Feb 20, 2017

Thoughts of an Ordinary Malayali Woman

Yesterday I watched a bunch of Malayalam movie personalities expressing wonder and stupefaction at the attempted abduction/compromising photographing/blackmailing of a noted Malayali actress. They seemed to think that such a thing was not heard of in God's Own Country at all - and it set me thinking of my life journey as a woman in Kerala. 

I think I was 7 years old when my Mummy asked to me to stop sitting in the laps of the "uncles" who came to visit us in Saudi Arabia. She refused to tell me why even though I pestered her for an explanation. But the warning was enough to awaken a sense of self-preservation in me when barely a year later, I found myself being tightly hugged from behind by an "uncle" who had wandered into the kitchen while I was mixing Tang for our visitors as my Mum had asked me. I made a fuss about not being sure if I had added enough sugar even though he insisted that I had. I yelled aloud for my mother and was instantly freed from his arms. I ran to my mother and refused to budge from her side until she accompanied me to the kitchen.

At 15, my sister, cousin and I used to roll our eyes and grumble to each other about my "over-protective" father who glared down any boy who happened to even accidentally glance in our direction while we were out in public. A few years before that he had stopped taking us to any movie theater in Kottayam town saying that he alone could not protect us all and we could go to movies as we pleased once we were married! Fortunately, the really good ones came to my uncle's theater in our area, and we got our fix of movies albeit a little late and a little stale.

In the USA, they teach you the art of defensive driving. By the age of 17, I had mastered the art of defensive walking through Kottayam town. Without having once stepped into a kalari, I became adept at the kalari principle "Mey kannaakanam" (the body has to become the eye). I could discern a potential grabber at a radius of 2 m on all sides of my body as I walked down the streets on my way to or back from college or on shopping trips. All it took was a 1-second glance at a male coming my way to assess a potential threat and make a side-step at the exact moment and turn my torso away to protect myself from his farthest reach. I could do this without breaking my stride or appearing conscious about it. If the foot traffic was heavy, I weaseled my way in and out always in "constant vigilance" mode recommended by Professor Alastor Moody.

At 25, I became bold enough to stand up and holler at perverts who followed me muttering obscenities or tried to paw me in crowded buses. I still avoided confrontation as much as possible and perfected my defensive walking skills.

At 32, life as a married woman and in places as varied as Bangalore, Houston, Hyderabad and Minneapolis had made me soft and relax my vigilance. Then I came and settled in the capital city of God's Own Country and within a year, I was molested twice. Both times I reacted with my fists - it felt pretty satisfying. I could get to hit only their retreating backs, though. The first man walked a bit out of my reach in the crowded movie theater and turned back with a leer. His pustule and sore-filled face looked like that of a syphilis victim, so I just shook my fist at him although I would have loved to punch him in the face. I followed the next man and rained punches on him as he walked away on the street. Not once did he pause and all the reaction he showed was to bunch up his shoulders so as to present a smaller target for my blows. I hit him till I felt he would think twice before he tried to touch another woman without her permission.

A year later, I was 5 months pregnant and was expecting guests. I huffed and puffed my way up the steep incline to the bakery, chatting with my 3-year-old son hanging on to my left hand. A scrawny boy who could have been 12 years old at the most was coming down the road. I happened to notice him because he was coming at such a rapid pace with long steps that he seemed in imminent danger of falling. I was so concerned for his well-being!!! As he came near me, he put out a bony hand and squeezed my right breast hard and ran helter-skelter down the road. As I stood shocked, he shot back a look at the turn of the road before disappearing. A small whimper made me aware of a tiny hand that I had been crushing in mine. In the blind rage I felt at that moment I wondered if I would be doing all women a service if I got rid of one little life that was clinging to my hand and another that was growing inside me. Then Kunju called me "Amma" and I came back to my senses.

Now, my defensive walking skills are as good as ever. I am so good that even at home, my kids cannot sneak upon me to startle me as they are so fond of doing. My husband knows not to touch me suddenly without warning. There is no saying how I might react! Men who jostle for the fun of it in temple- and wedding-feast queues get a good tongue-lashing. I never scruple to use the male members of my family as body-shields, sometimes directly requesting them to do so. I also keep a look out for timid-looking girls who are in need for a strong woman to support them against public harassment. I applaud the feisty ones and don't forget to congratulate them.

