August 28, 2003

no thank you. i belong to india

they were shabby, unshaven, and up to their nose in alcohol. and they swore at every passerby they came across, even as they tottered along on the narrow footpath we too were walking on.

as the four of us made our way through, they suddenly hushed up, and then one of them shouted out behind our backs.


not wanting to create a scene, praveen, zubin and girish just shrugged them off, and did not stop to look behind: “its the weekend, happens all the time…” they laughed.

not me. i wanted to rip off the guy’s shirt for yelling like that, slap him in the face and pour freezing water over his dirty hair, and shake him till all the booze drained off him. then i would scold him that we are NOT immigrants, and that we pay taxes too and have every right to live in this country as long as we wanted to. besides, we cannot wait to go back to our own homeland ourselves, and would do so as soon as we had fulfilled our priorities here.

i would also remind him to be happy he was part of a country that had such a huge humanitarian purpose… of helping those in search of better lives, with time and money to sort themselves out. why, just a year ago, i was so excited about the fact myself!

i guess i’ll never ever (want to) forget this incident.

i don’t even remember how long i was running it over in my head, along with my very stern speech to the drunken man… fortunately i’m a peaceful person — the type who would show a lost housefly the way out without even touching it. was the european union thinking of this when they decided to open its doors to the destitutes of the world?

why else does this country — which would perhaps not be recognisable without its being such a diverse ‘culture-pot’ — open its arms to so many different communities, when its people do not really want to welcome them? apparently, this is a question many britons are asking the government too.

the children’s publication i now freelance for, makes easy-to-read stories and educational titles for over 27 or 30 ethnic minority and asylum-seeking communities in england; and this list is growing steadily. what must it be like for all such ‘refugee’ children, to make efforts to learn english, just so that they can ‘belong’ to a country that is not even their native land?

i looked through pages and pages online, wanting to understand why the united kingdom had allowed its foreign population to grow to 2.2 million today. by agreeing to be a safe haven for refugees, perhaps uk is unable to weed out the real (read, illegal) immigrants who are stomping all over the place?

abdul hashi, a 17-year-old somali who has many refugee friends here himself, has a simple explanation (find more comments by young refugees here): “in principle, you can’t put the asylum burden on britain. but if you’re saying you are the policemen of the world and you make out that you are a paradise, then you can’t turn people away… it comes with the territory.”

i find it ironical indeed… this tiny nation once ruled over so many parts of the world; and today the same diverse identities that are housed under the english sky here, are threatening to shake the very ground of its own people, making them feel insecure.

August 14, 2003

thank you for the music…

are you looking for theeratha velayudhan pillai?

i almost fell off my chair laughing when i saw this question on the monitor. of the 3,083,324,652 web pages that google combs through, i was wondering why it could not find me the tamil song i typed in, until praveen pointed out that i’d spelt it all wrong (thanks to my teetering tamil vocabulary).

for those (non-tamilians) who are still wondering what was so funny, vilayattu pillai is old tamil for a mischievious little boy, while velayudhan pillai can be anyone living just down your street (or next door, if you’re in kerala)!

i’m not deeply religious, but this poem, by south india’s noted poet and patroit subramaniam bharati, makes me go back to it again and again. it paints a very affectionate picture of how the ceaseless mischief and tricks of kannan, or little krishna are creating havoc among all the girls in his village: he plays pranks, bites into the fruit that he’s initially offered them (in southern india, sharing food from the same dish is taboo, even now), snatches the flowers that adorn their hair and says its for his flute, and so on…

perhaps it brings back memories — of reading dozens of amar chitra katha in the school library, at home and anywhere i could lay my hands on one. the endless legends and the mythology figures in the magazine, not to forget the illustrations, formed for me the perfect escape from the world of geography (ugh!), math homework and other (real) classroom bullies.

i had wanted to share the song with my mother and chitti, who were waiting miles away in front of another computer screen, excited, blessing the technologies (yahoo chat and webcam) that compensated for the physical distance between us. i was also trying to explain to my mother not to be so surprised about my newly-acquired seriousness for carnatic or south-indian music…

“what is the soul of music?”

it all began when my in-laws visited us two months ago, and then went back home to proudly narrate (perhaps a little too generously, in an attempt perhaps to make my parents feel good) how well their mattponnu took care of them; how fast she’s learning from praveen and can identify some of the ragas herself! “AHA! and you chose not to continue the music lessons *we* sent you to, just because it irritated you and made you sleepy?!!

at home, i grew up listening to my father’s favourites from his ‘lp records’…western instrumental classics (though i perhaps wouldn’t be able to point out the tchaikovskys or the schuberts from one another), indian carnatic classics – m s subbalakshmi, yesudas and the like; and, my favourite-est among his…the golden english oldies. perhaps since i enjoy and can just lose myself in the panchavadyam, i also developed a taste for folk music from other middle and northern states in india…and could appreciate russian music too when my father took us to a ballet (on ice) in bombay years ago.

at work, mp3s occupied most of the space on our pcs and i watched as colleagues sometimes even related to each other according to their musical preferences …here i was introduced to the carpenters, the haunting loreena mckennitt and hindi and tamil hits from the movies. if someone asked me what my kind of music would be, i could never pick ‘one’ favourite, since my list only seemed to be growing!

i have tried (twice) unsuccessfully to learn to play the violin, thanks to impractical geographical distances between home and violin-classes. sigh… someday, i hope to complete the training (carnatic again) and play at a concert, even if i’m seated at a corner behind the others on the stage!

