Saturday 21 July 2012

Keeping up with Junior

Sampat had married young; so did his two sons. He became a grandfather at 50. Three more grandchildren arrived in five years. Kanuj, the eldest, lived with Sampat and his wife Gajri.
Their first-born, Chand, was posted to New Zealand when Kanuj was barely months old. It was a painful decision, but to take up the offer was the only way up the career ladder for Chand. Gajri said she was willing to look after Kanuj if his parents thought it better to leave him with them.
Gajri was a busy woman. She freelanced with a research firm and was involved with community welfare services. Sampat was not sure she would have enough time for her grandson, but he backed her nevertheless.
Chand and his wife asked for some time to check out what lay in store for them in New Zealand. In a week it was agreed that Kanuj was to stay back in India, and the family would try to be together as often as possible. The grandparents were delighted.
Sampat had led a hectic life in corporate corridors, but was now consultant to a small clutch of companies. He took up one, at the most two projects at a time so he could indulge his passion for reading and visit the gym regularly. Gajri made a neat sum from her research projects.
Sampat and his grandson at the laptop.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Their younger son was an army doctor, and had two daughters. The family lived in military quarters, moving from one station to another.
With Kanuj now in their charge, the grandparents had to make quite a few changes in their lifestyle. No late-night outings any more. Sampat’s books began gathering dust. Gajri cut down on her research work. 
They took turns at changing diapers and feeding the little boy, taking him out in the stroller and so on. Before they knew it, he was going to school. They got accustomed to the mad morning scramble for the tiffin, dropping him to school and fetching him, and taking him out to the park or sports complex every evening.
They were lucky to get Kanuj into a nearby school that did not believe in home work. So when it was clear the child had an ear for music, there was enough time for him to learn the guitar from a home tutor.
They did go on with their own lives, but juggled work so that Kanuj was always attended to. Sampat made it a point to be in the loop on all that Kanuj did in school. They were the only grey-haired participants at parent weekends, but the teachers had got used to them as well. In fact, they had made quite a few good friends there, sweet young couples who would share tips on holiday projects, birthday ideas and much more.
Sampat and Gajri had met at a badminton tournament and gone on to make a match of it. Their grandson, however, was a table tennis buff. To give him out-of-school practice as well, Sampat decided to give up his gym and set up a table at home instead. Kanuj and he played regularly, with Gajri watching. Sometimes they fondly referred to him as “Junior”, for they had begun dreaming he would one day compete in the junior championships.
It was a cosy companionship. Kanuj grew up believing he would always live with his grandparents. He now had a little sister. The family visited India for a month or so every winter, when his uncle would also bring his children over.
Kanuj had been to New Zealand, too, sometimes with one or the other grandparent, at times all three of them together. But he liked India best. He was so young, but was already clear that if his parents wanted them to be reunited, he was not the one who would be moving house.
He liked it that he had become a brother, but for now he did not particularly miss his sister. Sampat and Gajri encouraged him to make lots of friends at school and in the neighbourhood so that their age did not stunt his emotional growth.
Sampat worked on an old-fashioned computer. He had a years-old Internet account which he used to keep in touch with his clients. However, he had drawn a line at learning this new-fangled stuff that his children kept talking about, the new virtual world of Skype, Picasa, Facebook, the world of smartphones and mobile apps.
They had bought a small computer for Kanuj for his sixth birthday, but he quickly outgrew it and had been pestering them for a new one. Otherwise an easygoing child, ahead of his tenth birthday he surprised with grandparents with a shrill demand: a powerful, modern computer or nothing.
Sampat and Gajri sat him down and tried to find out what had triggered this outburst. Next morning, they called up Chand. They told him how Kanuj was now beginning to miss having family. His friends went to the movies or shopped with their parents and siblings, shared jokes and things, took pictures and so on.
Kanuj wanted a computer with a broadband connection, so that he could be on Internet and talk to his parents live, see his sister, talk to her, exchange photographs and videos, be able to talk about them to his friends. Broadband, Kanuj had emphasized, so that connectivity was strong and downloading was fast. His friends had told him that.
It had been difficult for the grandfather to take in all this. He used an old-fashioned dial-up connection. Now 60, he had thought that was sufficient for his needs, but clearly he would have to do more for keeping up with Junior.
Chand promised to fund the gift of a computer to his son, and asked his father to scout around for a reliable broadband connection. He also assured them he understood that it was time Kanuj joined his parents and sister.
Gajri was worried. Kanuj clearly did not want to leave India … or was he too attached to them? Was she being selfish? For ten years their lives had revolved around Junior. The child needed his parents, but what of his grandparents? Anyway, she would go along with whatever was ultimately agreed upon, she thought.
Sampat set about organizing his grandson’s birthday. Chand mailed to his father the specifications of the laptop he had selected for Kanuj, and electronically transferred the money as well. Sampat located the model and bought it right away. A broadband connection was the easier part. The tougher part was learning all those things Kanuj wanted to do on Internet. Junior could not be left to his own devices at such a young age, but then Sampat must update himself.
Reservations were swept aside, and when Kanuj was away to school, Sampat called over a college-going neighbour to show him the ropes. It took several sessions before he got the hang of it.
It was a proud grandfather who logged into Skype and greeted Chand on his son’s birthday. Surrounded by chattering friends, an excited Kanuj peeped into the webcam to thank his father, and guess what he heard?
“We are coming back. In less than a year we shall all be living together,” Chand told him.
Kanuj leapt into Sampat’s arms, then into his grandmother’s. 
It’s the best birthday gift I ever got!” he exclaimed. 
The grandparents beamed at each other. “He could say the same for us,” Gajri whispered into her husbands ear. 

