Monday, January 31, 2011

My Boys Sure Take Some Beating!

Last Monday was very strange for me — unnerving and sad. It was the fourth and the final day of Pongal. Pongal is the South Indian Harvest Festival; it’s a late English August held on the 14th of January. Christmas here is usually a vague awareness that something might be going on, and if you have a name like John, some body or other will doubtless send a wave or holler a call of Merry Christmas, more likely in hopes of getting a present than a concern over whether your enjoying your own festival. Christmas is dwarfed because we’re getting ready for the New Year (the western one) and that’s dwarfed by the prospect of Pongal.
There are 12 days of Christmas, but only four days of Pongal: and on the fourth day of Pongal, the wise keep a low profile; their heads are kept down low, their eyes cast down to the ground, or on the bed with sheets pulled up to chins; on the fourth day of Pongal you stay indoors, or you creep into your garden cautiously and you don’t go outside your compound wall.
On the fourth day of Pongal, the ghosts of Old India rise up as the clock is wound back 30 years or more. In that time ‘we’ are the lords of the fiefdom, and ‛they’ are outcastes from the colony sector, who come to work in our fields and enter our boundaries, hands out-stretched in supplication. Old folks on their death-beds rise up from their final agues, hands stretched forth in hope of a bag of rice, not to nourish their skeletal bodies for now, but to nourish their souls for later on. My spine tingles. This can’t be happening.

The Present—Past Tense
Someone drops the lid of a saucepan. The clang shocks me out of my brown study. This isn’t the mid ’70’s — it’s Monday 17th January 2011, for Heaven’s Sake. The Old India has gone, and gone for good. The New India has arrived, the India that powers the software that runs British Gas. These days, India is everywhere, not just here. You know: the India where in the Home Counties I stub my toe on a sharp stone in the garden and curse because the street light’s bust. In a fit of pique I pick up the phone to dial the Council. I’m answered by a pleasant young man. He thinks I think he’s local, so I exploit his illusions and play with him for a bit. He wonders how I appear to know so much about him, little suspecting that his call centre language training hasn’t ironed out all the creases in his accent. I pick up the wrinkles in his speech envelope, because I specialise in the pieces that other people miss. I already know his Indian PIN code from the dialect twang, and I tell him my UK postal code and the number of my house. He apologizes profusely for the neglect ‛our’ local council has shown me, and promises that he’ll send a van round the following day. He asks if there’s anything else he can do for me, and I sigh down the wire, giving him a benediction in the Tamil Tongue as I disconnect the line. Perhaps he’s now wondering who is who and whether he’s awake or sleeping. I muse about him too, finding I’m wracked with a twinge of guilt, because I moaned about a street light, but I do have other lights in my village street. If the call-centre man is lucky enough to have a street-light, he’ll be even luckier if it’s working.

Snap Out of It!
Now I must attend; I must wake up from the dream within my reverie. I’m not sure which dream was which, but the one I’ve woken into now sounds urgent: There are shouts and calls and shrill reedy whistles as fingers are stuck in mouths. My Devaraj, normally so attentive, is only half ‘there’; mobile phones chirrup, and motorbikes are revving. ‟Sorry anbey” he says, putting on his coat, “There’s trouble” and he’s half out the door... I’m seized with panic as my dream cruelly collapses. This is like being left back at the hospital again, your mother going away and leaving you. I look pleadingly at him but he says he has to leave, and he’s left an uncle to see over me. My final plea is that of course he must go, but please at least tell me what all this is about, and it’s here that he takes a short pause and sits down to tell me the tale.

I Must Take the Beating

There’s been a bit of trouble, dear, he explains. A friend was involved in a motor-cycle accident and Barney went to help. It was in Anna Purna, a village which contains factions which rival ours; things were taken amiss and someone in a state of intoxicated insobriety called the Police. (The bastards, I think. The bastards called out bigger Bastards, who horned in to join in the fray. And the bigger Bastards’ policy is: take money first and beat the other side. Make an arrest for disrupting the peace, then take the culprits down to the Police Station for a further beating. There’s usually a big brutish bloke in there. They pick him out for his size and put a uniform on him and give a piece of rubber to beat people with.)

