Friday, September 25, 2015

Eid (not always) mubarak

Our housing society has many employees, and most residents employ part time help for their mundane household chores. Many of these helpers are Muslim women from Bengal. They have interesting ways of substituting for each other, when one or the other has to go back to her native place, for whatever reason.
When we first moved here, in October 2013, my neighbour suggested that her maid work for me as well, and said that she was honest and reliable. Which was all very well, but Mehrun was with me for perhaps two months or so. She brought in Menuka, who was with me for nearly a year and a half: mid-March this year, she came in one day and announced that she was going to her village, and  Shaheen would do my work.  Menuka and Shaheen were quite reliable and regular- they rarely took time off, and would normally inform me in advance if they were doing so. In fact, Shaheen only took one day off for Eid in the five months she worked for me. (That she used to come to work very early in the morning and upset my morning walk schedule was another matter). In the interim, Mehrun came back and asked to join my employment again. I was loath to dismiss Shaheen, for no fault of hers. But it so happened that a couple of months later she had to go back to her village, as her daughter's in-laws were making her life miserable. Menuka hadn't returned. When I was leaving on my travels, she told me that Mehrun would work in her stead! Quite the merry-go-round. So, since my return earlier this month, I'm finally back with my original helper.

I'd forgotten to ask Mehrun yesterday whether or not she'd been coming to work today, on Eid, and was pleasantly surprised to find her come in earlier than usual. Apparently one madam had refused to let her take the day off today, so she decided to work in all her houses. A few days ago she had informed that she was taking the next day off, which is, to my mind, perfectly acceptable. I asked her why she didn't employ the same strategy when it is an important festival ? Perhaps that madam is very overpowering/entitled. I don't know what her reasons were. But I do think it very unfair to not give a person time off to celebrate a festival.

On a happier note, while I was going to our colony shop to pick up some vegetables, she asked me to buy a litre of full cream milk, so that she could go home and make sevaiyaan. (She wanted to pay for it, but I declined. A litre of milk and some cash as Eidi seemed to be an affordable token gift).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A very rooted story: Chasing New Rainbows by Manika Lal

How much of a person's life is defined by his or her origins, the place he/she was born in, the family and the town which define him/her?
India's modern stories are often found in the metropolises, or else in the rural areas. Stories from small towns, where the social structure is far more defined than in the big cities, where your ancestors and their peccadilloes are public knowledge, are not so very common, especially original works in English. Life may take the person out of the small town, but it is not so easy to take the small town out of the person. Manika Lal's novel, Chasing New Rainbows, explores the life stories of two 'best' friends, Kalpana and Vasundhara, growing up in the nineteen seventies, whose life trajectories take them on very divergent paths.

A deep childhood friendship apparently comes to an end with Kalpana's sudden marriage to Prince. (Yes, his family seems to have delusions of grandeur : although not of royal blood, they are very wealthy. Thankfully, he does have a nicer, desi, name). Although she would like to study further, beyond graduation, a cousin 'aunt' finds a perfect match for Kalpana, with immense pressure for an immediate marriage, as the prospective groom's grandfather is very ill and would like to see his Prince married before he departs this world. Prince is an ambitious young man who would rather focus on his business plans than on marriage, and although he agrees to marry, he is very cold to his beautiful new bride. She does come to terms with this new life, but a core of dissatisfaction remains deep within her. When they move to Mumbai, she is happiest when at her bedroom window, overlooking the birdbath in the housing society's garden, watching the birds. For her, birds and open spaces are home, the childhood home she has lost forever, since her parents have locked up their sprawling ancestral home and moved to a city to stay with their only son. Motherhood brings its own satisfactions as well as a new loneliness to Kalpana's life....

Vasundhara's childhood is far more restricted and constrained than Kalpana's. Perhaps their families had been similar to begin with, with large properties in the town. Vasu's father, however, has not consolidated his ancestral holdings, but has squandered them, leaving him with just the house he lives in, and a job in the local municipality, which somehow sustains his family. His hopes and ambitions centre around his son, Akash, Vasu's older brother. All resources are spent on his education and his nurturance. Even his baby sister is taught to take care of her older brother. Akash does go abroad for higher education and a job, but, tragically, suddenly stops communicating with his family. A pall  of gloom descends upon their home. Vasu has recently graduated, but is completely shaken by this event. Kalpana's visit telling her about her impending marriage upsets her even more, as she had hoped that they could, once again, study further together. (Kalpana's parents had sent her to live with her Nani and attend college in Nani's much bigger town). Her aunt, Muniya Bua, is shocked to see the state of her brother and his family, and especially her young niece, when she visits them on Raksha Bandhan. She decides to take Vasundhara back with her to her home in Delhi. Vasu's response to life in the capital is described beautifully and with great empathy. Slowly but surely, Vasundhara overcomes her insecurities, takes up a job, grows independent and supports her parents to the best of her ability. In all this, her family neither seeks out a match for her, nor do they encourage her to find one for herself. Vasundhara excels at her work, but is also very lonely, despite the unwanted interest shown in her by several male colleagues. A business associate from Mumbai seems to be interested in her, and she feels a growing attraction towards him.....

A chance meeting at a mall in Mumbai brings Kalpana and Vasundhara together again. Their renewed friendship helps both of them share their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other,  overcome a great deal of pain and sorrow, and find the eponymous new rainbows that they have both been looking for.

Manika Lal writes with great sensitivity and empathy. The interior lives of her characters are richly described. The chapters dealing with the different characters add layers to the narration. Finally, it is a book of hope and courage. (I also feel that better editing is required). I am hoping for a sequel!

