Monday, February 06, 2017

Rose cookies

It is the longest I’ve stayed away from that which will always be home - three and a half years. Bai opened one padlock, turned the key three times in another lock and I entered the home whose doors were seldom locked. Never when one came home. Everything was as it is, as it was. I did not turn to look at the empty chair where mummy sat. Always, for the past many years. I would enter and she would lean forward for my hug and I would each time be surprised at how little there was of her, how she was slowly shrinking in that corner chair – invisible if you didn’t know where to look for her but very much the vantage point for her to know what was going on in the house. Earlier, she had sat on the chair by the window, next to the phone and each time the gate opened with its distinct metal clank, she lifted the lace curtain to look out. Outside this window, she would have Bai place pots of seasonal flowers so she would always see those.

I entered the kitchen without looking around. I had my woolens to wash. Everything was in its place – the plates, the bowls, the pans all in their slots so permanent that one never had to think before reaching out for the slightly dented ande-wala pan, or the good peeler. I did not look at the pantry knowing it may be empty, a sight I did not want my memories to be overlapped with. Straightaway, I lifted the lid and tossed my clothes into the washing machine telling myself I knew exactly how to run it. At first, it didn’t start. This was my home, these were familiar things, I cannot forget, I chided myself. The water inlet was turned off, of course. I watched my sweaters take half-spins as the familiar, soft whirr wafted through the silent house. 

I had to show Bai the carton I wanted and we entered my parents’ bedroom. Except for the disconcerting stillness, there was nothing amiss. In the corner, where the two cupboards met, stood Papa’s chair. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It was always in the Study and later in a corner of the drawing-room. In this unreachable, unsittable corner, it meant disuse. It meant it would not be used anymore. Nothing here was meant for use anymore. All the memories of that chair, of the father bent over books, and papers and typewriters on a table yet never too busy to be interrupted to be dropped to a friend’s place, to sample my first dum aloo, to take me swimming or to the French class. I came out before Bai turned to look and did not go into the other room that had once belonged to me.

I went again the next day to find the carton with my things. My school report cards, greeting cards, the Cherry Chimes, the school dairies were all in there as was the big book of knitting that I will never be able to decode but reading which mummy knitted for us sweater after sweater in soft wool with complicated cables patterns. We packed what I wanted and left.

I went back. To Mummy’s cupboard. I told myself it was to look if there may be something of mine there – the school badge maybe – Blue House. But there was only a neat row of her well-worn, soft sarees. All familiar – in which she had sat reading the newspaper by the window, her long white hair braided into a low bun; which she wore to go saree shopping for me; which she wore to make the murrabba, the mattris, the kadhi, the kachoris, the achaars and in which she stood looking as I left, my sobs swelling in my throat till we turned the corner and she could see me no more. I touched the still sarees lightly. Then I gripped them with both my hands and buried my head into them, sniffing hard, praying that I smell her, praying that as I reach through the soft material I will find her soft body and touch her one last time.

The two days I had were full but I could not go back after three and a half years without meeting the Mehras across the road and the Grewals at the far end of the lane. The Mehra kids grew up calling her Naniji like the other grandchildren and with the Grewals, the ties go deep and back many decades. We have kept in touch over Facebook and phone so there was a bridge over the memories where we met and talked of the present – work, families, this one and that.

I finally gathered enough courage to walk to Masih auntie’s house a short distance from mummy’s. I didn’t realize I was coming after so long that I had to ask a passing child where she lived. Auntie took time opening the door and looked at me surprised. The familiar gold hoops still hung at the very edge of her elongated ear lobes and the cheeks had gone more hollow. She shuffled on her feet and we sat side by side on the sofa. The house was dark, the tube light in the hall had conked off. She was apologetic, ‘So many times I have called the electrician but they don’t come.’ Then she began talking of ‘teri ma’. 

She was there when I was born in March, in the hospital rocking me on her lap while correcting exam papers, she tells me. She got me a black shift dress with sequins on the front for the song I loved to sing – badan pe sitare. This she doesn’t have to tell me. This is family folklore. She and mummy baked the most fragrant and moist cakes in the big oven with the red door that was the size of a doll house and was kept on the gas flame for baking. They measured each ingredient holding it up on a scale, a real tarazu, against eggs. They discussed knitting patterns and mummy went to make her perfect, each-grain separate, khila-khila pulao when Masih auntie gave parties. Yet, they never called each other by their first names. Mummy always called her Mrs Masih and she called her, Mrs Tripathi.

