‘Thorthu’ – that is the Tamil word for a thin towel, usually white, with a coloured line or two at either end.  In some, 2 flag-like coloured strip is stitched.  These, I think are for identifying each other’s ‘ thorthu’.


How we, as children, longed for the thick, fluffy, Turkish (Why Turkish?) pastel coloured towels which we occasionally saw in hotels or friends’ houses.  They absorbed water well and it looked good to be wrapped in one when we came out of the bathroom.   The ‘thorthu’ not only looked beggarly, it also revealed our ‘Madrasi’ identity to one and all, in a place where we were a small minority.  Neighbourhood children and even some schoolmates called out ‘Anda gundu, nara gundu’ ‘swami’ and such names to make fun of us.  Visitors were often directed to our house by the ubiquitous ‘thorthu’ hanging on the window sill or clothesline.


Our parents were quite oblivious to our painful embarrassment.  Our Appa even draped it on his shoulder when he stood at the corner chatting with some friend.  Even in these times, the Shiv Sena had reared its parochial head, wanting to drive away all ‘Madrasis’ because they had taken away their employment opportunities.   Now the ‘thorthu’ took on some fearful dimensions.  We tried to keep it away from public gaze, as we did other tell-tale signs of our ‘Madrasi’ origins, like Amma’s ‘thali’, ‘kadambam’ in our hair, our ‘pavadai chattai’ (long skirt and blouse).


We swore to ourselves that when we started earning we would buy the Turkish towel, preferably Bombay Dyeing, and  never have or use this (whose name I will not mention).


Years passed.  We grew and established ourselves as proficient students which earned us respect among friends.  Our friends, too, had grown up and we formed lasting bonds in which we developed a more broad and cosmopolitan outlook.  The disgraceful little item faded into the background of our existence, though the resolution about the Turkish towel remained.


As we studied and appreciated different cultures through books, films and acquaintances, I noticed that throughout the length and breadth of this country, men always carried something similar to the ‘thorthu’ – like ‘gamcha’ –  and women had a ‘pallu’ ‘dupatta’ or ‘odhni’.  These versatile garments served several purposes – a duster, a shade against the sun, a napkin, waistbelt, turban – just anything.  In a monoact which stays in my mind, the actor uses this small towel alternately draping it over his shoulder or as a ‘pallu’ over the head, depicting a husband and wife, in a 15-minute conversation.  A Turkish towel could only help in Bollywood dances (remember Saira Banu, Kajol, Ranbir Kapoor?)


When we could actually afford thick Turkish towels, after the initial exuberance, we found them a pain to wash, unhygienic for reuse, difficult to pack during travel – not at all ‘paisa vasool’.  By this time, we also had sufficient natural cushions on the body so even that comfy feeling was lost. Back to the humble ‘thorthu’.  So utilitarian, so economical. Now even friends ask us to get the ‘Madrasi’ towel for its lightness, easy wash and dry, travel convenience and even if it is lost, no worries.  Easy on the purse.


Use the ‘thorthu’.  Have a clean and dry day!






Children and Commercials



Children and Commercials


This school has, as all schools do, some celebrations for Children’s Day.  And as it happens so often there is a sponsor who wants to conduct some activities for children on that day.  As part of the programme, he also parks his product centrally in the school premise.  Bankers, car manufacturers, home developers, online vendors – everyone uses these opportunities in schools or housing colonies to conduct an art competition, cookery or spelling contest – just anything to jump into the fray.  The next step would be to deliver talks to children about the product.  Or, offer incentives to teachers to promote their product during PTMs.  I know a publication house who offered teachers a fancy bag for procuring orders for their books from her class children.



Children being exploited for labour or trafficking draws widespread protests. Rightly so.  There are laws framed for this.  But what about laws against using children to sell products?  An obnoxiously smug girl ridicules another kid for using some hand wash.  Indirectly taunting the kid’s mother for her choice of brand.  Since when did children start washing their hands as if it was some sacred ritual or joyous activity?  Most kids have to be scolded to wash their hands before a meal and they do it so grudgingly.


There is another over smart boy who brings a potted plant to class and when the teacher remarks that his plant is healthier than those of his classmates, he says proudly that he has used water from a popular brand of water purifier.  At which, the teacher beams appreciatively.  What callousness this, in a country where most of the population do not have access even to safe drinking water!  In the environmental awareness class, children are not only taught water conservation, but also told that plants grow as well in recycled water.  The consumer for all these products is not the child, but what better way to get at people than through their children.


