The Gagging Reflex

For the last couple of days, I’ve been reading all over Facebook about how people are being gagged by the government.

The internet in general and Facebook in particular are my link with the real world. I sit in a corner, in my end-of-the-road house in a non-descript village, surrounded by jungle, away from sand, surf and tourists. Post after post tells me India’s being gagged. I narrow my search in the newspaper for ‘public transport’ and ‘garbage’ headlines, my areas of interest these days. No gagging of voices anywhere. Taxi-drivers/owners and passengers are both cribbing loud and clear. As are locals and tourists alike, regarding disposal of plastic bags, sanitary napkins, biscuit-wrappers, banana peels, half-eaten wada-paavs, etc.

The gagging business has got me curious. Familiar faces shout out of my television screen in decibels whose vibrations scared away the two-metre monitor lizard that was sunning itself in our compound last week. Those voices have been unchanged for years and unchanging in their ways, ruled by the advertisers, day after day, 24-hours/day. To switch channels, one has to choose between insane yelling, vigorous hyperventilation and boredom, with program-repeats every couple of hours. Methinks, some form of gagging would be a good idea.

I read some old opinions on military affairs in Kashmir and naxal-territory written by a novelist. Was impressed. The author should pronto be made a starred general. Those who do professional courses and put themselves at risk on crazy heights in miserable weather are wasting their time. All they need to do is check with her how to sort out complicated political stuff and convince the powers that rule, and the powers that divide, and some violence-happy guys, and make peace prevail. She hasn’t written for a while. If she’s been gagged, she should be un-gagged immediately. In a democracy, all PoVs should be heard, even absurd/irresponsible ones.

I hear friends discuss how such-and-such politician hasn’t kept his/her word and is so-o corrupt. That’s what politicians do. And no one’s being gagged (in India) for saying so…yet. And no one’s discovered (anywhere) a method to gag a politician…yet.

Over the phone two acquaintances from Delhi tell me about the happenings in JNU: one says the government has no business to stifle students’ voices, the other says students should get involved in politics after their studying years are over. This is life in a free country, everyone voicing contra-views. Gagging will kill that charm.

An ex-colleague from the hotel industry tells me how putrid the health care industry is. Medical professionals say a few greedy ones are giving them all a bad name. Builders/industrialists say you can’t stop progress; environmentalists say you mustn’t destroy the earth. Such a cacophony. When irritated, I feel, gag ‘em all.

Parents say dilute the school syllabi; the government says fail nobody, and when the school-children become young adults, they don’t get jobs because they don’t have skills. So many people complaining, so many complaints. More the merrier. Complaining is our birth-right. In calmer moments, I feel, gagging will destroy this national pastime.

Actually, when I began doing homework about gagging, what should or not be gagged, I was expecting reporters, anchors, people around me to feel nauseated, be throwing up. Because gagging is what happens when an ENT surgeon shoves a spatula into my mouth to depress my tongue or a dentist opens my mouth wide and wider until my insides protest with a couple of unexpected, involuntary, violent consecutive jerks. (Doctors/dentists/nurses dealing with the likes of me get nightmares: of that another time.)

Gagging is what I did as a child… when the thin cream that happened on the surface of cooling coffee/tea got inadvertently swallowed.

Gagging is one reflex that recognizes whether a patient is unconscious or dead. And the health of Freedom in a nation.

Nowadays, everyone in Delhi-Gurgaon is wearing masks and keeping windows closed. Some are not daring to even do pranayama in case they inhale too much of that dense fog of smoke and grime.

When I listen to what’s making everyone wheeze and choke there, what makes me gag is the question “What has the government done?” We all know the government is irresponsible. It’s been like that for almost 67 years, nothing new about that.

What makes me gag is that no one’s asking us citizens what we have done to reduce the pollution that’s causing everybody to cough and gasp. I don’t hear anyone insisting on having comfortable and reliable buses so that they don’t have to use cars. Or bicycle-tracks. My point: want single-use cars? Want multiple cars per family? Then learn to gag. The air clogs poor lungs, rich lungs, middle-class lungs, healthy lungs, ill lungs, domiciled lungs and lungs passing through. Masked and yet-to-be masked nostrils means a lot of money to be made for certain manufacturers. India’s on the move. A trillion-trillion masks to make. A billion-plus of us are ready to pollute, and in all parts of India, too. I don’t hear anyone volunteering to stop or reduce using air-conditioning, or burning crackers/sparklers.

Using wood for cremating the dead adds to the smoke. Electrical burning pollutes less. Do we insist on the latter? Nah, tradition is more important, gagging be damned.

