Ahoy 25!

What is so special about the number twenty-five? When I woke up to a warm morning on May 17, I asked myself this question.

May 17 has come and gone every year. It came in the year 1993 too. The day was special to a family in the small town of Palakkad. The young girl of the house was getting married that day. Buzz and excitement filled the house. Tension swelled over too. Prayers ran thick and fast for the smooth conduct of the day’s events. That was the day I got married. A young twenty-four year old bride stepped into a new world that day.

That was twenty-five years ago! Now looking back it seems just like yesterday. But thinking back,it has been a lifetime of experiences. Good, bad and the in-betweens. Together, we faced it all. From being total strangers to building a life together is no mean feat. I genuinely feel proud about that.However, the fact that we are not the first couple to do so is a humbling thought.So amidst a quiet and private celebration, we rang in another year. Twenty-five then seemed just another number. Or is it?

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Exalted Motherhood

It is that time of the year again when a mother is placed on a pedestal and odes are dedicated to her. With the onslaught of social media, I am drowned in the wishes and messages that deluge in with the crack of dawn. Such an onslaught has made me dread the second Sunday of May. I really don’t understand this eulogy. Truly.

Four decades ago, I was a little girl who then soon grew into a young woman, got married and twenty three years ago became a mother to a son. I washed, bathed, clothed, educated and provided for this child of mine. Do I need to be remembered for it? No. I was just fulfilling the duties of a parent. Just as every parent does. Not just humans, but every parent in the animal kingdom does that. I was kind and gentle at times and strict and tough or cruel at other times. I have been caring at times and careless at other times. I have been observant at times  and neglectful sometimes. I have been extremely patient but irritable too. The graph has never been even or predictable. That is because in addition to being a mother, I have been a wife, daughter, sister,friend, neighbour, colleague and what have you.

I can never claim that I have provided the best of parenting to my son. I tried my best. I have been good but faltered many times. Therefore such eulogy on motherhood unsettles me, confuses me, makes me insecure. I don’t befit such praise. And such lavish praise indirectly puts the pressure on every mother to live up to such dreamy perfection. And I am far from perfect. I am ready to declare that from any mountain top.

As we send Mother’s Day greetings thick and fast, ever thought of the women who are not mothers? Where does that leave them? Aren’t we relegating them to the depths of hell? Aren’t we telling them of how unfortunate they are?

Being a mother, a parent for that matter is a tough task. What used to be done in a matter of fact manner until sometime ago is exalted and overrated now. There have been mothers, and there will be mothers. They have and will just go about performing their duties. And there is just this much to it. Period.

 

Celestial Strokes

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Winter skies in Mumbai is Mother Nature’s own canvas that she paints in gay abandon. The little nip in the air, the rosy sunrise and the cacophonous early morning chatter of hundreds of birds in the neighbouring abandoned plot of land, fills me with a deep sense of well being. The typical cynicism of a city dweller quickly dissipates into a feeling of bliss. A lungful of cool morning air is all I need to be reminded about the miracle called life.

Slumped

He stood there, head held high,

A look that bore a hole through me,

A look that visioned a distant joy,

I was not part of that happiness.

 

Bags packed, cupboards turned inside out,

All traces of an earlier life fast disappear,

The room is all yours, he said,

My throat felt dry searching for words.

 

His youthful skin glowed,

Deft fingers ran over his suitcase.

I watched; a heavy tear wound down

The wrinkles of my face.

 

Long strides, murmur of goodbye,

He reached for the door handle,

Without a glance, swung out,

I slumped down, my heart lead heavy.

 

It is the story of every mother, they say,

I thought I was different, I was tough,

Oh, how wrong, how wrong!

Lead heavy, slumped to the ground.

 

 

 

Windows

Little square openings,

Hundreds, thousands of them,

One upon the other,

Mine one of them,

Open out to the night sky.

 

Each one lit from within,

Yellow light, white light,

Flickering lights too,

Like innumerable torches,

Streaming out, reaching out.

 

Lights that cascade out,

Some bright and smiling,

Others dim and mourning,

Stories of happiness or sorrow,

Pour out with the light.

 

Rays of light that merge,

And melt into the blanket of darkness,

Dark thickness that muffle out,

Sobs or cheer that spill out,

Through these square openings.

 

Little square openings,

Each a tale within it holds,

Unique, like no other,

A small world within,

A mighty cosmos of humdrum.

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Come let’s Party

Spring makes his furtive appearance.

I wipe my sweat, Spring is it?

Oh yes it is, comes a soft reply.

I search around for the tender voice,

I see a sea of sweaty tanned faces.

 

I feel hot under the collar,

March is spring time, officially,

Spring is it?, I ask.

Yes comes a tiny voice,

A velvety voice, afloat a gust.

 

It’s party time says a shy voice.

The softest of pink I wear,

The faintest of perfume I  emit,

Look, I stretch out my arms,

Graceful as a ballerina.

 

My prince has arrived

My Spring. I am dressed in my best.

My graceful moves I rehearse,

Above a fragrant pink carpet,

On hard brown earth, she said.

 

You will stop by, won’t you?

Like many others, to take in

The spectacle that unfolds,

And join in the celebration,

Said the pink trumpet flower.

 

I pull over. I couldn’t go any further.

The shower of pink, a soft caress,

A vague scent, my nostrils twitch,

Closed eyes, arms outstretched,

I feel the heat no more.

 

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Oh, So Beautiful and The Not So beautiful

Just like most of India, I am too coming to terms with the sudden death of Sridevi. Sridevi. A name that conjures up images of unbelievable beauty. Perhaps the word ‘beautiful’ rephrased its meaning and connotations after seeing her. The elegance, the gentleness combined with a certain quirkiness made her so adorable. She also exuded certain warmth and vulnerability that made her real, unlike the cold and distant porcelain beauties in the showbiz world. Though she spoke softly and with clarity, I could almost hear her brain screaming, “Let me be! I’d rather speak through my movies. I am really not comfortable with such interviews.” This tiny chink in her resplendent armour made her so much like me, like hundreds of people around. We need the recognition, but would rather have our work speak for itself than having to elaborate on it.

This past week saw so many sensational stories being woven around this fifty-four year old actress’ life and death. Yes, the number fifty-four gained so much prominence. It was as if it was unusual to bedazzle at this ‘advanced’ age.  It was perhaps because she belonged to an industry where women are considered ‘old’ when they touch thirty. How cruel, how heartless! This fetish for perfect looks would have caused anxious moments for all those out there. The first grey or the first fine line would perhaps send these beautiful women into such tizzy.

Living in a fast paced life in Mumbai leaves me with such little time for personal indulgence. Like a quintessential middle-class ‘working’ woman, who is also a mother and wife, I can but only steal a quick glance into the mirror before I run out of my house for fear of getting late for work. But this week, I made a deliberate  long stop to stare at the glass. A face generously sprinkled with age spots and freckles stared back. Lines wound its way in all possible directions through the lacklustre skin. The thinning hairline reminded me of a pathetic shrub forest in cruel Indian summers. Generous bulges that I have valiantly tried to hide under layered loose clothing popped out. While the back of my palm was a Mesopotamia of green veins, the insides were the coarseness of desert sand. Well, I am fast galloping towards fifty and I didn’t expect the reflection to flatter me. However, this simple one day morning exercise made me the realise the ‘fifty-four year old’ fixation.

I would lie if I say that I wear this early morning revelation with pride. Losing youthfulness does hurt, but its inevitability is not lost on me either. I think that’s the much needed coping mechanism. Every scar, every line, every popping green vein has a tale to tell. Tales of battle, big and small. That makes us war veterans, in the midst of all this everyday ordinariness, doesn’t it? I prefer to look at it this way. We have all fought wars and emerged winners. My skin glows no more, but my soul does. With each passing day I try to be beautiful from within. I try to iron out the wrinkles of mistrust and bitterness from within. I try to colour the greys of pain and sorrow with the colours of eternal spring. I may not be resplendent in the process, but I try to be beautiful in my own way.

