Friday, October 12, 2012

"All fall down"

A,B,C,D,E,F,G…echa…ucha…all fall down

I read Chinese history. The first imperial dynasty is named Qin and the last Qing. I look up the country’s current map. Two neighbouring provinces are called Shanxi and Shaanxi. I give up on the Chinese.

Izarra, my two-year-old daughter, thinks English is weirder. The small purring animal in the courtyard is a cat while the orange pieces in her salad are called carrot. Lychee the favourite and chilli the repulsive is made of the same sounds. She has overcome a similar crisis by renaming the barking biting animal “gog” and the same-sized grass-eating animal “dot”.

Was she suggesting a linguistic breakdown when she remixed the alphabet with “Ring-a-ring o' roses”?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Superstar's gift

A day before Izarra was to leave Chennai, Santhosh Kumar came to see her. The shy boy – who brought a water can to the Besant Nagar house every day, with a no-longer-stray dog loyally tailgating his bicycle – had a gift for the child. Shirly the doll, who resembles Barbie, cost him Rs 250. Santosh said he was quitting as a delivery boy – to do what he wanted to when he came to Chennai. He will start working as one of those faceless junior actors in a movie to be shot in AVM studio. One day, Izarra could flaunt the little doll – a gift from the superstar.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hunters’ trail

The gun is out. As we toy with the empty weapon, Binu, the hunter, comes out of the estate house attired in a camouflage jacket and shorts and mounted with a headlamp. He opens the shell pack and ritualistically puts it in the gun. The hunt is on.

We follow Binu and Sellathurai to the tea estate. Binu continuously scans the bushes for a glitter of the eye caught in the light. Sellam has a long knife to hack down the wounded game. We struggle to keep pace with the duo. Even on the tarred road, we hesitate to put a foot down. Darkness rules.

The first hitch comes in the form of a jeep, which might have frightened away all the creatures on the road we were supposed to hunt on. Sellam quickly changes route. He is our guide. Binu, who has eaten all kinds of animals including elephant, is hunting in this estate for the first time.

The headlamp’s beam travels to hills and valleys, roads and ditches between rows of tea plants. No eye reflects the light. Rabbits and porcupines would be hiding in their holes.

The first time I went on rabbit hunt was scarier. Scores of glittering eyes watched us from the rubber estate that turned a forest in the darkness. Strange shrieks frightened us. Kunjubaby Uncle looked for the familiar glitter of the rabbit eye. Suddenly Sanju and I were alone in the wilderness, unable to see each other.

We stood there in the midst of the rubber trees, only a few yards away from the mud road where we played cricket in the day. We had to stand this test of courage. But we were scared to death. Suddenly, a shot. Ruffles followed. We were waiting for some wounded animals to charge towards us.

A few minutes later, uncle appeared with a rabbit in his hand. In the light of the lamp, we were disappointed to see the wild rabbit, grey and ugly. We thought the creature would be more magnificent than its caged country cousins. But this one was shattered and shapeless.

Kunjubaby Uncle’s single-barrel gun was an object of admiration for us kids. On every train journey to Bheemandi during vacations, we would look forward to handling the cold steel as much as caressing the crown of the dead deer on the wall. Valiant tales were associated with the weapon which stood guard on a corner of the bedroom.

Equally intriguing was a scar that stretched from his right knee to ankle. He has told us the tale of a pig hunt. The animal had already chewed a crude bomb planted by a protective farmer when Kunjubaby uncle pumped two rounds of splinters into it from the safety of a treetop. Wild boars, like elephants, keep a vengeful memory even after they lose half the face. When the animal was a few metres away facing a group of men armed with clubs and spears, the shooter left his vantage position. The next thing he remembers is the tiny eyes turning to him and he flying over bamboo clusters. His calf was torn up by the deadly horn. The beast struck again and collapsed.

Being the only gun-owner in the settler's village bordering an unforgiving forest, Kunjubaby uncle was essential in all confrontations. Though the deer trophy was a gift to his father from another hunter, the sharp winding horns of a boar tucked below the roof tiles were earned by him. His loyal dog always guarded him from the edgy prey until it was split open by a boar one night when there was no hunt.

