Maid in India

Having a maid in India is considered commonplace. It is one of the few luxuries that Indians living abroad often have to miss out on. Of course, some of us NRI junta do opt for household helpers, paying them by the hour, but there is no denying that we miss the all-rounder bai who we were so used to back home in India. However, like everything else is modern India, the maid culture too has undergone sea change. With every visit to my hometown in India, I am more and more convinced that the bai is comparable to a shaadi ka ladoo –  jo khaye who bhi pachtaye aur joh na khaye who bhi pachtaye. This essentially means: damned if you do (in this case hiring a bai) and damned if you don’t. Cheesy as it sounds, it’s true.

There was a time when maids in India were extensions of the family. They stuck to serving one household for years and were more than happy with their salary and everyday meals. Back then we used to call them ayahs or aimas and there was no embarrassment surrounding the terminology. In fact the meaning of ayah is “a nursemaid who looks after children”. What can be so bad about that? But today we refrain from using such terms and have instead moved to more politically correct ones such as “helper” or “domestic help”. Sadly, the change in terminology has brought about a concurrent change in attitude amongst the bai log. Here is a quick look at what has changed over the years.

One is enough versus No one can serve just one

In the days of yore maids often served one household; at best two. I remember our ayah who used to click the gate open at 6:00 am and left only at 5:00 pm. It doesn’t mean that she was slogging all through the day. Rather, she went about the household chores at a leisurely pace; chit chatted (with us the kids, with mom, with the neighbor’s maid, with the dhobi and basically all and sundry) in between and took tea-breaks as well a lunch break. Compare that with today’s maid who rushes into the house as if there were a hurricane at her heels and rushes out like she has a train to catch. The ‘stick to one house’ mantra has changed into ‘visit as many households as you can’. Before you can even realize it, she has one leg out of the door. I understand that maids are not insular from the woes of inflation, but that doesn’t call for flitting from house to house and hurried name sake cleaning.

No chore is unwelcome versus only few chores are welcome

I remember ayah used to faithfully wash the aangan every morning and draw beautiful kolam designs with rice flour not because it was part of her household duties but because she wanted to. When mum used to occasionally run out of an ingredient or vegetable, ayah would readily agree to walk up to the store and get it for her. When grandma had aching muscles, ayah never cringed from massaging her legs. The plea for extra help when guests were arriving or when festivals were round the corner was never turned down. Try asking the modern day avatar of a maid if she can throw in a helping hand occasionally and you will be met with a taut reply which more often than not is a flat refusal or a vague non-committal response peppered with muttering and accompanied with a change of facial expression. It would make you wonder why you had to belittle yourself by asking in the first place.

Steadfast loyalty versus highly volatile loyalty

Twenty years back, maids were loyal to their employers and hardly would you come across a maid switching loyalties for the greed of a few extra bucks. Our maid found comfort in knowing that we would tide her through moments of difficulty. In fact, ayah used to seek financial advice from my mom. Mom even helped her open a savings bank account so she could safeguard her hard-earned money from her drunkard son and greedy son-in-law. The call from other houses in the neighborhood was usually turned down and what’s more, we were even informed about the attempts made to poach our maid. Note that by letting out these secrets, the intention of our maid was not to suggest that she was in demand or that we should consider raising her salary. But today, maids find the lure of a hundred bucks too irresistible an offer to pass up. There is no telling when a maid will up and leave today. Loyalty is short-lived to merely a few days. Some leave within a few days of joining while some cleverly wait until pay-day. Once the monthly salary is in hand, the other hand goes up to wave goodbye. No question of helping find a replacement, no apologies, no regret for the inconvenience caused; nothing. The equation is simple. If you are willing to match the offer, she may consider sticking around. No guarantee period though. It’s almost like attending an auction where the highest bidder wins the maid for the month, only to be rebutted by a repeat auction in the subsequent month. You can be sure of the disloyalty quotient going up exactly when you have guests arriving or a family function or sick kids or ailing grandparents. It’s understandable that everyone aspires for a higher salary but sometimes maids don’t realize that they are being penny wise, pound foolish.

