lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Touch wood!

There is something I noticed about people in Calcutta that used to puzzle me a lot. They wear a lot of rings. Huge and iffy looking stones of many colours set not in gold but some white metal seem to adorn not just the ring finger but any at all. Why are they so fond of rings, I used to wonder, until I was told that these were probably prescribed as protection from planetary bad vibes.

Really? It is amazing how otherwise sane and sensible people can believe that a gem can ward off trouble, mitigate supposed baleful planetary influences and enhance the benevolent, ameliorate bad health, change one's luck and more. Good fortune, health, wealth, wisdom and more- all acquired by simply wearing a ring! The mind boggles.

Astrology, gemology and astrologically prescribed jewelry to get rich become successful and more is a flourishing sideline in jewelry shops. Most shops have a resident astrologer who suggests these for customers. I suppose there is a placebo effect in wearing these rings. If they set the minds at rest and offer comfort in a time of distress, it might seem like they do work miracles.

I am not interested in jewelry. I wear the girl's best friends, of course, but that is just portable wealth and carrying insurance. I wear three diamond studs on each ear lobe, not to mention the diamond that sits on my right nostril (there is a story behind that nose ring, but that is for another day).

I used to wear a navaratna ring, and it was the only jewelry I wore other than my diamonds. These rings are supposed to propitiate all the planets equally, but I only wore mine because my mother had it made for me. I wore it for some three decades. The ring slowly lost perfect circularity, the inner band wearing thin over the years. I had to remove it after arthritis struck and that took cold cream and unladylike mutterings, because my joints had thickened.

I am not superstitious. I don't believe in good luck charms or that rings can ward off malefic planetary influences, so removing that ring didn't make me feel uneasy. But folk remedies are something I will check, as they must work or else why would they linger as lore?

Some eight years ago, I developed a backache. It hurt so much that I had to wear a brace. I would hobble around groaning at each step. A cousin suggested a folk charm. He actually went to the trouble of acquiring it and brought it over.

This was a couple of strange desiccated looking pods, no larger than a finger joint, strung on red amulet string. I learnt later that they were modified flowers of some tree. Baghnakh, the cousin called them. They did look like a big cat's claws, with two curved thorn-like edges. Wear them tied round your waist, he said.

I thanked him, and tucked away those pods on a string in a corner of my dressing table and went on being miserable, in pain. I don't believe in miracle cures, after all.

But I was troubled when he called to say he would be visiting again, as I am basically honest. So I took the charm out. I could wear it for a day, and then I'd be able to tell him that I had tried it, but it had no effect. Wearing a string round my waist seemed ridiculous, so I wore it round my neck, feeling a little silly as I fastened the string.

The next day I awoke feeling odd. I felt odd setting up the kettle for my tea. It wasn't until I was brushing my teeth that it struck me. My backache was gone. I could bend without groaning. Being sceptical, I checked this out by bending further. I could touch my toes with no trouble. Since I had been living with pain for so long, no wonder absence of it felt odd.

I wore those pods or dried flowers, those baghnakh, for a long while. When the string frayed and gave way, I didn't bother to get a new string, though. The blessing about pain is that it fades, and you tend to forget it as soon as it stops. There would be no siblings in the world otherwise.

I'd given baghnakh to a cousin who had spondylitis. She said it improved her condition. I gave them to a friend, and she too said that it seemed to help. They didn't have quite the dramatic relief I did, but they wear baghnakh still.

I wore baghnakh without expecting any results, and was surprised to find it effective. But still, this makes sneering at astrologically gullible people rather difficult. Who am I to scoff?

There is a reason why I am talking about this. I'd hurt my back again, and I was in agony. Painkillers didn't work, hot compresses did nothing, and physiotherapy didn't help. So I dug out those strange pods. Perhaps they would do the trick again.

When the cousin gave them to me, they were already strung. I had to do it myself this time. Ingredients needed for Operation Baghnakh are: two baghnakh, a longish length of tohn shuto or thick yarn, a bodkin or a tapestry needle, a pair of scissors, a bottle of nail polish and pliers.

Baghnakh you can get in any shop that sells material for religious rites. It would be a good idea to get at least four times the length of string you think you will need. There will be botched attempts and unsatisfactory lengths, so you will be doing the stringing two or three times. The bodkin (I have such an appliance) or tapestry needle is for threading the string, and to push it through the baghnakh.

The nail polish is for stiffening the end of the string so you can thread it at all. The type of string used for amulets is a yarn made of several strands, and they will fray without the stiffening, unravel and make threading the needle a long and frustrating experience.

