Monday, 30 June 2008

THE SHY BLOSSOM

On the day after the rains, I saw this little shrub at the base of the mango tree, valiantly trying to display its blooms from behind other shrubs. And was instantly reminded of Thomas Gray’s lines.
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Friday, 27 June 2008

THE RIGHT NUMBERS

Yesterday I attended the upanayanam ceremony of a cousin’s children. A religious ceremony, it was conducted simply with only close relatives in attendance, and a lunch to follow.

The invitation had carried a request that we inform the hosts of how many would be present, and would participate in the lunch. This is quite unheard of in the circles where upanayanams are conducted. Everyone is welcome to eat. Loads of food is cooked, expecting many people to eat. And then invariably, a lot of perishable food is left over and hasty and unwise decisions made as to their disposal.

A simple note like this, very much like the RSVP (Repondez s’il vous plait) is very much to be appreciated, (though some hard core traditionalists might object on the grounds that it reflects on the hospitality of the host). It gives the host an idea of how many people will actually lunch, and suitable arrangements can be made. Caterers spiral out of control and go overboard with the numbers – when they cook for 30 around 45 people can be fed, as they easily admit.

And the menu was perfect – a good balance of vegetables and proteins, with the right amount of side dishes (including chips and appalam), sweets and Payasam (kheer), all served in reasonable helpings, second helpings on request. I found that everyone enjoyed the food, and at the end, very little left on the leaves to be cleared up. A far cry from the upanayanam I had attended two months ago. There were two kheers, three sweets, and to top it all, three varieties of ice cream, not to mention the innumerable side dishes. The hosts said they had been pressurized by the caterers that this was the norm. (The ‘norm’ at weddings is mind-boggling). This keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome is an unhealthy practice, for there is just so much a person can eat at a meal. It benefits no one except the caterers.

Let the pipers put their foot down and call the tune – good food with adequate variety in moderate quantity - this should be the norm on all occasions, and will the guests be good enough to let them know how many will partake of lunch/dinner.

Cross-filed from GIAS.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

JACKFRUIT JAM - A LABOUR OF LOVE


Last week our music group had gathered at Vatsala’s place for a practice session. With guru Ganga on holiday, we have been taking turns to practice at one another’s place.

After practice (and an extremely refreshing mango milkshake for our parched throats) Vatsala remarked that they had received some jackfruits from Mayavaram and would any of us like to take some home. None of us showed any eagerness – the work entailed in removing the tough green prickly skin, and retrieving the sweet and yellow segments from its sticky bed was mind-boggling. So there were no takers for that offer.

My acquaintanceship with the jackfruit is distant. I have seen jackfruits (or chakkai as we call it at home; its Thamizh name is palaa) growing in my grandparents’ backyard in Trivandrum. It is remarkable how these heavy fruits (weight ranges from 10 to 60 lbs or even as much as 110 lbs, according to Wikipedia ) are suspended from the short stems, defying gravity.

However, there is a closer relationship with the final products made from them – chakka upperi (chips) and chakka varatti ( the incredibly sweet jam). How we relished these delicacies made by my grandmother, willingly slaving over the firewood stove for the family.

So I do know just how much time-consuming labour is involved. Still, when Vatsala repeated the offer, I was tempted and succumbed. After all, I thought, my mother was here with me, and she had seen her mother do it, though she had herself spent most of her life in New Delhi, where there aren’t any jackfruit trees. I carried one home. It was heavy, as heavy as a young child!

Ma took a look at it and wondered how I had managed to carry it. She wasn’t sure if it was still green enough for making curries, or ready for ripening – and she couldn’t tell if it was ‘koozhan’ for chips, or ‘varikkan’ for the ripened fleshy segments. We decided to wait it out. After all it was beginning to smell ripe. There is a saying that you can’t hide a chakka – its presence is revealed by the smell pervading the house.

In a couple of days the smell of the fruit filled the house, arousing elusive memories in me.Our helper Saroja was roped in to help with the procedure of separating the fleshy segments/bulbs enclosing the seeds (chakka kottai). The first one was taken out for tasting – and it was just too sweet – unbelievable. Ma and Saroja managed to separate all the sweet pieces. I hung around ornamentally, taking pictures, happy to be an also ran. We put some aside to eat, and to share with my friends at the next music practice. The rest Ma decided to make into chakka varatti. Her enthusiasm was greater than her discomfort from a painful shoulder, and she made it in no time. It was as good as what my grandmother used to make.

