Monday, October 20, 2008

The Smile of Murugan

Is it cold there, S Maami asks?

The winters must have set in there
, Iyengaar Maami adds knowingly.

I heard that there was a frost warning two weeks back, Alacrity Maami announced.

Amma has returned and the T Nagar Maamis seem to be under the belief that Amma is some kind of a weather satellite that they had sent out to monitor the global climate. The burning question in their minds is, did the investment on the thermal-wear from Naidu Hall pay off?

Amma looked overwhelmed and tired as a result of all the attention. Six months have aged her considerably. She is surprisingly quiet. She chooses her words carefully and all her movements seem to be deliberate and in slow-motion. The suitcase is yet to be unpacked and the boxes of Ziploc bags and assorted stuff manufactured in Asia and retailed in discount stores in America are yet to make an appearance. So, I remain unsure how successful the trip has been for Amma. Yet, I would like to hazard a guess, and say that, the American Dream doesn't seem to have worked for her.

Six months is a long time. Appa, who had been at the receiving end of my domestic experiments will vouch for that. But, it must have been longer for Amma. Six months of vacuuming a large and empty house must be tiring. Six months of doing cleaning and assorted household work must be boring. If the only outlet to unwind is a visit to the local library, six months must indeed be a long time. Six months of religiously playing the sport of fattening your children must be tiresome. Six months of waiting for weekends to meet them, must be pathos inducing. And most importantly, six months away from T Nagar must be heart-breaking.

How is M Manni, G Periamma asks Amma, in a gleeful tone. Everyone looks at Amma with some interest. Now, that should get her talking. There must be a dozen reasons at least, why M Manni is not good enough for the precious T Anna. Amma surprised G Periamma and me when she said, M Manni is an affectionate girl. Amma stresses on affectionate, the way she does when English words slip into whatever she says.

Did you know M Manni wears contact lenses
, Amma asked me suddenly? Deceit, I think, I wonder how Amma would have reacted when she saw M Manni with glasses for the first time. I would have liked to have been there. But it seems, that is not enough reason to launch an attack against the daughter-in-law and Amma said, nowadays you get disposable lenses, they are very comfortable, you know. She adds further, it stablises the power. She is trying to convince T Anna to get one too. Amma sounds satisfied, like her son is now in good hands. I am just a little shocked. I am also happy and a little jealous. I don't get that kind of approval after twenty-five years.

Where all did you go, S Maami asks. Did you go to the Coca Cola factory in Atlanta, 106 Maami asks? What about Lake Tahoe, another Maami almost breathlessly asks, lest some other Maami beat her to it. What about the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, G Periamma asks, as she tries to remember some photographs that her brother had shown her some years ago. I hope you went to Boston and saw Harvard, Alacrity Maami said in an almost indignant tone. What about Las Vegas, S Maami suggested playfully.

I rolled my eyes as the Maami's questions traveled effortlessly across coasts and with scanty regard for distances and T Anna's financial ability to fund this wanderlust. All of this, just so that, they could show off their own knowledge. I decide that I couldn't take this anymore and got ready to leave the room. It was Amma's response that made me pause, as she said, we didn't go out very much. T Anna is having some tension at work.

N Chitappa who was watching the TV on mute (he believes that TV is merely a visual medium. Though the theory floating around in the family is, he is partially deaf and cannot listen in to the conversation among the women-folk, usually gossiping in the next room if the TV is also on.). Anyway, he perked up at Amma's statement and asked her, Recession aa, clucking his tongue like he was biting into a juicy and sweet jangri from Suriya Sweets.

Apdi ellam onnum illai, Amma said,just a tad too quickly. Some general tension only, she offered in manner of explanation of her earlier statement.

At least, he didn't shoot you and M Manni, G Periamma added, rather unkindly, as the colour drained out of Amma's face. The Maamis got into a discussion on how shocking it was that a Tamil Brahmin boy that too from IIT would be involved in something as macabre. Personally, I am glad. Not glad that people got killed or that people are moved to such desperation. But, at least, T Anna and his friends will not get into a match-the dormitory/hostel-game, Over the years, I have noticed, every occasion when some IIT alumni has achieved any success, there is an almost pathological need to match dormitories or hostels that they might have shared, even if it was twenty-five years apart. Notorious alumni, don't make you do that. Yes, I am somewhat pleased.

Too much pressure in IIT these days, 106 Maami says, as she thinks about her own son from the hallowed walls.

Yes yes, N Chitappa offers. You can't be that smart and not be a little insane, hanh. All boys and girls who go to IIT must be at least 10% insane.

I can't suppress the giggle and wonder about several things, like – how did N Chitappa arrive at this figure, what is the upper limit of this insanity percentage and what level does he peg T Anna and S at. N Chitappa suddenly notices me and asks me to come and talk to him. I know it is not going to be very pleasant, but with little choice, I go and sit next to him. So, what does the Indian media think about this global financial crisis, hanh, he wants me to tell him.

Ummm, I say. I hate it when my views are supposed to represent a group of individuals, more so when they don't know that they are being represented. And especially my views on a subject that I have very limited knowledge about.

All the Maamis now turn their attention to me and for the first time in the day seem to notice my presence in the room. I strain to think back about all the news reports that I might have read or the snatches of conversation thread that I might have heard but not really listened. But, I draw a blank and all I can recall is how M and I discussed about the Mangayar Malar's hundred Deepavali sweets. Hundred sweets made up with the ration shop sugar, Aaavin cooking butter and cheap cashews bought from Burma Bazaar in Trichy don't suggest a recession, do they?

It is terrible, I say finally. Rather stupidly. The Maamis look a little disappointed and mostly satisfied that they need not re-evalaute their opinion about me. Oblivious to my misery and not wanting to lose his captive audience, N Chitappa continues, it is worse than terrible, do you know Iceland has become bankrupt. The knowledge of an an entire country going bankrupt makes them feel horrified and strangely excited at the same time. So, what is this recession about, S Maami asked?

And so, N Chitappa launched into his idiot's guide to the sub-prime crisis. I am not sure if N Chitappa had ever had such large bunch of captive women audience. Madras Thatha, had come into the room by then and we couldn't help but exchange a smile as N Chitappa spoke about Ninja borrowers, Federal Reserve, Washington Mutual, confidence crisis, bankrupt investment banks, government bail-out and the works. The Maamis are agog with curiosity and questions tumble out. Some are logical. Aren't the banks legally bound to pay the investment banks even if their customers defaulted, Alacrity Maami demands to know. Some are merely trying to get their voice heard and will ask any kind of question. Who is a Ninja Warrior, S Maami wishes to know. The Japanese Kamal in Dasavatharam of course, 106 Maami says. After a minor digression that involved discussing each of the avataarams, it was concluded that Japanese Ninja Avataaram was clearly the worst. G Periamma had only one thing to ask, so why did Karthik kill himself and his family? That too a Fulbright scholar son, Amma said in an offended tone. All the Maamis agreed that it would be quite alright if stupid children were killed. Not liking the way the conversation was going, I decided to leave the room.

In my room, I Googled for stuff and found this, it was less dramatic and more informative than whatever N Chitappa was getting at. And most importantly it didn't establish a relationship between loan defaulters and inevitable death.

I wonder, why would any of this impact T Anna. He was not an investment banker or any other kind of banker. The only explanation I can think of is that, he is probably one of those debtors who didn't pay back the money and was in some way responsible for this crisis. He had bought a house recently, hadn't he?

Amma comes to my room and her blank expression is now replaced with the I-don't-like-what-I-see expression as she looks at my hair. I think, for six months you must not have applied any oil, she pronounces disgustedly. I want to protest and tell her that, I have been religiously following the oil and Meera herbal powder routine with poor results to show for. But, I hold back. After all, she has just traveled time-zones, have a dream shattered and a global worry in the back of her mind that refuses to go away.

We should go to the Vadaplani Kovil tomorrow. It is only Asthami but that is okay, she says peeping into the day ahead on the Rani Muthu calendar. Yes, I agree meekly. Also go and get that bottle of oil, let me see what you have done without me, she says in her assured tone. I can see that it is already working. And probably a god seated on a blue peacock, 10 ml of oil and few days of the T Nagar air is all that she needs to convince herself about her infallibility.

After which, she will forget about a global crisis and tell us the real story behind the horrific discovery of her daughter-in-law's glasses and the likely impact of this on the eye-sight of the grandchild who might someday be named after her.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What happened to Llyods Finance?

Appa was doing his annual spring cleaning routine, which involves going through his termites infested cupboard and pull out papers and old correspondence. The sorting process is elaborate and too many of these papers cannot be got rid of - just yet. May be next year, he would tell much to Amma's chagrin. Amma is due to return in another two weeks time and Appa decided to do the sorting out before she returned.

Several worn out pieces of paper jostle for space in the cupboard. These include some old Term Deposits, bank deposit slips, old telephone bills, house related bills, letters that were exchanged with some NBFI's that went bust in the late 90s, etc.

Why do you need these, I asked him? Shall I throw them away, I volunteered.

Appa very quickly pulled the papers from me and looked mortified at the thought of all these papers being thrown away. We CANNOT throw them away, he insisted.

What if we need them tomorrow, he persisted.

Yeah, sure.

What happens after I die, he demanded to know?

You mean to say that these companies will revive and pay us the money, I asked?

Appa looked a little defensive and then pulled out one letter and showed it to me. Look at this letter, Mr AK Katiar himself has promised that he will pay us back the money once RBI does something. Or else, he says pulling out another letter, this company has a office in Barakhamba Road and you could get my five thousand rupees from them.

Are you suggesting that I go to Delhi for this?

Looking up from the paper Thatha informs us rather excitedly that bombs went off in Barakhmaba Road. Paati joins in and asks me, what is the use of being a journalist if you can't help your own father?

I give up and instead start wildly swinging the broom to gt rid of the dust like powder accumulated and driving Paati and Thatha out of the room temporarily. Besides these yellowed papers of hope, there are also a few plastic covers and files that are marked as: T Anna, S and ATP.

