Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Mysterious Windfall (Not)

 Our holiday in Corbett Park last month was wonderful. The best part of it was of our having no agenda, no itinerary beyond the walls of our resort. On the first two days of our three day stay there, the other room on the ground floor of our cottage was vacant, so we also had sole access to the drawing room, dining room and kitchen, besides our room, of course. The sitting room also had a powder room, which was a blessing, because even with only the two of us, one toilet isn't always sufficient. (On our Nile cruise I was personally delighted to find that our cabin had two tiny bathrooms!).

I digress. Given that we were were just planning to relax, I had brought very comfortable clothes which didn't require immediate unpacking. In fact, I only hung up my jeans and jackets, and left everything else in my suitcase. If you know me, this in itself is a minor miracle. I usually unpack immediately and completely and put my suitcase out of sight. Living out of a suitcase is not my preferred way of living. (Childhood trauma here: our childhood home had very strange storage spaces, so my sister and I actually had to keep our clothes in suitcases for many many years). Our hotel room had two tall wardrobes, one also had a safe, both had a few hangers and a drawer. I shoved assorted bags and handbags, including a bag full of oranges and apples, (road trip snacking), camera bag and laptop bag into the wardrobes. My extra large handbag was carried for the express purpose of carting along the gargantuan wrist-breaker I was reading, A Suitable Boy. I was also carrying my regular, smaller handbag, and had divided my cash between the two bags. I didn't even bother to open the safe and put anything inside it. The staff cleaned our room in our presence, and it just seemed unnecessary. 

Over the next three days we walked to the river bank, strolled around, sat on the deck and read, walked, ate, slept, enjoyed the Diwali campfire with live music, and relaxed. Before we knew it, our three days were over, and after a good breakfast, we loaded our stuff into the car. The boy who came to help us with our luggage also opened up the wardrobes to make sure that we had left nothing behind, and so did I. Nothing.

We had barely been on the road for some twenty minutes when my husband's phone rang: it was from the hotel reception desk, telling me that I had left some money behind. I was quite sure that I had done no such thing, but we stopped to check, and both my handbags had the correct amount of cash within them. The spouse called the hotel, and the man said there was an envelope with cash in it, some four thousand rupees. My cousin in the NCR had paid me for something, and had put the money in an envelope, which I had put into my handbag. I checked, that envelope was there too. The man said that there was something written on the envelope in Hindi, the gist of which was 'Sorry I didn't give this to you earlier'. That's when the proverbial penny dropped. I had opened that drawer, noticed the envelope, and because of us living in Covid times, I did not pick it up or touch it, I probably would have otherwise thrown it straight into the dustbin without even looking inside it. I was so pleased with the honesty of the staff member who took it straight to the manager, and to the manager who immediately phoned us. They planned to call the people who had occupied the room before we had.

An interesting end to a wonderful holiday!

Boxing Day 2020

 Boxing Day has, for me, always been special because it was my father's birthday. As a family, we liked the idea of special dates, and we also liked the way my mother's and father's birthdays, in August and December, flanked those of us three children.

Among Daddy's many legacies to us, besides K.L. Saigal, whose songs insidiously entered into my soul, and PG Wodehouse, and books and music in general, was the gift of age appropriate entertainment as well. Scratch me and I can remember all of The Little White Bull and The Ugly Duckling and Waltzing Matilda and so many others, which I have subjected my children to, and have inflicted upon my granddaughter when she was around. (The little one is safe, so far). Between him and my brother, we had a veritable treasure of all kinds of music, which are there, deep inside, an integral part of me, so many decades later.
While making tea the other morning, with the rising sun peeping out from behind the water tank on the roof opposite our kitchen, I remembered an old Rolf Harris song from the early sixties, Sun Arise. I am so blessing the Internet for making so much so easily possible. (In his final years, Daddy was most impressed with Google, and trusted its information, especially when we were arguing about some fact or other, and he would ask me to go check with Google Ji).
I don't know if you even particularly liked this song, Daddy, but I'm playing this here because it made me think of you, yet again, with joy and gratitude. Happy Birthday, Daddy, with all my love.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Once Upon a Blouse...

When I was young, which was, as you know, quite a while ago, saree blouses were almost inevitably made out of a fine cotton fabric called rubia, which was available in hundreds of shades in shops which called themselves matching centres. Rubia was fabulous because it had a little stretchiness, which could accommodate an extra couple of kilos without alterations. In recent years, though, saree blouses have attained an unprecedented freedom. All fabrics, cuts, and styles of  blouses are potential saree-mates. T-shirts and formal office shirts, short kurtis, longer ones, all are happily being worn with sarees. However, for formal occasions like weddings, a fitted, matching saree blouse is still the norm.

So, cut to 2017. Our niece's daughter was getting married. Until we moved from Kolkata in 2013, I was quite comfortable, blouse-wise. I had found both a good tailor as well as matching centres in New Market, and also managed to get some beautiful colours in a silk cotton blend, to wear with silk sarees. Those blouses served me well, and some of them still do. (My daughters don't quite approve of the fitting, but that is another story). But a wedding in the family meant new sarees, and new sarees meant new blouses, and new blouses meant a new tailor. Help. My older daughter's tailor was in the North Campus area, which was much too far away. My younger daughter's tailor was about 10-12 kilometers from our home, which wasn't really a problem, except that she didn't have a fitting room, so it was very difficult to tell her what was actually wrong with the garment she had made. I have actually worn a saree wearing the said ill-fitting blouse, gone to her shop and shown her the fitting, then gone to the nearest mall, changed into another blouse, and gone back to her shop to give her the blouse to rectify. This was not a viable proposition at all. ( Some months ago she expanded her premises and now, to my great relief, has a fitting room too, thank goodness. But let me get back to my story...)

