Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
Something to say?

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Presents and Packages


Yesterday, a largish package arrived.  I woke up to the insistent ring of the door-bell well before my normal nine o’ clock. When I came down bleary-eyed and crotchety, there he was. The delivery-man was more impatient than I was, so I reminded myself that he had to do a lot of this recently. I restrained myself from remarking about his lovely smile and 
grimaced instead.

  I weighed the carton in my hand; could it be the lap-top my son had been threatening to buy me?  I hoped not. We have five or six lap-tops in this house in various stages of distress – we even have a purple one because that’s Asha’s (my screen-addicted granddaughter who is ten years, going on sixteen) colour of the month. Thank God, the parcel was light, a plastic toy, I thought.

  Later my son opened it; it was a ‘computer on a stick’ for his use, not a gift. Marvel of marvels! It was the size of a large match-box with brown wrapping paper filling up the rest of the space. inside a box fit to hold a toaster. Which rain forest got the chop for this one? I wondered as I threw the paper and the carton into my garden-shed, which is groaning with a surfeit of cartons and paper. And the house is fast filling up with junk.

  Paper, mind you, is a vast improvement on those bubbles that have a mind of their own. They refuse to be marshalled into sheds – they break free and float. So you end up with a tsunami of recalcitrant shapes around wherever you walk.

  And then there is the Styrofoam, which crumbles and gets up my nose. I have to get rid of that before my puppy chokes on it. Another hour and I will be choking on it

  I recall, with nostalgia the Christmases when my boys were toddlers and got just one toy each. We adults went without; there was no habit of buying gifts for grown-ups. Christmas didn’t cost much, and in India, before I married my Sri-Lankan husband, gifts never happened. Christmas did not cost at all.

  In Kerala the big day of the year was Onam. The floor of each veranda would have a pookkalam, a design with flowers, collected by children from gardens and open ground. Onam meant new clothes for all and a big vegetarian meal. There would be payasam, rich, creamy and sugary for dessert. There were no packages to clean up after, then and now.

  When I look at the land-slide of coloured parcels piled under our Christmas tree, I wonder about the children who don’t get anything at all. This year there will be more than usual due to our Chancellor and his CUTS. I feel guilty about the casual profligacy in our house-hold.
And the new hillock of paper we will deal with tomorrow. And the junk which will fill up the breathing spaces in our home.


Friday, 4 December 2015

That Vote to Attack.

I remember an afternoon in the late seventies. We were travelling, my children and I, on a train from the Heathrow Terminal to London. Tony Benn was sitting in an aisle seat two rows behind us. My son, Raghu, had just bought a copy of Benn's biography and hero-worshipped the man. He walked up to Tony Benn shyly and asked for an autograph. Benn tore a piece of paper off a notebook and signed his name on it. We still have it. When Benn was defeated by one vote in the leadership election some time in that era, we were disappointed. I think it changed the direction of Labour politics forever, leading it off into detours and closed alley ways that it should never have traversed.

   Hilary Benn's spech. That speech. Applauded by the people he supported, mainly, but not only, the Conservatives. There were the Labour right as well, the Blairites who have still not woken up to reality. What a sell-out that speech was! 

   I used to be something of a speech-maker myself, wasn't too good at it. But I started at age eight, so I can recognise a good, well-thought out speech a mile away. Benn's speech was not one. It was emotional, unprofessional and did not make any points worth considering .It was all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

   So the IS hold us British in contempt. (Along with most of the rest of the world they also hold in contempt.) Are we to fight wars whenever someone shows us disrespect? If disrespect is what we are angry about, we need other strategies - like ignoring them completely. Writing a few decent articles about them. Getting our effete Media to think straight. Educating our children to respect the diversity, which is the richness of this country.

   Many things about the Syria vote confuse me. And the aftermath is even more confusing. Someone said Tony Benn must be turning in his grave after that speech by his son. I think that is a safe prediction. My father, the freedom-fighter of the Gandhi era turns in his grave, or blows at his ashes, whenever I exhibit symptoms of rabid consumerism. He is probably down to his last spoonful by now.

   And de-selection? I have always believed the local parliamentary party must choose its candidates, not some cultish group of Neanderthals who have established themselves in Westminster and haven't got a clue about how party members think and feel.

   More to the point - if you worked in a firm and found that you disagreed with the beliefs and actions of your CEO, you would consider resigning. Or get sacked. Those who do not go with the majority opinion within the parliamentary Labour Party should have the grace to LEAVE. Or, I could hope the local party members would see them off. Threats and abuse are bad behaviour and those who do this are not doing the Party or Mr Corbyn any favours. But now that the Conservatives have bulldozed the Country into war, maybe they could get Fallon and co. to do some discreet phone calls inviting some of the committed Blairites to join the Tories. They belong there.

   It is petrifying, the huge dissonance between the thinking of the Labour right and the local Party members. Why are these dinosaurs still with Labour? How do you define Labour with this motley bunch in it?

Monday, 23 November 2015

This Unholy Call to Arms

This is very unusual or me - my blogs are not normally political. However, I listened to  (was it John Humphries?) on Radio Four this morning, the anchor talking to Angela Eagle. If ever there was an exercise in Press bullying, that was a prime master-class.   

   Angela Eagle, making herself comfortable on the nearest fence, would not be my usual day's good deed. But Humphries came back at her like a terrier with a rat, he pulled and tugged and turned it around and circled around her. When he could not get a firm commitment to going to war from her, he asked her, what her principles would be.   Mr Humphries: what is your professional code of ethics about interviewing Labour politicians? No holds barred and let's degrade and destroy? Do you apply the same vitriol when it is a Tory minister? What do you hope to achieve, you, Laura Keunsberg and that pack of Press Hounds who feel they are entitled to pursue and destroy at least one Labour M P every day.   You are concerned about the 'disarray' in Labour ranks. What about the twenty - odd M Ps in the Conservative back-benches who will not sign up to Cameron's shenanigans? I'd like to see them squirm for a change.   

   These millions of pounds now happily committed to being spent on armaments, which will appear when the Syrian Question is hopefully solved, in 2025 or thereabouts, (like the bird-flu vaccine, which never quite worked and is still cluttering the store-rooms of NHS clinics ) could they be put to better use? 

   It would help to know what exactly Cameron proposes to do, in Syria, or in Europe or anywhere else. The man is lost. 


  I wonder whether we could annihilate violent fundamentalism by educating the disaffected and the disenfranchised? By creating jobs, by spending more money on supporting the community, rather than practising austerity in that easy direction.     

  Are we going to war to please the French? To SHOW UP the Americans? To win support with voters as Thatcher did with Faklands? This country, indeed the world, cannot afford another fiasco like Iraq. After such a war, there will be other Muslim fanatics springing up in outrage. There will be more Jihadi groups looking for revenge.

