lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Little drops of water, little grains of sand

In Telugu, there is a proverb that says small change is the goddess of wealth. I was reminded of it as I opened my piggy bank the other day. Piggy bank is a misnomer, though. It is an 8 by 4 by 2 aluminium box, with a coin slot on the lid, which I keep locked with a dinky lock that even I can pick.

My mother always had a piggy bank. It was a proper piggy bank, with a stopper at the bottom, and we used to sneak change out of it with a pair of tweezers for bus fares or canteen money. That doesn't count as theft, really. It's just saving my mother the trouble of bankrolling us for the day.

As you learn, so you do. I have a piggy bank, too. But since I know what I used to do, I made mine pilfer-proof. That lock is merely symbolic, so that I wouldn't be tempted to open it whenever I needed small change. I empty my wallet of change every day, as I do my household accounts and all one Rupee, two Rupee and five Rupee coins go into the piggy bank.

The anticipation mounts as it gets heavier. Soon you have to shake it to stuff more coins in. Then comes the day when you open it ceremonially, pouring the coins out. And then comes the pleasure of sorting the coins, stacking and counting them.

Most shopkeepers are glad to exchange your coins for notes. Mine go to my pharmacy. I used to exchange them with my potato-wallah, until I realised that his tally was always five Rupees less than mine. He was charging me to exchange my coins. Well, my pharmacy doesn't, so they get my coins now.

When my son was young, he looked forward to the ceremony of opening mom's piggy bank. He made plans about what it would be spent on, whether books or games. This money feels different from his allowance or the occasional largesse of his mother. This money was accumulated coin by coin, under watchful weighing of the box to see if it is ready to be opened and spent. Now, he isn't all that interested in the process of sorting and counting. He is still interested in the money, though.

My father had a piggy bank too. His was a simple pot, and the only way to take money out of it was to smash the pot. He collected coins for his grandchildren. When they came visiting, he'd invite the toddler or three-year old to smash it, gather up the coins and spend them.

My father certainly knew how to bond with his grandchildren. Combine the chance to break something and a cash incentive. All his grandchildren loved him.

Happy birthday up there, Daddy.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

I knew it, I knew it

"Not hundreds of years, or hundreds of thousands. He had been at the bottom of the sea while the solar system captured a new planet, and lost a good third of its asteroid belt, while oceans of food yeast mutated and went bad, and mutated again, and again…At the bottom of the sea he had waited while yeast became grass and fish and now walked on two legs like a thrint.

A billion years wouldn't be long enough. Two billion might do it."
The World of Ptavvs. Larry Niven

Some one and a half billion years ago there was a telepathic race of intelligent beings who ruled the galaxy. They enslaved all intelligent life. They were the thrintun.

One thrint had a mishap that disabled his ship. He put himself and his greatest possessions into a stasis field, and his ship crashed into a solar system that the thrintun were developing. His spare suit crashed into a satellite of the eighth planet of the system's sun and knocked it out of orbit.

It became a planet, orbiting the sun at odds with the rest of the system, it's orbit taking it far inside the eighth planet's orbit, and then flinging it out again.

Life and sentience happened. Space travel began, too. Tentatively at first, but colonisation of habitable worlds became the next big thing. Of course, they knew about the strangeness of the ninth planet, they thought it might be an interloper from another star system, they thought they need to study the skies more.

No matter that Pluto has been booted out of an elitist club. They should have asked Larry Niven. He told us science fiction buffs exactly how Pluto became a planet, way back in the late Sixties.

He knew how it all happened. Ha.


Update: Chandru and I are hopelessly under-informed. Raj knows more about this.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

E loves Em only for Eir body

"It's not the end of the world, Lali." Said K.

"But it is an indication that the end is nigh," I said gloomily.

I was moaning about yet another butchering of English as she is spoke, as I read the morning papers. K was trying to console me.

Language evolves. But when you consider what prompts the evolution, it makes you wonder.

Prejudices are funny things. Bias-free language will require gymnastics like calling a manhole a 'utility access aperture' and referring to blind people as being 'visually challenged'.

There was a time when moron and cretin were definitions of mental acuity rather than derogatory terms, and then they became politically incorrect in respect of the subnormal intelligence. But this is going to absurd lengths.

I was outraged when I found that the vintage first edition of Doctor Spock I had been gifted as motherhood present had been reissued with emendations and substitutions of 'she' randomly for the universal pronoun 'he'.

Whether in baby books or loftier works, it had always been a convention to use the pronoun 'he' to encompass both genders. To find Doctor Spock revised to satisfy feminist sentiments and political correctness was something of a rude shock.

Good grief. 'He' is just conventional usage, after all. Does calling it personslaughter or womanslaughter make manslaughter any better? Manicure, manufacture or manacle- all have etymological roots in Latin, no gender bias.

Do we really want gamestership when we mean gamesmanship? Do we want to assign a piece of furniture a different nomenclature and call it a tallperson rather than a tallboy? Do we want terminological inexactitudes and euphemisms rather than clear words that mean what they mean?

"You are being a Bong, honey." I teased K when he mixed up 'he' and 'she' yet again. I don't blame him. Bengali is quirky. 'He', 'she' and 'it' are all the same in Bengali. Yesterday and tomorrow are the same too. Very philosophical, I am sure.

I ought not to be casting stones, though. My mother tongue equates women with things in speech. Masculine gender is one thing but feminine and neuter are the same. It is a quirk of Telugu. Hindi is more generous: nouns have genders, and you can be gender specific in speech. But then Hindi is the language where it is possible to confuse yesterday with tomorrow, too. They needn't preen. Tamil has gender specific usage, too.

"I suppose I ought to convert to Spivak's grammar." K said. "Huh? Is this one of your tall tales?" I asked, rather suspiciously, I must admit. K then proceeded to educate me.

