Comb & Scissors (BH : D288)

May 20, 2012

Since whatever is left of my hair had started making spiraling escape attempts to outer space, I went to the nearest barbershop first thing in the morning yesterday. By first thing, I mean after breakfast. And I am not sure of the mathematical precision of the "nearest" claim. But the shop is less that half a kilometer from home.

Despite the proximity I had never been there before. Mostly because the owner and chief head operator, who usually stands outside chatting with the taxi drivers and loading/unloading laborers of the area, looks like a popular bug eyed Telugu movie villain. As a teenager, I wasn't comfortable about spending time near such a man armed with blades and scissors.

But enough Dutch, American and other forms of courage have coursed through these veins in the past decades. Still, I wasn't ready for the sight that greeted me as I pushed open the dark film covered glass door. Achan had told me that barbershops open for business by 7am. Evidently, not! I entered the shop to stare at the man standing shirtless with his enormous rice belly resisting a belt arrest at the waist.

He nodded towards one of the waiting chairs. So did the belly. I couldn't but follow such a weighty suggestion. He went the 'opening' rituals slowly. The shop opening, just to clarify, in case you were struck by other vivid images. Bare chested he approached the faded array of gods stuck in a dusty glass frame near the ceiling. I wondered if the shirtless approach to gods is a Brahmanical principle. The man didn't have the usual girth-measuring thread the high castes sport. Perhaps his belly didn't quite measure up. 

He squeezed yesterday's oil out of a dirty yellow wick before reuse. Vivid image, I know! With the gods given light to view the proceedings from the vantage point, the man turned on the radio: an old 'Toshiba' tape recorder that was for some reason stuck inside two decrepit pieces of Thermocol.

As a government sponsored, cringe-worthy jingle about consumer rights rose from the radio, he went behind a gradually accumulated curtain of old clothes that separated a small wedge of the 12 ft by 8 ft shop, emerging fully clothed in half a minute. 

A nod summoned me to the execution chair. White shroud over me. I take note of the dog brushes and talcum powder tins on the shelf protruding from the wall to wall mirror base. And in the mirror I notice that the man is praying. Holding the comb and scissors in his right fist, he has both palms close to his chest and eyes closed. Nobody has prayer before my head before. Well, not the one on my neck anyway. 

I have been to many American homes where a prayer before the meal is a norm. God gets thanked for whatever is about to be eaten. I don't remember seeing the prayer before beginning of work ritual though. But that is an essential element of the Indian workplace and working day. I wonder if Indian prostitutes have a prayer too.

The hair cut was as lousy as Lehman Brothers'!

Educated Guesses (BH: D287)

May 18, 2012

After listening to a heartfelt, blazing half an hour tirade against the state of school education system from a respected educator who had been the principal of one of the sister schools of mine (coincidentally my sister went there), I end up at the building site of the home of one of the popular movie villains of Malayalam cinema. 

Few minutes are spent in the ignorant notion that it is an upcoming hotel. The man himself shows up in a few minutes in a vehicle that befits a movie star. Impeccably dressed and polite, he is the exact opposite of the characters he has been stereotyped into. Nothing about his polished demeanor and sense of humor belies that he has made a career out of getting beaten up by heroes who are nowhere near as well-built as him. 

Details of the master bathroom upstairs come up for discussion. "Would there be a Jacuzzi?" I wonder aloud. "Jacuzzi will surely end up being drying boards for underwear in the bathroom. Then what's the point? It's only in the West that people use tubs for relaxing." the man was a realist. He shares his plan to keep carps in a pool near the entrance. He is rather precise about their number: 5!

Towards the end of the meeting, he stares up at the top of the coconut tree nearby and comments, "ee veedinte foundation kettiyappo vacha thenganu. Ippo athu kaychu!" (This coconut tree was planted when the foundation of the house was laid. Now the tree has fruits!) I guess the physically, emotionally and monetarily draining construction work has the capacity to bring out the sentimentalist in even the toughest villains.

An hour long marketing seminar of the group that claims to be world's largest asset management company. Hotel Residency Tower near the old Secretariat is the venue. Time was fixed for 4:30. I find myself alone in the conference room with the steward Ajith at 4:25. Mango welcome drink. Things get rolling by 4:50. All the representatives of the company are unmistakably Kerala Iyers. Couple of them have brought their mothers, clad in silk sarees, along just in case anybody has doubts. 

20 minute presentation by the Kerala head of the firm about changing trends in investment and attitudes of the global citizen. Much emphasis made on retirement planning. Its complete absence feverishly bemoaned. No credit given to the fact that in that very room more than half the invited audience "who are in business" are past the repeated referred to "retirement age." Such observations are immaterial I suppose. Valuable financial research and information are only created in American offices to be shipped around the world. We must swallow and wait for everything to go down! Coffee and sandwiches to help the process at the end.

French Fries (BH: D286)

May 17, 2012

I am not sure if French Fries or Freedom Fries prepared in coconut oil can be called by the same names. They certainly don't taste the same. This was the first time I had them in India. At the St. Michaels Bakery at Plamoodu. St. Michaels is one of those institutions of the city that has continuously reinvented itself and survived for several decades. One of the major factors of the success, of course, being, as the American realtors repeat: location, location, location!

