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.

Bangalore Blue


My nod to nostalgia and Bangalore that once was. In this treasury of  memories , I’m in the company of   some awesome Bangaloreans. Thanks to  my friend, and fellow quiz team meet Stanley Carvalho, I’m now in a book.  Here is the piece I wrote in it.

The Lost Four O’clock Flower
An April afternoon in 2013. A solitary bush of Mirabilis Jalapa awaits the stroke of  four on a vacant lot where a desultory cow lies in the shade of  a Tata Indica.  The majenta buds of the Four o”clock plant , aka Mirabilis Jalapa will soon burst open and meet the afternoon rays of the Bangalore sun as nature has intended  them to.
Mirablis Jalapa. The Four o’ clock flower . Once, they  bloomed in profusion,  bold majenta, brazen yellow, sanctimonious white. Two big brothers playing cricket with friends in a corner of the compound of Mahadev Vilas,  Ratna Vilasa Road. A baby sister posing prettily , dressed in a  knitted jersey, (purple with a row of lavender men dancing at the yoke) and matching cap that had a pom-pom.  As the  60s were hurtling towards the 70s, the  Mirablis Jalapa bush  stood steady, understated. And ubiquitous. A constant backdrop to life’s little milestones.
I  think the sight of the lonesome  Mirabilis  in the summer of 2013 is a sign. The mirabilis jalapa will bloom again, and its translucent pepper seed that nestles preciously at the tip , will bring  back the Bangalore that has been lost..
Six months ago, I obsessed over  this little plant that occupies a little corner  of  my memory’s attic. I looked in all the likely places it could be. But it had vanished,  perhaps even before the last sparrow had  fled the city that no longer wanted it, and didn’t  even noticed it was gone. Like childhood.
When did the mirabilis jalapa leave? And take with it the  lavender buds of the arka,  (calotropis gigantia) whose, plump leaves and poisonous latex dominated  our route to school?  This is where nostalgia meets amnesia,  I think, and suddenly, I know that the sighting of the mirabilis bush is but a nod to the past. To the Bangalore that once was.
Boys played cricket,  and planned khedda operations intended for the imperious granny who  terrorized them. Little girls gamboled about  while their moms sat on a bench by the champak tree, and knitted little jumpers and caps. The little gate that connected Mahadev Vilas and Seeta Bhavan  bore the brunt of heavy traffic as  young boys tramped in an out playing rough games . And the  mirabilis bush  bloomed punctually in its corner watching  Bangalore grow into the seventies, and  forgetting all about the four o’clock flower. It moved over, unprotestingly . The gardens shrank, houses expanded, and   there were no vacant lots for the mirabilis to move into.
The mind wanders into the seventies. Smaller homes on narrow lanes. The denizens of Seventh Cross near Madhavan Park are no longer  thinking of the four o’clock flower and its endearing ways. The cricket pitch-sized compound of Mahadev Vilas has become a memory. A hibiscus bush,  the suji mallige creeper compete for attention with the pink and cream roses, whose thorns are a nasty piece of work.
A rain-kissed morning. As the sun winked over the shoulders of speeding clouds,  school was inescapable, and life, therefore,  intolerable.. Sailing down Seventh Cross came the “five-star” tarkari man on his bicycle, his lusty hawking of“carrot! beans! alugadde, cabbage , seemay badnekai…………..! announcing the arrival of the only vegetable-shop-on-wheels  who ever came to the street.
Mother always acknowledged this “costly”  vegetable vendor’s arrival with mixed feelings. He charged way too much, and wasn’t past playing tricks with the weighing too. But who wanted to trudge to the Jayanagar Complex, only to argue with  a dozen of his kind  who terrorize ?  Just as well  be fleeced in the comfort of one’s home.
By this time,  a few  Seventh Cross maamis ,  thoughts very similar to mother’s jostling in their minds  (  mobile eyebrows that looked like a pair of tiny  cobras   dancing in the vermilion sunset,   can be revealing ) would emerge from their front doors, demanding to be told what outrageous price the fellow was naming for the luscious tomatoes and brinjals.
The tarkari man, apparently preoccupied with    arranging the already perfect pyramids of  vegetables in his  much-used cane basket,  would then begin his little performance, calling out,  ” Come and get it!  Veggies that  Rajkumar- Bharati eat!    Worth every paisa,”  momentarily diverting the women from such mundane matters as vegetable prices.
This was the guy Rajkumar-Bharati  bought veggies from ! That was the secret of their success?!
No sooner than the little performance ended, sans ting-tong that comes at end of  Binaca toothpaste ad on Vividhbharathi, the  eyebrows arched in  surprise and amusement would curl back  into  disapproving frowns, and someone would imperiously tell the guy to get on with business.
Little boys and girls who imagined this to be the best time to wangle a day at home  from impervious  moms,  by tugging at their pallus, ( thus proving  multi-tasking is an embedded feature in moms), a maama whose wife  was away at her parents’ to come back with a little bundle of  joy anytime soon,  the retired grandfather out for his morning walk,  often figured in this picture of  old Bangalore idyll.
Realising soon enough that he was not getting too far in trying to win friends and influence people,  when one of the maamis   acidly queried,”why bother to come here?  Rajkumar-Bharati didn’t buy your veggies today? Are these leftovers? “,  he would pretend that the ladies were driving a hard bargain, and bring the transaction to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
