Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Brush with the Irreligious

It has to be a reflection of my mood and the thought processes resulting in the mood that I feel like posting on abstract thoughts - I call them abstract because there is no rhyme or rhythm to the flow of the thoughts. Just a strange twist in the road, that makes you stop, stare and then vocalise the impulses currently running through the nuts and bolts that keep your thoughts within the larger area of your head.

By now most people that read me occasionally or more regularly (which are a few loyal ones and I love you loads)know that I'm a Malayali from the red-red Kerala. Communism and socialistic ideals flow through the blood, however much we say our politics veer more to the right than the left, the culture of the Malayali society largely tends towards one that is shorn of devout religiosity.( There is a need for a big rejoinder here, like most communist states where the irreligious ruled roost for decades leading to the emergence of ultra-conservative religious patterns, Kerala too is seeing a disturbing trend towards a strain of communalism - worrying and thought-provoking!) The two biggest festivals of Kerala are Onam and Vishu - the traditional harvest and New Year celebrations - and these two festivals are celebrated across the world by Malayalis - irrespective of caste, creed and community. So these thoughts might have influenced my take on spirituality and the irreligious.

In our society, a lot of words are loosely used to mean the other - religion and spirituality is perhaps the best examples. A lot of people say "I'm spiritual" when they mean "I am religious" because "religion" somehow has a more conservative, narrow-minded connotation to it. However that does not justify how being religious can mean being spiritual. On the other hand, I believe there is a strong case to be made for being spiritual despite feeling irreligious. I think I'm increasingly turning spiritual and irreligious. So today, when I read a friend's message that said Spirituality is an appointment with yourself, I was thrilled.

I related to that. But somehow, the statement that appealed to the irreligious in me, somewhere presents a large contradiction. If you call spirituality an appointment with yourself, then isn't that kind of like an indulgence?? I deliberately take out the term self from before indulgence, primarily because indulgence too is an appointment with yourself. You indulge someone to gather some happiness for yourself in the bargain too!  It is the extent of pampering perhaps that differentiates indulgence from self-indulgence.

In India, where separating spiritualism from religion is considered next to impossible, we need to look for better definitions. Look at reason why people seek out religion? I have a simplistic reasoning. I consider it original because I arrived at it. I might be regurgitating what someone very very wise has said better, but in my space, let me present my take. We are conditioned from very young to crave a bigger power's benevolence - to watch over us, to hold our hand, to show us the right from the wrong. I think religion gives you the way to attaining the realisation that at the end of the path to enlightenment is the harnessing of your mental energy to make life's choices work out best for you. We are often happy to believe that the good that happens in our life is a fruit of our labour. On the other hand, no one wants to be told it is their idiocy that landed them in bad times. We'd rather believe in our naivete and think of bad times as tests set by a bigger power. So instead of setting two different question papers for the tests of life, you set one, make God the invigilator and the marker of your paper and dedicate good and bad performance to His tutoring.

Turning to God is in fact turning inwards, checking for resources within to pull yourself out. I believe my theory makes sense and brings solace to my search for meaning in life because I see God not helping those that leave everything to Him and do little about it. You don't really have to profess leaving everything to Him, but if you gather your inner resources together and work out a problem, you will feel the presence of a higher power guiding your decisions. That power is nowhere exterior, it could well lie within you. A bit of divinity, a bit of godliness - all within a soul that is not in an elevated sense of existence.

We live, we love, we desire, we crave, we anguish and pine - the positive emotions guide us higher, the negatives pull us down. However, the negatives are necessary to make the positives look incandescently bright. I think we cling hard to negative emotions like hate and disgust and hide behind morality ( often without inherently prescribing to it!) because the fear of a higher power or the worry of retribution is the safety mechanism some wise old men devised centuries ago to keep the flock in line. After all, a social animal is one that has the intense need to conform. If ten people do something a certain way, the eleventh one is intrigued to try the same formula because he knows it is tried and tested, it appears to have worked for ten, so why not for the eleventh and so on!

If you were to blame your mistakes on no one, but just dust yourself up and move on in just the same way you'd pat yourself on the back for a success and move on, then life will get easier. Why should we all adhere to the same structured sense of propriety or seek the customised logos that our social groups long to give us? Why do we need prototypes of dumb and dumber??

This is my brush with the irreligious but deeply spiritual. The Spirit in me is happy and at peace and my life, I'd rather was an experiment in the spiritual rather than the religious!!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An Open Letter to Parents

Dear Parent,

Every child has a lasting memory of their parent - lingering physical memories apart, they way they impact your upbringing, your thought process and also how you perceive your life and of those around you - that I think is the true essence of parenting. You don't need to be the biological parent of a child to be a good parent. What I mean is passing on your genes does not qualify as parenthood, it is what you do to nurture the child into an adult that reflects your commitment and skill as a parent. And they and they alone can qualify, in my eyes for the respect and consideration, that we believe every child owes their parents.

This stance might be a tad controversial - especially in the Indian context where becoming a parent is considered the pinnacle of existence - how you fare once you have produced your offspring is rather of less importance than having the numbers to brag about you 'having done your bit by society'. Just as how mothers bring up their kids is considered above criticism, no matter how neglected the child appears, the role of the father is largely seen as that of a provider. As long as he brings food to the table, fees for school and provides for other expenses - he is a good father. I beg to differ.

Upbringing is not just about providing four meals, clothes and an education. These are the bare minimum and in a country as poor as ours, we do believe if our bare expectations are met, then we have succeeded. But the educated, upwardly mobile middle class that I believe I am part of ( as also most of my blog audience), judging ourselves on a very narrow set of yardsticks and feeling we measure up needs to be reassessed. I have often heard a common refrain from several of my peers and elders - "We grew up with limited facilities and even more limited attention. We grew up fine". To this my question is - Did you? What is fine - well adjusted, rational or completely secure about your upbringing?? Don't you privately have regrets or nurse grouses for those times that you feel a bit of concentrated push or educated advice might have changed the course of your life??

More importantly, the age that you grew up in, the access to a lot of facilities were in the public domain. That meant that it was a more level playing ground for the masses. For the classes, who could afford private tutoring and an elite education, the story is largely different. But, rich families in your days never meant financially well off families with disposable cash. It usually meant landowning families that were self-sufficient and far above the 'we-have-four-meals-and-rarely-scrape-the-bottom-of-the-rice-bowl' families. But at the end of the day, the disparity and differences between the well-off middle class and the struggling middle class  wasn't as pronounced as it is today. I might be at the risk of over- generalisation, but a letter on a blog on complex issues of parenting can only raise points to ponder over. It cannot be exhaustive or conclusive.

Our country is wracked by duality - we want to maintain our core of Indian sensibilities while embracing Western values of parenting. What we are trying to do is adapt to a comfortable mix of both worlds that have now come to represent our lives. But in this hotch-potch, we rarely stop to think if we are sending mixed signals to our children? We are quick to critique those that are highly conservative and traditional in how they bring up their children - imparting old-world values that we grew up with and shielding kids from all those that we think is the assault of new-age life. However, after they start school and bring home views from their peer group, the discord in life at home and life outside creates friction and a sense of suffocation in the child. While many young ones these days are extremely adept at moving with the flow, there are several other sensitive ones who are crushed by expectations and mis-match that they see in their lives around them and in their own.

The current generation of parents juggle a number of hats at one time. Apart from being the father/mother of one or two children, you are also ambitious professionals, often juggling yet another social role of an activist or social worker/entrepreneur etc. You believe you have the roadmap to success for yourself and through you, a role model to set for what your children must achieve. Their care is largely left to people you pay ( with whom you are rarely satisfied) or with grandparents ( after all, weren't they the ones to insist you have kids soon after you got married? ). To this again, the question will be, but we were brought up by our grandparents, who brought our parents up as wonderful individuals. Now our parents are doing their duty. Do we realise how much the context of parenting changes with each generation? 

You might wonder, what brought this tirade about! These are musings, rather direction-less, but thoughts that emerged from a passing reference to someone dear to me as a 'rather ambition-less man'. In a manner of speaking, alluding to how he didn't live up to his potential professionally, which in turns also appears to taint his performance as a parent. His daughters are grown up today and are quiet and confident girls. Unlike most fathers of his generation, who were absentee parents in their children's upbringing, he was around to support, comfort and nurture. He was not one to reach home after the kid has gone to sleep and leave home before the child is awake nor were his weekends spent socialising or climbing the professional ladder. However, at the end of the day, he is branded 'ambitionless', an 'insufficient parent' and sadly 'a poor role model'. Why are we so harsh to critique others when we are far from perfect?

