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.