Monday 31 December 2012

A tribute to Damini

The author was on a sabbatical this month, so the long gap.
Though hoping to end the year on a cheerful note, it would be more fitting perhaps to help in any small way to make the world safer for the girl child, the woman, the mother, sister and the wife ... I would like to contribute my mite to the debate on dealing with rapacious men who have a free run of the country, it seems. Months ago, I wrote this on another blogsite, which never got around to enable its publication. Though I wrote it long back, it remains as painfully relevant, perhaps more. This is equally a tribute to the late Damini, who met with such an unnecessary, tragic end:

An animated debate took place recently on television on the effect of TV serials on family lives, girls in particular. One participant pointed out that girls were getting wary of marriage into joint families. The reason: an overdose of intrigues by women in such households and the tyrannical ways of mothers-in-law shown in these serials.
But rape is surely an even more serious issue. There are a number of Hindi serials currently dealing with this matter too. One disturbing serial centres on an incurable lecher, a habitual rapist who does not spare even family. Another is dealing quite insensitively with a rape and its aftermath that includes overt and covert jibes by neighbours and relatives, among other things. It remains to be seen how they pan out eventually.
The victim’s state of mind is one concern. Punishing the rapist is another. For society at large, however, the bigger issue must be how to curb this most inhuman of crimes.
Our social fabric is wearing thin. Rape, incest and other types of sexual abuse are not new to society. They did happen even a hundred years ago – indeed, all through the ages. What is worrying is the rapid spread of sexual abuse, and our near-incapacity to curb it, in terms of collective will. We are becoming inured to reports of rape and assault in newspapers and on television. We are accepting that the crime will mostly go unpunished, or dealt with lightly, if at all.
As a society we are countenancing it nonchalantly. We do not worry on reading that what is reported may be a fraction of the actual number of incidents occurring every day. There could be many more instances where the victims are threatened into silence, or too traumatized, or even unaware of the criminality of what is being done to them. And often the perpetrators are known to them: people who ideally should be protective of them, who teach them, live, study or work with them, who should be trustworthy.
Then there are the predators who stalk and pounce on a whim, or rape out of a sense of power, or even avenge a perceived wrong committed by someone else.
A murderer takes away a life, but a rapist assaults not only the victim’s body but also her spirit. Both types are equally culpable, and neither deserves leniency. Recent reports on Supreme Court rulings (Supreme Court rules, no corroboration required in rape cases: DNA, October 11, 2011; Rape case: life term to father, brother upheld: The Hindu, July 10, 2011) are reassuring, but justice needs to be swiftly delivered, in every case. However, in a case filed in 2007, the Delhi high court has awarded just seven years’ rigorous imprisonment for a crime committed on the victim over three traumatic years (Priest gets 7-yr RI for rape: The Times of India, April 4, 2012).  
News agency Reuters reported from Rome: “According to some estimates, only 5 per cent of rape victims in Italy report the crime to police” (Critics outraged at Italian court’s rape ruling, Asian Age, February 3, 2012). The percentage is that low in a so-called developed western society; imagine the situation in a country such as ours, where for many mothers it is still anathema to discuss even menstrual issues with their daughters, where “name and honour” is paramount for their families. Surely rapists who escape punishment far, far outnumber those convicted.
Even if the victim were courageous enough to fight for justice, the system and the law, aided by a male-dominated society, go easy on the offender. Families of victims are bribed or simply intimidated into silence. How to bring justice to a ravished woman?
This may sound too radical, capital punishment may be perceived as too harsh, but every rapist deserves not less than a life sentence at least, non-commutable. The most severe punishment is reserved for the “rarest of rare” cases, but every single rape ought to be treated as such. Can there be any extenuating circumstances for such an abominable deed?
What gave him pleasure once can return to prompt the rapist into a repeat act any time again. Are even his own womenfolk safe from him any more? Can we afford to trust again someone who did not think of the lifelong effect of his heinous act on his victim?
It can never spring from a spontaneous thought, because he has forced himself on someone. This scourge of easy targeting of women has to be gotten rid of. Man or woman, you cannot deny the lurking tension till your daughter, sister, wife or mother return safe to the sanctuary of your home.
The 1988 movie Zakhmi Aurat, aired recently on television, made a case for the same punishment that a woman judge recently advocated – bobbitise the rapist. And then let him roam free, now to commit a different crime to vent his frustration?
While we hope another Kalpana Chawla is growing up in our midst or more Indra Nooyis will head big corporations, a queer situation is developing on the ground. As more women come out to study, to work, to breathe more easily away from hearth-bound routines, to contribute meaningfully to society, they still find themselves in peril – from an ever-growing number of potential abusers. Find a woman who can claim she has never been groped, whistled or leered at, or not borne insinuating remarks at the very least. The more they strive to live life on their own terms, the more they are vulnerable to men looking to feed their lust on.
And because it is difficult to keep the predators’ abundant testosterone in check, women are told to avoid travelling alone, working late, venturing out after sundown with or without male escorts. Indeed, they must stop going out altogether to escape inevitable assault.
Some men wage a battle so that girls are not killed. Fathers put their lifetime’s savings at their daughters’ disposal so they can get educated, make a mark for themselves. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous men prowling about, too, waiting to vanquish in body and spirit some mans beloved daughter, some mans beloved sister.
And these perpetrators are a confident lot. Those who spring to the defence of women are amply warned off, time and again. How many of us, for instance, remember Mumbai boys Keenan and Rueben, killed because they tried to stop eve-teasers?
The assailants may be mentally sick or maybe hardened criminals, but the loopholes that help them elude punishment must be plugged. And there should be the fear of imprisonment until death. Nothing less seems deterrent enough. The Supreme Court has rightly remarked on the “emotional injury” inflicted on a rape victim (Asian Age, cited above). That injury never heals. It is the responsibility of society to ensure that no one dare inflict such an injury.

