Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Scorpion in the Tamarind Jar

Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org
One of the most dangerous species of scorpions known to man is Hottentotta Tamulus.  Apparently its name is derived from the name of the Tamil people as it is found in abundance in Tamilnadu.  Its venom contains a very potent neuro-toxin known to cause fatalities in humans if not treated quickly. In the old days, it was quite common for people to die of a scorpion bite.

This is the story of Ananthalakshmi and the scorpion.

Ananthalakshmi was born into a middle class educated family at the beginning of the 20th century.  She was married to KP Venkatarao (KPV) when she was 6 years old and had her first child at 14. By the age of 22, Ananthalakshmi had four girls - Satyabhama (Bhama), Cauveri, Kamla, and Radha. Her fifth child she lost after carrying it to term.

Each of the girls were born in Ananthalakshmi's parents' home in Namakkal. So when it was time in 1928 for Ananthalakshmi's sixth childbirth, she went to her parents' home, four little girls in tow. A home that housed her father and his brothers' families.

Drumstick Hulli
During this sixth pregnancy, Ananthalakshmi craved hulli (sambar in Kannada), made extra sour with tamarind. Everyday when the hulli was ready, she took out a portion for herself and added a hefty portion of tamarind juice.

One summer afternoon, when the kitchen ran out of tamarind, Ananthalakshmi went to the outhouse storeroom to get some. In those days, most large homes had an outhouse storeroom - a windowless shed with thick insulating walls, built under leafy trees. This ensured that the storeroom stayed cool and fruit, vegetables, and groceries could be stored within easy reach of the kitchen. Grains were stored in sacks. Unripened bananas were hung upside-down. Spices, pickles, gur, and tamarind were kept in earthenware jars.
Traditional Earthenware Jars
Photo Courtesy www.tradeindia.com

Ananthalakshmi waddled into the dark storeroom and searched for the earthenware jar that contained the tamarind.  She found it on a shelf at the back of the room. Slipping the lid off with her left hand, she reached into the jar to pull out a fistful of tamarind.

To her horror, she felt the claws and legs of a scorpion brush her hand. Instantly she pulled her hand out of the jar, shut the lid, and screamed - long and loud.  Her terrified scream reverberated in the old house, calling every adult and child to come running to the rescue to the storeroom.

Scorpion Bomb
Photo Courtesy www.Smithsonianmag.com
That afternoon, the eldest male in the house was 12 year-old Sheshagiri Rao (of Salem Bananti fame). All the women in the household, looked at Sheshagiri Rao to be the brave soul to capture and kill the scorpion, so that Ananthalakshmi could have her specially sour hulli. After all, she was pregnant, and in this family, no one dared to deny a pregnant woman's wish.

Sheshagiri Rao, a boy on the cusp of manhood, keenly felt the pressure of the collective wish of the household to be brave. All the women said it. It was a man's duty after-all. Duty to be brave and protect women and children.  He could feel that pressure like warm viscous liquid in his veins even as fright turned his stomach to mush.

Photo Courtesy
Sheshagiri Rao, took a blanket and wrapped multiple layers over his arm and hand, punching the palm of his right hand with his left to create an indentation - creating something like a baseball mitt. He then gingerly entered the dark storeroom. His heart pounding hard, he made his way to the dangerous tamarind jar. Gathering all his courage, he whipped off the lid and rammed his blanket covered hand into the jar. His hand closed over the scorpion tightly and he pulled it out of the jar.

Triumphantly, he carried the blanket-covered captured scorpion out of the storeroom.  He then placed it under his foot and crushed the blanket-encased scorpion. The crunch of its exoskeleton could be heard by all.  For good measure, he jumped up and down on the blanket-encased scorpion, till it was pulverised into a chutney consistency.  The women of the household cheered his bravery and Sheshagiri Rao beamed with happiness.  He was then carried off to the kitchen for sweet lime water and ladoos in honour of his bravery.
Doesn't this look like a scorpion
 stuffed into a tamarind shell

Ananthalakshmi stayed behind, looking at the blanket-covered-chutney-consistency scorpion.  She was left with the task of cleaning-up the mess. She gathered the blanket and it's pulverised cargo, and took it to the hand-pump. With her right hand she pumped out water as she shook the blanket with her left hand.

