I Am A Mountain Person Because I Love A Good Challenge

My attempt not to turn "black"! Worked for exactly 2.5 minutes! #slat

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I have never been excited by the ocean. It could be because it’s always been in my backyard. I could go whenever I wanted though I have few memories from my childhood of being at the beach. There is also the Indian mentality of not getting into the water. Until I visited Unawatuna beach in the south of Sri Lanka and swam in the ocean, going to the beach was always an unnecessarily hot and boring activity. In my family, you went to the beach to “feel the wind”. “Kaatu kollan” best is apparently Kozhikode beach.

I’ve never actively thought about it till now, but I might be a mountain person. Mountains are a challenge. A challenge that me with my abused lungs, asthma and bodyweight find super hard to master. Two years ago a couple of us drove to Yelagiri over the weekend; a tiny hill station 160 kms south east of Bangalore. There we trekked up stone steps for maybe 30 minutes and I was done. Panting and out of breath, my lungs were breathing fire. It felt like someone was pushing down a massive weight on my shoulders. Of course I made excuses for taking breaks including the juvenile one that I was waiting for the other friend who had trouble climbing. We still laugh about that. An hour or so into it, when it grew dark and started raining hard, I was the happiest to return. That must have been a max of 800-1000 metres.

Coconut tree in the sky!

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Walking and swimming aren’t challenging activities to me. I enjoy both and can do them endlessly. Once, in Gokarna, we walked some 17 kms along the beach in a day. We got up early, walked out of our stay and just kept walking. When the sun beat down on us too hard, we got into the water to cool down. When we got hungry, we stopped by one of the many shacks by the beach and had our fill. When there was an opportunity to people gaze, we plonked on the sand and did just that. We beach-hopped from Gokarna to Kudle to Om. We could have kept going if the day was longer.

Though I don’t like to leave the house on a regular day, I would like to believe that I am an outdoorsy person. I love being in nature, sweating it out and being under the cool shade of giant trees among the chatter of birds. It is precisely this romanticism got me hiking in South Korea. And of course Crossfit, the fitness regime that changed my outlook to life. In our 20 days in South Korea, we completed four treks. And I was blown away that I was physically able to do it. And for that I have Crossfit to thank. It’s the trainers there who taught me to push myself. Not to give up when breath becomes laboured. That the human body can take a lot more exertion than we are used to on a regular day. Crossfit taught me that when you think the climb is going to kill you, it’s just your brain messing with you. Keep on going on.

Bukhansan: It’s a fortress on a mountain that serves as the border of Seoul and it’s still heavily guarded. The path is clearly laid out with steps here but you are not allowed to take pictures towards the city. This day hike is best for people who enjoy surveillance.

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Seoraksan: We stayed in a windmill-themed lodge in Sokcho on the foothills of the Seoraksan mountains. We took the easiest trekking route that took us through two waterfalls before climbing up to a viewpoint. Since Seoraksan is to the north, though it was early October, the leaves were turning and it was beautiful. Trekking is a popular activity in South Korea and you will see many senior citizens, mostly older women (called Ajummas), climbing up nimbly in gaggling groups with packets of orange and Soju. The good thing about crowds in Korea is that they don’t litter.

Those hills are called oreums. They were created when Mt. Halla erupted millions of years ago. #koat16

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Hallasan: Located on Jeju island, Hallasan is a dormant volcano. Access to the upper reaches of this mountain is restricted. There are endless steps built onto the cliffside of this mountain and you just keep on climbing. The winds are strong and the scenery is breath taking. You get to see little hills called oreums, made when the Mt. Hallasan erupted millions of years ago. When the mountain plateaus out before the mid-way shelter, we were told that we were the last ones on the property and we had little time to get back down. The downhill was an eerily silent descent broken only once by a toy-sized cargo train from the shelter that offered us a lift!

