Friday, March 27, 2020

The Black Hole At Home


Black holes have piqued the human imagination for quite a while now. However, when I was growing up, ‘black hole’ referred to something totally different. If a book disappeared, it went into the black hole. When Grandpa’s spectacles were not to be found on his nose, they most likely went into the black hole. Those green vegetables knew exactly where to slide down into from my plate… (oops, not meant for the ears of little children!)
In short, whenever anything went missing, we visualised it going into this pitch-black hole with its mouth wide open. It was a universal joke in the family.

The national lock-down proclaimed by the Prime Minister meant that we were all to stay at home, and not stick a toe out unless essential (which meant different things to different people, of course!) For twenty-one whole days, at that!

What could we do over twenty-one days? Speaking for myself, I vowed to read, write, cook, listen to music, do a one-mile Zumba session at home and speak to my two moms every day. However, there were still hours and hours left over and since my sisters and I have been brought up by a mother who saw red every time the word ‘bored’ was used, there was no question of letting it slip into my mind. As she used to say, “Normal is boring. So, do things out of the ordinary and create your own magic!”


“Let’s clean the whole house!” I exclaimed to my better half who was doing multifarious things at the same time. His list consisted, apart from helping me in my household chores, of watching NDTV, rushing to his laptop to tweet about something he had watched, adding several tweets, ticking off people from politicians to film stars and everyone in between. In between he would send off WhatsApp messages to the three hundred and twenty-one groups that he is on.
“You start! I’ll join you soon!” came his reply.

And so, I did, starting with my wardrobe, sifting the clothes I wear from those I don’t. The third pile was those that I had clean forgotten about… brand new kurtas, crisp dupattas, smart tops and several filmy scarves which I had bought for travelling, and which never did travel with me. The last time I had cleaned out my wardrobe, I had friends accosting me all the time. “New pinch, huh?” The pinches hurt less than telling them that there was a bottomless black hole deep inside my clothes cupboard.

Apart from clothes, many other Eureka moments came when I located a couple of handbags, earrings in rainbow colours that had forgotten to glint in dark corners, two saris which I had bought for friends ages back (finders, keepers!) and a pack of playing cards which never materialised when my sisters and I were together.

When that was done, I moved onto my chest of drawers, which had four sections, all stuck together like an advertisement for Fevicol. After a relentless struggle, I managed to open each one, an exercise which reminded me of another old advertisement for Sona Masala where a person opens a cupboard in the kitchen unwittingly, only to be buried deep in an avalanche of masala packets. Talk about finding hidden sona (gold)!

                                                                   Clipart Library

I remember being rather proud of the way I had decided to organise the entire chest of drawers – cosmetics and perfumes on top, accessories (hair dryer, straightener, trinkets in the next, important documents (bank, passport, fixed deposits) in the third. The fourth was termed medicines and miscellaneous and had a place under the sun for everything else that I owned.

A month later, all four sections could be termed miscellaneous, as mysteriously, things had travelled from one to another, like sneaky little eels, and ensconced themselves comfortably in slots which were not made for them.

It began when my better half put his hand into section two, where he had a tiny little corner to keep his after shave lotions and his accessories, and pulled it out with a jerk, with a safety pin hanging on to it for dear life. Obviously, he was livid, because he has this constant complaint that I own three full cupboards for my clothes, and he has one tiny cupboard for his. However, when visitors come to stay, it is his clothes that get shifted out into the study for want of space. He does have a point, I concede! After all, men do like their man caves.


I peered down at the chest of drawers. This was not going to be easy. Rolling up my sleeves, I plunged into the task, determined to ‘kill’ all the extra stuff that lolled about, taking up space. Halfway through, I realised that murder does not come easy, especially since deodorants, sprays, lipsticks, bindis, nail polishes, combs, hairbrushes and kajal sticks tend to stick around forever.

The second section was even more sneaky. Buttons from dresses that I had disowned ten years ago vied with mini mirrors that I had picked up from various fairs, tiny wooden toys that were part of my granddaughter’s treasure trove jostled for space with picture postcards picked up when I had visited the UK in the early 2000s.  

