Convex Cares

Thirty years ago.

Like a clown at a funeral. A smile painted on the face. I’m a study in contrast to the Lilliputian world around me .
People around me are short and emaciated. I am tall and healthy. Not fat, but well built, an athlete.
The lesser mortals look up to me. My teachers commend me on my good posture. My father says he’s proud of the way I hold myself, tall.Never slouched- all my life.
But oh, the contrast. Towering over the insignificant.
Let’s go watch a movie. I said. Oh, no. My parents won’t allow me to go. Why not? Loafers and ruffians have nothing better to do than emulate the stalker heroes onscreen. Remember the persistent heroes who would sing songs and subjugate the docile heroines into submission in the nineties? Pathetic, psycho behavior, not ‘psychic’ please! Get your vocab right, ok? Rolling my eyes, 360 degrees, teen style. Anyway, fond fathers foolishly felt their awkward, gangly teenagers were heroines. Ha. Ha.
Jhuma told me her parents would send her to a movie only if I was going. I looked so formidable, nobody would dare harass us if I were around. Being an average teenager, I found that statement weird. Actually downright offensive. Didn’t want to think of myself as scary. Actually, come to think of it, I was, rather. I still am. (Ask my students. Hee. Hee.)
Yeah right, so where were we? Oh yeah, Jhuma- Miss Hot Pants- wanted protection from her raging hormones alright. That’s another story altogether.
Now back to me. When I wore heels, I towered over the lot. The boy next door, a self-professed stud, called me an Amazon. Well, he felt intimidated. Poor thing!
I smiled, but I wanted to wrench his teeth out. Without anaesthesia. Slowly.
And watch in glee, while he ran to Momma for solace.
Beware of Xena, the warrior princess.
I have always looked older than my age. Somebody sniggered when I said I was eighteen. Padma told me I was being called ‘Fatso’ behind my back. Another plump girl, in our class was being called ‘Fatty’. Which name was worse? As if I had a choice. As if it mattered. Unfortunately, it did. I pretended I didn’t care but it hurt like hell. I pretended to laugh, in fact I laughed the loudest when I was the butt of all fat jokes. I cracked a few of my own, hoping to seek acceptance, but the malice surfaced into the open and it was ugly. How they leapt up to bring me down! Sharks turning on a bleeding one of their own kind.
Somebody said I was eating too much.
I wasn’t. Honest.
I went on a diet that day.
I played basketball. So good at it. My coach had plans for me. Worked up an appetite. But remembered that dratted diet!
I did not eat anything till lunch. I looked at food all around me. I was hungry. I didn’t care anymore. Basketball gave me a voracious appetite. I played, for school and college. I continued to scale great heights. Forget about the weight!

Twenty-five years ago.

Height and weight didn’t matter. I soared. Married a man an inch shorter than I. Didn’t make a difference to either of us. Made a huge difference to the family.
Who would put such a shallow issue into consideration when the relationship flourished?
Believe me there are people foolish enough to give up for such non issues.
My hussy bun has a voracious appetite. I unconsciously eat as much as he does. We are not supposed to waste food. No left overs allowed. No throwing away scraps. So I am the ‘dustbin’. Unfortunately, I don’t play basketball anymore. Don’t go to the gym either. So I balloon.
My mother-in-law is here. I feel so stressed. She is too critical of me. Nothing I do pleases her. Forget about pleasing, apparently I’m not good enough for her son. What’s her business anyway? Well, she did beget him. How quaint!
I ate a couple of samosas and gulaab jamoons and felt so good. Food has become my instant ‘pick me up’!
We bought a new fridge. I stocked it up with bars of chocolate and pastries. They look so pretty.
This chocolate cake is gooey. I cannot stop.
There is no full length mirror at home. I cannot look at myself. My clothes are getting tighter. The cloth must be shrinking.
I fought with the hussy bun today. I am so upset. I devoured a pack of butter. I love butter. Butter makes everything better.
Sudathi tells me to start walking. She tells me I am fat. So, I avoid her.
I get breathless climbing up steps.
I love dosas. Masala dosas. Onion dosas. And vadas.
My stomach bulges and rolls into folds when I sit. When I walk everything shakes like blubber.
Hussy bun got a mirror home.
Too late.
I took one look and began to howl.
In my head I was this pretty sixty-two kilo girl and now I have bloated into an eighty-four kilo swollen wonder.

Twenty-two years ago.

I cannot conceive. I went to the doctor. Turns out I have PCOD- Polycystic Ovarian Disorder. Or is it disease?
She tells me I am fat because I have PCOD. I have PCOD because I am fat.
Classic case of chicken and egg syndrome eh?
Taking hormonal treatment. Growing a moustache and a beard. Sick!
Conceived. I have complications. Advised bed rest.
Hussy bun stuffing me with food. Mom telling me to eat for two. Now at a staggering ninety-six kilos. Feet swelling up. Bloating. I waddle. I drape a sheet over the mirror.

Twenty-one years ago.

Had the baby. Still at ninety-six with all the ghee and pampering.
Walking makes me breathless. I get catches in my back. I am so down.
Somebody told me my hussy bun looks younger than I do. I want to yell; even my father looks younger. Now my mother looks svelte and somebody asked her if we were sisters. I am the older one, obviously! In comparison to me, my mother-in-law, a dumpling, looks terrific.

Fifteen to twenty years ago.

At work people stand next to me while photographs are being taken. They want to look slim and gorgeous in comparison. Yeah, the theory of relativity at work!
So depressed I can’t stop eating. My daughter goes to playschool and I lumber behind. All the other moms look fabulous. One asked me, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything about your weight?’ I was upset. I roll away.
Another told me, ‘How can such an ugly woman like you have a pretty daughter?’ I wanted to gouge her eyes out.
At work, jokes invariably continued to end up being about me. I pretended not to care. In fact I poked fun at myself to escape but it backfired. People still jumped at the chance to pull my leg and the fun ceased to be informal. I realized they were deliberately hurting me cruelly, and I was allowing them to do so. Legitimate ‘Fat-shaming’. I soon shut up.
At the mall a skanky female looked at me and sniggered. She nudged her friend and they looked over in my direction and giggled. I glared at them pointedly and they looked away.
At the bakery I stopped to buy pastries and those salesgirls looked at me and sniggered.
My colleague advised me to hide my flab in sarees.
My boss who was old enough to be my mother added me to her category. According to our age… she said.
Waiting to turn forty. I’ll look my age then.
Hussy bun keeps telling me I look good. Loser!

