than reaching Pili in time so that Jasmine could get to see her dying father. But in Manila there were some formalities to complete. I had to now apply for a resident status, so we went to the Immigration office and met with the bureau chief who handled the process.
He was an old lawyer who finally agreed to expedite my case and asked a junior lawyer to do the paperwork immediately. I had convinced him that we needed to reach Pili soon and were traveling with two small children who were tired and needed rest not to mention Jasmine whose father was very sick. So, all the paperwork was done and we arrived in Pili the very next morning.
This is remarkable because the Bureau of immigration and deportation in Manila was not noted for efficiency when it came to the cases involving Boombais as the Indians were called here. The word deportation was often emphasized in case of aliens so by and large it was an unfriendly place full of unfriendly people who were very prejudiced against the Boombais. That is why I said that it was truly remarkable. The lawyer chief was friendly, and they handled my case with compassion and speed.
The Boombais were a sad lot in the Philippines. Many came as tourists and stayed on to do business of loan sharking although the local pawn shops were better at gouging people than them. They hid in the provinces from the immigration sleuths but sometimes got caught and deported. The term Boombai included anyone who looked like them like Bangladeshis, Pakistanis or others. Children were taught rhymes that went like.”. there is a Boombai , there is a Boombai hiding under the bridge “and the local TV and radio were full of deprecations about the Boombais who were called five sixers. The transvestites made jokes about them on TV.
You could often hear Filipinos talking among themselves belittling Boombais so the prejudice was widespread. They had read in the Reader’s Digest how poor India was and people there starved all the time. Nothing you could say or do could change their mind because their belief was very strong. This would later change as the cable TV came via satellite and brought BBC and CNN and with-it wide coverage of India but only among the educated class. The grassroots did not have satellite TV or understand English and it was they who would continue this tragic prejudice.
When Jasmine defended by saying that India was a misunderstood country, they just laughed and said she said it because she was married to a Boombai. The fact was that very few Filipinos had ever traveled to India and most knew absolutely nothing about it because their knowledge of other countries was limited to the United States where the streets were paved with gold and where every Filipino wanted to go and live the good life,
Even those Filipinos who had emigrated to the United State lived in close Filipino communities like in Daly city near San Francisco and did not mix very much with the mainstream Americans. They had their own TV programs piped in from Manila and shops where they could buy the native food. The ones in the Philippines envied them and wanted to go there.
There were historical reasons for their affection for America or anything American. The Philippines was colonized by America for a long time and they came to its aid during the last war when the Japanese occupied the country and treated the locals roughly. Many Filipinos like Mr. Castillo had served in the USAFE which stood for US army in the far east and many war veterans were later allowed to emigrate to the United States. They number now in millions there and constantly petition for their relatives. USA is also the main trading partner of the Philippines.
Filipinos imitate anything American good or bad and consider them as their role model. They have historically looked to the east and not to the west because east is where they all wanted to go. In their schools they were taught American history but not much Asian history. The American fashion, American music, American food, movies and hot dogs were better in their mind. There were many other reasons.
But their prejudices against Indians came primarily from ignorance as most prejudices are. The ragged looking strange people wearing funny turban and bracelets riding motorbikes and hiding in the provinces did not create much of an impression on the Filipino mind. They thought that if India was such a great country, then why these people came to the Philippines selling umbrellas? Their logic was hard to beat.
The local newspapers did not help the matter either. When a giant warship of the Indian Navy made a courtesy call to the port in Manila, they printed a badly taken photo and the article in very small letters also in faded ink and shoved it into the 13th page. As if they did not believe that India had a very modern navy including carriers and sophisticated submarines.
Many Filipino women saw that marriage to a white American was their only ticket to the promised land to escape from their misery here and were very surprised that we voluntarily returned to settle down somewhere.
People were often surprised that I had a Ph.D. and was not selling umbrellas or hiding under the bridge. It made them uneasy and at a loss as to how to react. Most had never met an Indian who was so educated and who did not wear turban or bracelets. Some even asked Jasmine what made her marry an Indian when they did not rate so high in their mind. Remember her sisters? They were typical Filipinos. Ignorance and prejudice go hand in hand.
