Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chip off the old Banana. Extended version.

Republished after additions. Hope this is an improvement.

We mallus are inherently fruity. Hence, the incredible loneliness of the soul faced by a fruitless Mallu is self-evident. This deep angst surfaces in the deprived mallu's desperate delight in the face of such seemingly unimportant items such as coconut chutney and banana-chips. And this is all the more intense when the mallu is transplanted into a dry arid desert lands of that other Mallu-land lovingly referred to as 'the Gelf'.

Every year, the Keralite home-base faces a sharp shortage of the non-perishable edibles and snack-like as non-resident mallus flock back to their homeland. Stores are ransacked of their savories and looted of their lip-smackers; the state suffers from an acute drought of tea-snacks for months to come.But though the mixtures may go missing and the diamond-cuts kidnapped no other snack variety suffers as greatly as the banana-chip. The fruits quiver in fear as the shadow of the Gelf-returned fall upon their pliant green stalks. Bunch upon bunch of barely ripe bananas are deep-fried in coconut oil with salt to create a taste of Kerala in your desert living room. The bright gold of these gilded treats drew the marauding migrators like the doubloons that incited the plundering conquistadors.

But there are looters and bounty-hunters. The first indiscriminately haul every available flake of every available banana. The latter however are the connoisseurs who quest for that perfect, crisp, delicious chip and savor it as it aught to be. My family falls in the second category. And so our clan are receptacles of that deep race memory that flows through every mallu- the Chip hierarchy. For example, anybody knows that big bakeries never sell you the best chips. The true finds are always in the back alley shanties or in the seedy tin shops near railway/bus stations. And besides,no discerning mallu with their inherent anti-capitalist stance will ever trust a big brand. The last time I was in Mallu-land I heard a Hot Chips franchise was starting out there. I pity them. Another instance of Mallu general knowledge is that every fastidious mallu knows that Calicut is the Mecca of the Banana Chip. The crispiest, tastiest and most scrumptilicious chips are from beloved Calicut. Even my father- who hails from Trichur, and believes everything Trichurian is automatically exemplary- agrees to this. But my father was never one to bend his knees before the insolent tasty-ness of a non-Trichur chip. Besides, he had a special supplier.

The return trip from our frenetic vacations was usually a weighty affair. More than anything because of the constant worry of weight issues. The airlines being a rather fussy institution demanded that all the travelers carried only a limited amount of weight. This of course resulted in a series of weighing, tearful half-hearted unpacking, offloading of much loved items and reweighing. In our household it is imperative that every member be present at the packing arena: mostly so that my father will have enough people to order around. But in all honesty he did a great job (both at ordering and packing)- there wasn't an inch of space in those two boxes that wasn't utilised. Be that as it may, neither the airlines nor my father's edicts could deter our beloved aunt from buying half a bakery store for her darling brother to munch on far far away.
While my father- who is a big softy under all the bluster- may manage to leave behind some of these tokens, he could never say no to his mother. His mother who always had chronic knee pains.His mother who despite said knee pains would stand for hours at the old fashioned stove and fry handful after handful of raw bananas in searing hot coconut oil,bananas which she'd painstakingly sliced for the entire morning so that her youngest son can have the freshest batch.It was almost a tradition- My father would have just finished stuffing in the last maligned item and squashed the box shut when my grandmother would send up the tins of banana chips. My father would get the haunted look of a man who really really wants to say no, and then he would proceed to unzip the stuffed box and take out some of the previously unavoidable items and loving wrap up the new bulky presents.

Oh he would grumble of course. He would scowl and bluster. But funnily enough he would never tie up the box until the tins came through. And when we'd get back the first phone call would be greatly comprised of praising the chips. And the truth is, no one could make banana chips like her. Even the blessed Calicut varieties had salt issues. My grandmother's chips were perfect.

