Monday, April 27, 2015

Asia Alert!

There’s a new child in school. He’s a 9 year old Thai and he knows, at most, a few words in English. Of course, he landed in my class. I admit it- I fumed. Heck, I breathed fire. I even had a chat with the admission department. In an ideal world, which is what we see in movies, teachers have infinite time to spend with each child, casually introducing a song here, a book there, a deep conversation in between, and lo presto, difficult children have become docile achievers, dumb kids start radiating intelligence and everyone’s exchanging hi-fives. In real life, there’s very little time to do any of that. So, all I've been able to do so far is shoot despairing glances at him as I run from one child to another.

But this child has a truly indomitable spirit- the size of a continent. Perhaps that’s why he was named Asia.  In the last session with his class, I introduced the children to timelines, and encouraged them to draw a timeline for their own lives. Since I didn't want Asia to just copy stuff he didn't understand, I asked his classmate to tell him to write it in Thai, hoping we could translate it later. Mid-way he started jabbering like a chimpanzee and suddenly, the entire class was in chaos, gales of laughter rolling them this way and that. When I finally calmed a child down, wiped away her tears and helped her breathe again, she translated what he’d said.

Turns out that Asia, interpreting it in his own way, created a unique timeline. Under each year, he listed things like ‘The year when I poo-pooed in my pants and didn't tell my teacher’ and ‘The year I didn't take a bath for 2 weeks’. It was hilarious. It was also enlightening. What more important events in life could there be than the ones that make us laugh out loud? His timeline was way better than mine. This nine year old bested me with his humor and easy confidence, tongue in cheek the whole time.

And that’s what defines him. A child he may be, but what is extremely striking about him is an old-fashioned sense of self-confidence that he exudes almost unconsciously. It's quiet. Even when it inspires wackiness, it has dignity. I can’t help but compare it to the confidence-on-steroids that I witness often, unfortunately more in adults than in kids. 'OMG, I'm so crazy, I'm so awesome, I'm so weird'... OMG, Please!

It reminds me of an old Tamil movie in which this character is on a continuous ego trip, insufferably eager to proclaim himself  'different.' The opening scene of the movie features his friend, his patience apparently frayed thin, asking him, "Saapadu- vaai valiya dhaane?" (Your food- enters through your mouth only, right?) That was sheer genius, in my opinion. It reiterates, somewhat crudely, that we all have more in common than we like to admit. With everyone being unique (which we are), it becomes a moot point anyway. 

I saw Asia again today. He understood pretty much nothing I told him. He just kept saying “What?” in Thai until I clutched my head in despair. (Yes, I used the word despair again.Get used to it). But he also made me laugh. Yes, he did make a paper airplane out of the worksheet I gave him but what the heck, it was more useful to him that way. Who says alliteration is more important than aerodynamics? Not Asia. When he left I was exhausted. I’d learnt enough for another day. Until tomorrow then, Asia. Go easy on me, okay? 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tamil Ponnu (A Good Girl)

Sometimes, there’s just no winning. Sometimes, it’s just a hopeless cause. When people talk about things like glaciers melting and impending global doom, I get it. I feel the same way about dish-washing.

I've been on my own for a long time. But the ‘Tamil ponnu’ training that my mother instilled in me is as sure and true as generations of brain washing have striven to make it. No bloody mother-in-law is going to question my mother’s valarpu, I tell you. When I walk away, things behind me shine. I’d like to say that with their glow as a backdrop, I have an aura around me that only accentuates the beauty of my sari-clad womanly form. I cannot. I am sweating from my scalp so that my hair is plastered to my skull, my bindi is on my left cheek (please drag your eyes back to my face), and my practical tank top and three-fourth shorts look like somebody dangled me horizontally onto a soapy lake, leaving me half wet. It’s not a pretty picture. I don’t mind. I’m single. But what I do mind is when things undo themselves in record time. It’s like a slap in my sweaty face.

Personally, vessels punch me in the gut a lot. The funny thing is that I never knew I had a problem with them when I was undergoing training, a.k.a, my childhood. Now, I wash them with vigor, admire their sheen, place them upside down, turn around and whoosh, they’re back in the sink, unapologetically dirty. Some go so far as to have crusty bottoms that require muscle. It’s disgusting. To add insult to injury, you can’t even ignore the damn things. It backfires. Sure, you can slink around the house, avoiding the corner where the sink is, getting desperately inventive when the utensils you need just aren't there- from stories my bachelor colleagues have told me, people have eaten off Tupperware lids, used knives as spoons (don't try it at home, kids!) and even fashioned a bowl out of foil. But a couple of days in, you start worrying, shooting furtive glances at the pile. What if something is growing in there? What kind of horror movie are you spawning? For me, the very first night (no, not that kind) is when the guilt begins- an overwhelming presence that hijacks the underside of your eyelids and flashes scenes of your mother’s horrified face, your mother’s pristine kitchen, your mother. “Tamil ponnaa nee?!”, Vijaykanth demands in your dreams, his eyes bloodshot. You toss and turn, and the next morning you just give up. The wheels keep turning. Such is life.

Domestic Goddess mode aside,  a Tamil ponnu has a formidable checklist tucked away in her blouse. Granted, times have changed, and we’re feminists now. But the xerox copy of that checklist is still floating around. I have felt it breathing down my neck at times. It’s a difficult yoke to break free from. The last time I was tested was when I went home to Salem during Christmas break. A flight, a taxi, a train ride and the scariest of all- an auto ride later, I’m home and I’m greeted by my mother who takes me aside and whispers that my dear dad has arranged a visit from a potential ‘groom’ and his family. In a situation like this, the mother is always terrified, caught as she is between her orthodox husband and her not at all dutiful daughter.  One look at her sad, beseeching face and that’s when the Tamil ponnu kicks you in. So you pacify her, glare at your father, and go get ready. A few minor skirmishes later, I sit there in a chudhidar (skirmish no.1), not wearing gold (skirmish no.2), wearing house chappals (skirmish no.3) and stare at this guy and his family, the former looking everywhere but at me, the latter looking only at me. The comedy, as we say in Tamil, is that these guys invariably send word later on that- yes, we can get married. Whoop!

As if the attempted brainwashing sessions at home weren't enough, movies actively encouraged the image of this paragon pathni (wife). In this context I must say his name. The Superstar. The One and only. The Rajini. This is a man, if you’d grown up around, you’d relegated to a god-like status for at least a few years. His punch dialogues, as we call them, were more like prophecies and in the 80’s and 90’s, many were the times that I was tempted to devoutly fold my hands when one of his homilies hit the screen. Unfortunately, a recurring theme he delved into was the ideal of womanhood. Lordy, he had many things to say about that. To make sure he had ample opportunity to educate the masses, most women in his movies were played by fire-breathing dragons constructed out of pure unadulterated ego. They eventually all learnt to keep their voices low, their heads lower and their tempers and ambitions in check. Or they died. No two ways about it.

                                                              This one didn't make it.
So finally, after all that, you become aware, you question, you break free and you stand tall. All woman, baby. My choice. Hear me roar. Put a ring on it. Um, maybe not the last one. But the ghost of that checklist? Still there. Lurking. I don't know if it'll ever disappear completely. I'll update my Facebook status if it does. Until then, one thing is clear. Sometimes, there’s just no winning. Sometimes, it’s just a hopeless cause. I have dishes to wash.