Monday, June 19, 2017

The Counting Problem

Father straight out told me he could neither take me on his bike nor give me his bike. He couldn't apply for leave as his higher officials were visiting the office and his presence was required. I just needed to go to my aunt's house which is in a nearby town, eighteen kilometers away from my home. My amma and father would join me there by the evening. And I usually don't insist for a bike, but it was different today, the road transport buses were not running as their employees were on a strike. I've got no other option left but to take an auto-rickshaw, which I always avoided as advised by my father.

It is still early in the morning on a winter day. Though there is plenty of light, of lazy grayish blue hue, the sun was still hiding beside the clouds. The warmth in the air felt was not bad, it was rather a bit welcoming. It might presently get hot once the sun is out. There was a cool, playful wind in the air, picking up dust and garbage off the road and sending them into small swirling eddies. My thin college tee was fluttering pleasantly around my arms and belly. I was thankful for my rather big eye-glasses which protected me from the dusty wind, which had everyone squinting and rubbing their eyes.  

I walked to the main road and sat in an auto-rickshaw, whose driver was standing beside it and shouting Kakinada, Kakinada, the town to which this auto would go. He asked me to put the bag in the front, near his seat so that it wouldn't occupy too much space on the seat. I obliged and went back and sat in the corner of the back seat. Being the first I knew I had to endure a long wait for it to get filled, which is when the driver would start it. Its engine was still on and so was the immodest loud speaker playing the latest hits. The speaker was so bad that it even made melodies sound like a screech owl choking. I requested the driver to shut that off. He gave me a look of incredulity, shut the loud speaker off and set off again shouting Kakinada, Kakinada.  

There is a wooden plank in front of me that can seat children and lanky adults. Auto drivers used this plank to maximize the number of passengers. And autos were more crowded than ever owing to the strike by the bus drivers. I closed my eyes, with my chin in my hands and was just listening to the wind moaning. The wind was reminding me of lonely hilltops, and a picture of hills and mountains was projected into the front of my mind. And that invariably brought to me memories of her.

I wasn't sure how long I waited thus. I was aware of the auto filling up, by the sounds of people. Then I felt two shadows pass before my lidded eyes and I realized someone occupied the plank in front of me. Suddenly there was a sweetish smell of rich coconut oil in the air. I opened my eyes and saw two little giggling girls sitting on the plank in front of me, facing me, opposite to the direction of the travel. They were looking at the person beside me evidently their father. They sat there in similar bright little skirts, hair parted at the center and two pigtails hanging at the side of their heads. The tinier one, who I was sure didn't even start school yet, was like a miniature of her sister. One would think they were twins if not for the difference in their sizes.  

As the auto started their father put a finger to his lips signifying that they are not to make noise and the two girls solemnly shook their little heads in affirmation, their pigtails, which looked like handles to their heads, swinging along with them. I realized I had left my earphones in the bag which was near the driver, in the auto that threatened to tilt owing to the crowd in it. He has really stuffed a lot of people today. And hardly anyone dared to complain as the buses were not running.  I cursed myself for leaving my earphones in the bag. Now I had to suffer for my mistake, enduring the noise and snores of the fellow passengers.

It didn't take long before the little girls to forget their promise as they started sincerely quarreling about something. I leaned a little forward to catch what they were saying to understand their argument better. The elder one said, shaking her head, "I have drunk the milk today and also I never make a racket, so Booch won't take me, he would only take you." For which the tiny one was responding by shaking her head vigorously from side to side, saying, "No, of course not".

I laughed a little. I remember my own experiences of the Booch. Every kid has heard about it, although no one has ever seen one. Booch is a very scary thing. Adults always scare the kids telling them about the Booch. Thinking back Booch seems to be a self-appointed vigilante since its functions are to take away kids who didn't listen to their parents. Booch's presence was invoked mostly during the meal times, whenever kids threw a tantrum and refused to take food parents would say, "You won't take food? Fine, Booch will come and take you away. If that's what you want your wish". It was also invoked whenever kids delayed going to bed, sat stubbornly in front of the TV, made hubbub etc. Its name was a common presence among the households with kids. I always wondered how can one Booch take care of all the kids, or are they more Boochs? Maybe there was an army of Boochs. Who made them and what did they look like? And I wondered and waited every day if they have taken away Mounika, a girl of my age living next door when I was a kid. She always used to pinch me whenever the elders weren't watching us. I always complained to anyone who would listen, "Mouni pinched me, Mouni pinched me," in my half constructed sentences, but it just made the elders laugh.

