lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Monday, December 31, 2007

The last weekend

I must write my last post for the calendar year, I fret. The weekend has been lazy, to say the least. But unlike Granny Weatherwax, I do know decadent has nothing to do with having ten teeth, since Nanny Ogg would be unident then; I know it is more to do with not opening the curtains all day, as Granny suspects.

I hate winters. We never had them when I was a child, to start with. My first encounter with winter had me wrestling duty, conscience and a streak of self-preservation, which screamed 'go back to Madras' at me. But a few years in Delhi and even Calcutta winters will 'larn' you, as Huck Finn says.

So one learns indolence and basking in sunlight. One learns knitting, but that is another post. One learns the luxury of a good quilt, the reason why more children are conceived in winters and such fascinating things. One learns about winter vegetables and pigging out. One learns that the kitchen is a wonderfully warm place on cold dawns.

Add to this a couple of decades of experience. What comes up is a tendency to leave the geyser on, all the time, even while feeling guilty about using hot water to brush teeth and wondering what kind of hell such luxury will land you in, but preferring to be comfortable here and now.

I really should be writing, I think. The last weekend of the year should be blogged about, surely. But beer and late pasta lunch make for sleepiness.

This napping in the afternoons is a new thing for me. It started thanks to the side effects of the methotrexate therapy. Though the drug was discontinued, I continue napping. I slide under the quilt and consider what I want to say about the end of another year.

As I get comfortable, I consider that a short nap is not that much of a sin. It is practically an act of virtue, as I will wake up bright-eyed, and then I can write the post. My toes snuggle into the folds of the quilt, creating a warm burrow. I yawn and consider post ideas. One has to shrug a bit and wiggle around to get the quilt all nicely wrapped and it takes fine judgment to make a cocoon.

As years go, 2007 wasn’t all highs, there is that. The lows when they happened were spectacularly low. But it wasn't a bad year, really, was it?

Being diagnosed with 'undiff. connective tissue disorder,' also known as rheumatoid arthritis was a low. The severity of the onset was scary. While there's relief, the relapses and the evolving disease make one appreciate the bright points and highs all the better. I could talk about how life becomes centered on the affected joints.

I could write about how the last weekend was leftover lunch and reading; receiving a call from my bookshop about a book I might be interested in, going and getting it and reading. Oh, and beer and pasta. Wonderful things, weekends are.

I could write about that Rafi song that is haunting me now. Phir miloge kabhi. That's a brilliant song. I could write about my toyboys; music lessons or the latest Araucaria offering- Thomas Hardy novels and a huge grid.

Or I could write about how wonderful it is to see a new comment on a post I wrote early in my career of blogging, how it cheered me and made my day. Comments like that are what a blogger craves, and make blogging the pleasure it is.

I've spent most of what should have been a busy Monday falling in love with your blog. Only an ...erm... numskull of rare merit would stumble upon one of your posts and not feel the urge to keep reading.:-)

You'd better believe your posts are being read - oldest and otherwise. And with a great deal of enjoyment at that! Thank you, Missus Em.:-)

Egad! To think I might have missed you entirely if I hadn't Googled "Kshetrayya"! All right, so it wasn't a VERY busy Monday.:-)

I yawn again and close my eyes. Yes, I will write about the last weekend, but after the nap. I will wish the readers of my blog a very happy New Year, too.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ten times six times two times five

I was in trouble. Actually, I had been in trouble for a few weeks about this, what with my being unable to lift or shake it to stuff more coins into it. There was no help for it, but I had to sort the coins out of my piggy bank and exchange them.

It didn't help that the boys at my booze shop asked if I stopped collecting coins or if I was exchanging them elsewhere either. I wasn't. It was just that the so called piggy bank, or the aluminium box where I collected coins, was too full to take any more but I was in no position to lift it to sort the coins out. Now my wallet was getting weighed down by coins that I couldn't empty into the piggy bank, so I had to do something about it.