Negotiable salaries versus fixed rate pay

As an employer, it is natural for you to have the upper hand while deciding things such benefits (free meals, days off, etc.) and compensation. That was the case circa 1980 or 1990 even. Tune in to 2011 and you will find a stark reversal. Maids do the interviewing and fixing of pay while employers flounder under scrutiny. Some commonly asked interview questions that employers need to brace themselves for are:

  • How many members in the family?
  • Do you a washing machine?
  • Have you bought a mop-stick?
  • How many rooms in the house?
  • How often do you mop?

It is common for the maid to undertake a tour of the house to assess how ridiculously high she can go while quoting her non-negotiable salary. Five hundred to six hundred rupees is the standard norm for each piece of work. Terms and conditions apply. Fine print: No miscellaneous chores will be entertained; timing is subject to change; paid leave will be taken without any notice; no obligation to answer the employer or keep the employer informed of any leave of absence; mood swings to be tolerated; frequent threats of leaving will be made; and last but not the least no questions to be asked. As an employer you can attempt to negotiate (be prepared to lose a little bit of self-respect in the process) or meekly comply or simply let go and wait for another one to come by.

Sigh. Such are the vagaries of India’s maid culture. We crib about them, we dedicate an entire post on our blogs to them; yet we cannot do without them. Let’s face it, household work is an unappealing and thankless job. Idiosyncrasies aside, the maid is our only saving grace. So put up with the eccentricities or clean up your own mess. Well, looks like most households in India would much rather put up with the bai than deal with her permanent absence.

Note: The situations described above are true and drawn from my real-life experiences. At the same time, I have the utmost respect for helpers and maids. I appreciate their efforts in making our lives easier and I’m sure they have their own stories to tell. I guess it depends on which side of the bridge you are standing on. The intention of this post is not to make any generalizations, put down a service sector, or hurt anyone’s feelings. 

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Necessity is the mother of invention

As I was flicking through my repertoire of photographs that I had earmarked as “one-of-kind”,  my gaze lingered a few moments longer on this particular snapshot. The frame captures a rural woman squatting on the parapet of a temple tank very ingeniously drawing water. For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the concept of a temple tank, I quote from wiki “Temple tanks are wells or reservoirs built as part of the temple complex in Indian temples. Bathing in the sacred waters of these tanks is thought to cure disease and maladies.” I was always led to believe that the main purpose of these tanks were to carry out the ritualistic tasks of “cleansing”. However, I’m glad to note that the life giving water that is stored in these reservoirs actually serve a higher purpose than merely taking a dip to “wash away” sins and maladies. The picture was taken in January 2009 while I was visiting a small non-descript rural town in Western India. I titled it ‘Necessity is the mother of Invention’ for more reasons than one. Read on.

Say what you want about “Indian shining” and the rapid ascendancy of the sub-continent, but unfortunately the country still grapples with a water scarcity crisis. A crisis that every Indian has lived with at some point in his life. Unfortunately, the problem still hangs around and is more acute in rural India than the bustling metros.  I tagged this picture as ‘one-of-a-kind’ as it triggered off my memories about how we used to tackle the problem of water shortage. It all boils down to how far one would go for that much coveted bucketful.

It begins with lining up plastic buckets, cylindrical drums, and steel vessels under every tap of the house where water is expected to spurt or trickle, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Then you resort to drilling a bore well in your premises. When that doesn’t work, you start buying water every alternate day by the truckload. You also drop everything your doing as soon as you hear the rumble of the water lorry in your lane and scoot up and down with bucketfuls of water in each hand trying to get as much as you can. Finally, in times of desperation you start clutching at straws, abandon all apprehensions and do what we did. Smuggle. There, I said it. Yes smuggle…water.

