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The second wife

Our first posting in 1973, was to The Gida Kom Leprosy Hospital in Khasadrapchu, a few miles away from Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan.

Before we went to Bhutan, we traveled to Singapore for Rekha’s christening at Christ Church, before My Dad retired on the 31st of December, 1972,  the day before his Birthday on the 1st of January. It was an emotional time for all of us, as my Mum and Dad said goodbye to their extended family, the congregation of Christ Church. Saying goodbye to families that grew up around you, was not an easy task. And, they were moving out of The Parsonage at 118 Keng Lee Road which had been their home for 33 years . Ruthlessly discarding memorabilia to downsize, they moved to a flat in Thomson Ridge.

Soon after he helped settle us into the flat, Sam went to take charge at Gida kom. Rekha and I stayed back, as the Himalayas would have been bitterly cold for the baby in January. The plan was, that we would join him after 3 months when we hoped it would be a little warmer. A few weeks after he landed , he sent me a desperate message, asking us to join him, as he could not stand the loneliness. He said, that as long as he was working and busy, the loneliness did not worry him. But, when he returned to the empty cold house, he said that it was so silent, he could hear his own breathing and it was driving him nuts. Except for the howling of the wind, that rattled the glass panes of the windows, that were shut tight to keep the cold out, the house, he said, was a Mausoleum.

We were on the first flight out to Calcutta and were delirious to be all together again. From Calcutta we flew to Bagdogra, to travel by the Leprosy Mission Landrover to Gida kom.

Whenever I asked Sam how much further we had to climb, he kept dodging saying, Its just here…just here . I believed him and we sat huddled in the land Rover for what seemed like an eternity. We stopped at Taktichu at 10,000 feet above sea level to have coffee at a small kiosk. I could not believe my eyes, when I met the proverbial mundu clad, Malayalee Chettan, bundled up in a monkey cap, muffler and sweater , selling yards of steaming coffee in a tea shop atop the Himalayas. He was just as delighted to meet a saree, someone that he could chat with.  Someone, who knew Malayalam. Out of respect he kept addressing me as “Saar”. Unused to being called “Saar” , I kept looking behind my shoulder to see if he was talking to a gentleman standing behind me.

He’s talking to you, Susie, said an amused Sam. He is talking to you. Get used to it !

After the welcome break , we were bundled up in the Landrover, as we continued to climb. The roads going up, were narrow winding challenges, that managed to let traffic up and down mountain, simultaneously, without metal touching metal, as the vehicles crossed.  The traffic coming down hugged the curve of the mountain. As we were going up, we drove on the cliffside of the road , which sported a sheer drop of several feet. If a car went down , rescue operations would be futile, I was told.

At some spots, I closed my eyes tight, clutched Rekha, who slept through it all, close and whispered Dear God… Dear God…Dear God, through clenched teeth. I had no clue what I was praying for. I could not get past the two words, Dear God . All I knew was that if I called on Him, He would get us safely, to wherever it was that we were going.

The driver’s skills were wasted on me. I was sure that this was the last ride I would ever take on this earth. We were going to hurtle down an unknown mountain to oblivion.  The only mountains I had climbed, growing up on the Island of Singapore, were The Fraser’s Hill and The Cameron Highlands, when we went on holiday in Malaysia. They had now shrunk to pimples on the horizon, when compared to the mountains of the Himalayas.

When I had my eyes open, the sheer beauty of the landscapes we crossed, took my breath away. The mountainside was covered by green forests, with Rhododendrons and Poinsettias waving out from the foliage, that covered the mountain side. Linear Tibetan Prayer Flags, wafted as reassuring colourful strands in the chilling wind, welcoming visitors to the ancient Himalayan Kingdom, instilling a calm and peace, as we rode up . Sometimes a spectacular waterfall would break the monotony, to gush and tumble down the side of the mountain, spraying rainbow colours, as the water spray burst in the air. Far in the distance, the snow capped mountains, peaked as they stood tall and proud, in silent witness of God’s Magnificent Creation.