Burning in the fields in another, major, problem. But not the only one.

We’ll soon have packaged air. Some years ago we thought bottled water was not possible. More packaging, more plastic in the gutters, more burning of garbage, more fumes, more gagging. Some guru will invent and broadcast the gag-pranayama on tv. And we’ll have families/schools doing this together: “on-the-gag, get-set, breathe”.

The media says: “The government must do something.” We have our rights, the government has the responsibility.

To me the biggest gag moment of all is hearing a fellow countryman do ‘khaak thoo’.

India has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has a problem with disposal of spit. Any ideas how we can deal with it? Want to start a Gaggers’ Group?

 

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Addictions.

Bai Goanna bought herself a weighing machine, which she calls ‘the scale’. She now weighs herself every time she goes from kitchen to bedroom, front door to bathroom, verandah to cupboard. No matter where she has to go, she takes a detour via the machine. This happens several times a day. She lovingly dusts it, adjusts the calibration, weighs herself again and sighs every time. No idea whether the sighs are triggered by loss/gain. No idea also whether the grams can thus change from hour to hour through the day. I tease her about any ‘gram-matical’ changes. At night when she wakes up… immediately remembers ‘the scale’ and finds her way to it.

“It’s an addiction,” Shri Husband snorted. I kept quiet. He says I’m addicted to books and to my writing. Maybe. Wikipedia says, ‘Addiction is a medical condition characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences’. On analysis, I am compulsively engaged to reading whatever I can lay my fingers on, including shampoo-bottle labels, despite consequences like the daal on the stove burning. As always, Shri Husband’s not wrong.

Poking his head over my keyboard, he read what I’d typed and remarked: “Say I’m right, don’t say it in a convoluted way.” That’s his addiction, to comment on everything I say/do.

Going by the definition, medical or not, addictions are common. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have one.

I know people who are addicted to finding out about what’s healthy and what’s not. It affects their lives. They stay away from white foods like sugar, maida, even milk. If they’ve read about oats/cornflakes providing required nutrients, they consume tons of those, cooked or raw. At other times, they switch to unpolished fov/nachni-satva. If probiotic and fruit yoghurt sounds better than dahi, that becomes the food of the season. If the latest hysteria says liquidise and drink papaya leaves to cure dengue or some other dreaded disease, that replaces their usual quota of freshly extracted karela/wheat-grass juice. What, I asked a friend who was on a satvik diet, would eating only fruits, sprouts and gourds minus onions, garlic and root vegetables achieve? S/he replied, “Keeps one heathy.”

“What exactly does ‘being healthy’ mean?” I asked aloud, no one in particular.

“Not being ill,” said Bai Goanna.

“Having peace of mind,” added Shri Husband. “And no addictions.”

Never mind gambling and consumption of liquor/ tobacco/ drugs, there are people I know who are addicted to shopping. Come bonus, come salary, come cash received as gift, and off they trot to buy something they just don’t need. Life is short, they say, why not enjoy it whilst one can? Mid-spectrum are friends addicted to hoarding: money in bank, buy-two-get-one-free items stored in their cupboards, neatly folded plastic bags in drawers, pairs of shoes under the sofa, pens and more pens in stands on shelves and so on. And at the other end of the spectrum are those addicted to not spending at all. Make do is their motto. If addiction has negative connotations, then this kind of miserliness could be considered a positive trait, more so in the days of dropping interest rates.

“There’s a difference between habit and addiction,” Shri Husband said.

“‘Habit’ is old-fashioned,” I informed him. “It’s like, these days, haircuts are amazing and everyone says everyone else is looking so-o lovely and fantastic even when they’re dull, stupid, boring and ugly. You don’t say ‘I love’ potato-chips, you say ‘I’m addicted to’ them. You don’t say you’re fond of your new phone, you say you’re addicted to it.” I further explained. “Addiction is the new interest.”

There are people addicted to visiting doctors at the slightest discomfort, real or imagined, and those who will land up in an ICU when all the nature-cures, and alternative medical therapies have failed.

There are spiritual/ity addicts, whose rapidly increasing numbers are such a boon for entrepreneurs and rogues alike. Wear a robe and an impassive expression on your face, stick on a beatific smile, rephrase what the old texts say and voila, you’re in business. Name, fame, money, politics… in the service of religion, addiction works for both the giver (person in robe) and taker (lay bakras looking for the ‘peace and happiness’ that has eluded mankind since religion was born). The wisdom/philosophy distilled through the ages doesn’t have a role to play in religion, not any longer.

