Thursday, March 27, 2008

fear of

She is scared.

That before her breasts sag, before invisible crows place their feet in the wet cement that is her skin, before the first touch of grey settles in her hair, before she is need of a cataract operation, before she becomes the ‘one’ in the one in two women over fifty who get osteoperosis, before she officially becomes an Aunty to the twenty something who uses words like ‘tony’ in place of ‘posh’ (what on earth is wrong with posh?) before all these inevitabilities.

She is scared her hands will be the first to go.

Veined, mottled, worn, callused.


She cannot say for sure when the slow growing seeds of this phobia were planted, but she has hazy recollections of her great grandmother’s hands. Frail, white to the point of ghostly, covered in veins blue like the tributaries of a river, malleable. When pinched the skin would bunch together like a small ball of aata for a few seconds before deflating and joining the rest of her hand. She tells her therapist about this. But he rubbishes her theory and mumbles something about her mother. According to him everything is about her mother. She checks the diplomas on his wall one day when he is out attending to a phone call. He has obtained it through correspondence.

Her mother does not give her phobia any credence.

‘You’re just lazy. You don’t want to do anything, you don’t want to learn to cook or do needlework. Lazy. And you’re using some phobia-shobia nonsense as an excuse. So unfriendly also you have become, refusing to shake hands with Verma Uncle’s boy who came last week.’

The ‘boy’ was forty years old and had been digging his nose till the introductions were complete. How could she allow her carefully preserved hands to touch such a thing? God knows where else it had been.

‘And look how many creams you use. God gave us hands to do work, not to cover in expensive creams and gloves. How will I ever get you married if you are like this? Refusing to learn to cook and arrange flowers? Who will want you?’

She watched a show about a handicapped man with no arms who used his feet for everything. Driving, eating, cooking, dressing his children. His paintings sell for thousands. Inspired, she tried to do the same (trying not to think too much about how he cleaned himself after his morning crap)

‘What is wrong with you?’ her mother screams after an attempted coffee mug lift with her feet. ‘God has given you two good arms and hands and you are doing this? Chee chee! Why God, why did I have to get a daughter like this?’

She gives her seventy year old uncle a foot shake. A bad idea. Already gripped by senility he was under the impression she was trying to kick him. Silly old man. Why would she do that?

She goes without a fuss. It is all very quiet and dignified. Not at all like in the movies where a van comes and ugly men in white uniforms strap you to the stretcher and carry you away kicking and screaming. Oh no. Of course she was somewhat startled to see her therapist at the front door on a Sunday evening. But she didn’t see why she shouldn’t go with him. He had seemed so reasonable. Other than the little pin prick in her arm, the whole evening was very pleasant.

She isn’t exactly sure why she is here now. But she likes it. The room is clean, she is fed and bathed. And they give her gloves when she paints. Of course none of her paintings sell for thousands, but her mother always takes one home after her weekly visit. She is not over her phobia of ageing hands. But she can pick up a pencil with her toes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

tis the season


for vadu maanga!
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She watches him swab the floor of the house. Tall, slender and long limbed he might have been a ballet dancer in another life. Or, from the way he scuttles across the floor with his rag and bucket of soap water - a spider. He calls her papa. She is thirty and has two children. But then her mother 'is the only Amma of the house'. She has nightmares that she is fifty and still called papa, a member of the coterie of women with silly names – Birdie Athai, Papa Chitti, Hyma Mami. (the last name always making her blush). She has tried to get him to call her Akka. But he will not. ‘No, you will always be papa to me’ he says with an almost toothless smile and cackle. Sitting on the divan she watches him go by with his grey rag and imagines his spidery limbs fractured beneath her slippered foot.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

this morning

The roads are blocked and traffic has been diverted to make way for His monstrous vehicle. My chariot is neither redolent with flowers nor pulled by devotees. It is yellow and black and manned by khaki clad Shekhar. He navigates his auto through the tiny back alleys that lead up to Mundakanniamman Koil with an ease and agility that belies the three wheelers rounded frame. I am reminded of a plump classmate whose chubbiness never came in the way when she danced. Perhaps it was her extra weight that added grace and to her movements. The elderly, women and children line the streets. The nightgown has usurped the nylon sari as the stay at home uniform of the middle classes. A neck hole, two arm holes, a zipper and a hem is all it takes to turn yards of floral fabric in to shapeless thing called a garment. A beating drum turns my attention to the man they have come to see – the utsavar of a nearby Ramar koil is doing the rounds.