Getting back to the ageless beauty that Sridevi was, she sure went away too soon,too suddenly. The world really didn’t have enough of her. However, there needs to be a sense of closure to this grief. She went away early, but she left behind the legacy of a dazzling beauty with amazing talent. She perhaps wanted the world to remember her like that, not as tatters or remnants of a once awe-inspiring beauty. Oh, sleeping beauty,rest in peace! You will always be remembered the way you wanted us to.

Love and Other Things

A season of love.

Frenzied purchases,

Unrealistic expectations,

Needless sweat,

A nomenclature of love?

 

Hearts and red balloons,

Crystals and diamonds,

Tinkling glasses, happy chatter,

Open display of affection.

Commerce in the name of love?

 

A shy smile, a shier nod,

Scarlet blush, a surge of emotions,

Unspoken words, unheard melodies,

Flight of stairs, street corners.

Is this love no more?

 

Is there one season for love?

And are the others devoid of it?

A funeral of true emotions.

A carnival of exhibitionism.

Has love given us a slip?

Clara and her Ilk

I have lost count of the number of times I have watched the Malayalam movie, Thuvanathumbikal. I watched it yet again, with the same awe I did the first time. It somehow gently yields one new meaning after the other with each watch. I am yet to analyse what draws me so much to this movie. Is it the unusual romance, the music, the metaphors, the blur of right and wrong, the star cast or a combination of it all?

Clara and Jayakrishan are two characters that weave magic. While Jayakrishan is a quintessential young bachelor, it is Clara’s charm that is so captivating. How can a viewer brush her aside as just another prostitute? Is she really one, we wonder. The character is so sensitively etched that she perhaps becomes a symbol of love. A symbol of unattainable love. A symbol of the yearnings of love. A symbol of the compassion and understanding of love. A symbol of sacrifice. Love in real life is seldom all this. That is what makes Clara so enticing. That is why she fills the psyche of every Keralite male. Clara – a fantasy of love. We long for a Jayakrishnan- Clara meeting and when it happens, our hearts are drenched in a cool shower of relief just like the metaphorical rain that binds the two souls in the movie. My Motley Gang indulges in ‘Clara’ talk ever so often. It is undeniable that Clara is the ultimate fantasy, the almost unattainable love of every Malayalee man. For, if she is attainable, she becomes mundane, boring and ordinary.

Why does Clara decide to leave Jayakrishnan? Maybe the answer is very apparent. She didn’t want to mess up Jayakrishan’s life. But I prefer to look beyond that. With her feisty and independent streak, would it be right to chain Clara to boring domesticity? Isn’t she made of sterner stuff? She is Nature’s wild, wild child. Restraint will kill her. She is mysterious. The way Jayakrishnan says, “Clara…aara thangale ee Clara?” infuses so much mystique and charisma to the character.

In one of my many conversations with my cousin, we contemplated the fate of Clara and Jayakrishnan.

“Is it right for the two to part ways?” I asked. Yes, Radha is his fiance and first love of sorts, and an India steeped in mythology would happily welcome the Krishna Radha union. However, to me Clara and Jayakrishnan are above all this. They are soulmates.

My cousin’s reply brought a smile on my face.

“To me,” he said, “Clara and Jayakrishnan have to meet. At least once a year! How can Clara stay away? Don’t look for scruples here. This is where the right and wrong blur into the distant horizon.”

It is twenty five years since they have parted ways, but it gives me a sense of relief that somewhere in this big wide world Clara and Jayakrishnan would be meeting again and again. At least once a year! To the lilting background score of Johnson!

As I wind up this article, I need to make a special mention of my Motley Gang who inspired me to write this piece. Thanks to them, I keep reinventing the beauty and charm of the character called Clara.

 

A Lover’s Note

I sit on my balcony this quiet morning waiting for the sun to bathe me in his warm glow. A glow that fills me with hope and energy every morning. However, there is no glow today. It is replaced by a dull numbness that is unsettling.

Sun seems to sulk under a thick blanket of smoke, a reminder of yesterday’s celebrations. I am sure my sunny friend would have tried his level best to penetrate the thick toxic cover to reach out to me. He has to meet me, you see, every day. He is a loyal lover. As I sit here, his gentle morning rays caress my skin, implanting a thousand kisses. Sometimes he is naughty, you see, just as any lover is. He pierces my skin leaving it flushed and tingling. I play along, you see, like any lady love would. I smile, my eyes close in delight, my heart beat rises, and I break into a warm sweat. But today is different.

I wait in vain. My lover is on his way. I know it. But somehow he has lost his way in the wild and blinding maze of poisonous smoke that hangs heavily overhead. Even my chirrupy friends who are a witness to this clandestine lovers meet seem to mysteriously hide behind their feathery retreat. Silence. A deathly silence weighs me down. What a contrast to the eruptive celebrations that kept me awake well into the night.

Diwali, the festival of lights! Alas, it seems to have stolen the light of my life from me. I sit here and mourn the absence of his warm presence. My beloved Mumbai is enveloped in poisonous firework fumes that is choking the life out of her. Year after year, she coughs, she chokes and almost dies. Nothing much seems to have changed. Will the next year be different? Will I get to see and feel the brilliance of my lover post Diwali? Will my feathery friends celebrate our everyday meeting? I am hopeful as my lover instils hope in me, every day of my life.

Meanwhile, I wait eagerly for his presence. I know he will come out in all glory and meet me. Soon.

Strangers, are they?

A while back I found myself laughing like I had never done before. The belly shaking laughter left me crimson and teary eyed. The loud laughter was so intense that at one time sound seemed startled and beat a hasty retreat. I guess I must have been a sight. Mouth wide open, tears streaming, ruddy faced shaking from head to foot in peals of silent laughter. What was the cause of such laughter? An assortment of eight people most of whom I hardly knew. Then how did I end up in their company? A thread of connection that went all the way back to my school days.

It all started with a single photograph that went back twenty four years. A photograph that had two pretty young girls staring back at you with their large eyes. I happened to share this slice of the past with my classmate. The next thing I saw was a message, “Let’s meet.” At some point, the meeting that was meant to be between two, expanded to accommodate ten other people. The venue that was meant to be either of our houses then moved to Munnar. Munnar- land of mists, murmuring waters and magic!

I set out with my sceptical hat on. Before long the scepticism just melted into fine strings of great camaraderie that gently bound me to this motley bunch. Something was so right about all of us that that it seemed karmic that we should meet. An extra one here or there could have shaken this fine balance. It is things like these that reinforces my faith in karma. It was a long time since I had been with people who were not judgemental. Each one occupied a happy space and was a content human being. The positive vibes were unmistakable that even one hotel staff commented on this. I let my guard and hair down. We talked and laughed into the night. Old stories that were tucked away in the back closet of our brains came tumbling out. We ate, laughed and wept together.

It is nearly two months since that meeting. I sit and try to analyse that get together ever so often. Yes, it did happen after all, though it seems too good to be true. How did it turn out to be so perfect? Was it just a conjecture of the mind? Or, was it the mesmerising beauty of Munnar that makes me romanticise the otherwise normal meeting?It is said each one of us has come a long way, a journey spanning many births and worlds. Perhaps it is something that we have accumulated in these vast journeys that threw us together. It would be better to savour the aura of that meeting rather than indulge in a threadbare assessment. Some things are best left the way it is. It is just there to satiate the longing of one’s soul, I think. With strangers as these, who wants friends anyway?

 

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The nine member motley gang!

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Was it the green fragrant carpet or the soft whispers of the gurgling waters that did the trick? FB_IMG_1503685103284.jpg

On a one of a kind journey

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Synagogue styled lamps overhead vie for attention! At Silvertips, Munnar

 

 

Blow, blow thy West Wind!

