My life in the present… in bullet points

# Observation is key when it comes to human relationships. For the past two months, I have been travelling between Cochin-Palakkad-Bangalore-Bombay and observing people on buses, aircraft and trains. Observation is fascinating if you find the time for it – shut your phone and let your eyes do the talking. People, places, and situations are learning experiences – you just need to know where to look without being cynical or judgemental.

# I thought it would be a quiet train journey to Bangalore considering that half the train’s population was glued to their cellphones. Two hours into the journey, the lady sitting opposite me saw the new Harry Potter book I was reading and was soon asking me all about it. Soon, others joined in and before we could call it a night, a couple of them even had even decided to share a cab to their destination the next day. Since I was the only person ordering in, they all waited until my food arrived so that we could have dinner together. Train camaraderie remains alive, after all.

# On my way back from Bangalore on a sitting berth, a lively little girl kept us company with her antics. She spoke a lot and what would have been a painful sitting and boring journey, got over within no time. We had a lot of pineapple and watermelon slices together. A Gulf connection kept the conversation between the adults going. You just cannot go anyplace in India without bumping into a ‘Gelfie’.

# A bus journey from Cochin to Vadakkencherry turned out to be a frightening proposition when an elderly man was caught taking pictures of the women on the bus. Luckily a young man noticed it, grabbed the phone and deleted all the pictures. Before any action could be taken, the man quietly slipped away at the next bus stop. Kerala, voyeur’s own country.

# At Mumbai airport I met first-time fliers Swaminathan and his young son. It was of some reassurance to them that I also spoke Tamizh. The young man was travelling to Kuala Lumpur and from there to a port city Sibu where he would be joining a ship. The father was quite worried about his son making the journey all by himself but the son was extremely confident but without the cockiness of a youth his age. For the first time, I gave a stranger my phone number as I was worried about the young man reaching his destination without incident. (you hear so many things). Swaminathan called me up the next day to politely inform me that the boy had reached Sibu safely and thanked me for my prayers. I had indeed been praying for the boy.

My life in the present…

 

It is raining heavily in Bangalore. Heavier than it was in Kerala in the 10 days I stayed there. I stand close to where the rain is falling in torrents and can feel the water trickling down my face. Just outside the gate there are red and pink roses in full bloom and my heart does a song – Raindrops on roses. Sound of Music may sound clichéd in today’s times but when the heart wants to sing, it wants to do so like Maria.

It’s three weeks since I left my job, cancelled my employment visa and landed in India. For one week after that, I was still in work mode – barking instructions to my colleagues to the point of exhaustion. This one is embargoed, cancel it – This one is revealing, cover up or are you sure this is the right picture?

And then one week later, the little post-its in my head started disappearing and so did the intros and headlines I would always think of. There were no appointments in the phone calendar. A few stray emails kept the connection alive. And they too stopped. My email was diverted and so I deactivated it on my phone. A few of my colleagues spoke of everything else but work on WhatsApp. My disconnect with work was complete.

For the first time in 21 years, I was off work. How does it feel? Strange and bewildering. I had gotten so used to stressing myself out and now, there was nothing to panic about. Even on annual holidays, I was so connected to work that I composed edit notes in my head. And here there was absolutely nothing to do but relax.

Elizabeth Gilbert in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, called it Bel far niente – which in Italian means the ‘sweet joy of doing nothing’. In the past few weeks, I have managed to catch up on sleep by taking short naps and regularizing my night sleep. I have eaten three meals a day without skipping on any. I have simply snacked without feeling guilty. A childhood friend spent an entire day with me where we spoke of school days and imminent travel. I also met up with a friend and ex-colleague in Bangalore and it was fun to be at our favourite haunt – a bookstore and catching up with Muscat news and of course, work figured in our conversations too – loads of good memories of Costa coffee and chai at Madras Café. (Food as they say, is a great leveler!)

I am at a place now where I am not thinking of what tomorrow will bring. I know it may bring happiness and joy, panic and worry, love and longing but it will also bring with it the strength to accept.

Meanwhile, I will let my rain wash my soul and my heart do a song and dance of its own.

 

RIP Ayakkad Appa

RIP Ayakkad Appa

We all wish our parents were immortal and they would live for a long, long time. At whatever age a parent dies, peacefully or in suffering – the void will still remain in our lives, even though others would reassure us that he/she had lived a good life.

