Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Maiden Encounter with Four Letter Words

We were too young to know one must behave with propriety towards the mentally challenged woman who stood on the other side of the raod, outside our gate. My brother and I(6 and 5 years) clung to the gate provoking her. And then-- she uttered that four letter word in Malayalam. and she repeated it –over and over and over again, as tho’ it gave her some relief. This got us curious. What could that word mean? Of course, we knew it had to be an expletive but didn’t realize that it was the most forbidden word in Malayalam.
So off I went, looking for my mother who was my mobile dictionary. I came to the veranda off the kitchen. Three or four professional palaharam (snacks)makers were working full swing, making muruku, achappam, cheeda, laddus, mysore pak etc. we children were not allowed entry into the verandah because lighted stoves were kept on the floor of the veranda. Also we’d bring in dust and sand in the cooking area. And so there I stood in the backyard, at the bottom of the steps of the verandah, calling out to my mother.
Amma soon appeared on the verandah, warning me to stay away from it. I told her I wanted to ask her something important, and she asked me to go ahead and ask from where I was standing. Needless to say, I had to shout while I was talking to her on account of the distance between us.
Amma, amma, what does ---- mean?
All froze. The men busying themselves with their work and my mother. Yes. On that hot mid summer afternoon, they froze. all of them!
and the silence? it was deafening.
I knew something was amiss but didn’t realize what it was. Then amma stirred and started coming down the steps with a strange expression on her face. She walked towards me with a deadly calm, took my hand firmly, turned me around briskly and oh god, --I saw more stars than heavens could hold.
And to date, I have never ever uttered that word.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Cicily Thaathi

She was part of out large household, and used to do hand embroidery as also assist the tailor with hand work. Her time schedule was from 8.30 to 5 o lock. We children used to be ecstatic when she had to stay over. ‘Cos she was a wonderful story teller.

Her father was a small time fish vendor whom amma patronized. One day he asked amma whether she could give some employment to his daughter. The only skill she knew was hand embroidery. Those were days of famine and amma, with her compassionate nature and strong aesthetic inclinations, asked him to bring his daughter over. She thus became part of the household for more than two decades.

As she embroidered delicate designs on the fabric, she would tell us stories. She was a voracious reader (I remember, on the days she stayed over, she used to ask us to get all the magazines and whatever books we could lay our hands on and would read, oblivious of the surroundings. while we hung around with excitement, waiting for her to tell us the story she had read just then). She must have had access to books too. It is from her that I first heard the various episodes from The Song of Roland. I still remember the excitement with which my brother and I listened to that episode where Roland, as a small boy, snatches a dish from Emperor Charlemagne, not knowing that the latter is his uncle. I still remember the expression of distress on my brother’s face as I stole a look at him through tears, as thaathi gave graphic description of how the wounded Oliver was put in a salt well by the Saracens. Cecily thaathi used recite the verses and then explain the lines in the language we understood. And she had this habit of switching over to the recitation at the climactic moment, thereby sustaining the suspense for a few minutes longer. I remember, when a few references came from The Song of Roland in our PG lectures, I could nod intelligently and call out a few names of characters and episodes, much to the surprise of both my teachers and classmates, for I was, as a rule, the silent one in the class. Looking back, I think thaathi must have had access to the scripts of chavittunadakam which was a popular Christian art form. Whatever her source, she could fire our imagination and cause our small horizons to widen. Both my brother and I have a love for history and I think we can give the credit for it to Cicily thaathi.
She told us the story of the good and virtuous Pulomaja. I don’t remember where the story was set or any other details; but I remember that the story was so captivating that we were 15 minutes late for lunch, and got spanked royally- both for coming down late and for slowing down thaathi’s work. But we went back to her, time and again to hear the stories - fables and myths, story of Maria Goretti and Alexander and and - - -. After we heard Maria Goretti’s story, we began to suspect that our ironing man Alexander was the reformed Alexander who killed Maria Goretti. One day, my brother and I decided to confront him with the big question, making sure there were enough people around to protect us while we sprang the question “are you the Alexander who killed Maria Goretti?” The audience comprising the cook and the domestic help went into peals of laughter while Alexander did not seem amused. “yes” he thundered, his white eyes staring fiercely at us from his ebony face, and we ran to Cicly thaathi with the confirmation that the Alexander of the story was down there ironing clothes. How thaathi laughed. Tears streamed down her face while she told us that the villain Alexander, though still alive was in ‘uuuuurope”. “But he has admitted killing Maria Goretti” I insisted. “He was only trying to fool you’, assured thaathi.

I have a lot more to tell of the spinster Thaathi who lived a life of extreme dignity till the grand old age of 85, sewing(though almost blind) till the moment she got up from the mat on which she sat, in her own tailoring shop, to cross the road and got fatally knocked down by a speeding vehicle.

