jump to navigation

A Kerfuffle about armpits July 19, 2018

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

sleevelessYes. I did say something about sleeveless dresses and armpits. It was something altogether innocuous. You wouldn’t think that would result in a such a big fuss, right?  Wrong.  There are five of us in the house, all grown up, at least by age, and none of us is talking to any of the others now because of that one harmless observation.

****

It was just another day.

It was around six-thirty in the morning and as usual we were seated on the verandah watching the neighbourhood wake up.  To my left was Jambunathan, Jim for short, one of my two tenants.  Jim is a world-weary, middle-aged bachelor, maybe about 45, and a freelance journalist. I don’t quite know where he works and till recently had not seen any of his contributions in any of the newspapers and magazines we get. To my right, was Sundar, a young early-30s lecturer, who teaches math at a nearby engineering college. He and his newly-wed wife are my other tenants. In the middle, of course was myself.  I am in my 70s now, fit as a fiddle. I used to work in the US, but now I have retired and returned to my village home to spend the rest of my life. My village is no longer the village I remember from my childhood. It’s a bustling town now, but still home to me and I am happy to be back where I belong.

That time of the day, between six and half-past seven or eight in the morning, was a period of peaceful expression for the three of us. A lazy, tension-free period of gentle banter, before the work day began.  Seated with our coffee and newspaper, we would discuss various matters of indeterminate importance. The day’s news, cricket, local gossip, and sudden insights like the fateful one about armpits, were all fodder for our discussions.

The verandah provided us with a nice vantage point from which to observe all the goings-on.  And not much passed by us without some comment – sly, snide, or sometimes even well-meaning – from one of us. We would watch and provide commentary as the street and its inhabitants gradually woke up and got ready to face another day.

Most days, the routine would be unvarying. The first busy period would just be ending as we took up our usual positions. The last of the milkmen and the laziest of the newspaper boys would just be finishing their rounds. Then the shops would start opening one by one and the first customers would start coming in. The first set of housewives would come out in their nightgowns with a towel for a dupatta and buy batter for the breakfast idlies.  Poking our heads from over the newspapers one or the other of us would comment on the ugliness of the dress and wish for the more traditional saree to make a comeback.  Then after a while, as though to fulfil our wishes, the next set of housewives, typically in sarees, fresh after a bath and wet hair still tied in that towel that is no longer a dupatta, would rush out to buy coriander and curry leaves to put the finishing touches to their rasam or sambar.  At around the same time, a few men would come slinking in, in their dhoti and shirts for their first smoke of the day.

Around half-past 7, the school children would go past noisily on their way to school, followed by girls in their salwar-kameez on their way to the St. Theresa Ladies college at the end of our road.  Finally, the working folks, both men and women, dressed variously, would go hurrying past, to make it to their offices in time.  This was usually the first sign for Sundar to get up and go get ready for college. He would try and delay the inevitable until Shanthi, his pretty wife would come and inform him that if he did not go for his bath pronto, he would be late for his first class. Jim would also use that as a cue to get ready for his work, though none of us knew exactly where he went. A freelance journalist, it seemed, never had anywhere to go to at any particular time.  I, being retired, didn’t have to go anywhere.  However, I would also get up and go into the house soon after for it was boring to sit there without my friends.

That would mark the end of our enjoyable morning session.

On that particular day, we had been discussing about how fashions and trends come and go and how there is no accounting for taste.  Just afterwards, I happened to see a few pretty, young, office going ladies in sleeveless tops and made a simple comment about exposed armpits. I even remember my exact words. All I had said was “who knew that an exposed armpit wouldn’t be altogether unattractive!”

It must have intersected with Sundar’s thoughts then because he said something like “I know a pair that is eminently kissable”, followed by a sigh, and “but who lets me?”. Mortified at having voiced such personal thoughts, he got up and left immediately, while I made some non-committal sounds to cover my laughter.  Jim sitting on the other side had his head buried in his copy of The Hindu and did not seem to have heard anything. And that was that.

****

Last Saturday, Jim and I were having our second cup of coffee and wondering why Sundar had not joined us yet, when Shanthi came into our portion of the house, her eyes all red and puffed up from crying, and rushed into the kitchen to talk to my wife. After a quiet period, my wife came out fuming, brandishing some magazine.  She threw it at me and said “See what your friend is doing to this poor girl!”. Just as I caught the magazine, Shankar came in and declared angrily, “I am sure she only wrote it”.  Mystified by all the drama, I looked at the open magazine and saw that it was on a page where a famous sex doctor answered readers’ questions.

The first question caught my eye.  It said “Sometimes, when we are in bed together, my husband wants to kiss my armpits. Is that normal behaviour?  I am worried.”, supposedly sent in by “anguished newlywed”.  I confess I giggled a bit, most inappropriate for my age and the situation, I admit.  Still, in my defence, I had just been reminded of his statement the other day and couldn’t help but wonder if she might have actually sent in the question herself.  “Stop giggling like a fool”, admonished my wife, and added “the poor child did not write such a mail to that idiot doctor.  And this big oaf is accusing her”.

Sundar was seething by then.  He was already angry with his wife.  Now he was angry with my wife too, for having brought out the entire issue into the open.  Now everyone, including bachelor Jim knew he wanted to kiss his wife’s armpits.

I think that’s when Sundar stopped talking to the two women.

In order to diffuse the situation, I said “Wait.  Let’s read the answer at least.  Maybe the good doctor can clear up the matter”, I said half-jokingly. In the lull that followed, I started reading the answer aloud. It said,

Dear Anguished newlywed,

There may be many reasons why your husband may want to kiss your armpits.

One, your husband may be suffering from a salt deficiency.  Try adding a bit more salt in his diet.

Two, I am sure you have noticed how some house dogs jump on the knee of an unsuspecting visitor with gusto.  This might be such a case of mistaken identity.

Ha ha ha! Just kidding. Seriously though…“, I sputtered a bit here as I could not control my laughter.  The answer was funny. I have a sense of humour.  So, bite me.

Anyway, I guess nobody else shared my sense of humour there for I could almost feel their stares trying to burn me to a cinder. Not making eye-contact with anyone, I reined in my laughter quickly enough and continued reading, “...Seriously though, there is nothing weird about it.  It is quite normal and just shows how much your husband loves you. In fact, you should be flattered that he thinks they are eminently kissable”. I paused here to wonder how the answer had the exact same words that Sundar had uttered. Something was fishy here.

But not wanting to add more fuel to an already raging fire, I continued, “So, unless you are extremely ticklish or find this abhorrent, I suggest that you should give it a try.  Maybe you can reciprocate too. Who knows, maybe you will like it too! Just make sure that you keep the area clean for there are a lot of sweat glands there and bacteria thrive in such warm moist conditions. Loosen up and have fun!“.

“There, see. There is nothing wrong with it”, I said and added as an aside to my wife that maybe we could try it too. In my defense, I thought that would reduce the awkwardness all around and maybe people would see the funny side of it.  Obviously, my wife didn’t see eye-to-eye with me on that one.  She thought that was in very poor taste and let me have it!

Reeling under her onslaught, I decided to divert the attention by roping Jim into the picture. “Jim”, I said, “you’re the journalist. Why don’t you find out who wrote that letter”. Jim, till then, had been studiously hiding behind his paper.  On being addressed directly, he looked up from the paper and I could see a weird look in his eyes. Without thinking, I blurted out “What?  Don’t tell me you wrote in the question!?”.

Before Jim could react, the others pounced on him.  “Is this the kind of journalist you are?”, asked Sundar having found an opening to redirect the heat.  “You were there on the verandah with us when Sundar here said he would like…”, I started before realizing that I was probably fanning the flames here. Shanthi, who had been sniffling silently interjected in a cold voice, “…and what did Sundar say?”.  Too late to retract my words, I confessed, “… that he would like to kiss your armpits”.

I could practically see her eyes turning red.  Just as she was about to launch into a full-frontal attack, Sundar pointed a finger at me accusingly and said, “He started it!”. At which point, quite predictably, my wife jumped in and demanded to know what I had said.  “Well, this old man, he said he liked exposed armpits”, said Sundar smugly. I got another earful from my wife.  “At your age! With a bachelor on one side, an impressionable mind on the other and a young girl in the house. You men are so lecherous”.

“What impressionable mind?”, I exploded, “He is over 30 for God’s sakes. Not some pubescent teenager!”.

“You men are sick, I tell you”, she continued, disgust writ large on her face.

I think that is when we decided to stop talking to each other.

I turned to Jim for support only to find him glaring at me.  “What are you glaring at me for?”, I asked.

“Bloody journalists”, muttered Sundar.  “Who’s that quack doctor, anyway?”. asked Sundar.  I was taken aback by the vehemence in Jim’s voice when he responded with “the answer’s perfectly fine.  It’s funny, entertaining to readers and correct in all ways.  What’s wrong in answering questions many people want to ask but are too ashamed to do so?”.

Again, in retrospect, I should have kept my mouth shut, but the possibility was tantalizing.  “Don’t tell me you wrote the answer as well? No wonder you used the exact words!”, I ejaculated.  His jaw dropped for a second. Then he looked at me and said, “it’s all your fault. You started it!”. Before I could respond, he dropped the paper on the table, got up and headed out.  Then, as a parting shot, just before exiting, he turned to Sundar and asked mockingly, “and which half-decent guy buys a smutty magazine like that anyway!?”.

He hasn’t spoken to us since.

*****

It’s another bright day, and here I am, sitting on my verandah, all alone.  The two chairs on my either side are empty.  I am watching the street and its usual progress. It is boring without the company of my friends.  And then, just like that, I have an epiphany.  I realize why the nightgown-and-towel has taken over as the dress du jour for women.  But alas, there is no one to share it with.

I hope things get back to normal soon, because I don’t know how long I can keep these brilliant insights of mine all to myself.

Advertisements

Strange music December 4, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
add a comment

meera_musicI have known all three of them for quite a long time. Then again, I wonder if I actually ever knew them.

I have known the Doctor the longest. He was already a well established cardiologist when I got to know him. I met him for the first time when I was assigned to follow our late Chief Minister. When the CM suffered a heart attack in ’97, through odd circumstances, I was the one who picked up the doctor and brought him to the CM’s home. It was my first scoop as a young journalist.

The doctor was soft spoken, and very respectful even though I was several years his junior. We met many more times, especially after the Chief Minister’s health deteriorated. Towards the end, during the months before the CM finally passed away, we spent many hours together travelling in the convoy with the CM, and backstage during the long political rallies which the CM insisted on leading despite severe health issues.

