Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A taste of his own medicine

Mannan was totally besotted with the extraordinary instrument called the telephone that had arrived, bright and black, in neighbour Achari Mama’s household. Instead of posting letters and replying to replies, one could just pick up the phone and talk to the desired person! “Whatte invention!” If only he could speak to some girl on the telephone and impress her.

Speaking of girls, Geetharani had also got a new phone in her house. He had spied her giving her phone number to all and sundry. How Geetharani flaunted her newfound “telephone-ness”. For no reason she swirled her hand in circles in the air, as if she was dialling someone. When someone asked her if the next period was going to be Geography, she replied, “Sorry, wrong number.” She even wrote in the “My ambition is to…” essay that she dreamed of becoming a telephone operator. Her telephone obsession had percolated to that extent.

If only Mannan had a telephone he would also flick the phone off its receiver stylishly like Rajinikanth and speak into it in English like Kamal Haasan.

“Phone calls are expensive and cost 50p per call,” dissuaded grandmother Sitamma.

“But I want to know what it feels like to talk through a machine. Please-please-please,” begged Mannan to no avail.

“You can call Police, Fire and Ambulance for free,” suggested Jana kindly.

“But I wish to call Geetharani,” persisted Mannan.

“To say ‘I love you’ to her?” asked Jana mischievously.

“Thoo! I want to say something like ‘Your hair is on fire, want me to call the fire engine?’ Or ‘Please take a bath, you stink through the telephone’…,” Mannan smirked.

“Hahahahhahahhahahaha!” laughed Jana.

“Idea! I can receive a call, can’t I? That won’t cost anything, no?” exclaimed Mannan.

Brother and sister immediately put their heads together and wrote an anonymous note to Geetharani with their left hand (one sentence each to cover up the crime). The note read, “I have a famous job for your sweet telephone voice. Call 321342 at 3 pm.” Mannan left the note inside her lunch bag and waited with Jana by the neighbour’s phone at 3 pm (that was Achari Mama’s sleeping time).

Sure enough the telephone rang.

“Hello?” Mannan answered in a gruff voice.

“Please take a bath, you stink through the telephone,” said the voice from the other side. “Eh?” Mannan started.

“Your hair is on fire, shall I call the fire engine?” the voice continued and Mannan nearly collapsed. “It is Geetharani, but she is using all MY dialogues,” blubbered Mannan.

“I only told her,” confessed Jana.

“But why?” screamed Mannan putting down

the phone.

“WHY? You know why? We both cleverly wrote the note to her with our left hand. Do you know we also signed it? Geetharani threatened to complain to the Principal if I didn’t spill our plan,” Jana cried when the phone rang again.

Mannan answered again, first with a frown, then with a smile, then laughter.

Conversation ended.

“It was Geetharani. She wants to be my friend. She liked our prank,” smiled Mannan who had after all impressed a girl via the telephone.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Between Dusters and Rubbers

“I urgently have to take revenge on Chandru,” Lal wept to Jana.

“Which Chandru?” Jana asked indifferently though she knew pretty well that it was the Chandru who owned the stationery shop at the gooseberry street corner. His garish billboard “Chandru arts ‘n’ inks” written in five gaudy colors not only made his shop the most popular landmark around the area but his manner of introducing himself to the customers — “Hello, I am the Chandru in ‘Chandru arts ‘n’ inks store’ — (especially) in English made him the most enviable personality in the neighbourhood. Everyone admired his ingenuity in naming an ordinary pen-pencil-paper-paint shop an “arts and inks” store.

So Lal wanted revenge on Chandru who was world famous in gooseberry street! Hmm!

“But what did he do?” interrupted Jana when Lal began to explain who Chandru was.

“He squealed on me to our Math teacher,” cried Lal.

“Are you or are you not a Math teacher rubber?” demanded Jana.

“Of course I am not. Shameless occupation,” spat Lal.

At school there were two kinds of students — dusters and rubbers. Dusters were students whom the Math teacher literally reduced to dust with his caning because they were too upright and honest to be apple shiners. Rubbers were students who rubbed and rubbed the Math teacher with oily smiles and unabashed flattery till he shone with a good mood.

“That man will put a tick even if the rubbers wrote 3x1=5” observed Jana.

“I went to buy two pencils from Chandru’s store. He said if I bought three pencils, he would give me a rubber free. I replied that rubbers were for weak students and not for 10 out of 10 candidates like me,” narrated Lal.

“Maha lie,” thought Jana.

“Additionally I asked him to make this free-rubber offer to our Maths teacher who was constantly in need of rubbers and also explained the duster-rubber concept to him. He laughed with me but later squealed to Math teacher when he came there for some red ink. That man peeled the skin off my palm with his cane,” sobbed Lal displaying his hands. Indeed they were red and bleeding like a peeled beetroot.

“He was angrier because I had described myself as a 10 out of 10 student”.

“Understandable,” thought Jana but added, “For all the business we give him, Chandru dares to squeal on one of us eh? Hmm, do we have a ladder and black paint?” Jana asked thinking quickly.

