Wednesday, June 29, 2011

There's no such thing as Liberation

We take too many things for granted - even when we know we're taking them for granted. We assume the next two days we're going to work on this project or that, finish this chore or the other, take our children to the park or the zoo. It takes only the suggestion of an illness to topple that confidence, to bring to surface the terrifying certainty that the next two days we're going to be invalid and all our beautiful 'well-laid' plans gone down the drain. No words can explain the emotion if that invalidity is expected to stretch for a lifetime.

We're constantly bound to our plans... or they are bound to us. We're also bound to a lot of other commitments, people, places and things. Some of them cast their chains upon us. Some too tight. Some too rigid. Some too powerful.

When we say Liberation - Women's Liberation and such - we are talking about breaking these chains. The people, specifically, that bind.

Imagine for a moment (if you could) that we have broken free from the first level of oppression. Imagine that we are beyond female infanticide, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and such atrocities that question human rights and dignity. Imagine that the world has been cleansed of these crimes.

Assume there is no man or woman to stop you from anything. As a woman you're free to walk, to roam, to fly, to rule, to manage, to lead, to learn, to do (almost) anything a man does, and more.

How long do you think you'll do it? Let's face it. After a while, as the novelty wears out, you'll be pulled back. Your home, your family, your husband, your child - they are the branches of the tree that's you. A woman can't really imagine herself without them. Without them she is a bare trunk, with amputated limbs. Without them, she is an empty, troubled piece of nothingness. They're forever bound to her, as she is to them. They are her responsibilities that she believes cannot go on without her.

Even if there is no one to harass her after dark, she wants to come home early.
Even if the maid cleans up and cooks every day, she wants to oversee the activities.
Even if the sick and old in the family can manage themselves, she wants to make sure they are warm and comfortable.
Even if she gives no damn about the society, she wants to make sure no one speaks ill about her and her family.
Even if no one cares whether she is around or not, she wants to make sure everything is just as it should be.
Not for anyone else. But for herself.

Even if there is a robust support system on which she could lean as she pursues her dreams and aspirations, there is still a magnet drawing her back. Sometimes it is called guilt. Sometimes it is called love. Sometimes it is called responsibility. Sometimes it is called belonging. Sometimes it is called the sense of ownership. Sometimes it is called struggle.

We're in a prison within ourselves. True Liberation means breaking free from the chains, from the wall we've built around us: Freedom from everything that makes us Women. Everything that signifies the essence of being a Woman.

And believe me, none of us want that kind of Liberation.

Therefore Ladies, please go back to your seats and carry on with your lives. 

There is no Liberation happening here. Today or ever.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Art of tackling the vivaha sadya

Seriously. It is an art, that most people master by the time they are seventy or something. Some exceptional folk become experts much before that, but for many, it is like appreciating paintings - we love paintings but we don't know enough to pass an intelligent opinion on them. Such is the case with the Malayali vivaha sadya: We love them and claim that the payasams are the only reason we attend weddings, but we do not know how to tackle it. 

If you are not a Malayali, even a lifetime would not be enough to master the art of devouring the sadya, unless you're determined and dedicated. I remember a few bewildered Kannadiga friends at a Malayali wedding (about fifteen years ago, in Thiruvananthapuram) seated before their untouched sadya, holding a lemon and whispering to me, "What are we supposed to do with this?"

Let me start at the very beginning. The vivaha sadya begins where scene-2 depicted in this post, ends. The art of pushing through and snatching the vacant seats is one of the first lessons of vivaha sadya. Even the biggest hall in the history of Malayali weddings are not equipped to handle the rush. Many disappointed faces can be seen exiting the hall, after their futile search for a chair, hoping for better luck next time. After all, experience is everything. They position themselves by the entrance, ready to burst in when the doors open for the next sitting.

The lucky ones (and you can tell by their broad smiles, as they adjust their deranged sarees or crumbled shirts) wait in their seats at the table. (They are the ones who undoubtedly always win the musical chair competitions across the world.) The caterers quickly place banana leaves before them.