After about 9 hours of telling me that it was only a short distance away , Sam said Look there it is.   We had finally reached Gida Kom. The Hospital Campus was pitch dark, as there was no electricity. They only had a Hydel Plant that supplied a faint and temperamental flicker of light for about 2 hours in the evening, after which the whole place went to sleep, with Kerosene lit Hurricane Lamps for emergencies. It was several hours after “Hydel Time”, when we finally reached.

We creaked and cranked up the last lap and stopped at the dimly lit Superintendent’s Bungalow.  A crowd of staff and patients were waiting to welcome us. They had been tracking the head lights of the Landrover, for an hour,  as it climbed the last lap of the climb.  Crowding around, they inspected us from head to toe, holding their lamps high up above their heads. Shaking their heads they muttered “Tsk Tsk Tsk “.…and something in Bhutanese that I did not understand “.  I had no idea what was happening. Neither did Sam.

The next morning, we found out what the “Tsk Tsk Tsk’ was all about. Sam had tried to set up the home before we arrived. He had placed some random photographs on the Mantelpiece of the Fireplace. Some of them were from the wedding album. Apparently, they had inspected the photographs on display and they were expecting the slim wife from the wedding photographs, to alight daintily from the car. They were confused to see a chubby person, several kilos richer, stiff with several hours on the road, roll out of the car, bundled up in several layers of warmth.

Thats when they did the Tsk Tsk Tsk. What they muttered in Bhutanese, I believe was …..Poor thing the first wife died and the Doctorsahib married again…  Tsk Tsk Tsk… 

 

 

 

 

A Perspective

A mother in Delhi had to go to work. She works as a maid in a few houses to earn Rupees more, but she can not afford a babysitter. All that she and her husband earn goes towards running the home. She used to leave her baby with their sister-in-law, who lived in the neighbourhood .

On the 28th of January the sister-in-law’s 28 year old son, raped the 8 month baby left in their care.

You could not blame the rape on the clothes that the baby wore. You could not accuse the baby of flirting or being provocative.  There was no dark alley and you could not blame the rape on the hour she returned home. There was no alcohol on her breath. Just a faint smell of her mother’s stale milk. The drugs and IV shots came much later, when she was admitted bleeding to AIIMS.

The incident happened on the 28th of January and it was reported in the news. The viewers gasped for a minute, froze in shock and went back to what they were doing.  It was business as usual.

The Parliament discussed the New Budget. The TV Stations projected figures and graphs and had debates with panels of experts who translated the SOPs in laymen’s terms to the Viewers. Every Indian discussed the budget.They discussed it with their families and with absolute strangers, They discussed it in the train, in the plane , in the plains and on the mountain tops.

No one remembered the mutilated, maimed for life,  8 month baby , a hospital number , a mere statistic .

We had some visitors in the evening. They were young gentlemen from sound and studious backgrounds and inevitably the conversation veered towards the Budget. When I asked if a country will ever have a robust economy, if they do not address the Relentless Rot of Rape of its Women and Children, they looked uncomfortable and squirmed in their chairs.  Was it not threatening to ruin the fibre , the fabric and the future of the Country, I asked.

They looked at me, as if I was a senior cretin, having a senior moment , talking out of turn and context .The Economy and the Rape of women are not related,  explained the young man seated next to me, in a patient and tired voice, as he patted my hand .

The parliament discussed a law for two hours on the 3rd February, that would pass the death sentence on humans caught slaughtering a cow. No mention of stricter laws and punishment for Rapists, child or adult.

The injured and mauled eight month baby, old news by now, lies in an ICU in AIIMS fighting for her life, after multiple surgeries. She does not figure in any vote bank. She will not be able to vote people into power. Not for a long long while, given her prognosis.

Will all the cows saved by stricter laws, vote people into power, I wonder ?

