Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Walking Away

When I look into the mirror, there is a stillness in my face, in my eyes. I feel like my house- silent and empty. It is as if sounds would echo inside me if I spoke loudly. I don't speak loudly. No one does. My father's was the voice that was often raised, and hated. It's gone now.

When he left, he took a few things with him. I cannot name them. I am not even sure what they are. But the void is felt. It is not strength that is carrying me through. It is my body. I eat and I sleep. My body demands both, insistently. Every other desire has faded into a grey background. But even in the silence, words have been forming, slowly collecting. I knew I would write this. I dreaded it, but I knew.

Biology is a bitch. It makes you love people you have no business loving. It makes you fight and struggle to save their lives. And when you fail, it strips you of joy. He was not an easy man to love, my father. In his eyes, my gender was inferior to his, and that always stood between us. I learnt to care very little for his world view, but I could never let my mother be a victim. I was her guardian, he was her owner. Our roles pitted us against each other and the battle was a constant one. Our fights were bitter; contempt and anger flying between us even as we struggled to find some peace. I wished him dead, because his stubbornness ruined our happiness, and his refusal to change ensured it would stay ruined as long as he lived. We were always one of those families that rarely laughed. The quietest one at picnics, the most well-behaved, the most boring. At home, each of us stayed in our rooms, determined to stay away, tired and saddened by the fact that we could not get along. We blamed him; he knew it. There were moments when he tried to be different. He always failed. He carried his hell with him, and in time, we learnt to distance ourselves from it as much as we could.

This past year, he stayed in his room more than ever. I, who once managed every aspect of his health down to the tablets he took, stayed away. His health had become a vague blot in my mind- I did not understand his fanciful skipping from one form of medicine to another. It was baffling and best left to him. From time to time, I'd hear my mother berate him for mismanaging his health, but his ego shut her up as effectively as it'd done their entire lives together. He filled his little boxes with pills and powders, and he lay on his bed, always a bit tired. His tongue was still as sharp as ever, his words to me as cruel. I left him lying there, in the comfort of his words, in the mercy of the cancer that we did not know was eating away at his liver.

I do not look back at him or at our relationship with regret. Every fight was an opportunity for him to look at us differently, to love us unconditionally, but he never took it. He was a tragic product of his past, a prisoner of his own memories and the skewered lessons they'd taught him. But then he died. Pitifully. And that is where I move past our past and grieve for my father.

There are moments of overwhelming un-acceptance, when the mind repeats over and over that he is gone but cannot believe it, because it is so colossally unfair. Because I've always been able to save my parents. I've always dropped everything, rushed to them and made sure that however their bodies protested, they pulled through and bounced back. This time, I was powerless, helpless, standing by frantically pressing his legs and back as he asked for death. People tell me he was lucky, that 10 days from start to finish is a short time to suffer. In another life, I would have agreed. But I stood by him day and night as his body betrayed him. I learnt how long a minute is. I learnt how much pain is enough to break a mind. That last day, he told me to flee, to save my life from the bomb that was going to explode. My heart kept freezing and burning as I stood next to the bed of this brilliant engineer, a man who almost single-handedly kept a petrochemical factory running, the man who taught me math, as his eyes widened crazily and he shouted at me to run away, again and again. I dreaded each time I was called in to him, each frantic warning to run away before the bomb exploded. And then the bomb did explode.

My sister was chasing a miracle, a drug that gave her hope enough to rush to Bangalore. My mother, exhausted, was asleep in a room on another floor. I stood at the door of the ICU, alone, the medicine bags slipping from my hand and crashing to the floor as I saw people rushing to him. A male nurse was on his bed, compressing his chest with a force that was frightening. People were running around him, desperately inserting tubes, blood on every surface. The machines were beeping, screaming alarms. When they all quietened down and the doctor walked out, I thought they'd managed to bring him back. They hadn't. All I could think was- the last thing he'd seen was me walking away from him, to get him more medicines. He'd lain on his side, his eyes popping, his gown askew, one hand clutching the frame of his bed, watching me walk away from him. And then the bomb burst. He knew it would. He'd told me to save myself. I couldn't.

For days afterward, the image of him watching me walk away haunted me. I could not close my eyes because it was burned into my brain. It took time, and a lot of grief to be able to move past it. Or rather, to attempt to do so.

Now, he is reduced to a photograph that sits in the hall, adorned with flowers. I struggle to accept that. But I cannot accept the dignity that was denied to him in death. Here was a man who never even left his own bedroom without combing his hair. I'd seen him naked, unaware of the fact, unable to do anything about it even if he'd wanted to. I think perhaps that is the hardest part of all this- that death stripped him of everything before it took him. It worked slowly, starting with his hope, ending with his sanity. And now he is gone. A life is gone. Perhaps he has moved on to another life, another bout of learning. The slate wiped clean, ready for a fresh start. If so, then he is the lucky one, and I wish him well there. For us, for me, life has to go on.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


This is a sensitive topic, so scroll away if you're uncomfortable with 'women's' stuff. If not, take a print out and put it up in your work place...

Mr.Muruganantham's wife left him when she could no longer stomach the fact that he had a goat's bladder attached to his waist as he tested out a new low cost sanitary napkin he'd created. She eventually went back to him, after he went on to revolutionize clean and low cost production of napkins, making it available to rural Indian regions that had been relying on unhygienic practices such as rags and hay for centuries. He has been featured in numerous TED talks and his name is familiar to all those who applaud such passionate rebels with a cause.

But the core issue itself is something that I find still largely ignored. The feminist movement of the 1900's was so caught up in its fight for equality, we seem to have de-emphasized our differences. Equal, but different. That should have made it on to more posters.

First of all, I think a large section of the population require education on some basic biological facts. Not all women are the same, just as not all men are the same. As the numerous ads for 'enhancement' and 'elongation' blatantly scream, each person has a unique sexual physiology as well. This includes women.

What this means, to spell it out clearly, is that each woman has a completely unique experience when it comes to her menstrual cycle. Some, like in those infuriating ads, cycle and jump off cliffs with a gleaming smile, barely aware of what their body is doing. Many and I mean it- many, suffer varying levels of pain. Debilitating, in some cases. At the least, it is uncomfortable. There is also an understandably heightened desire and need for more hygienic facilities.

In a world which ignores this issue and where women have had to 'man up' to be equal, this pain, these needs get shoved under the rug. Painkillers ensure we continue on our demanding schedule without rest and what's more, with a no-nonsense smile. I'm sure we women are proud of our strength and uncomplaining 'manning' up, but is it necessary? And is it always right? Why is this issue so desensitized that we have to find ways around it?

In all the places I have worked in in India, I have never encountered any consciousness of this issue. In fact, I have had to be creative and even sneaky to deal with something so natural, yet so taboo. In private conversations with my female colleagues, I have heard many bitter complaints that are never ever voiced. From washrooms to work place policies, there are resources and sensitivities that women require, that we shouldn't not have! We should not be silent.

