Tuesday, April 29, 2008

heat and dust

she sits there and watches the grimy fan blades sluggishly displace the air and is reminded of those afternoons when the power would fail plunging the airless box that was vi c in to darkness forcing them to squint at the tattered maps bala miss used to teach them about the south westerly monsoons, arctic flora and fauna and the himalayas aware of the faint injustice of it all that lingered in the room along with the smell of kurma and sour curd rice unaware of irony

Sunday, April 27, 2008


The park is full of them. Amateur photographers, lovers, plant waterers, walkers… the stone paved walkways and cracked benches are filled with dilettantes.

The camera phone appears to have opened the artistic third eye of almost everyone who can afford to own one. In the park, foliage is a favoured subject. I can understand that, the only other subject available in such abundance is necking lovers and surreptitiously taking pictures of them can only land one in hospital or a ditch. So every day, as I huff and puff my way through one more lap around the central green I see someone taking a picture of a leaf. Yes, just the one. Close up. Portrait. From a distance they look like plant therapists (or plant sniffers… does such a fetish exist?), examining their subject from all angles, murmuring to themselves. And then they look around, ensuring there’s no one there to catch them. Taking a picture. Of a leaf. Ha. But they forgot about me. I stealthily creep up on them and just as they click I emit a dry snort. The shoulders jerk, the hands tremble and the head snaps back. Deer caught in headlight eyes meet my amused gaze and a wan smile is offered.

Necking lovers seem to have discovered the delights of the camera phone too (though not in a way that could make them famous on hotdesiaunties.net) But years of having one’s picture taken at Shakti Studio on Luz Corner seems to have influenced our shutter bugs. So we have the surly faced artiste and a slightly nervous looking subject. The artiste insists subject find a suitable background to pose against. Since they’re in a park the usual choice is a group of trees (The bamboo shoots I find add a touch of Oriental exotic to the finished piece) or a bench surrounded by trees. Subject positions him/herself amidst shrubbery and stretches mouth in to a smile, eyes darting around in search of Gomathi Mami who would like nothing more than to tell their Amma what her precious off spring is up to in the name of Maths coaching class. Of course, this hurts the sensitivities of the artiste’s tender soul and forces him/her to goad the loved one in to doing better. “To the left, head down, open your eyes a little wider, don’t show all your teeth when you smile, push the hair away from your eyes, look happier, no no not so many teeth, pah! You’re so useless. Chee this picture is uvack, I will take another one. This time, hold that flower in your hand.”

And then there are the sad sacks. They like to secretly take pictures of Cuticura-dusted-tire-ridden Mamis too engrossed in conversations about Salman Khan’s prowess in bed to notice. If it’s a Friday and the Mami’s are walking around Kapaleeshwarar (no doubt still thinking about Salman) these photographers turn to the next best subject they have.

Of course, yours truly fancies herself a dab hand at photography too. I’m just smart enough to restrict my photographic adventures to our backyard..

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

home coming

Indra sighed and walked away from the watchman and his snoring symphony over to the compound wall which had served as chair, ladder and look out point all through her childhood. It was hiding behind this wall she observed Chandru Mama at No 52 embrace the maid Selvi, as she hung clothes out to dry. It was on this wall she stood every summer (till Amma decided she was too old to be climbing walls) and flung stones at the Xavier’s mango tree, always missing the succulent fruits swollen with ripeness. When the neighbourhood descended in to power cut induced darkness Indra and her sister would rush out with a stumpy white candle each and light them along the wall, plunging their fingers in to the warm pooling wax as though sealing secret missives to far off kingdoms. Indra hoisted herself up on to the walls rough ledge and stared at the emptiness around her.
“It’s just a house Indra. Land, bricks and cement” her husband Madhav snapped when he found her going through an old photo album once the demolition date was set. “I don’t see what’s so terrible. You and your sister are each getting a flat, same size, same everything. What’s to cry about?”
Indra shook her head and wiped away the tears falling on old black and white picture of her family. She was standing on the bonnet of Appa’s Ambassador car, dressed as Gandhi for a fancy dress competition. How could she explain it to him? The house was a part of her: a repository of memories, secrets and dreams. There was the backyard tap she had hit her head on and needed sixteen stitches for. The bathroom she locked her grandmother in for a whole day when she shouted at Indra for disturbing her prayers. The hall cabinet where the cane that came out afterwards was placed alongside a corpulent laughing Buddha, porcelain dolls and the Johnson’s baby cream applied to the red welts that pushed their way up across her back. Her bedroom with its candy coloured walls and Formica cupboard covered in Mandrake stickers covered with posters of matinee idols. The living room with its wicker sofa set and mismatched cushions Indra curled up on each morning to drink Complan; and as she grew older Amma’s thick brown coffee. The giant rosewood swing she would push as Amma lay down and rested her legs swollen with arthritis. The uneven terrace floor she paced as she read history notes and clandestine, sulphurous love letters from the boy in Chemistry lab. The unused storage room that became a bedroom for those four days every month when the women were barred from using the rest of the house. She had slept, cried, trembled and laughed over its every square inch. How would Madhav understand when her own family didn’t? And they were the reason she felt the way she did.(clumsy)