Sunday 15 July 2012

Scraping the bottom of the stove

They were a voracious family – her seven children, husband and mother-in-law.
By the time a meal was through, three different women would have taken turns at the chulhas: Imli, her mother-in-law and eldest daughter. The two earthen structures built side by side into the kitchen wall were at times insufficient when the entire family decided they were all hungry at the same time.
Mother-in-law Sukhni generally milked the cows, warmed litres of milk and set the curds in the morning. Eldest daughter Maho made a pile of parathas for breakfast, served with rich creamy milk and omelettes that Imli would prepare in rapid succession on the other stove. 
On most days Imli’s husband headed for the fields with the young lads at his heels right after that to beat the heat. At harvest time, the entire family accompanied him. 
Imli relishes the potatoes.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
The two younger sons and youngest daughter went to the school nestling by their house.
For lunch, Sukhni peeled and cut vegetables by the kilo. Some lentils, rice and rotis complemented the vegetable dish. Evening saw them essay a gravy preparation invariably accompanied by another pile of rotis or parathas. Imli’s cousin from England called them Indian breads.
It was difficult to juggle dishes for so many mouths with diverse tastes. Apart from wheat and rice, on their land they grew mustard, pumpkin, cabbage, cauliflower and beans, but some of these were seasonal. To buy other vegetables from the market meant dipping into her husband’s meagre monthly pension. This they were saving for their daughters’ marriage. Better to cook lentils or pulses in thin, heavily peppered gruel. That way the kids ate less.
Their staple diet included potato, available cheap and in abundance. Parathas stuffed with boiled and spiced potato made for a sumptuous breakfast, and kept their stomachs happily filled till lunch. Imli had mastered the trick of pairing potatoes with other vegetables. She was very good at making potato rolls, or she would add finely chopped boiled potato to the curds served with some dal and delectable green chutney. She had picked up tips from her aunt and mother-in-law, and was now teaching Maho.
When their land was ravaged by locusts, a whole season went by without the usual yield of vegetables. Imli and her husband decided to buy sackfuls of potatoes. The three women had to dream up new ways of making potato palatable to the family. Potato in rice pulao, potato and onion curry, egg curry with potatoes, potato in every snack ...
They breathed a sigh of relief when new vegetables started coming in. Still, these were too expensive and the family could not indulge itself much. One night, having served dinner to most of them, Imli discovered she was going to run out of dal. Sukhni suggested that she add a little water to raise the quantity and pass it on to the little boys, knowing they would not be able to make out the difference.
Imli was busy rolling out rotis at a steady clip to keep everyone plied, while in one part of her mind she ran through the stock at home that she could use for her own dinner. It had been a tiring day, and she knew she needed to eat soon. But eat what?
The last sack of potatoes lay nearby, almost empty. She overturned it to see if any potatoes remained. Five or six rolled out. By the time she was through with baking the rotis, there would be no time to cook these, she thought. She recalled her mother talking about the pachaula … the bottom of the chulha where the ash and embers fell, to be cleaned out after the stove went cold.
The fire was burning bright and the ash from the coal, wood and cowdung cakes was heaping up in the pachaula, too hot to touch. She chucked the potatoes in there, hoping they would roast in time. 
“Mother, there’s hardly any food left for you,” said Maho worriedly. She had come to finally fetch dinner for herself after running to deliver to everyone the piping hot rotis her mother had been making.
“Don’t worry, child, I’ll manage,” Imli assured her daughter. “And then there is always the pachaula,” she remarked, half in jest. 
Unaware of her mother’s little secret, Maho sat down to eat with her brothers. As she made her way to the courtyard corner where used utensils were stacked, she saw Imli scraping the bottom of the stove.
The moonlight was not bright enough for Imli to spot Maho in the shadows. Anyway she was too busy poking about in the ashes ahead of her private dinner. She drew out the roasted potatoes and nearly singed her fingers. When they were cool enough to handle, she peeled the potatoes, taking her time to slice them into lovely golden strips. She reached out for some lemon and salt. Very deliberately, she squeezed the sour juice drop by drop, sprinkling salt where the juice ran off the potato fingers.
Maho tiptoed out and fetched her grandmother and father to share the spectacle of her mother enjoying the offerings of the pachaula.
Legs stretched out, resting on a tiny stool with her back against the cot that stood by the wall, Imli savoured every bite of the potatoes. As she licked her fingers and gave a final smack of satisfaction, Maho could hold herself back no more. She rushed to Imli, embraced her and chuckled. “Next time, Mother, remember I too will make do with whatever there is in the pachaula!”

