lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Monday, July 31, 2006

I crib; therefore I am.

A few weeks ago, I made a gaffe that would have had my father spinning in his grave, had he been buried instead of cremated.

My father was a great one for research and verifying facts. If you asked him if the sun rises in the east, he'd probably have said that he'd have to cross-check. Once, when I wanted to verify whether Yudhishtira had another wife, like the rest of his brothers, I called and asked him. He'd know and could me tell off the top of his head surely, I thought.

"Yes, he did," he said in the deliberate, thoughtful way he spoke; "I will have to verify, call me tomorrow." And the next day he had the name of the other wife, her lineage and her progeny, chapter and verse at his fingertips to tell me.

When I took a cursory look at Wordweb, my desktop dictionary and wrote a hurried comment on Raj's blog, only to have him write back to me and ask which word I thought was misspelt, I was mortified.

I always thought that the word minuscule was spelt with an i, and took umbrage at Raj spelling minuscule with an u. Wordweb, when I checked with it, confirmed that the spelling with u was the variant.

So I went to my shelves and checked my Webster. It didn't have any other spelling than minuscule. I checked my concise OED. It said miniscule was a variant.

Sigh. My father would have checked first before dashing off that comment.

That brings me to the point of this post.

What a nice thing it is to have friends who cheer you up, and provoke your curiosity. That biddable young lady Rimi, commenting on the previous post, offered a suggestion. She said if the muse refused to whisper inspiration, I could always crib.

I knew what she meant, of course. But I know the word means other things, too. (A child's cot with high ends and sides, a manger, to pass off other people's ideas or writing as one's own and to grumble.)

So I went to check my Webster. I wasn't going to check Wordweb first anymore, just because it sits conveniently on my desktop, and doesn't involve heavy lifting.

The Webster had ten definitions for crib as a noun, five for verb transitive, and three for verb intransitive. And none of them involved what Rimi suggested. I don't think she meant me to do a Kaavya Vishwanathan, after all.

I then checked the concise OED. It informed me there were nine definitions for the noun, including slang for a brothel and a light meal. Wonderful, isn't it? As a verb transitive it had four definitions and the fourth, which is British colloquial, is what Rimi meant. Grumble.

My father would have approved what I did next. I checked online. The first result that Google returned was this, and there was no definition of crib as grumble.

Undaunted, I checked more results. At, if you scroll down and read further, you can find that to crib is to grumble, in colloquial British slang. But Webster online didn't recognise the usage.

All this research in the course of an afternoon had one effect, though. The incipient blues lifted, and I was buoyed at the prospect of telling you all about it and boring you to tears.

Ah Rimi, my muse, as ye sow so ye shall reap.


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Calling Erato

PC Erato

don’t move the mouse.
no, not just yet.
look a little longer
at the mating dance of
multiple polygons in random colors.

don’t open Word; New, not just yet

what do you have to say
that’s fresher than these polygons
undulating and pausing,
changing shapes and forms
coalescing, touching
and breaking apart
to a solo twirl, thrust, dance
expansion and fulfillment
touch again,
and break free
and again and again.

look at them.
multiple polygons performing ballet on the monitor.
don’t destroy the joyous meeting and parting.
don’t move the mouse, yet.

what will you write
that will echo the dance of the mating polygons?

why do you have to write?
because you can’t dance.

why do you have to write?
because you can’t sing.

why do you have to write?
to break the spell of the screen saver.

Feeling at a loss for words and inspirationally challenged is the worst thing that can happen to a blogger. Priya was complaining about it.

Indecision, feelings of inadequacy and wondering about reader response- all play their part towards a blogger considering closing shop. You read your archives and marvel, how did I write that? Why can't I find something to say now? Why bother? Who cares? Who am I kidding?

Then there is the worry if anybody other than crossword buffs and people with a nodding acquaintance with the classics will get what your title means. Am I writing for the whole world? I suppose I am, but isn't that tiny segment of world that understands and gets the joke my target readership, really?

It's enough to make one weep. The random blues are a bad thing. Of course, there could be other things going on in your life; other worries, loves lost and found, agonies too personal to blog about. But there is also the serious roadblock of running out of things to say.

Then there are the self-imposed constraints to consider too. I made up my mind I won't review books or talk about current events or politics and wax superior with opinions on them. There are topics I ought to bite my tongue and not write about; the family reads my blog, after all. While they won't comment, they will have plenty to say about it.

Looking at my site tracker's details only confuses. (I added the trackers because I wanted my blog to have the bells and whistles too, like other blogs that I read. And while it was a period fraught with frustration and a sinking sense of my own ignorance, it also helped me learn the basics of what young people seem to do off the top of their heads, without even having to think about it.)

I learn that people searching for massage in Kolkata, people looking for jokes to read in Tamil, people looking for the perfect omelette recipe all arrive at my blog, and read at least one post, perhaps several. My tracker doesn't care to elaborate. That is depressing. A post written in half an hour just to vent gets me more readers than what I thought and researched and laboured over.

Google or Yahoo! searches are strange, to say the least. It is amazing to think that people type in search words like 'hot lalita',' sexy lalita' or 'young lalita illegal'. Whatever are they looking for? 'Silk Smita' and 'curse words in Telugu' or 'what does neha mean' all bring me readers. How many come back to read another day?

But it is gratifying to know that people searching for cryptic crosswords, Araucaria's limerick puzzle, alphabetical jigsaw puzzles, Paul's prize crossword hints, Murphy's Law limerick also arrive at my blog. People who are searching for beautiful Telugu fonts, Telugu names are directed to my blog, by Google or Yahoo!

There was one surreal search, 'all nouns plural Inglish.' Good grief!

However, this trying to figure out what posts of mine garner me most readers has made me conclude I should keep writing about unisex beauty parlours and massage parlours in Kolkata and ponder about meanings of names. Sandwich massage, anybody?

Seriously though, I can't write about the latest Araucaria crossword until Monday, when the solution comes out, and I am clean out of ideas. Lack of inspiration or direction clams me up. Which of my ten regular readers is going to be edified by what drivel I write next? Knowing people read me is making me tongue-tied rather than expansive. Any suggestions, my dear readers?

Over to you, Priya. Blog on this.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

2 mk frndshp

A gossip talks about others, a bore talks about himself- and a brilliant conversationalist talks about you.

Human beings are gregarious by biological and genetic imperative. All right, we are herd animals. We have needed to cooperate and interact and function together anyhow, to start civilisation going. But human beings can be loners by preference or predilection or habit. We might be shy, we may have a stutter, or we may clam up in a group situation, still we all communicate. And these days it is likely that the communication is through mails, text messages and online chat.