I’m addicted to stretching exercises. Call them yogic asanas or physiotherapy prescriptions, a couple of doses gives me my high for the day. And I’m addicted to the internet, that OMG-what’s-happening curse of the young, say the parents/teachers of this era. To them I say, it’s not the technology that’s evil, it’s the sites you choose. From the internet, I got these quotes that indicate the seriousness of addiction to mind/physiology altering substances.

“The mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction and unless they have structured help, they have no hope.” Russel Bland.

“The unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are so much easier to give up than bad ones.” Somerset Maugham.

“At first, addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of this pleasure gradually diminishes and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.” Frank Tallis.

The one I found scary. Took me some minutes to understand it: “I admire addicts. In a world where everybody is waiting for some blind, random disaster, or some sudden disease, the addict has the comfort of knowing what will most likely wait for him down the road. He’s taken some control over his ultimate fate, and his addiction keeps the cause of death from being a total surprise.” Chuck Palahniuk.

What really happens: “Addiction doesn’t kill the addict. It kills the family, kids and people who tried to help!” Anonymous.

My chief addiction is writing. It doesn’t kill, maim or make me ill. I will not call it an addiction henceforth… diversion/pastime sounds better. Using the correct word makes a difference.

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Happy Diwali

In my jungle surroundings, Diwali means butterflies and birds. Under the post-monsoon October sun, plants have begun to display buds and blooms. We don’t see many of the latter survive the day. Reason: those butterflies and birds from the first sentence destroy them. Hairy baby butterflies (cute but prickly caterpillars actually) are crazily hungry all the time. Some hundreds of them get born on a single twig and spend all their waking hours chewing up every leaf in sight. I don’t know if they ever sleep. Bald or balding trees, a farmer/ 5-star hotel gardener’s nightmare, is a lepidopterist/ entomologist’s delight. Worms of all kinds are crawling everywhere. Birds, squirrels, civet cats and other sly creatures bite into every fruit they come across, rendering them non-eatable for us humans who have slogged through the year for them to grow. One member of the GoaGardeners group was wondering how to prevent porcupines from destroying her plants. Someone should tell our government that it isn’t just the wild boars, peacocks, nilgai and monkeys that are wreaking havoc with crops: we need to kill many other creatures, too, including prowling two-legged thieves. (That the big and real rogues sit in a/c’d offices and move around in red-light-topped white cars far removed from the poverty our petty robbers live in, is another story.)  All’s fair in harvest and war. A friend described a crocodile snacking on a live bat, said it sounded like someone eating potato crisps. Nature is equally unfair to every living thing.

In the fast-growing slum outside my gate, a Narkasur effigy is being built. (Just asking, are there legal slums anywhere in India?) Built by those who live in the rooms raised on Communidade land. No one razes what’s raised unless the Court says so… and even then, there’s always an appeal to depend on– a Panch gave me this gyaan once. Before the Narkasur came, there was a pandal erected for Ma’am Devi; before her Mr Ganapati had festivities devoted to him. After Tulsi-lagna, the Christmas decorations will be up. Civilization has come to our jungle, jingling all the way.

The paddy-crop has been cut. One tractor, one day. Hard, laborious field work avoided and over. Viva technology.

Neighbourhood homes have been painted. Gates and compound walls have got spruced up. Strings of imported fairy-lights adorn coconut-tree trunks and mango/guava branches.

Kitchens are still smelling of snacks being fried and sugar bubbling into syrup. Packets of over-the-counter bought mithai have been discarded over walls into uninhabited plots. The camouflage of creepers has thinned after the rains and the rubbish is tossed around by the breeze. Around Diwali, the breeze picks up, though it isn’t as strong as around Sankranth, and the litter gets evenly distributed in our wado, not discriminating between rich/poor, caste/community, Goan/bhailey. Nature moves in non-discriminating ways.

Clay diyas with oil-dipped wicks add to the annual grease marks on floors and window-sills. ‘Rexine’ footwear, plastic buckets, cars and mobile-phones have changed many of our traditions (think Chinese food and chaat at weddings). Other customs get modified, like the preferred material for the akash-kandil is now plastic. Cheaper, easy to fold and store, reusable. Any housewife will tell you its benefits.

A friend who is concerned about what’s happening in the world, the country, the mines in the state, the beaches in Goa says the killings in Uri/Quetta/Mao areas should make us feel guilty about lighting lamps, buying new things and enjoying ourselves. Quote: “So many families have been plunged into permanent darkness; this is no time for celebration.” Actually, every year, there’s some reason for gloom—if not earthquake, then flood or drought, if not train accidents, then actors running over pavement-dwellers; if not female foeticide, then paedophiles/murderers getting acquitted; if not dengue, then drug-resistant tb. What to do, celebrate Diwali or not, I want to ask. But I don’t, for life is confusing as it is, for the sensitive.

