lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lost vivid vistas

I don't believe in love at first sight. What happens is mutual attraction and interest, a sizing up of the person. It is a reflexive assessment of a person of opposite gender as a potential mate. As we judge superficial qualities we also weigh attractiveness against how useful a mate that person might make, since plain people do find partners, after all. This judging is built into us by evolution.

Love is accretion of fondness, affection, dependence, trust and more over initial attraction and lust and urgency to learn all about a person; it develops out of propinquity but hey, it is just my opinion, it is not set in stone. You are free to define love any way you want to.

Even if I don't believe in the 'eyes meeting across a crowded room' variety of love at first sight, I like the idea of it. And in Indian films they make a song and dance about it. Some of these songs of love and longing become classics. For the defining song about love at first sight, there is nothing better than Rafi's 'mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam' and it is a song that crept into my heart like the Arab's camel.

What can you say about a song that you learned to love almost without noticing? Whenever All India Radio aired it, I'd pause and listen. The song had a strangely beguiling and compelling power. The perfect tune, the longing tone of the singer, that very voice, the minimal and elegant instrumental interludes all lodged the song in my mind.

No matter I didn't know what Rafi was bemoaning. I didn't even know it was Rafi who rained beauty via our radio; it was Hindi, so it didn't count. I was totally ignorant about Hindi those days. Even so, those meditative and measured lines, interspersed with the passionate refrain that I instinctively knew was a plea, were haunting. I had no idea what 'khoya hua rangeen nazara' meant, but I could feel the yearning the phrase conveyed.

Then our mother decided we needed to learn Hindi because it was the national language. We should know it before we choose to sneer at it, was her stance. So we had tuition at home and made it up to the third level of tests at Hindi Prachar Sabha. But the lessons didn't make any Hindi film song any clearer to me; they confused me further. The Hindi in the textbooks bore no resemblance to the songs on AIR.

In college years, my buddy who was a fan of old Hindi film songs, introduced many songs to me playing them on his record player, and 'mere mehboob' was a favourite of his. Those were still days of turntables and for such a lengthy song, the plate (yes, they used to be called that, those vinyl records of 78 rpms) had to be reversed in the middle of the song, and that made the listening dissatisfying.

And the meaning still remained elusive. The song was chockfull of lovely sounding but utterly incomprehensible Urdu words that my limited Hindi had no reference to grasp. As my horizons broadened and Hindi films came to Madras in a big way with Aradhana, I slowly began to follow dialogues, and understand the songs. Slowly, I began to appreciate the poetry of these songs.

Later, with the widespread availability of cassette players, I was able to hear the song in its entirety for the first time. And what a marvellous experience that was, too. (Don't ask, since I won't tell) Though I still didn't know what many words meant, the plea was clearer.

Earlier, a brush with Hindustani music, thanks to my husband, informed me that the song was in Jhinjhoti. I used to think the tune was sort of like Yadukula Kambhoji. That 'sort of' came from it being Pahadi Jhinjhoti, my husband said.

A brilliant composer, an accomplished poet, and a wonderful singer combined to create this beautiful song, and I never tire of listening to it.

Each time I listen, I find another nuance; I understand another hitherto incomprehensible Urdu word and my appreciation of the song, and Rafi, keeps growing. The tune is deceptively simple. Lines of musing in the lower half of the octave alternate with the fervent plea climbing to the upper reaches. The flourishes are elegant in their economy, the instrumental interludes pleasingly wistful. But the beauty of the song lies in the poetry and Rafi's voice- pure, passionate and perfect.

'Mere mehboob' is a song that can't happen these days. The tempo, sentiment and tune are too old fashioned. There is a touching innocence in the song, a sense of worship and idolisation rather than desire and passion. I don't think such innocence is possible these days. Besides, who can imagine a song over eight minutes long being picturised on a singer in an auditorium? Two flashbacks of the meeting he is remembering, some shots of the girl he is addressing the song to, some of the audience- the rest of the time the camera stays fixed on the singer. It is unthinkable in these days of Item numbers and raunchy songs.

