lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Because I love you

She loved and trusted her. Her every step watched over, guided and protected. Then she grew up. Her every step watched over, guided and protected still, she chafed. There was the whole wide world to explore and learn. But she was hemmed in, penned and bound by a litany of you mustn’t, you shouldn’t, you can’t, it is not done.

If she’d ever voiced the question, cried “why are you doing this,” she would have been told in hurt and loving tones that were actually implacable, “because I love you.”

She loved and trusted him. Her every action watched, every move noted, her world small as ever; still hemmed in, penned and bound by you can’t, you shouldn’t, you mustn’t, and more. If she’d ever thought to ask “why are you doing this,” she would have been told “because I love you” with the same implacability.

She discovered bonsai. All her hemmed in, penned and bound realities shaped her trees. She became particular. She grew trees from seedlings, saw them as saplings and urged and nudged and pinched them into the shape of her vision. Then she used wires. If she thought her first seedling grown into sapling reaching out to experience more of the world ever asked her, “why are you doing this,” she’d have gone on twisting the wire around the branches to bend and hold them to the perfect front view and back that she envisaged for the young tree, and she’d have whispered “because I love you.”

Her collection of imprisoned trees, her miniature world grew as she aged. Unnaturally shaped to imitate nature, with hollows and lightning-struck scars and more detail, her trees grew. Her loving mother, who defined her boundaries when she was a child, who tainted her pubescent and teenaged perception of the world, was long dead now; her husband, who refined those boundaries and fences and limits, dead for a month.

She was old, herself. But not so old that she couldn’t dig a patch and find the perfect spot in the sprawling grounds her house was set in; it was the mansion and grounds that she was given in marriage to as much as her husband, by her mother. She was going to plant that tree, her first seedling sapling young tree that she stunted into submission; plant it in soil that would let it grow, now at forty years of age. At liberty to grow as it pleased at last.

“Are you crazy,” her sons screamed at her. “That tree will fetch thousands for its age alone. You are destroying it.” They took her potted world away from her to be cared for by a gardener. She was taken aback. For the first time, she whispered the words, “why are you doing this.” And she received an honest reply.

“Because these bonsai are money.”


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Famed odors

I was chatting with a friend a few weeks ago, and he said I could write about dreams and dreamscapes. I don’t dream much, I said. But there are things you want, wish that would happen, surely, he said. That is not dreaming, I said. That is thinking about things, wishing.

When you ardently wish for a situation, you’ll contrive to make it happen. That is when dreams turn into aspirations and goals. That is the difference.

I do think of a few impossible things, though. Famed odors is an anagram of food dreams, for instance. I don’t think of masala dosa or hot steaming rasam, though, thank you, Chenthil, Neha.

Heat emanating from the perfectly puffed out circle of batura, awaiting a nail to puncture the tissue thin top layer that makes a globe out of a circle and let out clouds of steam; glistening with oil and darkly, richly, fragrantly inviting chole. I think of that.

A white mound of rice, almost too hot to handle; the ephemeral aroma of fresh and pungent mustard, still plump mango pieces, and oil seeping slowly into the rice; the dollop of sinfully red new avakaya awaiting the first mouthful of the year. I think of that too.

Thin and crisp all over, gold and brown shading into saffron and russet where the heat was too intense; dotted with green titillation of chillies and curry leaves; a vast expanse of aroma and taste explosion waiting to happen; the crackle crinkle pop of breaking off the first piece, the ineffable invitation of a rava dosa. I think of it.

A sea of sambar in a plate, dotted with islands of baby onions; a white raft of idli to navigate towards the gleaming ecru dunes and shores of chutney. I’d settle for that.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Din dhal jaaye

I leaned back in my cane chair and smiled. You smiled back. The cool aftermath of rain left the evening scented and becalmed. Too early for frogs. The balcony had some puddles left still, but our corner was dry, our chairs in the usual places, the table between.

I hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on against the arriving night. We sat savouring the evening. The scent of raat ki raani arose presently, and I smiled again. You smiled back. So many memories hinge on that shrub and its fragrant flowers, do they not?

As dusk deepened into night I went in and fetched a drink. You raised yours in silent toast. We sat together, as always. On the balcony, among the scents of night blooming shrubs planted by some thoughtful gardener long ago, we sat together, as always.

The descending night brought its own haunting sounds. A flute sounded plaintively, poignantly. It was untutored, utterly without sophistication, but the melody tugged at the heart. Some workman from the nearby construction site, surely. We exchanged smiles, my question unasked and your reply unnecessary. What did it matter what raga it was?

