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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Birthday Celebrations: Then and Now

Our birthdays, or to put it technically correct, birth anniversaries (because everybody has only one birthday but several birth anniversaries) , are not celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, but according to Malayalam calendar. There are twelve months according to Malayalam calendar, too. The first month, Chingam, falls during August–September. Most of the occasions, such as birth or death anniversaries, are celebrated according to Malayalam stars (nakshatra). There are 27 stars. I was born on Karthika star of Karkatakam month (July–August).

There was nothing like a birth certificate those days. I don’t think we even used to inform the village/panchayat office of child births. When we were admitted to school, the date of birth as told by the parent at the school, five years after the birth of the child, became the date of birth on records. No birth certificate was required for admission to schools. So, difference of a few days was very common. The parents sometimes used to think a declare that the child was born 'three days after the temple festival was concluded', or 'eight or ten days after  my nephew got married'! It was then for the headmaster to calculate and arrive at some approximate date!

In my case the difference is only two days, but in my wife Jayasree’s case, the difference is five months! Not only date of birth, every other details were registered as informed verbally by the person who takes the child to school for admission. For example, my elder brother, elder sister, and I were admitted to the school by our maternal uncle. He gave the house name as ‘Pothoppuram’ which has been recorded in the case of all of us. But my younger sister was taken to school by father for admission, and he gave the house name as ‘Thurakkoor’, which is the original name of our house. So while three of us belong to Pothoppuram house, our younger sister belongs to Thurakkoor house! (In villages in Kerala, each house has a name and is known by that name.) Those were the days when people trusted people. Now paper document is trusted, and not people or their words.

When I was six years

When I was a small boy I looked forward to my birthdays. The celebrations were never very elaborate. Occasionally we used to invite relatives who stayed nearby. These were not norms, but exceptions. The celebrations were more religious and ritualistic than social. (Now such occasions have gone two steps ahead from religious to social and further to commercial.) The concept of birthday gifts was non-existent and unheard of. The days were, however, festive, of course. One most enjoyable and welcome fact was, we did not have to go to school that day. Wow! What else do you need to celebrate the day! The next day, however, we had to give an application signed by parents telling that it was due to the child’s birthday that he/she had been absent the previous day. 

One important and essential custom was to go and pray at the family temple. We used to do special poojas (offerings) on that day such as paayasam (cooked rice mixed with melted jaggery). Special delicacies were prepared for lunch. Another important feature was we would have chor (water-drained rice) unlike normal days when we had porridge. (Mind you, our porridge had no similarity with Wikipedia’s porridge. Ours was rice cooked in a lot of water. We used to consume the rice and water together.)

At lunch time, the birthday boy sits cross-legged on the floor preferably facing east. A plantain leaf is kept in front of him on which the feast would be served. A lighted oil lamp (the religious type – nilavilakku in Malayalam) is kept in front of him. The lamp represents Lord Ganesh. Between the lamp and the plantain leaf, another smaller plantain leaf is placed in perpendicular to the other leaf. This is for the Lord. Each item of the feast is first served to Lord Ganesh, and then to the birth day boy. It is believed that the Lord accepts and consumes the feast.

When I am (nearly) 60 years

After shifting to Delhi, these rituals became things of the past. I usually did not even remember my birthdays. Mother used to write that my birthday (the Malayalam date) falls (or fell) on so and so date.  Later when mother shifted to Delhi with me, she used to remind me every year. We together used to go to the temple for darshan. Then my marriage happened and Jayasree too started keeping account of the dates. But there were no celebrations as such. The maximum we did was to go to the temple and pray and have some offerings. In the evenings (because usually birthdays fall on working days) Jayasree used to make paayasam. That is all. No cake-cutting, no ‘happy birthday to you’s. No parties, candle-light or whatever.

Our children’s birthdays were, however, different when they were young. At home sometimes their friends were invited. We used to have small parties where cake was cut. In school it was kind of mandatory to celebrate. They used to wear civil dress (they were exempt from wearing uniform that day). They were also supposed to give gifts to the class teacher and all class mates. Initially it used to be toffees, which later graduated to pens and other items. A few months ago it was reported in newspapers (I read the Times of India, New Delhi) that now teachers are given large colour TVs, DVDs, high-end mobile phones, I-phones, and other costly electronic items, and even tickets for foreign trips, etc. by some parents!

