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Voicing Silence 7

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tide - 16

Part - 16

The drain in Sanjana's house and was going to take a good few days to be repaired. She along with daughter Tara, had temporarily packed their bags and moved in with Padmaja.

Padmaja is on her bed reading while Tara lies next to her asleep. Padmaja watches the slender frame of her grand-daughter sprawled alongside her own body. She pats down her hair with tenderness. This is the only time of the day when Tara will allow her grand-mother to baby her. “I'm eight years old, paati.”, she would complain wriggling and struggling against any attempt to cuddle her.

Padmaja can hear the television playing in the living room. Sanjana is ironing Tara's school uniform for the next day while humming along to the song playing on tv. It is about a mother's unflinching, unconditional love for her son.

'You starve while you feed me, You have no life outside of me', sings the son to his mother.

She remembers reading somewhere that the actress playing the frail old mother was only a couple of years older than the actor who plays her son.

'You are the god I worship, you are the anchor of my ship'

In another life, she would have taken a hammer to the tv screen and gloated in its destruction. For now, she looks at the gently breathing chest of her grand-daughter, wraps her arms around her and draws her in close.

Tide - 15

Part 15 
 

“Ah, it's you”, says the tall lady (Padmaja should really find out her name), “you're back. I thought you had forgotten the way to my house.”

It is a Thursday morning and Padmaja had remembered that there was to be a special bhajan celebration to mark somebody or the other's birthday.

“Look, who's here,” announces the tall lady to the assembled crowd of eight women, “it's our friend from the A block.”

Unsure how to react to this reception, Padmaja waves at the others in the room. Perhaps it would have been better to simply slink into a corner, she would recall later.

“We were expecting you at our annual trip to Shirdi.”, says the tall lady turning her attention back to Padmaja, “I had booked group tickets for all of us, including you and I had paid up front. We couldn't get in touch with you and there was no one else who was free at such a short notice. In the end, it went to waste. I ended up losing money because of you.”

“Oh”, manages Padmaja feebly, “I'm sorry.”

“In future, I would like a bit more of a commitment. I don't want people wasting my time and theirs if they are not interested.”

Padmaja settles herself at the back row and trains her eye on the wall clock willing its hands to move faster.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tide - 14


 Part - 14


For the community notice board.

Highly experienced retired primary school teacher offers FREE tuition lessons for 
children aged 7-11 in all subjects.
Hours to suit your need. 
Please contact today.

Tide - 13

Part - 13

They had painted the slide red. It used to be green to match the colour of the uniform. Red just didn't seem right in the surrounding. Did they change the uniform to red while I was away?, Padamaja panics. But the sight of the students in their green and white uniforms as they stream out of the classrooms for the morning interval (the bell had just gone), reassures her that they had not.
Lalitha teacher is in a meeting with someone from the Education department. Padmaja has been waiting for over half-an-hour and it appears that she would have to be there for much longer. Not that she minded, not at all. Some of her older students come up to her and ask after her well being. She notes that the boys have grown taller and girls more rounded. She may not recognise them next year, she remarks to herself. Though it might be that they would have forgotten her by then.

The door to Lalitha teacher's office swings open letting out a young man with a purposeful stride.

'Ah, Padmaja teacher', says Lalitha teacher catching sight of her old colleague, 'how are you? Come in , come in!'.

Laitha teacher has a new chair and she has stopped wearing glasses (how could that be? Has she converted to contact lens? May be she has had laser surgery. She was always going on about it and had promised Padmaja that she would ask her more information if she ever considered having it.)

“I'm sorry to have kept you waiting”, says Lalitha teacher as she rummages inside her handbag, “it has been one of those never-ending days. All well with you?”

“Yes, yes, teacher. I am fine, same as ever. I was just passing by and thought I would drop in to say hello.”

“Of course, teacher. You are always welcome here”, says the headmistress fishing out a pair of glasses, “thank god, they are here. I was practically blind all morning.”

“Do you have my contact details, teacher? In case you need to get in touch with me? I am available any time, even at a short notice.”, says Padmaja.

“Why don't you check with Sharadha on your way out to ensure that what we have in the records is the right address and telephone number? It have two reports to finish and send by Friday. You know how this Education department people are, teacher...”

