For You, A Thousand Times Over

I was in love. The minute I laid eyes on him, I knew Max and I were meant to be together. It didn’t matter that he was old or that he hated other dogs. I love old people and strongly dislike other human interaction. He was digging his nose into my palm like he knew it was my favourite body part. I will never forget that feeling of his wet nose burrowing deep with occasional licks. I would realise later that he doesn’t let just about anyone touch his face.

It was six months ago that we brought him home for Christmas 2016. Now, I know he loves me back when he lets me cuddle him. Max is definitely not a cuddler. He hates hugs, just like me. When I hug Max he stays completely still, barely breathing. He lets me do my thing for about 30 seconds. Maybe 45 seconds if I am persistent or if he is in a good mood. Just the way I let Amma brush my hair.

Since March, I’ve had to go out of station a couple of times leaving him behind. When I am away, he lies by the kitchen door where he usually loves to watch me cook. He mopes around the rooms with one of my clothes in his mouth. When I come back, he is miffed. For the first couple of days he refuses to acknowledge me. He uses my signature silent treatment against me. I need to win back his love. It drives me nuts when he favours T over me and acts like I am invisible. And he knows that. For the next couple of days, I offer him extra treats and talk him out of the mood he is in.

Usually Maxu is a dog who loves his space. Feed him, walk him and pet him when he wants and for the rest of the day he will do his own thing. But when we have guests over, it’s another story. If there are children in the midst, I shouldn’t pick them up or hold their hands. I should stay closer to him than to the rest of them. He tolerates people for the first half an hour. And then he gets restless. For the next hour or so, T and I take turns taking him into our room to talking him into calming down. And we always fail. We’ve never hosted anyone without having to take Maxiboo out in between.

When Amma calls, she now asks after Maxkuttan too. And she has never met him and doesn’t like dogs. I tell her about how I give him buttermilk when he has a tummy upset or about how he begs for food each time we eat though he has just eaten. She knows how he hates calling bells and scares delivery boys with his ferocious bark. And then when I open the door, he takes dainty steps towards the said person’s privates for a good, long sniff. Not awkward at all. I share with her how he now lets me clean out his ear properly and will do just about anything for food. When my brother visits India, he brings toys for Maxi. And on most days, T and I catch ourselves talking about Maxooti’s poop during our meals.

Since we don’t have his records, there is very little we know about him. We don’t know how much he weighs because he won’t let us weigh him. When both of us crowd around him voluntarily, he knows it means danger. Either it’s for a bath or for putting on the muzzle for a vet visit. When we got him, we hadn’t considered the logistics of giving him a bath. We had a spare room and a bathroom and we assumed he would use both. When he refused to enter his room and the bathroom, we were quite stumped. But now we bathe him in one of our balconies. Thanks to a skin condition he’s developed, and the occasional ticks and fleas we’ve ended up bathing him every week. Not that it’s difficult. Between the both of us and a mostly cooperative Maxita, it takes under 45 minutes. But he does not like his privates or extremities touched. If it were up to him, he would only wash his tummy. I used to bathe like that as a child.

His vet is a gentle person with a genuine interest in animals. But Maxibabu turns into a crazy nutcase when we enter the clinic. An otherwise well-behaved gentle dog, Maximus starts growling and refuses to let the doctor anywhere near him. So the diagnosis is mostly based on our descriptions. And since he is old, the doctor is against strong medication or anything invasive. As a result, we don’t think he can see too well. He thinks toddlers holding their parents’ hands are dogs. His hatred of dogs makes walking him around the park an anxious ordeal. But when he thinks children are dogs and lunges at them, what we see is Maximax being blind. But what those parents see is a monster dog.

He loves picking up bone scraps off the road. I’ve tried to feed him before his walks, get him bones at home, nothing works. So now I reason with him. Yes, I am the crazy lady who talks to her dog on the road. And then he bares his teeth at me, which I’ve come to believe is the dog equivalent of an antsy teenager slamming the door. Sometimes if I try to take something out of his mouth (usually a disgusting piece of ant-eaten bone) he does a biting motion without the intention of biting. This is my cue to really back off because he is saying I am a dog that can bite if I want to but since you are diligent with your food delivery I shall give you a warning. Passersby or well-wishers tell me that this is all because he is not neutered. Well, you are not neutered either, no?

Recently, when he was put under general anaesthesia for a minor polyp removal surgery is when I realised why Amma cannot watch me get an injection. And the following fateful day, I happened to watch Marley and Me. I bawled my eyes out wondering what life would be without him. Max is not the perfect dog. He is aggressive, moody, stubborn and set in his ways. But so am I.

