Friday, May 11, 2007

Na jaane kahan kahan se ....

I was going through Manishbhai's blog and i read the post "Mee Punekar, Rest (Ko) Baharkar", the comments it has received and the responses that Manishbhai gave. I have also been subject to Manishbhai's criticism of slotting North Indians and considering UP/ Bihar has twins etc. etc. I respect his point view and also understand that for somone hailing from the North Indian states, it must be irritating to be constantly considered a level below when it comes to culture, discipline and law abidence just because they live in the North.

In this post I am not going to give my opinion on this subject as I do not consider my view broad enough to emcompass the plethora of issues and opinions involved in this sensitive subject. Another reason why I refrain from giving my opinion and also sometimes stop other people from doing so is that most opinions are more often then not based on personal experiences and anecdotal information. One more reason and a dangerous one is brainwashing that we receive from people around us. Our parents, elders, friends whom are the opinion makers in our life influence us and till the time we have our own experiences we assume theirs as ours.

Giving you an example of how our opinions get etched in stone out of personal experiences is my own dislike for Delhi because I got severely eve-teased on one of my trips there. Since then I feel uncomfortable with the attitude of men there. This is a biased opinion and definately based on personal experience. There is no reason for me to dislike an entire city and all the people in it just because the "nazar" of those men is wierd. Fact remains, men are men everywhere and its not that I don't get felt up in Mumbai but still I refuse to change my opinion of Delhi. Though I have Delhites as friends, I still don't like that city. You will call me unfair and I accept it but then maybe so are you if you have certain generalisations which are based merely on things that have happened to you.

Such incidents and experiences happen every day to us and instead of considering them exceptions to the rule we tend to believe them to be the rules. Just yesterday I faced a similar
situation. I took a cab from Grant Road station to my office just like every other day but on my way I encountered a traffic jam. The cab driver, a youngish guy, had to manouver around a huge truck which was blocking the already crowded lane.

Cabs ahead of us managed to squeeze through the small gap that was available beside the truck, and since my cab was exactly behind the truck, the cabbie had to swerve a bit to get through and inadvertently hit a bike parked on the side of the road. The bike's owner suddenly exploded into wild abuses.

The words were distinctly Marathi and horridly dirty with mother and sister sprinkled all over. The jist of what the man said was, "Don't you know how to drive, you @#$##%^, na jaane kahan kahan se aa jaate hai, saala #$^!@#&^, go back to where you came from, @#$%&#* !#%Q@#$^ @!#!^#$^!!^#$ .... and so on.

My cabbie took it very calmly and said, "Maaf karna boss. Galti se lag gaya. Thoda sa bike hatai lo toh nikal jayenge hum." His accent was obviously North Indian (sorry Manishbhai for slotting but thats how it sounded)

That angered the man even more. He stood in front of the cab and yelled even more in sickening language. Some people started to gather. I looked out of the window hoping the man might calm down if he saw a woman in the cab but no, the guy was still going on. Firstly he had parked in a no parking zone and upar se there wasn't even a scratch on his bike.

The cabbie looked at me puzzled. But he was a man after all and was obviously angered at the abuses. I decided to get off there to save him the trouble so that he could just take a turn from there and get away. Though before I left I wanted to do just one thing.

I walked to the yelling man and said in Marathi, "Bas boss. abhi jaane do."

"Arre madam aap in logon ko nahi jaanti. Na jaane kahan se aa gaya hai." He replied, calmer but his eyes were burning still with some wierd anger.

"Boss, uska toh pata nahi par aapki bhasha se pata chal jaata hi ki aap kahan se aaye ho." I replied quietly in his language, "Abhi ho gaya ho toh jaane do humko."

Thank God there was some shame left in the man and he moved aside, I started walking and the cabbie instead of turning and going away, overtook me and indicated me to get back in. He dropped me at my desitnation without a word and as I exited the cab he said, "Thank you madam." I like to believe that the Thank you was not just for paying him the fare.

Now this incident will influence my opinion either strengthen it or break it but I cannot by any stretch of imagination consider all North Indian cabbies as good and all Marathi manus as bad. I am not saying that we are not entitled to our opinions, we are definately. Freedom of thought and freedom of opinion are our rights in a democracy but there is also a duty attached to it, a duty to keep an open mind and an open heart. Neither let our opinions influence our actions in a negative manner nor let popular opinions govern us.

We have the right and the duty to decide how to react to a situation but remember that our reaction will build some else's opinion. We have the power to be positive and build a nation that is powerful not because of its military power but because of the power of unified people.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This time of the year

Those of you have been regular here know that I have to do the vanishing act at this time of the year due to the deadline of financial year end, March 31.

I won't be adding anything new out here till mid-April or so because firstly March is already a month with double the work than normal, secondly my accountant wants to take a holiday in mid-April and thirdly the statutory auditors are coming in from next week. In short, I am in for a royal mess.

The second story of the Mumbai Trilogy is fresh in the mind and I manage to write a para or two beech beech mein but I don't think I can complete it soon. So, will see you all sometime, if I survive this March 31 and its after shocks.

P.S. Thank you all for the encouragement to my first story. Hope to keep at it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Spirit of Mumbai

Shruti liked to be on time for her 9:16 Churchgate slow train because the 40 minute journey from Andheri to Chruchgate is tedious and tiring, to say the least, and more so if you have to stand in midst of a crowd. So she would leave home keeping a few minutes to spare and wait at the platform. She was still young enough to jump into a moving train and secure a comfortable window seat. It was her routine and her other regular friends grudgingly let her take the best seat everyday because she was the quickest and the most agile.

