A Bride in Madras

I’ve finally arrived in Madras, city no. 8 in six years. I’m quite taken by this lovely place whose inhabitants seem to prefer the guillotine to moving elsewhere even for a short space of time; where proud British street names jostle for existence with the names of Tamil reformers/politicians/artistes. I’ve been here for just about a week (and a few odd weekends), and I’ve seen Mount Road, Cathedral Road, Marina Beach, Virugambakkam, Turnbulls Road and Anna Nagar: there’s a motley set of areas for you. I’ve been to Express Avenue and Phoenix Velachery. Plans to visit the Anna Centenary Library keep running into obstacles (anyone know if you can get a membership there?), but I’ll make it sooner or later. In the meantime, I have the books bargained for and bought from the tent opposite CMBT, and as I’m not in the mood for life-changing reading now, Nick Hornby will serve me well for a while.

The usual “weather-water change” effects notwithstanding, I’m determined to enjoy myself. It’s always exciting to move to a new city and study people: I’ve made friends with kindly shop-owners who grumble only a little when you choose closing time to begin shopping for supplies for a whole month, and got to know (superficially, because you don’t want deep discussions on seemantham plans) heavily powdered maamis who offer you blouse pieces, betel leaves and areca nuts, and a hundred-rupee note with a one-rupee coin to attest your newly-married status. What is really fascinating though is the universal obsession with jasmine flowers. When I went to see the house my husband lived in earlier, the elderly neighbour, a Christian widow, came up to offer her congratulations. After a couple of minutes of small talk, she went inside and emerged again with a string of jasmine flowers in her hand. “I noticed you don’t have any flowers in your hair,” she said. “My eldest son is married to a Brahmin girl.” – by way of explanation. The cleaning lady in the house we live in now said to me this afternoon, “I’ll get you some flowers in the evening. Wear them in your hair.” Little gestures, lovely people.

In the two weeks since I’ve been married, I’ve performed about a hundred namaskarams and been blessed with at least twenty sons and two daughters. Those without a specific gender bias have just recommended four or five children in general, so I’ve left them out of the count. Not quite not-so-lovely people, they have their hearts in the right place, they just don’t know what my husband and I want. I’ve seen numerous temples in Tamil Nadu, but I’ll save the interesting bits from that trip for another post.

I meet new people every day: relatives, friends, neighbours who couldn’t make it to the wedding or are just spurred on by curiosity. While I look for work, I fill in the gaps with the Chennai edition of the Times of India (don’t fret, we’re switching to The Hindu soon), learning to decipher Tamil movie names, complicated in part by atrociously elaborate fonts. I awake to bright sunshine at 6.30 am, wipe the perspiration off my brow, then roll over and go back to sleep, entirely unlike the ideal Narasu’s coffee model. Later in the day, I shake my fist at the dark clouds that gather menacingly during the day and disperse meekly at night. I look forward to the unknown.

Life has changed, but in a way that I can’t explain. For the first time in months, I’m not shopping for earrings or clothes or footwear, dreading facials and make-up sessions, or spending excruciating hours at the boutique, trying to convince them that I want my blouse to be more functional than ornamental. I am finally able to read a book without spending a whole hour on one paragraph. I’m listening to new music, using wi-fi, living by the sea (well, almost). I’m at peace again, even if it’s still early days.

For the uninitiated:

seemantham = baby shower; maami = middle-aged/elderly woman; namaskaram = saluting your elders

Rain in the Western Ghats

“Coffee time, five minutes!”

There is a scramble for the doors, even though it is only about an hour and a half since we set off on the fourteen-hour long bus journey from Pune to Bangalore. Perhaps it is the appeal of the branches swaying in the wind; who wants to be roasted inside a bus with the barely functioning AC switched off during the “break”? I get off, thinking of the phone conversation I unwittingly eavesdropped on earlier in the evening, hearing a man ask solicitous questions about Ammu’s purushan (husband). What does a grown-up Ammu look like? I have always associated the name with the little girl who saved her fisherman father from drowning in the sea in a Tinkle Holiday Special story from the early nineties, and as you probably know, little girls in stories cannot be allowed to grow up.

The five minutes stretch, inevitably, to fifteen. In this space, dark clouds from behind the hotel have come rolling over our heads and moved farther out over the Western Ghats. The jagged tops of the ranges are visible in the distance; a conical hill sticks out incongruously from amidst a cluster of settlements. A sinister blue darkness is rapidly swallowing everything in sight- everything but the vehicles hurtling down the highway, that is, a blur of colours attempting to beat the rain, silly things. I won’t be counting the stars or marvelling at the clear air of the countryside tonight, that is for sure.

