Friday, February 26, 2016

Making Daughters' Hearts Strong

Summer Sunset by Afroz Jahan

My earliest memory of my father, Anna, playing the "Scare Game" with us, is some time in the early 70s.  I think it was autumn in Delhi. The weather was cooling after oppressive heat. Heat that had been borne without air conditioners and coolers. Heat that had made blood rush to my face and show red under my brown skin. Heat that had enveloped me like a sleeping bag while sweat had been my constant companion.

A Family Eats in the Dark - Courtesy
In those days, it was common for Delhi to have power cuts, with nary a warning. Unlike Bangalore that published when and where there would be load shedding (and still do). And often the power cuts would be in the night.

So, the six of us would have candle-lit dinners; (till date I have never understood why they are considered romantic, for I associate them with no electricity). We would then clear the table, clean the kitchen, brush our teeth, change into PJs, crawl into bed and cover ourselves with a thin cotton sheet.
One night, when there was a power cut, all was pitch black and very quiet. Weak moonlight tried to gently push its way through curtained windows. Just as I was about to fall asleep, the bed sheet that covered me, moved on its own. The tops of my toes felt the downward pull of the sheet as it slipped from under my chin. I grabbed the sheet and pulled it up again and tucked it securely under my chin. Less than a minute later, the little tug pulled the sheet down again.

Frozen in place, every muscle absolutely still, my heart started to pound. I wished with all the power in my heart that the sheet wouldn't move on its own again. My worst fears of ghosts, monsters, and aliens all became clear and very live possibilities. And 30 seconds later, I felt the sheet tug downward again.
Paranormal Activity : The Ghost Dimension
Copyright Paramont Pictures

Do I scream for my parents, or keep still for the monster / ghost / alien to lose interest and go away? Intense fear  kept my body petrified, my heart pounding, and my mind racing with the worst possibilities.

Whoosh! Suddenly the sheet is pulled off me with a huge tug. I scream loudly. 

I hear my mother call out, "Yainree? What's happened?" as she rushes to my room with the sole torch we own, lit up.

And there is my father, sitting back on his haunches, head just above my bed, laughing loudly. Seriously!! 

My mother berates my father with, "What are you doing? You are scaring the girl!" 

By then, I have swiftly moved from intense fear to loud laughter with my father. All fear has gone tho' my heart continues to pound.

Anna's tucks me back in bed, calms my mother, and settles down for the night.

If you think this is a once in a life time event, think again! From early childhood till teenage-hood, on multiple occasions, my younger sister and I have been subjected to my father's invention, the "Scare Game."

My father has jumped out from behind a door or cupboard yelling "Booooo!!" He has floated on tip toe around a dark flat, torch lit, covered with a white sheet, making soft "oooo" sounds. He has let out loud witchy cackles from under beds. He had squeezed himself into small crawl spaces between furniture and walls, to slide a cold hand to tickle an unsuspecting back or neck or arm.

We never learnt to expect that Anna would do something to frighten us. He would repeat the events, and yet we wouldn't learn.

Each time we have frozen and then screamed.

Each time my mother has come running from wherever she is in the house to find out what has happened.

Each time my father has been caught laughing.

Each time my mother has asked Anna, “Why are you scaring the girls?”

Each time he has responded with, “I am making their hearts strong!”

Friday, February 19, 2016

Anna's Junk Food Journeys

Photos courtesy

All thru my childhood, I remember that we were actively discouraged from eating junk food by our parents. Chips, soda, ice cream, chaat, and later burgers were pretty much banned. They were what we called "controlled substances" - my mother controlled what, when and how much we could eat.

Now I suddenly find the Anna is relishing and actively seeking out junk food! The contrast is striking.  To give you a better idea, here are the Then and Now situations. 

Ice Cream vs Yoghurt
Ice Cream Then: Till we were teenagers,  ice cream was bought only 6 times a year - on one of our birthdays. The big decision that had to be made by the birthday boy or girl was the flavour of ice cream.  That too at a time when there were only 3 flavours available - Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry!

Ice Cream Now: It is ironical that now Anna recognizes the corner of the street to his flat, by the presence of an ice cream cart. And even more ironical, is that when we pass the cart, I tell him, "Anna, you can't have ice cream now. Not till it is much warmer." And in summer I am rationing his ice cream consumption to a few days a week. He gets fruit yoghurt as a substitute on non-ice-cream days.

Photo courtesy
Chaat Then: "That dangerous food," according to Anna. What did he not like about chaat?  Well just about everything. The papdi / tikki was "definitely fried in kerosene oil" as were samosas, bread and vegetable pakodas. The imli chutney was affectionately referred to as "sulfuric acid". If we said we wanted to eat chaat we were told by Anna, "OK. But there is jaundice / typhoid / cholera / diarrhoea going around. You can eat chaat if you want to." The disease varied with the season or what was in the news. And so we rarely choose to catch a dreaded disease.

