Thursday, April 14, 2011


My first posting as the head of a bank branch was in 1977. Kannur branch was located in the district headquarters. My home was in a village in the same district. Though it was just about fifteen kilometers away from the town where my branch was situated and it was possible to commute to work, I decided to take up residence in the town.

It turned out to be a luxury because the house was barely 200 meters from the branch and I could walk down home for lunch! The landlord, a retired civil servant, lived in the house in the next plot. His presence was a source of comfort and his graceful wife was good company for the young bride my wife was then.

On Saturday evenings, we would make off to my village and return only on Sunday evenings. That way we had the best of both worlds: urban life on working days and rural in weekends.

Hamza, a stocky ex-serviceman, was a customer of mine. His pension would arrive every month with unerring regularity on the first working day and he would withdraw the whole of it on the same day. Given the demands on his financial resources, the modest fixed deposit he had that represented his terminal benefits were under threat of doing a vanishing trick any moment.

One day I suggested to him that he should try his hand at supplementing his income – maybe he could buy a taxi car. He was still young. Those were the days when India made only two brands of cars and any intending purchaser had to register his intent and wait for, at times, as long as three years. A brand new Ambassador car cost Rs 50,000, and one had to pay Rs 2,500 for registration. Even though he could rustle up that sum, Hamza could not wait that long. His need was more urgent.

One day he came up with the idea of setting up a small scale industry. He would make pickles. Would I give a loan? I helped him with the formalities – registration and some clearances in the District Industries that would entitle him to a subsidy, exemption from sales tax and concessionary interest on loans. I sanctioned a loan of Rs 5,000 and thus was born ‘Perfect Pickles’.

The next Saturday, Bhawani and I locked up the house as usual and boarded the bus to my village. We returned the next evening. A little later, there was a knock at the door. It was Hamza, tired and drenched in sweat, with a bottle of pickle in either hand. They were old Horlicks bottles, with red plastic caps in place of the original the metallic ones. The bottles sported crude-looking but colourful labels with the word ‘Perfect’ spelt as ‘Prefect’!

‘This is from the first batch of pickles from my factory,’ he explained. ‘This is for you, Sir.’

Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations flashed through my mind: ‘No officer shall demand or accept gifts of any nature, whether in cash or in kind, from a customer of the Bank, whether a depositor or borrower, or any person otherwise associated or has dealings with the Bank.’

I did not want to hurt this simpleton and told him, ‘I don’t care too much for pickles, that too ones where vinegar is an ingredient.’

His face fell. ‘But, sir, there might be someone in the family who would like it …’ he pleaded.

It was then that I recalled proviso (b) to Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations which read, ‘Nothing contained in Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) supra will prohibit an Officer from receiving gifts of flowers and fruits and articles costing less than Rs 10.’ Glad that I had a straw to clutch at, I relaxed my standards of probity and accepted the jars.

Later in the day, as my wife and I were watering the plants in the garden, my landlord ambled along and told me, ‘This morning, someone had come looking for you.’ A balding, stocky man with a thick moustache. Description of the visitor’s appearance pointed to the fact that it was Hamza. ‘He said that he makes pickles, that you had sanctioned him a loan and that he was carrying a gift for you.’

My landlord was being polite. He was suggesting, without saying so, that the gist Hamza had carried for me was in fact a gratification for the loan I had sanctioned. I had nowhere to hide.

‘I told him you had gone to your village and were expected back only in the evening. He wanted to know where your home was and I told him. Koodali is where you live, right?’

‘That is my where my tarwad (ancestral home) is and several of my relatives live. We have built our home in Chalode, a few kilometers away.’

During our visit the next weekend, my grandmother told me, ‘Soon after you left last Sunday afternoon, someone had come looking for you. He said he was a pickle-maker to whom you had granted a loan. He wanted to gift you two jars of his product. I sent him back to Kannur.’ There was nothing I could do. Even my grandmother had come to know I was a party to the graft!

