Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dear Mr. Matthew

Dear Mr. Matthew,

I cannot thank you enough for all that you taught me in school. Of course, you weren’t really my teacher, but as the Principal you were responsible for all of us, weren’t you?

You used to welcome us each year with the words, “You have to fight for your place in this world.” I heard that sentence every year for ten years under you. And sure enough, you made me a fighter. I fought for my marks like no other (you know how much difference 0.5% can make!). And I won most of my battles, albeit only in the classroom. I never learned a sport, Mr. Matthew. Sometimes I wished we had sports in school. You know…basketball, football, a running track perhaps. But that’s only sometimes. Mostly I’m glad that I could focus on studies. And I have you to thank for that.

I made it to Harvard, Mr. Matthew. I was an excellent student. All my submissions were on time, I obeyed my professors and knew my books cover to cover. But I struggled with the Music Appreciation class, Mr. Matthew. I had to take it as an elective course, and I struggled. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a book to study from, Mr. Matthew. What kind of frivolity was this? It was the only class I got a B in. But let bygones be bygones! I am writing to you today to thank you for all that you’ve done for me, Mr. Matthew.

One of the most important lessons you taught me was to respect my elders. I’m sure you knew this then, but I’ll say it again. We were all terrified of you. If Mr. Matthew walked your way, you moved out quickly. You never met his look. Never uttered a word beyond a greeting. Mr. Matthew was in charge. And we all knew that. So we respected you, you see. You were always inaccessible. Did I say inaccessible? I meant awe-inspiring, of course. There was never questioning your authority, Mr. Matthew. And we loved you for it. Today, I am the General Manager of a company, Mr. Matthew. I have 150 people working under me and I don’t let anyone get too close. You have to command respect.  And discipline. I’m sure you agree.

I suddenly remembered something, Mr. Matthew. Prize Distribution Day in 1999. I was in the 9th grade and during rehearsals you had asked me to buy a new shirt for the big event. I didn’t listen to you (my mother said the old shirt was fine). The day after Prize Distribution, you called me to your office and caned me. It made me a better man, Mr. Matthew! I cried, I remember, but it made me stronger. And made me realize the value of discipline. Now, Mr. Matthew, I can proudly say that I have a disciplined boy of my own. He respects his elders, he shines his shoes and combs his hair and fights for his marks. He does his homework, doesn’t speak out of line and gets caned if he does. He is quite a fine, young lad, Mr. Matthew. You must meet him.

I talk to him about you a lot, Mr. Matthew. About the values you instilled in me. About the importance of marks and of prioritizing work over play; the respect for authority and the threat of punishment for indiscipline. All this made me a better man, Mr. Matthew. And now I want my son to learn from you. Will you admit him to your school, Mr. Matthew?

You see, I want him to grow up like me. And you can help him do that.

Your faithful student

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Possibility Girl

“I can’t do it. He’s his best friend!” She begged, she pleaded with her best friends.

“The bro-code remember?! It applies to girls as well!” She said. “Never hook up with your ex-boyfriend’s best friend.”

And yet the words rang loud and clear in her murky brain- “Except, EXCEPT when you get the vibe that there might be something here….there just might be something here…..”

She didn’t want to think about it. It was just too….tedious. Too much at stake, too much familiarity. But she couldn’t get him out of her head.

Where had he been all this time? Where was he when she was busy wooing his best friend? Had she made the wrong choice? Or had her choice simply brought me that much closer to him?

“We can see it. Don’t know what it is, yaar, but it’s there. Something’s up between you two,” they said.

She let it be. Wait, let me rephrase that. They let it be. After all, there was nothing between them….yet. They were comfortable believing that.

Till they met a week later. And the week after. As they always did. Because you see, before she went and got herself embroiled with his best friend, they hung out every Wednesday. All of them. All of them who now sensed the electricity in the air between the two. Like hot summer air it hung heavy, stifling, giving them no respite. No matter how many cold beers they downed.

Then one day, as smoothly as whiskey sits on the rocks, their friends left them alone to have a smoke outside. Suddenly these two had nowhere to go, no one else to turn to. Conversation became high pitched, strained, restrained, as they attempted to skirt the issue that had for long been making its round.

“So that chick’s hot, huh?!” She said, eyeing the girl in skimpy shorts, her smile barely reaching her eyes.

“Yeah. Think she’s with someone else though,” he replied.

Was she dreaming or was he trying to say something? She had made the mistake of jumping to conclusions too often. She was willing to make the mistake again.

“I like you,” She blurted out.

Then she waited. Heard the din of silence. Then the resonance of her heart beating.

“I like you too.”

Her heart soared like a thousand eagles taking flight. Wind beneath their wings, endless possibilities ahead of them, no horizon in sight.

She was flying.

Heartaches, heartbreaks, lust and longing- She left them wilting on barren land as she took to the skies.

Their friends returned. She sat there, face burning, his confession wreaking havoc with her system. She wanted them all to leave. Right then.

An hour passed.

Have you ever held your pee for an hour? Waiting patiently, then impatiently, for that release that’s imminent? That’s what she felt like during that hour. Till it slowly but surely passed and the time came for them to leave the club.

