Friday, July 26, 2013

On the face of a catastrophe

There's this bloke on TV, dashing - bordering on knee-weakening irresistible - who's just had his world collapse all around him. It did collapse around a few others too, but it's this dude we're worried about. For obvious reasons. He bears it stoically, his shoulders straight, when the bad news is delivered like a sheaf of papers thrown at his face. A couple of curves appear on his forehead. The depth of pain in his eyes makes you want to jump right in and drown in it. Like, really. He says something brave - one does not care what he says as long as one gets to hear his deep, gentle voice, dripping with sorrow. Then he slowly turns around, a picture of dignity and composure, and leaves, his lips set in a grim line.

He then gets himself drunk, very, very drunk. The only thing that's deranged is his tie. He slouches in his seat - in dignity - and falls asleep with his head on the table. Our heart totally breaks all over the place.

When people in movies have issues they seem so painfully wonderful that we kind of long to borrow a few of those. And the way they carry themselves on the face of catastrophe makes us beg for a chance to be so dignified and poised as well.

Except that when a couple of them (the issues, not the people) make their appearance at our door, we are anything but.

We jump out of our seats. We rush to have a drink, a cup of tea, a glass of water. We avoid looking at our friends because they will demand to know the reason behind that insane confusion morphing to animal rage in our eyes. We take a few deep breaths but the heart refuses to stop pounding. Fear. We rub our hands over our face and realise that we have been sweating like a waterfall. We turn around to face an acquaintance's surprised eyes and we say, God, isn't it hot! 

There's a low rumble, no, it's a distinct roar. Look around, the walls are crumbling all around you, your world is coming down like those buildings in Inception. You either get out of the way, or get crushed underneath. There are people around you, they are looking at you in surprise, in sympathy, in sarcasm, in contempt. They just watch you, and do nothing. They wish to see what lies in your eyes. You wish to see too, but you cannot see yourself in their face. Nothing is falling apart, except yourself.

You go back inside and then you go out to make a phone call. Afterwards, you remember pretty much nothing. Except suffocation. Dizziness. Heavy-heartedness. The endless wait. Sandwich, half-eaten. Laughing for no reason. Crawling to a ball under the blanket and trembling all over. Trying not to blurt out or whimper or make a fool of yourself. Worse, you begin to sympathise. My own fault, you think. No one else's. Ice cold latte left untouched, in Café Coffee Day. Words, felt rather than heard. Anything, you say. Anything at all. Drizzle. That sinking feeling.

Then - nothing. A numbness that grips the heart like the so-called hand of death. Shivering for no reason. Staring at a mark on an immobile wall for what seems like hours. At the blank Windows desktop for hours. People passing by; casual talk, their lives seem intact. Insensitive minutes that last for centuries, threatening to never end.

What was once your world, in bits and pieces all around you. And you know there's no gluing them back together. And you walk all over them, mumbling, cursing, throwing.

Anything but dignified and composed. Bold? Nowhere close. Banging-head-on-the-wall frustrated? You said it. Confused? Absolutely. Uncensored swear words? Plenty.

Mr.Dashing was evidently just acting.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Throwing Christopher Columbus overboard

History teaches us a lot of things - surely, it teaches us more than it intends to. And more often than not, it must be amazed at what we have learnt from its chapters. One could almost hear it murmur, "I don't think that was the point I was trying to make..."

I am sure somewhere along the way, History learns a thing or two from us too.

In my high school, for a few days I happened to sit next to a girl who was a lot of fun to be with. I think we had moved into a temporary classroom or something, I cannot recall, but she was not my usual neighbour in class. For all her ready jokes and attitude, she was not quite popular, owing to some of her weaknesses - or flaws, if you like. Those weaknesses of hers had actually made her who she was. But, as I said, many were not kind to her.

It was English class, and we had a chapter on Columbus' journey. We Indians have a particular softness when it comes to Christopher Columbus. So many centuries have passed, but we still cannot forget the fact that the gent had come looking for us, the real Indians. Can he be blamed if he found a set of 'barbarians' instead and because he was so innocent and ignorant, he called them Indians? He must have loved us so much. The only thing we can do in return is include him in our English text book.

