More about Storyteller Ronita Sinha, adjudged the Author of the Month (Aug 2020) by Magic Diary

Thank you, Magic Diary.

The Magic Diary

Storyteller Ronita Sinha, from Tornto, has been adjudged the Author of the Month (Aug 2020) by Magic Diary for her deeply moving tales and her gift of creating magic with her words. We also wish to acknowledge her conviction that “onlywith patience, acceptance and respect for the beliefs of others can we gain world peace and our peace of mind.” It is a value the Magic Diary upholds too.

Read her stories from the pages of the Magic Diary…

The Porch Bench
Miss, thank you for your time

Check out Ronita’s Blog:https://knowingheartblog.wordpress.com/

Ronita Sinha is a traveler, recipe experimenter and gardener, tilling her soul for words and images… and when she cannot help it. she writes.

She holds an M. Phil degree in English Literature from the University of Jadavpur, Calcutta, India. Her many years of work life, in different countries of the world, have expanded her experience…

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‘Miss, thank you for your time’ by Ronita Sinha, Toronto, Canada

The Magic Diary

Molly waited nervously in the artfully decorated living room of the Mehtas, a nervous impatience rising to her throat like bile. She had just turned her back on high school and teetering tentatively on the brink of an unknown world she wanted to test her wings, try out her aptitude for teaching as well as make some pocket money. She was waiting for her first job interview; not at some fancy corporation, or even at a small mom-and-pop corner store but as a house-tutor to a young boy.

While the hopeful teacher waited, a pugnacious Lhasa-Apso lay on the rug conducting a beady-eyed watch of Molly through bangs of unruly fur. He looked as though he could and would tear Molly, the insignificant stranger, to pieces should she dare make a single false move. The pungent smell of cumin seeds spluttering in hot oil assailed Molly’s olfactory sense and she…

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Ode to Campari

Literary Yard

By Ronita Sinha     

The day I brought you home Campari, is the day I fell in love with you. I christened you Campari after a wine-coloured lipstick that I adored at the time. You were, of course, black and white with ears that sometimes flopped and sometimes stood up. I wanted you to be the perfect dog. The perfection that my mother couldn’t find in me, I sought in you, so when everyone loved the perfect dog they would love the dog’s owner too.

During the first days of our lives together, I raced through my school homework so I could spend time training you. I issued commands like “Campari, stop!”, “Campari, sit”, “Campari, fetch the ball.” But there was an anti-force working in our household. In the exact way my mother indulged her son, she took to indulging you as well, so that you grew into an untameable and…

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The Porch Bench

Academy of the Heart And Mind

By Ronita Sinha

    

It so happened that Minnie started baking treats for the neighborhood kids. It began the day Dr. Fish gently insisted that Minnie find something to do that gives her joy, a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Sitting in his grey impersonal chamber Minnie’s eyes misted over. Through the haze of thickening tears, she gazed down at the veins on her folded hands thinking of her porch bench in which she spent a large part of her days simply feeling sorry for herself.

“Mrs. Ray, I remember you had baked a lovely cake for Ravi’s birthday once and brought it in for the staff here. You had told me you love baking.” Dr. Fish prodded, as if trying to ignite a forgotten spark.

Driving home Minnie found the doctor’s words trapped in her mind like a maple shoot between ancient patio stones. True, there was a…

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The Face of Fear

There was a time when I was a mother to two young children, one aged three years and the other five months. The older, the boy; frisky, energetic, chatty, with perpetual question marks in his eyes. The girl; soft, delicate like a pile of freshly whipped cream, wooing strangers with her solemn sweetness. My boy was on the move all the time. My girl at times so still I had to graze my finger under her nostrils to ensure the steam.

The two made up my day, my night, my love, my dreams, my fatigue, my panda-eyes and my complete universe. My only universe.

Despite the apparent breathless pace of life in those years, there was an idyllic aura surrounding my days in many senses than one. I could and would snatch a read (Ayn Rand, Ashapurna Devi and then Colleen McCullough besotted my mind for a while) from time to time, participate, with gusto, in a local Moms and Tots group and indulge in my singular, most exciting passion of making cute baby clothes on an Ovaltine colour Singer-Merritt sewing machine borrowed from my mother. Yes, it was the same recalcitrant machine I might have told you about in a prior blog post.

The train of life chugged along. As I gazed out the window at the scenes passing by, I felt contentment, happiness. There were, of course, times

                                     when the train rumbles

                                          turned into groans and grumbles;

the usual things that unsettle a mother’s life from time to time. A coughing child, a I-don’t want-to-eat child, a bruised-knee child, a bad-mood child, a runaway child. They faded in and out and became part of the weft and warp of the entire panorama.

Now, the part-time lady who helped me with the dishes had a son called Subhas who, at the time, sat at that impossible age of twelve; careless, moody and completely intractable. In the height of summer, when he didn’t have to play truant from school, he skipped in with his mother, his shorts pockets full of kaleidoscopic marbles with which he would proceed to regale my young man, Tintin, named after the character of the comic book fame whom he resembled because of a tuft of disobedient hair on his head. For a while Subhas, with his coarse humanity and superb air of insouciance rose to the ranks of Captain Haddock, devising antics that made Tintin squeal with the high delight of a three-year-old. A child at play with another. One older and wielding a great deal of clout with the tenor of an illusionist. The other, with eyes like saucers, trusting, adoring, fanciful and completely rapt in the illusionist’s spell.

One afternoon, when the four-o’-clock sun had not quite begun its descent over the treetops, I readied my Tintin. Wiping down his sticky body, I powdered it well, combed down his unruly hair, buckled his sandals and asked Subhas, my young helper to wait with him in the stroller just outside while I dressed and readied the baby. “Wait just at the doorstep” was my clear, unambiguous instruction. “Wait just at the doorstep”. Subhas nodded gravely. My little guy smiled up at me. I turned inside.

With an unease I always felt when removed from the babies, I hastened through my chores and within minutes stepped outside to an eerily empty street. No Subhas, no stroller and of course no child. Instantly my heart sank and landed with a deafening thud on the ocean floor of my dread. Thwack!

Unbidden, terror bubbles began to rise from the very pit of my stomach. A huge stillness had swallowed up the entire enclave of condominiums and left an indifferent, orange sunshine in its place. The sunshine, stark and naked, glinted off the grass blades making them look psychedelically greener and unreal. Not a soul was in sight. The blocks of flats all around looked like they were ghost-inhabited. No housewife came out on a balcony to pluck the sun-dried laundry. Not a dog barked, not a cat mewed. Only the apathetic sunshine blazed as witness to my unfolding horror.

Not too long ago I was at the pediatrician’s for the children’s shots where, while waiting, I had picked up a magazine and read an article on a strange belief or superstition where construction workers would hunt for several human heads to place beneath the foundation of a modern structure, like a bridge being erected, in the belief that such an action would lend the edifice greater durability. Their targets were mostly children as they are easier to lure and offer the least resistance. The memory of the article rose in my mind darkly like an ominous monsoon cloud obliterating every sensible thought, and try as hard as possible, I could not come up with the country where such a practice occurred, was it Indonesia, India, Iceland? Nor could I think if I had read or heard about any new local construction that was underway. One thing I was sure about was that I had to start the search for my child as soon as I could. How far could the kidnappers have gone within the short minutes I was inside? How exactly do kidnappers ‘nap’ kids? Imagine, they napped two kids at one go. I shivered under the sun.

My bewildered mind could not fathom which way to start. Should I go right towards the roundabout, the bus terminal, and hopefully people? Or, should I go left, deeper into the housing enclave? Without wasting too much time on directional semantics I turned and ran left clutching my perplexed baby girl close to my heart. I felt somehow reduced, truncated as if a limb, which was there a second ago, had been lopped off and I could not endure the searing pain. I was suddenly one baby short, my lap half filled. One less cheek to kiss, one less body to hug, one laughter less. One love less. One whole joy and life less. Tears streamed down my face, blinding me so that the sunshine seemed grey and stone-washed.

I ran and ran and ran. And, all the while, there was my terror, on a bicycle, just behind me pedalling furiously and my heart thud-thudding in my ears like a crazy beast. Just when I thought I could no longer do this alone, I had to get help, two men, youth really, ambled into my line of vision. They gaped at me as if I were a lost planet, dislodged from my natural orbit, skittering around for a return to sanity and equilibrium. Haltingly, I asked them if they had seen a baby and another young child. One of them said, yes, he had seen a small child in a pram but could not recall who was pushing it. It was a few minutes ago and the pair was headed towards the bogs that surrounded the urban area.

I now had something to work with. Some direction, some clue. Trembling, I turned the next block and immediately, in the far distance, against the horizon refracted by my tears, I saw the diminutive figure of Subhas rapidly disappearing into the sunlight. I summoned all the power that I could into my lungs and screamed “Subhaaaaaaaaaaaaaas”.

At first, it seemed he had not heard me. He kept racing ahead pushing the pram flippantly, childishly and at a ridiculous speed. I kept screaming his name. Finally, my frenzied cries halted Subhas in his tracks. He stopped and turned, wheeling the pram around, the entire pantomime a dark silhouette against the scintillating blueness. My eyes dropped into the contents of the pram.

Too gloomy, too against-the-light, too unclear. I couldn’t tell if it held my precious bundle.

I flew forward, my mind in the clutch of an excruciating confusion.

At last!

There was my boy, cool like the proverbial cucumber, gazing up at me, unperturbed by my enormous agitation, my tears. He blinked his deep, dark, baby eyes, a little watery from the stinging as his pusher raced into the wind, his cheeks rosy, his eyelashes curled up against the onslaught of the breeze. That he was still unscathed, travelling at such high speed, unbelted, was a sure sign to me that his guardian angel had not taken the day off.

I deposited my baby girl, who was a sheer victim of circumstances, on the sidewalk grass and scooped up my boy into my arms. He hung back in the circle of my embrace and inspected my face with solemn curiosity. In his infant heart he sensed something was not right with his mother. Perplexed, he placed his arms around my neck, puckered his tender lips and planted a warm, sweet kiss on my cheek.

My world was whole again. Everything that was snatched away minutes ago, was returned to me.

I glared at Subhas. Looking at me he must have got the drift of what he had subjected me to. I looked so utterly gross, so dishevelled, so insane. He looked duly chastened though, I doubt, he ever clearly understood the full impact of his action. I merely asked him, “You will never do this again, will you?” He nodded. Ruefully.

I made sure he didn’t.

I never let anyone fly into the sunshine with my babies ever again.

It’s A Girl

Although we attended different schools we were good friends, Nalini and I. We were what you could call neighbourhood friends. Nalini had a sister called Romoni, older than her by few years, and the inordinately proud owner of a large strapping Alsatian called Whoosh. The color of his coat was a buffed tan splotched generously with shades of brown and black. His pointed snout and close-set eyes gave him a wolf like look but they held never a trace of malice. Mischief yes, but malice never! He was part reason why Nalini’s house seemed such an attractive venue for our frequent chat sessions.

Now, this canine, with his high level of uncanny intelligence deciphered that Romoni was his mistress, because it was Romoni who had, one cloudy evening returned home with him, a tiny pup then, held under her arm like a clutch purse. Where she found him she would not share with anyone. But Nalini knew. She watched the entire pantomime from a few feet behind her sister. Romoni found Whoosh, probably one of a new-born clutch, under the fence of the Sens’ residence. Wobblingly ambitious and not afraid to get lost it had strayed from his brood and got his neck awkwardly wedged under the rough-hewn bamboo fence. Whimpering pitiably it looked up with limpid eyes at the passing schoolgirl, Romoni, her satchel swung over her shoulder, a lollipop hanging from her lips. She passed him by reluctantly, her eyes fixated on him, and the whimpering grew louder, more insistent. Romoni turned back, looked around her furtively and a feeling akin to “I have to do it now or never” swept like a tsunami across her entire being. She was overcome with her lifelong wish to own a dog, the itch to cuddle, and most of all she was overwhelmed by love for those eyes, those curiously perky ears and without wasting a single moment, Romoni reached under the fence and freeing the pup, slipped him into her arms. By the time this act of gross love was completed, Nalini was by her sister’s side but a tad too late. The final stamp of ownership and claim to motherhood of the infant pup rested firmly and irrevocably with Romoni.

The challenge was introducing the new found family member to the parents. But when Whoosh dutifully performed his act of whimpering (not that pitiably anymore; a bottle hurriedly bought from Subodh’s corner store filled with wholesome milk had acted as an instant energy boost) and turned on the I-will-do-anything-for-you-look, the girls’ mother was bowled over. “Oh, what an adorable cutie”, she exclaimed unexpectedly and thus began many long years of feeding and taking care of a canine that moments ago the lady had no clue even existed. It so happened that it was the mother, and only the mother, at whose feet Whoosh cast all his allegiance. He obeyed her with a single-minded devotion and after this outpouring, whatever dregs of loyalty he had left, he directed them to his finder, Romoni. And as for Nalini, he ignored her royally for the most part which needless to say my teenage friend found exceedingly exasperating.

Nalini’s Mom, Mrs. Basu, was what modern kids would call ‘kewl’. She really was very, very cool.  She dressed in sleeve-less blouses and white sarees with artistic borders. She knotted her hair up in a way that took mere seconds but remained tidy and secure the entire day. It was a knot she taught me to tie and I used the style well into my working years till, eventually, I chopped my mane off. Her glasses sported a contemporary style and made her look every inch the college professor that she was. A college prof with a cool dimension. My most striking recollections of her are in the kitchen where I could observe her from my vantage point in the living room as I sat chatting with Nalini. She moved around fluidly from stove, to sink to fridge with the air of a trapeze player and every time she had to wait for something to boil or brown she leaned against the door jamb and yakked with us as though she was another of our friends. After her chores were done she emerged with a plate of delectable tid-bits for us to munch on. Ordering Nalini to get us both some orange or lemon squash from the fridge, she leaned back into a chair, crossed her legs and casually plied me with random questions. One day she asked if I thought a day would dawn when Indira Gandhi would be shot dead. Another time she asked what kind of men, I thought, really made good husbands, the ones who cooked or the ones who cleaned up after, or the ones who made a tidy packet but remained life-long rookies in the kitchen. I knew she taught political science and it seemed to me all her questions had some kind of political/sociological leanings. She somehow elicited from my teenage tongue the response that I did not always believe in but, with some air of unintended diplomacy, I uttered the answer that she wanted to hear.  

Whoosh grew amazingly fast and amazingly fat fed on his regular meals plus all the table scraps he received from the girls. But what grew way bigger than his girth was his attitude. It was attitude with a capital A and it was mainly directed at Nalini. He refused to take a single command from her and often behaved as though in the hierarchy of the Basu family, he superseded Nalini by a healthy margin. One afternoon Nalini and I were trying out some steps of a Latin dance on the living room floor. A record playing Bachata was on the turntable and very enthusiastically we had set the stage. The centre table was moved aside and the couches pushed back for a larger clearing in the middle. The naughty dog was determined to sidle around our legs as a four-legged partner of sorts trying his best to foil all our Extremely Serious  Attempts at seductive hip-swaying till an utterly frustrated Nalini screamed, “Under the divan, Whoosh, under the divan!” Now this was the final word in ignominy for Whoosh. Only when he had done something so atrocious, so  unspeakable was he ordered under the divan – a place of extreme discomfort, the low-slung and somewhat sagging spring coils of the well-used furniture jamming against his ample girth making him grit his teeth and plotting frantically for a line of escape. He stared up at Nalini defiantly as if to say, “You two have no idea what clowns you are”. The command came again, shriller and several decibels higher – “Under the divan, Whooshshsh”. Whoosh wagged his tail brilliantly, narrowed his eyes to wolf-like slits and composed his lips along grim, unsmiling lines. Nalini’s defenestration was complete. She was clearly losing it. She threw her chin belligerently over her shoulder and screamed in the direction of the kitchen, “Ma, Whoosh is ….” With the word “Ma” it was as though a magic lamp had been rubbed, a genie unleashed and a wish was granted. I saw a blur of snout, fur, tail and finally the last bit of an extremely bulky canine posterior disappearing under the divan at lightning speed.

Although Mrs, Basu, Nalini’s mom, often hummed as she worked or listened to the news on the radio on low volume she clearly had an ear open for our conversations. So, it’s not strange that one afternoon she overheard us chatting about girls from our respective classes who smoked furtively in bathrooms, in school-dorms and less-frequented street corners. At the time her mother appeared to be paying no attention to our banter, but when I was putting on my sandals to leave, she poked her head casually around the kitchen door and asked “Ronita, when are you coming again?” There was an expectant gleam in her eye and I answered, “Friday”, as usual because something told me that’s the day she too had in mind.