The doctor was initially quite reticent. I think he thought I was the CM’s grandson or something, given that the CM was always real nice to me, and hence kept his distance. But once he found out that I was a rookie journalist who had just been at the right place at the right time to help the CM when he got his chest pain, he became friendlier and even a little protective.

It was during those times of enforced companionship that we got to know each other well. Surprisingly, we shared many common interests not the least of which was music. We both liked an eclectic mix of music ranging from Carnatic, Hindustani and western classical to jazz and rock. We spent our idle hours endlessly dissecting various artists and bands and exchanging notes on the up-and-coming singers in the Carnatic circuit.

Those endless days must have been a real pain for him. For me, it was part of my job and my newspaper was actually happy that I was close to the CM, because that gave us access to a lot of news first. But for the doctor, it meant not being able to take care of his practice, or be available for his other patients as regularly as he would have liked. Sitting around idly hoping the CM wouldn’t have a heart attack must have been frustrating for him. However, he seemed to take it all with equanimity and I did not hear him complain, even once. He was so zen. When you looked at him, you would think there was nothing else he would rather be doing nor anywhere else he would rather be. When talking to someone, he would be in the moment, all his attention on that person and on the topic at hand, enveloping them in his cocoon of calmness. I have very fond memories from those few months.

After the CM passed away, we did not get many more opportunities to meet and talk. On rare occasions, we bumped into each other at some sabha or the other in Chennai during the December music season, where we would chat briefly. He would be with his friends or sometimes his parents and I would just politely enquire about his well-being before moving on. I know he read my articles regularly because he always sent in his compliments and comments. So, we were never really out of touch, I guess, if you think about it.

One day, I was pleasantly surprised to receive his wedding invitation by post. And even more surprised to see that the bride was the well know carnatic singer M____. By my calculation, at that time, the doctor must have been in his late 30s or early 40s and M____ would have been no more than 21 or 22, a considerable age difference. “Invitation is for our friend, and not the journalist”, said the postscript on the wedding card, with a smiley at the end. Given that they were both well-known and I had only gotten to know them through my work as a journalist, I had not taken the liberty of slotting them as friends, though I was fond of them both, to say the least. So to get an invitation and to be called a friend felt very nice.

I was a big fan of M_____, having covered her meteoric rise through the years since she burst on to the music scene at the tender age of 12. Even at that early age, her talent was unmistakable. I still remember house-full concerts where the child (at that time) would enthrall her audience, comprising people of all ages, with renditions of Meera bhajans. She would invest in them so much love and devotion that it was easy to imagine that she was actually in love with Lord Krishna. If the original Meera’s feelings for the lord are considered the purest form of love, to hear the music flow from this young girl only made it even more so.

By the time she was 18, she was a well-established and highly respected Carnatic singer invited to perform all over the world. I followed her career with keen interest and made it a point to attend her concerts whenever possible. Over the course of her career, I interviewed her quite a few times, and it was always a very pleasant and joyful task.

If she had been only a great singer, maybe her trajectory would not have been so spectacular. Combined with the prodigious talent was her ethereal beauty. She was not just cute, or pretty. Even gorgeous wouldn’t quite cut it. She was beautiful, in the fullest sense of the term. I know, the word beauty is overused and has become cliched, but it would be difficult to find a more suitable substitute to describe her. There was an other-worldly aura around her. I could tell you that she had a flawless complexion the colour of honey, that she had large expressive eyes that were black as the night and yet blindingly bright, that she had a irrepressible smile that lit up the world, or that her long tresses bounced like gently coiled springs made of silk, but it would not do justice to her appearance. Even a poet far more capable than I would be hard-pressed to convey in words what could only be perceived with our eyes and hearts. It was an all-encompassing beauty that made everyone around her feel beautiful too.

To top it all, despite all the adulation and a burgeoning fan base, she came across as a normal person in all other respects. Her expressions, attitudes and answers to the various questions I posed during the interviews were always age appropriate and yet mature for her age. If I sound as though I was in love with her, you would not be too far off the mark.

I was happy for them both when I heard that they were getting married. Despite minor misgivings of their age difference, I couldn’t think of any reason why it would not be the best thing that happened to them. I attended their wedding. I had assumed that it would be a large gala affair with a thousand invitees, but was surprised to find that the wedding was a small private affair with hardly 100 people. When I entered the wedding hall, the doctor was sitting on the stage half-way through some ceremony and the bride was running around bubbly as usual. The demure bride she was not. The doctor caught my eye, nodded his head, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. M____ bounded up to me, grabbed me by the elbow and hugged me like I was a long lost, much loved cousin. “So good you could make it”, she said and then added, “the doctor has asked me a thousand times if I was sure I had sent the invite to you”. “Of course, I am also thrilled that one of my favourite people is here to share in my happiness”, she continued, giving my elbow another tight squeeze, oblivious of the effect she was having on me. She could have never been mine, but the finality of her being well and truly somebody else’s now was inescapable. My heart lurched a bit, I confess. Thankfully somebody else caught her attention then and she bustled away possibly to break some other heart with a dose of her boundless love and affection.

I wondered if life would change for either of them after marriage, especially whether she would cut down on her performances or travels, but thankfully for the fans, life went on as before. While the doctor continued to grow in stature as the preeminent cardiac surgeon drawing patients from all over India and other countries, M___ continued to travel around the world performing to rave reviews.

A decade or so later, I introduced M____ to my friend, an accomplished jazz violinist. He was an old friend of mine, from the time he had first visited India to perform at the Alliance Francaise as a youngster. We had been introduced to each other by my French teacher and I had become his tour guide and translator for the duration of his stay. We hit it off well as we travelled together to Pondicherry and Auroville and then to Mahe in Kerala which was another erstwhile French colony. He toured India almost every year after that, and we used to plan at least one long weekend together travelling to some nearby place with a European connection.

On one such trip to Tranquebar, a Danish post on the east coast of India, we happened to meet M____ and the doctor who were also staying at the same resort. As fusion music was all a rage then, I suggested that they could maybe have a concert together. To my surprise, both of them thought it was a great idea and one thing led to another and within a month, they had a programme which turned out to be a big hit. The next year, she travelled to France and they had a few performances together there which were also very well received.

From that time, their concerts together became a standard fixture during the annual music season in Chennai and in various jazz and world music stages across the world. Over the next decade or so, she not only became known for her own reputation, but also as one half of the jazz–carnatic duo.

During that period, I moved to New Delhi to cover the national political scene. So, I lost touch with all of them and heard nothing much beyond what was reported in the media, which was not much. Then, one day, I heard they were having a concert in Delhi and so I called my friend to reconnect and possibly bum a backstage pass. After the concert I went backstage and we chit-chatted for a few minutes. He then invited me to join them for dinner. M___ hesitated a bit, took him aside and spoke to him for a while after which he came back and said that she had other plans and would be unable to join us. So, it was just the two of us who went for dinner.

After we sat down at our table, without preamble, he said “I should have told you about this sooner. M___ and I are an item now. We have been together for about 5 years now”. I was totally taken aback. “How could you?”, I exclaimed. “What? You’re still carrying a torch for her?”, he countered jocularly. “Yes. That”, I replied in similar vein, “but I was thinking more about the doctor!”. “Of course, the doctor is aware”, he said in reply. “Oh! That poor man. He must be devastated”, I said feeling sorry for the gentle doctor. “Not really. We are all quite civilized about it you know. Its a fairly open relationship between the three of us. M____ is a treasure. Only your society will not accept it and hence the secrecy”, he replied appearing quite blasé. It all sounded altogether Bohemian for me. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine the dignified doctor in a love triangle.

Over dinner he brought me up to speed on all that had transpired since we had last met. Apparently, soon after they started performing together, he had fallen madly in love with her. I wasn’t surprised. It was inevitable given M___’s beauty and the fact that they were traveling together regularly as part of their concert tours. However, since he had also developed an abiding respect for the doctor, he had not acted on his urges, he said. To complicate matters, M____ being her usual ebullient self, he had been unable to figure out if his feelings were being reciprocated or not. Anyway, the absence of any pushback had raised his hopes and so his love for her had grown unhampered. This state of affairs, he said, had gone on for quite some time, making life difficult for him.

Then, during a moment of weakness, he had gone and confessed his feelings, not to M____ as one might logically expect, but to the doctor. Whether this was to assuage his own guilt or he was looking for approval, I do not know. Matters would have ended there if the doctor had asked him to cut off all relationships and move away, he said, as that was something he had already contemplated on doing.

Unfortunately for the kindly doctor, M___ had also, in private, confessed to him her growing feelings for her co-artist. I don’t know what went on in the doctor’s mind at that time. I can only guess that maybe he harboured guilt relating to their huge age difference, or was looking to do the right thing by her, for instead of getting angry, he had offered to get a divorce and set her free. Characteristically, M____ had been in no mood to accept such an outcome as she believed sincerely that she was still as much in love with the doctor as she ever had been, and she had no intention of annulling the marriage. Again, I guess, if the doctor had then told her to break off all relations with the violinist, she would have agreed and matters would have ended there. The decent human being that he was, he did not do that either.

What had eventually happened was that the doctor, whether he wanted to or not, had given their relationship his tacit approval. The doctor had however, cautioned them that society, especially the Indian one, would not take kindly to any extra-marital dalliances, which always reflected badly on the woman, and hence asked them to be as discreet as possible. I am not sure he actually said it in so many words, but that appears to be the essence that my friend, the violinist, took away after their conversation, based on his words.

A period of blissful coexistence followed, if my friend is to be believed. On tours out of the country, the two enjoyed a guilt-free and loving relationship and on return kept their distance, giving M____ and the doctor their space and time. After hearing all this, I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say anyway?  In my heart of hearts, I knew I would have also gladly shared M____ with another man, if only she had loved me. So, I couldn’t fault my friend for this weakness. I would have considered anybody else behaving as M___ did selfish, but was incapable of finding fault with her. The doctor, he was a grown man too. By all accounts he had had enough opportunities not to have allowed this to go on.

I paid the bill, and just as we were leaving, he told me that M____ had really wanted to join us, but was worried that things might get awkward after our conversation and hence had chickened out. I called her from the restaurant and spoke to her and wished them all happiness. She sounded guilty and happy at the same time. I felt guilty mainly on account of the doctor, maybe for having brought them all together.

