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."