Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I was initiated to the eternal battle of the sexes – the tug-of-war between MAN and WOMAN – very early in life, when as a child I witnessed the almost-daily frictions between my Dadu and Didu (grandfather and grandmother).

They were never direct all-out-in-the-open kind of lung-busting quarrels (the kind I have with the spouse, unfortunately). Dadu and Didu’s fights were more oblique, masked in poiteness, full of snide repartees and subterfuge, and guerilla-like. They would usually fight over absolutely trivial matters, usually if gregarious Didu got too caught up in talking to somebody and forgot to serve Dadu his food on the dot at the appointed hour/minute/second. And taciturn Dadu would invariably strongly protest if Didu abandoned him for a few hours and went off to see films, at the local cinema hall (the now-defunct Chitrabani).

But Dadu was so dependant on his wife that he never made frontal attacks. Instead he would make increasingly incensed snide remarks about the vagaries of the female sex, especially of women belonging to ‘sambhranto paribar’ (respectable families).

We children (my brother and I, and our cousins who would come over during the languid long summer vacations) were vociferous supporters of Didu. For one, she took us all along when she went to see films. She also told us long and exciting - and more importantly unending - stories about her own childhood and marriage (which actually coincided, as she got married when she was twelve). She often gave us pocket money to buy sweets and stuff. Above all, she allowed us to play with her thinning white hair and pluck off as many as we wanted to.

Although my peace-loving brother would sometimes plead with Didu to stop arguing (“Chup karo, chup karo”), I, being the more argumentative sort, would lustily egg Didu on (in the manner of rowdy football fanatics) with cries of “Narad, Narad” (Narad is the Hindu god who loves to incite debates and arguments).

Confident of our loyal support, she hardly ever deigned to reply to Dadu’s digs, smiling benignly and uncaringly going on with her work, which mostly consisted in looking after her cantankerous husband.

But it was not as if she did not take her revenge. Her way of retaliating was by making herself absent. In this, the TV set was her daily ally. Our television set occupied a place of honour in our upstairs drawing room. And every evening, without fail, Didu would wash and powder and her face and neck, wear a freshly washed and ironed white saree, tightly braid her more-salt-less-pepper hair (the evening beauty ritual of every lady of the aforementioned ‘sambhranto paribar’ – respectable families) and, politely-but-gleefully taking leave of Dadu, would go upstairs to watch whatever Doordarshan would dish out on the black-and-white TV set for over three hours. Meanwhile, Dadu got more and more restless and furious, sitting agitatedly on the bed which he refused to leave. In fact, so keen was she to punish him for his daily meanness, that she would watch incomprehensible programmes on farmers’ welfare and suchlike, just to spite him back.

And Didu had a brahmastra (the deadliest weapon of all). If Dadu became especially difficult to manage, she would pack her bags and, bidding a sweet and apparently-fond goodbye (which concealed a below-the-belt-punch), she would take off for a week or so, to visit her daughter (my Chhotopishi) in Calcutta. Dadu, quite knocked out by this sucker punch, would protest feebly, complaining of possible negligence in her absence (“Who will look after me now that you are gone?”), but Didu would go unworried and unperturbed, because she knew that my mother would take as good care of Dadu as she herself did.

Distance definitely seemed to make the cranky old man’s heart grow fonder. Because the only time we saw Dadu fussing over his wife was when she returned from her trip, rising from his bed (a very rare and miraculous happening) to welcome her at the door, taking her bag from her hand, and even switching on the fan for her to cool down after the journey (this was also a rare miracle, as Dadu belonged to the pre-electricity generation who was extremely frugal about electric consumption. In fact, he would spend a considerable time gazing in stupefied agony at the slowly ticking/rising electric meter outside his window).

The next day would be a different story though, or rather the same story, as Dadu and Didu, rested and refreshed by the break, would be at loggerheads all over again.

You know what? I think they actually relished being at each other’s throats the whole day. Some things never change!


