Sunday, November 10, 2013

Out of the brew

Somehow, much like a cartoon character, I had zombie-like followed a nearly visible spiral of aroma that lassoed my nose and pulled me into the tiny coffee shop lurking in a corner of the massive airport. The hype around this international brand was still dying down, and many customers were curious walk-ins - eager to recreate a memory from a trip abroad, or to just see what the fuss was all about.

A coffee-drinker for the past 10 years, I stood in queue, a slave to the intoxication stirred into the oxygen of the confined space. Pipes and tubes and spouts frothed and sizzled and gushed all around me. As I expertly sized up the many options on the chalkboard menu, I remembered my humble beginnings.

Was it in the basement canteen at JNU's School of Languages, where eager Literature post-grad students like me sat and complained about term papers and SFI tyranny over aloo parathas and piping hot coffee? Having grown up in a house where tea and coffee would surely stunt your growth, coffee was an assertion of adulthood. Tea was three rupees, coffee four. The drink gurgled out of a tap attached to a steel canister, and it smelt divine. On cold winter mornings and afternoon it was a hand-warmer, and we preferred to cup the cup rather than use the handle, constantly torn between drinking it hot and drawing out the pleasure.

Or was it in my years as an eager-beaver editor at a small but memorable publishing house? Twice a day (10 am and 2 pm), Prem Singh would stand in the tiny kitchen of the house that was also our office, making magic and fuelling productivity. Two near overflowing pans bubbled furiously before him - in one the tea leaves turning the liquid into a bitter and toxic beverage that would do unspeakable things to your system. In another, coffee simmered and brewed, darkening as he scooped in more instant coffee powder. He would lavish milk and sugar into both pans as if to offset the acidity these would cause weaker constitutions than ours. And then he would surely and steadily pour the tea and coffee into cups set out on two separate trays.

Pretending to work at our desks, we could hear the clattering of the empty pans as he set them down, and his footsteps coming closer once he picked up the tray - first he would serve out the tea, while coffee drinkers waited impatiently - unable to quite get started on the morning's or afternoon's work until we had chased that first sip down our eager throats. There would invariable be coffee drops on the outside and the base of the flower-patterned cup from the tray, and it would leave incredibly sticky rings on the desk (or on an unfortunate unwanted manuscript coaster). Cups in hand, we would swivel from our desks to debate the charms, in varying order of importance, of the semi-colon, of book covers, or of Johnny Depp. The cups would empty all too soon and, having got sloth/sleep/gossip out of our systems, we would begin our work in earnest.

I would never drink that coffee today. It's what they sell on Carter Road in tiny plastic cups and it's not really coffee as I now know. My office has a swanky Lavazza machine where I can choose from Espresso, Ristretto, Cappuccino and Latte. And I'm a snob. But let it never be said that I don't remember where I came from.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why I love where I live

Some time back, this was the topic for a blogger giveaway on Sunayana's blog. I wrote this there as a comment, and since I'm feeling lazy (and at a loss for words), I'm posting it here as well - more to preserve it, really, than to say anything new.

Why do I love where I live? Well, first of all, where do I live? 

To answer that I have to think about where I am most alive - and that is without a doubt Delhi. 

Call me a liar - because you know I live in Bombay. But I really "live" in Delhi - it brings out the "me" in me. 

Tattooed across Delhi are markers of my memory. Like height-marks in pencil on a kitchen wall, these chronicle my passage from childhood to adulthood - be it the grounds of India Gate where I learnt to play badminton or the shaded, shady bus-stops where I spent hours waiting to go places in life. 

Most of what I learnt in life and about life I learnt in Delhi. It is where I have learnt to love, to fight, to mourn, to move on, to confess my weaknesses and to celebrate my strengths. Delhi has seen me naked - before I learnt to put on faces to meet the different faces I meet. From a sheltered child to a college-goer on the loose, to a young professional determined to prove herself, to a woman in love - Delhi has seen me at my best and my worst. 

It is base camp for the heights I've climbed, and anchor for the depths I've plumbed - always elastic in letting me go, always firmly pulling me back into a cocoon of familiarity and unconditional love. Growing up relatively nomadic, Delhi was always the home I came back to. And even now, 7 years after I left the city, I have never been away longer than 6 months. I cannot imagine it any other way.

And even today, 7 years after leaving Delhi, I still say "I'm coming to Delhi" rather than that "I'm going to Delhi." Doesn't that tell you all you need to know?

Saturday, July 20, 2013


This song has been playing in my heart for the past several days. Like any one who stitches words together to make meaning of sights and sounds, I was waiting to build an elaborate cocoon around the song for my next blog post. I would use it to talk about the promises I make myself. The ones I don't (or didn't) keep. The plans we build but abandon. The dreams we leave in cold storage. And that's why I didn't post it. Till now. I waited for inspiration.

