Thursday, September 30, 2010

Unfamiliar Feathers

We had two unusual visitors today – a kite (locally known as a cheel) and a budgerigar.

Our local denizens are crows and pigeons and we listen to caws and coos in surround sound from sun up to sun down. But today was different. The normal voices were muted. A glance out of the window showed me the kite perched on the terrace of the neighbouring building; the head was still downy and I guessed that it would be the equivalent of a human teenager. I watched it as it glanced imperiously from its vantage point, head turning from side to side almost constantly. And I was immediately reminded of a certain Mother Superior I'd had the misfortune to cross – the kite’s expression and demeanour were the same as that of the aforementioned stern and vigilant disciplinarian!

The similarities in appearance and mannerism in the human and animal worlds crop up so very often. When watching the one or the other, images spring immediately to mind. The most common example would be owners and their dogs: believe me, they do resemble each other - sometimes startlingly so. Such similarities have also been the cartoonist’s inspiration and delight. Sometimes the likeness strikes one at a very inopportune moment necessitating chuckles to be suppressed, accompanied by an urgent desire to be removed from the spot.

And sometimes such similarities are used to illustrate a sermon. A visiting priest waxed long and loud about the frailty of human nature and the tendency to sin. He thundered at the congregation, reminding them of the fires of eternal damnation. When he came to the end of his message, he noticed a man weeping copiously and approached him, thinking that he had touched a deep inner chord. Well, he had but not the one he thought! The man was weeping because he had just lost his billy-goat and the priest had a long and similar beard – the resemblance was just too much for him to bear!! This anecdote is a staple in the Redemptorist repertoire and one that never fails to establish rapport with the congregation.

Our other visitor, the budgie, was small, plump and pale yellow topped with green. It seemed a little fussy and a tad agitated too. It reminded me of someone, but I can’t for the life of me quite remember who!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Growing up Grant...

...was a far cry from Growing up Gotti. The statement, on the other hand, alliterates just as resonantly!

My last two blogs took me back in time (yes, I know, I do it quite often!) to when I started reading. As soon as I was able, I was allotted the children’s section of the daily paper to enjoy. Once it was felt that I could ‘graduate’ to more serious topics, I was encouraged to read the entire publication. Starting with the daily cartoon, one progressed from the sports, to the international news, to city happenings and finally to national events – a routine which continues to this day.

What made this practice special was that I had to be able to discuss a topic of my choice, from the news of the day, and state my opinion. The only proviso was that I should be able to justify it. I could not say that a particular person was ‘bad’ or that a particular decision was ‘stupid’, I also had to reason why and try and hold my own in the ensuing ‘argument’! Now, many, many years later I am able to receive the news objectively and questioningly. There is an involvement with the happening world. There is an interest in things other than just myself and my immediate environment.

Home and family set the foundation for the child to become parent of the adult (‘father of the man’ now being politically incorrect?!). A child who is raised to be connected will more often than not turn out a caring and concerned citizen. A child who is taught by example to be indifferent will probably be clueless to all else other than what is needed to pass examinations. Certain educational institutions may seek to address this problem, but they are more likely to be successful in capturing the mind; it is the home that captures the heart.

Children learn what they live – and life begins at home.

Incidentally, though my mother today needs a magnifying glass to read her paper, she insists on being au fait with the news! There’s example for you.

Growing up Grant was not always such sweetness and light. My parents believed in corporal punishment and I did try to break a few records in that area! But, as a passage from my diary recalls, through all the patterns that make up the tapestry that is life, there runs a thread of gold – treasured memories and the practices that make us what we are.

And yes, I have plenty of anecdotes about ‘Growing up Grant’. Let’s see what memory dredges up next!

Cool and clueless

Funny isn’t it? Yesterday, I blogged about American teenagers who are clueless about the past and are cool about the fact. Today’s paper carried the results of a poll of their Indian counterparts on a very current Indian situation – the decision on the Ayodhya title deed. And, yes, our supposedly brightest and best (remember they needed over 90% to get into college in the first place!) are equally clueless.