Sunday 8 July 2012

The ride, fall and rise of Dhanur's dream

The eerie silence in the office broke Dhanurs concentration, ironically, and he looked up as Boss came stomping in. Someone was in trouble, big trouble.
Secretary had read the signs and reached the cabin door a split second ahead of Boss.
“Hrrmph,” Boss grunted to the door Secretary was holding open. “Come in. Important dictation.”
Secretary disappeared into the cabin, notepad and pencil on the ready. “Boom-boom, Secretary!” Dhanur smiled sympathetically.
A new employee had texted Boss this morning asking for leave because of a medical emergency in the family. The memo faxed to him read: “If it’s for real, say how much money should be sent across. If it’s not, consider yourself out of a job.”
Dhanur was a scraggy, fun guy.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Dhanur prised this out of Secretary over tea. The wizened old man had seen Boss in a variety of moods, but nothing like this before.
Boss never sacked an employee. He didn’t even threaten them like this. If at all, he only made it difficult for them to stay on. He may be gruff, but he seemed to be in a giving mood today.
Dhanur decided this was the right time to make his move. He would finally put in a request for that loan for a motorcycle he wanted so badly. He was tired of cycling to office, though it was fun to sometimes rest on his pedals and watch the crazy world whiz by. He would use it real economically. He might ride with his wife to the mall once in a while, though.
They were a fun pair. He was a jovial guy, always looking at the sunny side of things. She was a good sport, enjoying his little jokes and pranks. She was so understanding, his wife. Dhanur knew she wanted so much to go out shopping occasionally, to show off a little in office. It was only fair. She hid her wishes well, but he was sometimes sad about it. Their joint income was barely enough to pay the rent, send some money to his parents, pay token insurance premium and deposit instalments for a small flat they had booked. There was no scope for small luxuries, just decent food and clothes.
He came out of his reverie with a start. The HR in-charge was talking to Secretary.
Dhanur sauntered over to the coffee machine, hoping on the way to catch what was going on. “The young man called. He wants an advance twice his salary,” he heard HR growl to Secretary, who winced, shrugged, and motioned HR to go in. “Lion’s a-roaring, man, be warned,” Dhanur typed out a message in his mind. Was it telepathy? HR threw him a glance over the partition. Dhanur gave him a weak smile.
His coffee was getting cold, work neglected. Dhanur could think of nothing else. He weighed his own chances. If Boss decided to grant advance to a man not even a month into the job, he, Dhanur, deserved more consideration. He had been making reports for the entire research team for five years now.
“I’ll know today,” he thought, his resolve showing the first signs of firming up.
Twenty minutes later, an excited Secretary sauntered over.
“Accounts has been told to send a fat amount,” he whispered before scuttling back to his seat.
Dhanur’s hopes were now definitely soaring. He would take Secretary into confidence when they sat down to lunch.
Boss was a confirmed bachelor. Dhanur had privately labelled him “a confirmed miser” as well. He agonized over recruitments, sometimes taking months to decide on whether another field hand was necessary. His commissioned research business was doing really well. He could quickly decide on which field staff could be plucked from an ongoing project and put onto a new one. He tried to make do with a minimal permanent workforce. If the research required was really extensive, the placement agency was called up for temporary hands. Boss personally interviewed each candidate four times, five times, before putting his money on them.
Boss was extremely stingy with his office workers. He made it clear they deserved little more than the salary package he had negotiated with them. He drove a hard bargain, Boss did, but to his credit he stuck to his commitments. Whether clients paid him on time or not, his payouts were always on dot. Beyond that, he had nothing to do with his office staff, except Secretary, the Accounts head and HR.
