Laahiri Laahiri Laahiri Valentine

Today, I watched, for the umpteenth time,  a bit of  that adorable movie, Mayabazar,  which has been, ever since I watched it for the first time in a tent ,  when I was about  ten,  the movie that has answers to every question that you would have asked your  grandmother , if only you could. When the  Laahiri Laahiri  Laahiri Lo began playing,  it struck me that this song from 57 years ago was telling me a thing or two about Valentine’s Day.  Pointless and silly as the concept is.

Consider the scene in which  Abhimanyu strolls up the garden path to stand under  Shashireka’s balcony. The  young lady has been  grounded by her mother for  daring to  spurn the gifts sent by her mother-in-law to be, and she is moping, wondering how to get the word out to  Abhimanyu, the love of her life.

An arrow suddenly lands at her feet, and  within minutes, the son of Arjuna builds a “staircase of arrows” for Shashirekha to descend, and they make off for the  riverside, where they are soon ensconced in a gondola, singing  “Laahri laahiri laahiri lo, oho jagame oogenuga..”  A palace guard chances upon them and  gleefully runs to inform Shashirekha’s parents, the imperious Balarama and his domineering wife, Revathi.

However, when they arrive on the scene of crime, they see it is Krishna and Rukmini romancing each other, for the all-knowing Krishna has sensed that the young lovers need some avunclar rescuing, and  drags wife Rukmini to an unscheduled  gondola ride and some mutual serenading.  Walking back, Krishna slyly suggests that the boat ride is a great way for couples to reconnect, and no one is too old for a bit of romance. Well,  the boat was there, and  love was in the air,  and Balarama needed his wife to forget their  rebellious, opinionated daughter for a wee bit,and so they went ahead and  finished the song. And felt all the better for it.  Although they didn’t see their way to relenting  on their daughter who , they believed, was locked up in her room, her tantrums for company.

Silly and pointless, clearly,  love’s little games are not.  Krishna tells us so. He orchestrates the Raas Lila, and every girl comes away thinking Krishna is hers alone. The older Krishna then orchestrates another kind of   love lila- be it uniting Arjuna and Subhadra, or  as in Mayabazar, Abhimanyu and Shashirekha. The artful organizer of happy-endings  has everyone thinking  everything is going according their plan, until the end.

With Gatotkacha’s help, some magic and lots of  good humor,  he has Shashirekha transported to  where Abhimanyu is hiding under Gatotkacha’sprotection, and the affable, adorable  rakshasa son of Bhima  returns , takes on the form of Shashirekha, and terrorizes Lakshmana , son of Duryodhana and the groom intended for Shashirekha.   Once the wedding muhurtham passes, he reveals himself  , and the wedding of Abhimanyu and Shashirekha is presented as fait accompli.

So it all boils down to this. There are those who see Valentine’s Day as evil,  and will foil the plans of those who celebrate the day. There are others who wish to make it special, and some others who  serendipitously,  come upon a gondola ride down the river, and choose to  take it.

I confess that I find Valentine’s Day a nonsensical idea, and  the closest I came to marking the day was last year, when I got the spouse to take me out in the morning sun for a romp in the snow , where a snowman was already melting. It just happened to be  Valentine’s Day , February 14, 2014.  But my heart is in the right place, and I  wish that today,  Krishna has planned happy-endings for everyone who wants it.

Bye. I now need to urgently go back to  Mayabazar.  There is no such thing as too much Mayabazar.

Baby Shower Babble

Baby poems



When my cousin Neeraja invited me to a baby shower she was hosting last week,  I immediately said yes. I did not know the mother-to-be, but Neeraja told me she is the grand-niece of  D.K Pattamal, she of the  Female Trinity of Carnatic Music.  There were going to be other interesting women, and it would be an enjoyable evening. When you are a journalist,  sans the cynicism, and  listening to people, watching them, and  talking to them is what you do for a living,  you  generally find that any gathering can become as interesting or as boring as you make it.   

The real reason Neeraja didn’t have to persuade me was  the fact that it was a baby shower.  I never cease to wonder at the power that a baby exudes over adults. Even when it’s not born. The mere news of a baby’s  imminent arrival, somewhere in our orbit, does strange things to the mind. Happy-strange things. Normally serious-faced people go about with goofy smiles, or act extra tender when they come within ten feet of the mother-to-be, and  the father-to-be gets his shoulders thumped, and silly things are said by people who are not normally expected to  be affected by such news.

At a baby shower,  there are no inhibitions. Everyone is allowed, rather,  expected to  be goofy, and  indulge in baby-talk  freely, perhaps even try to outdo each other in talking baby, exclaiming over teddy bears, rompers, blankies, bassinets, crib, bib, lullabies,  picture-frames and the like.

And why not.

At Neeraja’s on Sunday afternoon ( we couldn’t miss it, with all the balloons, and buntings that announced this was the place, and  she had even drawn an auspicious kolam for the touch of  the Tamilian home) all menfolk were banished. Gladly, I suppose. The husband had offered to drive me to Rockville, and  hang about the nearest Barnes & Noble’s for the next couple of hours, chiefly because he loves me very much, and also, I suspect, due to the fact that a baby was involved!

Is it necessary to add that the day before, we had great fun picking out a present for Ishu, the mother-to-be, and  even chose the most adorable card, with a rocking horse and some beautiful verse.

I think I was the last to arrive, and the fun and games were in progress. You’ll meet some really neat people, Neeraja had said. Of course, It turned out that I was one of those “neat people”–The moment Neeraja introduced me,  everyone asked me how my writing was going on, and what was I writing about.

It didn’t feel at all like I was meeting everyone for the first time.  It was truly “neat” to meet  Chandra,  Uma, Latha, and of course, Ishu, the hero of the evening,  who it turned out was having twins!  I just hoped  the two little bundles of joy would learn to share the toy I had got them.

Though there were more than a dozen women, for about a quarter of an hour, there was quiet, barring some loud-thinking by someone trying to find the words in the game grid, and unscrambling the jumbled words- the games that Neeraja had set for us to play.  I learnt a new word-  onesies. It was the only word ( of 24) that I failed to get. This was a baby-themed puzzle, and everything else had been a breeze. This proved to be a toughie even for those who’ve had babies!

I was chuffed when Neeraja announced I’d won a prize.  And the other prize was won by Raji.

When Ishu opened her presents,  there were a couple of onesies! (an infant’s one-piece close-fitting lightweight garment, usually having sleeves but leaving the legs uncovered and fastening with snaps at the crotch, says the dictionary) most of them had known about the twins. Uma had crocheted and knitted  two  lovely blankies that I’m sure the two babies will never outgrow.  There were bibs and booties, little day suits and stuffed animals, who I’m sure are going to come alive and  have the most exciting adventures that a child ever imagined, in the coming years.

I had taken along a loaf of banana bread , and was pleased that it was pronouced “delicious”.  I gorged on the lemon rice ( Chandra’s) and  quinoa salad (Uma’s) and  samosas. I brought back some strawberries, which Neeraja said, had been sliced by her husband.

Neeraja had meant this evening to be about women bonding, and  a baby shower, is a great way to make it happen.  A baby shower detoxes you of cynicism, and accords you the luxury of  guilt-free enjoyment of  the pure innocence that surrounds babies like an aura. Apart from the unadulterated joy that the presence of a baby brings into one’s life. Any baby, not necessarily your own.

That  private world that little Chichu and I  lived in for a few months, when each day, he’d wander into my apartment, and we’d  go through the ritual of  playing with my doll, Gita Paapa, rubbing her face with baby lotion, and admiring our handiwork, and holding her , standing  before the mirror. That  gasp of  anticipation and the  joy that lit up his face as he ran up the corridor asking to be carried.  They chase the blues away.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through your hair once every day, Audrey Hepburn advises.  Let a baby walk through your thoughts once a day, to feel beautiful all day, she might have said.


Eat No Meat Here, It’s No Maas Media

IT’s been a few days since the meaty lunchbox was banished from the precincts of The Hindu. Everybody has an opinion on the matter. There are people who would take up cudgels on behalf of the meat-eating employees who, they allege, are being forced to become vegetarian and “Brahmin in their thinking”.