Shruti believed that mornings in Mumbai make you realize the importance of minutes. minutes late in leaving home means you miss a train and land up 10 minutes late at office. That’s why people swear by their “7:48s” and “8:16s”– a reason why Mumbaikars walk, talk, eat, speak and breathe at a supersonic speed. And that’s why the city pulsates with motion every hour of the day or night. Once in a while it withdraws a step or two; it did a few days ago on July 11 due to the bomb blasts but then it bounces back. Call it desperation, or a no-choice existence, but nothing can really defeat the dynamic, never say die, spirit of Mumbai – a cliché but nevertheless absolutely true.

But today, contrary to her usual habit, Shruti was late. It was happening too frequently for her comfort, mainly because of her mother-in-law - Mummyji as she called her. She had come to stay with her from Indore and being a woman cocooned in a small town all her life, she just didn’t understand the ways of Mumbai, in spite of numerous patient explanations by both Shruti and her husband Adit.

“Will you just wash the bathroom sink and the shelves before you leave today?” Mummyji had said when Shruti was going for her shower. Shruti hated these sweetly uttered disguised orders which if she did not obey, the old lady would sulk and pout and ridiculously complain to her son how wrong his choice is.

“I am already a bit late, I’ll do it over the weekend.” Shruti muttered weakly, knowing fully well that the weekend would pass in myriad other left over chores; vacuuming the carpet, cleaning the refrigerator, the selling of the piling raddi which Mummyji had already reminded her of more than once. Shruti wished her bai would return soon from the holiday so that some of her burden could be shared.

Adit was standing near the door waiting for the elevator, about to leave. His mother always made sure that her son left comfortably in time. He noticed Shruti’s angry expression and looked at her, his eyes conveying a mixture of apology and request. To his mother he said, “We do all that over weekends Mummy, that’s how it works in Mumbai.”

“A woman’s priority should be her home, you should be ok reaching office late but keeping the house clean is your duty,” preached Mummyji and Shruti lost it completely. She wanted to yell back that if cleaning the bathroom sink would fetch her 50K per month she would gladly make that a priority but she controlled herself. Just then the elevator opened at the floor and Adit left shaking his head in frustration but he also let it be. There was no time for arguments.

Shruti did a half-hearted job of the instructed chores but in her rush, spilled shampoo all over, dropped the towel on the wet floor and on top of it the water stopped right in the middle of her hair wash.

As she stepped out of the shower she was in the foulest of moods and certain that she would miss her regular train. Without further interaction with Mummyji she got ready and rushed out of the house grabbing her handbag and laptop. Usually she took a bus to the station which was more or less the same one everyday. Since it came from Lokhandwala it was always less crowded because the public there weren’t the types to travel in BEST. But today she missed it too. Again, in the matter of minutes.

The bus that came was burdened with a crowd and several men hung at the door. With a yell of, “Jaagah dya jaagah dya,” she managed a foothold and shoved in clutching her handbag and laptop to her chest. Surrounded by men, she hated the short ride to the station.

It was too crowded to pin the blame on any one of them but she strongly suspected being felt up by someone. So she shifted, stepped on a couple of toes and elbowed innocent, unsuspecting people but somehow the perverse hand found its way again to her waist and stayed there. She couldn’t inch away anymore and as both her hands were full she suffered.

Thankfully the stop arrived soon but by the time she got off the bus she would have happily strangled the man who had felt her up only if she were able to identify who it was. It wasn’t really being felt up that was humiliating; it was the helplessness and inability to stop or even avenge it that took her goat.

She walked to the station at olympic speed, fueled more by anger than anything else, hoping her train would still be on the platform. Surprisingly there was a train but she soon realized it was the 9:23 one and even that was ready to leave. As the driver honked twice Shruti ran as fast as she could. She cursed the laptop and vowed to never bring it home again.

She made it into the compartment panting. All seats were taken, so she placed the laptop on the overhead rack and stood near the door, finally relaxing for the first time that morning.

The train had already started by then.

"Excuse me," a voice called but Shruti did not pay attention. The words were repeated. She looked at the direction of the voice wondering who it was.

"Is this bag yours?" The question was addressed to her and it came from a young lady : the typical suburban Mumbai everyday first-class commuter complete with an ipod and a book to pass the totally inactive one hour in the train. She was pointing towards the laptop above.

"Yes," Shruti replied.

"Can you come and sit here?" she indicated to a seat next to hers.

"Ummm why?" Shruti asked, a bit taken aback. Nobody in Mumbai tells others what to do, no one bothers really and never in the first class.

"Please sit here," the woman repeated.

"No, I can't sit inside. It’s too hot. I am ok here," Shruti replied, almost rudely. The morning’s anger was resurfacing and she felt her day was becoming worse by the minute.

"If you don't sit here, I will pull the chain." The woman said, her voice trembled a bit and it was rising to a nervous pitch.

"Arre, for what joy?" Shruti’s voice was mocking. She noticed the women around her looking up in alarm to see what was happening but no one intervened.

"What if you leave the bag and get off somewhere?" the woman almost shouted.

"I would loose my job if I leave it here and get off." Shruti replied and went towards the seats. Her temper was flaring again. She couldn’t possibly take one more altercation without blowing her top.