Mundakanniaman’s darbar is full, her famous large rounded eyes glare at the throng of devotees who have come to beg for her favour. Under the shade of a large tree naagars of varying shapes and sizes fashioned out of black stone are anointed in a sticky mixture of milk, kunkumam and manjal. Coloured string, letters and other missives hang off the branches of the tree. A cat laps at a pool of milk, its pink tongue lost in the murky liquid that has pooled at the feet of two intertwined stone snakes. The gathering’s attention is suddenly diverted as Rama’s utsavar pauses outside the temple doors. All that can be seen from where I stand is His gleaming silver bow. It is as though we are all at some sort of heavenly red carpet event where fans fawning over one celebrity are suddenly sidetracked by the dazzling appearance of another. Guiltily they look away from the Utsavar and return their adoring gazes to Amman’s feet. Perhaps they are afraid to look in to her eyes.

It never ceases to amaze me how much these narrow streets contain: overflowing dustbins, Honda City’s that stick out and yet seem at ease parked outside a store that makes dance costumes and a dreadlocked man who looks stoned. Amma points out the tailor who used to make blouses for her in college ‘For Rs. 1.50’ and the crumbling old flat she lived in for a year after my grandfather retired.

Appar Swamy Koil is deserted in comparison. ‘You should come here during Pradosham’ Amma says as she notes my eyes sweeping the forlorn courtyard, her voice a tad defensive. I have been here once before I tell Amma on an equally deserted day for a friend’s Veena recital. I remember sitting with her family, teacher and Nandi for forty minutes as she fumbled her way through Rara Venu Gopala and other songs. Inside a young mother lights earthen lamps before Durga, the latter’s features eroded by time. She tries to control her daughter - a small bundle of powder, cheap silk and saamandhi.

I wonder what her mother is praying for.

Friday, March 14, 2008


What is the English word for nappasai?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Women's Poetry Competition

Mslexia has announced its annual Women's Poetry Competition. This year's entries will be judged by Carol Ann Duffy. Poems may be in any style, of any length, on any subject. Sequences will be judged as separate poems.


1st Prize £1000

2nd prize £500

3rd prize £250

22 other finalists will win £25 each and all winning poems will be published in Mslexia. There's an entry fee of £5 that allows you to enter up to three poems.

Closing date: 25 APRIL 2008

Poems from women of any nationality from any country will be accepted.

For more details of rules, eligibility etc click here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Nagalakshmi lowered herself on to the cracked red oxide floor and stretched her legs out before her. She leaned against the rusting iron frame of the bed and slid a hand in to the dusty space that lay beneath, searching for the small jar of Tiger Balm. She found it behind the rear leg of the bed, slowly pulled it out and unscrewed the shiny hexagonal lid inscribed with foreign lettering. It was a daily ritual; one of many minutiae of her life that was dragged out for as long as possible to fill up the seemingly eternal hours after lunch and before nightfall. Nagalakshmi inhaled the familiar, overpowering smell that emanated from what was left of the stiff orange balm that clung to the glass walls of the jar. Her finger scavenged about inside the jar before extricating a tiny pea sized dollop which she split in to two smidgens and rubbed in to the sagging skin that covered her knees.
The balm was a precious commodity. But unlike the small box of saffron that sat on the top most shelf of Nagalakshmi’s kitchen and came down only important festival’s it was a daily treat.
Both were gifts from Nagalakshmi’s niece as was the cordless telephone and microwave. The girl was a thoughtful child, always bringing her a little something when she returned from abroad. The phone was useful (though initially on noticing the absence of coiled wire Nagalakshmi thought it was broken) but the microwave scared her. It flashed and groaned loudly and needed special vessels. And what use did she have for it anyway? Her one ring stove took care of all her cooking needs. But she kept it all the same, storing surplus provisions in it and using the top as a makeshift shelf for her prayer books. When her niece visited, Nagalakshmi was careful to empty out the microwave of grains and pulses and clean it.
“It’s so very useful” Nagalakshmi would tell her “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
Yes, her niece was always bringing her useful gifts. Mostly. But she didn’t visit as often as she used to, so it was important that perishables were made to last for as long as possible.

