Friday 29 June 2012

The Surjana effect

Kriti whispered the name almost reverentially. It promised to alter her life forever. It mattered little that some other woman had triggered such a drastic change in Mrigu, her husband.
“Rudhaan, help your mother with the washing,” Kriti heard him call out to their son.
This was a Mrigu she had never known. Emptying the washing machine, Kriti mused on the way everything seemed to take on a new meaning since her husband had met Surjana. He seemed shaken to the core, and was trying to make amends for all that had happened before he met Surjana.
Kriti and her arrogant husband Mrigu.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
“Looks like there is hope yet for unloved wives like me,” Kriti told herself. “We need more of these Surjanas”, she thought wryly as she handed the linen to Rudhaan, who was somewhat nettled by the change in his father’s behaviour. He had always been spoilt by Mridu, encouraged to “be a man” and let the women do the chores. Thankfully  Rudhaan, though 9, had not yet learnt to ask serious questions, or to rebel.
Surjana was a seasoned television personality, Mrigu had told her. When she had just started out, as part of an assignment she had approached a number of mothers with sons not more than 10 years old for participation in a quiz programme. Mrigu and his mother were among the sixteen contestants.
Surjana had put eight questions each to the boys and asked their moms separately what their sons’ replies would be. A practising doctor and her seven-year-old son were well tuned, and won hands down with perfectly matching answers.
Recently, Surjana had proposed that as many members of the eight teams as possible be located and quizzed again. The TV channel managed to track down Mrigu, along with some others. When they invited him to the show, Mrigu said he would consult his mother first.
Sarla, his mother, who still ran the house (now with Kriti’s help), recalled very little of that programme. However, she never said no to Mrigu. That meant five of the original eight mother-son duos would compete once more.
Mrigu’s decision surprised Kriti, but she could not have imagined the effect it was going to have on their family life.
When they returned from the recording, Mrigu was very gentle with Sarla, even escorting her up the stairs. Kriti decided not to bother him or his mother, who was exhausted from the effort. She would wait for the telecast to see what had transpired.
Sarla had withdrawn into a shell since her foot injury just weeks ago. She had tripped badly after the Velcro on her sandals snagged the edge of her sari. Mrigu was downright rude then, refusing to appreciate that her reflexes were no longer what they used to be, or that it could have been worse.
For days after the recording, Mrigu was restless.
Surjana had been very persuasive over the telephone. Had he known what would follow, would he have still gone? After deep reflection, he concluded that he would have. If he was so insensitive to his mother, and maybe all others, it was high time he changed that.
He went over the eight questions he did not remember from his childhood but that were put to him again during the show. And his replies.
“Does your mother always remember your birthday?”
“Do you remember hers?”
“Who does most of the household work?”
“Do you help your mother at home?”
“Does your mother like to cook?”
“Which of her dishes do you like most?
“I - I think … dosa … no, no. Vada paav, perhaps.”
“What is her favourite dish?”
“When was the last time you two went out together?”
The doctor and her son who had won years ago repeated the feat.
Mrigu had been too young then to understand the implications of losing the contest, but the winners’ bonding which had survived the years delivered him a strong punch now.
He did not wait to watch his mother’s responses when the show was finally telecast. “I let down my mother then as I did today because I never reciprocated her love,” Mrigu summoned the courage to confess to his wife.
Kriti kept her counsel, simply patting his hand. She did not want to hurt him, for he seemed willing to reform. He was shedding his arrogance. He had been an indifferent son and an indifferent husband too. She put up with him because of Sarla, who loved her dearly, and also because of Rudhaan.
She did try her best to bring up her child differently, but it was difficult when his father had such a swollen head.
Mrigu took his mother so much for granted that it revolted Kriti. Sarla would silence her if she objected to his tantrums. She made excuses for him, she was always there for him, but never expected a word or gesture of love in return.
“Kriti, I’ll be joining you upstairs for tea with Mother,” Mrigu told her a little hesitantly the morning after the telecast. She switched off the washing machine, and looked at him. “We’ll be waiting,” she smiled, and headed for the kitchen.
“If the Surjana effect lasts, I hope we can come to love each other,” she thought. She wished she could thank Surjana for what she had unwittingly done. Kriti was sure that her equation with her son would also change, that along with his mother Rudhaan could win any such contest! For the first time since her marriage, she felt truly at peace.

