Water lilies bloom in the lagoons

                                    where cranes part the flowers

                                    looking for fish then fly away

                                   to stay in fragrant seaside groves

                                   near my lover’s village washed by the sea.

                                                                   – Neithal (Ainkurunuru – 184)

In the culturalscape of Sangam or pre historic Tamil literature, neithal, the coastal area, is eulogised by poets for its spectacular  sunsets, sweeping vistas of sea, sand and sky; it also lent itself to musing on the ephemeral quality of life before the expanse of nature. It was associated with the sites of glorious battles, heart wrenching deaths, set to the sounds of gathering storms, crashing waves, roaring seas. Here lonely young lasses pined and awaited the return of lovers who had sailed to sea. The fishing hero would brave the elements for a good catch and in an act defying death  pick a pearl or a necklace of shells for his beloved.

The romantic element is obviously layered as neithal‘s dominant emotion is yearning- be it communion with nature, God, self, with a lover. Some musicologists opine that the Tamil Pann could have been an earlier precursor to the north Indian raga. The beauty of Thodi, set to the tremulous strumming of an ancient harp,  say some music experts, was best suited  for songs about the coastal landscape.

Samanth Subramanian’s travelogue Finding Fish is an interesting book on the over 7000 kms of coastline of India. The journalist with  a decade’s experience sets to travel through the coast from West Bengal to end in Gujarat, savouring and sampling the various kinds of fish in the states.

Finding Fish is not about fashionable gastronomic tourism.Subramanian’s journey encompasses tradition, culture, livelihood, personal anecdotes, vignettes of the land and its people, fisher folk, friends, and stories. Much like a social anthropologist he weaves in information on the species of fish found in each area, the topography of the beachfronts, the netted ties of men and fish and money in commerce, nautical details, politics of the place and social mix of a people. The bit about the woman angler in Goa brings to play all the elements associated with fishing with a touch of lightness and beauty.

Subramanian’s travels take him to wet markets, the dockyards where fishermen anchor their boats, or drag in their trawlers; he witnesses the hardships, the Moby Dick moments or the man and nature wrestle behind a prized catch; the sights and smells of a market; and in the process receives country wisdom from a fishmonger or two. Apocryphal  seaside ventures, environmental worries, coastal livelihoods and ultimately the uniqueness of each species of fish of the area and other stories of religion, caste and regionalism are woven by Subramanian’s graceful prose.

From the illish in Kolkata where the fish is a divine motif, to faith healing by eating live fish at Hyderabad, past a Sunday mass at church at Manapadu in Tamil Nadu, travels through toddy shops in Kerala polishing karimeen with arrack, the delights of mackerel in coconut cream in Mangalore, fish shopping with a former Shiv Sena hand at Mumbai tasting the sailfish and at sea chasing a grouper to the zen like moment in Goa watching an angling fisherwoman to end his travels at the boatmaking yards of Gujarat, Samanth sails through them all.

Though Subramanian begins travelling from the east he doesn’t mention the 400 kms of coastal area of Orissa and it’s variety of freshwater, salt and river water fish and the subtle variants of an illish machcha, a delicacy in Oriya cuisine. Given Subramanian’s lively articles on music it would have added value to his coastal smorgasbord if he could have brought in a cultural dimension that included folk songs  that are particular to each region.A Koli song to the goddess before setting to sail; the blues of a boatman on the Hooghly; or Karaiyar paatu, archaic Tamil coastal songs and choral Elelo paatu and those of Goan boatmen including Karvi fisher folk songs would have lent a touch of music that Subramanian obviously has an ear for.

The curious tale of how Subramanian, hailing from a family of committed vegetarians in Madras, got converted to eating and savouring his fish remains unexplained. But then as the old saying goes, the sea hath fish for every man.

I never succeeded in getting Amma’s approval despite my attempts to please her. When my best intentions failed, I turned defiant and began to do my own thing, and it equally riled her.

