Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wipe your feet!

Our homes, and most homes I have visited, always boasted a doormat. Fat rectangles or ovals of tufted coir, they sat firmly outside the front door bearing the word ‘Welcome’ stamped on them. They greeted the visitor and kept the outside dirt to a minimum, especially in the monsoons. Dogs and cats loved them, as did their fleas.

One would hardly think that something as mundane as a doormat would provide memories, but they do!

One Christmas season, while shopping at Cheap Jack’s (guaranteed to empty your purse!) I espied a pile of coir neatly cropped into that familiar rectangular. The topmost one was imprinted with a humongous paw print and the legend ‘Pawse and wipe!’ which caused me to squeal, ‘How cute!’ This was added to the already loaded bill. Browsing through the pile we found some more which would eventually find their way to stockings supposedly filled by Santa.

One bearing the legend, ‘Is this the time to come home?’ was ‘left’ at a sister-in-law’s front door (three teenage children prompted the purchase!). Another, ‘Beware of the wife’ was gifted to a neighbour. Funnily, the wife saw the humour while the husband was affronted. Our front door was graced by ‘All our visitors bring us pleasure, some by coming and some by going’. Our neighbours used to switch mats when we were out and we switched them back when we returned – a juvenile pastime, but a fun way to stay young. ‘Beware of the dog!’ did not apply – ours were too friendly.

Sadly, though coir lasts and lasts, the depredations suffered over time (lots of dirty shoes, the building sweeper and the dogs) required the mats to be replaced. This means that we are always on the lookout for something interesting and colourful.

Once, we opted for ever-lasting plastic ‘imitation’ grass. Fully washable. Around that time our neighbour’s son was a toddler who loved to play in the corridor. Reluctant to break play to visit the loo, he would water the mat. He could pee without leaving that telltale puddle. What he didn’t realise was that pee leaves a telltale pong! The mat was jettisoned without further ado.

Now, our doormat sits inside the front door (thanks to the building cat and its resident fauna) more ornamental than useful. Rubber backed, the carpet-like fabric bears a colourful design but no legend.

Come Christmas week it will be washed and put away to be replaced by one which says, ‘Merry Christmas’ – also acquired from (Not so) Cheap Jack’s and lovingly preserved over the years.

And, yes, this one definitely resides inside the front door with the injunction ‘please do not wipe your feet’!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tying up the tongue!

In the time before Sunmica, Formica, melamine and modern laminates furniture was polished and the finish maintained with loving elbow grease, guaranteeing a patina that time could not dim. Further protection was offered by double tablecloths, trivets and of course, the ubiquitous coaster which ensured that the tell-tale circle of a wet glass did not mar(k) that which was lovingly maintained.

Beer companies (whose product was responsible to a large extent for those wet glasses) pushed their products just that little bit further by offering ‘branded’ coasters which soon turned into collectibles. Some relics survive to this day. One such coaster coached the user in the art of saying ‘Cheers’ in a variety of languages and my father was tickled pink when he found his little daughter twisting her tongue to impress the guests. The ‘trick’ soon graduated to saying ‘Good Morning’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in as many languages as possible.

Knowing so little is a dangerous thing as I was to discover in later years.

My office colleagues decided to teach me Marathi through conversation. The first phrase was, ‘Mala mythinay’ (spelt phonetically) or ‘I don’t know’. After a little practice to get the pronunciation and intonation just right, I was advised to use my knowledge whenever applicable, in order to fix the words in my mind. On my route homeward, that day, I was accosted by a family who enquired, in Marathi, where they could find Majestic Cinema. I happily responded, ‘Mala mythinay!”. When they asked the next passer-by he indicated with his thumb that we were standing right in front of their desired destination! Did I feel like a moron?!!

But I didn’t learn my lesson.