But then, if my landlord had told Hamza that I lived in Koodali, how did he reach Chalode? Obviously, he had first gone to Koodali, briefed everyone he had met there of his mission before being told that my home was in Chalode. The damage was complete: my reputation as a scamster had spread to the villages of Koodali and Chalode!

I was conspicuous by my absence at the Theyyam in our tarwad that year because I was afraid everyone I would meet there would tell me that they had seen a balding, stocky man with a thick moustache carrying two jars of pickles for me.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


I would give my right had for a crystal decanter, I confess. As I hold the gleaming beauty in my hands and pour the amber fluid into the crystal glass, pure joy fills my heart. I experience ethereal exhilaration as I hold it (even when it is not frosty and there are no bubbles that die crashing against the floating cubes of ice) and behold it. Dammit, I have a weakness for glass and ceramic ware.

So much so that I cannot resist the temptation to acquire these delicate objects. One of the collectibles I look for in any curio shop (The Cottage Industries Emporium on the Janpath in New Delhi, for instance) is glass or ceramic ware. The only collectible I bought in Brussels was a set of six aperitif glasses. The Japanese tea set my friend Sanjiv Saraf gifted me is one of my prized possessions. The effort I took to make sure that my Frankfurt purchase – a set of tumblers featuring the castles on the Rhine – reached India with no breakages could fill a page. The ‘dowry’ that my father-in-law gave me was over a hundred whiskey glasses, beer schooners and wine glasses of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. Thanks to the care we take in handling them, all of them have survived a 20000 km journey in several instalments from Calcutta to Trivandrum via Cannanore, Mumbai, Calicut, Patiala and Bhavagar and a dozen change of residences.

This fascination for the fragile materials, I guess, arises from the fact that glass was a novelty in my young days. Glass tumblers were rare. All liquid was served in bronze, brass or copper (and rarely, silver) tumblers. For some strange reason, however, the tumblers were called glasses!) I remember that my father used to refer to glass tumblers as ‘glass-inte glass’ in Malayalam (meaning ‘glass made of glass’). Apparently tautological, yes, but was there a better way to describe it in order to distinguish it from, say, a tumbler made of copper or bronze or the Johny-come-lately stainless steel?

Even if a household did possess some glass tumblers, they were kept on the topmost shelves in the storeroom – beyond the reach of children, servants, women and men – to be taken out only on those rare occasions when special guests were entertained. On such occasions, the man of the house would climb a stool and carefully bring down the precious objects one by one and entrust them to the care of one trusted member of the family. It was her responsibility to ensure that the delicate objects are handled with the care they deserve and immediately after use, restored to the not-easily-accessible safe spot they were originally in. Heaven forbid if one of them were to slip from your hand while being washed in soap before of after use. The question ‘Who broke it?’ would echo all over the house. It was never ‘How did it break?’ or ‘Are you hurt?’; it was always ‘Who broke it?’ as if the culprit had deliberately flung it against a wall with all the might at his command, driven by the express intention of smashing it into smithereens.

It was quite a different matter if the guest, his finger scalded by the exterior of the container containing the hot tea, coffee or other beverage (like Ovaltine or Horlicks or Boost) were to drop it. Camouflaging his upset, the host would tell the ‘criminal’, ‘Does not matter’ and direct someone to get a fresh supply and another to clean the floor, all the while cursing the offending guest under his breath for his misdemeanour.

Coming from a middleclass family, one of the first purchases I made for the family from my first salary was half a dozen glass tumblers. It cost me a princely sum of Rs 3. I remember them even today: all of them had a red rim and a red ring near the bottom end. There were three galloping horses painted on the side of the tumbler at equal distance from each other. The horses on one were all black; the second had yellow horses; the others were green, blue, white and brown. Quite kitschy, if you ask me today but in 1969, it was avant garde!

The shopkeeper had put them all in a carton made of corrugated paper. Each tumbler was wrapped in thin paper and placed in one of the six square compartments made by dividing the carton using three cardboard pieces. To prevent chipping or breaking during transit when one knocked against another, if one was placed upright, the ones next to it were thoughtfully inverted.

