Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Mystery of the lost Tatkal counter

Remember the article I wrote about India titled “The land where I lead a happy life”?
I am sorry I wrote it before I made a trip to the Regional Passport office. What a tour it turned out to be of the grand Indian Heritage of apathy and unresponsiveness. The one-day tour began right at the gate with the parking attendant refusing to tell me where I might park my car. But each time I found a space he would come running behind to say that it was not permissible to leave my car there. And this he would do only after watching me finish the complete procedure of parking, gathering my 59-odd things, stepping out and locking the door.
“You couldn’t tell me earlier, eh?” I snapped each time to no avail. After five demonstrations of my talent in line and parallel parking, the man relented and showed me a dune of sand and asked me to “adjust” my car there. The tyres whirred angrily in the same place before managing to climb the dune and come to a stop. Hurrah to Jaya Madhavan for finding a third way of parking called the Pythagorean parking where my car was inclined like a hypotenuse over the triangle of sand.
“Rs 30”, the attendant said handing me ticket for ‘Rs 20 only’.
“Rs10 for my tea,” he clarified evenly. One look at my poor car and I walked away without even answering.
Inside when I asked for the Tatkal counter, I was shown a queue longer than the tail of serpent Adi-Seshan. I stood there for an eternity only to be passed like a buck to the next counter. It was pure déja vu when the next officer also moved me like an unclaimed parcel to another counter. After experiencing all lengths of tails from serpent Vasuki’s to Hanuman’s to Kapish of Tinkle fame, I was finally told to “ask in the enquiry”.
“Of course,” I thought and asked in the enquiry (the longest tail yet) only to be
directed back to the very first counter I had stood in. Aaarghhhh! That day, I actually felt the indignant Tambrahm’s “I will write to the ‘letters to the editor’ ” kind of anger.
“As a senior citizen I demand to know who is responsible for the Tatkal counter. Enna ya, should one file an FIR to find out?” someone was yelling at a policeman.
“Next year I am also a senior citizen. In the year 1976, when I was transferred….” The policeman began his history and the senior citizen’s wife burst into cackles. Her husband had probably met his match.
The ‘Mystery of the missing Tatkal counter’ had to be solved before 1 pm failing which I would have to apply for a date again. Like me there were many Nancy Drews trying to solve the same mystery. But it was a tout who finally revealed the top secret to me for Rs100. Next, I found there was some declaration form to be signed by my husband. The tout helpfully pointed out the form to me for another Rs 50 (and it was right there).
“Oh! Now I have to go to my husband’s office to get his signature,” I fretted.
“What Madam, you don’t even know to put saar’s signature? He mocked.
More than the drive I was anguished about losing the hypotenuse parking space.
By the time I got everything in place and joined the correct queue and left the building at 6 pm (job miraculously done), I had revisited my love for my country couple of times.
Tired and irritated, I backed my car and crashed into a pile of bricks, scattering it.
“Who is responsible for this?” the parking attendant came running and shouting.
“Ha! Ask in the enquiry,” I answered and sped off.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review of Kabir the Weaver Poet by a friend from Pakistan

Kabir Das, the 15th Century Enigma

Book review

By Rumana Husain

Title: Kabir the Weaver – Poet

Author: Jaya Madhavan

Illustrations: Saudha Kasim

Publisher: Tulika Publishers

No. of pages: 140

Price: Ind Rs 150.00

ISBN: 978-81-8146-168-1

In February this year, I received a gift. Sent by a friend, Kabir the Weaver-Poet was signed

by the author Jaya Madhavan, with a personal note for me saying she was glad to connect

through her book, and that “Kabir is calling! Are you listening?” I am sure my friend had

coerced her into writing the note. In addition, tiny doodles by the author, of a smiling sun,

flying birds and another little bird perched in the top right corner of the page gave me

immense pleasure even before I had started reading. Having finished the book in just two

or three days, I continue to find ‘sant’ Kabir an enigma. Interestingly, the book is

recommended for readers from age 12 upwards.

The mystic weaver poet’s mysterious life story is not only about his powerful poetry, or the

philosophy that he preached, but is also about his courage and his social vision. Kabir was

born in Varanasi (Banares), India, around the year 1440, to Muslim parents. But early in

his life he became a disciple of the Hindu bhakti saint Ramananda.

