Saturday, May 08, 2021 

Someone You Loved

"Well, we were born a few months apart, classmates, her mother died as she was born, and my father was dead by the time I was born. I was always the one getting things done, but she had the ideas".

"My mother, she only remembered the jamun episode.

So she convinced the boys in our Class 1B that if they were real men, they would climb up the forbidden jamun tree behind the school and fill up our metal lunch box with the berries. I was convinced they just picked up fallen fruit, but she said we could wash the mud off. 

So I hid the box, and sometime when it was dark, I snuck out. The entire street was related anyway, an agraharam. So I went to her place and she was waiting. She was always afraid of going alone. We slid out the door and sat on the low wall of the well at the end of the street. We ate the overripe jamuns, and rejoiced in our adventure. But then she didn't want to go back alone into the house. So I snuck in again with her. And then she clutched at me. It was dark and she didn't want to be alone.  So I leaned against a pillar, and she lay down, burrowing into my pavadai, the long skirt. I combed her hair with my fingers and held one of her hands and soothed her ... and we both slept. 

So my mother wakes up in the morning, and notices me missing. More puzzled than alarmed, she looks about the house, and comes out - to see my slippers at their doorstep. She came in, and saw me sitting and dozing, and the other drooling all over my clothes. She came and gave both of us a shake. Just dozing, I said. And she said yes, we woke early to study. My mother just nodded . Wash the juice off your faces and hands, she said. And is that your lunch tin ? See that you wash it in time for school."

" For me, I keep remembering the eighth grade, when we both would discuss about the people we would marry. We knew we would be married soon, at 16 if we were lucky or sooner. 

We both decided we would marry out, not in the network of extended family and friends that extended in the agraharam here and in the half a dozen other places, or even as far as Hyderabad and other places. She said she'd grown up listening to how babies had their father's eyes and grandfather's nose and looks and stuff. She liked none of the people she saw, she said. She didn't want her babies looking that way. She was always vain.

We decided that our kids, if daughters, would be named after each other. So we would always love them. If  I had a boy, he was to be named after her husband, she said. So that she could call out the name, and pinch the kid and hit  him when she felt like it. What ? We were thirteen then. 

You ? No, you were not the first kid. And you were properly named according to the stars, not given her husband's name. What was he called  ? Why would you bother ? I tell you you weren't named after him. 

OK fine, your nickname was .... but she always treated you well. Poor chap had died by the time she came to visit, you see."

 "What did she remember most ? Well, it was essentially me showing off.  We would write to each other in secret, see ? So she told her people she had to go to Tirupati. A promise to the god. With only her kid. I convinced your dad to fund her ticket. Madras to Bangalore, seven and a half rupees one way in the bus. 

She visited me in Bangalore. To see how I had set up an independent house, not in a joint family. I showed off how I was cooking and cleaning and washing and the total mistress of my own, independent place. 

The last time we spoke, she was still describing her awe on that visit. To see me run a household! She spoke of her fear that she'd never be able to be that organised, that... grown up!"

"Of course we haven't spoken for years. You don't stop loving though. You just love differently. 

My mother always saw her as a 5 year old kid with juice smeared over her face.

I always remember her dancing eyes. Describing how she'd call my kid by her husband's name, add cuss words, and pinch. Get her vengeance on the as yet unknown husband for crimes to be determined.

And she remembered my grown up face as I showed her my kitchen.

See ? We all loved different people. And they stayed with us, though their originals moved out of our lives.

I only felt sad she was alone at the end though. She was always afraid of being alone.I would have held her hand and combed her hair and let her sleep on my lap. She shouldn't have been alone. 

No, I'm not crying. Why would I ? At this age, we are all waiting for an excuse to die. This new thing as good a reason as any. And I told you. She is still talking about her future husband to me, whenever I think of her. And her babies, her plans for them.  All I say is, she shouldn't have been alone, and she probably wasn't. She just had to think of me. And so I am not crying."


And so it goes, all you lovely people. The ones who have moved on, the ones who have moved out. You're all still here. And I talk to you often. And in these times, I remember the affection and the laughter and the sheer joy that comes when there is a connection. The songs and the stories, the jokes and the poems.

And then I'm never alone. 