Chaat Now: A few months ago, we made papri chaat at home and sent some for Anna. With all the chutneys. So imagine my surprise, when 15 mins later, Anna's cook came running to my flat saying that Anna wants "More". Really!? Now Anna eats aloo tikki, asks for pakodas and wants samosas when we go out. Sadly all these things are too chilly hot for him, but he keeps wanting "More" (like Oliver Twist!).

Campa Cola Ads
Soda Then: "Drink water," we were told when we said we wanted to drink a soda. Campa Cola, Double 7, Thumbs Up rarely graced our homes. "Cool drink," as my mother called it, consisted of sweet lime juice.

Soda Now: Now Anna drinks Sprite every day. It started as a solution to Anna's consistent nausea (something that I understand, happens due to the strong medication he takes). I tried lemon water, Amritdhara, eating a dry wafer. But nothing worked till I tried Sprite. Now, nausea or not, Anna wants to have Sprite. Not Seven Up. Not Mirinda Lemon or Orange. Not Coke or Pepsi. Only Sprite. And that is what he gets. 200 - 250ml a day.

Wimpy's Veggie Burger Meal
Burgers Then: What? Burgers? Growing up, there were no fast food places that sold burgers. And when they opened, we would have to save our pocket money to buy and eat a burger, for Anna and Amma wouldn't buy us burgers.

Burgers Now: On one of our Weekend Expeditions, when Sanjiv asked Anna if he would eat a Wimpy's veggie burger, Anna said "Yes" without a moments hesitation. He finished a Veggie Burger at 11:30am in the morning and declared, "This is the BEST burger in the world! They would make a fortune if they sold this in the US."

Chips Then: Another no-no in our house. On a rare occasion, if we insisted and Amma was in a good mood, we would get French fries. But that was rare.

Chips Now: On one of the days I took Anna to our local Reliance Fresh, he spotted Chips and asked me to buy some. "What flavour do you want Anna?" I asked. After some thought, he settled on Sour Cream and Onion. And he is hooked. Banana chips are sometimes passed over for Sour Cream and Onion Lays.

Anna's junk food journey hasn't ended......

Now he wants to go to a restaurant to have waffles with maple syrup, cream, strawberries (I am still looking for a place to take him).

He wants to have pizza. Not homemade! But made at a restaurant. And washed down with ginger ale or Sprite.

For a man who is unwell, his taste buds seem to be doing very well.

It may seem like this is a lot of junk food for a super senior citizen to eat. And in addition to the muffins, jaangiri, ladoo, etc. that he has anyway. But surely at 87, with no heart disease or diabetes, Anna should be allowed to eat and drink junk food to his hearts delight!

I am just the enabler!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

IPL Auctions Remind Anna of His Glorious Football Career!!

Anna watches in awe as IPL players are auctioned for what he calls "an exorbitant amount of money”. His questions range from, "How do they determine a player’s worth?" to "That is a king's ransom!"

I don't answer his questions because I don't know how to. One, I am not a cricket crazy Indian - the outlier that proves the rule. Two, Anna sometimes gets confused trying to fathom the cost of things in 2016. His strong memories of costs are from many years back. Like when you could send a postcard, yes postcard, for 25 paise, and a cup of coffee at an expensive place was Rs.25/-. I run him by the standard logic thread of the comparative years, impact of inflation, GDP growth rate,etc. 

Then Anna tells me, "You know I had a glorious football career?"

"Really Anna!?", I ask. 

This is the first time I've heard that he had a career in anything other than working for the Government Of India or UNDP.

“Was this when you were young?, I ask.

Anna confirms this with an "Yes."

Seeing the small smile, I should have realized there was more to the football career. But the mind-numbing cost of IPL players and the economics lesson made me a little slow. 

Here is the story he tells me.

Brazil World Cup
Indigenous Amazon Village
When Anna was about11 years old, his father sent him to Erode Middle School for a "good education". Within the first few days of joining the school, the boys were taken to the field to play football. They watched as the two team captains, Abdul Sattar and Arunachalam, carefully measured the distance between the goal posts and the field. The boundaries were marked by stones and rocks. The field itself was a packed-mud field on which they played barefooted.

Then came the critical time of choosing the team. The captains, stood two arms-length apart with the rest of the class standing in front of them.  

Village Boys Play Football by Shivu K
Abdul Sattar won the toss and hence got to choose his first team member.

"Srinivas Murthi", he said with confidence. Anna was thrilled at being the first boy to be chosen. Anna was tall for his age, and Abdul Sattar believed that the longer length of his stride would be advantageous in a game of football.

