Sunday, September 16, 2012

Remembering Ja

Ja (right) with Maxine, at the Alternative Network meeting, 2004
I opened the newspaper this morning and way down at the bottom of page five was a small insert in remembrance of an old friend and sometime mentor, Janaki Iyer, known simply as "Ja" to many of us.  I myself took a decade or more to make the transition from "Mrs Iyer" to "Janaki" to a very hesitant "Ja"--the diminutive seemed not to do justice to a woman who in a very gentle and quiet way had touched so many people, young, old, and like myself, somewhere in between.

First, the specifics. Janaki was a teacher from start to finish. After many years of teaching in an upscale Bombay school, she moved to Hyderabad and, with an enthusiastic friend, started Ananda Bharati, a learning space for children of migrant labourers, in a small room in the YMCA, Tarnaka. Many of those children went on to join the mainstream school system and complete their secondary education; a few even obtained degrees. One of the first girls to be plucked off a sandpile by Ja and brought into Ananda Bharati now works with a handloom advocacy organization. Ja drew many other young people to her; software engineers with dreams beyond programming, University teachers in search of meaning outside theoretical lectures, homemakers who had kindness and talent to share (and spare). People were welcomed into the home she made with her husband, "Steve" or "Mr Iyer". The low green building named "Needa" (shade, in Telugu) saw many visitors and itinerant drop-ins for dosai and coffee. Steve's passion for music drew in others as well, those who wished to commune over a veena recital or discuss the intricacies of raaga and taala in Carnatic music.

I'm not quite sure when I met Ja, but it was most likely when I started working for Teacher Plus, in early 1989. My earliest memory of a one-on-one interaction was after my daughter Achala was born, later that year, when she dropped in to see us while Steve attended his veena lesson at Professor Vijayakrishnan's house on the CIEFL Campus. She was already grey-haired and a little bit arthritic, but in her attitude and mental energy, younger than most of my contemporaries. I became a regular at Needa and Ananda Bharati after that, attending most of the special days at the school and often stopping by for long conversations about just about anything. When I left for the US to do my PhD a couple of years later, she was one of a handful who insisted on inviting me for a going-away meal.

We kept in regular contact, a correspondence by snail mail, where I stayed abreast of developments at the school and kept her in step with my life. When I returned, I found that the Ananda Bharati community had grown and like Ja herself, welcomed all of us who felt similarly about education and social change and saw value in building and sustaining dialogue about related issues.

Conversations with Ja were always engaging; sometimes we were on the phone for close to an hour, talking about a variety of issues from what had happened in school with my daughters to a book I had read to ideas about politics and history.

But I suppose when the going is good, it never seems like enough. Not enough conversations, not enough meetings.

So when Ja passed away on September 16, 2006, although she had been released from protracted period of pain and indifferent health, it seemed like she had just not been around long enough. That we all still needed more of her.

Ananda Bharati, that remarkable little institution that Ja built, continues to foster the spirit of learning among children who might otherwise not find a space for themselves in school. The teachers there work and laugh with the young girls who work in the day time and rediscover their childhood in the afternoons. They learn to read and write, and, more importantly, fashion themselves into citizens of a complex and often unwelcoming polity.


Sumana said...

A lovely tribute to a very special person.

Lakshmi said...

I have been in a wallowing mood – “how have we fared after Ja"....
This simple, straight-from-the-heart piece from you gently nudged me into remembering old times with Ja and into thinking of the many nice things that I have been given to experience. Thank you, Usha.

Babu N said...

The world seems to be becoming more and more complex. Ja was one person, I think, who did not want to get entangled in the complexity and asked (questioned) in simple terms. Several facets of Ja came to mind while going through these jottings. Thanks Usha.