Yes, I consider my body my own. Yes, I demand that people touch it only with my permission. Perverts can ogle and mutter obscenities to their hearts' content, I will pretend to be blind and deaf. But I reserve the right to protect myself as I see fit.

To those girls/women who have been persuaded into feeling guilty/ for having "asked for it" due to their attractiveness/dress/"bold look"/"timid  look"/whatever, let me tell you a little story. I did my post-graduate course staying at a hostel run by nuns. A demented homeless woman was a frequent visitor there. To this day I have not come across a dirtier or uglier specimen of human kind. She was a bag of bones, but draped in a sari. She had rotten teeth, rheumy eyes and a stench that would spread to meters around her till some kind soul took pity and got her to bathe and get her hair cropped. She slept wherever she could, mostly on the verandah of a chapel nearby. By the time I finished my course, that woman was carrying around a baby that she had given birth to by the wayside. From that time on, no one has been able to persuade me that I am in ANY WAY responsible for unwanted attentions.

I am not misandristic. Neither do I believe that all women are angels. I love the men in my life absolutely and acknowledge that it is their vigilance and care too that has brought me thus far without any really traumatic incidents. But recently when a male friend of mine suggested solitary travel as the best and extolled its virtues and persuaded me to do it, I could not but laugh. Travel alone, in India? Hmm, may be, after I get myself at least a 5th dan black belt in karate? Oh, what the heck, I love traveling with my family anyway!

As regards what happened to the actress, I hope that her support system and her unbreakable spirit will help her to see the legal battle to the end. By publicizing the harm done to her, she has already jeopardized the plan of the criminals to keep bleeding her using blackmail. That in itself is a very bold step. And I will say that by doing so, she has made the transition from being a victim to a heroine. I will say this to all women. Shout back, strike back, stick to your rights!!! Above all stick to your sisters and raise a collective voice when you see them being harmed. Do not keep quiet!

Jan 6, 2017

New year on a note of gratitude

Hi everyone! 

Much as I would like to subscribe to the view that each day is the beginning of a new year, the feeling of an actual new calendar year is still exciting! The last page of my 2016 diary has been written up. All the receipts and papers of the last year have been transferred to a new 2016 folder that has gone to live in the lower cupboard instead of in my desk. The 2015 folder has joined its brothers in the archives on the top shelf. The last box of decluttered items is waiting for the recycling guy in the shed. This year I even managed to clean out the garage and get rid of a lot of junk - some of which was as old as Karthi!!! 

My old planner and new diary! I am a BuJo fan now. No planner that I bought over the years was completely satisfactory because they had no space for the myriad things I wanted to keep track of.  That is when I encountered the Bullet Journal - a planning system that is (a) totally customizable, (b) very economical - you can adapt any notebook for this planner and (c) gives a lot of creative opportunities as well. I started BuJoing in an old blank notebook after watching this video. After using up that old notebook, I got a Fabriano dot grid notebook in the last third of 2016. One of the beauties of this system is that you needn't change the planner for the new year. But the thing I love the most about the BuJo is that there is no more blank-page guilt!  If for some reason I feel like not planning ahead for the coming week or several weeks, I needn't do so and can take up planning when I want to without leaving any blank pages. The funny thing is, since starting BuJoing, I have not wanted to stop planning, which actually makes for much more organized living...

Among the several things I used the BuJo for, one was tracking the number of books I was reading. I started tracking from September 1 and entered the names of books that I read in their entirety. I no longer read any book that has not drawn my interest in the first five pages or so. Even so I completed 60 books in 4 months - an average of 15 books per month. No wonder I do not have enough time to blog any more!!! So one of my resolutions this year is to read fewer books - I'll let you know how that goes, but I am not very optimistic myself! I have also decided to write a precis of the books that I read. So far on the 6th day of this year I have written 4 precis :). And here is a collection of books on my desk waiting to be read in the new year..

