Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jungle Tales

How My Aunt Escaped a Leopard Attack

It looks as though the wild is reclaiming the little hill-station of Coonoor where I spent my indescribably idyllic school-days; a sort of gradual descent into those dark and savage pre-British days before the English partially tamed our country. It seems improbable to those who now live in the great cities of Mumbai and Bangalore and even Cochin and Coimbatore, but once upon a time, the beasts that find a place in the books of Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett used to roam the land, monarchs of their own little kingdoms.

My story is set in a day where the only wild animals we've seen are in zoos or national parks, living under the aegis of care-takers and naturalists, and stared at by camera-holding tourists in brightly coloured clothing and sunglasses. It begins with a deluge, and ends with a deliverance, and while the title might not be quite grammatically accurate, you will see the reason for it soon enough.

Owing to recent torrential rains in the Nilgiris, there have been 54 land-slides along the road from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Forty-two people were killed, either by the collapse of their homes, or by drowning in the fierce mountain streams that over-flowed their banks and devoured near-by houses. Villages have been obliterated, literally washed off the face of the slopes. The roads between the hill-station towns are mostly impassable, some cracked clean down the middle, and the government estimates a year of work before repairs can be completed. I say this only to paint a picture of what once was a neat, quaint little English colonial town to all intents and purposes (where a mere 65 years ago, the Club house bore a notice saying "No dogs or Indians allowed.")

So now imagine if you will, four days of darkness, howling wind and an unceasing tempest of rain so heavy that visibility was zero. Many heroic rescues were carried out that we will probably never hear about, by people we've never heard of before - the kind of bravery that is least glorified and most terrifying to saviour and saved alike.
The working class in Coonoor live in small houses high on the mountains, isolated little pockets of humanity amidst rolling tea estates. My aunt Geetha (yes, the one of "House of Four Women" fame) heard from her milkman that most of his village was swept away. On one of the four nights, he was startled out of restless sleep by a cry of "Help!" from a neighboring hut.

Now, to go out in the black dead of night, in a rain strong enough to wash your house away, requires no mean degree of courage. And I don't think I, or anyone I know here would - even could - have done it. But go out the men did, in that downpour and darkness, and saved an old man who had woken up only to find the water level in his crumbling house up to his neck. He and his family were lifted out through the roof - there was no other way - but this is only one incident among many during those dark nights, and there were enough attempts that didn't have endings quite as happy.

The rains stopped eventually as all rains do, even Biblical ones as Noah discovered; and the people had to get up and get out and face devastation. The lucky ones whose houses had not suffered had still been imprisoned inside without light and sleep, or electricity for that matter.

My uncle and aunt belonged to the latter class of people. Geetha mema, who is probably the world's most restless woman - she suffers from insomnia and obsessive house-keeping on good days - was afflicted with a touch more cabin fever than the rest, and therefore resolved to go on a walk that afternoon. Coonoor is a great place for retired people who like going on walks, and my aunt has her own group of old women who took these daily constitutionals.

On that day, she and an elderly aunty (whom everyone calls Ammachi and who is 69 years old), decided to take the road less taken, a beautiful winding path through the estates that they normally tended to avoid because of its profusion of wild bison. These bison were beautiful animals, accustomed to humans because of the estate workers, and hence no real danger, but on occasion, herds of them block the roads and not even a brave man would risk passing through them.

Rumours of leopards and bears abounded, but were largely discounted by stern, practical and firm-minded women like my aunt and her friends. They briskly meandered (an intentional oxymoron; even briskly, at 52 and 69 the best you can hope for is a fast-paced saunter) through that lovely estate, and it must have been truly lovely - you've never really seen natural beauty until you've seen a hill-station after a heavy rain, blushing and glowing like a young bride.
On their way back, aching muscles called for a short stop, and a small stone wall beckoned invitingly. They were resting there, delighting in the warm sunshine after the rain, little thinking that something else was enjoying the sunlight too, when a man driving by on a bike halted and called to them.

Roads, or paths, through an estate are narrow, constructed one below the other and divided by rows of tea bushes. Seated where they were, Ammachi and my aunt were looking down at the man on the road below them.
"Yein inge ukkararingo?!", he called out. (Why are you sitting there?!)
"Mele chiritha irukku!" (There's a panther above you!")

