Archive for August, 2020

The noble king and his royal subjects

The extra large ‘Ela’, the plantain leaf, can scarcely accommodate even the first course of the colourful and aromatic Onam spread lined up in a sequence that is most sacrosanct. The jostling for space begin with serving of the ‘Upperi’, the famous banana chips, as it is placed on the left most tip of the leaf heralding the commencement of the “Sadhya”, the festival feast.  What then follows is an avalanche of delicacies –  hot, sweet, sour, and pungent; each placed along the outer edges forming a grand multi-layered semi-circle. The inner periphery is occupied by a slew of pickles – of lemon, mango and ginger; bananas and of course the Pappadams, that rounded crispy savoury which is to be crushed with every mouthful that is gulped in. The centre part of the leaf is reserved for the “Matta”, the red rice, which when poured with an overdose of “Sambar’ forms a delicate mix of celestial flavour to be relished separately with the each of the dishes marshalled on the leaf. When eaten with the ‘Eliserri’, you are introduced to the light sweet tone of the pumpkin and the grated coconut lavished on it gives a crunchy experience as does the “ Puliserri’ that follows the course. The ‘Puliserri’,as the names suggests, hints a sour taste of seasoned yogurt and with spices all over it, the experience of savouring this preparation is tongue-smacking. And to give a bolder sourish treat the thicker “Kalan” is the next in course that with its rich and abundant gravy does the job splendidly well. With vegetables of all conceivable variety, a lump of “Avial” is indeed a concoction of different textures while the lighter “Olan” is distinct with its singular flavour of coconut milk. The saucy “Pachadi” and the spicy “Kichadi” are only to be attempted once you are done with the fried “Thoran” and the greasy “Kuttu Curry’ and the list of this gourmet’s delight just got started. And the grand finale of the royal banquet is the “ Adda Pradaman” a supremely sweet serving of milk with rice flakes that stays in the mouth to cud much after the dish is drained down. Such is the grandeur of this once a year feast that to forgo it is an injustice to the taste buds. 

Just as colourful as the Onam Sadhya is the floral decoration that is laid out in every courtyard called the “ Pookalam”.  In hues of green, lavander, crimson and marigold, the floral display lends expression to a thousand artistic ideas and carpet the entire countryside with a visual treat, the most magnificent. The beauty of the “ Pookalam” is only matched by the charm and elegance of the giggling young girls who come together to put up the floral designs and the revelry and merriment around them through music and dance enhance the joy of the occasion. Onam celebration is thus, at once about cultural extravaganza as it is of food and feasting. 

Historically, Onam is the occasion when the natives of Kerala welcome the annual visit of the mythological king, Mahabali, who once ruled the land. In his kingdom, prosperity was in abundance and righteousness a way of life with falsehood and deception alien to the people. He was just and a benevolent emperor and treated his subjects as equals and people, in turn, revered and respected him. The reign of Mahabali affords us with a glimpse of the existence of an egalitarian society, aeons before the concept was even understood, much less practiced in the western world and therein lies the significance of Onam, a reminder of the modern concepts of equality and social justice. 

But in a monarchial set up, the absolute power rests with the emperor and however magnanimous he may be, the people are always only subjects, incapable of deciding for themselves and thus need constant care and nurturing from the ruled. The ruler is a loving and tendering guardian and care and security is always the benevolence of the king and never a right of the people. It is this idea of governance that is in variance with the modern concept of citizenship which guarantees equality and justice as irrevocable fundamental rights. The power of the state flows from the will of the people and the state exists to further their welfare thus placing the citizen at the centre of the scheme of governance. It is this transition from the idea of subjects to the concept of citizenship that is still to be achieved and is a work in progress! 

The Malayalis are all decked up to receive Mahabali and this time around, along with kasavu sarees and silk kurtas, many are also wearing designer masks! 

Wishing you all a Happy Onam!




