Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Goodbye, My Dear

Dear '13, 

In just a few days, you will be history. For the first few days of the new year, people will be reminded of you every time they write a cheque or sign a document, but they will soon get used to your nemesis.

I however, will never forget you. No, not because you are the namesake for my birthday -- though I will not live to see another '13 in any of my birthdays, but because you have brought into my life what no one else could -- Peace. When I say peace, I certainly do not mean peace and quiet, for that is one thing I am not going to get, as much as I long for it, but peace of being at peace with myself -- unconditionally. 

I am sure you know that inherently I have been a dissatisfied soul, at least for as long as I remember. I have always been unhappy with myself -- about the way I looked and the way I felt. Not only was I ugly, I was a rebel too -- or maybe I was a rebel since I was not good looking. Even during the best phase of my life, when I had a super work life and a beautiful family, I found reasons to be sad. 

With you somehow, something seems to have changed. It's with you I realised that I am an important part of many lives, pivotal in many others'. I no longer feel the urge to do something to prove my credibility or worth. Those who matter to me know what I am worth and those who don't, don't need to. 

For years I had shut the real me in the deepest dungeons of my heart for the fear of being rejected, of being mocked and of losing the people closest to me. You however, gave me the courage to let go and let the real me out. Never mind who thinks what.

After many years, I see myself smiling and I hear myself laughing. After many years, I feel happy, I feel content and I feel complete. Although I am tempted to, but I will refrain from analysing the reason for this change, for analysis kills the moment and no one knows it better than me. I am also tempted to thank you, to be grateful to you for inducing this change, but I no longer want to hold anyone else responsible for how I feel -- good or bad.

Although I would have loved you to stay a little longer, I know you have to go, but you have my word that I will not undo what you did to me. Not intentionally for sure.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Death Of A Greeting

Writing can be quite taxing. It needs you to not only use your fingers -- to write or type, but also your eyes, ears and your mind. Unless you observe, listen and internalise an incident, a thought or a story, you can seldom write. One can be a great thinker and a great orator but for him to be a good writer and to convert his thoughts into written words, he has to learn the art of patience, the skill of letting the thoughts take a definite shape and form something worth displaying in the show window of his wall. 

One reason for my being away for a while now is that I have been busy trying to brew my thoughts, to make stories. I am a bad story teller and even worse at imagining them, so putting together something as small as a thousand word story is quite a task for me. The other reason is that  I have been busy writing new year greetings to the people closest to me.

I am sure by now everyone who reads this blog knows how old fashioned I am. Let me tell you another secret -- I hate change -- of any sort, but more so if that change takes me away from my roots -- the old fashioned ways of life. Therefore, at a time when everyone has moved on from Orkut to Facebook, from SMS to BBM and from emails to Watsapp (is that how its spelt?), I still latch on to my redundant mobile phone. And at a time when people post impersonal status message that wishes all sixteen hundred friends of theirs a Happy New Year (can one have those many friends?), I carefully select a card each for my family and friends, write a personalised message on it and post it -- the old fashioned way. 
Now, writing a greeting is an event in itself, an activity that takes its own sweet time and course. Unlike a status message or an SMS, it does not take a few seconds or minutes but a few days or more, depending entirely on the number of cards one sends and the amount of love one puts in each one of them.

My earliest memory of writing a new year card is almost twenty-five years old. We were in Allahabad at that time and my father had a big network of people. I vividly remember him bringing home a huge pile of about a hundred new year cards home, he had got them printed with his name. We -- my brother and I were very excited to see the cards, especially because they had father's name in print. My sister was too young and too oblivious to make any sense of it. 

After that it became a ritual, a part of our new year and Christmas celebration: to make a long list of people who we wanted to send the cards to -- family, relatives, friends and our friends too, to look up the addresses in the dairy, write the cards, put the stamp, mark them as book post and finally post them. The entire process took almost a week, if not more. 

