lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Don't bank on us

I'd have discovered this about a year ago, if I hadn't been putting off. We all acquire mutilated or soiled notes once in a while. I have a habit of stuffing them in a side compartment of my bag, and letting them accumulate. I always tell myself that I must change them the next time I am at the bank. But each time I either forget or the bank is too crowded, or I'm running late for something else. So they have been accumulating.

Yesterday I was at the bank, the counters weren't too crowded, and I remembered. So I asked to exchange my bad notes.

Before I go into a foaming at the mouth ranting mode, I want to tell you I have nothing against State Bank of India, my branch; they are good sorts, mostly.


The man who took my notes first spread them out and arranged them according to denomination. This took a while. ( I did say they had been accumulating) Then he leaned forward. "Ah, here is what you must do, " he started.

Open-mouthed, I listened to him expound on how I was to take a white paper (he described the exact dimensions of it) , and how I was to glue it on the vertical tear in the middle of the note, let dry, and bring it back to him. He then went on to the next note. This one had multiple earlier staple punctures run together to form a sieve- like pattern at one edge. Again the procedure was explained.

After the third note, which had a half-inch tear, I stopped him. Are you saying that I have to get scissors and paper and glue, and do a school home-work sort of cut and paste project before these notes can be exchanged, I asked incredulously.


I pointed to the notice saying that this branch accepted and exchanged mutilated and soiled notes, by order of the Reserve Bank of India. I said there was nothing about amateur bank note repairs to be carried out by the general public in it. As long as the serial numbers are clear, they had to be exchanged without question, I said.

After the necessary procedure has been followed, he said. Those are our guidelines, he said. I won't be able to exchange these notes without all that cutting and pasting, then? I said. Not in this branch, he said.

Oh, he kindly exchanged three tenners which were merely soiled.

I came home and did some research. The Reserve Bank of India has a website, after all. Their policy for exchanging mutilated and soiled currency doesn't say anything about this supposedly required doctoring of the bank notes. Nor did I find anything about it here, or here or at the State Bank of India website where they listed their services.

As I said once before, I am not a confrontational sort of person. But the idea that a bank won't exchange torn notes until the customers have done a repair job on them is an outrage.

I have written a mail to the regional director of the Reserve Bank of India, and sent a copy to the Grievance Redressal Cell.

I am not going to sit down and cut out small bits of white paper and paste them on bank notes. For all I know, the gent at the counter will then tell me it's the wrong sort of paper and won't do. Damaged they might be, but they are legal tender and a bank ought to accept them as they are and send them on to the Reserve Bank of India, not harass unsuspecting general public like this.

I will keep you informed what happens next, folks.


Sunday, May 28, 2006


It is the flux, I swear. It must be.

Not two days after we postesses discuss cutlery issues among a hundred other things, Siva talks about it. Is he telepathic? This post is dedicated to Siva, as it was inspired from his musings.

There is this to be said about tradition, and learned behaviour: it is not really taught, but seeps in through a weird kind of osmosis. In India, you never hand anything to anybody with your left hand; whether you are offering a glass of water to a guest, or giving a coin to a beggar, you do not use your left hand.

There is a proverb in Telugu which epitomises disdain; it translates roughly as disposing something off with the left hand. English idiom enshrines left-handed compliments. Sinister is not just the left side but also somewhat dire. Left-handedness is viewed with some suspicion, linked with Satanism. Facility is called adroitness. Clumsiness is called gaucherie. In Tantra, the Vamacharis, the practitioners of more potent magic are regarded as dangerous (Um... I was going to say sinister).

As you grow up, it doesn't take more than an admonition or two to remember always to hand things with your right hand, to learn not to let the left hand come anywhere near the food as you eat. When you can eat a 'cheruku rasam' mango, a sucking mango using just your right hand, you have learnt all that is needed of eating etiquette in India.

(An uncle of mine had a weird habit which I picked up, of not drinking water during a meal, but ending the meal with a couple of glasses of water drunk very quickly. I asked him about it once and he had a theory that drinking water during a meal impedes digestion. All right, I did say it was a weird habit. It was probably reluctance to use his left hand, who knows? But this habit of mine means that I can eat the dynamite mango pickle avakaya mixed with rice without reaching for a sip of water to soften its assault.)

In India, with our prohibitions and tradition, we probably all grow up a bit ambidextrous. That's just the way things are done. Perhaps this is why we don't have much breast-beating and bemoaning of neglecting left-handedness and not making allowances for it.

Let's face it, the world is mostly right-handed. Whether down at the level of molecules or the curvature of shells or people preferring one extremity to another, the world is basically right-handed.

(K tells me of chirality and tries to talk physics and math at me at this point. But I say, "Bah," which is a fitting and apt response. I should have added "Piffle," too, but it is too late now.)

But left-handedness, being more comfortable with using one's left hand than the right is tempered by this fact. There are no left-handed scissors or tools, at least none commonly available. Knife hafts are moulded for right-handed use. Switch panels, door handles or elevator buttons all presume right-handed usage. Analogue clocks, screws, rotary dial phones, numerical keypads on a keyboard, all involve left-to-right motions to accommodate right-handed usage, and left-handed people just get used to it.

They are more dexterous than the average right-handed population, because they have to learn or lag behind. On the other hand (:D, yes on the other hand), right-handed people, if faced with an implement designed specifically for left-handed use, are usually flummoxed.

When I was a new bride, my mother-in-law tried to bond with me in the kitchen over cooking. But she left soon-ish, claiming that watching me chop vegetables made her feel nervous.

Yes, I am left-handed.

It did not register when handicrafts teachers despaired of ever getting me to sew the way they wanted me to. I went to a decently progressive school, but the mind-set of the teachers did not gel with my preferences of hands. Today, I can sew with either hand and that is a neat trick to learn, but I am still traumatised about the tag of 'Is unable to sew conventionally.' The hours they spent trying to make me sew, yeah, conventionally: what a waste!