As if to prove my premonition right, just when the bus begins its ascent up the twisting ghat roads, the clouds burst open with a dramatic flourish. The bus jolts through ruts connected by slender strips of road. Thunder rumbles across the mountains and lightning bares the exposed whiteness of white tree trunks, freezing them momentarily during their dervish-dance. The rain cascades down the window-panes in thick, rippling sheets; the raindrops caught in the odd beam of light are like furious, sharp arrows. Dark, hulking forms leap out of corners (eventually turning out to be battered barrels left around by construction workers), and the lightest creak inside the bus makes you jump. For all you know, the rest of the world has ceased to exist. The first signs of rain must have sent the electricity department officials scampering to turn off the lights in the city, so with the valley plunged into darkness, all that we know of now is the storm and the truck ahead of us inching its way up the road laboriously. You can’t stop on these roads, you just have to keep swimming through the rain, the wheels sending tall jets of water flying on either side.

One of the passengers is on his phone, ignoring the splendid rainstorm to give serious advice on how to choose the right MBA course. Another man digs out his film music playlist, which seemingly consists only of one half of every song. He runs from Dhak Dhak to Munbe Vaa to an unidentifiable Anuradha Paudwal song, before settling on a bhajan. An odd choice, I think: or is he suddenly feeling religious like the lady I came across on a trip to Sikkim, who, realising that our car was severely stuck in some stubborn slush, began reciting the Hanuman Chalisa frantically?

As a Vinod Rathod song comes on, the man next to me starts snapping his fingers and singing along. His rhythm is all over the place, but at least he isn’t sitting upright in his seat any longer, looking straight ahead and holding on for dear life. He is also no longer calling people in different parts of Maharashtra and asking them if they are receiving any paus, before proceeding to give them a detailed weather report with relish. It does look like the rain will never stop, though, and as we ease onto a level stretch on our way back to civilization, the bus joins a melee of other racing vehicles, all slithering and bumping home through deep puddles on undulating roads.

Update: At 2 am, the moon has struggled through the clouds and I see more stars than I have all of last month in Bangalore or Pune. And with that, the illusion of monsoon has passed.

In and out of love with the world

The sun goes down in a fiery haze as the bus inches through the traffic into the hills. At this time of the year, the Western Ghats are plain and barren. The monsoon-nurtured green carpets are only a dim memory as the rocky surface of the ancient hills glows orange-gold, catching the last faint sunrays.

I have just started reading Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s magnificent story that demands the suspension of all belief, but still doesn’t sound entirely implausible. I want to believe in the idea of Shangri-La, and even as the plane in which Conway and party are travelling approaches the stunning snow-covered peaks of the Kunlun range, my imagination persists in thinking that the next turn in the road will unfurl some sort of mystery. From the book’s blurb, I am led to believe that a kind of mysterious paradise lies in wait for the lost travellers: so why shouldn’t I find my own haven, a garden wreathed in mist perhaps, or a stray mountain peak that winter forgot to disown and the tropical latitudes declined to appropriate? The twisting roads are crowded with vehicles of all shapes and sizes, but the knowledge that these hills have stood here since the beginning of time and are more permanent than any of us lends credence to my most fanciful imaginings.

But then comes a rude shock: I’m on a public bus, and I am destined to have beside me an over-enthusiastic middle-aged man who wants to know where I work, where I live, whether I can find a job for his “cousin sister”. He tears open a packet of Lays chips as we enter a dimly-lit tunnel and holds it out to me. I decline more icily than I mean to. He turns to the little TV mounted on the seat in front, watching first a Hindi soap-opera with heavily made-up women pouting, crying and snarling at one another, then a different drama in the form of politicians’ shenanigans. He hogs the arm-rest and fidgets around when his TV stops working. No Shangri-La, this.

Night falls and the loud mother, the excited child and the giggling teenager all go to sleep, as does the man in the seat next to mine. Nobody snores, thankfully, and I slip back into Hilton’s mysterious world. What is it about the inhospitable reaches of freezing mountain-tops that is so attractive? Perhaps it is the charm of extreme cold, the pull of the unknown for someone used to hot, humid weather. There is something more appealing, for instance, about a Buddhist monastery perched on a mountain slope than on an idyllic tropical island. Just like the idea of Vespers echoing in an Orthodox cathedral in cold Russia or camping on the windswept plains of Mongolia seems tantalising. Or this could be entirely subjective, I can’t really say.

