And So, Uranus

Posted in FrontPage by Jayasri on February 20, 2015



And so, Uranus, here we are at that golden shresht birthday hubb . I got there a few months earlier, but you knew I’d wait there at the corner till you caught up, didn’t you? I have with me every little gem that we made together, and  I’m sure you do too.  You started out all those years ago as the shorty sitting in the first row in the class photo, while I beamed sheepishly standing three rows behind. Niether of us noticed , when you grew those inches and when I stopped,  what with my drawing a tray with two doodh pedhas and two tumblers of water on the margins of my rough notebook, pokerfaced, while you cracked up in Silvie’s class  and ended up being asked to “get out of the class” for your troubles.

And how clever of you, to improvize, and inflict on Ms Jayashree the little essay in Hindi, about  Deepavali ek shresht hubb hai. Kyonki hum nayi kapde pehente hai.  And further,  hum nayi kapde pehente hai kyonki Deepavali ek shresht hubb hai. Sigh, that must be the first of our gems,  though I can scarcely remember  when we got started.

Soon , though, we had everyone thinking we were twins, and we still do that even now, like when I walk into Arushi, looking at all the magic that you are making, and  the nice lady draped in one of your designer sarees widens her eyes on seeing me, and asks, “your sister?”

Do you remember that time a year ago  at  Jeanne’s the girl giving you a pedicure asked us that question,  and you , put on my poker face, and replied, “we’re twins”?  And we are, too.  Mostly I’m the quiet poet, and you are the charming friend magnet. Everyone wants you for a friend. And many must wonder why you have me for a friend.

But I wonder how we can be anything else.  You and I, we both  know there can be no better best friends than us. We have our gam-gala,  and  Iskanta and Ammallidoddi and a thousand things in-between  to prove that. I have that mad urge to pause  at the french door of that restaurant here in Herndon, and laugh like the grannies of Onida  KY Thunder Series ad, rolling on the ground, thinking about a flag-march in a Jaipur Hotel that never happened.

I am sorry I have killed your love for “aye mere watan you ki logon” by saying  Nehru wept because he wanted her to stop singing. But, as your best friend, your honorary twin, I knew it had to be done.   Call it my revenge for shooting up and growing taller than me, if you like.

Can you think of anyone else you’d rather be with when the little Road Runner surpasses your expectations in her 12th standard results, and calm her down, soothe her,and tell her you’ll be along home immediately, hang up, and  laugh, rather diabolically for a mother? Are  we not the cool mother-aunt duo who do cool things and  the cool things are cool because we do them?

Oh, I’ve loved our trips to Okalipuram, and can still laugh at the day when it rained on us, sitting in the back seat of the beat-up Fiat, while it respectfully bowed as it passed Basha from his window!  And coming upon good old Ammallidoddi on our visit to Kabbalamma.  Very naughty of you though to call out loudly to Raja and tell him, brightly, that I  remembered your dad’s name for him. Kari Dore  is not offended, I know, but still………….!

But it’s been a privilege to watch you grow from the lady who gave motifs and patti and talked  to picky custombers politely, through clenched teeth,   to the designer in demand that you are today. I have tormented you by playing it back to you after they left, but  I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I haven’t yet actually heard anyone say “Nee daggara Arushi cheera leda?” but I know what I’ll say when I do.

Through school and college, you were the smart,  cool lady I wanted to be. and then I saw how you were with little Jenu, the joy that you brought to being her mother, and the fierce love that drives you defend loyally everyone you hold dear, when you have to. That , I know includes me.  and knowing that, I certainly don’t wish to on the other side, at the receiving end of the fireworks!

So, today, on this milestone huttid hubb, let me say, how grateful I am that we are in each other’s life,  how rich I know myself to be.

Gulab jamuns shall be made today. Tale tale mein gol gol, you know, and  eaten to mark the occasion, the next best thing to being there with you, and falling off the chair, laughing about nothing , and everything!










Laahiri Laahiri Laahiri Valentine

Posted in FrontPage by Jayasri on February 13, 2015

Today, I watched, for the umpteenth time,  a bit of  that adorable movie, Mayabazar,  which has been, ever since I watched it for the first time in a tent ,  when I was about  ten,  the movie that has answers to every question that you would have asked your  grandmother , if only you could. When the  Laahiri Laahiri  Laahiri Lo began playing,  it struck me that this song from 57 years ago was telling me a thing or two about Valentine’s Day.  Pointless and silly as the concept is.

Consider the scene in which  Abhimanyu strolls up the garden path to stand under  Shashireka’s balcony. The  young lady has been  grounded by her mother for  daring to  spurn the gifts sent by her mother-in-law to be, and she is moping, wondering how to get the word out to  Abhimanyu, the love of her life.

An arrow suddenly lands at her feet, and  within minutes, the son of Arjuna builds a “staircase of arrows” for Shashirekha to descend, and they make off for the  riverside, where they are soon ensconced in a gondola, singing  “Laahri laahiri laahiri lo, oho jagame oogenuga..”  A palace guard chances upon them and  gleefully runs to inform Shashirekha’s parents, the imperious Balarama and his domineering wife, Revathi.

However, when they arrive on the scene of crime, they see it is Krishna and Rukmini romancing each other, for the all-knowing Krishna has sensed that the young lovers need some avunclar rescuing, and  drags wife Rukmini to an unscheduled  gondola ride and some mutual serenading.  Walking back, Krishna slyly suggests that the boat ride is a great way for couples to reconnect, and no one is too old for a bit of romance. Well,  the boat was there, and  love was in the air,  and Balarama needed his wife to forget their  rebellious, opinionated daughter for a wee bit,and so they went ahead and  finished the song. And felt all the better for it.  Although they didn’t see their way to relenting  on their daughter who , they believed, was locked up in her room, her tantrums for company.

Silly and pointless, clearly,  love’s little games are not.  Krishna tells us so. He orchestrates the Raas Lila, and every girl comes away thinking Krishna is hers alone. The older Krishna then orchestrates another kind of   love lila- be it uniting Arjuna and Subhadra, or  as in Mayabazar, Abhimanyu and Shashirekha. The artful organizer of happy-endings  has everyone thinking  everything is going according their plan, until the end.

With Gatotkacha’s help, some magic and lots of  good humor,  he has Shashirekha transported to  where Abhimanyu is hiding under Gatotkacha’sprotection, and the affable, adorable  rakshasa son of Bhima  returns , takes on the form of Shashirekha, and terrorizes Lakshmana , son of Duryodhana and the groom intended for Shashirekha.   Once the wedding muhurtham passes, he reveals himself  , and the wedding of Abhimanyu and Shashirekha is presented as fait accompli.

So it all boils down to this. There are those who see Valentine’s Day as evil,  and will foil the plans of those who celebrate the day. There are others who wish to make it special, and some others who  serendipitously,  come upon a gondola ride down the river, and choose to  take it.

I confess that I find Valentine’s Day a nonsensical idea, and  the closest I came to marking the day was last year, when I got the spouse to take me out in the morning sun for a romp in the snow , where a snowman was already melting. It just happened to be  Valentine’s Day , February 14, 2014.  But my heart is in the right place, and I  wish that today,  Krishna has planned happy-endings for everyone who wants it.

Bye. I now need to urgently go back to  Mayabazar.  There is no such thing as too much Mayabazar.

