Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arranged marriage

Kerala is known throughout the world for its beautiful backwaters and houseboats that sail on it. It is even promoted as an exotic locale for wedding and honeymoon. Just check out this story before you book the tickets.

It was an arranged marriage. After some misses, this was the hit, arranged to the hilt. The girl Indu lived on the mainland Ernakulam. The boy, Suresh lived on one of the larger islands around Kochi. After a Pennukanal ( Boy meeting the proposed girl) ceremony, the date and time of the wedding were decided by the elders. It was a match on all counts. The boy had a decent job and the girl was a teacher.

On the decided date, our groom Suresh who had invited almost the whole island to the wedding had arranged for one more boat apart from the usual govt. ferry service. Dressed in a silk shirt, he was there leading on the pier leading the people to boat.

Chinnamma chechi, ah. Chetanum pillerum ille?” ( Chinnamma , is not your husband and kids coming)
Kuttappan cheta, aduthe boatinnu keram(Kuttappan, let’s board the next boat)”

Someone inquired, “ Da Sureshe, Nee mattavane kando, Avande oru shirtum”(Hey, Suresh, did you see the other fellow, him and his shirt) blinking towards a guy in orange shirt.

So, generally everyone was in a good mood. Suresh had five elder siblings- four brothers and a sister. They were all busy in donning the best dress and ornaments for the day.

At the home, someone moaned, “Mullapoo kazhinnu”( Jasmine flowers are over). Women from Kerala need loads of jasmine flowers to bedeck their beautiful hair for a wedding. Immediately, Kuttappan was sent to buy the flowers.

It was almost 8.45am. The boat would leave at 9.00am. It was a 35 minute ride to the mainland and from there, through heavy traffic, it needed another 45mins to reach the venue. The muhurat was between 11.45am and 12.00

Many people were already on the two boats- one govt. and another private. Suddenly some shouted. "It is almost nine. What are we waiting for or we will be late for the wedding." So the boats started and left the island with our groom Suresh on it. His only solace was Kuttappan with some jasmine flowers.

People on the boats did not know about this till they reached the venue. The bride’s welcoming array of young girls and aunts were ready with the ashtamangalyam( Shagun) and garland but they could not find the Groom in the groom’s crowd. Chinnamma chechi said, “He spoke to me and went to the other boat. I thought he was on that.”

The Groom’s sister called her other brothers and scolded them, ‘I thought he was with you in the wedding car.”
“But he always liked you. I thought he was with you”
The groom’s mom who had alzheimer’s wanted to know why all were shouting and not going to pluck the tamarind from the trees, it being harvest season. “Puli paracho”, she asked( Have you plucked the tamarind).

In the hall, the invitees go the whiff of events. Mrs. Pillai whispered to Mrs. Nair,” Maybe the boy might have come to know about that friend of hers”
“That Rahman she befriended at the B.Ed college”
“Yes, he used to come too often to their house”

Before I go further, let me give an intro to the Kerala weddings. It is true that Kerala is one of the most developed states in India. But at weddings, the average Keralite behaves in a peculiar manner. They jostle and push to get entry into the reception hall where the feast is served. One look at them will make you think that they haven’t eaten for ages. It is almost a stampede.

So, Mr. Mathew said, “Oh! This will be a problem. I have not brought the lunch and taken only half day off. Have to report by 1.00 pm”

Suchitra, Indu’s classmate, was complaining to her mother, “Will you just take this useless baby(her own) off my lap. It will crumple my saree. I have to be on the stage when the wedding happens. Now where is this GROOM?”

“I have a client meeting at 12.30pm. Will this wedding get over in time?”, someone moaned

One octogenarian wanted to know whether the nadaswaram guys did not know other tunes.” “Njangalude kalathu nadaswaram entha rasamayirunnu enno” ( Nadaswaram in our days were so pleasant

Poor Suresh was waiting for the 9.45am ferry. It was 10.00 and no sign of the ferry. They called the boat office on mainland and were told that it had a technical snag and was in the workshop. Now the next boat was at 10.15am.It finally arrived jam packed at 10.27am.

The muhurat time was nearly over when Suresh runs in followed by our welcoming array of girls and aunts, ashtamangalyam et al. Immediately , he is given the thali, the Malayali mangalsutra. He wants to tie it, but there is some old guy who asks it to be flipped and tied. Some one gives him the sindoor to put on her forehead. In his excitement, he dumps the whole little container on the top of her head.