A lot of drama surrounds Kabir’s life as well as his death, as the saint arduously tried to

bring the often clashing mores of Islam and Hinduism closer together. He was disdainful of

professional devoutness in any form, which earned him the detestation and persecution of

Varanasi’s religious authorities. It is said that when he was denounced before the king

simultaneously by a Mullah and a Pundit, he was spared execution but banished from the

region. He subsequently lived a life of exile and died in 1518 at Maghar near Gorakhpur in

Uttar Pradesh. Madhavan’s novel, however, gives a different version of his end.

As I read the book, I marveled at the simplicity and skill with which Madhavan has dealt

with the complex issues of intolerance, communal hatred and mob fury, among others.

“Hindu kahat hai Ram hamara, musalmaan Rahimana,

Aapan mein dou lade maratu hai, maram koi nahin jaana.”

“Ram is our beloved, say the Hindus, Rahim is our beloved, say the Muslims.

The two kill each other, yet no one understands the actual truth.”

In the chapter, “Kabir refuses to hide”, the young tight-rope walker Kamali tells Kabir that

she used to “die a thousand deaths everyday. Dying of hunger, of fear, of thirst, of sorrow,”

and asks the saint, “Does anyone know what dying really means?” to which Kabir replies:

“Marta marta jag muva, ausar muva na koi,

Daas Kabira yun muva, jyun bahuri na marna hoi.”

“We all die a thousand deaths everyday.

But we don’t know how to die so that we won’t die again.”

Jaya Madhavan is based in Chennai, and is an award-winning children’s novelist, poet and

comic strip writer. Her short stories and poems for adults have been published in Unisun’s

anthologies and in the South Asian Literary Journal. She is also a columnist for the New

Indian Express.

The few minimalistic illustrations in the book, by Saudha Kasim, are pen-and-ink drawings.

The ones that are of an architectural nature are the most appealing, meticulously drawn

with hundreds of parallel lines and hatchings.

The innovative approach utilised by the author in casting the tools of the weaver saint's

trade as animated narrators in the novel is fascinating. Dhaga, the thread - the main

protagonist, Takli, the bobbin, Warp, the set of lengthwise yarn held in tension on the loom,

Weft, the yarn inserted over-and-under the warp, Spindle, the long pin on the spinning

wheel for making thread, aren’t all disconnected raconteurs. These loyal friends of Kabir

are not only integral to the loom on which he weaves his magical fabrics, but their lives are

deeply linked with him. They are a playful lot. They often squabble amongst themselves

too, and it is through their eyes and words that the reader gets an insight into Kabir's life

and the effect of his succinct dohas or couplets, on the people around him.

In the author’s brilliant as well as vibrant weaving of the plot, integrating fact, legend and

poetry, the reader finds herself waddling in and out of Kabir’s daily life as weaver and poet,

and then gets intertwined with the stories that form the background of his dohas. Perhaps

Kabir’s poetry too was born out of his craft.

Kabir was a social critic par excellence who did not deter from showing the mirror to

hypocrites, boldly ridiculing every aspect of organised religion. He offended the religious

bigots of his time by speaking uncomfortable truths, by his rejection of their dogmas and

his provocative poetry. At the same time his incredibly compelling calm and composure is

in sharp contrast to the high drama played out by the Pundit and the Mullah in Banares,

which is a treat to read.

It is regrettable, and not a little ironic, that the pundits and mullahs of our times too, Hindus

and Muslims / India and Pakistan, continue to exploit religion as a means for acquiring

wealth and power by inciting communal loathing and hatred. Banares of the 15th century

seems no different at all!

“Kabir is calling! Are you listening?”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Tid and a Bit

I went to the movie halls after a really long time and looked forward to the experience. The light on the screen came on and the images began to roll. Not five minutes had passed into the film than a couple of youths in the adjacent row began to behave as flagrantly as white Tata Sumos with ruling party flag on their bumpers do on roads.  Catcalls and whistles abounded, but were permissible of course.  When they began to loudly throw comments about the hero a wave of irritation and anger rolled over the audience yet no one protested.  The hero was coming close to kissing the heroine and these boys hooted, “Yes, yes, go on, just do it buddy, we are all here to support you etc.” I must admit that the thought was funny and a few of us even laughed. But when they got down to literally echoing every dialogue that came on screen, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I chucked my bag angrily on the floor and stormed up to their seats. “HELLO!! What the hell is going on here? If you must comment, by all means do so, but amongst yourselves ONLY. The remaining 300 people here need not be posted on your views. Get it?” I shouted in Tamil and in a voice so loud and nasty that it deserved to be put to use in the Indian Parliament.  Everyone froze in their seats except my husband and children who continued to watch the film, happy that their quota of sound bytes from me got exhausted elsewhere.  I stood there glaring at the nuisance makers a moment longer than necessary and returned to my seat.  Much to my surprise the Tata Sumos stopped at my red signal with their flags down.   Some 15 minutes passed peacefully before another group in another end of the hall began to get noisy. I was loathe to repeat my drama once again, but thankfully it didn’t seem necessary for a voice rang out from behind the garrulous boys, “Are you all going to shut up now or shall I call that lady here?” (pesama irukeengla illa anda lady-a koopdava?)  And immediately there was silence.
Needless to say I was very proud of myself and all that. Only my husband who was cool and indifferent till then began to get that ‘do-you-all-see-what-I-suffer’ look on his face.


