Saturday, October 23, 2004

Ad Absurdum

People keep asking me, "Why don't you read the papers?"

There's no real answer to that question. It's like being asked, "why aren't you married?" a question that Bong / Gujju families on trains are wont to ask single women like me when we get trapped into the same compartment with them.

Truth is, I don't know why. The morning newspapers have never held much thrall for me. Barring The Telegraph Quick Crossword and the funnies, nothing much else in the papers has seemed worth it. Of course, flash-in-the-pan periods have happened - during my MBA applications, I read The Economic Times, like all other aspirants to the IIMs. Not to mention Business Today, Business India, Business World, Business Week, Business Standard... And again, during the week prior to placements interviews, like everyone else, I was on a strict diet of The Economic Times and Fortune Magazine.

Still, it bothers me from time to time. It seems everyone I know has a morning ritual involving tea / coffee, morning newspapers and the toilet, and I worry about why I have no interest in even glancing through the broadsheets. My newspaper-wallah has strict instructions to deliver papers to my door only on the weekend, when they come armed with bytes from some noted columnists who write commentary, not news.

This morning, however, when I sat down with papers and coffee, I finally figured why it is that I don't indulge in them daily. (I knew there had to be something). "Veerappan's wife to sue Government for laying a meticulous trap for him," or something to that effect, say today's papers.

For the uninitiated, Veerappan (Koose Muniswamy), roamed the forests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for years, and was wanted for slaughtering elephants without number, smuggling ivory and sandalwood worth billions (in USD), and killing in the range of about 130 men, including police officers and forest rangers. He may have single-handedly damaged the ecology of the Deccan, and endangered the survival of Indian elephants as a species.

And his wife wishes to sue the Government for hunting him down like a common criminal! And as though sueing the Government isn't enough, she then wants Government assistance with bringing up her children. Talk about biting the hand that may yet feed you.

I grant that it's not just the papers - art is a reflection of reality, after all, just as the papers reflect the world at large. Absurdity comes to our door, rolled up, every morning because the world supplies the presses with it every hour of every day. Somehow, that becomes a bit much to take. Which, perhaps, is why newspapers come equipped with comic relief too. If one can call it that.

A long-ago headline from the Times of India informed us, "Marital Law Declared in East Timor." Only that wasn't very comic either. The most recent winner of the Nobel peace prize, a woman who has planted 3 million trees in sub Saharan Africa, has had nothing to do with preserving or driving peace, and believes that HIV was created by evil scientists in order to do away with blacks. And a recent headline about the fight for American presidency states that the "hotness" quotient of candidates' wives and daughters is making a big difference to the race. God know that having a cute daughter is a matter of national importance, and the key factor to choosing the right candidate, and will certainly have a bearing on his understanding of the economy and foreign policy.

When mainstream news is this hysterical, it's a matter of debate why newspapers still maintain the Funnies section. But while they do, I'd prefer to get my laughs there. And only on weekends, please.

Until I decide to do a second MBA, that is.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Winter Air

Winter has climbed over the clouds and appeared - plonk - in the middle of Bombay. Sudden, unheralded and completely unexpected.

I should have noticed this a few days ago, when I didn't have to throw the sheets off me in a rage in the heat-sweltering dawn, but I didn't. Because in Bombay, there are no signs, really. No sunlight changing to the glow of sunshine, no yellow-ness of late afternoon warmth against walls and streets. No gradual shift, complete with falling leaves, the air growing thicker and thicker, as though it's concealing a secret until, one day, just as you feel you can't endure it any longer, it bursts open with dew and earthworm mounds on the school field and an explosion of white-and-orange shiuli flowers on the hard winter ground.

No, no signs at all. No brooding sense in the pit of my stomach, that something's-going-to-happen-I-don't-know-what-but-I'm-excited feeling. Suddenly, at dawn yesterday, it became too cold to sleep with the fan on. Get up, fan off, loo, drink water, look at time (5:00 a.m.), stagger back to bed, check alarm (set for 5:30) and switch it off, get under covers, snuggle up to A, drift back to sleep.

