Monday, June 23, 2008

Cry My Beloved Kerala

After each blog about Kerala I take a solemn vow that it’ll be my last. Many who visit my blogs on Kerala have come up with the uncomfortable poser that implies meaningless cribbing/all bark and no bite on my part – and they do have a point. Like they ask, what purpose does mere raving and ranting of a nonentity serve? Hence my resolve to keep mum while Kerala goes to the dogs its own way. But I find myself breaking that resolution over and over again. This time, the provocation was a heartbreaking sight I witnessed, peeping out through the blinds on the second floor of the building where I happened to be when the commotion took place.

Before I relate the episode, just a word about the significance of it: Right now, the opposition in Kerala is on the rampage, on account of a Class V11 textbook that they want withdrawn. Political parties no longer believe that ends DON’T justify the means. The concept of peaceful and civilized protest has been rooted out of the political soil of the state, and goonda raj reigns. Peeping out through the aforementioned blinds, I got a glimpse of the tragedy behind the goondaism in Kerala politics.

It was the last working day of the week at College. A handful of party workers (youth wing) shouted slogans outside the college gate and succeeded in getting the classes suspended for the day. This is a regular thing which we in the education sector have come to accept as part of ‘training the youth to become responsible citizens in a parliamentary democracy’. (Small wonder college teachers in Kerala chose to send heir children to the neighbouring states for post +2 education). To come back to the episode, as the trouble makers were withdrawing from the college gate after they achieved their goal, I ran to the window to have a good look at this tiny group which, in a matter of minutes, brought the days activities in an academic institution to a full stop.

What I saw continues to give me sleepless nights.

In all, there might have been 16-18 young men. Of those I spotted only five people who had that hard angry bigoted demeanor of seasoned party workers, the ‘leaders’ of the group. The rest were all young boys, very young boys, most certainly 2 or more years less than 20. Most of them were uniformed – probably from some professional or Arts & Science colleges that were trying to bring about discipline in their institutions by imposing the uniform rule. They stopped right below my window. The leaders started discussing something very animatedly. The hard, ruthless, pinched expressions on their faces and their aggressive, belligerent body language were scary, to say the least. In contrast, the fledglings who were with them just stood there looking from one leader to the other as the discussions continued. It was the expressions on their faces of these boys who have hardly shed their baby fat, that upset me. They were thoroughly bored, totally unenthusiastic, absolutely uninterested. Obviously they didn’t give a damn about any text that was prescribed for any class. They just stood there, some silent, some talking and laughing quietly at some private joke, obviously unconnected with the burning political issue at hand, while the ‘leaders’ continued their ‘serious’ decision on the ‘grave’ political issue. Soon the group split into two. One went northwards and the other southwards, led by the leaders. I saw the leaders say something to the their apprentices in both the groups as they moved in opposite directions. AS though following instructions, the youngsters – all of them- took out phones from their pockets and started speaking into them. In all likelihood, they were arranging reinforcement at the next venues to which they were headed to pursue their disruptive activities.

How did those boys, hardly out of their knickers, get into the company of these cantankerous characters up to no good, I wondered.

Were they paid for the day to add to the numbers of the strikers?

Were thy threatened and coerced into joining the party that meant nothing to them, to which they apparently had no ideological or any other affinity?

Where are they parents? Why are they so helpless that they can’t see to it that their offspring go to college and pursue their studies instead of becoming tools in the hands of anti social -yes, I mean anti social, it’s not a slip of the finger tips- elements?

My heart went out to the mothers whose hearts must be bleeding, at the fathers who must be racking their brains to figure out where they went wrong.