A car sped by. I frowned. You must have sensed that frown because we were sitting in the dark. I felt rebuked by your silent reproof. Well, I suppose people did have to get from place to place.

There was no need for conversation. I thought your thoughts, and you could read mine, always. A glance and a smile, a squeeze of fingers or a nudge spoke for us. That distant sound of drums and cacophony, we shrugged at another procession to immerse another idol; that mournful hoot of a goods train before its wheels beat a rhythm on the tracks that lingered a long while after the train passed, we sighed in unison. So many memories attached to the sound of trains.

I went to fetch another drink, negotiating the furniture easily in the dark. I sighed as I sat down. You looked disapproving. I was sighing in contentment, mostly, in gratitude for all the perfect evenings that went before. One more evening... You nodded.

Something brought the fireflies out. I watched in surprise. I always liked fireflies and all that they evoked. Some flitted close enough to try and grab. I didn’t, of course. You wouldn’t have liked that.

It was getting late. A distant dog barked in impotent fury at some slight. I got up regretfully. I folded and put away the chairs, dragged the table to a safe corner so it wouldn’t get rained on. I murmured a good night to you. Another evening gone by.

I went to eat my solitary dinner.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

On the second day of the third month

Directive for missionaries or substitutes? (12)*

When you go to bed at nine because you can’t sit up any longer, you know you are in trouble. There isn’t a single chair I can be comfortable in for long. Not the chairs’ fault, of course, but it feels like the furniture is ganging up against me.

When you wake up all slept out at one in the morning, you are in trouble too. No position is comfortable enough to sleep long in, and the pain always seems worse at night. You are all alone with the pain, and there’s no reasoning with it. You toss and turn, try deep breathing exercises, you sleep sitting up until your back feels less fragile and try to lie down again. You check the time and discover that barely half an hour has passed since you last checked.

The air seemed cool. Thunderstorm perhaps, I thought hopefully. Goodness knows it’s been a few hot and sultry days. But the thunder I heard seemed too far away to matter. The pain was getting worse. I counted backwards and decided that I could take another painkiller.

And then I remembered that today is the day of Gemfos. I dislike this medicine. I am supposed to take it

“at least 30 minutes before the first food or drink of the day other than water.

To facilitate delivery to stomach, GEMFOS should be swallowed while the patient is in an upright position and with a full glass of plain water (200 ml). Patients should not lie down for 30 minutes after taking the medication.”

Drinking a whole glass of water in one go is a pipe dream these days. (Literally a pipe dream, since I will be able to manage such a feat only when they insert that stent.)

Naturally enough, since the instructions say I should sit up, I ached to lie down, no matter I felt all slept out less than five minutes ago. Waiting half an hour before I can make myself a cup of tea is torture. I sat with my knees drawn up to my chin and tried to rock the pain into a distant sensation. Like that thunder, where is that thunderstorm happening, I wondered.

As I waited for the water to boil I counted my woes. Time was, morning tea meant veena practice, learning a new composition, perhaps. Now I don’t know if I can lift the veena off its stand. I need two hands to lift the kettle off the stove; ditto, to pick up the mug of tea on really bad days. I needed to return books, buy refills for my pens … small things, but I had no way of doing them.

There’s a bandh today, I reminded myself. I dislike having to ask favours, anyhow. No matter how sincere the person’s intentions when they declare, ‘just call me if you need anything done’, in reality, my needs and their convenience or schedules clash. Needing an escort to go to my salon or library is absurd, but there it was, the stark reality.

If I wanted to be really miserable, I could consider other things that are beyond me now. Playing the veena, cooking a decent meal or being able to eat it, going for a walk, ha, standing for longer than few minutes at a stretch, puchkas, or arranging my bookshelves at home, reading fat books… the list was getting too long.

One painkiller, swallowed carefully. As I waited for it to go down and stay down before I attempted sipping my tea, I stepped out into the balcony. And broke into a smile.

The sky glowered at me in that characteristic dark grey of monsoon clouds. This was no summer thunderstorm. This was monsoon, and early at that. The Met. Office can claim it was a pre-monsoon shower, but they don’t know everything.

I turned on my computer, and as I started on the day’s crosswords, I heard the decisive crack of thunder. Before the rumbles died away, the rain began with a roar. More lightning and thunder, and it was clear. This here was the monsoon, arriving dramatically and announcing itself.

There is always a silver lining, I smiled to myself.



