In the Bud

Friday mornings were the best. Miss Elizabeth announced the topic for the weekly composition. The class groaned at the prospect of writing a creative piece for a very discerning teacher who took the task of creative writing very seriously. Every word used had to be accounted for. Every thought had to be relevant. Every metaphor had to belong there. To a class that was bred on an unhealthy diet of sentimental paperbacks, where  long-winded descriptions of exotic locales and long-drawn inane conversations held sway, Miss Elizabeth’s expectations of crisp narratives seemed highly impossible to achieve.  ‘Half the problems in the world are a result of people who cannot express themselves succinctly enough.’ She would declare after we took turns reading the highlights of the morning’s newspaper in the last five minutes of every class.

She carried our books home in a huge jute bag and called it her homework. We imagined her sitting at her desk, listening to ABBA on the record player while she pored over our work. Our corrected notebooks would wait on her table every Friday morning, after the mandatory Moral Science period, to be carried into class, like expectations on Judgement day. The monitors trooped into the hallowed staffroom, where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee jostled with French perfume, assailing the nostrils, creating this aura of sophistication. The monitors carried the books, with a self-important air, to the classroom.

We sat in our seats, as quiet as mice, while Miss Elizabeth sashayed into class, a vision of a heady mix of glamour and efficiency, her perfume trailing after her. She was an Anglo- Indian and dressed in pretty frocks and skirts with frilly tops. She was extremely graceful and the only person I knew, those days, who applied lipstick of the fruitiest, glossiest and most delectable shades. She had an amazing collection of footwear. To most of us, one pair of worn out sandals was a luxury and Miss Elizabeth wore fabulous heels, even stilettos, in every colour of the rainbow! Lipstick and footwear apart, we were all in awe of her because she spoke English beautifully. There was a lilt in her voice and she would infuse magic into the most mundane words. That was while she brought Wordsworth or Shelley to life. Her voice changed when she returned our corrected books, it was then charged with sarcasm and bitter gall. Praise was rare and not very effusive. None of the new-fangled notions of child psychology for her.

The walk from our desk to her table was torturous. She openly remarked about our work, never mincing words. Depending on her feedback, we would either strut to our desks or slouching, slink away. Our notebooks were open wounds bleeding profusely, with red slashes mutilating our words. We cringed at the remarks etched in the notebooks, each word dipped in acid. We would hastily close our books, avoiding the curious glances of the others.

Where, oh where could we hide our books, safe, at home, from the prying eyes of parents? We shuddered to imagine the reaction of our starry-eyed parents when they discovered what the stately Miss Elizabeth thought of their child’s progress in English. After all, they had scraped and bowed to get admission into one of the best ‘Convent’ schools in the town and if this was the progress of their wards in English, they would let them know what they exactly thought, in a few choice words, punctuated by a few slaps thrown in for good measure.

Mathematics and Science were important but well, English was ENGLISH!

After English, on Friday, we rushed to the field for games after which I walked home, with the new topic tracing delectable patterns in my mind. As soon as I could, I would sit, chewing on my pen pondering on how to begin, ignoring my mother’s strident calls to make myself useful.

The topics Miss Elizabeth thought of, were varied and even bordered on the whimsical. In fact the first topic she ever gave my class was ‘The First Kiss of Monsoon’ and we were convulsed in helpless giggles as the topic hardly made sense to us and the word ‘kiss’ evoked other images. My father had, in a misguided moment, bought me a book of essays, and I read them eagerly. I wrote about monsoon all around the world, the effect of winds, coriolis force, planetary motion and so on. I was surprised when I received two marks out of ten and a few choice comments on my lack of imagination. My cheeks burned in confusion. What was I expected to write?

As if in answer to my unasked question, Miss Elizabeth read out the composition of one of the literary geniuses of the class-a quiet unassuming girl who had her nose buried in a book all the time. It was all about grey skies, blustering winds, stinging sheets of rain and tantalizing petrichor. And then it all made sense to me. Miss Elizabeth wanted colour, passion, imagination and excitement in our writing, and I was ready to give it to her.

I read Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Dumas, Wilde, Maugham, Hemingway and whatever I could get my hands on.

Miss Elizabeth soon found my writing stimulating. She read my compositions out loud to the class in her magical voice and my stories took on another life of their own. My heroes were more valiant and my heroines were ravishing. The plot line was larger than life and my writing was embellished with jewels of literary devices and spiced with mystique. I even began to contemplate a career in writing. My parents, naturally, were worried as I was drifting away from Math and Science and focusing only on English. My marks in all subjects, save English, began to dwindle and I brushed aside any objections that were voiced. In fact the first book, I would always reach out for, was English.

And then one fateful Friday Miss Elizabeth announced, ‘Girls, you shall attempt to write a detective story for me this weekend.’

Everybody around me sat shrouded in dismay. Please! Not another impossible task. Only I beamed with undisguised glee.

That evening I wrote a convoluted story of murder and mayhem. It had atmosphere, suspense and thrills like no other work I had ever written. A beautiful girl had her head bashed in by a maniac and her fiancé found her brains splattered over the floor like spaghetti. Twenty pages later, I revealed the murderer to be the fiancé himself. By the time I was done with it, it was a whodunit to end all whodunits. I had concocted such a tale that I fancied myself as India’s answer to Agatha Christie.

I read and reread my work several times and submitted my book to Miss Elizabeth on Monday morning. My friends read the story, before submission, and enviously exclaimed at the sheer drama I had spun. I felt pride swell in my heart.

The days crawled. I could not wait for Friday.

On Friday, Miss Elizabeth sent the books to us with instructions they be distributed, ahead of her class. We were very surprised at this sudden departure from tradition. I leapt up and pounced on my book before anybody could even move. Hurriedly I flipped through the pages and searched for my marks and more importantly, the remarks. I was surprised to see Miss Elizabeth’s signature scrawled at the end of my story, but, that was all.

Miss Elizabeth walked into the classroom on her incredibly high stilettos, but, that day, I did not notice them. I kept looking at her inscrutable face, trying to assess her mood, wondering when the right time to talk to her would be. She read out a couple of compositions but did not ask me for mine. The work she read out loud was not as good as mine. I wondered why she did not look my way or meet my eye. I did not have a nice feeling about this. Unease settled in my mind like fog, obliterating everything.

