October 23, 2008

ekda kaay zhala… (once upon a time…)

mrs singh and mrs sood were the best of friends.

both originated from north india; one, from a turban-wearing sardarji community, the other a non-turban wearing punjabi community. mrs singh was simple, they had four children: g-p-s (that’s what he was known as), the bubbly, boastful pinky, and twins the names of whom i forget (i think we simply called them goru and rimpy).

mrs sood was the more flashy kind, loved bright shiny clothes and bright red lipstick. her children: a pampered brat of a boy called babloo, who like his mother, liked to be heard, and a scrawny but cute, almost timid-voiced as a mouse, minu.

there were 13 flats in our single-building-block, enclosed by a narrow wall that had failed to foresee that within a few years, the entire contruction (houses and all) would be overshadowed by taller and larger buildings and their compound-walls. there was space but for about three fiats huddled one behind the other, and two scooters and a cycle. my father, being a better driver and more experienced than the other car-owners, parked his fiat right at the front and away from the exit-gates, while the others often needed his help in taking their cars out without a scratch. the scooters were freely removed physically and parked elsewhere if they were in the way, and if their owners were unavailable.

even in that shame of a parking-lot-cum-playground, we were six punjabi, nine maharastrian, three south-indian children who got along pretty well. not only that, we sometimes also had the karapurkar-brother-sister maharashtrian duo from the neighbouring bungalow that sold milk and other dairy products, as well as the three-banjodkar-siblings from the remarkably well-to-do lawyers’ bungalow a couple of yards away from our building. and there were the late entrants – the three-generation joint family of the bhaskars’, whose four children also joined us in the evenings. we played lagori, dabaispice, hide-n-seek, khamb-khamb-khamboree on the grounds. our gurkha watchman often interfered our games as a referree, preventing fights and at times, causing them. sometimes when it got too crowded downstairs, we all marched the four flights of stairs in a row, where we had the entire cold-colourful-mosaic-tiled terrace to ourselves.

festival times like diwali and holi were the best, when even the parents were out with us, and sometimes we participated in  fancy-dress contests and little skits put together by an enterprising ‘kaku’. it was during these hastily-put-up but heartfelt celebrations when we would realise what it was like, to live in a multi-cultural society. all of us shared and enjoyed our variety of foods. we showed equal enthusiasm for every festival – pongal, holi, gudipadwa, baisakhi or vishu, ganesh chaturthi, rakshabandhan, navratri, kojagiri poornima, diwali, christmas. we were more indian than any of the indians living in any of the other states. this was aamchi mumbai.

like it is with most get-togethers, the parents used the opportunity to praise their kids to the skies about school achievements, or rate them with regards to who was the more studious or the ‘bad apple’ of the lot. we all went to different schools and that’s why the discussions got more livelier if one of us children managed to raise the topic of a particular teacher who was not particularly good at teaching.

ho ka? (is it so?) n-kaku would ask in disbelief.

aaho kaay mhantaay?… (what are you saying?), v-kaku would exclaim.

ho bagha na, ata tya divshee kaay zhala… (yes indeed, now look at what happened the other day…) s-kaku would start to explain.

nahi aisi baat nahi. ab hamare babloo ke teacher ko dekho (no no it is not so, now take our babloo’s teacher for example), sood-aunty would butt in.

and the argument would go on late into the night…. running in between the legs of the collective parent family, we resumed our games again. we had distracted them successfully. no more post-function complaints after going home!

i don’t know if it was one of these discussions that the punjabi ladies took to hearts, and their homes. because before we knew it, mrs sood and mrs singh had turned into the worst of enemies. they quarelled like cats and dogs. they lived on different floors one above the other, and on early-evenings or late mornings when the air was warm and lazy and the sounds travelled in circles around the building, we could hear their kitchen-utensils-banging and the women yelling. each in her own house. one window to the other. that loud.

we spent 14 years in that building. the games stopped gradually, as everyone graduated to higher academic classes, to jobs, or simply, to marriage. but the quarrel between the ladies had failed to simmer. the six punjabi kids had grown up listening to their mothers complaining, and naturally some of the sparks must have stayed in the minds of the two first-born boys, glowing softly like embers until the right temperature was reached: testosterone.

