Saturday, November 14, 2009


Vadivu sniffed the air, something was not right. And whatever was not right, was attracting her irresistibly. Something rose deep within her, almost like the rush she felt at nights with her husband. But this was different. She sniffed deeply again, inhaling fully and the scent left her before she could completely explore it. Dropping the basket she was carting she stepped back a few paces and looked around. Just another normal day. And no one had time to notice a low-caste woman who carried excreta away. In a back alley of all places. Untying her saree’s loose end to fan herself in the hopes of trapping the scent within its folds she inhaled again in quick short bursts this time. And it hit her. The most blissful divine scent. Definitely masculine, full bodied, rich dark and enticing beyond rapture.

Dhanammal wished the tonga would move faster. It was hot and she dare not uncover her face lest any man set sight upon her. Her mother-in-law sat next to her and her husband Thannilaipadi Narayanaswami, in front of them. She was new to Madras and the sights and sounds awed her and scared her at the same time. Narayanaswami worked for the East India Company. It was a prestigious position and he often reminded Dhanammal of his importance by unleashing English words at home. Sometimes in passion, sometimes in fury, sometimes in boredom. Many of his words were poorly pronounced, some bizarre to the point of offense but the illiterate Dhanammal had no way of knowing his folly.

The tonga stalled. Apparently there was some commotion in the road ahead. Narayanaswami got down to investigate. As they sweated it out in the blazing midday sun, Dhanammal smelt it. Her first reaction was to turn up her nose at what she perceived as an alien stench. Then a curious secondary sniff and the slow realization that she was smelling something new, something different. She turned to see if her mother noticed anything, but Periya Meenakshiamma was asleep, her drool coating the edge of her widow’s saree, her tonsured scalp sweating freely. Slowly she raised her head out of her veil. She turned around to the source and saw an Englishman’s mansion. And amidst the noise and stench of the city, amidst the perspiration of a hundred men, the distinct flavor wafted to her. “Like Radha to Krishna” she thought. Several well dressed men and women were seated around tables. Just as the tonga lurched, she saw a dirty ragged half caste woman sniff the air vigorously. Dhanammal felt sick to her stomach and retreated in the veil again, content to sniff the diluted scent that spinned her head.

The incident was a few months ago. Deepawali had come and gone and the winter chill was upon them. “Ice falls in England. Ice katti. brrr” Narayanaswami shivered one particularly cold day, refusing his cup of buttermilk that Dhanammal had churned for him. The couple had settled down in Madras in a tiny house near kotai. Dhanammal had busied herself in domestication while Periya Meenakshiammal acted supervisor tut-tutting her disapproval more often than not. Come margazhi and Dhanammal requested her husband to take her to see the magnificent Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore. Now and then Dhanammal would recall the day she smelt ‘that’ but she never whiffed it on any of the innumerable trips she made to Mylapore. At the temple market she kept herself unnaturally aware of her surroundings and yet she never whiffed that scent. It must have been magic, or the heat she thought to herself. Yes the heat.

Narayanaswami was deferential to his bosses at work and played the role of a subservient dull clerk to boot. He befriended no one from his office preferring to rush home and immerse himself in brahminical rituals of yore. Occasionally Dhanammal would sing to him what she had learnt in her childhood. A mixed bag of bhajans, prayers and the occasional keerthanai. She would often try to impress him with a Dikshitar krithi (to whom Narayanaswami was partial as he claimed descent from the composer) but failed miserably. Life went moved on in the slow sedate way that urbanity sometimes brings.

To be continued…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mee Marathi

For someone who has grown up speaking Marathi, the whole mee Marathi thing seems a little jaded. Even since Raj Thakeray went from being a on the sidelines to a politician of prominence the debate has raged endlessly; to Maharashtrianize or not that is the question.

And I have no easy answer. I have found myself vociferously opposing the man’s strategies and vehemently endorsing what he says at times. Maybe it is the Marathi boy in me speaking, maybe this is what philosophers call ‘rationale’. I do not know, but the Marathi issue is too close a topic to the heart to not talk about or to brush under the carpet.

