Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why there will be no Pongal this Pongal and other inconsequential stuff

I didn't know I could, professor Richard Dawkins' wife told him when he asked her why she never expressed her reservations to some of the religious stuff taught to her at her Catholic school. Reading it, I sort of felt someone had articulated what I could never find words for. All those times I fretted and fumed in the kitchen cooking to appease some God whose existence I had never dared question and whose punitive powers I had always dreaded. All those rituals I had endured to evoke the supernatural beings in heaven to bless me with tons of fortunes and 99 more sons. And every time, I wish I had asked why. I wish I had questioned more. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with those who accept these rituals but why did I have to follow suit? Who says you need to wake up at 4 in the morning and cook Pongal and vadai and payasam and avial when all you want to do is curl up and go back to sleep? Who comes up with these menus? What'd happen if I simply refused to? What then? I know what you're going to say. It's not for us, it's for the kids. My son doesn't like any of the aforementioned items and would just as happily eat Weetabix for breakfast.

Trouble is, I have been there, done that. Every single Pongal and Deepavali and Navarathri and Karthigai Deepam. And take my word for it, I hated it! There, I've said it. I don't care if the gods are going to pierce me with the hottest trident in hell and roast me over a spitfire, nothing will get me back into the kitchen again to make seedai because that is what Krishna loves. When I doubt the very existence of Krishna, do I really care about his love for fried stuff? And have you noticed how most of our festivals just mean more housework for the woman? Why is that? Why can't we have festivals where the women get a break from the kitchen work? How about this Rama navami, the whole family eats out at Saravana Bhavan? Surely the gods won't mind that.

Looking back, I realise that part of the reason why I did what I did all these years was not because I loved it. Or that I somehow wanted our son to be part of our 'culture'. I really don't care much for that sort of 'culture', to be honest. But it's guilt that was driving me. That big ugly monster that sits on the dinner table with me, that wakes me up before all the family, that creeps into my voice each time I call India and that holds me back with a vice-like grip from exploring life. Yes, guilt. Not love. And I never knew I could say it. Not until this Pongal. When I dug my heels and refused to cook anything other than the usual. I would not be cowed into submission. I stayed in bed an extra half an hour that day. Even had my tea in bed. My porridge never tasted better. My morning was smoother and stress-free. And you know what? It felt good.

For a much better articulated rant, please also go here

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A quick tale 206


I don’t know how it is where you work. But in my office, whenever it’s a colleague’s birthday, someone brings a card around and we all sign it. And today, it’s the big boss’s big day. Someone had bought an appropriately big card for us to sign. It reached my desk and after a quick glance at what the others had written – ranging from the splendidly mundane ‘Happy birthday’ to the supremely poetic ‘Roses are red, Violets are blue, What have we done, To deserve a boss like you?’ – I composed my birthday greeting. It wasn’t going to be anything fancy. I just scribbled ‘Have a wonderful year ahead! Love,’ and signed below it.

Hang on a sec, did I just write ‘love’? I rushed after the boss’ secretary and almost grabbed the card from her hands. I quickly struck out ‘love’ and handed it back to her. What was I thinking signing off like that? Why couldn’t it have been just my name? Or a polite ‘regards’ or ‘sincerely’ or even a vaguely distant ‘best wishes’? Why did I have to go and pick ‘love’? And by striking it out did I draw more attention to it? May be he’d have dismissed it if I’d let it be? But now, what have I gone and done? Would he think I fancied him? I am single, after all. And to be honest, he’s not all that bad looking. But no! That’s not what I want him to think.

Honestly, do you think I was wrong in striking out ‘love’? May be he now thinks I fancy him but don’t want to be obvious about it. So I rubbed out, but only just, what I’d written earlier. God, I bet he’s seen the card by now. And noticed the thick lines that precede my signature. May be he’s holding the card against a light bulb to decipher what’s underneath it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. Is that his cabin door opening? Should I just make a dash for the exit? May be I can spend the rest of the afternoon in the loo? And call in sick tomorrow and day after? Surely the storm would’ve blown over by then. Oh no, I don’t have time to run. He’s coming towards me. Help! I’ll just drop this pen under my desk and quickly duck to retrieve it. Damn! He’s waiting for me to emerge. How long can I stay stuck under the table? This is it. I can hear it coming. He’s calling out my name asking me if everything’s alright. If he asks me about the card, I’ll just apologise and then hand in my resignation. That’s the honourable thing to do. He’s calling me again. Yes, I answer, with an added chirp in my voice. Could I look into the tender that is due to be submitted by Friday?, he asks. Of course, I answer. And as he turns his back to me, Happy Birthday! I call out. I think I’ll take tomorrow off.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A quick tale 205