g-p-singh one day saw babloo sood unarmed and unsuspecting, and without a key to his empty house. impatient enough to pick up a fight. one provoked and the other rebuked. that evening, the gurkha wasn’t in his cabin. nor were any of the cars or scooters. there was space, and a lot of anger. they were getting into a fist-fight. we were two families on the ground-floor. my neighbour banged on my door frightened. she was married now, and had come to visit her parents. i was home early from work that day.

radhu come quick! g-p-s and babloo have got into a fight… a real one!!

it was something we all had feared. the elders thought they will soon grow tired of their swear-words, let them fight. but we knew this wouldn’t stop. these weren’t the kids that we knew. these were two angry punjabi communities at war. fuelled by years and years of their mothers’ comparing-and-ranting-against each other. our cries and shouts did nothing to stop them. a 12-inch sear across babloo’s head did, when g-p-s suddenly picked a broken iron-pipe from the floor and whacked him without a thought. then he ran away.

there was a lot of blood. luckily my father was on his way home. while some of us held babloo’s head with cloth, my father rushed a semi-conscious babloo to the hospital. he survived. we hoped at least mrs singh and mrs sood would be happy now.

the spirit of the togetherness with which we grew up was crushed. within a year, all the occupants of the building moved elsewhere. everything that we had learnt in those 14 years as friends growing up together, now came with a fine print. from indians were were reduced to maharashtrians and non-maharashtrians, north-indians and south-indians.

reading about the maharashtra navanirman sena riots reminded me of this fight. it pains me to see the spirit of aamchi mumbai, slowly being trampled under their collective weight. it makes me think of the men and women involved in these anti-non-maharastrian-migrant-worker fight, and how they must have spent their childhood years. who did they play lagori and dabaispice with? most of all it makes me wonder:

what were their mothers thinking?

October 21, 2008

london beware: toddler on the pgrowl…

autumn. it must be the autumn…children like to sleep longer during this time you know.

i didn’t know.

i see, i said. maybe that’s right, suddenly realising that my friend had given me a possible explanation for athri’s odd behaviour since the past seven days.

sleeptime is struggletime, every afternoon and night. and when he does eventually tire out by 4:30 pm, he won’t want to wake up all evening until 8 at least. and then we are all awake until the eleventh hour. walking like zombies. just. wanting. to. go. to. bed. at six in the morning, he’s up again, like a bright chirpy alarm clock: radu, radu, radu…daddaaaaaaaaa…

and bathtime is a struggle too. he used to love his baths. what happened now? actually come to think of it, if he continues his moan-a-raagams so loud each day, he might just turn into a great singer. will i still be sane, clapping my hands and emotional, and wiping a tear with my sleeve while the camera zooms on me in the audience? i try to imagine, and then he starts wailing again.

last night we had a pre-sleep tantrum again. bawls and cries, but not even half-a-teardrop from his eye. and his mouth open so wide i could practically see the inside of this throat from where i was standing. normally i would have packed him off in this state to my friends (and his self-appointed deputy-parents) rashmi and zubin who live close by. when he’s with them, he’s a different person altogether. but even they have left for warm, sunny india, where they will celebrate diwali, the indian way.

so, without rashmi and zubin to call, and when every other trick had failed, i did the next thing that came out purely by instinct. i sat down facing athri, and bawled. he bawled even louder, i continued to imitate him, matching my tone to his. opening my mouth, nice and wide. he stopped for a second, confused. and then bawled again. it was my turn next. again, i wailed.

meanwhile our neighbours were just finishing their dinner. perhaps they were discussing the sorry state of affairs in the country where mothers were killing their children – sometimes suspected of setting fire to the whole house, sometimes drowning a disabled child in the bathtub – when they heard our bawling-duet. they put their forks and knives down, and went to the phone.

at home, athri was laughing now. we were still shouting out loud in turns, but this was not a tantrum. this was fun! at last when i thought the storm had passed, i went back to the kitchen to resume my chores. i got his milk-bottle ready, and that’s when i realised we were out of nappies for athri. very reluctantly, praveen braved the i-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-the-house-now look and put on his jacket and left.

three minutes later, when i was negotiating about the amount of water in athri’s little green cup, there was a knock on the door. i thought praveen had forgotten something, and was back. but he has his keys, i recalled with a frown. athri wanted more water in his cup, i insisted it was just right. the knocking got louder. i walked around athri and out of the kitchen, leaving him still complaining about the less-amount of water (definitely not enough to soak the lounge carpet, which is what he really wanted to do).