It never registered when I was learning to play the veena either, which involves dexterity of both hands; and I learnt to write using my right hand(one of the done things, after all), so I never had to think about handedness.

Until my husband's valet quit because he didn't want a memsahib checking his accounts, that is.

The first meal we made together ended up as a cooking lesson, on many levels. 'Slice this onion,' said K, and I floundered, having never used a knife before. Onion, knife. Knife, onion. Hmm. Which goes where? I found that my right hand is better suited to hold the onion in position while I wield the knife with the left hand.

Welcome, left-handedness. But I thought I was right-handed because I was using my right hand to do the more intricate and important job of holding the onion in place. Oh dear.

When we were discussing handedness and K mentioned that I was left-handed, his dear friend S asked, quick as a flash, which hand do you use to brush, Lali? Huh? My left, but of course.

Um. If I were using a toothbrush. If I had to clean my teeth with fingers, I'd use my right index finger, of course.


Saturday, May 27, 2006


Good grief.

India Uncut

Have you ever come across more pointless idiocy? Even when it is fully developed, it will be just a sleight of hand to trick the eye, if you will admit mixing metaphors and it won't work anyhow, not really.

Invisibility might be useful for intelligence gathering, but I see no use for it in daily life. So line me up with other famous people who got it wrong... *grin*

If I had access to an invisibility cloak, I'd just make sure it blankets the whole planet and lets me get on with doing crosswords and such sacred duties.

Um, if there was a way to see what torments Araucaria is devising; ah well, I suppose it wouldn't work. Are they going to tackle telepathy next? Tell me when they do.


Flaw or sin?

I was solving a New York Times crossword a few days ago, and it had a theme.

I don't like the American style crosswords much, what with the too full grids and concise clues. That is not to say that they are not clever; sometimes the clues are quite droll. They can be obscure, too. But I dislike the many references to films and baseball, basketball, football and Broadway and the research it involves to solve them. But the NYT Sunday puzzles are jumbo-sized and fun, often with a witty theme.

This theme however, set me thinking. It was the Seven Deadly Sins.

This is a very Christian concept. In the Christian doctrine sins can be venial or deadly, either those that can be absolved or those that guarantee eternal damnation. When you consider the so-called deadly sins damnation seems a bit harsh, I must say.

Pride, lust, wrath, avarice, envy, gluttony and sloth seem more like character flaws than sins that condemn you forever.

Weaknesses one is aware of, weaknesses one is trying to transcend, and admitting to them guarantees eternal damnation. Good grief.

To digress a bit, in the early days of our move to Calcutta, I used to get outraged by an elderly woman who used to combine her morning walk with picking flowers to offer to her gods and she used to blithely pick, pluck and loot our front patch from over the short boundary wall; she used to venture in and reap the overnight fall of the paarijat flowers too, until we arrived with our dog trying to establish territorial rights.

I remonstrated with her once, asking whether she ever sought permission to plunder our garden. She was surprised. Shocked, even. It is for her communion with her gods, so it is all right, she needs no permission or invitation, right? Who was I to quibble? I asked her if her god is happy with the idea of stolen offerings, and she smiled a superior smile and told me her god was a thief, too.

I got my moment of sweet revenge, though.

I used to have to take my young son with me wherever I went, because baby-sitting was a luxury I did not have. So there we were, my four year old and I, waiting out a monsoon shower when the sky seems to split open and pour down, sheltering under an awning among the fruit, vegetable, egg and flower vending stalls in Lake Market, anxiously monitoring the rising levels of run-off the drainage system couldn't cope with. There were a lot of people crammed with us. And my son( bless the cherub), piped up in a sweet high voice, "Lali, look, there is the flower thief." If that lady wasn't mortified she must be made of sterner stuff and looser moral fabric than I was brought up with. The stalls cracked up, I can tell you. :D

Is theft any better behaviour than envying a friend who seems to have it all? Or having one more slice of the cake than you know is good for you? Or being utterly, insanely and incomprehensibly attracted and beguiled by a person or a thing? Or venting justified, righteous anger? Or wanting to laze around for a day? Or wanting to buy everything from a book-shop? Or feeling good about your assets? How come theft doesn't feature in the category of deadly sins? Or murder? Or rape? Or embezzlement? Oh, silly me, it is probably in the commandments.

Indian philosophy has a different approach.

Kama- desire when it is excessive, Krodha- wrath, anger or temper tantrums, Lobha- avariciousness, greed and miserliness, Moha-delusion, enchantment and infatuation, Mada- overweening pride, vanity and arrogance, and Matsara- envy and jealousy: these are described as the six shortcomings one has to shed before realising one's potential and reaching an equilibrium. They are the Six Foes a person has to conquer before he or she can be called a Sthita Prajna, a balanced mind.

This is a view that acknowledges the need for constant vigil over one's own mind, the striving for personal growth; it certainly doesn't threaten damnation. A pragmatic view, in short. Actually, Indian philosophy assumes that the aspiration for perfection goes on, in a cycle of births, attainments, lapses and striving once again, until that balance is reached; after which you are at peace and one with the universe. There is nothing about eternal damnation; redemption is available for everybody, no questions asked.

This seems to me a more sympathetic approach than naming human weaknesses deadly sins and telling us that we will be damned for eternity for being human.

Think about it.


Friday, May 26, 2006


Why can't I meet men as charming?

All telephone tag and SMS arrangement done, I dithered only for about half a minute before I decided to go as I was; dressed in my ancient jeans and a Fabindia top. Perfectly respectable and casual, too.

I said, "Honey, I am off." Himself called me back. "What are you wearing?" he asked sternly. "My jeans." I said. "Go and dress up, woman," Himself said. "It's not like you go out and meet people everyday, after all."

