May 16, 2020

Pori unde

“What have you brought with you?”

I ask my grandmother, but already, I know the answer when she wriggles out of my tight hug.

Her simple cotton saree smells of cardamom and jaggery, the morning breeze caught in its many folds and creases. I can also identify the dreamy fragrance of Ponds talcum powder coming from the neat handkerchief that she reserves for her train journey from her home in Dombivli, to Thane where we live. When she feels hot, or pauses in her thoughts, she will reach for that kerchief tucked in her waist. She will pull it out, careful not to unfold it lest its powdery contents spill out, and she will run it around her face, the bridge of her nose. Refreshed, she will sigh and insert it by her waist again.

Pori Unde. You like them, don’t you? Here. First, get me a plate or dabba from the kitchen….to store these.”

Sweet kurmura. kurr-murra. crunchy kurmura, murmura. Call it what you want. I snatch the packet from her. Four huge balls of puffed rice and caramelised jaggery. I open it immediately and bite into one of them, its’ sweetness floods my senses. I realise that it’s not really my favourite of sweets, but it’s made by my favouritest person in the world. I politely finish my laddoo. The rest, I store in a round stainless steel container.

I don’t know this then, but years later, like, now, I will remember this taste, every crunch, every bite of that puffed rice laddoo. And there will be a deluge of every memory associated with her. I am not here and now. I am there and then.

Inside this memory of my ammamma: she’s crouched on top of her kitchen platform – all four-feet of her, as she roasts the rice puffs in her huge aluminum kadhai on the gas burner, and melts a mix of chopped jaggery and cardamom powder in a pan on the other. When the jaggery melts and froths, she will take them both off the heat. Carefully, she will step down on to the big stainless steel dabba that easily takes her weight, and shoo us away if we stray too close to the cooking area. With the concentration of someone who is creating life, she will pour the hot liquid into the bowl of puffed rice, bring them together. Satisfied, she will smear ghee on her palms and roll the hot mix into quick tennis-ball-sized spheres. With each unde, her body will relax. Then tense up again as she rolls the next one, her hands acting quickly.
“It is important to take the jaggery off the heat at the right time,” she will shake her head and remind herself aloud, “a little more or less heat and the balls will just not form.”

Behind her, and engrossed in our own little game of name-place-animal-thing, eight heads look up at her for a moment and chuckle silently. As her grandchildren, we’re accustomed to her talking to the vessels around her. This time she’s chatting with the four containers she has washed and dried for each of her four daughters. She wipes her hands in a clean, old piece of saree cloth recycled to be her kitchen towel, runs her wrinkly fingers around the containers’ insides, checking they are completely dry and shiny. To make doubly sure, she wipes the cloth around them once again, and repeats the cycle. She shuts the four lids and twists them open, checking they will remain air-tight. I know what is going to come without looking at her. Her face is calm now. It looks like the dabbas on their part have reassured her that they’re ready to collect the pori unde. Wiping the individual containers one last time, as if one was sending a child to school, she mumbles something to them again, and calls me out to distribute them.

Radhoo, idhar aati hai kya re zara?

I run to her. I’ve been waiting all along. 

May 2, 2019

An English chembarathi

Last night
I was surprised
to see
amid a potted jungle
at M&S
the sharp
est green
and rusty red:
our very own

who do we have here?
I said.
So many miles
away from home,
all alone,
are you too,
with a droopy head?

Were you born
here in England?
Or did they
pluck you
from your family
you were little?

Do you remember
the earth at home
the smell
on misty mornings
the sound of bells
the marble floors
the incense
the fingers that gently picked
your full, flowy flowers
for the glowing

How can you bear
to be away?
Barely wrapped
in this weather
so cold
a plastic pot of soil
not Indian, I’m sure
and a fancy lined
gunny sack
just to display
your exoticity.

So thinking,
I sadly caressed
a leaf or two, a bud
stirring, open,
It bobbed at my touch
and lifted
its curious head.

Ah, at last,
a brown face
the voice said.
I am not alone,
why do you think so?

Look around me
the bonsai, the palm,
the orchid, and more
everyone here
is an outsider
as much as me,
as much as you

Don’t you remember
the rich, red mud,
the songs from home?
They remind me
of who I am.
help keep me
alive too.

I hugged
the plant
jute bag and all.
let me take you,
I said,
I’ll look after you,
and you, me.