Monday 26 November 2012

The sari connection

Palakkad. It was the first name that sprang into Subhadra’s mind.
“Palakkad,” she told her inquisitor, tired of avoiding a reply. The young man had been grilling her for some minutes now. .
“Seriously? In which state is that?” Sunjiv asked, uncertainty clearly written on his brow.
Subhadra decided to take a chance. “Kerala,” she told him rashly, making a mental note to check it on Internet the moment his back was turned.
Sunjiv worked in the HR department, and sat in a cabin opposite to hers, at the far end of the big hall.
Subhadra in a sari.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Once he heard her speak into the phone in impeccable Punjabi, and sauntered across to her table on some pretext. He began a casual chat on a small office matter. Soon she got used to making small talk with him. They conversed in English, always, till one day he dropped a line in Punjabi and she replied in the same language. He seized the opportunity swiftly.
“Are you a Punjabi?”
The cocky lad should have seen it coming, but did not.
“Oh no, how could you think that of me?” she pouted, sounding offended.
The young man fumbled for words. “I wondered how you could be, but the other day you were talking quite fluently in Punjabi. So …”
“So, are you an Englishman by the same criterion?” she retorted.
“N-no, I always thought you were from Bengal. Now you say you are from Kerala.”
“Why, do I look like a Bengali?” She was beginning to enjoy pulling his leg.
Sunjiv was positively squirming now.
She wore such a diverse range of saris that it was difficult to tell which part of the country she came from, he explained.
“You mean to say I should not be wearing saris? Or only one type of sari? Or only salwar kameez? Perhaps western suits? I had no idea you kept such a sharp eye on what women wear,” Subhadra said, ragging him more.
“Actually, the variety you wear is so wide, we often discuss it,” Sunjiv blurted, now profusely apologetic.
“We? Who else is tracking what I wear?”
“Don’t take it otherwise, please,” Sunjiv begged. “Banjyot in my department and I often talk about the way you glide into office in your crisp sari. You don’t circulate much, but whenever you do talk to someone you sound very pleasant,” he coloured deeply as he defended himself.
“Is that such a bad thing?” she asked him, picking on him.
“N-no, ma’am, it’s not that. We fell into this habit of betting on what colour of sari you would come in.”
“That’s not done,” Subhadra frowned. “You lay bets on such trivial issues?”
“Believe me, ma’am, it’s all healthy and with no money involved.”
She pretended to be annoyed now.
“How is it anyone’s business what I wear to work?” she demanded.
“But that’s exactly what we mean,” he sounded almost deferential. “It’s a pleasure to behold you … business-like, professional, self-contained, and — and tastefully dressed. That is all, ma’am, I assure you,” Sunjiv was almost babbling. “That is how we came to wonder which part of the country you came from. It’s entirely harmless talk, ma’am. No offence whatsoever, ma’am.”
Subhadra decided to let up the pressure a bit.
She made him sit down, and called for coffee. Soon the talk veered round to the sari she was wearing that day. It was Sambalpuri, from Orissa, she told him.
Later, she accompanied Sunjiv to Banjyot’s cabin, at last making a friend in her office, indeed, two friends.
Banjyot was a Punjabi, too, like Sunjiv. She had little knowledge of saris, being more inclined towards western attire. The trio shared some light moments over the episode and then headed back to their respective desks.
Subhadra’s saris helped cement the friendship. Sometimes she told the duo how she had picked out a particular  colour combination. Sometimes her new friends tried to guess the type of silk used in her sari. Almost every sari had a story behind it: how Subhadra’s husband had pulled out a particularly striking one from a heap of silks in a South Indian shop, how husband and wife ended up buying the same shade of rust at separate stalls, and so on.
A few weeks later, Subhadra decided to tell Banjyot the truth about herself, but waited for a good occasion to tell Sunjiv.
He was quizzing her about her husband one day: “How did you decide to marry a Punjabi?” “How come you are so fluent in the language?” “Does your husband speak Bangla?”
Humouring him, she said: “We met at a seminar, and clicked.”
“Just like that?”
“Well, it took some effort on his part convincing me,” she smiled naughtily.
Sunjiv was clearly bent on romanticizing her so-called affair. She embellished her story with nonsensical tales of the courtship. She said her family hailed from Kerala but she was born in Bengal and studied in Delhi. Sunjiv seemed to lap it all up … how she had scorned her husband’s advances at first but secretly admired him from day one; how he turned up at her doorstep every other day; how they dated for two whole years. Wide-eyed, he exclaimed, “Ah! Sir must really have fallen for you.”
At one stage, she could no longer hold back her mirth: “Silly, I am a born Punjabi and had an arranged marriage! Within months.”
“I don’t believe you, ma’am,” Sunjiv said indignantly.
“You spun a romantic web about my marriage, and I led you on because you were so hung on it,” she replied. “It’s just that I’m a cosmopolitan Indian woman. My husband and I share this love for all types of saris. It helps that I have a non-Punjabi look, which fooled you. I just played along, man,” she replied.
Sunjiv’s bewilderment gave way to a sheepish grin when he realized how his runaway imagination had invited an elaborate joke on himself.

Monday 19 November 2012

Tastie Toast Café

Honee worked at Tastie Toast Café. He attended two-hour morning classes at the slumside tent, then scampered off to the bus station for his 9.20 a.m. ride to the city centre.
The café was famous for its black tea and black coffee, but most of all for its Tastie Toast. All six working days of the week, the owner kneaded the dough with his own hands and prepared the stuffing five times a day to get that perfect taste into his unique patty.
The whole staff – that is, Honee, Bindi and Mandra – had become good friends. Their work bound them closer than any Fevicol could, Honee mused. After all, they worked sort of butt-to-butt in the tiny kitchen at the back of the café.
It hadn’t always been such a tight squeeze, but the cafe’s growing popularity had forced the boss to make more space for his customers and push the kitchen wall closer to the back. As a result, they had to lightly shove each other by their backsides to move in or out of the kitchen. It was dicey, manoeuvring with trays and steaming mugs balanced on each palm. Like today.
“Coming, saarrr!” Honee replied in a singsong tone when the perpetually drunk Bear called out a third time for his Tastie Toast.
“Bear” was their nickname for the grumpy, bearded man who lurched in every morning, his cap dangling down one ear and spiky hair shining in the sun. He slumped into the corner by the big glass window, ate Tastie Toasts and drank till he was sozzled.
 Another regular was the “Dream”. Some years back she used to wear skimpy blouses and flared pants tied high on her waist. Now she had put on weight and wore tight, ill-fitting tops with skirts or pants that did not match. She loved Tastie Toast Café even more than her cigarettes. Once she was inside the café, she wolfed down Tastie Toasts and had black coffee laced with a drink she poured from the tiny flask ever-present in her huge purse. She did not smoke except on her way out. Boss served her himself, preparing Tastie Toasts in quick succession so that her plate was never empty.
Tastie Toast on a tray.
The black coffee was a hot favourite.
Digital sketches: Harjeet
Honee’s personal favourite was the “Cane”, a quiet old man with thick eyebrows. Short and stout, he walked with a cane, his head erect, and always landed up at 11 sharp for a cup of tea with milk, a Tastie Toast and a cookie. Then he would strut to his office hard by. It seemed he had no cook at home because after work hours, he dropped in for two Tastie Toasts and one mug of black coffee. After that, he walked out in the opposite direction, to the bus station.
Cane’s friend was of middling height, sporting a moustache. He usually darted in 15-20 minutes after Cane, whispered some secrets perhaps, and scuttled off before Cane had finished his cookie. It was done in clockwork precision. But Honee had not been able to establish if Cane and “Moustache” worked in the same office.
Bear interrupted Honee’s reverie: “Boy, what are you dreaming about? Where’s my toast today?”
Honee looked around. He had unwittingly put down the Tastie Toast at Cane’s table. Swiftly retrieving the plate, he muttered a soft “Sorry, saar” and shot back into the kitchen.
Cane was fidgety today, and to top it Honee had delayed his order. Mandra was poised at the door, and passed on a tray.
“Quick,” he hissed to Honee, who darted back to where Cane was sitting.
“Here, saar!” he panted as he put down the tray. “The other saar is not coming today? All well, saar?” he asked.
“No, he hasn’t come in, and I’m worried,” Cane replied. “I hope he is well.”
“He will be fine, saar,” Honee said reassuringly.
This was Honee’s longest conversation with any customer. His boss did not encourage small talk. He philosophized that rich people were best left alone. Serve them well, and earn your living. Stay out of their hair, and they won’t bother you. “It’s that or your job. I don’t want trouble in any form,” the boss would often say.
But today Honee felt impelled to ask more. So, undaunted, he prodded Hero for more information.
“My friend lives all alone, just like me,” Cane said.
“So I was right about him,” Honee thought. Aloud, he asked if he could be of any help.
“I’ll let you know,” a distracted Cane replied.
Honee fretted all day, waiting for Cane to come in before they shut shop. The boss had to pull him up twice for not paying attention to his work.
Cane did not turn up that evening. Honee felt concerned. Mandra had left early, so Honee told Bindi about it when they were scrubbing the floor.
Downing the shutter, they noticed a lone light in the building next door where Cane worked. Climbing two steps at a time, they gained the glass door in a trice. Cane was sitting alone, staring at his typewriter. They roused him, and guided him down the stairs. Bindi stood guard by him while Honee clambered back to lock up the office. They offered to escort him home, but Cane shook his head determinedly.
They decided to trail him. He wound up three or four lanes later at what was probably his friend’s place.
They waited in the shadows. Cane was back in five minutes, his shoulders shaking. Honee made bold to step forward. “All well, saar?” he asked for the second time that day.
“I could never have guessed!” Cane had been laughing silently, and did not bother to ask the young men what they were doing there.
“That woman who comes in to drink liquor with her coffee proposed to him yesterday. He’s so scared he’s holed up since, ha-ha!” Cane said gleefully.
He was referring to the Dream. That much Honee could figure, but he had not seen her and the middle-aged Moustache exchanging a word.
Cane said the two worked in the same office, and she had been chasing Moustache for some time. He would leave for the café the moment she entered office, pour out his agony to Cane. Somehow, that fortified him for the rest of the day. Today, however, she had waylaid him, and proposed. He ran off and had since been hiding in his one-room tenement.
“He doesn’t like her?” Honee asked curiously.
“He does, but he’s scared of her ex, the one who sits in that corner in your café,” Cane told them.
“Her ex?” they exclaimed.
“Well, they went around a bit. Though she broke off the affair, he does not let anyone near her,” Cane explained. “He is a violent drunkard, and my friend won’t risk offending him.”
“They can complain to the police, or get married and go to a new place. Why are they spoiling their lives for a drunken man?” Honee said with naïve wisdom.
“It’s not easy to change jobs, and anyway he has never discussed it with her. He’s too scared of him,” Cane told them as they walked to the bus station.
“He won’t be around too long,” Honee assured Cane lightly, leaving him wondering.
Honee went straight to his teacher’s house in the slum, and told him about Moustache and the Dream. He asked if there was a way to get rid of Bear. The teacher said the café owner could complain about his drinking. But Bear had been doing that for so long without creating a scene! “So you create one,” the teacher suggested.
Three days later, Cane was beaming at the corner where Bear usually sat, for Moustache and the Dream sat holding hands there.
And Bear? He had been taken away by the police for drinking in public and threatening to kill some youth harmlessly indulging in Tastie Toast at the café. Bear had actually brandished an evil-looking knife drawn from his pouch! It had been touch and go.
The plan was carried out so smoothly that no one suspected the young men came from a slum, dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion, and there at Honee’s behest.
Honee could not stop grinning all day. The Dream had for the first time taken her coffee neat, without drawing out that flask from her bag.

