Monday, December 17, 2012


When I planned to start classes for ‘Spoken English’ for ladies, I had a fairly good idea of how to go about it. When I got an enthusiastic response from a heterogeneous group, I was happy on the one hand and apprehensive on the other. Some of them seemed to fit the bill as ideal student material with a little background in English. Others made up for their deficiency with their keenness and enthusiasm – they spoke nineteen to the dozen – in Hindi of course – that they were ready to continue – even for a year – till they learnt to speak English. It was heartening; it was even more challenging. When I started the classes, I came upon stumbling blocks but with a vehement determination not only on my part but also on the part of my eager students, we trudged on hand in hand – progressing slowly but steadily. Then there was no looking back.

What was imperceptibly apparent was that everyone understood - at least to a great extent - what I was speaking – in English of course. If any of them gave a quizzical look I would reframe my words. If they still didn’t follow, one of their friends would translate it in Hindi. I would turn a blind eye and a deaf ear – my students were probably under the impression that Ma’m wasn’t well-versed in Hindi! It suited me fine. But when I started teaching tenses I started explaining each tense with examples in Hindi so that they would understand better. It was a revelation to them!

They had teething troubles with subject-verb concord – especially in the present tense. Initially I kept stressing the drill practice as they stumbled. Soon some of those who had mastered it, enjoyed offering corrections. A handful of them were brimming with enthusiasm – they would discuss the class lessons for a good 15 minutes at the parking lot before dispersing to their houses! They even went a step further – they’d gather at one home for an hour on the non-class days and practice English. Isn’t it really heartening to have such sincere students – mind you – not the regular ones but ladies – home-makers - who have their hands full all 14-15 waking hours of the day?! One of them even started having dreams of our classes! Another would be so lost in her own world of English practice that her husband would have to jiggle her back to reality. A couple of them took my advice of ‘practice-conversations’ with family members so seriously that they got an earful from their kids who got very irritated at the long time their mom took to give them an answer in English. Others were better off – their kids were thrilled to help their mommies out! Some of them followed my ‘absurd-sounding’ advice seriously – they talked to themselves in English as they did their chores - when no one was around at home!

There were some funny moments as one of them would start a sentence in English, pause halfway through and ask for my approval. Another would try to modify her sentence and the former would change her half-sentence and ask me, ‘Correct?’ I would give a quizzical look and ask, “What do you want to say?” The others would burst out laughing saying, “We’ll make Ma’m forget her English”. Jokes apart, my students have graduated to correcting themselves, correcting others and best of all, speaking grammatically correct English.

On the flip side, in spite of my repeated requests that they should use English whenever they could and at least wherever the group met, they would make an instantaneous switch over to Hindi / Marathi the moment they crossed the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ (my front door, what else?) – even as I stood there to wave them goodbye! During the class, some would talk in monosyllables – I concluded that they were the reserved type. But there were times when they asked me for permission to switch to Hindi. When I gave the green signal, they indulged in what seemed an endless chatter! It was English that had rendered even the garrulous tongue-tied!

There were days when one or two couldn’t make it to class. The reasons - ranging from sick mother-in-law or stay-at-home kid / guests / celebrations …. to unavoidable chores / errands -  were all perfectly valid.  Sometimes they wouldn’t get time to complete their homework - again for perfectly valid reasons. I tried to motivate them more with a simple tactic – and it worked – yes, even with these adults. Yes, I gave 1-3 stars for their homework. The next class saw all of them vying to show me their homework! It was heartening to see the child in my adult students.

Well, I told you at the outset that I have a heterogeneous crowd – a few newly married; some in their late twenties; many of them middle-aged and a few in their fifties. Some of them were the mothers of my ex-students in College. A couple of them were in their 5th month of pregnancy when they joined. We appreciated their keenness – in fact we felt it was a double whammy for them – not only they but also their unborn ones were learning to speak English! Remember the recent news item about ‘Womb Tuitions’ - classes for pregnant women – to stimulate the brain of their Abhimanyus and to increase their IQs? On the other hand there were a couple of drop-outs too.

The reasons prompting these ladies to join my classes were varied too. Some needed the skill to be able to actively participate in school / other meetings or in their part-time office work. Others wanted to socialize more effectively at parties. Some wanted to be better equipped for their sojourns abroad. A few just needed that little push to boost their confidence and improve their fluency. In fact one of my students took off to the US soon after the course for four months to visit her son and she had a rollicking time in New York City, thanks to her self-confidence! She kept in touch through emails – describing how well she was handling situations there. In fact she saw ‘English Vinglish’ on the first day of release and sent me a mail saying that she was reminded of our English classes throughout the movie. And she suggested that I watch the movie with my current batch of students. In fact we had already planned it. Need I say we had a great time reliving moments from our class and agreeing with the multinationals at the English class in Manhattan as they proclaim “We are one big family.”

