Thursday, December 31, 2015

This New Year, Don't Forget The Old.

A version of this post appeared in The Open Road Review.

A couple of days ago, I got myself a sleek, shiny, and very suave MacBook. It had been on my mind for a while, but I had been resisting the change: I did not want to let go of my old one.

The old laptop, which came to me on a pleasant November evening 6 years ago (it was an exceptionally beautiful piece of engineering back then), has been one of my most trusted friends ever since. It has seen me struggle through long, sleepless nights. It has helped me fight loneliness and anxiety. It has kept me company when everyone else was either too busy or too tired for me. It has, in a way, been my alter ego. For the past many months though, owing to my incessant use and my children's periodical abuse, the machine had started to get moody: it had become slow, it would not charge, its battery was as good as dead. I knew I had to fix it, but I never found the time: there was always something more important to do. And now, that I wanted it to work, it wouldn't.

To keep my life running, I had to buy a new one.

While I was undoubtedly excited about the new acquisition, I also felt guilty about the old. All through my drive home I had only one thing on my mind: How do I keep it alive? Once at home though, as soon as I opened the package and set my eyes on the gleaming new silver machine, I forgot all about my old faithful friend. I have, since, been busy fiddling with it. (You guessed it right, even this piece is being written on the new machine).

In the last few months, I have had to buy quite a few new things and every time I have gone through similar emotions. I resist the change until it becomes absolutely necessary, I shed a tear or two while the old product is being taken away, I nag the husband about how I miss it, and then, quite strangely, in just a few days, I am so occupied with the new, that I hardly remember the old. There is something else that I notice. I tend to care for the new much more than I had cared for the old.

It is amazing how quickly we adapt to change, and how, in the excitement of exploring the unknown, we often leave the familiar behind. Things that once comforted us become insignificant even as newer experiences take their place. This holds as true for people and relationships, as it does for things and experiences.

Just like products, we also tend to take people and relationships for granted. When we know that we do not run the risk of losing someone or something, the effort we put into maintaining it drops drastically. And so, we ignore our best friend's phone call, we forget the spouse's birthday, we overlook the needs of our parents, we don't meet our siblings for months, because we know they will not, go anywhere.

But what if they did? What if relationships, and people also came with an expiry date?

In the last few months, with my mother constantly on and off life-support, I suddenly realise that people, even the ones we always take for granted, can go away too, sometimes without so much as a warning. And, unfortunately, unlike a new laptop, or a new refrigerator, we cannot buy a new mother, or a new lover. Isn't it fair then that we put in a little extra effort in preserving what we have, rather than always being enticed by what we want?

P.S. Although I began writing this piece on the new machine, it was completed on the old one. The comfort of the old and trusted after all, far outweighs the excitement of the new and unknown.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Breaking Fast At Karim

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

Having a breakfast of Nihari & Roti at Karim is as much a process as reaching Jama Masjid at 8:30 in the morning. The tiny outlet, famous all over the world for its flavourful Muglai food, serves breakfast only between 9:00 AM and 10:00 AM. Come too early and you will find its doors shut, reach too late and you will have to stand in a long queue of fellow epicures relying purely on luck to get a portion of the royal breakfast.

Thankfully, I arrive at the right time (8:35 AM). Like every time in the past, I have adhered to the process – taken an auto to the nearest metro station, changed two trains, then taken a cycle rickshaw to reach the obscure lane in the heart of old Delhi called Gali Kababiyan – and, like every time in the past, I have taken exactly an hour and forty minutes to get here. The place is already open and some tables have been occupied too, but I am lucky it is a weekday and manage to find a table to myself (one usually has to share the large tables here).

Unlike most places, the kitchen and the tandoor at Karim are located in the outer courtyard in semi-covered verandas and not inside the restaurant. One benefit of this design is that you can see the food being cooked and choose whatever you like, the flipside, however, is that you find it hard to wait for the food to be served to you. 

While walking inside I have noticed that the two deghs, one containing their legendary mutton stew called Nihari, the other a trotter curry called Paya are ready and their rich aroma is wafting in the heavy December air. The garnish of julienned ginger and chopped green chillies is ready too, wedged lemons meanwhile wait at the side; the only thing yet to be made are the large, fluffy khamiri rotis. I am eager to order my food, and some more (the quantities are limited and there is always the risk of it running out) but the waiter is in no mood to listen to me yet – he will take the orders only at 8:55 – so I wistfully look at the cream colored Ajanta clock on the wall waiting for it to strike 8:55.

With large marble top tables, plastic chairs, melamine plates and run of the mill glasses & cutlery, Karim Hotel, as it likes to call itself, is as basic as it gets. There is no fancy décor, or ambient lighting either. I still remember being surprised by the place when I saw it for the first time about twelve years ago. Having heard lofty descriptions of the place and the food by my foodie husband, I had expected it to be posh restaurant in the heart of Delhi, but it turned out to be a crowded café in a narrow by lane of old Delhi, overflowing with people of all classes. The food however was a revelation: they clearly believe in reserving all flamboyance for their recipes. Since then Delhi and Karim have become synonyms for me, especially during winters.

I am lost in thoughts of the food that has turned a vegetarian like me into a hard-core meat eater when the waiter finally asks me what I want. I look at the clock again and it is exactly 8:55 AM. I place my order for Nihari and Rotis and wait, salivating. At exactly 9 o’clock the waiter, dressed in a maroon Pathan Suit and a white cap, walks in with six shallow bowls, all balanced on his right hand; an apprentice in a similar brown outfit walks alongside with a pile of beautiful, fluffy rotis.

In a matter of seconds, I am dunking my crispy roti in the falvourful river of ghee and choicest of spices ensuring each bite has its share of ginger and green chillies. I eat slowly savouring every bite of the succulent, melt-in-your mouth mutton and fluffy roti. After all, I have an entire hour to relish my hard earned food. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

India–Pakistan Future: The Dream of an Indian Girl

This piece first appeared on The Open Road Review.

