A strange visitor

Long years ago, we lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We lived in a sprawling bungalow on Polhengoda Road, a shaded lane, where large houses existed cheek-by-jowl with tiny hole-in-the-wall takeaway places offering the most delicious  kottu roti and buriyani (Sri Lankan for ‘biriyani’). The house we leased had a large, green lawn, where mango, jackfruit and coconut trees cast their glorious shade. The house was old and rambling, with a sloping, tiled roof, and hosted us and a myriad other creatures, as we were to learn soon. Our Sinhala landlady who lived in England was kind, but a bit eccentric, and gave us a house filled with heavy furniture, bronze pieces, crockery and vases.

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The house which the monitor lizards visited!

Like most Sri Lankan houses, this one also had two kitchens – a ‘wet’ kitchen for all the wet work like cleaning meats and vessels, while the ‘dry’ kitchen was for all the other less cumbersome cooking. Honestly, I never used the wet kitchen at all, it was completely the domain of the house help, who swore she couldn’t function in the more modern dry kitchen. I had no quarrel with that, as she turned out the most delicious prawn curry and dried fish sambol (chutney) you can imagine.

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The house had an eclectic collection of vases, chandeliers, and even a monitor lizard or two!

Now, the house had plenty of lizards, which strangely we never saw, just heard their call.  Lizards have a peculiar call, and only by the end of our stay did we realise the sheer population of lizards in the house. They cleverly inhabited spaces away from our eyes and while today I would jump a mile-high even at a glimpse of one, then, it just didn’t matter to me. The roof of the house was inhabited by a pole cat, which made its presence felt often, and at nights. But the strangest of creatures which came calling was the monitor lizard.

It was a hot, muggy day. The watchman came running to say that there was a snake in the garden shed. My city-bred mind immediately panicked. Sachin (who functioned out of a home office), went to investigate, while I climbed the mooda in the patio, and flailed my arms helplessly. The watchman and Sachin peered into the shed, shone a torch, for what seemed to me an interminably long time. They came back excited, nervous, to report that indeed they had glimpsed the snake’s twitching, long tail. After conferring with the other staff, a call was made to the pest control people, who arrived with admirable alacrity.

The pest control ‘team’ was a pair of young, grinning, Tamil boys, who seemed very amused by my panic and antics, and less concerned about the situation at hand. I rather curtly told them to get on with the job at hand, in Tamil. They nearly fainted when they heard me speak in Tamil. They were promptly marched off to the shed and after peering into the innards of the shed, they too came back saying there was indeed a paambu, snake!

This was now stale news for us. The question was, what was to be done? They were most reluctant to kill the snake, as were we. But what was the alternative? Now, a gurgling drain ran behind the house, past this same garden shed. There was an opening to it, from the shed. Could we nudge the snake towards this opening in the hope it would enter the drain and swim away? Armed with a long pole, the pest control boys, the watchman and Sachin, gingerly entered the shed. Bravely they poked around and that’s when they got the shock of their lives! This was no snake! This was a fully-grown, monitor lizard, about 4-5 feet long. It had obviously entered the shed from the drain, and was all coiled around the discarded articles in the shed. It was more panicky than us, for sure.

Anyway, this was a nasty surprise for all concerned. How does one deal with a monitor lizard? That’s when Sachin sheepishly mentioned to me that a baby monitor lizard had been occupying the guest room in the house since a fortnight, and he had mistaken it for a normal lizard, and had let it be! I stared at him, aghast! The watchman pitched in saying, did you know monitor lizards are carnivores? They have even been known to lift babies? I was frightened out of my wits, even though there was no baby in the house. Sachin’s usual sangfroid faltered for a second, but he revived soon enough, after all, a strategy had to be charted out.

The only way out for the monitor lizard was the way it had come in. After much prodding around the creature, and thumping on the floor, it uncoiled itself. Sachin later described the creature’s head and size, which just made me thankful I hadn’t been anywhere near it!  Much to everyone’s relief, the tactic worked, and the monitor lizard slipped back into the drain, and was gone. I think we sealed that gap instantly. I made the boys locate and rid the house of the baby monitor lizard. That house, coming to think of it now, was a regular menagerie!