Thursday, August 20, 2009


My Dadu (father’s father) was a rather cranky old man. He would not budge from his position and from his habits. He and my Didu (grandmother) shared the downstairs room, which multi-tasked as their bedroom as well as the dining room (sounds strange? But then we had five rooms – apart from kitchens and bathrooms – and a dozen people, so we had to ‘kindly adjust’.)

For, as long as I can remember, he would spend his entire days (and nights) on the bed. He would sit on it during the day, peeping out of the half-opened bedside window, frowning from under bushy white brows at anybody who entered the house and making sundry disgruntled comments at the gone-to-the-dogs ways of the modern world and the 'faltu' (useless) frivolity of the modern generation. At night, of course, he slept on the bed – the only problem being that his ‘night’ began quite early. So it meant we all had to eat our supper by 9.30 pm and vacate the room so that Dadu could put off the lights and go to sleep.

In fact, the few times that he left the bed was also quite fixed – to take his bath once a day and to go to the bank and collect his pension (he was a retired school-teacher) once a month. And, of course, to eat his meals.

The times and contents of his meals were all pre-ordained and fixed – and he would not allow any alterations or adjustments – come hell or high water. He loved milk, and one invariable component of his supper was ghano doodh (condensed milk).

Now, this was not the tinned Milkmaid stuff that I loved and often stole from the fridge. Dadu’s ghano doodh was the product of almost an hour’s daily toiling over the coal unoon (stove). Didu/Maa/Sabitadi (grandmother/mother/our daily help) would put a saucepan of milk on the stove, add a lot of sugar in it and stir the boiling concoction continuously to get the desired thickness and sweetness. Sometimes, they would cheat a bit by adding a few spoons of milk-powder to make the doodh denser.

And then they would pour out the rich creamy sweetness into a big steel bowl to cool. Dadu would have it with some rice at the end of his meal, taking his time over this daily delicacy. Even when we had things like khichdi (a preparation of rice and lentils, tempered with CHILLIES and SALT) for supper, he would insist on his ghano doodh, adding the sweetened milk to the khichdi and eating with apparent relish. God only knows how horrible that hodge-podge of milk-sugar-rice-lentils-salt-chilly must have tasted; I suspect it was just his stubbornness that carried him through the taste-ordeal. He obtinately clung to his comfort-food even in the most uncomfortable of menu-situations.

And we? My brother and I would hungrily and eagerly wait for Sabitadi/Maa to finish the cooking and pouring of the ghano doodh, so that we could scrape the saucepan and have the crusty-sweet almost-solidified remnants of the thickened milk from the bottom and sides of the pan. Using spoons and, finally, fingers and tongues, we would lick the pan clean. The creamy-sweet taste was my idea of ambrosia!


Saturday, August 15, 2009


A cursory channel-surf on the T.V showed that almost all the movie channels were telecasting patriotic films like GANDHI, BORDER, and such like. With celebrations for Independence Day round the corner, we are getting our annual audio-visual dose of patriotism – a heady mix of some-facts, some-jingoism, more-rhetoric and a lot of stirring sentiments.

When we were young, Doordarshan used to air such appropriately heart-swelling films to celebrate 15th August. A big favourite was Chetan Anand’s HAQUEEQAT, which never failed to bring a lump to the throat everytime it was shown on our grainy Black-and-White T.V set, especially everytime they telecast the song on the dying-freezing soldiers:

Kar chale hum fida jaan o tan saathiyon,
Ab tumhare hawale waton saathiyon

(Sacrificing body and soul for the motherland,
Friends, now I leave the nation in your hand
.) (incompetent translation by me).

But a far more potent and long-lasting source of nationalistic fervour were the Amar Chitra Katha (literally – Immortal Stories in Pictures) comics which I read and hoarded. Extremely affordable and easily available, these thin books retold history and legend in a colourful graphic form. And India, with its hoary action-packed and multi-layered past, supplied a vast storehouse of subjects.