Teachers, Beware!

it was a shocker-with just a few months to go before I take voluntary retirement, my student who is now my colleague tells me that as a teacher I was a terror!!! and I always thought that I was the sweetest and most amiable person on earth!!

she tells me that the story that is still doing the rounds about me is that once, during my lecture, a fly buzzed around my face. and I looked at it once and it vanished. they don’t know how the vanishing act was achieved. probably got charred, the students still say.

and she remmbers each occasion when I blew my lid off- and the strangest thing is, I don’t remember any of them! in fact I don’t remember ever getting angry with that particular batch. I used to like them and enjoy my lecture sessions with them!!!!!

I had half a mind to withdraw my decision to retire and go on so that I get sometime to repair my image.

no use , my student turned colleague says, too late. there’s a gulf between the person I know as my colleague and the person who was my teacher.

I have just a few more months in service and I have made up my mind that atleast the present batch of students will take home pleasant memories about me.

and so I have started damage control operations.

last week I entered the class room smiling broadly. tried to sustain that countenenance throughout. did I catch the students exchanging furtive glances? am not sure but I certainly do hope I did not over do it. don’t want them to think that I’ve become soft in the brain overnight.

but I intent to keep at it.

in the meanwhile, teachers, be careful how you conduct yourself in the lecture rooms. you are on the wrong side of the desk from where a a perplexed expression will appear like a scowl, a sneeze like a tornado, and silence like an iceberg.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Are Indians getting to be intolerant?

The UP government has banned Jaishree Mishra's book 'Rani' on the grounds that it shows Rani of Jhansi in poor light. Well. True that Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi hailed from UP, Jodha Akbar from Rajasthan, Bose from Bengal, Sarvarkar from Maharashtra.But none of these states have any proprietory rights over these personlities with regard their depiction in a work of art. they cannot dictate how an artist or a film maker should portray them. a novel or a film is a work of art, and artists have poetic license which society should respect. One can understand if all this fuss and banning is about a documentary which is expected to abide somewhat by laid down 'facts'-but a film and a novel? art is all about the creativity of the artist and is bound to be different. art is art precisely because it can accommodate a plethora of interpretations.

Why have we Indians become so intolerant -and parochial? And why do we brandish history as an alibi to our irrational reactions ariising from unhealthy possessive, parochial claims? We live in times when history is no longer considered factual or autoratative. The so called 'indisputable facts' of history are constructed by the historian whose perception is shaped by his location in particular historical/political/cultural/ideological site. In other words history is no longer considered god's own truth but a discourse in which the 'truth' is only a view point and it is supported by selected facts. this makes history a very unreliable alibi.

i would say the same thimg about people going livid over religious issues too. What harm can a Da Vince Code do to Jesus Christ, or a few Paintings do the deities or a novel do to the Prophet? isn't faith above the representations and perceptions of artists?

like Russel said, if we are sure, we will be unaffected by a different point of view. if our faith is strong, we'll not fly off the handle. Gods can survive blasphemies. they do not want us to take up their cause by banning, burning , breaking or blood letting.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Dangerous game again

The rath yatra has begun and issues best left to oblivion are being raked up again. A couple of decades ago it was Ram janmabhoomi. The profit was reaped by the BJP and the loss, by the country. it divided the nation.

Now the issue is terrorism. And the UPA appears to have no intention of ignoring the issue which they ideally should. Instead what they do is this.

(this is from The Hindu e paper)
What is your record in curbing terror, Congress asks Advani

First set your house in order: Singhvi

Afzal Guru was arrested and let off under NDA rule two months before Parliament attack

Why did NDA government capitulate to hijackers?

and then

“What is their record when Mr. Advani was Home Minister and later Deputy Prime Minister? The nation wants to know what transpired between the Deputy Prime Minister and the then Foreign Minister [Jaswant Singh], on one side, and the Taliban diplomats, the Afghanistan officials and the hijackers of IC 814, on the other, between December 24 and December 31, 1999,” asked Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi.

well. the nation wants to know nothing of the sort. we just want to be left alone to lead a peaceful life.

a plea to genetic engineers- is there some way of cloning that extinct species called honest politician/statesman?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Salwar Revolution in Kerala

The government of kerala has permitted school teachers to wear salwar kameez to work. it'll soon be extended to college teachers too.

we must hand it to the various govts of kerala for coming out with such landmark and citizen friendly orders once in a way. and i like the argument that the unwritten law that women teachers wear sarees to work is a gendered one as there are no restrictions on men.

congratulations and thank you, kerala govt. it really required a govt order to change the fossilised mindset of the people.