What are those, I ask Appa?

Those are all the papers from the time you were born until now, he said.

Do you know we can register births and deaths online these days, Thatha butted in. After I die, you must register my death online. Thatha loves to talk and speculate about death and post death scenarios. I had visions of me logging into the Chennai Corporation website and have my entire extended clan crowding around me as I tried to find the register buttons to do the needful.

I told Appa that I will sort the file that said ATP and see what all I needed and what I didn't. Appa wouldn't hear any of that. You are not yet settled, we can't sort your file, he insisted.

I sighed. How about T Anna's then, I asked. Surely, he is settled, I said and ripped open the file. There were a million copies of T Anna's Class XII mark-sheet. So, he got fabulous marks, still what was the need for so many copies.

Well, one needs the Class XII mark-sheet for everything, Appa said. It was also because, at that time we lived at Thatha's house and Attestation Maama lived next door. He was the gazetted officer for all the inhabitants of our street and every week, someone or the other would ask Attestation Maami to ask her husband to bring the seal from office. Unfortunately, Attestation Maama died suddenly and S and I don't have the luxury of having a life-time supply of attested mark-sheets. Appa not so willingly agreed to get rid of the the mark-sheets. I think a little dead cockroach that dropped down from between the sheets is what did the trick.

The next was a bunch of certificates that T Anna had got from a non profit firm for allegedly contributing towards the welfare of the elderly. I really couldn't recall T Anna doing anything meaningful towards this cause. It then stuck that the school had given us a book of raffle tickets to sell, the proceeds of which were to go to some cause. While Poongothai and I divided the various houses of Boag Road between us, T Anna delegated the task to Paati. Paati got all the Maamis from the Paatu Group to buy a ticket each and T Anna was given an award.

Paati looked at the certificate and beamed with pride. T Anna was always such a conscious and caring boy, she said. I giggled and decided to not burst her bubble.

Then there were several copies of T Anna's horoscope. Now, that can be thrown. By all accounts, M Manni didn't look like she was going to divorce T Anna anytime soon, so why keep it. Before throwing them away, I decided to take a look at it, to see what fabulous qualities my brother possessed. Among references to his wheatish complexion, athletic built and gleaming gold medals, was a reference to his multiple hobbies and interests.

T Anna had interests, I thought with a feeling of wonder.

Apparently he does. Or did, at any rate. Among the many that were mentioned, included – Quizzing and Chess.

Quizzing? Quizzing? T Anna wasn't into any quizzing, I said indignantly.

Appa waved his hands dismissively and said that this particular hobby was a later addition. Apparently, there was too much pressure to add some extra curricular activities as part of the horoscope. A little bit of embellishment you see, Appa said.

But T Anna wasn't into quizzing. I said sounding like a spoilt record by now.

He wasn't, but could have been, Paati said with an air of finality.

You must admit, he could have been a quizzer if he wanted to, Appa continued. After all, he went to an IIT, followed obscure European league matches and spent more time reading the newspaper than any sub-editor did.

Correct, he was perfect for quizzing, Thatha said in a tone that said that we ought to close the discussion.

I was horrified at this make believe world that my family had created, attributing a wish-list of personality traits to their children. And if they were doing this to their perfect son, imagine what all embellishments went into mine.

I pulled out Version 2.0 of my horoscope and looked in. I knew most of the contents, but I still checked, and there it was. My hobbies included – Quizzing and Chess.

Chess brought back some humiliating memories. I must have been seven years old or so and on a lazy Sunday afternoon T Anna was teaching me how to play chess. When he was explaining the intricacies involved in moving the horse (knight, if you prefer), he said with exasperation, how difficult is it ATP? It is just 1-2-1. You have to move it in a yeLL shape. I didn't see the multiple yeLLs that T Anna was seeing. I didn't understand, why he said, 1-2-1 and not 1-2-3. But, I wanted to impress my brother. So, I tried. And tried some more. Eventually, T Anna walked away in disgust and left me there with tear filled eyes. I never tried playing chess after that. Unless you take into account the occasional game with Thatha, where he suggests moves for me too.

So, I suppose, I might get away with that.

Now on Quizzing, I don't even have the required Quizzing Personality. Surely this was a bit much. I confronted the family about it. Appa shrugged and said that, all bright Tamizh boys want girls who are into Quizzing.

Really? How do you know that, I asked.

Thatha offered an explanation, nowadays all the girls can tell the difference between Madhuvanti and Dharmavati, but if you also know about things like how candle light was used to ascertain the value of postage before the invention of stamps, that gives you an edge.

I am scared. I mean, saying my hobby is Kolam putting or kozhaktai making is not something that can be really tested in a first meeting with a boy. What if I am quizzed about something? I recall not so fondly the Bournvita Quiz contest book that N Chitappa gave me as a child. I was excited enough to write my name possessively on it. Of the thousand questions that the book had answers to, I had memorized just one. The first question that asked, what was the capital of Ghana. Accra, I would say over and over again. I had an Accra rule of making friends even. When I met new people, I asked them, what was the capital of Ghana. If they could answer that, they could be my friends. I even supported them during a World Cup. Not that I watched anything, but it was a conversation point.

Back to the cleaning, I take away all the papers that Appa has decided to discard this year. I put them into the dustbin before he changes his mind. I still can't get over the – ATP is an avid quizzer tag. After a while Appa tells me, it needn't be that complex you know. Most likely, the boy who claims he is into quizzing, could be a quizzer because his parents were trying to add some drama to his marriage resume.

It could be a case like T Anna, I concede.

Yes. And if he is in Madras, he probably went to the Landmark Quiz. As an audience, he adds.

I laugh at how wicked Appa is. And if some boy marries me for my alleged quizzing skills, serves him right even.

I tell Appa that now that we have got rid of so many papers, he can share T Anna's shelf and this cupboard be given to keep some other stuff.

Appa shakes his head and mutters something about how I am turning out to be more and more like Amma with every passing day.

I am horrified.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lotus feet of Rama

Thatha looked up from his newspaper and grimaced. He then started, ATP, have you noticed how the quality of writing has deteriorated lately?

I groaned inwardly and pretended to be watching with rapt attention a boxing match between an Ukranian and someone from Dominican Republic. I don’t much care for any sport and most certainly not for one that is legitamised form of violence, but I wasn’t going to be drawn into an argument with Thatha.

Why do you think the quality has dropped, Thatha perused and shoved the newspaper down my nose. Read this, he commanded.

Resigned, I pulled the offensive page and began to read. Page twenty one, a column on the left hand bottom and it went thus:
Janaki, Age 82, Railways, West Mambalam attained the Lotus feet of Lord Rama. Deeply mourned by one and all.
Shanmugham (63), father of Chakravarthy passed away on Saturday 2nd August at Thiruvamiyur. Deeply mourned by wife, two sons and Latha, CPWD.

I said a little prayer for the two souls and asked Thatha what the problem was. People died and those left behind felt a compelling need to inform about this to the world. The obituary columns did a far better job of reminding us of our mortality than bombs going off somewhere.

Don’t you see, Thatha said in that shocked tone, the obituaries are ambiguous and incomplete?

The boxing match had got over and the DD Sports anchor, wearing too much of bling appeared and launched into some incomprehensible Hindi. So, I turned my attention back to Thatha and told him that I didn’t see any problem with the obituaries.

He then began to list his exceptions:
• What was Janaki’s connection with the Railways?
• Why is Janaki mourned in a generic sort of way? Why are there no names attached to the “one and all”?
• Janaki didn’t have an initial, name of husband, name of parents, name of village, name of children, nothing. How will one identify which Janaki had died?
• If Shanmugham had two sons, why was he only the father of Chakravarthy?
• And who is Latha, CPWD?
• And is CPWD mourning his death?

Paati, who was grating coconuts, was horrified with Thatha’s analysis and doubts. She went and did three sit-ups in front of Pilayar and asked for forgiveness on his behalf.

Thatha and Paati are staying with us these days, so every morning; Thatha spends fifteen minutes going through every obituary. The scary part is that, Appa is getting involved in this game too.

Yaaradu poyitaala, he asks?

A couple of days after this, Appa was reading out aloud some of the obituaries to Thatha. And between the deaths of a lady, who had left for her heavenly abode, a young man, who had untimely passed away, was also a small almost curt piece of information about a Mr S, mere sixty two years of age and survived by a wife and a daughter.

As it was being read aloud, the name stuck me as being familiar, but I let it pass. While I was getting my dilapidated Scooty to start, Iyengaar Maami came out and almost breathlessly announced, Hindu Paatiya?

I rolled my eyes and decided to put off the ignition as this was clearly going to take long.

What is the matter, I asked her?

S Sir Poyitaarey. Paavum, she added.

Then it stuck me, the familiar name was that of S Sir, my accountancy and mathematics tutor from Classes XI to XII and perhaps the man responsible for my passing the examinations.

Meanwhile, Iyengaar Maami continued in her excited fashion and also told me that she has Skyped and informed Prahlad (or Prack-Laad as my Paati says) about the sad news. Prahlad had reassured his mother that he would wash his hair before he went to bed.

Prahlad is Iyengaar Maami’s son, my class-mate from school and the boy whose batting average was better than the marks that he scored. Which is why, Amma and Iyengaar Maami formed a strange kinship over their stupid children. It was in their efforts to constantly add value to our academic lives that, S Sir was discovered. Amma wasn’t keen to have a home tutor for me; she felt that I will lose out on the competitiveness that a larger peer group can infuse. However, when Prahlad’s Unit Tests scores showed an upward trend, S Sir’s services were employed. Also, S Sir, working as an Accounts Officer in some government department, didn’t believe in charging any fees. Teaching is only my service to society, he had said most saintly.

When S Sir came home for the first time, we were surprised. He didn’t look like a teacher or a mathematician. He was short, roundish in shape and wore his trousers around his chest and had a wide smile plastered on his face.