Monday, March 07, 2011 

On Seeing An Unexpected Online Presence

Much have I dreamt in the days of old,
And many goodly poems and stories written;
Now by absence of a muse sorely smitten
with unspun dreams and stories untold.

Sometimes my wide expanse I’d behold
and rue the lost emotion that ruled my demesne;
Yet did I continue in vegetation serene
until by some chance did her glimpse unfold.

Then felt I like some astrologer wise
When Ophiuchius swims into his ken;
Or like stout housewife when with eagle eyes
she star'd at new series— and then
I look'd in the mirror with wild surmise —
He still lives, that gent within.

Rusty, but still. Also, profound apologies.

Sunday, May 17, 2009 

Several Hours and Umpteen Days

The screech of tyres, the growing knot of people in the middle of the road, drew his attention away from the dappled gold in the green tapestry of trees lining the road. His colleague, till then gabbling inanities about the weekend, went slack-jawed and pasty in shock. He told the driver to carry on to the office and return, and got down in the middle of the slowing traffic.

             It was a young man. Somebody had removed the helmet that was now superfluous, and his face had nothing but a faint surprise in the arch of his brows. The eyes were closed, the breath shallow. Around the knot, the Monday morning traffic eddied and then continued. The 2-3 people who'd stopped were trying to lift him, somebody opening a waterbottle, looking for somebody to take action.

             He flagged a rick down by the expedient of catching a bar as it slowed, and refusing to let go. He flashed a couple of hundreds at the driver, who kept looking terrified and mumbling refusals. He lifted the young man : surprisingly light. He did not know if he still breathed, and didn't care to check. He awkwardly entered the rick, and told him to head for the hospital at the end of the road. The auto weaved nervously in and out of traffic, the driver touching the framed goddess on the dash every now and then. Five minutes, and they were at the hospital.

             He lifted the man gently, walked in, with a sense of relief, laid him on a stretcher in the hallway. People rushed, and thankfully, they began to wheel him without any delay. He fished in the jeans and brought out the usual flotsam of existence : a plastic comb, a licence, a balled up kerchief, a wallet and thankfully, a mobile. New message, it said, and he pressed the button. A smutty SMS opened up, inane jokes meant to cheer up a Monday. He dialled the number, and a voice asked him if he was late. Listen, he said. Main hospital se bol rahaa hoon. Your friend is hurt, badly. Come here immediately, and tell his family. Even to himself, his voice sounded unfeeling. I'm his brother, the voice on the other side quavered. Whatever, get here, he said and cut the connection before realising he hadn't said where. He handed over the phone to the receptionist as it rang again, and she started explaining addresses and locations. She looked at him questioningly, and he pointed to where the stretcher had been. I brought him, he said, give the phone to whoever comes. And he handed over the remainder items. She pulled a pad and began writing down the details. He gave name, showed ID, wrote his address, and came out.

             The rick was still there, and the driver shambled over mumbling. "Bura na manna bhaisaab, subah ka waqt hai, problem mein nahiin phas sakta tha". He nodded, weary in soul. "Bach jaayega ? " He shrugged. He sat in the rick, and the driver, sensing his mood, silently retraced their path. His car awaited him, and he went back to change the dress now specked with blood.

             That evening was one of their companionable silences punctuated by his occasional monologues and her rare replies. He was reflecting on his last translation of Faiz and the one commencing. He startled himself when he suddenly said " Don't say goodbye, OK ? Just leave when you decide to".

"Mmmmm ?"

He sighed. "No goodbyes", he said. Then realized that she didn't get the context. He started to explain, and trailed off, knowing the futility. "Just this. No goodbyes. Just say going, if you can, and go. Or just go."

"So you have been thinking about my leaving".

He smiled then; it suddenly struck him as amusing in a way. "Since the day I first spoke to you", he said.

 "Why? “

“Too short a date”, he murmured, but to himself. He felt suddenly tired. I’m sorry, he said. It’s been a long day.

“And what will you do when I go?”

He shrugged. Hope is the blanket one pulls over tighter in the far reaches of the night, while the heart knows the silence masks the pain that creeps in soft-footed.

“Inko sholon ke rajaz apna pataa toh denge 

Khair, hum tak woh na pahunchein bhi, sadaa toh denge

Duur kitni hai subah, bataa toh denge”


“Mmmm. Translate.”