The jungle, unpunctuated by Diwali/Holi, has its own seasonal mazaa. Through the confident branches of teak, the coconut fronds have struggled to make their way skywards. The mango-guava-chickoo threesome is in-between fruiting, the roots enjoying the moist comfort of the homemade saaro-compost that surrounds them. Kingfishers, orioles, bee-eaters, mynas, coppersmiths, koels, tits, sunbirds, baya-weavers and other small birds dart around through the leaves. We can barely get a quick glimpse their gaudy colours. They move fast, they are small, they are lively. Dashes of crimson, emerald, sapphire, sunflower yellow, shiny purple, that’s the only indication of a bird in flight. One morning, I saw a hornbill. Then another. And one more, all in the span of a few minutes. Priceless. The pulsating glow of the fireflies at night is superior to any crackers/sparklers/wheelies money can buy. At night, too, the jungle silence is eerie, its darkness scary, and the life in it utterly fascinating.

The one thing Nature can’t provide is cooked food. Like biryani. Snacks and recipes devised and perfected over the centuries. Man-made chaklyo, phenoryo, neuryo, phene, khaje, phov, narlya-vadyo, even the delicious mutton-puri and fried fish which was/is traditionally made in some communities is what, to my mind, really makes a great Diwali. No substitute for good health and great food.

Same with music. You may like the sounds of the insects, the song of the birds, the moos and grunts of the mammals, the rhythmic swoosh of the sea. But the taans of a raag, intricate and tuneful, the build-up of an alaap, the cheerful, rapid-fire notes of a taraanaa are man-made. Along with people whose company you enjoy, that makes the good life. Diwali is a label given to times like these, all man-made.

Festivals can be fun for some, forced fun for others and no fun at all for the grieving and the ill.

I send my wishes to …our jawans, whether at the border, undergoing training or languishing with dreadful injuries… municipal workers, cops, medical teams in government hospitals, kisans, firemen, teachers, postmen, bankers, readers… Happy Diwali all.

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Covering the Head.

I was sitting in a corner, involuntarily hiccupping, all by myself.

Suddenly, Shri Husband barked: “Qui-et!” He believes that if you startle a person, hiccups stop. My statistical personal records kept over the years prove they don’t.

I tried really hard to shut up, to control myself, but Nature always wins. I was helpless. Shri Husband was helpless… and fuming at the periodical squeaks escaping my throat.

To get rid of the mutual helplessness, we decided to go outside to watch birds. Clouds-and-Rain 2016 were already a memory and the flying and crawling insects were exposed, to be eaten by the winged predators.

I wore a cap. Big mistake. If my getting hiccups is bad for Shri Husband’s nerves, my wearing any sort of headgear messes with his entire irritation system.

At the first hiccup post exiting door, the cap fell down. There’s something wrong with my head. No cap sits on it firmly. On came the scowl on you-know-who’s face. So I quickly returned indoors and discarded the cap for a thin muslin dupatta.  Bigger mistake. The dupatta got entangled in the door handle. After I undid it, it got stuck in the spoke of an umbrella that came in my way. That was the umbrella I’d forgotten to put away in spite of being told several times. Panic set in, and the hiccups got louder and more frequent. The scowl got bigger.

We abandoned the bird-watching trip and sat down to discuss the role headgear has played in my life. It took our minds off The Goan Murders of the Week and BRICS.

Born and raised on the west coast, I hadn’t seen heads being covered except in Hindi films (surreptitiously seen on DD in friends’ homes as they were a big no-no in my home); and diagrams of Indians from other states in Social Science textbooks. My grandparents, parents, family-doctor’s clan, neighbours, classmates, siblings all exposed their skulls to the sky/ceiling.

So the first time I went to a temple in north India, I had a problem. My padar wouldn’t stay on my head and covering it was compulsory. An acquaintance kindly lent me some clips and pins and I got by. Later I was taught to tie knots at the four corners of a handkerchief to make it into a temporary cap that didn’t fall off. No one else had a problem, mine (hanky-cap, not problem) kept slipping off my head. Told you already, something’s wrong with my head.

On subsequent visits to other holy places and homes where elders were present, when I had to cover my head, I felt like I was a part of a Pakeezah set, like Madhubala, very coy, very royal. Why covering of heads (especially for women) in the presence of elders is considered respectful I don’t know, but I follow the When in Rome rule.

