Monday, October 21, 2013

A Brief Spell Of Spring 2

 Continued from here

The phone never rang unless it was to announce someone's death. Its loud piercing shriek broke through the thick afternoon listlessness. Vatsala raised herself from the chair resting both her hands on the handle, her knees protesting under the strain. She must remember to call Dr. Rajaram for a check-up – perhaps tomorrow, if she can remember it. Now, who could be calling them at this godforsaken hour? She mentally lined up all the possible relatives who could have died and creased her forehead in preparation for the impending bad news. “Hello?”, she said tentatively. Answering the phone always reminded her of opening a handwritten letter – the envelope held such promise. “Hello?”, she repeated, her eagerness mounting.
“Vatsala akka, is that you?”
“Yes, it's me. And you are...”
“Akka, naan thaan. Srividya. Lalli oda thangai. Saroja oda ponnu...America-lendhu phone pannaren.”
“Yaaru? Srividya-va? How are you? I am fine, I am fine, thank you”, blurted Vatsala all in one go.
“I am fine too, Akka. How are you?”
“I am fine, I am fine, nee sollu...”
The conversation stalled briefly now that the pleasantries had been exhausted a little too quickly.
“I'm fine, Akka. Hope Raji Akka is keeping well...I'm actually calling you about a little favour. My son Aditya is coming to India for a research project and I wanted to know if he can stay in your house for a little while...it's only till he finds a more permanent accommodation.”

Vatsala took a second to update her mental images. She still thought of Srividya as the stick thin 10 year old who was too meek to speak up and always hid behind her elder sister. She could never recall a single distinguishing thing the girl had done or said in the decade or so the sisters had come to learn Bharathanatyam from them. And now, she was talking from America and she had a son who was old enough to do some kind of a research and all this was moving too quickly for Vatsala to keep pace. She heard herself saying yes, yes, a few times and then making a note of the date that Aditya (or was it Abhishek? All these names sounded the same to her. 'That boy' was how she would refer to him from now onwards) would arrive.

Just as she hung up the phone, she heard Raji call out from her room. Raji would be full of questions. Who was calling and what they had wanted. Vatsala decided that she would be careful in revealing the details from the conversation. She would only tell her that an old student of theirs had called from America. But Vatsala wasn't sure what to say if Raji were to ask what the call was about. She would think of something on the spot. Or perhaps it was just easier telling her the whole story. But then, there's no saying how Raji would react. She was fully capable of asking Vatsala to call Srividya in America and retreat the offer. She would have to play this one carefully, Vatsala decided making her way to the kitchen.

“Who was on the phone?”, repeated Raji. A slight edginess had crept into her voice. These days she was quick to anger and often accused Vatsala of keeping secrets from her. Lately, Vatsala had noticed Raji mumbling to herself and once, Raji had become so agitated in the middle of the night, she had started banging on the front door because she had thought that Vatsala had locked her up and gone away.

“You remember Srividya?”, began Vatsala handing her older sister a tumbler of coffee. There's nothing a spot of afternoon coffee would not smoothen, she knew.

(to be continued)

please note: thanks for your patience with this story. I will be more regular with the installments.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Tasteless Promotions - A Contest

Recently, I came across a promotion by an Indian radio station. They were giving away pepper sprays for free in the wake of Delhi gang-rape incident and subsequent gang-rape of a journalist in Mumbai. The pepper sprays had been very catchily rebranded Mirchi Spray. The radio station is called Mirchi, pepper is Mirchi and therefore - Mirchi spray!

Women across the country were shocked by what had happened, turning hysterical and were keen to protect themselves from potential assaults. And who comes to their aid? Mirchi Spray! A woman's friend and ever-reliable in a world full of callous, brutal rapists. Mirchi spray - always at hand to protect the most vulnerable. What perfect brand synergy! Mirchi would be seen as caring, empowering and this was an ideal opportunity to promote its values.

It was as if the gods of marketing had themselves designed these gang-rapes so brands such as Radio Mirchi could piggy back on it to add more sheen to their halo. As if they hadn't been exploited enough, the women now provided the raw material for Mirchi's salvation.

In the spirit of 'Let No Tragedy Go Unexploited', I am running a contest. Here's one I thought of earlier. Imagine Nike promoting its shoes using Syrian refugees.

 Can you think of other, more tasteless brand promotions? The Holocaust? The Rwandan genocide? What about the thousands of dowry deaths that regularly get reported in our Indian newspapers but rarely grab the attention of Indian advertisers? Perhaps there's a gold mine of opportunity waiting to be tapped into.

Please get working, the more crass and exploitative, the better. Send your entries to ammania@gmail.com marking 'Ugly Brands' in your subject line. Alternatively, if you have a blog, post it there and leave a link on the comment section. You have till the end of September to send in your entries - I'm sure there will be whole lot more devastation by then for you to take advantage of. All entries will be published here and the best one will get a wholly inappropriate prize.

 Here's to more tacky brand promotions!

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Brief Spell Of Spring

It would have to be கத்திரிக்காய் again, sighed Vatsala. The புடலங்காய் and the பாவக்காய் were in season and would have made an excellent curry for their lunch that afternoon. But no, Rajeshwari had ruled thaத புடலங்காய் caused her to suffer from wind and பாவக்காய் was just not bitter enough these days. So it would have to be கத்திரிக்காய் yet again. There was no point suggesting anything to her. Once Raji had made up her mind, that was it. She would not be budged. And that's how it has always been between them.

Rajeshwari would decide which channel played on tv, what colour the living room wall should be painted (copper sulphate blue) and how much to pay for the கத்திரிக்காய் that they were going to eat later that morning. The sisters had been coming to the vegetable market every day for the last 50 years but Raji would never tire of talking the price down by another 50 paisa. 

இருக்கட்டுமே, pleaded Vatsala feebly, it is only small amount. How much profit do you think she is going to make from selling a few old கத்திரிக்காய்s to us?

நீ சும்மா இரு, said her older sister with the same decisive sterness with which she had been conducting their patchwork family. You have no idea about money matters, let me decide how much these old கத்திரிக்காய்s are worth.

Vatsala watched as Raji counted out the coins, letting them drop into the shrivelled hands of the vegetable vendor. Vatsala noticed that the hands remained outstretched long after Raji had stopped dropping the coins and had zipped up her purse. She let her older sister walk ahead and remained near the stall which was piled high with the season's best vegetables. 

“I'm just picking up some கறிவேப்பிலை you carry on.”, Vatsala called out to her sister who was already crossing the street to get back home. She then carefully untied the little knot in her pudavai thalappu that held a some coins and a few well-creased currency notes. From this pitiful treasure chest, she pulled out a small stack of coins and eased them into the vendor's hands and quickened her strides to catch up with her sister. Raji would already be wondering what was taking her so long.

