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Thadhiginathom: Part 2
- Zakir Hussain
English translation: Dushy Gnanapragasam

July 5, 2020

(Reproduced with permission)

School and Schooling
My formal education began when my father enrolled me in the local state-run elementary school. He himself was employed as a teacher at the state-run high school, so this was convenient for both him and me.

The elementary school, as well as the high school, had large playgrounds attached to them for students to pursue sports and athletics. However, I astutely avoided getting involved in any sports or athletics. The main reason for my avoidance was that I was keenly aware of the physical repercussions that would befall me at home if I was caught playing out in the sun. I was also apprehensive because I had once fractured my left hand merely by falling down. The cast I was to wear for two months gave an excuse to many distant relatives to come to our house under the pretense of inquiring of my wellbeing. Most overstayed their welcome and our house was transformed to resemble a temple during festival season for the entire two months I had the cast on. I appreciated their concern; but my grandmother did not appreciate all the associated expenses or the work. So, from that point on, I was confined to the house - like sheep to a pen - and was forced to endure her vigilant care.

My Periyappa's house was in the town and that's where I spent the weekdays. On weekends, I would travel four kilometers to my parents' farm. When I say I would travel, I meant I was taken there on a bicycle by a farmhand they sent for me. They constantly cultivated their ten acres of fertile land with rice, plantains, yams, peanuts, and coconut. A creek that originated on the Yerkadu hills flowed through our land. Do not ask me for its name. We never bothered to name it. We just called it Creek. On rainy days when the creek overflowed making it hard for us to cross it, all of us - including my father - would gladly prescribe to ourselves a leave of absence from school. My brothers and I would sit thrilled and mesmerized for entire days watching the rushing water, having taken the colour of the red earth, roll large boulders along the way. Once the creek receded and its water cleared, we would resume bathing in the creek along with many other of god's creatures. Water snakes would slither past us aimlessly and harmlessly. I have even seen, but once, a beautiful poisonous cobra.

Around the house, Jasmin and Bluebell vine grew wild without anyone tending to them and blossomed without anyone to pluck them. Every available space around the farm came to life with vibrant colours provided by numerous butterflies, beetles and crickets. We wasted away the hours in glee trapping beetles in match boxes, creating fish tanks out of discarded pots, and racing bicycle tyres with sticks. Looking back, I realize now that the reason I was so incredibly absorbed by Andal's descriptions of nature was because I grew up surrounded by similar beauty. Sticks and twigs collected in the woods served as fuel to the stove. Often a piece of sandalwood would hide among the firewood and engulf the household with its scent when burned. The labourers who worked in the fields lived amongst us and their children studied with us, ate with us, played with us, and grew up with us.

After completing elementary school, I transferred to the high school where my father worked and found myself in his class room. If I misbehaved or erred at home, he shared that with everyone at school and punished me for it in front of my classmates. Not wanting to be embarrassed in front of my classmates - especially those of the opposite gender - I begged and pleaded with the principal of the school to move me to a different classroom until he obliged. My relationship with my father always had an undercurrent of conflict. The disagreements stemmed from my religious faith and dancing. It eventually led to my father expelling me from my home, after the passing of my Periyappa.

My birthday celebrations - friends of all four castes in the same frame

After completing high school, I was enrolled in St Paul Higher Secondary School in Salem and had to stay at the hostel to continue my studies. Alamelu Periyamma and Abdullah Periyappa were the most saddened by this turn of events and said their tearful goodbyes. St Paul's was a Christian school run by priests with strict discipline. Daily attendance at church and prayers were mandatory aspects of life there. A hymn I learned while there moves me to tears to this day every time I hum it or hear it. The Tamil hymn, when roughly translated, goes something like this:

Seeking a boon, I come to you my God.
Won't you hear my plea and grant it to me my Lord

I seek to destroy with my love, the walls of hatred that surround the hearts
I seek to bring light by uttering your name, to the hearts that dwell in darkness
I seek for my greed of wanting all that is good for only myself to die day by day
I seek for you as my reward once I have sacrificed my life for others

It was here at this school that I was introduced to Christianity. Later, they enrolled me at Thyagaraja Technical College to study textile technology. Meanwhile, I had gained a bit of notoriety and reputation as a dancer having won a few inter-school competitions in the Salem and Dharmapuri districts. During this time, as a member of the students' arts council, I had the privilege of meeting many renowned musicians and dancers. Learning of their many invaluable contributions to society, I was inspired to learn their art and learn it well.

It was at this auspicious moment in my life that I was blessed with the opportunity to meet the personification of God's boon to me. She was the fairy who turned the rest of my life into the blossom of spring; the divine and unparalleled beauty who epitomized elegance in dance; the rare transcendent STAR who captivated audiences with her dance; my Goddess, my Guru, my Matriarch. SHE was Mrs. Chitra Visweswaran.

Join me as I retrace the journey of my life when I followed in her footsteps. A journey that took me from the life of an ordinary being and made me into an artiste known around the world.
(June 24, 2020)

To be continued...

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