Baby Shower Babble

Posted in FrontPage by Jayasri on April 29, 2014

Baby poems



When my cousin Neeraja invited me to a baby shower she was hosting last week,  I immediately said yes. I did not know the mother-to-be, but Neeraja told me she is the grand-niece of  D.K Pattamal, she of the  Female Trinity of Carnatic Music.  There were going to be other interesting women, and it would be an enjoyable evening. When you are a journalist,  sans the cynicism, and  listening to people, watching them, and  talking to them is what you do for a living,  you  generally find that any gathering can become as interesting or as boring as you make it.   

The real reason Neeraja didn’t have to persuade me was  the fact that it was a baby shower.  I never cease to wonder at the power that a baby exudes over adults. Even when it’s not born. The mere news of a baby’s  imminent arrival, somewhere in our orbit, does strange things to the mind. Happy-strange things. Normally serious-faced people go about with goofy smiles, or act extra tender when they come within ten feet of the mother-to-be, and  the father-to-be gets his shoulders thumped, and silly things are said by people who are not normally expected to  be affected by such news.

At a baby shower,  there are no inhibitions. Everyone is allowed, rather,  expected to  be goofy, and  indulge in baby-talk  freely, perhaps even try to outdo each other in talking baby, exclaiming over teddy bears, rompers, blankies, bassinets, crib, bib, lullabies,  picture-frames and the like.

And why not.

At Neeraja’s on Sunday afternoon ( we couldn’t miss it, with all the balloons, and buntings that announced this was the place, and  she had even drawn an auspicious kolam for the touch of  the Tamilian home) all menfolk were banished. Gladly, I suppose. The husband had offered to drive me to Rockville, and  hang about the nearest Barnes & Noble’s for the next couple of hours, chiefly because he loves me very much, and also, I suspect, due to the fact that a baby was involved!

Is it necessary to add that the day before, we had great fun picking out a present for Ishu, the mother-to-be, and  even chose the most adorable card, with a rocking horse and some beautiful verse.

I think I was the last to arrive, and the fun and games were in progress. You’ll meet some really neat people, Neeraja had said. Of course, It turned out that I was one of those “neat people”–The moment Neeraja introduced me,  everyone asked me how my writing was going on, and what was I writing about.

It didn’t feel at all like I was meeting everyone for the first time.  It was truly “neat” to meet  Chandra,  Uma, Latha, and of course, Ishu, the hero of the evening,  who it turned out was having twins!  I just hoped  the two little bundles of joy would learn to share the toy I had got them.

Though there were more than a dozen women, for about a quarter of an hour, there was quiet, barring some loud-thinking by someone trying to find the words in the game grid, and unscrambling the jumbled words- the games that Neeraja had set for us to play.  I learnt a new word-  onesies. It was the only word ( of 24) that I failed to get. This was a baby-themed puzzle, and everything else had been a breeze. This proved to be a toughie even for those who’ve had babies!

I was chuffed when Neeraja announced I’d won a prize.  And the other prize was won by Raji.

When Ishu opened her presents,  there were a couple of onesies! (an infant’s one-piece close-fitting lightweight garment, usually having sleeves but leaving the legs uncovered and fastening with snaps at the crotch, says the dictionary) most of them had known about the twins. Uma had crocheted and knitted  two  lovely blankies that I’m sure the two babies will never outgrow.  There were bibs and booties, little day suits and stuffed animals, who I’m sure are going to come alive and  have the most exciting adventures that a child ever imagined, in the coming years.

I had taken along a loaf of banana bread , and was pleased that it was pronouced “delicious”.  I gorged on the lemon rice ( Chandra’s) and  quinoa salad (Uma’s) and  samosas. I brought back some strawberries, which Neeraja said, had been sliced by her husband.

Neeraja had meant this evening to be about women bonding, and  a baby shower, is a great way to make it happen.  A baby shower detoxes you of cynicism, and accords you the luxury of  guilt-free enjoyment of  the pure innocence that surrounds babies like an aura. Apart from the unadulterated joy that the presence of a baby brings into one’s life. Any baby, not necessarily your own.

That  private world that little Chichu and I  lived in for a few months, when each day, he’d wander into my apartment, and we’d  go through the ritual of  playing with my doll, Gita Paapa, rubbing her face with baby lotion, and admiring our handiwork, and holding her , standing  before the mirror. That  gasp of  anticipation and the  joy that lit up his face as he ran up the corridor asking to be carried.  They chase the blues away.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through your hair once every day, Audrey Hepburn advises.  Let a baby walk through your thoughts once a day, to feel beautiful all day, she might have said.


Eat No Meat Here, It’s No Maas Media

Posted in FrontPage by Jayasri on April 22, 2014

IT’s been a few days since the meaty lunchbox was banished from the precincts of The Hindu. Everybody has an opinion on the matter. There are people who would take up cudgels on behalf of the meat-eating employees who, they allege, are being forced to become vegetarian and “Brahmin in their thinking”.

People who have never entered the portals of  The Hindu and by virtue of their  tweets, , probably never will,  suggested, ” The Hindu should rename itself  “The Brahmin”, and  urged the proprietors to  display a signboard to say “Only Brahmins need apply”, and a third suggested wrapping chicken kebabs in  the newspaper would be the Gandhian way to protest.

Now,  I have been a The  Hindu insider,  and you don’t need to be one to know that all  vegetarians are not Brahmins , employed at The Hindu or not. The second suggestion  is  absurd. The accent  at the Hindu, in fact, is on diversity. As for the final  suggestion, being kebab wrapper I’d say is an upgrade from the days a few decades ago, when grandma’s wisdom suggested   yesterday’s newspaper made cheapest baby wipes.

I admit I am a vegetarian and until this  advisory  came up, I never really considered what might be going on  in the mind of  the non-vegetarian employee of The Hindu. Or  what the vegetarian in The Hindu canteen might be thinking. Speaking for myself,  the only thing that’s important to me is what’s on my plate. My best friends are non-vegetarians. When we eat out  they order what they like, and I order what I like, and of course we all sit at the same table.

I am trying to  recall what  my colleagues at the Hindu did at the canteen. I don’t remember  anyone  opening their  dabba of chicken biriyani, or anything non-vegetarian. In fact most of us  did not carry a lunchbox from home at all most days, because it was more convenient to eat at the canteen.  Our colleagues from other newspapers frequently asked if they could come over and lunch at our canteen.

In the newsroom, lunchboxes often got opened and passed around  if someone got hungry, or  brought something interesting,  or   Ramesh Vangipuram  brought his sack of Krishna Janmashtami goodies, or someone had a birthday. or ordered pizza (vegetarian, I admit)

There might have been at some point someone who brought some non-vegetarian  food. No one asked, or said anything.  I’m guessing  they’d have ordered  non-vegetarian if  it was available in the canteen, and were  generally happy to eat whatever is available- viz. a  decadent spread of saapad with sambhar, rasam, palya, appalam, pickle and curd. On the other hand, I’ve known many of them to order vegetarian at the Press Club, even though a non-vegetarian menu is served there. There was none of the offending or offense-taking  that is being implied between  colleagues.

What if anything has changed, after the   advisory was issued?  Very little, I’d say.  The HR manager is not necessarily speaking for every vegetarian in the building, and  he has doubtless verified facts before saying that non-vegetarians are in the minority.  This minority knows what to expect, and  abstinence while on the premises is not asking for the impossible– most non-vegetarians  often abstain even when they are not  at work, for  personal, spiritual, and health reasons..  Besides,  what are the chances of someone  actually bringing a non-veg meal into the building, and that some vegetarian/non-vegetarian tattletale is  going to  spill the chicken on a meat-chomping colleague?