Miss Elizabeth announced the topic for the next composition-

‘Confessions’.

After an endless wait, the bell rang. I walked up to Miss Elizabeth as soon as the students left for the break. A couple of my classmates looked at me curiously but I averted my eyes.

‘Miss,’

‘Yes, child?’

‘How much did you give me for my composition?’

There was a long pause. Miss Elizabeth pulled herself erect and said in her clear, ringing tone, ‘Child, I did not give you marks because the story is not your own.’

I felt the wind knocked out of me. I shook my head wordlessly. My mouth went dry. My knees shook and I held on to the table.

She continued ruthlessly, ‘A fourteen year old could not have written this. The plot is too advanced and intricate. I expected something original from you. How could you have done this?’

I opened my mouth to tell her that it was my own work but when she saw my grief stricken face she said, ‘Maybe you are a voracious reader and all these elements have crept in of their own accord…’, but I knew she did not believe me, she would never trust me. Her voice trailed off as she stood up to leave the classroom, not quite meeting my eyes. I stood there staring at her back as her skirt swished about her ankles and her footsteps echoed down the corridor.

My fall from grace was complete and irrevocable. I felt nothing. This was probably how the dead feel. Nothing. I could not even cry. Outside, the world went on as before. The sun shone as bright as ever. Girls gadded about in the corridors, between classes, lessons were taught relentlessly. Math, Science, History and geography saw me impassive, immobile. Lunch was left uneaten. I fed it to the cats that sunned themselves outside the dining area. I spent the last hour of school wandering in the garden, avoiding all company. The others avoided me too, for who loves misery? What was that saying- Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; Cry, and you…Oh, who cares!

I hid in the washroom till everybody went home. Then I trudged home. How dare the world go on, as if nothing had happened? What hurt more was the destruction of a dream. The abortion of an illusion.

The teacher I had worshipped, put on a pedestal, had feet of clay.

Did she ever stop to think any different? I don’t know. I was past caring.

The girl who returned home that evening was a different person.

Topic of that week? Confessions. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I never poured my heart out in writing anymore.

It was nipped in the bud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Rangi Taranga!

A Prosaic Ode to Rangi Taranga. Soak in the magic of the colourful wave that is now Kannada cinema.

Rangi Taranga heralded the advent of a vibrant wave in Kannada cinema. A year later, it is still ‘running’ to packed audiences in some theaters in Bengaluru. Word among the local population goes, ‘Rangi Taranga nodidira? Sakkath cinema ri!’ Roughly translated, ‘Have you watched Rangi Taranga? Awesome movie!’ If answered in the affirmative, a discussion ensues, punctuated by fervent nods of approval, and expressions that say more than words. If time permits, the conversation continues over ‘Vada- Sambar’ at the ‘Darshini’ just around the corner. After a few glorious mouthfuls of crisp ‘vada’ that has begun to lose its identity while languidly soaking in the tangy ‘sambar’, washed down by gulps of aromatic ‘by two’ coffee, the movie aficionados exchange numbers and promise to meet at a convenient ‘circle’ or park soon.

However, as is the case in any city, lack of time or inclination might prove an impediment in the life of a ‘busy’ person and then, the derision that spills over, poisoning the air, is palpable. ‘Yaak ri nodilla? Yaavaaglu, kelsaneynaa?’ Again, translated it means, ‘Why haven’t you watched it? All the time, is it only about work?’ More diatribe follows. To summarize the denunciation, it involves asking the culprit as to why he/she is a snob, avoiding all things of the local flavour, and how dare a self-respecting Kannadiga not watch such a wonderful movie, and thinly veiled jibes at lack of loyalty and finally a leading question, ‘Did you watch Baahubali? Sarrainodu? The Conjuring 2?’

Woe betide the perpetrator if the answer is in the affirmative. The ensuing harangue is about how it is people’s fault that they are not patrons of good local cinema but always try follow up on what is produced by the rest of the country and the world.

The meeting almost certainly ends with the local traffic policeman being called in to ensure that traffic moves, for, believe me, a few pedestrians will join in the discussion, and a few passersby on their two-wheelers will park themselves nearby to denounce the wrongdoer and launch into raptures of how the movie is a must watch, not once but many times. The people insulated in their air-conditioned cars will throw wistful glances at the crowd, wishing they could alight and participate, if only parking were not such a problem. Colourful snatches of invective will percolate through the crowd and fall into each delighted ear. Who doesn’t want a little drama in their life?

This article isn’t a review of Rangi Taranga. Anybody can get that online. After all, the movie has been running in theatres since June, 2015. It is now June, 2016. So, Happy Birthday, Rangi Taranga! One year old and still going strong. The shows are packed to the maximum limit and the public is getting its money’s worth. This article is about celebrating a milestone in Kannada Cinema- Namma Kannada Cinema that has come of age.

Rangi Taranga creates this canvas that every Kannadiga can take pride in. The locales, for instance. The lens of the camera breathe new life into each frame, bringing visuals to life, almost like the real thing. Most of the movie has been shot in the state itself, weaving local art and culture with a story that has unexpected twists and turns. It has strong characters and a great plot. The music is refreshingly melodious and powerful.  Throw in enigma, missing characters, a wonderful lead couple and a beautiful and persistent lady journalist into the fray and sparks are bound to fly.  The thespian Sai Kumar, who has such wonderful and powerful screen presence and an inimitable baritone adds such colour to Rangi Taranga that one is left weak-kneed and breathless at his unrivalled performance. A great dose of Yakshagana, mystery, suspense and mind games later, the movie comes to its end, leaving the audience in a state of bliss, having been intellectually stimulated for the past two hours or so. The movie is clean. Cleaner than the ads you have for soaps and detergents. Don’t dare grumble about the editing not being crisp enough. It’s ‘paisa vasool’ anyway!

Rangi Taranga depicts all things Kannada in such glorious light and detail that it becomes an unconventional metaphor for namma minching swag, seasoned with delectable local flavour, that can be highlighted with pride. The average Kannadiga is familiar with at least five different languages and watches movies of these languages without the need for subtitles. Rangi Taranga holds its own with great aplomb, among the other movies in different languages. It forges cultural identity and redefines Kannada Cinema.

