Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Thursday, 5 July 2018

That Wonderful NHS

That Wonderful NHS

In the Spring of 1967, I was in pieces. There had been a family tragedy, which felled me to the floor. And we were leaving Eastern Nigeria for good. The Biafran civil war was getting closer every day to Enugu, where I lived. I was glad to get out.

   The journey, however, was a nightmare. My one-year-old daughter was running a high fever and nothing would bring it down. Airline problems forced us to spend three days in Amsterdam on the way to England where we were headed. Three days keeping up in the night feeling the fever in Manju's body, petrified that her small body would be burnt out.

   So, when we finally got to England, my first task was to get my daughter to a doctor. We had found a bed-and-breakfast place on Edgeware Road and the nearest hospital was Paddington Green. 

   It was another three days before the doctors diagnosed urinary infection and put Manju on medication. I was worried that the hospital bill would be an enormous one, which we would struggle to pay. No one had discussed with us what the daily rates were, what the treatment would cost.

   Maju and I stayed in the hospital for a week till she recovered. The hospital provided a room for me downstairs to stay the night and be near her. That would add to the bill. When Manju was finally discharged, I went to the cash-counter and asked for my bill, with some trepidation.

   'How much is it and will you take a cheque?' I asked.

   The receptionist smiled. ''No bill,' she said.

   I was an Indian citizen passing through England, but the NHS had taken care of my daughter with grace and goodwill. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

   What a service, and how wonderful that Britain had this -- hospitals, doctors, medicines and all else needed for the care of the needy -- on tap, for rich and poor, even for 'air-rush' immigrant like me!

   I would do anything, pay any amount of tax, stagger along in protest with my walking stick, whatever is needed to make this Tory group of imbeciles who govern us see the light.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Rainbow Hues of Love

Love is definitely many-hued and 'many-splendoured.' It's Roopa, our writing group's amanuensis, scribe and editor who made me think. Apparently next months news letter is on the theme of love. All in twenty pages in between agendas, updates, accounts...

   I am watching my cat Booba on the lawn shaking her arse and fluffing up her tail, which resembles a feather-duster anyway, before she pounces on the squirrel at the bird-feeder. Not a hope, I think and she knows it too. I 'love' my two cats and my silly dog Lily-lala.They bring sanity to this household in between bouts of football mania and the Brexit saga.

   My children of course make me in some way complete, so that when one goes away, I am amputated, looking for that lost limb. This kind of love is unconditional. I look for the self-interest in it and find very little. And where can you start in categorising what grandchildren mean? They are in a class of their own.

   I am thinking of all the ways in which I have 'loved.' That succession of young Kerala boys who caught my brief, wayward attention and disappeared in various directions -- I was certainly infatuated with them. A whole two pages of my memoir are devoted to those many fleeting passers-by. And then there are the slightly longer- lasting two or three (??), who lingered a few weeks more in my young imagination. They also went leaving feather-light memories behind, with all the colours of a monsoon rainbow.

   I loved my father with a deep devotion all my life and think of him almost daily, though he died in 1983. And all the women who cared for me when my mother disappeared. I have no mental picture of my mother who died when I was two years old. Among my many cousins who came and went like the seasons in Thalassery, I loved some and held some in contempt. So many different kinds of commitment.

   My friends from my wanderings in Africa -- they lent colour to my life and I enjoy their company whenever. The Net has made it possible to keep in touch. And that diversity of cultures makes me who I am.

   I am beginning to come to the conclusion that with married (or unmarried) love, men and women should be allowed to choose what and who they want to 'love.' It is especially appropriate today with the LGBT legislation coming through that human beings should be able to love same or opposite sex, as a matter of course, without comment. Sometimes same-sex attractions are towards a particular individual who somehow 'fits.' rather than to all the other folks in the same broad category.

   I often think love has passed me by-- or I have not recognised it when it appeared in front of me. Then I remember in flashes the euphoria of being in love, however briefly, how the world lighted up and each dawn was a wonder. How it was suddenly so important to touch, the way my whole self bent towards that person like the sunflower to the sun. Pathetic??? Profound? That was magic.

   Now in my old age, the only love I am giving up is for possessions and wealth -- almost. Not quite there, but I am winning.

  

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.