Thursday 1 November 2012

When Stuti met Dhwani

Their biology teacher had asked the children to separate the different parts of the flowers on their desks. When Ma’am called out “Sepals”, they were supposed to hold up the sepals; then the petals or stamens or ovary. Stuti could not bring herself to ruin her cute purple flower, though her classmates were doing just that.
Winning pair Stuti & Dhwani.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
The boy sitting next to her nudged her: “What are you waiting for?”
She shook her head silently. When her turn came, she stood up, held up the full flower and pointed to the stamens nonchalantly.
“Why did you not pull the flower apart?” Ma’am asked.
“I want to keep it this way.”
Ma’am decided to overlook it, for there was no gainsaying Stuti.
The child was so sensitive and self-assured. She was also very responsible and helpful, willing to fetch and carry study materials for her teachers, sharing her tiffin with her class fellows or setting their school ties right as they poured into the assembly hall.
Indeed, Stuti was the talking point among her teachers. What spooked them was Stuti’s total lack of self-consciousness. She did exactly what she wanted, when she wanted, how she wanted. The physics teacher often recounted the incident of the pencil. A boy in the front row had come to school without a pencil. Stuti did not wait for Sir to ask if anybody would lend the boy a pencil. She rose from her chair as Sir began scolding him, passed on the pencil and was back at her seat without a word.
The English teacher had another tale to share. Stuti came to the rescue of four or five children who could not fill in the blanks, turn by turn. While they shuffled on their feet and stammered, she just uttered just one letter that made it easy to guess the word.
No amount of persuasion or harsh words could deter Stuti if she thought she was doing the right thing. She was just about 14, but her demeanour was one of a peaceful sage. Not for her the typical tricks that children play on each other; no antics, no teasing. Her soft “Good morning” shamed her naughtiest classmates into returning the greeting. Pranksters kept away from her.
Every morning, Stuti wiped her desk with a piece of flannel she pulled out from her bag. Then she would lay out her books period-wise inside the desk, pencils and rubber to one side. She never forgot to bring the right books, her pen never ran out of ink and she always had a rubber and sharpened pencil at hand. She submitted her assignments on time and she also topped in class, invariably.
The teachers noticed that the rest of the class stood in awe of her. They knew it was not fair, but they could not resist shifting a recalcitrant child next to her. The child would be miraculously reformed. Stuti never exerted herself or imposed her will on them; they just submitted to it. She could do no wrong, unlike them. She did not scramble out of class, she did not push or shove, she never stuffed her books into her bag anyhow and rush out when the bell rang. Her placid manners won her admirers, but she was friends with none. Rather, all were wary of befriending her.
That did not seem to bother her. She lived in a world of her own. Her teachers brought up the subject with her parents, who said she behaved exactly like that at home as well. She was a loving child, but kept to herself. All efforts to draw her out were in vain, they said.
Stuti’s well-organized world went topsy turvy with the arrival of Dhwani. The new girl in her class was as noisy as Stuti was quiet. She was a tomboy, playing a prank on the unsuspecting math teacher the very day she joined. She banged her desk shut, scraped her chair loudly, and merrily nicknamed her classmates by their looks.
One was dubbed “Mr Hairy”, another was called “Miss Curly Hair”, yet another “Mr Broad Shoulders” and so on, but somehow the ebullient Dhwani could not fathom Stuti.
The tall Stuti just walked up to her when Ma’am introduced her to the class, shook her by the hand and said: “Hi, I’m Stuti. I sit in the second-last row.” No other child in the class had done that. It was not the norm, anywhere. And Ma’am had not blinked.
She determined to try breaking “The Silence”. Yes, Dhwani decided, that would be her name for the enigmatic girl beside whom she was made to sit the very next day. She refused to be intimidated by Stuti’s orderliness and self-contained bearing.
Dhwani would sing loudly during lunch break, exhorting the others to join in. She would play pass-the-parcel with a greasy lunch box, wipe her hands on her skirt, empty her bag onto the desk if she couldn’t find a book – and the class was loving it. She was normal. They flocked around her, enjoyed her silly antics and generally became a livelier lot.
Stuti watched apprehensively. She did not grudge Dhwani her boisterousness, but she could not digest such lack of restraint either. She did not want to be seen as stuck-up, but she couldn’t join in.
Being deskmates, they had to spend a lot of time together. So one day when Dhwani left her rough notebook at home, she sheepishly accepted the sheets Stuti handed out from her own notebook without being asked. Dhwani sprang to massage Stuti’s foot when her chair toppled down on it. And when they knocked their heads trying to shoo away a lost-looking frog from under their twin desk, they shared a hearty laugh.
The teachers could see the change in the two girls. They compared notes in their common room on the pair of complementary role models in the making. One was opening up to the world around her, the other was getting tamed.
Stuti was not as stand-offish now. She could make shy conversations of more than one syllable. She even played the parcel game with Dhwani, whose lunch box was no longer grubby. Dhwani did not slam her desk or screech like a parrot during lunch hour any more, and moderated her jokes that Stuti was beginning to smile at.
The companionship was sealed the day the girls won an inter-school debate. They had independently signed up to represent the school in a declamation contest, in which they had to think on their feet, be on the same wavelength and bond well to take on the competition. The topic: “Who comes first – friends, or me?”
The usually pushy Dhwani hung back, allowing the once-reticent Stuti to step forward and receive the trophy, and to make an elegant acceptance speech on behalf of them both. There was a loud cheer backstage. Only their classmates and teachers knew it was more in celebration of a newfound friendship.