Following Rangi Taranga, a spate of great cinema has now hit the screens! To name a few, set your sights on Thithi, U-turn and Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, with the charismatic veteran actor Anant Nag. One only wishes that local multiplexes have more screens showing these movies.

So what are you waiting for? The official CD to be released? The movie to be beamed on satellite television? No Way! Perish the thought! Nothing compares to the big screen. Get your lazy self up and make a dash to the theatre. Take your family along. Soak in the magic of the vernacular.

You won’t regret it.

You Mean Well

Hello there! I’m Sailaja. Oh, you are asking me to move, you cannot read the menu of the day. Am I taking up too much space? I’m sorry. So inconvenient for you. What’s that you say? Move some more? O.K. Some more? Oops, I seem to have blotted out the landscape for you.

Let’s chat while we are waiting for a table to be free.

Umm, I did play games when I was your age. Why do you ask? Oh, you are very funny, you want to know if I looked like this when I was fifteen! Well, I came out of my mother looking this way. I know, dinosaurs did the same. You can see the remnants of her shell clinging to me if you look closely enough! It is a joke, yaa.

Where is she now? With me of course. Yes, you are right. I don’t help out at home, so right! Because she is with me, it naturally means that she has to do all my chores. Oh please I’m sure you mean well. After all, if a man’s mother lives with him, it is her right and she is treated like a queen. Oh absolutely, my mother stays with me because she has nowhere to go. Right, the only reason that you can think of me having her is that I get a maid for free. How wonderful, no? Her family seems to think so too. Strange though, she doesn’t like to visit them! It’s almost as if she prefers my company. Yes, I can see why that is funny! Yaa, she pampers me even now, that is why I am sooooo fat!

Yes, I’m sure you mean well. Certainly, nobody wants to die of health complications. Right, wasn’t aware till you kindly told me, Obesity is indeed a disease. Yes, I have high blood pressure. I see you nodding very sagely, I agree it must be all that food I eat. Yes, since I’m twice your size, I eat for two people. No, I’m not with child, what a quaint expression! It is just my belly bulging, making itself conspicuous. No, I’m also very surprised why I don’t have diabetes! In fact I feel rather left out. My ‘sugar’ friends have lost awesome weight and are fending off the compliments. The lifestyle disease that decides to affect me does nothing for me. Really, I’m sooooo unlucky, I know I could have got diabetes. I’ll try hard to goad my pancreas to achieve it.

You want to take a selfie with me? How lovely! Cheese! Yaa, all I think about is food! Oh, it looks very nice. Yes, you look beautiful and soooo slim! Yes, the contrast shows up very nicely. You look better when I am next to you! Making this your facebook profile picture? Please go ahead. You will get a hundred likes at least. Want to tag me? Thank you, oh thank you! What would I be without you?

See this selfie of mine. Who is this pretty girl you ask? It is my daughter. Yessss, believe me please! What’s that you say? How can such a beautiful girl be the daughter of someone like me? Same question sooooo many people ask. I consider myself blessed. Thank God she didn’t take after me! All that biryani, and it doesn’t show on her!

Where I get my clothes? Here, there and everywhere! You are right, nothing fits. Every shop I know caters to the standard size. The slender divas. I am very fat. Ha! Don’t joke yaaaa! What is curvaceous? All bulges, no curves.

Let’s have lunch together. Share a table. No, my treat! Yes, you will go bankrupt if you feed me. Ha! Ha! Yes, I love food! Do you too? I’m glad! Does food make you feel better too? Eat and work out you say! I do. Walking? Oh! Absolutely. Treadmill, walked off the miles, not the kilos. No, not joking! Aerobics? Yup, enjoy it. Yes, I can jump, and dance and do the ‘grapevine, mambo cha cha’! Why I don’t lose weight? Don’t know. Yoga, love it! Helps that the instructor doesn’t look at me and focuses only on the slim ones. I get to do my own thing. Ah well, I understand, who would come to class because people like me are there! Not an inspiration at all! The slim ones, like you, can sell anything. Ha! Ha! Not a joke!

How I got married? Well, I was tall and statuesque then. Difficult to believe, no. At five feet six inches and sixty kilos I was stacked in all the right places. Two surgeries later…now don’t ask. I have distinction in weight! Am I still married? Yes, I am. Happily married? What an oxymoron! Ha! Ha! No, husband is not complaining I am fat and all. Really! No, he is not afraid of me! Oh, you feel I am the overbearing one in this marriage. You are welcome!

Let’s order now. Oh, you want the butter kulcha and paneer butter masala. Green salad and pita bread for me please. No hummus. Eat a little, you say. Noooo…the very sight of food makes me fatter. Ummmmmm….it smells di-viiiine. No, I’m sure I don’t want any.

Oh, your knee is troubling you? I’m sorry. My knees are fine, thank you. Yes, despite my weight. No, I don’t know how it is possible! Your liver functioning badly? I’m sorry. Maybe, you shouldn’t be eating all this butter. Oh, you disagree! You are slim, I agree, you can afford to eat all this, I agree. High cholesterol levels? Oh! Mine, are in the safe range, thank you!  I agree, so unfair!

No, I’m sure salad is enough for me. No, I’m not on a diet. What is the use, you say? That’s the way I live! Really, really, yaa! I don’t know why I’m like this. Sorry, you have become silent. Clogged arteries, you say. I’m sorry. Really, I don’t know how slim and svelte people like you get such problems. I know you don’t deserve to suffer. You are so pretty. So slim. So beautiful. It’s so unfair, I agree. Yaa, fat people should get all these problems. They deserve it. Yes, I know what you are feeling. Fat people ruin all the beauty in the world. I know you are grossed out. All that blubber. Good for nothing. Sorry to spoil your vision of the perfect world.

Let me take care of the cheque. Ha! Ha! The waitress knows whom to give it to. Split it, no way! My treat. What’s that you say? Fat people are jolly generous. How original! Jolly and generous!

Goodbye. Take care of yourself. No, I did not feel bad about anything. I’m used to all this well-meaning advice, you know. Well-wishers letting me know what is good for me. Oh, I have many well-wishers. They range from ages ten to eighty. You should hear them make funny remarks. Oh, too funny yaa. You will die laughing.

 

 

Jalebis at Midnight

Stale jalebis always tasted better. Agreed that fresh jalebis had an extra crisp crunch but the true taste was enhanced the next morning when the jalebi’s stiffness yielded to a chewy goodness and a sour tinge crept in offsetting the cloying sweetness perfectly.

