lalita larking

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

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, March 30, 2008

You'll always be my baby

That does it, I thought. When your very own toyboy's eyes glaze over as you hold forth about something, it is time to blog about it and get it off the chest than bend ears.

To be frank, I talked to Chenthil about it and he sounded amused, in a 'Missus Em and her foibles' kind of way. I talked to another friend who called from London, and I could sense her falling asleep as I spoke. I raved at friends who visited me in the nursing home and they escaped citing visiting hours. I tried explaining why I was upset to my sister, who said she stood a better chance of understanding what some lady called Saroj Khan was teaching on the telly. It turned out to be Bollywood dancing. The lord and master said I'd get over it, and suggested I read some nice book to lift my mood. Then my toyboy's eyes glazed over.

There is no help for it but I have to inflict this on my readers. You are warned.

I'd been waiting for lo these many years to read some of the works by a favourite author that have been consistently out of print. These included a couple of novels, some plays of uneven length and some skits.

Now, my family knows about my obsession about this author, so my brother-in-law brought me a copy of the plays that he managed to acquire when he came to visit me in the nursing home. It wasn't his fault. In fact, he did stellar service towards keeping my mind off the pain of surgery because I was in an 'ancient Indian ancestry (12)'* fury over the plays.

Let's pass over the details, I don't want to froth at the mouth again. The plays would send people to sleep before the first scene ended, unless they were seething like me. I am only going to restrict myself to mourning sloppy usage from an author I always admired for 'le mot juste'.

bala, balaka, balika refer to children. balakrishna is baby or child Krishna. balakarna would be child Karna. Boys and girls below sixteen years of age could be referred to as bala, but that is a stretch.

Just think about this. Kunti had a child by the god Surya and abandoned him to a river (memories of Moses and the bulrushes, Huckleberry Finn and all). Then she got married, had more children, got widowed, and went to Hastinapura to bring up her sons and her co-wife's. Okay?

The author wrote a play with two imaginary scenes that decide Karna's loyalties early on. In one scene, Kunti recognises Karna walking down the street, invites him to her palace, gushes over him, and Arjuna comes in and acts all haughty and rude. In the next, Karna runs an errand for Duryodhana; the prince and his brother decide he is worthy of being in their retinue and befriend him. Bah! But still, the author is entitled to his imagination.

My grouse is with something else though. In the initial description of the scene and settings, the author says Kunti is talking to balakarna. After gnashing my teeth and raving about it, I sat and did a heroic thing. I did numbers; counting on fingers and toes, and asking the Resident Mathematician to check them later (the numbers, that is, not my fingers and toes). I wanted to arrive at a sensible figure, the reasonable number of years before Kunti could have met the infant she consigned to a river, and the difference of years between Karna and the Kunti's other children.

Kunti begat Karna by the god Surya, a boon she didn't want. Now the epics and Puranas, classics all talk of sadyogarbha and say she bore her son immediately. Sadly, sadyogarbha only means she conceived right away. Tryst and travail happening immediately after is fond imagining of people who refuse to think. Even if you assume that by some miracle she came to term immediately after her dalliance with Surya, she still had to go through childbirth; very likely, she had to go through the entire pregnancy too.

(A minor digression, do think twice before you use the word travail whether in singular or plural next time. Originally, it meant the concluding stage of pregnancy, from the beginning of contractions till childbirth. The secondary meaning is use of physical and mental energy, and hard work.)

Kunti couldn't have got back from consigning her infant to the river and traipsed off to marry Pandu in a swayamvara right away. There must have been a year or two at the least between the two events.

Then she went to Hastinapura to be queen. But journeys those days were long and arduous. There might have been carts drawn by oxen, but queens travelled in litters and much time was spent making and breaking camp. There were seasons to consider and rivers in flood and more.

Assume three years of marriage, happy or not, before she acquired a co-wife, Madri. Now Madri was as much a princess, if not more so than Kunti, so assume three years of being a co-wife that Madri got used to, too.