And then, out of the blue, came a sight to warm the cockles of my heart. A week back, we had gone to pick up hand sanitisers to combat the Corona virus, and the shelves had been empty. “Sorry, Ma’am, people have been panic-buying. No sanitisers, no liquid soaps and no masks available,” the shopkeeper had said with a rueful expression that seemed pasted on to his face. He had just spent an entire day reeling out the same litany, and I remembered what Mom had told me when I was growing up grumpy.

“Change your expression. You never know when the wind turns, and you’ll be left with that expression.”
Maybe, the wind had turned for that poor shopkeeper!

Anyway, back to section two and there it lay – a whole bottle of sanitiser, blinking up at me in perfect innocence as if to say, “I have no idea how I got here!” Anyway, my whoop brought my better half rushing in, and we cheered the bewildered bottle of sanitiser till it blushed or would have blushed if it could.

The excavation continued, and the treasures kept appearing. Three cakes of foreign soap which had quite lost their fragrance, pens which I had picked up because I love picking them up, four pairs of spectacles that had vanished into thin air, a torch that my husband had bought with great love and lost immediately after and finally, five tiny boxes with one Geldhof chocolate each which I had picked up on our last visit to South Africa. I only mention the brand because it is among the best in the world and had cost a fortune. Sadly, I had clean forgotten about them. And there they lay in all their glory, the chocolate having melted into a mushy, most un-Geldhof mess.

The next two sections were easier to manage. How wrong can one go with documents and medicines, after all? Very wrong, it seemed. I allowed my husband, who had finished all his tweets, and come to see what I was up to. Apparently, it was a bit too quiet for his liking. However, the moment he saw the documents, he pounced on them.

“There it is… I’ve been looking for these all over the place.” Followed by a snort,
“Imagine, I assumed that we had lost these papers in the floods.” He didn’t specify which flood… we had been in three over the past five years. Anyway, that was of no importance at the moment. 
His tirade continued, “Do you even realise the sleepless nights I have had wondering where these are?” My reply, “At least you’ve found them now,” did not go down very well.

“Yippee, we have reached the last section. Medicines.” There were pills of all hues, little phials, bottles with coloured liquids, droppers, band aids with cartoon characters (courtesy our little granddaughter), crepe bandages, an elusive thermometer, and a general smell of Vicks VapoRub.

There was finally light at the end of the black hole.

And yet, after twenty-one days pass peacefully in lock-down mode, and life hopefully returns to normal, and the virus is laid to rest (whenever that happens) and we all get back to whatever we were doing before Corona, there will be one thing that will never change. For the next time I hunt frantically for a lost pen or a handkerchief, I will know the black hole still exists, biding its time for yet another mysterious version of hide-and-seek. 

PS: This was written nine months back, and the virus is still holding court out there!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

That Helping Hand


“People appreciate and never forget that helping hand especially when times are tough.”                                                                           Catherine Pulsifer

People also never forget that unthinking hand that clenches and moves away in times of strife, that hand that thinks more of itself and refuses to see the larger picture. Covid-19 has taken over the world and understandably, the world is worried. One little but deadly organism has brought it to its knees.

Alarming reports have been coming up about a certain kind of ostracism that has raised its ugly head. Ostracism against the very people who are risking their own lives to help fight the dreaded virus, namely members of the medical profession and airline crew members.
What could be more unfair than this? Airline crews have been travelling across the world, airlifting passengers from COVID affected countries, and bringing them back to India, working long, strenuous hours, sometimes without a break.


Doctors, nurses and hospital staff have also been slogging it out, going without food or rest, trying to save lives. Their lives run like clockwork, as they bustle around from patient to patient, administering medicines and timely care.

On the 22nd of March, 2020, the Prime Minister asked the entire country to observe a Janata curfew. His second request was that people should applaud the services of all the selfless crusaders fighting the virus. The whole country followed suit, a gesture that was much appreciated, only marred by groups of ‘covidiots’ who came out in hordes to clap and clank vessels.


That one gesture should have united the country, shouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, not, or so it seems!

Airline crew members have complained of discrimination by vigilante members of their housing societies, who have either ostracised them completely or asked them to look for alternate living arrangements. Others have had the word QUARANTINE stuck outside their houses by irate neighbours. Sadder is the fact that even their children are being boycotted by the other children, all because they have parents working in the airlines. As one female crew member said poignantly, “We require your support. We are silent warriors. Help us.”

