Random musings of a wandering soul

Archive for the ‘at home’ Category

The Last Letter

Our family was never ‘photographic.’ Search high and low, far and wide, it is next to impossible to find pictures of us from childhood. Now that I think about it, we have seen more pictures of our mother as a kid than  those of the five of us put together. Did my parents have an aversion to studios, I wonder. Or maybe they just didn’t have the time, in between bringing up the brood.

There were letters galore, though. Staying in the small town of Alleppey, a grandmother in the nearby village of Kavalam and a set of grandparents in neighbouring village of Pulincunnu, the letters were mostly triangular. I do remember my father’s strong, slanted handwriting, those were official writings in blue black Chelpark ink, though. The blue inland letters were always feminine. The neat and tidy, tiny words from Kavalam and the large, rounded words, as perfect as her fluffy palappams, from Pulincunnu. Telephones were rare and letters were the only form of communication, unless someone visited. Yes, I was reared in pre historic times 🙂

We were forced into this habit as we grew up. As the eldest in both sides of the family, the onus of keeping this tripartite communication alive slowly fell on me. And it would be a lie if I told you I didn’t enjoy it. We were masters of space management, the two grandmothers and me. We would first take up all the space in the three ‘pages’ of the inland, then write on the margins , sometimes even in the space provided for the return address. Born story tellers, we were. My paternal grandmother would even add some sentences in English and would remind us from time to time with a twinkle in her eyes, “I was taught by European nuns, unlike the less fortunate you.”

Count of coconuts, accounts of activities in the yard, the state of mangoes that year, the feasts in the church, maids come and gone, family news of old retainers, births, weddings and deaths, visits from relatives – letters from the paternal side was more in the nature of a statement of account – what came in and what went out. The maternal ones were, well, more maternal in nature. Rounds of how each member of the family was faring, each of us kids asked for by name, news of cows giving birth along the women in the family who followed suit, chickens and ducklings hatched and snatched by eagles and crows, the letters were more about what grew and did not. As holidays neared, we would wait eagerly to know who would be coming when to take us home. For, home was never the house we stayed in ten months round the year. Home was always where the heart was – split between two villages.

When did we as siblings start writing to each other? The first ones would definitely have been from me, the first one to leave the pack to far away Ernakulam. Who did what in the hostel, which audit I was on, which clients provided the best food for free, there was nothing that the family did not know of. And in return, I continued to get news of what was happening back in the two villages, the parents had shifted back to Kavalam by then. The triangle turned into a square as another corner was added. One of the sisters got married off to the till then uncharetered territory of northern Kerala.

It was three years after her marriage that we lost one of us. There were hardly any pictures to remember her by, not that any of us needed it. Bonds of heart are far stronger than the most beautiful of pictures, we have realised since then, as we lost our mother a few years later. There are moments though, when we long for a touch, a word or two in their voices, something, anything, that was tangible. Not to remember them,   just to feel their presence, even if it was for a few ephemeral moments.

There are some books that are my favourites. They have a strange habit of disappearing at frequent and infrequent intervals. And they reappear months , sometimes years later, right in time when I need them. Only when I need them. It was a prayer book this time, an unusual one. The one that was my solace in my years of questioning God, those years of searching for the meaning of everything. Had it gone missing, or was it that I’d forgotten about it? I don’t remember. But it was definitely one of those days, when the yearning was too strong, the longing too difficult to get over, that it resurfaced. Surprising me. With a letter, the last one she’d written to me. Maybe the last one she’d written to anyone.

It’s 21 years today, since the then 21 year old wrote it.

What would we remember each other by, I wonder. Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, long forgotten Tweets? And I shudder.

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Chasing Ducks

Books are such wondrous beings. On one page you are enjoying  your evening with a nomadic family on the Mongolian steppes, watching the matriarch firing away orders to the family, in style. Come the next page, you are suddenly transported back to your childhood.

“There were scenes of hysterics as the little children were tasked with rounding up the most mischievous goats. They sprinted after the animals, diving to catch whatever body part they could lay a hand on, whether it be the leg, ears, or even tail, but often ended up facedown in the dust. When one particularly large and courageous goat made a break for the open steppe beyond camp, one of the boys, probably no older than ten, swung onto a horseback and, with his chest pushed out like a little man’s, went galloping off with a shriek.”

