Tuesday, July 16, 2013


When I shifted to my  new house,  in JNU, with its upstairs and downstairs arrangement, it seemed that the garden was the most interesting thing about it. The house leaked a lot, and as a result, we lived in some dread for the first year, that our books would get ruined. The loss of books is the most frightening thing for an academic. We are either writing them or reading them. I often think the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr  Hyde was about this dramatic relation between what one may speak about and what one may not. The split personality is the most profound, because in not seeking to synthesise it, the academic who insists on moon lighting is probably the most troubled academic of all. Anyway, gardening is one such pastime. The garden just soaks up the rain, transforms itself. It doesnt mind the grand flooding every Monsoon, and the silt from the Laburnum field which  unequivocally runs into the house and the electricity room, is sucked up by the garden too  in great abandon.
As soon as I shifted into the house  in January of 2010, I went to the local  government store and bought a kg of yams, known as Arabi  and planted them in a straight line. I had no intention of eating them when they bore tubers, because I am not overly fond of roots other than potatos. For my mother's generation, eating tubers was a matter of great nostalgia. That's what they did in 1918, when they were old enough to sharpen their teeth on something. In fact, on her 95th birthday, her brother's son and his wife brought her a variety of tubers for breakfast. They brought it by train ialong with  imported soap and Yardley's powder from the Gulf, the earthy tubers from the village plot happily rubbing shoulders with their inanimate gentrified European objects that the Gulf diaspora so loves to bring back as gifts. We are also pleased to recieve them, let me hasten to add. There is nothing as delightful as Yardley powder on your feet when you come out of your bath. Though Ponds Sandalwood is even better. Anyway, the kappa, kachal, and what not, were duly boiled by my sister, and a hot chilli chutney was made to go with is. For this particular chutney you need to pound onions and green chillies, and then throw in a generous dash of coconut oil to finish it off, without cooking it.

Back to the JNU yams......the leaves grew large and profoundly in a matter of months, giving me a good cover from the main road. They grew like giants, and when I watered the garden, the sound of water raining on yam leaves was reminiscent of the Kerala gardens that I knew so well. And people kept saying, "Why dont you uproot your Arabi and eat them?" and I would look blankly at them. Even my servant maid would try to give me lovely Etah recipes of rolling the leaves, soaking them in ground gram floor (besan) and steaming or frying them, if I didnt want to eat  the Arabi. And I would say "Nothing Doing!'

Then my father's brother's wife came to stay with me for a fortnight. "The leaves have wilted. Let's harvest this one!" So I  obediently pulled it out. Apparently, when the leaves of the yam wilt, its time to eat the tuber. I  had earlierjust let it aggregate, season after season, idly pulling out fading leaves and letting new canopies of large leaves grow. The tuber was huge. It didnt look like an arabi. It looked as the Americans say, humoungous.  I sliced it in two, because it didnt fit in the pressure cooker. Then I made a chilli chutney that I had learnt from Nair friends in Kerala. Fry six  dry red chillies (deseeded) with six  small onions, and grind them in the mixi with a small round of washed tamarind, and a little water and salt and curry leaves.  When the yams were boiled I sent one half to my eldest daughter, with her husband,  who had dropped in to collect some books from their room upstairs,and then my aunt and I sat to eat slices of the other half. As soon as it touched my tongue, the zinging inflamation set in. "Stop! Stop! It itches. Throw it Away." She looked at me, and said "Mine doesnt."
Anyway, she too spat out her piece of yam immediately. Just short of our vocal chords, our mouths became completely inflamed. I quickly called my daughter at her apartment, and told her not to eat it. Then she asked her mother in law for an antidote, and her mother in law  said I should have boiled the yams with alum (whatever that is) or guava leaves, but anyway, if I put some tamarind or pickle on the tongue, then  the inflammation would subside, the acid of the tamarind or the lime picke soothes the burning tongue. Who was to know all this?
Think of it, eating yams was so much part of the past, that no one knew that it came accompanied with rules. Whoever did the cooking just prepared it the correct way. Kaachal, Chenna, Kappa......all things that I eat when I go to Kerala without blinking an eyelid, boiled or mashed with coconut. Here my ignorance just set up a dreadful allergy. It hadnt itched when I peeled it, so I guess, I had thought it was safe to eat. Farmers sell things in the market all the time, growing them is not so easy is it,  or being responsible for storing it, and seliing it, or redistributing it. More power to them for growing things we can eat.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


