Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Little joys no more

The laziness that follows a heavy meal, the wait for friends to turn up for the evening game sessions and the scorching heat comprised my afternoons in the 90s. I kept myself busy by shooing away hens that would take shade in our verandah and dirty the place in the process and watching our pet cats stretch in the sun. In between, I may dig my teeth into a mango from the collection we gathered during our morning expeditions. The much welcome break came as the ring of a bicycle bell - the ubiquitous postman’s bicycle.

I would rush out, allowing the sizzling gravel on our front yard to burn my feet. I would be thrilled if he had more than one envelope to hand over to me. I would sit on the parapet of the verandah, oblivious of hens and the dirt now, and relish the letters one by one. A cunning craw may swoop down and snatch away the mango I kept half eaten.

I would read them again and again, may be in the evening, next day morning, before framing a reply. The reply would be written over days, specifying the time and date on each sections, which would have the narration of the entire events of the day. I would have narrated the same event in different letters but writing each afresh. No copy pasting could be done on the blue inland letter or papers torn from notebooks.

I would treat my replies the same way as the ones I received, reading them again and again. I would add the missed out points in the margin with stars and symbols in the text indicating the context. The yellow post cover for Rs 4 would hold three foolscap papers. I would ensure that I posted no envelope without filling it to the maximum capacity!

This continued even after I completed my PG, when I was introduced to emails by a friend. Initially I shied away. Later when I started using it, I felt it was much viable financially too. I could use email for half an hour at a cyber café spending Rs 15. To make the best use of Rs 15, I would sit at home, write the mails in the personal computer my brother had bought then, and save them all to a floppy disk. All I needed to do at the cyber café was to send out the mails. During each visit to the cafe in the university library, I ensured I sent out at least 10 mails in half an hour, cutting down drastically on my envelope costs!

The suspense that a handwritten letter brought home was slowly going elusive and I was missing the words in ink. In 2004, I reached Chennai on my first job. In our office, all desktops didn’t have internet connection. I would spend hours at cyber café on my off day. There would be 14-15 mails from my friends waiting in my inbox. I would open them with the same glee as I would receive a letter from the postman.

The happiness deteriorated further when I started my second job in Bangalore in 2007. In my new office, all the PCs were provided with internet connection. Still there was some element left as we were not allowed to check personal mails during work hours. Later when gmail became so popular and unavoidable for work related matter also, mails started losing its charm with its frequency going up.

And it all ended with a ping in May this year, when I decided to join the smartphone brigade. Every now and then mail alerts would pop up, singing a swan song to the beauty of that short wait for a mail.

Now as messages float around in whatsapp 24x7, there’s no more waiting. Handwritten words are no more adding joy to our lives nor is the wait for a mail. 

Monday, May 26, 2014


Feb 21, 2012. On a pleasant morning in Pune, we drove to Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre, Khadki. My friend and then colleague Pradeep and his wife Sreerekha were with me. 

My anxiety grew as we neared PRC. I'm not going to meet an ordinary friend. I'm going to meet someone whom I have kept on a high pedestal. Someone who was brightening hundreds of lives around through his life that was burning down itself. 

It was around three years ago that Pradeep introduced the phenomenon called MP Anil Kumar to me. It was a time when I was thinking I was going through a bad phase of life. When Pradeep narrated Anil's life to me, I was reduced to a silly soul in front of a big banyan tree that was offering shade to hundreds. 

One of the brightest students of Sainik School, Thiruvananthapuram, who went on to become the best cadet in National Defence Academy and enrolled as fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force at the age of 21, was left immobile, totally dependent on others, by an accident he met with when he was just 24. It rendered him neck-down paralysed and when I got to know about him, it was already 21 years since he was bed-ridden. 

The never-dying fighter spirit in him mastered the art of writing by holding a pen in his mouth and later started using computer holding a stick the same way. His first mouth-written article 'Airborne to Chairborne' was widely read. Words ignited his life again and he soared to new heights. He wrote for many news websites and newspapers as well as connected with his friends across the world.