Set smack at the intersection of three of the busiest roads in the city, the bakery continues to be the go to place for school kids.Slightly different demographics inside this evening. Two aunties were tucking into their pizzas, with forks and spoons. The joint inside the bakery, designed in an overpowering shade of red, serves burgers and wraps as well besides coffee and ice cream.

Decided to try a fried chicken 'combo' meal. The entire staff here hails from Nepal. So the conversation reproduced here happened in English.
"We don't want the Pepsi with the meal..."
"Sir", very faintly followed by a sweet smile and vigorous shaking of the head meaning 'Not possible".
"Can we have a cappuccino instead?"
"Sir" repeat gesture and smile
"We will pay the difference"
"Sir" smile stays intact, major damping of the head oscillation.
"How much is a Pepsi?"
"Rs. 18, Sir"
"Ok, we'll take the Cappuccino and pay the Rs. 9 extra."
"Sir" widening smile reduces the eyes to mere creases. The head oscillation tilts 90 degrees around its pivot. This new dimension of head bobbing, I have come to realize, means "what more do you want?"
"A chocoblast"

St Michaels wasn't my primary destination in the area. I had gone to the bags and shoes repair shop near by. The bag that had made a gravity assisted plunge from my shoulders outside Ernakulam North railway station way back in October on the way to Munnar, had final come up from mending into Amma's attention span. She is flying to Chennai tomorrow and the bag is going with her.

I had dropped it off yesterday morning. I was promised brand new, strong leather handles by 9am today for Rs. 80. It was 6:30 pm. The bag was still had no grip on its life. "Saar, nale kalaile pothuma?" (Sir, will be it ok tomorrow morning?" I fake grave expressions of terror and displeasure on my face. The man goes about the repair immediately. "one hourile ready aayidum"

The combo meal and cappuccino shaved off half of that hour and added a couple of pounds to my belly. I waited on the leather bench at the shop while the sewing machine rattles to create the new handles. A very old man and a middle aged shirtless man work on the shop floor. The old man is fixing some lady's footwear. The shirtless man is cutting up pieces of leather. The pile of bags, coats and shoes on the floor reminds me of desi student apartments in College Station in July-August when new students are hosted together in some apartments!

Kavya Madhavan and Meera Jasmine grace the walls advocating their brands of footwear. I wonder if hefty actresses are preferred in footwear ad. There must be a subliminal message about load bearing capacity and tenacity. 

Sewing is done. Deft movement of the fingers. Rapid appearance and vanishing of tools. Some twists and turns, some knocking about and we're done. He performs a primitive stress test on the handles and throws me a glance. I am satisfied. Burp!


Poetic Greed (BH:D285)

May 16, 2012

While heading to Kollam this morning to attend a wedding, noticed the huge blue banners on either side of the entrance to poet Kumaran Asan memorial at Thonnackal announcing "Asante Samboorna Krithikal Soujanyam" (Complete Works of Asan Free). An offer too good to miss. Made a mental note to make a stop on the way back. 

Extravagant wedding at Kollam. Obviously two very poor families are involved! Just in case I haven't mentioned it before, the Malayalam calendar called "Kolla varsham" (the Kollam calendar) and the Malayalam word for year i.e Kollam, both are named after the place Kollam, more precisely the port of Kollam (which the foreigners called Quilon). 

825 AD when the Malayalam calendar officially begins commemorates the year the port of Kollam became the most prominent port in Kerala beating Vizhinjam, Kodungalloor etc. It is a different matter that Kozhikode and Kochi ports soon became larger than Kollam thanks to the Muslim Arab traders. But the name of the calendar stuck.

Before leaving Kollam visited a VLCC center that promises to take care of "slimming, skin and hair needs" and a branch of the Corporation Bank. The interiors couldn't be more different. The slick, aromatic VLCC interior is meant to invigorate your senses, open those pores to make on lively and open those purses to make the owners rich. Corporation bank where deposits are made and loans are taken is dingy and dark. Young men and women in jet black nylon loose fitting livery busy themselves briskly in the corridors and desks at VLCC. Mature men and women with a curious mix of dissatisfaction and suspicion populate the bank. 

Back at Thonnackal, I rush in to claim my free copy of Asan's complete works. I quickly check with the sleeping security guard that copies are still left. A young lady sitting behind a joint display surface of three desks and in front of three big shelves is clearly amused by my hurry. 
"Baakiyundo?" (Are there any left?) I enquire.She gets up and lifts one of the three boxes still on the shelf. It must have a cubic feet in volume and from the strain on her face at least 5 kilograms. 
"Rs. 1600" she says matter-of-factedly
"Free alle?" (Not free?) I am shocked
"Freeyo?" she is genuinely surprised
"Soujanyam ennu banner kandu" I blame the banner.
"Athey randayirathi nannooru roopa aayirunnu, ippo soujanya vila aayirathi arunooru mathram!" (Yes, it costs Rs. 2400. Now available at a discounted price of Rs. 1600)
Ah! a clever use of the word "Soujanyam" which could also mean discount. A word play befitting the poet himself.
"Free aanenennu vicharichano oodi vannathu?" (Did you come running thinking it was free?) she teases.