Friday, May 30, 2008

Duty calls

It might not be as pronounced in the latest generation, but us older folk remember the ordeal of duty. If you arrive from another city, no matter how short your time, you are expected to hunt up the addresses and go visit relatives.

Even in the same city, you are expected to make duty visits; in Calcutta, these would be during Durga Puja, or New Year visits. If you are closer, clan-wise, you are expected to keep in touch.

Duty does tend to make us all somewhat mechanical, especially if we are making duty phone calls. Rote set of questions asked and routine answers expected.

The land line rang. K answered. It was a cousin who believed strongly in doing the right thing, which is calling twice a year, to keep in touch. She went through the rote set.

After the expected questions about The Matriarch and the Son and Heir (she gave the emphasis, okay?) the conversation went like this:

Cousin: tumi kay mone achcho? (How are you?)
K: bhaalo achchi. (I am well)
C: tomaar bou bhaalo? (Is your wife well?)
K: na (No)
C: achchha, rakhchchi. (Good, I will ring off now)

Dislike of cousins by marriage can get intense, I admit. But this takes the cake, pie, pudding and ice-cream too.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The truth

The truth shall make ye free.
Somewhere in the Bible

In Mahabharata, the great warrior Karna was said to have had many causes that contributed to his death at the hands of Arjuna. While I might not have that many, I do have a few reasons that led to this longish gap between posts.

I could blame it on my back- it hurt a lot over the last fortnight. And the doctors all preferred to have tests done and debate the findings than do the basic, necessary ‘needful’ thing, which was to make the pain go away, or at least subside enough so I could think beyond groans and grunts for speech and function like a human being.

I could blame it on my sisters- one added a shortcut to my desktop and played so much Spider Solitaire while she was visiting that it started showing on the Start menu. Naturally, I tried it out. Naturally, I got hooked. Yes, blame it on her. It is easier to deal another game than to write a blog post, really.

Oh, and she suggested a laptop, too. I thought it through and decided I’d rather go for an upgrade for my antediluvian machine, with bells and whistles; and there is a reason for it.

Each time my computer was upgraded, it was because of my son and heir. Usually, I inherit hardware the men folk in the house have no use for. But this time around, he bought a game for me that he thought would entertain me and keep me occupied. I tried to play the game, and found my computer couldn’t detect its existence. Worried calls to my computer boys and I was told my system is too old and slow.

An upgrade again, then, and it is still cheaper than getting a laptop and the house wired so I can write in bed. If I can write in bed, I can very well get up, go to my work-station and write there, after all. I don’t have the patience to learn to use that tiny mouse pad area or the ridiculous keyboard, anyhow.

I could blame my computer guys too. They took almost all week to bring my machine back. Then I had to customise my settings all over again. All my bookmarks were lost, and I had to struggle to remember passwords. There were the weekend crosswords, too.

Monday rolled in, and I found that the Bank Holiday jumbo crosswords occupied my time a while. What was I doing when I wasn’t actually solving clues, you ask? The other sister- you can blame my long silence on her, too.

The last time she visited, I grumbled at her that I was spending all my time at the computer playing Solitaire. She commiserated, and introduced me to Mah-jongg solitaire played online no less. I was glad when they came to take my computer away for the upgrade Monday last week, I can tell you. I had done nothing, but nothing other than play Mah-jongg solitaire since she left. If I felt bereft without my computer, I was still glad for that little period of de-tox.

Now, to my despair (I know this is a lost cause), Mah-jongg again and a feeble attempt at kicking the habit all of yesterday, I woke this morning with a “still, small voice” telling me that I was being lazy about Larking.

One of my favourite scenes in Tintin comics is Captain Haddock’s innate good sense and temptation arguing it out. While I didn’t have an angel and an imp exhorting me, I still had a bit of debate with myself. This is because I have lately discovered that being good, being nice, and doing the right thing are all not mandatory, but optional. I have discovered too, that long suppressed wickedness, when let loose, is not easy to reason with.

So there I was, at almost four o’clock in the morning, with a mug of tea and Mah-jongg. Eyes hunting pairs and mouse clicking them away, and this internal wrestling match.

My Conscience: You haven’t blogged in ages.
My Wicked Self: So what?
MC: You haven’t posted in nearly two weeks.
MWS: So? Some bloggers don’t post for months, after all.
MC: But you do, regularly. People might think you are, um, dead.
MWS: Hah. I will do a Granny Weatherwax, a one line post declaring ‘I ATEN”T DEAD’ then.
MC: It has been done by every blogger who reads Pratchett, good grief!
MWS: Most of my readers are friends, and they all know the situation, so why bother?
MC: Not the lurkers and readers who don’t write in, you owe them an explanation.
MWS: I will tell the truth, then.
MC: That you have been busy playing Mah-jongg instead of working on your poems and blogging?
MWS: Yeah, why not? Maybe some reader can suggest another game.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but…um. Not quite, but that is a post for another day.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008


It was a dark and stormy night. You were so gallant, walking me home.