I’d tell you more about Lost Horizon but I’m afraid I’ll spoil it for you if you want to read it. I must go now and see how it ends- I must know if it will disappoint or make me rejoice or leave me with mixed feelings, the last of which seems most likely. This is because I am much too inured to the charms of the physical (or illusory) world to readily accept a cloistered existence, comfortable though it may be, but enough in love with solitude to want my own corner in the mountains. Maybe I should attribute this confusion to the changes that have taken place in my life lately, and then I’ll know it isn’t such a bad thing after all. I haven’t changed entirely, after all. I still enjoy the touch of rain on my skin, listen to birds and talk to trees. Only, there is a new invigorating sensation underlying everything, and it is one of the most pleasant things that I have ever known.

On fear: The Skinning Tree

A couple of days ago I finished reading The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen, a very evocative account of life at a boys’ boarding school in pre-independence India. Before I tell you more about it, here is an excerpt from the book, where a very young Sabby is being sent away from Calcutta to boarding school in distant Gaddi during the Second World War, for fear of a Japanese invasion.

“The closing of the windows had the effect of weakening his link with home. There was nothing to see outside now but the odd lantern burning in a hut somewhere in the distance and the light from the carriages running along the rails of other tracks and his reflection in the window. He was going goodness knows where and he could not banish the feeling of being alone. He tried to keep on seeing himself in Cal. Sabby didn’t know what exactly his fears were but there seemed to be a lot of them crowding in on him. The world outside was coming right up close in that square and dimly lit compartment. He could not banish thoughts of loneliness from his mind as he could in Cal, make all the dirt and trash and disease, the misery of the city and the crowds he did not want to have in his world disappear. He could not even think of running away to England where he would be among his friends.”

“England” is not a geographic/political entity here. It is an imaginary place in Sabby’s Cal, whose boundaries are the gates and the walls of his grandmother’s property. So, when he goes out on his own with his much wiser friend Henry Douxsaint and gets lost in the crowds on the road, he is petrified. You remember what it is like to be among strangers, cold eyes, unfamiliar bodies threatening to sweep you away. Sabby is terrified of being taken to a basti nearby and being forced to beg. The few seconds that he is separated from Henry for before they find each other again must have felt like a lifetime.

Srikumar Sen brings the fears and the disappointments of childhood to life very vividly. The bullies make Sabby want to cry; the Brothers in their white habits can whip out the strap any time. He hopes that the Easter vacation will make things easier, but then something unforeseen happens. You know what it’s like when vacation plans are thwarted by unexpected circumstances: how do you make a little boy understand when his only concern is to have a good time and the rest of the world doesn’t matter?

The boys at Gaddi can be generous with one another, but they can also be cruel. They talk of murder and killing freely. They don’t feel for people who they think can get them into trouble. Sabby feels soothed by chapel and hymns and the picture cards of Jesus he is given when he is troubled, but has his peace disturbed by the constant fear of punishment he lives with – what if his shoes aren’t cleaned well enough or his counterpane hasn’t been folded correctly? It is a strange world, one I can’t comprehend either. Who should be held responsible, then, for what happens at the end?

For a few days as I read the book, all the dormant fears of childhood came back to life, and they mostly seemed to revolve around school. I haven’t ever seen a strap or a malacca, but I remember the wooden and steel scales that some teachers brandished, the mortification that accompanied even a minor deviation from expectations in terms of marks and ranks. You’d see classmates upbraided in public and feel helpless about it. A slip from your usual level? Why, you must have neglected your studies. You don’t forget your tiffin box at home, why do you forget to do your homework? Why do you need a fancy pen when you can’t do your sums correctly? You can’t protest about too much homework, because you don’t know what is good for you. When you are an adolescent and things get tougher, when you are trying to make sense of certain mysteries, you should know that you are being immoral. Don’t snigger when you are studying about reproductive systems: if you do, it means you have evil thoughts running through your head. (It didn’t matter that we were thirteen and uncomfortable with the changes in our bodies. We couldn’t talk about them. In a co-ed school, it led to some very awkward situations.)

