February 15, 2008

the unfolding and folding of memories, and why they’re important

i’m just past 56-pages of shantaram, and my brain is bursting with memories of mumbai airport along with its smells, the views and first impressions of dharavi, colaba, the radio club, mondegar’s and most of all, leopolds‘.

it’s hard for me to classify leopolds’ as a cafe, or a pub. it was simply a place where friends met and relaxed. in fact, the interiors of what i remember of mondy’s and leopolds are blurred, and i must be confusing one for the other. (no surprise there perhaps, i wasn’t always having coffee, and anyway it’s way over 10 years now). i must have sat at one of their thick-wood-mahogany tables perhaps three of four times in all my mumbai-life, in the warm company of friends, colleagues from my express-computer days. each visit, though, has a bright, shining memory of its own.

i remember being curious about the people who frequent places like these, and my secret awe at the discovery that such a place even existed in the very throat of mumbai. there, it was the first time i saw more foreigners than indians, dressed in their trademark-cotton baggies and orange flowing kurtas. beads around their necks, or wrists or forehead. my own company, sometimes four or five of us, was buzzing with the latest office gossip, smoking chains of cigarettes and ‘grass,’ and downing one beer after another. and i, the youngest of the lot, had to plead with them to let me have a sip from their glass.

fortunately or/and unfortunately for them, beer always reminded me of a tall glass of urine, and i never liked the taste anyway. so i was simply happy just being there with my friends, soaking in the ambience, and some of the smoke as well. this was a world so far away from the one i was brought up in and went back to, faithfully every day.

it was perhaps on the way home after one of those leopolds-visits that i had realised i was in love. i think someone else did too. in the five years that followed, i changed jobs, i had new colleagues, i never had reason, or the company to visit mondy’s or leopolds’ again, but that special friendship always remained close to my heart. like i’ve heard is the case with all first loves, i think it still does.

and then there were the ex-colleagues who always looked out for me. during one of those rocky, painful, wearing-out phase of this relationship, there was one friend who took me to the radio club one evening, again, a very new atmosphere for me then, and so sympathetically, heard me out, and counselled me on life, the universe and everything. (he still is so sweet, i can never get over the fact that he is allergic to chocolates.) he also told me that who knows, maybe 10 years later, i would be laughing at my past. this is no anniversary, but yes i am smiling and laughing, in a nice way, at all that had happened at the time. it was all a part of growing up.

i can get disoriented when i come across an interesting book, and gregory david roberts is a grandmaster of them all. on the tube this evening, as i read pages and pages of accurate, minutely observed and mature descriptions about his philosophies on life and love, about colaba’s pubs, the radio club, they all came rushing back to me. the places themselves, the songs of mumbai, shubha mudgal, the friends, the laughter, the warm and firm handshakes when we parted at our train-stations, the youth that i left far, far behind…

as i walked home slowly, stiff from the cold and the physical pain after a long day at office, the memories that had stirred up a storm inside my head finally flooded my eyes, and i let the tears fall. even the fox, who has his hideout somewhere opposite our house and usually prowls for food during that time of dark, waited and let me pass.

my thoughts changed track, and i suddenly realised what a beautiful animal that fox was, like the mozilla-firefox logo. i rang the doorbell, too drained out to fish out my housekeys, and a smiling husband opened the door. “let me help you medaam,” he said warmly, and took my coat off (something he has never done so far). when my 15-month-old son – so engrossed in the storymakers on cbeebies -finally turned around and saw me, he rushed with open arms, giving me a tight sooooooooo-glad-you’re-home-ma-bear hug, and before i knew it, i had folded all my memories away. this precious moment, with my husband and kid, was worth it all.

this life was certainly worth it all.

February 14, 2008

bbc looks for love in the wrong places

how’s that headline for a taste of their own medicine?

either the bbc is turning very short-sighted about all matters related to india, or they are plain lazy and should simply pass the job to someone else.

it’s not been too long since i mentioned this before, and the bbc does it again (check out all the pictures from 1 to 8). is that the only picture they could find about indians ‘celebrating’ valentine’s day? why show nice, gooey-romantic images from the rest of the world, and portray india as an enemy of the idea of love, which in fact, is not the case at all.

i bet there *must* have been an archie‘s shop just around the corner from where pic#8 was shot, overflowing with red heart-shaped balloons, mushy-mushy cards and big, huggable teddy bears. also, will someone direct the bbc (and check if their eyes are wide open) to any one of the over-100-shopping malls in mumbai itself, or, the remaining 258 in the rest of india. here, this directory should help.

i have been following bbc news faithfully for quite a few years now. but these days i find their reporting to have turned anti-everything-india for some reason. look at their own news items on valentine’s day here (2007), and here (2002). why be different now? yes, there are anti-valentine protesters in india, but i would think the news is about the millions other indians, who easily outnumber them every year, and even make some extra money while they are at it.

to those second-, third-generation indians sitting abroad and reading misleading reports about their home country on the bbc, i think this is sad, and really, really unfair.

