The Double

When she looks into the mirror she sees her mother. She peers close and observes that a grey hair streaks across the dull brown hair. She dolefully observes that she is greying at the same place that her mother greyed. Buy her mother greyed after she crossed fifty, and the black lustrous hair was so thick that it could not be enclosed in the palm. Her own hair is thinning near the forehead  – though just forty she feels fifty. Her complexion has attained placid wheat brown as against her mother’s glorious golden colour; her features once sharp are smudged by the onset of middle age. The melancholy dip of her eyes while in deep thought is from her mother.
 
She stands at the mirror in the bathroom to catch the glimpse of her mother and hold her there. She has not let her mother go, her mother has so insidiously settled in her memory and the subconscious that she never got up in the mornings alone. Her mother woke up with her and she experienced the gentle breath and warmth of her mother when she cradled herself in the large rocking chair to read a book. Now her double – her mother – has moved to the apparent level. She sees her double, her mother, in the contours of her face and in every curve of her body.
 
So much has her mother coalesced with her that she does not see where one ends and the other begins. She closes her eyes and the wooden door of her mother’s parental home opens in her mind. She lives her mother’s life; her mind maps the landscape of her mother’s childhood in Mylapore.

Superman Returns

I remember vividly the Sunday when I went to see the movie Superman Returns with my son and my husband. It was a deceptively serene Sunday in retrospective now. It was the week that my father returned from the hospital.  He had been in the hospital for four weeks and had come home on Wednesday. He was my Superman because I have seen him pick his health through those four weeks from sheer immobility after a nasty fall and dip in Sodium levels to the state of being able to move about and take care of his simple needs. I believed that my Superman has returned – returned to listen to music, to discuss with me theoretical aspects of Carnatic music and goad me read the meanings of Thiagaraja kritis. There were hiccups of course – his mind did not gather strength the way his body did. I really was not alarmed, it seemed that it was just a matter of time before he could be put on the positive path of good health and spirit.

I settled to the comforting presence of having my father back home. He was up in the morning at the dining table to drink his steaming mug of Horlicks. Then he was helped to have a shave and a bath. He emerged out of his room at 8 o’clock wearing a fresh veshti, vibhuti marking his forehead. He had his breakfast of idlis or pongal. He walked for a while and sat in the sitting room observing the morning bustle as my husband left for work. After the cook left and the silence settled in the house, he listened to music. I left late for work after spending some time with him. I recounted every day to the attendant looking after him to give my father soup, kanji, fruits and food at the right time. My mental clock was set to my father’s dietary routine. I called at 11 o’clock to check if my father had his soup, at 12 o’clock to enquire if he enjoyed his lunch, at 3 o’clock to remind that it was time for his kanji and at 4 o’clock to instruct the attendant to wash the apples before slicing and serving them to my father.

In the evenings he greeted me with “Good evening”, at the sitting room. I would come home to find him chatting up with my mother-in-law. I would sit with him and listen to music for an hour. A late evening walk, physiotherapy and dinner ended his healthily orchestrated day. He had problems sleeping on certain nights and there were nights that he slept peacefully. Life, I thought was getting on smooth tracks after the bumpy ride of four weeks in the hospital.

Hence I was delighted when I got three free tickets for the movie Superman Returns. We needed a treat for all the good things happening around us. Reliance had chosen us as one of the best customers and in appreciation offered free tickets for the family. Why wouldn’t we top the list of best customers? We after all had three Reliance phones in the family and the bill for each reached a couple of thousands! My son was delighted, and we were going to theatre to see a movie after a long time. It was too good to be true as the movie was released only on Friday and my husband suspected it was some practical joke played on us: “Wait for the tickets first,” he said. The couriered tickets reached us on Saturday. My son announced the good news to his friends. He was proud that he was the first student in his class to see the movie, that too just two days after its release.

