Saturday, November 6, 2010

Celebrations



This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 16; the sixteenth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.



Sidra.

It couldn’t be. Not here, not now, not any more.

Yet, there it was. Scrawled in yellow chalk across the entrance to the bistro. Just the one word. The one word that had once meant the world to him, the one word that had nearly emptied the world when he tried not to recall it.

All that he remembered of her was that he did not remember her. And that was just how he wanted it. That was how he had wanted it when he succumbed to the convenient distraction of a long overdue vacation. And that was how he wanted it now.

Or so he told himself. He had gone to great pains to pick the sun-drenched slopes of Asturias for this getaway from her and their world. It was the ideal vacation spot, without any mode of connectivity with the world-no telephones, no computers, no television. And it was the complete anti-thesis of the destination they had always wanted for their own first vacation. Spain was as warm and mellow as Scotland would have been cold and severe. They wanted Scotland for its serene solitude, Spain was bustling with people everywhere; they had yearned for the cozy warmth of a bedstead to escape the inevitable rain, Asturias was the perfect place to get drenched in the sun.

Yet, Asturias was anything but an escape from her. He had barely checked into the hotel and come out for an evening stroll when he chanced upon this bistro screaming out the last word he would have expected to come across. His curiosity piqued, he could not resist getting to the bottom of this newest quirk of fate that had characterised their every tryst.

A little tentatively, he entered the bistro. It was crammed with people chatting animatedly in the vernacular. After being jostled about for a bit, he spied the relative seclusion of the bar. The full length mirror running behind the counter added to the feeling of a little more space and without wasting a further moment, he squeezed himself onto a barstool. The visage he saw in the mirror was of a timid and tentative foreigner-he had never travelled outside his own country and as he struggled to ponder over what he should do next, his eye fell upon a board behind the counter. His relief at realising that it was written in english evaporated all too soon when he read what was written on it.


“How to drink Sidra (cider)”

Drink Sidra ! He chuckled at the thought, wondering what she would have said to this. Atleast he had now unravelled the mystery behind the sign at the front door. Exhilarated at the thought of having some fun at her expense, he read on, his eyes devouring each word in the list of instructions on how to savour the local beverage to the fullest.


“The ideal temperature for a bottle of Sidra is cool, but not cold”

Now that was just perfect, so like her. She was proud but not arrogant, simple but not plain, calm yet tempestuous.

She was beautiful, in a fresh-faced, outdoors-girl kind of way. Her big black eyes conveyed an expression of complete vulnerability, with an appeal directed not to any individual but to the world at large. Please don’t hurt me, they seemed to say. Yet, she was also extremely talented as a woman, her genius lying in a mad innocence that was at once magic, tragic and ineluctably feminine. And it was this combination of vulnerability and power that was her greatest asset.


“You must drink the whole bottle at one sitting”

That would have been impossible with her. She was an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. An acquired taste, revolting and annoying at first. He recalled their tentative first steps at getting to know each other, bubbling with irrepressible curiosity yet guarded lest the other construe it as an invasion of their privacy.

She was the absolute converse of any woman he had ever known. Most women opened up their entire lives yet did not ever offer even a peek into their real selves. With her, he had been able to peer into her soul right from the beginning and yet, had to struggle interminably to learn even the most trivial facets about her life. He detested her needless secrecy and affected insouciance. And on more occasion than one, tried to let his pride get the better of him.

But the more you pushed her away, the more you realised that you couldn’t do without her. It was like a drug, with a yearning and a promise all at once of just one more surrender to its pleasures. And yet, it was exquisite, always leaving you unsatisfied and yearning for just one more.


“The waiter will simply uncork the bottle. From then on, you are on your own”

In their case, he had been thrown into the deep end of the pool for as long as he could recall. He had always suffered himself to be haughty, severe and indifferent. But it all came to a head when he met her.

It was as if she was the antidote to all his ills. Her manner, a little untouchable, was fit for a prince. And born into Rajput royalty, he was, quite literally, just that. Yet, with her, he felt like the proverbial babe in the woods.

What others admired about him, she frowned upon; what he detested about his own self, she adored! She read Ghalib and Neruda but quoted the most cheesy Bollywood tracks. And though he was no stranger to either, he was never quite sure which of the two to proffer for all too often, his choice would be the exact one she was looking to steer clear of!

She could praise and blame, offer tears and smiles. She could warn, comfort and command. And yet, he often felt that she did not mind sitting coyly in his shadow either.


“The Sidra experience will set you back a couple of Euros”

What an understatement, if ever there was one. She hadn’t taken long to warn him that she was high-maintenance. Her animated chatter was peppered with mentions of Prada shoes and Ferragamo bags and god alone knew what else. He hadn’t a clue about women and their proclivities beyond a few clich├ęd names. And she had always been at her uncommunicative, unhelpful best when the time came to pamper her with gifts.

It was almost as if she enjoyed his clumsy attempts at reading her mind, stumbling from one bad choice to the next. And it had taken him quite a while before he understood that she had never been even half as happy at the most elegant of gifts as she had been at the bunch of flowers he had plucked from her own garden in a desperate attempt to woo her back after yet another quarrel.



He had come here to seek the comfort of solitude. But had forgotten that it is in solitude that we are least alone.

And as he resigned himself to the supremacy of the elements, the very elements that had extended her influence to even this nondescript hamlet, he conceded to himself that there would never be any escape from her. Perhaps they were right when they said that all great love affairs end in tragedy: either disillusionment sets in and people separate or one member dies, leaving the other alone. He did not understand what their undoing had been but perhaps that was not for him to know.

Forcing a smile on, he beckoned to the bartender for a drink of the cider. But his voice was drowned in the chatter. He tried again and though he caught the bartender’s attention, the man did not understand the order.

Damn that devil-woman, he cursed under his breath. Clearing his throat and cringing at the mortification of saying the word out aloud, he repeated the order.

“Sidra ”

Thankfully, the import of that one word was not lost on the bartender. And as his eyes followed the man to the chestnut kupela, he discerned a flicker of a movement in the mirror.

It couldn’t be. Not here, not now.

This was no fairytale trance, this was real life. Yet, here she was.

Sidra. The same toss of the head, the same nimble gait, the same adorable verve.

And as he turned the barstool around, too bewildered to comprehend how the countenance in the mirror had morphed into reality, it became all too evident to him.

That there was just the one person with whom he would never need an occasion to celebrate. For there would always be far more to celebrate than mere anniversaries and birthdays.

With her, he would always be able to share their similarities and celebrate their differences.




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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Moon for Sixpence






This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 15; the fifteenth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.



Sidra.

A small village in Poland at a stone’s throw from the Belarusian border. Not more than 700 souls populate its pristine oak-laden forests. And just like the mighty oak, the inhabitants of this little hamlet too take an aeon before they permit any logical succession to reach its culmination. It is a nondescript haven, far removed from the cares of the world. The only medium that punctuates the inertia of this forgotten hinterland is the railway station, a blink-and-you-miss-it pitstop that most trains rumble through without so much as slowing down.

And this is now.

Imagine the Sidra of 1935, which is where our story begins with the arrival of a young missionary crossing over from the adjoining Belarusian province with a sincere but rather misguided intent to civilize the people. Misguided because the village he chose to propagate his mission held a near total Jewish populace, none of whom were particularly enthused by the thought of a gangly youngster setting about reforming their time-honoured ways of life, more so when they realized that he was Catholic.

The village council allowed him to take residence in the abandoned infirmary but did little more to accord him a welcome. He was met with stony faces and grim stares as he went about trying to find some help but this did little to dampen his ardour. For Siddel was not just any boy. Freckle-faced with a mop full of chestnut hair, his boyish charm and impish smile made him an instant sensation with the women of the village-those elder to him wanted nothing more than to mother the poor orphan, those who were his contemporaries swooned over him and those who were younger wanted nothing more than to marry him! And Siddel used this to the hilt-what the men denied him, he ensured the women accomplished for him, in their capacities as wives, sisters, daughters and mothers to those who held sway in the village.

