Shanta Gokhale tells the story of her life through memories of her body
In Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir of a Childhood, Frank McCourt says in the second paragraph of the first chapter, “It was of course a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.” Leo Tolstoy gets there even before him. He dismisses happy families in the first line of Anna Karenina. “Happy families are all alike,” he writes. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The line has lived on in people’s memories as one of the most striking first lines in a novel. Altogether, there seems to be no getting away from the fact that happy people are uninteresting, possibly even stupid. Despite which I must confess that my childhood was not just happy; it was extraordinarily happy. I am therefore a subject that makes neither a worthwhile memoir nor a great novel. So why am I writing this?
However peremptorily Tolstoy may dismiss the idea, the fact is happy families are not alike at all. One happy story is very different from another. No outsider can decide which is happy and which is not. A woman of my acquaintance has chosen to remain single. She is one of the happiest people I know, hard-working, generous, full of beans and complete in herself. Yet her neighbours see her as someone who has been left on the shelf and is putting on a brave face. When I was working as a sub-editor in the women’s magazine, Femina, a gentleman came to see me for advice on what career his daughter should choose. Why he came to me is a mystery. Perhaps he was under the impression that a magazine that dished out various kinds of advice to readers in its columns was likely to be staffed by experts on all aspects of life. A brood of agony aunts in fact going, “I’d like to assure you first that your problem is not uncommon…” In the course of describing his daughter’s qualifications, the gentleman mentioned a quality of her personality that he was proud of and which he thought would impress me too. “She is so modest that she has never raised her eyes to look at a man,” he said. “Poor unhappy creature,” I thought. But who was I to think that? Perhaps her happiness lay in making her father happy. I asked around the office for reliable career counsellors’ phone numbers and handed him the list. It struck me then that twenty years before this girl was even born, we sisters, Nirmal and I, had been going around town with eyes boldly raised, looking at everything there was to see, including men if they came into sight. Ours was an unusual kind of happiness in a culture where women who looked only at the road beneath their feet when they walked were most valued. In the great Indian battle between tradition and modernity that was playing out then, modernity had the upper hand as an aspirational value. Today the battle has continued with tradition, or what’s constructed as tradition, inching ahead. When tradition rules, women’s lives are more radically affected than men’s. Happily for Nirmal and me, our parents had positioned themselves firmly on the side of modernity. Which meant we respected all human beings and rejected every barrier to equality, whether of religion, caste or gender. We were also brought up to understand and respect our bodies as much as our minds. We had to eat a balanced diet and play games. Even during examinations, Father would order us out in the evening. “No sitting at home cramming. Fresh air, fresh body, fresh mind.”
Last year I came upon something interesting in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene. It appears Queen Victoria, once Empress of half the world, was a carrier of the gene that caused Haemophilia B. Women were carriers of the gene and male descendants the victims. Victoria passed the gene on to her daughter Alice, Alice in turn to Alexandra the tsarina of Russia, and she to her son Alexei who became a victim of haemophilia. The sickly child was just shy of fourteen when the entire family was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. A gene that had crossed continents was fascinating enough. But what held my attention even more was the irony, as the author put it, of “the disjunction between the prince’s all-too-human genetic condition and his all-too-exalted political inheritance”. Our all-too-human condition is the gift of the body we inherit. Hamlet realizes that the court jester Yorick and the great emperors Alexander and Caesar are all undifferentiated dust. However high the flights of the mind or of ambition, it is ultimately the body that allows or disallows them. Athletes have a proper sense of this. After his eighth Wimbledon win, Roger Federer said, “Again and again I am grateful my body has cooperated.” He was thirty-six, which is supposedly ancient for tennis. It is vital then to accept the body in all its beauty, mystery and power; to know that the images we build of ourselves might one day be rudely shattered by its exigencies.