It was a harsh summer. The city was called Madras then. We used to live in a house in  Abhiramapuram.  Our neighbor who also happened to be our tightfisted landlady had a well in her backyard. There was a gate in the common wall between her house and ours. It was a warm sultry night. At around 11 pm when the lights went out in the neighborhood, we (Mum, Aunt, sis and me) tip toed out of the back door of our house and silently made our way to Mrs. Sampath’s well next door. I used to playfully draw water from the well and help the maids with their washing during the day. But this time it was serious. I was shushed and told to remain as quiet as a mouse. I obeyed and watched as Mum, Aunt and sis tried to noiselessly lower the brass kodam into the inner depths of the receding water levels of the well and smuggle those precious bucketfuls of water. My heart was beating furiously and we were gripped with the fear of being caught. But this was something we simply had to do. Luckily for us, either Mrs. Sampath was so sound asleep that night that she didn’t hear us or she just believed that she was imagining noises in her sleep. Which one it was I would never know.

In retrospect, I find the whole water maaroing episode quite funny but the reason I recounted it is to underscore the problem, which still exists. Had Mrs. Sampath been kind enough to let us borrow some water from her well when we pleaded with her, that eventful night might never have happened. Better still, if we had better water management solutions in place, I probably wouldn’t be recounting this to you. But I guess when all else fails, necessity becomes the mother of invention.

When the well is dry, they know the worth of water – Benjamin Franklin

From bentos to tiffin boxes – reminiscing the lunch box culture

The other day as I was channel surfing, I stumbled upon a very interesting TV program that was centered on the bento culture in Japan. Apparently, bento is the Japanese term for a homemade meal packed in a lunch-box. According to Wikipedia, “bento is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced boxes to hand crafted lacquer ware. Although bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time and energy for their spouse, child, or themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box.”

The program revealed how Japanese housewives or even office-going women wake up early and carefully prepare the well-crafted and visually appealing bentos for the entire family. This youtube video will give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about. I was quite intrigued by the concept as I always held the notion that the lunch-box culture was peculiar only to India. The Indian tiffin box culture is akin to the Japanese bentos. Indian homemakers and working women still wake up earlier than the rest of the family just so that they can prepare the tiffin boxes for their children, husbands and themselves. I have fond memories of my mum’s tiffin box snacks and lunches that she used to faithfully pack for me every single day for 25 odd years.

I still have a photograph where I am all ready to go to kindergarten and I’m striking a pose with my orange plastic lunch basket that held my tiffin box and water bottle. I also vividly remember my first few tiffin boxes which were made of aluminum. I had a flat peacock blue colored aluminum tiffin box, with two compartments inside to separate the food items. It slowly progressed to an oval steel “dabba” which held my tuck. The steel dabba soon gave way to a plastic snack box shaped as “Hello Kitty” with a matching plastic spoon and fork. As I grew older, the Hello Kitty box gave way to more ordinary looking plastic boxes of various shapes, sizes and colors. Finally, when Tupperware invaded Indian homes, my lunch box was the round flat Tupperware box. I have however never carried the traditional tiffin box which has stacked containers with a carry handle and a unique locking system with a spoon (wish I had a picture of this!).

It is only now that I realize the value of those lunch box meals and the labor that went behind packing them every single day. In retrospect, those homemade lunches were a reminder of home in an otherwise busy day at school, college or work. I actually used to look forward to opening the box to find one of mom’s treats inside. I remember the extra effort that mom used to put into packing the meals so that they were convenient to eat. The theplas had a generous layer of butter and were neatly rolled and placed lengthwise in my box. The oothapams were smeared with the mollagai podi and were cut into quarters to facilitate eating. Idllys were similarly dipped in mollagai podi so that I didn’t have to get my fingers messy. The soft chapattis that were rolled with curried vegetables were delicious despite being cold. The sandwiches were cut to bite size pieces and arranged neatly with no gaps in the box. Aloo parathas with tomamto sauce, masala puris with mum’s sweet mango pickle, pooris and potato sag…yum scrum. I also remember that when I was younger, mum used to cut my sandwiches in various shapes – I used to love the round shape the most. Lemon rice, coconut rice and tamarind rice were always accompanied with applams that were packed separately in a plastic bag to retain their crispness. My lunch box was always accompanied by a neatly folded cotton napkin and a steel spoon. During the summer season mum used to tuck in a plastic glass of buttermilk that was seasoned with salt, garlic, coriander, ginger, and cumin. Despite grumbling about how bulky my lunch bag used to get I can’t deny how much I enjoyed gulping the buttermilk during those sweltering afternoons. It gave the meal a sense of completeness and cooled my system.