It all started after Indra’s sister was born. Indra’s excitement on the day Amma and Appa brought home her newborn sister was short lived. Within the hour Appa shouted at her for not holding the baby properly, and inaugurated what would be years of fault finding and punishment. It was after her sister’s arrival that the canings began. Perhaps Appa wanted to beat out each and every one of Indra’s shortcomings, things he had always been aware of, but were now more obvious next to the perfection of her sister. The look in her father’s eyes when they gazed at her sister: the joy, pride, the love - he never looked at Indra like that. When he deigned to look at Indra his eyes would become slits of suspicion. With his coconut oiled thick hair, stocky body and fondness for bland food, Indra knew her willowy frame, stubborn curls and ability to eat pickle neat were looked upon with distrust. Indra was nothing like her father, or as she had often heard him say, ‘like anyone in his family’. Amma had none of Appa’s anger, but harboured something far worse - indifference. She had turned her back on Indra and looked to her second-born and garden - tender, young things that she could not be blamed for. They had kicked Indra out of their cosy inner circle and she found comfort in the house. Its seepage stained walls listened tirelessly to her, absorbing her hopes and dreams till they were saturated. Indra often caught a flash of jealousy in her sister’s face – as though she were envious of Indra’s freedom and the lack of expectation others had of her. Her sister was stuck in the coconut oil scented ring of their parent’s love and Indra appropriated the last bastion of refuge – the house - for herself.

Indra fanned herself with the embroidered edges of her sari. The sun was right over her head and she felt herself melting like her old wax candles. Indra smiled as she remembered the day she had married Madhav. She had leaned against this wall and wept as her life was loaded in to the new Maruti Appa had bought them. Her mother murmured a few harried words to her, distracted by the list of important things left to do: there were shiny new silver containers to distribute to the closest of family and friends, red and green blouse pieces to be given to the second tier of acquaintances, jewellery to be transferred to the bank locker and sacks of coconuts to give away. Appa had come up to Madhav with a distraught look on his face that bordered on pity and held his hand.
“She’s a very spoilt girl - don’t mind if she does something wrong.”
It was a tried and tested line, uttered on every wedding day real and celluloid for generations. It was at that moment Indra realised she was not crying at the thought of leaving her parents and sister. After all, they would have to visit each other. It was the sorrow of saying goodbye to her home. It was the knowledge that from that day onwards she would wake up in another room in another house, without the nagachampas to greet her. The familiar call of Shivaraman the vegetable vendor, the shrill whistle of their milk cooker, the suprabatham cassette that always jumped at the third stanza – none of them would make their way to her ears. Her tongue and hand would have to be retrained to recite and write out a new address. A new identity.
It had not been easy in Madhav’s house. It was her mother-in-law’s domain and had been for over thirty years. The oppressive dark brown cabinets, red velvet sofas and mottled mosaic floor depressed Indra and the more her mother-in-law clung to her power the guiltier Indra felt about denying her sister their home. Indra felt she should apologise, make things right and decided to bring the matter up on the occasion of the first Deepavali after her marriage to Madhav. Tradition dictated that Indra and Madhav celebrated it at her home. Or rather at her ‘parent’s home’ as her mother-in-law insisted she call it.