As time flowed by, Siddel saw his stature elevate from that of a rank outsider to that of a trusted confidant. He was still not allowed to voice his opinion in the Council meetings of this Jewish community but he took no small measure of pride in the fact that most protagonists in the meetings parroted his words when it came to new reforms and visions. His religious dissimilarity made him a second-rate citizen of sorts but accorded him the much needed anonymity that allowed him to promulgate the most radical of ideas through those who were more acceptable than him.

But even the veils of anonymity cannot stem the torrents of love. For all his severe pretences and steadfastness of purpose, Siddel could not help himself from falling head over heels for the lissom daughter of the local moneylender. The father was as boorish and avaricious as nine generations of a moneylenders blood can make a man. He did not enjoy an iota of respect among his brethren but his formidable wealth, most of it made at the expense of the forbears of the villagers, ensured that he commanded their deference.

As with all fathers, the apple of his eye was his only child whom he had eponymously named after the village that was his fiefdom-Sidra. And everything about Sidra was atypical, from her cow-like eyes dripping innocence to her nimble gait that betrayed the torpor of her surroundings. She understood all too well the vicarious burden of her father’s dreams that rested on her frail shoulders, of finding a groom befitting not just her stature and beauty but also worthy of perpetuating her father’s enterprise. But when love is not madness, it is not love.

And it was in such a moment of madness, over a cup of sweetened tea at the railway junction, that she heard him profess his love for her and heard herself pledge hers in return. Both knew the sheer temerity of such a hope as also the impossibility of keeping it hidden for long in an environment as severe and binding as theirs. But like a flower in the crannied wall, their liking found roots in the depths of privation and blossomed with a vitality that cheered all those who chanced upon the faintest glimpses of it.

All except her father, that is. The old man was livid when the news was conveyed to him. Yet, his shrewd mind was quick to appreciate the fact that in a society as inbred as his, he no longer could entertain hopes of finding a sound match for his daughter. And in Siddel he saw the lesser of two evils-better to leave his bequest to an infidel than to a pack of vultures who had always resented his success and must certainly be relishing his discomfiture now. But his ego would not let him relent until he had extracted his pound of flesh and so it was in the secrecy of the synagogue that he asked Sidell for a token of fidelity. The boy, ravaged by the listlessness of love, agreed without a second thought and the two men solemnised their pact in the presence of the only other person there, the Rabbi.

The marriage should have been a grand affair but Siddel was too conscious of the frugality of his existence and too proud to accept his father-in-law’s charity. The bride was given away at a modest community lunch and the happy couple got about refurbishing the infirmary to house a family.
****************************************************************

Life was beautiful, even if it was not luxurious. Both worked hard, he to put bread on the table and she to keep that table clean. He could give her very little and she wanted even less. But the one thing that he never denied her was a leisurely walk each evening to the railway platform. They would sit here in isolated splendour and savour the tea that she had made just the way she knew he liked it-extra creamy, extra sweet. Their aching fingers would relish the warmth of the rough-hewn earthen cups as they watched the trains rumble past to distant lands, carrying with them the promises of untold dreams and endless opportunities. Both were smart enough to know that people outside their little village worshipped different gods but neither could ever come around to accepting that there could be any other god than the one they had found each other in.The little infirmary which they called home, the little village that was their world, the unremembered platform that gave them the moon for sixpence. It was all so rudimentary, so meagre, so unremarkable. But it was theirs.

And so life sped past, finding cheer in the little joys and doggedly ignoring the dilemmas of existence. And scarce had the spring of 1939 ushered the virgin blossoms in than Sidra coyly whispered to her husband that she was soon to be the mother of their first child. They were sitting at the benches by the railway track and so joyous was Siddel that the whoop he let out almost drowned the clatter of the train that passed by. But so penurious also was the luckless fortunate that all he could offer her in celebration was his own cup of tea, in the vain hope that it would fortify her body just the little bit more that he could afford.

To their surprise, Sidra’s father was barely able to mask his delight when they told him about it. Sidra was relieved to think that he had finally started to thaw but Siddel was more sceptical, convinced that the old man only saw in the incipient grandchild a less corrupted inheritor to his legacy! But even he begrudgingly accepted the elder’s advice that they move in with him, atleast till the child was born, so that Sidra could get the appropriate care and nourishment.

They temporarily renounced the privations of their little hut for the relative comforts of the old man’s mansion but even with the advancing months of her pregnancy, their sojourns to the railway station continued unabated. The only difference was that the trains that sped past them now beckoned each of the young parents towards a new life, one unfettered by the shackles of their disparity, untrammelled in the vistas that it offered. Inviting, alluring and for the first time, just within reach of their grasp.

But forever is composed of nows. And eternity yawns its menacing grin just when things seem to be coming together. For Siddel and Sidra, the omens started in September when they heard that Warsaw had fallen to the German Blitzkrieg. The lazy village started receiving a steady stream of visitors, mostly Jews, fleeing to the relative safety of the Belarusian border to escape unavoidable persecution at the hands of the Nazis. And each new rush of migrants brought with it fresh stories of the escalating horrors against Jews that were fast becoming too surreal to ignore.

Sidra was quick to seize upon the irony of the situation. That the very religion that had always been the bane of her husband’s life in this village was the one factor that would ensure the survival and continuation of her family. She did not know whether to feel proud or grateful. And she did not have time to deliberate upon it after her father called the two of them home and with trembling hands, beseeched Siddel to look after her once he was gone. Sidra was shaken to see him in such a wretched state but soon realised the futility of persuading him to abandon his birthplace and join them. The family, for once working as one, liquidated their valuables at whatever prices they could get and used most of the money to purchase tickets for the couple on a train out of the village a fortnight hence.

It was a crisp winter evening when the family huddled at the railway platform and anxiously peered at the horizon for their salvation to come. The wait seemed interminable but it gave both the young hearts one final occasion to gaze at the one corner of the world that would forever be theirs. The railway station, with its gray facade and stony bearing, would be an unmemorable entity for most but it had given them some of their most memorable moments. Moments of rapture, moments of privacy, of joy, of anxiety and now finally, it was about to grant them eternal moments of hope and fulfilment. No matter how things turned out, they knew they would always have Sidra Junction to call their own.

As they stood contemplating the threshold of the life they were about to embark upon, a whistle sounded in the distance and they could see the faint lights of the incoming train. The instant euphoria soon gave way to the poignant fact that they would be leaving her father behind. They said their goodbyes and checked their papers one last time.

As the train slowed down, hordes of hapless souls started to make for it when they realised that something was eerily disquieting. And then it dawned upon them. The train was emblazoned with the Swastika of the Nazi party.

The baffled crowd was too stunned to even make a move before the train came to a halt and a stream of German Storm Troopers marched out and cordoned the station off. As Sidra cradled her belly to protect it from the jostling of the crowd, a smart but severe German Colonel stepped out of the train and barked an order out to his men. The soldiers quickly herded the trembling civilians to the middle of the platform whilst the Colonel commandeered an upturned barrel to serve as a makeshift podium. Standing atop it, he announced that the village of Sidra was being appropriated by the Third Reich to serve as the site for a new concentration camp. All Jews were forbidden from leaving the vicinity as they would now be conscripted to serve as labour for the construction of the camp.

While the majority of the congregation broke down at this cruel twist of fate, the moneylender hastily told Siddel to impress his Catholic faith upon the Colonel and demand permission to board the train alongwith his wife. Siddel on his part wasted no time and soon convinced the officer to allow him to proceed onwards with the train.

After getting a vacant berth for Sidra, Siddel went back to the platform to gather his belongings. And as he was about to get on board, he saw the old man standing alone, biting his lip to stop the tears from bursting forth. So overcome was Siddel at this fickleness of providence that he forgot all the humiliations he had suffered and the sacrifices he had made. He set his luggage down and went up to hug his wife’s father, to tell him that it would all be fine.

