Friday, November 19, 2004
Avuncular Expatiations (or) Old Uncle Atticus
My little niece Dhanya is the herald of a new generation in the family. And almost two decades after my youngest cousin grew too old for doll-houses, tortoise tales and hide-and-seek, there's a child in the house.
To the old house that has lately confined itself to the slow, thoughtful conversations of the elderly, Dhanya brings the shrill joy of a child's laughter - out of place and strikingly beautiful. Like the occasional wedding peal in a rundown village church... Like silver-dust amid cobwebs... Like a new sunbeam in a long-forgotten attic... And the staid monotonous ease that an adult household settles into is ripped at the roots and strewn all over along with dolls, balls, lidless plastic containers, container-less lids and a zillion other things that complete Dhanya's playhouse menagerie. Carefully nurtured plants are plucked at will in the garden. Toy soldiers find their way to the most unlikely of frontiers. Tell-tale mud footprints appear from nowhere on the wiped mosaic floor. Shakily penciled A's and B's are left on walls to mark pre-school territory. Dad is better off not knowing where his glasses were before Mom retrieved them. Sacred daily rituals like Grandpa's afternoon nap are unceremoniously interrupted. All three meals become an exercise in equitable distribution of food to tummy, plate and floor. In short, an entire household reawakens from years of slumber and dances in joy to the enchanting tunes of its little princess.
And I am Uncle Atticus - playmate, play-thing, custom-made piggy-back ride, saviour from parents' wrath, easiest domestic vending-machine for candies, voice answer-book to myriad questions and general handyman. I try hard to do justice to the role - patiently answering queries, enthusiastically playing characters in games (I usually get inanimate roles like bus or cupboard), telling old stories with added jazz and trying to get the odd lesson in here and there. All for wonderful privileges like a peck in the cheek, a hug with little arms that barely go half-way round, the most beautiful card ever with "Happy Birthday" penciled in giant cursive, a squeaky indignant voice at the end of the line on Diwali demanding reasons why you aren't home ... simple tokens of a child's boundless love!
But the greatest gift Dhanya gives me is a second chance at childhood - a trip to that enchanting time in my life where everything began and nothing ever really ended! A chance to look at the world the way it ought to be looked at - with the wonder-struck eyes of a child. They show us what eludes our uninterested and worry-worn vision. When you have enough time and patience for a child's questions, they rekindle numerous unanswered ones of your own! Why is it difficult for us to spot demons and bunnies in cumulus clouds? Or take an hour's interest in a long line of ants marching in the garden? Why are we no longer joyous voices cheering nature's bountiful procession on and enjoying our short stay at life's gallery? Questions that you are thankful to be reminded of...
But, treading into a child's world is messy business for a 5'10", 25-year-old oaf - physically and otherwise. There are fragile dreams and pretences that you need to play along with. There are the first few prejudices and fears that you need to nudge away ever so gently. And you got to believe in what you preach. It is almost impossible to look into the trusting eyes of a child and tell a brazen lie. Simple questions could strip your contradictions naked like an externalized conscience. And there are enough issues in educating a child to set one thinking hard.
For instance, how do I explain to Dhanya why I don't worship while the rest of my family does? Do I deny the child the comfort of a false divine safeguard (IMHO) or the beauty of the family puja ritual? Should she be urged to compete for grades or should we let her have fun and learn at her own pace? I usually take the typical managerial stance epitomized by my illustrious B-School predecessors and stay noncommittal about such issues. But I do try to fit in a few simple rules. I try to make her feel good about helping people or being kind to animals rather than consider such things her duties or stipulated regulations. I try to make her comfortable being herself - a tough ask as school-kids are very prone to peer-comparison. I try to usher her into the fascinating world of books. More importantly, I encourage her to keep the questions coming!
And those questions, I guess, would be her best bet at learning. Questions that most of us, inhibited by fora or over-conditioning to surroundings, tend to banish to the subconscious… Questions that go unasked for a lifetime… With the questions, she'll do alright. She'll do the right things. She'll do the wrong ones. She'll learn from both. She'll go about blazing her own path and making her own memories with the joy of an adventurer. She'd live a full life and chase beautiful dreams... Dreams that would be hers - not ones the world foisted on her. And may be someday, her Uncle Atticus could proudly narrate tales of how this fine lady was once a little girl with an impish grin who used to stump him with questions like "Which side is that fish in your aquarium looking - it has eyes on either side??"