And the seeds are now waiting to be cooked into another delicacy – the mezhukku varatti.

A happy coincidence was seeing Mr. Abraham Tharakan’s post about jackfruit on the day I brought this one home.

Monday, 23 June 2008

'BELLS ON HER TOES'

I have just got myself a new pair of metti - or toe rings - my favourite item of jewellery. The ones I bought now are a largish, heavy pair, which will reverberate with gentle clunks whenever my feet touch the ground. Sheer indulgence.

Traditionally toe rings come in sets of pairs, two to each toe. Married women wear these silver rings on the second toe of both feet to proclaim their matrimonial status - rather like the mangalasutra. It is said to have the additional virtue of absorbing any transgression (paap/paavam) on the part of the wife, if her foot falls on the husband unintentionally at any time ( am not giving any ideas to angry wives). Today the toe ring has become a fashion accessory.

One of the sweetest stories about toe rings I have read is one from the Ramayana. Rama and Lakshmana are wandering around in the forests looking for Sita, who has been abducted by Ravana. A vanara comes to them carrying some jewels and asks them if they belong to Sita. Rama asks Lakshmana if he can recognize them. Lakshmana answers he can recognize only the toe rings, he has never raised his eyes to look beyond Sita’s feet!

I have worn my way through several pairs of toe rings. My first set was obviously worn on my wedding day. It was a pretty pair with the rings not smooth, but twisted in a plait, and had three little bells on each pair, which tinkled sweetly each time I took a step. Very, very bridal. But the toe rings had this habit of slipping off my toes when I wore them with sandals, and getting catapulted two feet away, possibly because of the straps of the sandals. One evening when we went out this happened once too often, and I pulled them off, and as I wasn’t carrying a handbag, asked my husband to put them in his pocket. He promptly refused, saying he could not possibly put in his pocket anything I had worn on my feet. “You will be asking me to put your slippers in my pocket, next!” he grumbled.

Soon the bells fell off, one by one, and I did not like to wear the toe rings with just the vacant little loop. So I exchanged them for a plain pair. I cannot remember a time when I have not worn them - except maybe for the couple of years we were in Manchester in the early 1970s – they did not fit comfortably under the shoes I had to wear. Over the years, the toe rings did wear out, and I kept exchanging them. After all, wearing toe rings is said to be good for the wearer's heart.

On one occasion, I had decided to get them replaced just before Diwali, 1975. I chose the traditional pattern of plain pairs of rings, and tried them on in the shop. They seemed a tight fit, but the assistant assured me that it would get looser and so I walked away with the pair. I wore them the day before Diwali, and they did feel a bit tight, but I did not think much of it.

By evening my toes had started to swell and hurt quite a bit, and I decided to take them off. I had to attend my friend Nalini’s dance performance that evening, and I did not fancy enduring pain instead of enjoying the performance. But when I tried to pull them off, they wouldn’t budge! I could rotate them gently bit by bit on my toes, but pull them out I could not. I decided that I would wear them - and bear the pain. And so I limped my way to the event, and while Nalini danced on her henna painted toes on the stage, I went through a series of toe tapping all my own in the audience.

Back home, we had another session of let-us-remove-Raji’s-metti. It was my niece’s first Diwali after her wedding, and there was quite a motley group at home. Everyone was helpful and free with suggestions. Maybe a couple of them grumbled – why did she have to change her mettis NOW? But mostly there were positive ideas – one said use soap - we had already tried this basic method and it had not worked. Another said pull them out by force. My husband had a brainwave - run some twine under the rings and then pull. It took some time to coax the twine under the rings, but after about 10 minutes of manouevering it was done. He pulled it out and grabbing both ends pulled hard. The toe rings came with the twine, to me it seemed my toes too had, so agonizing was the pain. But the relief after it came out! Now we had to pull out the other pair. But no amount of manipulating allowed the twine to go under the rings. The rings were simply too tight on this toe.