Having lost both my parents by the age of 32, my in-laws Appa and Amma were the closest I would have as parents. As is the custom, we would also call them Appa and Amma as they were our parents too.

With the passing away of Appa recently, there would be nobody to call Appa or as I would say, Ayakkad Appa. He was a great soul, very flexible in his ways, jovial, widely travelled and a ‘no-complaints’ policy that endeared him to all.

He never treated us, his daughters-in-law differently and would often go out of his way to make us feel comfortable. I remembered when I got married and came to Ayakkad, it was my first experience in a gramam setting. Appa would painstakingly boil water for baths in a wooden stove and pour it into buckets in the bathroom. Later when I was pregnant, I used to be scared to go to the bathroom which was at the back of the house. He would accompany me and stand guard, saying, ‘Onnum varadhu’ (there is nothing here). He would do so many times, even in the middle of the night.

Till the day he died, he would wash his own clothes, clean the puja vessels, draw water from the well for cooking, chop vegetables and scrape coconut for my mother-in-law. Theirs was a cute relationship – Amma would forbid him to eat fried food and Appa would counter with a sarcastic comment. In a way both of them were child-like, living their old age at their own pace. He was also president of the grama samoohan and respected by all.

He would often recollect memories from the past, his stint at the Kollengode Palace, his passion for black & white photography, how the Land Act changed the family’s entire fortunes, his RSS days and more. Last year, I chanced upon some of his job applications and was surprised at his mastery over the language. In his trunk, I also discovered an old railway ticket from 1955 when he had taken his mother to Kashi.

He was a foodie but never had any specific preferences. Every dish would be met with a ‘Besh!’ (superb). He loved garlic rasam and would argue with Amma and make it himself. The foodie gene has passed on rightfully to everyone in the family, and by association to the daughters-in-law as well.

My parents were very close to Amma and Appa and they would take over the kitchen on their visits to Cochin. My father was a great fan of Amma’s cooking and I would often wake up at 7 and see Appa (my father-in-law) chopping vegetables and Amma making the choicest dishes for my father. Theirs was a relationship that went beyond ‘sammandhi’ or in-laws.

One of the most important qualities I fervently wish we and the kids would also imbibe is the ‘no-complaint’ attitude. If some relative did not turn up for a function he would say, ‘Vandha vaa koopdarom, varata virodhum illai’. (If they come, I will welcome with open arms, if they don’t I have no complaints!’ ) That together with absolutely no trace of ill will defined him as a great person.

Appa left for his heavenly abode on December 15. RIP Appa, you will live on in our hearts.

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, my namesake!

Even before I joined UMS, Rekha was my first point of contact with the company. She drew up my contract, answered thousands of queries (I am sure, with those classic rolling of her eyes) and we hit off almost immediately because of a common love for books. Within a year, she and I had read all the books we had and goaded each other to buy more. She would often look at me in disdain when I got another of those chick-lits but would still take them because she always claimed she had nothing to read. Almost every Wednesday, I would get a text message, “Gentle reminder, please bring me some books to read.” I had the upper hand because of my frequent trips to India and she would be the only person I would willingly lend my books to, because I knew her love for them was as fierce as mine. When we began running out of books, I bought a Kindle and later, forced her to buy one too. Just two days before she left for India, I loaded many books on her Kindle, asked her to relax and ‘just read’.

Little did I know, that chapter in my life would have such an unpredictable end. Just like those lunch sessions every day at Nirvana that would be full of sharing, jokes and camaraderie. Through her, I became friends with many of my Advertising colleagues and sometimes, we would all go out together for a meal. That we shared a common name was also cause of much mirth. A lot of my mails would go to her and vice versa. She would get interview requests and I would get last-minute requests for passes to an event.

Rekha was a solid source of strength for someone like me who would get easily worked up over a stray comment or stress at work. She was the only person I allowed to scream at me because she made sense. In turn, I would give her a ‘pleading’ look when I felt she was getting ready to scream at someone. And she would tell me later, “just because of you, I kept quiet. You are a bad influence.” And we used to chuckle together.

During our events, we knew we could depend on her for everything. Right from nominations to table sales – her sense of authority, responsibility and diligence was what saw our events to a wonderful finish. We would always go home together and the conversations on those nights are perhaps the most memorable of all.

Over the past one month, I have been speaking to her every week. Though she would be short of breath, she would still make it a point to enquire about everyone in the office. And she was apologetic too. “Please update everyone on what’s happening as I find it difficult to talk to whoever calls me.” She was making plans to come back next week.