What is our world coming to ?

 

.

 

 

 

The Bridal Makeover

To preserve our Indian-ness, I was never allowed to cut my hair short.

I had thick, long, straight, black hair that lived on my head, but belonged to my Mum and my Aunts. It did whatever they wanted it to, on a time-table of its own. It was oiled and washed and combed and sprung like 2 braided antennae, from the top of my head, just above my ears. Never cut, at some point, it fell down to the back of my knees.

Now that I am Bald and Bootiful, how I wish, I could have, what I once thought, was the bane of my life , back on my head.

I had never ever been to a Beauty Parlour in all my life, till the morning of my wedding. After the Communion Service for the family at Christ Church, I was packed off to a Chinese Beauty Parlour with Mrs. Beebee, the Organist at Christ Church. She dropped me off at the Parlour and drove back, to complete the Flower arrangements in the Church, saying that she would pick me up when I was ready.

I had no idea what I was in for. The girls in the Parlour could not believe their ears, when I told them that I had never been to a Beauty Parlour before. They could not believe that I had never had a facial, a manicure, a pedicure, a bleach, wax or threading done. They could not believe that a young doctor at 25 , could be so unsophisticated.

Unbelievable……they exclaimed

Shaking their heads, they led me to a chair facing a huge mirror and took my glasses off. Without my glasses, I cannot see a thing, not even my dreams. I cringed as they breathed on me and examined every square inch of my face. I was wondering if I could make a dash to the door, when they pinned my arms down, tied me up in a pinafore and went to work on my face.

Ignoring my anxious whimpers of pain, they started with my eyebrows. I had a pair of furry caterpillar like eyebrows, that met comfortably on my forehead. They never bothered anyone and no one ever bothered them. The Beauticians tilted my head back and two of them worked on each side. They threaded each one, into thin shapely arches which made me look as if I was in a constant state of startled surprise. What they could not thread, they plucked out mercilessly.

Then they started on my upper lip. I must have looked like Jenghis Khan, as no beautician’s hand had ever traveled there before. They spread warm wax, on strips of mull cloth and plastered it down, onto my upper lip. In one fell sweep, they pulled off the strips of mull cloth, with a layer of me on it. The pain was excruciating. They were treading on dangerous ground, my Little’s area, the anatomical triangle between the bridge of my nose and my upper lip. Any injury or infection would go straight to the Cavernous Sinus in my brain and cause certain death, I remembered. Did they care? No, they did not and they continued to wax, thread and pluck out everything I had ever owned, on my upper lip. Smarting with tears, I let them numb the area with ice cubes, experiencing pain at a different level.

They then propped me up and let my hair down. This may have been the distraction that saved my life. They had never seen straight black hair that reached anyone’s knees. They held a huddle to see what would suit me best.

A flat hairdo for a corpse in a coffin, I thought, sure that I would never leave the building alive.

Finally they dragged me off to a sink. I had to sit with my back to the sink with my head tilted precariously back in it. I am not tall. Nor, do I have a long swan like neck. My head passes insensibly into my trunk, with no apology. I placed my rudimentary neck gingerly on the edge of the sink and closed my eyes, as I waited for the onslaught water. When they had washed and conditioned all three and a half feet of my hair, they let me go, only to pin me down again and dry me off.

Exhausted and hungry I sat there, while they curled and crafted, a coiffure, that perched on top of my head, quite different from the sensible everything-pulled- back-knotted-out-of-the-way hairdo that I normally wore to work. When they finally turned me around to face the mirror I stared at a stranger who looked vaguely familiar. Not one bit like the unsuspecting naïve nerd, who had breezed into the parlour a lifetime ago.

How on earth are the veil and tiara going to sit on top of all this? I wondered to myself.
Sam will never recognise me.

They stepped back to survey me. They seemed quite satisfied with their handiwork and finally let me go when I said that my best friend, Evelyn, was coming home to dress me up and do my make-up, another first for me.