Apparently, in 1 Corinthians 11:11 it was/is written: …women “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” so even today, in some cultures, many Christian women still wear head/hair coverings to show their devotion to their husbands and as a symbol of modesty. Amongst conservative elderly Parsis, both genders cover their heads. It’s ok with these folk to show the face. In the Middle-East, men wear the keffiyeh; in years gone by it may have been to keep out heat and sand, today it keeps the ears warm from over-cool central air-conditioning, and the designs/colours let you know who’s boss, who’s not. Fashion statement and social distinction more than sanitary requirements is what governs headgear these days. Why religions give it a stamp of approval, I don’t know either. Muslim women have a range of names for head-covers: burqa, chador, niqab and the Arabic hijab. At Dubai airport, I saw women-clerks wearing a V-shaped thing on their noses. Looked like a clip-on, but obviously wasn’t. It was attached to the head-scarf in some way. These accessories make me curious and I stare. If men did the same, they’d get into trouble.

Until the Renaissance, some form of cover for the hair was regarded as appropriate for married women in most European cultures. Remember the ‘matron’s cap’? Unmarried women could display their hair to attract suitors. The social elite, especially royalty, generally did not feel bound by these customs, unless they were widows.

Inside an RC church, until the 1960s, required all women to wear at least a veil (or a silk/lace mantilla) over their hair. Today, that happens only if a woman is formally meeting the Pope. Men can go bareheaded. Discrimination! Not fair, I thought, but said nothing. The hiccups were still on.

“Wimple, hennin, circlet, kerchief, gable-hood, mob-caps, bonnets… so different they are from the ghungtaa, no?” I said to Shri Husband.

He replied: “The ghungtaa is more than a head-cover, it’s a concept.” I chose to ignore anything that might lead to a side-argument. The hiccups hadn’t stopped.

I read from Google: “Jew women wear tichels or snoods.” I uttered small sentences, between hiccups. “Wigs are also headgear, no?”

Shri Husband: “Yes.”

Me: “Berets, hats and golf-caps have been in-style for many years if you’re part of a certain social strata.” Now he was distracted and the mood was getting less edgy.

“Our topis and turbans are so elegant,” I said. “Pity they’re worn only at weddings.”

“What’s in fashion is women covering everything above their necks with dupattas wound around their heads,” Shri Husband suddenly remarked, going at a tangent.

“Protects their skin from sun, wind and polluting fumes,” I said.

“How about helmets to protect their brains from accidental injuries? How come they’re not in fashion?”

“Some of them carry…”

I couldn’t complete my sentence. Shri Husband had got into the lecture-baazi mode. “Are helmets to be carried in a dicky or lap or kept near the feet? Or buckled around the wrist or to the handle of the scooter?”

I was going to answer… when I realized, my hiccups had stopped.

Shri Husband? Still scowling.

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Cops and Jams.

“Too bad,” Bai Goanna said as we were driving towards Panaji, “The jams we have these days.”

Shri Husband, who always takes things literally and has the imagination/diplomacy of an ant when it comes to dealing with Bai Goanna said: “What’s bad about strawberry/mixed fruit? Red in colour, sweet to taste, packed neatly, loved by young and old, been there for years. What about it is too bad?”

Bai Goanna rolled her eyes and rephrased what she’d said: “Really bad, the traffic jams we have these days, especially between Porvorim and Panaji.”

Shri Husband’s twisted logic: “Would you be happier if they existed between Vasco and Margao or Pednem and Mapusa? Just asking.”

“No,” Bai Goanna responded as gently as she could. “I don’t like traffic jams. Anywhere, anytime. Right here, there’s no space at all, between cars, in between lanes. See those ambulances? Must be transporting very ill patients, no? No one’s moving to the side to give them place to go.”

“Where can any vehicle move?” Shri Husband uttered the truth. Then he said: “Both patients and vehicles are wailing in despair. Sad.”

Bai Goanna took over: “Look at those taxies. They’re in such a hurry… maybe to make sure their passengers don’t miss flights or trains. And those women on the scooters, must be mothers racing to fetch their children from school. People must be heading for exams/interviews, worried about reaching on time.”

“And,” Shri Husband interrupting her, looking at someone in the rear-view mirror, “people who can’t bear the thought that they’ll have to miss the first few minutes of a movie. They honk so much.”

“Everybody honks,” Bai Goanna said, “out of frustration and irritation.”

“Does it, will that make this traffic move?” Shri Husband can’t bear to hear anyone speak more than two sentences max, before he barges into any dialogue. “Look at those chaps coming from the back. They’re trying to overtake, adding to this chaos. They’re blocking the on-coming traffic as well, converting snarls to stand-stills.”

