Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's My Life, After All!

It is so exhilarating to be a journalist, to leap into the nearest creaking auto rickshaw or local train, notes and pen tucked safely away in the innermost recesses of a cavernous handbag, half a dozen pencils sharpened to a nicety, and a camera that snuggles in a pocket that clenches its teeth miraculously! So it is that, when you reach your venue, rush for a hurried brush up in the rest room and emerge mint fresh, you know it is time to look your best and ask all the right questions!

My first few interviews find me, at this point, facing a suave interviewee, and delving into the aforesaid cavernous handbag! Which is when chaos takes over, and I discover myself scrabbling within to locate the half dozen pencils, all of which have acquired lives of their own.

The interview begins, and I strive heroically to keep a pleasantly interested, intelligent expression on my face, even as my fingers move inside the bag, like ten little mice scurrying around for a single slice of cheese!

Another singular piece of acting that besets me every time I do an interview is when I ask questions that I have painstakingly prepared, without looking down at my notebook. Even more painstaking is the struggle to write down the answers without taking my eyes off the face of my guest! Losing eye contact would be fatal, and hence, I always bemoan the fact that the only shorthand I have heard of is in the old ‘Ajit the Loin’ jokes. By the end of the interview, I have managed to look down at my page maybe thrice, if only to check that I am writing on the page, and not on the snowy white tablecloth so thoughtfully provided by the owners.

The climax comes when I have reached home after a truly great interview, only to find that I cannot decipher my own handwriting, which looks as if a drunken ant has fallen into a glass of alcohol and decided to make the best of it. After which it decides to hop into a bottle of ink, and finally make its way home, taking a short cut across my page. There are other times when I have been taken aback at my own skills, one of them being the ability to write in pitch darkness! This happens when I go to watch a play which I need to review, and instructions are very clear! Mobile phones to be switched off, no camera flashes as to distract the players and a brightly lit stage!

Unless it is one of those dismal pseudo-modern acts which have the actors and the audience sitting in the dark, and I am not just referring to the lack of lighting here! And so it is that my carefully cultivated Convent calligraphy, honed from hours and hours of writing impositions and raps on the knuckles, hangs its head in shame at its latest disjointed avatar. Lack of writing practice due to years on the computer has taken its toll as well! The computer has become a constant companion, especially convenient because articles almost write themselves, replete with a spell check, and one has the freedom to change the font, the size and the margins... very little margin for error there! Mundane words can be substituted with grandiloquent high sounding ones, with the synonyms application. Almost like keeping up with the Joneses... Or is it the Ambanis, in this case!

New Indian Express
15th December 2011
Image: couch_potato_tnb - Windows Photo Gallery

Monday, November 7, 2011

Collective Absence of Responsibility

Yet another shameful chapter has been etched into our bloodstained history. When murderers roam free, adding on to the crimes on their head, people look on ignoring the fact that there is safety in numbers. And why not, since Mumbai has turned into ‘goon-land’, with certain politicians trying to keep these criminals out of jail. It’s these very goons who help them retain their seats of power.

Tragic it is that two brave young men were attacked, their only fault being their innate sense of chivalry which made them retaliate when their female friends were molested by an inebriated man. What could have been a trivial incident blew out of proportion when the eve-teaser returned with a gang of 21, armed with knives and sticks, and set upon the youngsters, stabbing two of them mortally, even as the other boys hurried the girls away to safety.

There were people, even guards, watching the incident in front of Mumbai’s Amboli Bar and Kitchen, much as though they were watching a movie being shot. Unfortunately real blood was being spilt. Twenty-four year old Keenan Santos was stabbed several times and died in hospital. Reuben Fernandes was also stabbed, and taken to hospital, where his life hung on a thread, unaware of his friend’s death. One version goes that the cops pushed their way into the ICU to ‘interrogate’ him. The 29-year-old Reuben, who had not realised that Keenan was no more, was jostled into consciousness, after which he remained upset the whole night, which worsened his condition further. A week later there was another martyr to the cause of eve-teasing.

Wasn’t Mumbai always the safest city ever for women? Why was a man with two murder cases wandering around the streets with impunity? Why is there always a sense of apathy amongst the bystanders? It is understandable that they would not have wanted to risk their lives, but couldn’t they have helped to get the boys to the nearest hospital? Why do criminals hide their faces when apprehended, especially when they are thick-skinned enough to act like fiends against humanity? How many decades will it take before a girl can walk around without being subject to eve-teasing and being ogled?