Some years later I visited Rome and soon found out that telephone calls were answered with, ‘Pronto!’ Following that oft reiterated advice - ‘when in Rome…’ - I cheerily answered the call to my hostel room with a hearty ‘Pronto’ only to be presented with a flood of fast and furious Italian. Admitting defeat, I explained that I had not understood ending with, ‘English, please.’ Dead silence. It turned out that the receptionist knew only Italian while I understood only English. Luckily for me she had called because I had a visitor who was able to sort out the problem since she was articulate in both languages. After that experience, I employed mime and gesture with much better success. The Italians are very fluent with their hands too!

Now, I stick to the language I know best and keep ‘where is the loo?’ (in the appropriate local lingo) up my sleeve for emergencies. Tying up the tongue does not make for comfortable memories.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Just herself

The memory of our first meeting is as alive now as when it happened. She was a vision of orange frizzed hair, iridescent green eye-shadow and equally luminous nails. Always shy at first encounters, I was dumbstruck and before I could help myself, I blurted out, ‘I need a haircut, but I have very conservative tastes!’ She smiled, invited me in and sat me down in front of the mirror. After combing and wetting my hair she set to with grips and clips before she commenced cutting. All the while, she chatted to me and I responded distractedly. I was too busy praying about the outcome.

When hubby and I relocated to Thane, there was no hairdressing salon worth the mention. And as I mourned the distance between Thane and Bandra where my earlier hair dresser resided, one of my husband’s numerous relatives suggested that I go see Lolly – reputed to be good at her profession and reasonable in her price. The address was just a building away. So convenient. And so I went. That visit resulted in one of the best hair-dos I have ever sported and also in an enduring friendship. Lolly was always nothing but herself. Glad to be who she was, never judgmental, never angry at the predicaments that life threw at her, she was a free spirit particularly when it came to make up and dress. In a crowd, she was one of a kind. And she was true to her reputation – her skill with comb and scissors was supreme.

Both Lolly and I have long since quitted Thane and are no longer in touch. But if there is one thing that she taught me it is that it is sometimes correct to judge a book by its cover; to know the pleasure of an encounter with the original, zany, spontaneous, sometimes outrageous - a bright and shiny new spot among the fusty titles on a musty library shelf!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Homespun Philosophy

Our ward boy has reached his manly proportions without the benefit of mutton. Since he is a staunch vegetarian, I thought it would be politic to apprise him of the arrival of the goats and their imminent assassination.

He favoured me with a toothy grin and said, ‘What to do? It is a feast day and that is their fate. Hopefully their death will earn them something better in their next life.’

That halted me in my tracks. It made me realise that it is probably homespun philosophy such as this that has allowed some Hindus and Muslims to live side by side in harmony, in this very diverse country of ours.

What an idea!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Prelude to mutton

The goats have arrived – eight gorgeous, handsome, shaggy haired specimens. And they are busy exploring their new terrain. There are a few things you need to know about goats: they are incredibly inquisitive and will eat anything – God’s natural waste disposal. What goes in one end comes out as pelletized manure at the other! They may appear inscrutable - even icily aloof - but once you get to know them you can only appreciate the truly adorable creatures that they are. Yes, I love goats!

If you have ever held a kid (I refer to a baby of the goat kind) you will be surprised at how incredibly soft, warm and cuddly it is – just like hugging an overstuffed cushion! To paraphrase Charlie Schultz – happiness is a warm kid (yes, baby goat again). Unfortunately, one cannot keep a goat as a pet. For two reasons. One is that they grow rather large. The other is that, as mentioned before, they will eat anything. An untethered goat will clear ground faster than you can say, ‘MMmmaaaaa’!! Once, I did toy with the idea and spoke about it to my mali (gardener). He was appalled. Apparently folklore has it that if a goat looks at a sapling, it will positively refuse to grow. It was either the garden or the goat.

So, I contented myself by visiting goat breeders in the vicinity and making friends with their flock. Unfortunately, I often forgot their ‘will eat anything’ propensity and invariably came away missing the hem of my sari or skirt.