I used to empty it on the floor and sort the coins and stack them. Nowadays I dare not sit down on the floor. Not because I can't, but because of the trouble I'd have getting up. It has nothing to do with knees or flexibility but the fact that I can't use my palms to push myself up. My wrists aren't up to it.

We make do, needs must after all. So I spread a towel on the bed and emptied, with some effort, the contents of the piggy bank on to it. The first things to pick and put away were the ruby ring (don't ask) and the keys to a CPU we don't have anymore; then the dried marigolds from my favourite temple. Then I dealt with the coins.

Look, I can count up to ten. When there are Jumbo crosswords or long clues involved I can count even higher. But I don't like it.

So, there were piles on the towel on the bed. I was getting cross-eyed adding up. Variously, I arrived at totals of seven hundred and fifty, seventeen hundred and fifty, fifteen hundred and seventy and thirteen hundred and fifty. I turned to the resident expert.

"Honey, how much is ten times six times two times five?"

"Six hundred. But note that multiplication is associative."

"Whatever. So if I have got a stack of ten five Rupee coins in two columns of six each, it is six hundred Rupees?"

"Just tell me the stacks and denominations." He knows I am only grudgingly numerate, so he got straight to the point.

"I've got two Rupee coins in stacks of ten, five rows and five columns." I said despairingly.

"That's five hundred." He said confidently. My hero!

"Then there are these one Rupee coins, ten in a stack, five columns and eight rows." I bleated.

"That's four hundred." He said in a flash.

"How do I add the other stacks of coins that don't make round figures?" I wailed.

"Don't. Put them back in the box." He advised. "You've got fifteen hundred in small change and that is good enough."

Now, if I can only figure how to carry the coins to exchange them…


Thursday, December 20, 2007

In praise of the monkey cap

When people sneer about Bengalis, there is inevitably a mention of their winter attire and that accessory they sport, the monkey cap.

I wonder why? It is a perfectly sensible thing to wear if you are going for a morning walk in winter and the breezes are chilly. The monkey cap, as it is called here, is widely used in other parts of the world too. It is called a ski mask in America, a Balaclava helmet in other lands and was issued as standard winter gear for military forces.

Sweaters and pullovers keep you warm, but unless you are wearing a hoody your neck is always exposed to the cold. Mufflers and scarves are needed for this region and they are fussy. The monkey cap takes care of this. It covers the whole head and neck, including the ears, and in some varieties can be pulled up over the lower part of the face too. It is an ideal accessory.

Bikers wear them under their helmets to keep warm and to keep the inner lining of their helmets clean. Ski masks are fashionable. It makes sense to keep warm after all. So why sneer at the Bengali Babu with his monkey cap?

Oh, it must be the pompom.


Friday, December 14, 2007

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

Our landline rang. He answered.

I was staring at a mail I received, cursing the day I wrote that post about classified columns and massage parlour ads. This sort of thing arrives regularly-


Found ur profile on the net. Please send a mail to confirm.....I'm
interestd in getting a message done by u.....Rply sun...


I missed out most of the one-sided conversation. My attention was only sparked when I heard him say he was sad to confess he does not fall in to the age category. Huh?

"Yes, I do have a son, but he is below your age limit and a student still." What on earth was this about?

"No, I do not rejoice in a son-in-law. Thank you, it was nice talking to you."

I shrugged. Like me, he is terminally polite when it comes to tele-marketers. They know not what they do, after all. He looked wistful as he rang off.

"What was that about, honey?"
"We have missed a bonanza, Lali."

The call was from an insurance company, starting Kolkata operations. Our number came up in some random fashion, apparently.

"The offer was for accident insurance worth one hundred thousand Rupees, for ten years and no premium…"
"So what is the catch?"
"Just one condition. There should be a married male in the household, aged between twenty-five and forty-nine."
I laughed. "What a crazy condition."

I deleted the mail and dealt with the rest of my correspondence.

"Lali, your toyboys are all in their twenties, aren't they?"
"A toyboy, by definition, has to be in his twenties, honey," I said. "Most are, but some are older. Why?"
"I wonder if any are married."
"What are you getting at?"