“Let us continue tomorrow, it is too late today,” said my husband, as though it was a cricket match. So the next day, after the ritual oil - bath and sweet eating of Diwali, we tried to work on the toe rings again. I did not dare complain of the pain, which was quite bad. The toe had itself turned a kind of deep blue, and the general opinion was that I should go to a doctor now. And so I limped, and my husband walked, to the nearest doctor who was open on Diwali morning – Dr. Ravindra Padmanabhan. I had been to him a couple of times when the children had minor ailments. I was extremely embarrassed to tell him the problem – alas! what pains we women subject ourselves to just for the sake of adornment.

He looked at my toe, and tried to prise open the rings – the toe rings are left unsealed and can always be forced open or closed, to adjust the size, but preferably without the toe inside – but that did not work. He then told us to come to his house in an hour when he would be back there. “My father’s tools would be a better bet,” he said. “He is an engineer.” I trembled – what ‘tools’? An hour later while I sat in trepidation at his place, he sterilized a pair of pliers borrowed from his father’s toolbox, anaesthetized my toe, and after a brief struggle broke off the toe rings, and pulled them off. The relief was so great, I nearly fainted.

The experience did not stop me from wearing metti. I waited for everyone to forget the incident, and went to the jewellers’ to get another pair. This time I made sure they were of the proper size.

And now I am looking at anklets, which I have never worn before.

ILAVAZHAGI - A FOLLOW UP

In an earlier post I had written about Ilavazhagi the world carrom champ.
Today’s Hindu, the Chennai Metroplus section, has published a detailed piece on her, with a charming portrait. Read here.

The online edition of business newspaper Mint, published from New Delhi carried a piece on a Tamilnadu carrom training club, which highlights Ilavazhagi’s success. See this here.

Friday, 20 June 2008

CENTENARY - AMMA WOULD HAVE BEEN 100 TODAY

Amma and Appa in the 1960s

June 19, 2008. Today is the 100th birth anniversary of my mother-in-law. The English date is not known, but we know that she was born in 1908, in the month of Aani (June15 – to July 15), under the star Moolam.

At birth she was named Narayani, and at the time of her wedding, it was changed to Parvathi. I had once mentioned to her how well her name matched with my father-in-law’s, which was Paramasivam. It was then that she told me how it was changed – it was a fairly common practice then, she said.

She was born near Thanjavur in 1908, and after her marriage in 1921 settled down in Kozhikode in Kerala, where her husband practised as a Chartered Accountant. He belonged to Madurai and had studied in Madras, before moving to Kerala to practice. In fact, he was known as ‘Auditor’. Till 1976 they lived in Kozhikode, when they moved to Madras to be with their children. My husband is their third son and seventh child – they had five sons and five daughters. Two of his brothers also lived, and still do, in Madras.

Amma was a strong personality, and extremely efficient. With Appa busy with his auditing work and running of his estates, she managed the family herself, taking care of all occasions, and bringing up the children. Soon after I got married in 1967, I spent six months with them in Kozhikode, while my husband was in Madras. That was a great opportunity for me to get to know both of them, and to develop the strong bond with her that lasted till she died.

It was rather quiet for me to be there with no one except Amma and Appa, and the youngest brother who went to the REC there. I am the eldest in my family and at the time of my marriage, we were a noisy houseful in Delhi with my four young brothers and sisters, and my father’s parents. It was a kind of culture shock also – the lifestyle was so far removed from the one I was used to - right from the lack of running water to having to cook on mud stoves with firewood. But Amma’s affection and consideration made me feel at home and comfortable, and she made sure that I did not pine for my parents or home. She spent a lot of time talking to me about the family, relating various incidents and anecdotes, and I had the privilege of looking at some skeletons in the closet, too. She sent me to music classes, and made sure I got my quota of entertainment by asking my brother-in-law to take me to an occasional movie.

Amma had this wonderful capacity to include all who came in her ambit into the circle of her affection – extended families, friends of friends, neighbours and passing visitors. Everyone who met her could not but feel that warmth and sincerity.