Finally, my question to you is, do  you think more of what all your parents provided you materially or how they contributed to influencing your personality and psychological stability and maturity?? Should parenting be about setting successful role-models and assuring financial stability or something far more tangible - materially intangible for sure, but tangible in other ways. Ways that matter? Who decides success in  parenthood? Isn't it time to revise yardsticks for yourselves and therefore for your peers too?? After all, you don't live in the age your parents did and your children won't be faced with the same choices that faced you.

Food for thought??


A confused no-body!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rukawat ke Liye Khed Hai!

Life 365 is going through fits and starts..I'm completely washed out..the heat has gotten to me and how. Hoepfully, I'll be back soon!! :) Till then, hope there are enough posts still of Word Sketches you need to catch up on!

Won't let the summer beat me down..but can't wait for the Monsoons to begin!!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Unspoken Language

Ask a foreigner to imitate an Indian and he immediately does two things - flattens the way he speaks English ( much like how we might use the Chapati belan) and begins to move his head in an imitation of those clay-dolls  that moves its head and body in two directions, when set into motion!

My firang friends often ask me questions by exaggeratedly shaking their head. However, at those times, the joke is on them. For I don't realise that it is mimicry in action. We are so used to people talking with their eyes, face, neck and hands that when someone does it with mimicked exaggeration, you consider it par for the course and don't realise that it is a deliberate attempt. Often after failed attempts to elicit laughter, they ask me outright if they were shaking their head right, to either denote approval or denial. And there ensues a quick course in The Unspoken Language of the Indians.

It is funny how different parts of India have their own gestures for yes or no. But I have rarely had to explain myself to another Indian when I reply with only a nod and no syllables accompanying it. Need I repeat that that is never the case with my international set of friends. Much like an animal in a zoo that knows that something they did is like a magic trick that the crowd around your cage is waiting for you to repeat, I put on my best show face and exaggerate my already exaggerated reaction - a smile and a series of quick oscillations of the chin forward and backward - I want/I agree/yes, that's exactly what I mean. ( What the reaction means need to be understood according to context!! Go figure!)

So since observing and researching such behaviour is a favourite passtime of mine, I began consciously noticing how people talk the Unspoken Language. I like noticing people who are far far away from me, those who are visible but not within the audible range. So the conversations are left to my imagination and the game is to gauge the reaction from their gestures. Here are a few of the common and my favourites -

  • Smack the lip, shut the eyes tight and make the smacckkkkkk sound to express how  delicious you found something ( you will be surprised at how many people actually do that without even realising the gesture in their hurry to express their pleasure over a dish!) 
  • Yes - Mentioned earlier, but nods that oscillate your chin forward and backward - the quicker the movement, the more emphatic is the approval. Oscillate sidewards and thats a big No! 
  • However, if someone is explaining a kind of tough premise and you aren't following it, the same movement needs to be slowed down along with the furrowing of the eyebrows to denote Perplexed Contemplation
  • If the hands are moving like windmills, then be assured the explanation is on a mega-scale! Beware, the person explaining it might be doing it just to hide they have little content but lots of drama to offer. 
  • Indians love using the arm to the chin to show "I am giving the bullshit you are spouting some 'serious contemplation' even if I might look like an actor using cliched expressions"
  • The exaggerated wink with the accompanying idiotic laugh is many people's idea of making you in cahoots with some harebrained scheme or prank that is either being hatched or being played out! 
  • Eyes in slits, nose flared and lips pinched is "Wait till I get you for this!" usually when your better half is having a field day at your expense in front of your friends but anything said at the moment will just make you look churlish!
  • And the most Indian of it all, and this one is rather exaggerated - the right fist to the head that's slightly thrown back with eyes closed and a look of distress on the face accompanied often by a lethargic oscillation of the head sideways - I am feeling so sorry for myself, I am having a Meena Kumari moment/ the sweet drama of the situation needs to be acted out!
This list is inexhaustible. And it might be a fun game to invite more entries and adjudge among ourselves which of the gestures of the Unspoken Language Lexicon takes the cake!! 

I unfortunately happen to be a highly animated character - much like the navarasas taught in Bharatanatyam, every conversation with me is punctuated by my animated facial inputs to words. But I just realised, as you are reading this post, perhaps you tried one or two of the gestures I mentioned just to check whether that's how you'd express it yourself, didn't you??

Time for some honesty! Come on!! ( Shakes head in quick series of oscillatory forward-backwards - sign of encouragement!)

:) :) :) 

(Image Courtesy: 123RF)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

One Day in the Life of Us...

I have a maid and a cook, who between them make my life wonderful. They ensure that despite being a stay-at-home-consultant ( that sounds better than freelancer somehow!)I have people to supervise and make me look totally in control and super-efficient at housekeeping.

 The maid, L is about four feet and a little something tall, a stick figure who looks like she's studying in school. She however,has little clue how old she is, parents who could perhaps give her a vague idea are no more and a marriage to a unemployed, uninterested-in-working guy means that she brings in the money and does the looking after the household too. With three kids to support and overheads to pay, L works at eight houses (at the last update I took!) from 8.30 in the morning to about 1.30 in the afternoon, after which she turns the housewife -cooking, cleaning and swabbing her own hovel. Her time at my place is a brisk half an hour at the most, in which she clinically goes around doing her bit, rarely cracks a smile at anyone or acknowledges guests who might sometime drop by home. I want to ask her if she gets time to shower every day, but then I guess that's an inappropriate question, for she is not dirty or smelly. Just shabby!

 My cook C on the other hand is made of pleasanter disposition. A thin tall woman, she is always impeccably dressed, has a serene smile and weighs her words like the ingredients she uses to cook food at home. She's been with us over six months and every other day my sister and I look at each other, in silent appreciation of the food that has been cooked for us. With both C and L, I share a courteous relationship. I am not one of those employers, who needs to breathe down their necks..I rarely interfere except when I have to pass on instructions or ask for something specific to be done. Just like other colleagues I work with, I start on the premise that they know their stuff and I just need to make my expectations from them clear at the very outset.

L is brash, prone to outbursts, which are kind of like a dormant volcano erupting into life, spewing lava. Imagine a completely dead pan face suddenly erupting with animation and the kind where the pitch is at the level where the glass wobbles a bit. She and I have a few clashes time and again. She has the knack of getting up to mischief, looking innocent till detected and then saying
"Aap hi ne toh bola karne ko!" (You told me to do this!)
"Par maine aisa karne ko kaha tha kya L" (Is this how I asked you to do it?)
"Ab maine jaan bujh ke toh nahin kiya, ho gaya.."( now I didn't decide to deliberately to commit this mishap)
" L awaaz pehle neeche karo" ( L, let's go easy on the decibels)
" Mein kya bol rahi hoon, aap hi toh daant-te rehte ho mujhe" ( What am I saying? you are the one scolding me)
"Maine awaaz neeche karke bolne ko kaha (I'm asking you to lower your tone while talking to me)
"Achcha baba, galti ho gayi, ab nahin karoongi" ( Ok, I'm sorry, I won't repeat it)

I have lost track of how many times we have this conversation every month! The result is nearly the same, she is upset for ten minutes, then it is like water off the duck's back. I rarely get my way completely, but then she is conscientious enough to remember to do something to please me to make up...An extra bout of dusting, sorting out the clothes that need to go for ironing etc.

C, on the other hand, rarely gives me any scope for criticism. Never a crib, never a complaint about having to cook on some days with hardly enough ingredients in the pantry. It's when she literally scrapes the bottom of the storage bins that she throws her hands up in askance!

L often tries to steer C into supporting the cause of the 'working class'. Like this morning, while I was already 'at work' and L was pottering around me, I saw a gecko -ugly, thin and mean looking, make its way across the door sill. We, sisters absolutely hate seeing any around and I shouted out to L to drive it away. Now if it was a reaction to my shout or my instruction, I'm kind of unclear, but L's shrill No took me quite aback. And out came the rapier tongue -

"Arre, mere se kya karwana chahte ho, mein nahin karti yeh sab!" (what is it you want me to do, I don't do all this!)
" L, uske jhaadu se bahar karo, ghar ke andar ghusne mat do"( L, just drive it out with the broom, don't let it enter the house)
" Arre maine bola na, usko choone ka nahin. Mujhe maarna nahin hai!" ( I told you once, you shouldn't disturb it, you want me to die?)