   Corbyn, I often feel, does not need enemies, he has his shadow cabinet and dispossessed Blairites to attack him. I hope they remember the strength of Corbyn's mandate. Or, are the vipers in the Labour nest saying they know better than your ordinary Party member, like yours Truly? I thought we made it clear to the likes of Yvette that we don't trust them. We like a little honesty from our leaders. We prefer careful deliberation to knee-jerk gunghoism. 


  And I fear for all those perfectly non-violent Muslims who are tarred with the same feather, as the terrorists, for just existing.



Friday, 20 November 2015

Being Old

My son, Kitta worked in the States at a University for one year, some twenty-five years ago. He is a Mathematician (for his sins) and told me this story. He had the chance to talk to a distinguished Hungarian Mathematician, Paul Erdos, at a conference in Kansas.  Erdos was an old man by then and told Kitta, ' Being old is terrible, all sorts of aches and pains. I hope you get the chance.' Erdos didn't live many years after that.

   I suppose I should be grateful for the chance to have the aches and the pains, especially when so many young people die without the time to achieve their aspirations. All those people in Paris and Beirut and Northern Nigeria, Mali, and... What a sad symptom of our times! 

   So, I mustn't grumble about that shoulder, which is reminding me that I overdid the gardening yesterday. Wielding that power saw with abandon - it was fun. Since my sight is not entirely trustworthy about small spaces, I think I may have chopped off a perfectly healthy Peiris, just coming into flower. Not unusual for me. That Peiris was too near a huge bush that had outlived its decorative usefulness and needed to be dispatched.

   When I take a plate off the shelf I knock the sides on the wood and the plate often gets chipped. When I get up in the night for a trip to the bathroom, I sway and have to hang on to the wall or bed. And when I go out in the night, I have to hold on to someone because the dark makes it all much worse and I am totally disoriented. Still, I tell myself, I am functional - almost.

  Then there is the knee, which refuses to do its job without protest; the stomach, which has its own idiosyncrasies; the wrist which cannot hold up my favourite hardback in bed. So I end up buying Wolf Hall, paperback and e book. Ditto with Beevor and his delightful book on the final retreat of the Germans in Ardennes, in WW2.
   However, the most irritating aspect of ageing is that you cannot predict the future even a year ahead. I want to prepare for dilapidation, but what shape will that take? Shall I fall once every year and break bones? Shall I irritate my family by making them repeat everything they say to me twice over? Never mind, they say when they have reached the end of their affectionate tether. But now I want to know what they said, and they have moved on to other thoughts, leaving me hanging. 

    I am angry for nothing and impatient for trivia.  This is not without cause. I lack confidence to jump into my Polo and drive where I wish. In the eighties, I was forever driving all over East Anglia and Suffolk. I would drive to Southwold to pick my daughter from her boarding school four times a term. I had to go to empty Ely for examiners' meetings for the C S E exams.. On Thursday evenings I went straight from Wickford, where I taught, to Chelmsford. I attended a course on Computer programming, taught by Brian Jackson, he of the nimble fingers. What an accomplished card-shuffler he was! We had computers, larger than my bedroom and punched cards for each command of a programme. So, in addition to being uncertain about the commands themselves, we also punched them to oblivion. The programmes never worked. Did I hear a long sigh when Jackson looked at my pack of cards?

   I would return home to Laindon at ten in the night weary and diminished from my battles with the machine. I could not even see the purpose of the project. No sat nav then or mobile phone. The country road was without street lights and I drove on a wing and a prayer.

   It is the dependency and the lack of control that is unpalatable about old age. How can the young understand that. If you are thirty years old, you can't know how forty feels. If forty, sixty is another world. And at sixty eighty is the outer space.

   And I still haven't been to China. Or written my memoirs.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Hands off Education, Nicky

Gove was ridiculous, but everyone knew that, probably including himself. He did serious damage to the idea of education, but Nicky Morgan is positively lethal.

   Now, I don't get exercised too much at the antics of the pack of Conservative ministers/ monsters, all focused on money and debts and deficits as though they are running the family firm. But when they get their grotty little paws on the schools, I have to sit up and scream. 

   I spent my entire working life in education and believe that all change for the better can only be achieved by educating the little ones. Catch them early and make them understand that all people, little or big, are born equal; that religion is a human construct (albeit a useful one, though some would argue that the idea of money and international banking are more useful ones. Yuval Noah Harari has some interesting things to say about this in Sapiens) and must be treated as such, not fought about. They need to understand that human achievement is not all academic, but must also include compassion, respect for the vulnerable, the disabled, the intellectually challenged, the idea of being part of a community, a society. No amount of testing can assess that.

   Testing at age seven? Is our lovely Nicky confusing test results with actual achievement, skills, knowledge...? And as a measure of progress in schools, what kind of progress are we after? Do we want to get more like the Japanese and the Chinese in this respect? India is bad enough - torturing four-year olds with tests in some schools. Germany starts Primary Schooling only at age seven, but the children catch up in quick time. In Africa most children start at age six; my children started school at six and I have not noticed any shortcomings in this regard.

   Or - is it teachers Nicky Morgan wants to harass? Someone should gently inform her that we are harassed enough. When I left teaching Secondary Maths in 1983 the biggest relief was all that regimentation I escaped. Those attendance registers on Thursdays for the County Council, the glib report templates that asked all the wrong questions...

   And what are our teaching unions doing about the dismantling of schools? Must I, at eighty, get myself a placard, and take to the streets?

Friday, 18 September 2015

Gone up in the World

Definitely we have gone up in the world, I think a bit wryly. We have a cleaner and a gardener once a week, though it was not long ago that the family did the gardening and the cleaning, in our small house in Churchill Road. I plead age these days. I certainly cannot push the lawn-mover around any more and digging deep to turn the soil is a sure no-no. I weed, walk around the (now larger) garden with my walking stick and the cats follow me. Another phase of life, I say to myself.

   It was however, when I watched myself peel a potato that I noticed how old habits have survived. In our kitchen in India my cousin did not peel potatoes; she scraped the skin off carefully. Now my daughter and I peel generously. The tomatoes are an even stranger story - old habits die hard: I find myself carefully cutting the stem away and using every last bit of tomato around it. My daughter slices the stem area and throws it away carelessly.

   Indeed tomatoes, cabbage and beans were known as English vegetables, rarely bought in Kerala households. We had the local Brinjals and Ladies'-finger. And many different kinds of spinach.

