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!
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
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.
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 FlowerAn 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.CINEMA HOUSE COMEDYNanda , 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.
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.
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.
I dreamt about Gita Paapa the other night. Nightmared about her, actually. There had been an attack and a ransack, and when I found her, she lay there behind the glass pane of the showcase, her little blond head fallen off, her eyes which are a cat-like green, shut firmly, and her pink-orange torso with her left arm torn asunder.
The Viking, and Ms Ting Tong, who loves to bob up and down to a music of her own, the Pink Elephant made of soap who’s lavender scent had long faded away, the little marble Taj Mahal, all lay in ruins about the dismembered Gita Paapa.
I woke up in a cold sweat, and realized with a “whew!” that I had been dreaming, and it was all I could do to go back to sleep and wait until a couple of hours later to rummage about in the Samsonite strolley to recover Gita Paapa and find her lying there in one piece , still wearing her printed frock, white shoes, and the blue&white skipping rope around her shoulder.
She opened her green eyes wide the moment I stood her on her feet, and looked at me, saying nothing. I stole a sideways glance at her, checking for an accusing look in her eyes. Not that I wasn’t already on a guilt trip as I ran over the recent past and couldn’t remember when I last talked to her, or spent an afternoon.
The smile never left the old dear’s face, and but for a streak of green felt pen (thanks to little Chichu’s ministrations) on her left cheek, that I mean to take care of with a touch of nail polish, she remains as non-judgmental, uncritical and ready to shower me with unconditional love as ever.
I decided she could use a bath, and she acquiesced silently, plainly relieved to be released from her prison where she had lain, forgotten.That’s not fair . Nobody forgot her. Haven’t I always remembered to bring her along wherever I moved? Chennai, Delhi, and now here, in the US of A? And she has been nestling cozily in silken luxury among the best collection of Kanjeevarams that could possibly be found this side of the Atlantic?
I scrubbed her down, having decided to skip shampooing her hair as it might be too soon after her regaining her freedom, I remembered the first time she’d been given a bath. And the storm in the teacup that it had stirred up.
I was a toddler when Gita Paapa arrived , a present from Cousin Bharathi who lives in Sweden. She was dressed in a white frock with blue and green floral prints, a pair of bloomers in the same fabric, a bonnet, also of the same fabric. And the white shoes.
For the first couple of years, Gita Paapa ( no one remembers how she got the name, but everyone agrees it was I who named her) lived on the top shelf of the showcase, and rarely came out to play. She was the “other baby” in the house, not to be handled roughly.
On one of those rare occasions that she left her high perch ( like Rapunzel, only with very short hair) , I discovered that she was a shut-eye, and her eyelids closed very delicately when she lay down. I was also fascinated by her green eyes. Cousin Anu, who is two years older than me was visiting, and so was Gita Paapa. Anu suggested a bath for her, and off we went to the garden where plenty of water and a stone tank was tempting enough for us to jump in for a paddle too.
Our plans were nipped in the bud, by Father, who came to check on us, and , quickly rescued Gita Paapa, her clothes and the little skipping rope and blue beach bucket that had come from Sweden when Cousin Bharathi visited again. She went back to her tower.
I now see this deprivation has not scarred me at all, though I sometimes wonder why I entirely missed an opportunity to be jealous of Gita Paapa. I mean , it’s natural for a kid to resent the presence of another in the house that claims even a tiny bit the attention that she’s entitled to. Especially if the said another is plainly being protected from said kid’s well-meant intentions of bathing her and feeding her. Heck , Mother even sewed a whole new outfit for her, with fabric left over from a new dress she made for me, after nothing could be done to save her blue-green floral print dress, cap and bloomer, many many years later.
When I way past the age of playing with Gita Paapa, although it never struck me then, I just liked the idea of her being there, belonging to me, and the story of her bathing adventure being narrated ad nauseum by the parents, who, to be fair, have had the grace to look sheepish about this over-protectiveness. Gita Paapa, it so happens, could be bathed, her hair washed and shampooed any number of times, and she’d be as squeaky clean, pink-orange as she’s always been.