Rewind to an era that sound pre historic to my kids who haven’t seen even a stalk of rice. When there were no supermarkets and you had to run behind a hen to have a chicken dish for lunch. And ducks.

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Watching chickens hatching was one of the favourite pastimes of summer holidays. And the ducklings. The mother ducks are an active lot. Not for them, the days of sitting idle on top of a group of dumb looking eggs. And they needed the daily frolic in water. A wet body on top of a growing baby inside a shell? That would have been a sure shot recipe for disaster. As the shell broke, the chickens looked cute, covered in tiny, soft feathers. The ducklings were weird.

My memory deserts me here. When did the surrogate mother retreat and the real one take over? What I do rememeber is the joyous jump of ducklings into water. Mother first and the kids after her.

Duck roast was a delicacy, reserved for special occasions. Especially my grandmother’s quite famous whole duck roast. Boiled potatoes, mashed and mixed with spices stuffed into the tummy that would now be emptied of all the gory stuff like intestines and gizzard. More about that in another post. The whole process deserves a story by itself.

While the hens would be left to wander around by themselves, ducks were always cooped up. Except in the evenings. We were never a part of the letting out. Rounding them up in the evening was the real adventure. Hens are an odedient lot, except for a stray one. They seem to know by instinct when the time came. Obediently they would walk into the hen house, one after another. A particularly rebellious one would perch itself on a tree branch and refuse to come down. No amount of coaxing, cajoling or even threats would make them budge. Some days, they would just be left to their own devices, out of sheer exhaustion on the part of the chasers.

The ducks.  ‘Taking to water like a duck,’ is not an empty idiom, you realize. The first few moments after the door of the pen was opened was of confusion. Then the excitement would begin. Freedom, they seemed to shout. Skuttling across on their webbed feet, their wings opened out, waddle had a different meaning. It was a cross between a run and flight. The last leg was the best. They took flight at the last moment, with a loud quack of sheer joy and abandon. For a few brief moments they would be flying like other birds, before the weight of their bodies made them land in water with a loud thud and splash.

Rounding them up a few hours later was another story altogether. Think of a kid having the time of her life with her friends in a park. And telling them time is up. Oh, the horror of it! First, it’s a gentle shoo, shoo. Then the shout, and ultimately a whack on their bottom with a bamboo pole. We had our tactics too. First we would place ourselves at strategic locations, then the chase would start. There never was a gentle moment, just the sheer adventure of it all.

Rebels were everywhere. A couple would escape our watchful eyes and escape. Off they would go, swimming madly across the canal. And follow we would. Helpers were all around, on the way. They would join the chase. Someone who had been taking a peaceful bath would suddenly be thrown out of their reverie by the cackling ducks racing through the water and equally boisterous kids chasing them over the shore. Who would win was always a moot point. Their fate was sealed the moment the tiny beaks forced their way out of their shells.

Looking back, I realize how everything was taken for granted. Life had its natural course whether it was for us kids or the ducks we chased. Questions were rare. That’s the way things were, life was. The tiny embryos took warmth from a stranger, found their way out of the shells, were fed and then would find their own feed, laid eggs that were taken away and would finally end up, spiced and cooked, on random dining tables. Not one of us questioned why they were killed. We just waited, longing for bits and pieces of those perfectly browned whole duck roast. Another story, for another day.

 

p.s.

(i) the quote is from ‘On the trail of Genghis Khan’ by Tim Cope

(ii) picture courtesy google images 

Those Saturdays of August

The sleepy town slowly opens its eyes as the fury of monsoons turn into a pleasant  drizzle. The angry rivers have calmed down and the churning lake lay placid. There is a bright sparkle in those eyes that is otherwise stoic. The rhythm of a land starts reverberating in their steps. It is that time of the year, when the heart of a land beats in perfect rhytm to the clarion call of its boatsmen, “Aaarrrrpppo, Irrrro, Irrrro, Irrrro.” And for us kids, the culmination of an year of wait.