Doctors and health workers are also facing the same discrimination in their housing societies. After having slogged for long hours treating patients, they come back home to find themselves being ostracised for the exemplary work they have done. A newspaper report recently spoke of several doctors and medical students being evicted from their homes in Warangal, Telangana, and being rendered homeless by their landlords.

These are but two instances that have been publicised. How many more must be out there in the vast ocean of the population that makes up our country?

In the first place, why are these wonderful people risking their own lives to save others? Only because they have been taught by their professions to do so, and because they still believe in the ideals that make them what they are. We must remember that they are helping, nay, rescuing others who would otherwise die. They are containing a pandemic that would kill whole populations, left untended. They are angels of mercy, silent warriors.

So, isn’t it our responsibility to allow them to do their jobs without being stressed; don’t we have a duty to take care of their families who have been left to fend for themselves only because social responsibilities come before personal ones?

Unfortunately, they are being treated as outcastes, as carriers, as unclean, as untouchables by the same community that is being served by them. Where is the justification for this abhorrent behaviour? How can these close-minded people be so selfish and stony-hearted, when tomorrow, they might need the services of the very same people they are discriminating against?  After all, the death toll in the aftermath of Covid-19 is rising every single day.

The television channels and the whole of social media have been talking repeatedly about the precautions to be taken against the virus. What we need to remember as a society is that these precautions are to be taken against ‘covidiots’ who violate the law and put themselves and others in danger. These precautions are to strengthen the fight against the virus and make people aware of what they need to do to protect themselves and their families.

My fervent prayer to all citizens everywhere is this: please do not discriminate against the very people, the 'covid-warriors' who are helping us all in in the circuitous chain of containing Covid-19. If not for them, we would have no hope of survival. These wonderful workers are being highly unselfish and generous in giving of their time, their expertise and even their health. What keeps them going is their spirit and their undying faith in the goodness of humanity.


Please do not take away their spirit and undying faith. If they cease, so do we all!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Those Were the Days


Do you remember those days when children played outside with their friends? Wide, open spaces when they didn’t have to worry about being mown down by speeding vehicles, or falling into open potholes, or being accosted by strangers. Those were the days when families lived together, and everyone knew every other person. Those days when life was simpler, and technology was a word that hovered somewhere in the future.

Children grew up together, playing rough and tough games, wallowing in the mud, unabashed about getting their clothes dirty. They climbed trees, plucked green mangoes, and often came home, covered with scratches and reeking to high heaven. Their spirits would be high as they scrambled to have cold water baths, squealing with glee as they saw tiny rivers of dirt flowing into the sink hole.

Once they were squeaky clean, they would often sit together, as the twilight hour spread its mantle over the evening, and their grandmothers or aunts would come outside, their faces illuminated by the flame of the lamp in their hands, chanting, “Deepam, deepam”. The children, and the adults, would pray together as the lamp was placed on the little stone platform outside, in the midst of which a tulsi plant would grow, tenaciously fighting to survive all onslaughts of weather.


This was the hour when the elders would chant prayers in their sonorous (or otherwise) voices, and children would have to repeat them after, one reason why most children in the generation could rattle off mantras in a jiffy, I, for one, remember chanting two whole chapters of the Bhagavad Gita all because my grandparents and I would sit and chant them together, in a large prayer room, which abounded with the idols of every god in the Hindu community. As a little child, I had my favourites – a tall blue Krishna who had a mischievous smile on his face, a pot-bellied Ganesha who always remained in my heart, and numerous others I loved to look at because they were so beautiful. In fact, my sisters and I used to play a guessing game which consisted of identifying different idols by just their description.

I often wondered about my relationship with God. It was not as intense as the one that my grandparents had, as they spent three hours in the morning and evening, to complete their prayer sessions. My parents never forced me or my sisters to pray… in fact, the only time I did pray was at night just before I went to bed. I would read my book and when I felt that my eyelids were closing, I would pray for my whole family, for my friends and for all those who were in my mind at the time. Even today, the litany continues, and while the essentials haven’t changed over the years, many other names have crept in, and when I finally drift off to sleep, I feel a sense of contentment; a feeling that my prayer could just have reminded God to keep my loved ones safe.

