Category Archives: Think Tales

Tamil New Years – the day that was, is, and will be…



“Do you know what they do on Tamil New Years day?” asked my mother, as she held a mirror in her hand and looked at me questioningly.

After several minutes of desperately trying to recall the connection between the mirror and what she did with it the previous year, I meekly said, “Offer our prayers to God…?” just to regret it immediately.

With a disenchanted look on her face, she placed the mirror on the kitchen slab, walked over to me, yanked the book out of my hand and said, “This time, you will take over the festivities, including the cooking and preparation.”

What ensued was a long-drawn discourse about how a to-be-married girl should be well-aware of what ritual needs to be followed for what festival, what suthu kaaryam (miscellaneous work in the kitchen) needs to be done and how otherwise, the future mother-in-law would venomise not the girl, but her mother, for not raising a well-cultured daughter.

Having learnt over the years that reasoning would yield no result, I silently took the mirror in my hand, and upon her instructions, placed it on a palahai (a wooden slab), adorned it with a gold and pearl chain, and placed a Taambulam tray (which usually consists of bananas, beetle leaves,  areca nuts, coins, and turmeric) in front of it.

“Even Kanchi Maha Periyava used to wake up to a mirror on Tamil New Years,” she added, reassuringly.

As the next day dawned, instead of slipping into a comfortable pair of tracks and an over-sized t-shirt, I dressed up in a red and green pattu (silk) salwar suit (a must have in every Tambrahm wardrobe, I must say), adorned a string of malli poo, and, contented with my attire, stepped into the kitchen, just to be asked, “Why is there no kungumam on your forehead?”

As time passed, under the watchful eye of my mother, I stood near the gas stove, lost in the sweet aroma of raw mangoes mixed with paagu vellam ( a jaggery that’s used for preparing sweets). It was the last dish to be prepared, before I could indulge in the festive meal I took utmost pride in preparing.

As the last of the dishes found a place in front of God (for the first offering), my phone rang.

“Did your mother remember what she has to do for the festival?” asked my grandmother, after we exchanged festive greetings.

Laughing, I glanced in her direction and thought, maybe I’m a reflection of what she was, a long, long time ago.  For now, I would save that story for another day.




The other side of life


As the first signs of dawn lit up the city, 12th Cross Street, or the Island street as the localites called it, came to life. No, it wasn’t because it showed any signs of water and land, but because, the stretch was surrounded by a slum dwelling with just one bungalow in a corner.

The first to arrive at the scene was Senthil, the vegetable vendor. His daily routine began with collecting the first lot of fresh vegetables from the Koyambedu market, and stocking them up before the first customer arrived. Having been in this business for several years, he prided himself of being an efficient worker, because more often than not, by early noon, the best stock would be wiped clean.

As he began stocking up the raw mangoes on a plank, his mobile rang, with an old-style Nokia caller tune.

“What?” he asked, grudgingly.

Seconds later, his face lit up. It was his daughter, Selvi. Her 10th standard results were out today, and she’d passed. As Senthil continued to listen in on the conversation, Muthu, the tea-stall owner arrived and gave a shout to him. “Senthil! All fine? He asked. Senthil absent-mindedly gave a nod and resumed his work, with the mobile glued to his ear.

Muthu turned back and with tremendous effort, lugged himself into the store room, to bring out the tea bags, tea stand, glasses, and water cans. The alcohol hadn’t done him well. He had a pounding headache, and to add to that, the heat wave in the city was making him feel quite sick. As he carried his things and walked out, he realised that something was amiss. There was a Rs.20 note on the cash desk and one water can was missing since his last count before the first drink last night. After several minutes of scanning his shop for any clues, he noticed that his green water jug was missing as well.  Puzzled and exasperated, he slumped on the plastic chair, cursing himself for being careless, yet again.

“Given up already?” asked Shanthima, as she and her son Murugan stood beside his stall, carrying a baskets of fresh flowers.

“It’s none of your business!” snapped back Muthu, and made a yet another herculean attempt to get off the chair.

She shrugged and turned to her stall, waiting for her son to pull off the blue plastic sheets. Shanthima, as she was fondly called by the localites, was a popular flower vendor in the locality. Be it for weddings, festivals or any family occasions, customers would swarm into her stall and make small purchases or place bulk orders. On days when her customers complained of high pricing and insisted that she pick and give them the best flowers, she’d charm them with her usual, “Be it any occasion, it’s flowers meant for the Gods. Would I be careless and give you the spoilt ones? Don’t you trust me?” And they’d give a defeated smile and readily succumb to her words.

