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

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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

Celebrating Leisure- A tribute to W. H. Davies from a laidback Bangalorean.

 

‘What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?—’

 

The sweeper raised clouds of dust as she vigorously helped the dust resettle evenly on every object that was left out in the open. A very well-fed and contended dog, lay on the stones that lined the pavement, indolently thumping its tail at the passersby. It is my infallible observation that dogs that live in the vicinity of eateries, especially bakeries, find it difficult to retain their svelte, lean, mean and hungry look.

There, my guess was right.  An ‘Iyengar’ bakery, shutters still halfway up, was a hub of activity with the aroma of fresh baked bread, and puffs – vegetable, potato and eggs, no meat, for this was a vegetarian eatery, the only concession was for the eggs that had the yolk, grey- blue in colour…very often likened to the moon, ‘Chandamama’ –‘moon uncle’ to be precise. It gave children a vicarious thrill to imagine that they were eating a piece of the moon. Yolk cooked yellow was unheard of, unseen even. The bluer the yolk, the greater its appeal.

Before television, and more importantly, satellite television held sway over people’s lives and stunted their imagination, babies and toddlers were fed their evening meal on the streets, or on the balconies, with constant prattle from the mother to ensure the little one ate its fill. Often tales of ‘Chandamama’, made the unsuspecting toddler gaze at the mysterious moon and before he knew it, a mouthful of rice, ghee-clarified butter and lentils would be swallowed. Curd rice would follow next and the squirming little bundle of energy would wriggle out of the mother’s arms to play with the older children.

The days of blue-grey centred eggs are certainly over, with Masterchef Australia being watched in every household, giving the local soaps a run for their money. Gourmet demands notwithstanding, local eateries have not succumbed to the pressure of the discerning Bangalorean. The yolk has the blues and refuses to sun itself. No sunny disposition for our eggs, no siree!

Outside the bakery, the dog was generally fed a staple of stale bread, cake and puffs from the bakery that were left unsold, and was quite content with its life and indifferent to the unwanted attention of children. Very often, a low growl would suffice to make the children run away to the safety of the concrete seat built in front of the house. Too lazy to bark at any new canine entrant, the rotund animal seemed to shrug, as it yawned, as if to say- Oh well, food was plenteous, more than it ever needed. Very well-behaved, it seldom rushed at food placed for it on the ledge, but ambled, gave a perfunctory sniff, before settling down to its meal. Yes, it was vegetarian, never gnawed on a bone in all its life. Wouldn’t start even if it were offered one. Got too used to the good life. Leave all the action to the ones that thrived on it. Peace was what this evolved soul craved.

The shops were all shut. Nobody stirred till eleven in the morning. Only the darshinis, delightful little places that served local versions of ‘fast food’ and bakeries were open, to cater to the needs of the hungry, in the morning.

Morning walkers, dressed nattily in track pants and t-shirts waited in long queues for breakfast, after the exertions of their exercise. ‘Walking’ as they call it, is rarely brisk, it affords a good opportunity for them to catch up on gossip and to get away from nagging wives, husbands and children. ‘Walking’ involves forming a huge gang and walking across the breadth of the path-in the park, even on the road and create an interesting hurdle to the serious ‘fitness’ enthusiast. It involves talking at the top of your voice making everyone aware of what your take on politics, religion, sports or even films is.

After the successful burning of a hundred calories, our walkers stand in queue to get into the mecca of all dosa joints. Dosas- delicious melt-in-your-mouth, savoury, buttery Indian crepes, served with a spicy potato filling and chutney, satisfying the cravings of enthusiasts on the main road, eager to compensate for the loss of a hundred odd calories with another four hundred. There is no guilt in tucking in. After all, we go ‘walking’ every day.

The beauty of these Bangalore mornings is that nobody is in a hurry to go anywhere. Concrete benches around trees are the favourite haunt of retired men who gather around and discuss pension woes and latest government policy. Women gather around vegetable vendors, looking adorable, dressed in sarees and wearing ‘walking shoes’.