View form the top #koat16

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Our best climb in South Korea was in the company of one of my old friends from college, Thressy Maxwell. From Busan, we took a bus to Okpo and onward to Gujora beach in Geoje. Late October being off-season, the streets were silent, most services were shut and the atmosphere was perfect. We bought her favourite fried chicken and climbed up a bamboo forest to reach a sort of a tiny fortress with a view of two beaches. We had lunch there, just the three of us, shared stories and found a different path to walk down. I will always remember that place when I think of Thressy and of Korea.

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Looking forward, 2017 intends to be the year I get fitter than I am right now. And one of the big motivators is a secret desire I’ve been nursing since I read Vasudhendra’s Mohanaswamy. To climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Thank god I have friends who think it’s a good idea and are ready to indulge me. It’s a tall order even for a fit person because of the high altitude and the low temperatures. Not to mention that I have the lung capacity of a week-old balloon. And Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano that takes a week to climb. And as of today I know nothing more about it.

Let’s just say that’s how challenges are born and accepted. There will always be a way to make it happen. There is a story about Vararuchi in Eithihyamala. He and his wife are on the road (deshadanam). When each of their babies are born he asks if they have a mouth. And he asks his wife to abandon them because the gods who gave the child a mouth will also find a way to fend for them.  Africa trip is not till October. I have over six months to prepare. Though I am not religious, my faith is based entirely on the naive belief that the powers that be will not put me in situations I cannot handle.

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.

How Blue Is My Sapphire?

Note: This was written for TOI’s Write India Campaign (Anita Nair edition). Didn’t make it to the top but it was good practice for when I grow up and become a writer.

How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewelers.
How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewelers. PC: Wikimedia

He was the one. I woke up feeling positive. This decision was a long time coming but now it seemed natural. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am.

Amma and I were early risers. By 5 am I would be making us tea with milk powder as soon as she had washed the saucepan. No one in our family approved of milk powder. You might as well drink coca-cola, they seemed to think. They refused to believe that milk powder could replace milk though we had no idea where our milk came from. But this was our little secret. I had learned how to make ginger tea with milk powder during my years in the college hostel. Amma had loved it the first time I made it for her and that’s how milk powder made its way into our morning ritual. We now stashed a packet behind the jar that held tamarind, in a dark corner of the store room, away from prying eyes.

As we sipped our milky tea with a hint of ginger, I whispered to Amma, “I am going to marry Manu”. She leaned closer to me, held my arm and smiled. “If that’s what you want, that’s what we will do”. I could see her face cloud over with guilt over my first marriage although that decision was made almost a decade ago. Technically, I had agreed to the arrangement but the pressure they put a 20-year-old through was extraordinary too. While they gave me “time to decide”, they booked the venue, paid the caterers, bought jewelery and printed the cards. It’s a shame young people don’t realise that their grandparents have many last wishes.

For the family I married into, I was never good enough. I wasn’t beautiful enough, didn’t earn enough, didn’t cook well enough, wasn’t obedient enough, wasn’t cultured enough. Well-brought up as I was, I began to toe the line– first his, then his family and finally my parents. It took me 7 years to get out of that marriage. I often wonder what gave me the sense not to have a baby.

I remember the day I walked out. It was a Sunday. He had been watching TV all day and had had breakfast and lunch in front of the box. When he called out for tea, something in me snapped. I think that was my 7-year-old resilience. I was done. I have no memory of what I said standing between him and the TV. All I remember is the noise in the background, “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers”.

There was nothing extraordinary about this ad. A little girl was asking an old man over the counter, a question. He responds with a ring in an open box saying, “Blue as the sea can be”. The camera zooms in to their logo behind him. Fin.

Ordinary as it was, this ad always took me to my dark place. I felt hopeless. Feeling-wise, it was the diametric opposite of how Pears bathing soap made me feel. The smell of Pears soap took me to a cozy place, a memory of bathing in hot water while the rain pelted outside.

I must have hardly been a teenager then. Whenever my parents fought, which was often, they would turn up the volume on the TV to make sure I didn’t hear them. But most parents underestimate their children; forget that children learn everything by watching their parents. Children know the meaning of every note of your voice, every move of your muscle.

