Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bite-Sized Thoughts: Biryani

Biriyani: Indian mixed rice dish with its origins among the muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is popular throughout the subcontinent and among the diaspora from the region. It is generally made with spices, rice and meat. Wikepedia.

I don't really remember the first biriyani I ever ate, but do remember it was contraband. I was living with my grandparents, my mum and my then-baby brother, and we had a shrine in our house. So non-vegetarian food could not be brought in. I believe it was Eid, and a lot of my grandfather's patients would offer biriyani which had to be turned away. One particular lady was especially persistent and made the smart move of appealing to the ever-hungry grandchild. I remember Karthyani, our house-help, smuggling in the large banana-leaf wrapped parcel. Gorgeous, masala-ed chicken biriyani that scented the entire room when it was opened.  And I sat in the outside kitchen and ate it. I have no idea what it tasted like. In fact, I am pretty sure it didn't taste as great as it smelled. But I still remember its orangey spiced glow in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, and the feeling of getting a very special, forbidden treat.

It was during my M.A studies that biriyani transformed from special treat to staple diet. Being in Hyderabad had something to do with it. The traditional Hyderabadi Biriyani, in my opinion, is tame and limpid in comparison to the tawny thalapakkatu biriyani of Chennai, or the bright and feisty achari biriyani of Delhi, or the deceptively delicate Malabar/ Thalassery biriyani. It was the other, more primal Hyderabadi biriyani--the kalyani-- that appealed to me. She was the raunchy, foul-mouthed, full-bodied heroine of the biriyani scene-- hot, dynamic, and usually way more than one person can handle. The proprietors of the Superstar, a local eatery, had perfected the kalyani biriyani to create an unforgettable palate experience.  Sorry for the digression, but it needed to be said. However, the best M.A biriyani memory starred a far more docile protagonist. Hyderabad House supplied a non-descript but tasty Hyderabadi biriyani. The biriyani was a gentle and comforting fare, and had rescued us from hunger on multiple occasions. You see, HH delivered affordable food long after other establishments decided to call it a day. It is one such occasion that comes to mind whenever I think of the beloved dish.

Second semester at Uni was a companionable pandemonium. For starters, the university was renovating the hostels. Consequently we were living with construction noise 24/7 and opening windows turned your living quarters into the first half of  'Interstellar'.  In a Hyderabad summer, this meant we were being baked alive in our rooms. Secondly, we thought we had finally figured out the cafeteria system, and foolishly bitten off more than we can chew. The general chaos of a full course load was heightened by one particular course 'The Early Cantos of Ezra Pound' taught by the amazing but exacting Prof.R (It literally cost a batchmate her right arm to finish the course. And she still did not receive an O grade). Those who had avoided this Scylla fell to the Charybdis of another course titled 'Aesthetics', whose succinct title should have given them a clue. In six months, we had picnicked at the edge of despair, practiced echoes in the gaping void, and had had staring matches with the abyss. And all this had made us closer. Misery loves company, after all.

During the month of the submissions, the hostel took on the appearance of a post-apocalyptic, art film.  The entire floor had taken to working in the relatively cooler corridors. Consequently, if you walked in, you would see rows of bleary eyed, haggard women hunched over laptops between piles of books and laundry wracks, stirring only to slap away mosquitoes or shoo away the errant dog. Sleep-deprivation was compounded by round the clock construction work, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and the fevered knowledge that the deadline was fast approaching (and in some cases, too long past to pretend a technical glitch with emails). We lost track of meals, surroundings-- never time, because that slipped from between our typing fingers too quickly.

One step away from a psychotic break, someone had the sense to suggest food. By then of course the mess had shut its doors. What place would deliver at this time? Hyderabad House! Let's eat biriyani tonight! This baton of hope was passed along with the tube of odomos to each student in the corridor. Miraculously, a phone with balance, charge, and network was located! A mass order was placed and our flagging spirits gained some buoyancy. We typed furiously on our term papers counting the minutes and the word count.
No man had ever received as warm a welcome as that surprised delivery man. Cheers and cries of appreciation filled the air. The biriyani is here! The biriyani is here! As the delivery man stumbled off in a pink haze of female gratitude, we proceeded to distribute the bounty. And the unthinkable happened.
Two packets were missing.

Note to anyone who values their good health: Never enrage a hungry woman.

The miraculous phone was retrieved from where it had been tossed in happiness. Angry fingers jabbed out the number and people took turns berating/lecturing/ guilt tripping/ abusing the receiver until he finally begged them to stop so that he could deliver the biriyanis again. In a great show of solidarity, no one ate until the missing biriyanis arrived. An outsider might ask, why didn't you just share. No. There is a principal to these things. It's like the Alexander the Great and the bowl of water story. Besides, who shares biriyani, dude!