So she sat on the sofa next to me talking about Mummy. There was nothing else to talk about. A raw, pulsating wound that time will not heal lay exposed between us. She was not wearing her hearing aid so I could not speak. She talked about the wonderful days with teri ma. She pointed to, behind me at the table where she has kept Mummy’s framed photo. I did not turn to look. She said she walks up to our house daily and misses teri ma.

I had steeled myself for this homecoming for three and a half years. I don’t easily cry in front of others. I did not cry when I saw the photos of my parents hanging in the closed house, nor when I found the refrigerator switched on as it had been for the last three and a half years, or when the washing machine ran just like it had done mummy’s clothes yesterday, nor when I did not see the madhumalti with its fragrant bunches of pink and white hugging the pillar on the porch, or when I woke up in the bedroom upstairs and saw in the pale morning light the harshingar that I would look at from my bedroom downstairs, standing on tiptoes to reach the windows to make me feel at home. And here I was, tears rolling down my face so silent, so easy that it seemed wrong to wipe them away. I hoped that in the failing light she would not notice but thankfully she only said, tu mat ro. Like the entire loss was hers to bear, like she had to free me of the grief so I could go away again while she walked up to our house to look at it from outside, never walking in pushing the front door open and letting herself inside, to sit through mummy’s silence or her chiding – why don’t you wear your hearing aid? And why won’t your sugar be high, you ate two burfees yesterday… and then eat a meal together.

Nursing a cold, I woke up this morning craving comfort and ate the two last rose cookies before the absurdity of eating cookies first thing in the morning could begin to gnaw. A cast iron cookie mould must lie somewhere in the unused kitchen of my mother’s house. Rose cookies she and Masih auntie made when we were children. I must have watched fascinated as the flower shaped mould was dipped into the sweet batter first and then gently eased into a kadhai brimming with hot oil. The kadhai would have soon filled up with flowers swimming on the oil, flowers the size of our palms. 

PS: I wrote this after I came back from Bhopal and did not think Masih auntie would follow Mummy so soon. Today, February 6, 2017, Masih aunty left us to be with her favourite people above. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

So subterranean

So subterranean

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Nov 13, 2016,
War witness

bunker tales. The entrance to Battlebox, formerly a network of bunkers built during WWII. (Photo by author).

‘We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.’ 
Robert Frost’s lines came to mind as we walked into the underground bunkers that were the British army headquarters in Singapore during World War II. Nearly four decades after it was abandoned, this underground facility, sitting under the tranquil Fort Canning in the middle of the bustling city-state, was discovered serendipitously by a young journalist.

The Battlebox, as it is called, was a bomb-proof network of bunkers which served as the Command Centre for the 1,00,000 strong British and Commonwealth forces, among them 60,000 Indians, along with Australians and Malayans during the Battle of Singapore in 1945. It was here that Britain’s decision to surrender to the Japanese was taken, which, in Churchill’s words, was the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Pathway paradise
So, beyond the Sentosas and the safaris, there is this fascinating colonial-district walking trail for history buffs. Finding all guided tours booked, we decided to DIY. I read up on the Internet, printed out maps, and highlighted the milestones and monuments. Taxis go right up to the Fort Canning Centre, but we preferred the slow exploration on foot. So armed with my notes, a good breakfast, hat, water and walking shoes, we began our climb to the Fort from the rear (Clemenceau Avenue / River Valley Road). It’s a scenic elevation to the top, with the walking path spiralling through lush green grass and canopied by majestic heritage trees.

The trail is wonderfully aided with plaques carrying bits of Singapore’s history from as early as the 12th century. The hill was then called the Bukit Larangan, which in Malay means the Forbidden Hill, presumably to keep the commoners away as it was the sacred burial grounds of Malay rulers, or because a natural spring flowed there, where the royal ladies bathed.

When Sir Stamford Raffle, the founder of modern Singapore, landed in Singapore in 1819 and the British consolidated their presence, this hill came to be known as the Government Hill. Raffle built a house here, which no longer exists. In 1859, the Government Hill was renamed Fort Canning Hill after the Governor General and first Viceroy of India, Lord Canning. By the 1920s it had become the headquarters and barracks of the British army.

