#7 Postcard – The librarian

Saturdays are good because you can leave the library an hour earlier than usual. Saturdays are also Bring your kids to work day. If Miss Dena from admin office brought Bella Anne to the library, M’s two girls would be upset to leave by 5.

Saturdays are good because you can leave the library an hour earlier than usual. Saturdays are also Bring your kids to work day. If Miss Dena from admin office brought Bella Anne to the library, M’s two girls would be upset to leave by 5. After saying their goodbyes, the children would run in circles in the outside lawns until Miss Dena raised her voice, and M would have to put on her stern face.

The downtown library crowd was more engaging than the South East branch where M was posted the first six months. There, the crowds were mostly parents dropping by after work to pick up books for their kids, always asking for recommendations (the South East branch stayed open till 8).

In downtown, the weekday crowd spanned university students, retirees and stay-at-home parents with their toddlers. They were also more patient in the queues to drop the books, actively participated in workshops, and took their time to learn the automated check-out and check-in machines – even Carla who was 84, one of their oldest patrons, and still visited regularly during the pandemic. It was partly why she enjoyed working in a library, a similar crowd at a Walmart line would no doubt form a disgruntled bunch.

So many of those self-help counters had stood empty for over a year now. The staff still regularly stacked the New Releases shelves, updated audio books on the website, and had recently refurnished the top floor lounge, although occupancy was down to less than 20%.

Saturdays were more idle because there would be no inventory arrivals, no new Interlibrary Requests to process. M sat at the reception with Bullock, the young assistant who had recently moved from the west coast, and talk about the California housing crisis (It was home, but I already love Texas). The kids would spend time in their section on the third floor without bother (except that time almost two years ago when they first tried to open the Emergency door, sending alarms and the security running, and her heart almost rose to her throat as she rushed to the elevator). Most summer Saturdays they would be occupied in workshops – origami-making, marble painting and crafts – attended by the staff’s young children, pre-teens from town and a handful of sportive adults.
Hardly anyone had attended them in South East location, but who thought it was a good idea to open a branch near a factory site?


In the evening once the girls were downstairs, Bullock would let them grab office stationery from her desk – marker pens, custom HB pencils and colored paper. M would then take them to Flying Fish across the Museum of Art, leaving their bags in the car. The girls always got fish and chips with extra dip and a soda drink, she would have the catfish sandwich with iced tea. Sometimes they’d order a plate of calamari rings. (Only once, when the kids were off on summer camp, she had tried their margarita with the then-assistant).

The grill had a wall dedicated to polaroids of first-visits, there was a picture of the three of them pinned up there from their first day at the place. That was also the day the emergency alarm went off, there was no Dena or Bullock present, it had been a lonely rollercoaster Saturday with the kids. Nonetheless, having them spend weekend at the library was a huge convenience.

M listened as the two of them munched and talked about how many books Stephanie read that day (Paula did not like to read), or how they had dozed off during the recycling workshop. Some days they bumped into Mrs. Sanders on her way back from the university.

As they drove home, the girls argued about whether they should move to California themselves (everyone is pretty there like Miss Bullock, that must be real boring, it went on). M looked at the weekend or what remained of it at her disposal. Tomorrow she had to run the laundry, sew the pinafore sleeve Paula had torn earlier in the week, and get the long pending car-wash. But tonight she’d finish the dishes while water filled in her tub, proceed to light those bath candles that’d been lying in her bottom drawer for over half a year, and then she could attend to the new release of Murakami, waiting in her tote bag.

From the Origami workshop at Arlington Public library
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A Tropical Sunday

A tropical Sunday from 5 years ago

Sundays without practice are rare. Opening the Whatsapp group (renamed the previous night to Practice at 9) with a half-open eye at 8:50 on Sunday morning, only to see the latest message ‘no practice’ – heavenly. It’s afternoon, my stomach is full from all that kappa and meen curry, and I have a nap to look forward to and I also look forward to waking up hungry so I can go downstairs and eat more of that.

If you’re from a tropical place you’d know a Sunday lunch isn’t lunch if you haven’t sweated profusely either during, before or after it (I know it’s a tropical thing because Mark Wiens shares the sentiment). The kitchen is hot and humid, so is the market, so is the car, so is everything. Nobody wants to be outside but it’s Sunday so you have to sweat.

I should’ve aimed for a productive Sunday but it’s Sunday, and all that sun is going to lull me to sleep.

I should draw the curtains before falling into a nap, otherwise I’ll be sweating like shit when I wake up. Why are Sundays so drawn out yet so similar and short?


I wake up sweating like shit anyway, my back unpleasantly drenched, face sweaty, the sun bathing my room in all that light even with a single window open. The world outside is bright and blinding at 4, a distant jackfruit tree in my neighbor’s backyard hissing in the hot afternoon breeze. I stretch my arms, and the black pants I wore to market with Achan earlier falls to the floor.

