Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Monday, 4 June 2018

Us Writers

It's having that e book out that caused this soul-searching.  What's wrong with my writing that no one ever buys any of my books? 

   Forget the agents and the publishers and such-like. I was at a workshop recently where three out of four agents on the podium happily proclaimed that they go by recommendations. 'A friend of a friend suggested I read that book by this new author...' One said they depended on their authors who have been with them for some years. And they are not looking for a one-off best-seller, they want an author they can nourish and sustain and will continue laying the golden eggs for many years to come. That's definitely not me.

   Sadly, at 83 years and counting, I can't promise to provide sustenance for any length of compos-mentis time. My most recent book, my memoir, AS FATHERS GO is probably my best writing to date. And the next one, BUSH STROKES is incubating nicely. Ready to be written. I am taking a break. Gardening and contemplating the weather. 

   Why do I write? Clearly I like the activity. You could even say I am a little lost when I stop. I enjoy searching for that elusive word or phrase hiding in my sub-conscious. I have a sense of accomplishment when I scratch it out. I am still learning new words. Anomie was the last one. I like the sound of that.

   Then there is my granddaughter, Asha. I tell myself I am keeping her apprised of a world long past, which still has a part to play in her world today. The jointedness of histories.

   As for my book, I think I will look for somewhere to serialise it. Must get on with the next one.

   An excerpt below - again - to test the waters.

Achamma (grandmother) goes mad.

Achan came (from jail), without notice, for two weeks, to see his mother, who was fading rapidly. After he went to jail, she, literally, had turned her face to the wall and decided to die. Through that time, she was also slowly going mad. Her eldest son had died in early youth of small-pox; her second son was in Malaya and there was no news of him from the beginning of hostilities between Britain and Japan. And now her youngest son was in prison. She believed all of them were dead, and she had no time for her daughters who cared for her.
Achamma’s idea of a prison was a place where you were starved and beaten up. One morning, she grabbed me by my arm when I was contemplating the day from my usual seat on the veranda steps. She dragged me down the walkway to the front gates and pushed me on to the road.
I didn’t understand what this was about. Her claw-like hands clutched my elbows fiercely and her skeletal torso was bent forward.
‘Go,’ she said giving me a shove. ‘Go to your mother’s house. There’s nothing and nobody for you here.’
I stood on the side of the road and made a circle with my heels in the soft dust, trying to work this out. My mother’s family lived in Madras, a good day’s journey away by train; how was I meant to go there?
After a moment, she looked left and right down the road and pointed in the direction of the river. A bus hurtled past towards Cunnoor.
‘There,’ she said. ‘See. They’ve tied your father to the back of the bus and they are beating him. He’s thin and weak, they’ll kill him.’ She gave me a firm nudge.
I was now on the edge of our road, more than a little perplexed. So I dug my heel into the red mud on the side and pivoted round again making another small circle with my toes. Achamma turned and went back to the house. I waited a few moments and walked to the veranda looking right and left. Why was I feeling a little ashamed? I hoped no one next door had noticed this little drama.
            I pondered. Then I went looking for Naani Edathy.
            ‘Achamma asked me to go away to my Veliyamma’s house.’ I started crying.
            Naani Edathy was spreading dosha (a crepe made with rice and black-dhal) mixture on the skillet and the hiss and the yeasty smell reminded me of how much I hated doshas.
            ‘That old woman is raving mad,’ Naani Edathy said. She was still looking at the skillet and gently turning the dosha. Not what I wanted from her.
            I thrust my thumb into the hole in the waist of my slip and howled. 
            ‘I am not going,’ I sobbed. ‘I’m here.’
            Naani Edathy quickly took the skillet off the fire and ran towards me.
            ‘Of course you are. With me. That mad old woman!’
            She pulled the corner of her mundu out and cleaned my leaking nose and wiped my cheeks.  Then she picked me up and held me close.
            ‘You have charcoal streaks on your face,’ she said, smiling. I threw my arms around her neck and nestled close.
            ‘I don’t like Dosha,’ I said capitalising on her kindness.
            ‘How about I roast a plantain for you when no one is looking?
            My little sorrows had vanished by then; I jumped off and went in search of Mani. An unease lingered.
            ‘Did Achamma ask you to go to your mother’s house?’ I asked.
            ‘What? To Penang?’ she asked sensibly.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

That Football Fiasco

Alright - I admit. WE lost. 3 -1 is not a huge collapse, nevertheless...