While I was growing up, one of the few things my rather quiet mother would often talk about was her time in Amritsar. She had spent the first few years of her married life there and was, understandably, very fond of the place. Among many other stories the one that came out most often was how, while in the town, she and father would only listen to Radio Pakistan, and watch only Pakistani TV: not only was the transmission easily accessible – Amritsar is hardly a stone's throw away from Lahore – but also, according to her, the quality and content of the Pakistani Radio as well as television was far superior than its Indian counterparts.

My first rendezvous with Pakistani shows happened much later, in the late 80s when they had started to make way into our drawing rooms through the VCR. Like most other erudite people, who looked down upon the violent, cheap Hindi films of the era, my parents had also migrated to Pakistani shows. They would get the entire series of popular Pakistani series’ like Dhoop Kinare, Tanhaiyan, Ankahee, on video tapes and would watch them back to back, often throughout the night. Something they never did otherwise.

It will be incorrect to say that at the age of eight I followed the context or the complexity of the shows, but I distinctly remember looking forward to watching them with my parents. There was something supremely soothing about those everyday stories, which although were not the same as ours, were not entirely different either.

While on one hand the accessibility to the TV shows of Pakistan was dependent on multiple factors, some within our control, some outside of it, Pakistani music was a permanent fixture in our house. Tapes of Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum, and Mehdi Hassan, among many others, were played every single evening in our home. To say I grew up on their poetry and their music will not be incorrect.

But this was until fifteen years ago, while I was still in my parent's home.

After moving out like most comforting things that had to be given up in pursuit of a career, the music and memories of our neighbours were also abandoned. Even though they tried to make their presence felt occasionally, they were never paid heed to: there were more important matters to attend.

Another thing had happened in this time: The Kargil War.

After witnessing the death and destruction of the war and the failed attempts towards restoring peace between the two countries afterwards, I, like many others of my generation, had completely switched off from Pakistan. The growing terrorism and extremism there had only added fuel to fire. In just a few years Pakistan became an unknown, alienated land with unknown people and places. The only tales we heard were tales of war and terrorism; the only TV coverage we saw was that of devastation. And so, slowly but steadily, the country ceased to exist for me.

In the past few months, since I began to read more and more of Indian fiction, especially the works of Manto and Khushwant Singh centered around the partition, I was once again piqued about the place. Around the same time I heard about the recent crop of Pakistani serials that has been playing on Indian channels. My parents, who are otherwise averse to the TV, were seen glued to a certain channel at a certain time through the months that the series ran. They would even talk to me about it fondly over long-distance phone calls, often reminiscing of their Amritsar days.

Perhaps it was the conversation with my parents, perhaps the literature that I had been reading, or perhaps just plain chance, that I started looking up, and listening to, a lot of Pakistani music around the same time. Not the traditional Nazms and Ghazals that I grew up on, but contemporary music. What began with just curiosity, ended with me playing Coke Studio Pakistan in loop through many weekends and watching music videos for days at end. In other words I became my parents.

These endless hours of watching them in action taught me many things, but most importantly, it made me realize that Pakistan is not the orthodox, backward, old-fashioned country that it is made out to be. It showed me that even today, after almost 70 years of being different, often warring, entities, how similar Pakistanis and Indians are -- in their music, language, culture, even looks: but for the titles, I mostly cannot tell their music from ours, their shows from ours, their literature from ours, their people from ours.

While reading a few texts, watching a few shows, and listening to a few songs does not make me a scholar in the subject, it surely gives me enough reason to believe that India and Pakistan were not meant to be broken up. And, if not for the British, the border, and the political vendetta, the common man of the two countries would probably prefer to be together -- not only in music, films, television, but in everything else. I hope I live to see the day that happens.

Monday, December 21, 2015

This Holiday Let Your Children Be, They Will Thank You For It.

I dread vacations, I really do. And, I think, almost every mother does.

Every year, for the past four years now, I brace myself with all possible ammunition much before the school break begins. I order books, I get drawing-books, I buy crayons, and colour pencils, and paints. I pull out all the birthday gifts that I have successfully stowed away for months for this is when they will be utilized best. I even procure CDs and DVDs (although this year I have played smart and installed a new set-top-box that allows me to record TV shows and movies). Because all of this is not enough, I reserve train tickets well in advance too – sometimes to mother’s place, sometimes to brother’s, and mostly to both. And yet, when the vacations begin, I find myself terribly ill equipped to handle the girls.

Perhaps that is why, no sooner than the holidays start, most mothers, like me, want to pack the children off to some camp or other. Some do it because they genuinely believe it helps their child, some do it because the neighbour is doing so, while some do it simply to keep the children away. This year, worried about engaging the kids, I was tempted do so too: they will stay away for sometime, and, hopefully learn a thing or two.

All set to get them enrolled, I asked my older daughter what course would she want to attend. “I want to stay at home, mumma. It is my holiday, I don’t want to do anything.” Her response got me thinking.

While growing up, not so long ago, our holidays were either made of simple things or nothing at all. Our mother never bought us paints, or books, or videos, neither were we given new toys or games (come to think of it, we hardly had any toys). We made do with whatever we already had – we read the same old comics a million times over, watched the same TV shows over and over again; we painted with leftover paints on old newspapers or behind old calendars, and we invented indoor games (some of which I now play with my girls). When we were bored we helped mother put together a cake, or ice cream: Oh! What joy it was to repeatedly check the freezer and finally discover that the ice cream had set.

Sometimes, to break the monotony, father would pack us off to granny’s, where we did more of the same stuff although in a different setting and with a whole gang of cousins in tow.

This process of doing nothing though, taught us many a life’s skill. The incessant quarreling among cousins gave us lessons in interpersonal relationships. Painting on old newspaper taught us recycling. Helping mother bake a cake and set the ice-cream taught us patience. Reading the same comic over and over again ensured we valued what we had – and worked hard for what we wanted. The list was endless.

In the brief period during which I graduated from being a child to being a mother, the holidays however underwent a makeover. Parents now had more money, more exposure, more expectations but little time or patience. They wanted to utilize these precious weeks/months to ensure their child was a notch above his peers: he should know swimming, dancing, music, martial arts, puppetry, theatre, doll making, and every other possible skill. The availability of crèches, day-care centers and camps assuring to turn their children into a Picasso or a Tendulkar only helped their cause.