Michael Spivak (a hotshot mathematician apparently) wrote a textbook/manual for TeX, way back when it was a new thing and needed to be explained. He called it the "Joy of TeX ".

Mathematicians love their puns and worse, and I do mean worse.

Spivak decided, I was told, that since TeX was an entirely new approach to typesetting, to evolve a revolutionary approach to non SeXist terminology. He assigned E as the third person singular, regardless of gender, just like 'I' is the first person singular, regardless of gender. He then went on to assign 'Em' for 'them' and 'Eir' for 'their', and actually used the title of my post as an example of all three forms.

"Since Tex is a rather revolutionary approach to typesetting, I decided that a rather revolutionary approach to non SeXist terminology would be appropriate in this manual. I am myself completely unprejudiced, of course. As Mark Twain said, or should have said: All I care to know is that a man or woman is a human being- that is enough for me; he or she can't be any worse. But I hated having to say "he or she" or "his or her" or use awkward circumlocutions. Numerous approaches to this problem have been suggested, but one strikes me as particularly simple and sensible. Just as 'I' is the first person singular pronoun, regardless of gender, so "E' will be used in this book as the third person singular pronoun for both genders. Thus, 'E' is the singular of 'they'. Accordingly, 'Eir' (pronounced to rhyme with 'their') will be the possessive, and 'Em' (rhyming with 'them') will stand for either 'him' or 'her'. Here is an example that illustrates all three forms:

E loves Em only for Eir body."

He further set an exercise, like mathematicians do: How many possible meanings does this sentence have?

The mind boggles, I tell you.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lassie, go home

Little Bo-peep has lost her sheep
And doesn't know where to find them;
Leave them alone and they will come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.

No, I haven't lost my marbles. I used to be reminded of this rhyme whenever we walked away from the dog that ignored us and went on sniffing at some fascinating scent. Soon enough, she'd tear herself away from it and join us.

The ungodly hours that schools impose on families are incredible. I used wake my son, get him all ready to catch his School bus at six fifteen in the morning. While he was an understandably reluctant participant in this daily event, our dog approved of the ritual. She got a walk out of it, after all, and another to collect him from the stop, later in the day.

But when the pooch herself was a baby, we had a few bad months, trying to walk her. She wrenched our arms out of their sockets in her eagerness to explore the world; she dashed along, darting left and right recklessly as we sprained ankles trying to curb her enthusiasm.

Walking the dog, no matter she was just a Hauz Khas hound, Ballygunge Beagle and a Teynampet Terrier- a mutt, in other words, became a huge daily dose of penance. I won't say we drew lots, but we tried to fob the duty off each other.

The few times she slipped off the leash, she'd scamper off; once memorably being chased, tackled football fashion and grabbed by an athletic friend who carried the panting wriggling adolescent puppy back home, ignoring all her attempts to lick and cajole him into letting her free again.

Then we had another friend visiting, who was amused at all this angst. Where is she going to go, dammit, he asked. Let her be, and she will learn. She has to come back home, after all.

And she did learn. She walked beautifully, heeling perfectly, once we gave up on the leash. She accompanied me to my son's nursery school, to the market, to the paediatrician's, on walks. She was perfectly behaved. Letting go was the trick. Our friend was right. Where did she have to go, after all? We were her pack.

Those Alsatians, of that milkman (don't ask) that tormented her when she was on leash? They learnt too. Have you ever seen a hulking great brute of a German Shepherd pretend to be invisible and cross the street and slink away with an apologetic air? A sight to behold, I tell you. Our pariah princess got her revenge on both those dogs.

In Calcutta, this glorious freedom of walking free is frowned upon. I've lost count of the number of times I got into arguments with offended matrons and morning walkers about a free walking dog. Neither the pooch nor I could see how approaching a person with a wagging tail is an act of aggression. Soon we stopped going into the Lakes to avoid furious debates about whether a well-behaved dog still needed to be leashed.

She could and did accompany me to my son's bus stop, and she took to waiting outside the gym as I worked out, gathering a crowd of admirers who were amused at this canine devotion. It was just cupboard love, though. She loved to go on walks.

I made a few friends of the regulars who'd pass the stop, who stopped to play with her and exchange pleasantries with me.

I discovered a Madrasi café nearby, and I'd go have Idlis for breakfast, once in a while. Now this is one place where they won't approve of a dog accompanying me.

So I'd tell her to go home. She'd look at me reproachfully. I'd repeat myself, firmly. She'd turn round and trot away. A friend, who watched this, asked me if I weren't worried she'd get lost.

I managed to stop the snigger. She's a dog, for pity's sake. How can a dog get lost? I suggested he followed her, and see. He was there the next day, looking suitably awed. You were right, she went straight home, he said, sounding surprised. This time I did snigger.

But he took to calling her Lassie from then on.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lost in translation

Some people, sniff, some people just catch colds and shake them off. Not me. The colds I catch invariably mutate into secondary infections and more. And my doctor invariably insists on steam inhalation and worse.

It was no different this time, either. He prescribed medicines, steam inhalation and told me to stay in bed. I could vegetate in front of my computer; it is very restful, I said longingly. Nothing doing, he said.

"I know you." He said sternly. "Just go home, climb into bed and stay there for a couple of days."

Easier said than done. I know I am feeling wretched, but I just can't sleep during the day. So I collected the printout of the latest Genius crossword, and my crossword paraphernalia, a couple of old favourite novels and settled in bed.

Soon enough, I hit a roadblock in the crossword. I have been doing it off and on, it is a toughie and the last six solutions are proving elusive. I can't solve it feeling miserable as I do. I don't feel like reading. In serious trouble, is Missus Em.

Brainwave! Totter out of bed, get the latest jigsaw puzzle. Open the box. Make a beginning. Bed rest seems a wonderful thing now.

