September 23, 2005

what makes a carer?

“what is your name?” i asked him. he was taller than me, and looked like a younger cousin i had in india. he badly needed a haircut, and i was wondering what he was doing in a place like this.

“james bond” he replied, without batting an eyelid. and then, looking straight into my eyes, he grinned noisily. he was happy. i felt a lump rise in my throat.

rahul was one of the 10 epileptic children at an after-school club in london. there was grumpy james, who spoke his heart out and was not liked by anyone. there was ross, who was always bullied by james, and who in turn bullied the others. ross couldn’t speak, and often used sounds to express his opinion. like when you call him to a game of hide-and-seek, he’ll give out a looooooonng-sounding shout of joy. when, in a playful mood, he trips james and gets kicked by him, he goes silent. his mouth spilling saliva all over his already-saliva-stained black one-size-smaller t-shirt; his eyes go red with hot tears that don’t somehow fall. mary is 12 and very sweet. she likes to paint, and she likes marilyn monroe. she has a scrapbook full of her artwork and comments by her teacher and mother. when the fat strong straps on her wheelchair that hold her body in place are undone, she is on the floor trying to hold on to a plastic ball that always escapes her thin fingers. anita is 18 and can’t stop crying. terri is 18 too, and has to be fed by a tube that goes directly to her tummy. she has a small face, tiny legs that stick out of her wheelchair uncomfortably. i think she is uncomfortable herself, and very sleepy, but even when i try asking terri what she feels, she can’t answer. “can she think? can she feel?” i wonder. i haven’t met some of the other children yet. then james demands that i play with him. but i have to leave. he sulks even when i tell him this politely.

my 60 minutes are up.

“give it a good thought,” says the kind lady of the after-school club. i am thankful that she is so understanding. she tells me there are feelings inside us that even we don’t know about. and these come to the surface when you are dealing with severely disabled children. so it will take a while to be patient, to not choke up while you are with them. “and you haven’t spent time with normal children either…”

i think of her words on my way back home. i think of the travel expenses to london and back once university lessons start next week. i think of the other student jobs that i can only volunteer for and not get paid. i think of the vast and competitive syllabus that i have to study, the presentations i will have to give, the 4000-word assignments i have to submit. can i spare 8 hours a week for these children? i think of them again and again. the sight and smell of saliva still sticking to my skin and senses, and mashed potatoes.

“no, i don’t think i can cope with it,” says my heart. my mind says “they’re only children, where’s my sense of duty towards them?” heart says “this will see you through your transport costs at least.” mind says “what about the children? the time it will take for me to know and understand them, for them to understand me…what if i fail them?”

i think of how the heart and mind have got mixed up so easily. my back hurts after all the travel during the week and the sitting for long lectures. i think of the label my own doctors have given me – ‘fibromyalgia‘. how small it suddenly seems to be. my mother’s question, “is there no other job?” echoes in my head. for once, i wish there was.

on the train i pick out a book to push the thoughts out of my head. “later,” i tell my mind, trying to read. my eyes don’t even touch the words. i study ‘myself’: this is a strange conflict of will vs ability. of i-wish-to-help vs it’s-not-as-easy-as-you-think-it-is. i admire the lady of the club house, the girls who are carers there. how do they do it? i know i do care, but what i have to know is, will i make a good carer?

i am glad i volunteered for 60-minutes with the children. suddenly a minor four-year-old memory flashes in my head like a tiny photograph, a deja vu maybe…?

i still have a week or two before i say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the kind lady. before that, i have to accept the answer i already know.

September 13, 2005

the girl who read a little boy’s story

this picture has been haunting me since a long time now.

it belongs to a book of short stories, russian i think, that i had read when i was really really small. my father had got it from one of the churchgate streets, where books are priced at rs 5. i don’t know why i think they are russian stories, maybe because i still have some of the sketches i made from this book. and the author had a russian sounding name. i don’t recall the last time i saw the book. maybe, as we grew up, my sister and i, it got bundled along with all the other amar chitra katha and indrajal comics we used to read, and is still lying at a raddiwala‘s shop somewhere, or on someone else’s bookshelf.