Was Karius responsible for the debacle? He gave two goals away for nothing and that was definitely the chief cause of our collapse. But, don't forget, Karius did a few great saves too.

I feel sorry for that young man. Nobody consoled him yesterday. That's heartless. Karius improved vastly over the last three or four months. He was never Champions' League goalie material. He may get there in a few years time; he has come a long way recently.

Meanwhile --
As soon as Salah left the field our team gave up. They started retreating, allowing Real to push us further and further back. In any case, Liverpool is famous for losing matches in the last ten minutes. We burn out at eighty minutes -- that's not Karius' fault.

Also - Firmino and Lallana were practically invisible. Sane' was compensating for two strikers, not one. The defence was not bad till that awful roll-back goal.

Real kept playing on the left wing and we let them attack from there -- why was there nobody defending that area?

We did well this season at home and in the Champions' League, even though we lost that final match. Klopp has transformed the team. So, next season, we will come back renewed, stronger, more confident. Allez, allez, allez.

So says a very old Indian woman who likes football. But, above all, mercy to the boys who make mistakes. That's what makes us human.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Sea Change in Getting Married in Kerala

Two young persons got engaged in the last three months in my family -- a girl and a boy. I loved the colourful snapshots that appeared on Facebook immediately after: beaming parents and prospective in-laws on either side of the pair being spliced, older relatives parked in prominent places, a few children for buffer, and the ubiquitous lamp and flowers. We've come a long away.
   I knew about my engagement in 1957 via the buzz in the house and a cousin who had an uncanny gift for listening at windows. I was no part of it.
   Two men, my husband's brother and a decrepit uncle came to our house on the day. The kaniyan (astrologer) was the biggest part of the event. He came early, shuffled his cowries and laid them out in front of the men. No women anywhere in sight. He then pronounced ponderously on all that was going to happen -- or not happen -- if we went ahead with the marriage. He failed to mention that the marriage would collapse after seventeen years, or any of the fall-out from that.
   I didn't wear rich clothes for the event and the bridegroom to be was nowhere around. The men were treated to a festive meal - all two of them and the wedding was fixed.
   Today the bride and groom-to-be meet the whole family, there is a huge feast, everybody is in festive clothes, and the bride can meet and talk with her husband-to-be if she is so inclined.
   Great stuff, I think. I wondered about the expense to the bride's family, but you can always sell your land,get a loan... Or go back to a pared down ceremony and save your money and your nerves.

Monday, 30 April 2018

As Fathers Go

In the little town, Thalassery, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, the Southwest Monsoon rules as usual, and life is determined by its rhythms and the widespread death and devastation it brings every year. A World war is raging in Europe and parts of Asia, India is a reluctant participant and the Congress Party has had enough. It wants Swaraj now.
Raghavan, the young lawyer, is determined to bring up his daughter, Anandam, himself, having lost his child-bride to Tuberculosis when she was eighteen years old. According to him, the school cannot do enough to educate her for the twentieth century, and the women of his extended family are mired in superstition. So, he decides what she reads, teaches her to speak English fluently, introduces her to the religions in India, its music and history, and keeps her close. He fends off all the marriage proposals that come from the time she is fifteen years old. She is not going to be man-fodder like his wife.
Raghavan is also one of the Congress Party leaders, in their non-violent conflict with the British rulers, and goes to jail for two years, when Gandhi asks the Raj to Quit India. During this period he is reduced to sending heavily censored letters from jail to his daughter.
However, as she grows up, falls in and out of love, he loses his confidence. She, on the other hand, with all her reading, knows there is a world out there she wants to claim and the books are no longer enough. She gets married to get out of the little town and ends up in an empty relationship, in far off Ceylon. Eventually she finds her way out of the system and goes to Nigeria to start being part of that huge, magical world she has only known in books.
In a hide-bound Nair community, this odd father-and-daughter relationship is one that puzzles and annoys them.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

