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In his shoes.

Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame

 

I know now how he felt, all those years ago, when he looked up at the brick and mortar carcass that was slowly, day by day, taking the shape of his dreams. Now I know, because I find myself in his shoes.

Those were the days when he had less gray hair and generally more hair, toured the North Eastern parts of the country extensively on work, smoked cigarettes virtually non-stop and blew rings of smoke lazily into the air, much to the glee of my sister and me; those were the days when he had only one good reason to visit a by lane tucked away behind a labyrinth of lanes off the boi para of College Street – an old, dilapidated house that had been razed to the ground and a new house was slowly raising its head from the rubble much like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. This was our house. The house he was building.

I used to accompany him on many of his weekend trips to what would one day become our house, clutching on to his big finger as I hopped and ran to match my seven year old steps with his leonine strides. As we got closer to the house his steps would quicken. Finally, he would pick me up and cover the last two or three turns of the alleys that lay between us and the house, at a pace that I could not keep up with. Once there, he would turn into a very different person – almost like an impatient child who would overflowing with questions about his new toy. I remember him tugging at the iron rods clumped together to form the core of the pillars of the foundation (to check their strength, perhaps?); watched him as he ran his fingers through the cracks that had emerged on the freshly plastered walls with a look of disappointment writ large on his face; remember him peering closely at the veneer on the freshly polished doors and windows; and always remember asking myself why he chose to do so. Our visits were filled with many technical questions that I knew nothing about: slopes, inclines, thickness of the walls and strength; but behind all of these questions, the one question that I could sense was uppermost in his mind was the one I rarely heard him ask: “When will all this chaos be over and when will we get to move in?”

Our house stands tall today, with its balconies on the south face overlooking a park; the broad bay windows that let in the first rays of the morning sun standing tall and proud; and a big terrace and a narrow strip of land at the back dotted with his favourite plants and flowers. Today, my father lives with my mother in that house still, long after his two daughters, my sister and I, moved out in pursuit of our own lives.

And as our apartment is under renovation, I find myself in his shoes today. In the last four months not a day has gone by without me poking around the rubble amongst the broken walls, pile of bricks, bags of cement and stacks of plyboard. I stand there and gaze at the gaping holes that were once walls and see doors that I had so far dreamt about, look up at the cavern which used to sport a false ceiling that has been replaced with rafters, and Italian marble floors, which I believe would be better suited in hardwood. On one occasion, not so long ago, I remember the Bee and I didn’t talk to each other for three days because we could not agree on the colour of the walls in the study, he wanted a brooding midnight blue and I wanted a rusty red. On the fourth day we decided we both preferred Olive Green…

Now a lot of ground has been covered and the walls are getting their first coat of paint. I was there even today and passing by a mirror thought I caught a glimpse of my father even as I ran my hand over the fresh coat of paint, pointed out a few cracks to the masons, irritated the life out of the carpenter by asking far too many questions about the louvers I wanted and added some ‘innovative’ improvements to the bookcase they had already finished. I came away happy that my dream is slowly turning into reality.

 

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Just a random rambling on rain

I had started writing this post right in the middle of a miserable Mumbai monsoon morning, with a silent prayer on my lips for a ray of sunlight. And, as if in answer to my prayer, the sky looked less gray and more blue with moody white clouds floating carelessly in from the horizon in no rush to rain and I promptly abandoned the post. But, as it is with the misleading Mumbai monsoon, by evening the sky was back to being completely gray and clouds pregnant with their carriage waited patiently for a cue to begin their downpour.

After my camera had captured this view outside my window,  I thought I should pen this late monsoon post; about the torrid love-hate relationship between the rain and me. Three monsoons ago, an early monsoon day in Maximum City saw us alight from a flight that had flown us in from an arid, desert city. My Facebook status for the occasion had read, “Finally in the city that is rainy and green”. Why did I go so ‘over the top’ with my Facebook update? Well, read on…

My earliest impressions of the monsoon date back to the city of Job Charnock, where rubber boats are often deployed to rescue people stranded on rooftops in the lower lying parts of the city; and where I spent many a rainy afternoon setting sail paper boats in the alley outside our house that remained perpetually water-logged during the monsoons. I remember in carefree days there was no greater joy than dancing in the first monsoon showers or wading through the abundant rivulets and streams to and from my way to school – which returned to being roads only after the monsoons were over. Being such a creature of habit, I had accepted rain as an integral part of life, that there would be the occasional thunder-showers that would clean up the grime and the dust and set the earth aglow; that a random maze of pot-holes would soon dot the face of the streets soon after the showers came leading to incessant traffic jams; that houses and walls would soon take on a fresh greenish hue with the onset of the rains; and that our clothes and books would start to smell musty; and that children would snivel, sneeze and complain and yet not give up the slightest chance of playing or getting wet in the rain.

