Friday, December 10, 2010


What prompted me today to write about my days in Singapore, after nearly 15 years, is one mail I got from Helen Tan whom I got to know as my son’s friend. Yes, she was introduced to me as Raja’s friend and colleague.  
Helen and her husband

A very pleasant attractive lady with a smiling face, I liked her very much from the very beginning. She was always the first to wish me on my birthday - even today she is the first - ever since we knew each other. While I was in Singapore I usually got a bouquet of flowers with a beautiful gift signed Helen and Veronica - another colleague and friend of my son. Even after fifteen years of my leaving Singapore we exchange greetings on birthdays regularly, and mail one another once in a while. Six years back on my way back to Madras from U.S. with Raji and Muthu we made a halt at Singapore. Helen came over to meet me and took me out to dinner. Helen’s husband and Veronica joined us and it was an unforgettable evening for me.

At Saint John's Island - the singapore skyline can be seen from here.
      Raja started working in Singapore soon after my husband’s death. Once he got settled I too joined him and was with him for a major part of his stay there. This transfer of place and lifestyle was an antidote for me. Everything was new to me. I was fascinated by the people, their life style, the very clean roads, the shopping centres, the food courts - well, by everything I saw. I was shown around the whole city in the first few weeks by Raja, -  the Bird park, the zoo, the Botanical Gardens  Sentosa Island, Saint John’s Island where I got a chance to get near the waves and paddle for some time,  Teka Market on Serangoon Road,  and the British Council library. 

I was also tutored to travel by bus and taxis by Raja. Once he was satisfied that I was well-tutored and knew the ropes well, the running of the house was entirely left in my hands with enough cash, a Bus pass and the British Council cards.  He also provided me with walking shoes and a track suit. He encouraged me to wear them and go for walks.

For the first few days I was very self conscious wearing the pants and tops. Here I must add that I wore only sarees ever since I was fourteen years old. I felt odd and unsure of myself for the first few days. Gradually I got used to that outfit and the morning walks were something I started looking forward to. On my way back home after the walk I did the shopping for our daily needs like milk bread and vegetables. This shop was run by a Chinese couple. They did know a little bit of English, but I was a zero in Chinese, still we were able to communicate with each other. Raja was in Singapore two months ago. He told me that he dropped into the same shop as he was passing by. The shopkeeper recognized Raja and enquired about me also. I felt glad when I heard that. I always feel happy when I do my shopping in individual shops rather than in departmental stores and supermarkets. There is always the personal touch such as ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ I truly belong to, and believe in old customs like these.

Raja was working with The New Paper, an afternoon paper brought out by the Straits Times group. So his working hours were from five in the morning to one in the afternoon. Raja had his day filled with his own  activities like playing tennis, going to pubs in the evenings to listen to  music  and dining out with friends.  But once every week he took me out for lunches and dinners and introduced me to Mexican and  Mediterranean,Chinese and  also Singapore delights. As days went by I became very confident in doing things on my own—taking a cab to Serangoon Road to shop for vegetables and provisions, travelling by bus to the British Council library to pick up books and C.Ds. I lost all my inhibitions and started enjoying my life in this new place.

One woman selling coconut - grated on the spot - always gave us odd looks when once in a while Raja came with me to do the shopping.  I did not understand why. The mystery was solved when my grandson came along with me once to Serangoon Road.  The coconut seller seeing Sriram, with me instead of Raja was awestruck at first, then asked pointing to Sriram, “New boyfriend?” I could not control my laughter when I told her that  he was my grandson and I also informed her that the gent who came with me  the other  times  was my son.

Once in a while Raja brought home his friends from office either for breakfast (nine to nine-thirty am break for food)or  for dinner. I enjoyed cooking different dishes for them. I am sure they too relished my preparations. Many of Raja’s friends from India and other places used to stay with us when in Singapore or spend their free time at our place. Soon they befriended me too. I enjoyed playing Scrabble with them:I doubt if they enjoyed the game as much as I did for they found it rather difficult to beat me!

 While in Singapore I was exposed to new entertainments also, about which I had only read. Raja took me to concerts of  Ray Charles , to an opera and a Russian Ballet, all my firsts and I enjoyed them to the full. We made a trip to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where we stayed for two days with one of Raja’s friends and did visit some famous places like the Batu caves, a famous Chinese Temple and the Botanical Gardens. From there we went to Penang - a beautiful island where we stayed for another two days in a beach-front hotel named Rasa Sayang. Though I have read about people sunning themselves with minimum clothes, I saw them for the first time here.

On the first evening while we were having our dinner our waiter brought one of the exhibits there, a Pallankuhzi  to our table asking me whether I knew what it was. Well, I told him it was a game played with either very tiny seashells or Manchadi and had to explain how it was played. That was one indoor game I used to play with my grandmother and mother when they had the time to relax. I remember I have played this game with my children too.

Another experience was riding on a cycle rickshaw, or trishaws as they are called there. The funny part of these trishaws was that the seat for the passengers was in the front while the rickshaw man would be behind us, pedalling the cycle. He pedalled so fast I felt we might fall on the road any minute.

Another place that got my attention was a street with a lot of shops selling grinding stones of both varieties like the ammi kozhavi (for grinding masalas and coconut and the other the attukal for grinding rice and dal for the dosai iddili dough.

Singapore holds a festive look with various types of decorations and illuminations during Diwali (Deepawali as they like to call it), the Ramzan month (which they Hari Raya) and the Christmas and New Year  periods. I was seeing this type of illuminations for the first time and I was totally flabbergasted .Thai poosam, a temple festival dedicated to Lord Murugan, is celebrated in this land on a very grand scale with every believer whether Indian or Malay or Chinese taking part in the procession of devotees  carrying Kavadis  and Palkudams .

