Thursday, July 31, 2008

Education in Kerala - What a Shame!

I was talking with my 80 + & 90 + in-laws, and once again the thought came to me - it comes every time I converse with people of that generation - that they had a much better education than what Kerala offers in the present day.

Their comfort level in English, their awareness about the world around them, their sense of history, their knowledge of geography are way above that of the students I had to deal during my teaching days. Even as a young school and college going student, I’ve heard my parents talk of the school system they had in their time – and seeing the product that the system produced, I begin to feel that we should go back to those days.

All schools were Malayalam medium till 4th standard. A student who wants to continue in Malayalam medium gets promoted to 1st Form and goes on uninterrupted till she reaches 9th standard, which is the school completion point.

The student who opts for English medium education goes, after 4th standard, through the Preparatory class which gives them intensive coaching in basics in English. After that they go to the 1st Form. School education becomes complete with 6th form.

And I find that, that generation was educated in the true sense of the word. Being a teacher by profession, I can make this statement with authority. Our parents did not have tuitions, or ‘educated’ parents to help them with studies at home. But their standard in written English (spoken too if they were employed in positions which required them to use it) would put not just today’s SSLC students, but also graduates and post graduates to shame. I am not resorting to hyperbole to drive home a point- it’s the plain simple truth.

Yes. I think the education minister should sit up and take a look at what education has come to since the time of his parents, and try remodeling on those lines. Am sure it’ll produce marvelous results.

Of course, a necessary condition would be de-linking politics from reforms relating to education sector. Take a look at this case to see how different things are in other states. A Polytechnic affiliated to the SNDT University in Mumbai offers, among other courses, a diploma in Office Administration and Secretarial Practices. The students are screened for their competence level in the English language the very day they join – an entry level test as it is called. Divisions A & Division B are formed based on the results. Intensive training in spoken and written English (an imperative for the profession they are trained for) is given to the Division A comprising low scorers in the English entry level screening test. In the second year, both the divisions sit together, for, the students of A division would have improved their communication skills in English. There have been instances where those who scored high in the entry level screen test opt for A Division on account of the intense coaching in English they would get.

Try introducing this practice in Kerala. The DYFI and SFI and KSU and SUCI will be on the streets destroying public property and indulging in murder and arson to end the ‘bourgeois, elitist discrimination’!

Of course, it is not fair to put all the blame on the govt and the system for the decline in the quality of education in Kerala. Over the years, Keralites have grown to take education for granted. Our rulers in the pre independence days did us a wonderful service by starting schools in every nook and corner of the state. Our parents’ generation was the first full fledged takers of this education. They valued it. I remember my father telling me that he used to walk miles and miles to attend school. Today’s generation skips classes on a hartal day if they have to walk only walkable distance to school or college. And with subsidies and stipends, education has become cheap. And what comes cheap is not valued, but taken for granted.

And the fees my parent’s generation paid might sound trivial to us in these days when we speak in terms of crores. The women in the thirties had to pay Rs3 ¾ pm whereas men had to pay Rs. 5. The fees for preparatory around that time was Rs.2 ¼. In the school which my mother-in law attended, the boarding fees was 22 idangazhi of rice (1 idangazhi = 1 ½ kg, I think) and Rs. 4/. My father who graduated from Maharaja’s College paid Rs. 5/pm as his hostel fees. All these people I had spoken to sometime or other, swear that their families had to make immense sacrifice to make that kind of payment in cash or kind.

That generation PAID for their education - paid through their nose. They were not imparted education with the tax payers money. So they valued it. And the beauty of it all was, they had no mercenary attitude to it. Education was not considered a mere stepping stone to a job. It was a simple case of love of enlightenment, love of education for its own sake. Many beneficiaries of education in those days went back to their agricultural occupation which they could have managed without formal education. And most women remained housewives. But their education gave them a certain quality difficult to describe. To say that they were resilient, faced life’s wear and tear with a philosophical shrug, and became addicted to reading (and to Malayala Manorama in the Mid Travancore region), is to illustrate only some of the ways in which education impacted them.

The present day scenario is very depressing. As a teacher I have seen how students come to class and sit there bewildered when I start to teach in English (unfortunately, I am a teacher of the English language). If I ask them a question and insist they answer in whatever broken English they know, they’ll look at you with such a trapped expression that you excuse them hastily lest they send you running for smelling salts! Of course there are exceptions but the general rule is this.

What has gone wrong? Where and when? All the ‘progressive’ reforms have only made matters worse. Why isn’t anyone doing a serious study on this issue?

This year Kerala registered an all time high in SSLC pass percentage. That it was a political decision, there is no doubt. The situation at the moment is: there are many students who cannot not be accommodated for Plus One, despite the tall claims of fair admissions through Single Widow Admissions. The best beneficiaries of this crisis are the political parties. All those SSLC passed students who are not likely to get admission into schools form a veritable goldmine for parties to get recruits

What has gone wrong with Kerala education is, as I see it:
Politicization of all decision, including reforms related to admissions, examinations, pass percentage, fees - the works. The populist reform of introducing group system in SSLC to allow more and more students to pass was the first major death knell to education in the state. More and more electorate friendly reforms followed.