i opened the door. it wasn’t praveen. two big policemen stood outside, looking all prepared to send a message on a fat walkie-talkie. my heart beat fast. my mind raced with thoughts: buthow…praveenjustleft…omygodhassomethinghappenedtohim…hemusthavejustgottothecorner…howdidthepolicegethere…sofast!?

it was the taller policeman who read my mind.

nonono, not to worry. everything’s fine. we have just come to make an enquiry.

ohh, escaped from my lips.

we received a call from one of your neighbours who was very concerned. they said they heard a child and a woman wailing out loud. we just came to check…are you okay? do you have a child at home?

i finally smiled. oh i’m absolutely fine. that must have been my son i’m afraid, he’s tantrummy these days. i’m sorry if they were disturbed…

no no, they were worried and made the call. we were just doing our duty and had to check if everything was fine. so, you’re sure you’re fine? is it only the two of you at home?

my husband’s just gone over to tescos…you can come in and wait if you want to. he’ll be right back.

so…there’s no problem of any kind. you were not crying were you? he asked, studying my brown face and exhausted eyes.

i laughed. absolutely sir, no problem. it’s always like this at sleeptime these days.

i was embarrassed. at once the picture of sunny, happy and well-behaved neighbour’s-envy-owner’s-pride toddlers-in-prams came to my mind. how do they do it, i thought. other peoples’ children. as if on cue, athri appeared behind the child-security-gate on top of the steps, standing with his legs apart, hands still holding the little green water-cup, as if demanding to know, what do they want radu? come and give me more water to play with. a complete toddler-dada-in-the-making. my son. bully at home, billi outside.

ah, there’s our culprit, they said together. convinced. they laughed, and left.

i wondered which of our neighbours had made the complaint. the ones next door? i hadn’t met them but i hear their dog bark aloud non-stop, nine-to-six. every day they leave the poor thing alone in the house and go to work. or was it the sri lankan menopausal mother-teenage daughter downstairs, who themselves have a shouting match every other night.

this is the second time in a month that athri has brought the police. the first time he dialled their number himself (the whole seven-digit number of the harrow police station, not the 9-9-9!), when he was at rashmi’s place. they arrived tracking the house number from the landline-phone athri was poking at, by which time he was already back home with praveen, and blissfully asleep.

shaking my head and still smiling, i went to athri and told him, now look what you have done. at this rate you will soon be on their wanted-list, and we will be behind bars for suspected child-torture, when actually it is the other way round.

athri pointed to the tv excited, asking me to switch it on, saying beibies, beibies. i said no, there is no beibies now kutti, they have all gone to bed, and you must too. and then he shakes his head. naooo, naoo he says in his british-accent which i currently find very cute…baaallaaaoorriy. he was trying to tell me something. what is that again? i asked.


i understood.

athri was telling me that i was wrong. that was not the police, it was just pc plum, the singing inspector from balamory!

September 26, 2008

a world of uncertainties. some more nominees…

it’s finally out of my hands now. my proposal for the creative writing phd.

submitted it yesterday and now i have at least two months before i know the result. in or out, the novel-writing process, which began as an also-needed part of the phd proposal, has started too, and looks like it will continue regardless of whether or not i get registered. i don’t know how or when it is going to end. and whether it will be a good book, or thrash. but i had a story to tell, and so i have begun. and now i too belong to the thousands of aspiring writers struggling with a first book.

i should be worried. but actually, i think i’m quite excited!

it is a different world altogether. this business of writing-a-novel. a world of multiple uncertainties.

i beg, borrow, fight, throw tantrums, anything for some time to write. and when i do have that time, i stare at a blank screen, willing the words to come as if by magic.

my problem, at least for now, are the characters. how many should i have? how do i think like another person when i am me? will the reader be able to guess, what part of a character is me, or – if it’s unfortunately someone i know – he or she?! last week i thought of a bad character. bad as in, the anti-hero types. and i think i was so engrossed in creating this personality (have written all of 80 words about him, and that is the truth!), that for the past three-four nights i have been having nightmares! one of them included a laaaarge giant-size black cockroach with HUGE antennae climbing out of athri’s milk-powder dabba!! i woke up screaming, intensely relieved to hear praveen snoring away and athri breathing softly by my side. i still haven’t touched that can of milk powder…athri can have all the cows’ milk he wants! i shudder to imagine what the science fiction writers must be going through. i am not even going to think about stephen king. maybe he’s not human.