There were gusts of rain, occasional thunder and those puddles we threaded our way through as we sang snatches of the evening's best in unmusical splendour. Frogs croaked in the ditches on the sides of the lanes. The rickshaw-wallahs at the corner of my street took notice of us and decided that one of them doesn't have to sober up enough to go fetch 'baby' back home from the concert.

I'd seen you before, of course, many times. On the campus, where they spoke in awe about how brilliant you were; at concerts, where we began nodding and smiling at each other; and then that Season. You seemed to attend most of the concerts I did. I had a season ticket, I assumed you did too.

We spoke in the canteen over bad coffee. It was a bad year for the Season, what with the rains and the cyclone. Nevertheless, the concert hall was within walking distance, so I attended all the concerts: the lecture-demonstrations, the afternoon concerts of the hopefuls trying to break into the scene, the evening performances of the stars, the late night concerts of the in-betweens.

It turned out we were both waiting to listen to the late night artist. You asked me how I'd get home. I said my rickshaw-wallah would turn up; if not, I'd walk, no sweat. So at midnight you walked me home.

And we kissed. You were tall and lanky I raised my arm to cup your head and woke up. The crook of my elbow shielding my face as I slept was heavy.

Last year we met again in a bookshop. You seemed prosperous, not exactly overweight but getting there. You said I hadn't changed at all.

We spoke over decent coffee. You suggested lunch. I hadn't much else to do, so I accepted. I was out of touch with the music scene, and you seemed indifferent to it. Authors and books didn't occupy much of conversation time either. You talked discontentedly of your wife who seemed to spend her life in spas, and your corporate angst.

You said you remembered that night. I thought of the dream. I nodded and launched into a discussion of that artist's career. You wondered if I had more free time. I smiled no and walked away.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

How many agorots to a shekel?

Money isn't everything: usually it isn't even enough.

"I don't know much about money," I objected. Writing about things I don't know is not my cup of tea, so I was dubious about the suggestion that I write about money. "I do know how to write cheques," I conceded.

That is about all I know or do about money matters, anyhow.

Later though, thinking about it, I decided that I was doing myself an injustice. While it is true I don't know much about money (it is, ultimately, numbers and I don't do numbers), I realised I do know quite a lot about money, too- things most people wouldn't know at all.

Take synonyms, for instance. I know a lot of synonyms for money: cash, coin, pelf, lucre, funds, riches, wealth, capital… or slang terms tin, dosh, loot, brass, bread, dough, ready, rhino, moolah, readies, shekels, spondulicks (ha!), wherewithal…

All this is trivia, I agree. It is knowledge gained from a lifetime of doing crosswords. But it is still knowledge. When a compiler decides on money or currencies as a theme, one scrambles and learns in a hurry.

My readers can reel off currencies better than I can, I am sure. Dollars, euro, yen, yuan, and more, and they can probably tell me exchange rates too. But while I can't tell you how many groszys there are in a zloty, I can tell you they are Polish currency. I can figure out rial, riyal, riel, krone, krona and kroner for clues. I can tell you stotinka is a Bulgarian coin.

I know that apart from being a body part and a punctuation mark, colon is a currency unit of Costa Rica and El Salvador. As is lek Albania's, pengo Hungary's, obang Japan's, and dong Vietnam's.

There are the evocative names, pfennigs (Germany), bugshas (Yemen), and zaichik (Belarus). There are thalers, abbreviated from Emmanthalers, from which came the dollar. There are the old English coins- bobs, royals and crowns; tanners and florins; and the improbable sounding dandiprat.

But all this doesn't mean much, so I objected, "I don't know much about money."

Being Nilu, he only said, "that's why." All the more reason I should write about it was what he meant.

"Reminds me of my son. There was one time, he was a little boy then, he wanted me to buy something. I said I didn't have the money. He said, well, go to the bank and buy some money."

"That's all there is," said Nilu. We laughed.

But, writing cheques is unreal, as is the world of crossword clues of kyats, pesos and korunas. The money I collect in my piggy bank and change to bank notes though, now that always feels real.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

One special moon

Waking up at all hours of the night has its charming surprises. I see moonrise at times I wouldn't have otherwise.