Kanakku Vadiyaar aa, Paati shook her head in disbelief. Weren’t they supposed to look mean, thin and wear glasses?

The classes started and S Sir would heartily launch into the intricacies of a Balance Sheet and Suspense Account.

Unlike the teachers who taught me at school or the tuition classes, S Sir didn’t talk down to me. He acknowledged that, it was very likely that my P&L accounts wouldn’t really be accurate and that my balance sheets may not balance. His mission was to reduce the number of mistakes that I was likely to make. That approach helped and my accountancy marks, inched towards some amount of respectability.

S Sir was not merely an Accountancy and Mathematics whiz; he was clearly a man of many parts. He could do some josiyam, he had a secret to making better adhirasms and he could drink kaapi from a tumbler from a height of twenty centimeters above his mouth.

Since, he wasn’t accepting any fee from us; Amma decided that we should feed him everyday. Given that Amma had a repertoire of a mere four dishes, the food was outsourced. So some special murukkus were procured from Gomathi Shankar. While, I was dying to polish off a few murukkus, and wistfully stared at them while doing the Suspense Account, S Sir continued to ignore it. When he was leaving, Amma asked him, why he had not tried the murukku? He told Amma that it looked too oily.

The next day, Amma produced some more murukkus, this time from Suswaad, with their special technology of soaking out all the oil and ruining the taste beyond all imagination. Same story, as I ate the soggy remains of it after S Sir left.

Rhomba aacharam aa irukkum, paati said. So, it was decided that something ought to be made at home.

Freshly fried ribbon pakodams were served hot, after Amma dabbed away the excess oil with a tissue.

That was left too.

May be, he wont eat at our house, I suggested. But as always, when presented with an uncomfortable point of view, everyone dismissed and denied.

The next day, I asked S Sir, why don’t you eat the food we give? My Amma is heart-broken.

S Sir looked embarrassed and told me, I don’t like noisy food.


It seems, S sir was a bit of an Englishman. His father had lived in England for a while, and on returning to India, he had been horrified with the noisy eating patterns of Tamizh Brahmin men. Korka burka, karu muru and slurp, is this any way for civilized people to eat, he had asked of them? Not to mention the long burp that is left at the end of the meal to express the Brahmincal satisfaction with the food.

Over the next few days, observing Appa, Periappa, Thatha, etc, I had to agree with S Sir’s point of view.

How can anybody eat food without making noise, I asked him during my next lesson on Realisation Account. Don’t people in England eat potato wafers, I asked.

Of course not, the English have healthy food habits. My Appa had only porridge every single day that he was there, S Sir informed me.

Surely that must be like thayir saadam, and slurpy noises must be generated, I wondered.

No, you see, they close their mouths and eat. The air doesn’t escape and sound cannot be generated in vacuum, he informed.

Needless to say, I was grossed out by S Sir and thought of him as an anti-national person.

Thankfully, school got over and one veshti and half sleeves shirt later, I didn’t see him.

And now, he is dead.

His house is in Mambalam, Iyengaar Maami told me impatiently. I will come with you, she announced. I figured that doing a Mambalam detour with Maami riding pillion wasn’t a pleasant option. Worse was the coming home to take hair bath. I will go on Sunday, I told her.

Not having the option of a free ride made Maami also drop out.

Sunday almost went by and I forgot. That afternoon, when I met Amma on Skype and having exhausted every possible topic of conversation, I suddenly remembered about S Sir. I told her that he had passed away. We discussed his noiseless food eating patterns for a bit and then Amma asked how was his wife doing.

I told her that I had no clue.

As always, Amma got hyper and insisted that I make a visit to offer my condolences rightaway. After all, because of him you got eighty four in accounts, she said. Given that, the eighty four (which is useless of course) was the high point of my academic life and given that I was a girl who made the balance sheet first and then do a P&L statement, that was HUGE. And in my effort to save a few liters of fuel and an extra sachet of shampoo, I had avoided the visit.

I asked Iyengaar Maami if she wanted to come, she said that Prahlad had sent a long condolence letter and that would suffice. Relieved, I left for S Sir’s house. It was rainy and the weather was lovely in Madras. Even going through Doraiswamy Bridge and dodging the shoppers was pleasant. But, I was going for a condolence, I kept reminding myself.

When I reached the building where he lived, and climbed up the three flights of stairs (why does everyone I know stay on the third floor?), I saw an elaborate and fresh kolam outside. I also heard the TV on. The door opened finally and I stood facing S Sir.

His round face lit up with a big smile and he invited me in.

This cant be for real, I thought.

S Sir seemed genuinely happy to see me as we discussed all maters of national importance and otherwise. His wife offered me some mixture and sweet Maida chips. I refused and drank the synthetic orange juice instead.

S Sir asked me about T Anna and Prahlad. I reassured him that both were fine. I contemplated telling him about Prahlad’s letter, but decided against it. How do you tell a man that, I heard you were dead?

When I walked down, I peeped into the letter box of Flat No. C32, there were a few envelopes, but I couldn’t be sure if any of them had a foreign stamp. Meanwhile the watchman was looking at me suspiciously so I beat a hasty retreat.

I went straight to Paati and told her everything that had happened. Paati said that, it was actually a good omen. S Sir will live for very long, she said.

I repeated the tale to the men folk who were having dinner. It was dinner at Periamma’s house. Thatha jumped on me and said; didn’t I tell you that the quality of obituary writing is not the same any more? I nodded and watched with fascination, how in an almost synchronized fashion, Appa, Thatha, Periappa, Chitappa and S Anna artistically gathered the the mor saadam in their palms and noisily gulped it down.

If ever there is a Tamil Olympics, this ought to be an event.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

En iniya thamizh makkaLe

Lend me your ears, my Thatha loves to say. Quoting literature and witticisms that are attributed to dead people is his favourite past-time.

When I would dawdle and not spend my time studying, he would tell to nobody in particular, in youth I wasted time and now time wastes me, as he would walk past.

If character is lost, everything is lost, he said with a flourish when yet another boy with suspect credentials had to be dropped from my matrimonial race.

A cliché to dismiss my ticking biological clock doesn’t seem to reassure Appa.

Our ATP turns twenty five in another fifteen days, Appa announces mournfully.

The last month has been a bit of a respite, the Aadi month is not just the best time to pick up saris, veshtis and towels for the whole year, but it also helps to stop the assault on my self worth. Albeit temporarily.

Did Nano Boy write to you, Appa asks me suddenly?

I cringe and do my bumbling routine. Nano Boy is the newest boy to be included in the race. No, he doesn’t work for an evil car enterprise; his work is in the area of the more noble Carbon Nanotubes.

When Nano Boy’s reference was provided by Warren Road Pattu Maami, Thatha beamed. He even made some DuPont reference and said, better living through chemistry for our ATP.

I wasn’t sure. Carbon Nanotubes? Hello, I am ATP from Madras and my husband is a Carbon Nanotubist?

When his parents came to check me out, to do a preliminary screening, they gushed on and on about their son. He is very bright, Nano Appa said. HE IS VERY BRIGHT, Nano Amma added.

Appa and Thatha nodded appreciatively.

In the absence of Amma, Periamma took on the role of belling the cat and asking the uncomfortable questions.

Nano Boy will be thirty two this year, she started.

Nano Amma and Nano Appa squirmed. Only after the Aadi Maasam (last year) did we take his jadagam out, Nano Amma said snootily. He was only interested in doing his PhD in *insert something that none of us understood*, Nano Appa offered in manner of explanation.

Age is just a number, Thatha reassured them sounding a bit like a breezy socialite. Periamma rolled her eyes and I began to wonder what Thatha had been smoking lately.

After some incomprehensible conversation and that the adults had on nanotechnology, they turned their attention to me. Nano Amma stared at me moodily and was looking at my head. She was probably counting the number of slides (clips?) that Periamma had brutally inserted into my hair to keep it in place.

My son is also very interested in music, Nano Amma began. I had to remind myself that the letter attached to my horoscope spoke in great detail about my love for and prowess in Carnatic music.

Only science and music interests him. You will need to woo him, she added conspirationally.

An email id was given and they left

A wedding before the age of twenty five, Appa beamed.

Thatha offered some advice from Shakespeare, you should be wooed and not made to woo.

I wrote my first email in October. Not flamboyantly. Not timidly. But honestly. Or at any rate, as honest as I could be. He wrote back soon enough, a wordy email. Sounding high-brow and nerdy, clearly designed to knock me out.

I was totally knocked out. I ought to have put an end to it after the very first email, but a vulgar curiosity and large quantities of boredom kept me going.

My favourite raagam is Vivahapriya, he said once.

What kind of person would like Vivahapriya? How many songs exist in this raagam? Isaiyil Thodanguthamma, from the highly pretentious Hey Ram? Why can’t I meet an ordinary sort of boy, you know someone who likes the more mundane (and very lovely) Reethi Gowla?

After every email that he sent me, I had to Google for stuff. His choice of literature, his desire to link mundane events and occurrences to science in general and Carbon Nanotubes in particular. His initial horoscope had failed to mention his middle name – Pedantic.

The only good thing that came out of all of this was, Amma and Appa put their hunt on a hold for a bit. Then one day, Nano Boy emailed me saying that he had met his to-be-wife and she worked in the area of Nanotoxicology. We must keep in touch and you ought to come for my wedding, he insisted.

Sure, I said and blocked him on my chat list. I decided that Amma and Appa didn’t need to know.

That the world’s dullest boy didn’t want to marry me, was a cross that I didn’t wish to bear.

But, since I began to sleep and live India time and not that of some strange country, Appa had probably caught on and the hunt resumed.

As I helped Thatha with tallying his expenses of July ’08 he said, ATP! You must accept finite disappointment but not lose infinite hope.

Clearly I needed to have whatever Thatha was having. Thatha then asked me to call up all our relatives and remind them about this.

Really! Who cares Thatha? And our family is large, but I am sure this will be a highly insignificant contribution, I tell him.