6:30 a.m. Daylight. Awaken slowly, dozily, rub eyes, squint, notice that the light is different, the air is different. There's a nip - Bombay's poor-cousin version of a nip, but a nip none-the-less - in the air. Outlines seem more distinct, as though the cold air has crystallised the edges of things, exploded vague stories and myths, made things cleaner, clearer. Stretch lazily, lie back in bed, staring through the window at the sky (white winter sky, gleaming). At the trees outside, ringing to the chuck-chuck-chirrik sounds of birds rushing about, busy with humming processions of insects (with "Bugs At Work" signs) drilling flowers and draining honey. At the leaves, a dew-washed fresh green, shining in the crisp new air.

Morning coffee (I'm not supposed to have it, but what the heck, some days are just ear-marked for a good steaming mug of caffeine), standing at the window sipping, looking at green-leaf-sunshine, I get goosebumps from the crisp air and the sense of potential about the day. There's something about winter that just gets me. It gets under my skin, whirls things around a bit, makes me giggle.

Long years ago, winter holidays, Ma and I (in one of her best "holiday projects" ever) would go walkabout in Calcutta. Math-and-coffee-mornings (Hall and Knight, Hall and Stevens), sandwich-and-oranges lunch, and then off to explore the city. Winter afternoon in a boat on the river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Cousins and aunts, oranges and chocolate, I-saw-a-Dolphin triggering rival "so-did-I"s, lulled by the blip-blip of the oar and our mothers' laughter. By bus to Nimtola Ghat, the Circular Rail to Princep Ghat, and back walking, after coffee and chicken pakoras in the Garden Cafe by the river. A morning at the zoo, an expedition with my cousin M, armed with flask and water and sandwiches, and peanuts for the elephants (Roshanara and something-something - can't believe I've forgotten the name - call my cousin in a frenzy to check if she remembers), an afternoon at all our shrines, gaping at the otter, gazing wistfully at the bears ("But why can't we keep one?") before finally taking the long way home, dusk and sunset, and gentle fog settling and back home, exhilarated, to coffee and hot baths and one more adventure under our belts.

Winter mornings at home are still magical. Ma and Baba sitting outside, under the beach-umbrella we bought years ago, that is defying all known laws of the universe by still remaining in one piece. Coffee, newspapers, The Telegraph quick crossword (by arrangement with The Guardian), neighbours and friends dropping by for coffee and staying for esoteric discussions -quantum mechanics and road trips, my dogs, resplendent - and preening somewhat - in their winter coats, running amok - chasing mice and birds and each other with equal enthusiasm before flopping down hufffffff, nose-under-chair - cocking their ears at morning activity - chirrik chirrik birds, pen scratching over paper, the car being washed, and someone collecting the masses of shiuli scattered on the ground, to heap onto a black stone plate, to place on a white marble table.

Coffee under my belt, the morning beckons. Gym, provisions-shopping, and the beach - across the street - in winter, with stony sea and white heads of foam. Coffee plans with P. Crisp air creeping through my windows, filling my soul. Sunshine on green leaves and long dangling stalks of wispy, cotton-y flowers, and Simon and Garfunkel singing I Am a Rock in the background. I clean my fans, dust the ceiling clean of cobwebs and settle into the beanbag with more coffee, as A sleeps on. Still looking out the window while the sunshine dapples the room. Bombay winters may not be a patch on Calcutta ones, but what the heck, I'll take these too.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Cleaning Bug

It's the weekend again! Vive Maharashtra and her mid-week elections. And her civic-minded Government, that believes it ought to be a holiday, in order to provide all citizens with the opportunity to vote without shirking work. Vive vive vive!