And that is when his undoing came about. The Colonel observed the young man who had just told him that he was Catholic go up and embrace a wretched Jew. His suspicion aroused, he had Siddel herded into the Stationmasters room and ordered him to lower his trousers. With a look of horror, Siddel remembered that fateful evening in the synagogue.

The evening a moneylender had demanded the cruel price of converting to Judaism in exchange for his daughter’s hand. The evening a forlorn young boy had not given the demand a second thought before acceding to it. The evening a Rabbi had ensured that even if memory forgot about the pact, the boy’s body would always carry testimony of his betrayal of his original faith.

Siddel had never told Sidra what transpired that evening at the synagogue. And as she was unceremoniously dragged out of the train and herded into the crowd trudging back to the village, she caught him stealing a disconsolate glance at the platform.








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Friday, September 3, 2010

Return



This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 14; the fourteenth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.




The Gulf of Sidra. A small inlet of the Mediterranean Sea, just off northern Libya. It runs across the coastal strip extending from the Libyan capital of Tripoli all the way to the ancient port of Benghazi. Its warm waters, swarming with tuna, make for a bountiful catch for the many fishermen who ply their boats in them. And as with all primeval haunts, there are many mariners’ tales that allure and alarm the fishermen in their lonely hours of seclusion on the waves.

So it was that in 1910, in a thatched hut overlooking the Gulf, was born a little boy to the village headman. The proud father, an able fisherman himself, named the boy Sayyad. Sayyad, he who is a lover of the chase. A name that bore the fond parental hope of patience and passion for the boy’s destined vocation.

Sayyad loved his parents but despite his lithe swimmers build and his thick wavy hair, could never bring himself around to fit the mould of a fisherman. At heart, he remained a hopeless romantic-tender, passionate and pensive. In deference to his parent’s wishes, he learned the trade. But he never learned how to perform it. He would go out farther into the sea than any of his peers dared, but would forget to cast the net. He would be blessed with a particularly copious catch of fish but would stop to gaze upon the crimson hues of the setting sun for so long that the fish would rot before he got to shore. And all his parent’s laments and reproaches elicited no more than a wistful sigh from him.

It was on one such sojourn into the Mediterranean that Sayyad chanced upon an alcove that he had never before seen. Curious at the new panoramas it might bestow upon him, he veered his little boat towards it. But scarce had it turned the bend than he let out a sharp gasp. For in front of him, seated on the rocks, was a mermaid!

Sayyad had heard one tale too many about these mystical creatures of the oceans. And though none could be tested for veracity, they all concurred on one point- that these beings bore with them an ominous foreboding for any hapless traveller unfortunate enough to stumble upon them. So inauspicious were they considered that the locals had even given them a name-“Daayan”.

Terrified as he was, Sayyad’s curiosity got the better of him and he did not turn around while he had the chance. And as the little conkers attached to the net rattled against the bow, the daayan turned in his direction.

They say that love strikes like a thunderbolt. To Sayyad, it came like a dervish wave slapping into the rocks, splaying its own dismembered parts across its wake. For the daayan, part-woman and part-fish, was more enchanting than anything he had ever set eyes upon. The Moslem women in his village were renowned across the continent for their fabled beauty. But even their emerald green eyes were no match for the limpid black pools that now stared back at him.

As the two innocent souls stared spellbound at each other, the waves nudged the boat gently till it lay directly before the rock upon which the mermaid rested. Almost on impulse, Sayyad reached out for the rock to position his little craft. Taken aback at this sudden movement, the mermaid swiftly abandoned her perch and slipped beneath waves.

The moment had passed, but not its allure. Sayyad took a few moments to regain his senses and much longer to convince them of what he had just seen. He did not know what to make of this occurrence nor did he know what he would do next. But he did know that his folks would have to learn to do without fish for the next few days!

Sayyad returned home with a smile on his face and went to bed with the smile intact. But he could not sleep-the twinkling little holes in the inky black sky kept winking at him, reviving the memories of the eyes that had touched his heart, had pierced his soul.

His parents were astonished to see him set sail well before the first light the next morning. But they were in for an even bigger surprise when this new-found enthusiasm became a daily habit. In the days to come, Sayyad would be the first to leave the docks and the last to return-curiously, his nets always came back empty and just as neatly folded as when he had departed!

However, all was not well with Sayyad. The daayan would always be at her perch when he got there and he would anchor at a safe distance so as to not startle her. She would acknowledge his presence with just a shadow of a smile, the faintest nod of her head. And then go back to busying herself with grooming her hair and basking in the warm sun. He had earned the privilege of kissing the air that had only just kissed her, but then lovers are never satisfied with what they have already received. He yearned for more, much more. Alas, this was where the limits of his blessings ended. He tried in vain to speak to her, to elicit the thriftiest of responses. But all he got, always, was a cheery smile that said that the emotions were understood but could probably never be reciprocated. And with each smile, Sayyad sunk deeper into the wretchedness of a love so pure that it was neither reciprocal nor unrequited.

Days turned into months and the months rolled over into seasons. But the rendezvous never failed. Back home, his family had given up hope of their son ever heeding their admonitions. With the newly crowned “Lion of the Desert” Omar Mukhtar intensifying his resistance against the colonising Italians, their only wish was to see their son spared the ordeal of a forced conscription.

Oblivious to the tumultuous events unravelling all around him, Sayyad remained obsessed with his quest towards moving another step closer to the destination he did not yet comprehend. The ardour of his efforts had not dimmed but the futility of it all was slowly starting to sink in. And it was in one such moment of melancholy that the poet within him burst forth...

“Yeh na thi hamari kismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota...”


Sayyad himself knew not from where these words had sprung. And as he struggled to complete the verse, he heard a voice, mellifluous and honeycombed, add...

“...agar aur jeetey rehte, yehi intezaar hota”
The mermaid, his daayan, had spoken! He knew not how, he knew not why. But that was irrelevant-she had spoken and that was what mattered! His ecstasy knew no bounds and as if in reciprocation for his glee, she glided off her perch and swam towards his little craft. As he watched, mesmerized, she swam around him for a while before plunging into the waters and vanishing from his sight.

Sayyad returned home in utter euphoria, his mind swarming with scores of unfinished verses that he hoped she would complete in the days to come. But as with the best of men, Sayyad too was destined to find his fate on the very road he had taken to avoid it. That same night, Omar Mukhtar’s men came to his village to recruit men for their glorious cause. And among the youngsters who left with them the next morning was a very reluctant and immensely dejected Sayyad.

Sayyad had never been able to understand what the logical culmination of his yearning for the daayan would be. And fate spared him the answer. Just two days after he left his village, far away from the sea that had been his benefactor and companion, Sayyad was killed defending a land he had never known enough to love.


And for years thereafter, the locals would tell the tale of a mermaid who cried gently in the sea, her sobs mirroring the waves lapping at her feet...

*******

Seperated in time and space from this un-accommodated tragedy was the world of Sangram Singh. Born into Rajput royalty, he was one of the fortunate few to grow up in the shadow of horses and swords in the twenty-first century.

As was wont in his circles, scarce had he entered upon his ninth year than he was packed away to one of India’s elite public schools, to earn the education that four generations before him had already enjoyed. College followed school and the charm he had honed while living in such close proximity with a bevy of girls was put to good use in the Delhi social circles. He was the life of every party, the cynosure of every eye.

And yet, there was a longing deep within. He loved the stark and desolate beauty of the desert that held within its sands his home and hearth. But often, in the stillness of the night, a fitful sleep would bring with it visions of the oceans. Of forgotten bays littered with rocks, lashed at by unrelenting waves. And the recurrent vision of a forlorn face. A face he tried hard to get a look at but was always deprived of, with his dream breaking just as he was about to get a glimpse.