This is  more akin to a case of  telling  non-smokers  to refrain from smoking!

Meanwhile conversations on FB are meandering from The Hindu canteen into Hindu spaces. “The notice of the Hindu management is nothing but insulting the Dalit-bahujans and non-Brahmin castes and their food cultures” says  someone on a group that I desist from naming here.

When will the day come when Dalit journalists conduct beef festivals in media houses in this great democracy! exclaims another, while someone else compares it to  the ban on sale of eggs at Rishikesh-Hardwar. 

When will the day come when Dalit journalists conduct beef festivals in media houses in this great democracy!exclaims another!  

I think my takeaway from here  is “beefing up the media house equals Dalit empowerment”


I Wish I Was Back In Babelore

Posted in FrontPage, Literary Lapses by Jayasri on April 19, 2014

Some years ago, I was walking into the Conference Room in Vidhana Soudha to cover the press conference of the Chief Minister,  H.D.Kumaraswamy,  while speaking on the cell with a cousin. I spoke in Tamil, and  after a few minutes  I hung up, and found myself a chair. A journalist from another newspaper slid into the seat next to mine, said hello and asked, in Kannada, “Madam how come you are speaking  the Konga bhasha? ”  I replied that’s because I was a Konga. He had the grace to blush, and mumbled his apologies but he was also surprised to learn I am not Kannadiga.

I told him there was no need to apologize, as he had no way of knowing this , but couldn’t  resist telling him that I was quite conversant in 75 per cent of  South Indian languages. At home the lingua franca is Tamil, but it’s simply impossible not to pick up some Telugu when you have seven uncles and six aunts who were born and raised in Nellore, and argued ( they call it conversation) in the only language in which mythological movies must be watched.  My second language at school was Kannada, and  it was also generally the language in which I played, but  there never was any occasion to learn  even a smattering of Malayalam.

Now everyone knows, or has often lamented the  penchant of many Kannadigas to deny their language, and  reams have been written about the Kannadiga pride in displaying  ignorance of their own language. When two Malayalis or two Andhraites meet, the happily lapse into their language, whereas the Kannadiga , so the common complaint goes,  will lapse into English.

This was the theme  of  friend   Sandhya Mendonca’s blog a couple of days ago- in which she pointed out that many Indians are bilingual, and  can switch between the languages with great felicity.  I have always been amused to see my father and his five siblings communicate – one pair of his sisters would speak to each other in Dharwad Kannada, my dad and his elder brother  too spoke to each other in Dharwad Kannada, and the other two sisters spoke Tamil to each other. But if the pairs broke up,  Tamil was the medium!

I  enjoy  my GP Rajaratnam and Kailasam in Kannada, I can identify a  Bharatiyar gem or two in Tamil , and  as for Telugu,  there is no greater joy than to watch the movie Mayabazar and soak in the romance of  Lahiri Lahiri or laugh till I get stitches in my sides at Vivaha Bhojanambu. I find Thyagaraja and Purandardasa equally epiphanic in their respective languages,  and despite a limited understanding of literary Tamil, I enjoy the occasional Rajaji’s Korai Onrum Illai  for the voice of MS,  and  take a guilty , childish pleasure in  parodied  renderings of K. B. Sundarambal’s  Avvaiyar songs. And of course,  knowing Kannada has been a great boon- I have taught myself to read  my grandfather’s Telugu translation of Valmiki Ramayana, since the scripts are similar.

My life has changed in the last five years, and I now live in a place where knowing 75 per cent of South Indian languages has been of little help.  The husband speaks Malayalam, the 25 per cent that I never  learnt!

Which means,  we are now a 100 per cent English speaking family. And I have begun to recognize that  it takes a lot of effort to learn a new language, never mind the comforting “its very easy,  just like Tamil,” etc.   I was on the plane to visit  cousin Meenakshi in Minnesota a few months back, and it turned out I was the only desi among the 30 odd passengers on the tiny plane. both onward and the return flight. It was any icy winter morning, on the return flight, and we were delayed an hour  while the plane and the tarmac got a wash. I passed a good deal of the time thinking I could say things in four languages (including Hindi) to anyone on the plane, and no one would even know  that  they were getting gibberish of four kinds!

Which brings us to my present peeve. In order to speak lustily and for long in Kannada, Tamil, or  even Telugu, I need to call friends and family back home in India, or here in the US.  There are reasons why when I hear these three languages in this wonderful land  that I currently call home , I  turn away, move to another aisle, or pretend I am not there at all.  Experience is a great teacher. I mostly blame the knol khol pyramid at the Korean store, Lotte’  Plaza where you can buy  dosakai  (Mangaluru Southekai) under a  gantry sign that  loudly declares “DOSAKAI).

There is a lot of Telugu to be encountered at  say  Lotte’ ,  COSTCO, or Walmart, and  Tamil, and much Malayalam. Kannada, on the other hand, is  rarely heard.  So I could barely conceal my delight when I heard this urgently pregnant  woman  contemplating the knol khol in her hand, and wondering, loudly, “idu knol khol allva?”

Too excited to  consider that it might be a bad idea, I  cheerfully volunteered, “howdu, idu knol kholenay“, because I had asked myself the same question when I first visited  this store. One can never be sure of  our familiar veggies  knol khol, seemebadnekai that goes by the exotic name of chayote, in this country . They tend to be giant sized, and most of the time, quite tasteless . I long for  the pungent “aroma” of  a radish simmering in the sambhar nearly as much as I pine for a  chinwag in Kannada. With someone sitting by me, on the same couch. Not over telephone .

Well, the upshot of my  interjection was that we were soon talking about Uma theatre, Bull Temple, Gandhi Bazar, and so on, and exchanged phone numbers. . A couple of weeks later, she called, and asked if i was interested  in a project. I am mortified to say I failed to see through her  jargon and  was in denial when the husband said it sounded like an Amway scam. I asked for more details, and found out, indeed, that it was Amway. I  told her I wasn’t interested, and forbade husband from every mentioning this episode again, if he wanted  his parippu prathaman

So you see,  I can’t be blamed for  being wary of  Kannada- speaking pregnant women on the loose in   Herndon Halli, and  turning to   FB, youtube and my  small library of Kannada books  to my regular fix.  The important thing is to know  you may take me out of Kannada, but you cannot take Kannada out of me. On this cliche’d note,  I end, yearning deeply for my Babelore!

Light & Delight In Belgaum

Posted in Anecdotage, FrontPage by Jayasri on February 25, 2014

The Lamplighter 

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

In A Child’s Garden of Verses,  Robert Louis Stevenson  writes  of  Leerie the Lamplighter who  went around, lighting the gas lamps in the streets of Edinburgh. Stevenson was a sickly child  who spent a great deal of time indoors,   and ,  looking out of the window  waiting for the lamplighter to come by, must have been something he really looked forward to. In the poem, he wants to grow up to be a lamplighter, rather than a sailor,   a driver like his siblings, , or a banker like his father. 

A much-thumbed copy of the book remains an eternal favorite, but Leerie lumbered back into our lives from the distant past this week, much closer home!  For some time now, Father has been urging me to write about those days , the 1930s ,when  Belgaum had no electricity, and  there was Leerie to light up the streets of the town at sundown each evening, and what happened in  homes filled with children as they sat around  a warm lantern and wondered about the creatures lurking in the dark regions beyond the circle of light.

