India is among the few countries where women have held power in highest offices in politics, banking, sciences and business. Their achievements are all the more laudable as they overcome a lot of obstacles in our country where social and culture fabric still prefer women as home makers. Those with careers still have to multi-task with parental and home duties.

This morning I just read an article about a women’s self-help group in Tunisia, Dhafouli, which has become a successful cooperative producing and exporting Harissa, a key Arabic sauce used in many middle-eastern dishes. Naturally my mind fled back to such women-only cooperatives, both private and government aided initiatives in India particularly in Tamil Nadu where I live.

In childhood, my maternal grandmother was the first multi tasker I had seen. She was physically very obese but dominated her country style kitchen with its four clay stoves in a 10 by 10 feet kitchen in Madurai. Her eleven children and a dozen grandchildren ran about the medium sized house of nearly four storeys, while she slogged over the stove. She was an expert of the south Indian cuisine, her curries and gravies of fish, meat and chicken, though spicy to our Delhi palattes, were consumed with relish.

Her work started early morning and after the fajr prayers. Two minions would keep firewood and cow dung pats ready for lighting the fire, while others would grind the masalas and chop shallots and vegetables for the day. She would make her ponderous way  to the kitchen holding on to doors and her children and sit on a tiny kitchen chair to begin cooking. The boiling milk, tea and coffee rituals would be followed by nearly fifteen dishes for breakfast and lunch. My mother and her sisters’ job was to serve their husbands at a dining table on the first floor that was reached by a narrow flight of stairs. The stairs were steep and woe betide anyone who forgot anything. They had to huff and puff up and down.

My grandfather’s meals would be served on a separate steel table often by us grandchildren who greedily waited for the pocket money of an anna or more that he gave each of us. Meanwhile my granny would have finished the chores and left her daughters-in-law to wind up the cleaning and rice cooking. She would then proceed to her bath and dressing up which took another hour. Before and after lunch she would be busy with handwork. She was a skilled weaver and made lovely rattan baskets and mats often dyed from the local market. Besides this, she loved to string beaded purses, jewel boxes and do papier mache. Her daughters were equally talented but many left off after their marriages. My mother was my next role model. Married in her teens, she had to look after three children besides contend with an over-educated husband who often ridiculed her lack of learning. We lived in New Delhi at that time.

But she was a spunky individual. She soon learnt knitting from a female commune that was supplying the Indian army during the Indo-China war. She also learnt cooking and became an expert cook in the first decade of her marriage. She soon picked up my father’s menu preference and set up a standard menu that would suit his health.

Mother then learnt tailoring, most of our clothes, curtains, bedsheets and sweaters were homemade. Though some were slipshod, we wore them with elan often taking down critics with a firm stare. She is a good finance manager even today except for her indulgence in snacks and gifts for her grandchildren.

I may have inherited her love for multi-tasking but I doubt I am an expert. When I look at senior members of a school of which I am a board member, I feel tiny. My contribution may be little but they value my advice and often take it.

It is heartening to see women do something outside their homemaker duties, my journalist sister has covered hundreds of communes, organisations and self-help groups in Tiruchi, who do dedicated social service often with very little profit. There are widows producing sanitary napkins, hospital gowns, gloves, herbal medicines, running community kitchens and others in industrial production like beekeeping, worm manure, building toilets and even recycling food and clothes.

Women who think beyond the walls of their house are indeed blessed particularly if their husbands and families realize and form a strong backbone for their co-curricular activities and career.






News paper reading can become tedious particularly during festival and vacation times in Tamil Nadu. Full page advertisements particularly of high rises, premium townships and full furnished apartments on sale take up nearly four sides of our local broadsheets.

Though I do accept that this sort of advertising constitutes major revenues for the paper, the pictures of full-furnished apartments with state of art designs don’t impress me.

Hey they are totally equipped without an inch of space left for our own things. What if we moved into one of these flats and had to take our personal belongings. Treasured stuff like books, photos, albums, our favourite pillows, beddings, beds, kitchen utensils, home appliances and grandma’s crockery would have to be jettisoned. Where would we put them?

No I don’t think any full-furnished house will satisfy me. I remember living for a short time in a gated community which had identical row houses. One house in this colony was advertised as fully furnished. My neighbour proudly said that future owners just had to buy grocery to move in.

I secretly wished them luck. It turned out that my predictions were true. The owners, a couple with two high school children, had to redesign their front porch, build a kennel for their mastiff and change the plumbing outside to hide the ugly pipes and landscape the garden, besides paying a fortune for the house proper.