Together, alone,
let me
give us both
a home
from home.

June 8, 2017

what I’m thinking about what I’m reading…

The Good Immigrant; edited by Nikesh Shukla.

I have met this book many times. My first encounter was with Riz Ahmed on the Guardian website where they published his story. I then bought a kindle version of this book in India, but never got around to reading it…my romance with a digital reader had never existed. Finally, months later, I spotted this book again in my library and made it mine very quickly, even if it’s loaned.

My name is my name, by Chimene Suleyman
“We are simply the martyrs who are too afraid to die.”

Chimene Suleyman’s was the first story that appeared when I flipped the book open, and I began to read. This is a personal story, of course, like the other 20 that are waiting to be read. My first impressions are that it is a beautiful story. Sad, angry, resigned towards the adopted home (England) and yet, defiantly native (Turkish), all at once. And it is written so beautifully, I had a lump in my throat towards the end when the author speaks about her grandmother’s burial.

I loved the history behind her name, Chimene. And I can relate to her amusement when the yoga teacher says ‘aum’ without understanding its complete significance. I recalled one ‘taster’ session that I attended once where candles were lit in a spacious, curtains-drawn yoga hall (I probably spent ten minutes before I came out into the daylight utterly angry. How can you do yoga when you can’t even see the teacher!? Anything Indian, oriental, exotic, must have candles, and of course, incense sticks in all the possible vertices!) Indeed, Chimene also mentions this… the existence of words and phrases from other cultures used by the English, and cleverly brings the thread back to her name. There is some information – history – about Cyprus under the British empire…upon reading further into this I learn that in the late 1970s, the ‘divide and rule‘ policy was used by them between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots as well. Can’t help thinking how their own country is so deeply divided, especially since the last 12 months or so. And yet, talk of karma is considered cliche…

Himesh Patel (Window of opportunity); and Nish Kumar (Is Nish Kumar a confused Muslim?)
These are two completely different and individual, light-hearted write-ups, along the same themes that I could identify with, with regards to my own experiences in the UK as a first-generation migrant. Besides, I feel too lazy now to write them out separately. Got distracted, went on to google Nish Kumar’s comedy, and laughed a lot. I think it was just what I needed at the time.

Reading these stories made me realise some of my own ‘dilemmas’ I always face when I have to be ‘social’ in the UK (read, everyday school runs, attending a parent-teacher meeting, going to the shops, and so on). My pet question is silly but it has grown big because I face it every day. Do I dress in my Indian clothes (simply because I have many of them in my wardrobe and I watch them waiting in their bright colours, desperate to get out and feel the air), or do I throw on a casual old t-shirt top and jeans so I can blend in with the rest of the crowd? Except that I am brown and can will never blend in.

What I’m thinking when I’m reading about the lives of these good immigrants: yes, why should we blend in?

June 6, 2017

My reading list for June 2017

Right. The viva is done, and two weeks in the past today. It didn’t go very well, enough said.

But I am here now not to pluck at my wounds. The viva is done, and I can now focus on my reading, which I’ve missed for quite a few years now. I’m also trying to get back to writing every day. It seems like my mind thinks this can be done only if I have a new story or idea to share. So this post is to make my mind believe that I am going to write everyday, story or not. Beginning today, this is my reading journal where I can write my thoughts about what I am reading. If I am not writing a story, that is. I hope that will happen, too, and soon.

When I say this is a reading journal, it means I will write what I think about a book: I will try to identify the ‘hidden’ stories or ideas/opinions that come to my mind when I’m reading something. This is a margin that I’ll scribble in, notes about the writers’ thoughts, the content itself, and what I am going to take away from it. I believe this will help make me less naive (what got me into trouble during my viva) about political ideas and gender politics that I seem to filter out when I’m reading a book, although, clearly, I know I must be having my own opinions too.

If you are reading this as well, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

My reading list for June right now, from the books around me, is this:
The Good Immigrant, Anthology. Edited by Nikesh Shukla.
We should all be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Misogyny: The world’s oldest prejudice , by Jack Holland. Chapter in focus: Victorians’ Secrets, pg 167.

There are going to be more books; have reserved a copy of Arundhati Roy’s book from the library. Will add to the list when it arrives. My initial thoughts after reading an extract that appeared in the Guardian: looks like it has all the ingredients – Indian corruption, poverty, gender politics, and kashmir – perfect recipe for the next booker prize. I’m expecting it’ll not be as superficial as Adiga’s White Tiger though.