I had spent the decade prior to this in a somewhat rainless exile between the arid city at the foothills of the Aravalli and a desert city in the outer fringes of the Rub al Khali ( The Empty Quarter ). In the Rajdhani, at the foothills of the Aravalli, the monsoon or the Varsha rhitu is not a prominent season on the seasonal calendar and a whimsical rain fall soon gives way to autumn. The desert city, where we nested for the later half of the decade, has only one prominent season on the calendar, Al Sa’if (summer).

In my exile in the Rajdhani, I suddenly found that a lot of the known and the ordinary had gone missing from my life, rain being one of them. Like all fellow creatures of habit, the loss became a misery over time. Thus in rememberance of the rain that had left my life, I fondly named my daughter Rimjhim, the music of the rains, while I waited for the scorching Dilli summer months to peter into rain. In the desert city, things were extreme, it barely rained a few days in the year. Thus any form of rain was celebrated by going ‘Wadi bashing’ – driving through rivulets that trickled along dry river beds. I secretly wished for some divine intervention to lift this ban from my life and return me to some place where it rained.

So it was natural that when I did arrive at Maximum city, the craving for rain had been at an extreme. That year’s monsoon went unnoticed as I had other inconsequential things like finding a house, getting school admission for the 8-going-on-9, settling in etc. to keep me distracted. I did admire the gray Arabian Sea and the stormy sky gushing and pouring in a gusto from the Worli Seaface house that we spent that monsoon in. And the following year, in spite of the meteorological department going berserk and issuing warning after warning of a repeat of a deluge similar to 2006, rain played truant.  Soon I had joined the rest in tweeting about the missing Mumbai monsoon.

Which brings me to the year that is. And that is where lies the misery of a different kind. For the rain-starved me the decade long rationing of rain had brought in a craving for the rain, true, but it had altered something in me as well. I had, somewhere down the line, grown less benevolent and the romantic was hard hit by reality. This year’s monsoon has been surplus. The rains have filled up the lakes, the incessant streams have eroded the hills, the drumming droplets have eaten into the asphalt and have left behind, to quote a friend, ‘moon-craters’ on the Mumbai streets, the damp air has left a trail of musty smell in clothes and an abundant growth of fungus on all things cane, wood, fabric, and paper.The joy ride into town or anywhere else within or without the city boundaries reminds one of the joys of riding the metaphorical ‘bail gaadi‘.

Does that mean that I don’t love the rains any more? Of course, I do. From my perch, my lofty window on the 32nd floor, or through the high glass windows of the cafe down the road with a book in hand sipping a cup of espresso, or even from the car window as it whooshes through puddles while dodging ‘moon-craters’ of all shapes and sizes – nestled in dry comfort.

Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Strange love : On the Agastya trail…

Agastya’s envy had then blurted out, he wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent. – English August, Upamanyu Chatterjee.

In my first year of college, on a wintry evening I fell in love with  Agastya August Sen, a snob and a dopey stuck among the primitives of  Madna. August, who “spoke, thought and respired”  in English.  August who had to survive, no matter what. August, a lover of jazz and who read Marcus Aurelius. And ever since that day, ever since I was 17, I  kept looking for him in crowded buses, in metro stations, in Nandan, in Rabindra Sadan, at Rotaract meets, at the university campus – in a Kolkata bustling with people but none like August.

No, I was not obsessed, I walked into it with my eyes open. I knew he was a storybook character. But he was the closest I had come to a suitable boy who believed in being unapologetic about his love for the Queen’s language and being uncompromising  for what he loved. That was where  my love story started and ended. With my ‘perfectionist’ core , I too wanted to sound like a native of the tongue I acquired, just like August. And my Bong crux yearned the glory of a well spoken, well read,  well bred and all the other kinds of “well” ness (of  Bangla) that a well brought up Bengali should be. Besides that, I too, in many  ways, had started to feel  trapped, living life among a well fed, ‘fair of skin’, pedigreed tribe – who flourished by weighing and selling  gold and silver by the gms. This was my Madna,  in the heart of a city caught in yore, among a confluence of  baniyas, mostly from the western part of the country, converged along the central artery of the city over the last century, lost in  a milieu who refused to   perfect the art of their mother tongue, leave alone the Queen’s tongue.