Then Pandu went conquering on behalf of his brother. Armies might march faster than bridal processions, but they still need provisioning, and provisions and baggage trains travel slow. Also, conquering isn't quite like walking down to the corner shop and buying groceries. It takes years.

Assume five years, or let's be generous and assume three years of conquering. Then Pandu came back and distributed the plundered wealth, Dhritarashtra performed sacrifices, and there was much rejoicing all round before Pandu got the hunting bug.

Even if we assume that the first animal Pandu shot at was the ill-omened deer, and he was cursed right away, there must have been a year before he retired to be an ascetic in the foothills of the Himalayas with his wives. He would have needed that much time to inform his family, take permission, and formally renounce the world.

He spent some years being an ascetic before he got to thinking about dying without heirs. It couldn't have happened overnight. Assume two years.

Even if Pandu convinced Kunti to beget children through niyoga quickly enough, and she bore three sons before the jealous co-wife wanted children too, so there was one more birth, this time of twins…clockwork though it could have been, it still must have taken some four years. More likely some six or seven years.

Some years passed while the children are described in the Sanskrit version of Mahabharata, and the Telugu version I am more familiar with, as flourishing and growing rapidly. They must have been older than toddlers, when Pandu tried to bed Madri and died.

Lamentations, debate with Madri about who should accompany Pandu on the funeral pyre, the cremation, going to Hastinapura with the children, all these take time. More lamentations and more funeral rites by Pandu's brother and nephews; it would all take time, too.

They would have to have been settled into a routine in the city before Kunti could have spotted Karna on the streets of Hastinapura, recognised him and invited him in.

Now tell me if the adjective bala was le mot juste.


Post Script: Tivi, please don't argue that these were semi-divine births and took no time at all. That still would lessen only four years from my estimate.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tere ghar ke saamne

Readers, Fellow-bloggers and Lurkers: lend me your eyes. (Don't panic, you will get them back.) I have been away to spend another few days in a nursing home. The comments on recent posts, when I read them today, made me feel flattered, proud and humble. Thank you all for the good wishes. Please don't take exception that I am not replying individually, that is a bit much right now. I will get back to doing that, of course, never fear.

Sivaram wanted lighthearted poetry and sitting on a hospital bed is not conducive to creativity. So I came up with this translation. I sent it as a text message to friends and got a couple of laughs, so I think it may pass muster.

Tiffin Twins
A Tam can live on idli-vada for aeons,
To jilebi-singara a Bong will sing paeans;
A Gult only needs pesarattu-upma to make his day,
What combo does an Eskimo rejoice in, pray?
"A surge in your career and a call from a lover will surprise you," " My sister read out the weekly predictions made for masses by a tarot card reader. "Blah blah blah…so on and so forth. Aha! A relationship might end but expect a sudden surge in your love life."

"Not at our time of life," I muttered quoting Nanny Ogg, which was wasted on her.

"Here, yours is interesting, " she went on. "You may face problems with your legs. Avoid surgery; take some rest!"

"A week too late," I said trying to find a comfortable position on the bed. Her attention was diverted by a crow that landed on the windowsill. "Crow, crow, tell me true; hop and skip if kinfolk are due." She recited the old formula. I snorted. Of course, we will get kinfolk visiting- the Delhi sister will come for the weekend; the Hyderabad sister will come next week. We didn't need a crow to forecast that.

"Hey, they are making a nest in that jackfruit tree," she reported. "There is another crow with a nice long twig in its beak. Aargh, wedge it from the other side, you idiot bird!"

By the time the crows had two twigs wedged in place, she decided that her fortune telling crow was the female. It sat and looked peevish when the twigs fell off, instead of swooping like the other to retrieve them. I objected. It could be the male, guarding the nesting site, while the female picked up fallen twigs.

"Nah, it looks like a female."

I said it wasn't easy to tell. But the calls of crows are familiar to me. People think that crows only have the harsh 'caw' for their call. But they are great conversationalists, and have a variety of calls. I once heard a crow soliloquise on my windowsill, in a semi-guttural call interspersed with the baby calls without the 'feed me' note of urgency. To me it sounded like Hamlet's dilemma revisited.