It so happened that an enterprising resident of our housing society started a tailoring concern in one of the basement shops. It seemed logical to try the tailor there. There was also a curtained alcove with a mirror where you could check out the fitting of your garments.And so, a few blouses were given to the tailor master of this establishment. Among them was a cheerful apple green handloom material, with a subtle yellow striped weave, bought to wear with a mango yellow khesh saree with green stripes on the pallu. Sadly, this tailor master was not brilliant.Every blouse required a couple of alterations at least. Although the shop was less than five minutes away from our home, door to door, it was still a tedious business. We also had house guests at the time, so I was busier than usual, and probably more scatterbrained too... 

Somehow, the green blouse went missing. I looked for it high and low, on multiple occasions, before and after the wedding in Goa, where, on one morning, I wore the yellow saree with a kalamkaari blouse, silently mourning the missing green one. All wardrobes were checked, each cushion cover pulled out of the linen cupboard, each towel, each garment in our wardrobes. No sign of it. I finally gave up, concluding that the packet containing it after its last sojourn at the tailor's had accidentally gone out with the trash.I even went and asked the tailor if I had left it with him again. Poor man checked high and low but couldn't find it. I even checked the empty bags and packets in the store...

An apparently pointless digression: Our washing machine had been on its last legs for a while, but thankfully survived the first few strict lockdowns, finally conking off in early August. It stays in the bathroom attached to the store room, a bathroom on two levels, the bathing area lower down, the Indian style toilet area a few inches higher.Our landlord's step stool used to stay on the higher level, with the washing machine in front of it and random stuff on top of it and stuffed below it. (That toilet, of course, was never used).Well, the new machine was to be installed the next day, and the delivery boy took the old one away. It seemed like a good opportunity to clean up the area. There was a giant bag full of bags, there was a bag full of old rags, often required by plumbers, painters, and sundry workmen, there were shoe boxes (often a useful item). I rubbed and scrubbed the floor, and decided to take the step stool out and have the new machine on the higher level. In the interests of both tidiness and ecology, I decided to divide the collection of bags between the housing society's general store and the vegetable shop. All of this happened in early August.

Two days ago the RE went to the basement salon for a (long overdue) haircut, and came home with a clear plastic bag full of packets of namkeens. There was also a newspaper wrapped package in the bag. I asked the RE what was in the package. He asked me if I had given some bags to the shop a while ago, and I said yes. He said that the shopkeeper said that one of madam's garments came along with the packets. Yes, it was the green blouse.

I had visited the shop several times since giving them the bag full of bags. They must have used them much later!

If I had just thrown them out with the (segregated) garbage, I would never have got it back.

I have already given the khesh saree away, but no matter. Sarees will be found. (Or bought).

This saga occurred over more than three years.

I don't think any garment has ever given me so much grief and so much joy!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Touched by the Divine?

 I've been thinking of this -- whether relationships can survive without touch. That the relationship between god and the human has thrived without it seems like a miracle. The first long-distance relationship.

These words by Sumana Roy, friend, poet, author, on Facebook yesterday, set me thinking.

Human touch heals, it is central to so many of our bonds, filial, familial, romantic, and those of friendship. 

Human touch can hurt too. There are countless examples of that. But let us not go there.

I have had one experience where I felt that I was actually touched by my Maker. Someone very close to me had to undergo an extremely complicated operation. There were well-wishers from across the globe offering their suggestions, mostly regarding the location of the operation and the surgeon who would perform it. In most cases, the more renowned the surgeon, the stronger the recommendation. There was an information overload, as it were. I was sitting in the hospital waiting room, waiting to meet the consultant and show him the patient's latest reports. And then, and I can no longer recall if it was a voice or a gentle touch on my head, or both, but deep within my heart, I knew with complete, utter certainty, that this hospital, this doctor, this surgeon, all were the right ones.It was an absolutely unshakable conviction, which got me through the difficult days that followed. All went well, and it truly felt like divine grace.

Here there was no human intermediary. And yet, when we encounter those adepts who are deeply attuned to a higher power, there is magic in their touch, their entire being, and even in the touch of their possessions. Sacred relics are also supposed to be imbued with great spiritual power. I recall one such touch from my teen years. My parents, sister, and I would visit the home of an old gentleman, part of our natal Satsang, and attend weekly prayer sessions in his room. He was very frail, in bed. When it was time to leave, each member of the gathering would line up, bow our heads close to his bed, to the side he was facing, and with trembling, fluttering fingers, he would touch the top of our bowed heads to bless us.Fifty years later I can still recall the comfort and healing of that touch. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Best Laid Plans...

 The NCR chapter of our family sometimes gets together for a Sunday lunch, and in Covid times, of course, it is in one or the other of our homes. I had asked the kids to come to our home for lunch yesterday, and, in the interests of making something different from my standard rajma chawal or chhole kulche fare, I decided to make bedmi poori with a railway station type of potato curry, and, in the interests of variety, matar paneer, pulao, and a Kashmiri walnut and radish raita/chutney. After my older daughter and her husband came in and were settled with their drinks and snacks, I sat and efficiently made the dough balls for the pooris. The others followed shortly, there was much merriment and fun. The gas meter reader very apologetically came in to read the meter, as Sunday is the day he is sure of finding most of his clients at home. Before we knew it, it was almost 3 p.m. Time for lunch. My younger daughter was assigned the task of cutting a fresh salad for lunch. ( The original two, a green salad and a raw papaya som tam, had already been consumed as our healthy snacks). The medium burner was a slow poke, so I put the kadhai on the big burner and started frying the puris. Soon, though, the pooris weren't bubbling up at speed. They remained pale rather than the golden brown they were meant to be. I checked the flame. There was no flame. I tried lighting the gas again with the lighter. The son ran and got the matchbox from his father's little mandir. Nada. No hiss.No smell. No gas. Not enough pooris. 

I called the maintenance office, which seemed to be manned at that hour by someone completely clueless. I called the tower security guard, and asked him if the meter reader was still around. He was still in our building, and was as bewildered as the rest of us. In a matter of minutes, it was found that there was no piped gas within our entire complex. The older daughter offered to go home and pick up her induction stove. It didn't seem worth the effort. The son suggested that we put the few prepared pooris in the casserole so they would stay warm, by which time I had stopped caring. I knew that I had half a loaf of brown bread, in case we ran short of rice too! We had lunch, we all ate well, no one needed bread. There was a lovely date and walnut cake, baked by my younger daughter, and icecream to follow. Life was good.

