Monday, January 17, 2011

but seriously..

I’ve been thinking…no, don’t look at me like that, its serious. And don’t look so dubiously, it’s not like I am never serious. I went to this friend’s house for a party last month. She is separated from her husband, has a 14-year-old son and has managed to set up home in a penthouse in Alipore. There’s only word to describe the place: sexy. It has a modular kitchen and state of the art bedrooms with walk in closets and matching jade bathrooms with all the modern accessories you can think of. It has an atrium and the best part is the terrace garden and lawn on the top. The place is not exactly toddler-friendly (or even drunk-friendly) as the staircase leading to the terrace are wedges of wood in the wall but I just cannot put into words how well decorated and fashionable the place is! The only thing, yes, there is one, outside the door stands the names of only the mother and son, not even a surname, mind you. Very liberated. Very happening. She is separated, I told you. So although they have every luxury you can imagine, it’s not a complete family.
I know, you think I set too much at store for families and homes…..but every child needs both parents for their nurturing and care, don’t you think? So all day today, it’s been running in my head, this business about divorces. Unfortunately, being what I am, I sometimes know more about people’s personal lives than I care to. I look around me and find every other friend of ours these days are either separated or divorced or in the process of either. No, I’m not talking about those cases where there are victims of domestic abuse…I’m talking about this current tendency to divorce at the drop of a hat, no compromise on either side. One client actually came to me and said he wanted a divorce as he had “moved on”. I point blank asked him if that was another way of saying he was seeing someone else. He was at least honest enough to admit that that was so. His wife, I later found out had also moved on. Another client paid crores for a divorce, along with a flat and cars for his ex wife and maintenance to the kids, all because he had ‘moved on’. Dammit, I too want to move on…who does not dream of a tall handsome figure leading you into the Danger zone? Who is it among us, who has not met someone and maybe wondered? But do you give up on everything to chase a dream, no matter how scintillating? Where’s your self-control girl? Nowadays another charming expression has found its way into our vocabulary “mutually incompatible”. Now what the hell is mutually compatible? Every couple has had to work together hand in hand to iron out differences, work around things that irritate you and build a life together. Even George Clooney has bad breath in the morning and who knows, that TDH you’ve been dreaming of may just fart in his sleep, or leave the bathroom sink dirty every morning! So do you just run away or do you try to gently get Johnny Depp to brush his teeth before he kisses you? I don’t know what people expect, we all have our faults, if we cannot live with one other person’s faults, how do we expect anyone to live with ours? And how does sleeping with someone else, solve the problem…hell, if my husband started sleeping with someone for every time I’ve left the bathroom floor wet, he’d be having a smug look on his face all day, every day!
The bottom line, I feel, is commitment. It is commitment that makes any relationship last and that of course comes from things like mutual respect and regard. To be in a successful relationship hence, one does not need a slip pf paper, which says you are married, or a walk round a fire. These are purely social customs for social recognition for we do live in society. The lack of commitment can be detrimental in any relationship even that of a mother and child. Don’t look at me askance, Hindi movie sacrificing suffering mothers only exist in Hindi movies, in reality there are enough parents out there who are not committed to their kids, be it the father who rapes his minor child or the mother who pushes her daughter into prostitution. Yes, it happens, and not only in stories. Unfortunately.
And when we were in college, some of our friends had boyfriends or were going steady, the rest of us just had fun. These days, everyone but everyone is in love. And of course love is like it is shown in the movies, pretty young women dancing around in the snow in Switzerland. Or dancing on a beach in Mauritius. Hell. That’s not love. Love is accepting someone, as he is, warts and all. Love is sharing the angst in his heart when he is disappointed. Love is making fish curry even though the smell makes you want to vomit just because he likes it. Love is going to the market with a bad hangover just because his parents are coming for lunch. Yes, love is drab, plain and simple and reflected more in the daily routine than the diamond necklace you hope you’ll get for Valentines day or the Hermes tie you bought him.