There was conversation from the nest-builders too. My sister thought they were arguing about the suitability of the site. It was a confluence of three branches, one stout limb and the other two slightly below it. If the crows had the sense to wedge the twigs from the thinner branches to the thicker, they'd have had an easy time of it, my sister decided. But the conversation of the crows could have been about the neighbourhood, distances they'd have to go to forage, if a jackfruit tree was a good tree to nest in. I never lived in a place that had jackfruit trees, so I had no idea if it was common for crows to nest in them.

The area was good, though. Old World Residential, so there were trees in the backyards, there was no traffic or high-powered streetlights to distort their time-sense. There was no worry about the branch getting lopped off by the KMC, which routinely happens to trees on main thoroughfares. Not good for the chicks growing up.

After the fifth attempt to wedge a third twig, my sister turned away from the window. "It is too frustrating to watch," she said. I hobbled over to the chair and watched the nest building for a while. I decided that my sister was right about the fortune telling crow being a female. It used a lot of baby calls without the urgent note, and her posture suggested she expected to be taken care of. Those baby calls without the cheeps of 'feed me' urgency still made her side of the conversation full of imperatives and impatience.

The fourth twig did it; they'd wedged three, and seemed to have a good base, a bit on the large side, but workable. But when the other crow tried to add the fourth, three twigs fell off. This must be their first attempt at building a nest, I thought.

The perhaps female spoke. The call sounded like an ultimatum. I want a nest, and I want it here. The perhaps male spoke. It was placating and calming. Then, with a longish call, the crow flew down to retrieve the twigs.

That call sounded like, ek ghar banaaoongaa, to me. A promise.

"Be ready for added responsibilities brought on by someone else's deeds. Though overworked, you will complete the project successfully. You may change residence. You will be apprehensive about finances. The one you loved will no longer give you joy. Be determined to get what you want," my sister read aloud.

"I wonder if that female is a Leo," she said.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Think you can write about it?

She heard sounds of stirring from his room. She knew the routine well, now. Six months ago, she'd not have known.

Now, she'd lie there sleepless most of the night, all nights. It wouldn't do to toss or turn and give any indication that she was awake. It would rouse others. It would be inconsiderate. In the silent nothingness her days and nights were now, that was still a no-no, you don't inconvenience others.

They'd talk at her anyway and she was all out of words. She thought she was directing her story; they thought she lost the plot. She thought words ran out of her mile-a-minute to explain; they stole her earlier words to be pored over and raped by random strange eyes and brains. She had no words left for thieves and rapists and voyeurs.

She heard the sounds of stirring and he came out, tripping as usual on the little painted wooden riser decorated with auspicious yellow and red. There might have been amusement once, now there was nothing but holding still, breathing evenly.

He stopped at her bed- the bed she nowadays made with military precision, tucking sheets into knife-edge corners and arranging the top sheet just so. She tried to breathe deeper, to indicate slipping into deep sleep. His hand hovered near her face, not quite at the cheek or the forehead or her neck.

Instead of touching her, he said softly, you are awake. It was not a question or a taunt- just a statement of fact. She stayed mute. She'd had practice in the last six months. As she shuttled from psychiatrist to therapist to her bed to resume staring at nothing, she'd had a lot of practice staying mute.

Come, I want to show you something, he said, and walked into the middle room. Curiosity had no call on her, but conditioning did. She swung her legs out of the cocoon of her sheets and followed him. Out of the front door which he opened only one panel of, down the plinth and across the thatched-in-annex that served as their morning-room to the split-bamboo fence that marked the start of a garden once extensive but now straggly and meagre.

It was dark and the branches of guava, frangipani and the sweet-lime that met and hung over the thatch made it darker. He fidgeted, trying to find a particular spot and said, ah. He moved over, wordlessly inviting her to take the place and see for herself. She had no interest, but conditioning made her look for the spot.

Through the branches, over the low boundary wall, far in the street ahead shone a street lamp. As she watched, a light came on above it. An early riser perhaps, or a night owl turning in, that light floated strangely above the street lamp. She knew she must remark upon it, but she was out of words.