It's been more than five years since we've tasted her chips. The stroke paralysed her right-hand-side and she hasn't walked by herself since, let alone stepped into the kitchen. I remember the day my father and my uncle, his older brother, got the phone call. It is a strange moment when you realise that the adults had always been children. Their mother's stroke, coming so close on the heels of their father's demise, was the turning point where childhood living finally ended. The brothers left immediately and we followed soon after. The shock of seeing my ever active grandmother prone was quickly repressed, partly so that we could look after her well and partly because we didn't want her to think about it and mostly because we didn't want to think about it. The irony was that life,in the strangest and simplest of ways, went on.The leave ran out and the exiled had to return to their work place. And the charade of normalcy carried forward into the packing ritual. As always the boxes were packed, only this time there was little fear that they would be heavy. After all, we had other things on our mind. The last of the clothes were put in, the mandatory space check done and all was ready for the final tying up, when my aunt climbed up the stairs weighed down by parcel after parcel of chips. "Amma didn't want you to go without the chips.", she said.

We Mallus are made like our favorite food items. We are either soft and sentimental and sometimes diabetes inducing or crisp and salty going off with a loud crunch. But every part of us- from husk to flesh is stubbornly resilient. We take all the jokes thrown at us and make up several of them too. And regardless of what life throws at us, we believe that everything can be fixed or at the very least reconciled with. All we need is a cup of tea and banana chips.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One Flu Over the Cuckoos Nest

The one thing that the Creator (the actual one, not the Author) didn't scrimp on while creating yours truly was the health package. However being human does involve the inevitable tussle with some kind of malignant microbe. Contrary to what the mater keeps saying, what doesn't kill you, does not make you tougher. It makes you whinier and universally annoying.

It is a proven fact that most people crumble into incompetent nincompoops or belligerent boors the minute a germ decides to visit their system. My father, otherwise an exasperatingly 'in-charge' person disintegrates into a bewildered babe on the commencement of a microbial infection. Firestone, an otherwise angelic, perfectly amiable person turns into a brat as soon as a germ makes its way through her epidermis. And then there is the third most manageable but most heartbreaking variety: the Silent Decliner who sinks into pale weakness unable to put up a fight. My brother, otherwise the life any party, becomes quiet and pitifully docile- a sight which has enough tear-jerking properties to be declared a prime-time soap. Each type comes with it's own unique aggravation. Being a dedicated observer of the world, it is my bounden duty to describe the forms that these microbe-induced madnesses might take.

The most common mental-morphosis is the 'Difficult Patient'. This very broad category may be sub-divided into 'the Boorish' and 'the delusional'. The former, as the discerning reader may have surmised, is the permanently grouchy, eternally unsatisfied bed-pan-throwing variety. We may consider ourselves lucky if the subject in question is suffering from laryngitis or some other throat ailment since that will reduce the yelling plus give us a valid enough excuse for dishing out double doses of cough syrup or similar sleep-inducing elixirs. The Delusional category consists of individuals who are convinced that they are not sick and go about making everybody's life difficult by insisting on doing myriad tasks while their body screams a plaintive negative. While the overly kind-hearted may be able to sustain a certain level of sympathy, the more or less normal would soon be reaching for a handy tool to put the unfortunate to sleep. Between these two broad categories is the deceptively docile but deadly Polite-Requester also known as the Nagging Pain. The individuals in this category employ a passive aggressive cumulative technique that is guarantee to wear your patience to threads. General scenarios usually involve a 'request' which is repeated endlessly in various avatars until granted. Be warned that these requests usually require time and/or effort and so within the gap that it takes to to get them done your brain would have been chewed out. And any attempt on your part to be firm and reasonable is met with deep sighs and/or looks of pained forbearance which drives you crazy and possibly to violence. This variety is supremely aggravating because it parades as the epitome of reasonableness while being the brand-ambassador for bratty. Very similar to this variety is the Whine-and-dyin'. Patients of this class try your patience by constantly whining about how they are dying when in reality they are barely afflicted, leeching out the sympathy from soft hearts drying them to a husk.