I came back to the present as I saw the bigger one of the little girls counting something on her fingers, touch each finger on her left hand in turn with her right index finger as a check mark. She was counting all the wrongs the tiny one committed, the reasons why Booch would take her instead of her. This counting fascinated the tiny one. She shouted excitedly, "I'll count, I'll count," for she apparently learned how to count recently and was itching it show off her new skill. But all at once she looked like she was on the verge of tears. Her eyes became watery and she turned to face her father who was taking a small nap. She prodded him with her finger and told him that she had nothing to count. Her eyes were becoming wetter by the minute. Sensing the danger her father said, "Why don't you count all the vehicles. Make a count of all those which are going in the opposite direction. And I'll ask you when we reach Kakinada," after which he resumed his nap.

The task brightened both the girls immensely and they took to it immediately, saying in tandem —  waaaaane, twooooo, thirrriiii  — in loud drawling voices. They came to around sixty when they suddenly stopped having hit a roadblock. There was a herd of water buffaloes and their calves sauntering on the road, a small kid with a cane in his hand riding the one at the end of the herd. The little girls were at their wit ends if they would count as vehicles or not.  After much debate, they decided they have to count those as well, as there was someone riding them.

"But he was only riding one of it, so we just count it as one," said the tinier one. The elder one shook her head resolutely, giving her gyaan, "No, we have counted empty cars beside roads, these are kind of the same." The tinier one marveled at the genius of the elder girl and they decided to increase the count by eight, the number in the herd.

"What was the count before it," asked the elder one, having forgotten the tally.

"Hundred, I like hundred," said gladly, palpably proud of remembering and saying 'hundred'.

"We can't just make up the tally," she said dejectedly.

"Fifty-seven," I said in a small voice with a smile in my eyes. And they resumed the counting from fifty-seven. It didn't bother them that a lot of vehicles passed us while they were arguing. They just kept on counting. "Haandread," they finished cheerfully. More vehicles passed, but they didn't continue. I thought they were done with the game and got bored of it. But I was wrong. The tinier one asked in a birdlike voice, "Sister, what comes after hundred?" "I don't know," said her sister crestfallen.

They looked each other in the eyes and without any warning they began loud cries, tears pouring down their faces. Their father woke up and looked at me to see if I scared them or something, but quickly realized that wasn't the case, and asked them what was the matter. After sobbing a little more the little one paused to answer in breaking voice, "We used up all the numbers, we haven't got any left, sorry father, please don't give me to the Booch."

Their father didn't understand the proceedings while I broke into fits of ignominious laughter.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Astrology Expert - part 2

After taking a bath he would don the puja attire, a cream colored silk dhoti and a cream colored kanduva a cloth of same material worn on the upper body around the neck like a scarf. This dress is kept away so that point he could touch it every morning after his bath. No one is to touch this. Then he proceeds to carefully applies vermilion to his forehead and the sacred ashes in three lines across his forehead and wear the garland of rudraksha beads around his neck and would then fetch a small steel pot of water from the municipal tap on our veranda, careful not to touch any other items or any of us for if he touches anything else that water would lose its sanctity. He uses that sacred water later in his procedures during pooja, which consumes only a teensy amount, and the rest he would later pour into the holy basil plant pot, a plant which we consider extremely sacred, after having done circumambulations around the holy basil.

