Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

V came back from India armed with what she called a "surprise" gift. Being both bored and curious at the same time I trudged to Brookline, toddler in tow, to check out the surprise. It turned out to be the best gift I’ve received in a long time - "The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction". She brought back a copy of volume 1 when she came back from India last year but I was only allowed to read it under her supervision (thanks to R's vathi vekkal that I let books borrowed from her languish in the bathroom) and for 15 minutes at a time ("Did you come all this way only to read a book?"), which for a thriller like this is extremely frustrating. This time around, in an effort to save our friendship, she brought back a copy for me.

I've been reading this anthology of novellas one story at a time, making sure I earn the story before I read it i.e. I only allow myself to read a story if I've been very good that day (by my definition of course) or if I have something to celebrate. In a time when everything is plentiful but nothing has value -as my SIL likes to put it- this sort of discretionary consumption took me back to a different time when chitrahaars had to be paid for with homework and Sunday movies were literally fruits of scholastic penances. I haven’t had to practice delayed gratification in a long, long time.

It's sort of lame to enjoy a book written in your mother tongue in translation of course, but hey, the alternative would be to squint at words that don't jump out immediately and lose the story in the process. The first story I read was written by Indra Soundarajan -the author of Chidambara Ragasiyam, Vidadhu Karupu etc.-and was about a raja samskaram, set in modern times in Kottayapuram, in which the kings mysteriously die by age 30 as a result of an ancient curse. I was charmed by the hot blooded, engineering college educated ilaya raja and his moped-driving girlfriend who ends up solving the mystery and saving her future thaali. The story is a page turner and had me waking up at 4 AM to figure out what the hell was going on in that accursed kingdom. The book is dotted with such dialogs as "She looked like an amman selai" and "I want her to live with flowers and pottu". What fun!

Total timepass and value for money which is what this whole genre, sold predominantly in bus stations and kodi kadais, engenders anyway.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Very superstitious, writing's on the wall.

Very superstitious, ladder's 'bout to fall.

Thirteen-month-old baby broke the looking glass.

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.

When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer.

Superstition ain't the way.

Hey, hey, hey.

-Steview Wonder

There I was, all of 30-something years old, driving to work on a regular work day, when out of the blue a bird came and perched on the hood of my car. I was alarmed. The thing was completely black and looked remarkably like a crow. Do they have crows in New England? A quick google search told me that indeed they do. Me, with sixteen years of superstition blasting convent education behind me, ignored the honks from other irate drivers and craned my neck for a second crow. I was darned relieved to find one - "One for sorrow, two for joy". How do you explain this? My parents may as well have burnt their money in a bonfire for all the enlightenment my education accorded me!

Has anyone done a study on why it is that we lean towards the unbelievable and unproven, suspending our reasoning in the process? There are stories of scientists (Neils Bohr, for instance) who were superstitious, so it has nothing to do with IQ. It has to do with man's fear of the unknown. Or his fear of death. How else can you explain it?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Minority status

"Looking Out"

It must be odd

to be a minority

he was saying. I

looked around

and didn't see any.

So I said


it must be.

- Mitsuye Yamada

I was doing my weekend should-I-work-shouldn't-I dilly-dallying and part of this ritual is reading that last piece of poetry before paying respects to Outlook 2007. Today, this act led me to an interesting poem by Mitsuye Yamada that took me back a few years in time. It was 2003 and I was travelling on a train between Sweden and Denmark. Across me sat a Malaysian girl who looked well put-together and like someone who had spent a considerable amount of time in Scandinavia. We got friendly during the ride and I found out that she was adopted, as an infant, by her Swedish parents. The landscape that passed us, as we chatted, was breathtaking and the girl pointed out to some sites occasionally and named them. "They must really feel lucky living here." I exulted after witnessing the most glorious sunset of my life. Something flashed in her eyes and she replied, a fraction too soon - "Yes, we do."

A similar statement is made here, by this poem. Yamada shakes her head at people who cannot look beyond her minority status. I cannot say I feel like I do not belong in the United States and this may be a function of where I live (liberal Massachusetts) or because I am not so assimilated into the mainstream as to notice the subtleties. Perhaps it is a bit of both. S may feel differently as he grows up in this country and goes to school here. He may consider himself an American first and may have his conception questioned, ever so often, like Yamada's was. If he does feel challenged thus, I'm glad I can point him to the considerable body of literature that exists on the topic of being neither here nor there.

I like espresso shots of poetry, I do.