sigh. there are millions of books out there…how in the world does a writer finish a book!? and then go ahead to write another brilliant one! i will never have all the answers. and i think of all this, and then i end up not-writing a word. but yes, this is what i have chosen. hopefully someday i will finish the book (fingers crossed!) and link back to this post…

while we are on this topic, i must urge all of you (especially those who enjoy good writing) to check out the guardian’s new how to write series, if you haven’t already. i have read a lot of how-to-write tutorials, but for the first time, i found these nuggets of information to be gems. to the point, brief and in a language quite extremely-friendly (lola-speak…yes, too much cbeebies).


i was also happy (and pleasantly surprised) to receive the Brilliant Weblog award. thank you bluespriite (love the painting on your about-page). this is what she says about my blog:

She doesn’t write as often but I wish she did.. I don’t think I have interacted with her much, offline. She has little touches on her blog that make me wants to go back and reread old posts.

thanks again bluespriite :-)

and now, as is the tradition, i am tagging seven others…most of them are from praveen’s livejournal friends’ page, who i enjoy reading whenever i sneak up on them. the first is my good friend and ex-classmate bridget atkinson, who as i type this, is walking the camino from lepuy in france to santiago de compostela in northern spain. this award is for your decision to walk the pilgrimage bridget, and here’s to good health and a safe journey home.

to my sister deepika. deeya for livejournal. dapdishoo for me. for being herself. for her faith. for trying. for writing.

to little anirud. although he may not fully understand it himself right now, his father‘s been maintaining a journal of his activities. i always wanted to keep a journal for athri too, but it takes more than just wishing to get something done. and this is for chakra, who has that discipline. chakra also has an excellent microsite for people coming to the uk. yes, now you know the kind of discipline he has.

for charu. fellow-fibromyalgia-sufferer. for her writing. for her photographs. for her will power.

for neha. for being so brilliantly honest and truthful about everything she writes. she also makes me laugh. and i love her poems.

last but not the least, for praveen. my pillar of support. my punching bag. my husband. there, you have this award. happy? go and bring our booda back.

August 29, 2008

last night…

an old woman sits panting by the side of the bed, talking to herself. her hair unkempt. wheeze. talk. babble. wheeze. cough. wipe spittle. sigh. wheeze. talk…

in the kitchen, her daughter murmers (again, to herself), stirring a pot of hot kanji. scrape. stir. murmur. wipe sweat from brow. scrape. murmur. taste. stir. murmur. when will she die?

i shrink in the shadows, ashamed that i’d heard her laments. my own grandmother, suffering this not-wantedness…

another murmur, from another corner. another aunt. when will we be free?

i run to the gods. surely they can hear me…please, please don’t take my achchamma away yet. i want her to live…

a noise. slither. i tiptoe towards the sound. who is it?


a lizard. bright magenta. chrome yellow. white spots. slithers across the brown wood floor. fascinated, i watch.


another sound.

i look around. nothing. just a black and white shoelace. twined together. it reminds me of something.

i brush the thought aside.


i turn around again. it is the shoelace. with the head of a snake. a toy snake. with jagged teeth.

i freeze. the snake twists. the lace unentangles. two heads. they open their jagged mouths. they snap shut. i scream.

darkness. i’m falling. no, floating. so gently. i can see bits of light. soft light. the side of a chiselled marble statue. smooth. the smell of marigold. the end of a flute. krishna!

soft voices. floating again. spiralling down. round and round. finally at rest. something warm and soft. new bedsheet. flowers, glittering streamers above me. a balloon.

gasp! i choke. i cry. a baby’s wail. i stop. i cry again. a baby’s wail. i frown. it can’t be…

i bawl now. realisation strikes. i died. i am born again. my whole life has gone away. another waits ahead. i bawl again. louder.

wait. whose house is this? i wonder. am i in india? i wonder.

then i remember. what happened to my achchamma?? i bawl again. i want my achchamma!!! the baby wails.

noises again. cooing? i shudder. i am awake.

no, it’s not cooing. it’s snoring. praveen is by my side. athri whimpers in his bed. i’m still frozen. stuck to the thick mattress. i breathe. i’m alive. i’m not dead. it was a dream. i pick myself up slowly, pat athri back to sleep. i wonder what his past life must have been like. i drink some water. phew. i let out a breath. then i laugh. i know that snake. and i say to myself:

i will not watch the rubbadubbers again.