Sunday 24 June 2012

The sweat of his brow

Vardam’s father Sauran was a peasant, one who tilled others’ land for a living. His mother had often offered to go without food so they could save some money, but Sauran would have none of it. Instead, he volunteered to drop one coin every day into a till they had, whether it was one paisa or ten. They also decided not to have another child so that could devote their meagre resources to Vardam.
By the time he was five years old, Vardam’s parents had managed to collect a few hundred rupees. Back in the 1950s, this was enough to give them the confidence that they could pay for his schooling for some years.
Sauran had to set up a new hut every season near a different field, wherever he managed to get work. It was not possible for Vardam to go to school regularly if they kept shifting home. So when he was eight years old, they put him into boarding school.
Vardam was the son of a peasant.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Each month they scraped the bottom of the till to pay Vardam’s school fees. As he grew up, he came to appreciate their hard work as well as their strong wish to see their son achieve something big in life.
He also observed that his father always sat on the floor in the presence of his landlord or any other person in authority.
Vardam took every opportunity that came his way to educate himself, sitting in the library after school hours and beseeching any teacher who could spare time to coach him some more. Yet he was always submissive and unobtrusive. His manners won him friends in his hostel, classroom as also the playground. He became an all-rounder, and all three principals during his years at school held him up as a shining example for others.
His humility did not desert him even when he made it to college. He found a superb mentor in his English lecturer, a middle-aged widower who took him under his wing and volunteered to pay for his studies as well. That saved Vardam’s parents a lot of worry – and not inconsiderable money.
His mentor also referred him to a plantation that offered round-the-year accommodation to its workers. When Vardam went to visit his parents next, he took them there. The plantation owner was impressed by both Sauran and Vardam, and gave Sauran a supervisory role. Vardam was truly relieved that his parents were somewhat better settled now. He also coaxed them into spending on themselves a little of the cash they could now spare. They were still in saving mode, though, so a cooperative set up newly that was doing good work on the plantation came in handy for the purpose.
The English lecturer was a worldly wise man. He sensed that Vardam’s innate goodness and tenacity could take him places. He pushed him to sit for the civil services exam, which Vardam passed with a high rank.
As soon as he was allotted his very first official residence, Vardam brought his parents home. He went to great lengths to help them get used to the new life. He did not believe in flaunting his success, but he remained acutely aware of his parents’ nervousness in the new milieu.
He bought a divan to be put in the living room, where he entertained an occasional guest. There was no other chair or stool in the room, only two plain mattresses on the floor with cushions on them.
When people called at Vardam’s home with requests for help or just for a courtesy call, a few even carrying gifts, he would politely draw the curtain and ask them to wait for a minute.
The divan was meant only for his father, who still dressed as simply as he did as a labourer. Once Sauran took his seat there, Vardam would draw back the curtain and show the guests in. He would sit at his father’s feet and request the visitors to make themselves comfortable on the mattresses.
Then he would open the conversation thus: “I hope you do not mind sitting on the floor. Let me introduce you to my father. He was a peasant who worked to the bone so that I could be of some help to you. Please honour him, if you must.”
Many of Vardam’s visitors would leave in a huff. How could a mere peasant be seated above them? And why bestow gifts on him? Others might blanch, but would gulp down their pride and stay on. Some others would touch Sauran’s feet and sit on the mattress, patiently waiting to be heard by Vardam. Soon, however, whispers that Vardam’s father was the real power centre grew louder and eventually reached his senior’s ears.
Vardam was summoned.
“Sir, those who have a genuine case are most welcome in office. However, if they want to curry favour by visiting me at home, they must first pay obeisance to the man who made me what I am today.”
He folded his hands as his boss gave him a perplexed look. “Please do not misunderstand me, sir. I deal with everyone with equal responsibility in office. But at home, only those who come in genuine need show respect to my father, and to my origins. Those I will even go out of my way to help, for my father was once in their position.”
“My father is actually quite reluctant to accept this so-called honour, but he deserves his place in society. I can never return all that I owe him. My very being, my career, all are symbols of his success, not mine. I am the sweat of his brow,” Vardam added proudly.
His senior came around his desk to clasp his hand. “I have been brought up to believe we come to occupy high positions fully trained and equipped to take just any decision. But I can say without any shame that I have learnt a new lesson today.”

