Friday, September 15, 2017

The vegetarian is in the oven

I cooked rajma, roti, dal and vegetables for lunch yesterday. Nothing unusual about that. Except I cooked thirty portions of each for paying customers at a local vegetarian cafe. This is not something I could have foreseen myself doing as recent as a year ago but the opportunity presented itself and I decided to take it up. Having already spent a couple of days helping out in the kitchen, I was familiar with its layout and roughly knew where everything was. But it still left me incredibly nervous about cooking live and not just for family and friends who are obliged to eat it and be polite about it. These were customers who expected to be fed good food and would not hesitate to complain.

Even the sight of plate after plate returning empty did nothing to reassure me. And hearing the owner
tell someone over the phone that there was some delicious Indian food on the menu just added to the anxiety. It was only while hanging up the apron for the day and resting my feet after seven continuous hours of standing that I let myself accept that perhaps, just perhaps, that the food had turned out alright and those that came in looking for food had rather enjoyed their meal.

As for the title, in response to my question about where the vegetables were, this is what the German lady assisting me had to say. I can assure you that the vegetarians were all outside and the oven was too small to accommodate anyone anyway. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


He was a great man, your grandfather, I have heard them say. He would sit for Maths tests and his answers would be so brilliant that they would award him a 120 out of 100, they would say without irony. His English lessons were so brilliant that students would loathe to leave the class and come back year after year just to hear him recite Hamlet. He was destined for the green hills of England when the sudden demise of his father meant an abrupt end to his plans and he remained at home to teach in a college on a dismal salary. Marriage and children further scuppered his dreams and he never recovered from the sourness. But his oratorical brilliance or that supposed mathematical wizardry  is not what his third born, my mother remembers.

She recalls instead in vivid detail her mother, the only daughter of a tahsildar cowering in fear, while her father yelled at her for not seasoning the rasam. My mother remembers all too well her mother's wedding saree, the cherished six yards of silk being ripped to shreds by a madman wielding a pair of shears. She remembers her father's curmudgeonly behaviour which meant that his wife would be sent to a local government hospital to terminate her sixth pregnancy after bearing five children in a decade, rather than be cared for privately. She recalls being told that her mother would not be coming back home as she had contracted lock jaw and had died. Even after seven decades of bereavement, my mother still misses her mother acutely and says that some days she talks to her, asking her how she could leave her children to face the frightening world alone. But no, they would not talk of her. Instead, they talk of his brilliance. The legions of students that recall his command over Shakespeare and Chaucer and his great facility with numbers. A kind father, a genial grandfather, an erudite scholar. Not a wife beater, not that one. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

A quick tale 229

"Do you remember this?", he asked holding the winding up toy.
"Chumuti!", she exclaimed, recalling the name her toddler son had given the toy.
"Yes, it does look like I finally found out where Chumuti had been hiding all the years", called out her husband from behind the boxes which they had set out to clear.
"Was it in 92?", she wondered holding her hand out for Chumuti.
"No, this must have even earlier", he replied tossing it to her. "By 92 Sumanth was already six and he had outgrown these toys. Must have been more like 89 or 90 that we bought it for him".
"Yes", she nodded, her mind already half way back to 1990. How Sumanth had wanted the wind up toy and how much her husband would not buy it for him. Too expensive, too fragile, not now, may be later, the reasons had been plenty and each one valid but Sumanth had worn his father down with persistence until he gave up resisting. The toddler had taken the toy to bed with him the night they bought it for him and the night after that and for nearly every night for a whole year until another toy had come along and Chumuti had been forgotten.
She ran her fingers through the grooves of the toy remembering with aching fondness how tiny Sumanth's fingers once were when they held Chumuti. His fingers that were part of a small, perfect muscular body which held a fiercely independent spirit that astonished and frustrated her in equal measure. His stubborn streak that seemed disproportionate in someone so small. A characteristic she recognised as one he had inherited from her but one she would never admit to.
She checked the time and mentally calculated what the time was where Sumanth lived. He must be at work, she figured. Perhaps she'd try his cell number rather than at home. He answered in quiet voice.
"Everything alright, Amma?", he asked. He had started to roll his 'r's recently. Said it made it easier for him to be understood over the phone. She had wanted him to speak normally with her, as she could understand him perfectly without the affectation, but she had not told him so. She did not want to irritate him.
"Appa found Chumuti", she said holding the toy up to the phone absentmindedly, "you remember?"
"What, ma?"
"Your toy, Chumuti!"
"If it's not too urgent, can I call you back, ma? I am running late for a meeting."
"Don't worry, it's nothing too urgent. What are you eating?"
"Just grabbing some toast. Say hi to Appa. And send me a photo of Chuputi okay?"
"You gave it its name...and it's Chumuti."
"Chumuti, then. Got to go...I'll call you later, okay?"
"Eat something more than just toast, Sumanth"
She held Chumuti a little longer. Elsewhere in the house, she could hear her husband going through the boxes, wading through the paraphernalia of her children, throwing up old toys and outgrown clothes with casual disregard for the heft of the years gone by, for the years when her children were truly hers alone to enjoy and to be exasperated about, for the years when she would sigh deeply at the weight of motherhood but delight secretly in its demands. She could never go back there and it was rather pointless wishing for those years.
"Throw the box away", she called out to her husband. "It's full of useless old junk, just sitting there gathering dust and taking up space."
Her husband looked up surprised. "Are you sure? I thought you might have enjoyed looking through the kids' stuff."
"No, I don't. And if you find something don't bother telling me. I'm going to make myself some coffee, would you like some?", she asked making her way to the kitchen. Her husband's reply was drowned out by the noisy cappuchino machine Sumanth had gifted them on his last trip home. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