He was still mulling over the offer, clearly. "I wonder if any of them would care to be a second husband…"
"But that's illegal." I laughed.
"Nah. Having two wives is illegal, not two husbands," he said, with a grin." And we could have had that accident cover…"


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Evolution of an obsession

Beefy type I'd seen by the beach kept in mind, but no source of inspiration (6,7)*

I remember the first ever English dictation I took in school. I got four out of five, and was bitter about it. I'd spelt bananas and monkey correctly. What I got wrong was floor. In my textbook, with the fonts, it looked like it was spelt Aoor; things were weird in English anyway, so that was how I spelt it.

I suspect my fascination with words began then. It was certainly helped along by Saradamba teacher. She taught Telugu, but used to supervise us when we wrote our end of term exams. She had an interesting way of keeping early finishers occupied and amused. She'd ask us to make lists of words ending with 'ight' or find as many words as we could from the word 'embarrassment'. I remember I'd found some eighty before the bell rang.

At home we'd play Lexicon, and that was great fun. I first played Scrabble in a hostel room in NIMHANS, and thought it a wonderful game. But crosswords hadn't appeared on my horizon yet. My father solved the Hindu crossword daily, but the one time I looked at the clues they read like so much nonsense that I shrugged and dropped it.

It was in Delhi that my interest in crosswords began. My husband never fails to remind me that when I saw him trying to solve the Times puzzle in The Statesman, I'd sneered and said, yeah, Daddy does them, too.

But this was before we were married, and when it is the love of your life that is doing it, you take an interest. From suggesting synonyms for words to taking a look at the clues was a small step. The first answer we arrived at was 'carnation'. I remember the definition was pink, and motors and races were involved. As I went to check synonyms in the Webster, I remember thinking this was fun.

As my first Delhi winter almost drove me back to Madras, what kept me going in the freezing evenings was the Times crossword. Those were days before home computers and the Internet, or conveniences like a desktop dictionary or Google. The Webster and the Encyclopaedia Britannica got a regular workout in the early days of my solving career.

Looking up words, checking synonyms, trying anagrams…it seems funny in retrospect, but I had no clue about solving crosswords. The hidden words, the anagram indicators, double definitions, written backward solutions, all were discovered slowly, and painstakingly. There was one memorable conversation one night:

"Come to bed, Lali. It is past midnight." "Yeah, just two clues left, honey." "You can check the solution tomorrow." "That's what I don't want to do." "You realise you are getting obsessed, don't you?" " Yeah, I know."

From celebrating five clues solved to fretting about five left unsolved before the next edition of the paper arrives was a journey. From completing the puzzle at all to completing it in half an hour took longer.

I took to the Internet solely to solve the Guardian puzzles online. When they became a subscription service, I used my credit card for the first time and online at that, to make the payment. When The Statesman stopped carrying the Times puzzle I stopped taking the paper and subscribed online.

Nowadays I do Daily Telegraph crosswords that The Telegraph carries, both the easy version and the cryptic puzzle, in the mornings. It never takes more than eight or ten minutes. When I go online, the first thing I do is to sign in at The Times Crossword Club. Concise and cryptic, the crosswords take me twenty minutes at the most. The Guardian puzzles come next. The weekly prize puzzles, Club Monthly and Genius puzzles might take longer, but these days I never have to spend longer than an hour on a puzzle.

Today, The Times site is undergoing maintenance. They hope to be back online by 12:00 PM GMT. I sighed and went on to the Guardian puzzles, and there was that gem by Paul. As I solved it, it occurred to me that I've come a long way indeed. Now to wait until the Times is back online… sigh.

* Carbon dioxide

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Let's crib work

Let's crib work, dear Reader, is an anagram of 'writer's block' and I am happy to report that I am not suffering from it. It is nice to be asked if I am all right, if the RA is acting up, or if I am suffering from writer's block. It is a week and you haven't posted, what's the matter, was the theme of several mails I received.