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The story goes back to the wars of yore between the small water logged kingdoms of Chempakassery, Kayamkulam, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor, parts of today’s Alapuuzha and Kottayam districts. The king of Chempakassery was a worried man after continuous defeats. He did a root cause analysis and arrived at the conclusion, his war boats were too slow and ill prepared. So started a search for an aashaaari, or a boat craftsman, that zeroed in on one Koduppunna Venkitanaryanan Aashaari. The rest, as they say, is history. The Aashaari crafted a long, sleek boat that could cut through water and carry more than hundred warriors at the same time. The long boats that were more than hundred feet long were called ‘chundan valloms’ after their pointed sterns. Wonder who translated it as ‘snake boats’. The helms supposedly looks like the hood of a king cobra. I’ve always thought it looks like the decorated trunk of an elephant.  Anyway,  the king of Chempakassery never had to look back again. The bollywoodesque epilogue has a dashing young guy sent as a spy by the king of Kayamkulam to learn the art of boat building. Seducing the aashan’s daughter and with promises of marrying her, the roguish spy learned the secret and promptly disappeared to build similar boats for his king. Alas, when it came to the proof of the pudding, or payasam as you would have it, his boats were nowhere near the original aashaari’s. The master craftsman was a crafty one, for sure.

The snake boats must have continued to be used as boats of war, but no particular stories seem to be recorded till our first Prime Minister decided to visit Allleppey and Kottayam in 1952. Around ten such boats accompanied him as he traveled in a motor boat across the water and a race was organized for his enjoyment. And enjoy, he did! Apparently, he was so excited that he jumped into the winner, the ‘Nadubhagom Chundan.’ He went back to the capital, but the excitement stayed with him. He had a replica made in rosewood and sent it back to Kerala and thus was born the now world famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

There was a time when I used to literally detest my village. Those were the days of youth and foolishness, when fast was better and slow was looked down on. Imagine a place where you could reach only by boat, that too after travelling for more than an hour and half. Wow, you say? Bah, would have been my retort. There were no roads, the only mode of transport was motor boats or the ones that someone had to row. Years had to go and the place turn distant for it turn into longing. Anyway, let me get back to our yearly wait.

The second Saturday of August needed no reminder in a calendar. It is etched in stone in the heart of every true Kuttanadan / Alleppey-ian. And like most of the other homes in the town, it was a day of festival when all the friends and relatives would descend in droves and walk as one to Punnamada Lake. No GPS was needed, the genes were grafted into the feet at birth.

Our family was large, especially on my mother’s side. Between my grandfather and his three siblings, there were thirty kids. And many of them were  just a few years elder to me. Yes, my uncles and aunts were more like my siblings. Led by my normally stern grandfather, at least fifteen of them would arrive by ten in the morning. Our young feet would be tapping in impatience if they were late even by minutes. The fire in our kitchen would have been burning overtime for the past few days, ending up on  a dining table that had not even a single inch uncovered by food. Off we would go, after a sumptuous lunch, with packets of crisp cutlets and bottles of water in hand, obediently like school kids out on a break, with grandfather in lead.

The Punnamada Lake borders the town of Alleppey and its canals lead to the largest lake In Kerala, the Vembanad Lake. The otherwise quiet waterways comes to life from early July, the time when the season of traditional boat races, or vallom kali, as it is called, starts. This was years before tourism and its by product, the house boats, became ubiquitous. Temporary galleries would come up, made of the trunks of arecanut trees and firmly held in place by sturdy coils of rope. Made in Alleppey, it was, totally.

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Spending money on fun was anathema, but this was life itself. And my grandfather would have only the best seats. By default we would, too. Another wait started. We had to claim our seats by 12, first come first served was the norm and the races started at 2. First would come the procession, all the participating boats out in full splendor, the boatsmen rowing in slow rhythm, the oars against the water as one, to the tunes of the traditional boat songs, the vanchi paattu.

The races started with the prelims or ‘heats’ as they were called. Four to five  rounds each and four to five snake boats in each round. The winners of these would compete in the finals. But in between, would be the others. Veyppu vallams, used for cooking, or veyppu, as it is called in  Malayalam, the Churulan vallams, that finds its name from their curved ends, and the Iruttukithi, literally meaning one that traverses darkness. The last one was supposedly used by pirates and hence the association with night. Then there was the customary round of woman’s boat race, usually in the Churulan variety. These were but mere interludes, when we feasted on cutlets and watched the antics of drunk guys frolicking in water.  The navy helicopters would come and we would watch in awe as the troopers parachuted down, dutifully bursting some colourful powder into the atmosphere, whence the very same copters would come back for rescue.