The ladies in each batch hailed from different states of India but they were all from the same neighborhood and some of them were already acquaintances. The group became one ‘BIG’ happy family as they bonded well – what with practice conversations on a variety of topics – about their school life, college life, parents, grandparents, home, family, friends, tours and celebrations. I had never anticipated that the classes would also lead to emotional attachment! There would be gentle ribbing – once the only lady in the batch with a single kid was being brainwashed by the others to try for a second child. During another conversation session, my students took us through a sea of emotions from laughter at their follies as kids to compassion and pity at their distressed childhood. A couple of ladies narrated about their marriage at the tender age of 17-18 and the adieu they bid to books. Another was lucky to get a chance to go to College, thanks to her yet-to-be-married elder sister – you see the parents didn’t want to have two daughters of marriageable age at home; at least they’d have the satisfaction to declare to the world that the younger one was going to college. One gave a graphic description of how she confronted robbers at home and her trauma; another gave a suspenseful narration about misplacing her ‘loaded’ (don’t misunderstand – it was loaded with jewels) purse at a hotel in an unknown place during a road trip and realizing it at the end of the day after driving some 250 kms! The story turned out to be an edge-of-the seat thriller! One student stirred our hearts by narrating how she had to balance between College and home with a paralyzed mother who needed her love and care. Yet another brought tears to our eyes as she described her impoverished childhood, her inability to go to school and how she managed to learn from a neighbor without her father’s knowledge and eventually managed to pass her SSC. We couldn’t help admiring her for her guts to complete her graduation and also making a mark for herself – not only is she now well off with a well-settled husband and two lovely kids but also engages in a lot of activities highlighting her versatility! That was one unforgettable class when emotions ran high. So you see apart from serving the primary purpose, my Spoken English classes have turned into a personal-bonding social site, ha ha!

As in any teaching situation, there is a lot of give-and-take. I learn the various angles in which my students view topics and keep incorporating precious additions to my teaching points! Considering the fact that fluent speakers of English have taken years to master it, these ladies have made admirable progress in a matter of months.
© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DIWALI - THEN & NOW ......

Diwali is a festival celebrated in various pockets of India with slight variations but with equal gusto. It brings to my mind the joy of the rustle of new clothes, loads of scrumptious snacks and stacks of light-and-sound crackers, Lakshmi Puja – not necessarily in that order for everyone! The festive spirit and enthusiasm is the same but as everybody knows, so very different from olden days!

Half a century ago – no, make it 4 ½ decades – I don’t want to look ancient, you see – Diwali for me was all about the shimmering ‘pattu paavaadai - blouse’ (silk lehenga-choli) specially procured for me and my sister by my mother from Madras whichever part of India my father was posted. I couldn’t simply understand the logic of oil bath before getting into our silks but mother ruled! I also remember my brother arguing that we girls got new clothes worth Rs.150 (those were the days!) while his shorts and shirt cost only half that amount and that he be compensated with extra crackers. His plea would be turned down by my parents as illogical (each of us were entitled to Rs.100 worth of crackers those days) but we girls willingly handed over a portion of our share of crackers to our brother - partly because of pangs of guilt and partly because we were scared of the loud crackers. 

boondi laddoo




ribbon pakkodam
All sweets and savories were home-made – mother would line up huge steel ‘dabbas’ full of ‘mixture’ and  ‘murukku varieties’ (‘thenguzhal’, ‘ribbon pakkodam’, ‘muthusaram’, etc). There would be three categories of sweets – a rich, special exclusive ‘badam halwa’ / ‘jangiri (imriti)’/ ‘boondi laddoo’ – for family and near relatives only. The second would be ‘gulab jamuns’/ ‘Mysore pak’ / baadusha /coconut barfi or its ilk – for family and distribution. The third was the simple (yet tasty mind you) ‘rava laadu’ – which we’d call a poor cousin of the others in spite of the embedded raisins and cashews and leave them aside exclusively for distribution. Mother would make packets for distribution among family and friends while the rest of the family would stare with dismay at the alarmingly rapid dip in the levels of the ‘dabbas’. Father would be vociferous in his objection – “You are distributing the entire stuff – you know I don’t eat any of the stuff from others’ places.” Dad was fastidious to the point of being prejudiced – he wouldn’t even taste any of the incoming stuff but just say he knew it wasn’t half as good as ours! We kids loved it if there was a box of sweets from a sweet mart amidst the sweets from friends because they were a rarity in our household!