Friday 26 October 2012

Red Riding Hood & Prince Charming: A love story

Ribha held out the faded red garment for her twin Rishu to see. “A red riding hood!” he exclaimed. The 13-year-olds loved to live out the stories they’d grown up with.
They were rummaging through their grandparents’ old suitcases stacked up in the attic with a slanting roof. It had been years since they had come over for a long vacation, and wanted to do all that the kids in their story books did – go on wild adventures, hunt up treasures, play war games with painted faces, munch Grandmom’s delicacies under a lazy picnic sun, and much more.
Their grandparents lived in a rambling mansion beside a hill. In their city home in India, this was not possible. Here, though, the stories came alive. The kids chased each other around trees, ambushing and attacking unsuspecting thieves, catching imaginary poachers, pouncing on marauding animals out to destroy their grandparents’ corn fields, and much more.
So if Red Riding Hood hung around here, they figured they needed a wolf as well.
They sped down to the living room.
Imaginative twins Ribha and Rishu.
Digital sketch: Vini
Grandpop looked up as they burst in from the hall: “I’m guessing you’ve found something exciting or those stairs of mine wouldn’t have protested so much!”
“My red riding hood!” Grandmom shrieked, and pulled it away from Ribha’s playful hands.
Your hood, Grandmom?” the girl asked, her eyes lighting up in anticipation of a fine story. She was an unabashed romantic.
“Yes, dear, her hood,” Grandpop interjected. “The one I saw her in, the very first time.”
“And were you the wolf in disguise?” Rishu, the one with the gory imagination, ran to his grandfather’s side.
“What wolf, child?”
“The one who ate Red Riding Hood’s grandmother!” Rishu rolled his eyes and pretended to growl.
The grandparents laughed loudly.
“Well, if I had, indeed, why would she marry me? And I look like a wolf, do I?” Grandpop asked Rishu.
I don’t think you are a wolf, Grandpop,” Risha reassured him. “But I think Grandmom is Red Riding Hood who escaped the wolf and grew up to marry you.”
“When I saw her first I did think she was Red Riding Hood,” Grandpop twinkled his eyes at her.
“Does Mom know of this? I want to hear the full story,” Ribha said as she deposited her little form firmly on the rug at her grandfather’s feet.
“Me, too,” said Rishu, who really looked up to her, seven minutes his senior by birth.
As a young lad, Grandpop lived in apartments that were set in a square. Wide roads lined by thick oak trees provided a good practising ground for riders and drivers.
One hazy morning he lifted the curtains of his room to check the weather, wondering if a light cardigan would do or a thick jacket was needed.
A flash of red streaked down the lane right beneath his window. He opened the window wide to follow the biker, forgetting that there was a big flower pot on the ledge. Leaning far out, he knocked the pot down. It landed in the middle of the road just as the red figure rode again into the lane.
“Crash, sheee-ie, eeeeek!” came some loud sounds as the rider applied the brakes to avoid the broken pot and crashed into a hedge.
“Grandpop, that was Grandmom on the bike? And you also fell out of the window?” Rishu was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“No, son, I managed not to topple out. But I just had to see what damage had been done,” his grandfather replied.
Half the neighbourhood was out by then. Grandpop tore down the stairs to rescue the red-clad biker, now lying flat on the stomach. The hood completely covered the head, making it difficult to say if it was a man or woman. Grandpop decided to play it rough, and yanked up the dormant figure by the jacket. A wonderful thing happened then. The biker rolled over, rested a curly head on his shoulder, and decided to shut her eyes again. Only then did he realize he was holding a young girl in his arms.
Their grandmother chided her husband, her cheeks now a lovely pink: “You don’t have to tell the children these gory details.”
“What’s gory, Grandmom?” asked Rishu.
“Hush, Grandmom. Hush, Rishu. So you hugged her right then, Grandpop?” asked Ribha, truly entranced by the romantic episode.
No such luck, he told her. He wanted to, but her aunt and uncle appeared right then. She had come to live with them for a week, and had found the calm morning too much to resist. So she had stolen out on her uncle’s bike.
“And landed in your arms,” Ribha whispered happily.
Grandmom was now all a-tizzy.
“Come away, little ones, meal’s been waiting for long,” she called.
The kids were in no mood to oblige. “Not till we hear how you got married, Grandmom,” the twins spoke in unison.
Grandpop loved to revisit his love story, and who better to share with than his own grandchildren? “Ignore her.”
Ribha put her head in his lap. “Grandpop, no short cuts, please,” she urged him.
So he continued, and his wife eventually joined them while supper went cold.
Her uncle and aunt, his parents and the neighbours tut-tutted over the hapless biker, checking if all her bones were intact. Once it was clear that she was just shaken up by the fall, they fell upon him. How could he be so careless as to let fall the flower pot? Did he not notice anyone on the road?
That was the whole point, but they would not let him speak. He had noticed someone on the road, which is why he leaned out, which is why the flower pot fell!
He decided to stay mum. Apologizing awkwardly, he seized the moment to look full into her face once more. He wanted to fall at her feet and ask her to marry him right away, for she looked so sweet. But surely she was naughty too, to be driving like a maniac in the nippy morning. She dimpled at him as she accepted his apology, and limped away.
Her aunt and uncle lived on the opposite side of the square. He sighted her once or twice, but couldn’t wait for Sunday when most families sunned themselves in the common lawn after breakfast. He wondered if she would be there.
His parents couldn’t help notice his frequent trips to the window when Sunday came. How could he tell them his heart thumped madly for this girl from distant India? He just wanted to meet her once again so that he could know if she too had liked him. And then he saw her enter the lawn from the far end, wearing the same red hoodie. She seemed to be looking for someone.
He dashed out, then slowed and sauntered up to her. She gave him a radiant smile, but turned away. He caught up with her, and blurted out: “I just have to ask you, will you marry me?”
“And just how old are you?” she shot back.
“And I am only 20,” she retorted.
He fell to his knees. “You must say yes,” he pleaded with her.
“This is embarrassing. You know nothing about me, nor I about you.”
“I’ll tell you all you want to know, just say yes.”
“Grandmom, just like that? He came straight to the point?” a thrilled Ribha asked.
“You’ve been reading too many novels, I can see,” Grandmom retorted.
“There was no wolf in your story?” a disappointed Rishu asked.
“There nearly was,” Grandpop disclosed. “I would have kidnapped her if she had refused, but she couldn’t resist me, you see.”
“What do you do when you’ve been imagining robbers are chasing you around the lane and so you are riding at lightning speed, and when you open your eyes you find Prince Charming holding you safe?” Grandmom protested.
Ribha jumped up and kissed her grandmother soundly: “I so much love you, I always knew there were princes around.”
“He is no prince, but he has been a loving husband, yes. Even princes can be bad or cruel. You want a good, kind man to marry and be happy with forever.”
“And don’t you get ideas now,” she admonished Ribha, firmly tucking the garment under her arm.
Ribha later told Rishu: “I’m getting myself a red jacket like Grandmom’s. Promise me you won’t tell Mom why, and one day I’ll help you find your Red Riding Hood!” The twins laughed conspiratorially.