And so, vacation after vacation, more and more children are dully transferred from one camp to another in order to acquire yet another skill, unravel yet another hidden talent, their holidays, needless to say, being sacrificed in the process. Something even I was tempted to do.

Thanks to the reminder from my daughter though, this year – and hopefully in the years to come – I plan to leave the girls alone, doing nothing; I plan to join them too. Who knows what this nothingness might nurture us into.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pigeons and Parrots

Everyday from my 9th floor balcony I see many things. I see the runway with hundreds of big and small air-crafts glistening in the sun, I see the highway with thousands of cars running about at frantic speed, I see the high-rises of Gurgaon gleaming with neon signages, I see the metro slithering like a serpent suspended mid-air. 

I also see things that are a little closer than these, like the children playing behind the apartment complex, or the labours working atop the 10th floor building next-door, the lovers walking hand in hand to the lone bench in the middle of the park on hot humid afternoons. But closest to me are birds that come to my balcony and sit on my window sills every morning and evening (I can hear them even as I type this).

While there are many birds that I get to see -- Mainas, Eagles, Owls, Bats -- two that distinctly stand out are Pigeons and Parrots. They are not only largest in numbers but can be seen and heard most regularly. What stands out even more distinctly is how diffrent they are from each other, especially when you try to get closer to them.

A pigeon is omnipresent. You can give it food, pet it, and, in some cases, even hold it. It does not mind. If at all, it enjoys the attention, and at times, when you don't give it that, it even walks inside your door to demand it. However much you may like it, after a point, you start getting a little tired: you want it to go away.

A parrot, on the other hand, is not only shy, but maintains his distance too. I often hear flocks of parrots making noise and rush outside to see them, but can hardly spot any. I hang from the balustrade, I crane my neck in all directions, go from one balcony to the other but all I get to spot (that too occasionally) is the odd bright tail.

What brings out the difference in the them most however is when you try to capture them in your camera. While a pigeon poses patiently for hours (it really does), looks into your camera (even into your eyes sometimes) and does not object to its personal bubble being bursted. A parrot is almost never available for you. It does not let you come close, it does not pose, it gets really offended even if you direct a lens towards it even from a distance and is gone in no time.

And while I can go on and on about them, I cannot help but wonder how among humans we have both parrots and pigeons abound. There are pigeons who are always around, to the extent of being overbearing, and there are parrots which are always elusive, to the extent of being frustrating. It is for us to decide what we want to be -- a parrot or a pigeon, or, perhaps a healthy combination of both.

P.S. Just when I finished the piece and stepped into the balcony, I see a flock of five parrots hanging from the ledge of the window. It was closest I had ever been to them. Without wasting a minute, I tiptoed inside and got my camera. Surprisingly enough, they sat still allowing me to click pictures of them, and, if it was not for the damn diwali bomb that went off and scared them away, they would have been around for much longer.

Maybe they read my post too.

Monday, November 2, 2015


One of the many online quizzes that I take in good humor tells me this: The hidden weakness of your subconscious mind is fear of Betrayal.

Quite coincidentally, I had completed writing the following poem two only nights ago:

I miss you every night, when I  am in my bed, warm and tight;
My pillow turns into your shoulder and my blanket into your warm embrace,
but I still miss your chest upon which I used to rest my face;

I close my eyes and pretend things are same and you are still my friend;
I want to believe there is nothing between us, neither hurt nor malice,
nor are there two broken hearts to mend;

I still believe like every day you will return to me in the middle of the night,
and slip into the bed next to me without even turning on the light, 
then you will hold me gently and say: baby, you make my life beautiful and bright everyday;

I smile imagining what my friends would say, when I tell them what we talk of night and day,
will they laugh, will they tease, or will they envy me for the compliments you pay;
And then the truth strikes me much to my dismay, that far from my life you have now gone away;

I feel warm drops trickle down from the sides of my eyes, wetting the pillow where my head rests;
Even as I twist and turn in my bed, longing for your arms, your shoulders, and your chest,
I know you are with someone else, putting her love through a similar test.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of Times Gone By and Lost Loves: Running and Writing

A piece I had started writing in summer, to commemorate my 100th post. The 100th post came and went, but the piece remains unfinished. This morning, while rummaging through the drawers, found the closing part of the piece scribbled behind a ticket: I had written it just after returning from a long, tiring run, even before I could get out of my shoes. Pity, I neither run, nor write anymore.

While I was running this evening, chasing another self-made goal -- of distance, not of speed or time -- it struck me how my running is eerily similar to my writing. Just like I run alone, without any support, guide or coach, I write alone too. Just like I had never written before in life, I had never ran either. And yet, today, I cannot do without any of the two.

Sometimes I sprint, sometimes I jog, sometimes I only walk. 

When I walk, I am more receptive to things around me. I see the flowers and notice the birds, I feel the breeze and sense the heat. Just like when I write slowly and steadily, I have the time to focus on others' works, to see what is happening around me, to learn from others. Although lost in those trappings I sometimes forget to run and have to remind myself of my goal. 

When I run, even for a short distance, I loose my breath. I can neither concentrate on my surroundings, nor the experience; all I do is think about reaching the (self made) finishing line. I sweat, I pant, I loose my breath; my heart meanwhile is ready to break out of the chest. But in the end, I am always happy. There is a sense of pride in my own little achievement, something I can share with no one but myself. When I write maniacally, for days and nights, I feel the same: I am tired and lost, with only one goal in mind: finishing the piece. 

The hardest part however is climbing the nine flights of stairs (180 of them), after the walk or run. It feels just like waiting for your piece to be published for months together.

Monday, October 26, 2015

This Garden Rocks

This piece first appeared in The Hindu.

I arrive at the Rock Garden on a hot, sultry evening shortly after Nek Chand’s demise. His death has been closely and eerily followed by Le Corbusier’s and has expedited my forever pending trip to Chandigarh. And I do not seem to be the only one: the place is swarming with people of all shapes and sizes, age and gender; the spacious parking lot is full, and the queue in front of the ticket booth serpentine.