My Diverse Religions

Achamma had been denied her role in the household when I started at school without her consultation of the Panchangam, the holy book with the auspicious times and dates.; she was disgusted. Her rituals were normally directed towards invoking the blessings of a large pantheon of Hindu gods and warding off evil eyes and spirits. This much-venerated book, the Panchangam, was about the positions of planets and stars in the firmament at any given moment and what configurations would provide the most auspicious time to do anything special. Achamma’s copy was quite old – the Panjangam prophesied for five years at a time, so it tended to be consulted well beyond its disintegration. It was a thin book with yellowing pages, the tiny print and crammed lines making up for the lack of paper-space.  Our copy smelled of old newspaper and incense. The booklet generally rested behind the plaster statue of the blue Krishnan, which was the centrepiece of our indoor shrine in the padingitta.
That shrine was also the centre-piece of our life. When we children came in from play in the evenings, and washed, we had to sit in front of the shrine and recite our prayers and incantations. ‘Ramaramarama’ fifty times was one of them. We did it at break-neck speed, Appuettan, Mani and I lined up in front of the lighted nilavilakku. Another was a hymn to Saraswathy, the goddess of education and prosperity. We were not fed till after our prayers and we had put sacred ash on our foreheads. The ash, gritty to the touch, was kept near the Krishnan-image in a brass tray, which always had a few burnt-out matchsticks in it. The place smelled of gingelly oil, ash and sandalwood.
            Crepe paper in many colours and shiny gold and silver paper cut into moon and star shapes, as well as calendar pictures of Saraswathy, Shivan, Krishnan, and all Achamma’s Gods (and there were many) decorated the prayer corner, where the nilavilakku, the sacred lamp, was lighted at dawn and dusk. That familiar smell of sulphur, oil and ash would mean the beginning of another day. During the scarcities of the war years, it would be just one valiant wick instead of the customary five in more prosperous times
            If I behaved myself, Ammamma would let me help cut the crepe paper, but I knew I wasn’t good at it. For us, at that time, a few sheets of card or coloured paper was a huge luxury. These days, I look at my granddaughter’s store of stationery: cards of many hues, colour pencils by the dozens, even some for the dog to chew, markers, stickers, glue of different kinds (we used rice-paste), and I think – all this and I-phones too. Not to mention sleep-overs, day-spends and trips into shopping malls. The nature of school-life has changed. I think the nature of grandmother-hood has also changed. My perspective is troglodyte.
            I remember begging over-cooked rice from the kitchen and mashing it with my fingers into paste; the nuns at school used flour. If we needed foolscap paper for homework, Ammamma would give us a quarter-anna for one precious sheet. As for colour pencils, I remember one, half blue, half red, so that the two ends were two different colours.
            And sleepovers? Nice Malayalee girls were not allowed to spend nights at some other family’s home. What if the father was a drunk? Or beat up his wife in front of the children? The question of shopping malls did not arise because the concept of shopping as a leisure activity did not exist. We didn’t have pocket money either. You bought only things that you needed, and in the days of plastic-less existence, apart from textiles (no ready-made garments then) and minimal beauty products, what was there to buy? I remember Cuticura powder, which was our sole aid to beauty, and the pottu and kohl. D I Y Chandu for the pottu was made from rice flour, and kohl was created from a clean rag dipped in lime juice and burnt on to a piece of clay. The soot was scraped off and mixed with gingelly oil to form a hard paste. We depended on the flowers in our hair, long before Aung San Suki, to make us sparkle.
When Achamma heard that I had started school without benefit of her selection of auspicious days and times, she hawked and spat red betel juice in frustration. But she didn’t dare raise it with my father; she knew he would have no sympathy for her. Achamma muttered and murmured her displeasure for a whole day and took to her bed as a protest. Achan did not notice, but Ammamma reminded her gently that Achan did not believe in the Panjangam and wouldn’t notice her sulks anyway. When my father was ill with bronchitis, as he often was, she would stand on the bottom steps of the staircase to his bedroom and do the casting away of evil spirits and envious eyes. It had nothing to do with his smoking according to her. Of course.

