Tuesday, 13 February 2018

My Musings on Valentine's Day

I was in the 7th standard. I stepped inside my school premises, located the queue of girls belonging to my section and hastened towards it, when one of my classmates stretched out her hand to shake mine and wished me “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Before I could comprehend what it was, I found the other classmates wishing the same to each other.

In a few hours, I came to know all about Valentine’s Day though I was not sure whether it was supposed to be celebrated between lovers or with anyone one may love including one’s parents. My classmates insisted it was the latter: studying in an all girls’ convent and being chaperoned by our parents at all other times ensured that we never had any boyfriends, but we too wanted to partake in this grand phenomena called Valentine’s Day.

For the next few years on Valentine’s Day, after returning from school I would unzip my bag, spread out the books and exercise copies on the central table, switch on the TV and click the remote to select MTV. Listening to romantic numbers by Boyzone, MLTR, No Mercy, Elton John, Backstreet Boys, Carpenters, Cardigan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and many others, I would try to replicate the Life Science and Physical Science diagrams in the lab book for my homework, negotiate with numbers to solve Mathematical problems and wonder whether I would be asked out for a date on Valentine’s Day next year although that was impossible due to the above mentioned reasons.

In India, there is a lot of controversy surrounding Valentine’s Day, which I find absolutely unnecessary. To those who criticise it as an import of the West, I would like to ask whether they have shunned everything that had originated in the West. Don’t they attire themselves in Western clothes? Don’t they eat or drink anything that is not native to India? To those who frown upon it saying love is not just for one day, I would like to tell that yes, we love our partners everyday but due to the busy schedule, we might not get time to go out of our way to express it. So it’s nice to have some occasions when we do something special for the person who is sharing his/her life with us. So what’s wrong if one celebrates Valentine’s Day just like one marks other occasions like birthday, marriage anniversary and any other day of some personal happiness? I agree with those who say that Valentine’s Day has been introduced and popularized in India for commercial gains. But is that stopping anyone from taking it to a more meaningful level if one wants to? As for commerce, what’s wrong if one avails, as per one’s budget, the delights that shops and restaurants have to be offer? We all survive by selling something – whether it is knowledge, software or diamonds.

I can understand that this day might be painful for those who had just suffered a breakup/rejection/betrayal by their partner. I have been through such low phases too. I think the best way to deal with such a situation is to stay away from TV, radio and social networking sites and indulge oneself in an activity that it is devoid of even the slightest whiff of romance.

Coming back to myself, I will have to remain confined in my office cubicle for most part of the day. After that, I will definitely rustle up some delicacies for my husband – that will be special for us as I rarely cook on other weekdays.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

My visit to Antyodoy Anath Ashram: An Oasis of Beauty and Harmony

Swathed in woollens to resemble two oversized pupas, my daughter and myself hopped into the back seat of the car. My husband was at the wheel: it was a pleasure to be driven around the streets of Kolkata before the office going traffic took over the thoroughfares. Punctuated by two meal breaks for my three year old daughter Nirjhorini and a sumptuous breakfast at a dhaba, our journey to Pausi village took more than four hours. On reaching the ashram I got swept into a flurry of activities revolving around my daughter. Once she had been bathed, changed into a fresh set of clothes and fed with rice, dal, aloo bhaja and fish curry, I turned my attention to the beauty of the sprawling ashram comprising of two blocks, a park, a playground and a couple of ponds. The most remarkable thing about this ashram is that one is gripped by an immense sense of positive energy as one strolls through its premises, interacts with its children and observes the staff engrossed in their diverse duties, yet attending to the needs of the visitors. Nirjhorini dashed to the swings and squeezed herself on the wooden seat beside an ashram kid. Once she was done with swinging, it was time to play with a ball. While an ashram boy, who was slightly older than her, could aim a fine kick, Nirjhorini was content with picking up the ball with her hands. They streaked across the playground, under the watchful eyes of my husband, who had to intervene whenever the ball rolled dangerously close to the pond. A little way away from the ashram, a slender blue-green river hummed along, setting to tune the whispers of the fast growing saplings of eucalyptus and fir. 

This was my second visit to the Antyodoy Anath Ashram (http://antyodoyanathashram.org.in/) but it was the first trip for my husband and daughter. The orphanage, set up by Mr Balaram Karan and his family, provides food, shelter and education to around one hundred children, besides running a school for the other villagers and arranging medical camps for the poor. Other than academics, the children are trained in music, dance, painting and sewing. A little distance away from the ashram, Mr Karan has established an old age home as well.

