The King And I

He’s there every week at the same spot in the airport; dark glasses; some quarters and the odd dollar on a blanket in front, strumming a guitar and singing and sipping a coffee. Starbucks. Starbucks? Except today, he was white and singing louder than usual. Happens.

I ignored him with studied indifference and walked on toward the trains to the city, head buzzing from the bad coffee and last night’s bagel and the non-dairy creamer and the sitting in a metal tube convincing myself that the seatmate had allergies, not swine flu. That the odds of dropping down were low, Air France notwithstanding. Moving walkway is ending, and white guy was singing.

Except he was singing that song. My song.

Maaran Aranmanai,

Maadam Irandilum.

Deepam Erivadhenna.

Nothing a nap can’t fix, but right now I am inclined to conclude that my past is singing to me. Eww.

For family with two earners – government jobs, for fuck’s sake – ours lived like it had no money. The house was rented and the kitchen leaked whenever it rained. This was the same kitchen that had those ugly smoke-stains that formed when Gracy and her parents lived here and cooked fish. I could still smell the fish on some days, just as I could see Gracy and her long legs. Sigh. Pity she had married that loser and left town. The red-oxide floors had large missing chunks that Ayyamma had patched with a homemade cement concoction, and when I was bored I would test my strength against that of the cement. I always won. Later my parents would tell me they spent all that money educating me, and you can see where that led to. A notable feature of our penurious existence below the poverty line was a lack of access to any electronic gadget that could even remotely be called cool.

A few houses from us lived Mr. Mohanlal (clearly, my quiver of fake Mallu names runs very deep), father of Gopi, bowler of lethal tennis ball bouncers and Suresh, whiny bastard who could never be leg before. Their house had mosaic floors and they rented a part of it to the Cherians. Shared bathroom with priority for the landlord; cooking fish allowed. Suresh always wanted to pee when Jommy wanted to pee, letting everyone know just who the lord of the flies was. Ugh.

He never wore a shirt, this guy Cherian and he was a Malayalee like his landlord. Money-minded people, these Malayalees. Jommy was his kid, and his wife, man.  Some people have all the luck in the world, don’t they?  All I wanted to do when I grow up was be shirtless and do hot girls like her. Why was my chest hair not growing like Ganesh’s was? And what exactly is doing? Points to Ponder, like our copy of the Reader’s Digest said. Yeah, we subscribed to it, just like all the other poor people in India do.

The lucky dog Cherian had a brother in Dubai – that expanse of territory that included every country in the Middle East – a brother who brought him the fanciest electronic gadgets every two years so he could sell them to the neighbors. Kumar amma said it was a distant cousin, but who the fuck cared if it wasn’t a blood brother, right? Except me, of course, because I badly wanted that bootlegged tape recorder on sale that February.

I was tired, man. Tired of listening to snippets of music on All India Radio, Coimbatore Vanoli Nelayam. Ads for Sri Rajeshwari Hall and Shobha, Shobha Corner, Coimbatore and Woodwards Gripe water and Mangaldeep, bated breath, then the song.

Kalangalil Aval Vasantham

Fucking MSV. Even worse, AM Raja, singing like a girl. Girl like the spring, also like a painting, also like winter. Who made this shit up? And make up your mind, dude. Spring is not December. Coming to think of it, there is no Spring in the great state of Tamil Nadu because Mr. Jayaraman said through his spittle that we were too close to the equator for any meaningful change in seasons.

Oh, she made a poet out of me!

Go away already! I wanted Ilamai Idho Idho and I get fed this? Worse still, Ilamai Idho Idho starts up and my dad starts up the Lamby and it is time to go to school. Radio was just not going to cut it for me.

Rajesh and Murthy, Government school students, had a car stereo in their house, hooked up to Clarion speakers. It would bawl the Kanda Shasti Kavasam in the morning and I was, like, so devoted that I told the Lord God that I would play it every morning along  with Palli kattu Sabarimalaikku and other such drivel if he got me a tape recorder.

One such night, as I was turning my Geography textbook (“Mirror of the World”) upside down to see if how it would feel to magically turn  the 14 pages I had read so far into only 14 more pages left to read, I heard the song for the first time.

Idhaya Mazhayil, Nanaindha Kiligal

Udhayam Varayil Kulithu Kulithu

Ezha Veeendum…

Such haunting music. And deep lyrics, about parrots that got wet in the heart’s rain and wishing them many such happy showers till dawn. Some unknown guy with the most divine voice in the world singing the best song that could ever be composed. By the time it ended, I had tears in my eyes.