A Facebook page has been created in the name of Keenan Santos and when last checked the number was at 56,000 and steadily rising. The heinous crime has touched myriad hearts and public anger has overtaken sorrow.

Every time one of these criminals walks free, it is the dignity of the honest citizen, the bravery of the intrepid fighter and the hope of the optimistic commoner that plummets a notch further. There is a tendency to look over one’s shoulder, to choose to wait and watch before climbing into that crowded bus and to keep one’s fingers crossed that one reaches home safe and sound every-single-day.

Let us stop talking about the resilience of a city like Mumbai as those are mere words spoken by those who watch from a safe distance. The citizens should realise there is strength in unity, and vow to stand together to thwart crimes that take place under their noses. Even the cornered worm turns when pushed to its limits. And we are humans, blessed with brains and common sense. As Helen Keller put it: “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”

The New Indian Express
7th November 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Human Life Comes Cheap in India

It was like out of a scary movie plot. The cream coloured Bolero weaving into the toll plaza, was stopped by the young toll attendant and suddenly a gunshot ended it all. Twenty-two-year-old Umesh Kant Pandey would have never imagined that September 23, would be his last day, as he flagged down the vehicle of an intoxicated Vijay Veer Yadav. The place was Khekri Daula toll plaza, Gurgaon; the time an unearthly 12.30 am. When Umesh asked the Bolero driver to pay the toll tax, a paltry Rs 27, the latter whipped out his driving licence to prove that he was a resident of a nearby village, and hence, exempt from toll charges.

Umesh waved him on, and closed the little window, only to find that the vehicle had not moved. When he opened the window to check, there was an altercation and Vijay Veer shot him on his neck. The CCTV cameras caught the whole event, and television viewers watched in shock as the murder was played out again and again, of the hapless young toll attendant clasping his neck and collapsing on the floor.

While the cameras failed to shoot the registration number plate of the Bolero, a bitter malfunction indeed, it swung into action when Manjeet Singh, a friend of Vijay Veer’s came in, 45 minutes after the shooting to enquire about Umesh’s condition. The police were able to nab both the culprits. The two men showed not a trace of remorse. Vijay even had the audacity to proclaim to the police that he had been drunk and had shot Umesh in a fit of rage.

With apologies to the Great Bard, one does feel that ‘when ordinary folks die, there are no comets seen’. Umesh got married just four months ago, was the sole breadwinner and had two elder brothers — one who is mentally challenged and one who is physically challenged.

Will the brazen culprits be penalised? Will their punishment be stringent enough to deter similar acts of crime? After all, the transgression began with drunken driving and ended with the murder of an innocent. Why on earth would any law permit the handling of guns by arrogant, pampered youngsters, who have the temerity to go around shooting people, with no compunction for their act? Can any punishment bring back the peace of mind of a shattered family — a bereaved father, a grief-stricken mother and the anguish of a young girl who has just lost her husband, for no fault of his, or hers?

One headline proclaimed, ‘Delhi’s gun culture claims another life’. A headline that will soon be forgotten, as new and more horrific ones jostle to share space with it. Maybe we should think of new laws that make the carrying of weapons illegal. Maybe the temptation to show off overrides all civilised emotions and the trigger gets pulled.

Bigger tragedies have come and gone, more culpable culprits have been apprehended, even as they wait for the slow wheels of justice to creak on. But the common man bides his time, hoping against hope that miracles will happen. In the meantime, the world repeats the selfsame refrain. Human lives in India are cheaper than in other countries... a refrain that we can only hope will turn around some day. Unfortunately, as Plautus put it, “Things which you do not hope happen more frequently than things which you do hope.” Sad, but unfortunately true.

New Indian Express
29th September 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dumping Woes that We Compound!