And I get an awful sinking feeling when I think of the fate of my beautiful Keralam whose future citizens are being moulded by such worthless scums.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My Friend Aleykutty

I have decided this shall be my last attempt to blog about my friend Aleykutty. All previous attempts (more than half a dozen) got aborted by my sense of inadequacy. I feared I could not capture in words her person and personality with the limited linguistic resources at my disposal. For how do you analyse what goes into the making of a gentle soul who can laugh at everything in this world, and most of all at herself and her troubles, be they pinpricks or rifle wounds? Life doles out its share of miseries to all – but unlike all of us, Aleykutty can laugh about her share of it. She has that capacity to step outside every trying situation she finds herself in, look at them from the outside with eyes of a story teller gifted with a keen sense of humour, and then talk about them as though they were scenes in a comic play in which she too has a role to play.

Her terrific sense of humour and fantastic narrative skill make her the best storyteller I have ever listened to. She has us in splits all the time.
She was the nerve center of the Department (she has retired – how we miss her!). When she sits at the common table placed in the center of the room, others would leave their seats one by one and join her, as though drawn by an irresistible magnetic pull. And those memorable sessions round that table would be like laughter holding both her sides.

The subject of her hilarious stories is usually herself – she is the butt of most her jokes. She stayed in the staff hostel and went home on Friday evenings for the weekend. On Monday, she would arrive with her bagful of jokes and funny stories, built around her journey back and forth, and the weekend happenings in her house in the heart of rural Mid-Travancore.

Here’s one of her Monday stories. She was a little indisposed on a Friday but still chose to travel home, despite feeling nauseous. As soon as she got a seat in the bus, she fished out a couple of lemon flavoured wrapped toffees from her handbag, put one in her mouth and kept the other in her hand just in case she continued to feel pukish. Lost in a reverie, she didn’t hear the conductor asking her to buy the ticket, till he tapped her on the shoulder with the edge of his pencil. She shook herself out of the daydream and told him her destination, and then absent-mindedly handed the lemon-flavoured toffee to him, instead of the fare. The conductor’s eyes flew back and forth rapidly between the toffee lying in his palm and Aleykutty’s face, and then he said to her, “Madam, this is worth only 10 paise. The fare is three Rupees”. Aleykutty’s description of the conductor’s facial expression when she put the toffee into his palm would put the most established author of farcical comedy to shame.

Yet another journey story. This time, she was traveling in an overcrowded private bus, which stopped in a no-man’s land between two stops, in order to issue tickets. Aleykutty, who had a window seat, looked out and saw a barbershop with a name board “Chandrodayam”. From where she sat, she could see the comings and goings in the shop. She sat patiently, looking out of the window, watching rather abstractedly the activities in the barber shop, her eyes straying occasionally to the name board “Chandrodayam”. Soon the conductor came to issue tickets. She gave him three rupees. “Where to?” he barked. Absent minded, Aleykutty replied ”Chandrodayam”. The people sitting near her burst out laughing but the irate conductor snapped, “You don’t need a ticket to go to Chandrodayam, lady. Just get down from the bus and take ten steps forward.”

Aleykutty is not tall. She missed 5 ft by a little more than an inch. Of course, she has plenty of jokes and stories about that. Like this one, when, as a PG student, she was assigned the role of a judge in the College play. With the coat and powdered wig, she looked impressive on the high chair (specially provided to make the judge’s daunting presence fill the stage) in which she sat during the course of the scene. The most dramatic moment arrived. The verdict was going to be delivered. She got up (or down? as she herself puts it) from the high chair and the huge audience dissolved into laughter. The judge, whom they expected to loom large, was shorter standing up than sitting down. Struggling to keep a straight face, she managed to deliver the judgment to an audience in no mood now to listen to any solemn pronouncements. The curtain came down before time and the tragedy ended up as a tragic-comedy!