Boars dig out tuber at night. Some drink the cashew wash, fermented to be distilled into a fiery drink, and leave the villagers with a story to tell. It was a Good Friday. The jar of wort was to be distilled the next day and guzzled down god-fearing mouths that had gone dry for 40 days. Since boars don't respect Lent, one of them dug out the ferment. The two-ton tipsy animal hit the town, which is dont called a city despite having a church, a clinic, a toddy shop, a clothe shop and half a dozen provision stores. Villagers who had gone home after a ritualistic enactment of Crusifixion were back in action.

The boar got into the shallow river, beside the ford that leads to Kunjubaby uncle's house. It was not long before a spray of iron balls cut through its barrel neck. But the shell couldn’t breach the thick layers of fat . It turned around and chased the hunters. Uncle fired twice again but the beast refused to die. It just kept going upstream. Everyone had given up hope of a feast when the local madman confronted the boar. He hacked the tired animal's heel. Hunters shared the booty and went home to tell the tale to future generations.

Binu suddenly left the tarred road and turned left into the dark sea of tea bushes. We followed him at close range through the slush. We crossed a couple of barbwires with the help of Sellam’s warning and Hari’s failing torch. We halted for a quick smoke. Not even one animal, Binu murmured.

The party resumed the operation. We walked under a starry night as the hunter looked for a glitter on the ground. The winding narrow path and protruding rocks intimidated us. The hunter and the guide had to slow down a couple of times to let us catch up. We sure made hopeless hunters. We were returning to the bungalow through a tougher path.

I thought we returned to the main road once when the team leader again took a detour. Suddenly, a white rabbit leapt out of the light beam. We chased it. I was chasing the hunters, scared of being left out. Binu scanned under the bush for any movement. Clearly, it was the rabbit’s day.

Frustration gave way to fear when we realised that the other three members were not following us. No whistle, no light, no signal. They were stranded in the alien terrain. I recognised the small church near the workers’ colony that I saw in the morning. We were so close to our shelter. But our comrades were missing.

The rabbit hunt turned into a manhunt. Binu left us near the church and went after the trailing trio. No animal ventured out on these rainy nights, said Sellam, a second generation Tamil migrant who helped at the bungalow. Boars were an exemption. They had hunted down a pig somewhere around a few days ago.

Then we saw light atop the hillock. Binu was leading the lost men. The hunting expedition was almost over. We will have to be contended with the chicken waiting for us at the bungalow. We decided to return home before the others drained the stock of brandy.

Midway, we were atop a rocky expanse. We didn’t know where it was, but halted to admire the setting under the stars. We could have made this our joint…a shot and its echoes broke the chat. We saw Binu’s silhouette against a spark and smokescreen. Sellam ran forward. Binu joined him.

After a few anxious moments, they returned empty handed. We had let our prey escape. Our conversation chased away the rabbit out of firing range. The creature must be thanking the naïve visitors for a fresh lease of life. We thanked god for not letting Binu shoot us.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Call of the wild

Scooby is still whining as I open the gate. I look over the wall, but can’t spot her inside the dark hutch. She calms when I call her by the comical name. The poor girl is afraid to be alone. She misses her mother. Every two-month-old mammal would miss his/her mother when darkness falls. I have read somewhere that dachshunds whine till they find company. Does the rule apply to Dobermans too?

Bruno the dachshund is man enough not to whine. But he seems to be offended by my unexpected concern for the neighbour’s dog. Leaning against my right knee, locking his nails on my jeans, he demands an explanation. We were never on talking terms. He left his teeth mark on my feet when he was hardly a year old. I suspected that the “son of a bitch” was bought with a plan to make me come home early.

I instinctively patted his head and instinctively feared that he would instinctively bite me again. I never believed that the domestication of dogs was successful enough. Its wild instincts were forever at work. Like Jack London’s Buck, any civilized dog was pulled between the security of kennel and the liberty of jungle. But the dog went on all fours expecting me to caress his silky black back.

I always blamed my brother Shawn for bringing home a dog. But I too had a pet. Duka mesmerized me from his cage at the pet shop on the way to the church. I brought him home a Sunday morning. The little white dog was easily mistaken for a Pomeranian. But he was Australian pedigree, I was told. Whenever I told someone that, people asked me if he planned to go to the UK for a degree.