The lasting memory from this time of my life still makes me cringe. It’s of a clumsy big girl sitting at the top of the stairs hugging herself. She is crying her heart out in mute. Oblivious, you can hear her parents arguing in the living room. You can hear them over the loud jingle on TV. “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers.”

They are still together, my parents. They are miserable but they are still together. Apparently it was all for me. Their entire adult life has been a charade of staying married than being married. It’s like no one expected marriages to be happy. Everyone was married because they had to be. And no one was divorced because they couldn’t be. So they continue to live in limbo, pickled by antimicrobial words like culture, family, society, status and values.

That’s why happiness was never absolute in my family. It was always a function of something or someone. There was no occasion for you to just be happy. You were happy only if you did something. Or because someone gave you something. Probably why I didn’t recognise happiness when we first met.

Though we worked together, Manu and I had met at a friend’s party where we got talking about jargon at work and our general work woes. “What I really want to do is work in some place like a pet store that’s full of animals”, I said. “Me too”, said he. Before the end of the month, we were spending our Saturdays volunteering at a pet shelter close to his place. Once we wrapped up work, we would head to a roadside tea stall. Since it was Saturday afternoon and I was usually free, if he had errands to run, I would tag along. Afternoons soon turned into evenings and weekends.

When deadlines were due, I usually worked long hours. On one such occasion, when he hadn’t heard from me for almost two weeks, he turned up at home just as I was heading out for a walk. Evening walks soon became our thing. Over two years, we became inseparable.

Now I recognise happiness. Happiness is ordering mint-flavoured ice cream without having to justify myself. Happiness is wearing my most comfortable fashion-retard dungarees and not being scoffed at. Happiness is growing an identity for the first time. Happiness is the lack of expectation; living in the moment. I had all of this with Manu.

If you met Manu in a room full of people, he would be the one chatting up the awkward person in the corner. Sent away to residential school at a very young age, he had grown up to depend on no one. An eerie sense of being capable of anything, emanated from him like radiation. If he was unsure of anything, he didn’t show it. He was always calm as a lake and uncomplicated as a binary.

Never before had a man treated me with such respect. When I mentioned my first marriage to him, it was in passing. We were over at a friend’s place, and he was surprised at my party trick–opening bottles with my bangle. And I said, “I used to be married to an army man”. And that was that. That was the most I had told anyone about my marriage. And he respected that.

I don’t know when he began picking me up but I was now waiting at the end of my road. Feeling footloose, I wondered if I should post my decision on Facebook later. Of course I decided against it. I would not know how to follow it up with a picture, a date, details, anniversaries. I had no patience for baring my life online.

In that fleeting moment, standing in the shade of the giant rain tree on that August morning, I felt joy. The world was not a bad place after all. As if in a vision, it was revealed to me how it all made sense. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I hoped that when the weight resettled, it would be lighter, shared between us.

“I have made up my mind”, I said, as soon as I got into his car. He turned to me and scanned my face. He knew what I was talking about. We knew it had taken time but we had gotten there. We couldn’t stay away from each other. We both knew that we found peace in each other. We agreed that marriage was the logical next step though we had never spoken about it.

We were not renegades who belittled the institution of marriage. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. With him by my side, I still had faith in the possibility of a successful marriage.

He eased the car onto the side of the road. “Are you sure?”, he asked, holding my hand as his face lit up. Before I could answer, the radio jockey took a break. “How blue is my sapphire? Blue as the sea can be. Sea Blue Stones and Jewellers.”

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!”

Flash Fiction: Mr Husband

Disclaimer: No husband was harmed in the making of this story. None of the thoughts in this story are derived from or directed at the you-know-which husband. He is hail and hearty and continues to be the only love of my life.

I sent this story to a contest and nothing happened. These are times when I am glad I have a blog where I can publish everything I write and not feel contested. In need for some much sought after validation. To the seven people who read my blog, let me know what you think of this story. It’s 300 words because it’s flash fiction (#whaaat)!


