Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Life Less Ordinary

Its been too long. 

But I suppose sometimes you just don't have all that much to say. And that too can be a good thing. 

I often find myself at a loss for words when people ask me that most innocuous of questions "What's up?" And I rummage through my mind for a coherent, robust answer worthy of this eponymous query. Sure,  I can tell the rhetorical what's-up from one of those probing, searching, investigative ones. But the discomfort I feel at the latter is becoming something of a social handicap. 

And I have never been more acutely aware of this handicap.

For this I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of that wonderful warm shiny gooey thing called facebook. My friends (facebook friends that is) all seem to have highly exciting lives peppered with occasional drama, lots of fun times and most importantly a definitive road map of where this exciting life is going to take them next. (Explanatory status message coming up...) 

I used to be one of those people in the pre-facebook era. Figured out, with much less self-doubt and anxiety about where everything is going to end up. Now here I am, wondering what will be while the rest of the world is sending me live updates of lives being lived (or so the facebook messiahs would have me believe) 

Never has the phrase "Get a life" seemed more ironic. Because now, you can! 

The cup of life that is social networking is always on the up and up, never rock-bottom low mixing with the dregs of yesterday. So when one stares into it , rarely do you get to see rock bottom. But when you do hit rock-bottom - and everyone does at some point - even a lame little "what's up" will make you want to punch someone in the face. 

Sometimes I have to shake myself out of the ennui of keeping up appearances. Its not the harmless banter that bothers. Its the feeling of constantly being sized up. The whole idea of living your life like a roster of what you did-who you met-where you went.  It might be worth asking then - "How would you live your life if you knew no one was watching?" 

Its unsettling - this feeling of living your own life as if you had been for the longest time, merely an opening act in a great variety show. Always on the outside, waiting for the show to start. Stealing a glance every now and then at the audience from behind the red velvet curtain. And while we stare diligently at cursor on screen, tomorrow becomes today becomes yesterday all at once. 

And I worry more at this than my seeming lack of ambition, goals and road-maps-to-a-better-life..... because how will there be nostalgia, if I cant't even remember living? 


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

10 X TEN

So here's the thing. We all need some creative CPR once-in-a-while. I know I do. My friend Nammo - co-conspirator of all things fun - had this great idea to create collaborative pieces of digital art. And that's how 10 X TEN was born. Check out the poster to find out how it works. If you want to sign-up just email us or leave a comment with an email id so we can get back to you. We're also figuring this out as we go along so please bear with us if it sounds a little sketchy at the moment. But the basic principle is - 1o people create 10 pieces of collaborative art.

Interested? Sign up! :)


A light went out yesterday. A bright, shining radiant beam of light. It seems a moment ago, that it was there. Strong and warm, with no sign of a flicker. And just like that, it began to dim. All those who had felt its comforting glow, felt something draining out of their own heart. It ebbed to a single point of light......and then there was nothing. In its place, was heaviness. A weight that bore down on everyone. But there was no darkness. Even in the absence of that beautiful beam of sunshine, there was no black cover of dark. There was instead a glow - feeble at first, but steadily growing strong. Everyone watched it slowly throb with life. those who thought they had forgotten the light, began to remember again. They found they could vividly recall the raidiance and the illuminating joy of its presence. And as memory was called to serve, the glow became brighter and stronger still. Then they knew - those who had loved the light - that this glow would be there forever. It would be with them no matter where they were. And when the sun warmed their soul, they would rememeber their own little piece of sunshine that had lived for too short a while. But one that had blazed so bright a trail that she would glow forever. All they had to do was remember. And they did.