I spoke to my father about the movie, explained why the movie was special. I told him that it is a sequel to the movie ‘Superman’, and that the sequel has come after a long gap.  I told him about the belief that those who donned Superman’s role were believed to be ill fated. I narrated about the fatal accident sustained by Christopher Reeves who played the lead role in the movie Superman, how he was paralyzed and immobilized, his long drawn battle and how he died tragically last year. I told him that the new movie is actually a brave attempt meant to disprove the belief that Supermen are not lucky. I told him that the new Superman would do well.

Just as we were leaving, I looked up at the bookshelf for the tickets; I had put them there. The tickets weren’t there. I remembered taking the tickets to show them to my husband. I couldn’t recollect what happened after that. My husband said that he gave them back to me. We started searching for the tickets everywhere. Everybody at home – my father, the cook and my father’s attendant who were all sharing our sense of celebration at this outing, were distressed. My father tottered behind us joining in our attempts to search for the tickets. The cook and the woman attending on my father searched for the tickets at odd places. There was very little time left, if we did not leave in another five minutes we would be late – it would take us a good 40 minutes to reach Satyam from Virugambakkam. We were looking at the same places again and again as though hoping that some miracle would materialize the tickets for us. I slowly started losing hope, I began to talk philosophically — “Probably we were not destined to see the movie. Let us instead go for a long drive.” My son threw himself head down on the bed and started crying. Something in me prompted me to search for the tickets among the previous day newspaper that were stacked away. Lo! I found the tickets among the papers. I did not remember putting them there. I might have kept them with the newspaper and my maid had cleared away the old papers. When I went to search for the tickets among the newspaper, I did not logically direct my search. I think destiny wanted me to watch the movie and so I was lead towards the papers. Everyone rejoiced and sent us happily for the movie. The cook stood at the door and waved to us.

After three days my father experienced a set back. He developed breathlessness and had to be admitted in the hospital. I had thought that his hospital days were only an interim in an otherwise normal course of life. Seeing him again in the hospital I felt defeated, now periods of normalcy seemed like interludes in an otherwise disturbing course that my father’s life was taking. I wanted to get out of this defeatist mode. Luckily my brother joined me and helped me look at the situation more positively. My brother and I started looking at life in this manner – any thing can be sorted out, there are solutions to all problems. Earlier we were giving time frames for my father’s recovery, and were weighed down if he did not show progress. Now we realized that life does not work in that manner. We decided to leave time take its course, allow my father get around at his pace. Little did we realize that he was already functioning within a time frame that was set for him by forces that we cannot fathom.

My Superman did not prove to be lucky at all for he passed away just ten days within the release of the movie. What is important is my father’s spirit – in a manner that befits a hero he made his recovery during the four weeks in the hospital. Who can fight fate and death?

I had thought that movies like Superman and Superman Returns are meant for my son whose world is inhabited by fabulous people who can fly, walk through walls or stride across planets. I realize that the movie makes sense to me in a different level. I reckon that Superman is made for me as well– my father’s life and the memories of my father make me construct meaning and strengthen my belief in Supermen. I believe that the making of the movie itself is inspired by millions of fighters who people this earth. One such humble fighter was my father who attemp
ted to make a come back. It does not matter that such fighters fail in the end, the way my father did or the way Christopher Reeves did. It does not make them any less a hero!

A Peep Into Eternity

When someone very close to you dies, you take a step close to infinity, you travel along for a distance with the dead. This is how I felt when my mother passed away. During the thirteen days of grieving I was given to believe that my mother had embarked on a journey – a journey that the Brahmin who aided my brother perform the 13 day rites said, was facilitated by me and my brother. We experienced a feeling of awe that it lay in the hands of small mortals like us, who had been given a passage into life by our wonderful mother, to assist her in the journey from the pretha lokha, the astral world to the pithru lokha, the world where she gets united with her ancestors. The pindam, the rice ball that I cooked every day and the rites that my brother performed were meant to conduct her on the journey. During the thirteen days we followed with great absorption the journey that my mother made.

 

As we sat in the evenings silently those 13 days, having nothing to say, dumb with shock we felt close to her, felt her breath beside us. The nighttime was the worst, I could not sleep. I had never been in my mother’s house without her; we had never assembled – my brother’s family and mine, without her overseeing our needs. As children she was the mistress of the house, we glowed and fleshed out in her love and care. We felt alone, yet not so much alone as we felt just a thin wall of invisibility and a shift of realm separated us from our mother. I felt that she could see me, hear me and watch helplessly her beloved daughter suffer her absence.