Duka was an unlikely canine name in a land where people named their dogs Caesar, Kaiser, Bush and so on. Normally people name their dogs in honour of their enemies. Aamir Khan named his dog Shah Rukh and Shah Rukh Khan planned to name his dog Aamir. But I chose a historical name for the dog. Michael Dukakis was the Democratic candidate against George Bush in 1988. For some apolitical reason, I wanted Dukakis to be the US President and honoured my dog with the name Duka.

He proved his pedigree but never graduated to get a degree certificate. He grew beyond a Pomeranian. He was my constant companion until he fought a pack of street dogs one night. He bled to death the next day. Then came Bruno, years later.

All these days, Bruno made sure that I became sober by the time I got past him to the house. But today, he remained non-enthusiastic. All he wanted was a pat on the back. He left me and resigned to his lonely life. A straying cat or an unguarded rat would give him company in the night. Dog is man’s best friend. But does the dog have a friend? Bruno is a prisoner. His easily available friend is a prisoner too, just beyond the wall. Then Scooby is just two months old.

Diagnosing the little dog’s aggressiveness, Shawn had made plans for him. Bruno was taken on a date. But his girlfriend happened to be a bit on the fatty side. Poor Bruno was frightened by her size and ran for his life. He cursed the vet who advised against overfeeding him. Obese dachshunds were prone to back problems. Their spinal discs frayed easily. So Bruno kept the spine and his virginity. He remained aggressive. Tom and Jerry went on cursing his breeders.

Bruno’s breeders preceded Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species is 150 years old. But dachshunds are much older. German breeders who manipulated natural selection bred and bred till they found a lowly dog, with a long spine and short ribs and shorter legs. The “design” was suitable for burrowing after badgers, but the short legs collapsed under the body’s weight. Its drooped ears added to the ‘cute’ look, but were intended to protect its ear canals when digging after game.

There’s no end to the game. Deaf Dalmatians and bowlegged dachshunds are the result. Darwin sites the example of the blue-eyed cats who are invariably deaf; hairless dogs with imperfect teeth; coarse-haired sheep with long horns; and pigeons with feathered feet who have skin between their outer toes. “If man goes on selecting, and augmenting, any peculiarity, he will almost certainly unconsciously modify other parts of the structure, owing to the mysterious laws of the correlation of growth,” he writes.

Men need dogs for hunting, guarding and adorning the ‘pet’ status, but seldom recognize their vital needs. Only breeders make matches (even they ignore the weaker ones). Maybe they should ‘design’ a variety who has forgotten his/her libido.

Meanwhile, Bruno and Scooby whine away their lives while their cousins in the streets find love when they want to, till the municipal noose catches up with them. It’s a dog’s life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Paradise Lost, in favour of grilled chicken


The day mother boarded an aero plane, she made an important discovery: heaven was not a nice place to be. “How boring would heaven be if that’s the place in the clouds. All white and smoky and still. We would have nothing to do but wear white and go on praising the god, who too would be in white. No colour, no voice. I don’t want to be there,” she told me. Conversion was no way out. Every religion had its paradise built in the sky.

***

Choosing between heaven and hell, the application form would certainly contain a column asking for his/her food preference. Heaven would be a vegan’s paradise. Milk and honey, grapes and pomegranates, and of course, apples that could cause man to lose paradise again. Hell stands in contrast, with grills and barbecues and a few ovens. Despite its Prometheusian origin, fire seems to belong to hell. At least, you could cook your food.

***

The father continued solemnly with his head lowered. “When you talk to the man upstairs,” he said, “I want you to tell Him something for me. Tell Him it ain’t right for people to die when they’re young. I mean it. Tell Him if they got to die at all, they got to die when they’re old. I want you to tell Him that. I don’t think He knows it ain’t right, because He’s supposed to be good and it’s been going on for a long, long time. Okay?”

“And don’t let anybody up there push you around,” the brother advised. “You’ll be just good as anybody else in heaven, even though you are Italian.”

“Dress warm,” said the mother, who seemed to know.