 

Mr Husband

Their anniversary was without fanfare. For 20 years, the only departure had been an elaborate dinner in place of their usual chapati and curry. This year on the menu was Khow Suey, a Burmese noodle soup.

Kitchen was her happy place where she cooked up the vegetables she grew. With a dozen condiments, Khow Suey was a labour of love for a dinner for two. You had to caramalise garlic and onions, chop herbs, roast peanuts, saute mushrooms and boil eggs.

She loved these laborious tasks. They kept her mind from racing. She had been married off at eighteen. He was a decent man, her husband. Soon, they were raising two children and by the time she turned 40, it was just the two of them again.

Who was she? A quiet married woman who talked to herself, holed up in her kitchen while her husband got lost in a world he entered through the newspaper? And what about him? A man with no complaints or surprises; content with his job, family and the drama the newspaper offered?

Their life was an ode to familiarity. Mornings, they went for a walk. She made breakfast while he got ready for work. Once he left, she cleaned up, took a bath, napped a little and tended to her garden. She would be busy cooking dinner when he got home. Their lives weren’t boring, she reasoned. Such was life.

Chopping mushrooms, she heard herself say, “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll grow some mushrooms, cook them up into a deadly curry and feed it to my dull old Mr. Husband. That should do him in, no?”

Her murderous plans where still on when the doorbell rang. She opened the door, took his lunch box and asked him about his day.

Book Review: A Superior Insight Into A Slice Of India

Serious Men by Manu Joseph is a slice of India that’s beautiful in its uniqueness. Written in 2010 and published by Harper Collins India, this book won him The Hindu Best Fiction Prize for the year. Though politically this book dwells on the strong undercurrents of caste in science and academia, for me this is a story of two men and the women they love. Buy this book.

Ayyan Mani is the plotting peon to Arvind Acharya, the “insufferable astronomer” and Director at the Institute of Theory and Research: the protagonists. Ayyan Mani wants to get his wife and son out of the stifling life in their crumbling Mumbai chawl. As a peon at the ‘Institute of Brahmin Scientists’, he is also keen on witnessing and steering the War of the Brahmins to a conclusion of his choice. Arvind Acharya is on a mission to save science from populist scientists whose genius has long stagnated; professionals bent on finding their space in the limelight for that one final time. This is the story of their wins and losses.

Written with superior insight into our society, credit goes to Joseph for bringing up caste and class issues without pointing fingers. Laced with a generous helping of humour, Serious Men is a reader’s delight, one of those books you wish would last forever. My favourite however is the banter between Ayyan Mani, an Ambedkar inspired Buddhist and the missionary principal of his son’s school who tries to convert him to Christianity every time they meet.

While men in the book are beautifully crafted, the women’s side of the equation isn’t as balanced. Oja Mani is a typical lower middle class mother who wants her son to be “normal”. Lavanya is the homebound wife, ever-accepting of Acharya’s eccentricities, arguably her life’s goal being ‘to make his achievements possible’. Oparna is the beautiful woman scientist, a rarity, whose actions are all too predictable. I have my qualms with Joseph’s  uninspired flat women characters but I would compromise my displeasure for gems like the love-hate relationship between old Princeton friends, Jana Nambodri and Acharya. Now, as professional rivals, the author maintains a maturity in their  their relationship that is rarely seen in Indian storytelling. While Jana visits Acharya at home and reminisces about his rebel friend, he cuts no corners in expressing his professional animosity.

Full disclosure: I have a strong dislike for India themed books with themes like the Hindu-Muslim riots, India-Pakistan partition, terrorism and independence struggle simply because coming from India’s shin, I don’t relate to any of these things and these are not concepts I grew up with. Therefore, books like this one, Em and the Big Hoom, English August and Cobalt Blue give me hope that Indian writing in English is not beyond redemption.

Buy this book.