Amma as usual had been busy in the kitchen preparing lunch and distributing sweets and festival bonuses to servants, milkmen and cable boys, mindful as always of the social order and doling out her largesse accordingly. Appa and Madhav sat before the television watching an endless stream of movie songs and bad interviews with actresses who giggled and hair flicked more than they spoke. It was an easy way out of having to engage in the guarded, uncomfortable small talk that men related as they were, were forced to make. Indra and her sister were dispatched to give sweets to their neighbours and receive blessings from those Amma deemed worthy of doling them out.
“Don’t go to Neela’s house. She doesn’t have any children.” Amma instructed, as though the functioning of their reproductive organs could in some way be affected by another woman’s failed uterus. But they knew better than to argue and ducked as they passed Neela’s house. As they walked back from Chandru Mama’s house (where Indra had longed to ask after Selvi), adjusting their dazzling saris of copper sulphate blue and guava pink, Indra cleared her throat and began.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She began as the customary Deepavali drizzle sent all the children scurrying inside, leaving behind a mound of sodden empty firecracker boxes.
“Hmm. Tell me”
“I just wanted to say… well you know… it’s just that…”
“Indra please walk a little faster, I don’t want to get wet. Plus, there’s a Surya interview on TV at 11:00.”
Indra decided to talk to her sister after lunch. But Amma and Appa had made it unnecessary by announcing they were selling the house to developers who would build a set of luxury apartments. Apart from a considerable amount of money, they were receiving three flats – one for them, one for Indra and one for her sister. After lunch she and Madhav who was overjoyed at his good luck: a car and half a property from his father-in-law, left.


Trailing her fingers along the walls cracked face Indra walked to far end of the compound where the old garden shed stood. Indra rested the palm of her hand against its weather beaten door and pushed. It was always the stubborn one. The carpenter had taken the wrong measurements, and once it was up Appa refused to pay for it to be taken down and re-cut. After three hard shoves the door groaned open. Indra stepped in to its dark confines and the smell of rotting terracotta planters, monsoon soaked walls and rusty gardening tools shrouded her.

Indra sat down on a pile of ancient fertiliser bags. She hadn’t been here since she was thirteen and had failed a science mid-term. Fearing Appa’s wrath and the sting of his worn wooden cane she had come to the shed straight after school and hid beneath a sheet of tarpaulin. She only planned to stay for an hour to calm down and prepare for the inevitable. But after cycling home in the afternoon sun the cool, dampness of the shed put her to sleep. It was a stinging slap and her mother’s high-pitched cry of ‘Thank God!’ that woke her up. Amma wept dramatically while Appa looked on somewhat relieved, but angry. They had taken her inside where she was bathed in hot water and lovingly fed by Amma before sent to Appa and his cane. For some reason, the punishment that night was worse than usual – perhaps rage at the fact they had found her. Indra came down with a delirious fever, slipping in and out of consciousness for a week.

Indra picked up a broken pot and brushed the mud clinging to its base. The incident was over twelve years ago but she could remember it so clearly. Her cowering body, the manic almost otherworldly look on Appa’s face, the grunts that punctuated the rhythmic fall of the cane, the change in schools so that no one asked awkward questions. The family meeting where matters were discussed behind closed doors and after which it was referred to as ‘the accident’ – as though Indra had repeatedly fallen on her father’s cane out of clumsiness. It was the last time Indra was punished. The cane and the incident were dispatched to a place no one could see or speak of it. It was the family’s way of dealing with things. What they didn’t like they hid from sight or got married off.

