Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Early Bird

I once saw someone wearing a t-shirt that emphatically stated:
I don't do mornings.
"How true," I thought, "I should be wearing that!"
Well anyways, once in a while I get into that "why waste time sleeping" phase and that's when I actually haul myself out of bed for some fresh(?), early morning air. And where is it that I go? To the park down the road from my house of's the shortest way to walk, and no cows are allowed inside (well, the gate is one of those twisty-turny things that keeps out big animals, 'coz nothing can actually disallow a cow from going where it wants!).
So I was saying, I like going there because it's clean, green, and free of manure. You can walk and step where you want, tread off the beaten track, not care about the road and ---"ooh, was that a worm i just squished?"
So who/what do I meet when I go on these occasional walks?
There's the gentleman who walks because it's obviously been doctor-recommended. However, it's clear he'd rather be elsewhere...he strolls along, chatting on his cellphone with i don't know who.
Then there's the guy who I think gets rocked out of his bed each morning. He always has this tuft of hair sticking out at exactly a 90 degree angle. (More like 87, really, if you want me to be specific!) And I think as a gesture of defiance to the powers that rock the bed, he ambles! Honestly, he just refuses to step up and get going. It's like one, big, long warm-up that lasts all of 2 rounds. After which he sits and watches the kids play cricket. On top of that, he has some scowl on his face! Seriously, if I learnt to scowl like that, no eve-teaser would ever dream of giving me a second glance!
Then of course there's the sweet, old auntyji who has one leg a few inches shorter than the other. She wears special shoes, and walks on, head high. She's totally the social network lady of the park, she knows EVERYONE! It's quite impressive! And she'll walk with anyone who can give her the most interesting they walking clockwise around the park or anti-clock!
But my favourite, is BRUNO...the year-old Labrador puppy dog who jumps his leash each time he sees me! He really greets me like a long-lost friend, and it's such a pleasure that I don't mind the threads that go missing in my track pants, near the's a willing concession made for the friendliest dog in my neighbourhood!
I hate dragging myself out of bed, I really do. I suffer separation anxiety when I take my head off my pillow and know it won't go back there for at least 16-18 hours, but maybe, if the people (and dogs) around can be that interesting, and such a study in variety, I will do mornings after all!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A New View

I’d carried a book with me, aware that waiting to see the doctor can redefine the word "patient". We were taking my grandmother to see a retina specialist, for a haemorrhage in her left eye. Sitting in that waiting room, with about 30 odd patients, each of whom had some sort of an eye problem, I felt privileged in a way I had never really thought much about. I looked at the book I had so casually decided to read. My eyes, that I take for granted, my vision, which I had never had to do without, was suddenly a gift that all those 30 people were fighting to retain and recover. It was a sobering experience.

My grandmother sat there, silent, patient, somewhat mollified that she could at least see the world through her right eye, cataract-ridden but functional nonetheless, for the time being. There was a young man, accompanied by his father, mother, sister, uncle and newly-wed wife. All there to support him and assure him that the doc was sure things would be fine sooner than he imagined. There was an elderly Sikh gentleman, whose left leg ended at the knee, leaving only a hollow metal rod to go down till the shoes. I sat there weaving a story about how he may have been a gallant Sikh in battle. Who knows, I could be right. The sense of despair and simultaneous hope was all-pervasive. This was a doctor you came to when your own doctor decided he could do no more and perhaps it would be best if you were referred to the retina specialist. If you were here, chances were, things were pretty bad. But again, if you were here, chances were things might get better sometime soon.

When my grandmother’s name was called, my mother took her in while I waited outside, running my eyes over the posters and notices typical of a clinic.
All around the room were placards testifying to the skill of the doctor --- felicitations at some conference, awards at the national level for some expertise. They were reassuring to those accompanying the patients, as the print was too fine to be read by most of the patients I just described. It was a relief to know that my grandmother was in safe hands.

But I was touched by the plaque – it had been gifted, with "deep gratitude" by a lucky patient for whom "the short span of darkness rendered the light of sight brighter by far".
I sat there, musing over all the times I had ignored anxious pleas and stern commands to sit and read in better light, as I lay across my bed with my back to the light, nose buried in a book and lost in an imaginary world. Thankful in a way I had never felt before, I angled my book best to catch the light above me and started to read.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Naptime for Mr. Bond!

