Love, with an albatross attached: Part I

Love, with an albatross attached: Part I

A personal essay about coming of age in the world of hypercompetitive education in 1990s India.

Aparna Gopalan is a writer, community organiser and anthropology grad student. She divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ajmer, Rajasthan.

(This is Part I of a two-part essay. Read Part II.)


Milk gave rhythm to life in my golden 1990s childhood. It had to be acquired, boiled, a glass in the morning, afternoon chai, me spilling it, Amma cleaning up, evening chai, collecting malai, a glass before bed. Amma's amma had bad bones. Inside Amma's bones brewed an osteoporosis that would manifest only in the next millennium. But she had the foresight, or paranoia, to understand I was at risk. Parenting, from the start, was a project of risk mitigation.

One litre of milk (cow's for the parents and buffalo's – more nutritious – for the child) came to us every day at 7.30 am. The milkman had a cowshed in the courtyard of his home – the house was really more of an afterthought to the cowshed – and he set out on his bicycle, and later motorcycle, to each house on his route. When he rang his bell, mothers would rush out with their stainless steel utensils. The wait for the milkman must have been an unpleasant chore for Amma during those chilly desert winters of Ajmer, but it was a chore she undertook out of love and fear.

As I grew older, Amma's effort began to become less rewarding. The stench of a newly milked buffalo, she discovered, wasn't my favourite thing to gulp down three times a day. In what might count as the first act of rebellion in my life, I demanded that the milk taste better if I was expected to drink it. After all attempts at persuasion, scolding, and adding turmeric powder and extra sugar to the milk (the kind of home remedies every Indian mother tries first) had failed, Amma resigned herself to the commercials and bought a box of Complan, the new milk flavouring agent in town. At least, she assured herself, it would make me grow taller. That's what the ads said.

Summers in the '90s meant relatives from the big city, which meant chaos, and the summer my Bombay Aunt and baby cousin came to stay was more chaotic than any before it. Amma had envisioned the many ways I could be corrupted by their big-city airs, but the attack came on a most unexpected front.

The milk pact of 1998 had been working out beautifully, and I was 'Complan Girl' just like the ads had promised. Amma wasn't convinced of a growth spurt, but to me it didn't matter. Complan tasted like old caramel and baby formula, the perfect lure for a child struggling with the reality of not being an infant any longer. I was content. Bombay Aunt scoffed. Her son, she proclaimed, would only drink Bournvita. Complan promised a measly height spurt, but Bournvita had it all. "Taller, stronger, sharper" was what you paid for when you bought the boxful of expensive chocolate crumble.

Since my first accidental encounter with Bournvita when the children's milk glasses had mysteriously been switched, it's being a chocolate crumble was enough for me. The second rebellion followed. Reluctantly, Amma gave in, and I was Complan Girl no more. Amma later described the evil glint in Bombay Aunt's eye that summer afternoon. I only began to see the truth in it when I peaked at 5'2".

Summer as a kid meant a ceaseless, religious, never-ending wait for the gola. Ah, the gola! That small ball of crushed, flavoured ice that the hawker pushed around on a cart on the streets of my childhood. Much magic surrounded it. How the gola seller managed to walk around in the heat when the government declared it too hot for schools to be open remains a mystery, as does how he managed to keep a chunk of ice in the midday sun. When you have to survive, I suppose you find a way.

The hawker would ring his bell. The street would heave a collective sigh as children would run out clutching 10 or 20 rupees, depending on how fearful or generous their grandmas were feeling that day. Golas, you see, were often decried as health hazards (Because "who knows what kind of water they must use! Could be sewage water!"). So the sound of the gola bell was bittersweet like the chime of ice-cream trucks I would later hear in Connecticut. Joy mixed with risk, with the danger, said the grownups, of rotten teeth and poisoned stomachs.

Milk flavouring and gola money were not my biggest problems as a child. There was also the matter of the possibility of being turned out of the house on any given night of the week.

As a child, I did not think much of my father, a civil engineer with the state government who wasn't around enough. Papa compensated for his absence with intense fathering when present. He always strove to be motivational, and so he disciplined and he punished because fear was the best motivator. Turning a child out of the house at night for not knowing her vowels wasn't a stretch. His anger was inevitable and fearsome like a sandstorm. Of the most vivid memories from my childhood are of the nights when I messed up my Hindi alphabet, and the winds howled, and the storm began. Papa dragged me to the front door by my arm and it took three people – Thatha, Paati and Amma – to resist him. One of them might block the door while another pleaded and reasoned with Papa, and a third physically pulled me back in. I would eventually end up indoors but no one knew what the next Hindi homework session would bring.

Papa was a master of reverse psychology. One of his all-time favourite punishments for not studying was throwing my schoolbag up on the mantelpiece, which I couldn't reach, and not returning it to me until the next day when the school van was at the door. I would cry and beg, and as soon as the tears started, he would get angrier than ever and yell furiously "Kisko dikha rahi hai aansoo?" Who are you putting on this show for? Stop crying at once, I hate this drama!

