Category Archives: Conversations

The call of the lover

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Loose motion, a bad cold, a head ache creeping in… who knew break-ups could get so awful?

A crazy Mumbai week ought to set it straight, I thought. But it was not to be.

And the usual symptoms presented themselves: I connected the lyrics of every mushy song to it, I smiled at nothing and cried for everything… and they said I’d never fall in love.

Here I am, fallen and humbly accepting it. Call me back, I begged, but isn’t the lover always over overshadowed by the spouse called reality?

No.

No amount of reality can silence the call of the Himalayas. The birds’ chirp, the smell of the grass, the winter sun and the pure, blue sky, the pink, yellow and red rhododendrons, the clear waterfalls, the sound of the wind and the warm khichdi… they call me when I am stuck in traffic, when I am dripping with sweat in a crowded local, when I look up at the moon.

My affair with the Himalayas, and in extension, my affair with my small mind, taught me to distance myself from my thoughts and instead look at the bigger picture.

It doesn’t matter so much now who I am or what I want. What matters though, is being grateful for this world’s beauty, the beauty that its creatures – humans included – possess.

The Himalayas’ stunning imperfections, its abundance and purity, its ever-changing nature, it’s moody weather and the silent refuge it offers to a troubled soul, its every face has a lesson lying in wait.

And so, while my lover is far, far away, he taught me to smile more, laugh often, give lots and not be ashamed to cry. He taught me the strength of belief and of prayer. He showed me the excitement that every little moment holds, he taught me to walk slowly, he put a song on my lips.

He made me uncomfortable, he made me question my choices, he held up a mirror so I could see my cold heart…

… but he showed me poetry in the mundane and music in noise.

He gave me friends I fell deeply in love with, and in doing so, he helped me let my guard down.

He opened my eyes, ears and heart to new experiences.

When I now wake up to the everyday, I ask God to give me enough madness to hold onto those intoxicating moments with my generous lover, the moments that will make me smile through yet another crazy Mumbai week.