In times gone by, there was an Indian practice that required a woman to rest during her menstrual cycle. She was relieved of all household chores and fed healthy foods that actually strengthened her body. The enforced rest and food is something I have tried repeatedly and I cannot emphasize enough how much of a difference it makes. Eventually, that practice became corrupted with customs and in modern times, looked down upon even more with contempt. I am aware it is unrealistic to expect that in this day and age, when even maternity leave is made as short as possible, but I am saddened by how far we have fallen in sensitivity to this issue. That is the point I wish to emphasize.

The work places of today could take a few leaves out of Mr. Muruganantham's book. His earnest desire to understand led him to don shoes that very few men bother with- that of a woman's. Work places policies and resources are largely set down by men in positions of power who have never thought about this. Even when women rule, this is ignored because that is the norm.

I would like to change that norm because I am tired of manning up and I do not want to- I am not a man. I don't have to act like one.  I have sent this post as an email to my former employers already, and I am going to ask for changes in my current work place. These are the points I will put forth and I hope that the women that I know at least will start by asking for the changes that they know they rightly deserve and need!

To my current employers,

I point out these necessities -

Separate wash room facilities for men and women should be compulsory. The rooms should have nooks and shelves for hanging/placing things such as disposable bags and napkins.

The facilities should be attended and cleaned diligently.

If the staff have enforced uniforms, then a dark color should be chosen for the pant/skirt so that a woman can deal with any accidents relating to her menstruation with dignity. There should also be an option to wear comfortable clothing instead.

If the job requires being on their feet in any capacity, then short periods of rest as and when required.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

From Facebook.

Many years ago I stopped going to temples (except as an aesthete of heritage and architecture). I saw in their machinations the distilled essence of every human foible and vice that piety purports to absolve. I saw class, caste and every petty divisive metric amplified hundredfold. When I craved quiet reflection, I got noise and chaos. To attain detachment from worldliness I was directed to a VIP queue that promised to bring God closer, but only to the wealthy. Temples reminded me of feudalism and untouchability, privilege and nepotism, colossal waste of natural resources, environmental degradation and abuse of power, and everything else about the human race that dismayed me, and which I had opted to forget and outgrow. The larger the temple, the stronger the sense of alienation from humanity, and the more distant I felt from my life's purpose. My decision disappointed many close to me but excising religion from my life has only strengthened my faith - in humanity.
Which is why I was glad to receive this via Whatsapp from my dad:
Go not to the temple ~
by Rabindranath Tagore:
Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the Fragrance of love and kindness.
Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin, pride and ego,
from your heart...
Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen.
And apologise to those you have wronged.
Go not to the temple to pray on bended knees,
First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden.
And strengthen the young ones.
Not crush them.
Go not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have hurt you!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Much Better

In my favorite TV sitcom 'Frasier', Niles asks his brother,"What happened to 'less is more'?"
Frasier responds with- "Ah, but if less is more, just think how much more 'more' would be."

That's what makes the world spin isn't it - the desire to have more, to do more, to be more, to be... better?
I assume that the common answer to that question would be yes. Make the bitter butter better, to quote. But when one has achieved a decent level of goodness, one must not answer hastily. Things could get uncomfortable for the overly zealous. For example, what if a vegetarian decided to take the penultimate plunge and vow he would never kill mosquitoes again? He'd say, "The blood of the Universe and all its creatures flows through my veins. Let my mosquito brothers and sisters partake of it freely." Death by malaria would follow quickly. Even if it didn't, he'd probably go mad and end up killing all his adoring disciples (because we all know a person can't talk like that and not attract worshipers).

There seems to be a cut off point for goodness when it comes to those who want to embrace everyday life, as opposed to those retire to the mountains for some heavy-duty meditation. The latter can 'go good' all the way. The rest of us have to hold back to survive each other.

I was driving along a road near my house on my Scooty when I noticed an old, bent woman shuffling along in the hot sun. I usually stop and offer a ride to the elderly, so I pulled up beside her and asked her. She was a bit deaf, so the conversation quickly became a shouting match. She also appeared to be partly blind; the cataracts in her eyes were severe. She said she didn't need a ride as she lived nearby, but she could use Rs.10. I silently gave it to her. That's when her brain kicked in with a vengeance. Through her milky orbs, she recognized a compassionate cash cow. All she needed to know was where I lived, and so she proceeded to interrogate me. I tried pointing vaguely, but she kept at it till I smiled, said goodbye and drove away, shaking my head in amusement. Easily 80 years old, multiple sensory organs on the fritz, and yet this woman responded to goodness with greed. I don't blame her completely; the sum of her life experiences have led her to learn that lesson and live by it. Even if she is one out of ten who reacted that way, with the others being nothing but grateful, she still reiterates what I'm saying- I held back, because I knew that if that I'd been purely kind and showed her to my home, she would have made me regret it. Even our acts of kindness have to be tamed by caution.

So, if I met Betty of the limerick- the one who tries desperately to make her bitter butter better, I'd tell Betty to embrace the bitter instead. Like good, decent folk, maybe that butter shouldn't be made any better!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


I filled out a job application form today. It was a tediously long Q&A that I scribbled my way through, barely pausing, even at the questions that touched on the personal. But one question brought me to a complete standstill. "What is the one thing that you would change about yourself?" After a few painful moments of blankness, I seriously considered putting a dash there and moving on, but I realized how conceited that would be. 'Think!' I ordered myself. "I wouldn't mind being thinner," my mind said. Then it went 'Thooo'. It's not that I'm perfect, it's just that I'm so at peace with everything, even myself, that I really have no five year plan for my soul. So, I thought back to my previous jobs and decided to put down something about being able to handle people better. It was not well thought out. But now, as I sit at my computer, thoroughly annoyed, I realize the truth behind what I wrote.

Do you feel a black demon rising inside you when you ask someone a question and they respond with another question? Does your skull part to give way to horns when someone doesn't respond when they should, even after having seen your time-sensitive message? Do your fingers twitch with murderous intent when people speak in tangents, barely making sense and yet expecting you to understand? Do you imagine people slowly roasting over a flame because they've misunderstood you so completely that they've just dowsed you with a bucket-load of troubles?

As you can see, I have a problem... Reading what I just wrote, I realize I have two. I use too many evil Satanic metaphors. But that's something I'll deal with when I finally make my way down there. For now, I'm looking at all the impatience and shaking my head impatiently. Why is it so hard?

I'm tempted to blame the oil in my hair- I always feel like a witch when my tresses are well greased. My nose feels sharper and my teeth pointier. I wanna bite. Or take a bath. Sanity says I should do the latter. I don't know.

It's no surprise I isolate myself quite a bit. I'm one those friendly people who rarely make friends. I often ask myself what I would eat if I was marooned on an uninhabited island. I spend more time with my dogs than with people. I like bittergourd. But is all this cause for concern, for change? You're nodding your head vigorously, I know, but wait!

There's a convincing argument in my favor........I just haven't thought of it yet. It's elusive at this point. Slippery, I'd say. Dammit! It's the oil again! I have to go get some shampoo to turn my life around.

Minutes later...

"Anna, don't you have Head and Shoulders Lemon Fresh shampoo?"