It was her friends and not the universe that conspired with them. She kicked hypothetical stones with her shoe as she heard the see-sawing of ‘who would drop her home.’ Suddenly, everyone had somewhere else to go. Except the two of them. It was settled then. He would drop her, because her house was on the way.

It took them precisely four minutes of walking to the parking lot, getting into the car and locking the doors. As they say, the rest is history.

Except it didn’t end there. They met the next day, and the next, and the next….right uptil the next Wednesday when they all met again. Only this time, they let the electricity have free reign between them. And no one was complaining.

“We told you so!” Their friends' eyes said it all.

They let the telling continue. They let their courtship continue. Well into many a Wednesday and beyond.

Would she have met him if not for her ex-boyfriend? Would she have acted upon her instincts without the goading of her friends? Would she have confessed without the conversation about that sexy chick? There were too many hypotheticals for her pea size brain to comprehend. And she didn’t want to make the effort.

She was happy to bask in the moment. She was content with the iota of hope that all is well.

He broke the bro-code. She helped him break it. And she wasn’t sorry. Yes, they had taken a risk. The risk of losing their friendship, the risk of another heartbreak. But she couldn’t get over what someone had said a long time ago- If not now, then when? 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

High Five!

I don’t know which God to believe in. I am on the lookout for a religion to adopt. But that day was the wrong day to choose a religion.

Sure, there isn’t ever a newsflash for these kind of things- “Good morning. You’re watching Times Now and today is the day to choose that new religion you’ve been eyeing all week. All in five simple steps. More details after this break!” No, that doesn’t really happen.

But you see the signs, alright. Much like the stirring of leaves or the mysterious ringing of bells before a fight scene in a Hindi movie.

‘Madam, auspicious day today. Some money for sweets…?’ the milkman smiled diabetically.

‘This festive day gift yourself something new!’ screamed the newspaper.

‘Don’t forget to wear yellow today. It’s Saturday. You know what the astrologer said!’ my mother’s voice rang loud and clear while I showered.

Yes. It seemed like a day of reckoning. I was reckoning with a rapidly dwindling cash supply, an antidote for lonely souls and the fanaticism of a 50 year old woman. Like I said, I was reading the signs. Something big was going to happen today.

The clock hadn’t even struck seven. Oddly enough, I itched to get out of the house. Grabbed my camera and bounded out. With my yellow dupatta following suit. My mother had prevailed.

It was grey. Regretfully so. Somehow morose clouds hadn’t figured in my scheme of things. Oh well. Bought a newspaper and got onto the local.

‘High Five for Mumbai! The city celebrates five festivals this week...’ The train picked up speed as did my interest in the front page article. Five festivals in a week! Jeez! Democracy, shemocracy- talk about being spoiled for choice.

A tug at my sleeve. A street urchin. A girl of about 12, I surmised, with a ready smile.

‘Money?’ she said, eyeing my bag. I didn’t respond.


Mysterious ways these signs have of cropping up. I looked at her. ‘I’m getting off here. Going to eat. Want to come?’

She smiled. I smiled back. We got off at Mahim.

First things first. Dessert. Why leave the best for last when you can have it first? I bought us both two plates of golden hued sheera. Then attacked plates of egg and toast. More than satiated, we sauntered out of the roadside joint.

‘Hey stranger, where are these people going?’ she pointed out to a sea of men walking along the road, their wave breaking sporadically with moving traffic.

Muslims. I figured that much. Lithesome bodies, starchy white kurta-pyjamas complete with the round cap on their heads. I am a slave to stereotype. Against the grey of the rolling clouds above, white stood out in its stark beauty. There was a crackle in the air. The men were greeting each other.

We followed them. As did the lens of my camera. Right uptil a mosque on the next street.

‘Eid, Eid!’ The words fluttered across the landscape of my memory. One of the reasons to high five Mumbai this week.

‘It’s Eid! Today’s Eid,’ I told my companion while my camera worked away. Blankets had been laid outside the structure- scores of men from all around us gathered here. Eyes closed together, hands folded together, backs hunched together- Namaz began.

I suddenly felt like an intruder. ‘Common on,’ I nudged my friend along. I had taken enough photographs.

‘So quiet!’ she whispered, as though she were still at that gathering. ‘And so many people praying together!’

I looked at her queerly. ‘High five for Mumbai’ the newspaper article had read. This little kid will probably go to bed tonight missing out on a big reason to celebrate- five festivals in one city in the same week! I wanted to celebrate that reason and I wanted to celebrate with someone.

‘Say, be my friend for a day? We’ll walk around, eat good food, maybe go to Chowpatty? Want to do it?’

‘Will you pay me?’

So much for being a dreamer. Of course I’d pay her. I sighed. Would 200 bucks cut it?

‘Oh yes!’ She bobbed up and down. ‘Where to?!’

Back to the station. En route, I learned she stayed on the streets with her family in Byculla. She’d never been to school, worn new clothes or been to the movies. Why was I paying her, again?

‘I want company, ’ I replied simply.

10 minutes later, we were train bound to Grant Road. A short cab ride after that, my new found friend and I found ourselves outside the blue doors of Shaar Harahamin, the oldest synagogue in Mumbai.

‘J-o-o,’ I enunciated to my student.