I got up, angrily looked at the Mirror of the World, walked to my dad and demanded that he buy the red Sharp tape recorder with APSS and two tape decks right away from Cherian, or else… Cowed by the implicit menace in my baritone, my dad agreed right away. (Okay, the truth was that he had already put a down payment on it, but the truth never gets bloggers anywhere, does it?). Naturally, Cherian retained the two empty “Dubai” cassettes that came with the gadget when we took possession of it a month later.  After that, we went out to Big Bazaar Street and bought some cassettes: Kanda Sashti Kavasam, Suprabhatham, some hideous song that always made me want to run for cover that began Bavayami Raghuram.

My promises to the Lord notwithstanding, I was bored after three days of listening to old siblings from various parts of India (Bombay Sisters, Trichy Sisters) loudly working out a quid pro quo arrangement with various deities. Clearly, they believed that volume trumped quality.

“Dad, we need some good audiotapes.”

“See, that’s why I said no tape recorder.”

Why that was a relevant answer, I don’t know to this day.

“Please, let’s buy at least a few.”

“Cinema songs spoil kids.”

Even more irrelevant response. Not like I asked him for a list of things that spoil kids. I should try this trick at school one day. “Q: Where is the equator? A: Planes fly on aviation fuel.” Focus, man, focus.

“Why not just a few?”

“Too expensive.”

Aha, some relevance.

“Let’s stop Reader’s Digest and use that money for this. I don’t understand the jokes anyway.”

Uh oh. He wasn’t amused at all. He invited my mom into the conversation.

“He wants us to give up the educational value of Reader’s Digest for cinema songs.”

“Did you see my handbag?”

Runs through the family, as you can see.

“Why can’t he be like his brother? He never asked me for such things”

“Why don’t you borrow something from Drawing Master’s house for now?”

It is a miracle I grew up sane.

The borrowing suggestion would have made sense except that the lender was totally messed up. This family next door to us, an art teacher, his wife and daughters – they were the nicest people you could find. The wife was a source of great food and he was a great source to turn to for help with anatomically correct renderings of the human heart for my biology classes. But audiotapes?

His collection consisted almost entirely of Sivaji Kadhai Vasanam tapes, audiotapes that consisted of all the dialogs from popular Tamil films starring “Sivaji” Ganesan, who could win any shouting match with any pair of siblings from anywhere. So this guy would turn the tape recorder on and actually spend his evenings listening to Sivaji secretly wooing Padmini at volumes rapidly approaching airplane engine levels.  The only time these things are useful is when you feel like watching Mirudanga Chakravarthy: they can reduce the trauma of watching them famous Sivaji jowls shake the spit out of themselves as he thwacks the poor mirudangam with murderous rage.

So yeah, this is the stuff I was to borrow.  I wish I at least had some blank tapes, but I had burnt my bridges totally with that Reader’s Digest suggestion, so I was doomed.

Or was I?

I was beginning to entertain a dangerous proposition in my mind…

Later that week, I walked to the neighbor’s house and asked to borrow some tapes. I picked out a few especially abominable ones and was told to “keep them safe for a reasonable period of time.” Out of this, I picked out the most abominable one for rescue. My plan was simple: I would tape over random portions of this audiotape with songs I liked from the radio every night. I would then proceed to listen to the songs until I was content, and then return the whole batch to them. 50% of 1 tape out of 10: my odds were great.

After some strategically applied adhesive tape to circumvent write protection, the audio cassette was ready for its redemption. Buh Bye Thooku Thooki.(What the fuck does that mean anyway?) Hello Ilayaraja.

The next few weeks were sheer bliss. The best songs from the whole wide world, right here on my fingertips. Thalaiyai kuniyum Thamaraiye and Putham Puthu Kaalai and Vaanile Thenila Aaduthe at my beck and call, waiting to entertain me. Could anyone be luckier?

Then it was the turn of choice portions of the hideous  Thanga Malai Ragasiyam (Secrets of the Gold Mountains, which are not at all what you think they are) to give way to the vastly superior Madai Thirandhu and Nila Kayuthu Neram Nalla Neram. And finally, I caught Idhaya Mazhayil again, making my life almost totally complete. The experiment ended at two rounds when my dad relented and allowed me to buy 3 cassettes a month.

A year or so later, we are invited to spend the evening lounging around with the drawing master’s family and their relatives who are visiting from a hamlet called Nanjundapuram. He plays out a few minutes from several of his tapes as a preview for the relatives, who finally choose to listen to the secrets of the Gold Mountains, perhaps because they were fooled by the title like I was the first time. A few minutes into the movie, during an obviously important moment judging by the number and extent of mouths held open, my song started again:

Idhaya Mazhayil, Nanaindha Kiligal

Udhayam Varayil Kulithu Kulithu

Ezha Veeendum…

Everyone seemed quite disappointed and a little puzzled. “How could this be?” the drawing master wondered aloud. “I must have accidentally taped over it,” he concluded, before adding that “it was such a great flim.”