After decades of listening to and loving the song, I tried to render the lyric into English. My Hindi is poor and Urdu non-existent, so I really had to work at this. But this is what the song says to me:

Beloved, in the name of my love
Grant me succour of those lovely eyes again
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine

O definition of my dreams, soul of my poesy
My life is spent remembering you
Night and day I am beset by your image
My heartbeats call out to you all the while

Give me solace of your voice responding
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love

My eyes cannot forget that pleasant tableau
When your beauty collided with my adoration
And strewn on the path were many thousand melodies
I had bestowed those melodies to your voice

Give my heartstrings aid of those very songs
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love

I remember well that first instant my life began
When I drank some potion gazing into your eyes
Some lightning coursed through every pore of my being
When I touched your marble-fair hands

Grant me comfort of those hands again
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love

I saw you but for a brief moment
I yearn only to behold you once again
Deeming your shadow the beauteous Taj Mahal
On moonlit nights I will adore you with my eyes

Grant me solace of your fragrant tresses
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love

I seek you on every path, at each gathering
My helpless yearning treads weary now
This day is for my hope the final day
Morrow knows not where I will be or you, Beloved

Give me for a while the haven of your gaze
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love

Stand before me and lift your veil in mercy
'Tis the sole remedy for the grief of my solitude
Being apart from you has tormented me
Come and meet me now or surely I die

Succour my heart with forgotten memories
Return those lost vivid vistas of mine
Beloved, in the name of my love


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On first encountering my beloved

A guest post by the Resident Musician

It was a bitterly cold December evening in Delhi in 1978. A Guru and his Chela sat huddled over a Bajaj convector heater warming their fingers and slowly sipping the single malt Scotch whisky the Chela had bought in the duty-free shop in Bangkok.

“So you just want to do a bit of reconnoitering preparing for the year’s field work for your thesis on Thumri?” asked the Guru.

“Yeah, that year hopefully will begin in September ’80 but I’ll need that much time to work on my Urdu so that I don’t have to use interpreters for interviewing tawaiifs”.

“Of course” said the Guru, “interpreters are a drag when you want to have a tete-a-tete with a tawaiif. When and where do you plan to reconnoitre?”

“I’ll start with Old Delhi from tomorrow and maybe in January go to Calcutta and look up the area where Wajed Ali Shah lived his last years. I believe Thumri started there and maybe there are a few old fossils who can tell me interesting stories. Then there is Bombay which I don’t know much about and you don’t either.”

Next evening the two were again huddling over the heater but in a far darker mood. The Chela’s forays in Old Delhi during the day had not yielded a single address where he could possibly find a tawaiif. And the Guru had just come back after a seminar with his mathematician colleagues who had scheduled the departmental New Years’ Eve party at his flat because there would not be a Missus around to take the punchbowl away just as the party started to get interesting.

The Chela was quizzical. “What is wrong with these chaps coming over with booze for a few hours just before midnight,” he asked.

“Look, I listen to mathematical jokes to make a living, but listening to such banter is not my idea of ringing in the New Year,” replied the Guru glumly.

“Oh, I will come over with some dancing houris to enliven things,” assured the Chela. The Guru gave a start and said, “Why don’t you just go and scoot off to Calcutta first thing tomorrow instead of trying to be helpful? These guys are Tamil Brahmins, vegetarians and would have apoplectic fits if they encountered a sarangi or tabla player in my flat whether or not the female was present.”

"That does it," said the Chela, "let me go and have a serious look around and if I find a suitable troupe I’ll book them. Today is the 29th, so we can’t waste much time." Reluctantly the Guru decided to accompany the younger man, knowing full well how dubious the tastes of his sitar student were. At least by accompanying him a veto on the final choice could be exercised.