When I reached home for lunch, Evelyn was waiting for me. I was sent off for a shower with strict instructions not to damage my hairdo.

Evelyn had come with her Magic Make-up box. She whipped it out and opened jars that cleansed and toned my face. She then applied the make up, matte, highlights, and blush, finishing with the lip-liner and the lipstick. While she worked on my make-over, Evelyn gave me the pep talk of my life, including a primer on the birds and the bees. She felt she was in a POA, position of authority, as she was married to Joe and had just become a young mother to Yohindran.

Its going to streak down my face, Evelyn .…I moaned
It’s such a hot afternoon
Just shut up and keep still, Sue ...she ordered 

When she had finished with my face, she made me step into my shoes. The high heels matched the cream of my wedding saree and were quite delightful.  They had straps with bling and little bells that chinked when I moved.  Evelyn then helped me drape my wedding saree. Normally, bridal sarees are bought in Madras, but My Mum and I found this exquisite saree, we both liked instantly in Mr. P. Govindaswamy’s Saree Shop in Singapore and we did not look any further.  It was a cream Benares, with small motifs, in a matt gold weave, that shimmered in the light.

It was the most amazing saree that I had ever worn in my life. It draped well with every pleat in place. Evelyn then placed the tiara on my head and threaded my veil through it, with half of it covering my face and half of it trailing down my back to my waist.

I felt like a bride.

Never thought of contact lenses?  Evelyn asked
I did , I replied , in my third year of College,
What happened? she asked.
They popped out during the trial… I said. The optician and I were on all fours, groping for them.

Then she did the unthinkable. She whisked my glasses away.
You are not to wear them for the wedding , she ordered.
They are so ugly…. she hissed, pretending to puke They are so ugly…
I don’t know who you look like, Sue..
Batman or Catwoman

Only a good friend, with whom you have grown up, can make outrageously rude remarks like that and get away with it. Only good friends can then roll about and cackle in gay abandon.

Blind and veiled, I walked up the aisle on my father’s arm. After the service I walked down the aisle on Sam’s arm. Up and Down, I was lead blind. The smartest thing that I could do, in this state of Utter-Blur, was to flash a fixed blank smile at the crowd, so that I would not appear rude, if I did not greet smile with smile.

That is how all our wedding photos have me smiling like a Cheshire cat, wearing a prophylactic, plastic smile, plastered on my face. When the wedding photographs arrived, my mum took one look at them and gave one of her disapproving Hrmmphs that conveyed more than a thousand written words.

No shy blushing bride this…. she said.
All her teeth are out……………Hrmmph

Rekha and the Goat

When Rekha started her driving lessons, she did them around the Defence Colony grounds.

Every morning, before she left for Medical College, the driving instructor would arrive and take her for a lesson on the open grounds that extended from the Main road that lead to the Defence Colony, to the National Highway of the War Cemetery . This was also the open space that many of the villagers used to let their livestock loose to graze. It was not uncommon to see Red L plates weaving nervously between cattle and goats.

One morning, Rekha came back from the driving class,  a little shaken.  Mummy , she said, throwing the car keys on the table. I think I had a close shave . Alarmed I looked up . I almost knocked down a baby goat, she said. Thank God, I slammed the brakes in time. I agreed thankfully. Thank God Rekha , I said with enormous relief.

Neither of us thought anything more about it . We left in a little while, she for College and I for the Clinic. I picked her up from College after work and brought her home. Our gate is always kept locked, as the dogs would run out, given half a chance. When they hear the car horn, all 4 dogs would rush out and jump at the locked gate barking wildly. They made such a ruckus, I was sure that our neighbours, the Chadas of 209, would have complained bitterly , or moved , if they were not dog lovers themselves, with half a dozen dogs in their compound, at any point of time.

Clayton our Cook , would come to the gate and shoo all the dogs behind the dog’s wicker gate, in front of the garage and close it carefully,  before he opened the iron gate to  let the car in. This could take from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how frisky and excited the dogs were to see us back.