He sets the sacred water at the puja mandap and sits on a small wooden stool then consults the SBI calendar to see what thithi it is, and the opening of his prayer tells us who he is and from which location on earth and on what season and what year and what day he is doing that prayer, for which he takes the help of that calendar. Telugu Astrology has 60 years after which it resets and 27 birth stars and twelve sun signs. This along with reciting his ancestry right from the most ancient ancestor we know, along with the rishis (saints) we are descended from leaves no scope for gods to mistake us for someone else. We really do take care that we get the credit for our pujas.
And then, in the pleasant company of Samrani (Benzoin incense), camphor, and incense, he continues with his prayers for more than an hour reading complex shlokas and his voice turning hoarse at the end of it. I felt my father was a pure genius for as long as I remember he never referred to any of the printed material all the while reciting these very complex sounding Sanskrit verses and hymns. Around the halfway mark amma would give him his second tea for the morning, which my dad would take in hurried gulps, at which I look forlornly for I'm not allowed to drink coffee and tea. We are not supposed to eat or drink anything until we are finished with our morning ablutions and prayers but somehow coffee tea and milk don't count. The second tea would signify that amma would leave shortly for her school where she works as a teacher.
All the shlokas I knew put together amounted to a total duration of ten minutes if I recited them in a slow skilful singsong way. While my father would be reading at a pace that puts modern rap singers to shame. I would watch him recite all those gulping extra mouthfuls of air for his pace of reciting knocks the wind out of me. My cousin would often comment that Hanumanji would have to run to understand the Hanuman Chalisa being recited by my father. I just decided that she was being jealous that she could never even dream to talk at that speed let alone recite complex hymns.
When we go to temple the usual temple folk asks my dad to recite a nice shloka or sing a good verse. My dad obliges and sings one and later giving the mike to me and telling me to sing some shloka. I'd sing it more out of respect towards him, and he beams at me when other people sitting there exclaimed, "Such a good and diligent son. He really sets an example." I was my father's favorite in this aspect until my cousin, my pinni's daughter took over me. The content I knew amounts nothing to all the shlokas she knew even when she was of age four. I just accepted defeat, for I accepted defeat and moved on from learning shlokas to reading novels, and I live in a constant fear that I might never be able to read all the classics in my life. So every other spare minute I can be seen reading some novel than be bothered trying to learn a new shloka.
I can never understand how he can resist the temptation and carry on with the puja while the smell of a delicious breakfast and chutney amma is cooking waffle directly to him for the puja mandap is in a corner in the kitchen. As I come having taken my bath he gestures to me with his eyes to come sit beside him do prayer, while his lips still chanting loudly some shlokas. I start loudly the few set of shlokas I know while becoming acutely aware of knees and ankles pressed against the floor threatening to benumb, but before reciting them all my stomach grumbles loudly at the oncoming smells and I finish my puja after completing whatever shloka I was halfway through.
Like I said those calendars’ places were decided upon before our own places were given thought. It would involve some straightforward decisions like the SBI calendar which showed Telugu thithi was to be just in front of the puja mandap since my dad would refer to it while doing his usual morning puja, and the town bank calendar would be just beside the main entrance of the hall to ease the marking of the milk supply, and some constrained equation solving for others decided their place. As Hindus prefer not to sleep with their heads positioned on the north side, the bed directions were kinda fixed as soon as we knew the direction the house faces and since we can't keep those calendars which had gods at our feet they had but only the other two sides of the room as choices. But one of those two sides usually has a wardrobe, factoring this info would then give the solution of the unknown, the calendar positions.
And moving to own house meant place for more calendars for then we don't have to adhere anymore to the landlords’ usual order of 'No nails to walls for calendars’ etc, which at least helped us spread out the calendars and many calendars then were able to see the light of the day for the second time in a long time, until they were, of course, pushed down to make way for the newcomers.
I thought my dad is a connoisseur of calendars just like some people go mad about stamps. I took this as a ground truth for there were always a ton of calendars in my house and so when I got a small metal disk of a 100-year calendar for correctly answering a question in a placement talk by Texas Instruments, I promptly gave it to my dad. Although he received it happily he never as much as spared another glance towards it. Turned out his love for calendars stops to those that are on paper and preferably those that carry thithi details or in a large square blocks, while here I'm in my room in the college which is devoid of both calendar and wall-clock, having to bend my neck and peer into the depths of my phone whenever I needed either of those functions. Hmm.
Dad's friends and colleagues ask him for a good time when they have something important to do. When some of my dad’s friends or my brother call dad to talk about some important event and ask about a good time to start it, his first order to me would be to get that SBI calendar. Then he would ask me to fetch his glasses and he would peer down into it for a while sagaciously and talks back on the phone saying, with a vigorous shaking of his head, "No, no, that is Rahu Kalam you should wait," or if the time actually turns out to be auspicious, he would say with a contented lavish smile playing on his lips, "carry on, carry on, couldn't have picked a better time."
My brother has a peculiar way of asking this: he would call my dad and ask urgently "Dad is it good now?" a question which irks my dad a lot. He asks this question mostly while my dad is at the office who would then have no clue, as his trusted compatriot, the SBI calendar wouldn't be with him. And also because my brother likes to be told whenever he intends to do something to be the finest hour that is there, saying he has no time. I still never understood his logic, if he wants to be told that it is indeed a good time despite the calendar saying otherwise and if he really has no time, why bother calling and asking in the first place?
I say compatriot for a very good reason. My dad is a central government employee and has never studied astrology. He himself admits that his understanding of the astrology is rather limited. He fiercely maintains to everyone that he is no expert in astrology. He says that all he is doing is reading out when are auspicious times and when are bad times from the SBI calendar, in which these things about good times and bad times of each day are given with some hard to grasp abbreviations. In fact, he tried a few times to make me read out that stuff and explain to me what is what, but I have never really got the hang of it. Being not exceptionally good at Telugu has already kept me in a disadvantage, for I couldn't read those out correctly without help. And even if sometimes I could read out what was there it still felt to me like Greek and Latin, so I gave up and told him to not to try and teach me that and I'd rather ask him directly if I ever needed that info, not that I'd for I do things at the last minute and can't really afford the luxury of thinking if it's the right time. And if I ever see my dad relaxed in his easy chair with the SBI calendar in his hand I immediately try to leave from the vicinity and linger outside somewhere safe.
Although he doesn't say it out aloud he enjoys people asking for his opinion about auspicious timings. He tries his best to check carefully the conflicts among different times and tell them a time he thinks suits them the best. If the situation demands he sometimes even refers to the panchangam (a Hindu astrological almanac) to give the best possible answer about a certain auspicious time.