I shall remain unFaized, he was about to say, but checked himself. She was liable to explode at his puns when angry.

“We shall send burning verse to tell them of us

Even if they never come, at least they will call out to us.

At least they’ll tell us how far the morning is”.


Much later, when revisited this favourite of Faiz’s, he realized the problem, the reason that he was unable to let go. He was seeking a defining moment, a goodbye.

 Relationships, unlike rambling poems, do not necessarily end in killer lines.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 

Slaying Them Softly

Everywhere, it stares out at you.

Earlier, I reacted in different ways. For the longest while, I would avoid any contact in that sphere, and if chance did throw me in harm's way, I would fidget and keep away from eye contact. If forced to make conversation, I would be as brief and polite as possible. 

There was a brief spell of devil may care rudeness, when I decided to make others pay for my awkwardness by being a prig, by pushing them into zones of discomfort.

I am clean and reasonably groomed. My clothes are ironed, even if I mix and match according to what the dhobi has deigned to deliver lately rather than appropriate schemes of colour or pattern. My shoes are mostly shined, unless you have caught me at the end of an impromptu long walk. Or if I'm planning on ending the meeting with one, in which case I'll wear walking shoes a bit worse for the wear. I can speak a decent line or two in English without obvious mistakes. I even watch a movie or two in English now and then, and can discuss with some substance books and music.

But I am never comfortable with representatives of what I call the Manicured Life. The one that jumps at you out of every serial, ad, magazine. Pastel shades, immaculate houses, perfectly white teeth, nattily casual men with superbly coiffed women. The men are not necessarily handsome, merely shiny and rich. The women who are not beautiful make do with being sexy. If they were merely confined to the ads, one could glance away. But when I meet them in real life, all the minor details start kicking in. 

For example, the casual elegance with which they handle the lower classes : drivers, waiters, and such. None of my easy familiarity that so often embarasses. Nor the rigid hauteur which is caricatured in movies. Just that masterful dash of geniality that garnishes the evident command.

I'm now older, if not wiser, and mostly, I do not have issues with The Manicured Life. My own polishing has been more in the nature of a grind, and that leaves its mark. I know that remnants of my awkwardness will always ensure, for example, that I fidget. Past practice will change the usually modulated tone into a harsh desi twang when I speak. I will always end up wearing the shirt just a little bit crumpled, the tie a tad askew. 

Ah well.They live as they should, and I live as I can, and who's to say which of us is living as we want, says I. 

I recently read a lady who had been Photoshopped by a popular woman's mag into a fairer, slimmer avatar, while profiling her as a "woman of substance" (which she most emphatically is, I might add). She wrote about how the media is foisting the illusion of a generic plastic beauty across a diversity of cultures and what it does to a generation of youngsters trying to conform to it. I nodded, reminded of my own angst at not fitting into the shiny lives of people that I thought were "cool". And then, in the course of a restless wandering of a sleepless night, I chanced upon an article in the Guardian, and clicked the youtube link simultaneously. The piece is laced with enjoyable invective against Simon Cowell ("buffed to the sheen of an ornamental pebble") and Amanda Holden ("a woman most notable for playing a psychotic hairdresser" and a "flat-packed, hair-ironed, over-plucked monstrous fool" : ) ). 

But it was the video that got me. You've sung "Cry Me A River", and "Killing Me Softly", friend. And that is enough to make most of us who go for the mush keel over. But when you hit the high notes so effortlessly in a song that was written for a posterchild of misfortune in one of the strongest emotional dramas ever, I stood up and cheered. 

Perhaps some of your miracle was manufactured. Perhaps they'll lift you and may eventually trash you. They'll make you over or keep you as an icon of their tolerance. The future is unknown, Susan Boyle : but today, from a member of the League for Extras and Ordinary Gentlemen, a salute.

Saturday, April 11, 2009 

Up Close and Impersonate

(From the archives, or rather, a temporarily loaned USB drive : )).

I had a momentary qualm, pausing outside the door. Then I shrugged and went in. The room’s cheery décor, more suited to a bright summer morning than the slate grey winter sky that was framed by the enamel windows, did little to quell the twinges inside. She was solicitous, speaking easily, while I was slightly awkward. It had been a while, after all.