“I have very little black paint. Just enough to write three letters in capitals or so,” said Lal wiping his tears.

“Perfect! I think I can arrange a ladder. Meet me after midnight by the gooseberry tree. We have a lesson to teach,” said Jana slyly.

The next morning the entire neighbourhood, almost 100-200 people were assembled in front of Chandru’s shop and there was uproarious laughter. Even vehicles and passersby paused by the shop to laugh aloud — for added to Chandru’s bright beautiful billboard in bold black were three additional letters f, s and t which now made the store’s name read “Chandru Farts ‘n’ STinks”.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Power of Spit

“Never underestimate the power of spit,” declared Mannan sitting in his Durbar atop the gooseberry tree branches. His courtiers Appu, Lal and Jana past masters themselves in licking slates, plates, looking glasses etc to blinding brilliance with spit still listened to Mannan (literally meaning king) respectfully — for who would dare interrupt the biggest brother on street while he discoursed on things big and small and life essentials such as spit?

What the king didn’t know was that his saliva-speech was spittingly relevant from where he delivered it — for the gooseberry tree itself was born after Sitamma (Mannan’s grandmother) carelessly spat some gooseberry seeds from the terrace while drying clothes. Before long, the seed had taken root, shot out and become this big, beautiful and benevolent tree giving shelter to birds, insects and noisome kids alike. If there was a spitting match, surely Sitamma would win hands down, for our spits could only wet, but hers could grow a tree!

“Our saliva has great cleaning and healing properties,” Mannan stated and immediately Jana spat into her hands and began applying saliva over her eye sty which had erupted owing to too much fun under the afternoon sun. Red and round the sty looked like a red chilli ready to be tossed in oil. It sure burnt like one.

“Poor Jana, do you need our spit too?” Appu and Lal, the next door siblings asked generously.

“Aw! Just shut up and keep your precious saliva inside your own mouths,” snapped Jana, who sighed “sssss”, “ssss” in relief each time her saliva-brushed finger caressed the sty. “Maybe you should apply spit to your name also, Jana. You never did get out of the hurt of having a boy’s name,” laughed Lal, much to Mannan’s indignation, for Jana though incorrigible was his dear little sister. “Jana is not short form for Janardhanan. It is short for Jana Bhai,” explained Mannan.

“Hahhahahahhahahahahahahaha! See? The name itself says she is a boy. Jana Bhai, Jana Boy, Jana Bhai, Jana Boy,” Appu and Lal cracked up laughing, when Mannan dived off his high throne and landed WHAM on both the puny creatures.

Usually Jana would have creamed those boys herself, but the cool feel of her spit was so alluring that she not only passed up the fight but also proceeded to smear saliva on her other normal eye as “preventive measure”.

“Stop, stop, please stop. We will both give you 25 np each if you stop pounding us,” Appu and Lal pleaded and instantly Mannan hoisted a white flag, declared amnesty and continued—

“Yesterday our neighbour Achari mama gave me a full 50 np because I cleaned his board to sparkling cleanliness. Mama simply couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the board looking all new and bright. My secret cleaning agent? It’s spit! I spat all over the board and cleaned it superbly,” gloated Mannan.

“Which board are you talking about?” asked his courtiers.

“The one that he hangs on his front fence? The one that says, “Do not spit here and make nuisance”. That’s the board I cleaned.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

My house has perfect Feng Shoe

"First we build walls to bring space in. Then we go to live within that circumspection. We are so inspired by that limitedness (which we call a house) that we even don't mind paying the mortgage for the rest of our lives. In order to convert brick and mortar into "love and beauty" or in other words to transform a house into a "home", we bring things in...lots and lots of things till the place looks either like a museum or a junkyard (depending on the housekeeper's sensibilities). Circumscribed, limited and bound, we lead lives thinking this assembly of walls and stuff around is security, home and life. What a rat's life", so on and so forth, I rant
as I continue to move my chair towards cleanliness and thereby godliness. Will someone tell me how I managed to gather so many things around me? I feel like the sum total of things I (we) have accumulated over the years and I am including my children also in this feeling of "accumulatedness". I keep remembering this famous line from Silsila, "hum yahan kaise aa gaye?" "How did we arrive here?"
There is a small 3x3 foyer ahead of the main door and believe me....its four days since I attacked that space and I am still not done. 39 pairs of unusable shoes and slippers, 19 pairs of carefully folded and completely mismatched socks, 8 vials of shoe polish dried beyond Sahara, a tangle of shoe laces, two packets of rice powder (!), clippings of my column (rightly housed next to slippers), three tool boxes (bought afresh each time because we didn't know it was here in this shelf), two pairs of expensive skating shoes (again bought twice because GPS to them wasn't available), two gaudy flower vases which we possibly kept for sentiment reasons but well hidden and forgotten in that shelf and some God pictures (!!!). All this stuffed into two shelves and the space above the upper shelf. I am not done sorting it yet. How, how, how at all did we arrive at this very Feng Shoe place in life? And now I remember the milk woman's complaint about having to place the milk packets right over a pile of shoes (predictably gathered) on the doormat. The pile was there because there was no space in the shelf and also in the morning I didn't have to bend down to retrieve the packets. I could just open the door and pick the packets on the pile from arm level. So convenient, so back buddyish and just sho(e) lovely.
So now things to do-
a) I have to dispose all these shoes, which I have now moved into my car's boot. I have to either donate or avail that discount which a local shoe store gives for old shoes when you buy new ones there. "Fling shoe for that perfect Feng Shui". How does that sound for a byline ;) eh? Or should I say "Boot the boots from the car's boot"- is that too much to boot?
b) Buy a milk box and place it on the grill so that my coffee does not smell like Bata showroom.
c) Remember not to use that rice powder in my dosa.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rome may not be built in a day, but it can be unbuilt in hours