I recently discovered I can be quite as silly over her as the parents were. Little Chichu who became the darling of second floor and delighted everyone by toddling , walking, and went from talking gibberish to speaking complete Tamil sentences in a week , or so it seems, took quite a shine to Gita Paapa. Chichu and I fell into the habit of playing with her every day. He’d come, and squeak delightedly, pointing at her, and Gita Paapa would be fetched down from her perch on the dressing table, and so would the jar of Johnson’s baby lotion, which we proceeded to rub on her face, and then he would stand before the mirror, hugging her, and admire his handiwork. On one of these little sessions, she acquired the green sketch-pen marks on her left cheek.
She was, luckily spared the fate of his toys, Pooh, Teddy, Kangaroo and Singham, who for a while could be found on the ground , as Chichu had started a phase of flinging them down over the parapet, and someone coming to second floor was always bring a stuffed toy along with them to be returned safely to Chichu’s mother.
When Chichu’s idol, KP returned from his summer in Qatar, Chichu became quite hyper, and it all happened in A-5. Part of the raucous welcome involved flinging Gita Paapa in the air, and I grew quite alarmed when I saw her flying across the living roon, into the potato bin in the kitchen. Before I could stop myself, I was screaming too.
“Don’t you two throw her like that. She’s got feelings too!” I shouted, and the two stared at me, quite stunned to see the normally mild, J Aunty acting so weird . They quietly slunk out, and I retrieved Gita Paapa from the potato bin, and smoothed down her dress, and made sure she was alright, and returned her to the dressing table.
I think Chichu lost interest in her on that day, and I’m glad. Notice the patch of nail polish on her left cheek, and notice the rest of her, and tell me I’m being an ass over her.
Oh! I have to share this: Gita Paapa’s is a real person, quite the girl who can fix her gimlet eye on you and make you feel smaller than her. She stood on the bathroom counter for about three days, wrapped in a paper towel after her bath, when, the H asked, “how long is she going to be there?”
I bristled, quite offended on her behalf, and countered, “why?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all…..it’s just that she stands there, looking at me, and I’m not used to being watched while I shower.” he said.
Mr M.Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar High School, Belgaum, was an awe-inspiring figure. Not too generous with his smiles, may be a little taciturn, even. An anglophile, he expressed his fondness for the “English life” very sartorially. Always sporting a fine suit, a neat tie, a nd even a hat and walking stick if he thought the occasion demanded these accesories. Hardly surprising he was known as the best-dressed Headmaster for miles around.
A man of habit and many foibles which he considered necessary to enforcing discipline and order at work and in the home, he lived by the clock. The clock struck eight , and so breakfast must be had. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the coffee must be at his elbow just as the clock chimed the second time.
A passionate tennis player, he was district champion, and often volleyed with colleagues and friends, and royalty even. He played every morning, a familiar figure in tennis gear making his way to courts just a little way away from home. Folks probably set their clocks by his tread each morning !
The Headmaster was a man of few words, not just a man of few smiles, and speaking for/by the clock was his way of announcing his arrival and reason thereof. The unflappable Mrs Venkamma Ramabrahma, with a sense of humor minted in Tirupattur (the ten-village town) of great antiquity in Vellore, Tamilnadu, who managed her brood that ranged many age-groups adroitly enough to leave him thinking that it was all his doing, often took recourse to droll little utterances that ridiculed his devotion to punctuality. But it was many, many years , when they retired to life in Bangalore, before his wife thought to rib him by asking, “who is hungry, you or the clock?” Mr Ramabrahma ‘s response, one imagines, was a Narasimha Rao-like- inscrutable silence.
Back in Belgaum, the Headmaster’s days ticked and tocked with great punctuality. His children (Vimala and Pramila followed S, who was preceded by Kokila, the first-born, Mangala, and Pandu ) were more deferential to Father, than to Time. Though he took little notice of them, in his presence, Pandu and S didn’t engage in Tom Sawyer tactics at the breakfast table.
Not that they were incorrigible imps, or any kind of imps. It was just that they were mindful of the consequences of incurring the wrath of Father who was also Headmaster. The glint of his gimlet eye threatened great possibilities, and the boys - Pandu and S, thought it best to leave things well alone.