An old adage talks about the saddest sight in life being a puppy with its tail tucked between its legs. And if the said puppy is seen snuffling its way through a giant garbage heap on the street, the sight is sadder still! Amazingly, a perfectly good, empty garbage can stands desolately on the side, hiding its face in sheer neglect. Most of our cities are huge garbage cans, with every honest citizen putting in his pennyworth of rubbish in an act of charity. In this case, charity doesn’t begin at home, but on the road in front of one’s home!
Sadly education touches on every aspect in pedagogy, needed and otherwise, but fails in teaching students the basic aspects of hygiene. If every parent pointed their child towards the wastepaper basket, and the larger dustbins, within their homes and beyond, these same children would take care not to throw chewing gum wrappers, biscuit covers and plastic packets on the road. And we would not see the housekeeping staff of major IT companies picking up all the waste from their canteens and leaving it around blatantly on the roads! Aren’t IT people highly evolved humans, after all? But does one employee bother to rebuke the staff, or stop the littering?
Shopkeepers are also habitual offenders. Once their own dustbins overflow, everything gets tossed onto the closest bare space. Keeping one’s own space sacrosanct is vital, and to hell with the rest! The solution lies in getting more cavernous dustbins and, more importantly, aiming one’s own waste into it.
One’s own waste could be a pun as well, especially one walks along railway tracks and fields, where people sit alongside and donate little packages of fertilizer in the most natural way possible. Reminds one of Kamal Hassan’s classic silent film ‘Pushpak’, if you know what I mean! Train journeys along this route can be unpleasantly picturesque, punctuated by moon shapes, in all sizes and shapes, from the tiny to the blatantly large! And what is there to be ashamed of... the faces are turned away, aren’t they?
Waste segregation is taught in a few schools which insist on three coloured bins in every classroom. The food scraps go into the green one, bits of paper and stationery into the blue one and the red one devours the plastics and the non-biodegradables! Segregation of waste into wet, dry and hazardous wastes can be done in homes as well, where the first two can be reused, so that landfills are left only with the third kind, making garbage disposable a less onerous task. The alternative is huge expanses of land filled with an unsightly amount of garbage which can be seen and smelt a mile away! Not to talk of the health hazards, as well!
So there you have it in a nutshell... dump it or lump it!

New Indian Express
20th July 2011


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Discrimination Begins Early!

There is a little creature in most homes who winds herself around your heart, with a winsome smile and makes your knees go wobbly with the power of her charm. She gambols around like a puppy, eyes filled with mischief, and deep secrets yet to be explored. Her hair flies about in wild disarray, her lanky limbs move with coltish grace. She is a piece of your heart; when around, she tries your patience to the maximum, but the moment she goes out anywhere, you miss her desperately. She is as elusive as the pot at the end of the rainbow, and infinitely more precious. She is the girl child.
However, the girl child is still looked upon as a burden, a curse, a commodity with a limited guarantee, even in this enlightened age. The delivery date is awaited with great trepidation. The parents-in-law hover over the hapless girl, vultures waiting to swoop in case she commits the grievous sin of delivering a daughter. The husband is all set to prove his manhood, and god save his wife if she proves him wrong. The fault is all hers, despite the various messages flashed on television. The ‘Y’ chromosome turns into the ‘WHY’ chromosome, since matrimony is often a matter-of-money, isn’t it?

Does anyone pause to think of the young woman who has gone through the agony of labour to deliver a bonnie wee lassie? The birth pangs are no less, and if anything, they are compounded with the realisation that her troubles are only starting! Thoughts of dowry are already in place. Luckily the ‘laddoos’ have not been ordered.
Newspapers scream of mothers strangling their babies, drowning them, poisoning them, starving them... in luckier cases, girl babies have been left in baskets on the steps of orphanages.
The discrimination begins early. “Meena, fetch a glass of milk for your brother. Look how hard he is studying,” orders her mother. Meena obeys, with a fire smouldering in her heart. How does her brother wear good clothes, while she herself walks around in cast-offs? Why does he get an education while she stays at home doing the housework? The major difference between homework and housework comes into play here. After a whole day of back-breaking work at home, why is she expected to take a glass of milk to her brother, who has done nothing more strenuous than studying and playing? But of course, he is the son of the house, the apple of his parents’ eye, the one who is going to raise them above their poverty one nebulous day in the future. Hope lies eternal....
Meena, in their eyes, will only graduate from unmarried drudge to married drudge and live her life in abject slavery.
Isn’t it time for young men to brush away the cobwebs that have formed silver strands across the minds of their parents, and for parents to think of their own daughters when marrying off their precious sons? Retribution has an uncanny way of descending on guilty heads. Cast out the belief that once married, a girl ceases to be part of her own family.
Imagine the plight of this delicate creature who has bloomed from a playful teenager into a beautiful woman. Let us reverse the trend and care truly for our girl child. Get a man to bear a baby, and doubtless he will pray to the deliverer to deliver him from future deliveries.
The New Indian Express
June 28th, 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

They are Forgotten after the Elections!

