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.