August 30, 2020 at 12:19 pm 37 comments

Vidya drops out of school

The Rs. 8000/- her father brought home every month loading confectionery boxes on to the trucks was supplemented by another Rs. 6000 that her mother earned by cleaning the vessels and mopping the floors in the nearby middle class homes. The combined family income and the food her mother carried home from her workplace ensured that Vidya and her two elder brothers were sufficiently fed and reasonably housed and were also kept in the nearby school. The school they went to had classrooms with large cracks and little furniture and the blackboards did not sufficiently reflect the occasional scribbling of the indifferent teacher, done with the white chalk. Yet, it provided the three siblings a place to go to every morning, interact and play with other children from similar and lesser backgrounds and also allowed them to pick up rudimentary lessons in language and numeracy. The children shared their books and pencils, squatted on the same torn mats and dipped into each others lunch boxes that inadvertently taught them the all crucial social and life skills. They were happy to be in the company of their friends and then the pandemic set in.

The lockdown ensured that there is little demand for chocolates or the biscuits and thus no more boxes for Vidya’s father to cart on to the trucks. His income halved in the first month of the pandemic before it became nil in the second and subsequent ones. Her mother was disallowed entry to the homes she cleaned and thus was denied of her wages and more importantly, the daily food. With little resources to bank on, the family relied on the government for the rationed food grains and the occasional handouts from voluntary organisations, both meagre to stop  compromising on their daily intakes. With schools shut indefinitely and learning stopped completely, the children with their parents stayed at home for months on end, with uncertainty writ large on their faces. 

When the children from elite private schools have access to laptops and mobile phones and are taught online, the lockdown on education is total in the state government school that Vidya attended. There are no teachers available to contact, no books to look into and no Zoom or Google meet to transact learning. For Vidya, there are no lesson plans or learning outcomes, neither online activities nor offline assignments that are now a routine for an upper-class school girl and to expect any teaching support from the semi-literate father or the illiterate mother would be like hoping to quench the thirst from a painted waterfall. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, Vidya helps her mother in the kitchen to cook whatever little food the family can conjure up while her two brothers loiter in the squalid lanes of the slum they dwell.

While the impact of the pandemic on the economy are well publicised, the ravage that it has caused to the school education of the underprivileged is hardly discussed, much less flagged or documented. When millions of migrant workers were ejected out of their jobs, they left the cities with the families and children were hurriedly pulled out of the formal schools, both from the private and the government run. With no income even for bare subsistence, the eduction of the children is way below the priority list of these impoverished workers who have returned to their villages to escape abject poverty. And even if they desire to continue their ward’s education once the pandemic is over, there aren’t many schools in the hinterlands of the country worth the title and a huge number of certain dropouts from the education system seems inevitable. Whenever the workers decide to return to the city slums, many of the private schools that their children went to earlier would have already pulled down the shutters for want of children and the revenue to run them. While there are grandiose plans for the total overhaul of the education system and make the products coming out of it globally competitive by 2040, there isn’t yet a thinking on how to retain the millions of children who are on the verge of bidding adieu to formal learning. It’s now a double whammy for the India’s poor, an economically wreaking situation of the present and a very bleak future for their children!

Vidya’s parents are now contemplating of putting their two sons in a private school some distance away and for that they would need additional resources. As the lockdown is being lifted, Vidya is accompanying her mother to the homes she is working as maid. And with two additional hands, her mother has taken up two more homes for cleaning and mopping so that there is extra income in the family to pay the school fees of her two brothers. Vidya, all of fourteen, has said goodbye to her school!    



( 1USD= Rs.75 approx)


August 23, 2020 at 6:58 pm 20 comments

Kamala Harris and her Chennai connect

The celebrated Tamil poet Bharati described the modern women thus “With graceful strides and head held high and looking straight into the eyes with ideals that are not afraid of anyone in the world…  the woman does not falter as she has the possession of wisdom.” These aspirational hallmarks of the new-age women seeped so deeply into the Tamil psyche that it produced an unprecedented stream of emancipated and enlightened women in the capital city of Chennai since the hundred years the poet scripted the mesmerising lines. From music, art and theatre to medicine and politics, the female folks of the metropolis has made an indelible mark in diverse walks of life and their imprints are now seen across the county and abroad. And Kamala Harris is an offshoot of such a phenomenon.

