Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Monsoon ramblings

Monsoons is a stale topic for writers but it continues to invade the print, electronic, audio and virtual media the same way it does my mind, flooding it with memories which spread in my being sensations that defy description; sensations that warm my whole self with feelings pleasant yet sad, feelings of longing for days that have been claimed by the past.

I have always loved the monsoon. I continue to love it. My love for it has never waned. I suppose all keralites have loved monsoon some time in their lives, because before we grew into adults, we were all children who yelled and screamed and ran into the open to get drenched by the first showers before the elders dragged us inside to safeguard us from the pollutants that the first rains bring down with it. When practical wisdom dawns on us, man becomes wary of the rains. It becomes the season of fevers and chills. It becomes the season when the going gets tough. It becomes the “rainy day” of the English idiom.

Monsoons dominate the imagination and conversation long before they actually arrive. Traditional households start preparing for the rains from January. If houses are to be painted, it has to be before the rains. Every minute of the scorching heat of summer is utilised to dry tamarind, raw mango, fish, tapioca - you name it. Those with stubborn loyalty to cotton saris, starch them in advance with a vengeance, while others who are practical refurbish their wardrobes with “Garden saris”, (as nylon type synthetic saris are called) for the monsoons.

In my home too, the monsoon mood arrived long before the showers actually came down to cool the molten hot earth. Every time the “mazhakaalam” (rainy season) was mentioned in the house (all elders and domestic helps mentioned it all the time in some context or the other), we children counted the days. Sometimes by mid May showers came but did not stay. Some called it summer showers while others, feelers sent out by monsoons. But these brief showers which were kind while they lasted, sent humidity shooting up with the return of the sun, and made summer more oppressive. When edavapaathi, as South west monsoon is called – arrived, it came in right royal style, pouring down like sheets of water, drenching the earth, cooling it, pausing and then pouring down again before the sun could get into action.

As a child, i loved the rains. As an adult too, i love it. My honeymoon with the monsoons was never over. It defied the laws of honeymoon. Even while i commuted 200 kilometres by train every day, or when my job involved travelling in overcrowded bus with rain pouring down mercilessly, or when i got drenched and had to walk into the classroom for my lectures in a sari wet and mud sullied at the bottom and the blouse sleeves wet and clinging uncomfortably to my arm depriving me of that portion of dignity i allotted to my sartorial self, i still loved the monsoon.

Why? I honestly do not know. Perhaps it evoked nostalgia of childhood days of coloured umbrellas and raincoats, of splashing water on my friends and siblings, of amma scolding and roughly drying my hair and giving me hot glass of ovaltine, of sitting in the class and looking at each other to find out who is the wettest of us all, of sister S once taking me to the boarding to give me a change of ill-fitting dress which made my class laugh when i walked in dry borrowed clothes of some obese senior.

Or maybe it is something in my personality which makes me feel comfortable with day when monsoon clouds hide the sun, making the day from morning to sunset look like evening. As a commuter, sometimes travelling in compartments flooded with rain water let in by the gap filled widows, I’ve heard people curse the rain. Hitching the sari up so that it remained above the ankle, I’ve silently told myself that it’s better than the scorching heat of summer which tires you out utterly. All i have to do once i reach home is to get into warm clothes after a shower and settle down before the TV with my children and a hot drink. The thought itself was so cosy that once a friend who was huffing and puffing, feeling harassed by the discomforts of the rains asked me why i was smiling to myself!

I’ll conclude this rather pointless rambling with a monsoon incident which visits me every year with the rains. I was in 5th standard, and went to St. Teresa’s school in Ernakulum. My house was quite far from the school, and my over protective mother never permitted me to walk back and forth to school alone. She either sent a familiar cycle rickshaw or the car. One year, the monsoons did not arrive on the first of June. It was delayed by a few days, and on a Wednesday, in the last period of the day, the world suddenly became dark. I felt the familiar thrill rise within me. I switched off from the classroom happenings and looked out at the sky from my window seat. I could feel the rains crouching and get tense up there before the leap. And then it came down. It poured with a thunderous sound. The music teacher stopped her struggle to teach the excited class “akhilanda mandapam”. She sat down while the excited class shouted at the top of their voices. The bell rang and i ran out with a few like me while others stood on the veranda shouting out to the teacher that we were playing in the rain. The teachers shouted their students back into the veranda and gave us a dressing down. We the students without umbrellas were asked to wait till the rains subsided and then go home.