(to be continued)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tide - 27

Part - 27


The woman Padmaja spots in the far corner of the music hall looks familiar. The hair is the same as she remembers, only it has grown wispier and more threadbare in the intervening years. The woman wears a saree that seems to have been hastily draped like a giftwrapper that's too big for a small parcel - bunched up here, crumpled there. But did someone just refer to her as Dr. Gulati? Padmaja hears the woman's throaty laugh and that clears the last of her doubts about her identity. As if on cue, the woman too recognises Padmaja and quickly peels away to get closer.

“Padmaja! How are you dee?”, Sudha demands hugging her.

“Sudha, how are you? You're now Dr. Gulati?”

“Yes, Punjabi husband. Kept the name, lost the man. You look the same.”

Sudha is a professor of Anthropology at a University in Delhi and she is in town for a conference with her American friend Brad.

“Come visit me in Delhi, Padmaja. My project will be over soon and once Brad goes back...”

Seeing Padmaja's raised eyebrows, Sudha elaborates.

“It's not how you think it is, with me and Brad. I can't handle anything permanent, you know.” Her voice softens, her mind easing from the frenetic present to a distant past. “Padmaja, you are one of the few people who remember the old days, how things used to be. As I grow older, I find myself missing that. Come stay with me.”

There is a pleading earnestness in her eyes as she grips Padmaja with both hands. The screeching microphone signals the beginning of the concert. The friends exchange contact details, promise to stay in touch and settle into their places.

Padmaja sinks into the comfort of her seat and closes her eyes to the strains of the thambura.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”

Reluctantly, Padmaja opens her eyes to see a man - bright white cotton shirt, veshti crisply fresh, horn-rimmed glasses that subtly scream wealth - standing beside her.

“No, it's free.”

On stage, Sanjay Subramaniam begins his alaapanai in Kalyani. For once, everthing in that mercilessly shrill city is still.

-@-
(concluded)

Tide - 26

Part - 26


“When I was little, my mother used to talk about someone called Ammani athai”, Padmaja begins while attempting to reduce the volume on the car stereo. Saktivel deftly twists the dial to zero and in the hum of the car's airconditioner, Padmaja continues.

“Ammani athai was my mother's aunt who never married and lived with her brother - my mother's father and his family - until the day she died. Amma would bring up Ammani athai's name whenever she would tell us about the perils of not marrying young and the dangers of growing old lonely. My mother used to say that we all need to get married so we can grow old with someone.”

“We all fear that.”

Padmaja shook her head.

“You see, loneliness has nothing to do with being around people or not. My mother was wrong about Ammani athai. She was old but she was far from lonely.”

Padmaja turns the volume dial so car is filled with sounds from the radio.

“Doctor, if you can drop me off at the next bus stop, I should be able to reach home before it gets too dark. I hope you find the right saree for your daughter-in-law.”

(to be concluded)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tide - 25

Part - 25


“Let me do that”, he says taking the light bulb forcibly from her hands.

The light has blown a fuse that evening when Dr. Saktivel has dropped by at Padmaja's flat on his way back from a late meeting at the hospital where he is a consultant.

Padmaja drags a step ladder but Dr. Saktivel (“please call me Sakti, like everyone does”) insists that he is too tall for it and instead just raises himself on his tiptoes while trying to screw the bulb into the groove. The bulb slips out of his hands, landing on the floor into a thousand scatterings.

“Sorry, sorry, I'm much more trouble than help.”

Padmaja does her best to reassure him but he wouldn't be pacified. And in an attempt to redeem himself, he offers to fix the light bulb properly this time. He gingerly climbs on top of a dining chair (“Please listen, I don't need a step ladder. I'm too tall for it, really.”), holds its back to steady himself, stretches to his full height and inspects the job he has on hand. Padmaja passes him the light bulb from below which he now attempts to rotate into place.

“Can you turn the switch on?”

When the light glows, she can see his face glistening with satisfaction from a job well done. He lowers his tall frame gradually, bending his knees and feeling for the floor as steps down.

“How's that?”, he demands dusting his hands and pushing the chair back into place. The mobile phone rings. Seems his driver is back after filling up petrol in the car, he must leave now. Dr. Saktivel apologises again for the mess he has caused while Padmaja tells him to think nothing of it. He picks his way of the flat still littered with shards of broken glass bulb. 

Padmaja brings out the broom and dustpan and begins sweeping out the metallic crumbs from the floor. With her guest now gone, her shoulders slump, her jaw relaxes, her fists unclench, her lungs expand as she begins to breathe.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tide - 24

Part - 24


They are sitting in an auditorium as it begins to fill up, soon it will be swarming. Good thing they were able to get in early and settle into the best seats.

“That there is Samyuktha's mother”, says Sanjana pointing out to a someone a couple of rows in front of them, adding quickly, “don't look, don't look, Amma. I don't want to be asking her how she is and then have to listen to all the details of her father-in-law's hernia operation.”.

“Remind me once again what's Tara's role in the play?”, asks Padmaja looking away as directed by her daughter.

“She's playing Soorpanakai. Guess who's got the prized role of Seethai? Yes, Samyuktha, of course.”

“I'd rather she was a feisty Soorpanakai than a placid Seethai, any day.”

Soon the bustle dims, the lights mute, the curtains heave and the musical commences. Tara has transformed herself as Ravana's fabled younger sister. With her hair unbound, her face tear streaked, Tara conveys the rage of one who had been mistreated. How could she know what it's like to have been insulted and undermined by a man? Has she been mining anger from another life? Her wound is raw and her pain real for all to see. She collapses on stage, her anger spent, her small body limp. The audience, still rooted in the moment remains frozen until a discreet cough from the headmistress breaks the spell to a huge clatter of applause.

Sanjana observes her mother joyous, her eyes shining with tears threatening to spill over.

“Amma, Tara has been telling me about someone called Dr. Vel-something. Would you like to invite him for dinner one day so I can meet him as well?”

Still clapping, Padmaja turns to look at her daughter. The tears are no longer restrained.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tide - 23

Part- 23


Out of nowhere, a memory comes unbidden. Padmaja is newly-married and she is visiting a temple along with a clamour of uncles and aunts and their children. They were to travel eight hours in a dusty bus to reach a far out temple in a distant village where the ancestors once lived. All through the journey, Padmaja sits next to Sudha, a 16-year old girl from her husband's family. Sudha is a thin girl with clothes that seem to float around her. Her wiry, windblown hair defies any attempt to be subdued into a plait. Her face bears a scowl throughout the bus ride and when she smiles, her frown remains frozen while the lower half of her face thaws into mobility.

