Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For The Love Of Madras

"But why did you go to Chennai again? Do you have family there?" It was the fifth time I was being asked this, or may be the tenth, I don't quite remember, and like all other times I had no answer.

Cities, like people, often come into your life unannounced. They stay with you until they are meant to and leave you when they are done, whether or not you like it, quite like people again. 

Growing up in the heart of hot and dusty small town North India, Chennai, or Madras as it was known then, was not a city I had known, not until I saw it on the map at the age of eight and travelled to it at the age of nine. The encounters however did little to increase my awareness about a land as good as foreign: what else can you call a place that takes two days and two nights to reach?

Perhaps that is why while growing up and dreaming about future, Chennai had no place on the canvas upon which I had painted the picture of my life. Delhi? Yes; Bombay? Perhaps; Calcutta? Never; Bangalore? May be; but Chennai? It did not even occur to me that coming here was an option. 

I heard of Chennai first by my to be husband who had experienced the city first hand. Going by what he told me, I had made a mental map of the place; the map, just like his experiences, was sad and dejected, and very, very biased. Forget about liking it, I did not even want to see the city. But then what is life if it does not alter your plans?

So one fine day, just like that, I found myself in the bustling metropolis, famous for being hostile to Hindi speakers and biased against the uncouth North Indian. As I walked alone along its busy streets and sauntered its lazy lanes, spoke with the auto drivers, and chatted with the street-food vendors, sought directions from the cops and help from flower sellers, I kept waiting for the hostility, hatred and bias but could not find any. Instead I found a companion in its streets and lanes, a friend it its people and places, an ally in its temples and mosques. 

Since that day, until now, even as I write this with my feet dipped in its blue waters, my skin caressed by its cool breeze, my eyes looking up every now and then to catch a glimpse of its gorgeous sky, I have missed no opportunity to be here, for who knows when the city decides to turn its back on me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

On A Patriotic Trail

This piece was published in The Hindu.

It is a scene straight out of a Hindi film. The day is bright and beautiful, the long straight road is flanked by lush green fields on both sides complete with tube wells and narrow irrigating canals; there is no trace of traffic or mankind only the odd car passing by. A few narrow lanes branch off the highway every now and then, perhaps leading into a prosperous village. I want to take one of these lanes and see if the villages here are also as filmy as the landscape but I have more important matters to attend. After spending the morning, at the Jallianwalah Bagh in the heart of the border town of Amritsar, I am brimming over with patriotism and there is no way I can miss the beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah Border.

The thirty-kilometer road from Amritsar to Attari takes me back to my parents who have described the drive and the ceremony of Wagah a million times over to me. As a young couple they had spent their honeymoon years in Amritsar and I have heard so much about the town that I have a mental map of every nook and corner of the place -- Golden Temple, Hall bazaar, Sadar bazaar, Model Town – you name it, and I know it. And so the drive looks all too familiar too.

The Jaliianwalah bagh had also looked familiar this morning as I crossed the hall bazaar buzzing with activity and people, dotted with hundreds of shops selling everything from swords to spices, Punjabi Juttis to Patiala shalwars. But it is one thing to imagine a place, quite another to witness it, especially something as momentous as the Jallianwalah Bagh.

As I walked inside the iron gate leading into a narrow passageway, my history lessons came rushing back. It is through the same passage that the British troops had entered the garden and had opened fire on thousands of innocent men, women, and children on the Baisakhi day in 1919. Their fault? They had gathered to protest against the arrest & deportation of their leaders under the infamous Rowlett Act. Since the park was surrounded by houses on all sides, and most exits were locked, there was no way for the people to escape. Many of them were killed by bullets fired incessantly for over ten minutes, while some, in a bid to escape the bullets, jumped into a well, and some were crushed under the feet of their fellow protestors in the stampede that followed. The incident, that left hundreds of Indian men, women, and even children dead was led by General Reginald Dyer who went on to become a hero with his people back in England.

