Dec. 1st 2016.

 

image

Today marks a year since the incessant rains in Chennai that lasted days and led to the unforgettable flooding that caused many to flee their homes in the wee hours of the night.

Personally, it was an unforgettable night for me too – waiting seemed to be the order of the night and most of next day.

I waited restlessly for a train to reach Chennai…

Then I waited for the rains to stop, so a loved one can reach us safely from the railway station.

And when it did stop, I waited breathlessly for my husband to return after picking her up.

Soon after their almost-safe return, the flooding started.

Then I waited for the water to rise.

Early morning saw us waiting for the boat.

Once my son and I reached safe ground, it was a harrowingly long wait for my husband to reach our side.

 

At the end of that day, I said a silent prayer of thanks that after all that trauma, we were all together again. Safe and sound. And that’s all that mattered.

 

Within a few months, all of us bounced back to normalcy. We returned to our homes, got new cars, repainted the houses, bought new furniture, went back to work again…

The nightmarish morning soon became a distant memory.

But today, just thinking about the date opens a floodgate of memories. Not just the panic, but also the kindness I experienced from the people around me.

I remember the kind people who stood by us throughout that fateful experience with so much compassion…

My kind neighbor who served us all a hot cuppa that chaotic morning…

The gang of coast guards who risked their lives so many times tirelessly to enter into our street on a rickety motor boat, braving the strong river current to rescue scores of people…

The police officers who systematically controlled the evacuation with amazing organizing skills…

The kind man who opened his gate and welcomed us all to use his garage when we landed on dry land to wait for the rest of our families…

A kind friend who called me hundred times to say he’s booked a hotel room for my family and if we needed transport to get there…

The people on the adjoining dry streets who jumped on to the boats without a thought for their own safety, just to help us…

And after a few days, stories of selflessness and bravery started pouring in.

Hundreds of youngsters distributing food and clothes to the new homeless…

Kind people cooking tonnes of food in their kitchen to distribute to the people who were trapped inside their own homes…

People saving stray dogs from drowning…

Samaritans from all over the country and even abroad sending whatever they could…

The generosity and resilience of the human spirit shone brilliantly through this calamity.

 

As for me, the traumatic experience taught many unforgettable lessons.

First, the world is full of great people with large hearts.

Secondly, it is so much easier to handle a situation however bad, if you keep your cool. My street was full of cheerful camaraderie that morning. It made a difference.

And finally, all we need is each other.

Anything else can be bought.

Advertisements

Second mothers

My mother was one of nine siblings. As a child, I watched her maternal home in a tiny village in South India,  play host to many, including me. Though the permanent residents were only my grand mother and my youngest uncle, the house was always full of floating population. Cousins posted nearby who used the house as base during week days, daughters who dropped in for short visits, sons and grandsons stopping by on their way to somewhere… and my own mother who used to shuttle between her government job in her hometown and Chennai till she got the much-awaited transfer.

So my brother and I used to stay there for months on end sometimes. Till my mother finally got her transfer when I was about 10.

During my stays, I spent a lot of time with a cousin. Though she’s technically my cousin, she’s only a few years younger than my mom, so she was more like an aunt. She has a bubbly personality, her kohl-rimmed eyes sparkling with mirth all the time. Being a school teacher, she was on to my tricks even before my own mother realised what I was up to. She was my hero. Thanks to her influence early on, I still cannot step out of home without drawing kohl in my eyes.

Once we settled down in Chennai, our meetings were reduced to occasional weddings. She too got married and was soon busy with the throes of raising her children while holding on to a full time job.

After a few more years even I stopped going for weddings due to the pressures of  academia and later, a career. I met her sporadically, may be once in 2 or 3 years.

I met her after a long gap of 8 years at a wedding, a few days ago. And the years just fell away. Except for the fact that she is a grand mother now and looks so frail and old, thanks to her illness, her eyes hold the same sparkle even now. We chatted away as much as we could and reminisced about my childhood and her youth.

Soon, it was time to go & I bid her good bye with a sudden lump in my throat.

On my way home I wondered, ‘Will my son ever have bonds like these?’

As a kid, I had so many mother figures in my life. My grandmothers, aunts, older cousins or sometimes even neighbours. I’ve spent days with and weeks with these women, stayed in their homes, eaten their food, confided in them and worried them to no end with my antics.

Of course, mostly it was because my own mother was so busy working full time & keeping house, she hardly had the luxury of a leisurely chat with me. Though my mother was a rock solid influence in shaping my health, conscience and general happiness, my emotional growth was pretty much dependant on these women who always lent a ear to my make-up queries and troubled teenage woes.

But apart from me and my mother-in-law, my son absolutely has no one else as a mother figure in his life.