February 13, 2008

a story, unpublished

something i witnessed during my recent mumbai-visit stayed in my memory, and haunted me for a long time.

last month, when i watched taare zameen par (tzp), for no reason related to that movie, i remembered that scene again. i wrapped it in a fiction story and sent it, one by one, to two publications. wrong choices maybe, because, forget about any feedback on the story, neither of them responded at all (this, after we’d already exchanged emails). or perhaps they thought i was offending aamir khan’s original intentions, or that i was taking the realism a bit too far. perhaps they simply didn’t like the story. whatever. one thing’s clear…. i need tuitions on how-to-know-who-is-the-right-publication-for-your-story, and once that is clear, how-to-market-it-to-them. any published writers out there, hint, hint 🙂

well, anyway, i cannot keep this buried in my pc anymore. tzp is already yesterday’s news. and stories have to be told. so here it is, *sailee ki kahani…saare zameen par.

*(sailee, afzal. not their real names. the shaunchalay at nariman point, very real.)

saare zameen par

sailee loved aamir khan. afzal loved sailee. in their young 12- and 14-year-old lives, it was their friendship that had survived the displacement of their slums, the death of their parents in the lathi-charge, the humiliation by the police, the nights without food, their puberty. and there was their love of films.

after his day job at the sulabh shaunchalay at nariman point, afzal worked evenings and nights at the local theatres in the city. the role of a black-ticket-marketeer was not a permanent one. it had its share of risks and profits, but it was fun. and moreover, he was doing it so someday, he could take sailee to see her favourite star. first day, first show. taare zameen par. and he wanted to do it in style.

the kids were both excited. this would be their first ‘date.’ for sailee, as dusky as her name, afzal managed to borrow a lovely, deep-pink chiffon kameez from his friend who worked at the dry-cleaners. the dress had a mending job to be done, but the tear was hardly visible to the naked eye. besides, it would not be collected from the shop for another four days. from her own meagre earnings (for it canot be called a salary) – from cleaning car windshields, and selling mogras and magazines at the signal opposite hotel ambassador – sailee bought for herself, for the first time in her memory at least, a soap and a shampoo. but the municipality tap that she shared along with other slum refugees had running water only for an hour in the mornings, during which they all filled their buckets. where would she have a good bath now, at this time in the afternoon?

afzal thought about it. “why, you can use the shaunchalay!” he said. indeed, it was the only way. and in between two crammed latrines, amid the dirt and slime leaking through the drainage pipes on that hot afternoon, sailee filled up the leaky orange bucket with water from the toilet taps, crouched in the middle of the narrow passageway and scooped water over her head, using one of the coconut shells that the narial-pani vendor often so carelessly littered behind.

outside, afzal sat at a desk, collecting one-rupee coins from anyone who wanted to use the public facility. luckily, there were hardly any ladies coming in that day, and the gents could barely glance over to the somewhat-well-concealed ladies’ lavatories. secretly priding himself for having given sailee the chance for a luxurious bath, he hopped over to the other side of the road to buy them some mid-afternoon snacks. it would have to be ragda patties, he thought, spicy, tasty, hot, just the right thing after a bath.

afzal was away for about four minutes. during this time, there was but one woman who needed the public toilet. she came away stunned, not understanding which of her feelings were most dominant – relief for having emptied her bladder at last, or shame, at the plight of a young girl having to bathe like that. sailee pretended not to notice anyone, and continued with the scooping of water. it was not until the soap slipped out of her hands and fell into the indian-style latrine, that she lifted her head and noticed him standing there. and then she felt his eyes. eyes that studied her smooth-fresh-smelling body, and caressed her long hair and naked skin. sailee shivered. millions of tiny little goosebumps erupted all over her. and the eyes, unabashed and hungry, lapped up even those with pleasure.

it had taken less than a minute. for a girl who was bathing in her own naivety, dreaming of simple treats like aamir khan and the movie that evening, to come down to reality, how vulnerable it was, how cheap and how easily available.

that night, throughout the movie, afzal held her hands in his and wept. no, she hadn’t told him anything about that afternoon. it was the movie that made him sob…the heart-warming songs, the dyslexic boy ishaan, and his so-hard-to-break-father.

afzal wept, because he missed his own parents, his own brother. he wished he had a father who demanded to know his marks, he wished he had a mother to wipe away his wounds with the end of her saree, a teacher to set free his imagination, if there was one, he checked himself. the letters that were like greek and latin to ishaan awasthi were not any simpler to read for afzal either. he wished he had an education.

and sailee? her eyes were dry. unfeeling, like big black pebbles stuck still in their white envelopes. sailee had grown up just a few hours ago. every passing reel in the film made her aware of a deep hurt and anger bubbling inside her. the false promises made to her parents when they were alive, the teachers who wanted a school built over the land, the man who came with the bulldozers, a childhood spent washing away the bird-shit off cars, the never-appeasing hunger for food, for love, or for a soap to wash her skin with, a place to bathe in privacy… ‘every child is special.’ with every song, she became aware of the hypocrisy. this was the real world, she decided, where sailee and afzal and many thousands like them were born and perished each day. no flute-player in a red and yellow clown’s cape was coming for them.

“but i thought you liked aamir khan,” a confused afzal said, walking a quieter-than-usual sailee back home on the sepia-street-lit mumbai night. “i was wrong,” replied sailee without lifting her eyes. “i hate him.”

to sailee. may you soon find a place to bathe in privacy. from, the nri woman who was just visiting mumbai.