This is the first in a series of exceedingly self-indulgent posts. There won’t be much in the way of numbers here, so if numbers are your thing, move right along and I won’t hold it against you (I: Yes, you will. Me: I will not. I: Liar box).
Why am I telling my story?
- Because I want to, and I am the dictator of this blog. A benevolent one, but a dictator nonetheless.
- If it were not for my readers I would be a lonely voice shouting into the void. This is my way of letting you in, dear Reader. I want you to know me better than a voice that sprung up on the internet one day and started spouting off about 529s and Personal Capital security features. I want you to understand how I got here, to this point in my life, where early retirement is four short years away.
As we go along, I’m going to populate this map of the world with places I have lived in or visited. Here then, is the first edition of The World I Know:
I Pop into Existence
BITA-dad paced worriedly outside the delivery room. It was the late seventies in India, and nobody had ever heard of fathers in delivery rooms. BITA-dad was a doctor however, and had been allowed to attend the delivery. But things had not gone smoothly, BITA-fetus was in distress, BITA-mom needed an emergency C-section, and BITA-dad had been banished to the purgatory of the delivery room to wear out his soles and his soul pacing and worrying. After an eternity or two of pacing the door opened and the anesthetist emerged. One look at his long face and BITA-dad’s heart sank. “I’m sorry Dr. BITA-dad”, he said gravely. BITA-dad steadied himself on a nearby chair, bracing for the worst. “It is only a girl”. BITA-dad swears this is the closest he has ever come to punching someone in the face. Thus did I make my entry into this world, cord wrapped firmly around my neck, refusing to cry for over five minutes. My parents were advised to monitor my milestones closely. The lack of oxygen to my brain had potential to cause brain damage. Till today, my parents stubbornly (and, if you ask me, somewhat rudely) insist that it did.
BITA-dad worked for the Indian army. I was born in what was at the time a modest Indian city (it now has a population of around 6 million people). Soon after my birth BITA-dad was posted to a teeny town called Panagarh. BITA-mom remembers two things about this place. The power went out every night for four to six hours and the place was rife with snakes. BITA-parents say that they saw snakes both in and outside our house a couple of times a week. We slept under a mosquito net every night not only because of the mosquitos but also because it handily caught baby snakes that fell from the ceiling. Living in a house where snakes plop down from the ceiling? Growing up in a place where they once found a cobra in my toy box? I think that that is the most bad-ass I have ever been in my entire life. What a pity I was too busy drooling and spitting up to actually form a half-decent memory. When I was about a year old BITA-dad was posted to Botswana. So, off we toodled to Africa.
Growing up in India
We stayed in Botswana till I was nearly five. I watched my babyhood dwindle in the rear view mirror and acquired a younger sister while we were there. Then back we oozed to the Motherland. The army ping-ponged my father all over the country and we cheerfully followed him around. What was my life like growing up in India at the time? Until the markets opened up in 1991 India was isolated from the world markets. We didn’t have much money, but that turns out to not be much of a problem when there isn’t that much to spend on. Imagine a world with no cable (we had two government run TV channels), no internet, no supermarkets and no malls. We had no access to any global brand names. All the stores were local. Groceries were all bought at the what I guess would be called a Farmer’s market in the U.S.
Ready-made clothes were few and far between. Typically, for a special occasion like Christmas, or your birthday, you bought fabric and had your local tailor whip something up. The rest of the time you wore hand-me-downs from older cousins or neighbours (hand-me-downs were about 90% of my wardrobe). This didn’t make me feel poor or deprived. It was what everyone I knew did.
Air travel costs were exorbitant. We took trains or buses to trawavel. We ate out at a restaurant about once a year. Once every two to three years my father’s sister, who had migrated to Spain, would visit. She would bring toys with her that my older cousins had outgrown – barbie dolls, parts of lego sets. My aunt’s suitcase was like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia – it was a gateway to a different, exotic world, one that I could barely imagine. It even smelled ‘foreign’. As I was young and rather stupid (maybe that cord did cause some brain damage after all), I thought my Spanish cousins were rich as fuck. They would talk about how they spent 10,000 pesetas in a week on school lunches, and my jaw would drop and eyes bug out.