The shrillness and the outright No just made me see Red. I went in, picked up the broom and was shooing the lizard out of the open window, when she tried to come stop me, but gave up when she realised I was going to do it anyways! Once the lizard was out of the house, I turn to her and there she stood with her hands on her hips -
" Aapke pata hai usko bhagana nahin chahiye, woh sar pe girega toh khatam" (Do you know you shouldn't disturb it? If it falls on your head, then it is all over!)
"Kya khatam? L, yeh sab andhvishwas hai! Aise sab cheezon ko pakde rakhoge, har cheez se dar ke rehna hoga) ( What over? L, these are superstitions, if you keep believing these things, you will have to be scared of everything!)

L turns to C and asks her to intervene -
" Bolo didi ko ki yeh sab karna galat hai, kuch hoga toh phir unko kuch nahin, hamare paas kuch nahin hai baba" ( Tell her that these things are wrong, if something unfortunate happens, she has nothing to lose, we can't afford to take the risk!)
C, as usual kept her own counsel and kept stirring the contents of the pot bubbling at the stove!
By now, I was in my lecturing mode and L was in no mood to listen - kind of like, you stick to your modern views, I have too much to lose, I shall stay with my elders-tested wisdom!

After she left, I stood in the kitchen looking at C. Perhaps realising that I was staring at her, she turns around and says,
"Didi, uske cheekhne ka bura mat man-na. Hamare colony ke sab auratein aise hi hai. Chipkali girti hai toh bahut abshagun hota hai!" ( Don't take offense at her outburst. All the women in our colony behave like her. A gecko falling down is considered inauspicious)
" Tum log aisi cheezon ko pakadke chalte ho, isi liye toh itna andhvishwas bhara hai is desh mein" ( you people hold these beliefs so dear, that's why there are so many superstitions prevalent in this country!)
" Sahi hai didi, isi liye main chahti hoon ki meri ladkiyaan padh likh le. Hum toh aise hi nikle, par woh agar samajdhar nikle toh unke liye achcha! ( that's true, that is why I want my daughters to study. We ended up like this, but if they turn out wiser, good for them!)

And with that Mona Lisa smile which is her trademark, she went sealed the lid on that argument, turned off the stove, emptied the curry into a bowl, picked up her bag and said Bye for the day!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Bit of Take and Lots of Give!

So today I was on Facebook and realised another friend has decided to take the plunge - sacrifice the so far safely guarded singledom for the joys of (un)holy matrimony. The way I mention matrimony must give you an idea of how I weary I am of the topic! If there is one subject that has been the bane of my parents' life over the past five years - one that has dominated conversations in our nuclear household of dad, mom, sister and I, it has to be the question of when are we sisters getting married?

I had looked at a related topic in my post Whats with One True Love? However, then I was far far away from India, snugly comfortable in grey England, free to be fiery and rebellious since the society there lets a stranger live their life quietly without the usual questions in India, 'So what does your better half do?" ( the better half of me contemplates what the other half is about to do - because the right hand never knows when the left hand is going to be up to punch you!) 'How many children do you have?' (Currently, I am in the 'out of wedlock' phase, wondering if I should add a couple more to the population, without disturbing the relationship status) See, now I'm an inherently well-brought up child, polite to a fault. So all these are responses that dance around in my brain while I laugh sheepishly and mouth the right answers - Oh you see, I'm not married! or No no, no children yet!

The other day, I sat down with my best friend, who incidentally is also taking the deep plunge later this year to figure out how concepts of marriage have changed and along with it our expectations. Let me give you a background. My friend and I never run out of topics. We choose a broad area and then start free-wheeling discussions that might look like Google suggestions - you know the links that take you to websites you never thought could have connected material?? Well, whenever we talk of marriage, we end up discussing even colours of nail-polish and/or the price of bhindi and baingan. It is all connected, if you don't see the link, well, next time you are invited to silently audit the discussion. No, you can't participate, but you can hear our conversations. (We pride ourselves on being deep-thinking individuals with very original thoughts!)

The conversation began with our weariness over all things domestic - the maid's unflexibile timing that limits my chances to leave early for a lunch date with her, the rising rents that make living in Mumbai alone such a pain, the pressures of a media job that leave hardly no time for a social life or even for a more fulfilling personal life. This is where the topic marriage sneaks a back-door entry. Mamma has once again raised the topic of me growing older, she concurs that her aai thinks this year is a good time to take the plunge of faith.

The catch is multiple - for one, financial independence and the ability to live without someone to 'make life easier' means that the premium laid on marriage is higher. Finding an eligible man, who earns enough to take care of a family and is also decent enough to be presented before parents are no more the only yardsticks.Sometimes, we agree there's no method to this madness. 'Clicking' together and 'clicking' right is equally important. The expectations from a partner have gone from the practical domain into a largely emotional domain. And the reason, as mentioned earlier, is the financial independence that women enjoy as well as the courage to live life alone, on our own terms. The need today is for companionship, shared goals and therefore the reticence to settle for someone who offers to provide food, shelter and companionship as a by-product.

Now marriage is a complex topic with complex rationales and algorithms that might explain a successful alliance or the probability of the match succeeding to stay together life-long. Maybe other aspects will be brought up in the comments sections (as I have realised these days. I always tell readers to go down the comments section too - so many well-thought out comments give other aspects of the debate that my sometimes linear, otherwise muddled post missed!) However, there is yet another myth we always talk about - how it is untrue to say there are more failed marriages now than among the earlier generations. Statistically and legally, you could perhaps argue that and score yourself a point. But I know several sets of parents among friends and family, who lived out their lives in unhappy marriages, out of societal and familial pressures. They were no less unhappy than many are today, perhaps it might not have been on the account of wanting to balance careers and personal lives or independence and dependence. But it wasn't like they were less issues. I think that point of view is a gross overgeneralisation. They suffered silently and took the blows as their just or unjust deliverance. They cribbed, grew bitter or turned to God and godliness or took out their frustrations elsewhere. Today, realities are different and therefore our approach to problems and the solutions arrived at!

In fact, I am of the view that the much-battered reason for marriage - companionship in old age is also not a sustainable reason. There are several more youngsters preferring to stay single. They are already building social communities that offer friendship, companionship and support in other ways. Who knows how our societal structure would be in a decade from now?? We extrapolate on the basis of what we have lived and seen. I live in a different reality from what my parents have lived in and therefore I have a more optimistic outlook that I won't end up bitter and lonely if I'm not married! But if there is one concept of marriage that I believe weathers all the decades past and those to come eternally - it is that Marriage is a Bit of Take and Lots of Give! When you find the person you feel you can give a lot of yourself to while taking just a bit in return, then I think you have hit on the secret formula to success!!

On a funny note, I have been trying to arrive at the reason why there is a sudden spate of marriages among my social circle this year. So far in the past four or five years, the average of friends getting married have been at best one or two. 2012 seems to be a watershed year...( can't stop laughing at the term watershed-  interpreted literally,  you know where that line of thought will take you!) Maybe the Mayan prophecy of 2012 being the end of the world is not so wrong after all - for many in my universe, it is the end of the world as they know it! Now that's the best part about prophesies. If you want to believe it, its just about interpreting realities to suit your premise! On that cheeky note, a toast to all those getting knotty and knotted! :)

(Image courtesy: Baloo's Cartoon Blog, Cartoon Resource)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I Age, I Change

So I have missed another day in my Life 365 Marathon...And as usual I have reasons too. But who cares? Now, but there is another thing I am not sure about. I'm not sure if I will catalogue this post under Life in the City - My Series on Mumbai. :) Perhaps I should, perhaps you can tell me once you get to the last full stop of this post? 

Yesterday, I had to go to Fort for a meeting. For all those non-Mumbaikars, Fort is that part of the South Mumbai that could make a time-travelling English tourist feel vague strains of familiarity. The buildings are largely the way the British made and left it. If you are a tad imaginative, you can piece together how the area around Flora Fountain, now locally known as the Hutatma Chowk (for a martyrs' monument that has come up next to it), would have looked during its days of glory. Like everything else, most buildings have gone to seed, but businesses, big and small continue to operate out of it. The lanes are narrow, much like the cobblestoned paths of London. The cobblestones are long gone to be replaced by the tarred Indian roads, however, the leafy tree lined avenues would have been witnesses of the centuries past.

I rarely take a taxi once I get down at the Churchgate station - that is by the way, the last stop on the Western Line of the Mumbai local train network. Just as the train is pulling into the Churchgate station, my heart always skips a beat. This is a part of Mumbai that has changed the least in the twelve years that I have known it. Hmmm, on second thoughts, there is little that can afford to be changed.

