Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
Something to say?

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Changing Face of Indian Marriages

Some years ago, in the fifties, when I was ripe for sacrifice, there was the Suitable Boy and the supplicant parents syndrome. Like, I have this daughter: beautiful, brilliant at college, sings like a nightingale, cordon bleau cook and I will give her away to any odd-body that deigns to take her away. (Not me I am talking about, but the general trend.)We'll also give him a lot of money on occasion, and deck our daughter with gold. So long as he is the right caste, and of the same education and social levels.
   In those days I was merely irritated by this. Many Indian novelists writing in English became successful on the phenomenon of 'arranged' marriages, Seth included. Now things have changed (for the better) and I have to be astounded.
   When I got married in 1957 I had no expectations beyond a secure home and a husband who would let me be. A few rich saris and gold trinkets would come in handy too. Love did not enter the equation.
   My problem was that I couldn't let him be. I wanted him to have words like me, discuss the nature of religion, death, and the sun rising daily. Now I know this was unreasonable. But then, I felt cheated and wondered why my far-seeing father had lost his courage when it came to his daughter's spouse. I had married into a family that had got degrees, but never got educated. They deplored the strange fact that their new bride wanted to read books while still on honeymoon.
   The next generation did not fare too differently. The girls were still decorated and given away for nothing, on a plate. The bridegrooms sat back and took their pick - or their families did. For them it was effortless.
   Not so for the brides. They had to fast and pray on Saturdays so that they would get good husbands. And their mothers directed them to make themselves desirable with oil baths, and frequent the temples to plead with the Gods.
   If, in addition to being merely stroppy, you also had Saturn in your seventh house according to the astrologers - as I had - God help you. The prospects were gloomy.
   The only saving grace in those days was that most weddings took place in the home of the brides and took all of ten minutes. Now you are not married, now you are. Many people came for the vegetarian feast but the gold expected by the bridegrooms' families did not require a second mortgage and festivities did not go on for five days in five different places.
   Now of course the girls have wised up. They have flooded the higher end of the job markets and stride the world with confidence. If they don't like what they get they come home in six months and forget the husband.
   How easy it has become to 'unmarry?'  No stigma attached and no shame to the family.
   There are many reasons why the women these days get disillusioned with married life:
     No one has mentioned sex in passing, so there is trouble in that department sometimes.
     The concept that marriages are all about gold jewellery and fancy clothes takes a beating. There is cooking to do, mother-in-law to contend with and the husband is after all a stranger, whose character comes to focus slowly.
     Two families have got married too in the process and both have to be placated.
     Expectations, ratcheted up by cinema and television soaps are hard to meet.
   A few are lucky - allowed to make their own mistakes. That is for urban women. For the rural girls times lag behind.
   The sacrificial lamb however is still decked out and fortunes spent on getting rid of her. Families are impoverished in the process and grievances last a lifetime.
   If I could persuade these young girls to stand firm and reject husbands who demand dowries, if I could show them how they can get married simply and with grace and the outcomes would be no different... It would be a step too far if I suggested they live together with future spouses, test the domestic waters, but I live in hope.
   It is all just a question of time. Rock on girls, the future is with you.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quality of Memory

