Some of us were born with the sun shining out of our asses.
And with the stories we saw or the stories we lived,
Slowly the world sucked all of our sunshine out, soon filling us up with its shit.
And then they asked us, Why are you so full of it?
The day you remember what you once were
Push it all back out.
The day you remember what you once were,
Go get your sunshine back. There’s still tons of it left in the world.
A man walks into the only tea shop that doesn’t sport animated neon signs in this part of town. He hands over a thermos flask to the owner at the counter stirring the large vessel of boiling milk. He doesn’t utter a word but walks straight in and alights on the cranky red stool against the tea-stained wall.
It’s a line of adjacent shops on this side of the main road – on the other side you have the hospital buildings – the scanning center, casualty, the subsidized medicine store BPL cardholders queue up at.
On this side, the neon lightboards are turned on at least an hour before darkness sets in with dusk – English Medicines in red cursive letters, Hot tea & Biryani in a thick blue font, Vegetarian Restaurant in another. Many announce Tourist Homes – funny they’d call the residents tourists considering none would voluntarily be here.
The signs vie for your attention like a new breed of daily Instagram feed. They would probably have been irrelevant in another part of town but here, in the din surrounding the government hospital, with a hundred people scampering around any time of day and night, it sells.
Attempting to charm when every shop offers the exact same set of items – buckets and mugs, coarse threaded towels and thorth, jugs and steel plates, essential crockery – spoons, knives for families that came away from home in emergency, magazines to lighten your mood, and of course neon lights because every shop has it on this side.
Except this one.
Amidst the cacophony outside, this tea shop slows time down. Maybe because it lacks the urgency of those flashing lights.
The owner takes the flask and fills it with tea, looking for signs of objection from his customer before proceeding – he sees and nods in approval. The man knows his customers well. The ones that want to engage in a bit of chitchat, complain about hospital facilities (or lack thereof), others that want to know if there’s black tea available, some offhandedly commenting on the propensity to rain.
But some just sit on one of his cranky plastic stools, quiet. They’re the ones he wishes God would bless. Though technically he doesn’t believe in God.
He lives with his wife in a one bedroomed apartment in a lane near Medical college junction, big enough for the two of them to keep their few possessions and their TV. Business is good, especially during monsoons when all the dengue kicks up.
Before this, he and his wife sold tea with vadas in a road near the temple at Guruvayur. Business was podipooram there. He woke up at 4 and was at his shop by 4.30 after an ice cold bath and a glass of black tea his wife prepared. Men and women from all walks with their little kids, occasionally older fathers and mothers with their newly wed children and in-laws would arrive in Venad Express in the wee hours, stop for a quick tea at his counter before checking into hotels nearby.
You could see the sleepy-eyed family, kids rubbing their eyes, some threatening to fall off their chairs (there were very few in his shop) before his tea jolted them back to wakefulness. They’d want to know when the queues at the temple were shorter and on what trains they could leave by evening. As day proceeded, his shop would get crowded with people thronging at its steps.
Back then his shop was neater. Life lent his sturdy Communist spine a 12degree bend but he never acceded to his wife’s suggestion of selling Guruvayur appan souvenirs like every other shop nearby – car fixities, chain lockets, rings, pictures for the pooja room, miniatures for the study table, some Guruvayur pappadams.
It was big business – all of it – he could be heard saying often. The sheer number of sweaty weddings with couples and their tiny cohort of relatives that stood in queues, devotees lining up from 5 am until 12, all that money clinking in purses and pockets to make way into the temple chests.
It also made his living.
His wife’s idea would definitely make some extra cash, but he was a non-conformist and didn’t conform. What’s a tea shop got to do with the deity that feeds on all this money? Sell some knickknacks eda, it’s not against our leaders’ ethics, his wife-appointed Communist maaman assured him. Neither is stashing money away in lockers and hitting their wives, he had retorted.
He was not one of them and he was proud of it.
So he had never sold any trinkets at Guruvayur, and when his wife’s arthritis drove them to Trivandrum, he had no neon light adorning the entrance to his shop.
It was practically useless, there were tall yellow lamps at the wide junction that lit up all 7 roads and the vehicles entering. And who keeps boards for Tea? People poured in anyway. This was a reference hospital and people came in without anyone’s invitation. Away from home, the poor needed hot tea for families, for patients in bed, for those in recovery and those awaiting surgery.