The pliers are optional, actually. I found that the aperture in the baghnakh was narrow, and it required some force to push the needle through. Then I found that my arthritic fingers couldn't draw it through. I pulled the needle through with the pliers. I suppose it is worse if you have to make the aperture in the first place. Waiting for the varnish to dry took the longest time in the operation.

After all the time and trouble, I wore the baghnakh charm again, a couple of days ago. Yesterday morning I got out of bed with the usual groan. My backache was very much there. The baghnakh didn't work, this time.

Wait, I threaded them onto black string. Perhaps it ought to be red for it to work. Now I am off to get some red string.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ode to an unknown singer

It wasn't a ride. It was a crawl. From SP Mukherjee Road it just got worse. Stop and start, stop and start. An overcast sky with no promise of imminent rain was no help either. I just sweated in the cab.

After many pauses and arbitrary stops because citizens of Calcutta cross streets where they want, we achieved Hazra Crossing; waited what seemed like an eternity. Negotiated the crossing and were stalled in yet another instance of pedestrians taking to the road. We reached Elgin Road crossing, to wait some three minutes. Lower Circular Road Flyover? Sigh. Get chased off the lane by buses coming in from the Minto Park connector turning into Chowringhee and worse.

The driver was adept, unlike some I have come across. He had good anticipation and knew the streets well. It is fascinating to hear cars starting up in preparation for the signal change, from right at the junction to further back. The sound ripples back in a wave as all drivers turn ignition switches on. The driver was right on cue, whether switching off to wait the signal out or turning the ignition on.

Flyovers are nothing but traffic bottlenecks in waiting. We descended the fly-over to find ourselves in another wait. The road ahead seemed filled with all the buses in Calcutta. Cabs too, and people getting on and off buses in the middle of this chaos, trusting to providence. I can't really call it a traffic jam; it was only Calcutta traffic on a normal day.

I boasted once before that I don't get bored; not even in traffic, waiting for signals to change or endless streams of demonstrators to pass. There is always something to observe, there are billboards to look at and people to watch. So I wasn't exactly bored when I heard the call.


For a moment I wondered if Rafi reincarnated into a bass voice. I must be hallucinating, I decided.

Mere yaar

I located the source. A stocky man of middle years, weaving among the waiting cars and buses, with a toy microphone of garishly coloured recycled plastic in one hand. On the other arm hung a bag, full of more of them, I supposed.

It was a marvellous voice. That mitwa was perfect Rafi, getting the fervour and plaintive tone accurately even if pitched lower than Rafi ever sang. This voice was ideal for street vending. And when he executed that mere yaar, the timbre was perfect, the descants exact.

The taxi moved forward, and the traffic surged ahead.

Tujhko baar baar

His voice floated from behind. I smiled. It was still a long way to go, we had barely entered Central Avenue, but suddenly I was buoyed. Awaaz main na doonga, I sang in my head, following the tune. All the way to Sovabazar and back home, Rafi and the song kept me in good humour.

On the way back, I kept a look out for him. I wanted to buy one of those toy mikes; not to playact singing into, my voice has a range of about half an octave after all, I just wanted to show my appreciation for his vending method. The traffic was smoother, and we whizzed past where I heard him.

I wanted to thank him for that gift of gladness, so sudden and unexpected.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pointless Post

Dear Reader who wrote to ask if I am okay,

Yes, I am fine. No, I haven't shut up shop. Nor do I have writer's block, not as such. It's like this:

What I really want to write about has to wait- two superb puzzles by Enigmatist. I can't talk about the weekly prize puzzle till next Monday, and the Genius puzzle will have to wait until next month. When I solve 32 and 26 letter anagrams I'd like to crow about it, but I can't yet. Hence the silence.

Thank you for suggesting I could write about hendiadys or diphthongs and dangling participles. I am sure this blog's readers will be suitably agog. You suggested I could hold forth about the difference between 'few' and 'a few' or the misuse of 'off' when people write 'off late' instead of 'of late'. I have already been dubbed Grammar Nazi, thank you.

I am not running out of ideas, you see, I am waiting to write about those crosswords, that is all. You also said I could do another pointless post. Here goes.

Did you know that deliver is reviled written backwards? 'Threaten, never battle' is an anagram of better late than never. 'Weak state shames' because haste makes waste. 'Loony pawnshop is undefined' if penny wise and pound foolish. 'Worsened self-seeker perspires' since finders keepers, losers weepers.