When I set up my own home in Pune after my marriage, I realized another facet of Diwali I had hitherto been blind to – the cleaning operation – you see mom had not involved us in the job as she’d manage with the servants. Once I started working, it was a tightrope walk – especially during festivals. My vacation would invariably start just two days prior to Diwali, so I would have to streamline my schedule – cleaning would start a week before with the help of my maid and snacks would start off three days before the D day. I followed my mother to the T – similar sweets – oh yes, I can make jangiri and boondi laddoo too, not to mention all the others. My goodness! There would be so many friends among whom there would be exchange of sweets!  In fact there would be a sort of healthy competition amongst us in exhibiting our culinary skills through our original ‘special-invention’ snacks and also good natured exchange of recipes. Comments at home traced the same pattern as in my parents’ home. My family would say my items tasted the best – I guess the same dialogue would resound in every family! Some friends who would supplement the few home-made snacks with those from the bazaar would seem a little shame-faced and apologetic about it! Or was it just a figment of my imagination? I can’t say for sure!

Diwali meant silks for the ladies of even reasonably well-to-do South Indian families. My mother had started buying Kancheevaram sari for me for every Diwali since I entered my teens and so by the time I got married I had a stock of over half a dozen of them! This Diwali gift continued even after marriage. I’d look up colorful ads of Radha Silks, Nalli Silks and Kumaran Silks during Diwali season in Tamil magazines and choose the color or design for next year’s Diwali. I’d give my parents three choices in order of preference and they would get me one of them and see to it that it reached me well ahead of the next Diwali so that my blouse would be ready too – so you see being a Puneite, I always lagged a year behind a ‘Madrasite’ in terms of Diwali designs in silks! Not that it matters! As for clothes for the rest of my family, hubby couldn’t care less, so it was my insistence that would see him reluctantly don a new shirt. My sons were chips off the old block too – I would have to drag them to the readymade store. But they’d rather pick up a new pair of shoes – they were more into shoes than clothes! But when it came to crackers, they’d never cry ‘halt’ – we had to apply the brakes taking into account our budget. Thousand rupees – (even 600-700 for that matter) just going up in smoke in a matter of minutes was a bit hard to digest for us elders!

How times have changed! Very few prepare snacks at home now - I'm proud to say I am one. With most women working, ordering sweets has become the order of the day. Even home-makers feel there’s no point taking too much trouble preparing snacks and choose to place orders as everything is so readily available and money is not an issue. Naturally exchange of sweets has drastically reduced. In fact people prefer to exchange chocolates / dry fruits instead of bought sweets – what with dubious and adulterated sweets flooding the markets. So much for the thrill of Diwali sweets! Not to mention the calorie-conscious majority! Also, with more and more opting for designer wear / ready-mades from Malls / boutiques, there are lesser visits (chasing the elusive matching blouse) to the tailor who lords over his customers during this season. The buying power has shot sky high and there is one-up(wo)man ship in flashing branded clothes and accessories and exchanging rich gifts / giant boxes of dry fruits. However kids’ thrill in crackers remains unabated. And the varieties have become infinite and sophisticated!

True, India’s standard of living has vastly improved. Money is replacing personal involvement. The air at most homes is not permeated by the aroma of cardamom, saffron, ghee and hot oil - Diwali sweets arrive from reputed sweet shops. Shopping areas are choc-a-bloc with enthusiastic shoppers breathing down one another's necks; many have switched to online shopping. Greetings as well as compliments for one another’s Diwali clothes are exchanged in the lobbies / corridors of buildings as everyone goes out to visit family or on drives to their favorite spots. My evenings are best spent on the terrace watching the colorful electric lights blinking and beckoning from each flat and dazzling fireworks dotting the skies as every society bursts sophisticated fireworks!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Monday, October 15, 2012


‘Navaratri’ was just round the corner – it was time to bring the doll collection from their boxes resting on the loft. Hubby and sonny obliged me by helping out with them a day prior to the start of the festival. As I carefully unpacked each of the dolls from the old clothes-packing, each seemed to have a story to tell – the ‘Rama Pattabhishekam’ set, 'Shakti' in her various avatars, the 'marapaachi couple'…….. – all heirloom to me.
Last year I was abroad during the festival to be with my two-month-old grandson. The year before last, I had set up ‘golu’ on a grand scale and invited all my friends and neighborhood ladies for ‘haldi-kumkum’. The nine days always served as an excuse for all of us to splurge our exclusive silk saris and matching accessories. This also provided an occasion for Amma to sing all her favorite ‘keertanams’ – she’d drag me to accompany her especially when she had to touch the high notes. ‘Vaasudevayani’ and ‘paraamugamela’ were our masterpieces – it’s not anything close to a statement like ‘ranga pooravi haara’’ was one of M.S’s classics – we are just home-singers – a shade better than ‘bathroom singers’, that is!  The highlight of my previous ‘golu’ was my ‘Appa’s’ visit on Saraswati Puja evening. My parents were staying at a stone’s throw from my house. But Appa could not walk up the slope, so I brought him over by car to show him my ‘golu’. When I offered him the fancy bag with coconut, a little packaged gift and ‘chundal’ prasadam, he flaunted it with child-like excitement My Amma had also put up a small doll-show at her place. I’d help her out in preparing ‘prasadam’ every day and setting up a couple of packets for the ladies expected for the day. On ‘Dussera’, Amma’s close friends had come to her place in the evening and they had a long song session with Appa as the ardent audience. Appa was ecstatic when Amma sang ‘Jagajanani’ – he reminded her – “Remember something about this song? You had sung this when I had come to ‘see’ you.” He was referring to the ‘bride-seeing’ episode and Amma blushed a beetroot red and all had a hearty laugh. By the time the friends left it was well over nine. My parents spent another hour reminiscing about ‘those good old times’ before retiring for the night. 
Appa did not wake up after that; Amma was in a daze. Amma’s ‘golu’ continued to linger on till the rites were over. Only after the thirteenth day could the dolls be put away. Amma handed over  the best lot of her doll-sets and figurines to me – the ‘Dasavataram’set, the dancing Tanjore doll, these ‘pavai vilakku’ figurines, the fat ‘chettiar’ dolls, the cute blue crawling Krishna…… Now I held them lovingly in my hands as my eyes brimmed with uncontrollable tears. I had lost Amma just four months ago….