Some people don't get the point of jigsaw puzzles; some don't have the patience to create order out of the chaos of the tiles. Some people are philistines. I like jigsaws. I am not a fanatic about them like I am about crosswords, but I enjoy doing jigsaws and the rush of pleasure in fitting the last piece and seeing the complete picture. Read a lovely article about it.

There is something about finding the right tile and fitting it in, seeing the picture forming that is very conducive to thinking things through. As a part of your mind is devoted to finding patterns and colours, and fitting the pieces together another part will quietly tick over, and I find that as the puzzle gets closer to completion I'm closer to solving some entirely unrelated question, which has been nagging me, too.

This is a 1000 piece puzzle, Van Gogh's Café Terrace at night.

It's a lovely painting and considering it's a night scene, the colours are amazing. The warm yellow light, the way it colours the cobbles, the blobs of stars, and the texture of the tree and the awning…There is no true dark here, the luscious violets and greens and deep blues are hypnotic.

Now the thing to do when you tackle jigsaws is to get the perimeter sorted out first. So I spent a happy half an hour fishing out all the pieces with a straight edge, and I laid my feverish hands on all four that had two straight edges with great glee. I haven't found the corners this quickly ever. Ha. Bed rest has its uses.

Looking at the picture of the puzzle, as I sift the pieces for straight edges, is an education: I handle the pieces and think 'ah ha that is part of the tree, the café, the cobbles, the sky', and can't wait to get started.

Once most of the perimeter pieces are found, assemblage starts. I find that sorting pieces by colors piling them separately helps, as it helps to finish the part of picture that uses them. So I next grouped all the pieces I could find of the tree, the sky, and the cobbles, the greens and yellows of the awning. This also helps to switch from a part of the picture to another. When you just can't make any connections in one area, you find that working on another area refreshes the eye, and the jigsaw grows.

Jigsaws are not a hobby for impatient people. I take four or five days to complete a 500 piece puzzle, as I do have other things to do and my Sacred Duty as well. But this is the biggest I have attempted.

I have the tree assembled, and the darkest of the cobbles are coming along nicely and when I can't see the patterns in the cobbles I am piecing together the luminous sky. I am having much fun and the infection has mostly cleared up. I am back online and will get back to you soon.

And about the title of this post, go here.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Missus Em's lazy work-out

Some people count sheep. I do quadriceps clenches. I can't vouch for the efficacy of counting sheep, but I can assure you that clenching and relaxing my patellae works wonderfully. I drop off somewhere between the second and third set of hundred repetitions. There is a story here, but more about it later.

Doing exercises given you by your doctor is one thing, and working out is another. Some people make a religion out of working out, keeping toned and fit. That's actually a nice kind of religion to adopt, come to think of it. Entirely personal, and beneficial. On the other hand, people have their pet disciplines of exercise, and are fanatical about them and are vocally critical of other methods. Best not to carry this analogy of religion too far, then.

I did used to frequent a gym, but I found that where as the treadmill and the stationary bike appealed to me, the weight training seemed pointless. I wanted to keep limber and maintain a healthy metabolism, not to sculpt my body. The instructor and I argued about what I needed. The intensity levels, whether I should stick to my yoga routine, or the routines she designed for me. Since I spent more time arguing than working out, I quit.

I am a creature of set habits. Once you are told that you have to watch your weight (not because you are obese, or even pleasantly plump, but because you might have a knee replacement procedure in your future if you subject your joints to the cruelty of having to bear more than normal weight), you try to make it a point to stay supple and limber, and well within the reasonable weight for one's height, build and age group.

I have practised yoga since I was a teenager, but as age creeps up on me, I find that I don't need to do the complete set of Asanas, in the same order, everyday. The poses I practice address all my needs, working on knees and ankles, spine and waist, and making certain I will never have a paunch. They are all I need to stay supple. And stay supple I must, having inherited the proneness to arthritis and rheumatism from my mother.

Over the years, I have arrived at a method of fitting exercise into daily routine, which then gets done, as a matter of course. I combine some of the Asanas, and do them in the order I find reasonable and some I don't bother with at all.

Take Padahastasana, for instance. It is basically Paschimothanasana, done standing. So why do both? I do it comfortably lying down, and combine it with Bhadrasana, with my own twist in between, which then segues into Gorakshasana, Shakti Chalini and Khandapeedasana, which further flows into Nabhipeedasana, which in turn leads to Yogamudra in all its variations and my own twists to suit my needs.

Likewise, why do Sarvangasana separately when it can be combined with Halasana, which melds into Karnapeedasana? Or why do Bhujangasana or Shalabhasana when Dhanurasana delivers the same effect?

Serious yoga enthusiasts are hereby requested not to write indignant comments, please. This is my take, and this is my blog. This is how I do it.

The advantage of doing something regularly is that you don't have to do repetitions. I find exercising my way, once is more than enough. Doing the most extreme variations, at the most intense, you don't need repetitions. It is all done in less than ten minutes, and I am toned for the day, Hallelujah!

I practice the standing postures in the morning, making my first cuppa, and the sitting or supine Asanas at night, just before going to bed. It's the night routine I am rather proud of. It combines several Asanas, and is the reason why I still have a decent waist. Granted, it is not twenty-three inches, like Victoria Beckham's, but it can still be called slim.

And here cometh the lesson for those of you who would like to know the secret of Missus Em's suppleness and slim waist. It is my night routine, and it takes less than five minutes, and you don't have to pay for it. Unless perhaps you feel like increasing the money I am earning from displaying advertisements on my blog? Thank you.

If you are going to do it my way, first get into your bed, throw the pillow away. You don't need a pillow, not really, and certainly not if you are doing Missus Em's routine. Pillows are bad for you, get used to sleeping without a pillow. You will sleep better, and if you have a tendency to snore it will be reduced greatly.