Often, he’s says something that makes sense and Bai Goanna and I have to keep quiet. But Bai Goanna was in a spirited mood. She said: “It’s the fault of the cops, you know.”

“I don’t see how,” said Shri Husband. “Tell me how it’s the fault of the cops.”

“They don’t know how to handle traffic,” she said with an air of ‘I’m-going-to-win-this-round’, adding: “They’re not tough enough to handle so much traffic.”

There was a drop in the conversation, something that happens periodically in any conversation. Amongst the three of us, conversations ascend from debates to arguments in very little time; the latter sound like quarrels in mere moments. Full blown fights never happen, have never happened. Regarding the future, our motto is que sera, sera. But the amount of noise we made inside our car and the gesturing we did whilst talking, worried the neighbours. Car-neighbours in that traffic jam, I mean. We had plenty of audience around, though with all the windows up, bless the a-cs, only expert lip-readers would have known what we were ‘discussing’. However, as I said, there was a lull in the conversation.

At such times, Shri Husband seizes the opportunity to talk… not that he needs to be given a chance or encouragement.

“We need fewer cars on the road, not wider roads,” he said.

“Haan?” said Bai Goanna, her eyebrows hitting the top of her forehead in surprise. “How so?”

“We need more parking space, we need to enter crowded towns. Bypasses have their advantages, but …we need less vehicles on the roads.” The firm tone was scary.

Bai Goanna doesn’t get scared easily. “So-o, will you walk everywhere you go?”

“We need to car-pool. We need buses, public or private, comfortable and reliable. See all these people stuck in their cars, one or two persons per car. If they had an option of travelling in a clean, maybe air-conditioned bus, they might take it; it’s much cheaper than taking one’s own car and one doesn’t have to do the first-gear-second-gear exercise, one can read/browse on the move.”

“Who’s going to walk to the bus-stop?” Bai Goanna pointed out.

“You have to walk to a bus-stop or have someone drop you there by car/scooter. Villages could have satellite/shuttle services at fixed/convenient times for short trips from waddo till main road.” The idealist Shri Husband versus the practical Bai Goanna. Sometimes they reverse roles, though, so it’s hard to predict at the beginning of a dialogue who will play which role for the day.

She: “I wouldn’t mind walking to the bus-stop, will exercise my limbs, give me a chance to breathe in the outdoors and meet my friends enroute. But…”

Always that qualifying ‘but’.

She continuing: “…I can’t stand the garbage heaps that I have to pass. Inside a car, all ugliness gets shut out.”

Shri Husband added: “Everyone thinks like you, so we get traffic jams.”

She: “It’s the fault of the cops. They can’t handle the traffic. They should have diverted the vehicles some other way and avoided this.”

He: “They may have considered it and had a reason that you don’t know anything about.”

She: “I’m a tax-payer. I expect all government servants to do their jobs well.”

He: “The government servants expect you to shoulder your responsibility, follow the rules of the road, obey traffic regulations…”

She: “Cops have to make sure no one breaks rules.”

Our in-car battle had warmed up.

He: “You can’t have one cop per car, like you can’t have a municipal worker for every person who litters/spits.”

That’s when we noticed the number-plates. Various scripts, different languages, fonts and sizes… some ‘arty’ ones we couldn’t read. If the cops were to challan them all, the traffic jam would have carried over to the next day.

We discovered the causes for the jam: a broken down vehicle and crowds of long-weekend visitors.

I’d sat through the dialogue without saying a word. I’m impressed with myself, I can stay quiet sometimes.

 

 

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The Fear of Exams

 

 

Bai Goanna checked with some book on English grammar called ‘Wren and Martin’ and let me know that a student took an examination and a teacher gave it. Always thought it was the other way around. I’m sometimes wrong.

To distract her, I said, “These days, the full word ‘examination’ is used only in government and other out-dated communications.”

Ignoring the distraction, she continued: “A doctor gives a patient an examination, a structural engineer gives a bridge an examination, an art-historian gives an antique statue an examination…” you get the idea, when Bai Goanna talks, she gives a full lecture.

This topic came up because she was assuring me that I wasn’t the only one who got nightmares about being in an exam-centre staring at a printed question paper, making no sense of anything in/on it.

She said her nightmares included running out of ink, not finding the pen/ruler/eraser, missing the bus and therefore reaching just as the papers were being collected and worst of all, getting a mathematics paper when she’d prepared for geography/English. Had to agree, her nightmares were worse than mine. Mine are restricted to not knowing the answers and fearing the red line on the report-card with an ‘F’ marked somewhere.