Be the change that you want to see, he begins. I hastily reach for the phone. I cannot handle any more pop philosophy. And besides, a black-out is comforting at some level.

I hop over to Periamma’s house and tell her about our family’s contribution to society. She has been a little sad lately, her elder daughter A Akka, who turned twenty eight sometime back, has decided to marry a Bengali boy.

They are Brahmins, but they eat fish, she told Paati.

Periamma is upset. I will not go for the wedding, she told me. Okay, but don’t forget the black-out, I remind her.

As I am leaving, she expresses her commiserations about the loss of Nano Boy. Our Tamizh Boys are no good, why don’t you marry some North Indian fellow from your Journalism School, she asks?

Be the change you want to see, I think

Sure. I will think about it, I say instead.

Back home, Appa wants me to book our tickets to go to Calcutta. We are representing the family at A Akka’s wedding.

Appa tells Chitappa, what is there? We need to be modern and change with the times.

The time is always right to do what is right, Thatha added.

And sometimes, that could be all of eight minutes.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Three is a Crowd

I don’t like washing clothes. My palms hurt and I don’t bother to squeeze the clothes too much before I put it out to dry. When I come out of my bath, S will be waiting and run after me to the balcony. She will immediately remove the clothes that I put out to dry and brutally squeeze them of the last traces of water.

Apparently, the second floor Chitappa, first floor Periappa and the ground floor Iyengaar Maama don’t approve of my attempts to transfer impurities into their clothes. I love the potency of the dripping water, as the residue of my cheap detergent coats all the clothes.

I have always maintained that, this is our little moment of revenge on the extended family for giving us a third floor apartment. When your neighbour is your family, they cannot complain as vehemently. Certainly not about something as trivial as, dripping water. After all, blood IS thicker than water.

Madras Summers in a third floor apartment is hardly pleasurable. I wonder if S remembers much about Madras Thatha's house. It was named after Paati, and therefore, after me too. For a long while, I felt that, it was one of the biggest accomplishments of mine. When I would come back from school, I would linger at the gate for a bit longer and run my fingers through the coarse wall that had my name engraved. Not for long though, because G Periamma would holler out for me and menacingly walk towards me with the dosai tiruppi, the one that she had stolen from Amma's dowry.

At close to 4000 square feet of inhabitable space, the house was never large enough for the five families to live together somehow.

Madras Thatha and Paati took the first room adjacent to the living room. We called it the Front Room. It was the most strategically located room that had a good view of Bazlullah Road and all the people who entered the house. Like in everything else, G Periappa and Periamma got the first choice. Which is why, they took the biggest room on the ground-floor - the only room with an attached bathroom.

Amma and Appa, rather shockingly, were given the erstwhile Junk Room. But then, Amma and Appa, never complained. Initially, all of us cousins slept in the big room that we called the Hall. Before S came, eight of us were almost beaten to sleep each night by G Periamma. Even among us children, age was treated with respect and A Akka, S Akka and T Anna got the beds closest to the fan.

Things were fine till I was seven and then S was born. I should confess, I was not particularly happy about having a little sister.

Nobody, I mean nobody, whom I knew from my generation, came from a family of three siblings. Three of you va, we were often asked? And I was embarrassed. I was annoyed with Amma and Appa for not putting enough thought into the concept of a small family-size.

I disliked S’s entry into the family.

S was born, in the middle of my final exams, pre-mature by almost a month and a half. Like T Anna, she too was born before the end of March. Amma and Appa heaved a sigh of relief. This meant that, unlike me, she would be eligible for school admissions a year before.

I sulked through my exams and resented all the cooing over her. The fact that it was the only time I came first in class was overshadowed by Trichy Thatha’s announcement that a bawling S had been hushed to sleep by his rendition of Sinthai Kulira, a thalaatu song in Nilambari.

She has music in her blood, Trichy Thatha announced happily. She got Nilambari, while I was still struggling with a mere Kalyani. As I and A Akka struggled through Paatu Bhagavathar making us go through some more of – Pankaja Lochana, S was the Lotus Eyed, Amma announced.

But then, S was such a happy and friendly baby. And so, that summer vacation, even I got over the initial bout of jealousy and resentment towards S. When A Akka and S Anna would pull her cheeks and make fun of her perfectly round face (Madras Thatha would say that, god had used a compass to make her face), I shooed them away and glared at their backs angrily.

But, things got complicated once S grew up and when it was time for Amma and Appa to get her into the world outside of the Junk Room. By the time she grew up, A Akka and S Anna, both with important Board Exams, complained about the lack of space in the Hall and demanded for a room by themselves. After G Periamma sulked and threw a tantrum, Amma and Appa were shifted away from the Junk Room and the same was given to A Akka and S Anna.

The rest of us cousins resented the fact that, A Akka and S Anna had got a room to themselves. In fact, nobody was happy with this arrangement. Frail nerves and egos presented themselves at several opportunities.

In the old house, the smallest of things would lead to an argument and exchange of a few heated words. Like, if the girls in the family were to scratch their heads furiously, not over a mathematics problem but over a severe lice problem, it would lead to an exchange of some rather bitter words. ATP must have got it from Poongothai, G Periamma would announce, while Amma would look at A Akka suspiciously. Both I and A Akka would dread at the prospect of Kuppu – our maid and chairman of the anti-lice squad running the comb through our hair for the next few weeks. Usually, she would be so brutal with this, I am sure parts of our brain were combed away too.

Yet, these were minor grievances and the bigger problems came with several women folk under one roof and the woes of the monthly cycle and with-a-mind-of-its-own hormones. I read this post by Neha, who in an as always well written post talks about how giving scientific sanctity to something that is inherently faith based as an action is never desirable. My family didn’t really have a fixed point of view on how to treat this sudden shedding of the uterine lining. My family loves both faith and science. They love it enough to not mix up the two.

Given that we were well brought up girls and didn’t like the social embarrassment of periods, we needed to be discreet about it. After all, the men-folk probably never needed to study any biology. And since they were good Tamizh men, they probably just dropped down from heaven some day. So high levels of hygiene, care and secrecy needed to be maintained.

Madras Paati would rather nostalgically narrate tales about her own periods, growing up in an Agraharam called Sripuram in Tirunelveli. She was isolated from the rest of the household for five days and was given a room to herself. She loved that, especially after having to jostle for space for the remaining twenty-five days of the month. Also, she could not eat what was cooked in the morning. After all, if she ate it, the food became impure and the good Brahmin men couldn’t eat that afterwards. So, the servant was sent to the nearby hotel and asked to buy Tiffin for Paaati. I used to buy Poori and Aloo, she would say and her eyes would light up.

Yes, she loved it.

I would have loved some isolation too, but sadly, there was just not enough space to do that. Inspite of the platefuls of Poori Aloo that Paati had gorged on all through her childhood, she wasn’t going to make her daughters-in-law and grand-daughters go through it.

The only good thing of having Periods was that, god was out of bounds. I loved that. This started a bit of a contest among all the daughters-in-law of the house. During festivals, while Thatha would impatiently ask for the Panchapatram to be filled with water and the annoying kid cousin will start ringing the bell tonelessly, a quick head count of the teenage girls would be done by Paati. My daughter is here and pure, every Periamma and Chitti would smirk. Amma will look away. Disappointed again.

This always happens to you, she would announce to me tragically. Tchah no rasi at all, she will say sympathetically.

I considered that I was the luckiest person in the household. I mean, who cared about doing back breaking and stomach crunching Namaskarams? And who cared about mass prepared Chakari Pongal seasoned with too many Thualsi leaves.

Over years, Amma became suspicious when I announced that this was the third festival in a row that I would be missing. After which, Periamma and Amma decided to make use of a loop-hole. If you wash your hair on Day 3, you are eligible to come for the Poojai, just don’t go very close to the god, I was told.

Desire to win, can sometimes overcome tradition.

Inspite of all of this, things had its own charm being in Thatha’s house and in being together. We sulked, cribbed, argued, made the Paatu Bhagavathar miserable, fought over who got how much of water and so on. But in the night, we cousins always patched up. Over fears of failing and misguided parental expectations, there was always enough common ground.

It was S Anna’s less than impressive show at the Board Exams that convinced the clan that, good marks were not just a function of how much attention the parents gave the child but was also about having a space to call your own.

Surely we didn’t want to repeat the same - large capitation fee to study in an obscure engineering college with the rest of the children of the family, Madras Thatha asked his sons?

And so, we sold the house. Paati was heart-broken and as was I, to let go of a house that was named after us.

As always, everyone picked their homes first and Amma and Appa were given the last house. Of the five flats we got, ours was the only one on the third floor. It was smaller than the others. The apartment didn’t have a lift. And with no floors above, it meant that, it was the warmest. Every May, in the middle of Agni Nakshatram, Amma would lament about the fact that, Appa hadn’t been assertive enough.

Appa asked Amma to be patient and said that, it was in the interest of mine and S’s academic future that this move had happened. I felt sorry. I mean, having a room to myself meant that, I actually needed to study.

Since, I wasn’t very good at studying, I started washing clothes. During periods, Amma asked me to dry the clothes in the small balcony. I used to be relieved at those times, because Amma didn’t check if the last trace of detergent and the blue stains of soap still remained in my clothes or not. Also, I would not squeeze out the clothes very much and put them out to dry. This was on top of the same balcony where Chitti and Periamma put their saris to dry. Since they had a bath at 5:30 am and I at 7: 30 am, by the time I used to put my dripping clothes out, their saris were almost dry. Since my family doesn’t like to use the word Periods, Periamma would ask, is ATP Out of Commission today?

Amma was suitably embarrassed and decided that, the rest of clan needn’t know about my monthly cycle. So, I let my clothes drip out of the main balcony. I inwardly celebrated my moment of revenge each morning. And Amma would curse me and send S to take them out and squeeze it better.

I got on with my work and S probably cursed me. Every single day.