Oh, and I hope you sleep on a decent mattress, a firm one? You do? Good for you. Otherwise you might be better off doing this on the floor. You can use an exercise mat, but the floor will do.

Okay, lie down. Raise your arms, stretching them overhead. Keep palms pressed together, and stretch. Keep arms close to your head, grazing the ears. You should feel the pull in your waist, along the spine. Stretch. Waist and spine taken care of for the nonce, more will come, never doubt that.

Deep breath, raise torso, arms still stretched, mind you. Smoothly bend forward over your legs. You should be breathing out as you do this. Depending on your suppleness, fitness levels and body type, you might be able to bury your face in your knees, while hands rest on toes. Breathe normally as you hold this position.

This is Paschimothanasana, the basic variety; one variation is to grasp hold of big toes and rest elbows next to calves, but that is for sissies. Now the tricky part here is to keep your knees straight, no bending legs to reach the toes. That's cheating. It gets easier as you keep at it, and at the extreme levels, it will be the forearms that will rest on the toes. One count of attention to tummy and the spine each, check. Plus legs getting a lesson, too.

Now comes my variation.

Hold feet, preferably by toes and turn them in so the soles face each other, pressed together. Slowly draw your feet closer towards your groin. Your knees will part, and try to rest your forehead on the bed. Okay, the floor, if you are doing it on the floor. I will keep saying bed, because that's where I do this.

Now I am not saying you will be able to do this in a day, or a week, mind you. But if you keep at it, it gets easier each day. At the extreme position, your face will be resting on your feet. Tummy, spine, knees, thighs, and ankles all attended to. Check.

Stretch your arms forward, okay? Flatten your face and spine. There, one more stretching the waist taken care of, not to mention tummy, spine and your poor suffering inner thighs. Check.

Now grab feet again, raise your torso, sit straight and pull in your feet towards you, as close in as possible. The aim is to get them so close to your groin to finally rest heels against the perineum. This is Bhadrasana, and once your heels are tucked all up, attend to those knees. Don't let them rise up. As close to the floor as you can manage, please. This is good for knees, and does wonders for the inner thighs. You can do another forward bend and try to rest your forehead on the bed again, but that is up to you. I won't insist.

Now the variations I do are to raise the hips and sit on the heels. Gorakshasana. And then to hold ankles and twist feet down or up to press against the belly- Shakti Chalini and the Nabhipeedasana. You are excused, and I won't tell you how to go about them. You are having trouble already, I suspect.

Okay. Let's be kind to those legs now. Stretch them out. Bend one knee and tuck your foot against the opposite thigh, as high up and near to the groin you can manage. Bend over the stretched out leg, grabbing the big toe of the foot. Face to the knee. This is Janusirshasana. Repeat with the other leg. I am not going to tell you about the variations and intensity levels. I can hear the howls, already.

Ha. The legs think they are done. No, they are not. Time to do a full Padmasana. Look, you have any number of books, schools or web-sites offering to teach you how to do that. I am not giving links, so there.

Grab your big toes and bend forward while sitting in Padmasana. This is the easier version of the Yogamudra, I tell you. I do it the other way. So grab your big toes and bend over. Try to rest your forehead on the bed. Last work out for the incipient paunch, last stretch for the spine. Check.

Relax, now lie back. Catch your breath.

I won't tell you what I do next, I think you hate me already. But I tell you, this can all be done in less than five minutes. And this is what lets me sit for hours together behind my keyboard, telling you all about it.

All the doctors, who ever had occasion to treat me, say that I am a model patient; nobody more so, than my orthopaedic doctor, who prescribed me exercises for my knees. If I am on a course of medication, I take it exactly as prescribed and always complete the course. I don't take painkillers, or pop antacids. I follow the doctor's advice, and if it involves adding another exercise routine, so be it. I do as I am told, in other words.

Some years ago, I had strained my knee ligaments. "You have lax ligaments, Lali," said my orthopaedic doctor. "Once you recover, you have to strengthen them. Given your medical history you should never get overweight. What do you weigh, by the way?"

Having been conditioned to truth and one shouldn't lie to one's doctor, anyway, I told him. "You are only a couple of kilos over ideal weight, make sure it doesn't go up." He said, and proceeded to prescribe quadriceps clenches. I asked him how many repetitions I was supposed to do.

"Oh, a thousand a day?" He said breezily. Which is why, dear reader, I fall asleep doing those dratted quadriceps clenches. I still haven't managed a thousand. The closest I came was six hundred.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Out of the mouth of babes

Matthew 21:16. And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

What a joy one's child is! What a fount of wisdom one's child is!

On the rare and I mean rare occasions our son calls, he always bemuses us, amuses us and now he advises us.

Considering our son has gone to a boarding school, is used to taking care of himself and manages very well, these days I carefully avoid telling him to keep in touch, call regularly, take care, study well, be good… You get the idea.

There is no point in repeating oneself, after all. Especially since one is going to be ignored anyway. There is no way I can make him do any of those things sitting here in Calcutta, some 950 miles away. As I remarked once before, I just assume that he is fine, unless he calls and says he is not.

So when seeing him off for the next term at college, all I venture is this: "Give us a call and let us know you reached safely."

And give him his due, he did call. After three weeks, and because he prefers to let his mother do the drudgery. He instructed his clueless mother minutely about what he wanted done, how to do it, and so on and so forth.

Details taken care of, he deigned to tell us how he was doing, and asked me what was happening on the home front.

I told him about my blog, and how I have a few readers now. I told him about the grand evening out I had, and the bloggers I met. I told him about how Araucaria wrote to me about my blog. I told him about the 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle that our goddaughter brought for me.

