I was in Madras recently, to be with my parents as my father had just come home after a major surgery. It’s never easy to see a beloved parent reduced to a shadow of his former self and in pain; writing, with an eye on the funny side of things and the endearing quirkiness that life in Madras is so full of, is one way of coping with the situation. So, without further ado, and with a doff of the hat to that old classic, the Twelve Days of Christmas, here is my strongly spiced, tongue in cheek version of some of my experiences during my time there.
On the Twelve Days of Convalescence I faced:
One Recovering Patient: My father. Eighty five years old, but with a mind and spirit of someone decades younger. A delightful mix of the mischievous and meditative, taking as much delight in bathroom humor as in a contemplation of history or philosophy. Charms my daughter with his old-fashioned chivalry and regales my son with tales of his youthful exploits. A father who, along with my mother, inculcated in my brother and me a love of books and learning and who told us to embrace our inner eccentric and not follow the herd (he may have succeeded rather more than he anticipated or wanted to in this) .Married to my mother for 57 years, a marriage overflowing with love, laughter and arguments, grand fights and grander reconciliations.
Two House Numbers: All over Madras, a curious house numbering system prevails. Almost every home has an old number and a new number, thanks to a re-numbering scheme that was introduced around a decade ago. The city of spacious bungalows and large gardens is fast morphing into one jam-packed with apartment complexes; also, a plot of land that once held one home now often accommodates multiple residences. So a street that was, for instance, once neatly numbered 1 Ramalinga Street, 2, Ramalinga Street, and so on, became a messy jumble with madcap numbers like 1, 1/A, 1A/2, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3.1, and an imaginative and chaotic range of others. Behind the numbers and their constellation of satellite numbers lie sagas of fortunes made and lost, family feuds, sibling rivalries, migrating families and the explosive growth of a city.
Whoever it is whose job it is to deal with these matters decided that enough was enough, and came up with the new house numbering plan. The idea was that the maze-like madness of the old numbers would be erased clean, and a nice, orderly, systematically regulated arrangement would take its place. With unsurprising shortsightedness, they failed to account for the fact that nothing in Madras gets erased. New things are just piled on top of the old and these multiple, incompatible layers coexist in merry and messy disharmony. So it is with the house numbers. Now all homes have both an old number and a new number, and in many cases, it is impossible to know which is which. Some homes have only the old number displayed, some, only the new, some, both, and a handful are nice enough to give all the information needed to ensure that an entire morning is not spent wandering up and down a street looking for a place. Honestly, I don’t know why we bother with numbers. Ask anybody for directions in Madras and they will say, “Opposite the Ratna Clinic office, the house with the pink gate”......or “three houses from the Vinayagar kovil, on the same side”......or “ask the watchman sitting on the blue chair once you enter the street and he will tell you”.....
I’m curious to see how/if Google Maps deals with this!
Three hospital visits: A hospital is never a fun place to go to, except if it is to have or visit a baby. Unfortunately, my father’s path to recovery was not entirely smooth, and we had to see his surgeons to sort things out. And so I got to witness, in short, intense bursts, the curious ecosystem that is the hospital. There is an oppressively stringent hierarchy among the non-doctor staff, and if one is not at the receiving end of its denouement, it is quite funny to watch the bossing around, bowing and scraping, flirting and turf battles. Jostling for top position are the Receptionist and the Head Nurse. The Receptionist controls the access to the doctors and is treated with fawning courtesy by the waiting masses who hope that their good behavior will win the Receptionist’s heart and gain them quick entry into the Doctor’s chambers. The Head Nurse, on the other hand, has the heady prestige of close contact with the Doctors. It is a standoff as far as who wields the more power, and any frustration that results from this is taken out on the staff further down the totem pole. The assistant nurses and junior receptionists lord it over the wheelchair attendants and sweepers, who, scrabbling around at the very bottom rung of the hospital pecking order, have nobody to vent their disgruntlement on and perform their chores with as much foot-dragging and slouching as they can get away with.