Sunday 17 June 2012

When the tide turned

Praniti and Shyom had fallen in love the day they met in medical college. They discovered later that despite their different backgrounds, both were toppers in their respective schools. This cemented their bond even more. Their classic pair, with its friendly ways and lovely relationship, was the toast of the batch.
Once postgraduation was over, they broke the news to their families. Her parents were initially uncomfortable, but seeing them together over time gave them hope she would settle down happily. Shyom’s parents were reserved, but seemed agreeable enough.
Praniti’s sister, too, planned to marry into another community. Her parents believed she was courting pure disaster. Their families were not only economically far apart, they professed different religions – one liberal, the other dogmatic.
Praniti had become a pale shadow of herself.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
It turned out that they had been vastly mistaken on both counts. Her sister was happily accepted and assimilated into her husband’s family. Praniti, on the contrary, ran into trouble with her in-laws right away.
Shyom had set up a small practice close to his home. He cared deeply for his patients, and had gradually built up a small but loyal clientele.
Working at a premier medical institute, Praniti had to leave very early to reach there on time. Both of them had taken cooperation from Shyom’s parents for granted. It was a big mistake, and her wedded life immediately snagged on her work timings.
Shyom’s mother sacked the daily help and refused to enter the kitchen any more. Praniti must cook both breakfast and lunch and clean the house before leaving. And she must be home in time for their evening tea and then prepare dinner, she demanded.
Shyom protested – mildly at first, then a little more assertively. He could not believe that his mother could be so mean and petty minded. His parents had been aware of her routine before they agreed to the marriage. 
His mother’s nastiness was making Praniti nervous.
“It’ll pass. Give her time. It’s the usual mother-son syndrome. She perceives you as an intruder, coming between her and her son,” Praniti’s close friend said with a knowing wink.
Praniti was not convinced, but decided to ride out any crisis. To her dismay, her father-in-law began siding with his wife, throwing tantrums on the smallest pretext. Shyom stood firmly by her side, but he wasn’t always there. He kept late hours to attend to his working-class patients, and barely woke up in time to bid her goodbye in the morning.
She was getting caught in a vortex: She was tired even before she took the chartered bus to work, and dreaded returning home. Without Shyom there to relieve her tensions, Praniti’s in-laws were becoming an emotional drag on her.
Her parents had warned her that in case the marriage failed, she would not be welcome back. They had tried to help a bit in the beginning, but retreated after things turned ugly.
Complaining was an option she chose not to exercise; thus Shyom was not aware of the full extent of the torture she underwent daily.
When she conceived, she thought life would get easier. It did not. There was no end to the cruelties heaped on her. The grandparents beamed at her newborn son, but would not spare even a smile for her. Matters did not improve when another child arrived.
Shyom was unable to mend matters. He was too busy keeping his practice running. Somewhere along the line he lost the script. A friend took him to a bar to drown his worries in a drink. He took to it like duck to water. He became more and more ineffectual by the day, and joined his friend to hit the bottle every night. So much so that it began telling on his work. His shaking hands made his clients jittery, and the clinic was no longer a paying proposition.
As the children grew up, Praniti was piled with more responsibilities. Attending to all their schooling needs apart, she struggled to keep their complaining teachers at bay as well.
To make matters worse, Praniti’s in-laws poisoned her sons’ young minds against her. They fed them with lies and insinuations about their mother. Much as she tried, she could not win them over. She had precious little time for them, burdened with her chores and somehow clinging to her job. The children were in their grandparents’ care all day, and Shyom had withdrawn into his own drunken world. He would sometimes beat her up at his parents’ instigation, even turning her out one night. She cried herself to sleep on the pavement, but was back on their doorstep next morning.
The same close friend advised Praniti many a time to walk out. “Hardly 34, and already a pale shadow of yourself? Why? You are such a good doctor, but… Quit all this and live for yourself,” she exhorted her.
But Praniti seemed incapable of tearing herself away from her tormentors. “I love my husband and children too much,” she would say over and over again.
One friend had turned him into a drunkard. Another called up out of the blue one day to say he knew of a job vacancy in an African hospital. Was Shyom willing to give it a try?
He applied for the job, and got it. Shutting down his clinic promptly, he left with not even a word of consolation for the wife he had loved so much. Perhaps he was not sure of what lay ahead.
Praniti was shattered at the turn of events.
A glimmer of hope shone through soon, though. Shyom called within a month to say he had not touched a drop of alcohol since he took up the job, and was arranging to bring her over, with their sons.
She could not wait to tell her best friend, who remained extremely sceptical. 
Praniti went through those six months as if in a dream. She still believed in her husband, and in their marriage which she had kept intact in the face of all adversity.
Shyom arrived as promised to take his family away amid his parents’ protestations.
When they visited India two years later, a happy Praniti dropped in on her dear friend.
The elder child had turned over a new leaf, was among the brightest students in class and determined to be a doctor, like his parents. His brother was no longer unruly, either. He had turned serious, set his heart on studying music when he grew up and was already taking music lessons.
All this was music to her friend’s ears. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks, for the tide had indeed turned.