Brought up on a firm diet of bravado and chauvinism, Sangram was too far gone to ever admit his longing for that face even to himself. And as the years rolled on, it came to the point where he had craftily learned to disguise his sentiments behind an impenetrable veil of insouciance and arrogance.

But as with the best of men, Sangram too was destined to find his fate on the very road he had taken to avoid it. It happened the night he was visiting home and found himself the unwilling host at yet another party thrown in his honour. Jaded stiff with the usual pretences, he hurried outdoors to find refuge in the solace of the night sky.

As he stood pondering the vagaries of life by the poolside, he saw a woman walk across the courtyard, into the living room and on towards him. Screened by the bright lights all around them, her face was still obscured to his sight. But the emotions that had so far been wistful accompaniments to his restive nights became all too palpable.

Unaccustomed to this uncontrollable upheaval within, Sangram averted his gaze and stood contemplating the gentle waves of the pool. And as their rhythmic lapping found a mirror in his heart, he found himself uttering a verse he had never heard before...

“Yeh na thi hamari kismat ki visaal-e-yaar hota...”


And almost as if on cue, a mellifluous and honeycombed voice concluded his reverie...

“...agar aur jeetey rehte, yehi intezaar hota”

Sangram turned. She was standing beside him now. And as she smiled at him, it all came back to him with an unmistakable lucidity.

The daayan of Sidra had returned.






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Monday, August 30, 2010

Boorish Bombay,Delectable Delhi !

For years, I refrained from the vicarious pleasures and indulgence that the internet affords. And it was for these very reasons- the seemingly pitiable pretence of seeking a sense of identity from others as also the depraved indolence at finding belongingness in the pale blue light of a little computer screen.

Perhaps I was mistaken. It started when I was finally relented to a spate of persuasions and somewhat reluctantly penned my first post on a blog that someone else created for me. At first, it felt foolish to share my rants with the world. Curiously, however, I realised that being compelled to put my words into black-and-white forced me to delve into the very recesses of my mind and memories, bringing me into proximity with the issue with an unmatched clarity.

And then there were the people who read my writings and shared their opinions-some were predictably superficial but for the better part, there were people who genuinely took interest. Getting to hear from them felt good and opened new dimensions of thought but more importantly, afforded solutions to the perplexities that had confounded me for ages.

In my random and itinerant wanderings across the virtual world, I have come upon many pieces of writing which, with the sheer fluidity of their temerity, would any day shame even the maestros of prose. But I have also come across some who, despite the beauty of their words, have fallen prey to misguided opinions!

One such piece of writing that I chanced upon recently was a piece on the ostensible superiority of Mumbai over Delhi. The author is very articulate and eloquent in her efforts to garner some compassion for Mumbai (or is it Bombay-I know, who cares!). And while we laud her valiant attempts in the face of such a daunting task, she also deserves every bit of our sympathy for even daring to undertake such a futile endeavour!

My tryst with Delhi began when I joined college at Delhi University. Having recently passed out of a school with a captive strength of just over 700 souls confined to an area of barely 150 acres, the enormity of Delhi was a cultural jolt all by itself. And beyond that came the manifestation of scores of things that so far had merely been abstract elements in our adolescent reflections. It was all there-the monuments, the glamour, the power, the opportunity. But I am sure you would find all of this, and even more, in any other of India’s bustling metropolitans. What then makes Delhi luna inter minores-the little moon among the stars?

Its inability to be pigeonholed into a stereotype. Or maybe its ability to escape the same. Mumbai is about money as Bangalore is about IT. Pune is for students as Kolkata is for leftist intellectuals. But try as hard as you may, you really can never define what Delhi stands for. It is the sum of many little elements, and the whole is definitely much more than a mere aggregation. Delhi is not a city; it is an animated entity that defies all attempts at definition. The only thing singular about Delhi is its plurality.

Beyond the teeming multitudes struggling to blend into this eclectic melting pot, Delhi offers assortment in almost every arena. It serves up all forms of food, from the delectable kababs at Nizamuddin to the zesty chuskis at South Extension. It has a legion of intelligentsia but not the sort who would pass up a Govinda movie. Its markets offer the most decadent in luxury yet leave scope for a Sunday jaunt at the Daryaganj flea market. Religious proclivities find an untrammelled expression in Delhi, allowing you to revel as much at the Ramlila as to delve into profound reflection at a Majlis. Even nature has been munificent in its bounties to the city, permitting the denizens to experience the agony as well as the magnificence of all the seasons-while the scorching summers force you to indulge in nimbu-paani and coconut jal, the fabled Delhi winter presents a burst of fauna in a wild assortment of hues, to gladden your heart as you hum your way to harmony at an open concert in Nehru park.

And then there are the unparalleled monuments. From the understated majesty of the Mughals at Puraani Dilli to the deliberate grandeur of the British in New Delhi, every nook in the road has a story to tell. Delhi houses the headquarters of all our armed forces and also plays host to the representations of all foreign countries in India. A drive across its roads is a delight, if not for the vistas sprinkled all about you, then even just for their names alone-Kautilya marg, Shanti path, Palam marg, Aurangzeb road, Janpath.

Which brings me to what is unarguably India’s most famous boulevard-Rajpath. Barely will the sheer majesty of the drive on Rajpath have subsided when Vijay Chowk will drop you onto Raisina Hill and set forth an imposing view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. As you drive up to its gargantuan gates and turn around, the panorama that unfolds is seductive to say the least. Park awhile and sit on the ramparts of South Block and bask in the awe of being at the pulsating epicentre of India’s policy elite. And as you silently watch the Delhi traffic zoom across India Gate in the distance, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.

For years, I refrained from the vicarious pleasures and indulgence that the internet affords. But today, do me a favour. Log on to Google, type “Mumbai” and then click the “images” link. Look at the images it throws up of India’s bustling financial capital and wonder how anyone can ever like any city in India better than Mumbai.
But before you log off, just for the heck of it, type in “Delhi” too and view the images that show up.
And smile.
For you have just seen the answer!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Return to Innocence

“Sach hi kehti thi, jo bhi Ammi kehti thi
Jab mere bachpan ke din the, chaand pe pariyaan rehti thi”

When was the last time you laughed? Really opened up and let out a guffaw? Chortled till your insides hurt? And not at another joke, but at the sheer joy of being alive, of returning to the lost innocence of finding ecstasy in the simple things strewn all around you.

I returned to Chandigarh yesterday for another of my overnight stays. And as has become wont with me since she shifted to Mohali, took a surreptitious drive just outside Jasmine’s house. Now, Jasmine is the 5 year old who was 2 when I first met her. We were both once tenants at the same house and for the first few months after I shifted there, shared little more beyond quizzical looks whenever we passed each other around the premises.

And then came the day when she deigned it fit to come visiting. It was almost noon and I was just sitting down for a late breakfast. Although not yet able to walk without faltering, she nonetheless matched me toast-for-toast, orange-for-orange, before announcing that she was going home for lunch! And as she left, she elicited from me the promise of getting her a toy when I returned from office that evening. But as is usually the case, I forgot all about it till I got into my car at the end of a long day. The thought of going back to the comfort of my bed also brought with it the memory of my promise to her. But since it was too late for the toy shops to be open, I had to settle for a couple of balloons from a roadside vendor.

I got home, summoned my helper and before he started warming the food, asked him to go and give the balloons to Jasmine. He did one better-he went and called her over. And this is when I experienced a moment of the kind that we see all around us but are too busy to cherish.

Jasmine came, frowned at me and then noticed the balloons. Her smile said it all-she was thrilled! But what was even more amazing was the involuntary chuckle that escaped her. She was actually laughing with glee, at a present as meagre as a pair of balloons! She pranced about for a bit, helped herself to some dinner (her second for the night!) and though I did not get a goodnight kiss, I did sleep with a huge smile that night.