We dined off this tale for many years. We told this story with much embellishment to all our local friends, and later, to friends in India. Of course, with each telling, the size of the monitor lizard grew and grew, till it eventually reached ten feet and more!

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This house exists no more

This was in 2001. We left Colombo and that house the following year, with a heavy heart, and relocated to Bangalore. For my 40th birthday in 2013, we went to Maldives, and on the return journey, stopped over for two days in Colombo. I insisted on visiting our old house. When we reached there, I wept. That beloved house no longer existed. In its place was a modern, multi-storied office building, with concrete where the green lawn had stretched. I was heartbroken. A piece of precious memory from my past keeled over and died.

 

The new religion!

 

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There is a certain symmetry and logic, to gymming. And I have discovered this rather late in life. I have never been a gym-goer. I much preferred walking to gymming. But about a month ago, a switch flipped in my head, and I found myself in my building gym.

Now, the gym in question is a superlative one. Well-equipped, and immaculate. When I stepped on the treadmill and started walking, it just felt so right. The act of putting one step in front of the other, in a regular, timed rhythm, was almost military in its precision. I can imagine how soldiers marching for their army must feel. That nothing matters more than that next step.

In short, I have discovered a new religion, with its own set of dogmas, stories, and rituals, yet totally undemanding! To think, I was such an unwilling devotee at its altar, convinced that its ‘sterile environs’ were not for me. My earlier attempts at gymming had always fallen by the wayside. I guess, one has to be in the right frame of mind to receive even the most positive of changes.

A friend and I decided to start together, on this new adventure. We entered the gym with much trepidation. Except the treadmill and the cycles, the rest of the array of machines were unfamiliar, and we had no clue how to work them. But the gym trainers, kind people, put us through the paces. So I now have a nodding acquaintance with about half the machines there. As for the rest of the machines, I have called a truce. We have decided, the machines and I, that we will meet and greet at a future date.

But the one thing I decided very early on was, I was going to go solo, instead of enrolling under a trainer, ever since I saw what they were capable of. Take my word for it. These trainers come from a land where gentleness and moderation are held as depraved qualities. Their utmost satisfaction is when their charges are huffing and panting, and screaming out their pain and frustration. They puff up with pride when their students mock-complain about how their particular trainer pushes them to the extremes of endurance. I swore to myself, I was going to maintain a safe distance from them.

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Fitness has become my new religion

So far it has worked for me. Since I am on my own, with no one to tell me what routine to follow, each day is a new day for me. I choose what I want to do, and which routine to follow. I absolutely love the machine weights section. You see, it’s just the machine and I. The machine helps me, guides me, even as I get to decide how much I want to push myself, or how many repetitions I want to do. Even, which of those to skip and which to keep coming back to. There is a certain logic to it. More important, there is no deception here, and machines certainly don’t judge you! I get a big high the days I have made my way around most of those machines, not the heavy-duty ones though, which to me, still resemble torture racks.

I enjoy being around others who gym with so much focus. Once in a way, some unsolicited, but welcome tip comes my way. I don’t mind it, in fact, I quite like it. It’s fun to be the newbie in the room!

I enjoy the routines so much now, that the days I don’t gym, I am crabby and grumpy. I am aware that my more relaxed pace will not yield the desired results soon. The world of fitness is like an unfathomable ocean. I know that I have barely skimmed the surface, a bit akin to flinging the tiniest pebble into its depths. But I know myself enough to know that rushing headlong and pell-mell, into gym routines will only drive me away with as much speed. Slow and steady does it for me. So if you are hoping to see a svelte me any time soon, you are bound to be disappointed. Give me time and I hope to show you why the tortoise is still the winner:-)

And have I stopped walking? Oh no! Gymming is for the body, while walking with friends, is for the soul:-))

 

An umbrella saga

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Our home is littered with corpses of umbrellas. Like the mice which followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin, we have them in all shapes and sizes – large, thin, fat, small, black, grey, blue. Yet, at the nth hour, when the clock is relentlessly ticking towards the ‘school bus is almost here’ zone, and my son has to be dropped to the gate  in torrential rain, not one comes up to scratch. In desperate hope I open a few and try them, a daily ritual, but as expected, not one works. Finally, I settle for the least ungainly one.