That’s what they’ve done with Barney. After the first beating, they’ve taken him down to the station for a further, harsher beating. I have to go to help. If they keep on beating him, they’ll end up making out an FIR, a First Incident Report. Once that’s done there’ll be no turning back. There’ll be a Court Case which will take months and months; his passport will be impounded, and he won’t be able to accompany you to England.

I have to go. I’ve got a different T-shirt to the one my brother’s wearing. While they’re taking a breather between beatings, we’ll switch shirts. Then when they see me with his top on, they’ll think he’s me, and I am he. So goodbye, my love, I’ll go and take what comes to me. Don’t worry —I’ll be back. Two or three hours, or perhaps a little sooner. I’ll be back.

Going to help out a mate in trouble is standard practice here, but it’s not just social politeness. It’s really vital. Helping out a friend is part of the survival mechanism. My tender carer, whose soft hands know every inch of my delicate frame, is going to swop places with his brother. He’s cheerfully going to submit to the pain, to let the Police beat him with fists, with sticks, and perhaps a rubber hose. And after that, he’s planning to return, and take his place along my side for the remainder of the night.

* * * * *

For a moment I wonder why the cicadas sound so shrill tonight, but then I know that the singing in my ears is just the sound of being stunned. I recall a recent commuication we received a week or so back: Barney’s Visa restrictions have now been lifted and he is free, should he so desire it, to apply for membership as a Reserve Policeman.

Laying Down His Life...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Two Tonys [i]

The Tonys were home-makers, and their kitchen turned out wonders.  Grisly wonders, on this occasion, laced with blood — pâtés and terrines.  I nibbled awkwardly at some crisp sheets of Melba toast, to show willing.” — From The Novel Cedilla by Adam Mars-Jones ('literary sadist') to be published on Thursday 20th January, 2011.

It's funny how the wheels turn. The last time I had two Tonys for company was 1972; they’d mince along in my direction before perching on the sofa next to me (keeping a wary distance) before to me and saying things like: “What have you been doing today?” or “We didn’t see you last week... hope things were OK” or “Tony managed to procure some Gjetost yesterday. We had to go to Robert Sayle to buy a stainless steel cheese slicer at a shocking price. We bought brown Rye-King and Cashew-Nutta from the health shop in Rose Crescent and found it perfect as a base on which we could lay the slivers, and cutting it in itself is quite a business. Anyway, the first thing Tony said was, ‘Make sure we save a slice for Little John, who can’t get any’ — Didn’t we, Tony?” and I was handed a brown crispbread smeared with brown goo and a sliver of some fudge-like substance balanced on the top. I was starving but I asked him if he’d he’d put it on the counter for me to take later. I couldn’t stand the idea of the expectant looks I’d get from them, eagerly awaiting my comment on the strange cheese, knowing full well that they’d have no interest whatever in my thoughts which they’d merely use as a springboard to launch into their chic opinions and judgments. I hate listening to people’s judgments on food I haven’t tried, and I hate listening to opinions of dishes I haven’t eaten when they’re prequelled with details of the ingredients you’ll need, methods of preparation and cooking. You’re just supposed to enjoy the dish first. You’re supposed to be enamoured with it so much that you end up gagging for the recipe.

