Thursday, December 29, 2016

Perippa and Papaya

Many of my best childhood memories are based in Coimbatore. Riding doubles with cousins on a bicycle, the bright orange pink blossoms of the pomegranate trees, the bell sound on the temple elephant as it came parading down the street, the smell of ‘Adhirasams’ (literally meaning ‘most tasteful’, these were deep-fired patties of rice flour cooked in jaggery syrup) being fried. My father’s older brother (my Perippa) and sister lived on the same street and we visited Coimbatore almost every summer.
I always remember my Perippa  as being  tall, soft-spoken and mostly bald. He used to narrate the same stories from his youth over and over again, which we listened, as kids in awe and then as youngsters in skepticism.  One story stands out – My Perippa was getting ready to run an obstacle race in college. While he was paying attention to the instructions of the race, a co-student was styling his hair and looking around to ensure that the ladies were watching him. When the race started, the other student took the lead with Perippa close behind him.  They leaped across pits and climbed rope ladders and came to a hurdle that was meant to be jumped over.  But the other student, not paying enough attention to the instructions crawled under the hurdle and promptly got stuck. This story was repeated year after year with little embellishments here and there, mostly about the plight of the student stuck under the hurdle, enticing peals of laughter from everyone in the room. 
Perippa was a professor at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and rightfully had all 10 green fingers rather than just a green thumb. Every seed, sapling, cutting and root he planted thrived in the awesome Coimbatore weather. The house was surrounded by coconut palms, papaya trees, flowering trees and rose plants.  While neighbours  bought their rose plants from nurseries, planted them in terracotta pots and sprinkled ‘Stanes’ fertilizers to help them bloom, Perippa would simply plant a cutting in an old, washed out Palmolin can and the plant would flourish.  I remember him walking around the garden every morning, tending to the plants and picking flowers in a plastic basket for the daily pooja.  He would painstakingly pack rose and hibiscus cuttings, carefully wrapped in jute sack cloth for me to bring home.
Whenever he visited our home in Chennai, he would inspect our plants and give me tips on how to take care of them. He once pruned an overgrown rose bush in our home, down to just a few stems, much to my despair. But it was a lesson for me in the benefits of pruning when that plant was sprouting leaves in a week and was covered with buds and blossoms in a month.
Perippa is the reason I actually took an interest to watch ‘Vayalum Vazhvum’ (Fields and Life, a program geared towards farmers; He even featured on it once!) on Doordarshan and to read the agriculture section of The Hindu. I loved Botany, drew amazing pictures of  flowers, petals, sepals, pistil and stamen and would have gladly pursued the subject, if it was not accompanied Zoology all the time. I like to think that I got my green thumb from Perippa. I love the feel of soil in my hands and find a lot of pleasure in tending to my odd collection of house plants and yard plants, pruning the overgrowth, nipping dried flower stalks, taking cuttings and propagating new plants.
Perippa was very proud of the dwarf Papaya trees that he grew on the little strip of land on the side of his home that yielded fruit when the tree was just a few feet tall. He would come around with a plateful of cut fruit and try his best to get us kids to taste a piece. We would run away making puking noises. 
Now my grown up taste palette actually takes to Papaya. I remember my Perippa fondly every time I plant a cutting, prune a bush or like I did yesterday, cut into the orange pink flesh of a ripe Papaya.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Iron Man

No. Not referring to Robert Downey Jr.

I do iron a dress pant or kurti ever so often.  But last week I volunteered to iron two 10 feet wide circular table cloths for my daughter's school event.  The one hour literally broke my back and made me think of the iron men in my life.

The first iron man (iron wala or the 'isthri' guy) I knew was Sigaamani.  I remember him and his cart in the RBI quarters campus. There were been countless mornings before school when I would run to his cart with my crumpled white uniform shirt. Sigaamani would sprinkle some water on my shirt and proceed to smooth out the wrinkles.  I would watch as the water sizzled and the wrinkles on my shirt magically disappeared under the weight of the hot coal-filled iron box. I would walk home smelling the steam on my freshly pressed shirt. How he managed to iron garment after garment under the blazing Madras sun day after day, I will never know. Here I was nursing my sore back after just one hour.

When we moved into our new home, our new iron man whose name I don't know had a small hole in wall store at the end of our street.  My dad used to take the crumpled clothes in a bundle and bring them back in neat stacks, becoming very well acquainted with the iron man in the process. At some point we owned our own rust-orange colored iron box that I used to iron only the bottom twelve inches or so of my salwar (why iron the part that was going to be invisible under the kameez!) although a majority of my clothes were still made wrinkle-free by the iron man.

On the the evening of my wedding reception as I stood with my husband meeting and greeting friends and family, an elderly gentleman in a white shirt and dhoti walked towards us with a gift envelope. As he handed over the envelope to me, I was eager to introduce him to my husband but my memory completely failed me. I said to him - "I am sorry but I don't recognize you. Can you please tell me who you are?" He smiled shyly and said 'It's okay' and tried to walk away. But I was not one to let go easily and insisted that he tell me who he was. As he stood around looking trapped, my dad swooped in on the stage, put his arm around the man's shoulder and announced - "This here is my good friend". At that instance I remembered who he was and saw that his eyes were wet.