I was totally captivated with whatever I came across in this city. And I feel I am at a loss of words to write more.

Mr. and Mrs.Narayanan
One family I befriended while there is the Narayanans. They were Raja’s upstairs neighbours.  From the very start Rani (Mrs. Narayanan) made it her responsibility to take care of me when Raja was out at work or with friends. Rani and Anu, eldest of her three daughters, and me became close friends and are in touch with each other now also. 
Anu and her family

I never thought that one could make friends after sixty and maintain that friendship for years. That way I am blessed for I have a good circle of friends who make me think that life at eighty is also worth living!!  


Sunday, November 14, 2010


The above picture is taken from a link my son sent me recently. It reminds me of Gajendra Moksha which happened in a different yuga.  Maybe this crocodile , and yet another in a similar incident,  were some celestial figures who were cursed by some Rishis for their bad behaviour to remain as crocodiles till Lord Narayana appeared and gave them their original form.

The  story goes thus.
Once, Gajendra, the king of elephants was wandering in the forest with his herd. He felt very thirsty all of a sudden. After wandering for some distance the elephant herd came across an inviting pool of water. Gajendra entered the waters to appease his thirst.

A crocodile was lying low in the waters. The elephant was enjoying his drink without being aware of the crocodile .The crocodile, taking advantage of this, caught  one foot of the elephant between its teeth and refused to let go, however hard the elephant tried to free himself. Even after a long fight with the crocodile the elephant was not able to free his leg. In despair the elephant called out to Lord Narayana to save him. Lord Narayana came at once flying on His vahanam Garuda. He saved the elephant by killing the crocodile with His discus.
The story goes thus. As soon as the discus touched its body the crocodile got back its original form – that of the gandarva Huhu. He had been cursed by a sage for some misdeed.  With the Lord's blessing he went to Heaven. This was what the sage had also said, that the curse would be nullified when Lord Vishnu appeared before him.

The elephant, to show his gratitude, offered Lord Narayana a beautiful, sweet smelling Lotus from the lake. 
 The elephant, who was king Indrayumna in his previous janmam, had been cursed by a sage for being haughty and proud and that he would be  born as an elephant in the next birth,  and that he would be free of this curse when Lord Vishnu appeared before him.          .
Maybe the two crocodiles in the above mentioned news items are also waiting for their release from their earthly bonds!!
The two links are:

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Today my mind wanders   back to those days - my childhood days - the way my parents, no, my mother made preparations for this festive occasion. My father was a non - interfering person in the matter of running the household or how the festivals and other functions in our home were conducted. He left all these responsibilities to my mother. My mother was a very capable lady - a good cook a very cautious spender and one who believed in tradition and customs. We were a big family- four daughters and three sons. There used to be at least one or two cousins staying with us, either studying or on the lookout for proper jobs. Even with such a big family my mother was always particular that all festivals and functions like birthdays of each and every member of the family were conducted in the proper way. 

Diwali meant getting a new set of pavadai  (full skirt) and blouse  some times it turned out to be two sets for the younger  girls  and a pair of half pants and shirt for my two younger  brothers. Today’s youngsters and children will find it very difficult to believe that in those days everyone had only three or four sets of clothes. New clothes were bought only for Diwali and for birthdays. Also it meant lots of patakas and my mother’s Diwali special sweet. The grownups were given the freedom to buy what they needed or wanted. Word would be sent over to our tailor to come home as quickly as possible to take the measurements of every one of us, to find out how much material would be needed. We youngsters used to feel so important and full of pride when the tailor - yes I still remember his name, Hariharan - took our measurements. It was either my eldest sister or my big brother who shopped for the materials needed the same day. Next day the tailor was again called home to collect the materials. He would be given a deadline - a maximum of four days, to bring home the finished products. If by any chance this was delayed there would be a cut in his wages. Maybe he did not want a cut in his hard-earned wages. He was very prompt in delivering the goods. We  youngsters would be so anxious to wear and try our new  clothes, but our mother was very particular that the new clothes that we could wear them only after GANGA SNANAM—the ritual early morning bath on Diwali day.

Diwali meant a  lot of patakas- fireworks. In those days there was no ‘Made in Sivakasi’ fireworks. India was under the British rule and so belonged to the Commonwealth group of countries. India as a country did not manufacture anything. There were no industries, even our school notebooks, pencils, erasers - all of them were imported. As I said to someone the other day, we all grew up with foreign cars, French perfumes like Evening in Paris, Italian soaps, Swiss chocolates, Waterman and Parker fountain pens  and of course British authority.

So for Diwali we turned to China, the one country that really gave us the best crackers. Even today my feeling is they top the list.  Two days before Diwali my elder brother or my eldest Athimbar took the responsibility of buying the patakas while we youngsters  waited for them to come back home with the patakas.  I remember vividly one Diwali time of those days - my brother coming back from the market empty handed with the news that all the patakas were sold out by the time he reached the shop! Were we disappointed? Yes, to the pit of our stomachs. We ran to our mother for comfort and more for complaining. My mother led us back to the front veranda all the time smiling to herself. Then we knew that our brother was simply teasing us. A coolie was there with a big basket on his head and my brother helping him to unload the basket which was packed with all kinds of fireworks. Our joy was also brimming to the top of our hearts. No one will believe me today if I tell you that the whole basket full of patakas cost my brother only Rs. Five!!