The flats in these regions are humongous by Mumbai standards and pretty well-maintained from the inside. Incidentally, I have never understood how Mumbaikars can be house-proud but not necessarily building proud. So you could see several dilapidated looking buildings desperately needing a coat of paint, with residents that read like a Who's Who list. Step inside their parlour and you wonder if you fell through a hole like Alice of the Wonderland fame.

There's an old world charm about everything here, the Jehangir Art Gallery, the Kala Ghoda area, the Sassoon library and the crumbling Old Watson's Hotel - said to be the oldest surviving cast-iron building. It has collapsed a couple of times in the recent past, but then Indian ingenuity keeps the building in the survivor's list. Walk farther down and there are the majestic buildings of the Bombay High Court and the University of Mumbai. The hawkers that have encroached the walkways of most of the Victorian era heritage buildings are like a rude-jolt back into modern day reality - reality that the core of South Mumbai might look better preserved than its more recent suburbian offshoots, but a severe toll has been wrought by migration and population explosion on the leafy boulevards of the city.

Now I wonder if it is only the city and its infrastructure that appears crumbling and peeling with age. The train I took to go to the city would easily be over three decades old. There are newer swankier ones that ply on the same line, but these older ones, with the rusty springs poking uncomfortably out of the worn out seat cushions still continue to be in service. The stations that serve seas of humanity every day show evidence of massive wear and tear. In Andheri and Jogeshwari - two stations I use most, I know a few steps that I need to be careful on. If I keep place a foot wrong on those worn out steps, I could very well be slipping down the whole set of stairs uncomfortably. Age and lack of maintenance - the question is when do you shut down the station to undertake maintenance? If the Andheri station is shut off for renovation, there would be bigger riots - people would rather continue using crumbling infrastructure than suffer the inconvenience of taking a longer route to the next station!

As I walk towards the building where my meeting is scheduled, one final thought makes me chuckle so hard that I'm sure several people did turn around to check for the source of that strange noise. I have walked these very streets as a rookie in Mumbai. Then the heat did not bother me as much and travelling light was the mantra - the insouciance and irreverance you may say of the young and free-spirited. This time however, the thought of taking myself to Fort alone, required a lot of enforced mental conditioning. I had to convince myself of the importance of the meeting and the need to be there personally than get it done on skype! Once convinced, my preparations to leave began at about 12 and by the time I'd left home, in my bag, was a bottle of water, a small box of munches (just in case I got hungry on the train), an umbrella for the trek from Churchgate station to Fort and a book to ensure I get in some constructive reading done during the one-hour journey!

I was never this well-planned, I was impulsive, fun and all-over-the-place. I feel like a peeling Mumbai now...I age and I guess I change too!!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Battling the Bulge

The Weighing Scale is my biggest enemy.

While in school, the thought of the day when height and weight would be measured during PT class would instill a kind of dread in me. Why, you ask? Well, being on the chubbier side, I used to hate having others know how much I weigh. Among peers, to be considered fat, especially in those painful years of adolescence where every change in your body, is another new embarrassment. Since the annual report card had a specific page where height and weight was to be measured and recorded two times a year, the height-weight measuring was mandatory. Our Physical Education Teachers never did the measuring and recording in dignified silence, as a mark of consideration for those, who weren't of the ideal measurements! So there we would be, standing in a row, as per our attendance rolls in alphabet order and my little heart would be going thud thud..There would be two teachers involved in the process. One to measure and say the figures out aloud and the other to duly note it down.

Now there were tall gawky boys in front of me by the time we were in senior school, for whom weight was not a factor. They were out to check out their height vis-a-vis their peers. Those whose height were below average, would have a defeated look as the PT teacher loudly announced it, knowing that the bigger boys would be insensitively tittering or calling out rude nicknames - (who said growing up years were all about innocence, insensitivity rules the roost in school!). For the girls, height was of comparatively lesser concern, as long as it was in the average zone. The loud announcement of weight was mortification. Being three kilos over the average was enough to be stamped FAT in school. That's a tag you struggle to shed unless you have cracked the code of how to lose the chubby lard as you grow older. Some of my friends did manage that, I'd always feel a tinge of envy that they didn't go through multiple deaths of mortification. ( and who said you only die once? Ask a chubby child in school how often he/she feels like its death!)

Now, I am not obese. I am what you call comfortably plump. But while in the description 'comfortably' indicates a coziness and homeliness, in reality its highly uncomfortable. You dangle somewhere on the borderline of thin and fat. No one understands the description - my weight is in the average range. The immediate response would be is that thin or fat?? Well, more like fat you see.. Thin is a rather definitive term. Fat is all-encompassing.

Skinny women get all the sympathetic tut-tuts when they dive into a divine chocolaty concoction and then exclaim "Oh My God, I have surely put on five kilos". The chubby ones, hearing this often look in painful resignation. Just smelling the air around the chocolate would have spiked their weighing needle by half a kilo! Some chubby ones, who sometimes harbour self-images of being on the thinner side than the thick, end up vocally endorsing the skinny exclamations...and that's when the fat ones have a moment of vindictive laugh (at least to themselves - Look who's agreeing, has she seen the mirror this morning. All the lard she struggles to hide with clever clothes can be seen due to the ill-advised design of her top!)

I have stoically borne years of being nicknamed Fatso and constantly exclaimed over, for being the runt of the litter ( my pituitary gland - I learnt in Biology in school - stopped flushing the hormone needed to grow tall pretty early unlike the rest of my mother's side, including my sister who just kept growing taller and taller.) So much so, that at any family function, any round of familiarisation that routinely happens when cousins from all over gather, usually began with "Ohhh, you grew sideways while your sister grows upwards." Chubby ones, let me tell you, learn to take a lot of criticism on the chin due to early exposure to insensitive relatives, while the truly fat ones learn to be totally immune.

As I crossed my thirties, fewer people take a swipe at my weight. I have somehow gone into the in-decent shape zone. Perhaps because everyone in my age group is now struggling with weight issues due to poor work-life balance and pregnancies etc. Now the first question is about how healthy. A number of my ex-colleagues in television had developed cholesterol and high blood pressure very early in life - towards their late twenties and early thirties. So the first question as they look at you is about whether I have had a health-check recently. Cloaked in the obvious concern is I believe, the need to justify their woes. Kind of like it is not just I who developed these health scares, everyone else I know is also as miserable as I.

Though the struggle with shedding the lard has been a perpetual battle, on all the health indicators, I score a perfect ten, including BMI or the Body Mass Index which the new age gurus say is a better indicator of weight than just the actual measurements. Now I have arrived at a new mantra - staying conscientiously fit. A healthy diet and routine walks keep me in the healthy zone.

Recently, mom gifted my sister and I a weighing scale to keep us sisters in check. It is blue in colour and one that has those tiny slim lines showing the graduation of weight. Even as I write this piece, I see it sitting silently in a corner, mocking me and my efforts to lose those few extra kilos. And then I wonder, why is so much stress placed in our society over weight of women? Aishwarya Rai not shedding her post-natal weight has gathered more reams of newsprint than articles on healthy eating. Any hint of extra-flab on Vidya Balan and the Bollywood diet-gurumatas pounce on her with alacrity. All the marriage proposals that you read on paper or on matrimonial slight want slim girls or girls of a 'slim-build'.

So what do you do if you are naturally on the more-endowed side? I once remember crying to Amma that I wish I was born in her era. She used to tell me how in her day and age, looking plump was seen as a sign of coming from a well-to-do family (only they could afford food that fattened the human body or something like that I guess was the rationale)

I guess this post is a reaction to my musings after a conversation with a dear friend who messaged me saying "I am having a Fat Day". It doesn't help that its summer and those with stick figures around her were walking around wearing next to nothing. Now if it wasn't India, she could have worn clothes she wanted to wear and not worry about being mauled or ridiculed. But in our exacting society, battling the bulge too is a major uphill task. Even if you manage to kick the bulge, the tag takes far longer to shed!

(Image courtesy: and Minnie Pauz)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Reality Check

Yesterday I stepped out of my home-office zone to head to Bandra to meet a couple of friends for a much-postponed cup of coffee and then head for a house-party. The distance on a good-traffic day in suburban Mumbai is about 45 minutes, we shall not talk about the woes of a bad-traffic day...It was sunny and summery and before I could crib about having to hunt for rickshaws, I got one as soon as I stepped out of my apartment building.