Padmaja writes her details down in a piece of paper for the headmistress' secretary to verify. The lunch bell goes off and the students roar out of their classrooms. It must be twelve-thirty, Padmaja remarks to herself.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tide - 12

Part 12

There are things that people do when they eat out alone. Like use their mobile phone to call others they would never talk to otherwise. Or look intently into their plates, afraid that the food might run away if they took their eyes off it. Some check their watches a lot. As if to suggest to others that they are really not eating out alone. But simply waiting for someone else to join them at the table.

Padmaja never used a mobile and rarely ate out. She kept stirring her coffee until it had gone tepid and then finished it in a swift gulp. She could only vaguely remember what that man Prakash looked like. She thinks that he wears glasses and has a shiny bald head. He had a mildly expansive waistline, the kind you get from leading a good life and in the photograph that he had sent, he was laughing at a joke that had been cracked by someone beyond the camera. He seemed like the kind of person who never suffered from self-doubt. He was a couple of years older than her and had been widowed for eight years. He ran his own business and had suggested that they meet outside in a coffee shop rather than at her house.

It is the sort of coffee shop that she would never have gone out to, much less on her own. She had lingered at the entrance unsure whether to wait outside or to go in on her own. A young couple, clearly impatient to get inside, forced her to make her way through the door and find a seat for herself. It took her a few minutes to adjust to the dark interiors as she deliberated over where to sit. She didn't want to choose a table by the large glass window where everyone outside could see her and wonder what she was up to. Nor did she want go in for a secluded table, deep within the coffee shop. A sofa seemed to suggest familiarity and a table-for-two, intimacy. Finally, she picked a seat at a table, with four chairs, that was conveniently located in the middle of the cafe and was one of the few places on the floor that was brightly lit.

She has been waiting for more than an hour now. She looks around to ensure that there is no one who fits the description of the man she is waiting for. The place seems saturated with the young. She briefly considers ordering another coffee but instead raises her hand, calls the waiter's attention and asks for the bill. The waiter shuffles across to her table and lowers his head to whisper. She wonders why the need for secrecy and asks him to repeat what he has just said.

“Your bill has been settled, madam”, says the waiter looking down at his shoes.
“Settled? By whom?”
“By an old man, a Sir, who came in some time ago. He also asked me to tell you...” he seems to hesitate to continue.
“Yes?”, says Padmaja encouragingly.
“He said that he was sorry but he doesn't think you are his type.”
He let his message sink in before continuing.
“Madam, this is a busy time of the day for us. Will you be needing anything else?”

Padmaja forces herself to look straight ahead as she walks out of the coffee shop. Once outside, she hails an autorickshaw, gives directions home, climbs the stairs to her flat, draws the curtains, sinks into bed, throws a blanket over herself and remains there for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tide - 11

Part 11


“Chee! You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, thunders Sanjana.

The drains in Sanjana's flat were blocked that morning and she had come to her mother's house for a quick shower on her way to work. Padmaja was not home and Sanjana had let herself in using the spare keys. She had found a file marked 'Hindu responses' left open on the dining table. Intrigued, she had gone throught its contents and had grown increasingly furious that no sooner had her mother come home than she launched into an attack.

“Have you gone senile? Have you thought about what you are doing?”, Sanjana continues lambasting her mother.

She was never one to hold back. Padmaja often wonders where her daughter gets her tempestuous nature from. Probably from her father, she reasons. Padmaja would attribute to her late husband traits that she did not recognise in her daughter. And over the years, she has thus fashioned a mental portrait of him which makes him seem a little more real than the fast-fading photo that now hangs in her living room.

“What's wrong with you, Amma? Why can't you be like other women your age who go about life without making much fuss?”

“That's quite enough, Sanjana”

“No, I won't stop. I want to know what has happened now that you have gone and put yourself on the market like some...”

“I said enough.”

“Why are you doing this? Is it lust? Is that it? Cheap, filthy, lust? Hmm, Amma? That's disgusting!”

“Sanjana...”

“Why? Does the truth hurt you? We are not in America, you know. All those old women doing what they want, going around with whoever they please.”

“Sanjana, don't!”

“Have you forgotten how old you are, Amma? You are not twenty five anymore, you know.”

“Yes, that's right.”, says Padmaja finally, “I'm not twenty five anymore. But I'm not dead either.”

“I don't know what's got into you, Amma”, says Sanjana, her voice quivering, “you're not the mother I knew.”

“May be you never knew me.”

In the silence that follows, Sanjana gathers her bag and makes her way to the door.

