Archive for December 2009

The Trip To Nowhere


"Please dad no!" wailed Nishigandha. "I want to enjoy my break. Don't make me go through this rigmarole."

"Come on Nishu", her father cajoled. "Whats the harm?"

Nishi hated those three words. They were the single reason for many of her troubles in the recent past. And now the three headed hydra had raised its ugly head again. Whats the harm in meeting Mr.Thinks-he-is-marriage-material? He had been found through the good offices of Match Made in Heaven Matrimonials and high meddling by Vishu mama who lived in Chennai.

"Why don't you go to Chennai and spend Christmas and New Year with Vishu mama and Latha mami?" her father had suggested. Innocently she had agreed. She did need a break, especially after her harrowing experience with Bob the Flasher. A few days with Vishu mama and Latha mami would be nice. They didn't have children of their own and loved her to bits.

And then, a day before her departure, her father had cornered her. Mr. JP, was a post graduate in English Literature from Delhi University. He also had a diploma in French. He worked in the HR department of a software company and was based in Chandigarh. He was on his way to a holiday in Bangkok and would be stopping over in Chennai. Enter Vishu mama and Latha mami.

Despite her protests, JP's biodata intrigued Nishi. English Literature didn't sound so bad. A man who had studied literature would have an appreciation of fine things now wouldnt he? And he lived alone in Chandigarh. Considering that Indian men rarely cut the apron strings, that was a good thing. And he was taking a holiday, by himself, in Bangkok. Which could mean that he liked to travel in his free time (like her) which in turn could mean that he liked to explore new cultures and lifestyles (like her). Hmmm....perhaps he was worth a dekko?

And so it happened that Nishi arrived in Chennai two days before Christmas. Vishu mama was bristling with excitement. This was the most important task entrusted to him after his retirement and he was determined to make a success of it.

"Wear the red one Nishi. No not that one. And please avoid black. Its inauspicious!" said Latha mami. "Do you want my ruby necklace?"

"Mami!", cried Nishi horrified at the thought of rubies. "I'm not on display here. Besides, his flight arrives only at 11AM. There is a lot of time to decide on what to wear."

"Delayed!" said Vishu mama putting down the phone. "The flight is delayed due to severe fog conditions at Delhi".

"Oh good!" said Nishi, " perhaps he will not turn up at all. What a relief!"

"Nishi!!" Vishu mama said in reproachful tones.

"Oh all right! But I draw the line at wearing rubies mami." said Nishi with finality.

Five hours later, Vishu mama finally called from the airport.

"The flight has landed. I'm taking him to a hotel".

"Why can't he just bring him here?" asked Nishi. "This is a double storeyed house with four bedrooms na?"

"Nishi!" said Latha mami in horrified tones. "That is very Improper and Inappropriate".

Three hours later, Vishu mama returned, tired.

"I had to take him upto Central station".

"What?! Thats on the opposite side of town! Dreadful traffic too."

"Yes, well thats just too bad isn't it?" snapped the normally calm and placid Vishu mama. "None of the hotels I took him to fit his budget. He said he will freshen up and make his way to our place. I'm going to take a nap in the meantime."

An hour later Nishi was seated in front of the elusive Mr. JP. Sizing him up, she saw a lanky build on a tallish frame. He wore geeky glasses and seemed a little nervous. Not surprising, considering how Vishu mama and Latha mami were fawning over him.

Nishi tried conversing with him, but it was awkward making conversation under the incandescent beam on Vishu mama's face. Finally, taking matters into his own hands, JP ventured, "Would you like to show me round the city tomororow? Is it ok with you sir?" Vishu mama's beam went up a few hundred watts - if that was possible. It was decided that they would drive out to Mammallapuram the next day. JP left soon after.

"Well....? What did you think? Do you like him?" a volley of questions which were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. It was JP. He had stopped at the ATM just outside their house to draw money. The ATM had swallowed up his card. So now he was both cardless and cashless. What should he do?

Vishu mama looked flustered. He used ATMs rarely and had no idea about fire fighting when faced with greedy machines that swallowed up cards.