We jaunted to Mandarmoni in the evening. It took us around two and a half hours to reach there by car. Fastening our scarves and zipping up our jackets, we traversed the considerably wide beach to reach the sea, which rushed out to us in a multitude of frothy curls. In the darkness, my eyes found the fuzzy white crest of the rising waves and the faint outlines of a blinking lighthouse. Unwilling to wet my socks and shoe clad feet at this time of the year, especially since I was suffering from cold, I scurried back as the water ran past the embedded sea-shells and gave me a chase down the shore. As the sea receded in jest, the foam bubbling along the indented edge of its drape, I tiptoed towards it, the soft wet sand squishing under my shoes. After enduring the tussle between our clothes and the sea-breeze - one struggling to keep us warm and the other conspiring to freeze - we nipped to a tea shop that was stacked with varied kinds of merchandise including plastic balls for kids. Sipping hot tea, and munching on onion pakoras, prawn and crab fries, we stared into the nothingness above the horizon and answered to Nirjhorini’s innocent queries, which were inexhaustible like the stars.
Dinner was served at the Mandarmoni guest house, also owned by the Antyodoy Ashram. After polishing off the fabulous thali, my husband drove us back to Pausi down the narrow, winding roads, the cloak of darkness frisked only by the streetlights and nothing else. A room had been arranged for us on the first floor of the old age home. My daughter, who had dozed off in the car, woke up with a loud wail as we stepped inside the room, and demanded that she be taken back to our home in Kolkata. Much to our embarrassment, her cries got louder, snatching the sleep from the aged inmates of the house. Finally, my husband managed to lull her into sleep with a self-invented tale of a sea-captain and a baby. We crept under the spotlessly clean blankets and closed our eyes in blissful exhaustion.

Swilling glassfuls of date palm juice, offered by one of the caretakers, I watched the winter morning seep between the serrations of the coconut leaves. Low swells of water broke slowly in the ashram pond, framed in green by the reflected trees. One of the elderly inmates extended her warm hand of friendship to me. Nirjhorini found company in the housekeeper’s daughter – one was below ten and the other around fifteen. They raced in the corridors, sprinted up and down the stairs and pranced about on the roof from where we got an extensive view of the rippling ponds separated by lacy strips of green. After completing my ablutions and helping my daughter complete hers, we settled down for a hearty breakfast of crisp round luchis, begun bhaja and potato curry. Then we drove back to the ashram, where we soaked ourselves in the gaiety of the children, who kicked the football, swung their cricket bats, smacked the shuttles and bounded after one another. Some of them darted out to cuddle my daughter, gave me a peek into the hostel rooms and regaled me with descriptions of their lives and activities. Paintings showcasing the exceptional skills of some of the amazingly gifted ashram children adorned the walls of a spacious hall, where a sit-and draw competition had been held the previous day. Stepping inside the office room, I discovered that CCTV cameras were capturing everyone’s movements in the corridors and the compound to ensure protection for the children. Moyna, Mr Balaram Karan’s daughter, was receiving guests, supervising the cooking and coordinating the different activities of the ashram with superhuman efficiency.

After a delicious lunch, it was time to bid goodbye. I took a lingering glance at the frolicking children bonding in the sunshine warmed compound, the stout buildings and the glimmering pond water before picking up our belongings. We hopped into our car with a halo of memories, the pristine laughter ringing in our ears, and a whole new world throbbing, breathing, evolving and orbiting the stagnant sphere of our familiar realm. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Secret Superstar: A Very Personal Review

When the hijaab clad girl, who writes, composes and gives voice to melodious songs, is asked to sing a typical item number by music director Shakti Kumar (Aamir Khan),  our hearts skip a beat: we wonder whether she will be able to pull it off. We hold our breaths as she stands behind the mike and Shakti Kumar puts on the head phone.  Tossing and turning in our plush multiplex seats, we watch the girl (Insia, played brilliantly by Zaira Wasim) fumble and falter while attempting to get into the groove. This is what the film (directed by Advait Chandan) does to us - involve us completely from the beginning to the end. A similar tension builds up when Insia’s father proceeds to beat up his wife for selling her necklace to buy their daughter a laptop.

Whether it is the mother Najma’s (Meher Vij) ingenious ways of supporting Insia’s singing aspirations, and the little brother Guddu’s (Kabir Sajid) timely help despite the relentless patriarchy he witnesses at home, each scene turns in a surprise and keeps us engrossed.

