Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Where do I go from here?

यह कहाँ आ गए हम?
और इस अनजाने मोड़ पर तुम मुझे छोड़ के मत जाओ! ज़रा मेरे बारे में भी सोचो। जब तुमने मेरा साथ माँगा था, मैंने तुम से सच बोला था - कि आगे का रास्ता मुझे नही पता। तुमने मुझे तसल्ली दी थी, हिम्मत दी थी कि तुम सम्भाल लोगी। तुमने कहा था “वह तुम मुझ पर छोड़ दो।” तभी मैं चल पड़ा। हवा में तुम्हारे बाल उड़ रहे थे। रास्ता हसीन था या यह मेरी ग़लतफ़हमी थी?
जो भी हो, अब तुमने अपनी मर्ज़ी से साथ छोड़ दिया। बोला “बस! और आगे मत निकल जाना।”
और तुम मुड़ के भी नहीं देख रही हो। मैं खो गया हूँ। समझ नहीं आता आगे कहाँ जाऊँ। वापस जाऊँ तो कैसे?!
अरे मैडम, यह रिक्शा बोरिवली का है। बांद्रा में गुमाने से पहले थोड़ा सोच लेती तो अच्छा होता।

Friday, October 05, 2018

The sea

I like to believe that the sea waits for me all night. It flirts with the moonshine, surging and receding, keeping its secrets, where it’s been and where it’s going. And when the moon finally gives up and turns away in a sulk, the sun creeps out, winking at the sea and making it blush.
Then, as light takes over my little corner of the world, it’s my turn to wake up. My eyes hurry past the tall, gently swaying coconut trees and tall buildings beyond my window, to catch that first morning glimpse of the sea. We say hello without words. There are some bad days when it’s a muddy, gloomy, silty presence, resentful of the world. Some days, it’s more zen -- one with the sky, it reassures me with its dully gleaming, calm surface seamlessly blending with the horizon. Other days, it stands fiercely apart, unmistakably separate, burning blue, glittering and brimming over with excitement, irresistible and dangerous at the same time. And it reminds me to choose – who do I want to be today?
When I’m at work, the sea waits patiently again. I raise my head and rub my eyes, immersed in a slab of writing that needs sharpening – sometimes through blows of a hammer, at others, little nudges with a chisel. And the sea waves at me from afar, reminding me of all the things that will outlive this day, that will outlive me.
It’s oddly reassuring to be reminded how small I am.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A send-off

She caressed the still, gnarled face lovingly. Trying to hug what little was visible. The body was on the bier, wrapped in a favourite, bright saree it'd found too few occasions to wear, until today. So she couldn't put her arms around her sister like she'd always done when they met and again when they parted. This time was the last. And she squatted next to the unmoving body of her live wire, funny, loving, gossip-loving, chocolate-loving, loyal didi. Bending forward at an angle her own 80 year old body would have otherwise found impossible, she kissed the face again and again.

Finally all alone in the world. And finally waiting for her turn to come.


A neighbour passed away last evening. I believe she died without any fuss. 82 years old. A cancer survivor. A widow who lived alone, with just her maid for company. Once part of a joint family of 9 siblings and their families - she died quietly of a massive heart attack, alone in her bed.

I didn't know her. I'd see her downstairs with her walker - an inquisitive, fierce-looking old lady. She'd only soften at the sight of my little girl. But she never spoke, and just half nodded at my mumbled greetings.

I got to know through the building guard, and then saw a scrawled notice announcing that people could go to the flat this morning to pay their respects, before they took the body away for cremation. So I went. Work deadlines crowded my mind, my phone buzzed discreetly with office numbers - all busy on a Monday morning. But I stole some time off.