I told my maid – “Kamalbai, bring Gayatri along with you in the afternoon.” Kamalbai asked with a look of surprise – “Why Bai?” I told her that I needed her teenage daughter to help me set up the ‘golu’ as I was not able to manage single-handed – I wasn't young at 55! She wanted to say something but seemed to hesitate. “What is it Kamalbai?” I queried. She stuttered – “Bai, it’s just four months since Amma passed away. What will people say if you have a grand celebration?” I did not want to elaborate, so I just told her – “Kamal, you know how much Amma used to enjoy all the festivities and fun. This will be for her joy.” Kamalbai stood speechless.
She brought along her daughter when she returned in the ath the seven tiers, which were decorated with an off-white silk dhoti of my husband with Ganga-Jamuna borders of green and red. I picked out two colorful Kanjeevaram saris for the backdrop. 

The dolls were then arranged artistically – the large impressive ones right on the top ‘tier’, and the teeny weenie ones on the lowest, each step  having dolls of the same theme – ‘dasavataram’, ‘Ramayanam’, Gods and Goddesses, traditional women from various Indian states, fruits…. 

One side of the steps was exclusively devoted to a marriage-hall scene – the bridegroom and the bride standing with garlands in hands ready for the cue to garland each other as a couple of priests sat chanting inaudible mantras in front of the sacred fire. While ladies waited with trays laden with coconuts, fruits, sweets, flowers, the musicians played auspicious unheard melodies on their nadaswaram and mridangam. Men clustered around doing nothing in particular and kids squatted on chairs or floor. 

Marriage lunch was served on 'banana leaves' at the adjacent area.
Music concert was going on at the other end!

The wooden ‘marapaachi’ couple occupied center stage. Two huge silver lamps stood majestically on either side. 

More time-consuming would be the colorful ‘rangoli’ I 'd painstakingly make in front of the ‘golu’. I would try out innovative ones too.

Then on one side of the ‘golu’ was the village scene – a hill at the far corner with a temple positioned on its top. There were steps marked with white powder. Tiny people were climbing up or down the hill. 

At the foothill I made a village – complete with the green fields, farmers, tractor, a well, huts, women, cattle… Now have a look at the decoration on the left side of the ‘golu’ – it was a metro scene. A huge park was created on one side with a working fountain and a neat garden adorned with colorful little plastic pieces - swing, see-saw and slide and the kids having a blast, mamas with babies in strollers, scooters parked by…. The roads saw a continuous stream of traffic – ‘Matchbox’ trucks, Porsche / Honda / Jaguar cars, raced past the mall / multiplex adorning the other side of the road…..


As for the colorful festoons and streamers and decorative little bulbs, my son took charge and did a swell job as usual. I sat all by myself and admired the final result of the day’s labor – earlier Amma used to sit with me, offer little suggestions and finally go gaga over the spectacular ‘golu’ – at that time I would just regard it a ceaseless chatter, now I was left yearning to hear a word from her.

I would invite my friends over the telephone for ‘haldi-kumkum’ on different days of the navaratri period so that I would have a manageable number every evening and I could attend to them individually.  But now I did not feel like inviting anyone. 

I experienced a vacuum on the first evening – I missed Amma – she would be the first lady I would honor with the auspicious haldi-kumkum, betel leaves, betel nut, banana, coconut, special gift of the year, a small mirror, a little comb and a packet of the prasadam of the day ( a different variety of ‘chundal’ every day). That was the practice till the year before last. Last year as I was abroad, I was saved from the upheaval of not being able to offer Amma ‘haldi-kumkum’ as Appa had passed away. This year she herself wasn't around! 

Somehow I felt like keeping aside her special packet beside the ‘golu’. The silver tray with the silver holders for haldi, kumkum, chandan and rose water stood untouched. I just lingered in the room in silence throughout the evening which dragged on without the splash and rustle of colorful Kanchheevaram saris and ‘pattu pavadai’s donned by lissome ladies and little lasses of the neighborhood.