As a rule, I am careful in what I say. I try not to hurt anybody's feelings and avoid giving offense. I am more careful when I write; particularly when I am writing letters. When it is to strangers or near strangers, I am especially careful about what I say and how I say it. Whether I write covering letters to documents I send or complaining letters to the Guardian Crossword editor, or when I reply to strangers who write to me, I make a point of being clear, concise, and courteous.

I read blogs. As I read them, I get an image of the blogger and the more I read, the more I seem to know the blogger as a person. But when I write to them either to ask permission to link to them or to post a private comment to them, I always remember that I am a stranger to the blogger, and so I write carefully.

When I got an alert on Google Mail that somebody had added me to his Contacts list and wanted to chat with me, this is what I sent:

Hi, who are you and why do you want to talk to me?

It could be that he is a reader of my blog in which case I'd be glad to chat with him. I love getting feedback and finding out what my readers think of my blog.

And this is what I got in reply:

i am subuidhi(36yrs),really do not even know you. i am sorry i make a fun by adding you.
Anyway i am staying at kolkata and working in sony.
Sorry again,by put you in troble (sic).But i shall be greatful (sic) to get a friend like you!

Good grief, the person misspelt his own name. Why should I bother to reply to such illiterate drivel?

When I get requests from strangers asking to add me as a friend to their Orkut friends' list, I usually send a message asking why. If after some conversation it turns out that we share interests or friends, I am quite happy to add them to my list. But as Priya teased me about it, when they write illiterate, vowel- challenged messages in my scrapbook, I just delete the messages and leave it at that.

When I used to chat online, if I received a private message requesting a chat, I used to try and establish that we had anything to chat about. While I am grateful to have wonderfully articulate and intelligent friends that I met online, I still cringe at the effort that went into sifting.

The majority of requests would start with the standard "asl plz" and that used to irritate me. I'd reply that we should be finding out if we had anything in common to discuss, first. If they were poor in English or if they used more abbreviations than my levels of tolerance could take, I'd excuse myself and sign off.

Some conversations would take off on a point I raised in the chat room and that would give us a topic. Personal details would emerge in the course of the conversation and that was fine by me. I'd been chatting with him for about half an hour before this man brought it up, see how tactfully and humorously he went about it:

[This reproduced chat has been edited to anonymise; all emoticons excluded, too. And yes, I'd grown accustomed to typing lower case all through by then.]

Him: XYZ you'd better tell me something about you or I'll get forced into 'asl plz'
Me: good grief, i shouldn't make you do that gross thing.
Me: i am of age, and as you guessed, female
Me: does location matter?
Him: of what age?
Him: Yes - location matters
Me: for chat it doesn't, surely?
Him: LOL - it might allow me to avoid making tactless comments about particular ethnic groups!
Him: Nothing actually 'matters' for chat, does it?
Me: no, but you can't offend me with tactless remarks about ethnic groups, I live in the huge
melting pot of ethnics called India
Him: An Injun!
Me: ah, i see what you mean.

We already had a measure of each other's English and intellect and this established our levels of tolerance and sense of humour. That is important. We chatted some more, typing away at each other and hitting send before a complete reply came:

Him: ask away
Me: why did you PM me?
Me: i'd just entered the room, i think
Him: we have so much in common?
Him: kismet?
Me: sheesh!
Him: age similarity?
Me: we only found out later
Him: No XYZ I always knew…we were made for each other (are you rich?)
Me: nope, i was hoping you were
Him: I ALWAYS get the poor ones!
Me: story of my life.
Him: Ok Ok - I'll be serious for a moment....
Me: find one interesting guy, and he is after money
Him: I'm basically a serial nomadic chat PM-er. I pick people at random
Me: ok
Him: If they seem to be female ( A GENETIC THING)
Me: got that
Him: and haven't said 'WuzzzzzzuppppwidUdenbro'
Him: and are not looking for a companion to play with Barbie dolls
Him: Other than that…I don't have that many rules

We talked; we kept going off on tangents. I got educated about divorce laws in Australia; he got lessons on our bewildering caste system. We talked about cats, birds, care of piranhas and amateur house repairs. We talked about books we read, about books we were planning to read, the authors we love or hate. We bitched about English class system which they periodically claim is extinct and isn't.

Him: I see. Hey - I can buy an opal mine, of course. If the incentive is there!
Me: but you can always buy me the aussie cricket team
Him: You injuns cheat at cricket!
Me: i'd put them all in chains
Him: Always ball tampering and bribing honest Aussies
Me: hey, you guys have the umpires on your side!
Him: The side of truth and justice? Yes, probably.
Me: hah
Me: you had one honest guy who walked and you are talking about truth and justice?
Him: … and…don't mention chains again - that sort of stuff gets me excited
Me: how about feathers?
Me: in conjunction with chains?
Him: Wasn't that page 47 of the Kama Sutra?
Me: nah
Me: they never used feathers
Me: dead animal parts and all that. unclean stuff
Him: Oh - well my memory is deficient . I think I last caught a glimpse when I was a schoolboy
Me: of feathers?
Him: I even eat dead animal parts!
Me: ouch
Me: you are a savage lot, you westerners
Me: and the ozzies
Him: Of course - otherwise we'd be injuns !
Me: lol
Me: so you have been reading Kama Sutra?
Him: I'm not sure if my Indian neighbour eats dead animals though?
Me: depends on caste, XYZ
Him: Not for a while. But I'm willing to revise with you if you wish?

Basically, we had conversations with topics, however flirtatious they were. The flirting was a secondary thing, being witty more or less, and we were having too much fun to descend to what I've been told is the point of online chatting, a sexual encounter of the cyber kind.

Him: So you are a high caste Brahmin then?
Me: guilty as charged, m'lud
Him: This caste system of yours is very... very... feudal, isn't it
Me: no, not the way it was originally designed.
Me: but i guess it got mucked up
Him: The English are bad enough - in less overt sort of way
Him: But you lot make no bones about it
Him: I'm high caste - you guys are untouchable
Me: they are more class conscious than anybody else in the whole universe
Him: By the way - where do damn furreners come in the order of caste? Are you below the untouchables?
Him: I mean am I below...
Him: Am I below untouchable
Me: look, don't tar us all with the same brush, some of my best friends are untouchable.
Me: like you
Him: Damn cheek
Me: you are out of the equation, anyhow
Him: Of course - the English did have a phrase in India, didn't they? 'A touch of the tar brush'
Me: and men had to be purified for crossing the big waters
Me: a typically brit phrase
Him: Damn Brits
Me: yup,
Me: you can say that again
Him: Still some of us turned out OK

We had some great times chatting, which he called his early morning pep pills and I termed my late-night larks; we could never agree on whose time zone was the real time. This used to lead to discussions on relativity and so on, you get the picture. We'd flirt, but there was content to the conversation. That is the point of chatting, after all; you discuss things.