Sarala loved jalebis, especially the ones made by Ramlal at the corner sweetmeat shop. Her father always brought hot jalebis home for breakfast along with piping hot kachoris with hot spicy potato curry. Sarala and Ravi would tuck in while their father watched indulgently and ignored his wife’s long drawn tirade against the quality of ‘outside food’ and the ‘oil’ that would surely give them a stomach upset. Sarala would lick at every smear of curry on her fingers with relish and secretly hide one jalebi away for the next day to eat it at leisure savouring it. Ravi hardly gave her competition for the jalebis. He was partial to the kachoris, demolishing his share in no time. At other times, he hardly used to eat at home. He had droves of friends scattered all over the locality and he spent more time with them than with his family. More time than what was good for him.

Sarala’s daughter was going to be married in the auspicious month of Shravan. She decided to go to Ravi’s home to invite them personally for the wedding. Not that she needed any help from them. Not after they had stopped inviting Sarala for festivals and hardly made themselves free to attend family functions. It was just that she wanted an excuse to drop in unannounced and uninvited and give them a piece of her mind. She would let Ravi know how hurt she was by his indifference and she would let Ratna know exactly what she thought of her. Some things had to be said and done.

After an uneventful journey, she located the house with a little difficulty. The rickshaw passed the affluent looking houses and moved into a disreputable neighbourhood or so she thought. She was always quick to jump to conclusions. The roads became narrower and the drains uncovered in patches till she could see black rivers of vile filth flanking the road. Garbage was heaped everywhere and the stench that rose from it made her hold her nose and cover her mouth. The sight of a child openly playing in the drain water made her wince. The houses became smaller, each abode leaning against the other for support. Children stopped playing and women looked up from their chores to stare at her as she alighted and paid the rickshaw puller his fare. The sun beat down her head mercilessly but when Ratna opened the door, the room was as dark as a cinema theatre with the show running. A surreptitious, seedy matinee show.

Ratna’s expression when she saw Sarala was inscrutable. She stood up and dusted the lone chair in the room and adjusted her sari folds.

‘Come in Sarala,’ she mumbled, ’If you had told us you were visiting I would have come to the Bus Stand to pick you up.’

‘Uh huh? So that you people lock the house and go away, to avoid meeting me. Anyway, I do not think I have to inform you anything. If a sister wants to meet her brother, who are you to interfere?’

Ratna hurried to the kitchen to make some coffee and Sarala’s voice followed her. ‘And what kind of neighbourhood do you think you are living in? How very unsuitable for growing girls. I’m surprised Ravi agreed to live here. He is so particular about such things…’

‘Namaste Auntie,’ came a meek voice that put an end to Sarala’s rant.

‘Ok… ok… bless you. Now stand up. How are you? What are you studying?’

The rest of the conversation was inaudible as the neighbor switched on his TV and the ‘saas-bahu’ drama took over, with the vitriolic voice of the mother-in-law goading the ever suffering daughter-in-law. If only her mother were alive, thought Sarala. She would have ensured Ratna ‘mended’ her ways.

Ravi walked out of the bathroom, vigorously toweling his hair and stood still. He stared at his sister talking to his daughter.

His eyes were bloodshot and face lined with wrinkles. His hair was grey and he had not shaved for four days at least. He looked thin, emaciated and walked with a limp. He gave a grin to Sarala that reminded her of Death’s head.

Soon, after the initial awkwardness, Sarala turned on the charm she had reserved for her brother. Ravi was giving monosyllabic answers when Ratna walked in with two steel tumblers of coffee.

Sarala sipped at her coffee and winced. ‘Chee, coffee or ditch water! Ravi, you used to buy coffee only from Suma Coffee Works. What is this?’

Ratna went back to the kitchen and served Ravi his breakfast. She gave Sarala hot water for her bath. By the time Sarala emerged from her bath both Ravi and Geeta were out.

‘I don’t know what has come over Ravi. He has changed. If I had known you would let this happen to him I would have intervened earlier. By the way where is your mangalsutra and bangles? Don’t you know it is inauspicious for a married woman to remove these things?’

Ratna made no answer but went about her work quietly.

‘I knew there was something wrong but did not think you would allow all this. Why are you here in this area? What happened to all the money you got from the sale of the house? It seems to me that you have lost all control over everything. Ravi is a fool. He believes everyone easily. You must have led him astray. I knew you were no good the moment I saw you. You never allow him to write to me. If you had told me, I would have taken the next train and landed here. Ravi would have listened to me. A good housewife knows how to balance things.’

Ratna gave reheated upma to Sarala and went into the bathroom.

When she came out she saw Sarala rummaging through the tins in the kitchen.

‘I thought I would get lunch ready. The state of your kitchen is appalling. There is barely any rice or dal. Don’t you order provisions at the beginning of the month? And today is only the tenth.’

There was a knock at the door.

Sarala opened it to find a vegetable vendor trying to put down a huge basket on the ground, giving her a quizzical look.

‘Help me with this. Who are you? Where is Ratnamma? Ratnamma…’

‘I am her sister-in-law,’

‘Oh….ho, you finally decided to see your brother and his poor wife, eh?’

‘Poor wife? Poor brother by the look of it…’ muttered Sarala under her breath.

‘Ratnamma is a real gem. Any other woman would have…’

‘Gowri, what have you brought today? I hope you have some greens. Sarala loves Soppinhuli. And I will take a quarter kilo of these beautiful brinjals. I shall make some ennegai, stuffed brinjal curry.’

‘Save some for me. I shall collect the money from you later. Got to go now.’ Gowri walked away gracefully with the basket of vegetables balanced perfectly on her head.

Ratna busied herself with the household chores. She could feel her Sarala’s eyes boring into her back as she walked out with the bucket of washed clothes to dry on the terrace.

When Ratna returned Sarala was peering into her wardrobe.

‘Don’t think I am inquisitive or interfering. I came here to invite you for my daughter’s wedding, but seeing you people in this condition I decided to get to the bottom of things. Where are the silk sarees we gave you at your wedding? Where are the silk sarees your parents gave you? And why are there only four sarees in your wardrobe? What is happening?’

Ratna turned away and said, ‘I must get lunch ready.’