Let’s be alert and wake up before our children become ‘branded’.

























I heard about it from a college friend and out of sheer curiosity, I took a 10-day course as taught by Shri Satyanarayan Goenkaji and his assistant teachers.  It is a residential course, free of cost, run on donations from old students (that is, anyone, having done a 10-day course).  One can join the donors after a course.


The first session starts at 4.30 am and with breaks for tea, lunch, some rest, goes on through the day for about 10 hours, with a video discourse of around 1.1/2 hours in the evening.   Food is simple vegetarian fare and there is no dinner – exceptions are made for the ailing, pregnant women and the like who must have the teacher’s permission to eat in the evening.  If this is forbidding, there is one more condition – the meditator has to maintain silence throughout 9 days, breaking it only on the 10th day.


Risking all this, I attended my first course when I was around 38.  It was the month of December, quite cold in Ahmedabad, and despite following the instructions sincerely – two things distracted me.  One, I had this excruciating pain in the leg which would not let me focus on my breath which we are required to do in the first 3 days, and on the sensations in the body in the remaining 7 days.  Two, there was an Agarwal sweets outlet just opposite the meditation centre, and my mind was on food most evenings.


Nevertheless, I stayed the duration of the course.  Did I benefit?  Yes, I did not even notice when the pain disappeared.  There was a remarkable lightness of body and mind.  Was there any small step towards enlightenment?  I doubt, but later on, it was noticeable to me and those close to me, that I did not get as angry as before.  I also felt that I did not react to situations like earlier.  I was not clear whether the change was due to the practice or Guruji’s discourses.  Or may be both?  How does it matter?  When benefits accrue, one consolidates them; where there are shortcomings one works harder.


A few months later, I quit my corporate job, and being at a loose end, went to Igatpuri, (near Nasik, Maharashtra) where I took a second course.   I was more grounded now, knowing what to expect.  This time, I really got some insights – the impermanent nature of all things, especially the sensations in the body which swing the mind between craving and rejection, the suffering and misery which we cause ourselves and blame all others – in short, taking responsibility for our own happiness in life. Many reported relief from migraine, arthritis, spine problems and other ailments.  It’s like ‘Reiki’, ‘alternative therapies’, ‘self-healing’.


I stayed on at the Centre for two years and a half, working, attending courses, serving on courses – I learnt a lot and when I left, I had a much better understanding of myself.


I have since moved on, but I do a course and serve one at least once a year.  It is boring and routine at times, but when I see the takeaway, I am motivated to continue the practice.  The benefits are ongoing :


  • I understand better what I read, think and observe – ‘observe’ is right. There is more observation and objectivity
  • Freedom for past wounds – the ability to let go, see fractured relations as whole and complete
  • Not been to a doctor, except for the annual medical check-up
  • Death is inevitable, how I die or how I face death is in my hands
  • Take responsibility for my karma – not only what I do, but also what happens to me
  • Able to live and engage with people; able to live alone without feeling lonely

I recommend everyone do the first course.  For the second, no recommendation is needed or to be heeded.


(Course schedules, venues, rules, registration forms are all available online).



In the final years of my school, I used to attend a typewriting class early morning before school, along with my older sister who was then in second year of college.   It was sort of mandatory for youngsters like us to learn shorthand and typewriting.  It gave us an edge in the job market.


In a few months, my sister landed a job and her timings did not allow her to attend the class, so I used walk the half kilometre alone.  One just walked everywhere – to school, to tuitions, market, friends’ houses, cinema, wherever.  Thane had just got a local municipal bus which plied between ‘3 petrol pumps’ and the railway station with a few stops on the way.  It was a novelty on the road, but we did not think it was for us.  Autorickshaws had not yet entered our roads, lanes rather, and taxis and tongas were availed only on special occasions.


Winter mornings, when I walked to the class, it was still very dark and the road was deserted.  In fact, Thane was ‘lovely, dark and deep’ and green everywhere in our childhood.  Even in daytime, if we ever had to take the Ghantali temple road, we just ran through the red brick lane, with its canopy of trees which kept out all sunlight.  We had all sorts of fearful stories about many roads, but somehow I did not much fear the road to my class, partly because it was a main road and partly, it had become a habit.