   Inevitable that when I begin admitting to age (senility?) I also have to consider the quality of my memory. At seventy-six, (the new sixties they call it, hoodwinking themselves) I am only beginning to stare down anno domini face-on. I am not winning.
   So I dig deep into my Thalassery beginnings, and sometimes I come up with gold. Brings a smile to my heart:
   My first train journey on the Madras Mail: it usually came in at about mid-day daily (a very elastic mid-day as trains did not care too much about schedules then; there were so few, they took major liberties with time.) and left two hours later, after its journey further north. I could hear the magic whistle of that train as it approached the station, huffing and puffing, and when it went on its way to Mangalapuram, I listened to it clickety-clacking on that flimsy bridge across the Koduvally river. I counted the wooden sleepers on the bridge once when I was older - there were eighty-three of them. And little 'reserves' for people walking on that bridge, if a train came by. They jutted out of the bridge and seemed designed for a small cat.
   I was going to Madras to visit my mother's family, the first time after my mum disappeared from my life, around the age of two-and-a half years. I had not started school yet, so I would be less than four years old at that time. My father got Shekaran Meistry, his tailor, to make me four silk dress; dark, velevety green, rich maroon, sunshine yellow and midnight blue. They all had small white or cream prints on them and Meistry had added piping and frills. For a little girl who lived in white mul-mul slips this was untold luxury. That day I wore my green dress. 
   Just before I left - for all of six weeks- my father reminded me to go next door and say goodbye to our neighbours, the two sisters, Madhavi and Nani, who 'borrowed' me every day for a while. They fed me eggs from their chicken and let me play in the goat-poo, which dried to black nuts and didn’t smell at all.
   Their brother Kannan used the dried waste for his garden and he was a severe looking man. I called him Kannettan. In an age when all older men wore Ettan tags and women were Echis. He was forever chanting the nos. Picking up the goat-poo was a definite no-no.  But that day he smiled and hugged me. Picked a red rose off his one rose bush, indeed the only rose on that bush, and told the women to stick it under my bobby pin. That rose was perfect, shiny, with petals shaped in rose-heaven. I can still remember the lovely smell of it.
   'Motherless little one,' the women murmured as they fussed over me. Memory is not a video; it is a series of stills, crystal clear as in the eyes of a child. A pretty green dress, the silk slippery on me; a red rose to die for; a whisper in my ear, which spelt love. Perfect!
   That day I learned there were advantages to the motherless state, especially if you did not know your mother. Much later, my father fed me books, while most other girls were learning to cook, getting wood-ash in their hair, as I cultivated a reader's hump with bad posture. I learned words and how to play with them, to conquer the world with them. No one told me the parameters of a young Malayalee girl's existence, no one used that horrendous word, obedience. As in obedience to the masters of the household, the all-important MEN.
    My father, well ahead of the pack, insisted that obedience was an over-rated virtue. Could be a serious handicap, he said, and I never knew whether he was joking or not.
   Many years after, when I left my husband and went to England, my Velyamma, maternal grandmother, who had no role in my growing up, said to me, 'You never learned obedience.'  She meant that special willingness to accept what the men decreed. Thank God for that!
   Memory is splintered and the chronology is suspect. However I continue to make my own rules. And when I pull out a special card from that jumbled pack of fading cards we call memory, I colour the bits that are going sepia, fading on me. I can pick my own colours.

Friday, 2 December 2011


Last night it was big-time thumb exercise for me- clicking the remote to find something worth watching. Reality TV, it seems, had done for quality soaps. Upstairs Downstairs, Minder, Love thy Neighbour, The Good Life - all those stellar cameos we now see ad nauseum in repeats till the fun is squeezed out of them - why can we not produce that quality of TV anymore?
   I had just finished a lovely novel by Penelope Lively (How it all Began) and was looking for time-pass till I homed in on the next one. Which was in the end, a P.D. James via Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (Death at Pemberley.) Not sure I like where she is going, but must give her a few more pages before I decide.
   All this made me wonder: how did we entertain ourselves before television, computers, videos and the like?

   We young girls gossiped a great deal and there was much to gossip about. Remember, in Kerala of that time (the forties), even looking at a boy for too long was a punishable offence. (This was called 'eye flinging.') A fourteen-year-old girl I knew swallowed copper sulphate and killed herself because someone had intercepted a love-letter she had written to a boy in her class .Girls and boys sat in different sections of school and college and did not socialize beyond the odd lending or borrowing of lecture notes. (Lots of scope there, mind you. My first clandestine message was the photo of a boy who lent his Organic Chemistry text book to me, with his photo pasted on the back-flap. Daring! I treated it like hot coals.

   Normally we combined hair drying with gossip - the activities blended well. We girls would actually organize ourselves in the back-veranda: take out the wooden foot stools to sit on,  find a corner at a safe distance from the adults so that we would not be hijacked for domestic duties... The boys were exempt from all kitchen fatigues. What did they do? Hang out with other boys on the roads? Kick a worn out tennis ball around? There is so much you can do with balls. Excuse the pun, quite unintended.

   Times when we girls had our periods were best as we were considered 'impure' and nobody would expect us to fetch and carry, grind the coconut or red chillie on the stone for the fish curry or wash up... Indeed we were not allowed to enter the kitchen, even bathe, till the third day had passed, so we spent the time sitting about in places where the men would not look on us. It would be a bad omen for them if they saw us.
   I secreted books to pass the time, but was reprimanded - books would be sullied if touched at that time and the goddess of learning, Saraswathi, would be displeased. Some times my cousin, Thankamani and I would decide to have periods at the same time, one faking it while the other was 'outed.' My lynx-eyed grandmother of course had ways of finding out.

   Mani was a disappointment in the lice-catching department. Unlike me she had no lice in her hair. But we spent a lot of time looking for lice in each other's hair. The fun was in the looking. When you got one you placed it carefully on one thumbnail and squashed it with the other. The plop was greatly satisfying. After a good half-hour of this there would be sticky gore on your thumb, evidence of time well-spent.