2016 has left so many memories - I don't want to call them good or bad. But I have never had to encounter such emotional pain in any year before. As if the passing of my mother was not enough, my uncle - Ma's brother - too passed away after a lingering illness. It was a year of funerals. Five of my friends lost their parents last year and it seemed as though condolences were never far from my tongue or the tips of my fingers.

But one thing I realized this year is how sorrow happens to deepen relationships that are worth the name. Shared joy is all fine, but I have found shared sorrow halves the pain and deepens fellow-feeling. I am so grateful to my friends and relatives who stood by me in this trying year. This is the year that I really blessed social platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook. They brought my friends even closer.

This was also a year of traveling and new experiences like scuba diving among coral reefs and watching a  football tournament final in a stadium. It was also a year in which I could attend three reunions of old classmates. I am still savoring the laughter and fun of those gatherings. Apart from the Lakshadweep trip, our later travel was mostly for visiting friends and family, rather than just pleasure trips. 

In fact, relationships has been the kind of the focal theme of 2016 - whether it be among friends, relatives or neighbors. And if I had not got the message, I got the link of a video about the results of a 75-year-long Harvard study that was conducted to find what brings real happiness to people. It underscored the importance of maintaining good relationships. If you have not done it already, I recommend that you watch this video too. The minutes you spend to watch it will surely be some of the best investments of time that you can make. 

Our year ended with remembering our mother once again...

This year we chose to spend the first of January quietly at home, catching up with extended family and spending some quality time with each other. It felt so good, the calm and the quiet. I hope that will be the theme for 2017. 

Wish you all a wonderful new year!

Oct 20, 2016

Movie Review - Puli Murugan

Are you a Malayali fan who has watched The Avengers movies or even Baahubali and wondered with a sigh, "When will such a movie come out in Malayalam?..." Even as you wondered, you probably knew that it was an impossibility because it would call for world-class animation technology and action expertise with a humongous budget which a small regional movie industry can ill afford. 

Well, for the first time in Malayalam, a truly tiger-hearted producer called Tomichan Mulakuppadam has taken up that very challenge. He shared the dream of director Vysakh and together they have brought forth:

Yep, we had heard the hype. Yep, we heard that there was not much of a story. But that didn't stop us from going to two theaters last weekend to book tickets, only to find they are unavailable. Next we tried online and luckily got four seats for a second show in a town 20 kilometers away. 

And was it worth it all? Yes, yes, YES! I don't know if it was the realistic setting as compared to The Avengers or Baahubali that are clearly fantasies, the action was really thrilling. While DH and Kunju sat coolly at either end of our row, Ani and I had clasped hands during the action scenes and we literally jumped off the seats during the twists and turns! And I don't know how many times DH and I were moved enough to clap like crazy Mohanlal fans.

When I saw Lalettan in action, I was reminded of a scene in Thattathin Marayathu, in which Nivin asks indignantly, "Keralathile anpillerkku enthinada six pack? (Why do Keralan boys need six packs)" Right, no six pack required at all to be an action hero, as Lalettan has proved with this one film. I cannot begin to imagine the effort he has put in to film the action scenes of the movie. He makes it look so effortless! Whether he was fighting dangerous beasts or even more dangerous humans, we were cheering for him all the way. 

The sylvan setting of Murugan's home is almost magical and very enticing on the big screen. The sheer menace the tiger brings is terrifying in the absolute stillness. The audience collectively held their breaths whenever the protagonists grew still trying to guess where the tiger was coming from. It was absolutely mesmerizing to say the least.

As for the rest. Story: nothing new. Humor: of the basest kind. Main villain: has a funny name and overacts. Heroine: perpetually frowns and lip syncs horribly. But they don't detract from the movie at all. Mohanlal, Lal, the real and virtual tigers and action choreographer Peter Hein take all the credit for riveting us to our seats. Cameos by Master Ajas as the young Murugan, Santhosh as his father and Romin (younger son of the producer, looks exactly like cricketer Ravindra Jadeja) as young Murugan's uncle are worth mentioning. Vinu Mohan, Bala, Nandu, Nobin, Suraj Venjarammoodu, Gopakumar, all handle their roles very well.

Verdict: A must-see on the big screen!!! Book your tickets now. But I have a hunch Puli Murugan will be hunting for quite some time!

Sep 30, 2016

Last quarter of 2016 coming up!!!