I had, like most Indians, read the story many times over but seeing the place today was a different experience altogether. Although the park does not look much like it did almost a hundred years ago, there is little that the cosmetic change can do to alter its spirit, especially the anxiety that the musty well and the red brick walls with multiple bullet marks invoke. The picture gallery with paintings depicting the scale of the massacre, the eternal flame signifying the sacrifice of hundreds of Indians, the massive stone plinth erected in the memory of the martyrs, and the signboard that quite aptly describes the land here to be saturated with the blood of hundreds of innocent martyrs, can give even a dead man goose bumps. Driving through the picturesque road now, thinking of the scale of the tragedy, I can feel the hair on my arm stand.

My chain of thought is broken when I spot the large blue signboard announcing Lahore 27 Kms. Just then a large luxury bus passes by and I cannot help getting excited by the thought that the bus has just crossed the only permeable border between India and Pakistan.

The peaceful road leads us to unexpected clamour and chaos. Barely a kilometer away from the border, we suddenly spot cars, buses, autos, and two-wheelers jostling for parking space on and off the road. The abrupt and ugly dead end is infested with hawkers and rickshaw pullers alike who advise us to park our car and take a rickshaw until the first check point. I hear someone suggesting buying bottles of water and leaving all our belongings behind.

After duly parking the car, buying bottled water, paying thirty rupees for less than five hundred meters of rickshaw ride, we find ourselves at the first juncture towards the border. There is still some time for the gates to open and the crowds are swelling by the minute. The place looks like a mela ground now with people of all classes, castes, and religions rubbing shoulders for one common purpose: the same border that divided the country almost seventy years ago unites its citizens every evening.

The gates finally open and we are ushered into another long stretch of road with army barracks on either side. The men and women have by now been segregated. On my side of the road I spot a familiar building: a post office with read and white board announcing Attari Road Check Post, 143108. I can feel excitement building up in my gut. On the other side, where the men are, I spot a group carrying a giant tricolour shouting slogans of patriotism. To say that I am overwhelmed will be an understatement.

But patriotism is not the only thing overwhelming me; the heat, humidity and the crowds have now started to become intolerable. My little girl is on the verge of being crushed by the surging crowds; hundreds of women are pushing and shoving us from all sides, and I have to resort to pushing them away to keep my girl safe – something I do not like very much.

As the crowds grow denser and nosier, perhaps because today is eid, two men, dressed in khaki uniform riding on high ponies begin to hit the unruly mob with their batons. The women folk meanwhile are shouted at by their lady counterparts. Is this the Wagah border of my mother’s stories? I wonder as I try to ensure that my daughter and I are not killed in a stampede that looks inevitable.

The short walk from first check post to the second – where the crowd of thousands is being made to pass through a single dilapidated metal detector – takes us more than thirty minutes. But we are happy to have survived it. We are now standing at a relatively empty piece of road with Wagah on one side and Amritsar on the other. Even as we see our fellow countrymen walking with determined steps towards the border, their chest swollen with pride, we quietly make our way back towards our car.

That Girl In Muddy Boots

This piece was published in The Hindu.

The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. The closing verse from Robert Frost’s famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, reverberates in my mind as I pant my way along the muddy path evading grasshoppers, beetles, bugs and an occasional salamander. Even though these are no woods, and I have had a good night’s sleep, this is the closest I have been to woods in years, and I am on the verge of giving up. The lines therefore make perfect sense.

Remembering and playing the verse in my head repeatedly could also be my way of shutting out the nasal voice Arun, my guide for the morning. He is the owner of the coffee plantation I am staying at and a compulsive talker too. He has insisted that I come for the early morning trek with him (he has also arranged a pair of gum boots for me and has helped me put them on – much to my embarrassment) and has been talking non-stop right from the time we have left the cottage.

A visit to Coorg had been on my mind for years. I had been to the Himalayas, I had been to the Nilgiris, I lived not far off from the Aravallis, but I had yet to set foot on the Western Ghats. So when my friend suggested that I come with her to the plantations, I jumped at the opportunity. There was something else that she had told me: the coffee plants bloom in the middle of summer and that was the best time to be at Coorg, among low and dense foliage bursting with delicate white flowers which look and smell just like Jasmine. It was only after we had reached our home stay, a cozy set of cottages built alongside the residence of Arun and his wife Kaveri, that we realized the coffee flowers had already bloomed in spring. But by then I was so absorbed in the shades of green that surrounded us that the lack of white hardly mattered.

