Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Venerated No More

A story. My paternal grandfather was a gambler who'd gamble away hard earned money at the card table. Money that was desperately needed to run the household which he shared with his brother. Between them the brothers had sired seventeen children and cash was always in short supply. The story continues that late one night upon finding that his brother had not returned home, my grandfather's younger brother made his way to the local club where he knew he'd find him. There, the younger brother is said to have simply called out my grandfather's name and together they returned home wordless. My grandfather quit cold turkey and would never grace the club again with his presence.

What he however did, was replace his gambling addiction with an altogether more socially acceptable obsession. Religion. In particular, he became a staunch supporter of the Kanchi Madam. He would follow the chief pontiff of the monastery around the country. On various occasions, his daughters and their offsprings would join him on the journey across the country and I've heard how he has been as far north as Rishikesh as part of the entourage.

Appa with Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal at home,
sometime in the mid-80s
Whenever the pontiffs came to Madras, they would pay a visit to our house and it is said that on one such occasion, the then chief sage is said to have left his wooden sandals behind and walked ahead barefoot. When my grandfather ran after him to return them, he supposed to have said that he left them behind intentionally. The sandals remain at my parent's house to date, where they have since been given a silver sheath for protection.

And in my growing up years, even though my grandfather had passed away, the rest of his multitudinous family continue to worship the Kanchi Madam although I could never decide where I stood about revering human beings. On one occasion, I asked someone what the seer had done to deserve being prostrated before. And my impertinence was swiftly curtailed with some vague response about divinity and meditation. My ambivalence has never really gone away.

Such was the influence of this particular monastery and its pontiffs on our family that once when I was about eight or nine, some well meaning uncle suggested that I spend my summer holidays helping out at the Madam. Doing light chores that included reading out from the number of letters that came to the pontiffs as they liked children to read them out aloud to them. Innocent enough, but with the benefit of hindsight, I shudder to think what other chores I may have been asked to do. Luckily, I was never sent away and I never got to find out (the blasphemy of such a thought!).

It might be sacrilegious to even think that but my disquiet with such institutions returned when some fifteen or so years ago, criminal charges were filed against it and the chief pontiff was taken into custody. There was much uproar at such an eminent person being treated like a common criminal. While I initially bristled at the images of someone whose photos hung all over the walls of the house where I grew up, being handcuffed, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and moving on. These were not the gods I was worshipping and I no longer held them in the same level of esteem as I had when I was a child.

Then news arrived this morning that the presiding pontiff Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal had passed away. My old ambivalence returns. There's a mild sadness that the man who was venerated as god incarnate in my family circles is no more. The pontiff had, in his time as head, made significant departure from the establishment and moved the Madam in a direction that incorporated social good into the religious practices. He had recognised that as a religious unit they needed to go beyond simply preaching and had to have a greater common purpose for the people. In that respect, he had also invited criticism but had stuck to his principles.

Despite these significant ventures, I am less than convinced about what made this order of monks special (I confess, I do not know enough about their teachings or more about the social causes they supported). They are good, kind, decent, generous people but I doubt they have superior powers (there! I've said it!) to the rest of us. My own uncertainty lives alongside the strong conditioning of my childhood years. And I'm fine with that.

Addendum: When I called my father to commiserate on the passing away of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, he spent more time talking about another godman (a well known con) that he is currently representing that the other more respected recently-deceased sage. We all move on, I guess. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Queen On Screen

At around nine or ten years of age, a popular question among friends was, among others, 'Sripriya or Sridevi?'. I don't remember what we did with the attendant answer. Chances are, we then followed it with a 'Rajini or Kamal?'. And even back then, I remember picking Sripriya because I seemed to think Sridevi was just too beautiful. She was nearly as tall as the men that she acted alongside (it was rumoured that Kamal would insist that she wore flat shoes on screen and that he would never be filmed standing too close to her) and very slim unlike her more matronly contemporaries that allowed her carry off dresses and sarees with equal ease. There was something about her near perfect looks that made her seem unattainable.

