Saturday, 26 July 2014

Behind the Lines


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  Straddling little Seep on her hips she walked down the road, pushing  the perambulator laden with the monthly grocery. The street lamps lighted up the path ahead while throwing everything else into the shadows. There weren't  many people out now. She wished she had asked one of her friends along. Seep was getting heavier and it was getting difficult to push the grocery too. She paused on the roadside and let Seep down who instinctively clutched on to her mother's knees and buried her face in the soft familiarity of the clothes. Tousling the little one's head she rested for a few minutes before hoisting her on to her hips again. The sooner they got home the better.

   Home. It was a little over two months since they had shifted to Ranchi from Leh and settled down quickly. however these days when the shadows grew longer, their home became a stranger.The cheerful sunshine streaming through the windows left behind cold frames at dusk. Each room was an empty space bound by the indifferent walls. It was strange how the homes  turned into huge voids swallowing everything that gave comfort. She latched the gate behind her and sat Seep on the platform around the frangipani  tree. She then pulled the pram up the steps and unlocking the door pushed it inside. She sat down with Seep inhaling the sweet fragrance of the white blossoms. They sat there for a while. She reluctant to go in and Seep happy anywhere as long as she was with her mother. In each of those homes across her's, only a couple of lights were on. Behind those hesitantly closed doors were women and children, putting up brave fronts only to shed tears under the quilts and wet one side of the pillows unknown to each other. Little  Shreyan, across the street, had kept his father's photograph under his pillow kissing him a teary 'good night'.  She swallowed her own lump in the throat and pulled her daughter closer crooning to her, more to comfort her own self than to cuddle her child.

    It was getting late and soon it would be Seep's bedtime. She hurried inside to get the dinner for both of them on a plate. That's what her dinner was mostly after her daughter was done. The left overs. She was never hungry now.
     " Mama, story!" demanded Seep rolling onto her side as they both lay in bed.
She pulled out a Ladybird book from the bedside table. Seep listened to the oft repeated story and finally fell asleep lulled by her mother's voice. As for her, she could barely sleep.

       The last one week she had been waking up from her light sleep in the dead of the night, listening to the convoy of loaded trucks emptying the cantonment. One after the other, the one tonnes, the two tonnes, the hired Ashoka Leyland with posters stuck on the windshield " On Army Duty",  rumbled past  with the men and the machines. Each rumbling truck came in faintly, then roared louder  before fading away as they drove past the houses. And with every rumble, fear clutched her heart. She sent out a prayer with each of the rumbles to all the men. Everyday the vehicles would assemble in the open ground with the men methodically loading it up and every night they would move out in a long never ending stream...thirtynine ...forty...forty one...with one of them carrying the red cross flag and another with the fluttering religious flag.

    With the first ray of the sun peeping into the cantonment, she was up and mechanically went about her chores. Warming the milk, keeping the dal to boil, kneading the flour for the rotis, soaking the clothes for the maid to come and wash. And all the while her eyes were at the gate waiting to catch a glimpse of the rolled newspaper tucked into the latch. The moment she saw it, she rushed down the steps and snatched it out. Did she miss anything on the TV last evening or the late night radio news? With trembling hands she opened the paper and spread it on the floor  scouring it with every cell of her being concentrating on the black prints.
 She was rudely interrupted by the phone ringing shrilly. Her heart lurched at the ominous ring.
    " Hi! Hope you remember the lunch potluck at my place today!" said Megha whose house was a lane behind her's.
 " Of course! I am bringing over the dal"  she said sounding relieved.
" No, just come over. Rashmi is getting the dal. You relax, you have got little Seep to keep your hands full."
" No, no please! Isn't it Akhil's birthday too? I'll get some noodles for the kids. They will love it " she offered.
" Umm ... okay! Rama is baking a cake, so okay, I guess we will have a nice birthday lunch after all."
Megha hung up after a few minutes.

