Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Origin


"So where did we come from?" I asked. And my grandmother gave me the old Iyer lady’s equivalent of a finger, proceeding to slurp her rasam with sudden gusto. Appa looked pointedly away at a spot on the wall, concentrating suddenly on it. For a family obsessed with its Iyer ness this was definitely off-beat. No one would admit how and when it happened, but it did. And its repercussions were felt even today in the later generations.

Like most protagonists of a certain age I had delved deeply into my family’s history and discovered certain truths, which no one was willing to explain. My parents are very liberal and open minded with regard to love marriages, as long as it is not me who is doing the loving. Somehow my grandmother and mother seem to harbor the notion that I am a stud-muffin of gargantuan proportions and that some harlot will seduce me into marrying her and swapping bodily fluids with her (probably just one point where mother-in-law and daughter-in-law agree, but I digress). So when I led a long and mostly inconclusive argument about our origins and trying to figure out if anyone had transgressed the noble traditions of arranged marriage within my family I stumbled upon it. The more I thought the more evidence I got. People, places, names, phrases, why even the Gods that adorned our pooja-room.

We have Telugu blood in our family I concluded. So did anyone in last century elope? I asked my grandmother and she shuddered. Did we have arranged marriage with other linguistic groups. I asked in chaste Marathi and Appa admonished me likewise, in unchaste Marathi. Mind your language Appa, but pray tell me how did this happen? No one, all arranged marriage only and grandma closed the topic with her air of finality.

As I staggered with my new found knowledge I looked for support. Evidence apparently didn’t count for enough. Our ancestral village was Anantapur AP, within its’ very heart. Far away from the Kaveri or any other water body associated with Tamizhness. Our clan-deity, Tirupati. All the ancestral property we would have had but for evil zamindars (this is often used to reiterate the supposed greatness of our lineage) was in what is present day Chitoor. But the one thing that clinches it: eat my grandmother’s thakkali thokku without steam emanating from your ears or sweat drenching your face. So I went from family member to family member in vain hopes of getting a past legitimate “love-marriage” so that I could now pursue my Assamese love with zeal and woo her.

“Telugu-Tamil all are same pa no difference” Ramudu mama said, licking avakka pickle off his fingers.

“In days of yore, everywhere south was Madras presidency; you don’t know anything about that” Shanta maami screamed taking a break from watching Gemini TV.

“Didn’t you learn Carnatic music, you numbskull, similar culture. All arranged” Subudu periapppa reiterated all the while tracking constituency boundaries across Telengana.

“No we aren’t Telugu, don’t get ideas in your head” Savitri chitti said, going off to fight with her borthers over a paddy field in Guntur.

“Lite teesko da” said my cousin smirking at my futile attempts.

I have decided. I shall woo my girl in Assamese style. I shall sing Bengali love songs from Charulata to her. I shall quench her thirst with tall glasses of lassi, feed her undhiyu and dance the lavni with her. We will ring in vishu and she shall pray for my long lasting life keeping vraths on karva chauth.

Jai hind!

Offence takers: Don’t take offence. No slights to Telugus (I am partly one). Or anyone else for that matter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pohe


part 1 here

The following days saw a blur of people in Jag Jivan nagar. Sadhus, Mendicants and sahib’s men always, conferring, and plotting. The dattatrey temple that was the focus of the community was abuzz with talk of the next miracle and what the future portended. Men and women held forth on the significance of the God’s appearance at their humble abode. Every Friday evening as the suburban week drew to a close a small respite would be provided to the slum’s residents too. It was movie night. Every week, a movie would be screened at the ground where everyone gathered to worship their screen Gods. This week saw the screening of “ Jai Shakumbhari Ma” (The goddess of vegetables and fruits), a potboiler featuring the right mix of sex and devotion, each facet carefully existing in its own domain designed to please the masses with their equally strong appeal. After the short movie all the week’s happenings were neatly encapsulated by one of sahib’s more talkative men. He also promised a ‘happening’ and of a sacrifice needed to be made to appease the God (Ramlal, who owned two goats involuntarily shuddered).

Sunday in the slum was cricket day. Kids would crown around the ground where the teens played. Competition was fierce and most men dropped in to watch, reading newspapers, squatting to shit, making deals or simply wiling time away. Teams were a mix of both religions for obvious reasons as decreed by the slumlords. Apart from that all other rules were flexible. It was a community gathering of sorts with women sending over their meager fare to each other and a general feeling of Goan sosegado settled over the huts. A week after Sakhubai’s find however, the Sunday routine was interrupted.

