Tuesday, February 28, 2006

When summer wind came to dinner


I am at Athena and Merlot again tonight. This time I’m by myself and inside.

I sit between tall, wooden shelves holding ceremonial bottles of wine. The French windows separate a cemented courtyard from an interior suffused with the educated intoxication of Viognier and Chardonnay. I can see palm leaves through dark, wooden slats. I’m sipping a garnet coloured drink from a flute glass. Wooden shelves criss-cross a mirror and light from red candles prick through the darkness in lacquered alcoves.

I just finish a cup of shrimp cocktail. The dish is a fine example of culinary restraint. The 1000 island dresses and not smothers the shrimp. It’s one of those dishes that one has in moments when you savor minutae – take tiny bites of succulent lime and wine flavored prawns, sometimes with a shred of lettuce or a sliver of olive. Food gives the notion that a little, sometimes, is all.

A group of beautiful people walk in – tall, feline, and glowing. Hair falls soft and straight on sculpted shoulders. Men proud, without being predatory. Woman delicate, without being dainty.

They look at me; look at the lights making patterns on the white, bond paper I write on. One of them smiles warmly as the group is seated at the best table in the house. A bearer gets them bowls of consommé. They approach their dish as if at a coronation. The candles seem to have tilted their flames to shine upon their handsome profiles. Their skin gleams with a luxurious artistry Рmoonlight on marble statues.

I trace the flickers of candles – see where they go. One of them is rather wild. It jostles about in the shadow and darts forth like a spit of gold on the bluish-green bottles of curacao. It misbehaves like a stray, unpinned strand of hair. It glides down one blade of a palm leaf and drips onto the smooth crest of a woman’s hair.

That little bit of candle shine reminds me of something. Something perhaps I had read earlier of enchantment or mystery. No. Not really. Something else – something candid and frivolous. The more I try to remember, the more it ebbs away. Unknowingly I squint, hard at thought. Unknowingly, I keep looking at the elegant group – poised, pretty, polished. They speak in muted coiffe over genteel clinks of cutlery.

I observe their cozy little nook of posh. Yet, that dot of candle shine willfully distracts me.

One of the women in the group turns to gaze at the red candles. After a while, I see her eyes trace the meandering path of a flame. She seems to be looking at a particularly impudent dab of light.

And suddenly, she hums, ‘And guess who sighs his lullabies, To all the nights that never end? My fickle friend, the summer wind.’

That’s what I was trying to remember – that soulful refrain to which the candle flame waltzed.

The lady who hummed was the one who had smiled at me when she’d walked in.

Later, dinner over, she dabs her lips politely and leaves the group.

As she walks away, I see a bit of candle shine woven through her hair that cascades like a satin sheet. I see her go – sweetly, gently, innocently, leaving behind just a little bit of ache – like our Frank Sinatra song.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

I went to the movies

Just watched Crash.

And I write this in the quiet gush that follows after watching something stunningly evocative. I don’t think I will catch the next person on the road and tell them to watch this film. I will not SMS in frenzied urgency. I will wait because my time to recommend this film and my turn to say why will come. Not tomorrow perhaps, not next year perhaps, but much, much later.

Maybe fifteen years later, when my children get involved in a group that insults foreigners...or maybe when they are the outsiders that people insult...maybe then, I will tell them about this movie. Until then, I'll probably live that story.

About how discrimination begins at home, how angry people beget angry reactions, and scared people hate. How the weak person can be strong. How the timid can be fierce and the loud can be dumb. How sometimes you let the authorities molest you and how sometimes you watch and let it happen. How the molester is probably a guy with a sick father who helped the voiceless get a good life.

How exploitation or fairness is not a legacy but a choice. How you could give a chance to a person one time and wrench away one from another.

How a prejudice is like a limitation…argue for it and it is yours.

It's a movie that will mature in the mind. Because its horrific how you can identify with the perpetrator as easily as you can with the victim. How you can have three experiences and dismiss off a race as acne. How bias is the truth, the lie, and everything in between.

About how you can miss out so much about a person because of the notion that they are wrong. Not your type.

About how you can think of a person as vile because he sullied you and be right. How you can thank him for being a savior and be right about that too.

I’ll tell my children how, when everything's said and done, people come home. How they look out the window and see where they belong and where they don't and they see the same place.

About how you will live in this world and learn that perception is reality...and how it isn't.

And when I'm done saying this, I'll tell them about the spectacular scene where Matt Dillon rescues the woman from the upturned car as gasoline scorches around them.

And how I almost missed Crash because I thought this was an action movie..the wrong movie for me, not my type.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What the.....

After working twenty hours straight with naught to eat or sleep, except for some gruelly coffee (two words that should never be together), I decided to walk home. It wasn’t really late but it was 9:30 p.m. - the time rickshaw fellows enter their doozy nocturnal timezone to charge midnight fare. Really, how do they tell Cinderella’s story in their world? She left the ball early and sat polishing the fireplace in her taffeta gown waiting to be turned into a turnip that didn’t happen until much later. (Turnip meant figuratively, although that too would have been a sweet turn of events.) Takes the magic out of the fairy tale, I think.