Rajkumar-Bharati  sold vegetables to Seventh Cross maamis for several months, when suddenly,  Bharathi married Vishnuvardhan, who must  have disapproved of his new’s wife’s moonlighting  job. Anyway, the cycling vegetable-man came calling less often before disappearing altogether . Other non-cycling vendors gave the maamis multiple choices and competitive prices, and  the careers of Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan the rising star were  tracked through more dependable, and literate sources.
Nanda , Shanti, Uma. . Cinema theatres where we watched Bhakta Kumbara, and wept copious tears over the travails of  the potter of Pandarapur, whom the gods decide to test. The comical antics of  Vishnuvardhan and Dwarakeesh in Kalla Kulla,  a yarn about brothers separated at birth who sing ecstatically about reuniting with their mom……..
In the new millennium, Nanda and Shanti have been bulldozed off  Bangalore’s map. The dependable and familiar have fallen to the tyranny of change.  We used to cross the road from Usha Periamma’s to catch the night-show at Shanti, but now there is a median,  between the new building where Shanti once stood, and shell of the house where Usha Periamma lived. There are traffic jams, schools and colleges, and giant monuments to Bangalore’s new identity as IT city.  It can even turn into a tinder box that can spark a violent riot.
A bar-  restaurant owner decided to name his brand new venture on South End Road “Kargil”.  Someone didn’t like the idea, and flung the first  stone and there was a merry riot, and one’s man’s dream lay vandalised in a matter   of a few hours.
Nanda, Shanti and Uma.  Three cinema houses that  we passed while traveling with no purpose on the BTS bus route no 14. And yes.. The very  one which once boasted  Mr Rajnikanth as conductor.  Father’s little  joke that helped remember them, is quite irrelevant now. But it’s a memory that brings a smile. We had no one to visit in Malleswaram, but the longest bus ride in the city,  at the time, I might add, from terminus to terminus  was filled with  endless possibilities of unbridled entertainment . To get back to Father’s little joke, as the conductor (Was it Rajnikanth, in his Shivaji Rao Gaekwad avatar?) called out “tickets?! Tickets?! A  woman got hers saying “Nanda”. Another said “Shanti” and got a ticket, and the third lady said “Uma”.  When he came to the fourth lady, she  held out the money, saying “Alamelu”.
Humor doesn’t do bus any more. Bus is where an argument between two commuter morphs into a fight. And a rude word suddenly reminds the conductor-driver duo that they can simply pull over, and launch a snap strike. It is the vehicle of choice for those who believe settling them on fire can bring the Government to its knees, or that is the way to mourn  a Rajkumar or Vishnuvardhan.
PS: I wonder if  Shivaji Rao Gaekwad every learnt where Alamelu wanted to get off.
The four o’clock flower’s  persistence in 2013 , I now think, is Bangalore’s last flailing attempt to hold its ground as Bengaluru goes from Bangalore to Babel-ore. Reality grabs me by the ankles when the  Punjabi aunty next door wants to educate your (South Indian) mom on the  secret of making the softest idlis, and that traffic lights turn green in Hindi. Or BMTC buses have hoardings that say- Sabse sastha aur sabse zyaada kahin nahin.
Back then in nostalgia, Dr G.Roy ,   GROY  in our innocence (and in  scant regard for the fullstop) and P.Chatterjee , exotic and enviable as they were,  could only  leap out at us from our history books, or newspapers, not try to grab eyeballs as name-plates on the houses we passed on the way to school. Nostalgia is  when  the phone directory in two volumes- and countless Sens to be scrolled down before finding Sundar S.N.
Ajjis  that made the most divine kodubales can actually be counted in miniscule numbers, on the Endangered Species List.  And you are unlikely to  meet a sparrow in Bangalore for love or money. The aroma of  moolangi  simmering in  the sambhaar doesn’t  waft  from N.R.Colony to Madhavan Park any more .Heck, even the autorickshaw takes more  30 minutes to do the trip . Languid, all-the-time-in-the-world -to -things that-need-doing Bangalore is languid in slow-motion mode, for post-millennial reasons only. Bangalore is now spot-jogging to keep up with itself.
On Facebook, the drama of reunions and regression to past life unfolds at a frenetic pace. There is an urgency to share minutiae – black &white photographs , sepia tinted prints of  old homes that stood lofty and sprawling four decades ago. The vanished gardens and the green monkey-tops that dominated  Bangalore’s landscape, the landmarks that have passed into history as modern monstrosties take their place, try to come alive. I see that the four o’clock flower doesn’t figure in any of them.  The mirabilis I see, now, is  a backdrop to my own memories. My own suddenly remembered memories , dusted  and de-linted by the mere sight of the lonesome bush in the summer of 2013.
Dear little four o’clock flower,  I am so glad to have caught up with you at last.  I see you now,  in the b&w pictures of two big brothers holding their baby sister by her hands. You are in bloom, and I know that it is past four o’clock,  and soon , we won’t be able to hear ourselves think, as the birds come home to roost,  chirping incessantly as they exchange notes on their day.  I know that when I look out of my window tomorrow as the sun hastens westwards, I will neither hear the chirping, nor see your drooping buds spring open in  joy. Yet there you are now, in that  vacant plot, in the company of  a cow flicking its tail at the flies . You do not worry that any time soon, the bulldozer will dredge up the ground on which you stand, and there will be no one to glimpse you and  hurtle into the past where you once bloomed in profusion.

