tendrils of longing
sparks of lust
whorls of dreams
shrouds of love
dipped in ink
and laid out
delicate sheets of papyrus
opens its eyes.
tendrils of longing
sparks of lust
whorls of dreams
shrouds of love
dipped in ink
and laid out
delicate sheets of papyrus
opens its eyes.
Yash was engrossed in his work, his overgrown hair falling over his face and obscuring his frown of concentration. He hated it but kept it long since it seemed to drive his father crazy. When would his dad treat him like the 14-year-old he was and not a snotty child like his younger brother Rishi. The insufferable shrimp was so well-behaved that it made Yash look like a surly adolescent. His amma was the only person who seemed to see him as he was. But she was busy with the business she was setting up with her friend. Yash was so proud of her, but he felt awkward showing it and so he stayed out of her way.
The attic was his refuge. Nobody came here and he was free to be himself. He loved to sit in the shabby space and draw. No one knew that he loved to draw. Yash’s classmates would have been mortified if they came to know of it. He could sit here for hours and sketch. “Amma would be shocked if she saw me now”, he thought. She wouldn’t recognize him with his hair tied back and a sketchbook in his hands.
Yash’s thoughts turned to Valentine’s day. It was just three days away and he had made plans with Rhea to meet after school. He hoped that she would agree to be his girlfriend. He had even bought a gift for her with his pocket-money, her favourite book. He just couldn’t understand her love of books, and he had never had the patience to read a book from start to finish. “What a lot of effort amma took to get me to read !” he thought ruefully. But all that had paid off with the shrimp. Rishi always had his head buried in a book.
Yash heard a car starting and he went to the tiny window to see who was leaving at this late hour. Amma stood at the gate looking at the departing taxi. Yash remembered that his father was going away for a month on work. She looked so lonely standing there. He placed his palm on the windowpane as though he could send her his love through the glass.
Next day morning saw the usual chaos at the breakfast table. Yash was teasing Rishi who was almost in tears, but Sunaina was unusually distracted. She was missing her husband. They had always spend Valentines day together. This year it would be just Rishi and her since Yash was sure to have made plans with his friends.
“Ma, do you have any plans for Valentines day?” asked Yash. Sunaina just shook her head mutely.
“I’ll be at home darling” she said. “ You just don’t stay out late since it’s a school night.” Yash couldn’t bear to see his amma so dejected and he made a decision.
“Ma, will you be my Valentine? “
The sea breeze ruffled her hair and she inhaled the scent of damp seaweed and boiled peanuts. The flaming red sari fluttered about her ankles and she tightened her hold on his hand. This was all that she had ever wanted, Ravi’s hand clasped in hers and his presence by her side. Prabha and Ravi were the least romantic couple you could find, but February 9th was special. This was the day she had agreed to marry him, and he always insisted that they come to the beach. She insisted on wearing the red sari. Red was his favourite colour and not hers. The beach was her favourite place and not his. But on this day, both of them insisted on doing something that the other enjoyed.
Today was about all the things they loved to do together. The trip to the animal shelter, a visit to his best friend’s house, lunch at Annapoorna, a quiet hour at the library, a long drive with the voices of Lata and Rafi to keep them company, ending with time at the beach. The routine never varied but they didn’t want it to. It held the charm of familiarity that both of them craved.
Prabha woke up with a start. She was at home curled up in the armchair by the window. Wearily she got up and got ready for bed. In the bathroom mirror she noticed that the greys in her hair and the smudges under her eyes were more pronounced than ever. Today she just couldn’t look at the photograph on the wall. It had been keeping her company for ten years, ever since he left. She took out his shirt, which nestled among her saris. As she closed her eyes, willing the tears away, the heavy loneliness almost crushing her, she hugged his shirt closer. As always the scent of cuticura powder that still clung to it soothed her mind like nothing else could. Slowly she slid into sleep hoping to meet him in her dreams.
(Love is strange. It appears in different forms. The most placid lives may hold the most turbulent passions. This series of stories is about Love as experienced by people like you and me who have so many stories within us, yet think of ourselves as ordinary.)
My desk has an empty space the size of a calendar. The old one resides in the bin, its edges sticking out, saying goodbye to its home. I clean my cluttered desk, a thin film of dust covering the books I hadn’t read and the tin containing broken bits of incense sticks I had received as a gift. The little orange Ganesha resting between two piles of books stares at me benevolently, wondering when I will explore the path that has been ordained for me. Why am I stubbornly resisting the course charted by the planets at the time of my birth ? The cocktail of genes residing in my body trying to redraw the blueprint of my life.
A new year has arrived and I have a compulsion to sweep all the detritus of the past year away. I throw away crumpled bills and stained receipts; creased pieces of paper holding records of kilograms of rice consumed and packets of detergent used. There’re sweat stained tokens from the library and even a yellowed packet of tissues hiding behind yet another teetering pile of notebooks.
I pause for a moment thinking of the memories of laughter, love, tears and regrets that I had accumulated over the year. What do I do with those? Shall I tuck them within the blank pages of my notebook, to be taken out on a rainy day when I’m in a nostalgic mood. In fact what better way to spend a rainy day – raindrops weaving sensuously down the window pane, the deep baritone of Gulzar’s voice in the air and an encounter with old memories. A chance to experience again the contentment of tasks accomplished and love fulfilled.Or shall I free them, so they can fly away on daring gusts of wind to faraway places, emptying my mind and forcing me to create new ones. Maybe I’ll store those reminiscences in my penholder where they will stay between the pens and brightly coloured pencils, inhaling the fragrance of lead and ink and sharing the space with unused words which have drifted away from my diary.
My desk is cleared. It’s dust free and neat. But it’s not me any more. Let me mess it up a bit, pile up unused notebooks and unopened envelopes; leave imprints of my fingers on the dust coating that tiny corner. Let me free the coils of my headphones from their cover and let them trail all over my pencils. Let me be who I am. Starting a new year with traces of the past swirling around me.
(I attended a Writers Retreat organised by Paper House, an organisation founded by two amazing people, Tara Khandelwal and Mahima Sood. The venue was Shilla Treks, an apple orchard in the hills. It was an unforgettable experience and I came back raring to write. I tried to pen a conventional post about my experiences there but the Words took over and wrote their own version)
There were eleven wordsmiths at the Orchard of Possibilities. They were like pebbles on a beach, seemingly alike but of different shapes, sizes and temperament. They arrived on a clear day, welcomed by a freshly washed blue sky and the soothing melody of silence. The cool mountain air brushed the weariness from minds and the warmth of the welcome loosened the bands constricting their hearts. The words loved these magicians who conjured up entire worlds and ecosystems out of thin air; who created glass palaces under aquamarine waters, gritty crime scenes with splattered blood and grime, dingy hallways redolent of the anguish of broken dreams and the smell of defeat, and delved into ordinary lives and extracted moments of exquisite beauty. The magicians used words like the most valuable gold dust.
The mountains were silent witnesses to these words that swirled around as pale wraiths of mist on a foggy morning. The words swarmed over blades of grass, weathered rooftops, pale brown cobblestones and apple trees until a confetti of deconstructed sentences festooned every available surface. They jumped over the valley and bathed in the colour diffused from rainbows. The words never got a moment’s rest; slipping and sliding over tongues and alighting on the curves of ears. Then off they went, perched jauntily on ideas that floated on dust motes. They tumbled madly around Sirius, the resident canine who was an expert at capturing hearts. Adjectives kissed his wet nose and sped away while commas and question marks got entangled in his furry coat. Endearments coyly settled around his neck while Sirius gambolled around in glee.
The words clamoured to be with the disparate creatures who bonded over literary discussions, cigarette smoke and countless cups of tea. Their bloodshot eyes spoke of conversations that ranged far into the night and the delight of finding solace from strangers who became friends for life. Poems were recited under starry skies, stories were read aloud. Thoughts and ideas, though hesitantly aired initially, were soon zinging around on wings of acceptance.
The cold evenings spent around golden flames of the bonfire saw the words battling with glowing embers, the dark velvet of night a silent witness. The embers died down but the words lived on forever.
Soon it was time to leave this idyllic haven and trudge back to reality. They left with heavy hearts, but their minds had found new worlds to explore and new paths to follow. The words left with them, snuggled cosily between the papers of their notebooks.
The Orchard hunkered down with a deep sigh. Soon a heavy blanket of snow would envelop it, refresh its weary soul and leave it fresh for a new batch of wordsmiths.
I write to clear the cobwebs from my brain. I write to inhale the fragrance of half-baked thoughts that come alive on paper. I write to test the limits of sanity. I write to banish insanity. I write to see the loops and swirls that my pen makes on the pristine paper. I write to tell stories. I write to transport myself to distant places, of mango orchards and summer afternoons. I write to dip my hot dusty feet in the crystal clear waters of brooks, and to inhale the intoxicating scent of the blood red roses that grow wild on the hillside.