Anyway, I was a little tired and heavy headed but thought I would walk home anyway. I just needed to have a chewy thought to engage my mind. Therefore I turned my meager faculties (meager at that time only. Otherwise, I’m an impresario of intellect) to how nobody ever laughs, ‘Hyuk! Hyuk!’. Now, as anyone who has read Archie comics would know, ‘Hyuk! Hyuk’ is the sound of hearty laughter. Like when you’ve heard something like this Valentine ditty: ‘What inspired this amorous rhyme? Two parts Vodka, one part lime?’ or Sohail Khan as a college student in ‘Krishna Cottage’ or the ‘story’ credits in Jackie Chan films. Stuff like that.

But even though one may thump one’s hands while doubling over in mirth, one doesn’t exactly go ‘Hyuk! Hyuk!’ It sounds more like when you’re trying to hiccup with an accent.

So, just to see how ‘Hyuk! Hyuk!’ sounded aloud, I thought I’d give it a try. There was no-one on the bridge I was walking over, so no risk of being apprehended for disturbing public peace. ‘Hyuk! Hyuk!’, I shouted. No. Won’t work like that. So I smiled and went, ‘HYUK! HYUK!’

Just then, I heard someone say, ‘Hi. I’ll give you a lift?’

A burly chap with brown moustache had come up on his bike soundlessly. He didn’t seem to be perturbed at looking at a woman in scarf going ‘Hyuk! Hyuk!’ at random. I smiled politely, said no thank you, and carried on.

No ‘Hyuk! Hyuks!’ now. I had turned my attention to Mr. Lodge’s ‘Egad!’

A few minutes later, I see the guy turn and come back on a one way street. ‘Where are you going?’, he asked with an oily smirk. I realized I had made a mistake by smiling at him.

“I’ll manage”, I say curtly and walk faster.

Suddenly, I look around and realize that there is no-one else on the bridge – not even those nosy street dogs.

He comes again, this time a little closer. “Really? It won’t be a problem. Just tell me where I can take you?”

I don’t answer and walk quickly – briskly- rapidly. After a while, I turn back and I don’t see him on the bridge anymore. Relief.

And then in the dim pool of the one street light that works, I see him waiting for me the end of the bridge. No cops, no people, no dogs, and one idiot walking with a scarf on her head.

I have half a mind to turn back, but then decide not to. I just hope he isn’t armed or with friends waiting on the other side of the road.

I reach the end of the road and he asks me again, “Hey! Come on! Where to?”

I stop. I turn. And I bellow,”ENOUGH! GO!”

Woman in scarf laughing to herself and now shouting loudly enough to wake up everyone on Dholepatil Road. He vamooses.

I can see him on the other side of the road slowing down. That’s the lane I need to take. I stand and stare at him. He’s looking at me and blinking his headlights. He doesn’t budge.

I finally spot a rick. And turns out the one guy who should be interested in taking me home is busy reading the newspaper (at 10:00 in the night).

“Koregaon?”

Cluck of tongue.

I feel a little helpless now. I mean, I’m tired and all and that burly guy is now talking to another fellow. They both keep looking at me off and on.

I need this rick fellow to take me home.

I think he realizes that ‘No’ wouldn’t quite cut it with me. He puts down his newspaper and tells me, “Unke saath jaana tha, aapko. Pune vaise safe hai.” (You should have gone with him. Pune is safe that way.)

I decide to take his word for it - that Pune is safe, even though my fists are clenched in my pant packets. I decide to go home walking. I cross the road where the guy and his friend are standing. They look at me and wait for me walk by them. I do, slowing down as I approach them.

He then turns to the roadside stall and buys gum.

I carry on thinking how appropriate the word “Whew!” is. That word I can relate to.

Tomorrow




Salty winds and jeweled brine
Lashing sea and clouds that shine
Memories of plenty and things I lack
Looking forward to looking back.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Food mood, drink think


A couple of nights ago, I was at ‘Fire and Ice’ on complimentary passes. Such passes now determine whether I go dancing or stay home and plan visits to Khadakvasla in my head.

J, my steady date in such exploits, usually accompanies me after putting her baby to bed. However, Friday night, the nocturnal arrangements were speeded up as the three year old had social engagements of her own. She was invited to sleep over at a friend’s house. And since such prospects merit severe immediacy, the child ran in, shouted ‘Goodbye’ to her mum, waved at me in manner of dismissing a fruit fly, and was off.

J and I got dressed. She, resplendent in a white, sheer number, and I in a merlot, stretchy thing that doesn’t need ironing. (I’m quite no-nonsense in my attire as untidy people are wont to be.)

Now, Fire and Ice is J’s favorite jaunt. Personally, I think it’s more like Extinguished Fire and Melted Ice. The bouncers are rude, the DJs are insipid (I’ve seen more zing in a Windows pop-up), and the music cannot be danced to sober.

But that’s just me.

J took to the dance floor with gusto and was the centre of an admiring crowd. Left to my devices, I went to the bar to find out the price list. (My ways are nothing fancier than hollering, ‘How much is the beer?’ and ‘350 for wine! Seriously? Why?’) I’m sure the guys next to me thought it very gauche but I noticed they paid close attention to the bar tender’s details. Feels nice when people enjoy the fruits of your labour, decadent though they might be.

Anyway, equipped with information, I elbowed my way to J who was warding off attention from an earnest-looking bloke. I rattled off the prices and we decided to have tequila. An unsatisfactory choice.

Drinks over, the rhythm continued to get J and I frisked about the dance floor observing the crowd. This got me thinking about the question that lubricates inter-personal behavior in clubs: Can I buy you a drink?

