“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Photograph and a Face

For the last two months, work had been hectic in the Bank. We have been giving loans to women’s Self Help Groups. Women of a locality form a group and sums of 2.00 lakhs and above are advanced to the group. They will in turn disburse the amount among the not-above-20 members of the groups for cottage industries like pickle-making, pappad-making, sewing or such other activities that the unemployed housewives and women can do at home. There is a liberal subsidy; the balance amount is supposed to be collected and repaid monthly by the group. Cynical that we are, we do not expect most of the accounts to be regular in repayment. Quite likely they will default and the Bank will eventually write off the dues. As Kalmadis and Pawars and Rajas fleece the country of thousands of crores of rupees, we shrug and say, well, let the poorer sections of the society too get their tidbits.

Every day no less than 50-60 women throng the banking hall. Savings accounts have to be opened first in the name of the SHGs; many of the ‘Presidents’ and ‘Secretaries’ are illiterate or semi-literate. Many of them don’t even know their dates of birth. We scan the Ration Cards and flippantly give one – 01.01.1965, 01.8.1975 etc. The women come with their bawling babies, kids with running noses, grandmas who sign III, young girls in their best attire. Women who have chaffed fingers with dark dirt beneath their fingernails (I notice the fingers because they sign the documents sitting before me), many wearing cheap gold-plated fake jewelry, garish saris. Women who have aged too fast. I look at their identity papers with photographs taken when they were young. Is it a misconception that I have that all women are pretty when young?

Young women with beautiful yet sun-burnt, darkened faces and bearing the brunt of hard work. Middle aged women with sagging breasts and roughened, wrinkled skin. Young girls with upturned breasts demanding to be noticed. Muslim ladies with head scarves and prim faces as Presidents and Secretaries of groups strangely named as Sivasakthi or Devi sarnam or Kailasam.

I was polite and courteous in the initial days, but as the crowd continued to flow in unabated I eventually got tired talking to them and correcting the innumerable mistakes. The main problem was that I couldn’t attend to our regular customers. Many a time they had to be kept waiting or asked to come at a later date because of the SHG crowd. I began to be irritated at the slightest error made by the women. I would curtly tell them to get the documents corrected and properly filled up. It was exhausting me.

Yesterday was the same. The women come, sit in front of my table. I could see they are awed and ill at ease. I hardly look at them; flipping through the forms I mark the errors and omissions, make them sign at the proper places and pass it on to the counter staff. Then a woman came and sat before me. I fired off the usual questions, flipped through the documents and then suddenly I am struck dumb by her photograph. She was not exceptionally beautiful but the way she looked at the camera and the brilliance of her smile lit up the photograph. Red saffron was sprinkled too liberally on her forehead. There was laughter in her eyes; the way she cocked her head sideways and the sparkle of her smile reflected her happiness. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the photo; suddenly I became conscious of her sitting before me and glanced up at her face.

I looked at her again. It couldn’t be the same person. She looked like a pale ghost of the one in the photograph. She wore no ornaments, no bindi. There was no laughter in her pale eyes and down turned lips. Life, I could see, had not been kind to her. There was a dazed, resigned expression in her eyes; they were dead.

Suddenly I felt my irritation draining away. I felt contrite for being curt to the point of rudeness to some of these women. Who am I, a petty bank official, acting like a stuffy bureaucrat? How many times had I stood before the likes of me, in the same humble, apologetic manner that these women do, before me? I even wrote a poem on bureaucrats.

True, many of these women are here for a swindle. Over the last more than 30 years in the Bank, I have seen it all. ‘Government loans’ need not be repaid, they would be advised by the local politician or councilor. Inside most of us lurks a Suresh Kalmadi or Karunanidhi or Raja. Many of us are not one because we didn’t get the opportunity or because we aren’t ‘smart’ enough to be one; a few of us may be the genuine nickel. Yet, one has to remember that for every Suresh Kalmadi, there are thousands of genuinely needy people out there. Thousands, nay millions, who have been cheated out of a decent existence. For every Raja and his wife, there are thousands of families who struggle to eke out a living. For every Tharoor and a fraudulent, flirtatious whoever-his-wife-is, there are millions who cannot not dream beyond a three-meal day. One has to serve those millions.
*********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 27.04.2011


Monday, April 25, 2011

A Bride for Sancho


Yesterday K and I went bride-hunting for Sancho. Now that he is 2-plus, and mooning after the bitches on the street, we thought we should find him a girl. Sancho is the third-generation dog in this house; his dad and his grandma were born here. Never been keen on a breed dog, we thought we will go to the PFA ( People for Animals) shelter in the outskirts of the city.

