“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A roof over their heads

I have seen it many times, the silent communication between a couple. Sunithakumari glances at her husband, Shaji; he swiftly moves towards her and she passes something from her clenched fist to his. As I say goodbye, Shaji comes closer and says - ' ith irrikkatte sarrae' ( Please keep this, Sir) and grabs my hand and tries to thrust the contents of his fist - before even touching it, I could see what it was - two or three currency notes of Rs.100/-.

I was the innards of Alleppey town, inspecting sites of prospective borrowers for housing loans. The govt had introduced a new scheme for the urban poor - Interest Subsidy Housing scheme for the Urban Poor - a subsidy of 5% less than the normal rate. As most of the applicants are either BPL ( Below Poverty Line) or EWS ( Economically Weaker Sections), the maximum loan that we were giving is Rs.1,60,000/- per applicant. Even though the quantum of amount is small, the work involved in processing a loan application is as same as a big loan. Bankers, understaffed and underpaid, curse under their breaths at the heavy load of work. I, for eg., have to process 57 applications within a month, that too amidst all the other duties I have.

But I enjoy it. It gives me immense pleasure to interact with these poor people, listen to them, discussing with them and be an instrument that provides succour. I tease their children, admire their little things, nod in agreement with their views; I am a tool, a catalyst in the realisation of their dream, their dream of having a roof over their heads. What I give is more than a little financial help; I give them dignity and self-respect.

" You extend your hand again and I am going to tear your application into two, do you understand?'. You offer me that bribe again and I will ensure that you never get a loan from anywhere'. Sunithakumari is aghast. 'Sir', she says, ' but everybody takes it, Sir, please don't be offended'. 'Maybe they do', I said, 'but not me'.

These are ordinary people; autorickshaw drivers, tailors, manual labourers, plumbers, workers in the coir factories, unpaid volunteers in the SHG programmes like Kudumbasree. People we might interact with everyday, casually. We would bicker and fight with them for the extra 5 or 10 rupees they charge, we would mourn how lazy and crafty they are. People whom we would like to forget. Yet, in Kerala, there is at present a silent revolution going on. Individuals and families who eke out a life are now supported by govt sponsored finance. Grass- root level neighbourhood groups are formed ( Kudumba sree / janasree) and involve in income-generating activities. The large majority of the members are women, who were till now mere housewives with no income of their own. These programmes have been very successful in empowering these women and giving them not only an income, but more importantly self-respect. Of course, there might be cheats and frauds among them, but in my experience with the poorer of our economic classes, I have found  more honest people among them than in  the middle classes.

Below are a few pictures of these families. They have built their dream houses till this level using their own funds and also with financial aids from the govt. And I - I am the last brush which would give their houses a coat of colour; and hopefully to their lives too.

Shaji is a manual labourer; Sunitha is a housemaid. A daughter studies for BSc Nursing, and the kid in 6th standard.

Mahesan is a tailor. Shyamala has studied up to Pre-degree and passed with First class but could not study further because her parents could not afford it. She works as a volunteer for SHGs, literacy programmes and in the National Rural Health Mission - unpaid. Their son is studying for BSc Chemistry. Mahesan proudly tells me that his son had a rank of 4000 in the Engg entrance, but they could not afford to pay the capitation fee. He says the boy is trying again, to get a higher rank so that he can get admission in Merit quota.

Anil is an autorickshaw driver. When he says he own his Auto and that he has fully repaid the loan for it, I can sense the quiet pride in his voice. Sandhya is a graceful, pretty woman; she supplements the family income by stitching Churidars and Nighties and blouses. I tell her about Parvati designing sarees and how she makes extra money with that. Sandhya is open-mouthed and asks me the details. That kid is a smart and lovable fellow.

Sarala works in the local coir factory. Sreekumar is a house painter. They have only one son - he is studying for CA. I explain the scheme to the boy and discuss bank auditing with him. The parents look on, proudly, how the 'Big Bank Sir' and their son talk in equal terms.

Rajesh is an artist. He designs and paints hoardings, works part-time in a shop that makes Flexboards. Sandhya - the way she looks at me, I feel her awe and a kind of worshipful admiration. Two kids, very intelligent and well-behaved.