The fun started in all seriousness after that. First round after the interval was all the fourth place holders from the heats, then the ones that came third, the losers final and then the race of the day. The Nehru Trophy Finals. Yes, we had our favourite clubs and boats too. The sleek Kaarichaal, the stately Nadubhagom Chundan, the legendary Kavalam  Chundan whose heydays were over by then, the famous Jawahar Thaayamkari, the rebuilt Aanaari Puthan Chundan, were names that were etched in our hearts. And the last fight would almost always be between two stalwarts, UBC Kainakary and Kumarakom Boat Club.

The starting point was far away, for the track had to be that long for boats that were more than 100 feet long. The small transistor that grandfather carried came into handy to know who was leading. The whole gallery would move as one. Glistening bodies arching in rhythm, hundreds of oars cutting the lake as one, a single beat in those hearts and in ours, the ‘hee haw’ of the helmsmen, anything could change in a matter of seconds. The boats well oiled in sardine oil the previous day, glistening in the evening sun and gliding across the waves, and the quintessential nail biting finish. The winners raising their races in a unified salute, was a sight that filled our hearts to the brim and sometimes made it overflow, irrespective of who the winner is. I have goosebumps all over even as I watch this.

We grew up and apart. One after another, the family dispersed. Living room couches took the place of those makeshift galleries as Keltron TVs moved Punnamada Lake into our homes. As other interests and life interfered, Nehru Trophy turned into a news item in Malayala Manorama. As I read the Sunday newspaper announcing Jawahar Thaayamkari as this year’s winner, it doesn’t take even a moment to get transported back to those second Saturdays of August. And I realize, it is no more the races that I miss. It is that feeling of togetherness, of being connected. That seem to be lost, forever.

(photos courtesy – The Hindu, The New Indian Express)

Following Fish*

kuttanadMemories are strange creatures. It pounces up on you like lightning at times, shocking you out of your self imposed reverie. The thunder that follows shakes you up, the accompanying rain then leaving you in a safe, cool cocoon. Some of them are like naughty children, tantalizing you with their pranks and leaves a stupid grin on your face. Yet others are like those nasty relatives and bosses, never letting you forget,  opening up wounds the moment they start healing and the blood keeps dripping. Some float in,  as gentle as a breeze, ephemeral, fleeting moments of rapture and peace. Then there are those, deeply ingrained in your souls, the very core of what you are and have been, always. Do memories define us? The ones that we keep going back to, those that leave a languid smile on our face, where we go hiding from the world, the shelters where we feel as safe as a mother’s womb….those must be the real us. Where we are shorn of our masks, where we dance in abandon and pure joy. Yes, they speak about us, than a million words or zillion gestures ever could.

Samanth Subramanian is an author who I discovered recently. His second book came to me first – This Divided Island : Stories from the Sri Lankan War‘ is a collection of heart wrenching stories of a race battered and bruised by a useless war . He had written about an old bungalow with open verandas and where sea breeze came gentle, cool and unhurried. Suddenly, I was transported back to Alleppey, the place I grew up in. The recreation ground, the old Rest House watching over kids and grown ups playing cricket and the road that led to the beach. The old ‘kadal paalam‘* and its broken wooden planks, the countless packets of ground nuts roasted in sand, and the sea, sometimes calm, sometimes serious and then at times black with anger during the rains. Memories, they are strange , popping up at the most unexpected of times. The lines in the book are now long forgotten, the feeling of connect, still as fresh as the time the words passed through my eyes and into my soul.

Falling in love is not easy for me. But if I do, it is all encompassing. And there is this deep longing to know everything about my love. And I was in love, with this Tamilian boy and his writing. Alas, there was only one more book to know him. The moment I read the title, it was epiphany. This was a love for life. To the Kuttanaadan spirit in me, it is the food of the gods. Ambrosia. ‘Following Fish,’ did you say, Samanth? Oh yes, I will, to the end of the world. Starting from Kolkata and its Devi like Hilsa, on to Hyderabad and its miraculous fish-y asthma cure, to the Tamil Nadu village of St. Francis Xavier, he finally reached Kerala. To be precise, Alleppey. We started feeling like a ménage-a-trios. Alleppey, Samanth and me. Sounds quite romantic, doesn’t it? Yes, fish does that to me. Give me a pot full of fresh kallu, a plate of translucent, steaming kappa and some blood red mathi* curry any day. I would gladly trade that for anything. Well, almost anything.