"Are you going to take a bath at this time of the night?"

And the demon rises....

Friday, October 9, 2015


I'm not an activist. I'm one of the many people who live inside their own bubble, a bubble that's just transparent enough to see enough good in the world and enjoy it, a bubble that's just opaque enough to be able to walk past starvation and abuse without letting it destroy you. Like everyone else, I too live comfortably within, hoping that the unpleasant stuff stays at a convenient distance, that my family and I remain as untouched by it as possible.

But I think also, that for everyone like me, there's an elephant in the room of our consciences, a whisper of something unnatural that we're very good at ignoring. But even acknowledging it makes very little difference- I still do not wish to be an activist. I do not have the moral courage to hold the shivering body of a raped child or try to calm the trembling of a fading puppy. Activists do that on a regular basis. They step into the deep well of human suffering and somehow remain afloat. I met one recently. She puts my kindness to shame, my good intentions mere dust.

I've taken a few steps in the direction though. "Walk up to the well, but don't jump in it, Poorni- you'll sink." That's what the voices say and that's what the plan is. Though I may be limited in many ways, I can write, and I can talk. And maybe I'll surprise myself and do more.

It's called M.I.P.

Making It Pawsible.

A animal welfare group based in Salem. I've been writing and designing and learning all at the same time these past few weeks. One good thing about entering into this in my 30's is that I'm not wildly naive or even optimistic. There have been crazy dedicated people working this field for decades and see where we still are. No, I'm just calmly looking at this as an attempt at increasing compassion and empathy, an appeal to what's buried within people. I'm not looking to burst bubbles, not even my own. But maybe make them a tiny bit less opaque? Let's try.

P.S. If you're in Salem, from Salem but elsewhere now, or even just interested, you could point people to the Help Us section, so that they do what they can. I'd also be thrilled if, wherever you are, you just print out what appeals to you in the downloads section and stick it on your door or gate or something. Simply making people aware of animal rights would be such a positive step. You have my gratitude for anything you do- even if it's happy thoughts sent this way :)

Friday, September 25, 2015

On Hold

I have an ancient Nokia. The kind that people take one look at and struggle to maintain a polite facial expression. But I can sense they're rolling their eyes on some level. The thing is- I refuse to update my phone because I dislike talking on it. I stare at it when it rings, wondering who could be so foolish.

It has a lot to do with not being a people person. There have been instances when I haven't answered the doorbell. I'd creep up to the door but stop a few feet away. Maneuvering myself onto the sofa, I'd balance precariously on its edge, bending over to look through the peep-hole, all so that the mystery person outside wouldn't see my shadow beneath the door. They don't go away if they see it. Take it from me. They keep ringing and ringing. Then you have to open the door and pretend you were sleeping or taking a bath. Eesh.

Comparatively, the phone is way better. It does not put my limbs at risk. But that's where the advantage ends. You see, each person has their own phone personality, which, like real personalities, either gels with your own or abrades it.

Some people are comfy with long stretches of silence. Others have panic attacks if you're both silent for 2 seconds. They either start blabbering (What did you eat for lunch?) or find something urgent has come up that they have to get to. Some people don't really want you to talk at all. Just listen. If you're lucky, you'll get in the initial syllable of every word before being steam-rolled. At first, you naively gather your own opinions on each topic as it whooshes by, but then it becomes too much to remember, so you drop it all.

There are times when this leads to an ego war. It's subtle, usually. It happens when a perfectly nice person is pushed beyond their limits. So when you interrupt the other person after 20 continuous sentences with one of your own and they still don't stop- and you've just had it and you keep going on too. Essentially, you're both talking at the same time. Even as it happens, you stubbornly continue, thinking the other person will have to stop, until, finally, you both do. Then you have to back-track and catch up.

I especially dislike the end of the call. All conversations lead naturally to an ending that both participants can sense. It's when you paste on a smile and start dragging words: "Aaaaall riiiight then" or "Sooooooo, whaaaaaaat else?" Within seconds, y'all are done. But rarely do people let it happen so naturally. There's the awkward 'hang'er, who suddenly decides he's had enough and says, "Ok then, bye" and hangs up, leaving your brain mid-thought. Even worse are those who have a whole litany for that end of the call moment. "Ok, see you, take care, have a nice day, good evening, ta ta, bye-bye." You can't get a word in edge-wise. If you try responding to all of those platitudes, they'll hang-up when you're halfway through. Then there's the 'bye-haters'. They'll say 'ok' and that's it. You'll be clutching the phone, and after a second's hesitation say 'hello?' only to hear the line beep out its death song. With people like that, I'm always afraid to say 'ok' in the middle of the conversation, even to agree with them. I go 'mmm-hmm'.

Picking up a call, surviving it and its subsequent end- the process is just the tip of the iceberg for me. Sometimes, the content adds insult to injury. The ones that really baffle me are those who account for every second when they relate an event. Every damn second. You know when you tune out and start dreaming, saying uh-huh every few seconds? You laugh when they laugh. You curse when they curse.... One good thing about phone calls? You get to hang up. Ok.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Keeping Count...

The Kolli hill range is a beautiful place this time of the year.  As the car wound its way up 70 sharp hair pin bends, I smiled at my mother in appreciation. Great idea, mom! I knew I had been maneuvered into a temple trip where my parents would, once again, stand in front of an idol and lament my single status, but when the weather is this good and the greenery this rich, some things are bearable. Or was it?

When my mom broke no less then 9 coconuts and arranged the 18 half shells on a banana leaf, she avoided eye contact. When she asked me to pour ghee in to the shells and dip wicks in each one, my hand trembled a bit. I guessed what was coming. So, the idea is that all 18 wicks should be lit and burn strong for the ritual to progress to phase 2.

Sitting on the ground in the open courtyard of a temple, with nice strong gusts of wind blowing in every direction and trying to keep 18 wicks lit - this is the definition of torture. At first, people looked my way when I started going ow, ow, ow as each matchstick burned its way to my fingers yet the wicks remained stubbornly unlit. Then a kind soul took pity on me and lent me a spare candle. That worked, even though each burning wick had a life span of about 2 seconds. Mind benumbed, I kept going around and around until finally, for one brief moment all 18 miraculously remained lit. "Prostrate yourself in front of it", people screamed. No problem! I would have done it anyway, in sheer gratitude.

The whole number thing in Hindu religion is a quite amusing. Almost always, odd numbers rule while even numbers are shunted aside in disdain. "Go around the idol 1,3 or 9 times!", "Light up 3,5 or 7 incense sticks!"... It's kinda interesting and led me to think about my own age. 33. A nice multiple of 11. Didn't we all just love the 11 times table in primary school? Hands down, one of the easiest ones. It's also an odd number. So that, with those 9 coconuts and all the odd things, um, odd number things I've been made to do, I figure the heavens are ready to open up and simply shower me with all sorts of goodies. I've been rubbing my hands in glee and looking up in anticipation, but maybe some counting instrument up there is broken. Or as a street-wise Tamilian would say, it's 'repaired'.