I am sitting here with a slightly shell-shocked countenance, staring at the beautiful, crescent-like shore of Minicoy - on the wall calendar, that is. It's the date that boggles my mind. Really, September 30? ALREADY???  But school just started yesterday....

I take a look at our 2016 photos folder and try to find out where the days went...

We celebrated Ani's birthday in July. One more non-exploding cake under my belt!

After 13 years of on-again, off-again trying with a shuttle, I finally mastered tatting with a needle in the same month thanks to my dear friend Elsa who brought me the needles and to a couple of hours in front of YouTube (Thank you all crafters out there who share their expertise on video! Love ya!!!)

Then it was time to go back to a place that is so dear to my heart, CMS college, where classmates from 21 years ago gathered to catch up and reminisce...

And before we knew it the Independence day weekend was upon us and we went to a favorite spot - Ponmudi and its foothills (click here to see my post on the same). 

And then it was time to bake another cake. And this time it exploded on me again. Fortunately I had enough ingredients left over to bake another one. But I had no butter leftover for buttercream frosting to write with. And the first thing DH said, "Is that cake for me? But it doesn't have my name on it!" I put only four candles to represent the decades, but I guess it could be counted as just years too considering the attitude!

It was followed up by a magical evening at the beach...

I took up crocheting once again and made something useful for a friend for a change. I got the best wool I could from the Pradhan Stores website and made this...
Ani modeled it for me before I packed it up!

And somehow we found ourselves in the midst of Onam. On Uthradam, we shared a sumptuous feast at my sister-in-law's house.

And we were back in town just in time to view the spectacle of the city's Onam celebrations...

And here we all are trekking around seeing the sights in the fond hope that all the Onappayasam we consumed would get burned up... sigh...

Before I know it, the kids and I are plunged into Summative Assessment 1 throes and today I wake up and look around! Gosh, October starts tomorrow!!!

Jul 12, 2016

Media control in our homes

Yesterday, I was reading an interview of Mary Rothschild by Richard Whittaker: Considering Media in the Light of Relationship and Attention. The interviewee speaks about the need to find a middle way between taking the attitudes of either extreme media fasting or being a complete slave to media. This is an issue close to my heart - as it must be for all parents who are conscientious about child-rearing.

I have found this a particularly hard balance to achieve: I do let the kiddos watch TV, goes without saying. But they are not allowed to watch it on school days. Neither are they allowed carte blanche on weekends or on vacation. I do not impose Animal Planet or "informative" programs on them either. Our 8-year-old is still enamored of cartoons. The elder is now addicted to sports or movies. The wars for the remote are quite frequent and ferocious, but subside quickly if I threaten them with no-TV-at-all. Then they make compromises for the greater good.

But one part of the media is all-pervasive and potentially destructive - advertisements. Till around two years ago, I was inundated with requests for specific products which were advertised very attractively on TV. Some were demanded because there were offers of free products with them. I soon grew tired of just saying "No" all the time. Over the past two years, I have shown both our sons time and time again how companies use these strategies to lure people into buying more. And how most of the "free things" were worthless pieces of low-quality plastic or tiny samples of one more product they were trying to popularize. 

Also I try to pass on how ads are designed to play on the viewers' insecurities. For example the ad of one hair oil shows a doctor saying, "In the matter of hair, I can't take a risk!" As though hair-fall is one of the greatest plagues on humankind! Only one other ad has the power to irritate me more which is that of a famous appliances company that also offers hair-styling tools. The ad shows a simpering actress who claims that if she styles her hair everyday, she gets gawks from males all around, which makes her boyfriend jealous,which in turn makes him give her treats and the clincher "that makes me feel special!!" It's wrong on sooooo many levels!!!! Gaah, the only reason that I don't break the TV while watching that ad is because I know that I won't be able to watch Masterchef Australia. Ahem.

So I turned to my children and asked them, "What is that aunty doing? Do you think she should feel special only if her boyfriend gives her treats?" I also asked them what a better message would be... and they astonished me by saying ... You can style your hair because you are special!!! I was so overjoyed. At least I have made them think a little beyond what they see. Also I tell them that there is absolutely no proof that the products can do all that they claim to do. Our younger one took it so much to heart that when he hears tall claims like those of health drinks, he turns to me and asks, "They are lying, aren't they, Amma? I still need to eat my veggies to become stronger and healthier, don't I?" Underlying his questions may be a slight hope of my saying that he need not eat his veggies, but still!!!!