But when dad wants an expert opinion and when he feels his trusted friend, the SBI calendar has failed him and is being ambiguous, he calls his childhood friend who, it seems, is a real expert. Well at least to my knowledge she has always been able to judge good times to start any important things. My dad says so well were those times she chose that the things get done as if they have a life their own with minimal intervention from our side. And I can't see anything against it to it but agree with him for never has a thing we started when she told us to ever failed.

The Astrology Expert

It was a Sunday morning and we were at our pinni's (mother's sister) house which is also the place where my grandmother lives now. I was woken up and hauled into the living room unceremoniously. As someone who lived most of his life at boarding schools being at home meant vacation and during those times I only wake up early enough to give my mother a send off while she leaves for work, if at all she does, for she tries to apply for a leave whenever I am at home. And one would think Sunday during such vacations is a time to wake up whenever one felt like, right?
I didn't even brush my teeth yet but my grandmother silenced my protests by showing me to shut my mouth up by a fierce show of putting a finger to her lips. She said, in a voice is that is low for her, "It's about to start", and showed me into a chair, beside my dad who was already waiting eagerly sipping away his tea. One might think that it's telecast of the swearing ceremony for a president of a new world order for everlasting peace given the way I was dragged to the TV, but no it was to see the weekly horoscope details delivered every Sunday for the upcoming week. To be precise the Mulugu Siddhanthi ji's Rashiphalalu.
Although amma watches it time to time, my dad and grandmother are ardent followers. And it would certainly do him good to know a little of that for he is considered a little of Astrology expert among his circle of friends and colleagues. I sighed defeatedly and sat down in the chair show to me while trying to present a cheery face to my aunt so that she would think I have already brushed my teeth and give me a coffee. Ufff, too much to do in too early in the morning. As the show progressed my aunt and amma settled themselves in chairs before the TV, all of them listening to the commentary with most rapt attention, which means no more fiddling with remote trying to see if I can change the channel to HBO or MoviesNow.
And suddenly my granny pinches me while I sit there dozing in the chair, throwing me a reproachful look, as the guruji starts telling about my own weekly horoscope. And if he says something nice and lucky my granny's face would light up and she would crack her knuckles on her head and bless me. And if he says something unlucky she would ask me to be extra careful that week, to not forget praying to gods in the morning and says in a resigned sort of way more to herself than me, "It may be fated thus, but doesn't mean we can't tweak it a bit," and then she would cheer herself up commenting, "It doesn't hurt to be a bit more cautious, does it? After all, all these horoscopes exist so that we try and avoid the mistakes we might make."
Also, my granny would call me on the eve of every new year asking me to turn onto so and so Telugu channel to listen to  Mulugu Siddhanthi ji about how the next year is going to be. I grunt something like an assent not giving a proper answer because a proper answer would be 'NO'. I feel bad saying no to granny but then I tell myself there is no way I can get access to a cable TV given that I would be in a boarding school or college hostel, although I am not really sure that's indeed the reason for I never made any effort to find a TV with access to cable like I would normally do if there's a cricket match.
My dad who doesn’t really care about his own horoscope details waits palpitating as the details of my and my brother’s horoscopes are told. He then remembers what days we need to be careful upon and if a particular week is predicted to be indeed very unlucky he will take me or my brother, whoever has got the bad prediction, to the temple and make us commensurating charity. You see there are different types of charities for different types of bad lucks. The most common thing being donating rice, the others being donating oil or sesame seeds etc. He would look out for the right time for the charity to be done a time which is devoid of evils of the day. A time that agrees with the stars that govern us.
At this juncture, I’m compelled to say something about the calendars in my house to make things clear. Calendars at my home is a daunting subject and I don't intend to give you a complete picture of it for I might not be up to the task, so I'd just try and paint the picture.
There are mainly two types of calendars: Type one in which you have to turn the leaf over as the month changes and the second one where a large picture covered 90% of the space of the calendar and a small strip of paper beneath it showed the calendar, and in this type two calendars the calendar is merely an optional function the image displayed being its primary function.