My friend wanted me to accompany her to Chennai University to finish some boring paper work and I resisted because a) I had not cooked anything for the day and b) When I picked up my M.Phil certificate from there in 1995, I swore never to return to that office that was decidedly highbrow to students, a shocking contrast from the sucking up students receive from admin staff at JNU where I studied M.A. Nevertheless I went as my love for her won over my vow. Once there I realised I was freaking hungry. I called my maid Valli at home and requested her to cut some veggies so that I may quickly fix something for myself when I returned. The poor thing must have been on her way out, when I caught her on the phone with this additional task. I came two hours later weak with hunger and my friends’ ranting. “I surely am going to die before my stupid cooker finds its whistle,” I groaned and sauntered into the kitchen and what do I find!!! Valli has made chappathis, rice, dal, karela curry (my favorite), salad, rasam and vadams!!!!!! My god! What a spread and it is not even part of her job profile to cook for me!! Total humanitarian gesture for a hungry soul. Oh! It was not just my body that felt nourished that day. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Inaugurating with ribbon pakodas

I find it extremely ironic and funny when people call me to cut ribbon to inaugurate some event or give a speech or hoist a flag or simply accept a first invitation to a wedding or such. I am neither a celebrity, nor a sponsor or some inspiring personality like our good friend Vijay Siva the Carnatic musician (who sweetly taught me this life changing English Pallavi “Complaining mind is always unhappy/Ooooooo/What you lose when you complaint/ You lose your good health and brain”).  Yet my social calendar is steadily getting filled thanks to readers who are operating in the true spirit of loony life by inviting me to be a chief guest. What the hell, I don’t even photograph well.

“You mean to say people are actually buying you a ticket to travel to their place, just to hear you speak?” my aunt asked disbelievingly.
“III A/c in train. Not cattle class like Shashi Tharoor,” I replied.
 “Remember? Once in your nervousness you sang the national anthem instead of the prayer at the beginning of a program and lot of people who entered the hall just then thought the program had ended and left immediately leaving the hall half empty,” she smirked.
“Yeah….I know. But I include that incident in my speech and it is very well received. In fact it is so funny that people think I made it up,” I said evenly.
“What about that time when your father’s typewriting institute was inaugurated and just when the ribbon was about to be cut, you loudly begged the chief guest to just untie it from the door so that you may stitch that satin ribbon onto your dress. So now… you cut the ribbon or sneak it to your house to stitch it to some blouse?” she asked icily.
“Instead of satin ribbons, I demand ribbon pakodas and “cut” them with my teeth to inaugurate. That is the latest trend I am setting. Since the organizers are putting their mouth where the money is, I commence the event with my mouth and they all clap,” I snapped.
“Excellent. You should have been born in England,” said the mean lady and left.

But come to think of it, all this is very ridiculous even to me. I was once called to distribute prizes at a nearby school. When I entered the auditorium with the Principal, all the children stood up in greeting. I wondered what a tyrant the Principal must be and how despicable that her students had to get up whenever she came into their presence.
“Tupit lady,” I thought and I swear she must have read my thoughts for she immediately said, “the students are getting up for your sake only.”  I nervously smiled heh-heh-heh and bade them sit down. I completely forgot that chief guests were accorded such respect.

But in all this the biggest joke is on me, because whenever some speaker commenced his talk with “respected blah-blah, honorable yada-yada, esteemed so-and-so and my dear friends” I used to giggle from the back seat at the hollow formalities. And yet I find myself saying things like “It is my privilege to be here etc.” I think next time I am just going to say, “Hi good people. I am going to talk now. Feel free to lift your hand when I get boring.”

And then there is that constant worry on “what to wear?” I always went with kurta over jeans and a stole to protect my virtue (heh) and it worked rather well for me until a cousin maliciously pointed out that a chief guest should look like she possesses atleast one set of good dress and should not look like she ran through a series of clothes lines on her terrace and emerged wearing whatever got caught onto her body during the run. 