‘Star!’ She was pointing to the front door. It seemed she liked the place already.

‘That’s the Star of David.’ We whipped our heads around. An old man approached. Said he was the caretaker. Would we care to come in?

Old wood furniture, solid benches, the waft of coconut oil and incense. I took out my camera. The old caretaker had found a companion in my little friend.

‘We celebrated our New Year two days ago. See this horn? I blew it a 100 times yesterday!’ he said, showing off the shofar.

‘A 100 times!’ her eyes grew wide. ‘Didn’t you get tired?’

The man’s eyes crinkled with mirth. ‘Would you like to eat a special sweet? Made especially for the New Year. ’ He winked and disappeared into an inner room.

‘Hey stranger!’ called out the girl. ‘Come share with me!’ She held out a plate with some slices of apple coated in honey.

‘Happy New Year,’ I said to the old man.

‘Happy New Year,’ echoed my friend. ‘Today’s Eid, you know. Another festival.’ She munched on her apple slice.

The caretaker looked at me. ‘I know. Eid Mubarak to you two!’

It was time for him to get back to business. We said our thanks and parted ways. Goosebumps tingled my skin. A Jew just wished two Hindus Eid Mubarak. High five Mumbai.

We left Samuel Street and headed towards Walkeshwar armed with two sticks of chicken kebab, courtesy Café Naaz. I knew there was a Jain temple nearby. I had never been there but had read that Jain Paryushan was to be celebrated the next day. Good reason to get a glimpse of a faith I knew little about.

Twenty minutes later, we alighted from a cab and found ourselves face to face with Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple.

‘This is a Jain temple. Tomorrow, Jains will also celebrate. They’ll celebrate the end of eight days of fasting,’ I told her.

‘Like Eid?’

‘Yes, like Eid. Except Muslims fast for a month before Eid.’

‘And this is where Jains celebrate?!’ My friend stood looking at the temple, awestruck.

‘Yes. This is where they celebrate.’ We walked in.

The building was simply breathtaking. A large dome painted in vivid colors, colorful mosaic on the floor, two stone elephants at the entrance and three black deities behind a screen.

A quick chat with the temple priest regarding my companion’s….er….attire and we were welcomed into a space where prayers were being offered. We sat in a corner.

‘Are they sick?’ she asked suddenly, pointing to two men in the group who had white cloth pieces covering their mouths.

‘No. Some people wear that because they don’t want to kill anything, even when they breathe. Some don’t even wear shoes, so that they don’t kill ants.’

‘Not even cockroaches?! I hate them!’

‘Nothing. Not any animal. Good thing we finished our kebabs. They’re all vegetarian here!’ I said conspiratorially.

Clickety click went my camera over her suppressed giggle. We sat there, basking in the calm of the temple’s interiors; me taking pictures, she tracking the priest’s movements.

‘I’ve never seen these people before. Or the Star people,’ she said as we walked out half an hour later.

‘Yes, you have,’ I said. ‘You just didn’t know it.’

‘They look like us.’

‘They are us.’

‘And they’re all celebrating something?’

‘Great, isn’t it?’

It was way past lunchtime. I decided to take my companion to Pizzeria- a western touch to an Indian day.

‘What are we celebrating?!’ she asked gleefully as the manager took in her appearance.

‘Food! I’m famished!’ I said loudly.

‘Food!’ she joined in.

An hour, a large pizza, garlic bread and two glasses of Coke later, my little friend was snoozing on my shoulder as we made our way to Juhu.

The clock had struck five. If crowds were any indication of the celebratory spirit, the gathering near Juhu Chowpatty implied the celebration of the year. Her sleep long broken by Hindi pop music blaring from roadside speakers, the girl scrambled out of the taxi and looked in wonder at the gigantic replica of Ganpati being slowly chugged along the street. Vermillion colored the air in splashes of red as revelers moved their hips, legs and arms to the beating of drums.

My friend was no stranger to this sight. Except for one fact. Ganpati wasn’t a standalone festival for her anymore. It was sharing the limelight with Eid, the Jewish New Year and the end of the Jain fasting period. And she said as much, along with….

‘You know, Ganpati is a day of giving.’ She suddenly reminded me of my milkman. And sure enough, there was her outstretched hand.

Thought To Self- which street smart kid wouldn’t indulge a slightly deranged young woman looking for company, especially when she appears as harmless as her purse appears full? All for a bizarre quest of sorts. I handed my fast friend a 100 rupee note.

‘Your mother taught you well,’ I mumbled.

‘Today is a good day,’ she answered back as she pocketed the windfall.

I had promised her Chowpatty and had to follow through. Despite being jostled by the crowd, she got a seat on the ferris wheel and the tiny carousal; we treated ourselves to golas soon after and finally at 7:30pm, caught a rickshaw to Bandra- my final destination.

Up, up, up. The rickshaw climbed Hill Road and stopped at Mount Mary Church. The sun was beginning to set.

The Bandra Fair wasn’t scheduled to start till the next day, but preparations here were in full swing.

We walked past fairy lights and little lamps that light the way right up to the courtyard of the Church. Festoons decorated roadside stalls and the earthy smell of roasted grams tickled the senses.