That's another amusing thing. Usually, when a foreign language bleeds into the local one, the uneducated section of the population assimilates it easily just by picking it up contextually. Mistakes are rare and always get corrected in time. But even now, when something is broken, many Tamil people say, "Repair aaidichu" when they want to say something is broken. Somehow, somewhere, someone picked up this exact opposite meaning of the word and it spread, without being corrected. The history of language, the etymology of words- it's so very fascinating. For example, take the word 'eavesdrop'- technically, it's a location. It's where the water would drip onto the ground from the eaves of a roof. Perhaps someone stood there and listened in at a nearby window once? Who was it who first made the connection and how did it spread?

Within a span of a few hundred years, there are countless words that have remained the same, yet their meanings have morphed so much that a person from a distant past and one now could have a conversation with words they both know, yet still barely understand each other. It's staggering to think about what a tiny point in time we're occupying, with vast seas of change stretching out on either side. Does all this contemplation make me a wiser person? I don't know. But according to mom, those coconuts will take care of everything. How odd.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


What would happen if the world slowed down? If we worked 4 day weeks, 5 hours a day? If that report could be submitted on September 10th instead of August 30th? What would happen if we had the time to walk slowly, plant gardens, raise pets and children with joyous attention, play games, go on picnics, read more books? What would happen?

Perhaps the greatest brainwashing done in this last century is that time itself is finite. The world is 'fast-paced', we're part of the 'rat-race', we must 'keep up'... our lingo, our outlook, our very existence seems to be controlled by this unquestioned fear of being left behind as the rest of the world hurtles toward success. Is success a series of time-bombs?

Deadline. What a truly disgustingly charged word. It traces its roots to the time of concentration camps and prisons, where guards were instructed to shoot any prisoner caught past a certain distance beyond the prison boundary. Cross the line, and you're dead.

Rat-race. Another terrible expression. Only rats in traps are made to race.

Prison. Traps.



Saturday, July 18, 2015

Terrace Terra

Awaiting the rain...

Tomatoes ripening

Grapes! Finally!


Baby white eggplants and red chillies

Millet Guardian 
The old and the young - snakegourd

Determined to propagate!
White bittergourd

Patiently waiting for the humans to finish playing in the mud
Aadhi and Vetri


Devil's Backbone (Whatta name!)

Double layered.

Life determined to survive...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant', an amazingly well-written and intense fantasy book series, there exists a beast simply called 'Nom'. Incapable of speech yet powerful and driven, this creature would barely allow itself to be tamed. To even name it was to invite self-destruction. Funnily enough, in the fantasy disguised as reality that rules the Indian orthodox mind, there is a similar beast- the Norm. But where Nom is so single-minded that it is beyond artifice, the Norm is a shady and hypocritical shape-shifter.

The Norm, if I must define it, is the set of rules that governs one's personal life based solely on what is acceptable to orthodox society. Let's take the example of a man who lives by the Norm. Let's call him Spineless (I'm in a charitable mood today.) So Spineless was born in the 50's. As a baby, he is still more a possibility than a person, with a mind as vast as the Universe and an imagination unbound by reality. But even as an infant, he finds himself introduced often to a mysterious stranger- the one called Norm. A beast, yes, but one with a persuasive, comforting voice. It started as a casual acquaintance, but as he grew up, Spineless found himself turning to Norm more and more, making it his guide in all things.

Spineless grows up, doing the things he is expected to do, becoming the man he is expected to be. In this, Norm has trained him well. For reasons known only to him, Spineless decides to get married. But he won't let his wife have a career. No. 'What kind of man allows that?', Norm asks him. Spineless agrees. Wifey is properly put in her place. A few decades pass by. Now, fickle Norm has quietly changed. A daughter who does not work, and what more, work in the same field as everyone else's daughters? 'It is beyond shame', Norm tells Spineless. Spineless agrees again. He is nothing if not obedient.

Open another door into the past. Caste, Norm says, is important. Spineless adopts it as gospel truth. Wifey is of the same caste, of course. Years later, we see Spineless arguing with his teenage children about caste. Norm shouts silently in his ear- 'This is how it has always been, how it will always be!' Spineless pauses for a second, his ancestral memory trying to surface, to remind him of times when this was not true, but Norm fights off his deadliest enemy, the voice of reason. Spineless finally ends the debate with a flat out refusal to accept any dissenting opinion, his faith in Norm making him blind to the saddened faces of his children as they turn away, young minds unable to like the man they love. Behind him, smug, Norm nods and smirks. Cut to a future where children are defying parents left and right, traversing beyond caste and even religion as they choose their own mates. Spineless and Norm communicate quietly. Norm admits to certain grey areas and blames it on 'modern times'. It advises Spineless to relent a tiny bit- he must definitely throw a fuss, be deeply wounded, and volubly opposed, but in the end he may give in, in a grudging, bitter manner designed to sap all joy from the celebrations. Norm calls it 'adapting' and pats Spineless on the back for being so amazing. Norm is satisfied with Spineless. Spineless is satisfied with himself.

Another flashback. Spineless' mother sits in the corner of a gloomy kitchen, where she pounds the grain that will feed her family that night. Her brown sari is so faded, it matches the stained cement floor. She beckons and Spineless happily walks up to her. In his outstretched hand, she places a ball of fine grain mixed with sugar and held together with water. He leans against her bare shoulder and takes small bites. Her sari barely covers her naked torso- a good gust of wind would reveal her chest- she would just as nonchalantly pull it back over herself. Norm hasn't discovered body-shaming yet. Fast forward. Spineless sits with a group of men, his friends. With vehemence and violence-laced passion, they denounce the 'women of today', their skimpy outfits that entice otherwise good men to commit crimes, crimes that would have been unjustifiable had not Norm pointed out the obvious reasons. Spineless returns home that night and looks at his daughter. Though covered from neck to ankles in a churidhar, he nonetheless barks at her- Where is your dupatta? He glares at his wife and slams the door to his room, enraged that a woman under his control would walk around without disguising the shape of her form. Norm sympathizes with him. 'You are unique in your goodness, no one understands you', says Norm. Spineless wallows on his lonely pedestal.

As a constant companion, Norm is quite powerful. Thoughtless, and therefore naturally evil, it often sends human representatives to visit Spineless. They sit around, these strangers with a cause, and take apart everything Norm dislikes in Spineless and his family's life, questioning and denouncing every major and minor life choice- from physical appearance, career path, finances, matrimonial designs, progeny, interior decoration, medical treatment to clothing styles. Nothing is too private or personal, nothing is beyond judgement. Spineless listens to it all, his heart beating fast, terrified of defying Norm. He gazes at the one red wall his son insisted would enhance the guest room and imagines people walking in, laughing, judging. He mentally hugs Norm, drawing strength. The wall is too small a gesture to truly be called defiance, Norm reassures him. It can be laughed off, even ridiculed as a foolish boy's 'artistic' vision. Yes, that is what he'll do. Spineless sighs in relief, his pride intact, his son's in shambles.