I have many many more stories told by Aleykutty – about herself, or about her interactions with life, enough to bring out a book titled Thus Spake Aleykutty. But no more stories, ‘cos they reduce her to a mere teller of funny stories, doer of funny deeds. She is more than that. Much more than that. And, I must ruefully admit that, once again, this effort to write about her has failed to achieve the desired results. For I have made no mention of the largeness of her heart, her generosity, her genial outlook on life, her refusal to be judgmental – all of which, and much more, form the stuff she is made of. And if ever there was a person with no airs whatsoever about her, it was Aleykutty. The unassuming manner in which she conducted herself and the self- deprecating manner of speech misled many into placing her below the millionaire slot to which she actually belonged. Never have I come across a more modest, unpretentious, self-effacing person, or one whose sense of humor kept her so alive and sensitive to the lighter side of life.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Kite Runner - A Novel by Khaled Hosseini

A week since I finished reading it

Am still reeling from the impact
Still trembling before the human tragedy
The enormity of it

They haunt me
Those tear streaked faces of children
Orphaned, hungry, terrified
The worst wounds of decades
Of political unrest

Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way
Into the dreary desert sands of dead habits
Tagore’s words –how true of Hosseini’s fictional world

How I wish it were just that
A fictional world

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I'll always remember Kalpana 'cos of two unforgettable incidents in which she was the protagonist, and I, a helpless, supporting actor.She was a PUC student in a college in the then Madras where I was doing my masters. But she was almost a foot taller than me - mebbe that explains the allotment of the afore mentioned roles. We became good friends 'cos we travelled together back home for vacations. While I got off at Bangalore, she proceeded to Mysore from where she was 'picked up' by her mother and taken to Coorg. Yes. she had to be picked up- or she would have landed back in Madras. - that's how much she had her wits about her.

Once, we were returning to college after vacation. WE took an auto from the station. The auto took an unfamiliar route. We just had to come all the way down the Mount Road and then turn to the Cathedral Road to reach our college. Instead, the auto turned into a small lane as soon as it entered the Mount Road and went through small gullies we had never taken during all our days in Madras.

Kalpana, despite her size, got jittery. 'N-e-w r-o-u-t-e-,' she spelt out, for fear the driver might follow spoken English.

I nodded and kept silent, keeping a keen eye on the road.

Kalpana got more jittery. 'He might take a l-o-n-e-l-y r-o-a-d-(she spelt out the hyphenated words) and r-a-p-e us". She sounded scared by now.

But soon, the auto turned into the Cathedral Road and we were relieved. Kalpana made something like a sign of the cross and loudly heaved a sigh of relief.

WE reached the college gate. The young auto driver helped us with the luggage. Kalpana paid him and he spelt out with a twinkle in his eyes, 'T-h-a-n-k y-o-u, m-a-d-a-m'

The second episode was not just funny. It made me angry enough to twist her head off her neck if i could reach that high. WE were going home for summer vacation. Kalpana had fifteen pieces of luggage which we piled into a cab with a carrier. The cab charged us a bomb, and both of us were furious - she with the cab driver, and I with him and Kalpana. As soon as we reached the station, the porters pounced on us. Kalpana knew no Tamil and so I started to bargain with them. Kalpana suddenly let out an excited yell and pointed her long finger towards the trolleys parked under a "self service' name board. I was a little hesitant, cos the porters warned us that we will not be able to handle the trolley. Kalpana pooh poohed what she thought was a sexist remark and proudly strode all her six feet towards the trolley. She pushed it with great ease towards our luggage and together we piled our luggage (her 15 pieces, and three of mine)on to it.. And then we took the two ends of the handle and pushed. The trolley refused to move. I began to feel embarassed but Kalpa would not give up. She pushed and pushed and panted and puffed. The trolley moved one millionth of an inch forward and then refused to be pushed around. I looked at Kalpana whose face had become the colour of tomato. She stared back at me with a never-say-die expression and pushed. And then she did something whch made me want to do the same thing to her. She gave the trolley a violent kick and then let out a yelp, holding her toes and hopping around. By now, the porters were guffawing loudly and a crowd began to gather. I begged Kalpana to let the porters do their job. 'Never', she snapped at me. 'I'll finish this damned thing I've started'. An onlooker then let us into the trick of the trade. He suggested that we check the iron wheels of the trolley and set all four in the same direction and then push. WE went round the trolley and found that that while two wheels were forward looking, the other two were turned in two different directions. With a clenched fist pumping the air, Kalpana let out a triumphant "yes' and we went about fixing the wheels. and pushed. Hurray! the trolley began to move. The audience(porters included) applauded, laughed, hurrayed. WE pushed the trolley smoothly , followed by a large crowd in the Central Station of Madras, with passers by looking at us and grinning from ear to ear, and I wanted drop dead then and there but kill Kalpana before that happened. We must have pushed for about two minutes and then the trolley began to behave like the dhobi's donkey. It stopped and refused to move. By now Kalpana had become a mechanical expert and started adjusting the wheels while I stood there holding the handle sullenly. WE pushed the trolley again. The crowd had grown larger and their excitement increased seeing that Kalpana's colour had turned from tomato's to beet root's. Some one remarked that she was going in for a heart attack. Some one chided me for not pushing with all my might and letting my friend down. The porters loudly remarked that they should look for some other employment. No need, some one said. We'll enrol the ladies in our union. Some one emphatically disagreed.'don't think we'll have any use for the shorter one', he said. I bore it all but did not grin. I began to wonder why the almighty did not choose that momnent to use his legendary thunderbolts to punish me for all the sins i had committed in my life. If media menace was what it is today, that sensational scene would have been on the front page of all the national dailies the next day.