Located at an hour’s drive from Madikeri, the estate is as green as green can possibly be. We had reached there driving through narrow winding hill roads lined with tall oaks and shrubs and had almost missed the elusive turn to the estate. Far removed from habitation our place of stay is a true example of back of beyond. The cottages – there are only two of them, since the owners do not want to overcrowd the place – stand bang in the middle of the plantation. The day was bright and sunny when we had arrived in the afternoon; by early evening however, the sky had already turned a shade of charcoal and soon rains were lashing at the tiled roof of the cottages: what else could a parched soul from a concrete jungle ask for?

We spent the evening sitting on the cemented ledge of the long verandah sipping strong coffee and munching on crunchy onion and potato bhajjis made by Lakshmi, the doe-eyed housekeeper of the home stay. It was here, among the coffee and the bhajjis that I met Arun: he had come to say hello and had hung around through the evening talking animatedly about coffee, climate and Coorg; he had left only after I had agreed to go out with him around the estate in the morning.

In the middle of a thicket now, drenched in sweat with a steady stream of water dripping from millions of thick, broad coffee leaves on my arms and legs, struggling to climb the slippery hill, and surrounded by unruly branches and the abundant insect life I curse myself for having agreed to the trek: how nice would it have been to just sit in the verandah and write!

My chain of thoughts is broken by Arun’s voice. He is energetic as ever and is busy explaining to me why he has brought me here. “I want you to remember Coorg for a long time”, he says while offering me his hand. I reluctantly take it and climb another tricky rock. He keeps talking and offering me his hand even as I gasp for breath and almost slip over a pile of soggy leaves wondering if the climb will ever end.

I am close to tears of frustration and exasperation when I finally see rays of the early morning sun streaming in through the canopy of leaves. In another few minutes the dense shrubs magically disappear and we are standing on a large rocky clearing atop a hill that has no road or walkway.

As I look down at the sea of fluorescent paddy fields sprinkled with tiny ponds formed by last night’s rain, the thick forest along the horizon with trees that touch the clouds, the silver mist rising from the earth and mingling with the golden rays of the sun midway, and the height of the hill I have just climbed, my heart fills with gratitude for Arun. I now know what he meant when he said that he wanted me to remember Coorg for a long time. Thanks to him I will never forget it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Birthday Song

The weather tells me its my birthday,
if the weather says, it must be true;
the lashing rains, the grey skies,
the wet earth and the cool breeze nod in confirmation too;

The calendar tells me I turn 36,
if the calendar says it must be true,
but wasn't it only the other day I had turned 18,
Looking forward to the life I badly wanted to woo?

The mirror tells me I am growing old,
if the mirror says it must be true,
as if to prove his point further,
it shows me a handful of greys, and a few wrinkles too;

The clock tells me I better hurry up,
if the clock says it must be true;
with more than half of my life over,
I have little time left for all that I want to do;

My heart tells me relax my girl,
if the heart says it must be true;
for what does love, life, dream, and hope
with age have to do?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

All The World's A Stage

The first time I went up on a stage was two days before my ninth birthday. Our school, the junior wing of a prominent convent, was celebrating the independence day in advance and I had decided to -- or maybe was forced into -- singing at the event.

The function was conducted in a small hall with only students from class three and four and the respective teachers in attendance. It was an important day for me for not only was I going up to stage for the first time, but I was also celebrating my birthday in school. Dressed in a sky blue frock that my mother had stitched and a pair of fancy white ballerina shoes from Bata, I felt really special. 

The participating girls soon started to come up and talk and sing beautifully and confidently. When it was my turn I went up confidentially too but the sight of over a hundred heads looking up to me turned me into a bundle of nerves. I had, until then, only been a part of the crowd, and had never stood out of it. My knees shook, legs trembled and voice quivered. When I finally began singing, after much prompting by my class teacher, I felt the lyrics of the song fade from my memory, what remained were only tears of anxiety and fright. I stood there quietly for a few minutes with my head bowed with shame until the sisters sent me back to my class. Back with my pack, I felt my ears turning red with embarrassment as the entire section of girls looked at me. I did not like the look of pity in their eyes. Thankfully my birthday celebration took the attention away from the event.