I wrote about Max days after we brought him home. Find it here: Max

Mission Jackfruit aka The Chakka Murder of 2017

Jackfruit tree known as plavu

Jackfruit. Chakka in Malayalam. It’s one of the few things left in this world that can bring a smile to my Grandmum Grumpy Face. Gmum where G stands for grumpy, has had enough of this world as she reminds us multiple times a day. But present her with the prospect of a jackfruit-related activity and she perks up like a politician seeing a TV crew.

It was no wonder then that the talk of this hallowed jackfruit began the minute I got home. Never mind that I had bought an exorbitant air ticket at the airport and waited all day to board this late evening flight. Never mind that I got home well past her bed time. And never mind the minor detail that the occasion for this emergency visit was my father being hospitalised. All she could talk about was the jackfruit.

She talked persuasively about the possibility of me looking into the plucking of the said jackfruit. It’s like the art of persuasion was child’s play to her. I don’t know how she does it. She never once asked if I would do it. But in the end I found myself in the mid-morning sun, staring up at the jackfruit tree, armed with a cane pole.

The night before Mission Jackfruit, she hunted down specific aluminum vessels of varying sizes for the much anticipated jackfruit disembowelment proceedings. Meticulous as she is, she had counted the number of fruits on the tree, called plavu in Malayalam. And there were 48. Guess Douglas Adams got the number wrong after all.

When the day of the jackfruit killing dawns, the excitement is palpable. Three of us, minions at her bidding, have emboldened her efforts. We are in a trance. Now she is shooting out commands faster than a machine gun. And now we are running around, willing ourselves to run for cover but involuntarily being efficient. We are mavericks prepping ourselves to go out into the big bad backyard and battle the plavu for a chakka.

For breakfast, Gmum goads us to fuel up with extra doshas and tea. When we reach the scene, we inspect the fruit hanging way above the rest, at least 15 feet above ground. And without further adieu, Mission Jackfruit, also known as the Chakka Murder of 2017 is underway. Being the only person under 65 years of age, I am entrusted with making the chakka kiss the floor. I have three supervisors, each one lower in rank than the next, with varied opinions on the best technique to tackle the situation. And I thank God for the extra shot of patience I took this morning.

Gmum cheers me on from the sidelines with an age old saying, Pennu Thuninjal Brahmanum Thadukkilla meaning when a woman decides to take action even Brahma won’t stop her. The minute I hit the chakka, my crew springs into action, like a school of piranhas, taking it apart and cooking it multiple ways, leaving behind delicious end products, all within the hour. This crew would make a stellar car stealing company selling spare parts.

If Gmum were a superhero, her wand would put both Spiderman and Harry Potter to shame. It collects sticky jackfruit latex called chakka mulanju. It’s primarily used for sealing pickled mango jars and she’s had it as long as I can remember. And if you wish to rain down the wrath of the Gmum on yourself, I dare you to touch this wand.

All parts of the chakka other than the core and the pokey rind are edible as Gmum has demonstrated time and again. She used to even salt and dry the covering of the seed (tholi), and the stringy covering of the flesh (chauni) and fry them as chips. Not one to waste anything, she would also use the inner layers of the rind in avial.

  • Chips: As kids we grew up on endless supplies of chakka chips. I still gawk at the price of little packets of these in stores and imagine Gmum suffering a stroke when I tell her its price. Cut off the ends of the fleshy jackfruit segments so that you are left with similar sized pieces. Now make long slices of equal measurement so that they cook evenly. Fry in hot oil and stir till crispy. Then reduce the flame and add salted water. If the flame is high, the oil could overflow and catch fire. Gmum says “kilum kilum” is the sound chips make when they are done. I doubt we will ever get that sound right. And you can buy chakka chips online now.
  • Moloshyam: Cook the fruit in water with salt, turmeric and chilly powder to taste. When they come together, add a spoon of coconut oil and a sprig of curry leaves. Chakka Moloshyam makes it worth the year-long wait for jackfruit season. This tastes even better when eaten with piping-hot kanji. Variations include adding a paste of coconut and cumin and occasionally shallots.
  • Mezhukkupuratti: Another simple recipe is to crush shallots, whole red chillies and curry leaves and saute them with the fruit.
  • Seeds: Chakkakuru added to both moloshyam and mezhukkupuratti make it yummier. But do expect some music from the rear.
  • Chakka Varatti: If you prefer sweeter things, try chakka varatti which is essentially a jackfruit halwa. Made best with sweet ripened chakka, the flesh is cooked and then ground to a paste. Cook this paste with ghee and melted jaggery on a low flame. Starting with this semi liquid, stir till it darkens, leaves the sides of the vessel and easily forms a ball. Making this sweet is also a good upper arm exercise. This preparation can be stored for a while and be used in chakka adda which is a flat steamed/toasted rice dumpling filled with gooey jackfruit goodness.
  • Pappadam: Grind cooked chakka to a paste along with cumin, pepper and salt. Spread in circles on cloth and dry in the sun. These can be stored and fried as required.