So, what is the role of academics in this scenario? Well nothing - except be happy tools in the hands of politicians and political parties.

What a fall from the days of yore!.

In the meanwhile, I hear the requiem being sung for quality education in the most literate state in the country.

And the red carpet that had been rolled out for mediocrity has been extended to welcome sub mediocrity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

The other day there was a news item on how two head load workers rushed Aiyeneth (poet) to the hospital from an accident site, and were rewarded by a public sector bank for it. I guess this must be one way of discharging Corporate social responsibility - by encouraging such humanitarian acts which should come naturally to us, but unfortunately don’t. The news item brought to my mind my involvement in a similar situation some fifteen years back.

October is the month when the North East monsoon visits Kerala. It is the time of the year when you’ll be caught in the thunder shower if you don’t rush home after work. One such October evening saw me hurrying to the bus stand at around 5 in the evening after work. I had to pass the main overcrowded junction (kavala) to reach the bus station. As I was waiting at the zebra crossing, I saw an auto come close to the footpath at breakneck speed, and run over the right foot of a woman. A young policeman started giving the auto the chase but as he ran, he called out to the passersby to take the woman to the hospital. What followed could constitute the theme for a brief a comedy show – a tragicomedy, would be more correct, for it testifies to callousness that we humans are capable of.

The minute I heard the policeman shout out, I bolted across the zebra crossing. I told myself “Got to go a long way. The locals will do it”. At 90 degrees to the zebra crossing there was one more to be crossed and as I waited for the signal, I tried looking through the corner of the eye to see what was happening at the accident site. I couldn’t see through the crowd. So hoping that someone would have taken care of the lady ( but knowing fully well, deep inside me, that nobody would) I threw an elaborately casual glance (often times we try to fool ourselves) across the Zebra path. To my horror, I saw that the lady, who had been dragging herself towards a jewelry shop, collapse there on the granite platform encroaching into the pavement in front of the shop. She was wailing, and bleeding profusely from her foot. People walking up and down gave her a passing glance (like my elaborately casual glance) and, like I too tried to do, went their way hoping someone else will do it. Through the tinted door of the shop fitted with gleaming thick steel handle, the employees in the gold shop were watching the woman, now weeping aloud and begging to be helped. I waited for a couple of minutes, one-liner save-the-situation prayers racing through my mind, one after the other.

“Yippee! You’ve heard me, Lord, thank you, thank you. That guy is looking earnestly at her- he’ll---oh, no. He too is a shirker - like me!”

My God wasn’t going to let me off so easily. The woman stopped crying and lay down as though she had lost faith in humanity.

I retraced my steps with a sinking feeling. Why Lord, why do you do this to me? I want to go home - it‘s getting to be very dark. And I don’t want to take all that responsibility.

Feeling very sorry for myself, I went back, grudgingly. I couldn’t walk away ‘cos if something happened to her, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself after that.

The woman was hefty. I needed help to lift her to her feet.

“Sir, can you help me?” He looks though me as though I am transparent. (Do I sound like Phil Collin’s Another Day in Paradise? :-))

I asked another and another and another, panic rising.

No one would come to my assistance.

I stood there bewildered, not knowing what to do, when, out of nowhere, two of my students came running. The three of us helped the woman - now rather weak, and weeping weakly and groaning in pain -to the zebra crossing and then the next drama began.

I stopped an auto and we started helping the woman into it. Just then the driver turned around and saw that this was an “accident case”. He violently pulled up the starter lever and swish, he vanished! We had the same experience with two other autos.

Eh, listen you sitting up there so coolly, I prayed (?), what have I done to deserve this?

“M’am, shall I ask the traffic policeman for help?”(This cop was in the elevated island right in the dead centre of the junction where the four roads meet). That was my student.

Almost as if he heard her, he turned around and showed the stop sign. Till the traffic cop gave the green signal, all vehicles had to wait behind the zebra crossing to allow pedestrians to cross. We noticed an unengaged auto waiting at the signal, and started helping the woman into it. The auto driver protested but he couldn’t rush off as the round stop sign plate still faced our side. Anyway, by then I had decided I’d put my foot down and not let him go. What the heck, is this my responsibility alone? I asked my students, in a loud voice, to take down his number, and then told him that if he does not take us to the hospital, I’ll lodge a complaint. He grumbled, pulled a long face but I got in after the lady and the auto started.

The govt. hospital was only a furlong and a half from the kavala, and he kept muttering something under his breath all the way (Why blame him? I was also muttering against the almighty for putting me in a spot like that). We reached the hospital and two attenders helped the woman out of the auto. Taking change out of my handbag, I turned around to pay the driver, but the auto had vanished! The man and the vehicle had fled as though the very devil were after them!

What happened in the hospital was even more upsetting. But that can wait- - -

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Week That Was - Jumbled Reflections

What a week it has been!

A one day match in the Parliament, a close fight, a nail biting finish(the speaker was seen literally biting his nails)and then allegations of mathch fixing to be followed by investigations and then - nullifying the outcome of the match?

And now the blasts. Low intensity they might be - but two lives lost, many seriously injured.Every innocent life lost is a reason for tears. Panic, fear and a sense of insecurity descend on the nation once again.