This is the story of a little rose. A pretty little rose. Well, she was not all that ‘little’. Little is more of an endearment here. She was pretty to some extent. When she got to see her reflection in the pond she saw an attractive face staring back. The world around her, however, found her quite ordinary.  

Life was good, though mostly predictable. Everything around was a reiteration that her life was just run-of- the- mill. Far from spectacular. Nevertheless, Rose went through the highs and lows with a sense of optimism.

Years went by. One morning Rose woke up to a gentle cradling motion. It was something she had never experienced before. She found herself staring at a beautiful soft apparition.

“Hello, I am Spring and I bring with me the West Wind,” said the apparition.

“I am Rose and I live here,” she said shyly. “I have never seen you around in these parts,” she added.

With a smile, Spring softly cushioned her in a warm cradle. Thus began a  saga of togetherness. He made her feel special.

In his deep voice, he once said, “Do you realise how beautiful and unique you are?”

She blushed a deep red and turned her head away. Her soft petals unfurled subtle and varied hues. Bewitching fragrance wafted from her. Her spirit danced with inner happiness.  

The world around her sat up and took notice.

“Hey, what’s special today?” they asked. She just nodded her slender neck and turned a deeper red.

Her relationship with Spring defied nomenclature. She could not put a finger to it. It was not merely filled with pleasant breezes and happiness. They had their share of disagreements. The intensity with which they felt for each other made it impossible for them to be practical or balanced. But it was a rewarding experience. She rose to realise her potential. There was more energy and vigour in her. She caught herself smiling all the time.Life had new meaning.

Time flew by. In a deep baritone Spring once simply declared, “I must go. It is time to say goodbye.”

Rose was devastated. She knew this was bound to happen. Spring was never meant to be hers. But when the moment arrived, she was totally unprepared. She put up a brave front and bid farewell and soon plunged into explicable sorrow. The hues on her suddenly faded. The petals drooped and lost its sheen. She shed copious tears silently. Still, her heart seemed grievously heavy. Then, she braced to fight the new low in her life. Among all other things, Spring had taught her to have faith in herself. She was going to get out of this ugly mire. She decided to struggle her way out and see the light of day again.

This is not a fairy tale. I tell you this because I know Rose. I see her every day. I wish and pray that she fights her way out. This is a battle that she has to fight single-handedly. And I know she will. She has always been a fighter. I wait at the fringe with my fingers crossed. I pray that she pulls herself up. I wait and pray. I wait at the fringe…  

Farewell, Queen Cleopatra

Some names ooze magic. Cleopatra is one such name. A young girl, a princess, who went on to become arguably the most famous Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. A young girl who held her own in a severely male dominated society more than 2000 years ago. She is said to have been very beautiful and enigmatic. She was never apologetic about it, in fact, she is said to have taken full advantage of this God-given gift. With it, she had the mighty Roman emperor Julius Caesar at her feet. Mark Antony followed Caesar. It is also said that she was barely out of her teens and Julius Caesar was well past 50 when the alleged liaison between them happened.    

Some names do ooze magic. Selvi J.Jayalalitha is definitely one such name. A Cleopatra of the modern times. Intelligent, supremely talented and very beautiful, she was thrust into the limelight against her wishes, at the tender age of 16. The glitter and glamour of celluloid warmly embraced her. She instantly started climbing the ladder of fame in the company of the eponymous, MGR. MGR was decades older than this young teenager. She held her own in this extremely male dominated and narcissist field. She was then sucked into the dirty world of politics, again unwillingly, by her mentor and guide MGR. She was beautiful and enigmatic, just as someone who lived more than 2000 years ago. She used her intelligence, beauty and charisma to burst the male bastion of politics. Just as a beauty who lived more than 2000 years ago. She was elected to many posts and stripped off her power many times. She faced several accusations. Images of her rolling in wealth, of her looting the exchequer severely damaged her image. She fought these allegations and even spent time in prison, all the while she maintaining a gritty resolve.  

As time went by, she rose above all the mediocre and banal and broke all the barriers of the male-dominated Dravidian society. She rewrote the rules, unapologetically and unabashedly. Perhaps she knew the effect of her fair and glowing skin on the dark-skinned Dravidians. She perhaps took advantage of it too. She built an invincible persona and became the ubiquitous Amma as time went by.  She had men at her feet, men who feared to even occupy the chair she once occupied, men who punctuated their sentences regularly with her name, men who ate, drank, slept the much revered Amma.  

She was like a magician who whipped out freebies from her colour coordinated cape and later saree pallu. People could never have enough of her. She managed to touch the lives of hundreds and thousands of people through her personally branded schemes. It worked! She became the pharaoh to her people. An undisputed one at that.

Like the Egyptian pharaoh, this queen too breathed her last quite dramatically. The world suddenly came to a standstill. Even in her death, there was a formidable and stately air about her. She now rests a few feet below the ground. She will, like the pharaoh of yore, have a monument over her.  In years to come, visitors will be in awe of the monument and what lies beneath it. In time to come, myths and legends will be woven around her, just as someone 2000 years ago. Farewell fair queen, farewell Amma.

On a Time Machine

A tryst with places loaded with history has never ceased to amaze me. These are enchanted places having the power to pluck you from the present and transport you to a quaint and many times alien world that knocks the breath out of you. Time machines, yes, that is what these places are. Zip, zip, zoom, you travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of years back in time. Like scenes from a movie, you are compelled to witness scenes of ancient life unfold in front of you. These places are not mere relics. They breathe immense life. They have a soul that cries out stories of yore.

I remember, as a girl reading about Ajanta and Ellora caves in my NCERT Secondary Hindi textbook. I remember the faint picture of Bodhisattva Padmapani and Vajrapani. Still pictures exuding such grace and fluidity. The quaint names and the images from the textbook stuck at the back of my mind. But nothing really got me ready for the magic of these manmade marvels when I visited them a couple of years back. The place was like a gyre that just sucked me in and threw me two thousand years back. It was not hard to visualise devout Buddhist monks chiselling their way down the rocky mountains to create Chaitya Grihas and Viharas. Armed with nothing more than basic tools and single-minded devotion, they made these huge mountains literally kneel in front of them. Each carving almost came out alive and told its story. The sight of Padmapani and Vajrapani set my heart dancing to an ancient beat.

In addition to the Buddhist caves at Ellora, the Hindu cave with the Kailasa temple simply blew my mind away. A temple created entirely out of a single standing mountain! The mountain was literally excavated from top to bottom leaving behind an intricately carved temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. If you stand there with your eyes closed you can almost hear the artisans chiselling and creating this amazing wonder about one thousand four hundred years ago. For the architects of those times to dream of such an extravagant and almost brazen project and for the artisans to bring it to fruition is a stellar example of human imagination and endeavour.

If Ajanta and Ellora showcased man’s architectural skill, I recently stood witness to Mother Nature being the master of all architects. A trip to Jenolan Caves, I knew was going to be special, but the five hour trip from Sydney to this site was actually a trip that took me 340 million years back in time. Yes, 340 million years! And in comparison man has been around for only about two and a half million years. So, maybe ancient reptiles and insects were the only mute spectators to the birth of these caves.  It was perhaps a period when time almost stood still, when sun and rain beat hard on verdant earth, when distant stars peered down the jet black sky, when innumerable shooting stars quietly whizzed past and thunder and lightning were the only things that broke the deathly silence that enveloped the earth. It was also perhaps the period when the earth was quietly and slowly inventing and reinventing herself at such languid pace that only she is capable of. That is when the action of water over limestone gave rise to this labyrinthine wonder. Even today these caves continue to ‘grow’ and ‘form’ at the same leisurely pace they did millions and millions of years ago. Our supercharged and super fast modern life is such a stark contrast to the life of these caves. Everything about the place spelt so primitive that I somehow felt I was trespassing a region that should strictly be out of bounds for humans.

