Friday, September 15, 2017

Beauty.

She never thought she was ugly, on the contrary, she believed herself to be charming and pretty.
Her belief lent her a poise and grace that was not easy to find in girls her age.

She often admired herself --  the long slender fingers, the curvy eyelashes, the little button nose,
Her eyes, she thought, were a bit small, but it did not affect her confidence, which was very, very tall.

Of her height she was very proud, so what if some parts of her body were a little stout?
Her wavy hair were her pride, her smooth complexion made her apple of everyone's eyes.

And then one day she met her best friend, the meeting was the beginning to many a end.

The friend thought she was dark and totally out of grace, she commented on how her silver earrings shone on a sun tanned face;
When a photographer said she could be a model so proud, the friend laughed about it out loud.
The laughter burnt a hole in a heart, something she could never throw apart;
The comments continued to flow -- sometimes it was her skin, sometimes face, sometimes even her small toe.

The wavy hair now seemed unruly, the copper skin suddenly became dark and ugly,
Her slender fingers ceased to matter, the long eyelashes were used to conceal tears lest they would splatter.

Her confidence fled like mice from a sinking ship, her poise went away on a lifelong trip,
The mirror became her biggest enemy, and vanity seemed like the deadliest blasphemy.

The friend left long ago, but not before her words dug deep trenches in her ego,
For three-fourth of her life she bore the burden of her comments, hating herself for things that she thought she ought to lament.

Today she finally decides, she needs to no longer hide -- the hurt, the pain, the dark skin, the thinning mane, she needs to take everything in her stride.
For she don't know what the friend really meant, was it actually a vicious jibe or just a kid's innocent comment?

Beauty they say rests in the eye, but the real beauty is what radiates from inside,
It does not matter if you are dark or light, if your eyes are small or skin bright, what matters is your confidence and your pride.

Let no one tell you how you should look, feel or be -- others opinion of you is your greatest enemy,
Be proud of whoever you are -- the sun, the moon, or just a tiny star;
For the sun and moon maybe full of might, but all we wish for is some magical starlight. 

*



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Following Tintin's Footsteps in Brussels


“Blistering barnacles! We are trapped!”

You can almost hear Captain Haddock shout as he leads Tintin and Snowy down the fire exit of a tall building. As always, they have landed themselves in trouble while trying to solve The Calculus Affair. A few miles away you find Tintin clinging to the wall outside his hotel in Chicago in a bid to get to the goon’s room. While the scene is from Tintin in America, it is being played at the Zuidstation in Brussels. You also see him perched up along with snowy over a multistoried building, smiling at the passerby, and walking along his entire entourage at an underground station in Stokel.

Tintin can be found everywhere in Brussels – on the walls, at underground stations, along the streets, in the marketplaces; in museums and even inside hotels, which have special Tintin themed rooms. And why not, Brussels after all is home to the world’s favorite reporter in baggy pants.

Tintin was first seen boarding a train to Russia from the Brussels station on 10th January 1929 in his debut strip, in the youth supplement of a weekly. During this time, a young boy dressed as Tintin could be found roaming at the Zuidstation greeting the passengers. The antic worked and the tiny cartoon strip soon metamorphosed into an iconic series we now know as The Adventures of Tintin.

“If you are a fan of comics, Brussels won’t disappoint you. Often called the comic strip capital of the world, Belgium is home to many popular characters like Gaston, Smurfs, Lucky Luke, and Tintin. All of them are loved in Belgium but Tintin is popular across the world. There is no better place than Brussels for a Tintin lover.” Françoise Flamente, an elderly lady, tells me as she walks me along the Tintin trail in the Belgian capital.

The starting point of the trail is the Belgian Comic Strip Center set by Tintin’s creator, Hergé.

A large prototype of the red and white rocket from Explorers of the Moon stands tall in the lobby ready to take off. You can almost hear Professor Calculus say “That’ amazing! That’s tremendous! That’s incredible!”

It indeed is incredible to see so much of Tintin in one place. Books in multiple languages line the shelves, collectables of all possible characters stand in glass cabinets, life size posters and exhibits are displayed all over. A series of sketches trace Tintin’s origin from a black & white line drawing to the dapper ginger head with the trademark quiff. It also outlines the evolution of Snowy, Tintin’s wire fox terrier modeled after the dog at Hergé’s favourite café, the loud mouth Captain Haddock, whose name came from the curses that the creator’s wife often hurled at him, and the famous glass-shattering opera star Bianca Castafiore, who, it is believed, is a dig at the creator’s opera-loving wife.

The imposing grey and cream building of The Royal Palace can transport anyone back in time, for a Tintin fan however, it has only one significance: it formed the backdrop of King Ottokar’s Sceptre. You feel like a detective yourself as you trace Tintin’s footsteps through the Brussels Park, to the exact spot where he finds the suitcase that helps him solve the mystery.

A short walk from the Palace leads to Boulevard Adolphe Max, home to Hotel Metroplole. The street and the hotel are seen in The Seven Crystal balls when Mark Falconers taxis his way to 26 Labrador Road, Tintin’s home. If you stand across the road with the comic book in hand opened to page 20, you’d almost find yourself inside the book.

The flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle that features in the opening sequence of The Secret of the Unicorn is a few miles away. The market, where Ivan Sakharine tries to persuade the Unicorn off Tintin, turns out just how Hergé had depicted it – an exciting mass of bric-a-brac and antiques laid out on the streets and tables. As you walk through the market, rubbing shoulders with the locals and tourists, you secretly wish to find the Unicorn, or perhaps Tintin, trying to guard the Unicorn from Sakharine.



The Tintin trail.