The Wah-Wahs
Can you believe this? I actually sold the cot, found a safe and loving home for the two spool players and even gave the ailing tambura for repair. All this in a day. And very very coincidentally Pattu (a vegetable vendor from my childhood days) turned up at my doorstep and I have harnessed her to help me sort and fold the clothes. This will happen today. :)) I hope to give the DVD player for repair too.

The Bah
I returned from giving one of the three tamburas for repair and sat down to tune the other two, which had all their strings intact. Very respectfully I lay the orange instrument on the mat and turned the knob ever so gently when PING, the string snapped. When I inspected the other black tambura looked like it needed an entire change of strings too... :(
Aarrgh! Why didn't I check out before I made that long trip to the music shop?

The Aah!

Is this a worthwhile exercise? Must I spend so much time on something which is going to curl back to its primordial state before I can say Semmangudi Srinivasier? Can a house ever attain that alpha state of peacefulness and orderliness? Must I invest energies here when characters in my book are fleeing and running amuck?
:) I should be asking these questions, but I am not and I am not going to. Scepticism is boring and experimentation always exciting. I am liking this process :) Very healing, very cleansing and very very energising.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What you don't need, don't keep. What you need, keep it well.

I look around me, I look around my house and the truth hits a home run. The truth is that I am keeping things I don't need and what I need I am not keeping well. The truth is simple and hence simply true too, if you know what I mean. I took stock of just one room, which has a largish bed, three tamburas, an ektar, one wardrobe (tucked behind a door), a couch and the TV. All three tamburas are out of tune, one has few strings less, the poor ektar shorn of its only tar (string) resembles a spittoon, the couch smells of coffee and beer farts, the bed completely broken on one side is bolstered with two months' collection of newspapers and a door from the broken toy rack (which is in another room so we won't count it in here), the TV rack has three remotes for the same TV (to play sha-boo-three before picking the correct remote), my wardrobe is spilling clothes from another era where 60 kgs was your entire body mass and not the one-foot-on-weighing-scale-minus-jeans-weight reading. Atop the wardrobe is an old spool player which my husband worked to its bones during his music restoration crazy days. I particularly want to see it go as I believe music from that machine has permanently injured my cochlea and the vestibular system. In other words, I can't hear well or comprehend well, thanks to that 40x40" machine. (Others wanting an excuse for their imbalances are welcome to rent/hire or buy that machine off us). The curtain painfully pale on the sunny side of the window is buttoned to the grill and not hanging from a rod like a respectable curtain. There are two dozen cords and wires rising like creepers on the wall to activate a home theatre and a DVD player that last worked when Titanic was the film of the year. All this usable-yet-unusable stuff in just one room, which we call a "low maintenance" room. Phew! I can't venture, even mentally into the kitchen, the store room, the lofts and god save me, the children's room. And I am not even going one light year close to taking stock of relationships. I am Ekalavyan sure that, in that department too I am keeping lot of things I don't need and those I need I am not keeping well. I think for the first time I have to grant it to my husband who has always claimed and warned that my irreverent, devil-may-care approach (aka "maire pochu" attitude) to people, career, relationships, money, material possessions and just about everything will come back to bite my bum one day and that it would be one hell of a Shylock bite costing me a big valuable pound of flesh close to the heart. As things look, I think only Captain Jack Sparrow will approve of me. What's there?
So here is what I am going to do. One room at a time, I am going to clean out, set right, take stock and bring to order. I really, really, really am going to ruthlessly throw things I don't need and I am making a promise that what I need, I shall keep well and in circulation. First thing first, a) I am going to set the tamburas to tune. Next, repair or give away the ektar. Find a home for the spool player. So music thingies are taken care of.
b) I think I want to sell the bed. Its a 7x8 bed with a good mattress.
c) My clothes.....friends and cousins are welcome to take what they want. But I don't know anyone else who dresses or wants to dress like me.
If any of you want any of my stuff (bed, spool players, whatever else of the above mentioned) do let me know.
I hope to finish this room eventually and systematically address other rooms in the house. Readers, friends and foes, wish me luck. Egg me on. Keep in touch. Hold my hand while I do this. I call it the day of reckoning. I really feel that I have been unavailable to my house at a "matter" level. My knowledge of physics says that matter and energy are the same. So when we shuffle, rearrange and refresh matter around us, we energize our environment.
Be with me as I do this. I will come back to tell you of my progress, my dilemmas and above all the healing which I hope this exercise would give me.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Of rainy days and stupid family feuds

I wonder at life and how maximum scope for confusion and chaos is embedded in minimum intentions (not even actions). It was raining and gloomy and generally the 13-odd gathered family members were convinced that only hot jilebis would make them stop feeling like rats in a Chennai sewer on a rainy day.