   It was the bathroom soap that really did it. It made me think of all the things we used so carefully, growing up in India.I found I had stuck the last soggy bit of Pears soap on to my new cake of Sandalwood soap from India. How precious soap was - and to me it is still hard to throw away the things I arrived at the hard way. In our house in Thalassery, on the Arabian sea coast, only my father had soap. All the rest of us used moong- powder or channa-powder to clean ourselves. Instead of shampoo, we used pounded hibiscus leaves for our long hair. I often came out of the bathroom with tiny bits of leaf stuck in my hair. My aunt would chase me back to wash my hair again.

   I was well into my twenties when I started using shampoo. Now of course there are three different shampoos crowding the shower-shelf. I have to read the small print on them before I know which one is appropriate for my scant, dry, old-woman hair.

   When I was about fourteen years old I asked my father for a cake of soap, and thus I came into my first Rexona soap. Luxury! I hoarded it from everyone else and kept it with my saris. 

   We had a huge Bakelite box radio, which went up in smoke one day when I was listening to Swamithan's commentary on the test match (there was no other kind of cricket then) between India and England. The one in which Len Hutton scored over four-hundred. Today the house is littered with I-pads and computers and many different screens, all chattering at me and driving me out of rooms , just to find a quiet corner.

   I slept on the floor on a mat in many houses in India and made-do in other ways in England. Now there are four bedrooms and we are still looking for more space to store junk and spread our unending possessions. I remember I arrived in England in 1974 with two suitcases and lived as a lodger ( nine guineas a week) in two houses before I bought my re-vamped council property. 

   This is all bewildering if I think about it. I must stop thinking.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


Child-birth - No, nothing medical about this one. This, I am writing for Mellisa who is going to become a mother for the first time, probably on the eleventh of August:

   I had my first baby at home in India. All I remember is my lack of faith in the family faffing around and trusting only to the mid-wife, who came and went. She must have had several on the go that day. The doctor, a lady (what else in India?) turned up twice during labour. She was newly qualified and a friend from school-days. That visit felt more social then professional. 

   Afterwards I had a feeling of messiness and not enough disinfectant, though the house smelled of Jeyes fluid for many days after. I always felt unclean, with the primitive sanitary arrangements. My son wet my bed and later, soiled it constantly and I had to find the dry spots wherever. Never again here, I said to myself.

   My doctor visited again after a month and left a baby-book by Benjamin Spock, from which I learned to do up a nappy properly. Dry beds after that, thank God.

   I had luck on my side - and I hope Mellisa is also blessed - in that I did not have to have stitches or Caesarean or any intervention at all. The labour was long as you would expect of a primie. But being India, I was not to mention it to any man who came by. When the next-door man came by, I had to pretend that I had no contractions. He had too much to say that day, all of no consequence, while I winced and prayed for him to go, go GO!

   My second child born in Sree Lanka took all of one hour to appear. The doctors did not expect him quite so soon and I had to shout for assistance at the last minute. But there were many doctors and nurses about in Dr Abeyasinghe's pristine nursing home. I had no complaints. Except, my husband struggled to pay the final bill and I had to wait an extra day in the hospital while he borrowed the money at high interest.

   The third baby, born in a remote bush-hospital in Anua, Eastern Nigeria, was a revelation. She was two weeks late and arrived calmly. She was a happy baby who rarely cried. The Irish nuns made me feel that nothing could go wrong and nothing did. I listened to the noises of a woman suffering eclampsia in the early hours of the morning, in a room not too far away, but the Sisters there were so unruffled I knew she would be alright.

The fourth was a painless labour, because I had learned the method from a book I had picked up in W H Smith's in Victoria, by Erna Wright. I was in a lovely nursing home in Enugu and there were four doctors in attendance, who simply could not believe that there was no pain. The pain came later - I had three days of depression and hysteria after the birth. I think my uterus had had enough and I decided to give it a rest for good.

I enjoyed all the babies and think of those months as the happiest in my life.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

In theThroes of Labour

I have to laugh! America is scared of Socialism - when did we go the same way? For Heaven's sake! Members of the labour party are running scared - a few threaten to leave. 

   Of course the ones who find Socialism unpalatable should leave; they have no place in a Labour party committed to economic and social justice. They'd probably flourish amongst the Tories or even Nick Clegg's handful of Liberals. 

   Indeed a purge of the Party of all those who do not believe in the fundamental principles of original labour - the labour of Atlee, should be send on their way with relieved blessings.

   It appears we have three right-wing parties in Tory, Liberal and New Labour these days. The anything -to- get-into-power brigade. Abstaining on the Welfare Bill? That tells you how frozen-in-the-headlights they are. Sad.

   I do not believe the first priority of a Party is to get into power, the argument being, how can you achieve change without wielding the power? Stuff and nonsense! A Party is about representation - speaking up for the people and principles. For Labour it should be about the working class and the downtrodden. Eventually, the message will trickle into all sorts of nooks and corners of established blinkers and votes will begin coming.  Allegiances will become forged.

   At eighty, I shall probably never see another Labour government. But, if Labour comes into power, it has to be the right kind of Labour. And that is what Jeremy Corbyn is offering. We need staunch opposition, based on conviction, not expedience, in Parliament. We need a Party, which can excite the imagination of the young and the thinking. We need an opposition that fights iniquity every inch of the way, whether it comes in the shape of Boris' crazy plans, which benefit no one but his cronies, Osborne's efforts on behalf of the already rich, or silly Cameron's fumbling, dissimulating and fudging.

   I believe Corbyn is giving new hope to people like me. Go, Corbyn, Go!

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Beginnings in Uganda

I moved into my new home ten days after arriving in Kampala. The Magnay Builders were still finishing off the work on the house though the rain was pelting down, undoing some of the work they had done before the end of each day. Behind the house, the loose mud flooded down into the kitchen garden and sometimes into the kitchen itself.

   Our Project Team Leader, Madge, who had lived in Uganda for decades had arranged a maid for me. Grace, who lived with me for five years and became a dear friend. In that time, she learned to read and write, had two babies and became an adept cook and house-manager. 

   I remember, one day, playing tennis at the American Recreation Association and inviting a horde of men and women for dinner at the end of the day. I merely phoned Grace (the cheek of it!) and told her how many would arrive for the meal. When I got home with the crowd at seven in the evening, there were fresh flowers in the vases, new towels in the bathroom and a full Indian meal ready for all of us. 

   When I left Uganda in 1994, my expatriate friends were queueing up to employ Grace. She 'interviewed' them and picked one, but her relationship, almost mother and daughter with me, had spoiled her for a strictly madam-and-maid situation. Later, she left her first employer and found another. Sometimes I talked to Grace on the phone, from Zambia, where I was working on another project. She died of AIDS a few years later, still under thirty years old.

