Monday, December 31, 2007

A Bit of Sky on Earth

Six years ago, I used to tutor a young Israeli boy whom I was very fond of. Dekel was color-blind, which meant he would never be able to join the Air Force of his country. But he'd made his peace with that. What he told me with a grin, but which broke my heart, was about getting ridiculed by his teacher when he colored a flower's petals green at the age of 4, all because he couldn't tell some colors apart.

I remembered all that when I watched Taare Zameen Par. Oh, I know everyone's talking about it. But I had to, too. I watched it with my mother, who is a school teacher and deals with some kids who had learning disorders/disabilities. And I can freely admit that I was wiping my tears a LOT of the time. The vulnerability of knowing one's failures but not understanding them; of being teased for them but being unable to rectify the problem; of being abandoned (as a disciplinary measure) by the very people who are your last hope - the little boy brought it out so well in a story so empathetically told that all my childhood experiences of enduring bullies and occasional teasing seemed trivial somehow.

And it made me realise what a difference a teacher can make, if he or she is so inclined. I learnt some great lessons as a student but I never faced these battles. Lucky me. I hope a movie like this prompts schools to encourage teachers' awareness and sensitise them towards detecting learning disabilities. Language and writing are tools, and mastering them is a crucial step in self-expression. Everyone deserves a chance.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tejeshwar Singh

When I heard about Tejeshwar Singh's sudden death, being far from Delhi my only way to pay my last respects was on this blog (here) and by writing about him so that more people could read it. It appeared in The Pioneer today, do take a look.

Of course, the printer's devil had to be at work on this one and the word 'Have' at the very beginning of my write-up has arrived from nowhere! How TS would have frowned to see it.

The Show Must Go On

It's been a while since I wrote something funny. Here, the joke is entirely on me. Read on for some sadistic fun. You'll come off feeling quite superior.

So, some years ago, my brother was still in school and I, having just completed my MA, was trying to 'figure out my life'. It helped that my father was posted in the Netherlands, and so I earned big, fat Euros tutoring some American-school kids in English and life was just peachy.

The high school drama class was rehearsing for a musical (Pippin) and a lot of my brother's friends were in it. He'd keep hearing about the play, and some of the dialogues, and the cast kept singing the songs at lunch time so it was pretty much all the high schoolers were talking about. So my brother got two tickets to go watch it. One for himself, and the other for his good-for-nothing sister. We decided to bicycle our way there. It was 7 kilometres one way, so that was a commitment. But, having moved there from New Delhi, it was a novelty to actually use the bicycle to go places rather than ride in aimless circles in the safety of a fenced-off park. Everyone cycles in Holland. In 2001 we were told the country had 15 million people and 16 million bicycles.

No need to memorise that. This isn't reading comprehension. So anyways, on the day, we cycle off well in time for the play. But we don't factor in the rough winds of winter blowing in from ye ol' North Pole or wherever and through the North Sea into the poor bicycle tracks of The Hague. So we huffed and puffed as the clock ticked and tocked and we barely made it to school on time. Dashing in to the auditorium, I picked up a programme along the way, just as a souvenir. The lights were already dim so there was no question of reading it.

The play began. My brother pointed out his various friends in their colourful costumes. Pipping sang some songs. Pippin seemed a confused, angsty sort. Pippin sang some more songs. This happened 6 years ago so I don't really remember but he did seem to be rather directionless. Oh well...

Then, Pippin caught on that this wasn't right. Pippin sang some more songs. The final one ended on a high note with lots of girls draped all over him. He seemed to have arrived in life. The note died out, the lights came on, the curtains went down, and everyone stood up, clapping. My brother and I hurried out. It was already 6 and would soon be pitch dark. We didn't want to die of lung breakdown on the way home so we wanted to hurry off before it got really windy late in the evening. So we scurried out, unlocked our bicycles, and raced off towards home.

The route was rather scenic. Framed against the setting sun were llamas and cows (the foreign-looking cows: brown and white, photogenic types) grazing in a rich man's fields on our right. Brother and I chatted about the play and how it was good but not great. Then I started dissecting it as I pedalled. My English Litt background paid off as I mulled over the various plot elements and realised that some of them hadn't been resolved. So I tell my brother, "They dind't show xyz..." and he says, slowly, thoughtfully, "Yeah, but I thought it was supposed to happen..." And then I think of something else that wasn't right. And he says, slowly, thoughtfully, "Yeah, but I heard it was supposed to happen."

And then I stop, pull out the programme from my bag and look at it.

It says, slowly, thoughtfully:

Pippin: A Musical
Show begins: 4:45 pm
INTERMISSION (caps mine): 6:00 pm
Act II: 6:15 pm

The cows seemed to be smiling at us as they chewed their cud. The llamas looked on indifferently as we stood, halfway between home and the play we had left during the Intermission.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


When people we have learnt from and admired suddenly die, it leaves you rudderless and shell-shocked. I first met Tejeshwar Singh when I walked into his office in early December 2003, a young desk editor at Sage Publications. I was being guided around the office and introduced to everyone and this was the last stop. T.S., as everyone in office called him, looked up at me over his glasses, the cigarette in his hand sending up smoky spirals to join the steam leaving his black coffee, and welcomed me to Sage.

Over the next 3 years he grew from distant, scary boss to a closer ally and a colleague, though still scary from time to time. We double-checked all our work, fearing that he would catch a mistake we hadn't, and summon us with a P.D. (Please Discuss) scrawled in his characteristic red ball-point writing.

I last met him at my wedding. He gifted me cash ('the easy way out', he wrote) and a card in which I have his handwriting preserved forever. He was not too happy that marriage was taking me away from Delhi and Sage, and said so, swelling me with pride at all I had achieved in those 3 years in a company I had loved belonging to.

Now, when I look back at Sage and feel like going back in time, I know that the memory is only perfect in recollection, that with T.S. missing, I can no longer go back to it and relive it in its entirety.

I had been in touch with T.S. over the last year and I never thought our association was over. I sometimes thought we might work again someday. Or that he may start another publishing house after he realised he'd retired too early. He was a young 60. Full of ideas and knowledge that he needed to share. And I have so much left to learn.

Batti Bandh

This is something I had once thought of initiating through this blog. I imagined suggesting that all of us decide to turn off all our electricity for a fixed 15 minutes every single day. That would be easy to achieve. I imagined getting lots of people charged up about it.

But I wanted to make a grand statement. I wanted to announce it with facts, figures and statistics. Saying that switching off power for x minutes will save to run y number of things for z number of hours, and so on. You know, those impressive statistics you see in pamphlets about climate change and water conservation. So of course the plan sank into the backseat and wedged itself there, since I never hunted out those statistics.

So when I realised Bombay was doing it at last, I felt, first, cheated that I hadn't been the one to suggest it, and then, shamed and motivated into full participation! So we did it too. We had friends over for drinks and dinner, and they all walked into a dark house, with candles in the kitchen where I was frying the kababs. (Though I must admit that we didn't switch off the fridge.) And so, our house, and the 3 houses our guests had left empty for the evening, certainly contributed to the effort yesterday!

Now that it's begun, do you think we can all (and I mean all you readers, the commenters and the lurkers) volunteer to pick at least 15 or 30 minutes of the day, after dark, when you'll switch off all lights and electrical gadgets in your house? And ask others to do so? Everyday? Let me know.

This is a small thing we all need to know and do. Oh, I know there are theories out there that global warming is a myth. That the hype about the gravity of it is politically motivated. But saving some electricity can only be a good thing. It even brings down your bills! And, being forced to go without it for an hour last night reminded me how much I took it for granted. That sunset did not mean the end of the day because of that magic switch at my command. We need electricity. So let's respect and appreciate it. Let's not be tube lights about this!

Zor se bolo, BATTI BANDH!!!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Uniform

The tailor handed it over for him to try. Eagerly, he slipped into the made-to-measure uniform. It was brand new. Smart and crisp, the pleats on the trousers fell sharply to the floor as he clicked his heels together. The medals dazzled as he looked down at his chest. The insignia embroidered on the sleeves felt familiar as he ran his fingers over them. The cap was just right, encouraging him to keep his head held high and chin up, like the brave soldier he was.

Curious to see himself as another would, he stepped before the mirror and gazed at his reflection.

An old man gazed back. Slightly hunched shoulders. The face wrinkled. The fingers bent at arthritic angles. The knees apart. The legs bowed. The eyes dull. The forehead lined. And the tailor stood respectfully by. Indulging the old war veteran in his little trip down memory lane.

C'est la vie

I turned 29 two weeks ago. And now 30 waits. A label. A marker. A turning point of sorts. And so, as always, I turn to the web to tell me things I don't always need to know:

You've Experienced 48% of Life

You have a good deal of life experience, about as much as someone in their late 20s.
You've seen and done enough to be quite wise, but you still have a lot of life to look forward to.