First of all, no-one has ever asked me that. About this, several theories exist, all of them unflattering and therefore unmentionable here. My own take on the matter is that people see me exhibiting vegetable market-like behavior at the bar and think of their own diminishing stock of food. Why would you want to ask someone for a drink who reminds you of the cauliflowers and beans you forgot to buy yesterday? That is it. I evoke the domestic conscience.

So I buy my own drink and count the number of times that question is asked around me.

Some are classic queries delivered with panache. Some others come quivering with doubt. I can empathize with that hesitation, actually. I remember feeling that way when I got into a train to Churchgate for the very first time. The indicators were not working and the only way I could find out if that was the correct train was to walk up to a group of loud men and ask.

Okay, perhaps it’s not quite the same thing as asking someone for a drink. Although it must be pointed out that in both cases, the indicators were not working.

Sometimes ladies accept. I think they do that because it’s too loud and saying ‘No’ would only mean that the enquirer would want an explanation. And that’s too tedious to provide given the din. But in cases where the lady declines and the man shrugs and walks away, I feel a little sad. There’s something about a shrug that makes even the most hardened cad look vulnerable. These guys then maybe shuffle about here and there before approaching another woman. And if she says no, more shuffling and more approaching. Like that, like that.

But what really stumps me is how nobody asks about the food. How come nobody murmurs, ‘Would you like some sauteed mushrooms?’ or ‘Can I get you sheikh kebabs?’ or even ‘How about some French fries?’ Why don’t men ever ask a girl in a bar if she wants to eat? Do they think that women somehow generate a bovine system of nourishment in a club? That they would regurgitate past meals and not need fresh sustenance?

Men should know that women assess offers of dehydrating potions more strictly than offers of something solid, such as food or diamonds. And the former can be more easily arranged for in a bar.

In fact, several documentaries catalog gender behavior in clubs and peg it to anthropological evolution. So the way a man stands with his legs astride is somewhat like the hunter who surveyed the hinterland before beginning his chase. Or the way a woman tucks a wisp of hair behind her ear points to the eternal need for hair products. (No, it’s got nothing to do with men. Sorry.)

So if that’s the deal with primordial antics and contemporary behavior, it’s clear that the ‘question’ should be about food, not drinks. Which primeval food-gatherer with procreational proclivities went hunting for Bacardi instead of bison or berries?

Suffice to say that if one must play the mating game, one may as well do it right. Like the determined Neanderthal who scored with his girl because he brought back a succulent piece of a T-Rex and not some simpering bottle of Fosters. (It’s not a documented case per se, but I did think this up after having Horlicks. Therefore, I must be right.)

As with all avant-garde theories, I’m sure this will take its time to catch on. It’ll be a while before a man goes up to a woman, looks into her eyes, and says, ‘Chicken lollypop?’ Of course, with the bird flu and all, she may just have him quarantined, but there’s a risk in everything now, isn’t there?

As a woman, I do know this –a man who wants you to be fed is infinitely more appealing than one who wants to get you drunk.

Gender benders aside, the road to the heart (if that’s where you’re headed) is a burpy ride.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Monday, Moanday




Limp, insipid, lame, stale, soggy, callow, soppy, langorous, somnambulist, thesauritically surfeited lazy Monday. Pages and pages of convoluted content. Mind getting fussy and stupid. Time getting susky and sore.

And then, conversation in adjacent cubicle:
Very very senior writer to whittle twittle rookie: I want you to do some groundwork before you begin storyboarding.



Rookie: Yes?

Senior: Take this book. I want you to brush up on colons.

Rookie grimaces: You mean...

Senior smiles: Grammar.

Would have been interesting to see the picture in rookie's head.

Sometimes we bid it adieu thus

Tonight, J and I tried out Athena and Merlot in Koregaon Park.

Because a harried Sunday needs to end with something slightly despondent and intrinsically beautiful – like a tear, perhaps, or a last embrace on the beach. Sometimes a day’s epitaph must be written in elegiac form, in ink, in a foreign language, in entirety. Sometimes, you must end a day seated under an open sky, among dancing flames of candles and lanterns, amidst perfectly curled leaves floating on glassy water on granite. Sometimes, you must end a Sunday gingerly twirling the fragile stem of a glass. Sometimes, you must end a Sunday dipping skewers of fruits in a pot of melted chocolate and then giggling over drops that fall on your gleaming white plate. Sometimes, you must end a Sunday opening your heart carving ham glazed in orange sauce. Sometimes you must end a week in an impulse dipping the meat in chocolate and squealing with surprised ecstasy the taste brings.


Sometimes that’s how you end a Sunday – with a fine pour of wine and some chocolate over swine.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Moved me, so behooved me



Yesterday, I was going through some mighty technical documents. These documents were peppered with acronyms beginning with rarefied alphabets that don’t find themselves in common use – X, Q, Z, E. So, whilst I trudged from one paragraph of incomprehension to another, I thought of the word ‘behoove’. It’s a nice word and strangely, doesn’t find itself used too much. This is despite people doing so many things because they are behooved to do them. What I also find nice is that it can confuse a person so effortlessly.

“Why did Ernie kick the cat?”

“It behooved him to do that.”

“So that means he isn’t going to the Derby?”

Now, it isn’t so funny if you think Ernie to be a man. But it is clever if you think Ernie is a horse. So if Ernie the horse is behooved, it doesn’t mean that his hooves aren’t there anymore, it means that he found kicking the cat necessary. It is also hilarious if you don’t know whether Ernie is a man or a horse.

I am not in favor of the idea though, by man or beast.