Sunday 10 June 2012

And the music goes on ...

Aadesh and Sanshi exchanged anxious glances: No music today, please!
The loud notes blaring across the verandah were as usual drowning the news being read over the radio, but today was critical for Aadesh. He had to present an analysis of two morning bulletins in his office meeting.
The couple had a baby to bring up, and it was impossible to run the family on just Aadesh’s salary. To supplement their income they had sub-let their sprawling government-provided accommodation. It was illegal, but in the 1960s and even early 1970s everyone rented out their servant quarters, what with incomes being just above subsistence levels.
The music came from their tenants’ room. Ramanna, the husband, was also in government service. His wife Samya was a stay-at-home mom, like Sanshi. They had two sons, both of school-going age.
Samya loved to play loud music.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
They looked normal enough as a pair, but for some oddities that left Sanshi wondering how they had managed to stick it out so long.
When they moved in with little baggage, despite the two boys in tow, the reticent Sanshi decided to turn nosy. “That’s all you have?” she asked Samya.
“I don’t believe in collecting garbage. Use and throw – that’s my motto,” came the careless reply.
And furniture? “Minimal. Two double beds, two chairs and one table … what more do we need?” Samya added.
Two trunkfuls of clothes and an assortment of vessels made up the rest of their belongings.
Samya was ahead of her times. She sported bob-cut hair and always wore brightly coloured sleeveless shirts over loose pants and shiny, pointed shoes. That was how she liked to be seen, whether in the kitchen or out shopping.
Cooking, of course, was a mish-mash of whatever came to hand in the morning. She cooked only once a day. The children had no choice but to eat whatever she served up.
Sanshi, herself a fabulous cook, was aghast. Aadesh warned her to stay out of their tenants’ affairs.
“It’s their life, they seem happy the way they are, so why interfere? It’s none of our business,” he stressed.
Easier said than done, this, considering that the large windows of the master bedroom and the kitchen opened into the verandah, across which Ramanna and Samya had set up house in the servant quarters.
The morning after the tenants had moved in, Sanshi was rudely woken up by the sound of loud, raucous music. She rushed to the kitchen and peeped out. Samya was cooking. But it was what Ramanna was doing that stopped Sanshi in her tracks. She pulled Aadesh out of bed. “Look at what’s going on outside,” she urged him.
Ramanna was standing on one leg, loudly reciting “Om Namah Shivaye” – apparently deaf to the sound of Samya’s music.
They were stumped. The routine was played out daily. Ramanna’s placid countenance betrayed no sign of annoyance at the music his wife obviously loved to sway to. Samya on her part appeared completely oblivious to her husband’s religious chanting.
Sanshi told Aadesh that weekend the little she had gleaned from the bird-brained Samya. The tenants had fallen in love at college, and eloped after Ramanna’s parents refused to allow the “too modern” Samya into their household. That explained why he was so tolerant of her, but why was she the way she was?
The next week unravelled that mystery too. She came from a very rich family and had no notion of how to run the house. Dining out those days was an option few in their situation could afford.
By trial and error, she had figured out how to fry an egg, put together a sandwich and make crude chapatis. Ramanna loved rice, and they had learnt that adding vegetables or lentils to the rice when it was being cooked produced an edible enough concoction.
“Sanshi,” Ramanna said one day when Samya was away on one of her flighty expeditions. “I am a foodie, but know little about cooking. For Samya’s sake I eat whatever she cooks. But I know it is not fair on the children as well.”
He hesitated, adding: “The wonderful smells that waft in from your kitchen have set me thinking. I feel wretched that the children are deprived of good food. Is it possible that you could persuade her to cook a little like you do?”
“I’ll do what I can,” Sanshi promised.
“Please don’t even hint to her that I asked this of you, or she will walk out on me,” Ramanna pleaded.
Sanshi set Aadesh to work on it. He loved children, so he would call them over to share story books, and Sanshi would treat them to some of her famous savouries.
It was a matter of days before the boys started pestering their mother for similar dishes. Upset at first, Samya tried to keep them indoors and avoided the landlord’s family. However, endearing little Mohna was too much of an attraction for Samya. She liked to play with the child while his mother attended to her own house.
Sanshi began to invite Samya to lunch now and then. She saw her getting interested in the food, and subtly dropped cooking tips which, to her delight, Samya diligently tried to follow.
They became good friends, and soon the two families were dining together occasionally, sometimes with Samya playing the hostess.
Under Sanshi’s affectionate tutelage, Samya came to cook almost as well as her.
In the three years that Ramanna was posted in the city, he refused to take up residence elsewhere. His family life had improved no end. His children were now nicely plump and happy, they played every evening instead of listlessly dreading the next meal, he came home eager to taste the next dish that Samya had learnt to cook, and both families went out to wonderful picnics when the sun shone in winter.
The only unchanged feature of their family life was the morning scene.
Breakfast and tiffin could not be prepared without morning music, and the religious Ramanna could not start his day without chanting “Om Namah Shivaye” a hundred times, standing on one leg.
For Aadesh and Sanshi, it was difficult to explain to young Mohna why, one fine day, the music went missing from their mornings.
Ramanna had been posted to a distant town, and the family had moved out.
Mohna, who later joined the same school where Samya’s children had studied, learnt from his schoolmates over Facebook years later that the family now ran a chain of stores selling Indian food across multiple locations in South East Asia. His Facebook friends did not forget to mention: “Each store plays loud Indian music too.”