I think, that is where I learnt to write -- to people, a habit I am still to let go of. My first letters was written shortly after moving out of Allahabad, a place where I made friends for the first time and a place I hated moving out of. I had written to two of my closest friends --- Shweta Yadav and Ajai Iyer. I remember baring my souls out to them, telling them how I hated to be alone and lonely and how backward the new town was and of course how much I missed them. Hence started my tryst with writing. Every city we moved from added a few names to my list of friends who I would write to regularly, some replied some did not.

But writing a letter or a card was only half the fun. The other half, the better half, being receiving one. The anticipation of awaiting a reply, the excitement of getting many cards, the joy of recognising the handwriting and mentally preparing yourself for the contents of the letter while undoing the envelope and the many staples that a friend might have added to ensure the elders never read the juicy gossip, the glancing through the entire thing first and then reading it again to get the details, hiding it at a designated place to prevent others from reading it, the happiness that it brought for days after -- completed the picture.

Unfortunately, those days are long gone. People don't write, people don't read, they just tweet. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

As Always

The train had barely left the station when she spotted him walking towards her. He wore a grey shirt and light blue jeans, his hair was cropped as always and his face as grim as ever. She hated his grey shirts, they made him look paler and colder, she had told him that several times, but he was not the one to listen, not to her.

He smiled as he effortlessly pulled his six feet frame on the side upper berth and sat next to her, his left arm touched hers and was cold as always. It seemed as if the frigidness of his heart was manifested in his body. His hands had been cold for as long as she could remember. They had been cold that night too -- even inside her shirt. It was one night that she would cherish all her life. But she very well knew that he was more guilty than glad about it -- about letting go of his guard. Perhaps that is why, the first thing he did the following morning was to clarify that they were just friends. She had nodded in agreement, as always.  

The train had now picked up speed and there was a rhythm in its movement, a rhythm to which their bodies swayed -- together. The long, awkward silence was broken only by the chugging of the train and the occasional whistle. Although she had much to say to him, she did not know how to. In the last few months he had been aloof, indifferent and withdrawn, leaving her alone to wonder what went wrong. She wanted to confront him, to tell him how much he hurt her, how much she missed him, how stupid she felt waiting for a guy who did not even bother to leave a message when he left. But knew it would not help, the argument will go nowhere and she will end up taking the blame and feeling foolish, like always. 

Her trance was broken when he kissed her -- a quick awkward peck on her right cheek -- to wish her birthday. His mouth cold against her flushed cheeks. She had not expected this, not from him, not now. He seemed to have sensed her confusion, for he smiled at her and began to talk. He talked as if there was nothing abnormal about this – about them being together on a train, about him remembering her birthday, about kissing her. He talked about life, philosophy, science, sports -- his favourite topics, but she wasn't listening. All she could do was to look at him -- his sparkling eyes, his broad forehead, his sharp nose, his mouth. And all she could think was how much she loved him.

She was so distracted that she did not even realise when he put his arm around her and pulled himself closer. Only when he held her hand did she notice it. She also noticed the contrast – his sculpted hands against her peasant hands, his pale complexion against her dusky skin, the coldness of his palms against her warmth. The contrast was not limited to their hands, she thought.

He looked into her eyes and started to talk again.‘Life is not a bed of roses, Blacky. It is thorny and difficult; I have much to prove to my parents and to myself. I have no time for anything else.’

All her life she had visualised this conversation, she had thought of a million possibilities, of a thousand ways in which she could tell him how much she loved him -- some day. But this is not something that she was prepared for. Her mouth parched, her heart raced, she broke into cold sweat. She wanted to talk but words failed her. She just listened -- as always.

He continued to talk, to reason, to justify, to prove that he will always be there for her – as a friend, but none of it made sense anymore – all that mattered was that it was over, before it even began. 

Even before she could react, he left. As if running away from something -- from giving in, from her, from them. As always.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two Books That Changed My Life -- Or So It Seems

Come December, everyone and everything reminds you what you don't want to be reminded of: that you have lost another year. As if the calender is not enough, now you have facebook too. Just as I logged in to my account this evening, there was a prompt telling me to review the year gone by. Pessimist to the core, I would have cringed otherwise but this year has been kind, so I smiled -- for a change.