Watching the goats, today, brought back the memories. Goats nibbling pensively on leaves, on paper, on wires, on clothes left out to dry, on the juice man’s sugar cane, and even the herdsman’s lungi (he realised just in time!). The air is redolent with bleats, cuss words and the distinctive warm aroma of goat.

In earlier times, my husband’s family resided in their own two storied home which boasted a sizeable compound. The parents of a prospective bride to the family gifted them a pair of goats. According to hubby, the ram was the best ‘watchman’ they ever had. Every unknown person would be head-butted with ferocity and with all the kilos at its disposal. A daunting encounter. But they lived in the heart of the city and had to return the goat to its giver. It was a well-bred sire and hopefully spent a relatively pampered life.

Other goats are not so lucky. Most people know their goats as mutton. Which is why I will not make the acquaintance of the eight next door. Tomorrow, they will be the pièce de résistance on their owner’s dining table.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Christmas Novena

When I tied the knot, I was introduced not only to a very large, friendly and well knit family, but also to the Christmas Novena. Come the First Sunday in Advent every year, my husband gets a certain gleam in his eye because the Novena begins on this day, and the anticipation for Christmas takes on a very special feeling.

This prayer, according to hubby, has been said in the family ever since he was a child, and one can just imagine the nine children – teens to toddlers – clustered around their parents on a winter’s night, household chores accomplished and dinner yet to come, all reciting this little prayer which transports one to ‘Bethlehem at midnight in the piercing cold’. Recited 15 times, at a stretch, each day from the First Sunday of Advent to Christmas Eve, it brings one closer to the reality of the birth of the Holy Babe. There is an empathy with the young Mother, who was little more than a child herself, and also with the manger scene as it happened 2000 years ago!

My family by marriage has now entered its fourth generation since I joined it, and children and grandchildren have moved to different parts of the world. The Christmas Novena is a family tradition that they have carried with them – a tradition which they will pass on to future generations and new found friends. Every year, at this time, it thrills us to know that all of us, wherever we find ourselves, will be united in this special bond in our collective countdown to Christmas.

It is surprising that not many people are aware of the beauty and effect of this little prayer and it always gives me a huge lift when I get to share it. Here are the words, so that you too may experience the extraordinary anticipation leading up to Christmas:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe O my God to hear my prayer and grant my desires through the merits of our savior, Jesus Christ, and of his Blessed Mother. Amen.

(The First Sunday of Advent falls on November 28, this year)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Of a Crib, a Collie and cherished companions

As mentioned in other blogs, my husband loved to walk his collie. He also loved all things Christmas.

Mornings in December meant that he could visit the outdoor crib at the local convent school. He would pause in his perambulations to spend a moment with the Infant Jesus and fall in love with the Nativity Scene all over again. The collie would stand on her hind legs, place her front paws gently at the edge of the table and nudge Baby Jesus’ feet with her nose. That done, she would sit patiently till my husband moved on.

Mother Superior, possibly wary of itinerant trespassers and in the interest of her property, was not amused. This moved me to remind her that the original manger was ‘peopled’ by livestock and that legend has it that all animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve!

It puzzles me that those who are supposedly close to God do not see, feel or experience the whimsical side of our Maker’s personality. Nature demonstrates the glory of creation but it also throws up many and delightful comical aspects, as those who know so will readily testify.

A priest I had the privilege to know shared this sense of whimsy. He wrote a droll ‘post-card to a duck’ for my scrap-book. It goes:


There is one blot on your fair name and one only! You have filled the cricket field with a word of dread. Why your egg, more than any other, should have been chosen to signify by its shape the most ignominious numeral in the multiplication table, I fail to comprehend.

A duck’s egg is no more round than the egg of a pigeon or of a hen – and indeed, it is far less round than that of a goose or of a turkey. Yet it was upon you that the wise humorist fastened; it was you who were set apart to humiliate those who failed to score.

For the rest, you are the friend of man. In life you waddle around with the most charming insouciance, and when the fatal moment arrives, your gift of blending melodiously with sage and onions is beyond compare.