I know people who get stomach upsets, loss of appetite, sweaty palms, dizzy heads, a craving to eat forbidden snacks/sweets or a sudden/illogical wish to see Radhika Apte (or Fawhad) hours before exams are due to begin. A few, a really small percentage, feel like meeting their teachers/tutors/principals to seek blessings and stuff. Rare breed. Those kinds regularly do their homework on time through the year, have ‘difficulties’ two evenings before every unit test and ‘last-minute’ notes to revise. I shudder to even imagine what their nightmares are like. For theirs is the tension, the (they and their parents believe) power and the glory, forever and ever, amen. Poor things. At least one can wake up from a nightmare and heave a sigh of relief.

Before every paper I’ve ever taken, I’ve prayed to each god I had heard of, irrespective of religion. I’ve even prayed to ancestors of classmates to intervene on my behalf and make me magically know the answers to simple and trick questions. The mantra of students before exams, like the belief of visitors in ICUs and participants in Kaun Banega Karodpati, is: ignore no god however insignificant, offend none, please all. Who knew which one would/could benevolently provide easy questions/answers/marks? Before an exam, goes the rule, never take punga with Luck.

Charms work, they say: small lockets dangled from the neck, marbles in pencil-boxes, frayed ‘blessed’ threads tied to wrists, photos of Mary/Saraswati tucked into pockets, ash/dried flowers from places of worship put into pencil-boxes, etc.

In the tea-time of my life, I’ve got involved with exams again, this time from the other side of The Desk. Never had I imagined that I would be giving an exam. Never mind in what subject and which institution. I had to evaluate the very lot of students that I’d taught. Scary thought, that they might have taken everything I’d said seriously.

I had to sift between Very Good, Good, Fair, Satisfactory and Fail. I had to set questions, give marks, calculate grades, ranks. Made me nervous. My regard for my old physics/chemistry teachers (may their souls be resting in The Great School in the Sky), spiked when I reckoned how much time/effort they spent trying to appraise what we’d learnt in their classes.

Like me, they must have wondered, were my/their lesson plans clear? Methods effective?

As students, my friends’ and my days were spent in a haze of clever jokes. We didn’t have sms/whatsapp; we had our own means of triggering giggles. Technology changes, human nature doesn’t. Daydreams were fantastic escapes from the tedium of formulae and theories. I wondered how much of what I had slogged over had been retained by the students. If it was >5%, I’d give myself a party. As a teacher, I think differently.

I went through the syllabus prescribed as well as the syllabus I’d covered, delved through topics/chapters which I thought were important, to dig questions from. I rearranged words to make simple questions look complicated, to get the young minds a-creaking. Then I sat down to decide how many marks to allot to each question.

I said to Bai Goanna: “This exercise of setting a paper is an exam of sorts for me. I don’t know what to include and what to leave out.”

I’m not into CBTs (Closed Book Tests), but they’re essential. Everything can’t be copied/downloaded from the internet. Brains must be used sometimes. I threw in an essay. The topic: “Me, Five Years from Now”. Mean teachers give mean topics.

In my class, the vocal ones chorused: “Give us hints. Tell us, tell us, Miss, ‘what will come’.”

“No,” I said, my voice sounding unfamiliarly stern even to my own ears. “Everything is equally important.” Words imbibed in childhood stay in the memory, at the back of the mind, to be recalled in times like these.

As the day of the examination approached, I got the jitters. What if the class didn’t turn up? What if it did but I couldn’t find my sheaf? What if a large number of students submitted nearly-blank sheets? What if the paper was so easy that everyone scored a hundred per cent marks? What if my grading wasn’t fair? What if there was a re-exam for whatever reason? What if… the nightmares continued, the perspective had changed.

It’s ordained, in the field of education, that a taker of exams someday a giver shall become.

These days, male teachers are rare. In my schooldays, there was equal gender distribution. Our female teachers wore skirts, even short and smart ones, or saris. The salwar-kameez was a no-no.

“It’s the tension of giving an exam that has brought to your mind this irrelevant, unconnected, long forgotten ‘fact’,” Bai Goanna said. Maybe.

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Postmen and Courierwalas

I was expecting a speed-posted letter. What with Chovoth, the weekend and Eid following each other, I had a clue it wouldn’t reach me within the stipulated three days. (Once upon a time it was meant to be express-delivered within 24 hours within cities, but things change.)

 

A neighbour kindly enquired on my behalf at the one-chair sub-post-office in our village panchayat building whether it had arrived. Any such query becomes the property of the locality. Every Tome, Babush and Hari wanted to know more about it. Who sent it, from where, when, why do you get letters at all, and more.

