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.
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.
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.
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.”
Jaya Madhavan is a poet, an award winning children’s novelist, comic strip writer and lately an illustrator too. Her first book for children "Sita and the Forest Bandits" won the first prize in the Children Book Trust’s All India Competition for Writers of Children’s Books (2001). Her second book for young adults "Kabir the weaver poet" is a research backed novel published by Tulika, Chennai. Her short stories and poems for adults have been published in Unisun’s anthologies and in the South Asian Literary journal. Her passion includes traveling, visiting temples of antiquity and singing. The articles you see here are from the weekly column called "Loony Life" she wrote for the The New Indian Express. Jaya's Antidep comic strip (created alongwith her sister Bindhumalini) was published in The New Indian Express's Saturday Zeitgeist feature. Jaya is currently working on her third novel and is a certified Yoga instructor. She resides in Chennai with her musician husband and two children.
She is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org