I remember a number of houses that I had lived in Delhi. My mother and father had a curious knack for making their own space. He always had a study table and at least four shelves of books, while she always had a corner for her sewing machine, knitting yarns and macramé hangings. My mother’s craft work often overflowed into the kitchen. The garden, a tiny patch outside was the domain of our gardener, who varied flowers, bushes and grass with a huge hanging vine that our dog hated. We three children were no different, though the dinner table was our common homework station in the evenings.

We shared shelves in the same cupboard and nooks in the same refrigerator to store our share of goodies.

Of course now as adults and grandparents we are more indulgent. My home furniture now consists of at least 1000 books, my own crafts collection, a dozen almirahs, four sets of double beds and innumerable kitchen vessels and home appliances. Even our garage has a small space for garden implements besides a power generator backup bought during the electricity shortages of Tamil Nadu in early 2010.

So an advertisement for furnished homes would never suit me, I cannot forgo my stuff to live in homes styled by others. My inherent penchant for personalising my space will never allow me to accept monotonous uniformity.



The November 8 demonetization of Rs.1000 and Rs.500 currency notes has thrown life out of gear throughout India. Funnily it has sharpened my financial analysis of the situation.

These notes were popular because they coincided with our daily expenses. Each of my shopping trips either for veggies, grocery or meat totalled only Rs.500 including auto or taxi fare. If there was any function or wedding in the family and it was a cash gift an envelope of fresh Rs.500 or Rs.1000 note with the token Rs.1 coin was readied. Similarly Rs. 500 was the chosen note for donations to a national disaster relief or school building fund, social organisation fund raiser or other like occasions. All our family outings to restaurants, movies or late night ice cream and snack trips cost exactly Rs.1000. They were the idyllic middle-class family notes and rested snugly in any wallet or purse.

How many times have I converted my piggy bank collections into Rs. 500 notes and made sure to exchange them only when absolutely necessary, the Tamil colloquial term for this was Gandhiya Oddakurathu (the photo of Mahatma Gandhi on the note symbolized that we shouldn’t break its ‘unity’).

For the first time in many years, my conservative husband allowed me to operate my savings bank account for a withdrawal. He was forced to do it, as all customers had to come and verify themselves with innumerable ID proofs.

That day, my bank branch had about 100 customers who stood in three queues with only three officers to attend them. I admired the patience of these officers who dealt with bewildered questions like signatures, cheque filling, deposits and withdrawals in the unfamiliar new Rs.2000 notes.

Also the colourful curses against the ruling government by the customers entertained me. Many grumbled that the govt had allowed ultra rich to convert their hoarded wealth, while we working class had to subsist on meagre withdrawals after hours of queuing. The ATM counters were no better as the queues extended up to entire streets in several areas. They also became dry fast, because wily account holders often brought several cards and withdrew the allotted Rs.2000 per swipe from different banks. Also the ATM machine’s capacity for Rs.3 lakhs each time, cannot accommodate Rs.10, Rs.100 and Rs.50 notes whose bundles are larger than the banned notes. So, again curses can be heard at such counters.

At the hospital where my mother is undergoing chemotherapy after a mastectomy, we paid all their fees with our debit card, but the petite female accountant could not calculate the surcharge and fill in the receipt. Imagine we spent two extra hours waiting for her to figure out the transaction.

The deadline for exchange of the old Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes is December 31. Hundreds of legitimate schemes like e-wallets, card swiping machines at stores are now mingling with dubious methods like home delivery of Rs.2000 cash for a fee by online store Snapdeal, a growing black market in currency exchange and investment in gold and silver coins. The great Indian public is learning digital money but prefers cash in hand.

It is just like reading paper editions of newspapers daily, no digital version can replace it. No wonder Tamil Nadu has about 100 newspapers and even more magazines with average daily circulations of at least one million.

We like to touch and feel our money not use some card and password and be permanently hooked to our smart phones to update our net banking.



Our childhood was full of games, and most of them were conjured up from thin air without toys or other equipment. Outdoor games covered I spy, Lock and Key, King King Good Morning King and others played with friends on the park that fronted our house at JNU university campus in New Delhi. All these were running games and required only a huge empty space to play.

Besides this we also played extremely bad cricket, a fairly good game of badminton using each other’s garden hedges as the net and cycling that I am sorry to say I could never master.

Though our parents got us some nice toys, I abhorred dolls with satin hair and mechanized toys like barking pups and walkie talkie dolls. Somehow my tiny imagination felt that they would come alive at night and chase me. Their mechanized movement mimicking human actions never thrilled me and I eagerly handed over such birthday gifts to my sister.

We also played a lot of sitting down games that were a great mental exercise. On the way home from school (a journey of around 45 minutes then on a jostling bus) we would play Chinese Whisper. It consisted of one word being whispered into another’s ear and usually went around in a circle. The last girl had to tell the word out loud, making us laugh because its final pronunciation and meaning would be totally distorted with the bus’s noise and our irregular seating.