I like that the blog test thinks I'm wise. For that is a stamp I really could not have done without. Especially coming off the WWW.

So, here's to life. And here's to upgrading from 48% to at least 80% by achieving some of the things on my to-do list (in no apparent order):

  • Write a book
  • Learn another language
  • Justify my driver's license by actually driving
  • Be a parent

Monday, December 03, 2007

Best Friends

The onset of winter in Delhi meant warmer uniforms, reluctant mornings, hesitant baths, foggy busrides to school, watching mist form before our mouths as we spoke, and hopping around in the big field to keep warm. The afternoons were glorious. Peanuts, sunshine, balconies, and books.

Driving past India Gate in late October, I would crane my neck to see that tents were being put up on the lawns for the Bal Mela, which marks Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday (14 November) with a month-long amusement-and-book fair. And, one lucky winter afternoon, I'd come back from school and be met with Ma saying 'Today we're going to the book fair.'

A quick lunch, and a rapid change of clothes, so that we could go and spend maximum time on the grassy lawns of India Gate before we had to hurry back in time for my father's return from work. And we'd be off. The sun warming my forearms as they rested on the lowered window. The wind just starting to turn merciless, chapping lips and whipping my hair. The people walking around with sweaters tied around their waists, a sign that the morning had been colder and the late evening would be the same.

Having parked, we'd spend some time on the rides, shoot clustered balloons with airguns, eat some candyfloss, buy churan and then head into the books section of the fair.

And that was paradise. Stall after stall, with attractively displayed books. Watching out for my mother (I was always afraid I'd get lost), I'd peek into each stall, my eager eyes skimming the covers till they rested on something promising. Drawing closer, I'd reach out, tug at it, and hold it. Flip through it. Inhale that new book smell. And then decide. Do I want this? Ok, let me come back. Where is Ma? I need to buy it before someone else gets to it. I can't put this down now. Then I'd begin the dance of trying to go as far out of the stall without looking like a shoplifter so I could attract her attention. Having succeeded, scurry back in to look through more pages till the funding body arrived and, having approved the choice, produced the required amount.

Standing in line, proudly clutching my choice till my turn at the counter. Does this bored-looking man care that I'm dying to read this book? Then, bag in hand, I would emerge into the weakening sunlight, often to bump into friends who had come with their parents, and curiously examine their purchases as well, quickly 'booking' the books they had bought which I wanted to read as well.

Once, I had already cleaned out Ma's wallet. And then we saw it. A big, hardbound, colourful book, '1,500 Fascinating Facts'. That day we learnt what it meant to scrape together the money for something. We dug deep into her purse. Lint, fluff, and a little small change. I produced a crumpled tenner from my jeans' pocket. Insignificant coins and unhelpfully small notes all combined, we were still 15 Rupees short. The salesman took pity on us and reduced the price. We drove back, elated at the purchase, temporarily penniless, but with a story to last forever.

The pocketbook series of abridged classics, the Penguin paperbacks, James Herriots, Agatha Christies, and, every time at the book fair, at least one '1,500 Fascinating Facts' kind of book to improve general knowledge. The Prince and the Pauper, Adventure Stories for Girls, Charles and Mary Lamb's Shakespeare, Huckleberry Finn, The Count of Monte Cristo. Just the names of these books are enough to remember those days. Snuggling under the blanket and reading till I was lectured on bad light and threatened with glasses. Hurrying through homework to get back to the adventures of Tom Sawyer. Hoping for a seat on the bus home so that I could get on with The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Etched on memories of childhood and teenage are those books. The front fly-leaf of those books when I pick them up today or find them in my cousins' homes helps me track my handwriting as it evolved over the years. 'Anamika Mukharji', they proclaim in triumph, asserting ownership. And then the date. A marker in time. A reminder of an age I have been that will never come back.

Walking down a busy Bandra street recently, books were far from my mind. We had just watched The Kingdom, eaten at a burger joint, and were strolling across to another hall to catch Om Shanti Om. A movie-fest, interrupted by a calorie fest. The intellect was on holiday. And then, I caught sight of a simple, hand-painted banner announcing 'Book Fair'. Bandra, Bombay, and traffic receded around me as I stood, hurtling back in time.

Entering, it was just like those fairs of my childfood. dusty tables covered with white cloth, books arranged in steps, knowledge, self-help, fiction, classics. Once upon a time, I had been the same height as those tables, and had stood tiptoe to find what I liked. Eager hands had reached out for an imaginary world. Young eyes had widened with interest.

And so, I stared, I chose with my eyes, from a distance. I touched. I flipped pages. I smelt in that old, new-book smell. And I knew I just had to buy something. If only to feel nine years old again.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Saviour

They came, they saw, they scratched themselves, and they conquered.

Within a few weeks of the arrival of the first red-bottomed monkey in my parents' neighbourhood, several houses had been broken into, messed up, fridges raided, fruits pureed onto the floor, eggs crunched with bare, hairy hands, and sofas and curtains tattered.

Suddenly, balconies were out of bounds as no one could enjoy the early-winter sun for fear of a simian visitor. Pickles left to cook in the sun were reduced to remnants of smashed jars, flowers and potted plants were ruthlessly torn up. The people cried for relief. 'Save us, save us', they told the perturbed housing management society.

And so came Punnu Singh. He strode around our campus. He glared. He glowered from under his bushy eyebrows. He bared his teeth. He made menacing sounds. He intimidated the intruders and drove them away without batting an eyelid. The mischief-makers saw him and hastily retreated into the wilderness of Noida. A man of few words, his expression was enough to tell us: 'All in a day's work.' And so he came, he glared, he scared, and he departed.

Punnu Singh does not like to be photographed. Detracts from his dignity, he thinks. So he refuses to smile for pictures. Here is a photo I found of him on the Net. I think he's quite handsome.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tumhari Amrita

A deliciously cold Delhi November evening, and a play that I had long wanted to watch.

Though the story was slightly predictable - impossible love between a socially accepted man and a self-destructive rebellious artist - the emotions that played out on the actors' faces as they spoke to us through their letters and their expressions carried me along. By the end, Shabana Azmi actually had tears glistening on her cheeks, and I, a lump in my throat. Without sets, props, music, costumes, 2 human beings sat at separate desks, spot-lit, and lived 2 lives as we listened.

Though the story is sad, it plucked at chords in me that I hadn't known I had. That something so uncertain, so ill-fated, should be so innocent and tender. That a relationship lived, and re-lived, through letters should make an uninvolved heart ache. That sometimes sorrow and grief can be devastatingly beautiful. I don't know what it made me feel. But somehow, with my simple life, simple pleasures, and uncomplicated state of heart, the play made me feel that I have not fully lived. That my heart and mind have not known loneliness, longing and passion to the degree that turns the being into the human. I am thankful for this unevolved state of 'being', but a little voice in my head keeps saying, 'You don't know anything because you have not felt anything.'

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Writer in Our Midst

While we editors jabbered and giggled and criticised our job, our life, our authors and their writing, one colleague decided that he'd rather write himself. And his first book is out! It promises to be interesting. I'm just making a totally pretentious claim to know him before the award committees come a-hunting.

Friday, November 09, 2007


May this Diwali be a bright one, bringing you enough light
to see beauty but not so much that it blinds you to the world.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sharodotsav '07

I was standing on a weaving muddy path that wound through a paddy field. A small shed with a grain thresher rested at the end of a tiring day. A midget of a scarecrow, with a startling wide grimace, stood with his arm raised, menacingly. A large mud hut waited at the end of my road.

All around was a buzz of activity. People coming and going under the star-lit sky. And, this was odd, here was a loud-speaker, asking the owner of car no WB 01 C4587 to step forward to prevent his car being towed away.

I was in Salt Lake, Kolkata, and this was Shashthi, the sixth day of Durga Puja 2007. It was a manufactured world, transplanted paddy saplings and fake mud huts in the muddle of an urban neighborhood in Kolkata. We had left a busy, double-parked street behind us to tread into a timeless world, where the Goddess waited, done up in her finery, eternally punishing the forever evil Mahishasura.

Of course, what really caught my attention when we reached the altar was how blue the demon was. Isn't he usually a very ruddy colour? And, he was clean-shaven. That really bothered me. I mean, no villain is ever complete without the curling mustachios and even the compulsory mole on the cheek. Delhi does way better Mahishasuras. This one looked like Krishna making a cameo. I mumbled a bit about it, but was drowned out in the general oohs and aahs of admiration over the decor.

And how can you not admire the creativity at play here? An ancient-looking temple that could have fooled me, realistic right down to the mould dulling the frescoes. Little shelves gouged into the walls, with images of gods and goddesses filling them. Clay pots - normally used to drink tea and then smashed in eco-friendly disposal - made up an entire pandal, shaped like a banyan tree, near the Shiv Mandir.

