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 na├»ve, 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.