Category Archives: Memory

Flowers

She is seated on the floor by the entrance of the empty ladies compartment when I board it at Chengalpet junction. She is in my way and I step around her, not too carefully, and sit down by the window. She is holding one of those readymade, shiny, pre-wrapped cones of marudani, smelling strongly of acetone and other chemicals. Her shabby, oversized frock, clearly discarded by some tasteless, rich child somewhere, her knotted hair bleached to a unhealthy brown in the dust and heat, her left-handedness, I become aware of these even without paying much attention as I wait for the train to leave.

I can see her hands from here, but not her face. She applies the dark paste clumsily to her right palm, trying to draw a flower. It smudges when the trains lurches forward in that drunken way of all trains about to depart, before they recover their dignity and roll out more gracefully.

But the smudge does not worry her. Deftly, she wipes it on back of the seat in front of her and continues. She is absorbed in the creation of this dark, green garden on her small, grubby hands. Women enter and exit past her; she makes no attempt to get out of their way. The right hand is complete now. She stands up triumphantly, losing her balance a little for she has only one serviceable hand with which to steady herself as the train rushes on.

She holds the decorated palm outside the train, allowing the wind to dry it. But she has little patience. Two stations later, she sits down again, holding the cone in the half-dry right hand now, unmindful of the smearing her lately gathered bouquets are receiving.

She struggles a bit, clearly her right hand is not as dextrous as her left. But a short while later, she rises again to hold out the new squiggles on the other palm to the wind and sun outside. Again, her impatience overtakes her and she squats, bending over her feet, her new canvas. The cone is back in the recently-adorned left hand, confidently covering her dry, sallow skin with flowers of every shape and curve. As the train pulls in to Guindy, a heavy arm suddenly pulls her up and out of the train, while a voice overhead yells out something about the mess she’s made of herself. And then she is gone from my view.

But as my compartment rolls out, I see her standing small in a crowd of haggard and harrassed-looking women, proceeding to cover her bare arms with new ornaments, lost to the noise and haste around.

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Pattum paatum

Briefly, very briefly, I enrolled for optional music classes in school. They were taught by a lady in her mid-thirties who was too sweet and gentle to handle 13-year olds. There were six of us in her class, which took place twice a week for an hour and a half.

At that time, school was small place – parents and teachers made friends, sometimes we grew to know their families and they ours. One Navaratri, Music Ma’am as she was called, invited our class home to see the golu and eat sundal. There was also something about singing a kriti she had taught us, but we paid no attention to that part.

Dressed in shiny pavadai chattais, four of the six of us arrived at the address she’d given us. Even before we had opened the gate, we could hear music. Inside, there were about ten girls and women of all ages, including Ma’am, singing Devi Neeye Thunai. At the back was an elderly lady in a rust-coloured saree, joining the rendition only occasionally, but smiling at everyone who came in, nodding happily when the higher notes turned out without apaswaram. She looked familiar, but I made no attempt to recall where I might have seen her.

After Devi…another kriti began (the one we had been taught!) and when this one ended, Ma’am got up to see to the guests. There were others who had arrived after us and those who were among the singers. A dozen conversations, swishing silks, someone humming, coffee tumblers clanging against davaras, the gecko-call doorbell, myriad sounds of a south Indian household in celebration swirled around the four of us who sat talking among ourselves, hoping for channa sundal, rather than payaru. Neat paper potlams appeared, we couldn’t see what kind of sundal it was. They were distributed and vettalai paaku was handed to everyone.

The namaskarams began as people started to leave – all of them for the elderly lady, who we assumed was Ma’am’s mother-in-law. A quick consultation among ourselves and we decided to would be safer to do a namaskaram as well, than stand out by not doing it!

Just as we were about to rise and say polite things before leaving, K grabbed my arm and hissed something in my ear. I could hear nothing of what she was saying, so she dragged me to a corner and said, “I know why that maami looks familiar! She is Pattammal!”

I could have fainted. DK Pattammal was a legend in our family. My grandfather thought her music vastly superior to MS’ and declared that she was the only woman he could bear to listen to. A perfect imitation of her rendition of Poonguyil Koovum was mandatory at bride ‘viewing’ events, and the first song my grandmother asked a new daughter-in-law to sing was Eppadi Paadinaro. My father had an old recording of a concert by DKP at Mylapore Fine Arts, which he made copies of and distributed to cousins who hoped to become musicians, with strict instructions to listen to it each morning and learn from it!

And she was here! I was in her house! And my music teacher was her daughter-in-law! I was practically her student! My head buzzed. I thought of the things my family would ask – they would want to know the exact colour of her saree, what sort of bangles and necklace she wore, if I actually heard her singing in her own house, if the sundal had enough salt, if other celebrity musicians had been there, oh, the grilling would be endless!

We did our namaskarams, with great respect and care. Pattammal said something about studying with shraddhai and doing well in life. Then it was time to say our poitu varens and leave. The family didn’t go as overboard as I had expected them to, but all Navaratri visitors that week were told that I had been to DKP’s house for vettalai paaku.