The advantage of the tiffin box culture that is widely prevalent in India is that you get to sample various Indian cuisines from the lunch boxes of friends and colleagues. So while my friends were busy polishing off my theplas, I was busy licking tangy onion-tomato chutney off my fingers and gobbling mini oothapams from my tam-brahm friends’ tiffin box. The well-mashed thaiyr saadam with a piece of spicy mango avakaai tasted the best from tiffin boxes that came from south Indian households.

While one would expect the lunch box culture to fade away with modern day India, it is heartening to know that the tiffin box culture still exists. It is a tradition and a mind set that is hard to break. It is after all our passion for home cooked food that created the ingenious 125 year old dabbawallah system as exemplified by this youtube video.

The bentos of Japan and the tiffin boxes of India are not just homemade lunches packed in a box; rather, they are a symbol of tradition.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. – Orson Welles

Knock knock who’s there?

Unlike this part of the world where I live, when in India you simply cannot have a day without having your doorbell ringing periodically with the familiar stream of helpers to help you get through your everyday chores.

It’s between 5:00 am and 6:00 am in the morning. You’re still stirring in your sleep, while the uncle and aunties are brusquely taking their morning walk. The dew still hasn’t evaporated and the day is yet to begin. Within minutes there is a knock on your door or worse still a single ding dong to break that silence. It’s probably the watchman or “doodhwallah” to drop of your sticky, drippy packets of milk. Of course many of us have gotten smart and leave a basket outside our doors so that the milk can be dropped off without any disturbance.

At around 6:30 am the “newspaperwallah” swiftly flings ‘The Hindu’ at your doorstep and scampers away to other households awaiting the paper with their morning cup of tea or coffee.

Then there is the watchman’s wife (please note that the watchman and his wife are all rounders) who trundles in with three to four hibiscus flowers in colors of red, white or yellow freshly plucked from the compound tree or surreptitiously picked from a neighbor’s tree for your morning pooja.

Somewhere between 7:00 am and 9:00 am while you’re in a frenzy trying to pack off husband and kids, the maid strides into the house. This is maid no 1 who is breezy and extremely focused on finishing the work in the least amount of time with the least amount of effort. She is meant exclusively for washing the clothes, scrubbing the vessels, sweeping and mopping. All done in a jiffy and all done after she has sipped her hot tea.

As she makes her exit, maid no 2 makes her entrance. Now she is only for the top work. Dusting, chopping vegetables, making the second round of tea, folding the clothes, keeping away the vessels and generally hanging around to execute any odds and ends. Sometimes you wonder why you’ve hired her and sometimes you thank God for her looming presence.

At around 8: 00 am the watchman is again at the door demanding the keys of your vehicle, which stands coated with a layer of dust, so that it can be washed and wiped squeaky clean.

Come 10:00 am and the “istriwalla” or ‘ironing man” is tapping his foot with one arm propped on the wall for support, looking around the living room and making small talk with the maid. He counts aloud as he drops your crumpled, wrinkled clothes in a pile. He then bundles them up and hoisting it over his shoulders yells out the number and trudges out.

At around 10:30 am the gardener makes his appearance. Yet another round of tea to be made and served in a steel tumbler( seems like tea is the fuel to get everyone started on their work). He folds his lungi and gets to work in the sweltering midday sun. He potters around for about two hours until noon and has managed to repot, add new soil, water, cut and prune and finally clear up the debris.