And so saying, he sped off.

Exactly what Geetha mema and Ammachi were feeling at this point, I leave to your imagination. It wasn't due to old age that they got up slowly and with quivering knees, and turned slowly around to look at what was facing them.

A couple of roads above and behind them, on a big jutting boulder, lay a leopard, sunning itself and licking its paws, looking for all the world like a monster cat who'd just caught a sparrow.
From their position, only its head and shoulders were visible, and as they turned, the leopard looked up and right at them, right, in fact, into my aunt's eyes.

I think for a minute the world must have stood quite still, holding its breath. And then slowly, very slowly, still with its eyes on them, the leopard lowered its head and continued licking its paws.

Ammachi and Geetha mema backed away, as quietly as they could, from that terror among the tea bushes, and kept walking until they turned the curve of the road, whither there was a mad silent rush back to my aunt's home, a scant 0.5 kilometres away. Whereupon they collapsed and thought exquisitely prayerful thoughts of gratitude. Also penitent thoughts of how maybe the bears weren't just a rumour either.

I regret to say that this hasn't stopped them from taking their walks, although I doubt they'll make their way through that particular estate again in this life.

Now you realise why the title makes sense - I did say that my aunt escaped a leopard attack - she did, very narrowly, and providentially, escape being attacked by one. And one that wasn't in a zoo. Or even a national park.
Because it isn't every day you can look a leopard in the eye, and walk away with no more injuries than an increased heart-rate and worn out soles.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Good Fight

How do we live? This life that we so often throw away in pale shadows of what-could-have-beens, watching echoes of other people and believing that to be enough...all the while dreaming of more primitive pleasures in the deep midnights of our souls. Perhaps in this day and age, it is unfashionable to not take life for granted.

Life...why should you not grasp it, greedily and with fervour, that magical shining illusive thing? Why should you not experience your every desire, wrest joy from life and claim it as your birthright? Who dares to say no if you would only say yes?

Would that I lived an aeon ago, would that I had the freedom to be truly human - to live and fight and die all in a glorious flaming vitality! To explore the earth as yet young and undiscovered, and set forth in a blaze of throw your head back for joy because all the world lies before you - mountains and oceans and sundering seas to be crossed - to hear the clash of steel, and rejoice in the steadiness of your arm - to stand at the helm of a ship and laugh in the face of the storm!

Would that I were a warrior, a woman with a sword in my hand and battle-lust in my eyes! To taste exhilaration in the salt of your own blood, to reach up and clasp the very firmament of the be young and, in youth, immortal - to wake on mornings with that joyous, insistent, exultant birdsong and feel as though your heart should burst for sheer Delight...oh, to be alive!
To fight for what you believe in, and is the meaning of life, to live it - to run, to leap, to fly! the blood singing fiercely in your veins and pounding in your ears, glorying in the courage and the power of your is the greatest thing in all the world - to be alive.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For the love of - !

Love at first sight? Yes, it exists, and you can never tell when it will hit you. Despite what some people, especially those of the masculine persuasion, may think, it is only far too easy to lose your heart. All the usual symptoms - palpitation, faint dizzyness, dryness in mouth and throat, a feverish gleam in the eyes.

And all because you've just seen The Dress. Sure, so maybe you went to buy a woollen scarf for your sick baby niece, or pick up red material for your graduation day blouse. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters, except that vision of perfection which is currently hanging on the mannequin (or rack, or shelf) in front of you.

And then you find yourself sighing over it, coming back to it, time after time, and you can't keep away. Telling yourself that it's an investment, and no, your bank balance won't mind that you've spent your entire budget on something else than for what it was meant.

And well, why not?

Top 5 reasons it's better to fall in love with a dress than with a man:

1. You'll feel beautiful whenever you put it on.
2. You're always right.
3. It's the one guranteed remedy for a fat day, or a bad hair day, or a I'msouglyIcan'tshowmyface day, and you don't have to make excuses to it.
4. You'll feel a distinct and heavy satisfaction knowing that you own it.
5. It won't forget you during cricket season, or football season, or F1 season.