I wrote to him in the email id Pradeep gave. It was full of my admiration for him. Perhaps there was nothing new for him in that. He would have heard the same words from many around him earlier also. Still he amazed me by writing a long reply with anecdotes, tinged with humour. It would be difficult to believe it was written by someone who has been rendered immobile for 21 years! He quoted NBN Sir, one of the most respected teachers of Sainik School, Thiruvananthapuram, and said: "count your blessings" and signed off with cheers to Trivandrum mate! 

Our friendship grew from there through emails. I don't know if I can claim to be his friend, he sure was mine. I read the articles he wrote for news portals and papers with awe. They stood testimony to his sharp intellect and command over language. His knowledge in the subject would put to shame any reporters whose physical parameters are perfectly fine but who often fail to gather the required info for a story. 

Finally, I'm going to meet him - the real fighter. As I entered the PRC campus, there was a flurry of thoughts and emotions in mind.  

There he was sitting on the corridor of the centre on a wheelchair, with a smile and a greeting. A face brimming with confidence and never-give up spirit, he made us at ease. In his commanding voice, he spoke about subjects ranging from defence to politics to school days for the next two hours.

I left promising him that I'd come back again. But I couldn't.

Last week, on May 20, the news of him leaving us reached me. Among a medley of emotions was a huge relief that his sufferings have ended. 

Now he won't make anyone travel to Pune. His computer keyboard won't clatter again. His attendants can take leave now. 

What's not going to change is the brightness of that eternal flame in our hearts. Thanks Anil, for fighting on to inspire us all.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Who do I vote for?

Election fever has gripped the nation. Even personal meetings are sprinkled with queries like "Who will you vote for?" I gave it a thought that dug out some incidents from the past. 

2005, Chennai
Three of us girls, were stalked by a man on bicycle while we were walking from our paying guest accommodation to Liberty bus stop in Kodambakkam. Though we ignored him initially, his vulgar comments and gestures prompted us to complain to a traffic cop at the junction. The cop studied us even as we were explain with a sense of urgency for him to act as that guy was still a few metres ahead of us. After a while, he told us:"He is alone and you are three girls. Why didn't you beat him up, catch him and bring him to me? I would have taken care of the rest."!!!

2006, Chennai
A sultry afternoon and an overcrowded transport bus. I'm on way to work. As I was struggling to get some fresh air over the head of many who were standing packed, I felt something weird. First I thought it was a casual touch by someone who was struggling to get a grip. In a split second, I realized the creepy hand exploring my waist was not at all going its way unintentionally! I turned back and saw the owner-of-the-hand guy looking the opposite direction as if he didn't know anything. A well-dressed guy with an executive bag! I was seething and let it out with a punch on his nose and eye together, shouting at him. Hearing the commotion, conductor just peeped and told others who craned their necks that one woman is making noise for 'something'! I looked around, not even a single soul even gave me a look of support. Thankfully, that creepo was a coward and got off at the next stop. He could have done anything in retaliation in front of such a passive crowd and even passive conductor. Finally I broke down when someone offered me a seat, not a kind word. We talk so much about safety for women at night; what about day?

2007 Bangalore
Bus ride from my paying guest accommodation to office was a short one and all I used to depend on BMTC buses. The fare was Rs 5 then. They would give back Rs 2 and gesture it's okay and wouldn't give the ticket. All hell broke loose whenever I demanded a ticket and he got to know I'm not a Kannadiga. It continued to 2008, 2009 and even till now whenever I take a short distance ride on a BMTC bus. 

2009  Thiruvananthapuram
My father was admitted to hospital for a gangrenous infection that threatened to be fatal. He had already undergone three surgeries in a private hospital and we were advised to shift him to a government hospital where a popular surgeon was working, who was known to have a magical hand to cure. We shifted him there. Then comes the news. For the surgeon to see any patient, the patient's relative should visit him at home with the amount he decides, the minimum of which was Rs 2,000. Since my father's condition was critical, he demanded Rs 5,000. I was irked no end. The part of brain demanding my rights as a citizen suddenly became active. All I wanted was to trap him red-handed and take him to court. I discussed it with my mother. She listened and said: "What will happen to your father? You want to expose that doctor at the cost of his life?" I was muted. For I knew the pain he was going through with his left hand almost eaten away by gangrene. At the private hospital, the surgeon had shown me his arm - a bone in the middle and yellow and red surrounding it... almost from elbow till palm. I was reduced to just a daughter, not a citizen. 