"Ask him to try the helpline of his bank and freeze the card number" said Nishi. And that was that.

* * *

The next day saw Nishi and JP in a taxi on ECR on their way to the quaint port town of Mamallapuram.

"Hope your card troubles are under control?" asked Nishi.

"Yeah. I've told the bank. They've frozen the card. It was a debit card. I have to use my credit card now. Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked as they walked towards the five rathas.

Nishi was slightly repelled. She didn't care much for the habit of smoking. But hey! he was an adult.

"Suit yourself. Its your life." She steered the conversation towards literature.

"So...I hear you have a degree in Literature. What texts did you study? I love to read and own (rather immodestly) that I'm pretty well read!"

"Thats nice. Ummm....I can't remember what we did." Duh?! Well never mind perhaps he was still upset about the loss of his card.

Over lunch, JP said he liked meeting her very much.

"Thank you. It was nice meeting you too. You're nice to talk to." said Nishi.

JP set aside the plates and spoons and asked her to show her hands. Thinking it was an attempt at home grown palm reading, Nishi extended her left palm.

"Both hands please"

Nishi had a premonition about what was to come. But somehow couldn't stop it. He grabbed hold of her hands, looked into her eyes and said "Nishigandha, will you marry me?"

Nishi was flattered. I mean come on! Which woman wouldnt be flattered when a man held her hands, gazed into her eyes and asked her to marry him? But she had to be sensible about this. Just because they had spent a pleasant day together did not immediately make him a suitable candidate for her life partner.

"I need to think about this JP. We met just yesterday"

"Thats ok. Say yes. Even if you mean no."

DUH??! "I can't do that. I'm a straightforward person. When I say yes or no, I usually mean it."

To lighten the heavy mood, she asked "Are you looking forward to your Bangkok trip?"

"I'm not going. When I lost my card in the ATM, I was so put off, I decided to cancel my trip."

"OK. What do you plan to do now?"

"I'll hand around a few more days here. Will you keep me company?"

"Ok. I can meet you tomorrow evening. I'm busy during the day."

"OK. No problem. Lets meet at Chennai city center"

That night, Nishi recounted 'The Proposal' to her best friend on the phone.

"I'm a little swept off my feet. Maybe I'll say yes."

"Go slow Nish. Check out other stuff about the guy. Find out more about his company. I'm in software myself and if I'm not mistaken that company has given pink slips to about 500 employees this year. Ask more about how much he earns."

Food for thought.
* * *

The next evening, Nishi waited for JP outside Chennai city center. He came up to her a little later.

"Sorry. I'm a little late. Traffic"

"Yes. You've chosen a hotel in a very crowded part of town." said Nishi. He was looking a little funny. He wasnt wearing the geeky glasses. But that wasnt all. His eyes were looking funny.

"What happened? Why are you staring?" asked JP.

"You're eyes are looking a bloodshot" said Nishi.

"Oh that! I've worn contact lenses."

"But your eyes are looking green also!" said Nishi.

"Yes. These are tinted contact lenses"

Wow! Nishi had never encountered vanity in a man before. He went down a bit in her estimation. Were these double standards?!

"Shall we go to the gaming zone?" he asked.

"Gaming?! I don't go near that stuff" said Nishi.

"Oh come on! Lets try it"

The next hour was spent with JP moving from machine to machine in excitement and Nishi doing her best to enjoy the games. The glamour of 'The Proposal' was beginning to pall rapidly. He was getting on her nerves.

"So! What shall we do tomorrow?"

"Eh?! Tomorrow? You're still going to be here?" said Nishi in dismay. Then quickly correcting herself, " I mean, don't you have a flight to catch to Delhi?"

"Actually, I havent booked my return ticket as yet. Perhaps you could help me?"

"Sure. Would you like me to put you in touch with a travel agent?"

"No. These fellows overcharge you. I would like to book directly from the airport. Can you come with me?"

If it got him out of the city, she was willing to invest the time.

* * *

"How much is the fare from here to Delhi?" He was asking at the Indian Airlines ticket counter.

"Sir Rs. XXX"

"Lets try Jet Airways"

The line at the Jet counter was long. They had to wait for 15 minutes before they reached the enquiry window.