August 27, 2008

calling all survivors…

me: is there really nothing you can do?

gp: sorry, no. there is really no cure for fibromyalgia.

me: i can’t sometimes believe that despite all the advances in science and medicine, you don’t have a cure for this…it’s almost over 15 years now

gp: look, the more we know science, the more ignorant we are about it. we can treat cancer, yes. but fibromyalgia…no.

me (in my head): …because fibromyalgia doesn’t kill? and cancer does? huh? huh?

me: sigh…alright doctor, thank you for your time.

gp: can i ask you a question?

me: sure…

gp: how do you cope with the pain? with no medication or support…

me: well, i still have my will power. tons of it.

i lied.

ok, it wasn’t entirely the truth. the truth is that my will power has a hundred re-births each day. it lives when i foolishly expect to live normally like everybody else. it dies when others foolishly expect me to live normally like everybody else. it thrives when i am fighting by myself. it is murdered when i visit the doctor. it survives because i know i am the only one going through all the pain, and i know i am the only one who can push myself to do more despite it. what kills it is the lack of drive i see around me, and in people who say that life is pointless. again and again. my will power dies and is reborn. what nourishes it are happy thoughts (son, husband, family, phd), and simple truths i cannot do without (multivitamins, ayurvedic stamina-booster-medicines, and the one and only, manasamitram, which relaxes my fatigued nerves each night, and prepares me for – at least a few hours – the next day).

and so i came out of the gp’s surgery last week wondering what was worse. that there is no medication cure for fibromyalgia, or that it doesn’t kill. i think i will never find out.


i had decided not to write about myself again. at least not about the pain. but that is all there is these days. so, tough luck.

when i read charu’s blog entry this morning, i thought to myself this was the least i could do to support her cause. i know and have heard that there are millions of fellow-sufferers out there, but i personally dread reading those discussion-lists. the same symptoms, the endless pain, and the one often-unsaid comment i too have had to face so many times: but you look fine!

some days ago, a friend who’s currently in texas wrote to me that she sees fibromyalgia-related ads on tv all the time, and that every time it flashes on the tv, she is reminded of me. the first thought i had was…ahh, at last, one more person understands. and that’s mainly why, even if i’m here in london, i’ll vote for a fibromyalgia-support group in india.

because…and its strange that like charu, i too have mentioned in the past: pain makes you lonely. this support group may not provide the medicines…that is the doctor’s job. it won’t provide you sympathy…we don’t need any, thank you. but what it will provide, like that ad my friend saw on tv, is information. the quiet knowledge that there’s tons of will power around. and the power to survive.

July 4, 2008

the whirlpools in life

the thief

left behind

the moon by the window.

i used to collect zen koans during one of my many lifetimes. for no apparent reason today, while i was reading and thinking in a small corner of my mind, that i need to get back to this journal – like i have many times in the past few months – this koan suddenly popped up in my head. it summarises somewhat, all that happened when i had not been writing…

sometimes when we are in the flow of life, everything that is happening around us – and to us – takes place so fast, and so much happens so quickly that we forget what started the whirlpool in the first place. sometimes, it is just a single thought.

i want to write.

every day, in between attending athri (who is now all of 19 months and revealing his true toddler-colours) and the household chores, and the day job-from-home at techworld.com: editing articles and features about secure storage devices, wi-fi, 802.11n, wireless networks; finding out about web 2.0 and how it would work for the website, digg-ing, stumbling and reddit-ing articles, i began to get restless. storage and network devices, is this what i really enjoy reading about? i loved thursdays, when i could get on the tube towards my office and read. read anything not related to dull, lifeless technology that stripped all the words and literature off my life. novels, short stories, anywhere that i could escape into, for 35 minutes, one-way. the work increased, and so did my restlessness. i just wanted to write.

i decided, at one point, to enter any writing contest that i would come across online, just for the sake of writing. i entered three. while i was at it, i enrolled on a creative writing phd. the contests came and went. the phd process began, but i still wasn’t writing.

the day job was boring yes, but it brought in a salary. would i write if i let go of it? i wasn’t sure. i just wanted to write.

and then who looks after the house? it’s not a big house, but it’s our home. i like a bright home, well-arranged, even if the mess athri creates everyday can be overlooked. but i find it difficult to think of something to write when there are clothes to be washed, dry ones to be folded and kept inside the wardrobes, a sinkful of dirty dishes, the carpet to be vacuum-cleaned…and so i chose the house. praveen helped: we re-arranged furniture so athri’s toys had a neat hiding-place when he went to bed, put all the cables and clutter out of sight, but i still couldn’t get myself to write.