To the harried office-goer, all this inactivity seems rather aimless, but in a world gone mad, in a flurry of activity, this is a sign that sanity reigns. The world need not always move in fast forward mode.

When you get a chance, and traffic forces you to stop, open your eyes to the world outside, take in the colours around, breathe in the air redolent with the fragrance of fresh flowers, and aroma of coffee. Thank the cow that stood there holding up traffic.  I know I did.

Put your smartphone away-

-‘And stare as long as sheep and cows:’

You will thank me and the cow, for you need a well-deserved break.

Believe me, you do.

‘A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.’

P.S. Never mind the fluctuating tenses in the syntax. Nothing really matters. Get my drift?

Aimless

diurnal erosions

standing taut

radiance emanating from within

the day seems mine.

Jasvinder

Thank you for sharing this beautiful picture, Jasvinder! This poem is for you.

 

meanwhile

insidious gnawing at the roots

digging deeper, anchoring,

finding cool moist earth

as welcome as the womb

holding on, settling in.

 

staring up at the relentless sun

bringing forth yet another day

i take up the challenge

of daring to live, being different,

come what may.

 

fighting inherent instinct to hide

trying hard to burrow deep,

my defiant core opens up

probed by inquisitive rays.

 

the price i pay

for a life in the sun

onslaught from the ordinary

warped and twisted to what is not.

 

the day bears witness to steady violation

welcome darkness comes

healing welts and

scabs

offering solace

silently cover my quivering offering

now sensitive and flinching

withering

with every prying eye scathing look abrasive tongue probing tentacle.

 

bracing myself against yet another day

temporary darkness shields me.

 

i heal a little less every day,

remain a little less alive

waking to the erosions of another day.

yet another day.

My Father -who art in Heaven?

There are no stereotypes, but those of our making.

No relationships, but those that thrive by our definition.

Many things accepted as right, the way they should be.

My world, not etched in convention, is made brighter despite it all.

Roles had never been defined, are still not defined, and in all probability, shall never be defined.

 

My father was human, with all the follies and foibles of humanity.

All around me, perfect fathers taught their children how to live;

while I learned how not to, from his imperfections.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I know he tried.

He was there, holding my hand while I was taking baby steps.

He helped me quench my thirst for knowledge.

Put me in the best of schools and colleges.

Got me books, even on a meagre income.

Laughed with me, cried with me, and sang songs to me.

Was generous to a fault.

 

The world got to him.

Hook, line and sinker.

 

People.

He was susceptible to people.

Their opinion mattered.

People were his strength and his terrible weakness.

He was eager to please, the world mattered. The more the world used him, the more he tried to appease it. He gave away time and money recklessly. Those who were in dire straits knew whom to approach.

We, at home, were left with nothing.

 

Adulation from the world doesn’t last long. People have incredibly short memories and my father succumbed.

To betrayal, and the injustice of it all.

A broken man, he lacked the strength to rebuild his life.

He gave up.

He wallowed in misery.

We had no choice. We were there for him. But, we were not enough.

He wanted the world.

 

Capricious world! It was not meant to be.

Sinking into the depths of depravity, he taught me how not to be.

Not to let things matter too much.

To allow myself no illusions.

To be grounded in reality.

 

He would quote from Bunyan- ‘He that is down need fear no fall; he that is low, no pride;’

I was a good student. I learned quickly and never forgot.

 

Somewhere along my journey, in college, I read Kipling’s ‘If’.

Every word resonated within.

It was me.

It could completely be me.

I made a conscious choice.

I would be happy, no matter what.

When things threatened to overwhelm, I pushed them back.

What I could deal with, I took care of,

What I couldn’t I stopped thinking about.

I laughed a little more,

Reached out a lot more,

Pushed more than was possible

And when clouds loomed large,

I shut my eyes and waited for the storm to pass.