“I don't care for this trip, I just want to go home”, Sudha mutters as they ease out of the bus for a toilet break. The men stand with their backs to the bus, urinating luxuriously on a dilapidated wall as the women shuffle out quickly, looking for a semi-private space so they may squat quickly and discreetly.

“You think I want to be here? She dragged me along”, she says pointing to her mother emerging from a thicket not far from where they were crouching.

Not sure how to react to this confession, Padmaja laughs, “You're probably just feeling tired. I'm sure you don't mean that.”

“Of course, I mean it. I don't give a shit about this temple or that.”

The girl had sworn. Until then Padmaja had never heard anyone swear while in conversation with her. Hearing it spat out of a young girl's mouth like that seems odd and yet, honest, affirmative.

“What?”, asks Padmaja as if seeking clarification but wanting to hear the illicit thrill of a swear word again.

“I care a damn about this lot”, says Sudha pointing in the direction of the huddle heading for the bus. “Soon, I'll leave this godforsaken country, go abroad and do whatever the heck I want to.”

As they rise to their feet, stepping aside from their own puddles, smoothing their skirt and saree, Sudha nudges Padmaja with her elbow, “I bet half of them hate this bloody trip as well. They just don't dare admit to it.”

Emboldened by having been admitted into Sudha's circle of accomplices, Padmaja permits herself a singular thought: I don't either. But I have no choice.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Tide - 22

Part - 22

“How old were you when this photo was taken, paati?”

The school had been flooded and Tara was there to spend the day with her grandmother before being collected by her mother on her way back home.

“Let me see, it was taken a week after we got married...I was very young at that time.”

“You look so different then”

“It was a long, long time ago”

“Was yours an arranged marriage or a love marriage, paati?”

“We did not have anything called love marriage back then. It was only invented after people started watching movies.”

A long time ago, when Padmaja was a young girl but not quite a woman, an aunt had once remarked, “poor thing, at this rate he will have to be very blind to marry her” and her mother had laughed along with everyone else. Later that night, lying next to Padmaja, her mother had held her hand tight and whispered that she did not want to offend her aunt and not laugh at her jokes, especially since she had been so kind in lending them some money to tide over tough times. Some day, her mother promised, a wonderful prince with a moustache would come to marry her and then they will both laugh at her aunt.

Padmaja did not share her conviction. In the mirror she saw reflected a square jaw and eyebrows that knitted too closely together, even though she tried hard to maintain that look of surprise that kept them apart. At fifteen, she was the shortest of her friends and had still not grown breasts. She feigned indifference when her classmates talked of boys who had written love letters to them. She really did not need them, especially since they only served to distract her from what she was good at. And what she was good at was studies. Love and marriage was for those who did not have much else to do. Sometimes though, she wished that her mother would disagree with her and repeat the story about the prince with a moustache, but she never did.

“Let's be honest, Paddu”, Amma began one day some years later, and even before she had finished speaking, Padmaja instinctively knew what was going to be asked of her. Talking to her mother was like climbing a familiar flight of stairs in the dark, Padmaja could tell where the next step was going to be well before she got there. “This boy is from a good family and he does not seem very particular about how his wife should look. If he agrees to this match, I don't think you should protest too much. Remember, it may not happen again.”

So when it was announced that she was to marry, it surprised everyone, including Padmaja. It seemed like the story starring herself had already been written and now the pages were turning. So it must be, she reasoned. So it must be.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Tide - 21

Part - 21


“I was going to tell you that my car brokedown nearby. Then I thought that sounded feeble as an excuse, even to my own ears. Then I thought I'd tell you that I was just passing by and thought I'd drop in to see how you were. We are both well past that age of pretending, aren't we? Truth is, I have nothing to do today, so I just decided to knock on your door. Are you okay, Padmaja? I'm sorry if I disturbed you or something. I could always come back another time, you know.”

“No, no, not at all. Please do come in. That's my grand-daughter Tara. Say hello to Dr. Saktivel, Tara. Would you like some coffee, Dr.?”

Friday, December 07, 2012

Tide - 20

Part - 20

“Padma, you know the doctor you told me about? Dr. Velmurgan or something”

“You know very well what his name is, Kamakshi”

“I mean, Dr. Saktivel”

“Yes, what about him?”

“You know the knee pain I have been telling you about? It seems to have worsened this last week. Look, I can barely get to the door without wincing”

“You were absolutely fine till last night when we went walking around the block”

“It has gotten worse overnight, Padma, really. Why would I lie to you?”

“Yes, why would you lie to me?”

“So, will you take me to meet this Dr. Saktivel tomorrow? Before 9 am or after 11 am, preferably. It is Amavasai, auspicious day”

“He is a peadiatrician, Kamakshi”

“Oh, that's okay. He's still a doctor. Shall we go then?”

“No”


“Hello, Padma? It's only me, Kamakshi. Do you remember Jayalakshmi from D block, ground floor? Yes, the fat one with glasses. Yes, the same one whose daughter eloped with her tuition master. You know her, don't you? It seems her grandson has had persistent cough and cold for more than a month now. I told her that I know one of the best peadiatricians in the country. Do you think you can give me Dr. Saktivel's number so I can pass it on to her? No? Why not? No, no, you cannot give it to her yourself. Jaya is...Jaya is...sort of not in the country at the moment. She's gone to America to visit her son. Yes, she called me from America this morning and asked me for a paediatrician...hello? Padma? Padma? Can you hear me? Che! These telephone lines can't withstand even a tiny bit of rain. Wait, let me come around and knock on your door.”

--

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Tide - 19


Part - 19

Saktivel had married Srivalli, a girl chosen by his parents. They had had two sons who were now 32 and 30 respectively. When the children were just 9 and 7, their mother had met with an accident that took away her life instantly. The next two decades, Saktivel juggled his work with bringing up his boys – it helped that his parents were with him but the pain of losing his wife never really went away. It was only a couple of years ago, now that both his sons had families of their own, that he has started to look at his own life.

“I was surprised you asked me in for coffee”, he says, gathering crumbs with his finger tip from the small plate that had not long ago, held some biscuits.

Padmaja does not know what to say and instead bites into a large chunk of biscuit, nibbling which she wonders how to respond to the statement.

The conversation had progressed naturally up until that point. They had each in turn updated the other on their lives and those of their family members. Saktivel knew her brother Nandu had passed away in '91 and he seemed to have heard about her marriage, subsequent widowhood (what a god awful word!) and Sanjana too.

“I was pretty certain you had mistaken me for someone else, because if you had recognised me you would have turned around and walked away the minute you spotted me”, Saktivel continues unaware that that had precisely been Padmaja's intentions.

“I'm surprised Padmaja, that you agreed to meet me after what happened all those years ago.”

