February 27, 2003

my mini kitchen garden is

my mini kitchen garden is showing signs of life at last…this time it’s coriander, tomato and onions, and soon spinach, beans and nimbus…the gardener in me is slowly gearing up for spring!




February 26, 2003

of books and nations…

alienation through work

to me it really makes no difference
helping you in the kitchen
but sometimes i now miss
these hesitant half-moments
leaning against the doorpost and looking at you
the way you put a breakfast together
with your whole body

you always measured out the tea
pinch by pinch
in the hollow of your left hand
and with your teeth
tore a packet of sliced cheese open
the frigidaire door
you shut with your thigh
and crushed the bulky egg cartons
with your wooden soled shoes

you always pushed with your elbow
saucepans off the cooker top
and placed others on it, hardly to be lifted
with both hands

you always had these pan handles
in one hand
and a cookie in the other
and a cloth slipping off your shoulder
when any liquid spilled on the floor
and you with bare toes
pulled a floorcloth out and wiped it up
as if a lathe were underneath your foot

and puffcheeked like a sleepy angel
with a slightly distant look
you always blew on the boiling milk
and the five-minute eggs you put
hot into the breast-pocket of your bathrobe

it was always such a relief
to notice how with complete confidence
you could take a hold on anything in the mornings
self-oblivious and with an agility
which made me feel at one with you
at first sight

now when i stand beside you in the kitchen
and in my own way
attentively cope with things
i no longer have my eyes on you
and since we really began to be together
i have stopped feeling deep down
how it really is
when you and i begin a day

i am closer to you perhaps
but you are always
half an hour
ahead of me now”

–karin kiwus, 1976.
translated from german by christopher middleton.

i have been reading a lot lately. novels, short stories, translations… and this was one poem i just had to share with all readers of entelechy.

among some of the refreshing changes that i saw in this country when i first came here — such as the unending motorway, superstores, roads with pedestrian priorities and huge shopping centres with facilities for the disabled (complete with braille-buttons in elevators, beeping traffic signals, talking newspapers, footpaths that slanted to the road for wheelchairs and many more), toilets with machines that dispensed sanitary napkins, tampons and condoms for a tiny fee, internet booths, pay-and-fill petrol pumps and self-checkout tills… — the (huge!) library is probably one place i would find it difficult to live without.

since they’re owned by the councils, membership is free and based on where you live and what you do for a living. you can sometimes take up to eight books on your (library-) card, and of course, if you don’t renew my books in the given three-weeks’ time (by phone or in person) you pay a fine.

—back home in bombay, libraries are privately-owned, and you need to pay a monthly membership fee when you join one, and a deposit. unless your library is in the city, you might not find a variety of books to choose from, apart from the local magazines or comics. besides, you can keep a book just for a day or two. —

most often, praveen and i rush to the library about 10 minutes before closing time (i wait for him to return from office so he too can select his books), and yet we manage to get an armload of books punched on our way out. he prefers more of the ‘visual’ do-it-yourself, or how-stuff-works, or the-hobbit-in-pictures’ kind of books since he’s who i would call a ‘loo-reader’, while i pick the chitra-bannerji-divakarunis, the helene wiggins’, the jostein gaarders, the isabel allendes, or a mix of short stories because… well, i have all the time in the world! until of course i find that so elusive job i’ve been hunting for ;-)

this friday i was on my way out and spotted a rack full of books, about 17 in all, belonging to the same title. now this was unusual, i thought. or perhaps it was owing to a habit i guess most of us living abroad would relate to…of widening your eyes as if to say “oh really? now what could this be about?!” i hurriedly picked up a copy and rushed to the smiling library-attendant, who was cleverly guising her anxiety to get home.

it was only yesterday that i saw the book again, when i needed a break from divakaruni’s prosaic yet engrossing vine of desire. the book is a sequel to sister of my heart, which perhaps is the only divakaruni title i haven’t yet laid my hands on. (for those in india whose grandparents or mothers fight for their space in front of the tv for the suhasini-ratnam-production anbulla snehidiye, the programme is an adaptation of the the same book. i think.)