The Rock Garden looks ordinary from outside. It has high, cemented boundary walls and a low, narrow gate to get inside. The only unusual thing I spot is a row of geese sitting atop the boundary, dressed in pieces of ceramic.

All the pictures I have ever seen of the Rock Garden have given me an impression of a wide-open space with the famous cement figures jutting out of concrete floor. Since someone had once told me there was landscaping and a waterfall too, I had imagined those to be a part of the background. Presently I can neither see the statuettes, nor any open space: the low, arched gate has led me into a winding alley whose walls seem to be closing in on me: it is so narrow that only one person can walk through it at a time. Expecting to find a waterfall here seems out of the question.

I walk through the alley and reach a small juncture with a little pond to the left and a walkway to the right. A young couple clicks selfies by the pond and the steady stream of visitors duck their heads to walk through the walkway. Adjacent to the walkway is a tiny room; with low ceiling and dark interior, it looks more like the mouth of a cave. A signboard tells me this is the room where Nek Chand had begun the creation of the Rock Garden back in 1958.

The story of how Rock Garden came about is a legend in its own right.

Shortly after independence, with Lahore moving to Pakistan, Punjab needed a new capital. Nehru, it is believed, wanted a to create a city that would be India’s answer to the modern capital cities of the west and handed over this responsibility to the renowned French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. Well known for his designs and symmetry, Corbusier created an architectural masterpiece with perfect squares and boulevards, distinct residential and business districts; iconic office complexes, lakes, parks, marketplaces, and, decorated it with lots and lots of greenery. This city was called Chandigarh.

Alongside the construction of the modern marvel of Corbusier, another story was unfolding. While the famous French architect was painstakingly creating Nehru’s dream city, a humble Pakistan born Indian man called Nek Chand was busy giving shape to a world of his own, right in the backyard of Corbusier’s perfectly planned township.

Nek Chand, who worked as a road inspector with the Public Works Department, had witnessed the destruction of scores of villages to make space for the city. He had also noticed the waste that came with the destruction: broken roofs, tiles, cement bags, pipes, stones, wires, metal sheets, drums, ceramic switches, pottery and a lot more. Nek Chand, who had been fond of modeling and remodeling since his childhood, secretly started gathering all the waste material on a piece of unused land and toying with it in the dead of the night. His game of hide and seek went on for about eighteen years, until the site was accidently discovered.

The barren piece of land had, by now, been transformed into a work of art, although the authorities did not think so. They were outraged by a humble road inspector’s audacity to use government land, and threatened to raze his creation to ground. Thankfully better sense prevailed. This piece of land went on to become one of the biggest icons of Chandigarh and Nek Chand’s story a tale of the legend. Which, after his death, seems to have become popular once again.

I follow the visitors through a long, narrow tunnel and arrive at a landing. I can hardly believe what I see next. Two large waterfalls stand right in front of me facing each other. They are rocky, they are high, and they look inaccessible, and yet hoards of people stand in and around the water squealing with joy, like children who have discovered a hidden treasure. Some not-so-enthusiastic ones meanwhile can be seen sitting on the stairs of an amphitheatre like space adjacent to the falls gazing at the deep grey abstract murals.

If there is a pattern to the Rock Garden, it is in its haphazardness: none of the walkways is straight, or broad, or levelled; no two spaces look similar, and you don’t know what to expect next. There are fort like high walls made up of cement sacks, there are low boundaries created with upturned clay pots and electrical fuses, there are arterial root like structures made with hosepipes, there are steep staircases made with pebbles; there are also waterfalls, tunnels, ponds, wells, hutments, canals, caves, and everything is carved out of some sort of waste.

After having witnessed the furor and excitement at the waterfall, I walk through a rocky cave with a pebbly floor next. Ahead of me is a Bengali family along with the grandmother in her eighties unperturbed by the steep stairs and the slippery stones beneath her feet, behind me is a Sikh family with noisy toddlers; along with me are boys from IIM, girls from a local college, and a young swooning couple holding hands and giggling from time to time. The Rock Garden, whose name is an oxymoron in itself, is clearly a place for everyone.

The rocky cave leads to another narrow clearing with a high cliff. On top of the cliff are models of big and small houses, wells and a temple. The cliff is made of cinder and the houses with discarded roof tiles and stones. The set up, engulfed in silence unlike the noisy waterfall, looks like a cluster of homes in a village. Most of Nek Chand’s work, in fact, is believed to have been modelled after the memories of his village in pre-partitioned Punjab.

With ponds, wells, hutments, temples, narrow lanes, uneven surfaces, and arched doors the place indeed recreates an interesting ecology; the cliffs and waterfalls only add to the drama, but my eyes are looking for Nek Chand’s trademark statuettes.

The statuettes, which are made of cement and adorned with broken bangles, or pieces of ceramic cups and saucers, have been the face of Chandigarh and Nek Chand as far as an outsider is concerned, and I am no exception. I had come here looking for them, hours later I have yet to lay my eyes on them. I can now spot exit signs and wonder if I have missed a crucial turn and with it the figurines. When I ask, I am directed towards the exit again. Wondering what the matter could be, I arrive in another part of the rock garden totally different from what I have seen until now.

If the first part of the Rock Garden was a disorganized village with unrelated parts of ecology coming together, this part is order and symmetry personified. Considered as phase one of the 25-acre complex, this is also where I finally come face to face with his famous statuettes. Contrary to my imagination, they are neither jutting out of a large flat surface, nor have waterfalls in the background. Instead, they stand elegantly on flat inclined surfaces on either side of a broad lane with barren walls behind them.

On one platform I see a cluster of young boys in half-pants and bush shirts, standing in orderly files like students awaiting their P.T teacher’s command to march ahead, on another is a group of men squatting on the floor, smoking chillams and hukkahs. There are more men and boys around: a band party with drums, trumpets, tambourines and dancers; a group of revelers with food and beer, priests with dhotis and turbans, and qawwals with caps, they are dressed in terracotta, broken tiles, glass bangles, cups and saucers; some are wearing inverted bowls as caps, some have pointed hats made up of pebbles.