A year later, I read in the papers that the Doctor and M____ had divorced and she had married my friend. I was surprised. And a little guilty for I know not what. I thought of calling the doctor or the two of them, but was not sure what I would say to them. I could neither congratulate the couple, nor commiserate with the doctor. In the end, I mustered up the courage to call my friend. “Now what?”, I demanded. He laughed sheepishly. It’s a long story. I am coming to Delhi next week. Let’s catch up over a drink. We met the next week and he appeared even happier than before if that was possible. “I am here only for another couple of hours. Back to Chennai by the last flight. Can’t keep away from my lovely bride”, he gushed all in one breath. His exuberance was infectious and I could not help but grin at him. “Start your story. I can’t wait”, I said as I waved to the waiter to take our order. “What can I say? I am the happiest man alive”, he declared. “Two of your finest single malts, spare no expense”, he demanded from the waiter when he came, “for the luckiest man alive and his best friend”. Once the waiter had left, I asked him to get on with it.

“Well, actually nothing has really changed…”, he began, sobering down a bit, “The doctor’s still in love with M____ and as you can see, so am I. She is also just as much in love with both of us as before. So, in that sense nothing is different”. I guess he could see the confusion on my face and that cracked him up. After his laughter at my expense subsided, he continued, “What has changed is that I can now be open about my relationship with M____. No more, this clandestine crap. I didn’t realise it at first, but having to hide my love and act like I was doing something illicit was weighing down on me. So, one day I sat both of them down and shared my feelings”.

“And I guess, the dear doctor agreed readily to this also”, I sighed. “Actually, he was not for it and held out for quite a while, but eventually I prevailed”. “Now, I can tell the whole world how much I love this wonderful creature. What a fantastic feeling that is, you know?”, he said after a pause.

I was happy for him and as usual a little bit guilty thinking of the doctor. “Poor doctor”, I mumbled, but my friend was quite sure things were the same. “You know us. We are all civilized about it. Sophisticated as ever. We are also a bit older now and even more mature. Everything’s going to be fine”, he said. After having seen their unlikely relationship survive for so many years, I wasn’t going to start doubting it now. So, I again wished him all the best. We had another drink, to their health and continued togetherness, before he left to catch his flight.

Six months later I read in the papers that my friend and M____ had filed for divorce. This was all getting too much. I picked up the phone and called him. He answered on the second ring and asked, “So, you heard?”, sounding surprisingly upbeat. “What’s wrong with you all?”, I exclaimed. “Well”, he said, “I have realised that I was not as civilized and sophisticated as I thought I was”. Then with a laugh he continued, “The truth is it took a marriage for me to figure out that I can gladly share the woman I love with another man, but only as long as she is the other man’s wife!”

“So, you guys have broken up?”, I asked, still trying to come to grips with their affairs.

He said, “No, no. Don’t worry. Nothing’s changed”.

“Bite me”, I said, and hung up.

The goddess and the brinjal curry November 17, 2017

Posted by globejam in Childhood, Folktales, Uncategorized.
add a comment

brijalcurryWhen people talk about fairy tales, you get the general impression that they are gentle, well-meaning stories with a moral to teach, suitable for children. In reality though, nothing can be farther from the truth. Most fairy tales are actually macabre, cruel and vindictive stories, across all cultures. While, in the western fairy tales, it is the step-mother who is the primary antagonist, in Indian stories, it is the mother-in-law who is the main villain. Quite frankly though, after listening to a bunch of them, I believe they reflect human attitudes and behaviour more truthfully than do books by eminent psychologists and behaviourists.

I have heard quite a few stories, told to me by my mother and other elder relatives, and while they were all extremely entertaining, any moral lessons from these stories are indubitably suspect. If, unbeknownst to me, they have inculcated some values in me, I shudder to think what they might be.

One such story from my childhood, I shall relate, purely for entertainment purposes. I have annotated (in grey italics) the story in some places to put in my comments. They are not part of the story.

In a small village somewhere is rural southern India lived a poor farming family – a father, mother, son and the son’s wife. The father was a docile, hard-working man trying his best to earn enough to put food on the plate for the family. His wife was a termagant who berated the husband, tortured her daughter-in-law at every opportunity and thought the world of her son. An enduring theme to this day!

The son was a loafer. He was however, very faithful to his mother and listened to her every command obediently. The daughter-in-law was much abused and made to do all the house work, including a lot of unnecessary work that the mother-in-law forced her to do, just because.

All this was explained matter-of-factly, so the general feeling that I got was that this was a typical family and there was nothing out of the ordinary here.

The daughter-in-law did all the cooking, except for an occasional special dish that the mother made exclusively for her son. She ate last and, more often than not, did not get enough to eat.

One of the special dishes that the mother made was what was called ‘ennai kathrika‘, a spicy dish made of brinjal, a rather tasteless vegetable, that grew in their backyard. This dish was made exclusively for herself and her son and neither the father nor the daughter-in-law got more than a whiff of it. It smelt heavenly and every time it was cooked the daughter-in-law salivated and yearned to get at least a morsel of it.

A lot of slurping sounds was added to the narration at this point, ostensibly to influence us to like the vegetable. However, as we hardly ever got to see the ennai kathrikai made at home, and what was made looked and tasted like half-cooked slugs, the tactic failed miserably.

Knowing this, the mother and son made it a point to finish every last bit of it, before the mother washed the vessel thoroughly lest the daughter-in-law got to lick some of it at the time of washing the vessels. Such was her cruelty.

One day, the mother and son decided to visit their relatives who lived in a village that was a two-day walk from their home. After packing their bags, the mother then called her daughter-in-law aside and warned her, “Listen, we are going to be away for a week or so. Those brinjals in our backyard will be ready in a day or two. However, you are not to touch them. It is all right even if they dry up and shrivel where they are. If you as much as touch them, I will come back and beat you black and blue, understand?”. The poor daughter-in-law nodded her head meekly. Sure that her warning was sufficient, the mother and son duo left home.

The fear of retribution kept her away from the brinjals for a couple of days. But once the brinjals became ready for plucking, she found them hard to resist. So on the third day, after her father-in-law had left for work, the girl plucked all the brinjals determined to make herself the tastiest, oiliest, spiciest ennai kathrikai she could, come what may.

She washed the brinjals nicely and then cut off the green stem at the top. She then spliced each brinjal into four connected pieces and into the gap she stuffed a masala made with chilli powder, freshly grated coconut, cloves, cinnamon, coriander seeds and other ingredients. She then steamed them all together and finally shallow fried them in oil till they sizzled. The aroma of the ennai kathrika wafted right across the street making every resident salivate.

Again, a second attempt to encourage us to eat brinjal the next time it was made. Lots of lip-smacking sounds added here.

Then she put it all into one big vessel and went to the local temple, sat in front of the presiding deity, the village Amman(Goddess), and started eating them one by one. The aroma filled the temple. Unable to bear the pangs of hunger kindled by the heady smell, the priests and the devotees left quickly for their homes to have an early dinner. The Amman, unable to resist the temptation of what was possibly the best ennai kathrikai in history, took on a human form and requested for a bite of the heavenly brinjal dish. The woman, in the throes of epicurean ecstasy, asked the goddess to wait till she had had her fill. And slowly, one by one, as the goddess watched, she polished off every morsel of the ennai kathrikai she had made.

The goddess, in shock, and in awe of a human who had the capacity to finish what could have been a feast for ten people, put her finger on her nose and turned back into stone.

The next day, the priest who came early in the morning as usual to bathe and dress the deity, was shocked to see that the Amman, instead of holding her trident in her right hand as usual, had her fore finger of her right hand on her nose. The priest unable to fathom this miracle ran straight to the king and announced that this could be a forewarning for terrible news.

The king, rudely awakened thus, had half a mind to kick the priest. However, better sense prevailed, and after understanding what the priest was blabbering, made a beeline to the temple, expecting that some shadow must have played tricks with the priest’s vision. However, he was also shocked to see his beloved Amman in such a pose.

Fearing for his kingdom and his life, he sent out a message to all the priests in his kingdom and nearby kingdoms to come and see how the Amman may be appeased. He offered a bag full of gold coins and other gifts worth an obscene amount to anyone who succeeded in bringing her back to her original posture.

Over the next day or two, every brahmin and priest, every sadhu and saint tried all their tricks, but to no avail. The king, a nervous wreck by this time, opened up the reward to any citizen, even offering to double the bonanza for anyone who could pacify the angry deity.

Our lady who ate the brinjal, however, knew what was going on and was quite angry with the Amman for making such a fuss. Worried that she would get caught for eating what she rightfully felt was her brinjal dish, she told the king that if they all left her alone with the Amman for a few minutes, she would set things right.

There are other sanitized versions, I am sure, but what follows is “forwarded as received” in current parlance, so there is no point in abusing me or taking umbrage at the language used. If you are easily offended, I suggest you stop reading now. 

The king, though he had little faith in this villager, asked everyone to evacuate the temple and give her some space. Once the temple had emptied, the angry woman took a stick, dipped it in some shit lying around and went to the Amman and threatened her thus: “If you don’t stop your shenanigans now, I will shove this shit-dipped stick up your nostril”, she hissed. We don’t know what the Amman felt, but knowing the mettle of this diminutive village woman, she promptly lifted her finger off her nose and put her hand back in its original position. The woman then threw the stick away, and went to the king and asked for the reward. The king ran to the temple and was astounded to see that the woman had accomplished what nobody else could and promptly gave her the reward he had promised.

Open defecation has a long history in these parts and continues to surprise and slip up people to this day.

The woman went home with her booty in time to see her husband and mother-in-law returning from their trip.

One would think that this is where the happily-ever-after portion of this fairy tale would appear, but alas, no.

The mother-in-law and husband took all the jewelry from her and continued to abuse her and mistreat her as before.

Thus ends the first part of this story.  The second part of the story is about how the daughter-in-law, who is not such a poor thing after all, gets back at her mother-in-law.  In all this the son/husband seems to somehow get away scot-free despite participating wholeheartedly in torturing his wife.  We shall leave that for another day.

The case of the hanging sadhu November 16, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
add a comment

I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered“, said the guru. “So says the butler”, I thought to myself, having spotted my prime suspect number 1.

Earlier that day, a man who would not identify himself had called in to report a suspicious death at his ashram. Though this particular ashram was known to be quiet and trouble-free, suicides and murders were not altogether unheard of. They were usually hushed up as most of the politicians and many in my police force were ardent devotees of the resident guru. I was actually surprised that the chief inspector had asked me to look into it, as I am one of the irreverent few in the department.