It would be another six months before her niece arrived. Nagalakshmi leaned against the cot and reached for the tiger balm again. Her knees still hurt. She looked inside the jar at the meagre remnants and satisfied herself by deeply inhaling its scent instead.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

indha vaaram!

30 vagai...

kalandha sadam
thideer samaiyal

pala vagai...


Sunday, March 02, 2008


They formed a formidable fortress around me the day after my wedding; an impenetrable and inescapable wall of silk saris, diamonds and withering jasmine. The women of the family — aunts, sisters, cousins and friends had cornered me with an expectant look on their faces. I had been forewarned of this: the not so subtle interrogation about the night before by those who had suffered a similar fate. Apparently, these mouths that fluently and piously intoned the Lalitha Sahasranamam were also capable of spouting SJ Suryah style dialogues. I cringed, waiting for the first missile.

“When are you opening your gifts?”

Eh? Gifts? Clearly, materialistic pleasures had gained the hierarchical upper hand that day, and so, without further ado we all sat down to an afternoon of present opening with all the restraint of a post birthday five year old high on a sugar rush.

With the wedding season and summer heat looming large, the invitations have been piling up at home and there’s nothing I like more than perusing and passing judgement on these increasingly tome like missives (we received one the other day with pops up and seven inserts. The only thing missing was a musical greeting). I’m particularly interested in those lines inserted that deal with the receiving of gifts, presentations and good old fashioned cash. These insertions vary from the direct and slightly rude ‘No gifts and presents’ to the more polite ‘Please gift the couple with your blessings alone’ to the somewhat ambiguous ‘Grace the occasion with your presence only’. Why do people do this? And, more importantly, are we expected to respect the wishes of our hosts and turn up empty handed, hearts full of love and blessings or should we arrive armed with the mandatory vanilla envelope?

Those who decide to follow a hosts instructions and turn up sans gift often run embarrassing risks. There’s nothing worse than showing up empty handed at a wedding reception and finding a long line of guests ready to shower the couple with their blessings and a deluxe casserole set. Except perhaps finding out that the bride has lost ten pounds since you last saw her, a time frame during which you’ve had triplets and discovered the benefits of eating brownies for breakfast.

I believe gifts serve a purpose. They help bridge the awkward transition from saying ‘Congratulations’ and complimenting the bride’s svelte appearance through gritted teeth to being asked to pose for a photograph. Always wait to be asked. Without something tackily wrapped in shiny reflective paper to hand over, one can end up looking like a cheapskate who just wants their photo taken before running off to eat. Secondly, gifts also help you stand out in an ocean of guests. For example, ten rupees in the envelope the wedding invite came in tags one as a miser. Or recently divorced from Heather Mills McCartney.

I’ve often wondered why some families have a ‘no gifts’ policy. It can’t be that they eschew materialism and are all for a more ascetic approach to life, other wise they’d encourage their children to elope and have register marriages instead of the multi crore shenanigans weddings are today. I think it’s all an attempt to sidestep vicious bad gift karma. Think about it, we’re all guilty of having palmed off coconut Ganpathis and novelty singing trout to newly weds. And in order for the universe to remain in a state of equilibrium its only fair that this behaviour comes back to bite us in our backsides in the form of alarm clocks cleverly disguised as footballs or — what an idea — vases in the form of flowers!

Of course, every now and then there’s a wedding invitation that takes your breath away, and it’s not just because of their innovative use of glitter and Lord Ganpathi. A few years ago, a friends friend sent out invitations to her nuptials with a little card inserted that said (and I summarize) ‘As we are young and irresponsible, please don’t gift us things for our new home. We’re likely to break, lose or never use them. Instead, money (preferably cash) will help us start our lives on happy, solvent note.’ While some gasped and shook their heads in despair before putting back the Mickey Mouse photo frame they had hoped to palm off, I couldn’t help but marvel at the couple’s cheek.

I’m all for gifts — good, bad and tacky. They provide hours of fun to those opening them, help build up an ample arsenal of gifts to throw at other hapless couples and most important of all, they keep at bay your Aunt’s nosey questions about how many moles your other half has. And I don’t mean of the rodent kind.

(This piece appeared in today's edition of the NewIndPress Sunday magazine)