2010 Bangalore
I had to get some documents notarized. Clueless about the whole process, with none to help, I stepped into Mayo Hall when a person who was dressed like a lawyer came and offered help. Totally unaware of the things happening there, I gladly took up his offer of notarizing my two documents for the 'standard' rate of Rs 300. Much later when I was more aware and had to get something done, I got 30 papers notarized for the same amount I paid for two papers!

2014 Bangalore
I got an electricity bill that was more than double my usual amount. I rushed to the jurisdictional Bescom office where they sent me from one table to another with none at the table even sparing me a look. Finally when I ended up at the same table three times, the woman engineer there spat out a query with utter disdain. Her anger was so visible as she had to take her attention off the sarees displayed in front of her by a salesman to a face requesting help by making her work! After being there for at least half an hour detailing about it, she gave me an illogical deduction and shouted at me for explaining further. 

These are what a common man faces in daily life. May be much more like this. For them, international relations or promising protection to certain communities don't matter. I will vote for the person or party who can offer me days without any of these. Where government servants don't become people's bosses!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Silver-haired angels with wrinkled smile

Some people disappear from your life and every time you think of them you feel a longing sense of loss that how nice it would have been if the person was still around. There are some others who leave an immense joy of having them in your life, long after they are gone. Lives worth celebrating... That's what grandparents were to me - silver-haired angels with wrinkled smile.

It's been three years since I lost my maternal grandmother. I don't remember a single instance when she was not smiling - a smile that emanated from her heart and touched her eyes. She smiled gleefully whenever we grandchildren were around her. During my school days, all grandchildren - six of us then - would spend at least a week with her. We thought she had a magic wand that made her food tastier than what our mothers made. We'd go back and ask our Amma: "why don't you make this like Ammumma does?"!

The smile that kept us with her
As an adolescent and an adult, I felt that a woman's success depended on the milestones she achieves in her career. I never felt anything great in spending whole life cooking for children and looking after the family. But when I look at my Ammumma's life, the values she gave us just being a wife, mother and grandmother, I'm humbled. She didn't study beyond upper primary, she never had financial independence, she didn't have a social status other than being Krishnan Nair's wife. She  taught me through her life that how a woman can achieve so much without even having seen a college in her life. She commanded respect of all in the family with her good nature and warm smile.  

I have never seen her annoyed or frustrated other than while having silly fights with Appuppan. At the end of the fight when the frail old man laughed loud, she would scowl at him for annoying her for nothing. It was Appuppan's fun game in front of grandchildren... to show us that their grandma could fight too!

I have never seen her rest other than while sleeping at night. Even after her swollen arthritic legs prevented her from even stepping out of the house, she never denied us the opportunity to relish grandma's goodies. How much ever work she did, she was always as fresh as a lilly. Always clad in Ujala-white mundu and blouse, her routine started with some exercises inside the room in the mornings, preparing breakfast for Appuppan by 8am, washing,  cleaning, making lunch, taking bath and reading newspaper in the afternoons on the parapet on the work area behind the kitchen where she spent most of her life... Evenings she would take care of her plants, water them, pull out weeds... 

As she grew old, she was confined mostly to her room and drawing area. But that didn't stop her from giving us more moments to cherish. The Vishu Kaineettam that would wait for me even till the month of August if I don't make it for the festival in April, the long prayers for my safe journey in front of the photos of gods in her room (some of them cut from magazines and pasted on cardboard) when I start for home from Bangalore, hopeful eyes glued to the pathway through the windows, the frail hands holding mine tight with eyes sparkling with joy of having me near her, words of concern for my health as I stay alone in a far away city, the reassurances that her gods would protect me from all evils, and finally, a request to visit her once more before I left for Bangalore after my holidays...and, when I leave, the white-clad frail figure that waves at me from the window till I disappeared from her eyes... Beyond all, the strongest bond that I ever experienced...