A boat full of memories. Of worms unearthed, ponds, canals and rivers, of fishes caught, broken metal buckets that leaked like love from a grandmother’s heart, of country boats that capsized, floods that cried into the courtyards, of earthen pots and brick stoves, fire wood and chimney smoke….. of childhood, happy and free.

The lone coconut trunk lay supine, its youth spent, days of glory gone. The young feet took a few tentative steps, as if to make itself sure that the bridge would hold and not turn her over midway. Not that she  minded. A splash in the water would have been a welcome break from the warm summer. To call it a shop would be stretching even the imagination too far. A corner in a room, a few glass bottles over a table, half filled with mithais* in yellow, orange and white. The eyes never rested long on the colours, though. The fingers drummed on the metal lids and the old man smiled with a knowing twinkle in his eyes, as he tried to shake the drawers open. A few hooks and two rolls of tungsten. And at times a tiny plastic packet of salty lemon pickle. Just like that.

The tungsten tied expertly to of a long and sturdy branch, hook in place at the end, a coconut shell with muddy sand in it, the search begins. Patiently , delicately poking the sand with a twig at first. Then at a frantic pace, unearthing those wriggly, slimy pink forms, their rings glazing in the sun. Squirm they would, even after being chopped into two or three pieces. Everything was matter of fact. Being kind to animals stopped at feeding the hens, ducks, cows and calves. Worms were for fishes. Life was so simple, straight. It couldn’t but be, for we were the ones who would outrun the chickens, catch them and watch in pretended horror as someone slit their throats with an expert nick of their knives.

The rod held firmly in the right hand, the left hand tests the worm on the hook. A perfect arc and the bait would land safely in the river. And the wait begins. The breath was baited, as the hands longed to be pulled in. The trick was never to pull the line in at the first bite. Let the fish test its food, taste it and get hooked. A swift movement of the hand and a  fish danced in the air. The grip had to be gentle but firm. The hook slowly taken out, the catch would go into a ‘puttu kudam‘ half filled with water. Why was it always this narrow necked container, I wonder. Must be the neck. No scope for escape. Did the fish know it was us kids who caught them? The big ones never came to us. It was always the smaller ones. Did they think they were being invited to play with us?

There were others who went after the fish. Not the hard working ones with an oily sheen of sweat on their half naked bodies. These were the languid ones. A small net, or better still a hand made bow and arrow. They would come by at any time of the day. With eyes as sharp as Arjuna’s , they would stare into the water, seeing things we could never find, sensing movements we could only imagine. Whoosh! The arrow would fly. It was never free though, the poor thing. Always tied to the end of the bow, the arrow would be dragged in along with the fish. No sympathy, for the heart that was pierced. That was life.

The river flowed past, basking lazily in the sun in the mornings and rushing past in a huff as the summer showers slashed it mercilessly in the evenings. Water was everywhere, in all forms. The river, the small canals, a pond in the backyard, a well at the side and the remains of the rains in pools everywhere. And the fish. The huge karimeens that were delivered to order, the tiny ones that played with our feet and bit us as we kept still in the water, the yellow ones that frolicked in the pond, the red ones that rushed up as we threw them rice, the fierce looking kaari, the slimy koori, the tiny pallathi, the ones we caught between the ends of a thorthu, the njandus that walked liked drunkards and disappeared under the huge cauldrons. Shards of childhood, covered in mist. Like the melodious ‘kooiiii’ of the men casting nets as they fade away into the distant night.

Thank you Samanth, for bringing them a little closer , before they disappeared altogether.

* (‘Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast’ written by Samanth Subramanian is an anthology of real life observations as he travels along the coastline of India.  A chapter on Alleppey took me back home, to memories of long ago)

*

kadal paalam – bridge over sea

mathi – sardines

mithais – candies

puttu kudam – a pot with narrow neck used to make the traditional Kerala breakfast puttu

karimeen – pearl spot

kaari – cat fish

koori – mystus

pallathi – young pearl spot

thorthu – towel made of hand spun cotton

njandu – fresh water crab

 

 (Image courtesy – manoramaonline.com)

 

 

 

Just Another Morning

imageSleep late on weekends? No sir, not me. I am a soccer mom, you see. Handsome hunks as coaches and glamorous moms fawning over them, did you say? Only in movies my friend, only there.  Sigh!