The three shops, that of Senthil’s, Muthu’s and Shanthima’s, acted as gatekeepers to the small slum dwelling that lay right behind. Over the years, each of their lives became intertwined with those of the families’ that lived behind, and their role went beyond just taking care of business. Take Shanthima for instance. When the women at the slum are busy doing household chores, she would keep watch over their children, lest they run amok and hurt themselves. Or take Muthu for that matter. His shop was more often an open psychiatry centre than a tea-stall, where the men slumped on the wooden benches and complained to Muthu for hours together, about their demanding wives or unreasonable labour compensations.  Senthil was different though. He made no unnecessary remarks. His only contribution was to hand over any leftover vegetables of the day, to the families living behind. On such days, the aroma of chilli powder and boiled rice would be replaced with that of a sumptuous meal.

By now, the Sun was up and showing its prowess to the entire city, and, the street was abuzz with activity. Senthil’s daughter, Selvi too had arrived, to help her father at the shop, and the next few hours passed in each of the vendors’ serving what seemed like an entire village of people.

By late afternoon, as the last of the customers walked out with a bag of vegetables, Selvi found the golden opportunity to take a quick glance at Murugan, Shanthima’s son. For long, his tall, slender build and sharp features had attracted her to him like a morsel of sweet would to an ant. A bit of a movie buff that she was, she imagined her encounters with him to be a scene out of a romantic movie, where, one day, he would sweep her off her feet, and take her away from her misery.

“Dreaming is not going to fetch you any money! Now, step up and tally the day’s expenses!” instructed Shanthima, snapping her out of her wishful world in no time. When Senthil was not in the shop, Shanthima took it upon herself to watch over Selvi.

It was when the sky turned an orangish-hue that the first signs of calling it a day began. As the children from the slums fought over who would play the last over of gully cricket, a strong aroma of kerosene began spreading in the air, and Senthil, Muthu, and Shanthima began wrapping up their last orders.

Soon, it was time to bid goodbye to their second home, on the left stretch of the 12th cross street, I wrote. Then, I placed my pen down, and longingly gazed across the street, at the scene,  from the French windows of a bungalow, that showed no signs of life, except of the clock ticking. 

Think again, before you toss that money to the poor.


Source: Sulekha

As Mylapore embraced a swarm of people during the two week-long Panguni festival, there I was, seated in an auto right behind the Kapaleeshwarar temple, surrounded by vehicles in what seemed like a 500-piece puzzle jam. The first few minutes passed in an oblivion, as I listened Chris Martin (from Coldplay), sing about a girl who dreamt of a Paradise. As time passed, I couldn’t help but come back to reality and look around to see how long more I had to wait to get home.

That’s when I noticed a house.  It wasn’t a tastefully decorated one. Neither was it one of those sophisticated high rise apartments. It was probably less than a 10/10 space, with a chipped wooden door and dry palm leaves for a roof. Inside, there was a small wooden bed, a handful of aluminium vessels neatly stacked up in one corner, a single stove and a three and a half legged plastic chair.  In all, as meagre a living as could be. I thought to myself, if the occupants had to give directions to their home, they’d say, lookout for the poster of MGR’s Aayirathil Oruvan stuck on the wall of our house, and inside, of people filled with warmth and selflessness.

Here’s why I said this. Moments later, an old man appeared beside the auto I was seated in, and held his hand out. Instinctively I took out a Rs. 5 coin and placed it on his palm. Just then, a woman, with unkempt hair and loosely clad clothes, walked out of the house and handed him a plate of rice. It took a while for me to realise that the woman whose house I was looking into was my maid’s.

The next day, when she came home to do her daily chores, I had so many things to ask her; don’t you often say that you have enough money to eat just once a day? Don’t you have the responsibility of educating two daughters? Doesn’t your husband demand a chunk of what you earn, to drink? Why then did you give away the last morsel of food you had stored for the night?

She looked at me, and said without asking, “Often, for some of us, the question is not of earning money, because we are hardly allowed to enter a hotel and pay for the food. Rather, it’s about finding a way, any way, to curb that deathly pain when hunger strikes, and living to see another day. All this, in the hope that tomorrow, it will be a better day.”

And, I just stood there, ashamed at having handed out money to the old man, instead of asking him how I can help him.