I reached the ashram 20 minutes after I got the call. I waded through a sea of sadhus and sadhvis clad in dull pink and peeped through the window. The deceased was a sadhu hanging from the ceiling fan in his room. One end of his pink angavastram, a piece of cloth used to cover the torso, was tied to the fan head while the other was neatly wrapped around his neck. A stool lay sideways a short distance from his feet, as though he had kicked it away. Why they use the phrase “kicked the bucket” when there is a convenient stool available, I do not know. The small room was sparsely furnished. It had been padlocked from the inside when we arrived. We broke the door down and a quick inspection suggested it was most likely a suicide.

Except that the head of the Ashram had just come in and used the word “murder”. I sighed inwardly. These ashram cases, whatever the outcome, were invariably detrimental to an ambitious cop’s career. I would have been happy to mark it as a suicide and go home. Now, I had to open an investigation.

“Murdered?”, I asked him. His eyes widened a little bit as realization dawned, a little late. “…or suicided”, he finished lamely. “So, either he was murdered or he was ‘suicided'”, I ruminated. Looked like there was more than one murder happening here.

I asked everyone to step out of the room and closed the door behind me. There was an unseemly eagerness among the other sadhus to see their recently deceased brother. I told them all to go away as this was a police matter now. Most of them stood there rubbernecking to get a peek at the poor bloke through the window. So much for relinquishing worldliness. I looked meaningfully at the guru. He turned around, jerked his head and hmphed and his disciples reluctantly dispersed. Can’t really blame them, given there was so little excitement in their regular lives.

I asked the guru to remain in the ashram for questioning, sealed the room, positioned a constable outside the room to ensure no one had access to it and went looking for a telephone to call my boss. At the main ashram office was a guilty looking sadhu desperately trying to avoid making eye contact with me. The office telephone was on his desk. I went to him and whispered through the side of my mouth conspiratorially, “We got your call. We won’t tell anyone you called. Nod if you understand”. He nodded his head, albeit reluctantly. “What’s your name?”, I asked loudly. “Tejonanda”, he stuttered.

I asked him if I could use the phone. Not waiting for his answer, I picked up the receiver and dialed my boss and briefly explained the situation. Asked him if I should close the case as a suicide, in line with our standard practices. He was not amused. Apparently, there had been a recent fallout between the Ashram and the powers that be. I was given a free hand to arrest anyone I deemed a suspect. Some newsworthy arrests would be appreciated, he hinted. I thanked my boss for nothing and hung up.

I tried my luck with Tejonanda and asked him, “Did you kill him?”. “Who?”, he asked apparently bewildered. Obviously, a few cards short of a full deck. “That bloke you called about, who else?”. “Oh! Him? No”, he replied thoughtfully, as though he may have killed somebody else some other time, just not this guy. He did not look like a killer. So, I decided to let him be and went looking for the head honcho.

The guru’s room turned out to be spacious and tastefully decorated. He was there sitting on a gilded throne, dressed pretty much the same way as everybody else – a dhoti and angavastram, but otherwise bare-bodied. Only, his clothes were white silk with gold embroidered edges instead of the dull pink all the others were wearing. And lots of thick gold chains adorned his neck in place of the rudraksha malas that all the disciples sported. Three women were sitting at his feet. Unfortunately, not bare-bodied, much to my disappointment. He stroked his beard theatrically and directed me to the smaller chair next to him, obviously reserved for VIPs.

“Open and shut murder case”, I declared, as though I had all the evidence already. “Did you kill him?”, I asked for the second time that day. Never any harm in asking. He giggled, soundlessly and a little disconcertingly. For a few seconds, his whole body, including his flowing white beard, shook while his ears turned pink. When his mirth subsided, in an incongruously squeaky voice he admonished me gently for my temerity. He explained slowly, like talking to a dimwit, that neither he nor anyone of his disciples were capable of harming any other living creature, let alone commit murder. “We have all given up on worldly possessions and base feelings”, he proclaimed. “God, through well-wishers, provides us with food and essentials and everyone here does voluntary work. Barring the three sets of dhoti and angavastram we get each year, we own nothing at all”, he continued. I could not help but grin as I took in the fruits and chocolates tastefully arranged around him, the gold bracelets around his wrist and all the other trappings of every God man I had come across. If he noticed my ill-concealed incredulity, he did not acknowledge it. He turned to the sadhvis at his feet and delicately waved his hands and asked them to leave us alone. Once they had left the room, and closed the door after them, his tone changed and, rather brusquely, he asked me to wrap up the case quickly.

The guru, it appeared had a full deck. Obviously, not like our poor Dumbonanda at the office. I decided to play a repentant devotee. “Guruji”, I said at my obsequious best, “the winds have changed, as you know. My hands are tied. I have been asked to undertake a thorough investigation. It is not like earlier times. But you know all this, you are all knowing. Kindly tell this ardent follower of yours what to do and what you meant when you spoke to me earlier this morning”.

A little appeased, the guru gave me his version of the events. The dead guy, Jeevonanda, had been dipping his fingers into the ashram kitty. “I was informed by a few of my other devotees that he was not only pilfering money but also carrying stories, all untrue, about the ashram to some people who do not like us. I sent word yesterday that I knew what he has been up to and told him that I would visit his room this morning, to discuss reparation. Unfortunately, this morning’s prayer meeting was an extended one and I was delayed by an hour. In that time, I fear that somebody may have taken the matter into their own hands”, he said sounding quite reasonable. “Or he committed suicide?”, he continued uselessly, after having muddied the water unnecessarily in the first place. “If I had reached him earlier, this would not have come to pass. I was planning to forgive him and prescribe a penance”, he added, sounding even more reasonable. A lesser man would have fallen at his feet and basked in his beneficence. Not wanting to disappoint him, I praised him effusively for his kindness and wisdom and asked for the list of his devotees who knew about Jeevonanda’s transgressions.

From somewhere, in true God Man fashion, he conjured up a piece of paper and gave it to me and said “My assistant Gajananda will help you”. Written neatly on the paper was a list of five names.

I thanked him profusely, referred to him as “His Highness” and ‘Holiest of Holies”, and promised to do my best to close the case to his satisfaction. I might have overdone that a bit.

I sent the body for post-mortem, got my crime-scene team to start work on the room and exited the ashram to mull over the morning’s happenings.

Other than his name, I knew nothing of the victim, not what he did at the ashram, where he came from, how long he had been a disciple, nothing. I made a mental point to send someone from the station to collate the details.

Sri Hamsapreetam, the guru, on the other hand was clearly up to speed on all matters in the ashram. He knew it was murder even though somebody else had taken the trouble to make it look like suicide. He also had the motive and the means to carry out the murder. He continued to be my prime suspect number 1.

Suspects 2 to 6 were in the list that he had so readily given me. I would have to go back and meet with them, though it sounded like a red herring to me. I would also have to get in touch with the accounts department and find out who blew the whistle on the pilfering and how much was actually embezzled.

Back at my office, I switched on my laptop and did a google search for Hamsapreetam. Not surprisingly, he had more videos on YouTube than an established porn star. In one extremely popular video he was teaching his disciples levitation. It was both hilarious and sad to see grown men and women jumping up and down on mattresses under the benevolent gaze of a man who was clearly making fools out of them. In another, he was seen expounding on the virtues of capitalism at some world conference in some middle eastern country. There were many more videos with him hobnobbing with various world leaders and politicians. In most of them, there were two hefty sadhus always in the background.

There were also murmurs on the web about underworld connections, unsubstantiated rape charges, missing people, stories of excesses, disgruntled past devotees who felt robbed, wronged, and in one case, even sodomized. All par for the course for any self-respecting God man, and all probably true, but how much was germane to this particular murder, I did not know.

I decided to play by the book, for this was a delicate matter and who knew which way the wind would blow tomorrow. I asked the crime scene team to inventory the room as well as take all finger prints in the room, those of the people in the list, that of the guru himself and Tejonanda at the office. I also WhatsApp’ed snapshots of the two bodyguard sadhus to them so they could interview them as well. With 3000 sadhus and sadhvis in the ashram, I knew if I did not solve the case quickly it would be near impossible to close it. Already it was beginning to feel like I was trying to find that one guilty flamingo from an entire flamboyance.

Later in the afternoon, I got the preliminary report from the crime scene team and the forensics, for whatever it was worth. The coroner had given the likely time of death, subject to confirmation after the post-mortem, to be between 6:30 AM and 7:30 AM. He also surmised, again subject to confirmation, that the victim had died of asphyxiation and the ligature wounds on his neck were consistent with hanging. The victim’s fingerprints were all over the room as expected, along with several others, as yet, unidentified. No clear prints could be taken from the angavastram. Everything else looked normal, except that there were no fingerprints at all anywhere on the fan. Other than some white powder usually used to keep surgical gloves from sticking to each other, the fans were clear of all dirt and fingerprints. It appeared as though someone had wiped the fan clean while wearing gloves, which was the first concrete sign that this could very well be murder. Any residual hopes I may have harboured of closing this case as a suicide vanished.

The morning pooja that day had gone on from 6 AM to 9 AM, which meant that the Guru and most of the disciples had a strong alibi for the time of death. Lucky for us, the morning prayer meet had been videographed by a TV station working on a documentary and we had access to it. A brief glance showed the Guru to be there throughout the period. The camera man had helpfully panned over the audience multiple times, so that would eventually help us rule out suspects, at the very least.

I went back to the forensic report and flipped the pages back and forth listlessly. I knew the fingerprinting and other crime scene collections would result in naught. Most of the fingerprints and footprints collected in all probability belonged to the crime scene team members themselves. Any other remaining evidence would have long drowned in the white powder that they use, so liberally, when dusting for fingerprints. To say the crime scene would have been contaminated beyond belief was an understatement. I sighed and tried to distract my mind, for I was not willing to get my BP up about things that I had no control over.

There was a list of effects found in the room of the deceased. It was a fairly short list. A table, a chair, a stool, a cell phone, which was surprising, some underwear, 2 dhotis, 3 angavastrams, usual toiletries and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I asked the team to get me the call details from the phone and then dozed off.

I woke up a few minutes later, sure that there was something I had missed out. The list of effects had slipped out of my hand and was lying on the ground. I bent down and picked it up and glanced at it again. My eyes ran down the short list a couple of times before I realized there was one angavastram too many. I called the constable who had made the list and asked him if the angavastram used in the hanging was included in his list. He went and checked and came back with 4 angavastrams. They looked identical, but I knew at least one of them did not belong to the deceased. I checked them closely and found that three of them had J1002 written on them in dhobi’s ink. The other one, the one used to hang the poor bloke, had P0012 written on it.