And no matter what the consequences, nothing can dull your elation when you walk out with that dress safely wrapped up in a shopping bag.

Whether it's a frothy concoction of lace and chiffon, or tailored excellence and fine lines - you know you're a princess when you've got it on. The world is yours, people fall at your feet, and really, what isn't worth that feeling? It's like the wise someone said (and I'll bet my fortune that it was a woman) - "Life is short. Buy the shoes." Or The Dress. It's worth it.

A Man's Guide to Floral Tributes

Roses - for the Eternal Romantic, or, the classy chick with a cliched sense of what's acceptable, depending on your point of view. Once you get past red roses, remember that crimson is a better choice.

Gerber Daisies - for the Sweet Young Thing, the pretty girl with the stars in her eyes and innocence in her heart. Alternatively, these would make a lovely 80th birthday boquet for your childless great-aunt Lila.

Carnations - For the Offbeat Boheme, the edgy beauty with the fiery soul. Someone who doesn't give a damn about what flowers mean, because the damned things just look so pretty.

Lillies - for the Temperamental Diva - a profusion of these flaming, exotically beautiful blooms is sure to ease your way to her heart. Take care not to give her funereal white, though, or they might end up gracing your coffin-side, prima donna that she is.

Orchids - for the Woman of your Dreams - delicate and ethereally exquisite, yet evocative of a lush tropical earthiness. It doesn't matter what colour they are, because orchids never go out of style and they're very easy on the eye. Too bad I can't say the same about your wallet.

Tulips - for the Wholesome Beauty, with a hidden quirky side. Nothing will charm her more than these blushing blossoms. Unless of course, she prefers vintage pendants from the 1920's - I told you, she's quirky.

Happy Endings

Picture, if you will, the film's ending, just before the credits start to roll: the stage is set (God forbid another climactic airport scene), the soundtrack segues to a romantic number, and the hero and heroine are united at last, after 90 minutes of separation by various trials, tribulations, psychotic exes and other plot twists.

Why do women love romantic movies? Unlike other eternal questions (Why do we yawn? What happens to the time in between one second and the next? Why do men like to watch other men chasing, hitting or bouncing a ball?), this one has an answer.

The power of a happy ending.

Not that I have anything against a tear-jerker. Some of the most beautiful stories have also been the weepiest. But in the final weighing, it comes down to how much we love a love story. (What I do slightly resent, however, is the use of the ubiquitous term, "Chick Flick". Which is actually quite derogatory, when you think of it (though not as bad as Lad Lit). You've got to admire how, with just two words, they've managed to reduce a source of considerable delight for roughly one third of the world's population, to a tacky joke. Though it appears to be a necessary evil. Does this make such movies fit for only non-intelligent consumption? No. Watch Sabrina. When Harry Met Sally. Love Actually.Does a predilection for such movies mean that we don't enjoy ones which have things blowing up in them? No. I personally enjoy explosions as well as the next man. Or woman.)

But genre-bashing aside, why would anyone in their right minds not want to watch a pretty woman and a seriously cute hero (think Colin Firth in Bridget Jones's Diary) indulge in some L-O-V-E? No reason, that's why.

You want reality? Murder, insanity, rape, abuse, neglect. The deafening grind of a tedious job. Whose turn it is to wake up and change the baby's diapers. You get that everyday, handed to you on a non-biodegradable plate in all its dreary glory.

On the other hand, romantic movies offer - what else? - romance. Eye candy. Nice clothes. Love, above all, a love story.

And like that wasn't enough, every romantic movie has a Kiss.

The pucker-up. The osculation. The heart-clenching, stomach-tightening, how-I-wish-that-girl-was-me kiss. Whether it's in a vineyard in France, in between drowning in the freezing Atlantic or on top of the Empire State building (those scriptwriters do get around, don't they?), even though you know that it's just a pair of actors calculatedly pressing their lips together, even if the rational, cynical part of your self is snickering - in spite of all that negativity, you find yourself wishing.