Which was not hard to do, really. The truth was that as long as they refrained/abstained from escapades that tainted the fair name of the family, or seemed to undermine the Headmaster’s authority, he was happy to leave them to their own devices.
“It was a good life”, S says now. There were movies, train rides, holidays in Bangalore, Poona and Bombay, and all the fun things that make childhood, well, fun. They did witness the transition to electricity, and piped water. Father was not really as forbidding as he looked, and there were times of enlivening conversation, great wit, and cheerful laughter, and everything else, woven into the clockwork regularity that reigned in the establishment. . As we’ll see , by and by.
There is this about him in the 1936 edition of the Who’s Who:
Lakshmi’s Suprabhatam blues has drawn interesting responses from the near and dear. It turns out Appa (mine) was not too gung-ho about it at first . Too Long. Too much about that boy. And I think you are repeating yourselves a couple of times. Who’s Shyamu? Is he for real? And Meenalochani Maami?
Big Brother Subri, said it was good. And he didn’t have any questions about who’s who and what’s what. Probably that’s the reason he didn’t become the journalist in the family. He agreed with me that “the boy” had to be there, since he contributed the gibberish Suprabhatam although he doesn’t know he has done so . He said he didn’t find it too long.
Appa reasoned, “she must have edited it after I pointed it out”. Which I hadn’t.
I was both amused and felt slightly slighted at Appa’s critique , but I concede it could use some editing and re-writing.
Subri thought Tom Sawyer swung a cat and not a rat. They talked about it, and Appa said, she must have changed that for her story. Subri asked him why I’d do that. To protect the identity of the cat? Appa had no answer . I confess I laughed a tad too loudly when Subri told me. It made me feel better about Appa’s honest opinion.
In any case, we checked, and I am elated to report, it was a rat.
I spoke to Appa, and he said may be he ought to go back and read the story again, to better appreciate the contribution of Shyamu to its climax. When I read it the first time, the computer screen wasn’t scrolling properly, and that’s probably why I felt it was long and repetitive , he said.
That’s right. Blaming it on a glitch makes for a happy ending.
Finally, my disclaimer is right there, staring you in the face, even before the story begins if it’s too long, or boring, just remember, it had to be there.
My first story. And my first lesson Criticism begins at home.
A SHORT STORY LONG IN THE MAKING. IF ANY PART OF THE STORY IS BORING, WELL, ALL I SAY IS “IT HAD TO BE THERE.”
It was Saturday morning. Lakshmi woke up to the sounds of Appa coaxing the reluctant Bush Radio to belt out the Suprabhatham, in the divine voice of M.S Subbulakshmi and say Good Morning to God, courtesy the All India Radio.
Lakshmi, usually sang along lustily, as she got ready for her favorite school day of the week ( except on the second Saturday of the month, a holiday)– library, music, artwork, and oh yes, physical training. Lakshmi didn’t care much for the last, like everyone else in class, but endured the weekly 30-minute ordeal of bending, stretching and running , keeping time with PT instructor Ms Merose’s sharp commands that sounded like the crack of whip, as lethargically as she could get away with, while avoiding catching her eye.
Today was a second Saturday. Hearing the crackle and buzz of the Bush radio as Appa fiddled with it, she wished, fervently, that just this once, the moody radio would not oblige him. The sound of “Kausalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe” was the last thing she wanted wafting around the house this Saturday morning.
She drew her quilt over her head, hoping to drown out MS, who had now begun singing in earnest , Appa’s efforts, which included a sharp whack on the right side of the radio, to get it singing having paid off. She’d have to get out of bed soon, and face Amma’s dreaded “Silent Treatment” , which could last ALL DAY.
God had not heard her prayer, perhaps he was too engrosssed in the Suprabhatam, she said, and realized she was talking to herself. Like Alice, who loved to pretend she was two people, and had scolded herself for cheating in a game of croquet which she was playing against herself. Lakshmi toyed with the idea of boxing her own ears, and told herself not to be silly, as this self-flagellation (not her words, of course) was not going to save her from Amma’s wrath.
She lay there, listening to the sounds of Saturday morning- Amma clanging dishes in the kitchen, and Appa humming along with MS. Soon it would be over, and Amma would notice she was not up, and demanding “light coffee” , and chattering about the Amar Chitra Katha comics that Krishnan Tatha had given her yesterday……..