The entire family was around when I reached home. My father was at his desk, writing some accounts, I guess. I gave the packet to my mother. She unpacked it, everyone eager to see what was inside. No one knows what exactly happened – one of the tumblers was perhaps wrapped rather loosely in the thin paper; or in child-like expectation and anxiety, one of my siblings pushed my mother’s elbow; or – to cut a long story sort, one tumbler crashed to the ground.

Without raising his head from his accounts, my father asked, ‘Who broke it?’


Reams have been written about the way globalisation has transformed India in the two decades starting 1990 when the country, in a manner of speaking, gave up the socialist model and initiated a process of ‘market-oriented reforms’ which have ‘unbound’ India. The country has changed beyond recognition in less than a generation.

This is equally true of Chalode, my village, in the heart of Kannur District in north Kerala. If a modern day Rip van Winkle were to return to this hamlet, he would have lost his way. Twenty years back, Chalode was a no more than just a junction of two roads with a couple of shops. The tiled and latticed single-storeyed three-room building which was my school in the 1950’s is the Agricultural Development Office today. The weed-filled pond surrounded by trees has been filled and converted into a sprawling bus-stand bounded by a row of three-storeyed commercial complexes housing bakeries, eateries, textile shops, margin-free shops, medical shops, watch repairers, dental clinics, photo studios, internet cafes, driving schools and the like. (The use of plural nouns here is not a mistake; there ARE two or more of each, which serve the locality of 3 km radius which has perhaps no more than 1000 households.)

The cell in my wife’s watch needed replacement. We decided to take it to one of the watchmakers. My wife remembered that though the Titan watch I wear worked well, its crown had dropped off. Now that we are going there, let’s get is repaired, she said. I remembered that the cell of the watch a Sheikh had presented me with during one of my trips to Dubai too had died. I took that along. It was an expensive piece, a top brand, but it had been used sparingly, because I had reserved it for special occasions.

The shop was called TimeSonic, suggesting that apart from chronometers, he dealt with audio equipments as well. The absence of any audio equipments was surprising, but the mystery was soon explained: to a Malayalee who pronounces both ‘s’ and ‘z’ in an identical manner, TimeZone is the same as TimeSone and hence TimeSonic.

Shamnad, the young man in charge of the one-man show in this hole-in-the-wall of a shop was quick: he replaced the cells in the ladies’ watch and the Sheikh’s present without much ado. He said replacement of the crown of the Titan watch would take some time. Would we pick it up the next evening? He would give me a receipt for the Titan he was holding over.

As he was writing out the receipt, he made a casual enquiry.

‘Is the other watch up or sale?’

I answered that the thought had not crossed my mind. Nevertheless, I enquired, ‘How much do you think it will fetch?’

‘I have no idea,’ he said, ‘but will find out if you want.’ A little later, he asked me tentatively, ‘How much did you buy it for, sir?’

Having not paid for it, I did not know the price. However, I did not want to tell him that it was a gift. ‘It was bought years back, I don’t recall how much I had paid,’ I told him.

‘If you are selling it, Sir, please let me know,’ he requested.

Nodding, I took delivery of the other two watches after paying for the cells . The bill for the Titan watch would be settled after the job was done.

As we were walking out, he asked, ‘Sir, can I have your phone number, please?’

‘Why? I’ll pick it up tomorrow during my evening stroll. I’m in no hurry. Even if I do not come tomorrow, you need not call me.’

‘It’s not for that. Just in case you decide to sell it …’

The next evening I went to pick up my Titan. After the bill was settled, Shamnad said, ‘That watch … I made some enquiries, Sir. It is not as expensive as all that…’

‘That’s fine.’ I replied.

As I got out of the shop, Shamnad’s voice could still be heard, ‘Still, if you are selling it …’


My niece’s daughter was being christened. The function, held in my mother’s house, was followed by a vegetarian lunch.