Up close Shruti saw that the lady was youngish and noticed the mehendi and chooda on her hands - the typical sign of a recently married woman. She seemed edgy and something about her was amiss but Shruti could not place it.

"Just sit here, who knows what’s in the bag?" Her face had turned white and the voice was panicky; her eyes held a strange fear.

"What do you mean?" But as she uttered those words Shruti realized what the woman really meant.

"I mean… what if this bag ..." she spoke in spurts but did not complete the sentence.

"Has a bomb?" Shruti completed it for her. She did not reply but Shruti could sense some hostility all around her. "I don't have a bomb in that bag. It’s just a laptop."

"I would take your word for it if you sit here, near it."

"I won’t sit inside. It is very hot and I don't like reaching office all drenched in sweat. You are a working woman, I’m sure you understand that."

"Listen that’s a stupid excuse, just sit here,” she was almost yelling.

"Oh shut up, do I look like a terrorist to you? If you have a problem just get off the train.” Shruti exploded. Her already frayed nerves gave way to anger.

Other commuters were eyeing both of them with curiosity. Nothing is more entertaining than a train fight. Most of them probably had opinions about the argument but none of them said anything. Since this wasn’t Shruti’s regular train she got no support from strangers.

Just then the train slowed down and came to a stop at Ville Parle. A bunch of women rushed in and Shruti took the opportunity to slip away and take her position at the door once again. A college girl took the seat the woman had asked Shruti to sit on. She gave Shruti a black look. Shruti saw the expression and for some reason felt the same sensation of something being amiss. She looked away but continued to feel the woman’s eyes boring into her.

The train had almost reached Khar Road, Shruti recognized the place by the stationery compartments of the Rajdhani which were washed every morning in the yard there. A man was using the water from the pipes used for cleaning the train to take his morning shower.

The tracks wove around on the ground glistening like silver streaks in the early morning sun. Inside the train she could hear a girl besides her giggling away on the cell phone. Another lady was softly snoring, and on the opposite seats two women were involved in an animated discussion.

Suddenly one after the other trains zoomed in on both the right and the left creating a cacophony and drowning every other sensation in the resonating rhythmic rattle of metal clashing against itself. There was an odd silence after both the trains passed which in the next instant slipped into the regular sounds of the commuters.

Station after station went by and the crowd increased. Shruti continued standing. She took out a book from her handbag and got immersed in it. At Churchgate the crowd poured out. Shruti did not see the woman again.

She reached office late but in time for the meeting where she had to make a presentation. After that there was a meeting with her reporting boss and then a conference call with an overseas client. As the day wore on Shruti almost forgot the incidents in the morning. The day also steadily improved as work concluded successfully and her boss was appreciative of her efforts. That Friday evening she went home in much better spirits than when she had left.

Back at home Mummyji had kept dinner ready and with her raised spirits even Shruti warmed towards her. Besides, the weekend had started and Shruti was in the mood to relax. Adit was also staying home and they planned to go out to the famed Siddhivinayak Temple with Mummyji on Saturday evening.


Raddi ke liye,” the man wearing a filthy dhoti, shirt and a red gamchha stood at the door. Shruti nodded and opened the doors to let him in.

The man entered carrying a gunny bag and a metal weighing scale. He squatted on the floor and the weighing machine rattled as he adjusted it for the task ahead.

Adit was watching T.V behind her on the sofa – an umpteenth rerun of his favourite movie Andaz Apna Apna. She considered asking him to help her carry the newspapers from the storeroom but decided against it to avoid Mummyji’s disapproval of making her son do some house work. Besides she liked looking through old newspapers and refreshing her memory of the events that had passed.

Shruti fetched the huge pile of newspapers from the storeroom, passing the kitchen where Mummyji was probably cooking some heavy weekend lunch for her dear son. She placed the bulk of newspapers and sat down in front of the man as he began his work. As was her custom, she started scanning through the newspapers, and handing them to the raddi-wala.

There was a time when Shruti used to spend leisurely mornings reading and re-reading newspapers but now life did not grant her that luxury. In her early morning rush she hardly got time to read the newspapers, though now as she went through them she realized she hadn’t missed much. Most of the news was useless, about politics which she didn’t care about and the weather which she could predict better then the Met Department. The balance was filled up with speculations on Abhishek and Aishwarya’s blooming romance, on the sets of the remake of Umrao Jaan – as if the nation had no other business than to know whether a former Miss World and the Bachchan scion were capable of romancing or not!

She quickly discarded the newspapers after a brief glance at each but slowed down as she came to the reports of the bomb blast on the 12th. Disconcertingly she stared at the pictures of the mangled trains and wounded people. Similar pictures appeared on the following days.

On the day of the bomb blast, a feeling of unreality had overwhelmed her as if all of it were a nightmare but these pictures once again asserted the reality. Shruti felt a slight shudder racing up her spine.

Mahim, Khar Road, Dadar … names of places she passed everyday without a second thought but as she read those reports her mind imagined the havoc that had happened just a week ago. She could almost smell the acrid smoke from the blasts, which in reality was just the strong masala that Mummyji had put in the tadka in the kitchen.

Her eyes moved on to a report that appeared everyday with stories of those affected by the gruesome act - “In memory of the victims of the bomb blast.”

Suddenly Shruti froze, stunned and unable to react.