But then I heard the song while watching the last hour of the movie today. And I realised I didn't want to wait. And anyway, nothing I write can say it better than Sayeed Quadri himself.

So here it is - a beautiful song which shines on and illuminates far longer than the more showy and peppy songs of Barfi. "Usey muqammal kar bhi aao, woh jo adhoori si baat baki hai".

Friday, July 19, 2013

Oh shit!

This day, this time, this me will never be again. Will never come back. 


I will keep no regrets. I will take those decisions and have those conversations I have been putting off in the light of day but which haunt me in the middle of the night. My fears - are my mind's way of telling me what is important to me. I will respect that. But not be in its thrall. 

I promise. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sharing the light

The hawker had an affected, rasping voice. It wandered through the coach, waking the weary women wending their way home on the western line. When they turned their tired heads, they saw his wares - glowing plastic light-bulbs on a key chain. Each flick of a button turned on the light and then changed it to green, blue, yellow, red and more colours. It looked cheap, and at 20 Rupees, it was. No one was impressed. No one was interested. They all looked away, heads hung low in an inertia of exhaustion. 

And then a gnarled hand with uneven fingernails stuck out to touch, to feel. The hawker promptly detached one ring and handed it to the ancient woman. In a quivery voice that shook as the train rattled, she asked "how much?", in a defeated voice. 

Even as the hawker intoned the price ("bees rupaye"), she was looking down at the blinking little object. It glowed in many colours, lighting up her leathery fingertips and her weathered nightgown. She clutched her walking stick and a fraying bag in the other hand. Her permanent grimace eased a little as she narrowed her watery eyes to better take in the flashing wonder. 

He waited. She wanted. They locked eyes in a silent negotiation. The compartment watched. The old lady blinked first. She lowered her eyes and handed the object back - and the hawker reluctantly accepted it. 

But then another hand shot out - holding two tenners. Green bangles shone on the wrist. A cotton, well-washed salwar kameez stretched on the woman's ample frame. In a quick exchange she handed over the money and took the bulb, passing it on to the old lady sitting opposite her. 

A gummy smile and a head nod was all she could manage as she grasped her toy. The other woman smiled back, and got off at the next station. The bulb glowed, blue, yellow, red...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month April 2013 - Courage

This post is part of Child Sexual Awareness Month, April 2013. April is almost over, and I didn't speak till now because I thought my brief memory was nothing in comparison to the horror others have endured. But while casually telling the story the other day, I realised how my mother's response changed my perspective on the entire thing. And that's what I want to share. 

It was a hot summer afternoon in Delhi. Coolers roared in every house, fighting the scorching heat. No one stepped out unless necessary. I was 8, and I was walking home alone from where the school bus had dropped me. No one came to pick me up - my mother was home with my little brother, not wanting to step out with him in the heat. Most of my friends walked home by themselves. Our apartment was part of six blocks, of six floors each, linked with inter-connected corridors on each floor. So it was easy for me to get off the bus and walk home through the maze, never hitting the main road. It was safe.

But I didn’t feel safe. As I neared the last stretch, my steps slowed. Even though I gazed down at the stairs I was climbing, I was looking out for him. He had been waiting for me at the same place every day, and his eyes would follow me as I walked past. My steps would quicken and I would pretend to look through him as I walked past him and hurried the last 100 meters home.

That day, he was standing at the top of the stairs – surprising me by waiting at an earlier spot than usual. There he stood, looking at me, fly gaping open between his hands. In horror, I took a few seconds too long to look away. I pretended I could see nothing, that he did not exist. I walked within 10 inches of him, crossing him on the stairs to go home. I don’t know what he wanted. I didn’t know if his sick mind had planned beyond that moment. Back then, I didn’t really know what he could do to me. But I did know I was scared. I went home. My mother saw my face and asked what was wrong. I started to explain, unsure of the words to use. Unsure of her response. 

I don’t remember what I told her, but she got it right away.

And then she went charging out of the house. My little brother stayed home alone - she forgot about him in that minute. “Where was he standing? Show me? Is he still there?” she demanded, on the warpath. I still remember following meekly but hurriedly behind her, scared of what she would do if she found him. The man had disappeared. Ma looked around, scanning the stairs, the corridors stretching away from us. She stood there for some time. I don’t know what she would have done if she had seen him. I don’t know if she knew what to do. But the next day she was at the bus stop to pick me up, shifting my 2-year-old brother from one tired arm to another, mopping her sweat with the edge of her saree.

Did I get off easy? Yes.

But I will never forget that afternoon. And I think what I remember more than the fear was the thrill of knowing that my mother, my smiling, friendly, chatty mother, went out ready to fight on my behalf. That’s when I knew I could tell her anything and she would listen. She would believe. She would act. And that gave me courage like nothing else.

Does your child have that courage? 

Friday, February 22, 2013


The smell of burning wicks and molten candles lingers long after I've trudged uphill, past the small altar with my heavy bag of groceries. Sometimes I see people tiptoeing out, watching the vulnerable flame they've just lit as they slip their shoes back on. They seem lighter, lit, and serene. Is it the handing over of their worries to God?

It was built in 1891, this altar - by the fast diminishing population of a panic-stricken village fighting the plague. The cross stands tall, the believers crouch low, the candles burn down, and faith runs high even today.

And I think of other candles. Of incense. Burnt at the altar of faith. Of incense plumes mingling with moon-like batashas as a little girl waits with her palms outstretched. Of birthday cakes and wishes made as candles puff out. Of small flames lit at dinner tables that lovers take home with them in their hearts. Of diyas and tea-lights flickering in a house till it looks like home. Of fire - pure, and unchanged in millennia - holding promises, signifying beginnings and ends.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


The woman faced away from me. Her long, straight hair lay prettily, gently blowing in the breeze to afford others sneak peeks of her slender back. Her pale skin formed a striking contrast to the peacock blue of her deep-cut blouse. Her silk sari was magenta, veined with blue.

As she sat there, a young girl - large timid eyes, dry, cracked lips and sun-bleached hair, a nylon sari draped across her malnourished frame - walked up, selling clips and safety pins.

The woman in magenta picked out a clip, and as she leant forward to pay, her hair fell to one side, revealing on her shoulder blade a beautiful, large, butterfly tattoo.

The girl gasped. Her eyes remained riveted to the tattoo even as she fumbled for exact change. The tattooed woman smiled - a mix of vanity and shyness. The young girl's expression went from shock to awe to envy. She narrowed her eyes. Then she straightened up, rearranged her face into a confident smile. She shrugged and extended her arm, pointing to a sketchily inked "Krishna" on her skinny forearm, and walked away.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Across the bars

The train was slowing down. The surroundings stopped whizzing by, gradually settling to softly roll past. I was already at the door, waiting to nimbly step off as it came to a halt. I was in a hurry. I always am in the mornings. There are trains to catch, taxis to grab, front-seats to aspire to, lifts to reach before the doors close, and emails to check. I looked back at the coach I was leaving. Several women putting away novels, newspapers, earphones, prayer books/beads, and combing their hair before getting to work, before any colleagues spot them with hair all askew. It was a colourful, crowded coach.

My eyes travelled across the coach to see the others - the ones separated by bars, who sit in the coach for the handicapped. The coach was grey and empty. Almost. As the train gentled, a man uncertainly rose in slow motion from his seat. It took him a moment to steady himself. His feet were of no use. Two crutches came down onto the steel floor, and he stood upright in the aisle. After stabilising for two seconds, he lifted his right crutch, again in slow motion. Cautiously, so as not to lose his balance, he raise his arm so that the crutch rose higher off the ground. Then, lips pursed in concentration, he touched the crutch to the walls of the coach. Missed once. Missed twice. And finally connected with his target. He turned off the whirring fan and lowered his crutch. As the fan came to a halt, the train did too. And he limped off the train and into the masses off to earn a living.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

After the fire

She looked at the charred walls of the once pure-white shop, lifting her chiffon saree as she walked over the cinders. She was tall and thin, and she ducked to step out and stare up at the singed sign-board: "A-1 Dry Cleaners", it announced. And below, in bold, self-important letters: "Prop: Kishore Yadav". Just like Kishore to put his name up there when it was she who did all the work. Running her narrow fingers over clothes customers dropped off, checking the pockets, alerting the workers to any rents in the fabric. Writing out receipts. And, smiling at the customers, something Kishore did not believe in. He just sat around, shouting orders, wearing the pristine white clothes he loved. Surrounded by heaps of coloured bundles, he stood out like a neta, wearing white and thinking black thoughts.

She really should have checked whether Chhotu had turned the iron off before she left for the day. Luckily they kept all the customers' clothes in a tiny store room, and neighbours doused the fire before it reached there. She must remember to thank them. Kishore would raise hell, of course, when he returned from the village. She was his wife - in his eyes someone to boss over and blame. She straightened up - accepting his shouting and even some well-aimed blows was nothing new. She was stronger than that. Deep within, she felt a sneaky thrill - "serves him right for going home for his cousin's engagement when he wouldn't let me go for my own sister's wedding." Oh how much she had longed to be there for the celebration, the cooking, the songs, the giggling, and to tightly hug her sister good-bye, their tears flowing into each other's hair, staying back a few days to comfort her mother. But Kishore had put his foot down, as he usually did.