We grow up with fear. Its nature changes as we grow older and gain more control over some situations, but it never seems to go away. I still wake up in the middle of the night, troubled by dreams of having forgotten most of the answers in an important exam. I remember the collective chill that always descended on classrooms when teachers brought along corrected answer sheets- a silence worthy of an operation theatre. But this constant fear might have prepared me for the present, for more grown-up challenges. When I’m slightly apprehensive about something, I think of the pre-engineering years and everything is all right again. I’ll also think of Sabby now, and be glad that I wasn’t sent away to an unfriendly place in anticipation of a war I didn’t understand.

All things Schumacher

Around 2003-04, I remember spending several hours agonising over what I liked better: books or F1. It was an important question and I needed a clear answer to resolve the tangle in my head. For the first time ever, F1 trumped books and as I admitted this to myself a little sorrowfully, I knew there was only one reason for this anomaly – Michael Schumacher. The resounding victories since 2001 stamped Ferrari’s dominance on the sport, and while new pretenders came in, Schumacher’s aura refused to leave even after his retirement.

I have already written quite a few times on this blog about what the Schumacher years meant to me. It wasn’t just about his race victories, but also the discipline and the hunger. My year revolved around F1 calendars; the drivers had their tests on Sundays, I had mine on Mondays. Their winter testing for the start of the season in March was analogous with my preparation for the final exams of the year. The competition and the struggle to reach or stay at the top were things I was experiencing in academics, albeit at a much smaller scale. F1 ceased being “just a sport” to me. Which is why, when people think I’m silly to worry so much about an injured German fighting for his life in a distant hospital, I don’t know how to explain things to them. Some people just won’t get it because they’re too practical or have never idolised anyone or don’t feel as strongly about things. To each his own. But when a man has defined a sport for you to such an extent that its qualities have sometimes been inseparable from life, and inspired you not just through his skills but as a human being, you feel the pain very deeply when you know he’s lying in a coma.

Many of us, all around the world, are praying hard for Michael Schumacher. Messages of support floating around on the Internet remind you how much he has influenced people everywhere. You wake up in the morning with a knot in your stomach, not knowing what has happened overnight. Here in India you have to wait till 3.30 in the afternoon for the morning updates from Europe. Three such days have gone by and the situation is still unclear. But every tiny bit of positive news is a great encouragement and source of strength. It is a relief to be able to discuss things with friends and to have sensible men like Gary Hartstein around, breaking up complex information and answering questions patiently. Michael Schumacher is an all-encompassing thought again, only in a sadly different way. Thankfully the petty stories are beginning to fade away and the regular suspects are done with their foot-in-the-mouth remarks. We now have to settle in for a long, patient, optimistic wait and send out our telepathic messages like we did when he was in a tight spot on the circuit. He has to hear us.

The Eastern Years

“Every time I go home,” says my friend, “I see your house, and Sangeeta’s, and Alaap’s, and Debraj’s. All of you have left, but my parents are still here. You can’t imagine how nostalgic that makes me feel.”

Bokaro feels very distant now. I was six and a half when we first moved there, not quite caring that we were leaving behind a town we had spent six years in. I didn’t know what attachment meant at that age. A transfer was about adventure- a new town, new friends, new school. I joined after the term had already started, and on the first day made two new “best friends”- which meant that, when the English teacher asked us to write a paragraph titled “My Best Friend”, I ended up writing about two new friends. The teacher wasn’t happy and I had to write it again.

But the real best friend was somewhere else. We first met at the bus stop and started talking to each other, realising that we lived close enough for me to join her group at the playground every evening. We were in the same class but not the same section and barely saw each other at school, but we spent a lot of time together in the evening, playing, sharing our secrets, getting our dolls married. Life was as easy and happy as it could be. Exams came and went, but we had other important things to worry about it- which birthday parties should we attend? What gifts did we want to give? I distinctly remember some pink-and-green Milton water bottles being very popular.

It didn’t really bother us then that where we lived wasn’t considered safe. People avoided going out after dark as far as possible- why risk getting mugged? One morning we heard that a man had been murdered at our bus stop. I don’t know if it really happened: 24X7 news channels didn’t exist then. Cable TV was expensive but we had it because there was little else to do- of course, there didn’t seem to be much except endless re-runs of The Bold and the Beautiful, occasionally The Crystal Maze on Star TV. Zee TV had a loud version of Snakes and Ladders, Antakshari and dubbed telecasts of a serial called Celeste. My friend next door refused to come to play on Sunday mornings because he wanted to watch Chandrakanta. My own special TV time was Sunday afternoons- remember when the Bournvita Quiz Contest had the Bookworm and a special guest on every episode? The present version isn’t half as interesting or competitive.