Ugh.

I look around and the room is still messy. I cannot believe my room is still messy. It was messy before I fell asleep, it was messy when I was 15. It’s messy now at 20. It looks glorious in the sun though, all the colors (read clothes) on the single bed, encroaching onto the double one. And on the rack. I must find time at night to clean up, I’ve been judged my whole life for a messy room.

Well at least I have stuff on the walls, that should offer some redemption. Why can’t people just watch Jack Sparrow and the weird cat stickers on the walls and ignore the rest of the room? And David Beckham shining in the rays, who I’m not even a fan of but Tessa gifted that when I was 14? Why’s that still hanging on the shelf? How have I not noticed? The last time I noticed it I was 15 and rearranging this room and adding an embarrassing handmade curtain on the steel book shelf.
Has anyone else noticed?

I want to sleep, but WAIT THERE’s KAPPA. That’s why I welcomed sleep in the first place. Do you know how horrible it is to fall asleep, wake up to realize there’s nothing nice to eat? If not you can never appreciate a sleep with the knowledge that something nice awaits for when you wake up.

Upstairs at 4 is just bright sunlight everywhere, it’s blinding. (Luckily I didn’t need glasses and didn’t get headaches when I was 20). Okay, Amma’s outside in the garden-slash-rainforest. The tiles are still warm and the day still bright.

“Harvesting aana amma?”

“This is the second batch,” she says holding up her cupped palms filled with kovakka. She’s also munching on them. I pick two sturdy looking light-green ones (that’s how you know they’re not ripe/bitter inside) and throw them in my mouth, proceeding to carry them all in my t-shirt crinkled basket.

I have never understood how people dressed up neatly at home. I probably dressed nice from 5-9, from 10-15 I’d rather not look at what I wore at home, repeat for 16-19. In a lot of pictures from those days I wear a shiny shorts from my brother’s jersey set (I had like 4 or 5 of them*), and one of his tee shirts I had picked up, or some random top from my cupboard that I wore like a derelict. 100% of the time I looked like someone who received terribly mismatched clothes from a donation.

The pictures are hard to look at. My mother never had issues with what I wore though. And the pictures are unbearable I tell you, and I have confronted my mother in later times on how she could let her only daughter walk around like that.

“There’s more,” I proceed to the creeper to pluck. “How long you been here.”

She tells me what she’s been up to while the rest of us have been on our Sunday siesta.

“Ottum orangeelle!” She slept a while. She’s really happy when she’s out here and lights up like a child every time there’s a rose blooming, and its close-ups end up in her Camera gallery. She also loves attending flower exhibitions and clicking photos at odd close-up angles, the latter also with couples at their wedding receptions. (I never got it back then but guess some 5 years later I click trees and gardens wherever I go as well.)

I’m looking out for the really young and tiny ones now, like the ones where the wilted flower is still intact, they’re probably a couple of days old and are super crunchy. They go straight into my mouth. I’m a bad person.

There’s a wind and all the mango trees and the curry leaves and everything else in the forest sing. Not dry rustling leaves on the ground but healthy, rich and evergreen bunches thick on tall branches. Tender curry leaves and long mango leaves and fat broad ones on the jackfruit tree plant which never grew up. There’s usually also tiny birds on the chembarathi, often attacking at my brother’s window with their sharp tiny beaks.

I ask if there’s tea.

“Illa,” she answers in a duh way. Sunday tea is late unless I’m ravenous and there’s nothing to eat and I prepare tea in a fit to calm myself down.

“Well it’s hot here I’m going inside, is anything on TV”

“Arinjudade, nokeella” (yes she is from Kollam :D)

I proceed back inside with my t-shirt harvest cup – and plunk transfer them on to the dining table. There’s a brass vase-like holder (that doesn’t match the table) which I should probably use but it stays empty. If I were hungry enough I’d chomp down all of it myself, but today there’s kappa so that’s where I’m going and couldn’t care less.


Later in the evening

I’m sitting on the verandah entrance with my tea cup, legs spread on the lower steps. (Pictures of the pose exist, they’re terrible). One of the things about tea is drinking out of a cup you like, and figuring over time just how strong you need it to be (and just how much) to relax, and how much to refresh. I notice how dark(er) my knees have become from that single knee drop step in the choreo, and a solar-system shaped blob from childhood that persists. I had claw marks from our poochas criss-crossing all over my two arms and my perennial concern during ages 7-9 was what if they’re permanent, how would I explain them to others (as I am now) for the remainder of my life that I wrestled with cats to take their ticks out? They’re gone now, so will this blob sooner or later I guess.