As I got up after the hearty meal, my uncle who was sitting opposite me looked at the plantain leaf I had eaten from and remarked, ‘You have left nothing behind. A clean leaf – like your grandfather’s used to be.’

Waste not, want not. Yes, that was something my grandfather had taught us – not to waste a morsel of food. ‘There are thousands who have to sleep on a hungry stomach; it is criminal to waste food,’ he used to say. He would eat every bit of what was served – curry leaves and chillies included – and leave an absolutely clean leaf behind. That he was a strict vegetarian, of course, helped. The only giveaway sign that it was a used leaf would be the change in the tint in the green caused by the hot rice scalding the leaf.

All of us in our family have imbibed this respect for food. We are sad that at parties and feasts, even buffets, many throw away a lot of food. When serving ourselves, we take only what we can have, no more. We consume what we are served, all of it.

This has caused us some amount of embarrassment. At times, a guest may keep away a piece of brinjal they do not particularly relish, or leave behind some rice in the plate, to be thrown away. We used to pray that this indiscretion escapes our eight-year old son Hari’s notice, for, he would frown and, in all innocence, ask, ‘Why are you wasting that?’ and may be follow it up with a stern ‘Eat it up!’

Honestly, there have been a few rare occasions when I too had to throw away food. I have never been able to like sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti, it, despite my five-year stint in Punjab. Any self-respecting Punjabi would bet his shirt on that, to them, is a delectable combination. I guess you have to cultivate a taste for it, like you do for beer or alcohol, which I have not been able to (I mean the sarson-da-saag and makke-di-roti, not the beverages in question) despite my being served these in several homes.

The hospitable hosts would proudly serve their well-known delicacy and top it with scoops of butter. As the butter melted in the hot deep green saag and floated in it, my thoughts would go back to the hot black coffee into which castor oil had been poured. (For the uninitiated, this abominable concoction was the medicine in the village homes in my boyhood for de-worming the intestines.) With that vision, do you think sarson-da-saag would go down the throat that easily?

The hostess, obviously unaware of the connection, nay psychological association, between butter-on-saag and castor oil-on-coffee, would lovingly serve huge helpings of the delicacy, much to my discomfiture, prod me, ‘Chakh lo, ji, changa haiga, khub pasand aavega.’ I had no choice other than throwing it away when the hosts were not looking.

The other was the tinde-ki-subzi they used to serve for lunch on Wednesdays and dinner on Saturdays in the YMCA Hostel in Chowringhee, Calcutta. The menu was unalterably fixed. If it is maachher jhhol for lunch, it is Sunday. If it was Friday, there would be chana daal and aalu poshto for dinner. The joke doing the rounds was that it was easier to get the Constitution of India amended, compared to the YMCA menu.

The footman allotted to the residents of the four rooms in the wing which my room formed a part of was Gaurang Prasad, a man from District Chhapra in Bihar. Fair-skinned, tall and lean, he looked different from and spoke a different Hindi/Bengali than the other footmen. Later on I came to know that all the other footmen were from East Bengal. Not just that, Gaurang told me one Sunday morning while polishing my shoes, they are all ‘Mussulmans’, while he was a Hindu. ‘See their names: Alam, Altaf, Rahman, Murad, …’ Not that it mattered to me one bit!

To get back to tinde-ki-subzi. On the occasions it was made and served, after placing the bowl of soup before me at the dining table, Gaurang would tell me, in sing-song fashion, ‘Sir, aaj tinde-ki-subzi hai’ and look into my eyes mischievously, knowing well that I do not like tinda one bit. Gaurang was considerate, though. The astute Man Friday had discovered my weakness for the chutney made of dried ripe mango which went well with roti. He would take away the bowl containing the contentious tinde-ki-subzi and get me a generous helping of the chutney. Not once did he offer me the chutney before serving the unwanted dish and singing his lilting ‘Sir, aaj tinde-ki-subzi hai’, looking into my eyes and taking the bowl away.

That was perhaps his method of driving the point home that I was being granted a special dispensation, implying that the gesture deserved to be reciprocated when giving him his monthly baksheesh.