“No. Not jilebis. Let us have pakoras and hot tea,” some young voice objected.

“Adenna pakora? (What pakora?) As if you are a North Indian! Say pakoda. And why tea? We will all have coffee only,” snapped Jagga (who had never adjusted to his name Gajendran being shortened to Gajja and eventually

reversed into Jagga. “Kollywood henchman name,” he often bemoaned.)

“What is your problem in life? Pakora or pakoda, it all tastes the same, doesn’t it?”

offered Kishmu.

“Hey! You Kishmu, don’t talk okay? I know why you are interested in pakora. You are trying to catch that block 6 Neena Thadani’s attention. Till yesterday you were saying

pakoda and now suddenly it has become pakora for you, eh?” shouted Jagga.

“Hello, hello! Jagga, stop this. You can’t randomly talk about Kishmu this way. You know how well he paints?” intervened Kishmu’s mother making us all stop for a full minute to wonder and exchange glances on what on earth the connection was!

“Hahahaha,” laughed Nattu, Jagga’s son. “This reminds me of the nouveau riche Iswari aunty. I bumped into her the other day and asked “How are you?” and she replies, “Oh! I removed my jewels just now,” Hahaha! What is the connection?”

“Chee! Why do you speak to the likes of Iswari? Do you know how they became rich? Her husband… forget it. For the wrongs they commit, their daughter should elope with the neighbour’s car driver or some such random guy and hurt their feelings,” snapped Kishmu’s mother.

“Your own son is ready to elope with Neena Thadani… can’t you see how he is calling a pakoda, pakora?” Jagga snapped.

“Kishmu, what the hell is all this? Who is this Neena Thadani girl? Her very name sounds like she has thunder thighs,” Kishmu’s mother boomed at him, sounding a bit like thunder herself.

“Will you people shut up? I met her just once to give her sister Reena Thadani a letter from our Nattu,” protested Kishmu.

“Hear, hear, hear,” clapped the other 10.

“Stupid. Why didn’t you just use email?” snapped Kishmu at Nattu on the aside.

“What the hell? My son is sending letters to some pakora family?” rose Jagga who was now really beginning to look like a Kollywood henchman.

“Peace, peace can we now decide if we are making jilebi or pakora… er sorry pakoda?” my mother the ever affable peacemaker tried to find a footing.

“No, no, let this be. We are already feeling light and much better,” said the remaining 10 members, applauding and encouraging the mindless fight.

“Kishmu and Nattu, come here. What is happening now? Who are these girls?” both parents of the delinquents demanded.

“Ayyo Appa, I said pakoda, didn’t I? Not pakora like Kishmu, did I? Isn’t that proof enough that I have no feelings for Reena, pleaded Nattu.

“Why the hell are YOU saying pakora then? You love Neena, eh?” Kishmu’s mother turned upon her son.

“Ayyo please, she offered to model for my painting free and in return I offered to make a portrait of her without any pimples,” explained Kishmu.

“See?” said Kishmu’s mother, proudly turning to the group feeling completely vindicated and relieved.

“So dumb! He is just reeling something from a pink face cream advertisement of a chap painting pimple-less faces. Beware eh? In the advertisement, the painter finally draws a ring on the girl’s finger…” the mischief-makers threw in their bit.

A huge fight had erupted when thankfully the doorbell rang and everyone (momentarily) sat back like good little children. It was the local confectioner.

“Pakoras and jilebis, for anyone here?” He called affably.

And that’s when the shit hit the fan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As light wanes, the heart searches for love

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 colour black — the hue of absorption, mystery, seduction and death. As I look up at the fickle moon bobbing like a ball in the dark November sky with stars flitting around like fireflies I wonder which ignoramus labelled 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 hypothesised 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 your self.

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 “breakfast” at 6 pm but also “lunch” 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 government quarters 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 the light but fearfully anticipates the sunset as that would mean he is left in the 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 materialise to sing their nightly songs, Adam discovers life in the dark and falls in love with night too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A sucker of blood Vs the monger of fear

I still can’t decide whether my vote for the-most-obnoxious-God-made-creature should go to the cockroach or the mosquito. Indeed as creations go, they may actually make me look good in comparison, but that is still no excuse to be so loathsome. One sucks blood for a living while the other distributes free scares and screams.