Below the heading staring back at her was a picture of a young couple: the proud smirk of a man and the shy smile of a woman. The report read, “Vikas and Raksha, a couple returning from their honeymoon killed in blasts on July 11 is one more example of innocent lives lost in the mindless act of terrorism.”

Amidst the rattling of a train, and swirling visions of silver streaked tracks, a voice echoed in her mind: “Can you come and sit here?"

…and the newspaper slid onto the floor from her hand.

Edited by - Deepak Jeswal.

Disclaimer: Based on real incident narrated on a post on this blog titled "Fear" posted on Septmber 25, 2006. With the exception of that everything else is a work of fiction, characters existing only in my mind.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pensive Peek - Part 2

The bell rang just as I put a double dash under the answer. The observer lady was collecting the papers very slowly so I stapled the supplementary papers together, checked my name and roll no. on the papers and gathered my things. I hadn't taken time to check anything else but resigned to "Jo hoga dekha jayega."

"How was it?" Harsh asked the moment I exited the class.
"Thank you. I shall be indebted to both of you forever." Shaun interrupted before I could reply and grabbed Harsh's hand, he was just behind me.
"I think I will pass. Thats all I want. If I get more than 60 my father will have a fit." Nili laughed following Shaun.
"I am swearing myself off maths from today onwards. Its not worth it." I said.
"Oh no, don't say that. You were pretty good." Harsh said.

Just as I was about to reply, some of Harsh's friends called and he left with a hasty good-bye. Shaun, Nili and I walked towards the exit. Not one of us discussed the paper, we had already discussed it enough inside the exam room. Instead we talked of the next paper which was a peice of cake for me. English. Especially the essays in which I would fill pages knowing fully well that no one is ever going to read them. On hindsight I was stupid to have worked so hard on them as today they would be lying dusty and hardly legible in some forgotten store house of the Education Board or in all probability fed into the shredder.

The rest of the papers were ok with a couple of bumps in science and social studies but overall it was good. I was an average student and didn't aspire for more, at least not in the 10th standard. We continued to share the short friendship that we had struck due to the permutations and combinations of our last names during those few days.

Every day Harsh, Shaun, Nili and I would leave together from the class. Harsh gustily discussing his answers and the rest of us giving polite responses before his more reciprocative friends came and he left. I liked him but realised this was no time for such an indulgence. I had a vague hope that after the exams I would get his number or something and continue the friendship but was not keen enough to initiate such a request mainly because i knew that such an action had a high probability of me making a fool of myself in public.

On the last day of the exam everyone jumped up from the exam before time. The narrow corridor of the school was flooding with joyous, chattering crowds of kids. I was more than anything else relieved. My other school friends and I had already planned the celebration and Papa was to drop me to my friend's place where I was going to spend the night. As we left the exam hall Harsh stepped beside me pushing Nili a bit to the side. He was out of breath. Shaun was walking a little ahead.

"I want to talk to you." He said, his voice was a bit low.
"Huh?" I could not understand in all the noise around us.
"Come out and I will tell you." He said and strode ahead to walk with Shaun.

Nili looked at me and raised her eyebrow. She nudged me and winked. Generally Mt. Carmel girls mature faster, she seemed to know something I didn't.

"What?" I asked a little indignantly.
"He is going to propose." She giggled.
"Are you mad?" I said, scandalised to say the least. When I was that age, believe it or not, it was an age of innocence. Though I did not accept Nili's opinion, my heart did skip a bit. If she was right, what would I do? What would I say?
"But you like him na?" Nili said. That girl knew everything.
"You are mad." I repeated.
"Its ok, all girls like him. He is cute, but not my type. Shaun's more my type." She continued imparting her gyan.

Thankfully, we reached the ground floor before Nili could explain what she meant by 'type'. The courtyard was filled with people. Children and parents. Most faces were happy but there were a few geeky once who were still tense. I looked around but neither Harsh nor Shaun were to be seen. Nili's elder brother had come to pick her up so she scribbled her phone number on a piece of paper and after a hasty good-bye left with her brother.

I was about to give up and leave when someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned around to see Shaun and Harsh.

"Hey. Its finally over huh?" Shaun said in an excited voice. "What are you doing now?" He asked.
"My dad is coming to pick me up. I will go to Municipal Market with friends later." I replied. "What are you guys doing?"
"My mom's here. I am going home and leaving for Mumbai tonight." Shaun informed and then added, "I want you to meet my mom."

It was then that I noticed the lady standing next to him. She was beautiful and dignified. Shaun introduced me as "my saviour" embarassing me quite a bit. All this while Harsh was standing there quietly. I was getting more and more curious as to what he wanted but couldn't be rude to Shaun's mom. She embarrassed me further by thanking me for all the help I had given to Shaun.

"It was nothing. I didn't do much, Harsh also helped." I said and looked around only to find him gone. "Where is Harsh?" I asked Shaun.
"Don't know, he was here just now." He was equally surprised.
"Will we go now beta?" His mom asked.
"In a bit, you get the car, I am coming." Shaun said.

I said good-bye to aunty and Shaun and turned away. I spotted papa beyond the gate astride on his Bajaj Chetak and started walking towards the gate all the while looking for Harsh.

"Listen Priya." It was Shaun again.
"Yup." I stopped walking
"I got something for you." He said in a shy voice.
"I want to give you something." He repeated a little louder. He was blushing pink. He was so tall he had to bow his head while speaking to me.
"Huh?" was all I could say.
"This." He said as a he handed a tiny flouroscent green envelope. "To say thank you."