I like looking at the moon. From the bedroom window or the balcony, the sight of the ruddy globe clearing the treetops on full moon days always lifts my mood. Each evening after, the moonrise is later and later, and soon I forget to watch out for it.

Over the last fortnight though, I have seen the over-large seeming full moon and the waning moon both rise. When I go to bed late, I do see the gibbous moon putting in its appearance, but to wake up in the small hours and see the moon looking thinner each day is a new experience.

I never set much store by rites and rituals and holidays on the calendar; always thought them a waste of man-hours and misinterpreting what those rites marked- passing seasons and the need to prepare ahead for coming seasons.

I preferred always to watch out for other celestial events, rather. Eclipses, transits of Mercury across the disc of the Sun, meteor showers, comets crashing into gas giants… these are far more interesting. I was enthralled by the last total solar eclipse visible in India, disappointed by Halley's comet, and fascinated by the coppery hue of the moon during a total lunar eclipse. I remember being appalled and flinging a book away when I realised the writer set a solar eclipse on a full moon day.

As I wake earlier and earlier these days and see the crescent moon over the treetops, I am seized by a whim. There is one rare phenomenon of the moon- sighting the thin crescent on new moon day. I'd like to see that. There is a name for this crescent of moon that appears on new moon day, just before sunrise or during sunset. It is called sineevaali.

But it is easier said than done. The predawn hours that have been clear for the last week or so turned overcast today, the last day of the waning moon. There is no point trying to spot the crescent in the evening, I don't have a good western view, the city lights make it impossible anyway. Even in the mornings, it is only chance that allows me to look for the moon in the early hours. Had the KMC placed their street lamps on slightly different spots, the glare would have drowned out the delicate fading out of night and fading in of dawn.

Tomorrow, Monday the fifth, is new moon day. It is the day when the Times Bank Holiday Jumbo puzzles will come out, and the Guardian Genius. According to my Telugu calendar, the star that rises with the moon is bharani, the star I was born under. To see the crescent moon at dawn tomorrow would be a perfect foil to all these.

It is also our anniversary. Whether I spot the crescent moon or not, happy twenty-fifth, Kalyan.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Hot and bothered

There is a poem I am very fond of quoting:

As a rule, Man is a fool.
When it is hot he wants it cool;
When it is cool he wants it hot,
Always wanting what is not.

Everybody I know is complaining about the heat. Being housebound, I am not sure how hot it really is, though.

We all have our rituals and tricks to keep cool, and it is not always turning the air-conditioners on. At home, we shut windows and draw curtains closed before the day begins to heat up. This darkening helps. By the time we open things up late afternoon, there is already a breeze and things seem bearable. Also, we happen to live on the edge of the Lake. The green cover and the fact that we aren't boxed in by high-rises around us help, too. And the result is that I have no idea how hot it really is outside.

I began taking note of the weather and daily temperature in Delhi. The first winter saw a ritual evolving, reading the weather report, and the 'daily dose of horror' at how low the mercury can dip. Of course, the first summer saw me getting aghast at how high the mercury can rise, too.

Now Calcutta isn't as bad, we have the sea breeze, which Delhi hasn't heard of, and the nor'westers are more cooling than the dust storms of Delhi. But in recent years, I have noticed hot and dry winds blowing here too, and it seems like the temperatures are rising each summer.

But I discovered via this Telegraph report that the temperature readings I follow each day are not quite the gospel truth I thought they were. Those figures represent 'air temperature', a reading taken from a thermometer housed in a Stevenson screen, as unreal as it can get. This ignores earth's low-level radiation, ambient temperature that rises or falls depending on many factors. It is apparently, the 'real' temperature.

For a person waiting in a traffic jam at midday in summer, the heat produced by the high-rises, vehicles, and air-conditioners in offices, homes and shopping complexes all adds up and makes for a very 'real' hot day. Most major thoroughfares have scant tree cover to provide any relief, thanks to KMC's brainless lopping off of branches that might cast shade on the streets. Urban heat islands is a very descriptive phrase, and the effect can be felt as one moves from the business districts to leafy residential areas.

But since all that is ignored, if the papers say the maximum temperature was some thirty-eight degrees Centigrade, we have to add a good three or four degrees to it to arrive at the 'real' temperature in the city. Good grief!

Alipore Meteorological Office happens to be on grounds with abundant tree cover and the Stevenson screen is hardly the right place to measure how hot it seems to real people in the city. Why can't they take readings from five or six different points in the city and tell us how hot the day really was?


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