What is wrong with our umbrellas, you may ask. My most coveted one, a black and sleek grandfather umbrella, has got that one flaw which no self-respecting umbrella must have – tiny holes! Agreed, the holes are very tiny, but kind of defeats the purpose, right? My second large umbrella, the grey one, is a stout fellow, and is currently the only half-decent one I have. But it is also a shabby one. The paint has peeled off the grip, and it presents a sorry sight. No sane person would like to be seen holding this one. But my ego has been relentlessly squashed these past rainy days, and I am beyond lofty feelings like pride and dignity. I carry the grey one to the gate every day, my mood mirroring its dull colour.

Now, I have this really fancy umbrella. It’s a brilliant black, Star Wars umbrella, and was my dear son’s choice. It’s shaft is a light sabre with a little button to turn the light on or off, which my son convinced me is most essential when we walk down a dark alleyway on a rainy night. Well, he’s surely watching too much Netflix. I must have been either drugged or in some stupor to have bought this one, because it cost me an arm and a leg.

I bought this from the John’s Umbrella shop at Goa airport. This is the famous John’s kuda (Malayalam for umbrella) one sees advertised heavily on Malayalam channels. We were returning from Goa on the cusp of monsoons, and this seemed like just the right thing to take back with us to Mumbai. Reluctantly eschewing the more sane options, I got persuaded to buy it. Within days, its light was flickering and fading, and one of the ribs was bent. So much for the famous brand. I have a good mind to write them a strong email about it!

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My umbrella saga doesn’t end here. We have a brilliant blue umbrella, with a classy wooden handle. Now, this was bought from outside Amarson’s shop on Warden Road. This was supposed to be my personal umbrella, the one I would grow old with, sheltering me from life’s vicissitudes. Just that, within days, the shutting mechanism failed, which means, the umbrella opens with a flourish, but can’t be shut! It has spawned many jokes in the household,  and I am heartily tired of it. After multiple repairs, there is tentative truce – we are able to shut it. It has now been kept in the car. In a way, it has been semi-retired.

I thought maybe the ill luck plaguing us had to do with large umbrellas. So we adopted a small umbrella, a really good, automatic one. It gave us much joy that we could save the  enormous labour involved in manually opening it. My son had a field day with it. And now it lies disemboweled, all sorts of wires sticking out of it. We have decided to throw it away, with much sadness.

Are we to blame for this state of affairs? I don’t think so. I think the umbrella fairy has simply deserted my family. I know I should start afresh. Throw away the non-functional umbrellas. And look for that one umbrella which will serve us well, and long. There must be an ideal umbrella somewhere, just waiting for me to claim it. I will find it. Even if it takes me a monsoon or two…:-)

 

The incredible hunger of being

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My earliest memory associated with a temple is keen, gnawing hunger! As a kid growing up in Delhi, and later Chennai, going to the temple meant an early morning bath (even on the coldest winter morning of Delhi) and departure, sans breakfast. The temple would be invariably crowded, as like us, others too had chosen to visit on that auspicious day. Standing in line, waiting to view the idol in the sanctum sanctorum, I would be light-headed, trying to keep a grip on reality, trying not to faint. Finally, when my turn came before the idol, my gratitude, as one can imagine, was truly heartfelt!

I especially hated the days when my mother or anyone in the extended family booked a special puja. The long wait, the intense heat from the smoking fire (really a torture on summer days, especially in Chennai), made the whole scene rather surreal. The priests chanting the mantras, would take on an other-worldly aura, and I would try not to think irreligious thoughts. The damp hair sticking to the neck and the constant flow of sweat which I would absent-mindedly wipe, only to smear the kumum across my forehead – it’s a wonder I didn’t have meltdowns. I used to wonder at the stupidity of adults who would allow themselves to be subject to this.