Today, there is no fort on the top, only the underground reservoir which was constructed in 1926. We walked past the reservoir and saw one of the remaining gates of the fort and the two remaining structures of the Old Married Soldiers’ Quarters. As we began our descent to the other side and stopped to look at the only remaining sally port, we met two gentlemen coming out of the bunkers. One of them was the tour guide of the Battlebox. We learnt that the Battlebox Museum had officially opened for viewing only on June 28, 2016, after a two-year restoration. We decided to take the guided tour.
The tour through the bunker that was built in the 1930s took us back in time to February 15, 1942, the day that marked the British Army’s humiliating defeat.

On a bunker tour

The Battlebox has been recreated to resemble the crucial days of deliberations and difficult decisions. Complete with wax figures of the military officers in charge, led by the GOC Malaya Command, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, it exudes the gloom and helplessness before the surrender. It was a state-of-the-art communication facility that today displays, very authentically, some interesting mock-ups like that of the original telephone exchange and the Guns Operations Room with a plotting table. One of the three original, huge air-filtration plants to counter gas attacks, emergency power generators, the emergency rooftop exit, and the toilets marked Clerks (with original graffiti) and Officers, many war artefacts, war maps are also on display. The narrative is suitably augmented by several real film footages. It debunks many myths about the reasons for the British surrender, presenting the dismal circumstances due to food and water shortages and the heavy loss of civilian and military lives.

Hollow years
After the British surrender, the Japanese are believed to have used at least the signals rooms till the end of occupation in 1945. When the British returned to Singapore after the war, Fort Canning became the military headquarters; the Battlebox, which had been stripped bare by looters, lay abandoned. It was forgotten in the years that followed, which saw the merger of Singapore with Malaysia in 1963, and its consequent independence in 1965 when the army moved out of Fort Canning and the Singapore Command and Staff College came up in its place. During this time, it was decided to seal the Battlebox off lest someone strayed in and lost their way in the labyrinth. It was 20 years later, in 1988, that a young journalist, on an investigative beat, discovered the Battlebox entrance just as he was giving up hope of finding it. Refurbished, it now offers us a gripping account of history.

The Battlebox tour is undoubtedly the most intriguing experience at Fort Canning, but also on the grounds are several other historical monuments and relics of the past like the Gothic gate, Cupolas, the first Christian cemetery, Arts Centre, Spice Garden, the first ‘Experimental and Botanical Garden’, and a nine-pound cannon.

Holding our tongues

Holding our tongues

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, September 11, 2016
I watched fascinated as my English-speaking neighbour broke into fluent Marathi with her husband.

They are both Maharashtrians from Bombay, but have lived abroad for many years before settling down in Bangalore. I asked if her daughters speak in Marathi, too. No, she said. “Every time we spoke to them in Marathi, they replied in English,” she added. Now in their 20s, both girls have lost touch with their native tongue.

An Australian friend once remarked how wonderful it was that most of us, Indians, knew at least two languages. In cosmopolitan India, in an increasingly aspirational, upwardly-mobile society where all barriers of religion and region are fast-blurring, English, which was the language spoken outside home, is fast becoming the language spoken at homes, with immediate family. Many urban Indian families are now completely English-speaking.

The use of the term ‘mother tongue’ may be unsuitable in our evolving awareness and sensitivity to gender roles, and we’re better off calling it the ‘native’ or the ‘first’ language — still meaning the ‘mother tongue’ — the language the child hears first and is spoken to by the immediate carer, still more often than not, a mother. The acquisition of the mother tongue is instinctive and natural. The child hears the language spoken by the parents, grandparents, older siblings and other family members and learns it from them. These days, children hear and learn English. Whose is the mother tongue?

Shifting family dynamics; mixed-marriages — what was earlier grouped within the term ‘inter-caste’ but are actually inter-regional, inter-religion or inter-cultural; movement of people across states and countries; and greater awareness of different cultures through the medium of social networks are some of the reasons that have set in motion this change in our linguistic makeup.

In mixed marriages, where both parents do not speak the same native language, they generally prefer to talk to their children in English. To some extent it also helps circumvent the sticky question of which of the two native languages should be taught or would take precedence. Sandra’s children speak only English, which is her own mother tongue, while her husband Soumik’s is Bengali. Soumik would like the children to know Bengali, and tries to speak with them in it, but the kids, not having heard it spoken at home, are conscious of their halting Bangla. The conversations don’t get too far. 

Alisha’s mother tongue would be Haryanvi, if she was called upon to name one, but having lived across the country as a defence kid, Hindi is what came to her naturally. When she married a Mangalorean, she never felt the need to learn his native tongue, Tulu. Their two school-going kids picked up Hindi living in Delhi. Alisha could not teach the kids Tulu. She thinks the onus was on the father. Does language become a barrier when they visit the husband’s side of the family, especially with elderly members and those who speak only Tulu? Yes, it does, she concedes, but it’s not such a problem that will make her learn a new language that she has no ear for.

In migrating for work, people are increasingly moving from joint family set-ups. The elders who cared for or stayed with the kids and from whom they picked the native tongues are generally absent from their early lives. How do kids who speak only in English converse with their grandparents who do not speak the language? Many parents admitted that living in different cities and countries, the children meet grandparents only occasionally and get by somehow, adding of course that communication does not really need a language. Very interestingly, in a reverse learning situation, one parent in a mixed marriage shared that when her kids started to speak in English, grandparents on both sides who spoke Tamil and Hindi decided it was a great opportunity for them to start learning English too. This, we know, is not uncommon. More and more grandparents are learning the language of their grandkids — English.

Nanny tongue, local tongue
Raghu, a restaurateur whose mother tongue is Tamil and his wife’s is Hindi, does not think mixed marriages are as much the reason for teaching kids English as is the phobia of school admissions. Nursery school admission, flawed and random as they are, place undue weightage on the child’s ‘interview’ — their ability to understand and respond to questions in English. I know of a harried mother who taught her pre-kindergarten child the name of each object in two languages, in the mother tongue and in English — kela-banana, water-paani. This is more likely to confuse the child and lead them to prefer one language over the other, and maybe gradually end up learning only one language properly. Languages each have their own, unique flow, rhythm and idiom. They cannot be acquired by words alone.

The school admission phobia did not bother Priya Singh, a software professional who let her toddler learn Hindi, their first language. Priya was very clear from the beginning that home was where her kid would learn Hindi. As for the all-important English, she was confident the child would pick it in no time playing with other kids and at school.

Raghu’s daughter picked up Hindi from her nanny. Many other kids of working parents, left with ayahs at home or in crèches, acquire as their primary language the language of their carers. I recently met a nine-year old who is fluent in four languages — the Hindi of his nanny, Spanish of his mother, Bengali of his father and English. The early years are the best time for children to learn to speak in native languages. Parents who did not think it a good idea when their kids were small, have regretted it later when they meet kids fluent in their first languages and well as in English.

First languages have emotions attached to them. And emotions are best expressed in one’s first language. Rahul, a Tamilian married to Swati from UP, concurs. Their two school-going children speak in English. As busy software professionals, they left the kids at day-care and English was the language the kids learnt to express themselves in. Sometimes now, Rahul wishes his kids would understand Tamil, especially when he has to paraphrase expressions that are best captured in his own tongue.

Another way we acquire language, especially a local language, is through social interactions — with neighbours and those we interact with in the course of our day — the house-help, drivers, istriwalas, security guards, subziwalas and shopkeepers. But changing lifestyles have impacted this too. Shopping malls and large chain grocery stores have little need for interpersonal communication — whatever little exchanges are required are carried out in English that most salespersons and attendants these days are equipped with.

For Indians moving from one state to another, there used to be the regional language barrier between them and the locals. English has obliterated this to a great extent. Two decades ago, all the local words that I learnt at the subzimandi — kottambari, soppu, batani, sapota, ondu, eradu, eydu, are redundant today. Even the subziwalas call fruits and vegetables by their English names. But of course, when it comes to demolishing barriers of the heart, the one thing we can do is to talk with the locals in their language. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

First language first

Living in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, referred to as ‘little Kolkata’, where Bengali is the street language, I asked a two-year old playing House what she was cooking. “I’m making tarkari,” she replied, and looking up at me, immediately corrected herself and said, “subzi”. The child knew I did not speak Bengali and she also had the Hindustani vocabulary to translate for me.

Children have an amazing ability to assimilate. They learn sounds and pronunciation by mimicking. It is a myth that they cannot learn two or more languages at the same time and that it will confuse them. When the child is still acquiring the first language, they can as easily acquire a second and a third one. Parents’ anxiety on this account is totally unfounded. Sometimes children may mix up languages, but that they do while learning just one language too.

By not teaching our children our first languages first, we may be bringing up a generation that knows and uses only English. Besides losing our native languages, we may be losing out on other advantages that multilingual children and adults have. Several studies have shown that multilingual people are better adjusted, more adaptable, and have more acceptance of cultural differences. Learning at least two languages makes people more receptive to more languages. All the fears of children not being able to learn ‘good English’ later are unfounded. “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” (Geoffrey Willans)

Run out of lemons, I sat eating moong sprouts and commented that there would have been a great izafa in the taste with a dash of lemon. Sure enough, the daughter asks, “What’s ‘izafa’?” Translating the Urdu word into Hindi or English would have been like explaining a joke. Go figure! I tell her.

Emerald Blades (Poetry review)

Of silence crying

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Jul 10, 2016
Emerald Blades, Reijul Sachdev, Leadstart, 2016, pp 148, Rs. 175
Emerald Blades
Reijul Sachdev
2016, pp 148
Rs. 175

Come beside me into darkness,
Where Madness waits and Beauty sings;
Come walk beside me in the moonlight
And sing to me of wilder things.

These lines from the poem Wilder Things, from this collection by Reijul Sachdev, scores full on form and content and is among the finest ones in this collection along with Ebony and Ivory, Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free, and Lies in Darkness. The jacket blurb mentions that the poems spring from Sachdev’s experience as a borderline schizophrenic. Let that not deceive the reader into thinking this collection is dark or depressing. The mood is far from defeatist.

It is of a mind trying to keep itself steady by shutting out the ‘creatures of the mind’. In the light of this, his heightened sensibilities, the title becomes plain — blades of grass that can appear as double-edged swords and alternatively as nature’s bounty offering succour. The colour emerald or green is representative of balance; of that which creates the equilibrium between reason and emotions. 

The dialectic between the emotional, joyous response to idyllic scenes of nature, of letting oneself go and that of a world-weariness, of being confined to a life of duties is a major theme. Like a mind meandering as a stream carving its course, he allows himself and the reader the beauty of the journey but stops short at the fall. His rational mind cautions and he knows that once on the brink, the only way forward is to return. 

So when life seems harsh and men unjust,
Know this is meant to be 
And do not hearken to the tunes 
Of the wild things running free. 
(Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free)

There are poignant lines that suggest the heroic effort of one resisting ‘the heady pull of seductive suicide’; and flashes of depression. He writes of an entire suicidal episode in Remembered Glory; ‘A terrible anger to destroy’ in Intoxicating; of the ‘Mind’s own endless night’ in Masquerade; and ‘Like the man who talks to himself / To keep from hearing the silence crying,’ in Out of Tune. There is also a keen awareness that success brings both gratification and challenges:

But while each hill when bathed in 
Helps uplift our weary mood, 
Every summit in the darkness 
Is a lonely place to brood.
(To The Hill-T).

There are recurring themes of regret, old age, guilt, falling, loneliness, the pain of beauty and happiness, society as a prison, death, destiny and the world of eternal duty. Juxtaposed as these are with the images of nature — sea of emerald grass, golden hues of the sun, silver skies, mauve twilights — there is a brilliant play of colours and symbols. The symbolism of the moon which heightens distress, or the wind which scatters friends and dreams, hold up the harmony.

Poetry has to be read with intuition. There is lilt and cadence in simple lines that draws the reader in: 

When walking in the woodlands, 
Listening to the breeze, 
Rolling in the meadows, 
Talking to the trees.
(Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free)

Some poems in this collection are too suffused with images and words which could have been gently trimmed to make the narrative taut. But there is much that is beautiful and profound here, as in the poem Rainbow’s End, just as I was growing a little weary of the derivative images, a sudden turn of phrase and thought sprung a fresh surprise:

If you didn’t take things for granted,
Then you’d know which one is true:
Have you been chasing after my gold? 
Or has my gold been chasing you?

Sachdev, who admits to being a classicist, has kept to it in form and diction. The poems are peppered with mythical references — Midas, Oedipus, Arthur, Adam, Odin, the tower of Babel, Camelot, magic, rainbows and pots of gold, leprechauns, nymphs, faeries, warriors, travellers and many archaic spellings and expressions like the ‘mead of twilight’, ‘sally forth’, ‘good sir’. The rhyming is a little forced in places and multisyllabic words take away from the fluidity of the poems.

There are images that do not blend well, as in the poem Intoxicating, the leitmotif is of life brewing as wine and yet, in the middle of it comes the clichéd image of the patchwork quilt of memories. In Silent Space and Moonlighting, the first-person narrative changes to the third person abruptly. Even if used as a poetic device, it is to no great effect. Each image, every word, must enhance the core of a poem. This rawness in Sachdev’s craft can acquire a polish with a little help, perhaps from a sensitive mentor.

Some of these poems should certainly find place in modern Indian anthologies. This is a courageous debut collection that validates the fact that poetry heals.