If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Murder of crows!

Crow on a branch -  Maruyama Okyo 
Often, the innocent and helpful are also the most unloved. Crows, for example. No creature is more helpful to humans than the crow. In my city, they clean up more garbage than the municipality does, although unlike the municipality, they do not make you pay taxes.

Contrary to popular belief, crows are non-aggressive and even friendly. If you host a buffet dinner for a mixed crowd of birds, you will see other birds clean up the grains much faster than the crows. Crows don’t have binocular vision. They look at each grain carefully with one eye, then turn their head and observe it again with the other eye, and by the time they are about to peck, the grain has been eaten up by some other bird.

My dear friend Wiki says: “Recent research has found some crow species capable not only of tool use but of tool construction as well. Crows are now considered to be among the world's most intelligent animals.” What Wikipedia doesn’t mention is: crows are democratic too. They practise a form of direct democracy that was in vogue in the ancient Greek city states. At the end of the day, they sit around on the parapet walls of a large terrace to discuss the day’s happenings. In a way, they are similar to our parliamentarians, all of them speak at the same time. It might turn a bit noisy at times but it also shows that freedom of speech is enshrined in the crow constitution too. Since childhood, I have seen with admiration these meetings taking place in the evenings. I watch them even now, in the evening of my life.

Indian Crow
Contrast crows with parrots. In spring, when the peepul tree outside my window blossoms, large flights of noisy parrots arrive from nowhere, drive away all other birds, polish off the fruits in no time, and fly away. They aren’t seen till the next spring. God knows where they spend the rest of the year.

Yet, poets, who are by definition illogical blokes, routinely compose paeans about parrots. The Bangla rhymes for children are full of loving references to them. Crows are absent in literature, except as symbols of death and other miscellaneous dark forces. In Bangla children’s rhymes, so far as I can remember, the only reference to crows is in: Saatta kaake daanr baye / khokonre tui ghare aye. Seven crows row ahoy! Come home, little boy.

Have you noticed, Dear Reader, the crow has been assigned a subaltern role in these lines? It is not surprising; in the caste-ridden mindset of the so-called upper crust of our society, a dark-complexioned person is instinctively associated with “Dalits”. In Cyrus Broacha’s TV show The week that wasn’t,  which is intended to be funny but end up being disgusting most of the time, the person representing Mayawati always has a blackened face! What chance do crows have? “Kaua” is an epithet in Hindi used for the inelegant and the supposedly ugly. The collective noun for owls in English is, surprisingly, a parliament of owls. And for crows? A murder of crows! To cut a long story short, crows are the most unjustly treated living beings.

Since our children grew up and flew away, and particularly since our cantankerous but lovable dog Chorki went to meet his Maker last year, my wife and me live in an empty nest.  Alongside crows, mynahs and sparrows give us company. They too are non-aggressive and friendly, and when some food is on offer, they all come down to our kitchen windowsill. They wait for their turn and never fight. The crow is the shiest of them and the sparrow is the most chipper.

Of all our avian visitors, the most timid and defenceless individual was a mynah. His feathers were unkempt and he had a tired air about him. He would fly on to the windowsill of our kitchen at lunchtime – morning is the lunchtime for birds – and almost lie down. Other birds would eat much faster, leaving him without any nourishment. But he would wait patiently. When everyone else had had their meal and flown away, my wife would offer him something special, which he would accept with an obvious expression of gratitude. If no one paid attention, he would call out loudly and demand food. Over time, he would hop into the kitchen and admonish us if he wasn’t served promptly. My wife concluded he was a senior citizen and deserved to be treated with respect. He too would reciprocate the affection and would eat out of her hand, literally.

Since last month, he has stopped visiting us. A Dios, my feathered friend!

Kolkata, 5 October, 2011

A phrase used by my friend Christopher Hickman in a message worked as a trigger for this piece. Thanks, CH.

The last photograph was clicked by me. The remaining pictures are all courtesy The Wikipedia. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Friday, 16 December 2011

Meeting Joe after long

I met with Joe last night. It was during the yuletide under a starry sky, with Santa hovering unseen somewhere in the background. Curiously, Joe gave me a leather-bound copy of the Bible as a Christmas gift. Equally strange, I felt it was a perfectly normal gift to have from Joe.

And of course, it was normal to dream about a friend who died a few months ago.

What is curious about the gift of a Bible at Christmas? Well, although religion was a subject we never discussed, I don’t think Joe was seriously religious. While we lived close to each other in the same city, I never saw him going to church on a Sunday morning. In short, in the real world Joe giving me a Bible would be as absurd as me gifting him a copy of the Geeta.

Joe and Catherine got their elder daughter admitted to one of the finest Jesuit schools in Trivandrum, a school where securing admission was tough, and parents would consider themselves lucky if their children did manage the feat. Aarti was a lively child with curly hair and sparkling eyes, and I wouldn’t imagine any school refusing admission to such a bright five-year old. But Joe said, ‘You know, at times like these, I turn into a devout Catholic. It helps!’

As I write, lots of insignificant memories flash through my mind. I know not if they would be of any interest to anyone else, but let me write, simply because I love to recollect them.

Once, I went to Joe’s family house in Changanecherry while he was there. While returning from Trivandrum to Calcutta, I reached Changanecherry in the morning with a plan to board a long-distance train from there early afternoon. In those days of glorious uncertainty without mobile phones or Google maps, I had just taken a chance. After getting off the train, I started enquiring about Joe and his dad, a retired professor of English. Soon, I was walking through a drizzle in a laterite country with quaint tiled houses peeping out of green foliage on either side of the road, accompanied by a man in a lungi and followed by a pack of suspicious stray dogs. Joe had to be woken up.