But unfortunately, more and more couples today are more about materialistic things…they forget to look at the simple things of life. One girl came and told me, “when we got married, he promised me three diamonds every year, one for my birthday, one for the anniversary and one on Valentines day, these last two years he has not given me anything for our anniversary…he only takes me for foreign holidays….I want a divorce”. Yes lady, you do have a problem. No don’t smile. This actually happens.
Or this,
“I want to divorce my wife”
“She um dresses um indecently in the house”.
“Really, why don’t you explain to her?”
“She wont listen…she thinks it is decent”
“So what does she wear?”
“Um, I don’t know..she wears um you know, she dresseslikeyou….”
“Jeans and tshirt?”
“Yes, yes, after marriage one should not wear things like that”
“But I am married, I have children too.”
He looks at me wild eyed. When I explain that this is a very personal thing between them and no court will grant divorce on that ground alone, he leaves. Later a few months later, he is back. His wife left him. She got tired of all the digs at her jeans and t shirts!
Any surprise?
These jokers are all getting married these days, sometimes they even think it may be fun to have a child. But neither are they committed to each other nor to the child.
Can you blame me for ranting?
Sometimes I wish there was a rule that every couple before marriage would have to go though a six month counseling and evaluation. Let them live together for six months, let her discover he picks his nose in bed and farts at the breakfast table, let him see how sloppy she is in clearing up the room or that she takes two hours in the bathroom each morning…..let them face each other when they come home from work late and there is no food and one wants to go out and the other is too tired.
After the six months are up, give them a test.
See how many will pass.
Ah married life. With all its trials, joys, sharing, happiness, harshness and reality… can be beautiful too.
But how many have the patience to find out?

Monday, January 10, 2011


Modern High School for Girls or MHS (or Mad House Society as we laughingly lovingly called it) celebrates its diamond jubilee this year. That’s not such a big deal in a city where other institutions are celebrating 150 years, I guess, but then this particular institution is one I can call my own. I still remember with a lot of nostalgia when MHS celebrated its 30 year anniversary. I was in class V, and there was this huge programme in the school. Every girl took part. Our class did this drill display which had us running about in tiny ballerina skirts in rainbow colours. I was orange… was fun, the endless days of no classes, practice and running about. Now I look at my girls’ excitement as they keep telling me about all the exciting things they will be doing all year and I can share their joy. It’s not that I have been a huge MHS fan. I do not cry blue murder when anyone criticizes it nor do I overtly defend it, I am content to sit back and listen to others arguing about the merits and demerits and I am secure in my sense of belonging. My nieces and two daughters go to MHS. Every morning the car goes and drops four little MHS girls to the school from our house, my involvement and memories of the school go beyond a few arguments over lunch or a glass of beer.
Somehow school is something we all take for granted. Or so I think. When we started school we went to the old building on Theatre Road. At first it depressed me, I guess every child goes through those pangs but as I made friends and the years passed by, it became the center of my whole existence. We shifted to the new building in Class III. It was a matter of a lot of pride to be going to the “big school”. As we settled in we never realized back then how the school would take hold of our lives and turn into a living, breathing creature dwelling just underneath our skins. When I think of school, the memories come thick and fast….there are so many of them, so many precious moments, all of which have become an integral part of who I am. You cannot spend fourteen years of your formative years in one place and not be attached to it……
I seem to remember every inch of the garden which we explored at leisure, the sand pit, the basketball courts, the old peepul tree. There was no planetarium, and the jungle gym was at the bottom of the garden. The new wing wasn’t there, oh yes, the changes to the building and grounds have been many. But the essence remains the same. The other day I went for a parent teacher meeting for one of my daughters and looked out at the garden, the bell rang, signaling lunch time. It was all of us again, eager to play games and run to the ice cream man or the guy who sold chips and stuff…..running on the corridor even as the prefects and teachers kept telling us not to. The teachers who were nice, the ones who made life seem unbearable, the ones who indulged us or were strict…….they all wove a tapestry in our hearts, in myriad colours, some have grown dull and faded, some remain vibrant to this day. I remember my teachers well, some I am grateful for even to this day. If I am to be honest, I cannot say I loved them all and I would be lying if I said I was nice to everyone, I guess I was quite a horror for some of them. But yes, they were on the whole, encouraging and kind. Even the ones we used to laugh about or the one whose hair we sprinkled with chalk dust whenever we passed the blackboard, or the one we did a hartaal against, they put up with all our nonsense, because they saw the larger picture, which we, at that time, possibly couldn’t. Not being one of the most obedient of persons, I had the occasion to be punished quite often, this ranged from being thrown out of class to being marched down to the principals office. When we were really small we were made to stand on the chair. On one such occasion, this friend of mine and I (both of us were on our chairs by then) continued our conversation over the heads of the rest of the class, when asked, we said, “you only told us we were punished, you didn’t tell us not to talk!” Irrefutable logic to a child in class II. I had one drawback, unfortunately my mother was a librarian in school, so often even before I got into the car at the end of the day, I would see my mothers face and knew that some well meaning teacher had already told my mom about my day’s misdeeds….and my dose of scolding would start in the car. So I took to walking home, or taking the tram or bus….anything to wait till I got home and THEN got the lecture!