We entered the Church and walked down the aisle to the statue of Virgin Mary.

‘That’s Mary. It was her birthday a few days ago. But they celebrate it for a week! Tomorrow there will be music and rides and food…Just like you saw for Ganpati today,’ I said.

‘How lucky!’ she said wistfully. ‘Birthday for a week!’

We watched a few people kneel before the Mary’s statue.

‘Does this happen every year?’ She seemed puzzled. ‘Gods’ birthdays and festivals together?’

‘It does happen every year. But this year’s special. Because five festivals are celebrated in one week,’ I emphasized. I really wanted her to see the wonder in that fact. And it worked.

‘We saw all five!’ she said excitedly.

We walked out. She brushed my hand. Awkwardly. Like she wanted to hold it, then changed her mind. Too intimate perhaps. Across the street, kids and adults were lighting candles at an alter.

‘Can I light one too?’ She inquired. I bought two candles.

‘Happy birthday Mary,’ said the girl in tattered clothes. I had been to the Church before. I had never wished Mary.

I bought my friend a small doll and a string of beads. It was getting late and she looked tired as well. I took her to the station. It was still early for dinner, so I bought her a vada pav and Pepsi while we waited for her train.

‘Muslim, Jew, Jain, Hindu, Christian,’ I said suddenly. ‘Don’t forget today. It’s a reason to be happy.’

Her train approached. ‘I’ll tell my mother about it,’ she said. She hopped onto the train, the vada pav stuffed in her mouth.

‘Thanks for the money!’ Morsels of bread flew out. The train pulled away. I walked towards another platform to catch my ride home.

‘High five, my darling city!’ I said under my breath.

Like I said, it was the wrong day to choose a religion. It was too damn good a day to make a choice like that.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

War and Peace

“Doesn’t indiscipline bother you?”

“Of course it does! Like, I can’t stand people spitting on the road. It simply isn’t done. So I tell them their intestines would dry up if they didn’t swallow their spit. It works on some of them,” said Mrs. Shahane, her eyes crinkling with mirth.

The daughter of an Army General and the widow of an Admiral in the Navy, Mrs. Shahane appeared to quite at peace…and ease with living in the civilian world. Well, kind of. Hers is one of 800 families living in Salunke Vihar (SV), a colony of retired personnel from the Armed Forces.

“I don’t think we live in the real world,” she admitted, referring to SV.

Sure, domestic help isn’t in uniform, drivers aren’t appointed by the Army and there are no freebies, but the colony is close to the Pune Cantonment (Army) Area, houses here are solely owned by retired Army Officers, the Army Club and the Armed Forces Medical College are in a 10km radius and the colony itself houses an Army canteen and a dispensary for its residents. So yes, not exactly the real world.

“Why move here?” I was posing the question to Major General Suman.

“I miss the army terribly,” said India’s foremost expert in defense procurement procedures and offsets. “And SV gives me a semblance of the regimental spirit the Army gave me.”

And exactly how is that? It took me a week to play Spot The Difference between SV and every other civilian colony.

1. Greetings always begin with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, out of respect for a senior officer, albeit retired.
2. There’s the distinct lack of bathroom slippers around you. That’s because they’re left where they should be- outside the bathroom, in the house.
3. Morning and evening walks are a ritual where, in classic army style, men will emerge in tiny, white shorts barely covering their strong, lean, 55-60 year old legs. But they will walk come rain or shine…with umbrellas if they have to.
4. Mealtimes are strictly followed.
5. Golf is a favorite sport.
6. When the sun sets, the whiskey emerges, accompanied by loud, rambunctious laughter.

I felt so much at ease within the vicinity of SV and its inhabitants. And safe. And curious. Because after the home, I was itching to know about its residents.

I continued badgering Maj. Gen. Suman. Found out he had overseen the construction of the blast site at Pokhara. During Indira Gandhi’s reign. 38 years of service later, here he was- a retired Army officer.

“It must be lonely now,” I nodded my head sympathetically.

“No!” came the emphatic reply. “I’m busier now than I was in the Army!”

“I write articles for the Indian Defence Review. I interact with the army through seminars; I give expert advice on my area of specialty; I train corporate heads and the Armed Forces about the procurement of weapons….” He paused for breath.

“I volunteered for 18 years as SV’s resident technical advisor. I now occasionally work as a private contractor to help people re-do their houses.” I was now subjecting Lt. Col. Joshi to the same question.

…and others.

“I read and write a lot now. Wrote two award winning children’s books,” Mrs. Joshi, widow of Pune’s Sub Area Commander, said proudly.

“Both my wife and I take care of stray animals now. We have the time. Did you know our colony’s dogs won’t let an outside dog in unless an existing member of the group dies?” Col. Sawalkar looked at me expectantly. I delicately swallowed.

“I attend neurosurgery sessions at Command Hospital….to keep abreast with changes in the field. I don’t practice anymore though. Oh, and I have to cycle 9-10km every day. Health conscious,” said 74 year old Maj. Gen. Biswas surreptitiously.

“…did I mention I go to Khandala for birdwatching?” I looked at him incredulously.

“I worked with the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre for 8 years after the Union Carbide blast. I offer my services as a doctor at an ashram now.” And Lt. Col. Correya didn’t look like she wanted to stop working…moving…anytime soon.