This was all the time it would take Anish, who would have come back from school and would be hanging out of his window on the first floor, to give me a blow by blow account of all of that had happened in my absence. Mummy you will never believe what happened today, he would start in his best conspiratorial voice, as he proceeded to tell me exactly what had happened. I was always so well informed before I entered the home. I knew exactly who had done what, to whom , when and where.

As we turned in, I noticed that he was more excited than usual and was brimming over with news to tell. Rekha, you know what you did… you killed a goat. You killed a goat. Rekha paled in fright. Mummy, she whispered, I never touched the goat. She looked as if she was going to burst into tears. Calm down Rekha. Let’s find out what happened, I said, as we parked and ran in. By then Anish was doing an elaborate re-run with audiovisuals.

Luckily, Sam was at home when the Mob arrived to extort some money from us, as compensation for the goat they claimed Rekha had run over . They arrived half an hour after we had left. They were belligerent and demanded that we pay for the goat, they claimed Rekha had knocked down, during her driving lesson in the morning. We are not leaving till we get the money,  they threatened menacingly hanging over the gate. Sam listened very carefully and commiserated with their loss. Of course we will pay for the goat , he said. Of course we will pay for the goat. Just bring the goat and we will pay for it.

In his mind’s eye, we were sitting down to Mutton Biriani for dinner.   

The Mob was flummoxed, as they had no dead goat to produce as evidence. They conferred among themselves and said that they would come back with the Goat and left. Keep the money ready, they hissed as as they dispersed. We will be back, they promised.

Nobody came back and no dead goat was brought as exhibit A. Sam thought that we had seen the last of them, when a thinner, more subdued crowd arrived at the gate, with the head of a goat, at 4 pm. It was a dry specimen with no blood dripping down and it looked suspiciously like the dismembered head of a goat that is usually hung as display, at the Butcher’s shops, after the goat was sacrificed for meat.

Sam never lost his cool. A deal is a deal, he said. I told you that we would pay for the goat. Give me the goat, take the money and leave. The hemmed and hawed and shuffled sheepishly. Eventually they left with the forlorn head of the goat, without any money passing hands. Good try thought Sam mentally as the Mini Mob left the gate.

Rekha was visibly relieved . Mummy and Daddy she said in a quivery voice, I never killed the goat. I never even touched it. Shut up Anish. Tell him to shut up Mummy. 

She was extremely reluctant to go for the driving class when the driving instructor arrived. Get into the car , Rekha , I told her as I pushed her into the driver’s seat the next day. You did not do anything wrong . Go and finish your lessons. You did not do anything wrong.

She finished her driving course and she did get her driving license. But we could never pass a goat, a Capra Aegagrus Hircus, without Anish teasing her as only a brother can.

Look Rekha …Goat….Mutton Biriani…look Rekha …Goatie…Goatie…look Rekha , Look…

 

 

 

Anish and his Menagerie

Anish’s love for animals surfaced early in life.

His love of fish is legendary. We have had fish in every shape and colour swimming in tanks all over the house. Tanks that leaked , tanks that creaked, tanks that overflowed and tanks that did not.

At one stage, when we lived at 208 Defence Colony, we had 4 dogs of different ages, breed and gender , 2 man eating baby piranhas in a cement tank in the garden, a golden Arrowana that swam alone in a 6 foot tank in the front verandah, an Oscar and an assorted school of fish swimming in a tank in the Dining Room , a rattle snake that roamed the house, when it wasn’t in his pocket , Dodi, a baby bull tied to the mango tree in the centre of our back yard and a blur of white love birds that pelted poop indiscriminately on the back verandah.

When he brought the dogs home, he would look as woebegone as the K9. You will never see him Mummy, You will never hear him, I promise, I will walk the dog, I will feed the dog, I will bathe the dog…just watch…Please Mummy…Promise Mummy…Wild promises on his part and wishful thinking on mine.