Krishnan Tatha ! Lakshmi groaned, remembering last evening . Her ears burned as if they had been boxed hard, and she wished she’d never have to hear the Suprabhatam ever again……
Mostly she wished to turn the clock back. About three weeks.
Three weeks earlier.
Lakshmi won the second prize for recitation of the Suprabhatham ( eight stanzas) at the school competition, and became the proud owner of “Sleeping Beauty” inscribed on Page One, somewhere near the spinning-wheel and the Wicked Witch’s wand, with “Winner , Second Prize in Suprabhatham Recitation”.
Amma had been there, to watch as she collected her prize. In the evening, Appa had said “Shabbash!” and slipped a Cadbury’s Five Star bar into her hand, but she could not fathom why he had laughed heartily when he saw the book.
“Sleeping Beauty for reciting the Suprabhatam?” he said, laughing loud and long , but when Amma too started to chuckle, Lakshmi realised there was a joke she was missing.
Which was annoying, to say the least. Lakshmi considered deploying her famous wail, that sounded , Appa said, like the siren blaring from the Government Soap Factory in the calm of the afternoon to announce the start of a new shift. However it died at her lips when Appa went on, “ ha ha! Can Suprabhatam rouse Sleeping Beauty?” .
Lakshmi choked on the wail , and turned it into a laugh, only it came out rather peculiarly, and Amma smacked her lightly on the head, saying, as she went by, , “is that a hiccup , Lakshmi, did you help yourself to stolen cheedai?” .
She hadn’t, there was no cheedai in the old Amulspray tin, besides, she thought it was a silly story Indu Pati had told her , that kids who dipped their hands in the snack-tin were always caught by their sudden hiccups! Why make cheedai and leave them around for kids to find if they were not meant to be eaten?
The next day, Jana Chitti, Amma’s younger sister came to visit. She was there when Lakshmi returned from school, and she rushed to her , whooping with delight, for she loved her college-going aunt who wore stilettos, and had a dressing table of her own. Of course, she had already heard about the prize and couldn’t wait to hear Lakshmi recite the Suprabatham.
A fortnight later, Lakshmi had lost count of how many evening visitors had been regaled with her Suprabhatam recitation. Amma was constantly interrupting her play-time, calling out “Dear, here is Shyamala aunty, would you like to ………..?”
Raman Mama, and Appa’s friend Suresh Uncle………Everyone brought chocolates, biscuits, she even got a pink-and-green stone-encrusted ball-point pen (that wouldn’t write) from Vijay Uncle, Appa’s best friend, who said, “its from Hyderabad” . Shankar Chittappa brought her an Amar Chitra Katha comic, Shivaji.
Lakshmi spent a half-hour one Saturday afternoon with Shivaji, finishing off the a whole bar of Cadbury’s 5-Star as Shivaji’s Har Har Mahadevs fended off attacks by the Ya Allahs from the enemy ranks.
She bit off a big chunk when the evil Afzal Khan pretended to embrace the shorter Shivaji and tried to thrust a kataar in his back, in her panic for Shivaji’s safety. But Shivaji had his armour on under his silk, and Afzal Khan hadn’t noticed that Shivaji had his tiger claws on, and met his own gory end, much to Lakshmi’s relief.
It was a few days before Lakshmi began to notice a reluctance on the part of visitors to subject themselves to a Suprabhatham recitation at sun-down. Raghu Mama, who came to drop off a bottle of Indu Pati’s mango pickle that he’d offered to deliver when he went to Madras the week before, said, “oh! Great! Second Prize? Nice, pretty book eh?”
When Amma said, “Lakshmi why don’t you recite it for Raghu Mama?” he looked uncomfortable, and said quickly, “ hey listen, I have to leave……there’s a bottle for Minalochani Maami too, and thanks for the coffee, Akka………..” the last as his Suvega eased out of the gate.
Lakshmi was a trifle put out, but he had slipped a bar of 5-Star into her hand as he left, saying, “next time, hmm?”