A man cleared his throat and she leapt back into the present. The repair work would cost them a fair bit. And she wanted it done before Kishore returned and yelled about how she had no business being careless with his shop. The man cleared his throat again - he was the civil contractor who would undertake the repair work. "What colour do you want?" he asked, indicating the tattered shade card he'd brought along. "Just white," she said, shrugging and turning aside to let him in to measure the surface area.

He placed his bag and the shade card on the sooty counter and fumbled for the tape measure. Her eyes fell on the shade card and a delicious, evil idea came to her. She smiled wide and said "Actually, rani pink."

Thursday, January 24, 2013


One Sunday morning, as the unsuspecting Popley Jewellers on the corner of Turner and Waterfield Roads were opening up for business, a young woman walked in and showed them her middle finger. It didn’t help that she was wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon Veerappan operating a Sony “Betascam” camera with the words “Daku-mentary” written below.

Then, as all the cleaners, polishers, shelf-arrangers, etc. looked on, the woman sheepishly confessed to the friendly-faced woman at the first counter, “meri ring ungli se utar nahi rahi hai, aap ring kaat sakte hain?” That’s when Bineesha noticed a multi-band ring clamped onto a rather swollen (actually, a rapidly-swelling finger). “Arre, soap dalo, nikal jayega!” she assured. The young woman glared at her and thought “What do you think I’ve been doing all morning?!”

Let’s rewind a few hours, shall we?
Anando woke up at 7 am to find his wife sitting on the floor, her right arm resting on the bed, the hand soaking in a large bowl of ice water, which in turn sat on the fattest pillow she had found. That’s because WikiHow had told her (after a frantic 6 am Google for “removing+stuck+ring”) that she needed to soak her hand in ice-water while restricting blood flow to it – that would cause the swelling to subside, the ice-water would further shrink the finger, and the ring would just sliiiide off.


Rewind some more.

She had already tried soaping it. Failure.

She then tried slathering on mustard oil. Failure and a strong smell. (That’s what woke Anando.) No, thank you, Google Search, page 1 results.

She then read that she should try inserting sellotape under the ring, and push the ring back to create a tape-ring of sorts, and then slide the ring over the tape (which would offer minimal friction), and voila: ringless hand at your service. Ermmmm, no. Not working.

By then her right hand looked like she was wearing a puppet hand over her real one, or at the very least those foam fingers sports fans wear on American TV. Her right hand was also rather confused – should it shrivel up in dry protest at all the soaping, or swell up in a shiny, unmissable kind of way at all the mustard-oil massaging? Time for another left-handed Google search.

Of course her husband had slept blissfully through all the angst. And so when he woke up and suggested several of the same nuskhas, and even smirked a little, she thought of some violent act of revenge – something she could perpetrate with just one hand of course, without disturbing the ice bath.

Picture this girl then. Her hand has throbbed since last night because she wore a ring that once fit her middle finger (but obviously no more). She has gone off to sleep, convincing herself, Scarlett O’Hara–like, that tomorrow is another day. But tomorrow (today) she has woken up with a definitely swollen hand and a useless set of Google suggestions.

So it was that at 10.50 am, when she walked into Popley Jewellers and gave them the finger, her demand was simple: “Cut off my ring and give me my freedom.”

Bineesha swung into action – she escorted the woman to a tiny washbasin at the entrance to the staff toilet. Then, pumping huge amounts of soap from the dispenser, she proceeded to soap the poor hand and work up a rich lather.

Dear reader, you already know how that works out (not)! The woman protested – just cut it, nothing will work, I know it.

Industrious (and strangely reluctant to give up), Bineesha called “Maneeeees, idhar aa.” When the 6-foot tall, burly shop assistant walked up to the washbasin, she said “Tu ring ko kheench, main inka haath ulti taraf kheenchti hoon.

Whattay plan, thought the young woman, and feebly protested, “Arre, yeh mera haath hai.” Thankfully, Manish was the silent, non-violent type. The woman pulled her hand back and hid it behind her back, demanding a ring cutter or nothing.

Pramod Babu came up, with a pair of scissors that cut metal. As he angled the woman’s hand, she noticed two things – they were far from a light source, and Pramod Babu was in his fifties and missing his spectacles.

As he short-sightedly held the scissors close to the ring and looked for an entry point, she suggested meekly (never offend a man holding scissors and your hand) that they move closer to the light. By now he had positioned the scissors and was reluctant to move them, so they moved, like Siamese twins joined at the hand, to stand under the light. Pramod Babu brought the scissors’ handles together, and snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, snip (the ring had seven slim bands held together by one clasp).

Lighter in mind and body, our young heroine walked out of the door, resisting the urge to hug Pramod Babu or ask the price of the diamond ring that winked at her from the counter near the exit.