lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


"What was that?"
"Cats, honey."
"I know it's cats, what are they saying?"

I rolled my eyes. He thinks I know the language of cats.

I do know the language Cat. It is easy to pick up if you are a child in a house full of cats and grow up observing them. Cat communication involves a lot of silent body language and signals, but cats do talk a bit, and you can understand Cat if you grow up listening to it.

I was a mostly silent and observant child, so I learnt Cat.

We had a large vacant lot next to our house that was a wilderness and the cats in the area tended to frequent it. If there are toms, there will be territorial disputes as they patrol their patches. When a strange cat wanders in, there will be interaction, some assessing each other and if neither is willing to back down, some aggression.

Cats don't look for fights, and most confrontations are just posturing and tend to get resolved without aggression, but it used to be great fun to watch them. We had a lot of adolescent cats at any given time, so I learnt the behaviour of cats when they try to establish territory.

There are hisses and spits, "merrow" of challenge and if a fight ensued, there are shrill shrieks. There are the "meriow" of courting calls and "rrr-yeow-eow-rrr" of caterwauling.

And then there are the sounds mother cats make calling their kittens, warning them and teaching them. Amma Pilli used to bring stunned mice and birds for her kittens to practice hunting with. She had a special "meeow" for that. I knew the call, and it usually meant a spell of trying to rescue the creature or removing it if it was beyond saving. She'd say "merrrrow" to warn her kittens to stay hidden and safe, "mer-row" to say "stop that" and more.

It is possible to imitate the sounds cats make- those that are audible to humans anyway. When our kittens adventurously climbed trees and then lost their nerve to make the climb back down, they used a thin, high pitched pathetic tone of "mew" to ask for help. Sometimes they'd get panicked enough to go "MEW" in a frantic loud plea, and while it was amusing to watch, it used to be a chore to get them down. I could say "mee-aaow" well enough to coax them down. Probably I got the words and accent wrong, but I think I used to say "come to mother, follow me, and look what I got for you". They used to scramble down, anyhow, so that was mission accomplished.

There are the almost silent meows strange cats use to assess each other. There is probably more conveyed in the body posture, stance and position of tail and if the tip is twitching, than in vocalised communication. The hisses and silently snarled messages are too highly pitched for humans, but there are cues of body language you can pick up if you watch.

Cats talk to humans in a version of baby talk, because we can't hear the high pitched silent meows and fail to notice the body language or misinterpret it. When a cat says meow, it can mean 'hi there', 'feed me now' or 'make a lap, I need some petting'. It can mean 'leave me alone', 'I am not interested' or more. A cat's yawn is the most cutting insult one can suffer.

I learnt that the winding round and round human legs and rubbing faces against ankles is marking the human as property and declaring "paws off, this human is mine" to other cats.

So there were mews, both voiced and unvoiced, that I learnt; meows that demanded attention quietly or emphatically; loud MEOW of command; mee-o-ows of whining protests in varying levels of loudness; mierrrows of purring friendly greetings; and meeps of offended indignation.

Those last meeps were something I heard a lot of when ministering to unwilling cats, as I was the champion holder of wriggling felines when the vet visited.

There was one memorable occasion when my sister and I removed tar from the paws of our tom, Baddoo. (Don't ask. The street was being re-paved) We used kerosene and swabbed his paws and he suffered this stoically. Then, worried that he might try to wash himself with his paws and get poisoned or something, we washed him. Okay, we gave him a bath. He struggled mightily but it was I who held him, so he got that bath.

Later, clean and dry, he came and settled himself on my sister's tummy as she napped, and kneaded her, even purred like a chainsaw. She assumed he was showing gratitude, until he widdled on her and stalked off with a pointed, offended and disgusted "Meeeep!" My sister was indignant that he chose to demonstrate his outrage and vengeance at her than me. I held him down to suffer those indignities, after all.

Having been bereft of feline company for lo these many years, my Cat is rusty, but the hisses and violent spits and screeches that followed made it clear. The noises emanating from the window were most definitely a dispute. Two toms and a territorial spat, plus an argument about which gets to woo the pretty queen in the vicinity.

I listened and said, "Umm. Territorial dispute mostly, something to do with you widdled on my patch but there is a female involved. It's going to get physical, I think."