Saturday 2 June 2012

She, Husband and the match

Her doctor had advised her to take it easy for a while but could not have factored in the cricket tournament final the following weekend.
“Duffers, catch the ball!” came a shout as the team she had supported for five years let go one chance after another. “We” were bowling, and “they”, the favourites, tipped to lift the trophy, were batting.
She would not let Husband drive fast and so they had missed the opening over of the match. But once home, she could not take her eyes off the television screen.
Watching her mood swing with the match.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
She was all over the place, as if the ball was being shot about not on the cricket ground but in her own living room.
When “we” failed to stop a boundary, she sat down with a thud, crestfallen. The captain let slip the ball through his nervous fingers twice, and both times she reached out for the potato fingers, unseeingly pouring ketchup over her plate and over her skirt as well. Husband was commissioned to mop up the offending ketchup, kneeling beside her so as not to obstruct her view.
“Ad break?” she was indignant. “Why an ad break now of all times, when that guy at the crease will probably be clean-bowled?” she lamented. Husband patted her knee.
Mollified by the resumption of the telecast, she forgot about the ad the next moment.
There was soon something else to chafe about. It seemed to her the umpire was siding with “them”. He had declared one too many balls “wide”, and suspiciously turned down appeals as well. Meanwhile, the score was climbing inexorably. Which meant “we” would have to bat that much more and fight that much harder.
She fretted over the lemonade that Husband got her. One eagle eye on the glass lest she spill the liquid now, he tried to give her company in curbing the runs as best as he could. But the more runs “they” totted up, the lower her spirits sank. That boundary was inexcusable, she wailed.
“This is no time to toss the ball like that,” she almost screamed at the next bowler who, regrettably, was deaf to her admonitions.
Husband sprang up from his sofa once more. “No, no, don’t go anywhere,” she implored him. “I promise you, in the next over we’ll take a spectacular catch … yippee, see, didn’t I say we’ll do it! Yes, yes, good boy, keep at it!” Husband, hapless proxy for the player on the ground, got a big thump on the back.
“Yes, guys, keep at it,” he breathed to himself, expecting a snub in case she thought he was taking a dig at “her team”.
Hoping they would keep up with the good work, he sidled into the seat beside her, conveniently at hand in case she wanted to coddle in celebration.
It was not to be. “They” decided to strew the ground with runs all over. She was dumbfounded. Pindrop silence, knuckles white, eyes widening in angst …
Husband put an arm around her shoulder, and was promptly shrugged off. He reassured her that one of “them” would be dismissed, and soon.
“Her team” could not bowl out all the opponents, and faced a massive total to boot. She swore under her breath.