   We walked to the temple a lot as this was the one place we were allowed to go unchaperoned. Who or what  we looked at there was another matter. I was not particularly devout and by eighteen I was rapidly becoming an agnostic, but the conch-blowing and bells, the smell of incense and sandalwood, even the sight of worshippers trance-like before the idols, were entirely to my liking. Also the fact that we could dress up for the event and meet other college mates there.

   Reading was frowned upon except by my father who was way ahead of his time: the women thought it wasted too much time and led nowhere. Certainly not to good husbands. The young men shied off women who could think or talk back. And since Thalassery did not have too many graduate men in the late forties or early fifties, aside from a crop of lawyers, many with no briefs, we had already condemned ourselves by entering College. At the time there were five girls to forty-two men in my College year for Mathematics. In the pre-degree years many girls had dropped off before graduating. My father had a tough time persuading any man to marry me; I think I frightened the wits off them.

   Going to the cinema was such a rare and exciting event, it happened about twice a year in the summer. We folded our best clothes under our pillow overnight to iron them and counted the hours to six in the evening the next day. Bombay Talkies came into town in the summer and pitched tent in an empty space at the end of town. If the rains came down during the show, we had to abandon the film and run for a rickshaw. The day I saw Ramarajyam with Shobana Samarth in the lead role as Seetha, the skies came down while Lakshmanan was placing Rama's sandals on the throne rather than usurp his brother's crown. I remember the sandals looming large on the black-and-white screen while we edged our way out reluctantly. 'Use your imagination,' and 'Write your own ending,' my unsympathetic father used to say while I looked disappointed and near tears.

   It got a little better with the first solid theatre building that came to Thalassery some time in the late forties - the famous Mukund Talkies. Rain was no longer a threat. But four annas each  for three or four young girls was quite a chunk off the house keeping and we had to beg from many 'uncles' till we had enough to go.

   The circus was another diversion - annual like the festivals at the two temples. After all Thalassery was where the circus was born and trapeze artists were dime a dozen.These  were passing diversions, part of the after-harvest euphoria. All of these came to a full stop during the war years and when they returned hezitantly after the war, the world had changed and so had our expectations.

   Above all, on hot nights, after supper, the whole family sat on the veranda or out in the moonlight and chatted. This was a special time and children like me felt the benediction. We were secure and well-loved, listening to the murmur of the grown-ups around us, as we drifted away into half-sleep.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Fat Inspectors

Last week we had a workman in to check the boiler. Now we all know workmen come in different shapes and sizes, hues and natures: This one, Keith, was quite lovely. He actually finished his work and chatted to me for ten minutes over a cup of tea. Now someone chatting for five minutes is a big thing for a person my age, rattling around in an empty house, where all the actually functioning folk have gone to school or offices.
   He talked about his mother-in-law whom he quite likes. 'Can't live with my own Mum,' he says, smiling.. 'Me wife's Mum is OK.'
   'Me and my missus, we came back from Spain to look after her - she had a heart attack. But she's alright now.'
   'Is she fat?' I ask hopefully. Anyone fatter than me is my friend; we are a family of fat men and women. 'Good heavens,' he laughs. 'She's huge - a walking cube.' He spreads his long arms wide to show her size. 'Not that she does much walking.'
   Keith is still smiling fondly. 'She is eighty-two. Goes through two pats of butter a week,' he adds. 'And huge amounts of potatoes and red meat. I've got mashed potato coming out of my ears; we've got to cook it every day.'
   'So who cooks?' I ask. I am the chief cook and bottle-washer in our house.
   'Me and my wife,' he answers.
   I am a little jealous. If I ate two blocks of butter a week, I'll be dead in a month.  And I can't see my children cooking for me on a regular basis either.
Or ... Maybe, it won't be dead-in-a-month ??? Is this a big hoax on us fat people? Are we being hoodwinked by the people who manufacture spreads, which are supposed to be harmless? And all the other industries that benefit from our neuroses?
   I remember the good old days when I returned home to Thalassery from yet another godforsaken bush-town in Africa, where staunch Indian that I was, I had gone to earn a little hard currency. After all, Kerala's main export is educated people.
   'You look good,' they said. 'You have improved.' Translated, that meant I had put on weight and was looking healthy and prosperous. Clearly, my husband was feeding me well and he was not beating me up. This was considered excellent.
   Now India has caught up with the West. I walk through the door and each household has a good top-to-toe look at my rotund self. 'So much weight,' they say. And I smolder inside. 'Are there no freedoms left anymore? And when they look at me - my beloved uncles and cousins, is that all they see? My weight and nothing else? Inside my head, I scream. ''I come because I love you all, want to see you, laugh together...'
   And where do the fat-inspectors come from who condemn so many girls here in the UK to Anorexia and Bulimia and such like? Even princesses.
   If the world was meant to be all one weight, we would have been created that way. It is good to have fat and thin, tall and short, pretty and not-so-pretty. I want all of us to stop being aspirational in this department and be happy the way we are. Only giving in, in moderation, to health considerations and not the promptings of the fashion gurus.
   In any case, I wonder, apart from the heath reasons, what is wrong with being a little fat? Or a lot? Rock on fat people. I am with you.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Which Baby is more Equal than the Other?