Amma was in my thoughts all through - I don’t know when I drifted off to slumber at night……

“Eh, listen.. Janani, your ‘golu’ is simply superb – even better than all the previous years!”

“You liked it Amma? I am so happy – I took extra pains to make it special for you.”

“I found my gift waiting for me – thanks. And oh yes, I noted you had prepared my favorite ‘kadala chundal’ today – very tasty as usual – it’s years since I've had that.”

“I’m very happy Amma. And the gift - did you like it?”

“You bet! No one can beat you at such selection. I can’t figure out how you manage to find such exquisite and exclusive little gifts.”

I gave her a naughty wink and a wide smile in reply to her generous compliments.

“But I have one complaint.”

“What’s that, Amma? Did I miss something?”

“You hadn't invited anyone for the ‘golu’ and so there was no fun. And there were no songs! Even you did not sing …. Why?”

“You know Amma, how do you expect me to celebrate – it’s just four months since you…”

“Well, you know I had come over here during Ganesh Chathurthi last month and what did I get to see? Nothing! And you gave me the same explanation!” 

As she paused, I remembered my dream that night…. Amma was saying, “What’s this Janani? Why is there no celebration? No new Ganesh idol, no decorations, no puja, and no ‘naivedyam’ of ‘kozhakkattai’ (modak).  I’m disappointed...” I had sobbed, “How Ma, how do you expect me to celebrate with you gone…” Amma tried to pacify me, “But how does that affect the daughter’s family ….?” I had interrupted – “I don’t believe in such illogical rules! My mother matters most to me. So don’t talk to me about rules! I shall hear no more… no celebrations at my place this year!”  But Amma also gave me an ultimatum “Well, I have always been very fastidious about festivals – you know that! I believed in traditional celebration. I had inculcated those values in you too and took pride that you were following my footsteps. It would please me to see the grand celebrations at your place through the year. As always…. remember…”

So that was exactly why I had decided to have this doll-show for ‘navaratri’. For Amma’s sake. I was overjoyed to see the contented smile on Amma’s face now as she continued, “Today I’m pleased that you have set up a grand ‘golu’. But listen, I don’t like this strange silence. I’ll be around for all the nine days and I want a riot of color and sound of music and festive fervor and fun resonating from the house, okay?”

“Right Amma……”

I woke up with a start, jumped out of bed and turned on the light. Amma was smiling at me from the large laminated photo.

Next day I dialled all my friends to invite them. 
There would be strains of music, sounds of chatter at my place this ‘navaratri’ as ladies and children would gather to admire my ‘golu’ and collect their goody bags along with ‘haldi-kumkum’. For Amma’s sake! 

Photos - Courtesy - my sister Hema Krishnan and her family.
Any resemblances to persons living or dead is coincidental.               

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


   (It is seven years since my father left this world. But it needs no saying that his loving care and gentle words and smile-inducing simplicity are sorely missed by the entire family.)
What strikes me most about my father is his simplicity. He was a ‘normal’ human being – simple to the height of being termed a Simple Simon, innocent to the point of being gullible, straightforward to the extent of  being ridiculed - with no frills or fancies but with fads and foibles and idiosyncrasies aplenty! You can say he was the most mediocre average person. 

A late child, with siblings eight and ten years his senior, he was a pampered kid who had perfected the technique of having his way by rolling on the roadside and yelling with his mouth open like the Panama Canal! A ‘mamma’s boy’, he chose to feast on the home-made curd rice exclusively prepared for him while the rest of the family honored a lunch invitation. In the family of gold medalists, he was content with the 40% he scored in mathematics in his school days – he was a normal average student. But then he went on to bag the gold medal for B.Sc (Hons) and again for Engineering – so you could say he was just being a ‘normal’ member of his ‘intelligent’ family. That he’d attribute this transformation in academic achievement to the change of ‘grahas’ in his horoscope, is a different story.

His life pattern followed that of any average person hailing from the middle class family – a decent job, a happy family with its values intact. He never resorted to unscrupulous ways to climb the ladder of success or amass wealth though opportunities fell onto his platter often – he had the strength of character to resist temptations. An honest and upright, sincere and hardworking officer, he climbed the ladder of his career with steady ‘normal’ steps. His normal middle-class tendency of saving every penny possible for a better tomorrow might have earned him the label of a ‘miser’ from some. But those in the know, knew he would unflinchingly spend on food and his family but never on his own clothes or accessories. If he had to go out alone, he’d choose to walk the distance or take a bus. But he’d play chauffeur to his dear wife or children without a murmur. We would rate him a clumsy driver but it is to his credit that he never had a single accident during the forty five years he drove his car!
He was not the archetypal father dreaded and distanced by the members of the family. He was the most adorable father – incapable of uttering a harsh word to the kids, protective, caring and ambitious for them. He’d baby-sit patiently and even sing to us or narrate stories. Oh yes, he’d also forget his kids in the parked car and walk home with the purchases from the nearby market! 