And now, my little sister will soon pack her bags and leave the house, thereby making more space in our 1000 square feet flat. I don’t feel happy about it though.

I am proud of you, dear S. Do come back soon. Our house and I will miss you. I will even squeeze the clothes better before I put them out to dry. I will stop diluting blood with water. Promise.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On Being Stupid

I am beginning to enjoy the fact that I am now managing the house. And having Amma and Appa in two different continents has meant that, I and S don’t find ourselves caught in the cross-fire between the two and being forced to take sides.

S has done very well in her exams. That came as a bit of shock.

S is a bright child. But in the seventeen years that I have known her, not once has she said that she has done well in any of her exams. Yes, she is one of those types. In fact, she would usually come home after each exam, then weep, howl and angst till the results would come out. She would be responsible for having the household plunge into gloom for extended periods.

I never did this much of over-acting. In fact, I was the complete contrast. I would come home after every exam that I ever wrote and tell Amma and Appa that I had done very well. I always believed that one day of intense sadness was far more desirable than a month of twiddling thumbs and unhappiness. I was most convincing as well, and Amma usually believed that the good Lord Dakshinamoorthy’s blessings were holding me in good stead. When the results would come out, I would play the wronged-injured-politician who lost an election because of large scale rigging to the hilt. When I overdid this, Amma would visit my school and demand for a re-count and re-evaluation.

The net result was – a very embarrassed Amma. And once back home, she would wail in front of the gods. Not so much for having produced an unintelligent and untruthful child, but more so because, she had produced the makku role model of my generation.

Every family needs a role model, especially the children in the family. One needs someone who can inspire you to achieve academic excellence. And they need to be real people. It wasn’t enough that we had people like Nose Digging Sundaram, the boy who used to live two blocks away and was the first (after I was born, that is) person to go to IIT and become a National Talent Scholar from Bazlullah Road. While, that was envy inducing, and his mathematics teacher became the most sought after person, we liked to have our own heroes. The types who were closer to home and preferably also connected to the Bharadwaja Gothram in some manner.

When I was really young, our heroes were two people – A Atthai and T Chitappa. A Atthai, was a gold medalist from Madras University in English Literature. And she later became a teacher at the school that I and most of my cousins went to. Everyone was completely in awe of A Atthai and she was not only considered to be an expert when it came to Chaucer, but also the person to go to, should you decide to write an obituary. As we mourned and grieved the dead person, people would crowd around the person who was writing out the obituary. Madras Thatha would then yell out for A Atthai and announce that, she should write out the obituary. After all, she is a gold medalist in English, was implied heavily. The men-folk inspite of their general desire to shove an opinion on everything concerning the family would humbly bow down and let A Atthai take over. The next morning, when that small insert would come out in The Hindu, the clan members would bask in the glory of A Atthai’s genius.

Then, there was T Chitappa, the official mathematics whiz in the family. We are told, many years ago, Trichy Thatha bought Madras Thatha a calculator from Burma Bazaar. The calculator stopped working shortly. It needed those button batteries, which were perceived to be too expensive to invest in. But, T Chitappa was anyway there and he did all the simple and complex calculations that we needed to do. T Chitappa is a bit of a purist and doesn’t like to mix mathematics with anything. Nobody should mix mathematics with physics or economics, he would tell us disdainfully. T Chitappa calculated the monthly expenses; he would give us trends in terms of heads that were showing an upswing, he would calculate the number of buckets of water that all of us needed to pump to have the adequate amount of water that the household needed, as also the number of mangoes and bananas that should rightfully be given to the Atthais and other clan members, and most importantly he would very rapidly compute the batting averages and bowling economy of all the dull matches that Madras Thatha followed. Including the ones that were played at the Somasundaram Grounds or even the Kedar Cricket Academy, closer to home. T Chitappa’s reputation preceded him and if he said that, 5 + 6 equalled 14, we would believe him. If he said that Prahlad’s (who was the one-down batsman from our street and my batch-mate from school) strike-rate had dropped from the previous match, Madras Thatha would make it a point to have a chat with him the next day.

In the light of such brilliance, T Chitappa was put in charge of the makku in mathematics children of the family - which included me and rather ironically, T Chitappa’s daughter N. Since the Saturday tests didn’t do their job and in light of our Board Exams, T Chitappa started a Sunday coaching class with a viva method of evaluation. It was concluded that, writing out an incorrect answer was not half as embarrassing as orally failing in an exam. But, since T Chitappa wanted to befriend us and speak to us in a language we understood, he would put forth all problems in the context of our family and neighbourhood folks.

So, we were given problems that involved computing the surface area of a Paruppu Thengai, the falling strike rate of Prahlad, the amount of interest that my Appa allegedly made by loaning some money to T Chitappa. Most of the times, such examples took away the focus from the actual topic (say, mensuration and commercial mathematics) to the family dynamics and so forth.

But, we pursued it. And in the summer vacations before our Class X exam, when everyone else had gone to see the Rajni film Arunachalam, me and N tried to compute missing frequencies. When both I and N displayed minimum interest in what T Chitappa was doing, he said that, don’t you at least want to be like A Akka?

Role models need to be relevant. They need to be from your generation, so that you can aspire for similar kind of lifestyle and at least have some common ground. One needed younger role models, after all. There is only that much that an Atthai and Chitappa could inspire you.

And so we had - A Akka, my Periappa’s daughter. The effortlessly bright person, as she has is often referred to. When does she study, Amma would ask Periamma suspiciously? Periamma would be less than specific in her answer.

A Akka also had excellent handwriting. And a combination of that and her inherent brightness meant that, she was asked to save up all her notes. But, A Akka was strange and possessive. Not only would she refuse to give her notes away, she would laugh at you wickedly when you asked for it. Sometimes after being chastised by Periamma, she would lend her notes. But this only after you crossed your heart several times over and promise to guard those precious notes like your life depended on it. But all said and done, A Akka was rather nice, albeit strange. She was a voracious reader and read some of the most dull, insipid and seemingly intelligent books. When I was in class ten, she asked me if I had read Ulysses. You have not read it, she asked in her usually horrified tone. I squirmed and looked for an escape. But Amma didn’t want her daughter to be reading only Astreix and asked A Akka to lend her book to me. G Periamma also beamed, because she had clearly brought up a better read daughter. A Akka reluctantly parted with her book. She had a complex cataloguing and labeling method for all her books, which none of us comprehended. The only thing worse than A Akka refusing to lend you a book was, when she actually would deign to lend it to you. So, she would shadow you for the next few days.
No molagai podi on the book please, she announced snootily.
Don’t fold the page. Why don’t you use a comb as a book-marker, she would suggest?
Not just that, she would monitor progress on how much I had read? She would constantly ask me, when are you returning the book? I never got past the first page that said:
Do not steal this book for fame or shame
For in the next page, is the owner’s name

Eventually unable to bear it, I told A Akka that I couldn’t read this anymore and went back to Astreix and Phantom comics.

A Akka won.

But, A Akka was a natural when it came to mathematics, so one forgave her for this quirkiness of hers. In fact, one expected her to be quirky. A Akka took a slightly off beat path, and shifted to economics after school. My family thought it was a waste of a brilliant-can-become-engineer and writes some code brain. But then, A Akka topped the university and won a gold medal for herself when she did a post graduation in econometrics.

The first gold medal of your generation, Paati said as she placed the cold golden coloured round on her cheek.

But Econometrics, she asked a little doubtfully?

It is a combination of economics and mathematics, A Akka had offered in manner of explanation. The M word reassured Paati and the whole clan felt proud. I was thrilled too. For, after Revathy in Mouna Ragaam, A Akka was the next person I knew who had studied Econometrics.

After that, A Akka became our family benchmark – the lowest common denominator. Even if we didn’t study the sciences, we at least needed to win a gold medal and study an abstract subject, preferably with some numbers thrown in.

To me, A Akka was always my hero. Not because of great mathematics or the best cataloguing skills, but because she had straight hair. She had hair, unlike mine or anyone else in my family. Straight and smooth as opposed to curly, with a mind of its own, unruly, forming rings at the forehead Tamizh hair.

Yes, she was my hero.

Unfortunately, A Akka’s glory was short-lived. Because the next person to arrive on the scene was - T Anna. T Anna’s genius was identified when he was eight, when he could apparently solve the Rubix cube. His genius and infinitely inadequate life skills were further established when at the age of thirteen all other boys of T Nagar played (or at least hovered around matches) cricket, he read the India Today. This because he had solved every possible mathematics problem of the next few classes and needed a way to spend his summers. So, while I did holiday homework, T Anna would spend time reading about the gory Bombay blasts.

Once, T Anna made it to IIT, he became the role-model. And much of Amma’s time was spent in trying to ward off the evil eye.

He is your brother, I was reminded rather sternly before every exam of mine. Viji Madam and other assorted teachers also felt that the only redeeming quality I possessed was, sharing this gene.

I tried. In vain. And much as I feel sisterly affection towards T Anna, he didn’t turn out to be the inspiration after all.

After my pre-board examinations and the overdose of red in my answer sheets, made Amma talk about Makkan, aka Makku Periappa aka K Periappa. Makkan was my Periappa Thatha’s fifth son and also the dullest. Among the three brothers of my Thatha, Periappa Thatha was the brightest and perceived to be UPSC material. He made it into a fairly low ranked service. I am a mere government servant, he would wildly grin and inform us each time we visited him. Never mind that he had retired from service many years ago. Periappa Thatha was generally doing better in life than my Thatha and had relatively brighter children . But, among his All Stars Team, was a dud – Makkan Periappa.

Periamma Paati (or Periya Paati as we called her) had produced four sons. Periappa Thatha was happy that he had produced four potential civil servants. However, a daughter was needed. The whole: a son is a son till he gets a wife and daughter is a daughter all her life, was bandied around, I am told. That is how Makkan was conceived. Probably it was a lazy Madras May, after eating one too many pieces of the Banganapali Mambazham and being on a bit of a sugar high.