The envelope had a card with a cartoon on it and the words. Thank you. In his scrawny hand he had written a small message, then his name and phone number.

"This is really sweet." I replied quite stunned at his action.
"These is something more." His face had turned to a shade of magenta by now but he was smiling from cheek to cheek. Before I could reply he took hold of my hand and placed a cadbury 5 star on my palm.
"Hey thanks. This is literally sweet." I smiled, I am sure even I was blushing. It was the first time a guy had firstly paid attention to me, secondly acknowledged my help and thirdly given me a chocolate.
"Ummm, can you, ummmm, I was thinking if you would ... I mean, don't take it otherwise but, I ... your phone number. Can you give me your phone number?" His hesitation was obvious.
"Ummm, no problem." I said and rattled off my phone number and after a quick good-bye resumed walking towards the gate.

I think I had a big smile on my face. This was something I would repeat a thousand times over tonight at the slumber party with my friends. Harsh was still nowhere to be seen. Papa was waiting. I wanted to find Harsh before he became impatient but there was no sign of him anywhere. There was no explicable reason for me to hang around without alarming Papa, I was not sure how he would react if I said I got a card and a chocolate from one guy and was waiting because another guy wanted to talk to me. So I tucked the card in my jeans pocket and resignedly walked towards him.

"What took you so long? And who was that tall guy with you?" He asked immediately.
"He was one seat ahead in the exams, we became friends." I said quietly. My mind was still on Harsh.
"He gave you something?" Papa's vulture eyes had seen it.
"Chocolate." I showed him the 5 star. I was not going to show him the card as he is a stickler for discipline and copying in Board exams would be totally unacceptable to him.
"So ready to celebrate?" He asked.
"Totally." I replied smiling as I remembered that this was the last day of exams and it was my right to by happy.

Papa started the scooter and I climbed pillion. As we started our ride I turned my head to have one last look at the remaining students and I saw a hand waving to me. It was Harsh, he was standing beside a shiny blue Maruti Esteem about to get in. The distance between us was growing and for a second I wanted to ask Papa to stop but I didn't. I waved back and the next moment he disappeared in the car. I was to never know what he wanted to tell me. I guess thats how fate planned it.

Somehow even I didn't make any serious attempts to contact him either. Not that I would have come up with any brilliant plans had I decided to pursue him and not that it matters much now as life has taken its course and given me all that I hoped for but I still pipe up when someone mentions news of him from here and there. Harsh's life has taken him to shores far away, he is in London now the last I heard. Rishabh knows him via via some friends, coincidently, he is a CA and a lawyer.

Shaun on the other hand kept in touch with me for some time. When results came we compared marks, he had 67 and I had 74, for days he wondered what did he copy wrong. He took me out for ice cream on the day of the results. Then time and distance took over. He moved to another city and for years I had no idea what he was up to. Someone said he was trying modelling and acting in Mumbai. Then mom told me the news that he has returned to Ahmedabad and was married to her friend's daughter, "Didn't amount to much after all did he.", she opined. She never had a very high opinion of him anyways. Waise now-a-days for all she cares all guys except Rishabh are losers.

Today, as I write this and look back, I realise that some stories are never meant to end, they are just destined to linger, suspended in time bearing a question, what if? Mine and Harsh's was one such story. Till date I don't know what it was he wanted to tell me. But sometimes in nostalgic moments, that question does surfaces on the whirlpool of thoughts, what if?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Pensive Peek

If you read Harry Potter you know the meaning of Pensieve. Its the magical claudron in which Professor Dumbledore stores his memories. Non Harry Potter readers, consider it a peek into one of my pensive moods where memories roam unchartered and unchained.

This particular memory floated to the surface of my mind suddenly, a pleasant memory of that time of adolesence where the smallest of things seem epoch-making, when even an iota of attention from the other gender is made into a huge deal by giggling friends and when Shahrukh's poster on the wall gets a life of its own giving you the dimpled smile as you profusely believe and declare that what you feel for the peice of chart paper is actually love.

Yes... I did go through that phase, though I sometimes feel it was all a split-second dream. Anyway coming to the point, during a chat with my mother recently, she mentioned a name which brought this memory forth. The name belonged to a guy who is now married to mom's friends's daughter. Small world nahi but then Ahmedabad is a small city so this shouldn't really be a surprise.

It was the 10th standard exams. Board exams, made into a huge deal by teachers and parents alike. I had chosen the science stream due to an obstinate anger towards the subject of mathematics. I did not want to be a doctor or an engineer, my goal in taking 10th science was to once and for all show to myself and the world (as if it cared) that I could do maths. So after gruelling studies of the abstarct alphabets and arbit shapes, it was time for the exams. No other subject scared me as much as maths. Mom had given me the confidence and I had a good teacher both in school and tuitions but the fear remained.

The day of the maths paper dawned and papa dropped me to the exam center. Now, to give away the worst kept secret, in the school in which I was giving my exams copying was rampant. The understaffed education board could not fulfill the requirement of two observers per class, in some cases, rumours go that teachers would themselves come and write the solutions on the black board. Though I wasn't fortunate enough to have the teacher solving my paper, copying was still easy and common.

My neighbour was a light-eyed and fair complexioned boy named Harsh from St. Xaviers, he was cute and I had a tough time concentrating on my paper but had managed in the first two and had to in Maths as I had no patience to go through the damn subject all over again by failing. The guy in front of me was tall and very handsome. Even sitting he dwarfed me, his name was Shaun also from St. Xaviers. Next to him was a girl, Nili from Mt. Carmel, a sharp-featured, dark, Keralite. We had all become friends and discussed the papers before, during and after the exams.