How the time has changed! I have never given any gift to any teacher, nor did any teacher expect any. That concept was unheard of and unthinkable during my school days. The teacher–student relation then was cordial, respectful, and almost similar to relations between parents and children. The pupils respected and loved their teachers like their own parents and the teachers loved the pupils like their own children. The teachers’ only expectation from pupils was high marks in examinations, and not foreign trips or colour TVs! Every field, every institution, and every mind has since been commercialized. What a tragedy!

My birthday this month

My birthday this year was, however, different. The basic reason is that I am working with Niyogi Books. I have very cordial and good colleagues here. Another reason was that most of them are Bengalis and they look for the slightest pretext to have parties. (They themselves admit that Bengalis are ‘foodies’.) So I deliberately remembered my birthday this year, and treated them to snacks. For this I requested the help of Mr Nandy who is an expert in arranging parties. If Mr Nandy is not present (he goes on tour frequently) and if we had to organise a party, we are nearly lost. (These days, of course, Shaurya and Siddhartha have been trying to fill the gap.) I treated them a day in advance because that was Shiny’s last day at Niyogi Books.

The next day my editorial colleagues surprised me by organising a bigger party to wish me a ‘happy birthday’. Also, Shaurya gifted me with a biography of S. Balachander written by Vikram Sampath. Shaurya, himself a published poet, wrote a poem for me in the book. Even at the fear of being accused of self-glorification, I dare reproduce the poem here. Take the poem with not one, but several pinches of salt. If two people are in romantic relation with each other, they see only the good part of the other. The same happens with somebody you appreciate, respect, or even follow (for example, political leaders). And if you hate somebody, you see only the bad part of him or her (like the opposition and ruling parties). It is human nature.

I thank Shaurya and other colleagues for the affection they have shown to me.

Joyful by nature, quiet in his demeanor
An intelligent man with an observant eye
You are someone whose qualities I admire
Always staying calm, whatever the situation or hour
Noise all round rarely disturbs you
Times ticks by but you seldom stop working
Having biscuits, lunch and dalia in the evening
A sincere person with integrity and words few
Never ever refusing to help, a genuine human being
Prose, poetry, editing or indexing, your work speaks for you
King of your clan, we all wish a happy birthday to you

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Split Personality

[When I watch the climax in most of the films I used to wonder, ‘How is it that the villain, who had been extremely cruel till the previous scene, has suddenly become a symbol of all simplicity, all goodness when he was about to die from the shot he received from the hero?’ He starts begging pardon from all the people (usually all the important characters in the movie are present at this scene). But is it possible for such a sudden change to take place in real life? The following real story shows it is (names have been changed, though). Read another similar story here – The Felling Knife]

Sudhakar was a very energetic, wobbly youngster who always laughed very loudly. If he was not laughing, then he was smiling or talking. He vibrated a huge amount of energy all around. Wherever he went people wanted to follow him possibly due to the positive energy and the fragrance of happiness he spread all around him wherever he goes. The office woke up the moment he arrived (and slept when he left). Everybody, starting from the top management to the peons, loved him, no, adored him. Nobody has ever seen him angry or upset or sad. If he was, by chance, he managed successfully to hide it. He vibrated a lot of positive energy, happiness, and enthusiasm to anybody who came in contact with him. Even those who met him for the first time were influenced by him.

He was in the front row of any activity in the office, whether it is cultural, literary, arts, or sports. Any activity will be incomplete without Sudhakar’s presence. When we started a Table Tennis club, as usual, he was in front of it. He was with the group for everything such as organising meetings, researching for the most suitable items, bargaining, purchasing, and so on. He was also in the forefront in using such facilities, too. It was a beauty watching him playing Table Tennis. After every shot he laughed loudly. Even when he lost a point or the game or even the match, he laughed. He was activity, energy, enthusiasm, and happiness epitomized.

It was during one of those days that a new member of the staff joined, a girl by the name Rose. She was young, active, and had the air of coming from a high class society. She certainly did not have the look of a model or an actress, but, yes, she was not bad to look at. She considered the lower staff with contempt and did not even look at them. She poked her nose into everything the elite staff in the office did. She was not an exemplary worker, but a good one. Moving around with the senior staff, she, though a junior, considered equal to them. Her ego was a lot more than her own size.

Sudhakar and Rose worked together in a project. Sudhakar got slowly attracted to her. He began to kind of stalk her, because she did not respond positively. But she did not care. She ignored him. She tried to avoid him as much as possible. But love is blind. A lover will not see, hear, or notice what he/she does not want to. Her open behaviour was, probably mistaken by Sudhakar as her consideration for him. But he did not, or did not want to, realise that she openly behaved with others too. Another unfortunate fact was that Sudhakar did not know that Rose was seeing somebody since the past few years. In a few months they would be engaged.