“Do you want me to pick Tara up from school or will you be back in time?”, asks Padmaja after her retreating daughter.

Sanjana hurries down the stairs without a reply.

Hearing the commotion, Kamakshi makes an appearance at Padmaja's doorstep.

“Everything okay?”, she asks needlessly as she makes her way into the living room. Buoyed by the prospect of a good drama, she calls out from the kitchen, “Padma, there seems to be no decoction in your house. Shall I get you some and you can tell me what happened over coffee?”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tide - 10

Part 10

She is not quite sure how to indicate that she is following the conversation. If you can call it a conversation, that is. Srikanthan has been talking about his research for the last 23 minutes and at first, she was able to keep up with it. But once he got into the finer detail of oncology, he lost her. Plus, his very thick American accent just made everything he said that much harder for Padmaja to understand.

However, this much she knew. He had been married to a fellow interventional radiologist Babs (Barbara) for 32 years and they had two children. Following an indiscretion on his part, they had separated nearly four years ago. He is very close to getting his decree nisi. He was in India on a sabbatical and that was when her advertisement caught his eye.

He is still talking about the cutting edge technological advancements in cancer research when it occurs to her that she really did not want him in her house. The thought makes her jump.

“Are you okay?”, asks Srikanthan as he caught her twitching wrist.
“Yes, yes, thank you”, she manages as she wriggles out of his grasp. “I just realised I have to pick up my grand-daughter from school this afternoon and it is very nearly time.”
“Why, you should have told me about it earlier. Can't someone else pick her up?”
“I completely forgot. I'm so sorry.”, says Padmaja unapologetically.
“I was just getting warmed up, I wanted to tell you more about my plans for the next academic year. Shall I come back later? I'm free tomorrow.”
“I have some work to do at the bank tomorrow and day-after it's my daughter's wedding anniversary. Friday is Navami. Why don't I give you a call and we can take it from there?”

Her assertiveness surprises her.

“How about Saturday then?”, he persists.
“I am busy with something, I can't remember what. I have to rush now otherwise I will be late.”

She shuts the door behind him and goes in to make herself a strong coffee. Her head is throbbing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tide - 9

Part 9 


“If you wanted to do something, anything, then why didn't you just tell me?”, begins Kamakshi. “I would have introduced you to our ladies club.”

Padmaja could have carried on her own. But the burden became too much to bear. It followed her everywhere, making it difficult for her to swallow or sit alone. It itched at her constantly, she was unusually fidgety. So despite her misgivings, she confessed it all to Kamakshi. “You know, this month at the club we are learning to make vegetable pickles. Next month, it is that old hag Jayashri Sundaram's turn to organise something. Mark my words, she is bound to mess up. Or fall sick, conveniently. You know what she did at our last meeting?”

“Kamakshi!”

“Sorry, Padma. You know how I feel about the ladies' club. Right, so how many people know about this matrimonial advertisement of yours?”

“Only the few thousands who read the Sunday matrimonial column”, replies Padmaja.

Sooner or later she was going to have to tell Sanjana about it.

“And how many have replied so far?”

“About a dozen or so.”

“And have you written to any of them yet?”, quizzes Kamakshi further.

“Are you serious? Of course I haven't written to any of them. I am not going ahead with this, Kamakshi.”

“Then why did you place the advertisement in the paper if you don't want go ahead with it?”

“I don't know what I was thinking. There was just so much going on”, pauses Padmaja. “But now, I can't be courting men old enough to be grandfathers. Look at me. Do I look like a bride to you?”

Kamakshi takes a deep breath in. “Let me see the replies you have had so far.”

Ignoring Padmaja's feeble protests, she spends the next half-an-hour sifting through the letters and divides them into two neat piles.

“These”, she says pointing to the bigger pile, “are useless. They're either men on their death beds who want someone to clean their bedpans or young boys who want to live somewhere and be fed for free.”

“No, I am not writing to them”, says Padmaja.

“These, however”, continues Kamakshi holding up the smaller stack of letters, “hold promise.”

“You are not listening to me. I said I'm not writing to anyone.”

“What harm can come of it, Padma? It's just a meeting. It is not as if you are going to marry one of them.”

Padmaja can feel Kamakshi's brain rolling up its sleeves and gearing into action. When Kamakshi had set her mind on something, it was impossible to shake her off this notion.