Look at the cockroach. It seems like God was halfway through making a brown six wheeled limousine when some jerk from earth SOSed him for an adrenalin hike and God immediately minimised the limousine and sent it down to the jerk’s kitchen to make the floor under him a trampoline.

“Well, your adrenalin is up now!” laughed God and when Mrs God got curious he simply replied, “Honey I shrunk the limo I meant to give you for our anniversary,” and Mrs God sensing the sarcasm immediately sent out an addendum that the “limousine” would be anything but exclusive and should remain the cheapest thing made by God (because it was made for the wife) and it would always make every wife pause and contemplate, broom-in-hand, about what kind of life she is leading with her husband. The wife feels maximum hatred when these creatures suddenly fly thereby demolishing all logical and lateral correlations she had previously made between flying and liberation.

When I see a cockroach fly, I feel it is some neglected stooge of Satan with a flying license that lapses every five seconds. Yet, cockroaches, poor creatures are still very kitchen things who take the brunt of your hatred for your husband for putting you in the kitchen in the first place. They even inspired me to attempt a comic strip titled Roach and Encroach involving highly philosophical (hence funny) debates between a cockroach and a pesticide called ‘encroach’.

But the mosquitoes, their very name evocative of sting operations and war aircrafts, invade your bedrooms, prick, draw blood (like marital arguments), make you lunge for things with names such as nets, repellents, coils and N N-diethyl meta-toluamide potions. What are we doing here, warfare or what? But the recent “bat” which is a kind of an “electric chair” for the mosquitoes, which I call Vettayadu Vilayadu (“hunt and play”), after the Tamil film has actually taken insect-killing to the level of pleasurable sport!

If the cockroach transforms you into an encounter specialist-cum-sadist, the mosquito makes you feel like a pincushion-cum-masochist each time it stings. You slap yourself all over your body to catch the elusive winged thief and on that rare occasion when you manage to smash the insect against your flesh, you feel a remorse that is quickly expunged when you justify that the blood shed is your own, after all.

Between the cockroach and the mosquito I vacillate between the oppressor and the oppressed. Both feelings are pejorative. The two creatures are icons of people in real life who bring out the perpetrator and the victim in me. The symbolism is hardly flattering but it largely explains my hatred for these two creatures. What do you make of creatures which make you want to kill them at first sight? And what does it tell of you?

I hate those creatures precisely because they highlight the fact that I have these

reserves of hatred in me, which prompts me to even kill, if provoked sufficiently! And the murderous rage that I build up while I kill a cockroach is terrifying. My heart pounds, my eyes roll, I breathe with my mouth and with broom in hand I am a picture of Kali.

Indeed! Kali is the true pictorial representation of a goddess after a bloody kill and not the sweet smiling goddesses wielding unsullied weapons like ornaments. Try smiling with a golden crown above you and a lotus below after a kill, albeit the slain being a roach or a mosquito!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Breathless at an Indian wedding

I love the colourful chaos that blooms from source to periphery like a ripple in a house preparing for a big fat Indian wedding. My sister got married recently. Five days before the marriage, an incredible fun and activity continuum sprang into action with rooms full of people going gekka-bekka-gekka-bekka with gossip and laughter, with corridors wafting the ‘sweatyscenty’ smell and kssksskss rustle of silks, mobile phones ringing in varied and similar tunes causing people to spring up unnecessarily from their warm seats, diabetics requesting in low yet firm tones for sugarless but really hot coffee, pockets of gamblers quarrelling over queen of hearts, aces, five rupee coins and making hopeless plans on sneaking to a nearby pub, grandmothers calling out for ‘a’ particular “Visalam” but some 10 women responding to the call as every branch of the family had at least one Visalam named after the chief matriarch, platefuls of sweets and savouries (with small ants also partaking of the feast) spread in the middle of dusty dhurries, queues forming for the overused toilet which stank over and above the Odonils and dozens of soaps and shampoos lined in there, anxious geeks impatiently waiting to have a go at the only laptop of the host household and small children crying in corners for their busy parents’ attention, wet towels drying on window grills as the crisscross of clothesline were already houseful and hanging low like fruit-laden tree branches, mischievous kids sliding off stacks of hired pillows, first cousins covertly flirting with second cousins, women squabbling and weeping over a random anonymous statement like, “she is so bitchy” and everyone assuming that the “she” referred to was herself, girls crowding around an elder cousin offering to apply mehendi patterns for “free” only to be spirited away by another rival mehendi group promising to inscribe the bride’s and groom’s names like tattoos using the very same mehendi cones, small children waiting tearfully for parents to arrive and wash their bottoms, some 50 hands searching for Ambassador car keys that everyone saw lying next to a green jockey underwear “just now”, small kids playing “wedding-wedding” with previous day’s drying flowers from women’s hair, someone from different time zone frantically hollering out for IST and someone responding saying it was “80 minutes past seven”, newly befriended youngsters exchanging blouses, shirts and tips for shorter SMSes, people going hoarse shouting for misplaced combs, safety pins and bindis, groups of daredevils agreeing to try out the revolutionary homemade face pack made with turmeric, asafoetida and mild detergent guaranteed to cure pimples, college going boys slyly holding hands of sisters’ friends in the pretext of reading palms, aunts yelling at uncles for intermittently disappearing to smoke their infernal cigarettes even when a wedding was in the offing, sisters weeping on the shoulder of the bride who would be leaving them soon, one or two responsible members counting wedding money and inspecting credits and debits running into lakhs with a pencil stub and a Rs 5 double- lined notebook, cousins from US scandalising local Mannargudi mamas with their noodle straps and skimpy skirts setting off commentaries on how yesteryear actress T R Rajakumari could titillate from under even three layers of clothing, aging siblings displaying and comparing notes on their swollen knees that dangerously resembled their own dead mother’s and discussing the pros and cons of knee replacement that was not available for their mother even while worrying about their brother’s “hiranya” (hernia), summons for lunches being ignored until mothers and wives threatened to close the kitchen for the day, complaints bursting in return on how the quantity of coffee served was so small that it didn’t even “wet their chest” leave alone the stomach, all this and much more from hearts brimming over and pouring out its contents like the open suitcases that will eventually zip up and depart but that were now bursting and spilling old and new gaudy clothes, memoirs, jewelry, make up kits, perfumes and those inevitable lacy bras…