We've been using piped gas ever since we moved to this housing complex, over seven years now. I think we had one pre-announced maintenance shutdown when we had internal piped gas, piped from a cylinder bank within the Society. About four or five years ago the entire colony switched to an external supplier, IGL. This was unprecedented. About an hour after we had eaten, I checked, and the gas supply had been restored. The security chap also phoned to inform me that it was back. We celebrated with stove-top ginger tea.

Old Robert Burns certainly knew what he was talking about.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Memories and a book review: Victory Colony, 1950

 What are your deepest fears? Can you even comprehend why you have them? One of my most long standing fears is the fear of being displaced, whether by a man-made calamity such as a war, or by natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods! During the India-China war of '62, I was very young, and we were living abroad, but I do remember much parental glumness at the time. The 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan were a lived reality: living in Delhi meant that you were vulnerable. There were trenches dug in the common gardens of our colony, and all our windows were darkened with black paper. My father worked in the Chief of Army Staff's secretariat, so he certainly knew more than he ever let on. We lived in Lodi Colony, our flat overlooking Meher Chand Market, which was a very local, downmarket kind of market back then, not the swish place it has become in this millenium. The war of 1971 had just been declared on the radio, my father had not yet returned from office, and some moronic shopkeeper had lit a bonfire on the roof of his shop. It was early December, and cold, especially since the market backed onto part of the Ridge, a forested area where the calls of the jackals would terrify me. (This area was later absorbed by the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium).  My intrepid mother, all five feet of her, marched down to the shops and made sure that the fire was immediately put out, and that we were not likely to be bombarded that night due to sheer carelessness!

My knowledge of Delhi's geography was largely formed by bus rides and by the buses themselves!   The destination boards held names of places which sounded exotic until they became familiar. Naraina, Najafgarh, Safdarjang, Madras Hotel, R.K. Puram, Janakpuri... As the city grew, the range and extent of bus destinations grew too. I remember asking my father where EPDP Colony was. It sounded rhythmic, euphonious even. We knew about Partition, although our U.P. origin family did not suffer directly because of it. The Punjab part of the story of Partition was far more familiar to us Delhi folk. EPDP stood for East Pakistan Displaced Persons, a legacy of the peculiar creation of a country with two distinct wings, separated by another country. This colony was formed in the early sixties, and renamed Chittaranjan Park in the eighties. 

Living in different parts of the country has been enriching! My recent years in Kolkata introduced me to the culinary, and other rivalry between the Bangal and the Ghoti. I discovered that many of my friends had ancestors from across the River Padma. Bengalis were not the homogenous mass I thought they were when I was in school! (Quite incidentally, I went to a school with a large Bengali population.) A brief visit to Bangladesh in 2011 was also a revelation. Our visit to Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman's house was heartbreaking, the site of a massacre, where the blood stained stair case speaks of the horrors of the violence unleashed upon an entire family. The countryside was exquisitely beautiful, as were the exquisite weaves and handicrafts, yet the history of this young country has been a painful one. Let me ask you here to travel back in time, when Bangladesh was not even a dream, to a time when East Bengal was made into East Pakistan, and a vast number of people came to West Bengal as refugees. 

Bhaswati Ghosh writes about this period in her book, Victory Colony 1950. Amala and Kartik, the children of fisher folk, have lost their parents in a fishing accident, soon after which the horrors of Partition are unleashed. Their Muslim neighbours shelter them until such time as they can be helped to catch a train to Kolkata. The two youngsters get off the train at Sealdah station, an overwhelming, immensely crowded, stinking, noisy place, a huge contrast for those coming from the quiet, coastal countryside. Amala goes to look for some food for her younger brother, Kartik, who is faint with hunger. She comes back empty handed to find her cloth bundle where she had left it, but her brother has vanished. She is devastated. Manas Dutta and his group of friends are college students who are working as volunteers to help settle the refugees. When the howling Amala is threatened by the police, Manas insists on taking her, and other refugees from the station, to the Gariahata Refugee Relief Centre. He has all the necessary approvals. Innoculations are administered and formalities completed before they can leave for the camp.

Life in a refugee camp is by no means easy. Amala is housed with an elderly couple, who become her surrogate family. She is tormented by the absence of her brother, but dares not share her story with others. Going back to Sealdah Station to look for him is her secret goal.

Bhaswati's detailed descriptions make each scene come alive. You can see the old barracks and the tents that make up the camp, and taste the watery gruel that is the only food on offer. You feel the acute pain of those whose lives have been overthrown by a turbulence not of their making. When Manas tries to find out about her life in her village home, Amala snaps "What village, ha ? Do I have any village, Babu? What stories do you want to hear? Why? To see if my mouth bleeds when I tell them? Or so you can feel happy it's not your story?"

 Over time, Amala and the other refugees do settle into a routine, where they are assigned certain duties in the camp. There are characters that claw at your heart with their pain, survivors of unspeakable violence that has robbed them of their sanity.

Manas comes from a well to do family, and lives with his widowed mother, grandfather, and a loyal staff . His mother is not very happy about his social service activities, especially as she is steeped in tradition and doesn't care for her son mingling with lower castes. A sensitive young man, Manas is often struck by the contrast between his own life and the lives of those in the refugee camps. His diary entries reveal his sensitivity: So many people have been left without anywhere to go. God knows how many more are to come. All of them had a home, a patch of land, cows and hens to call their own. Now all they possess are small bundles of clothes and a few utensils if they are lucky. oh and the flesh and bones on their bodies. That's about it, for they have even lost the dignity of being a human. I don't understand why this was necessary to gain freedom. I won't be with them forever, but misfortune will not leave them anytime soon- that I am certain of.