    She cooled the dal and kept it  in the refrigerator for another day. She had actually forgotten about the lunch get together. She brought out the noodles packs and the vegetables now. The cooking would be  finished before Seep woke up. She finished her chores before settling down with the newspaper once again scanning the pages for any updates on the battle ready front. The fate of thousands  of those in uniform waited for the green signal at the borders.

    He had promised her he would come back, avoiding her eyes and kissing Seep before getting into the waiting Gypsy. The entire night the men were out loading, supervising, checking stocks and getting things in order. The women were busy packing the uniforms, the shoes and the boots and all the other things their men would need. The cantonment did not sleep that night.  She had stood there by the purring Gypsy with little Seep sleeping in her arms. It would not do to get silly and emotional now, she had reminded herself. Movies are different. This was real life. She had to think of the driver too. He was also leaving his family behind. She made a note to look up the families of her Flight as the vehicle pulled  out of the gate into the darkness of the wee hours. Minutes later, with the first ray of light, she had heard the choppers take off one by one thundering over the cantonment at the break of dawn, rattling the window panes as they flew away. She had counted each one of them till the sun crept in with a deathly silence.

 The phone ringing brought her back. It must be Megha again she thought.
" Have you heard?"
It was Ragini. She felt numbness inch up. Her hands and feet  were turning cold.
" No, what?..." she heard her voice escaping the constricted throat.
" A chopper crashed in Leh was fatal."
" Who..were in it?..." she managed.
" Major Ganesh and Captain Roy..."
Her stomach turned and her knees wobbled. She felt something building deep inside her and rising threateningly to erupt into hot streams.
" I'll call you back..." is all she could muster before she put back the receiver and collapsed on the floor as her knees gave away. All the fears of weeks, days, hours and seconds smothered and buried deep inside burst out from every part of her. She found herself gasping in the flood of tears howling unashamedly. She clutched her head leaning back on the bed. She pulled bewildered Seep to her, woken up by her mother's wails. They hugged each other and cried for what seemed like ages.
     The clock by the bedside ticked away. She slowly came back to her senses. She released Seep from her grip and kissed her on the forehead. Wiping her face she sent up a prayer for both the unfortunate families to give them strength and courage. Captain Roy was the father of a  month old girl. He had just replaced her husband two  months back in one of the Leh Squadrons. .. What if it was...



Thursday, 24 July 2014

Five Points From The Neighbourhood Park



     With highrise buildings all around carving a  geometrically edged skyline and the earth deep down somewhere, weighed down with the roads and concrete slabs, it is a pleasure to step into the neighbourhood park just a hop away from yet another concrete block that we stay in. The dense amaltas and neem tree lined track around the green carpeted grass, beckons enticingly on summer mornings and winter afternoons. Most mornings I bring back 5 beautiful gifts from there that see me through the day.

1. Freedom -  For me walking around a green expanse is any day better than slogging it out within the four walls of an air conditioned gym. Gyms do have their advantages in terms of the latest machineries, music to keep up the rhythm and a trainer to crack the whip. Excuse me, but I'ld like to keep fit at my own pace without anything or anyone breathing down my neck. Atleast I've my thoughts to myself and most importantly I've me to myself. Do you get the drift? This is my 'me time' to connect with the self. And I think better without that blasting music drowning out the bubbles in my head. Whatever and if ever any bubbles manage to surface, that is.

2Inspiration - It is inspiring to see so many people respecting their body irrespective of the age they are in. A gentleman in his 60s power walks around the park at a pace that would leave many of us breathless after a round or two. Then there are the still older ones who walk around barefeet on the grass with the help of a walking stick. Young and not so young turks rushing through a few laps before they get ready to crawl through the traffic snarls. Skipping sideways from one end to the other end is yet another senior whose fitness regime is at par with any of the young athletes including the number of push ups. And when he leaves he picks the bits of papers and other waste and drops them into the bin. This old lady whom I see everyday, gets down on all her fours so as to climb up the foot high pavement and walk to the park with the aid of her stick. Then there is this young girl who tries out her dance moves oblivious to the surroundings. Not that anyone pays any attention apart from me perhaps.