What I do remember of my childhood days is that there was a sense of peace and contentment that drew us all in. I recall the various schools that I attended, my dad having been an Army officer, the ease with which I sailed through classes, happy because I could play games in the evening with my friends. Games like Hide and Seek, and Dodgeball, Seven Stones and Aeroplane, games that built up our stamina and made us sweat. Books were strewn around all over our house, and reading was a habit that crept in naturally, and stayed forever.


Monsoons were no problem. There were days when I got drenched on purpose and survived. On other days, we sat and played board games like Scrabble and the ubiquitous ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing.’ My dad got me interested in stamps and match labels. I still remember those beautiful stamps from Zambia in interesting shapes… luminous triangles and rectangles that I could never stop looking at. Match labels were a different kettle of fish. Dad and I used to put the labels in water and wait for the glue to come off. Then we would gently unroll the label, dry in and stick it in our albums. We had one album each and prided ourselves on our unique collection.


My little sister was born when I was seven. So, till then, I had the rule of the roost. My favourite pastime was sitting outside in the afternoon, when everyone else was enjoying their siesta, and making mud pies with my little kitchen set. I could sit for hours, creating little tea parties for my dolls, all of whom had filmy names like Sapna, Sandhya, Sadhana and the like.

One day, I laid hands on a foreign magazine from a second-hand store, and I fell in love. For the first time ever, I gazed in fascination at paper dolls, which I could cut out along with a whole wardrobe of clothes that could be put on them. After that, there was no looking back. I collected over a hundred paper dolls, christened them all, created families and careers and lives around them all. Fred and Frank were farmers, Penny, Daphne, Betsy and Barbara were from different walks of life - ballerinas, teachers, school children, party folk. In short, I had a whole fun family of imaginary people.

                                                                      Allsorts - TypePad

My sisters loved my paper dolls and they could play with them only as a rare treat. I clung on to them (the paper dolls!) till I went to college, and then I reluctantly handed them over to my little sister, who was obviously elated.

Those were the days. The days when the word ‘bored’ did not appear in our dictionary, and we could keep ourselves occupied on our own. Social media was an unknown term. Even the television appeared only when I was in high school and Chitrahaar and the weekend movie were the only two programmes that we enjoyed watching. Later, of course, Doordarshan came out with some wonderful serials which we all devoured.

It seems strange to think back on a time when there were no computers, mobile phones, data sticks, USBs, WI-FI and the like. However, what we did have was quality family time, the great outdoors and hours of concocting games and hobbies to keep our interests alive. As children, we were tough. Parents did not believe in sparing the rod, and I think we grew up the better for it. ‘NO” was a word that was used often and there were no innuendoes hovering around, waiting to fall on our heads like Chicken Licken’s sky. No hints of psychological trauma resulting from a scolding, a declined party invitation or a stern note from a teacher. Oh yes, teachers had the liberty to chasten, ground or punish and there was not a squeak from the parents or the students. In fact, many of these students came back to thank their teachers for having moulded them into good human beings.

                                                                    Keep Calm-o-Matic

The Corona virus has invaded our lives, forcing us to spend time at home with our families. It has grounded us and made us rethink our priorities. For some, this enforced solitude is a punishment, a time to bite their nails into jagged ends and chafe at the confinement.
For many others, it is a time of reconciliation, of spending magical moments with their children and loved ones at home, of discovering the simple joys that they had been taking for granted.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

'Stay At Home! Quarantine!'

Social media does come out with the most unbelievable videos. The other day, when I was browsing, the title leapt out at me.
“World's Shortest Horror Movie”
Being a horror buff, I couldn’t help but peek at it. It was truly horrific.
Several passengers wait at a bus stop on a rainy day. As they huddle together, one of them coughs and spits into a large puddle on the road right in front of them. Suddenly a bus speeds by over the puddle, drenching all of them in water, and in today’s scenario, maybe even a virus that could infect them all. Horrific, indeed! For those wanting a peek, here's the YouTube link:

Corona virus is in the air, literally. And in droplets and infected hands and all surfaces in the world touched by humans. One glance around would make you feel as if you are in a sci-fi movie, with masked minions whose eyes dart around in trepidation. Spaces which were once crowded are now deserted, shelves in supermarkets as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Airports are cancelling empty flights, while travellers sit, cowering in remote corners, hoping against hope that they are not seated next to coughing or feverish passengers.