Ammumma and Appuppan lived together for over 50 years, through which she showed us how to love unconditionally. Whenever I visit them, Appuppan would accompany me back till the paddy fields that I've to cross to get back home. During the short walk, he would say: "Mole, you should study well and get a job. These days, women are not respected at their husbands' place if they don't have a job. When you grow up, study well and get a job, Appuppan will see it all from heaven..."

I would interfere saying, "No way, you will see it here only". He would refute with a loud laugh saying, "No no... I won't be here then..."  He was farsighted. He was not around even to see a single grandchild finished studies and got a job.

The image of the tall dark frail figure with glistening silver hair, clad in white jooba (the kurta Appuppan wore), holding a walking stick, waiting for me to cross the paddy field and get to the other side, is still fresh... He would wait till I waved at him signalling him to go.

Appuppan would claim he has 500 stories in his pocket and we'd flock around him. How easy it was for him to get us behave with the story-lure till the time we got to bed! He wouldn't disappoint us.. one from the stock of 500 would come out at bed time!

Though the time I spent with my paternal grandparents was less, it was not any less warm. Even when I call Ammumma (paternal) to inquire about her health, she would forget all that and go on advising me: "Have a glass of milk everyday; oil your hair properly, it was thinning last time you came; chop small onions, fry it in ghee, mix with rice and have it. You won't have any indigestion problems;..."

During our vacations with them, Appuppan (paternal) taught me to write neatly. The aroma of bhasmam (ash) he'd apply on forehead and arms after a bath with Margo soap is lingering fresh on my nose tip! We would crush arecanut for him in the tiny grinding stone there for him to chew with betel leaves. Chewing that, he would lay on his easy-chair, with a wooden plank kept across on which he would keep his papers and pen. I still treasure the Parker pen and the Chelpark ink bottle gifted by Appuppan who authored many books.

I may never stop missing them but will be grateful forever to have had them around for so many long years.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Today when my friend's maid - Rayeema who is in her 60s - came in for work, she greeted her with an Independence Day wish and asked her what did she do special on the day.

Rayeema, with a perplexed look on her face, asked my friend: "What's special today?"

My friend told her: "...we got independence"

She said happily: "Oh, is it? When? Is it showing in TV?"

My friend initially thought she was referring to DD's live telecast of the parade in Delhi. It took a while for her to realize that Rayeema actually thought India got independence today!

Startled over the fact, my friend said: "Rayeema, this is our 67th Independence Day. It happened in 1947."

Rayeema's face dimmed. She said with a sigh: "I thought something new will happen at least now."

It pains, but it's a fact... that 66 years on, the spirit of independence is still elusive from the lives of many.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The olfactory mesmerizer

It has always awed me - the olfactory magic. But two things triggered the thoughts now. One is the news about a camera that can capture the smell along with the images so that the person can get a feel of the place while going through the snaps. Another one is about a friend who lost her sense of smell after meeting with an accident.

It was just recently that I told someone about a deo reminding me of my childhood days... the smell just after bath at grandmother's home with the green Cinthol soap. It was not the first time that some aroma transported me elsewhere. It has happened quite often.  

The smell of hot iron box running over starched cotton takes me to the Sundays years ago when my father used to press our uniforms and his clothes. He would ask us to hold the ends of his starched mundu to stretch it and fold it perfect so that when ironed the edges would be straight. The red Lifebuoy soap too reminds me of him who never switched brand even after a splurge of new luring ones, which he got for us.

The fresh bundle of clothes that arrives from laundry carries with it the aroma of my grandmother's wardrobe where all her mundu and neriyathu (traditional Kerala wear) were neatly arranged. I loved to bury my face on the fresh pillow cover and bedsheet she would spread for us six grandchildren who stayed with her during vacations. 

The scent of jasmine flowers has many associations. One, to my maternal grandmother's house where she would keep Jai soap for us kids to take bath as we loved its jasmine smell. It also takes me to the streets in Kodambakkam I used to stroll in Chennai, my second home. It was the scent of evenings in Chennai. Also the weddings I attended in Kerala where I used to lead the team of kids and grannies who would string flowers at the bride's place the previous day of wedding. I could string them really fast which i acquired from the greed to have the longest string of flowers for myself. 