1. A mural of Tintin and Captain Haddock on Rue de L’Etuve from the book The Calculus Affaiar.

2. The Comic Strip House on Boulevard de l’Impératrice, depicts the evolution of the characters.

3. La Monnaie is the theatre that inspired Hergé’s drawings of the opera in The Seven Crystal Balls.

4. Park of Brussels at the Royal Palace, where Tintin finds an abandoned suitcase in King Ottokar’s Sceptre.

5. Across the park, is the Royal Palace, which inspired the home of the king of Syldavia in King Ottokar’s Sceptre.

6. Stockel Metro Station has two colourful murals with several characters from Tintin’s adventures.

7. Place du Jeu de Balle flea market featured in the Secrets of The Unicorn

8. Gare du Midi, the Brussels South Railway Station, features a Tintin mural at the entrance.

9. The first publishers of the Tintin books, Editions du Lombard, have a giant Tintin and Snowy sign on top of their office building.

10. The Tintin Boutique at Rue de la Colline 13, right in center of the town, stocks a host Tintin products including figurines, comics, stationary, and apparel.





















Friday, September 1, 2017

What is my worth?


What is my worth and how do I calculate it?

My bank account says I have a couple of hundred thousands – is that my worth?
My salary statement says I make a fraction of what I used to years ago – is that my worth?

The husband says he cannot do without me. The girls think they may not survive without me. Is running their lives my worth?

My housekeeper requires me to constantly need her, so that my money can constantly feed her. Is her need my worth?
My colleagues think I am great at what I do, and should be in a corner office making a fortune. Is their opinion of me my worth?

A few who read what I write, say a book I hold inside -- is being a writer my worth?
My words, floating all around, tell me my calling I have finally found -- is the fulfillment of a long lost dream my worth?

My prized possessions, my meager earnings, my hard work, my tiny rewards; my lovely home, my lovelier girls; my few friends, my fewer loves. Do they determine my worth?

But if they did, I would not have been declared 'low on self worth'.

So what is my worth and how do I measure it?

My worth is in my lost dreams, it lurks is in the crevices my broken heart;
It can be found in the ambitions I killed, it lives in the compromises I chose to reach.

My worth is in every no I said to myself when I could have said yes, in every yes I said when I should have said no;
It is in every dream I should have nurtured but decided to let it go, and every relationship I murdered for the sake of another to grow.

My worth lives inside every friend I lost, it lays dead is in every love I left in the past, my worth is in my failures, my vices, my demons, and my choices.
It lives inside the rejections and my abjection, it thrives on my heartache and my heartbreaks.

My worth is in all that I should have seen, should have done, could have been,
It is in the truths that I should have perceived, in the life I could have achieved.

No wonder it is in a deep pit, along with my soul, spirit, and my being;
So deep inside a gutter that it can no longer be heard, felt, or seen.

Jamshedpur: a jampot of flavours

Every evening, after the sun sets in the steel city, the sky lights up. The orange glow can be attributed partially to the burning metal at the steel plant, and partially, to the illuminated carts of food street in the heart of the town.

Tatanagar was founded a little over 100 years ago, when Jamsetji Tata decided to set up a steel plant there. His decision resulted in two things. One: an obscure village metamorphosed into a cosmopolitan hub of people from all parts of the country; and two: it brought the time-tested recipes from their kitchens and streets into this little hamlet. In no time, Tatanagar turned into a melting pot of flavours and textures. The best way to sample this mélange of tastes, textures, and flavours, is through the food street. Positioned along the well-laid-out J road, where pushcarts appear magically after dusk and bring with them the most lip-smacking, mouth-watering food one can imagine.

Take Raja’s dosa for example. His dosas are golden, crunchy and stuffed with julienned onion, beetroot, and cabbage, apart from the standard potato mix. Served with the local version of chutney — made with channa dal, not coconut — and watery yet flavourful sambar, they beat the South Indian ghee roast hands down. Or Ashok’s littis for that matter — the thick balls of flour stuffed with sattu, roasted on charcoal, and dipped in pure ghee; they are served with chokha, a spicy preparation of roasted potato and brinjal, mashed with a generous helping of mustard oil. One bite of this is all it takes for your taste buds to come alive.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for non-Jamshedpurians to understand what the fuss is about, why people from Tatanagar rave so much about the food here. But if someone hasn’t lived here, he will never understand what we are talking about,” says Krishna, a homemaker and a regular at the food street, even as she waits for her portion of litti. Her favourite happens to be chilli chicken and noodles from the van, and puchkas from the nameless man in the corner.

Her children, however, are ardent fans of the papdi chaat made with dry puchkas, mashed spiced potatoes and topped with tamarind chutney. While spice rules the roost here, there is also provision for sweet. The freshly fried jalebis and imartis and the dabbewali kulfi with falooda add much needed sweetness to the palate, balancing out the spice. It is this balance that makes the street treats of Tatanagar so special.

This post first appeared in The Hindu

An Ode to the Roll

“Yesterday, I had a roll at New Town. It was horrible! Ekdom baje. I knew only Kusum’s roll would be able to offset the trauma, so I came here.”

You know you are in Kolkata when you hear passionate discussions about food around you, especially street food. The shop in question has been standing in an obscure corner off Park Street for almost 40 years, and though inconspicuous by its presence, the serpentine queues outside, and the intense aroma around it, ensure you cannot miss the humble stall situated behind a large iron gate.
“No one is certain when the roll came to Calcutta, but everyone who knows Kolkata knows about Kusum Rolls. You see, every corner has a roll walah here, but nothing beats Kusum’s rolls,” says Rajat Mitra, a regular, who, as evident, swears by the shop.