True, he has his aunts and my best friends. But he sees them all with me around and only for short periods of time. He can never be close enough to go to them with his problems.

On the other hand, unlike my mother, I’m always around, ready to comfort him and offer him advice 24/7.

So I consoled myself that he does not really have the need for that kind of bonds in his life.

But after nine long years of my mother’s passing, it sure felt nice to look up to someone who cared for you as a child, feel safe and protected and not be the adult for once.

 

 

Now I know

“Never take ordinary days for granted,” I had read somewhere. “When you look back, those will be the days you will miss most.”

I realise the full meaning of that sentence only now.

Exactly 15 days ago, I fled from home, jumping on to a rescue boat from my first floor balcony. With a back pack with a change of clothes and other immediate essentials. (My son’s bag had a few comics and his sketching kit.)

The boat had hobbled a few feet above my husband’s SUV. Once we jumped in, we zipped and zoomed against the flowing current for the scariest 8 minutes of my life.

A few hours of restless waiting followed as we waited in the rain in somebody’s garage for the boat to bring my husband and sister in law.

I am one of the luckier few. Water did not enter my floor. Some thieves did, a few days later, but thankfully they didn’t take much.

Except for the loss of our cars and the locks on the front door, my family didn’t lose much compared to my ground floor neighbors.

They lost everything, but for some valuables they managed to save in a hurry, as the water level rose inside their homes.

My friend in the next building had just enough time to carry her dogs and cats to the safety of a floor above, that she couldn’t even think of her valuables.

We’ve also been luckier because we had somewhere to go.

Perhaps this was a wake up call to all.

Things can indeed change in a flash.

Homes can go under water.

Prized possessions can be washed away.

As can dear ones.

Your whole life can turn upside down in a matter of hours.

Though I know my home isn’t damaged and I can go back the minute power is restored and my street is clear of debris and damaged cars, a feeling of displacement is difficult to shake off.

A wave of homesickness washes over me when I least expect it.

I suddenly miss my morning cuppa with the day’s crossword, the bustle of breakfast and subsequent school runs, the mid-morning tea breaks when I have the whole house to myself, my bed, my favourite mug, baking the weekly bread, my tv shows, driving alone with my favourite song blaring….

Oh so many small things I took for granted.

If I can feel so much sadness for being away from home for a few weeks, I shudder to think of those who have lost their homes forever.

They will have to start anew. Build new lives. Create new routines. Make fresh memories.

Meanwhile, I will wait it out. Hold my breath a bit longer. Pause my regular life.

Till I can go back home.

And savour my ordinary days.

Fights and Feuds…

20735350

The doorbell rang as I was racing against time to finish an assignment. My son was napping and I prayed he wouldn’t wake up and ruin my efforts to catch a deadline.  For once.

H, a friend stood outside my door.

Her forehead was smeared with so much kumkum that it looked like she’d emptied a dubba on herself.

I invited her in and ran back to the comp.

She dragged a chair and sat next to me.

“I walked out of home,” she informed me.

“Why?”

“I fought with my husband”

“So what’s new?! ” I asked. ” you keep talking… just don’t expect me to say anything till I send this mail… ”

She rattled on about the arguement she’d had with her husband (which was so petty, I can’t even tell you…)

I half-listened and made all the appropriate noises.

I finished my work and we lounged in the sofa with a cup of tea each.

She’d just told me how she had walked all morning from one temple to another to get some peace of mind… She was sure her husband must have been having hell trying to handle both their boisterous kids when the doorbell rang again.

This time it was her driver.

She looked at me flummoxed.

I just shrugged.

The driver informed her that his master was downstairs waiting for her in the car.

“Tell him I’m not coming..” She said haughtily.

“Ma’m… I’ll lose my job.. you please tell him whatever you want to yourself…”

She looked at me…

“Your man is smart..” I told her. ” He knows exactly where you’ll be when you run away from home!”

After dragging her feet for another ten minutes, she sheepishly said her goodbyes and went back to her waiting husband…

*******

Fights in a marriage is as common as cold, I think… I have my share of them too… But over the years they’ve tapered down to a curt word here, a killer looks there and we just get on with our lives.

I remember the first time we had a fight as newly-weds. After a bitter argument and a healthy blame-game session, my husband stormed out after yelling he didn’t want dinner.

I threw myself on the bed, cried into my pillow and ignored my own grumbling tummy for the better part of the night.

The next time, we had just sat down to dinner and I was ravenous.

But my husband who was suffering from a bad cold was mad at me for the chilled curds at the table.  How could I be so inconsiderate?

I told him he’d been avoiding curds for the past few days and the chilled curds were for me.

He walked off in a huff.