Ten to fifteen years ago.

My head aches. It pounds. Went to the doctor. Have high BP.
Was sent for an echocardiogram. Lay exposed. Vulnerable. The doctor tested me with cold instruments. The smell of the clinic made me sick.
Never again. Never.
Decided I would hit the gym the next day.
The man and the desk took one look at me and said, ‘Only workout clothes allowed Madam. No salwars.’
Isn’t it ironical that you are made to feel ugly when you are trying to get into shape? How rock hard bodies legitimately belong at fitness centers and people who need to get fit are treated like dirt?
People gaped at me everywhere. The thin ones are so good at eating, God knows where they pack it all away. The way they stuff themselves is unbelievable. They don’t bother to work out. They are susceptible to heart disease too, but nobody teases them. Even if they are teased for being too thin, the fun is not malicious. Me, I only have to look at food and I put on weight.
Gym is killing me. I enjoy the aerobics though. There is a huge mirror. Hate to look at myself wobbling away.

Ten years ago.

Lost five kilos. Down to ninety. Yay!

Five years ago.

Lost ten kilos. Down to eighty-five. Yaay!
Stopped working out, just like that. The pounds came back with a vengeance.
I wanted to kill myself. What did I do to deserve this?
And then I got my life back. My sanity as well. Going for one hour walks in the morning and evening. Eating small portions. Eating only when hungry. I changed my life with a little mantra.
I must eat a little less and move a little more.

Now.

My students, whom I taught fifteen years ago, tell me I look younger. I bask in their appreciation, motivated to keep a careful watch on myself.
Others try to sabotage my diet by offering me high calorie food but I refuse bluntly. Sarita looked offended that I did not try her chocolate cake. I know I have to work out hours for that. She told me it didn’t matter but I did not pay heed.
I keep a food diary now. I record everything I eat. I have learnt to be honest with myself. I do not eat to satisfy my emotional needs. I work out regularly. I accept my little momentary lapses and don’t dwell on them too much.
Yesterday I ate a slice of Pizza. I’m human, you know. It’s OK. I’m making a change to my lifestyle. This is like, forever.
I have brought my weight down to eighty kilos over two years and my blood pressure is now normal. I look younger, feel fitter and better about myself than I have ever felt.
The mirror loves me again. It shows me what I want to see.
However, I need to knock off another ten kilos.
So tell you what, I shall do all I have to keep fit – walk ten thousand steps a day and all that jazz… and
Losing weight and keeping it off should be just…
The side effect.

Howzatttttt?

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Meandering

I am a tourist.
I get away from it all. The predictability. The monotony.
I am a tourist. I travel light.
Jeans and a couple of shirts. Good shoes. A book. A kindle device, even.
Headphones? A must. Plugged into a device? Not necessarily.
Anything to avoid a conversation. No words can improve silence. Nothing compares to quiet.
Shades over the eyes. Essential. Don’t want people to look into my soul.
For, I have left it all bare.
Unmasked.
I am a tourist. I don’t really need to hide.
Anonymity shields me.
I can be me. Need no mirror, no makeup to conceal anything, anymore.
I become one with the floating entities that linger, on the fringes of activity.
I am a tourist. I no longer follow a routine.
Wake up. Stretch. Make coffee. Sip. Gulp. Read the paper. Huh? Scan the paper. Right! Cook some. And then more. Laundry. Vacuum. Slash on some lipstick. Run a comb through the mess I call my hair. Run some more. Put on a face. A smile to disguise vacuity. Exist through the day. Return. Watch telly. Heat up leftovers. Curl up on the sofa. Watch more telly. Brain sufficiently numbed. Collapse in a heap. Evasive sleep. Fits and starts. Confront self. Hide from self.
Not anymore.
I am a tourist. I break free.
I walk about in my sneakers, never mind the usual obeisance I need to pay high heels, otherwise.
A tourist needs to walk. Not those mincing steps, an accepted, unquestioned attribute to femininity. Strong powerful strides, apparently without purpose.
Well, that is the purpose.
None of those guided tours for me please. Not being herded into corrals like cattle, boarding buses and trying to glimpse life from a confining frame.
No cameras for me please. I am not that kind of tourist. My mind sees, my heart remembers. Mindspace over landscapes and portraits.
I’m not having a conversation that goes- Been there? Done that? It’s not about how much I’ve seen.
Well, I’m not having a conversation. Period.
Not anymore.
For, I am a tourist.
It’s all about how long it takes me to soak in the sun, and revel in the rain.
I wander, pay no heed to maps. Who needs structure?
I’m all for the collapsible now.
It’s only about comfort.
It’s about lounging, strolling, lingering, savouring, and just being.
Nobody notices a tourist, here today gone tomorrow, saying please and thank you and nobody notices.
Get on a bus and see where it goes, explore the city, move from cloistered spaces to little clusters and then space.
Oh, the spaces.
Walk into a café, sit for two hours, sipping on a mocha latte.
Dig into desserts, stop counting calories.
Order something new.
Again, let’s traverse the promenade.
I am a tourist.
One who doesn’t need to travel to be one.
Sometimes, I need to be the tourist in my life, unhurried and leisurely.
I need to banish time, sleep in, order out, let my hair down, sit on a bench for hours, watch the world go by,
and then will I notice all the beauty around me?
All that beauty, I cannot see. Shaded by anonymity?
Do I need to travel to be a tourist,
or do I just need to change the way I look at things?
Let me mull over that.
I am a tourist. I have taken time off my life, to live. To be me.
I am a tourist.
It feels good to be free.
It feels great to be me.