He started looking for another tape when the song ended. Then it started again, except in my voice. In retrospect, I suppose practicing my singing on tape was not such a smart move, but man, did I rock that song or what.

PS:  If this post reads a little dated, it is because it is. I started it off almost a year ago, and never did gather the energy to finish it till today, perhaps fittingly on an airplane to Chicago. Also, my apologies for the rather long hiatus from the blog. I suppose I could blame being busy for not writing, but the truth is I don’t know why I didn’t write. I am pleased to say that the time off was rather productive – my wife and I had ourselves a baby girl in 2008, and she’s brought us more joy than most Illayaraja songs.

Number Two

If you thought my posts were crappy, wait till you read this one:

My first day at the bathroom here. Deed done, I zipped up pants. And then, a sudden gush of water, and my pants got drenched. Sopping, dripping, heart wrenching wet. Yes, I did get the order of events right, Ms. Know-It-All.

Puzzled, I did what every guy does. My carefully tucked shirt came out, and I walked gingerly back. I realize I am smoking hot, but can’t these girls stop looking at my pants for some time?

A few more attempts and some more pant wetting before I realized: Stop tucking your shirt in, because the stupid thing will flush whenever the tank is full, doesn’t matter if a guy wearing his only pair of Calvin Klein chinos is in there finishing up.

We’d sit around the table eating lunch, or dinner, or smoking cigars or playing poker or doing whatever else a group of people in an alien country can do sitting around a table. We’d start off well enough – how the food sucks, why the affirmative action policy in Malaysia was all twisted, why work blowed and so on … A few minutes was all it took though, for conversation to veer back to our favorite topic: Toilets. Continue reading “Number Two”

Friends, Rolexes and Shirtless Men

Picture Courtesy Wikipedia

Golden dragons sit atop the striking green fa?ade, flanked by golden arches on the left and (overpriced) gold topped taxis beneath. A unsightly blue roof stretches along the entire street, designed to keep out the elements and whatever little charm the facade has to offer. “Jalan Petaling,” the multilingual signboard suspended from the lowest tier says. Petaling Street.

Petaling Street, a narrow stretch of road in downtown Kuala Lumpur is the green dragon facaded, blue roofed home to a gigantic flea market selling bootleg merchandise. Fittingly, the market operates from dawn to midnight, drawing an enormous throng of bargain hunters looking for Rolexes and Patek Philippes; Guesses, Guccis, Givenchys and Louis Vittons; Star Wars and Flight Plan and Sims and Civilization and food.

A row of stores on each side of the street, and down the middle of the street a double row of stores with their backs to each other, splitting the narrow alley into two narrower alleys. Enter through the left, bargain your way up the street till the end, gawk at the vendors selling fried fish, and kabab rolls and ice kacang, and a Rolex or two; turn around and haggle back down the other way. Along the way, a sensual treat: the bright flouroscent lighting, the smell of sweaty bodies laden with faux Italian fashion goods mixed in with the the smell of barbecued fish, the sounds of hagglers haggling and touts touting.

Continue reading “Friends, Rolexes and Shirtless Men”

This will do just fine…

In which a forced break from blogging causes one to overcompensate by writing an overly long post.

I was sixteen. She must’ve been a few years older.

I was the kid that snottily buried his head in a book through the hourlong bus ride to school, except to look at the occasional poster. After her, I was the kid that was starting to fantasize about burying the head elsewhere. Dirty thoughts, I know, but not as dirty as you think. I didn’t know all that then.

In truth, she wasn’t all that pretty. Thin and wiry and bespectacled and fair and squeaky and rude and unsmiling. But she wore exceptionally short skirts that fell just below the knee. Can you imagine? And traveled the same route as me every single day for two years, standing but a few feet away from me. And most important of all, she went to Nrimala[1] College. What could be hotter?

Ever since a we’d heard that story about a bunch of girls at Rinmala who forced the milkman that went to deliver milk to their hostel to have sex with them, the hotness quotient of everyone that spent any time at all in the general vicinity of the campus had increased by several orders of magnitude in our eyes. Especially because Rex – who assured us all that he knew – informed us that the story was very true. He also threw in a few details of the incident – oh my! – that made me think that being a milkman wouldn’t be a bad way to make a living. Wake up, clean bullshit, milk cow, visit college. Bliss.

Could the girl on the bus be one of those girls, I wondered. And then hastily assured myself that she couldn’t have been. Given the time of the incident, she was probably in this very bus when her classmates were doing the nasties to the poor milkman. Unless it was a predetermined crime, and she had stayed back that night. Quite possible, you know.

