Monday, November 14, 2011

Nothing compares to you,Amma...

She rocked my world: in all my time with her, away from her and now without her.

As hard as this is to write, it had to be written.For this day too has come ..

To describe one’s mother in a few paragraphs is all but a futile attempt ; how can a few words fully capture a life time of love, sacrifice and more love? What I loved most was that to Amma, her universe was not limited to her children and her husband: it ensconced her siblings and their families, her husband’s closest and farthest family, all her friends and all the less fortunate people who managed to cross her path, with the same circle of love as it did her near and dear ones. She was as an equal champion of a friend in deepest trouble as she was of me, her daughter or her son. A strong willed woman and often opinionated, she stood her ground, on anything she thought was important, no matter who the person or what the circumstances were.
And she did it with such equanimity and quiet confidence. She gave her love, time , affection, counsel and compassion to the world around her. In generous servings; topped with a smile, wrapped in jokes and a twinkle in her warm eyes.

After nearly 5 years of battle with cancer and the way it took her away from us finally,I thought I would be a bitter person. Strangely enough, I am not. Heartbroken ,yes, at having lost my pillar of strength for the rest of my life, but not bitter. For I saw in that struggle two things that I haven’t seen much in the world: Grace and Hope. Grace in accepting all the pain,suffering,discomfort that was unceremoniously thrown her way till the very end; with a beautiful smile on her face. Her smile lifted us up ,constantly, from what would have been the darkest last few years of her life and the most painful ones of ours. She converted adversities into opportunities,setbacks into rememberable milestones.We weren’t her strength, she was ours. She was our rallying point. Her Grace steadied us in our battle with her disease.

And Hope that rainbows succeed a rainy day and that everything is possible when you have faith. A deeply spiritual but not often religious person, her growing and unshakeable faith surpassed that of many and shone through in her last year: and it is due to that she died the most peaceful of deaths, given her prognosis. She believed in a happy tomorrow, and lived the present in the most true sense of the word: childlike, jubilant and thankful. Every minute was carpe diem for her. It was so powerful that despite the severity of her illness and the abundance of statistics, all of us had charted out a full life ahead with her, strewn with happenings and non-happenings. Her Hope sucked us into a vortex of calm amidst the brewing storm and this Hope gives us courage for the road ahead, especially without her.

Flying in hoping to see her before she died, my father so beautifully told us to look for her among the clouds for there she would be: an angel. We already had, once we knew she left us. Where else would she be?

Umma(kisses),my Amma. Watch over us, our guardian angel.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Anna Hazare, Please leave Gandhiji alone!

In the past so many months, watching English news channels was an absolute pain. Team Anna, Civil Society, second Independence Movement were terms traded freely to describe what i think was a movement which projected a noble cause but was executed in a manner which lacked dignity, sense of propriety and aimed at feeding the insatiable appetite of the media for sensationalism. A former IPS officer does mimicry! Reminiscent of the merry jig of Sushma Swaraj! The end might be noble, but the means? Farcical. Totally devoid of dignity. The protestors seemed to be having fun! Basking in the media limelight. More and more joining daily to join the media whipped up frenzy, hoping to be caught by the roving channel cameras.

I would not have thought my feelings worth a blogpost had not the whole drama been staged against the back drop of the Mahatma. Anna Hazare was hailed as a modern day Gandhi, but he was behaving like a headless chicken.

What did Anna want? The Parliament to pass HIS version of Lok Pal Bill! Who is he? As erudite as Gandhiji to understand the implication of an ombudsman with autonomous powers? Who’s to man this Lokpal with such unlimited powers? People like those who constitute Team Anna who are eternally playing to the galleries? God deliver us from such well meaning (?) souls who get carried away when the media camera is on them and behave in a manner that makes us hang our heads in shame.

Hysteria, celebrations, jigs and mimicry – that’s not what we want. These trivialise the cause. Politics is serious business. Let not people who have no respect for parliamentary democracy make public statements dismissing all elected representatives as scoundrels. Bad apples are there – in plenty. But dangerous to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Let’s not forget that, with all its shortcoming the Indian democracy has delivered. Let no one think it a worthy cause to put a spoke into its functioning.

Having said this, I’d like to turn to what’s laudable about Anna Hazare’s movement. It gave centrality to the greatest problem facing the country – corruption. Between this movement and Subramaniam Swami, corruption as an issue has surfaced and is looming large enough to haunt politicians. With a few political heavyweights in Tihar jail, and more probably to follow, our netas and their hangers -on might think several times before greasing their palms. But are the netas alone to be blamed?

It is said every country gets the leaders it deserves. And we have got the ones we deserve. How are we above blame when we give ‘monies’ to get a registration done? Or offer the cop a currency note to avoid getting a ticket? Or “treat’ government inspectors to get a reduced house tax, or get approval for a project with holes in it?

Who am i to point fingers at a leader when in my little world i indulge in corrupt practice?

If the Hazare movement causes us to introspect along these lines, something has been achieved.

Cleaning has to begin from the bottom of the pyramid.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Tribute to my Favourite Aunt

She was a wonderful person and I loved her. My world would be different without her in it. Not that i visited her often. Of late, me being away from kochin, and then my illness had prevented me from what i loved doing – looking up my aunts and uncles.

I regret it now. Intensely. Whenever we get a chance, we must visit them. Having not enough time should not be an excuse. For we’ll have all the time in the world for regrets when death , like a thief, snatches them away, without prior notice.

As it happened in the case of my ammai. To think that she’s no longer there when i feel like seeing her or talking to her – it’s painful. The knowledge that she has left my world for good – it’s difficult to digest.

She was my mother’s brother’s wife who inhabited my earliest memories very prominently. She was fun, great fun. Come vacation and she’d come home and take me to her home where i had female cousins around my age with whom i could have girlie talks and games. (i grew up among six boys. My sister, was already across the seven seas by the time i was six).

She used to spend lots of time with us, the small girl’s gang and make us laugh, and laugh at all our stupid stories and the silly things we said and did.

And she was a GREAT cook. The greatest I’ve met, I’d say. She’d announce the special dish she was planning to make and get us all highly excited.

“Today, we’ll make Kashmiri Biriyani”, she announced once.

I was excited. My mother made excellent Kerala biriyanis, and i didn’t know then (I was in high school), biriyani came in other forms too. I hung around her while she made it, and she explained to me at each stage – not the way the divas of the cookery shows do. She did it with so much earnestness and love, in a language that a teenager would understand - a sincere and earnest effort at grooming her niece.

How much garlic do you need, ammai? I’d ask.

