Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where did the time flee?

It was just yesterday that she was born,
White as snow and round like a ball;

Did not take her long to make her presence felt,
My room, my bed, my clothes, oh! how sweet they smelt;

In a blink she was walking,
In another she was talking;

And then began the ego war,
On who will open the door or shut the drawer;

But she still was my stubborn little jerk,
Sleeping in my lap, after a hard day at work;

Suddenly she reaches my shoulder, tomorrow higher than me she will be;
And I will be sitting here wondering where did the time flee.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Tales of a Christmas Cake

The evolution of the plum cake from porridge and pudding, to what it is now. My piece in today's Hindu:

The story of the plum cake begins in medieval England, where it was a popular tradition to observe a period of self-denial, fasting, and abstinence from every kind of indulgence in the weeks leading to Christmas. The abstinence and occasional fasting was supposed to prepare the body for the overindulgence and excesses of Christmas. 

According to custom, on the eve of Christmas, a rich porridge was cooked and eaten to “line the stomach” for the upcoming feast. The porridge, said to have been made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey, and sometimes even meat, can be called the grandfather of the Christmas — or plum cake.

With the passage of time, and as more ingredients made their way into the porridge, it started to resemble its current form. It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, oats was replaced with flour, and eggs and butter were also added to the mixture. (The meat had already been taken out of it and was prepared in other forms). This batter was then bound in a muslin cloth and cooked in a pot of boiling water for many hours. What came out was a heavy, dense fudge also referred to as cannon ball. In the richer households that owned an oven, the mixture was baked and not boiled. Every family had a different recipe depending on the preferences of the lady of the house. This rich cake, or pudding, was made a few weeks before Christmas, usually at the beginning of advent, when the period of abstinence began, and was saved until the twelfth and final day of celebration. It was served upside down, garnished with a sprig of holly, after the final celebratory meal. 

It is not clear, however, how it came to be called the plum pudding, or plum cake. Some believe that raisins, or currants, were also referred to as plums (or plumb) in England. The recipe was abundant in raisins, hence the name. Yet others believe that dried plums, or prunes, were the main ingredient of the original porridge, and were gradually replaced by other, more exotic dried fruits. Whatever be the case, the name stayed. 

The cake stayed too, even though it was very close to being lost in the reformation period of the late 19th century when Queen Victoria banned the feast of the twelfth night. The confectioners (by now it had become a commercial exercise as well) who had stocked their pantries up for the twelfth night celebration decided to use their stock and bake cakes for Christmas instead, lest they suffer losses. The tradition caught on.

Around the same time, families of men working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada and other parts of the world began to make their cakes weeks, or even months, in advance and send it to them as a part of the Christmas hamper along with wine and presents. And that is how the first plum cake travelled out of England. 

In the last two centuries since it first travelled out of England, the plum cake has reached every corner of the world. Every country, region and family has a different version of the recipe. Some are made with nuts soaked in rum, some are fed with sherry or brandy for weeks after being baked, and some have no alcohol at all. Then there are those made up of cream cheese and whipped cream, and those containing minced meat (although they are more of a pie than a cake). 

And yet all of them have one thing in common: none of them contain plum.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Penning the holiday spirit

My piece in The Hindu today:

December means different things to different people. For some it is the time to celebrate the year gone by and look forward to a new beginning. For others it is the time to introspect, to look back with fondness – or regret – to long for the time lost. And to some, like me, it is the time to indulge in nostalgia. 

Whichever category one might fit in, there is no denying that December brings with it things that make us smile. The faint sounds of carol practice at the neighbourhood school, the bright colours of Christmas at a nearby mall, the misty mornings, the sunny afternoons, the never-ending evenings.

For most people who, like me, grew up in the pre-mobile and pre-internet era, December also brings with it the faded memories of a long forgotten practice of writing to our loved ones.

Come December and my father, like every one else’s, would bring home a big bunch of greeting cards. Sometimes blank inside, sometimes with his and mother’s name printed in them, the cards would be a source of much amusement for us. Over the next week or so he and my mother would diligently write to each one of our family members, relatives, friends, and acquaintances (we were always moving cities and the list grew longer every year), that we had not met many of them in years, or written to them in months notwithstanding. After the cards were written, addressed, and envelopes marked with ‘Book-Post’, we, the lowest in the chain, would get the responsibility of pasting stamps on each one of them. The activity would take days to complete and would fill our afternoons with unparalleled excitement.

Sending the cards however was only one part of the story. The other – and more rewarding – part was receiving them: the joy of discovering an envelope in the letterbox, the anticipation of tearing it open, the thrill of finding one from that special friend (and sliding it into a book). Weeks were spent in opening, reading, counting and displaying the cards. Some liked to put them up in their showcases, some would display them on the top of their refrigerators and some, who had far too many, would string them together on a ribbon and hang them about. (I would put my share of the cards on a soft board, along with the birthday greetings and was super proud of my enviable collection).

Then, somewhere along the line, we discovered the telephone. We could now talk to whoever we liked, so what if we had to wait until 11 PM for the pulse rates to go down? Calling a loved one, listening to his voice, and wishing him personally was far more gratifying than writing and waiting for a response (the telephone exchange even replaced the dial tone with ‘Happy New Year’ on the new years day).

When the mobiles came in, the calls were replaced by SMSs: it is far more convenient to write a message – or copy someone else’s – and send to everyone at once rather than calling everyone. There was no need to peep into our letterboxes anymore; the love and wishes were now delivered directly into our inboxes. And now we have Facebook and Watsapp.

Thanks to technology we can wish all those who matter to us at one go, and can even share pictures, videos and voice messages. Unfortunately though the love that comes along with the wishes can no longer be displayed on the refrigerators or show windows of our drawing rooms, neither can the messages be strung on a ribbon and hung about the house. They either remain locked in our smart phones, or get deleted to accommodate a few more selfies.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Theme for my Dream

Last night I played with a friend's daughter and bought her some handmade toys. A few nights ago, I was at a railway station chasing a train. I had reached a few minutes too late and my non existent running skills could do nothing to salvage the situation. Some weeks before that I was at a friend's book launch, feeling important and smug in the company of erudite men and women. A few years ago I had accidentally shaven my face, and had grown a beard, but not before being chased by a full bodied python on the streets of Jaipur. These of course are the rendezvous I remember, there are many others which have faded -- or have been forgotten -- with time. 