   So many of my friends and colleagues have succumbed to AIDS since I left Uganda. Grace and many like her did not know how they could have avoided it. There were no anti-retroviral drugs then. And nobody talked about it either.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

UGANDA - 1998 (for Shumon who has a great few years in Uganda in front of him.)

The fag end of 1998 in Uganda. I arrived on a rainy day - the kind of rainy day when even the frogs retreat and the soft mud everywhere begins to descend down all the seven hills, which Kampala is famous for. I was met at the airport by the local Assistant Director to the British Council, Richard, a warm-hearted man, who became my friend and confidante over the years. Like so many expatriate friends, I have lost touch with him too, with both of us moving from country to country, not always remembering to touch base, cherish friends.

   Richard had nearly given up on me that day because the immigration authorities kept me the wrong side of the counter - they were suspicious of Indian-looking people.  Couldn't possibly be an Adviser to the Council; I did not look the part.The Deputy had flagged my arrival with the Immigration, but clearly I was way different from their expectations. But then, I often met this reaction within the British Council from strangers, so I was unfazed.

   I was accommodated at the local Diplomatic Guest House and the rest of the team came to meet me after Richard had settled me in and left. They stood around, uneasy, wondering perhaps as to how I would alter the mix. I was glad when they left; I could catch up on sleep, think about the family in England, who had been concerned about my accepting a post in Kampala, of the recent Amin fame.

   Nothing, however, had prepared me for the morning after: the Kampala sun beamed down on a sloping garden, full of tropical colours, the pettrichor was reminiscent of Kerala after the first days of monsoon and I rapidly got re-acquainted with the chameleons wandering around on the turf. I could get used to this, I thought, especially after the guest-house cook served up a cooked breakfast of toast, bacon and sausages, and actually asked me what I would like for lunch.

   I began to feel very important.

(More to come on Kampala.)


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

This Indian love-and-marriage thing

This love and marriage thing in India. Rather overwhelming. And how it has changed and grown like Topsy. Today I was looking at a picture of a happy couple (they chose each other, thank God) cutting their wedding cake. It's all there: the knife held together, face up for the photo, beaming parents conducting the event. When did the cake enter into a wedding in Kerala? Cakes were strictly for evening tea on the odd occasion when revered guests turned up - about twice a year.

   I HAD to do a flash back to the occasion when I was 'cabin'd, cribbed, confined' and handed over. There was a big rice sadhya (feast), with two-thousand guests - that was absolutely every one my father knew at work or at home, all the people down our street and then some other streets. They ate on banana leaves laid out in lines along with thin thadukku (grass mats) in the panthal (covered area) outside our house. The women ate inside, also on the floor, on those ubiquitous banana leaves. The whole thing was over in one evening. The ceremony itself took ten minutes.

   Missing: three-tier cakes, fancy receptions with alcohol flowing (though there was a little furtive and committed drinking at the rear of the house). Missing also the three-day ceremony, which starts with the henna ceremony for the bride and girls, when their hands are decorated with intricate patterns, then the pre-wedding ceremony of close friends dropping in to a small celebration, then the wedding itself. By which time there must be a sense of surfeit and emotional exhaustion. I hear in some cases the wedding is a five-day ceremony. I am inclined to agree with the notion that there should be many days of heart-searching before tying the knot, but in less public ways.

   It is now de-rigeur to hold hands with your partner in public places, though kissing in public is for the future. And old couples, long married are also seen with their arms round each other in photographs. How sweet! In my time, a public display of affection was considered embarrassing to all, especially those watching. Facebook has much to answer for - we shall soon have all of them kissing in Facebook photos, that is after running round a few trees, Bollywood style.

   I can hear my family saying, 'sour grapes.' I must be jealous. Perhaps. the only thing in all this that pleases me is the fact that more Indian men and women choose their own partners now-a-days and the caste system is taking a back-seat. Now, if this behaviour of choosing one's own partner extends to India's villages, that will be something to celebrate.

   I think it is time for me to leave the stage to the young, bubbling ones and just enjoy their happiness and self-assurance. Must stop comparing. Except so much money is wasted on the weddings these days - if only that money could be spent on health-care, education or care of the disabled...

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Hay Effect


I have, for many years felt that this was something I wanted to do, but it always happened when I watched some scintillating author like Will Self or similar on the T V, talking with obvious confidence about books, writing, the soul and the state of the economy. I am the devoted acolyte, swept away by the power, not only of words, but sheer hubris. I tried reading a book by Will Self after one such occasion, but soon realised neither my vocabulary nor my cognitive tools were up to it.

   But there were many others, almost by accident, there on T V, authors and thinkers talking to the anchors, the plastic rose waiting in the wings to be offered at the end of the interview. Again, I would say to myself - next year, must get organised. However I had no idea where Hay-on-Wye was - somewhere in Sussex? Lake District? This year I struck lucky. One of my long list of Book Clubs, which help me to push my demons away to the corners of the  bedroom at night, offered to take some of us to Hay if we wished. Peter, one of the organisers, patient, considerate and relaxed, did everything. He booked hotels, arranged vehicles, kept us all informed. It was easy. All I had to do was get myself to Barons Court BP Connect, ( nearly messed that simple one up, but was rescued by son.) and the rest was in his hands. And how safe and gentle those hands turned out to be.

   When you arrange to travel with four others in a car, for three-and-a-half hours, ( I had googled Hay and knew how far it was now) you know you are letting yourself in for captivity in the company of strangers. I was pleasantly surprised. They treated me like heirloom China n deference to my age, but they were interesting, with varied backgrounds and opinions; the hours went quickly. I did not close my eyes once.

   At the end of the journey, again my expectations were limited. Peter had booked me into a B and B, called Sunnymount. I envisaged morning trips down the corridor to bathroom queues, small plastic cups in the bedroom tray, never quite enough to hold a big, first-thing tea. But the room was light-filled and fresh, the bathroom was mine alone for the duration and the tea-tray was generous. The mug of tea could turn my morning battery on to full.

   Denise and Bob, who run it were slick and pleasant. I loved the breakfast room, where we met up in passing for a cooked English breakfast. Denise foresaw every need of a paranoid old Indian woman: pillows enough to prop up my neck to read, multiple electric outlets to charge phone I Pad etc and T V and radio if all else failed. The tariff was way below what I thought it would be. I can't wait to go back next year.

   In passing, I started the first day at Hay listening to Anthony Beavor on the Ardennes Battle. It was the kind of talk in which you expected the sound-and-light system to show all on a back-drop. Beavor merely talked, but I had read his Second World War , two years before, and loved it. He had this anecdotal touch, which made History come alive. (And his 'o' sound was a delight to listen to; it was a parody of posh.) I had bought the hard copy, read the first 25 pages and then downloaded it to Kindle. It WAS heavy; I wilted, my arthritic fingers sagged - on Kindle it was perfect, Interesting, long, filling in gaps in my understanding of that era and its torments.