Sridevi couldn't be ours, she could not belong to us in the same way as we claimed other favourite actors, she was somehow beyond all rules of playground possession. She seemed to be floating in her own ecosystem, far removed from us normal people. 

Once she had moved to Hindi movies, that gap widened still and Sridevi would cease to be a part of our binary questions. Somehow her face had changed and she was speaking a different language. The last movie I saw of hers was English-Vinglish and I found myself continuously distracted by her very immobile face and a voice that seemed unlike the one I had heard coming out of her in her earlier movies (her voice had been dubbed over in Tamil and this was the first time I was listening to her actual voice, I later realised). 

It did not help that in English-Vinglish, Sridevi was playing a housewife who was preoccupied with domesticity and kitchen affairs. It was not a role for someone with the looks of a goddess. She could  have elves doing it for her, at the snap of her fingers. And yet, the movie portrayed her as a powerless, hapless woman because she spoke little English.

Sridevi has always seemed regal and even a touch aloof (who could blame her? One look at some of the men she had to romance on screen and you'll understand why she may have wanted to remain distant). This was not a woman who needed rescuing but someone who could hold sway independently. And she so often had, even while acting opposite alpha men.

Even in her death (How could she? When she had just the other day been seen on the pages of a fashion website and been called queenly? It makes no sense) she seems to have made a clean
exit. None of the ickiness of old age and impaired living but a swift, decisive end. Almost like the plot lines in the movies she played where all loose ends were neatly tied up and everyone exited the screen as the credits rolled. Only this is desperately sad and all too real. 

Today I watch some of the old songs from her movies and I realise that the question from all those years ago, really should have been this -  Sridevi and Rajini or Sridevi and Kamal? For this woman was a given. Her presence on screen is so strong, such a constant that she needs few embellishments to prop her up. She was one of the few women who could well and truly hold her own.

Goodbye, Sridevi and thank you.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier On A Slope?

Have you ever tried skiing?, asked a woman at the school where my children had just moved to from England. She was dark-skinned, seemed to be in her sixties and had a huge, friendly smile on her face. We had just moved to a part of Germany that sat right at the bottom of beautiful mountains. And where there are mountains, there is usually snow and where there is snow, there are crazy people throwing themselves off the hilltops. I wanted to quickly erase all memories of skiing but my husband intervened quickly and answered that yes, we had indeed gone skiing the previous year and why was she asking us about skiing, he wondered.

The reason was because Srilankan-born Shireen and her British husband Dan ran Ski Saturdays every year for the families at the school. And if we signed up to their programme, they would arrange for us to go to different resorts in the area for seven Saturdays between January and March. Before I knew what was happening, we were signing on the dotted line, buying ski gear (and spending a fortune!) and setting the alarm for a ghastly 5.30 on a Saturday morning to go skiing.

It was just as terrifying as I remember but the genial group atmosphere, friendly coaches and long indulgent lunches made it much less daunting. By the time the seven Saturdays were over, I could fling myself off the side of a mountain (no logic to this sport, I tell you) and remain standing when I reached the bottom.

We signed up again this year but this time, I'd injured myself in the foot and was advised to stay away from sport. In the intervening period, my fears had returned and after excusing myself the first week citing injury, I didn't want to go on the second week. But my husband wouldn't listen and insisted that I lace up. I resisted but as ever, he held sway and I found myself skiing downhill. It all came back to me and dare I say it, I even enjoyed submitting to gravity this time.

Last week, we went on a short ski break and for the first time, I ended up on a red run (they are coded in order of ease - blue, red and black) inadvertently. Despite being terrified and being completely alone, I managed to negotiate the course while still on two feet (you have the option to slide down on your bum - I passed on that one). Over the next couple of days, I would go back on red runs, but this time by choice. And each time, my fears eased a little and my confidence grew a bit.

There's still three more Ski Saturdays to go before we hang up our boots for the season. Skiing has taught me that I am capable of way more than I think I can. That once you are on a course of action, you just have to get through with it, there's no point looking back when you need to have your sights ahead. That no matter how skilled you might be, the mountain will always win. The only thing you can do is to surrender. To yield gracefully.