As you step into these caves, you are transported to a bygone world. A world of dim light and darkness, of gurgling underground rivers and magnificent limestone crystal formations, of sudden low roofs that make you almost crawl through and unexpected humungous chambers that make you feel like an ant. The slightest sound is greatly intensified through a series of echoes and re-echoes. The place is filled with stalagmites and stalactites many of them so huge that they span the roof and floor.

This is a world of surprising contradictions too. It is a world that is mostly dark with narrow beams of sunlight stealing in through tiny pockets. But unbelievable colours spring and leap at you from everywhere. The aqua blue water is so crystal clear that you can see right through to its bed. Then, the crystal formations are in all hues and colours imaginable. A riot of colours in the lap of such darkness. A prehistoric world nestled in a modern era. A world that is ever growing in the midst of a seemingly dead and ancient topography.  The raw magnificence of Mother Earth is encapsulated in these meandering caves.

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Aruna : Of The Sun

Aruna Shanbaug. The name capable of drowning you in a sea of emotions. Sadly, the emotion of joy is conspicuous by its deathly absence in this wild choppy sea. Only Aruna can evoke such emotions.

Why would anyone have to suffer so? First, to be brutalised by an animal and left for the dead. Then, subsequent four decades of existence in a vegetative state. The world moved on at such rapid pace around her while a dark cocoon wrapped her in a world perhaps known or unknown only to her. A world that was neither here or there. She just existed!

Was there a need to exist so? Was it her choice? Should she have been allowed to go, saving her of the entire trauma? So many questions and innumerable opinions. She seemed to exist just to fan discussions and debates. She seemed to exist so that papers and books could be written; could be read. She seemed to exist so that over various points of time, different people could have their brush with fame. While some gloated over taking care of her, others ranted over their financial constraints. While someone became her ‘friend’ and wanted her to be allowed to die, others cried foul. Even when Aruna, took matters in her hands and decided to leave once and for all, a storm raged on who has a claim on her. The world around her always remained tumultuous and stormy. Let’s hope that the dark cocoon protected her from all this madness.

Everyone had their two minutes of fame at Aruna’s expense. The smug nurses who claimed, ‘not a bed sore in these years’! The retired doctor who angelically declared that she sang and read in Konkani for Aruna. The apathy of KEM is well known. It is no different from any other government hospital. Was Aruna a convenient excuse to shun serious duties by these nurses and doctors? Then there was the doctor who was set to marry Aruna. We heard his helpless lamentation on how life must go on and he had to move on in life. We also got to hear Aruna’s self anointed ‘friend’ and biographer. Patients who were attended to by Aruna as a nurse in KEM reminisced the association.  Even the brutal rapist’s name was recalled many times. Sadly, no one could hear Aruna.

Now the dust has settled. Her beautiful soul has been allowed to leave her frail, vulnerable and disfigured body that had entrapped it for over four decades. It gets to rise from the darkness of horror, pain and tumult into a warm and inviting world. A world of sunshine, birds, music and scented flowers. A world of eternal joy. The name Aruna finally may evoke emotions of relief and happiness. Finally.

Morning Air Magic

The hot humid air hangs about me like a heavy hostile blanket wanting to suffocate the life out of me. The temperature has touched 41 degrees and blasts of unrelenting hot air make it seem five degrees higher.  I am alone at home that feels more like a fryer than a comfort zone. The washing hangs out in the scorching sun. The morning work almost done, I sit down to write armed with a bottle of water. Soon I realise, while words awkwardly stutter on to the page almost as if constipated, my mind is more focused on my insatiable thirst and physical discomfort. I look at the ceiling fan for some solace. It looks back at me in distant disdain reluctantly whirring out more hot and oppressive air. I write little and sweat copiously. Wish the reverse was true.

Amidst all the discomfort, I wonder about the early mornings here. Early mornings have a certain feel about them. Even in Mumbai, they can spell magic. What is it that weaves such beauty? The place that looks drab and ordinary otherwise suddenly takes on an unusual hue and feel. The ‘sameness’ of the place somehow does not bother you. The quietness in the otherwise noisy city is music to the ears. There is nothing much to break the silence of the quiet except the passing of a stray vehicle and, yes, birds. Crows, pigeons, mynahs, cuckoos, flycatchers, magpies. And the zippy sparrows. Their full-throated calls fill your being with indescribable happiness. Nature has her way of intoxicating your soul.

One other experience is the sight of flowers in full bloom. They burst out from everywhere in all colours adding cheer. Gulmohars, oleanders, bauhinias and bougainvillaeas in their blazing orange, magenta, red, yellow and pink seem to carry the intensity of the sun in their tiny selves. Bougainvillaeas, I think, lead quite a paradoxical existence. Or how else do you describe such flamboyance in such everydayness? Papery delights! You find them everywhere but it is such a showstopper, nevertheless. Their woody vines seem to always reach out to you. The place where I live is lined by bauhinias and bougainvillaeas, one notable for its dignified staidness and the other for its floridity. These flowers paint my early morning canvas in varied exuberant colours. I drink in the sights and sounds and stand enriched. Nature truly has her way of intoxicating your soul.

