Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Tamil Nadu's very own Shirley Temple, curls and all

In the dying days of my previous maid's tenure (don't ask) she got into the habit of bringing her pre-tween daughter to work. I loudly protested, refusing to have someone underage working under my roof, so the girl soon settled into a routine of curling up on my sofa, sometimes with a muesli bar in hand, flicking through the Tamil channels on the TataSky. Sometimes I would sit with her, tapping at my laptop, and she would point out people or things of interest that would appear.

And that is how I first became introduced to the wonder that is Kutty Pisasu.

Kutty Pisasu was the big Tamil children's film release of the school holidays which have just ended. Kutty Pisasu was big news for its use of cutting edge graphics and special effects. Not Avatar cutting edge, might I point out, more Roger Rabbit.

One day the girl came running into my bedroom to fetch me. "Kutty Pisasu is on, my favourite," she said excitedly, or at least that's what I figure she said as it was in Tamil. Out I went. There, on the screen, was a music video featuring a pudgy little boy dressed in a bright red cowboy outfit, dancing as if the bus would explode if he didn't. But his moves were strangely feminine, like he'd grown up imitating Madhuri Dixit in Dil To Pagal Hai, occasionally breaking into a round of urgent pelvic thrusting.

Next to him in almost every scene was a giant animated robot imitating his dance moves. Sometimes the boy would ride on the robot's shoulders, sometimes he'd be a passenger in a pumpkin coach driven by the robot. Clearly the robot was the Robin to his Batman, the Donkey to his Shrek, the Hobbes to his Calvin.

Of course, it took a lot of Googling to identify the film, but I got there. Turns out, the boy is in fact a girl: Baby Keerthika, a Tamil child dancing prodigy who literally slipped out of the womb hip-thrusting and arm-waving.

Finally a video's been posted on YouTube. This isn't the original clip that sent me into convulsions of laughter, prompting strange looks from the girl, but is quite close and will give you a thorough appreciation of Kutty Pisasu.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

When visitors descend

Our spare bedroom's seen a lot of action. Not nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of action - although maybe so, I don't know - but in the year we've been in Delhi there's been a steady stream of traffic through those twin beds. There was lovely Rachel from London, who, despite a masters' degree from LSE was interning with an NGO here as there are no jobs out there, even for LSE masters graduates, and dossed with us for a few weeks between flatshares. Then there was a French homme from Dubai, out for a month visiting his girlfriend and learning Mandarin here (?). He locked us in the house by accident on his first night, and blew up our inverter at least three times by keeping his blower heater on almost 24/7. My mother, my aunts, my cousin, various friends.

This week a Texan travel writer Jason met a on a trip to Cambodia a year or so ago dropped by, along with his wife and three-year-old. They're en route to a tiny village of 20,000, high in the Himalayas where his wife is studying the indigenous and highly endangered local language.

Just how does a three year old cope in a developing country? Remarkably well, as it turns out. Apart from a hankering for peanut butter (easily available), a week into her first trip to India and she was fine. She was more than fine, she was happy and excitable and polite and friendly and just a little clingy.

Hear that, all my friends and relatives who invoke the children excuse to get out of visiting me.

We went to the Lodi Gardens and even though she got excited at the sight of a watering hose pumping out (sewerage) water onto the grass and went and had a play, her parents didn't freak out, just said, "oh look at that bird!" and rinsed her hands with bottled water. Very impressively chilled.

It is a hard time to visit, given the weather. What else is there to do in Delhi in summer with kids in tow? The Select Citywalk mall is worth precisely one visit, even less if you're on a travel writer's salary.

I had a quick surf around the web and these all seem to be popular options:

1. Toilet museum: Open 10-5, Monday - Saturday. Traces the evolution of toileting.

2. Rail museum: 11 acres of railway fun.

3. Lodi Gardens (early in the morning or late afternoon)

4. Garden of Five Senses (ditto for times)

5. Dancing fountains; the sound and light show at the historic Purana Qila

6. India Gate in the evening: full of vendors, jugglers, people. Like the park in front of the Champs Elysees but less infected with cynicism.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Tao of Family

Apparently there can't just be a happy family reunion, it must come at a cost. In my case, just two months after my cousin's fun wedding, my uncle, the groom's father, died unexpectedly, most likely of a massive heart attack suffered while he was out on his early morning stroll. I hot-footed it down to Bangalore (Jason followed a couple of days later) for a decidedly less festive reunion.

I think my arrival was a bit of a reprieve from all the mourning. You see, it seems I've gotten dark. All that time waiting for rickshaws under the potent Delhi sun (even though it's overcast much of the time) has left me as dark as a Madrasi*. Nevermind that my father is a southie and this particular branch of the family, while Maharashtrian, live in the south and many have married southies, my prized pallid Maharashtrian complexion has fallen at the sword of the rabid northern sun. (Being pale-skinned, even in a progressive family like mine, meant that as an eligible 20-something I could get away with other sins, like being chubby, and still be considered highly eligible.)

As soon as my mother saw me she held me tight for a minute, then pulled away to examine me. "You've gotten so dark," she said, accusingly. Then followed a living-room wide examination of my complexion. "Don't worry," said my cousin through her tears. "It's easy to fix. Just stay indoors for a few weeks and your skin will improve."

Then my grandmother got in on the act. She halted her Hai Bhagwans when she saw me, then said, in Marathi, "How did you get so dark/ why are you wearing shorts/ where is your mangalsutra?", delivering the triple whammy of undutiful granddaughter criticism. "It's okay grandma," I said, stroking her arm. "I'm in my thirties now, no boys are looking at me anymore like that."

"But you look 25. It's just not nice."

Only family can turn what would normally be a compliment into a thinly-veiled stab at one's izzat.

So I quickly learned that I could manipulate awkward situations with my sartorial selections. Aunties arguing over flower choices? Saunter past in a singlet. Grandmother struggling to breathe through her sobs? Just a mere hint of cleavage and no dupatta would distract her. She pulled me aside at one point to make sure I would be appropriately dressed for the quasi-funeral. I think she would have burned some of my clothes in a pyre if she was more mobile. There were lots of discussions about my attire in Marathi, a language I don't speak and comprehend only snippets, but will forever associate with being told off.

There was a funeral of sorts. The cremation had already taken place, just a few hours after the collapse, although I don't think that's normally the case with Hindus. A section of a temple was booked, an ad placed in a newspaper, and a few days later people turned up to pay their respects. There was silent contemplation, a few Gita verses were read, a short speech, a queue to place flowers next to a photograph and to run our hands over incense smoke and over our hair, and that was it.

There are further religious ceremonies held on the tenth day and the thirteenth day after death - the latter is to mark the end of the mourning period and to officially release the soul into the ether. Priests are called to the house to explain the opaque process to the grieving relatives, and also give a price for conducting the ceremonies. I believe the price varies according to factors such as the size and location of the house, what sort of watches are worn by the grieving relatives, and other signposts of wealth. The initial quote was in the region of 1.2 lakh (approx US$2,400), the latest I heard was that it had come down to 20,000 rupees. One part that caused some degree of consternation involved procuring five Brahmins to feed before anyone else was fed. If this bit was eliminated would the rites still be "right"? No one wanted to accede to the antiquated notions of caste in this case. But then it all descended into Marathi and I couldn't follow.

*Madrasi is a derogatory term north Indians use to describe south Indians. When south Indians want to insult northerners they just call them uneducated. Maharashtrians are neither north nor south, but are haughtier than all put together.