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Voicing Silence 7

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Venerated No More

A story. My paternal grandfather was a gambler who'd gamble away hard earned money at the card table. Money that was desperately needed to run the household which he shared with his brother. Between them the brothers had sired seventeen children and cash was always in short supply. The story continues that late one night upon finding that his brother had not returned home, my grandfather's younger brother made his way to the local club where he knew he'd find him. There, the younger brother is said to have simply called out my grandfather's name and together they returned home wordless. My grandfather quit cold turkey and would never grace the club again with his presence.

What he however did, was replace his gambling addiction with an altogether more socially acceptable obsession. Religion. In particular, he became a staunch supporter of the Kanchi Madam. He would follow the chief pontiff of the monastery around the country. On various occasions, his daughters and their offsprings would join him on the journey across the country and I've heard how he has been as far north as Rishikesh as part of the entourage.

Appa with Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal at home,
sometime in the mid-80s
Whenever the pontiffs came to Madras, they would pay a visit to our house and it is said that on one such occasion, the then chief sage is said to have left his wooden sandals behind and walked ahead barefoot. When my grandfather ran after him to return them, he supposed to have said that he left them behind intentionally. The sandals remain at my parent's house to date, where they have since been given a silver sheath for protection.

And in my growing up years, even though my grandfather had passed away, the rest of his multitudinous family continue to worship the Kanchi Madam although I could never decide where I stood about revering human beings. On one occasion, I asked someone what the seer had done to deserve being prostrated before. And my impertinence was swiftly curtailed with some vague response about divinity and meditation. My ambivalence has never really gone away.

Such was the influence of this particular monastery and its pontiffs on our family that once when I was about eight or nine, some well meaning uncle suggested that I spend my summer holidays helping out at the Madam. Doing light chores that included reading out from the number of letters that came to the pontiffs as they liked children to read them out aloud to them. Innocent enough, but with the benefit of hindsight, I shudder to think what other chores I may have been asked to do. Luckily, I was never sent away and I never got to find out (the blasphemy of such a thought!).

It might be sacrilegious to even think that but my disquiet with such institutions returned when some fifteen or so years ago, criminal charges were filed against it and the chief pontiff was taken into custody. There was much uproar at such an eminent person being treated like a common criminal. While I initially bristled at the images of someone whose photos hung all over the walls of the house where I grew up, being handcuffed, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and moving on. These were not the gods I was worshipping and I no longer held them in the same level of esteem as I had when I was a child.

Then news arrived this morning that the presiding pontiff Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal had passed away. My old ambivalence returns. There's a mild sadness that the man who was venerated as god incarnate in my family circles is no more. The pontiff had, in his time as head, made significant departure from the establishment and moved the Madam in a direction that incorporated social good into the religious practices. He had recognised that as a religious unit they needed to go beyond simply preaching and had to have a greater common purpose for the people. In that respect, he had also invited criticism but had stuck to his principles.

Despite these significant ventures, I am less than convinced about what made this order of monks special (I confess, I do not know enough about their teachings or more about the social causes they supported). They are good, kind, decent, generous people but I doubt they have superior powers (there! I've said it!) to the rest of us. My own uncertainty lives alongside the strong conditioning of my childhood years. And I'm fine with that.

Addendum: When I called my father to commiserate on the passing away of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, he spent more time talking about another godman (a well known con) that he is currently representing that the other more respected recently-deceased sage. We all move on, I guess. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Queen On Screen

At around nine or ten years of age, a popular question among friends was, among others, 'Sripriya or Sridevi?'. I don't remember what we did with the attendant answer. Chances are, we then followed it with a 'Rajini or Kamal?'. And even back then, I remember picking Sripriya because I seemed to think Sridevi was just too beautiful. She was nearly as tall as the men that she acted alongside (it was rumoured that Kamal would insist that she wore flat shoes on screen and that he would never be filmed standing too close to her) and very slim unlike her more matronly contemporaries that allowed her carry off dresses and sarees with equal ease. There was something about her near perfect looks that made her seem unattainable.

Sridevi couldn't be ours, she could not belong to us in the same way as we claimed other favourite actors, she was somehow beyond all rules of playground possession. She seemed to be floating in her own ecosystem, far removed from us normal people. 

Once she had moved to Hindi movies, that gap widened still and Sridevi would cease to be a part of our binary questions. Somehow her face had changed and she was speaking a different language. The last movie I saw of hers was English-Vinglish and I found myself continuously distracted by her very immobile face and a voice that seemed unlike the one I had heard coming out of her in her earlier movies (her voice had been dubbed over in Tamil and this was the first time I was listening to her actual voice, I later realised). 

It did not help that in English-Vinglish, Sridevi was playing a housewife who was preoccupied with domesticity and kitchen affairs. It was not a role for someone with the looks of a goddess. She could  have elves doing it for her, at the snap of her fingers. And yet, the movie portrayed her as a powerless, hapless woman because she spoke little English.


Sridevi has always seemed regal and even a touch aloof (who could blame her? One look at some of the men she had to romance on screen and you'll understand why she may have wanted to remain distant). This was not a woman who needed rescuing but someone who could hold sway independently. And she so often had, even while acting opposite alpha men.

Even in her death (How could she? When she had just the other day been seen on the pages of a fashion website and been called queenly? It makes no sense) she seems to have made a clean
exit. None of the ickiness of old age and impaired living but a swift, decisive end. Almost like the plot lines in the movies she played where all loose ends were neatly tied up and everyone exited the screen as the credits rolled. Only this is desperately sad and all too real. 

Today I watch some of the old songs from her movies and I realise that the question from all those years ago, really should have been this -  Sridevi and Rajini or Sridevi and Kamal? For this woman was a given. Her presence on screen is so strong, such a constant that she needs few embellishments to prop her up. She was one of the few women who could well and truly hold her own.

Goodbye, Sridevi and thank you.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier On A Slope?


Have you ever tried skiing?, asked a woman at the school where my children had just moved to from England. She was dark-skinned, seemed to be in her sixties and had a huge, friendly smile on her face. We had just moved to a part of Germany that sat right at the bottom of beautiful mountains. And where there are mountains, there is usually snow and where there is snow, there are crazy people throwing themselves off the hilltops. I wanted to quickly erase all memories of skiing but my husband intervened quickly and answered that yes, we had indeed gone skiing the previous year and why was she asking us about skiing, he wondered.

The reason was because Srilankan-born Shireen and her British husband Dan ran Ski Saturdays every year for the families at the school. And if we signed up to their programme, they would arrange for us to go to different resorts in the area for seven Saturdays between January and March. Before I knew what was happening, we were signing on the dotted line, buying ski gear (and spending a fortune!) and setting the alarm for a ghastly 5.30 on a Saturday morning to go skiing.