Indra slid down and sat on the dank floor. They had shut her out once before, but she had been able to seek refuge in the warm embrace of her home. And now they had taken that away from her too. She curled her legs beneath her body, rested her head on the lumpy sacks of manure and closed her eyes. There was only one place left for her. Her family would know where to look.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

home coming - i

(Don't know how I feel about this story anymore... )

Indra surveyed the remains of what was once her home. The compound wall, covered in the swirls and arcs of paan sprayed graffiti and creaking front gate stood bereft without the house they were meant to protect. Unlike some of the other gates on the road that had flowers, ‘Oms’ and a heavy bosomed apsara worked in to the design, the black iron grills of their gate were thick, jail-like bars. Appa insisted that the severe design would deter thieves, trespassers and unwanted incense stick and sanitary napkin peddlers from entering the premises. Amma had hankered after an arched multicoloured entrance depicting a pot bellied Ganesha, his mouse and plates laden with sweets and fruit. But Appa vetoed the idea.
“That’s like telling thieves – Come right in sir! No obstacles for you here, Ganesha will let you right in.”
Of course, they all knew the real reason Appa said no was that novelty gates cost a fortune. Amma quietly acquiesced but never missed an opportunity to grumble about Appa’s tightfistedness behind his back. Every time Amma pushed open their gate, or passed their neighbour’s 12 foot, gilt-edged gothic monstrosity (a bit much for the modest 60’s bungalow it guarded), she would narrow her eyes and curse Appa. The fact that their gate was easily and constantly nudged open by itinerant cows attracted by the sight of the lush green leaves in Amma’s garden and did nothing in reducing the number of sales people and their persistent mid afternoon bell ringing made it even worse.

Indra rubbed her fingers against the gate’s ineffective latch before pushing the doors wide open. She raised her fingers to her nose and inhaled the sharp smell of rusted iron as she walked up to where the front door had once stood. Indra bent down to unstrap her sandals, but stopped herself when she realised there was no longer any need for that. There was no intricate, powdery white kolam; borders edged in red to leap over. No terracotta coloured floor tiles swabbed twice a day with hot water and salt, no faded rug to protect from mud. There was nothing. Even the rubble had been cleared away.
“It’s too big for just the two of us now that you and your sister have gone.” Amma said. “What will Appa and I do in such a big house? If we had a son then he and his family would stay with us. But we aren’t so fortunate. Do you know, just the other day in Madipakkam an old couple were strangled by their own watchman? It’s not safe anymore- it’s kali yuga after all.” Amma had recently taken to blaming everything – water shortages, the scantily clad women who danced in film songs, the price of onions – on this final, sin infested age of man that they were said to be living in. “Don’t worry. You and your sister will each get a flat. 3000 square feet with a veranda, kitchen-come-dining, everything. You can even choose the bathroom tiles,” she added as though that would make everything all right.

Indra looked back at the street she had grown up on. The mid afternoon June sun had evacuated it of the children, stray dogs and mobile ironing stand that usually staked claim to various segments of its tree lined length. Everyone was hiding behind ephemeral shields of sleep; the iron man and dogs curled up beneath the shade of his stand, the more fortunate spread out beneath fans or soothed by the cool whisper of split-level air conditioners. The construction workers who lived on the grounds of her old home were the worst off; makeshift cardboard and palm leaf shacks were all they could afford. Yet even they slept; legs poking out of gaping doorways like burnt match sticks. The afternoon silence was interrupted every four seconds by the security guard who sat snoring on a rickety green chair placed under the palm tree’s meagre shade. It was the only tree left standing; the red and white hibiscus bushes, jasmine vines and the yellow nagachampa were all hacked down before the demolition.

Indra stood before the watchman and felt a familiar angry depression swell up inside her. How could Amma let them do this? She had called those plants her children; named, fed, groomed and sung songs to them. Indra remembered how Amma hated plucking the flowers, sucking her breath in sharply every time she snapped a tender green stalk, as though she shared their pain.
‘Eh! Don’t smell them’ Amma would admonish Indra and her sister when they helped her gather flowers as children. ‘God should be allowed the pleasure of their fragrance first.’
The nagachampa had always been Indra’s favourite. Its branches caressed the balcony adjoining her bedroom on the second floor and for as long as she could remember it was their deep, intoxicating fragrance that lulled her to sleep every night and that she woke up to each morning. She was always aware of the sin involved in inhaling their sweet scent before the flowers were strung in to garlands for God, but would rationalise that short of breathing there was little else she could do. Now, apart for the single coconut tree the compound was stripped bare of greenery.
“Don’t worry. We are leaving the coconut tree, madam” the site manager had simpered “We are calling the building Palm Haven after all, how can we cut it down?”