Her sons were around, and I think a daughter, and they were done crying, calm and compliant now with the Kashmiri priest who was giving instructions to them in Hindi, chanting verses in Sanskrit, and ordering around the helpers in Marathi. Other ladies from our building were there, red-eyed, but in control. They'd known her for 40 years. But the sister - wizened, shrunken, mottled, arthritic - how she wept. Unrestrained. Unquiet. Inconsolable. She made me cry too. For a woman I never really spoke to. Or maybe I was crying for her, the one left behind. Or maybe I was crying for myself. For the good-byes I've said. And the ones I know I will say some day.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A moment

It was a national holiday. His feet beat a rhythm on the moist streets. The waves of the Arabian Sea rushed in and out, misting over the man as he ran at a steady pace along the promenade. This was his worship, once a week. A break from sitting in meetings, in cabs, in the office. He was mindful of all around him. Music poured into his ears and through his body, and he upped or eased his pace in sync with each song as it surprised him. The sky held on to traces of the dark, but the sun was ribboning through the dark clouds. Birds flew in flocks, formations intact as they dipped, rose, turned, following tunes of their own.

A rumble of thunder warned him too late of sudden rain. The white noise of the downpour cocooned him. The houses of the rich hazed over to his right, and the waves took on the deep grey of the clouds that had, temporarily, won over the tentative sunshine. He was disappointed at the intrusion. He was in his stride, running at the right pace so it hardly seemed an effort - his feet flying off the concrete in turns, small drops of water flecking his calves as he continued despite the rain.

But he had to stop to protect his phone. Needed shelter as he paused to put it away from the rain. He was on a naked promenade, with stingy palm trees his only hope. And then he saw, through the rain, a Maruti Van with the hatch of its boot open. That would do, he thought, and sped up.

He drew closer and ducked under the hood - hunching over to wipe his face and hands before reaching for his phone. In that brief moment he saw the elderly driver of the van. He was working his prayer beads, his lips moving and his eyes fixed on the distance. The drenched breeze surged in toward both the men. The runner felt like he was intruding on a deeply private moment. As the thought crossed his mind, the driver opened his eyes and motioned, "sit".

The runner refused with thanks but the rain probably drowned out his words. He had, with the ease of practice, moved his phone from his wet pocket into the pouch wrapped like a belt at his waist. The wires still connected to his earphones. He was ready to go on. The driver inclined his head and prayed on. The runner left him and jogged off. As he ran, he turned back to see the van growing smaller in the distance, and the man himself barely visible. He looked ahead. The music changed. And he picked up speed to match. The moment had passed. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Moving on

Even though she had known her husband of 52 years was slipping away before her eyes, she still couldn't accept he was gone. The bangles jammed on her wrist as she tried to slip them off. She wanted to ask his advice to plan his funeral. Who should she invite? Should they have someone sing his favourite Rabindra sangeet at the ceremony? The young nephews had arrived to take charge. She had called them at the crack of dawn when she raised her head from the hospital bed, where she had fallen asleep next to his long, frail frame. She knew she was alone before she even looked at him. She was just glad she hadn't put him in the ICU, where he would have been alone before her.

Now, a year later, people marvel at how well she has moved on, speaking his name affectionately and casually, criticising him and joking about him as always, as if he is present to dismiss her comments with the wave of a bony hand. They visit her with flowers, with food, with offers of help. And she is gracious, welcoming, warm, attentive. They do not notice the low table next to the chair where he always sat. And if they do, they do not realise what it means - the half-empty glass of water and the Economist open to a new page, as if the owner has just stepped away and will be back any minute - ridiculing politicians and complaining about noise pollution. She's alone, they think. But she isn't. Not entirely. And never will be. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Roses all the way

It was a fast train from Churchgate to Borivali around 6 pm on a weekday. For the uninitiated, or for those not acquainted with the crowd that is India, that means I stood uncomfortably close to a whole bunch of strangers, pretending their armpit wasn't tickling my nose. I could overhear but not see two girls discuss in petulant tones the carelessness of a certain boy. I was just waiting for Bandra, where I hoped the train would unceremoniously dump me onto the platform so that I could breathe freely the sickly toilet/gutter smell that dominates most train stations in India.

The train pulled into Bandra. A queue of women with their reflexes tensed waited on the coach to collapse onto the platform. Already angry and impatient commuters waited to board the train and clicked in exasperation because some of us tried to get off and land on our own two feet rather than mysteriously apparate off the train. The perpetually surprised-sounding woman of Western Railway was telling us that "The station is your property. Please do not..." but what she did not want us to do was lost in a loud wave of "ey-ey-ey" as a young boy tried to catch the train. My clothes were sticking to me. I crossed the over-bridge toward the exit, gradually becoming aware of something being out of place. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I looked around, wondering what it was that I was sensing before really noticing it.

