lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Aajkal tere mere pyaar ke charche har zubaan par

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

Alice's Evidence, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Gossip: Putting one and one together to make talk.

"My dear, I will say this much. Flirting is not a spectator sport," she sniffed. "Go on now; don't leave me hanging," I cajoled.

"So you met him. And?" she asked. "Ah, that'd be telling," I said, and lowered my voice. We put our heads together and I went on to tell her what transpired.
"She gave me chapter and verse, I tell you," I grinned wickedly. "Tell, tell," he said, leaning forward eagerly.

Oh, I do like a bit of gossip, like Ogden Nash says. We all do.

The town-crier, war drums, smoke signals, bush telegraph, jungle grapevine, a little bird tells me- there are a lot of phrases about ways to pass on news or important information and also items of gossip.

Causerie, chaffer, chat, chatter, chew the fat, chinwag, chin-wagging, chitchat, claver, comment, confab, dish the dirt, gab, gabfest, gossiper, gossipmonger, jaw, natter, newsmonger, rumormonger, rumourmonger, scuttlebutt, shoot the breeze, small talk, tittle-tattle and visit- are synonyms for gossip, my dictionary tells me.

Are they having an affair? Is she leaving him? Has he really set up a second establishment, and by the way, can he afford it? Did you know her daughter ran away with that boy? You mean to say you didn't know this? Have you heard the latest about so and so?

Is this all just exchanging news, if so why do we take delight in it and why is it tempered with a bit of malicious glee?

Exchanging information on what is common knowledge is not betraying secrets. Secrets are different. Despite the amusing left-handed definition that a secret is something a woman tells everybody not to tell anybody, we all know the fine line between letting the world know a juicy bit of gossip and letting slip a major secret a friend entrusts us with.

We all like to be well informed and fully clued in; and when we can pass on information that the other party doesn't yet possess, it does feel nice to be in the know and to be lofty about it. You didn't hear this from me, of course.

The best kept secret always has only one person who knows it. The moment you say, don't tell anybody but… you ought to know that your secret is out there winging its way through the cyberworld. Nothing will bring it back and make it your own again. There will be interested people discussing it and adding their spin, and it grows and takes on a malignant life.

The cautionary tale our maid used to tell about the king's barber who had to tell somebody or burst, and so whispered the secret, 'raaja kaadu kazhuthai kaadu' into a hollow of a tree, only to have the secret bruited about every time a drum made from the wood of the tree was struck- that caution is always with me when I trade info versus secrets with friends.

If a friend trusts you enough to ask for help in a sticky situation you don't blab about it, not even after a couple of decades. You hold that secret safe.

But when there's something happening that you know some insider info, gen, nitty gritty of, and when it is common knowledge but you know more, the urge to unburden yourself gets fearsome.

We all go into the barber mode then, telling the world about raaja kaadu kazhuthai kaadu (the king has donkey ears) and more. Nash has a lovely take on the matter: "This was told me in confidence".

Now about the Floral Bliss facial, which included a whole lot of pampering that my sister was telling me about: apparently it made her look a decade younger. Since she is only three years younger than me and if she looks like she's pushing forty, why, I am pushing forty too. But if you are crass enough to ask my age, I am not a day older than thirty, I tell you.

I mean, I never said this and you didn't hear it from me and so on and so forth, but it is true enough all the same.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Count to fifteen

I was unkindly compared to Granny Weatherwax. In my defence, I must say that quite unlike that great witch, I am keenly literate but only grudgingly numerate. It is a different thing when it comes to crosswords and counting letters, though.

So I can count up to fifteen with great facility, and sometimes, when there are jumbo crosswords to be solved, I even manage twenty-three. I was thinking about this as I solved today's Araucaria.

The grid patterns tend to get used in rotation, and today's grid had a pattern that I used to dread but have come to enjoy. The first clue across took up the entire rank, a fifteen-letter clue. I rubbed my hands in anticipation.