Yes, he loved it when we romped home with the first rank. But when others spoke highly about his son’s awesome serve in table tennis or fantastic bowling figures, he’d wear a ‘what’s-so-great-about-it’ look! He could not differentiate a cricket ball from a tennis ball!  

As a grandfather, he gloated over the academic achievements of the younger generation. He would listen to their animated discussion on sports with a deadpan expression, blatantly revealing his ignorance! A simpleton to the core, he never bothered to pick up sophistication! Even when we had guests for dinner, he’d start off even before them in spite of our secret gesticulations, and give us a wicked grin!

A wizard at dates and numbers, father soon started forgetting the same in his old age. Like any ‘normal’ old man, he too had his trysts with doctors and medicines; he had his share of worries, genuine and unfounded. But unlike Indian husbands of his generation, he was not a male chauvinist. His only hobby was to help mother in all her chores.

This man, with no tall claims to extraordinary genius or attainments, was a loving, lovable, down-to-earth person. Though quiet, shy, and reserved, he carved a niche for himself in the hearts of all relatives and friends and subordinates and colleagues. He has left normal indelible memories in the normal people associated with him. What I now realize is, you don’t have to be great to be remembered – you could be a normal person with a good soul without any tinge of meanness or wickedness! After all, ‘they also serve who wait and watch’.

Friday, September 7, 2012



‘Malligai en mannan mayangum ponnaana malarallavo’, ‘malligai, mullai poopandal’ ….numerous are the film songs about the fragrant jasmine varieties – during a recent trip to Bengaluru, I got a visual feast of huge balls of stringed flowers - of pristine jasmine and  bright orange 'kanakaambaram' and pink flowers. ....

Like any typical South Indian, I LOVE to deck my hair with flowers – 3 ‘mozham’ – approximately 3 feet length of stringed jasmine would be great – I could make four equal folds of it and pin it on to my hair. That would look great some 30 years ago when I had an enviable long and thick braid. Now I sport shoulder-length hair held with a clip – so I have to be careful not to look silly with strings of jasmine longer and thicker than my hair. Not that there is any chance for that – living in Pune, I manage to get jasmine flowers only for a couple of months during the summer. And I try to make the most of it then! I don’t care for the non-fragrant white ones available during the monsoons.

I had this ‘gajrawala’ who would land precisely during the season and regularly supply fragrant gajaras every day. It was pretty affordable at three feet-length of gajara for Rs. 5 till a decade ago. The cost soon doubled. But I didn’t give up my fad. This year it doubled again and gajaras were sold at Rs. 20 for the same length! I had to restrain myself to an extent! One day the florist didn’t have gajaras – she had just opened shop and she just had fresh jasmine flowers – unstrung. I decided to go for it – bought loose flowers for Rs. 10. She wrapped the flowers in a piece of newspaper and wound a long string around it and handed it over to me. I came home bubbling with enthu. Yes – I was going to string the fresh jasmine flowers myself – how long since I had done so! I unwound the thick thread and kept it aside carefully. I transferred the jasmine flowers on to a plate and sprinkled water on them. I wetted the string and started stringing the jasmine ….as my mind weaved nostalgic memories of the bygone years ……….

My father was on a transferable job – Bangalore and Pondy and Madras satisfied our craving for flowers – yes my mom and sis too shared the same love! But other postings were not so benign! My dad was posted to Port Blair way back in 1965 and I was packed off to Kerala to my grandparents’ and aunt’s to pursue my studies - ninth standard! Yes there was no High School in Port Blair then! Hm…Kerala – I went crazy with the dizzy fragrance of ‘malli’ / ‘mulla’ poo. There was this neighbor who would send – yes – three feet-length of jasmine flowers every day. I’d use half of it that evening and wrap up the remaining in a wet cloth (no fridge those days) for the next day – for school. Most girls too would wear flowers, so you can well imagine the pervading fragrance in the classroom!

Next Pondicherry! Whoa – it is a cousin of Madras – rich or poor I cannot say! So no dearth of flowers. An added advantage was our maid ‘Lakshmi’. Bless her soul – she was a head-turner alright – but for a different reason! She was just in her early fifties. Lean, dark, with tobacco-stained-giant protruding brown teeth that became more prominent when she giggled – which was almost always. My teenaged brother would snap at her, “Don’t show your ‘thenga thuruval’- pallu! (coconut-grater-teeth)” and she’d burst out laughing at that - exposing them even more! Ok, why I remember her at this juncture is – she was our 'flower girl'! Yes – she had a friend who was a florist and she’d frequent her at the end of the day and bring a huge ball of strung flowers or at least a big packet of loose flowers for a pittance. And all of us ladies would sit and string them – that was when mom taught me and my sister this simple yet useful craft. My mom also instructed us how to wet the dry ‘vaazha naar’ (thin bark of banana tree), make thin strings using a safety pin – and use them to string flowers. It took me a while to learn how thick or thin the bark should be so that it isn’t too sharp to cut the flowers being strung. Of course nowadays who has banana trees at the backyard? So a thick thread will suffice. Sometimes Lakshmi would bring jasmine alone, at other times even ‘kanakaambaram’ (the lovely orange non-fragrant flowers). I’d choose my sari for college as per the flowers available – an orange sari to go with ‘kanakaambaram’, a white one with