The incident however haunted me for months -- the look on the teachers' face, the pity in my friends eyes, the dark cold hall -- it was far too humiliating for me to forget. Every time I walked past a bunch of girls, I thought they were talking about my miserable performance at the function. Thankfully, father was soon transferred out; from the posh town of Allahabad we went to a dusty place in the heart of western UP called Fatehgarh. 

The change of place did me much good. It was also perfect for a new beginning which I was determined to make. Slowly and steadily, with the help of the teacher's who doted on me, and students who looked up to the girl from a bigger town, I started to gain confidence. I also started to venture out on stage, although in groups. By the time I moved out to Fatehgarh to Lucknow, another few years later, I was confident enough to participate regularly in inter-school competitions. The sight of hundreds of heads looking at me still gave me a fright. My legs still shook and stomach still churned, but I ignored it. 

It was in class eleven or twelve that I had to go on to the stage alone once again. The house had decided to nominate me for the solo competition. I knew I would not be able to carry it off, but they insisted. Although I did not cry or run away from stage this time, I was still nervous enough to mix up my sur and taal and stand at the bottom of the ranking -- a pathetic fourth. The memories of 11th August 1988 came back to me. 

There are things a person chooses for himself, and there are those that life choose for you. Life, after a few years in college, chose to throw the nervous and self concious girl in me into the waters I could never swim in. From dreading to talk to people, I was soon talking to people for a living. My nervousness however had not left me. I was still unable to talk in front of a group. I stuttered and stammered if I was made to speak up and I preferred hiding behind the crowd. 

And then I became a trainer. 

Having no choice is sometimes good. However much I wanted to escape, I could not do without talking in front of a group now. First it was batch mates, then seniors, and then an entire room full of people looking at me. I had to live up to the expectations. I stood in front of the mirror and talked, I practised my content day and night, I did mock teach back to the walls: this time I did not want to fail, or stutter, or stammer. 

The first session was exhilarating. A group of twenty-five young men and women, mostly my age, looking up to me; looking forward to learning from me. I felt confident, in control, powerful even. The same thing that gave me goosebumps once now gave me confidence and satisfaction. Talking, addressing a crowd, making a presentation, representing the team soon became a way of life. 

Four years ago, at the age of three and a half, Mishti went up on stage for the first time. She was the only child selected for a mono act from the whole school. As she stood at the mammoth stage of the Air Force auditorium, I could feel a lump in my throat. I looked away from husband to ensure he did not see the tears of pride in my eyes. She spoke confidently and clearly, finished her act and received a standing ovation. Speaking unlike me came naturally to her. 

And today, coincidentally on another 11th of August, Pakhi makes her debut on stage, as the compere of the school assembly. Unlike her mother speaking comes naturally to her too.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Two Years, One Love

I started writing quite suddenly on this day, two years ago. There was no agenda, no ambition, not even a dream. I wrote because I had much to say but no one to say it to.

For a shy, introverted, and reticent person writing to express came as a perfect solution. It let me say things I had wanted to without having to face the world. It also protected me from its intrusive gaze and questioning looks on topics I chose to write about. But, most of all, it freed me of my inhibitions and demons. Never mind that I wrote quite badly. 

As I began to write and, as a by-product, read, some of my other old loves came back to life too. The love for notebooks, the love for fountain pens, the love for music, and the love of talking to myself.

They say a person who talks to himself is a lunatic: why would someone, in a world full of people, want to talk to him or her own self? But for me the only way to connect with others has been through connecting with myself first. As a young woman I often talked to myself for hours -- mostly loud enough for a third person to be able to hear -- it let me clear my head. Something that writing does now. 

Writing also brought out the person in me who had been kept buried inside for years. She was bold, fearless, open, honest; she disregarded opinions, was proud, haughty, contemptuous, and very, very independent. A person I had partially killed when I became a wife, and completely when I became a mother. For a wife and a mother should be a role model, not an outcast.