A bright yellow board tells you that the rolls come in 30 varieties — egg, chicken, mutton, veg, paneer, cheese, liver, prawn and their variations — and the prices range from a paltry thirty rupees to a whopping two hundred and twenty. A total of three men man the shop. Their hands move in perfect coordination as they dish out rolls by the dozen, customising each one as they go: extra chilli in one, no chilli in the other, fried onion in one, raw in another; sauces, spices, eggs, onions — everything can be added, removed, reduced, or increased to suit your palate.

If you are a regular, you won’t even have to tell them — they remember it. I am neither a local, nor a regular, but the shop remains my first stop in the city. I know the menu by heart and also the chronology of actions. The parathas are fried on the griddle till they are about half done, eggs are simultaneously beaten and poured onto the centre of the griddle, the two are then combined and fried again, until each paratha becomes thick, flaky, and golden. Next, these are transferred to the counter where they are assembled in batches: meat goes in first, then the onions, chillies, spices, and sauces. Each roll is then wrapped in butter paper and handed over to you.

“Do you know these rolls were invented when the busy workers had no time to sit and eat their meal? Someone put his meat into his roti, and voila, the roll was born. Isn’t that amazing?” A woman tells another, even as the man on the counter assembles half a dozen chicken rolls at once. It surely is amazing to see how far these rolls have come.

The post first appeared in The Hindu

Friday, August 18, 2017

Of Late Night Writing and Early Morning Discoveries.

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Q. What happens when you write an emotional piece on your phone at midnight, when your mind is numb with sleep, hands are exhausted of typing, and heart is overflowing with emotion?
A. You create an incomprehensible piece of writing, which is high on sentiment, and negative on form, grammar, language, and every other parameter of decent writing.

As a rule I never post my pieces immediately after finishing them. I let them rest for sometime and let my thoughts simmer a little more. This gives me an opportunity to ensure what goes out is not only accurate but also structured well. Sometimes, however, I fall in the trap of “me too”. Last night was one such night.

After having stayed away from my blog, Facebook, and even Instagram for a while, I desperately wanted to write a something about my home-town-in-law. The idea was to put a small note on Instagram and follow it up with a longer piece on my travel page. So even as my back ached, fingers hurt, and mind almost shut down with exhaustion, I typed a longish post and put it up. The writing was a little raw, but I was okay with that: it was only on Instagram after all and I would have revised it before putting it on more formal forums. What I had not noticed was that I was simultaneously posting it on Facebook.

This morning, when I found notifications about the post on my feed, I realized what I had done. The post was high on emotion, but had no structure and form. The sentences were incomprehensible, the paragraphs were misplaced; there were vocabulary issues and punctuation errors. I tried to salvage the it by editing, but it was too late -- it had already been read and opinions had already been formed.

With so much conversation happening about writing everywhere, I do not think I ought to add anything more about the topic. But, as a person who has published over a hundred travel and food pieces in national dailies and weeklies, and uncountable blog posts on established forums on the Internet, I only want to emphasize upon the importance of structure and syntax. And, may I add, patience.

Being particular about what you write is not about being or not being a grammar Nazi. Nor is it about putting a person down. It is only about your honesty towards a craft you have chosen to pursue and respect for the language you have chosen to write in. It maybe okay to compromise on sentiment sometimes, but it is never okay to compromise on structure. Because showing respect to your craft is the least you can do. Isn’t it?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Secrets of an Insane Mind

It comes ever so quietly without so much as a knock, and before you know it, it has engulfed you in its repulsive suffocating lock;
It makes you low, it makes you sad, but worst is when it turns you mad;
Who is mad, but, my heart asks me -- someone who is crazy, someone who shouts and screams, or someone who the world tells you to stay away from, may be?

But aren't those mad who feign happiness, aren't those mad who mock sadness;
aren't those mad who abide by every rule, or the ones who think crazy isn't cool?
Your mind however is too numb to reply, all it wants to do is to lay in the bed and cry;

So you sit in a corner looking into space, or sometimes you stare at the mirror watching your own face;
Some days it looks pretty, some days it looks nice, but on most days it seems like you have put on a disguise;

You do not recognize your own eyes, your nose, your mouth, your silly crooked smile, and it is on these days you know the time has come to stay away from the world or all you will attract from them is despise;

You sulk and you mop, you weep and you cry, but you cannot reach out for help as much as you may try;
You fall you rise, you slip, you hold, but the truth about your mind must never be told.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Breakfast.


I have been on a de-cluttering spree off late. First in my parents' home, in Lucknow, trying to get rid of all that has been accumulated over the years in the lofts and cupboards, stores and attics and serves no purpose anymore, and later, in Delhi, where I have very little to get rid of.

Even though I am not really a hoarder and find it easy to let go of things (as opposed to people and emotions), I found over five used notebooks stacked inside my cupboard full of random musings and scribbling from the time I was totally into writing -- or at least thought so: I was either always reading, or writing, or writing about reading, or reading about writing.

Most of these notes are unfinished. Some are mere thoughts, some are phrases, some read like a verse of a poem. They were never published and never shared, and perhaps will never be used. So I had to let go of them. And I will.

Among the notes, I found this particular passage, written in the courtyard of a guesthouse in Pondicherry, four years ago. Something told me I should retain it, if I ever write a book, maybe, just maybe, it will fit in there.

"Four tiny vadas, and one sticky, steaming hot idli, eaten at a stall, sitting on a narrow bench that had turned black with dirt and grime, with just a few street kids playing across the road, and the family of three -- mother, father, son, -- taking turns at the stove, the tap, and the cash box, was the most satisfying meal I had eaten in a long, long time.