Anyway, the lesson was about the long and tiresome journey undertaken by Columbus and his men in their three ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Niña in their search for a new route to Asia. The chapter ended when Columbus landed on the New World. The penultimate paragraph of the chapter described the mutiny in the ship when no land was sighted for many days. I copied the following text from this location. We had something very similar in our textbook:

Columbus had to face a mutiny because the crew felt that they were lost in the middle of the Ocean. At the beginning of the voyage, they did not trust very much in a foreigner who wanted to carry out a crazy project; however they finally accepted to enrol in such an adventure. But after thirty days sailing in the middle of the scary ocean they thought that Columbus was lying about the distance to sail to get ashore. The admiral could finally suffocate the mutiny, but three days later a second mutiny, harder than the first one, occurred. They were completely sure that Columbus was not telling the truth about the distance to sail to find land, and that they were being deceived into thinking they were not lost. This time the Pinta's captain, Martin Alonso Pinzon had to intervene, because the crew even thought of throwing Columbus off the ship. 
As Alonso Pinzon was a well known mariner who counted on the admiration of the crew, the seafarers calmed down, but Columbus had to commit himself to return if they did not find land in three days. Two days later, they finally came across the New World.

As our teacher was reading these two paragraphs out loud, this girl said to me in a bored, matter-of-fact voice: "If they had thrown him out, we wouldn't have to learn the last paragraph."

I have no idea how I stifled my laughter for the rest of the class. She would look at me, see me turn red trying not to laugh, and grin. That was a joke in such enormous proportions that, years later, it still reduces me to giggles. If they had thrown him out... he wouldn't have discovered America. No one in the world would have remembered his name. There wouldn't even have been a chapter in an Indian text book dedicated to him. And who knows what would have happened to that continent itself?! Someone else might have come across it sooner or later, but things over there would have turned out so differently. And the last paragraph? It was merely two sentences long, learning it was the least important thing in this entire Universe.

The joke began to peel itself in layers and layers before my eyes that I think after the class was over, I exploded in laughter for a few long hours. The spontaneity of her delivery was so characteristic of her. I think she was a little surprised that I laughed so much.

History must have stood there, at that moment, astonished, halted in mid-performance, the hair on its head standing upright in shock, watching us break into chuckles over chuckles. Maybe after a few moments, it must have slapped its forehead and laughed along with us.

Like I said, History has absolutely no clue how each one of us learns or remembers the lessons it tries to teach.

Aside. I lost touch with her after school. I doubt if she would have any recollection of this incident at all. I only hope things worked out well for her.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bringing up NRK

If you are a Malayali living in any part of the world, and if you are middle-aged or thereabouts (or older), you will know what I am going to talk about.

Those of us who regularly surf Malayalam TV channels have inevitably cringed and flinched and blanched and winced at the weird accent that flows out of those so-called-Malayalis who rule Prime Time TV. We have secretly and publicly mocked and laughed at and insulted these people to our heart's content. We have easily blamed their parents for not teaching them our beautiful language, for not correcting their Anglicised accent, for not telling them that though chetta and Chetta are spelled the same in English, there is a world of difference between the two.

But let me start at the very beginning... a very good place to start...
*A crimson Sun rises over the Western Ghats & Suprabhaata plays in the background*

The population of the world is divided into four groups : Malayalis, semi-Malayalis, adopted-Malayalis & non-Malayalis.

The first, Malayalis whom others fondly call Mallus, are born and brought up in Kerala; they think and talk in Malayalam, they also dream in Malayalam, when they are angry they swear in Malayalam (sometimes using words borrowed from friendly neighbourhood Tamil), when they wake up they read a Malayalam newspaper, they love Kilukkam, most of their lives they have lived in places where Malayali voices float in from outside, when they go out to a shop or in a bus, they are greeted (or abused) in Malayalam, and they have a special love-hate relationship with hartals, rains, alcohol and communism. A real Malayali is defined by more or less a blend of these, and much more.

Adopted Malayalis were once born as non-Malayalis but due to circumstances or fate (usually a mix of both) have learnt to understand the Malayali culture and speak Malayalam like an authentic one. (Much like the Punjabi family of Punjabi House.)

Semi-Malayalis are those quirks of nature who were brought up outside Nammude Kochu Keralam as Non-Resident Keralites, and as a result know precious little about their homeland and its fragilities, and they speak like foreigners. (I don't mean half-Malayalis). Yes, they are our topic of discussion today.

(Some of my friends would argue that though they were brought up as NRKs, they have the characteristics and mannerisms of a full-fledged Malayali. Full marks to them. 
I also know of another set of people who try very hard to conceal the fact that they are Malayalis, and they go through such troubles to not let anyone overhear when they are forced to speak in their mother tongue. 
There are obviously some overlaps.
Then there are half-Malayalis. Expecting them to behave like one of us is totally unfair.)

Non-Malayalis, of course, are the rest of the world.

If you know who you are, then you know who these people are too. Nee aaranennu ninakkariyillenkil nee ennodu chodickku nee aaranennu... etc. etc. 