"It's a Van Gogh painting, I am going to have the most marvellous time doing it, " I burbled. "Solved a couple of beauties today," I chuckled.

"Beyond the pale (6, 4, 5) and S for Stockholm (7,2,6)" I said. "Whiter than white, and Capital of Sweden," I giggled.

"Jeez Mom," said my son, and I could almost see him rolling his eyes. "Get a life."

Yessir, Sonny Boy, sir. Getting a life right away, sir.


Monday, August 14, 2006

No does not mean yes

And stop doesn't mean do that again, either.

When your very own Adam playfully but discreetly squeezes a breast or pinches your bottom when you can't retaliate or even acknowledge it, it is eve-teasing. It is a couple indulging in play and games.

When you get flashed in commute, or groped in a crowded bus; when a stranger is looking down your cleavage and there is no immediate way you can a) ask him to stop politely b) make an issue of it, create a scene or c) get off the bus, train… It is not eve-teasing. It is harassment pure and simple then.

Ah, that quaint usage that we Indians have manufactured to cover up a host of things: harassment, catcalls, groping, flashing and molesting. Indian Cinema from the Sixties on has a lot to answer for, what with college romances and teasing songs becoming hugely popular and making harassment accepted behaviour.

The phrase these days is 'making out', I believe. In our days, we had a twee word for it. We used to call it petting. Making out sounds awful and conjures smutty images to my mind. Petting, while it sounds old-fashioned, has a resonance. It speaks of loving each other, treating each other as precious. Exploring each other with mutual consent.

Romantic dates or even casual encounters with the opposite sex are always charged with an undercurrent of sexual tension. Men can't stop thinking of sex; it is said, jokingly. Well, women think about sex, too but they are so much subtler. Better at hiding their longings and needs. Women make careers out of suppression, in fact.

Intercourse is a consensual event. Would that it were so.

Incestuous molesting of young female relatives by cousins, uncles and grandfathers is very common and goes largely unreported, as the young girls are unsure if they will be believed, ashamed and worried that they somehow invited such attentions. They might tell an adult and be asked to keep it quiet. Or worse still, they might be disbelieved.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is rife, too. Bosses and male colleagues can make a working woman's life miserable.

Date-rape is another neologism I fervently detest. But this is a tricky issue. When a couple indulge in foreplay, when does it become sexual assault? When can a woman draw back and say, 'no more'? And what about that other phrase, 'date rape drugs'? If a woman is no state to give assent, if she is not conscious even, does the fact that the man is an acquaintance or a boyfriend, or that they were on a date, make intercourse consensual sex? If she was drugged into submitting, if she has no recollection of the incident, doesn't it sound like rape?

Men seem to think women who are extroverts, who are comfortable with men friends, will (sorry, this does seem to be the slang) put out. Women who dress in what media describe as provocative clothes, have it coming to them, and are positively asking for it, apparently. How women dress has nothing to do with consent. A woman's clothes or manner do not give men a right to pass lewd remarks or assault her sexually.

If a couple are dating or indeed even if they are married, when indulging in foreplay a woman has the right to say no; right up to the point she invites penetration. A woman can say stop, at any point. Of course, men have names they call such women who draw back at extreme stages, but it is still her right.

Women now have financial independence and sexual mores have changed. Finding ourselves empowered, we women seem to have revelled in that. To the extent we can now shop for gigolos and toy boys, hire male strippers for hen parties and not feel guilty about it. At least, not any more guilty than men feel about seeking sexual gratification outside their marriages or buying sex.

Even when it is a paid service, whether bought by men or women, sex still requires consent. And it is always a woman's prerogative to say yes or no. Because pregnancy and child bearing are female biological functions, and birth control is not always foolproof. So long as it is a woman who faces the possibility of pregnancy it is her privilege to give consent.

Grant us that and understand that 'no' is not a coy 'ask me again'. And the next time you invade personal space of women in public conveyances or on streets, don't be surprised if she is not wildly thrilled about it.


Update: I closed comments on this post because I was unwell. I am feeling better now.

Thanks for all the commiseration I did not get, you miserable heartless breed of readers, you. Cough, cough. Stop to sneeze, blow nose. Wait for sympathy. Alas.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The crosses we bear

"Les caught Akhan's eye. They exchanged a very brief glance which was nevertheless modulated with a considerable amount of information, beginning with the sheer galactic-sized embarrassment of having parents and working up from there." Jingo. Terry Pratchett

We are always embarrassed by our parents; when we are full of youthful arrogance and know all that there is to know, our parents seem so clueless, hopelessly ignorant and quaintly out of touch.

Families embarrass us in other ways too. We all go through the stage when we'd rather die than be seen with our parents in public. We are comfortable with our mater and pater doing what they do in a 'at home' milieu, but to be associated with them in public, well, that is a different thing altogether.

This was brought home to me in definite terms as my son grew up. At some point he stopped needing parenting and slipped off the apron strings.

Accompanying me on my shopping expeditions of the mundane sort, or even shopping trips of the mall variety became beneath his dignity. Even in bookshops, he'd slope off on his own, pretending he was alone, until he saw a book he just had to buy.

There was a time when his friends used to sprawl on my bed and play cards or Scrabble for hours on end, when I was a part of the games. My son and his best friend used to team up to try and beat me in Scrabble. We'd make up for own rules for rummy.

Then, they used to crowd me in the kitchen as I made snacks and thought nothing of demolishing French fries by the kilo, and asking for more.

Nowadays his friends, when they visit, disappear into his room, from behind the closed door of which then would emanate sounds of computer games of the violent 'kill everything in sight' variety. When I knock on the door with plates of snacks, the door opens a crack, the plates are grabbed and the door unceremoniously shut again. The same people. Different age.

