Summer days driftin’ away…

Indian summers are invincible, inimitable and irreversible. The heralding of the summer season were the school summer holidays, mangoes and evidently the sun which shines in all its regal glory. Indian summers connote a host of significances. My most vivid memories are what ensue. Those two months of fun, frolic and being away from school, were looked forward to with trepid anticipation. The countdown would begin 20 days ahead and with each annual exam written and done with, a day was crossed out on the calendar and one more item was added to the “to do this summer list.” Oh yes “summer holidays” were those golden words and a golden period.

April and May were the two months when the whole city would be ablaze, the sun beating down so hard that the soil in my garden would form a pattern of cracks. That’s when I would gleefully pull out the hose pipe and spatter water on the hard cracked surface and watch the parched ground absorb the water in seconds, and then there would be this earthy rainy smell that would emanate from its pores. I would see maids splashing buckets of water on the porch to cool the cemented driveway and the stairs leading to the house. Withered plants, drooping with minimal life would get a lease of life when they were watered.

Summer afternoons were quiet, languid, and flaming. Staying indoors seemed like the best option and every attempt was made to keep the house cool. Curtains were drawn before noon to shut out the afternoon rays, yet one had a feeling of being perennially drenched. I have one vivid memory of lazily stretching on my bed, the fan whirring above me, while my beads of sweat evaporated and I lay there enjoying the cold “frooti” as I sipped the thick sweet mango extract from a small green square carton and I can still literally feel it trickling down my throat. Anything that could offset the heat was welcome – even a bowl of even sized cubes of melon with a sprinkling of sugar, long crunchy sticks of cucumber and chilled milkshakes. (I miss it all so much mom!) It was in the pinnacle of the afternoon, just when the eye lids were drooping, intoxicated with sleep, that the “kwality walls” ice cream seller would walk down the blistering tarred road, tinkling his bell and announcing his presence. It was at that precise stroke of three in the afternoon that I would hand him a 20 Rs note and walk away with a mango bar, raspberry bar and choco bar, for mum, sis and me respectively.

Another unmistakable summer association is mangoes. The King of fruits and they would make their way into my home by the dozen. Nestled in dry hay to retain its fruity aroma the most relished and priceless fruit would enter home ceremoniously and I looked forward to removing the lid of the cane basket, digging my fingers in the hay and removing those half ripe alphonso beauties and laying them out beneath my bed on a soft cloth to ripen. Soon my whole room smelt like a mango orchard and I used to take lil peeks under the bed to check if they were ripe enough to be sliced through. Mangoes were consumed before, with and after every meal. Long slices, cut pieces, aam ras, mango milkshake, vanilla ice cream and mangoes – I loved them all!

Summer was also the season for making pickles and vadams/vathals for the entire year and the entire family. I would be jolted from my slumber and I would scramble out of bed and troop into the kitchen to stir the gooey liquid simmering in a huge unimpressive aluminum cauldron. Mum would then pour it out in vessels and off we would scoot to the terrace to spoon them out on huge plastic sheets to dry in the dazzling sun. This affair lasted for three whole days and then the dried vathals/vadams would be peeled off and stored in huge steel dabbas all year round. This would be followed by the pickle making sessions. Sweet mango, Spicy mango, mixed vegetable, onion-garlic, tomato, green chili (mom had to make all these) would be made in turns and then stored in huge ceramic jars made especially for pickle storage.

Summer was also the time dad drove us on many a sultry night to “snowfield” (I haven’t been to this ice cream parlor in ages) and we would ponder upon ice cream names like “Summer Queen”, “Bugs Bunny”, “Flosberry Flop” and other such whimsical names.

Well I guess that’s enough of walking on sunshine and it’s at this precise moment that I recall Cliff Richards’s lyrics

Everybody has a summer holiday
Doing things they always wanted to.
So were going on a summer holiday
To make our dreams come true
For me and you.