Monday 15 October 2012

For Grandma's sake

Kushal and his friends were absorbed in animated conversation. Grandpa watched them intently from across the room. They did not notice when he quietly moved to a sofa close by.
“Aha! So they want to open a day school for little ones,” he nodded to himself approvingly.
Two of Kushal’s friends were young women, evidently very taken with the idea. The men in the group obviously could not quite see the point, Grandpa reckoned.
“Men will be men,” he groaned.
He became restless, and decided he needed tea. He walked to the kitchen and told the maid to prepare seven cups of tea.
She looked enquiringly at him, but he growled at her: “Do as I say.”
Grandpa returned to his sofa, and the steaming tea arrived soon after.
“Sorry, why not take a tea break?” Grandpa said loudly to no one in particular.
Kushal gave his grandfather an irritated look, but the two women squealed with delight and gladly picked up a cup each. The men followed suit reluctantly.
“I do apologize. I’m bad with names, you see,” Grandpa said.
The guests were quick to protest that it was perfectly fine. A fresh round of introductions followed, leaving Kushal a little red-faced.
“And you were talking about …?” Grandpa asked gently.
“It won’t interest you, Grandpa. It’s a business proposal,” Kushal said gruffly.
He was conveniently ignored.
Grandpa seemed to purr silkily as he addressed the women now. “So you young ladies are businesswomen, are you?”
“No, sir,” replied the younger of the two. “We are only trying to get into business.”
Now Grandpa was being openly inquisitive. “What kind, if I may ask?”
“Setting up a day school for the children of office-going parents.”
‘I see, a crèche, in other words.”
“No, Grandpa … um-m … may we call you Grandpa?” she asked absent-mindedly, and carried on regardless. “It’s not just for tiny tots. Parents who work late into the evening are worried about their children’s safety, whatever their age. Servants are no answer for nuclear families now, are they?”
“Exactly my point!” Grandpa exclaimed triumphantly.
Kushal was almost livid with his grandfather for hijacking their meeting like this.
“Allow us to carry on our discussion, please, Grandpa,” he urged, not too discreetly.
“No, no, this is my favourite subject. I’m going nowhere,” Grandpa announced grandly.
Kushal rolled his eyes helplessly, but the girls promptly flanked Grandpa.
“Let’s hear you on this,” they cajoled him.
The other three men too pulled their chairs into a circle around Grandpa, forcing Kushal to join in.
“Well, when Kushal was very young, his Grandma and I lived many miles away. We used to be very worried about how his parents were managing, since they are both practising doctors,” Grandpa began.
His story was engrossing, and the tea went cold.
A full-time manservant engaged from a remote tribal village was the doctor couple’s only back-up. On those rare days when he took leave, mostly Kushal’s mother would skip work to be with her son. Another child followed, and she had to run her practice part-time, from home. The manservant had left by then, and two part-time maids helped out.
There was no mobile phone or Internet connection those days, only STD calls made mostly from telephone booths.
Kushal’s father had taken an STD connection at home to stay in touch with his parents. There were times when Kushal’s mother had to make a short outdoor trip, and she would dial Grandpa, asking him to talk to Kushal till she returned.
Thumbs up, Grandma!
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Kushal’s friends gasped. STD calls in those days must have cost a bomb.
They did, indeed, but there was no question of hiring a baby sitter: The concept simply did not exist in those days, and anyway middle-class families could not have afforded them.
Such calls were not frequent, but they did show the dilemma of having to leave children unattended.
“Where is all this taking us, Grandpa?” Kushal asked.
“To the business plan that your Grandma and I drew up, to help just such couples,” responded Grandpa.
The grandparents, both retired educationists themselves, broached the subject with some friends of theirs, and found it to be a universal problem among working couples trying to bring up children all by themselves. They formed an elders’ forum. Living far away from their son so that their daughter could complete her medical studies, Kushal’s grandparents took solace in the fact that they might be able to assist other young parents.
They took up the matter with the mayor of the town. He spoke to some local schools but they were unable to help beyond school hours. 
A philanthropist came to know of their efforts. After a lengthy meeting, he offered to fund any viable project they proposed, including teaching equipment that some members favoured.
Grandma put her foot down at this stage. She opposed the idea of more schooling after school hours.
Their benefactor seemed to agree with her on this and other issues, such as an adjoining crèche so that mothers could be free for some time and where children could join their little siblings after school for a short while. No studies unless the kids themselves wanted them. So a glass-partitioned study was proposed, and approved.
“Let me recall … to run the project, we needed, and found, volunteers from many professions: a lawyer, a chartered accountant, a doctor, a retired colonel and at least four retired school teachers. There were others, but more of a reserve force, if you know what I mean,” Grandpa looked at the keen faces around him.
They shook their heads wonderingly.
“So you set up the project, Grandpa?” asked one.
“We could not find a suitably located building. See, we could not have afforded a bus, its maintenance, drivers’ salaries and so on. So parents would have had to take their kids home themselves. But, more than that …”
“Don’t say it never happened, please,” whispered Kushal.
“Indeed it did not. Our friendly financier suffered a setback and went broke in a matter of months. We were so dejected. Your Grandma says she still dreams of that project.” Grandpa took a deep breath.
A bespectacled young man rose from his chair. “With due respect, Grandpa, would you care to fulfill her dream now?”
“I’m an old man, child, but all of you have age and courage on your side. Do it if you want to,” he replied.
Kushal was quiet, but the others babbled on for some time. Grandpa was clearly overwhelmed.
After they left, Kushal sat down at his knee. “Would you like to see the project come through?” he asked.
“I don’t have the money, son,” Grandpa pointed out.
“But you have the vision. Grandpa, at our management school, we are encouraged to propose innovative projects. We have financiers. Some are angel investors, some venture capitalists. May I take it forward? For Grandma’s sake?” Kushal asked.
Grandpa gave a silent assent, his eyes misty.
Twelve months later, a decrepit building donated by the family of one of Kushal’s woman friends had been renovated and equipped with the necessary infrastructure. It also had a play pen, a gym, indoor basketball and table tennis courts, a kitchen and two cooks, three full-time attendants, and a bus and two drivers.
At the registration counter, Grandpa proudly put the honorary chairman’s seal on the first admission for the launch batch of 25 children, aged 4 years to 13.
He looked up to see his snowy-haired wife making a happy thumbs-up sign as the gathering broke into a thunderous applause.

Sunday 7 October 2012

JMPE: Laugh and read on

To begin from the beginning. It’s about her marriage, but Yashodhara Lal has touchingly dedicated her book Just Married, Please Excuse “To my family – for the material they provide”.
Indeed, without the family JMPE would have little meaning. The dedication seems cleverly worded, for members of the bride and groom’s respective families too move with ease in and out of the pages and the marriage Yashodhara has so wonderfully penned a story about.
This is, primarily, a hilarious account of the family life that she and Vijay embark on, right from the time they first set eyes on each other.
It is about how “Y” – as he calls her – reacts when “Vijay usually said whatever popped into his head”. It is about her own shenanigans which she sketches with amazing ease of words.
Both the situations she tends to land into so often, and the way she describes them, make you chuckle: You shake your head, you agree she is impossible and self-confessedly exasperating, and yet she is so likeable.
You look forward to “Lambu” Vijay’s Hindi one-liners; you admire him for his fortitude and also his indisputable love for Y, complete with her quick temper and her gaffes and gawky ways.
And you laugh and read on. About their life in Bangalore, the ducks he took her to admire and the plot of land they nearly bought; about Mumbai and life next to Bandstand, their maid and driver and their adventures. All keep you riveted.
When Y is in the family way, things turn less funny. The pain of the Delhi-Mumbai distance between the couple when she goes to live with her Mom is palpable.
Childbirth and the distance of a different kind between them now almost make you forget you were reading a funny novel.
Yes, a child really does things to married life. Y hangs on bravely to her quirky views on life, and Vijay and his “Buntvinder” eventually are a loving couple again. But the book could have done with fewer pages on the harsh reality that hits the couple with the advent of one little bundle, Peanut.
Yashodhara and Vijay at Mamagoto.
Pic: Harjeet  
I, for one, would still have liked to read before the book ended just a little more of the fun that undoubtedly came back to stay in their lives.
Yash, please excuse.
All in all, though, the book is an eminently enjoyable journey that traces the making, and saving, of a marriage.
Yash did affirm at our Mamagoto lunch that 99 per cent of JMPE was truthful reporting. Having read the book at long last, I’d say I believe her.