We know life's not perfect. Reality awaits, with all that that entails. But for a couple of blissful hours, escape. To an admittedly improbable but oh-so-desirable fairytale land where gorgeous men fall in love with imperfect women and bring home flowers.

To my way of thinking, we need that little bit of improbable, that small fantasy. Our lives are all the better for it. Give us our Happily Ever After, even if it lasts only for two hours.

Reality can wait.


My Top 5 Favourite Romantic Movies

5. Ever After. Roman Holiday
4. Bridget Jones's Diary. You've Got Mail. Breakfast at Tiffany's ...
3. French Kiss???
2. Sabrina .

I give up.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Moustache Tales

We were monarchs on any face
That Nature decided we should grace
Hirsute ode to the manly soul
Of a Malayali Man.

They took pains to see thick we grew
And with coconut oil did they brew
A potion that aided moush motion
As good fertilizer can.

The pride and joy of the male were we
The glorious proof of virility
A very fine pelt to stroke, they felt
The entire length of our span.

The masculine ideal if truth be told
A twirl of a moustachio most bold
The Lalettan signature move, amen!
The mark of a Master Plan.

But now alas! we fear the doom
A break only lately we've dared presume
Despite protests, we're depressed
At hints of an unspoken ban.

Today our ends droop in despair
An unfortunate end to facial hair
The X Generation, globalisation
Needs not a whiskery clan.

Farewell, we cry, and contemplate
The Gillette finish of our fate
Here ends our tale, we will not quail
Meeshas of the Malayali Man!

Friday, May 29, 2009

If you're happy and you know it, please leave.

If you are one of those rare and utterly bourgeois creatures who are truly satisfied with what they're doing, seek the written word elsewhere. This is not for you. Yes, this means the lucky and elite few who manage to combine making a living with doing what makes them happy. The whole miserable proletariat lot of us have the cold comfort of security in return for forsaking our true desires.

Don't you just hate it when real life gets in the way of your dreams? If truth be told, most of us would really be doing something else were we were to 'follow our hearts'.

A line I once read in Anne of Green Gables comes to mind - "My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes." There are millions of people out there today, stuck with choices that they didn't want, whose hopes and dreams and wishes have been interred six feet under. Which is very sad, when you think about it. It also makes for one enormous graveyard.

(Here also, is where we see the Hand-Me-Down complex, for want of a better term - parents forcing their children to study at boarding schools/learn Carnatic music/become a doctor, saying, It was my dream but I didn't get to do it, so now I'm giving it to you. If there's anything worse than a dead dream, it's a second-hand dream.)

If I were paid to do what made me happy, then I'd be a host on the Travel and Living channel. Or a writer for the Lifestyle section of a newspaper. Or a personal shopper.

I know a friend who works in marketing, but would really rather be a chef. And he'd be good at it, too. Makes the best goddamn mango smoothies in all of creation (adding a few pureed dates is the secret). Another friend wants to spend his life modifying automobiles. His currently works at analysing patents (you read that right, patents). A girl I know would probably give up everything to become a photographer if someone paid her enough money for it. My brother still thinks there's a niche out there for professional gamers (but he's studying mechanical engineering).

We all have those Dreams. Those half-secret, half-guilty moments where the thought of just "giving this all up" and going after what you want comes so close, only to be pushed away again. Becoming a bartender, wedding dress designer, singer, race car driver, hitchhiker. But for whatever reason, gave up those dreams and settled into staid bank careers or HR positions or, horror of horrors, programming jobs.

So you want to travel the world. But there's family at home you can't leave behind. Or people who're not going to let you leave.

Of course you would take your chances and open a restaurant. It's too bad your education came in between. Now all you know how to do is practice the law.

You could probably start that band in your spare time, but your job requires you to work around the clock. And you just want to sleep the few hours you get off.

Your biggest dream is to work and live by yourself in the big, bad city. Darn it, there's a non-negotiable age clause in your horoscope and it's bye-bye freedom, hello mangal-sutra.

Sure, you'd become an artist and do nothing but paint all day long. If only you could make enough money that way to live.