   I listened to many interesting talks at Hay, disagreed with some - but all were provoking.  My poor brain was bubbling, waiting to say something, do something, think a little differently. All in the next blog, starting with Hariri of the SAPIENS fame, the depth of whose intelligence and the level of engagement with the audience, was never surpassed by anyone else, Tom Holland, with no satisfactory answers to the Terrorist threat, Carol Black on occupational illnesses, Kashuo Ishiguro... I am sated. I have to tell everyone everything. Look to my next excited tumble of words.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Royal Event - never mind the election

The Royal baby has arrived or, as my son might have said, 'She's dropped the sprog.'There is of course nothing else for us British to get excited about today. Forget the election, which will affect the lives of millions. Today we shall hear, nauseatingly frequently, about the bloody royal girl.

   And did you know, the simpering, media say, 'She's only been in in labour for three hours.' Bless her. Quite an achievement that, having a baby - no other woman has managed this in the century! Not even the tea pickers in Assam who squat amid the tea bushes, have their babies, and then move on to the next tea bush.

   I would not want to deny Nicholas Winchell his brief moment in the limelight - but for heaven's sake, we don't see the bruiser, George (so far, a journalist said, we've seen him twice in his lifetime.) and we shan't see this little baby girl probably till she joins her aunt in her escapades at the age of twenty+.

   We pay for this lot! I shall wait to see this girl on a royal tour down under. If I wish to see pictures of her, which I don't. The food banks sit heavily on my conscience. This is an affluent country in spite of five years of the Cameron- Osbourne merry-go-round, but there are many families who can't afford decent food, new shoes,books for their families. And the sickening sight of media drooling over the royal baby is driving me to language I don't normally use.

   To be honest the fourth estate have a lot to answer for - the way they twisted facts to support the Tories.

 And of course, there will now be a sudden spurt  of support for Cameron. Kate could not have timed it more conveniently for the Conservatives. Question: why is the royal family associated with the posh people all the time?

   If this country votes the Cameron lot in again on the 7th, they deserve what they get. My family, incontestably middle-class, have done quite well out of the Tories. Except we don't vote for them. They do nothing for the mute poor. I think people like us should pay more taxes, not less.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The year I got my husband back

Two or three months into our life in Nigeria, after five years of being married, I got my husband back. It was not planned.

   The provincial Office of Works started every morning at 7.30 and finished at 2.30, in the afternoon. I believe it was a system set up by the British to get the day's work done before the heat became oppressive. Balan, my husband, had nowhere to go except home at that time. He had no Sri-Lankan drinking pals as he had left his usual crowd at home in Colombo.  I actually liked most of them, gentle men, who dropped off from the group that frequented the Saracens Sports Club one after the other when they got married. Balan merely replaced one drop-of with another person to drink with.

   However, in Ikot ekpene, Balan had to start reorganising his life and routines. The boys, two and four years at that time, began to see him before they went to bed.  He talked with me about his work and his colleagues. I often thought I had been a huge failure in wife-terms. If a husband simply does not want to come home after work, what can you do? Surely there must be something wrong with me?

   I tried a few tricks. I'd ask him to send the car to me in the afternoons to go shopping into town in Colombo. He would do that, and Francis, the driver would come to pick me up around three in the afternoon, after Jane, our Ammeh (maid) had taken the children over after her lunch-break. I'd wander around in Pettah, (Fort was way beyond my means) and buy nothing except the odd T shirt for my sons, which stretched out of shape in the first wash.

   At the end of the half-hearted shopping, at around 5.15, I'd ask the driver to go to Balan's office. The offices of Walker Sons and Co. would be just beginning to disgorge its staff. I would send Francis up to tell Balan that I was downstairs and would he like to come home? He invariably told Francis to take me home and bring the car back after. My ruses never worked. The driver would look faintly sorry for me. I think he sussed me out.

   With the babies coming within the space of two years I had lost all connection with my first love - books. I admitted defeat with Balan and started looking for books to read. My father said that as long as he did not chase after other women, beat me up, or fail to provide house-keeping money, I was well-off. So much for a concept of marriage in those times in India.

   I often remember those years in Ikot ekpene, from 1962-'65, as the best years of a rather unremarkable marriage. In my youth I asked for so little, like many young Indian girls from Kerala. But in 1962, I started writing and sent off my article on education to a magazine published in Lagos.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Ikot ekpene - far from 'civilisation.'

I should have settled-in easily in Ikot ekpene - after all I came from a tiny one-horse town in Kerala. Thalassery, to be precise, on the coast of the Arabian sea, where in spite of all my wanderings, my heart resides, and I feel is the only place and people amongst whom I really belong.
  Just like my new home in Ikot ekpene, Thalassery did not have electricity when I was growing up and it did not boast running water either. Except the water that ran off the eaves in the monsoon, that is, enough to flood the front yard and the gullies behind the house. Many a rainy day, I have watched the water level rise slowly to reach the top steps to our veranda -- will it, won't it? With no television or radio, it was a pastime sitting on the torn up planter's chair, where us children had to create our own pastimes. 
  When that got boring I would run to the back of the house and watch the pink-brown flood-water gushing downhill from the rise at the back of that stretch of coastal land where the English had established a European Club (no Indians allowed). The water would bring with it upturned shit-pots, uprooted banana trees, coconut fronds and the odd dead goat, rushing at great speed to waste ground below.
  I was better off in Ikot ekpene; there was a water closet, if we could get the water connection to our house going. My husband, Balan, rushed off to the office, rounded up the caretaker, Sunday, and soon the water was flowing in the taps. Rust-coloured water, gradually getting lighter till it flowed colourless as I stood over it. It tasted metallic, but otherwise definitely like water.
  A messenger from the office, a young man called Solomon, went shopping and brought back bread and tea, blue-band margarine (that staple much-maligned substitute for butter) and other essentials. The milk came out of tins - we had a choice of Dutch Baby milk powder or Peak Milk. The kerosene 'frig with the pan-handle shaped kerosene container looked risky but had built up a frost overnight.
  Solomon also told us not to drink water without boiling it --for many minutes -- he insisted. I had to make an executive decision here. All my life I had drunk the water from our well at Thalassery without boiling. When it looked less than pristine, (i.e. when a dead frog or rat floated,my aunt dropped Potassium permanganate crystals in it and declared it clean after a day. Now I needed to get precious about this? I suspended that decision for then. Too many to make!
  I was rapidly feeling better. Now I could bathe the children who had gone to bed grimy, and wash the dust out of my hair. I battled with the beast of a stove in the kitchen, burning packing-paper in it, trying to light the bits of wood on top. After much smoke and tears and charcoal on my nose the water boiled (never mind the black kettle.) and I made Dutch Baby milk for the boys, and tea - lovely home-making tea for me. I was ready for Ikot ekpene.
  'I must get to the shops,' I said to Solomon who had hung around, and waded in with lighting the recalcitrant cooker, in moral support. He looked sheepish. 'Only market, Madam,' he said. 'No shops in Ikot Ekpene. For shop you go to Aba.'
  In the goody bag  brought by Solomon there were tins of meat balls and spam. We warmed them up for lunch. In the afternoon, we went to Aba, an hour away and came back loaded with everything we needed except fresh meat, and then some more. It was like preparing for a siege.
  At dusk, after the children went to bed, we sat out in the front of our house, the now-restored Tilly lamp casting a bright light in a corner of the sitting rooms. The garden was full of dappled shadows and it was very quiet. We did not talk; we were tired, but the life ahead had improved considerably from the previous day..