We can call it fate, destiny or the unfairness of life! But this is a void that will remain forever.

Goodbye, my namesake! We may not have written that humourous bestseller together but in my Book of Life, your friendship is a chapter that will forever remain etched in my heart.

From Bhai to Bajrangi Bhaijaan

I have never been a fan of Salman Khan; the actor or the human being. But then I am a highly critical and cynical cinema viewer. And Salman Khan does not fall into my list of likeable actors, not even by a long shot. However, I did enjoy a short interview with the star last September only because of his self-deprecating humour. That veneer made good copy. More than his films ever did!

I must admit, that for lack of anything to do during the recent holidays, I went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I had no great expectations as I explained to friends. For God’s sake, it’s a Salman movie.

But this time, the sanctimoniousness and the smugness did go for a toss. It’s impossible not to fall in love with little Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) at first sight. And when Wagah, the Indo-Pak border comes into view, it is a foregone conclusion, director Kabir Khan has a hit on his hands.

There’s nothing that raises or helps race the emotions of Indians and Pakistanis like an Indo-Pak story. I mean a good Indo-Pak story. No jingoism, no OTT patriotism. But some cleverly-scripted dialogues that don’t proclaim but make us understand that we are no different from each other. Throw in a little helpless speech-impaired girl who gets lost in India, a Hanuman-bhakt who does no wrong, some cricket, a journalist on the right side of free speech, junta who flocks to the border to see the good Samaritan back to India (how is this ever possible?), and you know the peacenik intentions will tug at the heart-strings. Never mind if a few scenes make you baulk, “Gori hai, toh brahman hogi” (She is fair, she must be a Brahmin). And to top it all, the message that social media is the solution to everything in this world. Almost!

Salman Khan as Bajrangi Bhaijaan is to put it, in one simple word, endearing. Like a recent article pointed out, the actor should sack his PR outfit and turn to Kabir Khan. In one cinematic stroke, the ‘de-bhaisation’ of Salman Khan has happened. Bhai – a strong, goonda who can also be a brother. Bhaijaan – a respectable, loving brother who can be looked up to! What a masterstroke!

I watched the film on Eid day with a crowd mostly comprising Pakistanis and Omanis. And was overwhelmed by the experience. There was thunderous applause at all the subtle ‘India-Pakistan is one’ dialogues. I did eat a piece of humble pie, if not crow. The hearts were in the right place. All will be good!

India has not gone to the dogs… just not yet

(This is something I hope to continue as a series – for it’s all about hope)

Most of us are guilty of being armchair experts on India. We don’t live there… probably visit once or twice in a year, come back to our cosy little homes and hearths and then wax eloquent about bad the country of our birth is; the pollution, the work culture, the people, the transport system, the traffic, the racism, the list seems endless.

I too am guilty of ranting about a lot of things. Complaining is human nature but you will find hope in abundance, in India. Agreed, India is a work in progress. It’s a tough life out there – the competition, the environment, the education but it’s still mine and no, I have not lost hope yet.

More than five years ago, I walked into the Vytilla branch of the State Bank of India not expecting much. It was a far cry from the neighbourhood I grew up in, where I knew atleast one person in every bank. This was a busy branch, in the city, and I wondered whether I had made the right choice. As I entered, the person at the ‘May I help you?’ quickly came forward and asked what I wanted. I noticed he had a slight physical disability but that did not stop his enthusiasm and he was full of energy.  Within minutes, I had met the manager, opened an account, got access to a locker and many investment opportunities were explored.  The little devil did whisper in the ear, “Oh! But you are an NRI!” But within the next one hour, I watched as the young bank employee attended to a number of people, old and infirm people, migrants with no grasp of the language, – all with a smile and a spring in his step. He was all over the place… for some good reason – helping people.

Yes, State Bank of India is a public sector bank. One we often deride as not being customer-centric. I still frequent the same branch; many managers have come and gone; the smiles are different but still there. The man at the ‘May I help you?’ desk has won an award for best performance and tells me all about his trip to Malaysia where he had gone to receive it. He is raring to go. And his smile still stands out.  “Ma’am don’t worry,” he says, putting me at ease each time I am besieged by many doubts and I goad him with queries.

There is hope, yet!

Of being judgmental and cynical

Over the past many months, I’ve been asked by many people, including nodding acquaintances, why we are building a home in a village in Kerala. It’s funny how people judge you by where you grew up (in a city) and where you stay now (in a foreign country!) and how that has a bearing on where you want to stay in the future!