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”- James Dent

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Nadir of the Nadar Shop

As I wheel my shopping cart down the long narrow aisles of my local supermarket, picking up tins and cans of food, neatly packaged packets of lentils and pulses, there is someone back home in some lil’ town in India briskly walking to the nadar shop – that non-descript, ubiquitous, local grocery store soon becoming a thing of the past. In the cycle of birth, maturity and death the “nadar kadai” precariously hangs in time between maturity and death, taking a giant stride towards the latter with each grand opening of the retail supermarket chains, starting with Nilgiris, Spencers, Food World, Vitan, Yeses and the most recent all consuming giant Reliance Fresh.

The nadars are a business community in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the grocery shops they set up was every mami’s answer to her household and sammiyal needs. The nadar shop was located at every street corner whose metal shutters was rolled up as the turmeric colored nimble fingers of the mamis and pattis deftly drew intricate kollam designs, at the break of dawn.Unlike the retail giants neither are there shiny waxed floors to vacuum nor are there rows of tube lights to be switched on. Instead the “uncle” briskly sweeps the cement floor with a broom and goes on to light his incense sticks before the Goddess of wealth and the elephant God of auspiciousness.

The shop is no bigger than an average room and has almost anything and everything one would need on an everyday basis, squeezed together on the minimalist shelves that run from the floor to the ceiling. It’s a demonstration of maximum utility with minimum space. Bars of lux and hamam soap; sunsilk and chik shampoo; surf powder and rin super shakti; parle g and milk bikis biscuits; cuticura and ponds talcum powder; gunny sacks of wheat, rice, lentils and pulses; glass jars of mysterious unknown toffees and candies – a chewy pineapple flavored toffee, colorful poppins, kadlai urundai, balli mithai and paalkhowa – all lined on the small counter to entice the customers, passers by and children of the colony.I remember walking to these “stores” (it was always the store suffix, like Selvam Stores, Thangavel Stores, Pandian Stores and so on…) on many a day, while my mum went about her grocery shopping. I used to tag along just so that I could tug at her sari pallu and ask her to buy me some crunchy groundnuts which the shopkeeper would smilingly hand to me after having poured 100 gms of the nuts in a conical newspaper. The lil treats of childhood. The “uncle” knew all the households and their maids, wives, children et al and even sold items on credit. An understood agreement between both parties based purely on good faith. In fact he was so obliging that in the event of an emergency, a mere phone call was enough to ensure that the shop assistant pedaled furiously to our doorstep with the wares. Home delivery for free! (How is that for a promotion?)

However the yester years have given way to the modern era. The small, dark, musty all-in-one store has given way to the 35,000 sq ft air conditioned well lit floors of aisles; the all familiar uncle with a natraj pencil propped behind his ear has given way to uniformed cashiers with mechanical robotic movements and plastic smiles; the lil scribble pad which served as a bill book has given way to computer generated bills. The nadar shop has given way to the super-market.

Animal Farm

Animal Farm – It’s not George Orwell’s novella that I’m referring to but in fact a significant and visible portion of the cityscape in India. Growing up in India renders one exposed to a variety of domestic animals which blend with everyday life. Allow me to shed some light on this subject as I recount my own experiences with many a cheeky monkey, scamp squirrels and Cheshire cats.

It was just a few months back that there was a huge crowd busy clicking as many snaps and filming as many videos they could on their hi tech mobile phones of someone or something right in the heart of the Singapore’s CBD- Raffles Place. Curious to see what the fuss was about I was amused to find out that the centre of attention was a big fat cow! Bemused by the spectacle I realized that most Singaporeans were seeing a cow outside the zoo for the first time. I walked on unfazed and chuckled thinking of what a common sight it is back home in India.

Cows of every color and stature can be found throughout the length and breadth of India. Major roads in cities, narrow alleys in towns and dusty paths in villages – the cow is omnipresent. And why not – it is after all the most sacred of all animals in India and can rightfully roam around in the middle of rush hour traffic which has eventually led to its sobriquet – mobile speed breaker. I used to find cows sitting under the shade of trees on the pavement, opening and closing their soft brown eyes, looking almost angelic, watching us humans make our way round them while they idly swatted flies with their swishing tails. In fact cows combing the streets of Chennai were so normal that mom used to always bag all the green stalks of leafy vegetables and wait at the gate to feed an ever hungry doe eyed, milky white or chocolate brown cow.