It is a boy, must have sounded like the worst words ever.

Humble government servants can’t fund the lives of more than five children, is perhaps what Periappa might have concluded and no more attempts to produce a daughter were made.

May be that is why, Makkan was brought up differently. Periya Paati perhaps convinced herself that he was almost a girl. Periappa Thatha was generally speaking, indifferent. Among the super achiever siblings, Makkan grew up – unloved, unwanted and shattering gender stereotypes. Somewhere along the line, he became the Makku of the generation – the person you didn’t want to become.

Makku Periappa finished school and got admission into college because of how well placed Periya Thatha was (allegedly). He also managed to get a small time job with a public sector company (also because of PT’s influence, one is told). He also got a wife (S Periamma). They managed to produce two daughters, who have turned out to be fine girls with excellent mathematics skills, lovely voice and shiny skin. If the rest of the clan is to be believed, they are also very snooty. We attribute all of this to S Periamma’s Palakkad gene.

During family weddings, when other male members pointlessly pontificated or actually took up important tasks, Makkan was given the menial ones. Like ensuring that guests got the Thamboolam Pai after the meal or to sprinkle rose water into the eyes of the dodging Maamas and Maamis who walked in. The second bit was usually the task of the teenage girls in the family, and me and my cousins resented Makkan for intruding into our domain.

As a child, even a teenager, or even till a few years back, I enjoyed a good Makkan joke too. Stories were floated around about what Makkan did and what Makkan said (mostly made up, I suppose). The children in the family were asked, before every exam and after every result, do you want to become like Makkan? I felt very sorry for myself, when Amma said that. What! Me a makku?

Makkan is a bit of a recluse. And I of all people know that, it is no fun to be branded – stupid for life. He usually sits in a corner during family gatherings and is seen reading a newspaper. Nobody knows much about Makkan. What his favourite dishes are? What vegetables is he allergic to? What are the things that he likes? What are the issues that he feels strongly about? One assumes that, he has no preferences.

Makkan has always annoyed me. In the same way that I am annoyed when I look into a mirror. May be it is the fear of association that bothers me. But something always does. And I can’t recall having a single conversation with him. Until last week.

People come to visit my house often. The perils of having the extended clan all around you. I am tired of telling people about my job. About the ordinariness of it. Defending my job. Defending editorial stand. And making multiple cups of kaapi and several platefuls of idli.

Chutney illiya, appa asks me as I noisily put two platefuls of idli for Appa and Chitappa. I glare at him. He doesn’t notice.

When I hear S talking to her tuition friend about her exams and how wonderfully well she has done, I can’t help but smile. I feel a surge of sisterly pride. All those sleepless nights that I needed to endure as she paced up and down the room all night, memorizing formulae seems to have paid. All those trips to Ashok Nagar, at 6 am on a Sunday, seem to be paying too. I feel like a co-conspirator in the whole thing. And I am proud. But, I am a little worried too. I am worried about being sandwiched between two over achiever siblings. I am worried about being the weakest link.

Makkan comes home every May. To give us some mangos, plucked from the tree in their Thiruvanmiyur house. Appa asks me to put them into the rice drum, so that they will ripen.

Coffee, Appa asks Makkan?

He looks unsure.

Suddenly I say that, he had better have tiffin. I take out the heavily fermented and disgustingly sour idli batter. Uttappams, I say. I make S chop the tomatoes and add some extra oil and let it cook on slow fire for a change.

Appa and Makkan Periappa try to make some small talk as they negotiate the Uttappam. Lots of silence. There are some old, stale, frozen and battered beyond all shape chocolates in the freezer. T Anna had got it last August. I put that into a Ziploc bag and give it to Makkan.

Appa thinks that it is pertinent to point out that chocolates need to be refrigerated. Makkan puts on his best Makku-just-got-enlightened expression and agrees with Appa. He then says that, he will pick up the chocolates the next day as he was going to watch the match.

You watch cricket matches, me and S ask in unison?

He then says, every Saturday I find out what is happening in the city and go for that.

How do you know about it, I ask him?

I go through The Hindu engagements every single day, he says.

Meanwhile, S needs to prepare for her next set of exams and gets back to studying. And I sit in our balcony, poring through the movie listings and bask in the ordinariness of my life.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fourteen Postal Holidays

Last year when T Anna came to India, he downloaded several applications and softwares into our computer. Out of reverence for his IIT education, we began to download updates and newer versions, that promised to enhance our experience in some manner.

So, it isn’t such a new thing that Appa has been asked to release a new version of my horoscope into the market. It means things will get better and move faster, T Anna offers in manner of analogy.

I think, it was sometime in August last year, when a daughter-in-law was acquired, Amma decided that it was time that I should be married off as well. A discussion with Mambalam Maama confirmed that, the stars were shining bright and all set to conspire with other stars. And an alliance shall be sealed before we can even complete saying J A A D A G A M, Mambalam Maama promised.

The experience of having gone through four hundred and twenty seven horoscopes and letters that came for T Anna (over a period of three years), had made Amma and Appa wise on things that they ought to include in my horoscope letter and more importantly, things that they needed to gloss over.

After a lot of debate and inputs from Madras Thatha, Trichy Thatha, Pichhu Maama Thaatha and Mambalam Maama, the same was ready. The final version had: a hand-written covering letter, the actual horoscope that showed the residence of various stars and a two-page description of me and the clan that I came from.

At the neighbourhood Xerox shop, Appa took ten copies and after Amma dotted the corners with turmeric, the same was placed in front of the idols of the god.

For a few days, Appa and Amma waited. They hoped that, between god’s blessings and the word-of-mouth of the T Nagar Maamis, there would be a heavy demand for ATP’s horoscope. But, nobody came. Amma spent an extra fifteen minutes in her morning Poojai after that. The first breakthrough came because of Ruku Maami, when she recommended her brother’s son as - perfect for me. The boy in question was an engineer, which got the parental approval. The boy was also tall, which was necessary. Ruku Maami said a million times, he is fair. As a family that doesn’t approve of male objectification, we were amused and annoyed. The boy’s family was from Mogappair.

Mogappair va, Amma asked a little suspiciously, even while she was searching her memory for some Maami she knew, who would do a character check. Not willing to let go of a tall, fair engineer as his prospective son-in-law, Appa chastised Amma for being a Geographist.

For the next few weeks, it was referred to as the Mogappair Case. Appa would climb up and down the three floors of stairs three times a day to see if anyone had dropped a letter into our mail-box. As he would huff and puff up into our house and walk in empty handed, Amma would tell him that the postal department had only twice a day delivery. This would start an argument and finally Amma would say something like, may be it is a postal holiday today.

At the mention of anything to do with the Indian Postal Service, Madras Thatha would perk up and announce with some pride that there were only fourteen Postal holidays this year. Since, Madras Thatha’s Appa was in the Indian Post and Telegraph Service and Madras Thatha is a philatelist, so anything to do with postal services appeals to him. Madras Thatha would collect stamps, both commemorative and definitive ones and has promised to give them to S – the only one to display sufficient enthusiasm for the hobby. All those horoscopes that came for T Anna, Madras Thatha would slowly and scientifically peel of the stamps and stick them in an old diary (1997) filled with simultaneous equations that I had tried to solve. So, even he was disappointed that, Mogappair Case wasn’t responding to us.

A week later, a thick envelope arrived, through a local courier. Madras Thatha was unimpressed, but Amma and Appa were relieved. Appa read the letter aloud to everyone, as superlatives after superlatives were used to describe the potential groom. I already didn’t like the Mogappair Boy and chose to maintain a stoic silence. A phone call later, a photograph of mine was demanded for. Please courier it, Mogappair Maama said.

Courier va, Madras Thatha said and shook his head in sadness.

Why are they in such a hurry, Paati asked suspiciously?

But the photo was sent and a response was waited for. Appa waited for a courier with a photograph of the “very attractive”, “very fair” and “athletic and fit” boy. None came. Two weeks later when I was coming back home, I saw a fat envelope in the mail-box. When I got it upstairs, Appa and Amma almost pounced on me. My photograph had been returned, with a short and curt note – wishing my parents good luck.

When I came out after having washed my face and feet, Appa told to Amma, I would never send my daughter to Mogappair anyway.

I couldn’t help smiling at that.

That was the start, after that several letters came. Some came through the courier while some others came through snail mail. Some came with adequate postage stamp while some others came with less than the amount of postage stamps that were needed. Some came from T Nagar and some from the world outside of T Nagar. Some very cryptically written and some that was meant to completely sweep you away with all the content. Some proudly proclaimed their pedigree and others sounded apologetic about the lack of one. Some traced the lineage back a few generations while others didn’t even talk about the parents. Some were self absorbed while others were self deprecatory. Appa and Amma would sort and resort them, and then put them into different plastic covers. An old diary was used to note down when letters were sent. Those who wanted us to email them, were viewed with suspicion.

Some came from places that would make Amma pull out the atlas and look for these places. Someone wrote from a place called Akhnoor, in Jammu, no less. Amma was shocked, it will be so cold for my ATP, she said mournfully. Someone wrote from Durgapur. At least it has a National Institute of Technology, Amma said after some help from Google. Some left us feeling conflicted, like a proud father writing about his super achiever son, but in an envelope that said - Bhaba Atomic Research Centre. Between our reverence for old world and cutting edge technology companies was also our dislike for people who stole office stationery.

And through all of this, Thatha collected a large number of stamps. First, cutting them out with a pair of scissors and then soaking them in a mug of water and rubbing away the envelope bits as well as the glue. It is a scientific process, he insisted.

Sometime back, Appa did some calculations. It seems that, the neighbourhood photocopier charges Re 1 for one page of photo-copying. That is four rupees for a set and forty rupees for the ten that Appa gets every month. Amma proclaimed that it equaled the price of one kilo of Vendakkai and one and a half litres of Aavin milk. The dramatic tone that Amma used made me feel guilty about this financial burden. S, offered to photocopy horoscopes at the Students Xerox store, where she gets her Chemistry notes done. At 25 paise a page, it was an offer Appa couldn’t refuse. And fifty copies of my horoscope were taken.