Monday, September 14, 2015

A long break, a book event, keys, closed doors and the resident engineer

In the interim I travelled, spending time with the older son and his family, which includes my grandchild, who is now a delightfully busy and playful toddler. After spending just a couple of days with the RE's sister and her family, I hopped across the pond and visited the English side of the family, which includes another delightful infant, now all of seven months old (my late brother's grandson). I had a wonderful time with family and friends, and came home to jet lag, an aching wrist, and a stye on my left eyelid. (It's less swollen now, but still a bit painful).

These woes, however, are minor when I consider the trauma inflicted upon me by the spouse this Saturday evening. Saturday was one of those rare days when I had stuff to do on my own, stuff that was not really of interest to the RE. I made breakfast for both of us, prepared lunch for him, and left the house, carrying my front door key, just in case he happened to be out when I returned. ( In case you are interested in earlier key stories of our lives, do click on this link and the links in the post).

Saturday was not an easy day for me: it was my late sister's birthday, the first since her passing.
It was also her daughter's birthday. I spent the morning with my niece, and then went on to have lunch with the inimitable Aneela and the wonderful Kiran Manral,who was in the NCR to launch her latest book, All Aboard. ( See post below this one). After a delicious lunch, (and some truly awesome dark chocolate) we went to Meher Chand Market for Kiran's final book event on this trip, where a good time was had by all. Finally caught up there with Devapriya, who was too late to have lunch with us, but who is a dear friend whose delightful vagueness in real life belies the brilliance of her writing.   
( I almost drowned in nostalgia at the sight of said market, which is now full of very hip and happening shops and restaurants, a far cry from the innocuous little local market it was when I was a youngster who lived right next to it from late 1963 to mid-1976).

Our present accomodation is on the third floor, with a single entrance: we have a wooden door, beyond which is a metal grill gate covered in wire mesh, which has a giant key. ( I once went crazy hunting in my handbag for said giant key as soon as we'd left home on a long-ish trip to Delhi, and was so worked up by my inability to find it in the bag that I asked my daughter to send her driver across to make sure I hadn't left it in the front door, and on our return journey picked up the spare key from her place just in case I had actually lost it. I hadn't: it was lurking within stuff in the same inner pocket of the handbag in which I had kept it. I do live. My only excuse is that this was quite soon after we had moved, and the key's aura wasn't yet in harmony with mine).

I got home around seven, exactly as I had planned to. The house was dark. I tried inserting the key in the lock, but it was not locked, merely bolted from the inside. I phoned the man on his mobile. I phoned our landline, which has a LOUD ring. I called several times. I rang the doorbell too, several times. I was quite sure that the man had fallen asleep with the air conditioner on and the bedroom door closed. BUT I WAS STUCK OUTSIDE THE HOUSE WITH NO WAY TO GET IN, AND I NEEDED TO USE THE BATHROOM, especially after the several cups of tea I'd had with Devapriya and Aneela after Kiran had left to catch her flight. I also call my older daughter, who says they'd been out together, but had dropped him home around 5.30 p.m, and he'd said he had some e-mails to write. (I had taken our car).
There are four flats on each floor of our building. Next door neighbour's house was dark, also, my front door isn't visible from there. The people diagonally across are relatively new. The flat across from us is where I need to be. It helps that they have a full time help who knows me. Both the little boys are there, watching cartoons on the television. I tell them the situation, and they are as hospitable as can be. I use the bathroom! I ask for a telephone charger, as I need to keep calling home and my battery is running low. My older daughter calls, asking if she should come and pick me up. I decline, as I'd rather be close to home. The minutes keep ticking by. My phone grows warm in my hands from the constant calling. The mind starts playing tricks- the RE always answers his youngest sister's calls- I am tempted to call her (she lives in the US) and ask her to call him, just so that he picks up his wretched phone. The mind, useless worrier that it is, then goes into full fledged worry mode, imagining all kinds of dire possibilities. I am getting more and more jittery by the minute, although I am absolutely sure that the wretched man is snoring away to glory, and all my fears are heedless. After almost an hour of this nonsense, he FINALLY answers the landline! I call the older daughter, who tells me that she and her sister are at the colony gate and will be with us in a couple of minutes.

Nobody yells at the man. We merely express our anxiety, and describe the various solutions to gain entry into the house that we had thought of. Of course he had planned on having just a ten minute nap, or he would have locked the grill gate from the inside. If he hadn't been so sleepy, his cell phone would have been with him, instead of being charged at the point near the front door. He used to have a charger plugged in near his side of the bed. Why has that vanished? We think that a self-locking door, as we had in Kolkata, might be useful. (Though the risks of him getting locked out are very high with such a system). We decide to get a loud doorbell installed in our bedroom (though we haven't done it yet). The RE feels we should employ a full time help to be there as a permanent door opener! (With my luck, that person would probably be a modern day Kumbhkaran). Rather bitterly, I say that he obviously doesn't want me to go out on my own. I recall the zillion times I've woken up at all odd hours to open the door for him when he's returned from his travels.
The younger daughter and I have to go out together on Sunday morning. The girls suggest that I lock him in, and hide the spare key! I do lock him in, if he's asleep or in the bathroom when I need to leave, but the second key is kept very visibly and prominently near the main door, as I'm quite paranoid about leaving anyone locked up. We tell him that we will lock him in, and the key will be right there, but he should be a good boy and not unlock the door for anybody.

The next day, as we unlock the door and let ourselves in,  the RE calls me on my mobile phone just to let me know that he's awake!!!!!!