Harsh was brilliant or so Shaun had told me and was obvious because his papers were amazingly neat and he asked for extra supplementaries in bulk. He hardly ever raised his head except to listen to our request for help or to place his answer sheets in a position that we could see them. Nili, Shaun and I were more or less in the same IQ band and were progressing through the exam echoing the song, "Saathi haath badhana."

The morning of the maths paper, Shaun was shivering with fear and nervousness, Nili's face had a stirken expression and she kept on twisting her fingers. I was furiously reading the stupid theorem written by someone who had too much free time on his hands. Harsh was the only one discussing with like-brained friends of his, the next day's paper.

The bell sounded and we reached our classes. I was feeling cold and my tummy was making noises like the Panvel local makes on the Mankurd bridge.

"Nervous." Harsh asked with a smile.
"Half-dead because of it." I replied truthfully.
"Don't worry. Let me know if there is a problem." He said.
"The whole damn thing is going to be full of problems." Shaun spoke in his husky voice and Nili giggled nervously at his pun but abruptly shut up as an observer entered the class.

My heart skipped several beats. The observer was a short, stocky man, dark as coal with bushy eyebrows and a broad forehead with such deep wrinkles that one would think that he was born with them. His voice was but a growl and he glared menacingly at the class.

"Safdar sir." a whisper reached me. "He is very strict. I don't think we can copy today."
"I am dead." I heard Shaun say. For once I was happy he was tall, his broad back covered most of my frame but the happiness was not going to last long.
"You." Safdar sir pointed to Shaun, move back. I can't see anyone behind you. "You girl. Shift to his seat." In quick strides he was standing next to me and I had to shift to Shaun's seat.

Harsh gave me a reassuring smile as I gathered my things and moved to Shaun's seat. Nili reached out a squeezed my hand.
"Saath mein jeena, saath mein marna." She whispered.

The bell rang and the observer distributed the papers. Black letters, meaning nothing swam across my eyes. I had no idea what the hell it was. Nothing made sense and I felt tears stinging my eyes. We heard a sniffle across the room, someone had broken down into tears. Looking back I feel the pressure was too much at that age. We didn't really deserve it.

"Do the arithmatic first." I faintly recalled my teacher's voice and I turned the page for the arithmatic section. Slowly, sense and sanity returned and I got busy. Supervisors came and went and after probably half an hour I noticed a lady enter the room. She was short and frail with a gait so slow, it seemed someone was pushing her at every step. As my eyes concentrated on her, I realised she was heavily pregnant. Nili and I exchanged glances both thought and hoped for the same thing. Nili quickly prayed crossing herself and God answered her request.

Safdar sir handed the supplementary papers to her and wordlessly walked out of the room. The lady adjusted herself on one of the empty benches and started pressing her ankles. The class relaxed, chairs squeaked and murmurs rose. It was time to get cracking on the paper.

"You ok?" Harsh asked me.
"Yup, just finishing arith." I replied.
"Gimme question 6." Shaun whispered, I shifted the paper a bit to the right and Shaun started copying.

Once I had got into momentum, things were much better. Confidence had returned. The teacher's instructions had been perfect. Finish arith, then geometry, tackle algebra in the end. Leave questions which you don't know, don't waste time on them. Things were progressing well, behind me Shaun was busy copying from Harsh and me. Nili was fine too and Harsh, well he had totally cracked it. The observer was too busy massaging her feet to bother about any of us. All around us students were busy helping each other. I am sure if an analysis is made of the entire class now, all papers would be identical.

The bell rang at half-time and I was on schedule. I started algebra with a little more than an hour to spare. Shaun touched my shoulder,

"Forgot the scale." he said.
"How are you doing?" I asked giving him the scale.
"Horrible. Harsh is not showing me enough." He cribbed.
"I have to finish mine too na." Harsh whispered.
"Harsh, algebra is bad. Don't know what to do with the 4th." I whispered.
"Its simple. They have combined two questions." He went on to explain as quickly as possible, I understood immediately and started writing furiously.
"Priya, if you don't help me I will fail." Shaun's voice had an edge.
"Which questions do you want?" I asked.
"All except 6th, 7th and 8th." he said.
"Ok." I slipped the paper to the side again.

Nili also started copying the questions she didn't know from me. At the 30 minute to end bell, I was behind schedule, it was difficult to write with half the paper towards the right and Shaun prodding me to move it further or write bigger. Three algebra questions were left. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. One of those questions, I intended to leave so two were left. I had struggled with one of them for long. Harsh had already finished and was checking his paper.

I was on the edge of panic. Thoughts of failing the sickening subject were invading my mind. Concentration was fading and confidence ebbing away. I took a deep breath and checked my watch just 20 minutes left.

"Priya, you are missing one step." Harsh hissed from behind. "Here lean back a bit and see mine."
"Oh." One glance told me where I was going wrong and I scribbled furiously.

One to go and the 10 minute bell rang. My hand was aching, I was making mistakes, 'a' looked like 9 and 'b' looked like 6. Shaun had already reached where I was. Without waiting for me to finish the last question, he started copying from Harsh and murmuring the solution. He practically dictated the solution to Nili and me.

Almost at the last step, 3 minutes left ...