Imagine her surprise as squashed and pulverised tamarind fell out of the blanket!!

There never was a scorpion in the tamarind jar.

For years, Sheshagiri Rao was teased mercilessly about his bravery.

On 28 Jun 1928, Ananthalakshmi gave birth to her fifth child, a boy. My father. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lets Throw Cancer Into the Mix!!

When Anna was first diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (PD) and Dementia, he researched these illnesses, by talking with his doctors and social workers, searching the internet, speaking with people who either had these diseases, or were caregivers to people who had these diseases (including his younger sister). He has known for over 8 years that he has an unrelenting and inescapable degenerative disease with no cure and very high variability in the rate of disease progression.

Photo Courtesy : http://narayanahealth.blogspot.in/

In the last stages of the disease, over 40% of patients die due to respiratory infections, mainly pneumonia. The other major cause of death is as a result of being unable to swallow (patients are often artificially fed through a PEG tube).

11 May 2016 - Anna having lunch
Anna knows all of this. We have talked about the symptoms / precursors of end-of-life. He does not want any extraordinary measures to prolong life. He wants only comfort care. His doctors and I know this.

I am used to Anna telling me that his throat is seizing-up, or that his voice is changing indicating that he is at the end-of-life stage.  I don't pay these comments too much attention as he is eating OK and I can understand what he is saying 95% of the time (no pronounced slurring).

A month ago he tells me that he has a growth in this chest and asks me to feel it.  I do. There is a hard hump that I believe is his rib protruding out of his shrinking chest. He is clearly losing weight. He has lost 10% of his body weight in ~10 months.  The weight loss is a cause of concern as less than one-third of patients survive a year after 10% weight loss in a 12 month period.

    Walking the Wheelchair  
October, 2015
Then one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, as I take him for his walk after 7pm (the heat is less oppressive then) he tells me that he has cancer. Cancer!

Anna: Sangeeta, the doctor came today.

Me: Really Anna? I thought the physiotherapist was not scheduled to come today.

Anna: Not that doctor.  The other one.

There is no other doctor who visits him at home, so I know that he has been dreaming or hallucinating.

Me (playing along): OK. And what did he say?

Anna: I have cancer.

Me: What???  

I am angry at the imaginary doctor for telling my father he has cancer! Couldn't they have talked with me before telling Anna?

Me (taking a deep breath): Anna, why does he say you have cancer?

Anna: There is a growth.

Me (unable to keep the disbelief from showing): Really?

Anna: Yes.  There is one at the top of my alimentary canal and one at the bottom.

I have no clue how to respond, so I don't.  We walk a little distance in silence.

Me:  Anna, do you remember that we went to the doctor a few weeks ago? At Neptune Hospital? For an enema?

Anna: Yes.

Me: Anna, we have never had a doctor come visit you at home. We always take you to the hospital.

Anna just absorbs this.  We walk a distance in silence till he gets tired and sits in his wheelchair.  We wheel him around the neighbourhood.

I decide to bring up the cancer again.

Me: Anna, no doctor came to visit you today.

Anna: OK.  Pause. Are you sure?

Me (nodding): Yes Anna. I am sure. Very sure.

Long pause.

Anna: It must have been a dream then.

Me (feeling relieved): Yes. It must have been a dream.


 Me: Anna, isn't having Parkinson's and Dementia enough?  Why do you want to add cancer to the mix?

Anna (lets out a gurgle-giggle): I suppose so.

Me (driving home my point):  Anna, if you had cancer we would have to start treatment. Chemotherapy or radiation. Remember how terrible chemo was for Amma? And she had 32 sessions of it!!

Anna (nodding): Yes, she had so much chemotherapy. Your mother was a brave woman.


Anna: I would refuse treatment if I had cancer.

Me: Anna, that would be painful. Very painful. Why would you want to live in pain?

Long pause.

Anna: Because, then I would die soon.

I have nothing more to say. He has had the last word.

My mother, Amma, was a ~19 year cancer survivor.
She survived stomach / gastric lymphosarcoma.

Amma passed away in 2011 of multiple organ failure brought on by septicemia after an emergency pacemaker insertion.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Life Lessons I Imbibed From My Father

I am my father's primary caregiver. He has Parkinson's Disease and the tables have turned on the traditional father-child relationship.

