Neem Blossoms

The part of the year I like the most is the warm summer months of Chennai. My recollections of the best summers are my years at my mother’s house before my marriage. The days were marked with the different fragrances that filled around me. In the cool and bright mornings I was greeted by the  smell of neem blossoms that formed a carpet on the yard before my mother’s house. The afternoons were filled with the heady smell of ripe mangoes that my mother  sliced and served for lunch. In the evenings the flower seller placed on my palms a string of jasmine rolled carefully into a ball. My mother had banned my smelling the flowers before they were offered to the gods. “I will not hold the flowers close to my nose, but I cannot stop the fragrance from filling the room,” I said to her teasingly. After offering the flower to the gods, my mother gave me long strand of jasmine that I wore on my hair in such a manner that it fell on my shoulder. I held the ends of the jasmine strand close to my nose, as I stayed awake late in the nights reading books. And in the nights my pillow smelt of the flowers.
 
During early summer the neem trees put out blossoms. The gentle sea breeze that set in at late noon on summer days, tossed the neem leaves and the spray of blossoms fell on the ground forming a yellow–green carpet. The early evening air got filled with the smell of neem blossoms.
 
There were quite a few neem trees in my neighbourhood. This I got to know through smelling them out during my night walks through the dark streets. In the darkness of the night stirrings of blossoms in the breeze indicated that a neem tree was somewhere close by.
 
A neem sapling is not taken seriously when it sprouts out of the hard earth. The cotyledon sits as a crown on the sapling; two tender copper-green leaves sticking at the frail stem. Just a look at the shape of the leaves is enough to confirm that it is a neem sapling. The sapling can sprout in unbecoming places – in cracks, at the edges of pavements, under the garden seat – just about anywhere.
 
Generally one is not inclined to pull out these self-invited neem saplings. It is the others like the tamarind, the mango and the banyan that meet a different fate.  Once spotted the banyan and tamarind saplings are pulled out. The banyans are famous for growing on cracks in building. Even when pulled out they are resilient, a new one is seen growing in the same site. It is a common sight to see house owners climbing on windows and sunshades to pour acid that is used for cleaning toilets into the cracks to kill the seeds of the banyan. 

The tamarind tree is very rarely grown in gardens. They grow on roadsides and are believed to house ghosts. The mango sapling is replanted in a more convenient corner while it is the neem sapling that is allowed to stay, as it is felt inauspicious to yank it out. One shouldn’t pull it out on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, the elders warn. On the other days the sapling is forgotten and that is how it remains.
 
In my mother’s house, a neem sapling bearing dreams of growing into a large tree, sprouted close to the barbed fence separating my house and my neighbour’s. It was conveniently tucked in the corner of the garden, so it did not predominantly occupy our thoughts. My grandmother was more worried about  the parijatham shrub that had pygmy flowers and she spent hours wondering why the lime tree growing right in the center of the yard did not become tall but spread its branches closer to the ground as its stem got stockier. She later resigned to the fate of the impotency of the lime tree, and culled the fragrant leaves to make a spiced podi that we mixed with hot rice and ate with fried appalam. Through all these ruminations and engagements with the lime and the parijatham the young and enthusiastic neem tree was rarely noticed. 
 
The neem sapling grew into a handsome young tree. It wedged itself comfortably between the fence and spread its branches across both the gardens. Oblivious of the discomfort, the tree grew energetically, blotting out from our bedroom view of the road and the sky. The outer world was for us a frame of green. On a blazing hot afternoon, the green of the neem grew into us; the heat that went into our heads created soothing images of deep green seas.
 
One beautiful summer the tree put out blossoms. We first saw a fine layer of yellow dust on our garden seat, in the yard. Sprigs of pale yellow blossoms were hidden on the top reaches of the branches. The smell of the blossoms wrapped around us as soon as we stepped out of our house. That was the summer that we spent most of the time outdoors in the cool shade of the tree, in celebration of the blossoms. We did not want the tree to think that we loved it less. So we served tea to friends at the garden seat, we drank our fresh lime in mid mornings and cool lazzi in late evenings outdoors.
 
