Monday, March 30, 2015

Dilemma: To Write or Not To Write

It is 1:46 at night and I am wide awake. No, I have not been sleeping all day, neither have I woken up late, but, like every other day in the past ten days, I have spent hours trying to put a decent blog piece together and failed yet again.

The last time I wrote something was five weeks ago, it was about my love for Madras and Calcutta and how the two cities have come to be an important and inseparable part of my life. I was still a few weeks away from my trip to Chennai, and was excited to happy about it. 

The weeks went by sooner than I had thought and it's already ten days since my return.

I had expected this trip to give me a lot to write about. After all how often do you attend your best friend's wedding, meet a close friend after months, reunite with a schoolmate, visit your favourite city and travel through the length of the country -- all in a matter of eight days? 

And these eight days did give me a whole lot of things to write about: the thirty-hour long journey with the girls, the boys and girls I met at the hotel, the quiet afternoon with a friend, the noisy wedding, the long overdue meeting with people I had known only virtually until now, the three-day-long vacation. But there is a problem: most of these are very personal emotions, and I, somehow, have forgotten to write about how I feel. 

A year and a half ago, when I started to write, I dreamt of only two things: one, more and more people should read what I write, and connect with it, and two, my writing should be everywhere -- in the newspapers, on online forums, in magazines. In the last one year both these dreams have been fulfilled to some extent, but in the bargain I seem to have lost the art of writing for myself. Every time I pick my pen, a million questions cross my mind: Who all will read this? What are they going to think? Will my friends judge me? Will my family be discomforted by it? My pen stops midway.

And so, the strongest of emotions stay buried in my heart, keeping me up night after night even as the world sleeps. Hopefully, someday, I will sleep too. But until then, I shall keep trying to put my pen to paper, every single night.

It was only yesterday

It was only yesterday that we had held hands and promised to walk together,
It was only yesterday you had said any storm for me you will weather;

Why is it then, that I suddenly find myself all alone,
Why does a feeling of loneliness engulfs me like I have never known?

Your eyes do not meet mine any longer,
Neither do your arms make me feel any stronger;

Is it that you have found someone else?
Someone with whose warm hands your lovely, long fingers now melt?

May be it is just a fragment of my wild imagination,
Or maybe you really no longer feel the passion;

Whatever it is you just have to say,
And should it give you happiness, I will quietly walk away.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Stamp of Approval

This piece appeared in The Hindu dated 13th March:

I first heard about philately in school. While discussing hobbies someone had mentioned the word, and I, not even knowing what it meant, was more than impressed: it sounded intelligent! A few years later, only when I saw a large, fat album containing all sorts of colourful stamps from all across the world, did I get to know what philately meant. I remember wanting most of those stamps, especially the colourful ones from Russia and America. But that was almost twenty years ago.

In the age of e-mail, courier, faxes, and, more recently, Whatsapp, Skype and Facebook, the fascination for colourful stamps was eventually lost. Until we – my husband and I – became a part of an online community where the members send post-cards to each other through snail-mail.

While postcards were easier to find (if you look hard you can spot them in an obscure corner of a bookshop or a souvenir stall), getting stamps, especially of our choice, was arduous: the neighbourhood post office stocked only a handful of same-old-boring ones and our request for variety was either met with stiff silence or with a freezing glare.

Not to be bogged down, we took our hunt to another level. Every city or town we travelled to, we made a trip to the post office: from the forests of Gir, to the head post office at Jamshedpur, from the airport lounge of Mumbai to the bazaars of Nainital, we went to every post office that came in our way, scouring for unusual stamps. It is on such a quest that I first came across a philatelic museum, and then another.

Postal stamps in India date back to the British period. The first stamp, a white paper embossed with wafers of blue and red, was issued in 1852. The next, which came out in 1854, was a half-anna stamp with the profile of a young Queen Victoria.(The pictures of the British Queen – and Kings – continued to dominate the Indian stamps until Independence).

The first three stamps issued by an independent India in 1947, however, were that of the Ashoka Pillar, the Indian National Flag, and that of an aircraft. In the years to follow stamps were used to display, commemorate, and celebrate the country’s heritage as well as its achievements. In the last 67 years, since independence, India graduated from three types of stamps to more than three thousand of them. These are not only used for postage but also for collection and study of the postal history; most major post offices have a philatelic department – or museum – that stocks and exhibits these stamps.

I had expected the officials at the philatelic bureau to be indifferent like their counterparts in my neighbourhood Post Office, I was in for a surprise though: the first official we met, after hunting for him in the corridors of over a century old Jamshedpur GPO, returned to his desk in under five minutes (as promised), expressed surprise at seeing us (apparently he knew every philatelist in town), indulged us in a long conversation about philately (I was amazed by his knowledge and passion), and helped us pick relevant stamps.

The other officials, who we met at the GPO in Lucknow, were even more forthcoming and their philately department much larger and modern. We were greeted with a warm smile, made to sit at a large wooden desk and were offered tea. Post which, they proudly showcased their collection – a large section of books, specially printed post cards, memorabilia, and of course the stamps.