This means, of course, that One down and Eight down will be fifteen letters long, whether a single word or two or three words long. And the bottom rank across will be fifteen letters long, too. This grid is useful for crosswords with a theme or a long quotation spread over several ranks and files. But today's puzzle had no theme, and only one twelve letter long clue split into four threes.

As a neophyte I used to be nervous tackling long clues. Four or five letter words seemed more my forte then. Now I prefer longer clues, and if they spread themselves all over the grid, all the better.

The long clues were gems, but let me tell you about some of the shorter ones first. In no particular order, then:

Much of day is left, leaving remaining horses happy (9) satisfied.
'Happy' is the definition. The comma is there to mislead. Sat plus is plus field without the L.

Dragonflies get round fellow with a word of appreciation (7) odonata.
This is beautiful; O with don and a ta. Ha!

Get number from fire (7) inferno
Infer, no? What fun!

Lesbian clan concealing publicity (7) tribade

What brings warm air to the French is a fast one (7) swindle
This is a cool clue, S for south plus wind plus the in French.

A creature having tail removed first made madder (7) alizari
Wicked, huh? And to think this is what a man of god gets up to.

Leaving nothing out isn't yet without brief account (9) intestacy.
Leaving nothing is the definition, out is the anagram indicator, anagram of isn't yet spread around ac.

Fairly relaxed like this drinker- about time (7) softish
Wicked, I tell you.

This will locate the drama school correctly (5) radar
RADA and R.

And now to present the big ones, folks:

Son of York who further dated revolution (6,3,6) Edward the fourth.
This is delicious if you know your history (even if not), revolution is the anagram indicator and Son of York is the definition.

Plot with a commission to destroy the global view (15) cosmopolitanism
A simple anagram, but when it is One Across, it can get worrisome.

Now for the gems, the absolute gems.

Ride off a little way to old city in time to get led up the aisle (7,2,6) married in church
How much more delicious can a clue get, hmm? March enveloping an anagram of ride and inch for a little way and Ur for an old city. Diabolical, I tell you.

Where to get old bangers for females to rent in Wales (15) Carmarthenshire
Makes you chuckle once you get it, but you have to be a corkscrew thinker to get it. In Wales is the definition. Carmart plus hens plus hire.

This is one man spoiling his chances for the harps and haloes, I tell you, so long as he chooses to compile clues like this. But isn't he wonderful?


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Man in charge

I suppose a feminist would have bristled. I might have too, if I didn't know the etymology of the word. The usage was not pejorative at all. It was in fact a very delicate way of asking if we were all married, and if our husbands were alive and kicking.

Let me back up a little and fill you in. We'd driven down to Annavaram from Vizag. It's a lovely drive and a lovely temple. There wasn't much of a crowd, even though it was a festival day. We bought tickets for a speedy darshan, because we had other places to go.

The queue moved at a brisk pace, and we arrived in front of the idol. I asked a temple servitor if I could have a few flowers from the altar. They could be dried and propagated the next season, and it would be a nice way to remember the visit.

I suppose we sisters would stand out in any crowd. We certainly caught the eye of the officiating priest; as we were being urged to move and make way for the rest of the devotees, he beckoned us. The silky folds of a curtain hid the idol from the worshippers, it was time for the deity to be offered a meal and apparently this is a private matter. As the huge platters were being brought in, the priest asked us, I suppose on second thoughts, the question.

Did we have yajamaanis?

I don't blame him. Among the four of us, only the other hausfrau looked like she had one. Oh, we were all dripping diamonds (but of course), but she and the schoolmarm wore enough gold to satisfy any bourgeois standards, apart from the je ne sais quoi that made us stand out. But the schoolmarm looked stylish. And the realtor looked like what she was, prosperous NRI doing India, and she could have a yajamaani or perhaps not, she was wearing a salwar suit after all. The second hausfrau, moi, must have given the poor man some trouble categorising. I could have been a journalist, businesswoman, call girl or a flower child.

As we recited our husbands' names and their descent from the sages and Manu, I couldn't help wondering how this business of proxy worship came into being. For even the yajamaani is a worshipper by proxy. He designates offices and commissions the ritual. He doesn't actually perform it himself, though the credit goes to him.