When all the parcels finally arrived, we made the delivery man wait, gave him a lecture as well and then sent him off. Biriyanis in hand, we gathered together in a reasonably cooler room, planted ourselves in whatever space was available and opened our fragrant parcels. An uncharacteristic silence fell upon the group as each of us savoured our individual treats.

Like that once upon a time biriyani, I don't remember how this one tasted either. But I remember the image of all of us sitting on the floor, shadows under our eyes, books all around and smiles on our faces. We were so happy with our small mercies.We were  so young, so ready, so sure that all it took was hard work, and that all we needed was a plate of hot food at the end of the day.

Some guy said, "In small measures life may perfect be.". I think he meant plates.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Roots and Rituals

Sifting through the past couple of entries, I realise I have been gravitating towards traditions and rituals. Which is ironic because, I am not particularly ritualistic, as my beleaguered mother-in-law will tell you. But I think it is because of this that I find it necessary to talk about the few rituals I do follow. They feel so singular. And the thing about rituals in my family is that they are largely coloured by personal preference. Consequently, the symbolic gravitas of the ritual is largely submerged in the family bonding. This is best captured in a tradition that is unique to my family-- the biannual Devi Pooja.

Twice a year, the ancestral abode hosts a two-day event of piety and devotion, which doubles as an unofficial family reunion. This tradition is close to the heart because it was my grandparents who initiated me into it. The pooja was there before them, obviously. But it was in their time that the doors were truly flung open. Everyone who could would come. It was in their time that the trust was formed to conduct the pooja.  And when they passed on, the rest of the family realised that the Pooja didn't happen just by itself. Then, of course, the whole thing became a semi-formal affair with sponsors, and a second maintenance fund, and a whole lot of paperwork. But all that doesn't stop it from having its unique brand of familial strangeness.

The pooja is technically about paying respects to the Goddess, but for us I believe it is more about paying respects to a great grandmother.
Legend has it that the earliest forbearers of the family were childless and the resident Namboothiri was in danger of being kicked out of the Menon household in favour of a more fecund gentleman(check out the Nair matriarchal system for clarifications). In desperation, the couple set out to pray for children to the benevolent Mookambika Devi and began a journey to Kollur. Given that this was 500 years ago, give or take a few decades, the trek was an arduous one, to say the least. Several miles into the journey the Mister and Missus paused in their trudge to partake of refreshments.
Look! A young girl on the wayside! Such a radiant child! She doesn't seem like an ordinary sort of girl. Hello. Oh look, you have hurt your foot! Poor dear! Where did you come from? What? You have no family? Oh you poor thing ... Wait-- perhaps you are the answer to our prayers.We have no children, why don't you come with us, little one? 
The girl murmured an assent and she was hoisted into the caravan. (This was, of course, long before randomly picking up children off the pavement became a criminal offence.)The couple returned home in high spirits. They were thrilled with their foundling. Mother and father ushered her into an antechamber, the machu,  to freshen up and went about preparing a hot meal to welcome their new daughter.
The banana leaf was laid, the payasam prepared, but the girl was yet to come out of her room.  Maybe she was feeling shy? Mother went up to her door and called out, but received no reply. Once again she called her, only to be greeted with more silence. The reticence did not seem normal. The mother entered the room and promptly fainted.
For in the place of the little girl, there now remained a short sword and shield and a long length of blood red silk.
What could this mean?
That night the Goddess appeared in the elder's dream,. She was pleased with the love that the couple had offered her in her guise of a child (pedantic aside-- 'Durga' can also mean nine year old). To reward their kindness, She declared that no woman born of the line will ever be childless, and that She will stay on in their house, fulfilling the role of their adopted family. In return, all She required was that a daughter of the house keep a lamp burning for Her. 
'Muthashi' is the malayalam word for grandmother. Muthashiyar is what my family calls the Goddess. 

The house has been around for 500 years or so. Before you archeological hair-splitters get on my case let me clarify, it has had it's fair share of renovations. It's present state is largely the work of the Madras grandfather-- the  head of the household two-three generations past. After the inevitable property divisions and such, the original ettukettu had turned into a naalukettu with a single open courtyard called the nadumittam in the middle of the house rather than two. Madras grandfather took it upon himself to rebuild the partitioned property into a habitable dwelling.
When my grandparents moved there, the house had no electricity, running water was possible only in a couple of rooms, the entrance from the road was perched at the peak of steep steep steps that no car could navigate, and a kingdom of bats ruled the mysterious attic. They poured their meagre savings and their love into making the house habitable again, and getting Muthashiyar's pooja back on the calendar. It is the pattern they put into place that is still being followed now.