This is all in a day’s work for Gmum. She is more than half a century older than me but she still does more work in a day than I do in an entire week including crossfit. When we were both younger, I remember how she used to work like a horse from four in the morning to ten in the night; in the kitchen, around the house and in the backyard. Now that she is unable to work like that anymore, she has taken to employment generation for her minions. We are currently considering nominating her for the post of employment minister for the nation. She would give Make In India a boost that no one saw coming. If that’s not available we could settle for head of Vigilance or CBI, for such is her skill in triangulating information from seasoned evaders. Watch this space for more on these appointments.

Just A Geek and A Nerd Getting By In This World

Stress cooked #fruittart. In a happier place now. #weekdaycooking #life #dessert #fun

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Cooking is therapy. It gives me space. It gives me control. And it gives back. Well, most of the time. I’ve heard people describe the drudgery of cooking up something everyday. To me, it’s all in a day’s work. But I hate deciding what to dish up for every meal.
A common scenario at home:
What do you want for dinner?
Anything.
Anything?
Yes, anything.
Anything means?
Err. pasta.
Every day, every meal. That question gets the same response. Rinse and repeat.
Soon we began arriving at no-go situations, mainly because there is only so much pasta that I will eat.
Let’s order in from Delicacy. OK!
Let’s order Biriyani from Savoury. OK!
Oh, it’s 1030 already. Can we make Maggi? OK!
I am making rice. Let’s see if we have curd/tomato paste/puliyogare paste/lemon Like a good South Indian family we always rely on rice to save the day!

The Technology of Love

When you live with a tech enthusiast, love manifests in mysterious ways. And deciphering that love becomes one of your top tasks. One day when this cooking-time charade was on, my tech support announced, I am going to fix this problem once and for all. Make a list of everything you know how to make. That didn’t take long. I already had a list on the fridge for emergency reference. I fleshed it out to add mundane things like bread and eggs. Some of them were staples but others were pretty far-fetched.
Abracadabra! And the next thing I know, there is an app on my phone. On opening, it shows me a dish, let’s say rice & sambar. And below that is a button that says NO! It’s the most emphatic of my responses. If I click on NO! I am shown a different dish. And so on. I got to customize the colour and font and I got to name the app. It’s called What’s For Dinner? After all, I do have a valid lifetime contract with my tech support. So now, when I can’t decide on what to make, I look it up on What’s for Dinner?. For tech support, this is a major efficiency booster. And I am just thankful I don’t have to eat pasta everyday.
If you are interested in the technicality of it, it’s a simple html web app that also works offline once your data is uploaded. It lets me add to the list if required.

The Love of Technology

Left to my own devices, my phone is never with me and my laptop is mostly for Netflix. I am tec savvy by marriage. My tech know-how, which is a lot more than I care to admit, is all by association. Hashtag modesty never kills. Simply by being in the same room as my tech support, I have seen how technology is only a tool. It can make lives easier in small yet significant ways like What’s For Dinner. With equal ease it can read your messages or spy on you. Though Signal has just caught the popular imagination, I’ve been on Signal since their original release in 2014. Why? Because it’s the only way to text my tech support. Hashtag talk about compromise. Signal is an end-to-end encrypted  messenger (and call) service. It’s become popular in the post-Trump world for fear of state surveillance. Popular social services like Facebook and Whatsapp also use Signal’s technology now. Signal encrypts your messages and calls so that only the intended receiver can decrypt and receive it. In case of regular messaging, your service provider can read your messages. We just assume in good faith that they don’t. Hashtag this much buddhi where I will store.
By extension, I am no longer surprised by many tech support behaviours including covering webcams on all laptops, using VPNs and having double passwords for everything. I could set off a cold war just by sharing my password with my brother. My tech support is definitely weird. But so am I. We are just a geek and a nerd getting by in this world. I think it’s something in the food.

Pedro’s House In The World

Pedro’s House in the World

Pedro has seen one fifth of the world. We meet him standing outside his cozy Voyager’s Cafe in Gwangju, South Korea in his signature beret. He is a tall, lanky man with retro spectacles and a dreamy smile. We had booked Pedro’s house for the night based on its Lonely Planet recommendation. Once we land in Gwangju, we stop for dinner at Ashley’s, a Korean-American buffet diner. Soon my phone rang. Pedro was checking up on us wondering if he could help us find our way to his place.