So I dressed up, and folks I mean way up, considering how cool the ladies turned out to be.

Okay, this post is descending into descriptions, so I might as well begin at the beginning. :D

I wore a tie and dye skirt that was full-length and an architectural marvel if you know your tailoring. This is my blog, so I will also tell you that it was a majestic brick-red lined with a slim hemmed border of saffron (attached on the wrong side, so it will only flash out as I walk, ha!) which went absolutely oh so perfectly with the top I wore. :D

Inspite of being delayed by having to change, I arrived first. Urmi walked in later, stately and serene. Rimi came in much later, full of apologies, angst and appealing quick wit.

Wow! K was right to envy my lunch date.

Urmi is a stately tall person, so chic and cool in her what we used to call pedal-pushers, but are probably called something else now and, glory be, Fabindia summer mode. (I wish she wore her hair loose so I could get a proper gander at her highlights) Rimi is a pocket-sized Venus, dressed carelessly in bargain clothes but exuding style with every breath. ( I dread the thought of getting on the sharp side of her tongue, though.)


Urmi and I got past the who do we know in common stage pretty soon, got over the point of remarking on how small the world is and were moving towards talking crosswords when Rimi walked in, a bit late, but all there.

We talked. Oh, we ordered mocktails, demolished free munchies (they gave us three plates of the stuff before they could get us to order), and we talked.

It was, in PGW speak, feast of reason and flow of soul.

Nose piercing? I said I will blog about it. No, tell us first, said the ladies and got the skeleton of the story. Nose piercing? Rimi telling the story is priceless.

And then we talked books. We talked blogs, Urmi and Rimi filling in details as I floundered in the rising tide of names. We talked (and no, men as hunks or eye-candy didn't feature), and we talked and bonded. When they pointedly served us saunf and such and indicated that they would be much obliged if we left, we still talked and took some half an hour before the management said 'thank you ma'am,' to each of us. I don't think they said 'please visit again', and I can hardly blame them.

We ate. Of course, we ate. Urmi had appam and fish, Rimi had haalim or some such thing and paratha, I think, (she made up her mind before I could, apparently a first with her) and I had Nilgiri Veg Korma and Malabar paratha. The parathas got mixed up, Rimi's mocktail was a meal in itself...

Over coffee we talked. We shifted venue, went to Crossword. We talked in the taxi. My foot went into severe cramp mode as we exchanged air-conditioning to real weather and Rimi of the magic fingers got it back to normal, and we talked.

We exclaimed delightedly over books, recommended (but not really recommending, just saying that's a good book) authors to each other, trawled the shelves and we talked. Urmi and I deserted Rimi for a while as we checked the Young Adult shelves, and the DVDs. We met up again, gloated at the thought of books bought and we talked.

Feeling out-classed as I was with Urmi's subtle humour and Rimi's rapier wit, their running gags and dead-pan delivery one-liners; their beauty, personality and presence, I still had a wonderful time. The food and books were only one part of it. We bonded big time, as they say.

I am tempted to start that damned chummery, just for the pleasure of having Rimi around. And Urmi, well, even if we aren't related, I still wish she wasn't so far away that we can't do this on a regular basis. What a woman. Urmi rocks. And that cherub, that baby-doll, Rimi rocks, too. I will just make sure my son never meets her, though. She is bound to be an evil influence. ;)


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sour grapes

After hearing me play telephone tag and exchange text messages about tomorrow's lunch, this is what K had to say.

"Three little ghostesses,
Sitting on postesses,
Eating buttered toastesses,
Greasing their fistesses,
Upto their wristesses.
Oh, what beastesses
To make such feastesses."

So buck up, girls. Mother Goose or not, we can't let him get away with it. Let's make the envy real. Here's looking at you, ladies.


Sic transit gloria mundi

First things first.

I have decided that I will need your collective mice landing perhaps accidentally on purpose, on the clever plugs that exhort you to investigate birdsong detectives or arthritis cures or any such intuitive matching that is done to display the aforementioned, and then I will need your first metacarpal slipping a little and exerting a teensy bit of downward pressure. Okay, all periphrasis aside, look at the wonderfully chosen ads that are displayed in my blog posts, they are worth a giggle.

Here's a clue. (They won't make rich any time soon, but having them ought to count for something, right?) : Lost. And I check, redo Lali's project (5, 2, 3, 3)

Make Missus Em happy by solving that anagram a la Da Vinci Code, and acting on it. That is my price for the next instalment of How K met Lali, so there.

And now folks, let's have a requiem for the passing of nice things, dependable things, that you thought you could count on. Like food delivery outfits that close down and make my life miserable.

Dude's Food Cargo was a wonderful delivery service. Their combo meals of both continental and Indian cuisine were well-thought out, excellently made and were so reasonably priced that I used to take a break from cooking regularly, depending on them. And their desserts were to die for.

They had trouble with the KMC and closed. Bereavement time.

June's Bistro was a lovely delivery outfit that my husband swore by. They made my life easier by delivering at unbelievably low rates. Their Bengali stuff was ambrosia according to my husband, and my son loved their version of spring rolls.

They closed down, too. What's it with good catering businesses that they let you get dependent on them and then they shut down? How am I supposed to cope?

Any of you who live in South Calcutta know of decent outfits who deliver? Not Azad Hind, or Dhaba. Not Don Giovanni's or Domino's, but little known gems? Write in, folks. My son will be coming for vacation in a couple of weeks, and I need a list soon-ish. He swears by mom's stir-fried potatoes, but he likes to order stuff too. Like once a day. So help me out please. :D

And while we are on the subject of seeking help, I could do with some advice, too.

Our television set has to go. I don't watch, so I am not affected by the loss of colour; K doesn't mind it. So I haven't bothered doing anything about it so far, but watching black and white on a colour TV is something my son is going to object to.