"How much is the fare to Delhi?"

"Sir Rs YYY"

Well, which one do you want to take? There is not much difference." said Nishi.

"Hmmmm. Lets see, let me try Spicejet"

"Sir, there is no flight on this day. On the next day, the fare is Rs. ZZZ"

"What is the fare to Mumbai?"

"Mumbai?" asked Nishi. "I thought you wanted to go to Delhi."

"Yeah. But I thought maybe I can spend New Year in Mumbai or Goa"

Goa?! Where did that come from? He would ask to go to Timbuktu next.

"Let me try Kingfisher" said JP.

"OK. I'll just wait right here near the coffee counter." said Nishi. She had had enough of standing in queues for destinations to nowhere.

Thirty minutes later, JP returned.

"Well? Where are you finally going?" asked Nishi.

"I think I'll hang around a few days. I haven't booked my ticket."

What?! Three hours of badgering various airlines for fares and no ticket had been purchased? What were his plans?

" What are you doing on New Year's Eve?" he asked her.

"I'm leaving Chennai tomorrow and will be back home" said Nishi firmly.

"Oh"

"Yes. Shall we move now? To Vishu mama's house? Remember you accepted their lunch inviation?"

"Oh yes. I'm sorry. I'll not be able to make it. Please inform them."

On the auto ride back, Vishu mama called her. "He can't make it mama."

"Why? Did you say something to offend him?"

"Mama! We will talk later. Please drop me at that corner. I will walk the rest of the way."

Getting down, Nishi extended her hand " Bye JP. I'll be in touch. I need to speak with my family before I can give you an answer"

* * *

Back home, Nishi informed her dad that it wouldn't work with JP. He was out.

"Why?" asked her father.

Now that was a tricky question. If a guy was educated, had a job and didn't look too bad, parents had a tough time understanding why their daughter was refusing him. Plus, how was she to explain that his vanity, indecisiveness and apparent stinginess had put her off totally?

"He smokes."

* * *

A few days later, Nishi sat down to write the first 'Dear John' letter of her life. Only this one was sent over email.

Later that day, JP called. Nishi didn't take the call. JP sent her an sms "I'm sorry I proposed to you."

Nishi supposed she deserved the rude message. She should have taken JP's call and told him in person. Normally she didn't take the coward's way out. Maybe she was punishing JP for Bob the Flasher's behaviour?

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Functions, Tambrahm Ishtyle


The social life of Tambrahms is full of 'functions'. This is the collective noun for an assortment of socio-religious occasions, when one dons expensive saris, jewellery, rubs shoulders with numerous relatives and, most importantly, FEASTS! Life in Chennai over the past fifteen months has been filled with Kalyanams, Shashtiyaptapoortis, Sadabhishekams, Poonals and Punyajanams.

The first thing about Tambrahm events is that they begin early. Very early. It is not unusual for 'muhoortams' to be scheduled as early as 4 AM. When I was getting married, my father made noises about a 6 AM 'muhoortam'. I put my foot down and said nothing earlier than 10 AM would suit me unless he wanted me to fall asleep at my own wedding. Thankfully, I got my way. I suppose he had visions of me pitching forward into the sacred fire!

Back to the 'functions' I mentioned earlier. I am a vetran of at least a dozen. Now I'm not complaining. Attendance at these events means my husband and I don't have to do housework for that day. Besides, I'm a foodie. And the fancy food served at these occassions are a great attraction.

When one arrives, usually around 7 or 8 AM, a steaming hot cup of filter coffee is immediately pressed into your hands. With that, you sink onto the nearest plastic moulded chair and take reconnaissance of the area - or at least whatever you can manage in that sleep deprived state. The filter coffee helps. You're then better placed to critically review the array of pattu saris and gold jewellery worn by 'Maamis' of various age groups. You then catalog them as 'Wow!' , 'Hmmm. But not for her age', or 'how kaatan'(a term best known to alumni of my alma mater. Also known as Ghaati). This pleasant reverie is broken with summons for breakfast. Or as we call it here in Chennai 'Tiffin'.

