Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Neither here nor there

A hand caressed the side of my head and I looked up from my phone. One angry bird went careening wildly off target and the undead pig snorted in glee. My eyes rested on the chocolate, smooth skin she was baring, her blouse back a mere strip and the front as low cut as would help defy gravity. The chiffon of her cheap saree slid dangerously off her shoulder and I realised none of the women around me could take their eyes off the eunuch either.

She swayed over to the next cluster of passengers on our train - the 5.57 slow from Churchgate to Borivili. She flirtatiously cooed at the passengers, blessing them and invoking the gods in a falsetto. Then she began singing, really well ."Man kyun behka re behka, aadhi raat ko..." and the aunty she was eyeing said "Sun, tera blouse to bara sexy hai." She simpered and said, still in a coy, feminine voice, "Arre Aunty, aisa sochne ke din gaye tere, ab to tu puja-paath pe dhyan de!" The entire compartment tittered as she walked off, covering her face in mock-shame as her saree got caught on a screw. Better than any Hindi film actress covering herself from the roving eyes of the hero, she cast her eyes down and adjusted her pallu.

The entertainment continued. The women continued to laugh - nudging each other at each joke. Until a bangle-seller got on with a trayful of green-and-gold bangles - the traditional symbol of a married woman in Maharashtra. And the women got busy choosing new patterns of announcing their status as wives.

The eunuch's laughter faded away and out of our consciousness, and she left the train at the next train station.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Left behind

And then one day he was gone from her life. Thirty years together gone in a snap and a green unwavering line on a black screen.

No more newspapers left lying around on a Sunday morning. No more loud TV playing in the afternoons. No more subtle requests for pakodas on rainy days. No more. No more. No more.

And she had to live with the dent in the sagging mattress on his side. She'd complained about it each day, nearly wearing down his resistance night by squabbly night. And now, she didn't care to change it any more. She put away one of the two blue mugs and one of the two ceramic dinner plates. She packed away the spectacles. She donated the wrist watch to her nephew. She cancelled the sports channels on their subscription package. And she lived.

And then one day, in her tidy little house for one, with the newspapers neatly piled up and the TV sitting silent and the fry pan lying unused, she opened an old book and a little note fell out: a shopping list from a trip abroad, and on it the last item, neatly crossed out when bought - "earrings for M".

She touched the fading gold of the artificial carved roses on her earlobes. And smiled.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Most mornings

She's in her usual place most mornings when I board the train. Staring unseeingly out of the window, she seems sullen to me, or perhaps it's her near-permanent pout. Kajal, some of it already smudged, emphasises her eyes. She has a gleaming blue nose-pin.

I pick a window seat. Retrieving my book, I settle in for the journey to Churchgate. The train waits for a few more passengers. She continues to look out of the window, her expression unchanging.

The train starts with a jolt, and as it picks up speed, I quickly tie my scarf around my hair - anticipating the breeze that will soothe me but turn my hair into a crow's nest.

I steal a glance at her as the train gets into its rhythm. She has her eyes closed. Moist breeze streams in at the window and tugs at her hair. She doesn't seem to care. I, on the other hand, pull the scarf tighter, so that just my face is visible.

I lose myself in my book, occasionally raising my head to watch her as she runs her fingers through her loose hair. Flying helter-skelter, it flits around her fingers as she runs grooves in her hair to welcome the breeze. My scarf slips and I tug at it till it covers more of my face, just leaving my eyes free so that I can read.

Half an hour later, we've arrived. The train slows down as the platform appears on our sides. Fisherwomen wait to board the train we'll vacate, baskets of fish on their heads. I carefully smooth the creases on my kurta. I've taken off my scarf and I'm standing near the door. The back of my neck welcomes the fresh air and I finger-comb my hair.

I look at her. She switches off the fan above her. She drags the rubberband from her wrist and uses it to fasten her hair into a bun.

I lean out of the train, gathering its slowing pace into my body as I bend forward. One last glance. I can still see her eyes, and sullen mouth. The black veil is in its place around her head, and she has done up the top few buttons of her burkha. Her nose-pin flashes as she turns to leave the train from the other side. Our business lies on different sides of the tracks.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Birthday girl

She's seven years old today. At first she kept to herself, shyly venturing a few words here and there. But slowly she found people listening to her. And liking her. So she spoke up more. She watched the world, recognising patterns, people, friends and enemies. And she said what she felt. She descirbed what she saw. She interpreted it.

Occasionally she'd lose a milk tooth and go quiet, too self-conscious to bare her thoughts in a gap-toothed smile. Friends would draw her out, encouraging her to talk more, asking why she was silent.