He could make small talk – it was part of his job, more so part of his curious mind, but it was the quiet customers he really liked having. Who trusted him to do his work and handed over their apprehensions along with their flasks, at least for the few moments it took him to fill them. It’s a solemn entrustment, for someone else to take charge.
He liked reading too much into things.
His shop was an entry ticket away from the commotion, from blinking neon lights and hurrying hordes. From the suffocation that built up when they had spent a few days at this place and longed to pack up their few belongings, the mat and the newly bought buckets and mugs but mostly the mended patient, and leave.
Of course he couldn’t help them with their son’s raging fever, the mother’s acute pneumonia or the longing for heading back home. But for a few moments, life was back to normal – the two glasses of tea everyday, the only permanent bits in an unpredictable life. It’s why they longed to move out of hospitals onto this side – they could talk about vadas and cricket here and nobody would judge.
Soon enough they’d leave with a word of thanks to the doctor, another word to the person in white and white that nursed them, injecting every dose of prescribed medicine into their vein asking with a smile if it hurt too much.
The guy on the other side in the tea shop who filled their flasks with hot chaya and gave a reassuring nod every morning and evening remains forgotten. The stranger who asked you about your mother’s illness and your hometown. You’ll remember the taste of his tea on the first evening back home and casually mention him as a token. And then you’re allowed to forget all about the shop with no neon lights.
I’ve been rummaging my mother’s wardrobe for hours in search of a blouse to go with my Fabindia Kota saree. I need the two to be glaringly mismatched, like that Carnatic singer-cum-mini celebrity on my Instagram feed. My mother doesn’t seem to get the idea though.
My initial impression on Fabindia was made when at a literature fest in Delhi, I saw their brand worn by seemingly well-read women and
girls ladies. I knew I was moved for life as I watched similarly dressed others on national television express vocally their critique/opinions on issues of the nation-state.
That’s when I decided I too would paint my life not with H&M or colors of Benetton. I was ready to embrace the Fabindia life – not only elegant, in vogue (and ridiculously overpriced) but also a sign of brains, wisdom and good taste. I mean, sure you’ve to wash them separately in shampoo but I don’t mind as long as I distinguish myself as an intellectual. The JNU kind.
The sari of course must be draped carefully to look careless enough. That somehow lets everyone know I stand for Indian culture and ethnic produce. And my solidarity with impoverished artisans.
All those ajrakh prints in indigo and maroon that are expensive enough to kill, but worth it because they announce my elite upper class or at least upper middle class status. Urban,
classy, refined, English-educated and well-grounded with the Indian way of life. (Because I have an enriched vocabulary with phrases such as impoverished artisans etc).
To be worn with mismatched blouses – not because I can’t afford to match them (are you kidding me?) but because that’s the brand.
You know, that Fabindia look.
The stuff goes great with shades so I can step in and out of my (armchair) liberal look whenever I want to. You can stop judging me, at least I care about equality. And human rights.
Also, I paid for this shit.
I mean, this isn’t your 200/- kurta that was bought on a bargain off the streets, this was available only in 4 sizes catering to international standards, the smallest size available was still GIGANTIC for the native me to fit into but I still took it. I deserve some respect.
It’s almost sad how some alter them though – hand them over to tailors seated behind rusted sewing machines. If all you wanted was for the clothing to fit, you might as well have shopped at Max. But of course I support individual’s right to choices (now that I don my liberal attire). One should shop wherever they want to.
My Fabindia style was also inspired by a certain left-leaning uncle, who happens to be a women-empowerment evangelist. Back in the day he had my aunt quit her job to feed his insatiable stomach three times a day. I mean, food is important you know? Fabindia hangs loose and comfy against his throbbing skin on blood that’s boiling for (other) women’s rights.
I haven’t been to Sarojini Nagar since I got my first fat paycheck – the chaotic air and the crowd slathering their sweaty bodies against mine isn’t worth it, I realized. Again, I’m too busy attending the meet-up/litfests I mentioned before. Now I’m one of them.
Although I admit I have heard awful things being accused of the Fabindian style – ‘not everybody can afford it’. But come on it’s affordable for almost all, I cry.
All except the impoverished artisans. And you.
I mean if everyone could afford it, I would go unnoticed in a sea of kalamkari weaves and ajrakh prints – that isn’t the status symbol I pay for. I seem to have mentioned classy, make that class-marker, shall we.
