July 22, 2004

the projector-room incident

on our way out from one of the screens in a multiplex last week (we had just watched shrek2, or was it around the world in 80 days?), i saw a door left ajar. we have been going to this multiplex almost every tuesday, and i never noticed it before. possibly because it has a shiny metallic plate that reads ‘authorised personnel only’ drilled on to it.

when i saw the door half-open, or half-closed if you may like, my subconscious mind remembered having seen a ‘staff only’ label somewhere, and quickly registered this as the same door we passed each week. i slowed my steps as i neared the room and shamelessly, peeped inside. it was a small room, rather squarish. two racks towards the end of the room contained several huge boxes or box-like objects. in front of the racks (that lined the entire length of the wall), were two chairs and a table; a packet of crisps lay open and two cups of black coffee, or maybe cola. a tall young man sat on one of the chairs, his back to me and staring at a small window right ahead. i instantly realised what i was looking into, and almost blurted to the guy: “excuse me, can i come in for a look?”

but then i stepped back. it was past midnight and we hadn’t had dinner yet, which i still had to make. chances were, in nine out of ten, that roadwork on the motorway would delay us further. my in-laws were with me, along with praveen, and the three of them were still making their way out of the screen. what if they began to look for me elsewhere? no, i thought, stepping out soundlessly again into the corridors now flooding with other moviegoers. killing my desire to get into my favourite room in the theatre — the projection room — i walked away and waited where i would be able to see praveen and my parents-in-law. all the way back, and even while i am writing this, i wonder what happened. why did i not satisfy my impulse to learn? after all, i had done it in the past.

we were about 11 of us and i was working with express computer then, my first job. since technically, we belonged to the ‘press’, we had all been invited to a special screening of ‘the making of the mahatma‘.

movies were something i did not totally enjoy then, but if it was anything that i wanted to watch, i would prefer a theatre to the small screen. always. half-an-hour into the movie, i would soon lose interest in the plot itself and look up behind me. in the dark of the theatre, the two square thick rays of light coming through the wall always seemed more magical…with millions and millions of tiny dust particles dancing their way to the big screen where they disappeared. if there was going to be a song sequence, a night-time shot or a particularly flashy scene, i would look behind again. but the two lights coming through the wall always remained colourless, and the dust always danced. it fascinated me.

our trip to the ‘special press’ theatre is something i cannot recollect at all. perhaps because as a child my parents accompanied me everywhere; i was not allowed on treks and long picnics and had to attend a college just one train-stop away from home. i even had given the job interview without the knowledge of my parents who were away in lonavla then. and i was glad to have got the job because then i could show them that i too needed a space of my own. i think i used to rebel a lot as is with most ‘protected’ girls of that age, and once i was in the world i just let things happen.

i had hardly travelled in the suburbs in mumbai. my daily commute was from thane to currey road, from where i would walk to our office in lower parel, and then the same route on my way back. the ten or 11 of us colleagues had travelled together in two or three batches by taxi, and i didn’t bother to ask about the destination. once we were inside the theatre, i noticed that the crowd consisted almost entirely of people from the press. they smoked like chimneys and sipped beer from the glass they held in their other hand. we were ushered in right away by venkatesh, our boss, to secure our seats well in time before the show begun. ten minutes into the screening and i winced. i could see that it was going to be a really boring movie, and i was already feeling tired and terrible that i was there. i shifted in my seat uncomfortably and tried to look at how the others were enjoying the film. they were.

fifteen minutes later, a bell rang weakly, announcing the first break. venky explained that since this was a press screening, there would be a few breaks and we were free to buy some snacks or visit the bathroom.

grabbing the chance, i escaped out of the doors but gasped for breath when i came out. it felt like every smoker had decided to smoke all of the 20 cigarettes in his pack and one would require fog-lights to see through the lounge. the smell of tobacco and beer hung heavily in the air and i desperately wanted to cry and just get away from it all. just then i noticed a narrow flight of stairs to my right and rushed up the stairs. it was a spiral staircase and stopped only in front of a small room on the left. i peeped in to find boxes and huge reels and reel-cases of all sizes. suddenly a man appeared from nowhere and asked: “kya chahiye?” (what do you want?)

arre bhai, usse kaho toilets neeche hai,” (tell the person the bathroom is downstairs), a kinder voice suggested, though i could not see the man. still very much startled by the first voice, i turned to go down but i remembered the smoke and looked back again. “bhaisaab, kya yeh projection room hai?” i asked, mustering all my courage. (is this a projection room?)

the man with the kind voice then walked over to me and replied in the affirmative. i then requested if i could stay in the room with them, and that i would like to see how they worked. ahmedbhai was more than pleased. “you won’t write a story on me na?” he joked in his broken english and i said no. i am still training to be a journalist like them, i said truthfully.