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Shutting the door on my dark, winged friends

My winged friends have turned rowdy again. Six months ago I had to hurriedly weave a makeshift net across the kitchen window grill using discarded strings, as the crows were whooshing into my kitchen to feed on the milk (!) and the stock of bread atop the refrigerator. In a block of 24 flats, the birds display this roguish behaviour only at my window. Indeed I have spoilt them, as my sister says.
My association with these dark beauties began when I first entered the flat 15 years ago. As I stood on the newly washed kitchen floors feeling the frenzy of the morning’s activity in my lower back, I found the birds patiently lining up on my window sill. Maybe the previous tenant had been feeding them.
I only had a tiny packet of biscuits with me. Slowly I fed them, piece by piece. One-two-three and the fourth piece would go into my mouth. I was hungry too.
Long after the packet finished, the dark birds still waited. “The flat is still unoccupied dearies, no food here yet,” I murmured but just standing there and sharing my food with the birds calmed me down. My back seemed to ache a little less.
The birds always came back to wait whenever I visited the flat to move in my things, especially kitchen stuff. After all these years of feeding, I can recognise few of my friends, the regulars from others. Going beyond the ritualistic offering of first scoop of rice to the birds, I began to feed them through the day.
Leftovers at 6 am, hot rice at 10 am, food with vegetables or dal at noon, rotis at 4 pm and some bread crumbs at 6 before they go to bed. “Do you feed your kids this regularly?” my husband would snap at me. In fact whenever I eat, they get a share from my plate and they know it too. Nobody leaves my home hungry.
I just have to enter the kitchen and my friends will come knocking and banging at the window. They do not feel intimidated by me even when I stand by my sink washing a dish or two. These dark winged creatures are my friends, my messengers who bring me news from other orbits, my courier girls who take my prayers skywards, my sisters who share my food and portions of my weight gain.
But lately, one or two newcomers have come in the midst of my peaceable friends and taught them a whole lot of bad manners. These urban rowdies taught them how to enter the kitchen and perch on top of the milk vessel and dip their beaks into the fluid. When I enter the kitchen to shoo them off, they topple the vessel in their hurry to exit, leaving me to clean the floor, the vessel and the stove. Later I found that the bread atop the fridge was being assaulted too. I tried some wire mesh to keep these girls away, but it ending up blocking good sunlight as well. So a string mesh it was. My mother tied white cotton strings across the grill in a manner so haphazard and spontaneous that my window looked like a piece of modern art. Even while I was admiring my mother’s handiwork, an unruly creature put its beak through the art and pecked at my bum. I shrieked, and she rudely cawed in repartee.
These days I keep the glass window shut. My old friends nibble at the glass pitifully as if in apology. But I am upset over the litres of milk they have toppled over the weeks. I am upset my friends listened to bad counsel and compromised my love for the sake of few extra crumbs. For the first time in many years, I am shutting my door to them.

