Thursday, November 30, 2006

At 4:30pm

The cold has frozen the joints of time. Seconds and minutes hobble along like senior citizens at Gala Bingo.

Towels fresh out of the dryer are spread on the sofa. She burrows in to their warmth and cookie dough smell.

Perhaps when she resurfaces it will be Spring. But it is only quarter to five.

Monday, November 27, 2006

on a train bound for london

They sit opposite me. Entwined. Morsels of cheesecake, saliva and love are exchanged.
She notices my stare. And refuses her lover’s next offering.
Twenty years ago it was I who wilted under an ageing dowager’s disapproval. I feel smug as the girl turns crimson. But deep down inside gurgles the sorrow of an ageing dowager.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Better late ...

Ammani's latest project has been going on for a while now and it's great fun. I'm joining in a little late in the day but it's great fun!

Here's my answer to I ask you write 11

At first Ramesh had found Shailu’s indecisiveness endearing. He had thought it was her way of making him feel important. That she valued his opinion. She would call him up in a breathless quandary – “Should I make rotis or stir fry for dinner?” He would hear her frantic call from the changing room at M&S – “Do you think I need extra support?” Four years of “Should we go to Mallorca or Fuerta Ventura?” and tearful “Should we call the Swami’s over for lunch next week?”

Ramesh had decided enough was enough when she landed up at work in near hysterics because the stylist had asked her how she wanted her hair cut.

“Make up your own god damn mind Shailu! You’re an adult for God’s sake!” he’d bellowed that evening.

What a mistake that had been. Now he had to eat rotis and stir fry for dinner. She bought three pairs of shoes instead of one. And invited people he couldn’t stand over for dinner.

The living room walls were the last straw. One week red. The next yellow. And then red again.

Ramesh opened the front door, hoping that she’d finally settled on a colour.

“Hello darling! What have you been up to today?” he murmured as he hugged her close.

The yellow and red candy stripe wallpaper answered his question.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trafalgar Square in 55 words

The National Gallery. Fountains. Lord Nelson standing tall. The solemnity is reflected in a pearly grey sky spattered with melancholic clouds. Perhaps it is the weight of unshed rain. Birds perch on lamp posts, indulging in avian musical chairs set to the beat of traffic. One sits on Nelson’s hat and immediately her mood lifts.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

London Diary - Farm and Fortune

How many tribulations must a soap opera family matriarch face (and resolve with the aplomb of a UN negotiator) before the tears and wailing become tiresome? How many episodes before the conniving local businessman and his machinations for world (or neighbourhood) domination become old? In short — how long can a soap opera hold its viewers interests? A hundred episodes? Five hundred perhaps? A thousand even? On Thursday, November 7, The Archers celebrated its 15,000th edition and gave the term mega-serial a whole new meaning.

When it first aired on BBC Radio in 1950, the show was intended as a tool to pass on agricultural information to farmers in the British Midlands and was produced with input from the Ministry of Agriculture. Set in the fictional village of Ambridge, the show follows the lives of various families (including of course the Archers) and every local scandal worth the twitch of white lace curtains. All peppered with a great deal of talk about farming subsidies and organic vegetables.

So how does a radio show sustain interest for over fifty years? Well apart from subliminal discourses on hybrid seeds The Archers has tackled everything from homosexuality and inter-racial relationships to drug abuse and jam making competitions. Add to that cameo appearances by Dame Judi Dench and designer Zandra Rhodes (why even Princess Margaret dropped in once at the local fashion show) and you have a soap opera that has captivated and divided audiences and critics for over half a century. (Ekta Kapoor please note.)

So would our own serials back home be able to stand such a test of time? Perhaps a better question is, would we want them to? Twenty years from now will we still want to watch Tulsi Virani and her clan grapple with what seems to be the collective misfortunes of the world in their ironically named homestead Shantiniketan? Would we still be interested in the power struggle between a geriatric, wheelchair bound Adi and Abhi from Kolangal? Maybe not. After three hundred episodes or so, it might be fair to say that the average viewer does begin to grow weary of the constant melodrama, tears, plots and sub plots. (Not to mention the impossible task of matching the right Swarovski studded designer bindi to the right vamp). It is here that The Archers has succeeded. Though scandalous love affairs, mysterious deaths and infertility feature in story threads, the show also weaves in mundane everyday stories allowing listeners a reprieve from all the edge-of-the-seat tension a local pig auction can bring with it.

