28

You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you.

Haruki Murakami

Twenty eight is not tough. After years of weariness with same boring flaws and anxieties that gnawed me for as long as I can remember, I made peace. This is it. This is the best that could be. The moment I stopped wrestling with the universe, I was rewarded. I felt welcome in a new city with a familiar smile, I found a room on the roof by chance, it never started raining before I reached home, the landlady’s dog became my friend, I found a kind auto driver who asked me how I was managing in a new city, the not so long journey on a hot summer afternoon carrying my life’s possessions was made easy with shared anecdotes, a chance ride on the same train from a nondescript town for few more hours of conversation-all are gifts. For years, I meticulously planned and then spent time moping tears when they went awry-the job that didn’t materialize, the fellowship that never fell through, the grand plans of moving seven seas and thirteen rivers away to escape, the trip that I never took even though I could, the experiments that never showed results in a laboratory two hour train ride away from home, a relationship that took a heavy toll on an unworldly twenty one year old, a reluctantly chosen career path just to run away from the mountains that seemed to close in on me, trying to make sense of statics and dynamics, vectors and scalars, spatial arrangements of molecules when I should’ve been reading aloud poetry by Dushyant Kumar and Dinkar!

It has not been easy, to let go, to not have the faintest inkling of what’s next. When I wasn’t looking, I found a new escape where the language is comfortingly familiar, where women sell malli puvu and kanakamram at street corners and freshly washed streets are adorned with kollam which I am careful not to step on in the morning. The avenue leading up to my room on the roof is lined with Gulmohar and Jacarandas. Pudina, tulsi and curry leaves on the terrace listen to my off key renditions of ‘Yellow’. When I wasn’t looking, I found a distraction over date and cheeku smoothie and little too much old fashioned- ephemeral encounters that I am grateful for, not mistaking to read too much in to them. When I wasn’t looking, I stumbled into Julia’s kitchen with six burner stoves and skillet to cook filet mignon. When I wasn’t looking, I fell for the familiar mannerisms and was surprisingly relieved when the affections were not returned. When I wasn’t looking, I found succor in that Neverland hidden in the mountains, strewn with pine cones. When I wasn’t looking, I found solace in clichéd Tagore, ‘Majhe majhe tobo dekha pai, chiro din keno paai na’. When I wasn’t looking I grew up from the gawky child-woman to someone who gets things done- the gas connection, the electricity bill, the rent on time,  the countless airline, train and bus tickets, the trip itineraries that couldn’t be better, the timely phone calls, the perfect coffee cake and malai methi paneer. When I wasn’t looking, the frail shoulders became stronger than I ever imagined, not afraid to have the last word, always the chin up.

Twenty eight is solid. I am past the 27 Club; there is nothing to fear anymore. I pulled out the lone grey hair defiantly standing out, baked my own birthday cake, slept alone on a fluffy bed surrounded by way too many pillows, played Kanye West on full blast when the silence got little too deafening, ate meals and drank coffee not hiding under a book or smart phone, smiled at strangers, winked at all the kids, unashamedly eyed the men who read Gore Vidal and Percy Jackson at airports and metro stations, nursed a stiff drink on a very cold Delhi winter night without drowning in sorrows-real and imagined.

Twenty eight is like deep exhalation after holding my breath for years, holding on to blame games I played endlessly in my mind. Now I know that every little thing counts- the kindnesses, the words that should’ve been said when there was time, the untimely cruel and unnecessary laugh, every denial and evasion. Knowing that no one will have my back, I tread softly, forgive easily, and judge a little less as I would never walk a mile in their shoes.

Eighteen till I die never made sense, but twenty eight could be permanent. As they say in my favourite village, twenty eight is peace.

No names, please.

Let us give it no name please as I am not sure. Meanwhile, for sake of ease let’s call it love. When I was nine, love wore the whitest PT whites. Now he plays ultimate sport and has legs like Rafael Nadal. Yes, I sometimes snoop on people on Facebook when I am bored! Love wore ‘Live In’ trousers to school and my eyes searched only for him during Morning Prayers. I worried about my uncombed hair whenever I crossed his department building because Love looked like Jesus Christ, played in the Church choir and did not know that I exist. Love exchanged terms of endearment in jest. Love wanted to know all about me, forgetting that we are like onions; there is always another layer to peel. To the love I couldn’t return, I had a halo around. Love had beautiful long fingers and that’s all I noticed. I couldn’t bear that I was love’s safety school. Love typed lik dis, I cringed but still loved. Love looked at me every time he laughed to whether I laughed too. Love found me in my one midnight rant, in one emphatic nod, in some long forgotten anecdote. Love flattered and I swooned but in the end words can do only so much.

Once upon a time love was all consuming, sapping away lifeblood.  Love gave me a box full of darkness, I didn’t realize back then that it was a gift too. How impossible were things that he asked of me. Love was joy and then was not.

