Monthly Archives: June 2008


Appada. The word escaped amma’s lips as the ghetti melam faded. Both daughters married. Her duty done. All that is left is to die a sumangali.

Appada. Amuda put the receiver back, kissed the cross on her chain, sat down and sent up a small prayer of thanks. He was unhurt, the AC compartment had not derailed.

Appada. She set down her basket in a corner of the room that sheltered seven. Today had been a good day, only three measures of kadambam left unsold. And that Selvam had not turned up to demand his cut.

Appada. Sixty three votes. Narrow but clear. He would no longer be ‘former’ MLA. He stood up, somehow taller, somehow stronger, somehow more frightening, and marched out to address the cameras.

What makes you say it?


Dylan or not…

this piece is worth getting all soft-kneed about:

One morning all the steam whistles in the valley blew continually for an hour to warn residents that the floods were imminent and once the whistles ceased to wail, the waters rushed in to obliterate alleys and attics, chapels and cellars, confessionals and milking stools, lawns and lanes, the nests of birds and the dens of foxes, the beds in which children had been conceived, porches on which old men smoked, places where the sunlight came late on account of the hunch of the hills. All now silence. Think of the music that could and should be written, the pastoral opening, the wail of the whistles, the roar of the waters, the long silence at the end. Someone should compose such a piece. And the spiders and the insects who crawl upon the earth, the snakes and squirrels, what happened to them, did they rise upon the waters and make their way exhausted to shore after dark and in latter times mold stories to tell their young in the span of years yet appointed to them, or did they too end their days in the blue musics of the deep?

Sigh. Sigh. Go, go away and leave me now, I need to sit and sigh alone.

Imagined futures

The evening was spent with my 5-year old nephew. A model child who does not fuss about food, who puts his toys away when told to and who doesn’t ask for chocolates when accompanying his mom to the shop, he sometimes unnerves me with his perfect behaviour. Before the sun went down, we were in the garden playing something not unlike Calvinball. When it got too dark to be out, we went indoors, got ourselves some banana milkshake and settled on the couch.

His parents work. While they are dedicated to their children and do an admirable job of managing career and family, there is little time for some small luxuries like story-telling. Oh, of course my nephew has books. Tons of them. They read a few out to him each night, not once do they forget. And he in turn loves being read to. What he does not get though, is a simple story, without the aid and input of illustrations, one that forces him to rely entirely on his imagination for the pictures.

Storytelling takes time. Even if you know the story thoroughly and are familiar with each detail and nuance, the narrating of it all is a fine art. Some people are natural, some learn through a lifetime of telling and retelling. It is a demanding exercise, one that requires you to provide answers to endless questions, to adapt to the listener (Teacher says we must not cut trees. So the woodcutter is a bad man!) and to embellish.

Appa is a marvellous story-teller and so are many of my aunts. My childhood was filled with thousands of stories, from traditional sources like the Mahabharatha and not-so-traditional ones like Ananda Vikatan (a post on those delightful mama-mami kathais soon!). My nephew, however, is not as lucky. His parents do not have the energy at the end of a working day for the involvement of an original narration, it is easier to depend on (gorgeously illustrated) books and comics to create the magic.

This evening I decided to tell him a story, the time-tested way, seating him on my lap with some milkshake for nutrition and vadams for nibbles. He was a little puzzled that was no book to look into, but decided to give me a chance nevertheless. I wound through the trials and tribulations of Hansel and Gretel’s young lives and he listened carefully, almost never interrupting. When we reached the end, he jumped up and said he wanted to hear another. After dinner, I told him. Ever obedient, he nodded happily.

Having sent him off to his food, I turned to my computer and found an email from a friend with a link to this article in Slate. He had sent it along because he does some peripheral work for the OLPC project, and was concerned that studies like the one reported may derail what he sees as an important and necessary effort. Discovering that PCs may take away from homework and other activities is certainly disturbing, but I don’t see this as very different from the fears expressed about the effects of TV on an earlier generation.

What does bother me is that technology is increasingly substituting imagination (not a new concern, this) – my nephew finds it unusual not to have a book with pictures to accompany a story. Will his children find it strange to see books in which pictures don’t move? I worry that being constantly exposed to someone else’s vision of the world, we may never learn to create our own universes. I may be old-fashioned, but I cling to my mental pictures of the Enchanted Wood, of Narnia, even Hogwarts and fear that watching the movie versions will erase the “original” in my mind.

For all the doomsday predictions made about TV, the idiot-box generation has survived, with its imagination intact. In fact some of the most stunningly original, vivid and spectacular narratives of today that appear in the form of video games are the work of that cohort. Stories and novels continue to be written and read. More books are sold today than ever before. More prizes are given and more continue to be instituted. It is a victorious refutal of predictions that this generation would lose its way, its ability to imagine better worlds choked by the constant barrage of stimuli that fills modern lives.