i requested for a flexible work option, knowing fully well that two days off work still meant a distant probability of me getting a few words down without being distracted by something else again. i was getting desperate now. i wanted to read and read. and i wanted to write.

one of the contest results came through. the penguin one. i had taken a day off in april to write this one. i’d held emotional gun-points to four heads, my friends’, asking them to go through the four drafts of 4000-words each that i had hurriedly cooked up in three days, before the final deadline. and it had paid off… i was going to be published! so i could write, if i forced myself to do it. and i had loved it. every minute of that writing until i sealed the envelope and sent it along. my heart thumped with joy that perhaps this is what i really wanted to do. i simply wanted to write.

faster, faster. i could sense that something, someone was pushing me in some direction, but there was nothing to hold on to. the email from penguin made me realise that my life’s whirlpool had begun to churn…

then last month, i was made redundant. the company was going web 2.0, and they didn’t need a sub-editor. i wasn’t sure of how to react…suddenly, for a job that i so often put athri and my writing aside, i was not wanted. on the other hand, i was free to write. now i could focus on my phd.

“now don’t spend time on the house,” praveen reminded me all along, “concentrate on writing, write anything. remember you have a journal?” he teased.

“it’s such a lovely house,” i argued. the long corridor running across the middle, the arcs opening out to the stairs and bright windows that always made it so pleasant to stay in, the large kitchen leading to the small balcony-railing, waiting to sprout flowers that we just planted for the summer… “how can anyone not have to spend time on a house, if it has to be well-kept?”

but it was not helping me in writing. ten days ago, we received another notice. we would have to move, give up the house. we were tenants, and the house-owner wanted it back.

we found another yesterday. it is minus a corridor. a compact house, like a man minus his neck. it has a small kitchen, enough to fill our hearts and stomachs. and it doesn’t have a fireplace or arcs to hang my torans from. but it is bright and it is practical, and hopefully, i will not fall in love with it.

maybe now i should be able to write.

the whirlpool in my life. the moon by the window. i think now, maybe it was that single thought.

ps: thank you asha. your many emails have set my words free :-)

March 23, 2008

this holi…

dear son

this holi

your second

i still

don’t have

any colours

to give you

no sleepy faces

at the door


to pull

you out

of bed

no neighbours



of cold water

to soak you

to the skin


every pore

of your spirit

no laughter

or loudspeakers

at the chowks

with the annual

o rang barse


i have




of the colours

that rained

orange, red

green and blue


golden pistons

our weapons

for a few




warm milk

and ghee

that melted

on my tongue


of children

all talking

at once


with the


the excitement


it’s your turn


don’t be


of a time




to the colours

to the love

to your heart


them fill

your life


one holi


February 15, 2008

the unfolding and folding of memories, and why they’re important

i’m just past 56-pages of shantaram, and my brain is bursting with memories of mumbai airport along with its smells, the views and first impressions of dharavi, colaba, the radio club, mondegar’s and most of all, leopolds‘.

it’s hard for me to classify leopolds’ as a cafe, or a pub. it was simply a place where friends met and relaxed. in fact, the interiors of what i remember of mondy’s and leopolds are blurred, and i must be confusing one for the other. (no surprise there perhaps, i wasn’t always having coffee, and anyway it’s way over 10 years now). i must have sat at one of their thick-wood-mahogany tables perhaps three of four times in all my mumbai-life, in the warm company of friends, colleagues from my express-computer days. each visit, though, has a bright, shining memory of its own.

i remember being curious about the people who frequent places like these, and my secret awe at the discovery that such a place even existed in the very throat of mumbai. there, it was the first time i saw more foreigners than indians, dressed in their trademark-cotton baggies and orange flowing kurtas. beads around their necks, or wrists or forehead. my own company, sometimes four or five of us, was buzzing with the latest office gossip, smoking chains of cigarettes and ‘grass,’ and downing one beer after another. and i, the youngest of the lot, had to plead with them to let me have a sip from their glass.

fortunately or/and unfortunately for them, beer always reminded me of a tall glass of urine, and i never liked the taste anyway. so i was simply happy just being there with my friends, soaking in the ambience, and some of the smoke as well. this was a world so far away from the one i was brought up in and went back to, faithfully every day.