You don't have the funds. You didn't get the education. You don't have the time. Your family got in the way. You're just not good enough at it. No matter the whys and wherefores, real life is all about compromise.
But it's nice to imagine, once in a while. Vicariously living your Dreams through your dreams. Writing about them, watching movies about them, reading books about them - the escapist theory is key. As long as you don't forget that there are bills to pay, fiance(e)s to wed and society to keep placated.

If there have been any happy people (as defined at the beginning) following this note despite my warning, kudos to you. To the people who had the guts, the will, the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Who do what they REALLY want to do.

You make the rest of us sad sloggers envious. I wish I could say you stand as a shining beacon of light and inspiration, but I can't, not truthfully. All I can say is, here's to all those tombstones and unmarked graves in that cemetery. RIP.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The House of Four Women - Auf Wiedersehen

It is with great regret that I announce that the House of 4 Women is now down to 2. My aunt left to Ooty yesterday with my grandmother, leaving my mother and me to a large, quiet house in an even quieter neighbourhood.

Although I would have loved to finish such chapters as I had going on - The Return of Omanamma (she stayed 5 days this time), Skeletons in the Cupboard (why Achamma sleeps with a knife under her pillow and other stories), The Pursuit of Beauty (sundry and often hilarious beauty tips from the women in my family) and The Case of the Missing Purple Handkerchief (involving a purple hanky and the fat neighbour aunty) - while I would have loved to complete these, it is heart-breaking to admit that my inspiration has said au revoir. The kindly muse has left the building. Half the motivation, literally, has bid farewell.

So unless it is of interest to hear how my mother and I stayed up till one in the morning watching "She's the Man" with Amanda Bynes because we were too scared to fall asleep, I must signal an unexpected, and most likely permanent, end to the series.

I leave with a slight hope, the promise of Spring when winter is deep upon us - Achamma may yet return, as may Geetha aunty, and return the state of things to its familiar state of chaos and cacophony you all became familiar with in The House of Four Women. Amen. A-women.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Nonsensical Home Journal, Vol.1

Wanted: Crusader (Cape Optional)

(Cue: Hero, by Chad Kroeger)

How is it that in all of our time on earth, we have never had a record of a superhero in actual life? Where is the hero of our time?
What if Mumbai were to have its personal Batman? He is a realistic hero, a man with no super powers or extra body parts. (Which incidentally is why guys seem to have a preference for him. After all, an alien reporter who can fly is hardly plausible. Nothing personal, Superman.)

All that the job demands is an unreasonable and often inhuman amount of strength, skill, intelligence and perception, and above all, a sense of justice so acutely defined that one's life becomes a mere extension of that driving force. It can't be that hard, can it?

Society is bound by its own apathy and the conditioned indifference to the environment as long as the environment doesn't become uncomfortable. We need a hero to save us from ourselves! (Cue: Holding out for a Hero title track, courtesy Bonnie Tyler)

Ponder, if you will, on the greatest heroes, throughout the ages - Hercules! Zorro! Er - Spiderman!

Fantasies involving these god-like creatures are common among women, in which invariably, the female starring role is played by themselves. (I don't really get the whole underpants-over-body-suits wardrobe, but even if the Phantom wore a circus tent on his head, he would still do it for me. Hubba, hubba!)

But what about those of our sorority who believe in being prepared, that fantasies are not enough? Who do not wish to be caught at a loss if in case, such a divine specimen should actually come in close contact with their lives? Do not despair! Read on.

--- (Cue: When a Hero Comes Along. Thank you, Mariah Carey)

A Guide to Becoming a Superhero Girlfriend


1. Be incorruptible
2. Hold job in an office for public good, such as, righteous journalist, public defence lawyer, UN officer etc.
3. Preferably have known superhero in question from childhood or high school.
4. Be extremely beautiful and talented (necessary to hold interest of said superhero, areas of talent negotiable)
5. In most cases, must have spurned hero at least once in light of personal principles

Note: #5 may be overlooked if there is a love triangle between you, hero and anti-hero. And getting abducted by villains always helps, especially if you spit in the bad guy's face, or equivalent.

So if you know of any possible candidates, keep a close eye on them and you too, can find yourself on the way to becoming a superhero girlfriend!