My father pleased with himself after eating 
one of his favourite sweet dishes
In honour of father's day when I was asked to write about the lessons learnt from my father, my mind drew a blank.

My father, Anna, did not teach me in the traditional sense - with chalk & board or paper & pencil.  He encouraged my questions.  He gave me experiences. He played games, read comic books, acted goofy. He asked me brain twisters and debated with me. He shared stories. He cracked jokes. He spent time with me. As he did with all my siblings.

And thru' all of these shared experiences, I imbibed learnings.

Amma and Anna in the late 1960s / early 70s
I learnt about doing what's right for the larger group, whatever the cost. Like when Anna decided to give up a well paid UN job to come home to India, to ensure that his kids grew up with Indian values (whatever that means!). We often would ask Anna why he did not complete the mandatory time needed to earn a full UN pension (the money would have definitely made a difference to our quality of life). He would respond with, "We wanted you to grow up in India.  With your uncles, aunts, cousins nearby. Where you could imbibe our culture. Where we could keep you away from bad influences for a longer period of time."

I learnt that respecting a person's decision is important. Like when I decided to change schools when I was 15 years old.  I was tired of studying in a girls-only convent school.  It felt as if I was bound in restraints. So I researched the schools in the area and decided to join DPS, RK Puram.  I filled and submitted all the documents needed. Then came the time to pay the fees, and I had no money.  I went to Anna and asked him for the money. Anna just asked me questions to see if my decision-making was logical, and then said, "Don't you think I have the right to check out the school my daughter wants to go to?" I said yes. He visited the school. The fees were paid.

I learnt to listen, understand, and extrapolate. Like when deciding what subjects to study in high school. Anna, had me meet with various professionals - doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, chartered accountants, etc. to understand what a career in their field meant, how their qualifications helped them, what would studying a different subject area done / not done for them in their careers. I listened to them and still did not know what job I wanted to pursue.  So, I chose to study Commerce and Economics, for they seemed to be the subjects that had the most options for further study or work.

I learnt to laugh and make others laugh.  Like Anna and his friends. At a gathering, Anna was always surrounded by laughing people.  He would have an appropriate joke or repartee for any occasion. He never forgot a joke in the middle of telling it.  Once when I asked him how he did it.  He said, "Read as many jokes as you can. Remember funny incidents and turns-of-phrase. When a conversation triggers a memory of one of these, tell it so that it makes you laugh. The others will join in if your laugh is genuine."

I learnt about work ethic. Like when Anna would be one of the few government servants to reach office by 9 am everyday, or work on weekends to complete comments on a file on time, or go to work even when the city was shut down after Indira Gandhi's assassination, delivering on promises and commitments.  His take was - work is worship. If you want to work, then work has to be done, and done well.  Otherwise it is not work and you are fooling around.

Photo from DepositPhotos.com
I learnt the importance of living within my means, financially.  Like when he refused to send me on a school trip. Because there just wasn't enough money. For days, my eyes were swollen from crying, but he wouldn't budge.  Finally, Anna asked me to write down all household expenditures for the month, and promised that, if at the end of the month I believed there was money to spare for a school trip, I could go.  I wrote accounts diligently. At the end of the month there was no money left. I did not go on that school trip.  I still write accounts. I still live within my means.

I learnt to be childlike at any age.  Like driving on "bumpy" road. This was a road that had lots of small undulations so that when we drove on it, it felt like we were jumping on a mattress on our bums.  It gave our Volkswagen's shock absorbers a run for its money, but Anna took us over that road as often as he could. Anna loved bumpy road too.  It was shared enjoyment. We laughed with glee.  Poor Amma said it made her feel sick, but bore it 'cause the five of us liked it.

I learnt about dignity of labour. Like when Anna made us wash and clean the car on weekends.  Not because we could not afford to employ someone to clean the car, but because, "If you are going to enjoy the benefits of having a car, you have to know how to maintain it." Our neighbours were shocked that the Murthi's had their daughters' doing grunge work. Amma and Anna didn't care and neither did we.