And then there were studies, some classes we day-dreamed through, some we giggled through, some we yawned through and some went over our heads. The rest remained with us and some teachers’ words still echo in our heads…. Can we ever forget, the cramming before the exams, the times we “helped” our friends or were “helped” in return, the frantic note taking at the end of the year. Those art classes, those needle work classes, those projects, the cookery classes and those charts. We did them all. And the school programmes and sports…Bulbuls, the march past, participating in everything, basketball, interschool competitions, sit and draw art competitions, debates, drama competitions, school taught me to be independent and to rely on my own resources.
We made friends that have lasted me well all these years, my closest friends are from school….we laughed together, we cried together, we shared our dreams and fears and now we grow older together. We learned to love. We learned to hate. We learnt to gossip and whisper and get our displeasure felt. We learnt to protest when we did not like something. We learnt what it was to stand up for a friend and get scolded on their behalf, we learnt unity and discipline, we learnt to accept the consequences of our own mistakes. These are not such bad things, when you think about it, it made us the people we are. Yes, sometimes you had to drag us though the day and some days were endless, especially when there was a Bengali exam, but all of a sudden, our school days were over. The Class XII Board exams loomed in front of us and speaking for myself, my head was full of hopes and dreams of the rest of my life, I never paused to think about the school that had been my home and shelter for so many years. Yes, I went though the farewells and wrote in my friends’ diaries and said the words but I was young, I had the world at my feet.
The school however, stayed, and now as I write this, I realize how much I took the school for granted, how I owe it and how well it has gotten its claws into me. So as the school turns another corner I look back on my years in the school and I have to smile. And in my mind I’m still a little girl holding on to the skirt of the girl in front of me as the class winds its way down the corridor.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dear John

January 4th 2011

Dear John,

My mother’s eyes still follow me everywhere.
When I was small I used to wonder how she knew. But she just did.
My mother named me Arushi, I was born on a cold winter morning and she thought of me as the first rays of the morning sun….
Anyway, I had just turned eleven. It was winter, the December of 1994, to be exact. We, meaning my father, mother, sister and I went for a holiday to one of the many forests of North Bengal. The place was a tiny village boasting of a tea garden cum forest bungalow; the caretaker was most kind and willing to be bribed for extra fuel for the generator so we could have electricity all day. My father arranged it all, mother helped and we had a lovely peaceful holiday away from the mad Christmas rush of Kolkata. That day was the 31st of December. The year was drawing to a close, the holiday was coming to an end, but there was excitement in my heart, Ma had promised I could stay up tonight and we would have a bonfire and need not sleep before ushering in the New Year. I knew there were gifts for us, I had seen them in Ma’s suitcase, gaily wrapped. Baba went for a walk in the morning, he always did and usually I would accompany him. My mother laughed and refused, “no way, I’ll sleep while you get the bread and stuff and don’t anyone dare wake me up!” For once, we even bribed my sister, Aanya into going….she’s another late riser, and she was only seven at the time. So silently, Baba arose and got ready, we both wore our jeans and sneakers and stealthily prepared to slip into the morning fog. I don’t know what it was, but I saw my mother’s sleeping form and just wanted to cuddle, so I told Baba and Aanya they could go ahead and jumped back into bed with Ma. She muttered. Ma was famous for bickering about being woken up even a minute early but I was used to it, so I cuddled up and soon she was hugging me. How I wish we had stayed like that till Baba came back and found us.
