Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Girl In Ivory White

I see a little girl
Dressed in ivory white
Her brown locks curl around her face
Her eyes dance a happy dance
And when she giggles,
Her little button nose crinkles
And makes me smile.

She prances around from corner to corner,
Like she owns the world.
From time to time,
She breaks into a song,
Tuneless, but soulful.
She makes me smile.

Then, she starts to dance.
Her feet possess the rhythm
That her voice does not.
She is free, uninhibited, inspired,
She has a magical quality about her,
That makes me smile.

She picks up something from the ground,
Something that has caught her fancy.
It is a triangular blue piece of glass.
She holds it up against the sun,
Chuckles at the triangular green patch on the blue sky.
Her laughter makes me smile.

It is only if you look closely,
That you spot the holes in her ivory white dress.
That you see the cracks on the tiny feet.
That you realize her brown hair,
Is because of more sun and less food.
That the piece of glass is entertainment she has chanced upon,
Maybe today is her lucky day.

She continues to sing, she continues to dance,
But now holds her blue treasure close to her heart.
She is careful to not let it fall on the road below,
Because she does not want to lose it.

Just the way I hold on to that treasured moment tightly,
Because I do not want it to fall out of my mind,
Because I do not want to lose it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Ceremony

I am sitting in a plush, well-decorated room. The room is a mishmash of the smells of smoke, incense and flowers. Neatly arranged on the cream coloured floor are steel plates - some with flowers, some with fruits, some with betel leaves, one with a red and gold cloth. The priest recites Sanskrit chants with practiced fluidity. A lamp stands in the centre; its flame flickers restlessly, almost like a defiant child. And on a little green stool, covered under heavy yellow and pink garlands, lies a photo-frame. The frail old lady whom everyone fondly referred to as ‘Mashima’ peers out from behind the flowers. She strikes me as a meek, inconspicuous element in the surroundings. Not as the person the ceremony revolves around.

The portly fifty-something daughter-in-law has the most flagrant presence in the room. She welcomes the guests as they arrive. She scuttles between the kitchen and the drawing room, sometimes doling out orders to the servants, sometimes handing over to the priest what he requires. She animatedly tells visitors stories of her deceased mother-in-law. I perceive an almost cheerful demeanour that seems jarringly out-of-place for the occasion.

The son, the Executive Director of a firm, walks in and out of the room intermittently. He is a very busy man. He has put his meetings and conference calls on hold for the first half of the day. When it is time for his part of the rituals, he sits down cross-legged in front of his mother’s photograph. From inside the frame, his mother seems to look at him almost apologetically. She knows she cannot demand her son’s time – she hasn’t been able to do that for over thirty-five years now.

Five minutes into the ritual, the son begins shifting in his seat impatiently. “How much longer, Thakur Moshai?”, he questions. “Do I have to read this entire book of hymns?” The women of the family burst out laughing. How amusing you are, you poor thing, they tell him. The priest smiles. “Only a little more time, Ghosh Da, and we will be done.” The son begrudgingly sits on. From time to time, he glances at the wall-clock.

“You know, in the last few months, Sunil couldn’t spend much time with Ma. He would probably get very upset seeing her like that, all frail and helpless, you know? That is why he wouldn’t go into her room too much”, the daughter-in-law explains to the guests, almost as a defense mechanism. The guests nod sympathetically.

Maanu, the resident household help, takes care of little details pertaining to the guests and the ongoing ceremony. I remember Mashima telling me that he came to their house as a ten-year old orphan. He has learnt early enough to shop for groceries, to cook, he even knows how to drive. He has shaved off his hair as a part of the mourning rituals.

 “We did not want to put her in the hospital. She liked it here at home. But then, on the last day, the doctor told us her BP was falling rapidly. So we admitted her”, the daughter-in-law tells us.

“How long was she in hospital?”, a guest asks. “Oh, only a day. She went peacefully, Dada, no pain, no discomfort”, says the daughter-in-law. “After my father died, the crooks at the hospital put him on ventilator for half a day. Money-minting mechanisms, these, nothing else!”, says another guest. “What else can we expect, Dada? In times of so much corruption ruling the State, especially, bolun?”, the daughter-in-law offers. The guests nod. The conversation spins off into a discussion about the latest political scamsters. And then, football, Rituparno Ghosh and automobiles.

The maid enters the room with a tray, an ornate, delicately carved wooden showpiece (“Oh this? Sunil got it from Sri Lanka!”). Little gold-rimmed porcelain cups (“And these are a gift from my brother. He picked them up from Italy.”) stand on it with dignity. The daughter-in-law coaxes her guests to drink tea. Some of them pick up the cups, some others politely decline.