Sadly, our age has been notoriously deficient in producing such a defender of justice. The pedestal goes unoccupied decade after decade, but hope does not die! The masses are crying for a saviour, and never has the impassioned plea been louder. Takers, anyone?
The contrasting underpants are waiting.

(Cue: Go the Distance, Michael Bolton. Fade out.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 5

Chapter 5 - The Birds

My grandmother is a crafts aficionado. To use a polite term for unhealthy obsession. Some of her work is truly exqusite. But she stores everything - and I mean everything - the peel-off paper tops off of ice-cream cups, coconut shells, sweet wrappers with Lacto-king written on them. At first, it was a charming quirk; then when the house started to overflow with newspapers from the previous century and bottle caps of bottles long lost, it lost its dubious appeal. Someone decided it all had to go.

I don't think my grandmother ever fully got over losing her treasures. A couple of months ago, right after she was bed-ridden, she began making birds from whatever scrap material she could lay her hands on. Scary looking feathers from a hat, tongue depressors, carbon paper. There were gray birds with plastic wings. A cardboard cut out of a pen drawing that looked like a cross between a chicken and a dinosaur. And then insisted on showing them off to anyone who visited. Embarassed visitors would smile and then make some excuse to change the subject.

My aunt would almost die of mortification. It got so bad that the three of us would stiffen up whenever the word 'birds' was mentioned.

I haven't watched Alfred Hitchcock's aviary thriller, The Birds. But I know it has something to do with terrifying feathered denizens of the sky. We experienced the same thrill of horror when Achamma inevitably said, "Geetha, bring the birds. I want to show it to them", referring to whichever hapless victim(s) was visiting her then. My aunt would attempt to bluff it out, "No, they don't want to see that!" But Achamma was adamant. Geetha aunty would then proceed to display them with a ghastly smile.

Things went from bad to worse. Nightmares of embarrassment abounded. We were haunted by the phantoms of those accursed creatures during the day. My aunt decided something had to be done. She hid the birds where (she thought) they would never see light of day again. Everyone breathed easier. Achamma's questions were swept under evasive answers. The maid was vaguely blamed.

I don't know who left the maid unsupervised in Achamma's company. The next time we had visitors (posh relatives from Cochin), Achamma said, "Ah, let me show you the birds."

Achamma: Geetha! The birds!
Aunt: Oh, they're missing! I have no idea where they are. (with a genuine smile of relief)Achamma: No, no, didn't I tell you? They're in that drawer over there - we found them!

(Curtain: Knife-stab music from Psycho)

The House of Four Women - Chapter 4

Chapter 4 - Too Many Cooks

Every Sunday at 4.00 PM, the women in my house settle down to a household ritual. No less sacred or seemingly pointless than any other ritual. Achamma sits up in bed with interest when the clock strikes the hour. "Geetha! Ammu! It's begun!", she calls out in a surprisingly strong voice. My aunt assumes position by her side. Even my placid mother has a gleam of fervour in her eyes as she draws up her chair. From the TV filters the initial theme music of Asianet's "Eastern Cookery Show".

Host: So today we are featuring Chicken Curry...
Achamma: Always non-vegetarian, why can't they show some good vegetarian dishes? In the Bhagvad Gita -
Host: Followed by "Gobi Manchurian" for our vegetarian viewers.
Mom: Anju! Can you bring me a pen? I need to write this down.

My mother has dozens of cookery books. Hundreds of notebooks filled with thousands of recipes that she never makes. My aunt is almost as bad.

Host: The ingredients are, 1 cup coconut, 3 green chillies...
Achamma: What is he saying?
Aunt: One minute - (mumbles to herself as she writes) 1 cup - no, 3 cups?
Achamma: Eh? What did you say?
Aunt: 3 CUPS FLOUR!!
Host: 4 chicken breasts, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper...
Mom (to Aunt): It's 1 cup flour.
Aunt: Oh, oh..(scribbles something down)
Host: Then we mix the flour with the salt, and add the pepper...
Aunt: Wait, how much salt?
Achamma: What are they adding to the flour? They should add it to -
Aunt: Mother, one minute. (To my Mom) How much salt?
Achamma: What?Aunt: ONE MINUTE! I DIDN'T HEAR!
Mom: Umm, I think it's 2 teaspoons. (Consults her notes)
Host: After you simmer it for 3 minutes, the dish is done.
Aunt: It's over?