I looked at the food in my plate.

Then I looked at his sulking silhouette in the balcony.

My hunger won. I ate my dinner and retreated to the bedroom and watched some TV.

But the dishes on the table bothered me.

So I went up to him and asked him ” Aren’t you going to finish your dinner?”

“NO!”  he barked. “I told you I will not eat!”

“OK” I said. I cleared the table, cleaned the kitchen and went back to bed. After a bit of channel surfing, I drifted off to a peaceful slumber for the next eight hours.

And the next day my husband was back to normal, talking about the weather!

Having stumbled upon this brilliant way of handling a fight by sheer accident, I’ve stuck to it all these years …

But of course there was this odd incident when I was overcome with so much anger that I tried a filmy style walkout late in the night. (We were staying in a very quiet and lonely neighborhood then)

I was sure my husband would follow me with a thousand apologies, but when it didn’t happen, I quickly backtracked to find him glowering at the door.

I got an earful for being so foolish and how I could have got mugged or raped or walked into so many such nasty situations.

Anyway, now both of us don’t waste our energies  yelling or screaming. And now we cannot afford to raise our voices in front of the kid. (Thanks to all those advice you get on child rearing, free or otherwise!)

So its clipped comments, curt nods and murderous looks for us. And after a bit we just carry on with our normal lives.

I think such small fights add spice to any marriage. Imagine if  we all had predictable, happy and peaceful conversations with our spouses all the time… It’d be like having plate after plate of syrupy jaangiri! Absolutely no spice!!!

And one of my favourite stories is about a good friend when she was a newly-wed.

She stormed out after a fight, stopped at a wine shop, got herself a bottle of vodka, went over to a friend’s place, stayed up cursing all men the whole night. This was before the mobile phone days. The next morning she returned home to find an anxious husband, who’d been worried sick all night and had been just about to call the cops. He was so relieved to see her safe & sound that they had a tearful reunion on the spot!

Ho ho ho… Merry Men and Season’s Greetings!

30399242

I subscribe to an online thought-for-the day kind of site, and a few weeks ago there was this article which featured angels amidst us.

This article started with a question, ‘Have you ever found timely help from a total stranger? Or experienced a happy coincidence when the right person was there just at the moment you needed some help?’ It went on to explain that there are angels around us and the universe watches over us and sends them when we need them.

It went even a bit further by saying you could be angel without realising it. Maybe what you said very casually to somebody has changed their life profoundly… Well, you get the drift.

Anyway, this post is not about the mysterious ways of  the universe. But about one such person who could have been an angel in my life.

I’d just completed my graduation and a course in visual communication and I was ready to storm the world of advertising.

I really don’t know how it works now, but back then, I didn’t have many contacts in the ad world. So my plan was to look up the ad agencies in the city from the Yellow Pages,  divide them by their location and assign an area for each day.

One September morning, I lugged my heavy portfolio bag and started for the assigned locale of the day.

My first stop was one of the top agencies in the nation with a reception area so swank, like it was right out of an interiors magazine.

My eyes as round as saucers, I sat in the plush sofa, waiting for the receptionist to see if the creative director had the time to see me.

When I was finally ushered in, I was asked to sit in front of a grumpy man about 35, who asked to see my portfolio.

I waited with bated breath while he flicked through it nonchalantly and handed it back without a word.

“Well.. What do you think of my work, Sir?” I asked politely.

“What was the name of your college, again?” He asked.

After hearing my reply, he cleared his throat and went on to abuse my alma mater for about ten minutes and said, “There’s definitely something lacking in teaching there. Every single student passing out from there has something missing.” he concluded.

“Like?” I prompted.

“Don’t know!” He shrugged. “In any case, the slot for trainees this year is full up, so you can come back next year.” He said as he got up to leave the room.

Crushed and crestfallen, I found my way out and walked to the road.

The previous rejection still stinging, I walked into the next office on the list. It was a small one, nothing compared to the pomp and glory I’d just walked out of.

I waited in the sofa, after stating the purpose of my visit to the kind receptionist.

I couldn’t help comparing both the offices.

Soon I was ushered into an old fashioned room with a huge wooden desk. On the other side sat a twinkly-eyed  old man who called out cheerfully, “Hello there! What can I do for you?”

“Hello sir,” I stammered. “I just wanted to check if you have an opening for a trainee visualiser.”

“Sit down, sit down,” he waved to the chair in front of his desk.

I sat down nervously and handed him my portfolio.

“I really don’t know if I should be looking at this”, he told me smiling. “I’m not a creative person. I’m more into handling clients and that sort of a thing. They just call me the Vice president…” He trailed off, almost apologising.

Vice President! I gulped and felt even more foolish.

