The Emperor Penguin


My son loves animals, and he devours books and TV shows about animals all the time. He derives special joy from remembering facts, statistics and loads of interesting information about animals, and constantly shares them with all of us.

So, for his Father’s Day gift, he has drawn from his knowledge about animals, and has decided to sketch an Emperor Penguin. Male Emperor Penguins incubate the egg for a good two months, with patience and love.

My son sees these qualities mirrored in his Dad and has sketched his Emperor Penguin Dad on a beautiful white cloth tote.

Needless to say, his Dad is touched and thrilled. They exchange high-fives and hugs.

I ask my son who the penguin at the back is. He replies that it is his sister.

“Where am I?” I ask, a little miffed at being left out of this family portrait.

“Oh, mom, female Emperor Penguins go fishing in the ocean. That’s why you are not here”, he says.

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The school bell


On certain days, at 12 noon, when there is a gentle afternoon breeze, and if the sounds of traffic from the junction below our condo are not too loud, and if my mind is not distracted by the mundane, I can hear them – church bells chiming from the church that is further down our road. There is something magical about these melodious bells; they give me pause and make me ponder for a few minutes.

There are so many different types of bells – all of them designed to draw our attention to something important – prayer bells, alarm bells, fire alarms and door bells. But the most special bell has to be the school bell.

When we were in school, we did not have automated electronic bells to signal the end of each period.

We had a physical bell – a round metallic ring that was suspended from a tree just above the school’s playground. At the prescribed time, the school’s bell-incharge would walk to the bell and strike it with another metal rod, which he would then take back with him.

Courtesy – http://www.alamy.com

The bell was loud, clear, and could be heard from every corner of the school. The bell was sounded differently for different activities – class changes, lunch, recess and the end of the school day.

And on many days, we sat with our friends, willing the recess bell to ring so that we could run out and play outside, or be the first ones on the swings or see-saws.

During the monsoon season, the rain played spoilsport, and we were stuck in the corridors. We made paper boats that we sailed outside the corridors, we splashed water droplets on unsuspecting friends, or huddled together to prevent our teeth from chattering in the cold. At those times, the bells sent us back into the warmth of our classrooms.

Later on, when we were teenagers, and when it was fashionable to eat less, or to skip breakfast because we were late for school, our growling stomachs would wait impatiently for the lunch bell to ring. We would then open our lunch boxes to relish our food, so lovingly packed by our moms.

Sometimes, when we got to miss a class to attend an event or some inter-school competition, and got back to school only to realize that classes were still not over, we would stall and drag our feet to go back to class, hoping to see the bell-incharge walking towards the bell.

The most welcome bell was the one that rang for a prolonged period, to signal the end of the school day. When we were in primary and middle school, the long bell was our cue to rush home, to gobble up our evening snacks, and to run outdoors to play.

As we moved to high school, the long bell meant that we could leave school and hang out with friends. We had plenty to talk about, everyday, and somehow it always seemed that there was never enough time.

Today’s bells are electronic and sound totally different from those bells of old.

Those were memorable times indeed, when life moved to a slower beat.

The Thursday Movie


(Based on a true story shared with me by one of my dearest friends)

Today

The coconut trees surrounding the Nair Tharavad in the village of Poovakulam swayed in the gentle
afternoon breeze. The sun’s ferocity was trapped by the netted fronds, allowing only the requisite
amount of light and heat to fall on the sprawling, ancestral home below. The occasional caws of lazy
crows could be heard. Further away from the main homestead, water gently rippled and shimmered
in the Tharavad’s huge pond; where dried twigs and leaves floated lazily on the surface, as they
enjoyed their afternoon siesta.

Courtesy – http://www.shutterstock.com

On this day, however, the usual afternoon calm of the Tharavad was broken. The place was bustling
with activity. Two cars had arrived from the city; with the sons and daughters of the family, who had
come with their own spouses and children to celebrate the annual family reunion during the summer
holidays.

There were six grandchildren in all, ranging from the ages of one to thirteen; their feet scampering
around the yard, and their voices echoing across the Tharavad. Their parents, who had grown up in
this beautiful environ, stopped to soak-in the feeling of being home after a whole year of sweating it
out in the mad cities. This annual reunion was the highpoint of each of their summer vacations.
None of the family members lived in the Tharavad anymore. Unni, the caretaker, and his wife, Omana
jointly took care of the property. Their family had worked in the Tharavad and its fields for
generations.