Answer: Downhillski

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier After Skiing?

On the last day of our ski break, my husband insisted that I go with him on the ski lift with him. I
would have none of it and he would not let me give up. So I slipped on the several layers of accoutrement and yet again, got trudging up the perilously icy stretch to get to the ski lift. The chair lifts are the ones that most celebs on a ski vacation get photographed sitting on. They dangle their beskibooted feet nonchalantly and wave to the attendant paparazzi. How anyone could smile while sitting on a suspended park bench dangling hundreds of feet from the ground is beyond me.

By the time I had got on to one with my husband by my side, I was a weeping wreck. After my first tumble on the slope, I had lost all sense of shame and now, all I really cared about was survival. What others thought about me was a thing of the past. And all through my howls, my husband sat resolutely still, not giving into my pleas (what was I pleading for? It was too late anyway).

Chair lifts slow down as they approach a landing and you need to lean forward, push yourself off the moving chair and be away skiing. As we slowed down, I would panic and instinctively lean backwards, the skis would run ahead of me and I would land on my back with a smack. This happened again and again - panic, slip, bang. It's a miracle that I didn't injure myself seriously as I seem to have been hell bent on it.

As I slipped off my ski boots that afternoon, I swore that I had seen the last of skiing. Little did I know that just eight months later, I would be signing up for it again.

Answer: Apresski

Monday, February 19, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier?

The first time I slipped my skis on, it took me a whole morning to get used to it. It is not normal to walk around with two long slats attached to your feet. It is positively weird. I had worn thermal underwear, ski top, ski trousers, ski jacket, helmet, googles, ski socks, ski boots and ski gloves. I held two ski poles in either hand and looked more like a bulked up Michelin man than a skier. And there was this whole other business of slotting your feet into skis and trying to walk uphill to reach the teaching area.

I spent three to four hours just trying to get across a few feet uphill. It didn't help that the rest of the group was negotiating this tricky manoeuvre with grace and ease while I looked like a stranded mammal trying desperately to get out of water. Gasping, spluttering and failing miserably. I'd take one foot ahead and slide back three and I would start again. Then there was this utter humiliation of falling. I kept falling, over and over again and needed assistance to stand up. And all the time, toddlers were racing past me with pity-filled eyes.

But look at me now!
There was one memorable instance when I was trying to go uphill on a button lift. These contraptions, if you have never had the good fortune of standing on one, work like this. They are round discs attached to metal poles that dangle from a carousel overhead. You are supposed to hold on to the stem of the pole and let yourself be dragged uphill from where you can ski down. Simple enough. Except it was anything but.

The wretched discs go round and round and as soon as one has left, you should get into position so you can grab the next one and be dragged up. I had issues with timing and would always be too late to catch them. And even when I did, my skis would not be parallel and within seconds my legs would be tangled and I would fall into a twisted heap. I would be led to the back of the queue and the ordeal would begin again. The next time I would get into position and ensure that my skis are parallel, only to have the discs knock me on the back of my head and make me lose control. Once when I had got myself into position, someone at the back of the queue had had enough and jumped ahead and unable to stand on a slope, I slid backward, fell down, watched the skies and wondered why I was putting myself through this.

By the third day, my legs were bruised badly and I didn't want to do it anymore. It didn't help that my instructor (memorably called Vlad. Everything was downhill from there) had yelled at me for not following his instructions. As an otherwise capable adult, I could not comprehend my abject inability to come to grips with this new skill.

I sat in the cafe, drank hot chocolate, marvelled at the French Alps and felt utterly miserable. The next day I had an hour's private lesson with a kinder and altogether more easy going French woman and it was marginally better. That Saturday before we were due to leave, my husband insisted that I go with him and he took me on my first ever ski chair lift ride. What followed next is not something I would forget easily.

