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.