The size of a lemon when ground.Ginger too, that much.

And the final product was simply awesome, the taste, the visual appeal and all. I am not exaggerating when i say I’ve never, ever tasted a better biriyani than the one Alekutty ammai made that day.

It’s going to be cashew sweets today, she announced another day.

After she cooked crushed cashew nuts in milk and sugar, she brought it to a consistency where it could be made into small balls, and then threw them into a tray in which she had mixed sugar and mild rose milk colour. My cousins and i sat across her and rolled them in the mixture so they’d come with a beautiful pink coating, and then pop them into our mouths.

Memories. Of the lovely days i spent in ammai’s house. Am getting overwhelmed by them. She was so full of love. So full of fun. So full of laughter.

And her narrative skills were simply incredible. She’d have us all agog with suspense one moment, then have us dissolve in uncontrollable laughter.

She was a unique person and i loved her.

My fondest memories go back to the days i went to boarding school in Pondicherry. She’d come home with a huge tuck box, full of my favourite snacks. Then she’d come into my room to see if she can help with packing. She’d give me bits and pieces of advice – things a growing adoloscent should know, in a light hearted way which’d make me smile but not miss the message.

And when i got married, she asked for the privilege of buying my wedding saree. I still treasure that beautiful piece in golden brocade.

I was her niece, but i have always felt that she loved me like her own daughter.
And it breaks my heart hat I’m so far away that I can’t be there to bid her the final good bye.

Mebbe it’s better that way. I’d rather remember her as my vivacious aunt with a heart full of fun and love, with that irresistible twinkle in her eye!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Oh, these veggies!

My husband’s (Sunny) friend and his wife dropped in once without notice. Sunny had gone out, and so i was left entertaining them. That was the first time i was meeting them. As i got up to make tea for them, his wife said to me.
“Mrs. Joseph, we are vegetarians. We don’t eat eggs too’
“OK”, i said sweetly. I had no intention of giving them any snacks but since she announced her expectations, i quickly pulled out ready to fry small samosas I’d stored in the freezer, and deep fried them and served.
“You sure it’s fully vegetarian?” asked the lady anxiously.
“absolutely’, i said with the sweetest smile i could plaster around my lips, hoping it’d sufficiently conceal my irritation.
The husband, Mr. A was obviously embarrassed by his wife’s obsession with vegetarianism. With an apologetic smile he explained how they once found some non veg stuff in the food served as vegetarian, and ever since his wife’s was paranoid.
And then he related a story.
“Two years back, i went to Paris. The European countries do not provide for veggies. As the official dinner was flagged off, two waiters walked into the banquet hall carrying a huge sizzler tray with a piglet sizzling. The creature was complete with the head tuned towards its right. They carried the tray and placed it in one corner of the buffet table. Then, i heard another sizzling sound, and turning around, saw another piglet sizzling in another tray, but its head turned towards its left. It was placed at the other end of the table.
The buffet started and i went around. There was nothing i could eat. So i walked up to the bearer and asked him what there was for vegetarians. He pointed to a table. I found leaves of different hues and shapes arranged high in fancy dishes.’
‘Do they think we vegetarians are cows, to eat grass?” he asked indignantly.
I repeated this tale to Sunny who had a good laugh and said.
“That story was for the benefit of his wife. I’ve seen him hogging non veg. Am sure he must have been the one to have had the largest helping of the sizzling pig!”
I have seen many many vegetarians who claim that label for the benefit of their parents, spouses and communities. Understandable duplicity. I have nothing against them. But i do have something against those hardcore vegetarians who behave as though we non vegetarians are still in the rhesus stage of evolution while they are in the ninth incarnation.
Many years ago, the doorbell of my flat rang and i opened it to find my neighbour – she was a Jain – with a steel plate in her hand. My heart skipped a beat 'cos i love some of the Guajarati dishes, and i invited her in. Before she entered she asked me, “Have you cooked non-veg in the house?”
I stared blankly at her. Who the hell is she to ask me whether i cook non-veg in MY house? After all, it is a free country.
Seeing my puzzlement she explained, “Today was ----- pooja in our house, and this is Prasad. We can’t give it to you if you have cooked non-veg in the house”.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????? grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
“Mrs. X, i am in fact cooking beef right now”.
The lady bolted, Prasad and all!
Actually it was lent period and it was the week we had decided to be complete vegetarians.
I find that the veggies have a habit of cribbing. We went for a trip to Italy in a group of forty. More than half were veggies. The breakfast at Marriott was on the house, and always there was a fantastic spread. Different types of breads, cheese, butter, fruits, fruit juices, veg salad, boiled vegetables etc. Along with this there was ham and sausage and omelette. Though the veggies could have a real sumptuous breakfast, they crib and crib and crib about how they are always ignored by the hotel caterers. A sort of dog in the manger attitude. Fed up of listening to the cribbing i ventured to say, “but there’s enough vegetarian stuff for a grand breakfast”.
“but you have more’, one irate lady squealed, a little hysterically, i thought.
“and yours and our package is the same. It’s not as though you pay more’, butted in another grumpy veggie.
The most exciting part of our trip was at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The travel operators arranged to have typical homemade Italian food at a restaurant run by an Italian family just a stone throw from the tower. The restaurant was originally their home. I was quite excited, ‘cos that was the first time that we were having Italian food. Throughout the trip, the veggies in our group insisted on Indian restaurants whichever part of Italy we were in ‘cos ‘Europe doesn’t cater to vegetarians’. And i was quite annoyed. Imagine coming all the way to Italy and having roti and pulao and makhani and kofta! But then, often in crowds such as these, we non vegetarians find ourselves feeling apologetic for our very existences – like inhabitants of planet of apes who are stuck like aliens among superior humans! So we maintained our peace.
To come back to the Leaning Tower, the members of the family that owned the restaurant themselves served us. All the men looked like Robert de Niro. The younger ones looked like him in his youth, the older ones as he is now. One of them made an announcement that the vegetarians and non vegetarians must sit separate. Immediatelty, all the vegetarian ladies went up in arms. They wanted to sit with the usual group. Some could not be separate from their husbands who was vegetarian “but ate chicken, fish and egg”. So they sat together.
Soup began to be served. I saw that the family was having some problem identifying the vegetarians from the mixed group. We started our Italian soup. I was beginning to have it with great relish when a piercing scream rent the air. A vegetarian lady was up on her feet at the table next to mine, looking agitated, gesticulating wildly.
“there’s fish in my soup, there’s fish in my soup”, she screamed at the top of her shrilly voice.
The father of the family came charging to her table, took away her soup with profuse apologies, and literally ran towards the kitchen with it. The charming son came to the table with his mother and told the lady another bowl will be served.
“make sure it has no fish pieces in it”, she said unpleasantly.
I was furious and embarrassed about my compatriot. I turned to the lady and very politely told her. “This is why they wanted to separate vegetarians from non vegetarians”.
“so they put fish into my soup because we didn’t do as they said?” she asked me angrily.
Sunny asked to not to interfere. But it really spoilt the only Italian meal we had.
I wish someone would convince these veggies that though they may be at an advanced stage of evolution we are not evolutionary dropouts because we eat non vegetarian food.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


My father was one of the earliest people in Kerala to manufacture soap. He had a soap factory in Thevara. My mother used to go into fits of laughter each time she related the story of my aunt’s – my father’s doting sister – effort at marketing her dear brother’s product.