Tiffin consists of idlli, vadai, pongal, accompanied with coconut chutney and sambar. Sweets are also served. Usually a halwa or kesari. You gobble it up and wash it down with another (disposable) cup of heavenly filter coffee. After this brief repast, you return to the main 'function' venue and commandeer the nearest plastic moulded chair to resume the aforementioned review of kanjeevarams. Occassionally, a known face walks by. You greet them and then reproach them for not having visited your home. They smile and nod and inform you that so-and-so's son has flown down from the U.S. for the occassion. If you know of any 'nalla ponnu' (good girl), do pass on the information. He lives in New Jersey and is in software. Naturally, you think. Thats the template.

The function has progressed. It is nearing 10 AM. You poke the spouse in the ribs and ask 'How much longer?'. For 'lunch' that is. Yes. Tambrahm functions serve lunch that early. 'Let us try to get the first 'pandi'" The very first guests to be served. If you're alert, you maybe be successful. Else, you'll just have to wait in line, hanging over the shoulder of some poor guest, who made it to the first 'pandi', willing him/her to finish their meal at top speed.

As you take your seat for lunch (barely two hours after breakfast), a fresh green banana leaf is laid out in front of you. A tumbler of water is set down beside it. Deeper pockets would serve bottled water. A 500 ml bottle for each guest. You sprinkle water on your leaf, cleaning it in readiness for the food to be served.

The first thing to be served is 'payasam'. Not much. Just a drop to begin the meal on a sweet note. This is followed by a spoonful of 'thayir pachidi' or a salad of sorts mixed in curd. Next comes some sort of fruit salad - banana, grapes, dates in honey. Coming up close behind this are the dry sweet, vadai and aplam (pappad). Next the vegetables are served. Usually an 'usali', aviyal and potato fry. You are now ready for the rice. Steaming hot mounds of it are heaped on your leaf and its is usually good practice to be alert to the quantities. The ghee is spooned over the rice. You mix it with the rice and create a small crater in the mound for the sambar. The sambar flowing down the sides of this makeshift volcano is reminscent of Mount Vesuvius. The 'sambar rice' is followed up with 'More kozhambu' (the Tamil version of Kadi), 'rasam sadam' and 'thayir sadam'. The meal ends with a delectable cup of payasam.

Feeling like a beached whale, you rise slowly from your seat and make for the hand wash. Your hosts stand by and chide you for eating too little. You field the remarks expertly and head for the star of the show - the person/s for whom the celebration has been organised. You meet them, smile, make small talk, mark your attendance and are ready to leave.

On the way out, you pick up the 'vettalai paaku/thamboolam' (beetal leaves and coconut) and the 'bakshanam' (goodies to munch on later) and head for your car. All the while remarking "good food. But its the same fare everywhere no?"

I tell you, there is no pleasing some people!!!

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The Misunderstood Man

With a contented sigh, Nishigandha got into bed and reached for her computer, hoping she would bump into some friend online. It had been a long day and she could do with some bantering and reminiscing. Opening her mailbox, she saw a mail from the online matrimonial site she had registered on. The mail said that ‘Topgun’ liked her profile and that she should log into her account to find out more.

‘Topgun’ was 34 to her 31 years. He had a post graduate degree in aeronautical engineering and had spent a good part of his life in Canada. He had moved back to India a few years ago and now lived in Mumbai, working for an airline company. Well that explained the ‘Topgun’ sobriquet. Moving the cursor down to the ‘accept / decline’ option, Nishi considered her next steps carefully.

She had put up her profile on this popular matrimonial site reluctantly. Admittedly, she was lonely and wanted companionship. Plus, at 31, she was under pressure from her family to tie the knot. But the arranged marriage route did not appeal to her. That was when her best friend had suggested the internet.

“Doesn’t it seem like shopping on Ebay?” Nishi said.

“Look at the positive side Nishi” her friend replied. “You’re in the driving seat. You decide who is eligible. You decide if you want to contact them or not. You can search for likeminded people. And you can avoid the horoscope matching, dowry hunting sods you have been presented with so far.” And so she had done it.