“Hmm? What? What happened all those years ago?”

“You know”, says Saktivel, “with the marriage proposal and everything.”

“Whose marriage proposal?”

“Mine.”

“And?”

“Yours.”

“Yours and mine? Marriage? To each other?”

“Why? Don't you remember? When I asked your mother if I could marry you. And she said that you were not interested.”

Seeing the look of utter incomprehension on Padmaja's face, Saktivel decides to elaborate. It turns out he had asked Padmaja's mother for her daughter's hand in marriage and after some days, the mother had conveyed to him that Padamaja did not see Saktivel as a husband but as a brother and had to politely decline his proposal.

“I never knew of your proposal, I'm so sorry”, says Padmaja when she can finally bring herself to speak. “Amma never told me anything about it.”

“But she insisted that...”

“It is possible that Amma didn't think we were a good match. You know our families...”

“I know, but your mother said that you couldn't see me as your husband.”

“I wouldn't have said that.”

“Did you think I would have been a good husband for you?”

Padmaja didn't seem to hear the question.

“Do you mean, all these years you've been thinking that I turned down your marriage proposal?”

For a while the only sound you could hear is the too-loud ticking of the clock. Eventually, Saktivel rises from the sofa scattering biscuit crumbs as he stands up.

“I'd better go now. Thank you for the coffee, Padmaja”

It's only when the door shuts behind Saktivel that Padmaja realises that she still doesn't have the pressure cooker valve. She would have to speak to Kamakshi now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Tide - 18


Part - 18
When she is by herself, Padmaja does not bother cooking elaborate meals. Often it is just some rice and vegetable. But when Tara comes over, Padmaja brings out her big pressure cooker and the last time she cooked with it, the steam had escaped and it had burnt the bottom of the pan. She had needed a pressure cooker valve and she had gone down to the store to get a new one.

It was her idea of hell. Shopping for a pressure cooker valve in a shop like this one. She wants to stop each and every single one of them and ask them if they really, really needed what they had just bought. Like that slick young man in tight trousers and purple t-shirt. 'Thambi, do you have a big enough kitchen for that vaanali? What will you use it for? Who is it for? Can you cook?'. Or that elderly couple looking at the different models of mixies. Most likely on their way to America to help with their daughter's pregnancy and shopping for a mixie suitable for the American electrical system.

For a while she just stands there watching the crowds. This was a game Padmaja used to play as a kid. If she thought about something long enough, it would come true. And for that to happen, she would have to concentrate real hard and block everything else out of her mind. It has worked before, like when she was 11 and focussed all her efforts on her right big toe so it would hurt enough for her to develop a natural limp so she should skip school that day and miss the exams she dreaded. It worked briefly and her mother had almost been convinced of it until the pain wore off and Padmaja forgot to limp. Perhaps she should just turn around and go back home and not bother buying today. The cooker wasn't half bad as it is and she could always borrow Kamakshi's cooker, if she needed it.
But for that she would have to start talking normally again to Kamakshi and god knows what new troubles that might lead to.

Can Padmaja wish for a pressure valve to magic its way to her without her having to go through the whole tiresome shopping experience? And why is the strange looking man smiling at her from the far corner of the room? Could it be one of the fathers from the school from a long time ago? Good god, he is actually approaching Padmaja. Why is she still standing there instead of making a quick getaway which will save her the embarrassment of small talk?

"Padmaja?", he asks before she can bolt.

"Yes. And you are..."

"Sakthivel. I was your brother Nandu's classmate at medical college."

"Of course! Dr. Sakthivel. How are you?"

She remembered him as the tall one with a droopy moustache with a head full of springy hair. He had lost most of his hair and the few stray strands had been shaven clean. Luckily his teeth had held and in fact, they were in remarkable condition. What was wrong with her? Why can't she just say hello and good bye instead of wondering whether a long-lost acquaintance had had dental implants or if his teeth were his own.

Padmaja cannot explain what happens in the next few minutes. However hard she tries, she comes away looking weak and feeble and desperate. So she will state the mere facts to anyone who wants to know and leave it to them to draw their own conclusions.

Dr. Saktivel asks her if she is going home and she replies yes.
Dr. Saktivel asks her if she wants a lift home and she accepts.
Padmaja invites Dr. Saktivel to come inside for a cup of coffee and he accepts.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tide - 17





Part - 17
“Are you waiting for me, Kamakshi?”, asked Padmaja a little breathless from climbing the stair case. She had never been particularly slim. But lately, she had noticed a tightening of her blouses, particularly around her upper arm that she taken to using the stairs over the lift.

“Hmm? Everything okay? Why do you want me to keep quiet? What is the matter, Kamakshi?”, Padmaja reeled off questions with mounting alarm.

“It's nothing”, hissed Kamakshi between gritted teeth guiding her neighbour by the arm away from her own door. “Come in to my house. I need to tell you something, Padmaja”.

And once inside, Kamakshi's behaviour was even more erratic. She said something about a letter and answering and now meeting someone and the man waiting for her at home.

“Where?”, demanded Padmaja.

Kamakshi silently pointed her finger at her neighhour.

“Where? In my house?”

Kamakshi nodded.

“Have you gone mad, Kamakshi? I gave you the keys in case you don't see me for days and there's an odd smell coming out of my house and you need to let yourself in without breaking the door because if I am okay, you would have ruined a perfectly good door. You don't use my key to let some stranger inside and then insist that I meet him.”

“He had written a really nice letter.”

“How did you find out?”

“Well, because you were no longer interested in this sort of thing, I...”

“You started reading my letters and replying to them as well?”

“Only the letters from the matrimonial advertisement. I only did it out of concern for you, Padma. I can ask him to leave, if you want.”

“Yes, I think you should do that.”

Padmaja stood there in the middle of Kamakshi's living room watching her go out. She heard her front door being opened and then there was muffled conversation. Padmaja stood rooted to her spot for several minutes waiting for Kamakshi to return. The sweat from her exertion was trickling down her back and Padmaja couldn't wait to get back home and wash off her fatigue. She gathered her bag and leaving Kamakshi's front door wide open for her neighbour to return to in case she hadn't taken her keys with her, Padmaja made her way back to her flat.

They were still talking inside. What could they be discussing for so long? Padmaja sighed and pushed the door open.

“Ah, there you are!”, greeted Kamakshi brightly, “I was just telling Mr. Srinivasan here...”

“Please call me Srini”, said the tall man who made Padmaja's sofa seem a little crowded.

“Namaskaram, I'm Padmaja”, she said bringing her palms together to greet.

“I was just telling Srini that you should be back home any minute. What took you so long? Was there a long queue?”, quizzed Kamakshi with perfect innocence.

