Sleepless In Bombay. Or, Diwali It Is.

So here I am again, my latest weapon in my arsenal of sleep-inducing tricks having failed on the third day. To be fair, I did go to bed intending to fall asleep and tossed and turned for a whole two hours while my mind had already left the room. Finally I picked myself up and tiptoed out of the room and settled in this chair with the laptop in front of me, as seems to have become my regular practice at this hour!

Diwali being around the corner, we spent the day cleaning the house thoroughly and washed and scrubbed all the brass Ganeshas and Krishnas in their various forms. This year I decided to make some snacks and sweets for Diwali. First I made the lehiyam or marundhu as it is known, which is eaten before the sweets on the morning of Diwali, to keep the digestive system in good condition under assault! It requires grinding of spices/herbal medicines and cooking it in jaggery and ghee. At home I am the only fan of the Deepavali marundhu which is a Tanjore special but no one is allowed to pass and everyone makes a lot of faces while swallowing it. After that morning it is all mine and truth to tell, I prefer it to all the sweets. Today we made omappodi, then we made the traditional “mixture”. On occasions like these R. and I are a team in the kitchen. I get everything ready – mixing the dough and seasoning and getting out all the pots and pans – while R. considers pressing out the omappodi in the sev press or making the boondis in the special boondi ladle to be his domain. I do the deep frying and finally it was done to perfection, I may add, but I am being objective, not boastful.

The best thing about Diwali in my childhood was the firecrackers of course. My brother and I had a brightly-colored tin box that said Afghan Snow on it. Snow was what women used on their faces in those days. Later it came to be known as vanishing cream. My mother never used any snow so I believe that box must have been bought as an empty tin box. My father would pay five rupees to his office society who would then buy firecrackers in bulk and give us our five rupees worth. Our tin was full of anars and sparklers and thin electric crackers and thicker red ones and also aeroplanes. We never bought the rockets though. There were Vishnu chakras and ground chakras and long limp “pencils” which were a kind of glowing crackling sparklers. There were also black tablets that would grow into long snakes, my favorites. They were divided scrupulously between us. Each morning we would religiously take them out and lay them out in the sun so that they would not fizzle out on D-day. On the days before Diwali we would lovingly and often take them out of the box several times and be told to  put them back by either our mother or father. Some years my father would take us to Putli Bowli  maidan where firecrackers were sold at wholesale rates. Some were the very expensive “bombs” and the sparklers that were like a thousand colorful stars in the sky. We did not buy those but we did get the “onions” which were tied together in bunches. You struck each one on the ground separately and it produced a satisfyingly loud noise.

The aeroplanes were unpredictable though. They would take off in any direction instead of always going up. One year one of them flew straight into my hair which was wet, loose and long. My hair sizzled and a big bunch of it was singed and fell off in the middle.

When D. was little, she had kept her stock of firecrackers on a table  on the terrace and a spark set off everything. We all heard the very loud noise and ran up. The table itself was scorched and D was just lucky not to have been hurt. That was the end of that Diwali celebration. All the crackers had gone up in one blazing moment  after an entire day of anticipation.

It has been many years now that we have stopped buying firecrackers. I do not miss them. Just as I do not miss the New Year programs on TV. I prefer to go to bed and cover my ears and hope the noise will die down soon.

Why Do People Move?

I know some people who have always lived in the same city and even in the same area of the city. They seem quite contented to be rooted to one place. They have no longing for strange or distant places, no craving for the unknown or desire for the unseen, the inexperienced.

It is generally fear of the unknown that leads them to choose the familiar over the new, even when offered the choice. But it is impossible to get them to admit to this, and their general response is why risk the inconvenience and unhappiness of a strange city when they are comfortable in familiar surroundings. The operative word here is “risk”. It is a fear that what is strange will lead to unhappiness and that the loss of the familiar is inconsistent with greater joy in unfamiliar surroundings.

Then there are some people who like the idea of moving to different cities. I am one of those whom distant climes always beckon temptingly. In my youth I rejected a suitable proposal for the only reason that marriage would have taken me only a few streets away and not to the far off places that I was dreaming of. After marriage when R. was given transfer orders to a north Indian city and asked me if he should appeal to be retained in Madras, my first reaction was “Let’s go”. It was very exciting to pack up and go to a place which had only a weekly train from Madras that took two nights through lawless regions and several states to get us there – a city, a town really, that had extreme weather in summer and winter. Phones didn’t work, electricity was unpredictable, water was very scarce, and we had to live on turai in summer, no other vegetables being available. But the city had a quaint charm and we grew to love it.