Besotted, it intrigued me that love found me interesting. Love looked at me with prying, insistent, probing eyes. Love wondered if I deserved more than he could give. I in turn claimed the honesty he couldn’t provide. Love never showed too much and then didn’t show at all. The three words made him recoil. I held things inside for so long that when said, it sounded rusted and insincere. Love was fleeting when all I looked for was permanence.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to fall in love but I couldn’t stop falling in hope. I fell in love with the silliest aspects of your being. You would have dismissed me as a weirdo if you knew how much I noticed. Love allowed me to look beyond your current unsure self, to see the potential which even you were scared to say exist.  I looked for every glint of goodness that was possible- sloshing, twisting, and turning back and forth in my mind until everything that was black, white or grey fell away leaving behind only stardust. For you, I would have forsaken all- slept on a board and washed dishes. If only. I prided myself on my intuition but when it came to you, I was unable to distinguish politeness from affection.

I fall in and out of love more easily than I care to admit. Some loves last an instant, some only for a season but that doesn’t mean I loved less.  I have forgotten names and faces of some and for some loves, the half-life is forever.

I continue to love, the hardest choice possible where I do not understand it in its entirety. Love made me kinder, calmer, and gentler. Love made me come out of the shell for once. Love made me vulnerable, breaking down fortress of ‘I don’t give a damn’.

I am scared to use the word ‘Love’ but I know that Love is important as it breaks down the delusion that I am enough. Love is important because as I grow older, I count on so few people to go all the way with me. Love is important because I too need a witness.

Love will wait outside parlour in the car while I get my eyebrows done as I would never learn to drive. Love will be called by the passel of kids at night when they would need to go to bathroom because I would continue sleeping. I would book and plan all our trips as I am too much of a control freak when it comes to that. Wearing your mother’s silks with jasmine in my hair, I would stand behind while you soak the limelight. Love will understand that I am neurotic and cranky most of the times. Love will know that I might not have my career together anytime soon and sometimes I talk way too loudly. Love won’t make fun of me for crying while watching movies.  With you, for once I will feel rooted, have a home. Love will have my back. Always.

Love goes way beyond, so much so that that physical presence ceases to be of importance. I am not even sure if having you would make me happy but in that one moment between yes and no, I imagined infinite.

I marvel how easily I fall into the stereotype. I plant my garden; decorate my home instead of waiting for you to bring daisies. Love you should know, after all these years of being afraid, I am ready. I am scared to promise more. All I can say is that I do not need to know all the exits anymore.

I drink. I burn. I wait. And sometimes, I tell a story.

Hiareth

I am homesick for a home to which I can’t return, a home that maybe never was. Home was a sprawling kitchen garden where I measured myself against the jackfruit tree and picked sheuli flowers for Ma’s puja. Home was lanes of Belvedre Estate where I cycled amongst trees which witnessed Warren Hastings duel for love. Home was sound of Dulhani gushing past in mad rainy months. Home was Shivalik overlooking the terrace that enclosed me in its arm in a warm hug that is reserved for weary travelers after a long journey. Home was cool floor of my hostel room, sprawled where I finished reading Atlas Shrugged and liked it. In my defence, I was a foolish teenager then. Home was a huge verandah in Avadi hidden by thick mango and cheeku trees which couldn’t be penetrated by harsh Chennai sun. Home was the sight of Insti building from afar- every single time! Home was a little room in a corner in Rani Lakshmi Bai Hall where I drank Darjeeling and marveled at how beautiful Gnan Ghosh looked lighted up at night. Home was that narrow bed where I listened to ‘Wish you were here’ on a loop while the lull of ancient trams put me to sleep. Home was a room without windows where I made peace and stopped trying to wrestle with the universe. Home now is a room full of sky brightened by diwali lights. Here, I watch fireworks in the night sky from my bed. Prayer flags and paper lanterns whisper to the wind every time the noisy whirring ceiling fan gives them a little nudge.

I gather knick knacks- pine cones from Binsar and Fagu, a paper weight from Delwara, a lamp from Nathdwara, Christmas decorations from Bombay to adorn my room. I spend hours on deciding the right bookcase with my books gathering dust at the corner. Unable to recreate Ma’s tastes, I build my own repotaire – Potato Leek Soup, Spinach soup with lentils, Carrot Soup with chicken stalk and ginger. I wonder if I will ever cook pui datar chorchori, chalkumror chechki, mochar ghonto or macher matha diye moonger dal. I make do with alu’r bora and arhar er dal which on days when I am lucky taste faintly like Ma and Baba’s. Most of the time I am just trying to get by in the adult world and then there are in betweens- where my palak panner looks and tastes better than Ma’s.

