Bill Berry, Jr.:
Ms. Banikya, finally we get the opportunity to chat even if it will be brief. I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts with me and the readership. So, you pursued and graduated with a major in Sociology and attained a certificate in poetry. We will get to those achievements later. Now, you grew up in the valleys of Assam. I know that Brahmaputra and Barak are significant part of that area, but I have no idea of the way of life in those valleys. What was your childhood like and how did the day to day living regime impact you as you grew up and before going off to college?
Thank you very much for taking time out to talk to me. I feel very privileged to be able to share my thoughts with you and Aaduna’s readers!
I grew up in Guwahati, a quiet town in Assam in which most neighborhoods are scattered over hills and winding roads or in the plains, in the banks of the Brahmaputra. One of the first things that will strike you about the town is the Brahmaputra - it has a dominant presence. Growing up, I associated the river primarily with ferry rides that we took to visit relatives living in the north banks of the river. However, during monsoons, I remember weariness setting in because many neighborhoods used to be impacted by floods and people would use boats to commute.
Most of the families I knew had independent livelihoods that did not depend on the river. During the 1990s, Guwahati was a small town and most families knew one another or knew of someone who did. I grew up in a joint family of nine people and two dogs, cats, and a cow. Growing up, we had a set schedule like an hour’s nap time in the afternoons, playtime for an hour until dusk, and study hour until movie night. We had a movie night every weekday evening where the entire family watched a movie together before dinner was served. Weekends, my uncle often took my cousins and me to one of our favorite parks and sometimes, to a nearby flyover from where we used to watch and listen to trains go by. I think this kind of a specific day-to-day regime made us disciplined to do things at a certain time and in a certain way and to appreciate the little things.
Movie night! Sounds like an American tradition. So, what are some of the movies and how did those early childhood film impressions affect you as you grew older? And can you share who the nine people were…are we talking about a number of siblings or an extended family? And where are you living now, and if not in the Assam, do you plan to return to that earlier way of life? I know, too many questions.
The movies? They were mostly Bollywood movies. I must tell you that the 1990s were a time when the most clichéd lot of Bollywood movies were made. But we didn’t know that back then. Haha! And even if my family knew, they were such movie buffs that they didn’t care. The movies were mostly musicals, and typically had a similar storyline where boy meets girl and their families oppose their relationship, but the couple holds their ground and they end up happily ever after. Even though I don’t remember any specific movies, I remember the soundtracks were catchy and once they got into your head, it was difficult not to hum them.
The nine people in my family consisted of my maternal grandparents, my uncle and aunt and their two children (who were practically like my siblings), our household help, Jonali, and my mother and I. My parents separated when I was about three years old and as a child as well as a teenager, my idea of a family was often what I’ve mentioned above.
Currently, I live in Bangalore which is known as the IT (information technology) hub of India and though I like the city and have called it home for the past ten years, life here is very different from the one I had growing up. I’ve thought a lot about going back to the older way of life, but I also know it wouldn’t be an easy choice considering living in a city has made me accustomed to its ways. It’s like I have my mind in two places! Besides, there are very few places today that resemble the way of life I had growing up. Even Guwahati is nothing like what it used to be. Where once stood our home and orchard, now stands an apartment complex with a large parking lot.
It seems that your background…family, residences as a child and then as an adult, and even family night at the movies (in America, Hollywood and not Bollywood) bear an interesting resemblance to many Americans. Have you found a profound or significant American influence on Banglore or India in general? If not, is there a prevailing foreign influence or is India and your city rooted in its own cultural mores and thinking. Is there an Indian national sensibility, and how is that defined?
I cannot say for certain if life in the 1990s in India had a strong foreign influence. From where I came, 1990s was a time when we were fairly disconnected from foreign influence. Once I moved to a boarding school, that changed and American music and movies had a strong impact on my growing up years. Our headmaster was an agreeable British man who emphasized the significance of sports, music, and art. For us, the students, this translated into long hours of Baseball games, dramatics class, and outdoor literature lessons.
India in itself is so diverse and the differences are so deep-rooted and layered that speaking of similarities across regions and states is often very difficult. Although I do think that the limited influence of gadgets and technology during the time brought about several similarities in the way we led our lives across towns and cities of the world.
In terms of the distinctiveness of regions and states, I was wondering how polarized the political landscape is throughout your country. In the US, we have the concept of red and blue states that denotes the split between Republicans and Democrats, and as you may know, the federal government is in disarray and finding political consensus is extraordinary difficult. How does politics play out in India and are people in your age range political in terms of activism or supporting one group over another?
India has a plethora of regional parties and a handful of national parties among which the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress are two of the dominant parties. The political landscape in the country is extremely polarized and segmented. I’d read recently that the average age of a Member of the Parliament is typically over 50. So it’s no surprise that political ruling is usually limited to the Baby Boomers group. In the last few years, there have been several young leaders in regional positions of power, however, these are limited in number and in most of the cases, it’s primarily because of their political legacy. For most 30-year-olds in the country, interest in politics is limited to vehement conversations over dinner and that very rarely converts to political activism.
And eventually those folks who rather discuss politics will be of age were more direct involvement in the intricacies of “politics” becomes a significant aspect of daily life. Well, we have chatted about a good range of issues, and I appreciate that you found the time to chat with me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As our conversation comes to closure, I wondered what you would impress upon school aged children to give them a relevant sense of the world, and what skills they will need to successfully maneuver a suitable path to reach their goal (s?)
Absolutely. I think that day isn't very far off. I think it's essential for school going children to find where their passion lies and to build foundational skills early in their life. I think that being passionate about things we love (such as art, music drama, dance, or a sport) helps give purpose and motivation to life, especially during trying times. It helps connect with ourselves and establishes our sense of identity.
As for skills, I think in the next decade(s), human skills are going to be of growing significance and in a world that's filled with people who are self-absorbed and self-obsessed, skills such as compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to those around us are what will set people apart from the crowd. And that's what the world truly needs.
*The conversation is now available for reading on Aaduna's blog.