The simple and innocent bonding between Insia and classmate Chintan (Tirth Sharma) peppers the film with many magical moments. For a change, the heroine’s 15 year old love interest is not played by a 25 year old dude. I particularly loved the scene where Insia shyly writes down her laptop password on Chintan’s palm, which is nothing but his name. Instantly, his face is awash with joy as he realizes his feelings have been reciprocated.  We feel the ecstasy of being in love as Chintan continues to stare at the password written on his palm and a romantic tune plays in the background. I could guess what the password was even before it was revealed, as many years ago I too had made my beloved’s (who is now my husband) name my password and had to disclose it to my boss, much to my embarrassment, when for some inexplicable reason a portal could not be unlocked.

However, while Insia, led by her mother, finally managed to leave her tyrannical father behind the glass doors of an airport, many other Indian girls are still struggling to find a way to deal with their misogynist fathers. Insia’s father (portrayed effectively by Raj Arjun) tried to get her killed in her mother’s womb, did not even glance at her after returning from work, left her behind at home when he went out to attend weddings, snapped her guitar strings, forced her to hurl her laptop from the balcony and wanted to marry her off to a man she had never met. While I am sure that such fathers exist, there are many others who might not be as violent in their expressions of dominance but terribly chauvinistic and insensitive as well. In middle class Indian society,  it is not unusual to come across a man who would buy her teenage daughter a guitar, but expect her to abandon her aspirations completely in favour of mundane domestic duties once she is married and has children. Such a father might not marry her off to a stranger, but ask her to accept all injustices meted out to her by her in-laws as he is unable to feel her humiliation and pain. It is no lesser challenge to take a stand against such a father, with whom she is too emotionally attached to sever ties, as he greets her after returning from work, asks her to accompany him to weddings, neither smashes her guitar and laptop, nor beats up her mother.

The film is a ray of hope for those who are ridiculed for their dreams and ambition. It shows the inner conflicts that a creative person has to face: Insia is asked a question by her teacher in a classroom full of students just as a new tune had begun to churn in her mind. She knows that she will lose the tune if she speaks: instead, she chooses to be hit in the hand by a stick as punishment.

Among songs, I cannot stop listening to nachdi phira, which is romantic, soulful and endowed with a mesmerizing, uplifting refrain. The other numbers are soothing as well. Aamir Khan, throws up a surprise (which I am not going to reveal) in the end credits, compelling the departing audience to rush back to their seats. I can go on discussing this movie, which has seeped into my thoughts, dug into my memories, stirred up my dreams and become a part of me, but for now I will conclude by saying that this is a movie I would like to watch time and again like one returns to a diamond mine for more diamonds.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Sighting a Tiger in the Wild!

The sun was a red orb in the western sky. Seated at the back of a jeep, my husband and I were turning left and right, sometimes staring into the depths of the forest, at other times scrutinizing the stretches of dense, tall grasses or craning our necks to decipher the grey shapes moving along the edges of the occasional water body.

"Tiger!" the driver whispered and braked the vehicle. Following his gaze, we spotted an animal striding among the tawny bushes. With wide eyes I took in the unmistakable feline snout, the  protruding chin and the flaming stripes. Through all these years, what had captivated me from picture books; mesmerized me from paintings; riveted me to the tales of jungles, especially those penned by Jim Corbett; awed me from TV documentaries and dragged me to the zoos, even if for an unsatisfactory glimpse through the bars amidst the annoying din, was out there - unbounded and unconfined - a few meters away from me. As I sunk myself in the moment in the way one does when struck by something unbelievably good it disappeared among the grasses, leaving me with a sense of glorious bewilderment.

Zoom to see the tiger in the photo below.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

Awrah Cave, Meghalaya

We trotted to the mouth of the cave along a paved path high up in the hills. The trees growing from the rocks below, the valley and the hills across it were completely lost in mist.

Out of the many passages that meandered through the cave, the one made easily accessible to the tourists by the placement of florescent lamps was split by a stream that trickled between the crags, ululating in a low, steady pitch. The rock ceiling above us, spiked with stalactites, diverged out like the roof of a tent. The cavern wall on either side was ridden with crevices of such sizes that we could just about tuck in our purses, and drilled with tunnels that continued for miles. We often took detours from our proscribed route to explore a bit of these cold, dark corridors, even though our movements were restricted by the roof that hung too low, the ledges and the undulating rock studded cave floor patched with our own shadows.