The weekend special shouting match commences as the mother gets up early in the morning and starts trying to wake the son up. After three ‘two minutes, amma’ the sound pollution meter in the apartment almost blows up. The mother gets into the lift in a huff and the son follows with a puff. Things are almost back to as normal as it can get by the time we reach the football grounds.

Age has made me quite cantankerous. I don’t take hollow smiles and pointless banter too easily. As an after effect, taking  a walk around the apartment complex is anathema, unless it is midnight and all around are hopefully in bed or at least couched in front of their rectangular flat boxes. Pizza boxes are square, aren’t they? Anyway. So, the early morning football coaching for son is kind of a Shangri la for me. It’s a very reluctant sun that greets me the moment I step out of the car. The rays peep out hesitantly as though they are scared the cool  breeze will chase them off. The leaves sway gently and tell them there’s nothing to worry, and the gingerly steps gain confidence. I start my weekend walk.

A rugged pathway with age old trees to guard and refresh you, cricket on one side, football on the other and a small walk down, horses and people learning to ride them, the place is as happening as it is calm and peaceful. Nature is an instant pick us up, isn’t it? However tired I am, a few minutes under the trees, the feeling is as if you are in another world, where the worries and travails of the daily toil seem to disappear magically. A strange feeling of awareness start seeping in.image

As I walk forward early in the morning, the occasional sound of a vehicle comes in through the left ear while the right ear slowly catch the sounds that has by now become unfamiliar. A lone cuckoo on the branches somewhere above, calling out to its lost love, crickets screeching out the arrival of another morning, the bright chirp of a sparrow , the bark of a stray dog probably marking its territory; the more I listen, the more voices I discern. Oblivious to all else, I can even hear the rustle of the leaves. The horses from the riding school saunter languidly , their riders as elegant as the animals they mount.  Wild flowers strew the path here and there, are they fallen stars, I wonder. Towards the end of the path, there is a small grove of sappotta (Chikkoo) trees. A treasure trove of organic fruits, for they grow wild and in abandon.

Watching people around you can be the most interesting pastime. Parents come in different hues. There are those who stay put in their vehicles with the day’s newspaper. The diligence with which they seem to scrutinise each letter makes you wonder what exactly is it that they are searching for in there. Interestingly, there is a only a small group that spend the waiting time with their gadgets. Among those who do, mothers are a majority. Subject for a study, I guess. Most of them come prepared though, in their track pants and walking shoes, trudging along around the ground. A few like me prefer the canopy of the trees to the warm rays of the morning sun.

We cross each other on our walks, almost every Saturday and Sunday. The distance between us is a few yards, the individual worlds we inhabit are light years apart. We see each other week after week, but never meet. The mischievous spirit in me takes over one day as I try to stare out a smile from at least one. The first one is a svelte girl child, always on a trot, with the customary ear phones tucked in and her gaze fixed on a moving point somewhere far in the horizon. She is an easy target, the return smile is instant and it lights up her face. A beauty, she is.

Next is the athletic couple. They are on a jog, perpetually. A serious look of concentration on their sweat stained faces, feet in tandem and like a true bhartiya naari, the wife always a few steps behind the husband. I wouldn’t even dare to attempt a smile at them, the expression on their face is that fierce. Then comes the father daughter duo. I love this two. The girl must be about ten, the father obviously a veteran at this morning run thing. It’s obvious that she finds it difficult to keep up with her father. She just doesn’t give up though. The high pony tail swinging  from left to right in perfect harmony, she completes the forty five minute ritual. I would love to eavesdrop on that gentle post run talk that the two seem to enjoy so much. The smile is rather indulgent now, not necessarily at either of them.

The runner / walker comes next. It’s difficult to figure out how to define that gait of his. The feet doesn’t seem to touch the ground. If Jesus Christ had walked fast on water this is exactly how it would have looked like, apart from the apparel, of course. Then there is the expat couple who goes around the ground, never changing their trajectory, obviously enjoying their unhurried walk, always chatting, sharing a smile now and then, it’s a pleasure to watch the easy camaraderie. So engrossed are they in each other, there is no point in even attempting a smile.

imageThe two guys jogging down the track now are the types that I feel like running off from. The intense look on their faces, the perpetual appendage in their ears and the bytes of conversations that I pick up in passing is enough to discern the only language that they could possible know – the high brow corporate ones. Smile? I frown and walk as far away as possible.