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Cooking up a Storm

‘Cooking is therapeutic.’ ‘I find peace and contentment in the kitchen.’ ‘There is nothing more creative than cooking up a dish.’ ‘My kitchen and I are best of buddies.’
Before you come to a hasty conclusion, let me tell you that those words are definitely not mine. They are lines uttered variedly by many smug-faced friends, colleagues, acquaintances, relatives… My head reels on hearing all this. The air around me is thick and heavy with the innumerable sighs that have escaped my lips in these many years, months, weeks and days of trials and tribulations in the kitchen. I begin each day with the very (un)encouraging thought, ‘Welcome to another day of cooking, cooking and… well… errr… cooking!’ My nerves and muscles tighten up into a taut ball that would finally loosen up only when I bid good-bye to the kitchen for the day. Don’t be alarmed if you catch me open-mouthed staring blankly at a well-stacked kitchen cabinet or an open refrigerator. At that point of time I am just trying to solve one of life’s major mysteries, ‘What do I cook today?’ Let me tell you such great mysteries require deep contemplation and thought, open-mouthed or otherwise. So, over these years, my tryst with cooking (successful or not, is anyone’s guess!Sigh!!) has part made me feel like a scientist trying to unravel history’s greatest secret. What do I feel in the other part? You sure want to know? Well, I think I’ll spill the beans anyway. I hate the feeling of ‘feel like a scientist’. So where does this leave me? Your guess is as good as mine!
Blame it on luck that I always end up in the company of people who can probably cook with their eyes closed. They whip out a lip-smacking dish with the same ease as a magician would a rabbit from his hat. Voila! My dear friends, colleagues and neighbours, how do you do it time and again, day after day? The right amount of salt and spice every time? The worst of the lot are neighbours who are great cooks. They can wreak havoc on your domestic life like no other. With so much of love, affection and, I suspect a hint of pride, they share their special dishes with me to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, auspicious days…
My latest neighbour, Mrs. Jain is a wonderful woman. She is middle-aged, but with a spring in her step. She is so full of life and manages to keep in contact with everyone around despite a hectic Mumbai life. As luck would have it, she is a terrific cook. I think she was born to be my neighbour. Or is it that God planned that she should be my neighbour and made her a skilled cook? And, she is a loud cook too. I wake up every morning to the clatter and clang of her pots and pans and chop, chop, chop of her chopping board. I don’t need to peep into her kitchen to give you a live commentary of the things happening in her kitchen. Yes, now she fries, now she roasts, oh, she is stirring now and now she is chopping, pouring, washing… I know it all even as I silently work in my kitchen. And soon the aroma of her food invades my home through closed doors and windows and every nook and crevice. There is no escaping it. Her food smell is like an obsessed army out to demolish, shatter, destroy any semblance of peace and calm in my early morning home. My husband wakes up to the divine smells of Mrs.Jain’s cooking and comes into my kitchen sniffing, hoping that my gas table would be the source of this gastronomic delight. Be it kheer, puran poli,pakoda, tadka dal, achaar or the very simple chivda, everything that has come out of her kitchen tastes out of this world. What is the secret ingredient she adds to her dishes, I wonder. She says she cooks very little these days as her children have grown up and moved out. Little does she realise the effect of this ‘very little’ that she cooks on this poor neighbour!
Last month, Mrs.Jain’s son got married. So not only was her son and daughter there but her extended family too. Then began the unimaginable onslaught. Mrs. Jain cooked and cooked like one possessed. Day and night. Bang bang, clang clang. More bang bang, more clang clang went her pots and pans. The cooking smells from her kitchen permeated every molecule of air that blew in the direction of my house. I went into a frenzy and sealed every window and door of my house. Finally, I threw up my hands in despair and accepted defeat. The divine smells came in, wave after wave and left me defenceless, defeated and salivating. It was like every waft of dribble inducing air that audaciously crept into my house screamed at the ineffective cook that I was. I decided not to cow down that easily. In response, I cooked up one dish after the other hoping that smells from my cook top would have at least have half the effect. My fingers and, I suspect, my head too went stiff and addlebrained in deciding the right amount of spice. One-fourth, half or three-fourth of a spoon? A teaspoon or a tablespoon? I stood there, open-mouthed with an open bottle of mixed spice in my hand! In the evening as my husband and son quietly downed all that was served on their plate, they barely managed a ‘nice’ between their chomps. They were just trying to be polite, as always.
Though my rendezvous with cooking has been far from encouraging, there is something related to cooking that I love to do. I will give you a hundred guesses and I bet you will get all of them wrong. I love watching cookery shows on TV. That’s my favourite pastime. ‘Amma, why do you waste time on such shows when you don’t even try out the simplest of their recipes?’ my son would ask, totally confused. I just love watching such shows whatever be the reason. Do people who watch movies do so with the intention of becoming movie stars? Just as you watch movies to get entertained, cookery shows give me enjoyment. No one really understands my logic, not that I care. I am quite selective about my shows. I don’t very much watch the shows hosted by qualified chefs who are almost always male. They are so lacklustre and so text-bookish.These are the ingredients, this is what you do and this is what you get. How boring! How unimaginative!Where is the experience? An experience that caters to all your senses. I would rather read from a cookbook instead! Then, there are those anorexic looking models who host food shows probably to buy those stilettos they so precariously balance themselves on or to buy that outrageously pricey skimpy designer wear that they plan to wear for the next party. Yes, they sure do cook up a few things on their show, but I wonder if they ever eat anything at all.
Then we have a band of yummy mummies-turned-TV hosts. They sure do arrest your attention. Amrita Raichand, I think, leads the band. She lights up the screen with her beguiling smile. Her creativity and undisguised love for her son is so instantly endearing. When she dunks her diamond studded well-manicured fingers into a bowl of flour that needs to be kneaded, she somehow stops being a sophisticated socialite and becomes like any other keen mother who is trying to make something enticing for her son who will soon be back from school with a hungry but finicky palate. She becomes one of us.
And then, we have Nigella Lawson. When she appears on-screen, I am like a dumb-struck kid watching an amazing magic show with wonder-filled eyes. I seriously wonder if anyone who watches her show ever notices what she makes. I for one really care a damn about what she puts into her pan or pours out of it. For me, the show is about Nigella, Nigella and only Nigella. Her soft husky voice teases my ear. My heart warms up when she lavishes the screen with one of her sunshine smiles. She moves around her kitchen pulling out her designer spoons, ladles, pots and pans with such experienced ease that I suspect she had learnt to cook even when she was in her mother’s womb. I also love the way she is so comfortable with her buxom self, so full, so beautiful. The slight tilt she gives her head as she flirts and romances the camera can send your heart racing. She engages you in a non-stop soft chatter. Here we don’t see a qualified chef standing on a pedestal instructing you how to get your dish right. Instead, we are drawn into a sensuous tour of a complete kitchen experience. The soft creamy sauces and gooey gravy she cooks up, the crunchy salads she rustles up, the colours she plays with are all meant to activate your senses. If there is something called food porn, her show is the ultimate destination. The sensuousness with which she ‘hmmms’ and ‘aahhs’ as she licks the stray sauce or cream that has coated her dainty finger or when she tastes the food is bound to give you a ‘foodgasm’. To me, she is the undisputed food goddess. She evidently has men worldwide eating out of her hands, literally.
So in the midst of watching Nigella Lawson, Amrita Raichand, other yummy mummies, stick thin models, boringly methodical male super chefs, my kitchen hearth too burns, cooking up far from divine but definitely edible dishes, day after day…

The Deluge

Again and again something in one’s own life, or in the life around one, will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. – Shikibu Murasbi
There was a time, a very long time in my life, when I used to travel by the local trains here in Mumbai to get to my work place. Borivili to Bandra and back. The train, Mumbai’s life line, is a microcosmic world in itself. So many people walk in and out of this world every day. The rush, hustle and bustle notwithstanding, it is unique and beautiful in its own way. If I was lucky to find a seat, I would just sit and watch the world pass by. Among the sea of unfamiliar faces, I would even spot familiar ones that I would acknowledge with a nod, smile or a wave. A tiny speck in this mighty surge. Yes, that is what I was.
There was another tiny speck I would meet once in a while on the Churchgate bound local. Where she came from and where she was heading to, I never knew. What drew me to her was her incandescent smile. She was tall and slim with salt and peppery hair. Every inch of her personality spelt a certain tenderness and gentleness. Unaffected by the surrounding impatience and din, she would float in and softly occupy any vacant seat. She had a smile for everyone and a courteous nod for anyone who reciprocated her smile. Her eyes would dance reflecting inner happiness. Not once did we exchange words. I didn’t feel the need to; our conversations were perhaps more complete and meaningful without words. I felt a sense of well-being in her presence.
So, life chugged on the fast track through highs and lows, through brilliant sunshine and cloudy days until it came to a sudden halt one day. 26th July 2005. The day every Mumbaikar shudders to think of.
Though the fateful day started off like a normal damp July morning, by 2 p.m. the sky opened up and dumped copious tonnes of water with great sound and fury. The college where I worked called off lectures. I still don’t remember why I walked to the station alone. My colleagues and I always jointly hired autorickshaws to the station. There were so many of us always heading to the station that we were never in want of company. But that afternoon, all alone, I waded through water to reach the station. It was 3 p.m. I was amazed at the flooded streets. ‘Just one hour of rain did this to Bandra?’ I wondered. It was only later that I knew it had rained 994mm of rain that day!
With the railway tracks all flooded, not a train moved. By the time it dawned on me that the wait was going to be a long one and it would be wise to stock a bottle of water and some biscuits, shelves of the food stalls had been emptied inside out. No water, no food. ‘Hmmm…I am in the company of a lot of hungry and thirsty people,’ I thought. I just hoped that the wait wouldn’t be a prolonged one. Little did I know then that the first train would start moving only after twenty-four hours!
Wet and uncomfortable, I had to spend the night at the station. It was a long night, where hundreds of thoughts fought fierce battles in my confused mind and loneliness burnt into my soul. It was a long night where Mother Nature emphatically proved that she was still the boss. It was a long night where Government machinery simply crumbled, where all forms of communication collapsed …
At the crack of dawn, the crowd started melting away. Confused about what to do, I just stood transfixed. The railway tracks and roads were all flooded. How do I wade through all this water and for how long? But staying in a deserted station was not a good option either. When the crowd thinned further, I suddenly spotted the ‘speck with the incandescent smile’. She smiled and spoke to me for the first time. ‘Chal, aa ja,’ she said in a reassuring voice and held out her hand. There was something so quietly magnetic about her that I just followed her. There was another middle-aged lady with her who seemed to be the one in charge. She seemed to know all the roads, lanes and by lanes that she drew out a mental map of the route we should be taking to reach to safety. I was reminded of a protective clucking mother hen. I felt like a little chicken under her protective wing.
What I saw outside the station totally shocked me. Knee deep and sometimes waist deep water everywhere. The whole of Mumbai had gone down under. Sensing my reluctance, mother hen gently prodded me to step out. ‘The empty station may not be safe,’ she said. The rain had reduced to a mere drizzle by then. So the three of us joined the sea of humanity that was out on the flooded streets. We held hands and formed an endless human chain to ensure one another’s safety. We waded through stagnant and fast flowing flood waters for more than eight hours. Being in water for long turned my feet to stone and ever so often they kept buckling underwater.
That day I learnt why they call Mumbai a city with a magnanimous heart. Residents of many buildings along the road were out in knee-deep water serving people bottled water, hot tea and biscuits. I hadn’t eaten or had a sip of water for more than fifteen hours. I saw people burst into tears on getting some water to drink while others hugged the ones serving tea and biscuits. I just stared at them blankly. A young boy gently forced a cup of tea into my hands with a smile. The tea warmed my soul. It put a smile back on my lips. Did the sky clear up and the warm sun shine on me that moment? Did the pall and gloom dissipate that moment? Did the flood water drain out that moment? Yes, I think it did. There was a sudden surge of emotions and I felt that the whole world was right behind me encouraging me to move on. How I trudged along for another five hours, I am not sure. Finally, when we reached Andheri, mother hen drew me aside and took me through a series of by lanes to her house. She gave me fresh clothes and served me hot food. By then my mind was ravaged by thoughts of having taken undue advantage of her goodness. I had accepted her hospitality all this while without even knowing who she was. When the trains became operational once again, she allowed me to leave. I thanked her profusely and a little sheepishly asked for her name and phone number. She smiled gave me a hug and said, ‘Isn’t it better we leave it at this? If we part as strangers, I know you will always remember me as someone who suddenly appeared from nowhere to be with you during a difficult period. I would want this mystique of our meeting and love you have in your heart for me to stay forever.’ ‘But I have to return your clothes,’ I protested. She gave me another hug and said, ‘Dear, you should be leaving now. Your family would be waiting.’
Yes, my family was waiting anxiously with no news of me for more than thirty hours. I headed home with a heart of mixed emotions.
Years later, neither has the mystique faded nor the love tarnished! Who was the boy who coaxed me to a cup of hot tea? Who was the ‘speck’ with the incandescent smile? Who was Mother Hen? Whoever they were, they were there to teach me valuable lessons in life.