I was foolish not to understand that home is just an idea which I will continue building painstakingly piece by piece all my life like a work of art in progress. Home is where I won’t have to pretend that work will set me free and wear my pile of failures like a badge of honour without a hint of pretension that I have things under control. Even an errant cat can come and unsettle the delicate balance on which everything hangs. Home is where I am shielded from that bottomless feeling of emptiness a house packed in packing boxes ready for shipping in truck brings. It led to a lifetime of anxiety- what if the truck gets lost in the jungles of Satpura?  What if I never see my bags after I’ve checked in at the Airport? I am extra cautious now, say a small prayer, tie a ribbon. I stare intently at the baggage carousel and imagine the worst. Uprooted so many times, I have carved my name in every place that mattered.  Home is where I plan to nurse hot toddy in winter, re reading my favorite Mantos. Home is where I make my own rituals- alpana on diwali, Lokkhi and Kali can visit together. Home is where I look up at the ceiling, ignore the fan blades that need cleaning, breathe in deeply and remind myself not to worry because all is exactly as it was meant to be- terrifying, unfair and heaving. Home is a promise of deliverance and I wait.

I do not have lofty ideas anymore. Half a decade ago, home was an old British bungalow in the hills with its four poster beds where a kind gentleman would leave his books by Jim Corbett for me. Now home could be that small hut on the edge of the road on the hill overlooking the cabbage and pumpkin patches. I have the mountains in my blood and now there is no escape.  I could build canals to water the banana plants and in the evenings sit near the stream and hum to myself. Home would be where neighbourhood kids would wave me in recognition and smile their toothless grins as I would be their storyteller, reliving the magical world created by Ray family, Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carrol. Home would be smell of freshly baked bread. Home would be where I would build a bonfire and have ‘how-far-my-orange-pip-land-contests’ in winters. Home would be a wall to wall bookshelf stacked with overflowing books like the iron lady’s house.

Home is where I would find what I seek for it’s here that things we lose find a way of coming back to us in the end.

Decennium

 

Ten years ago I fervently hoped that the shop owner of Natraj bookstore on Rajpur Road would let me work as a shop assistant there. I would never know for I never asked him. Charmed by his salt and pepper hair, I only wished Ma would leave me there while she bought sweets at Ganesh’s.  Those were the days when Irodov exasperated me and I sought solace in Harry Potter. The snow covered peaks of Mussorie visible from our terrace stirred no emotion other than a strong urge to flee. I have been running away ever since and now it’s already a decade.

Running away is not an option anymore. I have finally realized that it’s a bloody marathon and the second wind might be just around the corner. It’s not a hundred meter dash but a cross country across mountains, valleys and deserts. I waited patiently for being ready, biding my time, stretching and flexing at the sidelines but I would never be ready. It is always going to be like my first dive in the Medak swimming pool, gasping for air. I tried finding escapes all this while, searching for softer landings and cheat codes but striving to find meaning in this jamboree is a lost cause.  Now I concentrate on getting the halo dirty.

A sense of calmness has engulfed me and I refuse to be rushed into anything.  With the courage to listen to the voice that refuses to quieten, I am pleasantly surprised that I always had the answers. I am more comfortable with who I am and I hope that it shows. I am able to confront my demons head on and quite content to leave them out to dry for everyone to see. I realized that reaching a state of grace no matter what the circumstances is an end in itself and that’s all I strive for now.

It is already September and I am tired of being brave. Constantly blaming myself for not having enough courage, at last I realized that courage is just another muscle which needs to be exercised. Now that I know the secret, I take a deep breath and a leap every time. The beauty lies in that fact that I will always need a little more courage.

It’s a decade since I am an adult but feel like one only now.  There is no one coming along to fix things. There is no promise at the end of the road and when works needs to be done, you better not put your trust in a prince charming, always route for the witch. As I strain to look for signs, I tell myself this is enough. My quintessential future self is never going to show up. I will always remain the gawky out of place kid from seventh grade in the Calcutta school shoved into glare of life when it was too late to realize that already the second act was going on.

Memory slowly eliminates the bad from the decade and magnifies the good. It’s soothing to know that I am not as unique as I pretended. I try to turn my little inconsequential personal tragedies to art in vain while so many have made it into poetry and so much better. This is nodul tollens, but when was it supposed to make sense anyway?

At an apple orchard in Harsil, I told myself that I was too young to imagine death. A decade later, at an apple orchard in a nondescript village near Fagu, I smiled thinking if this isn’t nice then what is? Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, there is one thing for certain. I won’t spend the next decade making amends.

Letter to my daughter

Inspired by Maya Angelou, Ben Okri and Sarah Kay

I wouldn’t name you after the river that bound Ma Baba together even before they met. Bunu says girls named after rivers have a lot to cry about. You girl would have a glorious laugh,unabashed in nonchalance.

I will build you a home which you would be able to carry around wherever you go, lingering just below your skin. You’ll never be a wanderer like me. We are all refugees from our childhood trying to recreate in bits and pieces all through our lives. You wouldn’t have to search hard to reclaim parts as I would save your Lego empires, mud creations, water colour experiments and wax crayon works with the precision of curators of the best museums. Your paintings wouldn’t just ceremoniously adorn the refrigerator, I’ll frame them all.