As a child, I had no choice. One did what was told to one. My mother was very sure that she wanted her family to visit the temple on all auspicious/sacred days. She was uncompromising about it. The only silver lining if one may call it, was the prasadam or offerings (in the form of payasam or kheer) at the end of the visit. I looked forward to it very much, the sugar rush just what I needed for my low glycemic state.

It was only much later that I understood that some of these experiences indeed help to shape one’s personality. It has to some extent honed my patience, and helped to focus when a tough task is at hand. Going hungry fosters a certain discipline and iron will. Also, but for such rituals and observances, I doubt if most Hindus would see the inside of a temple! The religion per se, doesn’t put any strictures on one, doesn’t made it mandatory to visit the temple every day or week. So, the human via media came up with the next best thing – make visiting temples on particular days more beneficial for one’s karmic being! Lo and behold, we make a beeline.

As an adult today, I have an abhorrence for crowded temples. Most of it also has to do with the utter mismanagement of crowds in temples. Given our devout population, there is bound to be much crowding. I understand that. But I also believe that most of the jostling and pushing is due to lack of systems in place. For instance, at the Sidhivinayak Temple in Mumbai while the queues are formed with great alacrity, and are manned by volunteers with even greater vigil, everything degenerates into utter chaos once the queues merge in front of the deity. So whether a lean day or a heavy day, the chaos remains.

Corruption has made inroads into our temples too. One can grease the hands of a stall owner or someone around the temple, and be escorted right into the sanctum sanctorum, after paying a hefty fee of course. Then there are special queues. So in temples like the Siddhivinayak or the Mookambika Temple down south in Kollur, Karnataka, if you pay ₹ 100 or ₹ 200 as the case may be, you get to jettison the aam junta line and join the shorter queue. I once eavesdropped into an intense debate a family of six was having at Siddhivinayak,  to decide whether they should opt for the special darshan queue. They would have been poorer by ₹ 600, not a mean sum for their straitened circumstances, I surmised from their conversation. They joined the general queue, which was particularly long that day.

Yet, to me, a temple is not just for communing with the Gods. Hindu temples, especially in South India, are splendidly entertaining. There are elephants to be seen and marvelled at from rather close quarters, green ponds with steps leading into them where one can sit and contemplate about life, and regular dance and music performances, which are often a treat to watch. The colourful hues of flowers mingle with the jewellery and resplendent saris of the female devotees, making the temple a bright, happy place.

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Elephants are a great hit with kids – a scene from Mookambika Temple

Once you reach the sanctum, the deity seems to be imbued with a radiance which is but all the devotees’ hopes, wishes and desires reflected back in a divine glow. I have always felt the most oneness with God in that nanosecond of looking at the deity without any hinderance. The direct communion with the idol, the sacred tone of the temple, or I guess any place of worship, is balm to the soul.

But make it mandatory to visit a temple on a certain day, at a certain time, and the entire charm fades away. There are many lesser known temples, which are never crowded, haven’t yet been accorded an exalted status. Where the Gods seem to be waiting for their devotees. Just look at the photo below, where the Nandi bull seems to be waiting for people to come visit him, doesn’t he have a stillness borne of extreme patience about him? Such temples are a treat to visit. One comes back in peace with oneself and the world.

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The patient Nandi bull at my ancestral Shiva temple in Palakkad, Kerala, where hardly anyone visits 

I do not believe that visiting a temple on certain days, or offering puja at a certain time is going to lead to my moksha or salvation.  I know there are any number of arguments in favour of auspicious days and why it is beneficial to conduct a ritual at the propitious time when certain planets and stars are in agreement….but then I tell myself, if there is only limited or even no salvation to be achieved, so be it. I am happy with the solace I get by being in a quieter place of worship.

Hinduism is easy going. Or at least it is supposed to. It really isn’t concerned about what the person next to you thinks or your neighbour’s beliefs and religion, much less what he’s eating – a cow, a buffalo, a pig, or plain grass. It just doesn’t matter. Everything is left to you, what you want to eat, when you want to fast, and when you will visit the temple. But when we make it matter, or we become fanatical about rituals and observances and others’ diets, we willy-nilly unleash forces of fanaticism and disruption. Hinduism is more a way of life for Hindus, and I wish it is left to be so.