Part of it could be the setting. I was right in the middle of the French Quarters in Pondicherry, and right behind the roaring ocean. The sun had been up long -- about two hours -- but had yet to catch up on its strength, and sea breeze flew in gently. I had been out since five in the morning, had sat by the sea for over two hours, walked along the promenade twice and was famished when I spotted the family setting up the stall in the lane adjacent to the main avenue.

Just when I had finished polishing off the piping hot idli, served to me right off the steamer, and had started licking the plate clean of the freshly grounded coconut chutney --  an act which I otherwise never indulge in -- I noticed a man on the other end of the street looking at me intently. He would not have been a day over twenty-five and was perhaps waiting for his plate of idli. I was suddenly  embarrassed of what I was doing. I left the remaining chutney as it is and finished the coffee in one long gulp. As I got up to pay, I was conscious of his eyes following me.

Growing up in North India, I have experienced everything from roving eyes and curious looks to lewd remarks, cat calls, and even accidental brushing and deliberate groping, but I am used not to a set of eyes following me. I looked at the man again: I wanted to make sure I was not making this up. And sure enough, he was looking at me. Now I was even more awkward and uncomfortable. He had seen me seeing him.

In the past twelve years, I had seldom been on my own. Either the husband or the girls had been stuck to my hip, and in such a case two things happen: a) you are too preoccupied with people around you to notice others, b) others don't pay attention to you. So the feeling of being observed that morning was alien, and, unnerving. At thirty four I felt like fourteen, unable to decide how to deal with the situation.

And so, even though I was thoroughly enjoying sitting on the grimy bench, soaking in the sight and smell of the freshly cooked food and wanted to hang out there doing nothing, I left abruptly."

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dadimaa and I


I did not cry when she died. Not even a single tear drop. I don't know why. The events preceding her death are not etched in my memory either. All I vaguely remember are some phone calls informing that she had been taking to the hospital, probably for the last time, and that father and brother are with her, along with the rest of the family. And that I was supposed to stay put where I was for I had already met her recently, and taking care of my mother and children was equally important. It is unclear why though, especially because all other such events are etched in my mind.

It could be because I was 2000 miles away and too preoccupied with caring for a mother who had been brought back from the dead, a toddler, a home, a husband, my work, and was carrying a little life inside me. But I think more than anything else it was the relief, happiness even -- of her getting rid of the pain and suffering she had been in for over six months.

I had never seen my grandmother weak or frail. Not when half of her lung was removed due to tuberculosis at the age of 20, not when she lost a son at the age of 50, not when she had to care for a sick husband at the age of 75, not even after his death. While most other women of her time and age would have surrendered to life's miseries, she only went from strength to strength, remaining the head of the family she always was.

My dadi had only one weakness: her love for her children -- and their children. She loved all of us to death and would do anything for us. I remember her making fresh rotis for the whole family even at a time when all mothers-in-law did was order their daughters-in-law around. Every festival, she sent all the daughters-in-law out of the kitchen to enjoy while she prepared the most elaborate and beautiful meals all by herself. She traversed the country alone for them, showered them with gifts and love, and expected very little in return. No, not even a son. If anything, she loved and pampered girls more than the boys.

I was born at a time when the birth of girls wasn't usually celebrated. Especially if they happen to be the first born to the first born. But mine was. I can never forget the happiness on her face in the picture where she's holding me, perhaps for the first time. Dadi maa not only loved me to bits -- barring a few times when my brother came in the way -- but she also thought I was the most good looking and the most hardworking girl around. While none of this was true (love is blind, isn't it?), it always made me feel good about myself. Whenever I heard her talk about me to her friends or a relative, my heart would fill with joy and pride.

It has been six years since I felt that joy, or pride. And a little over six years since I last saw her . She had told me, yet again, how much she liked my 'gol chehra aur salona rang'. Six years since she reiterated how wonderful a job my husband has done of taming me. "Debashish, aapne to Puja ko ekdam badal diya hai" she would tell him and he would beam.

As I write this, I can almost see her sitting oh her bed in my aunt's home in Calcutta. Her face pale with pain, her eyes yellow with jaundice, and her body just a faint shadow of the robust, ample strength that it once encased within itself. I can hear her telling my aunt that she still cannot cook properly while halfheartedly gulping down spoons of sooji ki kheer.

But it is not only today, on her death anniversary, that I can see and hear her. I often do. And almost always she is up and about in her starched cotton sari, making a roti, frying a kachauri, walking down to the mandir for keertan, or going to the park. I can hear her hum her favourite tune in the kitchen and tell the same family tale nth time. I can see her sari fluttering in the air from mummy's balcony (she always washed it herself) and her pale glass churis jingling (she never wore bright gaudy stuff) as she knitted yet another frock for my daughter. But I miss her the most when I try to cook like her and realize I cannot.

Apart from cooking I am what my dadi was in many ways -- both good and not so good. Just like her, I am a strong willed, protective, hard working person, who is also stubborn, fiercely independent, and fond of a good life -- and like her, love happens to be my only weakness. Even though I may not have cried when she died, my heart cries for her more often than I ever imagined, and sometimes my eyes join too. Especially when I ruin her bharva tinda recipe. I am sorry, dadi maa!




Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Of Music and Irrerapairable Holes in Your Souls.

They say you leave a little bit of yourself with everyone you have loved -- and lost. No wonder then that we eventually remain just a skeleton of who we once were: when you give away parts of your heart, soul, mind, and sometimes even body away skeletons are the only things that remain, isn't it?
Sometimes, while looking at the mirror, you wonder how would you have looked had you retained all parts of yourself. Probably more beautiful, more complete?

This thought -- of looking better with your chunks intact and retaining yourself -- then forces you to withdraw from people and relationships lest you give away whatever is remaining too. You feel super proud of the indifference that you have conditioned yourself to and believe that the skeleton is slowly and steadily filling up with new flesh and blood. And yet you somewhere long for someone to who you can handover whatever remains of you. To who you can truly belong.
 