"So we are going to hear some serenades?"
"Definitely. Let's postpone that song session, we can't compete with cats." I said.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Policeman's knock

There are moments in life that are surreal.

There was huge tension and worry and angst but my son got a Tatkal passport and went off to England to engage some of the brightest people in the world in a parliamentary debate. (Dear Reader, thank me for sparing you the saga of visa applications and stolen mobile phones and mix-ups in travellers' cheques.)

Some five days after he went back to school we received a phone call. The Calcutta Police, in their business-like fashion, wanted to conclude verification of our son's passport application. They wanted to meet our son, talk to him, and verify documents. We told them that our son was back in Bangalore and that his passport had been issued.

Two days after my son left for England, the Calcutta Police, Passport Section, called to conduct inquiry and complete procedures. Again, we informed the gent on the phone that our son, alas, couldn't be present to be verified as he was away in the realm of the dreaming spires.

Apparently, even with a police verification waiver that enables an applicant to get a speedy passport, there is still some procedure pending. The police will still conduct their inquiries and submit reports.

Fair enough.

So the voice on the phone asked us keep documentation ready. We complied. Our son's school records, domicile certificate, birth certificate and ration card; our telephone bills, electricity bills and corporation receipts were all photocopied and kept ready for inspection. I decided to be cautious and even made copies of his certificates of merits earned at various chess tournaments and badminton events.

We waited. And waited. Thirteen days after the phone call, came the knock. Yesterday.

Two burly gentlemen from the Passport Section came in brusquely. They must have thought I conduct interviews with police officials in my bedroom, because they tried to barge in there, giving the phrase 'crowding into personal space' a whole new perspective, which they also did, standing too close and following me as I tried to move back. I directed them to our drawing-room, and showed them all the gathered paperwork.

They tsk tsked at all the papers. Where was our son, they asked. I explained that he was away at Bangalore getting an education. I will admit I crossed my fingers when I said that, because though I devoutly hope he is getting an education, I can't really prove that. He might be just enjoying himself and playing computer games and chess and badminton and assorted other sports.

To say that they were dissatisfied with the documents is litotes.

My son, due to lack of foresight by his parents, was born in Madras, before it became Chennai. Then we had the gall to live in Delhi before we became residents of Calcutta in '89. His birth certificate states that he was born in Madras. That was the first thing against him.

The spelling of our surname varied in all documents other than school records, since not everybody notices or cares that we spell our surname with an a at the end. (In Bengal, spelling of surnames is optional, but that is a matter for another post.) He was Mukherjee, Mukherji and Mukherjea variously, in the documents. That was against him too.

They asked if I had given copies of these certificates to the officer who cam earlier. I replied in all honesty, that I couldn't remember. He went through them, that much I remembered. This was against me.

Then came the familiar objection. They can't issue clearance or submit a report that verification was completed, because, ahem, he is not continuously resident here in Calcutta.

Déjà vu.

Then they asked if we would issue a declaration that he is our son and lived here. The Resident Yudhishtira bristled and asked how could police officials ask us that?


Finally, I wrote a declaration that my son is my son, that he is a dependant and a resident of Calcutta, currently in Bangalore for his education. They took it and copies of all the documents and left.They will file their report and folks, that report is going to be bad.

This is beginning to seem like a soap opera.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Yeh mera prem patra padhkar

With time and distance separating us as ever, I ask. With remembered ardour and lasting affection, with old familiarity and a new hesitance, I ask.

How are you?

I remember when you asked me that, once. I said it was a complicated question. You said that was a simple answer. You laughed and sent kisses on the ether to take the sting out.

If you asked me if I thought about you, I could have replied at length. I could have told you how I continued talking to you in my head all through the day, long after signing off. I could have told you that you were on my mind as I did chores and mundane things became pleasurable because you were on my mind.

If you asked me if I needed you I could have said a lot. I could have told you how I cherished the idea of you, the fact of you and that we are in this world together, here and now, and never mind the miles and other walls that separate us. I could have said you are a talisman.

But you never asked, because you knew. How I cherished that certainty of yours.

When you held your hand out, so confident that I'd slip mine into it, when you signed off so simply but with such bravery declaring love, when you called at odd hours just to hear the sound of my voice, to hear me breathe… You knew.