Sometimes, Spineless takes turns being a minion himself. He feels compelled to go out and support his best friend Norm, and reinforce whatever ideals Norm has chosen to subscribe to. Norm walks with him, a shadow that seeks more grey. Norm tells him to fight change tooth and nail, all the time slowly changing itself, evolving so that it can continue whispering in the ears of the generations that will come. Spineless does not see- he does not want to see. In this way, they take turns feeding each other, a sick symbiotic relationship that has no goal except one - to constantly even out the world so that it can fit within his shrunken mind, and thus make it a place where he can be... Normal.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


I have an endless fascination with paleontology and history. If ever I was given a time machine and limited to one 'direction' in time to move towards, I would choose the past. From the creation of the Universe, the shifting face of the planet's crust, the evolution of life, the history of mankind- the birth and mutation of language, custom and thought... there is very little I would not want to witness. I'd just have to figure out the secret to immortality early on so that I last the stretch.

This whole lasting the stretch business, even without a time machine, is a bit of a pain. There was a guy I 'almost dated'. (I'm not going to explain that because the world of online dating is weird.) Anyway, at the time that we were talking, I was a couple of years shy of the 30 year mark and he was a bit beyond it. Once, I scoffed at some minor physical complaint he had, with the natural arrogance of youth (otherwise, I scornfully look down upon arrogance.) He said simply, "Wait till you hit 30." I scoffed again. We parted ways soon after but he remains etched in my memory. Why?

Because when I hit 30- BOOM! I threw my back out.  And I cursed his name. Maybe his family's too. It really hurt, ok? From then on, it's been a curse-athon. Creak. Grunt. Groan. Aaaaah. Dear Mother of God. That part can hurt?! And so on...

It really hits you when you traverse a little circle in your life. Like trekking up a Himalayan mountain. At 20, I was overtaking mountain goats. In the past 13 years however, things have changed. Let me take a moment to vent- Gravitational constant, my ass! Nothing constant in that area... By area, I meant gravity, not my...Hmm. What I mean is that physics is flawed. Gravity is obviously relative, which explains why the weight of one's thighs increases with altitude and number of potato chips consumed. Time is openly relative, not that it's candor really helps. When an acquaintance stopped me on the street yesterday and asked me how long it's been since I've been back, I said, "I don't know." She looked at me like I was flaky. I checked later and it'd only been three days, but it felt much longer. Funny how you can slip back into the gap you leave behind in a place, like you never left.

Which brings me to the latest update- my stint in Bangkok as a terrorizer of children is done. India needs me to continue the good work here, I figure. As a teacher, I've become a slightly better person. I no longer have violent thoughts that question the wisdom of inception. I've learnt to keep plodding on, even when I know that sometimes, the results aren't likely to manifest. That is the part of a teacher's life that I have most struggled with. That, and the desire to heave children through the door and hold them underwater in the hope that the shock will kick start dormant grey cells. Like I said, slightly better person.

I can hear a voice saying, "Poorni, you need help... the spiritual kind." I agree. That's why I invested in help. The ultimate help! That's right- Amar Chithra Katha's ultimate collection!

This beauty was waiting for me when I returned from Bangkok and I dived right in. Amar Chithra Katha is one of those timeless series that really brings stories alive, especially mythology. If I had my way, these books would be part of the curriculum. Imagine the discussions that would follow in the classroom! So how does it help me? I don't know. I don't really care. I have lots of books! With flying chariots and stuff! Time travel can wait.

Sunday, June 7, 2015


I'm not impossible to impress. People who fold their blankets every morning even though they know they're going to unfold it every night - they impress me. I just gather it into a ball and hide it somewhere in case somebody nosy visits. People who wear sunglasses impress me. I keep pushing mine up and down, scrunching my nose, taking them off when I doubt my depth perception (happens often) and generally behaving like a half-blind, overly fussy librarian.

The animal kingdom impresses me in almost every way. I love them so deeply, my heart overflows at their every little action- even standing still. They're all that cute to me. Well, not all. I have a big problem with an insect- namely, cockroaches. I'm not sure when it started, or how to stop it. But I freak out at the sight of them.

I have a neighbor and friend who feels that way about lizards. About once a week, I can depend on hearing screams coming from the apartment opposite mine. I rush to open the door, and I catch sight of her rushing down the corridor as if her apartment is ground zero for an impending apocalypse. I always shake my head at her when she returns, cowering behind the security guard - her personal lizard-vanquishing hero. I say, 'Pooh, it's just a lizard, Want to see me catch it in my hand?' She screams again. I smile again.

That's why it's so hard for my ego when I react so strongly at the sight of a cockroach. I cannot scream- I can't hit any high note. I just run. I grab the broom and I cower behind it. I shoo it out of my apartment or down a drain, my heart beating like a horse's the whole time. If it comes at me, and especially if it flies, then forget it- that thing is dead. That's why I use lots of that chalk that keeps the little monsters away from my house. I live a relatively cockroach-free life, and I consider it a privilege.

Yet somehow, I must have earned some sort of reputation as a demoness amongst the cockroach population in this area. One sleepless night, I walked into the kitchen at around 2 and switched on the light. As I stood at the counter, wondering what to eat, I saw this tiny baby cockroach scurrying all over the counter like crazy. I mean, this thing was terrified out of its wits at the sight of me. All I was doing was just standing there quietly.

Suddenly, it heads towards me; I'm still motionless, and before my amazed eyes, the little thing actually jumps off the edge, still running at full speed. My mouth falls open as I watch it gracefully arc into the air like a sky diver and fall. The floor is mosaic, so I lost sight of it even before it landed. But I stood there for awhile, gaping at what I'd just seen. It was like a scene out of a movie, only the action hero was a 2 mm cockroach.

Maybe five paragraphs about this is a bit too much, but you had to have been there. Inspiring that much terror in another creature is a terribly strange feeling. I can barely relate to it. My only point of reference is with kids. Although I'm a teacher with all sorts of ideals within the classroom, that's purely education. (Even that has a 45 minute time limit before I explode, but let's gloss over that.) Outside of that, on the streets, you could say, I deal with kids on a case by case basis. I'm the person who'll glare at either a misbehaving child or its unfortunate parent until it stops what its doing. If there's some degree of familiarity, and the parent is doing nothing, I'll step in and do what's needed. If they never talk to me again, well then, boo-hoo.

The reason I sound like a total bad-ass is because I am. If people are going to inflict their offspring on me, they should be ready for me to inflict myself on said offspring. Works both ways.  Recently, I heard that a colleague and a mother of a five year old who lives in my building threatened her boy with a visit from me. That's when I felt a bit impressive myself. (Also a bit old, but let's gloss over that too.) Baby cockroaches, baby humans- all running away, screaming. Not bad, eh? Not bad at all.

                                     And people wonder why I'm still single...

Saturday, June 6, 2015

On Skype today...