The day before Diwali my mother would be very, very busy making the dough for iddli - a must in the Diwali day breakfast menu, the grinding too to be done manually. The sweet prepared in every household in our parents’ families on this occasion was OKKARAI* - laddus and jangiris were made only for weddings in the olden days Also there were no shops preparing and selling these items.

Come Diwali morning, my mother was the first to have her bath by three a.m. after which she would be busy waking up all children, apply oil on our head and giving us a quick bath. Then only we were allowed to wear our new clothes after which we were made to touch our parent’s feet to get their blessings. Then came the interesting  part of the day, bursting the patakas.

By seven in the morning breakfast also was served--- iddlis with coconut chutney (freshly ground on the grinding stone), paruppu (thuvar dal)vadai and the sweet Okkarai
Looking back I really wonder how my mother and many like her managed all this single-handed.

Today with all the modern gadgets and help from many sources life is much easier for the lady of the house. Ready-made clothes, sweets, why even ready-made iddli dough are all available in the market.  But there is one shortage in many households! And that is TIME. Precious time with women too working, working as hard as any man! Added to that in most families she is the one to do the shopping, cooking and taking care of the children’s needs. Blessed are the women  when the men understand the women’s problems and give them a helping hand.


One measure thuvar dal
Equal measure of jaggery
Equal measure of grated coconut
Two tablespoons of ghee

Cook the thuvar dal  in the pressure cooker. wait for one whistle, turn the gas low for 15 minutes. wait till the cooker is  well cooled and then only open it.   Grind the coconut well in the grinder then add the cooked dal and run the grinder for ten seconds. Melt the jaggery in a cup of water and strain to remove all the impurities. Boil the jaggery syrup, when it thickens add the dal coconut paste. Lower the flame and allow the mixture to thicken all the while stirring with a flat ladle. Add two table spoonfuls of ghee. Go on stirring till the mixture gets dry and turns to be powdery. Allow it to cool before serving. This sweet usually stays fresh for nearly a week.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Recently on my post on Navarathri  a comment was left by someone called Mona. 

Here it is.

 Dear Maiji
Really love reading your blog, I am amazed at your creativity whether it is your golu or knitting things for your g. g child.
My question is: despite having a large family and all its requirements, you found time to do all these things in a unique way.
How did you prepare for it? How did you organize yourself so that everything went smoothly?
We have a lovely golu every yeat, but I am lost when it comes to preparing food or snacks for guests. I get overwhelmed. Any tips ? How must I plan this event so that it goes smoothly and I don't sacrifice time spent with family, or shortcuts because I concentrate on the golu and visitors.
Please help/ anticipating your response October 13, 2010

 Mona has asked me some questions  and I find it very difficult to reply to them. My memory also seems very reluctant to surface and help me. Certain things I remember very well - like my family helping me by making no undue demands on me during the Navarathri time In fact my family, including my husband's parents, used to help me in many ways.

Every year I used to plan well in advance what the theme would be. No details. And I also used to start my kolu work well in advance say ten to fourteen days before the actual date. Once I started, ideas just surfaced to my mind regarding how to do this or that. Accordingly I worked on. After finishing my routine work like
cooking, getting the children ready for school, seeing to the needs of the elders I was able to organise my kolu details. Also if I remember correctly, however much inconvenience was caused, my family just took it in their stride.

Mind you, in those days (I mean the period of my kolu days) there were no kitchen gadgets. And no gas cooking ranges. It was either kerosene oil stoves or firewood ovens .I was not opposed to heavy work as I always looked forward to the end rewards and results Getting up in the morning at five was not at all bothersome to me, and staying up late if there was some work to finish was not at a problem. Above all these, I had willing helpers in my children. I should not forget to give credit to my maid and the gardener too.

I do not remember anything more .It is more than thirty five years since I had my last kolu. My only regret is that there are no photographs of my beautiful and much appreciated kolus.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Far back in my childhood this word Appan Cheyal was always linked with my name. I don’t remember how this started or why! All I remember is that my elder brother as well as my eldest ‘Athimbar’ (my eldest sister’s husband) had chosen the man with this nickname for me to marry.

This nickname belonged to one Mahadeva Iyer. He was related to my eldest sister by marriage. He was a widower and was very rich. He was the wealthiest person of that time, owning acres of agricultural land all over the area he belonged to. He was a very God-fearing man and with every breath used to utter these two words ‘Appan cheyal’ which meant ‘God’s will’. That is how he got the nickname.

He life style was like that of a zamindar, and as any zamindar of that era he was always well turned out with gold ‘Kadukkan’ (solid gold earrings), gold ‘kappu’ (solid gold bangle), a thick gold chain with a ‘Rudhraksham’ encased in gold round his neck and a walking stick with a solid silver handle. This description was given to me by my brother and brother-in-law telling me that he was the one chosen by them to be my husband, adding that he was not that old. His being sixty and me six the age difference was a mere zero, they teased. Here my memory does not help me so I cannot say how I reacted to this teasing.

By and by my brother started adding to this saying that our parents wouldn’t have to spend too much on my wedding. Appan cheyal being a rich man he would not demand anything from my father. But to send me to my in-laws’ place empty-handed would not be right, my brother added. So he would say that I would get as dowry my mother’s old silver, bronze and brass utensils, my mother’s equally old steel trunk, which was given to her on her marriage, and my parents’ old double cot – which had been pensioned off a few years back.

As I grew older I became aware of the teasing and its meaning. I started to resent it which only added to their teasing. My brother came out with a slogan repeating it whenever we came face to face. My sisters and even my mother enjoyed the slogan very much.