Despite all the that, my original concern remains. Are we losing the ability to engage ourselves without need for external contrivances? As our worlds get ever more filled with devices of distraction, will we lose the ability to be good enough company for ourselves? Will my nephew, on a day without books, without electricity, without his football, still manage to have a good time?

Naturalla pesum Tamil

Tayathula saaptu, tayathula thoongu*, came amma’s voice over the phone.
I had heard that bit of advice all my life. I thought nothing of it until the day a friend and I were leaving home for a long trip away. As we stepped out Amma called out her usual line. My friend looked totally puzzled. When the door closed he asked, What did your mom say? I repeated her chant, and after a moment’s incomprehension he burst out laughing.

What’s so funny?
Tayathula! Hahahaha!

It was then that it hit me. Tayathula was a total Tamilisation of the word ‘time’, in which the final ‘m’ sound is omitted to make it fit the Tamil system of affixing prepositions.

And since then I have met actualla, idealla and best of all – systeth. In the same way that the ‘m’ was removed from time, it is removed from system (usually referring to a computer) to make way for Tamil word-endings. Photo enga da? Systethla paaru! (Where is the photo? Look in the ‘system’!) Other words ending with the ‘m’ sound have suffered similarly: Poeyatha manapadam panniya? (Have you memorised the poem?)

Tamil has adopted and modified many English words to suit its purposes. ‘Comedy’ and ‘super’ come to mind. As do yescape (escape) and rouse. But these words have been lucky to retain (at least a semblance of) their original meanings. Words like assalt (from assault) now mean fearlessness or sometimes impunity. Assalta vandhu rouse vuttaan, saar! (He boldly came and caused a stir!)

And sometimes, words acquire a whole wealth of significance when used in Tamil: Avanga yenna pursnalty-aa irukkanga! (roughly: What a personality she has!) but here the word goes far beyond its English meaning. In Tamil, pursnalty is an adjective, not a mere noun!


Like every self-respecting Tamilian I called it ‘cool drink’ until the day a someone pointed out that it should be ‘cold drink’. I was about to respond somewhat hotly (sorry! couldn’t resist!), when I realised she was right, but in Tamil Nadu ‘cool’ is far more accurate – by the time the bottle travels from the refrigerator, carried by warm, sweaty hands to your table, it is somewhat less jill than you might like!

* Eat on time, sleep on time.

For more on systeth see this and this.

For other words from English that have taken on colourful Tamil avatars, see here.

Written with key inputs from PB.


Fifteen years ago, in a small country, nearly a million people died. In ten months. Three thousand of them a day. Violent, gory, gruesome, horrific deaths. Swords, spears and daggers butchered them, cut their bodies, disfigured their faces. Few had the luxury of a swift bullet.

When the blood dried, one in every eight Rwandans lay dead.

Years later we justified our silence and our inaction, we assuaged our guilt, we consoled the bereaved with the excuse that we did not know, we had no idea how bad it was while the genocide was on.

But what will we say to Zimbabwe? We have not only known, our editors and analysts have vied with each other to predict how bad it could become. Yet we stand and watch. We say it is Africa’s problem, that the continent’s struggling and barely stable neighbours should help each other. We find an easy scapegoat in Mbeki. He’s a readymade villain already tainted by his theories on AIDS.

The truth is that we don’t care. Zimbabwe has nothing to offer us. Certainly no oil. Not even coffee. Or cocoa. For those we loot other Africans.

Their real estate has no value. They haven’t heard anyone say: location, location, location. They aren’t neighbours with China. Or Russia. Or even Venezuela.

Their bombs are primitive, not good enough to do more than kill and maim a few hundred at a time. Their guns are from European landfills. Not flashy. Not nuclear. Not worth the trouble of taking away.

And oh, they are black. Silly of them. If they were brown, we might have considered looking in their direction. Doing a little more than filling newspaper op-eds with their story. If they were yellow, we might have talked to their leaders. Perhaps sent in the UN.

And if they were white, our armies would be there already.

Oh we know your blood is red, but we can’t see it. It hides beneath your clotted skin.

Want to know, but afraid to ask – 1

What do the blind see in their dreams?

No one

You have no heroes.
No one makes your large eyes
grow wider. No one entices you
to open the old biscuit tin
and retrieve dusty coins.
No one is worth the pink,
still uncreased two-rupee note
tucked into the back zip
of your brown rexine purse.
Careful collections are not squandered
on flimsy cassette tapes
that catch and unwind
in the wheezy National Panasonic.
You do not elbow strangers
jostling to catch sight of someone.
You do not fantasise
of being spotted in the melee,
your glow visible under the talc of urban dust.
You do not smile shyly at posters
in which his lips are too red,
his cheeks too pink,
his curls imagined and exaggerated.
You do not match your dupatta
to the yellow of his shirt
in that song.

You laugh at me instead,
say I am silly. Starry-eyed.
Mere dreams, you call them.
I know you have nightmares
of drowning. At least
in mine, I am rescued.