Hello Pillai,
How are you today? I have been in search of someone with this last name “Pillai" so when I saw your name I was pushed to contact you and see how best we can assist each other. I am Mr. Bruce molyneaux, an employee with Lloyds Bank Plc, I believe it is the wish of God for me to come across you on Skype now. I am having an important business discussion I wish to share with you which I believe will interest you because, it is in connection with your last name and you are going to benefit from it.
One Late Daniel Pillai, a citizen of your country, who had a fixed deposit with my bank here in United Kingdom in 2010 for 48 calendar months, valued at GBP{£14,150,000.00} the due date for this deposit contract was last October 2014. Sadly "Daniel Pillai was among the death victims in the march 11th 2011 Earthquake disaster in Japan, He was in Japan on a business trip when the Earthquake happened.
My bank management is not yet know about his death, I knew about it because he was my friend and I am his account officer. Daniel did not mention any beneficiary when the account was opened, and i have tried without success to find any member of his family. Last week my Bank Management requested that i should give instructions on what to do about the funds, if to renew the contract.
I know this will happen and that is why I have been looking for a means to handle the situation, because if my Bank Directors happens to know that "Daniel is dead and do not have any beneficiary to the fund, they will take the funds for their personal use, so I don't want such to happen. That was why when I saw your last name I was happy and I am now seeking your co-operation to present you as beneficiary to the account, since you have the same last name with him and our bank head quarters will approve the transfer of the funds in your name because your surname is the only thing that qualifies you to stand as the beneficiary of Daniel.
There is no risk involved because i am equally part of this process therefore you can be assured that this process will a success for us. I don't want the bank to confiscate the money.
I will appreciate if you can write to me on my personal email for more details:
Waiting to hear from you.
Mr. Bruce molyneaux
Personal email:
How many kinds of idiot do you think I am? I ask because I know how many you are.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Eff Off?! Okay.

People talk a lot about the importance of a 'positive work environment'. It's true. Companies get rated on it, and when I read about what it's like to work for those on the top of that list, I salivate a bit. Not that I'm dissing my current job or anything. It's a cushy place overall. After all, it's a school. It's not like I'm walking into a battlefield with gunfire and epithets flying all around me. Right? Think again.

I have my own classroom- a shrine to English that I've decorated and where I pretty much spend most of the day. When I'm free, I play some music as I work, enjoying the peace and quiet. All that changed one day. I was correcting a bunch of papers when suddenly, there's gunfire! I duck under my desk and as I hunker there, eyes rolling from one side to the other, I hear it. F*ck you! F*ck you! F*ck you! This goes on for a while, steadily sounding more and more smug and curiously, lazier. Then it stops with a final round of gunfire. I crawl out and look around. Nothing. It was apparently all in my head. Not a reassuring thought, but being crazy is better than being fired at.

Till it happens again the next day. And the next. Always when I'm alone. I started walking around my classroom, ears pressed up against the walls, peering at tiles, poking the old cupboard in the corner, jumping from one tile to another, but it still haunted me everyday. I took it in my stride and told no one. Being committed at my age doesn't sound like much fun. Finally, months later, a Thai child happened to be in my class once when it did happen, and she told me that it was a lizard. I was like- What the heck, kid? You stoned or something? No natural being makes a sound like that.

But it turns out she was right. My daily nemesis was the Tokay Gecko who lived above the ceiling in my room. And get this- the gunfire and cursing? It's his mating call. Here-

So, the Tokay gecko was nicknamed the 'F*ck you' gecko by U.S. soldiers a long time ago, and I must say I agree completely. Seriously, for something coming out of the mouth of a real life creature, it's one of the most unnatural sounds I've ever heard.

Now, let's pause and think about just how romantic all this is. Yeah, baby, you know what I want to do to you, don't you? No? Well, let me tell you-.................

It reminds me of one guy who recently got in touch with me with the intention of 'getting to know me'. Cool. So what he does he talk about? Toilets. Eastern Vs. Western. The root cause of diseases in the light of toilets. You know what really hurt? When I sarcastically said "How Romantic", it actually got lost in the torrent of messages he was sending about toilets. Talk about having your fist connect with empty air. If he hadn't stopped when I told him to, I'd have called him 'Kakoose boy' and maybe a few more things too. Lizards aren't the only ones that can make a person duck for cover.

They aren't the only ones to think cursing is cool either. Kids do it a lot. Even in my time. I remember approaching a boy in my class when was in Standard 9 to ask him about his hobbies. This was for a class magazine I was responsible for. "F*cking" was his answer. Now, I was a total prude back then, unbelievably desperate to avoid conflict at any cost. So I looked down at my notepad, looked back at him and smilingly said, "Hockey?"
Still determined to save the situation, "Hockey?"
We went back and forth a few times till I gave up, turned around and ran away, pigtails flying.

These days, kids come up to me and breathlessly relate who said the F word, who said the Mother F word and so on. I admit I'm lost. They don't get what's wrong with saying something that the media bombards them with everyday. It's just 'cool'. They'll grow out of it; most kids do. Maybe the Tokay gecko will similarly evolve. I hope so. If there's one thing I'd rather not hear from Mother Nature on a daily basis, this would definitely be it.

Friday, May 22, 2015


When I walk on the streets here in Bangkok, I feel invisible. People don't look at each other- specifically, men don't ogle women. It's a novel feeling. Back home, there's a lot of feedback that men feel compelled to give. As an expert, I can confidently say that it's gone down in quantity and improved in quality in recent times, but when I was growing up, I heard a lot of stuff delivered in various creative ways- whispered, shouted, insinuated, implied.... I'm not sure, but once, a guy puffing away at a cigarette whilst eyeing me may have been sending smoke signals. It's possible.

We're not really taught how to handle it. And no one teaches us how to not be hurt by it. But we must learn, so we do. Just ignore it- that's the easiest, most common and most humiliating response. It takes something away from you when you walk away like that. Fight back. Shout. Call for help. Call the police. Grab him by the collar. A lot of women do that these days. Fear and anger are fantastic deterrents to guys like that. They need to get the crap scared out of them so that they don't do it again. It's the same logic that underlies our justice system.

I agree. I have a stare so frosty that I've caused men to rear back in alarm, as if ice clutched their... no, not hearts. Think extremities. But in the back of my mind, there is always this scene that replays itself, a message in a bottle that keeps floating in from the past.

It was the first year of college. I was in a new city, in a one room house I'd rented for myself. It was a complicated period of time- still a teenager, away from home for the first time, still reeling from my childhood and my vulnerability to my dysfunctional family - a lonely, lost young woman. Next door, there lived a family with two boys- almost the same age as me. Their house was so close to the one I lived in, that they could sit on the parapet wall of their roof and reach out to touch the window in my room. So I always kept it closed, and covered with a thin cotton screen. I think they could still see my silhouette as I sat at my computer, positioned near that very window (because the room's solo electric outlet was there.)

They'd sit there, talking loudly, two young jerks out for some fun with the college girl next door. I don't remember the substance of their conversations; early on, I started playing music when I heard them settle down.  But I do remember they were lewd fellows- there were many times when I passed them on the street and they would say something sexually objectifying.