Finally when we were allowed to go, it was some fifteen minutes after the bell. I ran to the place where our car was usually parked only to find its back disappearing way down the road. Now, you must be wondering how i recognised the car? Well, those were days when there were not many cars on the road. Traffic jams were unheard of in Ernakulum. Besides, my car was a Hindustan and was painted - hold your breath – parrot green. So everybody knew my car. As i stood watching the receding back of the car, the rain came down again, and i decided to run home. I didn’t want to wait for the car to come back, which i knew it surely would. So i ran, without umbrella or raincoat, with the light school bag strung across my chest and the Hawaii chapels splashing my uniform skirt with a generous quota of dirt.

As i crossed the MG road and entered the cutting to Chittor road at what is now the Shenoy's theatre. I saw the green Hindustan with its ugly face coming towards me. It stopped near me, and the back door opened to reveal the angry and anxious face of amma.

“Why didn’t you wait there? You knew the car would come back”

Now, how can i tell her i wanted to run in the rain and get wet? I was young but old enough to know that besides the anxiety about falling sick, there was this anxiety about a growing nazrani girl defying the laws of discipline prescribed for the poor girl children of the community.

“My friend gave me a lift”, i lied.

“Which friend? And why did she let you out in the rain instead of dropping you all the way home? And haven’t i told you not to accept lifts from anyone?”

It was better not to have lied, i realised, but to admit the lie would have raised issues of the breaking of the Ten Commandments. So i decided to take the lie forward.

“She said her father needed the car, so she’ll drop me here.”

“What?” Amma really looked angry. How can anyone do that to her little daughter whom she was bringing up like cut glass?

“Who is this girl? “She asked in that deadly quiet voice which warned me about giving any genuine name. I knew amma will drive straigt to the nonexitant friend’s house to speak sweetly but sternly to her mother.

“I don’t know her name, amma. She’s not in my class”, the lie began to take an identity.

“So you came with a person you don’t know at all? You don’t even know her name!”

“Amma, i see her every day, when i wait at Baby’s shop for the car or cycle rickshaw, but we’ve never spoken to each other”

The next day, as i was going to school, amma said; “Molly. Find out the name of the girl who gave you the lift yesterday. If she has a phone, get the number, and find out where she lives”.

I realised that if i didn’t kill that lie, it’ll haunt me and hunt me.

“Amma, i will not do it.”, i said.

“Why?” she asked angrily.

“If i get her details, you’ll go and talk to her mother. Then she will come to school and tell all her friends and my class mates and they will ostracise me. If that happens, I’ll never never go to school again’.

That did it. Amma knew she’d have trouble with me if what i feared happened. So she let it go at that, but not before extracting a promise from me that i’ll never ever take a lift from strangers.

Even the week before she died, almost a quarter century after this episode, she spoke to me about it, and expressed horror at me being left out in the open all alone to brave the rain. She was a much more mellowed person by then and i was sorely tempted to tell her the truth. But something prevented me from destroying that resentment that she nursed for so long.

We humans sometime need certain shadows to be used as punching bags, and if those shadows vanish, they leave behind a certain vacuum which might let in more hostile shadows.

Friday, May 27, 2011


The word “miscellaneous” is a standing joke in my family.

My father gave us, his children, access to the cash box in which money for weekly expenses was kept. He also had his famous account books – you know those long broad ones used in offices. Whoever took money from the cash box had to make entry in the cash book. At the end of the day, he used to check the account book. The difference between the debit and credit was entered by him as miscellaneous. When miscellaneous expenses exceeded permissible limit, he used to inform us. That was an observation that the entries were not being made properly.

It so happened that, at one point in tme, the miscellaneous expenses began to exhibit an unrelenting tendency to move up steadily. My brothers called an emergency meeting to conduct a post-mortem. I was around 8 years old and had just been given access to the cash box. Since the erratic behaviour of the 'miscellaneous' was a recent phenomenon, they realised that i was responsible for this inflation, which, they feared, would end up in controls on the cash box operation.