Tourist

in hot water

No, don’t talk to me anymore.
I am done with you.
What’s that?
You are fuming. Your words are like little spurts of impotence.
Oh, really?
I have nothing to say to you anymore. As if you ever listened to me in the first place.
At first you pretended.
That must have been so hard.
Then you asserted- Don’t speak.
You commanded.
I sat, looking at you, wondering why your eyeballs wouldn’t burst with all that ineffectual fury.
You seemed angrier.
I’m sorry, my staring must have unravelled your spool of verbal venom. Do you know, your eyelids twitch when you are raving this way?
My silence seems to aggravate your anger.
You pace about, like a caged tiger.
(Sorry dear tiger, you pace the forests in all power, never losing your majesty.)
This specimen, pacing in front of my disinterested self, is a study in wasted effort.
Well, you seem to be asking for an answer.
Didn’t know you had any questions.
Oh, wait a minute, you have the classical bearing of a warrior about to wage war.
Oh, you want to know what it felt like.
Is that all you are good for?
I’m sorry to interrupt, but could you just give me a moment to put my glasses away.
Thank you.
No, I cannot see a thing without them. It’s just that they are my glasses, and I really could not see the optometrist, after this, not after you have had your way with my face for it gives you so much joy, trying to rearrange my features.
Doesn’t it?
No, that does not hurt. It stings a little. But I’m thrilled that you have not mellowed with age.
Please carry on.
OK.
Wow! Is that all?
OK.
Let’s take a break now. You must really be feeling it now.
What’s that you say?
It is my fault.
I totally agree.
It has been my fault all these years.
It still is.
The pancakes weren’t fluffy enough. The rice wasn’t done soft enough.
Yes, your brother had been offended. The meal wasn’t up to his standards. But you made amends, didn’t you, you showed him who was boss.
He looked our way, shocked, then looked away.
Did he say anything?
No.
But, you continued, the flood unabated.
Yes, you poor thing, I totally get what you are going through, you’ve been having a bad day, your boss has it in for you, never mind, I’m here.
Take it all out on me.
Yes, the festival is here. I arranged the lamps and lit them. You did not like that I did it all on my own, I should have waited for you to take the initiative, after all you are my lord and master.
The crackers burst outside.
Thank God for them.
What would the neighbours have thought?
They would have been on your side.
You are the man, after all!
I must have caused this.
I must have done something to deserve this.
Yes, I agree, I deserve this.
I am this insignificant being, causing great annoyance.
Yes, I am such an annoyance.
It annoys you that I can actually feel enough to let tears course down my cheeks. It angers you that I can feel enough to cry.
Do you remember the first time I cried, you had been more than eager to let me know, in no words what you felt about tears.
Always a man of action, aren’t you?
The pride and joy of your family.
Hold on, I think that is the doorbell.
Sorry for the interruption, let’s take a rain check.
Oh look! It’s your favourite aunt and cousin.
I marvel at the way the cloud lifts.
You become sunny and cheerful.
The smile on your cheeks highlights your dimples,
changing you.
Are you the same person you were a few minutes ago?
As if to answer my question, you look my way and when you know it’s safe, because no one is looking our way, your face clouds over and you mouth a menacing message.
I look away and hurry to the kitchen to put some water on for tea.
I stand by the stove, allow the warmth from the flame seep into my cold clammy palms as I wonder if I could ever melt the icicles in my heart. Icicles that are driven there by every word you spit out at me, every hurt you cause me.
If these icicles melted, would I lie in a pool of melted water, dead, with nobody to solve the mystery for there would be no murder weapon, it having melted away.
No murder weapon, no crime.
Actually, no crime.
Because there would be no body.
For I’m still alive.
How can I be so serene, you ask? Have I no shame? No guilt? Don’t I want to mend my ways?
After being the way I am, not being the way I am supposed to be, for looking this way, for not looking a certain way, for still breathing, am I even human you ask.
Well, I don’t know.
Maybe I’ve got used to all that you dish out to me.
I learn fast, you know.
I’m like water.
I do not hold on to my identity, form or shape.
I go with the flow.
I have just learnt to float like froth on turbulent waters.
Lingering in the eddying pools and spaces of some respite, I move gently, my essence remaining the same, the ability to be exist, just simply be.
I catch your troubled reflection in my quiet self and there is hardly a ripple.
You see, I’m placid with so much that I’ve learnt.
I’ve got used to it.
What if I get tired of it all and just collapse with all this gathering energy, will you have the strength to be my dam and hold me back?
Will you be able to hold my fury when the waters turn?
God knows I have held back.
I pulled it all in and held on to it, my strength a certain barrier to impending implosion.
Can you feel the roaring waters ready to drown you in the deluge?
Brace yourself.
Till then I can wait.
I am patient, still and deep.
Now, let’s have tea.

Water

The Threshold

The pile of old books and newspapers were to be disposed of that day. The next day was Diwali and a lot of junk had to be cleared. I looked up at the rack of old books and magazines. Why hadn’t they cleared it all these years? I knew the wedding that was due in a fortnight was the catalyst. We all have a lot of accumulated baggage, odds and ends. Only when we are asked to make our lives uncluttered, do we resent the effort.

A cloud of dust rose from the books that fell to the floor in slow agonizing thuds. I cursed my Father for having accumulated so many books over the years. I knew people would give their right arm to be able to collect so much, but to me it was just junk, nothing more. I remembered my classmates who would drop in occasionally and be awed by the collection of books. One girl had told me excitedly, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be able to stand in front of these books and be able to choose? You have such a cool Dad.’ Yeah, right. They did not have to live with him, did they?

Then I caught sight of a familiar book. Familiar because I had seen it in Amma’s drawer in her wardrobe.  When I had asked her about it, Amma quickly shut it and hid it out of view, just like the weird soft packets that were stashed out of view.

I put away the notebook and sorted through the rest of the paraphernalia and asked the maid to take it away.

The wedding was an occasion to be treasured. All the members of the family, guests and friends were very happy about the arrangements and went away laden with gifts. I was tired but happy. I was sure my daughter would find happiness in her new home.

A week after the wedding, I was putting away my silks and jewellery when I caught sight of the old notebook. Amma’s diary, I thought in derision. What did Amma have to write about? Nonsense-just some old-fashioned nonsense I was sure. If it were Baba’s diary, it would have been a different deal.