The report says, and I quote, ‘How does Babri Masjid and its destruction resonate with the post ’90 India? Sobiya Moghul asked those 18-years old and below their thoughts on this seminal event. Their response was simultaneously disconcerting and encouraging and, if you have a funny bone, entertaining too.’ (Mumbai Mirror, September 28, 2010)

Being confused about Beethoven, man and dog, is a far cry from being indifferent about the political climate in one’s own country. After all, these are young adults who either already have, or will soon have, the vote. Most of the responses ranged between ‘don’t know’ (or don’t care?) to personal anxiety about examinations! Talk about living in the moment!

It is expected that education will beget a more informed and responsible generation. The newspaper report indicates exactly the opposite. This generation may not be condemned to repeat the history they choose to forget, but they certainly need to be sensitive to the happenings in their own country. Why? Because, to quote John Kennedy, ‘If we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the last analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.’ For world and planet, read country. If we remain deliberately unaware to the causes of dissent, how will we ever be able to work toward harmony? And surely these young adults look forward to living in a harmonious tomorrow?

Are they deliberately uncaring, ignorant, indifferent? Or do they feel that the past is a baggage that is easily jettisoned?

Yesterday, I chuckled. Today, I do not know whether to be exasperated or amused! Funny can be entertaining, but funny can also be strange and there are times when being clueless is definitely uncool.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Amid the gore and bluster of the daily news, a headline caught my eye – ‘Most US students think Beethoven was a dog’!! Every movie buff and dog-addict would know the lovable St. Bernard and I let out a hearty chuckle (and ‘boo’ to those who indulged in a cynical snigger). The original must be turning in his grave to the resounding clash of cymbals!

The article concludes: ‘…for US students who got their bachelor’s degree this year, Germany was never divided, professional athletes have always competed in the Olympics, there have always been reality shows and smoking has never been allowed on US airlines…’

This got me thinking about timelines and about how lucky I am to have straddled two centuries – the 20th and 21st!

Many little things - and some not so little things - help us appreciate the particular span of time that we inhabit.

For example, I grew up in the time before television which has allowed me to realise the value of a good book and the fun of evening badminton sessions (strictly non-pro) with friends. Typewriters were mechanical; this meant that you needed to be painstakingly accurate if you did not want to repeat the work you had already done. There was no spell-check or autocorrect or memory. Adapting to the computer was a snap – it has to play catch up with my typing instead! Sewing machines had to be pedaled, clothes scrubbed on a washboard and masala ground by hand – daily exercise guaranteed. Now that I am older, I can blissfully give thanks for my motorized Singer©, ‘automatic’ washing machine and food processor (although the breakdown rate is higher!). Doing things the hard way taught me discipline and precision; doing things the easy way has taught me appreciation of the inventive mind!

We have evolved and how: upcountry in the fifties, the milkman would visit with cow in tow, swatch of grass and aluminum can – milk came straight from the udder. Today, milk comes in a tetrapaks, duly pasteurized. In earlier times, meat and fish came fresh off the block wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper (roasted chana still does!); today, such food comes cling-filmed and frozen. Change is convenient even if it is not always good for us.

My generation has lived through marvelous breakthroughs in science and history; DNA has been decoded, man has visited the moon, the Internet and mobile phones have become a way of life, the Iron curtain and Berlin wall have been dismantled, some dictatorships have been replaced by democracies – the list is a long one, too long to be accommodated here.

We have seen leaders come and leaders go: the Popes from Pius XII to Benedict XVI, Adenauer to Merkel, de Gaulle to Sarkosy, Eisenhower to Obama, Churchill to Cameron (while the same Queen is still going strong!), Khrushchev to Putin, Shah Reza Pahlavi to Ahmadinejad, Nehru to Manmohan Singh – some cast a long shadow, each left a legacy either to be admired or deplored.

So much has happened!

For today’s graduate, the present will have to be more fascinating than the past, considering the strides that technology has made and the accelerting opportunities for growth. They will eventually learn that the past is prologue to the future and they will make the acquaintance, perchance, of the music, literature and pastimes that enthralled an earlier generation.