One morning, Appa suddenly asked me, “Are you not afraid to go out alone in the dark morning?”  Maybe it was not really sudden.  It might have been on his mind for long, but being a sensitive man, not wanting to instil any fears in his girl children, he had not voiced his concern.  I answered with a quick, “No, afraid of what?” but as I walked that day, I kept thinking what I had to be afraid of.  And that same day, I heard a hazy figure standing under a tree on the way, whistling softly as I passed on the opposite side of the road.  Perhaps he was waiting for a factory staff bus.  It struck me that I had been hearing this whistle everyday but did not connect.  I just walked on, though not, as usual. I became a little afraid.  I understood my father’s question. I do not remember if the whistling continued, but nothing happened and soon it was summer and the course was completed as well.


In later years, before the age of mobiles, it just happened that I travelled a lot alone and sometimes, unwittingly, gone through routes which are considered unsafe – more out of ignorance, delays or roadblocks.  Later on, friends and relatives would issue warnings and ask me to be careful and cautious.  Fortunately, nothing happened and I am thankful to God for my safety.


Some years ago, I saw this beautiful film, The Good Road.  It did not have any known names. I wonder if it ever made it to the cinema halls.  I watched it on Youtube.  Perhaps it was a Gujarati film with English sub-titles.  In two unrelated stories –  two young, lost children, try to find their way home.  They encounter all kinds of people, experiences.  Danger lurks in every corner and sometimes, they have a close brush, but they are unsuspecting, innocent and trusting.  They reach home quite unaware of the dangers that they have passed through.


Dhanak, a recent film by the ever reliable Nagesh Kukkunoor, tells the tale of an orphaned sister and blinded brother, who run away from their uncle’s house in a small village in Rajasthan.  The sister is committed to getting the brother operated at a hospital in a faraway town, and having his vision restored.  Here again, though their trust and innocence stand exposed to danger all through their long journey across the desert, the goodness in strangers and unexpected quarters saves them from evils and reaches them to their destination.


In journeys, literal or figurative, concern and caution are important, but it is worth trusting in the innate goodness of the human spirit.   I believe in The Good Road.




Nothing ever gets lost!


“Nothing that belongs to you can ever be taken by someone else.   If lost, and it does not return to you, understand it was never yours.”  Soothing words, steeped in our philosophy and lore – repeated ever so often, to comfort the pain of losing a love, money, job, business, just anything.   Like most Hindu families, ours has also been brought with such stoic beliefs which, though defeatist in practical terms,  have still, from time to time helped us face many setbacks in life.  Perhaps because of this, or brought with lot of meditation or prayer, or by some strange sense of illogic, I live with this firm belief that nothing of mine can ever get lost.  I have several instances – stolen cash, borrowed and forgotten books, lost diaries, long vanished friends, even irreplaceable undergarments – all of which come back to me in miraculous ways only to reinforce my faith – nothing of mine can ever get lost.


Not a really careless person, yet I can never be too bothered about counting change, bargaining, double locking doors, guarding against cheats, thefts – may be too trusting and naïve an attitude, as my friends often warn me, nevertheless nothing has ever occurred to change my views.


Why should I anyway, when I recall a singular incident (not without some dread, though,) when I lost a bundle of Board papers which I was checking on a train journey?  It was the first time that I was entrusted with this work and at that time, I considered it a great honour in the career of a teacher.  On alighting, I boarded a rickshaw along with my niece and we had between us some six or seven bags.   We reached home about 8 kms. away from the station, had our dinner, chit-chatted with a neighbour and after some two hours, we settled down  – my niece to watch television and I, to check papers.  I couldn’t find them.  They must be in this bag or the other.  We emptied all of them.  No luck.  We reconstructed events, and finally realized that we were one bag short.  Now I remembered – a blue cloth bag which had two items only – one of them being my bundle of papers.


The place where I lived was quite a remote, sleepy neighbourhood, with no quick transport to run after a rickshaw whose number even I did not note.  The only hope was to wake up at midnight, a friend’s husband who kindly agreed to go with me on this wild goose chase.  We thought of all possibilities – how many rickshaw drivers would have agreed to come this far at night; he must live in the neighbourhood; there were some other familiar rickshaw drivers through whom we could trace him; the watchman at the gate might have a record  – we tried everything possible at that hour.  No results. A hundred images of fear and shame flashed through my mind.  What would my Principal say?  The memos and charges that would come my way. The newspaper reports.   The loss of years of reputation as a reliable teacher.  Even my family and friends would say, “You deserved this lesson.” Above all, how would the Board finalise the results of those candidates?  In those few moments I must have died a hundred deaths!  But not without constant prayers and the powers of meditation.