Over the next couple of years that I knew her, I shared many such moments with her. And she was always the perfect panacea to wish away the blues. She found merriment in candyfloss melting over her fingers, pride in showing me her latest outfit and an exuberant hope in demanding a puppy for her next birthday. With each action, confirming irrefutably that the real wonders exist only where there are those with the sight to see them.

The real wonders. The little, simple things that we start taking for granted as we “grow up”. If caught in a particularly bad mood, these very things can even trigger a rush of annoyance. Yeats wrote someplace that the innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time. Perhaps he isn’t all that mistaken. For there comes a time in each of our lives when we cease to enjoy anything, intent merely on amassing immaterial treasures. We stop believing in love, believing in loveliness, believing in belief itself. We possess a spirit that knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. We hoard our smiles and measure our words. We never forget an insult, never forgive an injury.

I wonder what it would take to revisit our misplaced innocence. To find joy in a bar of chocolate divided into seven shares, to yearn to get drenched in the next rain, to think nothing of conceding defeat before our friends just to see the delight on their faces. To return to the time when fairies left us presents under the pillow and God took note of our every prayer.

Maybe all it takes is a chubby hand in yours, hauling you to the next mirthful escapade. And if you don’t have that, then the next best thing would be the memory of a chubby hand.


I have been planning to meet Jasmine for ages now, ever since she shifted out of what was once “our” house. My drives towards Chandigarh are always crammed with plans of meeting her-where we would go, what we would do. But the moment I pull into the city, all plans go flying out of the window. A strange dread grips me-what if she has forgotten me? It is not easy to live with the memories of a beautiful time gone by, never to come again. But it would be impossible to live without the hope of that time ever returning. Without the consolation, however feeble, that it will all go back to being the way it was.

So I continue to make plans that may never bear fruition. And giving me company is the warmth of a chuckle.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Maktub

Maktub. It is written.

Destiny. Fate. Karma. It is all written.

But where we err is in believing that is irrevocably written. In believing that our fates were pre-determined and that the “prarabdh” we carried forth from our previous lives is unalterable. I have seen too many individuals, bright and promising, giving up at the first sign of resistance and consigning their lives into the hands of what they deem to be their ordained lot in life. Even worse, they seem to use this pre-disposition towards the supremacy of the heavens to justify their meek surrender to the privations of life, while absolving themselves of any guilt at not having put up a struggle.

Einstein once said that “God does not play dice”. Translated into the myriad aspects of the universe, it reflects that the rhythm of His creation is rooted in reciprocity. The human race has been set forth with one primary challenge-to struggle with their mortality while combating with the perennial mutations of heaven and earth.

Man has been given command over the elements that comprise his being (air, water, fire, earth and ether) to nourish or exploit as he deems fit. At the same time, he has also been made subject to the outer disintegrating powers of nature-planetary stimuli that determine the course of his life, beyond what he himself may determine or crave.

According to the ancients, a child is born at a time when the celestial rays are in harmony with his individual karma. As such, his horoscope is a portrait not just of his unalterable past but also of his probable future. Probable, for the stars themselves have no conscious benevolence or animosity-they merely offer a direction based upon what each man has set into motion in the past.

The message indicated by the stars is not meant to emphasize fate as an inevitable result of past good or evil. Rather, it is meant to serve as a road-map, a reckoner of one’s limitations and potentialities. In its purest form, it is meant to arouse man’s will to escape his universal thraldom. To show him that what he has done, he can also undo. Since none other than he himself was the instigator of the limitations he now finds himself burdened under, it is he himself who can overcome them. And he can do so merely by taking the right actions, actions that are principally dependent on his ethereal resources and are not subject to planetary influences.

Once we identify the latent power within each of us to shape our own destinies, it becomes evident that a superstitious awe of astrology and the power of the stars denigrates us to mere automatons, slavishly dependent on mechanical guidance. If it is true that God created us in His image, it is impossible that he intended for us to be to so servile in our subjugation to extrinsic forces. The logical corollary is that we are meant to use the gift of our “free will” to choose our destiny. And once we have made this choice, we will also, without exception, gain an understanding of the travails and sacrifices it entails.

The multitude will never even contemplate upon what their destiny might be; they will merely resign themselves to it. Of the few who do ponder over it, the majority will yield to the severity of its demands. The chosen few who do dare to pursue their destinies will be mocked, scorned and ridiculed. And if they stick the course, they alone shall be admired, revered and idolized. But above all, they alone shall find happiness.
For all too often, a person finds his destiny on the very road he took to avoid it.

“A wise man struggling with adversity is said to be a spectacle upon which the Gods look down with favour”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

G-l,U-k-p

I don’t watch television. It started about half a decade back and with time, I lost interest in it altogether. Gradually, this aversion to the idiocy that most of our electronic media transmits with unrelenting vengeance grew to encompass movies too. Given the junk that Bombay has been passing off as “entertainment”, I soon started to look at it all as little more than chewing gum for the eyes. Not that I never indulged myself in its indolent decadence. But each time, I came away reassured that the only way television could be educating would be if every time someone switched the set on, I went into the other room and read a book.

A week or so back, I happened to make a trip to Dalhousie, one of the very few hill stations I have come across that still retains vestiges of its colonial past. It is a quaint little town, almost caught in a time-warp, with its hillsides strewn with lovely bungalows and mist-laden pathways. It was raining torrentially when I arrived but by the time the afternoon gave way to the evening, the skies had cleared. And despite my repugnance for all the tourists who can never seem to get enough of the hills, I had to admit that the vista was captivating. The firmament was cleansed of the dust and as far as the eye could see, nature seemed to be spilling its exquisite bounties in abundance. The greens of the flora, the azure-blue sky, the milky-white wafting mists-together, they dwarfed the ugliness that we tend to pass off as civilization and served as a poignant reminder of the fact that the simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Tender as the mood was, I succumbed to the easy temptation of lethargy and upon reaching my room, turned on the television set. And the visage I encountered shocked me no less than accidently pouring a mug of cold water onto yourself while enjoying a splendidly warm bath in the winters.

It was a music channel I had tuned into and the song I had the misfortune of listening to went .."He’s a good looking ullu ka pattha..” !! I mean, we all know, thanks in no small measure to the genius of Anu Malik, that Indian cinema faces an acute paucity of talent but this seems to have taken absurdity to unimaginable depths!

I am no prude and have enjoyed my share of the ridiculous. I will not, out of sheer self-respect, mention the gems that once found a tune on my lips. But I can admit that the rhythms accompanying most of Govinda’s onscreen inanities did lend a lilt to my moments of senile indulgence-the last being this particularly outlandish song from Partner called "Kehndi paun, kehndi paen"!

However, momentary insanity apart, Bombay really seems to have lost it. Consider the songs in the era of India’s new-found independence. They were masterpieces, lyrically and visually. There wasn’t the slightest hint of any indecency, vulgarity or inanity. They were perfect accompaniments to the story and encapsulated the pathos of the story in hauntingly beautiful melodies.

And consider how much it has degenerated since. Ishq, that beautiful Urdu word which has no equivalent in the English language, has been derided without remorse in the last decade. Urmila gyrated to “Kambakth Ishq”, Aishwarya almost had us convinced that life was tough because of “Ishq Kameena” and to be honest, I am really apprehensive what the next female icon would have to call it to cement her status!

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lay just a little strain on your memory and you will realise that beyond being the land of Ghalib and Tagore, we are also the people responsible for subjecting the world(and ourselves) to classics such as “Teri nani mari to main kya karoon, Andey ka fundaa, What is your style number/what is mobile number, Sarkailo khatiya jaada lage, Aa aa ee, uu uu ooo...” And the list is endless!

Agreed, there are exceptions to the rule. There are a few songs that have aesthetic appeal even in these times. But exceptions don’t always justify the rule. And given the pace with which we are descending into this maddening chaos where every second channel has a contest featuring every possible format (crooning grannies, dancing toddlers, battles of has-beens et al), the mind shudders to imagine where we will be in the coming few years.

