Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This New year


May onions be available for Rs.8 a kilo and not 80.

May I stop snapping at my mother and stop feeling guilty about it later. May I be present to my love for her when I speak to her.

May holidays this year not fall on weekends but close to them.

May my children stop looking at me as some vending machine which pours forth, food, love and advice.

May newspapers carry happy news in their headlines and reserve bad news for inner pages.

May the saying “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” be put to rest forever.

May the word “no” be three shades less offensive.

May wedding expenses be equally split between groom and bride.

May I shed atleast 3 kilos in the next 12 months.

May corporate setups change their HR policies, which make employee-exit at 8 pm compulsory.

May I continue to sleep at 9 pm and wake at 4 or 5 am and may I have the will and ruthlessness to severe friendships with those who send me obscene PJs, chain smses and silly forwards after 9 pm just to startle me out of my sleep.

May I have the enthusiasm and dedication to write atleast 200 words everyday for my third novel. 200 words is pittance, yet better than nothing.

May tapwater become potable.

May I get rid of my addiction for Tiger balm, which I apply generously at all times of day despite the fact that my skin turns black and sore under its heat.

May there be regular rains in Chennai without the regular mess that follows.

May people who are doing night duty at call centres get good sleep during day time.

May all the right handed be left handed for a day and vice versa.

May we occasionally smile at strangers.

May I be aware that I am loved, I am blessed and above all I am in the midst of good people. May I draw on these resources and find contentment.

May the TV channels put an end to reality shows and talent shows particularly involving children.

May I practice music atleast for 30 minutes with such ardour that neighbours will come banging and screaming begging me to stop.

May my readers continue to patronize me.

May I go on that long walk, a walk that will last for days together. May I take that long walk alone, preferably to some mountain (preferably Arunachalam) and come back with stories, sayings and solace.

May we surprise a beggar with a tenner once in a while.

May we play with our children for one entire hour without being distracted.

May I keep all the relationships which came to me this year and may I nurture them like my Tulsi plant.

May I come across more books like Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the time of cholera” and Stella Kramrisch’s “Presence of Siva”.

May we honk less on the roads and may we not say “women driver” like a swear word.

May my sense of humour graduate into sense of ridiculousness.

May eggless cakes me less expensive than regular cakes.

May my hair grow dark and thick so I may have more hair to cut off.

May BSNL, DD and AIR earn more faith and patronage from its customers this year.

May my children call me “Amma” and not by my name.

May my car forgive me for not taking it for the yearly service this year also.

May the child in me be healed, happy and honest.

May we forgive our spouses who might have forgotten our birthday, anniversary or just the fact that we are their spouse.

May we all understand that Happiness is a state of mind, which is as cultivable as patience, contentment and humour.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The house that knows no divisiveness

There is a modest house in a modest lane in Madras standing quiet and humble amidst peace-loving people and quaint old trees. I don’t quite know its size, though I have spent many summers and seasons inside it. I have seen it swell like a mushroom under rains, when it had to receive sisters, brothers and hapless souls seeking respite and temporary shelter. I have also seen it shrivel like a raisin under the sun when loved ones left its shade seeking other pastures. Like a beating heart, the house has contracted and expanded many times over to accommodate its residents, the number again which I am not sure of. Who can really tell how many people have moved in and out of a Banyan’s shade?The first room of the house has a simple bench and an easy chair opposite it. A man wizened with age and wisdom used to sit in it to receive guests with a smile and a verse in Sanskrit, befitting the person or the occasion of his arrival. He had a word, a glass of water or buttermilk, some wisdom and most importantly, time for anyone who arrived at his door. When he came to Madras from his humble village, he brought into the house the courteousness and simplicity of his village, and also a way of life. He had four cows in a shed adjoining the living room, a well, a clay stove and a variety of trees in the backyard and a huge haystack piled on the right side outside the house. One couldn’t open the window of the living room wall without scraping one’s hand against one of the cow’s horns and one couldn’t open the inner room window without hay falling in like rain. Many of his grandchildren learnt at as early as seven years of age to shovel and carry baskets of cowdung to the open terrace to be mixed with hay and made into pancakes. When dried they would be thrown into the claystove as fuel to heat the bathwater and when done, their ashes would be recycled as scrub powder for the vessels. The man was a master in thriftiness. But he had to be. Otherwise how could he have nourished and educated his 10 children and graduated plenty others who sought refuge in the house into more prosperous climes with his meagre salary? And how could he have accomplished all this without his wife whom he celebrated as a true illal (homemaker), because she never knew how to say illai (no). Petite, naïve and deeply attached to her husband, the lady came into the house at 14 years of age and quickly understood that her husband was like a large tree and many birds would indeed come to roost and rest in him. Soft-spoken and always cheerful, she learnt everything; from milking the cows, to making brooms and thatches from coconut fronds to cooking for tens of people, to not distinguishing between her own children and others’. Bending over the stoves, how many countless meals must this lady have prepared? How many children, grandchildren, grand nephews and grand nieces must have passed through her heart, hands and house in the 65 years of her married life? I don’t think she knows the size of the house either. But lately, she is insisting that the house be reconstructed before her time and be shared amongst her peaceable children. To me, it is like taking an axe to an ancient tree, but who knows what is prompting her eagerness? Maybe grandmother is curious and finally wants to know how much the house could really hold. Maybe she wants to quantify and measure her work of a lifetime. Maybe she sees no divisiveness in the act because her heart knows none.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The truth behind 'group studies' sessions