Perhaps it was all a bad idea from the start. She should never have written that matrimonial advertisement. What was she thinking? That her sixty-one year old self had any right to a married life? To happiness? That she had any claim to a companionable old age? How dare she hold out any hope for her twilight years? Shouldn't she simply be content with her health and the roof over her head? What was wrong with being an invisible old woman? How dare she want more?

“I don't have any recent photo”, Padmaja says looking up at Kamakshi. “Will you take a picture of me on your camera?”.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tide - 8



Part 8


Respected Madam,

I am writing to you about your advertisement in last Sunday. I am G.Krishnan, aged 48 years old, working in government job for 24 years. If you like I can meet you at your house and explain my situation. I have not married ever and I am absolutely no trouble at all. I have sent you a photo of myself with this letter. The lady next to me is my late mother Smt.G.Saraswathi who passed away in her sleep last November and I have been missing her very much.

Your's Sincerely
G.Krishnan

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tide - 7

Part 7


Dear Mrs,

With regards to your advertisement in last Sunday's Hindu. My name is Mr.S.G.Santhanam. I am 65 years old. I retired in 2007 after 40 years of service in the Indian Railways. My daughter and my son are both married and settled abroad. I am in good health except for slightly high blood pressure. Last year I have undergone an operation for a growth in my retina and now my eyesight is better than it has ever been. I follow a strict vegetarian diet (no oinions no garlic) and I have managed to bring down my cholestrol levels also. Recently I have suffered from pain in my hips and my doctor has adviced me to go for a hip replacement operation which I am due to have some time in the next month. So if you reply to my letter, I can arrange to meet you before I check in to the hospital as I will have to be in bed rest for 6 weeks after my operation. I have also attached a photo of myself with this letter. This was taken before I had my new set of teeth.

Your's sincerely,

S.G.Santhanam.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tide - 6

Part 6


Padmaja has been feeling restless since early morning. She begins by straightening the sheet on her bed. She stretches it on one end, tucks it under the mattress before turning her attention to the other corners. Satisfied, she strips the pillows of their cases, plumps the pillow cushions and soaks the blankets in warm, soapy water. She dusts the window sills and wipes the window panes with a damp cloth. She climbs atop a chair and reaches for the grime laden blades of the ceiling fan with a wet rag. She ignores the pain in her neck from craning and swabs until its surface gleams. She pokes her little finger into the hidden corners in the living room and pulls out imaginary bits of dust. She runs her hand along the dark nooks in the kitchen shelves and inspects her finger tips for fine powder of soot. The stainless steel plates are washed and dried, light fixtures cleaned, curtains rinsed, the floor scrubbed and mopped and the drains pumped with bleach. When she is certain that the house is scraped of every last morsel of dirt, she showers thoroughly, changes into a crackling new cotton saree and goes out to place a matrimonial ad in the local paper.

The following Sunday, a small advertisement appears in the third page of the matrimonial section of The Hindu. It reads, 'Retired 61 year old widow seeks life partner. If you can cook, you stand a better chance'.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tide - 5


Part 5

The tuition classes have ground to a halt and in many ways, Padmaja is relieved when she acknowledges it during a telephone conversation with Sanjana. “Their loss, Amma”, consoles Sanjana, “let's see how many other equally-experienced, patient and affordable teachers they can find for their children”. Padmaja does not tell her about the new tuition centre that has opened two streets away which seems to be doing rather brisk business judging by the number of bicycles parked outside the building.

The rains have finally stopped and there is even a reprieve from the stiflingly dense, humid weather. It is the one time of the year when Padmaja actually enjoys living in the city. Evenings are cooler and days gentler. Soon there will be music concerts all over the city drawing visitors and performers from across the world. Sanjana buys her a seasons pass to concerts at music hall which has good acoustics for a change. It is a little far from home but if she walks briskly, Padmaja can cover the distance in less than an hour. “If it gets really late”, suggests Sanjana, “you can always ask Pazhani to bring you back”.

In retrospect perhaps that is precisely what Padmaja should have done. It was T N Seshagopalan's cutcheri that evening and he held forth profusely in Thodi ragam for a good ninety minutes. So much so that the concert over-ran by almost an hour. She did not wish to wait by herself at the bus stand and after unsuccessfully trying to flag down an autorickshaw, Padmaja decided to walk home instead while still looking out for any passing empty rickshaw.

