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The tea shop with no neon lights

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.

:D :D :D

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

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. 😀

 

Nammade Ooru Keralam – a rant

Some people we meet know exactly what they want and where to find it. Like my roommate Umadri, who’s lucky enough to know she loves good music and yummy Afghani chicken. Her only roommate on the other hand hops from place to place, tasting samosas deep fried in God-knows-how-many-weeks-old oil at the first joint and quickly conjured chowmein at the next, consequently contracting infections one after the other.

While I am thoroughly exhausted of this exercise, in my two months in this city I have found that while writing is liberating, blogging (which is essentially publishing within constraints) brings me happiness.

I remember the day Miriam asked me to start blogging, and I did.

I remember the day Miriam suggested I come to Delhi. Two weeks later, I’d landed in this place.

While that woman (so to speak) is to blame for all that I’m suffering today, it also suggests she’s responsible for my ongoing slow process of correcting the 22 years of wrong info my system has unapologetically gathered, including my coming to terms with the realization that after all, Veerappan wasn’t the LTTE leader I’d mistakenly believed to be from the days of my childhood until umm two weeks ago.

She’s also responsible for the little dance I do and my shrieks of delight when I find that the entire back page of The Hindu has been administered to accommodate Modi ji’s thala and Modi ji’s full figure. (Chalo ek page kum padhni hai 😜)

So venturing out in the morning these days involves thanking the Gods for the (relatively) clean air in the early hours  and taking a deep breath, only to chokingly realize the unwelcome stench from the dry latrine on the other side of the road just made its way in too. And I’ve almost christened a blessing on that Good Samaritan feeding the famished stray, not before he rakes up his entire energy to passionately discharge spittle onto the pavement sending half of it on a trajectory to land on my shoe.

If you can watch Delhi’s starless skies on brilliant nights that tell a story of steady cacophony below and nonchalant splendor above, and somewhere far away that speaks of corporate neon lights from a concert hidden from your view, that you don’t have tickets to and that you aren’t sure you want to. If you can look past the cramped dirty streets  and the dirtier profanity that IPhone wielders to your surprise indulge in, if you can catch hold of the multitude of roofs around occupied by bhayyas and didis lost in thought and fathom it’s all in good faith in the future and never desperation. If you can look past the pasted and painted faces on the Metro standing on their five-inch heels and insecure glances of self-reassurance, past the daily number of little kids buying icecream/golgappe from other kids who’d have been called classmates had the RTE really trickled down, maybe you could love Delhi.

Because surely this city is, like many others claim to be, an emotion. Whether the emotion of flying kites on rooftops/eating dahi chaat on a rainy day, or of an entire city that let a man bleed to his death on its roads in its wake, I know not.

Sadly though, I love my iddali (with an ‘a’ in between, yes), I instinctly look for thenga (coconut) before remembering it isn’t thoran but sabzi. I am baffled by the sweet sambar before I’m reminded it isn’t our sambar. And I miss listening to Velikku Veluppan Kaalam and Aareyum Bhava Gayakanakkum on Akashavani. Jk, that was around 18 years ago. But I do.

And if streets with all sorts of rubbish and a dust-spangled surrounding don’t repulse you, if the daily menu of paratha and thin long grained basmati rice doesn’t exasperate you, if being charged 30 rupees for a plate of measly vada doesn’t leave you feeling violated. If hearing a “Thankyeww soo muchhh” delivered in authentic Kerala English doesn’t evoke your grinning response of “Malayali ayrnnalle :D”(So you were a Malayali). And mostly, if a couple of weeks’ residence in (most) other parts of the country doesn’t elicit a special sense of pride about your own (and of course a rant like this one here), you probably weren’t fortunate enough to be born in my favourite part of the world.

PS: Do not ask me why this feature pic. Between banana leaf sadyas and coconut tree silhouettes, coastlines and backwaters, cities and towns and villages and sunsets and greenery and the arts, finally I settled on this I guess.

Evenings away from home

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It’s 6.30pm and it’s baking outside. Better than it was at say 10, or even 3. But still hot. The sky is a tasteless greyish blue, and you spot the tiny orange ball so elusively far from you it makes you feel lonelier than you were before. Evenings are the worst time to be when away from home. Especially if Kerala is home.