It was just as terrifying as I remember but the genial group atmosphere, friendly coaches and long indulgent lunches made it much less daunting. By the time the seven Saturdays were over, I could fling myself off the side of a mountain (no logic to this sport, I tell you) and remain standing when I reached the bottom.

We signed up again this year but this time, I'd injured myself in the foot and was advised to stay away from sport. In the intervening period, my fears had returned and after excusing myself the first week citing injury, I didn't want to go on the second week. But my husband wouldn't listen and insisted that I lace up. I resisted but as ever, he held sway and I found myself skiing downhill. It all came back to me and dare I say it, I even enjoyed submitting to gravity this time.

Last week, we went on a short ski break and for the first time, I ended up on a red run (they are coded in order of ease - blue, red and black) inadvertently. Despite being terrified and being completely alone, I managed to negotiate the course while still on two feet (you have the option to slide down on your bum - I passed on that one). Over the next couple of days, I would go back on red runs, but this time by choice. And each time, my fears eased a little and my confidence grew a bit.

There's still three more Ski Saturdays to go before we hang up our boots for the season. Skiing has taught me that I am capable of way more than I think I can. That once you are on a course of action, you just have to get through with it, there's no point looking back when you need to have your sights ahead. That no matter how skilled you might be, the mountain will always win. The only thing you can do is to surrender. To yield gracefully.

Answer: Downhillski

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier After Skiing?

On the last day of our ski break, my husband insisted that I go with him on the ski lift with him. I
would have none of it and he would not let me give up. So I slipped on the several layers of accoutrement and yet again, got trudging up the perilously icy stretch to get to the ski lift. The chair lifts are the ones that most celebs on a ski vacation get photographed sitting on. They dangle their beskibooted feet nonchalantly and wave to the attendant paparazzi. How anyone could smile while sitting on a suspended park bench dangling hundreds of feet from the ground is beyond me.

By the time I had got on to one with my husband by my side, I was a weeping wreck. After my first tumble on the slope, I had lost all sense of shame and now, all I really cared about was survival. What others thought about me was a thing of the past. And all through my howls, my husband sat resolutely still, not giving into my pleas (what was I pleading for? It was too late anyway).

Chair lifts slow down as they approach a landing and you need to lean forward, push yourself off the moving chair and be away skiing. As we slowed down, I would panic and instinctively lean backwards, the skis would run ahead of me and I would land on my back with a smack. This happened again and again - panic, slip, bang. It's a miracle that I didn't injure myself seriously as I seem to have been hell bent on it.

As I slipped off my ski boots that afternoon, I swore that I had seen the last of skiing. Little did I know that just eight months later, I would be signing up for it again.

Answer: Apresski


Monday, February 19, 2018

What Do You Call A Polish Skier?

The first time I slipped my skis on, it took me a whole morning to get used to it. It is not normal to walk around with two long slats attached to your feet. It is positively weird. I had worn thermal underwear, ski top, ski trousers, ski jacket, helmet, googles, ski socks, ski boots and ski gloves. I held two ski poles in either hand and looked more like a bulked up Michelin man than a skier. And there was this whole other business of slotting your feet into skis and trying to walk uphill to reach the teaching area.

I spent three to four hours just trying to get across a few feet uphill. It didn't help that the rest of the group was negotiating this tricky manoeuvre with grace and ease while I looked like a stranded mammal trying desperately to get out of water. Gasping, spluttering and failing miserably. I'd take one foot ahead and slide back three and I would start again. Then there was this utter humiliation of falling. I kept falling, over and over again and needed assistance to stand up. And all the time, toddlers were racing past me with pity-filled eyes.

But look at me now!
There was one memorable instance when I was trying to go uphill on a button lift. These contraptions, if you have never had the good fortune of standing on one, work like this. They are round discs attached to metal poles that dangle from a carousel overhead. You are supposed to hold on to the stem of the pole and let yourself be dragged uphill from where you can ski down. Simple enough. Except it was anything but.

The wretched discs go round and round and as soon as one has left, you should get into position so you can grab the next one and be dragged up. I had issues with timing and would always be too late to catch them. And even when I did, my skis would not be parallel and within seconds my legs would be tangled and I would fall into a twisted heap. I would be led to the back of the queue and the ordeal would begin again. The next time I would get into position and ensure that my skis are parallel, only to have the discs knock me on the back of my head and make me lose control. Once when I had got myself into position, someone at the back of the queue had had enough and jumped ahead and unable to stand on a slope, I slid backward, fell down, watched the skies and wondered why I was putting myself through this.

By the third day, my legs were bruised badly and I didn't want to do it anymore. It didn't help that my instructor (memorably called Vlad. Everything was downhill from there) had yelled at me for not following his instructions. As an otherwise capable adult, I could not comprehend my abject inability to come to grips with this new skill.

I sat in the cafe, drank hot chocolate, marvelled at the French Alps and felt utterly miserable. The next day I had an hour's private lesson with a kinder and altogether more easy going French woman and it was marginally better. That Saturday before we were due to leave, my husband insisted that I go with him and he took me on my first ever ski chair lift ride. What followed next is not something I would forget easily.

Answer: Parallelski

Joke courtesy: Firstborn



Thursday, February 08, 2018

On The Beaches, In The Fields, German Everywhere

The German B1 test is one that those who are looking to live in Germany permanently need to take. People generally do that after having lived here for a few years. I have no intention of staying here for the rest of my life but having been here for sixteen months, I thought I'd take the test anyway. For weeks leading up to the test, I beavered away at it. It wasn't hard work in the way that I had worked for exams before, learning by rote and slaving at it dawn to dusk. But this was altogether a more enjoyable way to work for an exam. No German magazine or newspaper would go through the household without having at least an article read by me. Some I understood but most, I had a minimal grasp of. Still, I put in the hours reading and reading some more.

At the cafe and elsewhere, I spoke as often as I could to others in German and most were polite enough to humour me. I booked myself in for a training course and spent a Friday evening learning tips on how to pass the exam - mind you, this came after I'd spent eight hours earlier in the day cooking at the cafe. A colleague from the cafe spent an afternoon speaking to me in German ahead of the oral exams and I cooked for her as a thank you.

"Wir werden an den Stränden kämpfen,
wir werden auf dem Landeplatz kämpfen"
The exam itself was not that hard but concentrating for hours at a stretch was exacting. I'd not taken a German exam up until then and wasn't sure what level I was at and decided to keep my expectations low. The results would come later that evening and I asked my son whose school had finished early that day, to join me in the city while I waited. We watched The Darkest Hour dubbed in German, marvelling at the irony of watchingWinston Churchill vowing to fight the Germans on beaches and in the fields in German.