He flicked through with genuine interest.

“I like your work!” he announced after flicking through the first few pages and asked me questions about each one.

“What’s your all-time favourite ad?” He asked, leaning back in his chair and looking up.

“Hmm… Let me think…” I said nervously and my mind drew a total blank. I couldn’t think of a single ad.

Seeing my discomfort, he said, “Hey, no worries.. this is not a formal job interview. I can see you’re really nervous. Just relax!”

He flipped pages again.

He came to a TV script I’d done for a hypothetical face cream as a  classroom project. “Interesting.” he smiled as he looked at the storyboard I’d painstakingly done.

“What’s this soft music in the background?” He asked.

“Its just a soft music which plays when the girl is getting ready for a party, sir” I answered.

“Like?” he asked. “Any particular music you have in mind for that?”

“Hmm… something like Lionel Richie’s Hello…”

“Can you sing it for me as I flip through your storyboard?”

“What?!! I mean, I can’t sir…”

“Why not? I’ll understand your commercial better. Come on”, he said, with a smile.

After some persuation from him, I actually hummed the lines.

“Louder!” He said.

So I actually sang the song for full 5 minutes as he looked at my TV script.

“Good!” He beamed at me as he closed my portfolio shut. “I like your ideas. I like your sense of colour. I can see promise here” He thumped my portfolio. I beamed.

“But unfortunately we get our creatives from Bangalore. We don’t have a team here.”

“If you want, I can send you to Bangalore. They’ll love to have you there. Go and have some fun!”

“No Sir,” I said. “I prefer working here.”

“Hmmm… So you have a boyfriend here whom you cannot leave..” he teased.

Thoroughly scandalised, I said,  “No no no..” (Of course I had a boyfriend!)

“Its ok… Don’t get so hassled..” He twinkled. “Of course you have one!”

“Let me see what I can do for you. I’m sure there are so many agencies right here who can do with some fresh talent.”

He buzzed his secretary for a copy of yellow pages and looked at agencies close by.

He zeroed in on one five minutes away.

“Meet them right away,” He instructed me.  “Go get them!”

I walked out of his office with a grin plastered on my face.

Sure enough I did get a job in the agency he’d recommended. And later when I tried to ask people about the twinkly old man, all I got was mixed responses.

“He’s God!” said one.

“Oh, he’s a total alcoholic!’ said another. “He used to head top agencies here, but because of his drinking problem, he had to leave each one of them.”

“He still carries a hip-flask all the time.” said another. “That would explain his cheerfulness when you met him!”

I sat in my desk brooding about the whole thing. At that point I didn’t care if he was drunk or irresponsible or anything. All I could remember was a kind old man, who’ d made me feel good about myself and gave me what I needed most at that time – self esteem.

He needn’t have done that. The previous person who’d interviewed me had totally killed my confidence. He needn’t have done that either. He could have just said “Sorry, we’re full up at the moment”.

I toyed with the idea of dropping by Mr. Twinkle just to say I took his advice and I did land a job. But somehow I could never bring myself to. What if he doesn’t remember me?

And after a few years I read his obituary and felt a pang of regret. I should have at least tried.

And when it was my turn to interview people fresh out of college, I made sure I paid them a lot of attention, even when I couldn’t offer them the job. Though I could never be merry with them, I made sure I didn’t suck out the hopes and dreams they had within…

But now, after reading that particular article, I’m sure Mr. Twinkle was one of my angels. When I look up at the sky, I almost see him on a cloud, raising his hip-flask to me with his trade-mark twinkle!

A wedding to remember – A flashback

“Hey, guess what?’ K’s voice screamed in my ear.

Rudely awakened by the phone, I was far from enthusiastic.

“What?” I asked groggily.

“B is getting married!”

That woke me up more effectively than a strong cup of tea.

“Really? What? When? Where? Whom?” I stammered.

Last we heard, she had just completed her course in Fashion Design in one of the leading fashion schools in the country and was all set to hit the fashion world, being the star of her class in the finals.

Why would she give it all up for matrimony?

K & me had just finished graduation and were enjoying one last lazy summer before working on a career for ourselves.

Of course not everyone wanted the same thing.

N and H were all gearing up to be married and keep home from when we were in class 10, giving graduation a total miss.

M was planning on post grad to buy her more time before she succumbed to joining her dad in his business.

Anyway, this being the first wedding in our group and all that, we’d worked up tremendous enthusiasm by the time it came around.

B coming back to town just to invite us was a major push to persuade our parents to send us to another state to attend the wedding.

This was going to be the first trip we’d take as young adults without supervision of either parents or teachers. So they were apprehensive.