When she came to stay here I was anxious about her response to my home and lifestyle. Her comments included those on my housekeeping skills (“tidy, but obsessive about clutter”), the food (“cooks hurriedly and too many dishes for the day!”),  cookware (“why use breakable ceramic when stainless is cheap and best?”),  larder (“you buy too many biscuits”)  and  assorted quirks including, “paintings that are funny looking”, “Why don’t you fix grilles on the windows?” “Why do you have too many dinners and lunches thrown in?”, “You’ve turned lazy and fat”, and “You need patience with your son” and so on.   

This time I didn’t turn defensive. An old mother’s scolding doesn’t make a feckless daughter feel powerless as it did when she was a girl. I let her bring it on.

However I faltered at what she thought was my worst transgression.

“You learnt Bengali?” she spoke up after the first two days here.

“Uh, survival tricks. Had to work in Calcutta and get around”, I answered.

“But you speak it all the time with them at home,” she said accusingly, pointing to my domestic help and cook.

“They are Bengalis and speak only Bangla”, I reasoned.

 “You watch far too many Bengali films”, she said.

“Well, they don’t release Angadi Theru here in the multiplexes; but they do show Shob Charitro Kalponik at the cinema over here”, I said guiltily.

“You have too many saris that are Dhakais, Tangails, Dhonekalis, Murshidabad silks”, she said, checking out my cupboard.

“Issh! Look at all the Kanchi silks and Madurai cottons I wear”, I cajoled.

“And what’s with the big dot on your forehead?” she asked.

“Gone, gone”, I said, quickly replacing it with an atom-sized Eyetex sticker pottu.

“And you seem to gobble Lavanga Latika, chumchum, and roshogollas”, she said.

Chi, chi! You know my favourite sweet is the poli you make”, I said ingratiatingly.

 “Hah! I’ve heard my poor grandson exchange a word or two in Bengali,” she said complainingly.

“ I’ve taught him bits of Tamil too. Speak up, Kanna,” I cooed.

Kun.., Ku..!” he giggled.


“He meant Kundrinmel  Kumaran”, I tried making owl-eyes at my son.

“And your husband speaks no Tamil either,” she said pointing a finger.

“Ei je, say something in Tamil, no?” I pleaded.

“Um, er,  Kun..? Kus..?”

Desperate and hysterical, I finally decided to tell her the truth that would win the heart of one musically inclined and gifted.

“I don’t and can’t sing Rabindra sangeet. No lal par sari, no long hair left loose, no harmonium twanging. My bard is Bharati, not Gurudeb,” I squeaked.

“Sure?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes, Amma. I can’t sing Rabindrasangeet though it’s the eve of Tagore 150th anniversary and the Bengali population over the world is warbling in a sonorous chorus”, I said in a placating tone.

“Hmm”, she said relenting.

“That immediately turns null and void any attempt at conversion on my part and my acceptance into their fold. A muddlesome maami, ayyo, yes; a bewitching boudi, alas, no”, I said with finality.

That did buy temporary truce between us.

And the fact that this French stranger  could get it right, but I showed no inclination to follow his act.

The Pot

It was a summer ritual that Amma observed regularly. By May, she would swing a big plastic basket and set off on a walk to Mylapore near the temple tank. The potters would sit on the footpaths and sell their wares and she would latch into fierce haggling.

As dusk fell, my game of hopscotch would come to a halt and I would spot her returning home, swinging a small earthen pot in her hand. She would wash it thoroughly and set it to dry for the night. The next day it would be filled with tap water and would be set to rest to test  for cooling properties and also whether the clay was good and did not spring leaks. Once it passed, she would wash again. Then she would boil water in a big steel vessel and after it cooled down, would sieve it with a piece of muslin rag from our old clothes, and pour the water in the pot.

We always had a sturdy red Allwyn refrigerator in our kitchen, and yet in summer and usually through the year, for Madras never did have freakish winters, this was our cooling pot for water. She had a keen eye of an artiste. She was particular that the neck be not too long and narrow like “those North Indian pots” because you could not dip your steel tumbler in to fish out the water or have plastic taps at their base to get water. She wanted the base to be curvy with a little flatness at the bottom so they it could be placed on the kitchen counter without wobbling or rolling. As a master of homespun ingenuity, when we no longer used the copper boiler for heating water for our baths after the advent of geysers in the bathrooms, she placed its iron stand in a corner in the kitchen. It had three thin iron legs and a round and vacant top. The earthen pot would sit snugly on it. A steel plate would serve as lid and a tumbler would stand on it.