Story half-told

Did you know that prisoners serving life sentence are not given a mirror because they could commit suicide with it? No, she didn’t know either. Until she read about it in a short story recently. It really got her thinking. In the house where she grew up, there was no full-length mirror until 1970. She was already 20 years old by then and had outgrown the adolescent curiosity to see herself as others saw her.

All those years ago, there was only a small square mirror that hung in a dark verandah. The mirror bounced off light from the bulb that hung across the wall thus casting a shadow on the reflection. You had to lift the square frame off the wall and hold it at an angle if you wanted to know if you’d shaved properly or if the maii in the right eye was smudged slightly. This was a trick that only residents in that rambling household knew. And visitors often asked others to check if the pottu was in the centre of the forehead or if the face powder was still a bit patchy.

Looking back, she thought it odd that she’d never wanted to see her full-length reflection. Though that’s strictly not true. She forgets that sometime in 1966 when she’d worn a saree for the first time, she removed the mirror from its hanging post, held it against knee, tipped slightly away from her body so she could see the reflection, and gradually drew it all the way up to her neck. Later she had tried to piece together all the reflections into a single collage in her head. She had even made a mention of it in her diary that night.

In the house where she now lives, there’s a few of them mirrors. But after all these years, even now, the sight of herself, especially when she’s least expecting it - like when she wakes up in the middle of the night to use the toilet – startles her. She has trouble falling asleep afterwards. For a long time she had only known her body as it appeared to her from where her eyes stood. The familiar terrain of lumps and bumps and the reassuring patch of curlies did not seem so odd when gazed down from the neck. But the two-dimensional vision of her, as seen from a distance took a lot of getting used to. Of course, she had seen photos of herself. But a live, moving likeness was something she found hard to accept.

And this is where the story will end as I have nothing more to say on this matter.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A quick tale 204

Two of a kind

“And how did you lose him?”, asked the officer. She was stunned in grief and barely heard his question. After about a minute, he prompted her once again. This time she let out a long sigh, kept her eyes lowered and began telling him how.

“We went in together for our weekly wash. It was a Monday and we recognised several other regulars. The mood was upbeat as always and we quite looked forward to a warm, swirling good time. No sooner had we settled down than the door was shut. Soon the water started seeping in and everyone went quiet with excitement. Gradually, the water level started to rise. Any minute now, I heard him say and in an instant, we were being tossed about in a deafening whoosh. The water seemed cooler than the usual 40 degrees. I was later informed by someone that it’s all part of the new eco-drive which recommended lowering water temperatures. As we tumbled about gaily in the company of other couples, I had little idea that this would be our last few minutes together.

Before we knew it, the water had drained and I shut my eyes in anticipation of what was to come. I clung to him like my life depended on it. I could tell he was smiling at me even though my eyes were closed. And in a flash we were off. Hurtling down the curves and roaring up the arches, we spun about at a dizzying speed. I felt as if every last drop of water was being squeezed out of me. We careened round and round before finally coming to a rest. It took me forever to open my eyes. And even when I did, I could only see squiggles and wriggles of floating colours. It was only after a few minutes that I realised that he wasn’t by my side.

At first I assumed he’d gotten tangled with someone else. But as I sifted through the gathering, I realised with mounting panic that he was gone. I’d heard of stories of those that had disappeared through the black hole. But never once thought it could happen to me. I pushed past and prod through huge tumbling masses in the hope of finding him. I kept calling out his name but deep down, I knew I’d lost him forever. There was nothing to do now except wait for the doors to be opened and for us to be let out…”

As she paused in her narration, the officer seized the opportunity to get cracking with the paperwork. “If you could fill in his name and description over here”, he said tapping his pen on a pink application form, “we’ll see what we can do.” “Will he…?”, she started enquiring when he cut her short. “We can promise you nothing, madam”, he replied in a voice that was intended to snuff out any hope she may have had.