With great gusto, all of us assembled at K’s place the previous night so we can catch the train early next morning.

The artistic and beautiful N was drawing mehendi in all our palms.

Everyone was going over everyone’s clothes and accessories.

Finally at around midnight, K’s older sis poked her head in and ordered us to bed, so we can get a goodnight’s sleep.

We reluctantly switched off the lights and settled into bed. N hadn’t finished with most of us.

“Never mind,” she said. “We’ll have a lot of time to kill in the train. I’ll continue then”

********

The next morning K’s dad drove us to the station, deposited us and the luggage in the appropriate seats and took his leave.

“Yippee! The fun has begun” We screamed with delight.

After a few small fights with fellow passengers for making too much noise, we settled around N for the promised mehendi.

The train stopped in a major station for 15 minutes. K was getting her mehendi done. The rest of us strolled out to stretch our legs, had chai and climbed back in. By the time we were back, K had made friends with a beggar who also seemed a little challenged. He’d been watching the process of Mehendi from the platform outside the window. She grinned at him periodically and showed her palm to reveal the design which was taking shape.

N saw me and rolled her eyes heavenward. Why does K get friendly with all the wrong people? This is the question we’ve been asking her for a long time. She befriends shop keepers, Bus Conductors… Anyone who smiles at her becomes her friend.

“They’ll probably think you’re looking for a lay” B used to tell her bluntly.

“Just shut up, you snobs!” K used to fume. ‘You guys are so stuck-up!”

The train started to move. K put both her palms up towards the window and asked ‘Nice?” to the beggar.

He smiled broadly nodding his assent.

Then he looked at her squarely as the train picked up speed, winked and made an obscene gesture with his hand.

We quickly brought the shutters down.

****

“Hi guys! Welcome! Let me introduce you to my Fiancé”

A six foot, handsome man with a rakish smile waited for us at the end of the corridor.

‘Hello!” he said in a deep voice.

Flustered, all of us muttered our quick hellos.

Back in the room, we collapsed in a fit of giggles.

“My god!” K gasped. “What a hulk!” “So handsome!” M sighed. ‘When my turn comes, I’m sure may dad’ll get me married to a fat, pan-chewing guy with yellow T-shirt and jeans saying ‘Disco Disco!’ She moaned.

She was undoubtedly the hippest of us, who wore designer clothes even to bed.

N & H looked most envious. A, who was relatively new to the group who’d joined us in the last year of school looked a bit uncertain.

“Who’s talking about the groom?” K snapped. “I meant the driver who picked us up from the station.”

“What!!” We gasped.

“Yup!” She said dreamily. “Did you check out his aquiline nose? His piercing eyes?”

All of us were upon her like a bunch of hungry dogs on a bone.

***

That holiday, if you may call it that, was a revelation to me. There was a big surprise waiting for me the second day.

H called me for a walk after lunch. I hopped along, marveling at the lush greenery around us.

“I have something to tell you.” She began. “Don’t be shocked”

She then proceeded to undo the top button of her shirt.

“Hey! What are you doing?” I screamed.

Impatiently she pulled a frayed yellow thread, which magically appeared around her neck. She had artfully hidden in it her bra all the while.

I stared at her blankly.

“I’m married.” She stated.

“When?” I gasped.

She’d been seeing this guy for sometime now. I knew they faced a little resistance from his side, but marrying him secretly like that?!

“Everyone in our group knows” she explained. “Except A.” So you better not open your mouth to her.”

With that stiff warning, she strode off not waiting to hear the lecture I was planning.

“What the…..?” I asked K when I reached the room. “How come you never told me?”

“Ah! Like you’ll approve!” She scoffed. “Who wants another lecture on morality from an uptight a** like you?”

Suddenly A emerged from a corner.

“I have something to confess.” She said meekly.

“I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. Actually, even I got married last month.”

“What?!” Both of us gasped.

She was apparently in love with a boy in her neighborhood. Her mom was dead against it and was arranging a marriage as soon as possible. Hence the quiet wedding on the sly. “Nobody knows at both our homes. So please don’t tell anyone.” She pleaded.

I collapsed in the bed with the weight of those secrets.

“Maybe I’ll elope with the driver dude too..” Whispered K conspiratorially. “You handle my parents!”

I threw a pillow at her.

****

I couldn’t sleep that night.

Two of my friends had been married for months now and I didn’t even know? And here we were celebrating the so-called first wedding in our group.

K seemed to have problems sleeping too.

I could just about see her suppressing a giggle in the dark.

“What?” I whispered.

She pointed to the corner of the room where the rest had managed to tie a rope from one end to another to hang their laundry. Under garments, to be precise.

Straining my eyes, I found the reason for her mirth.