People who have never entered the portals of  The Hindu and by virtue of their  tweets, , probably never will,  suggested, ” The Hindu should rename itself  “The Brahmin”, and  urged the proprietors to  display a signboard to say “Only Brahmins need apply”, and a third suggested wrapping chicken kebabs in  the newspaper would be the Gandhian way to protest.

Now,  I have been a The  Hindu insider,  and you don’t need to be one to know that all  vegetarians are not Brahmins , employed at The Hindu or not. The second suggestion  is  absurd. The accent  at the Hindu, in fact, is on diversity. As for the final  suggestion, being kebab wrapper I’d say is an upgrade from the days a few decades ago, when grandma’s wisdom suggested   yesterday’s newspaper made cheapest baby wipes.

I admit I am a vegetarian and until this  advisory  came up, I never really considered what might be going on  in the mind of  the non-vegetarian employee of The Hindu. Or  what the vegetarian in The Hindu canteen might be thinking. Speaking for myself,  the only thing that’s important to me is what’s on my plate. My best friends are non-vegetarians. When we eat out  they order what they like, and I order what I like, and of course we all sit at the same table.

I am trying to  recall what  my colleagues at the Hindu did at the canteen. I don’t remember  anyone  opening their  dabba of chicken biriyani, or anything non-vegetarian. In fact most of us  did not carry a lunchbox from home at all most days, because it was more convenient to eat at the canteen.  Our colleagues from other newspapers frequently asked if they could come over and lunch at our canteen.

In the newsroom, lunchboxes often got opened and passed around  if someone got hungry, or  brought something interesting,  or   Ramesh Vangipuram  brought his sack of Krishna Janmashtami goodies, or someone had a birthday. or ordered pizza (vegetarian, I admit)

There might have been at some point someone who brought some non-vegetarian  food. No one asked, or said anything.  I’m guessing  they’d have ordered  non-vegetarian if  it was available in the canteen, and were  generally happy to eat whatever is available- viz. a  decadent spread of saapad with sambhar, rasam, palya, appalam, pickle and curd. On the other hand, I’ve known many of them to order vegetarian at the Press Club, even though a non-vegetarian menu is served there. There was none of the offending or offense-taking  that is being implied between  colleagues.

What if anything has changed, after the   advisory was issued?  Very little, I’d say.  The HR manager is not necessarily speaking for every vegetarian in the building, and  he has doubtless verified facts before saying that non-vegetarians are in the minority.  This minority knows what to expect, and  abstinence while on the premises is not asking for the impossible– most non-vegetarians  often abstain even when they are not  at work, for  personal, spiritual, and health reasons..  Besides,  what are the chances of someone  actually bringing a non-veg meal into the building, and that some vegetarian/non-vegetarian tattletale is  going to  spill the chicken on a meat-chomping colleague?

This is  more akin to a case of  telling  non-smokers  to refrain from smoking!

Meanwhile conversations on FB are meandering from The Hindu canteen into Hindu spaces. “The notice of the Hindu management is nothing but insulting the Dalit-bahujans and non-Brahmin castes and their food cultures” says  someone on a group that I desist from naming here.

When will the day come when Dalit journalists conduct beef festivals in media houses in this great democracy! exclaims another, while someone else compares it to  the ban on sale of eggs at Rishikesh-Hardwar. 

When will the day come when Dalit journalists conduct beef festivals in media houses in this great democracy!exclaims another!  

I think my takeaway from here  is “beefing up the media house equals Dalit empowerment”


I Wish I Was Back In Babelore

Some years ago, I was walking into the Conference Room in Vidhana Soudha to cover the press conference of the Chief Minister,  H.D.Kumaraswamy,  while speaking on the cell with a cousin. I spoke in Tamil, and  after a few minutes  I hung up, and found myself a chair. A journalist from another newspaper slid into the seat next to mine, said hello and asked, in Kannada, “Madam how come you are speaking  the Konga bhasha? ”  I replied that’s because I was a Konga. He had the grace to blush, and mumbled his apologies but he was also surprised to learn I am not Kannadiga.

I told him there was no need to apologize, as he had no way of knowing this , but couldn’t  resist telling him that I was quite conversant in 75 per cent of  South Indian languages. At home the lingua franca is Tamil, but it’s simply impossible not to pick up some Telugu when you have seven uncles and six aunts who were born and raised in Nellore, and argued ( they call it conversation) in the only language in which mythological movies must be watched.  My second language at school was Kannada, and  it was also generally the language in which I played, but  there never was any occasion to learn  even a smattering of Malayalam.

Now everyone knows, or has often lamented the  penchant of many Kannadigas to deny their language, and  reams have been written about the Kannadiga pride in displaying  ignorance of their own language. When two Malayalis or two Andhraites meet, the happily lapse into their language, whereas the Kannadiga , so the common complaint goes,  will lapse into English.

This was the theme  of  friend   Sandhya Mendonca’s blog a couple of days ago- in which she pointed out that many Indians are bilingual, and  can switch between the languages with great felicity.  I have always been amused to see my father and his five siblings communicate – one pair of his sisters would speak to each other in Dharwad Kannada, my dad and his elder brother  too spoke to each other in Dharwad Kannada, and the other two sisters spoke Tamil to each other. But if the pairs broke up,  Tamil was the medium!

I  enjoy  my GP Rajaratnam and Kailasam in Kannada, I can identify a  Bharatiyar gem or two in Tamil , and  as for Telugu,  there is no greater joy than to watch the movie Mayabazar and soak in the romance of  Lahiri Lahiri or laugh till I get stitches in my sides at Vivaha Bhojanambu. I find Thyagaraja and Purandardasa equally epiphanic in their respective languages,  and despite a limited understanding of literary Tamil, I enjoy the occasional Rajaji’s Korai Onrum Illai  for the voice of MS,  and  take a guilty , childish pleasure in  parodied  renderings of K. B. Sundarambal’s  Avvaiyar songs. And of course,  knowing Kannada has been a great boon- I have taught myself to read  my grandfather’s Telugu translation of Valmiki Ramayana, since the scripts are similar.

My life has changed in the last five years, and I now live in a place where knowing 75 per cent of South Indian languages has been of little help.  The husband speaks Malayalam, the 25 per cent that I never  learnt!

Which means,  we are now a 100 per cent English speaking family. And I have begun to recognize that  it takes a lot of effort to learn a new language, never mind the comforting “its very easy,  just like Tamil,” etc.   I was on the plane to visit  cousin Meenakshi in Minnesota a few months back, and it turned out I was the only desi among the 30 odd passengers on the tiny plane. both onward and the return flight. It was any icy winter morning, on the return flight, and we were delayed an hour  while the plane and the tarmac got a wash. I passed a good deal of the time thinking I could say things in four languages (including Hindi) to anyone on the plane, and no one would even know  that  they were getting gibberish of four kinds!

Which brings us to my present peeve. In order to speak lustily and for long in Kannada, Tamil, or  even Telugu, I need to call friends and family back home in India, or here in the US.  There are reasons why when I hear these three languages in this wonderful land  that I currently call home , I  turn away, move to another aisle, or pretend I am not there at all.  Experience is a great teacher. I mostly blame the knol khol pyramid at the Korean store, Lotte’  Plaza where you can buy  dosakai  (Mangaluru Southekai) under a  gantry sign that  loudly declares “DOSAKAI).

There is a lot of Telugu to be encountered at  say  Lotte’ ,  COSTCO, or Walmart, and  Tamil, and much Malayalam. Kannada, on the other hand, is  rarely heard.  So I could barely conceal my delight when I heard this urgently pregnant  woman  contemplating the knol khol in her hand, and wondering, loudly, “idu knol khol allva?”

Too excited to  consider that it might be a bad idea, I  cheerfully volunteered, “howdu, idu knol kholenay“, because I had asked myself the same question when I first visited  this store. One can never be sure of  our familiar veggies  knol khol, seemebadnekai that goes by the exotic name of chayote, in this country . They tend to be giant sized, and most of the time, quite tasteless . I long for  the pungent “aroma” of  a radish simmering in the sambhar nearly as much as I pine for a  chinwag in Kannada. With someone sitting by me, on the same couch. Not over telephone .