However hard we try, the parts that we have given away do not ever come back. The craters that they create in your souls never fill up, the aches in your heart never heal. You merely learn to live with the incompleteness pretending all is well. But life has a way of reminding you of your losses every now and then.

In such times, when I am reminded of my losses, I am also reminded of a song. It is said that when Gulzar saa'b handed over the lyrics of this song to RD he threw a fit. "Next you'd get me newspaper cutting and tell me to make music for that!" He shouted. But RD being RD and Gulzar Saa'b being Gulzar saa'b, the song was made. And what a song it was.

I had first heard the song when I was no older than ten. I wanted to hear it more often but had no idea how to. Back in the day there was no youtube where you could type the words and get the song. By the time I heard it next, I was, I guess in my teens.

Can you guess which one is it?

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Books and I

My love affair with books began very late in life. In my 30s to be precise. Until then they had been passing acquaintances, the kinds you'd spend a few minutes with while waiting for the kids at the bus-stop, but never invite home. It is not as though I did not try to read. In college, after I got married, during holidays, and on many other occasions I tried very hard to strike a friendship with them. I picked up recommended titles and spend hours agonizing over them but all they helped me do was sleep (which was not a bad thing though). 

Turns out it was the classic case of kissing the wrong frog, or many of them.

It was only after I had completely given up on reading, and myself -- I had kissed too many wrong frogs, you see -- that I finally met my prince in a travel book. And then began the journey of discovering a world I had no idea existed. Day after day, week after week, month after month, my non-existent bookshelf filled up with authors and titles I hadn't heard of. Some of whom I loved, some who I adored, and some who went on to become close friends (all hail Facebook!). 

It is these books, and their writers, that also made me pick up my pen. They taught me that no matter how ordinary you might be, as long as you can put into words your deepest feelings -- fear, joy, love, agony, desire, longing -- you can be an extraordinary in your own way. They gave me a sense of purpose. This purpose, pardon me if I sound too cliched, changed the course of my life. From a listless, lost, and borderline depressed person, I became a bold and fearless writer who apart from feel-good stuff, also wrote about things good girls don't even talk about. 

Something else also happened in this time: the writer in me got so involved in writing and creating new stories that it overshadowed the reader in me. While I kept buying more and more books, I had no time to read them. In the last few weeks a lot of people have asked me why have I not been writing, I had no answer. How could I explain the loss of words, thoughts, and ideas? How could I disclose the long list of half-written articles, incomplete stories, and abandoned posts. I am a self-proclaimed writer after all? 

This morning after sending everyone off I sat down with myself to introspect. And it is then that I spotted the thick layer of dust on my books. I also noticed over half a dozen new books that have remain untouched for months. I immediately abandoned the idea of introspection and picked up a duster. As I dusted each book, smelt its pages, and arranged it back on the shelves of the rack, I could feel the words returning to my pen.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Depression, Anxiety, Worthlessness: A Recipe For Losing Friends

The worst thing about anxiety, worthlessness, polarity and chronic stress is the way they affect your relationships. They make you do things to people you'd normally not do. It makes people do things to you that they normally wouldn't.

In this state of SAD—Stress, Anxiety and/or Depression—you sometimes, for no valid reason, spew venom on people closest to you. You call, text, or even wake people up in the middle of the night just to fight or have an argument. All this not because they have done anything to deserve it, but because you are in such a deep pit yourself that all you can to do is try to pull people inside along with you. How do I know all this? Because I have done it over and over again.

Some of my friends, upon being pulled into the pit have given me company—they have read jokes to me, have offered me a drink, have cooked for me and fed me. Some have stayed inside the pit with me out of compulsion but run out the minute they could; later they blamed me for all the dirt they had accumulated there: they were now smeared with the same dirt as I. And then there have been those who have come in and taken me out to show me the world that exists outside the hellhole.

Stress, anxiety, depression happen to many of us and because of many reasons. Some of us are affected more than the others, and some of us deal with them better than others. This does not mean that those who are affected more—or can cope less well—are inferior to those who do not go through it, or deal with such emotions better. But society makes us believe so.

We, as a culture, are so used to people playing normal and complying with the unwritten rules of the civilized society, that any aberration becomes difficult to handle. Because we do not know how to respond to a sensitive situation like mental well-being (or the lack of it), we do what we can do best: we label. Someone dealing with anxiety is labelled as a weakling, someone dealing with depression becomes overly and unnecessarily sensitive; those who suffer from polarity issues become irresponsible and moody attention seekers, and those who suffer in the hands of chronic stress become crazy lunatics. In short, they suffer twice over: 1) at the hands of their condition, and 2) at the hands of society.

A lot of my friends have told me that I bring this sadness upon myself. They believe that I look out for things that are not right and then wallow in misery. They feel that I enjoy self-pity and self-hurt. Then there are those who have seen me suffer and advised me to loosen up; to chill and relax. I have lost count of how many times I have been told that I can be happy if I choose to. Unfortunately with every such accusation and advice, I have only gotten farther from people.

The thing about such feelings is that they isolate you from the world around you. You see the world as them and I. You look at them being happy and going about their lives while you continue to suffer. Often in silence, without anyone stopping by to really listen and understand. The few who do stop by shower you with unsolicited advice. In the whole bargain you only get bitter about the world and wary of its people. It becomes a vicious circle in which you are trapped forever.