The results were to be called out by a woman from the Goethe Institute who would then hand out the certificates. I was really not certain about the outcome and chose to remain in the corridor while my son sat on the sofa in the waiting room where the results would be announced. The woman walked in. My son beckoned me inside. I shook my head. Come in, he mouthed. No, I said. You will have passed, he assured me. Don't think so, I mimed. You are so good, Amma, he said. I'm rubbish, I pleaded. The woman started calling out names alphabetically. Mine wasn't the first one like it usually is (initials AA). I was about to leave. Mine wasn't the second name either. I was on my way out. A pause. Then I thought I heard my name. That's my mum, said my son clapping for me. The woman said something about my marks which didn't register.

I came out into the corridor clutching my certificate. I had passed. 83% in reading, 80% in listening, 77% in writing and 90% in speaking.

That's when I realised how seamlessly our roles had reversed. My son was the reassuring parent and me the child riddled with self-doubt. He was cool and certain about my abilities while I was a wreck. That evening I knew what I was most proud about. The tall, ridiculously handsome and utterly charming son who became the parent when I needed one? Or the language skills? That's easy. German's a doddle. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Penny Drops On Crutches

I fell down on Christmas Day. Out for a jog and back home on crutches. One minute I was jogging and the next I was done clutching my ankle which had swollen like a balloon. A kind stranger offered to take me to the hospital, but I had left my mobile behind at home and we needed to make a stopover to collect it so I could call my husband and update him (he was away with the boys on a bike ride on a different route).

So the kind woman drove me home and I gave her the keys to let herself in while I remained in her car. I called out directions to her as to where to find my mobile - luckily, I remembered where I'd left it and she didn't have root around for it. She helped me get off the car, brought me a wheelchair and waited for a while with me at the hospital. The X-rays revealed nothing at first glance but a doctor called two days later and informed me that I'd chipped bone and that my foot had to be in a brace for six weeks. We'd booked to ski for seven Saturdays from mid-January but he strongly advised me against doing any sport (an advice I paid heed to selectively) as it could hinder the healing process.

On Christmas morning, I'd complained to a friend about how I was still struggling to get used to the German brusqueness citing a recent incident when a rank strangers asked me if I really didn't speak much German or if I was just "being lazy". It rankled me a lot as I'd put in a lot of effort into tackling their bewildering maze of language. Why are they being so rude?, I'd bemoaned to my friend over the weekly catch up, why can't they be civil to foreigners?

And yet, barely a couple of hours later, there I was being accosted home and taken to hospital by someone whose name I forgot to ask and whose whereabouts I was in too much pain to find out. Came out of nowhere and offered to help a foreigner in need. Bloody Germans!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Easy Merry

You're supposed to burn the candles one per week leading up to Christmas, pointed out a German woman who'd come home last week. I had had no clue that there was a candle lighting tradition and had simply picked up four candles on a bed of foliage as it looked pretty and having lit one, it seemed a shame not to light the others. 

We have no Christmas tradition and make up our own stuff. Neither me nor my husband grew up celebrating the festival and so have nothing to recreate from our childhood or pass on to our kids. Our Christmas tree is a stand for all things special - from drawings to medals to flags and our Christmas lunch is usually something I've cobbled together on the day. Yes, there is gifts for the children but it's not very different to other holidays - for me at least.

On Christmas day we might go for a walk or watch some TV. This year, perhaps some skiing, if the slopes are open for business. But barring that we are newcomers to this festival, which of course has little religious connotation and instead is almost entirely about buying. And to that effect, we have bought into it but, as for the rest, it's all a bit rough and ready.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bloody Germans

Two words describe my relationship with this country. Love, hate. And I experienced both this week. Earlier this week, I was out shopping in the supermarket when a simple mistake on my part meant that the lady at the till had to check something over and then had to take it off the bill when I realised that the price was not what I thought it was. She sighed, rolled her eyes at what I was making her do and rolled her eyes once more when I lost my patience with her. I apologised for my lack of German and told her that her customer service was appalling and that I was not going to continue shopping there and left. An old man who saw me strop, said something rude in German to me and waved bye. As I sat in the car park, I was terribly flustered from the encounter and fumed at the sheer rudeness of it all. Given that this is not the first time that I had encountered poor service and with each time, I find wondering what it is about this country that its citizens think it's okay to be so rude to others - even when they are only doing their job.

Later that very afternoon, as I was trying to park my car, a lady flagged me down furiously to show me the parking spot that she had just vacated where I could park mine and then handed me a parking ticket which had another 2 hours left on it. Later still as I sat on a bar stool in a small cafe eating a beautifully cooked vegetarian lasagne, a woman seated next to me - also a lone diner - could scarcely believe when I told her my children's age and kept wondering how that could be so, when I looked so young (nice!). These two encounters found Germany's prices rising in my personal stock exchange. But no one, least of all me, could have foreseen the crash that was about to happen less than 24 hours later. 

Here's a view from my kitchen.
I admit, it's very pretty here but if I had to
pick between great views and polite people, I'd
much rather the latter.
Any local that I meet for the first time will find me apologising for not being terribly good with their language but that I will try to speak it. And so it was that I started greeting someone yesterday when she turned to me and wondered if I really didn't know the language or if I was "just being lazy to speak it." Naturally, I was taken aback at how brusque she was but replied something rather weak about how I'm learning German and moved away. But I wondered how anyone could be so brazenly rude to your face and get away with it. The trouble however, is that  I came up with a retort 12 hours later ("Are you naturally rude or are you just being German?") whereas in the immediate moment, I could just about muster a mumble.

Germany's stocks are trading at a low at the moment. It would need an impossible act of kindness to look up from here. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

My Dear Kamalahasan


Year ago, when I was working in a very cool Music Television station in Mumbai, my boss urged me to include references to bindhi and mehndi in the links that I used to write for the VJs to read from the teleprompter before they cut to a song. "They are all the rage", said my boss. I was baffled and couldn't comprehend how something that we had always done in India had suddenly become all the rage. And how my seriously Indo-phobic boss (and colleagues) was suddenly so smitten by these very Indian symbols. Then it dawned on me.

Madonna had just released Frozen music video in which she can be seen wearing a pottu on her forehead and henna on her hands. The rage that my boss was referring to was in America where I was told everyone was now copying the Indians. And therefore, what we had always done had suddenly gained legitimacy and validity and copyability. So, for anything to be worth emulating, it had to be sanctioned first by America and then we could all follow.

I was reminded of the aforementioned incident after I read about a young Indian actress who, following after the Harvey Weinstein allegations, had now come forward with accusations of sex assault by a Hindi film director. Even the headlines referred to the American movie producer as if it was a precedent he had set for us all to now follow. What would have been dismissed as regular 'casting couch' in the past, has now gained some legitimacy because someone in America has blown a whistle.

Surely this actress can not be the only one to have been assaulted. In an industry that venerates its men and denigrates its women almost as a rule, such occurence must be common place. But let's say more women come forward with their allegations - ignoring for a moment the very real possibility that if they did come forward, they risk serious threats to their lives from the star's fans - what would we as fans do?