Now I looked over at her mother sitting in an armchair, basking in the sun and cradling a cushion to herself. She was too tired, too old and senile to care.

I had been told that it was not right to read another person’s thoughts immortalized in a diary. I considered it ridiculous that people wrote private stuff in books that were lying around. They were asking to be read. I also suspected people wrote stuff they couldn’t voice hoping others would read them and know. Anyway I did not think of the moral dimensions of flipping through an old notebook. Amma did try to control me when I was young, much to my chagrin. I wasn’t too worried now.

May 10, 1966.

I want to study further. I want to become a doctor. They told me that I had studied enough. I matriculated with a first class. My brother, the self-professed dunce, gets to study. I don’t. I wish I could speak up but I cannot. They look at me but they do not really see me. I cannot speak to Amma because she is not interested in knowing me for who I am. To her I am just a burden. She just wants to get rid of me. Because I am a girl, and the oldest as well.

December 18, 1966.

I was standing in the kitchen this morning when Amma reached out for the bag of jaggery on the high shelf. She knocked down a can of oil that was there beside the bag. The oil can tipped over and a cascade of oil landed slowly on my head. Ammama gave me an ominous look and told everyone it was a terrible omen to be drenched so in oil. She made a mixture of soapnuts and shikakai and scrubbed away at my hair, reciting the prayer that wards off evil, all the while, but who can prevent what has to happen? The same sense of doom was shared by Ammamma and me. Everybody forgot about this little incident but I constantly touched my hair feeling the grease that refused to let go.

December 21, 1966.

Nobody gets married during this period. From the fourteenth of December to the Festival of Sankranthi all auspicious festivities are put on hold. My family lives the Farmer’s life. We are the busiest this time of the year. It is time for the harvest, so we cannot spare time for celebrations. Yet Amma is bent on getting me married now.  I am able to write this now as people have given me time to change into my saree.

December 21, 1966.

I had studied in school that the nights of December 21 and 22 are the longest of the year. They certainly are.

December 31, 1966.

Today while I was putting my ornaments away in my trunk, he came up to me and told me that he had a few debts to clear and he wanted my gold. How could I refuse? I gave everything to him and he went away. I was only worried about what my mother would say if she saw me without my jewellery.

January 14, 1967.

We went to Amma’s house for Sankranthi. Amma gave one horrified look at me and pounced on me at the first available opportunity. ‘Where are your jewels?’ I told her I put them in my trunk and could not find the key this morning. Amma pursed her lips, but said no more. My husband was very nice to everybody and ate well. Ammama had outdone herself. Amma did not speak to my husband at all. Baba laughed a lot. I did not say much. I just wanted to come home as soon as possible and hide myself under the covers.

January 29, 1967.

We went to my brother-in-laws’s house. Everybody looked at me curiously. A new bride is supposed to be decked in ornaments. They stared at my bare neck and arms. I pretended not to care. I volunteered to cook fish for the afternoon meal. They went to the market and bought a huge river fish. I do not like river fish. I think it is too bland. I scaled the fish and pulled out the entrails. I remembered there was an ancient belief of reading fortunes from the entrails of animals. I didn’t know if it was true but I knew if the gall bladder burst, the fish would taste bitter. I pulled out the liver and other organs with surgical precision. I would have made a good doctor. I wanted to. Who cared about what I wanted?  I chopped the fins off, seeing my mutilated dreams in the offal. The fish curry was demolished in a few minutes. I was left with the head and the tail, and a whole lot of praise.

January 30, 1967.

My brother-in-law’s wife decided to show everyone how fish was supposed to be cooked. My husband took one mouthful and made a face. He spat it out into his cupped palm and ate rice with dal. No gravy too. Remember, a surgeon’s skill is required.

December 21, 1967.

It has been a year. People are asking me questions. My husband fusses over every child he sees, pampering it, even the one with a runny nose.

June 22, 1970.

Went to see a doctor today. She pushed and prodded and gave me a list of medicines to take. I don’t like the idea of my mother making vows at every holy shrine she visits and thinks about. I am tired of praying, fasting and all these rituals. 

March 14, 1971.

I am on a roller coaster of pain. I cannot do this. I need to sleep.

March 14, 1971.

It is evening. It is finally done. My youngest sister brought halwa for me. She took one look at everything and fainted. She will never be able to eat halwa all her life.

October 15, 1971.

In a cold city in a cold country surrounded by cold people.

November 19, 1971.

Walked 5 miles. Washed three rounds of clothes.

November 20, 1971.

Walked 5 miles. Washed three rounds of clothes.

November 21, 1971.

Washed five rounds. Baby ill.

November 22, 1971.

Baby ill. Washed six rounds.

November 23, 1971.

Alone with baby. Baby smiled.

November 24, 1971.

Alone. Baby sleeping.

That was the last entry. There was no mention at all of my father or me.

I remember my mother’s silences and my father’s frequent absences. My mother’s perpetual frown and obsession with cleanliness.

Always at the threshold of a family, but never a real family.

Mind you she took good care of me. I never had a runny nose or dirty ears or grubby knees. I never got my share of hugs and kisses either. Baba was there for that.  I never sensed warmth from her. How could I? She was a living corpse.

I looked over at her still sleeping in the sun. I drew the shades and walked away with the notebook, without disturbing her. I tore it into little shreds.

I was glad I read it- how she was deprived of a life, all her life.