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.  



Balto, The Boss
Balto, The Boss

Balto  moved on to dog-heaven yesterday, the 31st of January.  The closest I ever  got to having a dog of my own, is when  Rajendra and Shalini got Balto for Bhargav, seven years ago. , A Labrador, he was barely a few days old when he came  with the family to spend a Sunday with us at  A-5,  a tiny pup who looked every bit like God intended  puppies to be- just that blend of cuteness and sadness to make the hardest heart melt, and   cause everyone  to make themselves ridiculously silly over him.  In one visit, he acquired grandparents, an aunt and an uncle,  who  sometimes may have forgotten to ask about Bhagu, but never missed  asking after his canine sibling.  For people who never owned dogs, they  took to Balto  with surprising ease, as if  they’d been around dogs all their lives.

He soon grew, as dogs do,  into this silent, watchful hulk that no could ignore, largely because he would not let them.  He took turns to lay his  heavy head on every knee in the living room, to be patted and stroked and have a few words of endearment mumbled to him. He  stared  unblinking at  the goodie in your hand , willing it to fall  so he could wolf it down, and made sheep’s eyes at anything placed on the coffee table  for the visitors until they shared it with him.  He was a dog that loved to eat.  And he had a sweet tooth too.

It felt good to feel the sharp thwack!  as his tail swished gently, for him, when he slid past you as you sat on the sofa. If this was the effect of  a negligent, casual  flick of the tail, I wonder how hard I would be hit if he seriously decided to whip my legs!  He  ran circles around himself to indicate his joy at sighting you, though it is mystifying exactly why he  felt joy about visitors. It must be that thing that dogs have-  that never lets them forget a person or how she/he smells.

Every now and then,  Balto expected the conversation to veer around to him, or at lease include him. He  added his own understated wuff !   or a grr!    depending on whether his parents were updating visiting relatives about his latest exploits, or  talking  about something quite irrelevant.

He was the leader of   the street which had enough dogs for it to be the norm to identify  the  homes by the dogs that lived in them rather than the masters.  If   people needed to know  which was Shalini/ Rajendra/ Bhagu’s house, they needed to ask, Balto maney yaavudu?  (Which is Balto’s house) When he went out for his walk, morning and evening,  other dogs  deferred to him.

When the time came to leave,  he always knew. When you said your goodbyes and went to the door, there was Balto, standing huge and quite immovable, and not an inch would he  yield to let you pass through. It is extremely puzzling that  Balto, who constantly interrupted Rajendra when he was engaged in deep conservation, and sought attention to himself,  and  indicated very clearly that he was not at all pleased with being ignored in this manner,  should  be an ass over the departing visitor.