I write to recall the warmth hidden in those brown eyes.
I write to calm my muddled mind. I write to feel the pain from cramped fingers tightly gripping the pen. I write to form opinions. I write to scatter my thoughts in the wind. I write to laugh at the folly of life, and to weep at the sadness that curls itself around my slowly beating heart. I write to mock my thoughts that presume to a seriousness that aren’t their own. I write to quell the deep sigh that threatens to smother me in its depth. I write to stand on the highest mountain and swoop down on the wings of an eagle.
I write to draw breath.
I write to bring tales from the house with no windows. I write of dragons and sorcerers and the girl with broken spectacles. I write to imitate. I write to flatter. I write to procrastinate. I write to remember.
I write of fear and vengeance, to keep it out of my heart. I write of the innocent laughter of babies, and the hope residing deep in the folds of weather beaten faces, to keep them close to my heart.
I write to forget. I write to drown myself in the sea of aquamarine dreams and slate grey promises. I write to stir my senses like the worst thunderstorm.
It’s raining here in Kerala, my favourite time of the year. Yesterday, as I was waiting outside my apartment building, I spotted a flower on the wet ground. It had fallen from the Chembaka tree that stands guard outside our building. On a whim I picked up the flower and felt the waxy petals, soft and curling around the edges. I realized that I hadn’t touched a flower in a very long time. The tiny screen of my phone offers a plethora of images of glossy exotic flowers when required, but the actual sensation of running my fingers over a flower had eluded me. The joy of inhaling the scent of summer afternoons and wet rainy days that flowers hold within them had been missing from my life.
I love plants and flowers. Unfortunately I’m a very unsuccessful gardener, what with my brown thumbs and propensity for killing houseplants. So I’ve been staying away from flora of any kind, satisfying my inner gardener by draping myself over the balcony railing and gazing down soulfully at my neighbor’s amazing garden. Recently I couldn’t control myself and brought home two hapless plants. I stay as far away from them as possible but still the leaves tremble when I pass by. The thought does pop up in my mind whether the reason is the playful wind or brown-thumbed me.
While my love-story with plants proceeds on its rocky path, my relationship with flowers has been more cordial. It might also be due to the memories associated with the fragrances of different flowers. As I caressed the petals of my fallen flower yesterday, I was overwhelmed by a mélange of precious memories which tumbled out from my room of memories and settled all around me. At that moment I couldn’t savour them as I had to leave. But I gathered them up and shook them out that night while I curled up in bed with the soothing murmur of raindrops keeping me company.
There’s a wealth of possibility in a flower. It’s capable of arousing the most varied emotions in a person, just by being. The scent of tuberoses takes me back to my wedding. I can’t help smiling when I think of my grandmother’s strict instructions not to be too talkative during the ceremony to the bridegroom who had been my best friend for the past two years. Or the part where my father, who was supposed to place my hand in Mr A’s hand, happily took the latter’s hand and placed it in mine. The memories give me a chance to see my father’s hearty smile and feel his presence once again.
The flowers also transport me back to my mother’s puja room where the slightly floral scent of incense together with the dim glow of the oil lamp combined to give an otherworldly feeling. It was the place where my mother communed with Gods who had benevolent eyes and Mona Lisa smiles. No matter the turmoil in my mind, this memory centers me and gives me peace.
Jasmine flowers are largely associated with love and longing, but to me they are symbols of the simplicity of my childhood. We had a jasmine plant at home that was diligently nurtured by our household help, a wonderful lady with the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, even though the plant grew lush and healthy, it did not yield many flowers. But every evening, she would collect a couple of those flowers, which made up for their sparse numbers by their intoxicating scent, place them in a small dish and keep it on our dining table. If the number of flowers increased even marginally, they would be placed in the puja room. Nostalgic memories of a seemingly uncomplicated life.
A fallen flower can also take me to my college days when windy rainy afternoons and overcast skies brought with it a feeling of anticipation and romance. Gusts of wind carrying the fragrance of life and the freshness of rain would sweep flowers off their perches on trees, some to be trampled, others to be blown away and some special ones to be given to dear ones.
These and many more thoughts associated with flowers flit through my mind like a silent film which only I can watch. As I lie in bed cozily wrapped in those warm memories I am lulled into sleep clutching that fallen chembaka flower in my hand.
There are billions and billions of stories floating around in the world. Then there are those stories which are unique to every family – tales of love transcending time and distance, of sorrow that pervades even the dust motes, bitter enmity, secret loves, not so secret misunderstandings, childhood pranks and improbably hilarious moments involving the most serious members. Every member of the family finds a mention in such stories, from the most introverted to the most ebullient. In fact one of my father’s uncles, who apparently was extremely stern and somber, was the main protagonist in a hysterically funny story involving boats, benches and a displacement from the bench to the earth. Achan’s family abounds with the most fantastic storytellers and the older they are the more descriptive and interesting their stories. The most ear-splitting guffaws and roars of laughter marks any family gathering. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that most of us would win any laughter competition hands down, if it were judged solely on decibel levels. The protagonists of these tales were often the ones who laughed the loudest. This laughter was like miraculous glue which bound us together and celebrated the uniqueness of our family. It was also the scaffolding, which propped us up during innumerable instances of loss and bereavements.
On my mother’s side, the story telling sessions are not so loud but yet retains the magic of a bygone era when my mother and her siblings travelled the length and breadth of Kerala following the dictates of my grandfather’s profession. He was a judge and one of the most learned and benevolent person’s I’ve ever met. The backdrops of these stories were constantly changing, flitting from the vast rubber plantations of Pala to the narrow bylanes of Alappuzha. I’ve often wished to be a part of those uncomplicated times when the evening entertainment involved listening to the Tamil film songs wafting on the air from a nearby theatre. The characters inhabiting these tales were fewer but no less interesting. My mother, being the eldest, featured in most of the stories. One of my favourites has Amma in the lead role, and this happened when she was six or seven years old. Apparently the boundary wall of their house overlooked a steep drop, with the road lying far below. Amma and her sisters were strictly forbidden from climbing or peeping over the wall. One day when my grandfather was returning from work for his lunch, his blood ran cold on seeing the scene before him. My Amma was up on the wall, casually strolling up and down, with a smile on her lips and not a care in the world. He was paralysed with shock for a few moments since any slip on her part could be fatal. Suppressing his anxiety under a warm smile, he slowly approached her murmuring sweet endearments. He was afraid to raise his voice in case she took fright and lost her balance. Amma was quite happy to be the center of attention and she basked in the sweetness of her father’s words. As soon as he got next to her, he slowly reached up and brought her down to the ground. Once she was safe he let loose. There was thunder and lightning and copious tears from the little perpetrator of the crime. Amma still smiles very sheepishly when she recalls the dressing down she got from him. It was so bad that she has never disobeyed him after that.
Unsurprisingly, most of my favourite childhood memories are of family get-togethers. After a huge lunch, all of us would land up in my grandparents’ room. It was a cool spacious room with two big wooden beds set against the walls; wooden windows with pretty flowered curtains, a ‘chaaru kasera’ (reclining chair) and my ammumma’s wooden almirah added to the sublime charm of those sepia toned memories. While appuppan and ammumma relaxed on the beds, my younger uncle who is always the chief narrator sprawled on the cool floor. The aunts leaned back against the beds with their legs stretched out and we kids snuggled up in whatever space we could find. The conversation usually started with a discussion about the meal and what was good or bad about it. This part held no interest for me and I would wait eagerly for the stories to come tumbling out. Thankfully I wouldn’t have to wait long before ammavan gently started on a foray into their childhood. And out would come all the delightful exploits, peopled with endearingly colourful characters. I loved a particular grand-aunt whose sense of humour was fantastic and at the same time slightly weird. She revelled in frightening them with casual suggestions of the spirits of long dead ancestors dropping in for a chat and about the sounds of anklets she had heard one night. We’ve heard these tales countless times and yet each version is received with the same amount of fervor and interest. These anecdotal accounts would continue unabated until ammumma got up to make the evening tea. The aunts would follow her and the rest of us would stretch out, take up all the available space and fondly think about all that we had heard.
Another reason why I’m so attracted to such sessions is the opportunity to meet loved ones who have left us. So many who were such an integral part of my life and whom we lost appear in the stories narrated at family gatherings. The affection and intense love with which they are talked about is more touching than the grandest eulogy.
When I think about all these anecdotes which have been passed down through generations, I’m struck by the fact that not a single one of these instances were ever captured on film or recorded on a device; the sights, smells and the atmosphere of tales from the past were captured by the people who were wholeheartedly involved in those moments. Every single member was immersed in those parcels of time.