You see  my parents’  foresight had put us, my sister and me, through the rigours of “English medium convent education”. And I suppose it must have been there where the arranged marriage happened, between the love for the languages and me.  The prolonged presence of the  two languages, English and Bengali, made them a crucial part of my life. Hours of Wren and Martin, verse after verse penned by Shelley, Keats, Byron,   pages of Shakespeare, Shaw, Maugham; and then attending Ms Gomes’ classes on the nuances of Bangla byakaran, bisheshwa, bisheshan, kriya, sarbanaam, sandhi, samas, krit pratyay, taddhit pratyay, reading  and appreciating Bonophool, Moumachhi, Satyendranath, Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra – phew! So by the end of it all,  the lack of  linguistic perfection in a person left something incomplete for me. And at times it even denied me the simpler pleasures of teenage and youth.

At 15 ,  I received my first love letter, from a ‘eligible in all respect’ boy from the English medium missionary school down the road from mine. But even with stars in my eyes I halted my reverie midway – three grammatical errors and five spelling mistakes! I know, I will sound like my fifth grade English teacher here, but can’t help it!  Mrs. Mandel would always say, “the search of perfection begins with detecting imperfection” and I may have had taken it too seriously. Ahem, you think so too?

All through college and university Agastya had the last laugh. A crush coupled with a few skipped heartbeats would inevitably be followed by a not so pleasant dawning of realisation that I was very much rooted in Madna. Love would quickly be replaced by the axiom  that my search for linguistic perfection was actually a wild goose chase as none would pass my “litmus” test in speaking,  writing or even thinking in  proper, grammatically correct forms of the languages they inherited or acquired.

The news syndication, was where my lofty pride of “walking, talking and breathing” English met the first reality check. I realized even I made grammatical errors, misspelt words and to quote my erstwhile editor, I was at times “a disaster”. In other words, lofty me was humbled. My Editor-in-chief  ran every piece of edit through her washer and dryer before it could be put to bed. Reducing beautifully crafted articles into shreds, at times with a pair of shears, was her forte and my nemesis. But the company of the enlightened veteran also ratified my belief that I was not paranoid, that  my Madna was real and Agastya was right.

Finally, a serendipitous  meeting and a couple of paeans of love later, I married a Brit  by birth Bee who also happened to be a pedigreed Bangali, but by accident.  He had been the only beacon of hope after my unrealistic love story with Agastya. The Bee was flesh and blood, had a commendable command over English and the same unapologetic fervour for the tongue (excuse me, his mother tongue, being born there and all that) so I lost no time in saying ‘yes’ to him. His Bengali was nothing to write home about, and here I made an exception, lest I thought I’d die a cantankerous spinster and also because I was sure it would correct itself under my supervision.

But …

To be continued …..

 

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And then, there was Facebook

The courtyard was tucked away at the end of the blind alley. As the hot summer sun would start to tilt westward, the forever familiar faces would appear in the neighbourhood windows, calling out  names, impatient to run out of the house. My name was also on that list, I now remember fondly, counted an equal among my peers. It was a mixed bunch, some of us tried to speak in Gujrati or Hindi to sound like  them while they  joked in Bengali. And by 4 o’clock in the afternoon the courtyard would be full of little voices laughing, joking, crying, fighting and more than anything running around with the wind in their hair. 

And soon with the change of season the equation in the camaraderie among the little boys and the little girls, who were now in their adolescence and early teens, started to change. The girls and I started to wear plaits, grew quieter, took to giggling and chatting more with the sisterhood on the terrace while the boys continued with their backslapping brotherhood and loud, rowdy ways. Once in a while the playful backpackers, would yank at the shy plaits in mischief, not quite ready to understand why they had replaced the giggly ponytails .

And before the raging hormones could take control over the mind or the heart, some of us had to move on to other parts of the city. The moving away changed a lot. I moved away from the warm comfort of the familiar faces and moved into a colder para  which offered more of acquaintances and less friends. Once the initial barrage of ‘we all miss you’ letters had died down, I settled down for the occasional birthday or seasons greetings. And after a while, they too became rare. Time had come  for the ‘blind alley and its gang’ to fade from my memory.

We have all gone through this phase when we trade one set of friends for another, retaining only the favourite few. These are the ones who we call, we keep in touch with and turn to both in despair and in glee. It happened to me as well, in some cases I was retained in address books and in others, I retained some of the old faces. So whether it was  a fight, a breakup or a crush, whether it was to share grief or joy or simply to fight we called each other or visited those close by. I accepted that with each move, from one alley to another, from school to college and then on to university, I would make new friends and while  some old friends would remain in my address book, some would fade.

The transition from an address book to the phonebook stored in a memory chip was not too difficult. And keeping in touch couldn’t get any better. Mobiles brought in a revolution  that changed how we would  ‘keep in touch’ henceforth. It suddenly brought back calling or texting to wish near and dear ones on various occasions into fashion. By this time I was also in another country, where mobile giants kept lowering call charges to kill competition. I spent hours creating messages for any given reason in any given season, birthdays, Diwali, Durga Puja, Christmas, New Year and I know some significant few still remember my fervour and as a result the deluge in their inbox.

But it was early 2007 when an email landed in my new Gmail inbox. “Come, join me on Facebook” it said, sent by a dear friend who I couldn’t refuse. Earlier I would stay away from  social networking sites, the likes of Orkut, because I found them a lonely place. Each name I had looked up returned the same message every time, “Sorry, the user you are looking for does not exist”.

Facebook was comforting in a strange way as I found a lot of  my friends, my compatriots, there. And one day I found a  curiously familiar face in my inbox with a question I had expected the least. The slightly balding, heavy-set face had a smile I knew from a forgotten time. He had left a message asking me where my plait had disappeared, a question relevent only if I was the same girl from the blind alley of his childhood. 

And soon my friends’ list on Facebook started to fill up with old, smiling faces from across the world. All were faces with whom I had common roots, in the alley, in school or college, at the University campus. Some went back to the cities I had moved on to with my new life, to coffee mornings in a desert city, to hours of Arabic lessons, long days spent at work or a group of knowledge seekers quizzing into the night.

Without the new revolution called social networking, these faces would have faded and would have been pushed to the dark alleys of the mind with the old ones. The freckled boy, who yanked at my plait and had once hit me with a deuce ball lived in Australia with a smiling wife and two pretty daughters with pony tails. One of my best friends from school, whose number i had misplaced and who never called back, was a research scholar at UCLA, California. The lady who got her Omani driving license at one go now lived in Zurich. My American friend from the Arabic lessons at Polyglot Institute had finally married his Phillipino girlfriend.

Smiling faces with perfect holiday albums and picture perfect lives gave me hope. Facebook helped me connect with that part of my life with which I had almost forgotten,  friends with whom I had lost hope to reestablish  contact. For nomads like us, like me, the fact that somebody from the past, distant or near, would remember, care to look up and connect gives a different high.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2009 in humor, Kids, Memories, Summer, Uncategorized

 

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Dreams…

This is old wine in a new bottle. Its one of my favourites so I’m reposting it – Rose tinted glasses

I dreamed a dream in time gone by when hope was high and life worth living – Les Miserables

It was a dream. It was one of those dreams that puts the ever so restive soul to rest, a dream that gives a sense of roots to an ever searching soul, a dream that promises rain to the parched soul and a direction to the lost soul forever in search of its self.

Have you ever picked up a glass marble and held it up against the sun? Have you watched the colours of the marble  dripping through your fingers, rolling down your hand to scatter like drops of rainbow around your feet? My dream was just like that. Like a  green marble dripping the golden sunlight and then bursting into drops of translucent rainbow at my feet.

The last time I dreamt such a dream was in my childhood, on a summer evening  in a house bustling with people, as I sat in the balcony watching the evening darken into night. The cool summer breeze grazed through my hair, a heady wisp of  jasmine  lifted from the neatly woven strands precisely coiled into a heap on a  platter to allure the sleepy neighbourhood and half of a crescent moon hung in the sky. And I thought the dream would never end, that times would never change, that I would never depart and all would continue to be the way it was.  

But dreams are after all to be woken up from, and that happened when I grew up. The adult  understood that it was but a dream.

My prevailing dream had the same tranquil air. As if my weary soul had found the oasis it desired, as if my vagrant gypsy mind had found a home, my yearning for calm had found mooring in a placid harbour, as if a  friend had reached out to catch my tears and replace them with laughter.

 It was the same languorous evening slowly melting into the night, a soothing wind caressed my face as it swirled upwards from the rain-soaked grass, a night-bird flew past my window soulfully calling out to its mate and everything enticed me to linger a while longer. And every time I wanted to depart it became more real asking me to relent, urging me to stay and imploring me to believe that it would never end.

And then I woke up. It was time for the dream to pass. The rain it brought was to change into a dry, scorching day; the friend it promised was to become a stranger again; the chaos that I had lost for a moment was to return; the soul was again to become a nomad in the desert.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2009 in Memories, Summer, Uncategorized

 

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Sharat

Every time, at this time  of the year,  in the month of Ashwin, the heavy, grey rain clouds start to pale and wane into fluffy white cotton candy and float around languidly across the azure sky. A mellow sun of the colour of  molten gold  starts to tilt and cast longer shadows. A  naughty, nippy wind nudges the weary, worn leaves to pry themselves off their nodes and fly away with it. And I wonder how to name this season. This season is not Autumn, as we Bangalis, and most other Indians, have another name for Autumn, Hemant. This season of the light, crisp air heavy with the fragrance of the Parijat is better known as Sharat, a season Kalidasa describes in Ritu Samhara as the season of  “nights with silvery and coolant moonbeams of the moon, ... and lakes with white-lotuses”.