Having coaxed his Padmini engine to start the Guru and his Chela rode off into the deserted streets. After a meal at one of the Pandara Road eateries, the quest began in earnest.

“Where do we go now?” asked the Guru. “Go past the New Delhi station and then we will turn left and I will guide you after that” said the Chela. Twenty minutes after leaving the New Delhi station behind and many twists and turns, the Chela said, “you may as well stop here. The place I once saw dancing girls five years ago must be somewhere around, we’ll look out for it as we walk around”.

“G. B. Road,” said the Chela in response to the Guru’s query, “what is this place?” They walked along a narrow pavement littered with an assortment of garbage and beggars’ bowls. The Chela stopped at a paan shop and asked where he could find ‘naatchne walee larkiyan’ and the paan shopwallah replied in an exasperated tone that around here there are only ‘pesha karney walee larkiyan.’

This kind of Hindi was Greek to the Chela who could recite a substantial amount of Ghalib and Momin but was wont to respond to a simple query like “Kya haal” with “tasallee baksh!” So the Guru translated, “There are no dancers here, only whores.”

Nothing deterred, the Chela dove into a narrow side street and almost at once the two could hear the sound of ‘ghunghroos’ and tablas. They followed the sound and came to a dark and dank doorway.

Stepping inside they were buffeted by a wall of stench of ammonia which can only be described by the Sanskrit ‘soochee bhedya’ (not pierceable by a needle.) As they climbed a rickety set of stairs, the ‘ghungroos’ got louder and finally on the third floor they came to a well-lit room where a thin fortyish man was pumping away at a beat-up harmonium. A tabla player fondling a duggi and a slightly built woman engaged in bargaining the price of the next number with a couple of dissolute customers.

Upon seeing the Chela’s Anglo-Saxon visage, all conversation ceased. The matron of the place came rushing over driving away the train of beggars who had followed the Guru-Chela duo up the staircase and asked the new visitors to sit on the not so immaculately white sheet, which covered the floor. As soon as they sat down, a young woman came in with two garlands of flowers one of which she put around a beaming Chela’s neck. She tried to do the same with the Guru, but he put up a deprecating hand and muttered “Mein driver hoon.

The guru whispered to the Chela “Let's get the hell out of this place. I am not having this lot enter my flat!” The Chela addressed the matron "Mein ghazal sun naa chaahtaa hoon.” This request caused consternation, the dancing girl and the tabla player went away and a new girl came in with a new harmonium player.

She knelt in front of the exotic duo who had invaded the seedy brothel. She hummed gently and as the harmonium player trilled off a phrase or two of Jhinjhoti she put one hand over her head in a vaguely danseuse like posture and opened her mouth. And an ear-shattering screechy falsetto voice screamed into the night…

Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki kasam…"

When the song ended the Chela wanted to know about the author of the ghazal. “Qalaam kaun?” The Guru translated “Yeh kiska ghazal?” The answer came with a flashing smile: “Mohammed Rafi!” Satisfied, the Chela stuffed a fifty-rupee note into the singer’s décolletage and the duo left.

The Chela remarked as they got into the car, “I must find out who the poet was. The lyrics were pretty decent but I don’t think there is a poet, past or present, called Mohammed Rafi”.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ape-men do variously

An idle mind might be the devil's workshop, but a mind in giddy relief is a veritable Aladdin's Cave of anagrams.

It was a 'prime notion' but I should have known when I discovered that 'premonition' is an anagram of 'I'm no pointer' too. I thought I could take his mind off discomfort by recounting all the great discoveries I made.

I was trying to be nice and wifely, you know. I married for better or worse, yes, but that doesn't mean one should stop trying to improve one's spouse's mind, or teaching him the arcanum of alphabet. If he wants me to stop counting on my fingers and taking help from my toes, he can learn to appreciate anagrams, is what I say.

"Aphrodite is atrophied," I told him. "I wonder why people grumble about Monday blues, when Monday is an anagram of dynamo. Was St. Michael alchemist, and does a cartoonist toot in cars," I asked.

