Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Working Abroad

Indians working abroad is a perfectly normal situation. Nowadays you might find more and more Indians abroad. And their success in living anywhere in the world comes from the fact that they are great survivors.

Soviet Russia was one of India’s friends aand Indo soviet scientific and cultural exchanges were common. Raj Kapoor had a large fan following in erstwhile USSR. People from the countries cooperated on different levels. Exchange of knowledge, culture and science meant that the Soviets visited India and Indians visited Russia. Let me recount the experiences of one such group.

Makahanlal Prasad was part of a team of metallurgical engineers who were sent by the Indian government to train at the soviet steel plants. Prior to the trip to USSR, all the team members were given a crash course in Russian language. The group leader was Vikas Bhide who had a Diploma in Russian and spoke fluent Russian. Upon landing in Leningrad, now called st. Petersburg, they were introduced to their Russian guide, Mr. Nicolas Petrov who spoke fluent English. Thus the team started their three month long stay in the USSR.

As was wont to happen in such trips, after a while, a smaller cluster of friends within the team wanted to explore on their own. And so, Makhanlal and friends went exploring. After a while, they were hungry and they found themselves in a different part of the town far away Mr. Bhide or Mr.n Petrov to guide them to a restaurant. But they found one on their own and sat down to order. The menu card was more like ‘Kaala akshar bhains barabar’ ( Hindi saying literally meaning that the printed word was equal to water buffaloes, can’t make out one from another)for them. So they racked their brains to get the name of Chicken in Russian. But hunger had affected our little Indian troop adverselyand created a momentary memory loss for all of them.

Gurjeet Singh desperately said, “Arre yaar, murgi yaad karte karte nani yaad aa gayi”
Makhanlal said brightly, “Aschcha yaad dilaya, Yaar ande ko kya bolte hain?” ( what do you call an egg in Russian)
Gurjeet said, “yayotz”
“And mother”

So, the order went as Math yayotz

The roly poly waitress rolled with laughter at the order. And makhanlal and friends got what they wanted. After a sumptuous meal, they remembered to than the waitress and the Manager. Shaking hands with the manager, Makahanlal said, “Sabaka, sabaka”. Others followed suit.

Returning to the place where the rest of them wer, Makhanlal and Gurjeet told the leader that the manager was so overcome with emotion that he did not react when they thanked him , “Sabaka’.

Bhide and Petrov started guffawing. They could not stop for a while. When they did, they said in unision, “Good thingthat they did not beat you guys up”
“Why should they beat us? We paid the bill correctly”

“Sabaka means dog. You should have said Speceba”

Dedicated to all strugglers in the foreign lands.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pujo and Bhojan

It was the mid 1960s. India was trying to get over the teething problems after independence. With some of the five year plans in place, India was on its path for development. The large country was in the process of rediscovering itself. People from various parts pf India came to the big towns and the nascent townships that mushroomed around industries and other projects. A nation that has more than 15 recognised languages and hundreds of dialects is a real melting pot and more so were these small towns to which young Indians flocked to in search of work, better life and with a zeal to be part of nation making.

In one such small mining township, young Chandrashekar lived. His wife was expecting their first baby and had gone to their native place in Tamil Nadu for the delivery. He lived in the quarters that the central government had built for the miners. For the last one month he was on his own. Sometimes he used to eat at the small south Indian hotel. Most of the days, he made his own survival food with bread and eggs.

One Thursday, his neighbour, Mr. Bhattacharya knocked at his door.
“Kal hamare yahan pujo aur bhojan hai. Aap jarur aana”
[Tommorow, we have pooja and food at our house. Please come]

Chandrashekhar was overjoyed with the invite. He looked forward to some home cooked, even if it was not south Indian. His was not a position to choose.

The next day, he came home, had a shower, wore appropriate pooja clothes and was at his neighbour’s. Most of the invitees were Bengalis who were happily singing Bengali bhajans. Like most Bengali households, Mr. Bhattacharya too had a harmonium. The couple led the singing. The pooja arati was over by around 8.30pm.

The host and wife did the arati and distributed sweets as the Prasad among the invitees. The small crowd soon made little groups and were conversing away as if it was the only day left to exchange the pleasantries. Poor Chandrashekhar had the language barrier. He stood by himself in a corner.

