Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Naming of Parts by Michelle

I am 14 years old and my mother's aunt and uncle are coming to visit. I've never met them. They are my mother's father's family - the Scottish Dutch side. My mother has cleaned the house for their visit and I've helped. We have swept and polished and dusted and now the house is beautiful and clean, but we are filthy. My mother is panicking because she wanted to wash and change into clean clothes and our guests have arrived early. She tells me to make tea and entertain them while she gets cleaned up.

I take as long as possible to make tea and hide in the kitchen, but I can't stay there forever. I take the tea through, and the tray with plates of little cakes and biscuits. They make me sit between them on the couch. My great uncle Laurence looks nice. He looks a bit like my grandfather, his older brother, but he's thinner and he smiles more. My great aunt Gertie looks okay. She has bright eyes like a bird and she's staring at me...

She says, "You have cousin Connie's ears. Do you see that Laurence? She has Connie's ears, but that nose… that nose is Doreen's."

Great Uncle Laurence smiles and eats a biscuit. He asks me some simple questions I don't remember anymore.

Aunty Gertie is still watching me. She sips her tea and continues talking, "Your mother now. Your mother has the same eyes as great aunt Ida, but I think her face shape is more like uncle Len's. Not like your aunt. Now she is exactly like aunty Phyllis... although Phyllis has Margery's teeth and that's unfortunate."

As I sit there between them I feel myself disintegrating. I am floating away on a sea of unknown relatives who all have prior claim to my "bits". Who am I? I am a patchwork collection of family pieces. There is no "ME". There is only Connie's ears and Doreen's nose and Gaileen's smile. I always thought I was ME. Unique. Complete. But now I'm finding out that I'm simply a collection of family body parts. Nothing belongs to me. I feel lost and strangely taken apart, like a human jigsaw puzzle.

Many years passed and one day I found myself at Great Uncle Laurence's funeral in Johannesburg. After the service all the family gather at the old family home. They are all there, all my Scottish-Dutch cousins... blonde and built like Vikings, even the girls are over 6 foot tall. I am 5 foot 3 and dark. I feel like a pygmy. I wander around, squeezing between unknown people eating plates of food. I feel lost again. I go to sit on the floor by great aunty Gertie. She is smaller and thinner, but her eyes are still very bright. We sit in the corner and watch five generations of family talking, eating, remembering… An unknown relative asks who I am.

Who are you?

Who ARE you?

Who – are - YOU?

…and Aunty Gertie starts to talk, "This is your second cousin, Michelle. She is your grandfather's brother's daughter's daughter. Can't you see? She has your mother's ears, but when she smiles she's the image of your sister."

As she talks I feel myself being connected. Before I felt taken apart, but here at this funeral I am being woven into the family by my ears and my hair and the colour of my eyes. I start to see things. My cousin Al has his great uncle's jaw and his daughters look like Aunty Gertie's daughter's daughter. And how come I never noticed before that we ALL have the family nose? It is a big nose, it's hard to miss. A long sharp Scottish nose. Cleopatra would have envied that nose! I watch these unknown family moving and talking. Family groups laugh the same and their body language is the same too. I notice, to my embarrassment, that my own personal portion of family stand out like parrots in a flock of chickens. We may look like all the others, but we talk louder and we wave our hands around. My grandmother's Greek-Irish blood shows only in me physically, but all of us carry it in the way we talk. We are louder and more emotional. We are more fun… we are embarrassing. We are something I sometimes hate. We are something I cannot escape.

…and suddenly I understand. This is what family means. It isn't being torn apart - it's being created out of a hundred different people who are all unique and yet... we carry the same ears, the same noses, the same smiles. Wherever we go in the world we will take that with us. We will always have this "home" within us. It lies in our blood and our genetics. We cannot escape it - we are the sum of all those parts. We are family.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Kallaatta kallapparuppaatta

Kallaatta kallapparuppaatta… We all are shouting together. It is a game, very interesting one. Very tricky too. We can play this game with any number of girls; the number just has to be even as we need to divide us into two groups. Sometimes we don’t mind having unequal number of girls, as we can not say no to any girl if the gathering happens to be an odd number in total.