marriage however, is bringing in a strange change (or direction?) in my so far-diverse music tastes… with praveen belonging to a whole generation (i’ll leave the family history to him) of indian carnatic music lovers and singers themselves, for the past 18 months it is as if i have been thrown into a pool of pure traditional music, through live performances recorded on tapes and cds, and of course, online.

having been away from his home for almost over eight years, it is only now that praveen too, has been trying to re-establish his connection with ‘his’ music. it was not easy, since we could not find him a suitable teacher here (in the uk) who taught just the ragas and how to play the harmonium — what he really wants to learn.

so well… we turned to the internet!

besides the fact that its free, its really been worthwhile. unlike praveen though, i’m a slow learner when it comes to grasping a melody or ‘raga’ and understanding the lyrics in a song, but its been steady progress. these days, i even get a great thrill out of ‘matching’ some of the songs i hear!

anyone can do it, and its just a matter of ‘tuning’ your ears. here’s an example:
take a hindi favourite say, “tere mere beech mein…” from the movie ek duje ke liye; then listen to “jane kahan gaye voh din…” from raj kapoor’s mera naam joker, and r d burman’s classic “mere naina saawan bhadon…” from mehbooba, sung by kishore kumar. you’ll find a similarity among the songs, and that’s just because they all originate from one simple raga: shivaranjini.

sometimes praveen and i even play guess-the-raga-from-the-song-games and i can perhaps tell about seven or eight ragas from each other by now. i’m still learning though, and i find that understanding the lyrics of a song helps me learn faster. it’s been a very interesting journey, and with each song, especially the old carnatic ones, i get a glimpse of how rich indian culture is, and how much more is yet waiting to be discovered.

reminds me of one of my english literature professors at college, a young keralite.

he believed in the absurd theatre and other existentialist theories. he was also a very silent philosopher (i still suspect he is also a poet), and i would not be surprised if, in his student days or later, he had ever been involved in one of the communist/trade union-strikes that so much form the essence of kerala.

one day, he threw a vague question at the class even as he entered, and the suddenness of that question was perhaps not as surprising as the equally quick (and correct!) response that came flying from the far left corner of the classroom. mine.

the soul of music, is silence.

August 2, 2003

bisi bele bhath

40 minutes is all you need to make this spicy and nutritious-rice dish. having browsed through three or four online recipes for the same, i worked out the easiest method and it turns better everytime!

since i’m used to making this for just praveen and me, i’ll list the ingredients below to serve two or three people.

3/4th cup – rice
1/4th cup – tur dal
two cups water
one cup vegetables sliced, long pieces as for pulau – beans, carrots, potatoes, peas or green pepper (simla mirch). the more the vegetables, the tastier the rice.
two tbsp sambar powder
two tbsp oil for seasoning (mustard and cumin seeds, dry red chillies, hing and cury leaves)
half tsp each turmeric and chilli powder
one spoon concentrated tamarind paste
salt to taste.

— wash the rice and dal together, add double the quantity of water along with turmeric, sambar and chilli powder and and pressure-cook until done.
— slice the veggies in the meantime
— heat oil in a kadhai and season with mustard and cumin seeds, one or two dry red chillies, curry leaves and hing
— add the sliced vegetables and stir-fry on high heat until they break easily. DO NOT however try breaking all of them!
— add the cooked veggies to the rice and dal in the pressure cooker and mix well. never mind if the rice gets mashed easily.
— dilute the tamarind paste in quarter-cup water and add to the mixture
— cover and cook on low heat so the tamirind is absorbed well into the rice.
serve hot with thick curd and pappadum 🙂

there are many variations to preparing this dish. in karnataka where this dish originates from, i think they also add avarekkai seeds. i don’t know what they are called in english but will find out soon enough!

anyway, i enjoy making this since it’s praveen’s favourite rice-dish. you let me know if you like it too 🙂

daughter’s daughter

dinu and i have just discovered about father’s first wife. that dinu is her child is a fact that both she and i still hold wonderingly like a glass marble. then we rotate it, and pocket it once again… – mrinal pande, from the story abdullah.

life-like and very visual, mrinal pande’s childhood narratives even reminded me of a few of my own. the author comfortably takes you through her experiences growing up as a girl among her many cousins, most of them boys…and the differences in their lives just because she’s a daughter’s daughter. the wars among the cousins, the superstitions she does not understand, her fears on understanding that her only dear sister is her step-sister, the loving servant in her grandmother’s family are all innocent funny, gripping, and likeable experiences that are sure to strike a cord somewhere in you.

mrinal pande is known for her bi-lingual literary activities in india and a television personality.

more stories by mrinal pande:

August 1, 2003

the quilt and other stories

everybody knows its wicked, but how delicious it is sometimes to steal a little something when no one’s looking… — ismat chughtai (1915-1991), from the story chhoti apa.

loveable, ticklish, yet very intelligent and mature; for the first time i’ve come across a writer whose style i can relate to, and so badly want to imitate.

ismat chughtai wrote at a time when women writers were under the purdah of society and tradition. she shot to fame and controversy with lihaaf (the quilt), where she cleverly narrates the story of a (sexual) relationship between two women, observed through the naive eyes of a child, not to forget, belonging to the times of pre-independant india.

also commendable is the translation from urdu by tahira naqvi and syeda s hameed.

more reading:

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