Cut to the next morning. We left at 7 am to get on to a tour bus. Our tickets had been booked for the 'Traditional Kolkata' tour conducted by West Bengal tourism. We arrived at the venue really early. The usually crowded streets of Cal were deserted and I actually got a good look at the roadsides, street-lights, and the road itself, which is usually eclipsed by cars, rickshaws, trams, buses, autos, taxis, and, the ever-present pedestrians, saggy-armed mashimas in sleeveless blouses streaking across busy crossings, intellectual, kurta-clad, jhola-toting old bhadraloks munching solemnly on jhalmuri and sipping 'ek piece cha' (one 'piece'/cup tea) at the Maa Tara Jhalmuri stand.

So anyway, we arrived, with a good 40 minutes to spare. 7.30 am, the streets being swept, and through the dust haze of yesterday's litter we could see many, many people, obviously wearing new clothes, waiting to board any of several tourist buses. With a lot of fanfare, some walkathoning men hurried past, hoisting the 'kola-bou' on their shoulders. That is Ganesh's wife, a tender plantain tree draped in the traditional white-with-red-border saree, who is only placed beside Ganesh and the rest of her in-laws on the seventh day of the Puja.

Since the tour was to begin in 20 minutes, Anando hurried towards what we were told would be our bus. But a man, obviously in control of the situation, said 'Dada, jaaben na, nongra aache.' (Don't go right now, it's dirty.) Of course, there was no mention of when it would be cleaned! We could see through the bus doors that plastic packets lay on the floor, little white specks on a questionably grey metal floor. The people who'd taken the tour yesterday had left behind proof that the tour included a meal. My mother-in-law found an interesting seat to rest and wait while we prayed the bus would be cleaned soon.

In another 10 minutes, the bus started up, and there was a twitter among the crowd. Would we have to board a dirty bus? Despite the reluctance to do so, no one wanted to be left behind in case that became necessary. Why risk someone else getting the best seats? But our gent-in-command raised his hand and said 'Petrol bhoriye aaschi.' (I'll get petrol.) Perceiving our anxiety at the obvious delay he said calmly, reassuringly, 'chinta korben na, ja bola aachhe, tour-e ta shob hobe' (don't worry, all that has been promised will be covered in the tour.) Obviously, time was not of the essence here. The surging crowd sagged and fell back as the bus trundled off.

At 8.30, still busless and contemplating a coup, we realised that the tickets did not state the exact departure time anywhere. That part had been word-of-mouth, to evade any liability later. Eventually, at 8.40, after some running up and down that long stretch of road, our bus was located, boarded, and we set off. The entire bus-load united to help a gentleman whose seat had been reclined and now refused to straighten up its act. Loud suggestions. 'Pressure deen' (apply pressure) (Hope no patients of constipation were on board). Finally the chair reluctantly, lazily, sat up, and everyone retreated.

I have never seen such a phenomenally useless tour guide. I am convinced he was reading lines written for him by someone else in an illegible hand. He spoke in Bangla after confirming that everyone understood it. He needn't have bothered - no one paid him any attention anyway. They were busy looking out the window, exchanging notes on what the lunch would consist of, how hot it was getting, how these things never start on time, hadn't we got the little badges to pin on? They had. Hadn't we been told to pick up our lunch vouchers from the office? They had. Didn't we know it would be a buffet lunch at the Shobhabajar Bari? They did. I half-thought we were on the wrong bus.

A bit of history, not culled from the tour guide. Some old families of Kolkata began the tradition of a Durga Puja in their own home. The practice has been in place for two-three hundred years. Most of these families got rich after the British came to Kolkata by doing business (sometimes legit, sometimes under the table) with them. The new money means big spending. The houses testify to this - traditional Bengali structures, sprawling buildings, large, greenish shutters on the windows, high ceilings, an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms for all members of the big, joint families, the children rushing around their home which magically turns into a tourist attraction for 4 days each year, the women dressed in their finery bustling around, cutting up fruits to offer as bhog (food for the goddess). Most of these homes are in the oldest parts of Kolkata.

This tour was supposed to take us around some of these pujos, of historical interest. It was rather weird to go trooping into people's homes with cameras and a tour guide, look around, peer at the wrinkly descendant of a once-famous family of Bengal, and shuffle back out. It soon began pouring, the bus would park far away and we would plod in single file along the ridiculously narrow lanes of time, trying to keep our eyes fixed on the guide's bald, shiny head to make sure we didn't get lost.

All along, the man grated on our nerves till there was a thin string of it left. He would preface every historical fact with 'perhaps'. And end every sentence with 'mota-moti', (more or less). He'd been testing our patience for a bit. Misled, misinformed, confused, drenched, the last straw came when he led us into a large home, promising that this was the home of the famous Duttas of Hatkhola. We sloshed in, and were greeted with large portraits of the musically named 'Latu babu - Chhatu babu', whose home had been listed on our agenda as a later stop. We gave him a substantial piece of our minds ('tis the season to be generous), he shouted back something about 'adjusting', and moving on 'with mutual saapport'. We'd had enough. We flagged a taxi and headed straight home, for some good old posto-baata for lunch and a solid nap thereafter.


My first pujo in Kolkata as a (still) new bride (though much of the gloss has worn off). Enthusiastic in-laws, a blossoming family tree that defeats me like Rowling's Whomping Willow, several feet to be touched, several trite conversations and polite smiles. All this time I kept my faulty Bangla grammar in check, alert to even the hint of a smirk on Anando's face in case I'd slipped up. The mandatory visits to relatives who don't really count, but who 'keep count', of who came by and who didn't. The doddering aunt who showed us around a newly renovated part of the house and all its imported bits and pieces, right down to the fancy toilet flush (which she hasn't even seen in America!). Look, these kitchen racks are from Italy. Look, the bathroom (oops, 'powder room' tiles are from Australia. Look, the screws in the botto drawer of the right-handside cupboard are from France. And then, ruefully, the fridge is from India. Poor, lonely fridge. A stranger in its own land.

Pujo in Cal - actually, let's say conversation in Cal - has much to do with food and the consumption of it. Then, when digestion gives up, conversation revolves around the problems of aamasha (amoebiosis), ambal (indigestion), chonga dhekoor (strange, sour burps) and of course that eternal scourge of Bong-kind - uind (Bangla for 'wind'). Trying to keep those at bay while enjoying killer sweets like shor bhaja (fried cream/malai) is not easy. But with regular prayers to Ma Kali we managed. The Pudin Hara helped too. Of course, I fought all these evils with a packet of jalebis (loosely translated as 'round-round-round-round-stop) every morning. No problem! *Burp*

At each house we visited, the drama would commence with that single, horror prop - a tea tray loaded with mishtis. The polite but unfloutable command 'Notun bou, prothom bar eshecho, SHOB khete hobe.' (New bride - first visit - eat EVERYTHING). The notun bou retreats behind her plastic smile and looks wide-eyed at that impossibly big sandesh. The kindly mother-in-law whispers 'Try it, it's soft and has a moist centre.' The notun bou obediently digs the fork in. The sweet bounces ticklishly away. Obviously this is a hard nut to crack. Careful. 'Pressure deen', at the right places. Thumb below plate, tongue outside mouth, fork in my grip, I stab. Success. Open mouth. Enter 200 calories. And at that opportune moment, when the mouth is full, one is asked, 'So is this your first pujo in Kolkata?'

Stammer, gulp, hiccup, answer. And so it goes on.


But this was a Kolkata I have never seen before, though this was exactly the Kolkata I have always heard about. In the time during, and immediately after the Pujo, I saw all that Kolkata is stereotyped for. Angry, excitable people still brooding over Nandigram, as evidenced by giant posters of Buddhadeb (the CM) with splotches of blood-red on his face, and the word 'Cheee' (shame). The city screaming for justice for Rizwanur Rehman and his smiling face on posters asking you to remember him and fight for him. The newspapers spewing venom about the ration scam. Smart ad lines. Tongue-in-cheek traffic warnings, about how even children should wear helmets.

Potholed roads in the centre of the city where only a month ago, in torrential rains, people caught surprised fish that had floated into the city's network of flooded roads. A simmering resentment against the CPI(M) in a metropolis that ought to offer a smoother life. Mamata Banerjee's repeated (and successful) calls for bandhs to protest this, that and the other. Old houses holding their own despite the burgeoning malls and a yuppie culture of superficiality that has begun to take over this still-resisting hub of intellectualism and genuine scholarship.

And, in the middle of it all, life carried on. Pandals were erected, livened up, and torn down. The dhaakis (drummers) came, played in a a trance, and went back. Queues formed outside every restaurant. No self-respecting Bengali takes time to cook in her own kitchen during Pujo! Jewellery was worn and discussed - one's own and that of others.