At around half past 12 the “sabziwallah” cries out “greens, onions, potatoes, tomatoes…”. Usually he rings your doorbell and tries to entice you with a “fresh” special vegetable. After a few minutes of haggling you walk away with your vegetables and he walks away with his few rupees.

You would think that you would atleast not have anymore visitors after this but invariably there is some minor repair that needs to get done ever so often. So from 1 pm until 5 pm you can have anyone from the plumber to electrician to computer serviceman to TV/Music system serviceman knocking at your door.

So you see, fortunately or unfortunately your aides stream in and out of your household all day long. But the scene abroad is quite a contrast. I long for the doorbell to ring. I reminisce about the barrage of servants, maids, cleaners, dhobis, and all the above mentioned “wallahs” and how domestic help of any kind is a luxury out here and not a part of everyday life.

So while I do cartloads of washing, drying, folding, ironing – cartloads of vessels – scrubbing the bathrooms and toilets – chopping veggies and making my own tea and meals – being extra careful about appliances lest I land myself in a problem, your doorbell is ringing.The “cablewallah” perhaps?

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

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

Those were the best days of our lives…

As we ride the roller coaster of life we pass through several phases and each of these phases has a birth, maturity and a death. But some of these phases get embedded in the far recesses of our mind and probably gets entrenched in our memory forever and ever…the “guru” of all these phases are the good old college days which spell youthfulness, colour, boldness and a host of other adjectives I bet… a phase which perhaps signifies a turning point in our lives, most of the time without us even being aware of it…. a phase which connotes a host of relationships some which are for life some which are of convenience some of which are priceless some others which are neutral and still others which are just plain sour…the phase where your always doing something….I don’t really know why but for some reason a certain part of my brain constantly activates my brain cells which is incessantly flashing images of this life….and I guess always will….

Today as I sit here typing this I realize that when we are in this phase we most of the time are so caught up in living through it that we fail to realize what we are really feeling or experiencing at that moment in time. It’s only when we sit back and think do we realize how priceless and invaluable those golden moments are.

Who can ever forget the pranks, which range from harmless fun to serious dangerous and risky acts. Bunking the grouchiest professor’s class…. sitting in the canteen knowing that attendance is due in 5 minutes…smuggling corn puffs into class hiding it in whoever’s dress had a pocket or whoever’s palm could grasp it best without revealing the grub…. Popping mentos’ and other mint while taking down notes…daring to discuss answers and the number of questions that each one would attempt arriving on a consensus as to how much crap to write and what to write during a test (“whose marks would be counted for internal assessment” we were told as a threat) or worse still placing the note book under the desk and for those with a dash of boldness, on the desk and paraphrasing it onto the answer sheets (knowing that anyway our marks would be decided on the basis of signal sent to our profs grey matter as soon as the eye ball catches glimpse of the name on the corner) and of course on a more serious level spinning yarns and yarns (enough to choke one to death) on the spur of the moment about what we did on a month long internship, which from our side of it comprised of attending all the movies in town, meeting our friends, going shopping, chatting for long hours over the phone, basically just doing our thing…..or to use the lingo of today’s college goers, “jus chillin”….

Then ofcourse is the most important hang out…. the canteen!!!!!!!!!!!!…the hub of all activity…a place of many and varied sights and sounds…where the piping hot sambar rice accompanied by only one papad which is pounced upon by 6 hungry people….or the over fried potato cutlet(which always gains the sympathy vote) or the occasional dosa or idly or kotthu parotha becomes staple food….where coffee ranging from extra strong to normal to milky is the most happening beverage and the kuchi ice that turns your tongue into a colour palette either royal purple or the tangy orange or sunshine yellow which you get tempted into having the moment you spot someone else’s tongue licking it with relish….oh yes the canteen….the “adda” you turn to when your hungry (obviously) or bored or depressed….its a multi purpose place which you can always turn to…