The nearest family representative,  and others who can make it  earlier, arrive a day or two before the big day. To them falls the task of organising whirlwind clean up, making sure the resident civet cat (which has ousted the bats to great extent) has not strayed from it's domain in the attic, delegating the acquisition of the pooja items to the ever-smiling and hard of hearing Kanakkarai, picking up groceries and back up items for the next  three days, ordering pedestal fans for the sweltering May sessions, managing last minute repairs to the house, and clearing the yard to construct the make shift shamiana where lunch is served on the two days of Pooja.My grandparents-- grandmother in particular-- were famous for their hospitality and went out of the way to make sure anyone who attended the pooja felt welcome and well fed. (Our family believes the clearest way to make some one know they are loved is to feed them silly.)  The food was so systematically supplied that for the longest time, the attendees actually thought that their hundi donations went into the funding of the meal. In reality it was the fruit of our the hosts' painful budgeting and stringent economies. At times my grandparents had to forego food to serve the guests. Thankfully now it is taken up by another branch of the family.That said, the organisers need to eat. The uber-efficient Karthyani is a cook of superlative skill (it is ironic that the only thing she consistently fails at is coffee/tea brewing and maggi making) Under her care, we are always one step away from a food coma. Menu planning is a special part of the pooja run up.

Sleeping arrangements are another interesting quirk of the pooja process. Mattress airing (sometimes repairing) and pillow location are tasks specific to the pooja preps. Then, there is room allocation. The older people, the recently injured (yes, this is a usual category), and  little children too spooked to go upstairs, are put in the ground floor bedrooms (the ones with actual beds). The rest of the able-bodied folk fight for the privilege of sleeping on the thekinithara. Everyone loves the TT. Why? It's cool even in the most scorching summer, the open nadumittam just across guarantees ventilation. (Unfortunately, it also lets in mosquitoes, but what are tortoise coils for?) The new sons or daughters in law, and the menfolk who can climb stairs/lost out on the thekinithara are shifted to upstairs bedroom. And once the bedroomers retire, the mattresses are spread out on the TT, the lights turned off and every one lies down... and talks, and talks, and talks. By the time the talking finally moves into a symphony of snores, it is time to wake up. The bathrooms-- which are always case studies for the Law of Marginal Utility-- need to be negotiated so that everyone is bathed brushed by the time the sun is out. 

As Pooja day dawns, the first task is getting the prasasadam of  the Ganapati homam at the Kaavu near by. Meanwhile, the hanging lamps and flowers are added to the sanctum sanctorum. By 7:30-8:00 the first guests begin to arrive and the bad-tea service begins. Socialising has to be carried out while keeping an eagle eye on the door way for the arrival of the priest. This is an actual task because by the time the gentleman arrives, the house will be chock a block full of people. Once he enters the pooja is officially begun. The interim is punctuated by standard exchanges and sights like 
-Everyone telling everybody else that they have grown fatter or greyer (apparently offensive personal statements are favourite ice breakers)
-Older people accosting younger ones with demands to recall their name ("Hello XYZ! You have grown so fat! Do you know me?" *Awkward pause*)
-Young people being recruited for lamp lighting, prasadam distribution, errand running purposes,
-Little children risking death by trampling
-People getting up to date with each others lives. 
Through all of this, is the running theme of returning home to Muthashiyar.

There are three poojas per  day-- two in the morning and one at night. And each pooja's completion is signal by series of three bells. At the third bell, the devotees line up to pay their respects to the deity,  pass the camphor lamp to each other and partake of the prasadam. Disband and reassemble when the next set of bells ring, and then the big lunch with the prasadam paayasam as dessert . The family members take turns to serve each other and make sure the older people who cannot negotiate steps are served inside. There is a short lull after the lunch break where the tired nap, the reunited chatter, and the industrious infrequent visitor make quick jaunts to other places they haven't been to in ages. The organisers meanwhile take this opportunity to take stock, check finances and quickly pick up missing essentials to meet the needs or demands of the later arrivals, and arrange transport for return trips for those who need it. The evening pooja begins with the lighting of small earthen lamps all around the house to mark the Karthika star. The morning's rituals are now carried out to the background score of bhajans being sung and the chanting of the Lalitasahasranamam--The Thousand Names of the Goddess. Disbanding happens faster because there's no group dinner on offer , plus it's late and everyone wants to get home. Once this happens, we regroup, discuss the days events. We share the myriad changes in the regular pooja goers, pooja highlights and eat ourselves into a stupor. But the stupor will have to be put aside, in favour of  accounts. Expenses and donations need to be tallied, and bills organised. Inevitably we end up with a ludicrous figure that defies mathematics. Eventually we put it aside and all fall asleep. 

