Monday, June 11, 2012

Toys for Boys

My grand-nephew, barely a year and a half, pushed a basket, huge for his size, to the drawing room and placed it in front of me. Before I could realise what happened, he toppled it and out came a variety of toys. Plastic, wooden, metallic, rubberised, electronic, cuddly, what have you. All colourful and most made in China.

When the word 'toys' is mentioned, green is the only colour I can think of. All the toys I had in my childhood were green. And they were all home made. Made of, what else, coconut palm fronds, banana leaves and green stuff.

Like the watch you can see here. It is so easy to make.  Even a four-year old can make it. All you need is a 12 cm piece of frond and a 2 cm piece.  Girls can make a bangle using a slightly longer piece so that it lies loosely around your wrist.

From the watch, you graduate to reading glasses. It needs a 24 cm piece and two ‘spines’ of the frond for legs. During our summer vacations in the village, all of us used to go around sporting a watch and a pair of spectacles.

Equally easy is the windmill. You run holding it and in the breeze, the windmill would spin at top speed. 

Snakes are easy to make too. There are two varieties.The more complicated one would coil and uncoil. A usual contest  among boys on rainy afternoons used to be to see whole snake would uncoil first. The secret of success was the optimum tightness of the 'weave'. If the weave was too loose, it would come apart fast in the first few seconds after which there would be no progress; if too tight, it would not uncoil at all. 

The ball is a different ballgame (Forgive the pun) altogether. It calls for greater expertise. You take four strands, knot then together at the lean end and weave them together, quite like the way girls plait their flowing tresses, giving it a cubical shape as you go along.

 If you embed a small pebble in the system as the process begins, the ball would be heavy and its momentum greater. Such balls are in great demand for playing native games like AaTTa or Talappant, which like the 'tools' of the game, have become extinct.

A more refined version is made using eight strands, like the one shown alongside. Experts make sausage-shaped balls with eight strands and big ones using with 16 strands but I must confess I have left it to the  masters of the ball-craft. It is too complicated for me and I have not even attempted to master the technique.

Then there is the parrot which many do not attempt. It is quite a complicated piece with several components (though all are from the fronds of palms) and it would take an  expert  to make an elegant piece. You could make cages in which these parrots could be lodged. We would hang them on the cradles of the babies (Yes, in any joint family, there would at least be two in the house at any point of time.)

It was as if there was an unwritten rule that toys, like children, should only be seen and not heard. The only exceptions were, in order of increasing decibel level, the sewing machine, the 'whirrer' and the bugle. 

For making the sewing machine, you need the young seed cast away by the coconut palm. Hold the horizontal pin and give the assembly a light twist, Maintain the movement at a steady pace and you can hear the mechanical rhythm of a Singer machine. Experts put a leaf in the moving part. A few spins later, it would drop off, with marks on it, as though it has been stitched!

The whirrer has to be tied to a string; holding the loose end, spin the contraption around one’s head to hear a loud whirr.

One has to blow through the bugle. No two bugles make the same noise, though!

With other locally available materials like the leaves of mango trees and jackfruit trees, stems of tapioca plants, the core of banana trees, the sap of castor plants, leaves of ferns and the like, you could make a hundred other items, but that is subject for another post!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Forbidden Pleasures

Our morning walk was different today. All these days, there would be hardly anyone crossing or overtaking us as we made our way along the narrow ridge that serves as the border between neighbouring parcels of paddy fields to reach the mud road and thence the only tarred road of the village. This morning, we saw several young kids in newly tailored uniforms, toting Scooby-Day bags, colourful umbrellas and plastic water bottles. Then it dawned on me: today is the first day of the academic year.  

Once on the main road, a school bus whooshed past us. Kids wearing the same broad blue checks –tunics or skirts for the girls, depending on the age and shirts for boys – were sitting in the cream-coloured bus like cans of liquid detergents or phials of nailpolish stacked on the shelves of a supermarket. Coming to think of it, the simile is quite appropriate: they are all going to be the finished products of the great education industry!