Once you are seated, you are allowed a few micro-seconds to look around to see if you recognise someone and wave at them before turning back to your banana leaf. In the next few fleeting minutes, a number of men (women haven't yet ventured into this area, I presume, but I may be wrong) pass before you, plopping different pickles, upperis, thorans, kichadi, pachadi, aviyal, pappadam onto your banana leaf. You do nothing but wait. You can sample the curries or take a bite into the pappadam while you wait. But realise, the waiting is essential.

Next comes the rice. You sit forward. Your patience is about to be rewarded. You are ready to start the race, err, I mean, the rice. As soon as the rice falls on your banana leaf, you make a partition at the middle. Close on the heals of the rice, come the parippu and the ghee. This part is important: don't look up from your rice unless it is to see how close the next server is, and what he is bringing.

You have to concentrate on mixing the rice, parippu and ghee with pappadam and sending it on its way down your throat. However, your concentration must not be such that you do not notice the caterers passing before you. You should keep gesturing 'yes' or 'no' otherwise you will find sambar dropped on top of your rice - and you had not even asked for it. It may also happen that the payasam will pass by because you didn't say 'yes'. If you are relatively inexperienced, you would not know what it is that they bring. You would not get time to ask what it is, receive a reply, ponder over it and then say 'yes.' Such delays and light conversation are not welcomed (by the servers). The knowledge comes over time, so 'wait, suffer and learn' are the only things to be done.

The payasam comes in between. If you know the course of the sadya very well, you can tell exactly the minute at which it will be brought, and you will be ready with a gap in your rice to receive it. The different payasams (there may be two or three) also come together with half a minute between them. The more the number of payasams, the more prosperous are the hosts. There was a time I thought the payasams signified the end of the sadya and was surprised when more rice was plopped on top of my double payasam mix. (That sadya was a disaster I would rather not remember.)

You should also gulp down the water in the plastic cup quickly because then you can ask for the payasam or moru or rasam in it, if you like. You can ask for all of them in the cup, except that you don't get three cups, so the gulping down must happen fast, as soon as each arrives. If by mistake your plastic cup falls on the floor, you are doomed. It is not likely you will get another one.

It is important to keep up with the others. When the sadya is over (the signal being the folding of the banana leaf), people from one end start rising. You really don't want to be found sitting alone slurping your payasam, when the next set barges in for their food. So you see, even though you are absorbed in your food, you also pay close attention to the servers, the (eating) status of the others and the general atmosphere in the hall. 

It is very difficult to come out of a wedding sadya without showing traces of it in your dress/saree/shirt. But again, with experience, you will learn to dodge the right way at the right places at the right times, and come through with your clothes stainless.

Everything about tackling the sadya lies in precision and rapidness, which, as I mentioned, come only with experience. 

As for the lemon mentioned above, I suspect it symbolises (among other things) the fact that life most often gives you lemons, and it is all up to you what you choose to do with it. Some people take it home and make lemonade, some make lemon rice, some throw it away when they leave the marriage hall, some say 'no' when they are offered the lemon. Think and act responsibly where the lemon is concerned.

Any mistakes in the above narration may be attributed to my lack of expertise, even after years of attending vivaha sadyas.

As I said, it might take a lifetime...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jack and Jill...

5-yr-old: "What was that song I heard in TV?"
Mom: "Jack and Jill?"

"Yes, sing it for me."
"Have you forgotten? You must have learned it in school last year or the year before that."

"Sing it for me."
"Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after."

"What does that mean, 'broke his crown'?"
"He must have hit his head or something."

"And Jill?"
"She fell down too."

"They must have been real small kids, right?"
"Why so?"

"They should have known they are not supposed to go up the hill to get water."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When you say corruption ... you mean

... the kind of money people like Kalmadi tried to get away with?

... the kind of money some others really managed to stack their bank accounts with?