Monday, July 27, 2009

जागते रहो

इस काली रात में एक आवाज़ अगर है तो वो है उस चौकीदार की छड़ी की ठक ठक । उसकी पतली टांगें जो देती हैं उसकी छड़ी का साथ, लम्बा रास्ता तय कर चुकी हैं। मेरे घर की खिड़की से उसका यह रात का सफ़र रोज़ नज़र आता है । रोज़ वह पीपल के पेड़ की तरह बंधा, गाँठ-भरा शरीर साइकिल पर बैठ कर मेरे घर तक आता है। दुबला, लेकिन बांस जैसा सीधा वह चौकीदार रोज़ मेरी गहरी नींद की खातिर अपना घर छोड़कर मेरे घर की रखवाली करने आता है। उसे देख मैं सोच में पड़ जाती हूँ । उसके चेहरे पर खिंची संकरी लकीरों पर गौर करती हूँ। और मन ही मन उससे सवाल करती हूँ - "चौकीदार तुम्हारे घर पर पहरा कौन दे रहा है? तुम्हारी बिटिया जो सपनों में अपने बाबा की साईकिल चलाती है, उसकी नींद का ज़िम्मा किसने उठाया है?" मुझे जवाब नहीं मिलता, सिर्फ रात के अँधेरे में गूंजती उस छड़ी की ठक ठक और कभी-कभी वो दो शब्द; वो पहरेदारों, चौकीदारों और रात के रखवालों का नारा - "जागते रहो!" अब नींद से भारी मेरी आँखें बंद हो रही हैं । "पर चौकीदार कहीं तुम्हारी खुली आंखों पर नीदं का साया तो नहीं ? होशियार। इस अँधेरी रात को जो तुम्हारी आँखें घूर रही हैं, उसी रात की परछाई में छिप कर दो अनजानी आँखें तुम्हें पढ़ रही हैं। बस, यहाँ तुम्हारी पलकें झपकीं, वहीँ इस सोए हुए शहर की नींद टूटी। हर रात की तरह क्या इस रात की सुबह भी तुम्हारी छड़ी की दस्तक पर आएगी चौकीदार ? हाँ। बस कुछ देर और। तब तक, जागते रहो। "

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Midsummer Mayhem: storms, broken trees and other such unearthly pleasures

the late bloomer: Rajpur Road, Civil Lines

"The rain fell like applause"

- Signature by Michael Ondaatje (From the Cinnamon Peeler)


Delhi got the sound and light show it deserves.

No. I’m not referring to the one at Red Fort set to Amitabh Bachhan’s baritone or the one at Purana Quila narrated by Om Puri. (Ironic isn’t it – that the fort built in a time of excess gets the decadent voice of Bacchan while the crumbling, deeply neglected Old Fort has its story told by his doppelganger Puri – just a thought)

Coming back to what I was saying. We were treated to three incredible albeit short-lived thunderstorms in the span of two weeks. And what drama it was - certainly worth the wait. Sepulchral clouds on the horizon, swirling dust, winds that made light of even the mightiest Neem and raindrops that felt icy on sun-baked skin. Thunder sounded a preliminary warning and people scurried like ants, looking for cover. The rumble set the stage with a fantastic drum roll. Whooshing gusts of wind threatened to spirit away trees, birds, things and people alike. Lightning that scared the bejesus out of me with its white whip cracking across the night sky. Even hail that fell like marbles out of tin box!

And finally rain. Delicious, smelling-of-earth, soak-you-to-the-bone, redeem-the-month-of-may kind of rain.

But for me the best part is when the grand show is over. The time when the damp air and sweet smells filling it can be imbibed without prejudice. When people (some people at least!) survey in shock and awe, the arboreal carnage across the city. Huge branches, entire trees, piles of leaves, flowers, pods and nests litter the roads. A fitting homage.

I got to take in the sights on my regular rickshaw ride from the metro station back to my house. The road is particularly beautiful winding up from Shamnath Marg flanked by the pristine white façade of the British built Maidens Hotel, rising up towards St. Xavier’s and the Governors residence and finally ending at a junction framed by Oleander and Jarul trees. Near the hotel, a tall eucalyptus tree had been felled by the storm, and a small army of men and women were at work trying to clear the road. Most of the leaves had been turned to mulch by the speeding vehicles. A happy accident in my opinion because the whole place smelled divine – aromatherapy in the most unlikely fashion!

Further ahead, near the beautiful St. Xavier’s school, a massive branch of Neem had broken off. Almost half a tree. As the rickshaw pulled past the giant green bush on the road I caught a glint of steel underneath. A silver Esteem barely visible, seemed to be resting, virtually unharmed under the canopy. The next day the whole thing was gone – stripped for daatun and its medicinal leaves and bark I bet – or for firewood. I remember soaking in a bath of neem leaves when I was down with Chicken Pox as a kid. To my mind, it’s the closest I’ve come to a spa treatment till date. I’m telling you – Cleopatra might have bathed in milk but I’ve had itchy sores healed by a bittersweet broth of leaves.