Ode to Clothes

Cleaning out a wardrobe is never impassive, mundane activity. Rather, it is an emotional exercise. As I stare at the bureau which I share with my children, the sum total of my life stares back at me. Every piece of clothing is a memoir, a souvenir of the past, a trigger for memories to flood my heart. One, two, three, as I toss and sift the old from new, fresh from faded, the needed and the not-so-needed, I hear an inner call to simultaneously discard those turns and dimensions of my life that no longer “fit my current form”.
Colorful, chaotic, comfortable, well used, well loved, frayed in the edge, patchy in places, fading, gaudy, smooth, sober, silken, lacy and mostly bright, is how I can describe the contents of the wardrobe. But hey presto! The description matches my life too!

As I sit down to the task of folding and arranging three huge piles of clothes- my son’s, my daughter’s and my own, I feel I am being lead into a introspection of sorts on where I am headed and what my children are upto in their lives. Nine out of ten of my son’s pants are tracks and ten out of ten tops are smeared with cricket stains. One entire inner door of the wardrobe is streaked with personal adulatory messages to Sachin and Dhoni.  To my left is Gautam Gambhir “Going great guns” and above him is Muthiah Muralidharan “in top gear.” What the hell? Is the kid studying at all? Each and every good dress has been whittled down to look like “cricket wear”. I inspect the plump pockets of few pants. Wrist bands, suntan cream and even a blur picture of Gilchrist emerge.  I remember my son telling me, “Please, please improve. How can I take you seriously when you can’t tell a Shane Warne from a Mathew Hayden?” I leave a note for my son on the cupboard, “Your shelf- askew and confusing- like Malinga’s bowling action. I want to see a Kumble.”

My daughter’s pile is less intimidating. It is filled with shiny clothes, bunnies and teddies. She loves gaudy colors, frills and flowers. She loves to dress up and even puts glitter on her cheeks. Let her! I did not have the luxury to exercise or cultivate my feminity.  In my days I had to be a tomboy to be taken seriously. I had to fight to get permission to wear pants, which again I grabbed from my brothers’ wardrobe. I meddled with my long hair, cross dressed in my brother’s clothes, learned to ride a bike, and adamantly shunned all things feminine like bindis, bangles, bands etc.- all this to be heard and not merely “noticed”. My daughter’s world is different. She can dwell and indulge her girlishness and yet avail all rights open to her brother and vice versa.  She can even be the one to wear the pants at home.

By the time I attack my small pile of clothes, mostly consisting of jeans, sober color short kurtas and bandanas, I tell myself I should revisit my feminine aspect and try out bright colors and experiment with laces, yokes and trimmings and not just reach for khakis and browns that make me look like a gas delivery boy.  There is not one negligee, one lacy top, silken dress or party wear. Everything is sober, low-cost and no-nonsense.  I feel stumped here. Clothes have always been touted as our second skin, a physical reflection of our self identity, an “attitude wear”. Pablo Neruda writes in his Ode to Clothes, “Every morning you wait, /to fill yourself with/my vanity, my love, /my hope, my body.”  If clothes are indeed “us”, then why are my clothes plain, inexpensive and practical when I am not any of those?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

When the butterfly died on me....