I could tell you, if I search for words and find them, about how I miss you; how I think of you at the oddest moments, how I invoke memories of you as if they were snapshots in an album and sort through them, how I dare not revisit some too often lest they get too familiar and lose their preciousness.

There's much I could tell you if you asked. You haven't.

I don't know what love means. I have no words for that. I have words to say to you, though.

How are you?

Monday, November 20, 2006

In which Missus Em contemplates defection

It feels like defection, betrayal and adultery all rolled in one. And it is my own fault.

What with one thing or the other, and things were hectic I tell you, I missed my monthly snip session. My hair is short and severely styled, so I could go for weeks without visiting my salon, were it not for the fact that my hair grows fast. I need a trim back to the original cut every three weeks to maintain the shape. It was seven weeks and counting.

Now a style or a cut can last a while, but there is a point when it stops looking as it was meant to be. It was at that point, I guess, that I chanced to look at myself properly and was struck aghast. Short it might be, my hairstyle was chic. Now it had grown out of the cut so much that it looked simply too awkward. I had oodles of things on my mind, yes, but this was not to be borne. I hotfooted it to my salon.

"R is on leave, ma'am. He went to Delhi for a refresher course," said the receptionist. My heart sank. I really needed that cut. I couldn't stand how my hair looked any longer. She saw my desperation and said, "P could do your hair. He's very good ma'am."

Perhaps P is very good, but R knows my hair. He's been styling it for many years now. Other than being a tyrant about colouring it, he doesn't mind that I refuse to change the style and always gives me a good cut. Like I said once before, when you sport an extreme hairstyle, you need a good cut and that means a good stylist.

But needs must, after all. I shouldn't have missed the month's trim session, and since I had, I just had to trust that P would do a decent trim that would tide me over till R came back.

Most senior stylists don't do the shampoo and the blow-dry part of the job. It is beneath their dignity. Either P was not a senior stylist or was being nice to me, but he shampooed me himself. And made conversation.

'You really let the cut grow totally out of shape, ma'am," he said. I agreed, saying it's been a busy few weeks, so I'd neglected my hair.

"I could give you the same cut R Bhai gives, ma'am, but I'd like to do it my way. If you don't like it, I'll restyle it like your regular cut," he said. He'd seen me getting my hair styled by R, and he'd been thinking about how he'd do my hair, he said.

I was surprised. Women flock to my salon in their hordes, and most of them have long manes that would take a variety of styles. A stylist can be creative with shoulder-length hair. My hairstyle is so severe that there is hardly any scope for innovation. I said as much.

"No ma'am, R Bhai and Z bhai before him gave you a classic cut, but I'd do it differently," P said. I was intrigued, but I warned him that I'd like to be able to revert to my regular cut if I didn't like his version. He agreed and started snipping.

"You see, R Bhai raises the hairline at your nape, but you are slim and don't need the short back to create the illusion of a longer neck. So I am going to thin and feather the nape, and taper the line." P said as he nudged my head down and wielded scissors and comb. He'd really thought this over, it was clear. I was flattered.

The cut proceeded millimeter by millimeter, P chatting away at me and asking questions. After some twenty minutes of painstaking shaping he declared himself done, and blow-dried and finger-combed to set my new cut. I looked at myself.

It was more or less the same style I've always worn my hair, short and sculpted. But there was a subtle difference. It looked more feminine, fuller and wilder. It made me look tousled and younger. At my age looking younger is a welcome idea, after all.

He fetched a mirror so I could view the back. There too, the style looked the same but was subtly different. I stared at myself and tried to pinpoint the difference.

Then it came to me. P hadn't cut the seven weeks' worth of growth down, but shaped it into a style that was a replica of the cut the legendary Habib Senior had given me two decades ago. No wonder I thought I looked younger. Over the years my hairstyle had grown shorter and shorter, but P used that extra length for a cut that was classic and very individual.

I told him I liked it, and thanked him.

That was last month. A few days ago, I went for my monthly trim again, and R was back from Delhi. "Who did your hair?" he asked as he began the trim, after an assistant shampooed my hair. I told him. 'Hmm," he said. "He gave you a tapered line." I detected a note of disapproval in his voice. He keeps it straight.