Thursday, 26 February 2015

Fragments of a Life

Fragments of a Life

A strange life taking me to places and experiences I did not seek. So I pick bits; I examine them carefully. I have to be careful not to give too much of myself away.

  I was twenty-six years old when I made that uncertain leap from Sri-Lanka (Ceylon then) to the ‘bush’ in Eastern Nigeria. I remember that journey into the unknown.

I had two little boys in tow and a nervous husband. It was June of 1962 and there had been a slow exodus of professionals, mainly teachers and engineers from Ceylon to West Africa for two years.

  The salaries were way beyond what we could get in Ceylon and it would be hard currency, when it was sent to UK for safe-keeping in good old Barclays. For a while the Ceylon government impounded the passports of qualified engineers who were rumoured to leave. After a while they stopped, unable to plug that steady leak. Most of these men and women never went back to live in Ceylon; they ended up in the UK. They brought with them the aspirations of the parents to gain educational qualifications, work hard, buy homes and prosper. Their children put down roots in the UK and became as British as the locals, sometimes more. George Alagiah, for instance, was one of them.

  The Ceylonese who came to the UK were mainly Tamils, eager to get away from the communal strife in Ceylon as well as the invisible discrimination against them in their professions. But my family was Indian, ironically, second generation Ceylonese who had emigrated from India when India and Ceylon were all colonies of the ubiquitous British..

  What no one told us was the fact that apart from three sizeable towns, Enugu, Port Harcourt and the half-way house of Aba, most of the rest of Eastern Nigeria were small settlements. We travelled to Ikot Ekpene, four hours by car from Enugu in the June of 1962. We had no idea what we would find at the other end.

  A Ministry of Works Jeep carried our scant luggage – the magic of possessing so little – two suitcases and a small crate of old kitchen objects and Indian spices. Most of the roads were red mud-roads, kicking up dust as the cars went, so we travelled in front of the Jeep, bestowing our dust to them.

  We reached the compound where we were to live late in the evening. Our home to be was a lovely colonial house, spread on one floor in an acre of untended land. A path past our house went to the home of the Scot my husband was taking over from – Gordon, the water engineer in residence.

  Our house had neither water supply nor electricity. The kitchen had a cast-iron Garran Dover stove, the walls black around it. Bricks and firewood were scattered on top; I took one look and closed the door on it. The boys were tired – Kitta, at four, had sat on the floor of the back of the car reciting ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ through the journey, and Raghu, at two, had cried from start to end. He hated all this changing of homes and being whisked about. I sat in front and ignored both of them as I had my own issues.

 Our escorts in the Jeep rushed off to the local market and came back with bananas and bread. We ate that and washed it down with Fanta orange. I did not know how to light the Tilly lamp left by the previous resident. My husband tried, and the filter tore immediately. We pushed everything away and let the men who came with us drive back to Enugu, before opening suitcases and looking for sheets and pillowcases. Sleep was indicated, anything to escape all the questions about making a home.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Yet another excerpt from Shards of Sunlight.  Indu waits for her father to come back from jail.


Three months passed quickly and Achan’s (father's) absence gradually became a fact of life.  Devi  (aunt) got up much earlier than Achan every morning, so Indu also stumbled out of bed at dawn. Her first job was to help Devi roll up the sleeping mat they shared and put it away in the corner of their room.
   Now Indu had plenty of time to day-dream between waking up and going to school. She was sitting on the edge of the veranda steps one day, watching the leaves of the jack-fruit tree drift to the ground in the cool November winds, when her grand mother grabbed her and pulled her up. Ammini clutched Indu’s hand in a tight, prehensile grip, as she shuffled forward, dragging the girl with her.
   ‘Va. Vegam va,’ she said. Come. Come quickly.  Ammini, gasped with the effort of pulling her along.
   They went down the short path from the veranda leading to the front gate. Indu looked up at the woman’s face. Ammini never ventured out of the house this early in the morning since as far back as she could remember; she wouldn’t even come out of her bed. It was the time when the parachi women, the untouchables, sneaked into the backs of houses to collect the shit pots and carry them to the municipal hand-cart, which they pushed along from street to street. Ammini hated seeing the night-soil women with their foul cargo walking past; she always said they were like a bad omen: if you started your day with seeing one, the remaining hours would be full of misfortunes.
   What was Ammini doing? Indu tried to slide her fingers out for a quick getaway, but this merely made the old woman tighten her grip and pull harder.
   Ammini was having trouble walking: she was bent over like a question mark, wincing as her arthritic stick-legs negotiated the uneven path. She wore a mundu, a soft, white ankle-length cloth, wrapped round and tucked tightly into the hollow of her concave waist, above which her shrivelled breasts dangled. This was all she would normally wear inside the house. However, today, a thorthu, a thin white towel made of coarse cotton, was thrown over her naked shoulders carelessly, a minor concession to the outside world of men. It hid nothing although she kept tugging it over her breasts as she walked.
   Indu kept looking back at the veranda of the house, hoping someone would notice, but no one did. Ammini reached the end of the walkway and hesitated at the iron gates, in front of the steps leading down to the dusty road. In the house opposite a young woman was drying her waist length hair in the morning sun, slowly, sensuously, as though she had the whole day to do this.
    Ammini pushed at the gate feebly, glancing back to the house as she did so, and squeezed through, pulling the girl along with her. As she looked at the wide, endless-seeming road in front of her, she gulped and her breath quickened.
   On Indu’s left, the owner of the dabba next to her house, was dismantling his shop front, one plank at a time, ready to put out his wares.  He arranged the planks in a neat stack, leaning against the wall at one end of the shop. While Indu watched, he went inside for a moment and came out with a big aluminium pot. He peered into it, then rinsed the dregs left over from the previous day by swirling them around and threw the remnants on to the road.
   Indu glanced at the road uncertainly - she could step on it now if she wanted, something she was never allowed to do on her own. The most she ever managed was swing in a half-circle on the gate when no one was watching. Now Ammini had dumped her into this forbidden world where there was so much happening.
   ‘Poicko,’ she said, go, giving Indu a shove. ‘No need to wait. There is nothing here for you.’
   Indu tugged at her white night-slip in a sudden access of modesty now that she was standing on the road, and tested the dry, powdery soil with her bare feet. She put her right heel down and turned round on it, drawing a circle in the mud with her big toe. The soft, red dust rose, making Ammini sneeze as she darted quick, furtive glances left and right, then pushed the girl on to the tarmac, letting go of her hand.
   Down the hill, where the road levelled out towards the Kuyyali River, a bus screeched to an unscheduled stop to pick up a passenger who had held out his arm for it.
   ‘There,’ the old woman said. ‘They have tied your father behind that bus and they are dragging him. The police are killing him. Can’t you hear him screaming?’ She covered her ears with her hands as if to shut out that screaming, which Indu couldn’t hear. ‘He is not coming back,’ she added grimly, almost to herself.
   She pushed Indu again. ‘Poicko, vegam poicko.’ Go quickly¸ go. To your mother’s house. They will look after you.’
   Ammini looked around distractedly before shuffling off towards the house with the air of a job well done. Indu stayed on the edge of the road looking around, as the morning came into focus like a slow-developing film. She looked towards the bus, which had started moving again, searching for her father, but didn’t see anyone being dragged behind it.
   On the crest of the hill, Thalassery’s resident madman, Vasu, was doing his usual morning duties, picking up the litter from the sides of the road and depositing each find neatly in the middle. Occasionally, he kicked up the dust with his toes as he tried to dislodge plantain peels stuck into the dirt. He talked to himself all the time as he made his zigzag way up the hill, often going back some distance if he had missed an empty cigarette box or a torn banana leaf. Indu was engrossed watching his morning trail.
   As he approached, Indu got back on the walkway to the house, poised for a hasty retreat if he pursued her. Today had started badly, she decided, it was an anything-could- happen kind of day. However, Vasu did not look at Indu; he shuffled past muttering to himself, ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Sindabad, Congress Party, Sindabad,’ holding up a dry banana frond like a flag.
   ‘Mahatma Gandhi, Sindabad,’ Indu tried out tentatively. Not satisfactory at all. She picked up a banana frond from her garden and held it up as she marched back to the house. ‘Congress Party, Sindabad,’ she shouted more enthusiastically; now she had a flag to wave, it felt much better.