* * * * *
The short, plump Minalochani Maami , a much-loved aunt, had long , thick tresses that reached way down her waist, and it had to be carefully lifted so she wouldn’t end up sitting on a cushion of her own coil of hair. She and Amma had been best friends since school. She came to catch up on gossip with Amma.
“Hallo, dear!’, she boomed at Lakshmi “I hear you won a prize. Suprabhatham recitation, hmm? My Shyamu has flunked his unit test again…Maths, English…” she went on, cheerfully, as if she was reporting that Shyamu had scored the first rank.
“Maami, why didn’t you bring Shyamu?, Lakshmi asked, though secretly relieved he wasn’t there.
She and Shyamu had little to say to each other. He went to a different school, and their occasional encounters left her feeling life as a topper-of-the-class wasn’t all it was made out to be. He regularly flunked tests, and she was sure his English text book, “Songs The Letters Sing” with its story on Bun The Wee Rabbit had not been opened past the first two lessons. She had been careful not to let him know she had read all the lessons, because it was like reading a story book. Bun had disobeyed his Dad. He had wandered into Farmer McGregor’s cabbage patch, and been mercilessly shot. Bun Was Dead and Dad Was Sad. But Shyamu wouldn’t know that. Nor would he care..
Shyamu knew about Lakshmi’s Suprabhatam recitation, though. If he had tagged along with Minalochani Maami, he would have teased her, mimicked her with his gibberish Suprabhatham. “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi…….” she imagined him singing, in a surprisingly musical voice, laughing to herself at the idea of Chalam Thatha, who didn’t hear quite well, nodding appreciatively and rewarding Shyamu with sticky toffee and a pat on the head.
“Shyamu was playing with his friends around the house, dear, and I wanted some peace, “, Minalochani Maami was saying, “come sit by me and let me hear your recitation……….”
Here we go again, thought Lakshmi, but not wanting to offend dear Minalochani Maami, recited “Kausalya Supraja Rama…….” and fetched the Sleeping Beauty for her to admire.
Lakshmi soon wearied of the Suprabhatam routine, and the “Apacha gipachi……..” in Shyamu’s voice refused to go away. She was beginning to dread visitors. Her prize winning recitation was old news, and the assorted maamas and maamis were beginning to acquire a glazed look on their faces as Lakshmi submitted to Amma’s command-disguised-as request to recite the Suprabhatham, never mind they usually visited in the evenings. They clapped too quickly, or not quickly enough, and Lakshmi thought she might as well have been singing “Apacha gipachi………”
It didn’t help to know that Shyamu, who would never be summoned to recite anything, not even the gibberish Suprabhatham, didn’t have to try to be good at anything but playing pranks and staying at the bottom of the class. It didn’t help, either, that Shyamu’s pranks had a high degree of sophistication, and when they had been played, left grown-ups impressed ( his father laughed first, and punished him as an after-thought). He became a hero to his friends, and Shyamu’s exploits always reached her embellished with the collected exaggerations as it passed from friend to friend.
When Amma started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to her at bedtime, it was Shyamu playing hookey at school, and Minalochani Maami was Aunty Polly in a sari, who , more out of a sense of duty than faith in the power of punishment, ordered Shyamu (Tom) to paint the wall on a Saturday afternoon. And it was Shyamu who traded a turn at wielding the brush for a dead rat and a piece of string to swing it with, a broken Barlow knife, the core of a half-eaten apple ……..
The picture of Shyamu swinging the dead rat on its string, while Karthik and Shankar argued over who should go first with the painting, would be excruciatingly funny, if her own life showed any signs of progressing from endless Suprabhathan recitations………perhaps there was something to be said for sleeping spells and wicked witches, after all.
She had grudgingly admitted, to herself, that if Shyamu was Tom Sawyer, there was more to being bad than she’d given credit for. She wondered if Amma had got it all wrong– A bad person is not very brave, she’d said.
But could a brave person be bad? She wasn’t brave enough to ask Amma, and kept these bad thoughts to herself. When she felt exceedingly bad, she sang “Apacha gipachi……” silently, though occasionally she startled herself by singing it aloud. Luckily, a pre-occupied Amma probably thought it was “Kamala Kuchachu” and she didn’t have her ears boxed.