But you have to break the circle. That is the only way you can escape this chaos. There are times when you gather courage and seek help. You try to tell people about what you are going through. You try to put into words a feeling so inexplicable that your vocabulary falls short. If your own thoughts sound alien to you, how would someone else understand them? How do you explain to a normal person the knots in your stomach, or the sinking of your heart? The tears that appear without a reason and refuse to stop? How do you convey the helplessness and dejection, the fear that grips you and the anxiety that paralyses you? How do you justify the highs and the lows, the agonies and ecstasies?

Most of my highs have been followed by lows. The happier I have been, the more forlorn I have become. The feeling of being on top of the world, in no time, transforms into a feeling of uselessness and worthlessness. The transformation is so sudden that often I don't know what to make of it. It is therefore quite understandable if others around me cannot. It's also possible that they see me as someone who is moody and irresponsible, and someone who is erratic and insensitive towards others. I guess I cannot blame them. After all they can only see the manifestation of the anguish, not what goes on within.

But it feels good when people understand you. Or at least try to. When they trust you and believe you. When instead of doling out advice, they listen. Sometimes all you need is someone to talk to without the fear of judgment.

Many people have understood and forgiven me. Many have lent me an ear when all I needed was to talk; they have been there when all I needed was a shoulder to cry on. They have hugged me when I was afraid, held me when I was anxious, been with me when I was dazed, confused, or just plain sad. But there have been many more who have neither forgiven, nor helped. Who got so overwhelmed by the dirt in my pit that they decided never to get close to me again. Ironically these were the ones I relied on the most. Maybe I had hurt them beyond repair: you always take those closest to you for granted, don't you?

 The post first appeared in The Huffington Post

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Letting Go or Holding on? The Most Difficult Descision There Is.

I am quite indifferent when it comes to technology. I do not care what brand of TV we have at home, or if we possess the best quality Home Theater System or not (although, apparently, we are quite close, or so husband says). That is also why I have always had the cheapest cell phones, just a passable cordless, and no i-pads, tabs, digicams, DVD players etc. And there is a reason behind this: I believe spending money on expensive gadgets is a waste. It is after all only a machine with a fixed lifespan, and, the minute you buy it, its value begins to depreciate -- much like a car, which also I don't quite care about.

The only exception to this was my laptop. A beautiful white MacBook that had come to me 8 years ago. It was a present from my husband and something that I had been resisting for years. I still remember that evening vividly when husband had handed the machine over to me. I remember opening it in the dining room of our beautiful, airy, Bangalore home. I can still feel the smoothness of its case, and the crispness of the butter-paper between over pristine white keys. The track-pad that was moved like butter, the keys that were soft like cheese, and the display that was crystal clear. But most of all I remember the happiness it had filled me with.

In retrospect these expressions may seem superlative, a little over the top even, but at the time, when I used a dilapidated, almost dead lenovo, whose keys were coming off and battery was dead, the delight to see something so beautiful was unparalleled.

This machine soon became my alter ego and remained my most trusted friend ever since. It saw me struggle through long, sleepless nights when I was carrying my little one in my tummy, it helped me fight loneliness and anxiety when I was carrying darkness in my heart. It kept me company when everyone else was either too busy or too tired for me. And yes, it also did the usual stuff that laptops do like helping me work better, listen to good music, watch good movies, and entertain my kids. It was on this machine that I turned into a writer too. Also on a sleepless night in Bangalore while introspecting the reason and purpose of my existence. And then in Delhi, where night after night I would turn to its warm glow to remove some darkness from my soul. During the hardest times, it was my laptop that I would turn to, and it always showed me a way out.

There is one more thing it did. It spoilt me. No, actually, it ruined me. I had, as they say, had become a MacBook snob.

For the past many months though, owing to my incessant use and my children's periodical abuse, the machine had started to get moody: it had become slow, it would not charge, its battery was as good as dead. I knew I had to fix it, but I never found the time: there was always something more important to do. And now, that I wanted it to work, it wouldn't. It was too old and outdated for the service centers to fix it, and too precious for me to take it to some shanty. To keep my life running, I bought a new one.
With the arrival of its rich cousin, my old friend got sidelined. It remained the old, loyal friend who plays no active part in your life, and yet is important. But I could not let it die. I had to finally get it to a shanty where took just a few thousand rupees and a few days for tit to be running. I was elated. The kids were overjoyed. But in just a few months it started acting up again. I fixed it again, but it was back to square one in a matter of days. And so, it lay dead in my cupboard for the past few months. 

Yesterday, I finally took it to the shanty again, in a hope to revive it. 
I spent the whole day standing in front of a 4' x 6' shop staring at the 20 something boy who kept fiddling with it. I saw its entrails being taken out, I noticed the dust and grime inside it (despite all the care I took of it), I experienced how difficult it had become to maintain it. I ran from shop to shop trying to find a battery that works, and a charger that will not give up in three months. I was told that I was lucky if the spares last even a year when new machines are dying in a matter of months (who is making such machines, I wonder), but I finally found the spares. And even though it meant shelling a hefty sum to restore it, I was ready to do that. And then something happened. Just as I was ready to pick it, I realised, the click button had stopped working. And so began another long wait.

But even as the boy sat cooped up in his hole with my machine doing his best to make it work, something snapped in me. Standing there teary eyed, looking at the old but dear friend being torn out yet again, it occurred to me that its time may have finally come. That maybe, just maybe, I have to let it go. It took me a lot of courage, but I eventually walked out of the shop, leaving the machine behind. 

Since last evening, I have been thinking only about it. On one hand I am feeling terribly guilty to have left it, on the other I know there is no point spending more and more resources on a dead commodity. My head says I should leave where it is and if someone needs it, he/she will use it, but my heart says I should fix it and get it back.. you do not give up on old friends do you?

Who do I listen to is something I do not know.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Lookalike


She picked up a burnt stub from the ash-tray and ran her finger around its end tracing the lines of his mouth on the smooth amber that concealed the filter. 