I have never been the new year resolution type but I do look back each year to see if I have done anything worthwhile with my life, and looking at this year makes me quite happy with myself. If I was a celebrity, I could have declared 2013 as the watershed year of my life. I have done things that I would never have done otherwise and though I run the risk of sounding stupid but I would like to disclose that one such thing is reading. No, I have not been illiterate until now and I have read some in the last thirty four years of my life but its only now that I discovered the joy of reading -- thanks to two books that I read this year. 

I grew up surrounded by books and everyone around me read -- my parents, uncles, brother, friends, husband and now even daughter. Growing up, my father used to buy us books all the time and on every occasion. We had books coming in through post, we had annual subscriptions of children's magazines, we had books in English and in Hindi, there were books everywhere. But there was a problem: I never read. I never had the patience to go beyond a few pages. I still remember father subscribing to a magazine called Target for me, I would have been ten at that time. All I read in that were jokes and cartoon strips, and maybe a few very short stories, while my brother, all of five then would read it cover to cover.

Things improved only slightly when I went to college, since there was nothing much to do and all my friends were avid readers too, I also picked up random books and flipped through them. While they would read the books cover to cover, I read only sections of them, eager to finish. Thank God for Archie and the gang, I had something to say when people discussed reading.

Once I started to work there was no time. There were many more interesting things to do in the little time I got to myself. Reading, therefore was never my thing. Not until now. 

Although I am not a bookworm, I do tend to pick up books and read parts of it, especially the ones that my husband might be reading at that point. And this is how I discovered Jaya -- the one book that changed my life. (Yeah, I know I sound vain, but that is the intent. This year, I want to try being vain too, for a change.) 

Anyway, I was talking about Jaya. Now, if you happen to be a friend who is reading this post, you would probably have a copy of the book, which either husband and I would have gifted or would have persuaded you to buy for yourself. In any case, you would have read it. And, if you are not a friend and still reading this post (thank you very much, not many people do) you might want to but the book or at least borrow it.

Jaya, simply put, is a layman's version of the Mahabharata. Anyone who is twenty five years and above, would not only know the story but would also faintly remember the famous series that ran on Doordarshan in the eighties. The beauty of the book lies not only in the story in its simplicity of the narrative and language, something so rare to find among Indian authors. The author strings together small, straight forward sentences in short, crisp chapters to narrate the complicated story. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, the parts of which were until now scattered all around your child's room, that you patiently and lovingly put together for her -- to form a complete picture.

As a reader what I love about the book is the ease with which an ordinary man can follow it. It unfolds the most complicated plots with such simplicity that just about anyone can read it and like it. As a writer -- if I can dare call myself that, what I find most appealing is the brevity and the conciseness of the text. It is not easy to have every detail covered in an engaging prose yet be brief. Jaya is only the second book that I have read cover to cover -- almost thrice. The first being Chai, Chai.

Chai, Chai has a story behind it, a story that makes you believe in chance: My husband had bought it soon after its release four years ago and loved it. For months, while I whined about being bored and having nothing to do, he suggested that I read the book. Never the one to pay heed to his suggestions, I ignored. Eventually, he gave it to my father to read; father loved it and so did mother and then it somehow got lost in their house. Not the kind to let go of  his books, the man bought another copy. That copy too, sat pretty in the book rack for months, until one day, after reading and liking the author's second book -- Tamarind City, I picked it up.

Unlike Jaya, Chai, Chai is not a story book. It is an unusual book that way, although it is categorized as a travel book, I am not sure it is that in the true sense of the word. But it is an account of a travel nonetheless -- a travel that I fell in love with. The book talks about the most mundane yet the most unusual subject -- railway junctions, places that you cross all your life yet never pay attention to.

The beauty of this book lies in the ordinary subject that is uplifted to another level by the authors eye for detail and lucidity of his prose. He picks up the most inane things and breathes life into them -- walking though the lanes of small towns,  waiting at the station, travelling second class, spotting an old railway quarter.