I hope my son never discovers this scam called “group studies”. Of all the
excuses students have come up with to waste time, exchange gossip, discuss latest movie releases, trade tips on ‘how to attract the opposite sex’ (what we called studying “biology, chemistry and physics of opposite sex”), polish the poor host’s refrigerator, lech discreetly at a friend’s brother or sister etc, group studies is the most creative and legitimate excuse and it works best with parents too!
Many things happen during group studies. An auto driver friend of mine confessed to picking up his paan parag habit while group studying with a senior (in paan parag chewing, by the way). Another musician friend confessed to having met his wife in a similar way and fallen in love with her simply
because she could find the value of “nCr” using both binomial theorem and Pascal’s triangle method (what he now describes as ‘math-aftermath’). Another laments that the high pitched hyena laughter he laughed over a silly joke on the day before his 12th exam during group studies is still echoing on him. He got a princely 58 per cent in the boards. Yet another, by name Varadarajan, tags the whole practice as mere group therapy to “dissipate tension and not accumulate knowledge.” Perorating further on the subject, he says, “It may seem a good idea to set 10 heads to crack that one subject, but it is still one head that has to go and write that exam. It is Ram and not Ravan who wins the battle.” I fully appreciate his intensity on the subject. You see, this gentleman answered his tenth standard Hindi exam paper in English.
There is actually a standard pattern way in which “group studies” will proceed. If there are four chapters to be covered in six hours, more often than not, the first chapter will take up the first five hours and the remaining three just one! One would have barely begun on Bohr’s postulates: “Electrons orbit the nucleus. They are ….”, when a candidate would ask, “Machan, what is there to eat da?” That is all. The next hour will go in serving, spilling and munching on every available eatable in the house. “Electrons can only be in certain, permitted
orbits, hey what did Priya tell you near the lab yesterday?” Another 20 minutes on the Priya-Arun fallout. “The radii of the allowed orbits… saw that awesome lip-to-lip kissing scene between Kamal and Amala (through sari) in the new film Satya?!” Another hour spent on “chemistry, physics and biology” and one more hour on cooking up the clever chant “Bohr-bore-boar!”
I remember a group of us were studying chemistry and I was reading aloud. I was repeating the line “Copper is a good conductor of electricity” again and again and somewhere I mistakenly compounded the words and said “copper is a gunductor” and that was all — the whole group laughed and laughed the entire evening, called me “gunductor-gunductor” till I cried. I daresay they all joined me the next day.
But I must admit that group studies did support me immensely when I was doing my BA, a time when my parents were struggling to educate four children. Sticking to just paying the college fee, I relied on my generous friends to share most of their textbooks with me (my mom says she did exactly the same while she was in Music college). So while the usual joking and chatting went on, I had my corner and studied rather diligently. In return for the favour shown, I would share nuggets of my textbook knowledge in brief bullet points with them, which they claimed was their sole reason for passing. Yet, my years of experience with group studies still say that it is Ram with his one head who goes to write that exam.

Solving the 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.