Anyway, the rickshaw ride had many more sights for me to savour. The purple flowers of Jaarul, magenta Bougainvillea trellis over a wall, the wet red brick building of B.M. GangeSchool and finally the flaming Amaltas (laburnum) tree in my own house compound. When May began, I was worried. The Amaltas tree I loved to watch, was still bare. In the rest of the city, they had already begun to show off their dangling yellow bunches. This one was bald except for a few new shoots. I thought the mindless pruning of its branches by the neighbours had finally been its undoing, as I had often feared. But as it turned out I was being paranoid. It was just a late bloomer. And like all late bloomers, when it finally did come into its own, it outdid all its golden siblings across town. I should’ve known – our family has a real thing for late bloomers.

These things – part of nature’s very own Cirque du Soleil - invoke in me what I imagine to be the closest thing to religious fervour and passion. A constant reminder that it takes so little to lift ones spirits. For me it takes a dash of good weather and a smattering of crushed eucalyptus leaves put together with a burst of yellow laburnum.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Once Upon A Time...

Ammuma - my grandmother is an ace story-teller. When my brother and I were young, she regaled us with some not-so-conventional bedtime stories. That is how I first heard of 'The Titanic' and was taken by the phrase "ill-fated maiden voyage". It was also the reason why, many years later while reading Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca I knew how it ended even before I had finished. And first sentences from books like "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" were in fact all too familiar. Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities was an instant favourite. My brother and I asked again and again to hear the story of Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton and Lucie Manette. I found the descriptions of the siege of Bastille and the rolling heads at the guillotine magnificently macabre.

I have an image from one such narration - it is of an old almost toothless woman sitting on the other side of the guillotine knitting away an inexorable scarf watching with considerable glee as the heads roll into a basket. One would imagine that my child's mind would reject such violent imagery - but somehow it stuck. As did Marie Antoinette and her "let them eat cake" remark which is something of a historical myth. I think my grandmother's bedside oratory brilliance had something to do with the fact that both history and literature became dear to me.

But the stock of great stories was endless. She never tired of telling us about our illustrious lineage. We would puff up our chests and preen at the mere mention of the 'Royal Family of Cochin'. And the inevitable child-like barrage of questions would follow. So did vallia-muthachan (great grandfather) wear a crown? Did you have an elephant of your own? Did you eat dinner on a table that was as long as a coconut tree? Of course, none of the above was true. And my grandmother would try her best to sound mysterious when she said "No.But we had two cars!! An ambassador AND a Chevrolet!!!" Needless to say, we weren't impressed. Not even when we heard about the children stealing dosas from the kitchen. Stealing? Dosas? Royalty? Pffftt.

But we loved hearing about Padmalayam - the big house, with the central courtyard. The lagoon at the back witht the coconut tree bent so low , it almost formed a bridge. The maid who would catch tiny fish using her sari like a net just to amuse the children. My great-grandfather who loved wearing walking shoes even with a mundu. And how the eldest of 6 brothers and sisters fell into a ditch full of dung while trying to run away from his tution-master.

Today, even at the age of 80, my grandmother is holding on to those stories for dear life. For so many years, growing up in family that was more scattered than together, she has been my eye and ear into the past. Going through old family albums, identifying thumb-sucking uncles and mischievous aunts while savouring anecdotes like adamaanga - yeah, that was our thing. Now, as her memory fades she finds the urge to talk about those days and years past, more often. Repition seems to be the backbone of remembrance. And even though names and incidents get all mixed up, the story never ends. She will stop mid-sentence, squint and frown - as if putting a puzzle together in her head. Eventually, she returns to her audience with a fresh detail or a forgotten twist in the tale. And we forge ahead...... It's amazing how much she still remembers, and how easily we seem to forget.

Grandparents perhaps intuitively take on the role of chief-storyteller. Their own lives, mirrored in their children and their children's children, take on mythic proportions. Perhaps it is some primordial preservation instinct that makes us want to pass on our stories to each successive generation. So that even in un-living and un-being, an echo of the life lived may resonate in time.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book Number Do

cover page

Birju considers his fields

"there she is!"

the chase

the discovery of the nest

and finally....a change of heart.

So this one is called 'Chugga' - which basically refers to the food a mother bird brings back for her babies. I thoroughly enjoyed figuring out the characters and their surroundings. A lot of the action takes place in and around a maize field so I tried different view points and angles to keep the visuals engaging. After Najma Ki Jeet this is my second book with the same organisation - Room to Read (India). These books are published as part of their local language publishing program. The books find a place in children's libraries set up by the organisation in different parts of the country. Definitely a fun project!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Highs and Lows: Unsolicited Opinion

Given how saturated our lives are these days by the omnipresent, ubiquitous in-your-face media it's hard to be restrained in one's own reactions to the goings-on around you. There have been many events, incidents, occurrences and occasions when I have wanted to vent my frustration on this blog. But for some unknown reason I haven't been able to bring myself to do it. Perhaps its the feeling that my opinion/observation would be just another shrill voice adding to the cacophony (literally - have you heard the likes of Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai trying to outshout their on-camera victims??) However, some time has passed and after much quiet reflection I have decided that I do want to put my do paise worth of opinion out there.