My grandmother did not allow the yard to be cleaned. The blossoms formed a prickly carpet. Then one day she spread a clean towel on the ground and placed small stones on the corner to hold the towel in place. The neem blossoms fell on the towel. At the end of the day she gathered the blossoms in a large plate. After she had gathered a substantial quantity, she put the plate out in the sun everyday to dry the neem blossoms. Once the blossoms had dried enough (this my grandmother tested by feeling the brittleness of the blossoms), she poured them in a glass jar. The glass jar occupied a prominent place in the wooden almirah where she stored her annuals like naarthangai, vadumangai, salted lime and vathals.
 
After that, vepambu rasam became a weekly ritual. Wednesdays became vepambu rasam day. I got up in the mornings to the smell of vepambu fried in ghee. I had a plate of hot vepambu rasam sadam before I left for school. My grandmother mixed my plate of rice very carefully, ladling out the rasam without the vepambu: “No vepambu, paati,” I ordered, “They look like black ants.”
 
My mother’s house has been sold away; the tree is still within me just as all the memories associated with my childhood and my mother’s house. The tree in my mother’s garden has spread its sense of being into all the neem trees that I see around me. I walk in my quiet neighbourhood for hours to smell the neem blossoms –  my neem blossoms. The sweet smell stirs deep within me memories of a home that I have lost forever. 
 
  

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Focus Your Lens Nearer Home: Reading Lavanya Sankaran’s ‘The Red Carpet’

The Red Carpet is Lavanya Sankaran’s debut collection of short stories. Here she strings together the experiences of people caught at cross roads as the old Bangalore, the Pensioners Paradise emerges into a global metro. The old Bangalore conjures images of morning joggers relishing the balmy April air in Cubbon Bagh, bungalows with sprawling gardens of roses and laburnum, unhurried government employees playing a game of card on the lawns after lunch, outside Vidhan Soudha – all these render a perpetual holiday mood and bestow a bonhomie character to the city. These vestiges of the old city seamlessly merge, in Lavanya’s stories, with the hip-hop culture of the new city that boasts of pubs, shopping malls and neon lit MG road.
 
Lavanya Sankaran’s stories are peopled by a generation of young Indians who see no reason to go to the US of A as they can afford a lifestyle that is similar here in India, to the one in the U. S. They work in MNCs and BPOs and enjoy the best of both worlds. In a shrinking world they glibly talk and clinch deals over the phone, send e-mails that draw to their footsteps opportunities, and boast an upwardly mobile lifestyle that includes breakfast meetings in upmarket coffee shops, official trips to America and Europe.
 
Then there are the young Indians abroad who come back to explore their home as it has become a potential investment hub with scores of affordable software engineers lining the streets of Bangalore.  And of course the desi professionals are aching to leave behind their middle class milieu, this they achieve by working in the MNCs. They tout a cell phone, wear branded clothes, and own cars in which they take their girlfriends to discothes.  Like the bewildered old man Decosta in Lavanya’s story The Closed Curtain, we gaze at the paling away of the familiar world, and focus on the new Bangalore that is emerging.
 
The Red Carpet  can be claimed as a new genre, it ushers home the prodigal who narrates experiences of homecoming, which is a  mixed bag of nostalgia, exhilaration and disappointment. We, the readers, are the Decostas ‘gazing’ at this new brood that has flown come.
 
Lavanya Sankaran interestingly weaves together the various stories in The Red Carpet – the changing soul-scape of the city becomes the binding space where various characters play out their parts. Some characters  appear in more than one story and reveal various shades of their personality in various contexts and in their relationships with different people. The glimpses of these characters over many stories build like layers to reveal the kaleidoscope of human nature.

Trite Relationships

The first story in the collection is Bombay This. Ramu is the most pedestrian of characters we come across in the collection. He dolefully observes that he has definitely reached an age when the girls he took on one-night stands as well as the wives of friends who out of boredom obliged him, have moved on. When his mother suggests Ashwini as a suitable match for him, Ramu engages in an unenthusiastic appraisal of Ashwini whom he had met on different occasions. He draws an impressive checklist on why Aswini is a suitable candidate. But Ashwini chooses Murthy, a friend of Ramu, as her companion. Ramu in his chauvinism constructs a stereotyped identity of Ashwini. This story is truly Ramu’s, he holds the stage. It is in Apple Pie, One By Two, another story in the collection, that we get to understand that Ashwini is more than a party buff  that Ramu makes her out to be. In the story Mysore Coffee we understand why Murthy is a better human being than Ramu, hence a more deserving companion than Ramu for Ashwini.