She gestured vaguely. I loosened my tie and went to lie down while she adjusted herself. I looked up at her sitting by me, into those eyes, and she smiled a bit sadly. “You could have come earlier, even last year”, she said, cupping my chin in her hands. I didn’t reply. She ran a loose hand over my forehead, asking me when I’d shifted jobs, and I realized she was trying to put me at ease. I consciously relaxed then, willing away the tension, feeling the tightness in the back give way as the muscles uncoiled. She bent her face to me, and I could see the thin spots of red on her cheeks. The cold, I thought, or perhaps just that touch of rouge. She was almost tender as she lifted my face toward her. As I shut my eyes, I could smell the citrus on her breath, and thought that I much preferred the carbolic acid smell of disinfectant that was more common in clinics.

  One has none of the usual fears of dentistry. In my experience, they are the people one goes to on a yearly basis and talk politely of how long it has been and don’t you wish we’d meet oftener. Some talk of parietal cavities and whatnots may cause an eyebrow to rise considering the mixed company, but these are modern times after all. This particular visit, however, coming after a while and in the thick of the winter, has left me shaken. The first week after the procedure was blinding pain, and it was after the second sitting that I realized she had been lying when she said that things were going to get better. The alternative, of course, was to pop a painkiller or two. Painkillers have the effect of dropping me down dead until woken up by pain a couple of hours later. Since they expect me to be awake, if not contribute, at the job, one rather avoids the drooping gently bit. Which means 10 hours of pure agony the whole long day. In addition to idiot colleagues asking me if I’ve brushed up on a file or two. Hahaha, in case I didn’t get it, brush, file, hahaha. Even the boss, asking me if I was able to work through and telling me to take it easy. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew, hehehehheh”, he says, exploding in his own mirth like a demented Sidhu.

In other news, have been speaking in tongues. Not really, in other voices, in an attempt to find my own. The success of the originals has been mostly in their inimitable style. But one tries. Thank you, originals, for the inspiration. Here are the results (1,2,3).  (I recommend saving the links before viewing them so you can zoom and scroll easily).

(Update : Added below as some issue@links).

Saturday, February 14, 2009 

A Tale of Two Cities

The ice cubes in the glass rattled as he drained the last of the clear liquid with a grimace. I politely raised my own glass as he stood up, though it just contained water. "Vodka, life", he said, and smiled as he left. "Votka, the unvoiced k at the end modifies the pronunciation", I said automatically to his back. Another flight took off from the airport nearby, the gleaming metal tube with brightly lit window slits booming unnervingly close. And suddenly the sentence and the noise took me back a long time ago.

It was in a coffee shop in that city near the airport, bright lights and Paul Mauriat playing unobtrusively to the gentle clink of silver on china. We both knew that goodbyes were impending, and that what we'd shared was but a piece of time stolen from our respective worlds. Goodbyes should be brief, you said, and we both smiled at the reference. As always when under stress, I hummed softly. "I'm the truth you'll never know, I'm the place you'll never go". You joined in, "I'm the song you'll never hear, I'm the course you'll never steer". A few of the sparse 3 AM crowd looked incuriously at the two of us, and you smiled "But I thought you were more of a vodka man". I grinned. "Votka, the unvoiced k at the end modifies the pronunciation".

That was the city where I once enveloped you in my arms. This is the city where I open my arms wide and wider, wider to encompass your presence in my world.

That was the city where we walked on the roads late at night, laughing as we tried to hold hands and yet jump across the puddles. This is the city where I walk into potholes uncaring, lost in your thoughts.

That was the city where the roar of the early morning locals and the newspaper vans belted out an aubade before the sun's accusing rays sought proof of our hidden tryst. This is the city where the moon casts merciful shadows on the emptiness everywhere.

That was the city where I once sang to you dreadfully out of tune, and this is the city where music brings you to life.

That was the city where you once spoke at such length that you complained your throat was sore. This is the city where your silence is the subtext of every conversation I hold.

That was the city where your gossamer fingers once soothed me. This is the city where the liquid caress of your memory startles me as I drift into sleep.

That was the city where I once traced songs of love across your back. This is the city where I paint landscapes of my solitude in the inky blackness of the night.

That was the city where hope once fluttered like a page in the breeze settling down. This is the city where I crumple pages full of writing.

That was the city where we were lovers.

This is the city where I fell in love.

One city a figment of imagination that has never quite faded, and the other a reality that has never completely dawned.