Sometimes there would be ‘maru’ (the ‘hm…so-fragrant’ tiny leaves) too strung along  with jasmine and ‘kanakaambaram’ and I had this special tri-colour sari to go with it. Very rarely we’d get violet ‘December’ flowers – so you can guess what color sari I’d wear with it. Ah yes – it was – ‘saris only’ in the early 70s for collegians in the South – not even salwar-kameez!

My parents moved into their own house in Madras after father’s retirement and they had a lovely garden. You guessed it – with my mom’s passion for flowers, how can it not boast of a beautiful and bountiful garden?! My dad’s evening routine included plucking jasmine and pichakam (jui) flowers (without missing a single one) – even using a chair to get those beyond his hand’s reach. My mom’s job was stringing them watching some programme on TV. There was never any time of the day she didn’t have flowers on her hair! When we’d go there on vacation, we’d join in the plucking and stringing activities and share the flowers – by ‘we’, I mean me and my sis – both of us have sons only – so there was no one else to share the flowers with! Some consolation?!.........

I have never strung flowers for a decade and a half! I felt good as I finished stringing them and took a look at the thick ‘gajara’. Even more so as I sported it and went for my walk – I could make out that my fragrant and extra-thick gajara made many heads turn. My friends took the liberty of scrutinizing and complimenting it. I made it a routine – buying loose jasmine flowers and making ‘gajras’ at home.

It has just struck me that this art which every South Indian girl of my generation is adept at, will soon be lost forever. My daughters-in-law don’t get a chance to sport ‘gajras’ – being in the US. I thought I should impart this skill to my six-year-old granddaughter – just for the heck of it! She is game for any craft – last time we visited her, we went crazy looking for craft boxes for her and finally got her a ‘bracelet-making kit’. I know what craft can be imparted to her the next time we meet - I’ll teach her and my youngest granddaughter too - to string flowers! YES!!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Monday, March 26, 2012


‘Kahaani’ lives up to our expectations. A suspense thriller, it is almost on par with the best Hollywood flicks of this genre. And Vidya scores again!

The film begins with a very much pregnant Vidya Bagchi landing at Kolkata International airport – she instantly wins us over – even as she single-handedly tackles the sea of taxiwalas almost pouncing on her to bag the prospective passenger. From then on we follow her in admiration as she undauntedly goes straight to the police station, then to the hotel, and soon to various offices – in her mission to find out her missing husband. Her heavily pregnant state and ‘no-nonsense’ demeanor and grit and guts completely win us over - along with the unbelievably chivalrous and soft-hearted police at the chowky – the charmed Rana is indeed Arjuna’s (Vidya’s) charioteer Satyuki – dropping her off, accompanying her and assisting and guiding her in her mission.

The characters are etched carefully and minutely – Vidya’s little mannerisms don’t escape our notice – her penchant for cleanliness even in the ‘less-than-mediocre’ hotel room, her playful amiability with the kids, her sense of humour with Rana, and her ‘one-track-mind’ which almost makes her forget her advanced stage of pregnancy as she restlessly flits in and out of overcrowded by-lanes and narrow buildings in the various scenes. The ladies in the auditorium can’t help gasping in concern – as the stream of pedestrians could bump into her and knock her down in their hurry! Way to go Vidya – thanks for packing more punch to women-empowerment! Undoubtedly Vidya Balan has already notched a place in next year’s awards nominations with her down-to-earth yet powerful portrayal. All the other characters are props but they leave an indelible stamp of their own – be it the soft-natured Rana, the tough-nut Khan, the gentle Agnes, the sleepy gunner Bob, or even ‘running hot water’ Bishnu.

This movie is an ode to Kolkata. Kudos to the cinematographer who has beautifully captured Kolkata in all its varied shades! We fall in love with the city (despite some of its dilapidated offices and ancient filthy tenements) – not only for its culture and metro and landmarks and a few modern buildings but also for the thronging crowds spilling out on the streets, and the yellow Ambassador taxis and hand-pulled rickshaws (we thought they had become extinct!). The early morning scenes bring a smile on our lips - and the only song in this movie is in Big B’s impressive baritone – haven’t we heard this one before? The dazzling Durga Puja scenes – with close-up shots of the Goddess in all her grandeur and glory are scene-stealers. The icing on the cake is the racy climax picturised amidst the Puja procession.