*Zoom into a particular slice of time, chenda melam in the backdrop*

Some time before my son was born, I happened to work with a Malayali born and brought up in Pune. His accent was worse than that of a Westerner learning an Indian language. One day, overhearing both of us discussing the project in English, a colleague commented, "Why are two Malayalis conversing in English?" Without a moment's hesitation, I snapped, "I don't consider him a Malayali." The Pune NRK smiled good-naturedly. Later he confessed that he spoke to his parents in Malayalam but most of his time was spent with friends and others, which explained his accent. I wasn't convinced. I said to myself that surely he spoke to his parents in Hindi or Marathi or whatever language Pune-folk used.

Fate has its own weird and twisted sense of humour, people. When my son was born, I was determined that he would speak, think, dream and shout in Malayalam like a 24-carat Malayali. When others in Kerala and Bangalore admired his perfect two-year-old accent, I beamed and burst with pride. Then came school. I realised for the first time that he did not know a word of Kannada, English or Hindi to communicate. His ayahs knew only Kannada and pieces of Hindi, and none of his teachers spoke Malayalam. A Communication Disaster was knocking at my little baby's doors.

But he survived. A few weeks later, he demonstrated the words he had picked up from other languages, and I was impressed (and enormously relieved). Things started to go downhill from there - I think. His friends circle consisted of Malayalis, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Andhraites, and their common language became English. Even when only Malayali friends are around, they forget to switch language and would continue in English. When he comes running in from play, he begins with "Do you know what happened?" or "Amme, can I play for some more time?" When I roll my eyes at him, he thinks for a few minutes and then slowly understands why I did so, and then restarts in Malayalam. If I roll my eyes every time he does that, there wouldn't be much left of my eyes. Sometimes, rather than bothering with the eye-rolling routine, I confess I'm guilty of replying in English too. A friend, who overheard him one day, observed sarcastically: "You should teach your son a little Malayalam." Seriously! After all this effort, this is what I get to hear. Just you wait, I thought, your baby will soon start speaking - then you'll know!

When one day my son, then six years old, began to talk about "Njaan oru tree-yil climb cheythu" -- I almost fainted - and it was not because he was climbing a tree. Terrified out of my wits, I began to roll my eyes harder, and pretended to not understand a word of what he was saying until he used all words in Malayalam. (Another time, in the middle of an interesting story, he said frustrated, "I can't remember the Malayalam word for camel !") Every time this happens, the good-natured smile of my Pune NRK friend flashes before my eyes.

At seven and a half years, my son takes the hint and corrects himself, but a few years from now, he may not bother.

In every visit to Kerala, I observe how effortlessly and clearly the children there speak, how well they understand synonyms of a word simply because they hear these words from different people around them, and I realise it isn't as easy as I thought. It is even harder since my son does not get to learn Malayalam in school. (Which is another heavy responsibility of an NRK parent.)

One little girl who lives next door to us in Bangalore, who spent the first five years of her life in Kerala, speaks such delightful Malayalam that I make sure I converse with her whenever I see her. (I also shamelessly show my displeasure when her choice of words extends unnecessarily to English.) I suppose the early years spent steeped in Malayaliness do make such a big difference. My son understands his mother tongue very well, but there are some phrases and words that he may not come across at all, over here. There is no way I can teach him those. I taught him to count in Malayalam, painstakingly, at least till twenty, and then in spurts of ten until hundred, but the important part is that, today when he needs to count something, it comes out as onnu, randu, moonu instead of one, two, three. It wasn't easy, people. It wasn't easy at all, to say the least.

It was (is) like pushing a heavy rock up the mountain - if I relax for an instant, it would start rolling downhill, and I would have to chase it down. And there are miles to go before I reach the top, to the safe plateau from where no amount of gravity can pull it down.

Sometimes I fear that I try too hard, and he will end up saying something blasphemous like, Oh I hate Malayalam.

But perhaps there is no cause for concern. I meet a lot of folks here who speak Kannada like a native, and Malayalam with a rich, beautiful northern Kerala accent. Maybe those lads were born and brought up somewhere over here, or in places like Mangalore. If they can manage two languages so well, perhaps...

The bottom line is that I have stopped making fun of those Manglishi TV anchors. As a parent, I know how difficult it is, even if we are determined to put in the right amount of effort. It is easier to stop trying. When you have more important things to worry about, it is easier to pretend not to notice.

You're right, I am pretty much obsessed with this.

Who knows how this story would turn out?

*Sunset over the glorious Arabian Sea*

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Writer

I don't know her. Except her name, that is. And that she is on the other side of the globe, speaking a language I know, but living in circumstances I know nothing of, in a culture that is unknown to me. Or was? I don't know that either.

But through her words something seeps through, a familiarity, a connection, a strange sort of camaraderie. Have you been there too? I know what it's like.

Through her words I get a glimpse of her. As though I have climbed into a tap, squeezed through the pipe against the flow of the water, and crawled all the way to its source. I see her. Or rather, I get to see a small window that opens to one corner of her heart.