Different governments have geared up to fight the virus in varying degrees. While many nations struggle to contain the virus, India, I am proud to say, is at the forefront, with Kerala, I am even prouder to say, being the epitome of efficiency. The erstwhile Nipah virus, which was more virulent, was handled wonderfully by the tiny state and contained. Those lessons have come in handy today in the days of Covid-19 as well.

In general, the population is taking all precautions possible to remain uninfected. Washing hands with soap and water, using alcohol-based sanitizers, refraining from touching their faces often, using Namastes instead of the usual hugs, and remaining glued to every health update that comes from the government.

However, the human race does have its share of idiots, in many cases, educated ones, who think that they are a rung above the rest. It is these people who sneak out of airports, hospitals and quarantine centres, thinking inanely that the sky will not fall on their heads. Albert Einstein put it, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.

Take the example of three folks who deliberately omitted to mention to the Cochin airport authorities that they had been to Italy, because they had finally boarded from Oman. One would think that once they had sneaked out, they would stay in hibernation and refrain from floating all around the city. No such luck. These characters went to a mall, attended a church function, and walked into every relative’s house in the vicinity. Tracking their trail was an onerous task, but it was done as a huge number of unsuspecting people came under the scanner.
What about the wife of a Bangalore techie who escaped to Agra the moment her husband displayed symptoms of being infected? They had honeymooned somewhere in Europe and once he was in quarantine, she made a run for it and disappeared. Sadly, she did not leave out any mode of travel; she took a flight from Bangalore to New Delhi, embarked on a train to Agra and finally got to her parents’ home by cab. One cannot even imagine the number of people she infected on her madcap adventure.

Finally, when the health officials traced her to her parents’ home, her father tried to put them off the trail, insisting that she had gone back to Bangalore. She was discovered inside the house in the company of eight other family members, and it took the presence of a District Magistrate to get them forcibly across to the district hospital for screening.
Shakespeare had something to say in such a situation. “Both stupidity and wisdom are as infective as the flu.” In the above case, one does not need to be a genius to figure out which category the subject falls into.

One British gentleman sauntered out from the hill station of Munnar in Kerala where he had been under quarantine and made his way to Cochin airport where he was tracked down by health officials after having tested positive for Corona virus. Seventeen others in his group are also under quarantine. 250 passengers who had boarded the flight were taken off, made to undergo tests and they finally took off, amidst frayed tempers and the realization that inanity makes the world go around, even if it was after four hours of delay.

My sister had a different story to tell me about a colleague of hers who went abroad, came back via Germany and was told not to come in to work. Fourteen days of quarantine stretched before her like a never-ending highway of fun and frolic and she went off to the nearest skating rink to work off all that energy. By the time she returned home, she had not only developed a cough and a fever, but also infected all those unwary skaters who had no idea how close they had come to stupidity.

When, at the beginning, the Creator was giving out body parts, grey matter must have been in short supply. How else does one explain why certain people behave the way they do, given that they are in the midst of a global crisis? Is it because they feel that the world revolves around them or that they are invincible? Whatever the cause, when there is a pandemic on, there is no gainsaying the fact that a few irresponsible folks can cause a whole lot of damage by pretending to be ‘cool’. Such people need to be prosecuted, especially if they have put others in danger through their selfishness.

There is a huge group of like-minded people in the world today, slogging to contain the spread of this virus – the medical community, the travel community, the airline staff, scientists, laboratory testers, Anganwadi workers, good Samaritans making masks, sanitizers and liquid soap for hospitals and for the general public, educators, shopkeepers… all significant links in holding the community together. Hats off to these amazing, benevolent people!