Now, in case you think we believed every story we heard about IrNmala, you are so wrong. That story about the girl and a broken test tube for example: In spite of the obvious truth that in those days – most young girls possessed rather loose morals and were capable of most acts of debauchery a male brain could think of, this one was a little too farfetched to be true. Also, it coincided a little too well with our entry into the world of pipettes and burettes and – you guessed it – test tubes. So we only partly believed the story.

And then one day, the girl didn’t show up. After she kept up the habit of not showing up for a few more days, I knew I had lost her – either she had graduated or she had fled the law. It must’ve been the latter – how could someone graduate in December anyway?

She had vanished without a word, my scheming shrew girlfriend. Thank God I hadn’t introduced her to my parents or bragged about her to Rex.

We’d been seeing each other for a good year and a half, and what did I get out it? A sorry glimpse of knee.

This won’t do.

Continue reading “This will do just fine…”

Alphabet Soup

Begin unnecessarily mushy prologue that can be safely skipped:

They had laid him in the middle of the house on enormous blocks of ice that were melting slowly – the water crawling across the room, under the wailers perched around the body, towards me. I was convinced I would die if I came into contact with the water, and kept pulling back, back, back and into the room where they stored the sewing machines. My feet trembled as I sat on a stool and fiddled with one of the machines, no one asking me to stop breaking needles. Waiting.

The wailing went up a bit, and I stepped out to peek. The water had formed small pools all over the room now, no area was safe anymore. An undertaker and an under-undertaker had come in, and were starting to lift up the body. . The undertaker was at the head, his assistant at the foot. The foot was lifted up first, and the lifter slowly moved right, swiveling the corpse on the ice. The undertaker now got into the act: he held the shoulder and lifted up the corpse and then started to walk backwards. A foot back, maybe two. The body creaked, the undertakers paused. And then, a loud noise – a hybrid belch-hiccup – came out of the body. The wailers stopped, startled. I was terrified and jumped over a couple of pools to go stand near my mom.

After that it was a blur: they loaded him into a cart, and I followed it all the way to the crematorium, plagued by fear, where they laid him on a pile of wood and dried dung and poured a little bit of kerosene and set him aflame.

When I think of my grandfather, the first image that springs to my mind is that noise. Not that I don’t remember the other things: the height, the gruffness of tone and the stubble: unlikely ingredients for a tender man. He wasn’t the usual fawning grandfather – he granted us our space, but let it be known that he liked having us around.

There are a lot of things to remember, but the image of his dead body and the strange noise overwhelms them all.

But I won’t write about it, because my dad tells me it isn’t all that strange. Instead, I’ll write about how my grandfather named his kids, because that is certainly unusual.

End unnecessarily mushy and safely skippable prologue.

Begin post that can be safely skipped:

Every Indian family has a designated form-filler. This is the person people go to when they need help filling a form – any form – ration card applications, forms to apply to schools, job applications, forms that plead with magistrates to show mercy on loan defaulters. This is the person that knows the language of forms, the “nils,” “as-aboves” and “not applicables.”

In our family, my dad – ex-bureaucrat, patient proof reader, class topper in English (he kept reminding us) – fit the bill just right. He fit it so right that occasionally other families bowed to his superior skills and outsourced important forms to him. If you are the sort that doesn’t mind the odd bad pun, I’ll tell you that he is the father of all fillers.

And thus it wasn’t a surprise when dad told me that a cousin of mine had approached him with a “passport problem.” “More specifically,” my dad told me, laying an undue amount of stress on certain, “he asked me for help on a certain question in the form.”

“Yeah,” my mom interjected, “ask him what has gotten into him after retirement.”

“Which certain question? What has gotten into you after retirement?”

To cut a long conversation short, the cousin had asked for help with a question on the passport application that asked him to “expand his father’s initials.” [1]

I can’t really say it any other way: My grandfather was a stud. In addition to spawning at least thirteen kids (a tiring task in itself), he actually pulled off the astonishing feat of bringing all of them up on a public bus driver’s income.

A stud deserves some slack, and no one should bear any grudges against him for bungling a little bit with his bookkeeping – thirteen kids can be hard to keep track of. When it was time to admit one of the kids to school, grandpa would walk them to the admissions officer. After some conversation about bus schedules and rising petrol prices, the admissions officer would whip out a form and start asking some questions. My dad, unfortunately, wasn’t around to help then.

Name? That was easy. Next question please. Initials? This question confused grandpa considerably, because his family had a tradition to maintain: they actually used two initials – one for the dad’s name and another one for the city of birth. He’d think about it for a minute (I think), but most of the time he didn’t remember how he’d named his previous child. Did he name her after his village? Or his adopted town? Or maybe he had broken tradition and used just one letter… or. This was very confusing. When all his kids had grown up and were in school, grandpa might have been surprised to know that there were three sets of initials floating around his family. P.R. G.R. Just plain R. But grandpa was too busy making ends meet to care.