When we meet him, he shows us to our room which is in one of the many lanes behind the cafe. Pedro’s House now has eleven guestrooms for travellers with three staff members on duty but when he began around four years back he worked alone and there were only three rooms to let out. Our room at Pedro’s has a wall lined with English and Korean books, maps on the wall and a globe light. It is a little cramped for the three of us but it has the feel of bunking at a friend’s place. All our needs are met, it’s clean and it feels personal. We couldn’t asked for more. However, Pedro’s journey does not begin here.
As a young man, his first venture in tourism was a travel club called Lonely Korea. He gave tours to travellers passing through the beautiful port city of Gwangju. Growing up here, he had had the chance to memorise the nooks and crannies of this town where stories slept. Beyond the 18 May Uprising of 1980 where a peaceful protest was gunned down by the military government, the city holds many secrets that Pedro is privy to. He takes his customers to local events where he is a familiar face. It’s a two way street according to Pedro. Not only does it let foreigners  immerse themselves in Gwangju’s culture but it also gives the locals an opportunity to mingle with people from unfamiliar nations. While it’s true that big-city-bustle of Seoul or the volcanic island of Jeju claim to be South Korea’s biggest tourist attraction, Pedro believes that Gwangju has the best cuisine, countless hidden treasures and exciting short getaways to explore. And he is on a mission to popularise his city.
In the morning, we go down to the cafe for breakfast. And what we walk into is literally the world in a room. Voyager’s Cafe is bursting with trinkets from far corners of the world. The space is put together eclectically with mismatched pieces of furniture. On the couch a couple of foreigners in many stages of wakefulness are attempting a conversation with Pedro’s intern who is serving coffee. To the right, behind the bar, Pedro in his beret is busy making breakfast. Breakfast is simple–bread, fruit, an Indian-inspired curry with assorted vegetables and coffee. What blows our mind is the paraphernalia, on the walls and in intentionally chaotic piles around the room. Currencies from different countries hang by the entrance. Beer from the world over line the bar. Football scarves, jerseys, flags, colourful masks, Buddhist drawings, a thin wooden sculpture of a naked woman, mugs, souvenirs, travel books and much much more make up this space.
As we eat our breakfast, Pedro brings us his giant visitor’s book. He wants us to write in his visitor’s book in our local language by which he means Hindi. He demonstrates that he knows how to say thank you in Hindi and we smile back politely. What he doesn’t realise is that the last time any of us wrote in Hindi was in school, a good 15 years back. Also, between the three of us we have as many local languages. Semantics aside, we write down a basic Hindi comment with much difficulty and then witty ones in our own languages.
Pedro was in India a couple of years back and had stayed for six months. His trip had covered Pune, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Mumbai, Leh and Delhi. Last year, his travels took him to Portugal, Spain and Turkey. He travels for a month every year using returns from his enterprises — the guesthouse and the travel-themed cafe that he manages while not moonlighting as a tour guide. Next up on his itinerary is Cuba, Mexico and New York City. While travelling, he is consciously making mental notes on how tourists behave and what they expect. He pays close attention to how hotels, hostels, motels, BnBs and other accommodations cater to their customers. He puts some of those practices to use back home.
‘Most Koreans study, find a job, marry and have kids. They don’t often have a chance to travel. Such people can come to my cafe, get together with travellers and experience the world in this room’, says 38-year-old Pedro. Ask him about his future plans and he says he would one day like to pen a book on his travel experiences. Perhaps it will be called Pedro’s House in the World.

Max

 

It’s the middle of the day. Max is asleep splayed out on the living room floor. He reminds me of my grandfather. Come to think of it, just like Max, I knew my grandfather only as an old man. He retired before I was born. I’ve never known him as the strict father, the dedicated son or the naive lawyer that he was. To me he was the strict but loving grandfather who always bought me vanilla flavoured Joy ice cream and vada with chutney parcels.

Soon Max will wake up and begin whining, a performance he reserves exclusively for me, apparently because I pay him more attention. In the last two days I have learned to ignore the whining. Often it escalates to barking. Ten minutes into that performance is my wit’s end. I am wired to be an impulsive person and patience for me, is a rational response. And rationality is the first out the door when I am overwhelmed by noise. Usually I stop working and pace around the house with Max in tow. In no time, he is pacified back to sleep. I’m pacing lesser and he seems calmer with every passing day. After all, we’ve known each other only for one work week.

Max in his element

By the time I got out of college, my grandfather was in his late eighties and would sleep intermittently all day just like Max. Instead of getting a job, I stayed back home so I could always be there when he woke up. He would call out my name with the same three requests; to know the time, to go to the loo or to make tea. Sometimes, just like Max, he would wake up angry or not know where he was. And I would lie down next to him, hug him and talk to him like he was a baby. By then his memory was failing but our bond only grew stronger. Even when he had trouble remembering names he would call out to me; all day and all night. At night, I would leave both our doors open and be by his bedside if he called out even once. For years after he passed I was a light sleeper, my mind tuned to that call in the night.