 

I felt that I had in some manner transcended the earthly domain and raised myself a wee bit to peep through the window of timelessness at eternity. The 13 day mourning period had created this island of experience, this limnal space of not here – not there, a platform that the dead and the living share.

 

This cathartic experience, far from comforting me, shocked me after the twelfth day when my mother sailed away from me to cross the Vaitharani river on the final leg of her journey to the Yama lokha. Here she attained the form of a pithru and the pindams were integrated to symbolize this transformation and dhanams were offered to Brahmins to aid her safe and successful passage.

 

I came to my house after the 13 days of mourning. My mother’s house was locked away and my father left to stay with my brother in Bombay. The space was lost – the literal space (my mother’s house), as well as the metaphoric space that our religion and scriptures had helped us to create during the 13-day mourning.

 

Now, in little less than three years my father has passed away. He had stayed with me for long periods during these three years. The mourning period has just got over. I feel my father has just stepped across time to join my mother. Yet I feel both of them very close to me. Are they pressing themselves close to the wall of eternity to commune with me, to make me feel that true love never dies? —  “ Death ends a life, not a relationship” (I discovered this line scrawled by my mother in her diary; this line is from the book Tuesdays with Morrie – a book that deeply moved her.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Sorry, hubby dear, this is the briefest I can be, but it makes little sense

My husband has been asking me to keep my posts brief. That is very difficult for me. I am a meticulous writer, always editing and rewriting, looking at my write ups at different times just to be sure that it sounds right always. It is a painful process taking a lot of time. When I am writing I have the file open for hours, writing in snatches and also engaging in odd jobs like floating fresh flowers in the bowl of water, watering the pots of plants on my terrace, staring at the crimson heart of my large hibiscus. My writing involves all this — the restless meanderings are the mainstay of my writing activity. So it naturally takes a very long time, many days by the time I finish my first draft. And that is not the end, I am many drafts and hours away from the finale!

You see to comply my husband with a brief post is very difficult, for I believe that to write briefly I should be able to write at one sitting. One sitting is already up now. I am just about to get up and read a passage from Naipaul’s Literary Occasions. And there is nothing much that I have said as yet in my post. I have not yet started writing how I go about my next drafts. That is for another post. Now it is time for Naipaul.  

Flowers Of Chennai

I write about flowers not as a botanist but as a person whose sensibilities have been conditioned by the different flowers sold at street corners in Chennai.

In Chennai, we wear just about any flower on our hairs. These flowers can be broadly classified into three categories. There are the flowers that are strung into strands or worn as clusters, and there are the large flowers that are worn singly. The third variety is a subset of the earlier two – these are the large flowers that are also strung together and worn on hairs.

Flowers Strung As Strands

Malli – Malli is a great hit. Everyone – young and old, irrespective of the background they hail from, wears it during all occasions. During the hot summer months malli  blooms in abundance. The most popular variety of malli is the Madurai Malli; the arid plains of Madurai are a veritable growing place for these shrubs. This particular variety of malli is large and more fragrant than the common ones.

During summer months wonderful strands of densely strung mallis are available in aplenty. A mozham of malli during summer costs about three rupees and the flower seller offers four mozhams for ten rupees. The best strands of malli are available outside Nalli and Kumaran in T. Nagar, outside Kapaleshwar temple and near Luz corner in Mylapore.

Malli is available almost during most part of the year, though the best mallis are available during the hot summer months of April, May, June and July. During the other months they are expensive  – we have to wrangle with the flower sellers to lower the price of the flowers that are not so exuberant and are strung very far apart. These are the times when malli looks sickly, the buds might not blossom, or the flowers are small without fragrance. Still the only flower we ask for is malli – “Malli erukka, poo-kara-amma.” 