What should I go for? I am not going to do comparison shopping or market research when I have my trusted readership to pitch in with suggestions, am I? So give me brand names, models that you swear by, TV's that you love. What's your brand? What do you recommend?


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Technology and magic

Arthur C Clarke postulated three laws:

1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he almost certainly is right. 2) When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I agree with the first two, but I have issues with the famous third.

It can be argued then that any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. But any technology, however insufficiently advanced, is magic to a person who doesn't understand it. I feel technology has advanced sufficiently enough to be magic to most of us.

(Ponder Stibbons, the only sensible wizard on the Discworld where magic not only works but is in the very fabric of the universe, muses that any magic sufficiently advanced is technology.)

Consider our lives. When we flip a switch and turn lights on do we really know what happens? We know that the lights come on, certainly. But do we know how that miracle occurs? Do we understand what goes into making that daily miracle happen?

How many of us know how electricity is harnessed and stored and traded as a commodity and gets delivered to us at a price? We know enough to realise a bulb must have blown when the lights don't come on. Some of us know enough magic to change the bulb and make light again. But who knows the complete process from manufacture, storage, delivery and consumption?

Basically we are incanting a spell when we flip that switch: let there be light. Or breeze, or a magic lantern show via the miracle of television. Do any of us even think about how these magical things are achieved?

What do you do when your bed-side clock dies on you? You change the battery and if still acts up, you give up and take it to the shop you bought it from if it is still under warranty, or to your friendly neighbourhood watch-repair man.

Other than changing batteries, what do we know about how things work? Turning the idiot-box on with the remote, filling a washing machine and pressing controls, loading a microwave oven with stuff to re-heat... Isn't it all a bit like saying abracadabra? We don't really comprehend how these gadgets work but we are so dependent on them, all the same.

Do you wonder what makes an elevator work when you are riding one? Doesn't that make you nervous?

If I were planning a terrorist move, me, I'd kidnap all technicians and engineers rather than blow up places of worship. But hey that is my take, not a recipe for successful terrorism.

In their excellent novels about alien invasions and natural disasters, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explore the consequences of our dependence on electricity and our methods of procuring it; they explore how a world that suddenly lost all its industrial capabilities will cope. Footfall deals with the aliens geo-engineering our climate to suit their needs before we can fight back. Lucifer's Hammer deals with the all too possible scenario of a comet strike and what the aftermath would be if power plants die, weather patterns change, governments collapse, if experts and technicians become extinct and nobody knows how anything works. Stephen King too, explored the issue in his mega novel The Stand.

If we lost our industrial capabilities in one go, our society would be just a couple of days away from becoming a mob and reverting to isolated groups suspicious of outsiders.

Just think a bit about this.

We are so dependent on things we don't even bother to understand. Refrigerators, television sets, microwave ovens, computers, cell-phones... Like the stickers on some gadgets used to say, none of these have any user serviceable parts. Good grief, we wouldn't even know how to get to the innards of these things, let alone fix them. We live in tall apartment towers that would be death traps if there was a disaster. Which among us can imagine functioning without a phone, a computer and an internet connection? How would we communicate, or amuse ourselves?

Technology has made our instant gratification lifestyle possible. But as it keeps evolving and forging ahead, technology has already become magic to most of us, making the only people who understand and can manipulate it the shamans and wizards, the new elite of this century.

Do you know how to make fire? Can you survive without mass-produced things? Will you be able to live off the land and take care of yourself if the world reverted to, say, the civilisation levels of a couple of centuries ago? Technology has become magic already, Sir Arthur.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Cause and effect

"Most generally, causation is a relationship that holds between events, objects, variables or states of affairs. It is usually presumed that the cause chronologically precedes the effect. Finally, the existence of a causal relation suggests that- all other things being equal- if the cause occurs the effect will as well(or at least the probability of the effect occurring will increase)."

I won't blame you if you went cross-eyed reading that. I did. I have been trying to figure out causality and causation; they are not exactly same. It fascinates me though and I ponder the chicken and egg question or the seed and tree question quite often. What follows which, or is it the other way around, which follows what? If something hadn't occurred, could something else have happened?

My grandmother used to tell us a story about how the monkey got the drum and we suspended all logic and happily recited after her,

"Lost a thorn, got a knife, so I beat my drum.
Lost a knife, got a stick, so I beat my drum.
Lost a stick, got a pancake, so I beat my drum.
Lost a pancake, got a garland, so I beat my drum.
Lost a garland, got a bride, so I beat my drum.
Lost a bride, got a drum, so I beat my drum.
So I beat my drum. So I beat my drum,"

never stopping to consider the absurdity of the plot-line or asking inconvenient questions.

It was folklore, passed down the generations with embellishments in each telling, no doubt. But after the kind man removed the thorn from a monkey's paw, you just had to suspend disbelief to hear the argument: Give me my thorn. I threw it away. Give me my thorn back. But you saw me throw it away. Give me my thorn back. Exasperated, the man gives the monkey his knife, probably hoping it would stab itself with it. The sequence gets more absurd, what with the monkey ending up acquiring a bride.

Likewise, in nursery rhymes the absurdity of a series of events requires suspension of logic.

Anna Maria sat on the fire.
The fire was too hot; she sat on the pot.
The pot was too round; she sat on the ground.
The ground was too flat; she sat on the cat.
The cat ran away with Maria on her back.

In real life though, it is just about possible to work out what led to what. We can assign turning points and say that a particular event definitely changed the course of a life. I don't know which was the most important, but there were four things I can say caused my life to unfold and happen as it did.

Gather round, children, and I will tell you how it came about that I first spoke to the man who was to become my husband. All safe and snug? Here goes:

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

Nehru married Kamala and begat Indira.