Post cancer surgery, my mother was being fed through a tube. Two things mortified her deeply. One, that the doctor kept noting whether or not she was passing gas. This was a bodily function that she, like everybody else in polite society, was used to pretending did not happen. To have it so blatantly brought to public notice, the public being the group of students who always accompanied the doctor, was an unforgiveable breach of social behaviour. Two, she was taken in a wheelchair for tests with the feeding tube still attached. “Why don’t they remove this nose ornament when they take me out,” she fumed. It hurt her sense of personal dignity to leave her room with that ludicrous object hanging from her nose. Mother believed in mind over matter. The body does what you train it to do. The body cannot be permitted independent decision-making. Nor was it to be mollycoddled. When she napped in the afternoon, she called it resting her back. She never admitted even to herself that a human body that was up from the crack of dawn, stretching itself to the maximum to look after home and family while simultaneously trying to fulfil personal ambitions, needed a short rest in the middle of the day. Similarly, she never fully accepted the fact that she had cancer. All those who ask ‘Why me’ suffer from the delusion that they are endowed with specially blessed bodies unlike other people’s. Tolstoy writes in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “…the mere death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it, the complacent feeling that it is he who is dead and not I.”
Father had a more robust sense of the body. Lying in hospital after a massive heart attack that finally took him, he did not say “Why me?” Instead, every time a train arrived at the nearby station heralded by a clanging bell, he would say, “The bell tolls for me.” The question is, how you come to a rational view of the body that allows you not to be afraid of it while being aware that its workings are ultimately beyond your control.
One day, when I was surfing the net, I came across Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Contemplation of the Body. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, I discovered, was an American Buddhist monk. I read through his advice aimed at those who aspired to escape from the sufferings of samsara—the worldly coil. I have never been spiritually inclined. So I had no such aspirations. But reading what the bhikkhu had to say, I realised here was an idea I could use to tell my story. I was being told to look at the body organ by organ, accepting it for what it was. The end to which this was meant to lead was not the end I was interested in. I did not want to contemplate the body in order to detach myself from it. I would never want to do that. I loved my body too much for what it had given me and for what it had not. However, the idea of looking at the body and its life not as incidental to mine but central to it excited me.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is perhaps the most recent of the stimuli that have gathered and cohered in my mind to give form to my story. I have never looked at myself through the prism of my body. To look at it now, one organ at a time, remembering the circumstances that forced it upon my attention in the course of my seventy-eight-year-old life, promises to be a heuristic exercise leading to another kind of self-knowledge than the one we normally aspire to. In the process of putting my body out there in plain view, I will also be keeping faith with my belief in transparency. We do not talk openly about our sexual organs. We are horrified by nudity. Disease is to be kept a dark secret. The poet Jayadeva wrote lyrically about Radha’s voluptuous breasts. But then he was a poet. Akka Mahadevi is said to have gone unclothed in search of Lord Shiva. But then she was a saint. Saints never fell ill. When they died it was not of disease but of choice. Their death was called samadhi, a metaphor. Susan Sontag says in Illness as Metaphor that “the most truthful way of regarding illness…is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” The body is the ultimate truth. You can falsify your thoughts, your feelings, your knowledge. But your body, however surgically falsified its appearance may be today, is still prone to disease.
There is also a purely writerly reason for telling my story through the events of the body. It gives me a readymade structure, a spine around which to build the narrative. I am not going to be stumped by that dreaded question, where do I begin. I will begin at the beginning. Birth!
1. EARLY MEMORIES
It was the afternoon of 13 August 1939 when Indira Gokhale, born Yamuna Behere, aged twenty-six—seen in family photographs as dark and thin with long silky black hair—was taken in a tonga to the Cottage Hospital, Dahanu, to have her first baby. Her husband, Gopal Gundo Gokhale, was in Patna, finding his feet as a journalist. Dahanu was then an almost-town, two-and-a-half hours by train from Bombay, touching the border of what was later to become Gujarat State but was still part of Bombay Presidency. It was a seaside place of chiku orchards owned by Iranis and a long, wide pristine beach backed by a stand of casuarina trees known locally as suru. I have no idea who took Indira to the hospital. It must have been one of her uncles who lived with their wives and children under the benevolent gaze of her father, Narayan (Nana) Gangadhar Behere, the eldest brother. Nana was only a matriculate, but endowed with an innovative brain. He was a Gandhian and manufactured rice mills.