Cornered heroines saved by the rakhi

Rakshabandan passed off peacefully for me this year. Er… actually it has been pretty peaceful for me for many, many years.
Whatte sad considering that a group of us girls used to unleash terror in the college campus with this one tiny chit of a rope called Rakhi. Boys used to duck or run and hide at our sight or do “mass absent” on the day of Rakshabandan, lest we made brothers out of these Romeos. Most boys found Rakshabandan day a public nuisance. This festival never did cut much edge with us south Indians because: i) It is the exact opposite of Valentine’s Day;
ii) Who wanted any more sisters than what they were already enduring at home? iii) There was this tofa to be given; iv) And this girdle on hand (and heart) meant a full stop to all lecherous activities vis-a-vis the one who tied the rakhi.
It was only the very good and very boring boys who came in flapping and flailing in full-arm shirts to proudly roll back their sleeves and flaunt rows and rows of glittering rakhis and their sisterly conquests. But for their pants one would have thought they were modelling for GRT’s “Bangle Mela”.
Frankly, we Dravidians never needed something as overt as a cord to show-and-tell the sibling bonding, for in our download of Tamil cinema tradition one just had to say “Anna” (elder brother) at room temperature for the man to melt and immediately adopt you as his sister. I don’t know about the rest, but this is how MGR, Sivaji, Jaishankar, Rajinikanth and T Rajendar obtained dozens and dozens of sisters for themselves and uniformly called them all “thangachchi”.
It is the weekly Hindi movies (telecast on Saturdays on DD) which introduced us to the necessity of a non-verbal signage (aka rakhi) to seal the brother-sister relationship.
“Main lawaris hoon (I am an orphan),” wept Amitabh Bachchan in a movie.
Immediately the blind girl in the hut tied a rakhi and said, “Tum ab mere bade bhai ho (now you are my elder brother)”. Same scene would have wound up with just one word “anna” down here in the south. But who’s listening? Considering that rakhis are here to stay, I just got an idea. Usually heroines in Tamil movies cringe and start walking backwards when the villain approaches them with a thali (mangalsutra), for if he managed to tie that cord around her neck, she would have to be his wife. I suggest the heroine get a rakhi and walk forward menacingly in the direction of the villain brandishing this weapon of hers, threatening to make him her brother. And whoever ties first will decide the nature of the relationship. If both tie it simultaneously, then well, it’s a tie, a bad pun and a typical K Balachandar movie situation. “If I am your sister and you my husband, then what are our children to you and me?”
My friend Geetha was notorious for her appropriation of rakhis. Every boy she knew was her rakhi brother. Alternately, if she wanted to get to know a boy, she would approach him with a rakhi. “Safe opening, safe closure,” she’d grin. Once her best friend was hitting on someone tall and attractive. “Who’s Keerthana talking to?” she asked. “Why don’t you take a rakhi to him, find out, and introduce your brother to me?” I asked. She burnt me to cinders with a contemptuous glance.
This year, two days after Rakshabandan I sent a bulk sms to all my male friends saying, “Sorry, I forgot to send you a rakhi the day before. You are welcome to send me the gifts.” Not one scoundrel bothered to reply to it, except one scallywag who said, “Then please receive this one thousand kisses I am sending you as a gift.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Amidst a murder of crows

Just when the much awaited rose powder and the lipstick were brought close to my face, Priya’s mother intervened and said, “No need for make-up, she is only a crow.”
It was my school annual day and I was all of six years old, geared to be the black bird in the rhyme "Sing a song of sixpence". Priya was the maid whose nose I as a blackbird was meant to peck off. Any surprise that her mother laid revenge on me? With that one statement she dashed to ground weeks of fantasising of arriving home after the programme in an open cycle rickshaw and my cousins scampering out of the house to admire my rosy visage while the crow mask lay limp at my feet.
The make-up pangs eventually faded, but the statement “she is only a crow” simply stuck in my subconscious and I all but grew black wings on my dark body. I thereafter developed a special kinship for my winged sisters.
If grandmom placed rice on the sill for the crows, I stealthily topped it with curd to cool my friends plying the hot sky. If I was sent to the terrace to be a scarecrow, I woo-woo-wooed the crows to eat their fill of vadams, instead of shoo-shoo-shooing them off.
“Don’t be scared, I am only a crow,” I encouraged. If grandma offered vadais on
a plate, I would say, “wait” and run around the house to arrive just outside the kitchen
window and caw until grandma placed the vadai directly in my mouth through the grill. “Silly”, she would admonish even as I ran away flapping my hands, looking for a branch to perch and eat my treat in peace without intrusion from Fox.
In my later years I was told that my first 19 years of life were spent under the malefic gaze of Shani (Saturn). It pleased me that I had been under the observance of a deity discerning and dapper enough to choose a crow for his vehicle. Whoever saw my horoscope tch-tch-tched in sympathy saying my first 20 years of life would have been full of painful lessons. Maybe yes, maybe not.
The realisation that “I am only a crow” was cosmically meant to be painful but by loony logic it, instead, became a liberating factor for me in a society that perpetually favours fair, lissome and coy lasses. Whereas, as a crow, I was free to be bright, inquisitive and loud. At best I would be shooed away. So what?
The crows were back again in my late 20s with Lord Saturn on their back. This time they hovered around for seven-and-a-half years to deliver their remaining lessons. Their time of departure coincided with the release of my second novel Kabir the weaver poet. Guess my publisher Tulika’s logo? Heh-heh- a crow!!! "For it being an unassailable part of the sights and sounds of India, our logo is the common crow, a bright, busy, intelligent bird, with a great sense of family,” read the publisher's note on thier logo. Can anyone describe Jaya Madhavan better? (note the word “intelligent” — ha!)
My favourite colour is black and my favourite pastime crowing. I never send away a crow hungry from my kitchen sill. When I find half alive hit-and-run crows on the road, I rush them to Blue Cross or hold them till they die. I have parked a Rs 3.5 lakh toilet called Alto for them on the road. Above all, like the crows I too have gathered around me a formidable flock (of readers and friends) who love me even though ‘I am only a crow”. And do you know what a group of crows are called? Not just a horde, hover, mob, muster, parcel and parliament but also a “murder of crows”!!!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Shaddup, you blahdy fooh