A helpful local pointed out the fossils for us, which we had completely overlooked: imprints of leaves and the spiral outline of a mollusk clearly discernible on the surface of rock. Dripping down the stalactites, the water stroked the rocks below, leaving glistening trails before joining the stream. The rivulet branched out and flowed through another passage before collecting in a pool, a couple of root like rock hangings probing into its depths.

In the photo below, I am inside the cave observing the fossil of a leaf.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mawlynnong Live Root Bridge

A few months back, my husband and myself had the great fortune to visit the beautiful states of Meghalaya and Assam. It was our first trip to the northeast and we were much excited by the prospect of sighting breathtaking waterfalls, jaunting in lush green forests, exploring dark, mysterious  caves, soaking in the rich culture and savoring the delicious spreads.

I would like to share some of my experiences in these wonderful places. Let me start with the amazing live root bridge of Mawlynnong, Sikkim.

We climbed down a flight of stairs, cut out of huge boulders, to arrive at a path that girdled around a forested slope and overlooked a murmuring stream. Taking glimpses at the stream through the wall of trees, we reached the end of the path and sighted the most unique bridge I had ever come across. The matted roots of two rubber trees, planted on the two facing banks of the stream, intertwined to hang like a hammock over the flowing water: a layer of bamboo interspersed with boulders was laid down on it to complete the bridge. We trailed the stream for a while, treading on the slippery rocks with caution. The bed of the shallow stream was pocked with almost circular holes. Branching into several strands, the water encircled various standalone rocks, nudged at the facets of some and hissed sprays on many others, filling up the dents and drifting away the fallen leaves on its way to the depths of the forest.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Flight to Remember

    It would be my second flight. The first one was to Chennai for a VISA interview that did not culminate in success. I had been too tensed during that flight to feel much excitement. Moreover I did not get a window seat. This time, accompanied by my husband and nineteen months old daughter,  I could not wait to get inside the plane. It would be my daughter’s first flight and we had got a window seat! I settled down, clasped the belt and made her face the window. The first thing that caught her fancy as she peered through the window was the wing. She kept on pointing towards it. I am sure that all she wanted to do was jump on it and she grew restless as such an opportunity never came her way. The seats filled up.  An air hostess came up to instruct me on how I should handle my baby at the time of the plane’s descent. My daughter grew impatient as the seconds ticked, probably thinking that we would remain confined in this corner of the strange bird shaped room forever. Soon, the dreaded (I won’t say unexpected) thing happened. She started bawling at the top of her lungs. I could not have been more relieved when the announcements began for the departure. I made her look out of the window as the plane took off and noticed a startled expression on her face as the buildings, trees and ponds diminished in size like the clothes she would outgrow. However my hopes of enjoying the scenery with her were crushed as she was far more interested in my head than all the mountains, plateaus and lakes of the world put together. I was continuously kept busy: she stood up on my lap, exploring my eyes, nose and ears as if nineteen months were not enough to unravel the secrets of my facial features. Finally I gathered the courage to do what I had been planning to do for the last thirty minutes. I nudged my husband to bring down the bag from the upper shelf and unzip it. There it was - the fluorescent pink container embodying my intended bravado. My husband removed the lid. I wiped the steel spoon with my free hand, dipped it into the unfinished meal (she had only a few spoonfuls at the airport) and inched it towards her lips. They opened, but alas not to facilitate the momentary entry of the spoon in my hand but to let out a most blood-curdling scream. At home, I am used to salvaging such situations by jumping like a frog with a spoonful of food in my hand (I had learnt not be spill while doing this activity). Inside the plane, I craned my neck to survey the expression of a steward who passed by our row. No, I did not wish for a painful death caused by descent from a great height. She continued to yell and I realized that I could not risk a plane crash either. So the pink container had to humbly retreat inside the bag and wait there patiently till we would reach our destination.
Since most airlines do not serve free food during their domestic flights, I was pleasantly surprised on seeing food trays being handed to the passengers. My husband and I were famished since we had managed to push only a little bit of boiled potato down our throats before leaving home for the airport. Eating out of the several Thermocol bowls  arranged on the tray while my daughter tried to kick them away required the same skills as were necessary to dodge a crocodile while dangling over a river from a thin creaking branch. Sipping the coffee was another game altogether since my daughter knew several ways to attack it. She could seize the cup or spill its contents or dip her fingers into it or simply pour it over herself. My husband and myself finally appeared victorious after a long struggle as we succeeded in eating and drinking everything we were served. My daughter was showing signs of drowsiness. I sighed. A much needed break before the next set of adventures.