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.