If we think about it, the taming of fire is the biggest moment in the history of humans. From shrinking and running away from a forest fire or a lightning struck tree, we harnessed fire, learnt to feed it, keep it going; and that was the first step in our evolving from puny bands following game and migration patterns of game animals to settling down in a place and finding safety in the fire and the fact that wild animals feared it. We feared it too, but we learnt to use it.

Learning to make fire, and making fire quickly by way of flint, would then become prized, and matter when women chose mates. As we learnt to feed the fire and nurse the embers and keep the hearth going, fire took on more importance, simply for the possibilities it offered. It meant safety, and perhaps letting a fire go out became a crime and a sin. Fire became the way we communicated with our gods too. Sacrifices and offerings to our gods and prayers to the gods became complicated later, requiring intermediaries.

There's a difference between home fires and ritual fires, and this was so till even a century or so ago. Remember Jungle Book, how Mowgli gets the Red Flower, learns to feed it? Now, home fires mean cooking gas and central heating and perhaps a lamp or a joss stick lit in adherence to tradition or because you promised your mother you will do it. We take fire too lightly. We don't have to think about it, it is harnessed and available. But it wasn't always so. Let's not even bring matches and lighters into the discussion, okay?

By the time the Vedas came to be codified, a householder had a home fire that he kept going, but that wasn't the ritual fire of sacrifices and worship. Hence, the word yajamaani.

Yajamaani: or as my Suryaraayaandhram would have it, yajamaanyudu. It means he who is performing a yajna, a ritual; he who assigned hotas and Ritviks; householder and the head of the household.

My BrowNyam has a different definition. It says that a yajamaani is a master, a dhaNi. It goes on to define yajamaanudu as a lord, good man or master, an owner, or proprietor, a husband; an employer of priests at a sacrifice; the person who institutes its performance, and pays the expense.

The Resident Atheist says that a priest once told him that by saying 'mama' and repeating after him, one was actually granting power of attorney to the priest to negotiate with the gods.

So, the priest asked us and we told him. He recited the mantra pushpam and I suppose the deity had been informed that so and so, wife of so and so, descended from so and so, had offered prayers. As we moved out of the sanctum, the servitor I asked for flowers gave me some, and mumbled that we had had a darshan that would have cost five hundred, and he arranged it. I bit back a response that sprang to mind, 'nobody asked you sir, she said' and tipped him.

I was relating this to a friend the other day. He is an American, so I tried to explain the word yajamaani and ended my rambling by saying that he would be a tender of the hearth fire, if we chose to ignore the Vedic definitions and went further back in time.

"Ah, a man to light your fire," he chuckled. I blinked. "That too," I agreed, adding that the priest almost certainly wasn't asking us about that.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On arrivals

I awoke with a jerk and a sense of disorientation that lasted for as long as it took memory to kick in. I checked the time; it was almost four in the morning. I debated going back to sleep and decided I might as well get up.

I don't set alarms or follow the clock much. When you don't have a decent watch and have to rely on your mobile phone to act as timekeeper, alarm clock and more, you can't be bothered mostly. I sleep lightly on train journeys, anyway.

The train pulled into a station as I finished brushing my teeth and running my fingers through my hair. The attendant told me it was Vizag. I was surprised. "This early?" I asked. "Oh, it always arrives early," he said. I wondered why the railway timetables don't say so and lead me to think it will be a quarter to five in the morning when the train chugs into the station.

I got off the train. It was dark illumined by the station lights, and my first priority was to get something hot down my throat. The leashes and wheels on suitcases have done more to Women's Lib than anything else has, I mused, as my suitcase followed me on my walk down the platform.

I don't drink tea on journeys. Bad coffee can be drunk and tolerated but bad tea is blasphemy. The instant coffee was horrible, but at least it was hot. I carried the paper cup and walked to the exit, being accosted by taxi wallahs and auto-rickshaw wallahs. Where did I want to go? Did I need a taxi? Did I have a hotel reservation? I ignored them as I sipped the alleged coffee.