No no no...I am not going to write about James Bond, the guy who likes his martinis "shaken not stirred"! (Well, actually I haven't seen enough Bond movies to confirm that, but what the hell, I'll take the world's word for it!
I'm going to talk about Mr. Ruskin Bond, who looks like everybody's favourite uncle and who probably would say his favourite drink is tea!
Mr. Bond is an all-time favourite writer of mine ... few writers I have read have the gift of writing simply, unforgettably, and simply unforgettable stuff! I envy him from the bottom of my heart for the ability to write what he sees and make it look and sound beautiful.
But, I digress...a few weeks back a colleague (Vineeta, whom I must name, or she shall be most offended and shall go on and on about how we shall forget her when October 14th comes around!) and I were indulging in usual chit-chat and she narrated a story of how she was in Dehradun for a weekend and dragged her friends up to Mussoorie to hunt out Mr. Bond's cottage and say hello to her favourite writer! Well, by the time the tin-box of a mountain bus trundled its way uphill from Dehra to Mussoorie, it was afternoon. And when they located Mr. Bond's house (which, by the way, most any local of Mussoorie could direct you to) they knocked on the door in breathless anticipation. They heard the latch slip on the inside, and Mr. Bond himself opened the door!
Apologising for disturbing him and stating the purpose of their visit (simply the desire to meet him), they were heartbroken when he told them gently that the doctor had prescribed a good afternoon rest and he really couldn't chat with them for very long. [Being the sleep-lover that I am, Mr. Bond went even further up in my estimation!] However, being the gentle soul that he is (as all fellow Bond-lovers will agree) he sat up and chatted with them, autographed their books and even offered them tea! When they left, he again apologised for preferring his nap over visitors.
Some days after I heard this story from Vineeta, I happened to come across the latest Bond book -- The India I Love...and in it, glancing at the dedication page, I saw what made me smile: It simply said (and here I paraphrase):
I dedicate this book to all those who come knocking on my
door in the middle of my afternoon siesta. May they, too, discover the pleasures
of a good afternoon's rest.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Wings on my Balcony

We had a nocturnal visitor the other evening. As I went to lock up for the night, a black shape on the dark balcony next to the bedroom attracted my attention. Unsure if it would turn out to be a dead leaf or some sort of a living creature, I beat a hasty retreat and switched on the light. And there, crouched in a corner, looking bewildered and trembling in fear, was a baby bird! It was one of those doves that have white bands around their necks … was it here to bring me peace? Well, definitely not for the next 15 minutes, as my mother, grandmother, brother and I thought thought thought about what to do! We certainly couldn’t leave it out there, just in case it was injured. You see, we have lots of those lean, mean, hungry cats in the neighbourhood. And so we decided that it had to be brought in and covered up for the night. My mother, adventurous as always, decided to check to see if it was hurt somehow. The very first touch and the bird flapped its wings and started fluttering towards the ceiling. Then ensued a mad scramble as we rushed to switch off the ceiling fan … oooh, that would not have been pretty!

Well anyway, at least now we knew it could fly, we thought, as the little thing came back down to the ground. It had probably landed on our balcony by mistake and then lost its sense of direction in the dark … one didn’t need to see an "L" on its back to know that this one was still in Flying 101, supervised by mom and dad. And so till we could set it free in the morning where it would (hopefully) know where to go, we had to make sure nothing happened to it.
A vegetable basket was commandeered from the kitchen and so was a small steel bowl. We placed a sheet of newspaper on a small table and then placed the bowl, filled with water, on it. Then ma carefully transported the baby onto the paper and upturned the basket over it! It was as simple as that!

We switched off the bedroom light and went off to watch TV, but each time I would come into the room, switch on the light and peer in through the plastic mesh, there it was, staring beadily at me! Anyway, eventually we all turned in and I think the bird slept well too. I was a little apprehensive that it may have rooster blood somewhere and make its presence felt at 4 am. Thankfully, either the genes were absent or recessive!

Next morning, the table was carried onto the balcony and the vegetable-basket-turned-impromptu-birdcage was removed. It didn’t take little birdie more than a moment to hop onto the balcony, flutter off to the neighbour’s TV antenna, preen its feathers (must’ve been a cramped night!), and take off into the blue sky! No turning back to thank its hosts, but then, we didn’t really expect it!

And that was it, or so I thought, until I wandered onto the balcony a few moments later to scan the skies for the baby. No sight of it, and then, as I stepped backwards and onto something slightly gooey … I knew it … it had left a present for us … something that would definitely leave a mark for a while!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

In Madrid

Madrid’s streets are clogged with cheering Spaniards all along my route from the Barajas airport to the city centre. I wonder at the buzz in the late-night air, and Frederico, son of a retired bull-fighting matador, who is driving me to my hotel, enlightens me in charming English, "It is the Real Madrid. They win the football match today!" With Beckham a new feather in the team’s cap, the victory is twice as sweet! As I doze off in my hotel room, I am thrilled that tomorrow, in the bright light of day, I will explore this excitable, exciting city.