Sarala lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. The fan was clean. No cobwebs in the corners. The house was clean and Ratna was a good cook, no doubt. She had been beautiful once, now her face was careworn and haggard. Sarala felt guilty she was being a tad too mean in her behaviour. But she brushed it aside as she remembered Ravi’s caged expression.

After lunch Ratna sat at her sewing machine stitching ‘falls’ on sarees. A woman came to the door and took away the neatly folded and packed sarees.

Ratna poured a measure of milk and water into a saucepan and added tea leaves. She put it on the stove to boil. She added sugar and strained it. She carried the tea to Sarala and woke her up. As she handed the tea to her, Sarala noticed a bruise on her arm.

‘What is that?’

‘Nothing really, all in a day’s work.’

When the child came home she was given tea with puffed rice. Chattering about her day, she went about putting her books away neatly, changed out of her uniform and sat to do her homework. The child was brought up well, Sarala thought grudgingly.

Ravi came home at seven o’ clock with a paper parcel.

‘These are hot jalebis for Saru. Saru loves them, don’t you dear?’

‘I shall eat them later. I don’t want to spoil my appetite for dinner.’

Ravi washed up, had tea and got ready to go out.

‘Where are you going Ravi? Sit down. I want to talk to you about Rupa’s wedding.’

‘I’ll be back in an hour, and then we shall catch up on old times.’

At the door Ravi was accosted by Ratna who said something to him in a low tone. ‘Please, it’s only for a day. She is leaving tomorrow.’

Sarala’s blood boiled. How dare Ratna whisper secrets to her husband in front of his sister? Really, the woman had no decency. She looked over at Geeta. Geeta looked at her parents and hastily averted her eyes. Ratna turned to Sarala and gave her a bright smile.

‘Come Sarala, I shall serve you dinner.’

‘I shall wait for Ravi.’

“He may be delayed. Dinner will get cold’

‘it is alright. I would prefer to eat with my brother.’

Sarala watched as Ratna sat by her child giving her a light meal. After the meal she cleared the place and laid out a mattress for Geeta. Geeta lay curled up into a tight little ball. Ratna covered the sleeping child with a blanket and sat on the concrete slab outside. Sarala attempted no conversation with her. She decided she would let her brother know what she felt.

The time was nine o’ clock. The door was suddenly flung open and unsteady footsteps shuffled into the house.

‘Ratna! Come here! What are you doing, you ******?’

Sarala sat as still as a statue. Ratna moved around as if she were a machine, avoiding looking in Sarala’s direction.

‘Where is my dinner? Who is this woman? WHO ARE YOU? Oh Sa… ru… Sa… ra… la…SARALA! Eyyyy…Ratna! Do you see my sister here? All of them are ****** rotten rascals- my father, my mother and my sister…Look at her… aha! She is sitting here as if she doesn’t know anything… you selfish wretch… you got married and went away… what did you know what I went through when you went away. Father died leaving me in debt and I sold the house and my friends took away whatever money I had left and now you come here to tell me your daughter is getting married. Your husband the ****** ******* was only interested in what I had to give him and you turned your back on me. All of you can rot in hell. This woman here tells me not to drink…****** dangerous ******… I shall do as I please. ‘

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘Who said I am drunk?  Prove it, you rascal…Here smell my breath…Ahhhhhh….’ Fumes of cheap liquor filled the air, a sharp contrast to the scent of agarbatti that still lingered in the room. ‘What does that smell like? Would you dare to talk to your husband this way? I spit on you… ******!’

A trembling Sarala wiped at her face but the stench of liquor would not go away.

The beast had now turned his undivided attention to his wife, raining blows on her. Sarala tried to intervene but a well-aimed slap, too well-aimed for an inebriated person, flung her to the dark corner where Geeta was sleeping. She took one look at the child who had her eyes tightly shut and body tensed and coiled like a spring. Her heart went out to her. Sobbing, she patted her head and the child recoiled, rejecting her kind gesture. Strangely, that was more painful than Ravi’s unexpected avatar.

Ratna was now sobbing silently, trying to get dinner ready for Ravi. She placed the plate in front of him and he picked up a morsel and spat it out as soon as he put it into his mouth. “Thoo! There is no salt in this. Do you even know how to cook? You are like the rest of your family…crooked *********.  Come here!’

He took a handful of rice in his hands and smeared it on Ratna’s head. ‘First learn how to cook. And then COOK!’ If it were not so real, Ratna would have presented rather a comical sight with grains of rice, sticking to her hair. Sarala could only think how Ratna would get all that mess cleaned.

Ravi got up to his feet unsteadily and picked up the vessels with food and emptied the contents into the gutter flowing outside.

‘Don’t! Your sister has to have her dinner!’

‘Get out of my way!’

First the rice, mounds of little even pearls, floated away like tiny islands. Then the soppinahuli had a glorious tryst with the black waters. Ravi then picked up each brinjal and threw them at the neighbours sitting outside, staring at him. Sarala marvelled at his aim. An irate woman began shouting at Ravi and Ravi used the choicest of abuses that made Sarala’s ears burn. The different allusions to mothers, sisters, sorceresses, witches and animals with reference to verbs of varying degrees of depravity made her head reel. Her mother was dead, good for her! If she had to listen to all this, she would have died all over again. But what about the living?

After venting his spleen on the neighbours, Ravi stumbled into the house and sat slumped on the bed. His watchful eyes, with drunken cunning, ensured the women did not budge.

He waxed eloquent. He spoke of past wrongs, real and imagined, and abused every person they had known and revered. He got up and threw a few pots and pans across the room for good measure. He picked up the picture of The Family Deity from the little shelf that served as an altar and threw it down with great force. Then he sank down to the floor and held on to the picture and began crying out loud in agony. Gradually his bawling subsided into racking sobs and then after what seemed an eternity, he began to snore, in the mess of his own creation.

The women stirred, warily at first and after a few trial attempts, Ratna got up from her temporary paralysis and moved about, quietly, tidying the room. Geeta tiptoed to the bathroom and hugged her mother tightly, before settling down to sleep.

Silence reigned, snatches of conversations from the neighbours punctuated it uneasily.

After a while Ratna said, ‘Sorry Sarala, you had to see this. Sorry about dinner.’

Sarala said nothing.