“Molly, you are the one messing up the accounts book”, accused brothers No.1. I had six brothers, by the way.

I was annoyed, cos there was some truth in it. I kept a grumpy silence.

“Have you been forgetting to make entry when you take cash?” cross examined brother No2. (The numbering, incidentally, is not in the order of seniority, but in the order of appearance in the narrative)

“No. “, i replied, angrily.

My younger brother (i have only one) who was three years my junior, and who had been the beneficiary of my recently acquired access to the cash box, played the Brutus on me.

“When she takes 4 rupees, she writes only 3”, the smart youngster yelled accusingly, trying to win his way into to the senior males’ good books.
I pounced on the traitor, rightly indignant, but was restrained by my older and wiser siblings.

“Take it easy, Molly, can’t afford to antagonise him. He’ll spill the beans with ichayan too. So better to humour him.” Said brother No.2

“The one rupee extra is for the Sea Lord ice cream for two of us – and now he is squealing on me”, i raged in high pitched excitement.

“Why don’t you write that you took money for the ice-cream? Ichayan won’t say anything”. That was brother No.3.

“Amma’ll scold me’, i sulked. “But i gave this stupid fellow ice-cream or sweets or bombay mittai each time i bought these. In fact, i bought them mainly for him”. I couldn’t get over the betrayal.

“Leave it Molly, he’s only a kid”, pacified Brother No.3

“But a real kandhari”, i said glaring at the little villain. ”You wait and see”, i told him shaking my index finger at him.”I’ll never buy you Sea Lord ice cream again”, i said viciously.

He started bawling, loud. “I’ll tell ichayan you took the money”, he screamed between wails.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry, Mon”, said brother No 3.”If she doesn’t buy u ice cream, we’ll give you. We’ll buy you condensed milk and Cadbury’s too. You can dip Cadbury into condensed milk and eat, It’s so tasty”, said No 3, smiling encouragingly at him.

The wails stopped in a decrescendo while a smile slowly spread on the little fellow’s face.

After dealing with the probable threat from him, no 3 turned to me. “Take whatever you want but enter it in the account book. If you don’t want amma to know you bought sweets or ice-cream don’t write it, but show the correct amount.”

“But amma knows that six puffs cost only 3 rupees (i usually took money from cash box for household expenses, to be given to the helps who go out to buy things). So if i write 4, she’ll want to know what the one rupee was for.”

“Then you must write Puffs, pencil, eraser, foolscap paper or something like that and then show 4 rupees as the expenditure. You know amma won’t check the stationary items.” said No.3.

“What if she checks?” i said, not quite liking the idea of lying.

“Don’t be such a pedichhoori (lily livered). How do you think we buy condensed milk and Cadbury’s and badam kheer and go for movies?”

Years later, i discovered the truth that this accounts adjustment tendency is inherent in the male genes. When my son Mathew was in the plus 2, my husband was away in audit, and i had to take care of the accounts in the house – something which i hated. So i entrusted money to my son who was in the 11th standard. I soon discovered discrepancy in the balance, and told him this should not happen.

“OK, amma”. He said.”I’ll take care of it”.

Next weekend, when i checked the account book (it was a diary converted), i found a new entry had appeared as the last item in the daily acounts.It was XYZ.

“What’s XYZ, Mathan?”

“The money that i can’t account for.”

“Can’t or wont? ”

“ I don’t know when it went, amma. X, after all, stands for the unknown factor’ he said, grinning.

"And Y?"

"Another unknown. Z still another". This was followed by his stupid heh, heh, heh.

As long as he was the accountant in the family, the highest expenses in the family were for XYZ.

The grandfather’s ‘miscellaneous’ metamorphosed into XYZ in the hands of the grandson.

XYZ- the letters which fig leafed Adam’s weakness!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Indian English

“I want curtain material”.

That was the monsoon (since kerala doesn’t go strictly by the spring summer, autumn pattern) of the year 1976. I had just joined the most reputed women’s college in Changanasserry and wanted curtain for my room in the staff hostel.