The same child who delighted in the Owl and the Pussycat became mortified that his mother could recite "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves" perfectly, but couldn't discuss the merits of Caro-Kann Defence versus the French Defence, or deconstruct the shifting attacks of the Reshevsky - Najdorf 1957 game.

Like I said, families embarrass us. Having them is bad enough, but having to acknowledge them is worse. It is painful when they are somewhat famous. It makes our lives a misery in schools or social circles, always being 'So and So' s child. It gets positively excruciating if you share interests or opt for a career in the same field. Mind you, it doesn't get better when you choose an entirely different field, either.

I dropped out of my post-graduate course because the head of my Department insinuated that my father wrote the seminar I gave on Vijayavilasam, saying, 'you couldn't have done that research by yourself, it is too polished a presentation.' Like my father had the time or inclination to do my projects for me.

I did have the advantage of his library, which was rich in pickings for literary research, I'll admit. Where others had to slog it out in the University library, I did my research at home, but I did all my research and notations on my own. And wrote that paper on my own.

But that offhand implication, that I didn't do my homework because, you know, my Dad was the cat's whiskers and bee's knees when it came to these things- that hurt. My father didn't even know I was researching 'Vijayavilasam,' and wouldn't have stooped to write my presentation for me if he did. He was a busy man.

Being my parents' daughter made me write under a pseudonym, to neutralise it. But when I won a prize in a competition and my novel was serialised, they published my real name, and I had to face insinuations that I was awarded the prize because of my identity, not my skill.

I was relieved when distance and estrangement with contemporary literary trends put paid to my writing, frankly. The anonymity of being a housewife and a mother was comfortable.

This is all ancient history, but there is a reason why I am recounting it.

Now I blog. This is as far as it gets from creative writing and poetry, so there won't be any comparisons, I thought.

I was explaining blogging to my mother. It is an online journal that is updated regularly, I said. And if one has a few readers who take the time to comment, some lively discussions can develop, I said.

"Ah," she nodded her understanding, "you have become a columnist." "Not really," I said. "I write about various things, any topic that strikes me, and I talk about crosswords and English usage."

"That's what a columnist does, talk about things. So you've taken after me, after all, " she said complacently.

She has been a columnist for more years than I have been alive.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I am in mourning.

In less than a week I learn that the two men I regularly abandoned my husband to frolic with have, in PG Wodehouse speak, handed in their dinner pails.

I learnt that David Gemmell is dead - the misdiagnosed cancer that he battled to survive as he wrote his first novel came claiming dues, interest and more. That first novel he wrote, Legend, was just an appetizer; he developed and enlarged Druss, painted him in splendid hues. He created a hero like none other:

Druss the Legend. Invincible Druss. Captain of the Ax. Deathwalker. Silver Slayer.

Gemmell developed Druss as a role model. Warrior and veteran of a thousand battles though he might be, he was also an old man fighting battles that should not have been, shoring up lost causes and undertaking last ditch quests.

"Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These are things for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into pursuit of evil."

That was the code Druss lived by. I could advocate it to our politicians and leading lights. Druss is what all men and women should aspire to be. Perfectly in harmony with himself and the world, and ever striving to set things right. Druss might be a fictional character, but he is the best crusader I ever met.

"You don't drink. There are no women. You eat no meat. What do you do for recreation?"

"We study," said Serbitar. "And we train, and we plant flowers and raise horses. Our time is well occupied I assure you."

"No wonder you want to go away and die somewhere," said Rek with feeling.

A temple of warrior monks being recruited for a lost cause. A snippet from 'Legend.'

There are more gems than I can quote at you. The subtle humour was always there and got better and better. Now Gemmell won't finish the tales of Troy. Lord of the Silver Bow might well be the last novel that came out. I mourn him.

Bob Smithies a k a Bunthorne is no more too.

Bunthorne gave me such pleasurable hours of cerebration, because he was definitely a "compiler's compiler." A scholarly man, his crosswords were always challenging and they broadened my GK Quotient when I managed to complete them or tried to fathom how the solutions were arrived at, the next day.

He introduced me to words like odalisques and more; a deeper knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rudyard Kipling and the just plain strangeness of English language. He was just the ticket for somebody who uses English as a second language to learn it better.

Solvers would throw up their hands and quit before giving battle when they saw Bunthorne's name. But he was scrupulously fair and you could always solve his crosswords, by and by. For me the 'by and by' became fairly regular and my husband would groan when I announced gleefully, 'it is Bunthorne today, honey.' I just had to see his name, to rub my hands in anticipation of a battle. Sometimes I'd win it; sometimes not. Solving Bunthorne was somewhat like undertaking a quest.

There were many gems of clues he set. Some seem ironic now. Albion and Death seem interchangeable here, to me.

Albion's treachery, according to French mind. Why speak of it? (7) Perfidy

But I take comfort from one of the best clues he ever set, his own favourite, admittedly .

Amundsen's forwarding address (4) Mush!

It's so typical of Bunthorne. He expected you to know chapter and verse about the name mentioned, and get the joke.

Not any more, though. I wish I had taken my appreciation to the point where I actually wrote and told him how much I relished the challenge of his crosswords when I had a chance. Now he won't be reading any letters and I am writing this post of bereavement.

Uncompromising they both were, Bunthorne and Gemmell. Entertainers they were, too. They gave me hours of pleasure, years of company. Now they are no more.

"Goodnight, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Beer Saturday musings

It's odd how family traditions evolve. I suppose it applies to customs and rituals that the whole world engages in, too- like Valentine's day or April Fool's day- but a family develops its own rituals and customs.

In my family, the first Saturday of the month meant that we'd go browse at Oxford Bookstore and then have a couple of beers and lunch at any of the Park Street restaurants. We could spend hours in bookshops, and routinely did. Things changed a bit, and the ritual evolved to suit them.