But Boss was also savvy, and therefore liberal toward his field staff, permanent or temporary. He paid them handsomely. They travelled in air-conditioned cabs and trains wherever available, stayed in the best possible hotels or rest houses, and delivered the best results.
Yes, Dhanur could vouch for that. He had sat in on every final briefing for the field staff since he joined. He was the back-office pointman, the one they phoned to file their reports for the day.
Boss would not give them laptops to carry around – an unnecessary expense and liability, he believed. He had devised a sharp strategy. Dhanur would put down a list of keywords for every project on his computer. The field hands called him to report the ayes and nays or simple numbers, which he keyed in. After all data had been collected, they would return to office, retrieve the files he had made for each and flesh out their reports. On those days, the field hands worked half-day, so workstations were available to two batches. That way they also got time to recoup their exhausted stores of energy, and of enthusiasm.
The master report was collated from their individual surveys, overseen by Boss himself. 
Dhanur loved his job. The projects on captive power, rural link roads, school teacher manuals … it was a long list, and involved a lot of smart thinking. He had a proud collection of “thank you” cards from grateful field workers whom he had given valuable tips over the phone.
He did not know if Boss was aware how he helped the staff. Dhanur did not believe in self-promotion. He believed in karma instead. One day he would be paid well for all his labour, he was sure.
Had that day arrived? He would know soon.
When the field staff was away, Dhanur was busy taking their calls. When they descended on the office in hordes, he whirled from desk to desk making sure each of them filed in the correct format. Today there was a lull, for everyone had just left last evening for a remote industrial estates project. He expected few calls on their first day in the field.
There was ample time for reflection and wishful thinking. He patted his unruly hair and began stringing together the right words for an application.
Suddenly, pandemonium broke out. Accounts whooshed past Dhanur, who was lost to the world at that point. The buzzer sounded twice, then again. “Unusual,” he thought, craning his neck for a glimpse into the cabin. Boss looked livid, and Accounts was making an animated point. Secretary was furiously taking notes. Boss banged the door on his way out, and Accounts and Secretary conferred for a long time.
Dhanur's bike dream had crashed.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
Dhanur was on tenterhooks. Where had Boss gone? Usually he took one project at a time, and stuck around in office till initial reports indicated his strategy was working fine. Only then did he go scouting for the next contract.
As soon as Accounts was out of sight, Dhanur leapt to Secretary’s side.
“Sad day,” Secretary confided. “Ever since we began this business, no client has questioned our quality, or refused to pay. This one has done both.”
“We are in the right, of course?” Dhanur asked anxiously.
“Boss has gone to consult a lawyer friend of his. We have a strong chance of winning, but it’s going to be a long haul. Accounts is very worried. A big sum is going to get stuck,” Secretary replied.
“Screech … thud!” Dhanur was sure he heard his bike hopes crash inside his head. He returned to his seat, feeling cold inside, and shut the file on his computer he had fondly named “Application for loan”.
Good that he had not called his wife to tell her about his intention. She, and the motorcycle, will have to wait.
A sunbeam warmed his hand where it lay limp beside the keyboard. He smiled. Perhaps there was still something wanting in his karma. He began filing keywords for the new project with fresh vigour. One day he would ride his dream, his bike.