A huge, over-sized panty was hanging smack in the middle. Its elastic worn out, the owner had fastened it with a safety pin.

For some strange reason, it tickled us both to no end.

“It has to be H’s” stated K. “She’s the fattest of us all” She said unkindly.

After wiping my eyes, I suggested, “Maybe it’s A’s. She’s the one who’s so fashion-challenged,” We dissolved in a fit of giggles again.

Slowly almost all of us were giggling on the sly trying to guess the owner.

Suddenly the lights came on.

M strode up purposefully towards the offensive garment.

Her face burning, she said, ‘its mine, ok? If it hurts your eyes so much, I shall remove it!”

A stony silence ensued until all of us screamed with laughter.

****

We couldn’t take our eyes off the groom during the ceremony. God! He was really handsome.

The best part is he knew it and was checking us all out in a sidelong glance, once in a while.

We could almost feel the bride’s piercing eyes on us.

I was freshening up after breakfast when K dragged me off to a corner window. Not minding my protest, she pointed to the bride’s room where H & A were set about stringing some black beads.

“Ask B’s mom what’s it for,” urged K. “Why?” “Just do it!” She grinned mischievously.

“Oh that!” aunty told me when I did ask. “We need two unmarried kanya girls to string the beads for the mangal sutra dear,” she explained before she was called on to the stage again.

When K & I peeped in the room again with mocking grins, they looked away guiltily.

That was the last memory I have of that memorable wedding.

And did I tell you that was the last we saw of the bride?!

The Rosebush – A short Story

I sat staring at the Rose bush. It was beautiful. Every summer, the first thing I did on visiting my ancestral home was to run to the back verandah to look at the rose bush.

It was enormous. At least 15 feet tall, it towered over us, over the tiled sloping roof of the house. And pale pink roses bloomed all over the bush. Been in the house for generations, nobody really knew who planted it. My grandmother claimed that it’s been the same height from when she’d been a young bride of eleven, 60 years ago.

Whenever I squabbled with someone, I sat on the floor of the back verandah to look at the rose bush.

And always, after the first ten minutes of staring at it with teary eyes, the blurred pink & green mass focused slowly to form a sharp image of the many petalled pale pink roses.

And my heart soared.

Hearing a noise behind me, I turned. My uncle stood there, with his newborn daughter in his hands. Thrilled, I ran to them. He was always my favourite. Youngest of the lot, he’d stuck to the place with his now-single mother, after all his older siblings had flown off to greener pastures. Not that he minded. He was content living in this small village, with all the familiar people, traveling 5 kms to teach in a school in another village.

In my younger days I used to wonder how he did it. Isn’t he missing out on all the fun of a city life? I used to ask him. The comfort of an attached-bathroom, for instance. He used to smile and say, he could build one here anytime he wanted to. But will he get to walk by the serene lake every evening? He’d ask. Or will he find the joy of walking in the fields and visually marking the line that ends his territory?

I saw his point much later. Sometimes, when I used to travel in an over-crowded bus from or to my college, or crammed for my exams in my balcony where one can hear the non-stop traffic through the night, I closed my eyes for a moment and wished I was either sitting under the tamarind tree overlooking the placid lake or in front of the rose bush.

Funnily I had my first big fight with my grandmother about the rose bush.

While playing in my neighbour’s house, Idiscovered that it was not there just to cheer me up. My friend’s mother asked me, ‘So, How is the famous rose bush?’ She went on to tell me as a child, she used to beg off cuttings of it from my grandmother to be planted at her own backyard and how none of them ever grew. ‘There’s something special about the soil in your backyard’, she said.

The Rose bush was famous, I realized. It was the pride of my family. People in the village talked about it.

I was elated with this discovery. From then on, I started bragging about it to everyone. But that also landed me in trouble. My friends wanted me to take them to see it. I did. Once.

Kalyani, the grocer’s daughter, was about my age, lived in the far end of my street. She was desparate for a glimpse of the rosebush. Excited, I literally pushed my grandmother out of our way, charged through the kitchen with my friend in tow. We burst into the back yard; I turned around to catch her expression. Was suitably rewarded with her awestruck stare. She’s going to talk about it for years, I thought gleefully.

The rest of the day flew by. My mother and her visiting sister were away shopping in a town few miles away. Left to my own devices, I explored every nook and cranny of the house for hidden treasures, climbed a few trees, plucked all the guavas I wanted and ate them raw, without my grandmother’s knowledge. I was so busy having fun I barely noticed her sulking all day.

In the evening when my mother had returned, after I’d claimed all my loot, I sat in the backyard looking at the bush in the fading light. I could hear the women in the kitchen talking in a low voice. My grandmother did most of the talking. After a few minutes my mother came to sit beside me. One look at her face and I knew I was in trouble. Maybe grandmother knew about the guavas. Maybe she’d counted them. I was panic-stricken.