In the thick of a very Tamil fight, Lal had said those three words that could shake the bedrock of any friendship. I had merely asked Lal why he must smear half a kilo of talcum powder on his face morning and evening — and look like a buffoon. To which he had demanded, “What bothers you?” He had asked that to me, one who had been friends with him for eight years out of the 10 years we had been alive!
What’s more, instead of the usual unakenna pochu? (What loss to you?) He had the temerity to ask “what bothers you?” in English, a language that was still alien in our street.
Adding insult to injury was his immediate exit for lunch and afternoon nap before I could formulate a clever repartee.
On second thoughts, his disappearance boded well as it gave me a two-hour window to craft a suitable reply to reply (badillukku-badil).
Albeit not enough for English retort, it would have to do.
I knew no English then (some would argue I still don’t). I urgently needed a three-worded retort that would put Lal in his place and reflect my English knowledge too, of which I had none.
Woe! Could fate be crueler? I cursed and ranted thus the entire first hour.
The only English words that came to my mind were “I love you” from the movies.
It had three words alright, but it was not apropos to the situation. Even at that age, I knew I didn’t want to say that to Lal. He used too much Gokul Santol Powder.
I could say “goodbye” to him but that was only one word (or was it two?) and too volatile a word to use. According to Tamil films, if one said “goodbye” along with salute gesture it meant, ‘it-is-over-between-us’. Hmmm, I was not sure about saying “goodbye” to Lal. But for his powder habit, he was a cool guy who did not mind climbing trees or stealing mangoes with me.
What about “bleddy fool”? I thought and practised saying “bleddy fool” a couple of times, before I cha­nged it to “blahdy fooh” which is how my matinee idol Kamal Haasan said it. I felt empowered by these two great words that Kamal Haasan himself deemed fit to mouth.
I hid behind a bush and waited for Lal to emerge from his beauty sleep and appear he did, powder-faced and heavier by half a kilo.
I sprang out suddenly. Encouraged by the shock on his face, I said aloud, “April fool” to which he collapsed with laughter. I fled, hair flying.
From behind our gate I could see him dancing with glee. My brain worked feverishly.
What did angry professors tell raucous college students in movies? Yes! Got it. I ran back with gusto and said, “Shaddup and gedout”, to which he laughed harder.
“Do you realise that you are standing inside my compound and asking me to get out? Now I tell you, you “shut up and get out”, he commanded. “Oho,” I replied and pondered on it briefly. Ah! Got it!
“Lal, can you please step into my house for a moment?” I asked brightly. “Ha! So that you can say ‘shut up and get out’ to me when I enter your gate, is it not?” He asked shrewdly and I lost my cool.
“You-you-you-you-you-you-you-you,” I began…in English (!!) and kept at it endlessly like an indignant heroine of my time.
Twenty minutes of ‘you-you-you’ later, Lal was at my feet, begging for mercy and declaring me the Queen of English, England and all its colonies. Ha! I became world famous in my street for constructing the loooooooooooooooongest sentence in English with just one word.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The land where I lead a happy life

I don’t want to live in any country or place which does not have Mylapore in it. If you happen to be in Chennai, just take a walk around the Kapaleeshwarar temple tank and see if the incredible juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern, old with the new, the rotting with the nascent does not strike straight into your Indian heart! If your heart is still Indian that is.
The “fragrance” of Mylapore is that aroma of coffee beans frying in ‘Sundaram coffee’ combined with the smell of vegetables, fruits and flowers on the pavement shops, mingling with the fumes of vehicles and the mild scent of holy ash (vibhuti) wafting from the bare bodies of tuft-wearing Brahmins, not to mention the urine on the walls. On one side is the clang of temple bells and just yonder is a sabha exuding music. By the temple car is the famous nameless roadside bajji stall shooting sizzling noises into the air.
And just as you feel divided between adai-ayival at Karpagambal mess and the roadside bajjis, the nadaswaram vidwans emerge into the streets leading the temple procession. One mallari or a brilliant raktimelam from them is enough. All appetite is sated. I… just love this heady bouq­uet of perfumes and sounds which is India, well... “South India” to me. Be it crowded, dirty or congested or whatever, I love my land, just as I love my mother’s cooking burnt or otherwise. If it is from my mother’s hand, I love it… Period.
I don’t know why I have to sound so apologetic about declaring my love for my own country. But you see when I urge people not to look for “US bridegrooms” or when I tell migrating friends and relatives not to become permanent citizens and “come back” at least in the distant future, they look at me queerly. Recently, I gave a guest talk at a famous college of technology. When I appealed to those engineering students who had written TOEFL and GRE to consider making worthwhile careers here in India itself and “first sweep our country before departing to sweep other countries” huge dissenting noises burst out in the hall.
I had opened a Pandora’s box. Many explanations poured forth from the students on how “quality life” was possible abroad and how they were “world citizens” and how India was “narrow minded” and so on. In a room of 300, I knew I was alone. It reminded me of the day when my parents were forcing me to look at my first love as mere puppy love. On both these days my love was ridiculed as naïve, silly and unrealistic.
Well, I went abroad too. While bidding goodbye, my grandmother took a pinch of earth and smeared it like vibhuti on my forehead. Once there, I fell severely homesick after the first few weeks. No amount of persuasion that “roads were bigger, environment cleaner and facilities greater” could take India out of me. “What the hell, you can drink water out of the bathroom tap here,” shouted my friend. “Go on and drink water from bathroom tap because that’s where you belong,” I snapped. In my poem Migratory Birds I wrote, “In the land of seagulls/the crows try to merge with snow.”
This Republic Day, my son’s school gave me the honour of hoisting the Tricolour, which I did with great pride and tears in my eyes. When they asked me to deliver a speech, I refused. How to express deep love in spoken words? I instead offered to sing and presented Bharathiyar’s song Enthayum Thayum (“This is the land, where father and mother mine/lead a happy life”).
That pinch of Indian earth my grandmother smeared on my forehead burned like a third eye, for long after the song.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Satori in a jam with a nose-picking chauffeur