Vacations meant jasmine bushes in the neighbourhood in full bloom. I used to vie with little cousins in plucking the maximum buds the previous evening and stringing them. We didn't have refrigerators to keep it fresh then. I would hang it on trees in the front yard to keep it naturally fresh overnight in the mist. As the buds open, the aroma would creep into the room through the windows reassuring me through my sleep none has taken it away. Next day I would flaunt it on my long hair on way to Hindi classes.

The smell of burning wicks in brass lamps lit with oil would take me to the temples next door i used to visit almost every other day all through my stay in Kerala. For the pre-dawn nirmalyams and the late evening deeparadhanas

The aroma of crushed cardamoms means amma making payasam for Onam. The days when I least cared about the pain that went behind its making. We would be busy around the pookkalam (the floral decoration in front of home) and the arrangements for afternoon games like uriyadi and vadamvali (tug of war).

Sheen would be more for all things gone. Some aromas are gone forever. I could even sense the scent of mornings and evenings during the carefree days of play and studies. The first drop of rain that touched the hot earth and the the sun that shone after a heavy shower... all had an aroma of its own.  

I'm glad that some aromas can still make my mind dance with images that are tucked away in a corner afresh. But for my friend, those are like the mesmerizing clouds that fly past a parched earth without sparing a drop... 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A mid-summer day's dream

It’s that time of the year when kids flock to summer camps where they spend their vacation between painted walls. This is the time when mouth-watering varieties of mangoes flood the market too. 

My tryst with both was so different. I was lucky to have been part of perhaps the last generation that enjoyed unlimited fun during summer vacations. It was just before urbanization creeped into our area in Thiruvananthapuram. 

There were vast stretches of land with trees and wild bushes that gifted us splendid summers.  There were narrow streams that would irrigate the paddy fields, the banks of which held wild berries that painted our mouths red and blue.

The huge group of children, including cousins and neighbourhood friends, would spend time at home only food, bath and sleep! We would start after breakfast from home. There were umpteen traditional games that kept us occupied through the day apart from going on hunting rounds. Hunt for a kill of mangoes, cashew nuts, ayanichakka (bread fruit), pineapple, and of course the wild berries on the banks of streams that would keep us going through our trail. 

All lands in the neighbourhood belonged to one relative or the other. So we had all freedom to explore the acres of land undivided by boundary walls. We would leave the fruits on the seven mango trees in our backyard to ripen naturally and would attack the trees in the neigbouring lands to satiate our hunger for raw mangoes. We share mangoes by crushing it against stones in the vicinity. The mud that gets stuck on the pieces are just rubbed against skirts or shorts before they are consumed. Some fresh mangoes are taken home if there's a cricket match on Doordarshan in the afternoon.

Post-lunch time is spent on chopping the mangoes fine and mixing it with salt, chillies and a bit of coconut oil. It's kept for some time for the juice to mix well with the ingredients. My brother's cricket team mates and our cousins would come home to watch the match. I would supply the heavenly mix then. My idea of supplying this during match is that no one would ask for more!

In the paddy fields, harvest would be over by Vishu. We would fly kites in the vast stretch of land fringed with coconut and arecanut palms. The most memorable part of it is when clouds roll up above the fields cautioning us of a heavy summer shower. Our spirit to fly kites would soar high with the intensifying breeze. Rain wouldn't wait. It would storm towards us with a roaring sound. Next comes our race against the rain. We would sprint home trying to save our kites from getting wet before the drops touch down… climbing up the field, jumping over the stream, running up the narrow path amid thorny pineapple bushes on to the mud road that leads home. Rain would always win. We would be drenched along with our kites by the time we crash land onto the verandah.
They say mango trees give good yield when kids shake its branches and play on it or even throw stones at it. Our mango trees have proved it. They were in full glory when we were in school and had fixed summer vacations to spend lot of time with them. Once we stopped climbing their branches and spending time in their shades, they almost stopped bearing fruits. 

Over the years, many trees fell victim to construction activities, some to parasites and the remaining ones bear fruit for namesake. Paddy fields don’t exist anymore… nor are the pineapple bushes or wild berries. Concrete has replaced it all and confined the kids within its walls.

All that’s remaining are the images brightly lit by the summer sun in mind and the scent of the mangoes on the tip of my nose...