Frank Sinatra must have liked French artists. Haven't you heard 'Matisse this thing called love'? Not to mention 'I'm always chasing Rimbauds'. When it comes to accolades from the show biz though, Spanish artists win hands down. Even I know about 'Hello Dali".


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Across the pale parabola of joy

Many critics, no defenders,
Translators have but two regrets:
When we hit, no one remembers,
When we miss, no one forgets.
That pithy and prolific writer, Anonymous.

Translation is a tightrope walk. The question that lies before a translator is always whether to follow the spirit of the work or the exact text. Voltaire says that literal translations, by rendering every word, weaken the meaning.

To translate, one must have a style of his own, for otherwise the translation will have no rhythm or nuance, which come from the process of artistically thinking through and molding the sentences; they cannot be reconstituted by piecemeal imitation. -- Paul Goodman.

Then there is the question of idiom and syntax. What works in one language will sound awkward in another. 'All over the sky lay strewn comparison to your laughter' reads perfectly awful, whereas akashey akashey aachhilo chhadaano tomaaro haashir tulanaa is beautifully evocative. How does one translate 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Metaphors sometimes can't be carried over. Summer's day won't work in Indian languages, as it evokes sweating and sweltering. Coolness is the same as aloofness, distance, being formal, in English. In Telugu coolness is nice, not nasty, being pleasant and benevolent and more. Different climates produce different idioms, and different cultures shape the languages.

Cultural references and classical allusions are hard to translate. How does one translate జీవితవైతరణి jeevita vaitaraNi? As it was my own poem, I translated it as 'the Styx of life', but would I have approved if somebody else did that? What does 'generous as Karna' mean to readers who didn't grow up with the tales of Mahabharata?

If prose is difficult, translating poetry is even more fraught. There are always layers of meanings, and the same word can have several meanings in Indian languages.

When I wrote about the songs in Malleeswari, I'd said that I wouldn't even attempt a translation of manasuna mallela maalaoogenE. Garlands of jasmines swayed in mind, is the literal translation of that line. It is metaphor for idyllic bliss. Does one translate the sense or the text? Will a faithful translation of that languid imagery evoke the same sense of joy and elation?

A couple of days ago, a reader who happened to come across my blog searching for pilachina biguvaTaraa wrote to me, sending his translation of the two songs. An interesting discussion ensued, as he chose to interpret 'vEnuvu savvaDi' as sound of wind in bamboo shoots rather than sound of flute. While I agreed with it, I quibbled at his rendition. If one can manage to translate in approximately the same length and word order, always excepting grammatical considerations, it is better to follow the original as closely as one can; he didn't.

The pleasure of translation lies in picking and choosing the words, dithering over word order, looking up exact meanings and finding the best way to render the original into another language. So I had a wonderful couple of hours with the song, once I yielded to the temptation to translate the untranslatable.

Do I say garland or wreath or chaplet or lei? Is festoon better? Is bratuku life or existence? Is haayi peace or comfort or happiness? Can galagala be rustle or should it be chuckle? Is kolanu a lake or a pond? Past tense sounds awkward in English, should I make it present perfect? Present continuous? panduTa is to ripen but it means completion, so how do I say it?

Such are the pleasures and perils of translation. And here is my version of 'manasuna mallela' that brilliant lyric of Devulapalli Krishna Sastry.
మనసున మల్లెల మాలలూగెనే కన్నుల వెన్నెల డోలలూగెనే
ఎంత హాయి ఈ రేయి నిండెనో ఎన్నినాళ్ళకీ బ్రతుకు పండెనో

కొమ్మల గువ్వలు గుసగుసమనినా రెమ్మల గాలులు ఉసురుసురనినా
అలలు కొలనులో గలగలమనినా దవ్వుల వేణువు సవ్వడి వినినా
నీవు వచ్చేవని నీ పిలుపే విని కన్నుల నీరిడి కలయచూచితిని
గడియయేని యిక విడిచిపోకుమా ఎగసిన హృదయము పగులనీకుమా

ఎన్నినాళ్ళకీ బ్రతుకు పండెనో, ఎంత హాయి ఈ రేయి నిండెనో

manasuna mallela maalaloogenE kannula vennela DOlaloogenE
enta haayi ee rEyi ninDenO enninaaLLakee bratuku panDenO

kommala guvvalu gusagusamaninaa remmala gaalulu usurusuraninaa
alalu kolanilO galagalamaninaa davvula vENuvu savvaDi vininaa
neevu vachchEvani nee pilupE vini kannula neeriDi kalayachoochitini
gaDiyayEni yika viDichipOkumaa egasina hRdayamu pagulaneekumaa

enninaaLLakee bratuku panDenO, enta haayi ee rEyi ninDenO

Garlands of jasmines sway in my mind
Moonlight shimmers in eyes.
What sublime peace suffuses this night!
After so long, this existence fulfilled.