There were about 70-80 dogs there; all rescued from the streets. Each dog has a tale of sorrow, a tale of human cruelty behind it. The white Labrador Retriever was a breeder's dog; when she became too old the breeder threw it to the streets. She is such a jovial girl who could have made a home bright with its happiness. The two-year old Rottweiler with 3 and a half leg was found limping near the military cantonment with its right hindleg full of maggots. She is so affectionate and playful. The caretaker said that all the little puppies sleep with her in the night. The stories are too many.

The mangy non-descript dogs were so playful and friendly. The lady who cooks for them said that these street dogs loved more than the regular domesticated ones because they know they have been rescued and cared for there. There were less than a month old female puppies. Old big dogs who were thrown out of the houses – just because they were too old and sickly.

Here are some photos

 Breeder's Lab Retreiver, Ammachi
 A possible candidate?
 K, Ammachi and the three-legged old man
 Aged, but dignified still

'Aishwarya Rai' ( I was captivated by her 'kohl-ed'  eyes)

We couldn't decide on a girl. I wanted a mature dog, but K said it is better to have a puppy who could be trained in our ways. We had some bitter experience sometime ago when we adopted a bitch which was left behind because the owners left for abroad.

As we were wandering around we saw a very old dog with three legs. His fur was almost fully gone. He came hopping towards us – then turned to K. It went towards K and looked up at him. K was trying hard to maintain an expressionless face as he caressed the old dog which even most dog-lovers would hesitate to touch. There seemed to be something connecting them, this old dog and my young son. There was such love and gentleness in the dog's face that I, with such a long association with dogs starting from my birth haven't seen.

As we were about to leave, I saw a dog lying still in its cage. I called the caretaker and he was shocked; he said it was alive half-an-hour ago. That dog he said was found bleeding and with broken bones, beaten to near-death by people who thought it was rabid, which it wasn't. The consulting vets had done all they could; the dog died probably because of internal injuries.

My dear friends, in this country of ours where we listen everyday to stories of criminal amassing of wealth, where many of us live in comparative comfort, please spare a thought for these dumb creatures. Spare a moment, spare a little money for the poor creatures, which knows only to love you. Wherever you are, support those organisations and individuals who are trying to help them. Even if you cannot adopt a dog, at least help to take care of the homeless. Teach your children to love and care for animals and other forms of life. It is only by loving and respecting other forms of life that share this planet with us, can we ever learn to love and respect ourselves.
******* Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 25.04.2011


I am into cycling these days. Oh, I could write volumes about the newly discovered pleasures of bicycling, but I restrain myself and would write only about today morning.

I went to sleep by 2200 hrs yesterday so that I can get up early today. At 0600, I am off on the bicycle, pedalling leisurely through the streets of the city that is slowly waking up. I guide the bicycle through quiet lanes, past houses still in slumber. I ride by the side of the canal through which long ago boats had plied. I glance around for the remnants of any old buildings from those days, but they seem to have been pulled down and replaced by modern buildings. I look lovingly at the old, decript palaces breathing their last. I am aware of my easy breathing, the pain on my knees and the discomfort at my buttocks, but I am so content and peaceful.

At home by 0700 hrs, I open my little netbook. Bashir has sent me a link, www.hindigeetmala.com. Bashir and I share a passion for old Hindi movie songs. 'Poochcho na kaise' by Manna Dey is among our favourites. I listen to Manna Dey. I listen to Mukesh singing, 'Dil Jalta hai, to jalne do', 'Aansoo bhari hai', 'Bhooli Huyi yaadon', Suresh Wadkar singing ' Seene me Jalan'.

An indescribable sense of peace and happiness envelopes me. I can understand the meaning of the Hindi lyrics only partly. I would like to, fully, but that doesn't bother me.

Talat Mahmood is singing 'Phir wohi Shaam' as I write this. Tears of gratitude well up in my eyes. I am so humbled by the fact that life has been so kind to me by gifting this ability to appreciate beauty, to be sensitive to good, simple joys that come my way. Life, I bow to thee!

********* Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 24.04.2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Monkeys in the Air

Somewhere among the treetops, a rustle.

Branches sway as if a little whirlwind hit.

Against the backlight of the sky, dark shadows

Jump; I look around, hold the bananas close to me.

******* Balachandran V, Trivandrum 16.04.2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011


My mother’s mother was G Kalyani Amma. Born in 1889 (the same year as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru), Ammoomma ( Malayalam for grandmother) was a doctor; one of the earliest lady doctors in government service. Here is her certificate, a family treasure.

She passed away in 1973, at 84. I understand she was a good doctor, one of those we call – ‘kaipunyam-olla doktar’, which means she had the healing touch. She must have retired from service in the ‘40s. But instead of taking up private practice, she retired to a little house and acres of paddy fields at Mavelikkara where she was practicing at the time of retirement.