My way of adopting the middle way is not to condemn all ads outright, but to make sure that the kids know that an ad is an art form that needs our critical appreciation - not blind allegiance or total disregard. There are ads that always touch our hearts, thrill our minds and earn our appreciation for content and direction. 

And yes, our kids know that when they see ads for club glasses, CDs and soda, they are actually watching ads for alcohol. What do you tell your children when they are watching ads?

And if you are interested in getting thought-provoking articles like the one at the top in your mail box, I have subscribed to dailygood.org.

Jun 21, 2016

Sisyphus! I feel ya bro!

Was it just yesterday that the whole of Kerala was broiling in the high 30s? It's 4 in the afternoon now and I feel I should snuggle beneath my blanket and burrow into my pillows to take a cozy nap! I haven't seen the sun in a couple of days. Karthi was hit by the seasonal cold and cough, just in time for school reopening. Our kids grumblingly went back to school and I did the victory dance at home at the beginning of the month! Yay, free, free at laaaast! 

After our Lakshadweep trip (Click on the numbers to see Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.), I devised a project for the kiddos and I to do this summer. Karthi's garden was sadly neglected, fully overgrown  and undernourished. So for a month, everyday for an hour before the sun got hot, we hoed and swept and pruned the areas around Karthi till it was all neat and clean. We even made slanted brick borders - that is, the kids carried the bricks for me while I made wonky, wavering lines with them. We got a load of cow manure and fed each and every plant in our yard. My hands got scratched by the bougainvillea that I tried to tame and  train over the wall so that next February the people who pass our road too can share the joy of the blossoms. 

And see what it looks like today!

See that brownish line going off into the distance? That is one of my beautiful (if I say so myself) brick borders that is currently being choked by the rampant weeds!!!  Does it even look like I was trying to hand-weed the whole as it was growing everyday in June???

So I had to break out the big guns again!

Yep, the rake and the hoe are back and fighting the good fight once again after a verrrrrry short break. Don't they look a bit shell-shocked?  "Oh no, not again!", they seem to be saying. Now my garden team and I know what Sisyphus felt like. But hey, you should feel my arm muscles! Nothing better to build strong arms than half an hour's hoeing each day!

Meanwhile a few blooms here and there smile at me while I work. 

And I almost burst with pride when I look at this guy...

Doesn't look like much? Well that is a Parijatam (we call it Pavizha Mulla too, a tribute to the flower's coral stem) that I have been trying to grow for several years now. My attachment to this plant is a little story. The first place in my peripatetic life that I really called home was my mother's home where my cousins and I played beneath one of these very trees. Every morning there would be a carpet of the distinctive orange-stemmed blossoms beneath it. I always collected them although they wilted pretty quickly, tired out after working to give off their fragrance the whole night. 

When my parents quit the Gulf and settled in Kerala, my mother got a bit off the old tree and planted it near their bedroom window. It prospered and I got to see the same carpet of flowers for years afterward. The years passed and they sold that home to settle near us. One of the things I asked them to bring from home was a cutting of this very tree. But it did not take hold. For four years afterward, I tried the same several times, but it just didn't take root.

I reasoned that the cuttings probably died on the journey from Kottayam to here. So in 2014, I asked my aunt to take a cutting of her Parijatam (which came from our old one, see, it's a family thing!) and grow it in a plastic bag. She planted several cuttings and one took root. When I went to Kottayam for Onam that year, I collected the bag and brought it here. It had a tiny, weak stem and four light green leaves at that time. For almost 6 months I kept it in the shade and took care of it as if it were a baby. I watered it, fertilized it, talked to it, in fact I did everything short of playing Beethoven to it till it grew stronger stems and put out the dark green leaves all over.

Last year, on my fortieth birthday I planted it near our bedroom window and have been taking good care of it since. This January, when Ma died and my aunt came, she found that it had flowered! There were one or two blossoms clinging to the tree precariously even in broad daylight. I think it must have been especially for Ma and my aunt because since then it has grown taller than me, but there have been no more blossoms...