My aunt was doing her graduation in St. Teresa’s college. She had a friend - let’s call her Theyyamma- who was deeply distressed 'cos she was not fair – and therefore not lovely.

‘My brother is manufacturing soap’, said my aunt to Theyyamma

’Soap? What’s soap?’

‘It’s a cake like thing which lathers. If you wash your face and body with it, it’ll remove all dirt. More still. If you leave the lather on your face overnight, and wash it off in the morning, you’ll be several shades fairer.’

Theyyamma went home in a high state of excitement.

But she did not come to college the next day – and the next, and the next - - - .

When my aunt came back home from college on the third day of Theyyamma’s absence, she found Theyyamma’s mother at home, looking worried, and my mother who was with her looking tense.

‘What happened to Theyyamma? ‘, my aunt asked T’s mother. She hasn’t been coming to college for three days now?’

“Theyyamma has become FAIR’ said my mother sharply. 'Her skin has come off her face!”

Fortunately for my father, those were not days when people rushed to the consumer court.

And fortunately for Theyyamma, my father apparently hadn’t USED too caustic stuff in the soap – for her skin came back without any damage, thereby not adding one more illustration to the repository of examples of the Malayalam proverb VELUKKAAN THECHATHU PAANDDAYI (what was applied to become fair caused permanent discolouration).
This happened in the late 1940s.

Today, five decades later, women continue to try out home remedies and multinational products to lighten their complexions.

And the ads for these fairness creams are so idiotic that one cannot but marvel at how anyone – from models to script writers – can have any involvement with them. i recently saw one in which the dhoti clad pundit complete with the mark of Vishnu on his forehead stride to the tune of Vedic chants to dig out ancients wisdom from antique books handed down to him to find the formula for fairness – all because his daughter was denied a job on account of her colour. Of course, the wisdom of the forefathers did not let him down. The result – herbs crushed and made into paste to create the ayurvedic Fair and Lovely cream!

Of course, the daughter is selected for the same job after a week’s application of Fair and Lovely!

And now, the fairness bug has bitten the male species too. I belong to the generation where the more idealistic believed that handsome is what handsome does, and less idealistic ones believed that handsome is tall and dark. Now all that’s changed. Now handsome is fair! And so we have fairness creams for men, and equally ridiculous ads selling them!

How does one explain this obsession with fairness? No dearth of theories, i know, but can i have yours?

Friday, July 08, 2011


My cousin Martinette (name changed, of course), about ten years older than me, held her hand behind her back and asked, ‘Where’s aunty’

‘Upstairs, with the seamstress’. I replied.

She walked backwards till the stairs, giving me vicious looks all the time, then whirled around so fast that i couldn’t see what she had in her hand, and bolted upstairs.

Martinette – i hated her. That look on her face portended impending danger for me. I was in the 7th standard, and did a lot of things Martinette didn’t approve of. I used to read a lot, something she believed spoilt a girl. And i read English novels. Some of the Erle Stanley Gardner books had covers of women who looked and dressed like Marylin Monroe. During one of her visits home earlier, Martinette carried one of them to my mother and told her i was reading pornography! Amma was shocked, distressed and furious. For two reasons. Her daughter was travelling down the primrose path that led to hell. Also, Martinette had a vicious tongue. She’ll make sure that the whole family with roots in many parts of kerala and India will come to know of the path chosen by amma’s darling daughter whom she had put through Nazareth convent for years, while she(poor me) should have been playing cricket with her brothers, and climbing trees. I still remember the way amma came into my room holding the Perry Mason thriller.

‘What rubbish are you reading?’ she demanded with anger and sadness in her eyes. The second emotion upset me, and i was furious with Martinette who stood triumphantly next to amma, her Iago like beady eyes moving expectantly between amma and me, her jaws literally dripping with the blood she was about to draw.

‘It’s not rubbish, amma’, i said.

‘It’s dirty, aunty, it’s dirty. I know, you read it if you want’, butted in Martinette.

‘Yes, you read it amma, and you’ll know it not a dirty novel’, i said, looking earnestly at

‘I don’t have to read it. I can see the picture on the cover’, amma said. It was the picture of a slim tall blonde win a red gown with plunging neckline and a long slit in the skirt which exposed most of her long leg. To make matters worse, she had a cigarette hanging from her lips.

Martinette was looking at me with such glee that that the well-bred soft-spoken girl that amma had brought up cracked like a mud face pack and the real me emerged. I jumped up, snatched the book from amma, grabbed Martinette by her hand and dragged her to my father who was reading newspaper in the living room.

“Where are you going, Molly. What are you doing? Leave Martinette alone’, she shouted after me, following me. Poor amma, she was really upset. Amma probably thought i was going to throw her out of the house or give her a beating. Martnette, then, would have something more to talk about me to all my relatives.

My father put down the paper and quietly sized up the situation. He seemed to have got the right picture of what was going on.

I held out the book to him and said, ‘is this a dirty book? Martinette says so and amma believes her.’

Ichayan (i call my father that) looked at the book and asked Martinette, ’what’s wrong with this book? Have you read this?’

‘No’ said Martinette sheepishly.

‘Then how do you know it is dirty?’ asked Ichayan.

‘Look at the cover’, said Martinette, still assertive and belligerent.

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, he told her. He then looked at amma and said, ‘i bought her this book yesterday’. That was not true. But i was delirious with happiness. So was amma. She was ecstatic that my father had removed the fuse out of a potentially explosive scandal.

To come back to the next episode, I wondered what she was up to as she raced up the stairs. In a few minutes, i heard amma call me and i went up, nervous.

Amma was reading my autograph! I was leaving the school i had studied in for seven years and had passed the autograph around to my friends. She looked at Martinette with a poker face and said. ‘Ask her’.