Like Jaya, Chai, Chai too thrives on simple language, crisp narrative and immaculate articulation. I have a sentimental reason too for which I love this book : I grew up in such small towns and traveled through some of these junctions, may be that is why I connect to the book much more than a person born and brought up in a metro would. Whatever the reason be, it remains one of the most enjoyable books I have ever come across and the first that I read twice over -- cover to cover.

None of these are the greatest books ever written but good enough for me to get me hooked to reading for the last six months, so much so that I have read around ten books and millions of blogs. Today, having nothing to read gives me jitters, as having a book to finish would have given me some months ago.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

New Beginning

She was busy setting the tea up. There was much to be done: the cake was in the oven and the tea on the stove, the mac and cheese was already on the table for the girls to feast on. It was the weekend, the only time they got together. Anay usually worked late and therefore he preferred to spend the evenings at home on his off days. While she was pouring her coffee out, her phone buzzed. It must be some promotional message she thought. Not many people message her anyway.

The tea was soon ready, so was the cake. The kids were done with their snack and were now happily parked in front of the TV.  Anay had joined her on the table and was slicing the warm cake into neat pieces -- he was the one who sliced and diced everything if he was at home, this was his way of being with her while she cooked. 

The phone buzzed again, she had forgotten to check it, but she resisted the urge to get it, she knew it annoyed her husband when someone disregarded people for the phone. Almost an hour after the phone first rang, she finally got the time to check her phone. 

'Hello, are you anywhere close to Radisson?' The message was from an unknown number. 

Anyone who would want to see me, should ideally know where I stay and I should also have his number, she thought. To find out who it was, she dialled the number and was greeted by a familiar voice.

'Who's this?' she still asked, to be sure.

'You don't have my number?'

'Oh! I lost it when I changed the phone.' she lied. 'Why are you coming to Delhi and for how long?'

'Answer my question, first.'

'Yes, I am close to the hotel.'

'Well then, I am there tomorrow for a training and will see you post that.'

It had been eight years since they last met and months since they spoke on the phone -- the phone calls in any case were limited to her birthday. He made it a point to call her every year, despite her never calling him on his.

'Hello! are you there?'

'Yes, I am.'

'Is it OK if I drop in?'

'Sure' she said, though she was not sure.

Much had changed in the last eight years, she was a different person now. What would she even talk about? she thought.

Anay's voice broke her chain of thoughts. She left the phone in the kitchen and went inside. The girls had gone to bed and he was watching his favorite series. She settled next to him, facing the TV and went back in time.

They were never friends to begin with, in fact, she did not even remember much of him from school. What she did remember clearly was the time she had a crush on him -- the biggest ever. Although she had never told him, she knew that he knew. But they never talked. 

School ended and everyone went their own way. They did too, until the day he called her. There was a function he was organising and wanted her to be a part of it -- to sing with him. What followed was a dream come true: for weeks, they spent hours together practicing the most beautiful songs -- their voices were made for each other.

The event went on to be a great success and they went on to become greater friends. Amazingly, although she had always been infatuated with him she never felt that way anymore. He became one of her best friends much to the annoyance of her girlfriends.

'Where are you lost?' it was Anay, standing with a bottle of water. She had not noticed when he went out of the room and got the bottle.

'Nothing', she lied and went back in time.

In a couple of years, she moved to Delhi -- to find her place under the sun and he stayed back in Lucknow. They talked regularly and met each time she went back. In fact, he was the one to pick her and drop her from the station and even drive her around the town -- each time. 

Years passed, she was now married and he worked in Bombay, they hardly went to Lucknow and had not met in years. Their conversations were now limited to exchanging birthday wishes.

'Adi messaged' she finally told Anay. 'He's here tomorrow for a training and wants to see me post that.'

'Sure, call him home' he said.

'No, not home, I'd rather see him at the hotel, he will be at the Radisson' she muttered.

'Ok, suit yourself' he said.

He was not the kind to object to her going out or meeting people. She however, always ended up feeling guilty about going out on her own. Tonight again, she could feel the fangs of guilt slowly digging into her conscience. She felt selfish and inconsiderate to leave the girls and Anay behind just to see a friend. 