Nowadays, we get food delivered once in a while, but mostly on Saturdays I go on a cooking spree. This is not as easy as it sounds. I have to make allowances for the fact that the lord and master likes his lentils watery while the son and heir hates them that way. I have to factor in that they can't stand spicy stuff or chillies and I love spicy food. Even allowing and admitting all preferences, I can and do cook meals we all three of us can share.

Some days it is pasta with tomato, garlic and cheese sauce and sautéed vegetables, pureed spinach and jacket potatoes on the side. On cool days it might be adai or dosas and various chutneys judiciously toned down with yoghurt to the 'ouch' levels of my sissy menfolk. Some days it is Punjabi style, rajma and kadhai paneer. Some days it is an Andhra menu.

Things change, and new customs evolve. After I stopped reading the Statesman in retaliation to their stopping the London Times crosswords, I don't spend much time with my newspapers folded to the grid and pen poised over the clues. I do the majority of my crosswords online now. These days, Saturday means a heavy load of the Sacred Duty.

There are the two Saturday prize puzzles from the Times and the Guardian, and the extras, the Jumbo puzzles both concise and cryptic from the Times and the quick crosswords too. I am not even mentioning the Azeds and the monthly prize puzzles.

Before I settle down to the Sacred Duty, there are the weekly Solemn Duties of Saturday. This is a ritual that developed after I had to pay two whopping phone bills thanks to viruses- running my weekly checks, updating my anti-virus software, being secure.

But there's always beer, on the first Saturday of the month. It is a constant.

I finish my chores; I practically race through them before I settle down with that tankard of beer to do crosswords. Some days that gets done lickety-split. Everything clicks, my brain is in fine fettle and I complete them all rather quickly. Like last Saturday.

On such days, I visit my blog archives and marvel at the logic that matches Google ads to my individual posts. I write about birds and poetry , and Google places an ad for Birdsong Detective there. There's a strange Daily Online Devotional ad that keeps appearing, and I can't even guess why. Butchers and bakers and crossword puzzle-makers all feature in the ads. Which reminds me, here's a clue:

Oh, Candlestick? Check that out, you don't have to buy to window-shop (5,2,3,3) That's about as cryptic as I can get at you lot, you crossword philistines, you.

After all that daily chores and attending to sacred duties comes ego massaging. I do my weekly check of my site's tracker, and get bemused by it. There are people who come across my blog in Poland, Israel and Brazil. They read me in Russia and China apparently. Reports tell me somebody spent more than an hour reading my blog. Perhaps she came to it and was called away and the minutes mounted up.

But when I saw an odd datum for my blog visitor location, I was thrown into a frenzy of speculation. Be still, my pathetic heart, it couldn't have been him. Araucaria won't have the time of the day for me, or my blog to be realistic.

Hello there, my readers from Himachal Pradesh and Kerala! I really appreciate it that you visit and read me so regularly. Do let me know what you think by commenting once in a while. I'd appreciate that, too.

That brings me to the crux of my musings, however alcoholically I may have meandered to the point.

I am getting spam comments now, all posted to earlier posts and mostly to those that have been linked with other blogs. But four spam comments in a week are a bit much. Oh, I have no problem with anonymous comments as such; I have a secret admirer after all. I wish he'd come out of hiding and declare himself. Be that as it may, malicious programs, or spam-bots posting comments asking my readers to click on some link isn't nice.

Should I change my settings to allow comment verification and say I won't allow anonymous comments? While we are at it, should I change my template? Add pictures? Tell me, dear reader. While I await your judgement, let me go sleep the beer off, hic.


Friday, August 04, 2006

And statistics

Lie: A very poor substitute for truth, but the only one discovered up to date.

Diplomacy: Lying in state.

In Enid Blyton's novels, characters would exclaim in horror, "oh, you wicked story teller!" I used to wonder, why not say that's a lie? Why the euphemism?

Of course, I didn't know what a euphemism was, in those days, but that is of no matter. The question remains. Why not call a liar a liar? How is making up something different from lying? How can you get away with concocting a different version of reality but get into trouble over a lie?

A lot depends on how morality is perceived, and in the early twentieth century ethos that Enid Blyton stories were set, lying was just not done. Of course, these were stories written for children, so a code of behaviour was being instilled indirectly.

In Westerns, calling a man a liar would lead to a shoot-out. It was a matter of honour. In the Wild West, where there was not much by way of law and order, questioning a man's word was a huge insult to his integrity.

How truthful we are is a matter of a personal code of conduct, not to be confused with social norms and what is regarded as moral. I am avoiding any mention of religious strictures. I am not talking about religious beliefs here, but ethics and morality, personal virtue and social mores.

We'd all like to adhere to utter truth all the time. In theory, at least. But in practice we twist facts, put a spin on facts, change versions of events, bend reality and say things that are not entirely true.

When I tell my son that his stuff has been sent, while the package is in fact sitting in front of me waiting for the trip to my couriers, I know I am twisting time and saying the event had already occurred. But I am not really lying, because the package will be sent, sooner or later, and what I am stating now as having already occurred will then become truth. I am just jumping ahead in time. That is how I'd justify the twisting of facts and reality. Like Saki says, a little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.

And we do this kind of thing all the time. Yes, we do. When we are being diplomatic, trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings or being noncommittal, we utter untruths, all the time. See? I am doing it. I call a lie an untruth. Veracity challenged, politically correct speech would have me type, because I can't bring myself to state flatly that we lie.

When you want to duck out of that boring dinner, the slight tickle in your throat will be blown up into raging flu. When you are having an interesting chat with a buddy online and a bore is pestering you, you plead a heavy workload to the bore. When you want to avoid a conversation, your cell-phone's reception or charge can be blamed as you ring off. The mail you haven't sent must have been swallowed by the cyber wormhole, because you know you sent it. You haven't really, but you can't say that, now, can you?