it was perhaps on the way home after one of those leopolds-visits that i had realised i was in love. i think someone else did too. in the five years that followed, i changed jobs, i had new colleagues, i never had reason, or the company to visit mondy’s or leopolds’ again, but that special friendship always remained close to my heart. like i’ve heard is the case with all first loves, i think it still does.

and then there were the ex-colleagues who always looked out for me. during one of those rocky, painful, wearing-out phase of this relationship, there was one friend who took me to the radio club one evening, again, a very new atmosphere for me then, and so sympathetically, heard me out, and counselled me on life, the universe and everything. (he still is so sweet, i can never get over the fact that he is allergic to chocolates.) he also told me that who knows, maybe 10 years later, i would be laughing at my past. this is no anniversary, but yes i am smiling and laughing, in a nice way, at all that had happened at the time. it was all a part of growing up.

i can get disoriented when i come across an interesting book, and gregory david roberts is a grandmaster of them all. on the tube this evening, as i read pages and pages of accurate, minutely observed and mature descriptions about his philosophies on life and love, about colaba’s pubs, the radio club, they all came rushing back to me. the places themselves, the songs of mumbai, shubha mudgal, the friends, the laughter, the warm and firm handshakes when we parted at our train-stations, the youth that i left far, far behind…

as i walked home slowly, stiff from the cold and the physical pain after a long day at office, the memories that had stirred up a storm inside my head finally flooded my eyes, and i let the tears fall. even the fox, who has his hideout somewhere opposite our house and usually prowls for food during that time of dark, waited and let me pass.

my thoughts changed track, and i suddenly realised what a beautiful animal that fox was, like the mozilla-firefox logo. i rang the doorbell, too drained out to fish out my housekeys, and a smiling husband opened the door. “let me help you medaam,” he said warmly, and took my coat off (something he has never done so far). when my 15-month-old son – so engrossed in the storymakers on cbeebies -finally turned around and saw me, he rushed with open arms, giving me a tight sooooooooo-glad-you’re-home-ma-bear hug, and before i knew it, i had folded all my memories away. this precious moment, with my husband and kid, was worth it all.

this life was certainly worth it all.

February 14, 2008

bbc looks for love in the wrong places

how’s that headline for a taste of their own medicine?

either the bbc is turning very short-sighted about all matters related to india, or they are plain lazy and should simply pass the job to someone else.

it’s not been too long since i mentioned this before, and the bbc does it again (check out all the pictures from 1 to 8). is that the only picture they could find about indians ‘celebrating’ valentine’s day? why show nice, gooey-romantic images from the rest of the world, and portray india as an enemy of the idea of love, which in fact, is not the case at all.

i bet there *must* have been an archie‘s shop just around the corner from where pic#8 was shot, overflowing with red heart-shaped balloons, mushy-mushy cards and big, huggable teddy bears. also, will someone direct the bbc (and check if their eyes are wide open) to any one of the over-100-shopping malls in mumbai itself, or, the remaining 258 in the rest of india. here, this directory should help.

i have been following bbc news faithfully for quite a few years now. but these days i find their reporting to have turned anti-everything-india for some reason. look at their own news items on valentine’s day here (2007), and here (2002). why be different now? yes, there are anti-valentine protesters in india, but i would think the news is about the millions other indians, who easily outnumber them every year, and even make some extra money while they are at it.

to those second-, third-generation indians sitting abroad and reading misleading reports about their home country on the bbc, i think this is sad, and really, really unfair.

February 13, 2008

a story, unpublished

something i witnessed during my recent mumbai-visit stayed in my memory, and haunted me for a long time.

last month, when i watched taare zameen par (tzp), for no reason related to that movie, i remembered that scene again. i wrapped it in a fiction story and sent it, one by one, to two publications. wrong choices maybe, because, forget about any feedback on the story, neither of them responded at all (this, after we’d already exchanged emails). or perhaps they thought i was offending aamir khan’s original intentions, or that i was taking the realism a bit too far. perhaps they simply didn’t like the story. whatever. one thing’s clear…. i need tuitions on how-to-know-who-is-the-right-publication-for-your-story, and once that is clear, how-to-market-it-to-them. any published writers out there, hint, hint :-)

well, anyway, i cannot keep this buried in my pc anymore. tzp is already yesterday’s news. and stories have to be told. so here it is, *sailee ki kahani…saare zameen par.