In my days, there were no uniforms; in fact, many boys wore no shirts. No footwear either. Coming to think of it, I think children’s footwear was unheard of. I think only it was reserved for the senior members of the most affluent families. There were no schoolbags either, for there were no notebooks; the only book one had in the primary classes was ‘Chitraavali’, the Malayalam textbook: Book I for Class 1, Book II for Class 2, etc. Though not immediately relevant to the context, those were days of shortages, rations and licences. By extension, those were also the days of scarcity; we were children of the permit raj. It was usual for three students to share the same copy. Not many had brand new copies, for most used hand-me-downs from seniors. At the end of the academic year, children would ‘reserve’ the books used by the seniors. They would often be given free to those who place the request. In stray cases, they would be sold at a discount to the original, the discount varying with the condition of the volume. 

Barring Chitravali, the only ‘stationery’ a school-goer had was the slate.  Fortified with the wooden frame, it was also a weapon in the hands of combating classmates.  For those who did not have the palm-leaf umbrella, the slate would double as protection from rain till the nearest plot cultivating plantains or colocasia.  Those leaves provided excellent shield from the showers.

Before use, the slate needed to be ‘conditioned’ by applying coconut oil and charcoal in order that the inscriptions on it would stand out. The process was an elaborate exercise, a ritual scheduled for the last evening of the summer vacation. After some use, the process had to be repeated. Temporary relief could be obtained by rubbing petals of shoe-flower (hibiscus). An alternative was the thick tongue-shaped bottle-green leaves of a plant that grows on the walls on either side of the lanes on the way to the school. You out it on the slate and poke it with the slate-pencil: the sap that oozes from the punctures are excellent for giving back the black colour to the slate.

Then there was this shiny light green succulent plant used for wiping them clean. On the way to school, you pluck a few twigs and carry them with you. The liquid stored in the stems and leaves provide enough fluid to clean the slate. It had another use too: after use, you could blow air into the stem, close the end and hit it lightly on your forehead: it would go ‘Pop!’

The school timings were 10 to 4. Though the school was only a kilometre or two away, you left at 9. Two kmph might seem an incredibly slow pace even for a six-year-old, but on the way, you had to wait for your classmates, pick up the ripe mangoes that would be waiting for you, chase the dragonflies, pluck flowers from the bushes that double as fences, fling sticks at the guava trees to bring the fruits down, open the tiffin box and put a few morsels of rice in the stream to feed the fish. You were lucky if you reached the school before the final bell rang out. The ‘bell’, incidentally, was a two-foot long piece of metal from the railway scrap, and the ‘tongue’ was another iron piece.

Everybody associated with the school was a ‘teacher’ or a ‘master’ (shortened to ‘maash’). Thus the office assistant in the high school was ‘clerk maash’, the canteen contractor was ‘canteen maash’ and the peon (called ‘attender’ in those days) was the ‘attender maash’.

Those days are gone. Those pleasures are forbidden to today’s kids. They perspire in their spotless starched and pressed uniforms. They are herded into and out of the schoolbus; they have no time to stand and stare. 

Friday, June 01, 2012

Birthday Musings

Not counting the messages from mutual funds, insurance companies, banks, hotels and automobile manufacturers, yesterday my inbox had more than a dozen birthday greetings. And yesterday was not the anniversary of the day I was born! I was actually born around Christmastime, but my age was shifted to coincide with the commencement of the academic year. This measure conformed to the theory then popular among young parents that the earlier a brat was sent to school, the less of a nuisance he would be at home! One did not quite care about the fact that in the process of getting rid of the junior, one was being economical with truth!

Except for the specifics and the motive, it was quite like the case of Gen V K Singh who, after his famous battle about age, demitted office yesterday. That the General and I are not the only ones whose birthdays were admittedly (as in my case) or allegedly (as in the case of the General) fudged can be inferred from the retirement statistics in the different offices in the country. How else does one explain the fact that the number of those who retire in April-May is about ten times the average in the remaining months?

I happened to flip through the pages of ‘My Unforgettable Memories’, the biography of Mamata Banerjee where she says the date of her birth too was fudged. Didi’s
official birthday is 5 January 1955 but in the autobiography she says she had discovered from an old horoscope that her mother had handed to her that she was actually born on October 5.