Except our group leader we are all sitting on the floor, one behind one, stretching our legs straight. Wearing full-length skirt is very important for playing this game. We use the skirt to cover our legs fully. Our group leader comes to each one of us and hides that stone, between our legs and we have to cover it with our skirts. Sometimes my brother Senthil insists on including him in our game, then we ask him to bring a big towel and he spreads it over his legs, after sitting. The trick is that we should not let the other group know who is really having the stone, as there is only one stone. So, we all pretend as if we are hiding the stone. The group leader can keep the stone as well, which she does sometimes. She hides her hand by wrapping her skirt several times over her hand. She could be holding the stone, or the stone could be with anyone of us. Not even the group members know with whom the stone is, it is only that girl, with whom the stone is, knows about it. Then we all shout “kallatta kallapparuppaatta” together, moving our legs sideways, away, close, away, close. It is very rhythmic. It goes very rhythmically with our kallaatta kallapparuppaatta. As we play this game in the evenings, the darkness help us hide the stone better. The bulb in our street light has lost its last breadth yesterday, making our game even more interesting. The game is the other group has to find out the stone. If they find correctly, they get points. We will stand up and leave the ground for them to sit and start. If they don’t find the stone, we get points, and we continue the game. Of course the whole luck of the game depends on who starts the game. We decide that by playing pulling-at-the-line. Group leaders go head to head, stand on a line, pull each other (one leg at the back to gain strength). Whosoever pulls the other group leader to her side wins and gets to start the game. Kutti is our group leader, and she has won this time. So, we started the game.

“Lathapponnu…” We all had to pause the game and I go to aachchi. (one information is revealed that the stone was not with me). “Aachchi, I am playing”. “It is dark and getting late. Come eat and sleep”. “I am in the middle of a game. I will come once I have finished it”. “What kind of a game is that that needs finishing so importantly? Are you going to loose your head if you don’t finish?”. “Aachchi, I am not hungry; I am not feeling sleepy either. I will come once when I have finished the game”. “Who are you playing with”? “Kutti”. “Eeh, Kutti, come here. Aren’t you Rengamma’s daughter?”, “Yes Paatti”. Now Kutti is also standing in front of my aachchi, answering her questions. “Have you had food?” Kutti is worried. She scratches her head. I can tell that she is trying to figure out which answer is going to be a less-problem-bringing one. “No paatti”, her words come out of her mouth before her decision-making-thinking is finished. “Why are you playing in empty stomach”? She goes blank. “Go and eat. Let Latha also eat. You can play tomorrow”. “And, what is that you are holding your skirt so high like that, showing your legs?”. She had to drop the skirt that was wrapped around her hand. The stone was in her hand. Shit. Aachchi has made us reveal our stone. The game is lost. I turn my head towards Jaya, the other group leader, and tell her, “Jaya, we will do it again”. “We will drop Latha from our game. Her aachchi or amma or her chithi always interrupt our game and ruin the fun.” I feel like crying. I look at aachchi, “Good. You are not in the game anymore, so, you can come and eat first”. “Look, they dropped me from the game because you people interrupt the game all the time and ruin the game and fun for others too”. “Adengappa (an expression expressing sarcasm), what kind of game is that? Are you all playing to win a kingdom? Or, are you all going to bring rice for tommorrow’s ulai (While cooking rice in traditional method, water is boiled first and rice is added when the water reaches boiling point. The water boiled before adding rice is called ulai, which synonymously mean food)”. Kallaatta kallapparuppaatta.. Is it Jaya’s group? I can’t hear very well. Seems Kutti has lost the previous round.

Monday, November 21, 2005


I am upset. Malar was like a star today. When she comes to our class, everyone wants to be friends with her. I am a kind of loser with this name, no any other person has. Whenever Shanthi is referred, they always ask me, which Shanthi? Then I tell them which Shanthi she is. There are two Shanthis in my class. But, there is only one Rajalakshmi in my class, but still people ask me which Rajalakshmi? Then I tell them her father's name. Some people still don't get it. Then I tell them her mother's name. For some other girls, their brother's or sister's name works well too. But, in my case, they ask me who I am, when I tell my name, they know. Because, there is no other Premalatha in my whole class, in my whole school, also in my whole street, also in my whole relative houses and in my friends houses. I was surprised when Shanthi named her younger sister (just born you know) Premalatha. There was another surprise to me that she gets to name her sister. I don't understand why would she want to name her sister with my name? She said she liked it. I don't like it! I am going to ask mother why did she name me like this. "Well, we did ask your suggestion, but this is what you liked too". Mother is laughing. Why are you laughing? Is it a funny name? If it is a funny name that makes you laugh, you could have told me and changed my name! "I don't believe you. If at all you had asked me I only would have suggested the name Malar". "Malar"? "Yes, you know, Paappathy Teacher's daughter Malar, that Malar". "Oh, right". "Next time, if we can change your name, we will definitely ask you for suggestion". "Do people change name?" "No, not generally". "Then why did you say that we will change name and you will consider my suggestion?", "Well, because you don't like your name, we should do something about it, like changing name". "Is it possible? how will they all know it is me still?" "We will tell them". "how"?, "Well, think about a new name for yourself for the time being, we will figure out how should we tell everyone about it. OK"?