Now, Nalini passed our house on her way to and from her school which was bang opposite our house. On Friday, she left a reminder message for me about our date that evening. By now I was quite intrigued and after hurriedly completing my homework and donning my grey elephant pants and a magenta top I skipped along to her place. Nalini opened the door, brimming with excitement, Whoosh woofing madly at her heels. The air was rife with “Something is About To Happen …” We settled down and Whoosh, who had clearly had a recent bath looked marvellously handsome in his brawny black and brown coat as he lay on the floor between us his ears twitching in preparation for eavesdropping on our chatter. After interminable minutes of trapeze playing in the kitchen, Nalini’s Mom emerged. She turned off the ceiling light and turned on the floor lamp immediately plunging the room into a play of light and shade. In her hand she held a pack of Four Square cigarettes and the strikingly macho face of Suresh Oberoi, the Four Square model, rose before my eyes. He was every young girl’s heart throb (till he was dethroned by Benjamin Gilani of Gilette fame) with his ruggedly sleek looks and indifferent steely eyes looking into the distance as though it was as inscrutable as the future. Mrs. Basu placed the cigarettes on the coffee table along with a box of matches. With the air of a deity reigning over our destinies, she sank into her favourite chair, then opening the pack of fags she handed a white filter-tipped cylinder to each of us. Whoosh sprang up to claim his. “Not your turn today, Whoosh, so sit down”. Whoosh did as he was bidden because he dared not disobey Mom. All coiled up, with curious eyes, he began to survey the proceedings as they unfolded.

With unpractised fingers we clumsily lit our cigarettes. Mrs. Basu then assumed the pose of an ace smoker, sat up ramrod straight in her chair and gestured for us to draw deeply on our cigarettes. I looked at the cigarette held between my thin fingers. I realized I was squinting and beyond the smouldering tip of the cigarette everything seemed grossly unreal. The kitchen door seemed to have receded into the balcony, the furniture swayed a little in the half-light. I thought of my mother and what she would say to what was happening but what the heck, here was I taking orders from another mother. It had to be okay. Almost on cue both Nalini and I dragged deeply on the fags, pulling the acrid smoke sharply into our young lungs. Instantly the red tips gathered more fiery life and glowed stronger. But I was no longer looking at any burning points. A spiky shapeless ball of fire seemed to invade my lungs with the force of a pillaging army, searing my chest with an unbelievable, mind-rocking intensity. Our lungs were full; the smoke wanted an outlet. Wilfully it charted scorching paths through our ear canals, nasal passages and most of all through our throats. We doubled over coughing uncontrollably. We flung the deeply offending objects into the crystal ashtray on the coffee table and then completely winded we keeled over and flopped into the nearest sofa. After what seemed an eternity my heart rate began to slow down, the coughing abated, my vision cleared and my hearing was restored. The room once again glowed in the incandescent light of the ceiling light, the rug, the kitchen door everything glided back into their natural orbits. Mrs. Basu stood before us with a small tray holding two gleaming glasses of water. Whoosh stood next to her with a look that said, “Serves you right, you brats!” As we sat sipping the life giving water, Mrs. Basu delivered a small solemn spiel. “See what smoke and nicotine can do to your lungs; can you imagine what it must do to those who smoke every single day?”

One day in December Nalini announced excitedly that a cousin of hers was visiting from Pennsylvania and was going to board with them for a few days. There was one catch to this impending visit at which Nalini turned up her pretty nose. She was asked to vacate her room for the guests and sleep on the living room divan, a verdict that she accepted with great resentment and it was only the excitement of meeting the cousins that somewhat alleviated the inconvenience she was subjected to. They were a young couple, likely in their late twenties or early thirties. The husband, Ani, was on a scholarship at Penn State conducting research on some kind of esoteric topic. Although, the visitors made Nalini’s house a base they were mostly out visiting friends, relatives and eating at restaurants. The wife, Juhi, was very slim, of an attractive dusky complexion, spoke with an American twang and smoked like a chimney, so much so that the always fresh-smelling, well-kept Basu home began to smell of stale smoke all the time, much to the mistress’s chagrin. In deference to the Indianness all around her she shed her super-tight jeans and draped a saree. She wore it low displaying a smooth swathe of midriff skin and the manner in which she made a pretence of trying to cover it by drawing her saree-end around her pert bottom was truly risqué. Nalini and I adored everything about Juhi. The stilettoes, on which she looked like she was floating on air, her full lips glossed to perfection, her curving oh so long fake eyelashes and of course the suggestive way in which she linked fingers with her hubby. 

Nalini’s mother had very gracefully instructed her daughters to respect the privacy of the guests and kept the door of their room closed even when they were not home and Nalin’s clothes and school stuff were moved into her sister’s room. However, since the couple was out most of the day, Nalini had free run of her erstwhile space which was no longer useable by any stretch of the imagination. Open suitcases spread their entrails all over the floor. The dresser was covered with make-up paraphernalia, including brushes of all sizes; at first we mistook them for shaving brushes used by the husband and wondered why he needed so many. Very generously the guest had said to Nalini that she was free to try any of the stuff strewn carelessly around, her lipsticks, mascara, blusher, and as her friend, I was granted the same privilege. However, unfortunately, neither of us had reached that magical age of sixteen and as such were ostracized from the world of makeup by both our mothers. The only time we were allowed makeup was when we dressed for weddings or equally showy occasions.

On one of her sneaky forays into that suddenly forbidden space Nalini discovered a small round receptacle of birth control pills marked by the seven days of the week. The clear lid could be twisted to align with the opening to slide each tablet out on its appointed day. Nalini explained to me importantly that Juhi had said that she must ensure she took one every night in order to keep having a baby at bay and if she forgot then she would have to pay for the lapse. She said Juhi didn’t want kids; at least not yet. She wanted a career and when she returned home to Harrisburg, she was going to apply for some courses to better equip herself for the job market. A baby at this stage in her life would be disastrous and most definitely thwart her ambitions. While Nalini was elaborating on all this, Whoosh, finding the door open, suddenly tore into the room like a cyclone, and maddened by all the strange smells, he began sniffing insanely around every garment and every shopping bag, barking his head off till his eyes fell on the two of us immersed in our Most Interesting Find. Thinking he was missing out on this Discovery, he leapt at Nalini sweeping the little container out of her hands with one disastrous paw. The pill container flew to the floor and the lid came off scattering the pills all over the cluttered floor. We stood transfixed, watching in dismay each pill bump and roll, around the edge of a suitcase, bump and roll under the bed, bump and roll under the dresser and bump and roll into the eternal mess in the room. It all happened in the blink of an eye, so to speak. Whoosh, sensing our tension stopped in his tracks and the deafening silence that ensued somehow unfroze us. We rummaged around the floor to find as many of the pills we could. Nalini crammed them back into the receptacle where they belonged with shaking hands but neither of us could remember on which date the last tablet stood and to be honest at that point we were past caring. The lid was replaced and we left everything as much as possible as we had found them although we knew the date on that pill container was all muddled and we both doubted we had managed to find all of the tiny demons.

Thus, our idyllic days sailed along, on largely placid waters occasionally buffeted by the storms of frenetic cramming on the night before exams, poor marks despite the last minute efforts and those occasional friendly disagreements on matters as trivial as pronunciation of words like “entente” – our argument was, needless to say, pretty inane, neither of us being of French descent, yet we argued vehemently nevertheless. Then, on the other hand, were those sunshiny times of tuning into “You Asked For It”, “Juke Box” and “Musical Bandbox”, all Western music request programme on the radio. Television still had not made its grand entry into the Indian entertainment landscape and painted everything with a Bollywood brush. We loved listening to chart-toppers like Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Donny Osmond, Cliff Richard, and the more sonorous Tom Jones and Engelbert, not to mention King Elvis. We listened to the half-hour musical programmes with the rapt delight of the young – a song dedicated in congratulations to a child who had just passed an exam with flying colours, a husband being wished a long life on his birthday by a devoted wife, but most dedications were born of young love. A paean from a newly-minted boyfriend to a coy girlfriend. The two of us listened and one day on a whim, Nalini and I bought a yellow postcard. On it we scribbled a note to Y.C. who hosted “You Asked For It” and whose deep manly voice drove us to utter distraction. The note read; “To our beautiful girls Ronita and Nalini, from Sidhharth and Rahul.” Needless to say Rahul and Siddharth were figments of our childish imagination – they were simply masculine names both Nalini and I had a deep fascination for and the nomenclature filled in regally for our formless, spiritless boyfriends that we yearned to have. I know, I know readers this sounds piteous but we were mere wide-eyed thirteen year olds, utterly clueless about navigating the unchartered waters of relationships of a complex nature.

A full year of school and vacations, dance concerts and birthday parties, scorching summers and water logged monsoon streets rolled by. Nalini and I grew a good head taller busying our mothers with letting down the hems of our school uniforms. Unbeknownst to even ourselves we perched precariously on the threshold of womanhood. Then one winter evening we were returning home from an exhibition titled “Man on the Moon” being held at Gorky Sadan where there were displayed different-sized chunks of what the presenters of the exhibition called rocks from the surface of the moon. In earnest dialogue over what we had just beheld we made our way home. Under the stairs Nalini paused a moment to check their mailbox and out popped a bright pink unsealed envelope on which were scrawled the words “Card Only”.  It was post marked the U.S.A. Inside was a card with an extremely cute, fatter-than-Whoosh teddy bear holding up a placard that gently read “It’s a girl”.  

The card was signed Juhi and Ani.

Decembers to Remember

There is something about the month of December that, I’m sure as it does with numerous others, strikes a chord with me. It resonates with memories that just cannot be relegated to the spam folder in my mind. Amidst the hustle and bustle of planning, prepping, partying there is that file retrieval process and reliving a cache of memories of Christmases gone by. Often they center around that which will never again be, because the people, so intrinsic to those experiences, are no more. Yet, there are those happy files too, uncorrupted by the sadness virus they imbue bright cold December mornings with a charm all their own.

Other folks’ tales of Christmas fascinate me abundantly; I listen avidly, storing them in a mental flash drive for easy transference into the “December” folder in my brain. Take the endearing story of a stern single dad raising two young girls on his own, with little experience in Christmas prep. Yet, he rises valiantly to the occasion, grabs two of his best and longest socks, blue in colour, and stuffs an apple and a toy in each and hangs them up from the window grill for his daughters to discover and whoop with delight on Christmas morning. One excited child, along with her apple, discovers a yellow toy school bus in hers and spends the rest of the day wheeling it on a steady path on the living room floor. In a world where she has little sway (she can never bring her incompatible, irreconcilable parents together again) she has complete control in the driver’s seat of that play-bus, in charge of all the tiny imaginary lives within it. Joy oozes from every pore of the young driver. A vision of Christmas indeed!

Here’s another. A boy and a girl waiting patiently to go shopping for a real fir tree but the frugal parents wait till Christmas Eve when the best deals are to be found. Bristling with excitement they are at the farm on a snowy afternoon scouring through a mauled pile of tired and grey-green residual foliage. They want to land on one that looks the healthiest and has the most tips left. Anxious fingers find one, fairly healthy and still eager to go to a bright warm home. Alas! The dismayed children soon find that the most important tip of all, the one on the top, is missing and what’s more heart-wrenching is that the top is missing in all of the left-over trees. They’ve been brutally beheaded by careless transporters and shoppers. The mother, guiltily disappointed herself, feigning a brightness she doesn’t exactly feel, announces cheerily “It’s not so much the tree kiddos, it’s how you decorate it, right?” And then she proceeds to pick the most robust of the pack and the family loads and ties it to the roof of the car and prepares to head home. But, there’s a very real problem with a headless Christmas tree. Where do you attach your angel or your star? Ummm! It doesn’t matter, the children are in throes of excitement decorating their tree. The lights are up, they shimmer ethereally in the evening shadows and not to be undone two unfazed and resourceful kids arrange all the wrapped presents on the flat top of the Christmas tree. Their tree may not have had a crown but it certainly had wide arms that gracefully embraced all the gifts wrapped by several loving hands.

Then there’s the story of a struggling family who decides to forgo all gift-giving among themselves and prepare to sponsor a family in need for Christmas. They make the decision weeks ahead and working with the charitable organization, they throw their heart and soul into creating a list of all the things the sponsored parents and their young child would like. Ah! There is much more joy in giving than in receiving. The child wanted a transformer and it just JUST happened to be the year that every child prayed to Santa for a transformer. Soon the stores began to run out of this strange toy but the mother pursued her relentless hunt for one and eventually, a rural Walmart offered up her dream. Ah, sigh of relief! A time is set with the organization and the magi family sets off to meet their sponsored family. They wait in the foyer, minutes tick by. Their weeks of choosing, shopping, wrapping have finally wound down and now they waited with bated breath for their reward. Not a reward of unctuous thank yous, but they waited to see the gleam of happiness in some hapless eyes. A woman from the reception counter strides around towards the waiting family “Er, are you here for …? Right! I see! Unfortunately, the lady has a class for a course she is taking and the husband has been called off to a job, so they could not come to meet you folks, so, so sorry.” “Oh, no. Couldn’t this have been rescheduled?” “Well”, the woman replied, and pointing to a well-heeled man, waiting nearby she continued, “Here’s his dad and he would be happy to take the presents off your hands and pass them on to the family.” In utter silence, the booty was transferred over. The suited man smiled a ‘thank-you’ at them through designer glasses and was gone, leaving behind him a bunch of bruised and bemused hearts.

Then, of course, is that very special Christmas when a child comes home with her family to spend the holiest time of the year with her parents. Kiddy laughter skids off the walls, the super sanitized kitchen smells fondly of baby formula and Cheerios, special unspiced stews and applesauce. Love, salaciously spiced up with precocious baby talk and wet kisses, is undeniably in the air. Thus, I can never fully capture the essence of Christmas if I do not dwell on the ones fraught with Jasmine-jabber and Abraham-antics. They hold their own fascination; more magical than the first snowfall or the cry of a new-born babe. And finally, the bluest of all blue Christmases the year Baba passed away just weeks before, in early December; sucking the joy out of advent and Christmas for many years to come.

Then my own childhood Christmases, alive with the brilliance of tinsel, waking up to a pile of presents above our sleeping pillows. Our childhood presents never came under the tree; Santa did a personal drop-off always. The warm fruity fragrance of plum cake and the aroma of roasted lamb. Then the low-key Christmases when we were treading water in a new land, trying to find that elusive solid ground under our feet but still determined to surround our children with the blessed aura of Christmas.

Throwback Berlin 2015 Christmas Eve, late evening; a few hours to the top of the hour. It was a Christmas that was made of the stuff of magic. A beautifully laden tree shone in the corner in time with the carols that Samir played on the keyboard while Jasmine and I played ball. The smell of soup being cooked in a huge pot and stirred with a loooong ladle wafted around the entire flat. Soon two gracious men would come to pick up the steaming pot for the Syrian refugees housed in camps on that cold wintry night across the city. Jasmine had departed for Berlin with her parents and the deal had been struck before they left – Dadu and Thama were going to visit them for their very first Christmas so they did not feel the absence of family. A week had already slipped by since our arrival in Berlin. Presents were wrapped with much active assistance from the little elf Jasmine and arranged under the tree by none other than the elf herself. Chilli, the big blundering golden doodle dawdled around everyone’s legs with the cutest lost puppy look and the entire apartment still harboured the gentle smell of sugar cookies that the lady of the house had baked in large flawless batches.

I am not sure if it is a habit or a soulful practice or just childhood training but for both Samir and I Christmas is never Christmas if we do not attend church and listen to that timeless story of the immaculate conception and the miraculous birth of the greatest carpenter that ever lived. Only then, in our deepest consciousness, the merriment, the feasting, the presents, everything, everything finds a meaning. But, that year we were in Berlin, the children had gone out of their way to give us some unique experiences; along with them we were invited to a Christmas eve party that could run pretty late, so we decided to break tradition and forgo church for this one year. Yet, they would have none of it; one scoured the web meticulously and found us a church that a single train would take us to. The other painstakingly wrote out the names of all the 14 stations in order on a scrap of paper so we knew exactly which station to get off. So to the midnight service, we were going after all.

A delicate rain had begun to fall, muting the incandescent street lamps in a silvery ball of fine gossamer. Samir and I stepped out of the charmed warmth of the apartment and hastened our steps to get to Warschauer Straße from where we were to catch a train that would take us directly to the church. Peeling church bells filled the magical night- air breathing life into the empty streets. I fished out two train tickets from my purse and we were off to the races with glee in our hearts. At the hexagonal exit-way of the station, we made sure we exited from the right side, and so we did; the name of the street the church was on glistened green in the lamplight. I made a mental note of the kiosk where a man sat selling train tickets – we would need a pair to get back home. Tiny fairy lights twinkled in front yard shrubs and door wreaths all along the way to the church building.

The notes of an acapella rendering of Amazing Grace filled the nave of the church and soared into infinity beyond comprehension – all the pretences of Christmas fell off like dross, centring our minds and our souls. I felt so glad and so grateful to just be there. Before the midnight hour, our spiritual adventure was over, we exchanged greetings with several other worshippers in the narthex and were soon headed to the train station. The ticket kiosk was still brightly lit but the counter suddenly seemed eerie in its emptiness. After waiting a few moments I tried the handle of the door to the kiosk and found it was firmly locked. With a jolt, it occurred to me that the man had wrapped up for the day and gone home! Visions of spending the night on the cold damp station loomed in front of my eyes. When was the last train scheduled for? And how do we board it with no tickets to punch? At Samir’s suggestion we made our way to the train platform and before we could make any further decisions a train barreled into the station – Warschauer Straße boldly emblazoned on its front. The doors opened and we jumped in without further ado. We were on the right track! The entire compartment seemed reserved for us; there being no sight of any other passenger. We settled down next to a window but something akin to a faint discomfort plagued me. What happens, I wondered, if you are caught travelling without a ticket in a German city? Fine? Jail? Not to speak of the personal humiliation. The thought nagged at me, stuck like an obdurate fish-bone between molars. I consulted with Samir who had nothing else on his mind than a warm bed. “We’ll tell them the truth, that’s all there is to it. We didn’t rob a bank neither are we running away with the church offering bag or anything as drastic, are we?” He somehow managed to allay my fears a little. We were already at the tenth station – the doors opened and closed and no one got in. Smooth ride thus far.