She moved away. Ah, he said again. I wonder if it is a student preparing for exams or just an insomniac. She remained silent, she had to right to do so, she remembered reading.

What do you see, he said. Now that the street lamp and the light were out of view, she could make out dark, the layers thereof. The branches of each tree added a different texture to it, and it was vaguely lit by another unseen street lamp she knew was somewhere behind and to the right of their house.

What do you sense, he said. She could sense daybreak. Their house, she knew, was built strictly according to vaastu. As she glanced to her left, apart from his bulk next to her, further away, at the top of the short flight of stairs to the terrace, in the darkness etched into eldritch patterns by the mango tree and the coconut palms of the neighbours, there was a sense of the sky lightening.

Daybreak, she croaked with her disused voice. His arm encircled her, hand resting on her right shoulder lightly. A feather would have felt heavier.

What do you hear, he said. She listened. It was the month of devotions, and there were matrons and maidens decorating their front yards. There were sounds of double-boilers of milk whistling; there were faint praises to various gods. Day starting, she said, voice sounding clearer this time.

Think you can write about it? She pursed her lips, nodding and shaking her head at the same time, unsure if she had to say anything, but definitely needing to clamp down on the sobs.

His hand squeezed her shoulder for a fraction of a moment. I am going for a walk, want to come along? you can turn back when you get tired, he said. She nodded. Be ready in ten minutes, he said and went back into the house.

She had trouble with his pace. She had trouble with the fact that she was out in the world. She wanted the nothingness of sitting in her perfectly made bed and staring into middle distance. But she walked.

He had many friends who walked the same route at the same time. They stared or averted their eyes. She kept falling behind, trying not to pant, to ignore the burning in her calves, to forget how ridiculous she must look to these dapper gentlemen in the park.

When halfway point was reached, she had no energy to turn back. She sank gratefully on to a concrete bench and watched a world she never knew existed. Think you can write about it, she murmured to herself. Of course I can write about it, she thought, in a rekindling of youthful arrogance she thought was stolen along with the words from her.

One of the walkers, a good friend obviously, jerked an eyebrow towards her in a clear question. My daughter, he said.


Post Script: Sivaram wanted light-hearted poetry and Missus Em shall provide, but this was written before he posted his comment, so there. All things, Sivaram, come to those who wait.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ode to my Muse

"వెలగమంటే వెలుగుతాను
వెన్నలాగ కరగు

వెళ్ళమంటే పోతాను
వీధిలాగ పరచుకో"

I recited, tracing circles on his shoulder. "That is how it begins and those are the lines I remember best." He shrugged under my fingers. "Translate it for me."

That was the first time I was confronted with translating a poem. I was reasonably fluent in three languages and could grasp nuances of poetry therein, I'd thought. Always before, if I quoted Tamil or Telugu, I never had to translate; the allusion or the tangent, the reference or the jests were always understood. Translate it for me, was a mountain to be scaled.

When you are newly in love, when you are discovering each other, there is a lot to talk about. You trade life stories, you tell each other the deepest secrets of your life so far, you marvel at how much you like the same things and wonder if there is something about the other's particular craze, after all. You are receptive, and you receive a lot. Sex is one thing, and then there are hours spent talking, bodies snuggling into each other or sitting sprawled on a sofa among books. If you speak different languages, you learn more poetry as you learn about each other and what moves the other to tears.

I always had an unjustified and indefensible idea that if it is poetry it must be Telugu. Granted, English has some nice stuff, but Telugu rules, okay? I'd have stuck to it, with a qualification that Tamil poets knew what they were about too, and that would have been that.

But he recited bits of poems to me. I did too, but his were surprisingly evocative. I forgot to sneer in a superior fashion that befits a speaker of a language that was carved into inscriptions long before the Brits thought up parliament. Because the poems moved me, the songs he sang moved me, I fell in love with another language and its poetry too; because I was in love.

"Ask me, I will burn; melt like butter," I said. "Tell me to go, I will; spread like the path."

"I am not sure I got that."

