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...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hairy Tales

Is long hair out of fashion? Or is it the in thing? 

I don't remember when the story of my long hair started. But I remember cutting it short. That was when I was a Class 5 student. Studied in a small school near home till 4th, the city school where I joined in class 5 opened a new world in front of me. The city girls who had their hair cut short and styled made me jealous. Mine, I felt, was too long and unattractive. 

Those days a barber used to come home to give a haircut to my father and brother. With new styles flashing in mind, I coaxed my mother to let me cut mine too. She was so fed up by my demand and gave a "yes" during the busy morning chores. Gleefully, I went and sat in front of the barber who was doubtful if I had actually got permission to cut my hair. I ascertained and gave him the go ahead. His scissors went around my head from and cropped my waist-long hair above my ears. 

In joy of my achievement, I stood in front of the mirror for hours together combing the way Indira Gandhi did - for a strange reason. My father once told me that Indira Gandhi's birth star was same as mine. (I still don't know if it's true!) I thought the tress makeover was the perfect step to become like India's iron woman! In the very thought, I held my head high. 

But the reaction my achievement evoked was something that I never expected. Friends, relatives, neighbours were all flabbergasted with my new look. Their reactions all started with - "How could you..." "Who did that.." "Why did you..." It made me feel my new style was a disaster. Little did I care for the shiny lock that was chopped and dumped. 

But my hair didn't deceive me. It was loyal and grew back to its glory in less than a year. Unmindful of elders in the family warning me against leaving it open for the "evil eyes", I displayed it with pride.

During Onam, we had swings on trees that doubled up as hair dryer too. I would swing with all vigour with my head thrown back leaving my wet hair flow down. It would be dry in no time. 

Years went by. My life changed with the cities I went on work. Change in water, air and weather took a toll on my hair. My loyal lock fought hard though it has been reduced to a faint memory of its old self. I can go for any style now by cutting it short or in layers, stealing it of its identity. My relatives or friends may not question me any more as they have accepted all other changes of mine. But I think now it's my turn to be loyal. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Help their dreams realize

Recently, I was in bus, on way to office. A group of little kids studying in a nearby government school got in to the bus. Their uniforms showed evidences of playing out in the mud. The eldest one looked around 8 years old and the youngest one who was with a running nose looked around 5.

They perched on to all empty seats and were chattering away. Elder ones were trying to keep the younger ones under control. Some little girls sitting next to me started looking curiously at me, my bag and the book I was holding in hand. I glanced at them and smiled as they turned away shyly. 

At the next stop, a mother and two teen girls got in. The girls had their shopping bags and started taking stock of their shopped items. As they held a whole bunch of earrings and other fancy items in hand I saw the little ones’ eyes shining and mouths opening in awe. They couldn’t seem to stop gazing at those colourful earrings, chains and pendants. None of them had any fancy earring or a bangle. They kept looking at them till the bus reached the stop they had to get down.

Those little girls reminded me of myself at that age. I would look forward to Onam to get new sets of bangles, ribbons, beaded chains, earrings, bindi, etc. I would keep them all in boxes and take them out everyday and admire for long. There will be very few girls who would be beyond the lure of such things till a particular age.

These kids had their bags torn, shoes looked old and dirty, some didn’t even have slippers… All they had to compete with the rich kids were the dreams and hopes in their eyes.

I wished such a scenario unfolded in front of all those who oppose Right to Education Act. All kids have the right to dream big. Government is bound to fulfil their dreams and society too. How can one feed own child, leaving the child next door to starve and die? 

Education is the only weapon to fight poverty. For girls, it is the source of confidence and strength. Hope our decision-makers realize it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The fear that is...

It was a calm Sunday evening. I had plans for dinner with friends at 8pm. I stay at a place that is one kilometre away from the main road. The area is not connected by buses due to road that is being dug up and filled at regular intervals for the past 6 months for God knows what! That has left the residents with the option of walking to the bus stop on main road or taking an auto for extra charge. Auto guys act as if  I  dug up the road!