“okay, koi baat nahi, come and sit here,” said ahmedbhai again and pulled a chair for me. big and greying, there was something very noble about this ahmedbhai, who was proud of what he was doing even if it didn’t buy him good kurtas for himself. i think he said he was ‘behind the reels’ for over 20 years, and now he had a helping hand. in fact he had begun to save so an early retirement wouldn’t worry him, in case they did not need him anymore. “anything can happen these days, and no one will remember us,” he sighed. he was correct indeed.

the break was over in another two minutes and he said they were ready to roll again. he showed how films are packed into reels and how they fit it into the box in the wall. then all he had to do was start a switch and whirrrrrrrrrrrr…the movie continued. ahmedbhai’s colleague handed me a cup of canteen-chai…too sweet and bursting with the flavour of cardamom. forty-five minutes and one more break later, the movie was nearing the end and i decided to go back to my colleagues. i thanked ahmedbhai a lot and told him that for the first time i felt i had learnt something different, different from that the books were supposed to teach and different from what anyone had asked me to learn. i even noted down his number and he said i could come and visit him again. “people just come to this building to watch movies,” he said. “today you made us happy by giving us company, so thank you to you,” he laughed, and shook my hand with both of his.

excited and full of the freedom i had just experienced, i ran down the stairs to the lounge, where even the cigarette-smoke didn’t bother me now. venky was talking to someone and as soon as he saw me he motioned me to come inside. understandably, all my colleagues were worried as to where i had disappeared without a word, and despite the fact that i was the youngest among them, they said that i should have behaved like a grown-up. the next day at office, the tale of my disappearance was narrated to two or three others who had missed the screening, and all day they too teased affectionately: “when will you grow up rads?”

today as i write this i wonder when that happened.

i wish i was the same curious little girl who convinced her father’s car mechanic to teach her driving, and then hid behind him when she drove into four plants and a brick wall, or the girl who set fire to her newly painted kitchen when she wanted to see what would happen if she heated a few candles. i wish i was the girl who once climbed a dilapidated building in orissa, just to get a good picture of a state that was mourning the death of its chief minister; and once again, the asbestos roof of a hotel to help a friend get a good picture of the charminar. i wish i was the same girl who playfully yelled “thiruda thiruda” while on a terrace with close cousins in bangalore at three in the morning, and discovered the next day that i had accidentally helped to catch a real thief! i wish i could be awed by magic once more and i wish silly jokes could make me laugh. i wish i hadn’t stepped back from the projector room that day, or thought about dinner and my in-laws and praveen (who, i’m sure would have wanted to see it himself had i told him). i wish my journal was more about new beginnings, rather than old chapters in my life that i leaf through again and again.

i wish i didn’t have to grow up. i just wish i was selfish again 😐

July 14, 2004

the £100 falafel (my version)

i had to take back, chop, cook, chew, and then burp my own words this saturday night 😐

all because of a play that i had wanted to watch ever since i heard it was here in london for a 90-day-period.

like most wives would, i let my husband know of my wish to watch the play well in advance. i even justified why i especially wanted to watch this one — among other bizet classics, the carmen gypsy tune is (still) one of my father’s favourite and its something both he and i hum or whistle very often. (more tracks here)

many years ago when cable tv was not ‘in’ and doordarshan is what all of us watched, the carmen opera (i think it was a bbc recording) was shown on tv and my father had insisted the family sits down to enjoy it. given his taste in western (classics) movies and music, i used to think the opera was a language only he could understand. which is why i listened to his story-narration in awe as the artists danced in their bright and very frilly red and black spanish costumes. there was even a bullfight-scene for escamillo the toreodor, and i remember how his personality had appealed to me the most. when he fought the bulls waving his red cape in front of them, i would wince and shut my eyes, only to peep in horror through the gap in my fingers. when the bull was attacked by spears and ran around madly in pain, i would also voice my anger… “how can they do such a thing!!?? the poor animal! what if someone did that to them??!!” and my father would laugh and make me understand, explaining about different countries and cultures and how some games are part of a tradition that is sacred to them.

when i saw the colourful carmen poster on one of the underground stations in london…i wanted to re-live that experience again. the songs, the dresses, the frills and the colour, the bull-fighter and yes, even the bull-fight. and as the days went by i began nagging praveen again and again, reminding him to book tickets or we would never get to watch the classic.

now in the two and a half-plus years that praveen and i are married, i have learnt — apart from cooking and cleaning and making a house a home — the fact that nothing can be achieved when left to praveen alone. be it buying groceries for the kitchen (i have yet to learn driving which is why i have to depend on his chauffeur services), helping me with the vaccuum-cleaner (eventually i have to do it myself), going to the library or…well, keeping his tie and shoes in place when he throws them all around the house. like the mobile phone alarm function that switches to ‘snooze’ after its first beep, i have learnt to run after him constantly, always sure and yet prepared for his favourite answer: “not today kunju, tomorrow?”