Station number 7. The train-rumbles under our feet were definitely making me drowsy. The train doors opened – my senses were jolted at the sound of heavy feet and deep masculine voices. I glanced over my shoulder. Two men in uniform had entered the compartment speaking to each other in rapid-fire German. On the arms of their uniforms, it read “Polizei”. Goodness gracious, how did they know? Who sent them after us? Speak of legendary German intelligence and efficiency! They marched towards us, their hefty purposeful footfalls had the ring of Nazi boots that were branded in my mind from the uncountable war movies I had watched. Pictures of horror and brutality rose before my now fully-awake eyes. Samir was snuffling peacefully beside me – how, and again how does he get away with not an iota of anxiety? Huh? Why is it always me? In that entirely empty car, the burly men found only two seats they liked – they were right across from us and ran horizontally against the windows. Of course, they had to get as close to their target as possible. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. One held a contraption that looked something like an Interac machine but was clearly something else. These were German policemen, not travelling salesmen, you silly woman!! I admonished myself mentally. I was convinced they were searching for information to mount their attack. Of course, they had to be sure we indeed were the two hapless ticketless travellers they were dispatched to nab in the last few minutes of Christmas eve. I turned my face resolutely towards the window. The deep darkness of the velvety night outside had turned the windowpane into a polished mirror of sorts so I could clearly see the two objects of my mortification reflected in there. Suddenly, they both broke out into some kind of devilish laughter even as they continued to stare at the screen of the machine in their hands. Of course, now they were sure who we were and thus their boundless delight. Seemingly tired from the long, belly-laugh one of them yawned, then shot his legs out in front of him startling me no end. Then he laced his fingers behind his large head, closed his eyes and promptly dozed off. I peered into my mirror-window as closely as I could. The other man was still engrossed in the device in his hand – it didn’t look that large anymore – no bigger than a largish mobile phone – maybe that’s what it was after all – a mobile phone of the Polizei-kind.

We were crossing a brightly lit up patch of the city and my window-mirror was gone taking with it the objects of my horror. I gazed out at the sudden-brightness. The rain had stopped. The train slowed down and stopped at a station – the two men jumped up and, somewhat sobered now, clambered off the train, without even a glance at us. I began to breathe easy. Warschauer Straße was up next. Alighting from the train we walked home silently our linked fingers speaking with each other. Another fledgeling Christmas day was on its way in. The thought of it melted away even the remotest trace of every grudge, every grievance, every grief and instead filled my heart with thankfulness and joy that only this special season can bring.

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Dear Readers here’s wishing you every joy this Christmas day and a New Year in which that elusive dream of yours is firmly in your grasp.

And …. a prize-size thank you for being my co-passengers on my blogging journey. Your words of encouragement are much appreciated – they supply my fuel and serve as the axe to chip away at every writer’s block.

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The Road Oft-Taken

Literature and Life, in general, are rife with vivid images of the road not taken. Physically and metaphorically. It makes the heart wallow in a pining for that which will never be ours. That narrow winding path curving into the dense brushwood against the far horizon. Ah! That curve, that bend in the road beyond which lies the unknown, the mysterious and the perilous. It beckons but it’s not for the trepid at heart. The timorous traveler stands poised at that critical make-it or break-it fork in the road, gazing longingly at the misty arc, but alas plodding practicality prevailing he wills his eyes away setting foot on the beaten track much trod upon. He picks the straight, unremarkable path that winds forward in its ordinariness; the brambles pushed aside into the thickets by multitudes of weary feet till the road loses its way into terra incognito.

It is such a road that we took that cold December day. Unremarkable in its ordinariness. The road often taken. The road we have traveled on several times. But this statement comes with a caveat; it’s been oft taken during the summer months only when the weather is fair and happy, and no brooding snow hardens the earth. We had killed the miles happily for an engagement, a wedding, a baptism, numerous friends’ reunions, and the annual North-American Bengali conference; all events naturally planned to take
place in summer. But, when love calls, notwithstanding the weather you just must respond. So, here we were on that familiar route. The I-90 East that winds from Western New York through the Catskill and Adirondack mountains with the waters of the Finger Lakes shimmering to the south.
Destination Abraham! That cute wide-eyed two-and-a-half-year-old waiting at the other end of the eight hundred-seventy-six kilometers. And his Mama and his Dada, all awaiting our arrival with feet-stomping excitement.

We are great morning managers as those who know us well and are familiar with our traveling patterns know. The alarm beeped at 4:30 a.m. like a faithful pest and by 4:45 a.m. we were huddling at the kitchen table finishing off with breakfast. We loaded the car in brief exuberant bursts with Christmas presents for the children; a puller-cooler filled with
home-made Kathi-kebabs and Shammi kebabs, taking quick breaks from the cold garage to curl our frozen fingers around our steaming cuppas animatedly discussing the imminent delight of seeing our children before the day was out and we went to bed that night. The sheer joy of it all!

At 5:30 sharp the car backed out of the driveway into the cold Canadian morning. The city lay sleeping. Not a mouse stirred, not a bird chirped. The neon street lamps shone mistily in the darkling dawn. A few lone cars sped by. Perhaps night-shifters returning home or early shifters yawning to work or a hapless man making a quick foray to pick up a bag of milk. Who knows! But I could vouch no heart behind a car-wheel was as full of mirth as mine. Within minutes we were on the Queen Elizabeth Way, speeding south-westward along Lake Ontario. That old familiar beat that I had taken for many long years to get to work till the office moved northward. Exits zoomed by and soon signs for Niagara Falls loomed on overhead displays. Nah! It’s not a day for the Falls. Much more important stuff waited. We sailed through the border. Never a busy time on a Friday morning, it
was almost eerie in its crowd-lessness. I sent one last text to Tanaya from the Canadian side advising of our latest coordinates. At the border, we answered the same tired questions, from an official bursting with self-importance: “Where are you headed?”, “When are you returning?” “What are you carrying?” Passports handed in passports handed back. Drill done we were in Onondaga County, New York.

A couple of hours flew by but the sun that should have risen by then remained hidden behind a blanket of heavy clouds painting the sky a monochromatic grey. Cloud cover is always good for driving especially when traveling eastwards, but on a winter morn, it made for a rather despondent drive. We needed to sneak a break to stretch our cramped legs, but it was hard to leave the toasty warmth of the car, pull on our jackets and brave the chill. I reminded myself – It’s winter and no roses bloom – we must face the frigid gloom.

Once back in the vehicle we were soon in Buffalo and snowflakes began to swirl against the car like playful kisses. Minutes later they were not that gentle anymore. They began to buffet the car with passionate intensity. We had been checking the weather reports for the last several days and no snow was in the forecast, but Buffalo has its own private meteorological calendar, which is whimsical, to say the least. Within seconds we realized the white stuff had been falling for a while; the I-90 stretching ahead of us was plastered with snow. Samir adjusted his speed as per the conditions.
The drift thickened. I looked in the mirror and saw an SUV following close on our tails and wished the driver would maintain a safer distance. The road was slick and treacherous, and visibility limited to just about the car in front of us. This was certainly not the road oft traveled upon. I looked out the window to my right where in the summer I would see green pastures with farmhouses scattered in the distance, maples dancing in the breeze and cattle grazing in the foreground. It was all now a sheet of white. The snow fell thickly, whitely for at least a half hour slowing down our progress considerably.

Then, just as suddenly the squall had trapped us equally abruptly, it released us, and we were in clear country as we sped along the Finger Lakes. Water bodies, on which the summer sun used to shimmer, and private boats bobbed were frozen stiff and now, with no sun to glint off it, it assumed the looks of a stretch of snowy wasteland. It would have been impossible to imagine such a scene in the height of summer and the old familiar road was now as uninviting as an exhausted host; its countenance set along unfamiliar, unsmiling lines.

It made me ponder, this journey. Is it the road itself or the storms we weather, the people we travel with, the destination we are bound for or is it the joy, the fear, the sadness that lie in our hearts as we chug along?

Like a slideshow, myriad pictures glided into the frame of my consciousness. On the I-90 headed for Tanaya’s nuptials in Boston. Excited, my sis was on this journey; disappointed, countless loved ones couldn’t make it; fearful of the wedding jewels tucked under the car seat and the food in the giant cooler. Innumerable rehearsing of answers to the questions we might be asked at the Canada-U.S. border; about valuables, about food. The time of reckoning finally arrived. The border official looked over at the vehicle stuffed with humanity, edibles, heirlooms, and hearts eager to create memories. Nervously, I prepared to open the boot. It’s our daughter’s wedding we begin to explain, he swipes our passports his face inscrutable. A hint of a smile played at the stern lips of the law and he waved us on. The car shuddered under our collective sigh of relief. The trousseau is safe. Sanity is restored and memories were firmly in the making.

Another indelible snapshot of traversing this oft-traveled highway with my parents at a time when the United States was reeling under attacks from a mysterious sniper. We missed an exit and the journey became horrendously protracted. Tired and hungry my first thought was how to reduce Ma and Baba’s exertion. We were in a leafy neighborhood, which we thought is our friends’, where we were expected to halt for the night. Samir walked up to a door to confirm and the householder caving under sniper-fear shot inside, firmly bolting his front-door. Under a giant mushroom-cloud of paranoia, a nation had forgotten to think rationally and to act with civility.

Pictures of countless journeys crowd my mind when our two children from the back seat would stretch their teenaged legs forward so I could give them a foot massage while they relaxed trying to recover from the travails of the trip. Ah! The woes of being passengers and just having to stop at regular intervals to devour one’s favorite foods. Smiling to myself, I turned my head to check if by some unexplainable phenomenon I would see the
two laconic faces in the passenger seats behind us waiting impatiently for the road to end so they could unite with their friends, take the train to New York City, and plunge wholeheartedly into the pre-planned activities. Now, they are plunged into lives of their own and I am so thankful for their happiness, for what they have carved out for themselves, the paths they choose when at the crossroads and the TripTiks they chalk out.

And … we have our own lives where we have each other and our families strewed all across the globe, our jobs. His music, my writing; our church. Then, the friends we are blessed with, real friends, not Facebook apparitions. Friends, who at the drop of the proverbial hat, invite us over for super delicious dessert and a game of scrabble, friends with whom we often share a meal, Facetime, chat about life, about gardening, about books we read, the songs and films we enjoy and uphold each other in many more ways than we ourselves can ever imagine. Indeed, what would we do without such delightful co-travelers?

If the purpose of life is to be happy, then that happiness must stem from within us; it would be sheer folly to allow anyone else the authorship of our happiness, even our children because such a burden might stifle or even suffocate them. Recently, someone I have known for eons placed a perspective on modern motherhood. Her children reside far from her on distant continents. They call her often and when they are about to hang-up, they ask their mother once the line is disconnected if their mother had something to do. They ask out of love and concern. They are anxious that when the call ended their mother would be consigned to a forlorn fortress of “nothing-to-do”. With much relish, my friend said that she not only had much to do but she was eagerly waiting to do all those things after the kids hung up. The things that occupied her defined her, not anyone or anything else. I smiled at the confidence and joy in her independent voice. Here was a woman who held her happiness proudly in the palm of her hands.

In the end, it does not matter if I were indeed that timorous traveler who picked that road with the brambles firmly pushed aside. The road does not always determine the destination. Many years ago as a child, I was holidaying in the country with my family. While strolling through the red earth of the central provinces of India we came upon a road that veered off the beaten track. It was covered with thick bushes. We saw a group of youth trying to cut a path through the overgrowth, a short cut to reach the shores of a lake, they said. They thrashed around, the callow youth, tiny glimpses of the shining waters in the distance making them attack the thickets with renewed vigor. I stood watching them wonder-struck at their enthusiasm when Baba, standing at a spot parallel to where the young fellows were thus insanely engaged, motioned to me. He moved aside when I reached him and with a fluid motion of his hand he pushed aside a curtain of palm fronds. Immediately behind was revealed a very narrow sandy pathway, completely unobstructed, leading straight down to the emerald lake.  Whooping with amazed delight I careened down the narrow road, the scythes of the blinkered young men echoing in my ears.

Samir swerved into a rest area jolting me out of my reverie. We needed to fill up. Some coffee might be in order too. The Garmin on the dash told me we would enter the home stretch soon. I glanced in the rear-view mirror. A sudden sun emerging from behind the clouds had swallowed up the I-90 behind us in one blazing gulp.

Of beginnings …

After several years I stumbled upon a beginning, a start of something new and exciting. A beginning that’s stuffed with young dreams. Dreams that are at times charged with energy and power, and at times tremulous like young love. A very sweet young couple halted for a few days at our place on their way to Timmins, in Northern Ontario, where the mister was slated to start a new job. Although we didn’t know them, besides encounters in a WhatsApp chatroom set up to help them prepare for their adventure in Canada, they endeared themselves straight into our hearts and it felt we have known them for many years!

The days flew by and they departed as planned but they left a lovely gift for us. A gift called Déjà vu. With a tender tug they pulled open the floodgates of memories and nostalgia gushed in. The nostalgia of the numerous beginnings Samir and I have made as a couple and later as a family across several countries and continents. These children that just passed through our lives, like a fresh morning breeze, have inspired me to dwell on the very first beginning that we made in the December of 1980 in a little apartment in Salt Lake. Salt Lake, on the eastern periphery of Calcutta, was then not the sprawling satellite metropolis it is today. It has grown, changed and warped into a monster town almost unrecognizable to those who witnessed its gentle beginnings some forty years ago.

Our flat was tiny but what it lacked in physical dimensions it made up amply in brightness. Natural light broadened and enhanced the space in all sorts of unimaginable ways. At all times of the day, the sun somehow managed to find a way to peep in so that every nook and cranny was always brightly lit up. Samir had already bought a few articles of furniture and his mother gave us a solid Burma teak dining table that she no longer used; oval in shape and fitting our space perfectly. But we had no chairs to go around it, so we put money from our wedding presents to buy several at an auction and then a Godrej almirah rounded off the space nicely for us.

I liked what I saw yet I did not like it. The chair-wood was dark and angry-coloured with a brooding quality to it. No amount of buffing would help lighten their mood and I was at a loss for how to make these old chairs smile. The idea of dressing them up was just forming in my mind when one lazy afternoon I heard the twang of a cotton-beater’s Dhunai machine. I opened the window and there he was with a big bag of cotton and other paraphernalia slung over his shoulder. The cotton-beating machine is a manual contraption – large, roughly bow shaped with both ends connected by a strong but flexible metal string. The beater embeds the string portion in a pile of cotton and beats it with a mallet, thus separating the cotton from its seeds and making it fluffy, light and energized before stuffing it into pillows and duvets. I picked a fabric and he measured my chairs and made them plump cushions right there, squatting on the grass under my window. While I made some tea and chatted with the cotton-beater he kept plugging away at his trade. He beat the cotton expertly in a steady timeless rhythm; generations of practice flowing effortlessly through his fingers. Twang, twang, twang went the string, specks of white snowy cotton flew around, like blurbs in a comic book, not wanting to be trapped and having to spend the rest of their lives under various parts of a human body. But the cotton-beater captured them all. All the cotton-conversations and all their dreams went right into my cushions. Several quick strokes, adept fingers, some strong needle and thread and Voila! I soon had comfy seats that snatched the hardness away from my chairs in a jiffy. As I thanked and paid the man, impressed at his alacrity and efficiency I couldn’t help pondering that this man needed a better model for his business – not peddling door-to-door catering to pesky housewives but more along the lines of a home-spun factory from where he could supply people with their orders. Such a smart guy!

Well, utility was certainly served; it felt super to sit on my chairs, but now they looked like they were in diapers and not fit for display in polite society.  So, that weekend Samir kick-started his Vicky-bike and we went vrooming into the city to look for clothing for our newly-acquired and impossibly demanding furniture-babies. I had already marked out a sale at NTC (National Textile Corporation) and the two of us shopped excitedly for some cheap and durable fabric. We picked one in a pretty floral in chrome yellow and burnt sienna on a deliciously buttery background. I also picked a rich rust material for matching curtains and spent the next few days putting the chair covers together on an Ovaltine color Singer-Merritt sewing machine borrowed from my mother. This machine was the most exasperating member of our household. It had a mind of its own; and a beastly, devilish one at that. It didn’t take its demotion from mother to daughter very kindly and sensing the newness of my skill, it played up shamelessly. It created accusing zig-zags when I required a straight line, a frill when I wanted a hem and at its most frustrating worst bunched up the thread under the material so obdurately that I would abandon my project in utter frustration and turn my dour attention to making a lemon souffle instead, to cheer myself up.