He stepped up then. A small man, wiry of frame and sprightly. He didn't address me as 'Didi' or 'Madamji' or 'Sister'. "EkkadikeLLaalammaa?" he said. I threw my cup of the so-called coffee into a garbage receptacle and mentioned the name of the hotel.

"Oh, Daba Gardens," he said. "I will take you there, ten minutes at the most."

I wandered over to the inquiry counter and asked how far the hotel was from the station. He looked reproachful. "Twenty," he murmured. I glanced at the sleepy clerk manning the counter. "Oh, that's about right," he said. And he added that I could haggle and bring it down.

Dawn was still a while away, and it's a new city out there, not my familiar stamping grounds. "Fifteen." I said, half-heartedly. "Padandammaa," he said, taking charge of my suitcase.

It was dark out there. Street lamps and hoardings provided flickering light. He deposited my suitcase on the rickshaw and helped me up. He adjusted his shawl and climbed on the saddle and we set off.

Dogs complained about intruders and other dogs answered from the next streets. I heard a few roosters crow. There was a huge pumpkin coloured crescent moon up in the sky and I tried to figure out if it was east or west. I gave up soon enough and wondered at the quiet streets and the near silent pre-dawn cityscape.

I needed to wake up better than the instant coffee managed. As I rummaged for my cigarettes and lighter, I remembered that I packed the lighter out of habit, what with having had airlines confiscating both cigarettes and lighters if I carried them in my hand luggage.

"Anna," I said, "could you stop at a paan shop or something?" I explained that I needed to buy matches.

"Evee terichundavammaa," he said, fumbling in the folds of his shawl and perhaps shirt and pockets therein. I had to agree, as there didn't seem to be any small shops open.

He turned around and handed me a box of matches. I lit my cigarette and tried to return it. "Tava daggirae unchandi," he said, as he climbed down to negotiate a gradient.

We arrived at the hotel. The guards directed him to stop at the gates. Clearly, cycle rickshaws weren't posh enough to go right in. We walked up the drive. He brought my suitcase up to the reception and gave me change for the twenty I gave. I checked in and asked for more coffee.

My sisters arrived later. They had taken cabs from the airport and paid three hundred odd for each vehicle. They had a hard time getting out of the airport. I didn't gloat about the fare I paid but I did smile to think of my own arrival. I still have the matchbox, I intend to keep it as a souvenir.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

End of the world news

She considers hiatus, auf wiedersehen- spelling mistakes abuse makers (6,2,5,1,5)*

"So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you'll wait for me, hold me like you'll never let me go; 'cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again," I sang as I bustled around packing.

Actually, I am not leaving on a jet plane. I am taking the train. That there is no direct flight from Calcutta to Vizag is one piece of knowledge I acquired recently, as I made my reservations for the trip. If I wanted to fly to Vizag, I'd have to take a flight to Madras and then a connecting flight. How crazy is that? I chose to take the train, and sleep my way through the journey.

For me, the holiday part of the holiday is always in the actual journey. Arriving makes it official, and you are back in the world, but when the train is rushing down the dark countryside, when the plane is slicing through banks of clouds, when you are on the move– that is when the real break, the holiday from the world takes place.

You are on the move, you can't do anything to change things, and there cannot be calls on your time or attention or intervention. That's when you can seemingly stop the world, get off and think. When I used to visit my son twice a year at his school, the time I cherished most was the journey, whether by train to Madras or by car to Rishi Valley. The scenery, the vacation reading open on my lap but left unread as I luxuriated in being unavailable to anybody, but anybody, for anything- those were my times. Times alone with my thoughts and no lists of things to do.

Once you do arrive, there are interactions, things to be done, sights to be seen, meetings to attend, visits to make; in other words, you are back in the world. But, on the journey? Why, that is bliss.

Packing becomes practised as one does it again and again. There are mental checklists, and one learns to run through them. I can pack in less than twenty minutes, but that requires planning ahead and making sure the clothes I want to take are laundered and so on, so the planning starts a few days before. Then there are gifts you intend to take, you have to shop for them; and you have to arrange things, making sure the household runs smoothly while you are away.