 After a while, the government grants start drying up and food rations dwindle. Malnutrition is rampant, and yet, 'despite such bickering over the belly's fire, it amazed Manas to see how admirably civil the camp atmosphere remained.' Also, 'The very fact that these men and women didn't look beyond what each day brought helped them survive what was essentially an unlivable life.'

There is a great need for economic activity to help sustain the refugees. One step is the setting up of sewing classes. Manik, one of the volunteers, has a widowed aunt (his mother's cousin) who is willing to teach the women in the camp. Bhaswati paints a vivid picture of Manas's first meeting with her. 'It also seemed to him as if he could talk to Chitra about anything, ask her any question without offending her...Manas realised how different it was from when he was with his mother. There, he struggled to find common ground for a two-way conversation. He rarely shared the things he was most passionate about with her; she just wouldn't get it, wrapped as she was in her cosy world of gods, gold, saris and neighbourhood gossip.'

After several months in the camp, with its diminishing government support and inconveniences, the younger members of the camp realize that there is no going back, and they will have to make a life for themselves in this new country. With the help of a local Left Front leader, they had set up a new colony by occupying a large tract of unused land some twenty kilometers away, near Shibpur. The land reportedly belonged to a local zamindar. Of course they are attacked by the zamindar's men and clashes between the groups continue for several days. The state government intervenes and settles the matter by promising monetary compensation to the zamindar. Thus Victory Colony is born.

Rich in it's details, Victory Colony 1950 is a book that needs to be read and re-read. It is, ultimately, a book about the triumph of the human spirit, of love, adventure, commitment to ideals, about individuals who make a difference. Bhaswati's writing is often poetic, always elegant in its simplicity. Do read this beautiful book. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Denizens of the Seventh Floor

It's been five years since we moved to this apartment up on the seventh floor, more or less identical to the one we were staying in, two blocks away in the same complex. Our seventh heaven! And then you realize that apartment blocks also have many non-human residents. The day we moved in, I was absolutely shocked to discover ants crawling into the biscuit container, within hours of our stuff reaching this flat, and getting into all kinds of foodstuffs almost by magic. When we told our landlord's niece, who lives close by, and who was our go to person for all apartment related issues, she said this was the first she was hearing of ants. Pest control was called, and the ant issue was sorted. Every year, when a cockroach or two manifests, we know it's time to renew our pest control contract. 

And then, we discovered a squirrel getting into the chimney's exhaust pipe. It would, very charmingly, skitter up to the balcony with bits of fluff, clamber up the gas pipe, and hop into the exhaust pipe. (It had a cover, but the gaps were large enough for a little squirrel to get into). I love our desi squirrels, they are small and charming, unlike their rather intimidating giant American cousins. However, I had heard horror stories of my cousin's air conditioner wires being destroyed by squirrels, so this little creature wasn't welcome. My helper opened up the exhaust vent and pulled out a huge bundle of fluff and cotton waste, and a tiny baby squirrel, which, sadly, didn't survive. That was the last of the squirrels visiting us. 

The house lizards mostly live in the balcony, a big fat one lurking on the screen door.                              

Thirsty wasps fly all the way up too, to drink from the pots!   

We are, very occasionally, blessed by a visit from sun birds, singing lustily, at a volume that belies their tininess. Happiness is a visiting sparrow. Happiness is not our unwanted guests, the prolifically pooping pigeons. 

They are the most unwelcome visitors. I have no visceral hatred of pigeons per se. They are birds with an interesting history, as messengers, as pigeon post, bred by pigeon fanciers. Their gleaming, iridescent, rich green, purple and magenta neck feathers are beautiful. I even find their guttural, throaty gutur goo sounds pleasant. We used to put out water for them, but then learned that their dropping are toxic and can cause serious respiratory diseases, so we stopped that practice. I didn't like the thought of them dying of thirst, so although the wretched birds are not good to my potted plants (they land their fat heavy bodies on delicate stems sometimes), they come every morning and drink from the pots once I've watered them. They seem to be territorial: our housing complex is probably home to hundreds of pigeons, but they seem to have an allotment system that works. There is a group of three which visits my balcony every morning, and hopefully drink their fill. (They seem to thrive in family groups of three: I remember my younger son, then five, and I naming the greediest one Piggyon, the lurking one was Suspigeon, and the third, unimaginatively, was Friend Pigeon).

What's the problem then, you may well ask.

This is the problem! They have not only ruined the balcony fan (it no longer works), but find it a convenient spot for both dozing and pooping. This is totally unacceptable to me. I have now morphed into the mad woman who can be seen, several times a day, chasing the pigeons with a stick. One evening I cruelly chased off a sleeping pair, and felt quite guilty about it. Fortunately, the guilt didn't last long. Even my poor helper gets sick of the amount of pigeon poop she has to clean. These past couple of weeks have me peeping out of the screen door every time I visit the kitchen, making sure there are no pigeons on the fan. They do try their luck every morning, and then seem to give up, by eleven or so. Have I successfully trained them? I don't know. But I seriously wonder, who exactly is the bird brain out here???

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book review: From Son to Stranger

 Much neglected though it has been, my blog turned 13 years old on the 29th August. A milestone indeed. Being part of a community of bloggers has been very enriching, and the friendships forged in those days, with originally faceless, like-minded people, have continued for over a decade. (Facebook has now made us able to recognize our formerly faceless friends!)  One such blog friend is the redoubtable Ritu Lalit, who used to blog at Phoenixritu, and now at                                                           

 We lived in different cities, and I vaguely hoped to bump into her once I had moved to the NCR, although Faridabad, where she lived, didn't really seem to be in my orbit. And then she moved,  and meetings with her and other Gurgaon friends were planned but didn't happen. In December 2018, I ventured to Quill and Canvas, to attend a programme with the authors of Escape Velocity, a beautiful collection of short stories written and published by the Write and Beyond group. I was absolutely delighted to see Ritu there, and once the programme was over, we decided to have lunch together, at a restaurant in the same mall. 