Seeing him alone, Mrs. Bhattacharya came forward and asked, “Did you get the Prasad? How is your wife? When is the due date?”

To which Chandrashekhar replied dutifully, “ Yes. She is fine. January 10th”

Soon Mr.Bhattacharya joined them.
“ Thank You, Mr. Chandrashekhar for coming along. Did you get the Prasad?”

Chandrashekar nodded. From the corner of his eye, he could see that some of the guests were leaving. Why are they leaving? What about the food?, he thought.
But it was quite evident that the evening’s programme was over.

Just then the host said, “You might not have understood the meaning of the Bhojans we sang. Did you like the Bengali bhojans?”

It was now very clear. Hunger for the night made Chandrashekhar understand all the bhajans.

Bhajans are songs in praise of God
Bhojan means meal
Pujo or pooja is a prayer

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Eternal Truth

Speaking volumes were the silent
Yet, steady undercurrents
Briefing the long life
Were the flowing currents

Ashes of another abode
Scattered on the face
Of the moving waters
Registered a past phase

I witnessed another name
Losing its meaning
Dropping into the ocean
Meeting the omnipresent

Yet we strut, we fight
Selfish of the worldly possessions
When the inevitable is that
None has any in the end

Written on the banks of Ganga where it comes a full circle- Life, death and everything in between and beyond

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Making of a Ballad

It was a time when lots of burglaries were happening in the neighbourhood. The thieves usually came in the dead of the night, looted the house or establishment as case may be, and even killed any witnesses, if need be. People were terrorized. The fear created bizarre conditions of living. For instance, all the people in a house slept in a single room and dared not switch on the fan because, the thief may hear it and come into the room to steal ornaments which women in Kerala must wear com what may. The sleeping condition also had a rule- When the person at far end sleeps on left, everyone else follows and none can turn to right until the person at the far end turns.

There were all kinds of stories about the burglars’ ingenuity. They said that the burglars had a magic powder, sprinkling which, the iron bars and grills just melts away like butter. So, the people did not dare to leave the windows open. But whatever precautions the people took proved useless. The burglars won every round.

That night, the burglars planned to loot a house of the noveau rich from the Gulf. The Gulf Malayali as you might know is more into gold and ornaments that the normal native Malayali. The burglars prepared themselves for a rich haul. They smeared themselves with oil, armed themselves with ropes, daggers, iron rods, and of course the ‘magic powder’. Reaching the house, they found that the magic powder was of no help as the windows were all closed and secure. They prowled around and discovered that the rear part of the house had tiled roof. Two of the gang were soon on the roof and removing the tiles. Meanwhile, two other were making hindrances at the entry points just to make it difficult for any rescuers. All ready!

When enough tiles were removed, one of the burglars alighted himself into the house. He found himself in the kitchen. Hungry, he first helped himself to some bananas. Then he groped his way in the dark and reached one of the bedrooms and felt the bed. He tried to liberate a neck from a heavy gold necklace and failed miserably. The lady sat up and had a programmed chain reaction. First, the thief was scared, then he made out that all were women and went on tugging at the necklace. The woman held it and threatened that there were men sleeping in the adjoining room.

One of the elder yelled, “ Appunni Naire. Appunni Naire.”

Let me enlighten about this character. He was a wiry old man with fast receding hairline. Usually his forehead was smeared with multiple lines of ‘bhasma’ or holy ash with a Kumkum plus vermilion dot in the middle.
A loud clamour in his room announced that he was awake and moving(he tumbled over an old trunk and fell flat on his face).The sound had an awesome effect on the burglars waiting outside. One or two just slipped away into the night while others waited for their leader and the loot.

Meanwhile, inside, our knight in shining armour(clad only in a dhoti) arrived hearing the cries of the distressed ladies. The dhoti was almost loose with the fall and was least interested in continuing the nocturnal adventure. It left him.

Thieves, burglars or any of the creed are always afraid, especially of men who are abnormal and our dear thief was not an exception. One look at a wiry fellow with smeared ash on forehead and only a flimsy loincloth on standing in a ferocious manner sapped the poor thief of all his courage. He retreated and started to run out of the house. He forgot about the hindrances his teammates had created at the entry points. He tripped over a rope and fell, picked himself up and started to run again with Appunni Nair in HOT PUSUIT.