I browse the books on the table to save face. She insists that I take a look at the complete works. Four great tomes inside the box. I am happy picking up more manageable books from the table. Buy four including Kumaran Asan's translation of Edwin Arnold's 'The Light of Asia'

This was my first visit to the Asan memorial. It is a beautiful green campus with a classy traditional building. The well manicured lawns have two massive concrete statues. One of them is a naked lady in what looks like a post-orgasmic delectable stupor. "She looks disappointed!" Saiju suggests.I debate. We have neither the time nor the inclination to cross the lawn for a closer inspection. I mention the link between "sledge hammer effect", sperm motility and bipedalism, courtesy Dr. Leonard Shlain (Sex, Time and Power) and point to her raised knees. The discussion goes into the not-manicured wilderness that surrounds anthropology and behavioral psychology.

We drive by the acres and acres of land that has been acquired for the upcoming "Technocity". A frugal board announces the TCS ownership of some of it. Hundreds of coconut trees stand awaiting the day of slaughter. A coconut falls with the same ease with which a software career disappears.

1 = 3 (BH:D283)

May 15, 2012

A night owl friend drives up to Kalabhavan Theater to catch a second show. Kalabhavan is the state government owned and operated theater that plays movies doing the second round in the city after releasing in theaters located closer to the city center. I was tempted to use the expression downtown, but Thiruvananthapuram certainly has no downtown. It is a uniformly laid back town.

Even though the movies are well past their original release date, Kalabhavan attracts a fair amount of audience because the theater is relatively well maintained and ardent, noisy fans who are hell bent on not letting others watch the movie by their vociferous hero worship, are absent. Kalabhavan second shows are most preferred by those who consider themselves mature couples in the city.

Currently, the movie '3' is showing in the theater. Not the impressive German one that attracted packed showing in the last International Film Fest, but the Tamil one directed by Rajnikanth's daughter, starring her husband and featuring the international sensation 'Kolaveri' song. 

Friend finding parking comfortably in the small but empty lot. A man, who appears to be the watchman, hurries up to the car. Friend assumes that since he has cut it really close to the 9:30pm show timing, the man is coming to edge him on, as dedicated movie industry folks tend to do."Saare," the man asked, "Saarinu ee cinema thanne kanano?"(Do you really want to watch this particular movie, Sir?)

Now this was a strange question with multiple possible interpretation. Was the man discouraging a movie fan from making the wrong choice? Was he alluding to the reviews that trashed the apparently horrendous immature pretension of a film? Was he conspiring with other theaters to bring down a government run operation? Was he getting a commission from them? Ah! numerous movie worthy plots unfolded simultaneous from that question. 

Shelving them briefly, my friend asks"Entha prashnam?" (What is the problem?)"Alla Sir, Saaru mathrame ullu. Saarum koodi poyal enniku show nadathanda. Oralku vendi show venno Saar?" (Sir, you are the only one for the show. If you leave, I can cancel the show. Should we have a show for just one person?)"Hmm!" moment of reflection."Uchakkum show illayirunnu Saar. Aarum vannila"(There was no show in the afternoon as well. Nobody had come.)

The man had the look of an earnestly requested with his eyes. The request of the hopeful who might get to go home to his wife and kids before the usual very late hour. The situation was more comical than any entertainment that was hoped for from the viewing. Satisfied with the trip to theater, my friend left.

Had he been a fan who has sworn allegiance to the Rajnikanth clan, there wouldn't have been a choice. That family's honor must be protected. Every single show count. Even if there is only one watching '3'.

Office equipment and stuff (BH: D282)

May 14, 2012

Visited Premier Office Supplies shop after, may be, 20 years. It is a substantial two storey state of the art business these days. It used to be a long, just enough wide, dark, always crowded shop before my high school days. Since it was and is only a stone's throw, literally from our old home, I was a frequent visitor.

There was an uncle who would be prompt in providing me whatever it is that I was looking for, usually new pencils, rubbers (as they are called in India) and notebooks. Don't let the mention of rubber conjure up a creepy uncle image. The man was a genuine salesperson who thought age should be no bar when it comes to respecting a regular customer.

Those were the days pencils with scented erases stuck on their non-business end made priced possessions. I would act a choosy consumer when it came to notebook cover pictures. Cricketers and film personalities were popular choices even then. Some sported sci-fi stuff as well. Even then I wasn't a fan of religious cover ladies and gentlemen from the heaven. It was an overwhelming deja vu when tonight Krishna covered sketch books were rejected in favor of Spongebob and Dora. 

But most schools back then had made it a rule to use brown paper to cover the books. So sticker "name slips" became the rage. Kid magazines would announce free 'name slips' with their editions timed with school reopening. Popular cartoon characters like Mayavi, Shikari Shambu, Heman and Kapeesh would be assigned to Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and English. 

Moving from pencil to fountain pen was a coming of age ritual. Hours were lost in school with the furious investigation and debate about the originality and fakery of Parker pens. I had recently discovered my old faithful pen with its much scratched, faded golden cap. It has left its mark on tonnes of notebook and exam papers with Chelpark ink...royal blue.

Today, the shop's expansive new building has swallowed a few small businesses that were around. Notably gone is the neighborhood barbershop. It had the Western salon style swing doors with stained glass, green and orange. I remember the massive wooden chairs inside which had prop up headrests. I remember looking down upon kids younger than me who needed a plank supported on the chairs arms to make up for their height. I had already conveniently forgotten I had needed them only a couple of years before. 