... the notes we offer to the official at the RTO office to ensure our driving licence comes through without any hitch? The amount we hand over to the driving school so that they nudge the RTO official to 'do the needful'?

... the hundred rupee note that we surreptitiously slip into the hands of the traffic cop to avoid a speeding ticket?

... the teacher who leaks the question paper so that her son can be the class topper?

... the appointment people have with their doctor at his house, to get special care during the surgery the next day?

... the phone call to a friend working in the school to guarantee your child gets admission without an interview?

... the man at work cleaning the house whispering to another, "that's enough scrubbing, no one's watching anyway"?

... the call to your doctor friend to get preference over the 20 waiting patients?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Flowing with the current

All of a sudden you notice the current. It was always there, of course.

You had been floating downstream. You thought it was the wind that carried your sail. If, indeed, you thought at all.

That you are picking up pace was not cause for alarm. Not yet.
You hear a low rumble. Yes, you are seeing new things and hearing new sounds now.

The rumble seems quite far away. But you know it is important.

The tree trunks leaning across the river... were they always there?

Suddenly you're afraid. What does the sound mean? You stop breathing and prick your ears. The roar is approaching. Are you heading to the top of a waterfall? You look back. Were all those tree trunks important? Were they the ones you should have clutched when there was still time, when they were within reach?
There are no more trees ahead. There is not even a straw to grab.

The current has become quite strong.

You did not seek the shore when you could. You did not reach out for the trunks when you could.

The roar ahead could be anything.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ten Days in Navi Mumbai - Lonavala

Humidity is the ruling emotion of Mumbai, Old and New. I had so forgotten how unimaginably exasperating it could get. The fact is that when you're in Bangalore, try as you might you would not recall the exact nature of Mumbai's (or, for that matter, Kerala's) humidity. I did carry enough summer clothes with me but I discovered I was ill-equipped to battle the weather.

The difference between Bangalore's summer and Mumbai's is that in Bangalore's dry heat you wish to cover yourself when you go out so that the sun doesn't get to burn your skin. In Mumbai the more you cover yourself, the more you sweat, and the more times you yearn for a bath or a gulp of water. One has to keep this fact in mind when choosing the wardrobe for the trip.

Every evening between eight and nine o'clock the door bell would ring twice. First comes the ironwallah, then the man who sold eggs. The ironwallah keeps an account on each house, and the payment is done at the end of every month. The clothes he takes away one night would be returned the next. The system seemed so different from Bangalore: our local ironwallah makes his appearance in the morning once or twice a week, or whenever it is convenient for him, and vanishes with the clothes, sometimes for two-three days at a time. The payment is made when he returns them, pressed and folded. By that time, naturally, he and I would have forgotten how many pieces of clothing were given.

Lonavala, off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, about midway between Mumbai and Pune, is one of the places that people from these busy cities throng during weekends. The best thing about Lonavala is, in my opinion, its distance from Navi Mumbai: you reach before you can say 'Lonavala'. Well, almost. 

 Lonavala - 'Lion Point' as per the signpost and 'Tiger Point' as per the locals

We joined the bandwagon one Saturday morning and drove to Lonavala. There was a food court on the highway where we stopped for breakfast. It was 9AM and the breakfast flock was out in full capacity. The counters were crowded and one had to squeeze in if one's desire for food had to be conveyed. It was not the people who came first that were first served, it was the ones who had the knack of squeezing through and making themselves heard. People did not wait for others to finish their order before speaking, and there was no queue. Only the loudest and swiftest would survive. 

There was not a single chair free. When one of us went to place the order, the others kept an eye on the chairs that were falling vacant and pounced on them. After all, we had to sit down and have our food. Somehow.

I cannot let the food court pass without a brief mention of the mistake I made of visiting the public toilet near the food court. Suffice to say that cleanliness and hygiene are some of the important lessons that are missing from our schools.