I learnt to be spontaneous. Like going to the movies.  We'd be eating dinner at 8pm when Anna would ask for the name of the movie running at Chanakya Theatre. If we wanted to see it, the six of us would finish eating, clearing the table, changing clothes, closing windows and doors, locking the flat, tumbling into the car, and driving to reach the movie theatre by 8:50pm to buy tickets and be seated in time for the 9 pm show.  We never missed an ad or a trailer.
Still so many places to visit!!
I learnt to love travel and new experiences. Like when we would visit more than one place on a holiday - city or attractions.  It was never, "We are going to India." It was, "We are going to India. On our way back we are stopping in Greece and Italy." We visited parks and plazas, churches and temples, palaces and museums, restaurants and zoos, beaches and factories. I believe that my parents had wings under their feet, for they were always ready for a trip. As I am now.

I learnt about treating people with dignity. Always. Like when Anna told Amma not to yell at me in front of my friend, after I had been missing for hours.  From school I had gone to my friend's place, and from there to a temple on the outskirts of the city. I had missed the scheduled return-to-home time by hours. They had been worried sick and out looking for me till past dinner time. Anna first dropped my friend home. Then told me to think about my behaviour and tell Amma and him what I had done that had upset them.  I am a stickler for time now.

Tho' I am writing this about what I learnt from my father, in honour of Father's Day, I do think that it would be remiss if I did not mention my mother at all.  I learnt some of these things from her too. And some others that were unique to her and from her.

I learnt from them without knowing that I was learning. And I think that is the best part.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Swimming, Murthi Style

Bhavani River
Photo Courtesy www.Indianetzone.com

My father, Anna, loved to swim. Perhaps because he grew up in Kumarapalyam, a town on the shores of the great Bhavani river. The river is revered, yet it was and hopefully still is, a playground for young children like Anna and his brothers. Cheenu (Anna), Padu, and Krishna did not have formal swimming lessons as kids do now-a-days, they taught themselves to float and swim in an open river by just jumping in!

In the late 60s Anna was posted in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad & Tobago, an island in the West Indies. It was an island, and hence Anna thought it was critical that we all learn to swim.

Trinidad District Map
Before Anna let us swim in the open sea, he took us to the pool at the West India Club. My first attempts at swimming consisted of running wildly around the pool and jumping in whenever and wherever I felt like it, to surface a few seconds later, many grams heavier with all the chlorinated water I swallowed. This was followed by the mighty flaying of hands and legs, spluttering all the time, trying to reach and hold on to the edge of the pool. Then pulling myself to the nearest stairs so that I could climb out of the pool, to run around it again and jump in at will!

(c) Phil Shaw
I was often asked if I was scared of drowning.  There was no need for me to say "Yes" or "No" for "Anna will save me!" Of course, there was a life guard, on duty at all times. But as a child, I thought that the life guard's purpose was to help others, not me, for I had my father and he was the person who would always save me.

Soon, Anna realised that it would be better for us to formally learn to swim vs splashing around. My younger sister and I were enrolled in swimming classes at the West India Club. We were taught how to float, how to hold our breath under water, how to paddle, how to swim freestyle and do backstroke. We even got certificates that stated each of these as distinct skills!

It's then that we graduated to the beach. Beautiful Maracas Bay.

Maracas Bay, Trinidad
Swimming in a pool is very different from swimming in the sea. At Maracas Bay, Anna taught us how to wade into the sea, presenting our backs to the waves as they hit us. We learnt how to float on the water beyond the waves. We learnt how to position ourselves so that the farthermost wave could carry us, face down, all the way to shore, scraping hands and knees.

Every weekend, when the weather was good we'd go to the beach, a 30 min drive from home. When the weather wasn't, we'd be at the club.  

Soon the five of us, (Anna + 4 kids) became well known for being in and around water bodies (including running around sprinkler systems in the garden).  Our parents friends started to ask Anna to take their children to the pool or the beach. They would even drop and pick them up.  I now suspect that it was a way for many parents to get 3-5 hours of peace each weekend.

Shark Sandwich at Bake and Shark
Maracas Bay, Trinidad
Photo Courtesy www.amazing-trinidad-vacations.com

So we got used to spending our beach / pool time with other kids. Collecting shells and scrapes. Eating shark sandwiches.  Drying out in the sun.

I think the maximum number of children Anna has taken out to swim has been 9. Each one a little younger than the next, so that when we stood in age order, our decreasing heights created a downward sloping line.