The last time I was in Chennai, I had the luxury of having my kurtis ironed by our iron man, the same one that my dad's gesture melted.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mighty School Paati

We called our Grandma, "School Paati". I don't remember how exactly she got this name but I believe my cousins who had two grandmothers decided to call her this because she was a school teacher. She was my maternal grandmother, the only grandparent I knew all my life.
Born on August 2nd, 1927, my grandma was the oldest of eight siblings. She was the smartest kid in school. I've heard stories of her teacher sending someone home asking her to come to class if she ever missed a day of school. When she was all of 16 years old, she was married off to her mother's uncle whose wife had just passed away leaving behind two young children. Overnight, she turned from school girl to wife and mother. The two children, who probably could not come to call their young cousin, 'Amma' - mother called her 'Akka' - older sister,instead, which they did all her life.
For the next eleven years, she was a dutiful wife bearing four children of her own, when at her age of 27, she lost her husband. Left alone to face the world with her kids, she managed to keep afloat with the help of her parents and the complete support of her eldest (step)son, who took up a job. She pursued and completed her S.S.L.C, and with her tailoring skills, landed a teacher's job at a government school. She also did a lot of tailoring for family and friends on the side to supplement her income. She ran a tight ship and watched her children grow, excel in studies and the arts, land jobs, get married and settle down in life. She retired from her teaching career when I was about 12.
School Paati loved to read and listen to Carnatic music. She would read 'The Hindu' cover to cover and was on top on everyday happenings. She would make time to go to music concerts and had a pocket transistor glued to her ear when she could not. She spent hours everyday doing various Poojas and reciting Slokas from memory. With the advent of cable TV, she watched multiple serials,cooking shows, news and religious channels often toggling between two channels and watching two shows at the same time. When she could no longer sit for long at live concerts, she started to look for concerts and recitals that had live webcasts and watched them at home on the computer. She most recently learnt to listen to streaming music on the iPad. She was ever curious, eager to adapt to new ways even while religiously following traditions.
I've always envied her memory power. She remembered names of companies where her grandchildren worked, of her children's and grand children's co-workers, friends, in-laws and neighbors, of television actors and actresses, of singers, the songs they performed and the Raagas of those songs. I've listened to her recite, when she was in her sixties,  'The Inchcape Rock" by Robert Southey, a poem that she memorized in third grade. She was constantly thinking and planning for the future, be it dinner plans for the night, a distant cousin's wedding over the weekend or a grandchild's visit the next month. Her brain was for ever processing 'what if' situations, most of which resulted in 'I told you so's.
School Paati took all that life had thrown at her in her stride and showed life who was boss. She was 87 when she passed away last Sunday, sitting up on the sofa, having dressed up and eaten her lunch all by herself, just as she had wished for. If at half her age, I have a tenth of her courage, determination, resilience, curiosity and her most admired memory, I will consider myself gifted,
Rest in Peace, School Paati.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Neighbor Good

Growing up, we lived next to some really nice folks. But the one family that we lived next to the longest during my childhood was the M akka family.  We were in G40 and they in G39 on the second floor. You might have as well called us G3940... the doors to both our homes were perpetually open.  I don't ever recall knocking on their door or ringing the door bell to get into their home. They were over at our place to watch the ever famous Oliyum OLiyum on Friday nights. We had a TV then and they did not.  And then we went over to watch the same program when they bought a color TV and ours was just a B&W. We bought our dining tables from the same store, ours a dull brown four seater and theirs an awesome pink six seater.  How I wished ours was pink.  But that did not matter...  I've eaten more than one meal on that pink table. In fact, my brother and I had our own plates in their house.  Anytime, vegetable biriyani and kurma was on the menu, we were on their uninvited guest list.
I was always in awe of the two sisters, their luscious long hair in thick oiled braids and their excellent collection of sarees.  The two had a calendar between them where they charted who will wear what saree to which function. My earliest memory is that of N akka dressing me up to play the witch in the 'Sleeping Beauty' school play.  I was in UKG and my mom just back from the hospital with my new baby brother.  N akka  draped me in her black half saree and crafted a conical hat out of black chart paper; I was one good looking witch.  When M akka got married and went to Singapore and then to the US, I thought she would have forgotten me.  But I was in the hospital for a surgery and she sent out a 'Get Well' card.  I did not even know such a thing existed! Later that year, she sent me a musical birthday card.  I was in greeting card heaven for a long time. G anna was always looked upon with a little bit of fear. But there was this day when he came out to help me and my brother fly a kite. It was the day after N akka got married. We had loads of fun and I was no longer afraid of him!