 I love engaging the rickshawallahs in conversation, if I sense that they are from Uttar Pradesh. For those, who aren't familiar with Mumbai, a large chunk of this city's rickshaw and taxi drivers are migrants from Uttar Pradesh. In fact, on eight out of ten trips that I undertake, I normally end up being driven by a UP-wala. The conversations normally need a trigger. I don't get into the rickshaw waiting to make conversation. There are many, who initiate a conversation themselves and then its just about joining in.

Today was a bit different. The salt and pepper haired Saam Parsad (as he introduced himself) was just taking a right turn when a car overtook another one from the left and came on a kind of collision course with our vehicle. He managed to sweve to safety, but received a great barrage of invectives from the overtaking driver.

Clearly discomfitted by the verbal abuse, he turned around and gave me a wry smile and told me in a distinct UP accent, " This is the fate of rickshaw driver, it doesn't matter that you are in the right, if you are on a smaller vehicle, you will be shouted upon. A pedestrian is shouted at by someone riding a rickety cycle, a Kinetic Honda driver thinks he has more right to the road than a cyclist and those with the big cars, well they think the road is only for them. Even the drivers of these cars think they are a status above us rickshawallahs".

 And the conversation went. " But you did no wrong, he on the other hand was overtaking from the left" " Madamji, if everyone went by the sense of right and not by their sense of what is right, this city would have been a better place to live"..

 "That's a valid point, incidentally, where are you from? Uttar Pradesh?" 

"Yes, yes I am a Ganga-Kinarewala. Kanpur is my home-town"

 "Have you been here long?"

 " I came to Mumbai in 1988, for a job interview. My friends had told me that if I get a toe-hold in Mumbai, my life will be made. Now I might not look it but I am a BSc First Class from Benaras Hindu University" " In what, aah, Agricultural Science. 78% I had" The last bit was said in English, to drive home the authenticity of his claim.

 "Waah impressive. How did this rickshaw happen?"

 " For four years after my BA, I waited for a government job. In UP, there were jobs, but then a chamaar's son who had 43 per cent got in on the scheduled quota and I was told to gather a deposit of 75,000 rupees for a job at a private company. Now Mayawatiji has made it difficult to even refer to a community by their profession like it has been done for generations. But in UP, chamaar is not an abuse, it is a community, just like carpenter or cobbler.  Now my father was a poor farmer, we have a small plot of land and four brothers and three sisters. Where do I get that money? So I came here to stay with my mama, who runs his own paan-shop in Goregaon- Close to the station. You see, by then I was married. I had the responsibility of another life too, unlike these days, where you young people say, I won't get married, we had no voice. I had not seen my Missus till the day of the marriage. All these are fixed very early in our parts. It's not like you have a choice to raise your voice against your father and question why you have to marry who you have been told to marry. "

"So you came with her to Mumbai to get a job?"

"No no, I am the second son, I left her at home, 'maa-baap ki seva' is also important. She lived there for the first ten years, it is not like I was doing anything great here. The struggle was the same. Just that it was not my village, it was a big big city where if you stand at the Chowpatty and shout and scream and cry aloud, no one would even turn and look. Do you know, I have done that once. For two years, my mama took care of my living and food and then mami started complaining about too many free mouths to feed. So I decided to become a head-load worker at the docks. I did it for three months, but its back-breaking work and Marathi unions make it difficult for migrants to get full employment. Also, that is when I realised being educated is a bane not a boon."

"So how did you get this rickshaw?"

"This rickshaw happened by coincidence. My uncle's neighbour, a Mussalmaan, ran a taxi service. In the first two years, I learnt to drive the taxi and did odd runs for him. You need a badge to drive the taxi during the day. But at night, it is alright. He would give me some of the money I made for him. When I was near-suicidal from staying away from home and not getting any job despite my degree here, his brother told me he will get me a badge, but of a rickshaw. I sold even my wife's nose-ring for the deposit needed. Its been twenty-five years. Now when I'm at home on odd days I don't take this rickshaw out, my spine feels uncomfortable. I need this rattling in this dibba to feel alive."

"You have kids, you are educating them?"

" I have three kids, though I was married early, I had them after my wife joined me here. I sent all of them to school. But my sons didn't show any inclination for studies. Now, by caste, we are Brahmins. Dwivedi. But if my sons don't want the vedas, who am I to say they must. My caste did me no good, so I decided I won't insist. You know, one day, when my older one was in eight standard and he failed his maths, his mother who isn't even fifth pass, told me to advise him. I didn't. I thought when my BSc degree is not even worth the paper it was written on, why advise my son to study? He is not even tenth pass. I put him at a mechanic garage. Told him to learn. Now he repairs my rickshaw and keeps it well-maintained. I save money on that. He wants to go to a poly-technic now and take a degree to go to the Gulf. I said you make your own money to go. I will give you a home and food till I am alive. "

" Daughters?"

" I have one. I married her off when she was eighteen. She was very good at studies. But then my mama, who took care of me when I first came to Mumbai found a nice boy. LIC agent. No demand of dowry either. I told her I am sorry, but if I had succeeded in bucking the trend, I would have fought for your rights. I failed and I can't teach you to take risks. Also, when in our bad times we turn to our families, we must acknowledge their opinions too."

"So you think your being born a Brahmin worked against you?"

" Think of it, it did."

" But then again, the inequality in the society created by your forefathers is also in a way responsible for the lower castes now demanding reservations and wanting to re-dress the disparities that have existed for generations".

" I agree, it is true. Like they say, we pay for the sins of our generations past. I just hope we don't have to wait for another ten generations for my successors to be treated on par. We are now as much the kshudra. If there are no social changes that are made, there will be a new kind of gadar (revolution). I have told my kids. You marry whoever, live however. As your father, all I can promise is to help you how I can. I had little voice in how my life evolved. If you want more control, take it. "

"But your daughter did not get that opportunity?"

" Haha, I know what you are trying to say. Change is good, but the clever man is one who tries to bring about changes while staying within the system. My daughter knows my limitations and why I got her married early. She has a son and daughter now. She told me one day that even if I can't educate my son much, my daughter will get to study till she wants to. Now isn't that a change I also contributed to?"

Two traffic bottlenecks later, we were in Bandra. And as I paid him the fare, I told him to keep the change.

Saam Parsaadji smiled and said " the remaining for the conversation then. Hahaha...Shukriya".

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Malayali Me - Stereotypes and More

The fact that my surname screams my Malayali roots loud and clear often means that people have pre-conceived notions about me and my preferences!

The standard dialogues I usually encounter are " How can you be a Malayali and not eat fish?", "What, you are allergic to prawns?? Ohh what a waste of a good Malayali life" and the most hilarious one is "What?? You don't eat rice?? Don't you people eat rice all the time with coconut in it? " The answer to all this used to be No, now it has been diplomatically amended to "I know, I'm pretty strange that way, aren't I"? Now it's not like my family is also a strange one, I'm the only aberration. The others enjoy their meat and their rice. My sister longs for home for a home-cooked meal while my cravings are for either specific dishes like the killer avial  or homemade dosas...Now a true blue Malayali won't be caught dead calling them dosas...We call it doshas..the way a south indian says dosa can help you narrow down whether he's from the coconutty land ( that is if he hasn't said college or simbly till then!) Well I told you this piece was about stereotypes...My friends fall over themselves every time they see a Mallu joke - which often centres around how a Mallu pronounces a certain word or their affinity to work in the Gelf where their ungle already is... To this too, I nod my head in jaded resignation!

Those who don't begin by asking me my name or talking to me in Hindi don't immediately take me for a Malayali...And my poker straight black hair has been pointed as the reason for it, other than my 'unaccented' Hindi...Did you know that all Malayalis are expected to have springy curly hair that is maintained shiny with coconut oil glistening through the strands and the traditional kulippinnu - which literally translates to how your hair is tied after you have had a shower. This is essentially a few strands of hair taken from both sides and braided into a thin line to keep the rest of the hair in place! For easy reference to all of the above - think Lolakutty of Channel V fame - the bane of my life - (there are certain North-Indian friends of mine who nicknamed me that half an hour after meeting me for the first time!!!) And as you would have correctly guessed by now, I'm a far cry from this stereotypical depiction.

However, after living for the first twenty years of my life in Kochi, I don't think of it as much of a compliment when people say "Ohhh I didn't realise you were a Malayali till you mentioned your name!" and the other smart-assed observation is "Are you a Menon or did you marry one?"...I have been thinking about the reason why there is a clear mould in most people's head about Malayalis. Moulds are often about South Indians in general and then if they are informed enough to know there are four different states among Madrassis where four distinctly different languages are spoken, then more specifically Malayalis! The moment you identify yourself as a South Indian, there are people who start speaking jibberish and tell me that's how I speak my language. Well, how come I haven't seen you pull that fast one on a Bengali or a Gujarati? Our script is likened to jalebis squeezed out in rounded shapes into a bubbling vat of oil. Hmmm, if I think about that, there could be some geometric similarity. But if you'd tried to decipher the script, you'd realise we have far more letters than you'd care to memorise!