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Kalpavriksha

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The setting sun streamed in through old glass windows in the little kitchen, falling directly on the puja corner. Down the corridor, yellow curtains filtered the sunlight entering the bedroom, embracing the entire house in golden warmth.
Tea was brewing and its aroma wafted through the tiny apartment. She stood by the stove at the kitchen window, absorbing the aroma and the sunlight. Even as it goes to sleep, the sun creates life around it, thought Kalpa. Birds sang their different calls, people were shutting their windows and drawing their curtains, cars were being parked and the security guard had started turning on the lamps.
Kalpa’s had always been a spectator. She viewed the world like she was watching a show. She always wished she could be more like the sun, springing to life the things around her. But over 25 years, she had become comfortable watching people, amusing herself with their expressions and actions and noting, every minute, the flaws integral to humans. She loved staying inside her mind. It’s as comfortable as floating around in the mother’s womb, she thought.
Today, though, Kalpa felt a contentment she hadn’t in months. At that moment, she felt happy. Any time now, Kali would come home and give her a warm hug.
Kalpa took her tea and set it on the glass teepoy placed in the centre of the hall. She set straight a painting of Mother Mary and Jesus, left on the wall by the previous tenants. She settled on the couch with her tea and looked out at the setting sun.
…………………………………….
A few months ago, when Kalpavriksha moved to Mumbai, the city of dreams seemed more like dystopia. Observing people wasn’t as easy. Even though Kalpa had been a city girl all her life, only in Mumbai did the acute inequality in society hit her.
In the first few weeks, Kalpa broke down every time she travelled on local trains. She was warned of the crowds, the pulling and pushing and shoving and sweat. But no one told her that this would not be a battle just the adults fought.
Every time she laid eyes on little boys and girls fighting the crowd to sell things on the train, their swift eyes shifting from customer to customer, she would feel guilty. She would feel worse when she realised that all she could do was stare.
“It’s a fancy hair clip, buy one, only ten rupees madam.” “How about a toy for your little boy?”
Kalpa wanted to smile at the irony. Little boy? A little boy selling the toys he should be playing with!
On good days, the kids hopped from one compartment to the other, smiles slapped across their tiny faces. On bad days, they hopped off the train, on to the platforms and waved their hands at the other kids, “Nothing today.”
She couldn’t allow the tears to overcome her every day. “They don’t wallow in self-pity, they certainly don’t need yours,” she told herself.
Over time, Kalpa drew comfort when she saw how the women in the compartment shared their biscuits with the kids. They might buy a clip or two and chat with them and this would brighten up their faces.
Kalpa wanted to strike a conversation. She would go and stand next to them at the entrance. She watched how they let the wind play with their loose, faded t-shirts. When they saw her smiling at them, they would smile back. Their hopeful eyes would make Kalpa buy something. But, when she wanted to talk, the words failed her, always.
As the days went by, Kalpa went back to being a spectator, a tough one maybe, but passive nonetheless.
On her way to work one day, when the train reached the station before hers, Kalpa stood up and walked to the door. As the train started pulling out of the station, she saw that one of the boys from the train lay bleeding on the platform.
People walked around him, carefully avoided him, pointed and passed comments, but none stopped to help him. “What is wrong with him,” she thought? “Why isn’t anyone calling for help?” The train was gaining speed. “Why am I not doing anything? “
As the train was about to leave the station, Kalpa jumped out. She heard people on the platform shout at her. “Have you gone mad?” “Have you no value for your life?” But she didn’t see them. She could only see the boy, as she ran towards him.
“Don’t touch him!” The voice shook her out of her trance.
“These idiots pick up fights and kill themselves” a police constable told her.
“But he’s bleeding,” she said as she knelt down and picked up the boy.
“If there’s a case, you’ll run around in circles. Wait till my boss comes,” the cop warned her. She stared at the cop until he turned away.
………………………………
When the boy woke up, he saw Kalpa sleeping in a chair, her hand on his. He stirred a little and Kalpa woke up.
“Did you bring me to the hospital?”
“Yes,” she said. “Who beat you up? Where do you stay? Do you have your parents’ number?”
“Didi, you think I would have been beaten up if I had parents? I’m on my own.”
Kalpa did not respond.
“People call me Kali,” the boy said.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Kalpavriksha.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s the name of a tree that fulfils wishes… Why do you ask so many questions, you must rest.”
The boy leaned back on the pillow.
“Didi, when I was being beaten up, I prayed to God. I asked him to keep me alive. He must have sent you. You fulfilled my wish, just like your name says.”
Kalpa never thought she would live up to her name. As a teenager, she had even fought with her mother for setting her up for such a high goal. “What were you thinking?” she said. Her mother just smiled at her.
Now, this ten year old had set her up for even higher ideals. Something stirred in her. Kalpa stroked his hair and told him she will be right back. She walked out of the room and towards the reception. “I’ll fill that form now,” she said.
A nurse handed her the slip. When Kalpa reached the ‘Relation with patient’ head, her hand shook.
Mother.
She walked back to the room.
“Kali, would you like to come home with me?”
———————————————–

Our very own Christmas Star

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Fourteen years ago, on a Christmas morning, our family lost a treasure. The elders had all seen it coming, they had all prepared for it, they knew that Cancer was cruel, that it’ll strike suddenly and we would have a hundred things left unsaid.

But an eight-year-old wouldn’t know that, for an eight-year-old, there was always hope, there was always sunshine, the belief that even the worst situations had something good in it.

Fourteen years ago, on a cool December morning, the house had fallen silent… and as my brother and I were led into the room where my grandfather lay, the finality of death struck me. There was nothing more to be done. My grandmother, mother and aunt sat by his side, my dad stood by the door, but all I could see was the sunshine fall on my grandfather’s peaceful face.

Looking back, the sight was saintly. It was almost as if the stream of golden sunlight from the window above was shining on my grandfather’s face, to lead his pure soul heavenward.

Had I known the night before, I may not have just wished him goodnight. I may have wanted to tell him so many things. Thank him for reading to me, showing me the wonderful worlds of books…

As the years went by, as I grow older, I keep seeing how much more I had to thank him for.

For, although he passed away on Christmas Day, in life, he was the very spirit of Christmas.

Generous, patient, forgiving, always learning, joyful, simple and living life to the fullest.

In life, he was this quiet saint. My grandfather is so synonymous with Christmas that for every year, these past fourteen years, December 25 has always first been Christmas, and then the day that we lost our family’s most precious member.

And for that, I am grateful to god, for taking him away on a day that is known for the very values my grandfather lived by, reminding us to try and imbibe them in our lives.