The trigger to this enthusiastic transformation is the varied socio-cultural and political factors that played out during the early twentieth century in the then city of Madras that was later rechristened as Chennai. It was in Madras the Theosophical Society, that propounded an inclusive approach to spiritualism, took firm roots and soon became its international headquarters. Annie Besant, the society’s President for many years, was a women’s rights crusader and through her innumerable writings and lectures, extolled them to take up education in all earnestness. A firm advocate of universal suffrage, then a revolutionary idea, she could encourage many women to take active participation in politics and later, as the President of the Indian National Congress, enrolled many of them to the freedom movement. In Annie Besant, many young Tamil women found a role model worthy of emulation and one such was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a revolutionary in her own right and the first woman to be a member of a legislature anywhere in India. Also the first woman medical graduate in the country, she was again the sole female to study in a men’s college and the one instrumental in setting up the Adyar Cancer Institute in the city, the one of its kind in cancer research till date.The Cancer Institute, produced another outstanding women, Dr. V. Shanta, an internationally renowned Oncologist surgeon. When specialised cancer care is hugely commercialised, she renders her services almost free to thousands of patients in the institute and her contributions are recognised with many prestigious global awards. Her saga of selfless care continues as hundreds of young doctors in the city are getting trained by her. And the first women to fight the British by joining the Indian National Army, Dr. Lakshmi Segal, was again from Chennai.

When the city produced women of eminence in letters and in the academic professions, it is the deluge of female talent that the city unleashed in the art and cultural sphere that took the world by storm. The Kalakshetra, an international centre for dance, music and other visual arts, set up by another theosophist, Rukmani Devi, is a world class cultural centre that attract students across the world. Breaking from the traditional shackles that are associated with performing arts, the institute has produced many eminent women practitioners of the vivid art forms enriching the cultural tapestry of a whole nation. In Music, at a time when women performing on stage were a taboo, the city produced towering female musicians like the revered M.S. Subbulakshmi, whose singing captivated many generations of classical music lovers, across many continents. She was the first female singer to receive the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of the nation and the one of the very few to sing in the United Nations. This illustrious lineage of Chennai lady musicians includes such stalwarts as D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and the oscar nominee, Jayashree Ramnath and the list goes on.

It is from such a women empowered background that Shyamala Gopalan, the mother of Kamala Harris, emerged and she carried in her the ideas of equality of gender and of race to the shores of America. These progressive streaks were on ample display as she participated in the racial protests in Oakland during the sixties and later, passed them on to her two daughters. “When my mother, Shyamala stepped off the plane in California as 19 years old, she didn’t have much in the way of belongings. But she carried with her lessons from back home, including ones she learned from her parents, my grandmother Rajam, and her father, my grandfather P V Gopalan. They taught her that when you see injustice in the world, you have an obligation to do something about it,” said Harris in a recent talk. Emphasising her indebtedness to the city, Harris added “In Madras (Chennai) I would go on long walks with my grandfather, who at that point was retired. We would take morning walks where I’d hold his hand and he would tell me about the heroes who are responsible for the birth of the world’s biggest democracy. He would explain that it’s on us to pick up where they left off. Those lessons are a big reason why I am who I am today”.  Now you know what Chennai has delivered to the United States and it is pure deliverance!

By the way, I Googled for the most prominent man from Chennai and the first name that popped up was Sunder Pichai!