1. Anyway, here’s a list of things that I recommend. Why? Because they behoove me to do so.

There is this old riddle. Who is a diplomat? A person who tells you to go to hell so sweetly, you actually look forward to the trip.


Now, I mention an old, amusing joke because one of my old (and I don’t mean age-wise, although he is wise despite his age), very amusing pals resurfaced from somewhere a while back. He was my boss in the first serious job that I held. Amongst other things that he does wonderfully, such as arranging sheaves of papers and sounding cheery on the phone, he writes exquisitely. He used to write me these emails that I treasured because they were written so well, even though most of them actually did tell me to go to hell. (Sweetly, of course. An example of an email that was written because I had a yell-fest with a colleague: ‘The thing about this wonderful Universe, Mukta, is that you are not at its centre. I wonder how that happened, but it’s true.’)

I bring this up now because VH, my diplomat ex-boss, is now blogging away at: http://blogusinterruptus.blogspot.com/

Read him because you must, must, must.

2. J is a funny person and we are friends. She is a lot like me although she would sooner nurse a rash than share that thought. Both of us ruminate over our dwindling finances sipping large lattes (Rs.32 each), eating lamb cutlets (Rs.150 or so), picking out unwearable in public tops (Rs. 350 or so) and ricking walkable distances (Rs.30). Sometimes all this in one day.

Anyway, with J, by J, and through J, I have discovered several marvelous things. One such sample of serendipitous marvel is beetroot cake.

It was J’s birthday and she decided to treat Z and me to something nice – besides her reggae performance, that is. That too was thrown in but much later. Now, in Pune, there is the general misconception that you get good baked stuff at German Bakery. WRONG! You don’t. You go there for the ambience and the general interesting hoi-polloi, but if you want yummy cakes and delectable food, you go to Sweet Chariot. There, the cakes are baked to seventh heaven and cloud nine perfection.

We reached there and we wanted a cake – what with it being a birthday and all. There were several on display, one of which was innocuously labeled ‘Beetroot cake’. Because of the way our mind thwarts the idea of anything healthy as dessert, this cake was left alone. But what a stunner of a confectionery it was! The cake batter used a little beetroot water and the color was a rich, luxe mahagony, instead of regular dark, brown chocolate. J and I looked at each other and ordered it.

That decision will go down as one my most correct decisions of my life. It was sweet enough to sate my tastes as well as J’s. And that in itself is a culinary impossibility. As for how it tastes - the cake is smooth and moist and sort of evaporates into feathery wafts of luscious sweetness in the mouth.

Suffice to say, you’ll never think of beetroot the same way again.


3. One night after office, I had a ravenous craving for meat. Red meat because any other kind of meat is like tofu - the ‘what’s the point?’ kind of food. A very bland substitute for the real thing.

So, as I walked towards the rickshaw stand with J, I told her how I wanted to bite into something meaty, like meat. She understood because she too is given to such unearthly cravings. So we decided to try out a grill place near my house, ‘Mad House Grill’.

First of all, the font of the restaurant’s name is so quaint and wonderful. It curves and slopes hinting at a little bit of funk and touch of calligraphy.

It is just the most darling, cosy place I have been to in a long time. I imagine such a place located in a small, cheery town-village where people come in the evenings to share stories. And the food is unpretentious, affordable, and very very tasty.We had the raan one time that was flavored with very wholesome spices and herbs. The bed of rice was buttered and fragrant and the baby potatoes were boiled just right. What’s more is that the ingredients were so fresh that we didn’t feel heavy after all that meat.

And the piece the resistance is their dessert, Drunken Apples. Cored chunks of apples are stewed in sweet, red wine and sort of slopped over caramel and served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. You will close your eyes when you put the first spoon in your mouth.

Mad House Grill in Pune is fast becoming my Mocha away from home.

4. And finally J. She’s too stylish and too happy to be the pontificating poet that she is. And like her very strange theories about life (most Indians are Saggitarians or Scorpios because most Indians marry in the winter months), her poems too come with a curious zest: Her poems are for Dino Morrea. Sometimes I worry for my friends.

You read her here: http://www.teerathyatra.com/?cat=6

When I first read these poems, I couldn’t believe that these poems were for him; but then before her, I didn’t know that beetroots could taste like that.



That strange thing about strangeness – it behooves.



Tuesday, February 14, 2006

February the Fourteenth

This morning, I went for a spirited, revitalizing jog in the Osho garden. (A moment to bring everyone’s attention to the word ‘jogged’. I ‘jogged’ – that is, I ran like an intoxicated duckling. I didn’t just perambulate like a sleepy drop of molasses around South Koregaon as some people think I do.) Anyway, after my aforementioned stint of blood rushing exercise, I perambulated like a sleepy drop of molasses around South Koregaon.

Now, South Koregaon has some lovely, plush bungalows. Gardens with marble statues and sofa-sized swings upholstered in peach chintz. White wrought iron furniture. Long driveways and arches. Manicured lawns fringed with delicate blossoms. And my favorite – marble name plates that say, ‘Poona’, instead of Pune. Houses with vintage je ne sais quoi where breeding rubs off on the pedigreed canines. They cover their mouths with their paws when they cough and strut around as if on high-heels. I’m sure they all have Burberry raincoats for the monsoon.