Martinette opened the autograph at page in which was written
Drink hot coffee, drink hot tea, burn your lips and think of me. The signature looked like Ram.

“Who’s this Ram? ‘asked Martinette.

I ignored that pest and, looking at amma, said, “Rama, amma, Shenoy’s daughter’.

‘Oh’, said amma, smiling.

Martinette opened another page in which it was written

Life is not a Midsummer Night’s dream
Nor is it a Tempest.
It’s a Comedy of Errors
So spend it As You Like It

‘Well’, i said looking at Martinette with all the contempt i could hoist on my face.
‘What a message! Is this what you talk among yourself? How you trivialise all the Christian values! How horrible your friends might be!’ she said, miffed that the first bullet proved to be an empty cartridge.

Again i ignored her. I turned to amma and said, ‘amma. Don’t you recognise that they are all Shakespearean titles?’

‘Of course, i did.’ she said calmly.

Martinette’s face clouded over with a malicious, hate filled expression.

‘What about this?’, she asked, trying to smile triumphantly but ending up with an ugly grimace. Her final salvo, she read out from the page.

You no worry, you no care
You go marry a millionaire
When he dies, you no cry
You go marry another guy.

I laughed. So did amma. Martinette’s jaw dropped in utter consternation.

‘Aunty, you don’t find anything wrong with the advice given to her?’ she asked, angry and bitterly disappointed.

‘I find it very funny’, said my mother laughing. ‘That’s just an exercise in rhyming.’

You should have seen Martinette’s face. If she had her way, she’d have punched amma till my mother passed out and would have pounced on me like a predator.

‘Molly, why don’t you call all your friends one day for lunch’, asked amma.

That busybody has ever since kept away from my house.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


A new word has gained currency in Kochi now. HINDIKAAR, which takes my mind back to the few years i was in Mumbai where the average Mumbaiker referred to us from South India as Southies. The less literate or sensitive ones used, without any qualms, the term Madrassi to my face. A couple of times i reacted saying that there are four states to the south of the Vindhyas and Madras is only one of them. A thirty year old once even argued with me that there is no State in the South called Madras. I looked at her with celestial contempt and left the matter at that. Subsequently i learnt that, spurred on by my contempt, she took the trouble of finding out about the erstwhile Madras state!

Now we ‘southies’ are resorting to the same type of stereotyping. The influx of labourers from North India – from Bengal, Orissa and Bihar - had added a new dimension to the demography of Kochi, and the non-Dravidian language they speak has given rise to this tern HINDIKAAR – those who speak Hindi/those from the land where Hindi is spoken. In other words North Indians. Cheap sentiments, i admit, but i feel avenged :-)

As is common knowledge, the high daily wages in kerala coupled with the paucity of labour in the state and the backwardness of the north Indian states are responsible for this unprecedented inflow of this labour force into kerala. All sections of kerala have become bourgeoisie and the proletariat is imported. You go to hotels, construction sites, you find these Hindikaars. The electrical or plumbing contractors who come to your house have Hindikaars to assist them. You don’t find many in the carpentry field, though a week back, i found, one who came with them to do the polishing of wood items. They are excellent workers and have picked up Malayalam too – and slowly picking up the legendry kerala style of working. Manoj who comes to clean my garden is becoming more demanding. Earlier, he used to work from 9 to 5, sometimes even 6 with no major lunch break and happy with the tea and snacks i give him, so that he can finish the work in a day. This time he left half the work unfinished at the end of the first day. When i questioned him, in a rather light hearted manner (‘cos i knew this was bound to happen), he confirmed in his accented Malayalam what i had suspected.

“Gardeners (meaning malayalee workers) would take four days to finish this work”

“Next time you come, you work as you always did. I’ll pay you double’


Satyam”, i confirmed. I wanted to repeat 'satyam' thrice like they do in movies, but refrained as it’d be too dramatic.

And Kerala has begun to mentally accommodate the inevitability of migrant workers here. The destination boards buses have now begun to include Hindi! How different from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra! Is it that Keralites and practical first, and sons of the soil only after that?

However, there were a few news items the past few days which make me suspect that Kochi is going the Mumbai way. The exodus to the big (Kochi big? Maybe in terms of the wages) changed the demography of Mumbai, climaxing in growth of Tamil Underworld and extreme parochialism Rajthakeray & Shiv Sainik style. In Kochi recently, a migrant worker (Hindikaar) beat up a local man and the locals retaliated. Could such episodes lead to the rise of Dons offering protection for hafta to the Hindikaars? Can’t rule it out.
Soon the migrant workers will become a vote bank and that will change Kerala politics beyond recognition.

Slums may not appear the Mumbai way on account of the terrible shortage of land in kerala and highly vigilant public. But crime rate has already begun to climb, and the nature of crime too is getting to be ruthless on account of the anonymity offered by the migrant status and the easy escape route through trains.

The shape of things to come in Kerala is going to be largely dictated by the way Kochi grows into a big metro.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Miss Trivandrum

Looking out from my apartment in Kochin, my mind travels back to my four year stint in Trivandrum, in the 11th floor of an apartment in that capital city. The feel is different. it was the tops of coconut trees that greeted me there, with a few high rises here and there peeping out apologetically for interrupting the vast stretch of greenery. It’s different here in Kochi. The view is perhaps very good, considering i am in Kochi. Coconut trees are there in plenty, here too, as we look out from the 4 balconies of my apartment near Vytilla. But the difference is something we cannot wish away.

The trees themselves are not as healthy as in Trivandrum. Besides, the high rises are too many – and ominous. They seem to say ‘we’ll take over soon!”.

I long for those visions of undulating stretch of swaying coconut palms visible from my Cliff dale Apartment –that green taking on a Nilgiris blue shade as it stretches towards the periphery of the range of vision, and finally transforming into a bluish green gray misty hue trying to merge into the distant horizon!

No such misty vision from my habitat here in Kochin. The edge of green is concretely frontiered by high rises and whatever promises they hold. But they are concrete – nothing left to the imagination.

That is not all. Trivandrum is a laid back little city, and it suits the temperament of a retired person like me who’d like to hang on to the remnants of a lifetime of academic activity which was cut short rather prematurely by circumstances. Thus i get to attend a seminar, or a conference, a poetry reading session, a music performance, all of which are a plenty there. Not that Kochi is starved of those activities. Among the other huge multi crore happenings, these don’t get the type of media attention which a slight cultural stir gets in TVM.