The father and son looks exactly alike except for the color of their hair. The well fed cheeks, the round nose,  bushy eye brows, the heaviness in their walk, even the paunches are mirror images. They walk for sometime, then play cricket or football or whatever is the fancy of the day. And, they seem to be losing weight month after month. I am so envious that the smile would seem too contrived. No smile there.

1, 2, 3….is someone learning numbers at this age? And who is that lady running away? Ah, they had gone missing for the past few weeks. The couple who arrives with their personal trainer. I am not making this up, maa ki kasam. They try, or at least their trainer does. At times, I really have to fight that urge to go join them, just for fun. As for the smile, yet to figure out whether the top of a head would smile back, the only time I pass them by is when they are bent….errr…in a bending position.

The hefty gora comes trotting by. Geoff Bush sans the belly, that stiff upper lip has to be British. Smile? No way. Few other couples, a girl who has a strong resemblance to one of the girls who presents a Malayalam comedy show, the old expat who always has a smile on his face, the mother who drives a Tata Safari as if she is maneuvering a multi axle truck, random smiles are offered and some returned.

Now comes my favorite, the sage. Gandhi in a track pants, his face reflects an inner glow. He walks unhurried, taking in the essence of the morning air. He seem to be content by himself always and I was surprised to see him in deep conversation , or rather listening deeply to a new face. My ears turned long as I heard ,”the story starts there.” The enthusiasm seeped into their pace as well and I could catch only a few words here and there as we passed each other in the next few rounds. Finally, the sage opens his divine mouth, “Atheyo?”

The smile on my face turns into a huge grin……they are everywhere, these bloody mallus!

(p.s. ‘Atheyo’ is a Malayalam word = ‘is it?’ in English)

Guardian Angel

alexisFriends are like books. Some are thrust on you, some come recommended, some you get to know through other books, sometimes you like what it looks like and take an effort to get to know what is inside. Then there are those rare ones, that seem to be just waiting for the right moment. It is as if you were destined to meet, you would not have heard about it ever, but the moment you lay your eyes on the jacket and read the blurb, you know your life is never going to be the same again. The connection is instant, and you treasure them for life. They inspire you, guide you and talk to you like no other can, the impact is beyond definition.

Solitude, when thrust upon you, transforms itself into loneliness. It was during one such period seven years ago that I turned to blogging. Confined to bed, lest my impatient daughter came out earlier than expected, the boredom was frustrating. Blogging was very new to me, and I could not understand why people would want to share their lives with total strangers. The first two posts were tentative, more like testing the water in an ice cold river with the tip of my toes. When you talk about something that you really love, words flow easily. If the person on the other side share that love, the connect is instant and the conversation turns into pure joy. The third post was straight from the heart, friends who know me well would know my obsession about ducks. Incidentally, wordpress statistics for the past two years say that most people who wandered in here was lured by ducks and ducklings. Anyway, let me not digress. So, imagine my pleasant surprise when someone whom I never knew before came in and started talking about my soul food and the nostalgia of my favorite haunts.

He went missing in the next couple of posts, but by then I was a die hard fan of his blog. The admiration for his writing turned into awe as I learned more about him as a person and a ‘survivor’ as he has named himself in his blog. Reading about people who have survived major accidents and setbacks in life always leave you with a pang in your heart. But as you  rush along with life’s strong and powerful currents, they are soon forgotten. This was someone different, he had to face a painful setback just when his dreams were coming true; and he refused to leave my mind.  A major factor could have been a selfish pride that someone as awesome as him considered what I wrote worth commenting on.

Books are one of the few obsessions I have sustained since childhood and for me the ultimate anyone can be is being an author and a successful one at that. The fact that my new friend was an accomplished author was an added thrill and there I was, dreaming about getting autographed copies of all his books that I was ready to go out and buy. It lasted till I read the list of his books – all Greek, Latin and even Arabic to the dummy that I was and still is. But then, it is not for nothing that Paulo Coelho said that the whole universe conspires when you really long for something. I jumped and grabbed at his offer to send me an autographed copy of his first non-technical book. The fact that it was about something and someone whom I knew about was the proverbial cherry on the topping.