…until i finally lose my patience and burst out like the air out of a soda bottle. i also cool down quickly enough to realise how hard i must have been on him, but then my outburst has had its effect on him and the work is quickly done 😉

in a place where entertainment is our only escape, where the number of friends you have can be counted on the fingers of your left hand, no relatives’ houses to go to and a chronic backpain to endure, such blame-games are easy to get into. and then i go on about the number of hours he spends in front of star news or football, cossacks on the computer, the loo, or asleep. since my in-laws are here these days, it is difficult to openly display my temper tantrums at times, but now even they know when to expect one coming. it was after such a display (over chat, phone AND email, that the two tickets for carmen were booked. the last show. and, not surprisingly, at £35 each.

“you deserve this…” i said as we got into the car on saturday evening and set out for london’s west end. “YOU should have booked it early, don’t try and take me on a guilt-trip saying the tickets are expensive. i know they would be. dont forget that we are going to watch a classic.” famous last words indeed.

ten minutes into the show and i wanted to re-check our tickets if we had got into the wrong theatre. the costumes were dull, the actors weren’t dancing and there were way too many of them; forget the frills on carmen’s frock, there was absolutely no colour on the sets at all!

the play was divided into four acts, thankfully. during the first two ten-minute intervals, we got ourselves a book about the play, and an icecream. lemon sorbet. another £4 to understand what it was all about and £2 to remain cool. i sank deeper into my chair to avoid the question marks on praveen’s face. i was lost for words already and prepared to chew the ones i had spoken just a few hours back. the third act was when i could barely concentrate, because i was mentally calculating how much we spent and what a waste of money it had been. then i began to consider how many bills we could have paid off with those £70. almost as if the guilt-fairy had waved her magic wand, a currency converter popped out of nowhere in front of me and i went “aaaaarrrghhhhhhhhh” in my head. almost 6000 Indian rupees!!

i turned slowly to look at praveen from where i was seated – the edge of my chair and very low – his eyes red from trying hard not to sleep. “it was not supposed to be like this,” i said with a big face. “the carmen i had seen with my father was different. we have simply picked the wrong performance.”

the lights came up again and it was the final 10-minute interval. we got up to get another icecream. vanilla, the sugar that would digest the bitterest of truths. another £2. suddenly in the hall filled with propah englishmen and women, perfumes, low necklines and pearl necklaces, posh leather jackets and pipe-cigars, praveen began to sing. “i’m trying not to sleep” he said, while i held my ears from burning off with embarrassment, trying to shut myself from his horrible imitation of the opera singers. when we got to our seats i caught myself saying, “aah at last, just 30 more minutes to go.” and then we both burst out laughing. he said it was okay, and that he was at least going to put up a *review for the play.

i offered to repay the 70 pound-entry ticket with my savings (something i never let him know of, and he just shook his head.

“you can buy us the falafel from maoz instead. humus and fried aubergine for me. i’m sure it will be worth a full £100.”


ps: it was really uncanny when praveen and i showed each other our entries for carmen. most facts wouldn’t be too different, but we even came up with the same title! we decided to go ahead and post it anyway, and here is his version. the best part of the story is that both of us had thought our reviews for saturday’s carmen would have just one word:

July 13, 2004

bachche to bachche, baap re baap!

i miss gayatri.

not the gayatri who’s now about four and a half years old. but the gayatri who was two. and i miss all the time i spent with her until she was two, perhaps two and a half, i think. after that i went away.

when i met gayatri — she was only a day old then — i was surprised that i fell in love with her instantly. quicker than the three-or-more odd years (during school and college) i took to be close friends with her mother, jayashree.

unlike the popular scene that most girls and women enact when they see a child — going “oooh chooo chweet…,” buying toys and clothes that outgrow and lie in a forgotten closet days later — i am just not fond of children. i hold back usually. my shields are pulled ‘down’, and i just cannot bring myself to hold the baby/child in my arms for any reason. in such situations i do what i think is best…leave the child with its parent/family/fans and let them do all the cuddling and cooing, while i stand aside quietly, smiling so i don’t offend anyone, more so because i’m not very sure of how i must react. it has always been like this.