The other day, an ambitious junior walked into my cubicle while I was browsing through the website catalog on my PC. “That seems like a reasonable price for a Fabindia kurta. I can finally afford one myself”, she seemed delighted.
“Dear”, I tell her, genuinely apologetic and squishing a fly that as its final bad decision landed on my 9k Kota sleeve. “That’s the price of the dupatta the model’s wearing with the kurta, not the kurta itself”, I had to explain to the poor girl (no pun intended).
Thank god Fabindia upholds its values.
Hopefully she knows she can buy an entire wardrobe at Sarojini market for that money (make that four).
The dyes from both places are going to run out when you wash their clothes anyway.
I hit “post” on my new Instagram picture captioned “Couldn’t find a blouse to match but this doesn’t look too bad does it?” hashtag ethnic hashtag handloom hashtag Indian fashion.
Afterthought : I feel qualified enough now to add hashtag human rights. Another picture, maybe.
HELLO MY NAME IS UGLY
Do not be fooled when they tell you
but and beautiful’-
You’re fat, strong and beautiful
You’re skinny, enduring and beautiful
It just means you aren’t good-looking
It means they’re happy to not be switching lives.
I’ll let that sink in.
I’ve been called something
With a side of beautiful, for far too long
“For your soul” they said
But they haven’t even heard my story yet.
You know what I’d like to hear?
What they really mean.
So tell me I look ugly
Tell me I’m not the fairest nor prettiest
Nor anywhere close to being lovely
And I would thank you for not being nice
It’s not an insult to me, nor do I find it impolite.
Tell me I don’t fit into any of the
Boxes you’ve created
For a box with my name on it isn’t to have your signature
So save the sugarcoated BS for another day,
And I’ll take your compliment with a smile.
Give me some credit for being ‘strong’ –
I’ve lived with this for a while.
Ugly is aesthetic and I can deal with that
Know that I too am happy not exchanging lives.
And I maybe inspiring, I maybe wise, I maybe all that YOU claim I am
But please do not call me beautiful just yet.
I haven’t even shared with you my story yet.
My mother is vehemently promoting mud vessels in the kitchen, disapproving all things aluminum. I have reason to believe she would’ve done away with steel as well were it practical. Hence it is that I’m ladling simmering moru curry in a mud-vessel (one of three we have at home) with a steel spoon at 6:55am.
I’m not usually up at 6:55am. You would think I’m a spoilt brat but truth is, my brain is wired to be in dazed mode for the rest of the day when I wake up even 60 seconds before seven. I only survived JK’s 5am Physics tuition because I loved him.
But I’m early today. Up because I was never down. Last night was mostly fretting over our pregnant cat who disappeared day before yesterday and hasn’t returned. She had been lying on a cushioned settee since evening, decided to leave by 11 and hasn’t visited all of yesterday.
When I say ‘Our Cat’, if you’re Malayali you’d know she’s not really Our Cat. Poocha’s here are like the jackfruit/mango/coconut trees in our compounds (famously called “chakka-manga-thenga” trio. Some call it a distasteful usage – Where did you get that from they ask, unimpressed. Why, everywhere. And everyone. 😀 Now shut it.)
So yes, cats are like them – you have at least one by default if you live in a house, as opposed to living in a flat/apartment. You cannot keep your own cat or grow your own mango tree if you live in a flat.
We’ve always had cats because we’ve always lived in a house, and we’ve always been an especially cat/animal-friendly family. I’m not sure but I think central to Malayali cats hanging around kitchens is the fact that they expect all our fish. Cat-human relationships must be sad in non-fishy states?
They start by walking in and out the kitchen door to make sure the Mother spots them. The key is to remember – Humans love to say No the first time around – it’s their privilege. The rejection and almost outright denial of entry to the kitchen/house must ALWAYS emanate from the mother. This has to be followed by gradual cozying up – to the kids first, later to mother herself who holds key to fish and everything else cats want.
Meanwhile, your dog has already welcomed this other tiny(ier) being. Sometimes, the canine even starts aping the tinier one because they exude such mettle and spunk. And a You can pet me but nobody owns me vibe.
With nobody to stop them now (fathers are quite irrelevant in the cat world), this is followed by an invasion of the settee and sofa – one by one until humans have acquiesced to the claims of the new member on family furniture and acceded to the revised norms around the house.
Then the cat would relax, have kids and more kids until you can draw out their family tree in your head to explain who is whose who to bored relatives.