It turned out that Music ma’am was DK Jayaraman’s daughter-in-law, not Pattamal’s. For a few weeks afterwards, I actually practised and tried to sing reasonably in class. But even blessings from Pattammal herself couldn’t help with that.

untitled

there is no chandelier, but there should be.
the paintings are all in place, mementoes too-
fourteen countries can be found in this room,
where two ordinary people sit refusing
to meet each other’s eyes.

a man in a faded tweed coat is making love
to his guitar. alcohol and smoke bring tears
and confessions to his listeners. she is draped
over a chaise lounge with paisley upholstery –
a blue street in ankara holds her total attention.

a study of four apples and single grapefruit,
stilling the life of a thin, thinly-mustached lad
in a green silk shirt. he counts them, four-one,
one-four, four-one, afraid to stop and audit
instead his fading lies.

watercolour crows watch the proceedings
with cold regard. when the last chord
is plucked, two pairs of eyes lift their heavy lids
and look at the old musician, meeting,
unwittingly in his sightless gaze.

A Moment of Truth

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a magazine, that like many other good and beautiful things, died young. It was called Quest. Aimed at early adolescents, it was far ahead of its rivals in quality of content and design. Target, the only other comparable publication tried to talk to too wide an age group, and was frankly a little elitist. But its poetry and short-story competitions saw some of the best creative writing I have ever read. Many bound volumes of the magazine live on my bookshelf even today, and it is the winning fiction entries I find myself going back to again and again.

But I digress. This was about Quest. This little gem of a publication was pitched exactly right. It had none of the somewhat exclusive air that hung around Target. It included articles on computer technology (its column on Basic was responsible for my later adventures with C++), on underprivileged children, on disability, on wildlife (written by Preston Ahimaz, who unbeknownst to himself is responsible for some crucial career choices I made later), on music and art, oh on every single subject under the sun, managing to make them hugely engaging and not in the least boring.

Some of the people who contributed to the magazine are now well-known writers. Stories by Anita Rau Badami, now famous for her book Tamarind Mem, featured regularly. Aditi De was the editor. Among the many delights I was introduced to through Quest was Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s inimitable detective. The magazine serialised The Golden Fortress and I was hooked, buying and reading whatever other translations were available. Providing even more delight were Sukumar Ray’s gleeful nonsense verses, published with marvellous illustrations.

But what I looked forward to in each issue were two regulars: a humour column called Believe Me! by Kamala Ramchandani and a series of short stories by Sigrun Srivastav. Kamala, which is how I disrespectfully thought of her even all those years ago, is that rare writer who manages to produce laugh-out-loud humour for children, without clowning around and without condescension. Recalling her adventures with Petunia (if I remember right), a car with personality and some very decided opinions, still makes me giggle.

It was Sigrun Srivastav however, who made Quest so precious to me. The magazine reprinted stories from two of her anthologies, one titled A Moment of Truth and the other, Heroes Never Die. The first book was published by a small company in Delhi and the second by Penguin. The result was that Heroes Never Die was easily available in Bangalore where we lived, but Moment, to whose characters I had lost my 11-year old heart, simply could not be found anywhere. On a visit to Delhi one summer, I insisted on finding a shop that sold the book, a hunt that took us to eight bookstores across the city before I finally held a precious copy in my hands.

I have no idea how popular (or not) her books became, never having met anyone else who had read her. She seemed to have stopped writing after a while, for I regularly enquired at every bookshop I visited if had anything new by her, but they never did.

Hers were the first stories I read about children who did not solve mysteries that baffled adults, did not picnic on cake and ginger ale and worried about things other than poorly-filled tuck boxes. Instead, they were children I knew intimately, having lived their lives. Children who lost fights with bullies, who broke an arm and lay in a dreary hospital bed with only the sounds outside the window for company, whose parents worked on Sundays, whose fathers were afraid of bandits, who had disabled younger siblings, who moved to fast and fearsome cities that frightened them, who knew that gang wars did not belong only in films, who had fragile hearts and tender memories and who understood suffering, both animal and human. Children of a dusty, sweaty, raw, altogether real world.

Their imaginations spoke to me, their ghosts were mine. I still ask anyone I meet from any place west of Punjab, if they know a language in which Advia means medicine. I wondered if the lady waiting at my table that warm Sunday afternoon had a son yearning for his mother to come home. I even longed for a twinkling-eyed uncle who would tell me stories of bearded, turbaned dacoits.

Why she never wrote again, I do not know. Would I have liked her to write more? Perhaps, but then, some of the most precious things in life come in small doses. And are often best experienced that way.

That Quest recognised the quiet brilliance of Srivastav’s writing and chose to publish over a dozen of her stories, that it addressed middle-class realities without skimping on the magical and fantastic, that it had not a drop of glamour but plenty of laughter, that it did not create imaginary worlds, but illumined and coloured my ordinary one — that it created the most prefect mix any 11-year old could hope for is evident to me today. But back then, I just lived from one issue to the next, never imagining that the ride would end.