Final unforgettable image I have of the shop are the fascinating alum soap stones that were used as aftershave. They looked like the famous mosquito trapping amber from the movie Jurassic Park. Final unforgettable words I remember from that shop is the old barber, after having irreversibly reduced my hair to bristle levels, asking if I combed it to the left or the right. It was too late. His scissors had crossed that threshold few minutes ago.

Sunday jaunts (BH: D281)

May 13, 2012

Trivandrum Club in the morning for the neighbor's daughter's wedding. Full house. Some rejects from a TV reality show were conducting live orchestra. Mostly songs like "Kolaveri" rather inappropriate for the occasion. They also had the habit of dealing with cheap audience deeply ingrained. Hence repetitive, irritating requests to applaud and cheer them in the middle of the proceedings. 

Seated in the balcony, the sight of guests springing up like groundhogs and rushing to the feasting hall as soon as the ceremony was over was entertaining. Having seen the Chief Minister of the state himself visit the bride the day before, I have expected lot of celebrity firepower at the wedding. None at all. A small time actor from television serials got to act as the biggest celebrity around. 

I had enjoyed the feast prepared for the engagement couple of months ago. I was glad that they engaged the same catering team for the wedding as well. 15 curries and pickles filled the entire top half of the banana leaf. Excellent aviyal, theeyal and thoran. 4 types of payasam: paal ada (milk & rice), parippu gram), gothambu (wheat) and paal (milk) with boli. 

With a contented distended stomach, I took a bus to the VJT hall. The intention was to check out the Discover Japan fest in progress. I have no idea what kind of performance evaluation the editors at Malayala Manorama go through. For the last two days, the newspaper had published items on the fest. Both times it conveniently left out the venue of the fest! Mathrubhumi newspaper saved the day with the mention of VJT Hall.

Wasn't much of a fest. Just a couple of dozen bonsai trees that the 'program of the day' banner outside misspelled as 'bomsai'. Then a few trinklets, colorful and intricate, from Japan arranged on desks bordering the walls of the hall. The main events scheduled for later in the evening were bonsai making classes and origami lessons. 

Didn't wait for those, headed out for the weekend pilgrimage to DC books at Statue Junction. The aim was to pick up K.K.Kochu's work on Kerala history and social formation and Thikodiyan's novel set during the Portuguese period of Kerala called 'Chuvanna Kadal" (Red Sea). Unfortunately both the books were unavailable. So took my sweet time to browse the shelves. I presume it is the same pleasure that shopaholics derive from window shopping. 

After spending half an hour at the nonfiction, short story and novel sections, when I had moved to the history and poetry area, the store manager, an amicable, bespectacled 40 something man with neatly oiled hair and a prominent Adam's apple, approached me with a slice of fruit cake. 
"Njangal oru cake murichu Sir" (We just cut a cake Sir) he said extending the raisin-filled brown piece towards me.
 "Birthday celebration aano?" I asked. 
"Alla sir, ivide apprentice aayi ninna pillaru three months thikachu" (No Sir, the kids who were apprentice here have completed their three month training). 
Ah! I remember the kids. My interaction during the three months with them had been invariable fruitless. They didn't know the location or availability of any of the books I had asked for. But the fruit cake was good. 

Picked up three more short, simple Kerala history books by Velayudhan Panikkasseri, a collection of articles by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and a collection of short stories by U.A. Khader. Now that, I have been regularly spending at the store, I asked about discount plans available. 
"Rs. 1000 deposit will give you Rs. 300 worth of books free every year, 20% discount on all Malayalam books and 12% on all English books." 
"Application Form please" 
"Sir, also we have a book fair coming up in VJT Hall from June 1."
"Oh Yes Please!" 

Heading back home in a city bus, I instinctively turn back on hearing a loud voice. It is a middle aged man seated in the back seat talking to someone on the cellphone. The conductor, standing beside me to issue the ticket, saw my interest. "Etho oru local Ambani aanu. Kayariyappo muthal phonil alachu vilikkunnu." (He is some local Ambani. He has been loudly discussing business since he got in) I told the conductor about the drunk old man who was dropped off at the police station from the bus couple of Sundays ago. "Njarazhcha ucha thirinja bus muzhuvan paambu kali aanu" (Sunday afternoon buses are full of drunks!) he spoke from experience.

Mindful of the innumerable fatal accidents because of cellphone distracted drivers, I used to be reluctant party to such conversations back in Texas. But in India, it seems it is illegal not to be talking on the phone while driving. If you are on a two wheeler, you must absolutely shove your cellphone by the side of the helmet so that the talking never stops. Nevertheless, it is quite special when you call up a friend and the reply is, "Hey, I am in the cockpit. We're getting ready to pull out of the gate. I will call you back as soon as I land this in Mumbai." Yea! that's one driver I sure don't want to distract.

Three meetings (BH: D280)

May 12, 2012

I recognized Vignesh who had come next door to do the lighting decorations for tomorrow's marriage. He had been to our house and rather adventurously climbed to our sloping roof to do the lighting for my sister's wedding. Since he was precariously perched on the roof at that time, I couldn't bring myself up to a chat. He was on much flatter surfaces today. So we talked. He is from interior Tamil Nadu. He enjoys working in Thiruvananthapuram. It is hectic but he makes good money. 