Find more on Mitsuye Yamada here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Maargazhi thingal

Lessons were being learnt even as I lay cursing, pillow held firmly over my head, trying to blot out the vadhiyar's loud voice chanting - "MAARGAZHI THINGAL MADHINIRAINDHA NANNALLLAAAMM...". I knew he would come the next day as well...and the next....and the next. For the whole month of marghazhi the vadhiyar would come, in his moped, at the crack of dawn, to wake sleeping children up with his loud bell and staccato voice. The smell of ven pongal would permeate the house. Amma, bathed and dressed for the recital, would prod me awake with the long stick that was used to pull clothes down from the line, in order to get me to participate. This scene was repeated thousands of times over the twenty five margazhi months I spent in my parent's house. My distaste for pongal began, I am sure, from being fed the damn thing for breakfast for a whole month every year.

When I moved to America I lost the concept of the tamizh months and the festivals that came with them. Sometimes my parents or in-laws would send out a reminder email and we would make a half-hearted attempt to follow protocol. And then, the year that I was pregnant, my mother convinced me that my unborn son's spiritual life hinged on how much I exposed him, abhimanyu-style, to the secrets of vaishnavism when he was still in the womb. It worked. That whole month I tried to recite, if not all thirty, at least the song of the day. I found, to my surprise, that I knew most of them by heart.

This past month - thanks to nanowrimo - I've done a lot of reading about the temples in Mylapore, since that is the backdrop of my story. Again, I found that I knew about a lot of the rituals and that I, in fact, have fond memories of some of them. The mesmeric drumbeat to which Kabaleeshwarar is carried on the bull (adigara nandi), the pradoshams, Sreenivasa perumal taken on utsavam through the steets etc., When did I pick these things up? Since temple talk was constantly in the background when we were growing up I suppose I must have unwittingly soaked it up.

How much of what I was exposed to as a child did I want to subject S to? I can't conjure up a moped-driving vadhiyar but I suppose I could play some thiruppavai tapes in December. Would he get it? Is having a cultural context important? Is it possible to incubate a whole cultural experience in isolation?

I struggle with these questions.

I've decided, however, that this year I will take S to the early morning thiruppavai recitals at the local temple as often as possible. Don't tell my mother!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

And miles to go before I'm done...

8000 words down; 42, 000 more to go. The characters are speaking to me already, whispering their secrets so only I can hear. They want to use me as a medium to tell their story and who am I to protest?

Stephen King's advice is that you write about what you know and you say it as it is - no window dressing. I realize everyday, as I write, that there is an awful lot I do not know. There are holes in the plot because of facts I do not know and reseach I do not have the time to do. And this despite the fact that my novel is set in the Mylapore of the 80's - the place and time that is in my blood. For instance, 'Murder in Mada Street' is centered around, well, Mada street, but looking at the map of Mylapore on google maps I realize that there is no Mada street. There is a N.Mada street and a S.Mada street but no Mada street. Really?

Going by King's dictum I've also given up the hope that I can ever write something that is not macabre. I have to be myself - no window dressing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The working mother experience - part 2

I received an email from a friend complaining that the previous post was all about the trials and nothing about the triumphs. I have been remiss, I admit. The fact that the triumphs outweigh the trials, I thought, was self-evident. She says no, not if you’re not on the conveyor belt yourself. So, here goes. Here below is my exposition on why I choose to work instead of staying home with my son.

As with all things, it began many years ago, with my mother. My mother, rabidly religious and old-fashioned, was also a working woman. She belonged to the working women legion of the previous generation that did a 150% job at home (cooking, cleaning, in-laws, kids et al) while still holding down a fairly serious, well-paying job. I know very little about the nature of work she did, just that every weekday morning, for thirty five years, she demonstrated responsibility by stepping out of the house to face the world. I was never told how much money she made but I knew it wasn’t a pittance.

I’ve been to her office a few times as a little girl and vividly remember the room she worked in. The room was large with big windows and a tall ceiling from which fans hung and hummed all day long. A broad, glass-topped desk stood under one such fan, mounted by several thick ledgers. I usually took with me a book to read while she worked but most days I would just daydream that I was the person on the other side of the desk, peering into that important looking ledger. I remember being kicked that the person I called mom was someone the Reserve Bank of India considered important enough to employ, retain and promote periodically. I knew even back then that I wanted a career.