It might be of interest to note that the kids also had completely random birth dates – my aunt insists she is younger than her documents show, and the date she claims to have been born and the one on her documents are perfectly uncorrelated. Neither month, nor day, nor year match.

Which is why my cousin’s question was not as trivial as it sounds. His dad had a P.R in front of his name. “What does the P stand for,” he wanted to know.

“Public Relations,” I told my dad. He chided me on joking about a serious situation, and proceeded with the narration.

“Palakkad is what the P stands for,” my dad told the cousin. “That’s where your grandma is from.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think that’s true.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because grandpa himself had a P in front of his name, and I think that’s why he added a P to my dad’s name. And I don’t think that P stands for Palakkad because Grandpa’s family has no Kerala connection.”

“Hmm.. think you might have a point. Let me find out.”

My dad was excited about this passport question. Prior to this momentous question, the sternest test of his form filling career was when someone asked him to fill out an application form that was entirely in Hindi. He had passed the test with ease by directing the asker to the Hindi teacher that lived down the street. But this, this was different. Almost like sleuthing. He started making enquiries. ( By the way, this explains the “What has gotten into him after retirement?” question). I find past tense very hard to write, so I will switch over here. If you are so inclined, please convert the paragraphs that follow into past perfect tense and mail it to me.

My grandpa died old, so contemporaries are hard to find. Especially sane ones. Dad went around the small town, flitting from house to house, asking the older people what his father-in-law’s initials stood for. Blank stares. What were his initials again? I don’t know English, I can’t hear well. My daughter-in-law treats me badly, how ’bout yours? How is America? We should get together sometime for coffee. You look fairer these days.

After about a week, my dad changed tack. He assumed that the P should probably stand for grandpa’s ancestral village, and so he went around the small town, flitting from house to house, asking the older people where his father-in-law’s family came from. Blank stares. I don’t know English, I can’t hear well. My daughter-in-law treats me very badly, how ’bout yours? How is America? We should get together sometime for coffee. Do you use a fairness cream?

Frustration, thoughts of quitting, an urge to ask cousin to write Palakkad there and be done with it. But urges were resisted.

Like it happens usually, the answer came from an unexpected source. It wasn’t that dramatic (plus my calling card was running out, so I asked him to hurry up and get to the end), but apparently an old guy that my dad met on the street later that week answered his question for him. (“I didn’t think he’d be able to answer because he looked too young to know.” Quotes proverb on judging books). The grandparents of the old guy who looked too young to know had grown up in the same village as grandpa’s family. “In fact,” the old man said, “your father-in-law’s family members even led the village panchayat for sometime.”

After a lot of questions, dad was convinced enough to travel to the place in place in question, and after some more sleuthing he got hold of a few records from the village panchayat that convinced him beyond doubt. He knew what the P stood for.

Loud laughter at this point on the phone. Not from our end. Story continues amidst chortles.

A phone call is made. The cousin comes on line.

“I know what the P stands for.”

“Really, what?”

“Pannimadai.” Which in Tamil means Pig-Sluice. Or something like that, but it was undisputedly pig-something.

Panni madai? That’s funny. So, what is it really?.”

“I am serious. Pannimadai is the answer you were looking for. I even read a ledger that proved it.”

“This means… um, on a passport they might put, eh, my dad’s expanded name after mine, and when I go to the US..”


“Thanks, but I think I’ll go with Palakkad.”

“I figured.”

Rumor has it that said cousin has filled many more forms after this incident. He must’ve changed his form-filler, because he doesn’t ask dad anymore.

[1] In Tamil Nadu, people have no surnames. We make do with initials – the son of A Oaf would be called O Imp, and O Imp’s daughter would call herself I Suck. Which is all well, for rarely are Tamil names as concise as Oaf or Imp and we could do without the extra letters a surname would add.

[2] Residents of Pannimadai are requested to please excuse the author. He is the great grandson of your Nattamai, by the way, so cut him some slack.

[3] Let it be said that the author is known to be delusional, so it is questionable if said events really happened in his life in said sequence.

[4] Inspired by Tilo’s post on M.S.Subbulakshmi, grandmothers and cousins.

End safely skippable post.

A visitor most unwelcome

A few months abroad. Fun, but still, home being what it is, we want to come back. Just walk around, check the yard, read junk mail, clean the AC filter, etc. (if I listed out seventeen more things, this could be my to-do list).

After several phone calls to travel agents, we finally work out the most complicated itinerary ever that involves (among other things) a quick one week trip back home.

One week.

And guess who decides to greet us on arrival? This unpleasant woman. Sigh.