And then it hit my nose. Through the sweat and toilet stink, through the gassy fumes and the lingering smoke from burning garbage, a very very mild smell was registering its presence. I couldn't believe that I was smelling....roses. And then I saw a grubby, dishevelled man, pushing along the platform a huge, transparent plastic sack full of rose petals. Under his arm were bunches of long-stemmed roses neatly packed in cylindrical cartons. The roses peeped out at commuters who hurried past. The mild smell hung over the platform even as the man pushed the sack along the platform floor, probably crushing more petals into giving up that soft, sweet fragrance. I inhaled deeply as I walked past him. Then I turned left, emerged into the outside mayhem, and went home, with roses on my mind. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Get me to the church on time

I had been waiting for this day for months. I had even been talking about it for months, to anyone who didn't have a choice would listen. M was getting married! She was the last of my close college friends to get married, but more importantly (because of course everything is/was about me), this was the first time I was attending a church wedding. I had seen church weddings in the movies of course. How grand the churches were. How beautiful and sober the decorations. How the music started as the bride walked in. How everyone gasped and murmured in admiration at her stunning wedding dress. Then the priest said some stuff important things and the bride and groom said "I do" so that they could go ahead and kiss. Hallelujah! (I think I'm using the word wrongly here, but it feels right in my head, so it stays.)

It was also an afternoon/evening wedding followed by dinner - something unheard of. Bengalis always got married late at night when everyone was starting to subtly nod off after a giant meal. So in the early afternoon Nil (another college friend) and I got dressed excitedly at my house, hailed an auto and left. As the auto lurched forward, I thought of the invitation card I'd left on my desk and shrugged. I knew where to go. I'd been talking about it for months.

You can see where this is going now, can't you?

We got off at the Sacred Heart, near the General Post Office. As we slipped through the partly open iron gates and began walking up the drive, I got the feeling something was wrong. Shouldn't it feel more festive? We came to the imposing, tall doors of the church itself, and they were closed. Hmmm, thought my inner self, wouldn't her family/sisters be at the door to welcome guests? We aren't that early! Now Nil and I hesitated at the door. I was doubtful, but Nil trusted me. I'd airily told her I knew exactly where to go. So she hung back, willing me to go first. I paused. Maybe I've got the time wrong? What if I push open these giant doors and the ceremony is actually going on? What if these doors open with a squeak and everyone looks at us in the silence? 

I took a deep breath and pushed the door. It opened noiselessly. And there, before me, was the entire church hall - polished pews, a beautiful altar at the far end, high ceilings, and not a soul in sight. Till I spotted, in the last row, just next to the door where I stood, a bride with her head bent in prayer, a veil covering her head and, sadly, hiding her face.

Interesting. Isn't the bride usually the last to arrive? That's what I'd learnt from Hollywood. This is not M, I knew. I closed the door and stepped back into the porch. Nil looked at me. I could tell from her face she was having serious doubts about trusting me with the entire thing.

"No one's here," I said.
"Well, maybe they are late?" she asked hopefully.
"No, someone would have been here by now to seat the guests."
"Do you think there's another church in here somewhere? It's a big compound after all," she raised a ray of possibility.

We hurried off - an odd, worried sight in our finery as we wandered past a large field and towards nothing that looked anything like a church. We felt too embarrassed to ask anyone if there was another church beyond the, you know, church.

I stopped. It was time to come clean. I cleared my throat.

"Ummm, I think I may have the wrong church."
"Take out the card, let's check."
"Ummm, about that.....it's sitting on my desk at home."
"So, what do we do?"
"I don't know."
"Call Q."
"I won't."
"Come on."
"I won't."
"Come on."
"No," I insisted, not wanting to lose patience with the friend I had let down.
"Why not?"
"What if he isn't invited?"
"Why won't he be?"
"Nil, he's her ex boyfriend. I'm not calling him to check where M is getting married!"