Like an audio spool that got stuck she would murmur a slow warning each time I dived my hand into the pot to draw the water with a tumbler: “Wash your hands”. Even after Acquaguards and water purifiers came into out kitchens and the 21st Century dawned, new refrigerators came in, the water pitcher remained. Despite the salt and hard water in our area, we drank water from a pot. “Full of iron,” her visiting sisters would announce as they dipped the tumbler in.

I had lost the taste of drinking water from a pot after marriage. After I moved to Calcutta, I had water from the Ganga, so they said, stored in plastic bottles. Later, while abroad, we just filled a glass with water from the tap on the kitchen sink and gulped it down. In Delhi, it was, as an elderly neighbour insisted, Yamuna water, stored in plastic water bottles stacked in the fridge, their icy chill cooling me down in the dry, rough heat of the city.

Here, in this urban jungle, I would drive past groups of  tribals selling garden pots and also earthern pots in summer by the edge of the roads and ignore vague memories. Last week, a friend phoned in to inform she was going shopping and would I want one? I played along, not wanting to be rude. I had my instructions: Neck not to be long or narrow, the shape to be round like a bottom. What would I do with it?

It arrived with a white lime geometrical pattern around its width, with a clay plate and base to hold the drip, if any. I washed it and filled it for a night to check its coolness. It passed the test.

Would I like it after more than 11 years of refrigerated water? I dipped the tumbler and drew out a glass. I tipped it above my lips and let it go down my throat. It was sweet, with a hint of  mineral and the slight whiff of mud and tasted of memories.

Amma is in Sydney now, shivering in the cold. Would it be rude to tell her I am enjoying drinking water from a pot this summer?

The Third Eye

“Hullo! Why are you here?” I ask, shocked. I am in a mall, outside the trial room for ladies. The Owl is hiding behind a pile of garments, his eyes focussed on getting a peek into the women’s changing room.

“Ssh, quiet. Don’t ruin it for me,” he says.

“Ew, a Peeping Tom,” I accuse.

“It’s an old pastime of mine”, he says, hopping from the spot to follow me around.  

“What is the thrill behind peeping into key holes?” I ask.

“Oh, stop this moral outrage of yours! There’s a voyeur in all of us”, he says, lingering at the women’s lingerie section.

“This is downright creepy”, I say.

“Myth has it that Nandi, the bull, was privy to the sacred sounds of lovemaking from the chamber of God Siva and his consort Parvati during their cosmic union, as he was their gatekeeper. Nandi is said to have conveyed the beauty of the original conjugal bliss to the world. He, was the original Peeping Tom”, says the Owl.

“Blasphemy!” I cry.  

“There’s more to it than what is sensory.  Vatsayayana was the first Indian voyeur. He is said to have frequented brothels and wandered around, peeping through windows and chamber doorways, to note the various activities within. He ended up with a seminal tome, the Kamasutra after all that voyeurism,” he says.    

“Really?” I ask, halting by the ladies’ footwear section. An attendant measures my foot and slips on a red pointy heel.

“Wicked”, he says. I end up buying a brown pair of summer flats.

“In the past we didn’t have hidden cameras, phone cameras, CCTV. We knew only words to record the images our eyes saw and  wrote about the images or drew pictures”, he explains.

“And, now?” I ask.

“We no longer see with our eyes unless it’s through the eyes of the camera. It’s a familiar sight around honeymoon destinations in India to spot newly married couples cavort on the greens to the sound track of local film music with a cameraman chasing them around the rose bush,” he says.

“Whatever for?” I ask.

“It’s a trend among some couples to record their ‘romance’ in the form of honeymoon videos for keepsake”, he says, shrugging. “Imagine the kind of video films they are recording of themselves inside their rooms”, he says, winking. 

“Gauche”, I shudder.