I called the ashram office and asked Tejonanda what J1002 on the angavastram stood for. He explained that the J was the first letter of the name of the person whose angavastram it was and 1002 actually identified the person. Angavastrams marked J1002 clearly belonged the victim. I asked him to give me the names corresponding to V1004, S0013, L1234, P0012 and H0044, so as to not reveal my hand. V1004 and L1234 did not exist, but P0012 was a Pushpananda. Tejonanda helpfully added that Pushpananda, one of the two constant companions of his esteemed guruji was taking the night train to Bangalore that day. Maybe he was not that dumb, after all.

I went through the video and found the guru turning to one of the two bodyguard sadhus, Pushpananda I assumed, and whispering something. And soon after that Pushpananda leaving the stage at 6:15 AM. The timing fitted.

Armed with these details, I asked the court to grant us permission to hold the suspect overnight. I also called the ashram and spoke to the guru, for I knew that the stooges in my department would have already informed him, anyway. I explained the situation to him, careful to leave out the bit about the guru talking to the suspect on video. He heard me out quietly and then said philosophically, “Too bad. I will find it difficult to replace him. We all have to make sacrifices”. What sacrifices, I wondered, as I hung up the phone.

I knew what I had was all circumstantial evidence that may not stand up in court. So, I decided to go to the ashram and arrest the suspect myself, in the hope of squeezing out a confession from him and possibly getting some proof of the guru’s complicity in all this. Unfortunately, I was too late.

It was déjà vu. I waded through a crowd of sadhus only to find that Pushpananda had already hung himself using an angavastram. Must be standard operating procedure at the ashram. Out of curiosity, I checked out the number on the angavastram. It read H0001. My question on sacrifices was answered. The guru had played his hand very well.

I was just kicking myself for not coming sooner, when I heard a familiar squeaky voice behind me say “I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference”.

Epilogue

The press stitched it up neatly the next morning. A sadhu had been murdered. The police, under my command, had cracked the case quickly and identified the murderer, but before he could be arrested the murderer had killed himself.

I guess everyone was happy with the outcome. With the possible exception of the two sadhus that had been killed.

Full marks, then? October 11, 2017

Posted by globejam in Childhood trauma, Denmark, Scepticism, Uncategorized.
2 comments

exam-1My parents were both secondary school teachers. So, to say my childhood revolved around school and education would be an understatement. All through my school life, one or the other of them used to teach in the school I studied in, and invariably taught at least one of my classes. Let me tell you, you cannot even begin to imagine how it is to have one of your teachers around you 24 × 7. I could not skip classes, bunk school under any pretext, misbehave in class, be late to school, not do my homework, or not show them my report card the day it was given to us.  Every little thing that I was involved in, in school, was reported back to my parents, sometimes even before I knew about it.

They were protective and extremely strict, worried that if I strayed, their reputation as teachers would be tarnished.  Nobody respects a teacher with a wayward child.  So, I was collateral damage, though they meant well.  To be fair to them, they realized this and from time to time tried to make amends.  One way was to buy me books, bunches of them.  Books like 101 questions, know your world, and even the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica one time, bought second hand from a nearby house getting demolished. I don’t remember reading any of them.

Like many other parents of their generation, they used a lot of metaphors, similes, allegories and parables to illustrate ideas and instill values in me. However, there was a big difference in our house in that all of these were school and education related.  For example, they didn’t say “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  Instead, they would tell me not to judge a master by his moustache, or a teacher by her sari! A favourite of my father’s, whenever he thought I was being stubborn or was talking too much, was “In life as in your notebook, please leave wide margins for the master to give his comments and guide you”. My mother’s favourite was dinned into my head on numerous occasions “Don’t just learn to know, know to learn”.  As you can see, these similes and metaphors ranged from the sublime to the sanctimonious and I ignored most of them just like most young people do.  However, one saying of my mother’s that had a seriously long-term effect on me was the one she told me when I was just joining school. It was something like Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set.

I don’t really know what she meant by that, but somehow, I took it to mean that my life was one long examination in preparation for an unknown higher calling.  For the rest of my life, those words hung over my head, night and day, forcing me to evaluate every little thing I did as though it was an examination.  As a young student, this made me work hard at school and score well.  As I got older and lessons became harder, I realised that I was not as smart as I would have liked to be and so had to work even harder to do well in class.  Toward the end of schooling, I found all my hard work would only get me scores in the mid-70s and 80s and every additional mark required a disproportionate amount of additional work.  I wasn’t ever a shirker and my parents had instilled the virtues of hard work in me, so I continued to work as much as I could because to me every mark missed was equivalent to, in some indefinable way, falling short in the examination called life.

Through adolescence, through puberty and through college, studies were no longer the only things on my mind and this made my life even more stressful.  I dissected every stray thought and feeling I had and anguished over them.  I was convinced that the all-knowing Ultimate Invigilator and final Evaluator was seeing everything I was thinking.  I was sure that every action of mine was being scrutinized and appropriately marked. And not knowing the syllabus meant that I could not just resort to hard work as I had done in school. Nevertheless, I managed to put my head down and get through four years of college.

After finishing my engineering, I was selected by a software company from campus. Software companies were just coming up in India at that time, and we were among the first to join this new industry.  It was an exciting and fulfilling period and for a few blissful years I forgot all about my mother’s saying.  Then I was sent to Norway on deputation.

Copybook culture shock.  Having lived an extremely sheltered life till then, with very little exposure to the rest of the world, not even through books and television, everything was new and bewildering for me.  The new-found freedom, with no one around to go and report back to my parents, instead of liberating me, felt like free falling without a parachute with my stomach constantly threatening to jump out of my mouth.  The racy fare on TV, the explicit videos and magazines in every shop I entered and the general openness of their society shattered my carefully crafted and fragile world view.  Did they not know that every thought and action of theirs was being examined, I wondered.  Did failure mean nothing to them?

I was ready to leave what I believed to be a decadent country.  The only thing that made me hesitate was the peer pressure I was sure to face back home if I returned prematurely.  And the nagging doubt that maybe this was also part of the unknown syllabus that ruled my life. I hated the country and all its people.

Then I got to know my colleagues and was unsettled by how warm and friendly they were.  They were kind and caring, knowledgeable and worldly wise, helpful and entirely non-judgemental.  I learnt a lot during the next few months both in relation to work and about their views on a wide variety of issues that I had not even considered till then.  It was a confusing period to say the least.  I could not reconcile much of what I was learning with my life back in India.  If this were all part of the examination that my mother spoke about, what should my answer be?  Where are the textbooks to deal with all this, I wondered. The constant heavy and suffocating presence of the unknowable examiner made my life unbearable.

In retrospect, that was the time I think I first started displaying signs of depression.  Thinking my behaviour was a sign of homesickness, my attentive colleagues tried to cheer me up in many ways including by giving me a lot of books to read.  The books became my lifeline, a cocoon to avoid my immediate surroundings and a way to escape my own thoughts. I devoured all the books they hurled at me, indiscriminately.  Fiction and non-fiction, as long as it was in English I read them all, cover to cover.  Science fiction, philosophy, crime, religion, fantasy, and even autobiographies, I consumed with unhealthy zeal.  Unbeknownst to me, the books were educating me. Surreptitiously. With a vengeance.  If “A prayer for Owen Meany” struck a deep chord, the auto-biography of Malcolm X made me cry in anguish at the injustices in this world.  Did we all have the same syllabus, I wondered. Did anyone pass?  Were we all set up only to fail?  Then, 100 tomes later I got to read “The selfish gene” by Richard Dawkins and my world was thrown into turmoil.

For the first time, I questioned the very existence of the unknowable examiner. All the arguments I had heard for why God is unknowable seemed to work equally well for a non-existent one.  If He did not exist, then is there a higher purpose for me?  What am I being tested for?  Am I being tested at all?  What is my purpose, then?  These questions started tumbling out one after the other. In my mind, deep seated beliefs fought with new awareness while nagging worries that this might be just another part of an examination for which I was woefully unprepared wreaked havoc on my composure.

It is little wonder that I took to drinking at that point in time. Without familial support in an unfamiliar environment with winter approaching, it was inevitable.  I drank to numb my brain, I drank to get some sleep and I drank like there was no tomorrow.  And I did not stop till about four years ago, thanks to a chance meeting that has changed my life.

I was coming back after another stretch at a alcoholic rehabilitation centre, fully aware that this sober period was just another blip in my long drinking history and that I would be back to my usual ways in another month or so.  On the bus from Bangalore to Chennai, sitting next to me was this elderly gentleman. He looked even sadder than me, if that was possible. He told me that he was on his way for another round of chemotherapy.  Children in the US, wife long gone, he had no one to even accompany him to the hospital. We got to talking and I realised the he was a very brave man.  He was not worried about the cancer that was eating his colon, he was not worried about being lonely, nor did he blame his children for not being there for him at the time of his need.  What worried him was how he would fare when he finally got to meet his maker.  “I don’t know what crimes I have committed”, he lamented.  Was I a good father?  A good husband?  A good child?  Did I do justice to this chance that He gave me to be born as a human being?

Here was a fellow human being tormented in the end by the very same questions that had been haunting me for a large part of my life.  That day, I found my purpose.  Not a higher purpose for after this life, but a purpose for here and now.  The next day, I searched the net and found a course that was being offered for lay persons by the school of social work. I enrolled, much to the delight of the few diehard friends I had remaining.

Now I am a qualified ‘end of life’ counsellor. I visit dying people in hospitals and old age homes, and talk to them about the inevitability of their impending death. I help them prepare for whatever is in store for them.  I help them reconcile their past and to make peace with themselves. Sometimes, I talk to them about free will and the possibility that it does not exist.  At other times, I tell them to think of themselves as a higher life form playing a game where they specifically chose to play this role as a way to understand themselves better. Sometimes, I even tell them that God is all-knowing and merciful and all will be forgiven and that everyone goes to heaven in the end. But mostly, I tell them that life is not an exam for us to pass or fail.  I don’t know if that statement is as cathartic for them as it is for me, but I know they all feel a lot better after hearing that.

For the first time in a long while, I am very happy now.  I have helped a lot of people in the last three years.  Most of these people have left this world at peace with themselves, passing away with quiet dignity while holding my hand.  I would like to think that it is my talk that has helped them pass away peacefully, though some credit, I guess, may have to go to the barbiturate injections I give them when no one else is around.

Bitter-sweet memories August 9, 2017

Posted by globejam in Denmark, Uncategorized.
add a comment

cranberry juiceWhen Matt moved to Denmark, the thing he pined for most was his church. It had been the centre of his social life back in Madras and he missed the weekly sermons, the choir practice and the company of his friends. A devout catholic, he appeared to suffer from extreme withdrawal symptoms every Sunday.