Malli is associated with all festivals in Chennai, starting from Vinaka Chathurthi in August, Navarathri in September/October, Deepavali in November, Pongal in January and Varusha pirappu in April. It is only during Varisha pirappu that the best malli is available; during other festivals we just about manage to get malli somehow.

Malli is best when it is worn in the evenings – that is the time when the buds open. If we are passionate about malli we have to follow its clock and not our own. I know many who put malli into plastic bags in the evenings and keep it in refrigerator. They take it out in the mornings and offer it to the gods or wear it on their hairs after the have their morning bath, just before going out for work. The mallis are dead by then, the stems shrink and the flowers fall away from the strand.

Mallis that are grown in home gardens are carefully cut along with the leaves. They are worn on the hair in clusters. The variety called the goondu malli commonly grown in gardens, is large; these have seven rows of petals and are as large as roses.

 Jadi and Mullai    Personally I classify jadi and mullai with malli, because it becomes very difficult for me to choose between malli, mullai  and jadi, to wearon my hair. The fragrance of both mullai and jadi is as intoxicating as malli. Jadi is more common during the pleasant months of January and February, August and September, while mullai, like malli is a summer flower.

Jadi flowers are long and spiky, they appear dainty when they are still buds, and the ruby like translucence of the buds is striking. As they blossom jadi flowers become a blushed pink, which seems weak and sickly in comparison to the maroon streaked buds. The flowers are soft and it is like paradise to feel the sensation of the flowers near the skin while inhaling the fragrance. The life of jadi is short. It wilts and turns brown within a couple of hours.

 

Mullai is hardier than jadi. The flowers are pale yellow; sometimes they take the colour of yellowed cream that forms over stale milk. They are no nonsense flowers (not exuberant like malli or dreamy like jadi) – they are slim and sprightly. They are closed up as buds; they catch attention only after they blossom. They open out evenly and stay upright till they decide after long hours to die out. When the flowers dry out the cream curdles deeper and turns a cheese-like yellow – a colour opulent, but wasted on a dead flower – the way nature works!

 

Nithya malli – Nithya malli a flower that seems like a mix of mullai and jadi, grows on creepers. Every other home garden in Chennai has the creeper. Nithya malli has to be carefully picked from the plant, the pale yellow stem of the flowers snap if the gatherer is in haste. Then the flower cannot be strung into the strand, it has to be tucked deep into the plait so that we get up next morning carrying the lingering fragrance of the flower. 

Nithya malli is called so because it is a non-fussy flower, blooms in abundance almost every day. The fragrance of the flower floats through the darkness from the gardens where these creepers grow. These flowers are not sold by flower sellers, for reasons that I can only conjecture – they are fragile flowers that cannot stand the journey from Koyambedu flower market to independent flower sellers. All the same those who grow this creeper in their garden make strands of these flowers and wear it in their hair. The pleasant smell stays on in the hair for days later.

Kattu malli –  This variety of malli grows wild in the forests. They have no fragrance; they look like malli, a pearly white colour. They do not wilt away for a long time, and when they do, they turn a burnt brown in colour. Since it stays fresh for a long time, many favour it.

Kanakambaram – These are fragile flowers, red and orange hued, having translucent stems. The .red coloured variety is called as Delhi kanakambaram, red as a coral; the orange hued is the local one. It is the Delhi kanakambaram that is generally sold by flower sellers, the local kanakambaram is like the nithya malli – those who grow it in their garden loyally wear it on their hair.

Kanakambaram has no fragrance. They are available in the months of July, August and September. Children cherish these flowers as the colour of the flower appeals to them.

Samandhi – Samandhi is a variety of chrysanthemum, golden yellow in colour with a nondescript smell – we are so much taken in by the breathtaking colour that we do not mind that the flowers have a mundane smell.

Samandhi is considered the most auspi
cious flower to be offered to Gods. The price of samandhi is hiked during festival seasons. Large golden balls glow on the festival eve as women and men troupe to the flower sellers to buy the priced mozhams of samandhi.

Strands of samandhi adore the deities in homes; women tuck a small strand on their hair in hurry as they partake in the rituals of festivals. Spikes of yellow petals fall from these strands on the bronze or golden hued necks of women and litter the floors of their homes.