It struck me that, 75 years ago,  Father and his generation made a transition far more important than my own barely 25 years ago, when I witnessed the passage of the typewriter from the office room to the museum,  as computers replaced the now archaic contraption that 20-year-olds don’t even know about.  I’m quite certain there is no parent of  25-year-olds  who would care to explain white ink,  carbon paper, and  a gadget that had no delete button.  And kids no longer believe there were machines that didn’t run on electricity, or that there was no autocorrect or spellcheck. All we had was  a much ticked off teacher brandishing a foot-ruler that she threatened to lay on our knuckles!

Electricity.  It came to Belgaum in the 1930s. 1933, Father reckons.  Everyone welcomed it, and embraced the power it gave them. They could go to the cinema, and stay out even after sunset.  Standing around street corners,  they could linger longer at the vegetable vendor’s cart, driving a hard bargain. The scent of jasmine would  remind them to stop to buy a string for the lady at home.

But something was lost too.  No more did the municipal employee, aka Leerie the Lamplighter, stride down the road, wielding his stick, lighting  the street lamps that ran on coal gas. And no more would kids look out the window,  in the mornings, as he came to clean the lamps.  it would be pointless to fantasize about a career in lamplighting.

When we were in primary school, my fantasy was to be picked as the bell ringer  -who got to say “Excuse me , Miss, but it’s time to ring the bell for the next period.” I’d  set my watch 5 minutes faster in Hindi class, and  we’d any way lose enough time in the beginning of Ms Jayashree’s class, by choosing to  devoutly sing “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory…. .” for about 6 minutes.

As it happened,  Viji got picked for the job , and  Ms Jayashree had by then  caught on. She forbade us from singing that song, and  gave us just one minute to pray quietly, before start of the class- it wouldn’t do for word to reach the ear of the Headmistress, Sister Stanislaus, that she hadn’t allowed us to pray. Besides, when we actually made it to  high school,  no one really wanted to be bell-ringer,- the idea had palled,   and we had moved on to more sophisticated methods of  shrinking  Ms Jayashree’s class-  Mills & Boon hidden between the covers of the Hindi textbook, for one, and  getting a few girls to ask , once more, if the table was feminine or masculine.

There doesn’t seem to be much that you can google up about  lamplighters in India. However,  I think it’s safe to assume that it was pretty much similar to what England boasted at the time. And I did find this most interesting blog  by a passionate Victorianist–  lamplighterlives!  and   it’s quite plain that the job description of lamplighters in Belgaum was similar to that of the Londoners.

They lit the lamps each evening, by means of a wick on a long pole. And at dawn, they returned to put them out, using a small hook on the same pole. The earliest streetlights  were candles, and then the oils and  in the latter part of the 19th century,  of coal  changed lighting forever, in turn evicted by electricity.

Lights were lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were generally candles, oil, and similar consumable liquid or solid lighting sources with wicks.Lamplighters had other jobs as well.  They served as watchmen, as they went about the streets at night, which could have been regarded more as a sinecure , while they went about doing their day job!   They had to clean the lamps, do regular maintenance that included changing oil or gas mantles.

Hardly glamorous, but to a child looking out of a window, nothing could be more magical than the circle of golden light around a lonesome pole as the evening shadows lengthened, and no one more heroic than the man who made that magic happen.

Before electricity vanquished darkness, it’s black,  impenetrable presence hid a thousand fears, both real and imaginary.  The phalanx of imagined enemies, spirits of the “neitherworld”, bhoota, devva, mohinis, rakshasas lurked in its folds waiting in that realm, waiting for victims. They screeched , wailed, and laughed raucously, made things fall, and frightened unsuspecting people to death.  It was a time when no child needed to be told twice to  pray-No grandma had to repeat her at once peremptory and cajoling instruction to the grandchildren to get inside and pray to Hanuman, Garuda and Bhima to keep watch over them, and keep the scary dreams at bay!

Birds still do that. As the sun goes down, they  cease their wanderings and flitting about, and return to their nests. Every one is counted, and the treetops turn into a riotous orchestra of chirps and twitter. Only  now we don’t notice them much,  and if we do want any part of it, we’d have to go pretty far away from  our own nests in search of them .

At home,  today, we  take electricity for granted. Power failure doesn’t bother us. We breezed through the eighties with the reality a  of  television without a remote ( not that we needed one in the eighties,  when all we had was Doordarshan, and we watched everything from Krishidarshan and Samachar by Salma Sultan  with the rose behind her ear, and everything in-between and put the TV to bed at 9 , or was it 10 pm? )   Since the nineties, a thousand channels and a remote have enslaved  people who device many cunning ways to beat  power failure so the TV doesn’t stop playing.We have the new genie called uninterrupted power supply.

Electricity has shrunk the night,  and the monsters that scared and thrilled us  are exposed,  limp, lifeless, and not even comical. Imagination has abdicated to hypnosis of the idiot box. Breaking news has more TRP ratings than breaking dawn.

In Headmaster Ramabrahma’s Belgaum home 75 years ago,  the lengthening shadows beckoned the  boys playing outside home, and  the night fell on empty streets, barring a few stragglers who hurried home, and the lamplighter, whose “day” was only just beginning.

Inside,   it was time to light up the lamps. There were all kinds of lamps to choose from-  kerosene lamps, paraffin lamps. There were petromax lanterns and chimney lamp.  Duplex lamps had double wicks and chimneys that allowed the light to be dimmed or brightened with the turn of a screw. Not all rooms in the house were lit. The women finished up work in the kitchen as soon as they could in the daylight,  and  the family generally gathered in the living room, around a warm lamp.  Sometimes the servants lingered,  keeping a light in the study for the headmaster, who preferred to be among his books and papers, working and playing by the clock.

Even though he was Headmaster, Grandfather Ramambrahma had not come up with the idea of overburdening his students, including  his two sons, Pandu and Sheshagiri aka Father, with  too much homework. Evening hours, therefore, were a time for sitting around a comforting lamp,  and listening to stories. Grandmother Venkamma regaled the children – with stories of Kuppa-Kuppi ,   mythology,   some flavorful Tamil folktales, and  sometimes it was  their elder sisters, Kokila, Mangala and Sushila  who chased the monsters of the dark away for  Pandu, S and their baby sister , Vimala.  The servants brought their own brand of  stories, and games to the ring around the lamp. It was campfire night every night.

The oil lamps were  quite messy- don’t we remember a childhood punctuated by  these  regularly irregular power failure/powercuts, in the evenings when the puja lamp had been lit, and the mumbled prayers of Grandmother seemed to wander from room to room,  and children secretly thought their prayers had been answered,  giving them an excuse for not being at their books “despite their ardent desire to be studious”, and  the candles and oil lamps were brought out, coaxed and badgered to light up? The oil often splashed out of the reservoir where it was held, and the smell of  hot oil pervaded the house, dust and dirt clogged the little air holes around the wick, and this needed cleaning out every day. The glass chimney also needed washing after every use otherwise the dirt would deplete the effectiveness of the light.

In  more affluent homes,  back in the 1930s, expensive  lamps imported from Britain and Europe.  These homes, regal if not royal,  were sprawling residences of jagirdars, and  landlords , where grand chandeliers,  ornate lamps and crystalware using mostly candles and later paraffin and oil proclaimed the luxuries and wealth of their owners, not to mention their taste for the beautiful things.

It appears that the 19th century was a time of revival of styles in the history of lighting before the era of electricity. The French brought back roman lamps and turned them into chandeliers.  Post Industrial Revolution,  a burgeoning middle class demanded  greater choices, and drove the revival of older, more decorative styles .  Fashion trends were doing their cycles even in those times!