Well, the upshot of my  interjection was that we were soon talking about Uma theatre, Bull Temple, Gandhi Bazar, and so on, and exchanged phone numbers. . A couple of weeks later, she called, and asked if i was interested  in a project. I am mortified to say I failed to see through her  jargon and  was in denial when the husband said it sounded like an Amway scam. I asked for more details, and found out, indeed, that it was Amway. I  told her I wasn’t interested, and forbade husband from every mentioning this episode again, if he wanted  his parippu prathaman

So you see,  I can’t be blamed for  being wary of  Kannada- speaking pregnant women on the loose in   Herndon Halli, and  turning to   FB, youtube and my  small library of Kannada books  to my regular fix.  The important thing is to know  you may take me out of Kannada, but you cannot take Kannada out of me. On this cliche’d note,  I end, yearning deeply for my Babelore!

Light & Delight In Belgaum

The Lamplighter 

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

In A Child’s Garden of Verses,  Robert Louis Stevenson  writes  of  Leerie the Lamplighter who  went around, lighting the gas lamps in the streets of Edinburgh. Stevenson was a sickly child  who spent a great deal of time indoors,   and ,  looking out of the window  waiting for the lamplighter to come by, must have been something he really looked forward to. In the poem, he wants to grow up to be a lamplighter, rather than a sailor,   a driver like his siblings, , or a banker like his father. 

A much-thumbed copy of the book remains an eternal favorite, but Leerie lumbered back into our lives from the distant past this week, much closer home!  For some time now, Father has been urging me to write about those days , the 1930s ,when  Belgaum had no electricity, and  there was Leerie to light up the streets of the town at sundown each evening, and what happened in  homes filled with children as they sat around  a warm lantern and wondered about the creatures lurking in the dark regions beyond the circle of light.

It struck me that, 75 years ago,  Father and his generation made a transition far more important than my own barely 25 years ago, when I witnessed the passage of the typewriter from the office room to the museum,  as computers replaced the now archaic contraption that 20-year-olds don’t even know about.  I’m quite certain there is no parent of  25-year-olds  who would care to explain white ink,  carbon paper, and  a gadget that had no delete button.  And kids no longer believe there were machines that didn’t run on electricity, or that there was no autocorrect or spellcheck. All we had was  a much ticked off teacher brandishing a foot-ruler that she threatened to lay on our knuckles!

Electricity.  It came to Belgaum in the 1930s. 1933, Father reckons.  Everyone welcomed it, and embraced the power it gave them. They could go to the cinema, and stay out even after sunset.  Standing around street corners,  they could linger longer at the vegetable vendor’s cart, driving a hard bargain. The scent of jasmine would  remind them to stop to buy a string for the lady at home.

But something was lost too.  No more did the municipal employee, aka Leerie the Lamplighter, stride down the road, wielding his stick, lighting  the street lamps that ran on coal gas. And no more would kids look out the window,  in the mornings, as he came to clean the lamps.  it would be pointless to fantasize about a career in lamplighting.

When we were in primary school, my fantasy was to be picked as the bell ringer  -who got to say “Excuse me , Miss, but it’s time to ring the bell for the next period.” I’d  set my watch 5 minutes faster in Hindi class, and  we’d any way lose enough time in the beginning of Ms Jayashree’s class, by choosing to  devoutly sing “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory…. .” for about 6 minutes.

As it happened,  Viji got picked for the job , and  Ms Jayashree had by then  caught on. She forbade us from singing that song, and  gave us just one minute to pray quietly, before start of the class- it wouldn’t do for word to reach the ear of the Headmistress, Sister Stanislaus, that she hadn’t allowed us to pray. Besides, when we actually made it to  high school,  no one really wanted to be bell-ringer,- the idea had palled,   and we had moved on to more sophisticated methods of  shrinking  Ms Jayashree’s class-  Mills & Boon hidden between the covers of the Hindi textbook, for one, and  getting a few girls to ask , once more, if the table was feminine or masculine.

There doesn’t seem to be much that you can google up about  lamplighters in India. However,  I think it’s safe to assume that it was pretty much similar to what England boasted at the time. And I did find this most interesting blog  by a passionate Victorianist–  lamplighterlives!  and   it’s quite plain that the job description of lamplighters in Belgaum was similar to that of the Londoners.

They lit the lamps each evening, by means of a wick on a long pole. And at dawn, they returned to put them out, using a small hook on the same pole. The earliest streetlights  were candles, and then the oils and  in the latter part of the 19th century,  of coal  changed lighting forever, in turn evicted by electricity.

Lights were lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were generally candles, oil, and similar consumable liquid or solid lighting sources with wicks.Lamplighters had other jobs as well.  They served as watchmen, as they went about the streets at night, which could have been regarded more as a sinecure , while they went about doing their day job!   They had to clean the lamps, do regular maintenance that included changing oil or gas mantles.

Hardly glamorous, but to a child looking out of a window, nothing could be more magical than the circle of golden light around a lonesome pole as the evening shadows lengthened, and no one more heroic than the man who made that magic happen.

Before electricity vanquished darkness, it’s black,  impenetrable presence hid a thousand fears, both real and imaginary.  The phalanx of imagined enemies, spirits of the “neitherworld”, bhoota, devva, mohinis, rakshasas lurked in its folds waiting in that realm, waiting for victims. They screeched , wailed, and laughed raucously, made things fall, and frightened unsuspecting people to death.  It was a time when no child needed to be told twice to  pray-No grandma had to repeat her at once peremptory and cajoling instruction to the grandchildren to get inside and pray to Hanuman, Garuda and Bhima to keep watch over them, and keep the scary dreams at bay!

Birds still do that. As the sun goes down, they  cease their wanderings and flitting about, and return to their nests. Every one is counted, and the treetops turn into a riotous orchestra of chirps and twitter. Only  now we don’t notice them much,  and if we do want any part of it, we’d have to go pretty far away from  our own nests in search of them .

At home,  today, we  take electricity for granted. Power failure doesn’t bother us. We breezed through the eighties with the reality a  of  television without a remote ( not that we needed one in the eighties,  when all we had was Doordarshan, and we watched everything from Krishidarshan and Samachar by Salma Sultan  with the rose behind her ear, and everything in-between and put the TV to bed at 9 , or was it 10 pm? )   Since the nineties, a thousand channels and a remote have enslaved  people who device many cunning ways to beat  power failure so the TV doesn’t stop playing.We have the new genie called uninterrupted power supply.

Electricity has shrunk the night,  and the monsters that scared and thrilled us  are exposed,  limp, lifeless, and not even comical. Imagination has abdicated to hypnosis of the idiot box. Breaking news has more TRP ratings than breaking dawn.

In Headmaster Ramabrahma’s Belgaum home 75 years ago,  the lengthening shadows beckoned the  boys playing outside home, and  the night fell on empty streets, barring a few stragglers who hurried home, and the lamplighter, whose “day” was only just beginning.

Inside,   it was time to light up the lamps. There were all kinds of lamps to choose from-  kerosene lamps, paraffin lamps. There were petromax lanterns and chimney lamp.  Duplex lamps had double wicks and chimneys that allowed the light to be dimmed or brightened with the turn of a screw. Not all rooms in the house were lit. The women finished up work in the kitchen as soon as they could in the daylight,  and  the family generally gathered in the living room, around a warm lamp.  Sometimes the servants lingered,  keeping a light in the study for the headmaster, who preferred to be among his books and papers, working and playing by the clock.

Even though he was Headmaster, Grandfather Ramambrahma had not come up with the idea of overburdening his students, including  his two sons, Pandu and Sheshagiri aka Father, with  too much homework. Evening hours, therefore, were a time for sitting around a comforting lamp,  and listening to stories. Grandmother Venkamma regaled the children – with stories of Kuppa-Kuppi ,   mythology,   some flavorful Tamil folktales, and  sometimes it was  their elder sisters, Kokila, Mangala and Sushila  who chased the monsters of the dark away for  Pandu, S and their baby sister , Vimala.  The servants brought their own brand of  stories, and games to the ring around the lamp. It was campfire night every night.