“It’s what the times are all about. Technology is turning most of us into mini- filmmakers. Since the internet exploded we are never without any of these gizmos. We put up our photos on social networking sites and see ourselves through the eyes of others and their approval. Adolescent school kids want to record their first sexual acts…”

“…for the sheer thrill of it?” I finish, following him past the store and up the escalator.

“Also, for the vicarious pleasure of watching our acts played out in a micro film and other images. We are inundated by images, be they pictures in magazines, or moving images in films, video or internet”, he says, stopping outside a cinema.    

“We are a generation that has stopped seeing truly with our eyes. Our pleasures explode only when we have a couple of photos of our latest holiday; mini videos of our children’s birthday parties uploaded on You Tube; record inane events like bumping into a celebrity or an event with our phone cameras.Mindless photographing  is for those who don’t make the effort to remember ”, I rattle.

“These are fantastic inventions though. Disasters, events, people are all materials for archives as many of us record at the spur of the moment. We have turned into librarians of our lives by recording such images,” he says.

He buys a couple of tickets and leads me by the hand to the popcorn vendor.

“However, in popular and regular usage it’s used for personal pleasure and whim, for perverse blackmail and tools of revenge and popularity”, he says.

“I’ve begun to hate the TV just for this”, I say, glaring at a huge flat screen that is beaming pictures of a handsome Union Minister and his botoxed squeeze.

“Not for long. You’ll end up being a recluse if you keep away. Besides it is titillation to watch people collapse in unceremonious ways ”, he says.   

 “Whatever happened to the magic of the mind’s eye?” I ask.

“Yup, you never had a camera for the first kiss, the birthing of a child, the beauty of the first travel destination, the moments of laughter, the privacy of personal agony”, he says.

“But now you do. You can record all of it”, I say wearily. “What’s this film called?”

“LSD”, he says ushering me to our seats. “It’s violence and crude commodification of people that are the offshoots of these new age techno eyes and how we end up cheating ourselves by believing in the power of these images”, he says.

“Did you read the news about airport staff at a London airport ogling a colleague who had accidentally walked past the cameras for a whole body image?”I ask outraged. “I not going near an airport again”.

“There’s nowhere to run, honey. There’s an eye watching you”, he says with a low laugh. His round eyes turn bigger in the dark as he fixes his gaze on me, way too close for comfort. The film rolls.

Back to the Office

I remember my first day at the workplace. Do you?

I was a student then. Bored stiff of my post graduate classes I took up a part- time job after college. The ‘office’ was located at a residence in a leafy area of south Chennai. As I walked in to the first floor I saw a loose collection of desks and chairs, lots of paper and stacks of reading material. An assorted group of women were behind the desks. One had her feet over the desk, a cigarette hanging from her fingers. She looked up, a twinkle in her eye and a curl to her lip. There was another with a tea glass in her hand circling what I thought was coconut water. A whiff in the air told me it was spirit and it was two in the afternoon. There was a cheerful elder lady and a bearded boss man. The official jhola guy was flopped on his desk, his nose buried in newspapers of the day.He periodically yelled a comment or passed information to the elder lady in adjoining room. The gang seemed bohemian, clever and fun. I was bitten. (No, I hate gin. Ditto cigarettes, but I was hooked to their sense of wit and openness and warmth).


Amitabh Bachchan famously recalled staring his work life as a boxwallah in Calcutta in the late 1960s. As opposed to the Rabindra sangeet and poetry loving babu, the boxwallah was a new breed then. Satyajit Ray’s film Jana Aranya dealt with the questionable morals of the world of peddlers and new age businesses and salesmanship evocatively. Over time the boxwallah acquired sheen in popular imagination. He wore a suit and carried a box with a handle for his commercial activities, most often sales. He was known to unwind with a drink and smoke at Park Street’s tony joints and catch those crooning dames, Pam Crain or Usha Iyer, cut the rug to some jazz by Louis Banks and Braz Gonsalves.