Funny, scary, pleasant -- dreams are sometimes entertaining, sometimes intimidating. Science describes them as 'a series of thoughts, visions, or feelings that happen during sleep', it also says that one usually dreams when the brain activity is high, 'resembling that of being awake'. There has been extensive research on interpreting dreams; there are books, websites, specialists, and sometimes forklore, that help you decode your dream. In India, for example, dreaming of a snake is supposed to bring good luck, and dreaming about some body's death is supposed to add years to his life. Then there are the other common ones -- missing a train, being chased, drowning, falling, dying, marrying -- each of them having their own interpretations, often influenced by the local cultural and religious beliefs.

Dreams intrigue many, I am no exception. I have tried to look for what they could mean and how, if at all, they reflect my subconscious. I have not yet found the answer (what could have shaving my face meant, really), although I have observed a pattern. Sometimes they reflect my current state of mind; sometimes times they reveal my deepest darkest fears or desires. It is usually pleasurable to have your desires manifested in your dream, but facing your fear is not easy. Unfortunately we can not always control what we dream of unless of course we are day dreaming. 
Day dreaming is often associated with the romantics. For some it is an occupational hazard (writers, poets, philosophers), and for some the route to a life they otherwise cannot have: a job of their choice, or a lover who they can only fancy. One can sit at his office desk, saddled with work, and yet be in another place, another time, with another person. We might not be able to control the activity of our subconscious minds, but can surely chose whatever our conscious mind dreams of and make impossible possible, at least for that moment.

Sometimes such dream also come true. When I was in college, I would often dream about sitting in a plush office, working late nights, drinking coffee in a smart black mug (it somehow seemed impossible at the time). By chance -- or by design -- I was doing exactly the same a few months down the line (down to the black coffee mug). Lately I have been dreaming a lot about sitting on a large teak desk, lit by the warm glow of the lamp, in a cozy hill cottage, writing my book with a beautiful fountain pen. I only hope this dream also comes true someday.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Love thy Neighbour -- Or at least know him.

This piece appeared in The Huffington Post on 19th Feb, 2015:

Some weeks ago, Mishti, my older one, went missing. There was another girl with her; together they had gone to collect money for a raffle and had not returned until late in the evening. The other child's mother called me to check if I knew where they had been. Although I had no idea where they were, but I was confident they would be fine: what can happen to them inside the confines of the housing complex? But the other mother was worried: they are girls, what if something happens to them? The girls are, by the way, only six years old. But I cannot blame her, with how things are, it is only natural for one to worry about the child's safety.

Mishti came home about an hour later – happy and excited. I found out that she had been in a neighbour’s house for the past one hour getting her nails painted, having Maggi and indulging in her favourite chocolate. The lady, who I don't even know, had found the girls so interesting that she had insisted they stay, gave them things to eat and painted their nails. I wanted to admonish her for being irresponsible and greedy. But then I remembered my childhood. 

As a little girl in Kanpur, I spent most of my time at our neighbour's house. I called the lady of the house dadi, and her children bua and chacha. I ate with them, played with them, even slept at their house. And I was not an aberration; it was natural to do that in those days – at least for children. 

When I was growing up, neighbours were family – a set of people always available for you – and you for them. Women spent long afternoons at each other's houses, kids spent all evening with each other. You watched TV together, borrowed space in their refrigerators, shared utensils, ingredients, even clothes sometimes. Your more affluent relatives called you on their number, your friends spent evenings at their terrace. Then there were the weddings – or deaths, or births – and the neighbours would not only lend you a hand, but also their homes.

During my wedding, as in many others', we solely relied on our neighbours to lend us their rooms, halls and terraces. As a new bride I spent the week at my hometown-in-law living at the neighbour's house, sharing the bedroom with their scooter. (But during my brother's and sister's weddings, that happened recently, we had to book plush guesthouses for our discerning guests lest they be embarrassed to share beds, rooms, or bathrooms).

When we shifted houses – and we shifted an awful lot of houses – our new neighbours gave us food and shelter. There would be a steady flow of tea and biscuits, even meals, until the kitchen was set up; post which we were invited – or would invite them – home. With every house we changed, our friends multiplied.

And then something changed. Neighbours became nameless, faceless people who we know nothing about.

They might live next door, but we cannot knock at their door to ask for milk, or sugar, or potatoes –we now have home delivery. We no longer need to borrow their dosa tawa or oven, for we have everything of our own. We don't need them to pick our children or look after them, because we have live-in house helps. Their houses, beddings, or folding cots are not needed for our guests, nor are their scooters for running an errand, or their fridge to store our ice cream. We don't get to know if there is a wedding, birth or death in their family. We might share the corridor, or the lift, but we no longer share our lives with them, for that we have our facebook friends. 

P.S. I just met the lady in the elevator. I have seen her many times before but never knew it was the same person who indulged my girl so. While she was animatedly talking with the children and inviting them home, I could barely manage a polite smile, and a Thank you for holding the door of the lift for us.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Fault In Us

My piece in today's Hindu. 

These days I often find myself checking on my daughter on what and how much she eats; I nag her to come with me for a run, play with her friends and move around more often. Although she is a fairly healthy child with no signs of being overweight, I still fear her getting there sooner or later. And my fear is not unfounded; after all, she is her mother’s daughter. 

I was born a tiny baby to a petite, undernourished mother and as if to compensate for my size, I was overfed by everyone. The trick certainly worked, for I grew up to be a fairly plump child. At the time, however, being plump was not normal (it never is, actually); most children around me were skinny and I stood out like a sore thumb. By the time I was six or seven, I was being called a fatso by everyone — some used it out of affection, some out of contempt — and it became my identity. Initially the jokes hurt, then they became a part of my life. 

If this wasn’t enough, I went on to be an early bloomer too — at 13 , when most of the other girls were still figuring out their bodies, I was already a young woman. I now had to take care of the lecherous remarks and the intrusive gaze too. 