I learned to accept what was inevitable.

I changed what I could and left the rest to God.

 

Even from the depths of his hell,

He managed a few coherent words,

That stay with me even now.

‘It is better to go through terrible things than have terrible things said about you.’ He mumbled.

I shook my head, didn’t have the heart to tell him, ‘Things will be said, terrible or otherwise.’

 

Towards the end, he seemed to forget everything.

A glimmer of recognition flickered in his eyes when he looked at me and my daughter.

He smiled, a toothless grin of regret, I thought.

Tired, he closed his eyes.

My mother whispered, ‘The end is near.’

 

I could not stay there and wait for it to happen. Did not want to linger when the soul was about to embark on its journey.

I walked. The sunshine beat on my head. Everything looked greener than before.

It was over by the time I returned.

 

He had always said, ‘Bitiya, you have to light my funeral pyre.’ I declared, ‘Baba, I promise.’

The last journey was quiet.

He lay there, as if he were sleeping.

A smile on his lips, his palm still warm.

The trolley grated into the incinerator.

The iron doors thudded shut.

I held the lever

And pulled.

It was the end.

Of a dream unfulfilled.

 

I never stopped searching for my father.

I see him now, in my daughter, as she drives her car, completely in control.

The same smooth manoeuvring, effortless shifting of gears,

The same assured self-confidence-

Before he gave up.

 

I see him in myself-

My love of books, reading, travelling and writing

Mirrors his tastes till a point,

when just this wasn’t enough to satisfy his soul.

 

I see him in the stray dog that occasionally visits us for biscuits and milk,

Lays there patiently, expecting milk first and then biscuits,

Fastidious, never changing the order, never condescending to feast,

Till the door is shut.

 

I feel him in Kabir’s dohas, that he loved to quote,

Hear his voice in the ghazals that sing of unrequited love.

 

I see him in any thin, gaunt, emaciated person,

With a shock of silver grey hair, and skin- the colour of bitter burnt caramel.

 

My heart leaps at the sight of a beggar by the temple-

Hungry for love.

 

He bears an uncanny resemblance to a saint who sits pensive by the ever-burning fire,

Whose portrait by the threshold of my home wards off all danger-

I worship him.

 

My father deserves an epitaph that he always quoted from R.L. Stevenson-

“Here he lies where he longed to be, Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”

 

My Father…In heaven?

No.

Here.

With me.

At Home.

 

 

 
Perfection

 

 

 

The Matriarch

Hema’s feet swelled up a lot these days, like hot pooris. The doctors told her she needed to drink more water but she could not manage more than a few sips. A habit of a lifetime. Don’t drink too much water. You don’t have to visit public toilets. Not in the condition they had been, anyway. Holding it in was better. You always paid a price for holding it all in. In her case a dysfunctional bladder and tired kidneys.

There was a familiar banging of pots and pans from the kitchen. ‘Maadevi, you are late today!’ she called out and an insolent grunt was all she heard. Maadevi was scrubbing hard, at the sink. ‘How many times have I told you not to leave the water running?’ Maadevi’s song could now be heard as the waterfall over the mountains of vessels was temporarily turned off. A ridiculous song about a milkmaid being waylaid by an amorous lad. The audacity of it all! Would the help have behaved this way, even a few years ago? People certainly spoke their mind these day. Bristling at Maadevi’s arrogance, Hema hobbled to the fridge and pulled out a couple of packets of vegetables. The greengrocer had sent her a lot of mint, so she decided she could make mint chutney for lunch. She decided on dal tadka, tempered lentils, that would go well with her potol and potato fry. The others could have mutton curry.

The cooker was making insistent noises on the stove. Karuna descended from her boudoir upstairs, completely unapologetic about the time. She made herself a cup of tea, without offering Hema any, and helped herself to breakfast. Glaring at a blithely indifferent Karuna, who was tucking into the still warm khichdi, Hema felt like throwing a knife at her.