The cushion and the backrest covers were finally done after several hiccups – broken thread, shattered needle, jammed bobbin but at the end of it all I had something to show and bask in!

It was a little different when it came to the curtains. I wanted them fashionably pleated but had no clue how to go about keeping the pleats together. Like a lightning bolt, a sudden thought occurred to me. A few blocks away there was a washerman who made a living washing and ironing peoples’ clothes and in that new development, he was never in want of business. Often returning home from the market I had seen linen and drapes that he laid out on the grass to dry in the sun. I picked my moment one morning and turned over a drying drape to examine how the tailor had arranged and kept the pleats together. In a trice, I not only learned the method but also how to attach the lining to the curtain.

Happy as a lark I returned home with my stolen secret bubbling inside me. After quickly putting a rough-hewn meal together I set to work on the drapes. I needed an ally in that Singer-Merritt. I oiled it well, ran some trial rags under the needle-shoe, whispered a mantra in its ear and set to work. Yes, over time I turned into a sewing-machine-whisperer and got some amazing stuff out of that recalcitrant beast.

The ‘deck the house’ project was eventually over and in the evenings when Samir returned from work we sat at our dining table, munching oily potato chips and sipping Kissan’s orange squash, the smell of new cloth and fresh cotton swirling around us. Our young hearts fell in love with what we saw as though it were a palace of sorts with chandeliers glinting over our heads when, in reality, the only heavenly light that shimmered in that cramped space was the glimmer in our starry eyes.

One of the greatest gifts that Samir has ever given me is a cookbook purchased from the colossal annual affair called the Calcutta Book Fair.  This book to me was the Cadillac of all cookbooks ever spawned. It had appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, sandwiches, desserts, drinks gathered from all the hemispheres of the earth. I spent many afternoons poring over this treasure trove of superb culinary gems. It is here that I first bowed to Baked Alaska, tangoed with Tabbouleh and shook hands with Sushi. I learned of the mind-boggling varieties of pastries; from flaky to puff to choux; if I executed eclairs one day then the next day I yearned to grapple with gumbo. All by myself in the quiet flat, I rolled off my lips the foreign-sounding names of dishes like P-A-E-L-L-A and G-O-U-L-A-S-H and sundry others. Enunciating these names transported me to exotic and fascinating locales and I longed to try them all. It was a feverish, engulfing passion that grew on me like a gathering crescendo. Mind you, in those days I didn’t possess a baking oven, so I was kind of restricted but one day my mother, bless her always, gave me a great idea. It truly turned out to be the mother of all inventions.

I took a large jute bag and asked the contractor, at a nearby construction site, if I could have a little of the sand that was heaped high on one side. He looked intrigued but did not ask any questions. Thankfully! Instead, he helped me collect a little pile of sand from that great mountain and half carrying half dragging I brought it home. Next, I scooped out a generous amount of it in a large aluminum dekchi and placed it on the gas oven and turned it on. After a while, the sand had warmed up nicely. Pre-heating of my rudimentary oven was complete although I had no clue what centigrade it was. The recipe called for 350 degrees. Then with a large ladle, I made a hollow in the sand and ensconced my pan filled with chocolate cake batter right in that depression, making sure there was enough hot sand under the pan as well as around the sides. Then I covered it with another upside-down pan of a fitting size and put the dekchi cover back on to contain the heat.

While I waited ants of anticipation crawled all over me! Every few minutes I felt like removing the cover and taking a peek but of course, better sense prevailed, and I locked my hands under me as I sat biting my lips. Nothing happened for a while; only the sour clayey odour of over-heated sand made the house smell like a sea-shore and I resigned myself to eating a pudding instead of a cake. At least, I consoled myself, I would have it at a resort by the sea! I picked up a book and in a few minutes forgot that a Ground-Breaking Baking Experiment was happening under my Most Amateur Supervision.

I may even have dozed off when a warm wholesome fragrance tickled my nostrils and slowly spread inside the entire apartment. It came from the direction of the kitchen and it was the delightful, gooey smell of a chocolate cake baking. I dashed to the kitchen, the dekchi lid clattered into the sink, the inverted pan was gingerly removed and lo and behold! There was indeed a cake inside. Almost three-quarters had risen beautifully, the top had even cracked a bit but the last quarter not so much. I peered under the dekchi to check the gas flame. The dekchi was so large that I had not centered it properly hence that one side probably did not receive enough heat. But what the heck! I stabbed a knitting needle into the heart of the cake, as my Mum had advised, and it came out dry as a bone. I removed the cake pan from the sand and after a while turned the cake out on a plate. The bottom had darkened more than necessary so I knew I had to calibrate the heat a bit but otherwise, I had a cake that looked like any other.

That evening I couldn’t wait to surprise Samir with my gastronomic victory. After dinner I whipped my masterpiece out with the fanfare of a conjurer – the cake sat there; one side a little cracked, the other a tad flat. Cooling had darkened the bottom further. It didn’t look quite as handsome nor appetizing as it had first done. Samir looked at it suspiciously and then made the first mistake of the evening. He asked, “What is it?” Now, what man cannot recognize a chocolate cake, huh? I didn’t think it was necessary to answer that question, instead, I fetched a knife and cut a wedge of the cake. It felt like the knife was laboring through a stack of sodden, stubborn paper. Placing it on a plate I put it in front of him. He examined it like a well-trained detective from Calcutta Police and looked up at me. We had been married for six months and by then he had learnt to read some of the tell-tale signs of a dark cloud descending on my brow. He forced himself to put a piece of the cake in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully, his eyes set philosophically on a far-far away point outside the window. Suddenly, he clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. I thought he had bitten his tongue as he is often prone to do. But no, he was on his way to making the second mistake. He asked, “Did you sieve the flour? I felt grit between my teeth, something like powdered gravel”. Was it time to tell him about the sand etc. etc.? No, instead I decided it was my turn to try the cake. The bottom was quite charred, it was a mongrel of a brownie, a cake, and an over-done pudding and had no pedigree whatsoever!

Heartened by my look of distaste my guy proceeded to make the final and most fatal mistake of that evening, “Maybe you should put some icing on it and then it would look and taste like a real cake”, he said in a helpful tone. This made me really terribly cross. For starters I had no idea what went into making an icing; I hadn’t reached that chapter yet in my Cadillac cookbook. Sharp, salty tears stung the behind of my twenty-two-year-old eyelids and I felt the cool ebbing out of me rapidly. “Whoever ices a gravelly cake, huh?” I asked, my arms akimbo on my hips. “If you want an iced cake you will have to get a new wife who knows how to not only bake a cake but also ice it, okay? The best cake you will ever get out of this wife is the one sitting in front of you, take it or leave it.”

My husband of months was aghast. He looked at my weary, woebegone face and his gentle sensitive side kicked in. He finally got a drift of all my effort and now my supreme frustration. We gathered up the mockery of a cake and threw it away. Out came the Vicky-bike and when Samir kicked it to life I jumped on the pillion behind him. We throttled full-blast through the silent tree-lined streets, the raspberry glow of eventide illuminating our young, exuberant faces. He did a few daring maneuvers with the bike, which he hadn’t done since we first started going out, zigzagging flippantly making me lean into him, raising the front wheel and me laughing into the wind, my saree-end fluttering like a joyous flag, till we reached the Kwality bus-stop to have ice-cream. He chocolate and me vanilla like we do even today after all these years.

I didn’t give up on my sand-box oven though. I experimented with it for days; I learned how to calibrate the heat, keep the sand out of the dish by using flour-glue to seal the cake pan to its lid and then to place a brick (remember the construction site?) over the dekchi cover to ensure no heat-leakage. That torrid sand pit gave me quite a few months of trial-and-error with bread pudding and pound cake. The greatest pitfall was the bottom scorching before the dough was fully done, but over the weeks I got it to work as close to the perfect temperature as possible.

Then, that Christmas, Samir presented me with a proper factory built oven; still quite basic but it had two exciting racks. Yes, racks! Needless to say, my delight knew no bounds.

Ah! My dear readers, thus I must end the story of our beginnings. What begins must end, at least, under the dictum of logic but truly some beginnings never really end. They morph into, for want of a better word, a continuation, when Novelty loses its way in the desert of Habit and Boredom. By making us witness and, in some ways, participants in the commencement of their journey our sweet guests unwittingly connected us to our own humble, happy beginnings. One beginning reflected in another – one happening right here and now, the other frozen, immutable in one’s memory. Starting points – some rough like uncut diamonds, some smooth as a well-denuded pebble. Of a pair starting out with the naiveté of nothingness and building up and out from there. When even the purchase of a lamp or a ladle has the power to enthrall us and impart a sense of acute wonderment, when no feeling is jaded or weighed down by ennui, when we enjoy what we have and thrive on it; that’s a place of placid and superlative contentment – harmonious and heavenly. And endless.

 

A Skewed But Happy Momma

Our first home was in a spanking new development, a fledgling township far from the bustling, belching, seething heart of the metropolis. An oasis of lush green with a huge lake around which lovely dream houses were cropping up with great alacrity; like iced cupcakes. They belonged more to a retired demography who wished to spend their golden years far from the big smoke. And then, there was the ilk of us. Newly-weds. Twenty-somethings. Our eyes lined with dreamy kohl, rearing kids in tiny, sun-filled flats with flowerbeds and open spaces in front, forming friendly Moms-and-Tots groups, trading recipes with novice cooks and learning to navigate around those pesky icebergs of nosey neighbors.

So, quite naturally, the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter was brand new too.

By some strange stroke of coincidence, in the October of 1984, three generations of our family were in the same hospital.  Like I said it was a newly-started, sparsely-occupied facility still giving off the aura of fresh paint. My mother-in-law was admitted there with a fractured femur, and then there were my new-born daughter and me.

Till I was ready for labour we paid Ma daily visits while she convalesced after her surgery and it turned out to be a way more protracted process than we had initially surmised. In the bed next to her was a cheerful, buxom Punjabi lady who, immediately on seeing me, would joke that I needn’t go home after visiting my Mum-in-Law as I was so ready to pop my baby. She chuckled that I should just slip into the third bed on the other side of her and wait my time. She laughed at her own joke and it was such an infectious sound that we couldn’t help but join in.

Sure enough, as expected, the day finally dawned when I started my contractions and had to be admitted for the confinement. My gynecologist examined me, patted my hand and said my contractions were not strong enough, I had not dilated enough so I still had a long enough way to go. I accepted this verdict, I knew what a long-drawn labour looked and felt like. In the case of my first born, I was in excruciating agony for a good twenty-three hours till the tiny head, like one side of a gold coin, first made its appearance.

This was my second and I felt like an old hand in matters such as childbearing and rearing.

As she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my arm, the nurse, in her spotless white uniform, smiled and asked if my first child was a boy or a girl. “Boy”, I replied. “Looks like this one is a girl”, she opined. “I sure hope it is”, I said. Now, mind you, this predates sonography, ultrasounds and gender determination tests. So, naturally I was clueless about the sex of my unborn baby but I had big dreams of stitching baby dresses for a little girl, braiding pigtails and signing her up for Bharatnatyam or Kathak classes.

Clad in my hospital gown and resigned to a night of not much birthing activity, I padded over to my mother-in-law’s room. She was wide awake and asked me anxiously how I was doing. I looked over at the bed next to hers and to my deep shock, I found the covers drawn right up to the cold steel headboard, and the Punjabi lady’s lanky, salt-and-pepper plait hanging over the edge of the bed from under the covers like the tail of a mouse caught in a trap.

I looked over at Ma, in alarm. “She died a while ago”, she informed me. But Ma was more enamored with new life brewing in her family than death next door. More importantly, she didn’t want me to be affected by the passing of life when I was so close to starting a new one myself. Yet, I caught the moonlight from the window gently shining on the sadness and empathy glistening in her eyes.

Hospital rooms are strange places. They turn strangers into temporary kith and kin!

Despite my heaviness, I felt kind of empty as I waddled back to my room. And that’s when the first real contraction hit me. An iron fist clutched at my entrails with nauseating suddenness without any pattern or design. I gasped and almost keeling over somehow managed to grab the rails along the wall. A nurse from the nurse’s desk noticed my plight and rushing to my aid, walked me back to my bed.

There was no turning back from that point. My chick was ready to hatch. The contractions came fast and furious; each more agonizing than the previous. A tiny life was putting up a phenomenal fight to leave its soft watery confines and sally forth bravely to make a place for itself in this world. On that warm autumn night, exactly at 2 A.M., bathed in a clammy envelope of sweat and exhaustion I finally expelled my baby girl from my enervated body. With a lusty cry, she announced her arrival. Immediately, the lonely, lugubrious hospital with very few patients and certainly no other pregnant one, sprang into life.

The tossing, turning insomniac patients smiled quietly into the darkness, the sleeping ones woken by the young cry felt a strong spark of desire to live and fight death as best they could. And for the weary doctor stitching me up, the prospect of a shut-eye became a reality.

While the Punjabi lady continued her onward journey into the other world, a beautiful seven-pounder slid into place to start hers in this.

The nurse cut the cord and brought my baby over to me. “Now, Mommy meet your sweet little girl”, she said.

I looked at the pinkish head capped with soft down and then my still pregnant brain, further addled with pain and confusion, landed on the remnant of the umbilical cord hanging there looking exactly like a boy part and thinking her words to be some kind of joke, I exclaimed, “Oh, this is another boy!” The nurse threw her head back and laughed. “I’ve never met anyone before who could not tell the difference between a boy and a girl”. She chuckled, not unkindly.

The night wore on. I was moved to my room, where I promptly fell into a deep, fatigued slumber. The twittering of the birds in the trees outside prodded me into a semi-wakeful state. Dawn was yet to fully break and in the still nocturnal gloom, I peered into the bed next to mine. As far as I knew it was not supposed to have an occupant; I had the room to myself. Yet, I saw a white mound on the bed, not unlike the one I had seen earlier on the Punjabi lady’s bed. A supine and motionless form. My heart skipped a beat. What was she doing in my room? Did I misunderstand, she was not really dead after all? What’s going on? I knew something was skewing my vision and thought of the time when I mistook my girl child for a boy. I rubbed my eyes and when I opened them someone or something was still on that bed.

Now, anyone who knows me well enough knows deep in my heart I nurse a deep dread of ghosts and other-worldliness. Just as I was about to open my mouth to call for someone or reach for the bell next to my bed, the white mound moved, lifted itself off the bed, began to sidle towards the foot of my bed and then, by some bizarre, cosmic phenomenon the apparition split into two and each separate entity began to move towards the door. In unison. Just at the doorway, the bluish haze of the light from the hallway shone on them and I realized they were the two skinny nurses who had assisted through my birthing earlier in the night. Completely drained, they had climbed into the empty bed next to mine and fallen asleep before they even knew it.

Ah, I let out a sigh of relief and rang for someone to bring my baby to me. I had a whole lot to discuss with her.

 
Skewed

A Fixating Noise

 

I have a dream that will never die

Of standing somewhere really high

Shouting a chant, a mantra, a fixating noise

That only builds up, no good destroys.

My dream is for a call of duty,

A noise of universal beauty.

 

I have a dream that will never die

A life where for lack of food none shall sigh

A world where equal are the rich and the not

Of leaders and big corps doing what they ought.

Folks giving more, buying less,

Still happy nevertheless.

 

I have a dream that will never die

For us to hear the speechless cry

Of turtles who live till nine-ninety-nine

Not swept belly-up before their time.

A place where a fish not gags

On discarded plastic bags.

 

I have a dream that will never die

Of lakes rippling merrily as the wind over it does fly.

A world where snow lies pristine on the mountain-top

And where stately tress we do not savagely lop.

We peer into a river bed,

Finding nothing there lying dead.

 

I have a dream that will never die

Of a friend, a child, a neighbor just dropping by

Sharing a meal where we sit and eat to live

Not tainted food that would us cancer give.

If chicken were chicken and wheat, wheat,

It truly would be so neat.

 

I have a dream that will never die

Where friends sit and look each other in the eye

Of people talking, laughing as in days of yore

Not merely texting till their fingers are redly sore.

Igniting that lost connection,

Fighting this horrid addiction.

 

I have a dream that will never die

Of us, each day, not telling ourselves a selfish lie

That polar bears, bees, the air do not matter

Because we will one day anyway die.

Look into your grandchild’s eye,

There lies the reason not to lie.

Noise

 

 

 

 

 

Chevrons of Shivers

The good times were suddenly over. For good. In a heartbeat. The mid-morning cuddles with Ma, leisurely, playful showers and evaded afternoon nap-times were over for one three-year-old. Words, like Saturday and Sunday, began to assume a haloed significance and “Friends” became “Actual People” and these “Actual People” were of the same size as her. What? Three feet or thereabouts?

Ah! We are getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? The start when the very fabric of her existence began to change forever.

It all began on that apocalyptic day, forever dubbed as “her first day at nursery school”. Ma had prepared her for weeks for this momentous event, to a point where she began to believe school was the ultimate holiday destination for all little kids.