Rococo, Renaissance and Gothic design elements made a comeback,  and filled  French homes with lighting in those styles. Baccarat , which started making chandeliers in 1824, were the leaders in innovating new styles inspired by old  design traditions.  British chandelier companies, found, in India, a readymade market in the country colonized by them , and many of them opened branches in India to cater to the needs of rich Indians with taste, not to mention the British residents making their home here.

When gas lighting became more widely available in the late 19th century, gasoliers making use of this new form of illumination were often designed in Rococo styles. These gasoliers usually had candles available as backup just in case the gas didn’t work. Gas lights were also really bright, so glass shields became more common as a way to shield the glare. Gas-lit chandeliers do not appear to have been very popular in India, however.

Father mentioned  prism lamps , and I  can’t remember where I have seen them, probably on the desk of  some very scientific people I’ve  gone to meet in the study of dons at IISc,  looking important and necessary to whatever science they are doing!  I’m not sure  if  Grandfather had one on his desk, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the original purpose of  deck prisms–

For centuries, sailing ships used deck prisms to provide a safe source of natural sunlight to illuminate areas below decks. Before electricity, light below a vessel’s deck was provided by candles, oil and kerosene lamps – all dangerous aboard a wooden ship. The deck prism was a clever solution: laid flush into the deck, the glass prism refracted and dispersed natural light into the space below from a small deck opening without weakening the planks or becoming a fire hazard. In normal usage, the prism hangs below the ceiling and disperses the light sideways; the top is flat and installed flush with the deck, becoming part of the deck. A plain flat glass would just form a single bright spot below– not very useful general illumination– hence the prismatic shape. On colliers (coal ships), prisms were also used to keep check on the cargo hold; light from a fire would be collected by the prism and be made visible on the deck even in daylight.  

Though Father’s memories of the lamplighter have been  quite enlightening, I was amused to hear that they hadn’t  particularly  excited him in those days. Rather like my brief flirtation with the idea of being bell-ringer which job, too, I’ll be bound is extinct, with an electronic gong having replaced it! . What really moved  Father, it turns out, was the road-roller! That remarkable contraption used to metal the roads,  which luckily can still be sighted around the city,  pacing the road like a king lost in thought, tortured by thoughts of a coup against him.  Father and friends   made a jolly time of it, running behind the  road-roller,  of which there seems to be no  reference in  the Child’s Garden of Verses!

I Want My Mother!

Posted in FrontPage by Jayasri on January 13, 2014
Gulab jamuns - I made them!

Gulab jamuns – I made them!

Two years already, since she moved on .  I’ve been old enough  for long enough to know you’re  never too old to want your mother when you don’t feel good. But in these two  years of  not being able to pick up the phone and call her, demanding the recipe for  Witches’ Brew, aka milagu kozhambu,  I’ve learnt  I’m  never going to be too old to want my mother when I’m feeling good.

But she has taught me well.  In the beginning they were 14, Seven brothers and seven sisters. Mother was the ninth child. And she always said 9 was her lucky number. She was born on a 9th. Exactly how this number worked for her is a mystery to all of us, but mostly it was enough that she thought so, and it was cited at all momentous occasions and one birthday, it did save the Big Brother from mother’s wrath  for forgetting to send her a card .When he remembered, it was too late to go out and buy one, so he fashioned a greeting card out of KG cardboard (Why is it called KG cardboard?) yellow, drew a little cuboid and a big cuboid, and a sun , and called his work of art “Mother and Child In Sunshine, and inside wrote out  this little mathematical formula-  1-9-1979

1+9+1+9+7+9= 36


Therefore, it’s a lucky year (QED)

Mother walked on air for several days, and showed it everyone,  and blamed the delay in its arrival on the Postal Department.

I digress. Mother told me stories about her 13 siblings , their spouses and the grandparents, and  her cousins., of whom there were, well, dozens. Growing up in Nellore, in the big house,  under the  gimlet eye of the grandfather, who wasn’t really as fearsome as he looked. It must have been magical and wondrous, like Mayabazar, with Grandmother  , the queen of the kitchen, where all the pots and pans were  king-size,  and  the coffee-filter made of brass  looked like it had been made for the Kaurava  household!    Grandfather’s clients and friends  were brought home for lunch without notice, but Grandmother could never be caught off-guard. She always came through, and Mother and her sisters served the guests sumptuous meals  and   super coffee.

The grandparents were both devout. In the large puja room dominated by the ornate mandasanam  (which now resides in A-5,) and the  24′ high idol of Hanuman standing with folded hands, I’m quite certain  Rama came down in person to receive  the puja and naivedhyam..Grandfather , who  radiated awesome authority with his great height and commanding presence,  could send his dozen offspring scurrying across the expanse of the hall and the inner courtyard  by merely walking in through the front door. He was addicted to the Ramayana,  giving lectures about it and explaining its wonders to friends and colleagues at the club where he played bridge, and every year the Ramanavami was celebrated grandly, over  ten days.  His daily pujas were no less elaborate.  His addiction  , ultimately led him to write the story down, in Telugu, and thanks to the book, I now have his wise counsel and  humorous observations about the epic, and about life, in general, and I have a sense of what kind of  man he had been.

Grandmother’s  domain was the Thulasi kotai, which too was extra large size. Though I barely remember Grandfather, I have memories of  Grandmother’s daily routine of  readying the puja room for  him, and then going into the backyard  with her little brass basket , to pick flowers and wash the  Thulasi (which happens to be my mother’s name)  mukham – which too now resides  in A-5,  sprinkle water around the kotai,  draw kolams, rub turmeric and kumkum along the corners, and  do the puja , reciting various shlokas. I remember begging to be allowed to handle the basket, and pick flowers and  be Grandmother’s little helper.

While I made my own memories. Mother added to the repertoire with many anecdotes, and  titbits about life with 13 siblings, and the consequence was that by the time i was ten, I felt I knew all of them very well, though it wasn’t often that I met them.

I had this thing about not finding mother at home when I came from school. I always  checked for her slippes, and if they were missing, I was quite put out. Of course, there were days when  events at schools warranted the hope that they would not be there, but that’s beside the point.

Somedays, I would find a strange pair of shoes or more .  That meant visitors.  An uncle come from Madras on work . And once I knew who it was. I  could guess what we were having for dinner. Kandipappu chintapandu pachadi ,  if it was AVN Chittappa. (  the husband of Rohini, my mom’s youngest sister)  He’s a lawyer, and in the 70s used to take a great many cases in Bangalore, which meant he came down often.  The aroma of minimula pachadi  meant Bheemu Chittappa ( my aunt Janaki’s huband) had arrived/was coming over.  When Kittu (her immediate elder brother) mixed hot rice, oil and avakkai,  you wanted to grab the plate and wolf down the whole thing yourself! – something i have witnessed for myself.

Dasharathram Mama, (her second older brother, right after Thambi Mama) loved the masala dosa that Mother made, and  never tired of telling everyone that he discovered bisi bele baath  thanks to her.  Lakshmi Periamma’s name was given to a koottu that she had learnt to make from her elder sister.

Not being a great fan of sweets, I mean, I can honestly say I never get a craving for sweets, although I relish a  gulab jamun , and the occasional paal payasam provided it’s made by my mother– doesn’t mean that I don’t miss the divine kozhakattais (kharam and sweet) that she used to make.

I’ve been thinking lately about  this I-want-my-mother thing.  Now,  what did she do when she had that moment? And how many of them were caused by me?  I  cringe with guilt about the time a few years ago, when I rejected the gulab jamuns she made for my birthday . I  mean,  who’d ever think Mother’s GJs could be anything but divine? Can an MS concert be a complete washout?