The friendship grew as we hopped to and from our respective blogs. In true Kerala Nasraani style, we even found common relatives. His posts continued to inspire and awe me, and his sense of humor was inimitable. His comments on my posts were something that I looked forward to eagerly. Even after a couple of long breaks in between, the moment I came back, there he was, with his encouraging words. Common interests were varied, hilarious tales from college, kids and their wise words, reading, life, he even shared recipes, how could I not love him? His writings are thought provoking, the style is simple, down to earth and no nonsense  and he talks straight to your heart. You are never left wondering how he would be in real life, his words tell us what his soul is. My only gripe is, off late his posts are few and far in between.

Who is he and why am I writing about him, you ask? Well, I would let Reader’s Digest talk about the who part. As for the why, what I write about here is normally about people, incidents and places that have touched me to the core , changed me for the better, or has left a deep impression on me. When all these come together, how can I not share the joy with you all?

This is to send out a big thank you to someone who barely knew me and has turned out to be  a part of my life, who takes the time out to encourage and reach out , and most of all, believe in me and what I am capable of.

Dear Alexis, this is also a salute from my heart to the true survivor that you are , to the inspiration that you are to so many and to that never dying spirit that always strive to look at the bright side of things. If I can be even a quarter of the great human being that you are, I could say that I have lived a good life.

 

p.s. you can read more about him here

The guilty paayasam*

“What are you churning out in your kitchen for Onam**?” my friends ask me.

“Err…nothing special,” I admit sheepishly.

“Cut and chop a hundred veggies, make milk out of a willful coconut, convert it into  twenty different thorans and kaalans and olans***? You must be crazy to think I am that crazy, that too, all this trouble  just for the two of us, for one meal, ha!” I muttered to myself.

An s-o-a from office laid the final nail on the coffin in the Onam kitchen. Yet, that nagging voice somewhere in the back of my consciousness kept repeating , ‘Onam, Onam, Onam’. Before it turned into a north Indian chant that is doing the rounds these days,  (try saying onam, onam , onam repeatedly and quite fast…still don’t get it? then you might not get it at all, forget it) my flesh gave into the demands of the persistent soul. That’s when I remembered that long forgotten can of milkmaid that used to give me a woebegone look from behind the oft caressed tins of chocolate, baking powder, choco chips and the like. Maybe it was waiting for just such a day. every maid has her day, you see.

Looked around and found two bananas whose skin had stopped used Fair & Lovely and had gone out into the hot sun. Then some nuts and bolts…errr..raisins, better known as kissmiss, wonder how it got such a romantic name. Anyhow, into the pan went the milkmaid that was colored like a terrorist..well, aren’t terrorists supposed to be brown in color these days? Milk poured into the can three more times in an unsuccessful attempt to draw out the remaining liquid, added to the pan next. The bananas went nuts and added the raisins on the way to fatten themselves in shudh desi ghee****. Sounds like avial, you say? What’s in a name, I ask.

Some urgent work, a.k.a FB beckoned, got so engrossed in all the sadya chatter going around that I forgot my pursuit of getting past the  guilt nostalgia trip. As a funny smell wafted into the almost dysfunctional nose, I rushed back to my reluctant domain to see a greedy gas stove and counter top devouring half of my half hearted attempt. Having used up the last possible drop of milkmaid and thawed milk, I remembered, necessity is the mother of not mere inventions, but culinary innovations as well.

Some left over home made pudding mix was shaken out of its cozy comfort and in went 3-4 spoons into the mix. To add volume, what else but that eternal elixir of life , water. The end result was consumed with great relish, let me admit in all humility. You see, it is not love alone that can lay claim to that special taste, that non-definable something, that makes a dish special. Add a generous amount of guilt with total abandon, and you might end up with something like this. Hope all you people had a wonderful Onam.

payasam

 

* paaysam – traditional Indian sweet, usually made during festival, or whenever you feel like it

**Onam – Traditional Kerala harvest festival, so it is said.

***thorans, kalans and olans – vegetable preparations that accompany a festive meal in Kerala. Made from symmetrically cut pieces of veggies, with generous amounts of coconut in all shapes and forms added – grated, pieces, milked, oiled etc., etc.

**** shudh desi ghee – clarified butter