The question I keep asking myself today is “Aren’t we losing that essence when we let ourselves be captured by the demands of our phones and cameras ?” Today we are more interested in recording an event on camera rather than living that moment. These countless pictures are stored in yet another device, never to be seen again while we have no idea of whom we met or what we did at an event we attended. Our lives are not going to be blighted if we do not continuously take pictures of a wedding or a family event that we attend. If we step away from our devices, there’s a wonderful world out there waiting to be experienced, and so many opportunities to store beautiful memories in our minds, which can be taken out and relived countless times whenever we wish, and at whatever stage of life we may be at…..
I grew up on descriptions of food by Enid Blyton. She mesmerized me with visions of scrumptious scones, huge chocolate cakes, sweet sticky lemonade, farm fresh golden butter and of course the crusty soft slices of beautiful white bread. Even a cold glass of frothy milk was elevated to the status of something heavenly in the pages of her books. I have mournfully worked my way through idly and dosa while reading about delicious marmalade, hard-boiled eggs and toast. Now I wonder whether I was crazy to ignore the delicious fluffy idlis and fragrant sambar and dream about toast. Just goes to show that my current level of madness was honed over many years 🙂
Anyway coming back to the saga of food, another favourite during my childhood was the sandwich. I had given it an aura of greatness partly because we rarely had it at home and partly because of the descriptions given by Enid Blyton (She does have a lot to answer for !) When I read of slices of pink ham placed between thick crusty slices of fresh bread, I was ready to run away from home and stow away on a steamer to London. All these delectable items were available in the country side of England and that was my target. An innate sense of laziness combined with a slight fear of the dark curbed my tendencies to explore the world. And also I was having a lot of fun with friends. The level of deception required to get away from home was totally beyond me. Those were the days when my mother would take one look at me and find out that I had not done my homework, in spite of my attempts at Oscar-award level histrionics. So the question of secretly running away was slightly far-fetched even for my imagination.
Another contributing factor to my love of sandwiches was the lunch brought to school by a classmate when I was in Class 2. She was a very dainty child who brought sandwiches for lunch. Even though I loved food, the top priority during lunch time was to gobble food in record speed and proceed to the playground for playing. As we were cramming food into our mouths, she would carefully open her lunch box and delicately take out a sandwich, which was then artfully consumed. Her sandwiches were always cut into squares and I remember that she had beautiful fingers, with which she elegantly transported the bread to her mouth.
Growing up involved a journey of realization of the actual taste of certain kinds of food. It was with a pang that I faced up to the fact that hard-boiled eggs have only so much to them. A glass of milk is that and nothing more. Ham sandwiches were really not my cup of tea and don’t even get me started on scones. It was just differently shaped bread ! I apologise to the purists who will be ‘scornfully’ perusing my litany on scones.
However, my love for bread continues with the same intensity, though my favourite still remains the crusty loaves made by local bakeries. I love the rustic feel of the thick slabs of soft bread with a lovely aroma to it. Bread, butter and jam remains my favourite combination. With these kind of tastes, it’s particularly difficult for me when I go to eateries like Subway who insist on tormenting me with choices. I just want a normal sandwich, but nobody is willing to listen. I have to make so many decisions! And after the entire rigmarole of selecting umpteen things for a sandwich, I end up with something which I don’t particularly like !
So now I don’t venture into the realm of niche eateries, preferring to have my own decadent bread-butter-jam at home. Slathering the golden butter on to a soft slice of bread and sealing it with another slice with the barest minimum layer of jam, is my personal route to nirvana. No other flavour of jam is allowed to enter a sandwich than mixed-fruit. I love apple-cinnamon and various other stuff, but there’s nothing like mixed-fruit to enhance the flavor of the sandwich.
Nowadays it’s considered almost blasphemous to consume white bread, and there are a huge variety of artisan breads baked by extremely talented bakers. I too indulge in the different varieties, but my taste buds have been conquered by the mundane flavour of white bread.
I still indulge in a bit of Enid Blyton to catch up on childhood memories. The food descriptions do not affect me as much as it did earlier, but I do feel a bit hungry when there are midnight feasts at Mallory Towers and St Clairs, and the Famous Five tuck into picnic lunches packed lovingly by Aunt Fanny.
I have this completely irrational love for typewriters. In spite of never having owned or used one, I’m overcome by the desire to possess one of these machines. I remember people from my parents’ generation lamenting on the kind of mess associated with the typewriter; ink-stains on fingers and clothes and the inability to erase more than a couple of words being just a few. But those very factors increased their attractiveness in my mind during those days. I secretly admired these quirky machines that could create such havoc in the lives of adults. They too had smudged fingers and clothes !
For a few years in my early childhood we stayed in an old house, with big rooms, a tiled roof and a mango tree in the compound. My father’s office was on the top floor and we resided on the ground floor. Not a very conducive environment from a child’s point of view because of the increased number of adults in the vicinity, which certainly was a dampener for pursuits of a mischievous nature. However my brother and I still managed to circumvent this obstacle. I have fond memories of my brother climbing onto the roof of the two-storey building and getting his foot trapped between tiles. Caused quite an uproar but it was well worth it for the absolutely high adventure quotient. I digress. Steering the story back to my typewriter-love, my father’s office was the first place I met this beautiful machine. We were expressly forbidden from going upstairs and causing havoc in that serious environment. Mostly we followed this rule.
However, there were rare occasions when tootling around in familiar environs got boring and I would sneak upstairs . As long as I stayed out of my father’s orbit it was fine. The uncles would spare indulgent glances for us before returning to their work. My favourite was the diminutive Gopi uncle who was the typist. He had twinkling eyes and the most welcoming smile. I remember gazing with rapt attention at his wizardry with the typewriter.
Staccato taps on the keys let loose an army of alphabets onto the paper. Gopi uncle was the brilliant commander who conquered vast swathes of pristine white paper with his alphabet soldiers. They huddled in groups big and small and a few brave soldiers stood alone. The font was so beautiful and each alphabet had a distinct character, with jovial O’s and straight-laced A’s giving each other company.
The entire process, starting with inserting glossy carbon paper between the crisp sheets of white paper, rolling it smartly into the typewriter with just the ends sticking out, the act of typing, the confident whack on the side of the machine to bring the paper back to the right side, all this combined to form a beautifully choreographed routine. He had a small cloth which he used to wipe his fingers from time to time. Those were the days when somebody would convert the head honcho’s words into squiggles of shorthand which was then typed out into language that could be deciphered by mere mortals. And that was another source of astonishment to me. Myriad patterns crammed into tiny pieces of paper was perused by Gopi uncle before he started firing away at the typewriter and churning out torrents of words. How could I not think that he was anything other than a magician !
I’m amazed when I look back now and realize that I never tried my hand at typing, even though Gopi uncle would surely have indulged me if I’d asked.This speaks volumes for the degree of reverence with which I viewed typewriters, since I was a very curious child and believed in poking my nose into everything.
My next tryst with a typewriter happened when my father gifted a Brother typewriter to my older sibling, who had just started out on a career in journalism. It was a very compact model with its own cover and looked quite sleek. But I had already given my heart to Gopi Uncle’s old machine and the new aspirant to that position was not stately enough to take its place. My brother still reminisces fondly about his typewriter.
Now I live in the hope of getting my hands on a working typewriter. I have wonderful plans of typing out my poems and posts on it and getting inducted in the secret society of typists, where ink-stained fingers are viewed as badges of honour. I feel that my words would be infused with the magic that resides in the keys of typewriters, which can be unlocked only by those who love it.
riding the blood red waves
dallying with each nerve ending.
The soft pulsing heart
hacked to pieces.
Scythes of anger, neglect and despair
shredding it with deep cuts
that bled love.
The pain sped forward
up into the grey cells
vanquishing every frontier
leaving splashes of grisly matter
churning up memories
corroding the good ones
underscoring the rest.
The battle was lost
she awoke to a new day
with blank eyes and
a wounded mind.
Wiped clean of everything
left with nothing
The CBFC’s wrangle with the makers of Udta Punjab was the best thing and the worst thing that could have happened to it. The former because the controversy has built up interest in the movie like nothing else would have, and the latter because the expectations are now sky-high and unfortunately the movie is not able to meet it. I walked out of the theatre with a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction unfurling within me. It was as if a favourite sports team, which reached the finals after a tough fight, decided to play down their strengths and ended up with a draw. It’s a good film no doubt, with a powerful star cast, but it could have been so much better.
Perennial back-slapping, annoyingly cheerful people, tons of food, huge frothing glasses of lassi, songs at the drop of a hat, garish weddings and equally loud clothes – such is the picture of Punjabis that Bollywood has shown us. Director Abhishek Chaubey shows us a Punjab devoid of all these stereotypes. Dusty villages, people sitting around lethargically with vacant eyes, and a generation succumbing effortlessly to the lure of drugs are some scenes which remain in our minds even after exiting the theater. There certainly are the ubiquitous lush green fields, but the workers are mostly women especially migrant workers from Bihar and other states. The smokescreen that mainstream Bollywood throws on Punjab is removed for a moment and the resultant image is bleak and anguishing.