Be it the Jallianwala Bag massacre, or the lives of Jawaharlal Nehru or the Rani of Jhansi, or the valiant deeds of pre-British-rule heroes like Shivaji or Rana Pratap, or the mythical romances of Amrapali and Nala-Damayanti, or the wit and wisdom of the Panchatantra, Jataka and the Birbal tales…the list is endless. Whenever I had accumulated the requisite sum of five rupees, I would run down to the para (neighbourhood) book shop, where a few Amar Chitra Kathas would be displayed by hanging them with clothes-pegs from a wire (in the manner of clothes drying). Flipping through a few, I would take my time choosing a new addition to my collection. And then the impatient rush home, and the losing myself in the colourful pictures, easy narration and crisp dialogues which made history come alive and which made myths appear believable.

I liked the Amar Chitra Kathas which retold the history of our freedom struggle, be it through biographies like that of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, or through incidents like the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The school history books gave us the bare facts; my Amar Chitra Kathas infused those facts with colour, vigour and voice. These books could make me gnash my teeth in rage against the evil colonial masters; they could make me cry at the courageous deeds and deaths of the freedom-fighters.

But my most-est favourites were two mythical stories – Surya [the legend of the Sun God and how the love of Sanjana and her alter-ego Chhaya (shadow) mellowed him] and Samudra Manthan [The Churning of the Ocean - how the devatas (gods) tricked the asuras (demons) by using their strength to churn the ocean (with the help of the Mandara mountain and the snake Vasuki) to get the amrita (nectar of immortality) for themselves, without giving any to them].

Thank you, Uncle Pai (Anant Pai, whose brain child the Amar Chitra Kathas were), for all the knowledge - culled from history, religion, folklore, mythology - which you fed us so pleasantly. Thankfully, these wonderful graphic stories are still available and flourishing in bookstores all over India, for generations of children (and adults) to read and cherish.


Sunday, August 9, 2009


Growing up in the 1970s and early 80s meant that I regarded women with impossibly thin, plucked and arched eyebrows to be the epitome of style and glamour. I would often spend hours looking at myself in the mirror, turning this way and that, dissatisfied with the thick, dark pair of eyebrows nature had given me. I would frown fiercely at my reflection, and wish I could change myself here, or there, and this included my beetle-brows.

Being eleven years or thereabouts, a visit to the beauty parlour was absolutely out of the question. And if there were any tweezers in the house, I was not able to put my hands on them. But determination and ingenuity led me to a solution. Not really a happy one, though.

One day, I filched a jar of hair-removing cream (one of those foul-smelling Anne French depilatory-concoctions), carelessly left on the bathroom shelf by Didia (my elder cousin). I had seen enough ads on television to know how to use it. Or so I thought.

Taking a bit on the spatula, I carefully applied it in a line to the lower portion of my eyebrows. Then, after waiting impatiently for the requisite ten minutes (as stipulated on the label of the jar), I used a rather grubby hanky to wipe off the nasty-smelling goop.

Only thing was, the cream had spread somewhat from its intended destination, and I ended up wiping off a large part of my eyebrows. I stared in horror at the mirror, and a pair of uneven, thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing eyebrows reflected accusingly back at me.

But the damage was done. While no roving talent-scouting photographer spotted me (or ‘discovered’ me as the next super-model, much to my secret dispappointment), my cousins and friends mercilessly ragged and quizzed me about my emaciated eyebrows. But being stubborn (and miserably shell-shocked at my new alien-from-Star-Trek-look), I never revealed how exactly I managed to uproot my bountiful harvest of brows.

To her credit, my immensely wise and reasonable Ma (mother) did not force me to confess, merely raising her own (plentiful) brows and consoling me, “Don’t worry, they’ll soon grow back.”

And so they did, of course. But after I had to spend ten days looking like a perpetually-astonished plucked chicken. And enduring utter ‘alien’-ation and secret guilt. All of which gave me a lifelong determination not to tamper too much with nature.


Monday, August 3, 2009


My daughters are having their first-term examinations, and I am all tired out with study-supervision, pencil-sharpening and all that. Thankfully, they are too young to be burdened by any sense of fear or nervousness about exams.