Qualifier- life post retirement isn’t all smooth sailing. If while on duty, your code of conduct is laid down by the Army Act, then retirement is opportunity enough for some to shed their coat of refinement for the drabbiness of mediocrity. Norms, etiquette, ethos are sorely lacking in the outside world. And where discipline in the Armed Forces is much touted, it also stunts creativity when it’s much needed. So much so that in his first job post retirement, Brig. Sathpathy didn’t speak beyond necessity for a month- in an effort to understand how civilians functioned without a code of conduct laid down!

And yet, my head was reeling with all this information. Whoever said old people, retired old people had a lonely or boring life was as off the mark as I often am in relationship advice.

It was time to dig deeper. I decided to commit journalistic heresy and try to elicit the answers I was looking for.

“What about your social life now?” I asked innocently. I knew the Armed Forces were legendary for their parties. “It must be a big change for you.”

They all agreed. The parties they had attended while in service were tough to reckon with. The memories of those giddy headed parties simmered for a minute longer, then came the avalanche of afterthought.

“There is a difference between then and now,” Brig. Deshpande, the Chairman of SV, sagely responded. “Having an active social life in the army was more out of custom. Now it’s a choice,” he said matter-of-factly. And he chose to have a more sedate life now.

“What didn’t we celebrate!” Lt. Col. Correya reveled in the memories. “Farewells, welcome parties, birthdays, promotions…”

“But I always knew that I was an officer first, lady second. No matter what my personal responsibilities were, I had to attend because I was in uniform. Now I enjoy entertaining for myself.”

And in SV, if it wasn’t new people you were meeting, atleast you had your batchmates or colleagues to have those pot luck dinners with. Or read the obituary board with. Or have tea-breaks with.

In fact, one such group of jovial, retired Army officers make it a point to meet atleast once, if not twice a day for their ritualistic tea routine at a café within the colony. Believe it or not, they call themselves Panch Pyaare (The Lovable Five). Hey, I don’t know where my friends will be when I’m that age. I was humbled.

From living in the Maharaja of Travancore's palace to living in a hut in Arunachal Pradesh, from commanding a taskforce to being the rookie in a civilian job, from serving the nation to reminiscing about it now, everyone I had spoken to had been there and done that. In the style that was taught to them in the Army. Style which exalts characteristics like perseverance, discipline, secularism, punctuality and camaraderie. And it’s holding them in good stead. Because as Col. Sawalkar puts it, “The choice is simple…there’s the right way, there’s the wrong way and there’s the Army way.”

Two guesses on how the people at Salunke Vihar live their lives.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Nice Guy

My friend’s marriage just got arranged. With her consent. With her consent! I thought these things only happened with my parents and generations before them. Clearly not. It was happening all around me. I was just waking up.

I wanted to know why. It’s a simple question. Why? Why wouldn’t you wait for Prince Charming? Why wouldn’t you wait for those weak kneed, pit in the stomach, heart in your mouth moments? Why wouldn’t you wait when technology pompously boasts of helping a 65 year old woman give birth?

“When’s the right time, Taaps?” she said to me. “When do you really know? In a month, in six months, in a year?”

“Definitely not six months!” I looked at her incredulously. “How is he in bed? How’s he with kids? How’s he when he gets angry? When he’s drunk?”

There were a million questions buzzing in my head. I had to let some of them out.

“I don’t know.” She shrugged her shoulders. There was that half smile of hers, kinda silly, kinda sad.

“Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to give it some time? I’m not saying don’t get married, just saying wait. Wait for sometime. Some more time.” I looked at her pleadingly. As though she had opted for the guillotine.

She figured as much.

“I’m not dying you know,” she said wryly. “He’s a really nice guy. The type our mothers would like. He’s funny, he’s got great general knowledge, he loves to travel and he knows his wires, Taaps! Remember how important that is for us?”

Oh no, the nice guy syndrome. I knew it all too well.

The boy who’s just purrrrfect in every way. Boyish good looks, great table manners, well read, well dressed, funny with the friends, courteous with the parents….in other words really nice. And therein lay the problem. He was nice. Just nice.

“So you’re ok with the ‘nice guy’ now?” I italicize with my fingers. “You’re ok with no sparks, no I-can’t-keep-my-hands-off-you feeling, no you’re-driving-me-crazy-but-i-can’t-stop-loving-you moments?”

“Yup” she said simply. “I’m ok with it. Because I’ve had my heart broken too many times by those guys. I’m going to have a good life with this bugger. I can see it. It’s going to be a happy life.”

“Yeah.” The word drips with sarcasm.

“You’re going to be happy till that rascal comes along. That man who sweeps you off your feet, gives you those weak knees and that thumping of the heart. The one you can’t have, but oh god, if you had a chance…”

“We’ll never find everything in one guy, you know.” She interrupts me. All for the better.

We stop talking. I was struggling to understand her but I felt her slipping away already. The buzzing in my head continued.

“But you’re young! You have time to keep looking! What happens when THAT guy comes along and you’re already hitched? ‘Cause you were so eager not to let the nice guy go?” I looked at her imploringly.