I now drink from a Walmart mug, but then I’m 25 26 now, after many effortful attempts the tea is prepared in a microwave and for better or for worse, I’m okay with that. Unlike the claw marks, I can still find the solar system somewhere in there if I look hard enough.

#7 And never grow up

Remember when you were a kid and fell sick? The whole world just reduced to a bed-ridden little you wrapped in blankets and your mother who sat by your bed and attended to you 24×7, who showed up by your side every 2 hours with oranges, ORS and medicine while you ate and drank everything she asked you to even while making faces? You knew she was going to make it right.

Or how even after growing up, on a really bad day the world could reduce to essentially just that?

Yea.

Monsoon Diaries : Poochakuttikalude veedu (Home to the Cats?)

Cats are like the jackfruit-mango-coconut (chakka-manga-thenga) tree trio in Kerala. You keep at least one of them in your house.

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. 😀

 

Monsoon Diaries : Steel tumblers and tea in steel tumblers

I can drink tea directly from the steel tumbler at home – the smaller one with the steel handle – only when I have prepared it. Because with Amma’s tea there’s enough only for 4 modest-sized glasses (or 5 or 6, based on how many of us are missing from home), no more. And why would you drink from a tumbler if your glass had as much (tea) to offer? Unless you didn’t want to bother washing that extra glass.

We also have in our kitchen the steel tumbler with the steel handle in a bigger size, it lets me pretend I’m chaya-adikaling (beating tea?) over the kitchen sink that temporarily functions as a spillover tank for the tea I send flying all over. Usually little, if any, is left by the time I’m done performing the rhythmic beating (adikal).

Image result for south indian tea shop gifA scaled-down demonstration of beating tea. When you really perform the act, it should look something like this :downloadBeating tea/Chaya adikaling (to scale) for people who haven’t witnessed the sorcery. I’m a bad witch, I guess. Also a bad translator.

I specifically mentioned the steel handle of the steel tumblers because we also have in our kitchen a steel tumbler about the same size with a black plastic handle that we take kanjivellam (rice water), and occasionally tendercoconut water in. We don’t use it for much else, it lays abandoned in an unwieldy corner of the kitchen until somebody falls sick. And then all of a sudden it is everywhere you look.
(Kanjivellam has been claimed by Malayali Achans and Ammas and Ammummas and Appoopans to have high nutritious quality. Some go as far as assigning analgesic, antiseptic and antibiotic properties to the magical drink).

Since the arrival of June, the steel tumbler for kanjivellam with the plastic handle has taken over my home.

 


Evenings are for tea.
Mornings are also for tea but morning chaya would be Amma’s monopoly.
I like to be generous with tea, both for myself and others. It helps that I’m bad at discerning proportions, unlike my mother. There is not too much difference in our processes, only in our products.

Amma’s chaya (served in glasses) :

1. Pour enough water in the vessel for 4/5/6 people
2. When it boils, add enough Kannan Devan Tea powder aka chayappodi
3. Add enough boiled milk followed by enough sugar

Define enough? Quite ambiguous yet not exactly uncertain, rather open to interpretation. Are we doing modern art?
Enough is enough!

My chaya (served in glasses and a tumbler) :

1. Pour water in the vessel. Take some out if I think it’s waay too much but otherwise I do not meddle. Like I said, I’m generous. A little too much water = a little too much tea. And that never hurt anybody. No?

2. Add tea powder when the water boils – enough chayappodi to color all the liquid, doesn’t matter what shade as long as it appears brown. (If not, you probably shoved in the wrong condiment. Throw out the water discreetly and start over).

3. Add milk – how much ever is left in the paal paathram (also did I mention I’m generous).

4. Time for more tea powder because you knew that was waay too much milk before I even added it.
Yes indeed, waay too much is Amma’s daughter’s catchword.
Define waay too much? That’s cute, you’ll know.

5. Sugar, usually followed by some more tea powder. More sugar. What? Be generous.

And there you have it. The path to attaining high BP. But that never killed anybody. No?

 

I was middle class before being middle class was cool

I lived a major part of my life thinking we’re a poor family. It started when I was really young, like 5 or 6, was confirmed by the time I was 7 or 8, and stayed until I was done with my 10th (15 years). By ‘poor’ I don’t mean unable to afford meals, but more like we have the bare minimum and nothing more. Of course we weren’t anywhere close to rich, but I was young and I didn’t know there existed such a thing called ‘middle class’.

Yes we were middle class before being middle class was cool.

(Although I thought we were just poor).

I mean we’d lived in staff quarters since I was born (Engineering quarters till I was 4 and then Medical college quarters), I never owned more than 5 presentable (to non- relatives) clothes at a time, 4 cousins shared one double bed during summer vacations. That might be enough for a regular child but me being the self-centred kid I was, it was the more personal stuff that convinced me we were poor.