Kadambam – Kadambam is a mixture of malli, samandhi, sprigs of marjoram, davanam, marudani flowers, sampangi and sometimes thazhambu. I remember wearing the heavy strand on my hair. The strand of kadambam is heavy as sprigs of marjoram and davanam, the large samandhi and spiky petals of thazhambu lend weight to the strand.

Kabambam is also considered an auspicious flower as all sweet smelling flowers are offered to God. The confluence of various fragrances is deemed as a fitting offering to God. The different colours that constitute the strand of Kadambam are pleasing to the eyes.

December flowers – These flowers are named thus because they start blossoming in the month of December, and are found in aplenty during the months of January and February. The December flowers come in many hues – pale purple like the lavenders, deep purple like the egg plant, satin pink like the twilight sky, white like lily or striped purple like a child’s pajama. Children favour these gay coloured flowers and they wear the variety that matches with their dress.

Flowers Worn Singly Or As Strung Into Strands

Roses – We wear a variety of roses on our hair, singly, as clusters or as strung in strands. The most common one is paneer rose – the local variety of rose. These roses are pink in colour, this variety is seldom worn singly. They are strung into heavy strands. These are delicate flowers that emanate a very pleasant smell. Fresh ones have drops of dew on them. The petals of these flowers are picked and offered as udhiri poo (loose flowers) to gods.

The red roses are a variation of paneer rose, they too are native ones but red in colour. These, like the pink variety of paneer roses, are strung as strands or offered to gods as udhiri poo.

There are Bangalore roses, the sophisticated variety that arrive in different hues. These roses in blood red or yellow or saffron colours are worn singly on the hair, they are worn fashionably where the plait falls gracefully on the nape.

Dahlias – A flower that is worn singly is Dahlia. These are large flowers and they come in various colours – deep maroon, bright orange, sunshine yellow, eggplant purple. These flowers do not have any fragrance. Personally I feel they adorn a vase better than hair. Not many people feel the same; they love to wear this flower on their hairs.

Father dearest, forgive me

It is a week now since my father passed away. I can’t snatch a wink of sleep tonight as last Tuesday when I was away at home sleeping peacefully, all that made up my father got unmoored and made him drift away. I was not beside him when he sailed past. What would he have felt alone, without my mother, without me and my brother beside him, in the sterile ICU Ward among patients, nurses and doctors. Did he call for us and through gasps for breath did he search for me among strangers?
 
My mother recalled many times the days when she and her siblings took turns to take care of my ailing grandmother at the hospital. She said that a mother can take care of ten children, but all ten children put together cannot take care of a mother. How true this has been in my case! I writhe with pain at the thought that I could not be a part of his life at those final moments when he was conscious, before he was sedated and put on support systems. My brother and I held his hand, it seemed to us like ages between his gasps of breath. We felt, here is the man who fathered us, took us through our childhood and youth, partook in our happiness and sorrows, and became an agent of our dreams and desires. We looked at his fingers, his hand, his face – everything that we were very familiar with. He had always responded to all our calls – “Appa,” we had always called and he had always been there kindly asking, “Ennamma? Ennappa?” We watched with dismay our father slip away from the world and the people that he loved.  
 
The finality settled in me as I saw my father getting prepared for his final journey. My father was a tall and handsome man. He wore panchakacham on festival days and on ammavasai days. He was prepared for the last journey in a panchakacham and an angavathram, a true Brahmin on his journey to the Deva lokham. My brother conducted the rituals that initiated my father’s journey. The finality struck when I saw my father being consumed by the heat in the electrical grate in the crematorium. In less than three quarters of an hour he was all smoldering ashes and bones. The 75 years of vibrant life – thoughts, feelings, emotions – all nullified in a blinking moment!       
 
As I watch the photograph of my father and mother that I have laminated and put on the table, I feel that at last my father has reached a place where he is at peace. I stare long at the photo that my brother had taken of them in his flat. All the three years after my mother passed away, we never looked at the photos where my parents were together. We felt it would hurt my father, we sneaked at the photos quickly and put them away. Now at last we can pull them out and display as we need not have to worry of father’s feelings anymore. 
 