 

Multiple queries later, Dear Neighbour fetched it for me and told me that the postman had no intention of delivering it at home.

 

“I think,” declared Shri Husband, “There’s a disconnect between what our neighbour has understood and what the postman told him. The postman cannot not deliver.”

 

I don’t interrupt Shri Husband in his “I think” mood, but I guessed my benefactor believed the postman wouldn’t deliver it in the expected time. Besides thinking, we do a lot of guessing between the three of us, Shri Husband, Bai Goanna and I.

 

After our old postman died and his replacement got transferred out, we began to share this new youngster with folks in surrounding vaadaas, bhaats and colonies. The distances and condition of the roads made it inconvenient for him to walk/cycle so he made his rounds on a motorized two-wheeler. Still, ‘vaaz yeta’, the postman confessed to my neighbour, to deliver to all homes, specially those at the end of narrow lanes. The density of population where I stay, by postal and gas-cylinder delivery standards, is low. The gas-guys come in a gang, atop a truck, shouting in chorus, enjoying themselves somewhat. The postman comes alone, departs unsung, because he meets not his customer but the little pipe tied to the gate.

 

Once upon a time, the postman was a phantom who slipped envelopes, cards or letters under our door or in the box outside and turned up at the time of every festival for tips which we daren’t refuse for fear that some of our subsequent mail might mysteriously disappear.

 

In my short stay near Avantipur, Kashmir, immediately after the Paki PM Bhutto died (1979), we were camping just above the small hamlet which had the nearest post office – a ramshackle tin-hut.

 

The elderly, solitary postman there was, like the school master in Goldsmith’s poem, a respected man. He knew everyone’s name and address, could read Hindi, Urdu and English. He knew, the villagers thought, was all there was to know about the unfamiliar cities and towns beyond the scenic mountains that surrounded them. Those were innocent times.

 

A majority of the villagers were illiterate (unlike in Goa). The postman read and wrote all their letters, knew about their personal lives. Few could keep a secret from him. He therefore supposed that it was his right to know what I, a city-girl with temporary domicile, was reading. He’d politely hold his burning curiosity back till I’d finished my letter. Then he’d demand: “Whose?”

 

In the well-modulated tones that one saves for elders/superiors I’d tell him.

 

He could count in rupees, coins and stamps (!) he told me. His old khakhi uniform was never dirty or crumpled and worn with pride. His shoes had a millimeter of sole left, for wheels were useless on those steep slopes.

 

I used to perch myself on a rock, eagerly awaiting him.  Whenever he had letter for me, he’d hold it in his hand and wave to me before commencing the tiring climb to the tent. I offered to go down and collect my mail, but he brusquely waved that suggestion aside, saying that the slopes were nothing, that he was used to it, that it was his job, etc.

 

Our postmen and courier-walas need to be told these ‘inspirational’ stories.

 

He’d plant himself beside the flapping canvass, light a bidi and watch me as I ripped the envelope and rushed through its contents, silently scrutinizing the changing expressions on my face. He could not digest the fact that letters could be written without including the news of a marriage/death, birth or job or scandal. To entertain him and myself, imaginary cousins, grandparents and aunts have been married, killed and ruined respectively. That gave him an opportunity to rejoice with or comfort me.

 

On the day of our departure, I went down to the tin-hut that housed his office with the intention of handing him a well-deserved tip. His wrinkled face showed wounded pride.

 

“I was doing my job. The sarkar pays me for it,” he said. Rare chap.

 

Our postman here/today is a busier man. His load is heavier—magazines, annual reports of companies weigh more these days, their thicker, glossier paper wrapped in garbage-increasing plastic. More people to deliver to and no-one invites him for a chat or offers him the respect his predecessors got. With the advent of the internet, many have forgotten that he exists.

 

The courier-wala, who connects with customers via cellular-phone, is better known.

 

The postman has to come home whether or not he wants/likes to because the Government that we love to hate makes sure duty is done. No matter which Party rules, the Postal Service works. Mostly well.

 

The courier-wala, on the other hand, takes a different route. Metaphorically. My parcels get accepted at distant places with the promise of point-to-point delivery. When they arrive in Goa, the courier-company’s office discovers that the address is located in a rural area. That the location is a few metres from the edge of town doesn’t matter. That it’s a crowded, well-connected locality also doesn’t matter. It’s rural, therefore out of bounds.

 

A phone-call tells me I have to collect it from the office. Point-to-point shown on a globe (in the advertisement) with a graphic arrow covering the page/screen isn’t the whole truth.

 

Even in 2016 viva postman, I say.

 

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