She knows she could have said a lot more. Should have said a lot more. She's a bit lazy that way. But she stores away thoughts and feelings, relating them to the world around her and using her words to force herself to articulate what she feels. And that won't change.

Happy birthday, Thinking Cramps :)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Not a bad job...

It's not a bad job, cleaning toilets, she tells herself each morning when the alarm goes off at 5. Correction - it's not a bad job, cleaning toilets at this office, where most women remember to flush, to 'wipe the toilet seat', to 'leave the sink area clean and dry', and to 'leave the toilet the way others would like to use it'. Plus, she gets to wear gloves, fresh ones each month.

She gets lunch and a snack as part of her package, and tea, too. The men she hangs out with - other cleaners in the big office - are generally polite and friendly. She even makes some extra money making small alterations for clothes - word got around and now most of the women hand over little jobs to her, freeing up 30 minutes of their own time and helping her earn an extra 20-30 Rupees a day.

The office is huge, impressive - the lobby alone larger than her little home by the train tracks. Paintings hang on the walls and soft yellow lights line the carpeted corridors. Most mornings when she walks in, a man is contemplatively setting up the day's flower arrangement. It's a large bouquet, adorning the receptionist's desk. When he's done, he uses some leftover stalks and buds to create a small arrangement for the toilet. She takes it from him, wordlessly, and carries it to the bathroom, carefully positioning it at the halfway mark before the wide toilet mirror, under the bright lights.

At the end of the day, she peels off her gloves, changes out of the striped uniform into her graceful salwar kameez, and gathers up the stems of the day. She loves the days he uses rajnigandha in the arrangement. She breathes out the phenyl, breathes in the flowers and freshness, and walks out into the evening.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I am what I read

I once had a squirrel as a pet. Besides the funny stories I remember about him, I also have a physical reminder of his brief role in my life - a gnawed-at portion on the spine of Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

My childhood books bear the scars of belonging to a little girl who liked to assert her ownership of these books. The first page features her name, class, section and roll number (can't figure why) on the first page. I have an old edition of Ruskin Bond's Grandfather's Private Zoo, with cute illustrations by Mario Miranda. And it's autographed by Bond.

My copy of Murder in the Cathedral belonged, by turn, to everyone in my family who did an MA in English Literature, starting with a great-uncle who bought it in the 1950s. Someday I hope to hand it to someone I know will respect it.

Chrysalids, by John Wyndham, belonged to my mother, and I see her 13-year-old's pencil-scribbled notes and word-meanings in the margins whenever I re-read the story.

Lust for Life was my brother's gift to me when I got my first-ever promotion at work - and he's written naive lines of little-brother admiration for the work I do in his inscription to me.

I have a tattered Jhansi ki Rani by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, which my father bought me when I was 6. The opening page says "Meri pyari bitiya Anamika ke liye, is asha mein ki woh Jhansi ki Rani jaise veer baney...". Memory of that shames me when, alone at night, I worry about ghosts and fight temptation to sleep with a light on.

Our copy of Ruskin Bond's The India I Love contains its receipt from 6 years ago - Anando had bought the book while he waited at Barista to meet me offline for the first time. He was reading it when I walked up to him on a December evening in South Extension.

You know where this is going, don't you? I ask: Can a Kindle ever contain more than just the words of the author?

I once declared I would never join Facebook, but I succumbed - initially to play Lexulous but eventually to just spy on old enemies/crushes to see what they were like now and how harmless/shiny-happy they managed to appear, even though (or maybe because) I was no longer in their lives.

So while I shouldn't say I would never want a Kindle, or an e-reader device-type-thing, I've been thinking of reasons I prefer old-fashioned books. I know it's an old debate now, but somehow no one has been able to capture for me how I feel about paper and ink books. So who better than me to do it.

I worked in publishing for many years, and I loved the thrill of holding books fresh from the printers', smelling of ink and 6-7 months of hard work, of connecting (or not) with the author, of visualising the cover, of finally, lovingly putting the books in an envelope and sending them off to the proud author with a personal note.

Crisp and clean as new books are, it's the baggage they acquire along the way that "builds character", as Calvin's father would say. While I treasure my books and treat them well, they do pick up some wrinkles along the way - a greasy thumbprint from devouring parathas alongside the story on a rainy day; a dog-ear from carrying it in a crowded handbag to read on the bus; a forever-sticky patch where I peeled off the price-tag in a hurry; a crack on the spine from falling asleep while reading. I pick up a book, and a makeshift page-mark falls out - a boarding card, a coffee-shop receipt, a shopping list, and I remember the last time I read the book - who I met, where I was, what I was thinking....