Joseph Heller
Catch 22

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When Eve read Manu Smriti

The characters in this description are fictitious. They could have lived anywhere in Renaissance Italy or Inquisition Spain or contemporary Kerala. Resemblance to any person, living or dead or cloistered, is unintentional.

The short priest’s face looked familiar. He belted out commands to the 180 men and women seeking his certificate which would prove them worthy of Christian marriage. “Don’t use your mobile phones for the next three days; don’t read newspapers; don’t talk in the dining hall; don’t talk too much to your partner…” he warned the forcibly assembled flock. Suddenly, it occurred to me. He resembled Napoleon Bonaparte. The general was addressing his prisoners of war.

Marriage Preparation Course, credited to a certain Fr Thomas Thoppil in Kerala at least, is the Catholic Church’s way of getting even with those who bunk Mass. After all, religion comes handy only at birth, wedding and death, when the clergy vengefully enforces their bureaucratic regime on the evading laity. I knew I had no choice but to yawn through the lectures if I had to rise to my family’s expectations. Even my fiancée had vetoed my suggestion of a secular wedding.

So I decided to approach the course journalistically. Instead of admitting that I was wasting three days at the mercy of Fr Bonaparte and Sr Indira Gandhi, I convinced myself that I would resurrect on the third day with a socio-politico-economic analysis of the classes and of course, the certificate. I was more of a Confucian than a Christian when I entered the pastoral centre, which would be my detention centre for the next three days.

From the onset, I realized I was being a bit too prejudiced about the course. I had forgotten the value of marriage. To me it was a socially sanctioned, legally binding pact between a man and a woman to love each other and live together. It was something else too. It was the fifth sacrament, “a visible sign of the invisible grace of god”. No wonder the clergy drew swords when the state government made registration of weddings compulsory to abide by a Supreme Court order. Praise the Lord (thrice)!

Point noted. But the sanctity of marriage had historical roots. A pleasant priest listed out biblical fairy tales to drive home the point. Adam was a good man and Eve was a tempted/tempting wife, who ultimately packed their bags out of the paradise. Abraham was a powerful patriarch and Sara was his nagging wife who got his lover and lovechild exiled to desert. Isaac was a blind father and Rebecca was his cunning wife, who robbed their firstborn of his rights to pay her younger son.

Oh god! These women! I already have second thoughts. I felt endless gratitude towards the mother superior, who tried to keep us men safe from women for three days at least. She proved a worthy commander to Fr Bonaparte when she gave strict gender-specific orders. Men and women were assigned separate stairs, lest the eves teased and tempted the adams. Only after men were led to safety after lunch/dinner, women were allowed in.

So women happily and hungrily waited for their turn at the dining table. The Church was more ‘Indianised’ than its RSS-BJP detractors in this aspect at least. It even quotes from Manu Smriti to remind wannabe brides that they must be a combo of efficient minister and energetic mistress. But confusion remained. Why would the priest ask me on the wedding day to ensure that my wife ate even if I starved? Maybe as a token of acknowledgement to the fair sex, who made up 90 plus percent of the saints of the otherwise male-dominated Catholic Church.

The Pope grants equal status to Sr Alphonsa, a sick nun who rarely left the confines of her convent at Bharananganam, and Mother Teresa, who roamed the streets of Kolkata nursing lepers. If the Mother epitomizes true Christian spirit, the other saint, like St Therese of Lisieux, represents all the paranoia of the institutional Church which can’t come to terms with human body. It eulogises the self-mortification of the blessed women. If Therese persuaded the superiors to admit her in a nunnery before she was 15, Alphonsa disfigured herself to ward off repeated marriage proposals.

For a religion which has been trying to instill a sense of guilt on every child, nothing can be a better virtue than negating the needs of the body. The Church, which extends the good-evil dichotomy to the soul-body debate, goes in endless circles praising Christian virtues, namely suffering, compromising and praying. Can’t blame the Church. It merely echoes the laity’s wishes. When classified ad writers seek/notify “fair, wheatish and god-fearing” girls, the Church exhorts submission to husbands as the supreme goal for any Christian woman, if she doesn’t decide, by any chance, to be the bride of God.