Soon unemployment and disgruntlement made way for angst ridden heroes in the Indian cinema of that era. If he had a job the hero would most often have a noble calling. He would be a doctor, a police officer, pilot, teacher- upright and committed. The working class hero worked in the industries and factories and his honest sweat and labour would be challenged by cruel, rich bosses. The first office relationship I watched with interest was an early K.Balachander work, Iru Kodugal of a secretary’s entanglement with his boss lady.

The hero, especially in Bollywood fancy fairy tale dramas lost that work ethos in the 1990s. He lived in a never- never land where colleges looked out of comic strips like Riverdale, and the hero was vulgarly rich, rode in Lamborginis and lived in castles on Scottish moorlands. His life was about family and seeking romantic love.   

As India’s economic progress soared, the last decade witnessed a boom in IT and BPO sector, with MNCs bringing in a bit of spit and polish and money. A new generation began to see the office as an important space in the graph of getting a life. It wasn’t just a brick and mortar place for carrying on the business of livelihood, but it wasn’t snug as home. It was a jungle when fresh graduates and wet-behind-the-ears geeks, noobs and dorks or what you will found their niche or felt outwitted by the more intelligent of the species. Office romances bloomed, marriages broke as high pressure and career fulfilment sought its prices, infidelity and climbing the corporate ladder for a few favours became part of office grapevines. Colleagues became friends, turned foes, laughed, cried and swore enmity and plotted new ventures and retirement plans.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of how much the office matters in our lives, fulfilling issues that are monetary and those of self-worth that the workplace and a man’s place in it has come to be discussed in novels and in cinema of late again. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August spoke of the modern babu’s ennui  in the late 1980s and it remains a comic masterpiece. In recent times a rash of popular fiction by IIM and other B School graduates have made it to bestseller lists in India. Married but Available from HR professional Abhijit Bhaduri is about a middle class professional who begins his work life in a small town and gets a few growing up lessons in work and women. Dork:The Incredible Adventures of Robert ‘Einstein’ Varghese, is a funny tale of a business process analyst  in a Mumbai firm who sails through his first year at work with alarming naiveté and  moronic arrogance. Nirupama Surbramaniam’s  Keep the Change  is a whatchamacalit- romance, chick lit- about a prissy Tamil chartered accountant from Chennai who enters the stuffy world of international banking in Mumbai and gets frisky as well and ayyo, amma, chi, gets kissed by the office rake.

Unlike the hugely popular television series The Office, Indian TV with its obsession with reality shows and dancing and singing contests and mega serials on suffering women, has no time for the office or its inhabitants.  

Cinema however is turning the spotlight on the office and work culture. Both Rocket Singh and Karthik Calling Karthik have done just that. The two films have made a good job of the worms that turn, losers who learn to win, nasty bosses and slimeball colleagues, randy geeks, snarky managers, loopy sloggers and smoky female colleagues.

An interesting trend- looking at the office and its people.

Perhaps the jungle beckons?

More women, more power?

It’s an enticing day dream. I am swinging gently in a hammock, a hat shading my face, with a book and an icy sangria, as the sun beats down on me.

“Knock,knock, remember me?” It’s him, the Owl.

“It’s been a while,” I nod, irritated my reverie has been disturbed. And, also, that reality sucks. I look up at the mound of spring cleaning  that needs to be done around the house and realise the hammock scene is just a mirage.

“So will you be celebrating  today, with perhaps a Sangria?” he asks, tongue-in-cheek.

I wince. But my temper rises. “Perhaps not. It was to be an important day if the Women’s Reservation Bill had been passed in the Parliament. Imagine one-third of the nation’s decisions will be in the hands of women.”

“Will it help?” he asks making a space for himself among the blankets and duvets and other winter furnishings.

“Won’t it?” I ask, wrapping the woollens in camphor and plastic sheets.


“ Women will bring down the scale of violence, usher in cleaner politics, do away with political vendetta, better governance and a touch of care into the whole dirty business of politics?” I say.

He laughs. It’s a sharp derisive one.

“Reservation for economically backward groups in education and government jobs for over decades has helped the disadvantaged groups”, I point out.