My father bought me my first can of Coca Cola in Bokaro. It was quite a novelty in that little town, almost an event, to be a part of this act of ‘economic liberalisation’. Come to think of it, things were so different then. We didn’t have a telephone at home and would go to the STD booth on the main road to call my Grandmother- only at a particular hour, though, to make calls at one-third the usual rate. Until then, we had communicated with her and other family only through letters. For all our relatives in the south knew, we were on the other end of the planet. They didn’t know what Chhath or Teej was, or why Walls ice cream on trips to Hyderabad was such an exotic delicacy for me. I only wish I’d been old enough then to understand the culture of Bihar (or Jharkhand) better.

Bokaro gave me the first taste of winter- not that it wasn’t cold in Madhya Pradesh, but I remember this better because of the nice bottle-green scarves and gloves, and eventually the blazers that we were allowed to wear once we were all grown-up and in Class 4. Until then, we depended on being extra nice to the senior girls so they would let us wear their blazers on the bus rides home: such a status symbol!

I left Bokaro in 1996. I stayed in touch with just one friend, who kept writing to me even when I was ridiculously lazy and sent me cards on my birthday. We never spoke much about other people because having been in different sections, we didn’t have many friends in common. Then one day, an impulsive search on Facebook brought me back in touch with many classmates from all those years ago, and I was really surprised to learn that they had remembered me- I saw myself only as this person who had drifted in and out of their lives without staying for the momentous occasions. I had once competed fiercely with them for ranks in class- it is a little amusing now that we’re all grown up to think that we had such skirmishes over marks. Getting back in touch with them, it wasn’t like nearly 15 years had passed- all of a sudden, it just didn’t matter that we were all responsible (?) adults.

Having moved around a fair bit, I’ve never had the chance to feel like I’ve put out roots anywhere. However, knowing that these friends from childhood are still around, even though I know little about them, is reassuring. I am probably meant to have a nomadic life for some reason- I’ve studied and worked in six different cities in the past five years. And when you’re caught in the turmoil that constant change can cause (which seems inevitable now), it’s nice to know that you can call someone after six months or two years and pick up where you left off.

Enjoying an Apology

You normally apologise because you are genuinely sorry about something you have done, or because someone else wants you to. Here is an excerpt from LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables – this is the apology that eleven-year-old Anne Shirley made after flying into a rage in front of Mrs Lynde, to appease the Cuthberts who had adopted her.

“Oh, Mrs. Lynde, I am so extremely sorry,” she said with a quiver in her voice. “I could never express all my sorrow, no, not if I used up a whole dictionary. You must just imagine it. I behaved terribly to you—and I’ve disgraced the dear friends, Matthew and Marilla, who have let me stay at Green Gables although I’m not a boy. I’m a dreadfully wicked and ungrateful girl, and I deserve to be punished and cast out by respectable people forever. It was very wicked of me to fly into a temper because you told me the truth. It WAS the truth; every word you said was true. My hair is red and I’m freckled and skinny and ugly. What I said to you was true, too, but I shouldn’t have said it. Oh, Mrs. Lynde, please, please, forgive me. If you refuse it will be a lifelong sorrow on a poor little orphan girl, would you, even if she had a dreadful temper? Oh, I am sure you wouldn’t. Please say you forgive me, Mrs. Lynde.”

Anne clasped her hands together, bowed her head, and waited for the word of judgment.

There was no mistaking her sincerity—it breathed in every tone of her voice. Both Marilla and Mrs. Lynde recognized its unmistakable ring. But the former under-stood in dismay that Anne was actually enjoying her valley of humiliation—was reveling in the thoroughness of her abasement. Where was the wholesome punishment upon which she, Marilla, had plumed herself? Anne had turned it into a species of positive pleasure.

And later, as Anne and Marilla Cuthbert walked home: “I apologized pretty well, didn’t I?” she said proudly as they went down the lane. “I thought since I had to do it I might as well do it thoroughly.”

It is one thing for a young girl to revel in a dramatic apology she has been forced to make while being wholly unrepentant, but quite another for a grown man, a journalist who has made his career by calling people out on their lack of honesty. Clearly, ideals exist so that everyone else can live up to them.

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