My cousin, either disgusted by the Emergency or wanting to be in the thick of things, quit his job as a journalist and went to Delhi. He was an audiophile. He teamed up with a buddy and they used to build speakers and companders and other esoteric audio equipment and bond over soldering irons and integrated circuits.

My mother liked cats and ran an open house for them. They came and went, using our house as base camp: food station, maternity ward and a place to interact with humans and get some petting. My father was easy-going and tolerated this as long as they left his library alone and didn't demand anything from him. So I grew up surrounded by cats being snooty to humans, and believe me, nobody can be as snooty as a cat.

We had this cat. She was all dappled ginger and brown, almost orange and green in her colouring; she was long-haired with a wondrous tail and a soft white belly, dotted with overworked teats as she was a fecund queen. She must have been called something, had another name, a call sign; but by the time I was a teenager, she was just Amma Pilli (translation: Mother Cat).

She liked her humans and did her best to humour them and educate them by bringing them stunned birds and half-dead mice to practice hunting with. She thought the safest place to have her litters was in the crook of our knees as we slept, as she wasn't allowed to stash them in the library. She just couldn't make my father see reason and gave up after half a dozen years of trying to train him.

Amma Pilli was a constant as I grew up and entered my teens. Always there, having litters like clockwork, teaching her broods to hunt in the semi-wilderness of the plot next-door. She treated her humans as a convenience. Humans make good nannies for kittens in a territory that abounded with toms trying to keep the population down.

Her progeny grew up doing the same. 1 SPM Street was a safe haven from territorial bullies. We had a dog who knew in his very bones that he was a creature of a lower order and deferred to the cats; I think he aspired to become a cat when he grew up. Our juvenile toms used to take on bigger and tougher toms on the strength of being able to streak to the safety of the dog, nestling between his huge paws and sneering at the challenger.

We had cats named after Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh. They ended up being called Baddoo, Paratta and Chappanni, but the original names were in keeping with the spirit of '77. We had cats named after Nixon, famous or infamous writers. We had cats that wandered in and settled down. We had cats that I kept collecting as boys discovered that finding a stray cat and bringing it to college was the quickest way to make friends with me. Other girls got gifts of chocolate and flowers and cards. I got abandoned kittens.

Amma Pilli serenely went on being Amma Pilli. But at some point she stopped being fecund. I think the '77 triplets were her last litter. She was a two kitten mum, mostly. We got used to the rest of the lesser queens having litters, Amma Pilli sedately presiding over the cattery.

We got over the horror of her being run over by a cyclist, who came sobbing with her cradled in his arms saying, she just appeared, I swear, she just appeared. She seemed critically ill, perhaps with internal injuries, until the vet arrived. She then set the world record for the feline standing high jump while scratching the holder and the hundred meter dash, when the vet tried to examine her. When we got her back for the vet to examine her further, he said our fears about her possible demise were greatly exaggerated.

She grew indolent and took to stealing. She kept getting at the milk. Our doctor(of him I will blog another time) suggested that we check if she lost her teeth. Oh, yes, she had. She didn't get the run of the food shelves, but she did get consideration. She was a venerable elder person. She got soft food, more milk and more idiotic and pathetic 'oh, Amma Pilli,' kind of hugs and petting than she could have wanted. After all there is a limit and some sense of decorum.

She took to gracing the kitchen, spending her days in a doze, all curled up on a cane footstool.

Those days, I used to start supper, whether rolling out rotis or setting up the idlis. It was idlis that night. I looked to see if Amma Pilli twitched an approving nostril as I slid the idlis off the stand. She didn't. She seemed fast asleep. She died in her sleep. There wasn't any wailing and beating of breasts, but we had a sombre meal that night.

My audiophile cousin had to be informed. I had a contact number for him. It wasn't until I dialled the number and had to open my mouth and speak that the enormity of the event hit me. Can I speak to my cousin, I asked, my voice breaking.

"He doesn't live here." A pleasant baritone informed me, adding in a laughing voice, "Though it does seem like that, most of the time. I can take a message, if you want to leave one."

"Tell him," I said and broke into sobs. "Tell him Amma Pilli is dead." I hung up and wept.

The next morning, my cousin called in a panic. How could she die, he demanded. She is only seventeen years old. Cats live much longer than that, he said wildly. As I gave him chapter and verse of the end, I could hear him saying in an impatient aside, "Yes, it is a cat; yes, she was crying about a cat; no, it wasn't my mother or aunt; yes, it was a cat. Do you mind, Kalyan, I am trying to find out details here."

My cousin invited me to go and stay with him to get over the grief. I did, and met the incredulous man who was astonished that the incoherently weeping message-bearer of bereavement was talking about a cat.

On second thoughts, the title of this post should have been "Hundred and second use of a dead cat".


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bus-stand romance

He was never on the bus. But he was always there at the bus stop, when I got off.

I grew up very sheltered. I'd never used public transport until college. A school bus collected us sisters and and delivered us back home through most of my school years. Then my parents bought a car, and we sisters were dropped and collected by the car. It grew a bit complicated as we started college, as we went to different colleges, and school and college times clashed. There was my father's requirements of any given day to consider, too.

It took me a while to persuade my mother to let me take the bus, at least when coming home. It was never formally agreed on, or even discussed, but the unspoken debate went on a while. Because it was unspoken. I mean this is India and I am talking about the mid 'seventies; we didn't use to bond or talk things out or address issues then. Anyway, it was ages and ages before I got to taking a bus back home.

There were problems with routes and frequencies. There were buses that would deposit me practically on my doorstep, but the bus stop from my college was a longish walk, and it would be a lonely walk,too. I could take any bus to Luz and change buses, take any of the 12s, but for some reason, I used to take the 13s. It was a longer walk home from the Vani Mahal bus stop, but I didn't mind that.