The story goes, that on one such occasion, when Anna had taken us all out to swim, a Trinidadian came up to Anna and asked him, in all seriousness:

"Mr. Murthi .... Are these all your children or have you left some at home?"

Now when Anna hears this line, he remembers the water and sun, the pride of children playing free, and his face lights up with a smile.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Most Famous Pregnancy in all of Salem (Salem Bananti)

Krishna Drishta
Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)
In our extended family, there is a special place for pregnant women and nursing mothers (in Kannada the term used for nursing mothers is "bananti"). When pregnant or nursing, women in our family are paid special attention by all - fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws, the cook, the cleaner, the street hawker, et al. They are treated like queens - given special food to eat, new clothes, massages, jewellery, etc. A wish by a pregnant or nursing mother is a command by a higher being, and it has to be implemented post haste. It doesn't matter whether the child is a boy or girl. What matters is that the mother and child are healthy and happy, and stay that way.

My earliest recollection of special treatment, is my mother telling us stories of how she would crave for something (ice cream, mango, peas, etc) when she was pregnant and my father, Anna, would roam the city, sometimes late at night, just to fulfil her wish.

When we made a fuss, or wanted special treatment, Amma and Anna would shake their head slowly and sadly, and say, "We have a Salem Bananti in our home!"

Salem Bananti was the name given to THE most famous pregnant / nursing person in all of Salem district. The one that caused the entire Namakkal household of my paternal grandmother (Ajji) to run around satisfying the needs, and wishes, and whims of one person. This one person was Ajji's cousin, a mere 12 years older than my father and considered the most intelligent in the family.

Thomas Beatie (with his wife and children)
made headlines when he gave birth
 after becoming a transgendered man

Photo: James Ambler / Barcroft USA via Facebook
Salem Bananti's real name was Sheshagiri Rao. A man!  Not a woman. A boy who had been fussed over by every woman in the family and grew up to be a fussy man.  A boy that the family touted as the most intelligent person they had seen (till Anna and his siblings bet his marks and rankings in school). A boy who grew up to become the Post Master of Namakkal Taluka.

Anna does not remember why such a fuss was made of Sheshagiri Rao. All he remembers is that there was always a great fuss about things. Mundane things. Things like the famous South Indian weekly oil bath.

Old Water Heater Design
On the appointed day of the weekly oil bath, the entire family routine would be upset as Salem Bananti's mother would spend extra time picking similar sized wood for the wood-fired cauldron that would heat the water. Then she would find the window thru' which there was uninterrupted sunlight, and make him sit in its path so that she could massage him with oil till his skin shone as it absorbed the heat of the sun with the oil. It is said that his head was thumped with so much oil that oil would drip from his eyes.

Then she would go to the bathroom to draw water for his bath, for only she could determine the right temperature. And when he finished his bath, he would lay on a bed, with his head hanging over the side, a thin malabar towel draped like a tent, covering his hair and a samrani (a wood fired small angeethi), so that his hair would dry fast, preventing him from catching a cold. This is how pregnant and nursing mothers' hair was quickly dried in the old days. On special occasions, his mother would sprinkle sandalwood powder on the samrani so that his hair smelled fragrant!  Salem Bananti got the same treatment till the day he died, for these rituals were passed mother to wife.

It wasn't just the fuss over his bath. If Salem Bananti caught a cold or fever, the entire household came to a standstill, for everyone had to take care of him, from trying out new home remedies, to finding the culprit who caused Sheshagiri Rao to fall ill!

Stag Brand Umbrellas
Still being sold at Ebrahim Currim & Sons
As an adult, Sheshagiri Rao was famous for the umbrellas that never left his side. He  carried around 4 umbrellas - one to protect him from the sun, one from the rain, one from the wind, and one from any weather pattern not covered by the previous three. And these were not simple umbrellas - only Stag umbrellas would do.

When I asked Anna, how Sheshagiri Rao's wife and kids dealt with his extreme fussiness, he said, "They did what was asked of them. It was a man's world those days, and he would get what he wanted, as and when he wanted. Simple."

So now when Anna is "all there" i.e. not hallucinating or disoriented, and he makes a huge fuss, I ask him why he is behaving like Salem Bananti.  He normally smiles at this and we share a laugh at how Sheshagiri Rao's short hair was dried by the heat of a samrani like a pregnant / nursing woman's!