But then most of the world is like that! They have these presumptions and tend to put people into ‘brackets’ – small cubby-holes in what they think according to them is ‘imperfect’. Is it because they themselves are living in a ‘judgment’ well?

Some of the weirdest things I have heard are, “Oh! How can you live in a village? What will you do for entertainment?” Not that I am moving bag, baggage and my foreign roots tomorrow, but anyone hear of ‘every village in Kerala is a town?’ Another one is, “Oh, but there are snakes there!” To which the husband calmly replies, “Heard something called the ecosystem? You need a balance, right!” Atta, guy! That’s why I married you!

The largest number of comments comes from people who have lived in villages themselves and now live in cities. “How will you get along with the people?”, “Do you have Internet?, it will be so rustic,” and this one amuses me all the time, “why such a big house, what are you going to do with it?” Turn it into a marriage hall, maybe?

I come from a big city but the small, close-knit neighbourhood I grew up in has shaped me into the person I am today.  Multi-cultural pluralism, that is Mattancherry, tucked away in a corner of Cochin for you!

I believe that you take your roots wherever you go… only if you want to. I will be taking mine to a small village in Palakkad.  To the verdant fields, the overflowing ponds, the lilting bhajans, the warm people and to family…

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong…

Here’s a piece I wrote earlier on my village… https://rekhabaala.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/village-vignettes/

Some things are best unplanned – a four-day recap!

Me and impulsive generally don’t go together but then, I’ve realised that if you desperately want to do something, you don’t wait for the universe to conspire… you go ahead and do it yourself. So I took a four-day trip to India recently (weekend included) and am glad I did it. Forget inner voice and all that crap, the things that worked in my favour were the availability of tickets and my determination to go. Yeah, sometimes I am like that too… I reach over and pat myself on the back when no one does😀

# Within an hour of reaching Cochin, we had to get ready to attend the reception of a kid whom I used to carry around as a kid. That makes me really very old. But the best part was I met others who used to carry me around as a kid. So the embarrassment kind of cancelled it out. I met friends and neighbours from my childhood and it was one grin and laughter fest. It spilled over to the wedding that was the next day. Now don’t ask me about this new Tambrahm custom of having the reception before the wedding. I don’t have an explanation.

# Soon after the wedding, we scrambled home and packed to travel to the in-law’s house two-and-a-half hours by road. Amma’s ‘archavitta sambhar’, some good-natured neighbour-mingling and a good night’s sleep later and we were ready to hit the road to Coimbatore early next day.

# Let me mention, that I decided to take Amrit along with only a month left for his Board exams. That was bravado, according to some. But he wanted to break too and also witness something for the first time in his life… (more on that coming up). So, absolutely no regrets!

# The trip to Coimbatore happened only because of Google Maps. The driver was clueless about the route and I was super slow in reading the signs in Tamizh but thanks to Amrit’s back-seat driving, we managed to reach our destination with three minutes to spare for the appointment. The driver was a good sport and Amrit is now emboldened enough to suggest he would grow up and drive all over Europe. (that we shall see!)

# We returned to Cochin the same day at 6.30pm, again packed our bags with different sets of clothes and in half an hour set off for Mattancherry where I grew up. It was athazhaootu – the evening meal before Sasthapreethi – where we gorged on idichakka thoran and stew – peppered with exciting conversations that almost always began with, “Rekha-ava? Eppo Vandhai?” (Rekha (exclamation.exclamation.exclamation), when did you come?). Of course, the stew was a big draw with Amrit and it helped that my cousin Kannan was serving it.

# The day of the Sasthapreethi dawned bright and clear and we were on our toes throughout the day – right from the abhishekam and kaavu poojai in the morning to the vanji paatu, bhajan and mangalasnaanam at night. We enjoyed the melam and the kummi – sang the varavu paatu and it was amazing to see Amrit soak in the atmosphere and break into song at the precise moment when others would – blessed with a strong sense of divinity and spirituality that continues to emanate from a corner of Cochin that will always remain close to my heart. With heavy hearts, we had to leave Thekkethalam at 2.30am since we had to catch a flight back to Muscat the same day.

After a quick dash to Santhilal Mithaiwala for banana chips and ghatiya, we went back home to Ernakulam and in a few hours left for Muscat.