At least now I know how she died from the inside.
Deprive

East is East and West is West

Have always been a fan of the movies. Horror movies? Love them. Love the excitement, edge of the seat entertainment and the lengths to which the human mind can take in the excitement of an onslaught from the unknown. The past week, I had the most amazing time, watching two horror movies- The Conjuring-2 and Karrva, the new suspense thriller in Kannada. And there is a very encouraging trend of ‘Horror comedy’ for instance Pee Mak, a Thai movie. Especially popular are South Indian horror comedy movies to which, parents take their children to watch as ‘wholesome’ entertainment. Movies in which the hero is petrified of evil- The Muni trilogy in Tamil- ensures viewers get their money’s worth of laughs and thrills. You do have the over-the-top ‘Scary Movie’ series from Hollywood, but these are spoofs and everybody knows they ridicule popular horror movies.
This set me thinking. The same genre is treated differently all over the world. ‘Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,’ Kipling’s most quoted line has probably never been used in this context before. Well, what do you expect? Expect the unexpected from me!
Let me attempt to compare and contrast the two. There are two diametrical opposite ways in which these movies end. The horror movies of the West end with the ‘Evil’ triumphing over ‘Good’ almost all the time and Indian horror movies generally end with the triumph of ‘Good’ over ‘Evil’.
In Indian movies, the entity is quite choosy about the family background of the victim. The victim must belong to a prosperous household, in fact the more aristocratic, the better. It leads to more opportunity for thrilling manifestations in remote villas, sprawling mansions, albeit neglected. I haven’t watched a movie where the ghost attacks a person who belongs to the working class, leading an ordinary life. The real horrors of life must be too much for an average person to go through, without having to deal with the unknown, from another dimension. The victim is often a woman, young and beautiful, Raghava Laurence being the exception in the Muni Trilogy, which is again ‘Horror-comedy’ and not the ‘real deal’. The Hollywood movies that I’ve watched show no partiality to a certain class. Everybody is a potential victim, a very socialistic point of view, indeed. In fact Evil does not spare the poor and the unhappy. How often has my heart gone out to the afflicted family who has so much on its hands that they cannot even move away, thus facing the horrors every day and night. Single mothers are not spared, nor out of job dads. This highlights the complete helplessness of the family. What would I have done in such a case? Never stepped into that place.I would run and never stop till I was in another city maybe. I admire the dogged determination and courage of the entire family in staying there, despite knowing the presence exists.
In both scenarios people have moved into homes that are the hub of paranormal activity or have foolishly meddled with the peace with certain rituals viewed on YouTube, or even a homemade board game. In the Indian scenario, the peace has been disturbed by messing with with a room that has been shut for centuries, in the attic or the basement. Despite ominous warning from faithful servants, random cats, dogs and even birds, the deed is done and the consequences are very predictable. Common to East and West is the elimination game till the prize is won. And the first victim is the faithful servant or unsuspecting friend. If they survive, the faithful servant becomes the source of the solution. The unsuspecting friend fights a losing battle and is cast aside in the quest of revenge. Ah well, all in the name of sacrifice!
The time of attack is not the same. The West is behind by three hours. In the Indian scenario, midnight, when the clock strikes twelve, is the time when entities are set loose. There is a certain heightened excitement when the clock strikes twelve times in a huge, ancient mansion, followed by the sound of creaking doors. The West believes that three am is the hour. Here three am to six am is considered as the ‘Brahma Muhurtam’ the Creator’s Hour, and this time is supposed to be the optimum for awakening the senses and beginning the day. So if I watch a horror movie and wake up at around midnight, I would have difficulty going back to sleep, but at three am, I would tell myself it’s almost day, better catch up on some sleep before the alarm goes off.
Hollywood horror is fatalistic in the sense that whatever one does, one can never get away from the entity. In fact, Evil is depicted often more powerful than divinity. And that is a scary thought. Good triumphs, but Evil makes a gleeful comeback. Indian movies have their set of naughty spirits but they are all invariably afraid of God. A recitation of the Hanuman Chalisa sends it fleeing for dear life…or dear afterlife! Indian spirits are in awe of the Almighty.
Then why are spirits in existence? According to popular belief, here in India, spirits have unfinished business and roam the earth looking for a solution even from beyond. Like the scenario from the popular movie ‘Ghost’, and in the Kannada movie ‘U-Turn’, the motive for staying back is often revenge. Retribution for being wronged and scores once settled, they pack up and vanish. In fact the Kannada movie ‘U-Turn’ the spirit lays emphasis on the need to have good civic sense and follow traffic rules. Sometimes it is the effect of an ancient curse revived. In almost all movies, divine intervention saves the day. Sometimes, the spirit seeks help from the Almighty, seeks access into the holy sanctum of the temple and the omnipotent and omniscient Lord grants it. After all God protects the innocent and his believers. What horrifies the average cine-goer here about ‘English’ Movies is the total disregard spirits or demons have toward holy symbols. The unbelievable irony that strikes a movie watcher, while viewing Conjuring 2, is that a demon, dressed in a nun’s habit, wreaks havoc on a hapless family. The concerned neighbours pitch in, giving crucifixes, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, so just watch the movie trailer to get an idea of how inadequately unimpressed the evil entity is about it. Oh, the hopelessness of it all.
The atmosphere in an Indian horror movie is loud, with predictable screams punctuating the sound track, loud notes of music, traditional anklet sounds and even a creepy song about the long, relentless pursuit of the living, an angst unaddressed, a desire unfulfilled. In Hollywood movies, the horror just creeps up on you as you unsuspectingly watch while cramming your mouth with buttered popcorn. ‘It’ jolts you out of your complacency. There is no logic. There is no rhyme, no reason why it happens. In fact the victim has done nothing to deserve it. There is no sense of retribution. And that is scary. In Indian movies there is always an explanation. The remedies are the same, predictable rituals, skeptical people are avoided, we get down to the nitty gritty. The hurting spirit is appeased, it gains salvation and bids a cheery goodbye. Hollywood style, no appeasement, apparently, is enough. The entity doesn’t care whether your intentions are honourable in appeasing it or not, you might make it madder with all your efforts. The entity is single-minded in all its efforts, unlike its Indian counterpart who busies itself in a complicated song and dance routine or a throws a few impressive tantrums in the midst of a social setting. Everything ends well in Indian horror movies.
No mindgames. God is all powerful. Hanuman Chalisa, Devi Kavacham, Sai Baba’s Vibhuti, a holy taveez from the Dargah- a powerful talisman, a crucifix, an auspicious lamp, all ward off evil. The face off, the battle is all brought on in full force in the Grand Finale. We return home, with the belief that God is great, takes care of his own, and his flock. Our belief staunch, we rest in the safe arms of our all-pervading divinity, assured of unwavering support.
Do I believe in ghosts? Please don’t ask me that. I do not want to say yes, for I do not want to be a victim like Kate Hudson, in ‘The Skeleton Key’ and I dare not say no, for I do not want proof of their existence either. So, I’m going to give you a wary smile and say, ‘I’m on the fence on that one!’ In the meantime, the photograph of a favourite deity, and a night lamp are enough to assure me a good night’s sleep.