Tears flowed down her cheeks, she made no attempt to brush them away.

Ratna sat still and Sarala cried quietly, so as to not wake the beast.

After Sarala stopped sobbing, Ratna brought her the paper parcel. She tore the parcel open and took out the jalebis. ‘Please eat this. It is midnight. You must be hungry.’

The beast stirred in his stupor. ‘Eh… Sarrrrla…..’ and snored.

Careful not to make any sound, they sat in the darkness, hungrily munching on the jalebis which were juicy and chewy, tinged with a little sourness, just like how Sarala liked them.

De-tressing

tugging at knotted strands

futile attempts

tangled

shadows loom upstream

hiding behind mirrors

unused concocted themes

in disarray

hollow unseeing depths

flinching

strands that unravel like some forgotten spool

unwinding some old forgotten nameless tune

humming in the deepest recesses of thought

marveling at its life as it eagerly seeks  the drain holes

to escape like truant serpents

 into a chasm

to become some echo

never to return

 

Saturday was the busiest day of the week for my mother, since the women of my family are blessed with luxuriant tresses.  I would let down my well-oiled hair and sit in the backyard waiting for Mother to get the soap nut concoction that would be simmering on the stove, since the crack of dawn. I would have three buckets of hot water waiting, my mother would tuck her saree high and pour scalding hot water on my head, wetting my hair, and scrub every strand using the soap nut solution. I would shut my eyes tight as even a single drop would cause an unbearable burning in my eyes and I would have to walk around with red eyes for a couple of days. Still, a few obstinate drops would enter my eyes, and I would howl in pain. The sickly sweet smell of the boiled soap nuts would overpower every sense. Then I would rinse off using mug after mug of hot water but the stubborn bits of soap nuts would cling to my hair till it dried.

My hair took at least four hours to dry. My mother would place some burning coal in an urn and sprinkle some sambrani powder on it. The ensuing vapours would permeate every strand, leaving it smelling divine, like the scent of incense burning in dark corners of old temples. I would sit in front of the TV on Sunday mornings and watch wistfully the shampoo advertisements on TV. The models made washing your hair look so easy and the whole ritual was joyful. But no, I was told that shampoo would make my hair turn reddish brown and even worse, lead to hair fall.

I was never allowed to leave my hair untied as it would attract unwanted attention and the rules of the family were rigid. Girls were not allowed to stand in public places and talk to friends. It was frowned upon if girls laughed out loud in public. We had to take permission to go to friends’ homes and if they had older brothers, it was denied. Going to the cinema with pals was unheard of. Talking with boys was taboo. Girls were admitted to girls’ schools and later to women’s colleges till they were married off. Girls who lead sheltered lives were the ‘good’ girls.

Dressing in anything but traditional Indian clothes was unacceptable. As for jewellery. It always had to be gold. You were judged by the amount of gold you had. You had to have a minimum of two bangles, a simple gold necklace and gold studs for your ears every day. And on weddings and special occasions you were expected to dress in resplendent silks and wear heavy jewellery. Everything was to be in gold. From your vaddanam, a band of gold around your waist, serving weirdly as a belt, to the jadagantalu, a trio of little bells tied at the end of your long plait, everything had to be gold.

At home time ensured that we were left with tradition and nothing else. Gold began to disappear in bits and pieces. I remember being quite comfortable for years and then suddenly eating only rice with plain boiled tamarind water for years. I remember being gifted with gold rings, bracelets and earrings and not finding anything. My mother would wear a thick gold rope around her neck that would turn mysteriously from gold to rust to steel grey. I noticed that she was wearing the same ear studs as the ayah at school. When I returned home from school one evening, she was talking to our neighbour and I exclaimed that it was the exact replica of what Padmamma was wearing at school. Mother winced and hurriedly changed the subject, but not before I caught sight of a smug smile on our neighbour’s face. Mother wouldn’t talk to me for hours that evening. I didn’t know why. All I remember was prattling incessantly to her, and she made strangled noises in response. She wiped her tears after a while, her nose a bright red, her eues rimmed with red. She could not even cry in peace.

Then I understood.

I would open a jewel case to pick out my favourite necklace and an empty velvet lined box would greet me. Empty shells of trinket boxes remained in the almirah, with their contents gracing the desperate, dreary walls of dingy pawn shops.

I remember, once, when I was in the ninth standard, the syllabus for Math had changed and we were told to bring forty rupees to school for the new text book. While my father raged about the education system and the school, I quietly unscrewed the tiny ear studs I was wearing and placed them on the table and went to bed, stifling my sobs. I couldn’t cry in the open, for it was considered inauspicious for girls to cry at home, it brought bad luck. The next morning, I found forty rupees waiting for me on the table.

On another occasion, I had to unclasp the thin six gram chain from around my neck for something that my father had his heart set on. I don’t even remember. All I remember were those long silences or my father’s fury.

The rage of oxidized silver had begun. Shops were inundated by cheap black metal, imitation of silver jewellery. Pretty plastic baubles, glass beads and crystal attracted the eye. I spent my meager pocket money on collecting these pieces of happiness. My mother tried to buy artificial gold jewellery but I refused after a couple of experienced eyes spotted the deception and made loud remarks. I wore my bold, brazen jewellery with arrogance and defiance. Yet it contrasted sharply with my traditional looks. I should have been wearing loads of gold with those looks. On me, the bold jewellery clashed and called for more attention than otherwise. Sometimes I tried to go without any jewellery at all. I liked the stark look in the mirror, I looked pure, out of this world, almost ethereal. But then people looked at me with undisguised sympathy, derision and glee. I tried to ignore it all but I was only a teenager.

After being a misfit in social circles and family, I decided to take matters in my hand. I visited Blue Heaven and said goodbye to my tresses. When I returned home, my mother took one horrified look at me and refused to speak to me for a month. My father raged at my mother, saying it was her fault, but he did not look me in the eye. Some friends were impressed by my bold step and on the other hand, some took great delight in telling me exactly why I should not have chopped my hair off.

‘You know, I do prefer your traditional look,’ said a ‘well-meaning friend’. Well, they mean well. Yes, they do. Who are we kidding? I shot a murderous look at her and coldly informed her I would ask for her opinion if I wanted it. That was the turning point in my interaction with people. Everybody in the world was entitled to an opinion, as long as it was not shared with me. She smiled sheepishly and said, ‘But you look nice now too.’ I tossed my head and turned away. Why do people have a pathological need to express their opinion?