Peas be with you!

Stern and seemingly unapproachable, Msgr. E had an unsuspected ‘soft’ side. And though I must remember him for his sterling advice and guidance, it is the ‘postcard’ which recalls him most gladly to mind.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A President Visits

"Pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been?"

"I’ve been to London to see the Queen!"

When Clinton came to Mumbai, he walked among the people, smiled and waved. He even visited a local hostelry. And even though he came with a tarnished image, everyone wanted a glimpse of this goriya phirang and his very pretty daughter and, what is more, they got it.

Hubby had taken Bonnie, our collie, for a walk and it so happened that Clinton was on the opposite side of the road. Hubby was thrilled. When he returned, he remarked, “Bonnie saw Clinton!” She got to woof at him too. Such was the time, such was the tenor.

This weekend, another American President visits. Sanitisation, unprecedented security and a whole lot of dos and don’ts. A cohort of 500, two truckloads of weapons and a 900 tonne armoured automobile. All this for just a few minutes at select venues over two days. The city is in a tizzy! This morning, I noticed that the manhole covers had all been taped over. Every monsoon, these manholes invariably lack covers and the swirling waters suck people into their murky depths. In all my sixty years I have never seen a taped manhole cover in Mumbai. We are, it seems, expendable.

The roads have been swept clean, the kerbs painted and the pavements barricaded. The hawkers have been spirited away and people are discouraged from the casual stroll or shop-front sightseeing – a very Colaba occupation. The visiting President will see a ghost town and not this bustling, busy, noisy, smelly, larger than life, in your face, sometimes hostile but mostly welcoming city of mine. Pity.

Once a cat could look at a Queen and a collie could woof at a President. But this is a different time, this is a different tenor. And we must be neither seen nor heard.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Encounters at the ATM (of the very terrestrial kind!)

I sauntered up to the local ATM and noted that the cabin was occupied but there was no queue. Good. I would be first in line. Before I could even register what was happening, I was shoved aside, gustily, by two men who could only be our MLAs – the clothes and the body language proclaimed them to be so. While one stood outside the door, the other barged into the cabin while the previous customer was still inside and demanded to be shown how the ATM should be used! The customer in question was obviously a gentleman; he courteously imparted instructions, counted his cash, collected his receipt and exited.

In the meantime, a queue had built up behind me and was getting restive. The newly instructed ‘client’ was fiddling around with the buttons and showing no inclination to complete his transaction. His companion requested the watchman to assist. The watchman obliged. The two finally walked away with their cash, but not after a few pointed and pungent remarks from ‘members of the public’!

My turn next. Business done, I walked out and past the queue, and headed back towards home. Suddenly, my attention was caught by the woman joining the line: beautifully attired in crimson blazer, black skirt and matching crimson stilettos, her attire was the perfect foil to her flawless ebony skin. Gazing in admiration (I’m a sucker for couture, not necessarily haute) I almost missed the child behind her. The tot could not have been a day older than three; wearing the neatest black and white checked dress, she trotted stoically behind the woman. Judging from their resemblance to each other, they must have been mother and child, but the woman did not glance behind; it was as if she knew that the child would follow. Obedience instilled. The little one even managed the steps to the ATM on her own, unafraid and doggedly determined. An Indian child of that age would have been hand-held if not carried by the mother, a relative or a maid. We take good care of our Bunties and Babloos, judging by the plump customers filling up on burgers and milkshake at the local MacD’s.

I am reminded of the topic I posed my Journalism students – ‘Does childhood exist today?’ Most of them mourned the ‘death’ of childhood, listing the various ills and woes that beset the child of our time. One savvy student begged to disagree: she argued that as long as there were children, there would be childhood though each generation would necessarily have to ‘break the mould’ as the world moves forward. Children, as only children can, would still possess ‘unbridled curiosity and potential for mischief’!!

One sighting of a self-possessed little child and I cannot dismiss the image from my mind. I wish I had seen her look around, laugh and chatter.