Fence

Atonement?

There was no moon that night. Everybody in the neighbouring households was fast asleep. In the homestead by the river, a woman was being chased, held down and doused with kerosene. She ran out to the backyard to the well and a well-aimed matchstick caught her. She tried to pour water over herself in vain. As the flames licked at her and danced around her, consuming her, she uttered in a piercing shriek, ‘Your daughters shall suffer for all eternity!’ A shiver ran down their spines. Her family, who were the perpetrators, soon forgot her ominous words in the business of waking the neighbours up and legitimizing her death.
Five generations had seen the statement come true in no uncertain terms. There was no escape from the curse. Across the state, country, the seven seas, problems plagued the daughters. It ran the range of domineering, inebriated, weak, dependent, impotent, philandering, obsessive, morose or sober husbands, indifferent or abusive sons, daughters, interfering or passive close family, friends or distant relatives, health issues, strange disorders, financial trouble, infamy, gossip, accidents, uncomfortable coincidences and anything and everything that was intended to harm, disturb or nag.
It was time this legend was put to rest.
In a social setup where the suffering of women was the story of every household, people were inclined to wave all reports away with a practiced hand of derision and condescension. But in this family, when it was observed that all the daughters-in-law were doing well, in fact too well for comfort, but the daughters, in contrast, were descending into unknown and undiscovered depths of misery, there was a family conference and everybody was summoned.
The sons were prepared to ignore the summons, but were persuaded by their wives to attend. What did the wives have to lose? Things were going their way and they could afford to be generous. They had it all: The infinite support of husbands and family, enough money. However, there was a hidden agenda: the pursuit of peace. Unfortunate daughters who were victims in astonishingly diverse ways over the years and a newly wedded daughter already showing symptoms of proving the curse true, gave enough impetus to the need for atonement.
So it was decided after a heated discussion that a special religious ceremony was to be performed at home to ward off the evil effects of the curse and to appease the spirit of the deceased. No amount of expense was to be spared and the daughters and daughters-in-law were given a fairly long list of dos and don’ts to observe at least a month before the great ritual. They agreed to follow every instruction to the t.
A month passed. Everybody descended on the ancestral home in the span of a day. The daughters settled down to a transient phase of relief from everyday trauma and the daughters-in-law got down to the business of being perfect hostesses.
Men were not part of the rituals for it was entirely a womanly affair. It was all about bonding and appeasing the ancient troubled spirit. The ritual was to be held by the well. The same well that was mute witness to the horrendous scene.
Dreams became deeper and darker as the day neared. All dreams invariably ended in an orange glow before the woman woke up in profuse sweat. She shared her dreams with her sister who felt her hair stand on end. The night before, after a prolonged dinner, everybody sat on the terrace and there was silence. Nine women and not a word disturbed the peace. There was turmoil in each heart. They felt numb, too dazed to even believe that things would be set right and too uneasy to hope things would change. Suddenly, one piped up,’ Let us turn in for the night. I can’t wait for the morning to come soon enough.’ Each walked away to her mattress and tossed and turned all night, sleep evading her.
Morning dawned and they got up in relief. Everything was readied for the ritual. The skies were overcast and grey clouds loomed over the horizon. Shivering, the women walked down the slippery steps of the river behind the house into the river. After another ritual of purification by the well, the women sat in a circle around the colorful circle drawn by the priest. The chanting began.
One of them felt a familiar cramp shoot up. Oh no, it wasn’t time. Not yet. She got up hastily with a guilty look. One look at her and the eldest daughter-in –law conveyed the news to the priest who shook his head and stood up as if stung by a scorpion. One began sobbing quietly and another woman laughed hysterically as he hastily departed. The priest refused to accept any payment for his efforts. He did not look at anybody in the eye and did not glance till he reached the riverbank. He quickly emptied the contents of his bag into the river and took a hasty dip. He fasted for the rest of the day, chanted the thousand names of the lotus-eyed Lord a hundred times.
Everybody sat by the well in silence. Then one looked up at the sky and got up. She packed her bag wordlessly and walked away from the household. The others followed. Raindrops fell heavily on the roof and the loud pitter patter woke the daughters-in-law from their immobile state. The business of life had to go on.
What about the sins of the father…?
Needless to say, the curse is still in action, the power still unabated.
Atonement? Not time yet.

Prophecy

Maid my day!