Being 'medicated' 'decimated' his appreciation of these nuances. He just grunted. But I was determined to amuse him and engage his left brain. Anagrams exercise the brain, after all.

"Isn't it strange that deposit is an anagram of topside," I mused. "Did you know steamship room is an anagram of metamorphosis, and hey, it's 'a smooth simper' too," I said. He closed his eyes.

The 'sedative' he is on 'deviates' his mind from this lofty matter, I told myself. "Curiosity killed the cat turns out to be, I courted sick lethality," I informed him, sticking to the task of entertaining and educating him at the same time. "A capitalist pig is a papalistic git, did you know?"

He sighed. I ploughed on, because one doesn't quit in the face of indifference. "Indoor furniture may be at risk, but Great Danes are safe on garden seats," I confided. He was silent.

"I found why Othello acted as he did, it's because comparison panics Moor," I told him. He winced. "To the abortionist, to the obsequent, is an anagram of- to be or not to be, that is the question," I said.

He stirred and opened an eye. "Can you think of an anagram for strangulate?" he asked. "Sure, neutral gales," I said, delighted he was beginning to take an interest. "Murder most foul?" "Hey, that's simple, fouler mud storm," I said; "model rust forum, too."

"Are there more of these gems," he asked, rolling to face the other side. I discerned boredom in the tone, but one makes allowances for invalids. Education is an uphill task.

"Um, urticaria by Pooh-Bah is an anagram of arachibutyrophobia," I said. "Really, how nice." "Yes and Whistler's Mother is worthless hermit."

"I think I will have a nap now," he said, and closed his eyes in a definite snub.

"Ape-men do variously is an anagram of ampersand I love you," I said in tart tones. He started snoring, the ingrate.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Getting cut up

*Long post warning*

Does anyone have a family physician anymore, I wonder? All doctors seem to be specialists now, and it is hard to find a doctor who practices general medicine and routine care of patients. Forget about house calls, they just don't do them anymore.

But we had a family doctor when I was growing up and a very nice doctor he was, too. He made house calls, but he had a clinic and dispensary too. His nurse Annie used to mix stuff, powder codopyrine tablets for us to take mixed with honey. There'd be glass bottles of interesting colours with a strip of paper stuck along the height with dosage levels marked. She'd give us the odd injections too. Dr. Varma even performed minor procedures like lancing boils and dressing wounds in his clinic. I loved the smell and feel of his clinic; and looking back I can only admire the quiet efficiency with which Dr. Varma and Annie went about making people better.

He lanced a boil on my arm when I was a teenager, and disdained to suture it. His son, a foreign-returned next generation doctor who assisted by holding the kidney-shaped tray as Dr. Varma squeezed and swabbed (and thereby kept me being brave, as I had a crush on him), was aghast. She will have a bad scar, he objected. She will have a healthy arm, his father retorted.

As it happened, the bad scar grew to be a keloid. By this time, Dr. Varma had retired and moved to Kerala, and we trusted other doctors to know family medical history in detail, traits of individuals and their proneness to ailments. My mother decided the keloid lowered my value in the marriage stakes, so it was removed surgically, in an operating theatre, unlike the informal surgery practiced by Dr. Varma. I went through sessions of radiation therapy on that arm that made me look like I had a bad case of sunburn for weeks.

After those two bouts with surgery of the basic of the kind, you'd think I'd grow up and quit getting cut up. No, I once tried to lance a whitlow myself with a sterlised needle and fainted. I must say, I don't faint gracefully. I toppled down and split my chin like a ripe guava and cut my lip as my teeth bit down in reflex. More stitches and let's pass over my family's remarks; it is kinder to me.