Heading out the next morning, the unmistakable spirit and enthusiasm pervading the streets of Madrid infects me too – and I find myself smiling at strangers!

Toledo, my first stop, is about 50–60 kilometres away from Madrid. The route on the one-hour drive is not scenic, but Toledo makes up for it. Narrow winding lanes snake around the rocky hillside and I can actually touch the houses I pass! On foot, I follow zigzag alleys to discover sudden sunlit Toledo squares. The Gothic Cathedral has priceless paintings by legendary names like Goya and El Greco. My footsteps echo against the ancient stone of the cathedral floors as I look around.

Back in Madrid, it’s time for art appreciation. A day is not enough to explore the 7,000 or more works of art at the Museo del Prado. I try anyway and am lucky to catch a temporary exhibition of Titian’s paintings of redheads. Among other art museums is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s Guernica. Although entrance isn’t cheap there is a discount at most museums for students carrying ID. The audio tour, which explains the paintings as I walk around, is a good way to make the most of a museum, especially for an amateur art-lover like me.

The Palacio Real, the palace still used by Spain’s royal family, is opulent and chock-full of things that make you go "oooh"! A dining table that seats about 140 people and takes six hours to set is one of the chief attractions on the guided tour. There are also lots of unusual clocks – all of which work!

If it’s a Sunday and you are stout-hearted, (it is not, and I am not!) you can enjoy a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas, the biggest bullfighting arena in the world. Located on a busy street, the bronze bull and matador displayed just outside the Plaza remind you what Spain is famous for.

Evenings are perfect for strolling along the humming streets. I ignore the rain as I walk alongside tourists and locals, peeping in at shops and buying little trinkets and picture postcards. One could end up at the Parque del Buen Retiro, a garden made for relaxation, with a lake at the centre and boats for hire.

Madrid is only one facet of multi-cultural Spain, a country with a colourful history that straddles Europe and Africa, giving rise to a unique culture. This shows up in Spanish cuisine. Any visitor to Spain must try tapas and paella. Tapas are popular snacks to accompany drinks at Spanish pubs and could range from cheese-and-ham to stuffed olives or even baby octopus! Paella is another thing I want to try – saffron flavoured rice cooked with a variety of ingredients, which could be anything, chicken, shrimp or more exotic kinds of seafood! As I sit and wait at a pavement café for my dish of paella, I look forward to the next day, which promises to be as exciting as the feast filling my senses now.

(This was published in the Deccan Herald, in May 2004)

The World on My Table

Last week a man came into my life and offered me the world. I thought over his offer for a while, but then refused. He insisted. I shook my head, firmly. Rejected, but undaunted, he walked on to the woman behind me. I heard him repeat his offer, and convince the woman of its viability. Well, he certainly wasted no time on me. "Easy come, easy go," I reflected.

Let me clarify. The "world" was actually a map…printed on waterproof cloth. And the man in question was a salesman on my bus, who boarded at a red light and spoke to all the passengers at length, expounding the qualities of this "ispecial" product. What I liked about him was his aggressive salesmanship. Getting on the bus with rolls of such sheets tucked safely under his armpit, he lost no time addressing us bhais and behens with his sales pitch. In a sing-song voice he listed the numerous advantages of this product, standing at the head of the bus. We could use it as a tablecloth, a study-tablecloth, as a kitchen-tablecloth, as a waterproof sheet under infants’ bed sheets, and even, in a real fix, as a makeshift umbrella over our heads to keep dry. Also, he added, lowering his voice that extra octave, we’d have a pretty good knowledge of geography in a few weeks. I was amused at a vision of studying off my tablecloth, instead of from my books! No way you could let your mind wander!

But I was brought back to what he was saying -- pulling the cloth in opposite directions, he demonstrated its inherent "untearability" for the next five seconds. Needless to say, he did not neglect to inform us that he was selling this stuff at about a quarter of the company price as a special favour to us! And then came the punch line of his sales mantra. Wagging his finger like a severe teacher, he informed us, "Now, I don’t have too many pieces of this product, so I’m afraid I can’t give this to all of you. So those who are interested please raise your hands while remaining seated and I’ll soon be with you."

About three people bought the twenty-rupee tablecloth-cum-waterproofing-against-all-sorts-of-liquids. One of them, while fiddling with change was reprimanded, "I don’t have all the time in the world, you know." Having made his sales for this particular bus, he smiled at the driver and conductor and stepped off the bus at the next stop. Taking with him the continents and oceans as the rest of us headed home to our boring, bought-over-the-counter tablecloths.
(This was published in the Times of India under the title "On Top of the World", on 13 May 2003)

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Home to Many

A relic of British times, an ancient yellowish building with white portico pillars, renovated once to add bathrooms that would be inside the house, overgrown on the façade with creepers that bloom with pinkish-mauve flowers every winter, and steps leading up to the porch. This is the way I remember the house. 1, Prayag Street, in Allahabad, was a house I had been visiting ever since I was born. My father had been born in that house. So had numerous aunts and uncles of mine. My great-grandmother died in that house, as had many others. There were many trees, many birds, many memories, many ghosts.

