Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ode to Talcum

The talcum powder ads have got it all wrong.. They show secret, delicious, crevices being powdered with it; emitting fragrances so enchanting, it can do almost anything. Clinch the deal, stop the traffic, and/or hook the man, in one Dreamflower-scented swoop. But they’ve got it all wrong. Talcum powder isn’t about coming out smelling like roses. It’s not a blotter of sweat and BO. The true meaning of talc is known only to a South Indian.
Let me explain.
You’ve to understand one thing about these people. Their skins may be black….. sorry, melanin-challenged, but their souls are dazzling white. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world sees them. Where they’re just a bunch of kaalias, so what if they’re very clever at two-plus-two and put us on the world map with Idli-Dosa and the Raman Effect. If your skin’s not the right shade of Aryan, your life’s over. So, to compensate, God gave Southies talcum powder. To slather their faces with it and let its ethereal translucence allow the pure, white depths of their souls shine through. In other words, to be a good Southie, talc is mandatory. Not in the armpit or the cleavage. On the face. An un-talced face is tantamount to indecent exposure and you get drummed out of Southie ranks if you’re caught. Never mind if a dusting of the pearly-white magic turns your black skin into a interesting shade of pearly grey. Remember, grey is white with a dash of black. Or black with a splash of white. Depending on how strong you like your coffee. What matters is the white, in however minuscule a dash-splash.
India produces about 21,000 tons of talcum powder annually and about half of this is consumed by the Southies. Remember the story of Sleeping Beauty? The Southie version’s a bit different. One day, Mrs. Wicked Step-Amma, freshly triumphant from having sent S. Beauty to the Permanent-Swapnalok-in-the sky (or so she thought), stood in front of her beloved mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror….” Before she could finish, the mirror shattered into a gazillion pieces! W. Step-Amma had forgotten to talc her face! Poor Mirror. Shocked and horrified at having to see naked, un-talced Southie skin, it cracked up. And Mrs. WS did what any self-respecting woman-without-a-mirror would do. Shriveled up and died. Meanwhile, S. Beauty, having waited for her man, like all good Southie girls, with her face well-talced, was kissed and woken up by P. Charming (also well-talced) and lived happily ever after. Moral of the story? Beauty is talc-deep.
For Southie women, talcum powder is what turns frog into prince and kaddu into Mercedes Benz. Good Southie Ammas whisper this mantram in their daughters’ ears as soon as they’re born. When in doubt, talc. When your husband leaves you, talc. When his wife refuses to leave him, talc. When the idli batter fails to rise, talc. When other things fail to rise, forget Viagra; just talc. Nothing like a puff of the ol’ Dreamflower to sizzle the fizzle. In other words, when all else fails, talc.
Ask Amma. Who, by the by, doesn’t throw tantrums, she throws talc. It’s rumored that the only thing she took with her to prison, takes to bed and to all her guftagoos with Atal-Anna is her tin of talc. We can’t, due to national security reasons disclose the brand , but it’s talc. And if you’re a scoffing skeptic, smirking at this panegyric, look at Amma’s skin. Flawless alabaster. Or look a little further. At Hema-Amma’s. Or Vijayanthi-Amma’s. All exquisite testimonials to the power of the powder. The magic that turns duckling into swan. At least inside the Southie’s head. Or to put it another way, talcum powder is Southern Comfort.

The Southie’s dhoti and how to rattle it ( Or how to diddle your mundu)

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Etymology of dhoti: Hindi dhot , from Middle Indic * dhautta, *dhotta, cloth, probably from past participle of dhauvati, he washes, from Sanskrit dh noti dhau-, he shakes