"I liked it," I mumbled. It felt like admitting that I had an affair, that I had been unfaithful.

"And he didn't know you prefer ultra short," R went on, clinically snipping inches off. "That cut was way too long from what you usually have." R styled my hair, and I was back to my old cut.

All last month, each time I looked in the mirror, I liked the style. And I'd liked the way P reasoned, the way he told me why he was doing what he did. He'd thought about doing my hair, and that was flattering. The cut he gave me was flattering, too. Now my old style seemed too severe and I felt dissatisfied.

I found myself wishing P had done my hair. And I felt I was being disloyal to R and that made it worse. I felt miserable. But each time I caught a glimpse of myself, the dissatisfaction grew.

I am a loyal person. I tend to go to the same shops, buy the same brands and use the services of the same people. But.

Now I know how it feels to contemplate an affair. R styled my hair for ages, but now I want that difference P made.

I think I will soon know how divorced people feel on seeing their exes with others, too. Because I am going to let this style grow out and I am going to defect.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Son, I ban any grammar

My! An Arab ransoming: That's an anagram of 'Anagrams on my brain' that my software came up with. I think my post title is better, though. I found it the hard way, with paper and pencil and much crossing out and rethinking.

I have anagrams on my brain today. It's an occupational hazard of obsessive-compulsive crossword puzzle solving.

Back when the world was young and when I started doing crosswords, I used to fill up the white space of the margins with anagram tries, and it used to take a long time, if ever, to solve the anagrams. In fact, I didn't used to be sure if I was using the right set of letters, as I hadn't yet learnt to recognise the anagram indicators. It takes time, practice and experience to figure out anagrams and anagram cues.

That's because anagram indicators are diverse as the compilers. 'Perhaps', 'possibly' and 'maybe' are the simplest, but the job can be done by any word that can be fitted into the clue inconspicuously. So words that denote change or breaking, re-ordering or arrangement can be anagram cues: 'shatter', 'shot', 'upset', 'out', 'order' or 'style', for instance. Or adverbs like 'crazily' or 'madly' can be used as cues. Adverbial phrases like 'in a mess' or 'untidily' can do the duty. I have seen 'tortured' and 'drunk' used as anagram indicators. The innocuous 'made' once featured as an anagram indicator:

The train seats are made fireproof (4-9)*

As one gets familiar with the tricks of trade the compilers employ, anagrams tend to leap out. Nowadays I don't have to resort to trying the anagrams on paper; I do them in my head, visually, or with the Guardian crosswords, using their scrambler. It becomes simple to rearrange the letters mentally and some words are used so regularly that one hardly has to think about them anymore.

Respect is specter and scepter. Pots are stop, opts, tops and post. Decimal is claimed and declaim and medical. Live is evil and veil and vile. Lucre is cruel. Stagnation is antagonist.

But there are some anagrams that are famous. All crossword buffs know that carthorse is an anagram of orchestra. Gyrated is tragedy. Saturnalia is Australian. ' World Cup team' can be rearranged to form 'talcum powder' and Manchester City can become 'synthetic cream'.

Here is a Bunthorne anagram clue: TV air channel, Rue sadly, how Joe Public tells it? (2,3,10)**

And here is Missus Em's own bleating: OK! A helpless accident! Off to aid Missus Em (5,2,3,3,6)

My favourite compiler, Araucaria, routinely comes up with apt and witty anagrams. His clue-setting genius discovered that 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' yields the anagram: chaste Lord Archer vegetating. When such a clue appears at the time of the perjury trial and sentence, it is doubly delicious.

The Resident Nitpicker grumbles that he came across it in June, so it was a totally unfair clue that spanned most of the grid, but Araucaria's supreme moment of genius with anagrams came when he set a seasonal puzzle one Christmas: O Hark the herald angels sing the boy's descent which lifted up the world.

That, when rearranged, led to:

While shepherds watched their flock by night, all seated on the ground!


* Heat-resistant ** In the vernacular

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ah, my precious!

Said Jerome K. Jerome to Ford Madox Ford,
'There's something, old boy, that I've always abhorred:
When people address me and call me "Jerome",
Are they being standoffish, or too much at home?'
Said Ford, 'I agree;
It's the same with me.'