“I guess I’ll stop being happy then.”

I wished at that moment I had the answers to my own questions.

“Do you know when my mother got married, Taaps? 19. That poor woman didn’t even know if she was marrying the nice guy or the rascal. And guess what….” I listened on.

“She married the rascal. And he took her heart away. Never gave it back. Never came back to give it back.”

She looked at me and smiled impishly. “I’m better off, don’t you think? Atleast I know. And hey,” she giggled.

“A couple of handcuffs and a blindfold…I’ll make him my rascal!”

We both cracked up. Till tears ran down our cheeks. Maybe we were scared; maybe we were just being goofy. But she wasn’t slipping away anymore. At that moment, it all felt alright- her decision, my venting and the unexpected strengthening of our bond.

My friend was moving on. That was my problem!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mortals in Greece

She steps out of the bath, freshly laundered, and starts pacing the room anxiously. Seconds go by, then minutes. Half an hour and a smoke later, there’s a knock on the door. The murmur of her heartbeat becomes a pounding and she opens the door with all the expectations she had stuffed away.

There he was. The college boy she had dated four years ago; the man that stood before her four years later. A nervous laugh and a crushing hug is all it takes for time to rewind back to his blue-painted university room where many a silly moment had been spent as two college sweethearts.

They had decided to meet here, in Greece… just because. Facebook messages and gmail chats- digital flirtations had stoked such a fire that only reality could douse the flame…or bring the house down. It was a risk they had decided to take- averse risk takers they were, because it took three months of planning before the scene in the hotel room.

Away from home, everything feels brand new. Like fledglings flung out of the concrete jungle and into the wild. Everything is sustaining, nurturing. The reverberation of a city’s history, the melody of a foreign song, the finesse of new soil, the salt of a different sea.

Together they scout the city… stumble upon the Acropolis by night, walk the promenade (Plaka) under a full moon and discover Psiri- the district with a throbbing, pulsating night life. They tread over ancient city ruins, huff and puff all the way to the Parthenon, narrow down on their favorite bakery in town and finally ride the clear, blue sea to the islands.

They decide to rent a quad- a four wheel scooter- and scour the islands by themselves. Armed with a map, beach towels and sunscreen they take to the open road like thirsty nomads in the quest for oases.

Greeks have a pathetic sense of distance and the amount of time it takes to cover it. But once an Indian, always an Indian. Screw the map, ask for directions. And she does just that. Atleast the Greeks’ sense of direction was intact. They make it to all their destinations- unfailingly, before the sun goes down.

And they get more than they bargain for. Parikia, Krios, Marchello, Georgios, Faneromenis, Soros, Oia, Ammoudi, Fira, Perissa, Privolos, Kamari, Nea Kameni (volcano)- each was an oasis that sprouted history, culture, civilization and tradition, all against the backdrop the water…so much of it!

There’s something almost painful in the trance that’s induced by the rhythm of water. Watching its perennial flow, she gets flooded with emotion. What freedom to experience such beauty! And how fleeting the experience! There is so much of the world to see and always so little time. Yet, for all the finite moments life has to offer, to discover one more truth about yourself, to accept one more shortcoming….oh, how worthwhile a journey!

Days slip by. She, the planner, the nagger, the control freak…he, the chiller, the listener, the anchor. He likes cabs, she likes the metro. He likes the hookah, she loves cigarettes. He likes basking on the beach, she likes exploring ruins. Yet, they make it work. And how! Two stubborn mules who grudgingly, nudgingly, teasingly take decisions to accommodate the other….to put a stamp together on Greek time.

7 days in and Amstel (Dutch lager) and Mythos (Greek lager) make up the bulk of her body fluids. Just as bread and Greek salad line up their intestines. It’s the last day in Greece. They’re back in Athens, packing, getting ready to leave for the airport. Back to two worlds where nothing’s new anymore. America, India, same thing.

It’s raining. They had been seeing the weather reports all week; finally here it was. They decide to walk it to the metro station.

A song. She feels the urge to sing a song.

‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, Brown paper packages tied up with string, These are a few of my favorite things…’

So loud that the rain can’t muffle the music. So loud that a passerby looks at her companion and chuckles. ‘Women!’ his eyes seem to say.

‘That’s my woman!’ her companion smiles back.

They reach the station. The rain continues to fall…now slight, misty, like the ethereal haze that was their vacation.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When The Table Turns The Other Way

You’re busy twirling that boy around your finger. He loves you, he adores you, he says it ten times a day. You frustrate him, you tease him, you coax him, you push him away. Always playing games. Till one day the table turns the other way. Suddenly you’re waiting for his calls. He said this…does he mean that?! Two days and he hasn’t been online! Am I blocked or unblocked?

My tryst with the temperamental table coincided with Backstreet Boys releasing Quit Playing Games when I was a teenager and continues till date.

The second big time fate’s itchy hand spun that table around was when I was in Africa. Now, I am not a brown skinned desi. I am a desi with wheatish complexion. Difference? You have to be in Africa to fathom the huge difference. Before I knew the local word for hello, I knew the word muzungu. It means white person. And I was a white foreigner. . . according to African standards and even according to Indian diaspora standards.