“I have a splitting headache. So if you don't mind I need to lie down for a bit.”

“I'm so sorry”, said Srini rising swiftly from the sofa, “I can always come back another day.”

“Yes. Why don't you do that? Now, if you will excuse me, I really have go to bed. Nice meeting you.”

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Becoming British, Being Indian


The other day I had been to the Indian High Commission in London. I had heard horror stories about the chaos and lack of order at our national HQ in the UK that I was pleasantly surprised at how organised everything was. I took my ticket, found myself a seat and got waiting. It was a long wait and as you do on when you have time weighing heavy on your hands, I got talking to the lady next to me. Mrs. Kapoor had come to the UK as a newly wed in 1969, surrendered her Indian passport when she took British citizenship in 1975 and like me, was there to get her Overseas Citizen of India card. Her siblings and other relatives were passing away regularly and she reckoned, with all the resignation of the frequently bereaved, that she could not be hanging about for a visa to go to India when she was required urgently there and that she needed a permanent visa that an overseas Indian citizenship accorded.

It was only when I had settled into my seat that I realised that I had not eaten anything since morning. Not wanting to risk being away when my token number was called, I decided to go hungry. For some strange reason (most likely hunger), I told Mrs. Kapoor how I had missed dinner the previous night and was too rushed in the morning to have anything more than a cup of tea. Now, she began with a voice of one who has been there and done precisely that, you wouldn't have forgotten to feed your children if you had brought them with you, would you? No, I wouldn't have. I would have packed food for eight children, even though I only have a couple. Shouldn't you be looking after yourself?, she continued to admonish in that tone that, in an instant took away 33 years of my life. After ensuring that I was not diabetic (if I was, I dare not admit to her for fear of more reprimand), she proceeded to fish out of her bag a packet of dry crackers and a small bar of chocolate.

Eat now, she ordered briskly brushing away my feeble protests like the crumbs from the crackers.  Tentatively I took a single biscuit. More, she cried thrusting a few more from the packet into my now unresisting hands. Food is good only when it is shared, she noted as she bit off a cracker.

A more Indian gesture could not have been made. That of offering food to strangers. I used to see it happen regularly on trains in India. I remember how for many years, my brother would go hungry on long distance trains because he used to feel awkward about eating his food alone and at the same time, he was too shy to offer it others. On a particularly bad day several years ago in Bombay, a kindly neighbour I had only known briefly, offered a whole box of 'kozhukattais' that she had made earlier and thus lifted my spirits instantly. This compulsion to feed others seems ingrained in Indians.

And there it was, my epiphany. Mrs. Kapoor and I, two Indians who had surrendered our Indian passports in favour of a British one. And yet carried on being very, very Indian in a tiny corner of London. I bit into the chocolate square that was being offered to me. It never tasted sweeter.


(I am aware that I have let Tide slide. Will get writing again soon. - a)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tide - 16

Part - 16

The drain in Sanjana's house and was going to take a good few days to be repaired. She along with daughter Tara, had temporarily packed their bags and moved in with Padmaja.

Padmaja is on her bed reading while Tara lies next to her asleep. Padmaja watches the slender frame of her grand-daughter sprawled alongside her own body. She pats down her hair with tenderness. This is the only time of the day when Tara will allow her grand-mother to baby her. “I'm eight years old, paati.”, she would complain wriggling and struggling against any attempt to cuddle her.

Padmaja can hear the television playing in the living room. Sanjana is ironing Tara's school uniform for the next day while humming along to the song playing on tv. It is about a mother's unflinching, unconditional love for her son.

'You starve while you feed me, You have no life outside of me', sings the son to his mother.

She remembers reading somewhere that the actress playing the frail old mother was only a couple of years older than the actor who plays her son.

'You are the god I worship, you are the anchor of my ship'

In another life, she would have taken a hammer to the tv screen and gloated in its destruction. For now, she looks at the gently breathing chest of her grand-daughter, wraps her arms around her and draws her in close.

Tide - 15

Part 15 
 

“Ah, it's you”, says the tall lady (Padmaja should really find out her name), “you're back. I thought you had forgotten the way to my house.”

It is a Thursday morning and Padmaja had remembered that there was to be a special bhajan celebration to mark somebody or the other's birthday.

“Look, who's here,” announces the tall lady to the assembled crowd of eight women, “it's our friend from the A block.”

Unsure how to react to this reception, Padmaja waves at the others in the room. Perhaps it would have been better to simply slink into a corner, she would recall later.

“We were expecting you at our annual trip to Shirdi.”, says the tall lady turning her attention back to Padmaja, “I had booked group tickets for all of us, including you and I had paid up front. We couldn't get in touch with you and there was no one else who was free at such a short notice. In the end, it went to waste. I ended up losing money because of you.”

“Oh”, manages Padmaja feebly, “I'm sorry.”

“In future, I would like a bit more of a commitment. I don't want people wasting my time and theirs if they are not interested.”

Padmaja settles herself at the back row and trains her eye on the wall clock willing its hands to move faster.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tide - 14


 Part - 14


For the community notice board.

Highly experienced retired primary school teacher offers FREE tuition lessons for 
children aged 7-11 in all subjects.
Hours to suit your need. 
Please contact today.

Tide - 13

Part - 13

They had painted the slide red. It used to be green to match the colour of the uniform. Red just didn't seem right in the surrounding. Did they change the uniform to red while I was away?, Padamaja panics. But the sight of the students in their green and white uniforms as they stream out of the classrooms for the morning interval (the bell had just gone), reassures her that they had not.
Lalitha teacher is in a meeting with someone from the Education department. Padmaja has been waiting for over half-an-hour and it appears that she would have to be there for much longer. Not that she minded, not at all. Some of her older students come up to her and ask after her well being. She notes that the boys have grown taller and girls more rounded. She may not recognise them next year, she remarks to herself. Though it might be that they would have forgotten her by then.

The door to Lalitha teacher's office swings open letting out a young man with a purposeful stride.

'Ah, Padmaja teacher', says Lalitha teacher catching sight of her old colleague, 'how are you? Come in , come in!'.

Laitha teacher has a new chair and she has stopped wearing glasses (how could that be? Has she converted to contact lens? May be she has had laser surgery. She was always going on about it and had promised Padmaja that she would ask her more information if she ever considered having it.)

“I'm sorry to have kept you waiting”, says Lalitha teacher as she rummages inside her handbag, “it has been one of those never-ending days. All well with you?”

“Yes, yes, teacher. I am fine, same as ever. I was just passing by and thought I would drop in to say hello.”

“Of course, teacher. You are always welcome here”, says the headmistress fishing out a pair of glasses, “thank god, they are here. I was practically blind all morning.”