Friday 28 September 2012

Sumanth goes moonwalking

It was cold and eerie. The sky had a strange grey pall over it. His thickly padded suit protected Sumanth, but his eyes were finding it difficult to adjust to the strange environment.
He stumbled over a moon rock and fell into a small crater. Bouncing out of it onto more solid ground – which was actually an endless carpet of grey dust – all of a sudden Sumanth realized that he was alone. He had lost his way, and there was no landmark that he could recognize. The vast expanse of bleak land pockmarked with craters and rocks, big and small, was silent, ghostly. He thought he could hear a faint hum somewhere, but soon recalled that the rarefied air made it impossible to hear, let alone locate the source or direction of the sound.
Sumanth was panicking now. His children too were lost on the moon!
The barrel on the moon.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
He tried using the speaking tube, but it dangled at a dangerous angle from his helmet and refused to obey his commands. He wanted to call the moon ship and ask his friend to look for Debie and Sambie.
Debie had a sound head on her shoulders, but Sambie was forever launching into exploratory expeditions. He scented mystery where there was none. He would go haring down playgrounds and hotel buildings alike, chasing imaginary beings, his sister hot on his heels trying to keep up with him. Sumanth was sure Sambie had scurried off now as well. The boy just wasn’t born to obey. He regretted bringing the kids along, but it was a birthday promise he had had to keep.
Sumanth had made his wife a party to this silly moonwalking trip, and now the children had wandered off in a different direction. He hoped the two were at least together. If only he could figure out where he stood and how far he was from the moon ship, he might be able to join his wife and his friend. His wife was mapping the area around the landing pad. His friend was manning the controls and was in constant touch with the tour organizers back on earth.
He took out his moonometer and peered into the glass surface. Fine particles had formed a layer which he tried to wipe, but his thick gloves smeared it with more moon dust. It was a frustrating exercise. His anxiety levels were rising, and the pressure valve in his helmet was beeping so loudly that he could hardly think.
He pressed his chest hard to calm himself. That set off an unexpected alarm, a sort of hoot. He had forgotten the embedded device, meant to signal to fellow tourists to converge. He sounded the hoot again, hoping the children would come scampering from over the horizon.
He looked that way. God, no, not over the horizon. That was the dark side of the moon. Sumanth prayed fervently that Sambie had not been foolish enough to lead Debie there. No one had been able to fathom what went on there, for no light worked once you crossed the horizon and all missions to that part so far had failed miserably.
Sumanth rolled down a huge crater, having missed seeing it because he was deeply worried about his kids. A big barrel lay at the bottom. Left behind by some moon tourists, he assumed. Still, he rolled it over lightly and stood back in surprise as it bounced upward to the other edge of the crater. He watched bemused as it started lumbering back in slow motion. Out peeped his son’s head!
“Sambie!” he squeaked in relief.
“Sambie, what are you doing here?” he fumbled with his speaking tube. Clearly his son could not hear him.
The helmet on Sambie’s head was greyed over with moon dust, and it was difficult to make out Sambie’s expression. Where could Debie be hiding? Not in the same barrel, surely? Of course, there she was, her head popping out from the other end of the hollow barrel now.
They seemed to be stuck. Their thick suits must have got entangled somehow, and now the kids were unable to wriggle out, he realized. Giving chase, he bounded down the crater but overshot the barrel by a huge margin.
“Easy,” he told himself. “This is the moon, where gravity is one-sixth of that of earth. So I have to use that much less force.”
But he had underestimated the moon. With Debie and Sambie inside, the barrel hit the bottom of the crater and sped past him back to the huge open space above him. He braked hard, which meant he had to dig his thick moon shoes deep into the dust, and got blinded by it. By the time he cleaned his visor enough for some light to come through, the barrel had sailed over the edge and was out of sight.
Sumanth clambered up gingerly, not wanting to slide back into the big hole. It was not easy to take big strides on the moon’s surface, and this slope made it even tougher. When he gained the edge, he found his two children flailing their arms and trying to exit the rolling monster. He swore he was not taking them for a moonwalk again.
Again he overshot the barrel because he ran too fast and rose too high in the moon air. The dust he had kicked up down there created a spooky cloud in the background, against which his children in the barrel formed a grotesque silhouette. He landed with a soft thump, more dust rose, and a lump formed in his throat. At this rate he would not be able to rescue his children. He stood still, and motioned to them to stop struggling.
Nerves somewhat steadier, he took measured little leaps that brought him close to the barrel. Catching hold of Debie’s moon suit, he tried to pull her out. But the harder he tugged at her, the more she seemed to resist it.
“Papa, Papa!” Sumanth heard her cry.
He tried to pull with all his might, and landed on his back.
He had crashlanded – on the floor of his bedroom.
His children were laughing heartily, having watched him struggle in his sleep to pull a bolster pillow from his wife’s hands.
“Oh, so there you are,” he said as he lay splayed helpless on the rug.
He smiled dreamily to himself. He had extricated them from that awful barrel at last.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

On winning a book

It was not the first time I was receiving a signed book. In school, in college, on birthdays, I have received books as prizes or gifts with my name inscribed on the first page.
Saturday, September 8, though, was different.
The occasion deserves a departure from my blog format, for it was an exciting and unusual achievement for me.
I began serious blogging for a lark (wink!) just a few months back, and never thought it would so soon bring me face to face with an impressive bunch of bloggers, some of them astoundingly prolific, others who post occasionally. Some have been at it for years! I have to thank young Shruti for it, a former colleague who pestered me into joining IndiBlogger. 
When Yashodhara Lal’s very inviting mail on the blogger contest landed in my inbox, I did not think I could make the grade. I copied and stowed it away in a file, only to revisit it two days before the contest closed. And look where it landed me!
At lunch with a mix of enthusiastic bloggers and authors, some less than half my age, and the lovely and hardworking HarperCollins Chief Editor and Publisher Karthika, at Mamagoto in GurgaonJ 
And pray why? I’d for the first time in my life entered a story-telling contest, and for my labours of two hours or less, was rewarded with a copy of Just Married, Please Excuse from the author Yashodhara herself, handed across a tightly packed luncheon table.
By the way, the food was mouth-watering, and my vegan friends need not quail at entering a Thai restaurant either.
Believe me, winning the book this way has made it much more invaluable than if I had bought it off a shelf. I’ve been too busy to read it at one go, but now I am settling down to read the rest of the oh-so-funny JMPE right after posting this!

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The same-name couple

Roop pointed out a story in the day’s newspaper to his wife.
“Navjot (Singh Sidhu) is also married to Navjot,” he winked at her.
He watched the wondrous smile spread across her face. He loved to make it happen, the way she curled one corner of her mouth and gradually let her happiness travel across her lips to the other corner.
That smile was what had attracted him in the first place.
She was reading a book in the Metro and he was hanging on to the overhead bar, buffeted about by the milling crowds. He was about to give it back to a man who had given him a rather nasty shove, but he saw her shake her head as if in exasperation. And that mesmerizing smile began to appear.
“Cheshire cat!” he thought to himself, not entirely in a charitable mood right then. Two stations later, he was still staring at her. He wondered if the wearer of the smile would still be there if he blinked.
He blinked, but she was still there, smiling as she continued to read.
He was lucky it was a Saturday. Office was over for the weekend, and he had to meet a vague acquaintance late in the evening. So he would travel with the Smile, maybe even follow her off the train.
The crowd had thinned out. He hoped he would get to sit next to her, but got a seat opposite her instead. Peering at the book, he realized she was reading PG Wodehouse. That explained her amusement.
“Our tastes match,” he thought happily. Right then she looked up, and caught his intent stare. “What beautiful eyes!” he told himself, forgetting to look away.
An unidentified caller broke the silence. “Roop here,” he spoke into the phone.
The look from across the aisle was murderous. His voice trailed away, and he forgot to carry on the conversation. The Smile was positively livid at something he had said or done. He wondered why she should take such umbrage to him.
On their wedding cards.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Suddenly she was looming over him.
“How dare you?” she hissed at him.
“How dare I what?” he asked, bristling a little.
“How do you utter my name?” she spoke menacingly.
He stood up. 
“Your name? How would I know your name?” he demanded, as agitated.
“Roop. That’s my name,” she whispered fiercely.
“Really? Mine too,” he extended his hand quite involuntarily.
“Shut up. Can’t be,” she said, now a little confused.
“Please sit down. I’ll show you my card,” he pleaded with her.
They made their way to a vacant twin seat.
She looked at his card case. His name was embossed on it.
Her tone had changed. “Roop. I don’t believe this.”   
This was too much of a coincidence. They had the same family name too.
“Hi,” he held out his hand again. She shook it, a little shy. Before they parted that night, they had become good friends. 
They had disembarked near a shopping mall, strolled around, wanting to know everything about each other as if there was no tomorrow.
She was three years his junior, had arrived in the city two years ago and lived with relatives, near the commercial complex housing her office. Today she had come out to shop.
He helped her with the shopping, carrying her bags and stuff, telling her about his home and family. He lived away from them, close to his workplace.
On the way back to the Metro station, they exchanged phone numbers.
They were madly in love already. It took them just weeks to get to the proposal stage, and in three months they were planning marriage.
“Roop weds Roop. This is the biggest joke I’ve heard,” was his mother’s first reaction. His brother joined in, laughing his head off as he repeated the words.
“Roop weds Roop!”
Initially it upset him a lot, but he saw the funny side of it soon enough.
“Tell me, how many such couples do you know?” he challenged his brother.
“None, and I don’t think I will,” his brother replied.
“That’s the best part. Imagine all the confusion arising out of addressing the man, and the wife responding instead. Or the reverse. This gets better and better!” Roop exclaimed.
His father joined in in the mirth, saying he was open to having Roop and Roop in his family. He met the girl and liked her matter-of-fact attitude. The name was of no consequence in such matters, he declared.
The bride-to-be was met with consternation back home. Her granny expressed vehement opposition to the “same-name” marriage.
“It’s the not the names but two people who are getting married,” Roop protested.
 “This is just not done. He must change his name, in that case,” Granny announced.
“No way!” Roop retorted. “And why him? I’ll change my name, if it comes to that.”
“Why should you? It’s your given name. We’ve always called you that,” Granny replied.
“The same goes for him, Granny,” Roop tried to reason with her. “We’re both cool with it, so why does it worry you?”
Roop’s niece was enterprising. She promptly typed in a Google search for same-name couples. “An American name researcher calls it an ‘offbeat attraction’,” she told Granny. “That’s what has bitten Auntie.”
Also, the perspicacious niece pointed out, the families need not be too concerned. Except that there could be confusion with their credit cards or phone calls, there would be faces to the names on their identity cards and passports to distinguish between husband and wife. Moreover, since they would be living by themselves, there would be no daily confusion over who was being called.
Imitating them, she said first, in a feminine voice: “Roop!”  Then, with a masculine ring: “Yes, Roop, darling wife!” Roop should have been there to see the Smile.
Her parents did not want to comment before meeting the “boy”. The name was a bit of a tricky affair, but all else about him was unexceptionable. They also turned out to be distantly related. His family seemed affectionate and their daughter was very much at ease with them. That mattered most.
There were some hilarious times in the run-up to the wedding.
The bridegroom’s mother went shopping clothes for the bride and he got ribbed for days after she displayed a crimson sari and said, “This should look good on Roop.”
The slender bride’s grandfather was startled when he saw a rather large ring bought for Roop. He had a good laugh on being reminded that the bridegroom went by the same name.
Though the invitation cards were clearly inscribed with “Roop weds Roop”, the wedding guests made quite a thing of the unusual pairing of names. The priest who performed the marriage rites too kept tripping over the shared name.
Then there was quite a scene when they went to get their marriage registered. It took a pile of documents and their marriage album to convince the official concerned that all was above board.
Life had since been quite entertaining. They enjoyed puzzling friends and relatives with barely concealed amusement: “Meet Roop, my wife.” “This is Roop, my husband.”
As if to put them at ease, some people obligingly told them of other same-name couples they knew. Once they even shared a coupe in the train with another same-name couple, much older, who regaled them with their own experiences.
Their so-called offbeat attraction had endured well.
They were always scanning names, sharing a laugh when they found “Taylor to wed Taylor” or something like that. She was pregnant now, and they giggled over the prospect of filling up forms with common entries for “Mother’s name” and “Father’s name”.
Roop’s nostalgic trip was cut short
“You haven’t read the paper carefully, I think,” his wife reprimanded him gently after reading the news report. “Unlike us, they don’t have the same family name as well. She’s Navjot Kaur,” she said. “High five, husband!”
As their hands met, her smile broadened into a grin. Roop grinned back at Roop.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