Actually, it is the RA. When it is bad, it is really bad. But today is not one of those days when things seem bleak. When opening a jam jar is a matter of triumph, one learns to tone down expectations. When you need two hands and a bit of unladylike mutters to open a door handle, an almirah, shoot a bolt, turn faucets, to … Oh, the list is endless, RA is not much fun.

But when I am having a good day we have fun, so we have a beer Saturday again, even though it is not the first Saturday of the month. When wrists and fingers are feeling reasonably limber and pain-free, I try and get as much done as possible. I have made a decent breakfast; touched base and caught up with news of my downstairs neighbour; gone to the bank, endured queues and failing monitors (don't ask); done my weekly market; cooked a big lunch. Time to down a beer and do crosswords.

"That bharta smelled glorious, I want lunch."

Sigh. In 1980, I was in Delhi visiting with my cousin. His landlord's cook and valet, Lakshman Ram, made a wonderful truly glorious eat and die happy kind of baingan bharta. I know many vegetables can be charcoal roasted, but none can be roasted like the brinjal, aubergine, eggplant, kathirikai, vankaya, baingan or begun (virtue-less, ha) as the Bongs call it. It is one of the most versatile vegetables ever. I have been trying to reproduce that particular taste of Lakshman Ram's ever since I started cooking.

Today I seem to have achieved it. "We really ought to be eating this with pulkas," he remarks. I agree and rue that RA means I cannot knead dough properly these days. I can't squeeze a lime or tamarind either, so my cooking is getting stilted, no rasams these days. But the bharta was almost there.

Beer and crosswords are the best way to spend a lazy winter weekend afternoon. And when the prize crossword in Guardian is set by Araucaria and every across clue has a coin mentioned but disregarded in the subsidiary clue, the heart soars. The Times crosswords, prize puzzle and the jumbos all done, I buckle down to the Araucaria.

Usually, there is there is a background drone of Emacspeak, and we work and play in silence other than that. Today, there is music. Live music at that. His student is here, sarod and all. The ragas flash by as they talk and jump from composition to composition. Phrases are explored, comparisons made; informal and formal, this is not a lesson teaching a composition or a raga, this is more. This is imparting a philosophy of music, technique and style. Perhaps that will come later, but right now it is talking about technique, queries about showcasing a raga with the dominant notes, more urgent worries about the use of the third finger in the upper octave or the dara or diri for any phrase.

I spare a glance from my musings about coins. "Look, it is not humanly possible to land the third finger straight, if you are using your nails that is," I say. It's true; on the sarod, which does not have frets like the veena, or even on the veena, it is not possible to land the third finger or fingernail on a note straight, it will always be at an angle. If you want to use three fingers, you have to be resigned to the fact. The student grins his thanks. The lesson goes on.

My phone rings. I am not anywhere near it, but I know the ring tone. It's an unknown number, but at least it is not Airtel telemarketing. So I answer.

"Madam I am calling from ICICI, can I offer you a credit card…"
"I have a credit card, thank you," I say and hang up. Hmm, the voice sounded familiar.

I wander into the room where a debate about the Puriya in Puriya Dhanasri and Puriya Kalyan rages. The phone rings again. "Again?" I say incredulously and go back to my phone. It is the same number. I will say things, I know. They will be variations on the theme of 'do you understand a simple word, no' and get worse from there.

"Lalita, it's me," says my toyboy. He is calling from his newly installed land line. "Since when have you begun moonlighting peddling credit cards?" I laugh once I get over the outrage. "I wanted to surprise you," he says. "But seriously, are you all right? You haven't updated the blog in ages."

These toyboys, I tell you.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Conan drums

Well, why should he not? I have a few that puzzle me, too.

Why does the voice that tells me that the Vodafone number I have called is either switched off or cannot be reached and advises me to try again later sound so smug and deliriously glad at my predicament? Why can't they have recordings that sound matter of fact if not sympathetic?

"Lali, you remember my friend," he mentioned a name. I did. "He is corresponding with Kapil about…" There was a long explanation of some function or theorem and its impact on the narrow universe mathematicians inhabit. I tuned out mostly.