The ink is a little faint, Amma complained. Thatha took out his royal blue ink pen, cleaned it, filled it with black ink and highlighted in each of those copies that I was born at 8:32 am and not 8:32 pm, lest someone with a vision problem were to see my horoscope.

But now, T Anna wants it to be changed.

So, one hundred and fifteen rupees of postage stamps, fifty grams of turmeric powder, twenty three boys, nine cities and one heart-break later, a new horoscope would be released into the marriage "market".

Of course, I am the same, yet different. My skin shall be a few shades lighter, my hair shall be shinier, my height a little lesser, my voice shall be lovelier and my world a little larger and overall just a little less truthful.

Tomorrow we will go to the Vadaplani Kovil, to break coconuts in view of S’s upcoming big exam. We will also break an extra coconut for the Version 2.0 release as well.

Till then, Thatha is happy with the soaking envelopes and collecting stamps. He opens his stamp notebook and shows off with great pride, a 1987 stamp of Madras Christian College and a 2003 one of the lovely Government Museum in Egmore.

When I see my lovely city in all its glory, across sixteen years, I forgive all those twenty-three boys who didn’t fall in love with my brown skin.

I only wish that my Thatha lives long, and collects stamps forever.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Indian Railways versus Elephant Yam

Yesterday, I nearly killed Appa. Or at any rate, I made a serious attempt to.

I won’t claim to be a domestic goddess, but like Appa tells me, you will get pass mark. My inherent mediocrity finds its way into all aspects of my life.

Some years ago, when we moved away from the joint family household, two things changed significantly. For one, we had to depend solely on Appa to provide for all of us, and the perils of being a single income household hit us hard. The other change was that Amma went on a training mode – to turn me into a woman and a human being.

As a teenager, with a mind of my own and erratic hormones, I didn’t take too well to this training. After a lot of resistance and deterioration in my mathematics marks, Amma decided to employ a maid to do the basic tasks.

But when it came to cooking, Amma would not have any of this outsourcing. And given that we could never afford a Samayal Maami, that was anyway not an option.

While I successfully resisted learning most of the domestic chores, but between Amma’s erratic pre-menopausal problems and Appa’s Brahminical sensibilities, I had no choice but to learn cooking.

I hold the large quantities of cooking that I needed to do, as the single biggest reason for the lack of academic brilliance in my life. The most tragic part of it was that, not only did I do badly in mathematics; I didn’t turn out to be such a great cook either.

Actually, I cook alright, but unfortunately, Amma is not a very flamboyant cook and I have learnt five recipes in all. Over the years, Amma churned the same five dishes across 365 days with utmost talent. We never really complained. Because we didn’t want to evoke the wrath of Amma, and mostly because nobody made these five dishes better than Amma did.

Amma wasn’t always like this. Before her wedding to Appa, she was apparently a multi-faceted cook. Trichy Paati had a Thanjavur gene and therefore more flair in her cooking. Trichy Thatha loved good food and was always open to his wife doing culinary experiments. And most importantly, there were no vegetables and fruits that were a taboo at Trichy Thatha’s house.

After marriage, Amma had to unlearn all the good work that Trichy Paati had managed to achieve and master the five essential dishes that appealed to the members of the Bharadwaja Gothram clan. In Trichy Thatha’s house everything was exotic, fried, high on carbs, high on spices, borrowed from other worlds and then fused with the Tamizh world.

In contrast, at Madras Paati’s house, the foods were cooked on a slow flame, high on Vitamins, low on carbs and fat, bland, soft, gooey and mildly flavoured.

Madras Paati tells us about an incident where Amma tried to kill all the men in the family over a Sunday morning brunch. Newly married, and with Periamma being down with a mild fever, Amma was in charge of the kitchen. In her attempt to show off her fine upbringing and Trichy Paati’s brilliant training, Amma decided to make Senai Kizhangu Fry. Fortunately for all the women of the house, the men ate first and it proved useful here. Barely two minutes into the first course of Sambhar Saadam, Madras Thatha threw up and Periappa began to develop an itch.

Amma got flustered and dragged the Periamma from her drug induced state. Periamma asked Amma if she had made something with Sepan Kizahnagu. No, Amma said relieved. On reaching the dining area, Periamma was shocked to see that Amma had made Senai Kizahngu.

She let out the loudest yell and Paati who was in the middle of her Ekadasai fast came running to check if her daughters-in-law were engaged in a cat-fight.

Dr Krishnan arrived and injected all the male folk with some anti-allergy drug.

That evening, Amma learnt her first lesson - if it is Kizhangu, we must avoid. And in all the Kizhangu crimes, Senai and/or Karunai Kizhangu was the biggest one to indulge in.

Every family has some quirks. My family has several urban legends. One of the most widely prevalent one is that – Kizhangus in one’s food intake must be kept to the minimum. There are two key reasons given in favour of this No Kizhangu Policy:

1. Kizhangu consumption dulls the brain. Therefore, if you have growing children, avoid Kizhangu. More so, if you have unrealistic expectations in the context of their academic achievements. Kill them with Vendakkai and Murungakkai Sambhar.

2. Many years back, Periappa Thatha developed a fascination for reading the Bhagavad Geetha. He learnt two important things in the process. One, every morning, before one eats, something needs to be offered to Lord Krishna as Neivedyam. Even if it is a glass of Horlicks, it is okay. Even if it made only with water, it is okay. Even if it is sugar free, it is okay. After all, it was god who created Horlicks and also gave Appa diabetes. The more important learning was that of going the path of Saatvik, the recommended path for god-like beings. While the men folk with their short fuses were not really suitable for the Saatvikness in the more important things, they adopted a Saatvik diet, which seemed easier to achieve. Root vegetables needed to be avoided, the women folk who married and came into the family were told so. No Kizhangu va, they asked bemusedly. But then, small price to pay when you are married to a god.

Of course, among all these Kizhangu, Senai was the vilest and alleged to lead the fine men of the clan to near death like situation. Sometimes when I accompanied Amma during her vegetable shopping trips, in a rare moment of candour, she would admit that, she missed the Senai Fry and Varuvval that her Amma lovingly made. When I would suspiciously look at that brown-black, oddly shaped and coated with mud vegetable and tentatively reach for it, Amma would sternly ask me to put it away and negotiate on the best price for the Vendakkai.

I first ate Senai Kizhangu Kola at Poongothai’s place. I didn’t like it very much, but I didn’t die. That got me suspicious. Were the men folk in my family truly allergic to Senai? Was this one of those myths created, just for fun? Was it created to make Madras Thatha feel less bad about his allergy to the vegetable? Did the lack of Senai in the diet lead to pre-mature balding of all the young men of the clan?

This anti Senai sentiment was widely prevalent across the extended family. So much so that, when weddings were fixed and negotiations were to happen, we didn’t ask for Arusuvai Natarjan or Chellapa to supply the food. No Senia Varuval and no Senai in the Avial please, is all that we humbly demanded.

Inspite of repeatedly impressing upon to the caterer that Senai was to be avoided, the women folk remained suspicious. The Periamma, Maamis, Chittis, Atthais and random Maamis formed a formidable Anti Senai Squad. They would spread themselves all over the mandapam and dining hall. They would jump on hapless boys from the clan, when they were heading towards the saapadu place and would tell them rather enthusiastically, don’t eat the Avial, for it has Senai.

Not having enough trust in the other members of the Maami Squad, every one of them would tell the boys to stay away from certain dishes. If there was no Senai, it was triumphantly announced to the men folk and they needed to feel grateful to the Maami who came bearing the good news.

Inspite of this rather foolproof method, some male member would end up not getting this message and even as one of the Mamais would spot him and dramatically run towards him shrieking to stop eating the Avial right then, it would be too late. Often, the men folk would come in an auto and leave in an ambulance.

The only good thing that came out of all of this was that, the women got to eat first.

I and S had always wondered what would happen if Appa and T Anna actually ate a little bit of Senai. Surely they wouldn’t die, would they?

Trichy Thatha had once told me, all of this was psychological and just like god created Horlicks he had also created Senai. And my Appa’s clan was merely hyperventilating. I must admit, I liked this theory.

And so when I got control of the house and the kitchen, I bought a Senai. While chopping, it did itch and irritate, but then, nothing that seemed life threatening. Indira Maami obliged me with her secret recipe and that and half a litre of oil later, the vegetable was done. I tasted it, was rather nice.

Appa was pre-occupied that morning. Some boy’s family wrote back saying that their son’s wedding got fixed. The boy’s Appa was in the Indian Railways and Appa was hoping that my marriage into that family would ensure that Amma got lower berths for the rest of her life. May be, that is why he didn’t notice the Senai that I liberally put in his plate. Some two minutes into eating, he threw up and his face turned red and began to grow to a monstrous size. I watched him horrified. I was thinking of Section 302 of the IPC. After a lot of drama and huge yelling that I got from Periamma and Periappa, Appa was taken to the hospital. He was sent back home after being given an injection. He was so sedated that, he immediately went to sleep. I decided that I would play nurse for the day and skip work.

Later that night, at the designated hour, Appa, I and S crowded around the computer to Skype with Amma. We had worked out a deal that, we will not report to Amma about the Senai mishap. Amma was informed about the loss of an Indian Railways father-in-law. She didn’t seem as heart-broken because she was brimming with the excitement of her own news. It seemed that some of my cousins had come home over the weekend before and Amma had dazzled them and made them her slaves forever by giving them Manoharam (that was broken and mildly flavoured with the naphthalene balls in her suitcase). And of course, her world renowned rasam.

We all made appreciative noises and logged off after fixing our next designated call’s date and time.