I don't remember when I first noticed him. But there he was, when I stepped off the bus, walking the in same direction. At Pondy Bazaar he used to turn right, and I'd cross the street. I don't know who speeded up or who slowed down, but soon we were walking at the same pace; not looking at each other, not striking up a conversation, but just walking down the same road.

For months. We never spoke. We hardly looked at each other. But he'd be there. I didn't know which bus he took, or why he was always there at that time. I didn't know if he was in college like me or where he went after turning right at Pondy Bazaar. But walking with him became part of my routine. My friends used to call him my bodyguard and tease me about it. They'd egg me on, dare me to talk to him. But we just walked.

On days I was delayed by Buhari Hotel chat sessions and took a later bus, he'd still be there; with a slightly worried frown that'd clear as he saw me getting off the bus. I used to wonder if he'd ask why I was delayed, but he never did.

One day, I heard a kitten mewling in the ditch. I stopped. It was tiny, about a month old. It was bedraggled and had fleas. I couldn't even decide what colour it was, it was so dirty. I walked closer to the ditch and took a closer look, to see if there were its siblings with it. It was alone. Abandoned.

We had some sixteen cats of various ages at home then. Our matriarchal Mother Cat had recently had a litter. She wouldn't mind an addition to it. I picked the kitten up, petting it and soothing it.

I was vaguely aware that he'd stopped when I did and was looking quizzical. He looked aghast as I picked up the kitten. I started walking, the kitten cradled on my books. He started walking too. He turned right at Pondy Bazaar, I crossed the street and took the kitten home.

The next day I got off the bus. He wasn't there. The walk home felt lonely. The day after, I changed buses and started getting off at Pondy Bazaar proper. The walk was shorter and I didn't have to wonder if he'd be there or not. I never saw him again.

The kitten turned out to be white with a ginger tail, quite the bushiest tail I ever saw on a cat. We called him, with stunning originality, Gutter. He was the best tom we ever had.


Friday, May 12, 2006

I would if I could, but I can't

Women spend a lot of time prettifying themselves; indulge in a lot of rituals, acquire regimens, follow diets and exercise programmes. Cosmetics industry has made multiples of millions out of this trait of women.

Whether you are a plain Jane or a stunningly beautiful woman, you'd like to look as good as you can. There are zillions of creams and lotions, salves and gels, packs and masks and procedures and treatments all out there that promise to enhance your looks: make your skin smooth, face glossy and hair shiny. They swear they will zap your zits, clear your complexion, lighten your tan, tighten your pores, reduce your cellulite and magic away your laugh lines. All those promises, and all that allure... What's a woman to do but succumb?

A routine develops early, and by the time a woman hits her thirties, she has a set of rituals; of cleansing, toning and moisturising; not to mention make up, either as a daily donning of armour or an especial dolling up for the evening.

There are umpteen millions of women who enjoy dressing up and putting on the war-paint. They apply make up: bases, foundations, add blushers, concealers and rouges on; they line their eyes with liners or pencils the better to define them and add eye shadow; they line their mouths with defining pencils and fill in with lush inviting shades of colour. They add lip gloss, they add sparkles when they are in party mode.

Let those who can do, is what I say; not without a touch of bitterness and envy, if I have to be honest.

In his priceless anthology of limericks, Norman Douglas remarks about the young fellow called Grant who had a problem and his response to a question... " 'I would if I could, but I can't': there is pathos in that line." I fully empathise with that poor young man and endorse Douglas.

I would if I could, but I can't, too. When it comes to dolling up and slathering on war-paint. (Okay, that is a bit excessive, but make up of any kind.) It's not that I don't want to look good or that I am such a beauty that I don't need to gild the lily. Far from it.

It's simply that I am allergic to most of these products. Foundation brings me out in a rash of pimples, most lipsticks do the same, eye-liners or pencils make my eyes water constantly and I end up with streaks of black down my face. Over the years, I must have tried countless brands of so-called hypoallergenic cosmetics. They are not; at the least, they are not hypoallergenic enough for me.

But that doesn't stop me from questing away for make up I can wear, though. I know all make up makes my face shiny with sweat, not aglow like the promise said; and it will ensure my face breaking out in a crop of rash or worse, trigger fits of sneezing. Still, every now and then I try out yet another foundation or lip gloss or eye-liner only to give it away later.

It is not just cosmetics. I have the same problem with skin care products, whether moisturisers or shampoos, cleansers or toners. I once used a gel that promised to reduce dark circles and make my eyes radiant. It made them bloodshot, and I had to go around for a week looking as though I had been on a binge and was still recovering.

After years of trying to find safe make up or skin care products, I became resigned to my hypersensitive skin and gave up. I stuck to a basic cleansing routine and to the few products that didn't punish my skin. Soap and water suffice for men, so they can suffice for me, I decided. I made wearing no make up my trademark look.

The only cosmetic I could wear with impunity was mascara: but the incongruity of lushly coated lashes in an otherwise bare face and the fact that it just smudged my reading glasses meant that I never wore mascara either.

It certainly brought my expenses down.

Nowadays there are all these herbal cosmetics, full of 'natural' ingredients and 'organically' grown herbs. They seemed to offer a chance of indulging in some self-pampering routines. I tried them. Shahnaz Hussain, Biotique, Naturoma, Ayur, Lotus, the lot.

Guess what? I am still sensitive, and the natural organic herbal cosmetics and creams are still full of chemicals that seem to hate me and that my skin hated back, just as virulently. I broke out in rashes, my eyes watered, and I sneezed and wheezed my way through experimentation again.

But after an extensive search I found that there are some that I can tolerate and I gleefully developed a routine. At last! Cleansing, moisturising and using a sunscreen, just like everybody else. I even ventured as far as trying herbal, organic and safe lipsticks.