The tables had turned and spun me into a tizzy. I was all of a sudden ‘superior’ just for my skin color. A little black kid bit me “to taste your skin” I was told. I was given preferential treatment everywhere- I got a table at a restaurant when there was none, I got an appointment when someone was "in a meeting", I got ripped off Ugandan shillings because I most definitely looked like I had the monies. And in reality, this was me- a struggling student… one of 1 billion Indians and counting.

My latest freelance assignment is centered around the IPL after match parties. It’s my first project as a writer. I write lines for the anchor to say on screen which means I have to be present at the parties with the latter in the event of changes to the script. And as I watched the anchor deliver her lines, I realized how surreptitiously the tables had turned again.

I hadn’t before written lines that somebody else had to deliver. For two years I had been in front of the camera. Just a month ago I had anchored another show. I had had my dresses sorted out, someone to do my makeup, give me the script; it was me who felt the heat of the camera light and the curious stares of onlookers. And now, I was part of the anchor’s entourage. I watched her get made up, read the script, face the camera, plaster that smile and deliver her lines. Crazy.

It’s like a heady drink- being on the other side. Of course, it puts circumstances into perspective, but it’s also an out of body experience… because it seems so unreal. I couldn’t possibly be groveling for love, I couldn’t possibly be white, I couldn’t possibly not be in the limelight. But I am. I’m on the other side, that's for sure. And there’s definitely grass here too. I just don’t know which is greener.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Rent

When I got resurrected a freelancer, I gave up weekends, medical insurance, Provident Fund, free stationary, unlimited internet access and finally my apartment (which I could no longer afford). So when a friend offered me a room in her home till I found a cheaper place, I shamelessly planted my butt in her territory for four months till boom! Life did a cartwheel, finished off with a back flip and landed me in real estate (long overdue). The time had finally come for me to rent my own place.

I have this feeling that it isn’t just me who almost always picks up the most expensive item for sale at a store and then kicks herself for having tastes her debit card can’t match. So you will empathize with me when I say I wished to stay in an area in the city where recently a fully furnished 2,700 sq ft house was leased out for a monthly rental value of Rs 2.85 lakhs. I had my eyes on Bandra.

Yes, indeed there is something about Mary. But there’s also something about Sandra in Bandra. Because unlike Sandra in Dadar or Santacruz, in Bandra Sandra can wear hotpants, a strappy top, have blue highlights in her short cropped hair and tattoos running all the way to Timbuktu… and no one would give a damn. And I wanted no one to give a damn. I also wanted to walk in little bylanes where wrinkled old bungalows were still fighting for life… where you’re just as likely to be greeted by a ‘graffiti-ed’ Amitabh Bacchan as by the sight of flesh and blood SRK entering his house… where the brooding sea is just as close as a pub playing Pearl Jam which is just as far as a Columbian coffee joint.

So I started my search. I had three weeks to find a house.

Week 1
Budget- 8k a month. We were three girls looking for a place. Armed with 24k, we quickly realized our ammunition would only get us a 1BHK in the area. That would mean two chicks in the bedroom, one in the living room and the kitchen for sex. We still looked.

Week 2
Budget- 10k a month. One girl drops out. Hmm! With 2 of us and 20k in tow, we could now only afford a studio apartment, albeit a furnished one. That would mean eating, sleeping, walking in the same room and crapping in a bathroom the size of 2 Godrej cupboards. We looked.

Week 3
Budget 15k a month. 2nd girl drops out. I could now get a studio for myself. Which wasn’t too bad. Except that I didn’t have 50k to put down as deposit or another 15k to pay as brokerage. And come four months, I would be living the true bohemian life in Bandra as a vagabond on the streets by which time my savings would have run out.

My final option. I could stay as a paying guest for much less. Maybe even 8k! But wait. I’d have to answer to a gnarly old lady every morning. I’d have to be home before Cinderella, I’d have to limit the social company in my room to myself and I’d have to clean up my liver and my lung (who does that at 25?!).

Time had run out. As had the patience of my brokers who had replaced mom and close friends on speed dial. Could I, should I, must I compromise and stay as a paying guest just to be Sandra in Bandra? I moved to Andheri.

...30 days later, here I am wondering if Sandra could have and should have managed with one glass slipper and fingers to keep her company in Bandra. Seems a better proposition than having her entire life feel like the inside of a pumpkin- damp, bland and waiting to be transformed. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's A Wild Thing

Now while we emphatically deny to our unworldly-wise foreign friends that cows, buffaloes, camels and elephants amble along our Indian streets, the truth of the matter is that more often than not, you are more likely to make acquaintance with atleast one of the above four before you can boast of making a new friend in the city. I decided to add one more animal to the list just in case my homo sapiens circle of friends threatened to vanish all together; the beast of burden complete with rippling muscles- the horse.

My quest for a close encounter with the fine animal took me far and wide- from my doorstep to my friend’s neighbourhood two streets away, where every evening little children trotted on horses at a speed of 5km/hr, competing very closely with friends on tricycles. Sensing my anguish at the underutilization of such beautiful muscles, my friend invited me to the races that weekend, where a horse does what a horse was meant to do- run.