The most testing period of college life….exams!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! groan n moan n whine …then forget all differences all personal grudges and come up with team spirit and soon theres the protest march to the department where we start by negotiating….” But we have so much to do….and on top of that you want us to write a test”….then move on to emotional blackmail,” you know the situation and how we are over burdened with stuff…we just can’t cope with the load….but if you still want us to take the test we will but it won’t be our bestest effort…” and if that doesn’t work then you just turn into a beggar and beg your way to cancellation “ pleeeeeeese mam….mam pleeeeese……”as you can see placing the mam either behind or in front of the catch word “pleeeeeese”…the trick is to drag it and tilt your face to a side, put on a puppy dog “feel sorry for me” face and chorus it out in voices ranging in degrees of desperation…. and then sensing that it isn’t gonna work you start grasping at the last straw and in a strategic move strike a deal“ ok we will take the test but not now…give us some time so we can prepare and put in our best and come out with flying colours…it’s a promise”….out of a fifty times you get away with it about 45 times proving that no mountain is unshakable and that where there is a will there is a way….but whether now or later when the test day arrives cramming is done either on the eve or in most cases on that morning where some students turn into profs trying to feed the ones with the gift of the gab with some ground stuff….but ultimately everyone gets the hang of it and gases away…that’s the rule of the thumb which you ultimately master at the end of college…the ones who studied try to squeeze in a little of the stuff they studied while gasing and the others who haven’t just let themselves go without any inhibitions whatsoever bringing to light their creativity and imagination…as one of my friend’s put it “ if your lucky you get away with your gassing and when it stinks real bad that’s when your in trouble” …but one thing is for sure never take the risk of not asking for a postponement or cancellation…you never know when the stars are on your side…

And of course there are the relationships that you build. Initially you are just wondering what each one is like and wondering whether “your type” exists there or not. You start off as acquaintances and then as time goes by the bond either strengthens or weakens. But sooner or later each one finds his match and at times several matches come together as a groups. It goes without saying that there is always the brewing of inter group rivalry and at times even intra group rivalry. But believe me some of the relationships can be the strongest, unshakable and the most wonderful. You live through things together. The good times are numerous and the bad times aren’t the ones you spent alone either. These relationships add more meaning and value to your life and your college buddy/buddies becomes your life buddy/buddies.

It is said that it takes all kinds to make this world. Well just stand back and look at your batch. It couldn’t have been truer. It really does take all kinds. There are two characters who will always be there in any class. The class clown and the class prim n proper. It’s always a bifurcation into, the quieter obedient ones on the one hand and the noisier, talkative distracted (and distractive) ones. And subsumed within each of these there are several sub categories.

Well left to me I can write a whole book on these days but for a start I think I should keep it short and let you live your own memories. They may not be exactly like the ones I have just unfolded but I’m sure that they bear some similarity. The base is the same, probably the details are different. It’s funny isn’t it that before you even realize the kind of impact these days would have on your life the days are over. And today all your left with is memories, a box of little souvenirs, a couple of snaps perhaps (the ones where you and your pals are singing during culturals, another to freeze the day you guys went wild and pierced your noses and ears or maybe did something that was equally wild, the customary class photograph, the farewell snap, the time one of your pals took the plunge and tied the knot, the b’day parties and so on….)

You move on and soon the roller coaster begins again. New experiences, new people, new friends, a new phase. But nothing quite like those good ol’ days. So one day if and when you realize this what would you do? Well just do as I did…relive all the good times and perhaps write about it. Tell your kids and spouse about it, dig up the telephone number of the class clown n just surprise him/her, pay a visit to your college and see if things are the same, the professors…the culture…the buildings…the canteen…the library…take a trip down memory lane…

“You have four years to be irresponsible here. Relax. Work is for people with jobs. You’ll never remember class time, but you’ll remember time you wasted hanging out with your friends. So, stay out late. Go out on a Tuesday with your friends when you have a paper due Wednesday. Spend money you don’t have. Drink ’til sunrise. The work never ends, but college does…””- Tom Petty (American Guitarist & Singer)

 

 

Ride in my auto

We have all had this experience sometime or the other…if you are an Indian there is no way you can escape it…whether in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin…whether you are a man woman child…young middle aged or old…it’s the ubiquitous, harrowing, one of a kind auto ride experience!