Most Filipino girls if asked to rate in order of preference whom they wanted to marry inevitably said that the first choice was a white American and last a Boombai. The African Americans were not even considered. They could not believe when we said that we found the Philippines a very nice country because they tried so hard to leave where opportunities were few. Most would go to the middle east doing menial labor jobs, but they came from the grassroots or grp as we called them. The educated ones tried for the United States.
Anyway, our journey had come to an end at least for the time being. Her father was in the intensive care in Naga City hospital and indeed very sick. It took him some time before he could recognize Jasmine but finally showed signs that he was happy to see her. He could not speak and was fed through the nose. His hulk had shrunk to practically nothing and he had terrible bed sores. His eyes were vacant, and the body emaciated. It was even harder for us to watch but I was glad we were able to come quickly because he died two days later.
The death of a parent is always very hard on the children as I knew from my experience when my father died so painfully of cancer in 1966. It was naturally very hard for Jasmine and the rest, but I think they were also relieved that his sufferings were over.
Her younger brother was at this time about to be ordained as a priest which was a great moment in any Filipino family, so they got busy preparing for the funeral as well as the ordination. I was just a passive observer in these family rituals because here too remained a barrier between me and them.
I was here to give Jasmine moral support who was undergoing a good deal of emotional turmoil after her harrowing experience in India. This was the time she needed me the most, so I was glad to be by her side.
I noticed that no matter how distant people were to each other ,they all showed up during a funeral. It was a time to show their solidarity. It was the word Annapurna did not understand because we did not have such solidarity in our family. In India even close relatives often did not attend the funerals. It was because the Hindu tradition dictated that the body be cremated within 24 hours of death so the relatives living far could not reach in time.
But in the Philippines the body remained in the coffin for a long time to allow distant people to come and join the funeral, so a constant stream of people came and ate and drank beer to my great amazement. As if it was a festive occasion and not a wake. Such are the traditions of different countries. Here people wore black but in India and also in Vietnam the color of mourning is white not black.
Ashis and Jayanti still very young watched everything with curious eyes. They could not speak Tagalog, or the local dialect called Bicol, so they remained outside the conversation. Most Filipinos were very poor in English although a few made a valiant effort for a few minutes until they ran out of vocabulary. The children did not bother.
The cultural differences between the Philippines and India are very remarkable. In fact, they are so great that I often wondered if other than the religion, there are some common grounds. How could these two people develop even a modicum of understanding of each other given such differences tainted with prejudices? Of course, no one was trying or interested.
Soon after the funeral and the ordination, we decided to find a rented house in Naga City where the kids will now have to start their schooling because here too, living with the in laws was tiring. So, a small, dilapidated house near the school of Jayanti was found and we quickly moved in. Ashis was to go to school just across the street, so it was perfect. The transfer certificate helped them get to the higher grade right away so the transition from India was smooth. Jayanti was a bit underage for kindergarten, but she charmed the teachers with her fluent English and baby talk. She would remain the baby of the class all through college and so would Ashis. Filipino children started schooling at a later age than in India.
We set up a new household once again in the Jacob Street apartment and looked after the kids and their education. They had started well and in fact were far ahead of their classmates in every respect. Jayanti became the darling of the sisters because she was not shy and could recite many rhymes by rote.
She started to learn the alphabets and made rapid progress. She learned many songs and dances and showed them to anyone. Ashis was also getting along well and started to learn many things. They clearly had advantage in English which was their first language but also because they had lived in different countries and traveled. This experience set them apart.
This cross-cultural exposure was an asset to them, but their classmates had no idea what Ashis and Jayanti talked about in Mali, France or in India. They had never heard of Mali and what they knew about India or Indians was not very favorable, but our kids got along wonderfully and adjusted well to their new surroundings and schools. The trouble was that their classmates did not speak English and our kids did not yet learn the local language. This would change later as they grew up. They started to pick up Bicol words.
I was not as well-adjusted as I appeared to be. The rented house was on a very noisy street that made me very jumpy because I am sensitive to noise pollution and cannot stand it. The Tri mobiles and motorbikes without mufflers made the matter worse. I longed for a quiet place, but it was not to be where we lived. I think at this time the idea or either building a house or buying one started to take root.
Jasmine had inherited a lot in town where we could build our house but I soon discarded the idea. A new house meant dealing with the corrupt city hall people, so we started to think about a suitable ready built house somewhere. It is really amazing how fast the word spreads in a small town like Naga.