One day Sudhakar pleaded with her to reciprocate his feelings towards her. He openly said he loved her and wanted to marry her. This was done in the quite corner of the library when nobody was around. Rose, however, flared up and shouted at him. Her raised voice attracted other colleagues and they immediately rushed to the library.  She abused, insulted, and poo-pooed Sudhakar in front of other colleagues.

Everybody was shocked at her unexpected behaviour. If she was in relation with somebody else, she could have told him that more gently. It was only during her flare-up that many people knew about her already existing relationship. Sudhakar did not utter even a single word. He was aghast at the sudden turn of events. He had no idea about her other relationship. It was true that she had not shown any interest in him. But his feelings towards her were so strong that he ignored that fact.

Sudhakar was on leave for several days after that. When he returned to office later he was a completely changed man. He had lost all qualities of his previous self. He had forgotten to laugh or even smile. He was always gloomy. He did not give face to his colleagues. He stopped coming out of his room except when it is absolutely necessary. He stopped playing Table Tennis. He stopped mingling with people. He stopped taking part in any activity in the office. In place of the very strong positive energy that he used to vibrate in the past, he started vibrating negative energy. Nobody could believe that this was the same Sudhakar who was a phenomenon and was loved by everybody.

Rose left the office once the project, in which she had been working, got over. She married her boyfriend in due course. Sudhakar, too, got married after a few years and is living with his family. The earlier Sudhakar never returned. It is only the new Sudhakar, who, as years went by, learnt to live in the present and has recovered to a great extent from the shock. But still, he is only a shadow of his former self.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

A Scene from MB Road

The time was evening
The day was Thursday
The venue was MB road
The road was crowded
The traffic was heavy

The car was new
And was pushed
By a girl and a man
The driver sat on his seat
A lady walked along
Two bags in her hand

Cyclists overtook the car
Bullock carts rode past
Pedestrians enjoyed the scene
A rare sight indeed!

Smiles were all around
At the entertaining sight

It is not every day
That one gets to see
A girl pushing a car
With a man inside

She was smiling and laughing
Enjoying the fun to the core

Fast moving vehicles
Cars, bikes, and buses
Cursed the obstruction
What a nuisance!

I would have enjoyed the scene, too
On any normal day, time, or venue
But not that day
Not that time
Because ...

Because ...

The man was Nandy
The lady was Mohua
The girl was Shiny
The driver was I
And …
The car was mine

Monday, 15 July 2013

Don’t Tell the Boss

‘Don’t tell the boss’, he told me
‘Let this be a little secret
Between you and me’
He said in a hush-hush voice

I looked at him and asked
‘What is the little secret?’

He said, ‘There is a small scratch
In the middle of the mirror
Don’t tell this to your boss,
Let it remain between us.’

He had just replaced
The broken rear-view mirror in my car

The car belongs to me
And there is no boss
(Except my wife, of course!)

I asked him, in a hush-hush voice
‘But what if the boss comes to know?
He often drives the car himself.’

He thought for a moment, and smiled
He patted on my back and said,
‘Well, you know how to handle him
You must have done this earlier, too.
Those inflated bills for fuel …
And blown up bills for repairs …
O! Come on, you know how to handle it
Don’t you?’

I blushed, as if he just found out my secret
I smiled at him and nodded
‘All right, in case the boss finds out
I shall handle the situation’


I didn’t tell the ‘boss’
The little secret
She doesn’t drive the car
So she won’t know. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Story of the Felling Knife

[When I watch the climax in most of the films I wonder, ‘How is it that the villain, who had been extremely cruel till the previous scene, has suddenly become a symbol of all simplicity and all goodness when he is about to breath his last from the gun shot he received from the hero?’ He starts begging pardon from all the people (usually all the important characters in the movie are present in this scene). But is it possible for such a sudden change to take place in real life? The following incident shows it is.]

My father was a strict disciplinarian. He always used to hide his love and affection from us children in his mind and heart. This was probably due to the old belief that parents should be very strict so that children fear them. It was also believed that if only children feared their parents would they be disciplined. But father’s behaviour could also be because we did not belong to a very well-to-do family and hard times were more frequent than pleasant ones. Father was worried about our future. All this had made him very strict and, kind of, unapproachable to us. We used to be afraid of him, especially when he was in a bad mood. He used to be very aggressive then. He has never beaten us, but used to scold very sharply on occasions. When he was angry we tried to be as far away from him as possible.