This was the house that belonged to my father’s grandfather. Typically British in its architecture, it boasted high ceilings, rope-operated skylights, creaky ceiling fans, and even two decaying moth-eaten heads of deer, an ancestor’s hunting trophy from times that were not so politically correct or environment-friendly. Of course, by the time I first entered that house in my mother’s lap, my great grandfather was no more. My father’s parents lived in the same city in a different neighbourhood. My great grandmother was still there, walking with the help of a stick, for which reason I later identified her as lathi wali dida, my only resort in a house full of relatives.

And was it full! Grandparents, great uncles and aunts, uncles and aunts, cousins, even the occasional niece or nephew who was older than me! Every get-together at Prayag Street was a party. And the life of that party was my father’s uncle, my Ashok dadu. The clown of clowns and the best choreographer of make-believe tribal dances! In his years of government service, his house had been the centre of his transferable world. He returned there from time to time, as did all of us. Even after retirement, when his siblings were all settled elsewhere, he remained at Prayag Street, the centre of our world. The house may have been mouldy from the outside, may have needed a coat of paint or two, but from inside, it was completely and undeniably a home. It was not just "home" for people who actually lived there at that point of time. It was also "home" for anyone who had ever lived there at any point of time. Even though they had moved away, their photographs, old books and some belongings always remained. Shelves in corners of the bedrooms were stacked with books. The flyleaf of each book had a history. A book won as a prize for doing well in the exams. A book received as a birthday gift. A book from someone’s university syllabus. The dates took one back in time.

The walls of that house were what I found most fascinating as I grew up. They were lined with wedding photos of all the people who had anything to do with that house. Black and white, and later coloured too, these photos took me back in time. The people I knew by then as old, graying, and vulnerable relatives, looked out at me from those simple, elegant photos as youthful, optimistic faces. The brides were coy, the grooms were handsome and looking right into the camera. They did not know then of the things to come. Of the future, of their lives, or of children they would have, or of the children their children would have. It all lay ahead. And I, peering at those long ago photos, often on tiptoe, felt like I was straddling two different eras, two totally different lives. It was like knowing the future and looking back at the past. It was also intriguing to note the strong family resemblances. Everyone looked like one of the others at some point of time. No DNA testing required for this family!

My parents also occupied one of those places. My mother, with long hair, my father, with a jet-black moustache, different from how I know them today. Another picture, of my father as a baby in his grandfather’s lap. The old gentleman proudly holding his eldest grandchild, pointing at something far away, held my attention. I wondered what he might have been pointing at. Probably anything that would make my father smile for the camera. In retrospect, when that picture was mounted on the walls of an ancestral home, it seemed to represent the generations, the future, that my great-grandfather was drawing my father’s attention to.

The long summer evenings spent at Prayag Street are unforgettable. Children would be urged to show off any accomplishments of the previous year. Any poem recited, any song sung, was appreciated. Jokes would be cracked, and no matter if they were funny or not, everyone would laugh. I suppose a sense of togetherness made up for the sense of humour! The simple dinner was eaten off mismatched crockery. After all, it’s impossible to have perfect tableware with a dozen or so extra guests! Many mouths to feed, but twice as many helping hands headed to the tiny kitchen. And the lady of the house, Manjushree dida, found something for each one of us to do, making sure we felt useful and grown-up!

But things change. Children grow up. And then they (or rather, their parents) have school exams and attendance to worry about. Gone are the carefree days of missing school at a whim. Trips can no longer just happen, they need to be planned. The annual visit to Allahabad ceased to be a permanent feature of our calendars. When we did go, chances were all the others who used to make up the mirthful parties would not be there. Ashok dadu and Manjushree dida were there, of course. But their daughters were married and the house seemed to be missing the old times. We were older. The ceilings did not seem as high as they used to. The rooms were smaller than we remembered from our childhood. Our grandparents visited us in Delhi, so Allahabad was no longer the holiday spot. We spent our holidays as tourists, exploring other parts of India and filling up photo albums. This year Ashok dadu passed away and Manjushree dida moved to another city to be with her daughter. The house was sold in a flash to avoid haggling and real-estate mafia. There were no regrets. There aren’t any even today. The house may soon be broken down and rebuilt as a block of flats with every modern convenience possible. It is not our Prayag Street any longer, with the people gone. Its spirit will haunt us, pleasantly, wherever we are.

(Written in November 2001)