Soon some real estate agents started hounding us with their endless proposals, but we turned them all away until one day I said to Jasmine that we should go with them and then say no so that they will leave us in peace.
The house we went to see was an unfinished house in a subdivision which the old woman wanted to sell because she could not pay the bank the monthly amortization. She was a widow and lived alone. I liked the house right away because it was just right for us. It had a big living room and two bedrooms. The bathroom was small but that could be enlarged, and the kitchen needed some work but, on the whole, it was a good house that had a garage and some space in the front and the back.
We agreed to buy it to the great joy of the agents and the old woman, and I got very busy for the next month or so to fix up the house properly. It had to be ready before Jayanti’s birthday in January when we planned to move in. We no longer had to live with in laws anywhere and finally had our own place. This was to be our home and a lovely home at that. I made sure of it.
We tore down all the plywood and built solid brick walls. We enlarged the bathroom and put in flush toilet, shower and beautiful blue tiles. We put in fence and a steel gate and had all the walls plastered with strong cement. I bought a pressure operated automatic water pump and had a deep well sunk in the back garden. The floor was to be red. The new tube lights were installed in all the rooms and the house spruced up with paint in and out.
We put in balusters outside for the garage which would soon house our VW Brasilia that we bought. In fact I was in the mood of spending and fixing up everything because I really liked the idea of our first real home. Jasmine was ecstatic and gave me many ideas. We planted roses in the front and fruit trees at the back. The front door was of a heavy-duty carved Narra wood.
The metal gate bore the letters of our surname in bold style that we painted white with a blue background. In short, we got everything done in time for us to move in on the 5th of January of 1983. Jayanti was to celebrate her 4th birthday in the new house.
I bought a very nice Akai stereo with tape deck and record player and set it up in our newly painted huge living room where we set up the sofa set that Jasmine had purchased long ago. We brought all her stuff from Pili including the Narra divider. I bought her the Singer sewing machine, ref and gas stove, pots and pans and everything she needed. We setup the TV and the dining table set on one side of the big living room, so it was perfect.
Only the curtains remained but that too came shortly. For Ashis and Jayanti we built double deck beds because the bed rooms were not large and we occupied the front room. Soon a maid was found and we had a regular brand new household going in no time at all.
I started to enjoying life again truly relaxing with good music and playing with our lovely children or just sitting in our new garden talking to Jasmine. I put two easy chairs in the lawn where we usually sat savoring it all.
I often wondered about how momentous our decision to leave India had been because one thing led to another. I had been given the permanent residency by the Manila Immigration office and our children were recognized as Filipino citizens. What more could I ask for? We had everything.
Our new maid waxed and polished the floor like mirror while we just sat enjoying it all. Due to our good luck the kids went from one grade to the next and never missed a single school year since we had gotten them started in India so the transition was smooth. Now they had their own bunk bed and their room. People marveled at the beautiful house that took shape so quickly. We now had a car, and it helped a lot in bringing the kids to school and run errands.
Her younger sister who had opposed our marriage now had a change of heart and moved in with us. Often her mother came and stayed so it was nice for the kids to have a grandmother here. Their experience with their grandmother in India was nothing to write about and we hoped that they did not remember her. The best news was that Jasmine regained her health and was the jolly and lively woman I knew in Mali.
Soon I received a letter from Robert Springstein who now worked in the United States. He asked if I would like to work in a project in Haiti to which I said yes. The offer of a job of professor in the Visayas state college of agriculture that had been recently made did not interest me because I had been to that place. It was isolated and full of religious fanatics.
The Americans were anxious to have me in Haiti so one day in the month of February of 1984, I left for the United States for the orientation program and then for Port au Prince, Haiti. Jasmine and the kids were to stay behind until I could find a suitable house and schooling facilities in Haiti. I really did not know anything about Haiti, so I had to first find out.
I met the team leader in Arkansas and many others. I was assured that Haiti is a nice country, and I should get ready to go there for four years. He was bringing his family there so I started hoping that soon Jasmine and the kids would be able to join me. We had never been separated before, so I really wished us to be together in Haiti.
Thus, a new chapter was about to begin.
Note : The following links are given here for you to read Anil’s biography in French,Japanese,German, Spanish and Russian languages as well.
Note: My blogs are published at the following links here.
Originally published at http://aumolc.wordpress.com on March 23, 2023.