"Oru veettukku naanoru kedaikum Saar. oru dinam moonnu veedu pannuveen!" (I get Rs. 400 per house. I can do three houses in a day) He remembered coming to our place all those months ago. He has been busy almost every single day since then. So didn't get a chance to go back home. 
"sila velai ellam romba thollai. Nethukku oru Muslim veedu. irupathimoonu thengu mele decoration pannanam."(Some jobs are difficult. Yesterday at a Muslim wedding. 23 coconut trees had to be decorated) 
"thengu mele yaaru povan?" (who climbs the coconut trees?)
"naane Saar" (Me only!)

One more coconut tree in our colony was slaughtered this morning. It won't get a chance to be decorated by Vignesh. It is interesting how people call the trees a nuisance when they are the ones started a life around the trees, decades after the trees had been standing their ground. I wonder what will happen if trees started thinking that humans were a nuisance in their habitat!

For most of the week, I had been enjoying the comforts of an air conditioned office. Saiju is traveling. While he got busy finding opportunities in the rapid tranformation of the Middle East from oil richness to becoming the educational capital of the world, I was tasked with studying his office operations to identify inefficiencies. 

I looked at the workings from the left and the right. Even from the top it looks good. I didn't dare to look at the bottom. Mostly because the office is overwhelmingly feminine. The most interesting personality in an office full of unique souls is a grand old man whom everyone lovingly calls "Appooppan"(grandfather). When I had first met him a couple of months ago, he was standing in a lungi with a towel wrapped on his forehead, sweating profusely, gripping a spade in the middle of a single handed yard cleaning operation around the office building using both hands. 

Today, late in the evening, after most of the staff had left, he wandered in a little upset that he couldn't find the accountant to claim his daily wage.I grabbed the opportunity for a chat. 
"Appooppante veedevideya?"(Where is your home?)
"Veettil aarokke und?" (Who all are there are home?)
"Makanum avante randu makkalum" (My son and his two kids)
"Makan entha pani?"(What does your son do?)
"Wiringinte...avan kurachu naalu veliyil aayirunnu" (Electrician...he was abroad for some time)
"Gulf?" (Dubai?"
"O" (Yes)
"Monte makal school aayo?" (have you grandkids started going to school?)
"Moothaval naalara vayasayi. Ilayathinu ippo aaru masam. Njan veettil chelumbo moothathu vilichondu oodi varum. Athu ketta mathi ilayathu orakkam aanengilum unarum."(the older one is four and a half. The younger one is just six months. When I reach home the older one will come screaming. Hearing that the young one will wake up if she is sleeping)
"athu pinne angane aavande!"(that's how it should be)

He smiled and relaxed. 
"Ente mol ivide illa." (My daughter is not here)
"Evideya?"(Where is she?)
"Padikkan midukki aayirunnu. Ippo angu Gujarathila"(She was good with her academics. She is now in Gujarat)
"Kalyanam Kazhicho?"(After marriage?)
"Kalyanam kazhichu joli kitti poyi. Avalde bharthavu militaryil aanu" (She got a job after marriage and left. Her husband is in the military)
"Puli avide aano?" (Is he there?)
"O...avan pilot aanu...helicopterinte. ente bharyayude sahodaride mon thanne..mura cherukkan. nalla padippullathu kondu molku nalla joli kitti." (Yes, he is a helicopter pilot. He is my wife's sister's son. Since she is well educated, my daughter got a job)
"Entha joli?" (What job?)
He got closer to the table, took out his purse and showed me two old photographs. A young girl with braided hair over both her shoulders in sepia color and an serious looking lady, with specs, in black and white.
"Ithano cherumakal?" (Is this your granddaughter?) I asked pointing to the young girl.
"Alla...randum ente mol thanne. Ithaval patham classil. Ithu degree kazhinjappo"(No..both are my daughter's photos. This one is her when she was in high school. This is her after graduation)He then pointed to the visiting card on the other side of the purse. It had his daughter's name with her degrees "M.A, L.L.B" printed on it.
"Njan mannu vetti aanu avale padipichathu. Nannayittu padichu saare"(I did manual labor to send her to school. She studied well, Sir) His eyes glittered with pride. 
"Appooppan entha Gujarathil pokathathu?" (Why don't you go to Gujarat?)
"Enniku avidathe choodum thanuppum pidikoola. Avaru ente monte kalyanathinu vannirunnu. aaru varsham munpu." (I can't cope with the climate there. They had come down for my son's wedding. Six years ago)

The man was clearly missing his daughter. He had dedicated his life to her. Now, he was happy that though she is away, she is successful. He continues to do field work."Appoopan ethra vayasayi?" (How old are you?) I asked to break his train of thought."Kore aayi...ennittum angottu edukunilla"(very old...but I am still not going to the other world!) He laughed and then told me he was 76. 

Thinking about his daughter, when his eyes wandered to the ceiling, he had spotted some cobwebs. He immediately went out of the room, returned with a broom and swept the ceiling clean. I believe there is an incredible, unique satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that one has nurtured another soul to respectable social standing and a good life. The man was the living sample of that joy which I will never know. 

One of the guests was sitting like an odd man out, removed from the talkative crowd at the pre-wedding celebrations next door. Since Amma is acting as one of the hostesses, she tried to strike up a conversation with him. He was a new bank officer who had come to city in February from Delhi. Amma invited him home so that he could have some company instead of feeling left out in the crowd. 