When I was in high school and college, exams always made me high-strung. Especially the big, career-deciding, life-changing ones like the tenth-standard (ICSE), twelfth-standard (Higher Secondary), graduation (B.A) and post-graduation (M.A) exams.

Like most of my friends, this fear and uncertainty made me a prey to all sorts of superstitions and strange practices, which I would follow obsessively.

I was always (and still am) a late sleeper, preferring to study during the night. Often, I would while away the day reading storybooks or newspapers, flipping cursorily through my books, dilly-dallying till after supper, even when the exam was on the next day. Then, when the tension would reach fever-pitch, and time would be running out at the speed of Usain Bolt (or Carl Lewis, the world champion runner of the 1980s-90s), and the rest of the family would be settling down to sleep, I would take out my books to study in earnest. My best and most concentrated study would be done in these final few hours before the exam, when it would be dark and quiet and undisturbed-except-the-ticking-of-the-clock, and I would barely sleep the night before, catching a few winks as the dawn-sun reddened the horizon.

I would sometimes meticulously prepare small chits with important notes minutely handwritten (no micro-xerox for me). I would stuff them into pockets and other hidden places, saying to myself that if I forgot something, I could always go to the washroom and take out the chit to aid my memory. But, funnily enough, the very act of writing the chits would aid my memory so much that I have never needed to take them out and cheat during any exam (as we used to say, God promise, that's the truth!).

Bolstering my confidence with these invisible chits, I would also take along a huge (and very visible) bottle of water mixed with Electral (a rehydrating salt) to the exam hall and sip from time to time, quite in the manner of tennis players who sip re-energising drinks during match-breaks.

Many of my schoolmates came to exams accompanied by their mothers/fathers/both/more. I remember one classmate particularly. During our twelfth-standard exams, she would come with an entourage of two. Her anxious father would be holding her books in front of her at eye-level, while she would hurriedly read aloud from them, swaying her body to-and-fro in rhythm with her sing-song chanting. Why couldn't she hold her books herself? Because her equally-anxious mother would alternately rub and massage her hands with a hot towel (preparing her for the marathon three-hour writing sessions), and would take some home-cooked food from a huge tiffin-box and push them into her mouth (during the pauses in her sing-song memorising). The rest of us would pause in the middle of our own last-minute frantic studying to watch this amazing spectacle. As we grappled alone with Economics, or History, it was fascinating to watch this two-parent-team preparing their daughter like a star-athlete, all three of them swinging like a trio of pendulums.

My poor mother, in an unusual outpouring of maternal concern, had decided to come during the break on the first day of my tenth-standard ICSE exams, lovingly carrying an apple and some hot home-cooked food. Unfortunately, I felt that I had not been able to write that day’s paper as well as I had hoped to (it was English, my favourite subject). And so, being touchy and extremely superstitious, I forthwith banned her from accompanying me to any other exam in future.

I always carried a huge number of surplus pens (fearing that the ink would run out sometime during those two/three/four hours of manic scribbling). But perhaps the oddest quirkiest thing I did was to make my watch go ‘fast’ during the exam. I would start the exam with my watch 10 minutes ahead of the actual time. As the exam progressed, I would randomly keep turning the hands of the watch five minutes ‘faster’ from time to time, till I lost track of how 'fast' it actually was. Often, by the end of the exam, my watch would be over 45 minutes ahead of the actual time (if my exam ended at 1 p.m, my watch would show 1.45 or even later). I don’t really know why I did this. Perhaps I wanted to cheat time, perhaps I wanted the false but reassuring security of feeling that there was still plenty of time left. Because for me, exams were always a race against time.

And another final quirk. After the exam, as we all left the hall exhausted but relieved, friends would inevitably ask, “How was the paper?” Some deep sense of uncertainty and insecurity would never let me say, “Good”. I always, for all my exams, said “So-so”. Because for me, the exam was not over till the results were declared, and I dared not boast about my performance till the proof was in my hands.