When Indu got back to the veranda, she sat down on the cement steps and laid her flag down carefully at her feet; something was bothering her, a stray unease like a hovering mosquito. So she poked her right thumb into the seam of her white sleep-in slip, where the stitches had come out. When Indu felt threatened in any way, the hole in that seam got bigger.
   She looked at the shards of sunlight dancing on the steps where she sat, as the leaves of the coconut palm overhanging the veranda moved in the wind. The cement floor under her near-naked behind was rough with grit and cold on her thighs. She cast a glance towards the south end of the veranda, which her father had made his domain. There he used to talk to his clients, bargain for fees and write up his files. The rickety wooden bench on which his clients sat had one front leg shorter than the others; it jumped up and came down with a thud when they sat on the end alerting Indu and Mani to be especially quiet as Gopalan worked with his clients..
   The single chair with the adjustable back was Gopalan’s, and no one else used it except he, even when he was not around. The backrest had a top layer of plywood with a yellow flower design on it; the plywood was peeling off in places and sometimes it had left red imprints on her father’s pale skin. Looking at the chair Indu remembered his morning smell of Chandrika Sandalwood soap and Wills Navy Cut cigarettes.
   Indu walked over to the chair and looked more closely; her legs had taken her there without any conscious decision on her part. She passed a finger over the yellow design and climbed in, sniffing for her father’s smell as she did so, but all she got was dry wood.
   Lying back, she listened to the neighbour’s children getting ready for school at the well in their compound– the plop of the scoop made out of arecanut fronds as it hit the surface of the water, the clatter of old Ovaltine tins and zinc buckets as the children bathed, the shouts and admonitions of mothers as they coaxed and cajoled the tribe to clean their teeth, bathe and change for school. She curled herself into a ball, put her head down on the arm of the chair and closed her eyes.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Child's Play

 Another excerpt from SHARD OF SUNLIGHT: Indu with her best friend.