Thursday, November 18, 2004
Kinda like this one! It takes a potshot at all religions and the wars, riots, feuds they have engendered! If thou art an offended believer, read the OD (not that I side with that, either)!
Humbly he came,
Veiling his horrible Godhead in the shape
Of man, scorned by the world, his name unheard
Save by the rabble of his native town,
Even as a parish demagogue. He led
The crowd; he taught them justice, truth, and peace,
In semblance; but he lit within their souls
The quenchless flames of zeal, and blessed the sword
He brought on earth to satiate with the blood
Of truth and freedom his malignant soul.
At length his mortal frame was led to death.
I stood beside him; on the torturing cross
No pain assailed his unterrestrial sense;
And yet he groaned. Indignantly I summed
The massacres and miseries which his name
Had sanctioned in my country, and I cried
"Go! Go!" in mockery.
Orbiter Dictum :
And an interesting Tagore couplet -
"I am able to love my God
Because He gives me the freedom to deny Him"
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
The "bomb" at midnight to signal the arrival
Staying up all night waiting...
Arranging fireworks for the zillionth time...
Helping Sis with the rangoli at night
And then messing it up in the morning rush...
Oil bath at 4am...
The new clothes on a half-wet torso...
Fervent prayers for a sunny day...
The Puja and touching everyone's feet to build that holiday loot...
The long sweet distribution routine
(Every trip routed through "a particular house")...
Festival feast on a banana leaf...
The much-awaited night set alight with soaring rockets...
Sitting sated yet tinged with sadness after it is all over...
Oh, Diwali the way it ought to be...!!
One of those days when nothing seems worth staying away from home - not BSchool, not the extra lakhs, not the "brand value"... NOTHING!!!
But then Diwalis on campus are fun too. And this is gonna be my last one ... So, getting geared up for the bash!
Happy Diwali everyone. May this festive season bring lasting joy to you and your loved ones!!!
Love and Peace,
Sunday, November 07, 2004
01:00 am - My teammates have a brilliant idea - we are participating in a Business-Plan Contest with exactly 17 hours to come up with a 15-page plan and a presentation
03:30 am - Finally we see light - a B-Plan for rural India in 17 hours needs a wee bit more knowledge about rural India than offered by Bollywood. Decide to sleep over our ideas
08:30 am - Brainwave!!! Let's call it quits! And let me go to the Cal Bloggers Meet in the afternoon.
09:45 am - Brainwave Part Duex!!! Let's source blah blah from blah blah village and sell in blah blah country and make obscene amounts of money in the process!!!
10:30 am - One Wonder Years Episode and we'll start work
02.00 pm - Two Wonder Years episodes, 3 coffee breaks and lone short nap later we decide that we should quit indeed. Sadly, too late for the Bloggers Meet (Really sorry folks! Would've loved to be there!)! And too late for Brand Mgmt class as well...
03:30 pm - Try a long, serious post after ages and fail miserably. Try to call home and the phone's is out of order
Feeling real irked...! Another beautiful Sunday effectively ruined!! Not that I do much on other Sundays... but still, I prefer wasting days on my own damn terms!!!
To make up, read some soothing romantic poetry..
I Loved You Once - Alexander Pushkin
I loved you once, nor can this heart be quiet;
For it would seem that love still lingers there;
But do not you be further troubled by it;
I would in no wise hurt you, oh, my dear.
I loved you without hope, a mute offender;
What jealous pangs, what shy despairs I knew!
A love as deep as this, as true, as tender,
God grant another may yet offer you.
From Tagore's Fireflies
* Leave out my name from the gift
If that be a burden
But keep my song
* My offerings are too timid
to claim your remembrance,
and so you may remember them.
* Let my love, like sunlight, surround you
And give you illumined freedom
From Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart,
And in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.
Thursday, November 04, 2004
Another Kalyanji translation this week...
The peepul leaf that
A uniformed school-boy
Picked on his way to his exam
Was resting in his hand
Like a simple question paper
With all familiar answers.
Till where will it stay so
In his hands?
Before it falls through his fingers
Wouldn't another leaf have sprouted in the tree
With more tough questions on life?