For the moment though, it seems to be a menace that everyone loves to hate but can’t seem to live without.

P.S.- For the uninitiated:
Ullu-ka-pattha = son of an owl
Anu Malik = “inspired” lyricist and musician from India; unfortunately, his inspirations are often misconstrued as plagiarism
Govinda = yellow shirts with red pants, need I say more?
Ishq = an abstruse and enigmatic Urdu word; conveys more emotion than liking/admiration/infatuation but less than love
Kambakth Ishq = goddamned Ishq
Ishq Kameena = Ishq-the-wretched
Urmila and Aishwarya = popular Indian actresses who reached their cinematic pinnacles at the time these songs, respectively, were released
Teri nani mari to main kya karoon = “what can i do if your maternal grandmother died?”
Andey ka fundaa = “the enigma of an egg”
What is your style number/what is mobile number = c’mon, this one is in simple English!
Sarkailo khatiya jaada lage = “move the bedstead, I’m feeling cold”
Aa aa ee, uu uu ooo = here, I GIVE UP!!

.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Non Mihi,Non Tibi,Sed Nobis


Once upon a time, there was a boy. Intelligent, caring, sensitive and ambitious. When he came of age, he fell in love with a girl who adored him with an equal intensity. Together, they fashioned for themselves a life of unparalleled harmony-a small piece of heaven removed from the cares of the world, filled with the ecstasy and exuberance that love inspires. As they grew older together, they unconsciously gave form to one of the most hauntingly beautiful romances ever.

But nothing lasts forever. And at the tender age of 37, the wife died during childbirth. Given his stature and his appeal, everybody expected the husband to find a new consort and move on with what remained of the day. But they had grossly undermined his love for her. So grief-stricken was he by her irrevocable absence that he almost gave up on life itself. His ambitions met with a premature demise, he barely ate and all the little pleasures which once had given him so much joy now merely served as reminders of a paradise lost forever. He aged overnight and paced endlessly in his disconsolate state, trying to comprehend why providence had chosen him for this tragedy. Why do we meet someone when fate has already decreed that we must part before the association bears its full fruition?

And then he remembered his promise to her-that he would not let the world forget about her, about them. As the Greeks said, “Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis”. Not for you, not for me, but for us. Suddenly, gone was the morose frame of mind, the lethargy and the indolence. Replaced with a definite vision as it was, it gave him hope and a sense of purpose.

And thus started the construction of a memorial for his wife. It would take 20 long years before it was unveiled to the world but history stands testament that not a single day went by when the Emperor himself did not visit the site to personally supervise its progress. And thus was created the monument that Tagore so famously described as “a teardrop on the cheek of time”. The Taj Mahal. Not just India’s most famous cultural icon, not just a marvel in marble. A reminder. A reminder of one man’s undying love for a woman who had not been with him for over two decades.

That is the stuff love stories and fairytales are made of. Or so we would think. But then let us for a moment consider also the story of a man as far removed from Shah Jahan as can be imagined. A poor labourer in a small village in India’s poorest state of Bihar. Not in a bygone century but in this very century, infact in our own times.

The story starts again with a well-possessed boy falling in love with a girl and striving to give her more than he can reach for. They are happy together until the cruel hands of fate snatch her away forever. After the customary turpitude brought about by the bereavement, this husband too started pondering over why providence had been so unmerciful. His wife had been unwell for a long time and was undergoing continuous treatment at the nearby health centre. She had suffered paroxysms of pain in the past too but he had always been able to get her to the doctor in time. This last time, however, he had gotten there a little too late.

The reason was simple-between the village and the health centre stood a hill which doubled the travelling time. Had the hill been absent, she might have been saved. Armed with this clarity of vision, he knocked on the door of every official who could have sanctioned a road to be cut through the mountainside. And always, the answer was a sympathetic but firm no-the government could not afford to waste money on a needless project, and that too in the memory of an unaccomodated individual.

But they too had undermined his love for her. He did not have the wealth of an Emperor or the luxury of an empire at his disposal. What he did have was just four things-an undying love, a clarity of purpose, a shovel and a spade.

And thus started the construction of a memorial for his wife. Armed with his meagre tools and the ferocity of his determination, this one man started cutting away at the mountainside. Alone and single-handedly, he started his herculean task and kept at it doggedly till even the mountain made way for him and he was able to cut a road across it. By some mischievous quirk of fate, he too took 20 years to complete his labour of love. The government took due notice of his feat and the road was metalled soon thereafter. The Chief Minister of Bihar invited him for the inauguration of the road-a standing testimony to the ecstasy and exuberance that love inspires. Baba Dashrath Manjhi died soon thereafter.

The road still stands. A teardrop on the sands of time. Not just another macadam road in India’s forgotten hinterlands, not just another instance of asphalt on rock. A reminder. A reminder of one man’s undying love for a woman who had not been with him for over two decades.

"Absence diminishes small passions and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire"

Monday, July 19, 2010

Immortality

"The more magnificent the prospect, the lesser the certainty and the greater the passion"
There are times when you question the very genesis of your beliefs, your convictions and your own self. All too often, such doubts arise when taking a call on a task that you have never faced before or one which seems insurmountable. Should you succeed, the doubts fade into the background and are effortlessly replaced with an enviable sense of confidence. But, as is more likely, should you meet with failure, there is the very legitimate risk of plunging into a ceaseless progression of hesitation, misgiving and uncertainty about almost everything that you once held dear.

Mavericks. That’s what they call the ones who do not toe the line, who dare to think differently. Rebels. Eccentrics. Misfits. For persisting in trying to adapt the world to themselves, instead of just adapting themselves to the world and living a simpler life. And it does seem foolish to challenge conventional wisdom-the wisdom of the ages, proven true since time immemorial. Why risk it all on a turn of pitch-and-toss when you could very easily settle for just a notch below?

I pondered upon the dilemma of risking everything for a faint chance at attaining something truly magnificent. And logic said that the risk inherent in such a foolhardy enterprise should be deterrent enough for any rational individual. But then rationality does not create empires-it can never spur you to go the extra mile, never urge you to look beyond the obstacles, never replace the passion that excellence demands and deserves.

By some fortuitous coincidence, I happened to watch a movie called Tin Cup where the protagonist, a deserving underdog who is within a whisker of winning the US Open Golf Tournament, blows it all away because he wants to prove to himself that he is as good as he thinks he is. He can take the easy way out, play a safe shot and win the tourney. Or he can risk an audacious shot which will either give him a spectacular victory or a heart-breaking defeat.

He takes the shot. And misses. And keeps taking one shot after the other, each of them knocking him irredeemably out of the tournament, till he manages the perfect shot and sinks the putt. The spectators explode in applause at his grit and belief but he loses the tournament because he will not succumb to conformity. Immediately thereafter, he questions the validity of his apparent obstinacy. Why did he squander away the chance to enter the record books as a winner-merely to satisfy his own ego?

And the answer is simple. Because he knew he could do it. The record books are for trivia buffs and people who profess to love sports without ever having set foot on a playing field. But true love for any endeavour must necessarily embrace the madness, the perils, the failures and the passion without which all of it would be little more than a mundane chore. Passion can never be a business. And regardless of the multitudes seduced by the glamour of choreographed extravaganzas, it does not take long to recognize the presence of a genius.

Be it Lance Armstrong who overcame testicular cancer or Edison who so famously failed a thousand times before making the bulb or even Gandhi who subdued an empire wearing just a loincloth, each of these individuals believed in the beauty of their dreams. Dreams that we all have but few dare to pursue. For all purposes, dreams at first glance seem impossible. For those who ponder over them, they start seeming improbable. And to the scant few who are audacious enough to go after them, they soon become inevitable.

So here’s hoping that you realise that the greatest gift of all is something to strive for. And if you have that something, give it your all-break the shackles and reach for the stars-even if you lose, you will have some stardust on you. And should you win, immortality would be yours. 


