Saturday, February 25, 2012

Story Telling and Grandparents

Air Vice Marshal VM Tiwari on retirement from the Air Force along with Commander Chopra from the navy, started an NGO ‘Bal Vikas Bharati’, which is devoted to overall development of children. One of the aims of the NGO is, ‘to tell stories to children for their all round development’. He delivered a lecture in JVV in early February 2012, highlighting their cause. During the course of his presentation Tiwari noted that they chose story telling as it is the most inexpensive method of inculcating the spirit of enquiry and imagination in children. They have set up libraries in 60 locations all around India and conduct story telling sessions for the under privileged children, igniting their imagination. He added that story telling is a very effective tool to make children imbibe culture, mythology, science and so on.

In my generation, children grew up listening to the stories that their grandparents and parents told. In the absence of any radio or TV, story telling developed as an art form and thrived. Stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Panchatantra, the Vikram and Betal series were very common and frequently narrated to children. The purpose of storytelling was many. Probably it was a carry forward from the days, when there was no print and all prose was committed to memory. In any case stories filled the gap till children learnt how to read for themselves. In school we had our Hindi teacher DRS and Sanskrit teacher KST (Kamapala Story Teller) keeping us endlessly occupied with gripping stories from mythology and history.

Apart from all these high value benefits, storytelling created a bond between children and their elders. All my outstation cousins used to congregate without fail in our grandparents place for the summer holidays in Gavipuram. Dinners were invariably on the terrace, with all of us sitting in a circle on the floor and having ‘Kai Tuthu oota’ ( a Kannada phrase, meaning ‘hand fed food’) The dish is centrally mixed in a vessel and the nominated elder feeds the children one by one by hand, each receiving a helping of food. While ‘Kai Tuthu oota’ was in progress, we would listen to endless stories and later fall asleep contented and dream the night away.

We continued the same traditions with our children. Whenever we visited my B I L’s house in Bangalore in Jayanagar during the summer vacations, all the children used to be fed ‘Kai Tuthu oota’ accompanied by endless stories.

With our children growing up and their marriage, storytelling took a back seat. With the arrival of grand children, the art of storytelling once again came to the forefront. All children love stories – more the better. Children love simple stories with a happy ending and preferably a story which never ends. Both Ayaan and Samara enjoy hearing stories narrated by their grandparents. My wife prefers to take the traditional route and read out well known stories from books. I on the other hand invent stories and make up as I go along. In my earlier blog - I wrote “Our GS needs to hear at least 3 stories prior to sleeping. In the manual of "Roles and Responsibilities of Grand Parents Vol I - Apr 2007" issued by our daughter, storytelling is my part of ship. I enjoy story telling. It’s unlike answering questions. Here you have the liberty of letting your imagination run wild and a few inaccuracies are allowed. Normally I start with the 'Bad Wood Cutter' story which is very loosely structured; it can take on many other sub stories without losing sight of the main story. These sub stories change every day. The characters and the plot vary according to the mood and there is a very high chance of making our GS sleep. Sometimes you get caught and GS says, "Tata, last time you told me that the crow went to the sparrow's house and now you are telling it all ulta pulta”. One has to be very alert and on guard to protect one’s reputation as a good story teller. Never attempt any story telling after a good beer session - continuity and plot are generally the victims. 

Samara on the other hand wants stories devoid of any violence. People or animals getting hurt is a big ‘no no’ or else she will say, “Tata I don’t want this story, it’s scary” and so on. Her favourite story is about Tata losing all his hair– how the crow wanted to build a good nest for her children and plucked all the hair of Tata’s head. The crow built a lovely nest wherein all her chicks lived happily ever after.

I find story telling extremely therapeutic. During my retirement farewell drink, when called upon to say a few words, I said “I will miss the navy very much … the thing I will miss the most is a captive audience” – meaning a posse of juniors who would gather around whenever you narrated an incident or a story or a joke. One thing good about the navy or for that matter the army and air force is the unfailing regularity with which your narrations become interesting and successful – especially if you are their reporting officer. The juniors are forever ready to listen attentively to your jokes, laugh loudly and appear to enjoy themselves. On retirement you disinherit this great privilege and have to make do with wife and children. It’s common to see your dear ones showing three or five fingers meaning, “Baba, we have heard this one five times and so on.”