I saw my mother's book afterwards. In cryptic code were the words, "1 cp flr. 3 tsp chick. Add water. Sim 2 mins. Done" No wonder she doesn't make any of those dishes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 3

Misadventures of the Maid Servant

Omanaamma - try saying that out loud twenty times - came to us last year. She's older than my mom and aunt, but unfortunately(for her), slightly younger than my grandmother. Omanamma liked to talk. About her grand-son incessantly. The neighbour's kidney removal. Sensational news. And she truly believed that we liked listening. We tried, anyway.

To give her credit, she really was a sweet sensitive old lady. With a very low Achamma-tolerance threshold. And my grandmother disliked her on sight. To give my grandmother her due, Achamma IS ancient. They probably hadn't abolished slavery when she was growing up, way back in 1753.

Oh, the drama! It was the War of the Geriatrics. "Omana spoke rudely to me!", indignantly exclaimed my grandmother, who has almost certainly never spoken nicely to the household help in her life. "She doesn't give me enough to eat", weeps Omanamma, coming from the kitchen after neatly polishing off six idlis and a vada. The battles usually ended in my aunt and mother trying to pacify a hysterical Omanamma threatening to leave. We expected denture-grenades any day. Then came the show-down.

It was lunch-time. Achamma was sitting at the head of the table with her back to the door of the kitchen. She has a disconcerting habit of saying embarassing things in what she thinks is a whisper. Like most near-deaf people, she thinks none of us can hear either.

Mom: Omanamma, I think we'll have our lunch now.
Omanamma: So then I said to Shanta, my grandson is very bright. The other day he -
Aunt: Yes, yes, I'm sure. Omanamma, lunch.
Achamma: What?
Omanamma: So then I said, Shanta, you see my grandson is very intelligent -
Aunt: I told Omanamma to bring lunch out.
Achamma: What?
Aunt: LUNCH! (O takes the hint and goes into kitchen)
Achamma: (In loud, audible whisper she thinks only we can hear) She's always talking. Switch On all the time. How many times will we hear about her grandson?

There was a loud crash and a wail just behind her. Rice all over the floor. Omanamma left the next day in a storm of tears. Last I heard, she was companion to another old lady, reputedly worse than Achamma. Some people just never for Achamma, she just smiled. Victoriously.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - The Case of the Would-be Assassin

Let me tell you a little about Siren. He was a huge kitten when he decided to adopt us. Afterwards, he became the Lord of the Back Door of the House. Siren and I shared a love-hate relationship; I did all the loving and he did the hating.

His favourite gesture of affection was to hook his claws into human flesh. Any flesh that came into his direct zone of attack. I'll say one thing for him, he wasn't particular. This meant that 3 grown women (and two of them substantially built) would indulge in peculiar acrobatics to step over the threshold where Siren held sway. It wasn't a pretty sight. Feeding him every day turned into a deadly game of Dodge and Retreat. My grandmother made vague crooning noises from a safe distance.

I should explain that Atchamma is bed-ridden now.

I don't know if you've heard the story of the king who saw a sweeper's face first thing in the morning and caught a cold. He put the sweeper to death. So the clever minister pointed out that the sweeper who saw the king's face first thing in the morning caught a death sentence which when you look at it, is worse than a cold (although that point is debatable).

A few months ago, Atchamma went out at dawn for her customary walk around the front yard. Siren had evidently decided she had not been receiving enough of his loving attention. Either that or he had some darker purpose, we'll never know.