My grandfather is our Christmas Star, our guiding light, looking out for us. I hope you’re having a ball of a time up there, Baba!

I am a Tamilian, and I loved Chennai Express

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First, it was Deepika Padukone’s ridiculous south Indian accent that put me off. Really, it was bokwaas!

Then, it was the stereotypical dark thugs in the film that irked me.

When the trailers showed Kathakali dancers and kalaripayatu, I yelled that Chennai is not Kerala… High time we got that right!

Let’s not even get started about Yo yo Honey Singh’s tribute to Thalaiva.

Above all of it, I was heartbroken that SRK would do a film such as this.

But, it was a Shahrukh film, there was no way I wasn’t going to see this one. So I held back my apprehensions, left my brain at home and decided to go watch a film for what it’s meant to be – pure entertainment.

I loved it.

I must admit, I was one of those people who vowed never to watch this film because it degraded my roots and insulted the intellect of my people and a whole lot of other regional chauvinism that I feel so awful for being a part of. This film taught me that.

Show me one Hindi film where Punjabis are not portrayed as a loud and continually ecstatic lot? If we were talking about taking offence, the Punjabis must stand up first. But they’ve taken it in their stride, haven’t they?

Let’s talk about the film itself. So the script was loose, predictable, apparently not funny, fantastical, unreal, unbelievably stupid and a host of other adjectives that all the reviews were full of. But what I saw was simply Rohit Shetty paying tribute to the blockbuster commercial tamil film of recent times.

For Tamilians reading this post, Rajni bouncing a chewing gum off another man’s head or flipping a cigarette into his mouth are soooper.

Don’t get me wrong. Like for every tamilian, with sound upbringing, Rajni is God for me. If Rajni did it, then only Rajni can do it, because, well, he is God.

But what we fail to see is that every popular commercial tamil film is just this – average man, accidental encounter with beautiful woman, whose father is almost always the villain. This is followed by a battle of sorts to win the girl’s heart, her village’s heart, her family’s heart and finally her father’s heart.

In the process, our hero finds his own heart, learns to become a better person, finds his life’s true calling yada yada.

Wait, isn’t that the script of Chennai Express?

The few movies that Tamil stars have made, that have slight meaning, were box office bombers. Take Rajni’s Baba for example. The story was gripping. Its moral was divine, literally. Here’s a film that showed how excess is always bad. That power must be used for the right things. It was film that spoke about those values that are rapidly fading in Indian society. But no one liked it. We just want to go for a film that shows exciting fight scenes, splendid locales, colour, comedy, a gorgeous heroine who has no role whatsoever, except for the voyeuristic use of her body and the hero showing the audience why he is the hero.

So, Rohit Shetty did not insult our intellect, we have been doing so for over two decades now. At least in his film, Shetty ensured Deepika stole the show – which she did quite brilliantly – and wasn’t just eye-candy.

 

And Shahrukh Khan, as he has always done in the past, charmed his way right back into my heart. So what if the film was a DDLJ spoof? Albert Einstein had famously said how the mark of a genius is his ability to laugh at himself. Shahrukh did precisely that, with such elan.

“Rahul…naam to nahi suna hoga” SRK was trolling himself. But we instead, criticise.

Yes, film experts talk about how the standard of cinema is falling and so are the expectations of the audience.

But, when life is already so serious, one movie now and then, that is in fact brainless, is something we all are in desperate need of!

 

Did the city stop speaking to me?

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Or had I stopped listening? Two months. New city. No writing!

It’s that stage in life, when you’re actually living a dream. You’ve got a job, you live by yourself, you’ve done up your home…

You’re also paying bills, cleaning up, cooking, running behind the handyman to stop the rain from flooding the house, learning, finally, that income is not elastic, hoping that it was…

It’s a super package. But you’re still blank. And any attempt that you make to write, is in this pathetic second person voice.

—–

At first, I blamed the films and books that have rambled on and on about the feeling of being ‘new girl in the city’, about Mumbai being city of dreams, about how every day here is a struggle… They are all true. But when they have all been given so much expression, by so many people and mediums, there seems nothing left to think about.

It is convenient to fall into the cliché, and I told myself, yes, I feel the same way so I must be doing things right.

—-

But this mind is not going to stay passive for long. Especially, when you’re pretty much your only company. It drives you crazy that you have no way to write it down… and you wonder… wasn’t writing something I just did? It comes naturally. It was taken for granted.