Interesting things happen in Trivandrum. Socio-cultural-civil activisms mushroom in that little city. A group of youngsters, for instance, meet once a week to plan out how they can contribute their mite to minimise production of degradable waste in the little city. They have no funds, hence no venue which would incur expenditure. So they meet in the museum. I once attended their meeting. It’s a medley group. Students, professionals, unemployed –all young people from different walks of life but who come together to put their resources together to find ways and means of making optimum use of existing infrastructure for minimising waste. Their earnestness was touching.

This is but one instance of social activism that’s part of the character of the city. It is a city with a lot of awareness about social injustice and failure of governance. The enlightened in Trivandrum refuse to settle down to the easy existence of armchair critics. They try to contribute their bit, knowing full well their efforts are not going to move mountains; but they are willing to do whatever they can to make that small difference. The group of youngsters i mentioned earlier went around with dustpans and baskets during a human chain to prevent the littering of the streets of Trivandrum. Their action not only spared the corporation the massive task of clearing the streets after the mega show, but lighted small sparks in the hearts of many a citizen about responsibility of every individual to protect the environment.

Strange that no one asked how, after such a massive turnout of human beings, the streets of Trivandrum were spick and span. These motivated youngsters did not come out to claim the credit either!

And the brain behind this movement is a chit of a girl who created this group through a website.

I know a leading academician in Trivandrum who made a firsthand study of the predicament of adivasis. She presents learned theory heavy papers on the mode of development that causes a large section of humanity to fall by the wayside. But that’s the less important fact. She has inspired a group of students to acquaint themselves with this ‘other India’, with the result that the guru and shikshyas give financial support to deserving people among these neglected Indian citizens in the deep forests of Wyanad.

None knows about this even in the institution where this conscientious lady works. I came by this information by accident.

That’s Trivandrum. It houses such noble people who walk the talk, who don’t take their privileges as their exclusive birthright.

I miss the Trivandrum with its colourful secretariat. The things people go on protest against! The delightful slogans! A mockery of democracy as some people say? Well, not really, i guess. The tents on the footpath of the Secretariat represent the power which rests on the people in a democracy- the right to protest, the right to be heard, the right to be seen by the powers that be.

It was my greatest desire to sit in protest before the secretariat and have my voice heard by the people and their elected representatives about a couple of issues i felt strongly about. My husband laughed each time i told him about it, but never stood in the way, the surest indication that the footpath before the secretariat offered a respectable and accepted platform for protest.

And then those beautiful old buildings reminiscent of the days when the rulers of Travancore tried to accommodate the best of the western culture within the time tested traditional frames of indigenous way of life. The drive from the LMS junction to Statue always gave me goose bumps from a sense of history stirring in some remote regions of my consciousness - - -.

The LMS church in grey rubble is an artefact frozen in time. The avenue from Kowdyar to Vellayambalam remains almost unchanged - as it was years ago, is now – and most probably shall ever be.

The Paliam junction with the church, mosque and the temple in a triangle belies the artificially whipped up image of India as a country breaking up along communal lines. The university behind these with the lackadaisical movements of the people on its campus enforce the image of Trivandrum as a thinking state but laid back in deeds.

It is easy to belong to that city.

Trivandrum, I miss you!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kochin Flashback-The Paris Tailor

“Where do you stitch your blouse?”

This is a query which is bound to pop up where ever two or three women gather for whatever purpose. I have lived in five states in India - Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra, and i have found that all sari wearing Indian women, regardless of the circles they belong to, can relate to each other on this issue. It’s a common ground for the housewife and the working women, the metrosophistcate and the rural innocent, the mallu and the bong to meet and discuss, all differences forgotten, and find a camaraderie comprising birds of the strangest feathers. Provided, of course, they all resort to the sari on some occasion.

Stitching the sari blouse is an art. And that too, a rare art which requires a skill of the highest order.

Here are a few excerpts from a sari blouse conversation. The M in the scripts is me. The other characters are real, but with names and relationships changed.
Period: 1970
Venue: Ernakulum
Nilu: M, where do you get you blouse stitched?
M: AT Menon’s.
Nilu: He does an excellent job. The neckline is very low (please reader, it’s BACK neckline, ok?), yet the fit s perfect. The shoulder doesn’t slip down.
M said nothing but smiled to herself.
Nilu: why are you smiling, M?
M: i just remembered what my father said as i was leaving for college this morning. He called me back just as i was about to open the gate, and asked –
‘M, who stitches your blouses? ‘
‘Menon’. It was my mother who replied
‘Next time you go there, you take take all my neck ties. I don’t use them anymore. You can stitch one blouse with each tie’.
Nilu: Was he angry?
M. No way. He was amused. After all it is only the back neck that’s low.

The plunging back neckline was becoming trendy, and M soon came to know that her blouses were becoming very popular in the college.

Now Tinkle, M’s classmate, was that jealous type, and for some reason, she hated M. So she spread the news that M. got her blouses stitched at the Paris Tailors.

Now, now don’t let your jaws hang like that or your eyes pop out like Jim Carrey’s. She didn’t mean that M flew out to Paris to get her blouses stitched, like Jacqueline Kennedy who flew out there to get her apparel designed. Paris Tailor was an elderly man who had a shabby shop on the road leading from the college to the MG road. Stylish women, including those from the ‘conservative, ancient Syrian Christian’ families went to him to get their blouses stitched.

It fits like the second skin, someone said during a typical conversation revolving around this much sought after tailor.
Yes, it fits perfect, yet it has excellent wearing comfort. You can lift your hands as much as you want. It’ll not pinch.
The thing about him is, there is consistency in his work. And if there is the slightest suspicion of tiny fold, he’ll alter it for you.
In fact, he’ll not give it to you unless it is a perfect fit.
You mean to say you have to show him after you try it out?
Of course. He insists on it.
He must be a pervert. That was M.
If you want to get your blouse done perfectly, you’ll have to put up with such perversions. Anyway, he’s very professional about his perversions.
Ha, ha, ha. That was M.
What ha ha ha. A skilled workman is very finicky about the details.
M remained silent.
Why don’t you tell her about the way her takes measurements.
You don’t have to go into that. I’ve heard enough about it. replied M.

M’s cousin had once told her about how the Paris Tailor guy took measurements. He’d ask his customer to step in behind the screen. If the customer was a young girl, the mother would usually follow the daughter behind the screen. Then the tailor himself would take the pallu down and tuck it around the waist of the customer. He’d then start measuring. To stitch a blouse like it is second skin yet enabling you to raise your hand as much as possible, or swing it in all directions without feeling the pinch, the measurement has to be correct to the hundredth of a millimetre.
It is said that this guy even suggests to his customers about the brand of inner wear she should wear so that his tailoring skill will be shown to the best advantage. Regarding taking the measurements, well, I leave it to your imagination. Was it Keats who said that what is left to the imagination is infinitely superior to explicit descriptions?