The oil lamps were  quite messy- don’t we remember a childhood punctuated by  these  regularly irregular power failure/powercuts, in the evenings when the puja lamp had been lit, and the mumbled prayers of Grandmother seemed to wander from room to room,  and children secretly thought their prayers had been answered,  giving them an excuse for not being at their books “despite their ardent desire to be studious”, and  the candles and oil lamps were brought out, coaxed and badgered to light up? The oil often splashed out of the reservoir where it was held, and the smell of  hot oil pervaded the house, dust and dirt clogged the little air holes around the wick, and this needed cleaning out every day. The glass chimney also needed washing after every use otherwise the dirt would deplete the effectiveness of the light.

In  more affluent homes,  back in the 1930s, expensive  lamps imported from Britain and Europe.  These homes, regal if not royal,  were sprawling residences of jagirdars, and  landlords , where grand chandeliers,  ornate lamps and crystalware using mostly candles and later paraffin and oil proclaimed the luxuries and wealth of their owners, not to mention their taste for the beautiful things.

It appears that the 19th century was a time of revival of styles in the history of lighting before the era of electricity. The French brought back roman lamps and turned them into chandeliers.  Post Industrial Revolution,  a burgeoning middle class demanded  greater choices, and drove the revival of older, more decorative styles .  Fashion trends were doing their cycles even in those times!

Rococo, Renaissance and Gothic design elements made a comeback,  and filled  French homes with lighting in those styles. Baccarat , which started making chandeliers in 1824, were the leaders in innovating new styles inspired by old  design traditions.  British chandelier companies, found, in India, a readymade market in the country colonized by them , and many of them opened branches in India to cater to the needs of rich Indians with taste, not to mention the British residents making their home here.

When gas lighting became more widely available in the late 19th century, gasoliers making use of this new form of illumination were often designed in Rococo styles. These gasoliers usually had candles available as backup just in case the gas didn’t work. Gas lights were also really bright, so glass shields became more common as a way to shield the glare. Gas-lit chandeliers do not appear to have been very popular in India, however.

Father mentioned  prism lamps , and I  can’t remember where I have seen them, probably on the desk of  some very scientific people I’ve  gone to meet in the study of dons at IISc,  looking important and necessary to whatever science they are doing!  I’m not sure  if  Grandfather had one on his desk, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the original purpose of  deck prisms–

For centuries, sailing ships used deck prisms to provide a safe source of natural sunlight to illuminate areas below decks. Before electricity, light below a vessel’s deck was provided by candles, oil and kerosene lamps – all dangerous aboard a wooden ship. The deck prism was a clever solution: laid flush into the deck, the glass prism refracted and dispersed natural light into the space below from a small deck opening without weakening the planks or becoming a fire hazard. In normal usage, the prism hangs below the ceiling and disperses the light sideways; the top is flat and installed flush with the deck, becoming part of the deck. A plain flat glass would just form a single bright spot below– not very useful general illumination– hence the prismatic shape. On colliers (coal ships), prisms were also used to keep check on the cargo hold; light from a fire would be collected by the prism and be made visible on the deck even in daylight.  

Though Father’s memories of the lamplighter have been  quite enlightening, I was amused to hear that they hadn’t  particularly  excited him in those days. Rather like my brief flirtation with the idea of being bell-ringer which job, too, I’ll be bound is extinct, with an electronic gong having replaced it! . What really moved  Father, it turns out, was the road-roller! That remarkable contraption used to metal the roads,  which luckily can still be sighted around the city,  pacing the road like a king lost in thought, tortured by thoughts of a coup against him.  Father and friends   made a jolly time of it, running behind the  road-roller,  of which there seems to be no  reference in  the Child’s Garden of Verses!

I Want My Mother!

Gulab jamuns - I made them!
Gulab jamuns – I made them!

Two years already, since she moved on .  I’ve been old enough  for long enough to know you’re  never too old to want your mother when you don’t feel good. But in these two  years of  not being able to pick up the phone and call her, demanding the recipe for  Witches’ Brew, aka milagu kozhambu,  I’ve learnt  I’m  never going to be too old to want my mother when I’m feeling good.

But she has taught me well.  In the beginning they were 14, Seven brothers and seven sisters. Mother was the ninth child. And she always said 9 was her lucky number. She was born on a 9th. Exactly how this number worked for her is a mystery to all of us, but mostly it was enough that she thought so, and it was cited at all momentous occasions and one birthday, it did save the Big Brother from mother’s wrath  for forgetting to send her a card .When he remembered, it was too late to go out and buy one, so he fashioned a greeting card out of KG cardboard (Why is it called KG cardboard?) yellow, drew a little cuboid and a big cuboid, and a sun , and called his work of art “Mother and Child In Sunshine, and inside wrote out  this little mathematical formula-  1-9-1979

1+9+1+9+7+9= 36


Therefore, it’s a lucky year (QED)

Mother walked on air for several days, and showed it everyone,  and blamed the delay in its arrival on the Postal Department.

I digress. Mother told me stories about her 13 siblings , their spouses and the grandparents, and  her cousins., of whom there were, well, dozens. Growing up in Nellore, in the big house,  under the  gimlet eye of the grandfather, who wasn’t really as fearsome as he looked. It must have been magical and wondrous, like Mayabazar, with Grandmother  , the queen of the kitchen, where all the pots and pans were  king-size,  and  the coffee-filter made of brass  looked like it had been made for the Kaurava  household!    Grandfather’s clients and friends  were brought home for lunch without notice, but Grandmother could never be caught off-guard. She always came through, and Mother and her sisters served the guests sumptuous meals  and   super coffee.

The grandparents were both devout. In the large puja room dominated by the ornate mandasanam  (which now resides in A-5,) and the  24′ high idol of Hanuman standing with folded hands, I’m quite certain  Rama came down in person to receive  the puja and naivedhyam..Grandfather , who  radiated awesome authority with his great height and commanding presence,  could send his dozen offspring scurrying across the expanse of the hall and the inner courtyard  by merely walking in through the front door. He was addicted to the Ramayana,  giving lectures about it and explaining its wonders to friends and colleagues at the club where he played bridge, and every year the Ramanavami was celebrated grandly, over  ten days.  His daily pujas were no less elaborate.  His addiction  , ultimately led him to write the story down, in Telugu, and thanks to the book, I now have his wise counsel and  humorous observations about the epic, and about life, in general, and I have a sense of what kind of  man he had been.

Grandmother’s  domain was the Thulasi kotai, which too was extra large size. Though I barely remember Grandfather, I have memories of  Grandmother’s daily routine of  readying the puja room for  him, and then going into the backyard  with her little brass basket , to pick flowers and wash the  Thulasi (which happens to be my mother’s name)  mukham – which too now resides  in A-5,  sprinkle water around the kotai,  draw kolams, rub turmeric and kumkum along the corners, and  do the puja , reciting various shlokas. I remember begging to be allowed to handle the basket, and pick flowers and  be Grandmother’s little helper.

While I made my own memories. Mother added to the repertoire with many anecdotes, and  titbits about life with 13 siblings, and the consequence was that by the time i was ten, I felt I knew all of them very well, though it wasn’t often that I met them.

I had this thing about not finding mother at home when I came from school. I always  checked for her slippes, and if they were missing, I was quite put out. Of course, there were days when  events at schools warranted the hope that they would not be there, but that’s beside the point.

Somedays, I would find a strange pair of shoes or more .  That meant visitors.  An uncle come from Madras on work . And once I knew who it was. I  could guess what we were having for dinner. Kandipappu chintapandu pachadi ,  if it was AVN Chittappa. (  the husband of Rohini, my mom’s youngest sister)  He’s a lawyer, and in the 70s used to take a great many cases in Bangalore, which meant he came down often.  The aroma of minimula pachadi  meant Bheemu Chittappa ( my aunt Janaki’s huband) had arrived/was coming over.  When Kittu (her immediate elder brother) mixed hot rice, oil and avakkai,  you wanted to grab the plate and wolf down the whole thing yourself! – something i have witnessed for myself.

Dasharathram Mama, (her second older brother, right after Thambi Mama) loved the masala dosa that Mother made, and  never tired of telling everyone that he discovered bisi bele baath  thanks to her.  Lakshmi Periamma’s name was given to a koottu that she had learnt to make from her elder sister.