But chatting online can and does descend to cyber sex or demands for such, which is ludicrous to say the least, and perhaps to a persistent demand for phone numbers or meetings and so on and so forth. And that is basically harassment.

(The mind boggles, though. I am typing, for pity's sake, I am not heaving in passion or panting with desire, and if I tell you I am naked does that become truth just because I typed it? What is the point? How pathetic can you get?)

I was conditioned to type upper cases at the beginning of a sentence, but chatting inured me to the point that I could type i when I should have been typing shift i. It also gave me a perspective about the vowel-challenged people.

When I found myself typing 'brb' and 'gtg,' though, I knew I was a reluctant convert to the convenience of abbreviations. When I started typing things like 'abt' or 'ppl', I realised there is no redemption.

But I still reserve the right to make judgements. Call me a snob, but those judgements do depend on vocabulary and how articulate a person is. I won't chat with horny and illiterate young men who just want to talk sex. I have absolutely no wish to talk raunch or inanities and tell a stranger about my day. If there isn't a topic, there is no discussion, after all.

Maybe I am an old-fashioned prude.


Monday, July 24, 2006

Hasina zulfonwali jaanejahan

"Come on, Missus Em," coaxed my stylist. "You won't let me experiment, you won't grow your hair or change the basic style. I've been doing your hair for, what, eight years now? I am getting bored."

It was a fraught moment. It is a dangerous thing; to have your stylist bored doing your hair. Don't laugh. When you wear your hair in as extreme a short style as I do, you need a competent stylist, and they are rare. Oh, there are hundreds of them, I grant you. But a stylist who understands your hair, who can give a severe style a certain panache- he is a prize. A gem to be treasured.

If he gets bored, there's going to be trouble ahead. A good stylist can become a tyrant, for after all, the woman needs him more than he needs her custom. And mine did so, just then; became a tyrant, I mean.

Besides, he had a point. I've worn my hair ultra short for all of my adult life and apart from minor changes, the style has remained the same for nearly three decades. It is a sculpted version of my skull.

I had a buddy in college and he used to tease me. He could whistle whole tunes, and used to get a rise out of me, whistling "hasina zulfonwali." I don't know how it started, but he just had to whistle the opening bars to get me huffy.

I know why I got that first short cut, which is a radical decision for women after all, and now it can be told. I went and got my Zeenie Baby haircut just to spite my buddy and maybe shut him up about my hair. But he took one look at the new hairstyle and whistled. Yeah, you got it in one. "Hasina zulfonwali."

Ever since I got the Zeenat Aman cut, I've grown rather used to the convenience of short hair. There is not much care involved and it saves a lot of time. My hairstyle needs only towelling dry and running my fingers through my hair to set it.

Since Stella, the stylist who gave me my first short cut, I've had to change stylists for each city I lived in. But when I found a good one I stayed loyal because as I said earlier, I need a good stylist. When you wear your hair short, a bad cut gives an entire new meaning to the phrase 'bad hair day.' You can't do anything about it but wait for it to grow out enough to try remedial styling.

In Calcutta, my first stylist was Angela, a plump matronly woman who specialised in short cuts. When she retired, I was bereft until I found my current stylist.

(My mother used to dye her hair. Whether she went to a salon or did it at home, it used to consume her, hours and hours, and she'd fret about her roots needing touching up. That phrase used to take me off on tangential musings about ancestry, genealogy and why that might need doctoring. Maybe because you don't want anybody to get a closer look at the skeletons?

Here's a left-handed defintition. Genealogist: One who traces your family as far back as your money will go.)

Having seen my mother colour her hair, I promised myself I wouldn't ever go through such ordeals. The touching up of roots, the mess of the dye, the reek of ammonia and the sheer unnatural black her hair always looked at the end of the sessions convinced me that greying gracefully was the better option.

While I happily used henna to condition my hair and give it a slight tint, I wasn't going to ever colour my hair, no way, no how, never. The first time I found a grey strand, I stopped my henna treatments. I'd seen too many people with the awful orange hue that henna changes grey into. I didn't want that.

I said as much to my stylist. I am as old as I am and why should I hide that fact, I said. I can't stand the smell and it's ruinous for hair to subject it to all those chemicals, I argued. Ah, Missus Em, those were primitive days, he said. Colouring your hair doesn't mean subjecting it to trauma, nowadays. In fact, some of the stuff acts as a conditioner, he said.

I dislike that artificial black, my hair isn't that black, after all. I said. No worries, Missus Em, he said. There are natural browns, dark colours, what ever; you'll look good, I promise you, he said.

I protested that the kind of dyes he was thinking of were for women of a much younger age bracket. He didn't quote Shakespeare at me, but made it clear that my age had nothing to do with the colour my hair was. Just look at the sample colours, he urged me. So I took a gander at the colour chart and samples. "But none of them really match my hair colour," I pointed out.

"Be adventurous, Missus Em." He said.

I gave up. As a victor my stylist was gracious.

After half an hour of noxious vapours and odours (don't get fooled by tags like gentle, nourishing or replenishing, the stuff still stinks), the goo he smeared all over my head was shampooed off. "Wow, this looks good," he crooned as he blow- dried my hair. He propelled me towards the plate glass window so I could see how my hair looked in real light.

I told you I gave up. I mean it. What colour my hair is nowadays is entirely dependent on his whim. Some months I am walnut brown verging on black. Some months I am mahogany and ebony combined. Some months I am just chestnut brown, and some months I am dark chocolate.

The last time I went to get my hair done I discovered my stylist has more plans for me. He wants to give me highlights now.

"Come on, Missus Em," he said. Sigh.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Eye of the beholder

Mirrors don't lie.

Actually, they do. What does mirror image mean? Mirrors show you images with left and right reversed, after all. A true reflection might appal us by being rather unlike what we are used to seeing in our mirrors. But even as it jolts us to see ourselves as our near and dear ones actually do see us, there is this; they see us thus and they still put up with us and love us.

Pictures don't lie.

Well, they do, too. What with touching up and airbrushing away blemishes and magicking away a few inches, the supermodels we see in magazines are not what we should be aspire to be, figure-wise. It is software telling us lies. They are not very real, what with all the doctoring that goes on before we see the images.

Recently, I read with great bemusement that Victoria Beckham has a twenty-three inch waist. Fascinating to know that a mother of two can regain such wasp-waisted hourglass figure. And more fascinating still, to think that media write about it and we read about it as if it was an earth-shattering piece of news. Kraktoa erupting again it isn't, after all.