He jumped in front of her. Ninja-kitty style. Achamma fell down and broke her crown, er, hip bone. Which is why she's bed-ridden now, but she's healing fast. Siren died a week later, under suspicious circumstances. There was no way that Achamma could have had a hand in it, of course, but I wonder...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The House of Four Women - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 - The Homicidal Coconut, or Time For Lunch

I live with my mother, my dad's sister and my paternal grandmother in a little town that thinks a lot of itself. It's fun most of the time. My grandmother is very hard of hearing. She absolutely refuses hearing aids on the grounds of the prohibitive expense, which when translated means vanity. She also wears dentures, has recovered successfully from a coconut falling on her head (I'm not kidding, grown men have died that way) and remembers everything. I call her Atchamma. I've never been particularly close to her but I think we're getting on better as we both get older. She's 86. Entertainment in my house mainly consists of listening to conversations between my grandmother and my aunt Geetha who has a very short temper and a shrill voice when she gets angry. Today, for example,

Aunt: Are you feeling hungry? It's almost time for lunch.
Atchamma: What?
Atchamma: Yes. (nods her head)
Aunt: (bringing her lunch) We made your favourite curry today.
Atchamma: Is it already time for lunch? I'm not even hungry. Did you all eat?
Atchamma: (hears this) I never said anything of the sort.

By this point, I'm rolling on the floor drowning in my tears. Of laughter. My mother, who is the most aggravating person on God's green earth, says nothing. I think she's trying desperately hard not to laugh, but I could be wrong. I told you she was aggravating.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Second Class

It was mid-summer, and the second-class compartment was crowded when I got in. I put my bag on the top berth and squeezed myself in between a young girl and a large woman who took up an enormous amount of space. No window seat this time. Already the heat was oppressive, starting to fray tempers and hairdos. I could feel my face begin to itch with the dust and the sweat. Opposite me sat an old beggar woman with her feet up on the seat, her clothes tattered, shoulders hunched as she hugged her knees. The young men sitting beside her carefully maintained a distance, and I knew no one would sit in that empty space. But she did not beg, and I wondered at that.

The whistle sounded. The train started to move and relief was palpable as air streamed in through the windows. I settled in for a long ride. The inevitable stream of peddlers and those unfortunates who always seem to be present on trains started filtering past. I looked up from my book as a greasy plastic packet of murrukku was thrust under my nose, and shook my head no at the vendor. The fat lady beside me bought a packet, however, and soon began noisily appreciating the contents. I hate the noise of human mastication! Swallowing my distaste, I started to read again when I noticed the old woman looking through rheumy eyes at Elephant-Bottom devouring her oily snack.Something hot and red twisted in my gut and I wanted to ignore the voices inside me screaming to ask that greedy woman to share, so loud that I was almost sure she would hear me. I wanted her to.

Two little children came up the corridor then, singing 'Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam' to an unrecognizable tune the younger one beat out with a clapper. I hurriedly took out a coin - my last - and put it into a demanding little hand. Anything to send them on their way as soon as possible.One of the young men opposite me donated a coin as well and earned forever my goodwill.

I've seen people get angry at beggars - and I've always thought that it was because they made people feel guilty - no reason to feel so, but when you know that you have a warm home to return to and hot food on the table, you don't want a half-starved old man to appear and remind you that he has no such fortune in the near future. Some pay to assuage the guilt, and sit back satisfied - until the next pleading little child or poor woman comes along. Others pretend they haven't seen the dirty, outstretched hand, and affect an unjustifiable interest in the scenery outside the window or in their newspapers. A very few of the truly impenetrable ones tell them to be off - and these people are the lucky ones, for they have no qualms or pricks of conscience, whether from a hardened heart, or self-righteous indignation, I cannot tell.

Along that never-ending corridor came another hand outstretched for alms - this belonging to a pitiable blind man, bent, emaciated with age and clutching a staff. This time it was me, eyes downcast burning with guilt and shame, pretending to read my book while the letters went blurry. I did not have any more coins, and at that time 10 rupees seemed too much to give. I wished fervently for someone to give him something, as if the mere strength of that prayer could make it happen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement, and looked up.

The old beggar woman sitting opposite reached out a quivering gnarled hand and dropped a coin into his older palm. Lips mumbled thanks and he shuffled along the passage slowly, leaning on his staff. Her eyes resumed their vacant stare at a point above my head.

I was conscious of a stinging behind my eyes. It was dark by then and the train whistle sounded as the engine sped through the night. I stared outside into the darkness and thought longingly of home...home where safety and warmth and comfort lay, and blissful haven from the sadness of the world.