This chain of command dissolves into a puddle of terror when the Doctor arrives. Everybody, from the sweeper to the Head Nurse and Receptionist, snaps to attention. All rise, as if it is the school principal who has entered the classroom. Sweet, wistful smiles grace the faces of the nurses and receptionist, but they are lost on the Doctor who strides past looking nobody in the eye. But oh, don’t be misled by that downward glance. The Doctor’s gimlet eye misses nothing. Mere steps before his office, and just as the staff are starting to relax from their rigid hyper-attentiveness, a ringing bark issues from the Doctor: “Why is that wheelchair left against the wall? And what are all those papers scattered over the reception desk?” He vanishes into his office as loudly hissed recriminations and furious finger-pointing follow in his wake. The sweeper takes advantage of the confusion to disappear for his coffee break.
In this high stress, high stakes arena, I witnessed both acts of great compassion as well as those of unconscionable callousness.
Four Pressure Cooker Whistles: It is midday, and the pressure cooker shrieks shrilly, once, twice, thrice, a fourth time, before the stove is turned off and our ears are relieved of the agony. In the kitchen the day’s meals are being prepared after a short but intense discussion earlier in the morning about what to cook.
It is the same every morning. My mother will ask me, “What do you want to eat today?”, and I will answer, “It doesn’t matter, I’m fine with anything”, and my mother will say “But you’re here for such a short while, I want you to eat the things you love and cannot get in New York”, and I will say, “OK, how about matthan erisherri”, and she will say, ‘But you had that just the other day”, and I will say, “Oh, OK, then how about keerai molahootal” and she will say “Why, was the matthan erisherri not good? Was there not enough coconut?” and I will say, “No, it was perfectly fine, it was really yummy”, and she will say “Then why did you say you did not want it?” and I will say, “Because we just had it the other day”, and she will say, “OK, so what do you want to eat, then?” and that’s how it is that we have vengaya sambar for lunch.
Five Top Secrets: Madras is a city rich in secrets. The Madras Secret is a unique phenomenon, because it defies all the characteristics of normal secrets. Everyone who is anyone in Madras knows its secrets; why these secrets are secrets is a mystery the secret of which remains unsolved. The Madras secret fizzes its way down the chain of gossip like high-voltage electricity. If you are not privy to it, you are to be pitied, because, really, how could you be so disconnected with reality and not have friends and relatives in the right places?
I must move in the right circles because I heard no fewer than five Top Secrets in my short time there.
X’s sister’s father-in-law’s youngest brother has the Big C. What do you mean, who is he? How can you not know who he is? He married A’s brother’s mother-in-law’s oldest sister. SHHHHHH, not so loud, everyone will hear. They are keeping it a Top Secret.
Your classmate N is looking for a new job. How can he look for a job if he is keeping it a secret, I ask. SHHHHH, it is a Top Secret, don’t discuss it with him. Our neighbor’s son’s uncle’s brother-in-law received his resume in confidence from N.
B’s upstairs neighbor’s sister, the one in Dubai who married that good-for-nothing vagabond, her marriage is in trouble. It is a Top Secret. SHHHHHH don’t mention her name, they will hear.
G is looking for a good boy for her daughter, but G has told me to keep it a secret. G is one smart woman. By keeping it a Top Secret, she will ensure that the best grooms come her daughter’s way.
And finally, a real, normal Secret. Z’s downstair neighbor’s brother’s youngest brother-in-law is throwing a Top Secret surprise birthday party for his wife. No doubt, the wife was among the first to hear, and now has her work cut out for her to act suitably surprised when the Secret is revealed.
Six Harvard Universities: It is that time of year when students apply to US (and other) universities. Increasingly, students from India are applying to US universities, and I noticed something quite curious. Everybody, it seems, is applying to Harvard. Probe a little deeper, and it transpires that the US is littered with Harvard Universities. You and I might not have heard of it, but those in the know will assure you that aside from the inconsequential, niggling fact that its real name is University of Smallsville in Nowhere, North Dakota, or something like that, it is really no different from the real Harvard University. Why, the local newspaper ranked it the Top School in Smallsville, the Harvard of south-central North Dakota, and there are reports on the Internet that state that in certain disciplines, it is even better than the real Harvard. It is best not to enter into an argument with the parents of these applicants; I just wish them and their offspring well.