Other men gird their loins, Southie men gird their dhotis. Underestimated by the rest of the world as a mere garment, a foolish extension of the loincloth, it’s only the Southie male who knows that the dhoti can be much, much more. (Bringing to mind the opening line of Love Story. “What do you say about a one-and-ahalf-metre tundu ….”)
Well to start with, the Southie’s dhoti is a piece of minimalist art. No clumsy acres of cloth to be feverishly gathered and pleated, no frenzied crawling between and around the legs. Just a pithy bit of pristine whiteness, enough to go around the waist once, with some left over for the two ends to overlap - barely. It’s also a free spirit, secured by just one firm tuck at the waist, the rest left to hang free, unrestrained. Because the Southie knows that a dhoti is not just something to wear but to wield, much the way a skunk does his stink or a bimbo her cleavage. And so as Time dawned on mankind (somewhere between Mohenjo and Daro), the art of dhoti rattling came to be, the art of how to swagger, strut, scare, conquer and tame - all with a piece of cotton as bland as your granny’s khichdi. Which is why, like Sharon Stone’s hemline, the Southie’s dhoti is built to have the unfettered freedom to rise or fall, fold over or flap across, even cleave open to lay bare the magnificence of Southie machismo.
Naturally, this means that the Southie dhoti spends very little time being full length - i.e modestly covering its wearer from waist to toe - and a lot of its time being folded up to reveal calves, knees, thighs (and sometimes – gasp! – even more) depending on how things are going. Now before you leap to any rash conclusions about the Southie male’s secret exhibitionist tendencies (“we’d have never guessed with all that vibhuti!”) let me tell you that without knowing how and when to fold or unfold your dhoti (while wearing it, naturally) there’s no way you can rattle it. (Nor diddle your mundu.) It’s a bit like trying to wrestle without a partner or to tango without feet. And depending on your dexterity and timing, you can deploy your dhoti to play popular male sports like mine-is-bigger-than-yours, my-daddy-can-beat-up-your-daddy-not-to-mention-what-he-can-do-to-your-mummy and you-can-take-it-and-stick-it-up-you-know-where.
Needless to say, the art of dhoti rattling has been stitched into the Southie’s Y chromosone and there was a time when every good Southie boy worth his weight in mulgai pudi learnt it much before he learnt how to manage rasam on a banana leaf. Alas, with the invasion of the pant and the pyjama, it’s now a dying art in the cities, but is still alive and well where paddy is lush, the coconut tender, the jackfruit ripens like prickly, pregnant hippos and the air is laced with the fragrance of black hair gently wallowing in coconut oil.
Now though it is said that there are as many ways of diddling a dhoti (or wiggling your veshti) as there are recipes to make your idli batter rise, here are the few basic moves common to all schools.
1. The Buffalo Bhoothalingam Draw (Inspired by the Bucking-Bronco Kick.)
Used to answer the Call of the Testosterone. And when the call comes, to the swelling of the chest and the quivering of the moustache, (maybe even the clash of a few cymbals), in one lightning motion, you shoot out a leg backwards to kick the lower end of the dhoti upwards into a waiting hand. And before anyone can say Karaikudi Kunjukunju Mudaliar, the dhoti will lie trussed up at loin level and you are all set to defend the honour of gramam, gotram or garage mechanic. Can be accompanied by dialogues like “Yenna da, rascal!” or words to that effect, but the more stylish practictioners prefer to let the dhoti do all the talking.
(If your dhoti is already folded up, just go in reverse making sure that when you unfold it, you don’t yank the whole damn thing off. It requires years of practice to know and find the location of that little bit of dhoti that will do the trick.)
2. The I’m-the-King-of-Kondalampatti Klutch. Equivalent to pissing on territory and therefore normally used to fix who is the dominant male in this part of the jungle. At the sight of a threat, shoot out leg (always backwards), kick dhoti (always upwards) and instead of folding the whole thing up around loins, just hold up one end (sometimes both if the threat is severe) in hand to part the dhoti like the waters of the Red Sea and make way for two hairy (hopefully), muscular (hopefully), mard-key-bacchey legs which will then proceed to walk all over everybody. In days of yore, this was much more effective when done striding through paddy fields with a minion scurrying behind holding aloft a huge black umbrella to protect your beautiful black complexion from being ruined by the sun.
3. The Gird-of-the-Loin. Used before the commencement of anything from climbing a coconut tree to signing that corporate merger. (Also very useful while riding anything with two wheels – other than a woman, that is.) It signals that you’re now open for and mean business. A variation the B. Bhootalingam Draw, minus all the thunder and lightning and how high you fold the dhoti is determined by the complexity and seriousness of the task at hand. (WARNING: To be deployed without underwear only when unaware of presence of polite/female company and/or when answering an urgent call of nature.)
Which leaves us with just a couple of unanswered questions. The first - if the Southie’s dhoti spends so much of its time aping a miniskirt, what comes to mind is a question has so often haunted humanity about the Scottish kilt. What underwear? Well let’s just say that it has never been Venky’s secret. Because the Southie, never knowing how high his dhoti may ride, chooses his under-the-dhoti-wear remembering the Girl Scout motto. “Be prepared”. Hence the popular choice – despite the invasion of the briefer VIP or the even more dashing Jockey - continues to be what is called “drayers” - knee-length kacchas in dashing stripes or shorts in basic khaki – covering all matters that must remain private no matter what your dhoti may do in public.
And the second question is…. You know what they say about the Southie’s dhoti - that it’s like a coconut. Known to fall off but no one has ever seen one do so. So the second question is - how does it stay up? There are many whispered rumours. (And there are those who have been known to use a belt, but they are charlatans really, shunned and denounced by the real Makappuwamis) Some say that it is coffee, strong enough to put the hair on your chest and keep your dhoti on. Some say a daily dose of rice and buttermilk, enough to just distend your stomach to the required rotundity. Others say it’s avvakai pickle, hot enough to sear your dhoti into your middle….The truth is no one knows. My bet? Testosterone…..
(FOOTNOTE: Now there may be some of you whose brow may be furrowed on account of my not having mentioned the lungi. I have just one word for it. Disgusting. A raucous, loutish, revolting genetic aberration that will never be recognized as a legitimate relation by any true aficionado of the Southie’s dhoti.)