We stood in silence for a bit. Then...

"Call M!"
"Huh? She won't have her cellphone on her!"
"Of course she will, it's her wedding. I'm sure lots of people will be calling to wish her."
"But where do you carry a cellphone when you're wearing a wedding dress?"

Nil finally dealt me the blow I'd been waiting for: "If you'd brought the card, we'd have an RSVP number to call."

No, Nil. If I'd brought the card we'd know which church to go to.

"Okay, fine, let me try calling M. We have nothing to lose," I admitted. So I dialled, and it rang, and rang, and rang, and...finally, (Hallelujah), M picked up.

"Anna?" she sounded (suitably) surprised.
"M, where is the wedding? We are at the Sacred..." she cut me off. "It's the Church of Divine Redemption you idiot. It's near Sacred Heart."
"Okay, okay, we're coming. Don't get married till we get there!"

But she'd already hung up. Must have been busy.

Well, we scampered as best as we could in our wedding best, and threw ourselves into an auto, hanging out of it pitifully as we asked for directions every 20 metres. Better safe than sorry.

We reached 5 minutes before the bride. It was a beautiful ceremony. I'm just glad we made it to the church on time. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

J put this on my Facebook wall after I'd shared this post on Facebook as the by product of insomnia. And I didn't want to lose the image, so here it is - for future inspiration. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Gift

He woke up and smiled as he stretched his long legs - they almost hit the bedpost. Not long before he was nearly as tall as Baba. He saw his sister sleeping beside him and remembered it was Bhai Phonta, and it was Sunday. He must ask Ma for an envelope in which he could put the stickers he'd been saving to give her.

It was starting to get chilly. He shivered as he waited for his water bucket to fill up; his mother insisted on cold water baths, only relenting in December to allow hot water up from the kitchen. Hurrying through his bath he ran down, gulped down the tall glass of milk that sat in an ancient brass tumbler waiting for him. Before his mother could see him, he sneaked out of the house.

He was only 10, but this was Allahabad in the 1960s, and children were safe to run around on their own. They did know to be careful of the fake sadhus, of course, the ones who dressed like holy men but actually kidnapped little children and sold them as beggars in big cities. He followed the familiar route to his didi's house. The young widow lived a spare life in a spare room at a relative's house. He felt the rumblings of hunger as he reached her lane, knowing the feast that awaited him, and the gift.

He covered the last few metres with a hop, skip and jump, narrowly missing the drain running parallel to the row of houses. He leapt over the slab that served as a small bridge, and entered, unannounced. The doors were open. They always were back then. Her relatives were huddled around cups of tea. The patriarch was reading the newspaper and had his back to the entrance. He lightly ran up the stairs to her room, his nose filling with the smell of hot, frying luchis.

She had been up since dawn. Folding up her thin mattress and sheet, she had swept the floor. Now there was a small aashon, or mat, waiting for a skinny little boy to sit on it. For the last few weeks, she had skimped on a potato here, an onion there, while cooking her own meals. Last evening, she'd bought fresh maida for the luchis. And there she sat. Bathed, draped in white, her back straight, the maida dough ready for frying. On a massive brass plate with upturned edges sat various bhajas - deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried onions, a dollop of mango chutney, and a growing pile of luchis. She heard the footsteps and turned with a smile. She knew it was him; no one else came to her door.

He smiled, and held out the flowers he had picked along the way from the park. She placed them in front of her frowning gods. He knew the drill and sat down on the aashon. She reached for the small silver dish with incense and some sandalwood paste. She dipped her ring finger in the paste and held it to his forehead, mumbling the lines about immortality. Done three times, the ritual was over, and he just had to touch her feet in thanks for all the worlds she had just wished him. He sat back more easily, waiting for the next bit.

She turned to her little stove, the blue flame sprang to life and she got to work, smoothly rolling out the luchis, small white moons that slithered into the oil and puffed up immediately in indignation. The pile on his plate grew. The ones that failed to puff up were rejected, landing on a tiny plate instead, which was her share for later. It was a treat for her, too. Right now he was the bhai, the king. It was his day.