My books are reminders of all the people I have been. I can hug them. I can hold them. I don't charge them, they re-charge me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Stopping for you

Did you ever get the feeling that trains are like opportunities? They stop briefly, giving you a quick moment to decide "Should I?" and then leave, with or without you. As you make up your mind, you know where you'll end up, but aren't sure if this is the way you want to get there.

Will there be friends along the way? Will you have a nice view? Will people smile and make room for you? Or will you hang on by your fingernails, fighting to stay on board till you disembark, victorious. Will you get there with all your belongings intact? Or will you get off and always look back wistfully at what you left behind?

If you don't take them, there's always another option, another route, another train. But you know that if you do take them, when you get there, you'll have arrived.

Question is, is that what you want?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A celebration

He'd been restless ever since the call came that morning. Thrilled, of course, but frustrated that he could do little to celebrate the news. Childishly impatient that he had to work as usual and that the world around him didn't know the fountain of joy bubbling over inside him. He tried calling his only friend in the city, but the friend, also driving a noisy auto-rickshaw through the noisy streets of Mumbai never answered.

He had become a father. A little girl had arrived in his home, hundreds of kilometres away. And it would be 78 days before he could even see her, kiss her, hold her. And here he was - the same roads, the same traffic, the same humidity, and no one he could celebrate with. All he could do was hum loudly and - though he didn't know it - tunelessly, and drive a bit faster than usual.

A man flagged down his auto and he slowed to a halt, allowing the man to beckon to a young woman standing on the pavement. She climbed in, tenderly holding a bundle. As she settled down on the seat, the auto-rickshaw driver heard a thin wail. He saw in his mirror the tiny feet poking out under the cloth. He eased back into mainstream traffic, keeping an occasional eye on the bundle, and beamed each time he glimpsed a little fist thrown up in the air. He took the turns gently and slowed down on each pothole, humming even as impatient traffic honked at him.

They reached the destination. As the passengers got off and peered at the fare chart on his windscreen, the auto-rickshaw driver smiled and said, "Rehne do, aaj mera dil khush hai." He zoomed off, humming, leaving the couple clutching a bundle and two tenners.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Train of thought

I think the lulling motion of a train helps your thoughts to wander. Then you reach your destination and immerse yourself in life. But those thoughts stay on the train, imperceptibly taking up a corner of your mind, forming little trains of their own that take you places when you let your guard down.

Taking the train to work everyday has been such a revelation. Not only do I get to hear different accents fight it out over who has a larger behind and is taking up a disproportionate amount of space, I also get to window shop as trinkets, cosmetics, magazines, snacks and clothes are peddled to women who would otherwise never, on a weekday, have time to stop and stare, let alone buy. And I get to people-watch. Which is incredible entertainment for the (amazingly low) price of a train ticket.

Witnessed this morning was an animated conversation between school boys. They rushed onto my coach, four teenagers, and sprawled on the seats in the largely empty coach. I had no idea what they were saying, but they laughed a lot. Their language was unknown to me. All I could do was smile to myself and make wild guesses about what they were discussing (girls? teachers? cricket?). They spoke with their hands, and I realised I had, in my hurry, boarded the coach for the "handicapped and cancer patients". That explained the empty coach.

Their silence was loud, adding weight to their presence, meaning to every gesture, a word in every shake of the head and a joke in every raising of eyebrows. We travelled along in companionable silence, in worlds of our own, briefly overlapping when they surged past me, boisterous young boys, eager to get off the train before it came to a complete halt.

The opposite of silence is found in the other coaches, where the cacophony of "why you pushing, men" and "oof" and "ouch" and "arre jaldi utro na" usually drowns out the gentler side of most of my co-passengers. I watched in surprise as an entire crowded morning local once allowed a raggedy woman to remain asleep, stretched out on a three-person seat, cozy under a too-small, torn sheet, all the way till Churchgate. Perhaps they saw her exhaustion and homelessness etched on the blackened soles of her feet and in the three worn plastic bags that held her belongings.

Or perhaps it was the simplest way to give a little to a fellow being who would be forgotten as soon as everyone rushed off the train to rejoin their worlds.

Except that the little gesture, which meant so much in a crowded train where there's little room to stretch, will stay in our minds, making a home, snoozing under a torn sheet as we live our wakeful lives.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The March of Time

1993. 2004. 2007. 2011.

Leaving home this morning to return to Mumbai, I went through the usual ritual of touching feet, hugging, and bowing before photos of the dead.

And it struck me, that what began in 1993 as the lightning-quick, unexpected loss of a grandparent, ended last Sunday, with the gradual decline and demise of my grandmother. Fewer feet to touch, more prayers to send into the unknown. One by one, all four of my grandparents have moved to make their homes in photographs. Ever-smiling, healthy and eternal.