Did my achamma know of the diverse paths my religious education took under the nuns at Sacred Heart? If she did, she would have been horrified. For prayers, we were taught Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer. Most Wednesdays we were led around the Ways of the Cross in the beautiful little chapel in the school-yard. There was Angelus twice a day, when the special bells would ring out alerting us. Then there was the Act of Contrition. If you failed to say it before you went to sleep, the devil would get your soul. And if you died in your sleep, the hell-fires awaited you.
            Limbo was the destination of the unfortunate infant who died without informing the church of his existence and getting baptised. What a God! And, in Limbo, there was no remission for good behaviour – you stayed there to eternity. All of us had one slim chance, in spite of our sins, moral and venal, after a long and unpredictable wait; there would be a second coming and we could be forgiven and by-pass purgatory, to go straight to heaven. Sisters defined moral and venal sins to us in great detail so that we understood some sins were more vile than others.
Sister painted graphic pictures of the devil, with flaming torso, waiting to engulf all the feckless Hindu girls who went home and changed faith, back to Ramaramarama and the many depraved Gods of the Hindu pantheon every day. I was comfortable oscillating between the two religions, and today, I find that that early accommodation to any religion that comes by, sustains my sense of the ludicrous regarding all of them.
Then there were the Jesus-pictures, which we were encouraged to collect. Like collecting match-labels. The nuns must have made a decent profit there.
Our first lesson every morning was Moral Science. It began with Catechism:
“Who made you?                                                                                        
God made me.
Why did God make you?
To love him, to obey him…”
Sounded like a training scheme for Kerala wives.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Rituals of recent Kerala Marriages

With respect to the actual rituals accompanying weddings, things have changed in India in recent times. In Thalassery, which has managed to stay unscathed, pristine and undeveloped, even when the rest of Kerala is rapidly advancing within the twenty-first century, marriage ceremonies are no longer short or simple; diversity has entered in a big way. Now, in 2017, the accretions over the decades to what was a simple, pared-down marriage-ritual confound me.
First there was the thali, the sacred chain round the neck, to be blessed by the pujari and tied round the bride’s neck by the groom. (No such leashes for him.) This would be removed only when she was widowed or dead, so a life-long encumbrance when bathing, swimming etc. I got rid of mine somewhere along the way when no one was looking, but I kept it in a quick-access place. In case. My husband was not interested enough to notice that my thali had gone. Or indeed anything else about me had gone.
The thali was a distinctly South Malabar practice; my husband was from Palakkad, in South Malabar. Via Sri Lanka.  I was from the North. Once upon a time, Nairs from the North and south of Malabar did not inter-marry. South Malabar by our reckoning started some sixty-five miles south of Thalassery, the other side of the Baratha puzha, the notional boundary river, but things were changing fast.
To begin with, there is the amount of gold the brides carry around on their weary arms and neck. A jeweller in Kochi told me that some parents buy gold by the kilo now-a-days. After the wedding the gold is stowed away in a vault or a strong box and hardly ever sees the light of day. The parents may have sold ancestral land to bestow this amount of metal on their daughter. In my time, the gold was minimal and nobody counted.  I wonder why, in what is a country where there are many poor people, we don't use that lavish wealth to establish orphanages, educate girls, build schools and hospitals in remote villages... So much to do and we assign our assets to incarceration in a dark place!
When did the practice of exchanging rings arrive in Nair rituals?. In the past, it had been a Christian practice, but by 1957, families from Malabar were incorporating rings into the ceremony. Again, I took mine off at some unknown guest house while on the road and forgot it. My husband similarly got rid of his. Neither of us knew where the rings had gone. Or cared.
And in today’s elaborate weddings, the close family and friends have to feed the bride and groom banana and milk after the wedding. So, the couple sit on a raised platform and suffer this procession of people thrusting spoons into their mouths. Where did that abomination come from?
Now, in the twenty-first century, the marriage rituals from all over India have coalesced somewhat in terms of their elasticity. Weddings can be anything from two to five days long, depending on the wealth of the bride’s family and their inclination to show off. In one wedding in Paris a few years ago, a wealthy Indian patriarch flew in his guests from all over the world to attend his daughter’s wedding. Even the Mehndi ceremony, now so popular in Kerala, came from the north of India; a whole day is devoted to it nowadays, drawing designs on the palms of the bride, and a cohort of invited girls.
A recent aberration, if you are really, disgustingly wealthy, is for family and guests to travel to a resort overseas like the Maldives or Sri-Lanka for the wedding, the father of the bride picking up the bill. Jesus wept!
I live in hope. Somewhere along the line, it might dawn on a little girl watching that the emperor’s clothes are a matter of illusion.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Nair Marriages -- Pudamuri (The cutting of Cloth)

In those days, that is in the early twentieth century, in the Nair caste to which both my parents belonged, engagement was an event organised by the elders, and because it was a matrilineal society, with inheritance passing down the female line, from uncle to niece, rather than father to children, this engagement was master-minded by my mother’s uncle. It might have been mentioned in passing to the child-bride-to-be by her mother, if she was lucky. The uncles, in those days, took responsibility for feeding and clothing their nieces and nephews, finding husbands and wives when the time came, and for conducting the weddings.