One night, I sat there near the window, winding up a conversation with an acquaintance which felt like it'd just touched every wound I'd ever borne. I felt myself slowly breaking apart inside. Tears fell, even as I heard the boys make their way to their favorite spot. But nothing could have stopped the sound that escaped my lips. It was a sob from the depths of my soul, a broken sound followed by another, and another, and another. I cried, hunched over the keyboard, unable to stop, almost unable to bear the release of my own pain. I don't know how long it took. When I was finally able to straighten up, my mind registered an unnatural silence. Unnatural, because I sensed they were still there, glued to the spot, shocked by the suffering they'd just heard. I just sat there for a while, uncaring, a part of me almost as shocked as they were, even as I heard them quietly leave.

That was the last time I ever thought of them as jerks. After that, they were unrecognizable to me- respectfully lowering their heads whenever they passed by me, never coming near my window again, ... and in their distance and their silence, I sensed something that no angry word or look could have achieved- for the first time, I was a person to them. Not a body accidentally sentient, not an object ignorably human, but an actual person. And they changed in my eyes too. They were not just jerks; unfeeling, single-minded beasts to be shunned and banished. They were human- sadly misguided, but oh so capable of awakening to life. In my pain, and in their quiet respect, we managed to find each other's humanity.

They say that the human experience is so rich because of the neutrality of its design- in both the joys and sorrows that come our way, there is learning to be had. I've always railed against that design, always wanted things to magically work out better. But when I remember the shadow behind the cotton screen, the silence across the narrow space, and the peace that settled between us that night, somehow it all clicks into place.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another pious frandship

Found this in my other folder on Facebook today, from a guy I don't know:
"Hi how are you? Poorni a nice name, sorry not a nice awesome name. Poorni you look awesome with a nice smile. Praising somebody does not mean you need something of them, but praise can be natural and it is not bad to praise anybody and if it gives happiness to somebody. One must make people happy around and spread a lot of happiness around and praise is a part of that.
Do you think knowing each other is harmless if it leads to good friendship....I define friendship as the most pious thing in the world...just a request can we be good friends if you trust..just a request..choice is urs...keep smiling and a lot of happ"
The lecture, I find enlightening. The praise, totally flattering. The writing, just wow. But what I can't get over is- what the heck happened right at the end? Was he shot? Did he get eaten by a bear? Did his brain freeze and then give up? In spite of being a voracious reader, I don't think I've ever encountered this level of mystery. You know what's not mysterious however? When he says he wants to 'spread a lot of happiness around', I, unfortunately, know exactly what he means. (Shudder.)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Another Woman

Written on May 8, 2013

She sat across from me in the doctor's waiting room and fished out her phone. Bright yellow sari, pink blouse, a big red dot on a dark forehead, and the open face and manner that is typical of those who've never been burdened with too much money.

At first, I thought she was talking to a friend. Then I understood things were much juicier than that.
"Sollu da, enakku panam vennum. Nee ippo anju mannikkulla anupiriya, na train eri varattuma? Enakku passikudhu, kaasu vennum."
(Talk to me... I want money. Are you gonna send it to me by 5 o clock or shall I get on the train that comes there?)
"Inga ellarum ketkaraanga, nee edhukku inga irukke, onnoda veetukaarar anga irukaar. Ennakku ore shame-a irukku. Unakku tin kattina dhaan seriya irukkum.")
(People ask me- why are you here and your husband there? I feel ashamed. You need to be kept in check.)
She finished off with endearments that made me laugh out loud.
"Seri da pattu, pannam anipchiru. Seriya, kanna? Oru umma kuduthuttu phone-a cut pannu."
(Ok, my love, send the money. Ok, dear? Give me a kiss and hang up.)
It sensed an unusual story and asked her outright what was happening. She told me.
"I was born amongst four girls. I was 19 when I came to this area to visit my grandma; there had just been a fire that spread through the buildings here. My husband's mother had married a Nepali guy. She was a huge woman- tall and well filled out while her husband was a tiny chap. Their kids were all fair. Anyway, the lady saw me during my visit and asked for my hand in marriage to her son. I had just failed 9th standard and was working, so they married me off. He sat in the bathroom and cried, it seems, because he didn't want 'a black girl'. (She laughs loudly.)
We got married, had a son, then a daughter. She was six months old when he said he was going out for a job. There were 40 Rupees on the TV. He never came back. I thought that he'd finish the job and come back in a week, then 15 days, then a month, then 6 months. He didn't.
I went to a holy woman and asked her is he was even alive. She smeared me with turmeric powder and kum kum, indicating that he was. Then he started sending money- his mom learnt that he was in Tiripur, so she would go there, get 2000 or 3000 and give it to me when she got back.
One and a half years of this. I never saw him, didn't know exactly where he was or what he was doing. No cell phone during those times. I managed. I tied flowers into garlands for a living. I could do one whole sack a day. I'd get a 100 rupees. 50 rupees I'd set aside for buying the next day's flowers. The other 50 would be spent on food- I'd get one Rs.12 milk packet everyday . I'd make a tumbler of coffee or tea and leave it on the floor of the hall. Whoever wanted to would drink their share. The priest in the temple would always save a half a coconut for me. I'd get some moringa leaves, shave the coconut into pieces, add some rock salt, mix it all into a bit of batter- that's what my kids and I would eat often. I'd also buy fish- the fish sellers would save the last ones for me and give me a few extra too.
One day, I remember, I made fish kolambu (curry). I fried some fish too. I'd just put some rice on a plate, mixed it up with curry and raised one handful to my mouth-  when the news came that he'd been in an accident. Something always happens to that man during Pongal (festival). The other 365 days he'll strut about. (She laughed heartily).
Anyway, I couldn't let all that fish go to waste... it's fish! so I packed everything, got my kids, caught a bus and went to Central railway station. My son had somehow managed to get a phone number through my husband's friend and we knew he lived somewhere near the railway station in Tiripur. That's all I knew but I thought I'd ask and find my way when I got there, so I got the tickets for about 200 Rupees and got on the train.
We landed up in Tiripur at midnight. I asked around and somehow, found my way to his relatives' house, but no one was there. I didn't know which hospital he was in, so I waited. I saw a ghost, a white form that opened the door and walked through the house. (She slipped this in matter of fact and just as easily kept going grin emoticon )
Then they all came back from the hospital. He had a few bruises that were dressed up. I looked at him and said, "Ippovaavuthu adanganiya? Aatam potathellam adangudhu illa?"
(Have you stopped playing games atleast now?)
So, I stayed there for three days, with his sister cooking for us. She even gave me a sari. That's when the neighbors told me he had some woman set up. A female with three kids from another guy. So I took my kids, found the house they were living in and walked in to find a woman's clothing and some such stuff. He tried to deny it, but then she turned up. I told her that I'm the wife and these are his kids, then I left. (I doubt that the showdown was quite that quiet, but I didn't interrupt)
I went straight to the the commissioner's office and wrote a letter of complaint, against his sister and her husband- because they hid him from me. (I think the logic behind that is that an Indian woman would balk at putting her own hubby in jail, but his near and dear ones are ripe for the picking) So, the police put my brother-in-law's ass in jail and his wife went around saying that I did this horrid thing, even after she gave me a sari. I told her to take her sari back. I was going on one and a half years of anger.
Anyway, after all that, my husband was made to apologize to me and he had to agree to send me money every month. I told him if he didn't, I would be after him. I gathered my kids and left him there because he refused to leave. That's how I've been living all these years- it's been more than 11 years.
Me: But how do you talk to him so nicely? Aren't you mad at him?
(A short laugh.) What else can be done? If I didn't call him, he'd think I don't need him, that I'm sleeping around. I don't. I call him at least twice a day, sometimes just a missed call, as I go about my work as a caretaker in a creche.....Bitterness won't really help anyone. When life throws this stuff at you, you should be able to manipulate it, to change things so that they work for you.
(She continues laughing and joking with the people who come in. I thank her and she responds with a smiling 'welcome' in English as she leaves.)
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  
Though she left me smiling and feeling vaguely honored, I was also a bit unsettled. This woman did not have the air of a martyr. She was not a victim. There was a slightly dangerous tone to her voice- one that let you know there are limits. She was no saint. You could sense she'd cut a few corners if it meant money. She was a survivor. She did what she felt she had to do.
If you talked to women who work as maids in India, you'd hear similar stories from almost all of them. So many such women, so many stories- some worse, some better, each unique in their ability to inspire horror at the amount of suffering and hope at the almost staggering determination to survive. In stately homes, in apartments, in hovels, in brothels. If one could zoom out and watch these numerous experiences unfold, I guess one would be amazed at the choices we women make, and keep making.  