The slogan went like this

Engathu Lalithavuku kalyanam
Kottumelam kovililey
Avaravar athiley sappad
Vettilai pakku kadailey

 This meant
"Our Lalitha is getting married
The nagaswaram is played in the temple
Every one eats in his own home
And gets the betel leaves and nuts from the shop."

This teasing went on till I was ten years old, when my brother left home and went to Benares for higher studies.

Years passed and soon it was time for me to get married. It was my brother who went to Thrissur to meet my to be in laws and fix up everything with them Coming back from Thrissur he told me that he was sure that I would be very happy in the alliance.

Contrary to all the teasing my marriage was a grand affair with all the elite of our place attending the function. In those days a wedding was graded by two items, the nagaswara vidwan and the caterer. The nagaswaram was played by the then famous Ambalappuzha Brothers and the caterer was the famous Karamanai Appu.

Only one of my brother’s teasings came true. World War II had just ended before my wedding. There was a scarcity of many essential things. The availability of goods was also very rare and if available the prices were sky high. Because of this, I was given as my dowry the family’s silver and other utensils.

 And as my brother had told me I had a happy married life.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Olan : A Dish to Remember

For lunch today, my daughter Gowri requested me to make to make Olan -- a Kerala side-dish to go with Mor-kootan. Mor-kootan was subsequently dropped from the menu and Gowri made her special “short way” sambar instead. (The way she makes it is so tasty and well-flavoured; we all enjoy it to the last drop.) Gowri also prepared a side-dish for Mohan since he had no liking for Olan. Having Olan for lunch brought back several memories, memories which led me to write this blog.

I suddenly remembered that day in Lakshmi Nivas in 1944. There was a Solar Eclipse on that day, the eclipse starting at 8am and ending at 11. My mother, who adhered to each and every rule prescribed in the sastras, was wondering how and what to cook well before the start of the eclipse. The sastras said that cooked food should not be exposed to daylight during the eclipse period. My father, after his retirement from service, had his lunch at 11 in the morning everyday, come rain, come shine. Well, my mother with suggestions from my father (which she never took seriously) got up much earlier than her usual time, had her bath (one never cooked a meal in those days without having taken a bath and changed into fresh clothes) and cooked the simplest of meals – but my father’s favourite one, Arachu kalaki and Olan.

The Olan I prepared today tasted exactly the same as the one my mother made that day for I have never forgotten that day or the taste of that Olan.

This also reminded me of certain food fads of my father, his likes and dislikes. He never had any liking for sambar -- or any curry with tamarind (pulli or imli), which he always referred as chappu-chavaru (mere junk). At the same time, he could not resist the temptation of tasting the sambar with his curd rice and later on putting the blame on my mother if the sambar upset his stomach even minutely. Even Prathamans, a sweet dish prepared with daliya (broken wheat or lentils such channa-dal or moongdal), he liked them with only jaggery and coconut milk, no chappu- chavaru like channa dal or daliya. He was a choosy eater but was willing to try any ideas which his fellow-Masons put into his head.

During my college days, when my mother visited her mother or my two elder sisters in town, it was my turn to prepare the sweet dish my father had for dessert, after having two light crispy dosais with chutney. This sweet, prepared with green gram jaggery and coconut, was also recommended by his friends in the ‘Lodge’.

The first time I visited my parents after my marriage, my father used to have two Masala-dosais and chutney for dinner. Every evening, without fail, my mother just peeled and cooked two potatoes and made the masala with onion, green chilies and ginger. When my parents visited us while we were in Pondicherry, my mother simply followed her routine to give my father his special dinner.

Watching her doing all this, even after she was past 65, my eyes used to fill with tears; such devotion and such loving care. Those were the days when there were no electrical kitchen gadgets and all the work was done manually. Grinding for dosai and idlis in a grinding stone was no easy task. Wherever they were, my mother always prepared my father’s dinner herself.

My mother pampered my father by indulging in fulfilling all his whims and fancies. Her home-made Appalams were appreciated and enjoyed by all in the family as well as our near and dear ones. But my father preferred the Pappadams sold in the grocery stored. He never liked them fried but roasted on a charcoal fire.

Coming back to Olan and our lunch today, Gowri served a spoonful to Mohan and asked him to taste it. Very reluctantly, he did so. He liked it and said that it was very different from what he had tasted before. What really surprised both Gowri and me was that Mohan asked for more Olan to eat with his curd rice. I was in fact gratified and my face broke out in smiles.

My recipe for Olan (for 4 people)

Pumpkin – green or red, ½ kg
Long Beans – 6-8
Potatoes – 2 medium-size ones
Green Chili – 4-5, cut lengthwise into four
Curry Leaves – 2 stalks
Milk extracted from half-a-coconut

Cut the pumpkin into one-inch square, about 1/8 inch thickness
Cut the long beans into one-inch long pieces
Peel and cut the potatoes into thin rounds
Cook the long beans in one cup of water. When they are half-cooked, add the pumpkin and potato pieces. Add salt when the vegetables are cooked. Then add the green chili and curry leaves. Allow it to boil once and remove from the fire. Add the coconut milk and serve.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The vast expanse of bushes in a tea garden

Some like it hot, some like it cold, some with milk and sugar and some just plain black. Some have it with a dash of nimbu (lemon) and some with a pinch of salt. But all of us go for a cup of tea when we are tired or thirsty or just bored with life thinking a cup of tea will cheer us up. Masala tea really peps us up when we are travel weary, as well as on wintry cold days.