Thenmoli is a good girl too, except that, her mother is not as popular teacher as Paapathy teacher. I don't like to be in Then's mother's class. Also, when Then comes, no one really cares about her. And there is Lakshmi teacher's daughter. She is in my class, so she is always there, so no one really treats her any different from me, and above all, her name is Latha!! I don't want that name. Shanthi is cool. You know, just father's name wouldn't be sufficient to make you completely differently identifiable from any other Shanthi. Wait, if I am Shanthi, then it goes like, that military man's daughter Shanthi.. Oh crumps! They will know it is me. Nobody is going to ask another question. Even if they tell Ponniah's grand-daughter, no another question either. There is also this, "Muthulakshmi teacher's sister's daughter" I am known by...

PS: I was told that I was named "Angayarkanni" originally, which my father thought that it was too old fashioned and then they changed it to Premalatha. I always remember that name, as it was the name I could have been known by..

must read: En peru padum padu (I will translate for non-tamils, later).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Home is.. sand? - by Michelle

I was looking at Prema's name "KOMBAI - THE HOME TOWN" and it got me thinking. I have lived in several towns, but there's really only been one that felt like home - the town I was born in. And yet I've lived in some very nice places. I can't say my home town was prettier or bigger or had more shops. So why is it the place I still think of as "home"?

What place do you think of when I say "home"? Is it where you were born? Where you lived as a child? Where you live now? What makes a town a home town?

I've sat and thought about this for three days now and I still can't find an answer. So instead I started to write down what I remember about my home town. The things that still make me homesick after all these years. The thing that stood out was - sand. Home is sand.

My home town is where I was born and spent my childhood. It is called Bulawayo, which means "place of slaughter". Not the best of names! It is where King Lobengula built his capital city in 1870. He named it after a great battle he won in 1872.

My most earliest memories of Bulawayo are of sand. I still miss sand. Red sand, orange sand, golden sand. Baked hard by the sun and wonderful for playing games on. Grass was a luxury you saw in parks and the gardens of rich people. Our house had grass in the front yard and sand in the rest. My dad did try growing grass down the side, but it never worked. I grew up with sand and I still love it. Grass always looks dirty to me. It's fussy and itchy and it has insects hiding in it. Snakes hide in long grass too. Nope, I don't want grass. I like sand. :)

Our back yard had a vegetable garden with chickens and behind that there were the fruit trees. A pomegranate, an avocado, an orange tree with dark dark green leaves and two sad skinny wobbly pawpaw (papaya) trees. The sand was so hard that my dad never got root vegetables to grow. the carrots were too weak to push through the ground and they always came out small and crooked, but the green beans were tougher and they grew ok. We ate a lot of beans! And sometimes I'd eat a pomegranate. It only got a few fruit, it wasn't a big tree, so fruit was a treat. I'd sit against the kitchen wall in the shade and peel away the thick skin. Eat the seeds one by one, spitting out the centres on the sand. There was something magical about those seeds with their clear red flesh. They were so shiny and pretty. It was like eating beads.

Outside our house the pavement was sand too. All pavements were sand. With big trees spreading out wide and keeping you cool as you rode your bicycle or walked to the shops. In town the park had grass, but the town hall had wide sand pavements with huge trees. The flower sellers sat there in the shade. When my mother went to town we'd stop there and look at all the flowers. Behind them there were fountains that hissed and spread cool mist in the air that you could feel on your skin as you walked past. I loved the trees in town as well. Silver oaks, flamboyants and Jacarandas mostly. I never understood why they called the ones with the beautiful glowing gold flowers "Silver" oaks. Grown-ups were so stupid. Everyone could see the flowers were GOLD, not silver! And they were full of nectar as sweet as honey and so thick it was like tar. The grown-ups hated them. If you parked your car under a silver oak the nectar would drip on the car and set like tar too. It was almost impossible to get off. I loved them, they were pretty and tasted good, but my favourite were the Jacarandas. In spring they'd flower and it would be Jacaranda festival. The shops in town would decorate their windows and entrances with paper and tissue flowers to match the blue and lavender Jacarandas. And outside the trees would be covered in flowers that would fall down and lie like carpets on the orange and red brown sand. My mom's favourite were the flamboyant with their huge "umbrellas" of deep red flowers, but I loved the soft blues of the jacarandas.