Udta Punjab is a good film with a strong message. There’re 3 storylines, each approaching the central issue of drugs from different angles. We get a glimpse into the lives of a cop, a doctor who runs a de-addiction center and two end users. Each of them represent the many facets of a menace that is threatening to engulf the state of Punjab. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is a corrupt cop who doesn’t mind turning a blind eye to drug smuggling as long as he gets his cut. When his brother is admitted in the de-addiction center run by Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor), she holds up a mirror to the young policeman’s actions and he realizes the far-reaching effects of his apathy. Alongside this narrative runs that of Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) a hugely popular rock star who is not only a junkie but also glamourizes substance abuse through his songs. His brush with the law is the turning point where his life takes a different path. Now we come to the most poignant character, who is an unnamed migrant worker from Bihar, portrayed brilliantly by Alia Bhatt. Once a hockey player who was in the district team, she’s forced to leave home and work in the fields of Punjab due to extreme financial constraints. While Tommy Singh is a druggie by choice, the young girl is forcibly made a slave to drugs in the most heinous way. It’s chilling to see the complete lack of any humane qualities in people whose single point agenda is to amass wealth. Substance abuse in Punjab is shown through the ebb and flow of the lives of the main characters. The film tries to capture the changes that occur in the main characters as they grapple with the shadows that substance abuse throws on their lives.
Shahid Kapur as Tommy Singh has got all the swag, attitude and witty dialogues, but the petite Alia Bhatt with her haunted eyes lingers in our minds long after Kapur’s voice goes silent. The young actress has been able to perfectly slip into the skin of her character like a chameleon. The helplessness, frustration, anger and emptiness of the naïve girl trapped in the clutches of ruthless drug dealers has been portrayed brilliantly by Alia. Diljith Dosanjh and Kareena Kapoor do justice to their roles but unfortunately their characters are not fleshed out properly. Abhishek Chaubey, the director, has tried to give a holistic view of the issue by covering it in detail from all viewpoints, but in the process the storyline has lost its richness and depth. He had three amazing storylines and it seems that in trying to give equal importance to all of them he has ended up losing the crux of the plot.
I only wish the director could have avoided the exceedingly incredulous flights of fantasy that he has taken, which has detracted so much from its credibility. The cop and the doctor wandering around unhindered in a warehouse where drugs are stored and the rock star cycling nearly a 100 kms while going through withdrawal were some scenes which were ludicrous to say the least. The songs, composed by Amit Trivedi will not stand the test of time and will soon be forgotten. However, one particular song written by the late Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, called Ikk Kudi stands out for the beauty it holds in its simplicity. That moment, where the rock star sings from his heart for the first time without any screaming fans or cameras, is one of the most enduring scenes of the movie.
Udta Punjab doesn’t tell us anything new about substance abuse, but it tries valiantly to provide a cohesive picture of the problem in Punjab. Unfortunately it doesn’t touch too many chords with the viewer and so remains a good attempt rather than a brilliant film.
Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Nigella Lawson and the popular Masterchef series on television, have been successful in turning the humble kitchen into a glamorous setting. There are so many exotic ingredients being used and such a bewildering array of technical terms being bandied around that a dictionary is turning out to be an essential item to navigate our way in the culinary world. Shiny bell peppers, jaunty jalapenos and cheeky cheeses vie for prime position in today’s kitchens. Glossy cookbooks with cuisines from all over the world smile down loftily from kitchen shelves. There are quite a number of gadgets too, which supposedly do everything other than chew your food for you.
In the midst of all this space age machinery, which definitely has made life easier for women, my mind takes a nostalgic trip to my ammumma’s(grandmother) kitchen which easily remains my favourite. It was a cool airy room with just one wooden cupboard and a couple of shelves. The sunlight slanting in through the glass window above the stove gave a magical hue to the smoke rising from the dishes. I loved poking my head inside the cupboard to inhale the unique fragrance of spices and ammumma’s love. The air was redolent with the intoxicating smell of freshly pounded masalas and whatever delectable concoction she would be cooking that day. The most simple of dishes, like the ‘kayu mezhukkupuratti’ (diced raw banana sautéed in oil with a pinch of turmeric and chilly powder added to it) was elevated to a sublime level of deliciousness when she made it. With one edge of her mundu tucked into her waist ammumma bustled around, haggling with the vegetable seller, belting out instructions to the maid and enquiring about my grandfather’s requirements, along with getting a meal ready.
Festival times would see a bevy of aunts joining her in the kitchen to prepare the Sadya (a traditional feast with a number of dishes, served on plantain leaves), and somehow there was space for everybody. With a ladle in her hand, Ammumma directed operations with seemingly effortless ease. She allocated the work and my aunts would take up their stations to get the noon meal ready. My mom still fondly recalls that the payasam (a kind of sweet porridge-like dessert) was her forte. Preparing this involved standing near the uruli (huge vat) and stirring the concoction for a long time. Usually it’s one of the more boring jobs ever, but in ammumma’s kitchen it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on all the news. As I grew older, I preferred to be in that room with them rather than playing with my cousins. It was so comforting to stay tucked in beside an aunt and listen to the ebb and flow of conversations all around. I could see the invisible ribbons of love weaving through the words swirling around, binding everybody together. I think the women in the family looked forward to this time together, when they could shrug aside the roles of wife and mother for a few hours and become just daughters again. Another attraction of the bustling kitchen was getting my hands on the tiny white slivers of fresh coconut and fried golden brown cashewnuts. Ammumma kept a vigilant eye on the latter, and if she found me reaching out too often, it was deftly removed and placed out of reach.
Ammumma had a strict distinction between the kitchen and the storeroom. Other than masala powders, spices and oil, provisions were not kept in the kitchen. Those were the days of getting everything freshly ground in the mill. There were large canisters of rice flour, wheat flour, rice, sugar and other myriad stuff in the store. Snacks, which were invariably made at home, were kept carefully in a quaint little cupboard with glass doors, called the ‘meatsafe’. I went through my childhood calling it a ‘me-safe’, purely because I didn’t know better. It was only years later, when I read about it in books, did I realize that it had a more dignified name! The storeroom was my hideout in the afternoons since I was always shooed away in the mornings. During ammumma’s nap time I would slowly creep inside that cool room. What fascinated me were all the miscellaneous things in the interiors of the cupboards. I had to be very careful while conducting this operation because some of the provisions like pulses and such were kept in small tin containers, which at one time held Nutramul or some such thing. Those infernal things were quite clamorous if I didn’t handle them carefully.
Bits and pieces of coir, broken shells, discarded tins, old brass vessels and crumbling documents which only looked important, were just a few of the odds and ends I found. But my prime target was my uncle’s stamp collection. He had collected hundreds of stamps from all over the world, which he painstakingly stuck on thick black paper in albums, and my favourites were the triangle-shaped ones. Those stamps introduced me to countries like Espania, Latvia and Lithuania. I have such beautiful memories of sitting in that cool shady room and poring over the tiny colourful pieces of paper which took me all around the world.
Today’s kitchen is undoubtedly designed to ease the work of women and I’m so grateful for all the gadgets. But I sometimes feel that my children are missing out on the fun that I’ve had in my ammumma’s kitchen. Maybe as a person who had to do the cooking I wouldn’t have been comfortable in that kitchen without too many conveniences. However as a child and then as a teen, that was the most magical place for me, where I found comfort and an abundance of love.
I love her. I’ve been with her through thick and thin and all the in-between times too. It was love at first sight for her, but not so much for me. In fact I thought she was too quiet and mousy. I did feel a slight thrill when she zeroed in on me, and came right up to where I was. I resolutely looked the other way, trying to find someone more fun and sporty. But she was determined and I just couldn’t ignore the beautiful glow on her face when she looked at me. We ended up together that day.
Initially she preferred to keep her life separate from me. I did my stuff and she went her way. Those were tough days and I really wondered why we moved in together. I was the outdoorsy kind and she liked to spend more time at home. I didn’t even know what she did for a living since she would disappear after a hasty breakfast of toast and coffee. After staying out the whole day, she would drag herself back home and end up curled on the couch with a book for company. Some days I knew she was feeling lonely, since a strange restlessness seemed to come over her. I started taking her for walks. We pounded the streets and went wherever we felt like; through crowded alleys filled with the sounds and colours of life, on beautifully maintained walkways with gently strolling folks, on the beach with its invigorating smell of salt and distant lands, and finally when we returned disheveled and exhausted she would be smiling again.