What if we find out that our most favourite star was also a sex pest? Would we still love and adore his movies? Would we be shocked and vow never to watch any of his movies ever again? Or would we be able to separate the man from his movies?

Meanwhile, I am trying to write something called My Dear Kamalahasan. What would you expect to see if you heard that title? Throw some ideas.

If you are reading, lurking, then now would be good time to comment and share your thoughts. Thank you!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Blast Past

There was no trace of self-pity in her narration. My friend who I was meeting after 27 years was telling me her life story, the sequence of events that led to a tragedy, her own discovery of it and its inescapable aftermath and yet, not once did I hear her wonder why it had happened to her. Couldn't she have been spared? What had she done to deserve this? There was none of that slippery slope of bitterness.

What there was, was enormous sadness. Despite her best efforts a rogue tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. I sensed a resounding bulk of grief that seemed to choke at the throat and in its rawness, must have chafed at skin and worn her limbs down. Yet there was an unquestioning acceptance of the card that she had been dealt with and perhaps it was this acceptance that had helped her keep a lightness of touch. And absolute grace. As I reacquainted myself with my old friend, I learnt that her personal devastation had, rather remarkably led to something else. Something that has her radiating in happiness these days.

I cannot say I knew my friend that well when we were young. But I am awestruck by the person she has evolved into. And in the short hours of her stay here, she managed to leave the gold dust of her presence here. Something for me to savour in the days to come. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Serving Erissery To Germans

Erissery on the menu board
I have eased into my role as a cook at the cafe. The owner lets me decide what I want to cook and it's great fun planning a menu. It should be something that's scalable, so there's no point thinking of something elaborate if it can only feed four. Pumpkins and squashes are in season, so a few weeks ago I suggested that we serve Erissery for soup. The customers were told so on the board with a brief description of what the dish was at the bottom. It found tremendous favour - though I had to turn down its peppersome heat a notch with coconut milk after someone said it was too scharf.

After a few weeks of experimenting, I think I've hit the jackpot with roti. The first week I made it, the owner wrote it down as handmade bread on the board. But last week she asked me if the bread I was planning to make was actually chapathi and I told her yes it was. And her eyes lit up and she asked me to spell it out for her. In true South Indian tradition, I added a 'h' to the spelling and that afternoons, the customers asked for 'chapathi'.

Every day, the veggies that are not fit to be sold in the cafe shop, end up being cooked and the menu has to be clever and adaptable enough to accommodate these unsuspecting ingredients. Yesterday, it was the turn of some kind of kale. I had planned to serve dal, chapathi and some curry but what would I do with large ferns of kale? I turned to the lady who usually makes fresh green smoothies to be sold in bottles at the counter and asked her if she could blitz the kale for me. I then asked her to pour the juice into the bowl of waiting atta. I started binding the dough as she poured it gradually and rather bemusedly. The dough's bright green was a sight to behold and proved quite popular with the customers, many of whom complimented me on it.

This is perhaps the most unconventional work I have ever done and each Friday, I am stricken with angst and I wonder why I'm doing this rather than stay at home and watch Netflix instead. I don't really know why I put myself through this experience that leaves me shaking and scared and excited and thrilled, all in the space of seven hours. May be that's why. May be doing something while being shit scared is a good thing. That and the fact that all the kale is good for digestion. 

Nothing By Half

My left calf was cramping. And not long thereafter, my right calf joined in and I tried every trick in the book to take my mind elsewhere. Wasn't it just great that my name had been called out by the DJ on Munich's Marienplatz as he was cheering the runners that had turned out to run the annual Munchen half marathon? Wasn't it great to see so many runners with inspirational quotes on their t-shirts like 'Pain is temporary, glory is permanent'? So pithy and so perfectly annoying. None of it was working though.

All I could think about how painful the whole exercise was and how little I was enjoying it and could I please hurry up and finish the whole thing quickly so I can go home to the pulav and paneer curry that I had made that morning before I set off? Instead, my pace slowed right down and I became the rock on either side of whom runners streamed. And then I did the one thing I never thought I would do - walk. I dragged my uncooperative limbs across one agonising kilometre after the next.

And to make my matters worse, with less than a kilometre to go, my husband called wondering why I wasn't yet in the stadium at the finish time I had expected. I just wanted the whole business done with so I never have to lace up and run a city race ever again. The runners do a lap around the Olympia stadium before the finishing line and I felt none of the famed rush that is supposed to hit the runners once they cross the line. Just blessed relief that I didn't have to run any more.

Yet, there I was, less than two weeks later setting out for a gentle jog on a foggy autumnal morning. I won't be doing any of that stuff again once I have thrown my running shoes away.

I was running to raise funds to replace the asbestos roof at my school in India. If you wish to contribute, you can do so here - https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/abhiarumbakkam

Monday, October 16, 2017

Why now?, asked my mother. Why are you telling me this now? If you had told your father something then, he would have slapped him hard with a slipper, she added holding her palm up as if it were a slipper. I knew this was coming, I had seen it a mile away. I knew this question would be her response when I told her that yes, I too had been sexually assaulted. But the brutal manner in she had tossed it back to me. As if it were my fault all along for not saying much, for keeping quiet, for rolling the words over and over in my mind and each time faltering at the last hurdle. Why are you telling me this now? That question again. Why have you remained quiet for so long? So I told her then that I had not the words for assault of the kind I had endured when I was a child. And when as an adult, I had confessed, there were no slippers that were raised, no anger that was displayed but a mere cowardly silence. And quiet words asking to be left alone. Deal with it yourself, it seemed to say. I will not join your fight. I will not even raise my voice in anger or display disgust, fight your own battle like you have always done. That voice that fights so many other battles, refusing to lend its weight behind mine. I fight alone like I have always done. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

The vegetarian is in the oven

I cooked rajma, roti, dal and vegetables for lunch yesterday. Nothing unusual about that. Except I cooked thirty portions of each for paying customers at a local vegetarian cafe. This is not something I could have foreseen myself doing as recent as a year ago but the opportunity presented itself and I decided to take it up. Having already spent a couple of days helping out in the kitchen, I was familiar with its layout and roughly knew where everything was. But it still left me incredibly nervous about cooking live and not just for family and friends who are obliged to eat it and be polite about it. These were customers who expected to be fed good food and would not hesitate to complain.

Even the sight of plate after plate returning empty did nothing to reassure me. And hearing the owner
tell someone over the phone that there was some delicious Indian food on the menu just added to the anxiety. It was only while hanging up the apron for the day and resting my feet after seven continuous hours of standing that I let myself accept that perhaps, just perhaps, that the food had turned out alright and those that came in looking for food had rather enjoyed their meal.