One day, as usual, I returned home from school in the evening around five o’clock. Our classes used to be from 10 in the morning to 4 in the evening. When I reached home father had already left for doing pooja (worship) in a temple (for a salary). I found mother very agitated. One look at her face, and I knew that she had been weeping. Her eyes were red. Elder sister too was very silent and tensed. She too was sobbing. Something serious must have happened. I asked mother what was the matter. Initially she ignored my question.

But after some time she said, ‘When father returns, he will ask you about the small felling knife (vaakkathy in Malayalam). You don’t have to answer him. I shall respond.’

I immediately understood that the matter was far more serious than I had thought. Father must have been very aggressive, or else mother would never talk in this tone. After some time, when mother was a little more sober, I asked her what actually happened. I had to know.

She said, ‘The small felling knife is missing. For almost an hour before father’s departure to the temple, we searched for it. Father has blamed everybody for not keeping things in proper places. He was very angry. Bhadra [my elder sister] and I have been scolded very severely. Now it is your turn, when he returns.’

I was really scared. I know that when father gets terribly angry he loses control over himself. Not that he would physically harm us, but his anger was very frightening for us to face.

Seeing me upset mother said, ‘The small felling knife is on the wooden beam above the door in father’s room. He himself had kept it there several days ago when he wanted to open the metal can that he had fixed there.’ 

Father had fixed a small metal can on the wooden beam with nails. This can was used to drop coins into it. It was fixed in such a way that you could only drop coins into it. You cannot take those out. If you want to take out the coins, you need to remove the nails and then the can itself. When father was in need of some money a few weeks ago, he had opened the can using the small felling knife and had inadvertently left the tool back there.

The two hours that followed was full of tension for me and continuance of an ongoing tension for mother and sister. I feared the moment of father’s return. If I didn’t answer immediately on his asking he would get more upset. And mother had told me not to open my mouth at all.

Just as mother had predicted, the moment father entered, he asked, ‘Jayanthan, where is the small felling knife?’

I didn’t know what to do or say. Should I tell him that it is there on the beam in his room? Or should I …

Just then mother emerged from the kitchen. She said, ‘The small felling knife has been misplaced by you only. It is for you to search and find it out.’

This was totally unexpected. Father and I were completely taken aback. Mother had never, in my memory, talked in such a sharp and confronting manner to father. Father was truly shocked. He looked at her with disbelief and confusion. He realized that if mother said something with so much certainty, and with such sharpness, almost nearing vengeance, it could not be hollow words. Despite the occasional flare-ups, they loved and respected each other very much. [Please read another story regarding their love here.] Without uttering even a word he went to his room. Mother followed him.

She was not yet in a mood to relent. She said, ‘You had used it last and not by any of us. You can search and find it out.’

And she went to the kitchen leaving father in complete shock and disarray.

It was only after an hour, when father had somewhat cooled, that mother went and told him where the tool was and how it reached there.

Father was silent for a long time. He had thought that he was not the one to make mistakes. If a mistake had been done, it had to be committed by someone else. I dare say most of us have this tendency ­– to believe that we are perfect, none else is.

I stole a few glances at him from the other room very discreetly. I found him very thoughtful and in a pitiable condition. I could not then understand the changes that were taking place in his mind, behaviour, and character during those very moments. I am sure he must have relived the last few hours several times and blamed himself for being so unreasonable to mother and sister.

After that day I have never, ever found father angry or shouting till he breathed his last, several years later. His attitude had completely changed so much so that we used to wonder where this face of his had been hidden so far and where the familiar face had vanished. He became sober and softer. He also started expressing his love and affection to us. He started laughing more. He even started cracking jokes! It looked like as if we had got a new loving, caring, father and the previous one had gone away somewhere never to return. The change was unexpected, born from a very sad event, but welcome and wonderful!

Yes, events of a moment can change one’s attitude completely and permanently.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Queen, the Jester, and the Joke

The queen was gloomy. The king was worried.

The palace jester was immediately summoned. He was ordered to cheer up the queen. That was his duty – to keep everybody in the royal family always in good spirits.