A School Turns 80 But Asbestos Has To Go

Dear Chakku Akka

There's a photo that hangs on one of the walls of the Children's Garden School office. It's a picture of your German mother Mrs Ellen Sharma (nee Teichmuller) sitting on the steps in front of the office, surrounded by little girls who were no more than five or six at that time. Some of the girls went on to graduate from the school in 1990 and I am one of those writing to thank you for the wonderful start you gave us in life.

Akka, we are now a group of forty-somethings who live in different parts of world leading disparate lives. Some of us have gone on to get doctorates, some work with young people, some, like you are heading schools, some others are working in technology and some are raising a wonderful next generation. A few among us have defied great odds and with your benevolent support have gone onto make something of our lives. But all of us carry within us the light that you lit all those years ago. 

I look back on our years at Children's Garden School and realise my time at school was as much about music and dance as it was about Maths and Science. The emphasis was on all round education and not just the academic. I took part in writing competitions, sang in the school choir, threw javelins, essayed lead roles in the annual school drama...not because I was any good at it, but because I could. And my teachers saw no reason why I shouldn't.

Unlike other schools in the city where the children wore fancy uniforms complete with shoes and socks (imagine, in the hot and humid conditions of coastal Madras!) we wore slippers to school and took them off before we entered class. What use was a colonial hangover of an impractical uniform for children who needed to be dressed in tune with the surroundings? Our education was in harmony with our environment.

Even today the smell of cooking cabbage never fails to take me back to school days and the free hot lunches you offered. Those were perhaps the only hot meal of the day for some of my classmates. You knew that children cannot learn on an empty stomach and proceeded to address this issue. 

Our classes were made up of children from from different economic background, yet it mattered little when we slipped on our green skirts and white shirts and plaited our hair up in green ribbons. We were all students of Children's Garden School.

A couple of years ago, one of my classmates who grew up in an orphanage told us how you had funded her college education and when you saw how stubborn she was with wanting to study further, you funded her Master's degree too, then found her a good man to marry, gave her off in marriage and today her son calls you 'Paati' (grandmother). For many like my classmates, the school was much more than a place where we came to study.  

And our teachers! What an extraordinary lot you managed to recruit and retain, Akka. I still remember when I was thirteen, spending several days during my summer holidays in Lakshmi teacher's house working on a magazine which I hand wrote and illustrated. And still younger, my kindergarten teacher Miss Bertha Paul was entrusted with the unenviable job of feeding me eggs (despite her best efforts I continue to abhor that vile stuff). How they went above and beyond their call of duty! 

From Seethalakshmi teacher to Nalini teacher to Kusuma teacher to Neelambal teacher to Saroja teacher to Lakshmi teacher to Pankajam teacher...our school definitely had an amazing gathering of teachers who ignited young minds.

Our school was founded this very day 80 years ago by a German woman and her Indian husband who wanted to start a school that combined the best of Indian tradition with the liberal thoughts of the West. The school has evolved considerably from its humble origins of just seven students to educate hundreds today. 

Yet it pains me to hear that the classrooms have asbestos roofs over them. I am glad that my classmates and I are doing our bit to fundraiser to replace them with more suitable materials. 

Akka, we are proud to have been your students. And it gives us infinite pleasure in being able to celebrate the 80th anniversary of our school. Here's to several more decades of educating and instigating a love of learning in tomorrow's generation.

Namaskarams at your feet.