Anna stood next to Abdul Sattar and whispered his choices for the other members of the team. Once they had 15 players per team, the game started. There were two 45 minute stretches of hard & fast running on the field, bare footed in the heat. Then the match ended.

Anna does not remember if they won or lost. What he remembers is that like all good captains, Abdul Sattar gathered them around, and told them that they played a good game.  

Top 10 Fastest Football Player 2015/2016
Then Abdul Sattar took Anna aside and said, "Srinivas Murthi, you can never play football on my team again."

Anna was shattered. He was tall. He was the first boy to be choosen. He had run strong and hard on the field.

Bewildered he asked, "Why? I ran between the goal posts so many times, and faster than anyone else."

Abdul Sattar acknowledged Anna's running skills and said, "Yes, you ran fast ……. but your foot didn't touch the ball even once!"

Thus ended what Anna calls, his "Glorious Football Career"!!

Anna had never seen or played a game of football before that day.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Anna Runs Away From Home

Photographer Arindam Mukherjee documents the life of
13-year-old Sheikh Alamgirwho ran away from home at 7
& lived at a railway station in Calcutta for 6 years
One evening, Anna greets me with, "I have something to tell you that will frighten you."

"Oh-ho! Now what?", I think.

"I just ran away from home", he replies.

I hesitate for a bit as I think thru' how to respond to this.

Its 6:30 pm and Anna is sleeping on his bed, in his classical praying mantis pose. His razai (i.e. comforter) is pulled up over him, covering his mouth. I bend over his bed rail, and hold his thin hands through the razai.

"Anna, aren't you warm under your razai?", hoping that it will remind him that he is at home and not cold and alone somewhere, thinking he has run away from home.

"Yes", he says. And yet, there seems to be no change in his eyes. Normally, I can make out when he moves from a disoriented state to reality, by looking at his eyes.

"Sangeeta, you should get me a wrist band with my details so that people can find me when I am lost", he adds.

"Like the lanyard with emergency contact details I had made for you in Bangalore?", I ask tho' I know that he can't move a step without an attendant.

"Yes", he responds. "Someone can bring me home then".


"Anna, you are at home. In bed under your razai. You haven't run away", I say.

Long Pause. I continue to hold his razai covered hands.

"No, I didn't", he responds. "Baachoo did".

Ok, now we are getting somewhere. The name Baachoo, sounds familiar but I can't remember the context.

"Baachoo ran away from home. Maybe I thought I did," he adds.

"Phew! He's all here", I think.

"Who Baachoo, Anna?", I ask.

So he tells me about Baachoo.

Baachoo (Bhaskhar Rao) is Anna's second cousin.  Baachoo's father was my grandfather's cousin. His family lived on the same street as Anna's family. Baachoo was born some time between Anna's two younger brothers, Padukaka and Krishnakaka.

I ask Anna, "Why are you thinking of Baachoo suddenly? Did something happen to remind you of Baachoo? He will be an old man now."

I am wondering if there was a call about Baachoo. He doesn't tell me why he is thinking of his childhood cousin and friend.

He then tells me, "When Baachoo was 13 or 14, he ran away from home. The family saw him go to bed one night. When we woke up the next morning, he wasn't there. Poof!"

"Oh dear! That is so sad", I think.

"Anna, how did they find him?", I ask.

After a long pause, he smiles and says, "Do you remember, 'knowddi wodeno Baachoo!'" Loosely translated from Kannada, this means, "Watch what you are reading Baachoo!".

Now I remember the story of Baachoo.

Every afternoon and evening, Baachoo, would sit with Anna, Padukaka and Krishnakaka (Anna's two younger brothers) and study. And as was the fashion those days, they would sit crossed legged on the floor, books before them, and oscillate forward and backward as they read their lessons aloud.

One evening, Uncle Ramachandra Rao returned from work as Baachoo was diligently studying his English lesson. Baachoo's torso moved forward and backward, keeping pace with his sing-song voice that intoned four words endlessly, "The horse lays eggs. The horse lays eggs. The horse lays eggs."

Uncle Ramachandra Rao, didn't miss a step as he walked by and gently admonished his son with, "Knowddi wodeno Baachoo!" Watch what you are reading Baachoo!

The three brothers rolled on the floor with laughter. And for a long time when someone mucked up something in their studies the others would loudly say "Knowddi wodeno Baachoo!"

Anna smiles as he finishes the story. Thankfully the sad memories have ended with a happy one, and a smile.

Anna has never run away from home. 
Baachoo never returned home nor was found.
Losing a childhood companion must have been traumatic for Anna.
I still don't know why Anna thought he had run away or was thinking of Baachoo.