When great men die, Shakespeare insists, the whole world screams: dogs howl, tempests try to destroy the land, and winds rage. Is this true of great men and women being born also?
 I suppose India is expecting heavenly choirs and deserts blooming when Aishwarya finally delivers that baby. What a non-event! Millions of women all over the world give birth unsung, many of them with no doctor present. In Africa child-birth is a hazardous event because of infections to the umbilical cord - so many die of puerperal fever, which could have been avoided with elementary precautions. Like not using the kitchen knife to cut the cord.
   In a neighbouring household to mine in Thalassery, a friend died at childbirth though her uncle was one of the respected doctors in the town. He was sitting on the veranda waiting for the good news of his niece's next baby (the fifth), while she quietly bled to death inside. 'Why didn't he save her? Stop her bleeding?' I clamoured when I met her family next. They did not call the doctor in because they were embarrassed to tell a man about bleeding at childbirth, they said. It was 'women's business.' For heavan's sake!
   Some of the babies, in unnamed villages in India are quietly taken away by old, cold witches in the family, and murdered, if they are girls. The number of girls per thousand births is suspiciously low compared to boys in some states of India.We should be focusing on that horrible statistic rather than what is happening in one pampered Bollywood family.
   Takes me back to the time when I had my first child in my home in Thalassery. There was a noticeable absence of technology. No stirrups (thank God), no forceps, no oxygen, no husband anywhere within calling distance. Remarkably a pile of old rags washed and ready for the event and lots of hot water boiled on three-stone fires. And my aunts and my grandmother asking me to be quiet and do it with good grace. Now, if there is any event in the human span lacking grace it must be the painful expelling of baby heads through channels that look not fit for purpose.
   I was twenty-three at that time and babies had not yet become fashion accessories.In those days twenty-three was considered quite late for a first baby. My mother had her first baby (me) at sixteen and died giving birth  to a second daughter at eighteen. I have sometimes thought my mother's death when I hardly knew her must account for a great deal that is strange in me. Asking too many questions of men, for example.
   My sincere prayer these days is: hope The Duches of Cambridge is not being pressured into having an 'heir' before she has stopped spinning from the wedding event. I hope the announcement that they will live at Diana's old residence, Kensington Palace, does not mean the nest is being marked with a red circle and she is pushed towards it. And I hope when she does have that unfortunate mite who will be stared at by a whole world she will do it in peace and quiet - in Mystique hopefully, where Margaret hid, would be a good idea. Just don't tell us plebs about it.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Need and Want