All this ensured that I grew up with several complexes and severe bitterness about the world. By the time I hit my teens, I was a rebel without a cause (something that I can see only now). Things changed only marginally when I started to work, at the age of 22. The actual reason for the change was probably not work, but my losing several kilos by starving myself for months.
It was only after I met my husband that I started to feel like a ‘normal’ girl. He made me believe that there was so much more to the world than my weight, he gave me the confidence to be myself and helped me get rid of my bitterness. Nevertheless, my complexes were too deep-rooted to go away so easily and I continued to starve myself when he was not around. 

Although there were no visible signs of the starvation on my body (I never lost weight), the effects of it came into play when I lost my first child mid-term and could not nurse the ones I eventually had — both results of a severely undernourished body. But I still hadn’t learnt my lesson, and was soon back to starving myself. The result of three pregnancies, two babies and lifelong starvation had now started to show: I lost my hair, my sleep and my concentration. I felt weak and tired, sometimes unable to even complete the basic chores. A visit to the doctor confirmed that I was vitamin-deficient, anaemic and my bones had weakened. It was a wake-up call — I had to decide between being healthy and being thin.

And so, for the last few years, I have been trying to accept myself as I am. I have also been trying my best to see that my complexes don’t trickle down to my daughter. 

Every now and then I suddenly find myself checking to see what she eats and telling her never to be like me. But then, I also tell her to love herself no matter what because as long as she can do that, nothing else matters.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

With Our Heads In The Clouds

A piece very close to my heart, about a place very close to my heart. Published in The Hindu dated 11th October 2014.

At eleven in the morning, the railway station is as quiet as it is beautiful. Not that you expect a quaint little place like this to be noisy. The town of Haldwani is quiet too, as if recovering from the heavy footfall of the summer vacations, which have recently ended. Soon we are in a taxi, driving towards the hills that beckon us from the horizon. Along the road I spot some familiar buildings: the dilapidated house with tall wooden windows; the old post office, freshly painted in white and red; the forest office at the corner – time indeed stands still in small towns. The familiarity and the peace gladden my heart, but the happiness is short-lived.

One of the reasons for me to have avoided the hills for past many years, is my discomfort with the curvaceous mountain drive. The very thought of it puts me into panic mode. Today is no different. Ten minutes into the drive, my head starts to spin and stomach starts to churn. I try to distract myself by looking at the lush green mountains and lovely little cottages, but the view only worsens my condition. Thankfully the drive to Nainital, where we are headed this morning, is short and we reach just before my system gives in.

The sickness vanishes at the sight of the white pillars and the long corridor of our guesthouse. I have, like many others, spent many a summer vacation in the town and have stayed at the same place every time. The guesthouse therefore, is like home, only that I am coming home after ten, long years. The little traces of fatigue that remain disappear as we stand in the balcony, sipping tea and looking at the sparkling water of the lake with 67 boats bobbing on it (yes, we counted them). By the time we finish tea, the sunshine has given way to fluffy clouds that flow from in front of our balcony and cover all that comes in their way.

Over the years that I have been visiting Nainital, I have built a rapport with the place, which is much beyond that of a tourist. The focus is never on boating or strolling at the mall, but to get a local flavour of the town, especially the food (we always eat home-made food that the caretaker cooks for us in the guesthouse) and bazaars (the markets of Tallital and Mallital, the two ends of the town), for it is in these little things that you find the real essence of a place, its culture, its people.

The bada bazaar at Mallital, on the northern end of the town, is where my husband and I walk to this afternoon. Climbing the steep slopes of the market, lined with tiny shops on the ground floor and tinier houses with pretty balconies on the upper floors, we pick up some small-town things: a pair of blue and white bathroom slippers; a packet of chalk and slates for girls; some freshly made savouries; and bal mithai – a chewy brown barfi covered in sugar balls. The misty afternoon transforms into a clear bright evening; we spend most of it standing in our balcony appreciating the large, bright full-moon that has risen from behind the hill and is hanging on a midnight-blue sky, between two tall deodar trees.

The morning comes in early bringing the clouds back into the town. The air this morning is not only pregnant with moisture, but also with the sounds of hymns from the church nearby, and the gongs of the famous naina devi temple, at the far end of the lake. Although popularized by the British in the nineteenth century as their summer retreat, Nainital is believed to be much older. Legend has it that while Shiva was carrying Sati’s charred body back to the Himalayas; her eyes had fallen off here, making it one of the 64 shakti peeths (sites where Sati’s burnt body parts and ornaments are supposed to have fallen). The town, the lake, and the temple borrow their names from the legend (naina, meaning eyes in Hindi).

On the lazy Sunday morning when most tourists are still asleep, we walk through the clouds into Narains, an old bookstore at the mall, where my husband gets talking to the proprietor. Among other things, the proprietor, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man, tells us how as a young boy, Jim Corbett, who was born and raised in Nainital, would regularly spend long hours at the shop. While we are still talking about Corbett, an elderly gentleman joins us; the octogenarian reveals how the legendary hunter and conversationalist taught him at Sherwood (a famous boarding school) and hosted his group of friends to breakfast whenever they landed at his doorstep after hiking in the hills. We spend the next few hours browsing through their rich collection of books and listening to many more stories. It is almost afternoon when we leave the store, which is now full of Sainik School boys who are out with their parents on what looks like a visiting Sunday.

At the mall, the tourists are up and about: a few newly-married couples, who cannot see much beyond each other; a large Punjabi family haggling with the boatman; young parents struggling with their toddler; a few groups of youngsters, laughing and back-slapping; some families at the games parlor. There are some locals too, making the most of their Sunday afternoon by indulging in an ice-cream; sitting by the lake on the low, wooden benches; sipping beer at the club; sailing their colourful yachts. They seem to be as happy with their Nainital as we are with ours.   

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Great Living Chola Temples Of Tamilnadu

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Week dated 9th October, 2014.

The seed of my trip to the great living Chola temples of Tamil Nadu were sown on a pleasant morning three years ago, in the courtyard of the Sriranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. I had travelled to the temple towns of Tiruchurapally and Srirangam on a whim and the beauty of their temples had left me spell bound. That morning, as my guide had told me about the other temple towns of Tamil Nadu, I had resolved to come back and experience them for myself, especially the ones enlisted with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. 