Procrastinator’s Pride: An Incomplete List Of Unfinished Books In My Shelf

Since yesterday, I can wax eloquent about Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie. Shamefully, it is my first Nagarkar read. Arguably his best work, (1.) Cuckold, was one of my gifts when I turned 25. And I turn 30 this year. A procrastinator’s pride, I have been meaning to read that book for half a decade!
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That’s how I thunk up this list. These are books I should have read MUCH earlier; I own copies of these, have read some of these, but haven’t completed them yet.
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I’ve had a copy of this Malayalam must-read for over 10 years now.
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I remember the first time I read the premise of this book. It was the summer of 2010, a period when i had all the time in the world to read. I was skulking around Blossoms hoping to meet “the rich man of my dreams” who would buy me as many books as I cared to read! Oh, for life’s simple needs! I ended up buying a lot of obscure books other than this one because they were cheaper.
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The year was 2007 and I was very excited about debut novels. Right up until I got myself a copy! Never got around to either of them.
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Of course there was a Marquez phase. The tragic end to that was marked by a thesis that exorcised the Marquez fetish. This book came to me right after the exorcism. I had no energy left for one more ecstasy. I read the first 20 pages from time to time but never again found the urge to finish it.
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I was in the eucalyptus stillness of the mountains. A chill rose among the plantations along with the potent smell of coffee. I remember I was reading Everything is Illuminated short on the heels of his other book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!! All I can say is the woods had me in their hold and a warm cup of freshly brewed coffee did me in!
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I don’t remember who introduced me to this one. I remember reading more than half way through this. And I remember it being very engaging. But then I did put it down.
Hmm, 8 is a good number, don’t you think? How about we make this a running list. I have a feeling I hide books I own but haven’t read, both from myself by double lining the bookshelves and from my conscience by not acknowledging them even when I see them. Watch this space for more in this list.

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.

A Wishful Thought

A long time ago, a man named Tee lived in New York City. He was like every other man in the whole world except that a forest grew on his face. Living in temperate America, the trees in his forest were all conifers. They were thin, tall coniferous trees that grew down his face towards the Adam’s apple forming an incredible upside down valley.

Unlike tropical trees that spread their gregarious, friendly arms wide, conifers grow single-mindedly tall as if to meet the sun. From a distance, all the trees in Tee’s forest gave the impression of a velvety beard. But when you took a closer look, you would see that all the trees with their prickly leaves believed strongly in choice and grew in all directions you could imagine- North South East West and more!

The velvet forest wasn’t clean either. Since Tee ate at least three times a day, the forest was littered with breadcrumb rocks, spinach graffitti, rice twigs and chip shrubs. And since he drank coffee at least twice a day, it rained black drops of strong coffee on the unsuspecting terrain. Such were the days and nights in Tee’s forest.

Every other month or so, a razor-sharp plague would come to haunt. A plague so sudden and deadly that the next morning Tee would wake up to a cleared forest, only stumps reminding him of the marvel that grew on his face the night before. Tee always took consolation in the fact that the forest would grow back. It was the law of nature. With every passing day the stubs would grow a teeny-weeny bit and before you knew it, the forest would be a menacing presence again.

Always a stickler for decorum, Nature had other plans, this time around.
So the next time the plague shaved the forest clean, it did not grow back. Tee waited—confidently for the first week, optimistically for the next and hopefully for a third. When the forest showed no signs of growing back, he began to worry. As he wondered what could have gone wrong he looked around him to take in the plight of the forests on other faces. Wait a minute!

Those were not forests. Other faces had gardens—trimmed and groomed gardens where not a single tree grew out of line. There was no coffee rain or other garbage on the garden floor. Some faces grew grass into manicured lawns. Others grew raised beds of uniform plants. The swankier ones had fences with identical sycamore twins on either side. The spiritual ones groomed their garden into ethereal cascades.

The air of grace around the gardens had taught him the folly of his forest. When he woke up the next day, he was in for a surprise! The stubs had grown a teeny-weeny bit. Tee jumped with joy and promised to groom himself every week. The next Monday, true to his promise, Tee stood before his bathroom mirror, talking dearly to his erstwhile forest and trimming them down beautifully.

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.