I heard them say

Two conversations come to my mind when I think of the influences that shaped me. I was not a participant in either of them. Rather, I was a shameless eavesdropper. The conversations stayed with me for a long time. I turned them around in my mind dozens of times exploring new angles and arriving at different conclusions.

Time is a strange entity. I was never at peace with it. I always had trouble structuring my days. I dreaded clocks and calendars. Any time I was asked to plan for the future, I broke out in a sweat. Planning for the next five or ten years made no sense to me. I could not think where I was going, what were my goals and how I would reach them.

But these conversations morphed in my mind into something personal. These fragments became my compass in times of doubt. Time still is unmerciful to my mind but nostalgia colours events into something more comfortable.

The first conversation that affected me deeply was when we were vacationing in the hills. I, now, live in the hills and often think back to that time. There was a bend in the road with a couple of small shops. We stopped at one to buy batteries for the camera. And then, there they were, in the patch of sunlight peering through the dense tree cover. An elegantly dressed young woman with a much older man. My adolescent self caught a snippet as they walked by. She was talking about a recent law and order event and how the situation had been brought under control. She was confident and articulate. He looked every inch a man of the world, attentive and captivated.

That brief scene became the inspiration of my endeavour to change myself into an intelligent and articulate person. Where once I was scared of the future and of any kind of planning, now I credited the young woman for shaping my personality.

The second important conversation occurred at a railway station. This was much later in years when I had bid adieu to my tumultuous teens. I felt I had a mature understanding of matters. Still, I struggled in my relationships especially with my near ones.

At the station, dusk was falling and the chatter of pigeons beneath the sheds was loud. The platform teemed with people. Normally, I find railway stations romantic, with whiffs of adventure and uncertainty hanging in the air. It was here that Anna had met Vronsky (I had read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy at age 16). But, this day, time was heavy on my hands. Having visited my family, I was travelling back to my workplace. There had been misunderstandings and altercations.

I stood next to a group of well dressed young men. I could see they were siblings, come to see off their youngest brother. He looked sullen. And they started talking. I heard the eldest talk about their parents and the perceived favouritism. They talked of the simmering resentment within the family. They talked of the unmet expectations and the fractured relationships.

Listening on, I could put my own relationship with my parents in perspective. I could then understand that strife was a natural part of all families. But love had the power to bind. I mended my relations at home having learnt that lesson.

At some level, both conversations had affected me deeply at crucial times in my life. I came away learning from them. It worked better than a heart-to-heart talk.

House, dear home…

When I turned twelve, our family moved to a beautiful house in an achingly simple-yet-modern town, green to the edges of its being and trying to erase the memory of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. I felt myself enter a new phase of life when I came to my new house. Like the place, I too was trying to carve out an identity for myself. I tried for many years. My town succeeded.

The town is Bhopal in India. In 1984, there was a leakage of deadly Methyl-Iso-Cyanate(MIC) gas at an industrial plant owned by Union Carbide. The factory was located in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The leakage occurred on the intervening night of December 2 and 3. The magnitude of causalities and the subsequent damage was of horrendous proportions. Till date, the victims and their children continue their fight. To bring the accused to book. To claim compensation.

Before coming to Bhopal, I had spent a few years in a place that was considered prosperous and progressive. I found it full of pomposity, without any real beauty. The lanes were packed tight and the trees were being cut down for more developmental projects. People earned a lot. They loved their neighbours a little less.

But, moving to Bhopal felt fortunate. My family had already shifted into the new house. I was coming home from boarding school. As I got down from the train that cool autumn morning, I was greeted with the aroma of freshly baked cinnamon pastry. And, hot tea.

Delighted, I hugged my parents and my sister and was whisked off to our house in the suburbs. The morning air was delicious and so were the trees, the bushes and the shrubs dotting the roads. I saw low hedges and modest houses.

My first glimpse of our home was like a dream come true. Freshly whitewashed, with a pretty, semi-covered porch, colourful potted plants flanking the driveway, a small, lush garden. I spied a vegetable patch and fruit-laden trees in the backyard.

The porch, white and green, stayed my favourite place all through the three years we spent there. The rooms of the house retained a rustic charm, even though recently furnished and carpeted. The low furniture felt comfortable. The screened windows looked out to charming views.