The next poem is one that has been playing on my mind ever since I first read it this April. Yusef Komunyakaa's beautiful poetry is laced with that poignance and pithiness that's seen in works of Black writers. This war poem has special significance at these depressing times when the election in the world's most powerful nation is fought on who would wage a better war! Facing It
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.******************************
More Komunyakaa at http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/komunyakaa/
Monday, November 01, 2004
The Return of Atticus - I : Solitary Confinement
The realisation sent a tingle of excitement down my spine. I ran the routine glance down the list looking for 20-something female co-passengers and found that all others in the compartment were boarding in Chennai - Atticus Finch was in solitary confinement Coach T8 of the Trichy-Howrah Express till Chennai! That meant I had a situation on my hands now: A rainy October afternoon... A train chugging northward through rain-washed fields... A compartment at the fag-end of the train all for yourself for the next 320 km and 400 minutes...! From being mugged to meditating on loneliness vs aloneness to attaining nirvana to losing my mind, the possibilities were endless... What would I do??!!
It was time to experiment with my path-breaking innovation in post-graduate learning techniques - Punitive Education. In a desperate bid to take at least the first few faltering steps towards becoming a real M.B.A., I had came up with this bright idea of punishing myself into one! I would carry only text-books during my 40-hour odysseys to and from Kolkata - no magazines, novels, poems or crosswords!
Things went rather well for the first 20 minutes - I finished Prologue and Acknowledgements in Prof.Kevin Lane Keller's book - Strategic Brand Management even as I made quick work of a pack of roasted cashewnuts. Key Insight: Prof.Keller was married to an Indian named Punam Anand! Subsequent perusal of the "About The Author" section showed that she was his fellow marketing professor in Amos Tuck and that they had two daughters. But the section failed to divulge if he had back-packed to Punjab to serenade her amid mustard-fields and win her hand by convincing her country-rifle toting family. Since none of the chapter headings in "Table of Contents" seemed to hold promise of any further light on this transcontinental romance in academia, further reading was deemed pointless!
I tried to write but the shuddering train rendered my handwriting unreadable to the one person who can ever read it - me! Gaming on the cell-phone was a strict no-no because of my chronic inopportunomotophobia (inopportuno-moto-phobia - the morbid fear that your Motorola will run out of charge at precisely that inopportune moment at which your one serious romantic prospect makes a rare pity's sake call). And of course, an extensive reader of Tales of Terror, Headless Horseman, Horror on Skull Mountain etc was not going to sleep all alone in a compartment full of mysterious possibilities.
The appearance of the chaiwallah offered hope of conversation. And for the next 15 minutes, I held him enrapt with a soliloquy that would have done any Shakespearean character proud. Sadly, the guy never returned. Probably, he held a very strong aversion to either US politics, Akira Kurosawa or haiku poetry!
Having thus exhausted all reasonable means of keeping oneself occupied while travelling, I let my creative genius run riot... I started responding enthusiastically to every kid waving at the train. I would wave back with both hands as if my life depended on it at one and make faces or cock a snook at the next. In the long interludes between inhabited regions, I did something that I had never done since my last school assembly in March 1997 - I sang out loud. After an hour of full-throated renditions of the BeeGees' "Alone" and MJ's "You are not alone" among other hits, I embarked on a tour of my bogey like a benevolent monarch and started reading every Hindi signboard around (there were only six boards, but it took me a good five minutes to decipher each line).
Around 6pm, three hours into the journey, firmly convinced that every vendor on the train had been warned about the forbidden compartment, I forewent my evening tea and opted for some vigorous physical exercise! Allow me to humbly stake my claim to the first ever set of fifty push-ups in a second-class railway compartment. I had finished my abdominal crunches and was into my stretches when I realized I WAS NOT ALONE!!!
Staring at me cozily from the berth opposite mine was a mouse! I am not sure how many of you worship at the rat temple near Bikaner but back where I come from, a rodent implies an involuntary rush towards sticks, brooms and the like for immediate extermination. Being innately soft-hearted I decided that mere exile would suffice for the little culprit. Every hand was called and the next half-hour was spent in thumping seats to smoke him out, jumping this way and that to guide him to the door and even placing a precious piece of Good-Day biscuit at the door to lure him. I was making impressive progress when the train started pulling into the suburbs of Chennai and the operation had to be called off!