He kept reiterating his disbelief how such a laid back, small city could be the capital of a state. He said his mother couldn't believe whatever he told her about the life here, till she herself visited. "It is a very difficult city of a vegetarian like me. There are very few choices. Besides, everything is closed here by 8pm. There is no night life except for cultural programs." He gave his assessment. Then he said he was surprised that schools didn't have uniform and girls could wear gold jewelry to school. I wondered which singular educational institution had triggered this whoppingly wrong stereotyping. 

"I told my mother that Malayalees like the color pink very much. The rice here is pink, the drinking water is made pink, the banana is pink."

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had come next door to greet the bride. People stood around respectfully. Nobody asked him when the trash in town would be cleared.

Gundert and more (BH: D279)

May 11, 2012

The front pages of the two main Malayalam dailies was rather revealing this morning. Eminent author Zachariah has bemoaned the utter "selling out" of Malayalam media to the god called profit. He illustrates the seismic shift of the media's loyalty from to the people to the profit. Today's Manorama had all its headlines in the front page featuring murders except one which was about an accident death. So much violence and misfortune in page 1 on a Friday, I double checked if it was the 13th. 

No violence in the front page of Mathrubhumi newspaper though. In fact, no news at all. Full page ad glittering in gold. An advertisement about the latest branch opening of a leading jewelry. So there you have it, violence and gold, two things that sell aplenty in Kerala today.

Saving myself from the newspaper, I walked with Dr. Sreedhara Menon's book. I have 3-4 more chapters to go in it. Today's lesson was on Mr. Hermann Gundert, the 19th century traveler and scholar who is credited with the first model dictionary in Malayalam. 

Gundert was born in Germany and started his career in England. By the time he reached south India as a protestant missionary, he already knew 18 languages. He was quick to add Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu to that list. From Thirunelvelli, he traveled to Mangalore via Travancore before settling down in Malabar. 

Before listing the grand achievements of Gundert, I will briefly recap the major contributions to Malayalam from foreigners as mentioned by Dr. Menon. Jesuit priest Arnos who came to Kerala in 1699 was the first to contribute a dictionary and grammar book for the language. Another grammar helper by Angelo Francis in 1712. In the second half of 18th century, a missionary named Clement prepared a dictionary geared towards missionaries. He also created "Samkshepavedardham" (Concise Biblical Meaning) in 1722. Printed in Rome, this was the first book to be type set in Malayalam. 

The first travelogue in Malayalam was "Varthamana pustakam" by Paremmakil Thomakathanar published in the second half of 18th century. An Austrian priest named Barthelomew who lived in Varapuzha from 1777 to 1789 wrote "Thressiacharitham" (Story of Teresa, poetry) and "Kudashapustakam" (Book of Prayers, prose)

Gundert Malayalam Grammar book came out in 1851. From 1836 to 1859 he was in India, out of which the later twenty years were in Kerala. He passed away in Germany in 1893 at a ripe old age of 80. 

Gundert has 21 books to his credit in Malayalam. Majority of them were religious in nature. Even while writing mostly Christian works, he has to his credit "Muhammad Chairtam" on the life of Prophet Mohamed and "Nalacharitha Parishodana", an book based on the Hindu myth. Gundert also published the first compilation of Malayalam proverbs. His grammar book remains till date a wonderful helper for students of the language. 

Oldest newspapers in Kerala are also credited to Gundert. He started two of them in 1847. "Rajyasamacharam" was meant for missionary news while "Paschimodayam" contained articles on Kerala culture, history and geography, most of them written by the editor himself. These articles have been compiled into three books: Keralapazhama, Keralolpathi and Malayalarajyam.

Prof. Menon mentions that Kerala Sahitya Academy is working on the translation Gundert's detailed diary whose existence came to light only in 1986. I would like to find out where that project stands. 

The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the European missionaries who followed them here are undoubtedly responsible for large scale plunder of this land. But there were plenty of men like Gundert who enriched lives and culture here. The tragedy is that today we have elected leaders who not only continue the plunder of this land but also progressively ruin its culture and heritage.

Neighborhood is in a festive mood again. Our neighbor's daughter is getting married on Sunday. Illuminations and feasting as usual. I remember the day she was brought home as a baby. I remember the days she learnt to speak. Their car, like most Indian cars in those days, had an obnoxious warning voice that shrieked for attention (with a please thrown in) whenever the car was backing up. In her words, it was saying, "Athatha Pee, Dikar e baakina"I didn't recognize her when I saw her last August after a gap of 16 years. She is only 21 but her mother was super worried by some astrologer dropping the "now or very late" standard scare tactic. 

It is raining heavily this evening. The TV volume level required to make the program audible can be used as a good measure of the rain. Usually our TV volume is set to 5. Today's rain was an 8. It had rained heavily the day before the day before my sister's wedding as well.

If you haven't tried a hot, lime Sulaimani tea after spicy chicken biriyani dinner while enjoying the rain on an electricity-less late evening, you are missing out on a singular pleasure in the magnificent time-space fabric of life in this universe.