So what do you feel about the election results?” my husband jocularly asked our cheerful maid, who goes by the romantic name of Vennila, which means moonlight. She often jokes about her name: “My mother gave me this name, little realising that I would be so dark complexioned!” She smiled at my husband’s query, and replied: “What difference does it make to us, sir?” What followed was a revelation to us.
“I wish we could pour out our woes before Amma. Nothing trickles down to our level anyway. You go to the government hospital for free treatment, and there you find a huge hundi, where you are expected to put money even before the treatment begins.”
Vennila works in a number of houses, and she is a willing worker who puts her heart into her work. My house shines like a new pin, and lights up with her beaming smile, even when she is in the doldrums. She has two daughters, one of whom has just finished her engineering, and the other doing her graduation. She claims no credit for the achievement. “I have been lucky that some kind soul or the other has helped me to pay my daughters’ fees!”. Apparently, in Madurai, her hometown, there is a ‘chairman’ who has no children and hence, wants to do his bit by helping children from poor backgrounds to complete their education.
Vennila wipes a tear away as she speaks of him. “Madam, it is these people who make a difference to us, people who have paid the fees of my daughters!” She continues: “Governments come and go, but our plight remains the same. If they wanted to help, they would have been blessed. Unfortunately they are so busy making money...!”
And yet, on Election Day, she walks in bearing the indelible mark on her finger, a mark that proves that every drop makes an ocean. “Look at the rice they promise us for `1 a kilo. It is stinky, filled with worms and insects. We buy it because that is all we can afford. The hostel where my daughter has studied for 12 years also serves them kanji with the same rice... the wealthier girls who can afford more are given good food. My daughter, whose father has taken up with another woman and is poor, has to survive on the worst kind of food!”
I ask a foolish question. “Do you have a bank account? Have you saved any money at all?” She laughs. “Madam, where is the money to save? I spend all the money I earn on our daily needs. There is never any money left over to save.”
That is when you realise that behind that broad beaming smile lies a litany of woes, well hidden, and brought out only when you begin to probe. Poverty is a dreadful thing, and the poor live their lives in little hovels, eking out day after day, desperately trying to keep things together. Once the election fever is over, and the televisions, saris and the gas stoves are distributed, it is time for them to go underground again, even as they hope for a better, brighter tomorrow, as has been promised by those they have voted for.

The New Indian Express
June 1st, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Small Things Make a Difference!

After a euphoric trip, I sipped at my cup of tea, reminiscing over the days spent in England, when a thought struck me. Every spot of national interest or tourist importance had an entrance fee that went towards its maintenance. This fee, albeit hefty, was used prudently. While it ensured the place was all prettied up, it also kept casual loungers and the frankly disinterested away! Student concessions were also offered. In many places, we saw artists with their sketchbooks or easels, frowning in concentration.
What impressed us most was the fact that everywhere, special ramps had been created for the differently-abled, over which they could roll their wheelchairs. Consequently they could go everywhere on their own, without having to face the embarrassment of being turned away.
This is not the case in India. I recall reading an article titled ‘Are Public Places made to Suit the Needs of the Physically Challenged?’. Not really, I would retort. Builders turn a blind eye to making structures friendly towards people with special needs, as doing so would cost them more. The apathy is saddening, and so is the attitude of the general public. There is a tinge of apprehension, fear, sometimes even repulsion, with the callous even deriding them at times. Why can’t people hold out a hand instead of pointing a finger? The Indian psyche needs to be educated on this, as it is still a taboo subject, often swept under the carpet. No wonder differently-abled people are hidden so well that even friends do not know anything about them, and are left to live and die unseen, the modern invisible folk!
They do not require maudlin sympathy or lip service. They want to be independent — drive their own car, do their own shopping and live with dignity. Isn’t it up to us to see that they are given the right and the facilities to do so? Who can forget Helen Keller who was a saviour to those like her, partly due to the dedication of her wonderful teacher, and partly due to her own amazing strength of character.
Thus, ramps, wider lift doors, beds lower in height, toilets with grab facilities and separate queues might make all the difference. Public transport proves a nightmare, as many railway stations have serpentine steps, jam-packed with people and their luggage. (We never travel light) Bus stops are overcrowded, and it is hazardous for a differently-abled person to clamber on. Of course, if he/she does get in by the skin of his/her teeth, all the seats are occupied by more ‘deserving’ candidates, like a burly college kid listening to music, or a matron who has broken the Guinness record for shopping.
Little gestures, like a hand held out, a step forward in line, and just being around to aid, are all ways to make the differently-abled more comfortable. It is the little things that matter, and make people feel big. As Thoreau put it: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away!”
New Indian Express
12th May 2011

Shoppers’ Paradise? God forbid!