3. Flexibility - If ever there is a confusion as to which physical rigour should I subject myself to, there is a plethora of option to emulate from. Pilates, yoga, aerobics, and what have you. In fact, I also saw a Tai chi session happening on a couple of occasions but it didn't seem to survive. For the iron hearted and feather limbed you could try the headstands that a couple of young lads indulge in, looking at the world from down side up. And on days when I want to take a break from the sweat pouring out from every pore, there is the laughter club to keep the mood upbeat. Ladies laughing their guts out with arms raised to the sky has never failed to turn heads even if it is a routine affair. Some poor husband  must be uneasily hoping that the cackle was not generated by a joke at his expense. 

4. Mentoring - With the wealth of collective wisdom walking, jogging and exercising around, one is bound to pick up a nugget or two waiting to be strewn around. Don't get me wrong, most times those pearls of wisdom do make sense. Here's an anecdote i'ld like to share.

   On entering the park one day I was stopped by a dashing old gentleman with an equally dashing young German Shepherd. Between the many apologies for taking the liberty, he finally managed to ask me, " How many glasses of water do you take before walking out?"
 " Er..none really, just a few sips here and there..."
I squirmed under his tut tutting gaze, hemming and hawing unasked for explanations. 
 " You see... there are tiffins to be packed... bottles to be filled...children to be fed...."  my voice trailing off feebly with "...where is the time for..."
With a kind look he explained," Look, I've been observing you for a few days now. Forgive me, but that glow is missing from your face that a girl your age should have."
Girl? At my age! Glow? When did I last have a glow? 
"Try and drink at least a litre of water before you walk out" he advised.
" A litre! That's way too much!"  I gasped as though he was asking for a donation.
" Start small with a glass and then gradually increase" he said sagely, " And please store water in any glass bottle and not plastic ones."
   He explained this, drawing reference from royal habits when the kings and queens drank water and had food only from silver or gold utensils. The goodness of these metals, which are naturally found, also entered the human body. And the human body said to be composed of the five elements, absorb the natural minerals to keep it fit. Even the poor man's earthen pots contributed to our health. The plastic, our most preferred material now, on the other hand leaches it's toxic chemicals into our food and water that enter our body. Over a period of time they play havoc with our systems and give rise to many complications.
   He had my attention by now and his words made a lot of sense. 
   " Try it for a month and see the difference" and with that he went away with that magnificent canine swishing it's tail at his heels.
Now the old wine, whisky, vodka bottles and their ilks have found their way back into the house. 

5. Connect - The familiar strangers I pass by everyday in our varying  number of laps, warm up over the days and share a smile or a nod. A recent research reported in the Times Of India has revealed that talking to strangers can actually send positive vibes. This is something I can vouch for in my many such interactions on the Metro, supermarkets, the local market haggling over the price of potatoes and onions. It feels all is not bad with the world. 
   And then of course there is the final connect of the individual with the nature. Have you ever tried the sit-ups and the crunches lying back on the grass with the wide blue sky just above you? Just when you feel hot and sweaty, a gentle breeze and rustling in the trees leaves you soothed and relieved. On the days when not a single leaf moves, well just too bad. Not every day is a Sunday! The last few minutes of my time here, I just lie back and squint at  the clouds floating by. A turn of the head brings me up close to the blades of grass with a hint of fresh fragrance. The sunbird hovers along the hibiscus flower in the bush. There are so many bird songs to be listened to.