The 'Just Married, Please Excuse' Contest

I could listen to bawdy stuff without turning a hair, my newspaper office being full of intellectuals whose sole pastime was cracking smutty jokes. 
All through college, I had also read enough of hot sleaze as a result of foraging second-hand books on New Delhi’s Parliament Street and Karol Bagh pavements and borrowing from the British Council Library.
My family knew I loved books, right from my school days. A natural progression had been my Master’s in English literature, again much of which was not exactly Victorian.
So I was no stranger to innuendo and double entendre, but in conservative families such as ours, these are taboo when you are in the company of elders or young daughters and sons.
There was great excitement when I, newly wed, went over to my parental home for a night.
After dinner, I sat chatting with my parents and an aunt, uncle and their daughter-in-law. We talked about my marriage ceremony, how the wedding guests had behaved, my new home, and my honeymoon destination … the destination, mind you, not how the honeymoon went.
I knew what I was going to do would shock them, but a mischievous imp just made me go ahead with it.
For the first time ever, I sang. I sang a naughty Punjabi lyric my husband had taught me on our honeymoon. 
Even before I had finished reciting the song, the two sisters were blushing to the roots of their hair. My very, very shy sister-in-law had muttered something about the dishes and scooted from the scene.
There was pin-drop silence.
The men didn’t know where to look.
When no reaction was forthcoming, I asked nonchalantly: “Excuse me, what’s the matter? It’s just a song that bangle sellers sing!”
The foursome gaped at me, and cackled. “Yes, yes, of course, the bangle sellers indeed!”
I joined in the laughter before beating a hasty retreat, for now I could feel the colour creeping into my cheeks. As I stepped out, I heard my embarrassed aunt say, “What are the times coming to?”
Uncle retorted: “Come on, be happy. She’s obviously had a great honeymoon!”
I heard them break into raucous laughter.
Still, I’m sure they were also squirming inside, unable to accept just yet that the daughter of the house was suddenly no longer shy of discussing sex.
But I hadn’t talked sex. It was all in their minds.
And even if I had, what the heck … hadn’t I just got married!
I might not have recalled this for years, perhaps, but for the contest. Thanks, Yashodhara.

Monday 27 August 2012

Fighting the demons

Ateesh and his new phone.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
“How he has changed in these nine or ten years!” Ateesh marvelled as he watched the man talking so authoritatively on television.
The first time Ateesh saw the now-familiar face on TV, he had had difficulty in recognizing him. 
They had met when Ateesh took up his first job at the top.
A young head had bobbed into sight from the doorway. “Hey, hi boss. I understand you live my side of town. Mind if I hitch a ride home tonight?” it asked.
The cocksure head disappeared without waiting for an answer, leaving him stunned. Ateesh had joined the office just that morning. And here was this youngster, maybe 21 or 22 years old, armed with details of where he lived!  He was impressed.
Ateesh had led departments before, but never an organization till now. It certainly promised to be more exciting than the usual leadership challenges he had come prepared to face.
The ride home that night was interesting. The young man volunteered a lot of information … about himself, about his colleagues, the office. Looking back on it today, Ateesh realized he had got carried away by his smart talk, and had let it prejudice him. He knew better than to trust a raw mind now. But back then he himself was new to what they call “the corner room”, he thought defensively.
His new role was very demanding. There were department chiefs who had been there for years together, and their juniors who had been subordinates for as long. He had to change all that. Roles must be shuffled, the place must pick up pace and change.
Change. He had taken up the challenge of turning around the company using this one word. He had to bring in fresh blood, alter anachronistic procedures, chuck non-performers out of the window and churn the ranks. The place itself could do with some transformation. It looked seedy and mouldy.
Yes, it would be a vibrant place, exuding confidence and dynamism.
He had shaken up the status quo, and how. Young people got more play, some were sent to train for the next level. Snazzy workstations replaced stodgy, ungainly monitors. The place was brightened with better lights and more glass windows.
The television screen zoomed again on the man being interviewed. He had truly climbed up the corporate ladder fast.
Ateesh recalled that the young man had been recruited barely a month ahead of him. Ateesh had unwisely, blindly, relied on his observations even about staff members with whom the youngster had had no truck.
That was the first of a string of mistakes, Ateesh thought with a tinge of regret. He ended up hurting quite a few talented seniors, superseding some and giving others insignificant duties and their juniors more responsibility. But he erred in identifying the people thus promoted. Many good hands left in disgust.
His first tryst with technology was also an experiment gone horribly wrong. Here, too, he had gone by the first recommendation made to him, with no regard to factors such as efficiency and compatibility. He had not acted with due diligence as a CEO should. The result was an enormous investment poured down the drain. The owners had given him a generous budget for staffing and tech needs, which he had frittered away. 
He had had to leave that organization pretty soon, some hard lessons learnt. He became overcautious in his next job, where he was reporting to a seasoned chief executive. He agonized over issues too long for fear of making errors. Luckily he had a tolerant boss who had nurtured him in a previous job, and now patiently guided him through his insecurities. The decisions he hated most involved technology – purchase of hardware, choice of software, buying phones, installing CCTVs, allowing social media in office and the like – and he cringed each time.
Somehow technology and he just never could work together.
The man on television right now was an example of what was needed today, he grudgingly admitted. While Ateesh stumbled at every step, this man some 12 years his junior had forged ahead, riding on his knowledge of gadgets, totally clued into the market and willing to adopt whatever his line of business demanded.
Ateesh remembered that the youngster had bought a mobile phone when handsets were still ugly-looking and unwieldy. He promptly switched to a new one when more features were added. He even suggested that as CEO, Ateesh should buy one too, but to no avail. Eventually, the company’s owner had foisted a phone on him.
The sound brought him back to the present. He looked down at his jazzy new cellphone and smiled. His daughter had just pinged him.
He had steadfastly refused to part with the first handset he bought in his next job, arguing that he needed it only to make or receive calls. That is, till his boss chided him on a site visit one day for carrying a phone with no camera. The boss handed him his own phone, but Ateesh had no clue on how to operate it. A director of the host company had stepped in to help.
Ateesh decided it was time he changed. By the time he occupied the corner room again, he had overcome most of his apprehensions. Though his business was not heavily tech-driven, at times he had felt he would drown amid software and hardware, Internet platforms, Windows and MP3s, home page and e-commerce. Somehow he had been fighting the demons and keeping his head above water. 
Months back, his one-time colleague had been discussing on TV how IT firms had to battle for market share, how social media was growing and why the new generation was obsessed with Facebook, Twitter, BlackBerry, iPhone … and what’s app.
“What’s app?” A funny-sounding term that was. The expression stuck in his mind. He opened a Google page and typed “what’s app”.
The first search result: “WhatsApp : : Home”
“Okay, so at least I hadn’t heard it wrong,” Ateesh congratulated himself. He made a mental note, and focused on completing every task at hand. Then he headed home, sooner than usual.
His daughter was sitting amid a pile of hair curlers, his wife was in an apron trying to clear up after a kitty party, and the servants were wrestling with the mountain of dishes left behind.
That abstracted air around him was missing today. He asked his daughter to drop those curlers and join him in his study.
“What do you know about WhatsApp?” he demanded right away.
“Papa, dear dear Papa, did someone say something to you again?” 
Ateesh occasionally came back stung by some remark, and she would have to apply balm on his wounded self-esteem. She had grown up seeing her father resent technology he had to deal with at work, but she was proud he had conquered all his demons one by one.
“No,” Ateesh grumbled. “That man on television went on and on about WhatsApp.”
‘So, what about it?” she snuggled against him. “Papa, everyone’s on WhatsApp nowadays ... except you.”
“I’m so sorry, darling, b-but there’s only so much I can do with a phone,” he apologized.
“Don’t I know you, Papa? You are just scared, big man,” she teased him. “I can download WhatsApp on this, but frankly your phone is outdated.”
“Fine, so teach me,” Ateesh said.
Then he asked her if she had any weekend plans.
“No,” came the reply.
“And your mother?” he asked.
“No, Papa, we are both at home on Saturday,” his daughter told him.
“No, you’re not,” Ateesh drawled. “We’re buying me a new phone.”
His daughter let out a joyful shout.
Her mother rushed in. “What’s up?” she asked anxiously.
“No, no, WhatsApp!” they exclaimed in one voice.