So, in Mumbai, how do you find these ‘near empty’ places of worship? Just ensure that you avoid the days that are considered particularly blessed. So avoid Tuesdays at Siddhivinayak, Thursdays at Matunga’s Kochuguruvayoor, Fridays at Mahalakshmi…you get the drift? If you are willing to forego the ‘special’ benevolence, you will come back soothed, satiated, and raring to visit the temple again!

 

 

To Russia, with love

 

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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic or USSR, no long exists. In fact, hasn’t existed for some years now. And the Russia we know today, is nowhere near the behemoth it was earlier. But for those of us who grew up in the 1980s India, there was no escaping USSR. It loomed large in our news, dominated our lives in many, many ways, and we were as much in love with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and that birth mark on his nearly bald head (which a clever cartoonist once depicted as an India map!), as his own people. It was a love affair like no other.

Despite our purported ‘non-alignment’, Pakistan and India were very firmly aligned on opposite ends in the Cold War – We with the USSR, and Pakistan with the USA. Here was the catch. We secretly admired and aspired to American pop culture and consumerism. We were crazily attracted to their stars and their TV shows. The USSR with its communist-socialist agenda, was austere, somewhat bleak. But repeated exposure to everything Soviet, turned us, perforce, into lovers of Russia too.

I remember reading a lot of Russian literature, in English of course. Anna Karanina, Lolita, Chekov’s stories and Russian folk tales were just some of the literature we were exposed to. I remember valiantly trying to read War and Peace and failing absymally. There were many nuggets about Russia which fascinated us. We were delighted to learn that when a woman took her spouse’s surname it was with a suffix of ‘a’ – Gorbachev’s wife was Raisa Gorbacheva. The Russian ballet caused endless speculation – how do the ballerinas stand on the tips of their toes? When the Bolshoi company’s ballet performances were televised, we watched avidly. We were introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and spoke most intelligently about it.

The Bolshevik Revolution was discussed in much detail in school, even as we winced at the excesses of the Tsars, and lauded Lenin and later, Stalin. We learnt about the Communist Manifesto, and studied how we ourselves were much influenced by the USSR post our Independence. We took great pride in parroting that the first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, from the USSR. The achievements of the USSR were our own. We felt secure under the enormous canopy of Soviet Russia! It was only later that I was introduced to Ayn Rand’s We the Living and her utter denouncement of the communist revolution. Suddenly, the blinkers were off. But then growing up is a lot about disillusionment too, isn’t it?

On their part, the Russians loved our movies and actors, especially Raj Kapoor. It puzzled me, as I couldn’t then see the charm of Raj Kapoor. Am not sure I see it today too, except that he was insanely good looking, of course. Presumably, the Russians were besotted with his looks too. There were exchange programmes between our students. I particularly remember a staid programme on DD (on its national channel, grandiloquently and imaginatively called DD1) where a bright young Russian girl mouthed a Hindi poem – ‘Sooraj mookhi, sooraj beena dookhi’ and it was hilarious. But also utterly charming.

And then there was Gorbachev. He was distinguished looking, a leader, a statesman. And when he introduced ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’, we lisped the phrases after him with much gusto. Eventually these led to the disintegration of the USSR, and with it, our fascination with USSR, which now no longer existed.

History has taken its course since 1991, and the end of the Cold War. We have been beset and preoccupied with our own problems. Our foreign policy has undergone many twists and turns. Yet, today, as 18,000 Indian football fans head to Russia for the World Cup, among them, the men of my family, I wonder how much of this history they will even relate to. To my son, I tried to convey something of the colossal history that is Russia’s. But to a generation exposed mainly to American culture and entertainment, it’s inexplicable that we were once so firmly on the ‘other’ side. His only introduction to Russia are the Russian signages that restaurants and department stores in North Goa sport. Every season, Russian charter planes brings loads of Russian tourists directly into Goa. They are everywhere during the season, on bikes, bargaining with the vendors, buying vegetables and fruits for their temporary homes.