He tried his usual tricks such as imitating actions of the monkey, the donkey, and then the sounds of animals and birds. He tried several mimics to cheer up the queen or at least to make her smile. But nothing worked. The queen did not even look at him. When the jester felt he was at his wits’ end, the king ordered him to crack jokes. The jester had a large stock of jokes for all occasions.

One by one he started telling the jokes. He started with one-liners, slightly longer ones, and then even stories. The queen seemed to listen to him, but the gloomy attitude didn’t vanish. In normal situations, the queen would have burst out laughing hearing the jokes. But nothing worked this time. The jester then started telling some funny definitions. The first one was of a speech.

The jester said, ‘This is the definition of a speech. An effective speech should be like a mini skirt – long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to keep the interest.’

As soon as he finished, the queen, who till now was completely silent, flared up. 

She thundered, ‘What do you mean? You are insulting me. You are insulting the whole womanhood by such sexist remarks. And you call it a joke? If you do such things again, you will not live to regret it.’

Though the jester was slightly relieved that the queen talked, he shuddered at her sudden outburst. He prostrated before her and apologised. He pleaded for his life. The queen slowly cooled down. Hesitantly he started telling more jokes, but very carefully this time. The queen had, however, gone back to her original state of mind and reaction. After each joke she looked at him, but not even smiled.

The jester then began to create new jokes. He told the story of an official in the kingdom who used to be very corrupt. He told the story in such a way that the official justified each of his corrupt action.  The sarcastic way in which he told the story would have made the queen laugh in normal times. But not this time.

After hearing about half the story she said, ‘Stop.’

He stopped immediately.

The queen said, ‘This is like an academic speech. I don’t want to hear a speech. Let the bureaucrats listen to this, not me. Do you have more jokes, man, jokes?’

The jester was at a loss to understand how the satirical story he told can be called an academic speech. Maybe his understanding of ‘academic’ differs from the queen’s. But he didn’t want to counter the queen, lest his head rolls on the floor.

The jester was completely lost. He has tried everything under his power and knowledge to change the mood of the queen, but had not succeeded. He could see the end of his career. If the queen’s mood didn’t change, he would lose his job as the palace jester. He might even lose his life for this failure of his.

He remembered his wife and children. He prayed to God to save him from the king’s wrath. He then decided to take the biggest risk of his life.

As a last resort, he thought he would tell something serious, so that he would either succeed or see the end of his career and life. He had no alternative, having come to the end of all his tricks and jokes.

He said, ‘Your Royal Highness, you are the best listener of jokes I have ever seen since I started telling jokes several years ago. You understand and enjoy my jokes better than anybody else in the whole world.’

The queen suddenly turned and looked at him and ordered him to repeat what he just said.

He repeated slowly and clearly convinced that these would probably be his last words, ‘Your Royal Highness, you are the best listener of jokes I have ever seen since I started telling jokes several years ago. You understand and enjoy my jokes better than anybody else in the whole world.’

The queen burst out laughing, ‘Ha, Ha, Ha, … He, He, He, … Ho, Ho, Ho’.

She could not stop her laugh or control herself. She went on laughing for several minutes, repeating a few times amidst her laughter, ‘I am the ... best listener … I enjoy ... jokes best … What a joke! Ha, Ha,  ... He, He, ... Ho, Ho ....’

The jester did not know what to do. He did not understand why the queen suddenly burst out laughing. He did not tell a joke. He still feared the worst. He thought that once her laugh was over, she would immediately shout,

‘Who goes there?’

The question did not reverberate in his mind, but came from the queen.

Immediately a solder with a sword hanging from his hip and a spear in his hand appeared and bowed before the queen.

The jester knelt in front of the queen and closed his eyes. Here comes the last moment of his life. He could see and hear in his mind the queen ordering the soldier to behead him. He thought he could see the glittering sword and hear the sharp sweesh sound as it approached his neck with lightening speed to cut off his head.

He offered his last prayers, ‘O, God! Please take care of my wife and children!’

Then he heard the queen’s voice, ‘Ask the treasurer to give thousand gold coins to the jester.’

Confused and bewildered, the jester slowly raised his head and looked up. The queen still had a smile on her lips. Her gloomy attitude had given way to a pleasant expression.

‘Is it true?’ he wondered.

The queen asked him to go with the soldier. He slowly stood up and left along with the soldier, after taking respectful leave of the queen.

Once outside the room, the soldier asked the jester, ‘Thousand gold coins is a big amount. What did you tell the queen to make her so happy?’

The jester said, ‘I am asking the question myself. I shall tell you if and when I find out the answer.’