Who is doing this? And why?

Do they think bombs and bullets can destroy a nation? We, as a nation, have survived many a trauma - and did not go under. Will not go under.

These mindless cowardly killings should serve only to re enforce our nationalism, bring home with force the thought that we need to continue being resilient, and be proud of being an Indian. The best part of Rahul Gandhi's recent speech in the parliament was when he said :'I speak, not as a Congress Party member, but as an Indian'. Let us all think and behave like Indians.

What can we do as individuals?

We can begin by blocking resentment and bitterness from entering our hearts. It isn't easy, particularly in times of crisis such as this. But keep our poise, we must. We must make a conscious effort to forgive and go forward, instead of gritting our teeth and baying for vengeance. We must us keep in mind Gandhiji's words that an eye for an eye makes the world go blind. That blindness we do not want. Let us not invite that darkness.

What should our leaders do?

That's the question. Their blind hunger for power, the ideology blinded political moves, the lure of the pelf which blinds them to the responsibility that rests with them. Power, ideology and money - all blinding factors which operate independently or in combination to make possible the entry of king makers and criminals and shameful horse trading into the Parliament and make a mockery of democracy and its institutions.

I wish there were a panacea - an ottamooli - that we can administer to cure our leaders of their blindness!

And we, the people need to be proactive. We can make a start in our small little worlds, in our small ways. Starting from our own minds, then in our immediate surroundings, in the people we come into contact with in our daily interaction with life, we must sow the seeds of patriotism, statesmanship and devotion to principles. Our Speaker Somnath Chatterjee's display of these qualities came as a draft of fresh air in the polluted atmosphere of the Parliament, as a ray of hope. Let us take leaf out of his book.

Let us hope our leaders - at least some of them- get inspired by this remarkable Parliamentarian and follow his footsteps.

I am confident that India will bounce back, as she always does, after these setbacks. Becaus we the people love our counry.

Jai Hind

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ramblings from a Magic Carpet

My brother downloaded some music and sent me a CD full of our family favourites - of the sixties and seventies. I played them and ---

Do you know that music can transport you through time and space? And then soft land you through mists of oblivion into forgotten regions in the vast realm of memory?

Yes. That’s exactly what happened for more than an hour when I sat in the room of the staff hostel listening to the songs we used to listen to as children, sitting before the Telefunken radiogram or the Grundig spool tape recorder. The first number was Cliff Richard’s Young Ones - and the mists begins to clear. I saw us siblings (we were quite a number) sitting together around these gadgets, listening, talking, arguing – S Janaki is better than P Leela, Jayachandran is a better than Yesudas in certain types of rendition(my music savvy brother), Jayachandran potta potta potta ,(my youngest brother –too small to take on the senior one on one), MGR is a hopeless actor (the youngest one takes a swing at the speaker), Umrigar is the greatest - none like him(that was the last but one), stories of the ongoing tussle between Minnal (nickname of an upright and uptight SI) and Sarkar Mohammed (a dashing dare devil , I think), I’ll tell amma you are actually playing book cricket when she thinks you are studying(the youngest). Then I’ll tell her you ate meat cutlet from the fridge on Friday (The last but one).

Yes. Music, more than anything else, can stir up memories of distant days and breathe life into the hazy shadows which never desert the mind but lie inert in some uninhabited alcove of that region. Scattered bits of memory fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle and images flit thru the mind, one after the other, images which move, speak, laugh and quarrel. Delicious smell of olath Irachi or chemmen frying come wafting in from our kitchen on the other side of three/four decades, to complete the images regrouping themselves in the mind with every song.

And then, one after the other, came the numbers Atlantis and Foot Tapper – both by Shadows. I got a jolt. For I was flung far far away from my childhood into the imaginary(?) city of Camelot. Images of King Arthur and his knights sitting around the round table, with their metal helmet and metallic woven armours (forget what they are called) riding leisurely through the streets of Camelot, the Excalibur, the Holy Grail. I stretched my memory to include Knight Lancelot and Queen Guinevere but couldn’t. Possible that the children’s version of The Knights of the Round Table that was gifted to me for my birthday was a sanitized one with no space for romanticized adultery. On that same birthday, my brother brought home the small turntable record of Shadows with Atlantis on one side and Foot Tapper on the other. These days, I listen to those numbers often, now that I got them with me once again. I think they are the best pieces of instrumental music I’ve ever heard. And, I guess their power to transport me to the chivalrous, idyllic world of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through childhood memories, has something to do with what those numbers do to me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beware of Kids!

Yes, they are cute but there are times when they can be such brats. I can deal patiently with their naughtiness and tantrums but when, in all their innocence, they make you go crimson in the face with embarassment, well – that’s when I could, with the greatest pleasure, give them a good hiding!