Ritu told me about her latest project, the book she was writing about parents who were estranged from their adult children. It is a book that I wish did not need to be written, but sadly, it does. And none does it better than Ritu Lalit. She writes with courage and honesty, sharing the intensity of her emotions and the ways she found to overcome the emotional trauma of estrangement from her older son. In searching for a community who shared this grief, she set out methodically to research the issue, with a well thought out questionnaire. Initially, very few parents cared to respond, but over time, and with the promise of complete anonymity, she found herself inundated with responses. 

She cites statistics, coping mechanisms, tragic stories where old parents are robbed of their property and then abandoned, stories where the elderly parent turns the tables on the greedy offspring, the camaraderie and grief of the residents old age homes, Japanese concepts of Satori and Kensho, her harsh inner critic, blame games, the stages of grief, journaling as a way of coping, meditation, positive affirmations, and so much else. The most heart breaking are the unsent letters she writes to her son, whom she continues to love and cherish, despite being completely cut off from him. It is a rich and warm and wonderful book. I read it as soon as it was published, but it has taken me time to process, not helped by the lockdown, of course. It is one of the most unusual books I have read, well worth reading. Powerful insights on both parenting and Life!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My Salinger Years

I first read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) when I was an undergraduate, as raw and ignorant as they come. It was a book that was different from anything I had read before, including the delicious profanity. I loved this account of two days in the life of a desperately unhappy teenage boy who decides to leave his fancy prep school after being expelled from it for failing in almost all subjects. (His parents don’t yet know about his expulsion).  Thanks to this book, I wanted to read more of Salinger’s works.                                                                                                      

Franny and Zooey (1961) is a slim paperback with identical front and back covers, no blurb, nothing. When I first picked it up I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It was, however, a book I must have been ready for. It spoke to my soul, and still does. The Glass family is richly and beautifully described, from their physical attributes to their gloriously overcrowded sitting room in their New York brownstone, their bathroom cabinet to Bessie Glass’s clinking kimono which her daughters have been conspiring, unsuccessfully, to evict from her life. “She was wearing her usual at home vesture- what her son Buddy (who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man) called her pre-notification-of-death uniform.……With its many occultish looking folds, it also served as the repository for the paraphernalia of a very heavy cigarette smoker and an amateur handyman….”                                                                                                                                                              Bessie and Les were, in their younger days, successful vaudeville performers. Their several children were, at various ages, child prodigies who appeared on a radio show called It’s a Wise Child. Seymour, the oldest, has died by suicide. Another son died in a freak accident in the war. (The second world war). One son is a priest somewhere on a Pacific island. The older daughter is a homemaker. The oldest surviving son, Buddy, is a reclusive writer-in-residence at a remote upstate location. The youngest son, the eponymous Zooey, is an upcoming actor, and his younger sister, Franny, the baby of the family, is also an aspiring actress, a college student, sick to her core at the phoniness of the world, the huge egos that abound in her life, and hating herself for being so judgmental and unkind, even in her thoughts. She had come upon one of Seymour’s books, The Way of the Pilgrim, and is trying to ‘pray without ceasing’. She has come home from college and collapsed. How does Zooey help her deal with her grief and transcend it? He takes you on a fascinating journey through his oldest brothers’ explorations of Eastern philosophy and wisdom.                          

In his next book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction (1963), Buddy, the second son is the narrator. It begins with him remembering a night when he and Seymour are, owing to an outbreak of mumps in their family, looking after Franny in their ostensibly germ-free room, and Seymour soothes the crying ten month old by reading to her a Taoist tale, which particular reading Franny claims to remember several years later! Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters is about Seymour’s wedding day in 1942, a day on which we actually do not see him at all. For various logistical reasons, Buddy is the only member of the family who can attend the wedding. This book describes his journey with four co-passengers in a limousine going away from the wedding that has not taken place, to his discovery of his brother’s journal in their shared apartment, to the revelation that the bride and groom have eloped!                                                                                                                                                           Seymour an Introduction is Buddy’s attempt to write about his brother. It is circuitous and convoluted and incredibly rich. The range of knowledge of Eastern philosophy and poetry it describes was, for me, a revelation.  Here again we have Seymour’s voice in his letters to Buddy, who, as an aspiring writer, greatly values his brother’s opinion. “If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”                                                                                     Seymour remains, through his letters and poems, and his memories, Buddy’s guiding light. ‘I can’t finish writing a description of Seymour- even a bad description…..-without being conscious of the good, the real…..Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?’

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says, What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”

I don’t think I’d particularly want to call up Salinger. But I would certainly want to meet his characters, especially the Glass family.


Monday, June 29, 2020

A Tale of Two Mouses

What is the plural form of mouse when referring to the computer mouse? Mouses? Mice?
I have used 'mouses' to distinguish these from the rodent plural, mice.
I nearly said living creatures, thanks to my experience of the last several hours.

(I am an old fashioned dinosaur who prefers to use a desktop computer rather than a laptop.
Last week I was attending an online seminar, for which I borrowed my husband's laptop, as my old desktop is not equipped with either a  camera or a microphone. I parked the laptop on my desk, and tried to log into the seminar using my desktop's mouse! Fortunately better sense prevailed, and I managed to attend the seminar without having to call on the spouse for help, and being thoroughly laughed at in the process.)

Last night I sat down at my computer, to shut it down for the night, after the inevitable final browsing session. All of a sudden, the cursor refused to move. I picked up the mouse, turned it upside down, switched it off and on. The light would flicker and go off. Since I am relatively organised, I knew where the new batteries were kept, and brought a fresh set to my desk. But no. Changing the batteries didn't help. I reluctantly forced a shutdown of the system, replaced the new batteries with the old ones once again, and put the new ones back in their depository. I told the spouse that we would have to buy a new mouse.

This morning I switched on the system, tried the mouse, hoping that a good night's sleep had energized it, and that rebooting the computer might, just might, render it functional once again.
Nyet. There was something I urgently wanted to access on my computer. I remembered that when my old keyboard had died on me and was replaced, I had kept the keyboard and mouse carefully in a cupboard. I brought out the old mouse, loaded it with a fresh battery, and, to my great delight, it worked! I logged on to the site I wanted, and then out of sheer perversity, perhaps, tried using the mouse that had died on me. And, of course, just to mess with my brain and make me walk up and down the length of the house putting back the other keyboard and mouse and batteries, it actually worked. Was it jealous? Did it think itself indispensable? It's been working ever since. Can anyone explain????