M’s mother refused to get her daughter’s blouse stitched by the Paris Tailor, though she was very particular that M wore well fitting blouses. She always took M to Menon, who too was meticulous about measurements, but he had a lady assistant specially trained to measure. Menon would stand outside the counter and ask his client to get into the counter. At the opposite wall of the counter was a small room at a lower level. The client and the assistant would go down into that portion. The client would face the lady. Menon, standing outside the counter would barely be able to see the customer standing behind the partially drawn curtain . The assistant would take the measurements and call them out to Menon who would note them in his book.
He’s so decent, said M’s mother. Not like Paris tailor. And his blouses are good too. How can any mother allow her daughters to go to Paris tailor?

His work is perfect, amma. It’s like second skin. And very comfortable to wear. You can swing your arms as much as possible and yet feel no catch, said M to her mother. Menon’s blouses have perfect neckline, but there’s always a tiny crease at the arm pits and a small pinch too.
Amma gave M a dirty look. Every blouse should have a tiny fold, or people would think you’re not wearing one. And why do you want to swing your arm? Are you going to play volley ball in a sari blouse? Said amma crossly. Don’t get any ideas into your head, young lady. Menon is good enough.

So M walked up to Tinkle and picked up a quarrel with her for spreading canards about her. Tinkle, Menon stitches my blouse, not Paris tailor. If ever i hear that are going around telling everyone that i get my blouse stitched at Paris Tailor, I’ll sue you for defamation.

Those were the days when i was hooked on to Perry Mason novels and so i could get a little technical which i think scared Tinkle, who, i knew, read only the prescribed texts.

In the year 1973, Paris tailor caused a rather serious discord between my cousin and her husband. One day, my cousin came to my college during lunch interval and took me to a lonely corner in the college compound.

M, can you do me a favour? She asked in hushed tones. I had given four blouses to be stitched at the Paris tailor’s. I had to come to Ernakulum today for an engagement, and was hoping to pick up these blouses. But when i tried them out, there were a few minor problems which he said he’ll correct. He’ll keep them ready tomorrow. I can’t come again to pick them up. Can you please collect them for me?
M was horrified. If someone sees me going into that shop and tells amma, i’ll be slaughtered.
You manage it somehow, M. Be a darling. And keep the blouses with you. DONT SEND THEM THROUGH ANYBODY. I’ll pick them up myself. If my husband or mother in law or sisters in-law comes to know, i’ll be slaughtered. They are as stupid and laid back like you and your mother.

M got her tomboyish friend Beena to pick the blouses. I want to take a look at that lecherous old goon, she said.

M gave the blouses to her cousin when she came down to Ernakulum next.

M saw her next at a common cousin’s wedding. She looked glum.

What’s wrong with you? M asked
My husband was searching my handbag for change and found Paris tailors ‘delivered’ chit. All hell broke loose.Not only is he not talking to me ever since, that spiteful outdated creature who doesn’t deserve to be my husband cut up all the blouses, so that i won’t wear them. That’s why I’m wearing this stupid badly stitched blouse today.
Did you tell him i collected the blouses? M asked alarmed.
You think I’m that stupid? It’ll become a big family feud then. Why did i have to get married into a family which demonises the Paris Tailor?

The legendry old man of the Paris tailor has now been long laid to rest, but his son’s capitalised on his brand name and is now doing roaring business in Kochi. He is equally sought after as his father was, but is not talked about in hushed tones, like his father was.

Times have changed. To be more precise, attitudes have changed. A professional doing his work is treated with equal respect, be it a doctor or a tailor. In the seventies, the Paris tailor represented the vacillation of a conservative puritanical affluent society between the desire for professionalism and the entrenched values of modesty for women.

Today, i wonder how many mothers accompany their daughters when they go to the tailor to get sari blouses stitched.

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?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Anna Hazare should keep in mind

Peaceful and violent revolutions are destabilizing well-entrenched political dispensations around the world. The mood indeed is catching. It is sweeping over India too, but on a more complex level. The movement triggered off by Hazare is not a fight against suppression of man’s inalienable rights. It’s against the rot that is endangering a political system that ensures fundamental rights. And sadly, the fundamental rights are taken so much for granted that Hazare, the anti corruption messiah, allows sidelining of man’s inalienable right to existence. This we saw when he endorsed Narendra Modi, and held him up as the role model for politicians.

We, the people of India, are so fed up with corruption, and frustrated at our inability to fight it that we look up to Hazare to provide the leadership – as Gandhi and JP did once. JP’s Janata did not survive because groups whose ideologies were fundamentally incompatible were thrown together for a short-term goal of dislodging an autocratic but democratically elected leader who slaughtered fundamental rights through amendments after amendments. One good thing Janta government did in 1977 was the put in place certain built-in defences against easy declaration of Emergency.

I digress, but I wanted to make this point clear. Indian democracy is strong and indestructible, because it is a state of mind – of the people. It is not something that is superimposed on a reluctant people. It comes from within them. Hence it survived famine and poverty, violent and nonviolent left and right wing ideological invasion into its polity, dictatorship and economic lows, wars, terrorism and communalism.

Today, its greatest enemy is corruption. To repeat the cliché, corruption has become a way of life in the country. But we will not allow it to destroy us, destroy our democracy. The country has always thrown up solutions when a crisis that threatens our democracy reaches a point when it cannot but be imperatively addressed. The rise of JP is one such case. Now it is Hazare.

Hazare was destined to be. So it is absolutely important that he keeps himself above blame. He should not indulge in impulsive statements like endorsing a person who committed the worst imaginable crime against helpless humanity. He should not keep the company of people whose credentials are suspect. Not only Caesar, but his wife also should be above blame. If Bushan’s name has to be cleared, take someone else. Our country provides a billion to choose from. Bhushans may be innocent, but the country cannot wait for them to be cleared.

Hazare should not put anyone above the cause. The cause is all-important. Let him not get dragged into a minor tug of war when a great war is being fought. His loyalty is to the cause, not to those who surround him. He should be wise enough to see that efforts are being made to hijack his movement. Unless his vision his clear, his goal is clear, he will be hijacked by vested interest. The movement will then lose its momentum – and direction.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Of Old men, Amul baby, Shashi Tharoor and Kerala elections: Post election disconnected reflections.