Lonavala was pleasant, and we had a good stay at a resort that had enough space for kids to play and a swimming pool where they could splash all evening. My son lost his footing twice inside the pool and swallowed a little water, which, over the next few days, became the hot story he would narrate to everyone he met. There were a few places of interest around Lonavala and Khandala, though the waterfalls had all dried up and we could only see some rocks. We returned the next day, after purchasing Lonavala chikkis and other varieties of sweets that Lonavala is famous for.

We could not put our finger on who/what the culprit was, though we leaned heavily towards Lonavala and the food we had on our way back - especially at a small hotel with the enticing name of Cochin Café or something. One day after we returned, two members of the gang fell sick, throwing up continuously and complaining of stomach pain. My five-year-old was one of them, though he responded immediately to medicines and was okay after a few harrowing hours. The other person was not so lucky and had to be hospitalised. 

Once the ordeal was over, it was time to pack up and return home. If the flight were not delayed by 30 minutes, we might never have made it - the evening rush hour caught us off-guard.

Bangalore welcomed us with a cool, relieving drizzle, showing no trace of summer. The landing was slightly unsteady and delayed due to thundershower. The five-year-old was eager to catch up with his friends, many of whom would return after vacation only much later.

The holiday was over and we were home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kindled !

They say there is a time and place for everything.
They also say some efforts will meet success only on the third attempt.

Nothing better explains why, in the winter of 2009 when one of my newfound twitter buddies suggested the merits of publishing my book on Kindle, I never cared to explore it. 'Kindle' was a new term and I was intimidated by it. 

A few months ago when another friend mailed me about it, I again did not venture into it.

Last week, when a third friend sent me a link through Facebook, and asked me to consider publishing on Amazon Kindle, I finally knew...

... it was time.

Ladies and Gentlemen, slow I may be, but I am getting there too, thanks to friends who nudge me when I seem to lose my way.

My Book, Tales from the Garden City, now has a Kindle edition.

This is the short announcement I wanted to make, and I request you all to get back to your work, ... right after going across to Amazon and making the purchase, maybe! You no longer have an excuse.

Like Tales from the Garden City on Facebook
More details about Tales from the Garden City

(Part-2 of the Navi Mumbai travelogue will be posted in a couple of days.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ten Days in Navi Mumbai - 'Somehow' rules

The best time to hit Mumbai is early morning.

For a few lucky ones it makes no difference, but a majority of Mumbaikars are unlucky folk who find their homes at least half an hour away from the closest railway station or airport. At least. And I am talking not only with respect to the kilometres to cover. If you arrive later in the day, you find yourself at the mercy of the blistering sun and infuriating traffic jams, and the expected half hour drive could stretch to (or seem like) eternity. 

Which is why we opted for 6AM Indigo Airlines from Bangalore. If I thought holiday rush was a thing that was part of the history within the walls of the old HAL airport, I could not have been more mistaken. I reached the airport at a few minutes past five, assuming I had enough time to check-in. Alas, flowing out of the airport was a long queue - to enter BIAL. 

A man in Kingfisher Airlines colours approached and asked, "Madam, Kingfisher?" Already regretting that I was not travelling with their airlines, I shook my head. I was stranded in the sea of humans, with no one from Indigo in sight. Suffice it to say that I broke into the line, pushed the trolley and pulled my five-year-old into the airport, hoping that the lady behind me would make no fuss. I had to get in. Somehow.

The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes, but we still managed to cheat the Mumbai sun and traffic by a hair's breadth.

Mumbai and Navi Mumbai (a.k.a New Bombay) in Google Maps

Right outside Mumbai airport, there was an open-air food court with a few kiosks (dosa /sandwich /pizza /pasta /tea /juice et al) where we wasted no time in pouncing on dosa and other breakfast delicacies. 

The drive to Navi Mumbai seemed to take forever, so much so that we got sick by the end of it. The road, the crowd, the slums and the dust lost their charm after half an hour. The five-year old became restless and kept asking, "When will we reach? Will we reach today?"