The mobile phone revolution took away some of the 'being unavailable to the world' part of journeying, but still it is a welcome way of keeping in touch, making sure that I don't come back to utter chaos. So these days I add the mobile charger to the list of essentials I tick off, a list my husband's grandfather taught him to chant: cash, ticket, keys and spectacles.

I was reading blogs and mulling over blogging myself this time last year. I won't be able to post on the anniversary of my first post, most probably. But since I didn't acknowledge the century of posts, not marking the year is no big deal. One hundred and fifty-five posts and a year into blogging, still going strong, is Missus Em.

"I'm sad to say I'm on my way, won't be back for many a day," he sang, as I went through my checklist. "My heart is down, my head is turning around, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town," I joined in, grinning.


* Missus Em takes a break

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men gang aft agely

"I never heard of 'Uglification,' " Alice ventured to say. "What is it?"
The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. "Never heard of uglifying!" it exclaimed. "You know what to beautify is, I suppose?"

Alice In Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Nowadays, whether it is for the Pujas in Bengal, or the holiday season in the West, people have this frenzy of dieting and prettifying themselves before the start of a season. But this fancy for self-improvement can strike anytime, anytime at all. You feel an urgent need to spruce yourself up and lose those extra kilos and look good for an event that is in the offing.

We all like to look nice for important events. Women, and I am generalising wildly here, I suppose, like to look their very best in new situations. When meeting a prospective spouse, when going for kitty parties or job interviews, when meeting friends after a long gap…all these situations involve a bit of wanting to look good.

We do plan for such events. If your monthly waxing, pedicure and haircut session will find you sporting unsightly fuzz, the nail-polish chipped or hair looking out of shape when the big day arrives, you'd rather postpone the session than go to that rendezvous feeling less than well groomed. It doesn't matter that it is all under a cover of clothes. You know you are waxed to perfection, your eyebrows are fine, your skin is glowing and it all helps in how you carry yourself. It translates as a confident manner.

A major event coming up and the first thing I think of is, let's primp. With two or more months to get ready for the nostalgia trip with my sisters, I had a schedule and to-do list all planned. Let's get rid of the permanent tan, let's get toned, shed those excess kilos and let's do something about the wrinkles and so on; the planning of regimen, the diet and exercise schedule, a new beauty routine - the list-maker in me went overboard.

I could change my yoga routine, add more repetitions or other Asanas. I could revive the potato juice, top of the milk and the humble chickpea flour thingie routine. I could brighten my face, lighten my permanent tan. I could groom my feet drop dead sexy enough for a foot fetishist, or I could shed those stubborn last three kilos I have been carrying around. I could sign up for a series of sessions at my salon, those that are guaranteed to work miracles; the possibilities were plenty, for a ten-week time frame.

But reality and life have a way of intruding. I already have a routine, and habit is hard to break.

No matter what beauty regimen I decide on, the habit of chatting late at night and compulsive web surfing has taken its toll. The shadows under my eyes have metamorphosised into dark circles long ago, and the faint lines are now fully-fledged bags under the eyes.

Winter is the time when I gorge on the seasonal delights, and three paneer meals a week won't help any exercise plans. Friends dropping in and long sessions of conversation fueled by booze can't be counter-acted by beauty treatments from the kitchen shelves. Dry skin is dry skin. The enthusiasm for the schedule is hampered by the cold weather, too. Applying cold goo of various kinds on your face is no fun when there are chill winds blowing.

As the denouement day approaches you find your plans haven't gone as you'd hoped. You are still carrying those extra kilos, and have added a few more. Your eyes aren't bright; they are shot with red thanks to the nights you stayed up talking to buddies around the world. Your tan has got worse what with sitting in the sun and enjoying the warmth.

And then there are setbacks and disappointments: a less than satisfactory cut by your usually good stylist, a broken nail that means the rest of them have to be trimmed to match, an outbreak of acne, the usual winter cold that leaves you sniffling and red-nosed and unable to stick to the face pack routine you planned on.