Every day, the faithful tune in as they drive home from work, brew their tea and supervise children's homework. A rather opinionated bunch they are too. This week the debate that raged alongside America's mid-term elections and Madonna’s Malawian offspring was regarding the extra marital peccadilloes of a certain character. Such cornfield canoodling was against her nature irate and loyal fans informed bemused Radio 4 presenters.

My first brush with The Archers was at work. A colleague who I happened to share a cubicle with was a devoted BBC Radio 4 listener. Every morning, he would come in set his bag down, switch on his Mac and head off to make a cup of tea. Once he was settled in his swivel chair, Tetley in hand he would tune in to the station and commence work, occasionally pausing for interesting debates, news updates and of course The Archers. What drew my attention to the show was its cheery signature tune and the delightful broad accents the character's spoke in. The ten thousand plus episodes I had to catch up with though seemed too daunting and I didn't attempt to follow these good farming folk who led far more interesting lives than I (or anyone else I knew for that matter) did.

However the last couple of months have seen me play writer at home and I have discovered nothing helps one forget writer's bloc and conundrums over the appropriate placing of apostrophes like tuning in to The Archers with a cup of tea, feet firmly ensconced in fluffy slippers. (Very British of me if it weren’t for the fact that my chai is always laced heavily with adrak and elaichi.)

As the theme tune faded away at the end of today's episode I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if DD had treated Vayalum Vazhvum in a similar manner? Moustache twirling landlords, romantic trysts behind hay bales and missing cow herds would have no doubt helped the program withstand the onslaught of satellite television and manipulative mother-in-laws.

All the brouhaha over the landmark episode has died down and the villagers of Ambridge are getting on with life and milking cows with that quintessential British stiff upper lip. Here’s to the next 15,000.

(This appeared in the Magazine section of NewIndPress on Sunday. Link here)

Friday, November 17, 2006

hot chocolate and a good yarn

Today, after nearly a gap of two years I read a book in one sitting. When I was in school and college I would start books on a Saturday afternoon and read non stop until the early hours of Sunday ignoring my mother and her impatient calls to eat or to turn the lights out and go to sleep. I would ignore all her entreaties and threats and read till the last page had been consumed, finally tumbling in to a satisfied sleep giving reprieve to my aching eyes.

My four years in advertising saw me with hardly any time to myself. As a result most of my reading was done on wonderfully rain sodden weekends. We had a large two seater in our living room and I would sink in to it book in hand. Every now and then I would look out the windows at the large Parsee mansion opposite our flat and at the soaked Naagchampa trees in its garden. My husband and I would make our way down the road to Crossword on weekends and argue all the way home over who would read what first. And once we were home we would fight over who got to sprawl out on the two seater and who would make the tea.

When we moved in to our first home in London I remember the first visit to our local council library. After two years in the library-barren desert that Bombay is, it felt like I'd been given a nice tall glass of Perrier. During those six months of cold, early evenings and disappointing job hunting my library membership and the eight books I was allowed to bring home kept me going. I would bring our duvet downstairs make a hot chocolate and settle down on our sofa to read. Not very different from my book reading sessions in Bombay, except that now it was no longer confined to weekends. I would spend hours inert, but for the flick of my finger. No wonder it took me so long to find a job.

When I started working I joined millions of other Londoners and began reading on the commute to work and home. The Underground is a wonderful place to read, be seen reading and see what others are reading. I have groaned with impatience at times when the arrival of my station and a particularly gripping chapter have coincided. I have read on the short walk from station to bus stop and in summer even from bus stop to front door. But one should choose their books for commute with care. After a week with Jung Chang and John Halliday's Mao The Unknown Years I developed a wrist sprain.

Now I am back at home. Winter is upon us once more. The duvet has been aired and much hot chocolate has been bought (nothing like Green & Blacks on a rainy, winter afternoon). I started my book this afternoon on a Metropolitan line train back home from town. I read as I prepared and consumed lunch, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and dinner. It felt wonderful. All I could hear was the rain, the daily foot stomping from the Swedish family upstairs (I like to imagine they're practising for the local leg of Feet of Fire - Sweden searches for the home grown Michael Flatley) and the crisp whip of pages turning. I could lose myself in the book without having to surrender to the distractions of the real world.

My back hurts and my eyes are burning. I’m sure if I listen hard enough I can hear my mother telling me to go to sleep. I think I’ll listen to her this time. Good night.