After three years there, we moved again, to live in one city for the next thirty years, almost. My wanderlust was slaked by moving house eight times during this period and by traveling to many towns and cities all over the country and sometimes out of it.

Now it is time to move again. Is it destiny or is it the desire to face the challenge of beginning a new life? To go where we have never gone before?

Leaving the past behind is not easy as I saw when my mother had to leave the house she had lived in for fifty years. She at least had to move less than a mile away. But when we go, there will be no looking back. Only in our memories which can ambush us with poignancy and make us hanker for a past that can never be ours again.

Sr. Ancilla

I shall always wonder what became of Sister Ancilla (pronounced Anchilla in the Italian way). She was the first person of influence in my life and I met her when I was sixteen. It was my first day in junior college and she was my English lecturer. She asked us all to write an essay in class and the next day while discussing our essays she was very critical. She had left my essay till the last. But to my astonishment, she seemed to be very impressed with my writing and was all praise for it and wanted to know who G. was. It was all I could do not to stammer and blush. Though I had always performed well in class I had never received so much praise and was too embarrassed to be noticed.

After that she discovered I could draw and even play the harmonica. She even commissioned me to make greeting cards for her and once a drawing of a bishop that she knew to whom she presented my drawing and introduced me. I did not like the bishop.

I was a gauche and awkward teenager who had never known any praise at home and all this admiration and affection from a nun who who was herself the object of much adulation and curiosity somehow did not go to my head but did create a sense of identity in me. For the first time in my life I was receiving love and respect as an individual and from someone who seemed very sophisticated to all our childish admiring eyes.

Sister was an Anglo-Indian who had an English father and a Bengali background through her mother. We learnt from the few things she said in unguarded moments that she had lived in England and she seemed to be well-travelled in Europe. We saw from a few family photos that she came from an affluent Western life. There was one picture of hers in a stylish swimsuit on the deck of a yacht. She quickly turned it over but we were all wide-eyed having caught a glimpse of what we had only seen in English movies. She could sing and dance and once  brought an accordion to a class excursion and played for us. We tried asking her a lot of questions about her personal life unashamedly – a class of  sixteen-year olds who were dying of curiosity to know how she became a nun after having led such an exciting life. She would not get angry with us but neither would she tell us what we wanted so desperately to know. We came to the conclusion that she must have been betrayed in love and must have turned her back on the world. We had some vague thoughts that she might have been married and then been betrayed. How romantic and how we hated that man we had conjured up but Sister was the most cheerful person we knew who had been betrayed in love.

But the next year there were rumors that Sister would be leaving the convent soon and that she was only waiting for permission from Rome. She would just laugh at all our probing questions but when we returned after the summer vacation, she had already gone, leaving us bereft, with a sense of loss.

A few months later my class went on an excursion to Delhi and were greeted at their hotel by Sister, who had arranged to meet them, much to everyone’s surprise. She was not in the white habit she used to wear. I had not been allowed to go by my parents. I was told by my classmates that Sister’s first question to them had been “Where is my G.?”

I still wish my parents had let me go on that excursion.

Cities That Don’t Sleep – And People

Bombay is a city that doesn’t sleep. That is what they say. What they mean is that it goes to sleep very late. Even at 2 in the morning I find that lights are still on in some apartments. 2 AM is when the lights start going out, but at any time of the night, some people are still up. It might be that each night it is a different set of people. Travel might contribute to the different schedules. Perhaps somebody is just leaving for the airport or somebody has just come back from a trip. Maybe it is someone who is either unable to fall asleep or who finds it easier to work in the quiet hours of the night.

As I wander around the house, wakeful while R. is fast asleep, I stare out through the windows at the lit squares in other apartments. There are cars on the highway in a steady stream no matter how late or how early. There are people who are too busy to go to bed.

I wish I could sleep at will but that is a boon that is not mine. So each night I go to bed wondering if it is going to be a restful or restless night. I find out soon enough and leave my comfortable bed to prowl around the dark and silent house trying to find something interesting to do. The next few hours are spent in reading something on the computer or reading a book when hunger pangs lead me to the kitchen to find a banana or at least a couple of biscuits. A second attempt at sleep is quite often a failure. My activity on the computer occasionally draws attention and I am questioned why I am not in bed by someone on the other side of the world!

Time was when both R. and I would settle in front of the TV for late night viewing but not now. TV shows are too unappealing to me and R. is happily asleep, so I continue my reading.