I called the trip nostalgia tourism and the phrase stuck. We sisters live in far-flung places and if we meet in any city we have a base, that sister will end up doing kitchen duty. So we planned to meet up in cities where we have no base, no contacts any longer, but have lots of old haunts to revisit. We decided dates, bought our tickets, made reservations and more. Starting today when the States-side sister arrives, we're going to indulge in heavy-duty nostalgia.

When you meet sisters who are beautiful enough to make you wallow in the sin of envy, you have reason to want to look good. That's what triggered off my make over plans, not that they amounted to anything. I'll be meeting my sisters on Monday and I am still the same size, still tanned, still have the same lines and wrinkles and bad skin and hair.

This urge to look good is strange. You want to look good when you are meeting strangers, and you can argue it makes sense. But you are meeting family, you've seen each other in the worst of times; the best of times too, but it's the worst times that haunt us. So you are off to meet family and you fret for a couple of months about how you'll look.

It is pathetic really, considering that they know you warts and all and still love you.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Night queen

Commuters cut 'n' run, assaulted by scent (7,9)

Tonight I caught the fragrance of the night queen. I saw it budding, of course, but it was consigned to the backburner of awareness, because there were other things on my mind. So it took me by surprise. And took me into nostalgic longing for other days when the fragrance was a backdrop to life as a child and a teenager.

Night queen is a misnomer, of course. The botanical name for the shrub is cestrum nocturnum, and it is called raat ki rani in the north. But night queen was what my mother called it, and is how I think of it. There are other names for it too, Night-blooming Cestrum, Lady of the Night, Queen of the Night, Night-blooming jessamine, and Night-blooming Jasmine.

Our maid used to glower about it and say it was poisonous, would invite snakes (as if there were any to be found in a city, however much of a miniature jungle the plot next door was) and more.

It is a shrub indigenous to the West Indies. My gardening bible tells me that it is

a large, evergreen, subscandent shrub; branches glabrous, weak often yellowish with numerous lenticels. Leaves alternate, ovate, oblong, acute, entire glabrous up to10.4 cm long and 3.5 cm wide. Flowers creamy white and appear in axillary or terminal panicle, highly scented at night; corolla tube about 2 cm long gradually swollen and contracted at the mouth with 5 lobes, margin incurved.

It goes on to add that

it is a quick growing shrub, often planted in tropical garden. Numerous strongly scented flowers open at night almost all the year round and more profusely in the summer and rains. This hardy shrub is also suitable for screening and can be trained on a trellis and low walls.

When I took to bonsai, it was out of a sense of challenge. All my trees were grown from the seeds or started as seedlings. It was a homework project of my son that set it off. Beans and tamarind seeds, and practical lessons in germination ended as a small terrace garden of bonsai, a hobby that gave me a lot of pleasure.

But the night queen wasn't part of my bonsai garden. It was planted in the built-in trough for balcony gardens, chosen by some unknown but thoughtful gardener as an ideal shrub for a fourth floor balcony. I didn't realise what the shrub was until a year after we moved into the flat. It caught me by surprise then, too.

Cestrum nocturnum flowers through out the year, more profusely in the summer and rainy months, says my gardening bible, Tropical Garden Plants, by Bose and Chowdhury. Maybe it is the global warming, maybe my shrub doesn't know the rules, but it starts flowering in late December, and goes into resting period during late summer and the rains. Perhaps it took on the character of the residents of the flat, being out of step with the rest of the world.

All these are dry facts. The scent is past and remembered joy.

It is the innocence of childhood, the scent of late summer when the flowering of jasmine tapers off but the night queen carries on. It is memories of drifting off to sleep with the fragrance wafting in through the window, of uncomplicated life and ordinary nightmares.

The heady scent is intertwined with memories of sleeping on the terrace in summers; waking up in the middle of the night to note how the constellations wheel by, to see a meteor race across the sky in wonder; hearing the rustle of the tamarind and mango trees in the backyard and the neem in the front yard. It is the scent of childhood.

The scent is remembrance of the first time I held hands with a boy, the first time my heart thudded in my chest in excitement and thrill of a budding romance. It is the memory of a friend smiling and shaking her head. It is an image of my son breathing in great gulps of air to capture the scent. It is the scent of love, affection and longing.