When doves murmured on boughs
Or breezes sighed in sprigs,
If waves gurgled in the pond
And distant woodwind sounded
Thinking you arrived, hearing only your call
I looked all round with brimming eyes.
Don't leave me now, even for a moment
Lest this exultant heart break.

After so long, this existence fulfilled;
What sublime peace suffuses this night!


Monday, August 13, 2007

What was I thinking?

I wonder if the citizens of New York will ever get sufficiently wroth
To remember that Tammany cooks spoil the broth.

Ogden Nash

I mentioned that I always keep a notepad close at hand to jot down random thoughts. All these might not work out, turn into poems or posts, but at least they are set down for later consideration. At least, that is the theory. What happens is, a couple of lines written encapsulating what you thought was the crux of the matter, the absolute heart of the idea, become meaningless when read a few days later.

In this notepad I have a page with the brilliantly original title, post ideas. Reading the notes, a couple of lines or a phrase, I am mystified. I have no idea what these jottings mean, how I was planning to develop the thoughts or why I thought it worth writing them down. Some I can figure out, some are too cryptic, and some are downright silly.

Across the pale parabola of joy: I remember the Psmith novel, of course, but I don't recall why I wrote down that hilarious first line of the poem Psmith tries to read, and in what context. Or was it going to be a post title?

S'il vous plaît, Madame: If I please what, and why in French?

Tenser calculus, yeah! This cryptic note to self is incomprehensible. What was it about?

Like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely. Psalm 58 Verse 4: What was I going to write about? I wish I could remember. How was I going to use this?

Tenser, said the tensor: At last, something that makes sense. I know what this was going to be about. On ear worms- snatches of songs or poetry that lodge themselves in your brain and refuse to vacate. On James Joyce… 'beside the rivering waters of, the hithering and thithering waters of Night…' and all that. I was going mention Alfred Bester and The Demolished Man,

"Eight, sir; seven sir;
Six, sir; five;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun."

and why advertising jingles employ musical cliches.

Love tepid water? Scan hob. Gmail: It's an anagram of 'a watched pot never boils'. But what was I going to write about? Where does Gmail come into it?

Same old, same old: I think this was a grouse about blog aggregators linking to the same few bloggers all the time.

"No comment." Was this another grumble? Moaning about how I don't get any comments? Or was it something else?

The gliding vowel. Rain, voice, aisle, height: A diphthong is called the gliding vowel, but what more can I say about it? And why those examples? What was it about?

Prudence: Says another note, tersely and cryptically. I wish I had been prudent and elaborated on that word. Now I am going crazy trying to remember.

Invest in machines, I state: Another anagram post idea, I think. A stitch in time saves nine, but I have no idea how I was going to develop this.

But what flummoxes me is this: 32+42=52 ROTFL. What on earth was I thinking of when I jotted that gem down?


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cryptic, made difficult

In 1897, Gurazada Appa Rao wrote his play Kanyasulkam for several reasons; for social reform, to popularise vernacular and spoken Telugu over the literary dialect then extant and more. It had a comic first scene where a tutor dictates a list of books to be purchased for holiday tuition. The hilarious dictation goes like this:

"1 Royal Reader; 2 Manuel Grammar; 3 Ghosh Geometry; 4 Bose Algebra; 5 Srinivasa Iyer Arithmetic; 6 Nalacharitra; 7 Rajasekharacharitra; 8 General English; 9 Venkata Subba Rao Made Easy…" and after some dialogue, comes the kicker: "10 Kuppusami Iyer Made Difficult."

When anybody asks me how I solve cryptic crosswords I usually reply, clue by clue. It's that simple. I keep at it until the grid is all filled in, that's all. I've been dying to tell you all about a recent crossword, but since I was taken to task about ujamaa and posting about a crossword the day it was published, I decided to wait until now.

I love alphabetical jigsaw crosswords. Araucaria invented these. Usually there are twenty-eight clues, each starting with a letter of the alphabet, two of them featuring twice. The grid is such that it is obvious where these doubles go. This comes in useful, as the clues aren't numbered and you are instructed to disregard the numbers in the grid. There are only two squares where the starting letter of an across clue and a down clue can meet, after all.