The full verse of Bharati’s poem in Tamil goes thus:

“Nimirndha nan nadai naer konda paarvaiyum

Nilathil yaarkkum anjaatha nerigalum

Thimirndha gnana cherukkum iruppadhaal 

Semmai maadhar thirambuvadhu illaiyaam”

August 16, 2020 at 11:02 pm 19 comments

Up by the stairs, down by escalator

“By saving as little as Rs.3000/- a month, you would amass a sum of Rs. 25.00 lacs by the end of the 15th year” was the tantalising assurance that tricked me to get into a unit-linked Systematic Investment Plan, SIP. The sales guy of the financial company was so convincing that a back of the envelope calculation of the interest on the accrued money was exactly half the monthly amount I would need, post-retirement. And I joyfully signed a Rs.6000/- per month investment scheme. “Retire at 45” was still too utopian to be true but a decent extra income after 50 was definitely entrancing that would allow one to do better things in life, than just sweat out to make a living. The two score and a ten lac of rupees to be credited to my account at the end of the fifteenth year was irresistible and I religiously paid my SIP month after month, even when I was defaulting on my utility payments. Skipping an outing or replacing the split air-conditioner with a desert cooler were too small a price to secure the future…or at least so I thought!

And I should thank my stars for having withstood the shock when the mobile SMS alert informed me of the amount credited at the end of the fifteenth year. Instead of assured five million rupees, what I got was less than a fifth of the promised money. Maybe I thought it was the regular mistake that bankers make in placing the decimal at the wrong place while crediting the amount, but on further investigation it was clear that it indeed was the amount that I am eligible for. I frantically called the person who lured me into the scheme and started yelling at him at the monumental loss that I have incurred. The guy gave a very patient hearing to my outpourings that was interspersed with the choicest expletives and waited for me to empty my anger laced frustration. With a voice and a tone that I thought he would have borrowed from some spiritual sooth sayer, he began: 

“ Sir, I understand your disappointment but you missed the bus….” .

 “ I haven’t tried to travel in one for decades” I resorted demanding an explanation for the steep fall in the final value of my investment. 

“ Sir, your investment was indeed worth the amount I promised but that was three months back… before the pandemic…. and you should have exited the scheme then… you missed it!” 

“ But no one informed me that the pandemic is coming….” I played the ignorant card.

“ Nor did anyone to me sir…. But you should have kept tab of your investment and exit at the right time…Investments are like tending the garden…you should know when to pluck the flower” he continued.

“ But I can still wait for some more time… the vaccine is getting ready and pandemic would definitely go away and the market would bounce back…” 

“ But sir your investment has attained maturity and the money is credited… nothing can be done now” 

 “Do not call me ever again” were my final words as I disconnected the phone rather discourteously to express my deep annoyance.

It then dawn upon me to look at my current financial status and if there is anything that I could do about it now. While excessive eating and under working has ensured that the physical weight has almost doubled during the lockdown, my net worth has nearly halved in the same period. The body weight can be shed by rigorous exercises, but there isn’t any easy mechanism to gain the loss accrued to the asset built almost over a career span of hard work. Not just the investments that are linked to the market trends have taken the battering, the value of almost all the moveable and immovable assets have moved southwards. Property prices, for instance, are down by 40% while the automobile are selling at 50% of the market value, that is, if there is a buyer. Your house may not be worth half the mortgage amount that you would have paid over the years while the car won’t fetch the money to clear the last year of its loan. Such is the impact of the Corona pandemic on our economy that it has set the clock back by a few decades and the downward spiral has not really ended. 

Added to this diminution of net value, for many it the loss of income that is proving to be the most damaging. When jobs are lost and salaries are cut, many dip into their savings and spend them on subsistence needs and thus compromise on their future financial security. The problem is of such mammoth proportion that the statistics show a multifold increase in withdrawals from retirement funds during the last few months and the phenomenon is only getting acute as the days pass! With shrinking assets, depleting savings and reduced incomes, it’s the triple financial combo that is many times more frightening than the dreaded virus!

Meanwhile, the financial sales guy had the guts to call me again and is now requesting to invest in another SIP, this time Rs.10,000/- a month. With a ‘ V’ shaped recovery anticipated once the pandemic is over, he is assuring a sum of Rs.10 million at the end of the tenth year! I am tempted to sign-in…what do you suggest?



(1USD=75 Rupees approx)

August 9, 2020 at 10:43 pm 6 comments

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