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Word

Last prompt. For now.
As I had promised, this is a companion piece to yesterday's prompt. So for today, please write a 500 word piece inspired by Tony Hoagland's "The Word" (below):
The Word
Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,
between "green thread"
and "broccoli" you find
that you have penciled "sunlight."
Resting on the page, the word
is as beautiful, it touches you
as if you had a friend
and sunlight were a present
he had sent you from some place distant
as this morning -- to cheer you up,
and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing,
that also needs accomplishing
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds
of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue
but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom
still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,
- to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.
-- Tony Hoagland

This beautiful poem fills me with ineffable sadness at the thought of lives that have, somehow, disconnected themselves from their source, whatever they may perceive it to be. The recognition that the soul needs nurture, and that the inner self needs care, is a must.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds
of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire?

I am inspired, a little facetiously perhaps, by the poet, Sumana Roy, to think of myself as a plant, and try to make sure to keep myself rooted and grounded, and well “watered”, and sunned. Sad to say, people forget that they are biological creatures, also a part of nature, and that their genuine well–being is closely linked to being as close to nature as they can be, and in not letting the vicissitudes of daily life disconnect them from the very core of their being. Even though ‘sunlight’ is written in a list in the poem, it is an acknowledgement of the need for caring for oneself, with time, and nature, and doing what makes you happy.
There was a book I read many years ago, called Cheaper by the Dozen, about life in the home of a couple who are time and motion study and efficiency experts.  ( When asked what he wants to do with all the time that he has saved, the father concludes his reply by saying, “For skittles, if that’s where your heart lies…”    
The key phrase being, “where your heart lies”.
Life can be confusing and puzzling and vexing, and we often need a word or more to keep us going. Hoagland’s word here is sunlight. My go-to word is Desiderata, the title of a poem I first encountered in my early teens.                              Different lines from this have resonated at different times. Today, these do:                                       
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the Universe no less than the trees and the stars: you have the right to be here. _____keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Being happy, and/or striving to be happy, are acts of gratitude for the bounty of this human life.
Sadly, there are many people across the globe who suffer conditions of all kinds, both innate and external, that preclude the presence of sunlight in their lives. The roles of parents and caregivers of children assume great importance in how they influence the child’s perception of the world. In order to raise happy children, it is imperative that the caregivers have support and nurturance for themselves, too, before they can be expected to do justice to their wards.                              In the timeless wisdom of countless flight announcements, ‘Please place the oxygen mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.                                                          
“The king and queen alive, still speaking to their children…”
Only listen.

Friday, May 1, 2020

There is No Word

 -- 500 words
-- Write a piece inspired by Tony Hoagland's "There is no Word" 

            Which came first, the feeling or the word?
Babies know the answer to that one.
What they feel is what they express.
Words come so much later in the day,
But once they have come,
Adults give them precedence over feelings,
Invalidating that which cannot be expressed in words,
Which is so much of human experience.
Language, languid, lazy, feline, graceful, powerful
Often cruel, too, in its indifference.
Its inadequacies stretch our minds and hearts
To find a word for what is not broken, not severed,
But has declined, over time, from what we thought it was
To what, today, it undeniably is: meaningless,
A set of words spoken out of courtesy,
A history that was once shared,
Perhaps circumstantial,
Not really of the heart,
But pretending to be, for old times’ sakes.
Sadder when one party is warm and effusive,
And the other can’t get the tone right,
Leaving mutterings in his or her wake.
I wonder what’s wrong with So-and-So
Seemed so strange today…
And when you think of the thousands of people
you have known in your lifetime,
some hundreds closely, perhaps,
How many would you really care to know
Better, over the years?
How many do you really need in your life
As physical people
whom you really want to spend time with?
Today, they can only give you their words,
Apart from those who live in your house,
with you, during this period of social isolation.
This strange malady that rocks the world
Has made language the vessel of all feelings
Well expressed or otherwise,
Our minds reach out across the ether
We seek the words of friends,
and strangers who have become friends,
to sustain us in these difficult times,
to tell us that we are not alone
in the face of what feels insurmountable
with no end in sight
A world turned topsy-turvy
(delicious words, uncomfortable feeling)
All givens no longer constant
Everything re-written,
In a language not of our choosing.
I grew up in a very formal home
No cuddles after early childhood
I’d pretend to be asleep for the comfort
Of being carried to bed by my father
And on walks would slip my small hand into his
My mother holding my chin as she parted my hair
Before plaiting it, I hold that touch in my memory
I think most sibling fisticuffs in my childhood,
Were simply because we craved a human touch.
Growing up, I learned to hug my friends
And my children knew that hugs were available
And they had words to ask for them
(I learned this from my nephews,
from when they were small enough
to need a “cuggle”)
And today, I crave the hugs
Of my children, those both near and far,
and of the little grandchildren,
who were supposed to come this winter
Until our world got up-ended…
So much to be grateful for, though,
We see them all on video chats,
All are safe and well.
Gratitude needs to be
My favourite word…

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Not Foolproof!

Today's prompt:
A first-person narrative in your or any other assumed character's voice, telling an anecdote into which is woven a recipe. Woven is the operant word - not listed. 500 words.

Being newly married, enthusiastic, over confident and absent minded can lead to interesting results, particularly in the kitchen, particularly in the pre-Internet, few phones era.

I thought I could cook.  There were things I could, and things I couldn’t. I had never cooked ridge gourd, for example, so the first time I made it in my mother-in-law’s kitchen it was extremely watery. She gently told me that it gives off a lot of water when you cook it. Lesson learnt.