Enthero Mahanubhavalu (BH:D278)

May 10, 2012

Suraj Venjaramoodu is a Malayalam movie comedian who has made a career out of his inveterate and pronounced use of the Thiruvananthapuram dialect. In a totally avoidable movie called “Happy Husbands” he jokes that Thyagaraja Swami, one of the holy trinity of Carnatic Classical music, has specifically composed a hymn for people of Thiruvananthapuram. He goes on to sing the famous “Enthero Mahanubhavalu..” The joke being that diehard Trivandrumites say “Enthero?” instead of the refined and proper Malayalam word “Entho?” meaning ‘What’

The shabby joke apart, it turns out that there is a real connection between Thiruvananthapuram and that composition. Swati Thirunal, the great classical music maestro and king of Travancore, had a great desire to meet Thyagaraja Swami. He sent Shadkala Govindamarar and Vadivelu, two gems from his court, as envoys to the grand master of music. They set off to the then Madras Presidency from Thiruvanathapuram.

Shadkala Govindamarar was a living legend. He obtained the title of ‘Shadkala’ for his ability to sing the same hymn in different ‘kala’ or meter. He is also credited with the invention of the seven-string ‘Thamburu’ which till then had only four. Vadivelu was one of the dance masters in Swati Thirunal’s court.
When they met Thyagaraja Swami, Shadkala Govindamarar sang in his own style Jayadeva’s “Chandanacharchitha Neela” in praise of Krishna. The folks present were apparently mesmerized. Thyagaraja Swami was so deeply moved by the genius of Shadkala Govindamarar that he immediately sang “Endhero Mahanubhavalu” in appreciation.

Wikipedia suggests that this song had been an earlier composition of Swami, but I would rely more on history Dr. Shreedhara Menon who writes that Thyagaraja composed the song in praise of Shadkala Govindamarar. If so, the song indeed has a deep Thiruvananthapuram connection.

Dr. Shreedhara Menon wonderful book has been keeping me company during morning walks. The Swati Thirunal chapter is an eye opener on the stupendous achievements of that king who died at a rather young age of 33. He was a master of 18 languages. The University of Kerala was ultimately born out of Raja’s Free School that he created and maintained. It was the first Indian initiative towards English education. Swati Thirunal set up the observatory in Thiruvananthapuram and the archives of ancient records. It is from his private menagerie that the Thiruvananthapuram zoo was created.

Swati Thirunal’s achievements in Carnatic music cannot be praised enough. But I guess it is to be expected from a baby who was greeted into this world by the magnificent lullaby “Omanathinkal kidavo” composed specifically for him by Irayimman Thampi. And then there is the refinement of Mohiniyattam that the king is credited with. I had mentioned his design of the ‘tight blouse’ and rest of the costume for the dance in an earlier note.


The Plot (BH: D277)

May 9, 2012

The innumerable Malayalees who work abroad but nurse a longing to return home for retirement have bought small plots of land in and around the city. Their home is to construct a home that matches their abroad-derived social standing and heaviness of their purse. This note is my two cents about the five, ten and twenty cents of land plots the hardworking men and women overseas have invested in.

Thiruvananthapuram city hasn't had garbage cleared for nearly half a year now. The situation is same in other bigger cities in the world. The problem has been overdiscussed and political abused by now. It has been transformed into a permanent political platform. The ruling parties at the corporation which haven't solved the problem might lose the next election. The opposition party that will promise that it will solve the problem might come to power. But then solving the problem is not in the interest of the political parties.

Garbage must be left uncleared so that the issue can burn like the ubiquitous piles of garbage all around for the years to come. This has been made easy by the fact that since Malayalees are Indians to the core, we have become "used to" the problem. It has been ingested so to speak. It has become part of our "way of life" already. We are very quick about compromises, you know! The apparently "unsolvable" problems are the greatest nourishment of the political system. So the filth is here to stay.

There are a few last standing colonies, like ours, which have managed to put pressure on the local counselors to open small-scale landfills. But it is a temporary solution which threatens to disappear with every sunrise. The placement of the garbage can daily morning outside the homes is invariably accompanied by a prayer. This is the case of a microscopic minority. For the whopping majority, especially those who have managed to build homes in small plots and aggressively concreted over whatever piece of soil was, a new tradition has come to force.

It is the act of quickly throwing away garbage from a moving vehicle and then speeding away. Such dumping can happen in any street after 11pm at nights. But most blatant violation is committed on those empty, gated plots that Malayalees abroad have bought and left unattended. In the roughly couple of square kilometers of area that I walk around during the day, there are at least a dozen plots bearing the brunt. They have become virtual landfills.

As I had written in an earlier note, a garbage mafia now operates in the city. They collect garbage from shops, restaurants and hotels for a hefty fee every night. Then they dump it conveniently somewhere in the suburbs. Once again, the slightly bigger vacant plots of land just outside the city have become the favorite destination.

With each day, the pile grows. In a matter of months, the expense to clear out the filth from even a tiny plot to begin any kind of construction there would be scary. Besides, where can it be redumped? Once it has been found in your land, its your garbage. The corporation officials with the rather itchy palms will be quick to slap sanctions on anyone attempting to redistribute the waste.

I wonder how practical and effective it would be to appoint watchmen to prevent the late night dumping. This new menace should soon start reflecting on real estate prices. Increased small scale construction activity all around meant simply to avoid the inviting look of a "vacant" plot is possible. Of course, it will happen under stringent new guidelines for having garbage disposal facilities included. Then again, it will be as stringent as stringent gets in this land.