My grandmother had grass. I'd forgotten that. There was sand at the back by the kitchen, but grass around her fruit trees by the bedrooms. She had peach trees and apple trees, grape vines and guavas. The grass was thick there for some reason. The back section where it was sand was a strange place for us grandkids. It was where gran buried her pets. Rows of tiny wooden markers for all the cats, dogs, birds that had passed through that house for two generations. We'd kneel in the sand and read the names and dates of animals that had died before we were even born. There was even a monkey grave. My mom had raised it from a baby after it's mother was shot by a hunter.

At school we had more grass. The boys played cricket on it and we girls watched from under the trees.. where the sand was. We'd draw in the sand with sticks or play games. It was nicer under the trees in the shade than out on the grass where the boys were. And your lunch was safer too. Out above the grass the crows kept circling watching and waiting. Every day there'd be screams and yelling as some kid forgot to watch and had his sandwiches grabbed by a crow. Much safer under trees on the sand then on the grass.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Vaangithaa, Vaangithaaren (eq. to Trick or treat).

Info: the next day to Diwali day is (was?) celebrated as muthaalamman festival, a festival of local Goddess, Muthaalamman.

Senthil is wearing a mask. I am a little shy to put the mask on and not sure why should I do it. I don’t do things that I don’t understand. Senthil is all that “enjoy” type and I am all that “why” type. So, there we are Senthil with his mask on and I, with my face as my face. The main point is to show our new clothes to everyone. All our elders give money. Its collection time!!! Grinning from ear to ear, we both depart. We are holding a plate with thiruneeru (ash used in prayers, also applied on the forehead, similar to bindi, except that it is applied in a rectangular shape) and some coins Chithi gave us just to make it look like our collection has already started. Actually we don’t need to fool anyone. Maattukkaara Paattaiyaa (the grandfather, who has bulls and cows) certainly will treat us. We just have to ask him. But we like to have that starter money on our plate. It makes us happy. It makes us feel that we have already collected some money. We run straight to maattukkaara paattaiyaa’s house. Paatti and paattaiyaa welcome us laughing and smiling and so much noise in their house too.
“Vaangithaa, vaangitharen”. Senthil shouts from behind the mask.
“Eh, look, Senthil and Latha are here. Bring that money”. Karuvaayan chiththappa comes out.
“Eh, you have to say it otherwise we won’t give you any money”.
Senthil shouts with so much joy, “vaangithaa, vaangithaaren”. I am there standing, bending sideways, smiling and just looking at them.
“No, no, you have to say too. Where is your mask?”, chithappa asks.
Pattaiyaa interferes, “eh, do not talk to a girl child like that. She doesn’t have to wear any mask or say anything. Didn’t you hear her brother saying? That includes her too”.
Chiththappa doesn’t give up. “No, no. If senthil says, he gets the money. Look at him, he is wearing a mask too. I won’t give money to Latha, she is not a wearing mask, nor is she saying “vaangithaa, vaangithaaren”.
“Didn’t I say not to talk to our girl child like that? What are you thinking of her? She is from our family. She is brought up with so much culture. Did you think she will go around and shout in front of others houses for money? Did you think she will put on the mask like a clown? It is ok for a boy. That is why Senthil is wearing mask. Senthil is the man of their house. He is taking care of her. He is going with her. When he is there, it is for both of them and he always includes her", Pattaiya pulls the his "man of the house speaketh" card.
“Chiththappa, look, I am wearing new clothes”. I spin full in one go and show him my new skirt, grinning ear to ear. Senthil is jumping out of excitement.
“Chiththappa, look, look, I am wearing new clothes too”.

We get good collection there, as paataiyaa, paatti, and three chiththappas give us money separately. We run straight back to our house to show our collection. Mother tells us the other houses to go next and our day continues. We come back home after visiting all the houses. It was a good-collection day.