My mother used to relate an incident every time the conversation revolved around the ‘innocent’ utterances of children. Two of my siblings – shall we call them Georgy and Porgy?- had this habit of helping themselves to snacks served for guests at the dining table while the latter were being entertained. Once they(Georgy and Porgy) nearly cleared all the plates while the guests were still there, and so amma thought that the time had come to discipline them. She sternly told them not to touch anything on the table in the presence of guests, but could help themselves freely to whatever they wanted once they left. This instruction was given while waiting for some half a dozen very sophisticated (US returned) relatives who had terrible airs about them – you know the type that makes you uneasy, the type you have to suffer whether you like it or not, the type before whom your image is very important to you.

The guests arrived and the table was set and all the home made goodies spread out. The guests sat at the dining table and started helping themselves to the snacks. Georgy and Porgy waited, on the opposite sides of the room, each leaning on the walls on his side, eyeing the table. Amma was keeping an eye on them and she was quietly amused at the way they were ogling at their favourite snacks. It was torture for them, she could see, and every time they looked pleadingly at her, she’d shake her head firmly, a stern look on her face.

The guests took an unusually long time at the dining table, talking and picking something or the other from the plates now and then.

And Georgie and Porgy began to get impatient. Georgy appeared to be the one whose self-restraint had reached the tether end, for he would move towards the table as though mesmerized and magnetically drawn by something there. Amma would then be instantly at his side, gripping his arm firmly and directing him back to his position against the wall. Porgy did not leave his wall but the tortured expression on his face was so comical that amma had difficulty trying to control her laughter. But she was pleased - with herself that she could discipline them, and her little boys that they could exercise that much of control over themselves. Just then she noticed that Georgy had left his wall and was walking towards the table as though in a trance. She was on Porgy’s side of the table. She started off quickly towards Georgy, but before she could reach him, there he stood between two chairs, and with excitement bordering on hysteria , he was pointing out the various snacks dishes as shouted out to Porgy: ‘Porgy, when these people go, you take avalose unda (index finger touching the avalose unda plate) and cheeda (index finger touching the cheeda plate) and I’ll take achappam(streaching across the table to touch the plate) and cake and mysore pak”. The last two items were to his left and right, and he stretched out his hands to point them out simultaneously, making him look like a choir conductor in the grip of an ecstatic frenzy.

Poor amma. Though she could laugh heartily each time she related this incident, I can imagine how terribly embarrassed she must have been! She nearly fainted with mortification but fitted a plastic smile which she beamed at the American returned guests, who were quickly getting up to make way for Georgy and Porgy who had already launched a violent attack on the dining table.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Kerala - No let up in the blood-letting

Another life lost - in the name of a text book. Not that the state needs any reasons any more to mow down human lives. Of late, they - human lives- have become the most worthless things - the cheapest tokens of political protest, the most common/vulnerable casualty of violent politicisation of issues.

All parties are now outsourcing violence - either to their youth wings or mercenaries. A time was when the Congress Party exercised some restraint when it came to unleashing violence or their violence dispensers. But looks like their previous stint in power(2001-06), during which they were blockaded from performing by the opposition, has made them frustrated and therefore reckless. Governance had become impossible then with the shamefully irresponsible behaviour of the CPM in connivance with the Karunakaran faction. Disruption by the opposition of normal day to day life, of routine educational and developmental activities had been the order of the day. The Left was at its worst during that tenure of the UDF govt, with obstructing governance being their only agenda. It had to prevent the Congress Government from performing lest it get re-elected. Now that the Left is in power, The Congress has decided to pay them back in the same coin.

So now whom do we turn to for some restoration of sanity in the State?

Are there any leaders in Kerala who can put the state above party loyalty? Any one like Somnath Chatterjee, our Lok Sabha Speaker?

I am reminded of the Biblical story where God gives word to Abraham that he'll spare the city from destruction if there were 10 good men in it. Yes, ten good leaders in the state, who can put the people above the party can save this state in its headlong plunge into a 'bloody' disaster.

The leaders have let us down one by one. The exodus from the state has begun. Check out this link to find out more:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Come Entrance Exams and - -

When I joined service in a college, some thirty years back, in a small town in Mid –Travancore which I had always associated with extreme conservatism, I did not bargain for the type and size of talents displayed by the student community. The intra-mural competitions were big events which stretched on for weeks. The classical music competitions used to be held over a period of two days. The folk dance and classical dance, both solo and group- each of these events took two full days to complete. The judges were well known experts in their fields.

The long and short of it is – every other girl could sing or dance ,or sing and dance, or respect these forms of art. Parents spent a lot of time and money to train their children in whatever form of art their wards were interested in or had talent for. Students spent a lot of time and energy to become accomplished in their chosen fields.

Today, in the same college, getting students who can give quality performance is no easy task. Those who do volunteer to do it, more often than not, lack calibre, expertise. Classical music and dance have given way to cinematic (now banned – the term I mean)dance and film music. Not that there is anything wrong with or inferior about either. It’s just that they require little or no training. In these days, when making value judgement is considered a mortal sin, I make bold to say that those were good days, when young minds were put to rigorous but enjoyable training to master the complexities of classical art forms. Those were the days when the students and their parents believed that to acquire skill in classical forms of art was a worthy enough mission, and that there were things as important in life as the entrance exams - which brings me to the villain of the piece.