As for the title, in response to my question about where the vegetables were, this is what the German lady assisting me had to say. I can assure you that the vegetarians were all outside and the oven was too small to accommodate anyone anyway. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Uncomfortable

He was a great man, your grandfather, I have heard them say. He would sit for Maths tests and his answers would be so brilliant that they would award him a 120 out of 100, they would say without irony. His English lessons were so brilliant that students would loathe to leave the class and come back year after year just to hear him recite Hamlet. He was destined for the green hills of England when the sudden demise of his father meant an abrupt end to his plans and he remained at home to teach in a college on a dismal salary. Marriage and children further scuppered his dreams and he never recovered from the sourness. But his oratorical brilliance or that supposed mathematical wizardry  is not what his third born, my mother remembers.

She recalls instead in vivid detail her mother, the only daughter of a tahsildar cowering in fear, while her father yelled at her for not seasoning the rasam. My mother remembers all too well her mother's wedding saree, the cherished six yards of silk being ripped to shreds by a madman wielding a pair of shears. She remembers her father's curmudgeonly behaviour which meant that his wife would be sent to a local government hospital to terminate her sixth pregnancy after bearing five children in a decade, rather than be cared for privately. She recalls being told that her mother would not be coming back home as she had contracted lock jaw and had died. Even after seven decades of bereavement, my mother still misses her mother acutely and says that some days she talks to her, asking her how she could leave her children to face the frightening world alone. But no, they would not talk of her. Instead, they talk of his brilliance. The legions of students that recall his command over Shakespeare and Chaucer and his great facility with numbers. A kind father, a genial grandfather, an erudite scholar. Not a wife beater, not that one. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

A quick tale 229

"Do you remember this?", he asked holding the winding up toy.
"Chumuti!", she exclaimed, recalling the name her toddler son had given the toy.
"Yes, it does look like I finally found out where Chumuti had been hiding all the years", called out her husband from behind the boxes which they had set out to clear.
"Was it in 92?", she wondered holding her hand out for Chumuti.
"No, this must have even earlier", he replied tossing it to her. "By 92 Sumanth was already six and he had outgrown these toys. Must have been more like 89 or 90 that we bought it for him".
"Yes", she nodded, her mind already half way back to 1990. How Sumanth had wanted the wind up toy and how much her husband would not buy it for him. Too expensive, too fragile, not now, may be later, the reasons had been plenty and each one valid but Sumanth had worn his father down with persistence until he gave up resisting. The toddler had taken the toy to bed with him the night they bought it for him and the night after that and for nearly every night for a whole year until another toy had come along and Chumuti had been forgotten.
She ran her fingers through the grooves of the toy remembering with aching fondness how tiny Sumanth's fingers once were when they held Chumuti. His fingers that were part of a small, perfect muscular body which held a fiercely independent spirit that astonished and frustrated her in equal measure. His stubborn streak that seemed disproportionate in someone so small. A characteristic she recognised as one he had inherited from her but one she would never admit to.
She checked the time and mentally calculated what the time was where Sumanth lived. He must be at work, she figured. Perhaps she'd try his cell number rather than at home. He answered in quiet voice.
"Everything alright, Amma?", he asked. He had started to roll his 'r's recently. Said it made it easier for him to be understood over the phone. She had wanted him to speak normally with her, as she could understand him perfectly without the affectation, but she had not told him so. She did not want to irritate him.
"Appa found Chumuti", she said holding the toy up to the phone absentmindedly, "you remember?"
"What, ma?"
"Your toy, Chumuti!"
"If it's not too urgent, can I call you back, ma? I am running late for a meeting."
"Don't worry, it's nothing too urgent. What are you eating?"
"Just grabbing some toast. Say hi to Appa. And send me a photo of Chuputi okay?"
"You gave it its name...and it's Chumuti."
"Chumuti, then. Got to go...I'll call you later, okay?"
"Eat something more than just toast, Sumanth"
She held Chumuti a little longer. Elsewhere in the house, she could hear her husband going through the boxes, wading through the paraphernalia of her children, throwing up old toys and outgrown clothes with casual disregard for the heft of the years gone by, for the years when her children were truly hers alone to enjoy and to be exasperated about, for the years when she would sigh deeply at the weight of motherhood but delight secretly in its demands. She could never go back there and it was rather pointless wishing for those years.
"Throw the box away", she called out to her husband. "It's full of useless old junk, just sitting there gathering dust and taking up space."
Her husband looked up surprised. "Are you sure? I thought you might have enjoyed looking through the kids' stuff."
"No, I don't. And if you find something don't bother telling me. I'm going to make myself some coffee, would you like some?", she asked making her way to the kitchen. Her husband's reply was drowned out by the noisy cappuchino machine Sumanth had gifted them on his last trip home. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

A School Turns 80 But Asbestos Has To Go

Dear Chakku Akka

There's a photo that hangs on one of the walls of the Children's Garden School office. It's a picture of your German mother Mrs Ellen Sharma (nee Teichmuller) sitting on the steps in front of the office, surrounded by little girls who were no more than five or six at that time. Some of the girls went on to graduate from the school in 1990 and I am one of those writing to thank you for the wonderful start you gave us in life.

Akka, we are now a group of forty-somethings who live in different parts of world leading disparate lives. Some of us have gone on to get doctorates, some work with young people, some, like you are heading schools, some others are working in technology and some are raising a wonderful next generation. A few among us have defied great odds and with your benevolent support have gone onto make something of our lives. But all of us carry within us the light that you lit all those years ago. 

I look back on our years at Children's Garden School and realise my time at school was as much about music and dance as it was about Maths and Science. The emphasis was on all round education and not just the academic. I took part in writing competitions, sang in the school choir, threw javelins, essayed lead roles in the annual school drama...not because I was any good at it, but because I could. And my teachers saw no reason why I shouldn't.

Unlike other schools in the city where the children wore fancy uniforms complete with shoes and socks (imagine, in the hot and humid conditions of coastal Madras!) we wore slippers to school and took them off before we entered class. What use was a colonial hangover of an impractical uniform for children who needed to be dressed in tune with the surroundings? Our education was in harmony with our environment.

Even today the smell of cooking cabbage never fails to take me back to school days and the free hot lunches you offered. Those were perhaps the only hot meal of the day for some of my classmates. You knew that children cannot learn on an empty stomach and proceeded to address this issue. 

Our classes were made up of children from from different economic background, yet it mattered little when we slipped on our green skirts and white shirts and plaited our hair up in green ribbons. We were all students of Children's Garden School.

A couple of years ago, one of my classmates who grew up in an orphanage told us how you had funded her college education and when you saw how stubborn she was with wanting to study further, you funded her Master's degree too, then found her a good man to marry, gave her off in marriage and today her son calls you 'Paati' (grandmother). For many like my classmates, the school was much more than a place where we came to study.  

And our teachers! What an extraordinary lot you managed to recruit and retain, Akka. I still remember when I was thirteen, spending several days during my summer holidays in Lakshmi teacher's house working on a magazine which I hand wrote and illustrated. And still younger, my kindergarten teacher Miss Bertha Paul was entrusted with the unenviable job of feeding me eggs (despite her best efforts I continue to abhor that vile stuff). How they went above and beyond their call of duty! 