I had heard of a couple of shoppers’ paradises in Purasawalkam. My sisters and I needed to buy some steel plates and so in we trotted into one of the biggest stores which boasts of branches all over Chennai. The crowds were daunting, which only proved that the sales were skyrocketing. What put us off totally was the attitude of the salespeople within, who had most certainly made a habit of getting out of the wrong side of their beds! They wallowed in their misery, not a smile or polite remark cracking their grumpy exteriors. When we asked for the plate section, we were pointed towards an even grumpier soul. Miles and miles of plates littered the area, but not the kind we were looking for, mom being rather particular about her choices.
Meanwhile I had bought something small, and I made my way out to call up Mom to ask if we could pick up some other plates. Cell phones have a nasty habit of switching off at inopportune moments, much like the staff within the store, and even as I made my call and moved back in, two huge bulldog-like men growled at me, asking me to deposit my bag outside. I protested that I had only gone to make a call, but the growls increased in intensity, and they only piped down when I asked for the manager in my sternest voice possible.
Meanwhile the plates had been located but the snails disguised as salesgirls took their own sweet time in making up the bill, sending us all over the place to collect our parcel. And finally at the collection counter, the frowning beauty there sent our packet flying across the counter, even as our plates landed with a giant crash inches away from us. That was when I took a grave vow, like Bhishmacharya... never again would I set foot on this store or any of its branches, where, despite being named after a gem, the people within were no gems... just a whole lot of boors who should never have been in sales ever!
The day had not ended yet. Off we went to another huge store, which claimed to have everything under the sun, except good tempers! Once again we waded our way through to find an onion pink printed polycot sari, again courtesy Mom who had loved it on someone else! As we made our winding way across bales of cloth and baleful glares [since all we wanted was one measly sari!], my sister decided to buy a blouse piece. Half an hour later, she regretted ever having walked into the shop, for one blouse piece warranted no attention whatsoever. The salesgirl was rude since the sale was just a drop in the ocean! Another vow was taken, this time by all three of us! Never again!
By this time we were hungry enough to eat a horse apiece, and we needed to find a good vegetarian joint. But the best one was off limits, because we had just got in foul moods, out of the store with the same name! God forbid!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Most Embarrassing Questions of All Times!

God created the art of questioning to make people enquire and acquire knowledge, to go ahead in life, all cylinders firing. Today, questions have evolved into tiny pinpricks that fester when constantly touched! Fasten your seat belts, for here are some embarrassing questions people love to ask...
At large gatherings, a delicious lime-mint cooler in hand, you turn to hear an omniscient voice, “Do you know me?” You gawk at the large lady/ old uncle, as the words stick to your roof of your mouth. You hem and haw, and finally nod in affirmation. The next question blows you away! “Then tell me who I am!” Man, if you don’t know who you are, how on earth do you expect me to know? Go see a memory analyst! However, that response never comes out at the opportune moment!
“You have put on weight, haven’t you?” There is no right answer for that, ever!
Your daughter turns eighteen, and the chorus begins. “Aren’t you looking out for a good boy for her?” No, I am waiting for a Martian to come down to Earth and carry her away! Next query, “Is that really your daughter? Doesn’t take after you, does she?” The obvious answer, “Well, I do have a partner in crime actually – my husband! Maybe she looks like him!” Or even better, “No, actually she belongs to my Chinese neighbour... just borrowed her for a few years!”
“Your cheeks have filled out... don’t you exercise?” I do eat bubble-gum occasionally, you know!
Cut to weddings! The couple stand on stage receiving well wishers, when a voice pipes up, “So when are you planning your first child?” Well, err... we haven’t begun the process yet...!
From day one onwards... “Any good news in the offing?” After a couple of years, this becomes, “No good news at all?” And the killer query, “You look nice and healthy”, a euphemism for “You’ve put on weight! Are you expecting?” Yes, expecting you to please leave us alone! Finally curiosity levels reach unbelievable heights. “Do you have a problem in conceiving?” And folks talk about privacy violations on Face Book!
Questions after the first delivery are hilarious. On the 28th day, when baby is having her ears pierced, her screams are offset by an insidious whisper, “Aren’t you planning to try again to have a son? Such a pity, having a daughter first!” Quite the crime, except that daughters do remain daughters for the rest of their lives, bringing pure unadulterated joy to parents! By this time exhaustion has set in, and the question forgotten, but the sting surfaces much later!
God forbid the first grey hair that strikes like lightning! “He looks so distinguished with salt and pepper in his crown, doesn’t he? “ But, “Heavens! She looks like an old hag! Doesn’t she look older than her mother?” Gender bias, I call it! The questioner has no idea about how loaded her query is. First she calls the mom an old hag, and goes onto to dub the daughter an older hag!
Some of the other uplifting comments veer on the lightly abusive...
“Your face still looks so young, what happened to the rest of you?” Sorry, but the rest of me has a mind of its own!
“Don’t you feed your children at all?” Insinuating that you eat and they starve, but how do you explain that children can be mules at mealtimes?
“Your child has not taken after the rest of the family as far as looks go, right?” The person asking might look like the back side of a horse, but your upbringing stops you from telling her so!
And the final, unpardonable query that makes heckles rise, “How is it your children are so dark?” Wasn’t Lord Krishna, the ultimate charmer, dark? Our children, too, are beautiful, blessed with charisma, artistic talent and wonderful natures! Only, you need to have the average intelligence to appreciate them! For beauty lies in the eyes of the beholders! Unfortunately, in this case, the beholders’ eyes are weighed down by colour prejudices and sheer stupidity, two traits which God Almighty has bountifully bestowed upon them!