Not being a great fan of sweets, I mean, I can honestly say I never get a craving for sweets, although I relish a  gulab jamun , and the occasional paal payasam provided it’s made by my mother– doesn’t mean that I don’t miss the divine kozhakattais (kharam and sweet) that she used to make.

I’ve been thinking lately about  this I-want-my-mother thing.  Now,  what did she do when she had that moment? And how many of them were caused by me?  I  cringe with guilt about the time a few years ago, when I rejected the gulab jamuns she made for my birthday . I  mean,  who’d ever think Mother’s GJs could be anything but divine? Can an MS concert be a complete washout?

I told her exactly what i’d thought of the GJs, which didn’t smell quite right, and the  sugar had not really reached the centre of the golden-brown orb of  delight. they weren’t even  golden brown orbs of delight. Thye were crumbly, misshapen. They were like I’d made them.

She took it quite lightly, I think.    I made up for it later, by getting her a bottle of eau de cologne, something that she always loved to have around her, not that she ever used it.

Last year, I made kozhakattai for Ganesha Chaturthi. They came out perfectly, and I believe it was really her hand that did it.  And when I make akki rotti, or adai, I make five little holes, one in the middle, and 4 around it, just like I remember her doing it.  On the 9th, I made  cluster beans pindimiryam, it smelled like Amma’s.

Oh! I finally made gulab jamuns. They were awesome. They were like Mother’s.  Golden brown orbs of delight, sloshing about in the sugar syrup, smelling of rose essence and cardomom. Not crumbly or doughy. Of course, Mother was there. She’s always there, even when I’m feeling good. Next time I find those green brinjals at the Korean store, I’m getting abunch of them to make sambhar. Whenever she returned from a trip to Nellore, or Madras, she liked arrive  home to a lunch of brinjal sambhar  and rice. She’ll love that. She always did. And she never complained about it’s taste, or color, or consistency.

100 Years Of Cinema, 90 Years Of Memories Part I

May 3, 2013 I sat down with Appa today to talk cinema and  memories. At 90,  I reckoned,   he would know Indian cinema which turns 100 today, rather intimately   I have come away from that conversation a little dizzy, thinking  “I’ve just  been talking with a man who saw cinema take its first toddling steps, go from silent movies to talkies to color!”   Right now, he  is being a good sport trying to master the iPad that we got him,  happy as a child  at pulling up , all by himself ,MS Subbalakshmi on Youtube to regale him with “Akhilandeshwari Rakshamam”  .  I don’t get the impression that he welcomed cinema into his lilfe  with  same the wide-eyed wonder,  though.    ” Everyone just took to watching movies ,  because it was there”.   Very  George Mallory-usque.

I took notes as he talked, and made a rough draft of  this article. I then went to Wikipedia  to  check for dates and names, only to find, amazingly,  that his memory served him so right that I should really be checking up with him on Wikipedia!!

Appa  was around ten years old when  he began watching movies. He doesn’t remember the name of the first movie that he watched, but those were  the days of the travelling tent cinema that brought silent movies to the edge of town, until they were nudged out by the arrival of “talkies”. and more permanent cinema houses.

I once watched  that adorable  movie, Mayabazar,  in a tent which had come up , probably at  the spot where Kamakhya theatre stands (rather precariously,  considering it’s rundown state) on the Ring Road in Banashankari III Stage in Bangalore.  There were benches at the back,  for which you paid 50 p per head , or  carpets  nearer the screen for 25 p. It was hot, sweaty, and  there was much smoke from beedis ,  all of which was ignored while  Ghatotkacha’s  antics stole every little heart in the hall.

The tent cinemas of 1930s  had benches and carpets, too.  As the hall filled up, a brassband would  begin playing music. Once everyone settled in, the story teller, who said at the back under the projector, would begin narrating the story, to the accompaniment of  the harmonium and table. Madanakala  starring Master Vittal, was watched in a tent cinema. There were English films as well, like Tarzan. Silent films didn’t have complicated plots, and there were subtitles , which were supplemented by the story-teller’s narration.

I was chuffed to learn from my dad that there used to be ads shown too!  Slides, in b/w of course,  of a hotel in town,  or shops selling clothes and fabric, or some local business peddling their ware. No toothpaste or soap ads, Appa said, as  most of them came from England in those days!

And how were promos for films done in the era of silent movies?  A bullock  cart sporting posters of the film  went around town in the afternoons.   with a man beating a drum ,  tom-tomming the movie as it were, and  giving out hand-bills that revealed tantalising bits of the movie , and  suggesting, “see the rest on the silver screen”.  A far cry from these days of  “official media sponsors”,  promos, premiers,  ads, exciting offers ,  endless appeals from the stars, and  ratings  and  film critics .

Appa remembers his Father was not very happy about patronizing tent cinemas.   It was okay to go to the “real theatres” and Father in fact encouraged the children to  enjoy the movies.  The transition to talkies was quickly made. Appa marvels at how within ten years, the silent movie became history and talkies or “talking pictures ” that incorporated synchronized dialogue became the global phenomenon. Belgaum went from “tents and sheds” to talkies and cinema theaters . The  silent movie had been on its way out by the time Appa began watching films.  Once the silent movie Ben Hur came to town,  reissued with background music. It featured Ramon Navarro. The original had cost $3.9 million, making it the costliest silent move. The 1931 reissue added  sound effects and music by the original composers Willian Axt and David Mendoza.   Navarro was quickly  given an Indian name, and referred to as “Ramannavaru”!

I  have been wondering  how film actors and actresses were idolized in those days.  The lack of film magazines that shared gossip about actors and other denizens of the industry didn’t mean  people were disinterested in them.  Their little whimsies and foibles,  their private lives and romances or lack thereof,  catching a glimpse of the stars or meeting them were  desirable goals to aspire to The captivating Shanta Apte, a beauty who was also a great singer,  is arguably the first  femme fatale  of the Indian silver screen.  Everyone dreamt of seeing her in person,  and  she was obviously the queen of a million youthful fantasies. Appa  cousin in Poona,  arranged with  an electrician he knew, who happened to be doing a job at Ms APte’s house, to go along as his “assistant”, and  catch a glimpse of her.

I remember that in the seventies and eighties,  budding actresses who got their first break had to  take a stand on  two things- kissing scenes (even if  it was pretend kissing) and  wearing bikinis.  Sharmila Tagore’s swimsuit outing made much news  in the sixties, but it appears a certain Ms Meenakshi Shirodkar has , way back in 1938,  stunned and thrilled audiences singing “Yamuna Jali Khelu Khel”  wearing a swimsuit,  and sporting a two-plait  style that instantly became the rage among teenage girls in the film, Brahmachari .

Appa  said the film had dialogues by humorist and playwright P.K Atre, whose satire on  RSS ideology brought in huge audiences. But the swimsuit song sequence  ensured that the movie ran for  25 weeks in Bombay and 50 weeks in Pune. Critics had been critical of this bold sequence, but the audience, it appeared  kept coming back!

It was at this point I checked with Wikipedia, and found it was quite unnecessary.

There is a little anecdote  about Snehaprabha Pradhan, that Appa has told us many times. It is by way of being a family nugget,  and I believe it to be true. My aunt, Appa’s sister  Mangala and Ms Pradhan studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. I am not sure if they were classmates. Of course it was much before  she became famous as an actress.  Plainly, she cared very much about acting  even then.  And plainly she was ahead of her time as far as the college principal was concerned.  Moments after the curtains went up  at the College Day play, in which she was acting,  the Principal’s voice, the story goes,  rang out , in great panic. “Down the curtains! he thundered. The curtain came down, and backstage,  it was revealed–Ms Pradhan’s sleeveless blouse, it appeared was a bit too “forward” and  no Elphinstonian was to be allowed to get away with wearing revealing clothes!! I gather she changed into a more modest blouse, and the play was allowed to begin, and it must have been a most entertaining evening!  My aunt apparently caught up with Ms Pradhan many years later and  it turns out she was remembered.

Thus begins a journey into 100 years of cinema, as remembered by Appa.  More fascinating tales follow. Watch this space.  

