Friday, January 29, 2016

Reminiscencing a Balcony

From the late 70s to the late 80s, the Murthi household (2 adults, 4 children, and often a grandmother) lived at Multi-Storey Flats, R K Puram, New Delhi. MS Flats, as they were called, were made for central government officers and their families. They were spacious flats - the crowning glory of which was a large balcony that could fit 6 charpoys, three in a row.

Our Charpoys Looked Like This...
In Delhi's intense summer, we didn't use air conditioners partly because we couldn't afford them, and partly because electricity supply was unreliable. We didn't even use a water-based desert cooler. We slept in this mammoth balcony on the 4th floor.  Anna, taught us how to block the water drainage pipes at the edge of the balcony, so that we could fill it with 3 inches of water. We then placed our charpoys in this massive water-tray balcony, switched on the solitary ceiling fan and slept with cool breeze enveloping us. Anna taught us about the efficiency of large surface area water cooling with that balcony. 

My younger sister and I, were assigned the chore of cleaning and then filling the balcony each evening when the fresh water supply was piped to our homes. This we did with glee.  We also invented a game of water slide which consisted of running from the end of one room, jumping over the small cement doorway hump to land butt-first into 3 inches of water that let us slide to the balcony railings. We could do this for hours.  Anna tried to stop us many times, saying that we would hurt ourselves, but when has that stopped a child from playing and that too in water. So he let us be.

Then there are the countless afternoons and evenings we spent, four kids and father, sprawled on charpoys in the balcony reading the few Tintin and Asterix comics we had. All would be quiet till someone read something and laughed out loud. Amma thought we sounded demented when we did this, for there would be minutes of utter silence broken by laughter then dead silence interspersed with the whisper of pages being turned.

This balcony also experienced picnics on full moon nights. We'd ask our mother permission to have a picnic. Once she agreed, Anna would be told to come home early. Not that he had a lot to prepare and do between his bedroom and the balcony! Our picnics had no cold drinks, juices, chips or sandwiches. Picnic food, in our family in those days was lemon / tamarind peanut rice, curd rice, pickle, papad, and fried dried green chilies. 

From this balcony overlooking the Ring Road, we watched Delhi burn in 1984.   

We watched as mobs stopped buses and pulled people out. We looked on helplessly as they ran into one of the buildings, pursued by their countrymen. We never saw the violence play out, for Amma herded us into our rooms, drew the curtains, and told us not to go out. She told us of the horror she witnessed as a young girl in 1947 when she was in Delhi. During those days of curfew, she would define when we, and many times our neighbors' children, could go out to see smoke rising from homes across South Delhi. Anna had a special pass and went to office other than on the 1st day for curfew. Tho' Delhi was in shut-down mode, the Planning Commission seemed to continue to work.

This is the balcony from which we had long conversations with our friends in their balconies. In a sign language unknown to adults. Long conversations in mime.  Dumb charades dialogues.  Anna often said that we looked like we all suffered from a strange form of epilepsy! We ignored this insult, for he said the same thing when we danced to Rock n Roll !

The balcony was second to our dining table, around which the most critical conversations happened in our family.  It was the place where real sharing and dialogue happened. This was the place where ideas were born and fights resolved. This is where we went when we wanted a quiet place to cry. 

And where I learned to dance in the rain! 

Now when I pass by MS Flats, I feel sad when I see all the covered balconies. What used to be their crowning glory is now just an additional room without the fullness and views of my childhood.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Original South Indian Dirty Picture!

Kissing Flowers From Cathy Garitty

We grew up watching Hindi movies where love and sex were shown implicitly. Two flowers would gently lean towards each other, or the hero and heroine would hold hands and disappear behind a tree. The picturization of a really hot kiss or really hot sex was something else.  As the 2 lovers moved in for the kiss, a multi-coloured spiral circle would appear between soon-to-be-puckered lips. All to the crescendo of a string quartet!

We wondered why Bollywood wouldn't show an actual kiss, and asked our mother. She smiled, and told us that things had changed dramatically.

Really, Amma?? Can anything be more conservative than two sunflowers closing in on each other. And a long shot of flowers in a head-to-head touch, to show a long kiss?

Amma smiled and said "Do you know that Anna and his brothers were punished by Tatha for going to see a dirty picture when they were teenagers?"  

Anna, barely got through the door that evening, before he was bombarded with "You saw a dirty picture when you were a child with Padukaka and Krishnakaka?"

"Oh! We didn't. We had all intentions to see the film though", acknowledged Anna. This comment was met with round eyes and ooohs and aaahs.