Then there came my son. Too lazy to make his way out of the womb, he had to be delivered by C-section before what remained of amniotic fluid drained away. As it was, he was underweight, having lost grams and grams in being slothful. My obstetrician consulted calendars and avoided rahukalam and fixed a muhurtam. Though I pleaded for a bikini incision, she did a vertical incision. You should worry about your baby's safety than about wearing a sari below the navel, child, she'd said.

Stitches galore and counting. Following folk wisdom that a tooth for every childbirth, I had to have a wisdom tooth extracted. I won't rant about our old dentist who gave us our braces here, okay; he deserves a whole post. Nor will I dwell on the identical twins, both dentists. One took the said wisdom tooth out, the other asked me what seems to be the problem when I went for a review; I won't tell you about the volcano impersonation I did either.

More stitches followed more procedures. A para-nasal polyp removed, with two dogs invading the room seeking me. Go home, I said sternly through gauze stuffed into nose and mouth. The Princess went, she had humans to take care of at home. The other dog, a stray that adopted me, merely retreated to the garden of the clinic, and stayed there until he could escort me home.

There were other mere niggles, like the ganglion cyst. B2 said that his father would have done a rough and ready treatment of it by smashing a heavy book down on it, but I could ignore it since it will go away as my veena playing hours get shorter. It did.

In Calcutta we had a nice doctor, a perfect GP for all that he specialised in postoperative care for bypass patients. My first thought when I read his first prescription was that he was in cahoots with some lab or the other. One check-up to diagnose spondylitis and he wants me to get an endoscopy? It was laughable and I laughed, until the duodenal ulcer struck three months later. This doctor had wonderful instinct for potential trouble.

He also pointed out that people take more time and trouble over their vehicles than their bodies, but unlike vehicles, people don't come with spare parts. With such philosophy, I trusted his judgment and demanded he be present when I was being cut up. He did, and I ended in ICU the last time I had a major surgery, simply because he thought my blood pressure was unsatisfactory for what he knew of my medical history.

So you can say I have observed many doctors and their methods. Some, like our dentist friend and Calcutta's most famous ENT specialist, are flamboyant characters. Stories about their eccentricities abound. There are doctors who are quietly efficient, doctors who prescribe a zillion tests for an ingrown toenail, and those who prefer minimal intervention.

This is an immensely long prelude, I know, but I come to the point of the post now. (I did warn you this is a long post.)

There was a surgery in the offing. We were discussing dates. I mentioned my reasons for waiting until after a special day. The surgeon verified his calendar. Listen, he lectured at his junior: you never disregard the patient's or the family's sentiments, you never sneer at superstitions or fears or wanting to avoid some dates. There is no such thing as a routine surgery, all are fraught, and all are serious, so the patient's frame of mind is important.

I thought back to another day. There was a surgery in the offing. I objected to the date, it was too close to an anniversary. The surgeon blithely said, so celebrate the day in the nursing home, makes a change from the regular, doesn't it? We did, in spades. Ironically speaking, of course.

The surgeon continued his lecture: you build a team. My team I can trust absolutely. You build up a network with other surgeons. My friends will give me time, leave their theatres to assist me. Build up goodwill. It is important. If a brother surgeon is in trouble, you scrub and assist.

I suppressed a smile as I heard this. It reminded me of Nanny Ogg. "If you go to their funerals, as we say in Lancre, they'll come to yours."

But what the surgeon said made sense; I am a veteran of many surgical procedures, so I appreciated his philosophy. My husband is a veteran of some surgeries too, but he has had dreadful experiences. The blithe surgeon operated on him a dozen years ago. Yesterday, the surgeon with the philosophy that no surgery is minor operated on my husband.

I fainted both times as he was wheeled out. The last time was in horror, yesterday in relief. But seriously, which doctor would you prefer to cut you open?


Monday, September 17, 2007

Being fruitful

A newcomer to station life in OZ, the girl needs a jumper (8)*

There is a silly ambition I hope to achieve someday. I'd like to start a crossword with 1 across, solve 1 down, and proceed to solve the rest of the clues in order. What happens is, some clues need thinking through, some need at least a letter or two from other clues in place before enlightenment strikes, some, alas, can't be solved at all.