We were in Thailand, sharing a flat with a colleague whose wife and son hadn’t yet joined us. (More staff flats were under construction). So it was a point of honour to serve good food to both husband and flatmate. I had overheard my neighbours talking about their recipe for gulab jamun. It sounded simple enough. There was a locally available Molly Milk Powder, a cupful of which you mixed with two tablespoons of maida, a large pinch of baking powder, and you kneaded a soft dough with a few spoonfuls of milk. I took out my steel paraat, (brought from desh, along with two thhaalis, pressure cooker, and rolling pin, and sundry other essentials) and did so, and made two dozen small balls which I covered with a damp napkin.

I decided to fry the balls in desi ghee, since I was making a sweetmeat for the very first time. (It was Australian, but ghee nonetheless). I planned to serve these as dessert, after lunch, which I had already prepared. Those were the grand days when the plant hadn’t yet been commissioned, the men were working a general shift, and came home every day for an hour’s lunch break. Once production started, we had to get used to the regime of morning, afternoon, and night shifts, all rather unkind to one’s body clock. On one side I made a syrup of two cups of sugar and three cups of water, into which I crushed a few of the precious cardamom pods my mother had given me, and on the other side I fried the gulab jamun on a slow fire.

I was humming to myself as I laid the table. Each batch was fried and immersed in the syrup. The men came home and we ate our lunch. Then, all eager and excited, I served my precious dessert. But…

Their spoons didn’t seem to be cutting the sweet. Both men smiled politely, and said, very nice, very nice, and managed to eat one gulab jamun each. I served myself, now full of trepidation. It was as hard as a rock. Oh no. What had I done wrong? I rushed to my next door neighbor, and told her exactly what I had done. To my chagrin, I learned that I had forgotten about the critical two tablespoons of ghee that the dough required.

I didn’t let that defeat me. I ground up the cannon balls in the blender, dry roasted some atta, and made some really delicious gulab jamun barfi.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Family Jewels

--500 words
-- Tell a tale fictional or otherwise in the voice of a "sutradhar", not so much in the manner of a puppeteer as a not completely dispassionate, but a slightly detached yet empathetic observer and know-er of the mechanics of this tale
The Family Jewels
Bahurani is crying her heart out, it seems. My son has been working in his study: these lockdown days means he can happily work from home. No tiffin–shiffin lafda. No outside food. Better for his system. Not so good for his maharani. Three hot meals every day, without fail, and no maid to help. I do chop vegetables and clean the rice and dals, but the flat is big, hard to keep clean. Poor Prem has just finished for the day, but instead of having a tray of tea ready for him in the drawing room, Bahurani is busy with rona–dhona. Let me go and make the tea, then maybe I will get to know what has upset her so much.
I told you not to send her to the hostel, Prem. I knew it wouldn’t be good for her.
Rama, what on earth is the matter? Reena’s fine, isn’t she? She’s also staying in her room, I hope, not stepping out? Covid 19 is so unpredictable and scary. Woh thheek toh hai na?
She has gone and got the craziest idea, Prem.
She’s okay, na?
Haan, but I think she’s gone crazy.
She hasn’t eloped with anyone, has she?
No. Maybe this is worse.
Arrey Rama, just tell me what the matter is.
Poor Prem. Having to deal with so much suspense. I put the tray on the coffee table and move towards the door, but Rama stops me with a gesture:
Mummyji, you should also hear what your precious darling wants me to do.
Bahu, she’s a sensible girl. She’s twenty six. She’s a PhD scholar. She won’t do anything stupid.
I sit on my easy chair with the extra high cushion.
Reena wants us to sell all the jewellery we had got made for her wedding and donate the proceeds for feeding the homeless migrant workers.
What is there to cry about, Rama? It’s a noble thought.
Noble thought my foot. Has she forgotten how we struggled and scrimped and saved to buy those sets? How we’ve dreamed of seeing our only daughter adorned as a bride? She even says (huge sob) that she doesn’t plan to marry, anyway.
Rama, she has never asked us for anything. She’s been a scholarship holder throughout her college years. She obviously can’t give anything much from her stipend. How much does she actually want to donate?
And she said to keep Nani’s and Dadi’s jewellery for Nannu’s wife, the ancestral stuff, for whenever he gets married.
Chalo, good she didn’t ask you to dispose of those heirlooms.
Mummyji, what should we do?
Listen to your daughter, what else? What else can you do, anyway? Do what makes her happy. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, especially these days. If you bought it for her, it is hers, wedding or no wedding.
I smile to myself. At eighty-seven, I am my granddaughter’s confidante. She has told me that she is in love with her roomie, Priya.

Old photographs

Tuesday, 28th April 2020

-- 500 words
-- Divide your age by half.
-- Rummage old computers or cupboards or annals of memory and find a photograph more than (insert number = half your age) years old that does not have you in it -- can be public memory from internet photograph also
-- Tell us a tale about said photograph
-- Post scan of photograph with your piece

Ancient person that I am, halving my present age takes me to the late nineteen eighties, a time when the spouse and I had three school going children,(the fourth arrived in early 1990), a second–hand Ambassador, and very little money. As soon as I read the prompt, I knew what I wanted to write about today. I also had a memory of photographs of that day, that place. The problem was trying to locate them. Ours is an old household. We have thousands and thousands of photographs of various vintages, kept in various levels of order and disorder. Albums have been raided by marauding daughters, others have been inherited. (Today I discover myriad college time photographs belonging to the older son). The lockdown and current maidlessness and spousefulness of my life leaves me with less time than ever, so Marie Kondo-ing the house remains a distant dream. I had actually, after more than an hour of fruitless searching, given up, and had decided to use pictures from the Internet. I was desultorily flipping through the last bundle of photographs when I struck gold.
Our eleven years in Lucknow had a charm of their own. Although we lived across the Gomti, in a much newer part of the city, Lucknow had more than enough history and historical buildings to remain eternally fascinating. (My grandfather used to work in the Allahabad Bank Chowk Branch once upon a time. On one memorable visit, my father tried climbing up the stairs to the flat above the bank in which they used to live until he was summarily stopped by an irate bank employee).
 One fine Sunday, perhaps in 1987 or ’88, we pack selves, camera, picnic, and assorted kids into the trusty Ambassador. I see my neighbour’s younger son in one photograph. Did our older daughter bunk? Or did she take the photographs? (She has always been a keen photographer). Was this our second trip to the Residency? In family lore, it has become a space of spousely strife. Apparently we fought whenever we visited it. The Residency in Lucknow is one of the saddest places I have ever seen. The Residency consists of a group of buildings, now mostly in ruins, that were occupied by the British Resident at the court of the Nawab of Lucknow. The gardens are beautiful, but the tales of violence it holds are most distressing. Whether you call it the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence, the Residency was under siege for months and witnessed a great deal of bloodshed. Scarred walls, bullet holes, walls shattered by cannon balls. It was fascinating, no doubt, but somehow the very walls seemed to hold the cries of the dead, including women and children. It was a terrible, violent lockdown for those families. Our children were happily exploring the ruins, clambering over the huge cannon, now a plaything, once a source of violent death. These photographs hold memories of joy and of profound sorrow, of many lives lost…