Brevity will be it though, since many of these happenings have lived out their time in the collective consciousness of the media - if not the people en generale. So here are a few things that have disturbed, enraged, upset and/or reassured me in varying degree. (in no particular order)

1) 26th November 2008: People aren't about to forget this date anytime soon. Many tears have been shed, even more words have been spoken and written. But at the time I felt nothing could heal the wound other than introspection. A serious and solemn look at our history - the parallel history of two nations which used to be one. And that erroneously forgotten human tragedy - the partition. It is said that amputees in the early days sense their missing limb as clearly as when it was still attached to their body. A phantom limb syndrome. Ring a bell does it?

2) Marathi Manoos and the politics of the MNS: An MNS worker said on television in an attempt to justify the Marathi Manoos agenda "In Rome you must do as the Romans do, or else....leave." How absurd. While they quite rightly point out that Mumbai is not Maharashtra they are unable to apply the same logic to their own mandate. For if they had, surely the MNS and Raj Thackeray would have done something for the suffering populace of Vidarbha? Surely his esteemed legions would have asserted their regional identity through Marathi Cinema and Theater....But how can they, when they are driven by nothing more than narrow political gain.

3) Media noise: It has been a while since 24X7 news became as normal as mobile phones. But how does one ignore the constant barrage of images that trivialise and sensationalise all at once. Everything is newsworthy and simultaneously nothing is. As if playing out an Orwellian saga, the camera is everywhere - lingering on every shard of glass, every drop of blood and every wrinkle on every tear stained cheek. All the world's a stage and today, someone is always watching. While the Simi Garewals and Barkha Dutt's of the world pass loud judgement, the rest of us struggle to hear the thoughts in our own head. Wildly gesticulating anchors proclaiming 'an exclusive, live, breaking news' every other minute leave no space for coherent thought. Everything is a premeditated, foregone and foretold. And in the meantime a girl and a man murdered brutally still wait for justice.

4)Mangalore, Kandhamal, Bajrang Dal, Shri Ram Sena, Intolerance INC: It seems in our country economic progress, steady growth rates and 'shining' labels are inversely proportional to tolerance. Every time such an incident occurs I find myself wondering how can one human being do this to another human being? Why is it so hard to live and let live? The musing, I am aware, sounds laughably naive. But no one - no newspaper, no book, no film, no friend or family member, no intellectual - has even brought me close to an answer. And since there is no reassurance from the State that Intolerance will not be tolerated, I believe we are on our own. (with the corporate honchos cheering for Modi, the whole thing has been painted an uglier shade)

5)Sanjay Dutt and his fall from grace: Munnabhai, MCP as he's been aptly christened on this blog has definitely lost favour with me once and for all. During his impending 6 year conviction almost two years ago I had written a semi-sympathetic post on this blog. And now I wish I hadn't. Read Sanju Baba's regressive spiel here.

6) New New Wave: On a slightly positive, uplifting note the arrival of 'Brave New Bollywood' has been such an encouraging development. So many good, heartwarming films have graced the big screen in the recent past. Dibakar Banerjee - without a doubt one of the torchbearers of this new cinema along with a few seasoned others like Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Rajat Kapoor. Small stories with great ambition that stay away from those broad brush strokes that Bollywood uses all too often to colour our notions. Just go over to and you will see the child-like wonder with which cinephiles - both known (like Kashyap) and unknown - are talking about this second-coming of mainstream cinema. Here's hoping there are more big-little movies like Aamir, A Wednesday, Mithya, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Khosla Ka Ghosla and Manorama Six Feet Under.