I told her exactly what i’d thought of the GJs, which didn’t smell quite right, and the  sugar had not really reached the centre of the golden-brown orb of  delight. they weren’t even  golden brown orbs of delight. Thye were crumbly, misshapen. They were like I’d made them.

She took it quite lightly, I think.    I made up for it later, by getting her a bottle of eau de cologne, something that she always loved to have around her, not that she ever used it.

Last year, I made kozhakattai for Ganesha Chaturthi. They came out perfectly, and I believe it was really her hand that did it.  And when I make akki rotti, or adai, I make five little holes, one in the middle, and 4 around it, just like I remember her doing it.  On the 9th, I made  cluster beans pindimiryam, it smelled like Amma’s.

Oh! I finally made gulab jamuns. They were awesome. They were like Mother’s.  Golden brown orbs of delight, sloshing about in the sugar syrup, smelling of rose essence and cardomom. Not crumbly or doughy. Of course, Mother was there. She’s always there, even when I’m feeling good. Next time I find those green brinjals at the Korean store, I’m getting abunch of them to make sambhar. Whenever she returned from a trip to Nellore, or Madras, she liked arrive  home to a lunch of brinjal sambhar  and rice. She’ll love that. She always did. And she never complained about it’s taste, or color, or consistency.

Bangalore Blue

Posted in Literary Lapses by Jayasri on November 13, 2013


My nod to nostalgia and Bangalore that once was. In this treasury of  memories , I’m in the company of   some awesome Bangaloreans. Thanks to  my friend, and fellow quiz team meet Stanley Carvalho, I’m now in a book.  Here is the piece I wrote in it.

The Lost Four O’clock Flower
An April afternoon in 2013. A solitary bush of Mirabilis Jalapa awaits the stroke of  four on a vacant lot where a desultory cow lies in the shade of  a Tata Indica.  The majenta buds of the Four o”clock plant , aka Mirabilis Jalapa will soon burst open and meet the afternoon rays of the Bangalore sun as nature has intended  them to.
Mirablis Jalapa. The Four o’ clock flower . Once, they  bloomed in profusion,  bold majenta, brazen yellow, sanctimonious white. Two big brothers playing cricket with friends in a corner of the compound of Mahadev Vilas,  Ratna Vilasa Road. A baby sister posing prettily , dressed in a  knitted jersey, (purple with a row of lavender men dancing at the yoke) and matching cap that had a pom-pom.  As the  60s were hurtling towards the 70s, the  Mirablis Jalapa bush  stood steady, understated. And ubiquitous. A constant backdrop to life’s little milestones.
I  think the sight of the lonesome  Mirabilis  in the summer of 2013 is a sign. The mirabilis jalapa will bloom again, and its translucent pepper seed that nestles preciously at the tip , will bring  back the Bangalore that has been lost..
Six months ago, I obsessed over  this little plant that occupies a little corner  of  my memory’s attic. I looked in all the likely places it could be. But it had vanished,  perhaps even before the last sparrow had  fled the city that no longer wanted it, and didn’t  even noticed it was gone. Like childhood.
When did the mirabilis jalapa leave? And take with it the  lavender buds of the arka,  (calotropis gigantia) whose, plump leaves and poisonous latex dominated  our route to school?  This is where nostalgia meets amnesia,  I think, and suddenly, I know that the sighting of the mirabilis bush is but a nod to the past. To the Bangalore that once was.
Boys played cricket,  and planned khedda operations intended for the imperious granny who  terrorized them. Little girls gamboled about  while their moms sat on a bench by the champak tree, and knitted little jumpers and caps. The little gate that connected Mahadev Vilas and Seeta Bhavan  bore the brunt of heavy traffic as  young boys tramped in an out playing rough games . And the  mirabilis bush  bloomed punctually in its corner watching  Bangalore grow into the seventies, and  forgetting all about the four o’clock flower. It moved over, unprotestingly . The gardens shrank, houses expanded, and   there were no vacant lots for the mirabilis to move into.
The mind wanders into the seventies. Smaller homes on narrow lanes. The denizens of Seventh Cross near Madhavan Park are no longer  thinking of the four o’clock flower and its endearing ways. The cricket pitch-sized compound of Mahadev Vilas has become a memory. A hibiscus bush,  the suji mallige creeper compete for attention with the pink and cream roses, whose thorns are a nasty piece of work.
A rain-kissed morning. As the sun winked over the shoulders of speeding clouds,  school was inescapable, and life, therefore,  intolerable.. Sailing down Seventh Cross came the “five-star” tarkari man on his bicycle, his lusty hawking of“carrot! beans! alugadde, cabbage , seemay badnekai…………..! announcing the arrival of the only vegetable-shop-on-wheels  who ever came to the street.
Mother always acknowledged this “costly”  vegetable vendor’s arrival with mixed feelings. He charged way too much, and wasn’t past playing tricks with the weighing too. But who wanted to trudge to the Jayanagar Complex, only to argue with  a dozen of his kind  who terrorize ?  Just as well  be fleeced in the comfort of one’s home.
By this time,  a few  Seventh Cross maamis ,  thoughts very similar to mother’s jostling in their minds  (  mobile eyebrows that looked like a pair of tiny  cobras   dancing in the vermilion sunset,   can be revealing ) would emerge from their front doors, demanding to be told what outrageous price the fellow was naming for the luscious tomatoes and brinjals.
The tarkari man, apparently preoccupied with    arranging the already perfect pyramids of  vegetables in his  much-used cane basket,  would then begin his little performance, calling out,  ” Come and get it!  Veggies that  Rajkumar- Bharati eat!    Worth every paisa,”  momentarily diverting the women from such mundane matters as vegetable prices.
This was the guy Rajkumar-Bharati  bought veggies from ! That was the secret of their success?!
No sooner than the little performance ended, sans ting-tong that comes at end of  Binaca toothpaste ad on Vividhbharathi, the  eyebrows arched in  surprise and amusement would curl back  into  disapproving frowns, and someone would imperiously tell the guy to get on with business.
Little boys and girls who imagined this to be the best time to wangle a day at home  from impervious  moms,  by tugging at their pallus, ( thus proving  multi-tasking is an embedded feature in moms), a maama whose wife  was away at her parents’ to come back with a little bundle of  joy anytime soon,  the retired grandfather out for his morning walk,  often figured in this picture of  old Bangalore idyll.
Realising soon enough that he was not getting too far in trying to win friends and influence people,  when one of the maamis   acidly queried,”why bother to come here?  Rajkumar-Bharati didn’t buy your veggies today? Are these leftovers? “,  he would pretend that the ladies were driving a hard bargain, and bring the transaction to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
Rajkumar-Bharati  sold vegetables to Seventh Cross maamis for several months, when suddenly,  Bharathi married Vishnuvardhan, who must  have disapproved of his new’s wife’s moonlighting  job. Anyway, the cycling vegetable-man came calling less often before disappearing altogether . Other non-cycling vendors gave the maamis multiple choices and competitive prices, and  the careers of Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan the rising star were  tracked through more dependable, and literate sources.
Nanda , Shanti, Uma. . Cinema theatres where we watched Bhakta Kumbara, and wept copious tears over the travails of  the potter of Pandarapur, whom the gods decide to test. The comical antics of  Vishnuvardhan and Dwarakeesh in Kalla Kulla,  a yarn about brothers separated at birth who sing ecstatically about reuniting with their mom……..
In the new millennium, Nanda and Shanti have been bulldozed off  Bangalore’s map. The dependable and familiar have fallen to the tyranny of change.  We used to cross the road from Usha Periamma’s to catch the night-show at Shanti, but now there is a median,  between the new building where Shanti once stood, and shell of the house where Usha Periamma lived. There are traffic jams, schools and colleges, and giant monuments to Bangalore’s new identity as IT city.  It can even turn into a tinder box that can spark a violent riot.
A bar-  restaurant owner decided to name his brand new venture on South End Road “Kargil”.  Someone didn’t like the idea, and flung the first  stone and there was a merry riot, and one’s man’s dream lay vandalised in a matter   of a few hours.
Nanda, Shanti and Uma.  Three cinema houses that  we passed while traveling with no purpose on the BTS bus route no 14. And yes.. The very  one which once boasted  Mr Rajnikanth as conductor.  Father’s little  joke that helped remember them, is quite irrelevant now. But it’s a memory that brings a smile. We had no one to visit in Malleswaram, but the longest bus ride in the city,  at the time, I might add, from terminus to terminus  was filled with  endless possibilities of unbridled entertainment . To get back to Father’s little joke, as the conductor (Was it Rajnikanth, in his Shivaji Rao Gaekwad avatar?) called out “tickets?! Tickets?! A  woman got hers saying “Nanda”. Another said “Shanti” and got a ticket, and the third lady said “Uma”.  When he came to the fourth lady, she  held out the money, saying “Alamelu”.
Humor doesn’t do bus any more. Bus is where an argument between two commuter morphs into a fight. And a rude word suddenly reminds the conductor-driver duo that they can simply pull over, and launch a snap strike. It is the vehicle of choice for those who believe settling them on fire can bring the Government to its knees, or that is the way to mourn  a Rajkumar or Vishnuvardhan.
PS: I wonder if  Shivaji Rao Gaekwad every learnt where Alamelu wanted to get off.
The four o’clock flower’s  persistence in 2013 , I now think, is Bangalore’s last flailing attempt to hold its ground as Bengaluru goes from Bangalore to Babel-ore. Reality grabs me by the ankles when the  Punjabi aunty next door wants to educate your (South Indian) mom on the  secret of making the softest idlis, and that traffic lights turn green in Hindi. Or BMTC buses have hoardings that say- Sabse sastha aur sabse zyaada kahin nahin.
Back then in nostalgia, Dr G.Roy ,   GROY  in our innocence (and in  scant regard for the fullstop) and P.Chatterjee , exotic and enviable as they were,  could only  leap out at us from our history books, or newspapers, not try to grab eyeballs as name-plates on the houses we passed on the way to school. Nostalgia is  when  the phone directory in two volumes- and countless Sens to be scrolled down before finding Sundar S.N.
Ajjis  that made the most divine kodubales can actually be counted in miniscule numbers, on the Endangered Species List.  And you are unlikely to  meet a sparrow in Bangalore for love or money. The aroma of  moolangi  simmering in  the sambhaar doesn’t  waft  from N.R.Colony to Madhavan Park any more .Heck, even the autorickshaw takes more  30 minutes to do the trip . Languid, all-the-time-in-the-world -to -things that-need-doing Bangalore is languid in slow-motion mode, for post-millennial reasons only. Bangalore is now spot-jogging to keep up with itself.
On Facebook, the drama of reunions and regression to past life unfolds at a frenetic pace. There is an urgency to share minutiae – black &white photographs , sepia tinted prints of  old homes that stood lofty and sprawling four decades ago. The vanished gardens and the green monkey-tops that dominated  Bangalore’s landscape, the landmarks that have passed into history as modern monstrosties take their place, try to come alive. I see that the four o’clock flower doesn’t figure in any of them.  The mirabilis I see, now, is  a backdrop to my own memories. My own suddenly remembered memories , dusted  and de-linted by the mere sight of the lonesome bush in the summer of 2013.
Dear little four o’clock flower,  I am so glad to have caught up with you at last.  I see you now,  in the b&w pictures of two big brothers holding their baby sister by her hands. You are in bloom, and I know that it is past four o’clock,  and soon , we won’t be able to hear ourselves think, as the birds come home to roost,  chirping incessantly as they exchange notes on their day.  I know that when I look out of my window tomorrow as the sun hastens westwards, I will neither hear the chirping, nor see your drooping buds spring open in  joy. Yet there you are now, in that  vacant plot, in the company of  a cow flicking its tail at the flies . You do not worry that any time soon, the bulldozer will dredge up the ground on which you stand, and there will be no one to glimpse you and  hurtle into the past where you once bloomed in profusion.