It happens each year. It always catches me unawares, and always takes me back.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Softly, softly

"I think I'll have to start with sanchari or abhog to make sense," I said. The Resident Musician wasn't convinced.

I am being serenaded in the evenings these days, as the Resident Musician has got Rabindra Sangeet on his brain. I can speak Bengali to shopkeepers and such and make myself understood, but I don't know the language well, not the literature part of it. So I was trying to figure out if what the song conveyed to me from my half-baked understanding was actually what it meant.

Translation is not an easy task. A translator has to be true to the original, and still manage to make the version seem fresh. Then there is the matter of idiomatic expressions. Each language has its quirks and there are expressions that will be awkward when rendered into another tongue.

This meant that the Resident Musician sang a verse and interpreted it and we kept going off tangentially, arguing back and forth. Just four couplets, a poem, set to tune. Bengalis know how to dish out frustration, I tell you.

deep nibhey gyachhey mamo nisheetha sameerey,
dheerey dheerey Eshey tumi jeyonaago phirey.

You see the difficulty right away. My lamp has died in the night breeze. Or should it be the night breeze blew my lamp out? Don't come and go away again, softly, softly. Is 'softly' applied to the arrival and departure, is it a refrain that connects the verses as the Resident Musician remembers? He sings it that way, as remembered from a private recording of Debabrata Biswas. It is the convention to return to the second line of the first verse throughout the song, after all.

We argued about the exact meaning of dheera and, Dear Reader, I had to concede that dheera as heroic was a CP Brown definition alone. It can mean slowly, gently, softly, and somberly. Don't ask me about the time I spent at my shelves, thank you. The Resident Musician thought 'softly' referred to the beloved's arrival and leaving and I thought it meant a faint song to guide the beloved to the singer when the lamp has failed.

E pathey jakhoni jaabey aandhaarey chinitey paabey
Rajanigandhaaro gandha bhorichhey mandirey,

This is fairly simple, you'd think, but the impressions this verse conveys to the Resident Musician and me are wildly different. When you go on this path in darkness, you will notice the fragrance of Rajanigandha has suffused the house, the Resident Musician translated it, and felt this was just description. I felt it was guiding the beloved to the singer's house; as you walk this path at night, the fragrance of the night blooms will point my house to you, the verse said to me, since the lamp was blown out after all.

Amaarey paRibey monE kakhon sey laagi
praharey praharey ami gaan geyey jaagi,

Again, the Resident Musician and I differed on interpretation. For that second when you will recall me, I stay awake all hours singing, he said. I thought this was the crux, which made the refrain clear. The singer is waiting and singing softly to guide the beloved, it seemed to me. And the next verse commences without the return to the refrain. To me this states the heart of the song.

Bhoy paachey shEsh raatey ghum aashey aankhi paatey
klaanta kanTe mor sur phuraayE jadirey, dheerey, dheerey.

I am afraid that in the small hours, sleep might overtake me, my eyes might close, my tired voice might fail, translated the Resident Musician. To me, the verse settled the question of refrain, and the intent of the song. It is not the beloved's footsteps that are soft; the singer is afraid of succumbing to sleep and worried the voice might fail, and hence the soft singing.

But the path of true love or the translator is never easy; we debated transliteration. It can be notional. I bowed to his Bengali superiority and went with his spelling. Then there was more debate about if I can call it translation if I change the order of the verses. I called it interpretation and left it at that. Transcreation, the Resident Musician snorted.

Translation is a thankless job, anyhow. I was only attempting it to make the song come alive to me. Also, there was another hiccup; the poem and the tune don't match in time. I had to decide whether to match the meter of the poem, or to match the tune. It is Jhaptaal for the tune, but the way George-da sang it, the rhythm is irrelevant, mood is all.

After all the discussion and debate, as I sat scribbling in the pad that is always by my side, he asked to hear my translation. "No more debate on it, though." I said, adding that this is what the song means to me:

For that moment you might think of me,
Keeping vigil through watches of the night,
I sing softly, softly.

