L Gopika Murthy’s story is about life and its challenges. It is also the story of how far can one reach with firm determination and grit.
Today is the last day of my working life. I retire after 35 years of employment. Today is also my 60th Government birthday.
There were two forces at play that caused me and every child in my village to have a Government birthday. A group of people who were practical to a fault and the fact that every birth was a home birth in our village in the sixties. The birth of a child in my village was a cause for much celebration, marked by gift-bearing visitors and a naming ceremony in which the name of the infant was whispered into her ear and proclaimed to the world. It was also the time when elders in the family sat down and chose what her birthday on government records would be.
The objective of the Government birthday was to maximize the Government service the baby can have in its life. This required picking a date that delays the retirement date to the maximum extent without jeopardizing the baby’s ability to start school with its peers. Considering that the cut-off date for school admissions was the first of June, my family decided 30 May was the sweet spot and that is my Government birthday.
My family wanted me to become a Government schoolteacher from the time I was born. Not because it was a worthy occupation or because of its potential to mold young minds, but because my work schedule would perfectly synchronize with the school holidays of my future children. By the time I was eighteen, it was obvious to everyone that I did not have the temperament to be a teacher and yet, I was forced to start the Teacher training course in my village.
Less than a year into my course, I came home after my classes one afternoon to find a handsome guy and his parents in our living room. The parents were from the neighbouring village and they were looking for a bride for their son, Shaji, who worked in the city.
I spoke to Shaji privately for ten minutes before saying yes to his proposal. Shaji was everything I wanted. He was respectful, my passport to the big city, and the only person I knew who owned a TV.
I moved with him to Trivandrum after our wedding in the village. He had a rented apartment on the fifth floor of a dilapidated block of buildings. The building had ten floors in total and no elevators. We spent equal parts of the day running up and down to our apartment and running up and down to the terrace where we did our laundry and hung our clothes to dry. The apartment was tiny, had mold and cockroaches, and was my most favourite place in the world.
Shaji always felt guilty that our wedding disrupted my education. I told him that I hated the Teacher Training course and never wanted to be a teacher anyway. Yet, he felt very strongly about me getting an education.
Shaji had never gone to university. He had come to the city as a 16-year-old boy and taken a position as an assistant to the head clerk in the chambers of one of the big lawyers in the city. He had slowly risen to become one of the main clerks in the chamber. His job was strange – the clerks had immense knowledge of the court and its procedures, they were the conduit between the God-like lawyer and the waiting, fawning public, the chamber would stop functioning without its clerks – but enjoyed little respect from the public or status in society. That was reserved for people who studied law at university and became lawyers and judges.
Every day Shaji would come home and tell me stories of the happenings at the chambers and court. I loved these stories and through them – the courtroom. I wanted to be there with every fiber of my being. I developed a fervent wish to be in a place where important things happen, in the red and white English-Gothic-inspired District Court building.
When I shared this with Shaji, his first response was to say that I should study to be a lawyer. We both considered the idea for about thirty seconds and burst out laughing. I would need six years of university education to obtain a law degree. We barely made enough money to pay rent on our apartment. Besides, it was unheard of for a chamber clerk’s wife to be a lawyer, same as for a medical representative’s wife to be a doctor. It upsets the natural hierarchy in society and we were not revolutionaries.
Shaji had the brainwave that I could try to get the job of the court stenographer. The access barriers to the job, unlike becoming a lawyer, were low. It was a respectable government job with a guaranteed pension.