Just when I am getting a little tired of the male dominance, I spot a platform full of women covered in stones, their children attached to their sides – a metaphor I can totally relate to as a mother. On another platform I spot a happy groups of girls in skirts dancing gracefully, perhaps to the music that the men from the band party on the opposite platform are playing.

But not everyone seems happy here: a few yards away from the motley group are hundreds of men and women looking dejected. They stand listlessly staring into nothingness. Some are dressed in deep grey concrete, some covered with light grey cement; some stand in attention, while some have drooping shoulders and bent backs. Their faces are expressionless and their eyes blank. Some of them look lonely, some scary, and some very, very sad; together they seem to be mourning their creator, Nek Chand.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Trap of Watsapp -- And How I Got Out Of It

This piece appeared in The Hindu

“Hello, Writer Sahiba! What’s happening?” I was a little surprised to hear an old friend’s voice early in the morning.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was happy to talk to him but when you suddenly hear from someone after months, that too early morning, you can get inquisitive. As it turned out, the friend, who I speak with once a year for precisely three minutes (on his birthday or mine), had sent me a group invite that I had not yet accepted. And that is why he was calling on a Monday morning. I however did not remember receiving anything.

A series of questions and answers later I figured that the invite was for a Watsapp group, which apparently had all the ex classmates listed and I was the only one missing in action – and thereby missing out on all the action. I could only smile in response.

I had first logged in to Watsapp a year and a half ago much against my wishes. 

Being technologically challenged and resistant to change has always made it difficult for me to discover new things and even longer to accept them: by the time I knew what Orkut was, the world had moved on to Facebook; I had barely managed to get myself a Facebook account when Google plus arrived taking the world round and round in circles; and Twitter? Let's not even get there. So it was only natural for me to have no inkling of what Watsapp was all about until a cousin introduced me to it. I didn’t think much of it even after the introduction and incessant goading to join it.

Peer pressure however can be difficult to ward off even at the ripe old age of 35. After having ignored multiple pleas and being stubborn about not signing up on the app for months, it had started to get tough to defend my stance. The tipping point however came when my doctor, chemist, tailor, and even the carpenter started telling me to Watsapp information to them. Even they did not check SMS’ anymore.

And so after months of being pestered by friends and cousins, cajoled by ex-colleagues and ex-lovers (Ok! I made the last one up), and being looked down upon by doctors and shopkeepers alike, I finally gave in: one beautiful spring morning, feeling unusually generous towards the world, I took the plunge.

In was all very confusing in the beginning. I could hardly get my way around the app, and when I did, I could only find advertorial messages selling me property, beauty, lingerie and whatnot. I was added to random groups that sent pictures of dogs, cats, babies and sometimes piglets too; there was, however, no trace of the people who had gotten me into this mess.
“You should announce your arrival”, advised a friend. Trusting her social skills I put up my first status: the forg is out of the well. That did the trick. “It’s not forg, stupid, it’s frog” came an old friend’s message – I had not heard from him in years. “Look who is here!” said another unable to believe that I had given in. “Send me a picture of you,” requested an admirer (yes, yes, I made this up too). And in a matter of days, people, who for years had just remained numbers in my phonebook, came back to life. I was suddenly talking to an ex boss, chatting with husband’s colleagues, sharing pictures with NRI cousins, connecting with prospective publishers, and of course, sending information to the doctor, chemist, carpenter and tailor. But the most interesting thing that happened was the reunion of our school gang.

When old friends meet – even virtually – things can get out of hand, especially with no husbands, children, or parents around. Dead skeletons are pulled out of cupboards; demons that have been laid to rest are brought back to life; discussions range from affairs to crushes, from underwear brands to contraceptive methods, from sex to orgasm – or the lack of it. Of course they do talk of serious stuff too like complaining about the mother-in-law, cribbing about the husband, or cursing the house help, but those instances are few and far between. It is the juicy, gory stuff that takes the centre stage, and, like any other guilty pleasure, it is so addictive that you can hardly take your eyes off the screen: what if you missed out on an important detail?

One reason why I had always resisted a smartphone or chat and social media apps was this. I did not want to become a slave to a tiny devise in my hand. I found it unacceptable to be trapped in a virtual world ignoring the real. Ironically I had become the monster I always feared.

In just a few months from not having anything to say I had much to talk – or type – about, and even more to hear – or read. So much so that I compromised on chores, procrastinated work assignments, sacrificed sleep, and ignored children, husband and home. I slept with the phone and woke up with it, and sometimes even checked it in the middle of the night. For the little time that I was away from the phone, I would be thinking about it.

There was another thing that happened: with all the chatting, sharing, laughing, crying and even working happening virtually, the real life conversations had almost come to a standstill. There was nothing left to say to anyone: everything that could be said had already been said.

It struck me hardest when I met a friend after many months and yet had nothing to talk about. That day while he sat fiddling with his phone, and I sat gazing at the sky, I decided I had to get out of this trap.

I must confess it was not easy; being all by myself through the day only made things worse: here I was sitting alone, staring at the walls thinking what to do next, and there everyone was chatting, joking, laughing. I longed for my virtual life, but hung on. Whenever I felt the urge to get back – and it happened quite often – I read a book or baked a cake; when I missed talking to someone, I called my mother or mother-in-law, when I wanted to gossip, I spoke with my girls. Despite all this there were times I felt as though I would suffocate to death, my phone meanwhile was already as good as dead. But no one dies of Watsapp deficiency; I didn’t either.