“Do you have my contact details, teacher? In case you need to get in touch with me? I am available any time, even at a short notice.”, says Padmaja.

“Why don't you check with Sharadha on your way out to ensure that what we have in the records is the right address and telephone number? It have two reports to finish and send by Friday. You know how this Education department people are, teacher...”

Padmaja writes her details down in a piece of paper for the headmistress' secretary to verify. The lunch bell goes off and the students roar out of their classrooms. It must be twelve-thirty, Padmaja remarks to herself.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tide - 12

Part 12

There are things that people do when they eat out alone. Like use their mobile phone to call others they would never talk to otherwise. Or look intently into their plates, afraid that the food might run away if they took their eyes off it. Some check their watches a lot. As if to suggest to others that they are really not eating out alone. But simply waiting for someone else to join them at the table.

Padmaja never used a mobile and rarely ate out. She kept stirring her coffee until it had gone tepid and then finished it in a swift gulp. She could only vaguely remember what that man Prakash looked like. She thinks that he wears glasses and has a shiny bald head. He had a mildly expansive waistline, the kind you get from leading a good life and in the photograph that he had sent, he was laughing at a joke that had been cracked by someone beyond the camera. He seemed like the kind of person who never suffered from self-doubt. He was a couple of years older than her and had been widowed for eight years. He ran his own business and had suggested that they meet outside in a coffee shop rather than at her house.

It is the sort of coffee shop that she would never have gone out to, much less on her own. She had lingered at the entrance unsure whether to wait outside or to go in on her own. A young couple, clearly impatient to get inside, forced her to make her way through the door and find a seat for herself. It took her a few minutes to adjust to the dark interiors as she deliberated over where to sit. She didn't want to choose a table by the large glass window where everyone outside could see her and wonder what she was up to. Nor did she want go in for a secluded table, deep within the coffee shop. A sofa seemed to suggest familiarity and a table-for-two, intimacy. Finally, she picked a seat at a table, with four chairs, that was conveniently located in the middle of the cafe and was one of the few places on the floor that was brightly lit.

She has been waiting for more than an hour now. She looks around to ensure that there is no one who fits the description of the man she is waiting for. The place seems saturated with the young. She briefly considers ordering another coffee but instead raises her hand, calls the waiter's attention and asks for the bill. The waiter shuffles across to her table and lowers his head to whisper. She wonders why the need for secrecy and asks him to repeat what he has just said.

“Your bill has been settled, madam”, says the waiter looking down at his shoes.
“Settled? By whom?”
“By an old man, a Sir, who came in some time ago. He also asked me to tell you...” he seems to hesitate to continue.
“Yes?”, says Padmaja encouragingly.
“He said that he was sorry but he doesn't think you are his type.”
He let his message sink in before continuing.
“Madam, this is a busy time of the day for us. Will you be needing anything else?”

Padmaja forces herself to look straight ahead as she walks out of the coffee shop. Once outside, she hails an autorickshaw, gives directions home, climbs the stairs to her flat, draws the curtains, sinks into bed, throws a blanket over herself and remains there for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tide - 11

Part 11


“Chee! You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, thunders Sanjana.

The drains in Sanjana's flat were blocked that morning and she had come to her mother's house for a quick shower on her way to work. Padmaja was not home and Sanjana had let herself in using the spare keys. She had found a file marked 'Hindu responses' left open on the dining table. Intrigued, she had gone throught its contents and had grown increasingly furious that no sooner had her mother come home than she launched into an attack.

“Have you gone senile? Have you thought about what you are doing?”, Sanjana continues lambasting her mother.

She was never one to hold back. Padmaja often wonders where her daughter gets her tempestuous nature from. Probably from her father, she reasons. Padmaja would attribute to her late husband traits that she did not recognise in her daughter. And over the years, she has thus fashioned a mental portrait of him which makes him seem a little more real than the fast-fading photo that now hangs in her living room.

“What's wrong with you, Amma? Why can't you be like other women your age who go about life without making much fuss?”

“That's quite enough, Sanjana”

“No, I won't stop. I want to know what has happened now that you have gone and put yourself on the market like some...”

“I said enough.”

“Why are you doing this? Is it lust? Is that it? Cheap, filthy, lust? Hmm, Amma? That's disgusting!”

“Sanjana...”

“Why? Does the truth hurt you? We are not in America, you know. All those old women doing what they want, going around with whoever they please.”

“Sanjana, don't!”

“Have you forgotten how old you are, Amma? You are not twenty five anymore, you know.”

“Yes, that's right.”, says Padmaja finally, “I'm not twenty five anymore. But I'm not dead either.”

“I don't know what's got into you, Amma”, says Sanjana, her voice quivering, “you're not the mother I knew.”

“May be you never knew me.”

In the silence that follows, Sanjana gathers her bag and makes her way to the door.

“Do you want me to pick Tara up from school or will you be back in time?”, asks Padmaja after her retreating daughter.

Sanjana hurries down the stairs without a reply.

Hearing the commotion, Kamakshi makes an appearance at Padmaja's doorstep.

“Everything okay?”, she asks needlessly as she makes her way into the living room. Buoyed by the prospect of a good drama, she calls out from the kitchen, “Padma, there seems to be no decoction in your house. Shall I get you some and you can tell me what happened over coffee?”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tide - 10

Part 10

She is not quite sure how to indicate that she is following the conversation. If you can call it a conversation, that is. Srikanthan has been talking about his research for the last 23 minutes and at first, she was able to keep up with it. But once he got into the finer detail of oncology, he lost her. Plus, his very thick American accent just made everything he said that much harder for Padmaja to understand.

However, this much she knew. He had been married to a fellow interventional radiologist Babs (Barbara) for 32 years and they had two children. Following an indiscretion on his part, they had separated nearly four years ago. He is very close to getting his decree nisi. He was in India on a sabbatical and that was when her advertisement caught his eye.

He is still talking about the cutting edge technological advancements in cancer research when it occurs to her that she really did not want him in her house. The thought makes her jump.

“Are you okay?”, asks Srikanthan as he caught her twitching wrist.
“Yes, yes, thank you”, she manages as she wriggles out of his grasp. “I just realised I have to pick up my grand-daughter from school this afternoon and it is very nearly time.”
“Why, you should have told me about it earlier. Can't someone else pick her up?”
“I completely forgot. I'm so sorry.”, says Padmaja unapologetically.
“I was just getting warmed up, I wanted to tell you more about my plans for the next academic year. Shall I come back later? I'm free tomorrow.”
“I have some work to do at the bank tomorrow and day-after it's my daughter's wedding anniversary. Friday is Navami. Why don't I give you a call and we can take it from there?”

Her assertiveness surprises her.

“How about Saturday then?”, he persists.
“I am busy with something, I can't remember what. I have to rush now otherwise I will be late.”