One of the clearest images of my grandma in my mind is that of her squatting down on the front yard where the paddy seeds left after thrashing and storing in the ‘Pathayam’ ( large wooden granary) would be lying scattered. She would slowly and diligently pick each seed and drop it into a basket. The sadly amusing truth was that all the while baskets-full of paddy would be being filched from the Pathayam by our own ‘Karyasthan’ ( major domo) and taken to his house! A classical ‘penny wise pound foolish’ thing!

She was the Palace Doctor for a while in Trivandrum. When she was working at the Govt Women & Children’s Hospital, she built a house, a big two-storeyed villa near the Sankhu-mughom beach. Sanghu-mukhom (Conch face) is THE beach of Trivandrum City. I remember it as one of the prettiest, cleanest beaches I have ever seen. Times have changed, though. The house was one of the biggest houses in that area. She gave it to my mother’s younger sister long ago; she sold it off – again, long ago! I remember my mom saying that they had an Austin car in which the lady doctor rode to work. The house I stay was built in the Thirties, and the legend goes that the roofing planks were from the boxes in which medicines came! Mom said that Grandma built this house as a temporary one, close to her Hospital.

The way I remember her, Grandma had only one tooth left in her mouth. She was graceful; she had beautiful eyes and delicate hands. She always wore white Mundum Neryatum, the classical Malayali dress. I was about 16 when she passed away after a brief illness when she had a stroke and lay immobile in bed. As was the custom in those days, a professional Ramayanam reader would come every day, and chant out the verses of Ramayan. Grandma would lie open eye-d and when we went near her, her eyes would move in our direction and would fill up with tears. She couldn’t speak.

There wasn’t much love lost between us. She wasn’t the stereotype grandma who told stories and cuddled you. She had her favourites among the grandchildren and I don't think I was one. The fact is, I don’t have many memories of her, except that when I went to Mavelikkara, I used to pound her betel leaf and areca nut in a granite pounder. After giving it to her, I would scrape out the remains for myself.

In the liberation offered by a digital camera fixed on a tripod, I have begun to make digital copies of the family albums. Old black and white photos – dimmed, yet in startlingly good condition, colour photos since ‘80s, fraying and discoloured. Photos from 1901. My father ( 1919-1971) as a kid, as a handsome young man,

my mom a teenager,

and I. The baby Balan looks up, probably at its mother or sisters and laughs. A photographer (would he be alive now?) clicks – and there I am, one baby, among the trillions that were born and yet to be born.

Outside my window, I hear the wind fluttering the leaves of the old Rose Apple tree. There were two; now only one. Maybe I will have to sell off my old ancestral house in the heart of the city and move on to some woods, while P would prefer settling near her siblings in Cochin. I dislike cities, especially Cochin with its swarms of mosquitoes and pretensions of a Metro. P may not come with me to Attappadi or my dream cottage deep inside a cool forest where a little stream would lap by and birds would hop on the verandah and in the night I would listen to the queries of the Nightjar. From afar I would hear the honk of a Sambar deer and maybe a herd of Elephants would lumber by. In the daytime, I would swing in my hummock reading Hemingway as hoards of Langurs would scramble up the trees and chatter at me. I would slowly drift off to sleep, dreaming of the snows of Kilimanjaro as they dissolve into Himalayas and Tierra del Fuego. I wouldn’t stir when chilly winds start blowing from the mountains.

******* Balachandran V, Trivandrum10.04.2011

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good Days begin with Good Deeds

These days I am in the mood for my sporadic excercise regimes. Perhaps that began with my recent foray into 'manhandling' as many of my readers had unkindly commented on the incident. I understand their dislike of violence, but even the most laid-back, confrontation-avoiding type like me has to react when somebody humiliates me, taking me for an easy pick, because of my age and bulk.

There is a bicycle here which I had bought for K when he passed his 10th. A 6-speed bike, with a narrow, sporty seat that barely supports my rear. Typical of K, he rode it only very rarely; the excuse is that flat stretches of roads are hard to come by; and the heavy pollution of the internal combustion engines. So, in the garage, the poor bike rested to near rust, until I had this idea of using it instead of morning walks.

Today morning I got up at around 0500, filled up the water tanks and then went off for a ride and to buy milk. As I was labouring over an incline, I found this mobile phone lying right in the middle of the road. I got down, put it in my pocket and at home tried to find the owner. The instrument was a low-end Nokia model; the number of contacts were less than 20. I couldn't make out the owner, so I let it be. Half an hour later the owner called me. I told him how to come to my place and left him my mobile number.