One day, he came home with a snake. It was a checkered keelback snake. It came out of his shirt pocket, crawled around his neck and wriggled back into his pocket. I looked on in horror while Baba looked at his performing reptile, with pride.   Look Mummy …Look. The bored snake rattled the rest of the family, when it decided to explore and  disappeared from the confines of Anish’s front pocket . All hell broke loose when Anish ran down the steps yelling The snake has gone , the snake has gone.  We dropped everything we were doing and searched high and low, for something we did not really want to find. It took us all day to find Mr. Snake, comfortably curled around the cross on the altar we had near the entrance.

When he was older, Anish ran a business from home.  He made Biriani and sold it to the local departmental stores. When he made a little money, he decided to buy a Bull. That was around the time, that Princess Diana had died and Dodi was in the news.  The Baby bull was christened, Dodi. We tried to persuade him to leave Dodi at our acre on the ECR road. Dodi could roam free, graze where he wanted and would have the under worked and overpaid caretaker, who was just a phone call away, to look after him. He refused. He would not be parted from Dodi.

Dodi was tied to the Mango tree in the centre of our cemented Backyard and shared space with our 4 dogs,  Snoopy, Tootsie, Tiny and Papoo. if you looked out of our window, you would see a baby Bull and four Canines living in Peace and Harmony under the shade of the lush and luxuriant Mango tree. That was fine during the dry months in Chennai. When it started raining one night, the dogs ran for shelter, without a backward glance at their differently hoofed friend. Poor Dodi could not run, as he was helpless and tied to the mango tree.

Anish woke up to thunder and lightening and came charging into our Room. Mummy, wake up, wake up. We have to get Dodi out of the Rain. Mummy wake up.

I leapt out of bed and followed him down the stairs.We opened the back door, ran out and untied Dodi, who was shaking and shivering in the rain. Clutching him close , Anish ran and placed him on the tiled back verandah. Four wet hooves on a smooth tiled surface can only go one way.  Dodi slipped and slithered all over the place , as did Anish, who was also drenched. Not to be left out, I jumped into the fray and the three of us glissaded in gay abandon over the green tiles of the Balcony. Finally, we managed to grip the railings of the window and hoist ourselves up.

Running into the house, Anish reappeared with a mattress, no correct that to the new spare mattress, from the guest room. I was speechless, but watched silently, as he laid it down on the floor and carried Dodi to dry cotton. Relieved, Dodi decided to relieve himself and rained even sized, black pellets all over the mattress.

Meanwhile the white love birds, who were rudely awakened and watching the tax free entertainment from the safety of their dry cages, perched in single file and protested in shrill, discordant notes of fear. The sets of the Opera were now slipping from the Gross to the Ridiculous.

In the morning, when it stopped raining , without a single word, Anish packed Dodi and the worse for wear, new mattress, into the back of his Gypsy and took him to the Acre and left him to graze in freedom on the ECR.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry

Most meals at the Cadavanaltharayil House were served on a long wooden table  with two long benches on either side when the family sat down in batches to be fed. The younger ones were carried around on the hip and force fed.

The elder siblings would straddle a younger sibling on their hip and walk around the compound with a bowl of food in their hand.  Distracted by the butterflies, the birds and the bees that flew around their heads, the babies would open their stubborn mouths and food would be pushed in unceremoniously. Till the babies were uncomfortably full and spat in protest

Ducks, turkeys and chicken squawked in coops at the back of the house, closely guarding their eggs.The hoofed cows and buffaloes that shared the backyard were milked, while some were used to plough the fields.

My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry, is a light, flavour full ‘SMORE kind of Chicken Curry that tastes best when cooked on a slow wood fire in an earthenware Chatti.

The pieces of chicken are cooked in thin coconut milk and the curry is seasoned only after it is cooked. It is not confused by conflicting spices or dripping with oil. Its the kind that you drown bowls of steaming hot rice in.