I will leave you at art galleries to let the colours seep deep in your marrow and take you to music recitals till they become part of your sinew.I wouldn’t buy you a Barbie doll; you’ll have a ‘buchi putul’ whose hair you would be able to braid in pleats like Rapunzel’s. I wouldn’t read you fairy tales where princesses wait for a prince charming, instead,I would read you stories of man eaters of Kumaon, Pagla Dashu and Bilbo Baggins and tell you that you could be all of them and more. You could be Bob in Bob the Builder and Tintin in Tintin’s adventures. Who would stop you from becoming Sherlock Holmes?Why become Olive Oyl when you could be Popeye himself? And yes, you could be Cinderella too.

I’ll paint the solar system on the back of your hand so that you can’t say, “Oh I know that like the back of my hand”. The universe doesn’t owe it to you, so don’t try to wrestle with the universe. But then don’t forget that you are made of stardust.

When some unsuspecting boy falls for your toothy grin, don’t shy away from giving him your all or maybe he wouldn’t notice your toothy grin at all when you wished he did. If that’s the case, remember that there is always ice-cream. There is no heartbreak a big tub of ice cream can’t mend. Then we would sing along loud and dance to Tammi Terrel’s ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’ and things wouldn’t seem so bad anymore.Sweetheart, never give up on love.There are all kinds of love in the universe but never the same love twice. I am not saying that, Fitzgerald said so. Yes, you would have to read Fitzgerald too.

Don’t have your nose up in the air. After all these years, I realized that trick doesn’t work. You don’t need to be so defensive.Be permeable, not malleable and ductile. When your eyes twinkle at the sight of squirrels skittering about or when you get scared that the pigeons might attack you, say thank you for finding pleasures in small things. You better do because I won’t buy you baubles anyway.  More than beauty, more than intelligence,you will have courage. You will be brave, little one. Our resident cockroach annihilator and when the need arises, you will move with grace, sometimes like water, sometimes like fire but always like the earth.

You’ll wear flowers in your hair. I’ll weave malli puvu in your braid and crown you with Greek laurel wreaths.All I wish for you is that you always stay innocent and shy as magnolias and look bright and cheerful and be full of naïve hope and optimism like  sunflower because when day to day living wears me out, your gurgling laughter would balm me.

When the ways of the world grind you down, remember to be kind to yourself. Give yourself second chances as broken things can be mended with gold and then they look more beautiful because thosescars.

When I finally dare to have you, I wouldn’t name you after the river that means so much to Ma and Baba. I’ll name you Sukoon, for you will bring peace.

27 Club

Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse. The 27 Club. They all achieved immortality by dying by 27. At 27 they had it all- fame, adulation, family, children, money. Yet it was not enough.  I am almost there. I used to think I would’ve, pardon my language, got my shit together by this time but that’s far from it. When they talk of twenty somethings, they are not talking about me. I do not even figure in the youth bracket anymore, that’s for people only in the 15-25 age group.

Unfortunately, 30 is not the new 20. My bones creak and make funny noises. A few stretches tire me. Slowly my brain is turning to mush. I smile more at people as I can’t remember their names. I worry about things like Health Insurance and whom to appoint as my nominee.I’ve become wary of meeting new people, finding solace in the familiarity of known faces.  I find reading about passive investing more interesting than Jennifer Lawrence’s bloopers.I can’t say what the chartbusters are anymore. For the first time in years, I haven’t seen most of theOscar winning movies to form my own winners list. I tell myself that ghee is bad, olive oil would taste as good; resolutely buy brown bread, have milk after consistently avoiding it for all these years fearing osteoporosis and seriously weigh the idea if I should move from sugar to honey altogether. Gmail plays dirty tricks. I get mails to ‘arrange my love marriage’ and buy property in Chennai and Bangalore.

At almost 27, I’ve become a project for friends. As for me, I don’t think ahead much. I am happy when I figure out what to cook for tomorrow’s lunch and a good breakfast idea is a bonus. I have found good topic changes too, at the prospect of an unpleasant conversation, I gently steer towards how to cook Moong dal er kichuri and balance is restored in the universe again.

Drunk and heady with the idea that only love could heal, I think that being naïve and not cynical in midst of all this is courage. 27 is too old to be afraid like 24 was a few years ago. I ask myself what I would do if I wasn’t afraid. What would my twenty seconds of insane courage lead to? All these years I abstained and now I’ll devour without guilt. That will be some art.

There are so many things to do. I want to write, but produce only dirt. So many places to go, my Google drafts overflow with trip ideas that never materialized. I still make up things in my head, daydreaming being a favourite pastime. Ma would say, ‘Kothao amar hariye jawar nei mana’. She doesn’t know I took it seriously.

At times I think that I refuse to grow up, a child-woman trying to make sense of it all with snobbery and fake poise as defences. I am not sure if my gaucherie is still funny but I have clots in weird places stumbling against furniture. Yes, I still cross fingers while crossing busy roads and when planes take off. The accumulation of years shows now, so much so that I am ecstatic if someone mistakes me for a college kid. My weirdness has no bounds; I smiled coyly when the plug in meant to help me concentrate on work called me beautiful. Just to clarify, it became boring after fifteen minutes.