the picture (in the book, and one-that-keeps-coming-to-me) is of a little boy, about five i think. golden, shiny hair, like the artists paint of blond people in flesh tones. the boy is wearing a loose white shirt, full puffed sleeves with a bright button at the wrist. it looks like he is cared for and loved, but he is sad. in his hand he holds a brand new trumpet, golden, like his fine hair.

the boy had always wanted the trumpet so he could play it for his grandfather, who is his only best friend. his parents buy him a trumpet, but almost immediately forbid him strictly from playing it. “son,” they say, “you must not play a trumpet when there is a death in the family, especially when it is your grandfather’s.”

i remember reading the story as a child, and how it had a terrible effect on me even then. i remember thinking of my own grandmothers, and imagining their death. of the jaggery-wheat laddoos i would never get to eat. i remember being frightened by the very idea. i remember having decided at that very moment, with the book still in my hands, that i would never ever want anything so bad…because wishes have such bad endings.

ps: well, coming back to the point of this post, does anyone remember reading this story, or where i can find the book again?

September 7, 2005

last evening at the library…

all is quiet, as it should be.
i am browsing through some watercolour-painting books next to a huge steel rack of, well, books. to my left is another rack, behind which there is a man. i cannot see his face. to the right of this rack is a readers’ square – four chairs around a coffee table with newspapers and magazines strewn all over. two of the chairs are occupied by two strangers, english, sitting opposite each other. suddenly…


the silence in the library is startled but for a second or two. i can feel people look up from what they are reading, like i did. i keep the all-about-watercolours-book back, pick up step-by-step-lessons-in-watercolour and open the book. when…


and then…


i want to burst out in giggles, laughter bubbling inside my stomach. i press my lips hard yet a smile escapes the corner of my mouth. i hold the book higher up against my face, and look at the two seated strangers to find them fighting with the same impulse. each catches the other’s eye and, awkward and embarrassed, bury their heads back into their papers.

had this been india, i thought, or if i had been with a friend, i would not have been able to suppress my laughter, nor would perhaps half the library. i was both amused and amazed at the way the english could resist any emotion for such a situation.

and what coincidence. i happen to be leafing through this book at home by kate fox, called ‘watching the english’ (my review here). it is my turn now to observe the two englishmen in the library; i’m curious to see how they will react, throwing all rules of polite behaviour and ‘weather-based’ introductions to, excuse the pun… the wind.

the book also has an entire chapter on english humour, and how it is their “default mode” and a constant undercurrent during conversations. sure enough, i do not have to wait for long for proof…

stranger 1 (leaning a little forward on his seat to talk to the man sitting opposite him):
“you don’t suppose we are on candid camera, do you?”

the question has its effect, and leaves both the men laughing, albeit uncomfortably, before they ‘ahem’ and go back to their papers again.

not rude, not impolite, quick-witted and yet, gets to the point.
how very english indeed!

watching the english

laugh about it, ridicule it, tear your hair in frustration or just listen and learn from it, you just cannot ignore english behaviour. let me add, especially if you are an outsider in the uk. their fixation with the weather, an awkward formality towards everything, their incorrigible humour at the worst of situations… are just few of the attributes that leave me amazed everytime.

so as soon as i saw this book on the stands one evening, i bought it. not only was it a genuine desire to learn about why the english are how they are, i thought of it as an interesting historical, social, research, documentary all-rolled-into-one promising book by anthropologist kate fox. not that i’d heard the name before, but experience tells me if there’s one thing exclusively ‘made in britain’ that they should be proud about, it is the way they make documentaries. i also bought the book as an investment into my masters’ course beginning next month, where one of the main subjects is “writing london.”