                                    My Grandmother’s Chicken Curry

1 Chicken, skin removed and cut into medium pieces, 2 cups sliced shallots, 4 large ripe tomatoes quartered , 1 whole head of garlic peeled and sliced fine, 8 green chillies slit, 1.5 ” ginger slivered, 10 pepper corns, 1 stick of cinnamon, 10 cloves, 6 cardamoms, 2 Star Anise, curry leaves with stems attached, 4 potatoes quartered, 1.5 Tbsp Chilli  powder, 2 Tbsp Coriander Powder, I tsp Jeera, 2 tsp roasted Fennel powder, 1 tsp Pepper Powder, 1/2 tsp Garam Masala, 1 whole coconut scraped and squeezed to yield 1 cup thick coconut milk and 2 cups thin coconut milk, Juice of 1 lime, season with 3 tsp Coconut oil, 1tsp Mustard seeds  .

Place the chicken in the pot and marinade with everything, except the thick and thin coconut milk, for half hour or more if possible. Place the pot on a low flame and slow cook till the juices flow out, without adding any water.  Add the 2 cups of thin coconut milk and cook till done. Add the thick coconut milk and take the pan off the fire before the curry curdles. In a separate pan splutter the mustard seeds in coconut oil , add sprigs of curry leaves till crisp and add to the curry. Serve with hot steaming rice and salad.

Absolutely divine comfort food

The Quickly Room

The bathroom was a thatched room close to the well. There was no Electricity. Nor was there any Plumbing. Water was carried in buckets, to fill the stone tub that was built in a corner of the bathroom. The Sibling boys bathed near the well in their shorts, drawing water from the well.

The Sibling girls used the privacy of the bathroom, as they crossed Puberty and went from Girl child to Adolescent. There were no disposable sanitary napkins or tampons. Old clothes, were torn up and used as napkins. These napkins were washed, hung out to dry and reused. Stoic operations, such as these, were coded secret and carried out in the still of the night.

The red letter days of a girls calendar were vexatious and awkward.

The lavatory was a thatched spot in the fields, that filled up and migrated with time. To avoid surprises, it was recommended, that one sang at the top of one’s voice, to warn the world, that the toilet was occupied. If you dropped a note or octave, mid performance, it was allowed, but sing you had to, for privacy. Singing, however, would not scare the snakes and scorpions, that shared the toilets and on several occasions, the vicious scorpion would rear its ugly head, to stamp its disapproval on some unsuspecting foot.

This was not a room you lingered in. Not a room to read the newspaper. Not a room  to browse through a favourite glossy magazine. You entered Quickly. You sang loudly and Quickly. You did your business Quickly and you left Quickly , hoping that nobody saw you enter or leave.

Definitely a Quickly Room.

The sleepwalking sibling

Only my grandfather slept on a bed. Everyone else slept on the floor on a mat.

After evening prayers by candle light, the main hall of the house saw mats spread out on the floor, converting it into a sleeping area, resembling an Indian railway station platform. The sisters slept on one side, the brothers on the other and the babies rolled from one to the other. The older boys slept outside under the skies, grateful for the cool breeze that lulled them to sleep. The stories of the day’s escapades and the muffled giggles would eventually silence out to even breathing and an orchestra of snores.

One of the siblings was a somnambulist. He used to sleepwalk till he became a teenager, when he stopped on his own. This was scary because some nights,  he would head towards the open well at the end of the compound. Not every night but occasionally, when no one was watching. He used to sit up and stretch himself, scratch his head and back, mutter to himself, lie down and go back to sleep. This would repeat itself a couple of times and finally on sleepwalk days, he would get up and walk towards the door. For this reason a couple of the siblings slept across the doorway, so that they would be woken up when and if he tripped over them on his way out. Predictably, he had no recollection of his walkathon when questioned the next day. He thought they were pulling his leg.