The sales man looked blankly at me for a moment, and then said “We don’t have it here”.

“What”, i exclaimed. You don’t have curtain material here?”

“No’, he said mulishly. “We don’t have it here”

I was not prepared to buy that. I stood there looking around to see if i could locate for myself what i was looking for. This guy must be a discontented employee like that bus conductor in ALL ABOUT A DOG.

Sensing a deadlock, a more senior salesman came up and asked me what i wanted. I repeated. “I want material for curtain”.

“Can you explain what that is?”

“What curtain is?” stupefied, i asked. “Don’t people here use curtains?”

“You explain what it is. Then I’ll tell you”, the senior salesman assured me.

I stared at him incredulously. By then a few more salesmen had joined us, to join the fun. Many seemed amused and enthused. There was some excitement in the air about the outcome of the demand of this strange woman who walked into the shop with sunglasses which she pushed to her head (where it still remained) after she entered the shop, and wore choli blouse instead of the back open, open necked blouses that were popular in Changanasserry, and had painted nails and coloured bangles that went well with the sari.

“You know window?’ i said little desperate drwing a large square in the air. I was a bit embarrassed by the amusement i was affording them. “That strip of material that you put through a spring and stretch across the window- - - - - ‘. I was acting out the act of pulling a new spring across the window fter having hooked it at one end. There was a lot of grinning an exchanginsg of glances between the sales boys gathered around me.

But I didn’t have to complete. In a chorus, all of them said in unison said, “Oh! Kurrrrrrrrrrrtan. She means kurrrrrrrtain”. And they all laughed and dispersed.

I didn’t know then that the English that exists outside the phonetic class is a totally different ball game. The mid central neutral vowel in English that we have in such words as curtain, mercy has always posed problems for malayalees. But then i realised all that only after i stepped out of college into the malayalee world. During my stint in Mumbai much later, i came to know that the Marathi tongue had trouble getting around the vowel sound in words like hen, bread.

“Do you have pain?” C asked me as we were standing at the office counter to sign in the muster.

“No” I answered perplexed. “I have no pain’, I answered smiling, as i took out my pen from my bag.

C looked angrily at the pen and said,“ You said you don’t have PAIN and what is that”, she said pointing to the pen.

How can i tell her that i didn’t follow her pronunciation, especially since she and her friends entertained themselves the previous day in my presence over the mallu accent which at that time was the subject for a Hindi serial too. She’d think I’m giving it back to her.

So i said nothing. It did cause bad blood between us. It was a catch 22 situation. I remained silent and the story of how kochu refused a “pain” did a huge circulation among the teachers of the college. But better mean than ridiculing a person’s “English”. Like a Marxist friend once told me, we bloody Indians, we still suffer from colonial hangover. We equate education, sophistication and efficiency with proficiency in English. I think he was not fully wrong. I remember, a decade back a Malayalam professor took over as the Principal of the college where i worked. All were sceptical about her, cos she was ‘after all a malayalam lecturer’. But, she proved to be the best principal the college ever had. With an unparalleled vision she took the college leaps and bound ahead to put it among the colleges in the league of the handful of A rated colleges(rated by UGC’s accreditation committee) in the state.

One can have visions in Malayalam too!

What’s the purpose of this post? It’s to emphasise the need for an official Indian English, which should factor in the existing deviation among the Indian users of English from the RP and Standard English. The Standard English and RP are irrelevant in India. Like V K Krishna Menon once said. We in India did not pick up English from the streets of England but from classics. The present day user of English may not enjoy an intimate relation withclassics. The point VKK was making was that a non native speaker picks up English from the written word and not the spoken. So the ears are not tuned to the way language is spoken. Besides, the influence of mother tongue plays a major role on the non native speaker of English. Like for example the vowel sound in words mercy, map. Catch them young, and every speaker can overcome that difficulty. The problem is not with the pronunciation alone. Idiomatic English too sometimes doesn’t come too easily to an Indian speaker who is fluent in English.