The Kurta Story

Saumini Nair’s husband came home from work one evening in a very foul mood. Over the many years of married life, she had learnt to deal with his fluctuating temper. She was wise enough to let him be. She served him tea and sat by his side, waiting quietly. He liked her to be by his side when things weren’t going the way he expected it to. She waited patiently and knew that he would finally open up. In between sips of tea, she watched him furtively as he read the newspaper intently.

Saumini’s husband was a teacher and he took his job quite seriously. Absolutely, seriously! He felt he was there to teach and guide the students in the subject and so he put his heart and soul into it. Distractions of any kind, be it a disinterested student or extra-curricular activities that came in the way, didn’t go down well with him. His no nonsense personality had earned him a lot of respect at his work place. ‘What could have gone wrong,’ she wondered as she waited for him to finish his tea.

Finally, he looked up and abruptly said, ‘We have some shopping to do.’ It was more of a command than just a statement. Her mind raced immediately to the work left undone in the kitchen. Rice and rotis to be made for dinner, accompaniments too…at least two hours of work left. Now if she goes shopping with him, what would become of dinner? Only ignorant souls thought that housewives had it so easy all the time. A sudden plan such as this could turn things upside down. She had in these years learnt to be resourceful in handling such ‘crisis’. No matter what, she had hungry mouths to feed all the time. She mentally deleted rotis from the dinner menu and instead of the more elaborate coconut gravy accompaniments, she chose the simpler variants which she could rustle up in less than half the time. Relived, she turned to pay attention to what her husband was saying.

The school was having Navrathri celebrations the next day and the celebration would be on a grand scale. In a meeting that evening the Principal of the school made it very clear that all the teachers were expected to be traditionally dressed for the occasion. The Principal, himself an American, was very enthusiastic and had got himself an elaborate Indian ethnic wear he was terribly excited about. There were other European and American teachers too who were equally happy about it. So, if Saumini’s husband went the next day in his regular shirt and trousers he would be the odd one out. So what was it that had made him so grumpy? Was it that the classes were being cancelled over some silly celebration? Well, yes and also for the reason that he hated kurtas. He had never worn one his entire life and didn’t intend to until that moment. He thought it an extremely uncomfortable attire and totally unsuitable for his not so tall and stocky frame. That he was needlessly being forced into one such outfit was totally upsetting. To an outsider it would seem so much of a fuss over nothing, but Saumini fully understood her fifty year old husband’s dilemma.

So off they went to a nearby mall, kurta shopping. On the way he kept reiterating that he would go for the plainest of the plain kurtas. She had half a mind to convince him to choose something better but knew that silence was a better option. He mumbled that he would wear it just for that one day and relegate it to some remote corner of the house. All the while she had a nagging fear in her mind that this shopping spree was not going to be as simple as it seemed and she almost knew the reason why.

Would any shop stock ‘plainest of the plain kurta’ during the very festive Navrathri period? Wouldn’t the shelves be stacked with ethnic wear embellished in all finery and bright colours vying for attention? They went from shop to shop as her worst fear came true. They came across kurtas in myriad colours and designs, but plain cotton ones…It would be easier searching a needle in a haystack, she thought. Her already grouchy husband was turning grouchier. Despite the full blast of the air conditioners her brow broke beads of sweat.

Finally, in a corner, hidden in the midst of all finery, she spotted three almost plain cotton kurtas and it seemed the right size too. Relief writ large on her face. He quickly chose one and then headed to the counter to pay. She thought that would be the end of the kurta ordeal. But both of them were totally unprepared for what was to come. At the counter, a pretty young thing smiled, looked at the tag and said, ‘Sir, there is an offer on this kurta, buy one get one free. You may please go and pick another kurta.’ Both of them were lost for words. They tried to reason out with the girl that they didn’t need another kurta and that they would instead be happy to avail even a small discount on what they have selected or if they could pick a shirt instead. The painted lips of the girl again unfurled into the same smile, ‘Sorry Sir, the offer allows you to take only a kurta from the same section and nothing else.’ Both husband and wife exchanged glances and walked down the aisle to pick the ‘free’ kurta.

The irony was not lost on either of them. Here was a kurta hater who was compelled to go shopping for a kurta and returned not with one but two in his bag. On their way back, Saumini winked at her husband and said, ‘Well, the free kurta has taken care of next year’s Navrathri celebration too, hasn’t it? Her husband turned to look at her and smiled. His first smile in the entire evening! Good, now Saumini could shift her focus on dinner preparation. Life was back to normal, finally.

A Veiled Life

When I had to suddenly relocate to Jeddah after having spent all my years in India, my mind was filled with misgivings. What would it be to live as a foreigner in a different land? Life in a Muslim conservative society, I heard, would be such an uphill task especially for a non-Muslim. My friends and colleagues didn’t make it any easier. They gave me stories, some blood curdling ones of miseries faced by Indians in foreign lands.