Thursday, January 08, 2009 

Even These Least

(Note : Normal programming resumes soon. Really, I mean, Hopefully).

The past few weeks have been about conversations about helping, about parents and about the usual bleeding heart stuff.

A brief background. The details are unimportant. Still. An old lady, probably about 65, relatively kempt, carrying about 10 + in cash, enough for her to get mugged. Leaving out details of how I came across her, I realised she was disoriented and unfit to take care of herself, shivering in the cold and rambling. I took her to a nearby place, put in some food into her and probed a bit more. She had medical papers identifying her as a patient for some heart/BP whatever problems and as a depressive. One doc had noted a tendency to skip medication. She is now in a hotel in Delhi, running out of money. My efforts for her were mostly ineffectual. Thankfully, somebody far more effective and formidably networked has taken charge, and while a solution is not in sight, at least people are doing their best. A son, a businessman in a relatively affluent portion of Delhi has shown no interest. The daughter is abroad, and is aware of the situation. Efforts are in hand to make her help.

The lady, like most old ladies, can easily get on your nerves. She is clinically depressed and launches into long rambling tales about her life :how sweet a person her daughter is , her evil son. She has no one to talk to and hence any audience is welcome. Her kids (daughter, as son is not contactable) claim that she has been a patient very many years, is obstinate, has in fact driven her husband to suicide, is an alcoholic ... and doesn't deserve their help.

I'll not get into a debate about how much (or not) we are to put in towards parents. I'll only paraphrase one of the most balanced,equable (and happy:)) persons I know:-

"I will not compromise the person I am to give them their happiness...'cause there are so many ways to keep them happy. Don't focus on 'how much they have done' to do what you have to do. If you tot up that balance sheet, and it is in your favour, you feel like crap, and if it is in theirs, you end up feeling a righteous saint and wearing a halo. They don't owe you anything, they did the best they could. You don't owe them anything better, you just do the best you can."

It is the portion about "not deserving" that really stabs at me. In my lights, you don't help somebody because they "deserve it". You help because you can. Judging the recipient is an injury to the spirit of giving. I only glance occasionally at Heather's blog, but I was impressed by this post both for the story and for the detailed discussion that follows in the comments.

So this gent rings up, downcast. He was asked for a voluntary project (having undertaken such before), for a most deserving cause. He is already stressed, these are bad times, but hell, how can I refuse ... I replied on the same lines : You don't owe anything, just do the best you can. Just as you don't bother if they "deserve it", don't flagellate yourself for not doing as much as they need. You'll end up merely hurting yourself, or worse, resenting them and a bad example for someone else who might be tempted to help.

I'm not a bleeding heart, by a long shot. I could blame time and space and life, or perhaps it never was in me. I really don't know. Moral triage is something every person carries out on a daily basis, navigating through the million abrasions of the daily grind. Constrained by my own needs, I can and do walk off from situations and places without necessarily feeling heart-broken. What is amazing, however, is that there always seems to be somebody who cares.

"Magar vishwaas ko apne bachaaye kaun baitha hai ?
Andheri raat mein deepak jalaaye kaun baitha hai ?

But who is this who has kept his faith alive? / Who has lit a lamp in this dark night ?

These are cold, cold times, dear heart. Maybe they are merely lamps, giving a feeble light; maybe they aren't able to warm anything except a few hearts. But I see plenty of people around me doing the most unlikely things. The alpha-Punjabi, super-cynical gent in the office who carries strips of biscuit packs in his car, handing them out at the lights to the people who walk up. Even more unbelievable, his daughter who was once in the car and said namaste to them . The middle-class lady wrapped up in a shawl at Sector 8 RK Puram market the other day, buying a plate of steaming hot momos, depositing it in front of the shivering wretch on the roadside and walking off without a word. People who, on a larger scale, are trying to do something, anything that will make at least one more person happy, one more person safe. People like Anuradha Bakshi and Bessie Mathew. I wouldn't know just how they became this way. Perhaps what the king says in The Glass Palace is true ... that there is a life force that takes over.

"... Karuna -One of the Buddha's words, Pali for compassion, for the immanence of all living things in each other, the attraction of life for its likeness. A time will come, he told the girls, when you too discover what this word karuna means, and from that moment on your lives will never again be the same".