Timely action was key. I learned quickly to apologise persistently with brief intervals in between while holding in my tears firmly even when I'd been hit. It was lucky that I learnt the art of apologising to Papa early on for I would spend most of my early life using the skill. Hot summer days meant desert coolers, golas and afternoon naps but they also meant that another, more terrifying punishment was now viable. One afternoon, after I had smashed the television remote into a wall because I lost a video game (I inherited Papa's temper), I was sent out to stand in the cemented backyard, barefoot. Academics was the first on the list of things that could have me sent out, but it was not the only thing. Bad manners was a close second.

Amma often explained Papa's personality in terms of the phases of the moon: every amavasya, she said, he would explode, lose his senses, and become a monster but come poornima, he became good humour itself, with laughter, love, and merry jokes. Papa was the kind of man who changed a room when he entered it, infectious both in happiness and gloom, and the seasons of our household always depended on where the moon was in the lunar cycle of Papa's mind.


I was lucky to live in a semi-joint-family. Grandparents brought balance, stability and tradition, and kept me coming back inside the house all through kindergarten.

Papa's father was mild-mannered and severely diabetic. A regular evening scene at home would be Amma chiding Thatha – with as much authority as a daughter-in-law could presume to have over the eldest male in the family – for stealing mangos, laddoo, halwa and other sweets from the fridge. Yet again, the forces of nature were aligned against Amma; she was too gentle, and sweets were too abundant to keep Thatha from feeding his habit. Sweets were not his only vice. He watched late night soap operas on television with notorious regularity. The saas-bahu (mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law) genre of soap operas of the 1990s was the biggest time-sink in a pre-internet world, its target audience being older women with free time on their hands and bahus to harass. But it was Thatha, not Paati, who got and spread the bug. I was the carrier. As I would sleep alternate nights with my grandparents and parents, I soon started requesting the same TV shows in my parents' room as I'd been watching with Thatha, beginning an era of manic drama addiction for the family that only ended when Thatha died.

Thatha was also devoutly religious. He came from a family of Iyengar Brahmins (considered some of the purest blood in caste-divided India). Every morning, he would apply a sandalwood trident on his forehead, go to the terrace, and say his prayers. He would tell me, and later, my sister, all the stories around which modern-day Hinduism is built: Krishna and all the demons he slayed, Rama's heroic rescue of Sita from Lanka, the capricious Kauravas and the game of dice that triggered an epic war in the Mahabharata. Later, religious TV shows arrived on the scene to make his job easier and we would watch those together after lunch.

With each year that goes by, I forget those stories a little bit more. My sister has it worse because the stories came too early in her childhood for her to remember. Her memory of Thatha must be limited to his routine interventions when I was preparing to smack her, his calling her "my little mouse" in Tamil, and his feeding us with his own hands every single afternoon when we returned from school. I remember her asking Amma "Where's he gone?" after his cremation, and Amma answering "He's up there," with a solemn upward glance. My sister later cornered me for confirmation. "Amma meant the terrace, right?" I said of course she did. For years after that, she would tell people who were visiting that Thatha would meet them, but he was busy praying on the terrace.

Soon after Thatha died, Paati became an invalid when she tripped over a tomato peel near the TV as she waited for her evening saas-bahu show, breaking her hip and losing the will to walk. What with Paati then being passed from son to son to daughter to son like a Frisbee (a fate to which sick parents with multiple children were destined) and Papa's frequent travelling, Amma decided it was time to "Westernise" to adapt. We had our foot through that door already anyway, she reasoned, having two working parents in an age of housewives. She found a nice Catholic lady who ran a crèche (a word we all loved to hate) two streets away from home, and thus began our foray into the world of an "un-joint" family life.

In a city where day-care was twenty years (and counting) into the future, Amma's discovery of the crèche was the upper-caste equivalent of eating eggs – a shocking violation of the norms of our social circle. But our family, we had always been the oddballs. One of the oddest things was the cultural composition of our household. We were a family of displaced Southerners in the North. Papa was 'displaced' first –before birth – and so he never felt displaced; he grew up in Rajasthan, spoke a child-like, stammering Tamil, and had been baked in the desert heat all his life. Amma had been the one who was physically displaced; she had grown up by the Indian Ocean, spoke no Hindi before my birth, and still had an accent that, to her fury, made vegetable vendors think they could get away with bamboozling her.

How did these two end up together? Of course, they did not fall in love and break tradition; they were decent people, and the marriage was arranged by Thatha. The families overlooked the wildly different upbringings of the bride and groom, and they overlooked the hardcore, different-languages-with-no-common-origin split between the North and South. Both parties had Tamil, Brahmin and Iyengar blood and the rest was details. It amazes me now how my family never broke any of the rules and yet, my parents still ended up married to a person with whom they did not share a common language.

