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.