True, this is an unsympathetic and harsh summation, but the author is not a heartless soul neither is she unreasonable. All of us go a little cuckoo when a microbe enters the system. I wouldn't be surprised if someone accused of violence was acquitted on grounds of a flu.The whole world becomes dark, desolate and depressing and we unconsciously try to vent all our unhappiness onto this oppressive world and everything in it. But, the beauty is that every time you emerge out of a sickness you realise the world IS a wonderful place full of opportunities. Every sickness in some way is a brush with death, and so to return to health is a miracle of human sturdiness. And as a previously groaning patient blooms into health again, the one nursing also feels a parallel happiness at seeing a dear one return to their beloved self. Before they killed them. As the patient hops and skips their way into full health our hearts lighten and all is right and bright in the world- they are back and that's what matters.

PS: The Author's brand of patient-hood is the least troublesome of types. She sleeps from dawn to dusk and pretty soon the germs are bored to death. As you can see, whether in sickness or in health the Authors habits remain unchanging :D

Friday, June 03, 2011

Training Day

Warning: LOOOOOOOOOONG post. But then rants usually tend to be that way.

The one good thing that the British rule left behind (besides the lovely language that you are reading) would be the Railways. Train journeys are the humanest means of transport- they are colourful, exuberant, fragrant with the scent of life(and other not so fragrant things)and full of character. While my more fastidious and finicky friends may prefer the avian mode, I firmly believe that flight is to train as an Ingmar Bergman movie is to a Rajni flick. And no train experience is complete unless it is carried out in the sleeper class where one can experience the teeming sea of humanity at it's garrulous best.Of course this is the pink-tinted version of the smoky locomotive story. Even the author, an enthusiastic endorser of the Indian Railways, must admit to having faced several moments of doubt. But no journey has managed to shake this constant admirer's faith in the railways!


There was that One Train Journey...

If the diligent reader would recall the mention of a third wedding in mallu-land, we may establish the setting of this tragic tale. We had whined, dined,given our newly espoused friend blood-pressure problems due to constant blushing and generally had an awesome time. Now it was time for farewell. The author, her comrade Apple and their comic relief side-kick Para (pseudonymed so for several reasons- none of them complimentary) were to leave immediately after the wedding. Kerala being such a hot-spot and Sabari being perpetually over-booked, we had taken the precaution of booking our tickets earlier than early. Though our tickets- in true Sabari fashion- were in the RAC category,constant internetting showed evidence of our upward movement and consequent seatedness. Poor Para, on the other hand, was in the railway limbo called the Waiting list. But we generous seniors assured her that we would share our confirmed seats with her.

The trouble started with the time. Anyone acquainted with the RAC process will know that it is the early bird that catches the berth. Hence we set out from the wedding venue well in advance of our train's arrival. If my loyal readers would recall a certain previous post, they would recall that a Mallu wedding usually entails being awake when normally you would be in La-la Land. As a result the wait at the station was a battle against vertical snooze. Furthermore there were complications regarding our assured seat bliss: For some reason the seat numbers were not showing up on the chart. Tamping down on our rising trepidation we decided to wait it out and keep our chins up.

But as anyone who has had to do their fair share of it would agree- waiting is the most painful of experiences. Furthermore, keeping your chin up is very difficult when it constantly slips downwards in inadvertent sleep. To add to this already excruciating situation (especially for the back of your neck) any train announcement -consistently of some other train- was preceded by the aggravatingly up-beat MCR mundu ad which would jerk us out of half-snooze into the arid plains of vain hope. To add salt to our wounds, any blessed interval between these spells was demolished by our darling Para who had taken to humming the entire ad right down to the tag-line. It is a wonder how she survived the journey without being thrown onto the train tracks. An hour and a half later the wretched announcement finally mentioned Sabari Express- only to tell us that it is delayed by an hour. This was repeated thrice, by which time we our sanity - already threatened by lack of sleep, leering station loungers, demanding beggars, the damned MCR Mundu ad and our junior's unhelpful repeat-telecast of the same - was on its last leg.

Four hours later Sabari finally trundled into the station- and conveniently stopped several bogeys ahead making us run after it like the proverbial Lola. Matters were not helped by the fact that Sabari was uncharacteristically crowded and resembled a Calcutta Local train rather than an interstate sleeper. Added to this was the fact that the train stops for exactly three minutes at the station. There followed a dramatic enactment of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Several mangled body-parts later we managed to squeeze our way into our compartment and to our prescribed seat... only to find a family happily settled there. Confusion ensued as both parties had confirmed tickets. Meanwhile the tide of would be passengers surged around us hurling impatient abuses at our inconvenient position right in the middle of the alley-way. Thankfully this annoyed our comfortably ensconced co-passengers enough to make them create previously non-existent place for us to rest our behinds. And so the commencement of our highly eventful much delayed and interminable journey saw Apple, Para and I perched at the edge of our seats.

EX-Seats, as it were. The much awaited TTR made his harried appearance and brutally squashed our hopes of occupancy. Apparently our confirmed seats had to be sat in a junction back. Since our behinds did not make their presence felt at that point our seats were reneged. So here we were seatless and suffering. As we sat(?) slack-jawed at this declaration, one of our helpful comfortably lounging co-passengers took it upon himself to give us a long list of rules justifying the lack of seating and our general stupidity. Needless to say we were not too grateful for his input. Ignoring the annoying human rule-book and our aching feet we bolstered our flagging spirits. The TTR, in his hurried rush had let slip a golden droplet of hope into our parched minds: "...cross the state border and seats may empty..." With these words in mind we perched on whatever horizontal unoccupied surface we could find and hung on for dear life. The Author, being rather small and monkey-like, managed to climb her way into somebody's luggage-occupied upper berth. At some point of time she keeled over in sleep and Apple and Para sincerely feared for her life since she refused to regain consciousness regardless of rigorous head-shaking and shoulder shoving. They were saved from the task of calling for a stretcher when a couple of hours later the Author finally opened her eyes with an eloquent "Huh? Wha-?"

By this time the border had been long crossed, the dinners had been served and people were demanding the use of their berths. We were still stuck in seat-limbo. Enough was enough- It was time for action! Leaving Para to keep an eye on our scattered luggage, Apple and the Author set of to search for the TTR. (A search not unlike the Matrix trio's search for the Key-maker. There were an equal number of tight situations -Literally) After having finally located the elusive official we were told that Salem was our Jerusalem: "Wait for Salem, seats will empty". Having extracted a promise of seat update from the TTR we trudged back a little uplifted to our compartment. Meanwhile the happy family who had gotten our seats decided to take pity on us and gave us the side lower berth. So there we were three females cramped into a single berth. It was like a human picasso painting- all angles, no comfort. By the time the Sabari edged into Salem several body parts had lost sensation- small mercy.
At long last the TTR made his blessed appearance. We woke from our half slumber our bleary eyes lit with undead hope. He flipped his sacred seat list and said "No seat."

Our undead hope was staked in the chest.

Para, being a resourceful soul, located a couple who had vacated one of their berths in favour of companionship and made herself at home there. Apple and the Author were left to negotiate minimal space with optimum accommodation.How we managed to avoid spinal injury in the next few hours is beyond the imagination of this writer. Day break saw Para the hapless Waiting-Listee sleeping like a baby and the two 'confirmed' passengers turned into human scalene triangles. The half-asleep but ever-alert Apple noticed that other more fortunate souls were waking up and vacating berths. Throwing caution and pride to the winds we quickly scrambled onto these havens and slipped into blessed oblivion. At least that's what I did. Unfortunately, Apple was not fated for dormien bliss. Her berth was sadly located in the lair of two terrible toddlers who took to playing tag between berths and were not averse to jumping on her feet or screaming in her ears. Their continued existence on this hallowed earth is testament to Apple's sainthood. Around afternoon the heat (in mine and Para's case) and the noise (in Apple's case) put an end to any attempt at sleep and we were brought back to unhappy reality. The co-passengers, well-rested and happily settled, tried hard to make conversation only to receive monosyllabic responses. Except of course for Para who gave spirited, renditions of the godforsaken MCR Mundu ad to the admiring public. Wretched brat.

When at last we were finally just a station away from our destination, Sabari decided to delay itself yet again. Ah the humanity!!! I believe the torture of the journey can be best expressed by the fact that it felt a lot longer than this post. Needless to say we avoided long distance travel for a while. But all said and done, when push comes to shove I would still prefer a train journey. They may be messy, smelly and utterly dehumanising: but they definitely make for a good story.