        These are my gifts from the park and the many reasons for the endorphins ( why does this word remind me of dolphins?)  flooding the system. Everyday I carry back something extra with me. Today, it was that of an old couple in their 70s  walking around in the grass hand in hand. The lady, after some time completed ten sit ups  in her beige salwar kameez , lovingly encouraged by her husband. I sat there with my jaw dropping and all notions and preconceived ideas sneaking out.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Colours Are Silent

best-blogposts-2014-blogadda-tangy  Tangy Tuesdays                                                                

  I gave way to an old lady carrying a sling bag with brushes sticking out, coming down the single flight of stairs. She must have come to fetch her grandchild from the Art School  I thought.

     It was a Sunday morning when I went to Rontu’s place. And I knew it was a bad day to choose. A bad day if it was to be a social visit but a humbling experience otherwise. The place was brimming with students.  Even in my college days I had loved coming here. It was filled with colours – of water, oil, acrylic, wax. An open corridor, from where the stairs ended, led to a room. On a soft board on the wall were some paintings of the students with their names proudly inked at the corners. When I walked in, I found Rontu sitting in the Principal’s chair. He was concentrating on a couple of parents and scribbling something on a piece of paper with a smile on his lips. On seeing me, he waved me to a chair at the back. He mouthed “ Ki Khobor” and I nodded at the parents, wishing him to finish his business  with them first. I looked around at all the artwork on display and at the board closely. So he had started with interior and fashion  designing crash courses too!

 “I haven’t been able to meet you all for quite some time so I thought of dropping by” I said slowly after the parents left.
 “Where is Mamoni jethai?”  I enquired after his mother. Rontu’s mother and mine are cousins. He gesticulated to one of the rooms.
   “I will meet her in a while. Looks like some more kids are waiting to join your school” I said pointing towards the parents who had just left his office. Rontu shook his head and said that it was they who wanted to join.  Just then Mamoni jethai walked in dabbing her forehead with the end of her cotton sari. 

     “Arrey Nikki! How are you? Where do you stay nowadays? It’s been such a long time since we last saw you!” said she giving me a tight hug. 
“Yes, I’ve been moving around a bit. But it’s great to see the school growing all this while.”
“Yes, two hundred and fifty of them from all age groups! Quite an increase from one, isn't it? ” she said proudly.
“Wow! That’s quite a handful. I can see from the notice that you have introduced crash courses for Interior and Fashion Designing basics."
" Oh,that's because some of the students who were trying for these courses in Delhi and other places wanted some basics for the entrances."
   "I so want to see the students at work! Would it disturb them if I went around?”  I asked slowly gesturing with my hands.

Rontu got up from his chair and made his mother sit there. “He will show you around the school” she said sitting down with an effort, “I’ve tired limbs now. No longer what I used to be.”           
  We went to the class that was actually a spacious room covering the entire floor. There was a  blackboard on each of the walls. The students, divided into three groups of almost thirty, were engrossed in their world of colours seated on mats spread on the floor. Two teachers in each group went about watching them work, sometimes stopping by here and there to assist them. I suddenly realized they were all the same. I looked at Rontu with an enquiring gaze.  He nodded and showed that the teachers were deaf and mute. He had a total of six of them to help him with the two hundred and fifty students.
   It seemed one of the groups was a fairly new one with very young children. The teacher with a few pencils in his hand was trying to show the difference between them. He made a line on a sheet to show the lighter shade of 1HB pencil and then the darker shade with a 2HB one. Between the board and the sign language, the students understood their teachers perfectly. Rontu with his team patiently and relentlessly guided all with their brushes and colours.  
“ …but that is the best art school in the entire Guwahati city! They are even better than the Artists’ Guild. Many students have won prizes at various competitions!”  I remembered Mitu, my neighbour's words, justifying sending her young son all the way to this place. Of all days, the weekends were the busiest of the lot, with batches coming in from morning till eight in the evening, with an hour’s break in between. Many parents were seated outside waiting for the hour to be over. All of them had no qualms sending children to Rontu’s art school where communication could be a hindrance. Chitrankan Art School had broken all barriers.
    I spent a lot of time going around watching some kids start from the basics of drawing lines with teachers holding their chubby hands.  Rontu took me to a senior group who were trying to find their own style of painting. It was calming to see the colours fill up the pages, ideas taking shape on the white paper and images conjured from emptiness. A young boy of around sixteen was filling up a stallion on his art sheet with powerful strokes.