Spiritual tests don’t come in the form of power, riches or dainty damsels (or sensitive men, in my case) they come in the guise of traffic jams, to test your limits of patience and endurance. There is a certain Karmic indebtedness between people caught in the same traffic jam, a spiritual connectedness that ordains that we spend time together in this unique urban open prison for a stipulated period of time. I use traffic jams to formulate theories like the above mentioned, make character studies and collect a week’s worth of laughter.
I was in a jam recently. I turned off the engine and looked around. A husband and wife on a two-wheeler were snarling at each other. The husband was shouting facing west and the lady (sitting sideways owing to sari) was yelling facing south. The duo looked like two inimical navagraha planets, not facing each other, yet relating. I thought it a great idea to have your fights in a traffic jam and pour all your woes into the existing confluence of confusion and tension and leave the traffic signal fresh and rejuvenated, instead of quarrelling in your home and spoiling its good chi.
Two vehicles ahead, a motorcyclist and a bus driver were locking horns. The driver stopped short of spitting on the motorcyclist from his tall seat. After ample ‘enquiries’ about each other’s families (mothers in particular), both passed verdicts on each other. The driver cursed that the motorcyclist’s head be caught under a bus on his way home while the latter, a little more creative in his sentence retorted, “Your testicles are going to swell and explode today.”
To my right was a school van, bursting with children’s chatter. The driver uselessly honked every few seconds. Then I realised the honking was not for the road but for the kids inside. Each time he honked the children ceased their noise briefly. I was mulling over buying a similar “shut up” horn to use on my family, when the driver honked all too loudly and irritatingly. I stuck my head out and yelled, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“Horn formation, Madam,” he proudly replied in English. You of course cannot be angry with anyone who comes up with an answer like that. Lightening my mood further was a lorry with multiple messages in its rear. “Smile OK please,” “Don’t kiss me,” etc. And amidst these messages was a mysterious black box that said “Main Valvu Boxu” in equally mysterious English.
To my left was a huge car with a lone chauffeur in no big hurry to go anywhere. He was picking his nose contentedly. I was desperate to know where he smeared his rich nose produce inside the Rs 25 lakh car. On the seat where his expensively dressed mistress sat? Or on the mat where the car owner’s kids might often drop a biscuit and pick it back to eat it? For a moment our eyes met and the chauffeur looked embarrassed. But as I pretended to turn away he
returned to his gold digging.
After few minutes of watching him, my facial orifices also began to itch. I wanted to pick something urgently. I couldn’t bear to pick my nose or teeth in public. My ears! But sadly like a mismatched adapter my little finger couldn’t penetrate my ears beyond a centimetre. My inner ears were begging to be prodded. On a sudden brainwave I removed the car key from the ignition and gently scratched my inner ears (eyes closed) with the key.
How can I describe that moment of satori to you? When I opened my eyes, the nose-picking driver was laughing at me. I smiled back sweetly. We had become kindred souls in a traffic jam.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dare devilry on a fire spitting beast

Get your butt on that cycle,” I told myself. It was 9.30 in the night and I had just finished a lousy day of making lemonades, lemon pickles and even lime rice for life had only lemons to hand me for the day. I was cranky, tired and irritable. In short, it was the perfect time to be out on a cycle. I knew that within ten minutes of pumping those pedals, good mood would rush back to me as surely as the blood that gushes to my face when I cycle.
It all began when my husband and I found some exquisite cycling trails in Pondicherry. Apart from the sheer pleasure of cycling, we found that we had walked (well, cycled) side by side for more than sixty minutes and we had not quarrelled once.
“This is an incredible invention,” said my husband.