'Mutual Problem', William Cole

I grew up in a family where there was a lot of laughter, banter and badinage, but no displays of affection or endearments of any kind. We all heaped 'banda muddu', rough and rowdy loving on babies in the family, but the older children and adults refrained from any display of affection. We shortened names, and were Vaas, Kavi, Lali and Tivi in address, but that was about it. My father's occasional pet names for us were longer than any given name ought to be. Lalita Lavanga Latika, anybody? Or how does Kavita Karpoora Manjari grab you?

It is strange then, that after leaving the bosom of my family, I took to spontaneous gestures of affection and using endearments. Is it that my family's reticence about display of affection had trained me to be reticent too, and moving away from its influence allowed me to express affection in ways that I wouldn't have before?

Perhaps this developed because I left home and became part of a couple. Perhaps this using of endearments to people evolved as I learnt the preciousness and the unpredictable nature of life, and felt the need to be demonstrative.

I use a lot of pet names and endearments now. Anybody I am fond of tends to get addressed with an endearment. It could be a simple 'dear' instead of the name or a slightly more intimate 'darling'. It could be a particular pet name for the specific person, or a generic 'sweetie' or 'love'.

I say 'chellam'. I say 'bangaaram'. I say 'angel'. I say 'darling' and 'dahling'. I say 'sweetheart' and 'sweetie-pie' and 'honey-bunch' and worse.

Male bonding methods bemuse me. I notice that my husband and his friends trade insults when they meet. When I meet my women friends, it is all hugs and kisses and 'darling, how are you?' and then some. Are women more comfortable with displays of affection?

My husband has a couple of friends he has known for fifty years and more. They are still going strong, and every time they meet they seem to begin where they left off. Trading insults is how they bond. When I am talking to a woman friend, very likely we'd call each other angel, sweetheart, darling and more. Men need insults, and women need endearments, it seems.

And sets of friends tend to give each other pet names. Sometimes, the very endearment becomes the address to a particular person. Priya and I are 'babe' to each other, Rimi is Rimikins for Priya and me. Even Rimi's cheeky 'Auntie Lali' is more an endearment than polite address to an older friend. My husband is always 'honey', after all.

There is a strange thing, though. I use pet names and endearments now, but not towards members of my birth family. There are no endearments there. And the other thing I notice is that I address women of my own age and younger friends with endearments; younger male friends too get their share of sweeties and dears. But friends older than me, however fond of them I am, are just addressed by the name. The influence of my early family life, perhaps.

But there is one person I cherish and love greatly, whom I call only by name. He has forbidden me to use any terms of endearment towards him, ever. I've been given a perfectly decent name and that is enough, he says. It is my son.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

An evening at chez Em

"Young love," I mused as I rang off, after a long chat with a young friend.

She was in the throes of puppy love and its attendant angst. She was worried that her swain might think she is dumb because she got tongue-tied with overwhelming shyness in his presence; worried that he might misinterpret her silences as disinterest; was worried that she might seem too eager if she initiated a phone call, or sent more than six text messages in a day.

Having negotiated these turbulent rapids of passionate romances, infatuations and crushes a few decades ago and now floating serenely in the placid pools of affection and fondness, I listened to her outpourings with benevolent interest, but with detachment, too.

Falling in love is a fraught thing. The intensity of young love is frighteningly singular. The obsessive thinking about the person, the need to bring his or her name up in conversations whatever the subject, the helpless longing to be with them- all very sapping, in hindsight.

"Chup jaaungi raat hi mein, mohe pee ka sang dai de." I quoted.

"Hmm, that is Shochin karta, isn't it?" said the Resident Musician. I said it was Gulzar, but conceded that the music was S D Burman's, and added that it was sung by Lata Mangeshkar. I like to be thorough, after all. "Bandini," I said.

"Let's hear the whole of it," he said. He assumes I know the entire lyric of any song I quote, but this time he assumed right. So I recited 'Mora gora ang lai le' at him.

'Mora gora ang lai le' is a song I know; I've listened to it countless times, while in love, in lust, and in great affection and abiding fondness. I know the story of Gulzar writing it, S D Burman persuading Bimal Roy to shoot it outdoors.