When a whole week went by, and Lakshmi’s return from school was not shadowed by the presence of a visitor who “was waiting to hear the Suprabhatham recitation”, she cautiously stopped praying to be sent to hostel, a threat that Amma often flung at her for many real and imagined misdemeanours. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had been read to the last page, and Amma had suggested a break before starting Huckleberry Finn.
Even “Apacha gipachi……….” was gradually giving way to “Woh kya hai…………ek mandir hai…?” in the voices of Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar wafting from Shakeel’s house on the other side of high wall which gave the Dark Bedroom its name. For, unlike their venerable old Bush Radio, Shakeel’s newly acquired Philips transistor played Vividh Bharathi and Radio Ceylon, opening up a whole new world of Hindi film songs that none of them understood. It made for a refreshing change from MS, Lakshmi thought, although it made her feel disloyal.
And then it was time for Krishnan Tatha’s visit. Amma’s great-uncle Krishnan, who lived in Kodaikkanal, came down every year to visit his daughter, Amma’s cousin Shanta. Lakshmi returned from school yesterday, to find Amma had brought out the veena, which she was playing sitting by the planter’s chair on which Krishnan Tatha reclined, singing rather stentorially, a Carnatic kirtana quite familiar to her, Thyagaraja’s “Endaro Mahanubhavulu”.
Lakshmi ran into his arms, and was hugged and had her cheeks tweaked, and she was babbling about her second prize, and demanding to know what he had brought her, while Amma tried to shush her . It was a while before she was dismissed, to freshen up and sit down with Tatha for a long conversation, lessons in Carnatic music, and jokes and riddles and guess the raaga games.
And then Amma said, “Lakshmi, won’t you recite the Suprabhatam for Tatha?” Lakshmi suddenly felt like a deflated balloon, and began to mumble incoherently. It was a while before Amma realised she was protesting, and did not want to recite the Suprabatham. Not today, not again. Ever.
Amma was shocked, and angry. She drew her into the kitchen and hissed at her, “what is wrong with you? This is the one thing that would make Tatha happy, and proud”.
Lakshmi just stood there, defiant, silent. Amma said “hmph” and stormed out, but she heard her tell Tatha in a calm voice, “ she wants to rehearse, Tatha,”
And Tatha told her soothingly, “it’s alright , Thulasi, let the child be.”
After a few minutes, she returned to the living room. Tatha looked pleased, and asked her to come sit on his lap. Amma did not say anything. Which meant she was still angry. She decided to get the recitation over with and clearing her throat, just as she had seem MS do at the concert in Gayana Samaja once. she began “Kausalya Supraja Rama”…… Tatha was delighted, and began listening, with his eyes closed, and fingers tapping on his cheek to keep time, and her mother relented enough to throw a couple of smiling glances at her. Then she began “ Kamala kuchachu…….” and Lakshmi never knew when it had turned into “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..” and she began to giggle uncontrollably……..
Tatha was staring at her, and Amma, was no longer smiling. Laksmi leapt off Tatha’s lap, and ran …….out of the house, down the road , to the vacant lot at the corner where a raucous game of cricket was being played, and stood there a long time, before slinking back home.
Tatha had left. Shanta Chitti had come to collect him. Appa was home, sitting on the planter’s chair recently vacated by Tatha, and had obviously been told of Lakshmi’s uncharacteristic, short-lived delinquency. He tipped her a conspiratorial wink as she entered, and clearing his throat loudly, he said, “ Lakshmi, where have you been? You should have waited to say goodbye to Tatha, it was very rude “.
She looked surreptitiously at her mother, who said nothing, and did not look up from the magazine she was reading. Lakshmi went to stand next to her, and mumbled “sorry, Amma.” Her mother said, “your dinner is on the table, eat it and go to bed”.
It was going to be a long weekend. And Huckleberry Finn wasn’t going to join her for now. She cried herself to sleep.
As MS was winding down on the Suprabatham on the Bush Radio, rather muffled inside Lakshmi’s quilt, she felt someone tugging it off her. It was Amma, and she was smiling, as she said, “ wake up , dear. Your light coffee is getting cold”.