“A right trunked Ganpati is not a coincidence and he needs to be appeased sufficiently so as to not incur his wrath” screamed the mendicant cutting a resplendent picture in his saffron robes and all his paraphernalia. The sahib was there too, listening respectfully. Most of the slum dwellers were from Konkan and Ganpati figured high in their priorities of life. All listened agog. A few more minutes of religious preaching later Saheb took over. He was gifted as a speaker, that’s what got him votes twice every decade. As Saheb spoke, the entire populace seemed to be under his spell, his words exhorting them, pleading with them and beseeching them. He would speak in their rustic dialect of Marathi, suddenly switching to high poetic language. He would crack jokes in hindi and come back to pray in Marathi and as he spoke he cleverly wove the words in. For the Right facing god, of righteousness as a blessing and a sacrifice he asked for them to give up their houses.

Most would have been stunned but his entreating baritone kept them riveted. As an atonement for their, nay his and their sins. It was simple. All they had to do was to move to the ‘right’ side of the slum the green side, the other side. At this the slum erupted. And it took all of the man’s efforts to keep the audience calm. Sahib effortlessly fielded questions and arguments. It was the same slum, just the other side. He would build a new temple there apart from the one here. No, no communal violence would be involved. In fact moving to the other side, he guaranteed legitimizing the slums. No Khairnar would come rumbling at odd hours to grind their dwellings to dust. Children would have a proper address to write on their letters. No it wasn’t possible to legitimize this side of the slum because the land was already owned by some organization.

The promise of legitimate housing, with the religious lure of doing the right thing was slowly turning the residents around. What of Salim Khan? The mafia lord who held sway over the Muslim half of the slum? Salim Khan was in fact at that very moment convincing the other half of the slum to move to the left side. Nothing would change he assured his people and his men would make sure everyone moved into huts which were of the same size, no one would be cheated and certainly no one would get an advantage. The slum would remain the same, the people same only saffron and green would diffuse and seep to the other sides. Smoothly. The current Hindu side was owned by Asra Inc, who had decided to donate the land as zakat by its righteous chairman, Mr Salil Quereshi. Legitimizing homes for them there would be no problem. A new mosque would be built and the current one would continue to function too.

The next week was a frenzied sequence of days, nights and noons all marked with discussions. Sahib threw open his home for harried families, they were welcome to drop in any time they desired to talk. His wife was there too gently talking, making things clearer. More importantly they welcomed guests with food and beverages. Saheb himself opened casks of ‘imported daaru’ for the more rambunctious men at night. Tai attended all night sessions convincing the ladies to move, home hearth et all. Salim Khan on the other side spent an equally hectic week doing the same. Slowly even the inflexible relented and the great move started.

It happened in phases, and henchmen were always available to carry across meager possessions. As the populace settled in each was given a token sum of Rs 51/- and a document with the person’s name stating that the legalization process was started. Over two weeks Jag Jivan nagar frothed, fermented, moved, restlessly mingled and resettled. Small disturbances did occur, and fights broke out but were diffused in minutes. Sahib was always there pulling strings and occasionally dealing a stern hand, smiling, scolding and making the move possible. Ramlal the goat owner was discovered to have two establishments, both with 4 children each as the wives proceeded to battle it out for the bigger house. Apart from the catfight and the entertainment it had provided the moving was mostly smooth.

Sakhubai woke up to the cawing of crows just as dawn was breaking. Forcing her arthritic joints into action she rushed to fill her lota to reach the loo before the men took over at seven. Ablutions over, she busied herself in making tea as Surekha came, empty lota wildly swinging. Both women sat to drink bitter tea, chewing on meager onion pohe and readying for the days travails. Not much had changed for them. Up above the slum, in his 14th floor apartment Saheb smiled as he drank his bitter tea. And as he breakfasted on pohe he allowed himself to smile. He had never believed the move to be possible but he had done it.

“Constitutional boundaries to change after 30 years” the newspapers had screamed and Saheb had nearly had a heart attack that day as he discovered that his part of Jag Jivan nagar would now go to Salim Khans constituency. A day of tense sweating and serious number crunching later he had decided that he could not afford to lose Jag Jivan Nagar. It was crucial to him and had single handedly sent him to the parliament five times. Sahib did not know the meaning of gerrymandering but he knew what it could do to him now. He needed to act and his mind was on overdrive, desperately looking for a solution. Money could be thrown but what could redraw constitutional borders? As he had pondered it one evening his maid Surekha, rushed out saying that some potato that was right-trunked had miraculously appeared in her neighbour Sakhubai’s house. That was all the push his maverick mind had needed.