Safe in the thought that tomorrow is a blessed holiday, I decide to take the time this evening to clean up my workspace. Blasting music and dancing around are therpeutic on their own, and if you're cleaning up something to boot - well, it's a magical world! So anyway, here I am, executing little pirouettes and twirls shredding paper and shoving things in the dustbin.

The office takes on a different aspect after and before hours. The emptier it is, the nicer it is, somehow. You can blast your music, do your own thing, and almost imagine that whatever work you're doing is making a difference to someone's life somewhere. Almost. And of course, you can blast Mission Impossible at work, and pretend to be Tom Cruise.

But coming back to cleaning and its wonders: If you don't enjoy cleaning, then you're clearly not a junk-person, like I am. All I have to do is open one drawer, and out pop a hundred different things, lost and forgotten, full of musty smells and memories, enough to completely derail the cleaning effort while I pore over them and get my fill...

Personal memorabilia... souvenirs carefully preserved over the years, till I no longer know why I preserved them, but am still loathe to throw away, in case they once meant something to me (yes, people, even though I no longer know why I've kept them). For instance, on several rounds of spring cleaning, I've come across a box, among my belongings, which contains programmes from several Nativity evenings in school. Understandable, since, over the course of a long career on the stage, I've played everything from the good sheep (pig, actually) in the field on the Holy Night to the good shepherd who saw them, to the Star in the east. Some memorabilia is definitely called for - I'm just glad I didn't save crumbs from the ceremonial brownies and samosas we used to be given at the end of the evening. But along with these programmes, I've also found some old chocolate wrappers. Cadbury's Crackle, if memory serves me right. For the life of me, I can't remember why I've kept them. Was it the first crackle I ever ate? In which case, why didn't I preserve other firsts? Did someone "special" give it to me? No clue, but on any of the three times I found the wrapper, did I throw it away? Of course not!

Or old photographs... they pop up in the most unexpected places, and instead of cleaning, I end up sipping my coffee and looking through them. I'm convinced that we show each other photographs only so that we have an excuse to look at them again themselves - there is nothing quite so fascinating, so endlessly interesting, as photographs of one's own life and times. Lives summed up by dog-eared pieces of stiff paper, fading and sepia-toned. And the retrospective revelations - this is who I was then, stupid, young, full of idealistic illusions, gullible... and this photograph was taken by so-and-so, at such-and-such place, and oh how lovely it was to gather there every Sunday... Every picture a world in itself, dragging you into orbit around it, leaving spring cleaning forgotten, duster and rag lying in a heap on the floor.

Then there are old letters and cards... carefully preserved, in a large bag, some tied together with ribbons, some hurriedly squashed and held together with a rubber band (now melted)...
Sometimes, even till you've forgotten who these people are whose letters you've preserved, or what incident they're referring to. Old letters always make for some hilarious reading - and some wistful moments too. But this is the happy sort of nostalgia - the kind that makes you smile and cry simultaneously, and think fondly of people misplaced in the mists of your past.

And books... nothing is as wonderful as taking out a cupboard-full of books to air and sun and dust (wait, this is not the wonderful part, this is the manual labour part)... and then putting them back in. Each time you do this, you can rearrange, redesign the grand scheme according to which your books are filed. If earlier, it was by genre (fiction, academia, non-fiction, humour, comics...), this time, you can do it solely by author's name. Firstname or last. Or chronologically - and here again, permutations and combinations - the order in which you read them, or in which they were written, or in which you obtained them (even if you didn't read them then...) The possibilities are endless. Happy afternoons of activity.

For those who know them, there are wonders untold to cleaning. Therapeutic properties (I'm patenting this), the wonder and mystery of old things found, and of course, the constant danger of wild animals appearing from the mess in the corner of your room that you haven't touched for 5 months.

And inevitably, somewhere along the course of the cleaning, you end up just gazing out the window at green-leaf-sunshine forever, without really seeing them, letting your thoughts wander. With a gently steaming cup of coffee at hand, half-forgotten, duster and rags and mop lying in a huddle on the floor, your hands black and grimy from the cleaning...