“Sunanda here took care of her in the last few days”, the daughter-in-law says, gesturing towards the maid. “She managed to persuade Ma to eat something at least. Otherwise in the last one month, she had practically given up eating. Like she had lost the will to live, you know?”, the daughter-in-law narrates.

Sunanda smiles politely, then gracefully retreats into the kitchen.

The grandson sits inside his room, showing his friends his new mobile phone. Occasionally, peals of their laughter wander into the drawing room.

“What is Rohit doing these days, Mala?”, a guest enquires of the grandson. “Oh, he will begin with his MBA now. You know how important these MBA degrees are. And so expensive, no? But then, what to do, he is our only son. So we encouraged him fully. It is a very good college, one of the best”, the daughter-in-law informs loudly enough for the other guests to hear. She somehow forgets to mention the hefty donation the son paid for the admission.

The priest asks for something. The daughter-in-law hurries inside the kitchen and steps out with a plate. “All of her favourite things, you know? Samosa, begun bhaja, dhoka-r dalna, and most importantly, icecream! How she loved icecream. Could eat so much of it at one go!”

I hear one guest murmuring to her husband, that a lot of the actual rituals aren’t being followed, and what kind of casual ceremony is this.

A wisp of a memory crosses my mind. It is a summer afternoon, about a year ago. Mashima is on her rounds in the colony garden. Alone. She spots me as I walk past, and calls out to me. I detour, walk up to her, then lead her brittle body to a bench. She is happy to see me. Asks how I am, how everyone at home is, how work is, and everything else she can remember. I answer her queries one by one. When she sees my mobile holder, she exclaims that it is beautiful. “Can you get me one like it? I will pay you”, she offers. I tell her I will be happy to. But then, her face falls. She changes her mind. “Mala won’t be very happy, let it be”. Then she asks me to store my number in her mobile phone.

“Asha, let us go downstairs to the community hall, we will be starting with lunch shortly,” someone says in my ears. I am jolted out of the flashback. I realize the ceremony is now over, and that the guests have started vacating the house.

I walk down the stairs, into the lawn. At the other end of the lawn, the son, now relieved of his personal duties, stands with a lit cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. He has ignored his professional commitments for more than pardonable time.

I cross the grandson too; he is making plans to play football after the ceremony. And the daughter-in-law is telling a new family how Mashima had lost the will to live. I finish my lunch (an elaborate affair) mostly in silence, making small talk with some neighbours I know. Before I leave, I walk up to the daughter-in-law and thank her for the hospitality. “How did you like the food?”, she asks. I tell her it was very good. “We got these caterers from Kolkata, you know? So difficult to get them at such short notice, but we managed!” I smile, and request to take her leave. She says good-bye, and moves on to talk to more guests. As I walk out of the hall, I hear her thanking someone for coming, and telling them how Ma loved visiting their house.

In my building lobby, I notice Gupta Ji, the watchman, staring at the community hall. “Sab kuchh theekh se ho gaya, madam?”, he asks me. I smile and tell him it all went off smoothly. “Bahut acchhi thi Mashima. Woh hum se kabhi-kabhi bolti thi dukaan se saamaan lane ke liye. Unke ghar mein kisi ko time nahin milta tha, na”, Gupta Ji recollects. I am not sure what to tell him.

For one last time, I turn around and look at the colony lawn, where Mashima used to walk. Alone. All at once, there is a vision, of Mashima ambling past with her walker. Alone. She seems to look at me, and waves. I smile, and in my heart, ask her to take care. And with that, I turn back towards home.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Of Factors, Equations and More...

I do not remember very much of how that day began. But I do recall that it was a very early morning in the summer of 1993. I was woken up gently by Ma, who helped me get dressed, and then the three of us – Ma, Dadu and I – left for Allahabad. I had no idea who lived there, or why we were going. But we boarded a crowded train that trudged reluctantly along inconspicuous stations, farms and kachcha roads, as if protesting the relentless heat all along.

Seven hours later, we were knocking on a grey door. Then we were being greeted by the surprised shrieks of family members who had not been informed of our arrival. As Ma hugged relatives she was seeing after many years, I kept looking around, lost. I knew no one there. I distinctly remember feeling that all of those people, our relatives, were very, very loud.

Eventually, Ma realized that I was there. And bit by bit, over the next four days, the Allahabad connection was unfurled to me. I learnt that the house we were in was where Ma had grown up. I learnt who was who. I was asked to call certain people by certain names. And I was pampered to the core. I was Mitali’s daughter after all; Mitali, who was the youngest of her generation, and the apple of everyone’s eyes.