‘Shameless,’ thought Hema.  Hema’s voice went up a notch. ‘Maadevi, stop singing that abominable song! This is a respectable household. And come early from tomorrow. Things need to be done at the right time.’

The song was now about the travails of a young bride. Really, there was no respite from Maadevi’s musical battering of her senses!

‘Where is he?’

‘Still dusting the furniture.’

What was wrong with the world these days? Men doing house work? Such a far cry from her days.

She looked at her father who lay sunning himself, rendered immobile after a stroke. Now he had known how to be a man. Though he stopped talking to her, and avoided her like the plague after she had come to live in his home, with her little girl, after being widowed, he still commanded respect.  She had accepted his treatment of her then, but the bitterness and chagrin continued to nest in her. She could neither forgive nor forget. Now, though he lay on the bed, in the verandah, a ‘zinda laash’ – a living corpse- his mind was still sharp.  She deliberately walked in front of him these days, fully aware that his eyes followed her mutely. She made it a point to look at him with impudence, knowing fully well that he did not even like having her in the same room. He would throw a fit if she appeared in front of him.

If he could.

Her mother, Annapurna, spent the better part of her day tending to his every need, totally in his power though he couldn’t say a word. Hema approved. The reins of the household now belonged to her.

Annapurna had helped Hema all she could. She still remembered the day when she was sent back after her husband died, Annapurna was the only one who had held her and comforted her. Soon after the mandatory period of mourning, she made her daughter take up tailoring classes and insisted she get a diploma. Her father had been all for sealing her fate as unpaid domestic help, to be relegated to dark corners when required. Which father behaved this way? In an imperfect world, evidently.

Annapurna gave her packed lunches surreptitiously and paid her fees on the sly. Hema still remembered her abject humiliation when she had to fend off unwanted advances from men who thought she was easy game. She had fought back angry tears, back home, and told Annapurna she wanted to give up, stay at home. Her mother had hissed at her, eyes flashing angrily, saying, ‘You need to be independent. People are going to walk all over you otherwise. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get a grip!’ Strange words from her mother-a woman who was an eternally devoted slave to her husband.

Anyway, Hema managed to land a job at the municipal office after all the struggle. She fit in, with her austere dress and sober manners. She had a good permanent income and suddenly she did not feel all that useless or helpless. No, her status as a widow with all its perks did not change, but she was treated as a woman of power, whose opinion mattered, because she was earning. Or so she thought.

Her daughter, Swarna, was now ready to be married. Hema took on herself, the entire responsibility of her dowry, trousseau and the wedding arrangements. Her brother was relieved that he did not have to fight the formidable Karuna to help Swarna get married.

Hema took care of everything. Furniture, wardrobe and their groceries, even after the wedding, nothing was too expensive for Swarna’s wishes. Hema did nothing for herself, it was all for her beloved daughter. In a way, remarked Karuna rather maliciously, Hema was living her life through her daughter. Hema bristled at the thinly-veiled implication. Was nothing sacred anymore? Sacrosanct?

Karuna seethed with anger whenever Hema got some gold ornaments made for Swarna every Diwali. After one extravagant gift of six gold bangles, Karuna could not help saying, ‘Some people have all the luck. We offer support to the destitute, a roof over the head, but the gifts go elsewhere.’  Hema did not eat for two days after that. She sat on the bench in front of the house and enlightened every passer by the treatment meted out to her. People flocked to her as she circulated the juicy details of Karuna’s personal life. Really that woman had a voracious appetite, tiring out her husband… Her gold was all impure… She stood on six inch heels under her sari to create the illusion of height…she wore three petticoats under her sari…she was all skin and bones…she grudged her only niece’s happiness…and she treated a ‘beybass, laachaar vidhwaa’- a poor old widow- most abominably….she did not allow her to eat more than once a day…she was eyeing her money…she made her mother-in-law wash her clothes…she made her husband clean the house… on and on and on.