Park street buzzed and people shopped. The goddess was immersed and people re-immersed themselves in regular life, broken temporarily by worship of the Goddess of Wealth on Lakshmi Puja. And the constant refrain was: Aasche bochhor abar hobe. (This will all happen again next year.)

And so the wheels of time carry on. And I, back to cosmpolitan Bombay, can think back, laugh, remember, and prepare my stomach walls for next year's assault.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Knife for all Seasons

He sat there, showing off the Swiss army knife with little-boy charm and excitement as he lovingly felt the edges of the various blades. According to him, it was a very, very useful gadget in all kinds of emergencies.

'So, have you ever actually used any of the features?' I asked, wondering about the daredevil acts a mining engineer may have accomplished with a little help from this trusted Swiss buddy.

'Sure...' he replied. 'The toothpick.'

Friday, October 12, 2007

Going Bong-kers

'Tui ki ghoti?' she asked me.

(Are you a ghoti?)

'Huh?' I responded brightly, while my mind cartwheeled over thoughts of ghoti (a metallic container for water), baati (bowl) and other such utensils.

'I mean, are you from West Bengal or East Bengal?' she explained patiently, treating me with the upturned-nose tolerance a fish-hating, probashi Bengali deserves from a blue-blooded Calcuttan.

The brass, steel and aluminium vessels making towers in my mind came crashing down as I thought for a second before replying.

This was Delhi 1999 and I had never been asked this question before. When I came home and related this conversation to my grandmother, who had left Calcutta at the age of 20 and refused to learn Hindi or what gender a car was when you referred to it, hooted with laughter (if you can imagine a 70-year old lady doing so).

As a probashi Bengali (one raised outside of Bengal), Kolkata as a concept, as a city, as a living breathing entity has always been just outside my reach. My parents were hopeless - hailing from UP and Delhi, they ensured that I spoke Hindi as a child. Ostensibly because it helped me communicate with everyone, but in reality because it helped them use Bangla as a code, against me. When I caught on (at the tender age of 5), I tenaciously tried speaking Bangla, though even today I translate from Hindi and all my true-blue Bong friends/relatives/in-laws laugh uproariously/smile tolerantly/smile indulgently respectively.

Eta shotti hocchhe.

Is what I say, which translates from wrong Bengali into wrong English as 'It is being true.' For that's what I'd say when I translate 'Yeh sach hai' into Bangla.

As you can see, my ignorance of all things Calcuttan and many things Bengali did not work well for me when I got married. After all, I chose to marry a Bengali, from Kolkata, who loves fish, who gets all mushy at the thought of Durga Pujo and can spend it nowhere but Kolkata, whose idea of keeping in touch with his roots (in extreme circumstances) often includes checking vegetable rates at the para market on some obscure website while he sits in the Middle East, whose mother mastered Bangla literature, who grew up reading fantastic, homegrown, children's Bangla literature where they eat monda-mithai rather than the unknown and unknowable scones Enid Blyton told me about, who reads and writes Bangla like a natural while I labour over the joint letters and must read out loud.

On a serious note, the one thing I regret in all this is that the beauty of Bangla literature, to me, is like outer space. I know it exists, but I have not experienced it first-hand. I want to remedy that, because my probashi father, Premchand-reading and shaayri-reciting, educated himself in Bangla and can now hold his own in a conversation on Bangla prose and poetry. So I have no excuse. I read Bengali bloggers and they are all steeped in knowledge of their literature as well as the world's, and I feel ashamed to know only Shakespeare.

In the one year since I got married, I have had several occasions to realise how little Bengali-ness pervaded my growing-up years. Sure, Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma's Bag of Tales) was read out to me and my brother at bedtime, but so were Russian fairy tales and Noddy. Durga Pujo meant new clothes, but the thrill of Bijoya Dashami and the bhashaan (immersion of the idol) went unfelt as I watched the Ravana effigy at the local Ramlila park explode while a tape-recorder played the giant's raucous laughter and people shouted 'Siya pati Ramchandra ki Jai'.

I think I am a bad Bengali. No, I know I am. My sweet tooth may have been a saving grace, but brownies and besan laddoos win over rosogollas every time. About fish, the less said the better. I dislike shukto, faint at the thought of shinni. I feel no regional affiliation at all. I don't scan admission lists or colleagues' names to see how many other names are Bengali ones. I don't go insane with joy if Sourav Ganguly scores a century. Nor do I allege regional bias when he is kept off the team. And, my goodness, I don't ooze horror like my Dida used to at the new breed of 'shekshy' (sexy) Bengali sirens 'Ghenna' (disgust), she would say, and stomp off when Bips pouted on screen.

Which means that when I am roaming the pandals of Kolkata next week in my notun-bou avatar in my first ever Kolkata Durga Pujo, I will need to lie low. Kolkata's going nuts about, and because of, Pujo as it probably does every year. But this time I watch in alarm the building tide of enthusiasm as seen on Bangla TV, because I'm going to be there. And, since I do love mishti doi, rolls and phuchkas, I will be part of the traffic jams and the serpentine queues, of the crowds at Kalpana Mishthanna Bhandar, at Samrat's Hot Rolls, at Annapurna Mishthanna Bhandar, at Bedouin's Biryani outlets, at Madhukshara Mishthanna Bhandar, at Dolly's Tea House, at Maa Durga Shooeets, and, eventually, I will be trying to cut the line at Maa Kali Chemists, asking for Pudin Hara.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Memoriam

He knelt at her grave, remembering her face as it had been when he had first seen it, radiant in the moonlight, white marble with a touch of human pink. He had inhaled sharply at the beauty of his wife. She had lowered her eyes and the submission that followed would last throughout their married life.

Fourteen children. He was a busy man, and she had been quiet, uncomplaining, silently supportive if not always understanding what his life was like. Affairs of state kept him from her. And though he could not confide in her about taxation issues and political upheavals, though she would not understand the burden of what it meant to be him, he still waited eagerly for time he could spend with her, coming away soothed, calmed and enclosed in unconditional love.

The son she gave birth to was the bane of his existence. How was it, that the thing that tied them together also destroyed all that they had stood for?

Dead, cold, gone.

He would remember her. He would make sure the world remembered her. Cloistered in his gilded cage, a stooped man with failing eyesight, he would squint into a convex mirror that allowed him to see her grave. And the shimmering white mausoleum built over and around it.

The world would come to pay homage. To her. To him. To art. To beauty. But for him, it was just his beloved's grave.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I've been tagged. Okay, make that very, very past tense.

First, Choxbox tagged me to list 5 eccentric things about myself. Now, that's hard to do, because however weird I may be, I am of course completely normal in my own head. So let me just list things that people think are weird about me (oh, you judgemental people - you're all going to hell!):

  • I hate mixing up food on my plate. Everything is cooked separately, right? So it should be eaten separately too, right? Mixing it up (other than with rice) is disrespect to the cook, right? So my plate always has clearly demarcated areas and runny foods MUST go into a bowl. (It may now be superfluous to inform my readers that I have never lived in a hostel.) This means that if someone is serving me a helping of something , I point frantically to the unused spot of my plate where it should go. Which my loving mother ignores, always dumping, say, daal where sabzi used to be, or making my roti all soggy with a misplaced helping of gravy :(

  • I think I use up several people's quota of Dettol soap. I wash my hands before I brush my teeth, after using the broom, after touching (even with just two fingers) the kitchen-counter mop, after putting away newly-bought vegetables, after bringing out packets of frozen meat to thaw, so what if the block of icy meat cannot possibly ooze unmentionable stuff on me.

  • I CANNOT walk barefoot in the house, even my own. I carry slippers even if I go somewhere for a single night. There was once a fire scare in our next-door building and we had to evacuate the house at 4 am. I rushed to grab my slippers before heading out, even as smoke billowed out of the next building. I am a very unhappy person if I don't have my slippers on. Yet, if it is a guaranteed clean floor, or grass, I love the feeling of a fresh, cold surface under my feet.

  • I am afraid of ghosts. The moment I am alone in the house at night, every horror scene from any scary movie I have ever watched will float back into my mind and often cause me to stay up at insane hours of the night. As a child I used to sleep with my head covered even in the summer, thinking (ah, innocence) that a ghost couldn't get past the white sheet. Hah! Ghosts invented the white sheet!

Ok, I'm sorry Choxbox, but I'll stop here. I cannot think of any more eccentricities!

For this, I tag: Suki, Eve's Lungs, Orange Jammies, Sandeepa, Candy.


Now for Suki's tag. I'm being lazy and pasting the rules straight from her page.

Rule 1: Without changing the first word, after each letter of the alphabet, write a sentence that captures you/your essence.

Rule 2: Tag as many people as you want, but do tag at least one. This is an eye opening experience and can express to those who read it, things about you that they did not really understand before.