Lampooning is alright, all communities need to learn to take a few jibes, but to think all Malayalis have a few nurses hidden in their family tree or that all the rich ones grew rich by robbing the Arabs of the Gulf are stretching the stereotype a bit far. Our surnames too are generic caste names. So if you know a Menon does not mean that I'm automatically related to that one..Kind of like expecting all the Singhs to have come from the same big family banyan-like tree!

Often I catch myself trying to justify that I'm not a stereotypical Malayali, perhaps because I'm sick and tired of the number of jibes or the subtle change in accent to match my lilting tones that follow. But as I grow older, I have come to wonder why am I defensive about who I am? Every community has its own quirks. The bane or in many sense the boon of being a Malayali is the ability to adapt oneself into any environment and flourish there ( so long as it is not one's own state - we reserve the lowest priority for Kerala!) Now here comes another quirk that few have observed enough to stereotype. Put two non-Keralite Malayalis in one room and they will crib about how Kerala will never see development like other states till the cows come home. But no one dares point that all the capable managers and enterprising youngsters flee the state at the first opportunity and return only when the call of home grows louder in the years closer to retirement! Take a Malayali out of Kerala and incentivise him to be a diligent, conscientious worker and you might have a good prospect on your hand. But leave him in his state and he will figure how to get a full month's salary out of you by citing Worker's Rights without working more than ten days of the thirty in all!

I have been a non-resident Keralite for over twelve years now and over the years I have realised I look for ways to connect with my home state and root for my Malayali brethren. I have come to realise that I instinctively look for indicators that could suggest the person I'm interacting with belongs to a place close to where I am from. This is not to say that I discriminate against people from elsewhere - my closest people are all from the non-coconutty lands. Need I add, I'm usually the butt of a lot many cliched, over-used and under-thought jokes! But I have realised and now must admit that as I grow older, the need to appreciate my heritage is growing stronger and along with it, ways and means to break a few stereotypes.

Like for instance,

  • Men don't wear wrap-around skirts, they wear a mundu. And no, you can't call it a white lungi. We consider that sacrilege! 
  • We don't eat, drink and wallow in coconut oil for every meal, snack and as a daily ritual. It is a practical livelihood choice, coming as we do from a land of bountiful coconut trees!
  • Not all Malayalis have weird sounding names - many of us have pretty run-of-the-mill names, I pity the others, for they would have had scarring childhoods in Kerala or elsewhere! 
  • Cows are not slaughtered every day in every household. Yes, we don't have a religious taboo on eating beef, but fish can be considered a more endangered specie were it to be an option alongside beef before a Malayali.
  • Because we are known for our deep-rooted affinity to spirits, does not automatically translate to everyone having Herculean abilities to gulp down unlimited amounts of alcohol, those that do it are merely trying to prove they are self-destructive too! 
  • We are not all prone to practising and performing Kathakali moves or instinctively understanding the glorious artform enough to hold discourses on it. With those that do, take it with a pinch of salt!
  • and the last, for now, elephants are expensive acquisitions. Every house does not have one as a pet. In fact, those ancestral houses that boast of owning an elephant, talk of it, much the same way you'd boast if you had a Ferrari parked in your garage! 


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lucknow's Saath Paani Wala Gol Guppa

Now all those familiar with my blog know about my huge fondness for Chaats...

Time and again, I have told you about my cravings...While on my academic exile in the UK, the need to taste Chhole Pattice had even made me team up with the pretty decent combination of the Oh-so-very-English Hash Browns ( Batata patties to the desis) with Chhole straight out an MTR pack and garnish with finely chopped onions and a generous spray of chaat masala. Home sickness can gather new dimensions on a grey gloomy winter evening in England and any bit of home - some well-brewed strong adrak chai and chhole pattice can be a great remedy!

However, my all-time favourite has to be the panipuri or the gol guppa - depending on which part of the country you profess your allegiance to..My first tryst with the little puris filled to choking brim with tangy tamarindy-masala water and some potatoes/boondis and sprouts was in the form of gol be precise gol guppas gulped down in glee at the Karol Bagh market while on a vacation to Delhi during my school days. Chaat till then was only something I'd heard of. Talk of Mumbai and tales of bhel-puri evening and panipuris would follow from cousins and aunts based there, while we ( bloody villagers) in Kerala could just try to imagine what this must really taste like. Now in Delhi, you have to tell the chaatwala to add sweet chutney, if the spice of the imli paani causes a choke in the throat. Unlike in Mumbai, I later learnt where UPwala chaat-bhaiyas learnt to automatically add it to the panipuris prepared in a way to win their way to the hearts of their ever sweet-toothed Gujarati customer. So while my sister completely shuns the meetha chutney in her paani puris, I get mine custom made, with just a delicate drop of the sweet - kind of to balance the yin and yang, you could say!

Now I could have gone on and on about the differences in the Punjaabi chaat masala in the gol guppa and the UP-flavoured Gujarati-moderated version of paani puris popular in Mumbai. Even the puris, by itself taste vastly different! But I can't be bothered to nit-pick on these two for I have found a new favourite to add to my growing list of chaat loves - Lucknow's Saath Paani Wala Gol Guppa.

The Nawaabon ka Sheher believes in doing everything with an innate flair and style. I was being hosted in the land of the nawabs and the kababs by two feisty women who knew their way around their chaat. One of them has told me a number of times that once I had had chaat there, I'd refuse to try anything else before proclaiming Lucknowi chaat to be at the top of the charts! I was willing to give it a go, but wanted to keep such declarations to the minimum - we can't promote sycophancy, can we now?

So there we were, four women at about eight thirty at night, in a dimly lit galli(street) somewhere in the heart of the old city. And as we approached a rather busy chaatwala standing under a highly jaundiced streetlight, the smile that lit his face made me realise he knew his customers. One flimsy leafy saucer in hand, we took our positions bracing for the gol-gulping session that came with very very high expectations!

Were our chaatwallah Ravi to turn enterprising and re-package and market his wares, he could have easily called himself a gol-guppa designer. There was mastery, finesse and a method to his art that makes him fit for the title. The moment our little saucers were in hand, he warned us that we would never have had gol guppas like this before. The first three appeared to be like dabbles in the basic palette - one a plain one just dunked in the pani to set the premise, then a puri dunked in paani with a bit of jeera in it and another with hing.

Now so far in my chaat journeys, I have either been silently fed by chaatwalas who ensure a new puri takes the place of the one you have just gulped. Or else, if it a posher place, where you sit down to eat the paani puri, it would come in separate bowls, leaving us to make our own golguppas ( this I hate, I'd rather see some dirty hand-dunking and mouth-plopping than the sterile use of spoons and plates!)

So here was our gol-guppa designer, not just designing new flavours in each puri he was feeding us, but he kept a stream of running commentary on! So even before he prepared your next puri, you knew just what was coming....imagine combinations like kachcha aam and jeera or kachcha Aam, hing and jeera? There were about ten to twelve puris in all and seven flavours and a mix and match of them as well. The designer never says its over, its upon the connoisseurs to decide when to call a halt to the gulp-fest.

We grudgingly said enough at the end of the first round of ten or so...and then he produced his piece-de-resistance - a leaning tower of puris delicately balanced against each other, filled with a bit of a lot of things as a dry palate cleanser....Sighhhh, just revisiting that evening while I write about it fills my mouth with a pool of longing....

And as I walked away from the place, I bowed to the wise women from Lucknow, my hosts, who predictably grinned as if they just won a popularity contest!!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ammumma's Legacy

Today was a weird day, kind of heavy on nostalgia. I was just planning to tuck into some lunch, when I remembered a jar of pickled lemons - nothing elaborate, just lemons pickled in brine and haldi (my maid's style). As I opened the bottle, the smell that wafted out brought back memories of Ammumma...Ma's mother, who was a major presence in my life through my growing years.

Ammumma's cooking skills are like they joke 'world-famous'across Amma's native place in Thrissur..:)  She could turn anything into tasting divine and did it without much fuss. Cooking was a practical chore, just as mathematics was essential to ensure everyone in their large household got an equal share of the food cooked. Ammumma's mom had eleven children and she was the oldest. So with all the children and adults in the house to feed, cooking must have been a massive juggle. She had to take on the role of the housekeeper early in life and did it with such precision that all her younger siblings still reminsce about her remarkable housekeeping and cooking. In fact, while Amma and her sisters are amazing cooks, they humbly acknowledge that they aren't half as precise or disciplined as their mother was.