The common slogan is, “Stay at home! Don’t expose yourself to large crowds. Maximise social distancing.” Weddings, large parties, gatherings and celebrations have been brought down significantly. However, just when one decides to heave a sigh of relief that the virus is being contained, there comes a news item of some religious event that cannot be curtailed because it would hurt the sentiments of the said community. Hearts sink at the sight of hordes of people getting together with one common thought. “God will not harm us, because we are performing this ceremony with reverence and faith.”

Unfortunately, the Corona virus appears to have a mind of its own. It spreads with alacrity, from person to person, through a random sneeze, a chance hug or an innocuous kiss. The fact remains that God helps those who help themselves, and if keeping away from large crowds is what helps us, then that is what God wants us to do as well. Friedrich Schiller obviously meant what he said. “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dashavatar - Stories of Lord Vishnu by Piyusha Vir

I remember first hearing the stories of Lord Vishnu at my grandmother’s knee, when she, a deeply religious lady, would describe the various avatars in graphic detail. I would listen, wide-eyed, entranced as she turned into the mischievous Krishna, the diminutive Vamana, the steadfast Rama and of course, the majestic Narasimha, half man, half lion. After one such recital, I remembered eyeing every pillar with awe, never sure if the image rooted in my imagination would spring out and catch me unawares.

So, when I set out to read Piyusha Vir’s ‘Dashavatar’, published by Readomania, I looked forward to going back to my childhood.

The prologue fascinated me. “When I first set out to write the stories of Vishnu, little did I know what a gigantic cauldron of wealth I was diving into.” How true, especially as the author ended by saying that her aim was to take a second look at the stories and analyse how they fit into contemporary society.

The stories themselves are easy to read, as mellifluous as my grandmother’s narration. However, what comes across is what I missed when I was little – the glaring parallels across history and mythology, with references to the Great Flood, and the emergence of a saviour every time the world reeled under the burden of evil. Manu, the first man in the New World could easily be Noah, his gigantic boat the Ark with two species of all animals, plants and seeds aboard it.

Modern axioms dot the pages of this book of ancient stories. For instance, before the churning of the ocean, Vishnu advises the devas. “Diplomacy and tact are as important as your physical strength. Remember, often there would be times when you need to make friends out of your foes.” Don’t those words ring a bell concerning the political arena even today?

What about the Halahala Visha that emerged from the ocean, potent enough to allow darkness to rule the mind and negativity to rule the heart? Any thoughts on that?

“Arrogance, pride, and greed for power dictated the actions of the asuras. They terrorised the people, ruled with threat and fear, and indulged in acts of mindless cruelty.” Vishnu’s Varaha avatar appeared, as did every other avatar, to deliver good and erase evil. The unscrupulous avarice of mankind and its corrupt and vile practices paved the way for the cleansing of the world by ridding it of their insidious influences.

Lord Brahma comes across as an over-kind deity, granting vows at the drop of a hat, and one can hardly dare to wonder if this could be attributed to his lack of judgment or to the overweening play of Fate.

The story of Lord Rama and his Sita proves that, over the centuries, man’s attitude towards women has not changed in the least. As one citizen in the court, blinded by years of patriarchy, said smugly, “Then why did she do what she was not supposed to – step outside her boundaries, that is, when clearly instructed not to? Should she not be punished for that?” According to them, Sita was to be set up as an example to any woman who stepped outside the boundaries of maryada and made to suffer the consequences. Chilling sentiments, that are being followed to this very day, sadly!

Krishna tells the villagers to worship the rains, the land, the crops and the mighty mountain, instead of indulging in frivolous festivities in the name of blind faith, words that still echo, over the centuries.

Dashavatar stands out, not only for the nature of its story telling, but for the truths it expresses so tellingly. The apt illustrations and the classic cover pique the imagination as well. I have no hesitation in saying that this book is one that can be savoured by all age groups.

As I set this book down, I do so with a sense of shock and awe. The tenth avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, is yet to be manifested, a winged being on a white horse holding a sword. “He shall appear when basic humanity would have ceased to exist and we, as a world, would have reached deplorable levels of cruelty and depravity. The predictions say that only the evil and the corrupt will rule the world. Power and money will become the only criteria to judge a person’s worth.”

I can almost hear the rustle of wings…


  ‘Tales that Entail’ by Jaseena Backer is an anthology of stories that are hard-hitting and realistic. Right from the first story, the auth...