The story of a farm

Lord William[1] was the British Collector of Salem sometime in the nineteenth century, and he didn’t particularly care for the job. He governed with callous arbitrariness, caring and kind one day, cold and heartless the next; mixing up bizarre administrative decisions with incredibly smart ones.

He was in a particularly foul mood that October afternoon – he had already walked a couple of miles, and had 3 more miles to go to get to his car. There were no roads in this godforsaken cluster of villages west of Salem, and it is not clear why Lord William was there in the first place. But he was there, and he was tired and hungry. The smell of food coming from a house nearby was not helping.

And then, in a typically brash gesture, Lord William decided to step into the house. The people that lived in the house were cooks, and on that day the family was making Adhirasams. There must have been a hundred of them in the enormous drum-like container: Little brown discs; a glossy, satiny brown, glowing from the ghee. The fat man was making more, pausing only to wipe the sweat off his face with his veshti. His son, no less corpulent, no less sweaty, was napping at the front door.

Lord William nudged the son gently with the roll of paper in his hand. When he didn’t respond, the Lord walked into the kitchen, shoes still on, and after a friendly glance at the dad, picked up an adhirasam from the container and bit into it. Oh, the pleasure! Later, he would tell his wife, the Doraisani, that as the thing melted in his mouth, he could feel his tiredness melting away. She would think he was nuts.

But now, he was eating his third adhirasam, oblivious to the anger of the fat man. The poor fellow was making these for someone’s dhevasam[2] and he wasn’t at all sure the dead guy would appreciate this heathen man eating stuff meant for him. Especially if the heathen had licked his fingers after finishing one adhirasam, and used the exact same fingers to pick up another one from the drum. This batch of adhirasams was doomed.

After three, Lord William stopped eating. He was stuffed. He took a few more and put them into his pockets. He then told the dad he didn’t have any cash on him at the moment, but he was the collector and all, and that he should come meet him tomorrow at Salem and collect money for the Adhirasams. He added as an afterthought, “And bring a few of these with you when you come meet me tomorrow.”

The next day, the fat man woke his son up early in the morning and asked him to go to the city with the (defiled) drum full of sweets and get some dough from the collector. After a sumptuous breakfast, the son started for Salem, drum on his head, a thirty mile walk.

He walked and walked and walked, and in about an hour, he was very tired. Another hour, and the sumptuous breakfast had worn off. He decided that he needed some serious R&R, so he sat under a tree and ate a few adhirasams. And then he walked and walked, and took another break.

If his progress were to be plotted against time, one would have noticed that for higher values of t, the distance covered had decreased considerably. If one were to look for reasons for this alarming decline, one would have to look no further than another graph of time vs breaks. It might also be pertinent to note that with each break he took, the consumption of adhirasams increased at an alarming rate.

By the time the fat son arrived at the Collector’s office that evening, he had eaten all the adhirasams. Not one left. After some layers of low level bureaucrats, he is ushered into the room of Lord William. Lord William pays the guy a few rupees, and looks covetously at the drum.

“Got more?”

The fat son grins sheepishly and tells the Collector that he did bring a few, but he ate them all, long walk sir, sorry. Disappointed, Lord William asks, “Why not bring more man? Your dad had a lot in there yesterday.” The fat son grins even more sheepishly and tells the good Lord that he brought the whole lot, and ate the whole lot.

“Get out of here man,” the Lord says and as the son starts walking away, he tells him that the phrase is an expression of disbelief and that he shouldn’t really get out of here. The Lord is sure the son is messing with him, given that he only ate three the other day and had to skip dinner. About an hour of intense questioning follows, and the son keeps insisting that he did indeed eat the entire batch of adhirasams. Finally, the exasperated Lord William sends the son home, with an ominous warning: “I’ll find out sometime.”

A few months passed, and the good Lord William has to take a trip to Mamundi again. The reasons for his trip are unclear, but it has been suggested he was consumed by the thought that someone could eat so much food, and wanted to go back and find out. The evidence for this theory is strengthened by the fact that he headed straight for the house of the fat cooks. And in an interesting stroke of luck, it was lunchtime and the family was getting ready to eat.

“You,” Lord William says, pulling up a stool in front of the fat son, “I want to see you eat.” Then he gets up and walks to a charcoal stove, a pot of rice simmering on top of it. “How much rice in here?” he asks the fat dad. “Six kilograms, Durai,” is the reply. Six kilograms of rice, in case you are wondering, could feed a large family for a large number of days. The Lord takes the entire pot, places it in front of the son and tells him, “If you eat all of this, I’ll make you a rich man.”

Over the next hour, the fat son ate all of it.

Lord William couldn’t believe his eyes. It is his turn to be a little sheepish, for having questioned the integrity of this remarkably talented young man. “Come with me,” he says, and takes the fat son on his horse drawn carriage to a secluded spot near the village.