It began like any other day. The alarm rang at five and the snooze button was immediately activated. I got up thirty minutes later and shuffled to the kitchen. I poured boiling hot water into the coffee filter and boiled the milk. The aroma of coffee percolating in the filter penetrated through the fog in my head and I went about the business of making coffee. The first cup of coffee of the day is a ritual. You don’t gulp it down hurriedly. You sip at it delicately. You taste it. You savour it. And then you are ready to take on the day.
The next two hours went by in a fast forward mode.
Having said goodbye to early morning chores, I made my second cup of coffee and settled down on the couch with the newspaper for a good read. When the familiar doorbell did not sound at 9 o’ clock, I wasn’t too worried as Mala had been delayed quite often. I had nothing planned for the day, so I could wait.
An hour later I was not as cool.
I walked into the kitchen to assess the situation. The sink was piled high with dirty dishes, paralleled in intensity only by food scraps decorating the stove. I poured vim into the soap dish and set about my work.
The plates were bone dry and last evening’s dal coated them with a powdery layer. Oil clung on to the vessels and scraps of leftover vegetables were languishing in the plates. I cringed at the thought of Mala facing this mess every morning. How dirty and slovenly did she think we were! My mother’s words kept echoing in my ears. ‘Your maid is not to be treated to unsightly scenes. You have to clean your mess, rinse the vessels clean and then pile it. She must not handle dirty dishes. Treat her as you would a human being-with dignity and respect.’ As the smell of stale and spoilt food scraps assaulted my nostrils, shame overpowered me. I decided to turn over a new leaf. I would give my daughter a piece of my mind as she did not even open her lunch box in the sink. As I snapped it open, a medley of tomatoes and capsicum greeted me, evidently potatoes were the only vegetable my daughter thought edible. A dozen glasses stared up at me as I poured in a lifetime of energy into my work. And the spoons and forks were countless. Pickles, jam, cheese spread, butter were especially interfering and evidently thought too much of themselves, feeling wanted, lingering while not required. And I had been guilty of dumping carelessly, into the sink, the saucepan with tea leaves and rice grains stuck to the bottom of vessels. No wonder Mala took so long at the sink and I would find some particles of food still stuck to vessels and I had been very enthusiastic in pointing out her mistakes.
After forty five minutes of scrubbing and scouring the sink was relieved of its stinking burden and the kitchen counter gleamed. I polished the stove to a mirror and you could eat food off the kitchen counter.
I pottered about the rooms looking for dirty laundry and collected a load. Really it was abominable that my family left dirty clothes in different places, it was like going on a messy treasure hunt. I went through the pockets of trousers and jeans and found money, a half-eaten bar of chocolate, some used tissues, (ewwww) and a pen. As I was about to load the washing machine, the power went off. The ticker tape ran in front of my eyes ‘Power supply will be disrupted from eleven in the morning till five in the evening on Monday in areas of south Bangalore namely…’
To wash or not to wash …that was the question. I wasn’t as indecisive as Hamlet.
Good honest labour, that’s what it was. Collars, sleeves, hemlines scrubbed to glory. The therapeutic effects of kneeling, squatting, bending, stretching were felt as soon as my muscles were surprised to discover their very existence. At least a hundred calories I thought as I wrung the water out of the clothes, flapped them vigorously in the sun and hung them out to dry. I caught sight of my neighbor gaping at me from her window. I waved cheerfully and swapped stories of maid trouble with her.
I made myself a cup of chai. The fragrant brew did much to revive me and I slipped into a self-congratulatory mood. The sunlight streaming in through the window showed me particles of dust dancing. I had to vacuum. The familiar ticker tape ran itself in front of me again. I invaded the broom closet after years. I swept away to my heart’s content. I looked into forgotten spaces, nooks and crannies, coaxed the dust to let go, sometimes coerced it into submission.
I got down on my knees. No, not to pray, but, to scrub the floors. Lugging a huge bucket of soapy suds behind me I worked my way through each room, each moment that passed made me breathless, in a nice way. Not the uneasy breathlessness when you discover you cannot walk up a flight of steps without huffing and puffing. Honest work. Physical labour. Better than any visit to the gym. A sense of pride pervaded my being. It was my house, my floor, my walls, and I felt what God would probably have felt after the task of creation.
Lunch was a simple affair. Rice, sambar and curry. After I ate I washed my plate in the sink. I cleared all the dishes and did the washing up myself. No point in loading up dishes for poor Mala for the next day. If every household she worked in did that she would have a huge backlog of work to clear.
My afternoon siesta was a well-deserved one. My body ached pleasantly and I felt more alive than I had been in years.
When the family came back in the evening they would be in for a pleasant shock. For I was going to keep my list ready.