When her husband passed away in 1983, a part of her died. (This picture was taken in August 1982).Later in the year, when her daughter died from cancer, she was grief-stricken, but somehow found the inner strength to rally round and make practical decisions for the bereaved son-in-law and grandson. Those decisions charted the way to a bright future for the grandson who was barely 20 then.

With the next generation taking over the running of the house and managing domestic chores, and her grandchildren grown up, Amma spent a lot of time in pooja and reading books – religious and others. She approved of education for women and had progressive views on working women. She admired Indira Gandhi greatly for her strength and ability to run the country. Amma taught the domestic help how to read and write, setting aside a particular time of the day for that. With a ruler in hand she taught the then 40 plus Muniyamma the Thamizh alphabet, and then to read and write. Today Muniyamma reads the Thamizh newspaper comfortably and is aware of ‘naattu nadappu’ (goings-on in the country) as she calls it.

Amma had some strong old-fashioned views on other matters. She did not care for youngsters in the family going and settling abroad after studying there. Her first son had moved to the USA in 1970s, and she had never thought much of that decision. But she went with the flow, while making her stance clear. When a couple of grandchildren chose their own life-partners, she was no less vehement. She blamed the parents for not arranging the children’s marriages in good time.

My husband encouraged her to write her biography, which she did over the years. She wrote in Thamizh about her life from the time of her birth to 1978, when the 80th birthday of Appa was celebrated. We made copies and shared it.

She could not attend my son’s wedding in Trivandrum in 1996, because of a fracture she had sustained a couple of years ago. But she held the fort here, and had everything organised for the post wedding ceremonies like the sumangali prarthanai, and the reception.

Throughout her life she enjoyed good health, suffering only from occasional bouts of migraine - and that one fracture in her old age. Unfortunately in 1997, when she was 89, she developed breast cancer. She recovered after surgery, but died a few months later. She had seen her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and in some cases her grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Friday, 13 June 2008

AN ACTOR AND A SCHOOL TEXT BOOK

Rupees 17 crore – this is what actor Rajnikanth is paid for a movie today, if news reports are to be believed. And this, in a country where crores of people have not seen ten Rs. 10 together at the same time. A fine imbalance.

Actors somehow manage to stay in the news one way or another – either they create the news, or the media creates some hype. The current news is Kamalahaasan’s ‘Dasavatharam’, in which he plays ten different roles (one-upmanship? Sivaji Ganesan donned nine roles for ‘Navarathri’). There are cases filed to stop the release of the film which, the petitioners say, contain scenes that hurt their religious sentiments.

And then there was that audio release some weeks ago of the picture for which Rs. 6 crore (that C word again) was reportedly spent. Jackie Chan participated in the event (he was flown over at heaven knows whose expense), over which the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi presided, sharing the dais with glamorously clad starlets (this created a furor on its own). While the intelligentsia mourned the fact that a busy head of state spent his valuable time at an event like this, the wits wisecracked that it was not really Jackie Chan who came, but Kamalahaasan in yet another disguise.

A recent piece which caught my attention was about the inclusion of Rajnikanth’s life story, a rags to riches story (he was a bus conductor in his earlier avatar, before becoming a film institute student) in the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) English text book for Std. VI. The lesson, it is said, has been included to highlight the dignity of labour. What is strange is that this decision comes from the Central Government and not the film-crazed local government, where movies and politics have become conjoined, like Siamese twins. Now, I am a film buff and love Rajnikanth movies and his style. But that is as an actor. I do not know in what way he has contributed specially (apart from making his fortune and more) to the country, or its people. Maybe he is one of those who does it all in private, without letting the public know.

Kalki, a Thamizh weekly took a survey to find out the public’s response to the CBSE decision. Most have condemned the selection, for they say that while they like him as an entertainer and actor, there is little justification for his life story to be included as an example to formative young minds. One of them says that Rajnikanth himself may not like the idea. Columnist Gnani says that if at all the story of an actor/film person has to be included, it must be someone like Sivaji Ganesan or director Sridhar, who have contributed substantially to the progress of Thamizh cinema. Another says it is sheer madness – what has Rajnikanth done apart from following his impulse to become an actor, and succeeding in that? Why not choose the story of Abdul Kalam,(see picture) asked my friend. This man who rose from humble origins to hold the highest office in the country apart from being a respected scientist is an example children would do well to emulate.