*(sailee, afzal. not their real names. the shaunchalay at nariman point, very real.)

saare zameen par

sailee loved aamir khan. afzal loved sailee. in their young 12- and 14-year-old lives, it was their friendship that had survived the displacement of their slums, the death of their parents in the lathi-charge, the humiliation by the police, the nights without food, their puberty. and there was their love of films.

after his day job at the sulabh shaunchalay at nariman point, afzal worked evenings and nights at the local theatres in the city. the role of a black-ticket-marketeer was not a permanent one. it had its share of risks and profits, but it was fun. and moreover, he was doing it so someday, he could take sailee to see her favourite star. first day, first show. taare zameen par. and he wanted to do it in style.

the kids were both excited. this would be their first ‘date.’ for sailee, as dusky as her name, afzal managed to borrow a lovely, deep-pink chiffon kameez from his friend who worked at the dry-cleaners. the dress had a mending job to be done, but the tear was hardly visible to the naked eye. besides, it would not be collected from the shop for another four days. from her own meagre earnings (for it canot be called a salary) – from cleaning car windshields, and selling mogras and magazines at the signal opposite hotel ambassador – sailee bought for herself, for the first time in her memory at least, a soap and a shampoo. but the municipality tap that she shared along with other slum refugees had running water only for an hour in the mornings, during which they all filled their buckets. where would she have a good bath now, at this time in the afternoon?

afzal thought about it. “why, you can use the shaunchalay!” he said. indeed, it was the only way. and in between two crammed latrines, amid the dirt and slime leaking through the drainage pipes on that hot afternoon, sailee filled up the leaky orange bucket with water from the toilet taps, crouched in the middle of the narrow passageway and scooped water over her head, using one of the coconut shells that the narial-pani vendor often so carelessly littered behind.

outside, afzal sat at a desk, collecting one-rupee coins from anyone who wanted to use the public facility. luckily, there were hardly any ladies coming in that day, and the gents could barely glance over to the somewhat-well-concealed ladies’ lavatories. secretly priding himself for having given sailee the chance for a luxurious bath, he hopped over to the other side of the road to buy them some mid-afternoon snacks. it would have to be ragda patties, he thought, spicy, tasty, hot, just the right thing after a bath.

afzal was away for about four minutes. during this time, there was but one woman who needed the public toilet. she came away stunned, not understanding which of her feelings were most dominant – relief for having emptied her bladder at last, or shame, at the plight of a young girl having to bathe like that. sailee pretended not to notice anyone, and continued with the scooping of water. it was not until the soap slipped out of her hands and fell into the indian-style latrine, that she lifted her head and noticed him standing there. and then she felt his eyes. eyes that studied her smooth-fresh-smelling body, and caressed her long hair and naked skin. sailee shivered. millions of tiny little goosebumps erupted all over her. and the eyes, unabashed and hungry, lapped up even those with pleasure.

it had taken less than a minute. for a girl who was bathing in her own naivety, dreaming of simple treats like aamir khan and the movie that evening, to come down to reality, how vulnerable it was, how cheap and how easily available.

that night, throughout the movie, afzal held her hands in his and wept. no, she hadn’t told him anything about that afternoon. it was the movie that made him sob…the heart-warming songs, the dyslexic boy ishaan, and his so-hard-to-break-father.

afzal wept, because he missed his own parents, his own brother. he wished he had a father who demanded to know his marks, he wished he had a mother to wipe away his wounds with the end of her saree, a teacher to set free his imagination, if there was one, he checked himself. the letters that were like greek and latin to ishaan awasthi were not any simpler to read for afzal either. he wished he had an education.

and sailee? her eyes were dry. unfeeling, like big black pebbles stuck still in their white envelopes. sailee had grown up just a few hours ago. every passing reel in the film made her aware of a deep hurt and anger bubbling inside her. the false promises made to her parents when they were alive, the teachers who wanted a school built over the land, the man who came with the bulldozers, a childhood spent washing away the bird-shit off cars, the never-appeasing hunger for food, for love, or for a soap to wash her skin with, a place to bathe in privacy… ‘every child is special.’ with every song, she became aware of the hypocrisy. this was the real world, she decided, where sailee and afzal and many thousands like them were born and perished each day. no flute-player in a red and yellow clown’s cape was coming for them.

“but i thought you liked aamir khan,” a confused afzal said, walking a quieter-than-usual sailee back home on the sepia-street-lit mumbai night. “i was wrong,” replied sailee without lifting her eyes. “i hate him.”

to sailee. may you soon find a place to bathe in privacy. from, the nri woman who was just visiting mumbai.

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