"Talent does what it can.
Genius, what it must. "

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Memory called Life

There are altogether too many people who mistake their imagination for their memory. Do we not have a tendency to view the past with a tinted vision that is certain to conjure up images far better than what the reality was? Or maybe, far worse than the reality? It’s hard to tell for sure unless you have the chance to revisit the past and live it again through the vicarious eyes of an outsider, almost as if all were an out-of-body experience. And all of a sudden, you can feel the pieces fall into place with a precise clarity.

I had just such an opportunity recently when a very old friend of mine came visiting. Even before he had left Calcutta, he elicited from me the promise of taking a trip up to our old school. Sanawar. And even though I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of going back up the hills, I couldn’t bear to dampen his ardour. But, truth be told, even I was a little pleased to go back to school with someone whom I had shared a lot of its joys and tribulations with.

And so it was that a bright Saturday morning saw us set off for Sanawar. The gibberish that nostalgia evokes had started the night before-the food, the clothes, the studies, the dorms and, of course, the girls- we went through the entire gamut of experiences which for us symbolised our years at that little hilltop. Wherever one of us ran out of conversation, the other would pipe in with a forgotten anecdote and soon, the conversation would become animated again. Smuggling chapattis out of the dining hall to use as a midnight snack with ghee, lighting a paper bag full of monkey-shit outside the housemasters door and watching him try to stomp it out, sharing a single packet of uncooked Maggi among 5 friends, signing up for boxing to impress your latest crush and getting hammered senseless in the ring ! Many, many memories of a carefree and innocent time- a time gone by, never to return.

And right when we reached the last bend short of school, some more memories kicked in-the hockey sticks raining on our backsides, the rotten food, getting beaten up over a pack of biscuits, early morning runs and late night errands and the ubiquitous homesickness. Maybe it was the nostalgia and the fact that we were finally out of school that made it possible for us to reminisce so fondly about it. For while we were there, there was many an occasion when we would have given just about anything to exchange places with the millions of kids who went to school just for classes and then went back to the warmth of a homestead-while we rubbed our sore posteriors and put up a brave face for the world, frightened and forlorn as we were from within.

At almost the same instant, the same question crossed both our minds-what did we miss so much about Sanawar when there were clearly so many bad memories attached to it too? Getting kicked around, polishing shoes for our seniors, getting a fresh change of uniform only after 4 days, spending the bulk of our 50 rupees worth of weekly pocket-money on seniors? Was this the life that we missed? Driving past the school gates and towards our dorms gave us time to mull over this question.

As we drove onwards, every bend in the road, every tree and every building seemed to smile at us in welcome. A smile that could be shared only between those who had lived together, shared joys and sorrows, been there for each other. We drove past the nooks which cloaked us when we wanted to sob after a particularly bad beating, the staircase from atop which we yelled out our triumphs, the pavement that still resonated with the chatter of our adolescent dreams. And by the time we reached our dorms and stood before the nameplate proudly proclaiming the name of our house, the truth had sunk in with an unmistakeable clarity.

We missed Sanawar and remembered it fondly because regardless of our experiences, good or bad, this was the place that had made us who we were. This was home for 8 months every year and even your fiercest rival was in truth your best friend. We certainly did get a bundle of agony and anguish along the way but it was also the place where every success was yours and yours alone-you had earned it and could relish it as you chose. We were the masters of our destiny, independent and untrammelled in the vista of choices that lay before us. And although an aeon had gone by since we passed out of its portals, there wasn’t the slightest doubt that we could never have been even a pale shadow of our selves without this very special entity in our lives. The entity that gave us the benefit of its own form of disinterested guardianship and moulded our fledgling forms in the brand of its legacy.

And that seems to be true of life too. It is surprising how much of remembrances are built around things unnoticed at the time. Yet, the slightest moment of reflection would reveal that things were never as bad as we today accuse them of being nor as good as we so wistfully remember them to be. Most of the time, they were just the right blend of bitter-sweet occurrences. And together, they have given us the moments that we remember as our life thus far. The life that has made us what we are today. And the life that we choose to make of it from this day forth.


“Life is whatever you want to remember of it”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Total Eclipse

“I was so horrified when I read about the ills of smoking that I gave up reading”


DISCLAIMER: The protagonist in this article bears no resemblance to any person, living or alive. For the sake of artistic expedience, the article has been written in the first person-this should not be misconstrued as a reflection of, or upon, the author’s own proclivities which remain irreproachably untainted and chaste.



Never in the history of human strife has so much antagonism been directed by so many against so few. The battle lines have been drawn and are gradually tightening about the exclusive clique of individuals who have chosen not to forsake the perennial companion of human solitude-the cigarette.


Restaurants and bars, theatres and parks, offices and markets, they have all devised newer and more nefarious ways to keep smoking at bay. Why, you are no longer permitted to smoke even in the privacy of your own car! (Well, technically you are but only if the car is moving or if the car is stationary but the windows are rolled up or the windows are rolled down in a moving car but there is nobody in the vicinity of x metres or.....God knows what the damn rule is-this is where I need a cigarette!).


Ostensibly, all of this is being done for the sake of humanity at large-not only are the smokers given definite disincentives to quit an injurious habit, it also ensures permanent riddance for those afflicted by passive smoking. Agreed, it would be criminally offensive to blow rings of smoke around a new-born baby’s pate. But banning smoking at virtually every possible location on the pretext of public health is inane-given the ubiquitous defilement of our surroundings, that’s like having a urinating and non-urinating section in a swimming pool!


As for the question of kicking the butt, believe me when I say (from a purely vicarious perspective) that there is no incentive required to do so. A very big misconception people suffer is that quitting smoking is difficult. Nonsense, I say-my friend Vineet himself had already quit about 26 times at last count. And although I would not call him a heavy smoker, he does get through about two lighters a day.


Yes, continuing to quit cigarettes may be a little trickier but then most smokers really do not see the logic in it all. To begin with, cigarettes are a much cheaper and easily available alternative to nicotine patches. There is the obvious benefit of getting your sense of smell back but with the pungent odours we are subjected to, who would want it back anyway. Possibly the only set of factors that could induce a severance from the Great God Nick-O-Teen would have to do with a play on human emotions-the frown of a child, the concern of an elder or a bewitching smile from the better half.


But even these are mere possibilities. Those given to the bliss that cigarettes afford would aver that “a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke”. Cigarettes don’t just give the illusion that you are doing something when you do nothing. They are companions, counsellors and comrades. They are a balm to soothe away the problems of the world, the perfect accompaniment to all forms of hedonism. They are consistent, reliable and convenient. And best of all, they ask nothing in return-like the proverbial moth enraptured by the flame, they ask only that they be allowed to do their duty, even as they slowly perish for your sake.


And if these are sentiments that only smokers can relate to, the uninitiated could savour the enigmatic temptation of a cigarette by thinking of it as a beautiful woman who also knows Tendulkar’s statistics!



"A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"

Miracles

I know what I have given you, I do not know what you have received.”


If God were generous enough to tell us what lay in store for us in the future, most of us would probably not undertake the journey. Would you study as hard for an exam if you were told that you would not clear the interview? Would you scrape together every last penny to buy a house if you knew that this is where you would lose a dear one? Would you allow your heart to go aflutter at the first sight of a special someone if you knew that you would have to part after a few years? In most cases, the answer would not be in the affirmative.


Yet, we live and get bruised and battered. And if given a chance, would not think twice about living it all over again. Strange, but true. We are, after all, the only species that brings home another species just for the pleasure of their company! For that seems to be the exact purpose why man has been made in this fashion. To bring into manifest the most noble emotions- love, sacrifice, courage, honour and civility. These are what separate us from the others and make us true masters of our destiny.


And the bedrock of every human endeavour is the need for acknowledgement. Even the humblest or the most severe of individuals revel in being appreciated for what they do for others. The irony, however, is that very often the sincerest of intentions unfolds in a manner that may well be misinterpreted. You do the correct thing but in the wrong way. As the poet said, “Kehtein to hain achchey ki, lekin buri tarah”. And far from being acknowledged, every successive attempt to undo the misgivings of the past snowballs into a quagmire of blunders.