The tense gathering of invitees breaks into laughter. Next moment the hall is vacant as our invitees have gone for the stampede to the feast.

Suchitra missed being on stage as she had to feed the baby.
Mr. Mathew got in for the first round of feasting and reported to office in time
Kuttappan gave his wife the jasmine flowers in the evening.
Mrs. Pillai’s daughter eloped with the Rahman aforesaid.
The groom's mother now starts off every now and then for her son Suresh’s wedding.
The octogenarian fell in the stampede and fractured his elbow.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Real Life

Every day in the papers we read of conditions where poverty makes parents sell their child so that they feed the other kids or send the older kid (say 6 yrs) to work. How could they do it? It is a question that has multilevel interpretations.

Long ago, at school, I read the Hindi masterpiece “Kafan” by Premchand and could not believe that anyone can be so ruthless. I hated the father and son duo for their helplessness and resignation. But growing up, I do feel that multiple problems sometimes tend to make one resigned to fate and behave in ways that one would never expect a human to do.

Sometime in 1995 when I used to be a student of MSW, we had a 10 day camp in a nearby village. We traveled by a tempo (a three wheeled vehicle that can accommodate about 12 people but which usually carries about 18 on the rural roads of India). We arrived to find that the stay was organized in the government school house- a single storey building with just two large rooms. One room was assigned to the boys and another for girls. We put our baggage in the rooms and someone inquired where the toilet was. The eager villager took us outside and into a plot adjoining the school. None of us were ready for what we saw.

He showed us the temporary pit enclosed by sacks. The pit might have been say 15 feet deep and about 3 feet wide. They had wooden planks across on which we were to squat and do the holy job with water brought in a bucket from the hand pump about 100 feet away. Only one pit for the twenty two boys and girls - that was just the hint of what was in store for us. And our first brush with reality of how rural India was even in 1995.

“And the bathroom”, someone asked.
“Oh, you can use the village pond.”
Seeing the look on our faces, he said,” You can always use the school toilet as a bathroom”.
So they had a regular toilet. Soon we trooped to find the school toilet. It was a dinghy longish place which stinked of urine and had no running water. The water source was the same hand pump.

“Hey, you lot, The Sarpanch is here and wants to meet you”. All of us walked hurriedly to the school building.

The Sarpanch was a man in his forties, well dressed and the most influential guy in the village. He had studied at the town and had gone to college and that showed in how he spoke and wore clothes. He spoke to us for a while about rural life and inquired how we found the arrangements, and invited us for tea in the evening at his house before taking leave.

The tea at the sarpanch had hot snacks to go with it. We had our fill. We girls had struck an idea before going for tea. We can use a toilet at the sarpanch’s if he has one. And he did have. So before taking leave of the Sarpanch and his dear wife and two kids, all the girls had used the restroom for the day. We were not sure of using the pit in the dark of night before going to bed.

Tired as we were, we slept as soon as we hit the bed (read carpet + bedsheet + bags for pillows).

The next day, we woke up early so that we may complete our morning ablutions before daylight. But we were all sharing the same bathroom which meant the queue was long. Some of the boys went out to the fields in the dark to attend to Nature’s call. When they were retuning, they weren’t alone- many villagers were also returning after the same.

So, finally we were all ready for the day by 9 am. Our teachers split us into groups of four and sent us to different directions. Our work started in earnest. We had questionnaires with us to assess the quality of life in the village. A group was kept at the school to look after the belongings and cook us our lunch. Each group was to take turns at the cooking. By lunchtime we were all back at the school building. It looked so inviting after the hot Sun.

Post lunch we didn’t want to go out in the Sun again. So, we sat around and discussed what we saw, whom we met etc. Our lecturers asked us to plan for a cultural evening which we skit and immediately it was taken up by others. Fillers like mimicry and songs were also plwere to present on the penultimate day of the camp. One of the guys came up with an idea for a skit and immediately it was taken up by others. Fillers like mimicry and songs were also planned.

Next day onwards, it was just heavy work. We went around the village taking a full census. The village temple was in the centre of the village that spread across a vast area. It had two ponds one for the upper castes another for the lower castes. The upper castes lived to the east, the middle order in south and west, while the lower castes and the outcasts were in the northern part. On the third day my team was assigned to the northern part. We covered about 20 households and were nearing the boundary of the settlements.

The sizes of the houses were getting smaller and the material with it was built also changed. The wall height also decreased. There were no pucca houses( houses built with brick and mortar) here. All were kuccha, First, we saw those with tiled roofs, then thatched roofs, then mud walls and thatched roofs and now even the thatch was just namesake.

It was close to 2pm.We were exhausted by then. We asked for water at one of the houses. First they were reluctant to give. They were no sure if they can give us water. Then a boy of about 14 came along and went inside and brought us water. We were happy to note that at least the younger generation was confident of itself. We reached the last house.
In the front yard, under a neem tree, there were an old man, a leper, and a baby on the charpoy( a simple cot with wooden frame and coir ropes).

We started off with our questionnaire
“Who is the head of the family?”
“Iam”, says the old leper
“No. of family members”
“Names and age and relationship with you”
“Santidevi, wife,50
Atmaram, son, 30
Urmila, Daughter in law, 25
Vijay, grandson, 6
Raju, grandson, 2”

“And this baby, we asked”, pointing to the baby on the cot
“That is the two year old”

We could not believe it. It looked scrawny and had a bloated head.
Since we had planned a medical camp on the 8th, we were collecting information about the common problems. So we asked now, “Any medical problems?”
“Can’t you see, Iam a leper”
“Does anyone else have leprosy in the family?”
“Yes the wife and the son”
“Where are they?”
“Wife has gone to bring water from the pond on the outskirts of the next village.”
“Why? There is enough water in this village,” we said
“We are not allowed to. Earlier when only I had leprosy they allowed. But now my wife and son have it and they are afraid.”
“And where is your son?”
“He has gone begging to the town. He has lost a foot and so can’t work. So, he begs.”
“Does this boy go to school?”
“No. He helps his mother on the small patch of land.”
“Why did they not go today?”
“She did. But she is weak and swooned on the field. The boy has somehow brought her back”

Then the daughter in law came out of the house -a frail woman with sunken eyes. She stood by the cot. My attention suddenly went back to the baby on the cot.
“Was he like that always?”
“Yes. Something happened at birth. Only, his head has been growing. He can’t sit or stand, lies there whole time.”

I noticed that the baby was now licking something. A second look revealed that it was his own stool. He lay in plain view of the grandfather and the mother and neither took it away from his mouth or cleaned him.
“Look at what he is licking,” I screamed.
“Oh! He does that all time.”
“Remove it and clean him”
“We have nothing better to feed a dying child. The little we have is for the stronger older kid.”

We shoved away the dirt with a paper and pleaded the mother to clean it up which she did with a little water.

“Feed it properly and bring it to the medical camp on Thursday,” we said, thrusting some ten rupee notes into the old man’s hand.

On Thursday, we waited for these people to turn up. At last, in the evening, the grandmother brought it accompanied by the lame son. The doctor examined the baby and referred them to the district hospital. I wonder if they ever took that baby there. The doctor told us that it was a case of no cure and slow death. Most probably, he might have died soon.

The whole scene has come to me again many times in nightmares. We all have studied about the Survival of the fittest theory, but it has never struck me that it can be such a harsh choice.

Premchand’s Kafan is a story that is still repeated. I salute the classic and dread the helplessness

Friday, October 2, 2009

Have you

  1. Heard people on other end of phone introducing themselves as, “This is I” or “It’s me”?
  2. Hear people on the other directly asking you questions about the family when it is really a wrong number?
  3. Been none the more enlightened when a someone replies,”On This” on being asked what he is working on?
  4. Been disappointed on trying the new dress that looked fabulous in the shop window?
  5. Seriously thought that the weighing machine is faulty because it shows a number you don’t like?
  6. Been made to give some incredulous answer on phone when the caller(wrong number) just doesn’t listen and goes on asking questions?
  7. Have been caught thinking hard before an open fridge when you were searching for a pen?
  8. Been advised by others even without asking about what to feed your 1 year old?
  9. Been yelled upon by an elder who repeats” Bring me that” without specifying what?
  10. Found yourself on the wrong direction bus or train?

If the answer is YES to most questions, you live in a normal world.
If the answer is NO to most, try moving to Moon. They have found water on it.