People have ‘life events’ on Facebook. Things gain validity with public broadcast.  Why wouldn’t my eating Akuri and Mawa Cake at the hundred year old Parsi establishment after walk early morning at Marine drive as the toothless kids zoomed past on their roller skates, realization that Mumbai skyline looks like New York’s at night or relishing Darjeeling on a Saturday evening as the sun sets in the background be considered as ‘life event’? At almost 27, I have realized that the trick lies in never to simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. Also, Wittgeinstein said the most important things can’t be said.

Maybe there is no one waiting there. Dumbledore ingrained in me that it is our choices more than our abilities that show what we truly are. What if there was no reason for anything? So much for my choices, what if things were just purely random? What if after all there was no higher power taking care of things? I might die today and find out at the end of the tunnel that God is just a big chicken! Maybe nothing will happen after all. With Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor playing in background, on a slow afternoon, I would take a deep breath and say, so this is it? I wonder what the rush was for all this while.

There is certain ecstasy in uncertainty. It is an uncomfortable position but wouldn’t certainty be absurd?

 

Another letter to the Sweetheart

Sweetheart it’s that time of the year again. Last year, tired after yet another mindless day at work, cold to the bones, I walked into the corner shop selling momos. Chicken soup for my weary soul. Completely oblivious of the date, I was wearing a bright red sweater. The server asked, “Table for two”?  I said no. The couple in the corner kept staring at me. I know those looks now.  I did not have a smart phone to pretend I was busy, so I stared back at them. Year before last, when the hall PA system announced hourly arrival of cakes, parcels and bouquets, my room number was announced too. No love poems of Neruda by mail; D’Souza’s pleadings couldn’t find a better time to arrive. Damn you Flipkart! You couldn’t have timed it better. I should have known how to lie. More than St. Valentine’s, I need blessings of St. Jude.

It is funny that three years since my last letter, I still have to write to you here. I would’ve preferred handmade parchment with the crooked V insignia. I am good at penmanship. They say I am old fashioned. But honestly, wouldn’t you prefer the anticipation of a letter’s arrival than instant gratification of Whatsapp emoticons?

They say to look for you at the Bazaar. Sweetheart, I’ve been cooking lately. The sight of fresh, green vegetables warms me up. But is looking for you same as picking Aloo- pyaaj? I am not good at that too, the vegetable seller short charges me every day as I fumble with the bags. How can I have you if you came on a platter? How can I find you through ticking checkboxes? I am not convinced.I am scared you would be filtered out. Learning python, writing code to hack that online monstrosity seems easier. They say it’s time for me to settle.  I was kuri te buri six and a half years ago. I am not the kind of a person who settles. We accept the love we deserve and how could I have picked you if I had to chose you from half a dozen?

It would be nice to have you around. I can take care of myself.But for the love of God, I can’t open tight jars or fix a tube light or lift the suitcase to the top cupboard!I can deal with my existential crises; it’s only the jars, jammed doors and heavy furniture that give me trouble. They say I am too comfortable in my status quo, I know you are there somewhere outside my comfort zone. While He works overtime in background, you laugh at my naiveté that I believe that Bashert exists but if everything could be explained by reason, all possibilities would be destroyed.

I try out your last name on my tongue. Imagine what kind of father you might be. Happiness is a choice, and it is so easy to be happy. The Hebrew mystic, Hillel the elder said,“If I am not there for myself, who will be for me”?I understand what that the author meant when she said, “I exist too much”.  It’s only recently that I realized that the weight of the world is not on my shoulders and now I breathe easy. Aware  that this is enough, I have a skip in my beat as I walk to office in the morning.I told myself all this while that this wasn’t meant to be so difficult. I laugh now as I know it is not difficult after all.

You would have understood by now that I am not in a hurry. If you rushed, I would have totally missed you with my head high above the clouds.The uncertainty is not unbearable yet, there is certain charm in not knowing.

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindness there is at least one which makes the heart run over. So does love.

To everything there is a season.

Meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to burn because I chose my own way to burn.

Delhiwaali

When my attempts at escaping to a faraway land across seven seas and thirteen rivers failed miserably, I thought I would be devastated. Instead, I forgot all about it without much fuss. Maybe Yosemite can wait after all, but the interlude at Calcutta was long over.

I am an escapist of the first order. I always need to know the exit routes. At eighteen, I could pack my bag in ten minutes’ notice and flee. At the grand old age of twenty five, I did just the same.

Delhi is different. Vagabond all through, extremely irritated when asked where I am from, finally I have begun to think of a place as home.  I have already started growing roots here. For a start, I can’t flee in ten minutes anymore.