If you think that the auto-wallahs aka as auto-karans, (in the place where I come from) are anything like what super star Rajnikant propagated in his raging super duper hit song in Baasha, well let me tell you, you can think again! Endless days of dealing and coping with this race have left me sage on this topic.

So would you like to give your memory a bit of a wake up call?

On a rainy morning in Chennai, standing on the street with an umbrella, trying to avoid getting my salwar wet and protecting my file, lunch bag and purse from those large drops, desperately trying to flag a “rick” which seemed to run on Murphy ’s Law – nowhere to be seen just when you need them. After several minutes, one turns up in sight.

Me: “How much to the destination?”

Vasool Raja (my pet name for the auto drivers): “120 Rs!” (Replied with utmost confidence and I must say guts)

Me: “60 Rs is what I usually dish out”

Vasool Raja: a few words of Tamil slang (try and hold on to your self respect if you can) and then “it’s raining. I have to reach you there in the rain.”

Me thinking to myself: “So isn’t that your job. Come rain or sunshine aren’t you supposed to drive people to their destinations at the already over charged meterless rate?”

Vasool Raja: “Cannot reduce.”

Me: “Nor can I. You can carry on.”

This scene plays itself out for another four to five ricks and finally seeing to my utmost dismay that I have no choice, I climb into these phat phatis and he races through the waterways with scant regard for anyone or anything except his 120 Rs.

The rain mind you is just one scenario. This scene plays itself out for various other scenarios as well.

How about, its 9 at night, your dog tired, hungry, head reeling and just wanting to get back to good old home, but wait its 9 at night – how can you pay normal overpriced charge. Its 9!

“Night time ma”. Oh yes your Sire I almost forgot, its night time. Thaaaaats right- that’s the last I see of you my dear Rs 120.

Or how about this – “Evalo traffic irikkuthu ma. Konja pothu kudunga”. Well of course! How can I be so naïve? I need to pay double the fare because the Chennai Metropolitan Council or whatever you call it, is too busy in their corruption deals to pay attention to the plight of roads and the ensuing traffic congestion. One even went to the extent to say, “Oh that road has too many potholes, so you need to pay me extra.” Oh yes absolutely. Adieu dear Rs 120.

Moral of the story? – Raining, potholed road, traffic, 9pm onwards it’s always double of the already doubled fare.

Moving onto other things – Have you ever noticed the interiors of the auto you are traveling in? No? Yes? Well having traveled in them a good many a time, I have some notes to share. Let’s begin our tour with the meter. That antique rusty box like structure perched on the corner, is both ironic and amusing at the same time. I wonder when it last worked- the 80’s??…your guess is as good as mine.

And what about the film star posters inside on either sides. Boarded with nails on the left, Rajni greets you and Vijay with folded arms, looking at you in the eye, sporting a smile on the right. Hello guys!

The characteristic blow horn is done away with and instead the screechy noise has found its way in. And if you got up on the wrong side of the bed you may find yourself being entertained by some radio music loud enough to make even a deaf person shut his ears. But if you lucky early in the morning, you just may have the fragrance of incense swirling into your nostrils trying to calm your senses as the F1 race begins.  

Screeching burning tyres, a million jerky stops, countless bumps into the potholes (sometimes feel they go right into them without even making an attempt of avoidance just to derive sadistic pleasure) and several jostles as the vehicle and you and everything else along are thrown up from you seat as the engine revs over speed breakers. That’s the F1 wannabe at work.

Traffic lights are passé and the auto driver is the King of the Road. And lest I forget, distance from the front and the sides from another vehicle are always a hair’s breadth. Close enough to scrape and no more distance than that. That’s the rule of the game.

And if ever you get to know why an auto from an auto stand charges you a humongous price, please do enlighten this auto ridden soul.

I just realized that my verbiage on this pet peeve is endless, so I reckon I btter come to a grinding halt right here and spare you the details.