Hurrah! Suddenly, second Saturday was back in style! Lakshmi got up, and joyously chorused the last few lines of Kamala Kuchachu along with MS. “Am I glad I didn’t listen to myself and box my own ears”, she told herself, and froze in her tracks to the bathroom as she heard, “Apacha gipachi chakachu jikachi..,,,,,,,,,,,,” and Appa saying, “I say Thulasi, this has great possibilities. I have never heard Krishnan Tatha laugh so heartily!”
There will never be anyone like him. Only VNSR knew how to make even an intern feel like a star reporter, and swathe the junior most rookie reporter into the big story, and make her feel she made an important contribution.
He was among the four who interviewed me at Indian Express, and was always proud to introduce me to as “the young lady who stood first in the written test”, We had endless conversations on our ride home in the 10 pm van , and one could say ANYTHING to him, and be rewarded with that crack of laughter which was so VNSR. as he enjoyed the little digs that you were allowed to take at him .
Do you know what “Subba” means? I asked him once and he said, “Bhus bhus nagara havu”…….his arm swaying menacingly at me, like an angry cobra hissing for revenge, and I said all we need is the Nagin music playing in the background. Alladi, you are a khiladi, he had guffawed. Most of the time I was ”Ms Jayashri Gadkar, ” my namesake, the actress who played Kausalya in DD’s Ramayan.
I never knew anyone who has mentored so many reporters and felt proud of each of them. It was a few years later, when I had moved to TOI, and to reporting, that I realised VNSR had nursed a little disappointment about my choosing to be on the desk, rather than in reporting. I ought to have been his protege’ not just the girl who topped the written test, had known the full form of Kuvempu at the interview , and whose conversation greatly amused him at least most of the time. But I was just a happy sub, awed by the fact that this awesome man’s words were in my hands, and I could tell him why don’t you put it , like, so, it looks better, and he’d say “Howda? (is that so? } and say, go ahead, change it .
I remember that it was he who introduced me to Suryaprakash, long anointed my mentor , by me. I was getting into the office for the 2.30 p.m shift ( I was just six months into my job, just a trainee, in fact.) when VNSR caught up with me in the lobby (Time Office , it was rather pompously called) and with him was Asp, a man of many legends , narrated, yes, by VNSR , in that way he had of proudly talking of his proteges.
I was tongue-tied, at first, and then VNSR said, ”Prakash you know, she stood first in the written test…” and then resumed the conversation with Asp, but of course, thanks to VNSR, I was in it too. And when I said, apropos of something that I now forget, “yes, I remember when I was young……..” and VNSR emitted another of his sharp guffaws, and saying ” that can’t have been very long ago!”
I’m quite sure Asp doesn’t remember this, but I will never forget it.
Later, meeting him at press conferences, or in the lobby of the Legislative Assembly, or at the Press Club, I marveled at the way he delighted in the drama of politics and cinema. As Sachi ( K.S.Sachidananda Murthy, Resident Editor, The Week), another protege who has made his mentor immensely proud, says, he never shed the curiosity and enthusiasm of the cub reporter till the very last. I marveled too, at how seamlessly I had graduated to being “a colleague” with whom he discussed news and issues as an equal, and how easily one could catch the infectious enthusiasm for news when one was around him. News was always worthy of celebration when he was around it.
There was also an unusual absence of cynicism in the way VNSR practiced journalism. He belongs in that endangered list of journalists who maintain the distance and detachment required of a conscientious journalist who owes fair, objective reporting and opinionating to the reader.
I cannot think of a single politician or film star who had an axe to grind with VNSR on account of his writing. People like Hegde welcomed even criticism , and surely did some quick course-correction after reading him. Film personalities like Vishnuvardhan enjoyed much camaraderie with VNSR, but probably agonised that his verdict on their film could make it or break it. After all the man had a felicity with words in English and Kannada, and in the era when there was no such thing, he was a walking Google/ Wikipedia of all things Karnataka. Because, though he played confidante to many Chief Ministers, and other politicians and film personalities, and he knew many of their secrets, he never betrayed their trust even as he practiced the most impeccable journalism.
Though he never “groomed” me officially, to be an Ekalavya of sorts, within his orbit, watching him, talking to him, listening to him, I would count myself among his many proteges for whom he always had the time, and who practice his kind of journalism.