Decades ago, I once helped a blind man cross the road at the busy University College area. I was unemployed, disgruntled and disillusioned with life at that time. I couldn't have cared if the entire world were blind. But when I saw this man standing beside me waiting to cross the road, I instinctively offered to help him cross it. Perhaps that was the first time I ever held the hand of a blind man. Once across the road, he thanked me politely and moved on. I – I distinctly remember that I floated home.

Today better be a good day. Well, things can always go wrong, but I am kinda optimistic – maybe a good deed every morning is the key to a good life!

“Woh Subha Kabhi to Aayegi…….” :-)

********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum 06.04.2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011


On the side of the porch of my house, a piece of discarded concrete pipe about 5 ft high is erected as a post on top of which we have kept a basin filled with water that I change every day. It is high summer. No sullen puddles lie in the street ditches; the drains that overflow in a matter of 10 minutes of shower are as ever filled with soil and filth caked to rock. On the roads you can see the street dogs lie panting in the shade – not of a tree because there aren’t many left, but beneath the parked motor vehicles. Crows – there aren’t many other species of birds in the city now – cock their heads in despair and thirst. Some in my locality know they can always get a cool sip at this old house in the heart of the city, where mango and jack and tamarind and rose apple and Asoka and coconut trees create an oasis in the middle of this concrete desert of a city called Trivandrum.

In the morning when I clean the basin and fill it up with water, the crows would hang around impatient and unafraid, rebuking me for being late. They would sit near the post, frowning at me, waiting for me to leave. As soon as I step away, they’d hop down to the rim of the basin, dip their beaks and lift their heads as if gargling. I wish they would go away and let a Kingfisher or Woodpecker or Sunbird or some colourful guys would come for a drink. I haven’t still lost hope.

During 1962-64, I lived in a place called Nemmara, in Palakkad district. Nemmara is famous for its Vela festival, which the aficionados say is greater than its glamorous cousin, the Trichur Pooram. Like in Trichur, the Nemmara Vela is a contest between the adjacent villages of Nemmara and Vallangi – they are actually part of the small Nemmara town, just a few sq kms in size, but come Vela, the villagers would turn into two clans and have a fierce but friendly of course, competition. As our house was in the Vallangi area, I proudly identified myself as a Vallangian; why, I studied at the Vallangi Upper Primary School – 2nd and 3rd standard! My best friend, Rajan, was a potter’s son; on the way home back from school, I would go to Rajan’s place which is a tiny hut with palm front thatched roof, in front of which Rajan’s father had a huge wheel that he rotated and magically brought out pots and water jugs(Matka). He even let me try to make one; I wasn’t very good at it.

The Nemmara- Vallangi Vela take place in the month of April/May. Those of you who know Palakkad would also know its summer. It burns; just burns. Our house was quite near to the Nellikulangara Amma Devi Temple which was the focus of the festival. Even in those days, thousands used to come to watch the caparisoned elephants and the Panchavadyam orchestra and the grand finale of fireworks. On the day and the previous day of the festival, we kept large brass vessels (each with a volume of nearly 300 liters) in front of our house. One would be filled with Sambhaaram (buttermilk) and the other with Sharkkara Paanakam ( Jaggery drink). Father and mother would supervise the mixing of the drinks and our maids and gardener would pour out large glasses of buttermilk or Sharkara Paanakam – take your pick. I would be running around, looking important (my father was the BIGGEST government officer in Nemmara) and I would have a string of friends following me. Needless to say, my friends could have any number of glasses of their preference.

It is more than 45 years ago; yet I still remember the people pausing before our house, drinking the cool liquid to their fill and wiping their sweaty faces and – what I remember so clearly is the relief and happiness and gratitude in their faces. Some would offer coins – and I would stylishly say – no, no, no money, its free!

Even after we left for Palakkad in mid-1965, we used to come en famille for the next couple of years and stay at our friend’s and give this offering of sweet, sweet water, the cold sweetness of the well-water and the tangy buttermilk laced with salt, curry leaves, ginger and crushed shallots. The Panakam would have crushed dried ginger and powdered pepper.

At home, all alone, I sip Godrej’s Litchi juice that comes in a tetra pac. Its April once again. I miss that little village called Vallangi. I miss my friends of 2nd standard – Rajan, Prabhakaran, Muralidharan, Appu, Chenthamarakshan and Shobhana. When we passed into 3rd standard, we pooled our money and bought a big Matka ( in Malayalam we call it Kooja) from Rajan’s father for Sarojini teacher who lived near the school.

They were with me for a such a short period of time, yet I remember them with such a longing. An inexplicable sorrow wells up in my heart and despair that I may never see them, I may never know such happiness again. I despair for the passage of time that flows on and on like the waters to the great oceans.

************Balachandran V, Trivandrum 03.04.2011