On a parting note – Men may come and men may go but the Auto goes on forever…

 

Chennai Nyaabagam

This isn’t going to be an organised post where thoughts follow in a chronological fashion…how can it be…when I’m talking about Chennai its always going to be disjointed rambling coz the thoughts flash at a speed that is way above my speed of typing (which is quite good I must say)…

I’m just gonna list a few aspects, places, people of chennai that come to recall from the top of my head and bear no importance in terms of being listed on the basis of priority…

1. Sun-Veyyail

The hot hot hot scorching Chennai heat which permeates every space…the beams of sunlight flooding the last bench of the 3rd Year sociology class @ Stella Maris College, the hundreds of lil shining stars dancing over the waters of a lil backwater body in some nook of besant nagar, the heat emanating from the hot sand on Marina beach at 3 in the afternoon, the beads of sweat that trickle down your nape and forehead as you walk on Nungambakkam High Road…You can’t escape the Sun ….

2. A R Rehman-Isai Gyanam

Whether is the beat of “Boyz” , the lilting notes of “Alaipayuthe”, the haunting tunes from ‘Bombay” this musical being and his muse rubs off on you…

3. Raasi, Sundari Silks-Pattu Podavai/Paavadai

Tucked in a lil corner of Mylapore close to the Kapaleeshwar koil lies Raasi & facing the busy Panagal Park Road stands strong and proud-Sundari Silks. Enter Sundari Silks and you are greeted with a traditional ‘vanakkam’ and escorted to shelves of colourful silks, cottons, chiffons, crepes. You cannot but resist the kancheepuram attractions-black and shocking pink, peacock blue and flaming orange, pristine white & dazzling gold woven yarns….

4. Idly/Dosai-Suvai

Whether its steaming idlys served in a stainless steel plate lined with banana leaf at roadside Karthick tiffen centre or Mysore Butter Masala Dosai royally laid on a silver thaali lined with the proverbial banana leaf at The Taj Southern spice with the tinkling of soft carnatic music in the background this is an all rounder-eaten @ B’fast, Lunch, Tiffen, Dinner -lip smacking meal which you cannot resist…

5. Mylapore-Nagaram

I still manage to catch a glimpse of an”Iyer” or “Iyengar” lady wrapped in the traditional nine yards , barefoot, loosely tied knot adorned with jasmine flowers that falls till her waist , the gold thaali around the neck, the glittering diamonds on the ear and nose, turmeric coloured feet and hands, silver toe rings, quickly walking towards a temple seeking the blessings of vishnu/shiva/amabal/vinayaka/murugan and/or the countless other deities or heading for the nearest nadar kadai wanting to buy arasi, manjal, molaga, vadaam and other s.indian condiments…

6. Ricks-Vasool Rajas

rigged meters, tamil slang, F1 wannabes, vasool Rajas in short-the autos and the auto drivers menace-you can’t beat these rogues when it comes to charging you extra for a ride, arguing in loud unchaste tamil peppered with abuses, racing around town like the tsunami is at their heels, breaking rules like as if Rules Were indeed made only to be broken….

7. Sathyam Cinema-Madras talkies

Satyam has almost become a household name in Chennai households where half of Chennai flocks its portico at 11:00 am, 3:00 pm, 6:00 pm & 10:00 pm every single day….sitting on the sofa or tautly upholstered seats munching popcorn n sipping coke ogling at maddy’s toothy smile or surya’s soulful eyes (forgive me I cannot discuss the finer details of jyotika or simran or another tamil belle for obvious reasons) well…who can forget “The Q is Dead”….

8. The Hindu-Samaacharam

I sit in Singapore but still insist on reading the Hindu…why if I were in Timbuktu I would still read the Hindu….Its the newspaper that most Chennaites have grown up with and is still the newspaper that Chennai wakes up to with a steaming tumbler of a coffee….The Hindu can never be passe …it can never die…its like a part of a Chennaite’s life now and more of a habit than anything else…

Chennai…a part of me now…more
of a habit than anything else….

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