The sizzling caraway seeds that cackle with delight make me think of a future where my home would smell of freshly baked bread. My conversations are now about how ‘Futura’ is better than ‘Prestige’ even as I thank Ma for the thoughtful borosil glasses and beautiful china mugs. She thinks my talks of baking carrot cake in pressure cooker are way too much!

I realized that I am home as I do not think of sending books back anymore. I longingly check out bookshelves and make plans of getting all my books shipped here now that the question of ownership of Harry Potters has been resolved.

Everyone in Delhi has come from somewhere else. Delhi belongs to no one. Delhi belongs to the Tamil speaking underbelly of Lajpat Nagar, it belongs to the beautiful Iranian grandmothers in chadors dropping their grandchildren to school in Jangpura, it belongs to the rickshaw pullers from Malda who lay huddled together at night in Nizamuddin dreaming about paddy fields in North Bengal, it belongs to the bashful transvestite Mangla I met outside Shastri Bhavan ,it belongs to the Afghan bread makers with gaunt eyes, it belongs to the old Sikh ladies with kripans dozing in public parks, it belongs to the old lady who meets my eye every day, too feeble to walk now; God knows what those eyes have seen, she has lived through partition, only can’t maneuver stairs now; it belongs to people who write ridiculous things on back of their cars like-‘Parental Discretion-Explicit personality on a car’, it belongs to the Sabji wala whose bright eyed daughter does additions faster than me, it belongs to the rosy cheeked Uzbeks talking furtively below signboards advertising ‘FRRO’, it belongs to the old uncle on a charpoy looking out of place at his kirana store amidst the chic stores that sell pointless designer baubles at Meherchand market. Delhi is all accepting, I felt giddy shouting ‘Azaadi’ on that winter afternoon, trying to decide who was queer- them or me.

As I sit writing in my room without windows, I painfully realize I would never earn enough to own a house overlooking a park here. So in my rented piece of peace, house-proud, I feel sated that I can buy fresh paneer chunks, full cream milk and yoghurt at the corner Mother Dairyeven as the hymns play at the neighborhood Gurudwara. If I pay attention, I can hear‘Azaan’ for the evening prayer amidst the buzz in office. After all, my office is at Masjid Road.

Delhi is for the rich. Here metro stations have boards advertising home loans, that mental illness is treatable and that people with high net worth travel bymetro.  Delhi is for people who have ‘arrived’. Which area you live in and how much rent you pay is a conversation starter. I know that look in their eyes when they have begun judging me already when I tell them where I live. Here, Audis and BMWs are passé. People flaunt stickers from Sarkari offices- ‘Bharat Sarkar- Raksha Mantralaya’, Delhi Bar Association, Lajpat Nagar Phase I, H block Residential Welfare Association Under Secretary and the likes.

Delhi might be the rape capital, the brother offered to buy me a gun. But I’ve experienced only goodness. With my head full of mirth, kids ask me pass their football. The roads during late night walks in Lakshmibai Nagar almost seem like Kharagpur’s. I lick the last bits of Cola flavored fiverupee ice cream and feel at peace. On good days, I can even notice a rebellious star fighting to shine bright in the Delhi smog. On days when it is sunny, I sit with the sun on my back and read newspaper till I feel drowsy. The Afghan kids across the road play badminton, vegetable vendors and kabadiwallahs wake me from slumber with their cries.

I’ve stopped noticing things about Delhi. I don’t have the eyes of a tourist anymore. Yes, I have begun to defend Delhi too. I don’t stay in Gur-gaon after all and who cares for Noida, Ghaziabad and Faridabad anyway!

Delhi balms my wandering soul and I am always glad to be back here with a grin. Delhi winters don’t chill my bones, having endured Dehradun’s dreadful, depressing unending spells. Delhi welcomed me with open arms- friends, laughter and cheer.

Delhi makes me think of permanence. I read specials about Schools in the Sunday paper with interest and check if parks have skating rings. I imagine picnic baskets full of coleslaws, good cheese and wine. Who needs a Walden Pond when I have my Mehrauli Archeological Park!

The Canning Lanes and Lodhi Estates remind me what it all could be if I just tried. Delhi has taught me that I have a choice and I would chose mud caked hands and Frisbee fights and weekend respite in that quaint forgotten place in the hills. Go ahead, rave about your farmhouse parties and foreign retreats and how EMIs have tied you down, Delhi has finally drilled it in my head that there is no need to hurry. I take a deep breath and tell myself that things are as good as they could get and  I  slowly savour the idea that nothing good gets away.

When the wind is on my face and the Raisina Hill glows bright at a distance, there is no other place I rather be. I would be a fool to ask for more. Tonight, I am content. Tonight, I am home.

 

 

Love in December

I perhaps love December more than Bunu loves July. It’s that time of the year when I don’t look skinny for a change, layered up in cashmeres and silk scarves; I love the afternoons with the sun on my back and orange rinds scattered around; I love curling up in warm rajai and watching my Christmas staple- ‘You have got mail’ and procrastinating about getting Meg Ryan’s Hair cut and her wardrobe and singing along when they sing by the piano and mimic Tom Hanks when he dishes out lines from the ‘Godfather’.