(I leave book reviewing to far more able bloggers, but I cannot help but recommend Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader. Every book lover will identify with something in it. As I've read it a little voice has been going 'That's so true!' all the while in the back of my head. The book I read today though was Anita Brookner's Booker Winning Hotel Du Lac. For those that enjoy short stories, The Collected Stories of Colette is wonderful.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006


I have a secret. One that I wish to share with you so that I no longer shoulder its burden alone.

I never use the last few pages of a notebook.


As far back as I can remember I have coveted notebooks. When Aunts and Uncles from distant lands asked what I wanted when they came a-visiting I would always ask for notebooks. When my father travelled abroad on business I didn’t ask for chocolates and toys – I wanted notebooks. My favourite day of the school year was the one on which they handed out our text and exercise books. How I loved the neat tower they made in the corner of my room, some of the pages still stuck together, naked and waiting for the rolls of brown paper sitting on the side to envelope them. Opening pages waiting for the first pillaiyar shuzhi of the calendar year. My handwriting always neat and legible on those first pages, descending in to an unintelligible scrawl as the months progressed.

The one thing every school notebook, what-I-thought-was-teenage-angst ridden diary and doodling pad of mine had in common (apart from the poor penmanship(woman-person-ship?)) was the fact that the final pages were always left blank.

As a child it was (I think) that somewhere half way through the notebook I got bored. The shiny, newness had worn off. Its pristine pages were sullied. And more often than not, something prettier, bigger and much better had caught my eye. While I couldn’t bring myself to discard a half-used book I had no issues in setting aside one with just a few pages left blank. What was the harm? It meant I could move on to my next conquest faster and with a (somewhat) clearer conscience. (Though I did go through a phase where I drew giant, smiling sunflowers on these blank folios. I stopped when I realised I was being unfair – either I filled it with what I thought were my brilliant ideas or with nothing at all. The sunflowers were a cop-out. And a disturbing one at that.)

This secret of mine has gone on unchecked all these years. As a mature (ha!) adult who recycles anything I can get my hands on I realise how wasteful I’ve been. But for the life of me I can’t bring myself to stop. Whether due to force of habit, superstition or the fact that somewhere deep down inside me lurks a grubby handed 7 year old with an eye for nice notebooks I do not know.

Last year I treated myself to a moleskine. I loved the soft black leather binding, the smooth creamy sheets, the first page that said

If found, please return to


It was gorgeous. I’ll never be able to waste a single page of this one I thought. It’s too elegant. Plus, it cost the equivalent of a nice lunch for one at Busaba. I was quite smug until a few months later I saw another moleskine, its pages covered in little squares, reminiscent of French school notebooks. Ooh la la. My fingers itched.

Like a woman who fantasises of George Clooney when in bed with her husband, I thought lustfully of my French amour as I wrote in my faithful moleskine that evening. I plotted and schemed. Perhaps I could get the new book and use it to maintain my accounts. Perhaps I could ‘forget’ my current moleskine on the train. Or ‘accidentally’ spill cleaning acid on it. What a wicked, low creature I was. But it wasn’t my fault. I had no control over myself. Like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf (but with waxed legs and less facial hair) would I need to be locked in a cage too?

And then the solution presented itself to me in a flash of light and harpsichord playing cherubs. I’d just use up the last few pages now. So I inverted my book and began to use my book in reverse. Genius!

A mere twenty pages separated my forward backward scribbling. I hoped that I could find and draw upon a hidden reserve of moral character to help me cross this chlorine-free crossing.

Today if one was to go through any of my books they would find all the pages accounted for. Well, except for a few somewhere in the middle. But please don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

at the dining table

Her thumb dug into the nubbly exterior releasing a squirt of juice and signature scent. She peeled it carefully so that the skin unwound into one long corkscrewy coil. When she was a child her mother would open each sliver and feed her the juicy, pulpy bits inside by hand. The scent would linger on Ma's fingers for the rest of the day and she would often run up to her, grab hold of her soft hand and inhale deeply.

She smiled and popped a piece in to her mouth whole. There was no one to prise open the white, spider web cage. But at least she would always have the smell.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Music for the home sick soul

(Something I wrote a few months ago and never posted for some reason)

Come October, and my husband and I will have completed two years in London. We arrived as October was drawing to an end, gracefully making way for the colder, darker months of the long English Winter that lay ahead. The day our plane touched down at Heathrow was bright and sunny with just a hint of warmth in the air – one of those rare gifts October bequeaths before passing on.