In the last few weeks, since my departure from the app, I have suddenly started to get regular phone calls from friends, cousins, and acquaintances and our conversations have not only been longer, but also much more wholesome than they had been in a long time. And as far as the action is concerned, I get all of it in real life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


He taught me to write on many a chilly night,
When the day's work was done, and the distractions around us were none;
It did not matter that we were thousands of miles apart,
For I could have given even my arm and my leg to to learn from him his art;

Writing however was not as easy as I had thought,
It needed patience, it needed hard work, it needed me to bare open my soul and my heart;
There were nights I would not sleep a wink and days that I spent only to think,
But he was a difficult task master not to be satisfied easily and dismissed my hard work in a wink;

I tried and I tried and on some nights out of exhaustion I also cried,
This is not how I had visualised writing, it was supposed to be easy and not so daunting;
I pleaded to him to let me go, no longer did I want to be the writer everyone would love to know,
You cannot just give up he would say, work till what you want to achieve does not come your way;

I wrote and I wrote, and I wrote some more until my eyes started stinging and fingers were sore,
I could not have given up until I stood on my own and shone out in a crowd;
More than myself it was my teacher I wanted to make proud,
Praise from him however was hard to come by no matter how hard I would try;

But I still trusted him with all my might after all he was the reason I had started to write,
Somewhere along the line I needed him less and less, as long as my work he could assess;
Thanks to my teacher I could now manage to stand on my own,
A little outside the crowd, among those who for their greatness I had always known;

The nights are chilly yet again and the slanting rays of the sun have begun playing their game,
I still write all night, until just outside my window I can see the morning light;
I wonder what my teacher about my work would have said, but a blank screen stares at me instead,
They say when you no longer need someone the universe takes him away, without him however I seem to have lost my way.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mornings At Mavalli

This post appeared in The Hindu.

About fifty odd men, all with grey hair and receding hairlines, stand in and around the coffee room sipping aromatic coffee from identical white cups. Outside, on the pavement, a hawker sets up his wares – handkerchiefs, nail cutters, combs, lighters, wristwatches. Diagonally opposite of him is a newspaper vendor already doing brisk business. The flower seller is here too with his basket loaded with fresh and fragrant venis. It is only 6:40 in the morning but the day has long begun at MTR, Bangalore’s most iconic Tiffin room.

Nostalgia fills my heart as I enter the building wondering what all might have changed since my last visit. The only change I notice however is the empty waiting room: during all my previous visits, the large waiting hall had been swarming with people, the queues, sometimes, spilling well into the staircase.

MTR, like many other iconic institutions, is as much about experience as it is about food. I happened to discover this on a warm afternoon many years ago when my husband and I tried walking into the café for lunch not knowing what the place meant to a true blue Bangalorean – and how almost the entire town congregated here for lunch on weekends. The long wait in the sun had taught us the lesson, and since that day we always reached the place well before its opening time.

By that standard, I am late today, but am lucky enough to find my favourite table vacant.

What strikes you first about MTR is the simplicity. The tables are basic, the chairs are plastic and, other than two-three old, discoloured pictures and a shelf full of white coffee cups, there is nothing that you can classify as décor. And yet it has far more character than a five-start hotel would.

A familiar waiter, dressed in red and white striped shirt and a white dhoti, walks up to me a few minutes later and rattles off the menu for the day (menu cards find no place here). I place my order and look around.

If there is one word you can associate MTR with it is leisure: the fans whizz languidly even as regulars sip strong – and often sweet – coffee among lively banter. Pearls of laughter emanate from some tables, while some seat the lone hungry soul watching the world eat, drink, and laugh. Even the waiters here have leisure writ large in their demeanour: they are efficient but never hurried or flustered, not even on the busiest of days when they run incessantly from the ground floor kitchen to the first floor dining hall carrying upto half a dozen orders at one go.

My order arrives soon. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and served with a generous helping of spicy coconut chutney, and a tiny potion of ghee, the Dosas here can beat any other Dosa in the country hands down. The secret to the texture and taste, I suspect, is the same languidness that serenades the air. I am tempted to ask for the coffee too but resist. Like a proper South Indian, I want to enjoy my food first and coffee later.

I am only halfway through the Dosa, when the waiter gets me the Vada. I suspect my ability to finish it but take it nonetheless: who knows when will I get to taste it next.

Nibbling at my Vada and scribbling in the soft paper napkins, I think of the many mornings I have spent at MTR, and the long walks at Lalbagh afterwards. Those breezy mornings have always defined Bangalore for me. Lost in my thoughts I am caught smiling by a beautiful woman. “Are you a photographer?” She asks looking at my camera and my notes. In a matter of minutes we are not only sharing the table, but also talking like long lost buddies. 

Befriending strangers, after all, is another quintessential MTR experience.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Look Back To Look Ahead

Sometimes to look ahead you need to look back.

Days leading up to one's birthday are usually full of anxiety and introspection -- anxiety of another year passing by, introspection about all the years that have passed thus. One usually thinks of what all he could have achieved but he did not, reviews the choices he has made and decisions he has taken. Wonders if a different set of choices would have made him/her a different person than what he/she is today.

In the last few days I had been introspecting too, and was in parts anxious about growing older without having achieved much, especially as compared to all the people who had started with me but went much ahead when I chose to stay at home five years ago. 

Then a couple of nights ago, while looking up something, I came across an old note. It was written during a training session 8 years ago on the behest of the trainer -- who happened to be my husband too -- while in a workshop. We were supposed to write tribute statements for ourselves for our 85th birthday (assuming we were alive), things that people would say about us. I read what I wrote about each one of them -- parents, husband, parents-in-law, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, co-workers -- and all it talked about was love, companionship, respect, happiness, pride, virtue, values. Things that neither money, nor designation can buy.

Yesterday, on my birthday, I received almost fifty phone calls, something that has not happened in many years. I not only felt extremely grateful for the love but also realised that I might just be moving in the right direction.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Snap or Not To Snap

Some weeks ago I cut my hair really short. Well, not short by the normal standard, but short enough for me to take another look at the mirror to ensure it was me that I was looking at.

My mother always had long straight lustrous hair. She usually kept them tied up either with a handkerchief, or in a loose bun or a braid. But they refused to be confined. They would often escape the clutches of the rubber band and flow by the sides of forehead undaunted by her irritation. And then there were times -- only on an odd Sunday when she decided to wash them while we were at home -- she let them loose. As a child, I was enchanted by them: I loved the way they cascaded down her nape, fell over her shoulders, caressed her tiny, bare waist peeping out from her modestly tied sari.