Surprisingly, in the last two years, it is this woman, the one I had killed and my writing resurrected, who gave me greatest joy. While to the world I remained a daughter, sister, wife, mother, someone who performed her duties and towed the line, my pen always brought out the rebel in me. The transition was so smooth that I wouldn't even get to know when I was Dr. Jekyll and when I turned Mr. Hyde. The catalyst, in this case, being the pen -- well figuratively.

Coincidentally, just before I had started to write, I also happened to clear off my phone book, Facebook, and memory of all the clutter. I realised that I had been hanging on to people who had had something to do with me once, but were no longer relevant -- people from school, college, work; relatives, neighbours, distant cousins. I suddenly had no desire to see what was happening in their lives, neither did I wish to share the details of mine with them. I remember feeling very light as I pressed delete button on the long list of names.

Although a fairly lonely exercise, writing brought along with it quite a few new friends. Whenever I felt lost or dejected by the uncertainty that writing -- that too with no specific purpose -- brings I would quite magically see a comment or two on my blog. Some said they resonated with me, some said they loved my writing, some even found me inspiring. These one liners from people who I had never seen or met were enough to pull me out of the deepest pit. Motivated by my readers -- even if only a handful -- I went back to writing with renewed vigour. Slowly, over a period of two years, some of these readers have become close friends -- the kinds who I look forward to interacting with.

Lately, however, I have been having doubts all over again. I am not sure where writing is taking me. It surely is not -- and cannot -- help me earn a living; I don't know if my dream of writing a book will ever be fulfilled, I am not sure if I am just wasting my time writing things that give me nothing other than the satisfaction of doing something I always wanted to. But then isn't satisfaction something that everyone craves ultimately?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

In Pursuit Of The Moon

Everyone who knows me knows about my obsession with the moon. There are people who wait for me to post pictures of it, there are friends who share their versions of the moon with me, there are some who call me to check if I have seen it yet. And there are also those who are very, very amused by my fascination.  

I have been chasing the moon for many months now. I am not sure when it started or how. Maybe it began on one of those nights when I was standing on my balcony after a long tiring day looking at the stream of planes take off and land. Or maybe on an evening while picking up the clothes from the clothesline. It is also possible that I noticed it when it peeped inside my bedroom from the tiny window as I lay dead tired in my bed. But one fine day I just found myself mesmerised by its splendour. In a matter of months from a random activity, moon watching became a fixation. Especially its changing forms.

Some days it was only a crescent, petite yet elegant. On other days, it was lopsided, as if someone had stolen a little slice off its side. There were also days when I could hardly spot it: it had risen even before the sunset and had gone far beyond my line of sight by nightfall. Then of course there were nights with no trace of him whatsoever. The most fascinating part however remained waiting for it to turn full.

I have spend many a night hanging on to the railing of the balcony, first waiting for it to appear, then trying to capture it in a frame and then, when it is way too high and bright, just craning my neck until it is beyond my sight. Even the full moon looks diffrent at different times. In summer, it is never too bright, or perhaps the sky is not dark enough for the brightness to come through. In monsoon it is hardly visible: the clouds decide to come in only on full moon nights; in autumn it is at its sensuous best: low, dull, rusty and larger than any other time of the year; in winter it gets whiter and brighter than any other time of the year. After a long day, the sight of the moon -- in whichever form -- acts as a balm for the tired soul.

The strategic location of my balcony however not only lets me witness the moon but also makes the sun available to me. Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I go out and look at the sun, and, most often catch it rising too. Unlike the moon it is always on time; it is perfectly round each day of the year, and does not have even one blemish on its face. Like a dutiful spouse, the sun is always there, even when you cannot see it.

The moon, on the other hand, is not only imperfect, but unpredictable too. It comes out as and when it pleases, or not at all. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and even in its absolute perfectness, it is imperfect like a flawed lover: it can get difficult to pursue him after a point.

A few days ago, I saw the rising sun, its golden rays lighting the sky, rejuvenating everything that came in their way; the warm glow turning my room into a canvas with shadows painting pretty pictures -- sometimes on the wall, sometimes on the floor. As I watched it play hide and seek with the clouds in all its perfectness, I decided to give up on the moon: why not pursue someone that stands by you at all times rather than chase someone who is fickle minded?

Then last night I saw the moon again: big, bright, beautiful, and perfect even with all its flaws. I could not help going back to it.