That, if I may, is only a tip of the iceberg. She goes on to claim that that she was indeed five years younger than her official age. To quote her, “She (Mamata Banerjee’s mother) explained that I was not even fifteen when I wrote my school final examination and would have been disqualified for being underage. So, my father gave a fictitious age and birthday to get around the problem. The result: a new birthday and five years added to my real age.”

If that were indeed true, she was born on 5 Oct 1959 (if not 1960). Would that not put the honourable Chief Minister of West Bengal in a spot? We know that the qualifying age for being elected to the Lower House (Lok Sabha) is 25. When Didi defeated veteran Communist politician Somnath Chatterjee from the Jadavpur constituency in West Bengal in the 1984 general election, she had made news for another reason: she had become one of the youngest parliamentarians of the country.  If she was born on 5 October 1959 (or 1960), did she satisfy the age criterion?

Such cases of disparity in age are several. A former Director- General of Police for Kerala who retired in the 1990s retired five years after his younger brother, himself a senior police officer in another cadre, did! It is known in close circles that a former Chairman of State Bank of India served for four years after his younger brother attained 60.

This is not restricted to top echelons. When I was in Patiala, my driver used to talk of his life as a child in Sargodha (Pakistan) during the pre-partition days. I was therefore surprised when I saw in Gurnam Singh’s service records that the year of his birth was 1948. His reply when I asked him about this was simple: ‘Bhaarat aane ke baad hi umar ki ginti shuroo hui! (The age was reckoned only after we landed in India)’.

We had an ancient-looking headmaster about whom people used to say in hushed tones that the years when he was suffering from paediatric ailments had been knocked off from the age and therefore he was still in service when he was actually 65 plus!

So, what is the day on which I was born? The jury is still out.

Memories of Usquebaugh

I am on my annual holiday in my village in Kannur. It has become almost a ritual now: just before the onset of monsoon, we come down for a month-long stay in our ancestral home. We just do not stir out of home except for the morning (and evening) constitutionals. Everything else is put on the back burner. To use a phrase that the new generation has taught us, we just ‘chill out’.

I love to watch the rain in all its glory and moods, the like of which I have seen only here. There is nothing more exciting than the fragrance that wafts in the air as the parched earth eagerly soaks in first rains. I can spend hours listening to the incessant pitter-patter of raindrops falling on the tiled roof and thence to the courtyard.

This time, however, we seem to have been a bit too early. There is no sign of the monsoon, though there are hints of clouds that drift aimlessly in the sky. At times, the straying clouds mask the sun from the earth and give us false hopes of an imminent shower, only to move away and disappoint us.

One of the ‘freedoms’ that this retreat gives us is the freedom from the chlorinated water that we get from the tap in the city. Here it is always the pristine water freshly drawn from the well. The deeper the well, the purer, clearer and sweeter the water, my grandfather used to say.

As I am a little indisposed, Bhawani has prescribed boiled water instead of fresh water till I get better. The first time I had it, it tasted different. The flavour (of the water!) triggered off memories of something pleasant, but I could not quite put my finger on what it was.

The second time I drank the water, it came back to me: the water, boiled on a hearth using firewood, had the ‘smokey’ taste – a much lighter version of the ‘pungent, earthy aroma of the blue peat smoke’ of the pale yellow Laphroaig Whiskey that Hari had brought for me from one of his trips abroad.

The first time I had Laphroaig, I took it with a splash of soft water. Rolling it around on my tongue, I had enjoyed the sweet nuttiness of the barley matured in small casks. The distinctive flavour of Laphroaig comes from the use of ‘quarter casks’ where the oak surface contact of the fluid is 30% greater than with standard barrels.

Here, sitting in Chalode, I was savouring the delicate, heathery perfume of Islay's streams, thousands of miles away in another continent!

When I was young, an uncle of mine (less than five years older than I was, but an uncle nevertheless!) told me that milk boiled on a fire of dried palm fronds had a distinct flavour. I used to think that his observation was stuff and nonsense. Now I know he was talking sense: the water boiled on firewood does have a markedly different flavour. It took the golden liquid distilled by Laphroaig for that realisation to dawn upon me!