With Dad working abroad most of my life and Amma employed at a bank, we were brought up to a large extent by my grandparents. They loved living with us, I guess because Amma ensured they had the run of the house. Dad was a good son-in-law, happy and courteous to them because like he told me once, they were there to take care of his wife and kids when he needed them. About my grandfather and life around him, that has to be another post. This one is dedicated to Ammumma ( by the way, that's the Malayali term for mother's mother!)

Grandparents are often portrayed as indulgent old gentle people who always have a smile and a sweet to spoil the grandchildren. Well, Ammumma was in a separate class while these lessons were being taught. In hindsight, I guess it had to do with being one of the pillars of a large family. It couldn't have been easy doing all that she did for the family, there were few luxuries but she was no cribber. I remember Amma saying that as children they were never beaten for misdeeds at home, then again, like she adds, they rarely got into mischief. But Ammumma had a really fiery temper and a sharp tongue to match. Having to keep a temperamental little imp like me couldn't have been easy.

Imagine poor Amma's plight - getting home after a long day at work and the first thing she sees is her mother  on the war path - and that too against a seven-year old pug like me. Now were I more docile or if she were less insistent on discipline, Amma would have been able to work out a peace formula. Unfortunately, we had different ideas and an irresolute stand - much like the India government and the Kashmir separatists. Amma chose diplomacy and learnt the art of subtle ignore.

I have pretty thick, poker straight black hair and Ammumma was very fond of girls growing it long. Now I had other ideas. Everytime I'd moot cutting my hair short, Ammumma's voice would ring loud and clear in protest. Amma couldn't be bothered taking sides and so she let things be. But one evening, when she returned from work, she was met by her mother, in a mood to do a Thandav and sublimate her daughter ( I mean Amma's daughter!) And guess why? I had returned from college with a super short hair cut. It was not just that I'd gone and chopped off the hair, I'd got the lady at the parlour to snip if off and tie a rubber-band around it and came home brandishing it in one hand! Amma, I think didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this war of stubborn wills...

Its been over eleven years since Ammumma passed away...I can't tell you how much we miss having her around. If I could get back my childhood, I'd have definitely tried to be a more obedient grandchild. Today I realise all that she had struggled to instill in my sister and I. As a child, I thought she was too exacting, I wanted her to be like the grandmother in advertisements. She had strict standards and did not bend it for any. But thanks to those standards, my Amma and her sisters turned out into fabulous women and my sister and I literally learnt the importance of hard work and clean living - as they say what is learnt in the cradle lasts till the tomb.

Her love was not the kind that was spoken and demonstrated through indulgence. Hers was the pragmatic sorts, the kind of giving of oneself without expecting little back. I want to be like a grandmother like her someday - having a role in shaping my grandchildren's life, not just being a pleasant extra who spoke all the right dialogues that the grandchildren want to hear to gain brownie points.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Summer On My Blog

I think I am in a fairly poetic mood today. No, that does not mean I'm going to bore you with poetry, it just means I might 'wax eloquent'.

As I write this, I'm being slow cooked in the skin as foodie-talk goes, the mercury in Mumbai is tottering on high heels between 36 degrees and 39 degrees. The evenings are marginally pleasant-er at early thirties. What makes the heat obsessive is perhaps the humidity. But after living most of my life in coastal cities, I must admit, I'd rather be steamed to death than spit-roasted in a dry tandoor like the heat in Delhi or Pune does. Having lived in both the cities, I must say there were days when I craved some sweat to cool my burning skin down. I'm sure a few noses have already wrinkled in disgust at my ode to sweat-inducing humidity, so let's get to more pleasant things.

I have blogged a while ago about a word-association game that my English teacher taught us to play while at school. It was a way of teasing the imagination, creating Word Sketches, quite literally. So an emotion or a colour could be expressed in more tangible terms. Say for instance, Pleasure could be answered with The First Lick of Cotton Candy while Black could be the Gathering Thunder Clouds before a Storm. There were no right or wrong answers, just the race among kids desperate to impress the teacher by coming up with the best word-association.

Over the last month, I tried to play the game with myself. Not words, but pictures. Here is what I came up with...

The fiery red gulmohur tree bursting into flames as the sun mercilessly beats down on the earth. They remind of travelling by the Naval Base in Kochi, the line of trees along the edge of the backwaters marking the advent of blazing summers. For Malayalis, the flowering of the golden shower tree, or the Kani Konna is a symbol of summer and the advent of Vishu. The vishukani is incomplete without an abundant spray of the kanikonna, so much so that in those areas where Malayalis abound and kanikonna is a rare sight, the flowers are shipped by the kilo ahead of Vishu.

Summers are also the time for the juiciest of watermelons and muskmelons. I constantly thank the wonderful invention called the refrigerator that ensures a steady supply of cold water and iced teas. But more importantly, it keeps watermelon chilled cool. Dad often buys huge watermelons and lugs it home and Amma promptly cuts them, fills them into tall steel containers and shoves it to the coolest depths of the ice-box. By evening, we make massive inroads into these containers. Watermelons are tension-free fruits, unlike the sweet nectar like mangoes. Till last year, Dad's overt fondness for this summer fruit meant that he would buy them by the kilo at the price charged. This year, our mango tree has been yielding him Alfonsos, making all the love, care and little nothings that he has whispered to the mango tree to coax it to yield the sweetest mangoes.

Mangoes apart, the English summer is the time for Wimbledon...its also the time for strawberries and cream. Now while in England, you can neither crib about the pounds spent on buying strawberries to dunk in fattening double cream or the pounds that you gain eating them to commemmorate the warmth of the sun that peaks out longer after grey grey winters. Summers for me is also a tall jar of Pimms, mixed with lemons and oranges and bottles of tonic water. No one orders a Pimms by the glass, you order it by the jug. And no delicate sipping is allowed. You  have to compulsorily guzzle it down to sake the thirst.

Summers also spell barbeque by the beach, although barbecuing pork and beef sausages mean I'm usually stuck plucking off grilled peppers and mushrooms from the racks for myself. But even the sun-browned Indian skin craves the warm kisses of sunshine after acclimatising itself to the heat given off by the radiators to get rid off the chill that settles deep inside the bone.

Ooooh, talking of summers, ice creams should be the dessert to end this post on...Of all the ice creams that I have sampled from across the world, there is something to be said about the Turkish variety. They beat the cream in iced vats till the cream surrenders and pliantly lets itself be scooped. Each lick is creamy without any icicle to spoil the taste or texture. Someone whispered that the secret of a creamy Turkish icecream is the high quality goat's milk that is churned to make the ice cream. The chocolate flavours are not overtly sweet but cocoay, the vanilla oozes its flavour while a tangy lemon makes you squint  while a big gulp can give you a brain freeze...Sigh! Nothing like an ice cream to cool your inners down as your skin burns away in the summer sun. 
Now as you finish this post, I'm off to raid the fridge in the hope that there's still a bit of Naturals ice cream left behind! Have we spoken about Mumbai's very own Naturals? I guess we haven't! More on that soon!!!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Some Uncomfortable Truths

I have a long standing grouse with Indian television. After a brief flirtation with literature, classics and some hard-hitting topics during the days of Doordarshan, television decided to dumb down their content in the search for wider audience. From meaningful, socially relevant topics forming the base for serials, the search for stories turned glossy and glamourous. It didn't matter if the story hadn't moved two steps forward in half a year, the jewellery, styling and of course a bit of scandal thrown in here and there was enough to keep the TRPs of these mass-churners high.

For those, not familiar with TRPs - it is Total Rating Points, a completely market-driven/devised system that does not have a clearly defined algorithm or process - say, 1000 households surveyed could be used as the sample size to arrive at the television viewing pattern of millions. I deliberately keep it vague at millions because even the producers and broadcasters of most programming in India are clueless over who their real audience is..the marketing strategy and content-design are based primarily on the perceived audience or the target audience. Let's not get too technical here, I shall get to more populist issues. This brings me back to Satyamev Jayate - I think the strength of this show lies primarily in teasing those consider them to be thinking citizens to react - positive or negative - a reaction is worth its weight in gold, in today's scattered and highly fragmented watching patterns of the Indian junta. This post is my second one on Aamir Khan's television debut, within the first two weeks that his show has been on air!