Well, my extended family went to the extent of casting aspersions on my character. After all I wasn’t a ‘good’ girl any more, was I? But I didn’t care. Now I could carry off all my flamboyant junk jewellery with aplomb. Yes, I was labelled modern, brazen, unconventional and headstrong. But who cares? I knew what I was, and what I did was right for me.

Another good thing came out of the whole episode. I never had to endure that Saturday morning ordeal anymore. And I used shampoo. You see, my mother stopped caring. Finally.

The Feast

The chanting went on for a long time. It was so easy to look all interested in the proceedings and secretly muse over what would be served for lunch. For everybody was more interested in the welcome sounds of cooks at work, and aromas wafting from the huge community kitchen, adjoining the hall, than in the puja. Men sat a distance away while women congregated in groups baring teeth in smiles that hardly reached the eyes.

After an interminable wait, it was time for lunch. Everybody sat in rows and banana leaves were spread in front of them. Ashok sat next to his daughter and both exchanged a conspirational whisper about her mother’s confusion about the correct placement of the banana leaf. She always found the direction of the leaf confusing till he told her the leaf needed to taper to the right. That was easy then. She made a quick mental note as she revised her lesson, yet again.

Ashok sprinkled water on his leaf, perfunctorily cleaned it and waited as the boys clad in dhotis and no upper garments shivered in the cold. He smiled secretly as he recalled his wife giggling and passing certain frank remarks at the procession of shivering boys, during a ceremonial lunch in cold, wet weather. He had been scandalized at her open candor and looked about hastily if anybody had overheard but people were busy tucking into the puliyogre with relish. Nobody lost focus while eating, especially if the food was as good as the tart tamarind rice, laced with jaggery, red chillies and toasted sesame seeds, garnished with fried peanuts and coconut.

Salt was placed at the top left hand corner of the leaf. She loved salt. Nothing was exempt from a good sprinkling of salt. Even curd rice. Even when she had these dizzy spells, brought on by sudden surges of blood pressure, she would add salt to her food, on the sly. She didn’t see any doctors. She didn’t care. Sometimes he found her attitude rather selfish. She needed to take better care of herself, for their sake, at least. He, on the other hand, would rush to the clinic even at the first sneeze that was brought on by a change in weather. And the pickle she ate! Huge quantities! Like a serving of curry! Strange, nobody in her family would touch pickle, they had a sweet tooth. He wondered from which generation this anomaly appeared in her. The next boy brought the pickle. Finely sliced mango flavoured ginger and lemon with a medley of green chilliies. Oh she loved pickles alright, not a single meal was complete without a generous spoonful of pickle. She made pickles by the jars, dozens of them and give them away to every visitor. In fact she shamelessly asked for a bottle of pickle when she visited a friend or relative. If we ran out of pickle, she had no qualms about buying pickle from stores: Priya pickles were her favourite, especially, the mango avakaya.

The next items to be put on the leaves were the kosambaris- fresh, delicious salads. Giving concession to the modern times, he allowed his daughter to choose corn, carrot and coconut as the base for one and sprouts, pomegranate and coconut as the other. She approved. She was always an advocate of salads and greens. If only she didn’t overdo the salt!

The dry curries followed. Boiled and seasoned potatoes and beans with cabbage, both heavily sprinkled with coconut. All her favourite vegetables. She always had her way. She cooked everything that he bought from the market, but she reached out for these first. At the market she would stand and look at him indulgently or irritably, depending on her mood, while he haggled over the price of tomatoes or brinjals.  She never bargained, never even asked for the price. She never got her hands dirty. She left the nit picking to him.

She made the creamiest of kheer. No, she did not use Milkmaid- condensed milk. She would just boil the milk and reduce it, then add the rice and let it cook in milk, add sugar after she switched off the burner and add cardamom. And her creamy kheer was unrivalled. Everybody who tasted it said they could just die and go to heaven. The kheer the boy ladled onto the leaf was not a patch on the kheer he was accustomed to. But it was her favourite sweet anyway and today was her day. Her fiftieth birthday!

Vangibath made with capsicum and green peas was served and he grimaced looking at the vegetables, gleaming, precious jewels on a bed of glistening rice. His mother would save used oil in which their favourite fritters- bajjis, bondas and pakodas, had been fried and add that oil to the rice. His wife however gave a new twist to the dish cutting down on oil and using the juice of lemons to give it a fresh flavor. Fried papads and rice crispies were balanced precariously on the vangibath. He recalled how she  looked forward to summer for she could then mix rice flour in boiling hot water and make rice papads. She would put them out to dry in the sun and when they were totally dry, store them in airtight tins. She fried them on Sundays when she was too busy to make a special curry. Then it was just tempered dal, pickle, curd rice and papads.  Pineapple gojju- a spicy sweet and sour dish was next, followed by hot steaming rice in a mound in the centre of the leaf. A little bland dal with green chillies and coriander was ladled onto the rice and a boy generously added dollops of ghee on the rice and kheer. Everybody sprinkled water around the heavily laden banana leaves and muttered a prayer. It was time to partake of the sumptuous spread.

Hot, thick, steaming Sambar with a host of vegetables like gourds, beans, pumpkin and peanuts was followed by the light peppery rasam. He loved the rasam she made. His mother complained about the excess of black pepper and cumin, but she never heeded her words. She never retaliated. Kept quiet. Held it all in. He wished she would vent her feelings often. Her silences were more difficult to bear. He worried about the pain she suppressed. It wasn’t natural. All that pressure, just waiting to explode…

Coconut stuffed holige was next and green chilly fritters were served. He had a little badam milk poured over his puran poli and refused the ghee that was offered.  The boys went around serving rice and the accompaniments till everyone was full.

He felt his wife was right, as usual, there was so much served that they could not really relish anything after sometime. Only days or weeks later he would crave the special sambar that would be served at such celebrations. She tried to replicate the recipe but it wasn’t the same. She added extra coriander seeds and fenugreek to her homemade spice powder. It was better than before but not as good as the version made by cooks. Then she would say with a grin, ’Trade secrets!’ She chatted up the cooks in the kitchen at every function they attended. Everybody knew her. There would be a couple of parcels of packed sweets and savouries with the compliments of the cook after every meal.