Watch this space 🙂

March 10, 2017

on creativity

a thought
blinded me
one rushed
i had
a pen
a mobile
i didn’t use
so sure
it would
for hours
and days.
and down
that road
i walk
the story,
that ray
of hope
is lost
to me,

January 28, 2017

all that is chocolate is not, erm…chocolatey.

everytime i am on my way to london via euston on the british rail, i mentally tick off the cafes from where i can take away an indulging warm cup of hot chocolate. i shrink into my worn-out coat, my loyal companion for many years now, my protector against the cold draughty winds. when i’m inside and when the train is moving, it is not so chilly anymore and i let myself expand again, bit by bit. i think of the day ahead. and then the thought of a steaming hot mug of chocolate creeps into my mind from nowhere. i tell myself, i deserve it…for the hectic morning that i’ve just survived, for being the good person that i am, for the lovely children i have, for all the hard work (ahem) i put into raising a lovely, happy family. i open the book that is in my hands. i’m reading the words but my frosty mind still hovers around that hot chocolate. now, where had i had it the last time? since my visits to london are rare, i am not surprised i have forgotten: was it from Starbucks? Patisserie Valerie? Ah, yes, AMT. i remember now. it wasn’t very good.

the train pulls into euston. i am almost 45 minutes early. should i have that much-coveted mug now, or should i prolong the desire until i am on my way back home to milton keynes. i smell the air of london, of strong coffee, or business suits and leather. i browse through books and magazines. i make my way down to the underground tube and catch the northern line to tottenham court road station. my work here will take approximately three hours. thankfully, they pass fast.

it is nearly six. i return to euston looking for the train times back to milton keynes. there is none for another 10 minutes at least. to my right i see The Chocolat, Starbucks, M&S, The Camden Co (or something like that); ahead of me, i spot Delice de France, The Upper Crust; there’s the Patisserie Valerie and AMT to my left. i have to be quick. so i walk all the way to The Chocolat. had i been even half as focussed as i am on this fix of cocoa, i would have broken all academic records at my school, i think. there are a lot of youngsters inside. couples, i mean. the uncommitted ones. why uncommitted? no idea. they all look like they’re ‘experimenting’ – speaking in low tones to each other, their spaces merging; some giggle softly, eyeing the hundreds of varieties of chocolate bars, lollies on sticks, gooey cookie shapes, the colourful tubs of candies and choco-dipped nuts…but i had only ten minutes, remember? i walk to the nice lady behind the counter.

“one hot chocolate, please,” i say.

“Whicha vone, darlin?” she points to the board on the top left. i see only the images as she rattles on a list of what they have on offer: “shoco vaalentinio? vannilla? or you wish shoco rasabaerry? 100-percento shocolateo?…” my brain has switched off. she is waiting, indicating she doesn’t have the time. i feel like Sridevi’s character in the film, English-Vinglish. in my mind, the digital clock on the indicator blinks red. fight or flight?

“i just want hot chocolate, please,” i repeat.

“you wante the 100-percento shocolateo?”

“yes-yes, thank you!” i am relieved.

i pay her. my order arrives shortly. i take my cup and run. it smells inviting.

i arrive at the platform just two minutes before the train departs. there are very few seats vacant. i plonk myself on the first one i find. to my left is a lady in a white feathery fleece coat. dignified. the compartment is full. to my right is an elderly gentleman who seems tired. the rest, sitting across, flip through free copies of the evening standard. an asian family – visibly new to london – speaks in sinhalese tamil. one of them has spotted my brownness; she smiles. i return it sincerely, yet without feeling.

i should sip my chocolate now, i think. wait! i get my book out of my bag. the man to my right has begun to doze. we have reached our first stop. i turn to my left to look at the name of the station – my gaze is interrupted by the image on my glamourous neighbour’s mobile phone, which, plainly, is in my line of sight. i try to look away, but it is too late. in a fraction of the second, while she had been gently swiping her polished thumb across her touchscreen, i have been an accidental witness to two pictures on her phone. they are both of a man’s naked bottom.