Anyway, I knew there was no looking back and before I knew I was at the airport boarding the flight to Jeddah. Jeddah here I come! Please be nice to my family and me, I prayed, as the public address system on board crackled and came alive with the announcement that we were flying over Mecca. Any holy place, I believe, is filled with so much positive energy brought in by the very prayerful and pious pilgrims. I guess, that is why people experience amazing and spectacular healing in such places. So I closed my eyes and prayed in my own way. I opened my eyes and looked around. The aircraft, I noticed, was filled to capacity. There were some pilgrims in their special attire, but most of them were families going back after their vacation. The cabin was filled with children’s laughter and beaming faces. I immediately felt at ease. It perhaps was a signal from above that all was going to be well. I closed my eyes and smiled. At Jeddah airport, the foreign tongue and countenance or the drab brown walls did not fluster me. I smiled and breezed through.

Like any new place and new job, Jeddah came with its surprises and challenges. Air-conditioned homes, offices and cars meant cutting off natural light, air and sounds from your life all the time. And the constant drone of the air-conditioner took its place instead. The residential areas all looked the same. Every lane looked like the other. All the buildings sported the similar fortified sand stone like architecture.  But with a happily settled son and husband, half the battle was won.

Women have their restrictions in this part of the world, and I was well informed and prepared for this. It is mandatory for women to wear the abaya, burkha as it is called in India, while stepping out in public. The attire draws a lot of flak outside the Arab world and is seen as a symbol of repressiveness. But what it did to me was just the opposite. It liberated me, a liberation I had never known before. During my stay there I did not suffer from the ‘What do I wear’ syndrome, standing in front of an open wardrobe. For the first time I would get ready earlier than my husband or son would. I didn’t have to suffer my husband’s impatient looks. I just could wear what I wanted and pull the abaya over me and hey presto, I was ready to go. The scarf would cover my shabby hairdo. Well about my face, I am not a very makeup person, so that was not a problem at all. Anyway, not even the most expensive makeup in the world would bring me any close to those impeccable, porcelain Arab beauties. So I was not in any kind of race at all. It was total freedom, absolute freedom!

Another surprise the place threw at me was the price of petrol. It was not a surprise in the truest sense of the word as I was well aware of how cheap fuel was in the Gulf countries. But when you experience it first hand, it knocks the breath out of you. Something that is so prohibitively expensive in the rest of the world is cheaper than water here. While a litre of petrol cost us sixty halala which was about eight rupees then, water of the same quantity would cost us one Riyal which was about twelve rupees. Hilarious? Yes, I thought so too.

Then, Jeddah spoilt me silly with the array of food it had to offer.  And food in Jeddah is synonymous with Albaik. Albaik is a local food chain outlet that has caught the imagination of everyone there. They offer about 22 products on their platter with their hot and spicy chicken broast stealing the limelight. Crispy on the outside and moist and succulent on the inside. My personal favourite though was the melt in your mouth sandwich wraps. The bread in these wraps is so light and fluffy unlike the unappetizing thick doughy ones found anywhere else. So when you sink your teeth into one, you experience the crunchiness of the vegetables and nuggets, the creamy texture of the mayonnaise and an explosion of tangy flavours. The bread just melts somewhere in between leaving no tell-tale signs. Their portions are huge, and prices so controlled in comparison to their nearest competitor whom they have left light years away. Need to see ‘leading’ American fast food giants who rule the world, struggling to do business? Just go to Jeddah. Once you have delighted your tastbuds with an Albaik product, you are hooked for life. It is years since I left Jeddah, but even after these many years, some familiar smell or sight takes me back to those Albaik sessions leaving me to salivate.

However, the experience during the Ramadan month is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. As I would take my evening walks, the desert night breeze would gently envelope me with the recitation of the Holy Quran. How could a tongue so foreign fill me with such peace and calm? How could the unusual intonation and rendition fill my heart with so much tranquility? I understood not a single word. I may never know what those utterances mean. But the magic is undeniable; something that you can never run away from. Was it the gentle breeze or the huge open park or the soft wafts of the recitation or a combination of all, I may never know. All I know is that I have been left enriched by this surreal experience.

When my short stay there ended, I eagerly waited to be back in India. However, as I flew over Mecca again, for one last time, I closed my eyes and thanked God for the bouquet of experience gifted to me in this unique place.

Driving Me Crazy

‘Oh, do you drive?’ my friend asked seeing my driving licence. ‘No,’ I answered with a sheepish grin as if she had discovered a carefully hidden secret. I knew what would come next. So I went on to quickly add that I used to drive until some time ago, but a morbid fear of taking the wheel stops me from such exercise now.  I was immediately inundated with the usual sympathetic clicking of tongue and how I must start all over again.

I just want to cry from the roof top that I think it is alright not to drive and that the world needn’t sympathise with me for not getting behind the wheel. Even during the times I took courage to drive, my nights would be punctured with the worst nightmares. What if I hit the accelerator instead of the breaks? What if I miscalculate and run the car over a divider or worse, over someone? What if in an attempt to park, I scrape against another vehicle, tree or wall? What if…? I put all these to rest when I stopped driving. I am at peace now. My mobility is affected, though not severely. I just have to hail an autorickshaw or hire a taxi to take me around. So I think it is a win-win situation.

Shinde Mama walked into my life when I decided to take driving lessons years back. He ruled my life for three weeks and until I received my licence. I thought driving instructors were pleasant characters who had the uncanny ability to handle the nerves of the learner and put her to ease. Instead, I faced a scrawny unkempt man who grinned toothily. ‘I am —- Shinde but you can call me Shinde Mama. That’s how they all call me,’ he said, in the process covering me in a generous shower of his saliva. I instantly knew all isn’t going to be well between me and Shinde Mama. He then opened the hood of his jalopy and exclaimed with an exaggerated flourish, ‘THIS… is the engine.’ I smartly managed to escape the lavish spray this time! His eyes twinkled as if he had just revealed a closely guarded secret privy to only a select few and that I had the fortune of being inducted to this elite club. He went on to explain the potpourri of pipes, tubes and wires that filled the bonnet.      

After what seemed eternity, he asked me to get behind the wheel. Sitting next to me he commanded, ‘Alright, DRIVE…’ What, did he really ask me to drive? If I knew how to, I would have avoided him like plague. As I hesitated, I could sense him beginning to lose patience already. And we had only just begun. A sense of foreboding gripped me.  

In the weeks that came by, clutch, gear, break, lights, mirrors, parking and Shinde Mama filled my waking and sleep hours. They hung ominously like a heavy shroud over me. I didn’t know whether to mind the gear or breaks or duck the constant shower from the side that accompanied every loud instruction.          

Then the bright sunny day dawned when I had to give my driving test. Unfortunately, my inside did not reflect the same brightness or cheerfulness. I found myself facing the driving inspector, a huge burly man in whose out-sized hand the file, papers and pen looked minuscule. He was a Maharastrian who was very proud of his culture and heritage. The fact that I didn’t speak Marathi didn’t go down well with him. But when I told him that I was a Keralite, his face instantly broke into a smile. He was just back from a vacation in Kerala and was so full of it. The beauty of Kerala has a way of getting under your skin and staying there for a very long time. As we got into the car, he spoke at length about the lush greenery, the winding backwaters, the misty mountains and the sunny beaches there. I am not sure if he was paying attention to how I was driving or whether I was following his instructions. His eyes definitely had a distant faraway look. He spoke smattering Malayalam that he had picked on his sojourn. Here was an inspector going all out to please a nervous candidate! The test passed like a dream. Hailing from a land of great beauty has its bonus moments too!  As he squeezed himself out of the car, he waved out to me and asked me to learn Marathi.

I received my driving licence in a week’s time and then began my real ordeal…     

Sparrows

Sparrows have always amazed me. Such tiny little creatures endowed with unbelievable swiftness. They flit, they fly, they chirp, they chirrup, they hop, they dart….They look so fragile and delicate yet seem to be a source of such unending energy. So, it was with great pain I learnt that this once abundant population is an endangered lot now. What, house sparrows… endangered?