The great living Chola temples—Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, Airavatesvara at Darasuram and Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram—are three such temples. Built during the eleventh and twelfth century by the rulers of the Chola dynasty, the most powerful of all dynasties that ruled southern India for over four hundred and fifty years, they still stand intact as a testimony to the affluence, brilliance and craftsmanship of the golden period. A Stamp from UNESCO only confirms their significance as world heritage.

I reach Thanjavur after a long, sleepless night – I had spent half of it in the train with a snoring co-passenger and the other half sitting straight at the Trichy railway station before taking a bus to reach Thanjavur. The gates of the Brihadisvara temple are still shut and the sun still asleep. In the faint light, I can just about make out the silhouette of the temple; the sight is enough to replace all my fatigue with excitement. By the time the gates open, the sky behind the colossal spire has lit up and a brilliant, bright blue canvas with an enormous temple tower stands in front of me.

Built in the eleventh century by Rajaraja Chola, the thousand year old sandstone and granite complex is surrounded by a moat and a boundary, and is among the most valued temple complexes in the country. Its three gopurams, added much later by subsequent dynasties, are significantly smaller than the main spire (an exception to the usual Dravidian architecture), and perfectly compliment the grandness of the 216 feet high structure. Its sculpted, pyramid shaped tower is monolithic, as is the gigantic 16 feet tall Nandi that guards the shrine. The corridors and halls of the temple are adorned with rich, exquisite paintings and murals displaying the life and times of Chola dynasty.

I spend half an hour going around the complex gazing at the humongous spire, the gigantic Nandi, and the sprawling complex. I also visit the three smaller temples of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya before entering the main shrine located in the centre of the courtyard. When I finally reach the sanctum sanctorum, I happen to be the only visitor inside. Two priests—the only other people inside the temple—are busy with their morning rituals and don't even notice my presence. The sanctum is illuminated only by the lights of long, multi-layered oil lamps suspended from the high ceiling. I enjoy a long audience with the lord (a 23 feet high Shivlinga), thank him for getting me here, and offer a token dakshina in the donation box.

Guide maps had told me that the second temple, located in Darasuram, was not more than four kilometers from the famous town of Kumbakonam. I had therefore expected to reach easily, but it took me a good forty minutes to find out how to get to the Airavatesvara temple, my next destination. The journey however, took only twenty.

Built by Rajaraja II, the Airavatesvara temple is much smaller than I expect it to be (the main temple is only 80 feet high). Although a Shiva temple, it is named after Indra’s royal elephant Airavata. According to the legend, cursed by the infamous Durvasa rishi, Indra’s royal elephant had come to the temple and had prayed to Shiva for atonement; he was cured after bathing in the sacred water of the temple tank and has been a deity here ever since.

Unlike the big temple at Thanjavur, the beauty of this one lies in its compactness. Built on a platform carved in the form of a chariot, complete with stone horses and wheels, the temple has ornate pillars and columns with exquisitely carved animal, human and celestial figures. Smaller shrines of Parvati, Ganesha and Subramanya are located next to the main temple that houses the Shivalinga. The entire complex surrounded by lush, beautifully manicured lawns and high palm trees, looks like a picture postcard. I spend a long time inside the sanctum talking to the young priest in broken English and absorbing the serenity and beauty of the place. When I leave the complex, the temple is gleaming like a priceless gem in the light of the setting sun.

My final destination, a temple in the town of Gangaikondacholapuram, was built by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja Chola. He had set up the town of Gangaikondacholapuram after returning victorious from his northern conquests (the name literally translates into ‘the town of the king who brought in the water of Ganga’). An ambitious man, Rajendra Chola had assisted his father in various conquests all throughout the peninsula before setting up his own capital here. He supposedly built this temple to outshine the one in Thanjavur.

But all this information fails me when I reach the Kumbakonam bus stop looking for a bus that could take me to the erstwhile capital. After running from one bus to another, struggling to explain my destination to the drivers, I almost give up on the hope of reaching Gangaikondacholapuram. Just when I am contemplating return, a kind, English-speaking gentleman directs me to the bus going towards my destination. I reach the capital town of Rajendra Chola, four hours later.

The temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, located in the middle of nowhere, is indeed grand – and very well maintained. Larger than the one at Darasuram and much more elaborate than the one at Thanjavur, it stands high at 182 feet inside a large complex, the layout of this complex is different from the other two and the smaller shrines are placed differently. It has no gopuram either.

Although all three temples are living temples – they follow the ancient vedic rituals and the deities are worshipped everyday – I get to see a live, elaborate ceremony only in this one: the priests are pouring milk, honey, water and other offerings on the Shivlinga, hymns are being chanted and a family of four is earnestly praying to Shiva when I reach inside. The sanctum is dark with only faint sunlight illuminating the Shivlinga. Once the ceremony finishes, the gentleman presiding over tells me that the only source of light inside the sanctum is the reflection of sun’s rays from the Nandi outside and that the Shivlinga is at its brightest around four in the evening when the rays fall straight on the Nandi. He also tells me that gopuram of this temple was pulled down by the British while constructing a dam near by (they had found a ready source of stones in it). The broken gopuram happens to be the only clink in Rajendra Chola’s otherwise perfect armour. But then, even the moon has scars.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


So it happened again. I inadvertently offended someone because of my insecurities and limitations, and, once again, ruined my first impression. But I should not be affected by it in the least, given that most of my adult life I have been doing this.

Some months ago, shortly after I had started sharing my blog with people who know me, one of my cousins wrote to me saying how she was amazed to discover what an emotional person I was, because, according to her, like many others, I was an arrogant bitch who cares nothing about others. But I cannot blame her, or anyone else for that matter, for that is an image I perhaps have chosen for myself, although accidentally.

As a child I was very sentimental and naive (I still am, actually), other children would bully me, call me names, use me to get their work done and dump me. But I would be so attached to these so-called friends of mine that I would still long to be with them. I remember when one of my friends had stolen something from the class and when found out, she blamed me for it. The teachers refused to believe what I said and I was made to stand in outside the Principals office for two full days. My legs shook and my back hurt, I wept all day but did not complain, after all it was my friend I was doing it for. But when I went back to her the following day, she refused to talk to me, saying I was a thief. I will never forget that moment of humiliation. At eight I had learnt an important lesson, or not quite.