In the meantime, my contemporaries can thank technology and enjoy the opportunity to listen to ‘live concert’ quality recordings in the comfort of home. Beethoven – the original – lives again and how!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dancing while I dust!

They say that only a true blue Viennese can sit perfectly still through a waltz. Well, I am neither Austrian nor a twinkle toes, but I find movement to music totally irresistible. Almost of their own volition, fingers and toes will tap in rhythm and the head will nod and sway.

From earliest memory, we seem to have had music at home with either radio or wind-up gramophone playing the songs of the times. We picked up the melodies and the lyrics on the way and contributed our voice at parties and picnics. And, of course, we learned the dances that matched the tunes: we waltzed to Bing and Frank, jived to Tommy Steele, gyrated to Elvis, cha-cha-ed to Trini and swayed to the Beatles. Radio Ceylon and All India Radio made sure that popular requests were aired very regularly enabling us to ‘develop’ a taste for certain vocalists and their refrains. So, we sang and danced our way through school and college; there was always a piano to thump on and no dearth of voices or partners!

The working world was a different place – ‘whistle while you work’ was not a practice that was encouraged and the seven dwarfs have, somehow, never found their way into management manuals! Listening to music, therefore, had to be saved for the weekends. Come Saturday morning, I would load the trusty two-in-one with the first of many tapes, let the music rip and karaoke my way through the day. Yes, I danced while I dusted (I still do!), ‘twirling’ from chair to chair and using a convenient cupboard handle for a partner. Sometimes, the dogs came in handy, which is probably why they searched for safe hiding places as soon as they heard me humming! Hubby’s two left feet were firmly set in concrete and since he refused to repair his reputation, dancing with him was reserved for the romantic rather than the energetic numbers.

For me, all of life holds a rhythm and I simply cannot imagine a world without music.

Even now, while I blog, the multimedia player on my trusty computer is spinning a disc: Placido is singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, the feet are tapping, the head is nodding and the fingers are dancing on the keys.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My mother’s eldest sister

The firstborn in a family of ten, her place in the family annals was assured. I knew of Aunt Roz long before I met her, and I certainly felt her presence: a prized red sweater knitted with love, warm and embracing, which saw me through a few north Indian winters; a knitted doll with distinctly Jamaican features, dress and accessories, and gifts sent from time to time for a little girl she had never seen. A black and white photograph, my first memory of her, revealed a luminous beauty.

My mother was the last but one of the ten and, I think, a little in awe of big sister. Tomboyish, strong willed, fun loving, determined and also very talented, according to my mother, Aunt Roz met life head on.

I finally caught up with her when I was around eleven years old and legend did her justice. I loved my aunt on sight – she was the ideal foil to a shy, uncertain, self-effacing child. I remember laughing eyes and an infectious, sometimes ribald, sense of humour (something my mother did not appreciate which made it the more delightful!), a never say die attitude and a very accommodating temper. Her children, my cousins, were grown and gone, she had retired from teaching and, so, I was favoured with her full attention.

The setting was the railway colony in Jhansi and the timeframe was a couple of months which also included Christmas. I learned how to make Rum Punch and Christmas cake. I also learned to distinguish salt from ground sugar! Aunt Roz decided that eleven was a good age to be introduced to the working kitchen and ‘Banana Fritters’ just the right recipe. The ingredients were freshly bought and tied up in paper bags, waiting to be emptied into jar and bowl. I duly opened a packet and, without checking the contents, emptied it into the bowl which already had the mashed banana and flour (that was the time before mixers and food processors). Luckily, the mistake was discovered before mixing commenced and we ended up enjoying the ‘slightly salty’ result. This was the first time an adult did not go ballistic when I made a mistake and I loved her for it.

Attending Sunday Mass entailed a long walk and the crossing of a stream, accompanied by a question and answer session, mostly Sunday School stuff. Mass was followed by the recitation of three rosaries – five decades each, back to back. I would keep checking to see if she had finished and find that she was right at the beginning once more! When she was done, we still could not leave because one could not walk out while a Mass was in progress. Yes, we heard three Masses on Sundays. Perhaps that grace still follows me. If so, I have Aunt Roz to thank.