Tea is a universal drink. People do love a good cup of tea any time of the day .Each and every tea drinker has her or his own way of making that cup of tea. The English people were (I am talking about those good old days – I do not know about these days) very particular about making their tea. First wash the teapot with hot water, measure three –four (as need be) cups of water to boil, put three or four (again as need be) spoons of tea - that is one spoon for each cup and one for the pot, add the water once it starts boiling to the tea in the pot and allow it to brew for three minutes. I myself have made many cups of tea this way. I have to mention here in those days tea leaves were prepared in a different way. Today tea is manufactured in the C.T.C. manner. C.T.C. means cutting, tearing and curling.

Good tea is the product of good leaf. Good leaf depends on the age of the tea bush and regular pruning of these bushes. Plucking of the tea leaf (two leaves and a bud) starts in early morning and goes on till late afternoon. I understand that the leaf plucked in the morning makes the best end product.
Women carrying the plucked tea to the factory

Every plucker has to pluck the stipulated amount fixed for each day. Plucking more means the plucker gets more wages and less means less. Once the plucked tea leaf is weighed and noted for record each day, it is transported to the factory where the processing is done.
Workers readying the tea for the withering trough

The withering trough

Black tea processing is done in three stages - withering, rolling and fermentation. The first stage is removing the moisture; that takes 16 to 20 hours. This also determines the quality of the tea produced and also the aroma. The second stage is rolling which breaks the leaf and stalk into small pieces. The last stage is fermentation which is done by laying the rolled leaf in thin layers in sifted portions in a plain room conditioned with humidity and a fixed temperature.

The CTC roller

A heap of CTC tea - all sorted and ready to go into the bag

Retail tea is a blend of different grades by mixing the product of a variety of tea gardens and sometimes from more than one country of origin. Blending of tea is done by expert tea tasters.

While having that cup of tea I wonder how many of us think or bother to know how much effort is put in to bring that tea to one’s table. Personally speaking, I never bothered about it because we never had tea at our home unless we had guests or visitors who were tea drinkers. We were sworn coffee addicts. All this changed when our youngest daughter got married to a tea planter some twenty odd years ago. We were introduced to garden fresh tea and it tasted nothing like the marketed tea we had back home. It was wonderful. tea with a full flavor and fresh-smelling. There is no after taste in a cup of real good black tea. Nowadays I start my day with a cup of lemon tea. I have now turned into a tea addict.

Tea laid out for tasting

Having spent a good deal of my life in the last ten and odd years in the tea garden with my daughter and her family I have realised that it takes a lot of work, effort and responsibilities for the tea planter to bring that cup of tea to the table. The tea gardens are either owned by individuals or belong to incorporated companies, based in Calcutta. Every tea garden is under a manager. He has with him four or five assistants to help run the garden and also the usual clerical staff. The manager is responsible for the smooth running of the garden and the factory in each garden that turns the fresh leaves plucked daily into ready to pack products. He is answerable to the higher authorities in Calcutta not only for matters connected with the smooth running of the garden and the factory but also for damages caused in the garden because of natural calamities like unseasonal rains, hail storms, drought or excessive rains.

Almost all the tea gardens in the Dooars area are surrounded by forests. Hence there is always the danger of wild beasts like elephants, leopards and wild bison entering the Tea gardens. The elephants are the most feared ones. They come in hordes of fifteen and twenty and are capable of causing too much damage. They usually enter the labour lines at dusk attracted by the smell of cooking. These animals also go to the vegetable gardens of the bungalows in search of corn and fruits. They pull down the houses of the labourers, sometimes even attacking humans. There are times when these elephants kill people if they are not in good mood. Uprooting trees and tea bushes are mere child’s play for the elephants. But this is always a source of headache for the manager. This is all because humans have entered into animal territory and the animals are kind of showing their protests. This is only my reasoning.

The English were in power in India when tea cultivation started in this country. They were very clever in settling down comfortably in the colonies occupied by them. Likewise in the tea gardens too they made life easy and comfortable by building big airy bungalows for themselves. (These types of bungalows are seen all over India even today in the district head headquarters. In those days these bungalows were meant for the District Collectors and Inspectors of Police) The tea culture and the life for the people working in tea gardens were styled by the English planters equal to the life style they had left behind in their home towns. Every garden has the manager’s bungalow on this style and smaller ones for the assistants and the doctor. The doctor in each garden who is in charge of the hospital is available twenty four hours to the needy labourers as well as the managerial staff and their families.

The ‘Labour lines’ are where the workers in the tea garden have their houses. Each Garden has some thousand to thousand five hundred workers some permanent and some temporary. They are given free houses - two roomed with a kitchen and bathroom. They are provided with heavily subsidised rations, free firewood and free water supply and free medical care. They keep their homes in good shape – I am told - some of them with good furniture. Most of them own TV sets too. I have seen the small plot of yard in front of some of these houses, they are well kept with many flowering plants. There is a crèche to take care of young kids while the parents are working. Education is free up to Middle school. Even with all these facilities given to the workers they are never satisfied. They are always making new demands for more wages or increased bonus which they get annually during the Puja season. The worker’s demands are instigated by different party and union leaders. To pacify the union leaders and the workers and bring a settlement between the workers and the Head Office in Calcutta is the manager’s responsibility.

All said and done, the manager’s life is not a peaceful one. It is there with him all the twenty four hours. Some times his family has also to bear the brunt of it. With all these handicaps if he produces that good cup of tea I enjoy, I salute him. LONG LIVE HIS ILK.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


While in Delhi for more than forty years of my married life, I always enjoyed the winter months - though we did not then have most of the modern gadgets like washing machine and grinders, or running hot water. The reason being one never felt tired however much housework one did. And sitting in the sun, knitting or reading was the ultimate luxury for me.