The elections are over but the generation war continues. In the media, which is trying to prolong it.

Yesterday, Shashi Tharoor, the super diplomat (a misnomer? – has been getting his foot in the mouth every time he opens it) took up the cudgels. The Amul Baby is a symbol of development, he tweets. Of White Revolution, of the success of cooperative movement and what not. And the NIE, 15th April 2010, has done everything in its power to sensationalise Tharoor’s tweet as another instance of foot in the mouth. They are using it to launch another controversy on Tharoor, the media’s pet.
‘NEW DELHI: While the entire Congress went hammer and tongs against(sic) Kerala Chief Minister V S Achutanandan's "Amul Baby" remark against Rahul Gandhi, former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor says he does not find it insulting.
"Don't see why "Amul baby" an insult. Amul babies are fit, strong, focused on the future. Symbolise white revolution which brought milk to the masses,"
The party on the contrary had slammed Achutanandan for it.
And then the paper continues “this is not the first remark by Tharoor in which he has taken a different stand from that of the party. His cattle class remarks blah blah blah - - - .

The NIE efforts will come to naught 'cos the party would like to bury the issue in which Rahul Gandhi was the loser and Achumamman came out victorious!

And the people of Kerala had a good laugh - with Achumamman and at R Gandhi. Many, however, were annoyed by R Gandhi’s remark, which was very much in bad taste – particularly since he was backing to the hilt another octogenarian CM in the neighbouring state who has proved to be a super manipulator from his wheel chair, beside being the godfather of scamsters.

Unlike Karuna who has become the very epitome of corruption, Achumamman is known for his uncompromising integrity. But then, the Congress party has perfected the art of backing, and leaving no stone unturned to shield a corrupt or evil ally. They have intelligent, articulate and glib spokesmen (Abihkek Sanghvi & Manish Tiwari to mention a couple) to do that for the party. The KPCC leaders, the Congress spokesmen and that Bong heavy weight FM found Achuthanandan’s remark ‘uncivilized’!!?? oh, come on, give me a break! And they were deafeningly silent on the most objectionable remark made by the 40 year old R Gandhi!!!

This is a country which reveres gray hair, and the “old man” remark by the uncrowned king of the Congress party was most unwarranted. It would have been most appropriate for the Congress party to admit that it was R Gandhi who had his foot in the mouth, and tendered an apology on his behalf, if R Gandhi’s overblown status prevented him from apologizing himself.

Coming to the damage coalition governance has done to the Congress party, the scams rocking the Centre will testify to it. In my state , the most unpardonable action of the party was the way the KPCC and the Opposition leaders went up the hill and down the dale defending Kujnalikkutty. The least they could have done was to keep silent. Oommen Chandy whom I’d always admired crashed beyond redemption in my esteem.

I’m happy about my inability (technical reasons) to cast my vote. It would have seriously affected my integrity to vote for the Congress party that has been mulishly giving protection to scamsters and rapists. To vote the LDF back to power would have made Kerala an unlivable place for the next five years with Gunda Raj of the DYFI taking over. Of course, in the opposition they are even worse – they will not allow a single day of proper governance.

How long are we, the silent majority, going to take this predicament lying down, I wonder?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Narendra Modi’s letter to Anna Hazare

A strange letter. It thanks Hazare for daring to praise him, but “him” is equated with Gujarat. ‘And it was yesterday that I got the encouraging news of your expressing kind words for Gujarat and me.”

The letter betrays the desperation of a man who has been smarting for over a decade from the political ostracism he has been subjected to after the post Godhra riot. Modi uses the open letter to Hazare as a tool to rationalise his ideology. It has the endorsement of Anna Hazare, a man who is at the moment a national hero, and who reflects the frustration of the Indian citizens furious at being swindled by politicians who are worse than conmen. Modi’s effort is to project himself as the alternative to the present political dispensation in the Centre by showcasing his Development agenda at the industrial and grass root levels.

Modi is a smart man. The mood in India is one of intense anger at being swindled by the Congress led government for two terms. And the party did this hiding behind the shield of secularism they know that the people of India are fiercely possessive about. But no one can fool the people all the time. We, the people of India, are throwing up our hands in sheer helplessness at the absence of an alternative. Whom do we vote into power? The BJP? Are they any less corrupt? What about Yeddyurappa? Isn’t he going the Congress and Deve Gowda way? What’s the BJP high command doing about it? So when it comes to corruption and power, they too are of the same ilk. Only, they didn’t get as long an innings in power as the Congress to get deeply entrenched in the unspoken ideology of corruption.

So why not BJP? Speaking for myself, I’m afraid of casting my vote for a party which is professedly communal. Congress, without doubt, plays/has played the communal card. No one can deny it. But its official position in anti communal. Does that mean anything – to swear by secularism while cashing in on communal politics for votes? I think it does. A party which has a secular image to maintain will not make fascism (loosely used) the official policy of the state – as Hitler did. This party will not officially adopt an anti-minority policy as Hitler did, making anti-semeticism a national policy.

Will BJP do this once it comes to power? Probably not. The Assange leaks have shown a hardcore and vocal BJP leader confessing that Ram Mandir was only a political launching pad to catapult the party to New Delhi. Most BJP leaders have democratic values and are committed to secularism and pluralism.

But not so Modi. The post Godhra riots showed his true colours. In his letter to Hazare, he never once mentions why people vilify him. Let him categorically state that he had nothing to do with the carnage which followed the horrible torching of the train by a group of Muslims at Godhra. Let him declare that he was totally innocent of what happened, that things went out of his hands. Never once has he said that. All allegations about his government’s complicity in the pogrom have always been met by silence. When Karan Tharpar tied to get him to talk on it, he walked out of the show in a huff.

And he has been consistently making efforts to parochialise the issue by saying that the rest of India is against the people of Gujarat. There is not an element of truth in that statement. It’s Modi that India rejects, and fears. And when Gujarat keeps voting him back to power, democratic, secular India becomes anxious. What if he becomes the Prime Minister, which is not an impossibility. Modi for PM lobby is a powerful one in the BJP camp.

The very thought of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India is scary.
The Indian democracy is in a precarious position today, and the Congress which has been at the helm of affairs for a long long time has itself to blame for this. Alphonse Kannanthanam, the maverick bureaucrat known for his honest ways has joined BJP. Anna Hazare a Gandhian applauds Modi. True, it’s his development agenda that he lauds, but the message is loud and clear. Ignore his human rights violations. Development at grass roots level, taking care of the villages compensate for crimes against humanity. This is the subtext of Kannanthanam joining BJP,Anna Hazare lauding Modi and the people of Gujarat voting him back again and again.