It is Sharat when glistening diamond drops of morning dew crown each blade of grass; when the Shiuli lies strewn on the lush, wet green at the break of dawn; when the fields come alive with the Kaash swaying with the playful breeze; when the care free cotton clouds roam the skies lazily. It is Sharat, the harbinger of Sharodotsav that presages Ma Durga’s return home to us with Lakshmi, Ganesh, Saraswati and Kartikeya.

The  Bangali, especially us, who stay away from home,  during this extraordinary season we become a different being. No matter how much we denounce the nuances of our  Bangali roots, the nippy, heady, golden days of Sharat make us nostalgic. Some frenzied few are already homeward bound while others ready themselves to usher in Sharadiya in the land they call home. I, for one, look skyward to catch a cloud, wait to catch a glimpse of  a blushing lily, yearn for the golden touch of the sun. I, for one, lose myself in a flurry of  festive activities to welcome the Anandomoyee home.

Water lily

Kassh

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Gali ke mod pe suna sa koi darwaza…

There was a gentle rain falling outside. The incessant caress of the water had washed away every speck of dirt from each leaf, each blade, every flower. The roads, once covered in the dry summer dust, had soaked in the rain and was now wet. The old houses wore a drenched look, gathering moss on the eroded walls, ferns bursting out of the cracks and crevices.

Inside it was damp, dark and dusty from unuse. The closed cupboards reeked of mothballs, the rotting wood peeled out of its polished surface, the walls bulged and bloated in places thanks to the humidity in the air.  The restive soul wanted a breath of the fresh, wet air, heavy with an unknown fragrance from an unknown white flower blooming in the wet bush outside the door. He did not belong to this city anymore. But it rained the same way from where he came.  And that was why he wanted to be outside, under the drizzle, letting it’s cool touch remind him of home. He was not particularly homesick, but the rains made him nostalgic.

But he was also not new to this city. He had once lived in this alley with the decaying houses, from his first day till when he became a successful engineer.  The doors in the alleyway reminded him of the many faces behind them. There was a man who listened to the radio very late into the night at no. 3A, the lady in 4/1/B was a widow with four children, the house with the unusually purple Bougainvillia creeping up it’s walls used to be the home of one of his best friends who had since moved to the Middle East. He wondered how many of those faces were still a part of the decaying houses behind those doors of the alley that ended at his door.

cobbled alley

It was only yesterday, when he stood in front of this door, he had felt a happy lost feeling. Lost in the alleys of his childhood, his house tucked away in the older part of the city with the chaos of life around him. And then his gaze had turned to the green door next to his door, a special door from his boyhood. The fragrance of heena from the freshly washed hair, the clinking of thin, gold bangles, an array of colourful chunnis, the dark kohl lined, almond eyes darting coy looks and then quickly looking away if he happened to look.  He remembered  a  bashful encounter on a Holi morning – the only time when he happened to caress the blushing, warm, softness of the cheek , with her sporting a disobedient plait playfully pushed back where it belonged – an image from his eager boyhood.

But the man had not come back to reclaim unrequitted love. They never had a love story. He had found love in another city, in another girl. She had been married to a banker in a relatively newer part of the city.  He had another purpose today to have returned here thus.

He walked out into the small opening outside his door where the unknown bush grew the unknown white flowers with a heavy, sweet scent. Turning around, he looked up at the facade that was a pale shade of yellow many monsoons ago with broad parapets and arched windows. The window on the second floor was his, with his table and chair by it and his world of books, music, kites and football. The table and chair are now housed in his home with some other memories, the rest gathered dust and grew mouldy behind the closed door of this house.

Then with a shrug he turned the brass key in the latch. This would be the last time he would step into this house again.

But at a later date, the house will don a fresh coat of paint, the windows will be thrown open to the southern wind, there would be new curtains in the old fashioned windows, there would be new footsteps on the stairs climbing up and down. A  new love story would perhaps bloom with another girl next door. With that promise to his past he handed over the keys to the man who stood outside under a black umbrella holding a cheque to his name.

 He climbed into the waiting car at the end of the alley, rolled up the glass and took one last look at the house  before it went out of sight forever.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2009 in city, Life, Love, Memories, Romance

 

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