100 Years Of Cinema, 90 Years Of Memories Part I

Posted in Anecdotage, FrontPage by Jayasri on May 4, 2013

May 3, 2013 I sat down with Appa today to talk cinema and  memories. At 90,  I reckoned,   he would know Indian cinema which turns 100 today, rather intimately   I have come away from that conversation a little dizzy, thinking  “I’ve just  been talking with a man who saw cinema take its first toddling steps, go from silent movies to talkies to color!”   Right now, he  is being a good sport trying to master the iPad that we got him,  happy as a child  at pulling up , all by himself ,MS Subbalakshmi on Youtube to regale him with “Akhilandeshwari Rakshamam”  .  I don’t get the impression that he welcomed cinema into his lilfe  with  same the wide-eyed wonder,  though.    ” Everyone just took to watching movies ,  because it was there”.   Very  George Mallory-usque.

I took notes as he talked, and made a rough draft of  this article. I then went to Wikipedia  to  check for dates and names, only to find, amazingly,  that his memory served him so right that I should really be checking up with him on Wikipedia!!

Appa  was around ten years old when  he began watching movies. He doesn’t remember the name of the first movie that he watched, but those were  the days of the travelling tent cinema that brought silent movies to the edge of town, until they were nudged out by the arrival of “talkies”. and more permanent cinema houses.

I once watched  that adorable  movie, Mayabazar,  in a tent which had come up , probably at  the spot where Kamakhya theatre stands (rather precariously,  considering it’s rundown state) on the Ring Road in Banashankari III Stage in Bangalore.  There were benches at the back,  for which you paid 50 p per head , or  carpets  nearer the screen for 25 p. It was hot, sweaty, and  there was much smoke from beedis ,  all of which was ignored while  Ghatotkacha’s  antics stole every little heart in the hall.

The tent cinemas of 1930s  had benches and carpets, too.  As the hall filled up, a brassband would  begin playing music. Once everyone settled in, the story teller, who said at the back under the projector, would begin narrating the story, to the accompaniment of  the harmonium and table. Madanakala  starring Master Vittal, was watched in a tent cinema. There were English films as well, like Tarzan. Silent films didn’t have complicated plots, and there were subtitles , which were supplemented by the story-teller’s narration.

I was chuffed to learn from my dad that there used to be ads shown too!  Slides, in b/w of course,  of a hotel in town,  or shops selling clothes and fabric, or some local business peddling their ware. No toothpaste or soap ads, Appa said, as  most of them came from England in those days!

And how were promos for films done in the era of silent movies?  A bullock  cart sporting posters of the film  went around town in the afternoons.   with a man beating a drum ,  tom-tomming the movie as it were, and  giving out hand-bills that revealed tantalising bits of the movie , and  suggesting, “see the rest on the silver screen”.  A far cry from these days of  “official media sponsors”,  promos, premiers,  ads, exciting offers ,  endless appeals from the stars, and  ratings  and  film critics .