The children continued to explore the Tharavad and its beautiful gardens and groves. They ran hither
and thither, getting acclimatized to this bit of paradise that they visited every year. Soon, the pond
would echo with the laughter of these children, as they spent hours splashing about in its cool waters;
the youngest ones getting their first swimming lessons from the local coconut picker, who would string
the fibrous part of many coconut shells together to create environment-friendly floats that would help
the novices learn.

Soon, the whole family sat cross-legged on the floor to eat a sumptuous sadya, served on huge
plantain leaves from the estate. The leaves soon filled up with mounds of boiled rice, sambar, rasam,
avial, pappadam, an assortment of vegetables – raw banana, yam and potatoes. There was pachidi
made of ginger and tamarind, fresh buttermilk and lots of pickle; not to forget the crisp banana chips
fried in fresh coconut oil. As the family tucked into the wonderful meal, lovingly prepared by Omana,
there were contented sighs and silences, interspersed with laughter and a lot of catching up.

After lunch, the adults moved to the nadu muttam, an open-to-sky courtyard, that served as the
midpoint of the Tharavad. All rooms in the house opened out into this courtyard. The children were
back amongst the coconut trees and mango trees, the older ones trying to climb the mango trees to
get their hands on the raw, green mangoes that dangled enticingly.

Later that week, the family received a visit from the committee members of the local village council,
who invited the family to the theatre to watch a movie on Sunday, and thereafter stay for a celebration
to commemorate the golden jubilee of the theatre.
And that’s when the children heard the story of their grandparents, and especially their grandmother,
who had been instrumental in the theatre’s establishment.

Many, many years ago

The village council had come to meet with Mrs & Mr. Nair. The council members were seated in the
cool confines of the huge living room, flanked by teak pillars and squeaky-clean wooden floors.
The men had come with a proposal. Soon, the matriarch, Shreedevi Nair, walked in with her husband, Venugopalan Nair. She was petite, but had such a strong presence that the seated men stood up
unconsciously. She waved for them to sit and peered atthem through narrowed eyes. She knew the
lot of them from their childhood and asked after their families and parents.

Finally, the President of the Council put forth their proposal. The village was growing, and the farmers
worked hard throughout the week. By way of entertainment, the Council wanted to build a cinema theatre that would screen movies to the villagers. The problem was with both money and space.

The council members sought the Nairs’ help with their proposal. Shreedevi Nair thought about it for some time. She had herself seen only one movie in a cinema theatre many years ago, when she had accompanied her husband to Mumbai on a work trip. It would help
people unwind and relax after a long, tiring day working under the blistering sun.

The Nairs conferred for a while, and generously donated a tract of land that lay at the edge of the
huge Tharavad estate for the Cinema Theatre to be constructed. The couple also donated money to
get the project off the ground.

The theatre took nearly a year and a half to build, and with the theatre to be inaugurated soon, the
excitement in and around Poovakulam was palpable.

Shreedevi & Venugopalan Nair were the Chief Guests, who inaugurated the Theatre; and watched the
screening of the first Malayalam movie in the theatre with all the people in the village. To express their gratitude for the Nairs’ generosity, the Theatre Owners Association gave them a letter of appreciation, and free-tickets to any show, on any day, for all members of the Nair family, for life.

The Theatre grew from strength to strength, and slowly added a food-stall that sold peanuts, popcorn,
vadas and samosas, along with hot tea and coffee, or cold drinks for those who needed them.

Back in the Tharavad, Shreedevi Nair, fell in love with the silver screen. She looked forward to every
new movie that was screened. Every Thursday evening was ‘movie time’ for the matriarch. And the
whole Tharavad and Theatre Complex geared up for these visits. She would always attend the 6 – 9
p.m. show in the evening, preparations for which would start in the afternoon. After a simple lunch
and her afternoon siesta, Shreedevi Nair would have a nice bath. Earlier in the day, Kuttan, the man
who ironed clothes for a living, and who was also a benefactor of Shreedevi Nair’s generosity, came
to pick up the set mundu and matching blouse. His ‘ironing shop-on-wheels’ was always stationed
under the cool shade of the coconut trees on the Tharavad’s land, from where he served all his
customers. When Kuttan arrived to pick up the set mundu, Shreedevi Nair always told him to iron the
clothes to perfection and deliver them on time.
And never once, in all the years that Shreedevi Nair visited the theatre did Kuttan ever fail her.

Every Thursday, the beautiful set mundu – that was ironed and folded neatly – was delivered at 4 pm sharp.
Kuttan’s arrival coincided with tea time for Shreedevi Nair. She would have a strong cup of chai, seated
on her favourite easy chair; chai that was flavoured with cardamom or ginger. After her cup of chai
Shreedevi Nair would get ready for the movie, set mundu neatly pleated. She would then powder her face and apply chaandu (a red coloured liquid that is used to apply the red dot or bindi on the forehead). The next important item on the list was her chellam or chella petti, which was a box containing betel leaves, betel nuts, lime, and a very aromatic variety of tobacco.