Gradually I started to know her better. She had the most awful off-key voice but the gusto with which she belted out songs filled our little apartment with happiness. She hated sentimental movies and scared herself senseless watching horror. I saw my little mouse transforming into a tiger while watching action films; cushions went flying during fights on-screen and a manic glint lit up her eyes. She loved her coffee strong and sweet, but not very hot. Mornings were her favourite time of the day and some days we sat in companionable silence on the balcony –she gazing at the morning sunlight filtering through the leaves and me gazing at her. I had fallen in love with this girl who had a quiet strength, an endearing zest for life and who was a genuinely good person. She didn’t have too many friends, but had a wonderful relationship with her parents and siblings. I loved to listen in on her conversations with them, she visibly seemed to become softer and her spirits were always up afterwards.
One night I saw her sitting up late to catch up on some work and only then realized that she was an illustrator for children’s books. Her fingers created magic on paper, a swirl here and a couple of smudges there and I could see a little boy with dust smeared clothes looking wide–eyed at a fantastical creature hovering in the air. She was totally dedicated to her work and conjuring up fantasy on paper was her passion.
After a year of life together, I became aware of an unhappiness within her. By then we had understood each other well and were well versed in reading the contours of our relationship. Her calls to her parents became sporadic and even when they called I could see the forced cheerfulness on her face. We were together quite a lot during those dark days. She was always on the move, and I’ve never walked so much in my life. A bit strenuous for me but I went along to keep her company.
I remember very clearly the day she took that decision. It was raining and quite windy. I thought she would feel worse with the lack of sunshine and the dark clouds. But it was such a pleasure to see a smile flitting on her face. The dark circles under her eyes seemed to have lessened overnight. I could feel the spring in her step. Armed with a huge umbrella, we set out. We came to a huge old house which seemed to be some kind of establishment. She didn’t want me to go in with her and I stayed outside.
I waited impatiently for what seemed like hours, and when I thought that she had abandoned me, I saw her walk out with a bundle of clothes in her arms and the most amazing smile on her face. All her attention was on what she held, and she even forgot me ! When a smattering of raindrops fell on her two things happened at once; she jumped back with a start, becoming aware of her surroundings, and the most aggrieved wail erupted from the bundle. When she turned back to me, I saw her clasping a tiny infant to her heart, as if it was the most fragile and precious thing in the world.
That was the beginning of the rest of our life together. We have been through sleepless nights and stressful days, but the chortles of laughter and sticky kisses made up for that. I’m still with her and I look forward to seeing the lil one grow up. I can only hope that she doesn’t discard me when she gets a replacement. After all, shoes are really not that hard to get.
(Memoirs of a Shoe)
white as snow,
tasting of things forbidden
a heavy sweetness
masking the hidden bitterness
filling the mouth with
the tartness of
something that could have been.
A wail cut off mid-way
a shriek of agony
suppressed for too long
the absence of sound
overwhelming and paralyzing
with the smoothness of silk
and the coarseness
of gunny bags
leaving an imprint
on mind and body.
As another year dawns, it’s not only an opportunity for new beginnings, but also a time to stop for a moment and take stock of what has happened so far. My glance into the past does not involve a stroll down the proverbial memory lane, but it is more like stepping into my memory room. A safe place where all my memories are stored carefully, stacked in polished wooden boxes, some of which have dulled to a soft brown due to the passage of time. In fact the Room of Requirement in Hogwarts Castle (Harry Potter) reminds me of my Room of Memories. It’s always there, but only I have entry to it. Shelves border the room, rising up to the ceiling, which remains unseen somewhere high above, obscured by the shifting fogs of time. The more recent memories are casually stashed in the lower shelves while the older ones reside above.
There’s a squishy armchair in a corner of the room, with a lamp throwing a warm glow beside it. The carpet has been worn bare due to my countless visits over the years, hurried ones as well as those where I spend ages just savouring the familiar scents from long forgotten scenes of my life, tinted in sepia and teeming with emotions. In here, the seasons, days and nights are determined by the memories. I have felt the wetness of rain on my cheeks while it was sweltering hot outside; the winds of childhood summers have run their fingers consolingly over my hair while Sunday evening blues descended on me; I have found solace in the velvety darkness of my grandmother’s room while the sun blazed down mercilessly outside.
I love curling up in my armchair and just looking around at the boxes, each of them an integral part of my life so far. I have flung some boxes into the highest recesses, not wanting to see them at all. But there are certain moments when they come to the forefront of t and then I quickly exit the room. If I happen to delve further into those boxes, a deep pall of gloom settles over me and I’m left with tinges of bitterness swirling in my mind. On the contrary, there are those boxes that come tumbling down without much effort from my part. They lead me on a happy journey, with lots of laughter, the presence of loved ones, amazing conversations, shared meals and a general sense of belonging. I come away from such jaunts feeling relaxed and thoroughly refreshed.
At times while I lounge around in the armchair not looking for any box in particular, flashes of colour or the faint strains of a long-forgotten song draw me to some boxes which have remained unnoticed for a long time. And then it’s such a delight to open it and find so many precious memories that have been stored carefully but which have never been taken out and relished. Many a time, I have started with a box, the contents of which led me to other boxes, peopled with different characters and in different locations. By the time I have to leave, I find myself in an entirely separate landscape from the one where I began.
There’re so many keys which open this room for me – a familiar scent from my childhood like Cinthol soap or Cuticura powder, a particular fish curry which has the absolute same balance of flavours as the one I’ve eaten in my grandmother’s kitchen, a glimpse of a visage I see on the street which has me breathless for a moment because it reminds me of a loved one who is no more – all these and more open the doors of that beautiful room. At times, even without realising it, I find myself in the armchair with the contents of a box spilling onto my lap.
Each of us have our own method of storing those magical moments which have enriched our lives and taught us many a thing about life, both good and the not-so-good lessons. There’re times when I suddenly realise that the people I have left behind in that room are no longer with me. Just as a feeling of sadness rises within, the thought of visiting them in my Room of Memories makes me feel glad again. They have had various reasons to go their separate ways, and there’s no point in brooding over it. Life is a vehicle where we have very little control over the people who travel with us or the distance they accompany us. So enjoy their presence while they are with us and then visit them in our memories when they are no longer by our side.
The memories of childhood have always been a refuge for me in any storm that I faced in life. So many beautiful experiences, all of which have been woven with threads of jewel bright colours and flashes of laughter. A recent conversation made me realize that my Bucket List doesn’t have any bungee jumping or hot air balloon rides in it. Mine would involve going back and experiencing those moments from my childhood again. Those wonderful instances when I felt cherished and the world seemed to be in love with me. Once more I want to relive those tiny parcels of time. Just once more…
“Faster than fairies, faster than witches ; Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches “
Each time I travel by train, I hear an echo of these words of R L Stevenson in the clackety clack of the wheels. The beauty and magic of watching the countryside hurtle past in brilliant flashes of colour is so correctly depicted in his poem. I’m a huge fan of train travel though unfortunately the frequency of my travels has come down a lot. I realized that my love affair with trains remained as passionate as ever when I travelled from my home town to Kochi, recently. The journey was a short one of 4 hours. But it was more than enough to get reacquainted with an old love. I was in train-heaven since I had managed to get the window seat. As a child, this was the most coveted seat and a lot of wrangling and bargaining was usually involved before it could be attained. Many a time I had to surrender it to my brother in spite of falling back on my last resort – tears. So this time when I got the window seat without having to kill anybody for it, I felt terribly happy. Even though I kept a very benign expression on my face, inside me was an ecstatic little girl doing a mad jig. When I look out through the glassed window, I’m taken back for a moment to my childhood when the trains ran on coal. There were no air-conditioned compartments and getting flecks of coal dust in the eyes was a part of travel.
I have my own ritual when I settle down in my seat; in fact I’ve seen many travellers with their own particular rituals of settling down. I always have a bottle of water and a couple of books with me. After pushing the bottle into its holder, and stowing my bigger bag overhead, I take out a book and settle down. Anybody glancing my way would be forgiven if they thought that I was getting ready for a long reading session. But the truth is that I hardly read, maybe a couple of pages at the most. The scenery outside has me in its grasp, and tearing myself away from that turns out to be an impossible task.
It was a somnolent lazy afternoon and it was a pleasure to lean back in my seat and surrender to the beauty of the countryside. I felt like I was watching a series of short movies because each scene came with its own mood and story. Railway lines usually pass behind houses, and the backyards give a more fascinating view of life than courtyards. The debris of life is collected in backyards and so many interesting facets of life are revealed in these bits and pieces. Abandoned tricycles give an indication of a child who has left his carefree years behind and stepped beyond the confines of his mother’s arms. Clothes merrily flapping on clothes-lines have me constructing elaborate pictures of the entire family in my mind, complete with visiting cousins and relatives.