I do not remember in which year the entrance exams to professional courses were introduced in Kerala- but the decline of interest and engagement in arts and fine arts mentioned above became instantly felt after the introduction of this phenomenon. I hear stories of how school and pre degree students who were being trained either in music or dance were abruptly taken out of these classes and admitted to coaching classes giving training for the entrance exams. Kala was cut down to size. But the sense of rhythm inherent in human nature cannot be suppressed. Fortunately, the TV which quietly made entry into every home in Kerala provided plenty of models of disco/cinematic dancing. Centres which taught disco dancing began to appear in big towns in Kerala where young people went to shake a leg in order to fulfill their urge to sway to rhythm.

What the entrance exams have done to Kerala – at least in the part of Kerala I speak of –is, they have enlightened the parents about the futility of art. Traditionally, Kerala was a place where it was believed that training in some form of art would enrich the experience of life, train and discipline the mind, add a deeper dimension to personality, and also enable one to deal better with this business called life. This inherited wisdom was uprooted and blown away overnight by the hurricane which came in the form of entrance exams which descended on the state in the eighties. I tend to compare my pre-entrance with the post-entrance students. The difference is not in how they dance on the stage. It is in how they conduct and carry themselves, in their weltanschauung and the way they face a crisis situation. The pre-entrance lots – they were respectful but they could challenge you in class. They were involved in the happenings in the classroom. You entrust them with a job, they would do it with such heartwarming earnestness and sense of responsibility. They would sometimes walk up to you and ask whether you would recommend this book or that, or if their understanding of some book they'd just finished reading was right. They somehow gave you the feeling that they believed that learning was its own reward. They made you feel happy and grateful for being allowed to contribute to the learning process. And they made your heart swell with pride when they interrupted your lecture with ”Ma’am, aren’t you contradicting yourself?” For they were genuinely interested in the process of education. They had the time and inclination to actively engage themselves in the process of holistic development which educational institutions attempt to offer. And the post-entrance generation? Well, they are different. I guess it is the prospect of the entrance exams looming large and intimidatingly before them that makes the difference.

Sweeping generalizations, I know. I could be wrong. But a huge change has come over the attitudes to life in the post entrance days, both of the parents and therefore of the students. It would be naive to attribute the change in the timbre of the student personality to decline of interest in arts. But I can safely say that this disinclination for anything other than entrance test related activities is symptomatic of this change. And I prefer the good old days.

I’ll conclude with a small incident. A few of weeks back, my friend’s college- going daughter started quizzing me about how to get a book published and how to get a publisher to accept a book. She’s always been a quiet one and so I was surprised. I asked her about this sudden interest. It’s not sudden, she told me. She writes short stories -it’s a passion with her. I remarked that her father, who himself writes extremely well, must be excited about her interest. She kept silent. A couple days later when I met her parents, I talked to them about this. I was told in no uncertain terms not to give their daughter any bright ideas. Let her first learn to earn her bread and then she can think of writing, I was told. But what harm does a little bit of writing in free hours do, I persisted. She ought to be studying, and not wasting her time indulging in such useless exercise.

Guess we live in times when man lives by bread alone.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Where is your Mother?"

On that day which I would like to erase from my memory, I went, as usual, into the Director’s room to sign the attendance muster as soon as I reached the Research Centre. The visiting professor from England was in Director’s room with his daughter, a young girl in her mid teens. The Director (my boss) asked me to take her around and introduce her to the other research scholars while he finished his business with the visitor.

I took her into the large spacious airy room where we research scholars sat. We sat down at the large common table in the centre of the hall so that others could join us as they came in. And then I turned to her with a friendly smile which she returned.

“How do you like Trivandrun?” I asked – the standard question, I know but I couldn’t think of anything original.
“Oh it’s a lovely place!”(I think she meant it). “I call it a city lost in trees”
‘Eh?”, I said surprised.

I began to think that she too must have read that travelogue written by I don’t remember who which had a chapter titled The Treemen of Travancore. I remember I was furious when I read it ‘cos in all the fifteen years that I lived (I was 15 when I read that piece,) I had never seen people in Travancore living on trees and eating tadpoles live.

“We have a room on the sixth floor” she explained “and when I look out of the window, I see only palm trees”.

Actually she was right. In those days there were only a handful of high rises in Trivandrum, and from the height from which she surveyed the city, a splendid view of greenery would greet her.

And then I made that fatal mistake.

“Has you mother come too?” I asked!

Oh, we Indians. Why do we always have to ask about father mother brother and sister every time we are introduced to a person? Why don’t we realize that it is impolite, for these questions are an intrusion into the personal sphere which many would like to keep private?

“No”, she said, without batting an eyelid. “My parents are divorced”

My ears were on fire. “I’m sorry”. I stammered.

“That’s OK. My step mother is here”.

I nodded, struggling to conceal my embarrassment behind a smile.

Just then my friend Aparna (name changed like all the names that’ll appear in the rest of the story).
“Hi, Milly. Good Morning”, she said.
“Meet Michelle Tate. Cleanth Tate’s daughter”
“How do you do?” said Aparna
“Hello” said Michelle
“Is this your first visit to India?”
”How long have you been in TVM?’
“WE came two days back.”
And then from Aparna‘s lips fell those deadly words.