i admire the human mind. what a range of emotions it can compute in a matter of flimsy moments. absent-mindedly, i sip from my cup. i almost choke again. 100-percento shocolateo. she meant, dark chocolate.
i wonder if i should feel betrayed. in my head i hear faint laughter. my own. poodi teernu alle?

i think of the 3-odd pounds that i paid, for all my dreams about a satisfying mug of hot chocolate…i look at the cup in my hands – as if it would sweeten by magic. next time, i will try another flavour, i decide. for now, i think of the benefits of the dark brew. good for fibromyalgia fatigue. tick. i imagine an army of (very bitter) antioxidents in my mug fighting the free radicals as they cruise down my throat and into my system. tick. maybe it is not that bad after all. i relax. maybe it is working already. in a strange way i feel sorry for the woman with the mobile phone. she should get one of those tinted screens, i think, the poor thing. behind my open book, i feel a smile on my face. i relish my drink. i tell myself, i have had a long day. i deserve it…for the good person that i am…

October 18, 2016

Fear is a black hole

It feels strange to restart my journal on this subject, but getting to the bottom of this black hole has somehow turned into a self-imposed project these days.

Fear. It takes years of conditioning: under the pretext of discipline, of respect. It lurks within like a dementor, surfacing when you least expect, turning normal, unassuming joyful events into missed opportunities, if-onlys’ and such regrets. It is imposed, ironically, by those who crave the power they already have been granted. By those who fear losing that power.

When I was growing up I was always afraid. Of my parents, of letting them down, of life at school, of subjects like math and history, of failure at sports, of being bullied, of not having friends, of having friends. When you begin to analyse it on a psychological level, a pattern emerges. The laws of fear are such that if you are a person who easily fears, you will always find yourself surrounded by some people who will feed off your fear. Your fears grow roots that are unshakeable. And so it continues. As the years roll on we tend to hide away some of these fears in little boxes that we believe we will never open, that if we close our eyes they will disappear. Some fears, with the passing of time, are overcome. We mature. But in the process the roots that lie in boxes unopened and ignored, are the ones that come back with a vengeance as various other demons. Their seeds intact.

I continue to fear authority. I fear confrontation. I fear fear. These, I am still working on.

My parents today are my friends. Tick. My school batchmates today – we laugh at each other, with each other (god bless you, makers of whatsapp!), I don’t remember being so connected before. Tick. School is a been-there-done-that – with a different perspective. Tick. History is no longer boring. I now believe we were just reading the wrong books, or taught the wrong way. I can say this having finally completed my phd thesis – most of it concerning a period of Indian history. Tick. Sports: I was daunted by physical activity because I never had the stamina in me. I learnt that it was the fibromyalgia all along. And now I’ve re-discovered badminton. I train to improve my game. To pull out the boxes I’d closed when I’d once lost a few games at school. It is addictive and I love it. Tick. Maths…er, no, this is a fear I can live with 😉

Coming back to my rant, I am compelled today to write this journal entry as part of my personal, overcome-my-fear project. Because, unwittingly, I let my sons down today.

When I was at school my french teacher always made me stand outside the classroom even though I topped her subject. Everybody knew it. She probably didn’t like my face or the fact that I was always slow to respond. Fast-forward to 25-30 years later: my 4-year-old’s reception teacher in the UK has an uncanny resemblance to my old Indian french teacher. Coincidently I, too, got on the wrong side of her book a couple of times: once, I was late for picking him up (about 10 minutes; I was busy with my thesis!); another time, my son jumped the queue when he saw me (he was excited to see his mother – as any 4-year-old would be!). But she probably over-reacted – turning her face as if to deliberately ignore, as if to show that she is the boss. I fell for it. Fear. Authority. Confrontation. And so, this morning, because I was afraid he would be marked late again (albeit due to a perfectly legitimate excuse), I quit the queue for a photo shoot in my older son’s school for siblings and abandoned the opportunity. The three of us had woken up extra early, we practically ran to the school to reach on time. We were proud because, for a change, we did make it! We looked forward to treasuring a memory.

But then none of this mattered because I just quit the queue. My sons were both upset. I was frustrated. And for what? They both got marked late anyway. I should have waited.

Lesson learnt. My son’s reception-class teacher is NOT my school french teacher. I am NOT going to let her feed on my fear anymore.