When I ventured out to town, I visited the cultural centers and the museums and the lakes. Also, the beautiful gardens. What I did not see was the squalor, the poverty and the helplessness of victims of the gas tragedy(as it is still referred to) fighting for justice.

At home, I could listen to the birds in the trees, watch the chameleons scuttle across the grass and enjoy the occasional peacock, come to visit us. The koyal in the mango tree still haunts me after all these years. But what we do not contemplate does not disturb our sleep or our dreams. I was vaguely aware of how an entire community was trying to pick the pieces of their lives after a horrific tragedy. It was only later in life that I could see the juxtaposition of opposites in Bhopal as in my character.

Today, Bhopal is a clean, green, modern city with all amenities. The citizens enjoy a high quality of life. The accused in the gas tragedy have been convicted but the fight for the victims for a better life is far from over.

Happy Days

I love to bake cakes for my children’s birthdays. For me, it is the ultimate display of my affection for them.

This feeling perhaps goes back to my childhood. There were three of us siblings and Mom would bake, saute, fry for hours on end for each of our birthdays. It did not matter what was put on the table when our friends and relatives arrived; we could feel ourselves smothered by all the care and affection because of her painstaking preparations.

I also remember going out with my mother to get pretty frocks stitched for my birthday. The places we went to were bright, airy, elegant houses with pedigreed dogs of whom I was scared. I think those seamstresses were also mothers trying to bring cheer to their children and their friend’s children. We ate cup cakes with tea.

Yet, my favourite childhood food at the special occasions were not the crusty, baked-to-perfection cakes but the mouth watering samosas.

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Samosas are deep fried, conical fritters stuffed with potatoes and peas (mostly). They were one dish that graced the table of every house in North India, at least on special occasions. For birthdays, anniversaries, parties, get-togethers, samosas were ordered from halwais -sweetmakers. They were and still are rarely made at home.  It is one dish that has always been bought. Everybody ate them with abandon, dipping them in chutneys – sauces red and green.

At our house, whenever guests dropped in unexpectedly, Mom would send us children on an errand to buy samosas. I can still go to the shop in my mind, traverse the same narrow lanes, leading to the wide road bordered by tall walls and rimmed with barbed wire. It looked forbidding, so we quickly made the purchases and returned to our cheerful, familiar lanes.

To me, samosas symbolise happy times, togetherness, love and laughter.

Today, we have a plethora of choices when it comes to snacks. We serve healthier, more elegant and westernised options. But, nothing can beat my beloved samosas.

The Train Journey

I waited for the train on the platform. Jostling for space, I put down my bags next to me where I could keep an eye on them. Nasal, disembodied voices on the Public Address system informed the passengers about the arrivals and departures. The evening was cool, but the crowd made me feel uncomfortable. I was anxious as I was to appear for an interview the next day, which would decide the direction my career would take.

I noticed her as soon as she came to stand near me. Apparently, she was to board the same train. Cropped hair, a T-shirt and jeans with a backpack.

When the train came screeching in, we clambered on. She was in the same compartment as I. She settled her luggage which was not much. There was only one bag other than her backpack.

In the train compartment, there was murmured conversation. People settled down. I could hear a child wailing in the distance. There was a clank of the wheels and the train chugged along. As the day turned to dusk, I felt dreamy, cocooned in a world of my own. It felt as if we are travelling through time itself. It was dark outside and all the world was in that compartment. Nothing mattered but the present moment.

In a while, the Ticket Checker came. People stirred, looking in their pockets or luggage for their tickets. They extended their arms with the scraps of paper for the Ticket Checker to examine. And then, the Checker told the girl that her ticket was invalid and that she had to get down at the next station. She was stunned. But it seemed that there really had been a mistake. She was travelling one day before her schedule. She had mixed up the dates!

Now her nonchalant look turned to panic. She cajoled, pleaded, begged to be allowed to continue her journey. Everybody was sympathetic, including the Ticket Checker. He promised to do all he could to help her. The girl looked suitably grateful.

The passengers in the compartment waited along with her. She was offered food, drink and sympathy.

The Ticket Checker returned waving a new ticket. Some payment had to be made. She did that. He promised to return the balance before she alighted.