Since it was a Sunday afternoon, the pace was more relaxed. Children were sitting around with cousins or friends, desultorily swapping stories or playing quiet games. Women could be seen relaxing after the hectic activities of the morning; older women with legs stretched out and younger ones grouped around, with laughter lighting up their faces and weariness reflecting in the droop of shoulders. At some houses, the husband and wife would be sitting on the steps unconscionably leaning into each other and sharing a few words, or sometimes just enjoying a quiet moment together. A glimpse of the scene is all I need to give free rein to my fertile imagination and before I know it we have reached the next station.
The importance of each railway station in the overall hierarchy is reflected in their appearance. I’m not a big fan of the busy stations with teeming humanity, blaring announcements, abundance of tiny kiosks and mountains of luggage stacked around. My favourites are the tiny stations that often have just two platforms, and where many of the trains do not halt. It’s in these tiny out-of-the-way stations that Nature makes its presence felt, with beautiful shady trees left untouched, flowers growing in riotous joy clambering over fences seemingly eager to hold conversations with the speeding trains, and wild greenery crowding around the platforms as if they too want to go on a journey.
Kerala is a riot of green at all times and amidst this when I see flashes of colour it immediately catches my eye. A little hen-coop is transported out of the ordinary by the bright blue tarpaulin stretched across its roof. A sunshine yellow tractor merrily chugging along in a field calls out to me. The most catchy image is that of a pink bus parked in the middle of a tiny bridge with passengers standing outside chatting comfortably. The overcast sky adds to the surreal nature of this scene. I would have loved to find out why the bus was parked in the middle of the bridge and why the passengers were not in a hurry.
But trains do not allow me to linger at one place. They take me onwards, to the next scene, the next story, and the next slice of life. I pass a small temple with a cleanly swept yard and no signs of life, and then a sparkling white mosque. Both waiting patiently to welcome believers, and dispense peace and relief to burdened minds and troubled souls. I’m also fascinated by the small unpaved roads, which abound in the countryside. They look very beguiling, with the richness of the brown earth in sharp contrast to the green around, gnarled roots poking out from the embankments on both sides, and an air of expectancy in the air. The roads that disappear around a bend are the most interesting, since I can have my choice of characters waiting beyond the bend. The destination remains a mystery, which only adds to their charm.
Just like the people I see along the way, the trees too have distinct characters. There are giant trees waiting motionless and with bated breath for the rains to fall from the overcast sky. Others tower near the railway tracks, with bended branches peeking inquisitively towards the trains, trying to figure out what happens inside the rectangles of light which rush past them all the time. Some of these denizens of the forest have the most amazing flowers and one that had flowers hanging downwards like pale feathery chandeliers enthralled me. They looked like fantastic props made by some eccentric designer.
Very soon it was time for me to leave this wondrous world of possibilities and discovery and get back to my life. It’s always a pleasure to get back home after a journey, but this time there’s a slight pang because I don’t know when I’ll be back on a train again. As we pulled into my station, I was swept along by the rush of people eager to reach their destinations. I seemed to be the only one looking at the dusty train with any signs of regret, but I’m sure there are many like me out there somewhere who hanker after the simple joys of train travel.
It turned out to be the best thing I’d done in recent times. On a spur of the moment decision I’d joined the Ernakulam Public Library (EPL). Of late I’ve been smothered by a feeling of deep inertia, actually less inertia and more of being unproductive. I was spending more time finding out what the world was doing rather than doing something myself and I had nobody else to blame for this. The final straw was when I realized with mounting horror that my reading and writing were taking a backseat to my sojourns into social media. Authors I followed on Twitter were tweeting while they were relaxing on their breaks after publishing mammoth tomes and here I was, frantically trying to keep up with all that was being spewed out and trying to pen a few words in between. Ironically the same social media provided a way out when I saw the page of the Ernakulam Public Library on Facebook ! Seeing it as a chance given by the Gods, I didn’t think twice and enrolled.
It has been an amazing experience. The EPL is not a state of the art library with either the latest software or snazzy premises, but I feel a deep sense of belonging there. The librarians are taciturn but surprisingly helpful. After completing the formalities, to my utter delight I was issued two old-style library cards. Not a sign of plastic on them, just two chunky cardboard cards. I almost broke into a tiny dance, such was my happiness! But the thought of giving the unfortunate librarian a coronary kept my inner wild-child in check.
The books were waiting for me. Oh! I’ve never been so happy to see dust. There was quite a lot of it, but it had taken residence on such great books that it was forgivable. It was a total mind shift for me and I felt I was back in college. The biggest advantage was that there was very little pulp fiction. I have nothing against this genre and in fact I’m a huge fan. But I have a tendency to veer towards these and in the process I end up ignoring some amazing writers. Michael Ondaatje is one such person who has suffered my disinterest. I’ve wanted to read his words but there’s always been something more adrenaline pumping which has distracted me. In this library, Ondaatje got the better of me and I borrowed a beautiful work of his called ‘Anil’s Ghost’. Along with Ondaatje, I got a copy of Nandita Puri’s short stories. There were some absolute gems residing on those tall wooden shelves; I was particularly entranced by old copies of the condensed versions of novels that Reader’s Digest used to bring out. Thick hardbound books with satin-smooth yellowed pages and the most beautiful fonts. However I’m one of those people who keeps the best part of the meal for last, so I’ve decided to keep salivating over them and prolong the anticipation as much as I can 🙂
After completing the enjoyable process of borrowing books, I ventured into the Reference section, which was on another floor of the building. For a moment I thought I’d travelled back in time, such was the sense of nostalgia that swamped me when I entered. The room looked exactly like the ones I’ve seen in the University library in my college days. A long wooden table took pride of place with faded red plastic chairs around it. The shelves were overflowing with books with a liberal amount of dust on them. I thanked all my guardian angels for not making me allergic to dust or else I would certainly have sneezed my nose off ! The electrical switches were older than me.
I was quite the eager beaver and went zooming off to investigate the lovely treasure. There were several bespectacled youngsters sprinkled around the table, with their heads buried in highly technical sounding tomes who looked like they had the weight of the universe on their fragile shoulders. They made me feel quite guilty about having a huge smile on my face. But the sense of being surrounded by millions of words from so many great authors was quite intoxicating.
T.S Eliot has never been a friend of mine. I prefer to think of authors whose works I enjoy as my friends and Mr. Eliot has always been slightly too serious for me. But when I saw a huge book nestling on the shelf containing a collection of his letters, my curiosity was aroused. So I tottered to the table with Mr.Eliot for company and I didn’t lift my head from the book for the next hour. When I surfaced for air most of the students had vanished. I tried to slide back into the book, but a combination of the peaceful atmosphere, the quiet murmur of the librarian answering queries and the gentle hum of the antiquated ceiling fan saw my eyes drooping. I valiantly tried to keep them open but I realized it was a losing battle when I went cross-eyed due to my efforts.
I bid adieu to that oasis, with a promise that I would be back soon. It had been quite liberating to be in a place without any distractions or intrusions and where I felt the silent approbation of so many gifted voices. I’ve always been a huge fan of libraries and book shops but there’s something about the Ernakulam Public Library which has made it my firm favourite.
I wistfully ran my hand over the beautiful cover of the notebook in my hand and then with a deep soulful sigh kept it back on the shelf in Crossword. I managed to convince myself that I certainly didn’t need to add one more notebook to my already teetering pile ; I might have felt like my toenails were being pulled out when I kept the book back, but it was a silly extravagance and it was time I controlled my lust for them. When I slinked out of the shop half an hour later, the notebook was nestling snugly next to the book I had bought for my daughter. I had given in, yet again.
I’ve realised that I’m a hoarder, or should I call myself a collector ? The word Hoarder brings to mind a goon wearing a stained vest in a dingy godown lit only by a single dangling bulb with sacks of rice and sugar piled in a corner. Ok, I’ll go with collector since wearing stained clothes is a big no-no. Godowns and sacks are fine but one has to draw the line somewhere and for me that is sweat-stained clothes ! I do feel like a fraud when I call myself a collector because such individuals are serious and dignified and not even in my wildest flights of fancy can I claim to be either of the two. Anyway, semantics apart, my collecting/hoarding tendencies are rooted in my past, in my childhood to be precise. Let’s take a quick trip down that good old memory lane, when I was running around like a wild child, complete with scabbed knees, missing teeth and wonky pigtails. How many years ago, asks the reader who wants specifics. Why go into inconsequential numerical details dear friend, let’s just say that it was a couple of decades back. I had the characteristics of an enthusiastic magpie. If you cast your mind on that mischievous denizen of the avian fraternity, you’ll remember what your teacher taught you in school. The magpie is said to be a prolific hoarder.