Anyway, outside one such house stood a black and white striped squirrel. At 7:30 in the morning, it was indeed bright eyed and bushy tailed. I was happy to note that it had been depicted so correctly in Enid Blyton books. The squirrel was looking up at the huge, black iron gate very fixedly. It seemed to be reading the sign, ‘Beware of Dog’. Then it looked about and on finding nobody to share a moment with, looked at the sign again. It scratched its head. Surely the sign couldn’t be for it, could it? Maybe the flurry of furry didn’t quite understand what ‘Beware’ meant. It looked about again, flicking its tuffy tail. It blinked. It rubbed it’s bright, round nose. It smoothed its hair and ran its paws over its chubby cheeks.

Then it gave the sign one last glance and went in through the little flap door of the gate.

I’ll just put it down to young love.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Check (the) mate

  1. My cousin, who was born sixteen hours before me, got married recently. I am expected to follow her footsteps soon. Thankfully, I have been granted more than sixteen hours to do that.
  2. My father’s health has taken a turn for the worse.
  3. My mother is completely exhausted.

    Rationally, points 1, 2, and 3 would be distinct from each other. But in my family there is no such thing as ‘rationally’. Therefore all these points are inter-related. Strangely, here, we believe my marriage to be an antidote to mortality and fatigue.

    I happened to be sitting in my parents’ room while Ma looked through Papa’s blood reports. They didn’t look good. Ma was worried and Papa didn’t help matters much. He kept talking about Sourav Ganguly and why he deserved better. Ma got further agitated and after flinging the reports somewhere inconvenient to retrieve (I should know), she snapped, “So what? There are many like him.”

    Papa doesn’t believe that and would have no one in his family believe that either. He went to considerable lengths to explain why there could be never be anyone like him. It was a waste because Ma doesn’t listen to people, especially her husband. It’s a trait that runs in my maternal bloodline.

    Amidst all this, Ma asked Papa, “What if you die?”

    Papa replied, “Then I’d be dead.”

    Ma smiled. In my parent’s language, that was ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too.’

    Now that the subject of impending death had been broached, my parents looked at me. I, of late, have come to be associated with such merry matters.

    “See, she looks worried,” Ma observed.

    “Hmm”, said Papa, a little perplexed. He would have preferred to go on about Ganguly’s eternal uniqueness. His daughter looking worried was, well, normal and hadn’t we all learned to live with that now?

    “What is worrying you?”, Ma asked.

    The thing is that I have joint eyebrows. If I’m thinking about anything, they furrow and give the impression that I’m translating Bertrand Russell’s works to German in my head. In reality, I may be thinking of something quite inconsequential. Like, when my mother asked me what was worrying me, I was actually wondering what a pregnant sparrow looked like. I told her.

    “Why are you worrying about pregnant sparrows?!” I think I had alarmed her a little bit. Papa couldn’t believe that his eloquent discourse had been interrupted for this.

    “I’m not worrying about them. I was just thinking why I hadn’t seen any.”

    Now Ma came and sat next to me.

    “There is a boy,” she began. “I want you to meet him.”

    “Sure”, I said. “What standard is he in?” Usually, I give career advice to distressed youth.

    “No,” Ma said. “For marriage. The proposal is for you. Meet him.”

    “No. I won’t.”

    “Why not?”

    I was pretty sure that I was trying her patience now.

    “That’s not how I want to meet my life partner – like this.”

    “Why?”

    “It’s like getting a job through reference. It’s not on merit. I don’t like it.”

    “On merit! What..how…what..on merit?!” I could tell that she was having a little problem grasping what I had just said.

    “How do you intend to find a partner – on ‘merit’?” Sure, when you say it like that, the idea seems pretty silly.

    “The universe will unfold and I’ll find him if I have to.” I made a sweet gesture of using my hands to denote the universe. The way kids do when they sing, ‘He has the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole wide world in his hands.’ Perhaps this was a bit much now. I can’t be weird, juvenile and demented all together at the same time.

    So, the Mumbai Mirror was flung aside, which landed squarely on the DVD player. Neat. Sometimes, one must take a moment to marvel the handiworks of wrath.

    “You thought the Universe was unfolding the last two times, didn’t you? What happened?”

    A good point.

    “Nothing happened. I made a mistake,” I replied calmly.

    The Mumbai Mirror is the exact size of the DVD player. The things you never notice.

    “What if there is nothing when the Universe unfolds – except maybe pregnant sparrows?”

    Another very good point.

    “We’ll have to wait and see”, I replied with appropriate gravitas.

    “What if there’s no Universe?”

    Ma was on a roll here. I should have read that essay by Russell. I believe that someone had asked him this – of course, someone more amenable to reason than an irate mother.

    “Are we still talking about the boy?”, my father interjected, hoping to continue what is annoyingly becoming his favorite topic.

    “Yes,” Ma snapped. It can’t be easy being the only non-strange person in the family.

    We went to my room. Ma closed the door and switched on the AC. This would take a while. She sat down opposite me and asked me why I was so closed to the idea of her introducing me to someone.

    It took me some time to gather my thoughts. I didn’t want to come across as flim-flam, but I guess I had taken care of that risk long back.

    And then, calm and collected, I made my move.

    To me, my life partner will be like my most cherished book. And my most prized books have come into my life unsought.

    I was sixteen when I was really close to a pen friend. He was suffering from osteoporosis. Apart from mailing each other, we occasionally talked over the phone. Around that time, I was going through the motions as a suburban girl in a ‘town’ college. Every day, I came across ways to ease my discomfiture. Learning these wiles was fun. You came in to class early and left late so people didn’t get a chance to see you walk. You went to the library during break and sat near the Anthropology periodicals where nobody ever went. You talked only when spoken to. That sort of thing. I was telling this to my friend when he stopped me and said that I wouldn’t be the same person once I graduated.