Mama is very soft spoken as much as he is articulate.  I've had innumerable English essay writing lessons from Mama. I recently found out that his father was a teacher and that Kalaignar Karunanidhi was one of his students. Teaching definitely runs in the family!
Mami - we always called her M akka mami.  Still do. She is the star of the family. An all rounder - dutiful house wife, loving mom and aunty, friendly neighbour, Hindi class teacher, excellent tailor, baker... the list goes on.  I took many years of Hindi tuition from her.  After school, I would quietly slip into her kitchen for some awesome snacks (warm gooey carrot halwa tops the list) before I joined the other kids for the class. She helped me write a speech in Hindi for a competition at school.  What's interesting is that I used the same speech to win third place when I was in 9th grade and first place in 10th grade! I baked my first cake with her for her grandson's first birthday.  I vividly remember one day - I must have been 11 or 12,  Mami and I were walking back home and we passed an older lady carrying heavy bags in either hand. Mami did not hesitate to offer to carry the bags for that lady. 'I am going very far' said that lady. 'No problem', said Mami, 'I will carry them as far as my home'.  This incident left me with an indelible lesson - If you can, help. I try living up to that.
We are still in touch...N akka still looks like a akka, even in the pictures of her son's wedding. M akka sends me holiday cards, Mama sends out emails of family pictures and happenings, Mami continues to teach innumerable students and make awesome halwa (I had some the last time I visited them in 2011 and I know I owe them a phone call) and G anna became friends with me on Facebook last week.
Recently, I met my backyard neighbor at a school event - 'Hi! Stranger!' she greeted me.
Growing up, our neighbors were no strangers to us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bed Time Sale

Ever since summer vacation started, I have been, as every parent is during the first week, at least, very keen on limiting the girls' TV and computer time and finding alternate activities to keep them occupied. Two days ago, as I settled down for some 'My' TV time after dinner, my little one came running to me, the 'Boring' monster close at her heels.  I commissioned her to do a drawing and she immediately asked - Will you buy it from me? I agreed.

She was busy at it for almost an hour and as I was getting ready for bed, she came to me with a pencil drawing of three bouquets of flowers and went - Here, buy this from me.  It costs three hugs and three kisses!  I was pleasantly surprised.  This one is very money smart and is always looking for ways to fill up her piggy bank.  So, at the price she was quoting, the drawing was a bargain! I paid up immediately.  As an after thought, I even paid her an advance of three more hugs and kisses to get the drawing colored for me.  It will be delivered in 24 hours, I was promised. That was fine with me. 

And then she goes - You owe me three more hugs and kisses. 
What for? I ask.
Taxes, of course! - she announces.
I have never been happier to pay my taxes!

And since the colored drawing was not delivered as promised, I got a 'refund' last night.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Second Family

Today is my last day at my current work place. The following people are second family to me. I’ve been and grown at this place for four years and 8 months and it is only fair that I write , if not in stone, somewhere more permanent, about how I feel about them...

The boss is one of the most capable all rounders I have ever met in my life. A total people person. Always in control of what is happening around him. How he manages his whole day in an office full of chattering ladies…I don’t know! The kind of flexibility and freedom that he gave me at this job…I know I will never get anywhere else. Wishing you a journey to great heights.

The smallest person in the office has the largest personality. Conspicuous by absence and presence! Speaks her mind…An open book…one look at her in the morning and you know what her mood is going to be for the rest of the day. A fashionista who is so much in touch with her inner girl. A hard worker who knows how to have fun. Her best quality, I think, is her ability to laugh at herself. Wishing you the ability to buy a BMW in the future.

Call her by one name and look up her email by another! This person, according to me, is the Rock in the office. Cool, calm and composed…always. A smile on her face…always. I’ve overheard many of her phone conversations and have admired the way she handles the stickiest of situations without raising her voice. I’ve never known a more content person in my life. Wishing you good luck in your house hunt.

The baby of the office is only a year old. Smiles when happy… pouts when sad… just like a baby… But a perfect example of ‘Don’t judge the book by the cover’! The sweet and innocent looks belie a smart and thoughtful person. Speaks her mind too… no wonder they get along so well! Love the way her accent changes when talking to the client. I hope her inner child never grows up. Wishing you world travels and whatever that is you are fasting for.

Will miss you guys like crazy…

Friday, June 3, 2011

Chennai welcomes you...

It hits you as soon you get off the plane... the heat that the A/c desperately tries to cool down. A sweet looking lady with a smile, big red bindi and a chandan dash stamps our passports as Suprabhatham plays mildly on a player on her counter.
As we walk out the airport, we see happy familiar faces. My nose picks up sweat, sandalwood, urine and jasmine all at the same time. My older one giggles at a paid public toilet remembering a comical scene from a Tamil movie we recently watched. Little one is thrilled to ride in the front seat with Thatha.
I point out the dilapidated building which was the RTO where i got my learning license. We pass the IIT campus where I spent two glorious years of my life and the street down which a good friend lived. My eyes search for the building that used to be the Adyar NIIT center. My dad asks, 'do you remember this temple?' Of course, that's where we did the pooja for my kinetic honda. i see bus stops where i've spent countless hours waiting for 47s, 29s and 5s. New stores and construction take the places of old familiar spots. Ramprasad Hotel is now Zon...something multi cuisine. Rukmini bakery is still there! My home...Happy Home... the jasmine creeper, the new car, the clothes lines on the balcony. my room... posters of Anil Kumble and fido dido replaced with my daughters' pictures.
As i sip a cup of amma's filter coffee, appa brings back Sambhar Vadai from Rambhavan. Now the welcome is complete...