But the fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose. And the efforts continue ceaselessly, with an ardent intensity and the fervent belief that the ends will justify the means. This is why we succumb to irrational lying, to recurrent anger, to inversions of the self, for we consider all of it as almost essential to preserve the greater good. I remember here this brief aside in the movie Casablanca where a young woman approaches the cynical protagonist and asks him if she would be justified in doing “a bad, a very bad thing” if it would allow her to secure happiness for the man she loves. Although the movie furnishes no definite vocal response for this moral dilemma, it nonetheless provides the issue with a treatment similar to that accorded to a white lie-if a wrong can lead to a right, then the wrong itself is not far from being a right.


And that is the very embodiment of the enigma we call life. That there is no right or wrong, that there is nothing and nobody more important than life itself, that the only time we go wrong is when we go against our inherent inclinations. For each and every one of us knows what the right thing to do is. Without exception, we know. Problem is, it is tough to do so. And therein, within the sliver delineating “should” and “can”, lie the plethora of choices that determine our destiny.


“There are two ways to live your life.

One is as though nothing is a miracle.

The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Monday, June 28, 2010

Love Autopsy

I know, hilariously tacky title! Was trying to come up with a synonym for post-mortem and then suddenly this cheesy track from Music and Lyrics popped up in my mind. And somehow, it seemed pretty apt-corny, but apt.


I read someplace that a man never knows how to say goodbye and a woman never knows when, or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, the fact remains that there is no “good” in goodbyes. They are painful, gut-wrenching and about as close to hell as we will ever come. They can also bear a promise of heaven, with the pure ecstasy of a reunion after a long time spent apart. But then, it wasn’t a real goodbye, was it?


So when and how do we say bye? I think we say it when there is no expectation left from the others, when all our efforts to desperately cling on to the receding vestiges of a memorable past are snatched away from us. And we say it by appreciating what we had and acknowledging how special we felt in that time.


One of Alexander the Great’s most worthy successors was his friend Ptolemy, who gained control of his body and catafalque and used it to rise to become Pharaoh of Egypt. A learned man and a man of letters as he was, he later wrote that with Alexander, the greatest bequeath was not his immense wealth or the vast dominions he left behind. It was the way he made people feel. Ironically, Alexander has been riled as one of the most ruthless conquerors of all time, savage and brutal. Yet, history stands testament to the fact that although possessed with a foul temper, he could make those around him feel very special, very cherished. Ptolemy says that although he did so in a very awkward and eccentric manner, when you were with Alexander, you felt powerful, invincible and unconquerable. No challenge seemed too daunting, no sacrifice too demanding. The world was your oyster and you were the masters of your destiny. And it was this legacy that propelled him towards the supremacy of much of the known world, with even the mighty Persian Empire crumbling under the relentless march of his ardent followers. The legacy which endears him to us and helps us overlook his unyielding ambitions and his rage.


And that is how we say goodbye.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Never Give In


Never Give In was our motto at school, goading us to strive for what we aimed at till the very last vestige of strength and belief in ourselves. And while in school, we interpreted this largely in reference to our gruelling physical exercises, as we struggled to go just one measure farther than our tired limbs were capable of carrying us.


Life, however, has proven over the last many years that the adage is equally true for other domains too. Studies, career, relationships-no matter what the issue at hand, the one thing that will see you through is you yourself. And once this conviction is ingrained into you, it becomes evident that the true joy of life is to be used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; to be thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; to be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.


And such firm conviction stems from belief. Belief in ourselves, the purity of our intentions and the magnificence of our goals. All too often, people find themselves in doubt and, like the deer who goes mad looking for the musk, turn to the world to seek answers, not knowing that the answers they so desperately seek are within their own selves. The result is self-doubt, gradually descending into self-pity and finally a complete resignation to the uncaring flow of life.


But this is not how it should be. A ship in harbour may be safe, but that is not what ships are built for. The true joy is in being able to take the bull by its horns and striving to make for ourselves just the future that we want. Sure, it will be susceptible to failure but atleast the journey will be a memorable one. And should we succeed, paradise would need no definition.


An anecdote I remember in this regard is of Lord Curzon visiting the Lucknow Residency to see the spot where his hero, Sir Henry Lawrence, had laid down his life in the Mutiny of 1857. The Viceroy was led to a room where a plaque marked the exact spot where Lawrence was said to have breathed his last. Curzon, however, far from being pleased, left the room with a frown. He then summoned the custodian and asked for the layout plans of the Residency. After studying them for a while, he announced that the plaque had been placed in the wrong room for Lawrence, as best as Curzon’s memory served him, had lost his life in an altogether different wing of the building. Not wanting to bandy words with the Viceroy, the entourage meekly agreed with him. This lack of resistance further annoyed Curzon for he perceived it as an insult to his intelligence and a servile acknowledgement of his office. The matter was dropped right there but years later, when his Viceroyalty had ended and he was back in Britain, Curzon dug into the archives of the Mutiny, went through tomes of reference material and single-handedly prepared a detailed dossier detailing the exact spot of Henry Lawrence’s death. The dossier was scrutinized by the India Office, who concluded that Curzon was, as always, correct. Shortly thereafter, the plaque at Lucknow was relocated to the location Curzon had identified, where it remains to this day!

“But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a Heaven for?”




Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Girl Who Owns A City



“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”
When I moved to Chandigarh, I had no illusions about the city. Having spent my life wandering across the length and breadth of the country, Chandigarh was just a go-between on my way to Simla. It was good for the occasional stop-over but lacked both the vibrancy of Delhi and the serenity of Simla. You could come here and go shopping, catch a bite to eat or find the conveniences of a metropolis within a small space. But not much more.



Today, after having stayed here for a few years, I still feel the same-a rank outsider. It’s almost as if the city and I just could not adopt each other. Even my favourite haunts seem like they belong someplace else. It feels almost surreal, like viewing everything from a distance, detached and aloof.



So when I stand here on the cusp of my imminent and permanent departure, I should be able to say my farewell without any qualms. After all, I will not miss the lake, the tree-lined boulevards, the planned symmetry of the city. I might remember it once in a while, but not with any special longing.



But there is a void somewhere. For I am also leaving behind a lot of people. People I worked with, people I dined with, those that I fought with and those that I laughed with. Be it the paan shop which always had an interesting anecdote to offer or the old man who always overcharged for his wares. In their own special way, each of them wove threads into the fabric which makes up life. I got to enter their homes and feel the warmth of a homestead, make unreasonable demands and claim a right on them, deflate their tyres and experience the antagonism that unites dear friends. All in all, a remarkable montage of life, compressed into the span of a few months.



One of the peculiarities of life is that it is with the most arcane of things that we develop a very strong sense of connection. It could be the smell of meethe-chawal that brings back memories of childhood. It could be a song that takes you back to the carefree vagrancy of college. It could even be a cologne that you put on after a long time which brings with it the fragrance of a special someone. Regardless of the trigger, each thing is associated with just one particularly memorable event or person. Despite having stayed in over a dozen cities across India, I still connect each of them with just one thing- Assam is all about cricket just as Bengal was all about reading, Jammu is the land of my grandmother, Delhi is the place I found myself and Simla is the perennial sanctuary.



And as I leave Chandigarh, there is, above all else, just one thing I will remember it as-the city of a girl. A girl I met in my first few months here and who was always with me in all our sojourns around town. The girl with a lilt to her walk and a spring in her step. A smile to light up the room and a frown to humble the darkest cloud. With a million questions and a billion answers. Funny, intelligent, vivacious. And much more.



The girl who, to me, will always own the city of Chandigarh.

"I went my unremembering way,


I went and took with me


The pang of all the partings gone,


And partings yet to be"