Two weeks ago, the Saturday prize puzzle in Guardian was an Araucaria alphabetical jigsaw. The grid pattern had one across thirteen letters long. This is another useful indicator, since as you solve the long clues there are only four places for them to be inserted and you need only try one or two to arrive at the starting point. This, and figuring out where the doubles go, and you are set. You have to solve the clues first, of course, that goes without saying.

Unlike my regular crosswords, I print the grid and the clues when I do the alphabetical jigsaws. Once I solve the easier and obvious ones, I make lists of them on the sides of the grid, one each for clue lengths. For this crossword, there were ten clues five letters long, four seven letters long, ten nine letters long, and the four aforementioned thirteen letters long clues.

Once you have a few solved, you can figure where they fit in the grid, and that in turn gives a few letters in other clues. If these are the beginning letters of a solution, then you have a bit more filled in.

The clues are listed alphabetically, but solving never is. You solve the ones that leap out as obvious, and the anagrams are quickly figured out. The combinations, where other devices and anagrams are both present take longer. The really tough clues require pondering and research.

This crossword was one of the easier alphabetical jigsaws I solved. The long clues started with J, Q, X and Y. I am tempted to tell you all about all the twenty-eight clues, but I am selflessly restricting myself to the cleverest ones, so write in and say thanks nicely.

C gave me the most trouble, and was the last I solved, really. C. Senior officer's half turn towards danger when surrounded (9)

By the time I reached the solution, I had c-n---r-d pencilled in. CO for commanding officer, I thought. The r-d was red for danger, so I had to figure out the middle part. It had me flummoxed, thinking of army, navy and air force ranks. It wasn't until I thought of commander in chief, or C-in -C that I got it. C in C, half turn, that is 'tu' and red, the whole meaning when surrounded. It is a brilliant clue.

K required some research. K. Job's second piece of work has a lot of green cloth backing (5)

This made no sense at all, at first. I couldn't decide what the definition was. Cloth backing could be stage backdrop. Was there a special name for that? Second piece of work? By the time I reached the solution, I knew it had to be k-z-a, which seemed improbable but the rest of the solutions were all filled in correctly, so it had to be that. Part of work could be k, I decided. A lot of green cloth backing could be most of baize backward, but why? Job as Biblical character perhaps? Second? Research to see how many children Job had and names if any. Eureka! Kezia is Job's daughter. Brilliant again.

T was the wittiest. T. Local officer, zany Saracen to Spooner if American (4,5)

This is pure Araucaria. Local officer is the definition. Spoonerism is a device Araucaria, Paul and other compilers use regularly. Zany Saracen would be 'clown Turk' and here, if American indicates 'as heard'. The solution is town clerk.

U required checking atlases for verification. U. Immortal student leaving island in Gabon (7)

The solution was easy enough, but crosschecking took time. One doesn't fill in the solution in a prize puzzle lightly, after all. So Lundy, an island in Bristol Channel, (sigh) without 'el'; add in, plus G' for Gabon, a republic on the West Coast of Africa. Araucaria bodes signs that he will be, like the solution, undying perhaps undergoing the other option from harps and halos.

But the clue that chuffed me, made me smile and pump my fists in triumph as I solved it was a beaut. It isn't easy compiling crossword clues, it's that much harder doing themes, but to set clues that start with specified letters of the alphabet and to make them fit the grid, to make them witty, to make them work, that takes rare brilliance. Okay, it takes a touch of fiendishness too but I am willing to forgive him.

X was a grand clue in true Araucaria fashion. X. Indicator on plan for decimal currency when St Hugh first topped tyrant (1,5,3,4)

I giggled as I read the clue. It is easier to solve the Zs and Xs and Ys of an alphabetical jigsaw crossword than the other letters. Qs might just cut the ice as breaking into the club of super tough alphabet to start a clue with, of course, but Xs and Zs rule. And this clue rocked.

Indicator on plan is the definition. It is quirky. X for decimal followed by mark for currency, then it gets zany. Saint Hugh first, working out to St and h, heh. And then comes the topped tyrant, despot with the first letter removed. X marks the spot. O frabjous day!

While I was sermonising Solving Cryptic Clues 101 all these months, there's this young man who taught me how to go about it. He taught me how to insert hyperlinks, how to tinker with my template (he tweaked it for me, good grief), and gave more lessons, on anything I thought to ask him. He even scripts spoofs of all popular movies so I needn't see them, but he is considerate that way. Too popular to need a plug, I congratulate you all the same, Praveen. Well done!


