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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Food for the soul

Recently, I went to this place after a relatively long time and was amazed by how it appeared. Of course, I knew that changes were underway but the sheer magnitude and more importantly, the direction of the transformation was a shocker.

A broad, newly tarred road. Imposing buildings on the one side. On the other, commercial joints, cheek by jowl, vying with each other to draw in the most customers. The air in between heavy with the flavours claiming to represent local, national and international cuisine.

If this description makes you think of a food street, you’re not far off the mark. For indeed, it is how some of the inmates of those buildings described their new surroundings. There were some rueful jokes cracked about how, in the near future, this place is going to become famous as a cool hang-out space for gastronomic delights rather than cerebral endeavours. Which seems like quite the anti-thesis of what those in the lofty towers of those buildings say they intend to achieve.

Take a look at these images and then, I’ll explain why I say this.

I certainly understand the compulsions of the persons who conceived and authorized this move. Educational institutions today are behemoths, constantly demanding greater resources to retain their “world-class” tags. And when students come from outside the state and even outside the country, it is vital you strive to provide them with amenities that make them feel comfortable, ensuring word-of-mouth publicity gives you the edge over other institutions.

There’s no questioning of these motives. Just that in my opinion, the manner of executing what is perceived to be the solution, is not really constructive towards achieving the stated aim of an educational institution.

Knowing how extremely distractible students are, I do not really see any wisdom in creating such spaces in a way that the flavors of food for the body constantly assail their senses and mind. When we ourselves provide the diversions to students, aren’t we creating a greater demand on their already low powers of self-restraint? 

With the smell of some exotic dish wafting in through the window, what’s the likelihood that a youngster’s attention will not stray to the rumblings of his stomach and his brain rather than focusing on the Kreb’s cycle or reflex arc his teacher is trying to explain?

Or perhaps, could it be possible that indeed, the world has moved on so far ahead that today, there’s no longer any value left for what Plato said?

Disclaimer: About 10 years ago, I too was a resident of one of the imposing buildings mentioned in this post. Perhaps the memory of what WAS THEN is making what IS NOW more incongruous in my eyes......

Monday, 23 January 2017

Lessons from the Jallikattu saga

I once watched a Tamil movie at the insistence of my son. The story line was not really unique: a hooded and masked vigilante fighting to eradicate the evil powers-that-be responsible for trafficking of women, corruption and terror attacks. However, a scene in the climax of the movie stayed with me, because of the hero’s address to all the people assembled to witness a supposed miracle to be performed by him. Of course I don’t remember the words, so I looked it up online….           

For those who don’t get Tamil, a simple translation:

All of us eat to appease our own hunger, sleep when we’re drowsy and laugh to express our own joy. Yet, when we feel anger, we suppress it and keep waiting for someone else to come and express our outrage. Why????

As I listened to RJ Balaji’s speech at Marina Beach during the peaceful, dignified yet spirited protest against the Jallikattu ban, I felt a stirring of hope. That perhaps, here was the answer to that movie hero’s angst. Finally, it seemed like the people had woken up from the slumber of waiting for some vigilante and decided to act in their own interests.

Yesterday, I listened to 'Hip-Hop Tamizha', Adhi, a musician who was one of the well-known faces of the protest, explain why he had backed out of the Jallikattu agitation. As he spoke of the anti-national hue the protest was taking on, the strongest vibe I caught from his video was one of disbelief that this could actually be happening.

Today, we’ve been told that a #Jallikattu bill has been passed unanimously in the TN assembly. Yet, there was a mindless vandalism that surely could not be the handiwork of simply college-going youngsters who formed the majority of the protesters. It appears like a concerted move to hijack this people’s movement and at this moment of truth, it seems uncannily similar to the plotlines of many a potboiler.

As we take stock of things, it is vital we stay alert. More important is to not grow cynical or lose hope. Unfortunately, whether it is TN or any other state, there are multiple issues that continue to sap at our collective resources. 

Which is why, in a way, this peculiar turn of events in the Jallikattu saga may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. 

Because, it can teach our youngsters one vital lesson – that in actual life, there is no ONE climax scene to put an end to problems. 

Let’s leave the chutzpah-fuelled dialogues for the movies and keep pressing on to raise a voice when confronted by issues. 

For, in the real world, true grit is what will ultimately decide who wins.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Menu for Life

31st December, 2016. I’m lucky enough to share my birthday with a wonderful person. My sister-in-law, Padmini. She’s just 2 years younger to me and we hit it off right from the moment I stepped into the Ranganathan household. Today, her daughter and my son are in a celebratory mood and want to eat out. To humour them, we give in to the demand for what’s a censored item on our menu, relegated to a once-in-a-month treat.

We troop into Dominos Pizza and make our way to one of the tables. There’s one woman I notice at once. She’s dressed in a black saree and green blouse, with a black kitchen apron secured at the back of her neck and waist, a plastic cover over her hair that’s drawn into a bun, with a black cap perched on her head.

She’s just one of the staff in this bustling fast food joint and yet, she stands out for the sheer incongruity of her presence. An OLD woman scrubbing the table clean of food that youngsters half her age are having fun preparing or serving or eating.

She shuffles slowly around the tables, carefully collecting all the crumbs of food leftover into one large carton box. She moves to another part of the room to dump it all into a dustbin. Then she crosses her arms across her chest and stands quietly in the area marked as “Handwash” for the next table to become unoccupied so that she can clean it.

I watch her for a while and the realization dawns on me that I’m going to write about this. But then, there’s also this overpowering thought of wanting to know how and why she is there because I sense there’s a lesson hidden in this chance encounter.

As she stands waiting for the next table to empty out, I walk up to her and gently say, “If you don’t mind, can I ask you something?” The dour expression on her face gives way to something like wonder and she says, “Of course, what do you want to know?” I ask how she came to be working here despite the fact that she looks quite frail.

In the next 5 minutes, she narrates her life story – of losing her husband who had a government job. Of having a son who, despite being qualified, did not wish to find any job but instead, insisted on waiting for the father’s government job that had been promised to him. Of not wanting to knock on the doors of either her parents or her in-laws. Of working as a domestic help in four houses from 8 am to noon and then in the pizza outlet and dental clinic above till 9 pm. Of being saddled with illnesses like typhoid and having had surgery for hernia that had sapped at her almost non-existent strength.

And yet, this woman says calmly to me, “I have lots of difficulties, but I know God is there with me. He will take care of me always.”

As I bid her goodbye, she smiles and says, “Thank you for listening to me,” and walks slowly to yet another table. Indeed, as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa said, “A tree laden with fruits always bends low.”