After watching him fidget around for a couple of weeks, I suggested he find a local church he could attend instead. I also helpfully pointed to a church close to our house, observing how it was empty all the time and should provide him with all the peace and quiet he required. Matt however, was not looking for peace and quiet. He was not interested in just any old catholic church either. He wanted an Orthodox Syrian Catholic church, preferably filled with Orthodox Syrian Malayalees, or at least, a congregation that he could identify with.

My suggestion to look for a substitute church was, however, not entirely lost on him. So, over the next month or so, Matt left home Sunday mornings to check out churches around Copenhagen looking for people he could gel with. Thankfully for him, quite soon, he found a Russian Orthodox church which he felt was very similar to his church back home. He told me that he did not understand the sermon as it was mostly delivered in Russian or Danish, neither language he could understand, but nevertheless, he felt connected and that made him happy.

A new routine set in after that. Every Sunday, Matt would get up early, dress up in his finest and go to his church. He would return in the afternoon in time for lunch, most often with a fellow congregation member in tow. Over the next few months, I met a steady stream of colourful characters from all walks of life, whom I would never have crossed paths with if not for Matt. One such fine character was Mr Beraki who eventually became a regular visitor until one fateful day.

Mr Beraki was an Ethiopian. Unable to take the long and protracted civil war in his home country, he had somehow wound up in Denmark where he had been welcomed as a refugee and given asylum. At one of the transition camps, he had met and married a fellow refugee from Russia. At the time he first came to our house, they were waiting to get their permanent residence permit in Denmark. While that process was going on, Mr B made himself useful by teaching engineering drawing at a school nearby.

Most Sundays, he would accompany Matt to our house. Like Matt, he was also a man of few words and they would just sit together in companionable silence for a couple of hours before he said his goodbye and left. We would, of course, invite him to join us for lunch, but he always politely refused. Each time he came home, he would come with one of his children, every time a different one, and each one cuter than the previous. I lost count of how many children he had, but I am sure it was somewhere between quite a few and far too many. The typical, impolite, insensitive Indian that I was, I asked him once how they managed to afford looking after so many children given his meagre refugee support payments. He politely answered, in a disarmingly candid and surprisingly dignified way, that more children meant more allowance from the Danish Government and so having more children actually helped them! I wondered aloud how the Danish government felt about that point of view, to which he nodded sagely as though he was ready to consider their opinion too.

Since he became a regular fixture who consistently refrained from sharing our lunch, we made it a point to buy different fruit drinks and punches to serve him and such of his children old enough to drink them. Some of the juices we liked ourselves, but there were quite a few that were always too sweet for us. Having tasted rye bread  and gammel dansk, both unpalatable to the unaccustomed, we just decided there was no accounting for taste and left it at that. One drink that we found too sweet even by “Danish” standards was the cranberry juice. That tetra pack had languished in the fridge for a few days untouched after the first syrupy sip.

When Mr B came next with his eldest, a boy of about 12, Matt must have thought that was a good time to reopen the cranberry juice. He filled two tall glasses for them while the two of us had our lunch, all sitting around the table. Mr B took one sip and then did not touch his glass again, while his son smacked his lips and emptied the entire glass in one long slurp. Matt, the attentive host, refilled his glass with more juice which also disappeared just as quickly. In retrospect, I don’t quite know what was going on in Mr B’s mind, but after a while he obligingly nudged his full glass towards his son. Not requiring another invitation, the kid finished that drink too.

Only after the kid had polished off the last drop of his third full glass did Mr B casually remark that the pack had the word “Koncentret” written on it. Matt, despite not understanding a word of Danish, very dismissively responded, saying “That’s just Danish for juice. It says the same on the pack of orange juice I have for breakfast”. Not wanting to argue, Mr B nodded his head noncommittally and gently also pointed to the small print below and said “It also says here to mix one part of the concentrate with 5 parts of water”.

The import of that statement struck us simultaneously. No wonder the drink had been so cloyingly sweet! Matt burst out laughing while I turned to look at Mr B’s son who had finished nearly a liter of concentrated cranberry juice under the watchful gaze of his father. There he was, sitting rigidly upright, his eyes glassy and his lips smudged a bright scarlet. Combined with his porcelain skin and mop of black curly hair, he looked like a doll on which a child had liberally smeared lipstick.

Matt reined in his laughter quickly while I struggled to put on an expression of adequate remorse. Mr B’s expression, however, never changed. He got up languidly, bid us adieu, took hold of his son’s hand gently and left.

We never saw them again.

No lady like her. February 5, 2017

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
5 comments

ravagedWhen my grandfather first met her, she had been, or so I’ve heard, luscious and wholesome, full of secrets yet craving to be explored, rich and giving, bursting with laughter and mischief, beautiful beyond belief and generous to a fault.

My grandfather, he was floored. It had been love at first sight! Never in his dreams had he imagined such a beauty would be his, so completely. She had not asked him of anything and gave him everything he asked for. Though he took all that he wanted greedily, he, nevertheless, had been grateful for the bounty and, when possible, had treated her kindly.

After his time, she passed on to my dad. He had grown watching his father partake of her largesse, and thus exploiting her came naturally to him. He was also used to her beauty and allure and did not think it was anything extraordinary. She still gave all that she had unstintingly and he took her for granted. He treated her with disdain, while continuing to exploit her generosity. Whatever she gave him appeared insufficient and he constantly went back to her asking for more and more. On her part, I guess she put on a brave face and continued to smile and be as loving and kind as possible.

In time, he too passed away and then she was mine. Her time with my father had divested her of her beauty. She had given her all till it hurt her and was still found wanting. All I saw was an old haggard woman, a beaten soul, maybe even a liability. Her ravaged body, I found distasteful. What did she have to give me, I wondered? Of course, that did not stop me from finding new ways of exploiting her. When I got bored I gave her to others and we all reveled in her distress. she was nothing but a whore well past her prime, used only because there was nothing else on offer.

I saw sepia toned pictures of her from her younger days and wondered if the one with laughter on her lips and mischief in her eyes was the same lifeless wreck in front of me. Seeing her from the glory days only made me feel cheated for she had so little to give now. The contrast was stark and I blamed her for it. Had she not promised us her bottomless benevolence? Did she not once behave as though she was rich beyond measure? Why had she become such an old hag, then?

I fretted and fumed and cursed her for her short-comings. I began to hate her and tried to take as much as I could out of her, even if I did not want anything. It was spite, I am afraid. But I could not control myself. She cried, but I was hard-hearted. “I never loved you”, I shouted at her. “You are just a worthless whore”, I screamed as I beat her black and blue. She bore it all stoically which made me hate her even more. If she had begged me and pleaded with me I may have relented. If she had stared back at me or had lifted her hand, even for self-protection, I may have hesitated, for she was still powerful enough to take me on easily. But she didn’t. And as I aged, I only became less caring, of her and for myself. What was the point of it all?

Of late though, I have begun to loathe myself. I can’t help but think that she had been beautiful once and if only I and my father and his father before him had been kind and caring she would still be just as resplendent as she had been then. But alas, our greed and short-sightedness had robbed her and in the process pushed us to penury. And for what, for another fix, another temporary high, just for a lark. I have now come to realize my own true nature. I am just a common pimp, an exploiter of the innocent, a rapist, and a cruel self-destructive psychopath.

Now my days are numbered too, my son and it is time I hand her over to you. I confess, she is in worse shape than when I received her. The scabs and the festering wounds, I gave her those. Some wrinkles she already had, but the warts and and the deeper grooves, all my handiwork. The white hair, the diminished vision, the anemia, the emaciation, the grey pallor, all my doing.

After my time, if you are anything like me, you might just think that the bitch is holding out on you despite having more to give. You will surely be revolted by her unrelenting ugliness and the stench emanating from her. You too may want to take her for every penny she has until she becomes completely incapable of providing for you.

But desist, my son, desist. Don’t judge her too harshly. Let me tell you, as my death approaches, as I look back at my life, I can see that the fault has been all mine and never hers. Under that loathsome exterior that we have given her, still beats a young heart. The comely, voluptuous, buxom lass is still there, bruised and molested maybe but with zest undiminished.

Treat her with kindness, give her back a little, give her some time and I am sure she will be back to her splendorous best. Be gentle with her, and in doing so, redeem us all.

And if you have it in your heart, forgive me. Please forgive me.

A little late May 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

She was three days late.

Normally, Mala would not have been worried about it too much. At 54, she knew all there was to know about delayed periods and the associated feelings of anxiety, worry and hope. But this time, it was different. After a long time, she had had unprotected sex, and that too with someone other than her husband.

***
Several months ago, on a whim, she had sent a paper to the commonwealth association of primary school teachers on new ways of engaging children in schools in developing countries. She had not thought much of the paper herself and had forgotten all about it when she had received intimation that the paper had been accepted and she was required to come and present it at the next summit of primary school teachers to be held in London. She had also been pleasantly surprised to learn that it would be an all expenses paid trip, under some UNICEF scheme.

Delighted at the opportunity, she had made all the preparations and had left for London on a high fifteen days earlier. The conference had been a wonderful experience and she had thoroughly enjoyed her week in London. There had been well over 300 teachers from all parts of the commonwealth including 3 from India – herself, another lady from Mumbai and Abhay from Chandigarh – all first-time travellers abroad. They had stuck together and had hit it off well with Abhay being kind, generous and witty. Her paper had been very well received with especially loud applause and cheering from the tiny Indian contingent.

There had been time to see a bit of London as well and the three of them had managed to take a half-day tour on the open top bus and spend some time inside St. Paul’s cathedral as well. It has been a long time since she had been so happy.

The conference had thrown a large formal dinner on the last evening with caviar, wine and the works and she and Abhay had found themselves seated next to each other. The witty conversation, the excitement of the week gone by, and the wine had all made for a heady experience. Well after midnight, after the dinner, Abhay and she had walked back to their hotel two blocks away, holding hands and giggling like teenagers. Their rooms were on the same floor and they finally parted in front of her room, albeit a little reluctantly.

Back in her room, Mala had run a bath, hoping to have one last luxuriating bath before reverting to the bucket and mug that awaited her back home. She added the bath salts into the water and soaked in the warm water for a long time. Feeling refreshed, she had played with herself, the first time since she did not know when, and had ended up dozing in the bath in a dreamy post-climactic stupor. A little later, the water had turned cold and she had forced herself out of the bath, changed into her night clothes and surrendered to her warm and fluffy bed.

The next day, she had woken up fully refreshed, but with a heavy heart, for she knew that she had to catch the flight back home later that day. The week had flown past so fast and she was already feeling like she did not remember most of the things that she had seen and been part of over the last few days. With the bus to take her to the airport still a few hours away, and not wanting to get depressed, she had decided to make the most of the remaining time.