Indira was a tough woman. She had grown up without the protective love of a mother. Hers had died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918, when Indira was five and her brother Ghanashyam two-and-a-half. Her father’s mother took care of the children. Later Nana married Lakshmi Ghanekar who was only thirteen at the time. Known as Mothi Kaku (eldest aunt), she gave Nana thirteen children in quick succession, two of whom died. I do not know how painful Indira’s journey by tonga from home to hospital was. It is not one of the many stories she was to tell me about her life in later years.
What she did tell me was that the labour was hard and seemingly never-ending. I came on a Sunday morning. Dr Nikki, the American missionary at Cottage Hospital, had just returned from church. By then Mother had spent twelve hours trying to eject me. She was exhausted. There was just about one last push left in her. The good doctor knelt by her bed and prayed. I popped out. Whoever was responsible for that emergence, whether divine agency or a woman’s determination, Mother could not stop laughing in gratitude. The doctor said it was a girl. Mother said, “Does she have all ten fingers and toes?” The good doctor counted them off. All ten present. The doctor said, “She’s going to be a philosopher.” Mother asked weakly, “Why?’ The doctor said, “She has put her hand to her forehead and is refusing to bawl.” The doctor turned me upside down and slapped my bottom. Philosophy fled. A lusty bawl filled the air. I had arrived.
But about the toes and fingers. There was, and probably still is, a superstition that says a pregnant woman who is outdoors during an eclipse will produce a deformed child. Mother, like her father and mine, was a rationalist. There was an eclipse during her last trimester. She had come down to Dahanu from Patna where Father was working as a sub-editor on the staff of a newspaper owned by the Maharaja of Darbhanga, The Indian Nation. She happened to have washed her hair that day and was sitting out in the yard to dry it, when half a dozen aunts descended on her to shoo her in. The eclipse, they cried. Go in. Mother said, so what if it’s an eclipse, and stayed put till her hair had dried. But somewhere in the remote recesses of her mind lurked a smidgen of doubt. It was all very well to stubbornly refuse to follow Pascal’s ultimate play-safe wager. But even then, what if …? With my emergence, fully fingered and toed, she was relieved that rationalism had won.
I was a healthy baby and Mother had plenty of milk to nurse me. As a matter of fact she had so much she even nursed my aunt who had arrived seventeen days before me. This was Nana’s eleventh surviving child. Relationships got pretty muddled in joint families those days with everybody who could breed, breeding. Whatever age a child, certain relationships demanded respect. The eldest son’s wife had to refer to his baby sister respectfully as Vansa. She might then be heard exclaiming, “Agabai Vansa mutlya (Oh my! Respected sister-in-law has peed).” There is a picture in the family album of me carrying an uncle on my hip.
Father was an enthusiastic picture-taker. I call him that rather than photographer because he was not into finding the right light to frame and compose a moment. He just liked taking pictures. So there are pictures in the family album which are underlit and there are those that are overlit. But there are also some which are perfectly lit. There’s a picture of me in which I am sitting on the floor, head drooping from a thin neck grown too weak to hold up its weight. This was when my first tooth was coming out. I had lost the urge to eat. All I did was shit; and all Mother did was wash. Her comrade-in-arms was Unilever’s 501 bar soap. In those ‘Glaxo builds bonny babies’ days, I had been bonny on Mother’s abundant milk. But my first tooth had reduced me to a boney baby.