She was hurrying along a short dark stretch when she spotted him about hundred metres away. He could not have been more than twenty years old. He was wearing faded jeans rolled up at the ankles and a pale blue t-shirt. He did not look menacing or threatening. Padmaja noted him but carried on walking. As she went past him, he put his hand out and let it brush against her side. “Eeiii”, Padmaja called out stepping aside and quickening her steps. The young man was now behind her wrapping his arms over her shoulder and fondling her breasts. Padmaja screamed out and he jabbed his fist into her mouth. He whipped her body around, yanked her by the hair and jammed his crotch into her. Padmaja thrashed about, struggling to throw him off. By now he had ripped her saree off and had thrown her on the ground. He was pushing his hand up her legs while pinning her twisting body with his other hand. Padmaja could feel the strength fade away from her as she was crushed under the weight of her assailant. With both her hands held above her head, Padmaja tossed her head, lurching blindly this way and that, tearing into her assaulter's face with her teeth. With all her might, she lunged and hurled herself on him biting gnashingly into his nose. All she remembers later is the enormous weight rolling off her as she gathered herself and stumbled away. It would be several months before she would leave home again.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tide - 4



Part 4

It is now July and if she had been working, schools would have been busy preparing for quarterly exams. The heat from summer is yet to subside and it is too hot to venture out anywhere during the day. “They have started holding Sai Bhajans in a flat in D block on Tuesday mornings”, ventured her neighbour Kamakshi one day, “I thought you may want to go, now that you are free.”

Kamakshi is a year younger than Padmaja and was one of the first people to buy a flat in the block nearly eighteen years ago. She lives with her retired husband who devotes the remaining years of his life solely to the purpose of following cricket and writing letters to the editor of all major newspapers. Her two grown sons lived in different parts of the world leaving Kamakshi to sort out other people's lives for them.

So it is settled that Padmaja will go for Sai Bhajans two mornings a week. Despite her deep-seated reservation of communal worship of any sort, Padmaja decides that she would give it a go. She has no trouble finding the flat. She could smell the agarbathi all the way down in the ground floor. The door has been left open and she lingers at the entrance for a few seconds before a tall, young woman in a striking black and gold saree welcomes her in. She directs Padmaja to a large dining area which had been cleared of chairs and tables to make room for straw mats laid out to cover the entire floor area.

A small chair sits at the top of the room holding a picture of a man with a beatific smile. This is the person, Padmaja assumes they were going to be praying to. She shuts her eyes and tries to concentrate on the whirr of the ceiling fan. She tries to ignore the pins and needles on her feet from sitting cross-legged and instead focusses on the discordant singing. There are six others in the room and each of them seems intent on singing a different song. She is reminded of a straggle of primary school children on their way to class every morning. On days like today, she senses a cavernous hollow in her body, an emptiness no amount of religious worship can ever fill.

She realises with a start that the singing has now stopped and has been replaced with a quiet clamour of bags being fetched and sarees being smoothed as people get ready to leave. She thanks the tall woman for her hospitality and promises that she will be back on Thursday. She will have to think of something plausible to explain her absence in a couple of days' time. Or she will simply have to avoid running into the tall woman anywhere in the apartment compound.

Tide - 3

Part 3 


Tuition lessons seem liked an obvious idea at first. “It is perfect for you, Amma.”, says Sanjana, “You don't even have to step out of the flat. You can have the classes when it suits you”.
There are always children in her apartment block who needed coaching in elementary Maths and English. Padmaja prefers primary school children who were better behaved and she didn't have to deal with parents of secondary school children who were constantly complaining about their performance in exams.
She makes little work sheets for her students for them to take home with them and return the following lesson. She writes down questions at the top, middle and at three-quarters of the page leaving enough space for their answers. She would be kind but firm with the children. No more than five students at any time, she assures the parents and it begins promisingly. Three students sign up in just the first week after she put up a small advertisement on the community notice board.
This will do for the moment, she promises herself. She could spread her attention evenly and make sure that they concentrate on their work. After all, what is the point of a tuition lesson if they could not have individual attention? The following Tuesday, she gets a call from one of the mothers.
“Padmaja teacher, my daughter Sailu...Sailaja sprained her ankle at school today. She is in a lot of pain and won't be able to make it for tuition today.”
“It's alright”, says Padmaja, “please make sure that she works on the test sheet I have prepared for her.”
The next week, it is her daughter Sanjana on the phone. “Amma, Tara has these raised spots on her back and chest”, she said. “Do you think it might be chicken pox? You don't have to come all the way here just for this. No, no, don't cancel your tuition class or anything. Okay, if you insist...”
It is chicken pox as Padmaja had suspected and her grand-daughter Tara stays with her all week while Sanjana goes to work.
The following week, only one child turns up for lessons.
Padmaja wishes she could be certain about it. But some times, she gets the feeling that she is being avoided. Like the other day when one of her students' mothers, the one who lives on the fifth floor, was about to get in to the lift with her but decided instead to take the stairs. Or that afternoon at the temple, when she spots another parent at a distance but before she could smile at her or give her a wave, the other lady abruptly changed direction and walked away.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tide - 2