The kaniyan, the local astrologer, was the central figure in this event; he would decide whether the horoscopes of the prospective partners matched; he would even pronounce on their sexual compatibility (yoni porutham), without seeing either of them. He generally came with a bagful of cowrie shells and a piece of chalk. A representative from the prospective bridegroom’s family would attend to approve the decisions.

I remember the sense of occasion connected to the arrival of the kaniyan in any house. Generally, there were only a handful of them catering to the community, and everyone knew them by sight. They came at moments of significance in a household, heralding weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals… The kaniyan, it was, who would decide what were auspicious times and dates for starting journeys to foreign countries, or a housewarming.

There would be the sacred nilavilakku presiding over the ceremony. Of course. The kaniyan would draw some columns and lines on the floor, a complicated noughts-and-crosses shape in front of the ceremonial lamp. Then he would start arranging the shells within his diagram, according to the horoscopes of the prospective bride and bridegroom.

After placing the shells he would ‘read’ them. He would chant Sanskrit verses, justifying every prediction made by him. The men of the house would sit around him, leaning forward, listening avidly, even if they did not understand a word of Sanskrit. Women would hover near the windows in the corridors behind to get a whiff of the decision being formed.

If the horoscopes of the bride and the groom ‘matched,’ especially the positions of Saturn, Mars and the Sun in the firmament when they were born, he would ceremoniously tie the two horoscopes together. (I should know, because Saturn was in all the wrong places in my horoscope, and so I was able to escape marriage for a very long time.) After that the kaniyan would suggest auspicious dates for the wedding and leave with his fee, a few coins, tucked into the waist of his mundu.

       The marriage ceremony itself was a non-event. The point of it was to permit a man and a woman to sleep together and produce off-spring. The ritual was minimal. A garlanding of the bride and groom, with jasmine garlands if they were available, in front of the lighted nilavilakku, in the padingitta, the puja room of the house. A few family members and neighbours would be watching. Then a feast, which would go on till late in the night because Nair weddings took place in the night. Somewhere, in between, the bride would be led to the nuptial bed and the door of the chamber closed firmly behind her, by one of her paternal aunts. There you are then, go forth and copulate.
       I wait hopefully, for the time when Indians can live together a while and test the waters out before they get married to partners of their own choice. Even in the villages. I would happily endorse a few dirty weekends here and there. Definitely preferable to the head-long somersault into marriage.
       And the sad part is, even to this day, marriages are hard to get out of. People look at the urban, educated professionals of India; obviously they find it easy to terminate marriages. They make their own choices; people looking in from the outside assume this is true of all of India. In villages, (and remember, ninety percent of India’s population live in villages,) marriages are life-long, and women have to stay in them, however abusive or love-less they are.
       For the man, it was always a matter of choice, and they did exercise that choice. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, men taking second and third wives was common. My aunt was a second wife, my grandfather’s sister was a first wife who had to suffer the humiliation of a second wife, in the same house, ensconced just down the corridor.
       Here, again, we may notice an imbalance of power between a man and his wife. Add to that the fact that, in a joint family home, loyalties were fragmented, and the wife was dependent on the mercy of many people. She would have no financial resources of her own and no home of her own. Her own family would not countenance her return home with equanimity – they would try to send her back. Today’s working women do not depend on husbands for income, do not meekly stay with their in-laws and are quite capable of going it alone.

When I left my husband in 1972, I didn’t go back to India for six years. I’d experienced the slander and the harassment when I went home briefly, and it took me a very long time to summon up the courage to return. I was not invited to any family events during this period as I ‘would bring misfortune on the event’ with my presence. I was persona non-grata.

I noticed that later, when I became independent financially I was accepted back -- for the same reason that professional women manage to get control of their lives. The common denominator in all these situations is money. And shelter. For a woman, in my book, the most important safeguards are a place to live and an income. The home doesn’t have to be owned, rented would be fine if you can afford the rent. If you don’t have a place for you and your children to live, you are man-fodder.