She had then had a quick shower and got ready to leave the room for a walk around the area. Wanting her morning cup of coffee, she had turned the kettle on, only to find it was not working. She had then gone over to Abhay’s room to borrow his kettle. She had knocked on his door a few times but there had been no response and finally just as she had been about to turn around and go back, he had opened the door, all wet from having rushed out of the bath, with just his towel wrapped around him. His hair had been all pasted to his forehead and he had had a large frown on his face. She had found that funny and had playfully tugged at his towel and he, in turn, had pulled her in to the room and before they knew what was happening, they were in his bed having sex. Both having been out of practice, it had been clumsy and rather quick but entirely enjoyable.

After a while, she had left him to get dressed and had gone to her room to re-apply her make-up and get ready for her journey back home, the coffee completely forgotten.

Back in the room, she had felt a little twinge of guilt for having cheated on her husband. But she had brushed it aside, glad for the experience, and flown back home.

***
And now she was three days late.

She decided that she wouldn’t worry much just yet. It might very well be the onset of menopause. After all, she was 54 years old. However, at the back of her mind, she could not help but feel maybe she was getting punished for her indiscretion. Yes, she had cheated on her husband Vikram, but it was not as though their marriage was a functioning one or that they cared much about each other anymore, she thought to herself, to assuage her guilt.

***

Vikram and Mala had been neighbours and friends before their marriage. When both families had started looking for spouses for their wards, the marriage broker had brought their horoscopes together. When their families had suggested the alliance to them, both had agreed readily.

Mala had always liked the sarcastic wit of Vikram and Vikram had always been happy to have someone laugh at his jokes, and though neither of them had actually imagined such an outcome, they were both quite happy at the prospect of being together for the rest of their lives. When people asked them how they had met, he would always say “Ours was a love marriage. Our families loved each other and got us married”.

Things had gone on well in the beginning. He worked for the railways and she taught at a school and though neither of them earned much, they were both content with their lives. The only issue was that there were no issues even after a couple of years. Mala had gone to the doctor and got herself checked and the doctor had been unable to find any reason why she should not conceive.

The doctor had then suggested timing their sex to coincide with her fertile period and she had shared this with Vikram. They tried this for a couple of months, but Vikram found it very difficult to perform when things were planned like this. He would sarcastically announce to visitors “I am like the fortnightly Guwahati express trundling into central station on time everytime”, leaving them wondering what he was talking about while Mala cringed in embarrassment and hoped that they did not get what he was saying.

A few months later, she had gently suggested that Vikram get himself tested. This had not gone down well with him and he had refused to go to the doctor. Finally, with no options, the doctor has suggested they try an in-vitro procedure. Vikram had reluctantly agreed and provided his sperms on request for around 6 months or so, all to no avail.

By then, for whatever reason, he had begun to feel that everyone, especially Mala, thought he was somehow defective and started to distance himself from everyone. One fine day, he had announced that he no longer found the plastic cups in the fertility clinics attractive and had refused to have anything to do with them again. From then, they had also stopped having sex totally.

In all other respects, they appeared a normal, typical, dysfunctional Indian family. Except that they lived more like siblings, always slightly annoyed with each other, but reconciled to living together, as pleasantly as possible, for the rest of their lives. They had, neither of them, ever been much interested or keen on anything and hence they motored along most amicably for the rest of their lives. As years went by Vikram became more sarcastic and Mala found it less and less funny, but none of it had ever led to any great deal of friction ever.

Of course, Mala secretly held Vikram responsible for their lack of children, though once in a while, she would concede that just maybe, her body was to blame for it.

***
After so many years of yearning to get pregnant, now she was three days late and hoping that she wasn’t.

Not wanting to go to the doctor just yet, she decided to go and get herself a home pregnancy test kit. As the pharmacists near her house knew her well, she was not too keen to go to any of the nearby pharmacies. Nor did she want to go to any of those near her school, lest one of her colleagues or, worse, one of the students saw her buying one!

She finally settled for some pharmacy half-way to school. Next thing that worried her was how to ask for it. If she went and asked for a pregnancy kit, would the pharmacist enquire as to who was going to use it? Would he ask “is it for you?”. What would she say then, she wondered. Would he look at her knowingly? Would he think she was a slut for having had sex at her age?. The questions jostled in her head like a bunch of boisterous children shouting “me, me, me!” vying to get the teacher’s attention. Two more days went by while she worked up her courage to face the unknown pharmacist.

Finally, she decided to go in and ask for 10 boxes. That way, no one would think it was for herself. And if anyone asked about whose name to put on the bill, she could just ask them to bill it in the name of Thirumala school of nursing, or something like that. That way they would think she was buying for an institution, she thought, pleased with her deception.

That settled, the next day on the way back from school, she got down mid-way and entered into the nearest pharmacy. The pharmacist, sitting back with his legs on the table, was deeply engrossed in some magazine. Luckily no one else was around. She cleared her throat to get his attention and, in a quiet voice, asked for a home pregnancy kit. He walked to the back shelf and while still keeping his eyes fixed on the magazine, felt around and took one box out. Emboldened by his lack of interest, she requested for one more kit. He fumbled around the shelf some more and then took one more box and plonked them both down on the counter and asked for hundred and fifty rupees. He had still not glanced at her once. Thrilled with the lackadaisical service, She gave him the money, and without bothering to ask for the bill, shoved the two boxes into her purse and left as quickly as possible. She was home about half an hour later than usual, but Vikram, who had also returned from the office by then neither seemed to notice nor care.

She went straight into the bathroom with her purse and opened up one of the boxes to find out how to use it. Unfortunately, the writing on the usage guide inside the box turned out to be too small for her to read. She put on her glasses and strained her eyes, but the letters only swarmed around like miniature ants. At her wits end, she then took her phone out and clicked photos of each side of the slip carefully and then enlarged them to see if they were in focus enough for her to read the instructions clearly. Thankfully they were and she put the box back into her purse and slipped out to her room to switch on the bright light and read them comfortably.

To be used first thing in the morning, the instructions stated. She would have to wait one more day! “That will make it six days late”, she thought, with the tension building up. “Wish I had someone to lean on”, she cried out silently in her mind.

Next morning, she feigned a headache and stayed at home. Vikram left at 8 AM as usual and immediately afterwards she took the kit and used it. There was only one line and not two. What a relief! She was not pregnant after all. Nevertheless, she decided to check again the next day.

Another day, another kit and the same result. “Two kits can’t be wrong”, she thought with relief, before promptly fixing an appointment with the doctor, just to be sure. Despite assurances that the kits were quite accurate and she should not be worried and that it is in all probability the onset of menopause, Mala had insisted on further tests and so, for everyone’s peace of mind, the doctor had suggested a blood test, which, she promised, was definitive.

Wanting to get over all this quickly, Mala went straight to the lab and gave her blood and paid for the test. She no longer cared what the nurse might think. She looked the nurse in the eye while giving her the doctor’s prescription and defiantly thought, ” Yes. I am 54 and I had sex and it was good. So what?”. The nurse on her part appeared as disinterested as the pharmacist.

The next day on the way back from school, she dropped into the lab and picked up the report and took it home. She stepped past Vikram with a “hi” and he acknowledged her with a grunt. She took the report and went into her room and read it. It was clear. She was definitely not pregnant. All the pent up tension evaporated instantly and the long held back tears gushed out. Then she heard Vikram moving about, and not wanting him to see her in that state, she quickly wiped her tears and came out of her room.

That’s when it suddenly struck her. She could never know motherhood in this lifetime. Though she had long reconciled to her fate, the finality of it all smacked her hard and a wracking sob escaped her and the tears started flowing again. Vikram said “What now?” with an exasperated look.

“I have hit menopause”, she blurted out, hoping he would say something kind.

“Great. I don’t have to buy condoms anymore”, he said, “We will be saving tonnes of money from now”.

Day 2 – To Legazpi March 18, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Part II.  Read part I here.

legaspi_airport_panorama

Legazpi Airport.  Photo: Bhaskar Dattatri.

Philippines, surprisingly, is not on the tourist map. After having been there and back, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

When we first told friends that we were going to the Philippines, it was like playing a word association game. One set of friends raised their eyebrows quizzically when they heard about our plans as though to ask “what’s there in the Philippines that is not there in Phuket or Pattaya?”. The ones that regularly traveled on business scrunched up their noses and said “Traffic Jams”. The tourist-y kind nodded knowingly and enquired rhetorically “Boracay uh?”, as though that was the only option. Was that all there was to the Philippines, we wondered.

When we searched the net, again there were only 3 destinations that cropped up regularly – the terraced rice fields at Banaue, the beaches at Boracay and the island of Palawan, apart from Manila, of course. We dug a little deeper and found Donsol where one could swim with the whale sharks. The rest of the Philippines, if we were to believe what was, or was not, on the net, might as have been unexplored territory! So we rolled up our sleeves and went where no one ever goes – beyond page 10 of the google search results. That’s when we discovered Bicol.

Bicol had everything we wanted, from smaller cities, villages, lakes, forests and bird sanctuaries to beaches, scuba diving and whale shark watching. And volcanoes. Not one, but two. Not dormant, but active. Not just active, but gurgling and spewing. Mt. Bulusan, in the heart of Bicol region had last erupted on 23rd of Feb 2016, just about 10 days before our trip. Its gentle cough had sent up a plume of smoke and ash to a height of over 500 meters! A Filipino blogger called Bicol a hidden gem, and we were smitten.

The early morning CebuPacific flight from Manila to Legaspi city was uneventful. The flight, which was the second for the day in that sector, was full and we were among the few foreigners. No food was served, but the air hostesses sported genuine smiles. They also had a nice trick up their sleeve. Instead of informing us about all the sectors CebuPacific covered (as part of their marketing spiel), they conducted a short quiz with prizes for passengers who could name 4 foreign destinations of CebuPacific or 3 local destinations, etc. I thought it was a considerate and engaging way of disseminating marketing information.