I've been reading about how hyper thin is the new standard, too. But when I look at the specimens held up to aspire to the thinness of, I am gobsmacked. Is anorexia what young women should aspire to? Looking like a victim of famine?

I have never aspired to thinness because I am realistic. I know I have big bones. When I look in the mirror I see, always making allowances for the reversed image bit, of course, a reasonably well preserved woman in her late forties, with a face that will crease into smiles or frowns if I am talking instead of gazing into the mirror.

But when anorexics look at themselves, they don't see a toast-rack of a ribcage, or stick thin limbs. They see what for them is a very real acre of flesh to be dieted, exercised and exorcised away into preferred weight, size and shape. They truly can't comprehend when slim becomes thin and thin becomes dangerously anorexic ready to hand in the dinner pail, never mind it's not been touched for days.

I read about this somewhere, and I was reminded of it as I heard a friend list his body flaws. I have a lump of a nose, I have buckteeth, I am not hirsute enough, he grumbled.

I considered the possibility that he was fishing for compliments. On a scale for hunks I'd give him an 8 and that would be to seem impartial. He had a straight nose, lovely thick eyelashes, designer stubble and a beautiful mouth. He did have a gap-toothed grin, but it was an endearing thing, nothing like Bugs Bunny. But no, he was honestly if erroneously, dissatisfied with his appearance.

I can sympathise with that. Because on days when I am feeling low or wretched, the mirror shows me a rather plump woman who desperately needs a make over and needs to shed some five kilos. Every flaw becomes magnified. My laugh lines are transformed into wrinkles, my reasonably full-figured body looks pudgy and in need of those clinics that offer to sculpt your body for you.

Despite such a demoralising image, I prefer to look after my body without intervention of scalpels or liposuction and variations on the theme of body sculpting. Walking is healthy and it costs me only the calories I expend. Yoga is good for the same reasons.

After all, body image shouldn't be confused with self-worth.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I protest

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. Noam Chomsky

Warning: I am a terrorist.

It may seem I am a harmless housewife whiling her hours away writing online but this is actually a way to pass coded messages and recruit converts to my cause. Each post is a message to my brethren, to coordinate an attack on another metropolis and wreak havoc.

When I hold forth about Scrabble or cryptic crosswords and give examples, they are cleverly disguised messages to my comrades about where to pick up that RDX. When I write a poem of longing and loneliness, it's actually my swan song before I go off to be a suicide bomber.

Blast, the government is on to my clever ploy now.

When Desipundit and gilli linked to bloggers reporting that the domain was being blocked by some Internet Service Providers, on government directives, I was disturbed. Are we still in India, I wondered?

When the reports escalated that several ISPs had blocked what is a hugely popular blogging service and were denying access to blogspot blogs, but I could still access them, I thought that perhaps my own ISP was ignoring the government orders and rejoiced.

Whatever our shortcomings as a democracy, whatever the ineptitude of our services and government, we always had the right to discuss them at least, I thought.

This afternoon I found that I couldn't access blogspot blogs either.

There is a way, via But why should I have to do that? How can Government of India decide for me what I can read online and what I can't? This block is taking away what is enshrined in our constitution, my right to free speech, and my right to information.

I protest. Let's think a little on what Voltaire said: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Thirteen points in Scrabble

Depending on where you get to place the tiles, of course. It could fetch a lot more.

Placement is everything, to misquote Andre Agassi. In Scrabble the over-all image, the big picture is what drives and dictates where to place what tiles, and the number of points you garner means everything.

I love it if I manage to pick tiles that include those that can create rude words. Smutty words, if they fetch points, are perfectly acceptable to me in Scrabble.

If I do get the tiles, 13 points plus whatever the placement gives, is all the tiles mean to me, when I arrange them on my way to winning another game. You should be so lucky. F means 4 points, K is 5, and C is 3 and U, as a vowel, has only one point but is a valuable tile.

I prefer tiles of lesser value to the high Z or Q or even X or J, sometimes. They fetch lots of points, yes, but you are stuck with them until you find the exact spot to place them to get a triple word score or double letter score.

As a rule, I try to hold on to at least one S and a blank tile till near the end of a game, because that's when the going gets tough and your options get limited.

My personal strategy is to hold on to a tile of U until the queen of the lot, Q, has put in an appearance. Because, without U, you can't make many words using Q. There are only four of them okay, so that U is needed, I tell you. Never let go of the first U you get until the Q is played. Of course, this requires some cerebration and calculation. If you stand to make some 30 points and also get the bonus of 50 points for using up all seven tiles, you should go for it. That sort of lead is hard to beat, unless your opponent chances upon a big one too.

Don't use up your blank tile quickly either, if you pick one of them. They are precious; hold on to them and go on playing small simple words until you can lay the killer word on board and slay'em.

I am talking about friendly Scrabble games, of course. Competitions and tournaments are different. There, it becomes more a game of blocking any reasonable point of placement for your opponent, and it can and does deteriorate into vicious use of unheard of two or three letter words, which are recognised by the OED, and hence permissible.

I ought to know. I always played the leisurely version of Scrabble, until my son took to it.

At first I used to give him a 100 points lead. As his proficiency increased and I found it harder to catch up, I cut that lead to 50 points. He improved further and nowadays we start even. No handicaps and no quarter given.

He has near eidetic memory, and to counter my strategies he memorised a huge list of two or three letter words that can fetch big scores. While K and I played a fairly open game, not minding giving the other players a chance to open a new area of the board, my son preferred to pack the squares densely, making as many as four words with a couple of tiles and counting up the points.

Xa, xeme, xu, or ku or ky, or nw or ny- he'd place gleefully. I used to protest in the beginning. Soon I gave up, and took to using them myself if they could fetch me some extra points. Arguing about usage just took time and I ended up losing a turn for each successful validation of an exotic word.

I suppose this supports the theory of prenatal influences; K and I used to have matches of 'best of three' games of Scrabble everyday during the last trimester of my pregnancy. Perhaps if we hadn't spent all that time playing Scrabble but did something else, our son would have turned out differently. Perhaps we should have listened to Vivaldi and Chopin, and talked about the Grand Unified Theory.

Or maybe we should have just vegetated. That might have been for the best.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Non amo te

"Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere - quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te."

Relax. This is not a Latin lesson blog. It is just that translating the above extempore saved satirist Tom Brown from getting expelled.

It's a well-known little poem.

I do not love thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why, I cannot tell;
This I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.

We all experience instant and inexplicable dislikes at sometime or other: of people, perhaps food, or a city, a fad or a figure of speech. I have my share of things I dislike without any real or rational reason. I am sure you do, too.

Why does this happen? Is it some unconscious reading of body language? Is it pheromones? Is it some gut level instinct?