At 5.45 p.m., she would dab on a little perfume, and proceed to the theatre. The Tharavad’s watchman alerted the Theatre office about her arrival. Everybody in the theatre and its vicinity knew Shreedevi Nair, or Shreedevi Amma, as they called her – the tea stall owner, the peanut seller, the ticket collector, and of course the owners. All of them paid their respects to her, as she walked into the theatre. A special seat was reserved for her in the middle of the second last row.
The doorman would not allow anyone to sit on that ‘reserved’ seat on Thursdays.

During intermission, the owner, and later the owner’s kids would come and enquire about the movie and about Shreedevi Amma’s health and her family. They drew a lot of comfort by her presence. In many ways she was their lucky mascot.

Shreedevi Amma watched every single movie that was screened in the theatre, till she died at the age
of seventy-nine. She became one with the characters and the plots; and would bring home her views
about the movie, discuss the movie with family members, hum the songs and curse the villains whohad troubled the movie’s protagonist or ‘hero’.

Sadly, none of her children enjoyed watching movies, much to Shreedevi Amma’s disappointment. However, she never changed her Thursday movie-watching ritual for anyone. With her charismatic presence and generosity, she lit up the lives of the people in the village. The peanut seller, Kuttan – the iron-man, the theatre’s doorman, the chai wallah – all of them remembered her kindness, her generosity and her humility.

Now

The Nair grandchildren walked into the theatre with their parents. The family occupied one whole
row. The current owner of the theatre, who was the grandson of the first owner, guided the family to
their seats.

In the middle of the second-last row, one seat was cordoned off by beautiful satin ribbons. The seat
was made of plush red velvet. On it was affixed a small plaque that read –

“In loving memory of our beloved Shreedevi Amma, a true lover of cinema. Your generosity will forever remain in our hearts.”

Shreedevi Amma’s sons and daughters teared-up as they remembered their mother.

A lightness of being


It’s been raining on and off over the last few weeks. And as I stand on my balcony, there is the grey of a rainy day, the green of freshly washed plants and the sparkle of water drops all around me.

There is a heaviness to the day outside, as dark grey clouds hang low in the sky, waiting to unleash themselves. Even the vehicles on the road seem to be moving rather slowly.

I feel dull and incapable of productivity. Even my afternoon coffee fails to rev me up. So I enjoy this feeling of laziness, of not wanting to do anything, anything at all. I observe the world with no particular thought in my mind.

But the world seems to be functioning; people with their bright umbrellas are walking purposefully with bags in their hands.

I am a sloth. I am loathe to move. I feel a sense of inertia. I amble over to the couch and settle down. I open my messages and see pictures on our family group.

One of them is a picture of a bubble floating away on a rainy day. The shimmering bubble is light and free, as it floats with abandon, oblivious to the grey and wet day.

It is merry and totally free, for it has within it a lightness of being.

I quickly snap out of my reverie, and feel light and energized.

A pair of black pumps


I am peering at my laptop screen, my eyebrows furrowed in concentration, trying to comprehend what I am reading.

My phone is on silent mode, but from the corner of my eye I can see the screen lighting up – it’s a call from my daughter.

She is out shopping with my niece for a formal event at school.

I pick up the call. She says, “Amma, I’ve sent you some pictures of formal footwear. I have marked the ones I really like, I am unable to make up my mind. Please see if they are ok.”

I quickly open my messages to check. The black pumps that my daughter seems to like look elegant, but I am worried about the height of the heel.

Image courtesy – http://www.shutterstock.com

My daughter has never worn heels before. I call her and ask her if she’d tried them on and if they were comfortable. She replies in the affirmative and says, “I have to get used to them, Amma.”

Motherly love and practical concerns about posture and back pain run through my head, but I realize that I have to let go.

In a few hours, she comes home, bubbly from all that shopping. She puts on her pumps and walks up and down the living room.

She suddenly looks so tall. She walks – awkwardly at first, and then finds her rhythm. There is the odd, shaky step where she fumbles for balance, but she manages. Up and down she goes, getting more confident with each step.

As I watch her, I walk down memory lane to the time when she was a baby. I was at work one afternoon, when my father-in-law called to tell me that my daughter had taken her first steps, his voice suffused with excitement.

I remember rushing back home from work that evening, eager to see this little miracle for myself. But, it was another two days before my daughter attempted to walk again.