“What did you do today?” She asked me. Should I confess? Or wait for the axe to fall? I stared at my toe. ‘Your grandmother is very upset with you today’ she paused and looked at me. “I plucked only 4 guavas!” I said tearfully.

“It’s not about the guavas, ma”, she said gently. “It’s my fault that I haven’t familiarized you with all the rules of this house” she continued.

“You see, she’s a very old fashioned person. And life here is not like Madras. It’s very different”

When she broke the news very gently to me I was horrified. In all my 8 years of existence, I’d never heard of anything so cruel. My grandmother it seems was upset because, I’d invited the grocer’s daughter home. Apparently, people of her caste were not allowed to enter our home beyond a point. Not only did I break that rule, but I led her through the kitchen to the backyard, thus polluting the sanctity of all that’s sacred in the house.

“I wanted to show her the rose bush!” I cried defensively. “And she’s just like me. If I can live here, why can’t she come for a few minutes? Patti is a mean old lady!”

After half an hour of pacifying me, she went back to the kitchen to help her mother prepare dinner.

And I sat staring at the rose bush. Strangely, it didn’t cheer me up this time.

I made peace with my grandmother long before the holidays ended. All it took was a new Kanjeevaram skirt she’d bought me for my up coming birthday. I was in love with the peacock blue silk & my grandmother became my hero once again.

That was decades ago.

Now I sit in my own kitchen sipping tea, waiting for my mother. She called this morning to tell me she’d just got back from her last trip to the village. My grandmother gone for years, it took all the brothers and sisters so long to decide what to do with the huge house and the land in the village. Finally they closed up the house, spent the last week staying there for one last time savouring the house and the village, before strangers took over next month.

An emotional time for all of them. It gives me a lump in my throat, thinking about it.

The bell rings. My mother enters, looking a little worn out. Must have been all the traveling and the emotional strain of goodbyes.

“Why didn’t you rest for a day or two” I ask her. “You really look beat”. Wasn’t sure if I should open up the topic of her trip. Isn’t it better to avoid it now?

She gives me a tired smile. “I had to come to see you today”. She says. Reaches into her bag and produces a newspaper wrapped bundle. “I had to give you this.”

Inside, wrapped in a cellophane sheet, bottom part snugly encased in soil, is a cutting of my rose bush.

Suddenly my vision blurs into a mass of green and pink.

Uninvited guests

When I was five or so, I was spending my summer holidays in Coimbatore. One fine day, my aunt decided to take us to Ooty. So she somehow got hold of an address from my mother’s family, (I still don’t know how she did this. Nobody had phones and snail-mail would have taken days) bundled us all in a bus to Ooty. The journey is too hazy for me now, but I remember knocking at a door of a distant uncle who was stationed in Ooty then.

Not only they were not expecting us, but they had no clue who we were! He was(is?) my mom’s brother’s wife’s brother(phew!). He’d have probably met my mom during his sister’s wedding years ago. But he was nice enough to take us in for the night, arranged for a sight-seeing trip the next day and sent us back on our way in the evening. His wife cooked us tasty meals and his kids played with us and even came sight-seeing. And after that, I never saw them again.

Now I try to imagine opening my door to complete strangers who want to shack up with me for a couple of days to see the city. My first reaction would be to shut the door on their faces…

Maybe for people living in holiday spots like Ooty, its an everyday experience. But I still squirm to think how we actually barged in on that poor family!

 Or is it just that we’ve been fed too many western notions about having our own space and privacy?

In the past the doors of the houses were always open. People dropped in for meals without any prior intimation. And the kitchen was always equipped to feed a few extra mouths. So much so that there’s a saying that an uninvited guest is God in disguise…

People had all the time in the world to chat up with distant cousins or aunts or uncles. Normally a visit to a relative’s place meant a few weeks or sometimes even months if its a parent or a sibling.

Now we hardly have the time to talk to our own parents. Sometimes living under the same roof! The pace of our lives is scaring me at times. I  look back at those far away days spent in either my grandad’s farm or in  my mom’s village, where summer holidays meant endless days stretched with so much to do. There were no summer camps, no movies, no television.

I spent morningspicking flowers in the garden or in the communal lake, and aftenoons learning to stitch or draw kolams with my grandmother. Late afternoons were for exploring the place with a handful of kids when the elders were dozing. Evenings were fun when the entire household got together for coffee in the open courtyard (or some such spaces) as the sun went down.

During those idyllic  days, anybody dropping unannounced were welcomed warmly, given something to eat or drink and exchanged family news with genuine interest.