Under a single king, as we know now, this was the home of the richest temple in the world. With everyone being a king, democratically, with the criminally irresponsible put in charge of administration, it has become the dirtiest and stinkiest!

Hartal Diet (BH: D 276)

May 8, 2012

Hartal i.e. forced closure of all businesses is the easiest and most irresponsible weapon in the political armory of those who practice that professional in the state. Any political emotion is expressed via downed shutters of shops. It was no surprise that a state-wide 'hartal' was the subtitle of the newspaper headlines screaming the gruesome murder of a local political leader in northern Kerala on Saturday morning.

Coincidentally, it happened to be the day I had chosen to break free of my hospitalization induced "homely" diet of four months. Soon after noon, we went to towards Pettah, hoping against hope that 'Ammachi hotel', next to the railway station, renowned for its fish curry, might have escaped the hartal assault. Hard luck.

Next destination was Ajwa, the biriyani place. It had been a take-out orientated place located near home. Two weeks ago, they made a paradigm shift into 'dine in' business and moved to a location near Panavila. The interior design was certainly done by some school kids enjoying their summer vacation. 

Amateur paint job coated the pillars. Five air conditioning units arranged in a row on a wall blasts into the rectangular dining area. As if to make up for the attempted Islamic touch in the reception area's decor, an abundance of red and saffron inside. Pray why have saffron balloons hanging from the ceiling?!The place makes one nostalgic about the cheapest eateries in suburban Mumbai.

But the quality of the food more than makes up for the shoddy interior. Aromatic 'dum' biriyani made a health conscious use of ghee and oil. And biriyani is all there is in the menu, lunch and dinner. Chicken variety comes for a modest Rs. 110 while fish has an avoidable Rs. 190 price tag. 

Just as we were anticipating a lethargic afternoon estimated from the massive serving, splendid lime tea came to the rescue. A short glass of clear golden tea with mint is an absolute delight at the end of the indulgence.

Needless to say the biriyani kept me filled till 8pm. Dinner at 'Oriental Spice' restaurant which operates on the floor above 'All Spice' restaurant which operates on the floor above 'Supreme Bakers'. As the name suggests they specialize in Chinese and Thai. 

The interior is cozy and classy. But that hasn't managed to shave off from the quality as usually happens in the food business. Hakka noodles and American chop suey were rightly spiced. Weight watchers can skip the dessert and count the walk over to Duetto, the ice cream place, next door as valid exercise and grab an icy delight.

The packed restaurants and waiting areas indicated that the kitchens of the city's homes had also declared a hartal.


Televisioning (BH:D275)

May 7, 2012

Aamir Khan, the popular Bollywood actor has taken on the task of becoming India's Oprah Winfrey. Since this is India and he is from Bollywood, a lot more melodrama is to be expected. And it was delivered. Much eye wiping and tear swiping in the studio audience. He began with a 'perfume ad' type montage on the beach and treated the studio audience with his own version of Shah Rukh's famous "Maa..." speech on motherhood from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

The interviews in the first episode on female feticide, rampant among the affluent educated sections in the country, were hard hitting. Mr. Khan has promised to send a letter to the Rajasthan government requesting some follow up in the sting operation related cases with clear evidence against 140 doctors in that state.

As any Indian who has dealt with our government knows, letters are more potent than anything Hogwart teaches. Our otherwise lethargic and irresponsible ministers and 'babus' tremble at the very sight of the postman! Independent India's history is nothing but the instantaneous, far reaching changes that letters have brought about. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture that those who retired from government positions cannot sleep unless they dispatch 'letters to the editor' of at least two dailies daily.

Needless to say, the choir to which he is preaching has gone gaga about the effort on the social network. Slactivism via the television screen doesn't tamper with the complexion. This commitment to fairness (not the justice kind, you silly!) was quite the damper in Anna Hazare's operations. The old man wanted patriots to show up in open grounds and street. Aamir Khan assures me that sitting on the couch and texting would do. Thank You, Sir!

The man had hit upon the incredible combination of cricket, patriotism and cinema with his Oscar-nominated "Lagaan". Only Poonam Pandey has managed to take that 'mind-blasting' combo one step further by combining nudity with cricket and patriotism. She reportedly makes half a crore a month. Now Aamir Khan has unleashed the twin headed 'patriotic, socially responsible talk show' beast on the Indian audience. We love the mauling. Our only hope is that soon Poonam will top it...perhaps, without the top!

On the personal side, I have started having nightmares about my possible static appearance on TV. My cousin is on his way to qualifying for the local version of "Who wants to be a millionaire." I am supposed to be his 'life line.' Couple of days ago, couple of passport size photos were made available to the channel to be displayed just in case my services are enlisted. This has been the most unexpected fallout of my relativo-phobic and bibliophilic behavior.

The local version of the show is an utter insult to all the international versions that incredible show has had so far. The absolutely wonderful Regis Philbin will resort to harakiri if he were to see the antics Suresh Gopi and gang resorts to here. But the worse the quality, the more the popularity. That is the conveniently omitted subtitle of the 'India Shining' mantra. So it will be the perfect venue to showcase my ignorance in front of the population. Family honor will be ruined. Mustaches will need to be shaved