One Delhi winter, ‘Manushi’ and that scene from ‘The Piano’

The middle-aged proprietor of our local news stand was sitting cross-legged in a lunghi on the pavement, chewing paan, his newspapers and magazines in neat stacks around him.

‘Do you keep Manushi journal?’ I asked.

He scowled and spat a bright-red, betel-stained gob at my feet. Hmm, I thought – I might be onto something here …

***

It was 1995 and I was living in Jaipur, Rajasthan when I first heard of the Indian feminist journal Manushi. On my next trip to Delhi I went to Connaught Circle and visited a bookstore, one of those dim, dusty rooms crowded with creaky spinners, cheap Indian publications of Western literary titles, and shelves of Russian classics and socialist texts. ‘Manushi journal?’ I asked. The owner, in homespun Gandhi kurta pyjama, roused himself and pointed at a far wall.

Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society was founded in 1978 by Delhi academics Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita. Mouthy, punchy and irreverent (I remember a 1995 cartoon depicting the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers of the time aiming distinctly phallic nuclear missiles at each other), it published editions in both Hindi and English about politics, women’s issues in South Asia, and short stories and poems by amateur writers.

I thought it might be interesting to interview Madhu Kishwar. I rang the number in the magazine and made an appointment.

***

The Manushi office was in a suburb in south Delhi. The reception room was a bustle of women rifling in filing cabinets and tapping at keyboards. I told them I was there to meet Madhu, and someone went to find her.

Diminutive in a baby-blue sari, her hair in a neat bun, Madhu arrived in a flurry, her arms full of papers, and distributed them onto various desks before looking up at me. ‘Jennifer!’

I had brought my Walkman recorder and a list of questions. I thought that Madhu may give me ten minutes but we talked for an hour. Well, Madhu talked for an hour, and I listened, now and then inserting a question into the flow.

Back in Melbourne, I transcribed the interview. It was published in the Melbourne community paper Indian Link – the editor seemed to see it as a scoop, Madhu having hosted India’s version of Media Watch for a few years, and gave it a double-page spread.

I sent Madhu a copy and she emailed me back – ‘You have made me sound so articulate!’ In fact, it was a long and rambling piece. In my inexperience I had reproduced her words in full – of course she liked it! She invited me to come back to Delhi to work on Manushi for a few months the following winter.

***

January 1996. My host family – Usha, Anand, and the kids – and I were gathered around the TV set in their living room. Anand was an art teacher at Delhi University and Usha an administrative assistant at Manushi‘s head office just across the square. The teenagers were both studying and wore jeans and runners. They were, by all appearances, a modern family – progressive and well-versed in global culture.

Jane Campion’s movie ‘The Piano’ was showing on Doordarshan (the government channel) one night, and I was excited to be sharing some of my own culture with the family. It had started well; I could tell that they were a bit mystified by the slow pace and lack of song and dance, but so far they were willing to indulge me.

Then we got to the bit where the Holly Hunter character and the Harvey Keitel character are alone in his house. She’s playing the piano and he becomes entranced by a tiny hole in one leg of her thick, black stockings. As she plays, he slowly drops under the piano, moves over towards the pedals and touches his fingertip to the white skin exposed … at which point, in our south Delhi living room, Usha jumped up, stormed over to the TV and punched the power button. In the sudden silence the rest of us gazed at the black screen, refusing to meet each other’s eyes.

I’d truly forgotten the overt sexual tension in that scene. It was scandalous. We all stood up and silently left the room for our own quarters.

Nothing was ever said, but my standing in the house had suffered that night, even more than the night when Usha invited me to cook some ‘Australian food’ for the family, and one by one they all crept stealthily from the dinner table to the kitchen, where I could see them sprinkling chili powder over my (admittedly) very bland macaroni and tomato sauce, really just tomatoes, onions and garlic – I couldn’t even source dried herbs). I had resorted to something Italian. Well, I didn’t have access to a barbecue, and since Usha’s recent recovery from thyroid cancer their diet had been strictly vegetarian, and what is ‘Australian food’ anyway?

Their strict diet was to thank their Hindu gods for Usha’s recovery. Usha would also spend hours sitting cross-legged before a small cupboard in her bedroom – the family shrine – murmuring prayers, offering plates of fruit, mounds of rice, and coconuts, lighting incense sticks and ringing tiny, tinkly bells. Madhu told me that Usha had been a very modern, rational woman before her illness, but now credited her recovery to the gods and lived in service to them.

Perhaps my presence in the house was an affront to whichever of the vast pantheon she was trying to appease. But I was paying an exorbitant amount in board (in Indian terms, anyway), probably more than Anand’s salary at the university. She was seriously conflicted. At the office, or if we passed in the street, she refused to acknowledge me.

***

By day I was immersed in my work. On my first day Madhu had handed me a stack of short stories to edit for the English language edition. At first I was tempted to delete the rash of adjectives and adverbs, and asked Madhu, ‘What is it with all the wordy description?’

‘You don’t understand, Jennifer,’ she said, smiling. ‘For you, English is a tool. For us, it’s a toy.’

So I held back on the Delete key. In any case, a bigger challenge was the constant power outages. I initially lost a great deal of work and soon learned to ‘save’ every minute or so, before the lights went out, the monitor went black and the desktop tower whined down to silence. And to save to a disk – a floppy one, in those days – as even the computer hard drives were not to be trusted.