I can make my peace with that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lasting Impression

In today's crowded local train on my way home during rush hour I saw a sight that will endure. Somewhere along the way, a girl got on with her mother and little brother. She must have been 7 or 8. The brother, 3. She'd been dressed up nicely, in an altered salwar kameez and a slip of a purple, matching dupatta which she adjusted occasionally. Her nose had been pierced awkwardly, and the grey wire was knotted in an ugly fashion. Her hair was short and held back by an unpretty hairband.

No room to sit. The mother remained standing in the aisle while the girl herded the little boy between two facing rows of seats and took up position near the window, right in front of me.

Heavily barred, it was safe for the little boy. Still, she told him sternly to keep his hands on the sill. He complied. She stood behind him, protective, alert, skinny arms holding on to the window bars on either side of her charge. I smiled to see this elder sister attitude, something that comes easy to me, or did, when my brother wasn't a 6-foot tall adult. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye, saw my smile, and shuffled closer to her brother.

He mumbled something to her. She called out to her mother, was handed the water bottle, and opened it carefully, the fat cap unwieldy in her small, bony hands. She helped him drink, tilting his head back enough so he wouldn't spill it on himself. Done, the bottle was passed back to the mother.

Our train passed another train. She pointed it out to him and they started counting carriages. When he raised his hand to point and count, she firmly pushed his hand back down and brought her elbows closer to his shoulders, just in case he tried again.

He was content, counting carriages, watching the tracks from below his long eyelashes as he stood between his Didi's knees, shielded by her thin body.

When I got up to leave, she gently nudged him to the seat, and rushed to take up position so he could sit on her meagre lap.

On a day when people make huge, expensive gestures of love, this struck me as a wordless love, taken for granted by both parties - a little indestructible world oblivious to the world-weary crowd around it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


I've always loved them - people who've known me since college remember the bright yellow Smiley keychain on my bag. A friend bought me a coffee mug from Canada with a smiley face on it. Another bought me a comb with smileys running along the edge. As the Internet caught on and emoticons ruled the day, the smiley was my friend - an easy way to say hello and to express joy or laughter. A bright yellow smiley makes my day. For the past 14 years, I have drunk my morning Bournvita and my weekend coffee out of that mug, taking it with me as moved countries and homes.

Yesterday, I walked into a new office on my first day. After 16 months of freelancing, I walked in, past colleagues- and friends-to-be, full of expectation, excitement and anticipation. Shown to my room, I was greeted with an absolutely bare office, and a man cleaning out the drawers before I took my seat. Empty tag boards with the unused pins clustered in a corner met my eye. And then, a flash of yellow - a smiley rubber ball at the corner of my desk.

I see it as an omen :)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

कुछ हिस्से हैं मेरे जो अब भी दिल्ली में रहते हैं। दुल्हन बन जब मैंने दिल्ली छोड़ा तो कोशिश यही थी की किताबों और कपड़ों के साथ साथ अपने आप को भी डब्बे में बंद कर बम्बई में नई तरह बसा दूं। और सोचा की इसमें मैं सफल भी हुई। पर आज भी मुझे दिल्ली में मैं दिख जाती हूँ।
आसमान से विमान जब उतरने को हो तो जे.एन.यू की हरियाली में छुपी होती हूँ मैं। इंडिया गेट के आइस-क्रीम के ठेलों की तरफ ताकती लालची आँखें मेरी हैं। और चिल्ड्रेन्स पार्क के झूमते झूलों में मेरी भी उड़ान है। हौज़ खास की गलियों में धूल के किनारे मेरे पैरों के निशान हैं। एक स्कूल है, जिसके कमरों में मेरा बचपना कैद भी है, सुरक्षित भी। एक कॉलेज है जिसके बगीचों में मेरे घर से आई पूरियों कि खुशबू है। सर्दी कि सुबहों में मुंह से निकलते धुंध में मेरी नींद अलसा रही है। और गर्मी के दिनों में कूलर के शोर में मेरे कई लम्बे दोपहर झक मार रहे हैं।
सड़कों पे रेंगती हुई मैं चल रही हूँ, और सारे रास्ते मेरे ही तो घर को जाते हैं। जहाँ पहुँच कर मुझे यही लगता है कि इस रिश्ते में दूरी असंभव है।
और अब दूर से दिल्ली को चाहने में अलग मज़ा है। तस्वीर कि तरह दिल्ली मेरी आँखों में आराम से रहतो है। उसे जगा कर कभी कभी मैं मुस्कुरा लेती हूँ।