A. Abhirami (class of 1990)

P.s. Anyone interested in contributing towards our fundraising efforts, please click here

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

At Sea

I would like an island.
-What do you mean?
You know...island...i..laaa...n...d.
- Meaning?
You know, a land that lies in the middle of water.
- I don't get it.
An a country with water on all directions.
- Okay...
Do you understand?
Okay, an island means a country with water in all directions.
- Right
For example...Great Britain (where they speak English) and Sardinia (where I went on holiday twice and where I wish I were right now). You understand island?
- I don't know.
I want an island but only in my kitchen.
- Like Great Britain? In your kitchen?
No, no, that was an example of an island. This island will be in the kitchen.
- And there's water everywhere?
No, no, no water. Just floor. On the ground, in the middle of the kitchen, I would an island like.
- I don't understand.
I want a small kitchen island in the kitchen.
- My sister speaks better English than me. I will call you on Wednesday and you can explain to her what you want, okay?

The entire conversation was had in German and repeated in varying volumes and at different speeds in the fond hope that it will be understood. The conversation was had between me and a local Handyman. I am not sure I am getting a kitchen island shaped like Great Britain, but I am certainly getting a lot of wear on my German muscle.

Here's a picture of a kitchen island. You can imagine it as a country floating in the North Sea.
Image courtesy Ikea

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

A Duplicitous Life

Picture this. It has only been a couple of hours since I have had my first child and I am lying dazed on the hospital bed wearing a sleeveless night gown, looking around me, taking everything in through a haze of euphoria tinged with mild confusion and a definite awareness of ungobackableness. And I hear my mother apologise to someone, most definitely a hospital nurse. Oh no, I hear her say, we don't normally wear something like this in our house. She is usually more appropriately dressed. It takes me a small fraction of time to realise that it was me that she was referring to. And it is the fact of me showing off my armpit (freshly depilated - I remembered to shave even in the middle of my labour pains) to the world that was bringing forth the apologies. A note went into my mental filing cabinet, into the folder marked 'To Be Done Surreptitiously'.

Like most Indian children of a certain age (perhaps even now?) doing on the sly things that their parents disapprove of is nothing new for me. But somehow I assumed that going away to live on my own, getting married and begeting a child would mean that I would no longer need to pretend. Granted I would not rub it in their face, but I had thought I would not have to walk on eggshells for fear of disapproval. I had thought that perfectly adult behaviour would escape derision or scorn. But how wrong was I! What I did as an adult mattered just as much as it did when I was a teen and my shockingly short haircut earned me the privilege of not being spoken to for weeks on end.

Which is why when I was out for lunch recently with a friend and another who had brought her visiting mother-in-law with her, I was surprised to hear them discuss animatedly about which wine to drink and then order a glass of wine each. The mother-in-law came from a very conservative teetotalling vegetarian community and seemed very accepting of her daughter-in-law's choice to drink wine at lunch time (at any time really). But then what choice does she have, said one of the friends later, she either accepts it or risks alienating herself from her son and his family. She has chosen wisely to overlook the differences and to embrace them instead.

How refreshing is such an attitude! To not constantly measure your children by your own duplicitous, questionable standards but to accept them with all their choices, however hard it might be and however bad you might think it will make you look in other people's minds (here's a tip: no one really cares).

Indulging in a spot of
Skinny dipping. I was
Right. No one cares.
I had these thoughts racing through my mind while out shopping for furniture with a friend and stumbled upon a lovely Sekretär. My friend is an artist and has a keen eye for the aesthetic and promptly suggested that we turn it into a bar that would sit slap bang in the middle of the lounge and would invite guests, rather brazenly to partake of its bounty. But, but, but, I spluttered in my mind, what would visiting family think? Would they not disapprove of such flagrant disregard for good upbringing? Would the flasks have to be hidden away (that old trick) to make way for more acceptable bottles? But aloud I said, Great idea! Let's turn this into a bar!

I guess there will always be something about us that will rankle those that raised. Some mild disappointment with our comportment, some Major disagreement over decisions, some outright disapproval over choices but I have to realise that it is okay. It is absolutely fine to not see eye-to-eye on everything with a parent.  Looking back, I wish I had raised my arms, displayed my pits to the world and watch the onlookers stumble about in shock and consternation. Or watch them shrug their shoulders and carry on. 

Photo Life

Looking at the photo, even now I can feel the trickle of summer sweat down my back, remember the hastily downed meals which always seemed to interrupt endless play times and the afternoons spent being combed for headlice. With so many visiting us that summer, our large and bustling household seemed to have somehow expanded to accommodate even more.