It is no surprise that grew up wanting straight, long hair of my own. Thanks to my mother's practicality, however, I was instead sent along with father to his hair dresser who perched me up on a wooden plank over his fancy red chair and mercilessly chopped off my curls month after month. I hated him with all my might and would cry my heart out upon returning home, but my mother could not care less. The drama carried on for years until she allowed me to let my hair grow on one condition: I will have to take care of them myself.

I was over the moon and promptly started day-dreaming of a hip hugging braid. I oiled my hair regularly and shampooed occasionally (too much shampoo, we were told, wasn't good). As I grew older, I also started the amla-shikakai-reetha regimen, and sometimes even skipped school for these sessions. But there was one problem: my hair never grew long, or strong, or thick. The best I could manage was a soft wavy mop that reached just below my shoulders. Initially I would mope and stress about it, but eventually, with so much else to worry about, I made peace with it. But there was one thing I could never imagine doing: cutting them short. 

In the last few years however somehow my hair stared to gain length. Perhaps it was simply the if you love something set it free syndrome, perhaps something else, but I noticed them getting longer over a period of time, until they nearly reached my waist. Yes! The waist!

And so, for the past few years I kept them on without letting anyone touch them. I played with them, I caressed them, I looked at the mirror repeatedly, I tied them in neat buns and pretty braids. I sometimes let them loose too, something I had never done before. In all the loving and swooning, and the happiness of fulfillment of my life long dream, I did not notice that the length was not adding any value to my hair. Once soft and shiny, they had started getting rough, hard, and brittle. They would tangle and knot, they fell in clumps, but I kept them on. Until one day I realised they had to go: they had become far to rough and matted for me to even run a comb.

At the Salon, I instructed the hair dresser to cut off whatever he thought was not good enough. I shut my eyes as he got busy with his scissor: it was not easy to see them go. With every snip of the scissor I heard a part of my heart break --- the part that for the past twenty-five years had hoped that someday I will have long, straight, lustrous hair just like my mother and my aunt did. But when I saw them lay on the floor dry, brittle, dead and totally unlike I how I remembered them to be, I was happy that they were off my back.

As I headed home visibly lighter in my head, feeling like a diffrent person altogether, I realised I had been holding on to them for no reason. It also occurred to me that just like my dead hair, I had also been holding many dead dreams and dead relationships. It was perhaps time to cut them off too.

The thing is that when you have dreamt of something all your life, and have visualised it in a certain manner, you tend to cling on to it. It may be a position at work, a person in life, a possession at home. It becomes impossible to let go of it even though you might very well know that all it is doing is seeping your resources -- mental, physical, emotional, and sometimes financial also -- but you have wanted it so desperately that you cannot imagine life without it. At such times, perhaps, all we need to do is thank our destiny for fulfilling our dreams even if for a short period. Trust me it helps snip off not only the hair but everything else that no longer adds value to your life.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Begin Somewhere

I stepped into Delhi on a hot summer morning of May 2001. Along with me I carried a 24" suitcase full of my life's earnings and eyes full of stars. While the suitcase was borrowed, the dreams were my own. The same dreams that most people around me had failed to understand.

It took me a few weeks to find my feet here even though I had been coming to Delhi for decades, and living with my parents off and on in the city for the previous year. Finding friends and work or a suitable course for further studies were two crucial things that these weeks were centred around. Those few weeks however were difficult and long, and, of course very, very hot. I finally found my calling in a job that I had earned some months ago. 

I still recall every minute of my first day at work. It was humid June morning and I had to commute from Pitampura to Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon on my own. My return and the journey from the following day was to be taken care of by my new employers.

Dressed in a navy-blue trouser and a mauve dress shirt both of which I had bought from Janpath only a few days before, I had left home at seven in the morning. I had to change two buses and stand in dirt and grime for close to two hours before being dropped at Atlas Chowk by a Haryana Roadways bus from where I walked all the way to the office, a sprawling complex painted in blue and white. In another few hours I was, with many others like me, taken to a plush five-star hotel in a luxury bus. The next two days were spent being awed by the hotel, the city, and magnitude of the new company and its people. I was soon to become one of them.

For ten years, I was a part of the crowd that I once gaped at with admiration. I almost lived in the offices I had only seen in films, and experienced the life I had always dreamt of. The naysayers, who had thought me to be worthless meanwhile ate their words. And then, one fine day, I left it all. It was time to move on.

In the last five years of being away from work, I did a lot of new things, and, I would like to believe, added value to a lot of lives in various ways. But even with my plate always overflowing with things to do, I missed my work. It was like I had a hole in my life that could not be filled with anything. I tried wasting my time on the internet, I tried chatting with old and new friends on Watsapp, I reconnected with my family, I bonded with my children. I learnt to write, I practised photography, I read, I travelled, I even set up a restaurant -- well almost, but the hole could not be filled.

Today, after five and a half years, I dressed up again in the morning, not in trousers from Janpath, but in a suit from Jaipur. I painted my toes and did my hair, I put on a little lipstick, packed my bag (this one from Janpath, though), and then I left home.

In my new office, which is neither neither as plush nor as awe inspiring as the first one, I suddenly felt the five-year-old hole filling up. I hope it always remains so.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For The Love Of Madras

"But why did you go to Chennai again? Do you have family there?" It was the fifth time I was being asked this, or may be the tenth, I don't quite remember, and like all other times I had no answer.

Cities, like people, often come into your life unannounced. They stay with you until they are meant to and leave you when they are done, whether or not you like it, quite like people again. 

Growing up in the heart of hot and dusty small town North India, Chennai, or Madras as it was known then, was not a city I had known, not until I saw it on the map at the age of eight and travelled to it at the age of nine. The encounters however did little to increase my awareness about a land as good as foreign: what else can you call a place that takes two days and two nights to reach?

Perhaps that is why while growing up and dreaming about future, Chennai had no place on the canvas upon which I had painted the picture of my life. Delhi? Yes; Bombay? Perhaps; Calcutta? Never; Bangalore? May be; but Chennai? It did not even occur to me that coming here was an option. 