The morning went past like a flash of electricity, and we started waiting for the lunch with a tinge of sadness. It was still drizzling, and getting rather late for my train. After enquiring in the kitchen, Joe came back and said, ‘Looks like you will have to make do with vegetables, the chicken is still alive.’

Instead of a salt cellar, on the dining table there was a small bottle of saline water with a curved nozzle. I don’t remember if the chicken had been dead by then, but I do remember Joe’s mother laid out a fabulous lunch for us. A kind of lunch for which one should gladly miss trains. Later, a couple of times, she sent us home-made fish and prawn pickles through Joe. They were heavenly.

She must be quite elderly now. Why did she have to suffer this cruel blow?

There was a time when many of our friends were posted in Trivandrum at the same time.  All the offspring of our friends were great fans of Joe, who reciprocated their affection in abundance. I do not how Joe struck up such easy friendship with kids. Maybe, he had kept the child in him alive and would let the young fellow out when he was in company of children.

One day, Joe came to our home with Aarti on a Sunday morning. My children, Doel and Tatai were in primary school then, and Aarti was yet to begin schooling. Joe had planned to take the children to the zoo, but wanted to give Aarti a surprise. So he told Doel, ‘Get ready. We are going to the Ized-o-o’, imitating the Mallu pronunciation of z to make sure Aarti didn’t get the drift.

On another Sunday, Joes (his second daughter hadn't arrived then) and us went to the backwater lake at Veli in the outskirts of Trivandrum. After the usual boat ride and fun and frolic, Aarti got over-friendly with a puppy and picked up a scratch in her hand. It was just an affectionate nibble and nothing serious, but we couldn’t take chances. Joe consulted a doctor, who advised him not to worry. Still, Aarti’s parents continued to feel uneasy, naturally. The next Sunday, Joe and me drove down to Veli once again in Joe’s elderly green Ambassador, armed with two large packets of thin-arrowroot biscuits. We gathered all the mongrels of Veli that afternoon and after making sure that Aarti’s friend was hale and hearty, returned home, relaxed.

A few days ago, I was in Bangalore. We had just moved into a flat on the fourteenth floor, facing the east. On the first morning, I woke up early and went to the balcony. As an icy wind ran a shiver through me, I saw the blue darkness giving way to a dull light as the sun rose gingerly through a mist over a huge city dotted with countless buildings. Numerous windows were still throwing out light. It was a panorama where the day met the night, life met death. I thought it would have been great if Joe had been behind one of those windows. He could have been.

Friday, 2 December 2011

My mother

Mani Menon

[After reading Shamsur Rahman’s poem "I never heard my mother singing", my friend Mani shared with me his reminiscences about his mother. I found it fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, it is a beautifully written account of a very special person. Secondly, after reading Mani’s story, it seemed Shamsur Rahman of Bangladesh wrote not only about his own mother, but also about a woman from Kerala who lived in a different time and space. I am honoured to share Mani’s story with my readers. If you haven’t read the poem, I would suggest you scroll down to read it first before you read this.]

Reading your translation of Shamsur Rahman's poignant poem brought back memories of my own mother.  She passed away in 1989, leaving my father, me and my wife totally devastated. Especially my wife.  My mother and she had shared a relationship that transcended the conventional 'saas-bahu' one. They were good friends.

My mother's education, like many young girls' of her time, had come to a screeching halt after she passed her 6th form (Matric). At the age of 21, she came to Bombay as a bride. Having been brought up in Kerala and Madras State, Hindi was a totally alien language for her. Alien, yes. An insurmountable challenge? No! Though she was never a movie buff, she was a walkie-talkie encyclopaedia of old Hindi film songs. You just had to hum a tune and pat would come the name of the movie, the lead pair, the music director and the playback singer/s!

Till date, I haven’t seen anyone read a newspaper the way she did. She would devour ‘The Hindu’ from the masthead to the last page. Naturally, her general knowledge was very good.

She loved to play Scrabble with my father. My father spoke excellent English. My mother spoke just passable English. But evening after evening, she trounced him. When she had free time, she would open the old Oxford Dictionary and learn new words. My father used to be amazed by her victories. I guess he must also have been proud of her. But he never mentioned it.

She was a pure vegetarian, but that didn't stop her from trying out non-vegetarian recipes for us. My wife still refers to my mother's file of exotic recipes cut out from various magazines and also, recipes written in her neat handwriting.

A few years ago, we were watching an old Hindi movie where the eldest 'bhabhi' lets slip to her brother-in-law that she not only speaks fluent English but has even gone to college. She makes him promise that he should never reveal this secret to her husband as he was illiterate! It was quite a moving scene. My wife commented that it reminded her of my mother. When I asked her why, she asked me if I ever knew what my mother had secretly yearned for. I had never thought of asking her.

Had she wanted to pursue her studies? Had she ever asked her father? After marriage, had she ever asked her husband? I knew her as a woman who didn't like going out on her own.  But had she secretly wanted to do so?  Had she wanted to see the latest Hindi movie starring Shammi Kapoor and Saira Banu?  Did she ever need a break from her kitchen and ask my father to buy dinner from a nearby restaurant? Did she want to visit the Taj Mahal and travel all over the country?

It makes me feel so guilty that we had never asked. Not once. “Such a long time I lived with her, but never found out.”

[Would you like to share your memories of your mother? I will be delighted if you do.]