Spatial Cogitations

She sat at the table and studied the menu. Should she order the staple fish and chips or chicken wings? Or just a cup of hot chocolate. She had walked the three mile length of the boulevard, curiously looking at the brightly lit shops, stopping for a few minutes in front of a window that caught her eye.
If anyone were trailing her, he would notice that the shops with ethnic Indian wear caught her attention the most. She stared at long skirts with intricate embroidery, and when she saw this beautiful beige tunic, she knew she simply had to have it.
She walked into the showroom and picked one her size and shuffled into the changing room to try it on. She took care to blot the lipstick from her lips before she tried it on. She hated the telltale marks of stale lipstick smudged on clothes by careless shoppers. It made her feel she was trying on someone else’s castoffs and she always took care not to do the same. Small courtesies. That was how she always had been. Thoughtful.
She allowed the tunic to slip over her shoulders and fall about her knees, and studied herself critically in the mirror. The harsh lights did not conceal anything. The wrinkles on her face, the telltale lines on her neck, the pores on her skin showed up almost magnified a hundred times over. Really, she mumbled to herself, if people had any sense, they would have soft lighting that hid, concealed and flattered. Who would want to confront telltale signs of aging? …Ten signs of aging? Her jaded mind echoed the impossible promises of a magical rejuvenating potion that was doing its rounds on television.
Age, to her, was just a number. Yes, she was conscientious about the requisite skin care regimen required of her, cleanser, toner, moisturizer- plenty of it, sunscreen, night cream -the whole regimen, but she could not escape the harsh image that looked at her. After all, the store catered to the twenty somethings who with all the assurance of their lack of years and the promise of the good times that lay ahead did not evidently need any camouflage. They revelled in their youth and coming to think of it, she thought she had noticed a couple of teenagers sniggering at her as she ambled into the store. People over the hill never had the right to enter the domain of the young, it seemed. Oh well, what did she care about that? She was here to splurge and she focused on her image, this time looking for ways the outfit flattered her. Hmmm. Better. Actually, good.
She pulled the tunic over her head and decided she would keep it. She buttoned her shirt, adjusted the collar, applied a fresh dab of lipstick, ran a comb through her hair and walked to the counter, with her new dress. The deed was done. She had a tunic she did not need, she was not welcome in a store, subtly almost debarred from entry because she was too old. Not that she was dressed in a saree or a salwar kameez, God forbid, the attire the younger crowd considered so very gauche. She was in jeans and a shirt, the uniform of all ‘evolved’ urban women. She knew it did nothing to flatter her. She looked best in sarees, but in this day and time, nobody, she knew, draped them and she wanted to do her best to conform and fit in.
She had always wanted to fit in, always do the right thing. Not any more she decided. That was a thing of the past. God, she cringed at how stupid she had been. She shook herself, willed herself not to continue that train of thought and trudged along the road, the trees shielding her from the sun.
Thank God, Bangalore still had trees, despite all the ‘Metro’ work that had made the roads a little more chaotic. She crossed many signals and the welcome sign of ‘Bistro’ caught her eye. She walked in, and stood by the rack, admiring the range of pastries that were on display. She ordered a croissant and a red velvet cupcake and sat at the window, facing the road. Traffic was picking up and there was a steady stream of young people making a beeline to the pub next door.
The waiter brought her croissant and she ordered coffee to go with it. She bit into the croissant that was buttery and flaky, just the way it should be. She recalled the time, she would accompany her husband on his business trips and the business boutique hotels they had stayed at, always offered a huge spread of breakfast. She had been excited to try croissants then and was disappointed that they seemed rather ordinary, almost like chewy layered bread. This croissant was straight from a French boulangerie. Or so she thought, it would define her standard in all croissants, till she encountered something better.
She sipped at her coffee grimacing at the bitter flavour and asked for some water. She had read in some magazine, her husband had brought from his innumerable trips, that coffee was extremely dehydrating, so she had intermittent mouthfuls of water and then lingered over her cupcake, for she wanted to end her treat with something sweet.
She was glad people were not staring at her as they had done in the past, a few years ago, when she had begun going out on her own. Taking herself out to dinner, or to tea was becoming a regular weekly ritual. At first the waiter would ask, ‘Is madam waiting for someone?’ She would smile sweetly, bat her eyelids, and say no. Sometimes she would snap, and rudely place her order. Why was it necessary to have a companion, for heaven’s sake? Every relationship was different, it took all kinds of people to make the world. So what if she wanted to watch a movie, it wasn’t mandatory to drag someone else along. Thank God, things were changing now, a single woman on her own was not considered, soliciting company. Even if she were, it was nobody’s business, she thought to herself.
She had stopped accompanying her husband on his work-related travel, since there was nothing for her to do then, staying in hotel rooms and cities did not give her the kind of magic that for instance, Tokyo had done, to a neglected wife in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’. She felt ruefully, if any movie could define her life, it would be ‘Lost in Translation’ albeit without the charms of Bob Harris. Well, she was no Charlotte either!
So, she had stopped and he didn’t seem to mind. Driven by work and other associated thoughts, he hardly seemed to notice her absence or presence. Alone in an empty house. Blessed, blessed feeling. She loved to have the house to herself. The welcome peace, the non-adherence to time schedules, not cooking a meal, making do with toast and tea, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No fighting for the remote. Sleeping in, reading, she absolutely loved the reading. She would stay home for days without stepping out, sometimes ordering food from the local eatery.
When the boredom and sameness of her mundane existence got to her, she would pull on a pair of jeans, a cotton shirt and go out. Random treks in the neighbourhood. Or expeditions to the shopping district or the local mall. She could spend an entire day at the mall. She recalled a Woody Allen Bette Midler movie- Scenes from a Mall, released way back in the early nineties, and marvelled at how people lounged about idly, leading a life of leisure, following the impulses of the heart, being spontaneous. She recalled how she had watched, fascinated, as the lead actors moved up and down escalators, and wondered at the sheer drama of their lives. She did not grudge them that for she had had enough drama to last her a lifetime. That brought her back to reality.
The friendly waiter was hovering, and wanted to know if madam had enjoyed her coffee. She left him a generous tip and walked all the way to the Metro station where she had to wait for just three minutes before she boarded the metro that would take her home in precisely nineteen minutes minus the ten minute walk home, from the station.
As she sat in the silence, for it was a Sunday and there were hardly any people, she thought that all she needed now was her space and her time to be hers. Providentially, it worked. She had all the time in the world, and she was free. She wasn’t interested in forging new relationships or renewing the old. What mattered was her time. Age was certainly catching up and she had no more time for niceties, and small talk. She walked away when conversations meandered, or took on spiteful undertones. Intolerance? Maybe. She didn’t care anymore. She needed nobody. She was complete, all by herself.
People pitied her for what they believed- she was afflicted by the ‘empty nest syndrome.’ But she thought it was a blessing. Her home reflected the condition of her mind- empty of sorrow, anxiety, eagerness to please and the need for acceptance. She didn’t understand why people needed to fill every moment with so much activity. It was much more peaceful to simply be, just exist. When she knew what she wanted, lived her life on her own terms, it wasn’t necessary to be in search of that elusive companion- a husband, a child, a friend or an acquaintance almost paled into insignificance.
Of course the downside was that people told her she led such an empty life. She was warned she might be alone when she died. Her husband would probably be touring the land, her friends might not look in for days and her children would be too busy to bother about her. However, all she knew was that she couldn’t control the way she died. She could at least choose how to live, popular opinion be damned. After all, the idea of ‘empty’ was all about the perception.
So what if she died alone. She never needed any companion but silence. Never would. And death would certainly give her that. Till then, she would revel in empty spaces and be free.

Empty

The Twilight Years

Smiling, nodding cheerfully,
Waving at all who
Look my way
Unintentionally.

They wince,
Avert their eyes,
And continue hastily away.

I pay them no heed
A habit of a lifetime.
Being sidelined-
so very familiar.

Still young enough to go on with my day
Without help.
Pottering about my little space
I keep busy.

Strident tones-
I look up
Catch myself in the window
My reflection glowers back.

I look,
Look long and hard
Finally seeing
what the world sees.

Greying hair,
lines etched freely,
gnarled hands, knobby fingers
tired, so tired.

I look away
And try
to catch my reflection
by surprise
Again.

It is the face of my mother
and
my grandmother staring back
at me.

Strange…
I don’t feel a year over twenty.

an indian summer

heat and dust, cracked feet, prickly heat,
sweat – fine sheen to rivulets
keeping inner rooms dark,
frequent baths
endless mugs of water
on the floor
rising in vapours
fans moving drowsily
power cuts
mosquitoes
red hot chillies and mustard
wedded in pickles and oil
buttermilk, curd and lemonade
dispensed generously
luscious ripe mangoes
evidence dribbling down the chin
pastels white chemises and sultry heat
holidays
wearing silks to weddings
hastily changing into cool cottons
drinking iced water by the gallon
days spent under the forbidden sun
cool evenings
laced with heat
rising from the wet earth
ushering the traditional new year
with the tart taste of green mango
summer’s here
shed your inhibitions
reinvent yourself.

Summer