Rule 3: List who you are tagging.

*A* Accept blame for your mistakes and learn from them.

*B* Break stereotypes.

*C* Create happiness.

*D* Decide never to look back.

*E* Explore the reasons behind other people's actions, especially when they are too nice or too mean to you.

*F*Forgive only when you are certain you no longer hold a grudge against the person who wronged you.

G* Grow closer to your loved ones, not away.

*H* Hope that at the end of your life, you are surrounded by people who love you unconditionally.

*I* Ignore snobs and hypocrites.

*J* Journey into people's minds to see what they are like. And treat them accordingly.

*K* Know your priorities in life.

*L* Love unconditionally.

*M*Manage time. (Sorry Suki, ripped this one off!)

*N*Notice the small things people do for you. And reciprocate.

*O* Open yourself to suggestions.

*P* Play games that make you laugh and/or sweat.

*Q* Question assumptions.

*R* Relax with people who bring you peace.

*S* Share time.

*T* Try to avoid sarcasm.

U* Use all your muscles, but your heart and brain the most.

*V* Value the time you have with people you love.

W* Work to live, don't live to work.

X* X-ray your mind to analyse the real reasons behind your actions.

*Y *- Yield to wisdom, to love, to puppies, to hugs.

*Z* Zoom into the past and dig for happy memories whenever you are down in the dumps!

I tag... Choxbox, Mad Momma, Tharini,

Saturday, September 29, 2007


While I talked and smiled, hugged and listened, slept and breathed...

Delhi decided she'd had enough of summer and slipped quietly into a fledgling winter.

The cold waits for me, around early-morning-hazy-foggy roads, in blurry monuments rising out of a suddenly-dark 6 a.m., in the bathroom under the shower, on the balconies late at night, outside the rolled-down car windows, in the slight sniffles from wearing sleeveless on a Novemberish September evening, on the blades of the fan that I rarely use now, in the welcome heat spiral over my cup of coffee.

Winter comes in. Cold and warm, chilly and friendly, distant and near, grey and bright, frosty and sunny.

I wait. And hope that spring is far behind.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cricket is Just a Game... not something you'd have believed last evening as howls of shock or joy erupted from houses across India during the nail-biting-at-every-step Twenty 20 World Cup final match between, who else but, India and Pakistan.

The thrill was tremendous, the finish was close, and the adrenalin was all over the place. But one thing spoilt it all.

As the Pakistan captain, Shoaib Malik came up to speak to Ravi Shastri, his first words were (and I paraphrase somewhat because I wasn't expecting memorable words), 'I'd like to thank Pakistan and Muslims all over the world for their support.'

WHAT??? This is a man the world was listening to. Who captained an able, strong side to the finals in a world-class tournament. Who (supposedly) plays for his country and not a religion.

We've all heard people make derogatory comments about the hush in Indian Muslim neighbourhoods if Pakistan loses a match to India. It is often said that there are celebrations in Muslim-majority areas in Indian cities if India loses to Pakistan. These are rumours that are used as facts in any communally tense situation. But to have a man give them the backing of truth by speaking those words into a microphone was upsetting, chilling, and took away from the rush we'd been experiencing ever since Sreesanth caught out that last Pakistani wicket.

If he believes that Muslims around the world were rooting for Pakistan, where does that leave Irfan Pathan (the best bowler on the Indian side yesterday) and other Muslim players on the Indian team? With that awful statement Malik placed a giant question mark on the patriotism of Muslims around the world.

I believe that the orthodox members of any community can damage their own people with far greater ease than any other, rival group can ever do. Malik proved that yesterday. And I wonder how many anti-Muslim people were listening and have now added this to their ammunition against a community that really doesn't need more bad PR.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Last Laugh

She watched them cry and mourn. Oh they would miss her. She'd miss them too.

But she was better off here. Finally, she had the peace her name had promised her for 78 years. No doctors. No tubes. No needles. No ugly hospital gowns. No numbers and data telling people how well (or not) she was doing.

If only she could tell them how glad she was that one crazy life was over. Heaven had a lot of parties and boy, was she going to live it up for a change.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

5th September

It's Teacher's Day today. And I thought I'd write up one memory I have of a strict teacher who taught me one of the earliest lessons of my life.

It was April of 1988. I was new to the school. Our home room teacher was a lady called Abha Banerjee. A very strict teacher, who apparently glowered at girls whose skirts were too short, who was known for cutting boys' hair if they weren't properly groomed, and who we all were very, very scared of.

I forget what class we had but the teacher hadn't shown up. Like all 9-10 year-olds tend to do, we were making quite a racket. Groups of kids were playing in the corridor, some were scribbling on the blackboard, there was a game of Cluedo going on in one corner, and suddenly in the middle of it all, someone let out a Tarzan-like yell. That put us on to another decibel level altogether! The staff room was near enough that someone would have heard, and would make it their business to punish us. In the hush that followed, we all looked at each other and waited for retribution to arrive.

It did, promptly, in the form of Banerjee Ma'am.

We all stared at our desks as she gave us a piece of our mind without once raising her voice. And then she said, "Who shouted like that?" When there was silence, she repeated her question, adding that the whole class would be punished. There was no way she could have guessed who had done it. She could have asked all day and been none the wiser.

In the continuing, pindrop silence, suddenly a boy at the back raised his hand. There were murmurs. Oh he'll definitely have to go to the Principal. Do you think they'll call his parents? Our childhood imaginations ran riot, visualising the things they could do to him.

Harsh Chadrath (I don't know if I'm spelling his last name correctly) was an average kid in our class. Not a rank-holder, but not someone who flunked either. Just your regular school-going kid who, at the age of 10, wasn't hugely interested in acquiring an education. He stood up slowly and said "Ma'am, I did it. Sorry Ma'am."

Banerjee Ma'am stared at him, said "Really? It was you? Come here."

Head bowed, Harsh walked to the front of the class and stood before all of us. We waited.

And then, Banerjee Ma'am raised his arm like they do for the winning boxer in the ring and announced:
"Harsh Chadrath, the hero of our class. He can take responsibility for his actions."

Harsh got a stern glare and that was that. I don't think the implications of it all hit him at the moment as he walked back to his seat with a goofy smile. But that moment, that decision of our teacher's, all of these have stayed with me even nearly 20 years on.

It was brave of Harsh to do what he did. And Banerjee Ma'am could have punished him. In which case he would never have told the truth again.

Instead, she took the chance to teach us all a lesson for life: If you do something, you take responsibility for it. And you don't drag your team down with you.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Totter Potter, "ala" Govinda!

There's been a current in the air. I can hear far-off drum beats since morning. Any Indian knows that means a festival and definite excitement. Occasionally, loud, rowdy cheers waft in through my window although I cannot see the young boys (for that is what they sound like) who are so happy! Since noon, people have been going to their balconies and windows and peering down to see what's going on. A while back, some young boys and girls and uncle-auntys began to line the lane behind our house. I could tell something was about to happen.

This is Bombay, and today is Janmashtami. Need I say more by way of explanation?

Finally, a bunch of young men arrived in the lane and began chanting Goouuuuvindaaaa, Goouuupaaaalaaa, Goouuuuvindaaaa, Goouuupaaaalaaa. Then they began demanding water in this novel fashion:"V for water, V for water!"

Hmmm....anyway, this post isn't about the alphabet.

I had heard that the real show happens in more crowded, typically Maharashtrian areas. The boys who do the climbing and breaking are absolute pros, and I believe they are sometimes even insured against a fall resulting from a shaky human pyramid!
Still, I was rather excited to notice a pot strung up on a rope that went across the lane behind our house. So there was going to be action in that sleepy by-lane!!!
I wanted to see it all, properly. But I didn't want to run downstairs and risk missing the event. So I climbed shakily on to the kitchen counter for a better view as the youths assembled.

I needn't have worried. Since they were not pros, it took them a considerable while to get organised and manage the feat. Enough time for me to fetch my camera, even! Several permutations and combinations were attempted, and several falls were broken, just about.
As a thin group of spectators watched, a nimble-footed guy, who reminded me of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, darted up, using the others' elbows, thighs and shoulders as footrests, and in a swift move had reached the handi or pot suspended above him. He hung on to it for sometime, and then smashed it.

Bright red gulal came down in powdery gusts and streaked the team with scarlet. There were loud cheers, much clapping and everyone went home.

My little group of amateurs will certainly not make it to the news or to images of Mumbai on Janmashtami that will be splashed on newspapers tomorrow. I don't know if they got any money as a reward for their participation, as is the usual custom. But they seemed to enjoy themselves. And it is the spirit that counts. They lived Janmashtami for those few moments, and I got a window-seat to view it all from!