It's not just a question of 'first impressions', which might explain the instant dislike we take to people or sights or voices over the phone. There'd been instances in chat-rooms, when I'd form a violent dislike of one person, even if he or she hadn't addressed a single remark to me. How can someone sitting and typing half a world away raise my hackles and why?

But it happens. I fervently dislike a lot of things.

Madhuri Dixit's beaming smile, for instance. I swear I won't be able to recognise the woman if she wasn't grinning that face-splitting smile. Beauty products endorsed by her are advertised on sandwich boards on lampposts. I can't ride down Rash Behari Avenue without encountering her. And every time I see her pearly whites, I grit mine.

Aishwarya Rai: I tell you, this isn’t plain womanly envy for after all and good grief, the child is almost young enough to be my daughter. But I can't stand her wooden face. Granted, I haven't seen a single film that she (let's settle for worked), worked in. I just can't stand her face. The only time she brought me cheer was when I saw a picture of her with an imbecilic rictus of a grin and a 'what would be tubby by today's standards' midriff, gyrating for some dance item.

I dislike the 'press one to continue in English' kind of interactive voice response services, too. They expect you punch in either your recharge coupon number, which is a zillion digits long, or your credit card number. Why can't they have humans answer? Goodness knows there are enough bright people looking for a job, any job.

Listening to recorded voices recite back the number I punched in and figuring out that I may have got one digit wrong, and then to start all over again. That is something I dislike violently. If ever there is going to be a shooting squad assembled to execute the generators of half-witted ideas like having recordings replace human interaction when people call for help, I'd sign up; I'd even pay for my lessons and practice times on the range.

The inane Blind Date column in Times of India and the tired cliches the young people are reported to have exchanged. That really gets my teeth gnashing. Why can't they record the real conversations and reproduce them with the usual ums and ers that intersperse real chats?

People you have just met standing too close, invading your space? They might be nice and harmless, but my hackles rise.

A gallery owner lost a chance to make a sale to me because he kept coming too close to me in his eagerness to push a painting. I didn't realise it then, of course. It was only later, when I pondered why I walked out without buying that I realised that I felt pressurised. My discomfort and his pushiness combined to lose him that sale.

People who cheerfully grab your mobile and tell you "Hey, you have six missed calls and a coupla messages," and proceed to read them? I can't stand them, and that is all I am going to say about it. I don't want your monitors exploding, which they will, believe me, if I start.

Opinionated and vain twerps who veer off the topic and wax pedantic in discussions? Let's not go there, either. I can feel my blood pressure rising.

Of course, the 'I can't stand' litany varies from person to person. What's your pet hate? Do tell.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Guru devobhava

"In fact the kind of music he really liked was the kind that never got played. It ruined music, in his opinion, to torment it by involving it on dried skins, bits of dead cat, and lumps of metal hammered into wires and tubes. It ought to stay written down, on the page, in rows of little dots and crotchets all neatly caught between lines. Only there it was pure. It was when people started doing things with it that the rot set in. Much better to sit quietly in a room and read the sheets, with nothing between yourself and the composer but a scribble of ink."

Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

I can recall the exact moment; it is still fresh in my memory.

It was some school project, a show. Maya brought her violin; Viji, Sreemathi and Jayashree had brought their veenas.

Listen, Viji said. 'You do this,' she plucked a string and then pulled on it with her other hand and produced a wailing ululating shivering sound. 'And you can do this,' and she did something tricky and I heard a koel calling. "That's Chittibabu," she said, reverence replacing her usual look of mischief.

I was enchanted.

It so happened sometime later that a veena, broken and needing repair, came to our house for a short while. I tried the floating between two notes trick and even on a broken and badly tuned instrument it sounded wonderful.

I started taking lessons after college, three days a week. It was difficult and I got nowhere, as I had no veena to practice with. I used to go over them mentally, memorising the exercises and singing them tunelessly to myself all the while. I can't carry a tune and have the vocal range of half an octave, so it was frustrating, let's say.

When it was clear to my mother that this was more than a whim or fleeting fancy, she arranged to borrow a friend's veena and things improved.

It wasn't just learning to play; I was totally bewitched by the world of music compositions. I was seduced. To read a composition in the notation and then to turn it into sound was magical. But I was a terrible player. I had a good if delicate touch but I had no sense of rhythm. To be honest, I knew I wasn't keeping time exactly, but it didn't matter to me; the excitement was in the conversion of notation into sound.

I think my teacher understood my interest was academic. I was driven by a thirst, a need to learn the compositions, the notation, the sounds rather than the actual music. Perhaps I knew that was beyond my capabilities, having started so late.

I raced through the Alankarams , charmed by the rhythms and the exercises but utterly disregarding the need to apply them to my own playing. I just wanted to learn them, not actually play them flawlessly or anything like that. Approximation was good enough; I wasn't going to perform, after all. I just wanted to know.

Svarajatis and varnams were a delight, too. About the time I started simple kritis, Chittibabu came visiting. My father used to play chess with him in their club. When my mother told him I was learning veena, he asked to hear me play.

I was petrified with nerves. Just tell yourself your listeners know nothing, he suggested kindly. Despite my nerves I shot him a grin. Like I could think he was an ignoramus! He smiled back, and I played a varnam in Mohana, which was my then favourite, and what I knew best.

After I finished the piece, he leaned forward and put his actual fingers on the frets, asked me to pluck the string, and showed me how to play twin notes so the stress on the second is heard clearly. I wasn't sure if I could bring myself to play again, in case it would erase his touch on my veena. I was overwhelmed. Chittibabu actually demonstrating a simple baby lesson to me, who wasn't even his student! It was unbelievable.

I went around in a daze for a few days. Starting from the Telugu New Year, he taught me.

That was the beginning of my torture. Agony. Ecstasy. And the hours of practice I put in before were nothing to what I'd put in from then on.

About five minutes into the lesson I realised, with a sinking feeling, that he wasn't just going to teach me the song, he was going to make me play it. I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

We started with 'Vaataapi Ganapatim', of course. It is an invocation for an auspicious beginning, after all.

"Vaataapi ganapatim bhaje hum," his veena would sing. "Gaa, ree ri sa sani pa ree sa ree saa," my veena would respond in a croak.

Chittibabu was a patient teacher. Goodness knows he needed it with me. He'd demonstrate endlessly, sing tirelessly, and wouldn't quit until I played a phrase exactly as he wanted. That first lesson lasted some ninety minutes and at the end of the lesson I'd learned just three embellishments to the first line of the pallavi, and was exhausted.