When I look back on these years, I can see how much these experiences shaped who I am today. Given that it was my house that always played host, I was expected to share everything. Skirts, pillows, sheets and my parents' attention to a large degree. It has made me less fastidious about possessions but more particular about swarms of people. After any large gathering, I find myself craving a quiet place to retreat and to recover. A sanctuary from the roar of other humans.

In the photo, we seem to have been hastily assembled. Someone must have called out for those who were nearby to gather around for a photo and we must have obliged. Taller ones to the back and smaller ones up front, they must have said. No one seems sure about smiling and we appear rather tentative about it. The sole adult in the photo seems to be wishing he were somewhere else.

I recall the dress I am wearing rather vividly. I had had it sewn a few months earlier and on the
tailor's recommendation, added a Magyar sleeve which was all the rage back then. Wearing it, I felt terribly on point with the fashion world back then. Regrettably, the girl on the left wearing a white top and partially hidden by the boy in shorts passed away from encephalitis when we were sixteen. Once as children, when we were out in public, I demanded that she return my skirt that she was wearing immediately. I was rather horrible with her and she kept her nerve. It was not one of my finest moments and I never properly apologised to her for my behaviour.

Childhood photos can evoke deep nostalgia but this one does none of that for me. It was a captured at a time when I was ten years old and barring one, stars people with whom I have no contact. It was as if, like in the photo, in life too we were thrown together for a short while before heading our separate ways. 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Small, Rectangle And Blue

If you climbed past the narrowing staircase, crossed the brick flooring, past the long rooms filled with assorted memorabilia and its peeling walls with cracks covered over with old calendars bearing garish images of Saraswathi and Lakshmi who bear suspicious resemblance to the film stars of those years, you might find somewhere in a corner a blue tin box.

I don't know what colour it must have been originally, but someone must have thought to paint over it in teal blue. Its colours matched the walls around it which suggest that the left over paint from the walls must have been dabbed on to the box. Perhaps no one thought to move the box as the paintwork was being carried out and by the time it was finished, perhaps it was covered with dripping that they spread it around until it was blue all over.

Some two feet long and about a foot wide, this box became mine when I was about ten years old.
And in order to establish ownership, I wrote my name down on its side in indelible pen. Over the next few years it would become the receptacle that held my worldly possessions. Notebooks, diaries, hair clips, report cards, certificates, birthday cards, wallets with a few desultory coins and much later a stack of love letters exchanged between a friend and her then boyfriend given to me to keep for fear of being discovered by her parents. I once peeked inside them a found rough scribblings in brown ink which my friend later confessed was blood. They were consigned to the bin soon thereafter, much like their love affair, I imagine.

Soon we will be moving into a sprawling house whose empty halls echo with the sound of nothingness. I've been shopping to fill it with the noise of our lives. Clutter that quietly boasts deep wallets and an emergence from our former conservative, middleclass selves. The box would have no place here and yet on some days I find myself recalling with deep affection its sharp edges, its peeling paint, its rusty surface and an easy life that could be tidied away in a blue tin box.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Words For Hire

From my very first bloggers meet. There was no audience.
We paid for our own teas.

Blogging is big business apparently. A close friend recently attended a conference of some sort where top Indian bloggers spoke about making a living from their blogs. My friend was in awe of the fact that the speakers had quit their lucrative jobs to pursue blogging full time and it was paying. They get given freebies, go on paid holidays and manage to turn over a decent sum. So are they expected to their honest opinion on these products that are offered?, I wondered. Not entirely, it appears. It seems one of the speakers said that she was getting paid for her time and not her opinion.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but when I read someone's blog post, I want to know what they think. I don't want a write up that is a mouthpiece for some product that I don't need or some overpriced service that I don't want. Don't the bloggers have any loyalty to their readers? The ones who visit their blogs, read their drivel and leave a comment? The ones whose footprints have landed them these deals in the first place?

I know, I know. I know what you're thinking. Jealous cow! No one is offering you a free trial of their latest avocado seed remover and that's why you want to piss on their parade. Unfortunately, that is the truth. The most I get offered is spam comments which ask me if I have erectile dysfunction or invite me to live webcam with someone called Tatiana from Russia. I have turned down both these offers though not before considering them carefully.

So let me cast off this semblance of loyalty to the readers and lay it open in public. Here's my offer to write and feature anyone willing to pay me. I can extol the virtues of your very wonderful enema kit and tell both my readers how their lives will be more enriched if they use your dry cleaning service. This place is for open for sponsorship and this writer is for hire. Now, if you will all form an orderly queue please.