At one chaotic junction (nothing compared to the rush hour chaos, though), our car brushed against an auto. The autowallah immediately stepped out and started gesturing and sputtering. For once, the fault was not on the side of an autowallah (the whole of India knows and fears the driving and other skills of the autowallah) and he intended to make the best of it. The girl in the passenger seat was tapping on her mobile, a picture of nonchalance. Our car slowly eased out of the situation and sped away. No trouble, no involvement of policemen, no traffic jam, no time wasted. We all had to get going. Somehow.

Almost every vehicle you find on the road carries smudges or scratches, dents or other marks of having survived (and daily surviving) Mumbai. There is a certain recklessness in the way they manoeuvre the roads that leaves us amazed that (touch wood) so few accidents happen. 

"Navi Mumbai is the largest planned city on the planet." - Wikipedia

The house on the top floor was a furnace slowly getting heated up. We were not surprised to see air conditioning units protruding from the walls in every floor of the building. I was warned about the temperature indoors and already knew how humid Mumbai could get, but was still taken aback by it.

Thus began ten days of isolation from the lure of Internet - with only books, TV and people for company. Okay, I admit I did check emails once or twice (or... maybe about five times!) but then a writer on the look out for opportunities (who has already made a mistake once) cannot keep herself from emails that long. I convince myself it is not wise to be so totally in isolation.

Among the books I read were the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and City of Djinns. (If you're smirking at the first, I am sure you're one of those who don't adore KungFu Panda or The Lion King or Calvin and Hobbes or Dennis the Menace, so there's nothing more to be said.) I finally managed to complete The Catcher in the Rye. The TV happened to be taken over by the kids so most of my watching was dedicated to cartoon channels.

Sector-17 is a commercial area which, I am told, is the first place people turn to, to find what they need - from chatt to toys to shoes to clothes to other essentials of daily life. One evening we went there to pick up a few items and do some window shopping. 

On our way back in an auto, we had to cross several traffic signals. Our autowallah obviously had no regard for them, and was hopping red lights whenever possible. There was no sign of any policeman anywhere. The auto was flying, as if the driver forgot it was merely a three-wheeler on an Indian road. He must have fancied himself as a Boeing pilot. We hugged the children closer, afraid they would shoot off and bang their heads on the bar when the fellow eventually hit the brakes. The way he was going I almost expected the vehicle to topple over. The autowallah had to reach the destination. Somehow.

At one of those junctions, to our surprise he chose to stop for the signal. When it turned green, the auto dashed forward only to be brought to a screeching halt because a car from one side had jumped red light and was right on our path. Our hearts were in our mouths. When we recovered from that shock (the autowallah was unconcerned and continued his victory lap of red-light-hopping), I finally told him, "Please go slow. We're in no hurry to get home."

For all their shortcomings, I appreciate the Mumbai autowallahs for one thing. Real Mumbaikars may have a different opinion on this, but during those ten days, (I must have travelled in autos seven or eight times) every time the autowallahs took care to return exact change, be it one rupee or two or ten.

Part 2 - Ten Days in Navi Mumbai: Lonavala

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Lone Tree

There is no wind, no rustle of leaves. The darkness is absolute. A thousand insects are at work as they are every night, playing the same notes over and over and over again.

All of a sudden the Lone Tree bursts into flames. A golden hue flickers all around. A gentle whistle breaks the stillness of the night.

The others, alarmed, roused from their sleep, crowd around for a better look.
There is no sign of a fire nearby, the dampness would not allow one to be lit.

They watch, fascinated. A tree is on fire right before their eyes - yet its leaves on which the hungry flames lick are still green, its trunk is still healthy and young. It is in no pain, in fact its eyes glow with suppressed ecstasy.

One of them cautiously leans forward, curious and frightened, reaches out to touch the fire and pulls back with a gasp. The others cower in fear. The flame that caressed the edge of its branch was warm, but not enough to singe.

They gape at the Lone Tree. Join me, it seems to be saying. 
They do nothing but stare. Some of them step back at the invitation. What they don't understand scares them.

"Join me," the tree says, "Experience the Joys of Self-immolation."