The thing with people who have very few friends is that those few become the axis of their lives, and they, like me, can go any length -- or breadth -- for them, even when not asked for. And, in doing so, sometimes also expect a little in return, which they usually do not get (ever heard of being taken for granted?). It happened with me too, all the time, and every time I was hurt deeper than before.

And so, one fine day, I wore a mask. A mask that hid my real, gullible self behind a tough, rude exterior. That I was quiet and insecure, and not naturally inclined to talk to strangers only helped.

Fortunately or unfortunately, people who meet me for the first time usually see this mask and are sometimes offended by it. But then there are also those who are able to see beyond the mask, into the eyes, and those are the only ones I really care for. The rest don't matter.

PS: The mask might have reduced the number of times I am hurt by people, but it has not been able to prevent it, even now I keep getting hurt by people I love the most. Don't they say old habits die hard?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

At Home With The Mahatma

My Piece in The Hindu, Oct 4th 2014:

A trip to Porbandar had never been on my travel list, but when I found the opportunity to visit the town, although just for a few hours, I could not let it pass.

Located in between the holy towns of Dwarka and Somnath, along the coast of Gujrat, Porbandar is a pilgrimage in its own right. Although an important port and trade centre, it is most famous for being the birthplace of Gandhi. Everyday, hundreds of people travel the length and breadth of India –and the world—to reach this obscure town and witness for themselves the house where Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi was born on a pleasant morning of 2nd October 1869. My only stop happens to be the same – the birthplace of Gandhi.

Standing tall among crumbling buildings, on a narrow lane, in the heart of Porbandar, is Kirti Bhavan. Distinguishable from the other buildings – mostly small dilapidated shops – by its fresh yellow paint and high grille gates, the complex houses both: the ancestral home of Gandhi and the memorial built by a local industrialist in his honour. And a walkway leading to Kasturba Gandhi’s parental home.

The triple storied haveli, said to have been bought in the seventeenth century by MK Gandhi’s great grandfather from a local woman, is plain and simple, and in no way denotes that its residents were wealthy Dewans of the princely state of Porbandar. The rooms are small, the doors low and the wooden stairs narrow. The only thing that stands out is the green of the windowpanes. But for the red letters on the arch of the doorway claiming it to be ‘The birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi’, the house can pass off as any other old haveli – and the town has many of them, most more elaborate than this.

Although swarming with people of all kinds – rich and poor, young and old, Indians and NRIs, the haveli is calm and peaceful. The visitors are quiet too: climbing up the steep wooden ladder with the help of a thick greasy rope, gazing intently at the red swastik that denotes the exact spot of Gandhi’s birth, reading about his initial years spent in the house, talking in hushed tones. Some seem to be soaking in the peace, others, like me, trying to imagine how the house might have looked more than one hundred and forty years before when Gandhi was born: would anyone have thought that the baby will become one of the chief architects of modern India?

What strikes most about the house is its barrenness – unlike other museums, there is nothing on display here, apart from empty rooms and stark walls.

Within the same complex, stands the memorial or Kirti Mandir. The 79 feet tall temple (commemorating the 79 years of the Mahatma’s life) was completed and inaugurated in May of 1950, two years after Gandhi’s death, and is suppose to have architectural elements from all religions as a symbol of his religious tolerance. Even though Gandhi did not live to see the Mandir, he had known about it and had consented to integrate the memorial with his ancestral home. The papers of consent are exhibited in the library along with many other letters, pictures, and books. Apart from the library there is a small museum, a hall, and two smaller memorials dedicated to Maganlal Gandhi and Mahadev Desai – close aids of Bapu.

It is strange that this part of the complex, with the exhibits, library, museum and a shop should have far lesser visitors than the barren haveli.

The corridor that houses two life-size portraits of Kasturba and Mohandas Gandhi with ‘Truth’ and ‘Non Violence’ etched at their feet however is far from empty; many stand in front of the paintings staring at them as if trying to fathom whether Bapu and Ba actually existed. 

Standing here, in the quiet courtyard, it seems quite possible that they did, although in another world.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Solitary Reaper

It is two 'o clock at night and I am not sleepy. Perhaps because in the last one year, I have hardly slept before dawn. I have been reading, I have been writing, I have been working hard, sometimes all through the night. And after a hard night, sleep does not take long to come by. Tonight I do not want to write, or read though. I want to talk to someone, a friend may be. But all my friends have their own lives to run, their own loneliness to battle, their own problems to solve, besides who wants to talk to a sad woman in the dead of the night?

But why should I be lonely -- or sad? I have two lovely children sleeping right next to me, their faces glowing in the faint yellow light. I also have a husband -- perhaps the best I could ever have -- who loves me and supports me in all I do and want to do. I have a handful of friends too who are supposedly just a phone call away, and then I have a wonderful family. And yet I am alone.

The life of a woman is almost always lonely. On the face of it she is always busy running the house, raising the children, supporting the husband, but within she is often an island standing alone in the middle of the ocean waiting for someone to lose his way and find her. But with so much technology at every one's fingertips, hardly anyone ever looses way or finds the island, those who do, have to eventually return. And so the island waits, sometimes all her life.