I left the crispbread on the counter, determined not to take even a nibble as I’d been doubly insulted in one sentence: ‘Little John can’t get any’ indeed! It was true: I ‘couldn’t get any’ because until a few moments ago I had no clue as to what the Hell ‘Gjetost Cheese’ was. That’s always always a valid reason, of course, but somehow I don’t think that was what the Tonys had in mind. Although I was hungry, my real appetite gnawed at a deeper level. I didn’t go to CHE meetings in those days to eat vol-au-vents and go into soufflé recipes, but that was the groove into which people seemed to be channeling me. There were a few interesting people on the other side of the room, one of them a rather gaunt and hauntingly attractive youth who seemed to be lonely and searching. I recalled my first trip to India about eighteen months ago and felt we’d find some common ground. Yet when I struggled to stand and begin to hobble over all eyes were fixed in my direction. A few started to make ‘let me help’ gestures and before I knew it one of the dratted Tonys (who must have been following the direction of my gaze) horned in with a statement like ‘Let’s see what we can do to get you fixed up’. Nothing could have been more off-putting.
Allergic by now to cheese I’d never tasted, my small burning flame of desire was quenched by the smothering help of one of the Tonys. I altered my course and made a bee-line for the door as if I’d never had the slightest intention of making contact with anyone: I’m good at doing that. I did manage though to exchange a smile at the haunting youth — it was a swift glance which escaped their radar, and I even managed to roll my eyes heavenwards in their direction and that raised a further smile from the young man. Evidently eye-rolling had the same meaning in India. It was really nice, and it was enough for me.
The steps which ascended into the meeting room were perilous to ascend, but even dicier when you tried to go down. I’d given no thought to this vital aspect and was suddenly afraid of toppling over, both physically and from sheer pride. Providentially a hand appeared from out of the shadows. It was a mirror image of one of the opening scenes of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. In the classic (and gripping) romantic thriller a woman dressed in white from head to toe appears out of the shadows and solicits help to cross the heath, on the condition that ‘you will not ask me any questions, or interfere with me in any way’. On this occasion a figure appeared from out of the shadows: a man in a casual white suit which went from shoulder to toe. Middle-aged in appearance, with a kind face, his movements were soft and firm. He eased me down the perilous dark descent, then softly walked with me to the car, where he held the door open for me like a chauffeur. His actions were very physical, but gently so and his lilting Welsh asked if I’d be all right for going up the steps to my room. I said fine yes thanks, the steps to my room were very easy. I had somewhere else to go first but another night I’d be grateful for help and perhaps a little company, stopping short of the mention of ‘a coffee’ which was usually a lewd thing to offer in those semi-secret days.
“Don’t be put off by tonight,” he said, “they mean well, but seem unable to see that people do need to find their own way.” I said it’s OK and it didn’t matter and I was used to it by now. He stood outside on the steps of 5, Glisson Road, Cambridge and waved. Waved until I reached the end and turned right into Regent Street, then left into the imposing wrought iron gates of Downing.
All the way back I wished I’d accepted his offer of help, and I wondered if we’d ever meet again. You see, he’d saved me from the third insult from the Tonys which usually topped the evening. Politely but firmly one of them would put his hands together and beam the question which had me totally stumped:
“And what are you going to do now?”

*     *     *     *     *

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Blanket Babies

I need to introduce a lifelong friend; a friend who's been constantly at my side from the cradle. This friend stays young, and when age comes, she is renewed. Somehow she is always fresh and fair. She warms me when I'm cold and cools me when I'm hot. In my native land she's cast off not long after infancy, but in India she's acquired new fans, and I'm happy to say her latest recruit is my handsome carer and lifelong friend, Devaraj whose name means God King.

In UK they're hardly given a second thought, but the other day when I sent a lady into town with a specimen to see if we could get another one, I became fascinated with the reports that came back to me. They had never seen anything like it. Too good for here, they said; and another added that nowhere in Tiruvannamalai could you get a thing like that. “Try Spencers Plaza in Pondicherry” added another one, “They've got them in there”. How people who have just seen something for the first time have no idea about it in the first minute, and yet know exactly where they are sold in the next is something I never really managed to understand, but at least I felt that I was on the trail, and that one way or another the cellular blanket may be had in India.