She shuts the door behind him and goes in to make herself a strong coffee. Her head is throbbing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tide - 9

Part 9 


“If you wanted to do something, anything, then why didn't you just tell me?”, begins Kamakshi. “I would have introduced you to our ladies club.”

Padmaja could have carried on her own. But the burden became too much to bear. It followed her everywhere, making it difficult for her to swallow or sit alone. It itched at her constantly, she was unusually fidgety. So despite her misgivings, she confessed it all to Kamakshi. “You know, this month at the club we are learning to make vegetable pickles. Next month, it is that old hag Jayashri Sundaram's turn to organise something. Mark my words, she is bound to mess up. Or fall sick, conveniently. You know what she did at our last meeting?”

“Kamakshi!”

“Sorry, Padma. You know how I feel about the ladies' club. Right, so how many people know about this matrimonial advertisement of yours?”

“Only the few thousands who read the Sunday matrimonial column”, replies Padmaja.

Sooner or later she was going to have to tell Sanjana about it.

“And how many have replied so far?”

“About a dozen or so.”

“And have you written to any of them yet?”, quizzes Kamakshi further.

“Are you serious? Of course I haven't written to any of them. I am not going ahead with this, Kamakshi.”

“Then why did you place the advertisement in the paper if you don't want go ahead with it?”

“I don't know what I was thinking. There was just so much going on”, pauses Padmaja. “But now, I can't be courting men old enough to be grandfathers. Look at me. Do I look like a bride to you?”

Kamakshi takes a deep breath in. “Let me see the replies you have had so far.”

Ignoring Padmaja's feeble protests, she spends the next half-an-hour sifting through the letters and divides them into two neat piles.

“These”, she says pointing to the bigger pile, “are useless. They're either men on their death beds who want someone to clean their bedpans or young boys who want to live somewhere and be fed for free.”

“No, I am not writing to them”, says Padmaja.

“These, however”, continues Kamakshi holding up the smaller stack of letters, “hold promise.”

“You are not listening to me. I said I'm not writing to anyone.”

“What harm can come of it, Padma? It's just a meeting. It is not as if you are going to marry one of them.”

Padmaja can feel Kamakshi's brain rolling up its sleeves and gearing into action. When Kamakshi had set her mind on something, it was impossible to shake her off this notion.

Perhaps it was all a bad idea from the start. She should never have written that matrimonial advertisement. What was she thinking? That her sixty-one year old self had any right to a married life? To happiness? That she had any claim to a companionable old age? How dare she hold out any hope for her twilight years? Shouldn't she simply be content with her health and the roof over her head? What was wrong with being an invisible old woman? How dare she want more?

“I don't have any recent photo”, Padmaja says looking up at Kamakshi. “Will you take a picture of me on your camera?”.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tide - 8



Part 8


Respected Madam,

I am writing to you about your advertisement in last Sunday. I am G.Krishnan, aged 48 years old, working in government job for 24 years. If you like I can meet you at your house and explain my situation. I have not married ever and I am absolutely no trouble at all. I have sent you a photo of myself with this letter. The lady next to me is my late mother Smt.G.Saraswathi who passed away in her sleep last November and I have been missing her very much.

Your's Sincerely
G.Krishnan

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tide - 7

Part 7


Dear Mrs,

With regards to your advertisement in last Sunday's Hindu. My name is Mr.S.G.Santhanam. I am 65 years old. I retired in 2007 after 40 years of service in the Indian Railways. My daughter and my son are both married and settled abroad. I am in good health except for slightly high blood pressure. Last year I have undergone an operation for a growth in my retina and now my eyesight is better than it has ever been. I follow a strict vegetarian diet (no oinions no garlic) and I have managed to bring down my cholestrol levels also. Recently I have suffered from pain in my hips and my doctor has adviced me to go for a hip replacement operation which I am due to have some time in the next month. So if you reply to my letter, I can arrange to meet you before I check in to the hospital as I will have to be in bed rest for 6 weeks after my operation. I have also attached a photo of myself with this letter. This was taken before I had my new set of teeth.

Your's sincerely,

S.G.Santhanam.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tide - 6

Part 6


Padmaja has been feeling restless since early morning. She begins by straightening the sheet on her bed. She stretches it on one end, tucks it under the mattress before turning her attention to the other corners. Satisfied, she strips the pillows of their cases, plumps the pillow cushions and soaks the blankets in warm, soapy water. She dusts the window sills and wipes the window panes with a damp cloth. She climbs atop a chair and reaches for the grime laden blades of the ceiling fan with a wet rag. She ignores the pain in her neck from craning and swabs until its surface gleams. She pokes her little finger into the hidden corners in the living room and pulls out imaginary bits of dust. She runs her hand along the dark nooks in the kitchen shelves and inspects her finger tips for fine powder of soot. The stainless steel plates are washed and dried, light fixtures cleaned, curtains rinsed, the floor scrubbed and mopped and the drains pumped with bleach. When she is certain that the house is scraped of every last morsel of dirt, she showers thoroughly, changes into a crackling new cotton saree and goes out to place a matrimonial ad in the local paper.

The following Sunday, a small advertisement appears in the third page of the matrimonial section of The Hindu. It reads, 'Retired 61 year old widow seeks life partner. If you can cook, you stand a better chance'.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tide - 5


Part 5

The tuition classes have ground to a halt and in many ways, Padmaja is relieved when she acknowledges it during a telephone conversation with Sanjana. “Their loss, Amma”, consoles Sanjana, “let's see how many other equally-experienced, patient and affordable teachers they can find for their children”. Padmaja does not tell her about the new tuition centre that has opened two streets away which seems to be doing rather brisk business judging by the number of bicycles parked outside the building.

The rains have finally stopped and there is even a reprieve from the stiflingly dense, humid weather. It is the one time of the year when Padmaja actually enjoys living in the city. Evenings are cooler and days gentler. Soon there will be music concerts all over the city drawing visitors and performers from across the world. Sanjana buys her a seasons pass to concerts at music hall which has good acoustics for a change. It is a little far from home but if she walks briskly, Padmaja can cover the distance in less than an hour. “If it gets really late”, suggests Sanjana, “you can always ask Pazhani to bring you back”.

In retrospect perhaps that is precisely what Padmaja should have done. It was T N Seshagopalan's cutcheri that evening and he held forth profusely in Thodi ragam for a good ninety minutes. So much so that the concert over-ran by almost an hour. She did not wish to wait by herself at the bus stand and after unsuccessfully trying to flag down an autorickshaw, Padmaja decided to walk home instead while still looking out for any passing empty rickshaw.