Ma took her to the stores and bought her all the things, she said a school-girl needs. The new water bottle with the pale pink plastic strap, the case with metal clasps that she loved to click. And click. Click open and click close. Open and close. Fascinated. Click, click, click till Ma admonished that she will ruin the mechanism and the clicks would die a premature death, even before “her first day at nursery school” could commence. So, she stopped clicking even though her tiny fingers itched to click.

Then, of course, was the ubiquitous tiffin box, in which she was not a whole lot keen, unless, it contained Mr. Berry’s pastries, with the smooth pink icing that sometimes cracked like the edges of smiling eyes or those delicious cream rolls; thick, sweet cream wrapped in heavenly, flaky casings.

In the closet, hanging from a baby clothes hanger, was her crisp white school uniform with the navy-blue tie, buttoned on to the collar in a snap. Monogrammed on it, in sombre satin thread, was HPS – Hartley’s Private School. The snow-white socks with their ankle elastic sharply cozy on her calves. The tiny, shiny black shoes, over which she leaned to check out her reflection. Smiling back at her was a chubby face framed by two bushy pigtails in black nylon ribbons tied in wide bows. She stuck her tongue out at the girl in the shoe and the girl in the shoe stuck out her tongue back at her. She scowled and received a scowl back. She smiled and the shoe-girl smiled back. Sweetly.

There, she was ready to take on, why only the nursery school? The whole world if she so pleased.

With a thrilling, trilling heart, that crisp January morning, clasping her Ma’s forefinger she trotted off to the biggest adventure of her life.

Excited, eyes shining, head tilting to look up at Ma to ask the hundredth-and-something question. Eagerly stepping through the wide portal of Mrs. Hartley’s School. Looking around dazed at the classrooms arranged all around the large compound.

Suddenly, something stirred in her heart as she sensed the first disconcerting signs of unfamiliarity.  Frightened fingers, involuntarily, closed tighter around Ma’s familiar digit. Too many people, too much noise. Ma checking the classrooms from a sheet of paper she retrieved from her handbag …Ah! There she found hers.

A smiling Mrs. Peters advanced to welcome her ward. After exchanging a few words with the teacher, Ma dropped on her haunches, squeezed her baby’s hand, kissed the top of her head and turned to leave. She had prepared her for this moment many, many times. She was a sociable kid. Always. Yet, Ma felt a heaviness in her heart, startling in its sharpness.

The next few cameos happened too quickly for the little girl to wrap her head around. Ma turned at the door of the classroom and waved. “Bye, be good”, she mouthed. And then, she was gone.

Suddenly, the little girl was no-mother and all-teacher!

Mrs. Peters reached out and gently taking her case from her hand she stood it against a host of other such bags against the wall. The case gone was a part of her very being lopped off. She grabbed the strap of her pink water bottle protectively. And, for protection. Then addressing her by name, the teacher said, “Welcome, you look lovely in your new uniform and those pigtails”. The little girl felt a rising hysteria in her heart. She refused to look up at her teacher. Making eye contact would be a cardinal mistake, it would be giving in to all this sudden strangeness.  She stood rooted exactly where Ma had left her moments ago, head bowed. The teacher placed a forefinger under her chin in a gentle attempt to make the child look up.

The pre-schooler took one look at Mrs. Peters’ pale blue eyes and decided she did not want to spend a minute longer in her company. Where was Ma? She couldn’t recall a single day, a single place where Ma was not at her side. How absolutely horrendous and so totally unacceptable! Unbidden tears stinging her eyes, she immediately turned on her new shiny heels and jumping over the inches-high threshold of the classroom ran, with all the might in her little frame, towards the unsuspecting and retreating figure of her mother.

The bottle around her neck, with the startled water in it, went thwack, thwack, thwack, against her chest, left to right to left to right, like a crazed pendulum.  And her new school bag, her prized possession with its sole content, the lunch box, left to languish somewhere in the great terra incognito of Mrs. Hartley’s Private School, Mr. Berry’s pink icing gliding off the pastry like teardrops off baby-cheeks.

She ran through clusters of new students, weaving in and out of dense forests of parent-legs, the smell of new school paraphernalia and sundry lunches, the terrifyingly sharp and almost deafening ringing of the school bell that startled her beyond measure and most importantly, she ran from Mrs. Peters. She thought of Mrs. Peters’ eyes and shivered. Her glasses rimmed with a midnight-blue celluloid frame, turned up fashionably at the top corners, giving her an oddly feline look. Like the cat that sat on top of the thick wall from across their bedroom window and complacently lapped at the milk from the bowl Baba offered her.

She ran as fast as her little legs would carry her. Through blinding tears, she caught a fading glimpse of her mother ducking through the cut-out opening in the main-gate which was now closed.  The bell had rung, the school day had officially begun and the big gate was drawn shut to late-comers! She set her eyes on that low-slung, rectangular opening, through which she saw cars speeding by, legs walking past; some brisk,

like a dog’s wagging tail,

some sluggish, like a sleepy snail,

a perambulator with a baby in it (how lucky! The baby).

Then, in one life-saving leap, she cleared the hurdle in the cut-out gate and into the arms of freedom. Betrayed, bewildered eyes scanned the street for that familiar figure. Ma. There she was, her Ma! Swinging her long, thick braid, the swagger of success in her gait (Hey! She now had a school-going kid), she was making her way home when, suddenly, she heard the pitter patter of new-shoe-clad feet and a panicked male voice hollering “Baba chhoot gaya” (the child has escaped).

Hearing the commotion, Ma turned, least prepared for the sight that met her eyes. Her daughter, with her new school-tie askew, shoes dusty, the shine gone, pigtails puffy, loose.

Momentarily transfixed, she watched the strong, burly arms of the school-gatekeeper, in his panting, khaki uniform, scooping up the aberrant child in one lightning sweep; his sleek, well-twirled moustache drooping in trepidation (he could lose his job over this fiasco), And the child; an octopus with multiple arms and multiple legs thrown about in alarmed abandon, screaming at the top of her lungs.

And then …

Ma, with infinite tenderness, claiming her child, clasping her ginger-bread girl close to her own big strong heart. Tight. Gently rocking on her feet to calm the small, trembling heart beating a frantic luba-dub-dub. The shivers slowed down gradually, though sporadically the little body still shuddered with heaving sobs.

After …

Ma walking back to the school with her baby’s small face, clammy with sweat and snot, buried in her neck and explaining to Mrs. Peters that she was taking her child home. The teacher, not young, not old, stretched out her arm and caressed the child’s back reassuringly. The tiny body stiffened, and a cold shiver ran through it.

There was no force, in this world that could convince, coerce, manipulate or enlighten that tiny mite to return to Mrs. Peters’ class. January turned to February and February into March. With the advent of April, large clusters of flamboyant krishnachuras bloomed, in all their scarlet glory, on tall roadside trees.

The little girl shed her socks and shoes and donning her flip-flops ventured into the garden to check out the mighty earthworms turning the soil with their wriggly bodies glistening in the sun. The hungry honey-bees sucking out the honey from the swaying dahlias and vibrant butterflies flitting from flower to flower like the greatest playboys ever. She hung her head back and squinted up at the marble size bitter-melons playing peek-a-boo in the secret foliage of the melon-tree. Tiny melons; still babies, unschooled, with none of the rose-silver, juicy pulp inside formed yet.

In the gently rising heat of the crystal afternoon, the little girl lay by her mother’s side. One knee drawn up and the other foot resting on that knee, a self-assured mini-adult.

The mother, holding up and scanning the headlines of the daily newspaper, “The Statesman”. The astute mother, pointed to a letter in a headline and a little voice said triumphantly, “big K”, then the mother said, “Now, find me a small k” and so, the serious, little girl did. Slowly, the lesson got more complex. “Now look for a big B and a small b”. Eyes crossing in concentration, a little finger traced the letters, then stabbed the correct alphabets. The mother hugged her baby and planting a kiss on a smooth plump cheek, turned on her side and so did the child, her little behind tucked into her mother’s womb.

Stacked together unevenly, they lay.  A tablespoon and a teaspoon.

With her forefinger, the mother gently drew something on her daughter’s back and whispered, “Can you tell me what I just wrote on your back?” The little girl wriggled, giggled and responded,

“A”.

“Right”, said the happy mother.

“This time?”

“X”.

“No, try again”.

“Oh, I think it’s a Y, is it?” She ventured and wriggled again.

“This time?”

“It’s an oraaaaaange” … “O for orange”, replied a juicy voce.

Then, Ma threw in a googly. She drew a whole line of squiggles, zigzags.

Ah! Chevrons of shivers.

“Waves”, said a drowsy but confident voice.

“What? Say that again”.

“W, W, W, W for Waves” answered a fading voice. And, on the crest of gently lapping sleep waves the truant kid drifted off to siesta-land.

*******

The little girl did return to school in the June of the same year after several aborted attempts, but the classroom could never claim her mind. She sat there and day-dreamed,

Of freedom, of home, of greenness to roam,                                                                    She thought not of pain nor gain;  Only to lick the slanty falling rain.

 

use this

Fabric

Ma

My Mother! My Ma! What can I write about this central figure in my life? What can I not write? About the very fountainhead of my existence. Ma has been permeating all my writings, in the same manner, she saturates my entire life. In my musings, she is Konu’s elder sister, she is Dadu and Dida’s eldest child, she is my Baba’s precious wife and she is sweet Jasmine’s, Abraham’s and Hazel’s great-grandmother. Her blood, her love, her zest for life courses in all her progeny like an ancient river that irrigates and makes fertile the fields through which it meanders. It is impossible to sum up this colossal figure within the matrix of a blog post so I will dwell on a few facets of this multi-faceted gemstone, also known as Ma.

Ma, Deepika Mookerji, was born on a sparkling Christmas day in 1927. She arrived on the wings of much excitement for a family preparing to welcome the firstborn of a new generation. She came as a wondrous gift wrapped in dreams woven by her parents for nine long months and needless to emphasize she lit up everyone’s life as a merry bonfire, whose embers glow long after the fire itself is extinguished.

When it was time for her formal education to commence she, quite naturally, was admitted to St. John’s Diocesan, which was right across from their house on Lansdowne Road. She was a diligent pupil and went on to complete her education with a degree in Education. As a teacher she was loved, respected and feared in equal measure by her students. In no hurry to enter the state of matrimony, Ma continued her career for several years, time and time again thwarting her parents’ efforts to find a suitable groom for her. She turned out to be the pickiest bride-to-be ever and eventually it was my father, with his handsome looks and gracious manner, who won her heart and her hand.

From the very early days of my recorded memory, Ma shines with the sparkle of a true friend. Loyal, steadfast, solid as a rock. She will give it to us like it is, the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be. I cannot recall a single instance when she has not stood by me in my hour of need and in my hour of fulfillment. And squarely against me when I am in the wrong, Just as she has been my Comrade, my Confidante, my Cohort so is she also my Conscience. And, I admire her most for being the last; my moral compass. If Baba’s guidance in my life was like that of a compassionate lamp, unquenchable yet flickering and at times a tad hard to follow, Ma’s is like a blazing torch, in whose light every nook and cranny of my soul is stripped bare.

Ma is a wonderful and eclectic blend of the archaic and the contemporary, the bold and the modest, and the classic and the bohemian. Like most Indian parents of that generation, both Ma and Baba coveted an international education for their daughters, but Ma was not prepared to sacrifice our roots at the altar of a foreign cultural and linguistic ethos. At home she never allowed us to speak any other language but Bengali. She was mortally afraid our English education would make us forget our mother tongue. Although with much enthusiasm, she introduced us to the rudiments of the English language, she also told us children’s stories in Bengali, under whose gentle sunshine our imagination flourished like a dew-studded lotus in full bloom. Some tales, like that of Gopal Bhanr the court jester, laced with wit and humour and often with a didactic bent, made us double over with crazy hilarity while Ma maintained a straight face. These stories also made us ponder. Gradually, she introduced us to popular fairy tales of the time, then Enid Blyton, and in our teens, we, on our own, veered towards Barbara Cartland and the Mills and Boon romances and eventually more serious fare and the classics. Then, of course, was the intractable genius of Tagore, Bengal’s adored poet-Laureate. His inimitable and, at the same time, universal world-view, his music, his lyrics, his dance coalesced, like a galaxy of stars, in my young imagination.

We either traded the books, we got as presents for Christmas and birthdays, with our friends or obtained them from the school or British Council libraries, and devoured them with an impossible pedagogic intensity.

As did Ma. During the day, while we were at school.

So not surprisingly, soon we had a mini book-club going in the house. On summer evenings, we would lounge on that red and green, serpentine verandah and discuss the books with much gusto and most often in Bengali. The written word in English; the spoken analysis in Bengali and the images in our heads devoid of language, brimming with feeling and fancy. In the deepening dusk our words, like dreamy vapours, floated blue in the neon-light from the street lamps. Ma’s mature, cogent and sometimes visionary observations, ours more naive, more romantic. And then, in the autumn, when white plumes of kaash danced against pristine, sapphire skies, Ma ordered an entire slew of freshly published anthologies of Bengali novels, short stories and essays by the greatest stalwarts of the time. There was no such thing as adult literature in our household. Ma gave us free reign of all that she read. Within a few weeks, I had read them all, barring a few essays that whoosh, went right over my teenaged head. Over years of this exposure, an unbeatable love for literature took root in my mind; the masculine brusqueness of English and the feminine lushness of Bengali fused in glorious matrimony and together they made a comfortable household in my consciousness, thanks to dear Ma.

Already late for class, I swung open the gate on a late monsoon morning, and stepped out to catch the bus when Ma came hurrying up and leaning out from the verandah cried “Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature last night, in case one of your teachers ask today”. And sure enough, one of them did and who knew the answer? Of course, Ma’s daughter, who wouldn’t have been any wiser had it not been for her mother!

Is Ma, then, all cerebral? Not quite, because she has an uncanny fashion sense, a touch of panache. Although, after we girls reached our late teens she no longer took too much care of her own appearance and concentrated more on her daughters’, saying, she didn’t wish to compete with us. Compete for what, Ma? Masculine admiration? Feminine adulation? Neighbour’s envy? Oh, come on, Ma! Makes me smile; her endearing logic. If today I were to ask her what’s rocking the Indian fashion world, she would tell me exactly what style of blouses women are wearing with what type of sarees. Is it long tops, or short ones, jeans or jeggings, lipstick or gloss, Ma knows it all and subjects like these, set her heart sailing like a clipper on the high seas, the winds of a prolific imagination billowing out her sails.

The Magazinewallah, as we called him, would start ringing his cycle bell as he turned the block and one of us would run to the verandah to claim the latest copies of “Woman and Home”, “My Home”, etc. and sometimes baking or knitting paraphernalia, in immaculate wrappers, would fall out from between their pages, thrilling us no end. Ma would pick dress designs from these magazines, add her imagination to them and get our frocks tailored by a tailor from Ripon Street. But. These tailoring expeditions occurred only four times a year. For each of our birthdays, all of us would get a new dress, not just the birthday girl. Then again at Christmas. Since my birthday falls between Christmas and New Year’s, we would troop to the New Years’ church service in the dress we wore for my birthday. My sister’s April birthday naturally dictated that her birthday dress would also double as our Easter finery. A discarded candy box housed neatly rolled ribbons and hair clips in different colours and out they would come to deck our tresses, so they matched our dresses. Pastel socks nestled in a drawer and pairs of pink, white and black shoes, often selected by Baba, stayed, in unbroken rows, under the bed. Simple, prudent expense management but Ma did it all with so much aplomb, that we always looked perfectly accessorized, with very few accessories. Another fundamental rule in our household was absolutely no wasting. If we served ourselves something at mealtimes we had to finish the very last morsel of it. She said she didn’t want us to become materialistic morons, rather capable conservationists.

Life is not easy for anyone no matter whichever way we want to look at it but my mother’s cup of travails, sadly, came with an upsize sticker on it. No, I won’t dwell on all of those here for the simple reason she trumped them all; downsized them till they no longer mattered. In her late thirties, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and her world became a halo of light around a core of darkness. She trained her sight to use her peripheral vision, so her day-to-day activities were not hindered. She continued her avid reading and her knitting, somehow. She planted a rich, colorful garden of love and joy that stemmed not from what we wore, what we ate or what we had, or perhaps, more importantly, what we didn’t have, but from the knowledge that each one of us is blessed with unique talents that no one else in this world possesses. My every little gain, every effort, every achievement was praised sky-high, notwithstanding they were often the size of a mustard seed, and no one besides Ma, even noticed them.

Ma’s enduring relationship with her three grandchildren is like a cheerful mimosa laced with equal parts tart, fizz, smooth and the cherry on top Ma’s own inimitable brand of humour. Vignettes: her break-neck knitting spree to complete my son’s sweater, with a reindeer fair-isled on the front so he could sport it on Christmas day. Her delirious joy when she heard of my daughter’s impending wedding and the fulfillment in her eyes when she first met her great-grandchild, Jasmine. And all this overflowing love is returned to her in good measure. Her grandchildren call her from far and wide and relatives, from every corner of the world, look her up often, and if possible drop in to see her. There she would be waiting for them with a plate full of treats. Everyone is important to her and she, in turn, is perhaps the most important being to me. Just dialing her number quickens my spirit, fills me with joy and makes everything right with my world. If there is an afterlife, then I would not want to be born to any other mother than my Ma in this life. My dearest friend of all times, with whom I have never had a fight, and if ever I did, I would want Ma to win. Hands Down.