“The cycle has been around since the 19th century,” I said dryly.
“No, I mean the fact that we don’t quarrel when we cycle,” he said.
“That would be a discovery and not an invention, Palooka.” I said and a quarrel broke out promptly.
Yet once back neither of us could forget the immense joy cycling had given us. When you cycle, the landscape does not whiz past you in a blur as it does while in a car or a train. When you cycle, you become aware of those limbs of yours that you have long used and soaped unconsciously and never acknowledged. The dull joint aches and the pungent sweat of your armpit make you feel strangely present to yourself. Cycling slows down life and makes your own body visible to you.
“Have you wondered how crazy we are? We have two cars, two motorcycles and we want to buya cycle after all this?” my husband asked.
“Let me see, that makes it totally 12 wheels in our house and any surprise we look like their tyres?” I asked.
My exquisite logic and its expressi­on won the argument.
We bought a cycle, a unisex that both man and wife could use. My (okay our!) cycle is red in colour. It is done up in red and silver in fact. It is sporty, macho and its curious handlebars make it seem like a buffalo with huge horns. When I ride it I like to think I look like Lord Yama on his buffalo. Gives me a sense of power, a daredevilry and all those racy feelings that a motorcycle is so wont to give and a cycle is not.
Yet life is mostly lived in our imagination and so my cycle is indeed this powerful fire-spitting, smoke-exhaling beast that I tame each time I get on it.
After I finished my round on my buffalo, I egged my husband to take it to work.
“What?? Of all the….”
“You will set a good corporate example. This will emblematise your corporate cost cutting exercise. You will be a paradigm of survivorship in times of recession,” I perorated.
“Good idea. So can you drop me by cycle in car? Or should I cycle to work by car?” He asked. “You don’t understand anything that does not come via a PPT (powerpoint presentation) or your bluetooth, do you?” I asked.
“Recycle that. I mean come again?” he asked and I asked him to stop being a bull and doggedly argued until he chickened in fright and acceded to ride the buffalo to work.
As usual, my exquisite (animal) logic and its expression won the argument. My husband has been cycling to work at least three times a week ever since and he does no less than 45 km in a week.
He says all that pumping makes him mentally alert by the time he reaches office and when he returns home all his bad chi has already been worked off and there really is no need to start an argument or throw a fit to release tension. We really are quarrelling less these days.
That night, as I climbed on my bovine vahana, my son called out.
“Here, wear this orange hood jacket of mine. You will look sporty,” said my son.
“But it will conceal my attractiveness?” I complained.
“Er…yeah. Safer, don’t you think? Given the late hour, I mean,” added my husband.
So if you see a lady late in the night in an orange hood (to hide her attractiveness), sett­ing the roads on fire, exhibiting hitherto unmatched daredevilry on a bike that resembles a buffalo, know that it’s me.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Cow is so good it can give milk in packets

In a recent interaction with six-year-old children, I asked them to write a short description of any animal of their choice. I gave them a structure for the essay — namely the first line should describe their chosen animal in such specific manner that the readers should be left in no doubt, the second few lines should detail the use/danger of the animal to humans and the last line can be used to express their personal opinion of the animal.
I usually use this exercise to gauge how “schooled and boxed in” the children are and based on this I decide at what level I should begin my writing workshop with them. But it emerged that this particular group was full of poets. For the sake of my readers, I have remedied the children’s sentences and spellings a bit, but the import is intact. Read on:
A boy who chose to write on cow said in his first sentence (describing the animal in specific manner), “A cow is a cow. Not a goat.”  ”Going on to the second paragraph, he explained, “Many animals have milk, but a cow is so good that it can give milks even in packets” and his last line said it all, “I love a cow. It is so useful I know its spelling.”
Another child enthralled me with her version of the lion. Her first line read — “Lines are fat and hairy.” Second paragraph — “Lions run after non-veg items like chicken, egg, mutt­on, beef. We cannot be friends with lion as we are also non-veg item.” And finally, “Lions are useful to us in cinemas.
Then came the dog. “Do I like my dog or my sister? My sister fights with me. My dog only bites me. I bathe in Dettol, my dog also. My sister’s name is Minu. My dog’s name is Joker. I feel sad because they make fun of my dog. He is not joker, but my sister is mean. I hate my sister. I love my dog. He is useful. Sister is dangerous.”
Yet another child wrote about the owl. “Owl is living in villages or forests, inside a tree hole. They are so wise that crow, sparrow and everyone go to Owl for wisdom. An owl sleeps in the day. But I cannot. I come to school in the day. Also I live in city. So I don’t know anything about owl. So bye-bye.”
Next came the snake. “Ssssssssssssssssssssss­ssssss, a snake shouts like this. When we say ssssssssssssssssssssssssss it means keep quiet. Teachers shout like snake. Snakes dance very well. For annual day we did snake dance. A snake is useful in school programmes.”
There was one on Hippos too. “Hippo has large hips. They live in Discovery TV. I have a hippo soapbox. If hippo and elephant fight, who will win? I am very sorry; I don’t know any use of Hippo.”
And I particularly love the one on elephants. “Elephant is big, black and very strong. From far they look like black clouds. They wear bells to warn us. Their anklets are so big we use them as chains. Elephant is the national animal of the world.”
There were many other lovely entries about the rabbit, peacock, monkey and even fish. The children eventually created some beautiful
poetry with me which I shall share with my readers in another column.
The children employed such exquisite
expressions, boldness and revealed such
expanse of heart and mind that I regretted my adulthood, which seems to stand in my way of writing good poetry. What more can I say? I only hope that the children’s “schooling does not interfere with their education” and I can only hope that these children remain the poets they so easily are!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wash if you are Indian. Wipe if you are not.