"It's a marvellous poem," I said. It is; the meter is perfect, and I always liked the classical device of chandra dooshaNa. It was a must in classical works, and Telugu poets were very good at railing at the moonlight as the heroine suffered pangs of love and separation. It's one of the mandatory descriptions in classical Telugu poetry. To find it in a film song is delicious.

We listened to the song, and sang along. "The beat is intriguing," said the Resident Musician.

"It's rupakam, honey," I said. "Dadra," he said. "Same difference," I sniffed. "A rose by any other name, and all that."

But there is a twist, I must say. The use of dialect enabled Gulzar to condense sixteen syllables to twelve, and he adhered to the meter rigidly. Perhaps he wrote to an already decided upon beat, but the entire song in the couplet form is a perfect example of the six-beat rhythm.

"No Lali, you recited it with pauses, like a poem. But as a song the beat is unusual, it starts on the fifth," said the Resident Musician.

"So?"I said. "I know a lot of songs that start on the fourth or seventh beat of the taalam."

"Dadras don't, not usually. They start on the sam or the khali but this is different."

"Hmm, the eduppu," I said, and we listened some more.

"Just listen to her," rhapsodised the Resident Musician. "That 'oh, oh, oh' and that microsecond precision of catching the beat! You need to be an instinctive musician to do that."

"Yeah, quite interesting, really, the convention of the eighteen mandatory descriptions of classic literature being given a nod at." I said.

There's a list of eighteen mandatory descriptions that a poet had to tackle if he wrote a prabandham. These include praise of the patron, description of the city, the seasons, and the pangs of love the protagonists go through; among them the cursing and calling names of moonlight, as it hurts the poor besotted soul, who needs his or her own true love to savour the moonlight with and without whom it becomes unbearable.

"And Shochin karta maintains the beat throughout the song. That's unusual, too. Off hand, I can think of only one other song like that. 'Oki elo, oki elo na'," said the Resident Musician. We considered that song.

"'Koyalia mat kar pukaar' starts on the sam and is a typical dadra," the Resident Musician went on, and sang a demonstration.

"'Mohe panghat pe'," is a classic which starts on the khali," he said. We considered this song too, sang it ourselves and granted that this was so.

I sighed. As usual, he was ignoring the poetry.

"Play it again, Sam," said the Resident Musician. I complied. "Everybody gets it wrong. That's a misquote, actually," I grumbled.

And, dear reader, we were off again.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My time machine

Time: the most popular murder victim.

There are more adages about time than I can quote, so I settled for a left-handed definition. We spend time, buy time; squander time, save time; time flies and drags; we make time and kill time. We while time away and we use it profitably; we have free times and busy times. We are very conscious of time; we measure it and count our minutes and days and years.

As clocks get more accurate and measure time more precisely, we are more pressed for time as the world hurtles forward frenetically. The leisurely pace of earlier centuries when time was measured by watching the sky gave over to sun dials and hourglasses and water clocks and the world moved quicker. Now there are atomic clocks, and we are rushing about in frantic haste.

Wearing a watch for the first time is a rite of passage. My first watch was a dainty, tiny thing; my mother bought it for me when I was in high school. Those were the days you had to remember to wind your watch.

In college, I used to wear my uncle's watch, a Citizen that didn't need winding. I wore that watch for many years. I was given a Seiko as a wedding gift and I wore that for nearly a decade.

I bought a watch for myself for the first time some years ago. It was a Titan, and it lasted too. If the battery needed changing, or the glass got too scratched to read the dial, I'd take it to the service centre in Park Street, where they'd fix it while I waited.

Then I bought a Timex; I blame it on global warming. Don't laugh. I reason thusly:

The world is seeing major changes in climate patterns, and we have been having very hot summers. (I'd taken to wearing a headband in the kitchen, like the kamikaze pilots, to stop sweat rolling off my face and dripping into the vegetables I am chopping or worse. I keep a towel handy to keep mopping sweat, too. Maybe it is not just the global warming, maybe it is hot flushes.) The metal strap of my watch kept getting grimed up by my kitchen duties and by just plain sweating. Yeah, I know ladies are supposed to glow, but I sweat. Perhaps that says something about me.

So I decided to get a watch whose strap won't have to keep getting wiped down, detached and cleaned or need quite as much maintenance.