Monday 13 August 2012

The nature lovers

Their sons were whooping in delight. Before them stretched a lovely green carpet of forest, laid out on undulating plains at the foot of the great Himalayas. Deep down, sun rays bounced off the tin roofs of huts sitting among golden wheat fields. Far to their left shone snowclad peaks.
Dhanu and Surilee grinned as they unloaded the car. Ruffie, now 10, and Rudra, 8, adored the guessing game every vacation: Where were they headed for this time … the hills, the seaside, the desert? They would not be told till they started. The journey was spent filling them in on the details.
The parents liked to book cottages with attached kitchens. That way, whatever they did on the trip – dig edible roots or pluck fruit, catch a fish, pick up a local recipe – they could experiment with its outcome right away, with the kids pitching in and learning along the way.
Dhanu went off to look up the manager.
“Mom, will we climb the snow mountains?” Rudra cooed at her beguilingly.
“Not so fast, my dear,” she said as she handed him some camping gear from the car boot. “This time it is all jungle, no rock climbing.”
Rudra and Ruffie with little Charit.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
“Are you going to climb rocks?” a little voice spoke up behind them.
Rudra and Ruffie spun around to look at the owner of the voice.
A small boy, some 5 years old, had sidled up behind them.
“No, little one, we are not.” Surilee had an athletic build, and seemed to tower over him. “Why are you here alone?” she asked him anxiously.
“We are living in that nice red house with a white hat,” the child replied.
The brothers laughed. “Oh-ho! Hut with a hat!” they teased him.
Surilee shushed them. “It’s rude to make fun of little children.”
She looked enquiringly at their visitor again.
“My Mama does not want me to climb rocks, but I can go with you,” he parried. “She will let me.”
A woman emerged from a cottage down the row. “Charit! Come back, son,” she called out. Scrambling up the slope, his mother Saroja began apologizing profusely to Surilee.
“It’s all right. He’s just curious.” Surilee introduced herself and her sons.
“Why not step in? How long have you been around? Your son could show my boys the works. The cottages are all the same inside, aren’t they?” she tried to put Saroja at ease.
“Well, thank you. Seeing that you have just arrived, it wouldn’t be fair. Maybe we’ll come over in the evening,” Saroja said, and led her son away. Surilee decided she liked the sensible mother.
Dhanu returned soon after. He had confirmed that there was a good camping site about two kilometres to the north. The family set about sorting climbing shoes, staffs, ropes, flasks, medicine kits and so on. Then they trooped into the kitchen for coffee.
“Who’s that?” Dhanu asked sharply.
It was Charit peering into the window.
Surilee made for the door. “A young acquaintance we have made,” she told her husband.
Charit was not alone. His parents were there too. “Hi. I am Yudhir,” said Charit’s father. “We did not want to intrude, but our son won’t wait any more. He has so many questions for you,” he apologized.
Dhanu glanced at his wife. Luckily they had not unpacked in the living room.
The threesome was shown in.
The hosts could see that Charit was beside himself with excitement, but admirably restrained. Surilee offered them juice and freshly baked cookies she had brought along.
Dhanu picked up Charit and put him in a large chair next to himself. “Shoot,” he invited him.
“Shoot? You are going shooting too?” asked Charit, wide-eyed.
“Shoot your questions, young man, Dhanu began to smile.
Yudhir spoke up. “You see, this is our first mountain trip. We are completely at sea about what to do here, apart from walking up and down the hill a little. But the child is getting fidgety. He thinks you people are planning fun things.”
Dhanu had not exactly appreciated their uninvited presence, but now he unbent.
They began when Rudra was only 2 years old, he and Surilee explained in turns. They wanted to teach their children by example, to be sturdy and tough, to be good nature lovers, perhaps conservationists even.
They both had long office hours, and the children spent most of their time with their grandparents. But at least twice a year the four of them left home, usually when school was closed: once every summer, and then in winter.
How did they plan it out? Two or three months ahead of each vacation they decided whether it would be the mountains or the backwaters, a cross-country drive or an animal sanctuary. They read up all they could on internet, such as good places to stay, infrastructure, connectivity, reviews, things to do and much more. Having finalized the destination, they launched into hotel and train or flight reservations, and if it was a drive into the hills, checked out if there were enough places nearby to fuel up.
“You are really thorough,” Saroja remarked, overawed.
It was trial and error at first, Dhanu admitted, but over the years they had done boating, canoeing, rafting, rappelling, skiing, sailing, crab hunting and much more. The boys were good rock climbers already. 
“Yes, we can swim also, and we are going scuba diving soon,” Rudra interrupted them, wanting to brag.
“That is some years away, Surilee glowered him into silence.
Ruffie could not hold back any more, either: “This time we will study animal tracks, trail slugs and snails, and click birds and their nests. And cook outdoors as well.” 
“But we always return to base before nightfall,” Surilee told the guests. “We take no chance with the kids.”
Yudhir stood up. “We shall detain you no more, but it’s been an eye-opener. Thanks. We’ll make a beginning right away.” He turned to his wife: “Shall we go into town tomorrow for some walking shoes? Good that we brought a laptop along. Tonight let’s read up about this place too.”
Ruffie was old enough to size up Charit: not shy, but certainly lonely. He could also sense that Charit was disappointed, and not ready to leave right then.
“Dad, are we going out right now? Otherwise Charit could help us with our room. And can they come to our camp one day, please?” he asked. Yudhir hesitated. 
“Yes, Dad,” Rudra chipped in, seeing that big brother had no objection to more company. “I won’t mind, seriously.” His parents laughingly agreed.
It was a bubbly Charit who took the bus home four days later. He had learnt why he must use water carefully, how to light and put out a fire, and how to climb a tree. He had also visited those huts below that looked like toys from his cottage. He had had the best holiday any boy could ask for. And Mama and Papa had promised a better one soon.
Ruffie and Rudra’s parents were proud of their sons for being so caring of Charit. The adults too had bonded well. The result: The three children had been promised a joint winter trip.
Dhanu and Surilee felt the little child had unknowingly launched them on a mission. Maybe they would run into more Charits and their families who one day become nature lovers like them.