Thursday, December 29, 2005

Tsunami - going back, coming around

I think I was waiting for all the dust to die down. The dust that the first anniversary raised, almost as high as the first destructive wave of water.
I will not rush, fall and tumble in the urgency to tell the tales, I thought. And when they are all done, I told myself, I will tell my tale, just the way I want to.

You know why going back was good now? Because everything is coming around, you see. Everything is live, finally. Now, when you go back they ignore you, your flashing cameras, your black spiral notebooks, your imported sun block. Because they are busy fishing, mending nets, stiching raw fish bait onto small steel hooks, running their petty shops by the beach.

The memorial plants I had once written so elaborately about are dead; black wiry casurina stumps on dry ground. It makes a friend sad, but it makes me glad because I think the fishermen have better to do than carry garish blue-green buckets of water to memorial plants and sit by the saplings, forgetting the water, washing them with tears. The only salt that crusts on their cheeks now is the salt that they are used to; the residual salt from the sea-spray evaporating under a blinding sun.

For me though, the biggest hope is in the children, those who lived, those who survived and those who were born. Krishna and Amirthana were children of the tsunami, born on the morning of December 26, 2004. The two survived as the mothers scooped them up and stood on the only bed in the Akkaraipettai Health sub centre, in Nagapattinam and the fathers ran, clutching spouse and kid overhead, above water.

As if in penance for having borne the dead after the tsunami (all the bodies were piled up there), the Akkaraipettai Health Sub Centre decided to give life, on the first anniversary of the disaster. A healthy male boy was born, all of 2.75 kgs on the morning of the anniversary.

On the roads, little children waddle past in school uniforms. One of them, in a green skirt, stops and says to me, "English madam." "Who? Me? I'm one of you," I say. "Really?!" she wonders in amazement. I pull off my shades and cap.

"O.k. then give me your cell phone," Priya says.

"And what will you do with it?" I ask her.

"I want to call my teacher. But I don't know how to call her. So you do it for me."

"O.k. tell me her number... " She reels seven numbers in quick succession, but can't remember the last three.

Pouting, she says, "I cannot remember. Are you sure this is not enough?"

"No, baby. This won't do. I'll wait for you, go bring her number."

"It's o.k. I'll see her at school tomorrow. My house went off in the tsunami. But we have a house now," Priya says, tugging at the eaten-edge of her white school shirt. I give her a couple of biscuits and taking them, she thanks me. And thinks it fit to end the conversation with the booty, "Byeeee..." she said. And swishing her skirt, she walks away.

You must agree, it can't get more normal can it? That is why the going back was good.


You might care to check my Tsunami-picture album at my photoblog. If you are looking only for children, check this out! If you are looking for more, you'll have to find elsewhere to go.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

An Ordinary Life 4 - Maatukaalai

Dr.Maatukaalai's biggest crib was his name.
Contrary to what people thought, for the first year of his life, he would gurgle in answer to a rather erm...ordinary Anand. His trouble started the day he turned two, when he fell grievously ill with some un-diagnosable disease.
After running from pillar to post and doctor to quack, his parents fell at the painted clay feet of the six-feet tall Ayyanar God in their village. Two days after final surrender to the pagan lord, the boy miraculously sat up and spoke his first word. He said : "Maatukaalai." At least they thought he said, "Maatukaalai."
Taking this as the word from the Lord, his grandmother went right ahead and re-named him Maatukaalai. The child's parents, city-lubbers both, flinched as they heard the matriarch pronouncing the name. Not that they had any say in the matter. The father tried to protest feebly for the two of them, but the matriarch would have none of it: "Ayyanar is a powerful God. He will not take it well if you ignore his command. Maatukaalai it will be."
And so it was.

* * *

Pondering over his life as he saw it later, Maatukaalai thought things would not have been so bad if they had not moved to the city. If they had stayed in the village, he would have been Maatukalai still, but it was more likely that the name would have blended in with the landscape of the village.
Only six months after the nomenclature tragedy in his life, Maatukalai and his parents moved to Chennai. As a little lisper, the boy, when asked his name would say, "Maadu."
And the adults would roll with laughter.
When Maatukkalai went to kindergarten, his Anglo-Indian teacher couldn't say his name very well. The other boys in the class could, and they found it very funny, as boys are wont to. They never stopped finding it funny. Consequently, the little boy, who did not fancy being the joke, dreaded going to school; his fertile imagination would work up several excuses to play hookey, but he never managed to convince his parents. Unfortunately for him, Maatukaalai had not suffered from as much as a cold since his dramatic recovery at the age of two and his parents knew that.
So he turned inward, shy, retiring, a nerd, with his face buried in his books. Not surprisingly, he did well in school, which only made the boys laugh at him harder. "Nerdy cow-bull" they would call him, the convent boys that they were.