The New Indian Express

Friday, January 14, 2011

One Christmas Evening!

The candles flickered as the whole house wore a festive look. Rose made sure that every one of them was lit as it was considered bad luck to let a candle go out. She bustled around, taking care to see that all the ornaments on the Christmas tree were secure, along with the brightly coloured gifts wrapped with the shiniest paper she could find. After all, didn’t the children love gifts... even if her son Deepak was grown up now! The guests would be arriving shortly. “Ramu, have you kept the snacks out?” “Yes, madam, and I have wiped all the glasses as well!” came the smiling reply. Ramu knew how annoyed she could get at the sight of a cloudy glass.
Joseph came in jauntily, as smart as ever in his pin stripes. “Everything in order, dear?” he asked, as his eyes softened at the graceful figure of his wife. She looked lovely as always, except for the finger that twisted the pallu of her sari, betraying her nervousness.
“There is no need to be tense. They are all old friends, after all!” he smiled.
And so they were! Every Christmas the same set of friends were invited, people they had grown closer to over the years. The bond had strengthened and the warmth within their hearts shone brighter than the light emanating from the candles around.
“Deepak will be late as usual!” Rose remarked. “He had rung up to say that he would be going out with his friends!” Joseph’s expression altered inexplicably, but he tactfully refrained from making a comment. He did not want to upset Rose by referring to their son. “I have made his favourite plum cake”, she went on. “Even after a hectic evening out with his friends, he will come home and eat it. He always does!”
The sound of the first guests arriving caught their attention. Rose pushed back a strand of hair from her brow as Joseph strode to the door.
“Merry Christmas! Welcome!” his voice boomed out as he held his hand out to Ashish Saxena. “Sudha, you are looking wonderful!” and so she was in a sea green sari, a smile on her pretty face. She stepped forward and hugged Rose warmly, holding out a gift wrapped box. “Sudha, you shouldn’t have!” Rose exclaimed. “Just a batch of my home made chocolates...!” smiled Sudha.
By then the next couple had walked in and the evening soon grew livelier, as they sat on the perfectly manicured lawn, savouring Rose’s crunchy snacks and admiring the sight of the beautiful Christmas tree that eclipsed everything else, casting a warm glow on the relaxed faces. Rose too had slipped into the ease that comes over a hostess who senses that her party is going well.
The conversation revolved around light frothy topics. “Have you seen Mr. Dutt’s new secretary? “ remarked Tarun Sharma, who had an eye for detail. “Quite a knock out!” The other men nodded sheepishly, casting surreptitious glances at their wives. “Go ahead, we don’t mind you admiring other women”, smiled Sonika. “As long as it ends there!” chipped in Rose. “Gosh, we wouldn’t dare...” Tarun made a mock grimace at his wife.
The candles flickered, casting long shadows on the walls of the verandah. Ramu had just given the signal that dinner had been laid out. Rose had already been inside to check out whether everything was in its place, and of course it was! Ramu was a rare treasure indeed!
Rose turned to Joseph. “When do you think Deepak will be home? I hope he does not make it too late!” There was a moment of silence as they all looked at Joseph. “He’ll come when he does!” he said shortly, and then he bellowed, “Another refill, gentlemen?”
As they made their way to the bar, Rose glanced anxiously at the ladies. She had no secrets from them as they were such long standing friends. “Joseph gets so irritable when I mention Deepak... maybe because Deepak is at that age when he is openly defiant of his father. Joseph cannot stand anyone opposing him. Maybe we should have had another child...” Her voice trailed off as she saw the gentlemen returning. Sudha smiled at her comfortingly as Sonika remarked, ‘Try not to worry too much. Fathers are prone to be heavy handed!”
“Shh... let’s change the topic!” whispered Rose as she looked around and saw Joseph behind her. “That sari of yours is really exquisite, Sonika”, she said loudly. “A Christmas gift from my husband!” The conversation wafted into a lighter mode.
Dinner was a great success. Rose had outdone herself as the guests were left all but licking their fingers. They had discarded the cutlery for the sheer pleasure of biting into succulent chunks of chicken and golden brown fillets of fish. The dessert melted in the mouth, as they lolled in the cool lawn, satiated and indolent. The candles burned with intensity, as they do when they are about to go out.
“It is almost midnight... why isn’t Deepak here as yet?” The query escaped her even before she realized it. “He’ll be here soon enough”, assured Sudha as she stole a glance at her husband. “But he is never so late. The plum cake is almost over!”
“Rose, how about some coffee liqueur for our guests?” suggested Joseph. The suggestion was turned down as they all protested that they had eaten so much that there was no place for anything more. One by one, the goodbyes were made, hugs exchanged, and they drove away into the darkness. As the last taillight trailed away, the lawn suddenly looked bereft. Rose stood, lines of worry creasing her delicate forehead, as she looked towards the gate, willing it to click open.
“Deepak...?” There was a question in her eyes as she looked at Joseph. The remnants of the plum cake were on the table still. She placed a cover over them, and then turned to Joseph who led her upstairs. There he tucked her into bed and waited while her eyes closed of their own volition.
It was only after she had slept that he went to the window and glanced out at the dark lawn, an expression of deep sorrow on his face. He had had to put up a facade the whole evening for the sake of his wife. For he knew that Deepak wasn’t coming that night, or any other night! It was on one such Christmas night that Deepak had gone out with his friends, and on his way back home, he had met with a fatal accident. His mother was waiting at home with his favourite plum cake.
Their whole world had come crashing down. Rose had had a nervous breakdown, and when she emerged from it, she had no recollection of the tragedy. The doctors had warned Joseph not to remind her of it, as she was mentally not strong enough yet to take it in. So perforce every Christmas night, the whole farce was played out with the help of his close friends, all of whom were in the conspiracy. For they all loved Rose and did not want to see her suffer.
It was time to go to bed and try to sleep. Joseph pulled the curtains across as he glanced at the lawn one last time. The candles had finally gone out.