Monday, September 03, 2007


She blew out the candles as another year began. Her friends cheered. Her parents' faces shone with pride and affection. The balloons swayed in the sea breeze on their balcony as she turned a year older.

Her shining black hair ruffled by all the hugs she'd received. Her eyes were slightly moist from all the goodwill in the air. Her new saree, to mark her adulthood, swished around her legs and made her feel feminine, pretty, irresistible.

18. She was here. College began in a month. Psychology to study. New friends to make. Finally, co-education and boys! Debating championships to win. Class trips out of town. In a few months, a license and her own car.

Closing her eyes, she made a wish.

Please let the tumour be benign.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

All in a Day's Work

They are born to be used. Dressed up to look their best, they are sold for money. Rudely taken from their homes, they huddle close to others of their kind until someone uproots them a second time, bundles them together with strangers, and hands them to an unknown entity.

They will never return. Having water to drink will not ensure their survival, and they will start dying.

Before the day is over, some of them will apologise. Some will express undying love. Some will form beautiful, but inadequate, expressions of sympathy. Some will just look good. Some will smell good too.

People will be drawn to their natural beauty. But no one will care to look deeper. To see beyond the obvious to what remains unspoken as the wilting flowers are thrown away after they have outlived their utility.

Happy birthday.


I love you.

Marry me.

My sympathies.

Get well soon.

Missing you.

Those are the things we make flowers say for us. What would flowers say if they could speak for themselves?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Creator

He imagines Her body as thousands before have done, in millennia before him. Nothing really changes in that figure, in the number of hands, in the coterie surrounding Her.

And yet, as he strokes the clay with pride, with adoration, he feels a sense of ownership, a sense of creation, of belonging and oneness with this idol that will soon bring the world to its knees.

That people will worship, confess their fears and hopes to.

Still, in this act of worship, of devotion, of sculpting out of clay the shape of his worship, of feeling powerful, is there not something he forgets to remember?

He gives the world idols to worship. But who can give them faith?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Pleasure of Writing

I still remember filling up cursive writing books at age 3, page after page of running my pencil over beautifully formed, curlicued words that spelt little 3-letter objects. My tongue would stick out in concentration and I would impatiently erase any mistakes and try to get it right.

The transition from using a pencil to using a pen. We knew it came in the second semester of class 5. And how we looked at our seniors in awe of their ink-stained fingers and the blots on their white shirts! When I was taken to choose my first fountain pen I was excited beyond words. It was a Stic pen, with a red top and a green bottom, and Dennis the Menace on it! Much later I discovered that Dennis was tiptoeing around my pen with his bottom showing!!! I wish I hadn't lost that collector's edition of a pen!

It was around this time that I found a new friend who had a lovely handwriting. In fact, I liked it so much that I wanted it. So I took it. Trying for days, I began to copy her writing, the way she wrote the 'b' and 'p' in cursive, without joining it to the stem, instead curling the end towards the next letter. The way the letter 'I' looked like a budding tulip. The letter 'x', not often-enough used, I complained when I finally learnt to copy it's lovely quadri-directional existence on my notebook pages. The letter 'A', curving at the top and giving me infinite happiness each time I wrote my name.

Very soon, I had it to an art. And most people (except the 2 of us) couldn't tell our handwritings apart. I don't think we ever got to exploit that, if at all there was any way of doing so. I don't remember doing her homework for her. But once, when I was sick and missed school, she wrote out a separate copy of the class notes for me and all I had to do was stick it in my notebook. No one could tell the difference.

We grew older and older, writing not just class notes, but scribbling notes on the last pages of the notebooks as we ourselves sat in the last rows of the classroom. Code names for boys we liked and girls we hated, rude limericks and comments about boring teachers standing 10 feet away, all of these were scrawled in handwritings that were still fresh, new, and getting to know the world.

And we used that handwriting every chance we got. Cards were scribbled on, inside, outside, even the envelope! Autograph books were covered in minute handwriting to make optimal use of the space provided. A fracture covered in plaster cast was a way to show our creativity. Blackboards were covered with chalk dust whenever there was coloured chalk to spare and no teacher to stop us. My handwriting gradually took on some influences of my own self and soon it was no longer like my friend's, though I can usually still do a good imitation!

A one-year stint in an American school abroad meant that my handwriting, however neat, was unacceptable. On the chance that teachers may have trouble reading cursive where most American kids can barely string two letters together, we had to turn in typed assignments. Suddenly, all that I had worked years to cultivate was outdated. I had to learn to type! Painstakingly, again with my tongue almost sticking out with effort, I learnt to negotiate my way around the keyboard.

Back to India and college, and notes taken in class were no longer meant to be shared with the teacher, so handwritings changed, often for the worse. But best handwritings still surfaced for writing in yearbooks, in birthday cards, on tutorial essays. In my MA days I wrote four 10,000 word papers in 7 days, filling up reams on paper and leaving a little writer's lump on the topmost knuckle of my right middle finger.

Today, that lump no longer exists. It's smoothened out with time, just as fonts like Arial and Times New Roman have smoothened out the curves of my diligently-acquired handwriting. If I write now, it's lists for shopping, or occasional cards where I write ' Dear...' and a few more fond words and then 'Love, ...' and I'm done. What developed over years of growing up took only a few years of computer literacy to go away. Now I can't write much without my hands aching and my handwriting going all wobbly. And I am the person who wrote long long letters to friends and family, maintaining an even hand throughout.

With this loss, I feel like I have lost a human part of me. A part that says who I am and how I write. A part that no one can imitate (although I was a shameless imitator once). A part that jumps out of paper at the reader and says 'This was written by Anamika'. That is recognisable as belonging to me and me alone. That I can claim. That I can take credit for. That reminds me that words were once new, difficult and you had to work hard to make them speak for you.

Close-up Confidence

If from speed you get your thrill,
Take precaution, make your will.
Drive like hell, and you will get there.

When I see traffic police at work in Bombay, I always remember these lines from Salman Rushdie's ageless Haroun and the Sea of Stories and usually utter them as well, under my breath of course, don't need to give people more ammunition on that malfunctioning brain do I?

There's been a step-up in the checks on irresponsible driving in the city lately. The cops are most active on weekends, stopping cars and checking you for drunk driving. Unfortunately, the poor things are not suitably equipped with breathalysers, or maybe they prefer to do the first check the old-fashioned way.

So there we were on Sunday night, Anando and I, returning from a perfectly innocent dinner that had consisted of sizzlers and colas. And a weary cop stopped us. His nose looked a little wrinkly, probably all the wear and tear, I tell myself now. The man asked for Anando's license. While Anando fished for it in his pocket without removing the seat-belt, the man bent down to Anando's level and began to sort of peer into the car. Now, we had had the radio on loud, and I started to turn it down, only to realise in the increasing silence that the guy was actually sniffing around!

Anando's conscience was clear and alcohol-free, so he asked merrily, "daaru ke liye dekh rahein hain?" The hound replied "haan". So of course, Anando opened his mouth and sweetly volunteered "haaaah haaaah haaaaah". The guy straightened up and gave us the all-clear.

I remembered later that Anando's dinner order had been chicken sizzler with garlic sauce. Poor, poor traffic policeman.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Return

I didn't know I had missed you. In the last few days, in the laziness of the weekend and the cheer of the sunshine, I forgot you were still supposed to be here. Oh, I know you looked in on us sometimes at night. I could always tell when I woke up next morning. You're not very good at covering your tracks you know!

But this morning, as I squinted to read the newspaper in the gathering gloom, and complained about the humidity, I began to anticipate your arrival. And then, there was thunder, lightning, and you came pouring down.

Welcome back, old friend.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Bit of Sky

From my window

the rhombus of coloured paper

Looks like a kite

But is it really?

It's come from the sky.

And now it hangs.

Between heaven and earth.

Between dreams and reality.

Between wings and roots.

From my window

I can't see what's holding it up.

Is it a wire?

Or did gravity fail?

Is some little boy coveting it

At just this moment?

Even as I wish it would break loose and fly away

Is he trying to find a way to bring it down to earth?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Girl Power

At the age of 11, I remember feeling terribly discriminated against because our school had just announced NCC training, after school hours, for boys, but not for girls. Our Principal had an open-door policy and some of us marched right in that door and requested that NCC training be opened to girls as well. She inspected our outraged faces and said with a weary smile, 'We had tried it some years back, but none of the girls could stay back. Their parents wouldn't allow them.' After some begging and demanding, she told us, 'If you can get 20 girls to sign up who will stay after school for the training, we'll open it to the girls as well. Otherwise it's not worth hiring a coach.'