It is strange though, at least for me for I have always enjoyed being alone. Having lived in a house full of people, I would look forward to the peace and quiet of an empty house, when I could do what I liked and be who I wanted. I enjoyed my time alone, even though for just a few hours. The solitude would made me feel powerful, in control of myself and my surroundings. The same solitude that now makes me cringe, especially on nights such as this. When I have no one but my tired old laptop for company. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Ghost that changed shapes and A Tortoise that came home

I first saw it in the stories of my husband’s boyhood: when he told me about fishing in the rivulet with his bare hands and when he described the tough climb of the adjoining hills; when he told me about the ghost that changed shapes, and the tortoise that came home. There were also times when my imagination failed me: how could I, a girl born and bred in cities, imagine wild elephants walking into paddy fields, or a pair of dead twins appearing on the river bank? Does the place even exist or is he making it up? I would often wonder.
I got my answer soon after, when I first reached there on a cold winter night, as a bride. With only the headlights of our cars illuminating the dark serpent of a road slithering between hills and forests, the hour long drive from the station seemed endless and eerie. All I could make out in the faint light of the car were the neat little cottages and the smell of the trees, apart from the deep darkness of the night. The bright rays of the sun next morning finally showed me what I had only imagined until now: lush green hills and fluorescent green fields, huge trees and thin rivulets, and among them a neat little township – my husband’s home. The only sound I heard was the sound of birds and the only noise was the noise of the train that chugged along the horizon every few hours. The days passed quickly: there was another wedding in the family, guests to be looked after and a huge feast -- our reception -- to be organised. Soon it was time to leave. 

I went back only ten months later, for my first ever Durga Puja as a Bengali Bou. During the holiday we -- my husband and I -- spent our mornings listening to the chorus of the birds of the large jamun tree in the front yard and the afternoon lazing on the cool grey floor at home. In the evenings we strolled to the marketplace – a complex of barely ten shops – and had our fill of the local junk food: fat jalebis, spicy chops and tangy puchkas. Some days we walked to the other parts of the colony where he showed me his old house (which had once been flooded), his primary school (where he earned many a scar), and the large field (which, during pre cable TV days, was duly transformed into an open air theatre every Sunday evening).

When we were bored (its not easy for city dwellers to live the laidback life of a township), we drove to a quaint railway station called Rakha Mines, a few miles away from home, beyond a small barrage on Suvarnarekha. Set among paddy fields and hutments, with only a ticket window and a tin roof, the tiny station is actually an important stop for most passing trains. On our way back from the station we stopped by at the puja pandal outside the colony where the locals dressed in their festive best, would be going about their puja business: shopping at the stalls and thronging the only ‘hotel’ in the area.

The ten days there passed slowly and quietly, very much like that in the stories I had heard.

In the years that followed father-in-law retired from the service and settled in town. We continued going home but the point of going back to Jadugoda, even for old times sake, never arose. Was it the fear of discovering that the place -- and its people -- had moved on, or that it was no longer home, or was it just detachment, I cannot say. And so, even though only twenty kilometers away, Jadugoda became more and more distant every passing year, until last year when I persuaded husband to take us there for the sake of our daughters: they ought to see the place they hear so many stories about.

We finally reached Jadugoda on a pleasant Sunday morning after a gap of ten years. The long drive had made us hungry and we went straight to the sweet shop. I had expected to feast on fresh breakfast of singhara and ghugni, but the shop that once fed us smoking hot jalebis and chops had nothing other than stale sweets and warm cola to offer. We bought the children some chips from the stall next door and walked around. Most shops were shut and the few that were open were in a state of disarray. The people who kept these shops had also changed. And nobody, other than the old tailor's son, seemed to recognise husband and his brother. The other parts of the colony looked similar: buildings had not been painted, fields had not been cleared, the road had potholes and the footpath had weeds. The place was not even a faint shadow of its former self.

I had expected this image to overrule all other images of the place in my head. But this morning when I read about the Supreme Court's order of shutting the Jadugoda mines – the company that feeds the colony—the first image that came to my mind was not of the impersonal, unimpressive township that I had seen last year, but the magical land that I had witnessed on the dark December night, twelve years ago.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Broken By The Bow

The original write up on Dhanushkodi, an edited version of which was published in The Week on the 6th Sept.

Rameswaram, a small island off the Gulf of Mannar, is popular for its connection with the Ramayana. Legend has it that Rama, on his way back from Lanka, had stopped over at the island to offer prayers to lord Shiva and to atone for his sin of killing Ravana. One of the most revered pilgrimages in the country, and one of the four dhams, it is home to numerous temples, most significant of them being the Ramanathaswamy temple. The temple is believed to have been built around two shivlingas – one, that Sita had created and the other, which Hanuman had brought in. Also famous for its twenty-two tirthas (wells) and unusually long corridors – one of them being the longest in the world – the temple is equally important for shaivaites and vaishanites.

I arrive at the Rameshwaram railway station at four in the morning by the Chennai Express. Having made no hotel reservations, I pin my hope on the railway retiring room, which I have been trying to book unsuccessfully ever since I bought the ticket two months ago. With firm faith in the Indian Railways, I approach the stationmaster requesting for a room, only to be told that all the rooms are taken. Having nowhere to go at four in the morning, I seek refuge with my co passengers, an elderly Brahmin couple from Jodhpur, who I had befriended in the train and, in the process, I share a room with strangers for the first time in my life.

To avoid the early morning crowd at the temple, we leave the lodge almost immediately after checking in. Inside the temple we find the thousand-pillar corridor and the compound mostly to ourselves. After admiring the brightly coloured pillars and the never-ending corridor, we make our way to the sanctum sanctorum and realise why the corridors and compound were deserted: hundreds, if not thousands, of people have already queued up outside the main temple, awaiting their audience with the lord. The morning darshan at the temple is particularly significant for it is the only time when you can see the sphatik lingam that Adi Shankracharya had gifted to the temple. It takes us more than an hour and a half to reach the sanctum sanctorum but the little time we get with the lord, makes up for the wait.

Content with the darshan, my companions now want to bathe in the twenty-two tirtha’s that run along the periphery of the compound. According to popular belief, only when you bathe from the water of each of the twenty-two tanks, do you obtain the complete benefit of the pilgrimage. Although a non-believer of practices like these, I accompany them for the tirthas , it somehow gives me the feeling of taking my parents around. The priest who is facilitating the process, mistakes me to be their orderly, even orders me around a few times, perhaps because I have offered to carry their belongings. He also finds it amusing that I am taking notes instead of praying for atonement. The rituals observed, we finally leave the temple compound, more than two hours after we had entered it.

At six thirty in the morning, hundreds bathe in the sea outside the temple -- infants, children, elderly, women, wheel chair bound -- all for the salvation of their ancestor's souls. Most men have shaven their heads; women meanwhile make small shivlingas out of sand, offer flowers and kumkum to the linga and offer food to crows that hover around the place. Looking at the sea of humanity praying for the peace of their ancestors, I wonder how many of them would have paid similar respect to their elders had they been alive. 