But no, there was a banging on the door, the caretaker shouted something, my mother mumbled a reply but that was followed by more persistent banging. “Didi, didi, they are coming, we have to find dada….dada left so early...” My mother got up. She went to the door while the caretaker frantically shouted something at us, I realized we would have to go out to find Baba and Aanya, they were out walking and a mob (what was a mob anyway?) was coming this way. Now we could hear shouts from the distance, Ma quickly pulled on her clothes….and we both ran out, out the back gate from where Baba used to go out in the mornings, Ma knew the route, we walked it each evening for the last three days. But there were sounds coming from that direction too and Ma slipped into the woods next to the road. I don’t know how it happened, but we got lost, we went deeper into the woods and the tea bushes, it was a place we had never seen, the sun’s rays were just bursting out of the mist, the fog lay thick and we were running for we could hear shouts and footsteps following us. I ran, my mother always teased me that I couldn’t run but I held her hand and she dragged me along. After a while I was crying, my feet hurt, I stopped and refused to be dragged, ma saw some huts in the distance, “Just a little more, I can still hear those people…” I wanted to be carried, I was heavy but Ma tried. And I had faith in Ma, my Ma, she could do anything. But the sounds grew closer, so she put me down and we ran. Ma half dragged half pushed me along, we reached the huts. They were not huts, those were the deserted burnt remains of shacks, Ma darted into one and told me to hide. Where would I hide? There was broken furniture everywhere, a bed with one leg missing lay lopsided on the floor, mattresses with their stuffing exposed like animal entrails lay about. Ma tried to lock the door. There was a chain something to attach to the door, I saw her lift it up on the hook and look through the crack. All the time she kept telling me to go under the bed, hide, I did, but I was crying to her, you come Ma. The noises grew louder, the shouts neared, footsteps and then bang, the door was kicked open in my mothers face…. I saw the blood pouring from her forehead, I heard the thud as she fell back ward. The men that burst in were young, they looked angry and rough and wild, they had heavy sticks in their hands and they stopped, they looked at Ma bleeding and laughed. I can still hear that laugh. I watched in horror as they said something and started laughing and pointing, one man, (or was it a boy?) stood at the door while some others started tearing off her clothes. I was dumbfounded. Then Ma turned and looked at me. Her eyes were clear and told me to go. Then she was screaming and I was crying and I wanted to reach her but something was pulling me back. In my shock I had not felt the fingers around my ankles, fingers that were now pulling me backwards and away from my mother even as I watched her looking at me. I was dragged, my head hit something, and the rest went dark.
When I awoke I was covered in something rough and smelly. The smell of smoke was everywhere, I started up but a hand kept me down. I huddled close hoping this was Ma but I knew it wasn’t. I hurt, my head hurt and my eyes burned. Finally I looked up and into the face of the ugliest woman I’d ever see. She was dark, old and wrinkled. Her face was scarred, her mouth was black and dry and what was left of her teeth was dark and stained. She had tattoos on her arms that dangled off her skin like extra bags. I saw she only had a torn sari and shawl draped around her, her skin hung off her, hold it, were those boobs, boobs they couldn’t be yet, it couldn’t be anything else either. They hung off her like sacks, filthy and shrunken and the smell, the stench came from her, it seemed to fill everything. I started up but she held me down, from somewhere inside her clothes she took out a bit of bread and held it to me. I hesitated, I remembered all that my mother and father had told me about strangers but I devoured that bread greedily….I wanted more. Get up, the woman said, let’s go. No, my Ma…. Shhhhh she said, ominously and indicated I was to follow. It was evening, I noted, with surprise, we had been hiding in a small hut, and all around us, darkness was falling. Fast. The smell of smoke and oil stung my eyes as I blindly followed the woman as she made her way through the bushes and trees. I first tried to tell myself she was taking me home…..but that’s not how it was. I lost count of the days we would stay huddled in the sack and the nights we would walk, often she got food, some odd bits of scrap, some bread, some biscuits and I would devour it all. I must have slept but it felt like I hadn’t. I kept seeing the men in my dreams, I restlessly screamed and that woman