Legaspi airport turned out to be scenic, tiny, bright and airy, and well maintained with an unhindered view of Mt. Mayon. Our 12-seater Nissan UrVan  was there waiting for us, with June at the wheels. We piled in and drove around looking for a hotel to stay in. After a couple of false stops we finally found a decent place with clean rooms in the heart of the city. The hotel, Villa Amada, was right above the 1st Colonial Grill famous for its Sili ice cream. Unfortunately, we missed having it. Very silly of us, I must admit.

legaspi_porkIt was past noon by then so we checked in and immediately went to a mall for lunch. Some of us went to a Chinese restaurant while the rest raided a pizza joint looking for vegetarian fare. The pork and broccoli dish was delectable. In the spirit of adventure and experimentation, I had a San Miguel apple flavoured beer for the first and last time.

legaspi_cagsawaAfter lunch we went to the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Fanciscan church surrounded by paddy fields with Mt. Mayon as a backdrop. Mt Mayon, like most volcanoes, loomed over an otherwise flat landscape with just its tip hidden behind a tiny wisp of clouds. Very scenic and peaceful despite a number of fellow tourists, mostly Filipinos, milling around. We had buko juice (coconut water), bought and ate honey coated pilinuts, a local delicacy (melted in our mouth) and waited as the ladies browsed through each of the 20-odd almost identical shops with identical merchandise.  While waiting, a large group of friendly Filipinos wanted me to take some photos of them using 4-5 of their phones.  I obliged and answered their questions on where I was from.  One of them, a sailor, was thrilled to hear that I was from Chennai, India.  Apparently he had a lot of colleagues from Chennai.  He taught the others to greet me in Tamil and they all shouted “Vanakkam” in unison before departing.

From there we went to Ligñon hill which afforded a wonderful view of the city of Legaspi on one side and Mt. Mayon on the other. From the viewpoint we noticed a small airfield and wondered why such a small city had an airport and an airfield before we realized that the tiny airfield was the airport we had landed on earlier in the day. We also spotted a few birds including what we thought was a Philippine Bulbul, which sent our Filipina relatives into fits of uncontrollable giggling. Apparently, bulbul was Tagalog slang for a female body part. There was just so much to learn.

It got dark pretty early, by around 5:30 PM, and so the rest of the evening we spent walking around Legaspi city. We bought some fruits at the open market, ogled at the colourful jeepnies and scouted around for a place to have dinner. We were again surprised to note that we were among the few foreigners in the city that day. There were quite a number of money changers in the city which we initially thought was suggestive of sizable tourist traffic. However, we noticed that most of those transacting there were locals, so we guessed that these exchanges were mostly catering to locals to help them convert the foreign exchange coming from their expat relatives.

This was another observation that brought home the fact that Filipinos were unfailingly cheerful, courteous and kind not because the tourism trade demanded it, but because that is their true nature. That’s just the way they are.

How can one not fall in love with people like that?!

Dance and some drama February 27, 2016

Posted by globejam in Scepticism, Uncategorized.
7 comments

It was already dark when we reached the wonderfully quaint auditorium. Nestled inside a 15-acre verdant campus, the thatched building exuded peace and serenity. The outside was tastefully decorated. The path from the gate was festooned with streamers made from palm fronds and the floor was covered with traditional Kolams. My wife and I, we held hands, happy to be back at a place with so many shared memories.

We could hear the singing emanating from the inside and it looked as though the program had already started, though we could discern no lights from within the auditorium. We hurried inside, felt our way through the dark aisles and found two vacant seats in the last row. As though on cue, the stage lights turned on and the first set of dancers came on to the stage.

The program we had come to watch, titled Rama Vanagamanam, was a dance drama enacting an episode from the Ramayana – from Dasaratha Rama_etalannouncing the imminent coronation of his eldest son Rama, through the machinations of Manthara and the cashing in of the 2 boons by Kaikeyi till the departure of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana into exile for 14 years.

The stage was decorated simply but elegantly with Kalamkari cloth as backdrop. The setting was minimal with a small stool at one corner leaving the rest of the stage available for the dancers. The first act began with eight girls on stage, wearing bright earth colors, dancing a brisk yet light sequence depicting Ayodhya’s joyful celebrations on the eve of Rama’s coronation.

dasaratha2Notwithstanding the bright start, the story turned dark and gloomy fairly quickly. The second act started with the scene where Manthara brainwashes a hitherto happy Kaikeyi into stopping Rama’s coronation followed by a distraught Dasaratha informing Rama about the boons he had given to Kaikeyi and her current two demands, one to banish Rama from the kingdom, and the other, to anoint Bharatha as the king, and his inability to renege on those demands.

rama sita_2This was followed by act III which has Rama telling Sita that he is leaving her to go to the forest and that she should remain in Ayodhya. Sita of course refuses, produces copious amount of tears along with lengthy arguments for why her rightful place is next to Rama. After some desultory resistance Rama acquiesces. Subsequently Lakshmana volunteers to accompany them, but nobody seemed to care much about that, neither then nor now.

The program ended with Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, dressed in bark leaving Ayodhya to enter the forests, leaving the people of Ayodhya and much of the audience in tears.

Through out the performance, the audience sat in rapt attention except when some of the scenes touched a chord leading to many kerchiefs being taken out and many noses blown noisily. I may be wrong here but it appeared that most of the sympathy was directed towards Rama, some towards Sita while poor Lakshmana drew a blank. My wife was weeping with the best of them and clutching my hands for support.  I held her hand and returned the pressure, thinking how romantic the evening was turning out to be.

As I watched the story unfold, the inveterate cynic in me could not but wonder who among all the characters were making the larger sacrifices and who deserved my sympathy. If tears needed to be shed at all, who should have been the deserving recipient?

Dasaratha seemed inconsolable.  Portrayed by a stalwart, a few gestures were enough to give full expression to the anguish and turmoil he was suffering.  The pathos touched the audience deeply.  Yet, was it not his fault?  A crafty king should know better than to make open ended promises. When even Gods suffered after granting ill-considered boons, what right did a mere mortal have, king though he may be, to dish out such boons? If I had any sympathy for Dasaratha at all, it was solely due to the powerful performance of an artiste par excellence.

Rama, with his straight spine and stiff upper lip was the cynosure of all eyes. His was ostensibly the biggest sacrifice, for he was giving up his rightful place at the helm of his kingdom. In my mind, however, no self-respecting kshatriya would have allowed himself to get into such a situation in the first place. To begin with, despite not being her son, he was still apparently much loved by Kaikeyi and it was Manthara’s constant needling and the threat of dire consequences that forced her to try and banish Rama from Ayodhya. Rama, I felt, if he had been shrewd could have taken Manthara out of the equation and cajoled Kaikeyi into retracting her requests. Failing that, being a great favourite of the people of Ayodhya, he could have very easily fomented unrest among the people and orchestrated a lynch mob to take care of Manthara, and if needed Kaikeyi and anybody else who got in the way, without getting his own hands dirty. Or he could have tried several other ruses that many before him and still more subsequently have used to usurp or retain power. Yet he did not even try any of this. Instead, he agreed readily to bear the cross and proceeded to make preparations for his vanavas with barely concealed smugness.

I continued in the same vein, thinking that for a self-righteous prude such as Rama, this must have spelt a once in a lifetime opportunity to embrace martyrdom for all to see. To put on a long face, to relinquish everything that was rightlfully his, to earn the pity of an entire population, to appear stoic in the face of great loss, all of it could very well have given a holier-than-thou Rama immense pleasure. In retrospect, that one act has given him immortality, promotion to God status, and legions of red-eyed sniffling sympathizers over eons. Couldn’t have worked out better for him!

Surely, he did not deserve the kind of sympathy that was being bestowed on him by the audience. At least, definitely not my sympathy.

Any lingering doubts I might have had were banished by the way he handled Sita. That did not seem to be something to be proud of either. In one scene, he comes into Sita’s room and informs her that he has decided to go into exile for 14 years. He doesn’t give her an option. A fair person, I felt, would have first fought in that situation, if not for himself, at least for the sake of his newly married princess who had assumed, in good faith, that she would be queen shortly. Having acceded to the conditions laid by his father the king, the least he could have done was consult Sita about what she would like to do instead of announcing his decision. He could have said “Listen, given the situation, I doubt whether it is safe for you to be here in Ayodhya. You could come into the forests with me and we could face all the dangers there together or you could move back to your father’s kingdom where you can be safe till my return. Any which way, staying in Ayodhya is out of the question. I would recommend that you go back to your father. I will then go into the forest and see if I can locate a place of safety and then if we both want it, you can move in with me, at least once in a while“. That would have been nice. Instead he just tells her to stay back in Ayodhya and then conveniently allows her to convince him to let her accompany him. I am sure that all along he was banking on Sita insisting on accompanying him. After all, he wouldn’t have wanted to be separated from his young, beautiful wife. Besides, I am sure he wondered, if she did not come along, then who would do all the cooking and washing for both him and his brother!

Sita, I must admit did appear to deserve a lot of sympathy. She was a grand princess from a fairly rich kingdom and would have been looking forward to ruling Ayodhya alongside Rama when, and not if, he ascended the throne. She must have been used to the comforts afforded to royalty and would have expected at least the same levels of comforts, respect and deference when she became queen. To be suddenly stripped of her status as queen-apparent, and shorn of all her jewelry, and even her clothes and unceremoniously sent off to the forest must have been troubling to say the least. In addition, the prospect of having to cook and care for not one, but two grown men must have been so much insult on injury.

lakshmana_hanumanLakshmana did not get any sympathy from anyone primarily because he volunteered to accompany Rama. I am sure there were sensible reasons for that, but nevertheless it was not something he was forced or coerced into doing. So it was quite logical that he did not make much of a mark with the audience. On my part, I did sympathize with him a little bit, only because despite not being made up heavily or relying on prosthesis, he did look surprisingly like Hanuman, so much so that I heard quite a few other people in the audience wondering how Hanuman had entered the scene so early in the story!

After the show, we walked back home, hand in hand. While my wife dried her eyes,  I expounded on some of my earlier thoughts. Its amazing how quickly an evening can turn. I guess I must have pressed the wrong nerve because I have  never known her to resort to name calling.

She started by calling me an idiot and pointing out that my entire knowledge of Indian Mythology was limited to what I had learnt from Amar Chitra Katha and the odd dance drama. This being entirely accurate, I had no choice but to nod dumbly in agreement. Then she said that the Sanskrit original, which an illiterate such as myself could not possibly read, leave alone understand and appreciate, was quite nuanced and there were wheels within wheels and mitigating circumstances for even the seemingly bad behaviour exhibited by some of the characters. A corny argument at best, but the illiteracy bit hit home and I had to concede another point. Finally, she argued that I was merely foisting my own thoughts and attitudes on Rama and that it was I who was a sanctimonious prig and not Rama. I think she used the word prig and not another similar sounding one, but she was riled up and under such circumstances one never can tell.

I conceded that I could be a sanctimonious hypocrite sometimes but that was exactly why I could be right in my assessment of Rama.

After all, it takes one to know one.