Unlike Delhi, where it’s evening till 7.30 and then it’s night, you’re used to evenings that metamorphose into dusk before they turn into nights.

In Kerala we have a (proper) slow evening whereafter, as twilight sets in, mothers hastily wake up lazy tots and grown-up kids saying “Sandhya ayi”, who then go back to sleep again. It’s the time reserved for evening prayers and, on text, study. It’s the holy hour and it really does extend for an hour. Celebrated by the scents of incense and the sight of oiled wicks and brass lamps that you so endearingly associate with your mother’s perennial “Velaku kathicho” (Did you light the lamp). On other days, an exasperated Amma does it on her own. But you always went there so you could cheat on an extra agarbati and carry it to your room. As the thin wafts of smoke rose while you held the stick, you danced it so that the grey grew patterns, you watched them against the dark. You also fancied it to be a cigarette when you were young, and held it between your teeth before the biting sweet burnt your tongue.

Evenings at home are chaya always prepared latest by 6 by Amma. But I do make it better – I’m good at cooking only one thing but at that, I’m the self-declared best. I brew it strong, which can raise BP and induce a whole lot of other disorders according to elders. Your mother would keep asking to check if you’ve had your tea, you’d reply “I’ll have it, Amma” till with a loud sigh she’d bring it to you. You’d unabashedly grin and drink without complaints. She never complains either.

Evenings at home are the huge – indeed they’re bigger back home – orange ball slowly traversing the sky in an arc till it disappears in the horizon, or amidst a thick green of coconut trees as dusk approaches. Traffic peaks too – after-office hours. Many would be rushing home in terrifyingly cramped KSRTC buses and overcrowded pavements, some unlucky others would be making their way to night shifts. Amidst all of this, the trees would be gently swaying – relishing the retreating evening sun and the slow-cooling air. Now that I think of it, everything back home is against the backdrop of a cheerfully brilliant and imposing green.

Because concrete roofs do not define us, coconut trees do. Sunsets mean a lot to us too – perhaps you’d like to call it consequential to having a beach. And perhaps you could never expect a city without one to resonate that.

What pacifies you in these passive evenings is knowing that someplace else, somewhere a little far for you and 4 hours away for an air-passenger, the same sun is setting amidst undifferentiated green and a beautifully painted sky, somewhere not too far from there are kids frolicking in the wet sand and families watching the playful waves as the sun touches the horizon. And a bus-ride from there is your home, a vessel of still-warm tea waiting for you as Amma lights the evening lamp.

It’s raining!

My favourite season is here. To sit on the window seat of a KSRTC bus watching the looming clouds and romanticizing the things they’ve seen on the way. To sip steaming chaya and munch on piping hot ethakkappam from the overcrowded tiny tiffin shack that everyone scurries into as the downpour thickens. To sit on the verandah reading your favourite book and drinking hot kappi. To watch the shadowed buildings and the shady skies with your companion to decide if it’ll pour. To dotingly complain about not having picked the umbrella Amma handed on your way out, then carelessly remark ‘Maybe the dams will fill this time’ or hope ‘the rains don’t destroy our crops’. To sleep in, blissfully unaware of the position of the sun. The best weather in God’s own Country.

They said on the news a day ago that monsoon’s finally arrived. Of course I knew, it’s been raining heavily out the window directly facing my bed and indeed in other parts of the state for some days now. I’ve also been conveniently using it to explain my laziness to get out. Before, I abused sleeping late and before that it was the summer heat.

So I no longer have to spend time listening to Neeraduvan, wondering rather poignantly what waterbody would’ve replaced Nila had my future husband written the lyrics, and of course how lucky ONV’s wife is. After squeezing myself in amidst all the other stuff that occupies it, I can now lie on my bed and  watch as the sky, murky with the heavy clouds, tosses light breezes down below tugging at our frames. Soon to throw long heavy showers that send forth the cool of moist air and the comfort of familiar odours into half-lit rooms, invading the stagnant warmth and introducing the new season.

And I pretend to be a blogger seeking inspiration, before sleep lures me in rather unprofessionally.

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