From Seethalakshmi teacher to Nalini teacher to Kusuma teacher to Neelambal teacher to Saroja teacher to Lakshmi teacher to Pankajam teacher...our school definitely had an amazing gathering of teachers who ignited young minds.

Our school was founded this very day 80 years ago by a German woman and her Indian husband who wanted to start a school that combined the best of Indian tradition with the liberal thoughts of the West. The school has evolved considerably from its humble origins of just seven students to educate hundreds today. 

Yet it pains me to hear that the classrooms have asbestos roofs over them. I am glad that my classmates and I are doing our bit to fundraiser to replace them with more suitable materials. 

Akka, we are proud to have been your students. And it gives us infinite pleasure in being able to celebrate the 80th anniversary of our school. Here's to several more decades of educating and instigating a love of learning in tomorrow's generation.

Namaskarams at your feet.

Sincerely 

A. Abhirami (class of 1990)

P.s. Anyone interested in contributing towards our fundraising efforts, please click here https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/abhiarumbakkam

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

At Sea

I would like an island.
-What do you mean?
You know...island...i..laaa...n...d.
- Meaning?
You know, a land that lies in the middle of water.
- I don't get it.
An island...you know...like a country with water on all directions.
- Okay...
Do you understand?
-No
Okay, an island means a country with water in all directions.
- Right
For example...Great Britain (where they speak English) and Sardinia (where I went on holiday twice and where I wish I were right now). You understand island?
- I don't know.
I want an island but only in my kitchen.
- Like Great Britain? In your kitchen?
No, no, that was an example of an island. This island will be in the kitchen.
- And there's water everywhere?
No, no, no water. Just floor. On the ground, in the middle of the kitchen, I would an island like.
- I don't understand.
I want a small kitchen island in the kitchen.
- My sister speaks better English than me. I will call you on Wednesday and you can explain to her what you want, okay?

The entire conversation was had in German and repeated in varying volumes and at different speeds in the fond hope that it will be understood. The conversation was had between me and a local Handyman. I am not sure I am getting a kitchen island shaped like Great Britain, but I am certainly getting a lot of wear on my German muscle.

Here's a picture of a kitchen island. You can imagine it as a country floating in the North Sea.
Image courtesy Ikea

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

A Duplicitous Life

Picture this. It has only been a couple of hours since I have had my first child and I am lying dazed on the hospital bed wearing a sleeveless night gown, looking around me, taking everything in through a haze of euphoria tinged with mild confusion and a definite awareness of ungobackableness. And I hear my mother apologise to someone, most definitely a hospital nurse. Oh no, I hear her say, we don't normally wear something like this in our house. She is usually more appropriately dressed. It takes me a small fraction of time to realise that it was me that she was referring to. And it is the fact of me showing off my armpit (freshly depilated - I remembered to shave even in the middle of my labour pains) to the world that was bringing forth the apologies. A note went into my mental filing cabinet, into the folder marked 'To Be Done Surreptitiously'.

Like most Indian children of a certain age (perhaps even now?) doing on the sly things that their parents disapprove of is nothing new for me. But somehow I assumed that going away to live on my own, getting married and begeting a child would mean that I would no longer need to pretend. Granted I would not rub it in their face, but I had thought I would not have to walk on eggshells for fear of disapproval. I had thought that perfectly adult behaviour would escape derision or scorn. But how wrong was I! What I did as an adult mattered just as much as it did when I was a teen and my shockingly short haircut earned me the privilege of not being spoken to for weeks on end.

Which is why when I was out for lunch recently with a friend and another who had brought her visiting mother-in-law with her, I was surprised to hear them discuss animatedly about which wine to drink and then order a glass of wine each. The mother-in-law came from a very conservative teetotalling vegetarian community and seemed very accepting of her daughter-in-law's choice to drink wine at lunch time (at any time really). But then what choice does she have, said one of the friends later, she either accepts it or risks alienating herself from her son and his family. She has chosen wisely to overlook the differences and to embrace them instead.

How refreshing is such an attitude! To not constantly measure your children by your own duplicitous, questionable standards but to accept them with all their choices, however hard it might be and however bad you might think it will make you look in other people's minds (here's a tip: no one really cares).

Indulging in a spot of
Skinny dipping. I was
Right. No one cares.
I had these thoughts racing through my mind while out shopping for furniture with a friend and stumbled upon a lovely Sekretär. My friend is an artist and has a keen eye for the aesthetic and promptly suggested that we turn it into a bar that would sit slap bang in the middle of the lounge and would invite guests, rather brazenly to partake of its bounty. But, but, but, I spluttered in my mind, what would visiting family think? Would they not disapprove of such flagrant disregard for good upbringing? Would the flasks have to be hidden away (that old trick) to make way for more acceptable bottles? But aloud I said, Great idea! Let's turn this into a bar!

I guess there will always be something about us that will rankle those that raised. Some mild disappointment with our comportment, some Major disagreement over decisions, some outright disapproval over choices but I have to realise that it is okay. It is absolutely fine to not see eye-to-eye on everything with a parent.  Looking back, I wish I had raised my arms, displayed my pits to the world and watch the onlookers stumble about in shock and consternation. Or watch them shrug their shoulders and carry on. 

Photo Life

Looking at the photo, even now I can feel the trickle of summer sweat down my back, remember the hastily downed meals which always seemed to interrupt endless play times and the afternoons spent being combed for headlice. With so many visiting us that summer, our large and bustling household seemed to have somehow expanded to accommodate even more.

When I look back on these years, I can see how much these experiences shaped who I am today. Given that it was my house that always played host, I was expected to share everything. Skirts, pillows, sheets and my parents' attention to a large degree. It has made me less fastidious about possessions but more particular about swarms of people. After any large gathering, I find myself craving a quiet place to retreat and to recover. A sanctuary from the roar of other humans.

In the photo, we seem to have been hastily assembled. Someone must have called out for those who were nearby to gather around for a photo and we must have obliged. Taller ones to the back and smaller ones up front, they must have said. No one seems sure about smiling and we appear rather tentative about it. The sole adult in the photo seems to be wishing he were somewhere else.

I recall the dress I am wearing rather vividly. I had had it sewn a few months earlier and on the
tailor's recommendation, added a Magyar sleeve which was all the rage back then. Wearing it, I felt terribly on point with the fashion world back then. Regrettably, the girl on the left wearing a white top and partially hidden by the boy in shorts passed away from encephalitis when we were sixteen. Once as children, when we were out in public, I demanded that she return my skirt that she was wearing immediately. I was rather horrible with her and she kept her nerve. It was not one of my finest moments and I never properly apologised to her for my behaviour.

