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...