The bird was attracted to anything that glittered, but I had no such constraints – anything small and considered uninteresting by the general populace was of utmost interest to little pig-tailed me. Pebbles worn smooth over the years which reminded me of clouds; scraps of brilliantly coloured cloth which I used to filch from the tailor; transparent wrappers of boiled candy that I would wrap tightly round my fingertips to see the whorls more clearly ; misshapen pieces of chalk in different colours which always left a dusting of coloured dreams on my hands ; pencil stubs which reminded me of tiny men in top-hats ; soft feathers in pale shades of blue, yellow and rust that I got from my grand-mom’s neighbour who had pet love-birds ; cloth covered buttons; broken pieces of jewel-hued glass bangles ; all these and more were my prized possessions, stored carefully in a colourful round biscuit tin.
As I left the magical, whacky world of childhood behind and entered the angst ridden world of adolescence, my collector’s soul too underwent a transformation. Out went all the colourful baubles and fancy stuff. My teenage mind found solace and a perfect reflection of my feelings in the words of songs, and that too Hindi film songs. My efforts were now tuned to collecting the lyrics of as many songs as I could. I’ve painstakingly collected the lyrics, including the information about the makers of the songs, the actors who acted in them, and then recorded every tiny detail in notebooks. The pictures of the actors were carefully cut out of magazines and pasted along with the songs. Since Google was not even a thought in the minds of its makers, my main sources were the radio stations and in those days All India Radio and Vividh Bharati were the only two around. So getting accurate lyrics was a tortuous, laborious affair. Now when I look back, I’m astounded that between my obsessive song writing and compulsive reading, I managed to complete my education without my parents suffering nervous breakdowns !
Over time, songs were replaced by pithy sayings and interesting quotes. The Reader’s Digest magazine played an important role in this phase of mine since that was my principal source. I’ve a distinct memory of myself bent over a beautiful moss-green diary (which I still have with me), copying quotations from RD. The sky was overcast and the rain beat down gently while I was ensconced in my room lost in a world of words. I carry around that image with me and try to slip back into the serenity of that moment whenever I feel overwhelmed by life. Sadly I’ve almost bid adieu to my collecting days. Work and later motherhood saw me hurtling down uncharted terrain trying desperately to hang on to my sanity. There was never enough time or the mental space required for my inner magpie to manifest itself. But I’ve managed to hold on to my love of notebooks. I love them in any shape, size or colour. Earlier I used to feel guilty about buying new ones when I hadn’t used the earlier ones. I’m still attacked by guilt but like I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve learnt to successfully silence this tiresome, nagging inner voice and move on happily. I think it’s the possibility of spilling out words onto the fresh pages which fills me with a deep satisfaction. And as long as I love words I don’t think I’ll give up on this one.
We move at a fast pace in our daily lives, juggling various roles and always in a rush to reach somewhere or meet someone. In the midst of all these duties and responsibilities, there are some instances when we get a chance to take a step back and cast a glance at the path we’ve trodden to reach where we are, and the people who have travelled with us, some still accompanying us on our journey and others who have bid adieu. One such occasion when I slow down the pace of my life, is the annual puja at my father’s family temple, set in the tiny village of Chennankary in Alleppey,Kerala. The small temple dedicated to the Devi is set in a shady clearing adjoining the ancestral home. It’s literally like moving into another world since Chennankary is accessible only by boat. There’s no question of stepping in, making your presence felt and rushing back to work or wherever you are in a hurry to get to. In fact the word ‘hurry’ is alien to the people of Chennankary. The rituals of the puja start in the morning and culminate at noon. All the family members assemble at a pre-ordained dock near Alleppey and travel together by boat. Our family is quite huge with people in all corners of the globe. Each year, all those who can, make it a point to attend. Usually there’re around 30 to 40 family members who come every year. I’ve noticed a certain lightness of heart and spirit in every person who comes to attend the puja. It’s like all of us are taking a break from our daily routines, shedding the personas we’ve carefully cultivated over the years and trying to grasp fleeting moments from our pasts. The boat invariably gets delayed although the booking would have been done days before. But I’ve yet to see anybody get worked up over this. We use the opportunity to unwind and catch up with each other’s exploits. The kids run free, away from the restrictions of concrete jungles and taking complete advantage of parents who are lost in nostalgia. At last the boat is sighted, slowly chugging in, and there’s a general scramble for children, handbags and other paraphernalia, and not necessarily in that order! The vessel is a small one that just about manages to hold all of us. The journey to our ancestral home takes around three-quarters of an hour. The male cousins and kids prefer to be outside the cabin which is taken over by the ladies, of all ages, ranging from the tiniest baby to my elderly aunt who is the matriarch right now. A few old uncles find themselves stuck with us and hardly a peep is heard out of them throughout the journey. The poor souls are not given a chance as the ladies completely monopolise the conversation. The topics are wide and varied ranging from the recipe for Brinjal Avial to critiques of Kathakali performances, to the reasons for hair loss; all this punctuated at regular intervals by gales of laughter. I’ve got aunts who are brilliant raconteurs and their wry wit is so hilarious that it keeps us in splits. If the cousins or I happen to reprimand our children, the aunts firmly put us in our places by recounting with great relish how much naughtier we were and the shenanigans we got up to. The only defence we have against this is to hide behind sheepish grins. The scenery outside is some of the most beautiful in Kerala but there’s so much happening inside that I hardly notice any of it. We navigate our way through narrow waterways and reach our destination right in time for breakfast. The aunts and uncles staying there arrange a simple yet delicious spread. It’s at this juncture that I lose complete contact with my children. This happens to all my cousins. We turn into children again while our kids find their cousins and gang up with them. They know it’s pointless to look to their parents for any kind of guidance or directions because we are too busy catching up with the rest of the family. Our children actually enjoy this freedom from our tyranny and I don’t find any complaints. As parents we are also aware that somebody is always looking out for the safety and comfort of the children. Whichever adult happens to be near them keeps an eye on them. Our small temple is situated just a few steps from the main house, in a clearing enclosed by huge towering trees and trailing creepers. Sunlight pours in from above and creates a cosy tranquil atmosphere. There’s one particular tree, which has become an abode for bats and they hang motionless like tattered prayer flags. Since we have many elderly members, a small number of chairs are placed under an awning to one side so that they can take a breather in between the lengthy ceremonies. Though meant for the older generation, I find that it’s more of my generation who settle down comfortably on them ! It’s either the chairs or the platform around the majestic banyan tree that find people sitting and catching up on each others lives.
Over the years we have suffered many bereavements and many loved ones have left us, including my father. I feel their presence in that clearing, in the caress of the breeze, in the warmth of the sunlight and in the memories that we all share when we are together. A laugh here, a toss of the head there, a familiar stance, all brings them back to me. Whatever else might happen in my life, I know that for those couple of hours my father is right there beside me, sending his blessings my way. Our deity is the Devi or goddess, and a most benevolent one at that. There’s a pervading sense of goodness, of divinity and well-being around the temple. When the sound of the conch being blown combines with the hum of murmured prayers, and the faint rustling of the wind among the leaves, the vibrations resonate in my heart and lighten the spirit. The final moments sees a flurry of activity mainly because the kids have to be brought from whichever corner they have escaped to. Kids are such an integral part of the occasion because they add that much-needed touch of reality. Once, a cousin’s 5-year-old daughter was found to be lost in prayers, muttering feverishly under her breath. All of us were quite amazed at her devotion at such a young age. It was only later that a cousin’s wife standing next to the tot informed us that the lil one was reciting the words of the latest film song! After the customary sadya (feast) and a family meeting (both of which I can write reams about) we start back.
The return journey is quieter, due to physical tiredness and also the sense that our brief sojourn into another world is over. The conversations are quieter but the laughter is as spirited as ever. One of my favourite activities is to sit back and lazily watch the tapestry of life unfolding on the riverbanks, while the conversation flows all around me cocooning me in its warmth and familiarity. There’re no prolonged goodbyes even though we might not meet some of them for a long time. Everything that had to be said and shared has already been done and tarrying would only delay everybody. We take leave of each other with smiles since we know that we would surely meet again, in our Devi’s presence, secure in the bond that binds us together.
Different colours have different connotations in our lives. There’re some widely accepted images which we automatically associate with certain colours due to popular perception. White brings to mind doves and peace, while red is synonymous with passion. Green is the environment, while blue is the wonderful colour of the seas. But each of us has a separate colour-bar in our minds which has been created by a beautiful blend of our memories and experiences; pictures which have loved ones and cherished moments bound together with the silken thread of nostalgia.
The colour White to me is synonymous with the spotless white of my grandmother’s clothes. She wore the traditional Malayali attire of set-mundu. Her mornings were spent in the kitchen and generally doing chores. One corner of the mundu was neatly tucked back onto the waist so that she could bustle around. Once all the chores were completed she would bathe and sit down with the newspaper to catch up on the news. Her spotless white mundu with the faint smell of sunshine lingering in it never failed to bring a surge of happiness within me. I loved snuggling up to her just to inhale the freshness of the sun and contentment.