i digressed. always happens when i read too much of the same author.

coming back to my ‘curios’ pick, it turned out to be a collection of short stories and poems, translated from many languages around the globe. aptly named rearranging the world, the cover had a maps-collage, and it was only when i began to browse through the book that i understood its intentions. a ‘new audiences’ project by the arts council of england, the book was published in collaboration with the british centre for literary translation (bclt) to develop new readerships for literature. interesting. (more about the book here)

looking closer, the ‘maps’ occurring on the cover and through the book, were actually pieces from loius van swaaij and jean klare’s atlas of experience…where fictitious areas are marked by themes from life…birth (true nature), youth, marriage, and so on. the literary translations (from various cultures) in turn represent these themes. for example, the poem above was from the ‘marriage and family life’ theme.

as with any short-story-collection book that i have laid my hands on, i quickly leafed through the poems and the anecdotes (and skipped the stories for later), when i suddenly realised i was perhaps absent-mindedly looking for pieces by indian writers. i shrugged when i couldn’t find any, this must be a european-only collection, and went on to read the introduction, another habit with books.

two pages later, between the preface and just before the book began with the ‘birth’ theme, i found a single page with two bright stanzas that compelled you to read. the poem had no title, and far below, in bold type and italicised was the text… “translated by joe winters, from ‘song offerings’ by rabindranath tagore.

oh i’m soooo proud to be an indian! :-)




February 6, 2003

what is wrong with michael jackson?

i’m not a great michael jackson fan. no, i’m not a michael jackson fan at all. if i happen to spot jackson at a concert i will not run to him for a hug that would squeeze tears from my eyes…no, forget i said that. i don’t ever imagine myself to be attending any of his concerts in the first place.

i would barely be able to locate a jackson-number on a compiled list of the top-100-hits and i guess the one tune i truly remember is you are not alone. i also remember the very dazzling videos of remember the time, and the scary thriller terrorised my childhood…putting me miles away from horror movies for the rest of my life.

perhaps that’s why, i have a detached viewpoint about all issues jackson. and i know when i have to like him, or dislike him, and i know when something is unfair.

as far as i can recollect, he’s been around in all our lives …either singing on tv, giving live performances, in an audio cd or tape, on a colleague’s computer at office or in the car, and of course, when he’s not singing, he’s in the headlines. i’ve also observed that before every tv performance, every public appearance or tv interview, arrives a huge aura of hype. like the deeply irritating bzzzzz of a housefly on a solitary afternoon that just knows there’s food around somewhere, the media seems to sniff, hover and cling on to almost anything the chap does, and turns it into a big issue. in one word i would call this fly the type of nosey journalist who thrives on sensationalism.

i was among the 14 million who watched the much-talked about michael jackson interview this monday, and right from the beginning martin bashir fit the description of the journalist i just talked about above.

for eight months bashir hovered around jackson, and his interview with the pop star clearly shows how he clings on to to any sentence that might create ripples of interest or provoke controversy among the media. note, i said media, and not the ‘public’. i am positive even the public saw how the journalist literally nagged jackson with his questions and went on and on about how he was not satisfied with the answers. because he didn’t get what he wanted to hear? or did he?

sure enough, bashir’s efforts brought itv a 3-million advertising revenue for a single 90-min programme. and a further 3.5 million when the rights of the programme were sold to the us network abc. full- and quarter page itv ads in the guardian on that day screamed with questions like “why did you dangle your child from the balcony?”, and “do your children get to meet their mothers?”…making sure even a person like me who’s not so fond of the 21-inch-idiot-box sit up and make a mental note of the time the show was to be broadcast.

the interview

michael jackson, three questions, eight months, martin bashir and a 90-minute interview.