Fear Of Flying


“You can’t pull over at 35,000 feet.” Aretha Franklin.

Fear of flying. It’s the irrevocability of it that’s so petrifying. Of getting into that flashy-looking pile of aluminium (all that vroom-vroom and them posh birds in uniform plying hot towels don’t fool me) and allowing a complete stranger who doesn’t know how much of living I’ve still left to do (all the men i haven’t loved, all the shopping I haven’t done) to launch me into nothingness (barring a few silly clouds and some really vicious air-pockets), without having the option of saying, ”Stop, let me off!”.
A typical flight goes something like this. At the departure lounge, the next day’s headlines screaming in my head (“AIRCRASH!”), I check out my co-passengers. First to see if there’s somebody famous. That way, at least when the Big “C” happens (CRASH, if you sadists must have it spelt out), I’d have the posthumous pleasure of derived fame. Then, to see if they’re the kind of people I’d like to share my “C” with. Since this kind of thing is like loosing your virginity. You get only one chance. Once aboard, I listen with catatonic attention to the “Kursi-ki-peti” routine, first in Hindi and then all over again in English. (I’d listen to it in Swahili if necessary, to make sure I’m fully briefed to “saans-lete-rahiye” when there is “hawa mein kami”.) I’m the only one doing so. I’ m also the only one reading the safety instruction leaflet, cover to cover. I glare at the geeks sitting near the emergency exits. They look like irresponsible nerds who’ll bungle the act of whipping the door open and letting me be the one to leap out first. I panic, wondering how to inflate the life-jacket with the oxygen mask strapped across my mouth . Some fear-of-flying friendly airlines have found a neat solution. You now just have to whip out the seat from under you and clutch it to float back to the nearest shark.
We take off and the cabin crew try to lull me into a false sense of security with an unending stream of stuff. But they don’t fool me. (One steward’s cute. I check him out and go back to hyperventilating). I stuff each ear with a kilo of cotton wool, so that, any moment now, when the engines starts spluttering, I won’t hear them. I sit in an aisle seat so that when the engines burst into flames, I won’t see them. We hit the first air pocket. I sink my nails into the metal armrests. In between each wave, I uncross my eyes and make wild promises to God in exchange for this plane landing in one piece. I crane across to see if the wing’s still there. It is. Suspicious whiffs of vapours ooze out of the air-conditioning vents. Smoke. We’re going to go up in flames. We don’t. Call buttons go off all over like a bad rash. Each ting-tung’s a gong of doom, heralding the pilot telling us that we’re going down, down, down. He doesn’t. The aircraft bounces like a happy baby. I clutch the hand of the strange man sitting next to me and see my life flash past me. (That part gets a bit tiresome sometimes. Even “Sholay “ palls after the 85th viewing.). The floor tilts down 60-degrees and my lungs whoosh out of my ears. We’re nose-diving into oblivion. We don’t. There’s a hideous thud-and-crunch from under the floor. As I brace myself for the final blinding flash, an angel’s voice warbles about bahar ka taapman. I realise we’ve landed.
In one piece. I stuff my heart back into my mouth and think, it’s a fluke. It’s going to happen the next time.
Bon Voyage.