There are three cardinal rules that Ma laid down for her daughters; do the right thing even when no one is looking, do what can be done today, now, without waiting for tomorrow, and last but certainly the most paramount of all her rules; never resort to untruths or subterfuge, no matter how difficult the situation might be. In one of my pre-teen years, I had promised Ma I will get a good grade that term; flippant words uttered by a careless tongue. I read and played and danced and received a horrible mark which my teacher, Mrs. Ryan, ordered I must get signed by a parent. For several days, I scammed my teacher and in effect, Ma. Ma, who was a teacher herself. Oh! Audacious folly. First, “I forgot”. Then, “My mother wasn’t home”, “My mother is sick”. Courage failed me time and time again till I took the coward’s way out. I decided to duplicate Ma’s signature, her initials – D.M. – the M piggybacking on the D exactly as Ma did. Easy, peasy till I attempted it. A sheet, full of DMs, in childish scrawl, lay hidden in a crevice of the bookcase. The final effort was such a rough and juvenile attempt that in no time I was caught.
Mrs. Ryan summoned Ma. After returning home, Ma didn’t utter a word to me; not even one. No recriminations. She chatted with everyone but not me. She combed and braided my hair soundlessly. It was eerie. Her wordlessness. I would have given anything to thaw that stony silence, for her to scream at me but the silence stood between Ma and me like a towering edifice. Terrifying in its apparent permanence. I offered to do extra time helping her in the kitchen, a massage for her sore back? A trip to the corner store? Mid-week dusting?

Declined! Declined! Declined! By an Almighty Silence.

When she finally uttered the first word in days, they fell on my ears like the first stirring of spring after a snowy winter. She pulled me close to her and the warmth from her body washed over me. I cannot recall her words now, but I remember they made me cry. They planted the seeds of a new Me.

Ours was not a family that was religious in a Bible-thumping, regular church-going sort of way. Grace at mealtimes was not a collaborative prayer, Ma encouraged us to bow our heads in individual thankfulness and again do the same at bedtime. Yet, somehow, we grew up knowing a special spirit floated amongst us, guarding and loving us. Waiting to hear from us, eager to uphold us and to bring us out of the wilderness of distress. This gentle bending of our consciousness towards cultivating a personal and faithful relationship with our Maker is perhaps, the greatest of all Ma’s gifts. It is immensely freeing and at the same time comforting, to know there is an all-encompassing power for us to turn to. Ma celebrates every joy that her family is blessed with, such is her positive and grateful take on life. Birthdays, of course, then end-of-exams-day, someone found a new job, someone’s medical tests results came back favourable; these all call for a celebration of thankfulness. She would cook a light delectable basmati pilaf, studded with green peas, raisins, and roasted cashews, served with thinly sliced leg of mutton that only Baba knew how to select, and only Ma knows how to roast and to refresh everyone, there would be a big crunchy salad. For dessert? Any pudding we could think of Ma would whip it up!

Dear Reader, am I leading you to believe Ma is perfect? Quite far from it! (Smile). If we covet a perfect parent, then we must first be a perfect child. Only fair. It is our imperfections that constitute who we are. We are way too monochromatic and mundane in our perfectness. Ma, being the super cook, super knitter, and super party-thrower is incorrigibly impatient. Just as she is quick to love and give so is she quick to indignation when things don’t go her way. If she wanted a chore completed it better be done almost before the order passed her lips. And we girls got trained to respond to her becks and calls el pronto. She taught us how to knead dough like an electric beater, with our hands; dough that would be pliable, soft and easy to handle and after, the bowl should hold not a vestige of the ingredients. You should be able to put it back on the shelf without having to wash it. Homemade curry paste was ground by hand on a heavy stone slab with a chiselled stone roller. She exhorted with utter authority, that the exercise of grinding spices would give us nicely rounded arms and boobs. And which young lass would want to deny oneself such assets? The steam from draining freshly-cooked rice would clear our pores and impart a glow to our skin and squatting on the floor, rather than always perching on a chair would give us shapely glutes and healthy knees. Just reading books would not get us very far in life, she said, if we couldn’t put a meal together and keep a clean and tidy house.

Till a few years ago Ma planned and cooked all meals herself. And when I say she cooked I do not mean sticking some rough and ready stuff in the oven. She executed complex recipes to perfection and dished out desserts to die for. Eventually, her failing vision, like a stealthy thief, stole her independence and to leave her in the presence of an open gas flame became a hazard that no one dared expose Ma to. Her life-long rendezvous with the kitchen was over. Sadly.

Ma with her timeless sense of dignity never would visit her married daughters uninvited and certainly never spend the night in our homes unless there was a life and death situation, like one of us having a baby. And even then, we could not get her to stay a day more than our condition permitted. This, even when her sons-in-law love and admire her no end. And when departing leaving our homes spanking clean. It was with much negotiation that she came to visit us in Toronto and the only bait that pulled her in was of course, sweet Jasmine. Ma shared her children equally with all our grandparents because she knows how important these figures are in kids’ lives and it is only the most fortunate of us who are blessed with love from these super beings. Children should be allowed to be children and receive all the love they are entitled to. Ma’s gentle, indisputable wisdom.

On Christmas day Ma will turn ninety years old and we will celebrate and glorify her the way she deserves to be. I don’t know if it’s because I am Ma’s firstborn, or it’s just me, or just Ma or her expectations of us, her aspirations for us, I always tried to do what she expected of me. The truth is I never wanted to disappoint Ma. By breaking one of her tacit, unwritten rules, of enduring her silence, the discipline in her eyes. And I wanted to make her happy. Paradoxically, not out of fear. I wanted to make her happy because, after all the pillars of silence had melted, the wrists had been slapped, the tears shed and dried, I know deep down that my happiness is the singular most important thing to Ma. Nothing in this world can veer me away from this unshakeable truth. Making Ma happy is a small trade-off for her giving me everything that is in her power to give; her time, her sacrifice, her wisdom, her praise, her grace, her love. And … Life itself.

 

Ma and daughtersAge

Black Banished, Colour Lavished

I dragged my mate, of several decades, to order a pair of glasses for him. The ancient, black-framed pair roosting on his nose had grown smugly comfortable over the last several years, so it was hard to tell where the glasses ended, and the man began. Their owner, fashionably unfashionable, was incorrigibly reluctant to change that familiar terrain of his countenance. “Fashion, what fashion?” He asks. Never, one to chase the ever-changing fashion landscape he has unmistakable style. Stylish in his kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and ability to hold his own. Always! A true man, like no other. But, I wanted change; a newer, perhaps more dashing look, a touch of the latest, a touch of lost youth, a desire to recapture the glow of an old flame.

I wanted black banished.

          And instead, colour lavished!

So, there we were! Browsing in a nicely done up store with myriad fancy glasses, with no eyes behind them, glinting at us, in placid pride, from several angles. Brands, like Hugo Boss, Polo Ralph Lauren, Klein, Gucci, Dolce Gabbana screamed fashion statements from their lofty perches. I smirked at them,

“you, silly prideful pieces of plastic,

you really think you are fantastic?

You are nothing till a nose you find

on which to rest your skinny behind”.

I hover over a brood of Raybans, but my guy doesn’t share my passion for the cursive flourish of that name. So, I let them be. The knowledgeable and super-crafty salesman veered us towards a window full of Carreras (hey! aren’t Carreras supposed to be Porches, a fancy type of car!). “Raybans sit spectacularly at the bottom of the spectacle hierarchy”, he informed us. Yeah? (Clearly, Rayban was not too generous with their commissions!) He brandished his arm towards the opposite wall. TOM FORD. Who is he? “A celebrated fashion designer”. Hmmm. “Those frames start at an impossible thousand dollars for the cheapest ones”. Our eyes popped larger than any lens in the store! But, we are free to try them and he will work out a deal for us. Oh, great, we are not some Clooney and his ilk. You know that, right? Quite shell-shocked we turned back to the humble Raybans again.

I inspect a pair with deep maroon frames. Here was colour, indeed! Placing them on my man I stepped back to survey the effect. Instantly it dressed his eyes in a formidable frown. A stern parent, a priggish prude, a conniving villain. Hah! Laughing, I removed them and descended on a pair of Hugo Boss with rounded edges, and,

they, a scholar did make of him.

Nah! need something more grounded,

not haloed owl-like wisdom beam.

So back it went, looking awfully offended.

Ah! A Polo looked lovely in my eyes. A deep electric blue frame of thin metal, with arms of the same colour, brightened with a strap of muted turquoise. The inner edges sidling up to the nose-bridge at a rakish angle. Took years off that familiar face. Imparted a merry glint to the deep brown eyes and flooded my consciousness with memories of when we were first engaged. I loved the pair. It estranged the familiar, telescoped the years, and they crinkled the edges of my own eyes with affirmation. First picking made! Happiness washed over me. My mate? Wrinkled his nose at the image in the mirror and decided to continue the search.

His eyes alighted on a Carrera with a coffee-bronzed half-frame and elegant olive-green arms that sometimes wore a brown and sometimes a greyish hue, depending on the way the light scintillated off it. Something solid and honest, yet lively and earthy. Looking back at me through the fake lenses was the genuine guy I knew!

Not young, not old

Perfect to behold,

Gloriously bold

Sold!

 Black

Surreal – When a Dream Comes True

Surreal

Within the proverbial blink of an eye, our short and sweet rendezvous in Italy was over. The nine days were packed with activities yet there was a relaxed bite-sized pace to it that made our aching joints happy and expanded our minds just enough so they wouldn’t explode with information overload. We spent a couple days in Cannes and Nice and Genoa where the cool blue-green Mediterranean breeze caressed the hot, swanky bodies on the Riviera and multi-million dollar yachts bobbed on the idyllic playground of the rich and the famous. But it is the magnificent art of Rome and Florence that beckons the soul. Just as Rome was not built in a day so Rome cannot be seen and ingested in a few days! One could literally spend days in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica and still be more tantalized than sated. It is a web that one can surf for weeks and be no closer to plumbing its depths or breaking the surface with clear answers. Art here is not just sublime beauty. At the time of its creation art represented religion, politics, culture, secret brotherhood and symbolism of the highest order.

It was the year 1979 when I sat in a literature class on the Renaissance, where one of my favorite profs elaborated on the artistic styles of the sculptors and painters of the era. She was petite and pretty; a salt and pepper chignon rested on the nape of her neck and a hint of black kohl under her eyes shimmered through scholarly glasses. She first introduced me to David, amongst other immortal artworks, including the Last Supper and the La Pieta, impressing upon my young mind the Renassaince glorification of the human body as well as the human brain. She brought alive for me the passionate detail with which the artist approached his art.

In Florence, as I gazed at the naked nonchalance of David time telescoped back almost forty years transporting me to the poignant, goose-bump raising words of a devoted teacher. The marble statue, frozen and immortalized in time. Every muscle rippled as it should; every stretched sinew supporting the stance of that deathless body and every vein throbbing with the same lifeblood that his creator poured into them! In the presence of such haloed art time and tide snaps to a halt and a strange stillness momentarily blocks out the cacophony of the temporal world. The feeling is surreal, it is a like living a dream, no matter how fleeting, how ephemeral the vision is for me, such art is timeless and lives on permanently in the mind of the beholder.

David, I have to come back with more time, more reading and certainly a keener eye so I can fall in love with your cold, stony splendour all over again.

Brave

Prodded by the Daily Prompt- BRAVE

Brave is he who lifts up his mates,
Those that never their blessings scorn
In spirit that’s from freedom born
Never I see brave in the obdurates.

The brave river flowing with no break
Coursing its way the ocean to meet
Never does its own purpose defeat
No brave in those that families wreck.

I see brave in those that bow and kneel
Who gives us strength to fight the odds
Hold on to truth no matter what
They aren’t brave who can’t love and heal.

Brave rests in lows and highs
I see brave in the truthful tongue
In the innocence of the very young
I see not brave in the eyes of lies.

https://wordpress.com/post/knowingheartblog.wordpress.com/718

Elastic

Words should be words and time, always time;

If these two are elastic, they aren’t worth a dime.

Words must mean exactly what they are meant to say

And time shouldn’t be allowed to, at the edges, fray.

 

Being elastic in character is flexibility personified

Imparts a charm that’s under a bushel difficult to hide

Wait! Watch! Careful! Be not a pushover though!

If right and meet, with squared shoulders, say a clear “No”.

 

Remember, elastic is elastic only when it’s firm and snug.

Think of some of your lingerie or a pair of pants.

What good is it really, if your hips it cannot hug?

Instead, at your waist, you feel a bunch of crawling ants.

 

So try and be elastic only when it is necessary.

When you can’t, just lie back, sip a glass of sherry.

In this life, it’s impossible to make happy everybody

In the end, it’s best to be genuine, than to be shoddy.

<a href="http://Elastic“>https://knowingheartblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/elastic/Elastic

WBT 119

umbrella

My Dadu, or maternal grandfather, Lalit Kr. Bose, was a creature of habit. Supremely so. Habit formed by always, without ever any breach, following the hands of the clock. The clock on the wall, the timepiece on the dresser and the pocket watch in his pocket, governed every single activity of his. He was of the firm conviction that the superstructure, called Human Character, is built on three major blocks, the first of which is Timeliness, then Integrity and last, but certainly not the least, Thrift (which, flagrantly his wife, my Dida, called Stinginess). One habit, that was his lifelong friend, was a brisk and timely morning walk. Every morning. Waking up quietly, surreptitiously dressing in the dark, lest he disturbed his slumbering household, he set out, exactly at five-thirty a.m., on the nose. No tender warnings from near and dear ones about the pitfalls of advancing age, nor inclement weather, nor a fractured arm could stop him from this long-standing practice of his.

Dadu lost his father when he was a mere babe of two months. He, along with his still newly-wed parents, lived in the beautiful Rose Villa, over whose front gate was slung a languid, winding bower of rambling roses. The sturdy climber flowered profusely, throughout the cooler months, with saucer-sized, love-red flora. The lavish blooms spread a tantalizing fragrance that prompted whosoever stepping under it, to lift an appreciative head, close their eyes as though in prayer and take a slow, deep whiff of the scented air. That, such an ugly thing as Death could cross such a gentle, fragrant threshold and wreak havoc in such a young household, was beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imagination. But, Death did come laughing by and steal one of the two pillars of Dadu’s fledgling life, forever shaking the bulwark of his very existence. Of course, then, he had no way of knowing that the Scythe-Man would strike a second time, under equally unforeseeable circumstances.

Dadu’s father was a robust, athletic man of thirty-two and his mother a young beauty of twenty. That fateful night, the weary mother slipped under the mosquito-net and lay next to her baby boy, sleepily waiting for her husband to join her. In the hot gloom of that summer night, in her heavily somnolent state, she heard the clickety-clack of his wooden slippers approaching the marital bed, the swinging hush of the net being lifted and then a dull, sickening thud; instant, weighty and acutely prophetic. Thwarting Sleep’s advancing march, she jolted up and leaning down from the bed in the silvery moonlight, found her husband crumpled in a heap on the floor, one hand still clutching the end of the mosquito net, the other at his heart. She screamed out in dread and grabbing her sleeping baby close to her, dropped down by her husband’s side.

No doctor could resuscitate that treacherous heart again. The call was quick, urgent and fatal.  He left without a final goodbye to his wife or a peck on the cheek for his infant son.

Within weeks, Rose Villa, with all its solid, Burma teak furniture and all the hallmarks of elegant living, was sold on a distress sale. The woman who, just a few short years ago, had crossed its portal in exquisite bridal finery, on the arm of a handsome, debonair groom, her vision fixed on a rosy, prosperous future, stepped over its threshold for the last time, the end of a snow-white saree that would be her garb for the rest of her life, pulled over her head. She moved into her parents’ house, and the red brick house with the yellow accents and white wrought iron railings trimmed with green balustrades swelled with a deep sorrow all its own. It became her home for the rest of her life and for better or for worse, she lived till she was ninety-four.

At that raw, green age of twenty-something, Buama, our name for my mother’s grandmother, had to make a colossal effort to start life all over again. A life in which nothing was her own, the roof over her head, the food on the table, the graceful cannas nodding in the garden, nothing belonged to her. Save the little baby at her breast. He gently roused her from her grief by his incorrigible demands, his gummy smile, his growing up and his falling-downs, and just by his inexorable presence in her sordid life. She devoted her heart and soul to his upbringing, his future and with the unique, selfless love that a mother bears her child, she raised him in the way of an achiever, so he could live high and proud, be his own master and never return to the groveling his mother had to endure. Perhaps, groveling is not the right expression, because Buama had her pride too. Her parents loved her beyond measure and were devastated by the cruel blow Fate had dealt her. Yet, paradoxically,  Buama felt out of place in the house where she was born, had grown up and had skipped around as a nubile girl, swinging her braids with not a care in the world. Now, with this sudden reversal in her fortune, she felt she must earn her keep. She made herself useful in the kitchen, instructed and supervised the servants and became an expert in all matters domestic, thus unobtrusively, shifting the burden of housekeeping from the matriarch’s shoulders onto her own. My only and most stark recollection of Buama is that of her in the most formidable role as President and CEO of 14 Lansdowne Road. There she was, regally leaning against a stack of pillows on her four-poster, her hooked, aristocratic nose  bent on sniffing out any kind of aberrations in the household; be it a daughter-in-law adding the wrong spices to a daal or a young daughter leaning out from the verandah and secretly gazing into a paramour’s doting eyes. Her eagle eyes missed nothing and her peach-fuzzed chin wobbled incessantly without adequate dentures to support it.