Suddenly all this isolation comes to an end with the arrival of the grandchildren. You are their hero. They love the closeness and the attention you shower on them and they are proud and happy to be in your company. They earnestly ask you to tell them stories which they genuinely enjoy listening. They have, with one loving smile, restored your status to ‘being wanted’.

My advice to all grandparents – spend as much time with the grand children as possible, go on walks, picnics, treks, tell stories – they make you feel wanted and important. It is the best healing touch one can get at your age. Enjoy them, for before you know it, they are reading on their own or are out in the world living out their own stories.

A good soup for your aging soul.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Big Fat Indian Wedding

The Big Fat Indian Wedding

Like any other activity in India, weddings are very much a public affair. All the ingredients of a truly Indian function can be found in a wedding. Lots of unconnected people, uncontrolled noise, nonstop music, endless religious ceremonies, unbridled children, over dressed women of all ages, a posse of bored males, scrumptious food and a highly stressed bride and the groom come together in a marriage hall to celebrate ‘The Big Fat Indian Wedding’. The ensuing cacophony symbolizes what India is all about. In a lot of ways the marriage hall resembles a mini India.

In some families the concept of an ‘Arranged Marriage’ still rules the roost. The parents find a suitable match for their offspring through the ‘Friends and Relatives’ network or through religious organizations. If these channels fail, ads in the newspapers are resorted to or marriage bureaus are contacted to find a match. Perhaps the most interesting part of this phenomenon is the matrimonial ads. Check this one out-" Wanted a groom for slim, fair ,thirty year old, looks much younger, never married, 5ft, sweet, homely, caring, responsible, intelligent chartered accountant, well versed in home activities, extremely good working, exceptionally sincere, dedicated, emotional, sincere….” Reading this ad, one immediately visualizes a goddess or a Cinderella type of girl, waiting to be married. If one goes by these ads, all Indian girls are the epitome of beauty, brains and character. Equally interesting is an ad which reads, "Virgin bachelor boy, 39 but looks 30 really, 180 cms. tall, fair, very handsome, vegetarian, non-smoker, teetotaler, MA Psychology, registered for PhD, permanent confirmed lecturer at Delhi University, author of books, been to USA to present original theoretical research findings, most likely to achieve fame, owns own big bungalow in South Delhi." How boring can one get ? The deal can get further complicated with religion, caste and horoscope coming into play.

Fortunately for us, our children found their own life partners. One day my son came home and started decorating his room with a variety of candles and balloons. Mother dear asked him “Hello! What’s happening? We have electricity at home.” To which he gave a very nonchalant reply ,“I am proposing to Shubhra today”. Anirban proposed to daughter dear in a very exclusive restaurant in the outskirts of Bangalore called ‘Grasshopper ‘. He had booked the entire place and had it lit with candles and soft music to set the mood. In fact, I proposed to Jai on the New Year’s Eve night of 31 Dec 1974 after being sufficiently fortified with XXX. Jai said, ‘I’ll think about it’ in a very mature tone and then immediately ran and informed her mother, who very wisely and with wry humour said,” If he repeats his proposal again in the morning, we’ll see.”

After finding a suitable match, there are a number of activities to be completed – Foremost among them is setting an auspicious date; the marriage hall has to be booked and the engagement has to organized, the priest to be selected, catering etc. Then comes the difficult part of purchasing saris and jewellery, how many, the colours, type, where, when (and for us, it was more a question of HOW. ). The father keeps visiting the bank on a regular basis till the manager whispers, ‘All empty.’