Which reminds me, the shredder's waiting...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


First, to S, T, P and S.

<a href=

It's no small thing when one's ooooooldest friend gets married. Some moral support, some solidarity, is called for. So, off I went to Delhi, along with some other friends, to help her get smashed (as all good friends must) and cry at the wedding (as all good women friends must).

And all I will say about this, at this juncture, is that helping someone do something can be a tricky thing. It can totally backfire on you before you know it. My advice to all of you out there is, when you're helping friends-about-to-be-married to get plastered, stick to lime juice yourself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning... the nursery, where we began this journey. Most of us have been together, in school, since this nursery, though we weren't all conscious of each other at the time. That's not surprising - in nursery, we were conscious of only 2 things, and both were scary.

First: Buddhi Ayah - the bane of our existence. She towered above us in those days, and wore big, scary glasses, which magnified her eyes to the size of footballs. She had hard, scaly hands, red teeth, horns, and a tail, and she could change her size at will. She was fear personified.

Second: the Blue Box. A horrific, terrifying, un-name-able thing, the mere mention of it was enough to make us behave for days on end... The Blue Box was something we used to creep around, quietly, in case it awoke and devoured us... And if we'd done something really, shockingly bad - like call someone a "buddy basket", or push somebody off the jungle gym, we'd be made to sit on it... for hours and hours - while the rest of the class watched from a safe distance to catch the box open and engulf us.

In later years, of course, we saw both Buddhi Ayah and the Blue Box for what they were - a tiny, untiringly patient ayah, responsible for keeping 100 of us clean and hygienic, when all we wanted to do was wallow in the sand (yes, the same sand in which someone had experienced a slight umm... plumbing accident a few hours ago) - quietly in love with generations of children who would then grow up and send their kids back to her nursery. And a big wooden box, painted blue (different shades, over the years), shaded and hued with childish imagination, and grown into a legend over years of children's hushed whispers heaped one on top of one another.

So this is where we began our journey. A huge, old nursery with massive windows, sunshine-dappled, colourful rooms, filled with jungle gym, sandpit, a slide and a see-saw. An old piano, played by older fingers once a day, as generations of children, over the years, danced to Mrs. Lovery's tunes. A wendy house in the corner, colourful wooden chairs and tables, bearing the marks of our Camel crayons, rubbed into paper till it tore, leaving crayon marks on the tables, all manner of hideous scribblings proudly displayed as art. A large wooden table in the middle, for the teachers to have their tea and snacks at, while we ran off to tiffin rooms, or ignored the food and made for the see-saw. Mattresses on the floor, where we would gather around in wide-eyed wonder to listen to Mrs. Sarawgi's stories, or learn nursery rhymes from Mrs. Paul.

Nursery was sort of like being in a womb. We were never unprotected - never allowed to go anywhere without a swarm of teachers accompanying us, and when we did finally move up to higher classes (kindergarten!!!), where we were allowed to roam the school premises without adult supervision, small wonder that for the longest time, the one place we kept going back to was the nursery! On the shared pretense that we just wanted to check things out - but actually, because it was such a cheerful, happy, cozy place (if a hall so cavernous can be called cozy!), so full of wonder.

Strangely, my last day in school, too, was in the nursery - we wrote our final board examinations - our passports to the world - in those same sunshine rooms, with the afternoon sun slanting across the floor, and the piano gleaming black, the dolls house (whose doors we could no longer fit through) beckoning from the back of the room, as we laboured over differential equations and aldehyde formation, shakespeare and keynes. And all the while, our brains tripped to a different tune, recalling shadowy corners,hazy faces and incidents, and remembering, remembering. Singing, "Lord dismiss us with thy blessing, thanks for mercies past received..."

But in the beginning, before all that, there was only the big room, and the big windows, wooden tables and chairs, story time and the magic e. And the magic that went with us along our journey through school, and that has kept us together still.