Her parents’ home was shared by many. It was a large house, wherein resided her brothers and their families. Guests, like ships passing in the night, dropped in constantly.  Some had to see a doctor in the city, another had a wedding to attend or a family emergency they wanted to meddle in. Substantial meals were cooked in a big courtyard kitchen, by the family cook. The women of the house helped with the lighter chores like chopping of herbs and dicing of vegetables or rolling out luchis (fried flatbread) on big feast days.  Buama was returned to the same room she occupied when she was a maiden and a daughter of the house. Now she shared it with her baby; the unwitting repository of all her woes, her desolation, her fears and her dreams. In a mysterious manner, the infant seemed to understand all his mother was going through, their secondary status in the household, and resolved deep in his heart to wipe his mother’s every tear, when Time would bestow upon him the handle and the axle to do so. And so, he did.

Dadu grew up to be a man shaped by the events of his infancy; his early fatherlessness, thrust upon him by inexplicable Fate, and the sense of dependence that plagued his childhood. He was an exemplary child, with a clear vision and a philosophy of life clearly imprinted on his mind from an early age and he continued to foster these qualities late into his life with a rigor that sometimes, bordered on austerity. A measure of austerity that was also molded by the struggle for independence from British rule that inflamed the contemporary Indian psyche. The endeavor to model one’s life on the principle of simple living and high thinking. Of boycotting machine-made imported goods, the purchase of which fueled the European markets while unfairly sinking local weavers and craftsmen into acute, despondent penury.

Dadu made his political statement, quietly, by always dressing himself and his family in home-spun cotton.

Dadu worked hard at his job at the City Corporation and advanced his career as best he could, eventually, marrying a woman who was his perfect consort. Inured by her own difficult childhood, Dida was industrious, smart and possessed of wisdom far beyond her tender years. There dawned a day when Dadu and Dida bought out all the other stakeholders in the property and became the sole and proud owners of the lovely red brick house that, for many years, stood as a landmark in the heart of the city. Dadu, with a generosity of spirit and inclination, that was not always apparent in his general demeanor welcomed the family members of all former owners, whenever they required to halt for a night, or perhaps a few days, in the city. So much so, that very often, the red, brick house throbbed with the pulse of many kindred hearts. Big meals continued to be prepared, great ideas continued to be exchanged and brought to life and cousins fed, fought, frolicked and fretted together within the shady precincts of 14 Lansdowne Road and its sunny, flower-filled garden.

As I mentioned before, Death came skipping by once more when it was least expected. Dadu met his end in a tragically violent fashion. Indeed, it can be said that his death in no way reflected his life. In truth, there is no perfect ending to any life, for that matter. By common human perception, the authority and finality of death are always mind-numbing and soul-crushing in the immediate aftermath of the event, and even those who meet their end after a long illness can never prepare their loved ones enough for the void created by their absence. Anyway, to come back to Dadu, my perception of his exit from this life would have been one far more peaceful than the end that befell him. For someone, who lived his life perpetually on an even keel, taking every measure so Life could not spring any sudden surprises on him, such a closure was completely out of line. Death did to Dadu everything that Life could not. It shocked and cheated him. The end that would have crowned his life, would have been one where he breathed his last, surrounded by his wife, his children, and grandchildren, lying in his old familiar four-poster bed, in which he had lain, perhaps, for his entire life. But life, rather death, played out very differently for him.

On a cold, rainy morning he was returning from his morning walk. It was just past six-o’-clock and dawn was fighting a valiant battle with the clouds, but unfortunately it was a losing battle. The Gloom was gloatingly winning. The city, oblivious to this skirmish of nature, slept on peacefully. Dadu cantered crisply. He turned the corner from Elgin Road onto Lansdowne Road and the tall, imposing wall of St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ High School towered on his right. He glanced briefly at his beloved house looming gracefully mere yards away, shrouded in a hazy veil. The light drizzle had stopped so he used his folded umbrella as a cane and picked up pace lest the rain should commence again. A fine patina of sweat had formed on his brow from the exercise of the last thirty minutes and a slow, feel-good heat was spreading under his collar. He set his eyes on the cozy confines of his home and a cup of Darjeeling tea, steeped just right by his wife.  Within a few yards, the empty road polished, like cobra-skin, from the recent precipitation, disappeared into the misty morning.

Suddenly, from within the heart of the mist, a yellow taxi trundled into view and perhaps in a bid to beat the traffic light, the driver accelerated sharply. The cab lurched violently on the wet road, careened madly sideways and rode the pavement at a perverse, wayward tangent. The helpless driver could do nothing to veer away from Dadu who was directly and tragically in his path; instead, the uncontrollable vehicle headed straight for him and lifting him like an autumn leaf pinned him to the tall wall of St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ High School. The jagged glass shards, embedded along the top of the wall to deter robbers, a mute witness to the most egregious robbery of all. It was all over in seconds. The shrill squeal of car-tires and the deafening crash of the impact burst upon the sleeping dawn. Then, an earth-shattering silence ruled. Dadu, always erect, always dapper, always in charge, slid down against the wall and collapsed, wedged awkwardly between the concrete wall and the monster missile, the blood from his head running down the car’s bonnet in rivulets of red. His umbrella, doing a macabre dance with the wind, landed in the middle of the rain-slicked road.

He put up a brave fight. My Dadu did. It wasn’t a cake-walk for Death to snatch him away. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock to revive him but it was a lost engagement right from the start. A large portion of his skull had disintegrated taking a good part of his brain with it. The brilliant light, from the other world, beckoned him and the darkness of this world eventually lost out to that effulgence. The fight he put up, however, was long and strong. The ambulance, carrying a moribund Dadu, reached the Presidency General Hospital within minutes. The gray dawn morphed into an indifferent morning and then to a robust, saffron and uncaring afternoon. Dadu fought on. He never again opened his eyes, but moaned softly from time to time, calling for his mother. Evening drew her shade slowly, trying to give her son a few more moments on this earth, and then, Night strode in, purposeful, scythe in hand and cut the final cord, freeing him from his earthly pain. Forever.

    **************************

For years after, whenever a taxi was flagged down, for her, or the family to ride in, my mother, Dadu’s only surviving daughter, would never just open the car door and slide in. Instead, she would quickly go around to check the number plate of the cab. In case,          J-U-S-T  I-N  C-A-S-E, the plate read WBT 119, she would not board it. She just could not, because, the berserk cab that killed her father, that fateful day in February, bore the same number. A number that was forever, branded on her consciousness as her father’s killer.

WBT

Rhyme or Reason

via Daily Prompt: Rhyme

 

There is Rhyme, and then there is Reason.

For each, there’s a time, a place and a season.

When there is reason, there may be no rhyme,

One, bent on making reason, may have little time.

 

Rhyme has a cadence with its own harmony

Reason, with no wit, is but mere cacophony.

If harmony is your thing, don’t give in to Reason

‘Cos Reason sometimes does the mind imprison.

 

Reason has a logic that’s hard to deny.

Rhyme has a rhythm that’s hard to defy.

Pick one that wakens a song in your heart,

Though, there are times you can’t tell them apart.

 

Ah! But when rhyme and reason, go hand in hand

The effect will never, ever, get lost in the sand.

 

 

Advent of Abraham

Abraham was here. Abraham, my grandson. He came, conquered hearts and left. There is such treasured divinity in a fistful of love, scattered with innocent nonchalance and an impish grin – half-credulous, half-dubious. An almost-toddle, a sure-stumble, a sidelong look askance, a clenched paw rubbing sleepy eyes – all these, and more, make up my Abraham! Strong, purposeful crawl strokes, thump, thump, thump, a quick stab at climbing the fridge shelves, left open inadvertently, an adorable, slumbering belly, gently rising, gently falling. Abraham, darling, you are cherubic sweetness personified, in sleep and in wakefulness!

You are a morning smile that goes a mile,
An afternoon cuddle that does the mind befuddle,
An evening lullaby like a dreaming butterfly.
A walk in the rain that washes the spirit clean!

The days leading up to the visit of this three-feet dignitary were filled with a joyous bustle that could never exhaust our spirits. The sun shone through the rain, through the racing wind, and through the cumulus clouds, gathered like fluffy sheep, on the horizon. The usual mundane trips to Shoppers’, Walmart, Loblaws, to ensure a suite of essentials, for the VIP, was kept ready at hand, became an exercise in sublime jubilation. Typical, after-work ennui vanished, our supper-times were replete with happy chatter and life acquired a different, more wholesome meaning. The baby-world became our new sphere of operation. Day-to-day conversations were smattered with expressions like ‘diapers’, ‘pack n play’, ‘ball’, high-chair’ and even uttering them, bestowed upon us a rapture untold. Suddenly, surreally, our black and white orb became shot with the shimmering colours of the rainbow!

Every nook and cranny of the house was scrubbed clean, and every household article, that had even the remotest possibility of coming in contact with Abraham, was Lysol-wiped several times over, with unflagging zeal. His bedroom decorated with framed photos of him and his cousins. A chicken stew, to tickle his palate, was cooked with a medley of wholesome peas, carrots and sweet-potatoes and his bed laid out to hold his play-weary body, and to goad magic sleep to his restless eyes.

Alas! Just when we thought the room looked perfectly Abraham-ready, it occurred to us that this special baby is unable to sleep in a room where light leaks in. Oh well! Nothing that a pair of doting and ardent grandparents cannot handle! Out came the thickest and darkest eiderdown from the linen-cupboard and with some effort, it was tucked snugly over the drapery rod on the window. Viola! Instantly, nighttime fell on the room at ten in the morning, and with an elated spring in my step, I left to attend to the kitchen. Minutes later, unable to keep myself from the decked-up room, I skipped over to take a gloating peek. A space, that I had left pitch dark, just a little while ago, was lit up with a bold swathe of brilliant sunlight. The bulky eiderdown lay in a mischievous heap under the window and the drapery rod was poised precariously on its pile, with a shamefaced grin – hee, hee, hee!

A dogged look of utter resolution began to emerge on the granddad’s countenance. Unfazed, with lips clenched, jaws set, and eyes focused, he whipped out some black garbage bags and a roll of heavy-duty masking tape. Then, armed with a step-ladder, he tackled the offending window from the outside. Any casual onlooker, trying to look in, would think the glass of the window had popped, it looked so utterly cringe-worthy but did anyone care? Certainly not us! Darling Abraham’s Comfort was of Paramount Importance.

The long-awaited Saturday, of Abraham’s advent, finally dawned. Notwithstanding the fact, that Abraham flew in on a plane, metaphorically, he rode into our hearts; Chariot Blazing, Crown Shining, Plumes Flying. At the airport, he reached out and touched my face tentatively with the tips of baby-butterfly fingers to ensure I was not a Facetime apparition. Convinced I was not, he glanced up and gave his Mamma a pleased smile, which seemed to say “So, this is she, and I can actually feel her?”. On reaching home, he curiously explored his new digs on all fours and seemed satisfied with what he saw. Ah! We heaved a collective sigh of relief that the Chief had endorsed all our endeavours.
At lunchtime, he sat in his feeding chair, with an arm casually wrapped around the back and enjoyed his chicken-stew with utter lip-smacking delight. On exhortation from his Mamma that his Dida had especially cooked the stew for him, he peremptorily summoned the cook from the kitchen, with a loud and clear “Eeeiii” and showered her with slurping, saliva-laden “oomas”, his name for kisses. If she attempted to return to the kitchen, he hollered for her again and smack, smack, smack came more “oomas”. And, what did these “oomas” do to the cook’s heart? It melted like a popsicle on a scalding sidewalk!

Like most children, Abraham adores the outdoors. Silverhill Park, minutes from our home, became his favourite haunt. On a gentle tempo, he rode the swing, pushing his sweetly earnest face into the wind and letting it play riot with his hair; blinking away the blustery sting from his eyes. It turned out, that the sand-pit is the niche after Abraham’s heart. The tactile feel of the gritty grains between his fingers bestows upon him a special thrill.

Abraham has an endearing proclivity for being startled; the elation lies in the anticipation and is heightened when one of us would advance towards him, in mock menace, uttering in a crescendo, “dhorto buroke” (let’s catch the old guy!) and he would squeal in utter ecstasy, even while he is caught and scooped up like a delightful dollop of chocolate cheesecake. The captivator, captivated!

It’s such a rapture to look back wistfully on the hours spent playing with Abraham, the dappled sunshine dancing on the little man’s face, the benevolent breeze from the mighty maples saturating us, in sporadic drafts. Our little wonder, in perfect tune with wondrous nature.

While the little lion slept a hush fell on the whole house and the adults tiptoed around, keeping a close watch on the baby monitor for the slightest sign of any stirring. Every sibilant conversation revolved around the little chipmunk and his high-energy antics till, eventually, gentle baby sounds began to emanate from the monitor and shadowy movements became vaguely noticeable on the screen. To my utter joy, the honour of Rousing Abraham was bequeathed upon me, by the exhausted Mamma and Dadda.

I tentatively cracked open the door of his room and peered into the gloom. For a moment, the room appeared to be devoid of any life; it was so utterly quiet. As my eyes adjusted to the shade, familiar shapes began to emerge. Just before panic could set in, I discovered a wee figure at the far corner of the pen, leaning out into the blue-black darkness, in acute anticipation of Mamma. His elbows and forearms rested on top of the crib rails, like Juliet in the balcony scene, hanging out for Romeo. “Abraham”, I said softly. Immediately, his tiny body visibly stiffened; this DOES NOT SOUND LIKE MY MAMMA, I WANT MY MAMMA, his entire being seemed to scream. I stepped closer. He sensed my movement as a sign of impending capture and immediately, dropping down into the crib, he powerfully crawled to the other corner, farthest from me. Digging his face into the mattress he curled up into a tight unyielding ball of reproach, his diapered behind sticking up in the air silently shrieking, “GO AWAY, I WANT MAMMA”. “Abraham”, I whispered again, gently. The ball curled up tighter. I decided to change my tack. “Abraham”, I breathed deliberately, Dida’s going to take you to Mamma”. The rigid little behind quivered a little, like excited jello. Again, drawing out my words, I persevered, “Let’s go to Mamma, Abraham”. Dear Reader, please note: “Mamma” was the operative word here. This time the ball uncurled into a full thirty-four-inches frame and began to sidle towards me. With rounded arms outstretched, anticipation writ large in deep brown, melting eyes, he climbed into my arms. Heavenly, delicate sweetness, all warm, like chocolate fudge on a sundae!

That’s when a huge moral dilemma assailed me. I could have kidnapped the tender bundle right then and there and disappeared into my bedroom, where I would have indulged in an extreme decadence of baby-feast. I could have tickled his belly to my heart’s content, kissed him all over from the top of his crown to the tips of his toes. Cuddled, pummeled and completely surrendered to that intoxicating baby thrill! Abraham, totally scandalized at the betrayal, would have caterwauled for his Mamma and she would have dashed to rescue him, or maybe not. She is a pretty cool Mamma after all! But, no, I didn’t do any of that; it would have been an outrage to the trust with which a little, credulous heart had employed me as a taxi-cab to get to his Mamma, and I could not be a disrespectful Uber-driver and take him on a detour, he clearly was not looking forward to.

So, tamely, against my very grandmotherly intuition, I carried the precious parcel to his Mamma!

Abraham for blog
Abraham

The Aunt I Never Met

Both Baba and Dida were superlative raconteurs! They simply told stories like they were meant to be told, like they were happening just then and there in front of their very eyes. More than communicating with their listeners such story-tellers communicated first, with their stories. They felt energized, empowered by their narrative and sometimes, instead of them manipulating the events, the events themselves manipulated the narrator, picked them up and carried them on light, airy wings to a realm they knew, yet they didn’t; a realm of half-light and half-gloom. So, at times it was hard to decipher if it were the teller telling the tale or the story itself had assumed a voice of its own and was perfectly capable of peeling back its own skin layer by layer, stealthily, joyfully, woefully, magically until it reached its very core and then it stopped, not because it was exhausted by its own solitary journey but because it had touched the very core it was striving towards, since the very beginning, and could go no further. Like in one breathless draft it had drained a pitcher of lemonade, on a wildly hot afternoon, and could just not take a single sip more. Sometimes, these tales ended with a question mark, a sense of incompleteness, yet the listener, while wistfully pondering the unanswered questions, went away with the deep satisfaction of having heard a tale perfectly told!

Dear Reader, today, I am going to tell you such a story that I had heard from Dida many, many times yet, even today. I don’t know if a certain event in the story was just happenstance or simply a figment of Dida’s bereaved imagination.