if the child is a little older, i turn even more skeptical.
firstly, i don’t know what to speak to or how to play with the kid; secondly, i am *so* sure he or she is up to some mischief, and then i guard my toys like an angry bulldog; last but not the least, i think i just don’t have the patience or energy to stand and watch them play or, heavens forbid, read them a book. and that’s when i am in india. when it comes to the kids in the united kingdom, i’m just plain terrified of them! you’ll never catch me walking on the same side of the road as them…they all look like little bullies to me for some reason. i have thought hard but still cant point a finger at why.

perhaps this has to do something with the fact that as a child i was always a very quiet one, and hence i was bullied a lot, almost three-quarters of my primary school life. after that i withdrew into a shell. it was only in the late college years that jayashree and i ‘clicked’, and decided to stick by forever. gayatri only helped to strengthen that bond. touch wood.

this darling of a creeper
tickles me
like a cuddly questionmark…
i feel the dewdrops
sometimes it winds
around my neck
and casually throttles me.

(– from my old scrapbook of poems. this one was written by my favourite teacher, shubhangi karnik.)

praveen and i share the same feeling about children. both of us shudder at the very thought of a kid who will rule the rest of our years. while my thoughts about having a kid are more rational (i think) yet mixed – health-related, healthy-baby related, patience-related worries — given my 11-year old and going bad-to-worse backpain, praveen is quite clear about why we shouldn’t have kids. “bachche?!!? what about my retirement then!?” he exclaims at anyone who dares to ask him now.

with gayatri it was different. she would cling to me every time i visited her, and soon i was going to see the little bundle of smiles more often than i would call her mother on the phone. i remember one particularly difficult time when i visited jayashree after work. my father came to pick me up later but gayatri just wouldn’t let me go. chanting “laadu…laadu…” (radhu – short for radhika and what they call me at home), all the way till the gates of her building, she wailed aloud and kept kicking her amused mother with her tiny arms and legs…one filmi moment i will not forget for a long long time.

just a day before we left for london soon after my marriage, i visited my little friend again and kissed her goodbye as usual, lying that i would see her the next day, just so she didnt create a scene. this time it was jayashree and me who had fat tears welling up in our eyes and lumps sticking in our throats. i still haven’t forgiven praveen for that moment, tearing me away from those i loved…knowing especially well that soon gayatri would grow up and forget all about me.

that is why when praveen’s friend jitesh and his wife ranju came to stay with us for a while recently, i refused to venture anywhere around her three-month old boy. i like to be honest so i told ranju i was scared, and had never held a child so little in my arms. i was telling the truth, but ranju just laughed and said: “well, someday you have to…”

four days later, ranju was in the bath and i was cooking downstairs, when i heard the boy wail. he had been left alone in the bedroom and was afraid. i ran to him, making baby noises, shaking his clattery rattle, clapping and snapping with my fingers to distract him, but nothing i did seemed to help. on some impulse, though very very apprehensive myself, my heart pounding, i managed to gather the child (bedcover, babysheet, fleece and all) in my arms. he just wanted to be touched i guess, because the very next moment he was gurgling playfully again, the little cheat.

“congratulations!” ranju beamed, fresh from her bath and grinning ear to ear: “you’ve finally conquered your fear…”

“thanks” i said, going red in the face and glad to hand him back to her right away, “now my bhaji’s all burned up.”

two months later, jitesh’s work would take all the three of them to the united states of america. in these two months we had turned into bosom-buddies, ranju’s son and me. i could make him laugh with the baby-language i just created for him (and earlier, for gayatri). he had learnt to hold my finger tight and he was just beginning to turn on his side, my finger still in his tiny grip and now going all the way to his fifth-month-and-toothless mouth. i was not afraid to hold him anymore, and in fact, waited for my turn as he was exchanged between the other arms around the house. on the night before they flew, i went up to his room where he was peacefully asleep, placed a gentle kiss on his cheek lest he woke up. trying to be as silent as i could (the wooden floor creaked under me), i said goodbye. it was so much easier this time i thought, relieved.

as i tiptoed away from the dreamy j&j’s baby-powder-and-cream smelling room, i wondered if it really was.

it’s something praveen and i can run from but not for long.
will we forever wait for little angels to come and touch us when they pass by, or finally decide to have one of our own?