And then, over the next few days, she would constantly attempt to get from one place to another – wobbling and stumbling frequently. I stood and watched, clapping and encouraging her each time she made it from one sofa to another, or from the living room to the study.

I come back to the present. Nothing seems to have changed. Time seems to stand still. And just as I did then, I let go now, so that my daughter can walk into the world confidently.

Mom-paedia


I have just gone in to take a shower. My son seems to have this uncanny ability of sensing this precise moment, and chooses it to ask questions across the closed door – over the gushing sounds of the shower water.

There is a sharp knock. I pretend not to hear it. My son repeatedly hollers, “Mom, mom”, till I give in and answer wearily.

“Mom, where is the cordless phone?” asks my son. I tell him that it must have gotten wedged between the two seats of our sofa.

I come out of the shower, and in just a few minutes, my daughter asks me if I know where one of her workbooks is! Sigh!

And this is an integral part of being a mother – the skill of knowing where every article in our home is at any point in time. But, I do also know that every mom is blessed with some form of sophisticated MOM-GPS that thankfully helps her remember and identify the precise location of her daughter’s favourite hoodie, or her son’s graph notebook that has mysteriously disappeared from his school bag, and the hundred other things that go missing in the house.

And then again, most moms are also walking Mompaedias, for they need to answer questions that straddle many levels. From answering questions about why rainbows are formed to answering questions about the purpose of life (to a teenager), to answering questions about fashion, which are immediately deemed as being outdated, to answering questions about the little bird that visits the plants on the balcony – a mom needs to have answers to simply everything.

A mom also knows that while her sub-ten year old will cling on to her every word, her teenager will probably listen with a disinterested look, or with an expression that says, ‘Can’t wait for you to finish, mom’.

But from all these years as a mom, I do know that children listen, even when they don’t want to be seen as listening. They watch and they learn.

And they do love their moms, for no one in the world could take her place. When she is not around, they even miss her nagging. The energy of the house is pure mom. And come Mother’s Day every year, they pack all their love into their lovely cards and gifts, and make the day super special for her.

My daughter has already given me a beautiful coffee mug; my son is giving me knowing and secret smiles, and is slinking from one room to another, planning his big surprise.

There was a time, not many years ago, when the excitement of keeping the mother’s day gift a surprise was too much to bear for my son. But he has now transformed into this big boy, who is able to keep secrets.

So, I wait patiently.

I think of my journey as a mother and what it has meant to me. I realize that this is a love so deep, which only keeps growing with time. I wonder how one heart can hold so much love. But that is who a mother is – every pore of hers filled with love. A love that comes camouflaged in many flavours – happy, sad, silly, proud, angry, irritated and nagging, but all of them mere manifestations of that one all- encompassing love.

Happy Mother’s Day to you all.

Image courtesy – http://www.pinterest.com

Thatha (grandfather)


He was six feet tall, and she was a tiny two feet. At precisely four pm every afternoon, after their siesta, the pair would leave our home. The grandfather and his three-year old granddaughter.

Courtesy – http://www.istockphoto.com

He would wear a cap to protect himself from the afternoon sun, she would carry a water bottle slung across her shoulder, her mushroom cut gently bobbing up and down.

Soon, they would go exploring the complex. The grandfather would patiently point out ants, beetles, insects and plants. He would share anecdotes from his childhood, and relate it to the plants or birds that he pointed out to his granddaughter.

They would observe neighbours’ pets, and talk to other children. Playtime for this little girl would come later in the evening, but this walk with her grandpa was sacrosanct. They would stroll to the neighbourhood market to pick up vegetables or fruits for the house. The grandfather would indulge his little princess with chocolate or cake from the local bakery.

After about an hour of this, they would walk home, each revelling in the company of the other.

Back home, the pair would play board games and jigsaws, and read books. Before their walk, the grandfather would patiently prepare a small cup of dry fruits – almonds, pistachios, dates and cashew nuts, which the little girl would eat with relish.

The granddaughter grew into a school girl, and moved away to another city, but telephone calls and video chats kept this very special bond alive.

Where once the grandfather taught his granddaughter many, many interesting things, it was now the granddaughter’s turn to teach and welcome her grandpa into the world of smartphones and computers.

They would exchange calls frequently, and they would laugh at silly things. She would regale him with stories of her high-school life and her studies. He would always ask about her future plans.

And now she stands, looking at his empty bed, knowing that one of her best allies has gone – the person who rooted for her all through, who showed her unconditional love, and to whom she was always a princess.

She has brought back one of his caps and has placed it on her study table – a symbol of the love they shared – my daughter and her grandfather.