When the children were at home I was generally so tired that I would fall asleep the minute I got into bed and my complaint was that the morning came too early. Now I think I sleep through the night only when we are travelling and every part of my body hurts after all the walking and the sightseeing and a bed seems a blessing! Age brings with it a need for less sleep, so I am told, which is hardly flattering.

To go back to my earlier statement, it is true that Bombay is still awake when people in the rest of India have been asleep for hours. I think the sleepless spirit of Bombay has got into me and  that is why I wander around the house late at night waiting for dawn to break.

Where Am I From?

This is a constant question I am asked wherever I go and one that I can never answer without pausing to think and then my answer never fails to seem inadequate to myself. Not for metaphysical reasons – that belongs to a more solitary time and self when one questions the nature of being.

No, this is related to geography and curiosity of strangers or the friendliness encountered on shared journeys. I have been asked this question several times and I am yet to come up with a convincing reply. I say convincing because there is no right answer.

It is not clear whether people want to know which city I live in or which place I hail from. In India everybody wants to know what language I speak at home,  but sometimes they want to know which region of any state I belong to because each region has its own dialect.  When I say I speak Tamil, the usual response is that I therefore belong to “Keral”. There are some wits who say I must be Kannadiga then!

Sometimes they want to know which caste I belong to. This was more common in UP because people would ask me which “biradari” I belonged to. I am never asked this anywhere else perhaps because in other states people are less interested in my caste. It is possible that when in Tamil Nadu people do not need to ask me my caste because I speak a typically Brahmin Tamil! While in Lucknow I managed to mimic the local people and speak in a “shudh” Hindi which led them to disbelieve that I was not a native Hindi speaker. They would also tell me that I was too fair to be from the South. In Hyderabad my Telugu is too “local” for me not to belong!

It is not true that all North Indians are fair-skinned, by the way!

My journey has been a long one so I do not know whether to claim any place as my own because I was born there or whether the city where I was brought up belongs to me in my mind. Now I live in a different city  and I have never lived anywhere else for longer, so this is the city I normally claim for my own.

R. and I always give two different answers to this question confusing the listener who probably thinks we are being evasive, to say the least! R. perhaps genuinely believes that Madras is the right answer, though he has lived there for only half a dozen years. I would have said Tamil Nadu might be more correct semantically. But I am not “from” Tamil Nadu in my mind though my roots are there, because there is nowhere in Tamil Nadu that I can go back to, which is essentially the meaning of “home”, therefore it is not my home. Somebody asked me this question again on the Ooty trip, and after puzzling over it, I said “Madras” and then wished I could take it back and give a different answer. Why Madras, I have no idea!

We may soon move on to a different city, and I will have more places to choose from. This may be one of the worries that is giving me sleepless nights. Among other things.

The Day Appa Bought A Book

Yes, he did. Much to my surprise.

Coimbatore, being a carnivorous city, unlike Kumbakonam or even Mumbai, foraging for vegetarian food seems to have become an integral part of our visits. A visit to the Annapoorna was a daily routine but for the occasional dinner or snack we walked down to the Dosa Park which served mostly – you guessed it – dosas, but they also had the best teas I have ever had. Last week  we ambled towards the dosa place after a daylong fast (I was fasting but Appa was equally hungry) as I was looking forward to my tea and a kiwi milkshake, in that order, when I noticed the Gita Press shop in the basement below a Baskin Robbins shop.

Thrilled and tea forgotten, I darted into it with Appa protesting but following me. He had no choice because he knows very well that I cannot be kept out of a Gita Press shop. His objection was not about the money I would most definitely spend but to the weight of the books I would buy! He thought I could make my purchases on our next trip but I knew better than to defer my pleasure given the limited time at our disposal on that future visit. I browsed through the available books and picked up a few copies of Hanuman Chalisa in miniature and a couple of stotra books  while Appa too walked around looking at the Puranas in Hindi, Tamil and English translations. He was actually impressed by the quality of the books and the beautiful translations and suddenly decided to buy something for himself! I was  only surprised that it was a Tamil commentary on the Bhagavad Gita!

I commended  him on his choice and, promptly added a heavy Shiv Purana to my collection over his protest. Happily, my hunger having been assuaged by my purchases, we walked into the Dosa Park.

P.S. I have finished nine chapters of the Shiv Purana while Appa has yet to start on his Gita.