And if you felt honored that Balto  counted you as family, you only needed to go down to the gate to realise you were being mildly delusional, for while seeming to  care deeply about your leaving, he was cleverly ascertaining that Rajendra was not about to  get in the car and  leave, too.  “Hey Balto, look Appa’s calling you” would have him bounding down the steps to the gate, where he would  inspect the car, and make sure Rajendra was not being kidnapped (as if we didn’t know) and once  he was sure that wasn’t the case, he  pretended that his real  purpose was to cross the street to the other side, and do his Number One job on the  wall of , before returning  nonchalantly to stand by Rajendra.

He had not been well of late, and for months we were only hearing of  his  fever, his lethargy, and  lack of interest in  anything. He was not in the mood for socializing with his doggy pals, and they had learnt to leave him well alone.  The day before he died, he  stopped to exchanged a few wuffs with Prince, a dog who belongs to no one, but is a  dogizen of the street,  the first since months.  He must have known his time had come.

I thought all day about Balto feeling sad that he would no longer be there to regale us with his comical ways. When I called, Shalini cried, and Rajendra was inconsolable. It’s not right that Balto, was taken  way before his time.  It’s not fair that  from today,  we will no more hear of  Balto’s walks and jogs, and his adventures on his outings, and  to suddenly realise  Balto was needed more than  we thought he needed his family.

Balto will never be forgotten.  And he will always be missed.

Gita Paapa


I dreamt about Gita Paapa the other night.  Nightmared about her, actually. There had been an attack and a ransack, and when I found her, she lay there behind the glass pane of the showcase, her little blond head fallen off, her eyes  which are a  cat-like green, shut firmly, and her pink-orange torso with her left arm torn asunder.

The Viking, and Ms Ting Tong, who loves to bob up and down to a music of her own,  the Pink Elephant made of soap who’s  lavender scent  had long faded away, the  little marble Taj Mahal, all lay in ruins about the dismembered Gita Paapa.

I woke up in a cold sweat, and realized with a “whew!” that I had been dreaming, and it was all I could  do to  go back to sleep and wait until a couple of hours later to rummage  about in the  Samsonite strolley to recover Gita Paapa and find her lying there  in one piece ,  still wearing her printed frock,  white shoes, and the blue&white skipping rope around her shoulder.

She opened her green eyes wide  the moment I  stood her on her feet, and  looked at me, saying nothing.  I stole a  sideways glance at her, checking for an accusing look  in her eyes. Not that I wasn’t already on a guilt trip as I  ran over the recent past and couldn’t remember when I last talked to her, or spent an afternoon.

The smile never left  the old dear’s face, and but for a streak of  green felt pen (thanks to little Chichu’s ministrations) on her left cheek, that I mean to take care of  with a touch of  nail polish, she remains as non-judgmental, uncritical and ready to shower me with unconditional love  as ever.

I decided she could use a bath, and she acquiesced silently,  plainly relieved to be released from  her prison where she  had lain, forgotten.That’s not fair . Nobody forgot her. Haven’t I always remembered to bring her along wherever I moved?  Chennai, Delhi, and now here, in the US of A?  And she has been nestling cozily in silken luxury among the best collection of Kanjeevarams that could possibly be found this side of the Atlantic?

I scrubbed her down, having decided to skip shampooing her hair as it might be too soon after her  regaining her freedom, I remembered the first time she’d been given a bath. And the storm in the teacup that it  had stirred up.
I was a toddler when  Gita Paapa arrived ,  a present from Cousin Bharathi who lives in Sweden.  She  was dressed in a white frock with blue and green floral prints, a pair of bloomers in the same fabric, a  bonnet, also of the same fabric. And the white shoes.

For the first couple of years, Gita Paapa ( no one remembers how she got the name, but everyone agrees  it was I who named her)   lived  on the top shelf of the showcase, and rarely came out to play.  She was the “other baby” in the house,  not to be handled roughly.

On one of those rare occasions that she left her high perch ( like Rapunzel, only with very short hair) ,  I discovered that she was a shut-eye, and her eyelids closed very delicately when she lay down. I was also fascinated by her green eyes.  Cousin Anu, who is two years older than me was visiting, and so was Gita Paapa. Anu suggested a bath for her, and off we went to the garden where plenty of water and a stone tank  was tempting enough for us to jump in  for a paddle too.