Karuna’s cheeks burned as the news travelled to her. She hastily made amends by buying Swarna a yellow and red benarasi saree and Hema a cream creation. Hema stopped her tirade, but the damage was already done. Karuna could scarcely hold her head high in public and Hema retained her unassailable position as the undisputed queen of the household.

Karuna never forgave her for that and did her best, at every given opportunity, to remind Hema of her inadequate status. She defied her at every given opportunity. No, not directly, but insidiously, in ways that got under her skin. Flaunting her husband, her children, talking about them with Swarna, deliberately leaving Hema out of it all. Swarna was unaware of the undercurrents and laughed openly with Karuna. Karuna took her out shopping, got her chaat at Mangalbhai’s shop and soon Karuna and Swarna were as thick as thieves. Hema watched balefully as Karuna played this game openly, without holding back.

Swarna continued to be loving to her mother, but obviously preferred the flamboyant and cheerful company of Karuna.  Swarna never asked Hema to visit. Her parents-in-law would not approve.  Karuna and her family, however, made frequent visits to Swarna, bearing gifts each time. They refused all hospitality, saying ‘Beti ke ghar mein, hum paani bhi nahin peetay.’  -We do not even accept water from a married daughter-, implying that once a daughter is married off, no claim could ever be made on her time or money.

Hema could have visited, albeit shamelessly, in the eyes of society, but she was too proud. She wanted an invitation, an informal one at least. But who would invite her? All occasions that were auspicious did not acknowledge her presence and there were no other. Hema pretended not to care, but care she did. Deeply. Swarna drifted away from her. She did not need Hema as she had done earlier. The wedge had been driven into the mother-daughter relationship.

Karuna had blood on her hands.

Maadevi’s grumbling brought her back to the present. There was a heap of clothes to wash and Maadevi was saying she wanted a day off, all the while scrubbing away at the hemline of a petticoat. Hema reluctantly agreed, knowing festivals were very important to Maadevi and her clan. Everybody had a life. She had tried to buy Maadevi’s affection by sharing her meals with her, not leftovers but ladlefuls of dal and spoonfuls of curry before she, herself, even had her lunch. Hema also gave her the dishes the privileged Karuna and family would have, for she, herself, was not entitled to meat dishes. Nothing impressed Maadevi. She knew exactly why Hema was showering her with unsolicited help. She grew more impertinent with time.

Festivals especially made her feel lonely. Karuna would flaunt her married status by donning the brightest saris and colours that reflected the gemstone encrusted jewellery. Matching glass bangles occupied a place of pride on her dresser. The sindoor seemed to be laid on thicker than ever. Hema felt a mixture of sorrow and resentment, but knew she could not gain the upper hand about this. She was a widow and there was nothing that she could do about it. She could rule the roost but she would be reminded constantly that she was not one of them. She would never belong. And now she was a widow- a victim of malevolent stars, afflicted with a body that was slowing her down. She needed to rest, put her feet up and let it all go. Let go completely. And then what? Be at Karuna’s mercy? She would rather die.

Hema walked to her wardrobe and took out from its innermost recesses, the sari, her husband had given her just before the accident, the green and yellow silk that she had never worn,  could not ever wear.  It was destined not even to be unfolded. It smelt musty, just like her. Age was certainly catching up. The disrespect she had to put up with, the assaults on her sanity, when would it ever end? She knew she would give anything to get back all she had lost, but no one could turn back time.

She boiled some water on the stove and filled a tub with cold water. She poured the hot water into it, tested the temperature and added salt. She sat there looking out of the window, her feet soaking in the water. She heard Karuna serving food to her family and random words drifted her way. She heard joyous laughter sporadically.

Bitter acceptance seeped into her. She knew she had be this scheming, practical person, controlling all around her till one day she had to let go.

Till then she would continue to stifle and be stifled in return.

But now she had scores to settle.