* * *

No one was surprised when Maatukalai went on to medical college. They were no more surprised when, at the end of five years, he took home more gold medals than any student ever had.
However, when he asked for his first posting in rural Tamil Nadu, most people who knew him were startled. They believed he was throwing away his future, his postgraduation in Harvard Medical School, a career in neurology, his life. Some thought his desire to serve the rural poor was commendable.
But Dr.Maatukaalai was only living out his only desire; he sincerely believed that going rural was his only way to merge with the landscape, what with a name like his. He packed his bags and took a long ride bumpy bus-ride to Viralimalai, stepping off the bus with a steth around his neck, his lips cracking up involuntarily in anticipation of a new life.

* * *

You couldn't have expected him to forsee that the villagers, in their fondness for their first- ever resident physician, would come to refer to him as 'Maattu-daktar.'*

*Maattu-daktar - rural Tamil slang for a vet. Translates literally to "cow-doctor"


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

King Kong -What went wrong

(Picture courtesy:

Having watched at least three versions (including the 1933 black and white original) of King Kong and laughed over them, I decided I should watch Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, if only to keep up with the cinematic regression of the great ape. Of course, the fact that elite box tickets in Sree were coming free helped.

I was forewarned to go after the interval, if I wanted to get the action and the ape. However, I quite enjoy period depictions on screen and I am among the group that swears by newsreel clips. The first half is cliched, nevertheless delightful. My companions though, who came to see the ape, went to sleep setting the alarm for an hour later. A tad lengthy, I must admit.
When King Kong did come up, give Jackson credit, he was the more believable version of the fantastic monster that moviedom created. And perhaps, most human. An old bag, greying and wheezy, but with a lot of fight left in him, I liked this guy the best. After all, if the bugger has been around since 1933, he should be an old bag, greying and wheezy, nevermind willing suspension of disbelief.

King Kong might have well be called King Kitsch, considering Jackson has not missed any opportunity to put every prehistoric predator ever known to man in his movie. I could identify the dinos, the drones and the wild bats, but there were a lot more molluscs, arthopods and sci-fi characters that are either killed by Kong or by the humans. These humans are part of a ship's crew and a movie crew that land up in a ghastly isle, inhabitated by prehistoric (?) tribes, King Kong and all creatures great and small. Kong, as we know, falls in love with the lead lady (An angelic-looking Naomi Watts) and dies, fighting to keep her, atop the Empire State Building.

What's different? Clearly the SFX is a class apart, particularly the scene where sailor-boy Jimmy narrowly misses falling off a cliff, pursued by dinos. Most of the humour is meant to be unlike the other versions where is it not meant to be. Rather endearing are the scenes where the former-vaudeville actress, Watts, tries to amuse the petulant great ape. Jackson, who has co-written the screenplay must be commended for the excellent characterisation of Carl Denham, the ne'er- say-die-entrepreneur-moviemaker.

But, there are parts of the movie that drag: the battle against the forces of nature is protracted and exasperatingly Tamil-cinema like. Though the humour is clever and intended, there are indeed parts of the movie that make you laugh without actually meaning to; sometimes the kitsch is so heavy you cannot but howl. Denham's closing punchline, "It was beauty that killed the beast" especially, makes you laugh hours later. It is likely to go down as the cheesiest closing line Hollywood has heard in a decade.

Somehow, the cumulative effect of tackiness, kitsh and cheese makes you want to say at the end of the movie, "King Kong, Ding Dong" as tears roll down your eyes and run down your laughing lips! If you don't like that you could say Sing Song or Ping Pong - just make sure it rhymes!


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

15-hour Express

I've realised if you are on a 15-hour train that is delayed by another three hours, you no longer bother looking out to see which station you are in. And when you realise this, like when you know you are going to die, you give up. It does not matter.
What does matter is the team in your second A/C compartment, three men who mix rum with pepsi and drink it faster than water. Even that does not matter. It is when they beginning talking that you are forced to come out of your 15-hour journey trance to contend with their alcohol-induced loquaciousness. And then you try to stopper out some. Because they really offend sensibilities. The best way, of course, is to pretend to be fast asleep and wake up only mealtimes. The trick, of course, is to go back to sleep before they spill the coloured grains of their train-biryani all over the seat, floor and themselves. Because, believe me, that could be make you retch.
Alternatively, you can spend your time counting the different kinds of mobile ring tones constantly going off from all sides. I had no clue such a variety was available. But even that can be tiresome, and from the corner of your eye you can see the drunks getting ready for a nap. So it is time to fix on some really efficient headphones, or you might land up with a lot of sound and very little sleep.
Can it get worse? Of course it can. When 15 hours stretches to 18 because, in deference for Cyclone Mala, the Express train slows down to about 20 kmph. When there is nothing else you can do, you learn to grit and bear. Grin is a little too much for the occasion.