So, last year I bought a Timex. I wanted a large display of numerals so I didn't have to wear my reading glasses to see what the time was. And while I have nothing against leather straps, I wanted to try the chunky looking synthetic strap.

The watch had bells and whistles. It had four tiny buttons, and it could be read in the dark. It had daily alarm, and hourly chimes. It could tell me time in twentyfour hour mode or twelve hour mode. It had a timer, a stopwatch function and many features I'd never use or need.

The watch was a dud.

It's light died in a month. I took it to the service centre, and they told me it'd be sent to the workshop, which was not in the centre, which appeared to be only a collection point. They took two weeks to fix it, and I had to make two trips to the centre.

This year, just after the warranty ran out (but of course), the strap broke. A synthetic rubber derivative thingie and it broke. Good grief. I took it to the service centre. They said that it would be sent to the workshop, and that they'd inform me when it was ready for me to collect.

That was more than two months ago, on twenty-fifth of August, to be exact. I haven't heard from the centre. It struck me that I might have missed their call, or they may have called and found my phone switched off. I went to the centre and asked, as I was passing that way.

They had no clue. It is still in the workshop, perhaps, the harried looking young woman in the shop said, after rummaging in several drawers and boxes. She said she would call and let me know. She didn't apologise for the delay, didn't offer any explanations, indeed she didn't seem particularly interested in the whole thing.

That was a fortnight ago. I still haven't heard from the service centre.

"Takes a licking and keeps on ticking." That used to be the slogan of the Timex watches. I suppose mine is ticking somewhere. I can't say for sure, though. Because the Timex service center is keeping time for me. It is keeping time from me, too.

Missus Em is a timeless classic, I tell you.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

To tell a story

Tell me your story, he said. She was silent. Where do you begin? How do you condense a life into a few short words?

She looked down at her hands. My hands could tell my story, she thought. The callouses of a veena player, the second finger's thicker than the index finger's; the long nails on her right hand, the vertical line of discoloration on the little finger's nail that's caused by repeated striking of the drone strings. The thickened sinews of the wrists and the hardened heel of her right palm could tell about the hours of practice. Or my ankles could, she thought. A tale of bearing the veena's weight and endless hours of music sitting cross-legged and the callouses thereof.

Tell me your story, he said. She was silent. Where do you begin? How do you condense a life into a few short words?

She looked down at her hands. My hands could tell my story, she thought. The myriad scars of little-felt scrapes of the grater, the knife; the scalds and occasional splatter of an excited mustard seed; of a lifetime of meals made, and people fed. Of judging dishes, of countless stews stirred, vegetables diced and sliced and minced and grated. Of spices ground and batters made and fritters fried. Of how natural the knife felt now in the hand that used to race up and down the frets of the veena.

Tell me your story, he said. She was silent. Where do you begin? How do you condense a life into a few short words?

She looked down at her hands. My hands could tell my story, she thought. The slim fingers with their knuckles thickening with arthritis that is her inheritance; or was that thickening because of the times she'd crack the knuckles to loosen up and start working again? Her hands could tell her story, of the hours spent writing and typing; of the words that flowed out of her onto paper, to her hard disk; of the words she tried to define her world with, herself with.

Tell me your story, he said. She was silent. Where do you begin? How do you condense a life into a few short words?

Her hand fluttered to her face. My face could tell my story, she thought. The faded almost invisible scar on her forehead could tell of the toddler that fell and cut herself, the panicky scolding mother, and the protective brother dragging her away (she was too heavy to carry) from frightened wrath. Or the equally faded crescent on her chin could tell of the time she bravely if foolishly tried to lance a whitlow and fainted, splitting her chin and cutting her lip. The faint lines that bracket her mouth could tell of the times she laughed and lived.

Tell me your story, he said. She was silent. Where do you begin? How do you condense a life into a few short words?

She stirred uncomfortably. My body could tell my story, she thought. The scars of surgeries from a keloid to appendectomy; her scars could tell of disease and health, of life and age. Each scar telling a tale of life, the ancient mark of chickenpox to the latest bruise she received as she bumped into something; of everyday life and extraordinary events.

Tell me your story, he said. She looked up and smiled brightly. I don't have a story, she said, I just am.


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