The actual ‘kick off’ starts with the distribution of the invitation card. These cards are printed in hundreds and distributed very freely to all and sundry. Normally there are no set rules when it comes to inviting people for the wedding – the more the merrier. My uncle Mr. Sreenivasa Rao used to narrate a joke - Major Smith on receiving a marriage invitation which said, among other things, “request the pleasure of your company,” –took his entire company of 120 soldiers to the wedding! Often we receive invitations marked ‘Prabhakar and family ‘and if the writer of the invite is busy, it simply reads, ‘Prabhakar and fly’. Knowing the bride or the groom or their parents is not a must. We just want to inform everyone around that ‘a wedding is on’ in the family. Probably in yester years when the immediate social group was a village – every Rama, Krishna and Lakshmana was invited. The tradition continues. However in our case we prepared a criterion for inviting people to the wedding. Priority went to the friends and acquaintances of the bride and the groom. Next in line were our friends and relatives who knew our children. Many protracted meetings later we were able to prune the list down to “Absolutely Must Invite! ”

In the cultural crucible called India many customs and traditions have got intermixed. Idlis and dosas crossed the Vindhyas soon after the British left; in return, the south received salwar kameezes and aloo parathas. In this great amalgamation, the ‘Mehndi’ and ‘Sangeet’ have fully entrenched themselves in the South and bring in a large amount of colour, fun and gaiety to an otherwise serious, ritual bound weddings. The girls in the family practice endlessly till they reach professional standards. During my niece Shreya’s wedding, I was roped into the dance as ‘Superhero Kandasamy’. The song and dance ‘Excuse me, Mr. Kandasamy’ with eight pretty girls, was an instant hit in the Sangeet. The irony of the event was the presence of Suchitra the original singer at the Sangeet.

Another USP of the Indian wedding is the ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) – one can arrive at any time as long as you are not the bride, the groom or their parents. It’s an open house and everyone feels free to come and go whenever they want. The hall is open, breakfast onwards till lunch and in some cases all the way to dinner. The policy is, ‘walk in, walk out’. Some arrive early in the morning and partake in all the celebrations and all the meals and go home contented. The busy ‘working lot’ arrive just before lunch time and leave immediately thereafter. Some come in much later to wish the couple and have snacks and so on. I distinctly remember an acquaintance coming to the wedding of my friend’s daughter, bang on at 8am, having a hefty breakfast and thereafter proceeding straight to the retiring room to nurse a terrible hangover from the previous night’s ‘Sangeet’ ceremony. The poor soul surfaced in time for lunch, having missed the entire marriage. Through the Indian lens, there was nothing amiss.

The religious ceremonies that accompany any marriage are well past their shelf life. Nobody understands the hymns, shlokas and the sacred chanting – I doubt whether the priest himself understands their meaning. At our daughter’s wedding the two priests who were brothers got into an argument over the sequence, one claiming that the other was repeating the hymns over and over again. Our ‘S in L’ from Shillong, had to bear the brunt of all the protracted ceremonies in silence. Not being used to squatting for more than a few minutes, he looked at me in such a way which when deciphered meant, ‘Baba I prefer kashiyatra to this!’ (In this ceremony, the groom pretends to leave for Kashi, a pilgrimage center to devote himself to God and a life of prayer. He carries a walking stick and other meager essentials with him, to imply that he is not interested in becoming a householder. The girl's father intervenes and requests him to accept his daughter as his life partner. He exhorts him to fulfill his responsibilities as a householder and thus follow what is written in the scriptures. The groom relents and returns to the marriage hall where he is received by the bride). At some weddings, written explanations are handed over to all the invitees. In some others, a selected person translates the whole proceedings from Sanskrit to English. All this continues unabated, in the midst of blaring music from the nadaswaram (an instrument not unlike the clarinet) played by the wedding musicians.

The invitees themselves are not really interested in the proceedings as such. Some mothers have come to find suitable brides for their sons and similarly grooms for their daughters. Some are busy catching up with their relatives and friends. An exception to the run of the mill invitees, is a small group of enterprising males, who after depositing their wives in the hall, become extremely restless and start surveying the hall for likeminded mates. On locating such mates, their eyes meet, secret signals are exchanged and then they quietly disappear to the nearest watering hole, to once again surface in the hall, just in time for lunch. After a few beers or a G and T, this contented lot spread bonhomie all around. I belong to this unholy nexus.