A dismal month of sore throats and broken limbs

Last December was a dismal one for me with two hand fractures, three severe ear-throat infections and one long fever shared between the four members of my family. In week one — my husband broke his right arm. “Aren’t you glad we have something called a health faucet?” I joked. Curse my tongue; in week two he broke his left shoulder. “What do you do to him? Thrash him around?” snapped the Ortho. From then on if anyone asked how he managed the double feat within a wee gap of six days, we unanimously replied, “The wife did it,” sparing ourselves the onerous task of recounting the bizarre sequence of events that lead to the twin twists. Week three my son developed this peculiar earache which struck nocturnally only. His nightly howls put the entire owl and dog population in our locality to shame. One more week of screeching and I would have opened a night school for owls and dogs to learn a thing or two from my son.
“It is punishment from the cosmos for playing deaf to your parents during daytime,” I declared.
My son toggled between victim and perpetrator depending on the sun’s status in the sky, whereas I was victim round the clock. What with his antics during the day and howls during the night, and with me enduring his painful activities by day and panicking over his pain at night. Phew! To add to the misery, my daughter and I also contracted the very same severe ear-throat infection. Despite the pain, I must admit that week three was the best, as all three of us could neither speak nor hear well. A rare peace and quiet pervaded the house and for once my husband’s wish came true — his voice was the loudest in the house. We all didn’t talk back and he (despite knowing the truth) presumed we all heard him fully. Week three was quite manageable as long as the phone didn’t ring. The only person in the household who could speak audibly had both his arms tied. The remaining three of us had our hands free but voices and ears tied. It was sheer torture when the phone rang. I would have to lift the phone and place it on my husband’s ear for him to explain the unique ear-throat-hand situation to the caller. Next he had to literally put his ear to my mouth to decode what I was whispering and speak the same into the mouthpiece and follow it up by shouting into my ear what the caller had conveyed. Between the three interconnected tasks of listening keenly to me, speaking normally into phone and shouting back messages into my ear, my husband got confused. He whispered to me, shouted into the phone and put his ear on the phone’s mouthpiece, instead of mine. Added to this confusion, his questions directed at me, “Are you able to hear me? Can you be a bit louder?” were enthusiastically answered by the caller. All this became too much for him. He slammed the phone and wanted to fight. But I could neither hear nor speak. So we hit upon the idea of a scream-type match. My husband would shout at me at the top of his voice with his Gtalk open (which I logged on to for him) and I would type out repartees to his shouts from my laptop using my free hands. Not a very satisfying, fulfilling, crunchy fight but it served the purpose. Week four, my ear-throat infection turned into high fever and I completely woke up to the truth that moms can fall ill but cannot report it or lose their “cool” even while boiling at 1020C. It is January that finally sent me a get-well-soon card.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Response to Usha Mukunda's "Discovering Kabir"

Thanks much Usha for the warm and detailed response to the book. I am particularly happy that you have documented the responses of young adults to the book. Thank you Dakshayini, Yamuna and Rishon for reading the book.
"How did the book begin?" is always a welcome question to the author. The answer I am afraid is going to be tad long.
My husband ( a musician) and I used to have these gatherings at home to discuss much loved poets with friends (many of them artists themselves). In the line of Bharathi and Meera (whose poems we sang, discussed and danced to), we took up Kabir next. It was Linda Hess' translations of Kabir's poems which opened my eyes and heart to him. I was so enraptured by the man's courage, vision and well....insanity (!) and there was so much drama around him that I decided to record my responses to him as a play. I wrote a short skit with just two characters- a warp and a weft. My sister Bindhumalini and I played the roles. Huh...well I was obviously the warp. The play had the threads singing out Kabir's dohas, his ideals and anxieties, not as his admirers and proteges but as an outsider who loved Kabir yet couldn't resonate in his frequency or subscribe to his beliefs. The warp and the weft became many things in the play; Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan, Mullah-Pundit.....but never Kabir. (I think he was still grey in my mind then). Sandhya Rao and Radhika Menon of Tulika were my special guests that day for the Kabir session and they called me the following day to ask if I would be interested in writing a book on Kabir. I, in my ignorance said yes immediately. Later when I began reading up on Kabir, I realised whatever authentic information was available on the poet could be summed up in just two lines. So what do I write? Where do I find him? How to cope with the complex-simplicity of the man and simple-complexity of children for whom I was going to write? I put the thought of book out of my mind and simply began to immerse myself in his dohas. 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, one year and I still hadn't put pen to paper. I knew only two things about this man. He was a poet and he was a weaver. One I seemed to know, the other I didn't. So I took up weaving classes. Thanks to G.Gautama, Principal, The School KFI, I was able to learn weaving at The School under Mr.Nagalingam. Weaving is such an intricate art, with so many intermediary processes and skill demands. One simply has to concentrate or risk losing the thread (literally). Frankly it is the loom which showed me a glimpse of Kabir. It is the loom which taught me creative introspection. It is the thakli, the dye, the loom, the warp and the weft which spoke to the image of poet Kabir in me. I married the weaver and poet as warp and weft to draw out a fuller picture of Kabir. I really believe like Thiruvalluvar (also a weaver), Kabir's couplet (two lines) is born out of the material at hand and his vocation. Warp-weft + tightness + brevity + introspection = Doha/couplet. Maybe a reason why the loom features so strongly in my book. Also I thought they stayed closest to Kabir and were witness to his bursts of poetry.
By now two years had passed and I was still only dwelling in the man. I hadn't written a word. The publishers checked now and then and I had a stock answer.."heh-heh, not yet". Then one day I completely gave up the idea of writing a book. How did it matter? The man had percolated into me and had (to put it very crudely) "screwed me in my head completely". Death and the value of here and now was resonating in me strongly. For awhile I even did drastic things like trying to fit all my needs into a small bag and living out of it, distinguishing between needs and wants, reducing needs, meditating regulary, walking and what not. The man does that to you. Unlike other Bhakthi poets we know, this man wants to take you along. He wants to share his truths with you. I weep as I write this for I am connecting to his compassion once again. Most enlightened souls wish to immerse themselves in thier bliss and loathe to come out of it to share it. But Kabir? He keeps shouting out to you- "Listen to me good ones". The man must have been a child to have so much faith in human goodness! More than anything I connected to his loneliness, the frustrating loneliness of a poet and a social visionary.
One day I simply began to write. I decided to take out all characters/events/landscape out of his poems itself. Where else to go? The legends can be, I decided. It took me only six months to write the book, but to get there took little more than two years. Somewhere in the middle, Sandhya told me they only hoped to get a picture book on Kabir for younger children. A novel was not what they were expecting. By then I had written until Midday portion. I must admit I was mildly agitated- I should have taken a clearer brief from the publishers. I waited. The agitation went off in an hour or two. I resumed writing. By the time I finished the novel, the thought of publishing was a distant worry. It wouldn't matter even if the book didn't see the light of day. For this particular book, the process was the reward and I was completely satisfied. But as is with all intense creations, this book also found its medium, its people (the writer, the publisher, the reader) and is in circulation. Tulika was particularly sensitive and supportive of the book. The editors Sandhya and Deeya were like Sahridayas.
It was a very difficult decision for me to "kill" Kabir and make him vanish that way. But to take a thread from his teaching and go in search of him like Dhaga is what I wanted myself and my readers to do. This, I decided would be the most fitting conclusion to the book. In fact if you notice, it is Kamali who grasps Kabir's teachings in its essence and she is the only one in the entire book who does not spew/recite/appropriate/recall even one doha of his. She lives the Kabir way and does not preach/remind herself of "his way" through his dohas. She simply lives the Kabir way, which is where I want to be.
Kabir was a fortuitous encounter. Yes. A life enhancing one.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A pen, an ink bottle and a filched filler