Part 2
It sounded grand calling it a career. As if it was something she had chosen to pursue after years spent studying and training for it. Padmaja had never considered going to work. Why would she have to go to work when her husband went to office? She would look after the house and her husband and when the children came along, she would look after them.

She had only seen Ramanathan once before they were married. Her father had matched their horoscopes and predicted a long and blissful union. Someone remarked that he looked like that cricketer Venkatraghavan and for many years after his death, whenever Padmaja could not recall his face, she would remind herself of Venkatraghavan.

They had been married for seventeen months and Padmaja was six months pregnant with her daughter when Ramanathan was killed in a road accident. He was one his way to Trichy to attend a family wedding when the bus he was travelling in collided with another van and he was one of the six who had died immediately. His body was never recovered. They had kept the news hidden from her for days.

Ramu was held up at Trichy on some unexpected business, someone told her when she wondered where he was. He had rushed to office on his return to Madras and he had had to leave for Delhi for some urgent official work, someone else informed her. It was very unlike Ramu to not even call her and spend a few minutes asking how she was. It all seemed too sudden and too hasty for her comfort. What is going on, Amma?, she confronted her mother when she was no longer able to accept the feeble reasons given to her for Ramu's continuing absence. 

Her mother blurted it all out in one breathless rant and when she had finished, Padmaja crumpled smoothly to the floor. Sanjana was born four weeks early and had to be kept in an incubator for a week before she was discharged. Padmaja moved back to live with her parents and when the baby was four, the primary school she went to had a vacancy for a teacher. Her mother thought it would be a good idea for Padmaja to keep herself busy. She started working there the following June. The school enrolled her in an Open University B.Ed degree and she gradually moved to working with older children.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Tide


Part 1

She knows even before she has opened the wrapping paper what is inside it. Rattling the box confirms her suspicion. It is an alarm clock. Just the like the one the school had presented Vijaya teacher when she retired and to Lakshmi teacher before her. They had organised a small function in the school assembly hall for her. The headmistress, Lalitha teacher had given a brief talk and presented her with the gift-wrapped box. No one was sure what was supposed to happen next. So Lalitha teacher suggested that they sing the national anthem which they did.

There was not much to take home with her. A few books, some old photos, a couple of birthday cards and that was about it. Lalitha teacher asked her to look after herself and promised to keep her informed if the school needed any help. As ever, Pazhani was waiting for her by the school gate. She eased herself into his autorickshaw feeling it sink under her weight. For a long time she would take the bus to school. She would leave home at seven thirty to board the seven forty-five bus which managed to get her to school at twenty past eight. But some days the bus would be late and she would end up taking an autorickshaw.

After her knee operation three years ago, Padmaja decided to take an autorickshaw on a regular basis. Pazhani was a reliable autorickshaw driver. He would pick her up from her doorstep every morning and be at the school gate when she finished for the day. He had only let her down twice in the three years. Once was when his daughter had had epileptic fits in her sleep and he had to rush her to the hospital and the next was when his brother's wife had passed away quite suddenly. Padmaja had understood his difficult situation.

“But you should at least have called me to let me know, Pazhani. Next time, whatever the emergency, just give me a call to say that you cannot make it today and I will find someone else, ok?”, she had said stuffing a 100 rupee note in his hand to pay for the doctor's bill.

She does not have much to say to Pazhani when he drops her at the apartment gate. “Thank you, Pazhani”, she tells him. “Aiyo madam, please don't embarrass me. It was a pleasure to be of service to you. Thank you, madam”, he replies effusively. She tells him that she would let him know if ever she needed an autorickshaw and ignoring his protests, thrust a new shirt and some money in his hands. And that was how Padmaja teacher marked the end of her thirty-four year long teaching career. 

