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.