Mrs. Pawar was my first link to the Marathi world, a burly woman, she babysat me till while my parents went off to work . It was at her place that I took my toddler steps and ate varan-bhat. I learnt to cuss in the way to school sharing meager space in an autorickshaw with seven other kids. I learnt to read at tuition classes (Mrs. Koregaonkar, who prayed to all the Gods in the pantheon for my passing) and learnt the ‘gavthi’ accent from our bai. I have more friends to whom I speak the language than I care to admit, and have sighed endlessly over ‘davya dolyavar vat’ all the time maintaining my innocence with a studied ‘khara ki!’.

The charm of Marathi is lost in Mumbai people will moan but ask anyone to speak hindi and the words will be littered with offerings form Marathi. Scores of words I use to express myself in lose their beauty in sore translation. How can one explain to a non Maharashtrian what ‘halkat’ is. Or when someone is being a ‘bawlat’. Or what the meaning of ‘maaz’ actually is? To date I call the potato batata and onion kanda regardless of the language I speak in. And what can replace the mellifluousness of a sighing heart, lost in its sweet nothings of ‘premat padloy’. The exclamation ‘haila’ (immortalized by a Mr Tendulkar) to a coy ‘laaz’ and the versatile ‘ai gaa’.

You can take sides all you want, I am content sitting on the fence here. Or maybe even on the other side, where comfort takes precedence over language and words are no longer hindered by thoughts. It is not years of schooling that have made me Marathi, neither is it long nights of mugging up textbooks. Belonging doesn’t stem from laughing helplessly over PL Deshpande’s works or from sipping the perfect solkadhi. I can live in the USA, consume mounds of rice drenched in rasam but when the going gets tough I sigh a fortituous ‘sagla bara hoil’ and that’s really all it is to it.



gavthi: pertaining to the country, rural

davya dolyavar vat : curl of hair over the right eye, line from a famous song

khara ki: really?

halakt: a man of loose morals

bawlat: irksome, troublesome? I cannot find an exact meaning, peevish maybe?

maaz: charbi(Hindi), kozhupu(Tamil)

premat padloy: fallen in love

haila, ai gaa: exclamations!

laaz: shame, blush

solkadhi: a Konkani dal with kokum in it, is simply awesome

sagla bara hoil: all will be well

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pithy prose

I am never too enthused about grammar. There are those who ponder for hours thinking if a participle must be gerunded or if the adjective clause satisfies causal requirements for it to be one. I am not one of those. In fact grammar can go take a hike as far as I am concerned. This is not to say that I sentences constructs this like, but that as long as I can get my information across I am good.

Clauses and the like only serve to confuse the already bewildered writer, who has reached this state of bewilderment because of the many eccentricities that bedevil this English language. Anyone can attest to the fact that English is a minefield of traps of various forms, and the unwary are often causalities in its complex constructs.

Although in hindsight, professing to write without heed to grammar is like attempting to sing without following a raga, ie. Simply noise. A friend of mine, a grammar nazi, spends all his free time hacking away my beautiful prose with the axe of grammar and punctuation. I call my prose beautiful only because after all the grammar bashing I was left drained and my self confidence languished below a heap of incorrectly used adverbs.

Spellings are another grey area, or is it a gray area? I know not, but my friend the spell check that Microsoft so kindly provides wildly gesticulates with red undulating waves and lets me know of lexical malapropisms among other things. It also fancies itself by neatly underlining all of my prose with green waves. Apparently this signals bad bad grammar. Wren and Martin (who are to English Grammar what Rakhi Sawant is to the Indian Media) would frown with extreme displeasure.

Perhaps I must take to writing in French, although I am entirely unsure how the French would react to moi butchering through their pretty cedillas and cute accents. Also if memory serves right French objects carry genders, rather all objects when referred to in French, must be addressed respectfully by a gender, failure of complying to which leads to a report of sexual abuse and a stint in the prison linguistique in Montreal.

Which is when I realize the versatility, beauty and brilliance of ‘it’. It effectively desexualizes any lingering masculinity or femininity in objects and clears our obfuscation in addressing things. It also lets you insult subtly a male or female by referring to them as such thereby effectively rendering genderless (Although some species of homo sapiens may be too dense to get the intricacies of this, in order to insult them, just slap them. Once should do the trick).

Rambling along and ranting about positives and negatives has made me weary and wise

Off I go with the rest of my damaged poise

All of this dear reader isn’t just noise

I shall post regularly or may the Gods smite my voice.

PS: Apologies for the absence, and failure to reply to previous posts.

Regular programming hopefully resumes.