The exhaustion was more apprehension that I was out of my depth and a fear that I wouldn't be able to cope, or please him, I think. But there was physical exhaustion, too. I had to pluck harder than I used to, to get the sound to sustain over three beats, and I had to deflect the strings harder and with more purpose than I ever bothered with until then.

Then came the shock. I was supposed to remember the lesson and figure out the notation myself. Chittibabu never wrote down the notation like my first teacher did. He never sang the notes either, though he'd sing the phrase and he demonstrated over and over, tilting his veena forward, almost touching the floor, so I could see what he was doing.

Never mind, I thought. I can get the notation from the music books I'd started collecting. It turned out what he taught and what notation the books had didn't match. Not only did I have to figure out the differences; I also had to write down my lesson in notation myself, relying on memory.

By the time we came to the final embellishment of the pallavi, pole-vaulting an octave and descending in rapid glissando, a part of me wanted out and another, the stubborn mulish part of me, was determined to stay the course. My fingers were getting stronger, my callouses were hardening; I was plucking the strings with more assurance and authority than before.

The second line of the pallavi had Chittibabu drumming the rhythm on the side of the veena to make me understand the beat, "Takita takita takita takita takadhimi," his fingers would say in a rapid-fire burst, to explain the tempo and the rhythm of the last sangati for 'vaaranaasyam varapradam.'

By then I knew the lesson wouldn't end until I got it right. Gone were the days of happily ignoring talam and playing the song out at my convenience, slowing down or speeding up as the difficulty of the phrases dictated.

The anupallavi would be a doddle, I remember consoling myself. Until I remembered the two lines in double-time that came after it with some trepidation. Surely he wouldn't expect a novice to do the digital gymnastics that he does, I told myself; that's probably Ph.D. stuff, and I am just a BA.

Alas, he did. One of the trickiest things in veena technique, to hold index finger down on a fret, lift the middle one and use that to strike the string after plucking to produce a staccato embellishment, and he expected me to do it, in double-time. And then double that.

He was implacable and I learnt. By the time we came to the final double-time "Hamsadhvani bhushita herambam," crashing out thrice to round off the lovely charanam, I realised that I was enjoying myself. It was difficult, and it was more hard work than I ever did in my life until then, but I was enjoying myself. I wasn't just playing the veena now; I was making it sing.

Chittibabu was a great teacher. He never betrayed any impatience, never raised his voice or offered criticism. He just taught again and again, by singing and playing: until the lesson took. And it would, because he never stopped until I understood what he wanted of me and played it to his satisfaction.

He never scolded and he never offered praise either. Any praise I heard would come from what he'd tell my father over their chess games.

My father, on his return from his club would casually tell my mother, "Chittibabu says she's ready for Kalyani," or, "Chittibabu says she's grasped the Bilahari perfectly, he says she seems to have an affinity for it." And I'd flush with pleasure because, yes, I had fallen in love with the Bilahari svarajati, way back in school, and yes, I did have an affinity with that raga. Chittibabu sensed it like any good teacher would and knew it as I played 'Kanugontini' as though I was born playing it.

I know he never had to struggle as much to teach his other students, but I was the unmusical one, with no ear to speak of and I was the challenge. And he relished it, as much as I relished the challenge of meeting his expectations.

"She has no musical imagination, you know? Not like how she writes. But if I had her at home for three months day and night, I could make her give a concert with her rote memory." he told my husband when we visited with him after my marriage.

That was the only praise he ever offered within my earshot: that I could reproduce what he tried patiently to teach me. He played and I learnt to echo.

This is gurupurnima, folks, and I pay my repsects to him who brought music and rhythm into my life and explained it all without speaking a word.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Verse and worse

This post is dedicated with great affection to Araucaria, my favourite compiler of cryptic crosswords. His latest yesterday was themed, and the theme was a limerick.

I always enjoyed limericks. Staid or bawdy, clean or raunchy, prim or rib tickling, they are fun. Almost everyone has heard of one or can recite one. Don't believe me? Hickory, dickory, dock. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner. So there.

The couplet plus triplet form of verse has deep roots. A limerick is a simple narration of events in five lines of verse. The first line sets the scene and gives us the main character. The rest are narration, and the fifth line is the climax.

To categorise it in simple terms, the first, second and the fifth lines of a limerick have nine beats and the third and fourth have six. The nine beats are accentuated in what is called an anapaestic rhythm- two short and a long. This is what gives the limerick the swing.

Classical Telugu poetry is all about cadences and rhythms, the long and short; so I feel comfortable with verse forms that demand strict adherence to meter, and brevity is always is the soul of wit, lets all thank the Bard and say Hallelujah. (Sorry about that, been reading Stephen King.)

The word limerick is supposed to have entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1898, defined as a 'form of indecent nonsense verse'. But there are earlier examples, dating back to the 1300s. The following is from 'Sumer Is Icumen In'. Circa 1250 AD:

Ewe bleateth after lamb
Low'th after calve coo;
Bullock starteth,
Bucke farteth-
Merry sing cuckoo!

You see how easy it is to get into a limerick mood. There is something about the meter that begs for irreverence and wordplay. The irreverence is almost a prerequisite. Terry Pratchett mentions it, talking about 'lewdly sing cuckoo'.

Though Edward Lear is wrongly credited with inventing the verse form, he did popularise it hugely, and wrote that he discovered in it a 'form of verse lending itself to limitless varieties for rhymes and pictures…'

The early limericks read rather tame and Lear's usage of repeating the first line as the fifth again with minor differences doesn't sit well with modern readers, who expect the fifth line to deliver the punch line of the joke.

Langford Reed (best known for his biography of Lewis Carroll), polled for the most popular limerick and found this was it, back in 1925:

There was a young lady of Riga,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Just like puns, limericks for the most part are anonymously perpetrated, but some have famous authors. Lewis Carroll wrote this:

There was a young lady of station,
'I love man' was her exclamation;
But when men cried: 'You flatter!'
She replied: 'Oh, no matter!"
'Isle of Man' is the explanation.

P G Wodehouse wrote in prose one of the best limericks ever, about the 'young man called Grover, who bowled twenty-two wides in an over; which had never been done by a clergyman's son, on a Thursday in August in Dover.'

Limericks aren't just funny or bawdy. They reflect times and mores. They reflect the social climate and point to changes that are crying out for attention; they comment on issues. But there are always prudes, and limericks take potshots at them:

There was an old lady of Harrow
Whose views were exceedingly narrow;
At the end of her paths,
She built two bird baths -
For the different sexes of sparrow.

For the musically inclined, there are gems like this:

Of a sudden, the great prima donna
Cried: 'Gawd, my voice is a gonner.'
But a cat in the wings
Said: 'I know how she sings,'
And finished the concert with honour.