It is ridiculous to see the number of pens in my house, standing in colorful clusters here and there and of course scattered everywhere. But pick up one to write when you need to note down that telephone number or address urgently and they will all go virginal and frigid and refuse to flow — classic case of “ink, ink everywhere, not a drop to use”. Ironically, I can never learn the colour of my pens by their inks but only by their caps (this subject to them wearing their respective hats). Sometimes I feel it is my stubborn writers’ block that has transmogrified into pens around my house. They simply cannot write though they are writing instruments, just as I am a writer without being able to write. The pens in my household, I hate to say, are more sheaths than mighty swords.I primarily think it is “problem of plenty”. What the hell, when I was growing up, there would be just one pen in the entire household, which would be enshrined either upon a high shelf or inside the out-of-reach shirt pocket. One pen, one bottle of Bril ink and one filler palmed off from some ear drops bottle. Nobody but nobody was permitted to touch that pen, lest the slant of your hand and your unique pressure of pen on paper changed the nib’s personality. Each one tweaked and regulated his pen into an amiability that suited his right-left slant and thick-thin writing preference. The pen was as personal as that once upon a time. Only best friends could share globs of ink and pen.If ever you were given the task of filling the pen with ink, it was a task worthy of filling your entire Sunday morning with and in a manner that would put Tom Sawyer to shame. I remember extracting bribes from my cousins for each go at pressing the filler’s head. Fifteen ml of ink filling was worth three gooseberries, 10 extra turns at the swing, three not-out chances (cricket gaajis) and one pair of fancy rubber bands. Pens could make life good. My Sunday business however folded after pens (such as Hero) began to arrive with inbuilt filling mechanisms. One could just press and pull ink into these hateful pens from the bottles without risk or mess and without having to cultivate bhaya-bhakthi (fearful devotion) towards the fragile glass and precious ink. That skill and dexterity to lift and pour carefully into the waiting mouth of the pen, drop by drop is an extinct talent today. I was permitted to touch a pen only after coming to class VI. It was an important occasion — almost like poonal (sacred thread ceremony) or puberty. Mine was a green Camlin and with a glass window beneath its neck, where you could check the ink level. At the end of each day I would measure how much I had written, not by counting the number of filled pages, but by tilting the pen to see how much ink I had consumed — a habit I carry even today in a different manner though. I measure the distance I travelled in my car not by the meter, but by the red needle in the fuel gauge.I think for me, the romance went out of writing when the stiff-collared, antiseptic ball point pens became permissible in schools. I used to bleed along with my ink pens, tame the nib’s sharpness or match mine with it, wrangle with the instrument, cajole them into being my sixth finger, take care of them and be possessive about them. Putting an ink pen to paper was a piercing act of love, an intercourse. I think everything just got worse when I abandoned all pens to write with both hands. No, I am not ambidextrous. I write with a computer.