Just then we heard a very refined voice asking us if he can be of help. I turned around and saw a man in his thirties, looking sympathetically/disgustedly? at the two of us who were making a spectacle of ourselves there in the big metro railway station. Gratefully, we handed the trolley to him and he pushed it without much ado. The crowd disappeared slowly-so did the porters. The man unloaded the luggage, put them into our compartment, and started to leave. I asked him what his name was. I took the initiative 'cos i had a terrible feeling that Kalpa was going to throw her arms around his neck and cry on his shoulders. I must surely spare him that, after his wonderful service."Never mind my name. Only, don't bite off more than you can chew', he said and vanished in the crowd.

I've lost touch with Kalpana completely. Wonder if she is somewhere reading this.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

From My Commuting Days - An Unforgettable Journey and its Fallout

This is just to put the records straight.

Residing in Cochin and working in Changanasserry, I commuted the distance, enjoying the hospitality of the Indian railways.

It was an unusually humid day in November and the train arrived on the dot at the Changanassery station (a rare, rare event – a minister or a top railway official must have been traveling in that train). I had heard the whistle of the train as soon as I took the turn to the short stretch leading to the station, and broke into a run. As I entered the platform, the engine was chugging and the gangman’s hand holding the green flag was beginning to rise. Seeing me hop, skip and jump across the railway platform, his hand suddenly began to behave like those shots in slow motion, and I hopped on to the general compartment behind the engine (my favourite ladies’ compartment was right at the back – would never have made it there even if I were faster than PT Usha). In a second the train started.

The compartment was jam-packed and I started excuse- me- excuse- me- pleeese my way through the crowd. Just then a friend who was seated comfortably in the side seat got up chivalrously and offered me the seat, which I took, giving him a grateful smile in return. In less than 5 minutes I started dozing. When the train stopped at Kottayam 20 minutes later, a huge crowd tried to fight its way into the compartment while an equally huge crowd pushed and cursed trying to get out of the compartment. Abusive words were freely traded. The train started, and loud angry voices could be heard in the crowded compartment for sometime.

It was the season of Sabarimala pilgrimage, and a large number of Aiyyappa devotees had boarded the train at Kottayam. One of them (apparently from Tamilnadu) stood near me. I think he was one of those hardcore devotees who had taken the vow to grow his hair uncombed for how long I don’t know - and the knotty, brittle copperish hued strands hung around his shoulders. He must have been terribly tired, 'cos, as soon as the train picked up speed, he squirmed his way down through the pressing crowd to sit on the floor of the compartment. Amazed, I first looked down at him sitting there in the space he carved out for himself in that jungle of trousered and saree/salwar draped legs, and then up at the irritated expressions on the faces of the owners of those legs. Then I fell asleep, into a deep deep sleep for more than an hour while the train sped to the next station Piravam Road.