Lukewarm rays of the winter sun had already filled the room when she woke up next morning. The girls were in the study with their father: he had taken them away so that she could sleep peacefully. He is the best husband ever, she thought.

All day, she looked for excuses -- to avoid the meeting. Was it the anxiety of seeing an old friend and discover that they had nothing in common or was it the guilt of leaving the girls and husband and going out? She could not tell. She picked her phone up several times to tell him that she cannot make it, that something had come up and she had to go, but each time she resisted.

Not very long ago, she was known for being independent, rebellious, carefree and non conformist, she did what she wanted and always listened to her heart. Now, she was the exact opposite. Sometimes she felt there were two people inside her, each constantly wanting to dominate the other, it left her confused and tired. Today was one such day, she was not sure who would win -- the old or the new, the rebel or the compliant, the practical or the emotional -- until she took over both. 

'I will see you in an hour, Anay.' she said, as she left for the hotel, smiling.

As Published in Femina Fast Fiction:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ram Re-discovered

I grew up in a culture that loved, respected and believed in Ram. My dadi would often quote incidents and chaupais from the Ramanaya to drive home a point, we grew up surrounded by the stories of the bal kaand and the yudh kaand, of Lakshman's rage, Ram's patience and Hanuman's strength. We grew up being taught to be dutiful sons and daughters like Ram and his brothers, to be virtuous in thought and in action like Sita and her sisters, not to give in to desires and temptations like Kaykai. We knew The Ramayana by heart.

Although, I believed in most of what Ramayana stood for -- virtue, devotion, obedience, goodness, karma, I never could fathom Ram -- he was too good to be true. The non conformist in me could never subscribe to his goodness, it always felt unnatural and in any case what good is the goodness of a man who banishes his pregnant wife -- the woman who stood by him in the hardest of times, who served him, loved him and was totally devoted to him? I always empathised with Sita, never with Ram. And I never read the Ramayana because I did not agree with Ram's ideology.

When one is young he often sees only his point of view, eager to establish his identity and form his own opinions, he often fails to acknowledge others' perspective. Maturity and experience however, teaches one to look beyond his own, to respect and understand others' outlook and ideologies, to accept if not embrace diversity. Going by this definition, I can perhaps consider myself mature, for I finally picked up the book some weeks ago -- to see his perspective.

Although many great scholars have written about and brought forth Ram as a hero -- an ideal son, an ideal king and an ideal man, not many talk about him as an ideal husband or a lover. How could they? For he was a man who denounced his wife for no fault of hers and that, as I mentioned earlier, was my grouse with him too -- until I read the book.

Reading and rereading the Ramayana, I for the first time could see things objectively. I saw the man behind the God. I saw a dutiful son, a perfect king and  I found in him a tender lover and a caring husband too, much to my surprise.

Ram is usually a stoic, pensive and silent husband, never a passionate lover. His aloofness can easily be mistaken for indifference. Neither does he profess his love for Sita nor sing verses in her praise, he hardly talks to her about love. The only time he openly expresses his love for her is in his grief -- of having lost her, so much so that his brother has to remind him that he is not just a forlorn lover, but a king too and therefore he needs to regain his calm. 

Yet throughout the story we find instances which reflect his deep affection and love for his wife. He is always mindful of her likes and dislikes, always considerate about her comfort, always kind in words and action, always respectful of her opinion and the only man to be called ekam patni vrat -- the only man devoted to a single wife. Ram is an ideal husband too. 

So deep is his love for Sita, that after banishing her he keeps with him a gold replica of hers -- it never leaves his side -- it is his Sita, his wife, the only woman he ever loved. But why then did he banish her? My question remained, until he answered it for me, in the following passage.

One day Sita hesitatingly asks Ram 'Your father has three queens, one that he respects, the one that he loves or the one that serves him, which one will I be to you?' Ram replied without a moment's hesitation 'He may have three but I will have only one. I shall be satisfied with whatever this wife of mine has to offer me and hope she is satisfied with whatever I offer her.'