(This is a short story in parts, a work-in-progress. It still needs plenty of tweaking, kindly excuse.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Becoming British - 2

I must have been six or seven when I became aware that people travelled between countries fairly regularly. The realisation must have been triggered by an uncle’s return after a trip abroad and much fuss being made of his jaunt. No one ever called it abroad back then. It was always ‘Foreign’. Someone who had crossed the national border was ‘Foreign-returned’ and this was not an accolade easily earned. Foreign was this mysterious land that would only allow access to the special ones among us. It was a land populated by chosen people and to have been amongst them and breathed in the same air as them was a rare privilege only a few ever managed.

I can still recall the smell of the luggage that accompanied an uncle’s family after they returned from Foreign. It was smooth, fresh and nothing like the pungent odours of our crowded household. It smelt of clean, white people. A race far removed from the plagues of us dark-skinned beings. Foreign back then was synonymous with any place where white people lived - a cousin’s wife who lived in Kenya once complained to me that despite living abroad she didn’t feel as if she lived in Foreign as there were not enough Caucasian faces around.

I fully expected the Foreign-returned to possess special powers. May be they could levitate. Or turn water to oil. They had to have something extra about them. And yet to me they looked remarkably normal, almost predictably familiar. How could that be? How did they negotiate their way around Foreign land looking and talking the way they did? How did they communicate to the Foreigners if they needed water, shelter or clothing (never mind the fact that being in their land would make our people foreigners)? How did they manage this magnificent feat by appearing so utterly human?

My confusion was further confounded when at the age of 10 or so an aunt read my palm and proclaimed that I had Foreign raasi. It was predestined that I was to go abroad. I wondered if it was the curved line on my palm that resembled an airplane’s tail that gave her the idea and thought it best not to ask in case she changed her mind. And sure enough, some years later I had such an opportunity – and it was to a country with a majority Caucasian population to merit the Foreign status. My return some months later was greeted with great enthusiasm. I was asked how I felt now that I’d seen Foreign. It was my Neil Armstrong moment. And I milked it. I carried my jet lag around with pride and felt a sense of loss as my body clock returned to the local time. I would find casual ways of introducing the fact that I’d been to Foreign into conversations. I felt a unique bond with anyone else who’d left the country ever. We were the chosen ones, the Foreign-returned.

These days however, Foreign travel is much more common and does not hold the same kind of mystery like it once did. I have lived in Foreign for nearly a decade now and this fact no longer registers with me. Everything around me is in sharp focus while Foreign is a fuzzy place where everyone moves in slow motion and the air is forever scented with lavender.

Soon I am to become a Foreigner (or should it be that I now give up being a Foreigner and become a local?). I wonder if there's a line on my palm that could have predicted that.

(to be concluded)

Update: Became British.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Becoming British - 1

I am no longer hysterical like I was when the letter came through the post a few weeks ago. "But this can’t be right", I wailed dramatically to my friends, "I don’t look British. My dark skin belies the pale English sun." I was distraught when our application for taking up British nationality was approved. Suddenly, I felt like I had sided with the colonial oppressors as portrayed in Tamil movies and had earned the technicolour wrath of all our movie heroes who played freedom fighters.

Mine was not a reaction I had foreseen. After all, I was the one who had pushed for naturalisation in the first place. I wanted to travel around Europe more and getting a visa each time we needed to leaves these shores was a nightmare. A British passport would open doors more readily for us and it seemed the obvious thing to do.

And yet, when the reality of becoming a British citizen and what we would have to do in order to be formally included sunk in, I became agitated. First, to become a British national, I would have to surrender my Indian passport. Indian citizenship is like a monogamous relationship that demands exclusivity from you. However, it’s a polyamourous relationship if I had a British passport at birth. I could be a citizen of any other country while still pledging my allegiance to the Queen. Next, becoming a naturalised Briton meant a tacit acceptance of something a little more uncomfortable to come to terms with. That Britain was now home.

There are many things I love about living in this country. There is a refreshing lack of sacred cows. Nothing is beyond gentle ribbing. At the height of the royal wedding extravaganza, there was a comic on tv who remarked if a mere wedding could generate such a lot of global interest, imagine how popular a public hanging of the Windsors would be. I cannot imagine that sort of a remark being made about Periyaar or that holier than holy cow Ambedkar. No one got offended or sent out a Public Interest Litigation. It barely caused a ripple.