The Russia of today is a far cry from the erstwhile USSR. The macho Vladimir Putin may beg to differ. But for us, that particular generation of Indians, those days were innocent days, when the world was either black or white. Life was more simple, and unidimensional. I don’t wish for those days to come back. But I can certainly look back and reminisce about that era when another country so dominated our mind space.

Here’s to Russia, with love! Hope you do a great job of hosting the World Cup…

 

The story of my Carvaan

I have just acquired Carvaan, the digital audio player from Saregama. It was an acquisition more than six months in the making. I first heard about it at a friend’s dinner. About 5,000 old Hindi songs and ghazals of various artistes, FM radio, USB drive, and remote. What was not to like? It was an easy decision to make.

But caught in the rigmarole of daily routines, more than a month had passed before I was reminded of my decision to acquire it – and in a most disconcerting way, by Facebook! It had worked out (by a series of algorithms?) that I was interested in this product. (Or wait, did they just eavesdrop on my conversations via the app on my phone as proven by events that unfolded later…;-) But the advertisement for Carvaan which popped up on my page, was on a website for senior citizens. Oh, my! Did that deflate my enthusiasm! They were now positioning Carvaan as something you would gift your elderly parents (not youthful parents, mind you:-) Oh, Oh. That sure gave me pause.

I was, to put it mildly, put off. I am not an ‘ageist’, nor do I fear getting there one day. Perhaps sooner than I think. But the positioning of that product on the senior citizens website wasn’t energising at all. This had touched a raw nerve. The introspection started. Am I a dinosaur, truly? Are my interests caught and trapped in the music of the ’60s and ’70s…well, at a stretch, the ’80s? I have been accused of being ‘technology illiterate’ and ‘unadventurous’, of living in the past often…of using ‘archaic’ lingo. The hubby has gone into paroxysms of laughter just because I said two friends had got into ‘fisticuffs’. What’s wrong with fisticuffs? Many people use that word. Haven’t you?

As you can imagine, I have history on this topic, anyway, this is neither here nor there. So, in a fit of rebellion I decided that a product whose makers pitched it only to a particular demographic, didn’t need, or deserve my patronage. I was quite sore. And cross. And vowed not to think about Carvaan again. I resolutely ignored the product whenever it popped up on any platform, told myself there are far too many options to source good music. Carvaan knows where it can, well, you know….

Till an innocuous visit to a store called Prime in Nariman Point’s CR2 Mall. Prime is a higgledy piggledy treasure house of household and kitchen stuff. I pick up this kitchen cleaning cloth from there, and can swear by its efficacy and durability. Anyway, while idly surveying the shop, my eyes settled on a shelf which held the Carvaan, and two different models of it, sitting pretty. Sigh! It was love at first sight.

CArvaan 2I turned and looked at hubby, who nodded sagely. A wise man. And the cherry oak Carvaan is now mine, to hold and treasure:-) As I write this, Gulzar’s Tujhse naraz nahin zindagi is playing on it…soulful music, a blog, and the quiet and peace of night…what more can one ask of life!

 

 

The planning :-(

On Jan.10, 2018, our household was abuzz with the birthday preps for my son’s 11th birthday the next day. He wanted a pizza movie night with his friends at home. Our evening was spent in excited planning for this ‘seminal’ event. We debated endlessly over the food, the movie to be screened the next day. The evening passed in pleasant conversation, breathless anticipation and affectionate banter. It was a cosy scene of domestic bliss. A child secure in his home and hearth, knowing he is loved and he is safe.

More than a thousand kilometres up north, in a place called Kathua in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, at that same moment, there was some planning taking place too about a child. A girl child. Eight years old. It wasn’t about her birthday. Or her vacations. Or her play. It was about her kidnapping, her rape, and her murder. Brutal assaults, planned by adults and carried out by adults. Asifa, the little girl, was kidnapped, drugged, assaulted by many, and cold-bloodedly murdered. To teach her community a lesson.

Where is God’s justice? How do we ever, ever get over this?