Vana Mohini
Original Poster
In 1941, when Anna was about about 13 years old, a Tamil movie called Vana Mohini was released. It created a scandal.  "Respectable" Tamilians spoke about the movie in whispers, and didn't go to see the film. The film's heroine was a Sri Lankan actress named K. Thavamani Devi who appeared in revealing clothing

A major role in the film was played by "Chandru", an elephant.  It is said that this is possibly the first time an elephant received top billing in the credits of a film. Anna and his brothers were probably attracted by this too!

Of course, given the scandal, Anna and his brothers were forbidden by their father from watching Vana Mohini. 

"It is a dirty picture", Tatha boomed, emphasizing and dragging on the
letter "r", making the word "dirty" more salacious and dramatic.

Obviously, forbidding young boys on the cusp of teenage-hood from doing anything is a sure-shot way to get them to do exactly what you don't want them to. 

K. Thavamani Devi
Anna, Padukaka, and Krishnakaka, pooled their saved money to buy film tickets. Then one afternoon, when the household was in siesta mode, they sneaked out and went to the theater to watch Vana Mohini. Unfortunately, there was a storm and they had to return home without seeing the film.  Tatha (my grandfather) was so upset with them that he locked them out of the house and they slept that night on the steps to the front door of their home. 

"But Anna, what was in the picture that made it a dirty picture?" we asked, obviously more interested in the dirty stuff than their adventures and punishments.

Anna's response stunned us for a few seconds.

"The heroine, Thavamani Devi showed 2 inches of ankle."

The four of us rolled over with laughter. 

Anna has still not watched Vana Mohini.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Boiling Hot in the Middle of Winter

I am surviving weeks and weeks of Anna being unwell.  Starting with the throat infection that started a couple of days before Diwali to his diagnosis of Eosinophilia in December. Not to forget sunburned legs.

Anna "Steaming"
Every day we struggle to get him to inhale steam, with a teardrop of Vicks Vapourub, to help relieve his congestion. We try to ensure that he does this at least 3 times a day. 

Each time we ask if he is ready to inhale steam he says that he wants to have a nap or that he will do it later. When we finally manage to get him under the 'towel tent' over a steaming pot of water, there are wails of “Ayyo-Amma” or “I am burning" or "This is called cruelty to father” or “Now I know what a boiled chicken feels like!”

Keeping my sense of humour takes real effort! I am running out of smart things to say. Just to give you an idea, here are some responses to his wails:

“Anna, your mother can’t hear you.” Really lame! I am latching onto the literal meaning of “Ayyo-Amma” other than the figurative call-out to a mother when a child is unwell or in pain.

“You feel sooo much better after inhaling steam. Why are you making a fuss?” As if feeling better makes a difference – it’s all about the here and now with him.

“Anna, you are acting like a child! What would you have said to us if the roles we reversed?” This is completely ignored by him. A few seconds of silence and then the lament starts up again.

“Anna, count to 30 and then we will stop.”  This is a mean one. I know that when he counts he will forget some numbers, as his Dementia makes its presence felt, and I can take my time to prompt him.

“Anna, count backwards from 30 and then we will stop.” Even meaner, as I know that his Dementia will prevent him from being able to do so, and I will have to prompt him even more.
Glowing 87-year old skin

“Anna, your skin is glowing with all this steam and cream!” As if glowing skin has much value to this 87 year-old steamed chicken-man!

So after 60 days of this, he comes up with a gem!

His face glowing with steamed-sweat, he recounts a story of my mother.

“Remember how your Amma used to feel boiling hot in winter?”, he asks me.  Of course, I remember. But why spoil his fun.

“Tell me the story Anna”, I ask.

Anna tells me the story, slurring and stumbling over words, and completely forgetting some. I fill in phrases and thoughts when they are lost. Here's the story.

One cold Delhi winter night, my mother tossed and turned so much that she woke up my father. When Anna asked her what the matter was, she said that she was boiling hot.

At first, Anna could not understand how she could be hot when he was cosy under a blanket and 3kg razai.  She was under 2 blankets and a 3kg razai as she felt colder than Anna.  We used to call Amma, “Thand-maru” i.e. someone who is perpetually cold / dying of cold.

Anna then asked her, “Sarala, what are you wearing?”

Amma responded with, “Just a woolen petticoat, saree, cots-wool blouse, knitted woolen blouse, 2 sweaters, a muffler, and 2 pairs of socks.”

Holding back his laughter, Anna meekly suggested that she may want to take off a sweater!! She did. And slept well the rest of the night.

Anna regaled us with the story the next morning. And multiple times every winter. My mother could never say she was feeling warm in winter, poor soul, for we would promptly ask her if she was boiling hot and how many woolen clothes she was wearing!!!