There was another foreign volunteer at Manushi that winter – Paige, an American. We were both craving some Western foods, like ‘loaf bread’. Traditional Indian flat bread, like the chapatis served by our host families with every meal, were wonderful, but sometimes, just sometimes, a simple slice of toast …

One day Paige said she’d heard that ‘wholemeal loaf bread’ was available from the German Bakery in a nearby South Delhi suburb, so at lunchtime we got on our bikes with a sketched map from Madhu. Nearing the German Bakery we were assailed by the smell of bread baking, greedily bought a small, warm, dark brown loaf and raced back to the Manushi office. Some similarly-challenged Western volunteer had sourced a small toaster and left it in the kitchen. Paige found something resembling a bread knife and started slicing. You can imagine our dismay at perhaps the third slice to find the first bright white patch where the brown food dye had mixed unevenly. Still, we toasted our small piebald slices and spread them with butter and spoonfuls of the fluorescent, red and orange sugar gloop that passed for jam in India in those days, and finished the loaf in a sitting.

Madhu asked me if I’d like to work with her on a new project: a survey of young students on their attitudes to love, relationships and marriage. In the 90s, with the arrival of Murdoch’s Star Channel and its stable of American shows like ‘Bay Watch’ and ‘Beverley Hills 90210’, Indian youths were being exposed more and more to Western culture, including sex outside of marriage and the idea of choosing their own husband or wife rather than submitting to arranged marriage. Fashions were changing too, especially for the girls – more jeans, fewer salwar kameez. Madhu’s idea was that the same ‘Love and Marriage’ questionnaire would be presented to first-year college students every five years to track changing attitudes.

With Madhu I composed and formatted a few pages of pertinent questions, and worked with the printing shop down the road to produce stacks of stapled questionnaires that I would take to the university colleges. Even getting a stack printed was challenging as the printing shop had the same power supply problems and even when the power was steady their printers would seize for no apparent reason. They had a small army of technicians constantly pulling the great beasts apart and peering at their innards. ‘Madam, we are doing our label best!’ the manager would tell me.

In the classrooms of Delhi University I would watch over the ‘girls and boys’ as they bent over their questionnaires. Invariably a group, mostly boys, would keep me back afterwards to ask shyly about attitudes in the West. Then I’d board a bus back to the office, bumping and veering along dusty streets and reading random responses. I was struck by their attitudes to arranged marriage – most of these cool, educated, jeans-wearing kids still wanted their parents to find them a partner. ‘My parents know me better than I know myself’ was a common theme.

Sometimes I’d be at the office until late at night, and I’d arrive back at Usha’s to find my dinner, quite cold, in my bedroom. Madhu was perturbed – she said that Indian hospitality required that they wait for me, or that Usha, at least, wait up and cook me a hot dinner when I got home. But by then relations were deteriorating fast between Usha and me – she had come into my room and taken back the extra blanket I’d asked for, because they needed it ‘for a guest’, and one morning I watched in horror as my bedroom door buckled, over and over; Usha was throwing herself at it in protest at my locking it. Between blows I could hear other family members moving around the apartment, readying themselves for the day. Mental health was an issue to be ignored or denied in mid-nineties India.

That winter Delhi University hosted free, weekly, classical music concerts at night in the main hall, artists of the calibre of flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and tabla maestro Ustad Allahrakha Khan sitting cross-legged on a low platform, the audience sitting on thin mats on the floor. Indian audiences, in those days at least, didn’t clap. They’d murmur ‘Waah waaaah’ at the high points of a piece, not necessarily at the end, and I’d sit there in a trance, over that winter learning to recognise the climax of a composition, or its finer nuances, whether delivered by flute, sitar, or tabla, the harmonium droning away beneath. Afterwards I’d tear myself away and return to south Delhi to creep around Usha’s sensibilities again.

***

Times change. Writing this post in 2021, I look up Manushi and Madhu Kishwar for recent news. Madhu is now a conservative commentator, a big fan of the right-wing, populist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. A recent Manushi article by Madhu is ‘Review of Nehruvian socialist farm policies that kept Indian farmers trapped in poverty and debt ridden’ – interesting in the light of scenes on our screens right now, of farmers, thousands of them, protesting the dismantling of those same ‘socialist’ schemes.

2 thoughts on “One Delhi winter, ‘Manushi’ and that scene from ‘The Piano’”

  1. Wow Jen, lovely to see you back at your desk and writing such a beautiful account of your memories whilst you were in India. I can almost taste the food you describe and sense the noisy and colourful surrounds.
    It was really interesting to read about your changing relationship with Usha and I wondered how she related to Madhu, with apparent differences in their views? Interesting too how Usha’s views changed after her illness. I would love to know the results of the survey you did regarding the student’s views on the changing attitudes over time to love and marriage.
    I have taught with a couple of Indian girls, and in both instances, they chose huge weddings in both the traditional and western cultures. I don’t think either of them were ‘arranged’.
    It’s such an interesting and colourful country. It’s regrettable that Neil and I only spent a short time in Mumbai back in the 70’s. I would love to have lived and worked there as you have done.
    I am fortunate to have a Bookclub friend who has also lived and worked as head of a Tech company in India. I love to hear her stories too of power outages, people not turning up for work and many other challenges whilst managing her own family which included her 3 boys. Despite the challenges, she loved her time in India.
    Great to see you back Jen. I was thrilled to see this blog come up on your website!
    Keep them coming!!

    1. Thanks so much, Robyn. There are a few events or people or periods of time that I didn’t put in the book for one reason or another, and I might be able to squeeze another blog post or two out of them. Stay tuned. And thanks for staying with this one, it was pretty lengthy.
      I tried to follow up on that survey for a couple of years. Madhu engaged a statistician at the University to analyse the results, and that’s the last I heard, a pity.
      Madhu was very protective of Usha for a while, but at the very end of my stay things were so bad I moved into Madhu’s flat. She turned her maid out of her bed for me! She said, ‘Don’t worry, back in her village she sleeps on the floor.’ I don’t know what happened after I left, but I doubt Madhu let that family host more Manushi volunteers!

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