—-

Who would think not being able to write would affect me so much? What was stopping me? After spending three days on the couch, staring out of the window at the pigeons that poop all over my balcony (that’s all they ever do, oh! The cleaning is a pain!), I realised how densensitised I had become.

—-

All through media school, you are exposed to issues and problems. You begin to see how badly screwed up your country really is. You sift through the obvious and reach areas that are barely spoken about… And that makes you think. As horrible as it sounds, you are inspired by the deprivation. You want to do something about it. Research, write, shake up the roots… that keeps you going.

But, what happens when you start working and you actually have the opportunity to do it all? Why do you stop?

What happens is, these are all stories that land on your screen every day. They need to be edited, processed and published. That’s your job. So if I were to cringe every time someone went without food, when someone died, when someone’s home is taken away, what good can I be?

The easy thing to do then, is to ignore it. I just look at the grammar, the language, the punctuation, the style. And my job’s done. Bring on the next one.

That’s the easy thing to do. That’s not the right thing to do.

Worse still is doing all this, in this great city of struggles.

Every day, I see at least one person who not only makes me feel grateful for the life I lead, but also makes me feel ashamed.

The little girl selling accessories on the train.

The boys, not more than my brother’s age, with that distant look in their eyes, begging me to buy something from them.

The mother walking barefoot with her daughter in a crisp school uniform and polished shoes.

The mentally-ill woman who doesn’t bother to even clothe herself.

And me. In my pretty world. With my pretty problems like pigeon poop!

When I can’t face it, I just turn away and get off at the next station. It’s easy. It isn’t right.

—-

But, something made me write today… although this post is full of voice changes and (…), and in most places, absolute discontinuity, it reminds me that, perhaps somewhere, I haven’t been fully densensitised.

That though my creativity is as good as dead at the moment, I will write again.

Not because the suffering of others inspires me. But because my own problems are too insignificant to come in the way of what I love doing the most – writing!

 

 

The agony of having a mind of your own

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It’s not just today, or one incident, or one person or situation. It’s been phenomenon for a while now – long enough to characterize your short experience with life. It is the phenomenon of having a mind that wills its own way.

It starts in middle school, when you’re feet are shaky with the surge of hormones. The mind doesn’t know right from wrong then. All it knows is acceptance and the lack of it.

So you begin to try and adopt things, like things that are not you – from homely music played by your dad on a Sunday morning, you shift to metal. You don’t really like it, in fact you don’t understand it. But, when you lend your iPod to someone, at least you don’t need to feel ashamed.

Then come the boys… the toys, the talk, the walk, the gossip and chatter, the curlers and straighteners, the heels and flaps… you’d much rather wear your comfortable floaters, but how could you? They are oh-so-ugly!

So from tshirts, you move to tops, tops with sleeves, without them, low necklines and back lines and all the other accessories with names that need a dictionary to understand.

But, somehow, you steer clear of them all, because that little mind in that little hormone-d head has a voice stronger than your own. You listen to it. And in retrospect, you’re glad you did. But right there, in that present, that little mind just lost you your friends.

So carry on, you reach college. By this time your mind is quite dominant. It is that secret life you wish you always had. It’s different from the crowd. It doesn’t recognize shades of grey, it knows only black and white.

You rebel against your mind, you blame your parents for giving you a sound upbringing – the ability to think on your own, for yourself… they tell you to pause before you act, think before you talk, look before you leap… and suddenly all these precautions seem such a pain. You think that your friends think that you are a bore. You want to break-free and be like the rest.

And then, you are exposed – exposed to great ideas and thinkers, books and writers, you see that true liberty comes when you listen to the mind’s voice and act accordingly. You read, to read and perchance to dream, like Andre Brink would say. You escape into a world where what you think about your actions is all that matters. What matters is whether your mind voice allows you to sleep at night. You think. Your mind and you start becoming one.

So you thank the books for making you see why you should thank your parents for that sound upbringing. And once again, you steer clear of the mass, you decide to not care what people think. And at this age, at 17, 18 or 19… when your hormones are finally settling, you find it so liberating.

And then you turn 20 and then 21. Legally an adult. A job in matter of time. No more college, no more care… it’s you against the world. You prepare. And you let your mind voice be the better of you.