Growing up in Thalassery (Kerala State, India), which Jan Morris, the travel writer, elevated to the status of the most boring town she had ever passed through, on the strength of seeing the railway station in the early hours of one morning,I never felt cheated. And boring it certainly was not in 1942. How could it be, for a little girl of seven years, when the Second World War was spreading like wildfire to the Empire's outposts and new rules and regulations were being made and unmade constantly about how small-town India should behave:
There was the air-raid siren. At nine in the morning and six in the evening, every day. This was supposed to alert us to an air-raid when it happened. Us children barely knew the shape of an aeroplane, as we called them then. Very occasionally one glided slowly and majestically far above us and all of us children, my cousin the same age as me and her brother, four years older, would rush out screaming, 'aeroplane, aeroplane.' The sun on silver made that toy shape gleam and we had to shade our eyes and struggle to see it against the brightness of the day. The cats and dogs followed us because they knew there was general excitement and something rare was happening.
Then there was the ARP man - a new daily figure in our lives. We called him Ayaarpee. He wore a khaki-and-white uniform with shoulder stripes, which he was immensely proud of. He came daily at dusk to remind us to observe the strict blackout prescribed. Kerosene was rigourously rationed anyway, and since we could not afford to buy it on the black market, light was a non-issue.The house was uniformly dark except for a small hurricane lantern and a miniscule home-made bottle-lamp with wick plugged in through a metal top. These were carried from room to room as needed.
The house did not have curtains either - the number of houses in Thalassery, which boasted curtains was minute and could be counted on the fingers of one hand. My aunt generally sat Ayaarpee down on the veranda bench and gave him a cup of black coffee when he arrived. Milk was another thing we did not have a great deal of, so no milky white coffee.
My father was one of three ring-leaders who had organized protest against the 'British Raj' and had been taken away to some unknown jail. Since he was the only earner in the family we had to live on the thirty rupees a month the government gave us as an allowance to replace his income.It was equivalent to about £2.50.
Surprisingly we did - with a little help from our friends, as they say. Help as in a few half-sacks of rice sneaked in from the village, though it was a criminal offence to transport rice in this manner during the war. We grew our own vegetables too: okra , brinjal and spinach. Fish went off our diet except when we had visitors for meals.
New dresses just did not happen. There was cloth rationing for one, but we did not have the money even to buy the few uninspiring ration-yards. When our school clothes got old and torn they were cut up and made into blouses for the older women of the house, the women who managed our man-less existence. The only worry that nagged at me those days was my aunt's constant murmur about school fees, and how would she find the money for that every month? It was significant that this uncertainty did not apply to my male cousin. Girls' education was considered a luxury at that time. Many years later it was still considered a handicap in the marriage market.
In 2008, the world-wide recession hit India and many youngsters in glamourous IT posts in Bangalore and Hyderabad and elsewhere suddenly lost their jobs. Some had to take a 50% cut in wages and were relieved to just do that rather than become unemployed. Overnight they could not pay the mortgage on their bachelor pads, their cars, cell-phones, TVs and everything else, which had been bought on credit. Sadly they had no experience of hard times and were totally lost.
My cousin sister and I, now in our seventies, would gossip about this phenomenon, sitting on my veranda in Kochi, sipping tea. 'A small recession is a good thing - just to get the new generation to distinguish what they need from what they just want, want, want,' she would insist.
We felt virtuous for our limited wants. Many years after the war we still loved our simple moong dhal curries and spinach. Those long-ago times had instilled spartan habits, which we reverted to seamlessly when austerity was needed.
The sad thing is consumerism all over the world, India included, has reached a point of no return. It is faintly obscene. Now the recession this year seems a looming disaster, one that could be averted if we did not live off our plastics all the time. As Gandhiji said, 'No man can live in more than one house at a time.' Or use three laptops and two mobiles.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

I-this and I-that

On the plane back from South Africa a fortnight ago, there was a young man across from me watching a film on an i-book. As I twisted my neck left to right and tried to find a comfortable position, he did not even attempt to sleep. Maybe, this is what I should do, I thought. Get me an i-book.
Except - I have this theory that I must not forget the past. Well, when you are my age, what you have is a past, not too much future.
Just going on a plane somewhere, anywhere, was a huge adventure when I started in 1957. Married two days before, I was ready to love that stranger my family had married me to, just for getting me on that plane. Days when you got weighed along with your luggage and the aircraft was a fragile Fokker Friendship, which rocked with every gust of wind from the Arabian Sea. Now I am so blase': I need assistance to sleep on a plane.
Careful here, I thought. I have resisted getting i-phones and i-books and all such, only carrying a basic mobile phone. All it can do is phone or text. No e mails, no web search. Come on! Is there anything in the world that cannot wait for me till I get home to my desktop?
There is my Kindle of course, on which I carry fifteen downloads when I travel. In abject fear that I shall find myself book-less in some God-forsaken hole like Blantyre, as I did once in 1997. Walking the pavements in search of reading matter when all they sold on the pavements was hard porn. Reading the advertisements in the Sunday newspaper in desperation, vowing I would never forget my reading matter again. So the Kindle instead of fifteen books as part of my twenty Kilogram luggage allowance. I call that a good choice.
So the Kindle gets prominence in my bum-bag. Along with my passport and survival plastic. That , I tell myself, has to be it.
Can you imagine the number of plastic tablets that the young rich travel with, even commuting to work daily? I-book, i-phone, Kindle... All soon out-of-date so they can buy a whole new generation of gadgets next year. They've got us hooked, those clever companies. I-phone 4 is being advertised recently. It claims to translate your voice into messages, which your wife can receive at the other end, no doubt on a second i-phone4 for the family. Can't we just talk anymore? Like on a pick-up-and-dial, or even a mobile?
Now I've got started on the consumer habits of this era, I shall not stop. Better save it for the next blog.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