They say character is what you are when you are alone. Let's see... monkey tricks, baritone "singing", improvised exercising and a massive mouse-hunt... Guess that places me somewhere between a spoilt 7-year-old and a well-bred chimpanzee. But, who's complaining? That's some three levels above the average B-Schooler in the chain of evolution!!
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Somewhere in junior-school - between opening both bowling and batting for the "BHEL Township C-Sector Post-office Lane Cricket A Team", collecting Diego Maradona posters and leading a non-violent struggle at home for full-trousers over half-pants - I picked up this fascination for words. And that innocuous interest would burgeon into an obsession with vocabulary and crosswords that would find expression in answer-papers that drove English teachers crazy, love letters which when accepted on rare occasions were promptly returned with a weird stare the next day [LoveLetters-101 - Don't.. DONT... call your letter a billet doux ] and protracted word-building wars with my sister that left poor Mom convinced that verbomania is a genetic disorder!
Throughout school, dropping a strange word on an unsuspecting, unprepared ear or eye was second in the list of my favourite hobbies, next only to that noble sport I invented - ear-boxing [Ear-Boxing Primer - The moment the teacher turns to the blackboard, two contestants simultaneously hit one ear each of the boy/girl in front firmly with their index-fingers. The 'boxer' towards whom the victim turns in pain wins the round. Bonus points for making victim wince loudly or curse under his/her breath in pain]. My entry for a high-school essay contest started with the Latin phrase de mortuis nil nissi bonum - I won the contest thanks in no small measure to florid English(?) flowing a good six feet above the judges' heads.
Sadly, in my engineering college, English was considered the language of the nerds and prudes. I had enough trouble hiding the Goddammits and What-the-hecks that colour the standard English-medium school-boy's Tamil conversation. Of course, I didn't dare to drop any word longer than five letters in both written or spoken communication , lest the college witness a public lynching :((. Words thus got confined to the Hindu Crossword usually solved to the soothing lullaby of "Signals and Systems" or "Digital Electronics" lectures and to my meticulously maintained vocabulary logbook.
My vocabulary is rather rusty these days. But they say old flames seldom die... I still grab the odd new word and dump it into my hate-mails. Below are some of my favourites from my 1997-99 word-log...
defenestrate - throw (esp. a person) out of a window
procrustean - seeking to enforce uniformity by force or ruthlessness [ from Procrustes, a robber who fitted victims to a bed by stretching or cutting them]
presenteeism - working extra hours to impress employers
in flagrante delicto - in the very act of committing an offence
schadenfreude - malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune
callipygian - having a seemly posterior - as in JLo ;-)
anserine - of or like geese; silly
antediluvian - ancient; of a time before Noah's flood
black maria - police vehicle for transporting prisoners
frabjous - delightful (coined by Lewis Carroll to suggest fair + joyous)
oneiromancy - interpretation of dreams (also, rhabadomancy, necromancy et al)
And finally, two self-descriptive words :-)
sesquipedalian - using unusually long words
malapropism - inappropriate use of fancy words [from Mrs.Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals]
Just for the record - "de mortuis nil nissi bonum" roughly translates to "never speak ill of the dead".
Monday, October 11, 2004
Given the M A S S I V E response to the previous translation (alright, four mails :( ), I have decided to make Tamil poem translations a regular feature.
This is one by my favourite contemporary Tamil poet - Kalyanji. This is from his collection "Nila Paarthal" (Moon Gazing) - elegant and devoid of any overt emotion - typical Kalyanji.
In the glass jar
Held carefully to my chest
The goldfish is swimming around.
The turns and cavorts
Of its initial euphoria
Are almost completely gone
As I approach home.
The traffic is making it tense.
Not an inch to step in
In the pavements.
Hurried souls like me
Carefully avoiding the jar
They bend themselves
Into the few available gaps.
I looked closely and it becomes clear...
There were glass jars
In everyone's hands
And in the disturbed water
Their very own goldfish...
Friday, October 08, 2004
Two years ago, on a dank October forenoon, my favourite aunt died of cancer. Emotionally speaking, she is the closest relative I lost and her death changed me forever. But this is not about how her death... this is about the beautiful way she lived!