Our plans were nipped in the bud, by Father, who came to check on us, and , quickly rescued Gita Paapa, her clothes and the little skipping rope and blue beach bucket that had come from Sweden when Cousin Bharathi visited again. She went back to her tower.

I now see this deprivation has not scarred me at all,  though I sometimes wonder  why I entirely missed an opportunity to be jealous of Gita Paapa.  I mean , it’s natural for a kid to resent the presence of another in the house that claims even a tiny bit the attention that  she’s  entitled to. Especially if the said another  is plainly being protected from said kid’s  well-meant intentions of bathing her and feeding her.  Heck ,   Mother even  sewed a whole new outfit for her, with fabric left over from a new dress she made for me, after nothing could be done to save her blue-green floral print dress, cap and bloomer, many many years later.

When I way past the age of playing with Gita Paapa, although it never struck me then, I just liked the idea of her being there, belonging to me, and the story of her bathing adventure being narrated ad nauseum by the parents, who, to be fair, have  had the grace to look sheepish about this over-protectiveness. Gita Paapa, it so happens, could be bathed, her  hair washed and shampooed any number of times, and she’d  be as squeaky clean, pink-orange as she’s always been.

I recently discovered I can be quite  as silly over her as the parents were. Little Chichu who became the darling of second floor and delighted everyone by toddling ,  walking,  and went from talking gibberish to   speaking complete Tamil sentences in a week , or so it seems, took quite a shine to Gita Paapa. Chichu and I fell into the habit of  playing with her every day. He’d come, and squeak delightedly, pointing at her, and Gita Paapa would be fetched down from her perch on the dressing table, and so would the jar of Johnson’s baby lotion, which we proceeded to rub on her face, and then he would stand before the mirror, hugging her, and admire his handiwork. On one of these little sessions,  she acquired the green sketch-pen marks on her left cheek.

She was, luckily spared the fate of  his toys, Pooh, Teddy, Kangaroo and Singham, who for a while could be found on the ground , as Chichu had started a phase of flinging  them down over the parapet, and someone coming to second floor was always bring a stuffed toy along with them to be returned safely to Chichu’s mother.

When Chichu’s idol, KP returned from his summer in Qatar,  Chichu became quite hyper, and it all happened in A-5. Part of the raucous welcome involved flinging Gita Paapa in the air, and  I grew quite alarmed when I saw her flying across the living roon, into the potato bin in the kitchen. Before I could stop myself, I was screaming too.

“Don’t you two throw her like that.  She’s got feelings  too!” I  shouted, and the two stared at me, quite stunned to see  the normally mild,  J Aunty acting so weird . They  quietly slunk out, and  I retrieved Gita Paapa from the potato bin, and  smoothed down her dress, and made sure she was alright, and  returned her to the dressing table.

I  think Chichu lost interest in her on that day, and  I’m glad. Notice the patch of nail polish on her left cheek, and notice the rest of her, and tell me  I’m  being an ass over her.

Oh! I have to share this:  Gita Paapa’s  is a real  person, quite the girl who can fix her gimlet eye on you and  make you feel smaller than her. She stood on the bathroom counter for about three days, wrapped in a paper towel after her bath, when,  the H  asked, “how long is she going to be there?”

I bristled, quite offended on her behalf, and countered, “why?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all…..it’s just that she stands there, looking at me, and I’m not used to  being watched while I shower.” he said.


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!


A Postscript To The Story

Lakshmi’s Suprabhatam blues has drawn interesting responses from the near and dear.  It turns out  Appa (mine) was not too gung-ho about it at first . Too Long. Too much about that boy.  And I think you are repeating yourselves a couple of times. Who’s Shyamu?  Is he for real?  And Meenalochani Maami?

Big Brother Subri,  said it was good. And he didn’t have any questions about  who’s who and what’s what. Probably that’s the reason he didn’t become the journalist in the family.  He  agreed with me that “the boy” had to be there, since he contributed the gibberish Suprabhatam although he doesn’t know he has done so .  He said he didn’t find it too long.

Appa reasoned, “she must have edited it after I pointed it out”.  Which I hadn’t.

I was both amused and felt slightly slighted at Appa’s critique , but I concede it could use some editing and re-writing.

Subri thought Tom Sawyer swung a cat and not a rat. They talked about it,  and Appa said, she must have  changed that for her story. Subri asked  him why I’d do that. To protect the identity of the cat?  Appa had no answer . I confess I laughed a tad too loudly when Subri told me. It made me feel better about Appa’s  honest opinion.

In any case,  we checked, and  I am elated to report,  it was  a rat.