In fear lest my eyes droop in sleep during the last hours
Or in exhaustion my voice fail,
I sing softly, softly.

The night breeze has stolen my lamp; that you
Do not come and leave all unaware
I sing softly, softly.

When you take this path in dark, to make known my abode,
Along with the fragrance of night blooms
I sing softly, softly.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What do you know?

We think we know people. We do too; mostly. We can predict how our families, spouses and children, brothers and sisters will react to anything. We know what they might say in any given situation. But do we really know them?

Our innermost thoughts are our own. There are things even spouses might not know about us. We have habits, deep secrets or guilty pleasures that nobody knows about, and we generally prefer to keep it that way. They are secrets, after all.

But there are perfectly innocuous things about us too, that nobody knows and we don't mind disclosing. When WA tagged me and Neha asked me to consider myself tagged, I had a panicky few moments as I considered my deep dark secrets and guilty skeletons. Then I seized, with relief, on the fact that there are harmless things I can disclose about myself too.

Five things you may not know about me: that gives me an embarrassment of riches, actually.

Firstly, I can say that I love using idioms like 'an embarrassment of riches', and revel in starting a sentence with 'firstly'. But that is not exactly an unknown to my readers. An obsession with words and language is a tagline after all. What is not known is that I have trouble with words, and always mispronounce or misspell some, to my own chagrin and amusement of my husband.

It happens to most of us, I think. My sister used to have trouble spelling 'indignant' and a friend used to get confused about the spelling of 'extravagant'. Another once told me that what I wrote was touchy; she meant touching, I think. My own trouble is with 'supercilious' and I always end up pronouncing it as 'superlicious'. Perhaps this is because I don't have a superlic… umm, supercil… whatever, bone in me.

Secondly, I can admit that I have no sense of irony and sarcasm whatsoever and I had to learn it. I used to take things literally. Honest. When my father gave me Joy in the Morning, Jeeves, I read it in all seriousness, and remarked at lunch that it seemed a very sad book, the narrator was so tragically misunderstood and taken advantage of. My father contented himself with raised eyebrows, but a cousin had to be thumped on his back as he choked with laughter.

It is different now, and I enjoy Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Tom Sharpe, Bill Bryson and others. But I had to learn that not all books are grave and serious tomes that improved the mind and imparted wisdom. That there is wisdom and improvement of mind to be had from all these writers is another matter.

Thirdly, I can say that I don't like large public gatherings- galas, fetes and such. I get uncomfortable in large groups. In parties, not that I go to any these days, you will find me sitting in a corner watching everybody. But I was a pawn once, for an event sponsored by a Telugu association.

It was an anniversary or some such, and there was a festival. They had a huge grid drawn, and there were six young women who acted as pawns. Guests bet on a number, and the money went to a charity. There were six of us, moving up and down the grid as per the roll of dice. I don't know how many people bet on number five, but it won. The winning pawn, moi, was presented a sari by none other than NT Rama Rao; it wasn't an especially costly or lovely sari, but I wore it several years.

Fourthly, I can say that I have strange food habits. I don't add sugar to tea or coffee, and I don't eat sweets but these are just healthy habits. The strange habit is munching raw pulses. When I feel peckish, I eat a handful of raw Bengal gram. That actually tells you something else about me. I have a cast iron digestion.

Fifthly, I can say that I believe use of profanity only reveals a paucity of language skills and that we can express ourselves without resorting to references to bodily functions or blasphemy. If I am being nasty, I tend to refer to intellectual capacity rather than parentage. But though Missus Em is a decorous and sweet-spoken person, who doesn't use strong language, there are witnesses who will swear that she can cuss like a sailor.

This is something I have been told by reliable sources, like the Resident Mathematician and my doctors. Apparently, coming out of anaesthesia makes me swear at the nurses, doctors, and all and sundry. Since I have no memory of doing that, I prefer to think they are collectively pulling my leg.

Since what goes around comes around, I hereby tag two of my favourite bloggers, Rimi and Raj. Tag and you are it, people.


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