 I prefer walking if the weather is suitable and if I have enough time. But for the effort I have to put in to cover your nose for the first half 300-metre stretch to escape the thick dust, I enjoy walking. Since it was a pleasant evening, I decided to walk to the bus stop. I had to catch up with friends at a restaurant that was some 4km from home. I thought of taking a bus from the main road. It was around 7.15pm and i didn't feel it was too late to walk alone.

I was dressed in jeans, T-shirt and a jacket. I had covered my nose with a hanky. Right from the first few minutes, stares started following me. Men walking from my opposite direction were almost walking into me. They expect women to give them way. I noticed this experience was not only mine, but of every other woman on the road.

Motorists rule the road with no footpath, leaving hardly any space for pedestrians. Some men on two-wheelers expect you to jump in to the open drain, going by the way they ride into you! I came across a deserted stretch where the road was taking a turn. A boy on a bicycle, must be around 20 years, sped past me from the opposite direction so close to me that I was startled. On the go, he craned his neck towards my face and passed some comment. Since I didn't know the local language well, I didn't have to brood over what he said.

I continued walking. The stretch leading to the main road was poorly-lit. There were not many people on road too, hardly any women. I had already walked for almost 15 minutes and just a 5-minute stretch was left. The experience of the previous 15 minutes instilled some strange fear in me. I was scared by any shadow I could see next to mine, any footsteps behind me and any stares in my direction...

On to the main road, it worsened. There was no streetlights at all from there on to the signal near the bus stop. With huge trees on both sides and a post-office that was shut with no light on the premises made the stretch eerier. I was almost sweating even in the evening Bangalore chill. I didn't wait to reach the signal to cross the road. I ran through the middle of the traffic and managed to reach the other side where the bus stop appeared closer.

The bus stop too was deserted and dark. I was looking suspiciously at the few men who were standing there. I got into the first bus that came and joined my friends in five minutes. When I was explaining this to my male friend, he said women are all hyping it up about stares and stuff. He said any guy would steal a glance at a woman who pass by.

"Feminists are out to criminalize anything," he added.

Getting angry with a silly eve-teaser is feminism? Expressing wish to feel safe while walking on the roads is feminism? I was puzzled.

May be he is true that my worries are unnecessary. But no woman around will deny that they too get the jitters every time they are out in the dark alone. Whether it's hype or not, women are feeling more and more unsafe. Another friend of mine, who is the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, says she is worried to leave her daughter with anyone other than her husband or parents. I'm sure many mothers are feeling the same.
How much ever you try to ward it off, the fear is back to haunt you in no time...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Happy new year!

Wish you a new year full of good health and lots of joy. Let us hope we break free from the nose strings of corruption and politics this year. Wish you a wonderful year with nothing but happiness coming your way. Joy to your heart, warmth and good fortune... So read the new year wish messages that flooded my inbox on January 1. I too wished all of them stringing the cliched words together.

It left me thinking. Is it really possible? How can we hope for a wonderful year if we refuse to see the wonderful things around us? Happiness is after all what you make with your deeds, and what your mind chooses to believe and ponder over. I believe so.

How many of us will give a seat to a physically challenged man being grateful in mind that we are so lucky to have healthy limbs to move around? How many of us will stop our vehicles to help a person who’s suffering and bleeding on the roadside, unmindful of what crime he/she has been subject to? How many of us will buy a pack of biscuits for a street kid who is eating from a garbage heap? How many will pat on the head of a stray dog which has never experienced what a loving stroke is? How many of us will keep a vow to fight corruption even when an official demands bribe in the most emergency situation? How many of us will stop saying that nothing is going to change here? How many of us will seriously act than reading and just reacting with words?

Let’s us give ourselves some hope and some courage to act. Happiness will make its way to our lives everyday, every year... Let’s give ourselves a chance to be happy :)