I was waiting to go for a conference on water in Dehradoon of 19th June, and while watching the news on tv on the 16th June, I saw the houses crumble into the raging river. I cancelled my participation, knowing immediately that the roads would get blocked with people getting away, and that since I have sclerosis I would be a detriment to the others in the taxi with me, if we got jammed somewhere. The hills have absorbed the density of middle class longings for several years now. When I a made a trip to Sattal last year, I noticed the overbuild, and the river had a thin, mangy vicious look to it, as if it had been gutted, and neglected and misused and would be back for the kill. I shuddered and looked away.
My house in JNU gets regularly flooded, so I spent most of June, pushing out the water from the porch. And then the abandoned flowering of hibiscus took over, and the climbing jasmine, as well as the blue flowers that only show up in the rain. My house started looking like a Kerala house, and the grapes I had planted last autumn, started climbing steadily. The vine will create a shade for me from where the sun strikes hardest, all clear and bright after the rain.
Its a new chapter in my life. Meera has finally moved to Married Students' Quarters, it took her two years to really feel that she could write her Phd dissertation anywhere except in her room upstairs. Sandhya has gone back to Bengaluru to continue her studies in Design. Mallika has got admission in JNU at  School of Arts And Aesthetics for an M.A course. In short, they are all now grown up. I was preparing for this period for a long time. Shiv continues working with his colleagues on subjects beyond my ken, what industrialization does to traditional societies, calling himself a Social Science Nomad, like the Scythians and Parthians were still around. I was talking to a young engineering student yesterday, and it occurred to me, that neither Delhi University nor JNU teaches Industrial Sociology. I have always been interested in the survival of traditional agriculture, probably because I spent my summer holidays in Kerala as a child. The slow pace of life in a village was quite delicious, it gave you time to dream, and while our parents as busy professionals helped with household chores and read or chatted, we would be left free to roam and discover the grass growing wild and the beetles with them.
So how will I spend the years of solitude ahead of me? Meditatively, I hope. Teaching in a busy university never allows you to feel that you are alone. When I was seventeen, I would go for long walks on my own, and see the open sky. To me, that always seemed the familiar space of my dreams. So the sky is still there.
On Monday, my youngest daughter went to give an interview, and then when she came out to catch a bus, she got hit by a motorcyclist. So she fell down, and hit her head. She phoned me. I was watching Karan Thapar and K.V Thomas discussing the Food Security Bill. When I heard her whimpering I was aghast. "I've got into an accident." When I asked her where she was, she said Hanuman Mandir Jumna Bazaar. She had come out from Ambedkar University and had decided to catch a bus. The Police immediately took her to Susruth Trauma Centre opposite Metcalfe House. The doctors on duty had stitched her up neatly, and she was sitting with a bandage over her curls, looking woebegone, but well in command of the situation. Given the traffic jams, it had taken me an hour to reach her. And fifteen minutes after I arrived, her father and his colleagues arrived too from Haryana. Meera and her husband Saagar came in a taxi soon after, and the relief, that Malli was alive and well was huge. She was a lucky girl, the police acted immediately and the surgeon who stitched her scalp, and the bridge of her nose which was split open was one of the calmest people  I have met. So in India, we have this, the sense that one belongs, that unknown people are brilliant at their work. Maybe I have middle eastern blood that came down the family line in the early twentieth century, when my grandfather married a sparrow like girl who was a Cananite, (a community of Christians from Baghdad, Cana  and Nineveh, who came to India in the 4th century AD) because her father was a trading partner. But to me it seems that one can never be a foreigner in the country that has been one's home for a decade or for seventeen hundred years. Friends who live in New York say that its home, because it feels like home. Now Delhi feels like home.