Friday, May 1, 2015

As a Matter of Act...

I can act. If my parents has passed on genes that had given me any fighting chance, I bet that those of you who know me now would have bragged about the connection. "Yes, that famous actress of the 80's and 90's. Yes, she is my friend. Yes, she is fat now. Look, she gave my kid a Rolex," you could have said. But alas, the industry never got its star, and your child, the Rolex. The genes simply were not there. My ancestors were a prudish sort, it seems. More than a hundred years of multiple foreign rule, and apparently no one in my family humped anyone outside the flock. Not one Aryan managed to score with us. They probably got beaten with ladles for even daring to steal a glance. For some, it may be a matter of pride, but let's face it- what did it really achieve? No fair skin, no delicately molded features, no green eyes, no call sheet.

I can act. That's for sure. I do it all the time in the classroom. A withering look, then whoop, it becomes a coaxing smile, but look out, whoosh, here's a steel tipped glare, and presto, out comes a loving word. And after all that, I can still be polite to my boss. All in a day's work. But it's not just teaching. I've always been a bit interested in acting. I don't know why, really. When I was growing up, Tamil heroines were a sadly used lot. They did have talent, but they had more horrid roles than not to help them forget it. Perhaps that's why I wanted to try being one. They made it look so easy. By easy, I also mean a bit senseless. I can do senseless! (Stop nodding, please.) Let me explain.

There are many things yesteryear heroines had in common. One of them is a complete lack of peripheral vision. They'd be singing and dancing their hearts out, flinging head, hands and legs everywhere, but they'd completely miss the hero wearing a bright (and, in some cases, shiny) shirt three feet away, doing a really bad job of peeping. The fellows really missed the point of the exercise, with most of their bodies in plain sight and the tip of one ear hidden behind a tree. It reminds me of my cat. Her idea of being hidden was burying her head under the pillow, with her rear up in the air, tail wagging in glee at the thought of her super stealthiness. I found it hilarious when the hero finally revealed himself by stepping out at the end of the song sequence. Man, you didn't have to take an actual step. You could have just shifted an inch to the left or right. But I get it. She needed help spotting you. True love, right there. So, yeah, I can do that. Peripheral vision- goodbye!

                                           No clue. What did I tell you?!

Next, the art of being shy. I can drag all five toes of a foot on the ground, I can even make intricate patterns. I don't have to. One toe. That's all it took back then. Semi-circular movement. Bite the lower lip. Half-smile. Look down, up, then to the side. This last bit is tricky. If you muck it up and roll your eyes in a deranged fashion, you'll look like you're having a seizure. Or, you can pass it off as a symptom of your multiple personality disorder, where this other personality, who in spite of being inspired by a charming dancer, manifests as a complete psycho lunatic with poor body control. I'm sorry about the length of that sentence, but I've been dying to get it off my chest ever since I saw Chandramukhi. So yes, you can roll your eyes if you know that Rajnikanth is coming to save you. Otherwise, don't. Anyway, to completely nail this emotion, do make sure a part of your dress is readily accessible to be twisted and wrung. Done.

            If this was my other, my real personality would have shriveled and died.

Moving on to, well, moving. You had to be all kinds of flexible when it came to dancing back then. When I say flexible, I mean mentally. From swimming on dry ground to synchronized jerky robot movements, heroines shamelessly did it all. I'm not saying they should have been ashamed; I'm saying that one had to be absolutely devoid of the inclination to feel shame. That's admirable. And guess what- I don't have it either! Tick.

                                                               Bodies in motion

Getting kissed on the eyelids, nose, cheeks, chin and neck. Yes, it was a thing. Since the lip lock was not a part of Indian culture *cough kamasutra cough*, we made sure that it was always implied on screen. Kinda like how clothes on the floor tell steamy stories...wait, actually clothes on the floor in our movies meant rape, with shots of a crumpled flower in between or something. No, we used shots of toes intertwining on the bed for the real action. I always imagined that the hero and heroine were laid out on the bed in a V shape, with their feet fighting with each other while the rest of them chastely rested. So anyway, our kisses started with the hero grabbing the actress, giving her head a vigorous tilt, while simultaneously positioning himself with his back to the camera. His bushy hairstyle immensely helped in hiding the nothing that was happening. When he let her go, she would look dazed. I suspect it was easy to look that way because of the almost violent head tilting. No noses getting in the way there! So, you see, I don't mind a bit of action. (I use the word 'action' very loosely here.) Bring it on!

                           Only on the cheek. But she still thinks it's amazing!
                  (Please note that getting it with that subtitle was pure luck.)

Close-ups. This is the one area that gives me cause for self-doubt. Can I do it? In both emotional scenes and songs, the actor and actress had to perform for numerous close-up shots so that the director could successfully frighten his audience. Even in songs. La-la-la-la, BOOM, la-la-la-la-la, BOOM, la-la-la-la, BOOM... If you didn't get it, each 'Boom' is a shot of a face doing some ridiculously exaggerated expression. I'm shying away from this because of the horror that not only future generations, but my own family and friends would express. But in all great endeavors, sacrifices are necessary. If it happens to be your eyeballs, well, *shrug.


Hmm, I notice that I started out with a hypothetical acting career and ended up with a very real disregard for incinerating the eyesight of loved ones with my acting prowess. Forgive my getting carried away. For a few moments there, I felt younger and whiter. As I said, everything I've written refers to the the previous few decades. I'm not sure about today's movies. In half of them, you really have to be super talented because the roles have improved greatly. I don't think I'm super. (Well, actually, I do, but you know what I mean.) In the other half, you have to ooze enough sex appeal to completely disintegrate your self-respect. I'd like to keep the latter, thanks. With my damned ancestors refusing to put out, it's pretty much all I've got...