When you are born into a family just finding its way up the socio-economic ladder, you get to meet people at every stage of affluence (or the lack of it) - from the educated whiz-kids making it big to those who were forced to escape Sri Lanka's war-ravaged '80s into India where they had neither the money nor the skills to stand a chance. My aunt and uncle came here with their 6-year-old daughter in 1985 - two barely literate people in their early forties - penniless, clueless and hopeful.
In the next twenty years, things didn't change much. They remained poor - taking odd jobs and eking out a living in a ramshackle little house which didn't get power-lines until as late as 2001. But that little asbestos-roofed house - overlooking a shallow valley, prone to the chilly highland winter winds, reachable only through a rather treacherous slippery mud-path downhill - was where I lived out the best summer vacations of my childhood.
Back then, summers breezed past in a joy-ride of walks into the forest, temple-visits, days spent zestfully "helping out" in daily chores and long nights of listening over and over again to my aunt's and uncle's limited repertoire of stories. And easily the best part of it all - hours spent lazing cosily in front of the stove as my aunt buzzed around the tiny kitchen. Annual savings were quickly used up to buy chicken and fish for "her children" as she used to call me and my sister. The best seats, plates, fruits, sweets, pillows and blankets were fished out for us and we had the run of the house. But despite sleeping without mattresses, I never ever felt cold in that house - the inmates were too warm and loving for that.
With my father's side of the family, complaining about the lousy hand life's dealt them is almost an obsession. But my aunt, the poorest of them all, never complained! Not once have I heard her fret over her fate. She was too busy fighting it and she managed to do it with a smile. What's more, she was a great listener and comforter. And that meant the enactment of a rather funny family ritual - her brothers, sisters, sister-in-law, nephews, nieces, neighbours - most of them reasonably well-off - all opening up their woes and worries to this slightly-built old lady with a kindly smile. And not once did she bother to point out that she fought more bitter battles everyday just to feed her family.
I stopped going to the Nilgris for my summer vacations after my grandmother died. And it was after seven long years that I rushed to visit my aunt as she lay dying. For one fleeting moment, for the only time in my life, I saw disappointment, anger and sorrow in her eyes as she muttered - "Why is all this happening to me?" But that was it! She lit up soon... enquiring about me and my work. "You must be tired. Go rest a bit" - those were her last words to me. So quintessentially my aunt. They told me she smiled briefly before she breathed her last and I believe it.
There's this thing about little people - those simple folks with little to hold on to... They teach you how to value little things and be thankful for what you got. More importantly, they teach you to love and value people. The latter was my aunt's lasting lesson. With her, you felt like the centre of the universe. A few hours with her and you'll feel special, cared for and comforted - she always had time for you.
Later, as I spoke to my uncle and my cousin, they told me how she had set the cancer ward alight with her wit and friendliness. A nurse told me that she would always be her favourite patient. Every neighbour and every friend had a tale to narrate about this dear old lady who had little to give but had given all she had - love unblemished and boundless. And as I left that house in the hills one last time, I had mixed emotions - sad that things would never be the same again, sorry that I had let things as silly as work and studies keep me away from my aunt but , at the same time, proud snd happy that I had known and loved this wonderful lady.
And I'll give my right arm for another dinner of fish curry and rice, cooked in an earthen pot over a sputtering fire of tea-bush twigs and eaten right next to the fire on a chilly mountain night, with simple tales of big-hearted little folk for accompaniment.
Monday, October 04, 2004
I read a lot of Tamil literature and poetry (and I write a wee bit too.. ahem .. ahemm...). Here are a couple of my favorite recent Tamil poems translated for you... The first one is a simple Haiku-like little nugget that plays on your mind long after you've read it.But its message is rather direct. The second one has a much more profound meaning. Do read and tell me what you make of it.
The Dream (By E.Ravi)
Were you there
In last night's
Euphoria (By Sankara.Ramasubramaniam)
I am a tightrope walker
Over a mountain cataract
The water flows at my feet
Like a loving pet,
Not once have I lost balance
I forgot the water's mystery
In my childhood
I'll walk the rope
Till age enfeebles me
I forget my trick
And the cataract consumes me
The rent rope would then float
Like a snake in the water
And celebrating the retrieval of its mystery
The cataract shall continue to fall
PS: Any dearth of quality and class in the poems is purely due to yours truly's translation skills. In Tamil, they are sheer joy to read. Tamil version available on request.