“Run, young man. Start here and run as far as you can. Stop only when you tire. Run.”

“But why sir?”

“I wronged you. I questioned your integrity. So run now.”

“I am not sure that makes it any clearer, sir.”

“Run as far as you can, and I will give you all the land you cover. That’s my way of making up things to you.”

The fat son believes this is reasonable evidence that the Lord is slightly off his rocker. He stays put. Then the Lord brandishes an offical letterhead, and writes down what he just said and hands it to the son. The young man cannot believe his luck. A lot of land would mean a lot of food for the rest of his life.

So he runs and runs and runs, and in a few minutes he is tired. But he won’t stop to rest. He runs some more, and gets tired some more. No stopping now. He thinks he could use an Adhirasam though. That thought propels him for a few minutes more, and then he stops to rest under a tree. He then proceeds to die right there.

The good Lord is apalled, and his sheepishness is now replaced by remorse. But true to his word, he draws an imaginary circle using an imaginary compass and gives all the land that the young man covered to his family.

If you ever go to a village called Mamundi, and see a big piece of farmland called the “Six Kilogram Brahmin Farm,[3]” do tell the people around you that you know the history of the land. If they ask you how you know the story, tell them you read it on the blog of the great nephew of the fat son. Cluck your tongue in sympathy when they tell you that most of the land is now residential. And get someone to make you an Adhirasam.

[1] My dad, who narrates stories much better, wasn’t sure what the Lord was called. He kept calling him Dorai, but I told him it was very unlikely a British family would name their son that.

[2] A Dhevasam is an yearly ritual to honor dead people. The food is usually very good.

[3] Aaru Padi Pappan Kadu is the name of the farm. It passed through a couple of generations, and today, the original owners have sold most of it.

[4] The son may not have been fat. Or even the dad. But somehow, that’s always the way I think of them.


It was a two storey house; decrepit and old; large and sprawling. (yes, semi-colons are cool). It had started out nice and small, but the arrival of kids and money had led to random additions of bedrooms and bathrooms, and by the time the kids had stopped arriving, the house looked outlandishly ugly – decreipt and old; large and sprawling.

Soon the kids grew up, jobs and marriages happened and the house was too big for just one couple. So, they decided to rent it out. Even though they didn’t ask for a lot of money, there were no takers: Who would want to have to go through a bathroom to get from one room to another?

No takers but one, that is: A doctor who was just starting out wanted to turn the house into his clinic. There were heated negotiations (my mom said), and finally Dr. Lakshmanan, who had inherited a lot of money from his dad, ended up buying it outright.

I didn’t know any of this when I was a six year old prone to falling off bicycles. All I knew was that I hated every minute I spent on the hard wooden benches in the Doctor’s waiting room – filled with dread, the unpleasant smell a sure precursor to the painful shots that would follow.

The clinic followed a unique model of queuing: every few minutes the doctor would come out of his room and scan the people waiting to see him. Then, with no apparent reason, he would pick someone and say, “You come in!” It didn’t matter if the guy had just entered the clinic or had been waiting there for ever: that was that. If my mom was with me, my turn would come sooner (“Teacher, Vaanga”), if I was with Ayyamma it was always “Hold on for a few more minutes, kid!”

When my turn did come, I’d enter the room, sit on a chrome-topped stool next to the Doctor and wait for him to begin the examination. He’d brusquely ask me a few questions (“Eat well?” “Pee ok?” ), and bark out a few instructions (“Open your mouth” “Breathe deep”) that didn’t seem to have any immediate relevance to my bleeding elbow, and tell whoever my adult accompaniment on the day was: “Everything looks ok, no problem.” We’d then pay him five rupees.

He’d scribble something on a piece of paper and ask me to take it to one of his nurses. Sometimes, there’d be no paper, and he’d just come out of his room through another door and yell, “White Medicine, small syringe for Babu.” A painful shot, a muted scream and then I was free to go home.

I hated the whole experience and thought the doctor, his clinic and the nurse sucked royally.

But strangely, not many people shared my low opinion of the doctor. Patients came from all over to see him and rumor has it that Cheran Transport Corporation introduced a special bus that took a circuitous route through several villages just to accommodate his patients. The house was always packed, and every square inch of it that was not a bathroom had a bed. Every bed had a patient of one flavor or the other – delirious with fever, screaming in pain, drips attached to arms, just waiting out a night to catch the first bus tomorrow. When I asked my mom why he was so popular, she’d always tell me the same thing – “He’s a good man, that’s why.”

As I grew older, a few more doctors sprung up in the neighborhood. My dad and I were tired of the long lines, and the no-frills service, so we switched to another doctor who had better waiting rooms and used thinner needles. My mom though was stubborn – “no one but him for me.”