One of the easiest ways to heckle or ignite an NRI, I found was to ask in the midst of a genial conversation, “Wash or wipe?” The context is unmistakable and the question goes home immediately. We all know that paper or water in the toilet is no yardstick to measure degree of patriotism but it very well could be going by my NRI friends’ discomfiture.
Looks like the conversion to a western way of life, begins with the unruly Indian tongue massaging its “r”s into doughy “zh”s and ends with the bottom demanding paper over water. And between the tongue and the bottom, there lies a long drawn process of cultural adjustment and appropriation and between wash and wipe there hovers a great continental shift in world view. However to do our Indian brothers and sisters fair, let me put it on record that they indeed held on to the water by their bottoms as long as they could before they began to need more than the daily newspaper to accompany them into the bathroom. Their transition from wash to wipe school of thought (and action) had been anything but easy for them as the article will indicate.

Starting with better adjusted candidates- Vinu Warrier from Canada insisted that the “wash or wipe dilemma is the most under mentioned problem of Diaspora”. Living abroad for past two decades he proudly asserts his dual citizenship by first wiping with paper and later washing at his tub. (Thanks for telling. When I visit you I shan’t roll in your tub.) An uncle of mine admitted that he washes in India and wipes in America. (That must be one long journey for so poor a cause!). Sathya in Australia said he wets the paper with water and uses them as wet wipes (eligible candidate for dual citizenship).

Moving on to difficult customers who wouldn’t answer the question without first berating the Indian toilet - Raghavan s(h)itting pretty in Boston delivered a stinging monologue on the state of the Indian loos before he condescended to answer the question “Wash or wipe?”
Raghavan’s erudite electricity* (bottom’s name changed to protect identity) prefers paper over water and has arrived at the choice after smelly introspection. “With the western loo,” he boomed, “you have to deal with your own ass being a little less than squeaky clean after a trip. With the Indian style loo, you are frequently wondering what exactly you are stepping on when you enter. Sometimes you are left with no doubt, thanks to the clues on the floor left behind by the previous occupant. So, given the choice between having a little of my own produce on my ass and having other people's produce on my feet (and possibly hands), I choose the former, as any rational human being would. So that resolves it, right? I wipe now. I wipe. So what??” (The hysteria was moving, really).

Pavithra in London (here I mean the great city London and not the loo which many of us Indians still call ‘London’) discussed the “yuck factor” of Indian toilets before answering the question. “Despite all the new found economic prosperity of India, we seem quite reluctant to give up our rusty iron bucket in the loo that was bequeathed to us by our grandmothers. Sometimes the rusty bucket would spring a leak at the bottom, at which time, some bright guy in the household would come up with the idea of lining the old heirloom with a coat of cement at the bottom so that the bucket may survive another generation, not to mention that it now holds less water and weighs an extra kilogram. Also, you are sure that the previous visitor, after finishing his business picked up the bucket with his unwashed hands and put it back in place under the dripping tap. I hate Indian loos. Paper is definitely cleaner, drier and undeniably better.” She concluded.

Rumi who had in one of MTVs’ programs seen among other hot hangout spots in Asia, also pictures of the Asian loo, complete with arrows and drawings detailing how to squat and do business, was very excited on her first trip to India. Sufficiently briefed about Indian toilet practices, Rumi had just one Punjabi meal in an uppity restaurant before declaring, “I now know why Indians use water in their toilet.” When the fire in her tongue subsided she couldn’t stop raving about a new contraption she found in the bathroom, which apparently was not available when her parents were still Indians. “The mini shower hose is a riot. I heard it is a new addition to the toilet accessory to ensure dry bathroom floor.” She said before adding, “My aunt visiting from the village sort of missed the whole point. She dethroned from the western closet, squatted on the floor and got her aim wrong and ended up spraying her tummy or face before she finally figured it out. Paper is most definitely uncomplicated,” Rumi couldn’t stop laughing.
The question “Wash or wipe?” indeed seems a dipstick study on where the NRI stands vis-à-vis his country and its way of life. Among many things like cleaner environment, potable tap water and wider roads, what keeps our Indians comfortably abroad is….believe it or not is the state of the Indian loos. What our friends do in their bathrooms abroad is their business, but you know you have lost yet another wet Indian to the dry west when they start needing toilet paper even when they are visiting home. The toilet paper I am afraid is no ordinary tissue- it is the final cord that permanently binds our brethren to the alien land, a string that severes the umbilical cord with their homeland, a rope that draws our brothers out of the Indian amniotic waters. But be assured the Sons of Indian soil began to wipe their spoils only after sufficient turmoil! (Sorry about the melodrama-heh heh!)