Father Time

Mr M.Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar High School, Belgaum, was an awe-inspiring figure. Not too generous with his smiles,  may be a little taciturn, even. An anglophile, he expressed his fondness for the “English life” very sartorially. Always sporting a fine suit, a neat tie,  a nd even a hat and walking stick if he thought the occasion demanded these accesories. Hardly surprising he was known as the best-dressed Headmaster for miles around.

A man of  habit and many foibles which he  considered necessary to  enforcing discipline and order at work and in the home,   he lived by the clock. The clock struck eight , and so breakfast must be had. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the coffee must be at his elbow  just as the  clock chimed the second time.

A  passionate tennis player, he was district champion, and  often volleyed with  colleagues and friends, and royalty even.  He played every morning,   a familiar figure in tennis gear making his way to courts just a little way away from home.  Folks probably set their clocks  by his tread  each morning !

The Headmaster was a man of few words,  not just a man of few smiles, and  speaking for/by the clock was his way of announcing his arrival and reason thereof.  The unflappable Mrs Venkamma Ramabrahma,  with a sense of humor minted in Tirupattur (the ten-village town)  of great antiquity in Vellore, Tamilnadu,  who managed her brood that ranged many age-groups adroitly enough to leave him thinking that it was all his doing,  often took recourse to droll little utterances  that ridiculed his devotion to punctuality.  But it was many, many years , when they retired to life in Bangalore,  before  his wife  thought to rib him by    asking, “who is hungry, you or the clock?”  Mr Ramabrahma ‘s  response, one imagines, was  a   Narasimha Rao-like-  inscrutable silence.

Back in Belgaum,  the Headmaster’s  days  ticked and tocked with great punctuality.  His children  (Vimala and Pramila followed S, who was preceded by Kokila, the first-born, Mangala, and Pandu )   were more deferential to Father, than to Time. Though he took little notice of them,  in his presence, Pandu and S   didn’t engage in Tom Sawyer tactics at the breakfast table.

Not that they were  incorrigible imps, or any kind of imps.  It was just that they were mindful of the  consequences of  incurring the  wrath of    Father who was also Headmaster.  The glint of his gimlet eye threatened  great possibilities, and  the boys  –  Pandu and S, thought  it best to leave  things well alone.

Which was not  hard to do, really.  The truth was  that as long as  they refrained/abstained from escapades that  tainted the fair name of the family, or  seemed to undermine the Headmaster’s authority,  he was happy to leave them to their own devices.

“It was a good life”, S says now. There were movies, train rides,  holidays in Bangalore, Poona and Bombay, and all the fun things that make childhood, well, fun.  They did witness the transition  to electricity, and piped water.  Father was not really as forbidding as he looked, and  there were times of  enlivening conversation, great wit, and cheerful laughter,  and  everything else, woven into the clockwork regularity that reigned in the establishment.  . As we’ll see , by and by.

There is this about him in the  1936 edition of    the Who’s Who:

Ramabrahma, Mahadev, B.A., L.T., (Mad.), Asst. Educational Inspector, Bombay Presidency, Poona comes of a distinguished Brahmin family of Mysore.  Born on 8th December 1884, he was educated at Maharaja’s College, Mysore, and Central College, Bangalore. After having his training at the Teachers’ College, Saidapet, Madras, he started life as a teacher in the Training College, Mysore, from June, 1912 to August, 1915, and entered Bombay Educational Department at Lecturer in Nature Study and School Gardening in Training College for men and women, Dharwar, where he served from September 1915 to October, 1923.  In August, 1921, he went to England for Scout Training in the Gill-well Park, having been deputed by the Bombay Provincial Boy Scouts’ Council, and he was Instructor in charge, Scout Master’s Training Camp at Lonavla from January, 1922 to March, 1923.  On return from the deputation, joined the Dharwar High School as Asst. Master (1923-27).  As Asst. Criminal Tribes Settlement Officer at Poona and Dharwar from November, 1927 to June, 1928 he did good work. He was Asst. District Scout Commissioner in Dharwar during 1926-29.  It was in February, 1929, that he was appointed as the Headmaster of the Sardar High School, Belgaum, and he held this post continuously till the middle of August, 1936.  During these seven years and a half he was the Asst. District Scout Commissioner of Belgaum District and was intimately connected with the Scouting activities of the Belgaum town and the District.  As Head Master and Superintendent of the Sardar High School Hostel, he was generally liked by the students.  He was an enthusiastic worker in the cause of Social and Educational Reform and was connected with all institutions at Belgaum in one way or another.  He was a member of the District Depressed Classes Committee, Belgaum.
     He was transferred to Poona in August 1936, when he was appointed as Asst. Educational Inspector, Bombay Presidency.  He officiated as the Educational Inspector, Central Division, from 16th November, 1936, to February, 1937, when Mr. W.B. Corieur (later corrected illegibly in pen),  D.P.I. of the Bombay Presidency, was away from India on leave.
Address-Asst.Educational Inspector, B.P., Poona.
About the Who’s Who:
An old British tradition, Who’s Who is an annual British publication of biographies of  “notable people”. Until 1897, it provided a list of the names of Members of Parliament, and all the Bishops.  But since then, it has listed  people alphabetically and provided fuller biographical details.Subjects include peers, MPs, judges very senior civil servants, and distinguished writers, actors, lawyers  scientists, researchers, and artists. Some (such as those holding a Professorial Chair at Oxford and Cambridge) are included automatically by virtue of their office; those in less hierarchical occupations are included at the discretion of the editors. As long as they were in India, it included several Indian names too.  According to The  Wall Street Journal,  an entry in Who’s Who “really puts the stamp of eminence on a modern British life”, and the Daily Mail has described it as “Britain’s most famous reference book”. I guess it was a bigger deal  about a 100 years ago, when there was no internet, Facebook or Twitter, or 24/7  news channels, and news ambled along at a leisurely pace,  and not at “break neck” speed!


Suprabhatam Blues



It was Saturday morning. Lakshmi woke up to the sounds of Appa coaxing the reluctant Bush Radio to belt out the Suprabhatham, in the divine voice of M.S Subbulakshmi and say Good Morning to God, courtesy the All India Radio.

Lakshmi, usually sang along lustily, as she got ready for her favorite school day of the week ( except on the second Saturday of the month, a holiday)– library, music, artwork, and oh yes, physical training. Lakshmi didn’t care much for the last, like everyone else in class, but endured the weekly 30-minute ordeal of bending, stretching and running , keeping time with PT instructor Ms Merose’s sharp commands that sounded like the crack of whip, as lethargically as she could get away with, while avoiding catching her eye.

Today was a second Saturday. Hearing the crackle and buzz of the Bush radio as Appa fiddled with it, she wished, fervently, that just this once, the moody radio would not oblige him. The sound of “Kausalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe” was the last thing she wanted wafting around the house this Saturday morning. 

She drew her quilt over her head, hoping to drown out MS, who had now begun singing in earnest , Appa’s efforts, which included a sharp whack on the right side of the radio, to get it  singing having paid off. She’d have to get out of bed soon, and face Amma’s  dreaded “Silent Treatment” , which could last ALL DAY.

God had not heard her prayer, perhaps he was too engrosssed in  the  Suprabhatam, she said, and realized she was talking to herself. Like Alice,  who loved to pretend she was two people, and had scolded herself for cheating in a game of croquet which she was playing against herself. Lakshmi toyed with the idea of boxing her own ears, and told herself not to be silly, as this self-flagellation (not her words, of course) was not going to save her from Amma’s wrath.

She lay there, listening to the sounds of Saturday morning- Amma clanging dishes in the kitchen, and Appa humming along with MS. Soon it would be over, and Amma would notice she was not up, and demanding “light coffee” , and chattering about the Amar Chitra Katha comics that Krishnan Tatha had given her yesterday……..

Krishnan Tatha ! Lakshmi groaned, remembering last evening . Her ears burned as if they had been boxed hard, and she wished she’d never have to hear the Suprabhatam ever again……

Mostly she wished to turn the clock back. About three weeks. 

***** ****

Three weeks earlier.