     “Jethai, Rontu’s school is such a stress buster…” I said. We were sitting in their living room, a floor below, sipping a cup of tea.  
 “Yes, even I like to sit there after finishing my chores. It is very soothing. Rontu has learnt to take everyday struggles in his stride after that National team selection fiasco”
 “Hmm… I remember you telling me that one. How they did not select him in the National Football team. He was adjudged the best goal keeper, wasn’t he? Was that for the under seventeen category?”
“Yes it was. It broke him. What could I tell him then? I worried about him every day. And now I am assured, touch wood!” said jethai with a faraway look in her eyes.
She laughed, “How time flies! But that rejection in the National Selection made him more determined. You know, people from outskirts of Guwahati bring their children to learn under him. Did you meet the teachers?”

“I didn’t want to disturb them but yes Rontu told me about them” I said.
     “That’s not all. He teaches the hearing impaired free of cost” she said proudly. Just then Rontu came down from the school. The mother and son were engaged in a quiet conversation. On a wall Rontu’s  many awards were lined up jostling for space. What an amazing entity Rontu’s Art School was! While it provided a dignified life to few silent crusaders, it winged others’ imagination with colours – people from all walks of life- senior citizens, housewives, students and professionals. In fact the old lady I met on my way up, was a student here and a doctor at that, I learnt later. 

  " I’ll have to go up. Rontu has  to look up a property. He is planning to start a branch on the other side of the city.  Why don’t you come with me to the school?” she asked.
“I’d love to but I’ve to go now " I said checking my watch “Ma will be wondering where I am.” Rontu offered to drop me at my place which was a little distance away.  I saw him checking the rear-view and side-view mirrors while driving along the main road. Cars blared their horns; cows ambled unfazed by all the din; bikes zipped in and out of thin gaps. Rontu concentrated on the road ahead.
  My mother came out just as I entered the gate.  “Was that Rontu? Looks like he finally got his driving license.”
“Hmm… I’d gone to jethai’s house. He was in a hurry so didn’t come in” I said slipping out of my sandals at the doorway.

        Later lying under the whirring fan, I was reminded of the boy’s galloping stallion fluid in  motion,  flowing mane and sinewy limbs and focussed in it's head thrust forward. That’s how I will remember Rontu and his Art school. Rontu,  hearing impaired since birth, forging ahead with silent determination.

Image courtesy  Wikihow

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

My Tara


        " Last night I dreamt I went  to Manderlay again..." Only it was not Daphne's Manderlay nor was the mood so gloomy and intimidating. On the contrary, it was of my  home that  I dreamt of, for the last six to seven months, much like the desperate seeking even the faintest signs of succour. Much like Scarlet O'Hara's well of strength in Tara or the promise to herself " After all ...tomorrow is another day."

   Err... I may not be in as complicated a situation as the two protagonists whom I invoke, but let's face it there are times when many of us just want to throw up our hands and  scream " Enough is Enough", to whoever cares to listen to. And so I did. And no sir, I did not feel guilty of making my daughter bunk two  'working days' before the school closed for summers. It was a choice between waiting decently like a good mother for the school to break off for vacations or me breaking down. I chose to avoid the latter.

      Having chugged our way past the bleak, desolate, sun blanched Northern plains and stalled midway on the tracks, we finally stumbled into the verdant North East. Finally, closing in on my Tara,  home sweet home! The crowded railway station and it's ubiquitous stench did nothing to dampen my spirit. We were already damp or rather drenched in all that sweat that a sultry weather can bring on.The familiar sights and sounds on our way home only heightened the excitement. Too many buildings, too many people, too many cars on the roads and along the roads.Never mind, we were almost there. It was the last lap to the finishing line. And when the car took  the final bend, the very sight of home melted all the   fatigue, released all the tensions building up for  months.With a smile on our lips and a spring in my step, we were home at last!