She picked herself up and with heavy steps started making her way to the door. When she turned around to see if she could squeeze in one last question with the officer, he had already moved on to his next client – an elderly red glove. I will come back on Friday, she promised herself. We are a pair and that’s the way we will always be, she mumbled shuffling quietly out of the Dept of Lost Personnel, Ministry of Laundry.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A quick tale 203


I can see the entrance from where I’m standing. A deep red door with the number 88 painted on it. When I spoke to them, I was told that it would all be over in less than an hour. Less than 60 minutes to clean up years of junk! They must know what they are talking about. Otherwise they would not be in such high demand (or indeed charge so much!). My colleague Maria had hers done just last month and she tells me that she feels lighter than ever! My appointment is due in the next 15 minutes and I had better start making my way if I don’t want to be late. But somehow my legs feel leaden and each step is a drag. After all, I know the risks and I have read through their contract and all its 45 pages of fine print before agreeing to the procedure. I know that I will no longer be able to recall the name of that Japanese exchange student who stayed with us for a month. Or the way to my hostel from the university gate. Or the recipe for besan wadi. But these are the precise details I want to be free from.

You see, it all started last summer when I was out for dinner with a group of friends. We’re all about the same age and went to college together. After the initial ho-hum, typically our talk turned to growing old. We realised that in the past year we’d had all sprouted our first gray strand of hair. Though we tried to laugh it off, we knew what this meant. Death knell to our youth. It won’t be long before our faces were lined with crow’s feet and laughter lines and our conversations were taken over by talk of boob jobs and tummy tucks.

Long after that evening, for some unfathomable reason, I kept going back to our conversation and spent the next few weeks observing my body minutely in the mirror for signs of ageing. It wasn’t long before I started noticing subtle changes – not in my body but in my mind. I was no longer able to recall instantly names of friends and colleagues like I used to before. Birthdays and anniversaries would slip by without my noticing it. So I started making lists of things to do just so I could remember them. Post-it notes began making their appearances everywhere around the house. They would remind me if I had a hairdresser’s appointment or if I was due to return a library book that day. By October, I was convinced that I was on a downward spiral of ageing and memory loss. I spent hours on the internet everyday looking for someway to reverse the process. Nothing came up until a chance encounter with my brother’s fiancée who works for the government department of health and wellbeing.

She talked of a revolutionary procedure whereby you can have your mind uncluttered from unnecessary detail clogging up mind space. It works like this. Apparently, the mind has millions of pigeonhole like slots which hold information. And when need comes up, like when you run into an old friend, your mind just dips into the allotted slot and makes you call out ‘how wonderful to meet you, Deepa!’. The trouble arises when there is a glut of information. The file-keeping department of the brain goes into a tizzy with all the information that it has to handle. And starts neglecting less-critical tasks like maintaining old files.

Which is why, as time goes by, I was told, we are able to recall less and less of the distant past. The new radical solution, which was still being researched, would simply get rid of unwanted information from the brain and free up several million pigeon holes. This they hoped would make the brain work faster and more efficiently. And keep the brain from information-congestion.

I told my brother’s fiancée that I wanted to sign up for the project. But she told me that it was a high-risk procedure still pending sanction from the medical department. I’d have to do it at my own expense and that it’d be carried out in the back alleys of the city. Yes, yes, I know, I nodded eagerly. She went silent for a minute before adding solemnly ‘it is irreversible’. Of course, I said, I understood the risks and was more than ready for it.

The next month whizzed by in a flurry of preparation. I had to open my house and diary for a thorough examination by the experts. They quizzed me for hours about everything from past lovers and driving history to dieting patterns and deep, dark secrets. They took copious notes and recorded every single conversation before giving me the go ahead. I was over the moon when the appointment letter came through and here I am ten minutes away from unlearning uncritical information forever. I’m about to forget how to knit, where to go for the best deals in bathroom tiles and whose name always came first in our school attendance register. I take a deep breath and start walking towards the crimson door. When I come out, I may not remember who you are. But if I’m looking a little lost, will you please tell me that my address is in my right coat pocket? And that I’ve parked my car 200 yards from here? Thank you.

*the medical info stated here is extremely dodgy. So please don't write to me saying that's not how the brain works.