He chased him out of the house, the compound and the neighbour before retuning gallantly to the home. His wife gave him his dhoti, to which he said, “No . It is OK. My dhoti is quite alright”. He proceed to tie the dhoti right and tight when he realized that he hadn’t one.

Anyhow, Appunni Nair became a local hero and it might not be a mystery if future generations come across ballads in his honour.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Conclusion

The Indian summer: it affects different people in different ways. Let us examine the case at hand.

A small village in central Kerala is the stage. After a sumptuous lunch, the household has settled down for a siesta. And thanks, to loadshedding, getting a wink was proving to be difficult. But our braveheart family did not give in. People took to the bare floor where it was cooler. The atmosphere was quiet. Even the cows were not mooing.

Kerala as you might know is a 100% literate state and publishes many magazines, newspapers, weeklies etc for its voracious reading population. These editors are real mavericks for they come up with all kinds of useful information for its readers- for eg: How to make Sambar- a dish which everyone in south India knows to make, How to make your child eat, Why did Cuba have problems, Ask the psychologist column, Weekly horoscope, The story of couples who opted for love marriages etc.

Our heroine had one such useful magazine to help her to go to sleep. She was feeling drowsy when she came upon the page – Cats too can go mad. As the household had couple of cats, she was hooked. Her eyes grew wider as she read on.

She nudged her husband who was snoring away, “Did you know that cats can go mad?”.
“No.” Said he and rolled over to the other side.
But she was not letting him go with that, “Look, I am not joking. It says so here. And they have listed the symptoms too…”
“1. The cat prefers a shaded place.
2. It doesn’t react quickly when provoked.
3. Once Provoked…” Before she could continue, he took the magazine from her.
She protested and then gave in saying, “OK. Read for yourself. Anyway, it’s almost time to make tea. I will just refresh myself”. And she went into the adjoining bathroom.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh” She came out screaming and was now standing on the bed.
“ What’s the matter? Why are you screaming?”
“ It’s the cat. It’s in there”
“It’s mad”
“Who, our Sati? No joking”
“No, It’s true. It’s in there”
“OK, Let me see”
He tiptoed to the bathroom. And there was Sati lying in one corner of the huge bathroom. He tiptoed out and went to the terrace where the arecanuts were spread to dry in the Sun. He picked an handful and came back and started to pelt the cat.

At the first pelt, she did not bother. By the fourth, she opened a questioning eye. She didn’t like to be disturbed thus. She was in no mood to play. By the tenth, she heaved herself up and padded to the other corner and settled down again to continue her disturbed sleep. But this was not her day! The pelting continued.

Now she had it. She got up and stood in the classic arched pose, flashing her teeth. Her hair was standing on its end. She looked ferocious. She was a big cat and a black one at that.

However, she could not quite understand this sudden change in behaviour of her masters. They loved her and she loved them too. And she had been a good cat. That morning too, she had curled at the foot of the bed and crooned appropriately when cuddled. At breakfast, she had eaten the crumbs and purred gratefully. And she had not stolen a thing from the kitchen, except the neighbour’s. Her mom had taught her not to steal from the house where she chose to live. Then, what was the problem, wondered Sati. Maybe it was the mouse she had failed to catch, but that should not be a problem, Sati thought. Anyway, she continued to snarl and keep the pelters at a distance.

By then, the couple was sure that the cat was mad. Now the husband brought in a pole to poke the poor cat. Meanwhile, the commotion had woken everyone and all of them made a beeline for the room where the action was.

The Lady of the house, my aunt, went in first. Upon being enlightened by the state of affairs by her daughter, who was still standing on the bed, she exclaimed, “Oh! Shut up. Don’t be so stupid to believe in that nonsense. It is a hot afternoon and the poor cat has simply found itself a cool place to nap”. But her daughter and son-in-law differed. As aunt tried to go into the bathroom, they tried to save her from imminent calamity. She shoved them aside and went in and called the cat lovingly. She approached it slowly and the cat calmed down a bit. She picked it up and came out.

“Look”, said aunt. But there was no one in the room. The daughter had gone to a safer place- on top of the dining table. The son-in-law peeped from the kitchen.

“Ha ha haHo Ho”, aunt burst out laughing and added, “We don’t have a mad cat in the family, but two madcaps who think that cats can’t climb on to the dining table”.

A trail of laughter followed.