Years of being unable to wear make up did an odd thing, though. I'd feel overdressed and gaudy when I put on lipstick, and invariably wiped it off before venturing out. It felt funny and I felt I was masquerading. It wasn't me. So I went back to my nude look.

There are other things one can do to feel well-groomed, though, and I indulge in all of them.

I developed a foot fetish and fell in love with my feet. I pamper them endlessly. They deserve it. They carry me through the day without a complaint, they respond to the slightest pampering and only need a pumice stone and a decent manicure kit to look after.

And, Glory be, when I dab the whitening tightening goo that made my face sore and blotchy on my feet, they don't break out in rashes. They revel in the attention paid to them and look as good as my face was supposed to look after washing the goo off. :D


Monday, May 08, 2006

First kiss me, Kate, and we will.

A kiss has been called the rosy dot over the i of loving; a thing of no use to one, but prized by two.

It's been defined pedantically as the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction. Slightly more charitably, it's been defined as a contraction of the mouth due to enlargement of the heart.

Wits have described a kiss as 'a course of procedure, cunningly devised for the mutual stoppage of speech at a moment when words are superfluous'; as 'lip service to love'.

It's been celebrated, eulogised, enshrined in literature and on celluloid. Naturally, since statement of amorous intent and either enthusiastic endorsement or uncomfortable wriggling out of the situation and rejection of the said intent all start with a kiss.

Everybody remembers the first romantic kiss they shared; not the elderly aunts and geriatric relatives bussing one nor the numerous chuckings of one's chin or the kisses one's parents bestow. The first real kiss is never forgotten.

My first had rubber lips and a wet mouth. He slobbered like a large friendly dog. I remember thinking, 'So this is kissing? Yuck'. But I remember it and what I wore that day, too.

The first kiss is always something of a disappointment for girls who grew up reading romantic novels (in my time, we used to read them for the heavy petting scenes or the occasional, daring 'all the way' descriptions which were actually coy and sanitised), for girls who think a kiss is an invitation to explore possibilities rather than an assault on one's lips and an unwelcome interlude of tonsil-hockey...

To digress a little, the atmosphere in the romance literature has hotted up a lot since I was a member of RaviRaj library. There used to be heavy petting scenes when the heroine suddenly comes to her senses and disengages, usually because the hero is an inappropriate person for her to fall in love with. Nowadays, the heroines go all the way, sultrily encouraging the heroes and initiating variations on the theme. Nowadays, they are either divorced or single parents, there are no innocent virgins, they have casual sex and even in the young-adult genres, they have sex. But they have safe sex. :D

They still have issues to be resolved before they can be united as a couple though, but they don't stop at a heavy moment and say things like: 'this is wrong', 'you should stop now', 'this is not right' in the heroine's case; or 'I can't torture myself any longer', 'tell me to stop now or I won't be responsible for what happens next', 'you know you are driving me wild, don't you?' in the hero's case.

But, to get back to my point:

The female of our species has better references and a better idea about how a kiss ought to go, unlike the males. Boys don't have a clue because they haven't read the right books, and watched porn instead. Girls read Mills & Boon, or Silhouette romances and get a romantic and soft porn version of how seduction ought to begin.

Girls have a different idea about kissing. Whether inspired by contemporary romantic literature or not, they know how it ought to start and/or go on. Boys, I think, especially in these days of Internet and easy access to porn, get their ideas about what an amorous encounter starts with from misleading sources. My personal theory is that young men watch too much porn and young women read too much romance; so the twain clash.

Screen couples kiss with mouths wide open and tongues stuck out, because they are doing it to convey passion and intensity to a camera; real life kisses don't, shouldn't start with an open mouth and a stabbing assault by tongue.

Kissing has been dismissed as nose-rubbing among the civilised, but noses do get in the way. Likewise glasses worn by either of the couple. But there is something infinitely sexy about a bespectacled guy removing his glasses and reaching for you that makes you go weak at knees and tremble.

On reading Rimi's rant, I felt it is my duty to speak up on behalf of young men. Like most women, I agree with her summary of how young men go about getting ardent. Most of them. But, dear girl, the best fun is to be had teaching an ignorant young man a better way to kiss. They may be deficient, but they are willing to learn. :D


Friday, May 05, 2006

K theory

"So if you take minus three..." Started Himself.

"Stop right there, honey." I said. I can't conceive of minus three, unless it is grams of weight I might shed if and when I exert myself, in relation to the energy expended.

I don't do numbers. I don't do negative numbers at all. Oh, I am like everybody else, I keep track of days, years and appointments. I note down expenses, too. But that's just tracking to make life comprehensible. Calendars and accounts are just a way of managing and keeping count; it does get depressing as you rack up the years , though. But numbers are different.

I was playing at setting crossword clues and asked my husband about constants. Apparently there are five absolute constants for mathematicians.

0, 1, e, i and pi. Zero and one I could understand without stretching my imagination much. Pi is something Carl Sagan based his one and only novel on, so I how could I not know it? When he started to expound on the square root of minus one, I gave up on i, though; and when it came to e, hm, let's draw a discreet veil. Exponential is not a word I want to hear again anytime soon.

Euler and my current German connection notwithstanding, I am not interested in negative numbers unless it is weight I am shedding. The mind boggles. Mathematicians seem to make cryptic crosswords clues seem plain and simple.

My husband informed me there are other constants, too. C: velocity of light, h: Planck's constant and G. He'd have gone on a bit more about them and tried to educate me further, if I hadn't put my foot down and cried:

"Means I got it"
"Hey, I do know what it means."
"I think I have a lovely anagram, is all I meant"
"Do tell."
"I hog epic ."
"Excuse me?"
"It's an anagram of all the constants, and I can link it to Jordan's never-ending saga of Wheel of Time and create a great clue..."
"But Lali, 0 and 1 are not alphabet..."
"Hey, we are talking cryptic crosswords, so zero is O and one is I; it is a lovely anagram, honey, admit it."