Sita said softly with a smile 'I asked you about the queens, not wives.' 

'I am a husband now, who has a wife. Should I be the king, then my wife will also become the queen. The two are not the same, Sita. My wife sits in my heart, I exist for her satisfaction. The queen sits on the throne, she exists for the kingdom's satisfaction,' he said.

Thus, in one sentence he explained what no one ever could: that he banished the queen, the one who exists for the kingdom's satisfaction and not his wife who he so dearly loved and missed that he never married again. That, once he is the king and she the queen, the wish of the kingdom is supreme, they must do what is expected of them and not what their hearts desire.

No wonder the world loves him and for once I seem to agree with the world.

* The sentences in italics are quoted from SITA, a retelling of Ramayana, by Devdutt Patnaik.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Day I Spotted Red

Something I wrote for an organisation that they published on thier blog and facebook page.

The Day I Spotted RED

My earliest memories of anything remotely related to menstruation are the vague TV commercials that talked frequently about absorbing and leaking and protecting. All of seven or eight then, I assumed it as some sort of a diaper for women, who due to the lack of public washrooms needed to wear them. Men, after all, could always do it on the wall.

The moment of truth came soon after. Having been a girl of above-average growth, I started menstruating at the age of ten or eleven. I had no idea what happened to me. I can never forget the day I spotted blood. We were at my granny’s place during the summer vacations and one day while bathing, I realised that something was wrong. I distinctly remember checking myself several times to see if I had hurt myself; I could not see anything but believed nonetheless that it must be some sort of an injury that caused the bleeding.

Confused but not sure if I should share it with anyone, I kept it to myself. Much to my relief, the bleeding didn’t last long, but came back soon after. In due course, I could see a pattern to it, still too hesitant and shy to share it – even with my mother, I suffered all alone. Thankfully, during the first few months, there was hardly any bleeding. Whatever little there was, I managed with some cotton that I had taken out from the first-aid box and stashed in my shelf. I sometimes wonder how I spent almost a year without telling anyone, without so much as a sanitary pad, but I somehow did, like so many others do.

In the meantime, I gathered some information in school and through magazines and concluded that all girls go through this and that it is something called menstruation – one that shall not be named other than in hushed tones and often in slang. Suddenly all the blood stained pads in the school washrooms made sense. They were not the doings of some evil spirits after all. The evil spirit if any, lived within us.

Thankfully, in a few months (or was it a year later?) my mother figured that I should be told about it and I was handed over to a cousin who gave me the information I already had – the real facts. I still was clueless about why this was happening to me. When I could take no more, I gathered all my courage and walked up to my mother one evening, my heart beating faster than it ever had; I asked for the pads, as casually as I could and I got just that. No word, no advise, no information. I continued to struggle with the immense discomfort and excruciating pain I suffered from during my periods. Every time I was in pain, my father and brother were told that I had acidity and sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

Today, almost twenty-five years later, nothing seems to have changed. Girls still hesitate to buy a packet of sanitary pads and they still have to hide it while carrying it to the washroom. It is considered uncouth to talk about it, especially to men or when men are around. If they have to take a day off from work or college due to pain and discomfort, they are supposed to be sick and not menstruating. So much for a natural, biological process that every woman goes through and which every man knows about. I honestly wonder what all the fuss is about. The fuss, I gather, is in the mind – quite typical of the hypocritical society that we live in.

I might not be able to change the mindset of the society and in any case changing mindsets can take years. I will, however ensure that my girls never have to go through what I did. I don’t love my mother any less for what happened with me because partially it was my doing too, but I might have loved her much more had she spoken to me about it – just once; and that, I will ensure, is one grouse that my girls will never have.


Author: Anubhuti
I am a thirty-four year old stay – at – home mother of two beautiful girls. I have worked as a training manager and a freelance training consultant in the past. When on a break from my children, I love to cook, read, travel and write. Writing is my latest passion and I blog here.  I am also a volunteer with Pratham books and conduct story-telling sessions for  underprivileged and street children.