I have met many more of these people. Each is a story of brave survival, a story of courage in adverse economic circumstances and misery. In their eyes I see the hope and dreams of bettering their lives. When I tell them yes, we will sanction the loan next week, I see that sparkle in their eyes and they have the most beautiful smile I have seen.

They have the confidence and the will; all they need is a little support, a few kind words, and concern and respect. Kerala is on the rise!

***************** Balachandran V, Alappuzha, 21.10.2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Arabian Sea and Alleppey

Getting up at 0600 hrs, I cycle to the beach at Alleppey. Its about 4 km from where I stay. Its is a pleasant ride. The streets by the canal with shady trees and the occasional vehicle that passes by are a pleasure to ride a bicycle. 

The beach is expansive and open;  most beaches are but the Alleppey beach has the look of a dainty, friendly maiden. Nothing pretentious, no touristy shacks - just wide open, clean sand and a sea that seems yet to wake up. 

The skeletal remains of an old pier struck out to the sea looks like the desolate remains of a war-torn land. 

Typical of the west coast beaches, Alleppey beach is clean and friendly; I say friendly because I have strangely felt that the beaches in the east coast of India, hostile. 

On the roadside, a dog keeps vigil over his master's fish; or he could be waiting for the tidbits. 

I pause before the anchor of a fishing boat. I look at it and wonder at the worlds it would have been to, the dark depths of the sea, a world I have never seen. I touch it and feel the cold of the seabed  and imagine the fish nuzzling by in that silent world of the sea.

I have always been in awe of two communities; the fisherfolk and the tribals of the forests. They are the salt of the earth. Beside the boat, waits the anchor. This could be a scene from times immemorial; this way of life is eternal - as eternal as life on earth should be. 

Balachandran V, Alappuzha, 15.10.2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve and I

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Steve said - 'I needed to change somethin' , coz
What I'm doin' now ain't what I'd do
if today woz the day I'd conk out'.

I looked at his exclusive apple store,
where his apples were too good to eat.
Then he went out and bought drawing pencils
and started to draw letters like a kid in primary -
he asked me - ' How do you spell apple?'

He never could spell it right so instead
he drew a picture of an apple
The drawing looked so good I felt like
biting into it and bit.

Steve asked me -'Hey, kiddo, wotchyugonnado
if you gonna meet your maker today, uh?'
I gaped at him and said - 'Why, if this fuckin' day
is gonna be my last fuckin' day on this fuckin' world
I'm gonna go home straight and grab my dawg Sancho
I'll lie on the cool bare floor and pull him close and smell
his shampooed fur deep and it'll be warm and I'll go to sleep
I'll go to sleep till I die 'coz the last thing I'd remember is the smell
of my dog and the last thing I'd feel is the warmth of his love'.

 "I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

Steve was a guy I had greatly admired. I could never buy an Apple or Mac or Ipad or Ipod but have 
touched them and fiddled with them all the time my jaw kept getting dropped. 

Steve, if you are up there with the Grand Old Man, do design something for him so that he can make better humans.  And Steve, apple is spelt  A-P-P-L-E, got it? See you sometime!

******** Balachandran V, Trivandrum 

Song of Songs

My beloved spake, and said unto me, 

Rise up, my love, my fair one and come away. 

For, lo, the winter is past,

the rain is over and gone;

the flower appear on the earth;

the time of the singing of birds is come, 

and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; 

the fig tree putteth forth her green figs, 

and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. 

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. 

The Song of Solomon, 2:10-13
                    King James Bible 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Subjects of Love

Whatever cynics may say, love remains the predominant emotion in life forms. For those of us who love, except for the rare oddities, love for parents, spouse and children is the most intense, deep and true. Again, cynics would say that it is so because you own them, possess them.  For men, mother is the epitome of all, the last resort, the womb to which they want to go back; nothing is more secure than your mother's lap. 

In my earlier poems (2004 -2007) the major theme was love - love for parents, for wife and son, for the dogs and distress at losing love.  When I showed the manuscript of the collection to Prof.Hridyakumari teacher ( a close friend of my mother and one of the few women for whom I have great respect and love) said that she was surprised that there weren't many poems on nature and travel because, for her I was synonymous with the two.  It remains my proudest day when she released my collection of poems and said many kind words; she even read out a couple and praised them. 

I published less than 50% in book form; another 30% appeared in the blog or poetry website. Others remained in the dark. Once in a while I go through them and put it here, sharing them with you. They may not be of the top order, they may reek in sentiments - but such sentiments and  emotions that I share with you are not uncommon.  Why do I tell you all this?  Because I feel that in spite of our different situations and nature, there could be one platform we could all stand together -  the platform of love. 

A Sense of Time
How silly is it of science
To say that senses are only five!
How insensitive is it of science
To censure those beyond the ken!

Eyes screwed up tightly
Head turned sideways abruptly
Lips clamped firmly
Trying to shut in momentarily.

Would it, please, go away
Images, sounds, the smells,
Words uttered, heard, this sense
Of pain, wrenching my heart?

Time exists only in our minds
In the recesses of memory
Facts of past and fictions of future
Time stands still only for those
Who cannot remember anymore.

Who cannot remember anymore
What it was like to feel the wind
What it was like to smell the flowers
What it was like to watch the dawn
What it was like to love and be loved.

Mother, could you remember, how
It felt when you held me up
The softness of my cheeks, the light
In my eyes that lit up your heart?

What, mother, did you feel
Listening to my gurgling laughter
The smell of my skin, soft
My fingers gripping yours?

Mother, my eyes are squeezed tight
But I still see yours wide open
Staring at the nothingness
That waited, patiently, by your bed.

Time must have stopped for you
Long ago, in the grip of the Disease
For me, now, Time pauses-
Momentarily, waiting for oblivion.

But, then, once in the twilight,
When shadows danced in and out,
You kissed my hand and looked at me
When memory flitted like moonlight
From behind the coconut fronds.

The time has come, mother
For me to give you one last hug
For me to lift you up
For once, first and the very last time.

How silly is it of science
To limit us to the obvious
When waves crash and shatter all
When whimpering, you wait for the next.
Balachandran, Kottayam 30.06.2005

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Feeding the family

1. Seer Masala
In the kitchen I make Seerfish curry for my son. Seer fish ( Neyymeen/Ayykoora in Malayalam) is the prima donna among the fish-eaters' favorites in Kerala. K is home and I had promised to make him a curry based on Melange's reciepe (http://www.desimelange.com/2011/02/nei-meen-vattichathu-seer-fish-in-thick.html). 

Buying fresh fish from the fishmongers at Pangode Market is an unclean experience; physically and mentally. One has to cross meters of slush that reek of fish and puddles created by the melting ice so as to reach the ladies who squat/sit there beneath the large muti-coloured umbrellas. However you may try, the bottom of your trousers would get soaked in the above said stinko. And the respectable ladies - whew! I am terrified of them and they scent my fear like baying hounds. I am torn in different directions by the calls and shouts of the ladies - by the time I get through, I am a nervous wreck and surrender myself before the most - uh - um - yes- most beautiful, most loving, most polite, most courteous, most generous ( Psst! One can never know, one of those fisherwoman might read this blog!) ladies and obediently buy whatever they may feel like offering and pay whatever they may deem to ask and accept whatever pittance of a discount they may grandly condescend to give, and rush out of the market and inhale a cigarette deeply and thank God for saving me.

At home, I take a printout of Melange's reciepe of 'Neyymeen Vattichathu' and check the fridge and meatsafe. For a change, everything, from Kashmiri chilly powder to coconut oil is available. I marinate as directed, keep it for an hour and cook the fish. Pleasant aroma fills the kitchen. Sancho looks at me expectantly and he gets the first piece of the fish curry. I take photographs, not good. K likes the curry, though for my taste it is still a bit bland; I like them searing  hot, burning my fingers and throat. I watch K, pouring the thick gravy over rice and eat the delicate, succulent fish.

Melange' has become a family member now; how curiously strange that a totally unknown person, known except through her fantastic reciepes and astute comments in the blogosphere could become familiar!


2. Peas Masala

 (courtsey: the net) 

Day before yesterday, our friend Christy and her son Aravind were with us in the evening. As dinner time came up, K volunteered to go out and buy food. Paththiri, Parantha, some chicken, some other chicken and yet some other chicken. K and Aravind come back swinging large packets. P asks - 'Ok,w hat have you bought for me?' Our faces blanch. It is the Navrathri season and P eats only vegetarian. 'Thats all right', she says, 'I will manage with lunch leftovers'. From the rich experience of 21years of wedded life, I know that it is not all right. We shall have to suffer its repercussions far into the future. So I offer to make her a curry. A quick scan of the fridge produce frozen peas, tomato, green chillies, ginger, curry and coriander leaves, Nambisan's Ghee. From the shelves I gather large onions, garlic, black pepper and homemade masala powder. Inside ten minutes, I defrost the peas, saute the Onion and chillies and curry leaves and rest of the spices ground, spalsh tomato sauce liberally, garnish with coriander leaves and lace it with the exquistely fragrant ghee. A pinch of sugar added and I serve it hot. Among the technicolor chicken, my Masala looks like a meek virgin. The curry is not as spicy and hot as I would like, because P likes it mild.

At the dining table, the non-vegetarians taste the Peas Masala and then abandon all the chicken curries in its favour and keep on uttering 'Yummmm... Yummmmm... Yummmm...'. P ends up getting only a small share of her rightful Masala, but is gratified and looks at me affectionately.

********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 04-10-2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Spice Country

Beyond the coconut palms in the background is Punnamada Kayal, the venue of the Boat Race. 

      Kerala, steeped in history is also steeped in cliche's. One of the them is the 'Land of spices'. When the rest of India waddled in Middle Age, this little strip of land went international with its spices. The trade between Kerala and Europe, China and other nations of the world began centuries ago and brought foreigners to her shores. The fragrance of Kerala's spices crossed the seas and enticed the traders of the West to this land. Along with commerce came religion and then subjugation by the foreign powers.

Alappuzha, the 'Venice of the East' ( another one!) was one of the oldest trade outlets. To Alappuzha came the spices from the mist-laden mountains and went abroad. Alleppey still retains the remnants of its great past; the planned township, the large godowns, the ramshackle buildings of yore - all look at you and whisper to you its ancient, rich history. As if to remind the passer-by of its old grandeur, the roadside spice vendors display their products; as you pass by, fragrance of the spices waft up and remind one of one's roots, remind one that you belong here, this is your country. 

Garlic, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Pepper, dried Ginger, Turmeric, Clove, Nutmeg and Mace, Star anise, Khus Khus, Garcinia, Cummin seeds, Fennel seeds,  and a few more. How many spices can you recognize and name?  ( Click to enlarge the image) 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Moonlight Sonata

I do not think there is anyone – at least not many, who isn't passionate about something or the other; passionate to the extent that he wouldn't make a little pile of his love. Whether the item is antique motor cars or stamps, the hobby of collection is something that makes us human, makes us almost innocent, child-like. You collect a particular thing because you love it, because there is some undefinable feeling you have for it, something which does not have ulterior motives other than love. I am discounting the greedy who collects things for its monetary value, like gold. Of course, there are art collectors who flaunt their wealth through their valuable collections. I refer to ordinary people. Recently there was a news item which showed a man with his collection of cameras. He has hundreds; old field cameras to the latest digital ones.

As a child, I was encouraged by my father to collect stamps. I still have them, though stuck crudely in the stamp albums or pouches. By the time I entered college, the interest in stamp collection waned, but even now whenever I see a new stamp, I tear it out of the envelope and put it in my pocket; most of them get lost.

Then there were/are books. At the time of my marriage at 32, I didn't have any money saved; I showed P my collection of books and said this is all I have. And then, music. Whenever I think of my favourite genre of music, the old Hindi film songs of 1940 - 1980, I immediately think of my collections of Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Talat, Mahendra Kapoor, Lata, Geeta Dutt and Manna Dey. Rafi saab is – well, I love many of his songs, but he was too cheerful for my liking! :-)   But there is another man many Hindi film music aficionados belittle; Kishore Kumar. Though the majority of his songs were the boisterous, loud kind, Kishore Da has sung many unforgettable melodies too. From the many cheap CD s I bought over the years, I made a collection of my favourites of his songs. The songs are unparalleled. Those songs could not have been sung by any other singer of his day, better than Kishore Da.