So, I still had to go to Dr. Lakshmanan’s place with my mom, but times had changed and I was her accompaniment. Even though it had been nearly ten years since I first went there, times hadn’t changed at the clinic- the same questions, the same diet, and the same white medicine (penicillin, I knew now). And the same five rupees for a consultation.

I was starting to understand.

Later, on one of those days she felt like it, my mom told me that just before he died, the doctor’s dad – rich landlord – asked his son to use his education to serve the poor. And just like that, he did. Never asked for more than five rupees from anyone, even when syringes started to cost more than that, even when they were in the hospital for months, even when they couldn’t afford to buy foodand he had to pay Devi Tea Stall to deliver them barley kanji every day. She also told me that the queuing method wasn’t as random as I thought – the doctor had a timetable at his desk of whose bus left when.

Last year, Dr. Lakshmanan died. It was abrupt, my mom said. He went home for lunch, and died of a heart attack after his meal. His two daughters were around when it happened, but it happened all too suddenly and it doesn’t look like that there were any promises extracted. The daughters run a boutique in the house now.

Leaps Never Made

Everyone knew everything about everyone else in the neighborhood – this was your typical middle income neighborhood in India, you see. The kids could go into any house they pleased, and get lots of good food and free advice. Every adult (loosely defined as anyone five years older than you) was encouraged (even expected) to discipline you – stop playing, start studying, don’t ride your bike too fast – it was like living in a prep school with a teacher-student ratio that would make the lefties delirious.

The whole colony (for that’s what neighborhoods were called then) laughed when Pushpamma’s son sent a money order back to himself; cried when Kumar Mami’s husband passed away, and clicked tongues in disgust when Jayarani akka “love” married. It sympathized when Karikarar got scammed out of his money, pitied me on the street when I flunked a paper in college, listened as I angrily explained that it was NOT my fault, and demurred when I demanded to know how it knew.

So, yes, we all knew a lot about each other.

And that’s how I knew that people bought a lot of magazines. Every household I went to (eat, play, wander about) bought at least two a week – in addition to the daily newspaper. Kumudam and Vikatan, Kungumam and Idhayam, Saavi and Rani, one or the other. Drawing Master had the Illustrated Weekly delivered weekly (“to improve Babykka’s English”) and only stopped it when they published some pictures of naked women (Later he switched over to The Week, and always had the postman deliver it to his school address).

Strangely though, no one bought books.1

Hours were spent reading serialized fiction from magazines, and hours more were spent discussing what happened and what might happen, but that was it. The occasional maverick would buy a “monthly,” – sensationalized murder mysteries that a clueless moron churned out every month, but that was it.

There was a lot of patience exhibited for serialized fiction – read a few pages, wait for next week’s issue; read, wait; read, wait… but the patience never extended to buying a good book, and reading it a few pages at a time. Dense vernacular fiction was lapped up when presented in magazines, the lightest novel was ignored when published. Poring over The Hindu for a long time was a sign of intellectual accomplishment (or a way to get there), but spending a few minutes reading Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn was wasting time.

No wonder the Tamil publishing industry languishes, with a 5000 copy run considered outstanding. No wonder every writer wants to become the clueless moron churning out sensationalized murder mysteries. No wonder the one guy (with skin thinner than Antara Mali2) that sells a few more books than the others is deified, and (ironically enough) all the magazines want him to write serialized novels for them. No wonder there hasn’t been a book of note for the last twenty years, and no wonder all the good writers out of India want to write in English.

But why?

[1] Rapidex English Course, Guide to Get Government Jobs, Lifco English to Tamil Dictionary etc. don’t count.

[2] Not counting extraneous appendages.

Insult to Injury

We were in a little bit of a rush, but I wanted to go into the store “real quick.” After some haggling, I was allowed to go, subject to some rules (but, of course). The instructions were fairly clear:

Come back in 10 minutes.

Just buy the ones you want, don’t just stand there gawking.

I hurried in, and headed straight for the information counter. A winsome girl gave me smile just as winsome – but I remembered the second rule and asked her in my best business-like tone,

“I’m looking for a book called Never Let Me Go.”



“Sorry. Don’t have that author.”


“What about Smith, Z-a-d-i-e?”

“Book name?”

“On Beauty.”

Taps on keyboard, “Yes, we have.”

One out of two isn’t too bad.

“Ok, where is it?”

“No stock.”

“What does ‘we have’ mean?”

“Have in database.”

Damn. I start to walk out disappointed – not smart to sign up to review two books at Veena’s Booker Mela without checking for availability. Just then, the girl calls me,



“We currently have a sale. 25% discount on all Danielle Steel books.”

I wanted to thank her for rubbing it in, but my ten minutes were up.