"How does such a delicate strip of paper manage to nestle so much toxicity and yet remain unaffected?" She thought to herself even as she placed the butt in her mouth pretending to take a drag
 
"Do I look like you?" She asked shyly propping herself against the pillow, pretending to take another drag

Amused by her antics, he smiled faintly and lit a fresh stick, placing it between his nicotine stained lips.   

"Why do you want to look like me?" He asked exhaling the smoke

"I just want to." She replied, breaking into a slight smile.
 
In that moment, propped up against the pillow, with the burnt cigarette between her fingers and the slight smile on her mouth, she really did look like him.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Flying Full Fare or Buying from a Seconds Sale?

Travelling in Air India is like shopping at a seconds sale.

You walk into the shop knowing you're going to buy a compromised product, but you are happy nonetheless because the white shirt that you had wanted so badly, will, perhaps, be within your budget now. Even though it may have some insignificant flaws. It's collar may be dirty, or some of its buttons may have come loose, it may also have a minor nip here or a tiny cu there -- but you can wash the collar, fix the nip, and fasten the buttons, can't you?

So excited you are that you are also prepared for a second class treatment by the salesmen and women. On their part, they will not only be short staffed, but the ones around may be cleaning their nose with bare hands and wiping their hands on their shirts. If you are lucky you can hear one of them sing a Kishore Kumar song for you otherwise you'd have to make do with the bickering about their bosses. The others, if there are more than two, will either be busy taking selfies or checking their facebook accounts. Upon asking them for your size in the shirt -- yeah the same white one -- they'd scornfully tell you that their brand doesn't make shirts your size.

But you will ignore all that. You will also ignore that the clothes are thrown around in heaps, like they are ready to be sent to a dhobi, or a dry-cleaner; while in a smaller shop, you'd make a fuss about the way they fold clothes, or stack them, here you will turn a blind eye to the heap. You will quietly, and patiently, look for your shirt in the heap, for a piece that is least dirty, has maximum buttons intact and somehow fits your 'too large for the brand' frame. The one you find would already be taken, so you will fight with the fellow shoppers -- also out to get the only piece that fits them. But you will loose.

So you will begin the search again. And eventually, after almost an hour, get one with a few unnoticeable marks along the sleeve, a minuscule nip in the cuff, and the collar button missing. 'No one will notice these, after all it's a luxury brand' is what you'd tell yourself and lap it up.
When you will get to the billing queue, you'd find out that the card machine is not working and you cannot pay through paytm or any such fancy payment app. The queue is long and you cannot leave the shirt back: who knows if you'd ever find it again? So you'd do a mental math, search all your pockets, and proudly take out one pink note (yeah! we all have that tucked away somewhere discreetly).

You will finally reach the billing counter smug at your victory. By now you have already thought of the occasion on which you will debut the shirt and googled how to remove the stains. You have planned what button to put on the collar and how to wear it in a manner that the label is visible. But when you hand over the shirt and the pink note to the cashier, you will be told that the piece is not on sale and you have to pay full price for it. Angry & frustrated, you will throw the coveted shirt at the cashier's face -- with scenes from the last one hour flashing through your mind -- and will walk out of the shop seething with rage.

While in case of this shirt, you can walk out in a fit of rage, on board Air India, you cannot do anything like that. You sit there looking at all the tamasha that unfolds, knowing very well that you have paid full price for a service that is not even worth seconds' sale. And you are amazed at your own stupidity.

P.S. Any similarity to people dead or alive, or organizations -- dead or alive -- is totally deliberate.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Uncle Amit

"Such stories make me sick!" A friend had said when I had shared this piece with him before submitting it for a fast fiction competition a few years ago. Incidentally the story happened to be my only entry that did not make it to the finals. Perhaps it made the publishers sick too. 
 
We all find such stories sickening. The writer feels sick writing them, the readers feel sick reading them, and the publishers often feel so sick that they do not publish them at all. Unfortunately, unlike the stories, the truth cannot be wished away. The truth remains the truth irrespective of our feeling sick about it. 
 
It's time we stop feeling sick and start accepting it as a fact. Accepting your sickness, after all, is the first step towards treating it.

Today when I look at it, the story looks very weak and it's literary value negative. Perhaps because it was very hard for me to write: everytime I sat down to finish it, I could feel the bile rising in my gut, I wanted to get over and done with it at the earliest.
 
Even if you feel uncomfortable, do finish reading it. And understand that such things happen in everywhere. The only way to stop it is to be aware, vigilant and sensitive. 
 
Meanwhile I will re-write this as soon as I can, as lucidly as I can, even if it makes me throw up in disgust.
 
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


He was sitting and chatting with her mother when she returned from school. He looked at her and smiled. She forced a smiled back and rushed into her room. Her heart pounded against her chest and her throat parched, she quickly shut the door and reached out to her desk for the water bottle. The bottle was empty and had his fingerprints on it. His bag lay on the floor, next to her bed. She was wondering if she should go out to get some water or stay locked inside, when her mother knocked at the door. “Amit uncle has been waiting for you, come and have your lunch”, she said. Ria reluctantly came out in the loosest possible clothes; she wanted to hide every part of her body from him. Even as she sat quietly at the table trying to swallow her food, she could feel his eyes scanning her body.

At twelve when her friends were still in their slips, Ria had already blossomed into a young woman – a development she was fully aware of. She was also aware of why Uncle Amit was here today.

A few months ago, when he had visited them after a gap of many years, Uncle Amit, as always, was made to share Ria’s room. That night she had woken up with a start. She had felt something on her back. At first she thought it was an insect or a lizard perhaps, and was about to scream when she saw her uncle put his finger on her lips, signalling her to stay quiet. He kissed her on the left cheek even as his hand continued to explore her grown-up body. She had been too shocked to react. The following morning he had left in a rush.