The Frames Of Emptiness

Closed Curtains the most riveting story in the collection, sensitively traces the isolation and loneliness of old people in a city that has moved on. The city has become  an absorbing spectacle for the voyeuristic Decosta who cannot reach out to the new crop of people who have moved into his neighbourhood and share his city. Decosta lives with his neurotic  cartoon-addicted wife in an old house, his only son has married a non-Indian and settled with his family in Australia. Decosta constructs meaning to his life by identifying himself with the highs and lows of the young couple who have moved across the road; the frame of the window through which he gazes at the happenings in the new family fills up the vacuum of his life. The young wife who gets estranged from her husband, overwhelmed by the imbalance and the mess her life has gotten into, indifferently casts Decosta off, thus excluding him and drawing herself behind a closed curtain. The tale reaches the level of bathos when Decosta immediately identifies another neighbour to draw into his empty world. 
 
The Notion Of Difference

Lavanya explores the subtle ways in which the notion of difference wedges between master/mistress and the servant/driver/ayah. The play of power manifests in multifarious ways. In the The Red Carpet Mrs Choudhary, the young and beautiful mistress takes various avatars based on her diverse roles as wife, daughter-in-law, mother, and teetotaller, and as the benevolent mistress. She wins the loyalty of her servants. The servants have nothing to complain about her, do not engage in gossips about the mistress, they do not deride her, they even turn a blind eye to her wayward ways – so effective does the mistress wield a control over her staff. She obtains her power through different ways. She obliterates the individual identity of her servants; she calls all her drivers Raju. By calling the new driver Rangappa as Raju, she deprives him of subjectivity; he is frozen into a constructed identity.  Raju, like the other servants in the house, is co-opted in the agenda of the rich woman who derives her identity through this subtle expression of power.
 
In another story Two Four Six Eight  Mary, the ayah of the narrator insidiously subverts the hegemony of her mistress/missy. Mary leaves a scar on the tender consciousness of her young ward who is also the narrator of the story. Yet the narrator has moved on, the enchanting world outside her home draws her away from the lonely and embittered woman. The ayah is caught up in her small world where she fawns over and flatters her mistress – the only type of existence that is possible for her.   

Lady Kafka

Mysore Coffee, the darkest story in the collection, is in the mode of Kafka and Kundera. The story lays bare the distressed psyche of Sita who fosters a dark desire to throw herself from the roof of a tall building – the same building from where her father jumped when Sita was only a child. An error in computation cost one of his clients four thousand rupees  – a pittance now for the grown up daughter, whose bill at a restaurant for a dinner of four amounts the same. The feeling of defeat and humiliation weighs down the sensitive man, grief and shame layer his consciousness and the exterior, in an uncanny manner does not betray the bottomless feeling of depression. He takes his family – his wife and his daughter – to see the newly built tallest building in Bangalore, the Palace Tower. The outing, banal in its ordinariness, is beguiling as the father goes back the next day and throws himself from the roof of the building, carrying with him the happiness and sanity of his family. The incident makes Sita and her mother a pariah in the society. The mother and the daughter live in a cocoon – both have the ghosts of the past to handle. Her mother is placid during the day, but is ripped apart by agony and anguish in the nights. The daughter browses the net for suicide hotline and constantly struggles to keep the equation of pain and pain-coping resources in the right proportion to keep
away from the rooftop of Palace Tower that keeps beckoning her. 
 
Ramu, the suave man who contemplated marrying Ashwini in Bombay This, is a compulsive flirt in this story. He facetiously deals with Sita because she is pavam and will remain mute even when under her nose he steals the project she had been exploring and working on. 

The Ethnographer’s Tour Through India 

The outsider becomes an insider in the story Alphabet Soup. Priya a second generation American of Indian origin, cannot accept the way her parents have assimilated in the U.S. She sets off on a journey to India, which is an ethnographic trail. She occupies a peculiar position — she is an insider/outsider in India, she occupies the limnal space. She uses the rites, rituals and  practices of Tamil Brahmins as a cultural text to understand and define her identity which she concedes is multiple due to her origin, beliefs, relationships and various social and cultural factors that shape her behaviour.

