Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Monday, 17 October 2016

The Ikea Experience

The Ikea experience
(For Val)
Two things reminded me of you recently. So this bit of writing is for you, Val Johnson. In this world where all my friends are high-end earners (and that includes my children) the only thing I can give that is worthwhile is my writing.

So I went to Ikea a few weeks ago. I needed nothing from there – or anywhere else – at that moment, but Manju needed shelving for her daughter’s room, so I tagged along like ballast. In India they would have called me Vattipalam, the side of the mango, the bit that is left when the two big fleshy bits have been cut off, but you don’t want to waste that thin sliver on either side. That about describes me. Can’t throw it away, but could well do without.

When I go to Ikea, I have to give myself a capped budget. It was fifty pounds this time, but for unknowable reasons the bill in the end was £82 pounds. Thank God for plastic money. What did I buy? Odd shaped pyrex dishes to look at and admire, not much use to serve anything much. A wok for stir-fries, of which we have three already. A mug for morning tea- a lovely one, blue flowers on white, cheap porcelain, chips if you breathe on it. Cost a pound. Can't complain.

Through it, especially when I saw the twisted Happy Ferns, I thought of you. I hope you and your family are happy and well.

Afterwards I had tea and a ham sandwich at the cafeteria. I fetched this myself as Manju was somewhere in the basement tackling flat-packs. If she was there I would have sat back, hugging age and let her do it all. In fact I get away with her doing a lot of things for me, which I can do myself: that tea at nine in the evening, driving me here and there, making my bed…

You and I, we used to sit at a window-table in Ikea, watching the world streaming in and out. I smiled at a few strangers, hoping for some signs of friendliness, but in this instance, failed. I have my victories. The other day I struck up an unlikely conversation with two jobbing gardeners I didn’t know from Adam. Notch one for Anand.


I feel someone should hold master classes for English people who are tight-arsed, wary of strange old biddies, who smile for no reason.  Teach them that smile should be the default position? You and I together?

Friday, 14 October 2016

I Have a Thing about Food

I have a thing about food. Amazing how old, child-hood hangups hang (sorry!) around. I am not able to waste that last half-spoon of rice at the bottom of the pan, the cold pizza left over from my grand-daughter's evening meal, the beef curry in which all the beef has been eaten and only gravy  (and what a gravy!) is left. Today I shall spend an hour making banana cake to resuscitate two almost-dead, spotted, large, sick bananas. And then I shall worry when the cake is still there three days from now. The life-span of banana cake is inversely proportional to the heating in the kitchen. And my daughter switched the heating on this week when she saw me digging out my winter-socks from the storage box.

   I remember the refugees from the partition of India. How ever did they reach this far South in Kerala? They spoke Hindi and communicated with hand-signals. This, of course was the time of serial starvation in India. I don't think the present generation of whizz-kids, rich on corporate salaries have any idea of what misery that was.
   
   The ragged, broken families went from house to house, standing mutely in front of the middle-class verandas. I would put my current book down and try to talk to them. All they did was make the universal sign of hunger, fingers supplicating in front of the mouth, eyes beseeching, while the children held on to the mother's clothes. That deluge of starving people carried on through the early fifties and died down very gradually. Now, there are no beggars in Thalassery, though you can still see them in bigger towns. They are locals, not broken families of homeless refugees.

   My grandmother got into the habit of saving the starchy water drained from the cooked rice. This was normally used to starch clothes, but she commandeered it for the beggars. She would take a big handful of rice from the pot furtively and put it into the thick water. She also kept the empty coconut shells to use as bowls for them. Disposable bowls, which could then be burned for fuel.

   One day I came upon my cousin Nani, scraping the bottom of the rice-pot late at night when all the others had gone to bed. It was 1944 and rationing was at its dismal worst. I had been asleep, but when I found her missing in the room, I crawled off my mat and went looking for her. When I saw what she was doing I picked up a wooden spoon to scrape with her. 'No,' she said, 'the neighbours should not hear us. They will know we are short of rice in a lawyer's house.' This was the time when my father was in jail for irritating the British Government with speeches and with leading protest marches.

   Devi, our maid lived next door in a small mud hut. She got the leftovers, all thrown into a bowl and left overnight. Generally bits of Okra, tiny bits of rice and lentils scraped from our evening meals. She took it home to feed her daughter, who was my age.

   So, to this day, I don't take food for granted. I cook too much, so there is no dearth. And then force my family to eat it for another meal, and then another.