that was all there was to it. like a chewing gum that you chomp and chew till every essence of the flavour is reduced and disappears, the three questions were thrown at michael again and again and again in every possible form and place. they were the main issues of his “changing face”, his relationship with his children, and his relationship with other’s children.

initially, i felt it was all laughable. the way bashir was allowed access to the star’s children, to his neverland ranch, the shopping trip at las vegas…while all the time he seemed so skeptical about the very answers he had been digging for. in one article published before the programme was broadcast, bashir said he was “disturbed” by what he saw and heard, and that michael jackson has all the financial ability to do what he wants, when he wants. well, i don’t see why not. whose money is he spending anyway?

i’m not sure if i’m using a harsh word here, but bashir seemed very much a hypocrite. he misused jackson’s trust to portray and magnify the mystery that was michael jackson. why, just half-way through the programme, most viewers would have wondered why michael is letting this happen to him. how could he not even suspect, in the eight months, that this reporter can easily turn his story around?

in the last 20 minutes of the interview, bashir tells the viewers that he’s finally decided to “confront” jackson again, for the “real truth”. in the grilling session that followed, a very visibly upset jackson repeats the same answers again…that he had an unhappy childhood, that he really has not changed the shape of his face and lips, that he does not see what is wrong with sharing a little love, and with sleeping with children.

bashir pounced on the last statement at once. very predictably, its echoes will be heard on every news bulletin, radio and paper for weeks, till the media finally gets tired of it.

perhaps jackson was born in the wrong country.

had it been india, where families are so emotionally bound by love and care that it is perfectly normal for children to sleep with their parents in the same room if they so wished; where lunchboxes carry hot home-cooked rotisabji or dalchawal in them, and not cold sandwiches, fries, crisps or salad and pizza from the nearest superstore; where parents still find it hard to let go of their grown-up children who want to study further or work away from home; and where grandparents don’t understand why children these days need a separate room for themselves…in a country where friends get together to sleep over dinner, gupshup and movies — in a single room, it would be martin bashir’s turn to be questioned: so what?




February 4, 2003

d.i.y? why not!

where we lived, ramji’s shop was just around the corner.

it was a very noisy place, and his workers smoked beedis while they went about their jobs. they seemed bound by a silent sort of unity, almost self-disciplined with vests yellowing due to sweat and dust. they had lunch and tea breaks like everyone else, and occasionally when they laughed you’d spot a gold tooth in their paan-and-tobacco-stained mouth. on a hook by the shop-entrance, they hung their clean shirts before they began work. at the end of the day they wore them on and went home. they spoke in a language you would perhaps understand if you were from their region in central india, sometimes they spoke hindi to make it easier for you. but ramji, he could even understand english. secretly, i think he could even speak it well. because it helped him in his business, and of course he’d know best when to use the language.

you’d be told to be careful if you wanted to step into his shop, and almost always, you’d hear a distinct “hanzi sahabzi!” (meaning a respectful way of saying ‘yes sir, here i come sir!’) over the noise around you, with ramji himself rushing out to meet you. his desk would be cluttered with some rough line-drawings, playing-card-size pieces of coloured plywood, and sometimes a calculator. when he was not with a client, most often you’d find a pencil stuck behind his ear, and a naked 40-watt bulb oscillating over his table. even during daytime, his shop was not very bright, which is why his workers sometimes had to take their work outside. the neighbouring shops — a library, an STD/PCO-cum-photocopier, a pharmacy — did not seem to mind though…after all, they too were hard-working people.

everyone was happy with his work, and even if there were any complaints, ramji saw that it was taken care of at the earliest. when it came to collecting his fees for the job, he sometimes quoted a higher price, almost shy, but humbly stating why. when his clients bargained, he then lowered his quote to please them a little. but this was, mind you, only if he liked the particular client too, and if he was certain the latter would return to him.