A dead butterfly is not earth shattering news unless the death happens in your house, under your purview and with two kids hinting that you caused the poor creature’s death. A monarch butterfly suddenly made its way into our home, a gorgeous black, red, white spotted butterfly, just when we were all leaving for Mysore. I thought it will fly out just as it flew in and left to catch my train.
Two days hence when we returned, we found the butterfly on the floor, in a room different from where we saw it last. Its wings were intact. Only its legs seemed bent, like a fractured green twig. Had the maid left the fan on and injured the butterfly on its way out? I placed the butterfly on a window sill hoping it would flutter out or make a leap to the tree branch which hung at some five feet from the window. I didn’t know how to help it. Soft silvery black powder that felt like eye shadow, stuck to my fingers. If there is anything called pixie dust, then this butterfly powder felt like it. As kids we believed that smearing butterfly-wing dust on our forehead guaranteed our immortality. I hoped the butterfly didn’t display its mortality in my house. My kids would freely cry for one week hence.
“What can we feed it?” my son asked worriedly.
There was no honey in the house. What about ghee? I thought and placed some ghee beneath its feet (remember butterflies taste with their feet?)
After a while my daughter reported excitedly, “Dit is get-upping.”
I rushed to find that my stupid ghee idea had merely made the butterfly uncomfortably entangled in the viscous substance. Since I had caused its discomfort, I felt karmically bound to help it. I browsed the net on how to help a wounded butterfly and a website instructed me to put the insect in a box with some green in it and place a sponge soaked in sugar solution for food. I did all that and even helpfully placed its feet on the sponge. In less than twenty minutes the butterfly was dead. The very same creature which had survived two days without food, died within minutes under my helpful attention.  My children glared at me with disgust.
I spent the entire day mooning about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions and also how I would have been more careful and prompt in my action if the creature was little bigger like a squirrel or a puppy.  Small and gentle creatures are almost always forgotten or brushed aside. It is as if the lower you go on the food chain, the less you are respected. Strangely the butterfly reminded me of a gentle uncle of mine, who never spoke a single harsh word to anyone but was almost always sidelined because he was neither rich nor had a job. His deep affection and humble outlook to life was always submerged amidst opulent, garrulous crowds of relatives. In a world of shark eat shark, what did we care for the meek and poor? Amidst loud actions and words where was the space for small and gentle considerations?
As I put the butterfly into a box for burial, I began weeping for all those tiny, gentle (and eminently endangered) gestures like smoothing the hair of a spouse of twenty years, of saying thank you to the man who collected garbage, of not hurrying a child through its meals, of listening to people fully without glancing at the laptop every two seconds, of allowing the other person to hang the phone first….of just remembering that there are many mute and small creatures like the butterflies, which nevertheless have pixie dust on them.

Lunch at Twilight, Dinner at Midnight

I love nights. I love the shroud of silence and contemplation nights throw on my mind.  There is an involuntary stillness that enters my heart, as I find nature tucking in for the day despite human beings’ frenzied activity around them. Crows start turning to their nests at the stroke of sunset, trees fold up for the day and draw their leaves tighter around themselves like shawls, self respecting insects (unlike mosquitoes) disappear for the day. A while later children’s eyelids start getting heavier despite the TV and homework.  As the night bleeds and spreads its black fingers over lamp shades, the mist of sleep overpowers thoughtful minds and restless hearts.  It is time to draw the curtains, not just on the day but on the rerun of events of the day in our minds. Nights are for rejuvenation, reconsideration and revival. In simpler terms, when the moon appears at your window it is time to hibernate, shut down or do an Alt+Ctrl+del.

For me, the beauty of nights has much to do with the color black- the hue of absorption, mystery, seduction and death. As I look up at the fickle moon bobbing like a ball on the dark November sky with stars flitting around like fire flies I wonder which ignoramus labeled nights as the hour of the demons. What can match the cool beauty, subtle fragrance and deep sexuality of the night? Mornings and noon explode with activity and shake you up for necessary and unnecessary actions. The nature of light is such.  It demands movement. Aristotle hypothesized on the nature of light as “a disturbance in the element air”. But as light wanes and movements subside, mind and body seeks its nest and the heart searches for love.  If day is a factory to feed your body, night is the spa for pampering yourself.
When I was breaking into my teens, I used to feel a ravenous hunger in the pit of my stomach at exactly the stroke of sunset and I would gorge.  Noticing my habit, my mother’s music teacher mentioned in passing, “only rakshashis eat at sunset.”  What was stated intentionally to shame me out of the habit in fact had the opposite effect. I fell in love with idea of being a rakshashi and “fuelling myself for the night” at sunset, which I supposed was dawn for rakshashis.  In fact as days passed I not only had “lunch” at 6 pm but also “dinner” at the stroke of midnight. Amma shaking her head would leave rasam and rice for me. At midnight, while the house was dunked in dark slumber, I would toss the food, top it with pickle and pappad shreds and go into the balcony. We lived in a Government quarter then, on the seventh floor and the dining table was in that open balcony of sorts. I would sit, not at the table but on it. As the wind whooshed through my hair, as I watched the distant city lights and supped on the delicious gruel, I used to feel an incredible high, an insatiable thirst to “create”, throughout the night. On those special nights when I wrote particularly well, I understood it as a “female night”, a Rajni, a Nisha and not just another ratri.

I heard this lovely story about Adam and his first experience of night. It is Adam’s first day of being born. He feels comfortable in light but fearfully anticipates the sun set as he would be left in dark. But as night approaches Adam sees the moon emerge with her stars, the evening flowers bloom exuding their fragrance and the creatures of the night materialize to sing their nightly songs, Adam discovers life in the dark and falls in love with night too.