Monday, December 05, 2005

The Can can

CAN Conquer CANcer initiative

I'm taking a break from my story telling. This time, you get to read about how you can do what you like doing best and what you like doing best. Well, at least blogging's in our list of favourite things, or we wouldn't be here.
So, it's simple. Blog for a cause. Write a story, poem, whatchamacallits about cancer and win some good prizes. The best prize, however, is the bit we'd all have done towards spreading awareness about cancer.
Let me stop, though. You go ahead and listen to the horse: Murali or check out his painstakingly-created CAN Conquer CANcer werbsite.
And get into the act, folks, cos they also serve who sit and blog.

May the Force be with all of you.


Friday, December 02, 2005

An Ordinary Life 3 - Rajaraman Iyer

The first job Rajaraman Iyer ever had was at fifty-five. Until then, his wife had managed to hold things together, her 'appalam'-'vadaam' providing for his 'thayir sadam' and betel nut.
Truth to tell, her death din't even bother him for the first few days when neighbours and relatives provided food and water.
It was later, when Saravanan of the Kumbakonam Vethalai Stall refused to give him any anymore betel leaf or nut on credit that Rajaraman Iyer found himself forced to find a vocation that would pay for his limited needs, and most certainly for the betelnut. It was Saravanan too who gave him the idea, "Iyere, why can't you teach music?"
"Indeed!," Rajaraman Iyer thought to himself, "Why din't I think of this before?!"

* * *

After all, music was about the only skill he ever possessed. It is said he could identify a raaga even before he could speak. In fact, the very first word he uttered was "Kambodhi" his mother would proudly say to all those who came to see the baby. The visitors told her that her son would be a big musician one day and earn riches. She believed them until she got weary of believing them.
It was soon apparent that these visitors were not in the least clairvoyant. Talent was wasted in a dilettante; for Rajaram, music was an art, merely for his amusement. So he remained a mediocre conoisseur, visiting sabhas, reviewing concerts with others similarly employed sitting on an easy chair in his one-room house, ordering his wife to supply coffee and tiffin at regular intervals. She, however, took it in her stride, for unlike her mother-in-law, she never did think her husband would amount to much. She continued making appalams to support the family, which was anyway just the two of them.

* * *

His first pupil was Shreya, a twelve year old who had been learning music since she was five. Not that the girl had any talent for music, just a lot of enthusiasm. Her previous teacher thought it was sufficient. Clearly, Rajaraman Iyer did not think so. Sometimes he would lose his temper with her, especially when his sharp musical ear could not hear her palm slap the thigh in the right thaalam. Once in a fit of temper, he picked up his old umbrella and slammed it on her thigh. The child, initially shocked into silence by his act, soon recovered sufficiently to burst into tears. Her mother came running, followed by the grandmother and grandfather. At the end of the altercation with the family, it was Rajaraman Iyer's turn to be in tears.
The next day he sent word through the little boy at the Vethalai Stall that the lessons could not continue as he was incapacitated, having been gored by a mad bull.

* * *

As he sat waiting for his next student, news reached him that his father's aunt, a ripe old woman of 90 had passed away in Kumbakonam, leaving him half a ground of farmland, property she had inherited from her husband. After her death, it passed on to her only surviving relative, Rajaraman. He performed her last rites and sold the land for a handsome sum to the village bigman, Ratnam Chettiar.
His worries were all over as Rajaraman discovered that he would not have to work anymore. He would put the cash in a bank and live on the interest.
The kambodhi sprang onto his lips once again as he walked briskly down the temple lane, a cheque from Chettiar sitting tight in the red cloth bag stowed under his arm. In his euphorism, Rajaraman Iyer did not really see the temple bull charge at him. His ears, full of Kambodhi, did not even register the frantic shouts of bystanders to move away.

* * *

Later, at his funeral, they said he must have been happy to die with a song on his lips.

It is macabre me again. Shyam, I think I've the gallows in my mind. And Ammani, I hope this doesn't make you think I'm elitist or condescending! :)