Gold to me has never been about the yellow metal. Gold is the colour of the summers of childhood. All my memories of childhood have a lovely lustre to it. Happiness, laughter, love, food, cousins, music – all form a melange of pictures which never fade. I might forget where I’ve kept my car keys but I can never forget the intricate details of those golden images. No matter how often I take them out to savour, those memories remain as clear as ever.
Green is the coolness of leaves which have soothed my mind ever so often. The falling leaves which have mesmerised me and taken my mind on so many journeys while I was supposed to be studying. The canopy of leaves in my college courtyard which have been witness to the madness and craziness which made those days spend with friends so precious. The neem leaves outside the window of our apartment which allowed squirrels to come and play peekaboo with my daughter when she was a baby. The gentle palm fronds outside my balcony which have on many an occasion provided a balm for my troubled mind.
Purple may bring to mind an image of glossy jamuns, but my mind conjures up a different image for Purple. My favourite dress when I was around 5 or 6 was a rich purple with white stripes. I have no idea why this particular dress has remained fresh in my memory while so many others have been consigned to be forgotten. It might be because I wore the purple frock for the house-warming of our house or because it represents an amazing childhood.
Black as night is just a saying. My Black is a happy Black. Black is the colour of spectacles. Both my grandfather( Appuppan) and father (Achan) had spectacles with thick black frames. I cannot think of the colour Black without being reminded of the kindest eyes I’ve known in my life. Appuppan was one of the gentlest souls I’ve ever encountered. My brother and I were his first grandchildren and we got to spend a lot of time with him. Appuppan’s wisdom, subtle humour and his kindness have been such an integral part of my growing up years. My Achan had the warmest brown eyes, which have guided me, reprimanded me and provided strength when I’ve felt defeated. The unconditional love I’ve seen in those eyes is something that I search for even today.
Brown stands for benches and desks. The countless wooden benches I’ve sat on, in schools, colleges and tuition classes. Rich glossy brown of new desks before they were marked by innumerable pens and compasses. The smudged brown of old desks covered by illustrations which provided interesting insights on every topic from teachers to world politics to the nicknames of students.
Blue to me is the colour of stories. The Blue of Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Draupadi and Rama in Amar Chitra Katha comics. Such a vivid blue which had undertones of goodness, nobility, strength and courage to it.
Yellow is the bright colour of crisp banana chips ; the round bites of deliciousness which has remained unchanged in form and taste. When banana chips are fried at home, the mouth-watering smell of hot oil and fresh chips pervaded the entire house.
Silver cannot be anything but the glistening colour of fresh fish in the baskets of fishermen in the local market.
Strangely, there’re some colours which are completely missing from my personal spectrum. The colour Red doesn’t have any significant memories attached to it. So is the case with Grey and Pink. Not that I mind, since my Greens and Golds and the rest of the colour bombs keep me happy and content; the colours of people and memories too precious to be forgotten any time soon.
When I attended a talk by Pedro Medina, the former head of McDonalds in Columbia, little did I think that the highlight of the evening would be meeting Cristelle Hart Singh. While mingling after the session, held in quaint David Hall, I got talking to a lady who was clearly not an Indian. My first thought was that she must be a tourist and as with all tourists, my first question to her was,’How long have you been here ?’. All my pre-conceived notions came tumbling down when she quietly told me with a twinkle in her eye, that she’d been in Kochi for the past 14 yrs. That’s a longer time than I myself have been here, was my immediate thought. Now I was really interested. The rest of the evening was an eye opener for me as well as my friends. We found out that Cristelle has been running a home for pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers called Tejus Home. A very friendly person, she talked in quite a matter of fact way about the work that she was doing. I was stunned because here was a person who was doing so much with her life, who was making an enormous amount of difference in peoples lives and yet who was so unassuming about the whole thing. In an age where every small action is projected disproportionately, Cristelle talked about her work only after much prodding from us. In fact she said that she found it difficult to speak eloquently in front of people. She was already involved with DIL SE, an NGO she started with a friend, which among other activities runs a foster home for orphans and children from very poor families.
Tejus Home was formed in answer to a call for help from one of the children who had been a part of DIL SE. Gayatri was left at DIL SE by her rag picker parents when she was a small child. After a couple of years when they took her back she was 13 yrs old and at that young age they got her married. Immediately she became pregnant, but the physical and mental abuse continued. One day she took matters into her own hands and ran away. Picked up by authorities from the railway station, the only person she wanted to contact was Cristelle. By that time Dil Se had been converted into a home exclusively for boys and so there was no place to bring Gayatri. The Child Welfare Committee had to send her to a home for destitute women since there weren’t any homes for pregnant teenagers. Gayatri gave birth to a healthy baby boy in 2012, called Tejus. Tejus Home is named after this little bundle and it started functioning in November 2012. Teenagers themselves are at a very sensitive stage of life, so a pregnant teenager has special and specific needs which has to be handled with a lot of care. It’s a natural conclusion that teenagers do not get pregnant by choice. Most of them are victims of abuse and the perpetrator is usually a family member or somebody whom she trusted. So, with pregnant teenagers, a whole lot of specific issues have to be addressed – professional guidance on how to cope with such a trauma; counselling to help them heal and look forward in life; advice on how to cope with the enormous changes happening in their bodies; knowledge of and help with the legal issues involved and also love and affection during this troubled phase of their lives. All this is what Cristelle provides at Tejus Home. Birth for Change another NGO propagating safe and natural birthing practices has partnered with Tejus Home and they take care of all the pre-natal and post-natal care and also the actual delivery of the babies. The girls have the right to take their decision regarding the future, whether they want to keep the baby or give him/her up for adoption. They are supported wholeheartedly, no matter what their decision.
I visited Tejus Home on a sunny morning and it was with a heavy heart that I went, knowing that I would be meeting children who were going to be mothers. I expected a silent, sad atmosphere with sombre faces and an atmosphere of despair. Yet again Cristelle caught me on the wrong foot. Tejus Home is situated in a cosy house tucked into a tiny bylane off a quiet road. I was enveloped by the warmth and positiveness in that house when I walked into an airy room with a lot of light. Four girls were sitting around a makeshift table learning to make cloth dolls under the loving tutelage of Anna, a retired nurse and currently a volunteer at Tejus. They greeted me with smiles and went back to their dolls. The fragrance of the noon meal being prepared wafted out of the kitchen where a smiling cook was busy with preparations. I also met Tara, the dedicated social worker who is employed by Tejus to help the girls cope with their emotional issues. The girls’ artwork was displayed on the walls which added to the feeling of colour and life in that room. During all my conversations with Cristelle, what struck me was her uncompromising stance on the welfare of the girls. There is no cost cutting when it comes to their well being. That does not mean that they were living in luxury, but that their emotional and physical needs were given priority above all else. Other than the cook who is is present the whole day and who also cares for any babies in the house,there’s another carer who stays the night and looks after the comfort and care of the girls. Cristelle spends an enormous amount of time trying to raise funds for meeting the monthly requirements of her girls. Currently there are 9 girls staying at Tejus Home, some of them below the age of 15. I spend a couple of hours at Tejus Home. The girls were in a secure, peaceful place where they were treated as survivors rather than as helpless victims. Rather than smothering them with sympathy, they are encouraged to look forward and build a life. They are helped to handle their emotional issues by a certified counsellor who visits regularly. The girls are also encouraged to continue their studies. Its not easy to manage pregnant teenagers, but with determination and love, Cristelle has created a safe haven for them. As she mentions in her blog,”A child-mother needs coaching on how to manage her own life, let alone two; she needs professional advice to help her heal from her traumatising experiences; she needs education, life skills and help to become a good mother; she needs physical, mental, emotional and financial support. She needs a hug now and again. She needs a little bit of love.”
Tejus Home‘s administrative office is currently functioning from Cristelle’s house. Her future plans include having a proper centre, which would house the office, as well as a section which offers support and counselling for children subject to Sexual Abuse. Along with psychological support, she also wants to provide help with legal aspects like filing a police report and other such formalities. She plans to have a full- fledged social worker who will spearhead a campaign in schools to spread awareness for prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. I came away from Tejus Home with a mind strangely at peace. The loss of childhood of these children was heartbreaking but there was a definite sense of hope that with the support of Tejus Home, they could rebuild their fractured lives and dream of a better tomorrow. Tejus Home’s requirements are many and any assistance is appreciated by them.
For those of you who would like to help, the details are as follows : Financial support can be send to DIL SE, ICICI Bank Ltd. A/c number : 001005009735
For any other kind of support that you would like to do, please contact Cristelle at +91 98-95-031123