Our own poochakutti – not really kutti and not really ours – has given birth at least thrice, this must be his fourth. (we refer to him as avan/eda *masculine). Yesterday, Amma had saved up three fat fish heads for him but he never showed up. It was a sad day.
So I was wondering last night if he would be holed up somewhere warm, how many kittens there would be and so on.
The moru curry is almost done when my mother announces “Well look who’s back finally” and I only want to know “Are the kittens still inside”.
They are out yay. 😀
I forgot to mention the final step after House Invasion – the lap. Which was also the last/best scene from Poochakkutikalude Veedu by T. Padmanabhan (Nalinakanthi). When it was taught in class X I remember smiling broadly – it’s a scene from home, of course –
My mother doesn’t pet cats or kittens, she disapproves of excessive PDA to them.
Some days when we got back in the evenings from school, Amma would be reading the daily, seated unusually steady. With only her glasses and forehead visible, the paper would block the rest of her from view. When you got close enough you’d see the four-pawed little thing seated on her lap with its limbs under its body, eyes engrossed in meditation and the human striving to let it stay unperturbed. 😀
Day 1 – “I’m just feeling a little tired, and a lot sleepy in the afternoon”
Day 2 – “Just a little tired”
Rest of the week – “Oh I’m killing this. Guess I’m just one of those people that can live on 3 hours of sleep a day. I KNEW IT!”
Saturday – *collapses*
*doesn’t get out of bed for 4 days*
Hard-boiled eggs, ham sandwiches, bacon, jars of potted meat, scones and homemade jam, crusty loaves of freshly baked bread, slabs of butter, fresh farm cheese, red radishes and lettuce, apple pies, short bread biscuits and homemade lemonade. Ring a bell? There’s more –
Tongue sandwiches (that’s the giveaway), cold ham, bacon and egg sandwiches, pork pies, tinned sardines, bars of chocolate, potatoes gleaming with melted butter, jars of fresh clotted cream, fruit cake, jugs of milk, cherry tarts, and ginger beer.
(I got real hungry when I put this list together).
Food Writing must be the best thing in the world – in what other genre would you not be irked by the author’s overuse of ‘fresh’? Fresh farm cheese and fresh clotted cream are a blessing!
I first read Enid Blyton without a clue of what scones/bacon/tarts/pies were and could only hope tongue sandwiches didn’t serve real tongue. When Famous Five and Secret Seven went on their picnic/teaparties, I would re-read the list of foods they got packed, savoring every single one, slowly. As if drooling the first time wasn’t enough.
The Faraway Tree with its Land of Goodies and Birthdays was every kid’s dream treat, though after sometime I restlessly turned pages to find the Land of Stationery (there was none). I mean what about tiny, aesthetic perfect-edged Faber Castell erasers? What kid isn’t obsessed with sketchpens and color pencils? Only flavored jellies and macaroons, honey-filled pop cakes, popsicles and icecream, pound cakes dipped in white candy and Blyton’s regulars of boiled eggs, ham, bacon and cucumber sandwiches could make up for it.
But the start-of-term Great Feast fare in Hogwarts was never as tempting as a plainly-written Enid Blyton afternoon-tea menu. Roast chicken, boiled and mashed potatoes are all I recall (and the movie scene where Ron chows down chicken legs). Of course there were grand coursemeals with bacon, beef, lamb and steak, Yorkshire pudding and gravy, but I was happiest during The Burrow visits, where Molly Weasley perpetually tipped sausages and fried eggs onto plates and sent extra helpings of chicken pie flying around.
Would I want to indulge in the elaborate spreads described in books? Not really, rousing (or is it torturing) my senses is indulgence enough. And only Enid Blyton can make cucumber sandwiches seem so appetizing.
Though I’d like to taste the gruel/porridge from Oliver Twist – because the way Sister Pramila mouthed “thin watery soup“ in Class 6 English made it sound like she regularly prepared it at the convent and it was in fact delicious.
And French onion soup! There was so much of it in the Harry Potter series, it pushed me to google the recipe (I mean I’m not that kind of person). I had pictured it a faded pinkish-brown, with soggy yet not mushy half-rings of onion submerged in a thick creamy broth. Savory than sweet.
Maybe I’ll try cooking it someday.
I like soup.
PS : I think this is the most fun I’ve had making a blogpost. My salivary glands are exhausted.