I visit Madras from New York several times a year, to meet family, to reclaim my Indianness, to realign an off-kilter inner compass. While some things take more adjusting to than others, driving a car is not among them. I slip seamlessly from driving on the right side of the road to driving on the left side, from diligently following road signs and signals to regarding them as mere helpful suggestions, from dodging a crazed Chinese food delivery bicyclist pedalling maniacally in the wrong direction against a stream of outraged New Yorkers driving maniacally in the other direction to squeezing past a wall of sputtering auto-rickshaws and rumbling buses and the assorted animals and birds who share the road with the craziest variety of vehicles I have seen.
On my most recent visit, however, I succumbed to the luxury of hiring a car and driver. Too much to see, too much to do, too little time and patience.
Gunasekaran is a driver for Sri Sri Ganesha Travels, one of Chennai's most prestigious Travels companies. Travels in this context means a car-and-driver rental service, and Sri Sri Ganesha boasts a fleet of cars that meets the approval of the jet-set of the city, country and world (if its promotion brochure and new pride and joy, its website, are to be believed), as well as a line- up of drivers who, between them, can speak over a dozen Indian languages and even number a graduate or two among them. Gunasekaran is one of SSGT's oldest employees, dating from the days when it operated out of a thatched-roof shed adjoining the owner's house, and the "fleet" consisted of an Ambassador and a Premier Padmini of competing ricketiness and rustiness.
G lacks the suave ease of the new generation of SSGT drivers. He doesn’t bother with even the pretense of fluency in English or Hindi or any language other than Tamil. He is moody, a loner, and stays away from the clusters of drivers and other domestic staff who while away the empty minutes and hours between their employers’ assignments and appointments sharing gossip and cigarettes. He spends his spare time sleeping, or flipping through a Tamil newspaper or magazine.
In the car, we sit in silence. Any attempts at conversation from my end fizzle into dead air and the ghosts of unspoken words and thoughts linger in the air-conditioned chill. But I love talking to people, listening to their stories, watching them bloom into life and color as story by story a skeletal abstraction becomes a real flesh-and-blood human being.
G, with his monosyllabic responses and dour demeanor, intrigues me. I am determined to penetrate that crabby exterior. I ask him about his children. And sit back as the floodgates open and a torrent of talk washes over me.
Gunasekaran is the proud father of a 15 year old daughter, and the unabashedly prouder father of an 11 year old boy. Both are good students; the daughter, through consistent hard work, is a regular class top ranker, and the son, for whom considerably more slack is cut, could be a topper as well if he applied himself, but boyish playfulness and maternal indulgence ensure that his performance falls short of his potential, real or imagined.
The girl was sent to a private school where she thrived and excelled. Last year, she was moved to the Government school that serves their area, and the boy was moved from one private school to another that costs considerably more money. When I express my sharp disapproval at this action, he hastens to assure me that it was the girl who insisted on doing this, that her little brother's schooling meant more to her than life itself, and that her government school was in truth nothing like the run of the mill government schools that one heard such horror stories about. G adds that his daughter would do well in any environment. The boy was another story. And slowly the layers of perfection fall away in flecks as the boy's playfulness and lack of motivation, his extreme discomfort with English, his stuttering shyness, come to light.
One day, navigating the traffic-choked madness of Lattice Bridge Road, he tells me that it is his life's dream to get his boy into XYZ School. All problems would cease, he told me, his voice suffused with wistful longing, and life would shine brightly forever after, if he could, somehow, anyhow, get his son in there. For G, XYZ School is the portal to a world that he and his forebears before him couldn’t, and perhaps didn’t, ever dream of. A world with an endless series of portals opening out into a universe of infinite possibilities. So that his child might step into that world, G tells me he will work around the clock, deny himself even the tiniest of pleasures, tighten the belt still further, do whatever he can to somehow scrape together the money for the tuition. Because it will all be worth it in the end.
Heedless of the traffic darting all around us, G turns around and looks me directly in the eyes. I am a bit taken aback, a bit discomfited, at the raw despair I see, the burning ambition. Nothing is easy or straightforward about the application to the school, he tells me. The biggest problem: as part of the application process XYZ School neatly sidesteps the government’s Education For All mandate by sneakily requiring one or both parents to be graduates. G asks me, distraught: Why penalise a child who wants to get ahead, and whose parents are willing to make any sacrifice to ensure that he gets ahead, just because the parents are uneducated? Casting a quick glance at the traffic, he turns back to me with a direct question: do I know someone- and here the implication is obvious that I belong to a more desirable socioeconomic class, the kind that would have the connections necessary to get his child into the school, the kind that he hopes his boy would arrive at some day - who will put in a word, write a letter of recommendation, pull the strings that would surely open the doors that the forces of fate and society ensured remained firmly closed to the likes of him and his child?
There are other complications. Each year, the school asks the students to fill out a form in which they are asked to state whether they will be returning for the following academic year. This is a double-edged sword. Answer yes, and the door is slammed shut in their faces to admissions anywhere else, as the school will make sure that obtaining the necessary transfer certificate will be as nightmarish a process as possible. Answer no, and the student runs the very real risk of having no school to go to, if none of the schools he applies to comes through; his own school will quite gleefully cast him aside for the far richer pickings that come with the capitation fees and assorted donations that are the blight of any aspiring student.
I promise G that I will ask around, which I do. An opinionated lot, family and friends rain down a veritable cyclone of advice, suggestions and opinions. The most militant of them who has, in her prime, fought the good fight with verve and gusto but now unfortunately possesses neither the energy nor the resources to continue doing so, has nonetheless not lost the old fighting spirit and urges us "youngsters" to file a lawsuit against the government. Her vision of the government endows it with anthropomorphic qualities like efficiency and justice, kindness and fairness, a benevolent saviour looking out for the good of society and its citizens. This vision was forged during the heady days of Independence, and nothing, not the damning reports of corruption, not the dismal state of so many aspects of the country, not the increasingly venal shenanigans of the politicians, has tarnished her view and optimism. .
Alas, most of us have our own struggles to deal with; fighting someone else’s fight is something we are willing to do in theory, but not in practice.
All of us want the forest to thrive and be healthy, but we tend to overlook the plight of the little tree.
My militant friend will not give up easily. Take it up with the school authorities, she urges, write a letter to the newspapers, expose them for what they are. Fighting is the last thing G wants to do. He is terrified that drawing any attention to himself or his child will mean that a vengeful administrator or teacher will make his child pay for his boldness and ambition. He is probably right.
Cynical friends tell me that nothing has changed, nothing can be done. G is smoking something if he thinks getting his child into XYZ School is going to make any difference to his lot in life. Better he saves that money for his daughter’s dowry they tell me, while I listen, outraged and appalled.
Others, fully clued into the pros and cons, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Madras schools dismiss XYZ School as a rigid, old-fashioned nightmare where children lose all ability to think for themselves and are turned into rote-learning automatons. Perhaps, but isn’t worrying about these finer points surely a luxury, an indulgence, for those who have choices? Like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and wants, aren’t and wont G’s be different from mine? Or am I being elitist and presumptuous?
The most practical and pragmatic of the lot remains clear-eyed about what needs to be done and refuses to get embroiled in all the arguments and discussions. He comes up with a list of people who might potentially be able to help.
This is one of the many realities of India today. These are some of the struggles that a tree, striving to grow tall to catch a glimpse of sunlight, has to undergo.
I am back in New York now, and G’s situation remains unresolved. If any of you is curious and willing to help, do write to me and I will reveal the identity of XYZ School.