Come November, it would be time to take out the woollens and inspect them, whether the children’s school sweaters and coats could be managed for one more winter or new ones had to be ordered or knitted, and sending my husband’s suits to be dry-cleaned. Then all our cottons had to be aired and packed up till the next summer. That was the time for all our cotton\summer clothes also to have their annual rest.

Come the month of March, it was time to pack up all the winter clothes and get ready for the summer. This time a lot of physical work was to be put in. All the sweaters had to be hand-washed (all pure-wool knitted—as acrylic was not on the scene yet) one by one for fear of running colours that might spoil the knitteds, and then dried flat on a Turkish towel in the shade. It used to at least take two days for the sweaters to dry - so just imagine how many days it would take for the sweaters of two or three adults and three or four children’s to be washed, dried and have them packed in boxes till the next winter. It was the same routine for all housewives.

There was a break in this routine one March in 1974. My husband’s and my children’s sweaters were washed and ready to be boxed. That day it was my sweaters turn. There were about five or six new cardigans, all acrylic and gifts from my daughter on her return from Manchester after a two year stay there. They were drying in the back yard and as usual I was babysitting them . I was alone in the house, so when the phone rang I went inside to answer. It was a wrong number. It took about five minutes for me to return to the backyard. What I saw there I could not believe; the old couple of sweaters were there alright – the new ones had disappeared. I was lost for a few minutes. I did not know what to do. Then I rallied myself and got in touch with my husband and told him what had happened with tears running down my cheeks.
Can you imagine what he told me? “Forget the whole thing”. I got so wild that I asked him to use his position and report to the police about the theft .He flatly refused. I knew he was right in a way so I did not force him also. When our children back from school, I told them about the incident, and they were annoyed about the whole thing. Our second daughter was the one who was most affected —I still remember how she ran all over the lanes and by lanes in our colony to find out if some body was hiding somewhere with the loot, but it was of no use. For a week she was always on the lookout for any suspicious characters wandering about inside our colony.

Well, as days passed, I gradually learnt to accept the fact that I had lost my new sweaters for ever.

One evening in late May there was somebody at the door wanting to see the man of the house. My husband was not at home so I went to the veranda to greet him and to find out the reason for his wanting to meet my husband. He introduced himself as police Inspector X and wanted to know whether any theft had taken place at our place a few months back. Honestly, I had forgotten the loss of my sweaters, and having answered him in the negative wanted to know the reason for his asking that question, and why he was interested.

“This boy here tells me that he had stolen a few sweaters from this house two months back,” and pointed to a teenager, poor, and dressed in shabby clothes standing by his side, carrying a small tattered suitcase in his hand. I remembered like a flash how my sweaters suddenly disappeared from the backyard. I told the policeman that in fact we lost a few sweaters round about that time and we had no hope of ever getting them back. Mr. X ordered the boy to open the suitcase .Inside were a few sweaters - some of them my given-up-for-lost ones. There were about eight or nine sweaters. Having looked through them I pointed out which were mine and told him that two of mine were not there. I was told that the boy had sold one of them for a mere Rs 2 to buy a cinema ticket and another for a meal. After confirming the theft the police Inspector asked me whether we had reported the theft to the police. “ No, my husband did not want to do that”

“Why?” was his next question and he wanted to know where my husband was working.

When told he was a government servant he started saying how the people working in the ministries have a very poor impression and opinion of the police, whereas they think too much of themselves and so on. He went on in this strain for a few minutes which really raised my hackles. I stopped him in mid-sentence and said, “Please get out of my house if this is the way you talk about my husband and you take those sweaters also with you. I don’t want them back”

That shut him up .He was at a loss and did not know what to say. He never expected that from me. After a few seconds he asked me in a timid voice, “In which ministry is sahib working?” Home ministry was my answer in a clipped tone.

“What is his designation?”

“Director, Police”

How I wished I had a camera in my hand to capture all the expressions and emotions that passed through his face on hearing my answer. Gulping and stammering he said, “Sorry Sir, I mean, Madam, please never tell sahib what I said. I am sorry I said that, Sir, I mean Madam, please. Madam, you may come to the S.N Police Station tomorrow, put your signature on the identification paper (or some such paper—I don’t remember now) and collect your sweaters, Madam.” I simply waved him off from my home after a very curt thank you. Also I told him there was no question of my going to any police station or anywhere to get back those sweaters

Every single word was repeated to my husband later that night after dinner. He was equally shocked to hear that I had asked the policeman to get out of my house.

I did not know what happened the next day in his office - like who met him or talked to him about the policeman’s visit to our house. All I was told by my husband was there was a note of apology from the police Inspector. The sweaters were sent home later the same evening. I was reluctant to touch them at first. Any way we had them dry cleaned and those sweaters served me well for a long time.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Glaucoma is one word I had not heard of till I fell prey to it some twenty years back. I was in Singapore in 1991—staying with my son –a sport journalist.
I had lost my husband four years earlier and was a total wreck. Raja – my son –was the one who helped me regain my sanity – infusing so much confidence in myself, helping me back to have a busy life in this new country. He encouraged me to do things on my own—like going to the British Council library to get books to read, going to the shops on my own to buy whatever I needed for myself or for the house, and most important- to go for walks.

It was during one of these walks I felt something was wrong with my vision. While waiting for the traffic signals to change to cross the road, I was not able to see the cars coming from my left side till they were right in front of me. I thought I was getting cataract as I was above 60 at that time. So I decided to go to Bombay to stay with my daughter Viji who at that time was working with an NGO helping cancer patients. She had contact with many doctors. With her help I saw an optician who, after listening to my problem suggested that I consult a glaucoma expert and sent me to one.