(to be continued)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Hitched ...

If there is anything that induces infernal boredom in my mind it is attending weddings in the family. They said that I would change my opinion the day I got married but no, I still find weddings boring and I just attended the most boring one... mine. Yup got married last week. Just managed to get married somehow.

Families were not agreeing on various things. My father with his head held high went and told the in-laws to go take a walk when they mentioned a baraat of 1000 people. Let me explain how things work in gujjus, especially nagars. Weddings are simple and there is no absolutely no question of dowry. In fact its the guy's side who gives the girl gifts which can also be done with by giving a rupee coin and a coconut. Rupyo ne nariyel it is called. But off late as per the current trends of show off and competition of fancy weddings, grandeur is more important than traditions.

In all this nobody really considers the feelings of those who are getting married. My sister gave me worldly advice,

"Shut up and do as elders tell you to. Nobody is asking for your opinion." she told me when I argued that we need not give sarees to all the women in R's family.
"But its my wedding. I get to decide who gets what." I argued back.
"No you don't. Stop being so ... so ... dominating. You have always been like this. So know-it-all ..." she shouted.
"Arre, but ..." I was about to yell back when I saw my mother's terrified face. After 29 years of having two daughters I don't think she could take more of this, so I shut up. But only for a while.

Finally, I drilled some sense into my father. He was worried. The costs going into lakhs even if we did it simply. R's parents insisting on a big wedding and lots of guests whom we were supposed to feed.

"Papa, if they act up, tell them I don't want to marry their son." I said with a straight face. I had also told R in clear words the very same thing.
"I won't say any such thing." Papa said.
"You will say it but nicely. They have no right to exploit my family just because they are the boy's parents." I was getting into my gender banter mode.

Anyway though Papa had not accepted my suggestion then, something R's father said pissed him off. He has not yet told me what that was but he cliched the deal at 400 guests. So we would pay for our guests + 400 of theirs and if they had more, they would pay for it. It was almost like a business negotiation. I would have loved to be the fly on the wall when my parents were doing the dealing. So all was finalised, the marraige hall deposit paid, menus decided, gifts selected, cards printed, the works.

Though I was fretting over the expenses, by current standards of weddings, mine would have been way way simple. No band baja, no ghodi, no doli, no crackers, no fancy garba function, no separate reception and just one meal for the guests. My sister's was fancier actually but then she wanted it that way. Here I was counting ever rupee spent on the gifts, being mean and miserly and saying no to every suggestion that Mom made for gifts.

"Let me give you a kitchen set?"
"A wardrobe?"
"Food processor?"
"Who will use it? R?"
"A honeymoon package?"
"No, no leaves left."
"Then what do you want?"
"Your books."
"No, I won't give that."
"Then let it be."

R was fighting his own battles. His family forcing him to force me to force my parents to have a separate pre-wedding functions. Constantly comparing his wedding with his brother's and making it clear that his was going to be much simpler and it wasn't acceptable. He thankfully and admirably stuck to his guns. By 9th, I was really having second thoughts and didn't want to go through all this. On 10th, God gave me an escape route. A sad situation as such but provided me a chance to get out of a wedding function which was becoming exceedingly horrendously garish for my standards.

R's relative had a sudden kidney failure. He was serious. He was very close to the family almost like his grandfather. R's father came home to talk to Papa. He was apologetic, we need to postpone. The astrologer was summoned for advice. Mom subtly suggested to him in private on my prodding, an additional dakshina if he adviced against postponing. Some money had been spent but the 400 guests could still be avoided, I had also asked most shopkeepers to accept our purchases back if required. The astrologer saved the day, no other date is anukool for the couple. They have to be married on January 16th.

So we did it. As simply as I had always wanted it. Without a crowed of useless strangers who just came for the food. Without the exmaining eyes of the aunties who would later comment on what was wrong with my make-up, jewellery, hairstyle etc. Without a throng of people passing in front of my eyes like a boring C grade film in which one scene had no connection with other. Without having to say hello or bow in respect to every creepy uncle and ugly aunty as if I loved them with all my heart simply because they were acquainted with R. Without the humiliating irritation of standing on a stage and being the subject of everyone's attention not because of me being me but because of me being married.

But even without all that it was boring. The ceremony went on and on. Most of the time I had to be attentive to what the priest was saying, "Take the water in the left hand, pour it down, the the rice, put it in the fire, place your hand on the groom's hand, remove it, feed him the sweet with your right hand, change seats come to the left, walk around the fire, change sequence, you come first now ..." Never have I taken so many orders. Sometimes it was hard to keep up, at times I was not sure whom he was adressing R or me. The only time I realised that all was over when the sindoor business happened. Some of it fell in my eye and it burnt like hell.

So now I am married. What's the difference? nothing really. Am back to work, no honeymoon because we just holidayed last month. Interesting vidaii though. Inspite of the practiced approach of pragmatism, I cried. Mom stood next to me and told my maasi. "Chalo, I win, give me my 500 bucks." They had actually bet on my crying and even if they hadn't the remark was enough to make me laugh.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sham-e-avadh continued ...

At a distance I could a hear a train hoot and hoped it was ours.

It wasn't. The train that pulled itself, groaning like a tired monster came to a hesitant stop on the opposite platform. It was a goods train. R commented on how much revenue we might be loosing if these trains missed deadlines and production was stalled, but I guess like everyone else even the industries consider delay as a given and work around it.