Monday, April 27, 2020

Another day in paradise

-- 500 words
-- Write a fictional/non-fictional piece about/ around/ a dinner party
-- Tone of a gossip column (Think Stardust and "Nita's natter" or Mayank Austen Soofi's Delhi-walla blog and "The Netherfield Ball")

Paradise Times, April 27th, 2150
Grand Hall, Paradise
By our Special Correspondent
It’s not just another day in paradise, folks. We are having a special evening hosted by The Delhiwallah, in which some of his favourite literary figures are special guests. If you have read his writing you will know that he has been enchanted by the writings of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. Since he lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the ladies belonged to earlier, different periods, across centuries, Paradise seems like a great place for these kindred souls to finally meet. Yes, dear readers, in paradise it has to be a meeting of souls. Who else can live here?
Just so that they can be recognized easily, all our souls appear clad in simulacrum of the garments they wore during their life time. Jane Austen appears in a high-waisted, Empire style gown, and The Delhiwallah bows deeply to her.
My dear Miss Austen, I have been so enchanted by your writing that I have taken your surname as my middle name, he says.
Jane Austen simpers. My dear young man, if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.
Emily Dickinson floats in, and nods curtly at Jane Austen. Did you know, dear Jane, that he has read all my poems several times over, and carried them with him all the time?
My dear Miss Dickinson, your poems are now part of my very soul:  Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words - and never stops at all.
Miss Austen glares at Miss Dickinson, and picks up a glass of ambrosia, from a tray proffered by a  hovering cherub. The Delhiwallah tries to soothe ruffled feathers.
A grand feast is laid out in the annexe of the Grand Hall.
Many of The Delhiwallah’s contemporaries are in attendance too. The writer Arundhati Roy has just come in. He has, in his earthly life, taken some wonderful photographs of her and for her. Their matching grey curls gave them a twin-like vibe when they inhabited the earth. She is draped in a glorious handloom saree. Delhi denizens, Sadia Dehlvi, in a gorgeous gharara,and Nini K.D. Singh,in a quiet salwar kameez float in, followed closely by Rakhshanda Jalil and William Dalrymple. Laila Tyabji, and Ellen Tomaseo wonder about the dinner menu.                                                           I hope there’s a good biriyani, says Ellen.
The Delhi souls form a little clique, looking restlessly at their host trying to pay equal attention to both the senior guests.
He should have called just one today, mutters Sadia.
How could he have chosen only one? He worships both of them, says Nini.
That’s true, says Mayank Austen Soofi,The Delhiwallah, as he simultaneously manages to hug all his old friends. Let me introduce you all to the ladies, and then we will see what heavenly delights await us in the dining room.
He smiles happily: Now this is truly Heaven.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Stuck in Traffic

Sneha’s prompt:
-- 500 words
-- "Stuck in traffic" - Interpret as you will
In what feels like several lifetimes ago, the eternally broke spouse and I splurged on tickets to a concert by Lobo. Yes, the same person who gave us Me and You and a Dog Named Boo, and Baby, I’d Love you to Want me, A Simple Man, and so many more. We were fans. We lived in a small industrial township near Ang Thong, about an hour and a half away from Bangkok, where the concert was being held. This was back in late 1979 or the early nineteen eighties. I do not remember what he sang, and whether or not I was pregnant at the time, and if not, what had I done with the infant son for that evening. What I do distinctly remember is his crack about the infamous Bangkok traffic: it was supposed to be the only thing that could prevent the Vietcong army from invading Thailand. (The war was over by then, incidentally).
And then, when I watch movies like the fabulous original Golmaal, the absolutely crazy car chase towards the end, and I wonder at there being such a time, when cars ran freely on the road, unfettered by others of their ilk.
There was this unforgettable cartoon of a road full of cars, unmoving, with space for one single car. A helicopter is about to drop a car into that space. The End.
I do not drive. (Not any longer, barring a very brief period in my life when I did.) City distances are measured by time taken. You have a general idea of how long a particular journey will take at a particular time of day. Getting to the airport, a moderate distance of thirty-odd kilometers, can take anything from forty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. You keep that in mind while planning your journey. If you are like me, you drink a quarter of a cup of tea to wake up with, and a tiny sip of water with your post-breakfast medication, just so that you do not die of loo desperation before you reach your destination. Have you been in the awkward position of charging straight to your host’s facilities even before you can say a proper hello? I often have. My only comfort is that most other women feel my pain. Especially when you live in the National Capital Region, and often drive in three states to reach your destination.
Before smart phones became ubiquitous, I would read books at traffic lights and traffic jams. I managed to read a lot.
Before Covid and lockdowns came and put an end to traffic, traffic had, in Delhi, become a deeply political issue. The anti-CAB protests at Shaheen Bagh involved the closure of one of the major roads between Delhi and Noida. Whatever we felt about the protests, and given that the NCR had horrendous traffic at the best of times, it often felt simpler to just stay home.
Stay home, stay safe, and beat the traffic as well.
P.S. : The spouse clarifies, the baby attended the concert with us.