Hello! magazine was hosting its Hello! Million 2010 event, a glitterati-oozing-multi-million juvenile race and it appears I went with the right person because the moment I stepped on the lawn, light bulbs flashed in my face and for the first time I had a “oh, I’m almost famous!” moment. After my tryst with the paparazzi, I was whisked away into the V.I.P section where the smell of sushi mingled with chicken hors d’oeuvres and wine glasses clinked all the way to the restroom. It was an effort not to be distracted with all these fancies.

The main race was just about to begin. Like a five year old who’d just been handed her first balloon, I stared wide-eyed as thundering hooves cleared a turn and dark skin strained under the expert hands of jockeys in a mad attempt to reach the finish line. Behind me there were shouts of joy and louder laments as money exchanged hands. Where a week ago the value of a horse was reduced to Rs 50 for a round of Jogger’s Park, today there were millions riding on the back of each beast.

In the milieu of stars and socialites around me, I felt the headiness of power. You sit there in your large straw hat, dripping with diamonds as you sip your wine and nibble your cheese and you see in the harsh sun an animal being tamed and commanded to entertain you because you can afford the price of that raw muscle. No matter how much you bet, when the race is on, you are part owner of that deafening sound that reverberates in the stadium.

I say all this from personal experience. To get a whiff of that power surge everyone seemed to be crackling with, I almost bet all my life savings on a horse- I put in Rs10 and got back Rs13. I was high. The next morning as I crossed Jogger’s Park and saw two horses saddled with children again, I felt a dull ache. Trotting around a park versus racing at the whim of the rich- to my ignorant mind the latter seemed the lesser of two evils. I bought the two horses Rs13 worth of peanuts.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Kashmir- Phir Milenge, Chalte Chalte

Should I make excuses for not writing last month….umm…yes! I was traveling, working as an assistant director on a documentary on the history and culture of Pashmina, which catapulted me to the balls- shriveling-cold-climate of Kashmir (no, I’m not secretly a man but I know). To call my twenty days of travel ‘great’ would be so twitterish that I’ve decided on a blog entry to revolt against the 140 character curfew.

For starters, the moment I got out of Srinagar airport, I noticed that most people seemed to be potbellied (or pregnant) and were missing an arm or two. I found this phenomenon to be strangely commonplace and was quick to point this out to our driver. Two minutes later I was just as quick to recede into a shell, promising never to emerge again. It just so happens that it wasn’t fat or child that the masses were carrying but a harmless wicker basket called kangdi, fitted with an earthen pot and burning coal. Everyone held this under their long, woolen coats called pherans (this explained the flapping coat sleeves) and the contraption generated heat close to the body.

While at this point it was my face that was rapidly heating up, during most of my travel, it was other parts of my body that seemed to be on fire. And that’s because the men in Kashmir are hot! Hot like butter that sizzles on a dry frying pan (no metaphor intended). I am a firm believer in the theory of natural selection and here high up in altitude I solidified my belief. For the fruitful longevity of my line, I was ‘naturally selecting’ the chiseled face, the light eyes, the dark hair and long limbs of the baker, the grocer, the driver, the weaver…anyone I laid my eyes on. And Kashmiri men are no less. Flirting comes as naturally to them as snowfall in winter.

And as naturally as hartaal or general strike almost every Friday of the month. Whether it’s the hoarse cry for autonomy or indignity over the Shopian case, the Kashmiri youth is always ready to spring into action- marking the field, sniffing out the opponents and pelting stones at government vehicles with the speed and accuracy of an Indian bowler. It’s no wonder therefore that the phenomenon of stone pelting has actually been nicknamed Twenty20 in the Valley. Not as drawn out as Test Cricket but with the same vigor. We were instructed to not visit certain parts of the city on those days, but otherwise, life moved on.

Everyday, as a ritual, I would jump out shivering from the shower, and don not one, not two but three layers of clothing- gloves and socks included. And where I grabbed every opportunity to arm myself with the coal burning kangdi, all around me kids were running barefoot in open courtyards. I asked a lady once what she wore beneath her long coat. She showed me her salwar kameez and one layer of woolen inners over very hairy legs. I marveled at her immunity to the cold and her freedom from waxing for the better part of the year.

Kashmiris are by and large one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. In every house we entered, we were welcomed with open arms and always, always a spread of tea and biscuits. Kahva is the traditional tea of Kashmir, ingredients of which include green tea, cinnamon, almonds and saffron among others. It is by far a drink for the gods. And have you ever had Iranian biscuits? Light brown cuboids, sugary and heavy on the first bite, but with so fine a consistency that crumbs magically dissolve on contact with the palette? Those were the types of biscuits that accompanied kahva and our fat cells relished them atleast twice a day.

Kashmir is just as famous for its bakery products as it is for Pashmina shawls, yet it’s the latter that has put the state on the world map. It’s quite something else to visit an aged weaver or embroider regaling the days gone by rather than google the history of Pashmina on the internet. We collected enough material for the documentary, yet there is that dissatisfaction of knowing so much more than you can fit into a 45 minute film. Little cultural nuances and larger political issues will be skirted around in our attempt to stick to a storyline. Like the fact that Kashmir has the world’s largest military occupation yet most locals start a conversation with “Koi baat nahin [no problem].” You can't match that.