The move secured Saheb’s vote bank and sent him thumping into the parliament for a sixth time.

The title is because Chai and Pohe are the typical maharashtrian breakfast, transcending all barriers of class and religion. I could imagine both Saheb and Sakhubai partaking of it.

Kindly bear with my attempt to make a story of a flimsy idea. I haven’t executed it to my satisfaction and excuse any errors. Do be amazed though. Anything is possible in India.

And as for the potato, it carefully rested in a wooden casket, on a velvet sheet and surrounded by incense, in Fatima Bibi’s house. Carefully hidden from outside in the folds of her muslin sarees where it seemed to relish the madness of human life teeming outside.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chai


Sakhubai almost tripped over it. She let out a small curse and looked down and at once she saw that it wasn’t a normal potato. It had a tiny protuberance the shape of a trunk. Turned neatly to the right. ”Ganpati Bappa Morya” she exclaimed loudly, hoped the lord hadn’t heard her cursing and rushed to her house all the while loudly exclaiming. The whole slum was within her house in minutes. A small pooja was immediately conducted to secure blessings and the shapely potato occupied centre stage in her modest hut, appropriately anointed with sandal, kumkum and strewn with flowers. A small trickle of people portly women were praying devoutly. The appearance of a Ganesha provided for a much needed break in Jag Jivan nagar. The nearest festival was months away, the heat had already begun to stifle. For most denizens of this slum in north Mumbai, highs on the cruel plot of life were such, and interspersed amidst a grim, penurious existence.

Jag Jivan nagar was divided into two halves by a large gutter with one bridge. It wasn’t always like that but after the riots in 1993, the police, the politicians and the mafia lords had felt it prudent to divide so that trouble could be contained. One half became Hindu with a temple and a saffron flag atop it. The other half obviously was Muslim. Mosque, prayers, minarets, Id. The dividing gutter was a stinky black morass of plastic bags, human excreta and sewage from the apartment complexes around. It was also only during holi that the gutter actually saw secularism, its blackness lost in a sea of gulal and shimmering silver pellets. Most areas of Mumbai are similar in hiding a dank slum behind the glamorous fa├žade of sky scrapers. For every building sweeping cobwebs off the sky, a real cobweb of teeming enterprise and life existed. Vegetable vendors, domestic help, rickshawallahs and the mass of humans that made for the smooth running of suburban lives.

Fatima Bibi heard of the tuberous manifestation of God. It was time to pray Sakhubai a visit. She too worked as domestic help, as did most of the women in the slum. In a time polarized by religion Fatima was proof of blurring boundaries and mixing colours. Just to be safe though she would go in the night, in a saree. Just in case. With the elections in sight flare ups were common and deep down she felt the appearance of the potato wasn’t a mere accident. But Ganpati she prayed to. And she would go. It was dark when Fatima reached the other side. Slowly she crept up the lane and saw lengthy shadows outside. Shadows of Hindu caps and a trident even. She saw a typical profile and instantly slunk backwards. Saheb was visiting the Ganpati.

Saheb stood tall in his starched kurta, bowed down gently. He had heard of the miracle only some time ago, in his own land and one of his own people and had romptly rushed. A Ganpati with the trunk towards the right! As the evening shadows lengthened Saheb had arrived with his men all around. He looked grim, almost angry as he pushed his way through to Sakhubai’s hut. His wife, Tai was attired in all her Maharashtrian splendor and had an aarti plate with her. Husband wife made a great show of praying and devotion. At once led by his men a spirited rendition of the Ganpati aarti ensured. The spectacle of the Ganpati aarti in Maharashtra is not an ordinary one. The words and the tempo, along with cymbals clanging lend a spirit and a unique high. Ganpati ceases to be a pleasant benign God then, and at once becomes a terrifying avatar, a true destroyer of obstacles. A vanquisher of all evil. A beacon of hope from all dreariness and as suddenly after the crescendo, Sakhubai snapped out of the trance with the last few notes.

The next morning dawned muggy and pregnant. Sakhubai’s home no longer remained a home. It was thronging with people, Sahebs men. Why the Saheb himself had come to pay his respects. After the cursory aarti, he had even touched her feet. Asked for her blessings, she was destined for greatness one mentioned. Several praised her fates and cursed theirs. A right-trunked Ganpati is more demanding it was said. Mere poojas and aartis wouldn’t do many added. Sakhubai was mainly confused, scared and realized that the potato and God no longer figured in the scheme of things. Something greater was brewing.

to be continued…