I have said this many times before, that familiarity with the setter's style and way of thinking goes a long way into solving a cryptic crossword quickly. Araucaria and Paul, Rover and Rufus, even Gordius, I can solve in one sitting. They appear frequently on the Guardian pages, and so I am familiar with their quirks.

Auster is a rare setter. I don't know his style. So on Friday, when I saw his name against the crossword, I was sure it was going to be a struggle. And then there was the special instruction: Across clues are related and have no definition. Down clues are normal.

You'd think this made the task tougher. On the contrary. Not having a definition sometimes makes it easier to solve the clue. That all the across clues are related meant I had to solve just one for the theme to be revealed, and that is the definition for the rest of them. Simplicity itself.

But first I had a go at my ambition. 1 down was the clue I gave above. Research time, right away. I sighed and tackled the next clue. There were some lovely down clues, one of which was

Evening primrose once found on site of Taj Mahal (6)**

What a beautiful clue! I fell in love. Time to tackle the across clues. The first one I solved was

He's interfering, by the sound of it (6)

This is simple, and now I knew the theme. Fruits. An interfering sort is a busybody, buttinsky, nosy-parker, kibitzer and meddler. There we go. 'By the sound of it' indicates that the spelling will differ. Medlar, a crabapple like deciduous tree cultivated for its fruits, ditto a South African fruit with brown leathery skin and pithy flesh having a sweet-acid taste. So all the across clues will be fruit trees.

No scope (6)
A particular time (4)
Two of a kind, say (4)

These confirmed the theme. No scope is an old clue, and appears in various avatars regularly. Orange, date and pear, what a fruity crossword this was proving to be.

Include me in the game (6)

The fun part of this kind of theme is confirming the solutions. It leads to my learning things I'd not have come across otherwise. Why would I know that pomelo is a Southeast Asian tree with large grapefruit like fruits, and is also known as shaddock?

High spirits in the Oval (6)

See how educational crosswords are? I didn't even know that there was a fruit called melon pear, let alone that it was also known as pepino.

The fool has broken toe (6)

This is simple, and so let me educate you further. In Mexico and Central America grows a tree, called tzapotl. We also know it as zapota. Another avatar of this is sapote. The fool, sap with an anagram of toe. Wonderful word, that tzapotl. I can't wait to use it a Scrabble game.

Nevertheless, one is following Aries (8)

This crossword definitely took me all over the world, I tell you. This is a Malayan tree, with pleasantly acid bright red oval fruit covered in soft spines. Ram, for Aries, with but and an following.

Camus is sent out, then let back (8)

Camus makes a lot of appearances in crosswords. It is sumac spelt backwards, and anagram of campus less p. Here it is an anagram followed by let written backwards. Muscatel is a sweet and aromatic grape used for raisins and wine, if you didn't know.

Flaky IMF gets flakier (6,4)

I laughed as I solved this anagram. Makrut and magrood are other names of this citrus fruit, and it is South Asian native. Kaffir lime is another fruit I can boast I know now.

12 Chuck senior? (10)
13 Lad accompanying 12? (11)

These were connected, and made me smile. Thanks to crosswords, I have come across Chuck Berry before. The solutions are elderberry and boysenberry. But the clue I am really proud to have solved is the following.

That is shown back in FJ Holden's second article (6)

This I figured out by cruciverbal logic, and looked up. Back to South America this time. A shrub with greenish edible plumlike fruit with white flesh, used chiefly for jellies and preserves, Dear Reader, I give you feijoa.


* jillaroo ** onagra

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ritardando con sentimento

Taking stock in the West (8)*

Happiness is something you used to have.
Lyon Mearson

Happiness is hindsight, really.

Look, I am in a reflective mood, okay? It is allowed when we approach milestones and age has its privilege. So as I approach my fiftieth birthday I ask myself what is happiness? It is always something you perceive as having happened. You are never happy in present tense, really.

In present tense you are bothered, irritated, annoyed or amused; you are vexed or drowning in details, you are devastated, shocked; you are fretting if the eats are enough, you are buying supplies to outlast a Bandh; in the present tense you are anything but actually happy. In present tense you are active, you see? It is only in retrospect you can think about happiness.

Reflecting on a life as it happened is rather instructive, I find. It is all about choices. We make our choices everyday, small and big. Then there are choices that change our lives. If we are strong we manage, cope and live with the consequences of those choices.

After all these years, I don't know what happiness means. There were moments aplenty of joy, laughter and elation; companionship always and an occasional sense of achievement and more. Is that happiness?

We'd hosed the terrace, dragged cane chairs and an occasional table to hold our glasses — toddler safely in bed, day's labours all done, it was as cool as it gets in Delhi summer; whiskey and soda on ice; a sip and I leant back and said, "Ah, this is life." That's a memory my husband cherishes. Is that happiness?

An old-fashioned four-poster bed with mosquito nets and under the bed a furious negotiation: our Pariah Princess glaring balefully at "Boom Royale" (don't ask) the stuffed dog my son wanted her to make friends with. Did it matter who he slept cuddled up with, as the stuffed toys and the real dog both used to crowd his bed? But the image of my son enticing our dog from under the bed endures. Is that happiness?

My son beaming an incredulous 'I am in heaven' grin behind the wheel of a Porsche as the anonymous but kind owner looked on in amused benevolence. He was four years old and mad about cars. That's a memory I treasure. Is that happiness?

Candle time in Calcutta, load-shedding and a Scrabble game in progress with no quarter given. "Make home, Lali, make home," piped my son. "Thanks," I said, in mock-bitterness since he revealed my tiles to my husband, but proud that he could rearrange tiles in his head and deal with anagrams at age four. Is that happiness?

Life goes on. Nice things happen and nasty, since life is never always roses. I cherish the roses though, and I am glad for the blessing. I remember a poem, I wish I could quote all of it, but the last lines caught my attention, and struck a chord with me.

So I'll love myself and if my garden grows
Some sweet spring morning I'll give myself a rose.

Chance throws spanners in the work of life, but you just pick up pieces, bolt things together, add solder where necessary and keep going on. Throughout the years, memory of happiness sustained me. We were broke, we were in trouble, we had tragedies and woes. We had good luck and bad, thorns and roses.

In hindsight, I suppose, we were happy. You have your moments of elation and laughter; you have your moments of grief, shared and thus reduced to manageability. You have heaven and you never know it is heaven, not until you look back and realise it was heaven.

Happiness is little pleasures, sudden gladness. Happiness is being able to face oneself without shame or chagrin. Happiness is a reader telling me that he consoles himself that Lalita must have solved it in a jiffy as he tries to solve the Guardian puzzles, and saying he enjoyed my discursive crossword posts better than the crisp explaining of the solutions at fifteensquared.

As the clock ticks and takes me closer to the milestone of turning fifty, I look back. Happiness is remembering, actually. You are never happy, you only recall later that you were.



Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Great Dictator

"Lali, do you have your pad nearby?" I looked up from the excruciatingly bad book I was trying to read and said yes. "Just jot something down for me, will you? I don't want to go to my computer now." I was glad to put the book aside. I picked up my pad and pen.

"Aitch en ess en ampersand."
"Um. Honey, is it capitals or lower case?"
"It doesn't matter. Transliterate in Telugu if you want, just jot it down, okay?"

Jotting down gobbledygook isn't easy. It is always easier to take dictation when you can make sense of it. But Missus Em is intrepid, so I wrote it down.

"Larrow. It means left arrow. This is LaTeX, Lali"
"Oh. Okay, larrow."

You see? How can you write down stuff you don't understand?

"Larrow hyphen tee ampersand."
I dutifully jotted that down.

"Aitch en arpeeyen arrow dash dee ampersand."
"Ampersand, ampersand. You have ampersands on your brain, honey."
"Ampersands mark out columns, Lali."
"Reminds me of the Lulu song, " I said. "Ampersand ampersand when you are near, ampersand ampersand loud in my ear, pounding away pounding away won't you be mine, ampersand I love you." I sang.

"Stop that," he said sternly. "This is serious. Aitch en minus one arpeeyen ampersand," he went on. I sighed and wrote that down.

"Yes, dots."
"You don't say ellipsis?"
"No. Dots."
"Okay, dots."

It is funny how those three dots, the ellipsis has changed. An ellipsis is omission of some kind, an auxiliary verb instead of the full form, or omitted text in a quote. But nowadays it is used to indicating trailing off and incomplete sentences.

"Arrow hyphen dee aitch zero arpeeyen ampersand."
"Ampersand again, here we go."
"Oh, maybe not ampersand. Just hold on."
"Make up your mind, honey."
"Yeah. Ampersand."
"Okay, ampersand."

"Make that aitch zero."
"That's what I wrote. Do you mean one?"
"Don't be funny. Aitch zero arpeeyen line break. Scratch that ampersand out."
"Why? I am rather enjoying writing ampersands. I never wrote this many before."
"It's not necessary, that's why."

"What was that about? What did we achieve?"
"We have achieved a diagram."
"Really? Ampersands galore in that, then?"
"Yeah. Paul Taylor wrote this diagrams dot style package for LaTeX, to produce commutative diagrams. A really useful thing."

"If you say so. I am going to blog about this, you know?"
"Bah. What will you call the post?" He scoffed.
"Ampersand I love you, of course!"


Sunday, September 02, 2007


Sometimes, a picture is really worth a thousand words. Neha's parrot took me back to my childhood.

There used to be an unused chimney on the upper floor of our neighbour's house. When I was young it used to be a particular pleasure to observe the antics of a family of parrots that took up residence in the vents of that chimney, their comings and goings, the raucous screeches of alarm as our cats prowled around, the fledglings learning to fly…

As a child, I lived in a house with a large compound with greenery, and had the good fortune of observing a lot of birds. Apart from the ubiquitous crows and sparrows, parrots, sunbirds, weavers, coppersmiths, bulbuls and more abounded in the garden and the patch of wilderness in the empty lot next door. But pigeons I saw only around the Thousand Lights area.

In Delhi, I encountered pigeons more commonly. And peacocks. Walking to the K Block market in Hauz Khas, and coming face to face with a peacock strutting down the lane is not something one can forget, ever.

In Calcutta I notice that sparrows are rarer, crows and pigeons are the most common birds one sees, other than the kites that wheel about in the sky. There are bulbuls and mynahs; once in a while I spot the cuckoos in the trees that surround the Lake. But I haven't seen a tailorbird, or a coppersmith, though I do hear woodpeckers occasionally.

Some years ago, there was a huge project to improve the rainwater drainage facility in our area. This meant they dug up Southern Avenue to lay pipes. The noise and the pollution of machines belching smoke drove the parrots that used to nest on the trees along Southern Avenue to our area. It is only a short distance, but this made for noisy readjustment in the bird population of the area.

Parrots are gregarious, and noisy. The clamour they set up as they left nests at dawn and returned at dusk was something unheard in our area until then. Used as we were to the dawn chorus of a thousand birds, parrots still added an element of loud good cheer.

I don't know how disrupted the balance of various bird species was by the invasion of the parrots. The roadwork is done, in as much as any undertaking by KMC is ever completed, but the parrots haven't returned to Southern Avenue.

They live here now, and the flash of brilliant green as they swarm out in the mornings is a welcome brightness. Even the harsh cries cheer. Is it just me, or are there fewer birds around in cities these days?


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