“Where’s your mother? Has she come too?”

Michelle repeated what she told me. Aparna shot an annoyed look at me for not having warned her, but then, I didn’t get a chance to warn her. Besides, who ever thought that a great intellectual like Aparna would be stupid enough not to know that one should not ask such questions to a stranger, particularly if she is from another country and culture?

And then the one and only Bhasker walked in. He’s one of those characters who you’d call hyper - was always in a state of excitement. He saw Aparna and me with a white girl and came enthusiastically toward us.

“Hello. Who do we have here?” he said beaming at all of us.

I performed the introductions, and then he started his round of queries.

“First visit to India?”
“Yes” said Michelle, trying to sound and look friendly.
“It’s a beauuuuutiful place, isn’t it?” He had a soft soulful expression in his eyes. “Did you see the Taj Mahal”
“No. Not yet. We’ll visit North India next week”
‘Who’s the we?” asked Bhaskar.

Sensing that he was approaching the danger zone, I tried to edge closer so that I could give him a warning kick. But I didn’t move fast enough for out came The Question

“Has your mother come?”

“No”, a staccato tone. This time she didn’t offer any explanations.
“What is she? A career woman or a housewife?”, asked the incorrigible Bhaskar
“My mother is an archeologist”, said Michelle.

Did she sound tired? Did I hear something like a resigned sigh from her?

”Oh’, said Bhaskar. He was unstoppable. “Then it’d have been lovely if she could also have joined you, no?”
“Heavens no”, Michelle burst out. “There’d be such a row!”

Bhaskar looked stupefied and, with eyes like saucers, he looked from one to another. By then I had moved close enough to give him that kick.

Unfortunately, it was harder that I intended it to be and it landed on his shin. I think he was about to repeat the word ‘row’ with a rising intonation when my kick landed on his shin, and he let out a yelp starting with R. "What on earth are you doing Milly? Why did you kick me?” he yelled angrily at me.

I didn’t look at Michelle. I couldn’t face her. I didn’t look at Bhaskar. I didn’t trust myself. But I looked at Aparna in utter dismay.

And she rose to the occasion. She got up, not abruptly but as though it was the most natural thing to do after the first session comprising introductions, and offered to show Michelle around the place, an offer which the poor girl accepted gracefully.

After that awkward episode, I made a resolution never to ask a stranger personal questions. But I must admit that old habits die hard and on a few occasions I have slipped. But only on a couple of occasions did I ask the wrong questions to wrong people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tears for the Dead

I know this is a strange subject to write on. But a certain item I read in the newspaper a few years back and a certain incident I saw rather recently keep coming back to me every time I attend a funeral – and, I feel ashamed to admit this, I get clinical at funerals, and watch how the bereaved ones behave.

The story that I referred to was a report on the sudden unexpected death of a young prominent industrialist. The report quoted a high profile journalist who had rushed to the house of the industrialist minutes after he heard of his demise. The industrialist had been a good friend of the journalist whose brief words to the press betrayed his awe at the atmosphere in the house where a death had taken place. He was greeted by complete silence. No one wept, sobbed or sniffled. His widow sat next to the body in a plain white sari. His mother too. Their faces were expressionless. The behaviour of the other relatives (not many had reached) too could be fitted with a similar description. There was of course reference from the journalist to the dignity and calmness with which death was confronted, but the subtext of his words was that the presence of death was tangible, and totally unsettling. I got the impression that it was an altogether new experience for him.

A few years later, a young girl I know lost her father and I went to her house on the day of the funeral. She was in a room surrounded by relatives. She was quiet but had a strained expression on her face. The minute she saw me, she broke down uncontrollably. Immediately her aunts went at her – gently of course, but persuasively.
“Is this what your faith teaches you?”,
“you know now he is where there is no pain”,
“ God calls his favourites early” .

They went on and on and on till the girl literally switched off her tears and sat there looking at me, poker faced. My heart went out to her, but how does one tell her,"Go ahead and cry your heart out. You owe in to your father and to yourself”, in the face of such formidable unrelenting efforts at cultural conditioning to deal with the inevitability of death? I remembered the journalist’s awe when he described his visit to his friend’s house. And I understood how that silence is achieved – I saw it in the making. I saw it in its workshop.

Ever since these two episodes, I’ve developed this horrible habit of assessing the behaviour of the bereaved ones at funerals. Most people weep openly, and this averts a burden from settling down on the minds of the onlookers. I manage to get over my blues after a funeral even before I reach my home – except on that occasion that my young friend was coerced into keeping a calm and stoic demeanor by well meaning relatives. And though I was never anywhere near that industrialists house, that picture given by the journalist continues to haunt me. On both these occasions, it appeared as though the bereaved conscripted me to share the burden of grief which they were conditioned not to unload through tears. I am sure the journalist too felt the same – though he didn’t say it in so many words. By the way, in both cases, the people concerned belonged to the same community.