Our relationship was not one of respect or love. What we had for each other was overwhelming affection that knows nothing but to comfort. He carried me in his arms before I could walk, taught me the words I know and how to use them, fed me when I fussed or even when I didn’t. Now that he couldn’t walk, talk, eat, think or remember I was offering him the same comfort. I was saying, “I don’t know what you are feeling but I want you to know that I am here. We are in this together”.

Is it Christmas yet?
Is it Christmas yet?

Truth be told, I was anxious about adopting an old dog. I had never had a pet and I didn’t fully understand what being a pet owner entailed. But as I rang the doorbell to meet Max, out came a nose that burrowed into my hand to be petted. He circled me and sought out my love till he was sated. He then left to plonk in the middle of the living room and be dead to the world. And that put my mind at ease. Max is a well-behaved gentleman who avoids entering the kitchen and bathrooms. He is friendly, mild-mannered and hassle-free. In under a week he has reminded me how much love I am capable of and trained me in playing a responsible adult.

Like my grandfather, I have not known Max all his life. Max is over 11 years old now. He has lived a life full of experiences I will never know. I will never know why he doesn’t like other dogs, why the doorbell is the only noise that startles him or why he doesn’t like children touching his face. But since our lives collided last Sunday, I’ve learned that he is ticklish near his tail, does not like carrot sticks for treats and that he likes my attention over anything else. Soon we will learn to coexist. Beyond my awkwardness and his confusion, there is a life for both of us where we are connected by the bridge of overwhelming affection.

Take A Ride

Domlur?” she said, hailing down a rather new looking auto. As the automan slowed down and came to halt in front of her, he asked, “Route gotha, madam?” “Yes, yes, I know the route”, she said. It was Thursday and they were in no hurry to get to work. She sent up a thankyou! to the upstairs person for letting her off easy in this May morning sun. Finding an auto at 9 am had the reputation of teaching one patience.

As they got in, the automan was clarifying why he didn’t know the route; he wasn’t from Bangalore. He was from Hassan. His mother had met with an accident and he didn’t have enough money for her treatment. He had rushed to Bangalore and he was now working day and night to save enough to pay for her surgery. They weren’t very talkative but he didn’t seem to pick up on that.
Without a sense of where he was going, he continuously asked her for directions at every turn off the road they were on. He sounded nervous and behaved so too. Time and again, at traffic lights, he would take out an image of Jesus and stare at it. She looked around for the driver’s ID card that’s usually stuck behind the front seat. She found it inserted horizontally on the handlebar– how useless. She tried to remember the details of his face. He had tired sickly eyes, worry lines that sagged his forehead and an unsure gaze. Perhaps unsure of what he was doing in this big city. Or unsure of what the future held.
Soon, he got a call. She found herself hoping it wasn’t some bad news. She was in the habit of expecting the worst so as to be prepared for all eventuality. Once, a long time ago, she had missed a phone call and a friend of hers had turned up dead. When he hung up and turned around to face her, she braced herself for the unthinkable. “My owner”, he said, smiling. The owner of the auto he had hired was calling to check on him and his whereabouts. The hire cost the automan Rs 1000 a day. How much did he have to make a day for this arrangement to make sense, she wondered. Her ride was worth Rs 100 and would take 45 minutes. Damn, how many hours did he work in a day? She quietened down to think it through.
Just before they got to MG road, she was jolted out of her thoughts when the automan tried the latest trend on the roads these days. As vehicles piled up at a red light, he got on to the wrong side of a two-way street via the break in the median in order to get ahead of the line. When she protested, he casually dismissed her, “Thumba jam ithe, madam. You will never get to work”. “Get back in line, now!” she said, dusting off her stern voice. When he obeyed her without question, she made a mental note to use it more often.
As if to clear the air, he told her about the time a man rode with him all the way to Koramangala only to say at the end of the journey that he had no money. “Come home,” he had told the automan as he left. She didn’t ask him why he hadn’t fought for his money. She wouldn’t have either. When they got to Domlur, he wanted to know where to find a ride back to Banaswadi. “If you don’t find one on Old Airport Road go to Indiranagar”, she pointed.
As she paid him and got off, he asked, “Could you please help me out? You know I don’t have any…” She wasn’t listening because a realisation was dawning on her. She was realising that the minute he told her about his mother, she had known that the ride would end with this question. She had done a mental tally of the notes in her purse. In between, when he broke the traffic rules, she had even toyed with the idea of taking the moral high ground. Before he could finish his plea, she gave him a five hundred rupee note and a smile.
Throughout this exchange she could feel a pair of incredulous eyes on her. As the auto drove away, the tirade began. “Was that a 500 you gave him? Are you mad? He told you that entire story because he wanted to dupe you. And you walked right into it. 500 bucks. You’ve never had any value for money. This is how he makes money, I am sure. He must be spinning these stories. Different stories for different people. How fun! He must have taken one look at your face and thought, this one? This one will fall for my sick-mother story. You saw him drive on the wrong side, didn’t you? If he was as scared as he claimed to be, don’t you think he would have stuck to the rules? And did you see how he made a show of taking out a picture of Jesus and staring at it? I am sure you will find him acting in plays by night. He must be duping people for practice. And he must think of this as payment for his acting chops.”
She thought to herself, “All I know is, when you need money, you need money; nothing else will do. If he was lying to me, that’s entirely on him. If he can lie about his mother being sick to make a quick buck, then he surely has bigger problems! I took a ride with him but I’ll never know if he took me for a ride!”