Lakshmi won the second prize for recitation of the Suprabhatham ( eight stanzas) at the school competition, and became the proud owner of “Sleeping Beauty” inscribed on Page One, somewhere near the spinning-wheel and the Wicked Witch’s wand, with “Winner , Second Prize in Suprabhatham Recitation”.

Amma had been there, to watch as she collected her prize. In the evening, Appa had said “Shabbash!” and slipped a Cadbury’s Five Star bar into her hand, but she could not fathom why he had laughed heartily when he saw the book.

“Sleeping Beauty for reciting the Suprabhatam?” he said, laughing loud and long , but when Amma too started to chuckle,  Lakshmi realised there was a joke she was missing.

Which was annoying, to say the least. Lakshmi considered deploying her famous wail, that sounded , Appa said, like the siren  blaring from the Government Soap Factory in the calm of the afternoon to announce the start of a new shift. However it died at her lips when Appa went on, “ ha ha! Can Suprabhatam rouse Sleeping Beauty?” .

Lakshmi choked on the wail , and turned it into a laugh, only it came out rather  peculiarly, and Amma smacked her lightly on the head, saying, as she went by, , “is that a hiccup , Lakshmi, did you help yourself  to stolen cheedai?” .

She hadn’t, there was no cheedai in the old Amulspray tin, besides, she thought it was a silly story Indu Pati had told her , that kids who dipped their hands in the snack-tin were always caught by their sudden hiccups! Why make cheedai and leave them around for kids to find if they were not meant to be eaten?

The next day, Jana Chitti, Amma’s younger sister came to visit. She was there when Lakshmi returned from school, and she rushed to her , whooping with delight, for she loved her  college-going aunt who wore stilettos, and had a dressing table of her own. Of course, she had already heard about the prize and couldn’t wait to hear Lakshmi recite the Suprabatham.

A fortnight later, Lakshmi had lost count of how many evening visitors had been regaled with her Suprabhatam recitation. Amma was constantly interrupting her play-time, calling out “Dear, here is Shyamala aunty, would you like to ………..?”

Raman Mama, and Appa’s friend Suresh Uncle………Everyone brought chocolates, biscuits, she even got a pink-and-green stone-encrusted ball-point pen (that wouldn’t write) from Vijay Uncle, Appa’s best friend, who said, “its from Hyderabad” . Shankar Chittappa brought her an Amar Chitra Katha comic, Shivaji.

Lakshmi spent a half-hour one Saturday afternoon with Shivaji, finishing off the a whole bar of Cadbury’s 5-Star as Shivaji’s Har Har Mahadevs fended off attacks by the Ya Allahs from the enemy ranks.

She bit off a big chunk when the evil Afzal Khan pretended to embrace the shorter Shivaji and tried to thrust a kataar in his back, in her panic for Shivaji’s safety.  But Shivaji had his armour on under his silk, and Afzal Khan hadn’t noticed that Shivaji had his tiger claws on, and met his own gory end, much to Lakshmi’s relief.

It was a few days before Lakshmi began to notice a reluctance on the part of visitors to subject themselves to a Suprabhatham recitation at sun-down. Raghu Mama, who came to drop off a bottle of Indu Pati’s mango pickle that he’d offered to deliver when he went to Madras the week before, said, “oh! Great! Second Prize? Nice, pretty book eh?”

When Amma said, “Lakshmi why don’t you recite it for Raghu Mama?” he looked uncomfortable, and said quickly, “ hey listen, I have to leave……there’s a bottle for Minalochani Maami too, and thanks for the coffee, Akka………..” the last as his Suvega eased out of the gate.

Lakshmi was a trifle put out, but he had slipped a bar of 5-Star into her hand as he left, saying, “next time, hmm?”

* * * * *

The short, plump Minalochani Maami , a much-loved aunt, had long , thick tresses that reached way down her waist, and it had to be carefully lifted so she wouldn’t end up sitting on a cushion of her own coil of hair. She and Amma had been best friends since school. She came to catch up on gossip with Amma.

“Hallo, dear!’, she boomed at Lakshmi “I hear you won a prize. Suprabhatham recitation, hmm? My Shyamu has flunked his unit test again…Maths, English…” she went on, cheerfully, as if she was reporting that Shyamu had scored the first rank.

“Maami, why didn’t you bring Shyamu?, Lakshmi asked, though secretly relieved he wasn’t there.

She and Shyamu had little to say to each other. He went to a different school, and their occasional encounters left her feeling life as a topper-of-the-class wasn’t all it was made out to be. He regularly flunked tests, and she was sure his English text book, “Songs The Letters Sing” with its story on Bun The Wee Rabbit had not been opened past the first two lessons. She had been careful not to let him know she had read all the lessons, because it was like reading a story book. Bun had disobeyed his Dad. He had wandered into Farmer McGregor’s cabbage patch, and been mercilessly shot. Bun Was Dead and Dad Was Sad. But Shyamu wouldn’t know that. Nor would he care..

Shyamu knew about Lakshmi’s Suprabhatam recitation, though. If he had tagged along with Minalochani Maami, he would have teased her, mimicked her with his gibberish Suprabhatham. “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi…….” she imagined him singing, in a surprisingly musical voice, laughing to herself at the idea of Chalam Thatha, who didn’t hear quite well, nodding appreciatively and rewarding Shyamu with  sticky toffee and a pat on the head.

“Shyamu was playing with his friends around the house, dear, and I wanted some peace, “, Minalochani Maami was saying, “come sit by me and let me hear your recitation……….”

Here we go again, thought Lakshmi, but not wanting to offend dear Minalochani Maami, recited “Kausalya Supraja Rama…….” and fetched the Sleeping  Beauty for her to admire.

Lakshmi soon wearied of the Suprabhatam routine, and the “Apacha gipachi……..” in Shyamu’s voice refused to go away. She was beginning to dread visitors. Her prize winning recitation was old news, and the assorted maamas and maamis were beginning to acquire a glazed look on their faces as Lakshmi submitted to Amma’s command-disguised-as request to recite the Suprabhatham, never mind they usually visited in the evenings. They clapped too quickly, or not quickly enough, and Lakshmi thought she might as well have been singing “Apacha gipachi………”

It didn’t help to know that Shyamu, who would never be summoned to recite anything, not even the gibberish Suprabhatham, didn’t have to try to be good at anything but playing pranks and staying at the bottom of the class. It didn’t help, either, that Shyamu’s pranks had a high degree of sophistication, and when they had been played, left grown-ups impressed ( his father laughed first, and punished him as an after-thought). He became a hero to his friends, and Shyamu’s exploits always reached her embellished with the collected exaggerations as it passed from friend to friend.

When Amma started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to her at bedtime, it was Shyamu playing hookey at school, and Minalochani Maami was Aunty Polly in a sari, who , more out of a sense of duty than faith in the power of punishment, ordered Shyamu (Tom) to paint the wall on a Saturday afternoon. And it was Shyamu who traded a turn at wielding the brush for a dead rat and a piece of string to swing it with, a broken Barlow knife, the core of a half-eaten apple ……..

The picture of Shyamu swinging the dead rat on its string, while Karthik and Shankar argued over who should go first with the painting, would be excruciatingly funny, if her own life showed any signs of progressing from endless Suprabhathan recitations………perhaps there was something to be said for sleeping spells and  wicked witches, after all.

She had grudgingly admitted, to herself, that if Shyamu was Tom Sawyer, there was more to being bad than she’d given credit for. She wondered if Amma had got it all wrong– A bad person is not very brave, she’d said.

But could a brave person be bad? She wasn’t brave enough to ask Amma, and kept these bad thoughts to herself. When she felt exceedingly bad, she sang “Apacha gipachi……” silently, though occasionally she startled herself by singing it aloud. Luckily, a pre-occupied Amma probably thought it was “Kamala Kuchachu” and she didn’t have her ears boxed.

When a whole week went by, and Lakshmi’s return from school was not shadowed by the presence of a visitor who “was waiting to hear the Suprabhatham recitation”, she cautiously stopped praying to be sent to hostel, a threat that Amma often flung at her for many real and imagined misdemeanours. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been read to the last page, and Amma had suggested a break before starting Huckleberry Finn.