    I disagreed. Sixteen is when you staunchly hold on to a sense of self even if it isn’t really there. So the grip is tighter.

    Later, I went to the library to get some books.

    I got some comics and was distractedly pulling out other books from the shelves and putting them back. In my head, I was still talking to my friend. I had no idea what books I had selected.

    When I reached home, among the usual suspects, I found this novel, ‘Just the way we were.’ It was by a rather unknown author and ordinarily, I would not have chosen such a story. But the title sort of spoke to me. That story about two sisters, growing up and parting ways, was so close to what I was thinking. All this from a book I had picked up without actually picking it out.

    Something similar happened in my very first year in college. One rainy afternoon, I had fallen asleep in the library. The librarian woke me up when the library was closing down. I was leaving the hall when I happened to look at the book, ‘Dandelion Wine’ by Ray Bradbury on the center table. It was such a splendid title! I touched the spine of the book and just felt that this would be important. But the library was shutting down and I couldn’t issue the book then.

    I came back the next day and couldn’t find it. This library had another level with long corridors of shelves. I went through one dusty shelf after another and nothing. According to the librarian’s records, there was only one book of short stories by that author. Nothing else.

    I studied in that college for five years. I was a member of two external libraries and didn’t find the book there. I went to so many book fairs but no, there was no ‘Dandelion Wine.’

    I graduated and worked in four jobs. Nearly eight years after that day in the library, in my fifth job, I met Jaygee. On first instance, she and I didn’t have much in common. But then we worked together and she told me that she’d gone to school with one of my best pals in college. Somehow, in her, I used to get the feeling that she was my link to something out there. Like I’d be thinking about some restaurant in town and she’d have visited it the night before.

    One day, I came across this link to on-line literature that I forwarded to all my friends. In the evening, when Jaygee and I were having coffee, she told me that the link was good.

    “It has some interesting books. Salman Rushdie too,” she informed.

    I agreed, longingly eyeing a brownie.

    Then she told me that the site had links to works by other authors she hadn’t heard of.

    “Some interesting titles,” she continued. “There was a nice one..Dandelion..something.”

    In so many years after graduating from college, I had never once given the book another thought. Yet, at that moment, I knew that was the book we were talking about.

    “Was it ‘Dandelion wine’? By Ray Bradbury?”, I almost shrieked. I cannot say what I felt then. To have lost something you never had and find it so astonishingly. I still feel a little chill when I think about it.

    “Yes”, she replied nonchalantly. “It’s on the site you forwarded.”

    That moment, I had gone back to the library and found the book on the table. It was still my first year in college, it was still raining and dark and cloudy outside. I wake up to the musty smell of a closed, cluttered room. But now, I have the book.

    It is so soporifically mind-boggling. When I think that it took eight years to get this job, to find this link, to meet Jaygee who told me about this book. The chances of me finding ‘Dandelion Wine’ this way were so slim. I may have decided to not join this job or not forward this link or Jaygee and I would not have worked together or she may have not talked about the link over coffee. I could have missed my Dandelion Wine over such slender slips. But I was meant to find Dandelion Wine – somewhere, some how.

    I think that I would meet my ‘boy’ like that – quirk of fate, twist of destiny, hiccup of the Universe. Whatever. Through the sharp force of magic. I know this sounds like sodden garble. I know you stop thinking this way when you turn sixteen. The trouble is that’s when I started.

    In the most certain part of my soul, I believe that people, like books, arrive to answer a question. Sure, sometimes you find that the book has some pages missing or it wasn’t what you wanted or maybe you don’t quite understand the language or the print is difficult to read. Or you may get the book simply because it’s on the bestseller’s list and everyone’s reading it. Then you wonder what the big deal was anyway. Sure. That happens. But then, you do find a book that answers the question your soul has asked without you even knowing it. Like that quote, “You’re everything I never knew I always wanted.”

    You don’t coerce the soul to ask a question just because everyone else is asking it at the time. You don’t get a third person to ask it. You don’t push a finger into a bud and force it to blossom because it’s spring and all the other flowers in the valley are happy and fragrant. You wait for the season of your bud. You wait for your book to reach you. Most importantly, you wait for your soul to ask the question.

    And if you never meet someone, it only means that your soul was evolved enough to know all the answers, so it didn’t need anyone else. What really is there, then, to feel bad about?

    This is what I told my mother- no loud voices, no shrill tones, nothing. Thus I stated my whole, soul truth, uncorroborated though it was.

    Ma listened quietly and started folding linen. It is surreal when that happens. Her eyes told me that she now accepted that her daughter was weird yet wonderful. Or maybe I read too much into that. Maybe the eyes only said, “My daughter is weird. End of sentence.”

    Finally, she spoke.

    “So, have you ever come across a book that is so complete and wonderful that…I don’t know, fills you up?”

    There was. This book, truly, made me a person. If my literary life can be divided into two parts, it would be before reading that book and after reading it. That, as far as books go, would be my absolute soul mate.

    “Of course!”, I answered. “Roots by Alex Haley.”

    Ma folded the last bed sheet.

    “You may want to remember that your mother got you that one.”