…like my father. achchan often brought ramji home if he wanted to have something made. most often, ramji would also have an appointment with someone else in our four-storey society. that way, he was a busy man. sometimes he’d send his worker ahead, and my sister and i would inspect his tools. if the work lasted for days, we’d often pry open the toolbag in the evening after he left, saw an imaginary piece of wood, and pretend to be a carpenter like him.

this sunday, i finally got to be one myself!

our kitchen needed a new floor since the old vinyl tiles seemed to be coming apart… and praveen‘s earnest efforts to put them back with some vinyl-glue only worsened the mess.

both of us had always wanted to have a wooden floor to go with our indian tastes (the english carpeted floors only seem restricting to me, because every other furniture in the room then depends on the colour of the carpet). besides, wood proved to be a more neutral base too.

thanks to the impending house-prices crash, last week we almost decided to sell our home. we’d settle all our loans, make all the profit we could accumulate if that is, it wasn’t too late yet, shift into a rented accommodation, and then wait for the prices to really come down again, before we bought another house again.

selling a house you’re just growing fond of is not easy though, and while we waited to arrive at a final decision, we thought it was the best time to re-do the kitchen. we discovered it was indeed the best time, because the stores were offering a massive discount on wooden laminates.

had it been india perhaps i would have instantly turned to ramji to have them installed. but in a nation of d.i.y, we thought we’d do like the britons too. it was fun…

–>it took us two visits to the store just to understand what we really required, and how much.
–>once home, i had to clean the floor thoroughly and make sure the old tile corners were not sticking out.
–>next, we laid the (foam) underlay across the entire floor…this would level the floor in normal cases for the laminates that would follow on top (i say ‘normal’ because ours is the most uneven floor i’ve ever walked on)
–>we laid the wood laminates next to each other and snap! interlocked them with each other, just like that.
–>and now for the final skirting to cover the sides of the floor…

sometime after we began, we got stuck.

it took us over five and a half hours of installing, hammering it into place, removing and then re-installing, vertically, horizontally, to figure out something was not right. the laminates were about a metre-long each…and laying them continuously on our already uneven floor, prevented them from locking into each other. after a while, praveen suddenly laughed “pure physics”! he then decided to saw the laminates in half… this was to ‘stagger’ them at alternate rows, and soon they began to click into place again. i was told i really wasn’t any help in fitting the pieces since they required strength. hmph!

after a hot coffee and dosa break, i looked around for other interesting things to do. praveen let me try sawing the laminates, and it wasn’t bad at all! i thought of how my sister too would love to have a go at this, and how once i pleaded and took a brush from one of the painters in our house when my mom was not looking, and managed to paint half a wall without being caught!

i wondered if we really have to be so dependent on labour in india. of course, people like ramji and the others would do a better job, but why not try doing stuff ourselves, at least once?

not long ago at my previous job, i’d seen an ex-colleague take a futon apart as though it were a piece of cardboard. i was amazed at how easily she could manipulate it as if she had been doing it all her life, and now i could see why.

another european culture: d.i.y

why? perhaps because labour is too expensive in european countries. besides, india’s large population demands employment in the form of ‘private’ carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians and the like.

diy culture in europe is encouraged by stores like b&q, wickes, homebase and others. and also by lifestyle television programmes like housecall, home front, and changing rooms, where the tv crew enters a house that requires a serious facelift, and with simple tools and props lying around the house, show the viewers how easy it is to do it themselves too. (more)

in fact, there is also a programme for some of those diy disasters. which means it is really okay if you do happen to go wrong!

our kitchen experiment was very satisfying. we were working together as family, for our own home. we also took turns working, which was fun…even now as i write this i’m waiting for the wood-glue to get working on the ‘skirting’, so i can fix it all around the room. the initial hiccups we faced also made us confident in some way, because as we discovered, the solution was in the problem itself.

when i searched the web later, i couldn’t find similar diy stores in india that could perhaps help people think of how they can create furniture projects for their homes themselves, without having to pay the ramjis of the area through their nose.

what i did come across though, told me that the day is not too far off either…