Relaxed, she started a conversation with others around her. I too talked to her of my present and future. My dreams and aspirations. Then we slept. The morning dawned clear and cold. We readied our baggage. We were soon to get down. The Ticket Checker appeared at the last moment with the balance he had to pay the girl. He expected gratitude but got a look of contempt. “Keep the change”, she said, waving him away.

Happy Birthday

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“Come now”, she laughed, “it’s your special day!”

Ruskin muttered something inaudible and stared at the eggs sizzling in the pan.

“Let’s plan your birthday, just the way you would want to spend it”, Natasha said brightly.

“It’s just another day for me”, Ruskin said quietly.

“Is it?”, she asked teasingly.

Natasha got up from the kitchen chair where she had been sitting and gently took the pan handle.
“I’ll look to the eggs. Why don’t you reach into the ‘fridge  to see the surprise?”

She looked over her shoulder smilingly as Ruskin took out the cake, examining it silently as if wondering what to say. As he put the cake down on the table, Natasha handed him a knife. “Let us cut it and sing Happy Birthday”, she suggested cheekily.

For a moment, the eggs sizzled in the pan and the coffee maker hummed. The pop of the toaster was loud. With a decisive motion, Ruskin got up and spooned the cake into two bowls. Sitting down, he began to eat with deliberate slowness. Natasha looked on puzzled, at the knife on the table.

” Natasha”, he said in a heavy voice, “I got a call from Margaret in the morning”. His lined face caught the sun from the kitchen window and Natasha could not read the expression in his eyes. “Wishing me Happy Birthday”, he added, looking at her searchingly.

White faced, she held onto the back of the chair for support and whispered, “She’s back?”

“Yes, she’s back and wants to move in”.

Getting up, he rinsed his bowl in the sink and turning around, folded his arms across his chest. Natasha broke down and sobbed hysterically. “You, I… All this time I have held you up, protecting you from your loss.. From the loss of your only child. And now you go running back into the arms of the woman who mistreated Charlotte and perhaps was the cause of her suicide”.

She stepped back, blindly into the table, upsetting the bowl which held a harshly scooped piece of cake. She looked at it and said brokenly, “I only tried to heal you with my love…”

He glared at her without remorse and said icily, “Pack your things and take the cake with you when you leave”

The Family Mask

I got to know the family when we moved to a new neighborhood early this year.

I first met the woman at the local grocer’s and was immediately captivated by her. Her straight, shoulder length hair was jet black and her groomed elegant look was somehow out of place in the lanes of row houses, that ran criss cross from the central plaza. I found out that she lived nearby. We exchanged pleasantries and politely asked each other to drop by.

I did not really plan to go down to her house but this is what I found myself doing when I was invited over for a party. The house looked ordinary enough, but as I walked in the front door, I was surprised by the bonhomie. The front room was full of people and laughter, which was a pleasant change from the reserved atmosphere I would encounter in other homes.

Her husband, a middle aged, balding man, welcomed us warmly as if we had known each other well. He was tall, almost towering over his wife. As the noise of the other arrivals distracted my hosts, I looked around at the beautifully decorated walls. The pride of the place belonged to a double photo frame designed to hold a couple’s photo. On the left was the husband, handsome and grinning in the flush of youth. On the right was the wife, whose photo curiously was not a close up of the face but a long shot of her standing demurely under a tree. The asymmetrical effect of the photograph was a little unsettling.

This, I found out later was the nature of the relationship. They were different temperamentally. He was hot and fiery; she was calm and gentle. He rambled on in conversations, fixing his visitors with the eye of a predator in spite of his friendly demeanor. She interspersed his monologues with gentle reminders.

Their son had an honest and eager-to-please smile. He jumped up to serve guests and tried to engage them in talk, a bare teenager though he were. The daughter had a haughty, aloof look about her, and preferred to eat standing at a side table, when the rest of the family was scattered around the room, talking and eating.

The grandmother was boisterous when I met her, as if she were trying to be cheerful to play down her insecurities. The patriarch of the family was a taciturn old man who had scaled great literary heights in his younger days. The family seemed to be living in his shadow and in the reflected glory of his success and stature. Everything that happened in the household seemed to be directed towards pleasing him, as if everyone had a different notion of what would amuse him.

A month back, the head of the family fell ill and passed away quietly. When I met my family friends a few days after the last rites, there was a spontaneity in the house, as if they had all dropped their masks.