In December, I re read my favourite Manto, Seth and Ray and sulk that I am ‘X’ and half years old. Half a year since July already! The only solace is the Golden Globe Nominations which help me plan what movies to watch in the next few months.

Everything has changed and remained the same and it is this dichotomy that I find difficult to digest. As a kid I watched ‘Home Alone’ reruns and planned my own Rube Goldberg moments and now I watch ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and compare how I am faring; As a kid I hovered around parents as they fanned the dung cakes in the Barbecue in the garden and now I spend copious amount of time reading cake recipes and telling myself that I’ll be the cake lady as soon as I have my own oven.  As an eleven year old, I believed in the Ghosts that came visiting Scrooge and now approaching the magic number, I still burst into a toothy grin at the sight of Santa at malls and make elaborate plans for stockings filled with candy and choice of books in future.

I love December because the New York Review lists the best books of the year and my wish list on Flipkart swells. I love December because it’s the time for short family outings, short enough that we can stand each other and long enough that we have updates on the ‘Family Pictures Cache’.

I love December because every year I tell myself that I’ll write more, exercise, speak my mind, read more and fall in love, pakka and I love December because I get a chance to retell my PJ to friends whom I won’t meet until January that I’ll see you next year and get offended when they don’t laugh.

I love December because it fills me with hope for the New Year every year.

Happy New Year my dear readers. Your visit to this neglected blog spikes the blog stats which warms the cockles of my heart.

P.S: This is my only post in 2013. I would do better next year. There is a way to be good again, of course. 

Calcutta Chronicles

When it came to changing my current location on Facebook, it was Calcutta without a thought, not Kolkata. Well, Calcutta is never Kolkata to me. Rather, it is Cal- Catta in Satyajit Ray’s baritone. Calcutta perhaps never became Kolkata. Rajiv Gandhi called it a dying city, one Sir George Trevelyan said, “Find, if you can a more uninviting spot than Calcutta. Having been to all the metros now, I think it is not Calcutta versus Kolkata but more of Calcutta versus the rest of the world. Passing through Park Street, I saw an advertisement for an alcohol brand, ‘Let the world wait’. I think if Calcutta ever got a tag line for itself, this should be it.

Why? I thought four years of adolescence spent here gave me a right to belong to Calcutta but I painfully realize that I will look at this place always with eyes of an outsider. Not even for two months here, I am yet to get used to the sights and sounds akin to this city and perhaps that’s why I found so many things worth writing about.

If you have time and the eye you’ll notice that life happens on pavements here. Generations live together on footpaths, lay mosquito net to sleep huddled together, cook food in beautiful clay ovens out of aluminum pots, pick lice and urinate as the world passes by. In ramshackle shops,  noodles  in large quantities is laid to dry in the afternoons and shop boys cut onions and bell peppers for the evening rush. Full fledged ‘sasta’ hotels drain water from steamed rice, cook three course meals and serve them in full public view amidst all the chaos of the pavement. The smell of fish frying in cheap oil is so overpowering that there have been times I almost puked.  The pavements have mithai shops blackened with soot where ancient coal chulhas are fanned by still more ancient portable fans. Open sewers and unpicked trash happily coexist with roadside shrines and their purohits who hold elaborate rituals every Saturday. Chess players engrossed in the game forget that they are playing on busy intersections and onlookers stand to prompt the next move and give a collective gasp at checkmate!

Calcutta’s shopkeepers are unique. The walrus mustached hard ware store owner on my way to office is engrossed in reading bangla novels during the lean afternoons, my neighborhood newspaperman who has twinkling eyes and with whom my conversation is limited to a thankyou everyday when he gives me the paper looks the sorts with whom I can debate about Nietzsche and I wont be surprised if he could quote Victor Hugo. Looks like he gives me the paper after reading it! The fruit seller forbade me to eat the bananas in evening which I bought from him when he saw my persistent cough. At the crossing near the biggest jewellery store, sits the barber in his makeshift barber shop giving shaves and head massages on the go right out of his aluminum case kit. Can you get more minimalistic? On my way home, I meet the typists who purposefully punch into their old Remington’s from morning until night. In the age of QWERTY keyboards how they still coexist is baffling.  There is a cobbler shop on every corner whose importance I didn’t realize until my loyal floaters which have helped me walk unladylike all these years gave away. Here I have come across so many old decaying shops holding on to old trades like repairing grandfather clocks, their heavy teak wood paneling  lost in midst of heavy dust. The old patriarchs of Gariahat aren’t quite accustomed to the purchasing power of ruffled hair, chappal wearing people like me, deceived by my cotton pants and cartoon t shirt, they are reluctant to host me and seemed surprised that I knew what a Dhakai Jamdani is!  The parlour next to the metro station  which ma once frequented have old attendants with no interest whatsoever in the new customer (me) but when asked gave me the best advice about what to do with my hair. When I arrived she was busy taking her afternoon nap and perhaps was irritated at my arrival. One day I went to an old apothecary nearby just to humour the old man. Sadly, I think I was his only customer that day. The ‘pimple relief’ he asked me to come for another day smelled of pepper. Too embarrassed to mention, I just give him a nod of recognition every time I cross his clinic. Not very far from my office, has a lone medical practioner sits in a dimly lit ancient high ceilinged building giving out TB medicines called DOTS for free as the Audis, Mercedes and Porsches whoosh past!