That List

My generation from old-time India - there are a few of us still hanging around, most still quite compos mentis.I remember when my last remaining parent died in 1983, for the first time, mortality was shadowing me, just at my shoulder. I could not shake it off.
The thing about this generation - what makes it so special to me- is that we were the last from old India, now totally lost to television soap, nylon saris, mobile phones and the rest. When one falls ill, I am threatened. When one died, as happened a month ago, the first of this generation and a gentle and wonderful man at that- I was bereaved and infinitely sad.
I am frantic thinking there is so much to record, which will pass into the mists of time unless I chronicle it. Above all was that joint-family feeling, all of us connected, being responsible for all the others, obliged to share good and bad times. There was a capacity to love because there was more time to feel.
I wonder whether I am just living in a mirage - that all this is in my head only.
This bucket-list has a virtue: the order is uncertain. Nobody can say, 'Now it is my turn.' Or indeed how long we will stay functional. But for now this fraternity is important to my own well-being. I am selfish of course - I need them.
As long as I am able, I shall travel to find them, enjoy that special language we speak, laugh and know precious kinship. A very special blessing indeed. No one can take it away from me.

What Price Speed?

Fourteen people died today in a motorway pile-up on the M5. Twenty-five plus others are injured.How many men and women and children were affected, devastated? How many mothers, siblings, boys, girls, grandparents are left with an irreversible grief? And for what? That extra ten miles an hour, that extra ten minutes cut off journey time.
This is why the intentions of the Ministry of Transport to raise speed limits on the motorway from seventy miles an hour to eighty sounds so downright suicidal, criminal as well as downright stupid. The Minister argues it will cut twenty minutes off a journey from London to the Midlands. So twenty minutes for what? I think we should be clear about what is achieved. Twenty minutes from a few trips for the rich businessmen in exchange for years knocked off the lives of others.
I am sure there is intense pressure from the speed-buffs, the Top-Gear afficionados, the racing car owners. Glamourous world that, and interestingly, very right wing. Quite conservative. But the people who get killed are all kinds, some who would never even have owned a car, leave alone a Porsche.
By his own account, the Minister thinks it will do wonders for business, for the deals closed, for the edges scraped off the national debt.. That is if the wheelers and dealers get to the other end in one piece. There is a deep fallacy here. So obvious I don't need to spell it out...
Time to consider, even in these times of recession: are there things much more important than busines? If so, how can we make the present Government understand that?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The sun behind me

Talking to my friend, Marti, who is American, about what we have gained or lost by transplanting ourselves from one country to another in adulthood:
The sun on my back, I think, that glorious, light and warmth coming to meet me in the mornings. Cold water baths, and when I come out of them, knee-length black hair dripping, the thin thorthu- towel wrapped around it lightly - it's all about me and my hair.
Before I go to school or college the hair has to be dried, with my back to the sun, hands and fingers through the strands, slowly, slowly, many times, till it bounces, comes alive and gathers shape. Sensuous and relaxing.I have all the time in the world. College? World? Who cares!
I have never owned a hair-dryer. In England I look in the mirror at my face, my hair now considerably shorter, and what I see is a part of me that has lost that love-in with the rest of me. I don't dwell on it.
On the odd occasion when I wear a sari in England I feel immediately more feminine, prettier, assured. Also dysfunctional. It catches in the accelerator of my car, gets in the way of my feet when I go up stairs. I hitch it up and manage.
I miss sitting on the veranda watching the world go by, or standing at the edge of my compound and talking to my neighbours. I miss watching the birds going home to roost at dusk and perching on the power lines on their way for a quick chat.
I miss the respect given to me as an elder.
But I can walk away from all that I don't care about in India because I am not there - even when I AM there. The different rules by which women have to live, the treatment of stray animals, which can be heartless, the marriage thamasha, which impoverishes families by its extravagance...
And in England? I am not part of the lack of feeling shown to the vulnerable. I smile in public places and at strangers even when what I get is a look which says, 'Are you mad?' I refuse to go anywhere near the class system or the race discrimination. I am not part of the networks and the nepotism, which would not have me anyway. I am quite 'other.'
I sit on my comfortable fence and watch the world go by. It is not a bad place to be.