The third evening, Fr Bonaparte appeared again, with a bunch of certificates. The general now tried to sound friendly, having won the three-day battle to save souls. I refused the truce and completed writing the feedback form: “The food was fine and timely. Sleep was perfect. Even my mother wouldn’t have cared me so much. But you should be more adept in enforcing discipline. Why don’t you try jammers to prevent the kids (half of them 30 plus) from using mobiles in the bathrooms. It would come handy like the Alsatian watchdog of the convent.”

But the rest of the congregation was unconcerned. Mothers had come to take home their cleansed sons and daughters. They bowed before Bonaparte for moulding their daughters and daughters-in-law into model Christian wives. Together, these women keep the 2000-year-old faith alive. In return, the Church blames them for all the follies of mankind. Even after the Pope endorsed Charles Darwin, it refers to the true guardians of the multinational faith corporate as the proverbial rib yanked off the first man. It’s a thankless world, indeed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The case of the shapeless bricks


Dedication: To all those classmates who vanished one fine morning

“Gosh…learning disability…for a journalist…don’t tell me…,” buzzed in Anupama’s SMS. All I told her was that Taare Zameen Par was my story too. I didn’t contradict my friend though I was talking about the discipline part rather than the dyslexic theme of the Aamir Khan film. After all, I still see letters dancing and numbers fighting. (Hope my employers – present and potential – don’t read this.)

I was not dyslectic. But printed letters do dance, turn cursive, hide behind the other, transform to an altogether different script while retaining the meaning. Even after so many Hollywood inventions – bodysnatching aliens, falling meteors, rising waters – my most horrifying doomsday scenario is about letters losing its meaning. A day when I was surrounded by mysterious notations of hieroglyphics.

Perhaps even Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a hidden fear of melting letters to write about it in One Hundred Years of Solitude: "Thus they (inhabitants of Macondo fighting loss of memory) went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters."

Without letters, mankind may or may not survive, but I would be back to the helpless kindergarten dropout. It took immense patient from my mother and my best teacher, the late Cicily Jose, to befriend me with the letters. Even when I accepted that a certain letter could stand for a certain syllable, I refused to write it the way the learned wrote. An O was an O whether it was drawn clockwise or counterclockwise.

As I was beginning to put spirit into script, came the next teaser. Algebra…a+b led to more complex formations when it should have simply read what it is – ab. ABC and XYZ assumed totally impossible values…in fact they were shamelessly polygamous letters ready to go with any value. For the second time in my academic life, I felt hopeless. Red ruled my mathematics answer sheets.

As soon as I stepped out of the theatre, before I send SMS to select friends recommending the movie (two months after the release), I met another friend Mrinal Sen on the road. Before I could tell him my impressions, he told me: “I had this problem. Letters just flew away.” He even did his math problems the day Ishan Avasti the dyslexic protagonist did.

The most beautiful scene in the movie was the surprise math test in Ishan’s class. The dreamer boy just took the figures (3 and 9, supposed to be multiplied) on his animated journey to space, where he won a game by replacing the planets with given numbers. The answer to the only attempted problem was 3! Scenes later, his drawing teacher reveals to him that the problem is as simple as climbing a stair!

Sen would also let his figures fight among themselves to come to a conclusion and, surprisingly, arrived at the right answer. But his teachers were smarter. They insisted on method. They didn’t care if the answer was right or wrong as long as the student didn’t imagine a space journey or stair flight. No, my boy, don’t be smart. You have only one way of looking at it.

Udayan had a cross-cultural take on the film: “The elder brother (who tops the class and excels in badminton) is British and the younger one (who follows his own brain and finds himself bogged down) is French.” Even the British have reformed their system, but India refuses to grow from Lord Macaulay. Don’t mind the massacre in the classrooms, let’s fit another brick in the wall.

I have often bumped into this sadistic HR question: ‘List a couple of your achievements’. I may not impress the examiner if I said this: 1) I read ‘The Unicorn Expedition’; 2) I wrote 652 words on education. But they are praiseworthy achievements when seen through the eyes of a child bewildered by the ant-like creatures on his textbook.

Ray of hope: Kendriya Vidyalayas make TZP a must-watch

Postscript: Had planned to write about the tyranny of disciplinarians and the end of imagination, but was carried away. Some other time, perhaps.