Koi humdum na raha Koi sahara na raha! How many nights have I listened to him! In those forlorn, sleepless hours I brooded over loves lost, Kishore Da would sing - Dukhi man mere sun mera kehna...

Sorrow and solitude sometimes bring forth some of the most beautiful expressions – creations that leaves indelible impressions on the soul of the creator and the connoisseur.

Kishore Da sings – 'Koi lauta de mere bithey hue din...' 'Zindagi ka safar he ye kaisa safar, koi samjha nahin koi jaana nahin'.... 'tere duniya se honke majboor chala mein bohat door chala...

Later I found a Music Today CD with most of my collected favourites. It is called Ehsaas Gam Ka. If you are keen on some of the best melodies in Hindi movie songs, do get it, though I don't know if it is still available in the market.

My earlier poems were mostly the brooding kind. Lost love and loneliness were the predominant thoughts in them. Some were quite sensuous too. Among them, I like this one the best. It too, in some way, is about collections...

Moonlight Sonata

Lata1 sings. My evenings, dull
In this drab little room, alone
While the music plays, light up
With Lata’s caress. Lata sings.

Lata sings. ‘This night, this time
Of the season, this laughter-
Forget me if so you wish, but
Forget not these and this night with me’.

My love! How can I forget
The light glimmering, the shadows
The moon reflecting on your moist lips
Your breasts, heaving, brushing mine!

My love! Remember? You spread
Your hair over my face, my hands
Moving gently over you, I kissed
Your ears, your neck and your breasts!

Then, as an owl hooted deep in the woods
Gently I lowered on to you, oh gently
Softly while the tree hid us from the moon
Together, that moment, etched forever in my heart.

In the garden, in the pale moonlight
The leaves giggled softly, the fireflies
Lit the sparkle in your eyes full of love
Sweat beads glistened on your face.

In this drab little room, alone, I recollect
Like a child collecting empty shells
In the sands of a deserted beach –
But how! They crumble and turn to dust
That the winds take to the skies over the sea!

Lata sings. ‘Burning, burning, the lamps
Die, along with me, with me…’


Note:1. The first song was originally sung by Pankaj Mullick. Lata sang it at London, Yeh raaten, ye mausam, ye hasna hasaana mujhe bhool jaana, inhe na bhoolana.

Note: 2. Chalte chalte.. Jalte jalte ye chiraag bujch rahin he mere saath jalte jalte ( Meena Kumari in Pakeezha. Can anyone forget that scene?)

Balachandran V, Alappuzha, 22.09.2011

The Basketball Players

Outside my window, below on the ground, the Basketball players.
In the mornings I awake to the drumming of the ball on the concrete floor
And to the yelps and shouts of children playing basketball.
Lifting the curtain, through the haze of the mosquitoe net,
I watch them, lithe, graceful
Jumping and running like antelopes in the savannah.

Dribbling the ball, they run to and fro
Across the court, turning, twisting, ducking
Swiftly passing the ball, faking a throw
Blocking, trying to snatch, moving like cats
On a hot tin roof and then leap and lift the ball to the basket
Some bounce off the board, some slip neatly through the net
Only to be grabbed and loped again and again.
Alert, agile, acutely aware, the eyes of the children
intent on the game, playing to win.

How wonderful it is to be young, boundless energy, radiating health
Happiness and pleasure in playing a game!
Games, how many, of how many kinds, yet to play and to win
Some to lose, some to be remembered, some to be forgotten!

Slipping the curtain back, I turn around and stand still
Listening to the cries and laughter of the players
And to the thud of the basketball like the thudding of my heart,
Thudding, bouncing, thrown, captured and released to the air
Until the final whistle blows, until the sun sets and
Darkness envelopes my life.

******** Balachandran V, Alleppey, 29.09.2011