Glassy Eyed!

Ask me what it is that I detest most in the world and my answer would probably be, “My glasses!” Myopia was what I was born with, and will die with, one day! These glass barriers appeared over my orbs not because I had blinding blackouts or terrible headaches. One day, I tried on Dad’s spectacles, something which was forbidden and so all the more doable, and found the world a crystal clear one! Gone were those blurred outlines, those hazy figures and ghostly shadows that populated my world. Earlier it was quite natural, when I was watching a movie, to mistake the hero for the heroine [they didn’t have size zero then except in Rwanda!]
Of course, things were not as comfortable at school when I was given the honour of reading from the blackboard, and I kept insisting that I could not possibly read off an empty board. And the worst was when I walked home after school, fervently hoping that I would not meet anyone I knew, because I would be unable to recognize them from a distance. May a time I have annoyed friends and turned them into foes, as I stared through them with ‘a curiously penetrating eye’, as they would later put it, while I would feebly try to explain that the above eye was also ‘curiously myopic’ as well. In a frenzy of despair, I would turn over a new leaf and vow to wave cheerily at all and sundry, in the hope that there would be a few chance acquaintances amongst them. This earned me many puzzled looks, as people tried frantically to rack their brains on where they had met me.
Finally the day arrived when I got my first pair of glasses, hideous thick ovals that made me wish I could disappear from behind them. Thankfully after a couple of months of misuse and disuse, they fell to pieces. A round pair of frames caught my eye next, but with my moon-shaped face and ‘cheeky’ look, the combination was definitely owlish, and I gave them up before I could begin hooting!
This was when Mum decided to step in and prevent me from any more fashion disasters. I ended up with very pretty pearly pink frames which looked exquisite, except when they were on my face. By this time, I had realised that I would have to live with glasses and decided to give them a try. Which is when my spectacles came alive! They would disappear and I would look around for them frantically, till suddenly someone would sit in a chair and CRACK, there they would be! Or I would trip over a well worn step and there they would be, twinkling brokenly at me from the ground. Very inconvenient indeed!
When I met my future husband, all I saw was a rather shadowy figure and all of a sudden, his glasses glinted. I had found my kindred soul, and the Powers-that-be ordained that we had enough power in our respective eyes to make us compatible! After marriage when my glasses continued to break of their own volition, my husband announced, “I have just the thing for you to make sure this does not ever happen again!” I was thrilled. “Contact lenses?” I whooped. Instead he held out a chain to hold up my glasses! When I protested he grinned, saying, “If I get you contact lenses, I’ll be on my knees, hunting around for them all day!” He vanished before I could throw my glasses at him!
The chain looked particularly snaky and I hated them. I got a silver chain which made me look like a merchant’s wife! A black thread and I was pronounced miserly for using a ‘shoelace’ to hold up my glasses. A dark thread with gold beads proved very distracting, as they glittered every time I turned my head. Then came the hooked varieties so sharp that they made rents in my clothes, followed by coloured beads which looked nice till the paint peeled off. When I finally got the perfect chain, it was as though I had found one of Ali Baba’s famed treasures.
Times have changed and now my glasses have become part of my persona. I have got a chocolate brown chain which is the right colour and the right length, and I wear my glasses so that I can wear my smart new chain. And maybe, I don’t mind making a spectacle of myself anymore!