Today he seemed relaxed and spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and talking to her parents. Ria, on the other hand was nervous, the scenes from that night played over and over again in her mind: his fingers on her back, his hands on her thighs, his feet on her legs. She felt bile rising up her gut. As the night drew closer, Ria knew she had to act; she could not let the events of that night be repeated. “Amit will share your room for the next three days, Ria” she heard her father tell her at dinner table.

She was in her room, pretending to study, when he knocked. Her parents had already gone to bed and Uncle Amit had been watching TV in the hall. Frightened, she quietly slipped into her bed and turned the lights out. She could hear him knock at the door and call her name out for sometime, after which there was silence. She spent most part of the night hiding under her covers sweating profusely, expecting him to break open the door anytime.

“Your uncle had to suddenly leave” Ria’s mother told her when she woke up in the morning. Ria could finally feel her breath returning to her bosom.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Picnic Aboard the Steel Express


Like most people of my generation train travel occupies a special place in my heart, especially the food. From the homemade poori-aloo-pickle packed neatly in steel tiffin boxes, to pantry made not-so-hot meals served in foil casings, to the piping hot samosas and cutlets that arrived fresh at every station – it was the food that made the sleeper class, cross-country train rides of the my childhood special.

My reason for travelling from Tata to Calcutta in a non-ac coach this morning is the same: food.

I was introduced to this route, and its food, on a similar morning fifteen years ago as a new bride. Tired and famished from the wedding mayhem, I had gorged on the food all throughout the 4-hr journey, while my new husband had indulgently looked at me. Fifteen years later, the husband may longer be indulgent, but I am still famished.

The most interesting thing about this train is that in a short span of 4-hrs, it crosses two states and some important stations. Each one of them – the state and the stations – has its own specialty. Take Ghatshila for example, known for its rasmalai and milk cake from a shack close to the station. Legend has it that the train used to make a brief stop in front of the shop only so that the passengers could run and get their sweets. Then there is Kharagpur. Famous for nurturing intellectuals at IIT, and nourishing the travelers like us with the most delectable luchis and aloo sabzi. The tiny luchis, served in portions of four, are fluffy and soft, and the potatoes spicy. The highlight of the dish however is the single piece of dum-aloo perched on top of the stack of luchis. (No, you cannot bribe the seller to give you more than one of those.)

Apart from Rasmalai and Luchi-aloo, there is also Vegetable and Potato Chop, Jhaal Muri and Ghugni, Samosa and Coconut Water, and the Railway special breakfast of Bread, Butter, Omelette and Bread, Butter, Chicken Cutlet on offer.  In short, being on this train is like being in a picnic on wheels.  

I am lost in thoughts of food, wondering how long would I have to wait before the first installment of food arrives, when I hear a familiar call. It is the nasal sound of the chop-seller, who carries hundreds of perfectly fried veg-chops in his wicker basket wrapped in a red cloth. The crispy vegetable chops, which are a personal favourite, are served piping hot on a dried leaf accompanied with cucumber and onion salad, green chili, and a drizzle of black salt. No sooner than I dig into the first one (I have three), do I see the hitherto elusive pantry guy. Dressed in grey uniform with a strip of paper and a pen in hand, he is taking orders for breakfast. Almost simultaneously, the jhalmuri & the ghugni sellers also get on to the coach. As more and more vendors start streaming into the coach, I know my long awaited picnic has finally begun.

Of Walking, Running, Writing, and Publishing and What Ambition Has To Do With It.

Ambition is a strange thing. On the face of it, it pushes you to achieve goals that you may find way beyond your reach. It makes you snug after every small and big accomplishment -- you know that warm fuzzy feeling of self-pride and satisfaction? In the long run however, it makes you more and more discontented with every passing day -- you are forever running to acquire more, to scale greater heights, never satisfied with what you have achieved.

In this race, which you are often running with only yourself, you are so busy looking ahead that you have no time to look around or enjoy what you have worked hard to attain, until the day you realise the futility of running.

If you are lucky you understand it sooner than later, and manage to find some time to smell the roses that you have worked hard to grow. If not, you realise it after the roses have withered and all you are left with are stubs of a once healthy plant.

My writing sometimes seems to me like that bed of roses to me. The one, which I sometimes stand and stare at with joy and, and run away from at other times.

In the years that I wrote for myself, and for the art and the craft of writing, it gave me immense satisfaction. I felt truly gratified after finishing a blog post which would have taken nights to finish (I never write my blogs in the day) or a poem that was scribbled in an auto travelling to work or at the bus stop waiting for the girls. But from the day the ambition of being published got on to my head, I started to run. I began running to achieve more and more, running to defeat my own shortcomings as a writer, running to see my name in print week after week. And let me tell you, I immensely enjoyed the races too; I got the same warm and fuzzy feeling, the same sense of smugness every time I saw my name in newsprint. It was something I had always dreamt of.

What it robbed me of, however, is the spontaneity and joy. The excitement of doing something only for my craft, for learning more, for the few people who genuinely care for my growth as a writer. And the thrill of writing just about anywhere -- in the car, on the top berth of the train, at work, in between meetings -- just about anything.

When I read my old posts, I am sometimes surprised by the quality of writing and the clarity of thought. I cannot say if my current work is worse than before, but it surely isn't better.
So this year, I have decided to tame my ambition. To try to smell the roses more often. To try and look around as I walk -- not run -- towards my success. For if I am destined to succeed, I'd succeed anyway, and if not, I'd have at least enjoyed the race.