March 23, 2009

the big picture

i never forgot this journal, like i would never forget an old friend.

priorities changed, that’s all. the fibromyalgia is worse, stubborn as ever. my toddler keeps me busy all day – except for the two hours that i force him to sleep every afternoon. it is the only time i have to fill blank pages with words. it is painfully slow, considering the limitations. but i have got up to 17,000 words so far. another 60-63,000 and i might have the manuscript for a novel. my first. in the meantime i hope, that i can finish the thesis for my phd as well. i move on from one word to the next, from one day to the next, grateful for every thought and every moment. and of course, thankful for the miracles, and life’s many surprises. one of them happened last week.

she found me.

after 18 long years of silently waiting, not knowing where she had disappeared, last wednesday, my inbox contained an email with one half-line that said: viji here, you remember. reply if you remember.

it was 6am when i read that line. athri – who is now being potty-trained – was dancing without unlocking his knees, amma kakkooooos…remove nappy pleeeeaaaase…waiting for me to put him on his potty-toilet-seat. the milk was on the gas ready to spill over. praveen was in germany all week. i acted fast, not-feeling, numb. but wherever i moved, the line followed. viji here, you remember. i had thought it was just me, not able to forget her, narrating to people… i had this best friend in school you know. we used to sit on the same bench, for almost three years. after the tenth standard, she just disappeared. i don’t know what must have happened…i wrote her many letters. something must have gone wrong. i just hope she is safe… and then out of the blue, to hear a voice that is telling me: she knew! she knew! all these years, she also didn’t forget.

despite the five-and-half-hour time difference, we exchanged about 16 emails that day. we laughed and we cried. we spoke on the phone and realised we didn’t really remember each other’s voice at all. we laughed again. five days later now, i feel humbled. strangely at peace. from my big window, i see the clouds floating gently, without a sound, making way for the sun. and i know why.

we are but a tiny speck in the universe. our lives, tiny jigsaw puzzles. like the clouds in the sky, the moments in our life are the pieces of that puzzle, suspended in space and time. and sooner or later, like the words on this journal, like good old friends and soulmates, the pieces will all come together again. they just have to…

it is all part of the bigger picture.

February 2, 2009

back from sunny india…

 and guess who enjoyed the most 🙂


December 11, 2008

just pretend

the past month was eventful. it took over two weeks for the family to recover from a silly winter flu. the phd workshops began, once a week, six of them in all. the penguin book, with my story in it, was launched this week. on the bbc asian network, i had my first, albeit very nervous, excited, *15 minutes of fame on the radio. this was the good news, a tiny hole of light in the large, looming dark cloud of the bad that continues to cast a shadow on every glittery thing in sight. for three days, indian news channels streamed a mumbai that its viewers had never imagined. two weeks have passed since, and i am still shaking. i surf the internet, unable to do any writing work, or reading for my thesis, drawn again and again to the stories of the attacks on mumbai. i had begun to believe that maybe every generation has to face a war, and that this was ours. i shudder, relieved that at least this time, i was wrong. this little boy’s face still continues to haunt me though, making me cry bitterly, almost wishing – for his sake – that he was a statistic too. i wonder if becoming a mother has made me a more emotional person. i never gave in so easily before. but i see his tears and can’t help feeling angry: it was certainly not worth it, not for him. not for anyone.

i hear of hope. mumbaiites will not forget. they will not let the politicians forget. miles away in a cold, cold london, i pray, and hope for a change. long ago, we had decided to move back to mumbai by end-2009, for better or worse. for our child. for our parents. for us. i waited till that decision wavered, flickered or died. it didn’t. and yet, i am numb.

i log into to my journal, my mind unsettled. wanting to say something. anything. then i see this poem, unpublished and in my drafts’ folder, written many days ago. i forget what the context was, or what had provoked me to type these words. now i think, what does it matter…

just pretend

what you give
comes back to you
in mysterious ways
up and down
they bob
paper boats
on a thoughtful sea
memories happy and sad
you forgot to keep
some drown
as you travel
leave you till
the end
in the mist
springs out
of the waters
you least expect
you come back
among loved ones
among friends
you recognise
the bricks you built
the strings
that came undone
along the way
it is that circle
of life
of what you gave
and what came back
to you
and how
you don’t recognise
that hand
it is your own.

know it now
just pretend.

ps: shoefiend, i first saw the link to the penguin decibel prize on your blog, and i thank you from my heart.
*15mb mp3 file

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