An edge-of-the-seat thriller from start to finish, the absorbing story and taut screenplay keep the audience guessing through and through. There is not a dull moment as we follow the protagonist who wastes no time as she tries to connect the dots to solve the mystery. The well-guarded suspense is maintained till the very last frame. Kudos to director Sujoy Ghosh and leading lady Vidya Balan for the crunchy treat! Certainly more than worth a ‘dekho’ – for the ‘kahaani’, suspense, thrills, Vidya and the visuals - not necessarily in that order!

© Copyright 2011. Brinda Balasubramonian.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


(Penned on my mother's third death anniversary)

When I was little and made tall demands
Ma, you’d say, “Don’t ask for the moon!”
Soon a time will come when my grand kids
can plan their honeymoon on the moon!

With so much technology and advancement
can’t I hope for some 11G smart phones,
to call our dear departed
wherever they might be?!
Then my first call will be to you, Ma!
Remember you’d talk to me some 40 minutes
every single day for tidbits and updates.
I have a lot of catching up to do now –
It’s two – wait – three years since you bid adieu!

You considered your children as crucibles
to pour in your cribs and complaints –
Most of them insignificant and baseless,
A few grave, others beyond our control!
That was your nature Ma – harping on endless trivia!
And I’d typically pooh-pooh your unfounded fears!!

We’d go on and on about some day-to-day issue –
“The power-cut has been increased to three hours.”
“But Ma, you have the inverter, don’t you?”
“What will happen in the summer?”
“We’ll think about it then, Ma! Why, you can come down to my place."
“Oh, but I can’t use the lift there!”
“Why not?”
“Can’t trust the fickle power, that’s why!”
“As it is, you don’t go out much, Ma!”
“It’s all very easy for you to say!”
We did have good repartees, no Ma?

I know you never liked your ‘kids’ answering back!
But we too have our say Ma.
You simply loved to look for problems rather than solutions!
If they were minor ones, we’d let you cling on to them,
So you wouldn’t come up with fresh ones!

Some other day, your target would be the maid –
“You know Kala bai turned up an hour late!”
“It’s ok Ma! You don’t have any office-goers!”
“But I can’t have all the housework pending.”
“Well, Ma, she doesn’t have a watch!”
“Ok, go ahead and buy her one!”
Really Ma, you sure had a sense of humor even in your anger!

Another complaint was about the regular tender-coconut-vendor -
“He has not turned up for the past three days!”
“Have something else – ‘nimbu paani’ may be?”
“Can ‘nimbu paani’ equal tender coconut?”
I guess not – stupid me!
There could be no substitutes or adjustments for you, Ma!

Sometimes you’d be agitated with yourself!
“I keep forgetting and misplacing things.”
“Quite natural – you’re getting old, Ma!”
“Not me! Even you are forgetful – didn’t you say so?”
“Yes of course – though I’m much younger!”
“But you have your hubby to hunt for the stuff.”
What’s the connection, I’d ponder.
Stupid of me not to realize you miss appa!

At times you’d complain about sleepless nights.
“I took a sleeping pill prescribed by my doctor.”
“See that you don’t get addicted, ok Ma?”
“All very easy for you to say!”
“Ma! It’s a common complaint in old age.”
“How do you know when you aren’t old?”
I’d feel like tearing my hair but would end up
Clutching my head to retain my cool.
“Why don’t you make up with a nap?”
“A long nap will again result in a sleepless night.”
Always you had to have the last word, Ma!

‘Your brother hasn’t called for over a month.’
‘He must be globe-trotting as usual, Ma.’
'Tell me which country is so backward -
without phone facilities? 
And doesn’t he have the Blueberry or Strawberry….?’
‘Blackberry, Ma!’ I’d chuckle at your wit.
The next day you’d go ga ga over your son’s call –
His long conversation, his concern, care and affection.
You’d blow hot, blow cold – always spontaneous, always blunt.

Most days you had my sister’s company
at home and for small outings.
Some weekends you’d call me after your nap.
‘I’m bored – is there anything worth a watch on TV?’
I’d suggest a musical extravaganza or dance program
Which would have you glued for the whole evening.
Now whenever I’m watching them I can’t but think of you!

You were my window to our family, Ma!
Your calls would connect the dots
To uncles and aunts and cousins.
You’d talk nineteen to the dozen
And I’d be very calculative with my words!
Now I realize what I miss –
I wish I’d spoken what you’d have loved to hear
Rather than being just matter-of-fact.

I want to flip back the calendar by some four years -
Just to hear your non-stop chatter all over again.
Or I wish to get connected to you in the other world -
I know you’ll have lots to share about these three years!
I'm just waiting for another Steve Jobs with fingers crossed!
Believe me, it’s just a matter of time! Or isn’t it?

© Copyright 2012. Brinda Balasubramonian.