And those of the scientific mind can rejoice about this:

Said Einstein, 'I have an equation
Which science might call Rabelaisian.
Let P be virginity
Approaching infinity
And U be a constant, persuasion

Now, if P over U be inverted
And the square root of U be inserted
X times over P
The result, QED,
Is a relative," Einstein asserted.

Speaking of Einstein,

There's a wonderful family called Stein:
There's Gert and there's Ep and there's Ein
Gert's poems are bunk,
Ep's statues are junk,
And no one can understand Ein.

If history is your cuppa, there are limericks for you, too. There are historical gems like this:

I, Caesar, when I learned of the fame
Of Cleopatra, I straightaway laid claim.
Ahead of my legions,
I invaded her regions -
I saw, I conquered, I came.

If you want philosophy, limericks provide:

There was the young man who said, 'Damn!
At last I've found out that I am
A creature that moves
In determined grooves:
In fact, not a bus but a tram.

Or for bookworms:

A very smart lady named Cookie
Said, 'I like to mix gambling with nookie.
Before every race
I go home to my place
And curl up with a very good bookie.'

I have been quoting from memory mostly, but there are gems you can read online too.

Murphy's Limerick Law I define:
You've decided your limerick's divine...
Since it can't be improved
To your Web site it's moved —
Then you think of a much better line!

Go here if you want more.

Limericks are insidious. When you always have an apposite limerick to quote, you can't really sign up and say "Hi, my name is xyz and I am a limerick addict'. The consolation is, there are kindred spirits and they like hearing from you.

Here is my contribution:

There is this fair lady called Lali,
Whose blog posts are ignored regularly;
She receives nil or few
Responses, in her view.
Now she larks on her blog willy nilly.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Singular madness

There was a time, maybe a century ago, newspapers were read not just for news, but to learn correct usage, too. Nowadays though, it is all one can do to wince and gnash one's teeth through the day's lot of howlers. They don't seem to proof-read or correct the grammar before they publish anymore.

Admittedly, English is a second language for us, and it has its quirks. Take plurals for example.

English has so many different and bewildering forms of them: plurals are formed by adding s, certainly, but in the case of nouns ending with s, ch, sh or o, plurals are formed by adding es. But some nouns ending with o are left alone, like in mementos or pianos.

Where nouns end with fe, the plural form changes the f to v and adds es; but there are exceptions, like chiefs, dwarfs or roofs. For nouns ending with y, plurals are formed by changing the y to i and adding es. Some plurals forms are achieved by changing the vowel inside the noun like teeth or feet. And then there are plural nouns that are formed by adding en.

Some nouns are used only in plural, like tongs, trousers or nuptials, some are used only in the singular, like news, mathematics or measles.

Collective nouns are something else. They are singular in form but are used as plurals. Some nouns are used as both singular and plural. Words borrowed from Latin or Greek retain their original forms of plurals.

If all that is not enough, some nouns mean different things in singular and plural forms. Take spectacle for instance. It means different things in the plural form. Ditto premise. I could go on, but you get the drift.

I was doing what I do best, which is nagging my son. It was time to start getting packed and it meant I had to nag full time, non-stop.

As I waited for him bring out his stuff for me to pack, I was doing the other thing I do best, too. Fuming about the standard of English in newspapers.

This was about a beauty column, and a reader had written in to ask if colouring her hair regularly was safe or " will it damage them." Hair is always singular, I grumbled. Why can't people bother, I fumed. This is the influence of the vernacular and literal translations, I theorised.

My son caught the gist of my rant as he (finally) deigned to bring his things out for me to pack.

"What does it matter, as long as you make yourself understood?" he said, as he dumped the last armful of clothes next to his suitcase. "You are a puritan," he added.

"A purist, " I corrected, sitting down before his mammoth suitcase. He rolled his eyes in response.

"Pass me the scissors, will you?" What for, he asked, in the spirit of the eternal inquirer. "I could snip some designer rips in your jeans, I suppose." I said, indicating the price tags on the new clothes.

"Ah, a scissor have multiple use," he gravely intoned, and took my wince as due applause.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

And children

Compliment best, fair idea; try! Admiration imperfectly best.
Impatience forms bitter lady. Flattery bedims imprecation.

If you are a cruciverbalist, it probably jumped out at you. All the above statements are anagrams of the adage 'Familiarity breeds contempt.' If you want to read more, go here:

Why should familiarity breed contempt? It does so by virtue of becoming the usual instead of the strange. It is not so much contempt but taking for granted, being secure and sure of things.
I have grown accustomed to her face, bemoaned Professor Higgins. There are things that are so familiar that we forget their distinctiveness until they are absent or change.

Our homes are our castles and we know each nook and corner. Who hasn't woken up in a strange bed in another city and felt disoriented? Who hasn't felt ill at ease after moving house or changing jobs or cities?

I don't notice the books in our house as anything out of ordinary until new eyes look at them and remark on the sheer number. I am too used to them.

We all know our families; each member's quirks and mannerisms, ways of thinking. We know our spouses and can complete each other's sentences. We know them too well.

Familiarity makes things indispensable, sometimes. I'd be all at sea in another kitchen than my own, without my pots and pans, my knives and measures, my jumbo chopping board and my spatulas and ladles.

Cryptic crossword clues are familiar territory to me, but I find that I have to explain the reasoning and solutions in great detail to non-enthusiasts. For instance: 50= x (6) or, Actress (G is for Gloria) leaves no more to be said (4-4). The solutions leap out and are obvious to a regular solver, but not to the neophyte.

But familiarity also means casualness of manner. We detest near strangers invading our space; we dislike people who presume too much on short acquaintance. Read this poem, if you want some more on this.

And then there is the other meaning of familiarity: an act of undue intimacy, like the kissing controversy that raged a while ago. It is taking liberties, unwarranted liberties at that.

But if familiarity breeds casual acceptance, it also breeds a sense of comfort. In times of stress, the familiar routine is an anchor. It reassures and grounds us.

Some years ago I was talking to a friend in my gym. She was smitten and was contemplating an affair. "It's so tempting," she sighed. "But I don't think I will be comfortable, what with my extra pounds and stretch-marks and all." I agreed with her; you are comfortable in your skin with your spouse, and you are familiar with each other's moods and likes and dislikes. Why exchange that for an uncertain and uncomfortable new relationship?

Familiarity also breeds security and confidence.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mama mama mama

Here is an utterly strange statement:

As a Telugu speaking Madrasi in Calcutta, I miss talking Tamil.

I never missed speaking Telugu as much as I did speaking Tamil, honestly. Perhaps it is because though I grew up with it being spoken all around me, it wasn't my mother tongue or even my second language. English is that.

I've written about this earlier, how English has become the only tongue I speak nowadays.