I fully understand and appreciate the fact that this edification exercise would have begun as an effort to come to terms with the inevitability of death – to inculcate a sort of Donne like attitude of Death-be-not-proud-cause- you-cant-bend-or-break-me. But then, aren’t there a few certainties before which it is better for mankind to be humble and submissive? There is no greater leveler than death – shouldn’t we pay our respect to such a democratic institution whenever it visits us? Of course, there are people who are made of the stuff which makes them very irreverential in their attitude to this occasional visitor. They take bereavement in their stride. I both admire and envy them – they are a class apart. But to deliberately and consciously deny yourself and the departed loved ones tears in the name of dignified bearing and image construction is unfair both to the living and the dead. The least we owe our dear departed is tears. Tears are not a luxury, but a right, ‘cos they are an essential mechanism of nature to keep that thing called sanity going.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The End of Silence

am no poet.
i know that.

my muse died young
a slow death though
with growing estrangement from my tongue
and my self.

a casualty of imperialism
and acculturation.

but of late I find myself
tinkering with free verse
in the alien tongue.

the genre issues a license
the poetic license
liberation from the strain
of logical exercise,

And offers a mould
that won’t crumble
when loaded with feeling.

minds crippled with entrenched silence
turn to the spirits of the muses

can they be raised from the dead?
will they take kindly
to the strange sounds of broken silence?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Amma Buys Me a Saree

I was looking through some old photographs and saw one of me in a saree which took my mind to the day my mother and I went to the newly opened Parthas to buy it.

I am not one of those who pull out all the sarees in a shop before I choose one. If I find one I like, I stop looking for more "selection', and make the purchase immediately.

On that day, amma and I went straight to the cotton saree section. A youngish sales boy was at the counter. He pulled out one stack of sarees and I immediately found what I was looking for. It was a beige coloured plain saree with a lovely temple sculpture figures on the border in dark maroon. Usually, amma is the one who takes the initiative to close the deal, but this time, she just stood there, her eyes fixed on the saree. Perplexed, I turned to the sales boy and asked him to bill it and pack it. Then I felt amma's gentle hand on my arm. I turned to her and was startled to see that she had bent over with her face close to the saree and was squinting down at it. Alarmed, I asked her

'What is it, amma? What's wrong?"

She looked up, gave me a strange grin and said,

"I forgot to take my glasses"

"But surely you can see the saree without them" said I, more alarmed than ever. Oh God! Could something have happened to her vision - something I had failed to notice?

Suddenly, she straightened up, looked at the sales boy, pointed to the silk section and asked him to bring some sarees from there. My heart leapt - she was going to surprise me with a silk saree, I thought.

As soon as salesboy started walking towards the silk section, amma grabbed my arm, lowered her voice, and in a conspiratorial tone urged me.

"Moley, this saree you've selected. See if those women on the border are wearing clothes. You said they are temple sculptures, didnt you? Quick! Before he comes back"

Eighteen years after that incident, amma and I were sitting on the veranda of her house when a house to house saree vendor came in with his wares. I was about to send him away when amma called him in. It was the 21st of December, I remember, and she asked me to take a saree. It was to be her Christmas gift to me. After the vendor left, I reminded her about the way she tried censoring my saree years back. Tears of merriment running down her face, she denied ever having done it.

She didnt live to see another Christmas after that. I have maintained her last gift to me in perfect condition - wear it once in a way and relive those moments.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Am tagged. By Sujatha of Fluff "n" Stuff
Tagging makes me nervous for many reasons. The most important one being I'm terrified of chains - probably 'cos of the description of chain reaction by my English teacher who taught us about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She told us that once a reaction is triggered off, it cannot be stopped till half the world is desrtroyed. She also told us that the end of days prophesied in the Bible would come as a chain reaction. So i vowed - no chains for me.
The least important reason - this machine before I am sitting at the moment is too complicated for me. I'm still in the primary school level where it is concerned. I only know how to handle the minum functions. Of course I intend to correct this situation 'cos this contraption is hijacking our lives. Look at me. I've forgotten the art of writing on a paper with a pen after I started keying in my thoughts (not that my handwriting was anything to brag about-a letter I once addressed to my Birmingham penfriend landed up in Bhurnanganam post office near Pala in Kerala).
So Sujatha, forgive me if i dont tag five people - i just dont know how to do it ( am wondering how i can take it out on you for forcing this confession out of me).
Now to take care of the Tag instructions.
Pick up the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.
The nearest book - A 93 year old English Bible ( published by Burns oates and Washbourne Ltd, London in 1914) which has a place next to this machine. It is the Bible I've been reading since I was in the high school. My father (think he bought it as a young high school boy) got it bound for me and so it is still in good condition. This is the book which unfolded the beauty of the English language to me. It has travelled with me (I travel a lot) and has been my constant companion in all the changing statuses of my life.
The three sentences after the 5th sentence on page 123:
But the princes offered onyzx stones, and precious stones, for the ephod and the rational: And spices and oil for the lights, and for the preparing of ointment, and to make the incense of most sweet savour. All, both men and women with devout mind offered gifts, that the works might be done which the Lord had commanded by the hand of Moses. All the children of Israel dedicated voluntary offerings to the Lord.
Exodus. Chpt.35. Verses 27-29.
No comments on the lines except that 1. where rituals are concerned, people have not changed after 2000+ years 2. I love onyx
On being Ritualistic- would some try blogging on it?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Indian Abroad - Part II

The second episode is not a hi tech one. It could be funny if you try visualising it. Want to give it a shot? Then read on.