7) Slumdog Millionaire: Fact or Fiction or Who-Cares-As-Long-As-It's-Fun? I'm on the fence with this one. Do I take issue with the word 'Slumdog' -No. I think it has more to do with the word "underdog" than it has to do with the more Indian "gali ka kutta". (although in one of the sub-titles the hindi word kutta is replaced by the word slumdog) Do I have an issue with it as a film made by a foreigner who has little or no understanding of the complexities of India - Erm. Yes and No. The outsider argument does not seem relevant when you take into consideration that Danny Boyle has made the film primarily for a Western audience. Therefore the reliance on tiresome cliches like the Taj Mahal and the very Lonely Planet-ish image of the child-god Rama encountered in the scene where Jamal and Salim are running away from a riotous mob. The narrative structure too is fairly straightforward and formulaic at times, building up to a predictable yet exhilirating end. I thoroughly enjoyed the parts played by the youngest three - who were in my own personal view let down by the older actors who took over. The characters of Jamal, Salim and Latika outlined quite poignantly by them were somewhat abandoned by Dev Patel and the others. The tumble from the train, into the future was where it started going downhill for me.

An oversimplification of otherwise complex issues could have been ignored because one is so used to this lumping together of themes in a most superficial fashion in mainstream Bollywood. So while slums, squalour and even the rags-to-riches tale are fact, it is the telling of the tale that gives it away as pure fiction. So let all discussion stop at that. It is not refined social commentary. We know that. Does Danny Boyle know? I'm not sure. In the meantime....let's root for A.R because it's irrelevant whether he deserves recognition for the music in this film. The point is that he does.

8)Obama! : The world took notice as one man stepped up. What a moment. Forget whether he will be good for India or not and just revel in that most positive message of the year "yes we can!"

There. I said it. Now I can move on.

Cest la vie.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Wonderland

Winter in Delhi is many things. Bitterly cold, sun-less and bleak for the most part it can be an unhappy time for many. For me though, the city shrouded in mist is a happier place. Happier than the Delhi of April and May – when bathing defeats its own purpose and the tarred roads melting in protest, stick to your shoes. Happier than the city in monsoon when complaints are rife of potholes and puddles. No. Winter is relief.

And what an entrance it makes! Easing its way into our lives with a shudder here and a shiver there. Not like spring that reminds of the oppressive summer heat lurking ahead. Long hot days give way ever so gently to shorter days when the cool air brings goosebumps on bare arms. Night sneaks up on the day and the light fades dutifully. The sun doesn’t hurt anymore – its warmth spreading deliciously over skin bare now but soon to be hidden under warm layers. Soon instead of the once-a-week Chocobar, it’s warm smoky peanuts and seeking out the un-earthly pleasure of cracking their crunchy shell under thumb and forefinger. The city is changes its hues – Tilak Marg will be flanked by a skeletal army of trees. Trees that jealously kept out the sun, now filter its rays and create winter ephemera.

Like I said winter in Delhi is many things.

It is the billowing white mist from my mouth. It is layers of wooly pleasure – scarves, gloves, multi-coloured socks, shawls, sweaters, stockings and neck warmers. It is going to lodhi garden to watch the dogs play and laze around in the fickle sun - just like everyone else. It is huddling in an auto sharing a shawl while the wind makes light of your chattering teeth. It is waking up in the dark (when we were young) to go to school. It is a bonfire of dry leaves that dies out almost as soon as it is lit. It is the haze that hangs low on the empty streets at night and the halo that crowns the tall lights along the way. It is dahlias and chrysanthemums. It is lumpy quilts wrap around frigid toes and a frosty nose. It is sun-kissed mornings and plump oranges with tangerine jewels. It is the smell of freshly washed woolens and their fuzzy warmth baking in the sun. It is fallen leaves crackling underfoot and the smell of wood smoke.

To me winter in this city will always smell of burning leaves. Perhaps it is because until a few years ago these autumnal-discards were burnt in neat little piles along the roadside. The pungent acrid smell tickled the back of my throat. But mixed with the winter air, it felt cold but smelt of warmth. A warm woody fragrance that would get into my clothes if I got close enough to these winter pyres.

R shares my joy for the cold season. And though hers is a sartorial obsession we were equally excited about the steadily dipping mercury. One evening as we sat in auto speeding down Siri Fort road, considering the nip in the air with apt concentration R said something…..wonderful.

Don’t you think people seem a lot friendlier in winter?

Hmm. Why do you say that?

All this road rage and rabblerousing….it’s because in the summer everyone is so hot and bothered. But in winter…it’s so cold that people can’t be bothered about sticking their noses out of their monkey caps, let alone open their mouths to say something vile.

….I think you’re on to something.

I can’t wait for it to get so cold that my knuckles get jammed! says R here eyes the size of saucers. Hey, move over so I can get under your shawl. My nose is cold.

As we cowered in oner corner of the auto almost cheek-to-cheek with bare chested Sallu bhai, I caught a whiff of wood-smoke from a park nearby. Winter had warmed my heart yet again.