Two months later, Nishi had all but given up when Topgun entered her virtual space. His profile was well written though the photograph was not very clear. Deciding to take the plunge, Nishi clicked ‘Accept’ and shut down her computer.

A day later, there was a reply: “ Hi! Thanks for accepting my request. Lets take this a step further. Please mail me at topgun@xyzmail.com . I’m also available at the same id for chat on messenger if you like’. Nishi sent him a polite reply and added his id to her messenger list.

And that’s how it began-with polite missives, moving on to friendly, humourous mails and finally to flirtatious banter on chat. Topgun, better known as Bob, was a funny guy and Nishi began to look forward to their daily chats. A week later, they were talking over phone. That’s when Nishi began feeling uneasy.

Bob on the phone seemed different from Bob on email or chat. At least his language did. He used an awful lot of profanity! That too in Hindi. Nishi was not a prude. But she did object to the use of crass language with people she had only just met. Also, somehow profanity sounded more offensive when spoken in Hindi. So she requested Bob to refrain from using profanity.

“I feel uncomfortable with it”, she said.

“Why?! Come on! Don’t be so pseudo” said Bob.

Perhaps she was being too school marmish about this. She checked with her best friend.

“Guys tend to do that Nishi”, replied her friend who had two older brothers. “Don’t give too much importance to it. Or else he’ll do it more to annoy you”.

The burgeoning romance soon took a turn for the worse. Bob seemed intent on infusing sexual overtones to their conversations. Nishi once again protested.

“Please! I feel uncomfortable with the direction this conversation is taking”

“ Don’t be so prudish. If we get married, we’re going to have sex! It’s a natural thing.”

And so Nishi kept quiet, thinking that she was being too old fashioned. Besides, when Bob wasn’t using profanity or making lewd suggestions, he was wonderful to talk to.

Later that evening, Nishi was still at office, completing an urgent report. All others had left and she was the only one in office. Just then, a chat window opened up with a ping. It was Bob.

“Hi! What’s up?”

“Nothing special. I’m working on a report which I have to send off in an hour. What’s up with you?”

“I’m in office too. Thinking about you….”

“Shouldn’t you be getting back home? The traffic in Mumbai is bad. I should be heading home soon. Others have left”

A web cam invitation popped up.

“Accept the invitation. I want to show you something.”

Nishi should have refused the invitation. She really should have. As fate would have it, she didn’t.

And there it was! She couldn’t believe her eyes! The phone rang and she answered it in a shocked haze. It was Bob.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing Bob?! Are you out of your mind!”

“Oh come on Nishi! Don’t be so pseudo. This is very natural”
“Natural?!....There is nothing natural about your behaviour. It is sick. Absolutely sick….”, spluttered Nishi when she was interrupted by Bob.

“The car is parked” he said in a satisfied tone.

Fighting down nausea, Nishi disconnected her phone and went home.

She ignored all the calls from Bob but could not escape from the text message. It was a one liner, his usual: “Don’t be so pseudo”

Nishi saw red. Enough was enough. This had to be answered. She opened her mailbox and began pounding away.

Bob,
The stunt you pulled today was sick. It is clear that you have no respect for women. And I don’t want to be with a man who has no respect for me and my wishes. If that makes me pseudo, so be it. I wear the badge with pride.
This is goodbye.
Nishi

After sending the mail, she blocked his id and shut down her computer with a satisfied snap.

The next morning, she saw an SMS from Bob. “Hey! If you don’t want to stay in touch, that’s fine. But I think you have totally misunderstood me.”

“Oh yeah?!” thought Nishi angrily. “How does one ‘misunderstand’ an erect penis staring at you from the webcam?”

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A New Series: Its A Jungle Out There

Hello All. I'm starting a new series of fiction called 'Its A Jungle Out There'. The series follows the exploits of Nishigandha, a thirty something career woman and her attempts at finding a life partner. Being female, single and beyond thirty is not easy in India. Words like 'spinster', 'feminist' and 'career woman' are used almost like insults.