This is worrisome. Disgusted with corruption, there appears to be a shift in people’s attitude to democratic values. A willingness to compromise on the fundamentals.

This does not augur well for the great Indian democracy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'll miss Shikha!

Strange. She exists only in my imagination. She was born there, bred there, suffered there, evolved there. Now she has outgrown me, as children outgrow their parents. That’s how it has to be. But that doesn’t change the truth that this weaning is painful.

I’ll miss Shikha when my e novel The Holy Nazrane Family concludes this week. Once the final chapter is uploaded, the umbilical cord is severed. But then that severing took place long time back – the minute she, who was conceived in my brain, took a local habitation and a name in a Nazrane family in Chennai. She has been on her own since. I had no control over. Rather, i had only as much contol over her as a mother, in the final analysis, has over a child. True she conceives it, nurtures and protects it for nine months. But once the infant is out of the protective womb of the mother and breathes in the air of the world, it is an individual.

So was my Shikha. She grew out of me the minute she took her place in the fictional world of my novel. I saw her behaving and dong things that pained me sometimes and made me happy at other times. Many a time she did me proud too. But i must confess that there was little i could do to change her, her life, her travails. Shika is the child of my imagination, but she carried on like any human child. She developed a life of her own, views of her own. She made her mistakes and learnt from them. She suffered, battled with her own conflicts and evolved. I could only stand by and watch – unlike a reatime mother who tries to shape her child and prepare it for life, and extends a supportive hand when the child trips and falls.

A virtual mother doesn’t have that privilege. She can only watch her offspring move about in her world and suffer the trauma of developing an individuality. I could not give Shikha those warning signals. I could just watch her unfold herself and learn the lessons of life the hard way.

Wont a realtime mother make an effort to deflect the course of her child’s life when she sees the child enter the road to peril? Why then does a virtual mother refrain from this intervention?

The reason is simple and that is, the rules are different in the two worlds. The mothers of this world take upon themselves the onus of preparing the offspring for the world which lies before them like a land of dreams, but in truth is also a land of nightmares. They also take upon themselves the equally serious task of ensuring that the offspring does not travel down the road to perdition. But the virtual mother knows better. The minute her child enters the fictional world, she loses control over her. It’s her life after that, which the mother can only record.

And when she finally steps out from the final page into aery nothing, Shikha will sink into oblivion like the millions of others like her. She is not of the material that’ll go down in history.

And I’d have seen the last of her.

But, I’ll miss her.

And there’s no way of letting her know that!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Today is women’s day. For some strange reason, I am in an expansive mood and so not in a frame of mind to contribute my mite to the gender war today. Ever since I came out of my illness, I slip into these euphoric moods and I find myself thanking those forces which decided to give me another lease of life – not once but twice. Today is one of those days when I feel I have won the battle against the killer disease. And I celebrate life - -

When I sat in the balcony reading the newspaper over the cup of tea my Anita made for me, I felt blessed. I could without help perform my morning ablutions despite the wrist pain, which was and is doing everything in its power to distress me. I must admit that when brushing my teeth became a painful exercise, I was shaken - briefly. I was relieved when the scan showed that the pain did not belong to the onco department. It’s an ortho problem, probably the side effect of the treatment. Yes. It did distress me. Is this the shape of things to come, I wondered. Am I going to be dependent on people to even brush my teeth? Yes, I did have a few angry moments – but then that blew over. I found my own way of dealing with it. Wristband, bandage. And then of course accepting what couldn’t be wished away. I decided to will it away. Do you know accepting difficulty – even if it is physical pain- can make the difficulty ineffective? Yes. It’s true. Just don’t let the stupid pain get you. And the battle is won!

Am back to my normal self – despite the wrist pain. You know it takes some humility to accept aches and their fallout. That’s a discovery I made. ‘Listen’, I told myself. ‘What if you have to depend on others? That’s not the end of the world. Cos you are still around on this planet. You can walk, sing, listen to music, watch movies, eat drink, have fun with family and friends, be at your computer for hours, practice music (with the wrist band on) to your hearts content, read newspaper, attend the women’s meeting in the condominium, go shopping, go to the grocers and the cold storage, bake cake on Sunny’s birthday and make Chicken Maryland and Chinese chopsuey and payasam(all with help – so what?), run my home, go out for dinner with friends and family, visit friends and relatives, do Trivandrum –Kochin trip by road or train and and and. Hey, why on earth did I indulge in self pity when this wrist of mine tried to act smart? I have so much to thank God for and I crib about one small irritant!

My elation I guess is fed by all this - and the people around me. The small and big things my family does to make life easier for me. The infinite care with which Anita, my help, does things for me. (How much she has done to make every minute of my life comfortable post disease! How easily she became part of the family after she walked into my apartment four years ago asking for employment! How she lends dignity to her work! How much I have learnt from her about how to deal with life’s problems!) And her anxiety about how I’ll manage when I leave Trivandrum for good three months from now.

I wish I could come with you, she said one day.

Doesn’t matter, I told her.

How will you manage? Will you get someone there who will take care of your diet the way I do?

Don’t worry Anita. God will provide.

And I get propped up by advice from friends - both acquaintances and my net friends who came to know of my illness through my blogs. I get mails with suggestions to fortify the mind to fight the disease. These friends give me books or recommend them - and all have proved to be excellent ones for they convinced me that I am in control.

I know this is a rambling piece. Do forgive. It’s just an effort to understand why I feel elated today. Why, instead of expressing concern about the predicament of women on this day, I am celebrating life.

Celebrating life. That’s what I do. That’s what all should do. We who have a lot to celebrate. We should not wallow in self-pity for the little we don’t have. To have a sense of deprivation is part of human nature. If that is not controlled, it can spread and eat into the human personality - like cancer. The only panacea for this disorder is the age old remedy: When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed/When you are discouraged thinking all is lost/Count you many blessing name them one by one/And it’ll surprise you what the Lord has done.

We should be able to celebrate life if we are to genuinely reach out to those for whom circumstances are not congenial for such a celebration. A discontent soul reaching out to the suffering humanity cannot do a good enough job of extending a helping hand or going that extra mile. our discontentment would chill the hearts causing insensitivity to set in. The hand extended to offer help would hurt by the roughness of its grip. The extra mile would be grudgingly travelled, and the worn out heart would make us snappy and morose.

It’s only a happy soul with song in her heart who can hear and listen to “the still sad music of humanity”.