    I smiled. You know it when you’ve lost the queen.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Not the same, all the same - Rang de Basanti, being a Hindu, uniform civil code, and Hostage – in that unrelated sequence

I watched ‘Rang de basanti’. That, however, is not the point. Everyone now wants to go to Delhi and cruise around in jeeps at night. And that too is not the point. I need to say something. That, really, is the point.

‘Rang de…’ is a good movie but frankly, I’ve seen better. I’ve seen ‘Yuva’. It is creditable, though, that the movie could say what it did without using the ‘sage on the stage’ (as we say in Instructional Design) approach. The movie does have a couple of ideas that I have been besotted with for a long time now.

One is the life of a story. There is the germ of an idea about men who go to their deaths cheerfully. There is fascination about what could inspire such courage in ordinary people. That story lays inside a diary for a long time.

How long? Long enough for history to play itself out and begin the process of repeating itself. A nation goes the ‘Animal Farm’ way – humans out, pigs in. The story lays untouched – fermenting in latent vigor.

Then someone discovers it. She is moved by this story and decides to tell it. The story now awakens and agrees to being told. It finds its actors – unwilling though they are. The actors read the story. More importantly, the story reads them. It finds those crevices in the mind, which it fills quietly. It is set hard and firm with periodical help from the reality in which it must be told.

And then finally, it’s out.

I truly believe that one cannot read anything – anything at all, and remain unchanged. There was this Greek philosopher (I forget his name) who said something like this – when you put your hand in a river, the river changes and so do you. Change, therefore, irrespective of extent, is inevitable.

It’s fascinating how thought builds upon thought. It is believable that the men would be so influenced by the story that they would want to replicate a reality like that. That is why some books or movies are banned in the first place. There is a fear that life could get that close to art.

As I watched the film, I wondered what would have happened if Sue wanted to make a documentary on Gandhi? Perhaps she would have got different actors. Perhaps they’d have been influenced differently. Perhaps they would have dealt with the politician in another way.

In fact, one parallel that struck me was that we got Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Chandrashekhar in response to the British. We got DJ and the gang in response to Sue.

The next arresting thought was the character of DJ. The guy for all his bravado is a really scared man. For five years, he sticks around in the University despite graduating, simply because he’s afraid of being lost in the crowd. Who’d know him in the world outside? It reminded me of that prisoner in Shawshank Redemption who commits suicide on being released because he doesn’t know how to live outside the jail.

Every person has that ‘University’, I think – home, job, marriage, relationship – an acceptable rut where you have your ‘aukaat’.

I think DJ’s is the most important psychological profile in today’s times – where with a little change, so many feel adrift.

Then there is this other scene, which for very erratic, personal reasons I found disconcerting.

The gang has gone to a club to celebrate Soha’s engagement to the pilot. Atul Kulkarni (how fantastic is that man?) is very uncomfortable in that setting. He sits slouched, holding a bowl of peanuts in his hand, not making eye-contact with anybody. He doesn't quite know what is expected of him in that world. His body language pretty much underlines the ‘not fitting in’ message. It’s rather similar to our discomfort with certain notions of religion.

For some time now, based on my interactions with certain people, I’ve been getting this impression that it’s unfashionable to be a ‘Hindu’ in India.

To start off, I have observed that of all the religious communities, Hindus are the most clueless about their religion. I went to a convent school. We had a Moral Science period where the Christian students were taken to a different class to read the Bible. The rest of us had a common text book with chapters on cleanliness and helping strangers, etc. My Muslim friends would go home and study the Koran with their Maulanas. My Hindu friends, like me, would probably just light incense in the evenings and eat Maggi. We were never mandated to learn Sanskrit or read the scriptures. Hinduism, to many of us, was our heritage (something you take for granted), not our religion (something you take seriously). We were Hindus because we were Hindus.

This cluelessness becomes rather apparent and in fact, jarring, when one is in a relationship with a non-Hindu. More often than not, the partner will know more about his or her religion than the Hindu counterpart. And since any religion is interpreted through its people, the interpreters of Hinduism are usually inarticulate in matters of their own theology. I think that’s why there’s this notion that Hinduism is only about idolatory, ritualism, and casteism. It’s not.

It’s getting a little problematic discussing this with some people of other religions. I get the feeling that just because I’m a member of the ‘majority’ community, I shouldn’t get too bothered about Hinduism being misinterpreted. What could possibly go against me? It’s not as if I’m going to be headhunted anytime soon.

Maybe there are prejudices against all religions, but I feel that I’m allowed to have fewer prejudices about theirs than they are allowed to have about mine. Why is it okay to ask, ‘What’s with the polytheism, man?’ and not wait for an answer. Why is it difficult to accept a religion because it does not have clear cut tenets all neatly listed in one book? And why is it wrong to think this way and be deemed to be a fanatic from the RSS squad?

Yesterday, a friend told me that other religions had only one God and were therefore more evolved than a religion that had 64,800 Gods. I told him that we believed in 1 God too – the deities were only manifestations of certain facets of God, etc. etc. He wasn’t listening. So I simply asked him that even if this were a polytheistic religion, why should it be deemed lower than the others?

He then asked me if I was happy being a Hindu. Truth be told, that was the very first time I thought about it. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Typical’, he replied and changed the subject.

Since I didn’t get a chance to explain myself then, I’ll do it now and hope that my pal reads it.

Like everyone, I see my religion through my prism. To me, Hinduism is benign and tolerant. It allowed me to seek my own level in it at my own pace and when I was ready. I never had to do anything compulsorily – learn shlokas or listen to priests on an assigned day every week. When I got curious about certain mysteries of life, when I felt that man does not live by bread alone, when I felt empty inside, I read the Geeta. I found some solace there. I think I would have believed in ‘karma’ irrespective of what religion I followed. But I got my answers in Hinduism without any co-ercion or ritualism. And that’s why I am happy to be a Hindu. If you think that by thinking this, I believe Hinduism to be better than any religion in the world, then you’re right. And I also hope you are better at spotting sarcasm than understanding what is actually being told.

I would be wrong if I thought that Islam was only about having four wives and slaughtering goats. I would be stupid if I thought Christianity was about Santa Claus and eating beef. Similarly, Hinduism is not that kookie religion that advocates astrology, holding cows sacred, and breaking coconuts in crowded temples. And if I think you are way off the mark in thinking this, it doesn’t make me intolerant.

Conversations get heated. I remember how I was first enamored of the idea of a Uniform Civil Code (hereafter referred to as UCC). In reality, I do not think that all religions are equal. They may be the same in essence, but they are not equal in status. Or as Atticus Finch said of people in ‘To kill a mocking bird’, ‘Some are more equal than others.’ In different contexts, some religion will feel short-changed and some other will feel like it’s bending backwards to overcompensate the others. By virtue of this, the personal laws scenario just gets to be an appeasement gimmick.

In a country that is truly secular, UCC shouldn’t be a problem. In a country that isn’t, it could be the only solution.

From the looks of it, people will always be in the dark about somebody’s God (or Gods, as the case may be). That’s why you need one code to rule them all, one code to find them, one code to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

I also watched ‘Ho(hum)stage’. As gripping as a greasy handshake and just as avoidable.



Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Those names, those perfect little names...


I have loved the movie so much that I can’t write straight. Words are just tumbling out from everywhere and there’s no reason, really, to hold them back. Yes, the outcome is a bit chaotic but what the hell? It’s not everyday that a film like this gets made.

‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is the most exquisite, delicious, scrumptious swirl of an adventure with chopped bits of mesmerism and dollops of pounding drama.

I want to remember everything about this movie and remember it forever. Every single moment that I sat through was filled with that tremble that you can only feel as a child about to embark on something new and happy – like getting home to read a new book or putting sparkly stickers on a letter to a pen-friend, or finally eating a huge bowl of jelly and ice-cream.

There is something ageless about innocence. The excitement of a child that is so piquant and dreamy at the same time. ‘The Chronicles..’ captures that essence very artfully. You first hear the footfalls of adventure when the children decide to play hide and seek one rainy afternoon. And after that, it’s just a dazzling ride.

The littlest child hides in a wardrobe swathed in fur coats. She moves back one step at a time, pushing through one coat after another. Finally, she stumbles and falls into the white, white world of snow.

What is remarkable is that the sequence of a child moving through fur coats and falling into winter wonderland is repeated four times – once with each child. And with each child, you see that world anew.

Equally impressive is the way snow is used in the adventure’s landscape. To show a fantasy – a pristine world cloaked in lyrical phantasmagoria (a poem by C.S.Lewis, by the way), there is gentle snowfall. To show the evil spell of a witch, there is a vista of cemented snow. To show the extreme ‘take no hostages’ sentiment in the confrontation scenes, there is ice.

And the drama is…what can I say, pulmonary.

The way the perfect piece of Turkish delight squishes in Ed’s fingers when he has it. I was licking my lips rather noticeably then.

Or the way the music swells when Aslan, the lion, makes his very first appearance.

In fact, when the witch’s wolf pounces on Ed (who has mistaken it for a statue), my heart just leaped to the right and then skipped back in place.

And then there’s the stunning scene when the witch freezes the creatures to death. That’s awesome.

Try not to feel something when Aslan walks to his sacrifice amidst trolls and ogres, when he lies helplessly as they pull off his mane. Try not to feel something when the armies confront each other at battle. The drums roll and the witch’s army rush forward – the giants, cheetahs, gnomes, and other bodies of distorted strength. Peter raises his sword to beckon the falcons and the sky is filled with spans of birds carrying rocks. Just try not to feel anything then. Just try.

And the exquisite part is how you get that ‘dream within a dream’ feeling. Fantasy and reality segue seamlessly. You’re left in that haze you feel when you’ve napped for a long time and you don’t know whether it’s still afternoon or night.

But verily, absolutely, completely, most of all, is the impeccable choice of names. ‘Peter’, ‘Susan’, ‘Edmond’, and ‘Lucy’ – just the proper names for regular kids who could have extraordinary turns of events one rainy afternoon.

Then there’s ‘Jadis’ – perfect moniker for this icy cruel witch who swans around in glacial splendor wearing gowns worthy to be seen in Academy Awards.

And ‘Aslan’ – quiet, deep, roaring magnificence. Aslan – see how proud and refined it sounds?

Finally there’s ‘Narnia’. I’m reminded of this bit in West Side Story where the boy falls in love with Maria. He sings, ‘Maria – you say it loudly and you hear music there; you say it softly and it sounds like a prayer.

Narnia – so bejeweled a name. It’s the name of a dominion for which pride would clash with power. It sounds like the muted descent of a snowflake that would get fixed on a girl’s eyelashes. Narnia – this place wouldn’t have legends or stories or myths or tales. It would have ‘chronicles’.

Narnia. Narnia. Narnia. You say it and you feel your voice getting italicized.

Narnia. Sigh! Narnia.