"Well, he was wondering if the name Kapil derives from or has something to do with Kapilavastu. He thinks 'vastu' or 'astu' used to mean a fortress."

I snorted. "Tell him he is talking through his hat." I considered. "He is thinking of root 'stha' but Kapilavastu is 'sta', and totally different. 'Vastu' is thing, article, nature and quality of. 'Stha' is fixed or unmoving and so on. Anyway, the word for fortress is 'durga'," I elaborated.

"What does Kapil mean, then?"

"Oh, 'kapila' means tawny, reddish brown. Monkey coloured, actually. But Kapil is probably named after Kapila the sage - the reason why Ganga flows on earth and why one of the synonyms for sea is 'saagara' and all that."

In Ramayana Vishvamitra narrates the story to Rama, telling him about his ancestors, and how Ganga came to flow on the earth.

Kapila was a sage; sometimes said to be an incarnation of Vishnu, sometimes the Narayana of the Nara-Narayana duo of sages. He was born of Kardama Prajapati and Devahuti. He was a scholar of Sankhya Yoga, which he taught his mother. After which he went to the nether world to meditate, probably because his mother threw him out.

At that time, Sagara, a king of the Solar Dynasty performed the horse sacrifice. As the sacrificial horse roamed the earth and all kings in its path accepted Sagara as overlord, Indra became worried about his position as chief of devas and stole the horse. He left it tethered near where Kaplia was meditating in the nether world.

Sagara had two wives. One, Kesini, had a son called Asamanjas, the unreasonable. The other, Sumati, had sixty thousand sons (don't ask). These sixty thousand went in search of the horse, found it near Kapila, and loudly, rudely made a fuss about it. Disturbed from his meditations Kapila opened his eyes, and there were sixty thousand heaps of ash next. Talk about hot tempers and short fuses.

Asamanjas had a son, Amsumaan, who propitiated the sage and recovered the horse, the sacrifice proceeded. Asamanjas the Unreasonable was crowned king and entrusted the job of securing a good afterlife for his burnt half-brothers. But he was a despot. So Sagara crowned Amsumaan king and retired, asking him to perform the last rites for his sixty thousand uncles. Amsumaan couldn't manage it in his lifetime. He passed on the responsibility to his son Bhagiratha.

Bhagiratha first prayed to Brahma and learned that only the sacred river Ganga that flowed in Svarga could redeem his ancestors. So he prayed to Ganga. Even if we ignore the time scales, the Puranas and Ramayana talk about thousands of years of penance, it must have taken some persistence, and Ganga agreed to descend to earth. But she said that her descent couldn't be withstood by any other than god Siva.

Prayer time. Siva agreed to take the brunt of Ganga's descent. So she leapt down. In a battle of sexes and muslce-flexing, she leapt with all her might and he taught her a lesson by imprisoning her in his matted hair, where she wandered trying to find a way out for a thousand years again.

Prayer time again. Siva let out a trickle of Ganga and she followed Bhagiratha. On their way to the nether world to wash over the sixty thousand heaps of ashes, Ganga inundated sage Jahnu's hermitage. He swallowed her up.

Once more, with feeling. Jahnu relented and let Ganga out through his ear (don't ask). At last, Bhagiratha managed to send his sixty thousand great uncles to a good afterlife. Ganga flowed on to meet the ocean. That is why Ganga is called Bhagirathi and Jahnavi, the sea is called 'saagara' and that is why a huge and determined effort is referred to as Bhagiratha's perseverance.

In the West, there is Herculean effort, and we have Bhagiratha's penance.
Another conundrum is why diacritical marks and other formatting gets lost when I copy paste the posts I write using Word. I am fed up with having to insert italics and hyperlinks and such all over again every time I post. This post will be dedicated to whomsoever can tell me why this happens and what I should do.

"The Vodafone number you have called cannot be reached. Please try again later, thank you." I intoned to myself as I tried once again. Instead of the infuriatingly cheerful and insensitive voice recording, I heard the phone ring.

"Yeah, hi Mom," said my son.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. /body>