As we watched the goods train hoot and restart, chugging away R said,

"I feel like jumping on one of these wagons and going away. I feel a desperate need to get off this station, I don't care where, I just want to get out from here."
"True, thats what I feel too." I agreed. Since our train was not coming even I felt like getting on anything that moved on tracks then and there.

Both of us fell silent again, just then the coolie or whatever he was who had met us earlier strolled onto the platform with another of his co-workers and parked himself behind us. They were chatting about various trains, from the snatches of conversations I heard, their job was to jump onto running trains as they entered the station and make space to sit for people who boarded later with their baggage. Once the person who hired them boarded, they would vacate the seat, take their money and jump off the train to wait for another one. They had very systematic pricing system with different prices for a seat, a sleeper, a day train and a night one.

Entreprising and not really illegal. No law in earth can bar all of the money-making tactics that people get into in India. As I was listening to them, R cursed,

"Shit, even this train is going to be late." There had been no announcement but the train was due by 4:00 and it was already 4:15.
"Say that if it does not come by 4:30, aadhe ghante ka delay, delay thodi na hota hai. Aadha ghanta, idhar ya udhar toh chalta hai na." I replied sarcastically.

We watched in despair at the clock's big needle making its way towards the huge 6 on the clock, there was still no sign of the train. Next to us the Rail aahaar shop was opening up. A newspaper vendor came and dumped a bundle of papers on the ground. For some people in the world, the day had started but we were the ones in the wierdest position because for us even night had not yet fallen.

R almost jumped with joy when the floodlight of an oncoming trains illuminated the tracks. We watched the silvery streaks till they were devoured by a red engine, the board on the train said, Ranakpur Express. It wasn't the one we were to take but at the next instant the automated voice boomed on teh microphone, our train was coming on the next platform, thankfully we didn't have to climb stairs to get there, we got up and waited on the other side. The coolie/ agent/ whatever came behind us,

"Kya, sleeper chahiye?" he said.
"Kitna bola tha?" R asked.
"Dedh sau. TT se baat karu? kuchh nahi toh zameen pe toh dila hi doonga." his confidence was admirable.
"Zameen pe!!!" I could not help but exclaim.
"Haan toh, abhi thodi na sleeper milegi, waise bhi train late hai, kya ... chahiye?" He asked again.
"Nahi, chalo lets go into general dabba." I told R and started walking ahead towards the end of the train.

It was still moving and when it stopped the door to the general dabba opened to reveal a rush of people getting off. We got in and I immediately stumbled over a figure squatting on the floor, another step and I stepped over someone's toes. An angry voice groaned from between the jumble of limbs. We could not go further, the entire floor was blocked by sleeping people, R didn't bother to be careful, he pushed and shoved himself inside, took the bags, flung them under the lower berth and with one jump got onto the berth above. He parked himself on the edge, resting his feet on the opposite berth. The man sleepign on that berth moved aside a bit and R was as comfortable as he could be.

I on the other hand could not figure out what to do. A man was lying on the lower berth, he got up seeing me standing and said,

"Aap baith jao. Koi problem nahi." he said.
"Thanks." I said.

A few people shuffled around and made place for me inspite of black looks of irritation on being woken up from the weak slumber that they had managed to get after long journey upright from Bhavnagar. My position was uncomfortable but at least I was sitting. The train started to move and I mumbled a small prayer of gratitude.

The next station would be Surat. I woke from uncomfortable naps periodically either because my neck would jerk back and a momentary pain would shoot through the upper back or someone lying on the floor would change positions hitting my leg. Every time I woke up, I would strive to stay awake but exhaustion would overtake and I would unconciously sink into slumber.

It was at Surat that a family got up, I flung a bag from under the berth and put it on the berth above me. R shifted from his position to that berth, though he was sharing it with another man, the space he got was enough to let him lie down. I still sat in my uncomfortable position. He needed to sleep for his court appearance more than I did. At Valsad some more people left, including the man sitting with R, with uncanny speed, I climbed up and woke R up.

"My turn to sleep." I said. R sat upright and I lay down on the planks.

Below, people were waking up, brushing teeth noisily and having chai-nashta, I realised with a start that we did not even had any water to drink. In all this mess we had forgotted to buy a bisleri from the station. Before I could tell R to get water, the train started.

It sped along much faster than before between the stretch from Valsad to Dahanu Road, just as sweet sleep was about to blanket me, raised voices yanked me away from her folds. The TC had found some students who got on the Super Fast with a passenger pass. They bickered about the fine. R was awake now.

"Try to sleep." He said, smiling. He seemed quite fresh. I lay back and the next I remember was a nudge and R's voice, "Borivali's coming."

Thankfully the train stops at Andheri so we got off, caught an auto, reached home, showered, had strong black coffee and went to our respective offices. Neither of us discussed the events of the previous night. It was just too painful. That night I reached home from office at 8:30 p.m., had milk and slept by 9:00 p.m. under warm blankets, only to get up at 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

The nightmarish night is still fresh in my mind but I thank my stars that it was in Baroda that this had happened because firstly it was just 6 hours from Mumbai and secondly it was home territory. A few good things did happen though from this entire episode,

1. R and I now know that we work well together even in stress and tension.
2. I have learnt my lesson, never trust the Railways inspite of the fresh coating it has got under LPY, its still the same, inefficient and untrustworthy.
3. Its true what Gandhiji said, "If you want to see the real India, travel by the general dabba."

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