Now my 4 year old shuts himself in his room when someone drops in for a visit. Whatever I do to make him share a few moments with the guest is thwarted with ‘I don’t want to!’

I suppose he’s so used to being in a nuclear family that he does not need the warmth of  bonding with people outside his immediate circle.

Whatever it is, these days, an uninvited guest is never a God in disguise!

crazy colleagues – III

There was this security guard in my office (not the one in Valentine’s Day story, but same office though) who looked like a caricature.

A tall wiry chap with a big mustache twirling upwards, he made us laugh by just being there. But he had some fantastic logics in life. If at all an award was being handed out to the most innovative thinking in interpreting things you didn’t understand, he’ll win hands down.

Just a sample. We officially closed office at 6 pm. And once the receptionist was off, the security guard took over her desk and answered the phone.

Most of us worked well past 6 and invariably got a little peckish. We usually ordered short-eats from a restaurant opposite or sent out the office boy to get us something like spicy molaga bajjis or bondas from a cart-wala down the road.

Once a colleague who didn’t know a word of Tamil, sent the boy to get her some peanuts. After waiting for half an hour, she called the reception to check if the boy had left to buy the groundnuts at all. The Security answered the phone. Another colleague was sitting at the reception, talking to a friend who’d come to visit him. The following conversation was narrated by him.

Phone rings.

Security: “Hello., Gooood eeevning madam’

……..

“Yes madam, he’s here”

……….

“Ok madam, I’ll send him right away”

Hangs up. Urges the boy who’d been gossiping with him all the while to go to the shops.

Turns around and tells another chap who cleans the office.

” She wanted some internet oil urgently”

What’s that?” Asked the cleaning chap.

“Its for the computers. If you grease it using the internet oil, the computers will run fast & smooth”

My colleague fell backwards laughing….

Changing times

Recently, I bought a choppu set for a friend’s daughter. Delightedly, she ran away to her room to start playing. After a while, she came back to us, looking puzzled.

“Amma, what’s this?” she asked, holding up a kal-ural. “Its something in which you grind mavu for idli” My friend explained. “But how?” the little girl demanded. We gave her a demo of pretend-grinding.

After she left us alone, my friend and me looked at each other. “She’s never seen one!” my friend exclaimed. “We grew up with these things. Imagine a whole new generation is growing up without knowing a kalloral, ammi or the other stuff used for dry grinding” (my own grand mom used to refer to it as aarikkal, but none of my friends in Chennai seem to have heard of them!) we mused.

It really got me thinking.

Just imagine, my son, for instance would have never seen a washing stone.

35317255.jpg For those who don’t know what it is, a washing stone is a cement platform on which a rough granite or sandstone is mounted. Its easy to stand over, spread a piece of cloth to apply soap and then holding one end, beat the cloth on the stone many times, before rinsing it and wringing it dry. I still don’t know the thought-process behind beating it on the stone!

Of course in an apartment there’s absolutely no space for ammi or ural. And with the maids and washing machines, nobody needs to know what a washing stone is.

9770814.jpg I remember the two washing stones in the backyard of my grandmother’s. Because the house was always full-up, it was really handy to have two. I don’t remember the maid washing any clothes over there. They only washed the non-paththu pathrams in the evenings, and swept & mopped the house. The major vessels were washed by an aunt or an older cousin in the backyard.

Every one washed their own clothes. A visiting daughter like my mom used to wash hers & her kids’. Wash-times were always fun for us. It was normally done in the mornings, just before people went in for their baths. It was a sort of communal thingy.

I remember vividly how us kids used to pass time in the backyard, either picking fruit or flowers are something equally idyllic. While our mothers and uncles washing their clothes and having their gossip-sessions. While someone drew water from the well, two others would be at the washing stones. Someone else would be wringing the clothes and hanging them dry and some one else would be at the back verandah combing her hair to get ready for office. My grandmother would probably be putting up her feet in the same verandah, drinking her second cup of coffee while taking part in the morning banter.

It all seems light years away! Now who has that kind of time? I always wake up late, do everything in a mad rush before locking up the house to go to school!

If only we still did all these things, we’ll never need a gym!

One of the books I read on healing says that the process of grinding and cooking before the machines took over was very therapeutic. The rythm of grinding, the smell of spices, inhaling the aromas of cooking are all very soothing for a woman, the author claims. I tend to agree, because I feel so de-stressed while I cook.

Maybe we really had something going for a healthy living those days.

Right from eating on a banana leaf to sleeping soon after sunset, we had such close commune with nature.

And we were so eco-friendly too!

There must be some way to reclaim all that while still enjoying our mobile phones and plasma screens!

« Older entries