Appa looked tired and said he wanted to sleep. I was a little worried. He had been unusually silent the whole evening. It could be the drugs, but I wasn’t sure. I forced S to sleep and when I was sure she was asleep, I went to check on Appa. I was guilty. I was feeling stupid. And I was mostly scared. Sometimes, when he stopped snoring, I would tip-toe closer, to check if he was still breathing. And I didn’t feel anything like the twenty-four year old grown up woman. I was a child and my Appa was unwell. It was unfamiliar and unsettling. I wanted my Amma back. And I wanted to have Murungakka Sambhar and the other four dishes that she made, for the rest of my life. Really.

By morning, Appa was better and I woke up to the music of BBC World that Appa was watching. It annoyed me, like it always does.

I woke up a bewildered S violently and told her that, I didn’t need to marry a boy whose father was in the Indian Railways. But I needed to marry someone, who was not allergic to any Kizhangus, not even Senai.

S walked up to the Rani Muthu calendar and peeled away the earlier date. And then she said rather heavily, Amma is not back for another eighty-one days.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Disease, Doctors, Drugs, Devils and Death

Seventy-five years is no age to stay up late and watch television, G Periamma scowled and let everyone know. She looks far from gruntled as she pureed the rice and paruppu concoction for Paati. She looks at me, S and Appa accusingly, as she is now the sole person in-charge of Paati’s well being. Of course, she is not, but we let her to these little delusions.

I have twenty-five percentage heart blockage, she says almost triumphantly, as Appa guiltily averts her gaze.

All of this is T Anna’s fault. No. Really.

Among the many things that Amma had to go through, as preparation before her USA trip, was a MHC (Master Health Check-Up) at the Apollo Hospitals in Chennai.

All of us were shocked. In my family, nobody went to hospitals without a cause. Of course, the sick children made the occasional trip to Child Trust and menopausal women folk went to Vijaya Hospital. For aches and pains, there is the alternative medicine believer Rama Krishna, who recommends Virbhadrasana as the cure for all problems.

Then there is Thatha, who goes to Dr Krishnan, the partly senile and mostly very funny doctor. His diagnosis includes suggestions such as:
1. Sit in temple and say Shiva, Shiva
2. Sit in temple and say Rama, Rama
3. Langanam Parama Aushadam, there are few ailments that can’t be cured by skipping a meal

So, we were naturally shocked at this blatant disregard for tradition, Dr Krishnan and his homeopathic doctor son. Not just this, but the same had to happen at the Apollo Hospitals – the largest money making and tourist attracting destination of the city.

However, three things convinced Amma that she indeed had to go in for an MHC:
1. M Manni’s Amma had got one done prior to her USA visit
2. Since T Anna suggested that the cost of medical facilities were very high in USA, she didn’t want to discover some sudden ailment and burden her son
3. Amma fancies herself as a trend setter of sorts and didn’t want to lose out on an opportunity to be the first in something

The MHC promised to test every known and unknown ailment to mankind. On an impulse G Periamma also decided to get one done too. After all, being a few years senior to Amma meant that she was at a higher risk. Also, she didn’t want Amma to beat her.

I took both Amma and G Periamma for the first round of tests. There was palpable excitement and both Amma and G Periamma decided to do a quick stopover at the Pilayar Kovil before we went to the hospital.

Amma and Periamma had a rather animated discussion on the several possible problems that they might have. Even Chettiar who was riding our auto, looked most amused.

I will definitely have BP, so much tension because of ATP and S, Amma said confidently.

G Periamma volunteered to be the brand ambassador for spondylitis and back problems. Only I know how much I suffer, she said mournfully.

Amma said with empathy, I know what you mean, I know I have arthritis but I can’t stop working because of that. Five years ago, I would run up the Malai Kotai, now I dread at the thought.

Periamma sighed tragically and in manner of her Brahmastram said, but you know, I am sure to have a serious heart problem. So many times I wake up in the middle of the night with such a bad chest pain and your Anna (Periapppa) says that, it is only gas and gives me a Digene. And before he goes back to sleep, he will suggest that I put less paruppu in the sambhar.

Amma thought hard for a retort to beat that, but thankfully for all of us, we reached Apollo just then.

Inside, several maamis and maamas who were possibly going to America were getting their MHCs done too. Amma and Periamma were quick to befriend a random maami. I caught snatches of the conversation, as they behaved like some long lost siblings:
T Nagar va? Yay ! Texas va! Yay. Tirunelveli va ? Yay. My daughter is a journalist but my son is an engineer. Yay! What! That is a polycotton sari va? Amma and G Periamma asked shockingly. Polycot Maami brightened and said conspirationally, there is a store called Shri Aishwarya Sarees at Arcot Street. Yay, Amma and G Periamma gushed and the fans of Shri Aishwarya Sarees had a happy reunion and wondered how they hadn’t run into each other until then.

Before things got more painful, the stern looking nurse came and whisked away Amma and Periamma for the basic tests. So, blood was drawn, urine and stool samples taken and some more blood was drawn.

After these, came the biggie, the tests to ascertain the well-being of the heart. The same happened at the specialty heart hospital close by. The ECG went fine and Periamma looked surprised, disappointed even. The Echo Cardiogram showed a little variation for both Amma and Periamma. Periamma had an I-told-you expression on her face and Amma looked rather anxious.

Will you do the treadmill, the assistant asked? Both Amma and Periamma looked horrified. Amma insisted on going back home and Periamma was ready to weep any moment. Suddenly, inspirationally almost, Periamma asked me to call N Akka, Madras Atthais’s daughter and the only doctor in our extended family.

Isn’t she an ENT doctor, Amma asked? But she is STILL a doctor, Periamma said firmly. Luckily for us, she was around and came to our rescue pronto.
She tried to convince Amma and Periamma to go ahead with the treadmill. Periamma was worried that her Mysore silk Saree was not conducive for huffing and puffing on the treadmill, besides as the eldest daughter-in-law, she thought that Amma should go first. Amma finally relented (and cotton sarees helped her cause) and was given a clean chit because she did admirably well. Between performance anxiety and desire to outdo her sister-in-law Periamma wanted a more humane way to check the condition of her heart. N Akka recommended the 64 Slice CT Scan, which immediately appealed to Periamma. She reasoned that, since eight was her lucky number, the square of it must be twice as lucky. The technicians said that Periamma had a mild problem, but nothing to worry about.

Not to take the opinion of someone who didn’t go through the rigour of five years of medical school, Periamma spent the next two days doing some cutting edge research on the matters of the heart.

Finally, when it was time to show the reports to the doctor, he recommended a minor lifestyle change and some blood thinning medication. Periamma looked less than convinced. Don’t I need a stent, she demanded to know. Not really, the young doctor said, you need to stop using Google though.

I have a twenty-five percent heart blockage, she tells everyone now. She says so with pathos, drama and triumph.

And so, Amma lost and Periamma won.

But Amma also won, as she crossed the last of the hurdles to visit the land of opportunity. And so in the auto drive back home, she went through her mental check-list all over again. Podis: Check. Manoharam: Check. Mug: Check. Sri Rama Jayam Notebook: Check. Lalita Sahasra Namam CD: Check. TM Krishna CD: Check. Grand Sweets Broken Thathai: Check. Special NRI packet of Appalam and pickles from Meena Stores: Check. Ashwini Hair Oil: Check. Multiple copies of ATP’s Jadagam: Check.

Contrary to what Amma thought, we were managing fine. At least until the day before yesterday, when a call came from Periamma. At 4am.

Who might have died, I wondered, as Appa went to pick up the phone. Paati has fainted, Periamma said excitedly, and asked us to come immediately. We rushed and dragged the bewildered S, who was in the middle of some complex Physics problems.

Thatha was asked to repeat the same story and answer the same questions. What did she eat last night? How did you discover that she had fainted? What did you do after that? Was she behaving any differently last evening?

Thatha looked broken, scared and lonely. Thankfully, the doctor came then and told us that all was well with Paati and that it was a minor stress and tiredness related ailment.

Has she been doing something that she ought not to have been doing, Dr Krishnan asked?

Well, yes. She is watching the late night movies on Sun TV. Old B&W movies that are being screened as part of the 75th year of Tamil Cinema, Thatha said.

Who watches late night movies, Periamma thunders? And before I can think of a sharp retort she dramatically clutches her heart.

S and cousin D insisted that we get Tamil movie VCDs, this so that Paati could watch movies sans advertising and during the day. I agreed to the plan and asked Paati what movies she wanted to see. She said, Server Sundaram and Vietnam Veedu.

Vietnam Veedu is our family favourite. Prestige Padmanabha Iyer, the patriarch played by Sivaji evoked much mirth and was Thatha’s role model of sorts.

Thatha cheered as Sivaji came up with yet another out of context English quotation, Disease, Doctors, Drugs, Devil and Death.

Paati snorts derisively, as by now, she has completely recovered.

Thatha instead of reacting, ignores her.

S, the astute one asks Paati if she and Thatha have had a fight?

Yes, she said.

Why, we all asked curiously, temporarily ignoring the movie.

Paati is silent, her lips pursed and looking somewhat guilty.

You won’t believe what Paati has done, Thatha blurted suddenly. She has asked the newspaper vendor to stop The Hindu and gives Times of India from Tamil New Year’s day, because she has got a bag.

What, I say.

How could you do that, I asked Paati accusingly.

Paati looks guilty and then says, you can keep the bag, it is very nice.

I then called the newspaper guy and tell him that we would subscribe to both the newspapers.

Thatha looks pacified and Paati relieved.

Periamma wished to know who would read two newspapers.

S volunteers to read TOI, most generously.

But Paati is now seriously worried that the Rs 300 has turned out to be a wasted investment.

In a bid to be nice her I say, don’t worry Paati we will make more money when we sell old papers. It will be heavy with advertisements.

Hmppfh, Periamma says and demands to know what we shall do with all that money?

Why, we will fund your heart surgery with it, what else, Thatha tells laughingly.

As if on cue, Sivaji laughs loudly, clutches his chest dramatically and dies.

Paati laughed too.