Even “Apacha gipachi……….” was gradually giving way to “Woh kya hai…………ek mandir hai…?” in the voices of Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar wafting from Shakeel’s house on the other side of high wall which gave the Dark Bedroom its name. For, unlike their venerable old Bush Radio, Shakeel’s newly acquired Philips transistor played Vividh Bharathi and Radio Ceylon, opening up a whole new world of Hindi film songs that none of them understood. It made for a refreshing change from MS, Lakshmi thought, although it made her feel disloyal. 

And then it was time for Krishnan Tatha’s visit. Amma’s great-uncle Krishnan, who lived in Kodaikkanal, came down every year to visit his daughter, Amma’s cousin Shanta. Lakshmi returned from school yesterday, to find Amma had brought out the veena, which she was playing sitting by the planter’s chair on which Krishnan Tatha reclined, singing rather stentorially,  a Carnatic kirtana quite familiar to her, Thyagaraja’s “Endaro Mahanubhavulu”.

Lakshmi ran into his arms, and was hugged and had her cheeks tweaked, and she was babbling about her second prize, and demanding to know what he had brought her, while Amma tried to shush her . It was a while before she was dismissed, to freshen up and sit down with Tatha for a long conversation, lessons in Carnatic music, and jokes and riddles and guess the raaga games.

And then Amma said, “Lakshmi, won’t you recite the Suprabhatam for Tatha?” Lakshmi suddenly felt like a deflated balloon, and began to mumble incoherently. It was a while before Amma realised she was protesting, and did not want to recite the Suprabatham. Not today, not again. Ever.

Amma was shocked, and angry. She drew her into the kitchen and hissed at her, “what is wrong with you? This is the one thing that would make Tatha happy, and proud”.

Lakshmi just stood there, defiant, silent. Amma said “hmph” and stormed out, but she heard her tell Tatha in a calm voice, “ she wants to rehearse, Tatha,”

And Tatha told her soothingly, “it’s alright , Thulasi, let the child be.”

After a few minutes, she returned to the living room. Tatha looked pleased, and asked her to come sit on his lap. Amma did not say anything. Which meant she was still angry. She decided to get the recitation over with and clearing her throat, just as she had seem MS do at the concert in Gayana Samaja once. she began “Kausalya Supraja Rama”…… Tatha was delighted,  and began listening, with his eyes closed, and fingers tapping on his cheek to keep time, and her mother relented enough to throw a couple of smiling glances at her. Then she began “ Kamala kuchachu…….” and Lakshmi never knew when it had turned into “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..” and she began to giggle uncontrollably……..

Tatha was staring at her, and Amma, was no longer smiling. Laksmi leapt off Tatha’s lap, and ran …….out of the house, down the road , to the vacant lot at the corner where a raucous game of cricket was being played, and stood there a long time,  before slinking back home.

Tatha had left. Shanta Chitti had come to collect him. Appa was home, sitting on the planter’s chair recently vacated by Tatha, and had obviously been told of Lakshmi’s  uncharacteristic, short-lived delinquency.  He tipped her a conspiratorial wink as she entered, and clearing his throat loudly, he said, “ Lakshmi, where have you been? You should have waited to say goodbye to Tatha, it was very rude “.

She looked surreptitiously at her mother, who said nothing, and did not look up from the magazine she was reading. Lakshmi went to stand next to her, and mumbled “sorry, Amma.” Her mother said, “your dinner is on the table, eat it and go to bed”.

It was going to be a long weekend. And Huckleberry Finn wasn’t going to join her for now. She cried herself to sleep.

As MS was winding down on the Suprabatham on the Bush Radio, rather muffled inside Lakshmi’s quilt, she felt someone tugging it off her. It was Amma, and she was smiling, as she said, “ wake up , dear. Your light coffee is getting cold”.

Hurrah! Suddenly, second Saturday was back in style! Lakshmi got up, and joyously chorused the last few lines of Kamala Kuchachu along with MS. “Am I glad I didn’t listen to myself and box my own ears”, she told herself, and froze in her tracks to the bathroom as she heard, “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..,,,,,,,,,,,,” and Appa saying, “I say Thulasi, this has great possibilities. I have never heard Krishnan Tatha laugh so heartily!”


V.N.Subba Rao.

There will never be anyone like him. Only VNSR knew how to make even an intern feel like a star reporter, and swathe the junior most rookie reporter into the big story, and make her feel she made an important contribution.

He was among the four who interviewed me at Indian Express, and was always proud to introduce me to as “the young lady who stood first in the written test”, We had endless conversations on our ride home in the 10 pm van , and one could say ANYTHING to him, and be rewarded with that crack of laughter which was so  VNSR. as he enjoyed the little digs that you were allowed to take at him .
Do you know what “Subba”  means? I asked him once and he said, “Bhus bhus nagara havu”…….his arm swaying menacingly at me, like an angry cobra hissing for revenge, and I said all we need is the Nagin music playing in the background. Alladi, you are a khiladi, he had guffawed. Most of the time I was  “Ms Jayashri Gadkar, ”  my namesake, the actress who played Kausalya in DD’s Ramayan.

I never knew anyone who has mentored so many reporters and felt proud of each of them. It was a few years later, when I had moved to TOI, and to reporting, that I realised  VNSR  had nursed a little disappointment about my choosing to be on the desk, rather than in reporting. I ought to have been his protege’  not just the girl who topped the written test,  had known the full form of Kuvempu at the interview , and   whose  conversation greatly amused him at least most of the time.  But  I was  just a happy sub,  awed by the fact that this awesome man’s  words were in my hands, and I could tell him why don’t you put it , like, so, it looks better, and he’d say “Howda?   (is that so? } and  say, go ahead, change it .

I remember that it was he who introduced me to  Suryaprakash,  long anointed my mentor , by me.  I was getting into the office for the 2.30 p.m shift ( I was just six months into my  job, just a trainee,  in fact.) when VNSR caught up with me in the lobby (Time Office , it was rather pompously called) and with him was Asp,  a man of many legends , narrated, yes, by VNSR , in that way he had of  proudly  talking of his proteges.
I was tongue-tied,  at first, and then VNSR   said,  “Prakash you know, she stood first in the written test…” and  then resumed the conversation with Asp, but of  course, thanks to VNSR, I was in it too. And when I said, apropos of something that I now forget, “yes, I remember when I was young……..” and VNSR emitted another of his sharp guffaws, and saying ” that can’t have been very long ago!”
I’m quite sure Asp doesn’t remember this, but I will never forget it.

Later,  meeting him at press conferences, or  in the lobby of the Legislative Assembly, or at the Press Club,  I marveled at  the way he delighted in the drama of politics and cinema. As Sachi ( K.S.Sachidananda Murthy, Resident Editor, The Week), another protege who has made his mentor immensely proud, says,  he never shed the curiosity and enthusiasm of the cub reporter till the very last.   I marveled too, at how  seamlessly I had graduated to  being “a colleague”  with whom he discussed news and issues  as an equal, and  how easily one could catch the infectious enthusiasm for news when one was around him. News was always worthy of celebration when he was around it.

There was also an unusual absence of cynicism in the way VNSR  practiced journalism.  He belongs in that endangered list of  journalists who maintain the distance and detachment required of a conscientious journalist who  owes  fair, objective reporting and opinionating to the reader.

I cannot think of a single politician or film star who had an axe to grind with VNSR on account of his  writing.   People like Hegde welcomed even criticism , and  surely  did some quick course-correction after reading him.  Film personalities like Vishnuvardhan  enjoyed much camaraderie with VNSR, but probably agonised that his verdict on their film could make it or break it. After all the man had a  felicity with words in English and Kannada, and in the era when there was no such thing, he was a walking Google/ Wikipedia of all things Karnataka.  Because, though he played confidante to many Chief Ministers, and other politicians and film personalities, and he knew many of their secrets, he never betrayed their trust even as he practiced the most impeccable  journalism.

Though he never “groomed” me officially,  to be an Ekalavya of sorts, within his orbit, watching him, talking to him, listening to him, I would count myself among his many proteges for whom he always had the time, and  who practice his kind of journalism.

Goodbye, my mentor, friend, your unwavering faith in me and those like me , and the unconditional affection you showered on all of us,are inimitable, and hence unforgettable.