Neither of us gives up the hope of educating the other, though.

I'd made a career of asking and not understanding what K theory is. I mean, when you are twenty-something and you find this slim volume on the coffee table of your love, and you ask an idle question about it while waiting for him to get the hint, are you going to admit you understand it? Or that you don't? And/or that you don't give a hoot about it(will you get amorous now please, thank you; so on and so forth)?

But over the years, explaining K theory to Lali became a game. We never ever got around to the explanation or understanding part of exploring K theory, though. "This is going to be a K theory kinda thing", he says, when I ask him something. We both know it means something I won't really understand the nitty-gritty of, but can grasp the 'For Dummies' version. It is our private shorthand for 'you won't understand, dear'.

He is resigned about my mathematical inadequacies, and only relies on me about spellings, usage and as a fount of trivia. He always has an answer for my questions and I only tell him how many esses there are in possession or what 'illegitimati nil carborundum' means.

O, swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Twenty three years ago today, we began to live together. And like 0, 1, e, i and pi, he has been constant. Happy anniversary, Kalyan.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

What people want

Folks, this is post 50.

I started this blog to talk about crosswords and things that matter to me, but crosswords mostly. I seem to spend a lot of the time talking about other things though. And I haven't heard much complaint from most of you either.

This time, I won't talk at all. Read on:


And so
We went on
Being, believing
Parallel lines never meet.
The dawn became day
A poor lily folded its petals
And passed away
Its ghost haunting the pond.
We went on travelling
Towards a horizon
And reaching out.

And so
We went on dreaming,
When truth stood stark before our eyes
We said this is not the truth we seek,
This is not the light we want.

And so
We never spoke
Letting things lie
Each of us commanding
Willing things to die.

And so
We go on pretending
Making believe all the time
To everybody.

When gloaming
Deepens into dark night
We go on dreaming,
wishing upon each first star
We watch for.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In which Missus Em does a Kraktoa

This is a lesson about how best to get me annoyed.

Nobody can claim I am confrontational. I am not. I get along, smooth things over, ignore things that most people would pitch a fit about.

Things happen and I adjust; go with the flow and all that...There are very few things I am serious or fanatical about; it is my books and crosswords.

I have already gone on a bit about how much reading means to me and all that. Also about how fanatical I am about crosswords. The world can go to hell in a hand-basket all around me and I serenely carry on, doing my crosswords, ploughing through my reading list.

For instance, my flat is getting painted. For the past one month, we have been living surrounded by furniture taken out of other rooms, with the noise of the polishing machine, the too loud chatter of the painters; with the massive disruptions painting a flat one is living in entail.

We lived a week surrounded by china and crockery stalked all round us on make-shift surfaces, eating delivered food in the living room, balancing our plates on our knees. No Problem. I was merely amused and considered it a diversion and a holiday from regular cooking.

I smiled when an assistant mistook a shoe-cupboard for a door and scraped all the old polish off and sanded it. No harm done, it can have a fresh, if unscheduled, coat of polish for free, I said. I shrugged when a switch panel broke. Just replace it at your cost, I said.

We survived our computers being dismantled, being disconnected from the world for a week while our den got done. I just made sure the shelves were swathed in dust-covers and plastic sheets to keep the worst of the plaster dust away from my books. And I simply went to a cyber cafe and did my online crosswords. No problem. Unflappable Missus Em.

But. But. The painters, who thought I was a sweet and soft-spoken woman who politely asked for a surface to be redone or a splash to be cleaned up, who thought I was a baa-lamb, decided to be nice to me.

They dusted the books. That sentence ought to have some four or five exclamation marks after it, but I am mindful of Pratchett's remark that five exclamation marks are a sure sign of insanity.

They dusted the books. They took them out of the shelves, dusted them and put them back, all wrong. Upside down, or back to front, arranged according to size and height and width. No alphabetical order by author, no chronological order of publication for favourite authors, no by genre or category separation.

I won't say I carried on. I won't say I ranted. I won't say I screamed like a banshee. I did all that and more. I demanded that they remove all the books from the shelves and watch me sort them according to my classification and made them put them back, exactly the way they should be.

Considering that I have the Encyclopaedia Britannica, texts on music, reference books, complete works of Shakespeare, mathematical books and papers, bound volumes of Audio Amateur and Wireless world, Telugu classics, remnants of my father-in-law's library, my collection of contemporary Telugu poetry, cookery books and books on crafts, science fiction and fantasy, complete Discworld series, most of Stephen King's novels until he lost it, and miscellaneous novels that I picked up in airports, a lot of non-fiction... The list is rather large; anyway, considering this, the painting work came to a complete standstill for a whole day. I refused to let anything be done till my books were back the way they were.

The painters don't think I am a baa-lamb or a sweet and soft-spoken woman anymore. A small price to pay.


Monday, May 01, 2006

Spreading the word

Life can be cruel.

Imagine this. You are 19. You have lost your father, your mother is struggling to support you and your siblings and give you a good start in life. And then you are diagnosed as having a debilitating and life-threatening disease, and are told that you need a bone-marrow transplant. And that it will cost Rs. 1000000.

But life also offers hope and finds comfort and support from unexpected places.

In a a touching display of fraternity, and combining enterprise with efficiency, friends of Thamarai Selvan, the young man in the above mentioned plight have put forward an appeal to all the world. They have used the medium of our age, the internet, to reach out to as many kind souls as they can.

In Terry Pratchett's novel, Night Watch, Lord Vertinari remarks that a good word can't be spread too far.

I came across this appeal for help in Praveen's blog, and I will do my bit. And folks, read the details here and how you can help here.

My prayers are with Thamarai Selvan and his family. I am proud of the young people who have taken their friend's need as their own and are helping out. Bless them.

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