As I was growing up though, even as I spoke Telugu at home, Tamil was there, all pervasive. And it seeped into my conscience, shaped my thinking and arranged my world-view: all via film-songs. And the poetry that spoke to me through them and inspired me. I grew up with Kannadasan and Vaali, and the magic of their lyrics. I grew up with Tamil poetry, wit and humour.

But understanding a language and appreciating the nuances of it are easier than mastering script. I learnt to read Tamil alphabet through lurid cinema posters and billboards. I used to read the aphorisms that used to grace the city buses, and learnt a few couplets of Tirukkural that way. I learnt Jeyamkondan's poetry more or less the same way, pestering friends to read for me, rooting out translations so I could grasp the nuances. It got refined a bit when I learnt to do musical notation to the extent I could do write 'sa ri ga ma pa da ni' in Tamil and puzzle out compositions and notations laboriously.

All this I lost touch with, when I moved north and a part of me did more than just pine. I mourned.

These days the only chance I get to talk Tamil is when I do South-Indian kind of shopping, for tamarind pulp or pure sesame oil; or horror of horrors, ready-made pickles, if I am too lax or lazy make my own.

In Calcutta, the Lake Market area can easily be called Little Madras. There are South Indian eateries, shops catering to the southern brethren by way of magazines, murukkus and rice flour if you want to make your own murukkus.

The Madrasi shop where I used to buy Telugu magazines, tamarind and talk Tamil used to be run by Mama. It was a lifeline for me.

Mama is a Malayali and Tamil isn't native tongue to him. Well, it isn't for me, either. So when he sold me magazines or murukkus I had a chance to talk Tamil, neither his nor my mother tongue, but a medium of communication, all the same.

In the early years of my life in Calcutta, there used to several Telugu magazines that were popular, and the industry hadn't yet gone into a nosedive. I enjoyed buying them and keeping in some distant touch with contemporary literary events. Later, I stopped buying Telugu magazines, worried that my maids might think I read pornography based on the illustrations that pervaded the magazines. (They also used to carry columns of advice for the sexually ignorant, 'everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask' brand of heart to heart, close and confidential stuff.)

But my acquaintance and relationship with Mama was beyond that of merchant and patron by then. I went through a bad patch and he advised me to make a trip to Kanipakkam and pray there; I consoled him when he announced after one Diwali a few years ago that his other half had preceded him in death. I saw his health deteriorating; he knew of my aging when I stopped buying snacks.

His son and the daughter-in-law run the shop now, and he just sits there; with his Coke-bottle glasses that have done nothing for his vision which is being eroded by diabetes, despite cataract surgeries. He can't recognise people by sight anymore, but he remembers voices. He sits there and hears the world pass by; and he talks to old-timers like me, exchanging greetings.

Five months ago, I had a huge shock. I'd just discovered blogs and Praveen, and an easy way to satisfy my need for Tamil, and I was dying to share some jokes with him. And he wasn't there!

Fearing the worst, I plucked up courage and asked where he was. I was told that he went to Kerala, for a few months. I was relieved and disappointed that my jokes had to wait.

He was back, though, and we talk every time I go to buy tamarind or sesame oil and I tell him the latest jokes I read on various Tamil blogs.

Then I discovered Raj . Yesterday I was at Lake Market, and I was going to tell Mama all about the football jokes and he wasn't there.

Aging is a bad thing, folks. Again, I am scared to ask.


Saturday, July 01, 2006


This time I went prepared.

I went with a grudge and a determination to play hardball and get my rights; indeed, I went looking for a scrap, a scene, a dogfight and a tantrum. No cliché barred.

I went to see the manager of the State Bank of India about my mutilated and soiled notes his staff had refused to exchange a fortnight before.

I had with me the printouts of the Reserve Bank of India guidelines that I researched online, a printout of the letter I received from RBI in reply to my query, and a copy of the letter I drafted invoking the Right to Information Act. I'd spent some time online getting these, and I have greensatya to thank for the format of the request letter.

(For those who came in late, I had earlier tried to exchange mutilated and soiled currency at my branch of State Bank of India, and was told I had to repair them first. I wrote about it here, and here.)

So I went to see the manager. I said I wanted to register a complaint and a query, and asked for the branch's complaint register. He asked me what my problem was. I told him about my attempt to exchange my mutilated currency and what his staff told me I had to do.

I asked the manager if he could show me where it was written, that persons seeking to exchange bad currency notes had to paste bits of paper on the torn portions. I said I wanted to see the Reserve Bank of India's guidelines or directives to banks about this matter.

He patiently explained that this repair adds life to the currency note. "We don't send them piece by piece to RBI, you see. They have to stacked in bundles of hundreds, and the notes need to be in some good repair before they can be handled," he said.

I said that I would still like to see some written directives where it is stated clearly that people seeking to exchange notes have to do the repair. And if it was the case, why doesn’t the bank provide glue and paper and scissors? And a counter to carry out this project?

"We are not the Post Office to provide glue and counters," was the frosty reply. He added that they received cash and accepted deposits and had counters for that purpose, but none for amateur currency repairs.

I thought of mentioning that I received a letter from RBI that stated, while hedging about guidelines, that they will send circulars asking banks to provide glue and paper; but decided to ask a few more questions before I did that. I asked why they didn't have notices prominently displaying this requirement for the public to know the procedure. After all, they only had a notice saying that this bank accepted and exchanged soiled or mutilated notes, by the order of Reserve Bank of India.

You can go to RBI and try to exchange your notes, you will find the procedure is the same, I was told brusquely.

Like a broken record, I asked again to see written rules and regulations. And added that I would like to register a complaint so that my request, my question, and my complaint are all on record. I asked for their complaints register again.

Well, the manager was a busy man. A gopher came in with papers to sign and there were a few phone calls. I sat and waited. More signatures, more files to dispose of, more ignoring the pesky troublemaker. I sat and waited.

He looked up and asked me if I had an account at that branch. I informed him that we had several, not to mention deposits and locker facilities. He called for somebody to come in and see him.

The same gent who explained how I had to do cut and paste repair work on the bank notes the last time came in. He saw me and started spluttering. He waxed eloquent on how he informed me about procedures, regulations and guidelines and the state of repair of the notes before they can be exchanged.

The manager cut him short and said, "Exchange the lady's notes for her."

I was invited to go to the cash counter and as I complied, I wondered if I should tell the manager of the ammunition I hadn't deployed yet: the guidelines I collected, and the Right to Information request I was going to present him with. (Though the RBI letter was of no use other than to contradict him.) I decided not to bother.

I watched that gent do the cut and paste repair job on my mutilated currency with great satisfaction, though.


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