It was time for rice and curd. He only had curd at home. She spoilt him for that always. She set the most perfect curd, fresh and thick. Again he watched her many times as she patiently boiled milk till it reduced sufficiently. After it had cooled to room temperature she added one drop of curd and store it in a warm place till it set. She learnt this from a friend’s father at a meal she had been invited to. That had been the first time she had thick curd and she fell in love with the consistency. She had lingered at the kitchen door to ask him how it was possible. He laughingly explained it to her, as one would do a scientific experiment, and she never forgot. That was her problem, she never ever forgot. Sometimes it is a blessing to be able to forget. The mind can take only that much. Anyway, into the fridge would the set curd go and sit snugly on the shelf till it was demolished. The family had got used to eating curd with rice rather than rice with curd.

After the meal Ashok got up unsteadily and turned to her. She smiled at him radiantly and his heart skipped a beat. Instinctively he smiled back. He passed her by and she continued to smile at everybody who looked her way. She continued to smile when somebody adjusted the garland around her photograph. She smiled with so much joy, for the feast had been a celebration of her life.

 
Feast

The Wardrobe

My dear Daughter,

Eliot once wrote about measuring out life with coffee spoons. No average beverage for me. I have something better. I am a hoarder. I collect saris. They are not just clothes but motifs of my life. Six yards of splendor draping every memorable moment freezing it for all eternity.

A dust-pink and white chiffon creation swaying on the hanger is where my love affair with saris began. Surprising though it may seem I had nothing to do with its selection. My parents, who had opposing views about everything in life, had for a change, concurred. I was fifteen then and it was the farewell party at school. I remember looking at myself in the mirror that evening and actually liking the girl-woman who looked back at me. I looked taller, prettier. I felt confident. It didn’t matter, anymore, who my friends were, who tormented me, oh whatever! I was ready to put it all behind me. I want you to keep this sari with you as it will remind you, your mother was young once, and stepped into life with the same hesitation that you are showing now.

You will love the chiffons that I have -especially the green metal chiffon creation. It was the first sari I bought with my first salary. I don’t wear chiffon now, but this sari has a special place in my wardrobe as it is symbolic of my independence. It marks my transition from being just a dependent daughter to an independent woman. I want you to have it and remember the pride I felt, to be able to pay for it with my own money, drawn from my own bank account. A gorgeous yellow and red south cotton sari is much faded and wrinkled, but is tinged with a bittersweet flavour, for it was the first sari my husband- to- be bought me. Yes, there were such misguided illusory moments between the two hostile creatures who cannot even exchange a civil word now. Difficult to believe, right? I don’t know my old self anymore. If I happened to meet her, I would slap her hard and ask her to get a reality check! Well, that’s another story altogether!

Do ensure to let my old silks see the light of the sun and toast themselves in the warmth of the day especially after the monsoons and in winter. At the same time remember, too much sunlight makes the colour fade. It’s all about finding the perfect balance. Starch your cottons and iron them out before they are completely dry. As you smooth the creases, you will iron away all the worries that creep up on you unawares.  The most mundane of tasks often help you keep your sanity, when things threaten to overwhelm. Just keep pushing, no matter what.

My wedding saris with their intricate zari work and embroidery may seem old-fashioned but I’m sure will be revived soon just like how short sleeves are now back in fashion. You never know how precious these antique saris may turn out to be. By the way, the green and brown Kanjeevaram sari belongs to my mother. It was her wedding sari. Treasure it like you would an heirloom. I know I did.

Wear silks more often. You will feel regal and help them live longer. Nothing damages a sari more than disuse. Just like your talents dear, use them well.

I have been accused of being very particular about dressing, obsessive even. Was I? Am I? I don’t know. I’m at the stage when I don’t care anymore. I can now look people in the eye and tell them to mind their own business. I dress for myself and not to please others.

It all began with a colleague asking me, ’You have many saris this shade of pink, don’t you?’ That was sarcasm, meant to cut like a knife because the truth was obvious to everybody. The truth was I had just one pink sari.  Don’t get me wrong. I did have a dozen silk saris and a couple of cottons but I never thought people noticed what you casually wore to work. As long as you were presentable, I thought that was all that mattered. But, no, evidently people were looking for ways and means to sharpen their claws at your expense. And so I began to splurge. And I noticed I felt better with each purchase. I dripped charm, oozed confidence and people actually thought I was this smart career woman who looked the picture of success.

And that just begins to explain why I bought so many. When life presents you with problems, you can either do something about it or take it lying down. Your father had a misguided sense of excessive loyalty to his family- at the cost of compromising on our little plans. I could not retaliate, so I did it the best way I know how. I went out and treated myself to a sari or a few depending on the extent I was hurting. Yes, it felt good. The world is full of go- getters and sad weepers. When you can be neither, learn to be kind to yourself. But well, I could afford it. I was earning, right? I still am.

Don’t be taken in by the people who tell you the surface does not matter. First impressions count. And the so- called intellectuals who dress in carefully dressed down creations, have to really co-ordinate the casual all- thrown- together look.  It takes a lot of effort and money. Things need to be simple and simplicity costs money.

So every festival, occasion and trivial matter finds me buying a sari to mark it. I buy myself a sari for your birthday before I get you your dress because I need to celebrate the day I gave you life. It’s more my day than yours.

I buy from stores, friends, colleagues and sales. I make it a point to pick up a sari from all the places I travel. Your father buys me saris to assuage his guilt. I look radiant at the very sight of his gifts. So now you understand why we fight often? We don’t kiss and make up. I get saris instead.

Why am I writing about saris? You see I have a passion for collecting books and music too. Books and music have a voice of their own. You will understand. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my indulgence in clothes. I want you to know.

Take time off to journey in the sensual drapes of exquisite texture and colour and get in touch with your femininity. Revel in it.

If you do decide that all this is rather overwhelming, you can give them all away. Generosity of spirit is good. However, ensure you give it all away to the deserving. Rightful Charity, to people who deserve it and need the clothes to add dignity to life. For, clothes often define lives. More than one knows. More than one can understand. More for people who can’t afford it. Most for holding your head high, keeping your dignity intact and your expression unruffled in the face of adversity.

Just keep one to remember me by.

Your loving Mother.

( Simplicity )