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Love in a rocking chair

I sit here in my rocking chair
And remember the times
When my arms clasped you close
Body straining against body

I sit here rocking

Through thick and thin
In sickness and health
In fascination need and longing
I remember clawing

I sit here rocking

All the nights of tangled limbs
Hesitant caresses urgent hands
Your skin silk in moonlight
My legs wrapped around you

I sit here rocking

Toothless we are and wrinkled
Aches and pains and aging
But it was only yesterday
Those nights of unbridled lust

I sit here rocking


Post script: This poem is dedicated to the soon to be emperor of the universe, in blatant toadying so I will be declared Court Poetess.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pencilled in

I am vexed; irritated, miffed and nettled, too. I know I tend to get annoyed at silly things, but the pencils are the last straw in a day filled with irritants.

Don't snigger, I use pencils. All right, snigger if you want to. Yes, I know I am not a mother of a schoolboy any more and that there are oodles of kinds of pens to be had out there, but I use pencils. I have my reasons.

I print prize puzzles to solve at leisure; they can't be solved in one sitting, anyway. Now it is arrogant and silly to start filling the solutions in ink, when you aren't sure of them. What if you fill in a provisional solution in ink and have to change it later? How many times will you overwrite before it looks a right mess and you have to print the puzzle again? It makes sense to use a pencil then.

I always have a notepad nearby, to jot down thoughts and ideas, phone numbers or messages, or a list of things to do the next day. This pad is where I arrange my daily life.

I use the notepad for poems too. While I jot down post ideas or thoughts with a pen, I use a pencil for the poems. Don't laugh, it makes sense. When you are fiddling with the order of words or lines, when you are dithering over a word, wondering if it sounds right, it's simpler to use a pencil.

Even if you space the lines wide, how many crossings out, over-writings or writing above or below will it be before the whole thing is a thorough mess and you can't make sense of the lines anymore? So I work with a pencil. It helps too when I am translating. I write down the original stanza by stanza, leaving a six or seven line gap in between to fill in the translation. If I worked with a pen it won't be long before I'd have to use another page and start all over again.

And for some reason, my handwriting is always neater and more legible when I write with a pencil. Give me a pen and I will write you a scrawl.

It's my bit for the planet, too. I don't know how many trees make a notepad, but if I can manage a poem on a single sheet of paper by using a pencil, I'd rather do that than waste some three or four because I was using a pen. This is the reason why I print on both sides of a paper, too. Crosswords and such trivial pursuits ought not to consume much of our precious resources, so even if flipping back and forth is inconvenient, I prefer to do that than waste an entire side of a paper by leaving it blank.

Maybe this is my upbringing. We were repeatedly admonished not to waste things, to stretch things and make them last. Things were recycled; clothes were handed down, bed sheets became slipcovers became kitchen towels became dusters became floor mops until they became tatters and imaginative uses were found for those, too. We conserved things. Built-in obsolescence is an obscenity to me.

We were trained to turn switches off before leaving a room, close a tap tight, conserve water (Madrasis can give lessons in water discipline to Frank Herbert's Fremen, ha); save, reuse, preserve, conserve was the mantra dinned into us. Perhaps this is why the hijacking of the adjective conservative incenses me. The original meaning of the word was being careful of resources and managing them well.

All right, rant over. To get back to my grouse: pencils.

Mothers of school-going children know all about pencils; how they keep getting lost, misplaced, stolen, taken off by a bully, whatever. What they never get is worn down to a stub. They seem to get sucked into some black hole before they get half way used. I remember writing with pencils that were almost too small to get a decent grip on. But these days, pencils never last that long.

Maybe it is shoddy manufacture, maybe nobody cares but these days, pencil points keep breaking after you reach a third of the way down the length. It doesn't matter the make, brand or company. I've tried all sorts. My current crop of pencils is Steadtler, but no matter who make them, the points break off as you sharpen them once they become shorter.

I know what I am talking about, okay? I've just spent some ten minutes trying to sharpen a pencil. Any pencil. I have three Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 2Bs in front of me, of varying lengths, the shortest being three inches and a half (yes, I measured them). Not one of them will take a point. I sharpen them, and the points keep breaking off.

I have the Times Crossword Club Monthly to solve, some cryptic clues I am trying to compile in Telugu, a poem I am working on and the pencils won't get sharp. Why? Is this a conspiracy to aggravate me?


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