Another game was called I Went Out To a Party. It was a chain game, where the first member listed out one item on any imaginary menu, the next girl had to tell this and add another item. This chain would go on, but all participants had to list the menu in the correct order besides beginning their turn by saying I went out to a party I had. I am surprised to recall that this game would go on for at least six rounds without any girl faltering.

We also loved to play origami, often folding paper into various designs, streamers and hats. We would also fold the paper into concentric rectangles writing our ‘fates’ on it and played it with each other. Other paper games included cross and knots, joining dots, guessing words with missing letters and Name, Place, Animal and Thing ( where you had to list out all items beginning with the same letter often chosen by one participant). All this required just pen and paper.

Besides this we played board games like chess, scrabble, carrom board, ludo, monopoly and others. Often these were shared toys and had to be carefully put away after use.

Visits to my granny’s house in Tamil Nadu were filled with traditional games like pannankuli ( a game of about counting and filling holes with sea shells with deletions and points), five stones where small pebbles were caught and held by juggling and hopping on one leg on squares often drawn with chalk in the huge cement courtyard.

I am glad to have grown up in a childhood that had such imaginary games, because now I can teach my grandson. He is slowly moving away from his I Pad to gladly join me in such exercises. Also using our imagination in an almost empty room must be the Almighty’s way of showing us that joy can be conjured up out of thin air if we choose to do it.




I can still recall my handicraft teacher at my school Carmel Convent in New Delhi. Small and sprite, with a permanent curl slipping from her plait, she was shorter and walked faster than all of us.

Handicrafts period was serious business in most schools of the 1970s-80s. It was an IMPORTANT subject and you had to pass it for your quarterly, half-yearly and final exams to get ranked. Sorry miss I cannot recall your name, let me just call you Hema, as it is short and sweet like you were. Continue reading “THANK YOU MISS”

A visit to Panchukalipatty

A recent visit to Panchukalipatty, a small weavers’ town about 25 kilometres from Salem, was an eye-opener. The town has about ten major weaving societies that are totally self-sufficient in production. They source their silks, yarns and jari threads from Bangalore and northern states like Gujarat, besides training their local graduates in computer designing of patterns.

The societies manufacture saris, half saris, dhotis and handmade shirts. The story starts with the double winding of silken threads either from bolls or bobbins with crude electric machines fashioned out of old cycle wheels and other discarded waste.

The ateliers are set up mostly in cramped halls of single bedroom thatched huts where weavers lower themselves into specially designed pits and begin their work. The looms are strung up with the pattern charts that are painstakingly punched by hand and the required yarn into the correct warp and weft tensions.

Working from the narrow pits, the weavers are able to produce only one sari every three days. If any pattern goes wrong, the entire cloth has to be unwoven and reset.

A bright tube light over each loom is the only concession to modernity, while they slog in airless rooms, as fans can disturb the threads.

Further along the town, in another parallel street, are power looms. These looms are easier to operate but are costlier. However they can weave silks and synthetics and produce about three saris in a day. Parthiban, who has taken to this method after suffering an accident that hurt his leg, concedes that pure silks can only be woven on hand looms. Power looms could snarl the delicate yarns he says.

It made us wonder how such beautiful artistry could be created in such humble surroundings. Most of the weavers sleep near or around their looms. On auspicious days they smear haldi and kumkum on the looms and allow it to ‘rest’ before beginning their exercise again.

Their children played, studied and ate around the looms while wives cooked and washed nearby. Parthiban laments that the finished product triples in value once it reaches the showroom and customer as it passes through several middlemen. His earnings of Rs.400 per sari are a small percentage in the entire transaction.

Mahadevan, a third-generation weavers’ cooperative owner concedes that there are no more hand loom workers in the coming generations. Many have opted out to study and go for office jobs and other professional careers. He says,” It was my duty as the elder son to carry on my father’s work. My siblings are all in different professions.”

Other houses in the beautiful town did tertiary work like polishing the woven saris, stitching patterns onto them ( a fad imported from the northern states of India) and dyeing threads for required shades.

The showrooms located on the main road of Panchukalipatty, displayed the products and had umpteen customers even on Sundays. Most came for bulk purchases either for festivals, religious and social functions or uniform patterns for corporate events.

Mahadevan’s sales girls even modelled the saris to satisfy some exacting customers. The verdant surroundings of Panchukalipatty and its lovely weaves were advertised mostly through word of mouth. Its customers remained loyal despite being finicky about quality, design and price.

Kudos to the town and its enterprise.