We didn’t own a car until I was fourteen years old. My father had a scooter like this:
And our family of four traveled on it, probably looking something like this:
I grew up non-religious. My mother is a practicing Catholic (there are, by the way, close to 28 million Christians in India) and father a lapsed Hindu. My father decreed, at some point before I was born, that we would be raised in neither religion and make our own decisions regarding religions as adults. We celebrated all Hindu and Christian festivals at home – I went to midnight mass for Christmas, and we lit lamps for Diwali – but there was no religious instruction or indoctrination.
I read voraciously growing up and played no organized sports. Most schools in India at the time had no facilities for sports. No school of mine had a gym. Some schools had a grassy field and we were told to go out and play. Sometimes there was a ball. I have poor hand-eye coordination and my instinct, if a ball is thrown at me, is to close my eyes. If I can’t see it, clearly it can’t see me, and therefore logically it follows that it can’t smack me in the face. I was perpetually surprised when I did get smacked in the face. It seems like an impolite sort of thing for a projectile to do. I never learned to swim. Learning this skill requires access to a pool, and we had none.
I grew up speaking English at home. This is unusual for most Indians. My family is a bit unusual though. My grandparents (my father’s parents) had a love marriage, meaning it was not arranged by their parents, but their own choice, at a time when this was unheard of in India. To make it worse they belonged to different religions, different castes, different states. As far as their families were concerned this was a match made in hell. Both of their families cast them out and disowned them when they got married. Though Hindi is the official language of India, the 2001 Census recorded 30 languages which were spoken by more than a million native speakers and 122 which were spoken by more than 10,000 people.
My grandfather (from the South of India) and
grandmother (from the North East) had only one language in common – English. That is what they spoke to their children growing up and that is the language my parents spoke at home to us. I also speak Hindi fluently. I can read and write a third Indian language (Telugu) because I learned it in school for a bit and it is phonetic, but I can’t speak or understand it.
From kindergarten to high school, I schooled in nine different schools (army, remember?). I wore uniforms to every single school I attended. At assembly your uniform was inspected and flaws would result in creative punishment (kneel in the courtyard for thirty minutes or murga ban, which translates to ‘assume the position of a hen’). At schools in India kids don’t move from class to class through the school day. You have one assigned classroom for the school year and the teachers move from class to class when the period ends. You leave your classroom for recesses and physical education, but that is it. Most schools I attended had a teacher-student ratio of between 1:40 to 1:50. Teachers were allowed to smack the kids in school, and some of them frequently did. I was only hit one time – ruler to the palms of my hand, but I frequently witnessed corporal punishment. One weird thing that resulted from moving from school to school is that sometimes I had weird holes in my education. For example, when I switched schools from 8th to 9th grade, the new school had started teaching trigonometry in the 8th grade. I remember my first math class in the new school. The teacher was dictating sums to the class. “sin 𝛳”, she said. “Sign theta”, I wrote, wondering if she was high.
In many ways I consider my childhood idyllic. I wasn’t bullied. I loved and respected my parents. I tolerated my younger sibling. She was annoying at the time. As an adult she is one of my favourite people. I never lacked friends. There were mosquitos, and cold water bucket baths, and sometimes the toilets were holes in the floor instead of thrones. There wasn’t always running water in the taps, and you never took electricity for granted. Not a single house I lived in had air conditioning or central heating. If it got too hot in the summer we dragged the mattresses up to the roof, and sprinkled water on our sheets and let evaporation do the rest. But we were never short of food, and my mother is a fantastic cook. We had tonnes of books. My imagination more than made up for any toys I lacked. My parents treated life as a never-ending adventure and that rubbed off on me. My father, for example, on the way back from something as mundane as grocery shopping would suddenly turn his scooter down some side street we had never been down before and declare that we were ‘going exploring’. I never felt deprived and I always felt loved and valued.
I’ll leave you here, constant reader, with me on the cusp of attending college and leaping forth into adulthood.