These little terminological inexactitudes may not bother us much, but in major matters it is always simpler to stick to truth. You need a good memory to sustain lies.

But telling the truth and being honest are different things. You can be honest and still avoid telling the entire literal truth.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series has a set of characters who are bound to be truthful, the Aes Sedai. They swear magically binding oaths, so everybody knows the Aes Sedai cannot lie. Jordan uses this universal belief that the Aes Sedai cannot lie as a plot device. But as this doesn't preclude misdirection, partial truths, twisting of facts or leaving out details, the Aes Sedai manage to get around the oath quite well. The truth they tell may not be the entire truth, whole truth or even the truth the listener hears.

In Indian legends we have Harischandra who gave up his kingdom, sold his wife and son into bondage, became a bonded slave himself all to keep his word. He was honoring the letter of his pledge, rather than the spirit, but that is a discussion for another day. Read about it here, but let me tell you, it is badly written and edited.

My favourite character in Mahabharata, Yudhishtira, always told the truth; unflinching and utter, literal truth, always. This came in very useful when he did have to prevaricate once. Drona laid down his arms because he believed the white lie Yudhishtira told.

The war was going badly for the Pandavas, his brothers lost their sons in gory battles, and Bhima did kill a war-elephant named Asvatthama. When Drona asked if it was true that his son Asvatthama was killed, Yudhishtira said, "Asvatthama is slain." He did add, "the elephant." But that went unheard.

Did Yudhishtira tell himself that this was just a little twisting of facts? He didn't have the luxury of such justification- his chariot, which until then always floated a few inches above the ground, settled on earth as he uttered that half-truth.

Most of us don't face such immediate consequences for our half-truths and white lies.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ode to Joy

The Guardian Prize puzzle's solution was published yesterday and now I can talk about it.

It's not as though the entire cryptic crossword puzzling world is hanging on every word of mine, but many people do 'Google' for crossword clues, so it would have been unethical to blog about this before the solutions came out.

Araucaria loves me. I have been dying to tell the world about it.

He knows I exist and blog; he said so (very much like the Beatles, yeah, yeah, yeah!) when he compiled a clue that featured me.

Oh, oh, oh. I hugged myself and spent a delirious minute revelling in it, before I let reality intrude.

I know Araucaria doesn't know me, of course, and that clue certainly didn't have anything to do with me. But, still and all, one is allowed to fantasise.

The twenty-second of July this year is etched bright in my list of special days. I solved the Guardian Prize puzzle in half an hour. I wasn't timing myself as such. You can't do that, with Araucaria, or any of the compilers in the Guardian crossword stable, not with the Saturday puzzles and certainly not on any day with some of them. Oh, you may do so, at your own peril and at the risk of feeling silly later.

I knew how long it took me to solve the puzzle because I had to answer the door once. While it disturbed and broke my concentration, the break enabled me to crack the last two that seemed impossible.

Over the years, I have become rather attuned to Araucaria, Bunthorne, and Paul. and I solve them quicker than I can solve Taupi, Enigmatist, Brummie or Shed. Don't let's talk about them. Not just now, okay? This is an Araucaria moment.

As is usual in Prize puzzles, there was a clue that ran to most of the grid.

6,7,8,2,18,1: Funny thing afoot- shy vernal youths go contemplating girls: Thus (in catalectic trochees) poem by 19 unfurls (2,3,6,1,5,4,5,7,5,2,8,2,4)

19 across, by the way, was: Poet and boxer Benn not initially included (8) Tennyson
Tyson with Benn, without the b inside Tyson.

I solved it by serendipity: even if one doesn't know one's Tennyson, but is well up one's Wooster and Wodehouse, it leaps out at you. And the old dear actually made it easy, so far as the big clue is concerned. It's a huge anagram, of course. And the kicker is that 'unfurls' is the anagram indicator, not 'funny.'

The thing to do when faced with a huge quotation the compiler is inviting you to figure out is to sweat the small stuff. Figure out the small two or three letter words in between, or assign an arbitrary 'it' or 'the' or 'and'; then see what transpires.

But I didn't have to do all that, because vernal youths and Bertie Wooster more or less hammered the solution into my subconscious already, Tennyson notwithstanding.

"In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

But there were other little gems to solve and fill in before I could say "Yes!" and pump my fists and celebrate.

11 across: Leave bird, understood? (3,2) Got it
Go tit, heh!

15 down: No charge for accommodation for Yeats? (9) Innisfree

20 down: New as new as new city (7) Swansea.
It is easy, just break it down.

Hey, Lahar, listen up. You will like this one.
4 down: What stops one making Close bat? (8) Obstacle

5down: 4 to listener makes spike get bigger (6) Earwax
This took me sometime to figure out- obstacle to listener or ear? Is it a homophone or a homograph?

27 across: Left like godmother at christening? (7, 3, 4) Holding the baby
No need for explanation, once you get it.

12 across: Greek leader soon holds willing number (9) Agamemnon
The second m is the joke, game in anon, but you have to add a number.

21 down: Heard pair preserve bird (6) Toucan
This is a homophone; the sound of two with can, as in preserving.

24 across: Administration taking notes (5) Staff
This is a homograph.

26 across: Posh gear for prisoner outside a capital (9) Caparison
Complicated but simple really, as Captain Haddock says. Con outside a + Paris.

26 across: V is for volunteers in prospect (5) Vista
This requires some practice. TA is crossword shorthand for Territorial Army.

13 across: Vibrating outside line in tiresome style (8) Tryingly

And here is the clue Araucaria compiled for me.

22 Across: Bird needs a fight to have fun (4,5) Lark about.
Araucaria knows about me and reads my blog. He said so!

In your dreams, Lali.


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