But, you were born in a generation where people leap and then look, talk and then don’t think, act and don’t care. And you wonder why you’re such a misfit. You wish you could fit in, be ‘normal’ according to others. Oh no! it’s middle school all over again. Damn you mind!

So until this point, this mind voice that made you one person within and an entirely different one outside asserts itself. It tells you it’s time you reveal your secret life. It asks to take a chance, to not a give a damn. It wants to know how that might feel.

So you do it. You stop living in the grey areas. You walk towards what you think is white and right. And you no more do this subtly. You do this openly, with your head held high. You’re glad to be walking away from hypocrisy and lies and actions meant to merely please.

And you pay for it. It hurts. It bruises deeply and you bleed. But wounds remind you of how good it felt to not give a damn.

It gives you wings and makes you fly – a flight so beautiful, you’d never want to stop.

 

A history in ruins

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Indian history is a museum of stories, of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of bravery, revolution and defiance. It is a ‘cultural experience’, like author and historian John Keay writes. In our country, it is also an incomplete memory that may soon fade into obscurity.

The history of nations relies heavily on the memory and chronicles of contemporaries at every stage. Our history is dotted with great scholars and writers. We have the best treatises on statecraft and society.

However, when the British looked to justify their ruling over us three centuries ago, they said we were a people with no sense of our past, no political ambitions and savages who needed civilising.

In fact, the first chapter of our history was written by an English judge called William Jones.

Jones arrived in Calcutta in 1783. Two years hence, Jones began to learn Sanskrit. Already a scholar of Greek and Latin, learning Sanskrit showed Jones the similarity between the three languages. He presented his theory at a meeting of the Asiatic Society, which he formed.

He said, “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them, a stronger affinity… than can possibly have been produced by accident.”

This discovery of Jones established that the finesse of Sanskrit meant that the Indian civilization was older than any in Europe. William Jones probed our history through Sanskrit literature from our classical age, and got mired in a web of dates.

The only certain date of ancient Indian history was 326 BC, the year Alexander the Great invaded the Punjab. Sanskrit literature however had no chronicling of this event.

In his book India Discovered, John Keay describes how Jones discovered the starting point of a 2000-year old history.

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Alexander’s successor, Selecus Nicator sent an ambassador Megasthenes to India. Megasthenes’ record of the age named an Indian court at a place called Palibothra, situated at the confluence of the Ganges and the Erranaboas. The record also describes in detail about the court and its ruler ‘Sandracottus’.

“But where Palibothra was, which river the Erranaboas was supposed to be, and who Sandracottus was, all remained a mystery,” writes Keay.

Jones settled on Patna, the ancient name for which was Pataliputra, closest to the Greek Palibothra. But, the Ganges does not merge with any river at this city. Keay says Jones thought the river must be Son, which once joined the Ganga near Patna before changing course. Son was also called the Hiranyabahu or golden-armed.

Keay writes, “Erranaboas could be Greek for Hiranyabahu; in which case Erranaboas was the Son after all. Palibothra must indeed mean Pataliputra. That left Sandracottus, the Indian ruler whom Megasthenes had so much admired.”

Jones found an alternate spelling for Sandracottus was Sandraguptos. This proved that Jones had indeed unearthed the story of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya.

This discovery was immensely important in the writing of our entire history – backward from this point to the birth of the Buddha and forward, using lists of kings in Sanskrit literature.

Jones not only gave us a sense of our past, but also an identity, an evidence of our civilisation. It went on to show the British that their subjects did have political ambitions far greater the Alexander’s, a culture far richer than Europe’s and a language far more refined than classical Greek.

But, while we love talking about our rich past, we fail to take constructive steps to discover more or perhaps just preserve it.

History is unpopular in Indian society. There are very few investments in historical research and experts on the subject could be termed an endangered species.

Anirudh Deshpande writes in the Economic and Political Weekly, “The past is important to Indians, but history is not… A large part of the problem lies in the fact that the market and the sciences in general have marginalised the humanities in Indian society.”

This spells a dangerous trend, as history is also political. Our fading memory of the past is often our greatest weakness in the face of political manipulations of India’s story – history becomes a partial comment, constructed to suit a political agenda, uplift a favoured segment of people, a point of conflict and an excuse for censure.

An amnesia of our past was solved to a certain extent by the writings of some British officers and later, many Indian historians. But our neglect of the subject is leaving it in ruins, and may just push us into amnesia, once again.