And so began a small attempt which rubbed our noses in the rock-bottom dirt of our feminist aspirations to equality. I think we could muster up some 7 names. This was Delhi in 1989, and a well-known school where children of broad-minded, educated parents were known to be enrolled. And in a batch of some 120 students (of which perhaps 55 were girls) we could not find 20 girls who had permission to stay on after school. Occasional staying back for extra classes, for play practice, or music lessons was still ok. But year-long after-school training, twice a week, and that too for sports, was too much. The boys could manage buses or bicycles or even walk home, but not the girls, and few parents had the time to pick us up at an odd hour from school. One could of course blame the lack of safety for girls, the irregularity of public transport, etc. Perhaps the girls themselves were not keen enough on NCC to fight their parents for it.

So ended my NCC dream. I found solace playing volleyball and basketball, but every Tuesday and Thursday when the boys showed up in their NCC uniform, I felt really jealous. Even today, when a girl says she was an NCC cadet in school, I think back to my first brush with inequality in this world.

All these emotions came to the fore as I watched Chak de India on Saturday. A predictable storyline, with an actor who is known to play himself rather than the character, and no leading ladies, no glamourous faces, passable music---we decided to go because someone else bought the tickets and just told us to show up.

And I am so glad I went! I think the movie really got going for me when, in a fit of frustration, the girls start bashing up the eve-teasers. Those men represent everything they have been trying to fight all their lives, and that one whistle and lewd comment is the last straw. From the delicate-built to the solidly-constructed, all the women, as one, just give it to the men idly lounging around McDonalds. Perhaps the carnage gets a bit much by the end of it, but I doubt any woman who has ever been whistled at or cheaply propositioned while minding her own business on the street has not entertained visions of committing violence, the emasculating kind even! And that made me sit up and watch with glee as these girls worked as a team to systematically decimate the enemy! The song in the background, aggressively announcing "hockey doongi main rakh ke" was superbly placed.

The movie was all about teamwork, country before self, team before individual player, and anyone who has played a team sport would find echoes of himself/herself in the conflicts, the rivalries, the one-upmanship, and the poisonous taste of defeat that comes sometimes before the delicious pleasure of victory. SRK's character did not go on and on about the unfair way he was treated. One could see he was haunted by it. But there were no wordy monologues to rub in an already known fact.

As a coach, he was a clever, clever man. I began to respect his tactics as I watched them unfold. I just wish that, at the nail-biting climax of the final game, that moment of telepathy between him and the Captain hadn't occurred. She should have had that debate in her own head and made that decision, to add credence to her role. She didn't mobilise her players or sense the little friction going on in her team the way a captain ought to. Also, a little more celebration that showed the coach with the team in a huddle was sorely missed at the end of it all. He seemed to be spent at having redeemed himself. But these are small flaws in a movie that is all about being strong and doing your best.

The maid took the day off today and I picked up the broom in a fit of housecleaning. I found the Chak De album on the Internet, and the songs seemed more magical somehow now that I had the story in my head and the sense of triumph that came with it. Baadal pe paaon hain filled the room as I played a swift game of hockey, manouevring the dust in our house towards the bin with my broom. And I felt good!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

And I(ndia) would like to thank...

Lookie, lookie. It's a blog award that Sandeepa has bestowed on me! And it's pink and pretty too. I put it up on my sidebar at first as a perpetual reminder of my greatness, but then decided to be modest and do a post, so that with time and blogging it slips down, further down on the page, and I come across it with a sudden quickening of the heart when I'm visiting my page in an attempt to push up the visitor count!

I've been wanting to do a post on Independence Day, and what it means to me, to us, to the country, to the world. But no words of earth-shattering significance that will make bloghoppers stop to listen come to mind. I shall carry on regardless.

Probably the most patriotic thing I did yesterday was to stand for the national anthem when it played on TV. We didn't need to. So what if the words can be outdated and Sindh is no longer a part of India? I see the song as a symbol that makes us unite, just like our flag. And whatever issues one has with the lyrics or the genesis, aside, the song stands for something, and so, I am happy to stand for it.
60 years since the magical 'tryst with destiny', and news channels spent most of yesterday trying to quantify India's achievements, create top-5 lists, share the results of polls that declared 'the best sportsman', 'the best film', and so on. What does any of that accomplish? This was not a closing ceremony where awards could be given out. Formalising such ratings does not validate or take stock of where we stand now. Can you seriously say that India today is 60% good and 40% bad? Or that our successes outweigh our failures? Whose perspective are we looking at things from?
For if you ask the same questions of an educated youngster from a bustling metropolis and a hrshly realistic youngster from a starving village, you cannot expect the same answers. And how can you possibly buy one answer rather than another?
What does it mean to be Indian today?
I notice that we are all very quick to defend India against outsiders, specially from Pakistanis. A blogger friend's comments section on an innocuous post turned into a battleground recently. It was a simple post that had nothing to do with Indianness or nationalism, just a rant against idiocy of a particular person. One of her commenters---a regular visitor---is a Pakistani man with a dry sense of humour. He came up in this case with a comment that used the phrase 'You Indians are no better than us, and still the pretensions.' And you should have seen the machine-guns come out! The battle lines were drawn instantly and there was a barrage of comments asking him what the hell he meant by what he said! It was rather alarming to see how quickly the matter turned unpleasant. And yet, it was nice to see so many people alert to a slur on India. I wish that meant something good. Unfortunately, I don't think it's that easy---or that these people would be that motivated---to protect India from the problems caused from within.

It's nice to be Indian when the Taj Mahal is chosen one of the Seven Wonders. It's nice to be Indian when you see that Laxmi Mittal's making the rich Westerners look shabby by contrast. It's nice to be Indian when you see people lapping up Bollywood and curry and yoga (in changeable order) outside our borders. But what about when there are reports on female foeticide in India? When disease figures are revealed? When there are communal riots and the 'secular' government doesn't necessarily do as much as it can?

One category of people whose criticism of India irks me no end are the NRIs. The ones who have decided that life is better elsewhere and lived abroad for years on end. The ones who decide never to return. I can't and won't fault them for what they have done. It is a practical choice, I suppose. I have close relatives and friends who have done the same. But if you've opted out, then, my friend, I feel you no longer have the right to laugh at and criticise India. Sending back lots of foreign exchange doesn't buy you the right to complain. Come and enjoy it, and more importantly, come and suffer it with the rest of us, and you can say what you like. But do not sit at a distance and point fingers!

India is a human being. An organic entity you can't quantify and classify. She is multi-faceted, does bad things when no one's looking, puts on a pretty face to greet the world while the pimples fester, is guilty of hypocrisy on occasion, appreciates admiration of her superficial beauty while pushing the ugliness under the carpet, has a heart that thinks of good and evil, and is guilty of both from time to time. She is unpredictable, she is a character! She is unmistakably alive. And hard to tame. To be sat down and kept clean. And educated. And rich. And healthy. She will wander off and get into troubl because there are more than a billion people pulling her in different directions and playing mind games in her head.

I see India in little things, like the slightly crazed looking woman in a stained and rumpled frock who decided to direct traffic, whistle and all, in a traffic jam at rush hour on the eve of Independence Day. No waiting for the traffic police. She took charge and everyone---buses to scooters---listened, obeyed and followed her directions. She was, that day, literally one in a billion. And she made a difference. That's what I call taking your country into your own hands and making it better. Bit by painstaking bit.

And people who do that are the ones I would like to thank, not just today, but everday.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Aseema: Without Boundaries

Yesterday a little miracle pulled me in and made me a part of it when I was least expecting it.

An author I'm going to work with asked me to meet him at an event the Bandra Residents' Welfare Trust was organising at a school called Aseema. They were gifting a bus to the school with money collected by the Celebrate Bandra festival of 2005. I imagined it would be a waste of time and half hoped the rains would come down and give me an excuse to skip it. But it was my chance to put a face to the name of this author and so, when at 4.40 pm I saw there would be no downpour to bail me out, I reluctantly headed to the venue.

I knew where to stop the auto because a shiny yellow mini-bus stood outside. As I walked in, a lot of people were gathered around, and there was a sense of suppressed excitement. The author introduced me to several other people present and I gathered from conversation that this was a municipality school that the government gave up on six years ago. Most students were from the Koli fishing villages and the slum area near Rang Sharda. And their parents couldn't be bothered to force their children to attend school. That's when Dilbur Parekh of Aseema stepped in and 'adopted' the school.

Today, the school of about 400 children is run by Aseema, and the rewards of not giving up were there for all of us to see: in the shape of several tiny tots and slightly older, smiling children, in uniform and with a little gulal reddening their cheeks, as they buzzed in enthusiasm. Some of them were dressed like fisher-folk, for a Koli dance that was to form part of the cultural function. They were chattering in English and Hindi alike, and it was hard to imagine that the former had not come naturally to them.