For a few hours, every night, there was no rush and no flurry as the homestead seemed to be asleep. Perhaps that was when my Velliappachan and my Velliammachy managed to catch a quiet moment alone .

 

Ours not to Question Why

Each family had a task force that worked for them in their fields

The labourers, who worked in the field, were paid four chakarams as daily wages. The chakaram was a brass coin, with a hole in the center and 28 of them made up a rupee. Many families gave them grain with the chakarams. This was more useful than the brass coin, as it kept hunger at bay instantly. You can’t eat brass when you are hungry.

In addition to their wages, they were given a noonday meal. They were not fed at the table, nor were they fed on plates. They were fed on the ground under the shade of a tree. A shallow hole would be shaped in the mud in front of the human being, sitting cross legged on the ground. A freshly cut banana leaf would be placed over the depression in the ground and the hot rice porridge would be served on it. With the heat of the Kanji or porridge, the banana leaf would wilt, moulding itself to the shape of the depression in the ground and hold the gooey rice Kanji, without a dribble. In his hand, the labourer would have a makeshift spoon made of jack fruit tree leaves, pinned together with a small twig. This would spoon the Kanji on the ground, into the mouth of the human being, doing rigorous hours of work, under a scorching sun.

My grandfather did not feed from banana leaves placed on Mother Earth. They ate out of banana leaves in his house, sitting cross legged on the floor of the Verandah outside the Kitchen. He made sure that the children of the labourers, who worked on his fields, studied alongside his own children at home and in the school, if they were inclined to do so. Many, were diffident about sending their children to school as they, like the landed gentry, did not know the word Equality. Nor would they have recognized it if they had met EQUALITY, in capital letters, on the way.

There was insurmountable opposition to the Labourers worshiping on the same hallowed holy ground and partaking of the holy sacrament, at their altar in their Church . The Gentry who sat in the wooden pews, were convinced that Jesus Christ, the Saviour, who hung bleeding on the cross at the Altar, had died exclusively for them. Certainly not for the untouchable labourers who brought in the grain. The Commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” did not include the Task Force who worked for them.

My Grandfather, deeply troubled by the discrimination and caste system that seemed to dominate the Indian church of his time, spoke out against it whenever he could. Especially in his sermons as a lay preacher. Responding to a need, he built the first church for the Untouchable Labourers. The Church building was just a mud floor with wooden poles and a thatched roof. The humble beginnings of the St. Paul’s CMS Church in the fields of Kuthiravattom in Kodukulanji , did not deter the praise and worship that rose every Sunday, to reach the skies. The Labour stood on their own Turf, worshiping their Maker and thanking Him with grateful hearts for all that Life dished up.

Ebony coloured and sinewy, they flaunted their six packs, flat as washboards, from working long and hard under the relentless sun. The only clothing that they sported was a lungi knotted at the waist to cover the essentials. The women wore tight fitting blouses with a lungi. If they were lucky, they had a skimpy towel to cover their uppers. Despite the discrimination meted out, they stood tall and proud, stiffened with a subtle aura of dignity. Unshod, they shamed humanity as they shuffled apologetically at the periphery, covering their mouths as they spoke, with eyes cast down, never daring to meet the gaze of the person talking to them.No one asked if they had any aspirations or ambitions. Both sides would have been surprised if they had had any. Three meals a day was all that they had on their bleak agenda. It hardly mattered that one of them was precariously spooned off a muddy floor.

Generations of suppression had left them primed to the Call of the Communists, when it hit Kerala. The Gentry woke up one day, to the sound of revolt at their doorstep. The Task Force, the Gentry took for granted, shook off years of oppression, laid down their sickles and marched out of their lives . Shouting “Inquilab “, the Untouchables trampled all over the green rice fields they had planted ever so carefully, without a second glance. Suddenly the Task Force, the human hand-me-downs for generations, were no longer at their beck and call.

The Task Force had a red flag, a voice and a vote.