My parents were of the opinion that Manichechi (my aunt) already spoiled me by buying everything I wanted so they were under no obligation to make matters worse.

For starters, I never got any dolls from my parents – Barbie or otherwise – the fact that I never wanted any doesn’t matter. All little girls need dolls, okay? Buy your own daughter some dolls, for my sake. And when they paint monsters on the faces and detach all the limbs like I did is when you stop, knowing that she doesn’t deserve any. I also innocently checked under the frock for underwear (there wasn’t one), probably would’ve highlighted them as well.

In the evenings, Maami our maid cooked us snacks. On Maggi days, she boiled a single packet of Maggi and apportioned the noodles onto three plates. One packet for three okay?

These were only subtle hints my parents were throwing at me. There were more cruel ones.

I don’t think anybody could relate to Swamy (from Malgudi Days of course) more than I could. (Well maybe Achu Annan could). When Swamy prepared the Shopping list for Swamy and had to think hard to make sure those few things he jotted down were the only ones he needed and reflected at how his needs were so little, I must tell you I already knew he was stretching it a bit too far. Of course only to have the list brutally dismissed by his father’s “Take whatever you want from my drawer, I don’t have money to spend on all this.” I was relieved to know there existed other households like mine, if only in books.

The first time I asked my father explicitly for pencils (I don’t know why I remember it this way but it was really explicit) he cheerfully replied “Oh why didn’t you tell me you wanted them” and bought me a whole packet of Apsara HB. The next time I decided to cheerfully ask since I had such a considerate father, he asked me what I’d done with the bunch he bought me the last time.

You needed to reason for everything. Buying groceries at the Margin Free Market, he’d stand in billing queue with the full basket and say “Now go grab whatever else you want quick”. Pleasantly surprised (it was my first time, how would I know?), I picked up no less than what my tiny arms couldn’t carry. My father cross-checked the items and only what I really needed went in, plus 3 kitkats.

Next time on I had to pick things up before he stood in the queue so he could filter out Paru’s excesses. Trips to Margin Free ended that way, me attempting a critical examination of my own choices (really I was only trying to decide what I could hope to coax him into buying).

We always bought new clothes for Onam and Christmas and Deepavali but it was usually my uncles and aunt who took us shopping so I assumed we probably didn’t have much money to spend on that, or whatever grownup reason they had. And we never owned anything fancy at home or to wear.

At British Library we could pick 5 books among the 3 of us from WonderLand kids’ section (alright 2 since Achu Annan hardly cared about it) and I was under so much pressure to finish reading as many books as possible while we were there so I could take home other books. And I would negotiate with Kannenan, how many do you want to take? 3? Why are you picking THAT it doesn’t even look nice – if you’re taking 3 today it’ll be my turn to take 3 the next time. (*scrunches up face* you HATE books, why’d you do that to me Mr.Kannan, why?)

British library taught me I should always space my kids properly.

Also our Medical college quarters was so stuffed with all the furniture. During powercut nights you could hear Lagaan songs playing from Achu Annan’s Walkman and I would be choreographing my way through all the clutter, dancing wondrously until my toe hit against a stupid tea-pow. I’ve learned over the years that no matter how big/small the living room or even the house, my father will find a way to fill it with furniture.

So the time that I was very young I don’t know if I thought we were poor as in poor poor (‘tight’), but I knew that our lives had a lot of constraints. Also read : you can’t always get what you want, you may almost never get what you want unless your parents are in a good mood, ESPECIALLY if it involves spending money. And I took it upon me to correct them if any friends had the notion that ‘college professors and doctors earn reaally well’. (I don’t anymore since they revised the Pay scales).

I only realized when I was 15 that I’d vaguely thought of us to be people without money. (Some things you don’t realize, they’re solemnly understood, or something like that.) What happened when I was 15? My second brother went to college somewhere poor families probably don’t send their kids – no it wasn’t somewhere superposh but you don’t know how unresourceful I thought we were. You should’ve seen my face when I asked Amma if we could afford it and she replied with a suddenly formal ‘both your parents have been working since before you were born, we should be able to afford education’.

I was furious with her for almost a month after for letting me believe we were poor (it’s still true we didn’t have a lot of money) but of course I was happy we weren’t anymore. Not that we lived any different post-realization.

From time to time I complain to Amma about how I had to compress all my Shopping Lists for Paru just like Swamy did, and how having 3 kids was a bad idea and they should’ve had just me. Well you turned out fine (define fine? :D), she says, now get a good job and you can have kids and raise them the way you want.

She only says that cos I already told her if I ever have kids I’ll leave it upto her to raise them.

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Also, 2 kids maybe fun but 3 is the best 😀

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