After my mother was born to Dida on Christmas Day, another baby girl graced her bosom on Christmas Eve, almost exactly two years later. To keep to the logic of the calendar and her position in the newly spawning family, Dida felt her new daughter should have arrived on Boxing Day, which was her due date. But she didn’t. She chose to have her birthday a day earlier than her elder sister’s as though it was her own way of coming first even when she came second! While my mother inherited her father’s dusky looks my new-born aunt, was of fair skin like her mother, her hair had a light, gilded sheen to it and even as a new-born babe they curled around her perfect head in soft wispy curls. They named her Konu, short for Konika, which meant a shining fragment, as if their new daughter was a tiny piece of a shooting star that had broken free and landed on Dida’s lap. Dida’s mother-in-law had hoped, against hope, nay she had demanded a boy for her only son that is my Dadu. She had wished for a grandson on whose shoulders would fall the mantle of all familial responsibilities and on whose brow the family name would be emblazoned. Notwithstanding the grandmother’s unrealized dream, my Dida and Dadu loved their new daughter with all their heart. They dreamed of her being a perfect soul mate for my mother, of the two sisters going to school holding hands, with colourful ribbons in their braids, playing hop-scotch in their yard, and most importantly they treasured the thought of them bringing their parents much pride and delight over the years.

While the mortals dreamt and planned and crafted a future for their two little girls, the stars, whimsically, changed their alignment and no one, least of all Dida and Dadu, would ever know why. Exactly, three years later, on Christmas Eve Konu suddenly, sadly died of acute nephritis. The virus that first invaded and inflamed her kidneys advanced rapidly. Before the child could show even the faintest signs of any listlessness, like a marauding army, battalions of the fatal germs launched attacks on her liver, then her stomach, her intestines and finally they clutched at her sweet, tender heart and squeezed the life out of it. For three days, a high fever ravaged her infant body, she screamed in agony when passing urine and her face and body became as tumescent as an over-ripe tomato. The family doctor was summoned as soon as the adults sensed something was amiss with the child; he arrived, inspected the child, wrote out a prescription and eventually pronounced the grave prognosis. A pall of gloom descended on the red brick house with the yellow accents.

Yet, all along the twenty-two year old Dida prayed and believed in the deep recesses of her heart that her cherished child would heal and be new again. Naively, she believed that the law of nature decreed that a parent must pre-decease the child and why, oh why, would in her case such a law be negated? Her young heart was weighed down with fear, with fatigue and a wild premonition that she fought with all her might. She soothed her baby with a warm broth, caressed her brow with the tips of her cold fingers and told her stories to distract her from her excruciating pain. Whenever, the baby fell into a spent and fitful slumber she sat at her sewing machine to tailor the powder-pink tulle dress that Konu would wear on her birthday. Complete it, she did and in the glow of the early evening she held it up against her child’s body. Just as a candle sputters into a refulgent flame before it finally extinguishes itself, Konu’s beautiful face lit up with a luminous smile, her fevered eyes shone with a strange brilliance, but she had no strength to lift her head so Dida could slip the dress over it and onto her hot little body. Instead, she fell back on the pillows exhausted, her smile slowly fading from her face.

Defying all hopes, all fervent intercessions the government of Konu’s tiny internal organs finally and irrevocably collapsed. Before Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, before, Little Konu could preen in her new dress and cut her birthday cake, and before she could hold up little fingers and proudly proclaim, “I’m three years old”, she passed into that other world from where she had arrived not too long ago.

They built Konu’s coffin at home. They, meaning those hapless people who, perforce, make a living out of people’s grief. They arrived on Christmas morning and worked plaintively, with heads bowed and before the sun could reach its zenith the casket was complete. Its wood gleamed in the afternoon sun and the white satin, that lined the inside, shimmered like a baptismal layette. Every nail they drove into the wood was like a nail through Dida’s heart. Thok. Thok. Thok. She flinched involuntarily at every blow, each more tortuous than the previous. She sat on the bed, beside her lifeless child, gazing into that precious face for the final hours; her own heart a bloody mess. A peace, that is not of this world, had descended on the infant’s face as she lay there in her pink birthday dress a bunch of forget-me-knots, lovingly embroidered, on the yoke.

Before the sun could set they carried her away. They took away her lovely eyes, but they left behind the gleam in them. They took away her sparkling teeth, but peeled her smile and left it behind. They took away her head of curly hair but they could not take away the fragrance that wafted around and encircled the house like a never-to-be-forgotten dream.

Konu left behind a Ma and a Baba with completely hollowed-out, Jack-o-lantern hearts in which no lamps burned, and a sister who wore a perpetually vacuous look in her eyes. Clutching a rag doll in her arm, she wandered from room to room in search of her playmate, her friend, her confidante and the source of her love and joy. Her torment larger than life because it bewildered her much more than it did the adults.

Eventually, Dadu had to make a colossal effort to shake himself out of his stupefying sorrow and return to his job at the Calcutta City Corporation where he turned over file after file like a robot. No colleague ever said anything, everyone commiserated and everyone secretly cringed from the idea of ever having to be in his shoes. Dida left her bed early in the morning, as though in a trance, and prepared breakfast for her husband. She no longer hummed while she worked, lost was the skip from her gait. Her hands and feet performed the tasks out of their own volition with no commands from her spirit. One morning, she served her husband and dutifully sat at the table while he ate. Silence, like a third person occupied the chair between them.  Suddenly Dida exclaimed “Konu” and half got up from her chair, her eyes straining into the space behind the pantry where a curtain hung separating the pantry from the bedroom behind, a smile of indescribable joy parted Dida’s lips. With alacrity, she leapt up and with one swift motion of her arm she pushed the drapery aside. In the early morning grey an empty, unmade bed mocked her. Her eyes fell on the door at the other end of the bedroom leading out to the garden. The door was always latched up at night but now the door swung on its hinges, almost imperceptibly, as if someone had just pushed it open and on tiny feet stepped into the greenness of the dew-drenched grass. Dida darted to the door and leaned out. A gentle zephyr touched the wetness on her cheeks and she shivered slightly. In utter desolation she turned around. Dadu who had followed her, was just behind. He held his wife in his arms, and rocked her silently. “Konu was here”, Dida wept into her husband’s chest,” her body wracked by heaving sobs, “I saw her, smiling and calling me Maaaa! as she clutched the curtain and parted it and leaned into the dining room, smiling her charming gap-toothed smile like she always did when playing peek-a-boo. I saw her, she was here, I saw her”, Dida lamented in inconsolable despair. Dadu pulled his wife closer, their unfathomable grief binding them with a colourless yarn.

When Dadu returned home that evening he sat his wife down tenderly, as though he were handling a delicate, porcelain artefact and tried to speak to her in the most normal tones that he could muster. He said he had discussed the episode from the morning with a close colleague. He had done so first, because he was truly concerned for his wife’s mental health and secondly, because he had hoped the man-to-man exchange would be a catharsis for Dadu’s own grief-burdened soul. Like a true well-wisher Dadu’s friend offered up some advice, some philosophical truths couched in empathy. He said “Mr. Bose, your wife needs to let go no matter how immensely hard it is going to be, else her child will never find peace in her new home. Her mother’s debilitating broken-heartedness was keeping her bound to her earthly abode. Her immutable grief is shackling her baby. Only when she knows her Mother has found peace and is not yearning for her in such anguish will she be able to free her spirit to embark on its next journey. Mrs. Bose will have to learn to think of her departed child with joy and no more with sorrow. Death is not a parting, it’s a moving-on to another plane of existence.” Dadu uttered the words exactly as they were told to him. Then he stopped and inhaled deeply. He felt lighter, almost happy after a long, long time. Dida turned her husband’s words over in her mind and pondered awhile, her eyes set at a point in a distant place, her heart as heavy as the cut-glass paperweight on the table in front.

At this point in the story Dida paused and she smiled a beautifully sad smile. She took my young, teenaged fingers in her hand as though they were her dead child’s and played with them for a long time lost in a puddle of thought that I could not step into. I could just pause by its edge and wait for Dida to come back to me and she did, when the Story released her.  Turning to me, she said slowly that Dadu’s words lingered in her mind a long time, and in the end, she couldn’t remember if it were the same night, the next morning or a week or a month after, that she finally made the effort, if not for herself then, for her lost baby. She made the effort to rouse herself from the stupor that completely sapped her soul. She wanted Konu to be happy wherever she was, to laugh her joyous laugh, to run pitter-patter in the rain, to look up into the night sky and beckon the moonbeam to come down and plant a kiss on her brow, and to do all the things she was meant to do.

Dida carved out two small plots in her garden. In one she planted masses of what she called Nine-O-Clocks. Dime size ochre beauties that bloomed exactly at nine in the morning, just as the sun began to rise strongly in the sky. When the wind wafted through their stalks they nodded gleefully and smiled some more. Gazing at them, a peace slowly settled in Dida’s heart. In the other plot, she planted what she called Jewels-of-the Night. Their slim and elegant magenta buds remained closed during the day and as dusk approached they opened their petals, spreading a faint, elusive fragrance to welcome the night, their stamens hanging out languidly, like a shy bride, into the impending darkness. Dida loved them with an exceptional love!

Nine-O-Clock
Jewel-of-the-Night

Dida

If I initiated this blog with a tribute to my dearest father then the next idol I must pay homage to is my Dida, or my maternal grandmother. Both Baba and Dida bore a deep love for the same woman, namely my mother, yet Dida and Baba seldom saw eye to eye and that’s nothing to be astounded about. Baba was an idealist with his head, a lot of times, in the silver clouds and Dida a thoroughbred pragmatist with her feet firmly planted in the brown earth of every-day life. Lest a grave fight should ensue between the two I dedicate my second entry to Darling Dida with much delight and adulation.

In a world of fast dwindling and depreciating human values I am so thankful for the memories that, even today, I cherish of my grandmother. The small sparrow of a woman of scant education but infinite erudition was a force to reckon with. Some of the qualities that I can be proud of today are all inherited from her, who lives on in my heart like a gentle, unquenchable flame.

First of all, she taught us about the value of money or the worthlessness of it. She had an amazing and extremely effective way of managing the household expenses. On the first day of every month she sat cross-legged on her bed and rolled up bank notes neatly into several scrolls securing them with elastic bands and labeling each with a white chit, snipped from lined writing paper. The scrawl on the labels showed what each bundle of currency was allotted to; for example, electricity, water, church, property tax etc. etc. Next she filed these scrolls neatly into old metal candy boxes and kept the boxes locked in her dark, unpolished mahogany cupboard, the keys of which resided surreptitiously under her mattress. By the second day of the month all creditors and bills were paid and she always had some money left over which she kept for emergencies which were most often authored by one of her six grandchildren. When I once lost a school text book and was too scared to approach my parents for a replacement it was of course good old Dida who stepped up to the plate and provided the money to buy the book. She could not bear that any of her family members would have cause to feel any kind of stress and she would resourcefully find a way to end it and allow mental peace to prevail for the loved one concerned.

Unconventional as she was it is no surprise she had an unusual pet that she absolutely adored – it was a goat with a coat as white as freshly-fallen snow and the fond, inane name of Puti. When Eid or Yuletide approached Dida suddenly became hyper-vigilant in apprehension that a stranger, or even one of the neighbours might steal Puti and serve one of her ample, well-fleshed shanks as the central item of their festive table. Puti was no longer allowed to strut across the busy thoroughfare, bringing screeching traffic to a grinding halt, to get a gulp of water from the street tap across from her house.

Dida was a skillful and innovative knitter and seamstress. She was often commissioned to knit sweaters and tailor dresses for people who wanted well-fitting garments. A devoted coterie of faithful customers would bring Dida their wool or their cloth and select designs from the vast repertoire of her pattern books. Cap sleeve, mutton sleeve, Chinese collar, umbrella skirts, cable, fair isle, lacy knits, you name it and Dida’s flying fingers would transform a picture on a glossy page into a cherished garment for someone. Her advertisement was her fine work and the word of mouth of satisfied customers. Over time, with her earnings, she helped her husband pay off the loan they had on the lovely red brick house they lived in. She ran this small enterprise on top of her gardening, her cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. What motivation and perseverance – she would have put many modern-day career girls, with all their fancy gizmos, in the shade.

Dida was an avid reader. Every day, after lunch, when most of the neighborhood was immersed in a rice and fish curry induced siesta, Dida read the Bengali daily from the front page right to the weather report on the last. She knew well in advance if a scorcher of a day was on the cards or a monsoon deluge was on its way. She knew if the Prime Minister was in Bonn or in Hague and what summit he or she was attending, exactly how many road accidents and murders had taken place in the city the night before and if mankind was any closer to finding a cure for cancer. In the evenings, when her day’s work was over, she leaned back on a stack of pillows on her old four-poster bed and read novels of love and longing, triumphs and tribulations, of thrills and chills; a wistful smile sometimes playing at her lips or a frown darkening her brow like a mid-June monsoon cloud. With a mind shaped by her considerable reading she could boldly hold a discourse on any subject with anyone who cared to do so.

Ah! And then came her love of “bioscope”. Dida had an untenable penchant for movies that showed at the Lighthouse, New Empire or Globe cinemas. Although, she could barely read or write English her comprehension was that of an astute and eager mind. Most importantly, she possessed an uncanny sense of how human emotions, relationships and happenings evolve and develop.  Even now, the down on my forearms stand up when I recall her telling of timeless stories from films she had watched on the silver screen, like “Gone with the Wind” and “Matahari”, the German spy. She retold such tales with the right cadence and expression to a rapt audience of grand-kids; her voice dropping to a whisper at the crucial twists and turns in the plot and often her eyes glistening with a faraway look in them, stretching into a reality not quite her own but one in which she partook so eloquently. In particular, a vignette of her telling and re-telling of the last scene of “Queen Christina” floats uninhibited into my imagination where the Queen, after abdicating her throne to the man she would not deign to marry, boards the ship to go in search of her lover. The turbulent sea-breeze, symbolic of the tumult in her own life, grabs and plays with the lush gather of her gown as she stands gripping the bow of the ship. Then the camera slowly zooms until Greta Garbo’s anguished face fills the screen and Dida immerses herself in that look of indescribable pain in the Queen’s eyes and makes that agony her very own.

More on dear Dida another time …

Dida jpg.

 

Baba

As I finally venture into launching my blog the first morsel of writing has to be in memory of Baba, my father, Ranajit Kr. Mookerji.  It is because Baba was the champion of ventures. Always brimming with ideas, concepts; some terrible long shots yet vivid and interesting always. Sometimes I realize with a pang, a catch in my heart the things I could have done for him, but didn’t in my busyness. The words I could have uttered to him but  didn’t because they seemed banal and meaningless at the time. Yet, at the most trying of times it is Baba’s beloved face that looms in my line of vision with that ineffable smile, half pensive, half amused. And then inexplicably I just know that Baba somehow, heard all my unspoken words, indulged in all my unexecuted intents and cherished them all deep in his heart.

It is hard to believe it’s been over eleven years that Baba left us to see the face his Maker.

Baba is everywhere around me. I see him in my son’s smile, in the quick turn of my daughter’s head, in the focus already apparent in my grandchildren and of course, in the dreams that I dream and the thoughts that  I think and the incorrigible optimism I always feel in my heart. Baba lies quietly in all of these things and more.

When growing up, our family was an estrogen catchment with eighty percent of the members being females – Ma and us three sisters. So quite naturally there were evenings when we all happily ganged up against Baba, bent on proving him wrong even when his words made complete sense and we all knew that in our hearts. We mercilessly shot down all his arguments with a childish pig-headed vehemence till tired and hungry we all wanted dessert.  And Baba with an indulgent smile would throw on some clothes and go off to buy sweetmeat for his family.

In the midst of all the chaos that sometimes overwhelms all families Baba was the quiet, still centre. Never moved to easy anger he always presented the very essence of limitless patience and fortitude – determined and unfazed he soldiered on in the face of every difficulty that crossed his path. When we were sick as children it immediately became Baba’s pain and he would do everything in his power to see us healthy again. Even to this day I cherish Baba’s cool touch, as gentle as the falling rain, on my fevered forehead slowly easing the distress out of my sick body.

Baba was a great worshipper of education and he strived endlessly to ensure that his daughters received the best possible academic advantage. He had a pink folder in which he proudly and neatly filed all our mark sheets and degrees so that whenever such a document was required by an institution Baba would produce it with a magician’s flourish as though it was his wont to be the custodian of his daughters’ achievements.     …. And we so easily took this for granted!

That Baba left us in December, the month of traditional Christian festivities is a paradox in some ways because Baba thrived on Christmas and the preparations that lead up to it. He was, in his very androgynous way, a part of the entire Christmas experience – shopping – the new clothes, fanning the flies from the fruits left to dry for the plum cake, overseeing the baking, buying the perfect leg of lamb for the Christmas dinner, preparing plates of food for the neighbours and the less privileged – he permeated into all this with no less the eagerness of his daughters. And at the end of it all saying over and over the food at our table was the best in the world which was same as saying my mother was the greatest cook ever!

So in a very natural sort of way I dedicate this blog to Baba.

Baba, you will walk with me till I reach the end of the road.

                                        Baba