Day two follows the same pattern only we now include a trip to the bank to keep aside whatever was collected in the donation box in the Trusts account along with the few donations to the scrawny maintenance fund. Everyone is busy gathering phone numbers, talking about how they really have to get back, how it's such a shame the house is shut up for the rest of the year. By the end of the afternoon pooja most of the out-of-towners would have left and the evening pooja will be very sparsely attended. That evening's prayers have a quieter tone, everyone is aware that we have to leave and the talk is tinged with regret and distraction.Inevitably, it all winds down. The accounts are finally tallied. The donation and payment amounts put into their respective envelopes, the mattresses piled away. The fans returned, the cooking vessels put away, the lamps dismantled, and an unsettling, sombre quietness curls arounds the walls... the house knows it's going to be alone again, forgotten again, waiting again. 

Work's crazy! Holidays are sparse and saved for that special trip to some exotic place. The kids feel so awkward in Kerala. There is this other thing that's happening at that place. The bathrooms in the house are so old! October-November? Ooh Thanksgiving!  
Everyone's got somewhere to be. Even me. Somewhere inside me there is a nine year old girl who knows there is another unaging nine year old girl who waits in the Machu, for someone to light a lamp. And I can't face either of them. And that's why I am writing this. Muthashiyare, I miss you. I am sorry I can't be there to light you your lamp. And as I sit alone in this lonely world, I wish I could have you hold my hand across the rungs of the machu door as I have so often imagined you doing. You must feel lonely too.
But I am thinking like a mortal. God is not confined to a room. And Muthashiyar is above such pettiness. But I am glad I have a ritual that gives me a grandmother to go back to, long after my mortal one passed on. Insufferably human as it is, it makes me feel better. And I imagine that Muthashiyar , indulgent and tender, finds our games and little dramas entertaining enough to not grudge us our human fallibility. Thank you for being there.
I will come home soon.

Recommended Aside-


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KUXGRxjPNQ

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Only Seven Miles From the sun

I wanted to do a  New Year's playlist, but 2015 was too chaotic a year to deign to fit into anything as organised as a list.

In truth, 2015 wasn't the nicest year. It was a like maths problem. Technically all the numbers tally and the answer ought to be clear cut, correct even. But, if you were like me, the path to all those answers was a lot of frustration, tears and not a little heart ache. And at the end of all that effort, what you thought was the right answer was... not.
It's not easy being positive through an unreasonable year. 
2015 refused to let you figure it's rhythm-- mixing the sweet languid thumps of a jazzy blues tune with discordant dubstep, and shifting gears to smooth R'nB then jerking you into an unfamiliar reel; with every intention of making you fall in an undignified, broken heap. 
2015 turned me inside out. It broke my heart.
But it also put steel in my soul and warmth in my heart.
While kicking me around, 2015 also assuaged my fears and reaffirmed my ideals on multiple counts. I am earning, I am finding my feet, I am learning, and I am moving. 
A wise woman once told me never to give myself completely. She also observed that it is impossible to be anything other than you. In the midst of all the madness, for the first time I am truly on my side. The world is too big, too beautiful to let one weight pull you down. You learn to carry it, run with, in time forget it. And remember that there is so much more. That there is love, opportunity, hope and forgiveness. And that is, The World According to ME.
I come out of 2015 tired, but ready. Like the song goes-- The battle's almost won, we are only seven miles from the sun.
2016, let's go.



Monday, September 21, 2015

The Great Menon Wedding: Post Script

It's been almost a year and a half now since I entered into couple-hood. And while the biggest relief of being married is that no one asks you when you are getting married anymore, there are certain other enlightenments that have come with the married state. Here are a few observations on the subject.

1. The language barrier can be a barrier. Mostly because he can't get the jokes you are cracking at his expense. Besides, there are only so many times you can say "walking in the moonlight" and not get the right response. On a mushier note, there is also the downside that any attempt at romance involving, say, a sweet malayalam/tamil song hummed as you smile softly at him,  is met with a dodo-stare or or worse a polite request to keep it down while he tries to concentrate on something else. Hmph.

That said,

2. Guys can be Super Romantic. And the capitals are warranted. So when they go out of their way to buy you that academic book you happened to request on a Fb sound-out, or send you flowers from the middle of nowhere, or turn your birthday into a fancy production with a five star hotel stay thrown in just for kicks, and are determined to take you to a hill station on your first anniversary, let them. And enjoy it. I've heard it doesn't last.

3. Girls can be jerks. True, this is not a singular thought, but it is the variety in the jerkness that astounds.
The problem is we women are working with an archival disadvantage.Accounts of feminine assishness are,less accurately documented and are largely constituted of  patently unhelpful exaggerations. Sure there are loads of sexist jokes that paint women as evil incarnate (but if anyone believes that bullcrap, they deserve all the pain they get) , or accounts of some obviously happily married guy dissing his unfortunate wife(Guyish assery is a given anyway). But they all miss the fact that women can be all kinds of disaster just trying to be nice.
In the quest to be as comfortable a companion as possible we women tend to inadvertently squash our  spouse's fragile feelings. The lady regularly plants her both her feet in her admittedly big mouth and finds herself treading softly, for she treads upon eggshells. Someone ought to write a manual on avoiding everyday female dodo-hood.

 On the other hand,

5.Guys are dense. He may be the most intelligent person in the world but he's still not going to be able to read between the lines. Guys suffer from a natural emotional glaucoma-- they are chromosomally handicapped when it comes to figuring whether to probe or leave alone and consequently are guaranteed to do both in inopportune moments. It's frustrating, but they can't get it and will only get upset and upsetting if you attempted to explain things. I have been told that deep in the fantasy land of Xanadu, beneath Kubla Khan's pleasure dome, exist Men who have this skill. But they, like the phoenix, centaur or Yeti, remain elusive.So take a deep breath and cultivate girl friends.

6. A sense of humor is a WONDERFUL thing.  After the first hundred times you over think and mess up, you sort of realise that you ought to take a chill pill.  So, instead of freaking out every time something doesn't seem right, when in doubt, laugh it off. Keep a copy of 3rd Rock From the Sun, Dharma and Greg, Friends or a Telugu movie close at click. And get him to watch it with you so that you're both in on the joke.

Contrarily,

7. Sometimes laughter can be a very bad idea. 'Nuf said. (This can be cross referenced with point #3.)

8. Food can fix most things. My grandmother used to say the key to a good marriage is to always have food ready when your spouse walks in. And a shared interest in street food or dubious Chinese fare further smoothens the marriage path. While every partner hopes to fill the void in the other, it's not possible to be everything a person needs at every point in time. Sometimes you need to rely on the good old-fashioned comfort of a hot meal and let it be. And if food doesn't do it, hand over the remote.

 9. Cricket matches are sacred. Period.

And finally,

10. There is no right answer. But, the good news is, there is no wrong one either. Marriage is like writing an examination in the Humanities discipline. There is no solid answer to the question of human companionship. There are only hypotheses, occasionally a couple of arguments, and a guiding principle.  Regardless of your best intentions, things may go awry. Contrarily, sometimes your worst fears lead to the best conclusions. You are the two lost souls swimming in the fish bowl, but it's better to be lost together.  And, to misquote the great Gandalf, not all those who are lost wander. You are both on the right path, and you'll get wherever you want to get. The journey may throw you off course, but if you remember the destination you will inevitably get there. Or so I have been told.

Let's see what life brings us.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ten Things that Ought to be Appropriate on a C.V

I completed my Ph.D! Yay!
And now I am unemployed.
Crap.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the joke is always on you.
But cynical self-pity aside, the end of student mode presents a new set of challenges. The stipend, however legume-like, was something. And unless you wish to continue the ignominy of parental support into your 28th year, it's time to make changes. Consequently, you scrape up the remains of your self-worth and attempt to create the ticket to a paycheck-- your C.V.
But, apparently all the things that really matter, don't mean squat on that document.  All it wants to know is what paper you wrote or how many organisations you worked in-- basically stuff that anyone could do.
Such gross homogenising makes one wonder how anyone became someone.

In light of this glaring lacuna in the C.V ethos, the Author proposes ten items that should feature in her alternate biodata.

1. Wrote and completed a ph.d thesis while actively planning her wedding. (And carried off both tasks pretty well, though I say so myself)
2. Did not die of depression despite the terrible nature of her thesis topic.
3.Focussed on writing the Research Methodology paper even as India was raising the World Cup at Wankhede. (See--real dedication!)
4.Got an O grade in Rajiv Krishnan's course. (That's the equivalent of the Padmasree, Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize combined.  May be throw in a Purple Heart for the bruises-- both on pride and arms/wrists.)
5a.Was vegetarian for two years while living in Hyderabad-- the Land of Biriyani--  and travelling to a middle-eastern country.
   b. Stuck to a diet for three weeks while in Kuwait. With my mother's cooking around. (Imagine the tenacity and strength of will involved!)
6. Learnt to cook in Hostel. When Maggi was NOT banned.
7. Can swear fluently and viciously in three different languages, not including mother tongue.
8. Excels in spontaneous yarn spinning,  short notice dance choreography, script writing, and party planning.
9. Have played a cat, a dragon, a monster and a man. (How's that for versatile!)
10. Has an excellent sense of humour and is eternally optimistic.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Great Menon Wedding IV: Lights, Camera and a lot of Action

An Indian wedding is incomplete without its modest million megawatt worth of lighting.

The author comes from a tasteful stock. 'Tasteful' can be a problem,however, when it involves one fastidious father with big plans and a mother who was discovering her finicky side. Dismissing the offers of the multiple wedding event managers who had begun slinking around the place since the hall -booking, the Pater decided on a customised home-decoration program. In the year of 2011, when the house was officially warmed, we had incorporated the moulding and baking skills of the local potter and created three tiered terracota lamps in the style of the indigenous thooku vilakku. The aesthetic success of this innovation was only marred by the practical impossibility of actually lighting the lamps (oil-spillage, spilled-oil slippage, chances of fire,the occasional burnt hair-do). The Pater envisioned a rectification of that loss via the magic of wire and low-maintenance bulbs. The situation was furthered by the presence of two able henchmen: the Amazing Viju Chetan-Jenson Chetan duo. Originally drivers by trade, their repetoire of skills is diversified by their extensive network of contacts. You want something done, they know some one who can do it. Enter: the electrically talented Shailesh.

An acquisition of the intrepid Viju Chetan (whose exploits and efficiency require another post for proper examination), Shailesh is the kind of guy whose brain works in terms of circuits. Anything that can conduct electricity is his cup of tea. In fact it is his penchant for cups/glasses/tumblers of Teachers that brought him into contact with Viju Chetan who moonlighted as a beverage corporation employee. It is the possibility of an extra pint that lured Shailesh into the land of work. The problem was that his affinity towards circuitry ran alongside a very short fuse. A little pressure ( can be anything- the weather, Lalettan's new movie bombing, the shape of the parippu vada he had that morning, you get the idea) was enough to have him go off in a huff to nurse a comforting pint in the loving arms of the local beverage.co. And if it wasn't something that got his dander up, it would be simple commitment-phobia. Too much familiarity with a certain task makes our man feel antsy, resulting in the hero disappearing with nary a "it's not you, it's me." Viju Chetan, having seen our flighty bird through many a drunken ramble, was aware of these failings in an otherwise brilliant mind. Consequently, Shailesh's employment also saw the advent of the Relay Vigilance Commission. At no point of time was Shailesh left unsupervised and the supervisor usually sat in front of the exit braiding wires to further impede escape plans.Thus Shailesh was secured, grumpy or otherwise.

The unforeseen consequence of all this constant vigilance was that the invigilators tended to get too involved in their charge's charges. While Viju chetan was still able to keep his head in the face of such electric snares, and Achan was able to tear himself away occasionally, Jenson Chetan succumbed to it's charms like plastic near static-charged fabric. He would stay on long beyond his prescribed duties, way past his home curfew,  all for the excitement of seeing the lights come to life. His family was not pleased.

Neither was the Mater.
While she had given the project her blessings in the beginning, its never-ending nature, the constant tea-service and, most importantly, father dearest's growing obsession with the lighting story to the exclusion of all else, began to tarnish her view significantly. Furthermore, all the circuits and wires were not helping with turning 'humble home' into something suitably wedding-like. To give credit where it's due, the house by itself was lovely enough. But 'enough' is never enough. Also, the winds of  change had spawned disarray. The newly minted cupboards had unleashed a revolution of forgotten bric-a-brac, which now emerged from their camouflaged corners demanding space. The freshly delivered Dakshina mundus and mundum veshtis vied with the new saris for wardrobe space. The changed curtains left behind old shades which hung around and got in everybody's way. Thankfully the  books fit into the new bookshelf. Sort of.

To add to this chaos, the pater had also envisioned the recreation of a childhood curiosity to liven up the house. The courtyard to be more specific. In his multiple treks to Sabarimala, that beloved pilgrimage centre that inspires so many  faithful hearts and swamps so many railway charts, my father had seen devotees commence their journey by building miniature temples out of tender banana stems. These creations, he said, were bonsai versions of the actual sanctum sanctorum of the temple, mingling delicacy with detail and creating an ivory toned delight of perfect symmetry. Yes, he could be persuasive. The idea of a little shrine at the foot of the mango tree did carry a sweet rural appeal and the project was approved with mild smiles.
Apparently, as we discovered later, the Pater  was giving the truth a little makeover when he said 'little'. When the thing rose in the middle of the lawn... let's just say it was no midget. Plus the refuse from the  construction work flooded the yard removing any vestige of decor or decorum. It was a fraught moment when mother dearest came upon the scene. She had a knife in her hand, you see.

Caught up in suppressing these unruly uprisings and dragging father dearest back from circuits and plans for miniature temples, the mater had to admit that house and hall decoration will have to be outsourced. It is in this vulnerable interval that the parents make the acquaintance of  Pavanai and Co. from Atham  Wedding Planners. (Note: Don''t. Go.There.)
Well, the parenthetical aside kinda says it all.
Lulling us with glib talk of superlative flower arrangements, accurate replicas of the invite motif, and correcting us on the right kind of jasmine to be used for decking the bride(Coimbatore, if you are interested), the Atham sharks gave us every impression of efficiency-- an illusion if there ever was one, as events proved. We live and learn. As brides go, I was a rather easy going type and only had two requests from the duo. 1. A light and slender garland unlike the generic type. 2. A bouquet that did not look like a cauliflower. Pavanai and Partner were not impressed. Piece of cake! We'll even take up the Mehendi program just to show you how awesome we are. When the Mehendi lady turned up an hour late, and rushing to go, and not doing such a great job, it ought to have given us a clue. After all the swagger, on the wedding day I was presented with standard issue garland that any idiot bride could have carried and a bouquet that went out of its way to look like a cauliflower. As for jasmine, not only did we not get the 'right' variety, we got them so late that for a while we were facing the possibility of a deflowered bride. They did deliver on the motif replica, though. A perfect copy. Only it was bright, bubblegum pink. The final assessment was this.

While we may have miscalculated on certain aspects, we struck gold in the photographer category. And anyone who's ever been in a wedding knows what a coup that is. Ani from Vijaya Studios brought the best of clicking and courtesy to the wedding quickly turning into a crowd favourite. Besides his natural amiability, and admirable competency, he also carried the added charm of nostalgic sentiment since his father, the Vijayan of Vijaya studios, was the photographer for the parents' wedding.

Two days before the arrival of our first guests, the lights finally came to life, much to the relief of all parties. All said and done, they looked gorgeous! We didn't even notice Shailesh making a run for it. Following quickly in the heels of the lighting flash, the white temple grew on our front-yard, while Viju chetan, the Pater and I made detailed pick-up and drop schedules. The guests started coming in and the grooms-side became more tangible presence-- occasionally in rather inopportune moments like the unavoidable bridal photoshoot. This pre-event period saw certain exciting developments like the arrival of 100+ wedding favour fans which needed to be knotted (a task that was assigned to the girlfriends-- they were given fair warning.) and a particular set from the groomside walking off without waiting for, or informing, the hapless pick-up person who then began a set of desperate to calls to every available number imaging the worst that can happen to non-mallus in Kerala. They were located eventually, safe and unrepentant. $@*^! By the time the Mehendi day dawned, the entire 'team'-- that favourite collective noun of the Trichur natives-- was so pumped we could have run a marathon, and won. Combine the best of a roller-coaster ride and chocolate and you get the wedding high.
While I started out the wedding saga determined to be the one bride in the history of weddings to have fun at her own wedding, I realised that, if you are involved in your wedding there is no way you can not have fun at your wedding. Yes, no one is paying attention to the couple. And no, you don't get any rest. And yes, you will definitely face things you didn't plan for. And yes, you have fun anyway. There is so much positive energy, so many sincere good wishes, such sweet memories made, it makes everything worth it. Surrounded by family and friends who go out of their way to make your wedding spectacular, whether it's in the form of a spirited antakshari competition, or song and dance performances put together in the span of an evening, or skits created through online back and forths between overworked aunts and uncles, you are reminded that you are not alone in the effort and there is so much love in the universe that we are just trying to transmit to each other.  At some point of time, you forget to think of things in terms of what they are worth and instead in what they mean to you. And there is a difference between the two.

At the end of all the wedding prep, the author has come to the conclusion that, if there were more wedding themed parties, there would be fewer weddings ( And, consequently, fewer divorces, if you think about it.)  But a wedding is so much more than a party. The whole wedding shabang is structured to teach, in small doses, the skills necessary to handle what is essentially an unchartered journey with a virtual stranger. The clarity to know what you can  expect, the drive to see it through, the patience to sit out the difficult parts. And most importantly, it is to teach the two inadvertent parties to this madness-- the bride and the groom-- how to love. The enormous effort that goes into the making of such an event can only be pulled off if there is enough love to smooth the way. Love is a verb-- it needs action. The act of a wedding defines the parameters of the marriage it inaugurates. It sets the tone for the music you can make together -- it may not be what you were expecting, but it will be something extraordinary,  sharps, flats and all.

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Friday, May 01, 2015

The Great Menon Wedding III: Digging the trenches, Donning the Armor

There comes a time in every uncertain bride's career that she simply forgets to be uncertain.
And that usually happens during shopping.

Selecting the exact shade you are sure your aunt will look good in, or reassuring your mother that no, her mundum veshti was not 'goldy-gold', or sending your prospective thalam bearers1 and cousins saris that you spent hours considering, reconsidering and reassigning lends a purpose and clarity formerly lacking in the bridal mental make up. But shopping for others-- even if it is just getting the buckets and bedding for the make shift quarters (so reminiscent of hostel)-- is always fun. It is shopping for self, usually such a simple task, that is the true test of the bride's mettle. The bride learns quickly that she had better find her opinion soon, or be bombarded by advice from everyone and their uncle. One valuable lesson learnt from the entire wedding saga is that whether or not you know what you want, you arrive speedily at what you don't want. This righteous firmness takes snaps into shape after the first... or fifteenth... time you are accosted by a shop assistant who is doing everything in her power to shove that garrish Grendel born of an evil copulation between gold and chimkis onto you. So the next time someone shows you something you are not sure of, you immediately discard the option regardless of whether it is the fastest moving thing on the market. Consequently, the bride becomes more collected and less of a whiner, as the Mater would attest, and miscellaneous trousseau items get dashed off the list in less time than it takes to get your hair done-- which, by the way, may not be as quick as you'd imagined.2 (That said, buying your wedding sari is a whole other kettle of fish. It is not unusual for the bride to tarry Hamlet like over the yellow one or the pink one or the red one or the magenta one... Godammit!)

Newfound decisiveness helps negotiations because now there are none. Or so the theory goes. Your tailor might agree, your appointed beautician might agree. But your family and friends, unfortunately, have not been educated on this axiom. Consequently, no matter how much you protest against renovating your perfectly decent bathroom, you father will go ahead with it. But you do get some kind of twisted justice when the guy screws up and you are left with a faulty door after months of delay on the work itself. I have to admit I was not above some catty swipes at the disgruntled dad. Thankfully, the Father was not involved in the shopping proceedings and therefore we could avoid either one of us turning into the Holy Spirit.

But not all the refurbishing was unwelcome. The arrival of remains of hostel-life in the form of 4 huge cartons made erstwhile avoided cupboards imperative. A quick sweep of furniture marts brought home the rather ironic fact that the state with the highest literacy rate had no demand for bookshelves. Introducing the effervescent Aniyan. Literally bouncing with energy, this little man must share some DNA trait with the coffee bean (he even looks like one). Bursting with ideas for 'dros' (drawers) and 'grews' (grooves), his innovation also extended to furniture transportation. Brilliant as my father is, he did not plan for the contingency of having to transport large bed/cupboards to an upstairs bedroom. If  you are familiar with Ross Geller's 'Pivot' situation  you will know what I am talking about. Consequently, said item made its way to its destination through windows, over balconies, navigating pesky tree branches and dodging the occasional coconut. A little rope goes a long way. All this over the top furniture moving did throw a momentary spanner into another project underway around the casa. Which follows in the next post.

See you there. And yes, wedding preps can seem never ending.

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1 For the uninitiated, or the non-mallu visiting my blog for the first time, the one semblance of ceremony that the Malayalee wedding indulges in is this rather quaint custom where the groom and the bride are escorted to the hall by the loving and lovely ladies of the bride's side (ostensibly to invite, but mostly to intimidate I think). Something like a desi bridesmaid, if you will. Of course in the normal wedding this retinue is comprised of any random female standing around, preferably young and unmarried so that the rest of the onlookers can indulge in the favorite pass time of wedding-attendees: match-making.

2 Of course this hard won confidence is blown away like a shanty in a cyclone when you enter the grooms'side of events. You are constantly worried whether you'll do the wrong thing, or worse, say it. And you have absolutely no idea what they have in mind. Consequently you are walking in the mist on a potential minefield and absolutely unwilling to do anything to disturb the universe. You retreat into the path of least resistance and stay there. Until, of course, you get so dehydrated under the weight of heavy lehenga and the equally heavy make up and come very close to making the reception truly unforgettable by almost passing out on the dinner table. But we'll save that story for later. Or not.

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