Good bye, dear father

My father passed away on 12th July 2006, aged 75. He could have lived for hundred years, but it was not to be! Something snapped in him totally when my mother died nearly three years ago. She was his anchor, he had lived 47 years with her believing earnestly that nothing can go wrong in his world. The card castle collapsed the moment my mother died. Within a blinking moment everything that he believed as existence vanished. He packed his belongings in a suitcase and left his own flat in Chennai to live with my brother in Bombay. There was no way that he could have lived alone in his flat, he could not for his life prepare a simple meal for himself and he would have gone insane continuing to live in the same space where he had lived glorious years with my mother.
 
He spent his time between Chennai and Bombay, while at Chennai he stayed with me in my flat. I watched sadly his world shrink, all his belongings now fitted into a cupboard. I periodically cleaned his flat, sifting through all the things that he had let go after my mother went away. Gradually he could not bear to think that the house where he lived with my mother was kept locked. He wished that someone would open the windows, let in fresh air so that happiness and laughter would settle in the corners of the house. He sold his house to an acquaintance of many years. I brought home with me my mother’s sarees, family photos that my mother cherished collecting. My father brought home the large photographs of his parents and his cousin – the people who were dear to him and who presided over the lives of my parents. There was the marriage photo of my father and mother. These photographs adorned the walls of his flat. My father carefully wrapped the photographs in old veshtis and bed sheets and helped me put them away. He never asked to hang the pictures in the walls of his room in my flat. He knew that they cannot belong there, not that I fancied having large dark framed photos put on the walls in my flat, even in his room – they would clash with my minimalist décor. Now I understand what he would have felt to wake up in the middle of the night without my mother beside him and stare at the walls that he could not recognize in the panic and pain of loneliness. Many a night he had stumbled through darkness to call me and sat with me till the panic passed. My brother too has helped him many nights to chase the ghosts of his past. 
 
Although my father held me and my brother, his face was turned to the retreating image of my mother. He never moved on. During all the three years the pang of loss never became an ounce less, it manifested in different ways — panic, fear, aloneness, self-pity. He became so self-focused, focused on his own sorrow that the world slowly slipped away. Nothing that I and my brother did could pull him out of the dark world of fear, loneliness and depression. This disengagement with the world and the lives of others took its toll on his health – physical and mental. The muscles in his face remained tense always, smile vanished from his face and anxiety gripped his voice. It was a definite down hill walk for him where fear and foreboding of tragedy haunted him. He walked fearing that something catastrophic would happen and every minute of his existence passed in his attempts to keep the ghouls at arms’ distance. My father was no match to the phantoms that he attempted to wish away as he tossed in his bed. He remained restless. This was really too much to ask of a man frail in spirit, temperament and physique.
 
His health started failing rapidly, it was the case of mind taking over matter. In this state he trusted us totally – trusted that we will help him get peace of mind. We, my brother and I, decided to take over his life. We gave firm commands to his consciousness, we spoke to him for hours on how to be positive, tutored him how to orchestrate his thoughts. Sometimes he felt fresh blood flow through him, sometimes he stared at us sadly and said that we will not understand what was going on his mind.
 
Even through this turbulent period, my father never lost his fine taste for music. The way his heart beat and the blood coursed through his veins, his passion for music remained intact. Music held his attention span, soothed his nerves, calmed his mind and kept him away from disturbing thoughts. Even the evening before he died he was moved by Santhanam’s rendition of a Thiagaraja kriti. He wept when he listened to Sri Chakra Raja Simhasaneshwari. He expressed that he wanted to seek adaikalam in the feet of Goddess Rajarajeshwari.
 
I wonder what gave him courage to take that big step from life to death. By learning to look at fear at face, by experiencing a profound pain that could never be siphoned off by time, he exhibited courage. Or is not death itself an act of courage? I did not know you enough, dear father. You were a brave man in your own right. Good bye, dear father, rest in peace.