As the utility of the English language is increasing by the minute, we should keep politics aside and acquire competence in the language. We don’t have to look westward for a model. Here in India we have one. Some call it convent English, others, metro English. Whatever the name, it refers to that English which is intelligible to both by Indians and the English speaking world. The reasons are 1. It does not follow the British stress pattern. It distributes word stress equally as should not be done in queen’s English (hence easy for the Indian listener). 2. It has devernacularised vowel and consonant sounds without going all the way British. Hence, on account of the second fact, it is easily intelligible to the speakers of English the world over.

This English – this Standard Indian English, should be taught uniformly in all schools in India – compulsorily. The phonetic drills need not be modelled on RP, but after the neutral accented Indian English.

With India growing into a super power, the Indian variety will gain recognition the world over. After all, the dominance of a language is determined by economics. The Anglo-Saxon English became the base of Standard English cos it was the dialect spoken in the East Midland region, the commercial hub of Great Britain from the fifteenth century.

To conlude, i must share with you an interesting experience i had when i found myself in a social gathering of academics and their families in Texas.

“You speak, British English. Because India was a British colony?” asked a professor’s wife.

I nearly fainted. I’ve been used to people telling me i speak mallu English, every time I step out of kerala, and here was an American saying that i speak queen’s English. Could she be pulling my leg, i wondered and looked suspiciously at her.

Seeing the perplexity on my face, my daughter told me “amma, you don’t have the American drawl. That’s what she means. Also, you used certain English idioms not very common here’.

“Like?”, i asked.

‘Yesterday, you used the expression ‘donkey’s years’ and my American friend remarked rather admiringly on the typical British nature of your language?. !!!!!?????

My my my! Uncle Sam too is jet lagged after all these centuries! He too hasn’t fully recovered from colonial hangover!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Elections 2011- stray thoughts

Kerala elections – it was a nail biting finish. The narrow scrape of the UDF makes me happy. The narrowness of the victory is indicative of the disgust of the people with the scam-ridden Congress at the centre. This election will be a lesson to politicians against taking the people for granted.

Tamil nadu too protested strongly against graft. The laptop promise was pooh-poohed by the praja. You can’t fool all the people all the time. Let’s hope that Jayalaitha will not try to make hay while the sun shines and out do Karunanidhi in corruption. Fortunately for the people of Tamil Nadu, she doesn’t come with the heavy baggage of a family.

It took Bengal three decades and Nandigram and Singur and police and Marxist brutality and the rise of Maoists and economic stagnation to throw out the Left govt. It’d be interesting to see how Mamta Banerjee is going to deal with the development issue after smoking out Tatas from WB. Can we survive without industrial development? How’s Mamta going to leash the Maoist Frankenstein who supported her and helped her over throw the left? No easy task for her. If she cracks down on them, as she would have to do, how will they react?

Coming back to kerala, the UDF was voted back because people knew that a two term for the LDF would entrench a goonda raj in the state. There is fear that Kerala would go the West Bengal way with the party cadres ruling the state and unleashing violence, and stagnating growth.

What saddens me about this election is Kunjalikutty’s and PJ Joseph’s victory. If all women in their respective constituencies had voted against them they would have lost. The women and men of Kerala have spoken. Their statement is ‘sex crime is not a serious one at all. It is the most pardonable one!”

Sad. Very sad!

Friday, May 06, 2011

Political goondaism in Kerala: DISGUSTING!

Too much! A remark against VS and the party goes berserk vandalizing NSS property. Should the NSS now go around attacking party offices, now that VS has indulged in nasty talk? If this is the to be the practice, every day some one or other should be vandalizing and attacking?

Why do we ALLOW this to continue in our state? How long are we going to sit back and watch political goondaism? The people are not with these arrogant, destructive elements. They only suffer them. They want to be rid of them.

Who will do an Anna Hazare in Kerala against political goondaism? Against violence during hartals, and violence in protest against remarks made against leaders, as is happening now? Which leader in the country is above criticism?

Who will deliver us from these political rowdies? Of whatever parties? Why cant the parties rein in their cadres. How dare they unleash them on us and then come back to us for votes?

Why don’t we react?

Should some person who is somebody in Kerala lead a movement against this monster that has Kerala in its strangling grip, I’ll show my solidarity by my physical presence at the site of the fast.

Will you join too?