46 pages through the book (aptly subtitled ‘the hidden rules of english behaviour’), i think kate fox is not only brilliant with her witty, informal style, but also mature and intelligent to laugh at her own people, without causing them the least offence. one by one she tackles ‘conversation codes’ beginning, of course, with the weather, rules of introduction, awkwardness, and rules of gossip, humour and so on. here are some extracts:

on embarrassment, and the ‘pleased to meet you’ problem:

“…They just have a vague sense that there is something not quite right about it. But even among those having no class prejudice ‘Pleased to meet you’, who believe it the correct and polite thing to say, this greeting is rarely delivered with ringing confidence: it is usually mumbled rather awkwardly, and as quickly as possible – ‘Plstmtye’. This awkwardness may, perversely, occur precisely because people believe they are saying the ‘correct’ thing. Formality is embarrassing. But then, informality is embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing.”

on the rules of privacy and gossip:

“…as a result of the inevitable forbidden-fruit effect, we are a nation of curtain-twitchers, endlessly fascinated by the tabooed private lives of the ‘members of our social setting.’ The English may not gossip much more than any other culture, but our privacy rules significantly enhance the value of gossip. The laws of supply and demand ensure that gossip is a precious social commodity among the English.”…This is one of the reasons why foreigners often complain that the English are cold, reserved, unfriendly and stand-offish. In most other cultures, revealing personal data – your name, what you do for a living, whether you are married or have children, where you live – is no big deal: in England, extracting such apparently trivial information from a new acquaintance can be like pulling teeth – every question makes us wince and recoil.”

well now you know…

September 4, 2005

the seamstress’ story

since we are all touched by the quicktale/(virus?), whatever you call it…(have to admit ammani, it is quite contagious!)

i actually wrote this a few days ago, a week before the burglary, didn’t feel like posting it for some reason. with this restless desire i always have in my head, to want to write but not know what about, i had opened a blank page and what came out was this. just a picture in my head i guess. i still don’t like it much, not as much as i had felt it then. but now each time i open my notepad it jumps out at me, so i think i have to let it go.

…she pressed the tip of the needle into the white, willing canvas, plucking it out from the other side, pulling with it about a yard of bright shiny turquoise, pushing it back up where she could see the head like that of a naughty child’s – hiding to see if anyone’s spotted him yet. making the thread go round the needle once, she pricked the canvas again, this time more determined, confident, taking it down and up and around again. then she did this with green and red and yellow and black, and then some orange and some more brown. faster and faster, chains of stitches going round and round, up and down, and up and down.

then she stopped to sigh and take a deep breath, stretched her arm away from her face, and smiled, satisfied. here was her story.

September 2, 2005

bloggers park, and pay

i had always wondered about the practicality of a blog meeting.
the point of having a blog was (well, according to me), to leave the reader faceless; and to not know the person behind my favourite blog.

so when praveen told me about the blog meet in london i initially hesitated. but only for a second or two. because then i remembered i was in london, and so were the others. apart from the fact that we all had blogs or journals, we were all pardesis in this country. i am glad i didn’t miss being there.

it was a harmless get-together over lunch at an indian restaurant. not – like neha mentioned what was the agenda at a the blog meet she attended in mumbai – a frightfully serious discussion about ‘the future of blogging'(!?). (though i do agree there is a bright future, don’t ask me what right now, i’m working on it!) besides, most of us shared the opinion that before we met, we all had a different idea of how the other person looked. yet when a blogger walked in, we were somewhat able to guess his or her name and/or blog.

it is very rare that i meet a person for the first time and start chatting rightaway (full points for neha to guess that i’m more of the listener type, rather i pretend to be one very well ;-); and so i was looking at and listening to everyone chatting with each other, and answering questions put to me, enjoying every moment of the strange togetherness of new people over dosas and lovely (really southindian) filter coffee…

i have also been secretly indulging in the sympathy most of them expressed towards me after their 30 minutes with praveen (“really radhika, how do you put up with him!?”🙂 well, it feels good to see someone else harassed for a change, considering the fact that – having lived with him for almost four years now – he only gets worse with time! on the other hand, and ahem, speaking from the heart, i am so used to the endless chatter during the day (except, thank god for office hours) and the snoring during the night, that if he is quiet even for a moment i have to go check if something’s wrong! and, here’s the deal: a free home-cooked treat for anyone who gets angry with him, and stays angry for a full two five minutes! jag, chakra, any takers? 😉

the trip to the park was a nice end to the evening. i couldn’t help observe that with a big group of desis, you can feel at home even in the heart of london. anand too said it felt like bangalore, though i think he was referring to the warm sunlit roads and general atmosphere of the area.

back to the blog meet, thanks everyone for making it happen, especially chakra. err…if everyone is done settling their accounts with him that is 😉