When she visited us in Bombay, she would take me to the movies and the tunes of ‘My Fair Lady’ are inextricably linked with memories of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison and Aunt Roz. When I was with her, I could be myself without censure. I think she was slightly puzzled by a child that was so in contrast to her own two very outgoing and independent progeny, and so decided to give me free rein. Whatever the reason, she always seemed eager for my company as I was for hers.

Very strong on family ties, she made it a point to stay in touch even when she migrated to another continent. Her distinctive handwriting embellished Christmas cards, birthday cards and the in-between aerogramme with family news and a message for - or enquiry after - me. There was never a gap in the correspondence, even if we did not reply. Of all my mother’s sisters, she was the one I knew best.

From all accounts, her zest for living never faltered and her last missive to me told of knitting needles occupied by a pair of socks and the desire to try her hand at Hungarian Goulash!

They say that when those you love pass on, they become a memory and, in time, that memory becomes a treasure. Aunt Roz, you are surely a memory I will always treasure.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Whoever introduced the practice must be either an insomniac or a sufferer of ADD. In any event, he succeeded and how – he has all of us running around in circles juggling multiple tasks.

My father hated what he called my ‘grasshopper mentality’. ‘Finish one thing at a time and see that it is complete before you move on to the next thing,’ was his frequent and fervent exhortation. This was in reaction to the many incomplete tasks in open view – a dress to be ‘finished’, a letter left half written, dusting abandoned in the cause of a treasure hunt (usually for keys!), a book left opened and overturned to be returned to when able. My father was a tidy person and at the end of the day, everything had to be put away. An early riser, systematic and efficient, he would go from one task to the next in order of importance, starting with early morning tea, Mass and thence through the day till just before bedtime when he would see to it that his apparel for the next morning was laid out ready to wear. This apparel would include firmly starched, pristine white cotton shirt and drill pants and brown shoes that had been visited by ‘spit and polish’. That was over twenty years ago when time seemed more accommodating!

Today, the clock moves around ever more rapidly and twenty-four hours never seem enough even when sleep time is cut down to six or even five from the mandatory eight.

At work, I learned by experience to be an octopus with all tentacles in simultaneous play: I became adept at answering four phones which made it a habit to ring at the same time, while dealing with the boss, while rummaging in a file for that important document, while editing a manuscript on the computer, while faxing the ‘must go immediately’ message, while sipping a tepid cup of coffee, while opening the mail, while summoning the driver, while signing for a delivery, while suppressing the urgent call of the loo! Phew!!

I thought retirement would bring the benefit of leisure and a clock which could be ignored. How mistaken!

I now stir pots on the stove, while answering the phone, while running the bath water, while answering the door, while dusting the furniture, while instructing the maid, while paying the delivery boy, while priming the washing machine, while ironing my clothes, while checking the smses, while typing my blog. And yes, I have unfinished bits and pieces of needlework lying about and my current reading upturned for when I can return to it. My work table is littered with ‘to do’ post-its which draw my attention to tasks as yet undone. A far cry from the knot in the hanky or the thread bow on the little finger to jog memory – those were useful in a time when you had to remember only one thing at a time!

Is the world really spinning faster? Or, is it our resolute race to the finish line that is making it go round at such mind-boggling speed?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hello Mr. Chips!

How I love the story with its sonorous roll-call. A diffident schoolmaster who grew into his job and finished his tenure magna cum laude! No thrills, no titillation and a sad ending. Yet it is a story that I have returned to again and again and it never disappoints.

Though I come from a long line of teachers, if the family tree is to be believed, I never wanted to teach having seen first-hand what it entailed. So, even though most of my classmates went on to do their B.Eds, I chose to explore other pastures. But one can never escape one’s genes, or so it seems: post retirement, I was roped in to teach via the Internet – I became an e-teacher! Now, once again, I have ‘retired’ and can indulge in reminiscence.