      Have you ever felt a home welcoming you, embracing and nuzzling you fondly as you walked around trying to see if everything is still the same  way as it was in your last visit? The bean bag was still around, only crying for more beans, the chikoo tree had grown sturdier and taller, the kitchen smelt the same, the passion fruit climbed still higher onto the debdaru tree, more foliage enveloped the house, the well and the tap behind the house silently waited for the kids to come and play.

 Oh yes! These books  within whose pages my imagination took flights into exotic lands and fantastic possibilities, were stacked neatly to be devoured by our children. They already have plans of lazing on the hammock squealing away with Archie, Tintin and Obelisk for company and climbing the Faraway Tree. The younger daughter has already warned me she is in granny's territory so my 'no TV' edict does not hold good. I let her be. It's vacation time for all.

   Waking up to the chirping birds, my mother's friends whom she feeds religiously, as they flutter out of their new homes on our trees, is a pleasant way to begin the day. The old bird house of bamboo had given away and so my mother got these earthen pots for them to nest in. I could watch them for hours together, flitting in and out as they go about their daily business of survival. I could afford to. I was on a holiday, miles away from my daily rut. I could lie down on the floor, after a sumptuous mom cooked meal in the afternoon, and let the breeze caress and lull me into that rare siesta. Why the floor? Because it is much cooler especially when there is no electricity, which is a regular story for most part of the day in that part of the country.  And if the leaves were motionless outside, the bisoni ( hand fan) did the needful while fanning in the day dreams. A luxury when  all year around, our lives are pivoting around the hands of the clock, mentally ticking off the to-do list.


       As dusk set in, we sat in the verandah sharing the oft repeated  anecdotes, never tiring of the repetitions. My father, of his childhood days about the self made bunkers, the World War soldiers travelling by, the Great Big Earthquake of 1950, the naughty antics. And me, of our childhood spent in our granny's home, of loitering around her fields and fruit orchards like vagabonds, of catching fireflies in the evenings and squabbling and sharing secrets with cousins, of granny's partiality towards the  grandaughters  and shooing away the grandsons. Old friends gathered and we talked and giggled away treading the leaves in the nostalgia filled lanes. Uncles and aunts descended to look up the girls and remark, " Oh! How they have grown!", " Look at  you, you  have lost so much weight and  colour!" although I weighed a sack more than I did in my last visit. Between the sips of the red liquor brewed from garden fresh tea leaves,( always a complementary for almost every household from a relative working in the gardens) hushed tones and sideward glances were dying to share the latest family gossip, scandal and politics. When there is an extended gargantuan family, be assured of interesting notes replete with the unmentionables and the 'tsk tsk' inspiring,  straining to tumble out of the closet.

          The days stretched languorously and peace descended with nights. Gradually, sanity returned. Amidst all this, and the wining and the dining, we managed to visit a few places, meet some interesting people and catch a special play. The play is very close to me aptly titled "Photo". It's a play that took me to Sibsagar, a place where I spent my first  year of existence. More so, it's a play where for the first time my girls and my husband watched my septuagenarian  father perform on stage in his decades old pursuit of his passion for the theater. A geologist by profession and an actor by passion. I would cherish this memory forever. Memories of  holding back my own lumps in the throat while  answering my daughter's tearful query, "Why does Koka have to die?", of sniffling an indignation "she is so rude to koka!" and the resounding applause at the end of it all. Blessed did I feel to be a part of this moment.                                                                                    


  This annual pilgrim to my home, my Tara, leaves me glistening, purging away all the dust and grime that settle obstinately in layers till a good shower shakes it all off, to once again  resurrect the foliage and let it dance in the wind.