But the most heart-warming Harvard story is that of Sarasa’s granddaughter. Sarasa is my parents’ household help, and her granddaughter, all of 4 years old, goes to a nearby nursery school, the Sri Harvard International KG School. Sri Harvard has taught her well, because at this tender age she can count, recite both the Tamil and English alphabets and sing nursery rhymes and geethams with perfect rhythm and melody. Indeed, any place can be a Harvard!
Seven Power Cuts: Enough said.
Eight Knuckles Cracked: Sarasa, my parents’ household help and so much more, is an inveterate knuckle cracker. The loud pop of cracking knuckles, she assures me, will ward off any evil spirits and ensure that my father recovers properly. She comes one morning with a plate filled with chillies, lemon and a lump of camphor. With a militant glint in her eye that brooks no challenge, she sets the camphor on fire and takes the plate on a circular journey around my father, all the while muttering something that sounds suspiciously like gibberish. She then gathers the chillies and lemons and hurls them over his left shoulder. The muttering picks up in volume. Sarasa then touches her knuckles gently to his forehead and cracks them powerfully against her own forehead. There, she said, smiling broadly, now Ayya will get better soon. The Evil Eye was glaring at him and causing him pain. All will be fine now. My father,normally not one to put up with any of this, submits meekly. We appreciate the love, concern and sincere belief behind Sarasa’s little ritual, and curiously, it comforts all of us.
Nine Phone Calls: Each day, the phone rings incessantly. Friends and relatives want to know how my father is doing and how my mother is coping with the strain. They are blessed with good friends and family and a lot of this has to do with how they live their lives. They are helpful, but never interfering. Cheerful and caring. They have navigated the years of declining health and aches and pains with grace, humor and dignity. They have acquired new hobbies and interests when they could no longer carry on with the old ones. My father maintains a fantastic blog; read it, and you will get an idea of what an active and special mind he has. My mother, the most caring, compassionate person I know, has legions of friends, all of whom trust her advice, judgement and perspective, all of which are dispensed with genuine concern and circumspection. Unable to attend the various events she would love to go for, she has channeled her energies into becoming a champion knitter, creating beautiful sweaters, tops and dresses for her near and dear ones.
The outpouring of concern and love comes from the lives they have built for themselves, the relationships they have forged.
Over the rattling vibrations of the washing machine (that sounds like an airplane about to take off) or the roar of an actual aircraft flying overhead on its final path to the airport, my mother fields questions, hears Secrets and exchanges news. The phone is her lifeline to the outside world. My father, like me, dislikes talking on the phone and uses his status as Patient to limit himself to a grunt. Because of the heavy volume of phone calls, I am forced to talk more on the phone than I have all year, in New York.
Ten Unanswered Emails: Between phone calls, visitors, vendors, deliveries, deciding what to eat, going to the hospital, and a myriad other little things, very little “work” gets done. And the world carries on just fine.
Eleven Signatures for Insurance: My brother handled the thankless job of the insurance paperwork. It is a Catch 22 world, this. The insurance company needs some paperwork from the hospital, but the hospital will not release it until the insurance company gives a letter stating that they need the papers. Nabbing the correct person to speak to in the hospital is quite a feat; it appears that the medical records department, the one that holds on to the papers for dear life, is populated with slippery eels who slither out of your grasp just when you get hold of them. The first person I speak to tells me in a tone of triumphant relief that he doesn't handle this, that I need to speak to Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas is on leave and will return only on Thursday. In the meantime, the insurance company needs the signatures and papers by Wednesday. Is there nobody else who can help? I am connected to Mr. Thomas’s assistant who tells me that he is not allowed to do anything without Mr. Thomas’s permission. I can hear laughter and loud chatter in the background. Clearly the medical records department is enjoying itself in Mr. Thomas’s absence.
We manage to persuade the insurance company to give us two more days. On Thursday, Mr. Thomas is finally back from his vacation, but the strain of being back at work is too much for him to handle. At 10 o’clock in the morning, Mr. Thomas has not yet arrived in the office. At 11, he has left for his coffee break. At noon, he is at lunch. At 1.30, he has left for the day!
Somehow, everything falls into place and the papers are submitted. This is how India functions, to this day.
Twelve, No, Countless, Acts of Kindness: The visiting friends, many of them old and infirm themselves, the food dropped off, the calls, the offers of help, all made a difficult time more easy to bear.
Do send your wishes my father’s way. They will bring a smile to his face.