“But at the cost of dividing the people; destabilising social fabric into antagonistic groups, bringing down the value of merit”, he says. “And oh, did you notice that the men who acted like goons and objected to the women’s bill in the Indian Parliament were the same men who have received the benefits of quota and caste politics?” asks the Owl.

“It’s Orwellian law I suppose. Some will be mightier than others. Remember Animal Farm?” I ask.

“The purpose of inclusiveness is jeopardised by the quota system in the name of affirmative politics as it only helps create another set of elite who have emerged from the ashes of the previous group of privileged people,” says the Owl.

“The Indian subcontinent has thrown up the highest number of women prime ministers in the history of modern world”, I say.

“From Hasina, to Benazir to Indira to Chandrika, these women assumed their country’s premier’s post through their associations with the memory of a dead parent or spouse. Their track record has proved the sceptics and misogynists right that to be a true leader of a nation your gender is irrelevant,” elaborates the Owl. “The quality of India’s women leaders has not exactly been inspiring,” he says.

“As of today women form some 8 % of Indian Parliament ;while in the US between the Senate and House of Representatives it is a mere 13%”, I say.

“And 23% of women form Afghanisatan’s political leadership, but the condition of women in the country needs no mention”, he points out.

“Volume doesn’t matter, is it?”I ask.

“No, especially if the quantity dilutes quality”, he says.

“We won’t suffer in silence for longer,” I warn.

“Numbers are for making noise”, he says, making a smooth exit as I aim a bar of detergent at his head.

Bloody Inferno

Dear Blog,

The hand that wipes the arse is the hand that feeds the face today!

 Is it foolishness? A mistake? An accident? Bloody karma?

Whatever. It’s my bad now.

Even this typing with the index finger of the left hand is painful and laboured.

Last week, last month. Home alone. Dinner time for son.  Heated the ghee in a tiny steel jar; attended a phone call; hee hee; ghee jar caught fire on stove; doused flames and put it away near window only to have it catch fire again in the foggy night’s wind and have it spill- boiling ghee and a blob of flame- over the back of my right hand.

Second degree burns.Charred.Singed. Owwuch!

Six weeks recovery. Four months more for scar issues.

Want plastic surgery?

Don’t care as long as the fingers work.

Miserable. Painful. Hurting. Nasty.

Thought of Rajeev Goswami. Dowry burn victims. The blazing horror of it all.

There are mixed reactions.

Paavam di, come to Madras. We’ll take care of you.”  

“Wah! Miss ya’ll. Each time I had my hospital days you’ll fussed over me. ”

“Did you howl?”

“Nope. Bit the lip down. What’s the point with none of you around me?”

“Cheer up! Oru kai paarthudalam (wink, pun, no?)


“Kai ilagadavala aaitiye? Hehehehe.”


“Kai adika…”

“Stop it.”

“Venda kai la vel paachitaena, Kannu?”

“Bugger off!”

“Okay, look at it like this. You won’t land in hell in the afterlife. ‘Cause you’ve already burned in hell. Haw haw!”

“Oh, for God’s sake!”                    


I’ve made a new friend  in these bad days, Bloggie.

Lily hails from a village from Manipur. She trained at nursing after school and is working in a big hospital here. A real Florence Nightingale. After hurts and more pain from assorted nurses, Lily’s touch is what I need. Truly healing. Is it her sweet nature or her steady hands? I don’t know.

She cleans the red skin, sponges the serum, cuts the dead skin, and dresses the swollen dark surface. She chats me up as she works medication on the injured hand.

“Doctor says you write?”  

“Issss…ya ya, oh, God!”

“I do too. Wish my dad was here to read me. He always encourages me to write.”

“I’d like to read you, if you don’t mind”.

And so yesterday she hands me a little page.It’s a  print- out of a story she wrote and a handwritten poem in green paper from her bag. Like lovers exchanging notes, I slip it in my bag promising to get back tomorrow when I land at the nursing station for my daily dressing and a shot in the butt for my pain.

“Where do I read what you write?” she asks.

 I made bold to suggest she read you, Blog. Wonder why opening up to her seemed so easy then and made me nervous later?


PS-Hope she likes reading you, Blog. For some reason it seems more important than my medication.