While husband got into a detailed conversation with them, I forayed into the museum – three large rooms lined with glass covered panels displaying stamps, first day covers, and cancellations in chronological order. The variety was mind boggling and subjects varied: Politics, Arts, Literature, Festivals, Monuments, People, Cities, Towns, Railways, Sports, everything seemed to have a stamp dedicated to it. The oldest stamp I spotted was atop a faded envelope and had been posted to the Kanpur Post Office on 19th Dec 1948 from the Gandhi Nagar Post Office in Jaipur.

Appreciating the stamps was good, but what we needed more was a steady flow of them (that was why we were there in the first place). Surprisingly the officials had a solution to our never-ending woe: we could become members of the philatelic department and they would send us every new stamp that the department issues. We could also opt for brochures, first day covers, and cancellations if we wanted, and had the option of choosing the denomination of the stamps too.

The process was simple. We filled up a form, submitted a thousand rupees and got a receipt. By the time we walked out, almost two hours later, we had over three-dozen post cards, one brass letter box, a membership number, and, most importantly, a hope of receiving an unending supply of interesting stamps. But the skeptic that I am, I also had a doubt: what if the stamps never turn up? After all, the same postal department fails to deliver something as basic as a greeting card. My doubt was laid to rest, and my faith reinstated, when I received the first batch of carefully packed stamps and brochures by registered post a few weeks ago – well begun, as they say, is half done.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Over The Hills And Far Away

Having been born and brought up in the heart of North India (not to be mistaken for Delhi or Punjab), my exposure to the south of India had always been limited. As a child, all I knew was of a land called Madras, somewhere beyond the horizon and of people called Madrasis (yes, I am guilty of that crime too). Although we made a trip down south when I was about nine years old, but my memories of the trip were limited to the food – we had to eat puri aloo or dosa all ten days; clothing – I had found it strange to see young women in petticoats, which I later learnt was a half sari; and a lot of greenery, beyond that I did not remember much. My only South Indian connect back then was a Tamilian friend, and the weekly dinner of dosas in his house – and his dadi's nine-yard sari – did little to add to my knowledge, except reiterating the little I already knew.

A few years later, thanks to the geography books, I learnt that there was more to south of India than Madras but that hardly made a dent in my ignorance levels. It was only after I met my husband that I learnt a little more about the south (having grown up in a cosmopolitan township, he had many south Indian friends and acquaintances). He told me about the food – the tamarind rice and the biryani, the beef curry and the avial, the appam and the parrota; the language – the lilt of Tamil and the high rate of speech of Malyalam; the music – the soothing melodies and the hip swinging chartbusters, and the movies – complete with entertaining voice overs.

Although he was a fan of everything south Indian and had many south Indian friends back home, he had also shared how the six months he had spent in Chennai had been a complete antithesis of what he had seen all his life. The city – and the people – according to him, were not only closed to, but also strongly biased against the north Indians. There were many uncomplimentary stories of him being harassed during his six month long stint in Chennai (all this when he is not even a North Indian, but a Bengali). It was with these stories that I first set foot in the city (the trip was made more out of compulsion than out of choice). But what I saw – and experienced – changed my perception forever. 

The city in itself was a revelation, quite a contrast to my mental picture of it. I saw no sign of the polluted and congested metropolis I had thought it to be. On the contrary, I found grand colonial buildings springing up amidst wide, tree-lined avenues; sprawling campuses and impressive office buildings, huge roundabouts and imposing hotels (among them was also the one husband had worked for). Some parts of the city reminded me of Calcutta while the others of Bombay, just that the cramped lanes had been replaced by wide boulevards.

And the people: right from queue at the prepaid taxi booth, where they stood patiently and the booth assistant spoke courteously; to the driver, who greeted us with a smile, carried our luggage and helped us locate the guesthouse; to the owner of the guesthouse, an elderly man, who took us home and treated us like his personal guests since he could not get a room arranged for us (he even picked us up from a lonely dark lane when we were almost lost, and dropped us to the airport early next morning); I could see no sign of the hostility I had heard of. I had just begun to savour the city when it was time to say goodbye. But I had decided to return – and experience the real Chennai, on my own.

When I deboarded the flight that morning, two years after my first visit, I was better equipped – and less prejudiced – about the city. Getting to the guest house from the airport was a breeze – I spent the entire time talking to the driver – and the guesthouse – set up amidst lush tropical plants, low-rise bungalows and small fountains – was a picture of calm. 

I spent the better part of my two days there by roaming the streets, walking the lanes, talking to the cabbies – and the infamous auto drivers, experimenting with street food, discovering little nooks and crannies – with breathtakingly beautiful little temples and quaint houses, and doing many things that I cannot do even in my own city. In the evenings, I explored the colourful and bright markets and huge departmental stores, waded through thick traffic, walked in the rain and sat down on benches when I was tired. All this without a trace of discomfort or hint of the hostility that I had heard the stories about. The city – or a certain set of people – might have been unforgiving to my husband once, but to me Chennai had been warm and comforting.

While boarding my flight two days later, I had only one thought in my mind: to come back sooner or later, this time may be for good.

Post Script: As I finish writing this, husband is in Chennai, savouring a traditional Tamil lunch at a colleague’s house and getting ready for his onward journey into the heart of the city. True, time changes people and their perceptions. 

This Piece first appeared in The Hindu: