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.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why I love where I live

Some time back, this was the topic for a blogger giveaway on Sunayana's blog. I wrote this there as a comment, and since I'm feeling lazy (and at a loss for words), I'm posting it here as well - more to preserve it, really, than to say anything new.

Why do I love where I live? Well, first of all, where do I live? 

To answer that I have to think about where I am most alive - and that is without a doubt Delhi. 

Call me a liar - because you know I live in Bombay. But I really "live" in Delhi - it brings out the "me" in me. 

Tattooed across Delhi are markers of my memory. Like height-marks in pencil on a kitchen wall, these chronicle my passage from childhood to adulthood - be it the grounds of India Gate where I learnt to play badminton or the shaded, shady bus-stops where I spent hours waiting to go places in life. 

Most of what I learnt in life and about life I learnt in Delhi. It is where I have learnt to love, to fight, to mourn, to move on, to confess my weaknesses and to celebrate my strengths. Delhi has seen me naked - before I learnt to put on faces to meet the different faces I meet. From a sheltered child to a college-goer on the loose, to a young professional determined to prove herself, to a woman in love - Delhi has seen me at my best and my worst. 

It is base camp for the heights I've climbed, and anchor for the depths I've plumbed - always elastic in letting me go, always firmly pulling me back into a cocoon of familiarity and unconditional love. Growing up relatively nomadic, Delhi was always the home I came back to. And even now, 7 years after I left the city, I have never been away longer than 6 months. I cannot imagine it any other way.

And even today, 7 years after leaving Delhi, I still say "I'm coming to Delhi" rather than that "I'm going to Delhi." Doesn't that tell you all you need to know?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mukammal

This song has been playing in my heart for the past several days. Like any one who stitches words together to make meaning of sights and sounds, I was waiting to build an elaborate cocoon around the song for my next blog post. I would use it to talk about the promises I make myself. The ones I don't (or didn't) keep. The plans we build but abandon. The dreams we leave in cold storage. And that's why I didn't post it. Till now. I waited for inspiration.

But then I heard the song while watching the last hour of the movie today. And I realised I didn't want to wait. And anyway, nothing I write can say it better than Sayeed Quadri himself.

So here it is - a beautiful song which shines on and illuminates far longer than the more showy and peppy songs of Barfi. "Usey muqammal kar bhi aao, woh jo adhoori si baat baki hai".

Friday, July 19, 2013

Oh shit!

This day, this time, this me will never be again. Will never come back. 

So?

I will keep no regrets. I will take those decisions and have those conversations I have been putting off in the light of day but which haunt me in the middle of the night. My fears - are my mind's way of telling me what is important to me. I will respect that. But not be in its thrall. 

I promise. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sharing the light

The hawker had an affected, rasping voice. It wandered through the coach, waking the weary women wending their way home on the western line. When they turned their tired heads, they saw his wares - glowing plastic light-bulbs on a key chain. Each flick of a button turned on the light and then changed it to green, blue, yellow, red and more colours. It looked cheap, and at 20 Rupees, it was. No one was impressed. No one was interested. They all looked away, heads hung low in an inertia of exhaustion. 

And then a gnarled hand with uneven fingernails stuck out to touch, to feel. The hawker promptly detached one ring and handed it to the ancient woman. In a quivery voice that shook as the train rattled, she asked "how much?", in a defeated voice. 

Even as the hawker intoned the price ("bees rupaye"), she was looking down at the blinking little object. It glowed in many colours, lighting up her leathery fingertips and her weathered nightgown. She clutched her walking stick and a fraying bag in the other hand. Her permanent grimace eased a little as she narrowed her watery eyes to better take in the flashing wonder. 

He waited. She wanted. They locked eyes in a silent negotiation. The compartment watched. The old lady blinked first. She lowered her eyes and handed the object back - and the hawker reluctantly accepted it. 

But then another hand shot out - holding two tenners. Green bangles shone on the wrist. A cotton, well-washed salwar kameez stretched on the woman's ample frame. In a quick exchange she handed over the money and took the bulb, passing it on to the old lady sitting opposite her. 

A gummy smile and a head nod was all she could manage as she grasped her toy. The other woman smiled back, and got off at the next station. The bulb glowed on...green, blue, yellow, red...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month April 2013 - Courage

This post is part of Child Sexual Awareness Month, April 2013. April is almost over, and I didn't speak till now because I thought my brief memory was nothing in comparison to the horror others have endured. But while casually telling the story the other day, I realised how my mother's response changed my perspective on the entire thing. And that's what I want to share. 


It was a hot summer afternoon in Delhi. Coolers roared in every house, fighting the scorching heat. No one stepped out unless necessary. I was 8, and I was walking home alone from where the school bus had dropped me. No one came to pick me up - my mother was home with my little brother, not wanting to step out with him in the heat. Most of my friends walked home by themselves. Our apartment was part of six blocks, of six floors each, linked with inter-connected corridors on each floor. So it was easy for me to get off the bus and walk home through the maze, never hitting the main road. It was safe.

But I didn’t feel safe. As I neared the last stretch, my steps slowed. Even though I gazed down at the stairs I was climbing, I was looking out for him. He had been waiting for me at the same place every day, and his eyes would follow me as I walked past. My steps would quicken and I would pretend to look through him as I walked past him and hurried the last 100 meters home.

That day, he was standing at the top of the stairs – surprising me by waiting at an earlier spot than usual. There he stood, looking at me, fly gaping open between his hands. In horror, I took a few seconds too long to look away. I pretended I could see nothing, that he did not exist. I walked within 10 inches of him, crossing him on the stairs to go home. I don’t know what he wanted. I didn’t know if his sick mind had planned beyond that moment. Back then, I didn’t really know what he could do to me. But I did know I was scared. I went home. My mother saw my face and asked what was wrong. I started to explain, unsure of the words to use. Unsure of her response. 

I don’t remember what I told her, but she got it right away.

And then she went charging out of the house. My little brother stayed home alone - she forgot about him in that minute. “Where was he standing? Show me? Is he still there?” she demanded, on the warpath. I still remember following meekly but hurriedly behind her, scared of what she would do if she found him. The man had disappeared. Ma looked around, scanning the stairs, the corridors stretching away from us. She stood there for some time. I don’t know what she would have done if she had seen him. I don’t know if she knew what to do. But the next day she was at the bus stop to pick me up, shifting my 2-year-old brother from one tired arm to another, mopping her sweat with the edge of her saree.

Did I get off easy? Yes.

But I will never forget that afternoon. And I think what I remember more than the fear was the thrill of knowing that my mother, my smiling, friendly, chatty mother, went out ready to fight on my behalf. That’s when I knew I could tell her anything and she would listen. She would believe. She would act. And that gave me courage like nothing else.

Does your child have that courage? 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Flames

The smell of burning wicks and molten candles lingers long after I've trudged uphill, past the small altar with my heavy bag of groceries. Sometimes I see people tiptoeing out, watching the vulnerable flame they've just lit as they slip their shoes back on. They seem lighter, lit, and serene. Is it the handing over of their worries to God?

It was built in 1891, this altar - by the fast diminishing population of a panic-stricken village fighting the plague. The cross stands tall, the believers crouch low, the candles burn down, and faith runs high even today.

And I think of other candles. Of incense. Burnt at the altar of faith. Of incense plumes mingling with moon-like batashas as a little girl waits with her palms outstretched. Of birthday cakes and wishes made as candles puff out. Of small flames lit at dinner tables that lovers take home with them in their hearts. Of diyas and tea-lights flickering in a house till it looks like home. Of fire - pure, and unchanged in millennia - holding promises, signifying beginnings and ends.