That is the trouble with translating from Telugu to English; a bare bones translation doesn't carry the nuances and implied stuff. venna laaga karagu is addressed to a person. But the 'you' is understood, it didn't need to be stated. I should have translated it as, if you ask me to, I will burn; you melt like butter-- which is awkward.

I remember smiling. "It is a matter of reciprocity, you see? I translated just the bare words. The poet is saying, I will burn, if you ask me to, except in Telugu the word velugu means to shine, too. Stars shine, and do so by burning, that is as fierce a fire as you can get. All light is fire at some point, so it is not just a paltry lamp or fire we are considering here. So. I will burn if you ask me to, but you must melt too. Likewise and more seriously, I will go away if you ask me, only if you agree and spread to be the path I am treading. There is also an allusion, a connection you can make to ritual fires and the feeding of such. That the relationship is special, not a trivial campfire."

"Ah. So how does it go on?"

I confessed I'd have to look it up. I knew the gist, of course. The poet goes on talk about the importance of the person. It ends with a poignant plea to the person to remain being a Muse.

Decades after that night, I came across the poem again:

నన్ను నీ రక్తం పిలిచినప్పుడు
కన్ను పరధ్యానంగా ఉంది

మొన్న నీ మౌనం పగలనప్పుడు
పొద్దు పొగ చూరింది

దాచిన అశ్రులన్నీ పూచనప్పుడు
సంధ్యారాగం మబ్బుకొన్నప్పుడు

గుండె గుబాళించనప్పుడు
నరాలు గుర్రాలు దిగనప్పుడు

నిన్ననో మొన్ననో పూర్వజన్మలో
నిద్ర చైతన్యాన్ని వలచింది

నీ నిట్టూర్పు నన్ను దొలిచింది
నీ కన్నీరు నన్ను కలచింది

నిచ్చెనలు విరిచి పారేశాక
పచ్చిక వెచ్చగా నవ్వింది

నీ మీద నేను పాడలేనుగానీ
నా మనస్సుగా ఇలాగే స్పందించు.

velagamanTE velugutaanu
vennalaaga karagu

veLLamanTE pOtaanu
veedhilaaga parachukO

nannu nee raktam pilichinappuDu
kannu paradhyaanamgaa undi

monna nee mounam pagalanappuDu
poddu poga choorindi

daachina aSrulannee poochanappuDu
sandhyaaraagam mabbukonnappuDu

gunDe gubaaLinchanappuDu

naraalu gurraalu diganappuDu

ninnanO monnanO poorvajanmalO

nidra chaitanyaanni valachindi

nee niTToorpu nannu dolichindi
nee kanneeru nannu kalachindi

nichchenalu virichi paarESaaka

pachchika vechchagaa navvindi

nee meeda nEnu paaDalEnugaanee

naa manassugaa ilaagE spandinchu.

But there is always trouble in translating, and it didn't get easier over the years; if anything it got worse. But I got better at ignoring his nitpicking- like how the puns will carry over, like the mention of ladders. It is alluding to worldly aspirations, but how can you translate it in less than a full essay about metaphors and images? I learnt to say piffle.

So here is the poem I tried to recite to him.

I will shine if you ask me to
And melt like butter yourself

Ask me to go, I will leave
If you spread like my path.

Eye was preoccupied
When your blood hailed me

The other day when your silence
Was unbroken, the dawn was smoky.

When all secret tears didn't flow-er
And sunset hues clouded

When heart did not bloom perfumed
And nerves stayed on high horses

Yesterday, day before, in an earlier birth
Sleep was smitten by consciousness.

Your sigh ate into me
Your tears unsettled me.

Once I smashed the ladders
The meadow smiled warmly.

I can not sing about you, but
Be my mind, respond just like this.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Words of a feather

Some words come in pairs or groups.

Method in madness, rest and recuperation, the five Ws and H, the three Rs which aren't really all Rs, but still; and many more I can't think of just now, I am sure. In my life though, I think I have been chased by C words. Let's not go into commitment, the C word men are supposed to dread. But I had a lot of commitment to words that began with C, and they shaped my life to an extent.