Shaan, the Bollywood singer, came in casually, without the adulation and screaming crowds he is used to. And he took it well. He was all smiles and charm as he took the 'stage' (the edge of the corridor that overlooked the audience filling the portico). The guest of honour was not Shaan, not the Bandra Trust, not the organisers of Aseema. It was the children and the shining yellow bus that they kept looking at, which will now, every morning, come rain or shine, bring them to school to free them for a few hours from a cycle of poverty, abuse, ill-health and misery. No more excuses, no more dependence on busy parents to be brought to school. ‘It will ensure 100% attendance,’ as one young student put it. The bus will ferry them to and fro, and hopefully transport them to a different world—one that, 6 years ago, gave up on them.

I had intended to leave early. But once I chatted with the upbeat little kids who were very keen that I join their dance, I decided to stay till the end. It was a simple, one-hour programme, where the tiny tots chanted poems, the slightly older kids treated us to a lively folkdance, and attractive prizes were eagerly and proudly accepted by those who scored 75% and more this past year. Some of the children have even gone on to be placed at 'mainstream', SSC schools like St Joseph's and Stanislaus and done quite well in the new setting!

What I liked was there were no long speeches praising all and sundry. No mutual admiration society at work. There was no grovelling by Ms Parekh in her thanks, there was no air of superiority or condescension in the donors, there was just bonhomie and a thrill in the air at resources shared and well used.

Then, at the kids' request, Shaan sang Musu musu haasi...., and everyone clapped and joined in. He even improvised the lyrics to tell the children how much he loved to see them smile! The skies poured down some applause just for the duration of his song.

There was juice and biscuits for all of us at the end and I sipped at the juice as I walked along the ground floor corridor to glimpse beautiful blue-tiled bathrooms. colourful classrooms that one enters barefoot, and excited children sitting in cosy circles as they tucked in. Young teachers were scurrying around, ensuring discipline, thank-yous, introductions between the visitors and the children, and there seemed no fear, no dictatorship, no unnecessary discipline in the air.

I came away feeling elated. Someone had believed that the school deserved to hang in there. That the students deserved a place where they could claim their right to education. And that belief, that faith was being affirmed, justified, and rewarded by the community.

I leave you with the poem the tiny tots chanted (to the tune of ‘If you’re happy and you know it…’ and with much uncoordinated waving of hands):

‘Be careful little hands what you do
Be careful little hands what you do
There’s a god up above
And he’s watching all of us
So be careful little hands what you do.’

The poem went on to address little ears, eyes, lips and feet (‘where you go’). It reminded us of actions and consequences and that we are all responsible for our actions, and that sometimes, we can take on responsibility for less-fortunate others as well.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Looking for Shelter

The puddles have taken over, the road has given up. There is no sky left. The clouds have control. The rain persists outside the window, minding its business. As I mind mine, absorbed in my work. There are boundaries and we mutually respect each other's space. The rain won't come into my house. I won't step into the rain. We both understand the agreement.

No, wait. It's just me. The rain soon decides to cross the boundaries and enter by the window. Stealthily at first. Little drops that drizzle over the windowsill. Soon, sneakily, the spray slants further in and gets at the bed. I ignore the spray as I feel occasional wet kisses on my knees. But soon, it's time to get up and re-establish some rules. In one smooth, martial arts move, I get off the bed, my legs arcing in the air, hands outstretched. I get to the window and, before the rain knows what hit it, I will have shut it out. Ha.

And then, as I reach out to pull in the window and get my forearms wet, I hear a soft sound. A begging. A plea almost. A soft chirp of token protest. I look up. Perched on the top of the window is a wet, raggedy, dishevelled, bedraggled crow, taking shelter in the downpour. He's looking at me, sizing me up, as he tucks his head closer under his wings for warmth. I waver, my arms still clutching the window latch I'm going to tug at to shut it. We make eye contact. I have a dry home. He doesn't.

I bring in some odd rags and foot-mats to line the windowsill and floor. I move my computer further from the window and get back to work. The crow gets more cosy on his precarious perch. There's room for both of us in this world.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In the Eyes of the Beholder

I realise that digital cameras have created photographers out of us all. Have camera, will click. No one needs to worry about wasting a shot or film-development costs. Capturing beauty for eternity was never so easy. I have been a shutterbug since I got here and managed to get some memorable pictures. Have put up some pictures of this beautiful country minus us beautiful people.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Road Sign

Caudan Waterfront, Port Louis, Mauritius

A picture is worth a thousand words...

Friday, July 27, 2007


Is this a Babel-ish dream? All around me, people who look Indian are chattering away in French. The sky is so blue and the clouds so white it looks like I'm in a Disney animation. The trash cans are bright blue and look more like letterboxes! And I'm sitting in the middle of it all and blogging.

Seen from the plane, Mauritius is a green island in the middle of green ocean. But what shades of green those are! There's vegetation green, then turquoise, then sea-green. Waves break in white on the rocks 25-50 metres off the shores, resulting in a white, foamy necklace encircling the island and separating the two separate shades of green. The drive from the airport was down smooth black roads stretching through sugarcane fields and eventually we saw Port Louis spread out before us as we descended from a slight elevation, driving to this capital town with the ocean glittering beyond it.

I've tagged along with Anando on a subsidised holiday and the discovery that there was a wi-fi hotspot in the middle of it all meant of course I had to sit in it and blog! Our hotel is on one side of the water and the Caudan Waterfront on another. So every morning, Anando puts on a suit and tie, takes his papers and his laptop and gets on a boat to go to work! (Of course, that might even happen in Bombay someday if it rains hard enough!) Today, I took the boat as well and came here to access the world wide web as I sit in the southern hemisphere of our planet for the first time in my life.

The Caudan (pronounced as co-dawn) Waterfront is a popular commercial area of Port Louis, set by the business district of Mauritius. While the words 'Business District' may conjure up images of skyscrapers and fast cars and men in suits I must specify that the Port Louis business disrict is an exception. The tallest building here is 16 storeys high and its neighbours mostly 6 to 8 floors tall. The busy street has 2 lanes and most people are dressed in casuals. There are more restaurants than offices and more people seem to be outdoors than in.

As everyone probably knows, Mauritius is inhabited by a large community of people of East Indian ethnicity. They look like us, but they've been here for generations and no longer know exactly where they came from. So the driver who met us at the airport is called Das, but has no way of knowing whether he is Bengali or not. Most people speak either Bhojpuri or French. I went through an elaborate act of charades to ask the Housekeeping lady when the laundry would be back. Her name was Poonam, she looked like a neighbour of mine back in Bombay and had a parting full of sindoor, wore a bindi but did not understand a word of what I said in English or Hindi. It was strange to think that I would only have been able to communicate with her in French!

The names of local 'Indians' (though they do not consider themselves at all Indian) are generally strange, oddly-spelt variations of common Indian names. So you have their venerated former President, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (Shivasagar Ramgulam?), who smiles benignly from all government surfaces---coins, statues, stamps etc. I wonder if these people have ever considered that they have distant relatives who are possibly eking out a living pulling rickshaws in small-town India. Most of them, I think, really don't care.

Even as I type this, a group of 3 Indians is sharing the bench with me and chatting in French. In what I can only call an RSS nightmare, Hindu youngsters who have known no other country cuddle up in public displays of affection and in completely 'inappropriate' attire. This all looks so strange. The faces are familiar but the setting and the sounds are not!

The little kiosk called Mystic Masala sells Indian fast food, suitably (if inaccurately) explained for the foreign sensibilities. So one could eat Uttapam if one was interested in 'thin Indian pizza'. Or pharatas (sic). Or Fish Goa curry.

All of the Caudan Waterfront is designed as a popular area for tourists to come, shop and eat. Lots of souvenir shops that sell a curious mix of souvenirs with Indian and African influences on the design. Other than dodo miniatures made of every material possible, there's nothing that I wouldn't find in Dilli Haat, though it's 3 times more expensive and being hawked, again, by women with whom I share an appearance but not a language.

The foodcourt has options to eat Indian, French, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexican. The halls have a running exhibition on what I guess are popular print ads, almost all in French. The exception is in English: a picture of a little boy and girl ('Indians', both) and it asks, on behalf of an insurance company, 'have you thought about his future?'

I looked around at the 3 variations of the ad and none of them asked about her future. I wonder if this has stayed with the Indians even as time stripped them of their original language.

The lamp-posts around me are bright blue, there is a casino with a giant stone lion guarding the entrance. The cobblestone streets are for pedestrians only. A loudspeaker blares an unmistakably black voice saying things in French. A carousel plays temporary home to a bunch of happy kids and momentarily-reprieved parents. Its music is typical and annoyingly repetitive. I feel like I am in a Disneylandish world. Away from reality.

And in a way, I am. For next week I will leave this to walk the streets of Bombay, dodging puddles and people, listening to Hindi and Marathi, eating roti-sabzi instead of French-style seafood cooked by once-Indian chefs and served by black women. And it will all seem like a dream. I'm glad I set this down before I woke up.

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