Over those four days, I experienced many ‘firsts’. For one, I had always lived in a fairly small apartment in Mumbai. It was a quiet life, with just my parents for the most part, and occasionally with my grandparents. In that huge ancestral home in Allahabad, there was a courtyard, there were fruit-trees inside the house, there were staircases, there were two terraces, and there was a “choubachcha”, or a water tank. And there were aunts, uncles, cousins, grand-aunts and grand-uncles and neighbours all the time. It was chaotic, but it was beautiful. I realized for the first time what it was like to be in a joint family, and I loved it. But the best part was that I had resident playmates all the time, in the form of my siblings. And to an only child like me, that was complete bliss.

After that trip, my cousins and I began writing to each other. I would wait to spot the blue of inland letters or the beige of postcards with familiar scrawls. My life in Bombay had plenty of other distractions, but I looked forward to those intermittent bits of communication. And on birthdays, there would be the much-awaited phone-calls.

I made subsequent trips to Allahabad over the next few years. In the interim, our games had matured; from Blind-Man’s Buff and Chor-Police, we graduated to Charades. Occasionally, we fought, then we made up. Allahabad was a small, unambitious city, and power cuts were commonplace. I remember hot afternoons of no material comforts in the form of fans or coolers, but of the solace of lots of laughter and mad company.  There were many more rooms and many more beds in that sprawling house, but somehow, despite that heat, we slept huddled up on one single bed, using each other as side-pillows.

One morning, two of my cousins had a fight. Bubul Dada was picking on Tumpa Didi, she said a few nasty things in return, and they fought. Bubul Dada sat down quietly in a corner of the room. The rest of us continued with our games, glancing at both of them from time to time.

After a while, I noticed a tear trickling down Bubul Dada’s cheek. “Bubul Dada is crying!” I shouted. Tulu Dada, our eldest brother, who was normally very quiet, swooped in on the scene at once. He hugged Bubul Dada, wiped his tears, and told him to not pay attention what Tumpa Didi had said. And then, with the stern authority of a father, he commanded Tumpa Didi to apologise.

Tumpa Didi flatly refused. “He was the one to provoke me”, she said. “I am not saying sorry, no way”. The rest of us, much younger than them, started wheedling to Tumpa Didi to apologise so that everything would go back to normal. I, in particular, wanted it to soon because I was leaving for Bombay the next day. All of a sudden, I do not know what happened, but Tumpa Didi burst out crying as well, and ran to Bubul Dada screaming out multiple sorries in quick succession. The next minute, all three of them were hugging, and we were watching them, amused. Five minutes later, it was as if nothing had happened.

That memory is still vividly etched out in my mind, because that was the first time I had seen so dramatic an argument between my cousins. Now that I think of it, back then, Bubul Dada was twenty and Tulu Dada twenty-three. I had seen a grown-up man crying, so uninhibited, and only because of something his little sister had said to him. And Tulu Dada had cajoled him like one would a little boy of four.


Today, Bubul Dada is thirty-six years old, and is the father of a five-year old. Today, Bubul Dada, as per his wife’s orders, does not speak with the rest of us anymore. After a series of incidents, we have learnt the hard way to cut off from them. To not call. To not convey enthusiastic wishes on birthdays. We have not seen him in many months, and doubt we will again. We have also learnt to consider his absence from our get-togethers normal. We know we won’t see his son growing up, the way we see the other babies of the family. When we have our family con-calls, we do not mention him. When we send each other forwards on our Whatsapp group, we know he will never get to see them and laugh. I still want to send him a Rakhi, but even if I do, he won’t wear it. When family members die, Bubul Dada won’t think of a perfunctory condolence visit or phone call. Things are different. Very different.

I recently recounted that childlike fight of sixteen years ago to another cousin of mine. “Do you remember how simple things used to be then? I wish they still were”, I told him. “That’s alright”, he said. That was one kind of life, this is another. We made the most of that life, we need to thoroughly enjoy what we have in this one as well.”


As we grow older, we begin to realize that certain things that we considered ‘factors’ in our life weren’t really factors at all. We learn to live without people, without things, without abilities. And we discover new possibilities and new lives with new people, new things, and newfound abilities. Sometimes we look back and ponder over things that aren’t the same, but then, that is only momentary. And we are back to this life. Just like that.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, or the emotional fool in me talking, but sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if once more, something else or someone else intervened, like Tulu Dada had back then? What if someone could swish a magic wand?

But then, I know the answer. Those things will never change. The good thing, though, is that we have our own magic wands, with which we can change our expectations.

And in the end, that is really all we need to do.

Much Love,