Really. When I was an impressionable thirteen-year old, I read that chips, chocolates, cookies, cakes and carbonated drinks were bad for you and caused acne. So I didn't indulge in any of them. Of course, the real reason was to save pocket money to buy books, but boycotting them did take place. And I had a clear complexion throughout my teens, only to break out horrendously in my twenties. But by then the pattern was set. I added sugar and sweets to the list of things I didn't eat.

During the thirties one worries about calorie counting- carbohydrates, cholesterol, calcium deficiency and such. But since I had healthy eating habits and a routine of exercise, the thirties passed me by without troubling me with the C words.

(If you are going to write in and point out the other C word, cigarettes, or booze, save your breath. I will merely say piffle to you. I am not talking about vices here. I am talking about practicing virtues. And anyway, nicotine and alcohol do not count as C words.)

Then came the so-called arthritis last year. Through all the pain and discomfort, until a tentative diagnosis of 'undiff' connective tissue disorder was made, I looked back at my commitment to the C words. I didn't take sugar, I didn't eat deep-fried food, I exercised regularly, and yet here I was being treated for a disease I tried to avoid ever since I learnt about it. I thought it was unfair. Until the doctor pointed out that my very reasonable weight and good health was what kept me mobile instead of bedridden, considering the severity of the symptoms. Ah well, all in a good cause then.

Over the last four weeks, into my life came new C words. These are different from the avoidance and good health practices.

During my stay in the nursing home in January, my doctor ordered a bunch of tests. One of them was a GI endoscopy. It doesn't sound nice, and wasn't nice. The conclusions drawn from it weren't nice either.

Now it doesn't require a Mensa membership to figure out that hyperplasia isn’t a good thing. That was reinforced by the doctor asking for another, more extensive endoscopy. The findings there weren't nice either, and featured words like "hyperplasia of squamous epithelium…blah, blah, blah… focally bordering on Carcinoma 'in situ'."

The biopsy slides were sent for a second opinion from another pathologist. Like all of us who can Google, I am quickly well read on any given topic, so I took preemptive action. I went and got a tonsure, as carcinoma is generally followed by chemotherapy, after all.

As it happened, there was another C word in between, a CT scan. And that was when my aggravation with life began.

I hiccuped with laughter when I was first told, stop breathing, Missus Em. You know what he means, I told myself sternly and held my breath. After a zillion times of stopping breathing, I was injected with a dye. Or at least they tried to, once they found a vein. Then they found another, and another. Another zillion times of stopping breathing followed. The technician kept apologising for all the discomfort and pain they were causing me.

And he kept stroking my shaven head!

The pathologist who did the FNAC a couple of days later? He told me I was a model patient, very cooperative and wonderful. And he stroked my head too.

There won't be any surgery, said the surgeon, packing me off to a specialist for further treatment. And stroked my pate.

The oncologist I met was taken aback at my shaven head. There wasn't going to be chemotherapy, he said. We discussed treatment protocol and talked further. As he got up to see me out, he asked if I was satisfied with the plan. I grumbled that my beautiful tonsure was totally wasted.

Oh no, you look like a model, Missus Em, he assured me. Supermodel in size zero, sniggered the friend who accompanied me. Yeah, if wearing clothes three sizes too large is the rage this season, I retorted, looking daggers at her. But she is immune to my glowering. The oncologist, at least, didn't stroke my head.

Last week, I was admitted for observation. From the admitting doctor to the nurses who hooked me up to oxygen and other tubes, medical personnel seemed to find my shaven head irresistible.

Friends came visiting. One of them said I looked an absolute cherub. A C word. I grumbled that cherubs are fat babies, I am fifty years old and not fat. She ignored me. And stroked my head. Another friend entered the room, took one look at me and said, ooh, you look so cute, Lali. She stroked my head. Cute? Me?

As he discharged me and told me how to conduct my life at home, the oncologist patted my hand. Be a good girl, and follow my instructions, he said. I nodded, good girl I can live with. We arranged dates and times for reviews, and he took leave. And he stroked my head.

I'd rather liked being Missus Em, Supermodel.


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