City Journal, Thrissur
Graphics: Smiley with Glasses, by OCAL,

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Be Careful, Children are like Sponges!

Kids say the funniest things, as parents have realised from time immemorial. On occasion, guests are treated to an earful of uncomplimentary things their hosts have said about them. Amazing how children miss out on the good things said, concentrating on the embarassing bits to create an icy atmosphere in which stalactites form overhead!
The doorbell rings and the chirpy offspring rushes like a tornado to open it. What follows can never be imagined. “Papa, it’s the Uncle who is full of hot air!” or “The Aunty who broke the weighing scale!” One can think of better ways to start a conversation, right?
Why do children react thus? Do they yearn to be the centre of attraction? Parents are probably to blame. “Come, child! Aunty wants to hear ‘Twinkle, Twinkle...!” The little star stumbles through the rhyme, stopping after every two syllables, till the bitter end. You heave a sigh of relief, and turn to flee, when another bolt from the blue hits you. “How about “Old Mac Donald?” If the earlier was tough going, imagine wading through animal sounds that sound like nothing on earth? Especially if Mom believes in barking, braying, mooing and even hissing? Takes a lot out of you, it does!
A friend of mine refuses to take her kids a-visiting! “Never know what they might blurt out!” she shudders. She once took her daughter to a crotchety old uncle’s house, promising to sit for forty five minutes and no longer. Uncle suddenly noticed the little girl looking at her watch. “New watch?” he barked. “Do you know how to tell the time?” She nodded confidently. “Well, what time is it?” “Time to leave your house!” was the answer. “Ma said we would leave the moment you started becoming grumpy!” My friend didn’t know where to look!
My cousin was explaining the facts of life to her curious four year old niece. She made the lecture as easy as possible, ending with the physical process of childbirth. The little one’s remark at the end had her in splits! “Oh, is that why my mother tells me to sit with my legs together!”
This other little nephew had an imaginary friend. Every detail about the friend was perfectly thought out. He was very adventurous, often going on holidays, enjoying life, eating good food - living life to the hilt! The parents wondered where all the details came from, for often his imagination ran riot. Till the day he stopped talking about his friend. When prompted, he said airily, “Oh, he died in an accident in Australia!” He never spoke of him again.
Children soak up everything about them like sponges - the way their parents speak, what their siblings do or how their peers react to situations. I often lament at the way in which some kids lisp and prattle, and am urged to shake some sense into their parents. For they are to blame, as they indulge in baby talk with them, ruining all their chances of being articulate little people! Children do not need to be fluttery-eyed and irritatingly cute! They pick up language the way they are taught, and have more sense than many parents credit them with.
Kahlil Gibran says eloquently, “Your children are not your children!” but the fact remains they have been loaned to us for a lifetime. Hence, it is up to us to make good stout-hearted adults out of them. For child is, indeed, father of the man, and how he grows up will depend on how well he was brought up! So take care when you bring up your child for, one fine day, you just might want to disown him!
The New Indian Express, January 12th, 2011

The Evil That Men Do...

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