The Why and the Wherefore

Friend of mine whom I respect says to me: 'No one's going to read your blog, unless you link it with other blogs.' Gets me thinking - why do I write at all?
Simple: many years hence, Asha, my grandchild, will read these blogs and she will know what I think about various things. A voice from the past but very strong and vibrant, I hope, giving her a counterpoint to her ideas, and reminding her of a grandmother who knew she was the greatest blessing ever.
I've been gone walkabout pretty much the whole of last month, in places where there were no internet connections and no computers to provide a diversion. Good places to just sit and think.
South Africa is a place I cannot figure out. Where I was in White River, the view out of the back veranda was breath-taking. Undulating veld with Cacia and avocado trees breaking up the landscape, stretching out to the faraway roads, on which the 'backies' (vans) and lorries rolled past.
Colour is now not a barrier legally, but the house staff are still all black. I am told there are poor whites in SA these days but I did not see them. The households being evicted from their slum dwellings are all black. Though the Government is theoretically on their side. For some eighteen years now.
In another eighteen years, when Asha is an adult of twenty-five, will the world have shaken and settled, like a kaleidoscope? Or will she inherit a world still striving for balance and an environment destroyed by rabid consumerism?
I am glad she spent her early infancy in Africa and is totally colour blind about people. What a gift that was!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

NHS and the OLD

Today I phoned my dentist - a rogue tooth that is keeping me awake in the night... I was told the NHS dentist was only available on Fridays. It would cost £55 for an examination as a private patient and extra for treatment - about £120 for a filling.
     Right! So, if I cannot afford the cost, go away, find a hole in a corner, and suffer. I went round the house and decided if I scraped up all the fifty pences I had been saving up, maybe I could get treated today. But bile rises.
     So I decided to leave it till the NHS dentist was available. However, what if a pensioner is in excruciating pain? Grin and add it to all the other indignities of old age?
     What happened to that caring Britain where the doctor or dentist was actually available at point of need and without having to count your pennies?
     In the next general election, I hope pensioners will support the party that cares for them. I have decided to join Labour today.
     You will have me door-stepping in 2015. Or sooner if we can get rid of the Coalition colluders.
     Grandmas of the World Unite! We have nothing to lose but our false teeth.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Unmentionable

There is a topic which is banned in civilized society in the UK. No - not sex, not adultery, not avarice. It's age, ageing, age-related illnesses... You never ask a person their age and you do not mention yours. It's like dying before you die.
   It is contagious: in recent times the disease has spread to India. I know a few of my contemporaries there who dodge that topic with great skill and speed. I feel like that enfant terrible' who does not know when to shut up.The same people would ask you your salary without blinking an eyelid.
   Reminds me of a boss of mine in the British Council. Two years before he was due to retire he began fretting.
'What am I going to do, Anand?' he moaned, often and loud.
'Don't you have hobbies,?' I'd ask. I couldn't fathom his deep anguish. This is the problem - nobody knows anything about age till they get there. And the talents (biblical) haven't been garnered, multiplied to see you through the fallow years.
I will never have time to read all the books I want to read - too many good ones coming out these days. Especially this year.
And when will I write all those books in my head? Considering how lazy I am.

I've now been retired for thirteen years and I can't find the time to do all the things I want to do. Before I die. There I've said the word. It is quite harmless.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Cricketers in Hiding

Football - much safer to watch with my clan, in the sitting room. No conflicts there. Liverpool is playing disastrously, my daughter says - I agree. We support Liverpool and they have been down the spout for a while now. Carroll is a £ one-million buy, not thirty, she moans. Well, 4 -1 defeat by Totters says more about the whole team, not just Carroll. What do I know? She wants neither Man U nor Chelsea to win the game that is going on. So a draw? I ask. No, she wants Man U to be beaten because they are top of the league right now. Oh Boy! The girl's got her knickers - and her socks - in a twist.

Now the last one -day game of cricket, India against England, was another matter. India lost after chalking up 303. That requires real dedication and committed bad bowling. And where are they hiding? Bajji, Khan, all those stalwarts. Never mind, I tell myself. India probably needed a lesson in humility. May be me too.

But - Selectors, India is humungous. There must be good bowlers there if you could just look beyond the usual haunts - the top colleges and schools. Try my village, Kodiyeri, next time. Or even Cunnore if you must stick to the A roads.

The fish food is really good there, I am told.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Judge in Haste

Two men sentenced to four years each for Facebook posts. Four years! How many years does anyone actually get for rape, hit-and-run or burglary?? Would it not have been more appropriate to give lighter sentences plus a period of community service?

The poor and the hopeless riot - generally, but not always. Rich boys get away with blue murder in the name of 'boyish pranks.'

And how about the unholy haste with which the sentences were passed? I am uneasy at the way the judges are reacting to the general unrest/ political pressure? Punishment should suit the crime, not the occasion when it happened. Is there precedence for this heavy tilt of the judicial balance? Who is leaning on it?

I am totally against any person who causes disorder in the community, who loots, sets fire and laughs while he/ she does it. I believe in Gandhian non-violence, almost as a matter of my DNA. But ...