This specialist, checked my eyes and did a field test, and advised me that it was a seriously advanced case of glaucoma. He said I should have surgery as soon as possible, within two days if possible to save the vision – whatever that was left of it -- in my left eye. He advised me to go to Sankara Netralaya in Chennai where I could get the best treatment. So off I flew to Chennai to my eldest daughter Raji who, in the meantime, managed to get an appointment with the chief of that institution for the next day itself.

Thus my treatment started. I was put in the care of Dr L Vijaya who appeared to be very efficient at the same time kind and considerate. I was under her care for the next eight-nine years. During this period I underwent three surgeries, in both my eyes, for glaucoma as well as for cataract which, by this time, had set in and was ripe for surgery, done by Dr Vijaya herself.

Glaucoma is caused when pressure is built up in the eyes. This pressure then starts crushing the optical nerves, which get damaged and start affecting ones vision. And that is when one becomes aware of it, only after this damage is done. That is why glaucoma is referred as a thief disease.

I was told I had lost 85% of my vision in my left eye. The first stage of treatment was laser surgery, done to relieve the pressure on the optical nerves by drilling minute holes in my eyeball. After this I was asked to apply eyedrops – Pilocar, four times a day, and Timolol, three times a day -- till two further surgeries were performed.

After a year or two of stumbling steps, I learnt to take this drawback in my stride and have continued with my life without much problem for the last so many years. I am doing everything I was doing before I was affected by this: knitting, reading, cooking whenever I feel like it, and am now typing this blog on my netbook, too. (as in the picture)But I have stopped going for walks on my own --- I am not allowed to do that by my children wherever I am, so I have to do with walking inside the compound or on the terrace.

Another disadvantage, with practically no vision in one eye, is I am not able to gauge the depth of things. This has led to minor inconveniences. Going down the stairs is a problem. I need the help of another person or I have to cling on to the banisters. Also, when I want to put a glass on a table, I find it difficult to gauge the distance between them. In unfamiliar situations, I let go of the glass an inch above the table as a result of which I spill things, or worse, break glasses. Then when hanging out clothes to dry, it is very difficult for me to locate the clothesline; it is always a few inches this way or that way from where I see them.

The main reason why I am writing all this is that at the very beginning itself Dr Vijaya alerted me that this glaucoma is hereditary and so my children should have periodical eye checkups. I remember my mother telling us that her grandmother lost her vision in her old age. Could she have had glaucoma? Who knows?

Anyway, it is proved now that glaucoma IS hereditary because my daughter Viji has been affected by it. She discovered she had it only four months ago but Dr Vijaya, whom also she consulted, is of the opinion it must have started at least a year back because my daughter’s right eye is badly affected.

I request all my family members and all who read this not to ignore any discomfort you feel in your eyes. Please have an eye checkup at the earliest and save your sight. Some symptoms are a dull but heavy feeling ache in your eyeballs which I used to feel in the early days. Also powerful lights trouble the eyes, giving a lot of glare. Light beams reaching one’s eyes are broken: the stars one sees seem like a comet. Actually I have not seen a single star without a tail for the last so many years, not that I am able to spot any.

Please don’t think glaucoma affects only grownups. It could attack anyone at any age Even babies are affected by this. NO, I am not alarming anybody, just trying my best to make one aware of this. All I want to say is be on your alert and don’t ignore your eyes.

A slightly different version of this was published in the May issue of a Chennai publication, 'Eve's Touch'.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


There was a Book Fair in New Delhi from Jan 30th to Feb 8th. My son, with whom I am staying now in Delhi, was working in a friend’s stall there. So for that period of time I was left to myself from 9am to 9pm as my son lives alone, a confirmed bachelor. To have some kind of noise in the house I turned to the TV, or rather, switched on the TV.

I rarely watch TV. If at all I do, it is only Malayalam movies or very old Tamil ones. Even there I am very choosy and selective about what I watch. But during the ten days I was by myself I was exposed to the world of television commercials. So much so, I started seeing commercial in my dreams.

Personally I feel these commercials are frustrating. It is ages since one has watched a programme on the TV without these ads butting in. They are there in the 30 minutes allotted for the news even. Whenever a cricket match is televised one gets only glimpses of the matches in between commercials. It may sound funny but it is the truth.

There was a time when one could watch TV programmes without any commercial breaks. In those days there was no round the clock programme or so many channels or so many varieties of goods available in the market. The pleasure of watching a movie at a stretch without any break in your own home was really great. One had to pay a tax of Rs 50 per year to have a TV licence. No one had to suffer these jingles and jargon.
I vividly remember the viewers’ reactions when commercial breaks were introduced for the first time. Housewives running to the kitchen to give finishing touches to the cooking, feeding the school-going kids, and the kids themselves rushing to finish their homework, get their uniforms and books ready for the next day during this break. The novelty soon died as the commercial breaks increased with proportion to the increase in the channels and advertisements increased by leaps and bounds.
Still I liked viewing TV programmes without anybody thrusting ideas like using a certain brand of soap could makes one’s skin soft and spotless if a particular jingle is sung when having a bath. If you use another brand of soap you not only become clean but within a few days become beautiful too, so beautiful to win beauty contests.

The fruity fragrance of another brand of soap as it assails another model makes her forget where she is. She, being in a hurry to use that soap, starts peeling off her clothes one by one all the while rushing home. By the time she reaches home she is ready to jump into the shower. You believe it?