Ooty Tour

It was at Ooty that I realized that we were now too old for hill stations. Our tour was named “Filmy Chakkar”. The reason we opted for it was not that we wished to gawk at film shootings which were not very likely to be happening anyway but that it was the shortest tour among the three on offering. Of course we understood – as seasoned tourists – that some of the places we were to be shown would be only mentioned as we drove past. For instance the Hindustan Photo Film company was pointed out and so was the school ground where shootings had taken place. We were only too happy to keep moving on and any prolonged halt was met with our sighs and fervent hopes that we could get back on the van and be on our way to the next place of interest(!)

There was the Kamaraj dam where we were informed that since there was no water there was no need to stop. The Pykara dam drew the helpful comment from the tour guide Rafi that it was only a step waterfall and not very spectacular though it figured routinely in movies. After walking for a kilometre and climbing down  several steps to see the waterfall, I decided to stay where I was because it didn’t seem to me that there was more to see. R. however decided to walk to the very end and came back with the information that there was nothing more to be seen.

The Pykara Boathouse with its large natural lake was beautiful but the boating fees were extortionate. Anyway I am one of those who think that looking at a lake is just as interesting as taking a boat ride on it, so we preferred to have an ice cream and look at the lake instead.

The tour took us to a steep hill where the guide told us we could see a peak called Mukkurthi which was supposed to look like a sleeping woman’s nose and presumably the rest of her. Both of us laboured our way up the hill with me hanging on to R’s arm and panting my way up to the top. The hill must have been really steep because others too seemed to have some difficulty negotiating it. After reaching the top we looked all around at the range of mountains but noticed that everybody was looking in a different direction and nobody seemed to have found The Nose. Meanwhile our guide seemed to have stayed back wisely and left us to it. We settled on a couple of nose-like peaks and decided we didn’t really care if we saw the nose or not. I was more worried about getting down and as it turned out, climbing down was even more difficult and maintaining my balance was next to impossible. I must have cut a very comical figure but I was concentrating on reaching level ground without tumbling down, which might have been an easier way of getting down.

After this when our guide avoided all the good restaurants and stopped outside a halal joint, we decided it was time to leave the tour and happily took a bus back to Coimbatore.

Second Day On My Blog

What I did on my second day was to get locked out of my blog. My randomly generated password was too random and I kept getting it wrong, so I tried to reset it, but the link email got into spam for an unfathomable reason, and I fuzzily looked for spam mail in my junk mail thinking they were both the same. Finally I gave up and sent out a cry for help. So here I am, ready to post again.

Talking of passwords, R. always tries to play safe by using the same password for every site. I rage at him for being naive, but he will not think beyond a telephone number or a house number. Getting him to use a combination of familiar data is progress of sorts. He even thought once upon a time when he was being asked to register with an email id and a password that he was being asked for his email password. I hope he has outgrown that.

But it is no use blaming him. Our bank manager last month gave us the sage advice to change the officially-issued PIN of our bank card for reasons of safety and his advice was to change it to something that we would not forget easily – like our birthdays?!

Time was when I used to remember telephone numbers by the score and bank account numbers when they were only four-digit long. But now phone numbers can be accessed only on the mobile phone and bank account numbers are too long and too many to be memorized. There was the day we had gone to D’s office to pick her up and the phone had been left behind at home. Neither of us could remember her number as we stood in the fancy lobby and wondered how to contact her as everybody in the reception had left. Finally we told the security guard that we were D’s parents and he said he knew her name and the department where she worked and was able to call her for us.

We also have bank cards that we don’t use frequently. Writing down the PIN is inviting trouble, so we try to use a combination of mnemonics and guesswork when we do need to use them, getting it wrong as often as not. R. frequently forgets his login passwords for important sites and turns to me for help. That is how we happened to meet the bank manager, asking for new PIN numbers for our old cards. Perhaps he was only trying to be helpful, so that we wouldn’t forget again.

But, seriously, a bank manager? But, wait, a public sector one. Maybe.

First Day On My Blog

After having come up with this spur of the moment title for my blog I have realized that many people have thought of it before me. Essentially it means that there are many people out there who, for some reason, think they are qualified to talk about anything and everything.

Am I qualified too? No, but I am keeping this title only because I have a curiosity to know about anything and everything. I also believe in thinking a lot but talking is a difficult thing for me to do before an audience. You may say that thinking is nothing but talking to oneself. Why, yes, so it is. But in talking to oneself, one is not committed to anything. It is an ongoing debate and one is free to take up diametrically opposite positions at different times!

So what is this all about? Just that I may put down random thoughts or impressions at irregular intervals. Even those brilliant things that come to me at night, provided I remember them in the morning!

Hello there!