Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
Something to say?

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!