AS the train approached Piravam Road, I came slowly out of the deep slumber. As usual, I became conscious of my surroundings even before I opened my eyes. Then I felt something rather heavy on my lap. I cautiously opened my eyes into thin slits and looked. To my horror and distress, I saw that Aiyappa devotee’s head with the knotty hair resting peacefully on my lap! He was fast asleep!

I snapped my eyes shut immediately, cos I knew that the people around were eagerly waiting for me open my eyes and react.

God, how embarrassed I was! My mind got busy immediately, trying to figure out how I can get that head off my lap. Soon a brilliant idea struck me and, still pretending to be fast asleep I brought my handbag (which I always clutch close to my heart no matter how deeply I sleep) down on the head resting so comfortably on my lap. I made sure it appeared like the unconscious action of a person fast asleep – and it worked. The weight left my lap all on a sudden. I waited for sometime and then opened my eyes, taking care to appear like a person coming out of a deep sleep. The rest of the journey was uneventful, while I sat looking out, refusing to meet the eyes of my friends and acquaintances who stood around.

That is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But truth, unfortunately, has a way of getting distorted.

Apparently, the word had got around – and real fast too, as I discovered the minute I joined my travel companions the next day morning on the railway platform. The minute they saw me, they burst out laughing and asked me how it felt after the yeoman service I rendered to a tired devotee the previous day. I took it all in good humour and sportingly took part in the bantering repartee.

And oh, the story spread. And how? not in its original form, but spiced with plenty of mirch masala. Some versions had it that in my sleep, I clutched that head and held it close thinking it was my handbag! With passing years, the story grew in quantity and quality, and spread among the teaching community of my university, seasoned with mustard and cumin seeds, garnished with curry patha and dhanya patha.

Almost two years after that eventful journey, I was at the centralized valuation camp. Three days after I joined the camp, a teacher from another table came to mine where I sat with the six others in my group, and asked who Miss K-------------- was. That’s me, I said. What can I do for you?

Oh, that’s OK, he said and walked off with a smile on his face. Perplexed, I sat there looking at his receding back and then went back to my work. A couple of minutes later, two more came with the same question. I repeated my words and they too went away without offering any explanation, but with the same smile on their faces. When the next batch came, the teachers in my group took over and insisted that the visitors explain their interest in me. And they did. They wanted to see the lady who traveled 100 kilometers by rail with a Sabarimala pilgrim’s head cradled on her lap.

The next day, I arrived a little late for the valuation. But my friends in my group greeted me with dancing eyes and a loud swamyeeeeeei, aiyyappo!

The story continues to grow. I don’t attend the camps any more but my friends tell me that the story continues to do the rounds. The sabarimala pilgrim, some said, had hair up to his knees. And throughout the journey, I was having a snoring competition with the man! Of course, my fingers were intertwined with his knotty locks, and one passenger had even detected a louse crawling up my hand.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hillary Clinton is out - How sad!

i feel sad
infinitely sad
granted I know precious little about US politics.
but I know a lot of women here wished to see a woman in the most powerful seat.

guess on our part there’s a deficiency of understanding of the debated issues.
and so our take is this:
she lost out
‘cos she is a woman
and women still live under glass ceiling in the US.
She lost out
‘cos she is a fighter
one hell of a fighter
and might prove to be the ‘only man in the cabinet’
as Smt. Indira Gandhi once did.

and so the muscle flexers of the party
opted for an unknown person
on the strength of a book
and charm of his silver tongue

and the popular appeal of reverse racism
was on their side
in their fight against having a woman call the shots.

of course these are just
the jottings of a woman
with just a superficial knowledge of Am politics.

but there are many such ill informed women like me here
who feel sad.
infinitely sad