My childhood was a cultural battleground. I grew up a strange, trilingual hybrid, never knowing where my loyalties lay, frequently spending summers in the South (where there was no gola), always telling both sets of grandparents I liked their city better, always changing languages mid-sentence and never knowing how to answer the question "Where are you from?"

There were definite perks to this lifestyle. The most fun part was the 40-hour train journey that my family made frequently as if it was no big deal. Trains were the veins of the India I grew up in, the only real means of long-distance travel, and they were my second home. It got to the point where we were all recognised by and became friends with a man who sold tomato soup on one of the trains that we frequented. The possibility of this always astounds me when I think about it. A vendor of soup on an Indian Railways train, a man who sees hundreds of families in a train every single day, remembering the faces of a thrice-a-year family and knowing the children's names? So many of the things that happen to us happen against the odds. I haven't seen him now in six years.

At eight, I read my first novel. I had not meant to read a novel, but my Madras aunt (the good one, the one who worked at an orphanage and didn't birth any little boys) tricked me into it. She started reading to me, waited for me to get sucked in and then refused to read further. Motivated by something, something quite different from fear, I slowly and painstakingly read the rest. By the time I turned the last page, I knew I had to be a writer. I loved reading so much, I reasoned, and I wanted to be the person making children this happy. The screwed-up logic of this now makes me laugh, but what is funnier is that I had a better grasp on myself at eight than I have ever had after I became the robot.


We lived in a rented house in a very desirable part of town. What gave it a lot of its desirability was, according to Amma, its proximity to the "good" (i.e. Catholic) schools and a place called C2 ('C-squared'), which I always assumed was some kind of special school. One night on a regular post-dinner walk, my parents took a detour and walked the 300 meters to C2. They found an employee preparing to leave for the day. What little I recall of the conversation went something like "When can we get our daughter sent here? We'd like to start as soon as possible." "Sorry, sir, she is too young. We only accept ninth graders and above."

Once outside, Papa told me to prepare myself: "We might train you here for IIT." I must have nodded. I was 11. I'd had no major reason to disagree with my parents so far and so naturally, I was ready to prepare myself for whatever IIT was. I didn't understand then that my future was sewn up already, sewn with the thread of common fate with my peers.

'Rank' is an idea fundamental to being a student in India, and every truly concrete recollection I have in the puddle of early memories circles this word. Many years later, reading Michel Foucault taught me that rank is "the place one occupies in a classification, the point at which a line and a column intersect, the interval in a series of intervals that one may traverse one after the other." These were not just any lines and columns. They were strategic ones; they did things. "Those whose parents are neglectful and verminous must be separated from those whose are careful and clean; an unruly and frivolous pupil should be placed between two who are well behaved and serious, a libertine either alone or between two pious pupils." I needed no philosophers to tell me it was a powerfully effective idea.

When I reached first grade, Papa no longer felt the need to hold daily home lessons for me. If I thought this meant the end of Tiger Dad, I would quickly realise how wrong I was. Papa, I understood, was now going to base my proficiency in school solely on my "class rank," which I would receive three times a year: quarterly, half-yearly and final. In a class of some 70 students, in the first grade final, I got the first rank. I can't remember Papa being happy. In second grade, I came in sixth, and in one of the most embarrassing moments in a life that seems sometimes solely to be awkward moments stitched together, Papa slapped me at the parent-teacher meeting at school. The biggest problem was that my best friend at the time came third in class, ahead of me in the lines and columns of worth; cleaner, more careful and more piously devoted in the temple of learning. No wonder Papa took it as a personal threat; it made him 'verminous and neglectful.'

In the third, fourth and fifth grades, I was ranked third 9/9 times. It was some kind of a curse and soon we were resigned to it. Papa kept his cool by shifting focus to my sister who was now struggling with the alphabet while Amma regularly advised me to become Hemakshi Kaur, a girl who was awarded a prize for setting a record by getting all the first ranks possible in grades one to five. I, in turn, advised Amma to adopt Kaur if she wanted her as her daughter so bad. I could never have said it to Papa.

We all learned a lot in elementary school. It was when students learned to go around class and place bets on the "top-5," post-exam-week notebooks had other kids' names and scores in them, teachers read everyone's marks out loud in class. Some twenty kids scribbled in their notebooks when mine was read out and other parents would congratulate me on my success, and ask their kids to either sabotage or become friends with me to "get ahead." It took work, like climbing to the upper berth of the train without a parent's help. But it was also effortless, like falling off your bed later that night. We all fell.

When I told Papa the first time I got the first rank after the five-year dry spell, it was before lunch and he dismissed the assertion immediately. When he finally had proof on paper a few days later, suddenly and in one moment, it became a given. What other rank was I going to get? What was the fuss all about? In my family, there were many ways to get around praise.

For my part, I had learned to pursue a mission and achieve it, and I had learned to not expect the achievement to be acknowledged. I had learned to robotise. I had learned to attach my self-worth to a number. They were all crucial lessons – like apologising to Papa – that I would need to use many times over in the years to come.

*Read Part II.

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