Answer: Parallelski

Joke courtesy: Firstborn

Thursday, February 08, 2018

On The Beaches, In The Fields, German Everywhere

The German B1 test is one that those who are looking to live in Germany permanently need to take. People generally do that after having lived here for a few years. I have no intention of staying here for the rest of my life but having been here for sixteen months, I thought I'd take the test anyway. For weeks leading up to the test, I beavered away at it. It wasn't hard work in the way that I had worked for exams before, learning by rote and slaving at it dawn to dusk. But this was altogether a more enjoyable way to work for an exam. No German magazine or newspaper would go through the household without having at least an article read by me. Some I understood but most, I had a minimal grasp of. Still, I put in the hours reading and reading some more.

At the cafe and elsewhere, I spoke as often as I could to others in German and most were polite enough to humour me. I booked myself in for a training course and spent a Friday evening learning tips on how to pass the exam - mind you, this came after I'd spent eight hours earlier in the day cooking at the cafe. A colleague from the cafe spent an afternoon speaking to me in German ahead of the oral exams and I cooked for her as a thank you.

"Wir werden an den Stränden kämpfen,
wir werden auf dem Landeplatz kämpfen"
The exam itself was not that hard but concentrating for hours at a stretch was exacting. I'd not taken a German exam up until then and wasn't sure what level I was at and decided to keep my expectations low. The results would come later that evening and I asked my son whose school had finished early that day, to join me in the city while I waited. We watched The Darkest Hour dubbed in German, marvelling at the irony of watchingWinston Churchill vowing to fight the Germans on beaches and in the fields in German.

The results were to be called out by a woman from the Goethe Institute who would then hand out the certificates. I was really not certain about the outcome and chose to remain in the corridor while my son sat on the sofa in the waiting room where the results would be announced. The woman walked in. My son beckoned me inside. I shook my head. Come in, he mouthed. No, I said. You will have passed, he assured me. Don't think so, I mimed. You are so good, Amma, he said. I'm rubbish, I pleaded. The woman started calling out names alphabetically. Mine wasn't the first one like it usually is (initials AA). I was about to leave. Mine wasn't the second name either. I was on my way out. A pause. Then I thought I heard my name. That's my mum, said my son clapping for me. The woman said something about my marks which didn't register.

I came out into the corridor clutching my certificate. I had passed. 83% in reading, 80% in listening, 77% in writing and 90% in speaking.

That's when I realised how seamlessly our roles had reversed. My son was the reassuring parent and me the child riddled with self-doubt. He was cool and certain about my abilities while I was a wreck. That evening I knew what I was most proud about. The tall, ridiculously handsome and utterly charming son who became the parent when I needed one? Or the language skills? That's easy. German's a doddle. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Penny Drops On Crutches

I fell down on Christmas Day. Out for a jog and back home on crutches. One minute I was jogging and the next I was done clutching my ankle which had swollen like a balloon. A kind stranger offered to take me to the hospital, but I had left my mobile behind at home and we needed to make a stopover to collect it so I could call my husband and update him (he was away with the boys on a bike ride on a different route).

So the kind woman drove me home and I gave her the keys to let herself in while I remained in her car. I called out directions to her as to where to find my mobile - luckily, I remembered where I'd left it and she didn't have root around for it. She helped me get off the car, brought me a wheelchair and waited for a while with me at the hospital. The X-rays revealed nothing at first glance but a doctor called two days later and informed me that I'd chipped bone and that my foot had to be in a brace for six weeks. We'd booked to ski for seven Saturdays from mid-January but he strongly advised me against doing any sport (an advice I paid heed to selectively) as it could hinder the healing process.

On Christmas morning, I'd complained to a friend about how I was still struggling to get used to the German brusqueness citing a recent incident when a rank strangers asked me if I really didn't speak much German or if I was just "being lazy". It rankled me a lot as I'd put in a lot of effort into tackling their bewildering maze of language. Why are they being so rude?, I'd bemoaned to my friend over the weekly catch up, why can't they be civil to foreigners?

And yet, barely a couple of hours later, there I was being accosted home and taken to hospital by someone whose name I forgot to ask and whose whereabouts I was in too much pain to find out. Came out of nowhere and offered to help a foreigner in need. Bloody Germans!