My reason for travelling two thousand seven hundred kilometres away from home however was neither religion nor atonement, it was a tiny shoal called Dhanushkodi, the only land border between India and Srilanka. Once a flourishing town, all that remains of Dhanushkodi today is sand and water. And that little strip of land, jutting into the sea, forming the gateway to the Adam’s bridge, had brought me to the tip of the country on a hot summer morning.

The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by special jeeps, which, with the addition of a little part onto one of their wheels, transform into 4*4 vehicles (it is impossible to drive on the sand in a normal vehicle). We hire the services of a man call Dharmam and his rickety jeep, and drive on an impossibly straight road, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Bay of Bengal on another. The picturesque drive with the waters glimmering in the suns’s rays, the stone boundaries erected for the safety of the road, the sound of the ocean – and the old jeep – is an experience that I thought could not be outdone. Until I reached land’s end that is. At around ten in the morning we are the only people there – apart from the driver and the women who man the refreshment and trinket stalls. 

It is ironical that devastation should be so beautiful. The piece of land where I stand now can pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean: clean, white sand, bright blue sky, sparkling water and untouched by humanity. The ruins only add to the enchanting feel of the place: the remains of a church, with its alter and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall and a half of the hospital; a tall column of arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what once was a railway track. The site makes for a perfect picture.

My not knowing Tamil, at this point, becomes a handicap, but with the little information available in English, and a broken conversation with Dharmam, I find out more about the ghost town: Dhaushkodi, which literally translates into bow's end (named after Rama's bow, which supposedly broke the bridge on the sea), was once a busy town with schools, temples, a post office, a railway station, a railway hospital, a church, customs offices and all possible amenities. But everything changed on the night of 23rd Dec 1964, when a massive cyclonic storm hit the coastal settlement and huge tidal waves engulfed the entire town, and a passenger train with more than a hundred people on board. Since then, the town has been declared unfit for habitation. Even today, fifty years later, the only sign of life here are the red crabs and the green weeds. The few people who work here, return much before the sun sets.

Although I have always known about the place – and its story – listening to it now, standing at the spot, makes me uneasy. As I drive back, I think about the contrast between the twin towns, just thirty kilometers apart, they seem to belong to different worlds: one – a bustling temple town, brimming with life; the other – a barren land, with only the ghosts of the past for company. I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for peace and calm, but I now want to escape to the chaos of Rameshwaram.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


The phone calls slowly become sparse, the messages too. You ignore, believing it to be a sign of maturing of the relationship. Your heart says something is not right, but you shut it up. You pray that your intuition is wrong, that your thoughts are a fragment of your imagination. You make peace with the demon.

Soon the phone calls stop completely, as do the messages. Your questions are met with a stoic silence. Finally, you ask in a quivering voice. But instead of a response you get accusations -- of being silly, sentimental, stupid. You retreat, feeling guilty.

Then you find out, quite by chance. There is someone else, there always was someone else, you could just not see it. You cry, you shout, he stands still, looking away. You leave. You say you hate him, but in your heart you know you love him.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No Greater Love Than The Love Of Food

When it comes to Parsi food, old Bombay is a gold mine. There are numerous establishments – some well known, others not so famous – that offer the various culinary delights of the community to all and sundry. To be in South Bombay, and not sample Parsi food therefore is nothing short of sacrilege. Having sinned enough already, I am in no mood for another act of impiety, so off I go on a hot, humid afternoon for my pilgrimage.

My first stop is Britannia and Company; housed in a heritage building of the iconic Ballard estate, right behind the Bombay Stock Exchange; the café-cum-restaurant has been around for close to ninety years and is easily one of the most famous symbols of Parsi - Iranian food in Bombay. Set up in the early nineteenth century by a family that migrated from Iran, the restaurant started off by selling Iranian delicacies to the British officers working in the area. The owner’s subsequent marriage to a Parsi lady ensured introduction of famous Parsi dishes in the menu. Today the place is as famous for its salli boti as it is for the berry pulav, and its crème caramel as authentic, as Pallonji’s raspberry (a Bombay staple drink served in cola style glass bottles).

Run by an identical looking father-son duo, the cafe is delightfully personal – the elderly father insists on taking orders himself, making small talk, and even offering you his signature drink in his signature style, “To beat the Mumbai heat, have fresh lime soda sweet”, he tells me. I am totally floored by his charm and ready to order everything he recommends when my pragmatic husband intervenes and we end up ordering only two items – berry pulav and salli boti. Dejected, I look around.

The place looks every bit of the Parsi-Iranian cafés I have only seen in movies until now. The bentwood tables and chairs, imported from Poland shortly after the café opened are still intact, as is the grandfather clock and the three mounted flags on the wall (Indian, British and Iranian). Along the service windows rest sacks full of raw material and crates of Pallonji’s drinks. The other items that adorn the place are: a huge fridge, plastic containers (used for takeaways) and signboards warning us against arguing with the staff.

Our food arrives in no time and I promptly dig in to the aromatic pulav. The mild rice of the pulav is contrasted perfectly by the flavourful gravy on which the rice sits; the tiny tart berries sprinkled over the rice add another layer of flavour to the dish. The berries, incidentally, are still imported from Iran. While I am enjoying every bite of the mild Iranian pulav, my mutton-loving husband is busy tucking into the food of his dream – salli boti, a dish made out of chunky pieces of mutton topped with a generous dose of fried potato juliennes, accompanied with the thinnest and softest rotis I have ever seen. We eat in silence and wipe the plates clean in less than ten minutes. I am now dreaming of the wobbly crème caramel but husband has other plans to fulfill my sweet craving. I bid a reluctant adieu to one love of my life, to follow another.