Appa remembers his Father was not very happy about patronizing tent cinemas.   It was okay to go to the “real theatres” and Father in fact encouraged the children to  enjoy the movies.  The transition to talkies was quickly made. Appa marvels at how within ten years, the silent movie became history and talkies or “talking pictures ” that incorporated synchronized dialogue became the global phenomenon. Belgaum went from “tents and sheds” to talkies and cinema theaters . The  silent movie had been on its way out by the time Appa began watching films.  Once the silent movie Ben Hur came to town,  reissued with background music. It featured Ramon Navarro. The original had cost $3.9 million, making it the costliest silent move. The 1931 reissue added  sound effects and music by the original composers Willian Axt and David Mendoza.   Navarro was quickly  given an Indian name, and referred to as “Ramannavaru”!

I  have been wondering  how film actors and actresses were idolized in those days.  The lack of film magazines that shared gossip about actors and other denizens of the industry didn’t mean  people were disinterested in them.  Their little whimsies and foibles,  their private lives and romances or lack thereof,  catching a glimpse of the stars or meeting them were  desirable goals to aspire to The captivating Shanta Apte, a beauty who was also a great singer,  is arguably the first  femme fatale  of the Indian silver screen.  Everyone dreamt of seeing her in person,  and  she was obviously the queen of a million youthful fantasies. Appa  cousin in Poona,  arranged with  an electrician he knew, who happened to be doing a job at Ms APte’s house, to go along as his “assistant”, and  catch a glimpse of her.

I remember that in the seventies and eighties,  budding actresses who got their first break had to  take a stand on  two things- kissing scenes (even if  it was pretend kissing) and  wearing bikinis.  Sharmila Tagore’s swimsuit outing made much news  in the sixties, but it appears a certain Ms Meenakshi Shirodkar has , way back in 1938,  stunned and thrilled audiences singing “Yamuna Jali Khelu Khel”  wearing a swimsuit,  and sporting a two-plait  style that instantly became the rage among teenage girls in the film, Brahmachari .

Appa  said the film had dialogues by humorist and playwright P.K Atre, whose satire on  RSS ideology brought in huge audiences. But the swimsuit song sequence  ensured that the movie ran for  25 weeks in Bombay and 50 weeks in Pune. Critics had been critical of this bold sequence, but the audience, it appeared  kept coming back!

It was at this point I checked with Wikipedia, and found it was quite unnecessary.

There is a little anecdote  about Snehaprabha Pradhan, that Appa has told us many times. It is by way of being a family nugget,  and I believe it to be true. My aunt, Appa’s sister  Mangala and Ms Pradhan studied at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. I am not sure if they were classmates. Of course it was much before  she became famous as an actress.  Plainly, she cared very much about acting  even then.  And plainly she was ahead of her time as far as the college principal was concerned.  Moments after the curtains went up  at the College Day play, in which she was acting,  the Principal’s voice, the story goes,  rang out , in great panic. “Down the curtains! he thundered. The curtain came down, and backstage,  it was revealed–Ms Pradhan’s sleeveless blouse, it appeared was a bit too “forward” and  no Elphinstonian was to be allowed to get away with wearing revealing clothes!! I gather she changed into a more modest blouse, and the play was allowed to begin, and it must have been a most entertaining evening!  My aunt apparently caught up with Ms Pradhan many years later and  it turns out she was remembered.

Thus begins a journey into 100 years of cinema, as remembered by Appa.  More fascinating tales follow. Watch this space.  


Posted in Uncategorized by Jayasri on February 1, 2013


Balto, The Boss

Balto, The Boss

Balto  moved on to dog-heaven yesterday, the 31st of January.  The closest I ever  got to having a dog of my own, is when  Rajendra and Shalini got Balto for Bhargav, seven years ago. , A Labrador, he was barely a few days old when he came  with the family to spend a Sunday with us at  A-5,  a tiny pup who looked every bit like God intended  puppies to be- just that blend of cuteness and sadness to make the hardest heart melt, and   cause everyone  to make themselves ridiculously silly over him.  In one visit, he acquired grandparents, an aunt and an uncle,  who  sometimes may have forgotten to ask about Bhagu, but never missed  asking after his canine sibling.  For people who never owned dogs, they  took to Balto  with surprising ease, as if  they’d been around dogs all their lives.

He soon grew, as dogs do,  into this silent, watchful hulk that no could ignore, largely because he would not let them.  He took turns to lay his  heavy head on every knee in the living room, to be patted and stroked and have a few words of endearment mumbled to him. He  stared  unblinking at  the goodie in your hand , willing it to fall  so he could wolf it down, and made sheep’s eyes at anything placed on the coffee table  for the visitors until they shared it with him.  He was a dog that loved to eat.  And he had a sweet tooth too.

It felt good to feel the sharp thwack!  as his tail swished gently, for him, when he slid past you as you sat on the sofa. If this was the effect of  a negligent, casual  flick of the tail, I wonder how hard I would be hit if he seriously decided to whip my legs!  He  ran circles around himself to indicate his joy at sighting you, though it is mystifying exactly why he  felt joy about visitors. It must be that thing that dogs have-  that never lets them forget a person or how she/he smells.

Every now and then,  Balto expected the conversation to veer around to him, or at lease include him. He  added his own understated wuff !   or a grr!    depending on whether his parents were updating visiting relatives about his latest exploits, or  talking  about something quite irrelevant.

He was the leader of   the street which had enough dogs for it to be the norm to identify  the  homes by the dogs that lived in them rather than the masters.  If   people needed to know  which was Shalini/ Rajendra/ Bhagu’s house, they needed to ask, Balto maney yaavudu?  (Which is Balto’s house) When he went out for his walk, morning and evening,  other dogs  deferred to him.

When the time came to leave,  he always knew. When you said your goodbyes and went to the door, there was Balto, standing huge and quite immovable, and not an inch would he  yield to let you pass through. It is extremely puzzling that  Balto, who constantly interrupted Rajendra when he was engaged in deep conservation, and sought attention to himself,  and  indicated very clearly that he was not at all pleased with being ignored in this manner,  should  be an ass over the departing visitor.

And if you felt honored that Balto  counted you as family, you only needed to go down to the gate to realise you were being mildly delusional, for while seeming to  care deeply about your leaving, he was cleverly ascertaining that Rajendra was not about to  get in the car and  leave, too.  “Hey Balto, look Appa’s calling you” would have him bounding down the steps to the gate, where he would  inspect the car, and make sure Rajendra was not being kidnapped (as if we didn’t know) and once  he was sure that wasn’t the case, he  pretended that his real  purpose was to cross the street to the other side, and do his Number One job on the  wall of , before returning  nonchalantly to stand by Rajendra.

He had not been well of late, and for months we were only hearing of  his  fever, his lethargy, and  lack of interest in  anything. He was not in the mood for socializing with his doggy pals, and they had learnt to leave him well alone.  The day before he died, he  stopped to exchanged a few wuffs with Prince, a dog who belongs to no one, but is a  dogizen of the street,  the first since months.  He must have known his time had come.

I thought all day about Balto feeling sad that he would no longer be there to regale us with his comical ways. When I called, Shalini cried, and Rajendra was inconsolable. It’s not right that Balto, was taken  way before his time.  It’s not fair that  from today,  we will no more hear of  Balto’s walks and jogs, and his adventures on his outings, and  to suddenly realise  Balto was needed more than  we thought he needed his family.

Balto will never be forgotten.  And he will always be missed.


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