The series is an outcome of many conversations and discussions which I had with my friends about marriage. Each of us had some experience or other - mostly unpleasant - to narrate on the issue of 'trying to get hitched'. Nishigandha is entirely a figment of my imagination. Of the incidents that will be narrated here, some are fictitious, many are not. But the angst, the anger and the anguish are very real.

This series is dedicated to my friends and all those women who go through so many indignities in the name of marriage. Here's to mending broken hearts and restoring hope in dreams and aspirations. Wish me success!

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Book Review: 'Amen: The Autobiography Of A Nun'

This post comes after a long break. Partly because I was busy with 'home affairs' and partly because the Muse was playing truant. Well, she's back now. And a book review it will be.

I had planned to review 'Aruna' Story' - a non-fiction account of the rape of staff nurse Aruna Shanbaug written by Pinki Virani. But when I trawled the net, I found several reviews already in place. And since most of the opinions expressed were similar to mine, I canned the idea. Instead, I am, reviewing - 'AMEN: The Autobiography Of A Nun'. Originally published in Malayalam, it was translated into English and published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

At the outset, I should clarify, that I still have one chapter to go before I complete reading the book. However, my opinion on the book is already formed and I doubt that the last chapter will do much to alter it.

Synopsis:

The book is a personal account, rendered by Sister Jesme, of thirty three years spent in a convent. Sister Jesme is a nun belonging to the Congregation of Mother of Carmel. She holds a doctorate in English literature and has served as Vice Principal and Principal in two Catholic Colleges in Kerala. In August 2008, she left the Congregation.

In her book, Sister Jesme, writes an anguished account of her experiences as a nun. She raises the very important issue of the status of women within the Catholic Church. She questions why nuns are treated different from priests particularly in the matter of the Vow of Poverty.

Then there is the issue sexuality which has caused a lot of public outrage against the book. According to her, homosexuality and lesbianism are realities within the convent. Though never spoken of, it happens and is known by myraid names like 'special love'. The book also hints at sexual exploitation through an incident where Sister Jesme has to deal with the advances of a priest.

The book also highlights petty politics and groupism which were faced by the author. It also hints at class based discrimination between nuns hailing from affluent and those from poor families. Being set in the mileu of college life and academia, the book includes in its chapters the author's opinions on poor administrative practices and bending of rules being practiced by the colleges where she served.

The Verdict:

The book is a brave attempt by Sister Jesme, who seems to be a lone crusader. It takes a lot of guts and gumption to go against the establishment, particularly one as powerful and revered as the Catholic Church. All the issues raised by her in the book are important and deserve to be brought into the public domain. Sadly, the Church has closed ranks against her. It maybe a long time before it will be ready to bring these skeletons out of the cupboard.

At the same time, I find many parts of the book confusing. For eg. There is a chapter where, during a retreat, some nuns complain to Sister Jesme that the priest they confessed to had asked their permission and kissed them. The same priest asks to kiss her too when she goes for confession. She refuses and informs him that the other nuns had found his act distasteful. He replies by saying that he did it with permission and quotes passages from the Bible. She counter quotes. At the end of all this quoting, I'm left feeling baffled. So? Did he make a mistake or didn't he?

Without sounding like I'm belittling her problems, I must say that at times, it feels like Sister Jesme suffers from a persecution complex. One feels empathy with her trials and tribulations. But at some point, it seems like the whole world is her enemy and she is the only blameless one. This is particularly true when she is describing the problems she faced during her tenure as lecturer, then Vice Principal and then Principal of a college. In fact, when I discussed the Malayalam version of the book with some Malayali Catholic colleagues, one of them remarked, that the book was all 'I'm OK. You're not OK'.

Finally, the book could do with some tight editing. It rambles in places and events do not seem to be well connected. The language is heavy and gets tedious to read. But I would not blame the author for this. A first time writer and writing on so bold a theme, she should have been provided with better editorial support by Penguin.

As regular, serious and practiced readers, I would recommend that we put aside the flaws in the book and read it, to get an insight into the issues raised by Sister Jesme. Judge for yourself whether her story is real or imagined (as you can see, mine is not an unbiaised opinon). And think of the lives of women in religious life, belonging to other religions also. I'm sure there will be many similarities.

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