Childhood photos can evoke deep nostalgia but this one does none of that for me. It was a captured at a time when I was ten years old and barring one, stars people with whom I have no contact. It was as if, like in the photo, in life too we were thrown together for a short while before heading our separate ways. 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Small, Rectangle And Blue

If you climbed past the narrowing staircase, crossed the brick flooring, past the long rooms filled with assorted memorabilia and its peeling walls with cracks covered over with old calendars bearing garish images of Saraswathi and Lakshmi who bear suspicious resemblance to the film stars of those years, you might find somewhere in a corner a blue tin box.

I don't know what colour it must have been originally, but someone must have thought to paint over it in teal blue. Its colours matched the walls around it which suggest that the left over paint from the walls must have been dabbed on to the box. Perhaps no one thought to move the box as the paintwork was being carried out and by the time it was finished, perhaps it was covered with dripping that they spread it around until it was blue all over.

Some two feet long and about a foot wide, this box became mine when I was about ten years old.
And in order to establish ownership, I wrote my name down on its side in indelible pen. Over the next few years it would become the receptacle that held my worldly possessions. Notebooks, diaries, hair clips, report cards, certificates, birthday cards, wallets with a few desultory coins and much later a stack of love letters exchanged between a friend and her then boyfriend given to me to keep for fear of being discovered by her parents. I once peeked inside them a found rough scribblings in brown ink which my friend later confessed was blood. They were consigned to the bin soon thereafter, much like their love affair, I imagine.

Soon we will be moving into a sprawling house whose empty halls echo with the sound of nothingness. I've been shopping to fill it with the noise of our lives. Clutter that quietly boasts deep wallets and an emergence from our former conservative, middleclass selves. The box would have no place here and yet on some days I find myself recalling with deep affection its sharp edges, its peeling paint, its rusty surface and an easy life that could be tidied away in a blue tin box.


Friday, September 01, 2017

Words For Hire




From my very first bloggers meet. There was no audience.
We paid for our own teas.



Blogging is big business apparently. A close friend recently attended a conference of some sort where top Indian bloggers spoke about making a living from their blogs. My friend was in awe of the fact that the speakers had quit their lucrative jobs to pursue blogging full time and it was paying. They get given freebies, go on paid holidays and manage to turn over a decent sum. So are they expected to their honest opinion on these products that are offered?, I wondered. Not entirely, it appears. It seems one of the speakers said that she was getting paid for her time and not her opinion.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but when I read someone's blog post, I want to know what they think. I don't want a write up that is a mouthpiece for some product that I don't need or some overpriced service that I don't want. Don't the bloggers have any loyalty to their readers? The ones who visit their blogs, read their drivel and leave a comment? The ones whose footprints have landed them these deals in the first place?

I know, I know. I know what you're thinking. Jealous cow! No one is offering you a free trial of their latest avocado seed remover and that's why you want to piss on their parade. Unfortunately, that is the truth. The most I get offered is spam comments which ask me if I have erectile dysfunction or invite me to live webcam with someone called Tatiana from Russia. I have turned down both these offers though not before considering them carefully.

So let me cast off this semblance of loyalty to the readers and lay it open in public. Here's my offer to write and feature anyone willing to pay me. I can extol the virtues of your very wonderful enema kit and tell both my readers how their lives will be more enriched if they use your dry cleaning service. This place is for open for sponsorship and this writer is for hire. Now, if you will all form an orderly queue please.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Well Connected Life

Years ago I heard someone complain that she never had a chance to miss her husband since they both worked together and lived together. I wish he'd go away for a little while so I can miss him properly, she said. I had a chance to recall her words earlier this week. 


I have never been very good at keeping in touch. I have a tendency to make friends and then move on, leaving it to them to remain in contact. If they do, I am delighted that they have and if they don't then that is fine too. And perhaps this was the reason why I found Facebook and suchlike overwhelming. It thrust people and their lives crammed with detail on to me and the noise left me drowning. I unplugged from it one Tuesday morning several years ago and have not gone back to it since.

When Watsapp made an appearance on the scene some time ago, I bought into it but when I found its demands unable to keep up with, I uninstalled it. But a dear friend insisted that I reinstall it when the free phone call facility was introduced and this way, we could chat more for free. Soon enough I enrolled into a few groups of old school friends and gradually grew accustomed to the noise from everyday interactions.

The ubiquity of a life too connected has meant that I never have a chance to miss anyone. Barring the case when someone really close passes away, nearly everyone is readily available everywhere at the tap of a button. And therefore not really missed that much. The downside to such instant access is that I do end up seeing people rather more than I would like to - and they of me. This fact was brought to my attention a few days following an interaction on that wretched Watsapp. An unsolicited rude message was my awakening to pull away and to remain that way.

Back in the day when I used to meet with old friends, we would bid each other goodbye and promise to remain in touch. A promise I would promptly forget and be chided for later at the next reunion. I felt no need to know the birthdays of old classmates or indeed wish them or be kept abreast on their children's well being. These were minutiae that I simply had no headspace for and on those warm summer evenings when it was just that bit too hot to sleep, I would find myself wondering whatever happened to an old friend. And upon finding no satisfactory answer, I would invent them a life, throw in a career, imagine a partner, some children and drift off to sleep. That was enough for me.

Lately, after all the exercises in being social, I have come to the conclusion that if you really want to keep a friend, unfriend them on social media. Don't know too much about their lives, keep somethings a mystery, save some for conversations to be had when you do meet them. And whatever you do, do make an effort to miss them. Miss them properly, wholly and let them miss you too. And when you have had enough of missingness, pick up a phone. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Full Year In Germany

Me: Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Call centre lady: Nein
Me: Okay...leider mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut aber Ich versuche...

Normally we coast along for a few minutes conversing like this before invariably hitting a technical snag word like 'leakage' or 'confirmation'. And then I have to begin apologising again for my lack of fluency in German before beginning the arduous task of explaining the whole thing. This usually involves breaking the problem down into small words like water, fall, little by little and bathroom before I succumb and say it again in English slowly and loudly. And somehow hope that the volume and pace of my English would make a difference to her comprehension. At times it works, often it doesn't.

On my good days I resolve to get better at German but on those days when I long for some simplicity and don't want to feel like I am wading through a sea of bafflement and incomprehension, I curse this place and all its people. Bloody Germans! With a language so complicated that few countries in the world dare speak it.

Have you had the joy of interacting with a German noun? They are staggeringly long, often made up of smaller words and have a gender. They are like a group of children who have climbed on top of each other to form a pyramid of some sort and then covered themselves up with a cloak and given themselves a mask and demand that you call them by a neutral gender. You want to give them a clip around the ears, ask them to quit horsing around and behave. The nouns are most silly!