As our friends drove us through the tony streets of Kensington and Chelsea to the temporary accommodation we had been provided with, I felt only the mildest twinges of melancholy. The gorgeous white terraced houses, the riotous basket of flowers that hung outside the red doors of local pubs, the Chanel boutique at Old Brompton Street and the newness of a city beckoning to be explored expanded and fill the emptiness that had been in my stomach since boarding the flight 14 hours earlier in Chennai.

It was short lived. After a week of watching day time television in our tiny hotel room and eating Spicy Bean Burgers I was depressed. Long walks around my beautiful surroundings did little to lift my mood. I felt like a Victorian waif with my nose pressed up against the glittering glass facades of the bijou boutiques and gated communities. This was not my pettai and the newness that had till then enamoured me now seemed alien and inaccessible. I yearned for familiar streets and the whisper of known tongues in my ear. I was homesick.

The situation didn’t improve even after we moved in to our new home – a decidedly English semi-detached in one of North-West London’s many Dickensian suburbs. Despite the sickly green carpets in the bedrooms and the tiny galley kitchen, the idea of living in an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ house as we called it was hard to resist. The overgrown garden and damp attic completed our image of the proper English home.

With 6 weeks to go before our belongings arrived from India, I was all alone in a large, empty house with a pressure cooker, some sambhar podi and Leo Coffee powder to remind me of Chennai. Calls home were dictated by the minutes left on phone cards and free internet access at the local library meant endless queues for half hour slots. I had never felt more cut off from home before.

During my second week in our empty and increasingly cold home (poor insulation and a maladroit furnace), a close friend dropped by to see how I was. Cold, lonely and with no television or music to fill the silence that pervaded our home, I’m sure I seemed rather pathetic. The next day they brought over their spare television and I wasted no time in having cable installed.

I cannot describe the joy I felt as I surfed through the 500 plus channels we could access and stumbled across Vectone – a Sri Lankan Tamizh channel. While most of their air time was devoted to newscasts from Colombo and shows answering the legal queries of local immigrant population, every afternoon from 1:00pm to 2:00pm they would broadcast Isai Thendral; 60 minutes of Kodambakkam’s best. It was heaven.

The phone could ring all it liked. The Queen could invite herself over for tea. Hugh Grant could ask me out. But for that one hour I was oblivious to the goings on of the outside world. All that existed were the familiar strains of long ago and much loved actors, actresses and a hundred extras doing their thing in the verdant hills of Ootucamund.

As I heard the songs that had been the soundtrack to my life I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. Each track brought with it memories, snippets of conversations and snapshots of my childhood and adolescence. Like a balm, it soothed my soul. Even the annoyingly chirpy anchor and her rhyming banter couldn’t deter me from watching the show.

Soon, 50 boxes that contained my life turned up at our front door. By then we had acquired a laptop and were connected to the rest of the world via broadband. My cousin sent me a link to the music portal With a collection of music that spanned M.S.V to Udit Narayan and Illayaraja to Rafi, the website became a new link to life back home. As I unpacked and became reacquainted with old friends in the form of beloved coffee mugs and frayed quilts, setting up my new home I would listen to melodies that reminded me of all that I had left behind. Funnily enough, the flood of nostalgia didn’t plunge me in to a deep depression. Instead it lifted my flagging sprits and warmed me up during those cold winter months.

Two years have flown by faster than I would have thought possible and have seen me settle down in this country where the sun doesn’t shine often enough. The hollow feeling that was once in my stomach is gone though the odd pang does surface every now and then. And for those moments I have my songs. The 80s hits that bring back memories of sitting on my mother’s lap in our darkened family room and watching Rajni and Kamal. The opening strains to Chinna Chinna Aasai that are as delightful today as they were the very first time I listened to them. Millennium number 1’s that remind me of college days and endless rounds of antakshari. The song from Minnale that I sang to my husband at our nalangu (bless him for not cringing as my voice hit those higher notes).

A week ago I was walking down platform 11A at Kings Cross Station to catch the tube home. The engines of the train were rumbling away and a sweet breeze was blowing. I broke in to a song so spontaneously I took myself by surprise. It wasn’t homesickness that prompted me, just the pleasure of knowing one will be home soon.

‘Vellarika pinju vellarika, yenna paakama porale Chandirika…’