Long Before There Were Names

1997 was not a particularly memorable year of what was my awkward childhood. However, a single memory stands out in all its pre-teen awkwardness. It was November, my birthday month. Being 11 still felt new against my skin.

It was a Children’s Day like none other. That year, 14 November fell on a Friday. And our Principal had had an English-medium brainwave!  What does one bunk school and do best on a Friday? Watch a movie, of course. And it was decided that the entire school would watch, not just any movie, but Star Wars Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, which had just been rereleased. In our small town, as an upper primary kid, no one asked me for my opinion or interest. Things were decided, we were told and obeying came naturally to us.

That’s how the entire school landed up at Jos Theatre that Friday morning at 9:00 am. We were sorted into batches and filed into the huge standalone theatre, which little me thought seated well over a ‘thou—uuu—sand’ people because that was a huge number back then.

Days leading to this momentous event buzzed with excitement. S-E-X! That was the word my classroom was channeling. An English movie—most of us hadn’t watched one. The ones who had were all sniggering, chuckling, whispering or acting important. Of course you were a lost cause if you didn’t know English movies were all about sex. Thank god I knew that much! The collective intelligence of 11 year olds wondered what had gotten into the adults to take us to an English movie!

I wasn’t entirely sure what everyone was excited about. Of course it was uncool to admit that. Back then, I didn’t know what sex was. There, I said it! I believed that when men and women reached a certain age, they got married and babies were born as a result of them sleeping beside each other on the same bed. Years later, when I was told the unique fitting required to make a baby (why else would you have sex? We are Indians!), I was sure I was being misinformed. Goes without saying that it took me a lot more years to QED why sex is awesome.

Anyway, when Children’s Day finally dawned and I wore my brown box skirt, I had no idea this movie was going to change my life. Once we fell in line, began a long wait—of standing, shuffling, staring and inching to get all ‘1000’ of us, some too young to understand anything useful in English, seated. Two hours later, we were finally in the cool darkness of wilful suspension.

By then I was bored to tears. And then the movie began. I wasn’t sure I understood anything. I strained to catch all the accented English floating around, but to no avail. The most disturbing question for me was—what is sex in this? I was sure I understood all the actions the actors were performing. I was equally sure that I hadn’t missed anything. If I understood all the actions, it automatically meant that none of that was sex. So if all English movies were about sex, I had understood all actions and hadn’t missed anything then…things weren’t quite matching up. Asking my classmates for confirmation was out of the question. I didn’t want to be ‘that’ kid. I was beginning to get anxious.

The movie was over 2 hours of concentration, frustration, disappointment and confusion. Then it was over as abruptly as it started, and we were waiting for our journey back into the real world to begin. When we escaped that air-conditioned cocoon, I was supposed to become a butterfly, colourful in my knowledge of what sex was. But my mind was still racing to find the answer.

And I did. In the 25 steps of madness from the theatre to its gate, where our school uniforms ran into the ocean of movie-goers, I became a woman; in the most practical sense of the word.

A hand broke the cover of my skirt and reached firmly into me. That unfaltering finger knew where it was going and what it was doing, though I didn’t. It was crowded. Anyway, why would anyone want to touch where I pee?

I turned around to look behind me. I expected someone to be smiling or waving or looking embarrassed — basically acknowledging the act. Well, that’s how young I was. When nobody owned up, I went back to wading through the humanity.

There it was – the hand … in and out and … again.

This time I was sure someone I knew was playing with me. So I didn’t react immediately. I waited for it to happen again. There …  and … just missed. I couldn’t place the prankster.

I tried that stunt twice more. There … again.

By now we were in the middle of this quicksand of people. I was a child who happened to be a girl and not a girl who happened to be a child. And that’s when innocence left me. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was called but I knew ‘this’ was intentional.

Should I call out to Amma to check what ‘this’ is? In that rush … can’t it wait? I can see that she is trying her best to get me out of here. Shouldn’t I behave and tell her once we are back home? There it was again.

In those 7 minutes it took us to get to the front gate, everything changed. I, who knew nothing about sex a couple of minutes back — even after watching an “English” movie — suddenly knew what violation felt like, long before that word joined my vocabulary. Long before there were names, I knew who and what to protect my sex-less body from, but not why. I knew I didn’t want anyone making me feel as confused as I felt that day.