Civil rights groups have to be very VERY vigilant in times of social upheaval - so that governments do not take the opportunity to slip through draconian legislation, to punish beyond the offense... Where are you lot hiding, human rights advocates? Chakrabarthy, now is the time to speak up.

Are we, in our general state of apprehension handing over our precious rights, to a government, only too eager to be given an excuse to be autocratic?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Norman Tebbit Line

The Norman Tebbit line passes through the middle of my living room when India plays England at Cricket. Especially when it is a Test Match, as we have not yet elevated the other lesser forms such as one-dayers to full Cricket status. On this we are in agreement, my daughter and I - Tests Cricket Rules, O K.

Shouting at each other across the coffee table is fine. But yesterday was more vocal than usual. India did not act in the spirit of the divine game when Bell was 'baled' out, she sulks. Only the colonies actually respect the Cricket spirit, I retaliate.

Which year was that spirit distilled? I wonder, and was it before or after sledging evolved into a full art-form? And match - fixing? Mmm...

When the wickets stumbled yesterday like over-ripe mangoes from a Kerala mango tree, I was seriously thinking of changing sides, crossing the floor... After all I have lived in England for ever, it seems. Holidays in India are minor, quickly forgotten forays - or so I tell myself. As that other voice inside me cackles.

Mind you, India's performance in the last Test was not merely dismal. But - it would be a mistake to write them off. In spite of the IPL and attendant diversions, fiscal or otherwise.


Sunday, 24 July 2011


I was beginning to feel I had a story there about the gay man who fancied his straight best friend. I called it The Other Side of Hope. In my story the two lived in a one-bed flat and shared the one bed. Happens in India and in Africa all the time.

When I taught Secondary School here in the UK, I was surprised to see how carefully the boys avoided shows of affection to each other. Nothing touchy - feely here. Then I went to Makeni in Sierra Leone.

On the first day of College I watched from my front window of the campus flat as the men and women walked in to lectures. Some had one arm carelessly thrown around a friend while the other hugged a pile of books. It gave me a warm, familiar feeling.

Yesterday I took my short story to my Writers' Group. Big learning experience for me, that! They made it abundantly clear that two men would not sleep on the same bed, ever,unless they were sexual partners. How long have I lived in this country! And I don't know that.

Made me think how little English people must know about my culture. They have not even lived in India.

Another reason to keep on writing my novels about Kerala.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The mother of all -well, parliaments

I think: do we want a Prime Minister who is still learning - or one who came with his education complete? One who has hindsight, not foresight, and no ability to listen to advice when he has decided he needs that new toy - or adviser.

And why is such a great part of the Press so eager for all of us to drop this pursuit of truth in public, make way for the committees of inquiry, and 'move on?' No, I am not ready to move on. I want to make sure that the people who rule this country divulge every little bit of their sorry part in this horrendous tale about hacking and blagging.

Cameron keeps telling us how good Coulson was at his job as the Prime Minister's Communications Director. In all this country, are we to understand there was no one he could have taken on instead, considering so many people advised him against Coulson? Police and P.M rushing to employ former NotW minions. What precisely did they bring to their jobs that no one else did?

I wish I had looked hard at little Andy when he was at Beauchamp's Comprehensive School in Wickford. It was a good school. And I taught there for many years. For one year he and I overlapped. Must ask somebody from my past what he may have been good at.

Late rites

'Dorset' my dentist said ',Say it.' I tried. What came out was 'dorshe'.' Where did that t escape? And s - is this how people who lisp feel? Trying to make sounds that die between tongue and palate? A late rite of passage I could have done without.

It is that pink object that sits in place of some of the teeth that went away. All those years with bridges, caps, crowns and those substitutes, when I pretended to have real teeth only. And my smile was without guile. Now I have a choice: smile less widely. Display a gravitas I have never had.

And then there is that glass on the bedside table. I am going to leave it out of sight. But I shall practise assiduously - with the same enthusiasm I brought to parking the car or doing a chain stitch.

Today's phrase to practise is, 'it is better.' Or something close.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Fireflies at Dusk

Fireflies at dusk, flicker in the compounds and paddy-fields of Kerala villages as the day ends, competing with the devotional lamps on the verandas till you cannot distinguish one from the other. The trees retreat quietly into the shadows to reappear in sharp focus the next morning.
Old age as it creeps up is like that coming of nightfall, lurking in far corners as it gathers, advancing relentlessly whether you heed it or not. Things get lost in those shadows: names, dates, memories.
Like fireflies, there are glimmerings of wisdom accumulated over years, making the darkness seemingly friendly as it gathers. The evening chants of children in front of domestic shrines are soothing accompaniment to the end of the day.
I can live with the dark because there are fireflies.