(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 12 June, 2010)
“It seems Laila is coming back,” my grandmother announces.
“Who, the actress?” my mother asks.
“Which actress?” I ask.
“The one who acted in some four-five flops.”
“No, no, our Laila,” my grandmother points at the floor.
“We had a tenant called Laila?” I feel like an absent-minded zamindarini.
My grandmother casts a distressed look at the two specimens of her progeny in her presence, and switches on the TV, where a Tamil news channel is waxing poetic on the stormy relationship between a vengeful God and the capricious Mother Nature.
“Oh, the cyclone,” I say, “Aila, Laila, Katrina…what’s with the…”
“Why are they always female names?” my grandmother wonders, interrupting another failed attempt at a household Comedy Club.
“Because, Patti, women are the ones who create havoc,” one of my brothers says, as he passes us, and high-fives the other one when they meet at the fridge. My mother looks at me for reassurance on her upbringing skills.
“That is correct,” my patriarchal grandmother deems, beaming at the grandsons who are both on the wrong end of a day-old pizza slice, “look at your sister, writing about some ‘–ism’ or caste issue…at her age, I was pregnant with my fifth child, and I was going to court. I won a case for…”
“Maybe they all sit in a room and think up names,” I say hurriedly, “the met department guys.”
I’m already picturing six or seven of the Met head honchos sitting down with their tiffin-boxes around a wooden table and metal chairs, while some lowly office boy brings the tea and ‘cool drinks’.
“How about Tina?” one of them would suggest.
“Cyclone Tina?” another would scoff, “does that sound like someone who can wreak…”
“What about Tornado Tina?” the first would challenge.
“Too alliterative. Sounds like a porn star,” a third would laugh.
“Rita?” a fourth would say.
“Cyclone Rita. Oh, yes! Feisty, but will regret what she has done. Like a woman with spirit, ends up with an alcohol addiction – oh! Haha, unintended pun!” a fifth would grin at his indulgent colleagues.
“That’s settled then,” a sixth would gather his papers, “I’ll go tell the media we’ve named her.” And he would share the Proud Papa moment with the other five for a few seconds before he leaves to a collective, “awww!”
“What do you mean, they sit around deciding names?” my mother asks, disappointed that her journalist-daughter has yet again proved she isn’t a fount of accurate information, “they did ten years ago. The World Meteorological Organisation and all the countries around the Indian Ocean drew up a list of names. Laila was Pakistan’s choice. And the next will be Sri Lanka’s – Bandu.”
“So you’ve learnt to Google?” I snap.
“Maybe you should read the papers, given that you write for them,” my mother says tartly.
“I bet Bijli was India’s choice,” my brother says, bubbling his way through an aerated drink, “sounds like some cheap hooker.”
“How do you know about hukkah?” my grandmother asks, and my brother looks at her in alarm, “you’ve started smoking, is it?” Then she frowns at the TV screen, “why would someone call a cyclone Pet?”
“Phet, Patti,” my brother rushes to the television in relief, “see, there’s that three-dot letter in front of pa. It’s Thailand’s name for it.”
Just then, my father emerges from his Sunday Retreat into his study, armed with a laptop.
“It seems Laila is coming back,” he says, importantly, and is surprised when his family shrugs, grunts and disperses, until his mother-in-law politely points at the television.