Ravi's and Rola's last destination before they crossed over to England was France. After a day of sight seeing, Rola was tired and decided to stay back in the hotel room while Ravi went for a walk. As he ambled along the street, he casually asked a person on the street if there was some place nearby which was of interest to tourists. The man replied in rapid French. Ravi understood not a word of French. Nevertheless, he walked along the direction the man had pointed to. It took him to a beach. As he walked down the beach, he saw a demarcated area. The name boards in different languages told him it was a nudists’ zone. It very strictly stated that nudists were prohibited from coming out of the segregated area. Since it was not stipulated that clothed people couldn’t enter the nudists’ area, Ravi entered and sat down on a reclining chair. A few minutes passed during which he generally enjoyed the peasant breeze and the view. Suddenly, he spotted a nude woman coming purposefully towards him. When she reached the spot where he was sitting, she stopped and said in heavily accented English, “15 dollars, please”. “What for”, asked my bewildered cousin. “You sit in chair. 15 dollars charge”. “Then I stand up’ said Ravi and got out of the chair. “No good’, she insisted, “you already sat. You must pay”. “I won’t pay”, said Ravi and he walked away. She followed him, talking sharply in French. He started running and she ran after him. He was faster and soon reached the boundary, which he crossed, but which she couldn’t, as she would be fined 50 dollars if she stepped out of the nudists’ zone. Ravi turned back and smiled at the fuming nude lady and walked away, feeling quite pleased with himself.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Breaking the Magic Wand

They ask me how it feels
the day after

Does it hurt?
do you miss it all?

The routine. the role,
the camaraderie
the feel of belonging.

The burden, the deadlines.

The young minds – impressionable
the puzzled frown
the joy of the idea
the starry excitement
the faces volatile as knowledge unfolds

Do I miss all that?

Strangely enough, no.

Didn’t I love it all?
I ask myself.
Where, then, are the pangs?

Ripeness is all.
Stoicism born of a second lease of life !

Life -
to be celebrated
till the last breath

Every change brings a new horizon

So, how does it feel
the day after?

Serene as I scan the new skies
words falling around me like pleasant showers
‘you gave better than your best, mom’.
‘really m'am, we are proud to be your kids - we treasure your classes – sorry if we let you down – thank you’

What more can I ask?

Indian Abroad

My cousin Ravi and his wife Rola (names changed on request) visited me after a long time. They had relocated to a distant country and were visiting India after more than a decade. Like most people who visit India after a long time, they too were distressed about the condition of the roads, trains, buses, airports and most of all, of public toilet facilities in the country. The conversation led to the high tech facilities outside India, which make life comfortable for tourists. In this context they recalled an incident which makes me wish that someone would impress upon the Minister for Overseas Indians the imperative need to arrange orientation sessions for Indians who go abroad for the first time, in order to familiarize them with the high tech features in public facilities - or they would be caught in terribly embarrassing situations like Ravi and Rola who made their first European tour some twenty years back on a shoestring budget.

It happened in Switzerland, which, they swear, had the most sophisticated, high tech tourism facilities in the world. It was their first foreign tour and they traveled through the whole of Europe by Euro Rail. In Switzerland, while they were in transit in a station, they decided to use the paid shower facility, about which a fellow traveler had told them. It would be much cheaper than checking into a hotel to freshen up.

The minimum rate for a shower was 5 dollars for 8 minutes. Wincing at the thought of parting with 10 dollars for 2 baths, Ravi waited outside the shower unit while its door was being programmed for 8 minutes at the cash counter. As the door of the shower opened, Ravi got a brainwave. He shouted out to Rola to get into the shower along with him and take a quick bath. That way, he could kill two birds with one stone, and the other stone – 5 dollars - would remain safe in his pocket.

Rola had no time to think, ‘cos Ravi was frantically yelling out that that the door would close automatically and she would be locked out - and the poor girl literally hopped into the shower. The door closed. They quickly disrobed - and then the trouble started.

They had no inkling as to how to start the shower.

The familiar tap, which turns the shower on and off back home in India, was nowhere to be seen. They pushed/pressed/pulled every button, every lever, and every handle in the shower room, but the water refused to flow. They started a frantic search for some clue. Rola searched on her side of the wall while Ravi, searched on his, and then he literally crawled on all fours to find out if there were any hidden taps or switches or buttons on the floor. So preoccupied were they with the exercise of trying to decode the shower-operating trick that they didn’t realize that the 8 minutes were over. And horror of horrors! The door of the shower room opened automatically. Within seconds, the outer door of the shower room also opened and in walked a lady with fresh towel and soap for the use of the next customer. Her jaw dropped when she saw the two of them in the shower, in a state of total undress. What could poor Ravi and Rola do other than strike that classic Adam and Eve post-sin pose?

Rola, however, was the first to recover. Sheepishly, she asked the lady how to operate the shower. The lady was very helpful and assured them that she’d extend the time for another 8 minutes and left but not before looking at them with a mischievous smile and remarking “Indians having fun?”