I’m forever amused by British fascination and irreverence for an archaic and anachronistic institution such as the monarchy, its love for self-deprecation, its maddeningly polite demeanour (I once saw a lady thank a cash machine), its ridiculous obsession with its gardens. There are several things that would be a parody were it not so real. And yet, it is in this over-regulated country that I have been my most comfortable. I am not worried about what other people think and can simply get on with my life. I don’t feel vulnerable or threatened or feel the weight of oppressive tradition dictating my life. I could wear what I please and pretty much go where I wanted without a thousand questions being raised. This place simply lets me be. And what a blessed relief that has been.

So getting a red passport would seem like a natural step in the direction. Yet, somewhere deep within it feels like treason. And I sense a billion pair of eyes boring down on me.

(to be continued…)

p.s. I have used 'citizenship' and 'nationality' interchangably'. Please don't get technical on me.

p.p.s. These are personal observations and if there is to be any argument, I would appreciate if it is not allowed to degenrate. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Clerihew - A Competition

A Clerihew is a whimsical biographical 4-line poem. Its rhyme structure is AABB and is often quite contrived. Like this one made up by the eponymous Mr Clerihew Himself.



Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's."

And here's one I made up earlier.

If Anna Hazare were a cook
Who wrote a recipe book,
It would be empty for pages
And suggest you fast for ages.

So that's your challenge. Come up with a Clerihew about anyone you please. And post your entry in the comment box. I'll give it a couple of weeks and then announce a winner. Off you go!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Been A While...

I had lost my interest in blogging and never picked it up again. But recently I have been wondering about posting competitions on this blog like I once used to.

So starting very soon, there will be a few contests to liven up this space. Be on the look out.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why I Run

Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact day when I decide to run. I was 18 at that time, a cadet with the National Cadet Corps. Selections were starting to get underway for the annual Republic Day Camp scheduled for the following January. We were to be put through a series of rigorous camps where we would be tested on various abilities and only the chosen few would make it to the state contingent and be part of the prestigious camp in Delhi. I had signed up to one of the early camps and was awaiting instructions when my Senior Under Officer picked me out of the line-up. 'You', she said, 'looking the way you do, you are never going very far. You're too short, too dark-skinned and frankly, it would be a miracle if you can complete the 3 km cross-country distance'.

Pictured here with my 74-year old running friend at a recent half-marathon
It wasn't so much the fact that she had questioned my ability to run that irked me. But it came as a complete shock that she had dismissed my chances at selection because of how I looked. Until then I was under the impression that so long as you could run the required distance in a certain time and were reasonably good at keeping in step with the others while marching, you had a fair shot at being picked. But this, my height and my skin-colour and the expanse of my waist, this I could do nothing about (okay, I could shed a few inches off the waist but the rest?).

It must have been that afternoon that I made up my mind to work bloody hard at the one thing that I could do better. And that was improve my running abilities. I was running 5-6 times a week, usually early in the morning. In that time, I must have been leered and jeered and harassed a number of times. But I kept at it. My timing wasn't spectacular but I could comfortably run the distance and I regularly finished among the top 10 girls in our unit. Soon it became apparent to me that my selection for the main camp was imminent. However the camp in Delhi was a huge disappoint and there was only more and more discrimination. But that's another story.

Over the years, I've continued to run. Sometimes just around the block, other times longer. Moving to another country made me want to test my abilities further. After all, here I could run where I pleased and when I wished and not worry about being harassed. I wanted to take advantage of this sense of freedom and before long I had signed up for a marathon and much to my surprise, completed the 26.2 mile course with little discomfort. These days I run regularly, occasionally taking part in races.

 In all the time that I have been running, there have been few occasions when I've thought about how it was making me lose weight. Whatever weight I've lost has been purely incidental. I do not set out to run thinking of the extra pounds I need to shed. I run because of how it makes me feel. Me, the most unlikely of runners, now being able to cover 18 miles on a Sunday morning. That is the reason I run. The buzz that comes from achieving your targets, to thumb your nose at nay-sayers from long ago and above all, to prove to yourself that it's not about how you look or how much you weigh that really matters. But what you can do with yourself. Now, that's worth lacing up for.

(Note inspired by this article in yesterday's Guardian)