The greatness of the blanket is that it starts on you in a miniscule way. It jokes with you a bit by not feeling in the least bit warm when it touches your skin — the feeling is cool, although not unpleasantly so — it's a light covering more reminiscent of cotton slacks you'd wear in the tropics to let your skin breathe in the heat of the day. After a few minutes of having the blanket on my lap I touch it again, and again am greeted by coolness, but with a subtle difference: my legs feel warmer without being warmed; they feel as if they're starting to make their own heat, the body cells being stoked and primed and winking into life.

Like a second skin the blanket breathes. The breeze passes me, or the the fan oscillates and every puff of air movement is felt under the blanket. It's no longer a question of 'me' and 'it': it's joined with me and is a part of my being. It suffuses and osmoses, rocking with the baby on the top of the tree as the bough in the wind. The wind kept everything light and airy, and my mother, in tune with her oft-sung nursery rhyme theme, kept in tune with the rocking air when she provided me with the new wonder blanket. Mum was a walking advertisement rep, and she told me about the blanket's magical properties in such a way that I learnt the words as catechism. In many ways, like her mother before her, she manipulated and domineered every domestic situation; yet her ways which would otherwise smother me to stupefaction were here aërated and mollified, until they were made as light as the soufflés she showed off to her neighbours — feathery clouding sponges of near-nothingness which didn't sink, however much you fanned them.

Blanket of snow, night's thick blanket or blanket weed in a pond: all of these are smothering words, terms that allow no breath to enter. Cellular these miracles may be, but blankets they are not.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   *    *    *
Research into this new kind of material was actively under way in 1952, and by 1955 Early's of Witney, Oxon had gone into full production. The material was taken up by hospitals in a big way, as being cotton, the blankets could be sterilized by boiling. One make which springs to make was made by Zorbit who made The Antibac® made for Hospital use only. I had one of those for many years.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dysenteric Pebbles

For three days I wasn't able to make my day-time trips to The Cave: I'd gone into a close partnership with the toilet, and nothing could untie me for longer than 20 minutes. It was a shame, for a squirrel had given birth to a clutch of young, and was busy scampering and scuffling about as the did her frenzied nest duties. Before locking the doors, I'd enquired if she had access to the outside, and was assured that she jumped out through a ventilator near-by. For three days her brood hardly entered my mind, which was more concerned with where to pitch my tent to rest in the field of consciousness. In the phantom world between outbursts of heat and sweating, followed by tooth chattering cold. I called for blankets – lots of them, yet 20 minutes later I was drenched in sweat. Somewhere between these two states, there's a grey land where you can take your rest, and that's where I managed to sleep; I gobbled the slumber deeply and shortly before the cycle moved on, and I reckoned that the interval between the two states was about the same as Dawn and Dusk on the planet Mercury.

On the third day I rose shakily from my bed, initially unknowing whether I was dead or alive; but the smell that came to me as a entered The Cave told me that the dead thing definitely wasn't me. Something had passed away. The rotting stench was unmistakeable, yet not steady. It blew over in acrid little wafts. Our first thought was to make a search for a dead lizard as one of them passes away in the bookshelves every so often. However on this occasion nothing was found until our noses led us to the box where the squirrel had her kits. It was too late for two of them and the third, dehydrated and shrivelled, was squeaking its last, calling for milk we couldn't give. I was told wrong: the mother wasn't getting out by the window vent, but would wait until I made my daily entrance. I think that during the confusion and process of the guys propping me up, she must have scampered in and out.

Another squirrel has entered my life now, this time through the kitchen. She enters through the extractor fan over the cooker and is busy making her nest in a cardboard box full of wires, broken plugs and adaptors This is a more sensible choice for her, and I look forward enormously to watching the kits scuttle in and out. They all look like beach pebbles in embryo before they open their eyes, grey-backed with silver on the bellies; they're gobs of mercury waiting to streak along, just at the edge of field of vision, slipping past and gone so quick I wonder if anything was ever there.