Teeth were to play a big part in the story of my body. My milk teeth had begun to shake. The girls and boys I played street games with were shedding theirs without a fuss. My bête noire Ravi Deshmukh from across the street, who would turn up his eyelids to scare me, scared me even more once by giving his shaking tooth a hefty tug and laying the discard on the palm of his hand under my nose. My teeth shook but stayed put. One lower molar in particular was so recalcitrant that the permanent tooth lost patience and emerged to double park itself behind it. Dr Vitthal Palekar, a family friend and a Licentiate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons (LCPS), was assigned the job of pulling out the molar. The operation was traumatic, as much for me as for the doctor and Father who had taken me to his clinic. The doctor sat me on the examination table, sprayed my forearm with topical anaesthesia to demonstrate how it numbed the part and prevented pain, dabbed it on my gum and approached me with an injection. I created mayhem. I have no memory (I have probably erased it) of how Dr Palekar and Father managed between them to put that injection into me and pull that molar out. But when I examined the gap later, I realized the permanent tooth was lying half supine behind it at a 45-degree angle. It was not going to be much use in the chewing and grinding business. We might as well have let its predecessor fall in its own time.
I made no fuss with small-pox inoculations administered by middle-aged men who sat between our house and the next on chairs provided by the residents. They came with boxes full of vials and little knives. They lined up the neighbourhood children in an orderly queue. The children held out their forearms. The men dabbed three dots of vaccine on them, made three quick deep nicks with a knife and that was that. An injection was different. You watched with a thudding heart as the needle went into the rubber top of the vial, as the vial was held up to the light, as the plunger sucked up the liquid and as the syringe advanced towards you. Naturally you ran. Imagination does make cowards of us all.
I have another injection story. The chief protagonist of this story is Dr Jaywant. His clinic stood at the corner of the street we lived on, then called Bhandarwada Road. Later, when its demographic changed from toddy-tapping Bhandaris to bank-employed file-pushers, it was renamed SH Parelkar Marg. I had a fever, a common occurrence which called for nothing more than a bottle of the sickly aniseed-smelling syrup that the doctor’s compounder concocted for you. Perhaps my temperature had risen to a degree that made Mother fearful and she had called Dr Jaywant in. Just to take a look, she told me. But you could never be sure with him. I had experienced his treatment once before. He did not have gentle hands. Someone had thrown a stone through the window of the train we were travelling on from Neral after a fun visit to Matheran. Sitting at the window, it had caught me just above the left eyebrow. The blood streamed freely despite the handkerchief with which Mother had attempted to staunch the flow. We rushed from the station to Dr Jaywant’s. He dabbed some iodine on the wound, stuck a strip of plaster over it and said gruffly, “Come back next week.” When I returned, he pulled the plaster off in one violent move, taking with it, as I thought then, much of my skin. I still retain a memory of the sound it made as it came off. Phrrrsh. But the skin was intact. The wound soon healed, leaving behind a small scar that came in handy years later when I was applying for my first passport and had to fill a column that said identification mark. Scar over left eyebrow, I wrote. Somewhere down the line the scar faded and passport requirements changed. In my next passport my identification was a photograph in which I looked like I had just seen a ghost.
To return to my fever, Dr Jaywant looked at me, looked at my tongue, felt my pulse, stethoscoped my chest and said I needed an injection. I said nothing. But the moment he turned away to fill his syringe, I leapt out of bed and ran. Dr Jaywant ran behind me followed by Mother shouting, “Nothing will happen, just a pinch, like an ant bite.”
Our flat is on the first floor of Lalit Estate. It has more doors and windows than walls. The master bedroom, a misnomer, because it is the only bedroom in the flat, but which I call the master bedroom because it is spacious and my parents slept there, has three doors. One door gives on the kitchen-cum-dining room, one on the living room and one on the verandah. The living room out of which Father later carved out a bedroom-cum-study for Nirmal and me with the aid of a floor-to-ceiling wall of bookshelves, also has three doors. One leads to the kitchen and the remaining two—don’t ask me why two—lead to the verandah. When Father turned the larger part of the living room into our bedroom-study, he converted the verandah into a living room, covering its front with plywood shutters that could be opened and closed. The kitchen has another door besides the two that connect it to the master bedroom and the living room. This one gives on the bathroom. The toilet which has three doors lies off the living room. One door gives on the landing from where the sweeper is supposed to enter to clean the toilet. This convenience is for flat owners who do not wish to have sweepers enter the living room. In our house this door is kept locked. Our sweeper enters the toilet through the living room door. Between this door and the one that opens on the toilet itself, lies a space measuring 4 feet by 4 feet. This is made for sweepers to step in from the landing. But with our landing door locked, it serves no real purpose.