There was a time when we happily shared living space with them. As a child, I remember watching sparrows fly into our house through the meshed window of our dining room. Unlike today, where we ‘bird proof’ our window ledges, balconies or terraces with bird meshes, those were the days of bright sunshine and fresh air. The meshes were wide enough to let these gentle creatures flit in and out at will. It was as much their house as ours. While our garden was filled with huge trees I would wonder why these birds chose our house instead. Well, that’s why they are called house sparrows, I guess. Houses then had external electrical wiring that ran high up along the walls. They would build nests in wall corners on this wiring. They would build nests, lay eggs and hatch them and were totally unaffected by human presence. We had kind of sub-let that small part of our house to them where they lived and thrived. We had learnt to co-exist with them. Bird droppings, stray twigs or blades of grass would be quietly and efficiently cleaned up by mother. No fuss, no mumble! That’s how simple life was!

It was pure pleasure to watch these dainty beaked ones build their nests, come back every evening to roost and sleep. These happy beings lived in the upper reaches while we were left below watching their lives in simple amazement. Once I asked mother if we could keep these sparrows as pets.

From the kitchen she simply replied, “They are our pets…they are ours, aren’t they?” “No, I mean like pet dogs that wag their tails and keep their masters happy”, I persisted. She popped her head out of the kitchen, pointed to the birds and repeated, “They are ours the way they are.”

I really did not understand.

Time went by. We shifted home. The ‘unsightly’ external wiring gave way to neat and out of sight internal wiring. Open windows were replaced by heavily curtained, grilled windows. I grew up from being a six year old to sixteen and even older. With time the sparrows just melted out of my life. I no more had time for them and I really never missed them….Stupid, stupid Sunitha.

After almost four decades, out on a regular boring domestic errand the other day, I stopped short in shock and surprise. A few feet ahead of me, I saw a sight newspapers and scientists had long written wailing obituaries on.  On the hot cemented floor, I saw sparrows hopping around with their dainty feet. Their tiny chirp and cheep filled my heart. I stood to soak in the sight of these brown coloured miniature marvels. My heart leapt in happiness, happiness that I had left behind years back in a totally different world. A world of bright sunshine and fresh air. A world that had long faded into a very distant and blurred memory.

I no more want to have sparrows as pets. I don’t keep any pets. The words of mother make a lot of sense to me now, “They are ours the way they are.”

How Uncool is a Mother to a Teenager?

It was not very long ago that my son was a puny boy, wide-eyed and innocent looking. He was so dependent, vulnerable and almost fragile. He needed to be cuddled, hugged and kissed so often. He reached no more than my knee and would always reach out for my hand the moment we stepped out into the big bad world. His soft grip would tighten the moment someone stopped to smile or pat him. He would even have to trot once in a while to keep with my adult pace. How small, how Lilliputian! His father and I made up his world. Everyone and everything else lived in the fringes. It doesn’t seem long ago….In fact it seems just like yesterday.

Sixteen years later, the wide-eyed innocent look has been replaced by a stylish glasses sporting know all look. With his gelled Mohawk and stylish beard, my dear Lilliput now towers over me. Do I belong to the brigade of proud moms with teenage sons? Without a doubt!

Yes, he no longer reaches for my hand when in distress. He has his own secrets and a world that I am not privy to. I probably live in its fringes now. Like many moms out there, I am not so tech savvy. All that about Android, Windows and Linux is well beyond my realm.  That makes me uncool, so terribly uncool and old fashioned. I could take my place behind a glass in a museum window sharing space with a dinosaur, perhaps?

I try very hard to break this glass window and catch up. I trot and even run to catch up with my son’s adult pace. I trot, trot, run, run and I find myself in a glass window again but in the company of Dodos. I surely have come a long way from Jurassic Age to the Nineteenth Century! Nevertheless, I have another extinct species for company again! The labyrinth of the electronic world confounds me. What do I do? Stupid stupid Sunitha, STOP. Isn’t there a certain charm and mystique in being a little old fashioned? In being you?

It is alright not to know everything. I am trying to update myself all the time, so it is absolutely fine if I am a few steps behind the ‘wired’ teenagers that I find around me. I am very much aware of the happenings around me. I read, I write and I speak. For me that is cool enough…. Yeah, a cool mom!

Oh yes, and to relive the moments with my little little Lilliput, now I just have to look into the wide eyes of my little nieces!

Living a Perfectionist’s Life

perfectionist-1024x911Oh, how the world loves a perfectionist! Or does it? I am not sure. I am not sure of very many things around me. All I know for certain is that I am no perfectionist and perhaps made of lesser stuff. I may not keep deadlines, may be late for an appointment or may even forget very important dates on the calendar. Pathetic? You bet!

Oh, how the world loves a perfectionist! He somehow manages to be on time, every time. Doesn’t oversleeping, unexpected road blocks, a flat tyre, torrential rains ever affect him? Not a crease on your shirt or a hair out of place, man, you are always picture perfect! His work is almost always bench mark and well appreciated. His world moves with such clockwork precision that there is no scope for errors. The world looks up to him as a perfect model. Brilliant? You bet!

As I watch him sail by, I fumble and tumble trying to catch up. Why is my purse always in disarray while his bag is so organised that he just has to open it and effortlessly reach out for whatever he wants? I feel so insufficient when he catches me at an inept moment, which I must admit, is not so rare. Doesn’t he ever suffer such moments? No never! Not that I have seen.

To my surprise, the harder I tried to trudge the path of a perfectionist, the more miserable I became. I woke up early, but my work still remained half done; I started early, but still I did not make it before time for the appointment. Why? May be I wasn’t trying hard enough. I ploughed on even harder. Days melted into weeks, months and years. One day, years later, I stood in front of the mirror hoping to see the reflection of a smug perfectionist staring at me. Instead it was a haggard, distraught, wrinkle wrought face pleading at me. STOP! The miserable creature screamed. Stupid, stupid Sunitha, what are you doing, trying to lead another person’s life? It is no crime to be imperfect.

The sun shone on me once again. I started living my life once again. I stopped to admire the beautiful carpet of wild flowers once again. I stopped to wave at an adorable kid once again. I began to enjoy the rain once again.

I have started living life once again! What if it’s imperfect, it’s mine for sure…and beautiful!

A WINGED MESSAGE

dali-decals-bird-in-tree1There’s a tiny little bird that sings to me early every morning from the tree near my kitchen window. I have never seen her. She must be really small, hidden in the thick foliage. But her unusual song is heavenly. I wake up and wait to hear her. And she doesn’t disappoint! When I hear her, I know my day is going to be fine despite the mundane everyday struggles that’s part of everyone’s life. For about half an hour, she fills the inside of my head with such mellifluous nectar and then quietly flies off. This honeyed call resonates and fills my being long after she’s gone.

To think that a tiny invisible winged creature could get so entwined in my life is, I must say, mind boggling. I wonder about this new friend of mine. I await her as eagerly as I await the return of my husband and son every evening.

Does she know my longing? Does she care? I wish I knew. I wish she knew. I wish to tell her that over the months, she has become an inextricable part of my life.

Does she have a nest? A family? What is she trying to say through her song? How long would she be around? What if she decides to leave the tree? Is she aware of the effect of her song? Is she mocking me, my life? I, the lesser creature…imprisoned in a concrete structure while she, the divine, the formless…sings with full-throated abandon swaying gently to the early morning breeze. Would I ever know? Should I ever know?

Of late, as she begins her song, my mind is consumed by such futile thoughts. The cacophony of these thoughts, I realize is drowning out the silken sweetness of my new found friend. Isn’t she already fighting a losing battle? Stupid, stupid Sunitha. STOP. Enjoy the song. Enjoy the moment. Capture the magic and beauty. Soak in its richness. Enjoy what is…forget what will be. Live the moment…What will be, will be.