16 May 2017

Perhaps Tomorrow by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson

A hug for the kaamwali bai

A blurb on the back of this book attempts to lure readers seeking greedy shudders at the horrors of domestic servitude in a barbaric country. There is an underlying promise that we might be gratified to find that we treat our own ‘servants’ in a generous and praiseworthy manner.
Despite the titillating invitation, this book is not merely about how badly Pooranam’s employers treated her. Like the best kind of memoir, it presents more than just a few aspects of a person’s life. The authors of this book weave different narrative strands together, skilfully introducing social, historical and political context, and evocative pictures emerge.
Kommathurai, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, is a Hindu town that follows the social segregation of traditional Hindu casteism. Pooranam herself is of the ‘laundry people’, the middle daughter of five. Life is sweet and beautiful. Then tragedy strikes and her father dies under his bullock-cart, leaving her mother with five little girls and no source of income. A strong and enterprising woman, Kanagamma starts her own business. Part of this is taking eight-year-old Pooranam and seven-year-old Sodi out of school and putting them to work, carrying thirty-kilo sacks of rice from the wholesaler’s village, cooking, drying, re-packing and selling the processed rice from door to door. Neighbours whisper that farm animals get better treatment.
When Pooranam is privileged to capture the attention of the town’s most eligible bachelor and he marries her, the book gives insights into traditional or cultural male entitlement where helping yourself to your wife’s belongings, violence against her, and sexual relationships with other women are considered acceptable. In counterpoint are the quality of dependence and attachment a strong and intelligent woman can experience despite these ignominies.
Set in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka at the height of the LTTE insurgency, this book presents the Tamil side of the story: the marginalization and persecution of a people historically perceived as subordinate. In the jungle camp, we observe how ordinary people suffer in a political battle. Kommathurai is abandoned, then ravaged; Pooranam is left a widow with three children before she turns thirty.
Meanwhile, the housemaid market in the Arabian Gulf, initially restricted to non-idol worshipping monotheists had expanded so much that it was giving ‘religious’ fussing a miss. Pooranam took employment contracts, aiming to convert, as many did, domestic drudgery into cement homes, proper furniture and a future for her children – though this would entail sad years separated from them.
After many adventures, much intense hard work, getting renamed Sandy, learning about different aspects of life in the desert as well as all kinds of new recipes – this beautiful, intelligent, determined, enterprising and hardworking woman has her happily-ever-after. Pooranam marries Dick, an American professor of architecture at Kuwait University. She enters a phase of stability and comfort; he helps her lead her children to a better life, and in time they write this book together. It turns out to be well written and engaging, and Pooranam’s warmth and depth of character shine through. While the contextualisation and odd literary reference appear to be in the voice of the architecture professor, it is surprising that the book is littered with racial stereotyping: Arabs are lazy; Egyptians are stingy; the British are not expected to be arrogant and mean-spirited.
Besides all this, this book could serve as a useful handbook for the Indian Madam. It could inspire us to consider that the wretch who stands between us and the jhadu/pocha/bartan might have left terrible times behind at home her family from starvation. She misses her children terribly. So when she throws the food out because she misunderstood what you said, don’t scream at her in rage. Laugh, give her a hug, and gently explain what you actually meant so that she’s motivated to get it right next time. This is what Pooranam’s Indian employers, the Khans, actually did.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 13 May 2017. It can be viewed online here

20 February 2017

The Silliest Autobiography in the World by PG Bhaskar

The Silliest Review in the World


Finally, a book that really does deserve to go into a time capsule, carefully placed in a steel cylinder and buried deep into the earth to await eager historians from future generations or from outer space. Before this, Bhaskar wrote two books which mysteriously turned out to be both modestly-successful as well as best-selling. Somehow, he remained unknown to billions.  Now he has written a silly autobiography but structured it meticulously. Bhaskar, the son of an LIC ‘odditor’ and himself a fully-qualified chartered accountant, opens with a chapter called 1963, by a fascinating coincidence, the very year in which he was born! The next chapter is 1964, then 1965, then 1966, and all the way up to 2015. Through the life experiences of the unknown Bhaskar, the eager historian of the future will learn how people lived between 1963 and 2015, especially those who lived in Madras, Udupi, Delhi, Bombay, Coimbatore and, erm, Dubai. They will also obtain some mildly useful information about movies, cricket, politics and entertainment. From an anthropological perspective, Bhaskar gives an insight into transitions in his world. To begin with, people would hang onto their toothbrushes, discarding them only after the bristles began to resemble a strip of savannah grassland that had been viciously trampled upon by a herd of stampeding elephants. They would stealthily pocket cutlery from aeroplanes. Then, as the socio-economic environment advanced, they began buying whole sets of crockery which sadly did not last as long as the stolen cutlery. They developed quaint professional rites of passage called ‘mini-offsites’ at which overpaid bank officials engaged with ‘escorts’ and later, exposed on Facebook, bought expensive presents to placate their enraged spouses.
At a personal level, Bhaskar reveals himself as one who, to the great merriment of his friends and classmates, faints. He faints quite often! Let us hope he is not going to faint when he reads this review. Or, perhaps the friends could get together and sell tickets in anticipation.
While this book could emerge winner in a time-capsule competition, it could also gain esteem as entertainment to the present-day reader. I was laughing very loudly, and my husband, lying in bed next to me and waiting for his turn, became increasingly agitated, muttering to himself, “Who is this Bhaskar! Wait till I get my hands on him,” etc.
To be honest, I started cackling away right from the dedication which is really very funny. Towards the end of the book, there is an explanation which I was glad to read, because without it the dedication would have remained a mystery to the future historian unless Bhaskar’s publishers had contrived to also squeeze a few c1980s telephone directories into the capsule to provide context. It occurred to me that the enterprising publishers might also want to introduce footnotes for the puzzled historians wondering why the trend of women taking to the study of economics in droves should be called The ‘Rajan’ Effect. And how come, when the family driver in Udupi was Bhavani Shankar, in Delhi too the family had a driver with the same name! And the ‘household help’ in Chennai was also called Bhavani! Could this be coincidence? Or was Bhavani a generic of Bhaskar’s time? So – footnotes, please, dear publishers.
There are also long passages where the humour lags and verses which strike a wrong note. So, to end, a minor stricture for the author from an almost-fan of somewhat similar vintage and demography:

Bhaskar: your poems are not short or too long
But they’re neither doggerel nor ditty nor song.
Your ‘limericks’ rhyme
And the jokes are just fine
But the metre, dear chap, is all wrong. 
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 18 February 2017. It can be viewed online here.