Given this general design of the house, it was possible for me to dodge around through the kitchen into the verandah into the living room into the verandah into the bedroom into…but you get the picture. Now put into this picture Dr Jaywant who was chasing me. He stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall in his bare feet, and measured roughly the same in girth. The bush shirts he wore failed to make it all the way round him so he did not attempt to force their last buttons into their corresponding buttonholes. His trousers too didn’t make it round him. They curved under his belly leaving a triangular gap of hairy skin showing between the trouser belt and the open end of the shirt. Dr Jaywant was light-skinned. Running behind little girls with a syringe brought him out in a red-hot flush that began at the bottom of his throat and rose upwards over his three jiggling chins onto his face which ultimately took on the appearance of a beetroot.
I, on the other hand, was dark and thin with spindly legs and a single chin. On the morning of the great injection chase, I was also a little weak with the fever. While the two of us, patient and doctor, went round the house thus, a nasty possibility occurred to me. Might Dr Jaywant not, at some point, halt in his tracks while my frenzy drove me round a corner straight into his syringe-holding hand? It happened in Laurel and Hardy films where the duo used the strategy to hoodwink cops. Like me, Dr Jaywant too would have drawn life lessons from those films. Doing some quick thinking, I stopped zipping around the house and zipped straight into the bathroom instead, bolting the door firmly from inside.
Dr Jaywant came to a halt outside, huffing and puffing. I pictured him as the big bad wolf who would finally go away. I pricked up my ears for his goodbyes. Instead, there was silence. And then the scrape of a chair. And then Mother asking, “Shall I make you some tea, Doctor?” And he saying, “Yes. Make it strong. And tell your daughter I’m not moving till I put what’s in this syringe into her.”
I admitted defeat. Hoping tea would have put Dr Jaywant in a mellow mood, I came out of the bathroom sheepish and full of dread. He yanked me forward and plunged the needle into my arm. I felt every drop of that liquid coursing through my veins.
The following morning my fever had come down. Mother thought it was the effect of the injection. But it could have been the sheer fear of a repeat performance.
I stopped fussing about injections after Sadhana Moghe died. Sadhana and I became close friends when we were about eight. For two years we sat together on the same bench, shared our tiffin lunches and visited each other’s homes. Sadhana lived on the other side of Shivaji Park from us with her brother Ashok who was a couple of years senior to us at school, and her warm, friendly parents. Sadhana was dark and thin, very much like me, but shorter. Her hair, which she wore in two tight braids, was wavy and she had a mole on her upper lip. When she spoke and laughed, her voice tinkled like a bell and her large, liquid black eyes glinted with mischief.
One day Sadhana stopped coming to school. I walked over to her house to find out why. Sadhana’s mother said she had a touch of fever but she would soon be back. A fortnight went by and the promised soon did not come. I went over to find out why. Sadhana was sitting up in bed, looking weak but still asking brightly about school. This time her mother did not say she would be back soon. In fact, her mother said nothing. Only smiled wanly. I saw Sadhana take an injection without a sound.
After that I felt I had to go and see her as often as I could. Each time I went, Sadhana looked weaker. Her skin had darkened and her stomach was distended. One evening I found her lying in bed, eyes closed. Her arms were like sticks. Her stomach had swollen to an enormous size. Seeing the shock on my face, her mother took me aside and said she had water in her stomach and she would be fine after the doctor removed it. How would he remove it? He would drain it out with a needle. Wouldn’t it pain? Sadhana’s mother smiled and said Sadhana is a brave girl.
A few days later Sadhana died. Mother gave me the news in a soft, sad voice. “But only old people die,” I protested. I do not remember crying at Sadhana’s death. Death was a state I could not comprehend. I understood it only as a dear friend never coming back to school again.
Excerpted with permission from One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale, forthcoming from Speaking Tiger. Published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory. All photographs courtesy the author.