There is hope for us if many feel this way.

But it is a sad sign that moviegoers spend fortunes to see these ageing superstars (see picture below) cavorting and carousing with charming teenage starlets young enough to be their granddaughters.

Kamalahaasan and Rajnikanth
Courtesy: rediff.com

Thursday, 12 June 2008

AFTER THE RAINS

Yesterday evening the skies opened, and brought to the hot and thirsty city glorious relief! The temperature has fallen and the pleasantly cool ambience envelops us. I am totally in empathy with the peacock that dances when the monsoon clouds come with promise of rain – had I a plumage wonderful enough to display, I too would have spread it and tripped the light fantastic in the downpour.
This is an oft-used metaphor in Hindi film songs (the extent of my knowledge of Hindi poetry is nil). And there are so many of those songs, celebrating the rains.Baarish, Barsaat, Saawan....

The trees and leaves have been washed clear of the roadside dust,
and the leaves glisten with trembling globules of water, waiting to drop off. Alas, we have no flowers in our grounds, only trees. And one solitary hibiscus bush. But what flowers we have were placed on the balcony to be washed clean - the artificial flowers created out of silk look as good as new after their spell in the shower.

At times the strong wind slammed the doors and rattled the window frames. But nothing will stop my husband from taking his evening walk, not even the rains. He went out armed with his ‘wimbrella’. My son’s boss who gave it to him had said that it could hold its own against the strongest wind. And that claim was proved, said my husband on his return.

....and here is one of the rain songs I love, fresh even after nearly half a century. Rimjhim, from 'Kala Bazaar', with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, and sung by Mohammed Rafi and Geeta Dutt.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

THE RELUCTANT INTRUDER

He was so scared to see us standing there - my husband, me and our domestic helper, broom in hand. He was only a little fellow, and we looked at him silently, while his eyes darted here and there, seeking some means of escape. We were equally alarmed, but sorry for him, too; he was so young. Should we try to catch him or let him off, we wondered.

We debated amongst ourselves, and decided it would be less cruel to keep him. Though my helper said it would be best to let him go.

As my husband approached him hand outstretched, he let off such a salvo, that my husband halted in his tracks, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. At that stage I don’t know who was more scared, the little fellow or me.

Still giving off those alarmingly high-pitched squeaks, he scampered off to hide behind the cupboard. My maid went after him with her broom, and we told her to let him be, and come out when he wanted. He was so small, and we could not help feeling sorry for him. I went to look at him behind the cupboard, and saw a pair of beady eyes glinting, and his raised tail swishing.

My husband said that he must have come in from the balcony. And we went out to check. We decided the little squirrel must have fallen out of some tree on to the balcony, (see picture) and frightened by the crows into scampering inside.

When a little later we decided to feed him, we could not find him behind the cupboard. We found him in another room. As soon as he saw us approaching he scuttled off again into hiding. We then decided to leave the door to the balcony open, so he could find his way out. Encouraging squirrels to stay inside the house was not one of our priorities – they have in previous instances found a convenient hiding place in the air conditioner, nibbled through expensive clothes and soft curtains to make nests, and built those nests inside the washing machine, a defunct radio cabinet and even an unused brass vessel in the loft.

Eventually, in various stages he went out to the balcony and from there to the ground below. We kept tabs on him, but we could not find him later, and assume that he would have gone back to where he came from.

When I narrated this episode on the phone to my almost-four granddaughter, she asked, “What about his Amma and Appa? Did they not come to take him home?”

The perspective of a child, so far removed from the adult’s selfishness. I was silenced.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

THOSE COXCOMBS!

After an enforced hiatus, caused by a malingering PC, I really have not got back into the swing of writing for the blog. But these beauties are just right to break the spell, and here I am.


The Celosias here are from Gardenia’s garden (photographs by Gardenia). They look and feel like velvet, (click on pictures to enlarge) and are also called cockscomb, because they look like the crest of a rooster. An appropriate word for them.

The dictionary definition of cockscomb is : a vain, showy fellow; a conceited, silly man, fond of display. Equally applicable!

Sociable