She was hurrying along a short dark stretch when she spotted him about hundred metres away. He could not have been more than twenty years old. He was wearing faded jeans rolled up at the ankles and a pale blue t-shirt. He did not look menacing or threatening. Padmaja noted him but carried on walking. As she went past him, he put his hand out and let it brush against her side. “Eeiii”, Padmaja called out stepping aside and quickening her steps. The young man was now behind her wrapping his arms over her shoulder and fondling her breasts. Padmaja screamed out and he jabbed his fist into her mouth. He whipped her body around, yanked her by the hair and jammed his crotch into her. Padmaja thrashed about, struggling to throw him off. By now he had ripped her saree off and had thrown her on the ground. He was pushing his hand up her legs while pinning her twisting body with his other hand. Padmaja could feel the strength fade away from her as she was crushed under the weight of her assailant. With both her hands held above her head, Padmaja tossed her head, lurching blindly this way and that, tearing into her assaulter's face with her teeth. With all her might, she lunged and hurled herself on him biting gnashingly into his nose. All she remembers later is the enormous weight rolling off her as she gathered herself and stumbled away. It would be several months before she would leave home again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tide - 4



Part 4

It is now July and if she had been working, schools would have been busy preparing for quarterly exams. The heat from summer is yet to subside and it is too hot to venture out anywhere during the day. “They have started holding Sai Bhajans in a flat in D block on Tuesday mornings”, ventured her neighbour Kamakshi one day, “I thought you may want to go, now that you are free.”

Kamakshi is a year younger than Padmaja and was one of the first people to buy a flat in the block nearly eighteen years ago. She lives with her retired husband who devotes the remaining years of his life solely to the purpose of following cricket and writing letters to the editor of all major newspapers. Her two grown sons lived in different parts of the world leaving Kamakshi to sort out other people's lives for them.

So it is settled that Padmaja will go for Sai Bhajans two mornings a week. Despite her deep-seated reservation of communal worship of any sort, Padmaja decides that she would give it a go. She has no trouble finding the flat. She could smell the agarbathi all the way down in the ground floor. The door has been left open and she lingers at the entrance for a few seconds before a tall, young woman in a striking black and gold saree welcomes her in. She directs Padmaja to a large dining area which had been cleared of chairs and tables to make room for straw mats laid out to cover the entire floor area.

A small chair sits at the top of the room holding a picture of a man with a beatific smile. This is the person, Padmaja assumes they were going to be praying to. She shuts her eyes and tries to concentrate on the whirr of the ceiling fan. She tries to ignore the pins and needles on her feet from sitting cross-legged and instead focusses on the discordant singing. There are six others in the room and each of them seems intent on singing a different song. She is reminded of a straggle of primary school children on their way to class every morning. On days like today, she senses a cavernous hollow in her body, an emptiness no amount of religious worship can ever fill.

She realises with a start that the singing has now stopped and has been replaced with a quiet clamour of bags being fetched and sarees being smoothed as people get ready to leave. She thanks the tall woman for her hospitality and promises that she will be back on Thursday. She will have to think of something plausible to explain her absence in a couple of days' time. Or she will simply have to avoid running into the tall woman anywhere in the apartment compound.

Tide - 3

Part 3 


Tuition lessons seem liked an obvious idea at first. “It is perfect for you, Amma.”, says Sanjana, “You don't even have to step out of the flat. You can have the classes when it suits you”.
There are always children in her apartment block who needed coaching in elementary Maths and English. Padmaja prefers primary school children who were better behaved and she didn't have to deal with parents of secondary school children who were constantly complaining about their performance in exams.
She makes little work sheets for her students for them to take home with them and return the following lesson. She writes down questions at the top, middle and at three-quarters of the page leaving enough space for their answers. She would be kind but firm with the children. No more than five students at any time, she assures the parents and it begins promisingly. Three students sign up in just the first week after she put up a small advertisement on the community notice board.
This will do for the moment, she promises herself. She could spread her attention evenly and make sure that they concentrate on their work. After all, what is the point of a tuition lesson if they could not have individual attention? The following Tuesday, she gets a call from one of the mothers.
“Padmaja teacher, my daughter Sailu...Sailaja sprained her ankle at school today. She is in a lot of pain and won't be able to make it for tuition today.”
“It's alright”, says Padmaja, “please make sure that she works on the test sheet I have prepared for her.”
The next week, it is her daughter Sanjana on the phone. “Amma, Tara has these raised spots on her back and chest”, she said. “Do you think it might be chicken pox? You don't have to come all the way here just for this. No, no, don't cancel your tuition class or anything. Okay, if you insist...”
It is chicken pox as Padmaja had suspected and her grand-daughter Tara stays with her all week while Sanjana goes to work.
The following week, only one child turns up for lessons.
Padmaja wishes she could be certain about it. But some times, she gets the feeling that she is being avoided. Like the other day when one of her students' mothers, the one who lives on the fifth floor, was about to get in to the lift with her but decided instead to take the stairs. Or that afternoon at the temple, when she spots another parent at a distance but before she could smile at her or give her a wave, the other lady abruptly changed direction and walked away.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tide - 2

Part 2
It sounded grand calling it a career. As if it was something she had chosen to pursue after years spent studying and training for it. Padmaja had never considered going to work. Why would she have to go to work when her husband went to office? She would look after the house and her husband and when the children came along, she would look after them.

She had only seen Ramanathan once before they were married. Her father had matched their horoscopes and predicted a long and blissful union. Someone remarked that he looked like that cricketer Venkatraghavan and for many years after his death, whenever Padmaja could not recall his face, she would remind herself of Venkatraghavan.

They had been married for seventeen months and Padmaja was six months pregnant with her daughter when Ramanathan was killed in a road accident. He was one his way to Trichy to attend a family wedding when the bus he was travelling in collided with another van and he was one of the six who had died immediately. His body was never recovered. They had kept the news hidden from her for days.

Ramu was held up at Trichy on some unexpected business, someone told her when she wondered where he was. He had rushed to office on his return to Madras and he had had to leave for Delhi for some urgent official work, someone else informed her. It was very unlike Ramu to not even call her and spend a few minutes asking how she was. It all seemed too sudden and too hasty for her comfort. What is going on, Amma?, she confronted her mother when she was no longer able to accept the feeble reasons given to her for Ramu's continuing absence. 

Her mother blurted it all out in one breathless rant and when she had finished, Padmaja crumpled smoothly to the floor. Sanjana was born four weeks early and had to be kept in an incubator for a week before she was discharged. Padmaja moved back to live with her parents and when the baby was four, the primary school she went to had a vacancy for a teacher. Her mother thought it would be a good idea for Padmaja to keep herself busy. She started working there the following June. The school enrolled her in an Open University B.Ed degree and she gradually moved to working with older children.