was always there to pat me and hold me close. I did not understand it; I even came to welcome the stench of the filthy sack. Everyday I would ask where we were going, where the others were, but I got no reply. One night she pushed me awake, she took one long hard look at me and dragged me through some undergrowth, I hurt. I started crying….well before morning she sat me under a tree and we waited, the fog hung think and fast all around us….as it became dawn, she pushed me and I found I was on a road…..she pointed to a police station and I knew she wanted me to go there. I stumbled into the police station more lost and alone than ever before. Once I thought of running after the old woman but when I looked she had disappeared into the trees. At the police station a man was snoring at the desk. Another lay in a huddle on a bench, covered from head to toe in a blanket. I waited. I looked a mess. Dirty and streaked with earth, torn clothes, one shoe sole had come off and was flapping about….the cop at the desk looked at me yawned and told me to be off, “damn beggar girl” he started to mutter and then he sat up and stared. And stared. He asked me my name and quickly made a few phone calls, they got milk for me and biscuits. I devoured them and waited. By afternoon I had been taken by a woman police officer to the city. Siliguri, it was. They gave me food and water and allowed me to wash my face. I felt filthy. In the evening, my wait was over. My father had come for me. We hugged with tears streaming down our faces, but he wasn’t ready for my questions and somehow I think I knew the answers.
I was taken back to Kolkata and once more enveloped in the loving arms of my family. Except that my mother was not there. Everyone asked me what happened but I was quiet. Only Aanya’s eyes followed me about like a lost pup. Did I mention, Aanya has Ma’s beautiful eyes……I was taken to several doctors, they did every test they could think of, yes, I had lost a lot of weight and was malnourished and needed rest but they found nothing else. They talked and talked, they thought they were counseling me; some of them were even kind. But I could never talk about what had happened. Only Aanya knew and I did not have to tell her a word to make her understand. We slept with father, we hugged each other through the night and often, when I’d awake screaming I would find my father rushing about to bring me water, trying to calm me while Aanya would only look at me with fear in her eyes. By and by the dreams started to stay away. By and by I went back to school. I was the freak for a while, alternatively the center of attention and the object of curiosity….both of which I instinctively abhorred. I made few friends and I shied away from the ones I knew. Slowly I got back. It took me time but I got back to my studies.. I was determined to be someone my mother would be proud of so even though I was scared I ran hurdles and relays and took part in all school activities, by some stroke of luck, I was considered some sort of an all rounder. I had few friends, but I was socially acceptable. My friends were those who never made me a feel pitied nor asked any questions. My father in the meanwhile had become a shadow of his former self, the pain in his eyes never left him, still hasn’t. We never talked about what happened but I saw it on the internet. Some villagers had gone on rampage and attacked a police station and killed eleven policemen. In the aftermath, some people (a mob) went berserk and attacked tourists in the area. Ours was not the only family shattered by the events of that morning. My mother was raped and torched. Criminal action was taken but the miscreants (that’s one of the words used) were never found. No witnesses either.
As for Aanya, she’s a very quiet shy girl, given to rare bursts of laughter, but when she laughs, the room brightens and I feel Ma is back. Yes, we both know the words of a song that only we can hear….
Now you know.
That is why even though I got a degree from Stanford, I chose to return and work with this NGO that works with rape victims and their families. That is why when I teach the slum children I hope I shall make a difference in their lives. That is why I am indifferent to your views and conferences on climatic change. That is why I really couldn’t be bothered with your ranting about the ozone level. But you are persistent; you ensured we “bumped” into each other too often. In fact it was so often, it was obvious. I found myself smiling at your stupid jokes, I found myself looking forward to your company. That is why when you asked me to marry you I left wordlessly leaving you to wonder if this was yet another strange Indian custom you had tread on.
I had to let you know. For you should know. To my mother, life is a celebration which has no end.
She would have chosen life.