Those minutes slowed into hours over the years, as I began processing that event. All the way into my late 20s, I continued to ask myself — what should I have done that day? Deep in my consciousness, I know the answer; no 11 year old should have to know.

It All Makes Sense

When my time-traveller stopped responding one fine Sunday morning, much jet fuel was burnt to get me home. My giant carbon footprint seemed to be stuck in my throat. On the ride home I prepared myself to console my marshmallow matriarch, the time traveller’s better half, who stood to be dulled by the death of her beloved. He was the breadwinner, she the breadmaker. They had been for 61 years. I was their bread-eater, have been for 28.

What was it like to lose the one you shared your life’s journey with? Without him would her memories fade? They had always stepped out with a purpose. A walk was to the temple, a taxi ride to visit her sister, a train journey to complete the circle of life. Their stories of travel, never little escapades, never a holiday, filled my ears for years; they still do.

It was soon after my parents got married that the duo went to Kashi. A town along the banks of the Ganges, a visit to Kashi is said to bring life full circle — a sacred pilgrimage for Hindus. In my bedtime tales, following the homemaker avatar of grihasthashrama, sanyasa always saw people denounce their families and go to Kashi to find God.

My grandparents just took the guided tour. They called it a pilgrimage, came right back home and it’s been 30 years since. A trip to be taken and thought of in utter piety, always and only reminds my marshmallow matriarch of the filthy narrow roads of the temple town and its omnipresent cows. How the betel-stained mouths of priests accosted them at the railway station making deals to perform the last rites of our ancestors!

They brought back Gangajal, holy water of the Ganges. I’d say Gangajal has a tough life, even in a bottle — nothing short of salvation is expected from it! My time-traveller was duly administered the same. She jokes that one could die solely of drinking that dirty water because of how polluted the Ganges is these days.

She was the memory collector, if he were the time-traveller. She grounded him. He’d go to her when he couldn’t remember and she would recollect till he caught on.

If you didn’t go anywhere and the world travelled to meet you, would you be well-travelled?

It’s been 68 years since her younger brother, at the age of five, had one of his kidneys removed. World War II had incapacitated even the far-away world they lived in. Without reservations available on the train, their father had held him in his arms all the 600 kms to Madras. The ‘Madras to be bombed’ rumour loomed large over them and they returned – after 45 days of blank noise- in a bullock cart from the railway station because their home wasn’t on any bus route. Operation successful. She never mentions that he went on to become a renowned cardiac surgeon. His life, all of it, as she experienced it, through hand-me-down details, is incredible and its destination was never the point.

If your experiences are only as good as your memories, and you are a memory-collector, could you be well-travelled?

Catalogued under his experience but with full retelling rights resting safely with her, the story of her nephew’s Rajasthani wedding is a marvel. The groom’s wedding party consisted all of 11 members which included my time-traveller and my marshmallow matriarch’s sister. Rajasthani weddings are all about sweetmeats. The story goes that after seven days of sweetened food, my marshmallow matriarch’s sister’s daughter, who was four at the time, finally pleaded with her uncle, “Please get me some good old rice and curd, please don’t make me eat another sweet, please!”. Our heroine wasn’t at this wedding. However, her sister who attended retells this story with these exact details; and that’s how memories travel – through storytellers.

Could the well-travelled bring back from faraway lands only perceptions that reinforce their beliefs?

On a visit to Chandigarh, they stayed over with a relative. The morning they were to leave, she offered to make them Upma, an easy semolina dish, for breakfast. Chandigarh is one of India’s only planned cities. From this hub of town planning, she chooses to remember this: that the lady realised there was no semolina at home when she got to the end of preparation and the water began to boil; that she sent her husband scurrying through the well-planned roads of Chandigarh that Sunday dawn, in search of semolina; that they had toast for breakfast.

If yes is the answer, if the world could travel to meet you, if travel is a collection of memories and if your perceptions rarely change, then it all makes sense. ‘They’ is no more. It’s been a month since my time-traveller left her to curate their memories.

I Smell A Dream

Jasmine, that’s what our house smells like.

It’s not an urban jungle, my garden. Giving the jasmine company is the long-ish bed of some plant I like to simply call spinach (for no reason) with delicately coloured pretty flowers.

We made dinner with loving hands, hungry voices and happy noses; we sat adjacent to each other and ate from our porcelain plates. Now, washing up has stopped being a chore, and so has cooking. We walked off our dinner along Champak-lined streets, its fragrance seducing my fiesty curls. The beauty of repetition dawns when we walk arm in arm, the way we know how we fit. Our bedroom smells of Sampige too, thanks to the thoughtful Chembakam outside our window.