By the time we leave Britannia, the gentle sea breeze has started to flow into the Victorian Bombay and we walk along the fort to reach a nondescript building at Churchgate where our dessert awaits us.
It is easy to miss K Rustomji, one of the most popular ice-cream joints in south-Bombay, if you have not been there before. Situated in a corner of a nondescript, vacant building, the shop is not marked by a fancy board or an illuminated hoarding but by the large number of people awaiting their turns to pick up their favourite flavour. The place looks far from inviting but boasts of a mind-boggling variety of ice cream, ranging from the regular vanilla and strawberry to muskmelon and kokum (over 45 in all). I settle for nescafe while husband, a true connoisseur of sour and tart flavours, chooses kokum.

Unlike the gentleman at Britannia, the man at the counter here looks bored and disinterested. The look on his face kills my curiosity about the history of the place and I promptly retreat into my shell. The ice cream, thick slabs contained only by paper-thin wafer sheets, however makes up for his disinterest. It is luscious, flavourful and really, really creamy. We soon join the crowd laughing and licking the sweet liquid flowing down our hands, totally in love with the bawas and their food.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Calcutta and I

There are things in life that you choose, and there are things life chooses for you. Often both are interlinked, although you might not realise it until much later. 

Seventeen years ago, as an eighteen year old, I had to choose between staying back in a noisy, chaotic and crowded Calcutta, where my father had been transferred to and was very excited about (although I never understood why), or to go back to the comforting, calm and a more indolent Lucknow. I chose the latter and was confident that I was done with Calcutta, at least for this lifetime (I had stayed there through the summer and had despised every day of the stay). But Calcutta, as I were to find out later, was not done with me.

In a matter of five years, I decided to marry a Bengali man; that he had no connection with the city whatsoever was my way of making peace with my decision. But how long could I keep a Bengali out of Calcutta? Although not connected to the city, he was very fond of it, and our annual holiday started being planned via Calcutta. Durga Puja, after all, was the perfect excuse to explore the city. I had no choice but to accompany him. The first few visits were not easy, I was so closed to the place that I would only look at the negatives – the old dilapidated buildings, ready to fall off; the unruly traffic that reminded me of Kanpur; the suffocating, frenzied crowd at the Puja pandals. It was overwhelming to say the least. Over the years, however, I warmed up to the city, even started to look forward to the visits. But to say that I liked the place was still not entirely correct.

My fondness for Calcutta developed years later when I got to live there for a few months, although intermittently. That my stay coincided with the most beautiful months of the year, and I stayed in one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods helped too (isn't it easier to fall in love when conditions are favourable?). In those six months between autumn and spring, I became a full- fledged Calcuttan and for the first time encountered the real Calcutta. I experienced the warmth and the kindness of people and the joy of a laid back life. I experienced the madness of Durga Puja, the excitement of the New Year, the reverence of Saraswati Puja and the colours of Holi. 

I also understood the city better: no longer did I see the dilapidated buildings, the suffocating crowds and the maddening chaos, but noticed the history behind the buildings, the people behind the crowds, the energy that created the chaos. Although it was a period of personal turmoil (my mother was on regular dialysis, grandmother had been detected with cancer, husband had met with a serious accident and I was just out of a severe bout of typhoid), I still found peace in the city -- and the strength to handle all of it at once. 

Just as I had started to fall in love with the city I had once vowed never to come back to, it was time for me to say goodbye: mother was now well and grandmother dead; and my brother, whose stay in the city seemed to have been synced with mother's treatment, was moving out too. There was no reason for me to stay back. And so I bid a reluctant goodbye to Calcutta on a pleasant spring afternoon, four years ago. 

In the last four years, although I have not set foot in the city, I have often been there: I have been to 24 Hindustan Park, our home in Calcutta; I have been to the corner sweet shop called Hindustan Sweets; I have spent many an evening at the puchka wala, and many mornings buying fresh greens from the sabzi wala on the pavement. I have also roamed the crowded lanes of Garia Haat, and relaxed in the courtyard of Birla Mandir. And yes, I have had the piping hot singhara, the warm gur rasgulla, the spicy rolls and the chilled mishti doi too -- all in my mind.  

As I wait for the right time to go back to the city; to savour its flavours, to absorb its sounds, to witness its sights; I can only hope Calcutta is not done with me, for I surely am not done with it. Not yet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Dream

 “Do you know how badly I want it?"

 I want it too”

“But how? I am a mother”

“I will turn the mother into the woman she ought to be”

 “No, that wouldn’t be right”

She had just come out of the bath and had dressed in her favourite yellow kurta, when he rang the bell. Although faded and worn out, the kurta made her feel beautiful. Her hair, as always, were tied back, and face was scrubbed clean. She smiled the smile that he was so fond of, and let him in.

They stood in the balcony, looking at the busy highway on a Friday night. The sky was bright and stars abundant. The gentle monsoon breeze played with a few stray strands of her hair, which, she repeatedly pushed away from her face.  As they stood there looking at the stars, talking of the ten years that had passed between them, she slowly slid his arm around her waist and pulled herself closer. Her body moved rhythmically to her breath, which could be heard in the silence of the night. He slid his hand inside the kurta through the slit. Her skin was not that of a young girl, but of a mother. “Make me a woman again,” she said, looking into his eyes.

It was hard to say who wanted the other one more. Her mouth was as hungry as his. She held him close and tight as she kissed him passionately; she did not want to loose him again. He on the other hand, held her softly and gently, trying not to hurt her. His mouth explored her mouth; her face, her eyes, and her neck, while his hands caressed his favourite part of her body.

She had dreamt about this moment many, many times but had always been unsure about it. He was not her kind, and yet she was drawn to him since the first day. He had always been open about his relationships with her, and maybe that is what kept her away from him. In the years that had followed, they had been friends and co-workers but never lovers. And then they had lost touch. In the years they were apart, she had often woken up dreaming about him. She could never tell why.

He, on his part, had liked her too. She had always reminded him of things and of places he had left behind. Over the years he had grown very fond of her and valued her as a close friend. And then she had left, abruptly, and he had gotten busy with his life, until he found her again – just by chance.

After having loved her bottom, his hands were now on her smooth back. From under the kurta, he unclasped the hooks and pulled the fabric off her. In another moment they were in each other’s arms like long-lost lovers. Not a trace of awkwardness, not a sign of discomfort. Their bodies, like their minds, were made for each other. What followed was a dream come true. A dream that had taken ten years to be fulfilled.