The lunch itself is a big jamboree with the invitees running around to find a suitable chair to sit on. The scene has all the trappings of an army battalion charging to conquer an important post. Once seated you are treated to an elaborate Indian lunch. Another interesting aspect of the lunch is - one can sit anywhere. In this melee, I have often been separated from my wife and ended up having lunch alone and having to wait a long time for her to finish. In this carnival like atmosphere, anyone can enter the hall and partake of an excellent meal. In our college days, we used to joke about a friend of ours who made a habit of attending marriage lunches uninvited. If by chance the girl’s side enquired about his identity, he would quickly say, “I am from the boy’s side,” and vice versa. When accosted by both the parties together he would retort, “I’m from the music party”. If there is a large crowd present for the meal, there may be several ‘Panktis’ (Batches) of people being served food. In the earlier days, there were no chairs and tables and one had to sit on the floor and eat. The posse of waiters would come to serve food dressed in a dhoti or a wet towel tied up to knee length. Whenever they bent down to serve, the opposite side was treated to the ultimate ‘Vishwaroopa Darshana’ experience. (Vishwaroop refers to the ultimate God appearing in a form that incorporates the complete creation or universe in it).

Then there is the reception in the evening, wherein the bride and the groom come all decked up and sit on a dais. There is no dress code for the invitees. The men come dressed in various forms – suits, band gala coats, dhotis, plain trousers and so on. The women generally wear a rich silk sari supported by extravagant make up and an equally exaggerated hairdo. The invitees queue up to meet the couple, hand over the gift, wish them and stand for a photo op. This can be a very taxing experience. I remember attending a reception of a very popular local doctor who had invited half the city. The queue was so long, we had to bribe our way to the dais. Once, I had to sit through a reception, waiting for my chance to wish the couple, next to a huge speaker which was blaring out “ABBA’s ‘I am a Tiger’, wherein ‘I’m a tiger’ is repeated 64 times. Recently we went to attend a very high profile wedding –the ‘who’s who’ of Bangalore and New Delhi were there – the ex PM, Secretaries to the GOI, military and police brass, business tycoons and many others. Here again, we were not spared the queue. The saving grace was a well stocked bar and gourmet food in the adjoining hall. I did a quick calculation and figured that the queue would disappear in about two hours. I thereafter went on to spend a most eventful ‘two hours’ outside. Long live ’Johnnie Walker’! Liquor is served in very few receptions. With your favourite tipple in hand, it is easier to tackle an Indian wedding. The people, the atmosphere, the ambiance, conversation and food are rendered instantly fascinating. One’s mood gets elevated and one invariably begins to enjoy the wedding.

Our whole family once went to attend a quiet church wedding with our grand children. In contrast to the noisy Hindu weddings, the atmosphere was very solemn and a sense of seriousness prevailed. The priest was conducting the ceremony with an air of authority and his majestic voice echoed from the high ceiling of the church. In the background, unknown to all of us, my grandson had noticed my granddaughter holding a marriage card which he did not have. Like a hungry cheetah, he stealthily pounced on her and took possession of the card. In retaliation, my GD went into vocal overdrive and let out an ear splitting shriek. Thereafter the mothers and grandparents carried out an extremely speedy evacuation, putting the ’Miracle of Dunkirk’ to shame.

In recent years, a marriage from being a simple religious ceremony for solemnizing the union of a male and female in wedlock has become a platform for displaying power, wealth and social status. Receptions have become complex entertainment programs complete with Event Managers, RJs & Masters of Ceremonies’. Film stars, popular musicians, politicians, sport men are paid to attend the reception. Elaborate theme stages are erected, famous chefs are flow in, Ikebana artists make flower arrangements, making the evening nothing but a vulgar exhibition of the material world. The essence of the wedding, the bride and groom are lost in this spectacle of opulence. Agarwal, an Indian born metals commodities trader and investor, hosted the wedding of his daughter Vinita in Venice from 12 – 14 May 2011. It is reported that singer Shakira was paid a whooping 15 million USD to sing during the celebrations.

All said and done, Indian weddings can be great fun and good ‘time pass’; something like eating peanuts on a train, waiting for your stop to arrive.