I do not know her. I do not know what she thinks, what she does, what she wears. But every writer, however cryptic or complex be her writing, leaves a bit of herself in her pages. Like saw dust sprinkled over them. You blow them away when you read, or you see them for what they are. The characters are not her. They are all made up. The author is invisible, no one cares except for the name. But the people in the story point her character out to us. If we are willing to see.

As a reader, you enjoy the book: the story, the plot, the ending, the writing, the characters.

As a writer, you see a little further. You are able to appreciate the tools used, the skills the author has sharpened, her innate talent, her brilliance, her ability to surprise.

As a thinker, sometimes you get to go beyond, much beyond, almost to the other side of the globe. You see her, the person, the mind. As though you are looking out through a foggy glass window. Yes, you see her, vague and fuzzy, you feel her presence.

You realise that the story was not entirely fabricated, it did not come to her one fine morning. It was always there, like a sob deep inside the recesses of her sophisticated mind. It is a metaphor of what she has seen, a thread of a thought, a fear, a desire, a pain, a life. Something I can connect with.

I Google her. For she is no longer a mere name to me. She is someone I know. And if she isn't, if what I have constructed of her isn't true, what does it matter?

She is no longer an unknown. I see her face. I read about her life. She rises in my unworthy eyes. I read about other books she has written. Books I should soon be laying my hands on.

Now reading. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

You are free to be

If someone does you wrong, rejoice.
If someone hurts you or breaks your heart, celebrate.
If someone brings your castle of dreams down with a snap of his fingers, be relieved.
If someone clips the wings of your desires, be glad.

Forget the shock and the disbelief and the pain and the feeling of being betrayed - pay no heed to them. They have no existence.

Because now, you are not obliged to perform.
You are now relieved of the pressure to please.
You can ignore them, or get even with them.
You owe them nothing.
You are free.

Just be - and the rest be damned.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Are you Grumpy and Crooked and Unpleasant?

Every once in a while we come across middle-aged folk who seem grumpy and crooked (and who soon become grumpy and crooked old-aged folk). They used to irritate me, and I would wonder why they couldn't be a little more civil, a little more cordial. Why couldn't they squeeze out a smile? Was that too much to ask?

I would have thought that they were like that their whole life - grumpy and crooked and unpleasant and cheerless, and totally irritating.
No, scratch that.
I don't think I had ever bothered to think of them at all, once the irritation was past. I would not have considered it worth my time.
But if I had, I would probably have decided that in their childhood they did not play and laugh and howl and scream like the rest of us, they did not love or dream like the rest of us, they did not say idiotic nonsense to make others laugh, like the rest of us. I would have thought that they were always grumpy and unpleasant.

The truth is that, as I see now, they must have been pleasant and kind too, once, in their youth. They must have greeted their acquaintances gaily every morning and enquired after everyone's health. They must have cracked jokes and laughed at themselves. They must have been confident and successful in a lot of things they did. They must have motivated and inspired others with their positive approach towards Life. They must have cracked the skies with their boundless energy and optimism.

But Life, on the other hand, had other plans for them. I sometimes think Life is a mischievous kid, about five or six years old. It loves to push us into a puddle and laugh when we are soaked in mud.

Or perhaps, Life is an adult with its dark and evil humour, very like a human. On the spur of the moment, it must have shoved them into water and left them to drown, until their optimism and attitude were drained out. Until they became a mere shell of their former existence, no longer cheerful, positive or optimistic. Until they were grumpy and crooked and unpleasant. Then Life, for some inexplicable reason, must have pulled them out from the water and left them to live.

Funny how Life teaches us things. Funny how Life changes people.

Monday, July 1, 2013

You'll never forget today

Friend, they grow up too soon.
The little children who harassed you
With screams and shouts and cheer-
Soon they'll all be gone.

Friend, they're at that age
Their noisy days behind them,
Ready to flutter from the nest,
They're set to take the stage.

You may miss them someday,
More likely you may not;
And wherever life will take you,
You'll never forget today.

To treat your many illnesses,
Some day, they would return;
They'll laugh when they remember
You had called them a nuisance.

But the way I see it now-
When they outgrow their games
And speak of happy days,
You'd be called 'the Beast'.

Friend, you ruined their day
Because they wanted to play
And you did not like the way
They shattered your peace today.

Your own li'l one will come
Wide-eyed and innocent;
Where are all the kids? he'll say,
There is no one to play...

You spoke of many noisy kids,
Exciting, pesky, unbearable:
I've been waiting to meet them
To play the way they do.

Grandpa, where are they?-
When he looks into your eyes
Eager to make friends,
Will you have a reply?

You had given in to rage
A moment's lapse of judgement
You may regret it later, but
You'll never forget today.

My book of poems is now available on Kindle: Lonely Journeys