So if you would still want to, you can come tomorrow and meet my father. And Aanya.
Yours, Arushi.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010, the year that was.

Ok, here goes, time for my annual folly, a recap on the year that was. Well 2010 started off peacefully enough, we returned from a holiday in Bhutan and slipped back into our lives…quietly. Ma passing away in 2009 meant the monthly rounds of rituals and pujas praying for her soul….I’ve never been a believer but once it was all over in October, I found myself missing it all…..yes that whole gamut of shiddha chaal and kaanch kala and pindo business and the works… brought the whole family together, and for a little while, each month I felt Ma was actually sitting and laughing with us! Yes, she’s someone I miss and time does not heal, it just softens the edges and keeps us warm….the same holds true of Baba…not a day passes when I do not think of him and wonder if he’d approve.
Life went on amid all the chaos, Amitesh’s youngest brother got married in January and in the wee hours of the very next morning another brother was blessed with a little blue bundle of delight! So we had two additions to the family in 2010. Then came the usual routine and our humdrum lives continued, amid it all, we managed a few holidays, all of which were great. Of course the highlight of the year was our trip to Spain. We took Amitesh’s father with us, the first holiday he experienced as a “commoner” (of course the Indian High Commissioner met him at Barcelona Airport but it was limited to that!) So Baba ran to catch trains with us, stood in queue at bus stations, roamed the Las Ramblas and laughed at the human statues, wandered around the Boqueria in wonder, rode the tourist busses and horse buggies and ferries in Sevilla and Valencia and Madrid and whatever….. We even dragged him to the topless beaches in Ibiza, made him walk and eat any old trash we were munching on! End of it all, he admitted it was the most fun holiday he’d enjoyed in a long time……. So my mind is now planning the next big holiday again……but we’ll save that for another time.
All else was as hectic as it gets, as far as I am concerned at least, the girls’ schools, endless projects, cookery classes, roller skating, piano (yup, they are still reluctantly picking at it) singing etc etc etc. I’m trying to be less indulgent to Amisha who is turning out to be a little version of me, (translated, a little hyperactive wicked brat) and I’m trying to be more patient with Isha, who dances to a beat I cannot imagine, who is gentle and sensitive and lady like and more interested in accessories and perfumes and fashion than climbing trees and playing hopscotch. I must admit hanging on to my sanity and my work at times gets seriously tough, so I’ve somewhat given up. Yes, my work has suffered; there have been long gaps and frustrations and I’ve had my share of depressions but yes, I’ve been trying to accept things for what they are and fill my time doing one thing I like to do: writing. No, no big things, just enough to amuse myself and keep my mind away from all the times I’ve been sitting and wallowing in self pity…..
This year I’m going to change all that; I’ve decided to be more positive and assertive. So last week I look this huge sack and filled it with all the things I do not need. That included all the angst and frustrations and negative influences in my life. It included those relationships that are not going anywhere but make me sad or loose my cool, all that I feel I cannot take any more, those crying prying eyes that are bad for my soul and then I dragged that heavy sack into the sea and watched it go out with the waves….hopefully none of it will come back to me. Yup, I feel much lighter now!
Amitesh has been doing well, he’s also started on yoga…..and he insists pranayam is making him a calmer person…he says he doesn’t feel angry any more and is much more peaceful…I’ll just refrain from commenting on that for now…..
So it’s been a busy year but not without it’s share of fun, we “discovered” this beautiful hamlet in the hills of North Bengal at Tinchulley and managed two trips to Puri this year. The year end one was more special. It was the first time I’ve been to Puri in winter since I was, say, 12? And we also stayed at BNR which is where we always stayed as children. Memories flooded my mind…..cousins, friends, Baba, you were all there. Late at night I’d sit by the corridor and wish upon a ghost…. I kept seeing Baba everywhere but he wasn’t there. Maybe finally I have learnt to let go. Or maybe I see things in better perspective now.
Anyway dear friends who have come with me so far…listening to my ramblings from year to year, enduring my ranting and even being kind enough to post comments from time to time……and yes even you who never comment but read through my trash, I thank you all. And I wish you all a very beautiful 2011….full of love and peace and laughter.