He looked around at the room as she cooked, taking in the bare shelves with a few religious books on them. Kali glared at him from a giant calendar where the dates formed just one-tenth of the whole page. He quickly looked away. A small trunk had all her clothes. No cupboard. This woman had no jewellery, nothing that needed to be locked away.

When she had fried enough luchis to keep a healthy young boy busy for a while, she handed the plate to him with a smile, and sat back. He ate fast, talking the whole time. Who he was trading stamps with at school, imitations of school-teachers, things happening at home, arguments in the cricket team. She listened with a smile, drinking in the stories of a busy world packed with characters and the great big outdoors. A life lived outside the house.

When he was done, he rinsed his hands on to the plate with his glass, and looked up. She knew what he was thinking. He had to go back to get his own sister's phonta as well. Her time with him was up. As he wiped his hands on his shorts, she stood on tip-toe and took the gift off the top-shelf, saved over the last year when she went up to the terrace each evening at dusk.

They slipped from her hands and cascaded onto the floor in a rainbow of colours. And he gathered them up with delight. As he picked them up with a wide smile, the sunshine caught the colours on the thin paper and created colourful patterns all over the small room. The chaand tara, the dabalia, the dugga, multi-coloured kites that had been cut and landed on the roof and never retrieved. He would take them home and change the string and they would fly like new, carefully preserved as they were. He stacked them neatly, touched her feet once again, and slipped out of the room, until next year. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Out of the brew

Somehow, much like a cartoon character, I had zombie-like followed a nearly visible spiral of aroma that lassoed my nose and pulled me into the tiny coffee shop lurking in a corner of the massive airport. The hype around this international brand was still dying down, and many customers were curious walk-ins - eager to recreate a memory from a trip abroad, or to just see what the fuss was all about.

A coffee-drinker for the past 10 years, I stood in queue, a slave to the intoxication stirred into the oxygen of the confined space. Pipes and tubes and spouts frothed and sizzled and gushed all around me. As I expertly sized up the many options on the chalkboard menu, I remembered my humble beginnings.

Was it in the basement canteen at JNU's School of Languages, where eager Literature post-grad students like me sat and complained about term papers and SFI tyranny over aloo parathas and piping hot coffee? Having grown up in a house where tea and coffee would surely stunt your growth, coffee was an assertion of adulthood. Tea was three rupees, coffee four. The drink gurgled out of a tap attached to a steel canister, and it smelt divine. On cold winter mornings and afternoon it was a hand-warmer, and we preferred to cup the cup rather than use the handle, constantly torn between drinking it hot and drawing out the pleasure.

Or was it in my years as an eager-beaver editor at a small but memorable publishing house? Twice a day (10 am and 2 pm), Prem Singh would stand in the tiny kitchen of the house that was also our office, making magic and fuelling productivity. Two near overflowing pans bubbled furiously before him - in one the tea leaves turning the liquid into a bitter and toxic beverage that would do unspeakable things to your system. In another, coffee simmered and brewed, darkening as he scooped in more instant coffee powder. He would lavish milk and sugar into both pans as if to offset the acidity these would cause weaker constitutions than ours. And then he would surely and steadily pour the tea and coffee into cups set out on two separate trays.

Pretending to work at our desks, we could hear the clattering of the empty pans as he set them down, and his footsteps coming closer once he picked up the tray - first he would serve out the tea, while coffee drinkers waited impatiently - unable to quite get started on the morning's or afternoon's work until we had chased that first sip down our eager throats. There would invariable be coffee drops on the outside and the base of the flower-patterned cup from the tray, and it would leave incredibly sticky rings on the desk (or on an unfortunate unwanted manuscript coaster). Cups in hand, we would swivel from our desks to debate the charms, in varying order of importance, of the semi-colon, of book covers, or of Johnny Depp. The cups would empty all too soon and, having got sloth/sleep/gossip out of our systems, we would begin our work in earnest.

I would never drink that coffee today. It's what they sell on Carter Road in tiny plastic cups and it's not really coffee as I now know. My office has a swanky Lavazza machine where I can choose from Espresso, Ristretto, Cappuccino and Latte. And I'm a snob. But let it never be said that I don't remember where I came from.