Aditi, Amita, Anuradha, Avantika……Deepti, Delna….. Gayatri, Gulveen…. Harsha…… Kadambari, Karishma …..Maclean, Misha, Moumita…. Nandita, Neeti …..Payal, Pervin, Pragya, Prakash, Priya… Rajshree, Rishabh, Roheena…. Sahaaj, Salil, Samalin, Subhash, Swapnila…. Tanvi, Tawina …..Vivek ……

…… they were just names to me till they started sending in their assignments. Gradually, I got to know them through their writing: some were eager, some recalcitrant, some energetic, some lethargic, some receptive, some quite deaf to advice. There were those who showed sparks of genius and there were the strugglers. They were diverse in attitude and capability – a motley crew - and they provided a challenging audience. It was only later, when circumstances allowed me to access their personal data on the Institute’s files, that I realized that some of the younger students were incredibly adult and some of the adults were incredibly young! How revealing our writing can be!! There was one student who fluctuated between maturity and a typical teenager, for want of a better description (I have yet to meet two teenagers who were similar – so what makes ‘typical’?) that I was tempted to ask whether I was dealing with two persons instead of one. I later learnt that the student’s mother was a teacher and had helped her with some of the assignments!

All in all, it was an exceptional experience and a learning curve – teaching over the Internet and interacting solely through the written word which, coincidentally, the courses were all about: News Reporting in the print media, Short Story Writing, Feature Writing and Practical English.

I was often amazed at the feedback – the very eclectic selection of poems and book titles that were sent in as personal preferences for the requested reports. This forced me to read books that I would never have looked at previously. Some books I would still not read anyway, but others made me realize that to teach, one had to expand one’s tastes. I also had to study like I never had before. I was, in my time, a questioning student and I was glad to find that my students were also interrogative, some of them fiercely so. The icing on the cake? Each and every participant in the Distance Education Program was there because he or she wanted to be there. It was a very personal interest that brought them to the courses and, therefore, they were a captive – and captivating! - audience. Here was no ‘whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face creeping like a snail unwillingly to school’.

Have I, like all teachers, touched tomorrow? I think so. Have I made a difference for the better? I hope so. Did I love ‘teaching’? I know so!

What’s in a name?

For me, unforgettable memories!

Shakespeare’s rose may smell as sweet even if called otherwise, but the association with names is a strong one, dredging up moments from past encounters, conjuring up images, sounds and aromas.

As I pick over the treasure trove in the showcase, I am transported to different lands thanks to the travelers who visited our shores.

Remember Ceylon? The name evokes the scent of tea and walls decorated with metal silhouettes. The latter were round, dinner plate size and depicted scenes of coconut trees, boats and fishermen. Beaten into shape and painted an unrelieved black, they were travel souvenirs and de rigueur gifts from returning relatives. Today, Ceylon is Sri Lanka and though it is a beautiful and much in demand tourist destination, the present name conjures up, somehow, cricket and the ethnic strife both of which dominate our television screens.

Then there is Burma. Romantic Burma: Burma of the teak, the brass and the pagodas. There was excitement and adventure associated with the name. I still have the charm bracelet handed down to me by an aunt who made several trips in the late '40s/early '50s. Hand-wrought in brass, it is very delicate and the charms are unusual – a palanquin, a rickshaw, a fish in a dish, an oilcan, an elephant, a clog, a fishing boat and a whistle which really works! Many Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese had common roots and a visit to Burma was a visit to family. Today, Myanmar is associated with a repressive, military dictatorship.

And, what about Bombay? What was once a city with well apportioned stone-faced buildings, leafy avenues, sea-front boulevards, and known for 'Bombay Halwa' is now Mumbai – overcrowded, dirty and with buildings that crumble within a short span of time. Bombay was the port of call and departure for the inward and outward bound seafaring traveler. Mumbai still is. But, somehow, it is just not the same. The poetry is missing. No‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir.…’* visits the mind.

People, places, things linked in a showcase: each souvenir recalls the person; the person recalls the place, and each place is thereby coupled by the souvenir to its past.

*Cargoes - John Masefield