Pictorial representation of German nouns 

Yes, it is hard but I have to be grateful to be given an opportunity to be challenged as an adult. Bizarrely enough, we never once thought to visit Germany earlier, always choosing to go holidaying in its neighbouring countries instead. Yet it's only upon living here, that my family and I see how beautiful this country is. We live in a stunning part of the world and on clear days, can see the Alps from near our house. It's also a very affluent region with plenty of nature and good food to offer. We experience distinct seasons through the year and live within driving distance of some of the best ski slopes in Western Europe. And yet there are days when I long to just be understood without needing to say, 'wie, bitte?' time and time again.

Perhaps it is in my nature to not be content with my lot but to constantly yearn for something else. That said, on those days when I do successfully manage to communicate or understand what is being said without needing to google translate or look up the dictionary, I am overcome with a genuine sense of achievement. I find myself picking up German books to read and actually managing to understand parts of it - I deliberately choose books in those subjects which I don't understand in the first place. This way, in case I don't understand something, I can just say, 'never got the point of management books. So much jargon!'

It has been a year of enormous learning. My children have adapted to this country way better than I have as I constantly fear transgressing some immutable, invisible social norm and be told off by some stern German person (as it happened early on when sneezing on the underground train made someone tell us that we were "disgusting"). It still feels very alien and have yet to find the warmth and the feeling of 'at homeness' that I found instantly in Britain. I miss the easy access to culture and art that I so took for granted while in Britain and find the provincial attitude of several Germans many of whom live and work not far from where they grew up, incomprehensible. 

As an expat I live in a bubble and little idea of what is going on in the local area. Listening to the news, I can gather snippets of what is going on but then find myself going on the Guardian or the BBC to gather more detail. So this is how it is. There are days when I am awestruck by this place and days when I find it small and stifling and cannot bear to remain. It is pretty but dull. Pretty dull, pretty boring, pretty cold. But where do I go? With each passing year, the places I come from and where I have lived recede further and further that I had better unpack my bags and plan to stay here for a while. Willkommen in Deutschland. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Ed Fringe 2017 - Reviews

Porridge with fruit, paper version of the Grauniad and dull, wet
weather - it was good to be back in Edinburgh
There is nothing quite like theatre to make you feel quite so alive. And nowhere is this more evident than in the corpulent overdose of theatre that is Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As with every year, this year too I attended the Festival for my annual dip into the madness. And for three and a half days, I rolled with the punches and tumbled in its excess. What a glorious ride it was. I ate, drank and indulged in a lot of diverse forms of theatre. Personal and metaphorical journeys. Scripted and improvised storytelling. Technical marvels and pared down theatre.

And now that I am back, I am left wishing that I had watched more, stayed out later, braved the cold (yes, even in August, it's Edinbrrrgh) and thrown myself unresistingly into its artful melee. But I rest in the knowledge that I will be back next year and the year after and the one thereafter. For now though, here are brief reviews of  nearly every show I watched.

A Super Happy Story About Feeling Super Sad - Can you make a musical about depression and make it light and frothy while delving into darkness? This show gets the balance just right. 8/10

Eggs Collective: Get A Round - Dark side of a night out with friends. They are soon to be on BBC. Great energy but I didn't quite feel the pull. 3/10

Instructions For Border Crossing - Technical issues hampered this play. Lots of audience interaction but didn't like the actor. Was confused about what he wanted from us or what his stance was. 1/10

salt. - A searing, powerful exploration of identity. Selina Thompson, an adoptee of Afro-Carribean origin who grew up in Birmingham, went on a cargo ship tracing the journey her ancestors would have taken on a slave ship and has written a play about it. As she smashes a large rock of salt ("salt of the seas, salt of the tears"), it splinters and shatters across the stage and into the audience like the lives of those enslaved, resonating across continents, across ages. We were given a rock to take with us as we left. It weighed heavy in my hands. 10/10

Seance - Spooky twenty minutes in a pitch dark shipping container. A long table runs down the length  of the container with chairs laid out quite tight on either side of the table. The participants are advised to wear headphones, place their hands on the table, lights go out dramatically and the Seance begins. Brilliant sound design that unsettles and challenges every rational notion you have. Is this theatre? Is this art? Brilliant entertainment. 10/10

How To Act - This play by Scottish National Theatre meant its posters were plastered on buses. Pity such publicity could not save the lacklustre play. It's set as a masterclass with an acclaimed actor and whose dramatic exercise with one of the participants forms the length of the play. Gradually, the lines between reality and retelling blurs and there's a moment when something dramatic is revealed but it flops and we are urged to "speak the truth". Whatever. 1/10

Out Of Love - Writing that scorched and scalded and soared from the pages. Beautifully acted and realised. The power of female friendship, fierce, convoluted and glorious - all laid out in just over an hour's time. Oh, to be able to write like this! 10/10

Man Watching - An anonymous woman has written about her sex life and each night a male comic reads it out cold, for the first time in front of an audience. Interesting, funny, gimmicky. 5/10

Kafka And Son - Based on the letters that Franz Kafka wrote to his father that were later published as a book. Kafka was bullied by his overbearing father and this appears to have had a lasting influence on his life and his writing. The play was sensitively told by the actor playing both the father and the son to great effect. 8/10

Shape Of The Pain - What is it like to live with chronic pain? What does it look like? How does it sound? What triggers it? What worsens it? How do you live with it every breathing minute? Shape Of The Pain attempts to articulate chronic pain syndrome - something one of its creators suffers from. Its a visual, aural, technical and verbal description what must be indescribable. At the end like many in the audience left with my limbs aching, my head throbbing and my eyes stinging. 9/10

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything - A boy and a girl are born in Hull and their lives are traced over three decades - from New Labour to Brexit Britain - via plenty of live music. The evening of my show, the actor who played the narrator was given a special award by The Stage for being one of the best at the Fringe. His high octane, high energy performance was certainly a highlight but the rest was glittery and loud and distracting. 3/10

Cosmic Scallies - Skelmersdale in Lancashire is a monument to all things tried in failed. It was a town where, in the 1960s planner attempted to create a utopian housing scheme and didn't succeed. It's the setting for an unlikely friendship between two friends who go all the way back to primary school. It is tender, funny and at times brutally honest but the play is shy of going just that bit further. 7/10

EntryNoEntry - A performance art piece by a Srilankan artist who invites you into a dark cave, dances with you, asks gently probing questions of you about who you are and where you come from and leaves you bewildered and blinking into the lights. 6/10

The Road That Wasn't There - A trigger happy old woman, her concerned son, a half-torn map, a graveyard, a young girl in far away New Zealand and some puppets are among this rather Neil Gaimanesque story for children. The kids in the audience seemed riveted. 5/10
Blurrie with Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner 




All shows (bar one) were booked on recommendations by Guardian's theatre critic Lyn Gardner. You can read about my experience and my Primer To The Fringe here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Voicing Silence - Feedback

Voicing Silence was shown at a film festival in Toronto some time ago and here's the audience feedback. You can read about how the animated short came to be in this series starting from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.