Raghavan at Boston who briefly returned to his original semi-hysteric self wistfully shared his dreams of a toilet that would go beyond the narrow continental boundaries and address the true need of the customer. “The Japanese- these innovative people really have it all figured out - the spray and dryer are built into the loo and there is a panel of buttons on the side. So after you are done, you push button number one and lo and behold a spray of water comes up and cleans you even as you stay seated. And then one more button to blow dry it all out. Usually there are four buttons on the panel - I am not sure what the other two do, probably powder and pat. I really think the Japanese have it figured out - they are truly ahead of the pack in this technology, I think. Sometimes as I sit on my own humble loo with just a roll of paper on the side, I dream about a day when every loo will spray, dry, powder and fondly pat each ass that comes its way.”
Now we know what lies in the bottom of the Non Resident Indian’s heart or should we say in the heart of the Non Resident Indian’s bottom?

*******

* "Wash or wipe" is my very first article for Loony Life column in The New Indian Express




Saturday, February 20, 2010

Between the two

Yudhistira has logic
So does Manu
Sadly I don’t understand them
and that comes in my way of

blissful marriage and easy copulation
1+1=2 cannot be more complicated.

In the marriage firmament
I often wish to be a star
like Arundati
Whom or which I pretended to spot
standing on a piece of rock
“May your chastity be like rock”
The priest murmured.
And of course I rock.

15 years post standing on brimstone
Yudhistira and Manu - persistent men
keep coming (in) my way.
One trades wife and other sells locks
to women.
But I am not women.
I am single and singular
That also comes in my way of

Blissful marriage and easy copulation
1-1=0. That is also complicated.

As I float aimlessly in the corridors
of well swept institutions
I spy the two men
Yudhistira and Manu
photocopying themselves assiduously
and releasing flyers into air for quick pollination.

They pause. They even smile nicely at me.
Yudhistira binds my wild locks.
He hates them. It reminds him of many things.
“Choose between us.
Him or Me”, says Manu gently
and
calls in my son to take me home.
“It is either him or me. There is no third kind,”
adds Yudhistira.

Between the two
I hug Yudhistira.
The chief architect of trade-offs.
He will understand my request-surely?
“If the seeds are all the same,
then may I have four more men
and rotate them like crops?”
I ask.

****

Published in Unisun's "Mosaic" anthology of poems

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kali

Tell me a secret, any secret.
Maybe on how
you live in dark marshy woods
and yet keep your feet spotless white
or
how you squeeze the serpents like washed clothes
till they spew the truth.

Can you reveal
how you wear a dress
tied only at the neck, hemmed with lemon beads
that I suspect to be living worlds
or how you keep the tongue
red hot all year round.


Kali
tell me how you carry
men’s torn heads like vanity
and use their prying arms
as leaves for your skirt

or
pray divulge why you should be
all black and blue
when you have no pending dowry to be paid
nor a man to maintain
and especially when you have a tiger of a pet?

Let drip just one coveted secret
from those luscious breasts of yours
that I can lap up to instantly become your sakhi,
something to stand me apart from your mother,
sisters, denouncers, devotees...


Kali, tell me a secret, any secret,
for how else can you love me differently?

******

Published in Unisun's poetry anthology "I, me, myself."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From an office window

Have you watched a crow
polish off a rat?
I did.
Yesterday.

Well.
The juicy entrails long
winding and twisted
into gossip go first.

The rat’s innards flow.
First fluently.
Then
h a l t i n g l y
in small talks.

Coming to the heart of the matter.
The nervy crow
picks up an arterial thread
from a criss-cross
of thoughts and treads across
meatydetailssilentspacesfatsunshedandsuddenly
jerks up
………………..
to nibble on a memory.

Elsewhere
two clock hands
come together
in a beak closing
to devour time
memories
conversations.

Then comes the kidney.
But much water has already flown.
What use is a dead rat?
Or so I thought.

The glutton picks the bones clean.
Slowly, surely, leisurely.
Every peck, a jab at time.

The crow relishes the memory
of the rat that once was
and I remember our
old conversations.

****

Published in Unisun's poetry anthology Peacock's cry