My first post had examined what others think, what they said after watching the first episode that dealt with Sex -Determination and Female Foeticide. This post is on what I think, not just about the episode I watched, but of how we as a society at large, deal with uncomfortable truths. Watching the second episode on Child Sexual Abuse is discomfitting to say the least. I have no children at home, so I didn't have to be conscious of the impact the show would have on them. Several friends of mine tweeted or posted on Facebook that they were watching the show with their young children and they felt this was a show was one that needed to be watched with their kids, to make them aware, sensitised to the menace around. I am all for  sensitising young children to the uncomfortable truths of life, sheltering them from the ills and perversions of the world only ends in adding to their naivete and not protecting their innocence. For this very reason, I do not believe in censoring internet or television viewing.

It is impractical to think we can bring up our children in the same manner we were brought up or the way our parents were - I have often heard that dialogue being pandered - we grew up alright, why not them? My answer is growing up depends not just on the nurturing at home, but there are several social factors that are not in the control of the individual. We need to strike a balance - while we continue to be socially mobile, are we going to lock our children away in a 'secure' environment that has little to do with our reality? Are iPads and laptops and mobile phones a bane and not a boon to life now?

I wonder how many of us can honestly claim to have had the most protective childhood without any shocks or uncomfortable truths buried deep in our mental closets?? Emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse are topics considered anathema in 'respectable' households, that means, if you are subjected to any of this, you might be pressured to think the fault lies inherently within you. The reason I say this is, these topics are never freely raised at homes in India. We don't grow up knowing adequately about our sexuality or what would justify as a sexual assault.

In spite of a rather unrestricted, liberal upbringing and a hyper-curious nature, for years I believed the version that my live-in maid ( a young girl in her late teens or early twenties) told me that if a man hugged me during the days of my period, I could fall pregnant! It took a lot of learning at school and unlearning pre-conceived notions to realise what gullible fools young girls can be! Young boys grow with their own set of insecurities, from when their voice breaks, if they are 'big' enough to pass peer scrutiny or if they sprout adequate facial hair to name just a few!

If I consider my upbringing as an above-average one, I can just extrapolate what would have been that of others. Gynaecology and Sexual Psychology are still words that are mumbled, if you try to make an example by talking of it openly, it is considered crass and 'unladylike' behaviour! Minor abuses that most children go through while growing up is quietly swept under the carpet, even by the child themselves. I don't think it is intrinsically an Indian tendency, although our conservative social standards mean that the whistleblower is deemed guilty till proven innocent.

Amidst all the regressive serials that we are now subjected to that have little more than time-pass value ( I won't even go as far as call it entertainment) and reality shows that are designed to titillate and introduce new words of abuse and denigration into our lexicon ( I agree these are words used regularly by the young, but the truth is the fairly large majority of youngsters pick up these words from television and not from their peers), I am relieved to see a show that forces you to put on your thinking caps. Throw stones, poke holes or even discredit the presentation, but in doing that you are actually constructively thinking about the issue. That to me is the success of Satyamev Jayate. I also think it is smart marketing to syndicate the show across vernacular channels too, increasing the target audience that can be reached.

I see the points raised by several who aren't impressed by the show, in fact, Aamir's theatrics at times lets down the serious intent of the show and it is difficult to forgive it as genuine and spontaneous and therefore left unedited. Ultimately it is an edited show and there is a super-starry film personality as an anchor. This is where the Oprah kind of comparison leaps into my head.

We have finally an Oprah Khan for Indian television. Had Aamir's team not resorted to retaining the anchor's emotional involvement with the subject, I feel the treatment would have elevated itself out of the comparitive box with Oprah's chat shows. I must admit I am a fan of Oprah's shows because she knows how to handle sensitive issues like child abuse. There are other topics she has made a hash of, but I willingly forgive the drama inherent because these are shows aimed at a larger good- Mobilise public opinion on topics that are otherwise those that are rarely raised. That Aamir has lent his personality to raising awareness and talking about these issues vindicates the fact that this is also a commercial venture for his production house. My question is so what? So what if he is making money? He is raising awareness, he is putting new topics on your discussion table,topics that are not about Saas, Bahu, Saazish or Who's sleeping with Who in the Bigg Boss house. If the facets raised of the ugly truths that our society is sluggish to acknowledge are not satisfactory or accurate in perspective, it opens up a plethora of opportunity to use the opening provided to discuss it threadbare or raise the level of activism over the issue. In all these reasons lie the reason why I vote for the show to be watched!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sisterhood of Whines and Gripes

Most of my faithful readers so far would know that my family comprises of my dad, Amma and a brat who happens to be younger to me by five years and three months that I love to exaggerate as five and a HALF years, in the vain hope that the HALF addendum might get me some extra respect and gravitas for my opinions!

How futile are the hopes. So now that I have introduced you to Amma ( A Shoe Story) and Dad ( Lost Memories, Lost Innocence), the last in the quartet is eagerly anticipating when she would feature in Word Sketches. That's how Sisterhood of Whines and Gripes began writing itself!

So this is an incident that happened yesterday. The maid decided to take an unexpected day off, unlike others working in this area, this one does not believe in carrying a mobile phone. So there is no way to reach her, if she decides she is not upto working today! We are literally at the mercy of a four feet something, forty kilos woman. So there was a mound of washing up that had been postponed as my backlog of work meant, I had little time to spare, except for updating Facebook and catching up with friends on g-chat!

My sisterly love bursts forth often, not that the brat will acknowledge, when I don't see her for long. My travels over the past two months have meant I am often in the mushy state of missing her or picking up something for her! Now that I was back and the maid was out, I decided washing the chai ka pateela and assorted stuff needed to be done just once, that is if chai was made just once the brat returned from work...So in a moment of abject sisterly affection, I wrote out a message ( kind of wifely one, that read, When are you expected home ji? The maid hasn't turned up today, so thought I'd wait for you to make chai). Now how innocent and loving is that message. The brat replies promptly saying Leaving in ten. I'd just gone back to working, when ping comes another message - Ehhh, does this mean I have to make chai??

Now you tell me, from that innocent message above, would you try to read between the lines like that?? Will you? Well, my brat did...Now truth be told, I think she makes better chai than I do. So there are days when I sweetly request her to make it. The brat, on her part, keeps a tally of the number of times she had to measure out the tea leaves into water and bring out mugs of chai. Just how much can you keep scores, you may ask?? Well, she can and how!! So coming back to the earlier message, my public stand is that when I told her upfront about the maid not turning up, it wasn't an exhortation to her to come home after a long day of work and act the role of the maid. On the contrary, she thinks that since I work from home, I'm like the proxy stay-at-home wife, who cooks and sews and keeps the house pretty. And younger brats, somehow get away with expecting all this and more!!

Wouldn't you agree with me that the innocent SMS I sent shouldn't have been mangled and interpreted as she did?? Now that she had, I asked her if she wanted to make chai and Good Lord, what a fuss she made...till the poor, harassed me dragged my tired self into the kitchen and silently made chai. I come back with the chai into the drawing room where she is sprawled in front of the television, looks at me with unholy glee in her eyes and says, I told everyone on Facebook how shrewd you are...Now in our day and age, imagine being written about on Facebook??? Holy sacrilege the brat's status update read - "You have got to love your sister when she sends you messages like "Maid hasn't come today, waiting for you to come home to make chai"...sigh...such a delight"...

I was just gulping down that harsh message, which had thoughtfully tagged me in it too,  when the barrage of Likes and Comments began...unprecedented traffic on her page - mirthfully she counted 20 likes and an assorted number of messages, largely from my friends!!! No one could believe, I could treat the younger one like the cruel stepmother in Cinderella...And she wallowed in it all, washing dirty laundry in public about how I find weird excuses for not making chai!!

A tragedy of Grecian proportions, wouldn't you say?? Now my reputation lies in tatters, I maintained a dignified silence on Facebook and decided to pour my heart out here!! How do you deal with the sisterhood of whines and gripes?? How???

( Rejoinder: The Brat realised from the look of absolute mischief on my face that I was up to no good this morning, and promptly she concluded that I must be blogging about her. She has warned me that if I am not charitable to her, she will bash my face in...And I have reasons to be scared, she has about four and a half inches in height over me making me look like a little puny nothing, when she puffs up in mean anger! 

So my friends, be measured in your analysis of my situation. You do not want me to be a statistic in the annals of those martyred in the way of domestic abuse! Ohhh and if you liked this post, I will unburden myself about other childhood traumas too that I suffered at the hands of the little 666 in my life!) 

( Photo courtesy: Aly &AJ Cartoon Pictures)