Coming to toothpastes, there are so many available nowadays. Take any brand there are different varieties. Unless you know which type you want you are at a loss when you go shopping. Add to that the ads for tooth paste really confuse you. Have you ever heard two schoolboys discussing toothpaste? Of all things, toothpaste? Which one will prevent tooth decay? Which is the best? So on and so on. A young girl with a doll is more interested in seeing her doll having good perfect teeth by using a certain type of toothpaste. Could one believe all this?

As it is, children of today are very precocious and very intelligent. They, in some cases, are more knowledgeable than their previous generation. They know about the why and how of things, how such and such gadget works. Why bring them into commercials to air their knowledge and belittle their parents to the viewer like a small boy telling his mother what commonsense is? I belong to a very old generation. I find all this a little too hard to swallow.

I find a few ads really good and interesting and educative. They give you the freedom of choice, they don’t give the public false hopes. One should know what soap or shampoo or hair oil or face cream suits him or her best and go for that.
I have just expressed a few of my thoughts I do not know how it may sound to others Everyone is entitled to have a viewpoint, These are mine, right or wrong.

Friday, January 8, 2010


It was with great interest I read my cousin’s blog, Inlaws and Outlaws . I have always thought that women themselves are their worst enemies A mother- in- law and her daughter- in-law fighting for and trying to hold onto the son’s/husband’s affections are the worst type. As my cousin has rightly said this in-law fight has been going on for ages and will go on for ever.

Even at this time and age in educated families many arranged marriages take place in which the boy and the girl are given the freedom only to nod yes to what the elders say. A few years or months hence ,the girls in-laws particularly the mother would not be able to digest the fact that the couple are happy with each other and are getting to love one another. The mother has this fear that her son‘s love for her would be lost for ever But it is ridiculous when one thinks about it in a dispassionate way. The mother should always remember that she has reached where she is now by walking down the same road. If this woman had a tough time with her mother-in-law in her time all the more reason why she should be kind and considerate and caring towards her son’s wife and treat her like her own daughter --- not as her enemy.

In some families, this theory does not work. This seems to have a reverse effect as in the case of Sethu and Janani. Sethu and myself came to Delhi as young brides at the same time, in the 1940s. Sethu and her husband started their married life staying with his parents while my husband and myself were on our own. Sethu had a very tough time with her mother-in-law. She had no freedom in anything in the house. She could not even talk with her husband in the presence of her mother-in-law. Could not even buy what she wanted, could not eat what she liked. As days passed her mother-in-law started choosing sarees for her, which according to Sethu, were not at all to her liking. She was not allowed to go out either for shopping or for walks like we did. When a son was born to Sethu, it was again her mother-in-law who decided how the baby was to be brought up or how to be fed and how to be dressed. She was not able to oppose her mother-in-law because her husband did not find anything wrong in this.

Poor Sethu. Whenever we met she used to cry on our shoulders, promising that she the way she would treat her daughter-in-law would be very different. Yes, things worked out differently for her when her son got married. Janani, a working girl, was so different from what she expected. Of course, she was very well mannered with Sethu but she drew the line for her mother-in-law, a Lakshman Rekha, which Sethu was not supposed to cross. Janani having her own ideas of how to run her house and her married life was very independent with her views. She never allowed her mother-in-law or her father-in-law to interfere with her style of running the house. She redecorated the house to her likes and had her own way of cooking also. Why she went to that extent that she chose the sarees Sethu had to wear, saying only such colours would suit her. Poor Sethu was caught in the web. Now she had to dance to her daughter-in-law’s tune and again needed our old shoulders to support her.

YES, there was a generation of women who in the beginning had to give in to the upper hand of their mothers-in-law and later on in life to dance to the tunes of the daughters-in-law if there was to be peace in the house.

In the olden days it was an unwritten law that a woman in her young days had to obey her father (see not her parent, here also the mother had no voice); later on, her husband with his favourite all-time words -- you don’t know anything; and, in her old age, her son. So when her son got married and brought home his bride, the mother-in-law found an easy target to vent her anger and frustrations; treating her like a slave, all the time finding fault with whatever she did. She had no kind word or not even a single word of praise for the poor girl however hard she tried to please her mother-in-law.

As women started getting educated, the situation began changing. Some girls, when they got married, were smart enough to make their mothers-in-law realize that it would benefit both of them if they had separate establishments. Others, taking education as a weapon, fought against everyone in her husband’s family asking questions as to the why and how of things for which She herself was not able to give the correct answers. But with her attitude she was able to make everyone in her family miserable.

The menfolk -- I mean the newly-married ones -- are also to be blamed. I remember as I am writing this a friend of ours. He, as a bachelor, was staying in one of the chummeries of Lodhi Colony, enjoying the meals cooked by either by one Raman Nair or one Krishnan Kutty without any complaint however average or unpalatable their fares were. After five-six years of this kind of life, he got married and brought his bride to Delhi. This young girl tried her best to please her man by trying to cook to his taste. Our friend started comparing her cooking to his mother’s, which he never even thought of while eating at Raman Nair’s or at Krishnan Kutty’s. This put off the young bride and all her anger turned towards her mother-in-law who was living hundreds of miles away from Delhi

In a joint family, one word of praise from the man of the house about the new daughter-in-law’s cooking is enough to upset the mother-in-law causing a rift between them. After all a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law are also human beings. What they should remember is that a man’s feelings for his mother are very different from his love for his wife.

A woman may know how to rule the country. But that rule may not extend to their daughters- in-law. Think of Queen Elizabeth and princess Diana or nearer home take our own Indira Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi. It is the same story.