On lazy Sunday afternoons, I make small talk with all our bookshelf people, though of course I like mine better than his. They watch me, like an audience, from a world of their own. Neatly overflowing, my books always find their way back home to the bookshelf. His books are elite and you cannot open one at random; you need a certain standing in society to mingle with them.

Our TV watches, him, me, and everything we do, through her omniscient eye. She wants us to know that she is ready to play a movie, any movie we fancy watching. She wants us to watch her channels perform but she knows that’s out of the question. Hence the offer we can’t refuse. Him, me and her end up sharing our suspension of disbelief. On a sofa, the right one, on whose purchase we spent quarter of a year, we sit comfortable, curves melting, bones cushioned, ready to fall asleep at the stench of the movie turning lousy.

As I lay there, an aside in my brain processes the things in our storeroom. I have two kinds of pickle, with another one waiting to be made. I have three homemade attempts at winemaking in different stages of completion. I could bake a cake this evening with a touch of improvisation. I take stock of supplies, the ones I need to use and the ones I need to buy. I don’t wonder what his brain is up to. The joy we sought has been found, like a dual-sim phone, we live together but still keep our heads separate.

We pay no maid because we love playing house. The chores aren’t divided between us, no one is responsible for anything but it’s an understanding that these need to get done, no matter who does it. Another understanding is that the other will step in without a word when required. We step out during the week, for beer, movie, play, fair or for an occasional mandatory sighting. We don’t have children yet, but we talk to them, about them. Our Future stands at earshot, listening.

The love has stabilised, it’s within the limits of expression now and our hearts aren’t bursting out of our chests. We are not a perfect match, we are not the dream partners, we don’t understand each other or share common interests. The respect, however, has grown, so has the camaraderie. Love is too commonplace to be mentioned. There is a sense of fitting well, a feeling that I previously thought only a pair of jeans could provide. We have our fights, of loudness so deaf followed by silence so loud. But we are both eager to make up and we are glad to have fought because the fight seems to have filed away yet another sharp edge. We fit better making our hugs a national convention of skin.

There is work, family, friends, bad drivers, opinions, things each of us doesn’t like to do, things we are forced to do, duties we forget, meetings we don’t make it to, points we cannot convince each other on and things we don’t appreciate to exasperate us as a couple. But, we seem to be gliding, our only surety that of being attached to the glider; me-mine-him, he-his-me. That everything can be dealt with as long as we stand by each other. That we are each other’s strength and weakness.

Distance has always been a part-time friend; the best part being the dream I could invent. Whatever life with him serves up now, it wouldn’t upset me for I have lived my tame Jasmine-scented dream. I am ready for my chaotic reality. This is how I smell a dream.

Here And There

I’ve met once a time traveller, during one of my many sabbaticals from life it was. He was like a peaceful child, unperturbed by the loud world around him. The blind world that shouted at him as if their disability were deafness. And he listened to it all, all the curses they send his way, all the orders at odds, all the cruel jokes and other manifestations of stress. I’ve often wondered the source of his peace and it is clear to me now, clear yet heady like vodka. It is their high levels of stress that fuels his travails in time.

He was in his sixties last Wednesday. A fun time to be in life, I imagine-settled, retired, relaxed-I wonder what he sees, I can only hear his replies. Future or past, wherever he might go, it’s an uncomfortable feeling-like eavesdropping-listening to someone time-travel. But he doesn’t leave me a choice, I have to stay with him at all times and he leaves without notice.

He met an acquaintance the other day. He wanted to learn her whereabouts in real time. Our efforts fell to their beautiful death like autumn leaves because I couldn’t travel with him but the intriguing dimensions I reconstructed of his reality were beautiful. I am into reconstruction, big time. Mainly because he doesn’t take me with him.

Seated next to me on an old bed that sagged like a soaked slice of bread, he could see not the nondescript lane outside our window but a life lived in another eon, equally commonplace, even more so. Instead of the room lived in by our lives, he saw a clinic with sloping rooms fit for terrace farming. He met with children who stood atop the tube light and he was quick to caution the man who stood inside the table fan. When the cupboard was opened, his eager voice wanted a nameless someone to get ready on time for the chauffeured car that would soon be sent to get them.

One day he was a magician who had lost his pouch of gold dust in his handkerchief and on other rare days he was a positively resigned old man in purgatory. On a usual day, he would stop feeling generous and want to account for all ten of his wife’s gold bangles. Quite a wife, to own ten gold bangles! He led an expedition far and wide to search, count, pat down and account for every one of those ten bangles and didn’t want to stop till every inch of his vast empire of an entire bed was turned inside out.

Such information did alarm me before I knew he was a time traveller. Now I roam mindless, my ears always alongside him on his trips, mesmerised by what his mind’s eye conjures, from the shackles of his bed and I imagine I am with him, holding his hand, seeing what he sees. He used to be my grandfather, before he was a time traveller, now he always will be…