Calcutta I believe is not for the faint hearted. Extreme dualities exist here easily side by side, not by compulsion but by choice. Stark poverty forces handrawn rickshaw pullers without shoes and clothes on his back to carry three people while Puja Committee in every second neighborhood boast of Crores in collections! TV and radio repair shops which stock Murphys and CRT TVs exist side by side of HDTV and iPhone stores. Next to the big jewellery shop sits an old man with a weighing machine. I once paid him five times more than what he asked for checking my weight. I don’t need the old man to tell me that I need to eat more. Now I worry when I don’t see him at his usual place and wonder if he is still alive. There is so much poverty around that my being relatively well off seems vulgar. Still, when I dole out Rs. 10 notes to the beggars here, I am assured that they can enjoy hot khastas and alu ki sabji or hot jilapis same way as I do. The ramshackle tin busses rush past I suspect that these busses do not have any coefficient of friction whatsoever; God saves me every day from being thrown out. But when my stop comes, the emaciated bus conductor says- Aaste Ladies! Another day when it rained heavily I noticed the bus driver has a plastic on head to protect from rain. He waited patiently for the lady with the baby to disembark and asked the conductor after her.

Having lived in so many places, I have never been to a place that has so much character, is so aloof and nonchalant. Calcutta is like the Statesman paper, once great but now a shadow of its former self. Calcutta is very different from all the other cities put together. Calcutta just doesn’t care. Here it is Cholche, Cholbe.  It is possible only here that creations of toothless six year olds are displayed with equal reverence as water colours by Tagore in the same gallery while the aristocratic life size portrait of Lady Ranu rests in a forgotten corner. The haughty waiters at Flury’s don’t allow you in during lunch time if you want just coffee knowing that I would get my coffee from Barista or CCD. It is a funny place where Rabindra Sangeet, unsuitable for the holloi polloi of busy intersections blared all hours of the day from traffic signals. I say it is Sacrilege. Mamata are you listening?  At metro station adorned with Tagore’s pen manship and doodles bordering on art, I feel like a warrior princess every evening foraging my way out as metros are packed with people like sardines in a tin can.  Calcutta is a holy city where water from Ganga flows freely on the roads from the municipal taps, gamcha clad changras lathered take leisurely baths without a care in the world.  Whenever you look down, you’ll find roads strewn with betel juice so powerful that it has corroded the very foundations of the Howrah Bridge.

Calcutta is a strange place. It is a vast melting pot where you can have your place under the sun. In the synagogues made inconspicuous by the street vendors and Gujrati School unmindful of the history around, who would think that Muslims look after the holy sites of the Jews? The musty prayer hall lies not in neglect but is forgotten. Charnock’s tomb lies still surrounded by mysterious calligraphy. It is now a place for Sunday picnickers munching dhokla and chowmein far from memories of young lives lost in eastern diseases like Malaria and Kala Azar. The Park Street Graveyard doesn’t mean sepulchral silence but it is an island of calm and peace. Sun light streams and lits up the dust and moss covered tombs look friendly waiting patiently to tell their stories. When I cross Bishop Lefroy Road, I say a small prayer of thanks and make a promise that sweetheart; we will meet in other worlds. At Kalighat I was mesmerized by the frenzy that faith creates and sheer force of beliefs.

I wonder what nourishes Calcutta. Perfectly healthy peepal tree emerges out of the derelict run down house that I see first thing in the morning when I look out of my window. Pigeons live in the crevices of the ancient house and it’s their cooing that wakes me up. Also, there are sparrows which I fear would come and peck my nose one of these days. The house I live in is run by an erstwhile Jatra Artist reduced to being a caretaker now.  When her actions seem melodramatic, I conclude they are leftovers of her Jatra days. At night, soothing rumble of the last tram to the depo lulls me to sleep.

I realize that I chose filth, character and drama of the roadside than the squeaky cleanliness and numbing monotony of the malls. I realize that if you come with an open heart Calcutta belongs to you. Even though perhaps I would always be an outsider here, Calcutta is now in my blood and sinew and I will carry it around. Always. Calcutta belongs to the middle aged guy who smokes his last cigarette for the day standing next to the metro station as he still doesn’t feel old enough to smoke in front of his father, Calcutta belongs to the Pagli on Elgin Road who sings in her hoarse voice without a care in the world, Calcutta belongs to the candy seller on the bus who can’t figure out whether to hold on to the candies or to the bus and Calcutta belongs to me, even if it is for a little while as an interlude.