As a kid when we were finally moving to our own new house, leaving the one which we were on rent, dad asked me to pack the calendars. And I diligently packed only the ones belonging to that year, leaving the old ones to their nails. Well, they were useless and I didn't bother packing them. Boy was I wrong? I got the backlash and after a little scolding and shouting, little because my mother intervened, he uttered some silent muttered curses, something about getting no help at all and started packing them himself. Each family of calendars was sorted into separate shopper bags. Their places in the new house have already been decided long before our beds/furniture have been decided.
Not all calendars at my home flutter in the wind. Except for the two solitary calendars, the SBI calendar, and the town bank calendar, rest all are heavily protected by sentinel their brethren, stacks of old calendars, each weathered up for a year before another calendar has pushed it back and took the top place. And the old calendars couldn’t be removed because all the calendars, except those two solitary calendars, have pictures of gods. And how could an ultra-conservative, ultra-pious family like ours ever even dare to dream to throw a paper which contained a picture of a god, we who heavily pray for forgiveness even when a blank paper happens to graze slightly on our legs accidentally?  So each nail took a family of calendars. While some calendars like the one with a painting of Lord Vishnu and the one which showed the giant statue of Lord Hanuman from Samalkot, our village (or a town I’m still not sure which one of it is it?) have become favorites and they are always to be brought upward even if their nails have gotten new calendars.
Dad would later give that Hanumanji calendar to me when I went to join my first boarding school. Hanumanji is the remover of fears and vanquisher of evils. So whenever I went to a new place dad would get me a new Hanumanji calendar. Not just any Hanumanji calendar but the one that showed the giant statue of our hometown. And having reasonably decent influence within our hometown he would get another one of those calendars in a jiffy. You see, we never ever bought calendars, we always get them from well-wishers and each year we get more calendars than we require and accommodate. Every year dad gives away some to others. And having studied in a Christian missionary school, I and my brother always received a new calendar each for Christmas. Although my dad is cool enough to let me study in a Christian school and allowed me to go to church, it's too much expect him to let me hang that calendar among the other Hindu gods' calendars. And that meant two of his Christian friends invariably get those calendars every year promptly.
Dad always used SBI for thithi and related details and Town Bank to mark out the pending bills. Town Bank calendar is a type one calendar with large square blocks for each day, on which dad would mark those days when we would go on a trip or to nearby town etc, (mostly we just leave to Kakinada), and cancel the day's supply of milk. This then he would use to tally up after the month while paying the milkman. And town bank calendar is the laziest of all. Well, you can't count those type two calendars from which dad already tore away the months part and kept just for the sake of the picture of gods. But among the calendars that we still used Town bank calendar was definitely the laziest. After every month when we have to pay our local bills dad would refer to that calendar and only when all the bills were taken care of, would the month be progressed on it. But to collect the money for the milk the mail milkman would come usually delaying it by a week or so. Until such time the calendar has no business progressing into the current month. It waits wretchedly while some of its neighbors move along to the new month. The longest I remember was it lagging a full month when the milkman dawdled and collected payment two months worth of milk in the third month.
The SBI calendar, like Hermione Granger ready with her hand in the air with an answer, is always the first one to progress. Dad would turn it into the new month when he sits for his usual morning puja.

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