One-day matches were not good for spending their time together, Husband declared. “Come, let’s lay out dinner meanwhile,” he suggested tentatively.
Her fierce look killed the proposal that very instant. “We’ll win, of course, but it won’t be a cakewalk. I have to stay here.”
“But ... for that they have to begin batting first, so…”
“No!” she was vehement. Hunger was duly told to stand in abeyance. 
But then the contrary one stomped out, realizing that once “we” began batting, there was no way she would abandon “my side”.
“Her side” began disastrously. Dinner could go cold, no matter; her heart was at this moment much colder. One down, with barely a score of runs on the board!
Misery, hand-wringing, gulps, pouts and foot-stamping followed in quick succession.
The glum mood persisted for the next few overs as “we” stuck to the crease, but only just. As one duo dug in and it looked the score may not be that tough to beat after all, she cheered up. “Buck up, boys, buck up!” and Husband cringed at the surprisingly heavy thump delivered on his back in encouragement.
She jumped up and down in delight for the next five or six overs as “we” steadily stacked up runs. “Easy, man, easy,” she cautioned as the ball sailed perilously close past a fielder’s itchy fingers to land on the “right” side of the boundary.
Just when all was set for a win came “the” setback she had secretly been dreading. One, two, three batsmen fell victim to “them”. The palpable shock in the air got Husband worried. He stroked her hand soothingly.
“They’ll ruin it all,” she despaired. “Their bowling strategy is working.”
Husband looked around for a suitable distraction. She was almost babbling: “Oh God, oh God, let there be a boundary this time!”
“Yes, yes, yes!” she was thrilled when God obliged. And again, and yet again … she leapt ecstatically from the sofa to the dining table, scooping up popcorn.
Husband thought it was an opportune moment to ask: “Umm, dear, dinner’s turned stone cold. Should I put it in the microwave?”
“Two runs, two runs, come on,” she squealed in delight. “Oooh, look at that … a wide and a boundary in one ball!”
“Yes, great, isn’t it? Err, microwave, my dear?” he asked tentatively again.
She pulled him down into the sofa, holding his arm tightly. “We are going to win,” she whispered conspiratorially. 
Disaster struck once more. Five down, six down, and the total suddenly looked darned unattainable.
She had an ashen look. Husband poured a soft drink, but she waved it away.
“Indomitable,” he muttered, as spirits rose again. “We” were up and running, the total not so formidable any more, when the braveheart was run out.
“What now?” she asked him beseechingly.
“Never mind,” he reassured her, tongue-in-cheek. “There’s more where he came from.”
“Indeed, indeed,” she egged on the stragglers.
The number of balls left to bowl was equal to the number of runs needed to win.
The last boundary, the winner, sent her into a frenzy. “We won, we won!” she whooped as Husband tried to keep her from doing a crazy jig.
Her phone was happily busy for the next fifteen minutes. The “duffers” had been forgiven all sins.
Husband checked out the freezer, sure that tonight she would be having more ice cream than usual.