So much for reminiscing. Back to work...

My gloves will tell you of my hard work. Oh, I have to introduce you to my new gloves. Ever since I wore out a pair of gardening gloves that a dear friend of mine brought me from the US, I had been looking out for new ones. All I could find were latex ones that tore at the least provocation. Then a few months ago, I saw these at Pothys! They are made of knit cotton and can stand up to hand weeding and touch-me-not prickles. They can handle roses too with a little care and if they couldn't prevent the bougainvillea from hurting me, it was not their fault. See, they cannot hop on to my hands by themselves, can they? Yeah, I am intrepid like that. I fight the bougainvillea with bare hands. Ouch!!!

The only problem is that the kids think these gloves are good for wicket-keeping and take off with them. So I now have several pairs. In fact, it seems I pick up a pair whenever I go to Pothys these days! At around 40 bucks a pair, they are quite affordable. They are made here in Thiruvananthapuram, so I get a boost out of supporting a local manufacturing business too when I buy them (gimme a reason, any reason!). I wash them under the garden tap to remove the grit and toss them with my daily wash. And I have extra pairs on hand for the next day because in this weather, they take a little long to dry. Happiness is truly in the small things!!! 

That's all for now. For all my griping, am enjoying the rains very much! As is this guy on our front porch!

Wanna meet him? That's another post!

Apr 25, 2016

Movie Review: Jacobinte Swargarajyam

A movie like this comes very rarely. A movie that elicits spontaneous applause after putting the audience through the wringer to come out cleansed and uplifted... that is my idea of a wonderful movie. Jacobinte Swargarajyam, Vineeth Sreenivasan's latest directorial venture is certainly a keeper. But the best part of the movie is that it is based on a true story. How heartening is it to find that there are people who really went through the experience?

Story in a nutshell: Jacob Zachariah (Renji Panicker) is a self-made businessman in Dubai. He is the loving patriarch of his family of wife Shirley and four children. The eldest, Jerry (Nivin Pauly) is at a crossroads in his life and his father encourages him to test his wings before he decides whether to join the family business. Jacob is respected and loved by his associates and acquaintances. He believes that his family, although not perfect in every way is his greatest asset in the whole world. He has implicit faith in his business associates as well.

Disaster strikes in 2008 with the global recession. Jacob is swindled by a long-time business associate right after he has made a huge investment with cash gathered from a lot of investors. In a bid to claw out of the huge hole he has fallen into, he travels to Liberia. But one of his investors files a case against him that virtually confines him to that country for fear of the Interpol. His family is left to the mercy of the creditors...

This is all I can tell you now. The rest you have to see!

The first thing that intrigued me was a snippet of an interview of the cast and crew in which Nivin Pauly said that even though Vineeth Sreenivasan had cast himself as Jerry, Nivin liked the role so much that he pestered his friend till Vineeth gave in thinking that he would also be able to wrap up the shoot faster if he didn't have to direct and act. Nivin is so known for his astute selection of roles, so that in itself was an incentive to watch the movie.

Renji Panicker plays Jacob Zachariah to perfection - he is the Dad everyone would like to have. Loving, playful, genial, masterful and liberal at the same time. No wonder his kids idolize him so much. Lakshmi Ramakrishnan excels as the gutsy "Achayathi" who is unfazed by the vagaries of a businessman's life and provides the faith, strength and stability that her family needs to confront the crisis. Sreenath Bhasi as Ebin, the second son has got the best role of his career to date. In fact everyone, down to the security guard of Jacob's apartment is perfectly cast and have done their respective jobs exceedingly well.

The twists and turns of the plot are so finely synchronized that the audience remain on tenterhooks all the time. There are subtle digs at the Malayali diaspora who consider it an achievement if they manage to celebrate Onam any time earlier than a month after Thiruvonam. But there is also immense pride and confidence in the Malayali ability to prosper wherever they are planted. The role that strong religious faith plays in keeping the flame of hope alive in the most hopeless of situations is emphasized throughout.

All in all, a lovely and inspiring movie. Do not forget to watch it!