All through her working life Mom came back home with stories about class fours (clerks) who didn’t work, typists who sleep in the cloak room, her boss, who’s son or daughter was getting married and when and so on. I listened, not fully understanding, but when I went to work myself I was able to better relate to some of her stories. After work I would stop by the kitchen and relate the day’s happenings, receive advice and compare notes (our careers overlapped by a few years). The fact that I could discuss the nitty-gritty details of my job with my mother was something I was very grateful for.

One fringe benefit of mom’s job was that when mom made friends with women from different geographies she picked up their cuisines. Rajma/Chawal was introduced to our household thanks to Panjwani aunty and Karakuzhambu thanks to Ganga aunty. By the time I was in my teens her repertoire of dishes had grown to include such items as chop suey, jams, pizza, biscuits and nan breads, to name just a few. Living, as I do, in the west, I cook way less adventurously than my mother did all those years ago in remote Mylapore.

The biggest influence my mother’s job had on us was, of course, financial. She got me my first computer and my first moped. She further financed the fueling of the moped with some arcane allowance the bank accorded. My college education was funded by a scholarship from the bank. Owing to the fact that she worked in a bank she knew the basics of investing and did not have to depend on the man of the house to secure our future. As a child I used to listen to my parents discuss investments and I grew up with the knowledge that it is not necessarily something that is relegated to the men of the house. When I got my first job she appointed herself my financial planner and opened LIC accounts, fixed deposits and purchased jewelry with my savings. To this day mom manages my bank accounts in India, sending me scanned forms and balance details even without my asking her.

Mom was an ace at taking exams. To prepare for one particular exam held by the bank, I remember that she checked into a hotel room for a few days, which was an unusual thing for a woman of her generation to do. Sure enough she topped that exam but perversely declined the promotion that came with it, since it required that she relocate to a different state. Right there she was demonstrating the fine art of balancing priorities.

Being a working woman made my mother an independent entity in our eyes, not just someone who made our meals and took care of us. She never once lectured us to be independent. She did not have to. She was leading by example.

I work because my mother worked and that enriched my life. I can expect to do no less for my child.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The working mother experience

The one opportunity I had of getting published, I blew. The office was compiling a list of stories about the trials and triumphs of working mothers on their rolls and an email was sent out soliciting inputs. I was thrilled to bits. So much so that I had the email safely tucked away in my 'Follow up' folder and promptly forgot about it. The book, when it came out, was glossy and attractive with dozens of stories that pulled at my post partum, hormone surged, and sentimental heart. There were stories from people at all levels, stories of the every day kind, stories about what a struggle it is to raise a child in this shifting world of changing priorities. At the time that I browsed through the book S was seven months old and I was a tired, groggy-eyed, barely-alive human being who was just a millisecond away from a meltdown at any point of time. I was touched by several stories in the book, especially one by a manager who spoke about attending a customer call on mute while rocking her sick baby in her office chair and changing his diaper at the same time. (been there, done that). That one moved me to tears. So here is the story I would have written had I remembered to contribute:

November 17, 2008: My first day alone with my son, Sanjay. No more parents or in-laws for cushion; it’s just the three of us. I'm terrified of screwing up. I'm terrified of not being able to cope with work, chores, a manic pumping schedule and the sometimes monotonous task of caring for an infant. I have no experience to count on, only overly confusing and contradictory advice from the internet.

November 18, 2008: Two days in my administration and S is having a triple assault of fever, ear infection and a stomach bug. I am terrified that my child will die in my care. When I tell my doctor this on the telephone she does not rise to the bait. She will simply not have him brought in till he is hot enough to iron clothes with. In the middle of this blue funk I catch myself thinking about the afternoon meeting that I will have to skip. Can I catch-up on what happened tomorrow? And then comes a stab of guilt. What kind of mother thinks about work at a time like this anyway?

November 19, 2008: S is feeling better. The woman at the daycare urges me to bring him in. She assures me that playing will make him forget his discomfort. I dress S warmly - over dress him - and that makes him unhappy. He whines all the way to his daycare and then some.

November 20, 2008: I'm late. My first meeting for the day begins at 9.00 AM. It's 8.15 AM now and I can smell the diaper that is inside several layers of winter clothing. It would take five minutes to remove all those layers, two minutes to clean him up and five more to put them back on. I would never make it in time for the meeting. Should I just drop him off in his morning mess? Is it very discourteous to do so? Or should I dial in to the meeting like yesterday? I'm so sleepy and tired. I don't want to be faced with any decision at the moment.

November 21, 2008: I read the book 'The working mother experience' and realize that I’m neither a mercenary nor a freak. I am just one of several thousand working women trying to do the best she can when both time and energy are shrinking.