Thursdays and Sundays were holidays at Indu’s school, The Sacred Heart Convent. The state schools closed dutifully on Saturdays and Sundays like the rest of the working world, but the nuns had to do something different, if only to establish their superiority. Leela, Indu’s best friend, went to a local Primary school, so Sunday was the one day Indu had to spend with Leela.
   Some time in the evening on Saturdays, when her jutka clip-clopped home from school, Indu would start thinking about playing with Leela. Would Leela’s disagreeable father, Chathu, be at home to scream at them? It would be a good Sunday if he was sleeping off a drinking bout from the previous day; he would not emerge from his dark hole of a bedroom till mid-day, and then he would be half-asleep.
   Before she set off towards Leela’s house in the morning, Indu checked whether Mathu had started sweeping the front yard, making wide semicircles in the dust with her broom. And was Chathu up and about?
   Today Leela’s veranda was empty, so Indu wriggled through the fence at the kitchen end of her house and crossed the narrow path to Leela’s mud-brick hut. It still gave her a sense of wrongdoing. When her father was around, going to Leela’s house was strictly forbidden.  According to him they were “useless people” and her grandmother called them “the unwashed tribe next door.”
   Now, however, her father was in Vellore Jail, because he was something called a freedom fighter, and Indu could go where she wished. She tiptoed gingerly up the rickety quarry stones, which did duty for steps to Leela’s hut; They had a habit of tilting if you caught the edge; she had stubbed her little toe on those a few times. Chathu’s dilapidated deck chair was the only furniture on the veranda and his blue-and-white, crumpled lungi hung on the back as though he had thrown it there in a hurry. Indu gave the chair a wide berth though Leela’s grim father was not sitting in it just then.
   When she reached the front door she stopped for a moment and peered into the tiny, cramped corridor getting her eyes accustomed to the forbidding darkness inside.
   ‘Leela, where are you?’ she called uneasily, as she stepped inside. She could smell the mouth-watering farinaceous smell of roasting cassava, not something made in her own house very often. It was only in the houses of the poor that cassava was used as a staple instead of rice.
   ‘In the kitchen. Come,’ Leela shouted out.
   Indu heard the rustling of dry leaves and knew Leela was in front of the three-stone fireplace shovelling dry leaves into it with her hands. In the morning Leela was often to be found there, warming up yesterday’s fish curry or straining old rice from the cold water soak that kept it fresh.
   Indu forced herself to step into the dark passage; the floor felt gritty and uneven. There was a bedroom on either side and if you peered in, it was always night in there and smelled of unwashed clothes and damp. Once safe past the rooms, the kitchen was light-filled and airy with a door leading outside, though it hung loose on one hinge. Outside the door was the large half sphere of the bamboo basket under which Mathu kept her chickens. The leaves that Mathu swept up from the compounds where she worked, and the coconut fronds she begged off Indu’s aunt Devi for firewood, were heaped just outside the door. Some were spread on the mud floor in front of the hearth.
   Indu found the older girl squatting in front of the fire, blowing at the embers through a bamboo pipe. A fine patina of ash had settled on her matted shoulder length hair, which was more brown than black. Indu loved Leela’s hair, wavy and thick and long, unlike her own no-nonsense crop.
   Leela nudged the roasting cassava out of the fire towards her and beat at it with the bamboo pipe, testing whether the skin had flaked, ready to split open. Satisfied it was done she left it on the floor to cool and turned to Indu who was now squatting beside her.
   ‘Play kottamkallu?’ she asked.
   It was Leela who generally took the lead in such important matters as what game to play each day. She was left so much to herself by her mother that she had grown beyond her years.
   Mathu did not have much choice except to leave Leela to her own devices. What Chathu gave her for rice and fish each month, after he had drunk most of his salary, did not stretch beyond the middle of the month. She supplemented this income with working in Indu’s house, sweeping and swabbing, spreading cow dung on the floors once a week, and beating the life out of clothes on the concrete slab at the back. For this she was given five rupees a month and food for her and Leela. Because of this work she knew her daughter would never go hungry.
   ‘Mmm…’ Indu murmured, too eager for the cassava to say anything properly. The two girls started beating at the hot cassava with their palms, loosening the burnt skin from the tuber, then peeling it off to bite greedily into the fluffy white flesh. They opened their mouths and blew ha-ha as the hot cassava threatened to burn their tongues. For Leela this would be breakfast but Indu had already eaten her conjee of well-cooked rice in its starchy water, and moong dhal curry, before she ventured out.
   The two girls were so engrossed in their cassava they did not hear the clumsy footsteps outside, the thump of an umbrella on the floor, followed by the shuffle of a weight collapsing on the deck chair. Then someone cleared his throat, hawked and spat noisily.
   ‘Father,’ Leela said, standing up quickly, in her haste dropping the remnants of the cassava she was eating. Indu scrambled up too, but before she could escape Chathu was in the kitchen glaring at her, and Leela was nowhere to be seen.
   ‘Where is the other one? Leela…’ he called.  His speech was slurred. ‘Where is that nayinde mole, koothicheende mole?’ He stretched out his arm to grab hold of Indu, and then thought better of it. In the process he lost his balance and fell back against the kitchen wall. Indu smelled his sour toddy breath as he glowered at her, and with it the stench of stale sweat.
   He heaved himself up and leaned towards Indu. ‘Eating my cassava! Mmm… Go, Go… Now – and don’t let me see you here again.’ The thick blob of mucous, which had hung under his left nostril was now smeared across his cheek.
   Indu heard the menace in his voice; no one had ever spoken to her like that. He must be the reason she was not allowed to go to Leela’s house. She ran out of the back door and across the path. Wriggling through the fence she scratched her arm on the wooden post, but didn’t stop till she reached her veranda. She was breathless and shaking, glad to be on familiar turf  but also certain there would not be any sympathy for her if Devi got to know she had sneaked off next door.

Leela wandered on to Indu’s veranda later. ‘Kothamkallu?’ she asked. In her right hand she loosely held a fistful of stones; they threatened to dribble through her fingers. She sat down carefully on the cement floor, at the edge of the veranda – she would never come further in, as though there were some invisible lines that stopped her. She scattered the stones in her hand in a small spread in front of her. Then she selected her master stone and threw it up to head height in front of her, testing its path. Not satisfied, she repeated the action, scooping up five small stones from off the floor, as the big stone started to descend. She caught her master stone neatly with the same hand and smiled at Indu. Leela was very good at this game.
   To Indu, Leela seemed almost a grown-up. Self-sufficient, because she made her own rules, and did not care what the adults thought or did. When she was younger she used to follow Mathu around when she came to work, always a few paces behind, left thumb firmly stuck in mouth. These days the thumb was definitely not in the mouth and Mathu came to work alone.
   Indu knew there was no point asking Leela where she had been and why her father was so angry. Leela never said much about what happened in her home, concentrating on the games they played together. It was always Indu who asked  questions. When the questions became oppressive Leela would merely get up and saunter away.
   ‘I thought he was going to hit me,’ Indu volunteered, taking care not to ask anything this time.
   ‘He won’t hit you. Only Amma and me. He’s scared of your father.’
   One angry shout from her father was enough to make Indu want to pee, but he had never hit her, even that time when she had accidentally pushed one of his law books off the veranda ledge and into the rain. He said he didn’t believe in hitting anyone, there were better ways to make children behave.
   ‘But he’s not here now.’ Indu voice trembled on the now; suddenly she wanted her father.  Chathu, she was certain, would not have dared shout at her if her father was around.
   ‘That’s right. So don’t wait for him to save you. We just have to run fast when my father comes back from work. He’s always too drunk to chase us.’
   For Leela all of this appeared to be totally normal. Indu knew her friend lived in a more precarious and uncertain world, but she had never imagined she needed to run away and hide from her own father. Now Indu had to learn to run as well. And hide?
   ‘Hide where?’ Indu asked, bemused. There was nowhere to hide in Leela’s little house with two rooms and a kitchen.
   ‘In the gully at the back. There is a drumstick tree there and I sit behind it.’
   Indu had always known there was a narrow path there; it was the place where Chathu’s household went to shit since their old stone-and-thatch latrine came down in the last monsoon. Indu wondered what happened when it rained and you had to go. Did you hold an umbrella up with one hand while you did your business? The narrow channel flooded during the rains, bringing all the sewage from up the hill. You could see turds and the odd dead, bloated goat floating in that water. Leela in there? Sometimes Leela’s world seemed so distant from hers.
   ‘It’s filthy,’ Indu said.
   Leela tossed her head, throwing the comment to the winds. It seemed this was not a worry for her. Indu thought about the elaborate cleaning rituals in her own home: rooms swept daily by Mathu, new cow dung spread on the floors every Friday and women in pristine white clothes, with shining, newly washed hair down their backs, to dry in the mornings.
   No, Indu did not want to hide anywhere near that filthy gully; she must find another place for herself.