Four days. Loads of love. Friendships renewed. Laughter uninterrupted. And memories that will last a lifetime. I would gladly do it all over again!

To err is, er… inhuman

proofreading

 Ask any copy editor/sub (never a reporter!) and the chances are, he/she has proofread his/her way through life. Ever since they handed out some little pink ‘slips’ off the teleprinter in the Mass Comm school I studied in, I have been trying to make sense of spelling, punctuation and grammar for the past 20 years. And with a vengeance, if I may add!

And so most of my ilk proofread our way through menus, billboards, catalogues and also newspapers and magazines. The most recurring proofreading memory that often appears in my dreams is of my first-ever editor scratching his way through copies with a red pen. I saw commas in what I thought was the most unlikeliest of places (until the red pen struck!), also semi-colons and colons punctuating long-winding sentences and sometimes, I could feel his sense of frustration on the pages… there was a tear on the page when the grammar went haywire. It gave me heartburn at the end of the day but it taught me a lot – every extra space between words, wrong alignments and ‘widow words’ must be chopped off with a flourish.

A copy editor does not become one if he does not make his point by pointing out a mistake wherever he is! While some feel that inner sense of ‘gloating’, others throw away all traces of shyness to happily point out a typo. In short, the typo types wear their badges with pride in the journalistic world.

I still proofread the old-fashioned way, spectacles perched on my forehead, a red ink pen for company as I wade my way through slugs, headlines, intros, fonts and spaces.

Remember, copy editors are not perfect. While I proof-check every e-mail before sending, I do manage to send a few, whose subject lines begin with ‘Hell from Rekha’. Needless to say, I don’t receive any favourable replies to these e-mails.

Who says life is perfect even if you try hard to proofread it!

P.S. (Please don’t proofread this piece. I never claimed I was perfect!)

Image: Google Images

 

 

A Letter to Me – Blogging Challenge – Day 6

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A Letter to Me – Blogging Challenge Day 6

So, I am lifting an idea from the magazine I edit, which was in fact, the cover story for December. We had asked five women to write a letter to their one-year-younger selves… and was surprised by their responses. So I thought I’d do it too… And in case you guys missed me, the weekend was a break from blogging!

Dear Rekha

The year’s coming to an end… and don’t you wish you could say, what a year it has been! Obviously you can’t say that because you are not the glass ‘half-full’ kind. You worry too much – and even being happy can sometimes be a chore. It’s those little voices in your head that remind you that ‘too much happiness cannot be a good thing’.

Well, you haven’t been overly pessimistic either, rather this year has seen an ‘in-between’ you. Not something on the lines of a ‘fine balance’ but if learning to ignore toxic people and things means a few defining moments, well you’ve had them.

Speaking of voices in your head, 2014 has been a whole lot better than 2013. The panic attacks are now few and far between, and you’ve slipped down the ‘perfectionist’ rung by a notch or two. Now that’s good. Maybe it’s those anti-depressants or maybe not. I think it’s all to do with many months of good stories, retail therapy, carom and Pictionary sessions and some great ‘young’ colleagues.

The best moments of course, has been at the kid’s brother’s wedding where you got to meet a lot of your relatives. That it passed off without incident has really heightened your sense of optimism! Maybe the mega-event you were part of a couple of days before the wedding was more exacting, and this one seemed like a cakewalk. Whatever it was, you emerged stronger and that’s what’s most important.

The sad part was four of your colleagues/friends chose to move onto different pursuits and pastures. Leaving behind a void that’s difficult to be filled. Your sounding boards, your shopping companions, foodies-in-arms… who says you cannot have friends at work? New people have entered your life and the future promises to be good! But the old bonds shall still remain, you cross your heart and hope!

It’s also been a great reading and ‘soaps-viewing’ year for you. You’ve binged on books and Western TV soaps as if there was an apocalypse waiting to happen. Hope you tone down the ‘viewing bit’ in the New Year. For there is only so much of ‘The Good Wife’, ‘Homeland’, ‘Veep’, Elementary’, ‘House of Cards’ you can watch when ‘Sherlock’s’ waiting round the corner.

Ah! You forgot that you turned 40 this year! An important milestone. That passed by without much fuss. Just the way you wanted it to be

As 2015 dawns and will bring with it an empty nest, heartburn and heartbreak, tidings and tribulations, the one attitude that will perhaps keep life going is, “It’s all good!”

Yes, “It’s all good!”

From
An older Rekha Baala