Another contender is the common house crow. Found in numbers these grey and black birds “caw caw” from the leafy branches of trees, from the parapet of terraces and balconies, from the cables running across electric poles, from the kitchen window sill, well I guess almost from anywhere and everywhere. I remember crows as sharp birds that will fly down to food you entice them with in not more than 10 seconds. I particularly recall placing bits of the first chapatti made by mom on the parapet of the terrace and running behind the door peeking to see if any of our ancestors would come. In just a few seconds they would swoop down and carefully turn their heads all around to look if anyone was watching. And five minutes later all that would be left of the chapatti were crumbs. Crows also come seeking water on many a hot sunny day and ruffle their wet feathers as they seek shelter under the rooftop on many a rainy day.

This is what Mark Twain had to say on the Indian Crow.
“I suppose he is the hardest lot that wears feathers. Yes, and the cheerfulest, and the best satisfied with himself. He never arrived at what he is by any careless process, or any sudden one; he is a work of art, and “art is long”; he is the product of immemorial ages, and deep calculation; one can’t make a bird like that in a day. He has been reincarnated more times than Shiva; and he has kept a sample of each incarnation, and fused it into his constitution….In his straddling wide forward step, and his springy sidewise series of hops, and his impudent air, and his cunning way of canting his head to one side upon occasion, he reminds one of the American blackbird. But the sharp resemblances stop there…but this Indian sham Quaker is just a rowdy, and is always noisy when awake–always chaffing, scolding, scoffing, laughing, ripping, and cursing, and carrying on about something or other…In India their number is beyond estimate, and their noise is in proportion. I suppose they cost the country more than the government does; yet that is not a light matter. Still, they pay; their company pays; it would sadden the land to take their cheerful voice out of it.”

Occasionally I was robbed of a blissful afternoon nap by two pigeons who were having a go at it on the hood of my air con unit just outside my window. It’s a loud, deep throated sound accompanied by the vigorous clapping of wings. They always appeared a lil meek and timid as they strutted about looking clueless and easily intimidated by the crows. Yet there is something homely about these birds and almost all households in India love to feed any pigeons visiting them.

Another frequent visitor was the swift, edgy, smart, clever, sharp toothed and bushy tailed squirrel. One look at me approaching and it would scamper away as fast as lightening. It usually came to nibble at the grains mom used to sun in the terrace. I have also had to help mom empty the attic and chase the squealing squirrel out with a broom. The damage to the mattress and pillows was irreversible and this agile, twinkle eyed creature was soon labeled as the house pest.

Its monkey business when the red faced cheeky, bold, long tailed, scratchy, impish monkey makes its presence felt. I remember having a face off with a huge thug of a monkey and its companion as they menacingly stared at me, perched on the branches of the custard apple tree in my garden. Shooing them with scary noises only served to make me appear foolish. The monkeys are so audacious that they soon started thieving from urban households and are looked upon with reproach rather than reverence to the Monkey God.

From time to time you would get lucky and you could see an elephant in all its majestic regal glory, striding down the street with its mahout and men, women and children would run out of their homes to be blessed by the Elephant God himself. I used to bow down partly in fear and partly in reverence but the trunk used to just gently touch my head and I was blessed!

Stray cats are not too common on Indian streets but I have had a green eyed feline look me in the eye and then run for shelter. If you would like to catch a sight of smelly, dirty pigs then a visit to the nearest garbage dump would do. Pigs usually poke their nose in the foul smelling garbage overflowing from the dustbins on the street. Hens aren’t too uncommon to find as well, and so is the case with scraggly goats. Stray dogs roam aplenty and chase each other down the alleys.

So if you are planning a trip to India, be ready with your hi tech cameras to capture domestic animal life – cows, buffaloes, dogs, cats, crows, pigeons, squirrels, monkeys, elephants, hens, goats, pigs et al.

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. ~Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, letter to President Franklin Pierce

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