I heard of Chennai first by my to be husband who had experienced the city first hand. Going by what he told me, I had made a mental map of the place; the map, just like his experiences, was sad and dejected, and very, very biased. Forget about liking it, I did not even want to see the city. But then what is life if it does not alter your plans?

So one fine day, just like that, I found myself in the bustling metropolis, famous for being hostile to Hindi speakers and biased against the uncouth North Indian. As I walked alone along its busy streets and sauntered its lazy lanes, spoke with the auto drivers, and chatted with the street-food vendors, sought directions from the cops and help from flower sellers, I kept waiting for the hostility, hatred and bias but could not find any. Instead I found a companion in its streets and lanes, a friend it its people and places, an ally in its temples and mosques. 

Since that day, until now, even as I write this with my feet dipped in its blue waters, my skin caressed by its cool breeze, my eyes looking up every now and then to catch a glimpse of its gorgeous sky, I have missed no opportunity to be here, for who knows when the city decides to turn its back on me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

On A Patriotic Trail

This piece was published in The Hindu.

It is a scene straight out of a Hindi film. The day is bright and beautiful, the long straight road is flanked by lush green fields on both sides complete with tube wells and narrow irrigating canals; there is no trace of traffic or mankind only the odd car passing by. A few narrow lanes branch off the highway every now and then, perhaps leading into a prosperous village. I want to take one of these lanes and see if the villages here are also as filmy as the landscape but I have more important matters to attend. After spending the morning, at the Jallianwalah Bagh in the heart of the border town of Amritsar, I am brimming over with patriotism and there is no way I can miss the beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah Border.

The thirty-kilometer road from Amritsar to Attari takes me back to my parents who have described the drive and the ceremony of Wagah a million times over to me. As a young couple they had spent their honeymoon years in Amritsar and I have heard so much about the town that I have a mental map of every nook and corner of the place -- Golden Temple, Hall bazaar, Sadar bazaar, Model Town – you name it, and I know it. And so the drive looks all too familiar too.

The Jaliianwalah bagh had also looked familiar this morning as I crossed the hall bazaar buzzing with activity and people, dotted with hundreds of shops selling everything from swords to spices, Punjabi Juttis to Patiala shalwars. But it is one thing to imagine a place, quite another to witness it, especially something as momentous as the Jallianwalah Bagh.

As I walked inside the iron gate leading into a narrow passageway, my history lessons came rushing back. It is through the same passage that the British troops had entered the garden and had opened fire on thousands of innocent men, women, and children on the Baisakhi day in 1919. Their fault? They had gathered to protest against the arrest & deportation of their leaders under the infamous Rowlett Act. Since the park was surrounded by houses on all sides, and most exits were locked, there was no way for the people to escape. Many of them were killed by bullets fired incessantly for over ten minutes, while some, in a bid to escape the bullets, jumped into a well, and some were crushed under the feet of their fellow protestors in the stampede that followed. The incident, that left hundreds of Indian men, women, and even children dead was led by General Reginald Dyer who went on to become a hero with his people back in England.

I had, like most Indians, read the story many times over but seeing the place today was a different experience altogether. Although the park does not look much like it did almost a hundred years ago, there is little that the cosmetic change can do to alter its spirit, especially the anxiety that the musty well and the red brick walls with multiple bullet marks invoke. The picture gallery with paintings depicting the scale of the massacre, the eternal flame signifying the sacrifice of hundreds of Indians, the massive stone plinth erected in the memory of the martyrs, and the signboard that quite aptly describes the land here to be saturated with the blood of hundreds of innocent martyrs, can give even a dead man goose bumps. Driving through the picturesque road now, thinking of the scale of the tragedy, I can feel the hair on my arm stand.

My chain of thought is broken when I spot the large blue signboard announcing Lahore 27 Kms. Just then a large luxury bus passes by and I cannot help getting excited by the thought that the bus has just crossed the only permeable border between India and Pakistan.

The peaceful road leads us to unexpected clamour and chaos. Barely a kilometer away from the border, we suddenly spot cars, buses, autos, and two-wheelers jostling for parking space on and off the road. The abrupt and ugly dead end is infested with hawkers and rickshaw pullers alike who advise us to park our car and take a rickshaw until the first check point. I hear someone suggesting buying bottles of water and leaving all our belongings behind.

After duly parking the car, buying bottled water, paying thirty rupees for less than five hundred meters of rickshaw ride, we find ourselves at the first juncture towards the border. There is still some time for the gates to open and the crowds are swelling by the minute. The place looks like a mela ground now with people of all classes, castes, and religions rubbing shoulders for one common purpose: the same border that divided the country almost seventy years ago unites its citizens every evening.

The gates finally open and we are ushered into another long stretch of road with army barracks on either side. The men and women have by now been segregated. On my side of the road I spot a familiar building: a post office with read and white board announcing Attari Road Check Post, 143108. I can feel excitement building up in my gut. On the other side, where the men are, I spot a group carrying a giant tricolour shouting slogans of patriotism. To say that I am overwhelmed will be an understatement.

But patriotism is not the only thing overwhelming me; the heat, humidity and the crowds have now started to become intolerable. My little girl is on the verge of being crushed by the surging crowds; hundreds of women are pushing and shoving us from all sides, and I have to resort to pushing them away to keep my girl safe – something I do not like very much.

As the crowds grow denser and nosier, perhaps because today is eid, two men, dressed in khaki uniform riding on high ponies begin to hit the unruly mob with their batons. The women folk meanwhile are shouted at by their lady counterparts. Is this the Wagah border of my mother’s stories? I wonder as I try to ensure that my daughter and I are not killed in a stampede that looks inevitable.

The short walk from first check post to the second – where the crowd of thousands is being made to pass through a single dilapidated metal detector – takes us more than thirty minutes. But we are happy to have survived it. We are now standing at a relatively empty piece of road with Wagah on one side and Amritsar on the other. Even as we see our fellow countrymen walking with determined steps towards the border, their chest swollen with pride, we quietly make our way back towards our car.