Another story from the collection Birdie Num-Num states that there is a genetic palimpsest that no one can escape.  Tara is working on her Ph D program in the U.S, and is in India to write her thesis on Labour Policy. Her parents are determined to finalise her marriage and she watches helplessly the predatory manner in which her parents stalk her and rid her of choices. Understanding that no amount of ducking would deter her mother, she consents to have a party organised in her house. What the daughter does not understand, but something her mother always knew, is that there are cultural patterns deep down in her female psyche that she shared with the women of her family, that no amount of assimilation of foreign values could wipe out. 

The Gold Diggers Turn Their Eyes Homewards

What is venture capitalism all about? How is this endeavour different from the merchandise endeavours backed by European government and financers in the 17th and 18th century to different places in Asia, Africa and Latin America – for instance, to India? Ideologically there is not much difference. After three centuries, India is still the hinterland for European/ American capitalism. The venture capitalists look at India as a potential storehouse of cheap professional and skilled workforce. In Apple Pie One By Two venture capitalism has an Indian soul as capitalists are the young Indians who want to invest back home.

Apple Pie One By Two presents the new crop of gold diggers like Swamy and Murthy who come to strike gold back home. These two young men made it big in  the U.S. the hard way. They come from middleclass homes where their overstretched fathers could afford only buying flight tickets to the US. The rest was taken care of by their scholarship money. They realise how pathetically poor they were when they join universities for graduation program. They scurry to garage sale to procure cooking pans, share their meals one by two and hold on in an alien land. Even when they make it big, they can’t forget their homes; when the option of moving back arises they come home. Murthy decides to stay back and tide over the recessions and setbacks in India, while Swamy does not want to feel washed away in a lost land and spend the rest of his life thinking and regretting of America as a far away dream land or golden city that he allowed to slip away out of his hands. The story is a farewell to Swamy who is going back to the U.S of A, it is a toast to his success. But the victor is truly the man who decides to stay in India. 

Blue House

Most of the time a place is in the mind, for instance my mother’s house – I say my mother’s house because it went away after her. Now the house is in my mind, the rooms, the furniture, and the colour of the walls.

The walls were at one point painted blue, the blue chosen very carefully from hordes of shades of blue. I fancied blue because it is the colour of sea, skies. In those days, people went for lime washed walls, or coloured each of the rooms in different hues or chose blue just as one of the colours and not because they wanted to bring the sea and the skies indoors. My mother partook in my dream of bringing the sky into all the rooms – the living room, the bedrooms, even into the kitchen.

The blue we chose seemed the right colour on the shade board. Prior to that we had an apple green living room, sea shell pink dining room, and washed down lavender bedrooms. Slowly as the first coating was given, the blue paint washed out the multiple colours that I had grown to hate. After the second and final coating of blue, I did not know what to do with my blue house. It was a disaster. I reckoned that the skies and seas were the best where they were. I do not know how my mother felt, but the blue poured into me through the pores of my skin. My father wouldn’t have had any opinion about the colour of the wall. It would have been a job well completed for him, and for another seven years till the walls became blotched with dirt and oil stains there was nothing to worry.
 My mother and I went shopping for sofa covers and curtains. We chose a fabric in blue with a spray of pale white flowers. We used the same print for the curtains as well. Once the wall gets painted blue, nothing much could be done, we felt. We could only add more blues. Now after all these years, I think I can handle blue walls more imaginatively. I might throw in whites to give a stately finish, or bold pinks and purples to create drama. But not so in those days.

On a holiday to Dehradun I bought a beautiful lamp made of seesham wood. I found in one of those dimly lit and subterranean antique shops that Dehradun was famous for. A shade in raw silk made the picture perfect. I packed  the shade and the lamp carefully. I visualized the lamp at different places in the sitting room, visualized the warm glow that the light would throw.

On our return to Madras, I cleaned the house that had remained locked for the three weeks that we were away in  Dehradun – swept the floor, cleaned the thick layer of dust on tables and shelves and polished the glasses and mirrors. I wanted my blue home to be ready to accept the new lamp. It did accept the lamp —  it took the lamp in so much that the seesham wood and the raw silk got drowned in the howling blue of the walls. I gave up after that.

And so memories of my teens float through a mist of blue!