The trail, without my having realized it, had brought back us to the railway station.   There were only about 8/9 rickshaws at that lonely hour.  A few curious drivers came up to us asking what we were looking for.  And we told them.  By some calculation of the train and time etc. they put their heads together and narrowed the search down to two rickshaws. One of these had closed for the day.   The second, they pointed out, was just starting.  They called out to him.  I told him about my loss and to my great relief, he said, “Yes, there is a bag lying at the back for quite some time.  I had no idea whose it was.”   I clutched at my papers for life!   I have also learnt my lesson – nothing like a miracle to boost one’s beliefs!!


  • Hemlata Iyer

Born 17.12.1951,  family of teachers.  Enjoy reading, writing, films, traveling.









Rekha  was a radiant bride at 21.  Though we were very close friends through college, I was not around when her marriage was fixed.  Somehow I just landed on her wedding day and attended the function.  I was very happy to see her doing the ‘pheras’ with a very handsome and decent looking man.  Guests were few, and I knew even fewer of them, apart from Rekha’s immediate family of three brothers and parents.  I was keen to know her in-laws, the family she was going into and all that, but the wedding being a small affair I could not find out.


A few months later I went to her town, two hours away, and was happy to see her in a double-storeyed bungalow, not too lavish, but comfortable enough for the joint family of six or seven people.  After the initial introductions and mandatory conversation with her mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and others, Rekha and I finally managed to move up to her own room  hoping for some chit-chat and inside story of ‘how it all happened’  only to be followed by a little child about 16 or 18 months, who simply clung to Rekha.  “Your niece,” I asked her, assuming the child must belong to one of her sisters-in-law. “No, mine,” said Rekha , laughing.  I laughed, too, at Rekha’s joke.


Then she took out her album and  to my shock, the first page carried a somewhat old photograph of her husband with another woman as his bride.  The next pages carried snapshots of her own wedding.  Seeing my expression – “His first wife,” she explained.  “Divorcee?”   “No, a widower.”


Things slowly dawned on me now – the very quiet wedding – not many guests, not even any friends we had in college.  And the little girl – I now understood.


At 21, though we both came from too staid backgrounds to ever dare to fall in love, one still dreamt of eligible young life partners –‘ boys’ – not married men.  I recollected all the pairing and teasing we had shared in our college days, and asked her how she had settled for this.


Her father’s business had been failing for quite some time,  Rekha’s brothers were still young and studying.  When a proposal from relatives came to them, this man, Harish, fitted in every way except that he had a year-old child from a previous marriage.   No dowry, no demands.  Not wanting to be a burden on her parents, Rekha had accepted.  “What if he compares you with his first wife?  How does it feel to be second?”  I asked her.  “Many people cautioned  me about this,” she confessed “but the upside is, that having lost one wife, he cherishes me even more.  Even if I have an ordinary cold and fever, he pampers me.”


The first thing Rekha did when she stepped into her marital home was ask that the child be with her.  Her mother-in-law resisted,arguing that she was just a new bride and anyway a stranger to whom the child may not adjust.  “Nothing doing,” Rekha was adamant, “If you want me to be here, the child will be with me.”  In college, she was known as a somewhat ‘silly’ girl, a ‘duffer’ and I marvelled at this strong, mature woman she had become. “Will you tell the child?” I asked her.  “No,” she said, “what  is the need?”


When I met her a few years later, she had two more girls and it was heartening to see all of them bond together and Rekha scolding and loving the older child as she did her own daughters.  By this time, the older daughter had even started resembling Rekha.  “Does she know?” I asked Rekha when we got a private moment.  “No,” she said.  “Doesn’t she ask anything about the photograph in the album?”  I queried.  “No, she thinks it is her father’s first wife, as do my other two children.”  Tears well up in my eyes as I think of this even now, after 35 years.  Psychologists and counsellors advise that it is best to reveal the truth to step-children, adopted children.  But Rekha in her earthy wisdom thought otherwise.  All the girls are grown up and well-settled now; the step-child still does not know.   Perhaps it is best this way.    In her simple and natural manner, Rekha had broken all myths and stereotypes about step-moms!


–   Hemlata Iyer