I spoke to Appa, and he said may be he ought to go back and read the story again, to better appreciate the contribution of Shyamu to its climax. When I read it the first time,   the  computer screen wasn’t scrolling properly, and that’s probably why I  felt it was long and repetitive , he said.

That’s right.  Blaming it on a glitch  makes for a happy ending.

Finally,  my disclaimer is  right there,  staring you in the face, even before the story begins if  it’s too long, or boring,  just remember, it had to be there.

My first story. And my first  lesson Criticism begins at home.


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.

Kapooscan Mari

What on earth is Kapooscan Mari?

A train of camels  arrived at a little village in the boondocks of  Dharwad four score years ago.  The villagers had never seen anything like it.  So if you were to ask them , “have you seen a dancing camel?”   they would reply,  “what’s a camel?”

The camels were probably being taken by their owners from Rajasthan on a journey that would end at  Bakrid,  on not exactly a joyful note for them. Or  you could pay for a ride on the hump of the what is arguably the ugliest animal.  Not that the villagers knew any of  that.  Curiosity getting the better of the younger denizens of the village, a group of them marched  up to the caravan and asked the camel owners,  “What kind of animal is that?

They spoke in Kannada, which the camel -owners did not know, and they replied, “Kya poochte ho?”  What do you ask?

After a few more futile attempts to translate or convey their meaning through a combination of dumb charades, and not-so-dumb charades,  and repeating  “kya poochte ho?”   ad nauseum,  it  began to sound like  “kapoosca”.

The village lads  concluded that this was a caravan of kapooscas and their young ones- kapooscan mari.  The word passed down the group and  soon everyone was marveling at the  kapooscan maris with their  humps,

The young one of a Kapoosca.

The Kapooscan Mari is a tale of  “Lost In Translation”  froim the life and times of S,  and  was  brought back to  school by  some of the boys who had abandoned the Sardar High School hostel for the summer holidays.  S  (Appa) only shared it with his family a few months back, in the days following  Amma’s death, and it has come be used  frequently- to break the monotony of a long silence even though two or more members of the family have been lounging around for over an hour without exchanging a word;  as and I-don’t-know when   a question is asked , and you don’t know the answer.  Or simply for the joy of calling a camel Kapooscan Mari .

And when you say, “but kapooscan mari, …….” .you are redefining the terms of endearment with the spouse or the niece .

I wonder if the village in the boondocks has  confronted the reality of  kapooscan mari . They’ve probably googal-ed it by now.   And learnt that the sandscape of Rajasthan is awash with camels, there are camel  fairs at Pushkar. At Bikaner camels dance, , run in races, and the Border Security Force has a camel band that performs at the Republic Day parade,. There are more camels in Rajasthan than in Saudi Arabia .  And apart from being ugly, they are considered  brainless and gullible  and pay for their stupidity with their lives in the Panchatantra.

However,  if you can get used to saying Holy Camel!  they are nearly as sacred as cows in  some Rajasthan communities. A devi with a camel-head is the family deity for some clans, and some goddesses even come riding camels to shower their blessings on deserving devotees.

At the Hanuman temple in Bangalore, where one ties a coconut, and  does 41X4 pradakshinas over 16 days to get your wish fulfilled, a little camel in black stone crouches humbly in front of the monkey-god.  The pujari tells me the camel is Hanuman’s mount.

Why does Hanuman need a mount?  And why  camel?  Questions that clearly call for throwing up your hands and exclaiming, “Kapooscan Mari!”

Diverting as these  droll references to the dromedary and  its place in  nature’s scheme of things  are,   camels do have a purpose . This completely domesticated  beast  can travel long distances ,  and  can access  resources in ways that no other animal can.  They never have to worry about dehydration  between watering holes, and can go an entire season without  needing to drink water.  Water is their fuel, and they  given great mileage !  As for food, they are the most “kindly adjusting” creatures. Vegetation, meat, bones, salt, sweet, bland, anything goes  with the kapooscan mari.   Docile and sweet under a caring hand,they can be stubborn and angry if ill treated.

This is the point, perhaps, that Hanuman seeks to make, in picking the camel for his mount. Next time a camel ambles into town,  I mean to welcome the kapooscan mari with all the  devotion that the invisible Hanuman astride it deserves!!

Meanwhile, if anyone of you ever end up in a village where the camel is referred to as kapooscan mari, do let me know . And, , feel free to add kapooscan mari to your own lexicon, with due acknowledgement of copyright !