Friday, November 09, 2007
So with a shaky hand and trembling fingers, I dialed home. And after a painfully long five seconds, Dad answered - 'Aseem, a little Diwali gift for you. Here, speak.' The receiver at the other end changed hands. 'Aseem, kasa aahes?' were the next words I heard in unmistakably gaavthi Marathi. And although the voice itself had changed drastically since the time I had last heard it, there was no question about who it belonged to. I still pretended not to recognize who was on the line. Lest my little 'happy guess' turn out to be far-fetched. I wanted to hear it in that gaavthi tone. I did. I was right. It was Lakshmi...or 'Lak-su-mi' as she (mis)pronounced it.
Lakshmi was my family's domestic help since before I was born. Right till about four years back. The one person my family could never dispense with. The one person they were overly dependent on. The one person they could unhesitatingly trust with keys to the house when they were away, as they could with a toddler me instead of hoisting me away at a day care. Staying and working in our house every day from early morning to late night, what with her own house being hardly five minutes away from ours, she was as good as family. And to me, as good as a grandmother.
She was my first friend outside my immediate family. As a toddler, she would haul me up and show me the view from our balcony, and we spent the time counting crows perched on the tree. I could never complete the task; the damn birds kept flying in and out. And it didn't help much that I couldn't count beyond ten either. A little later in life came school. And Lakshmi's duties included taking me across the street to the bus-stop in the morning and waiting there till the school bus arrived and I was safely in, after which she would turn around and head home again. No...wait. There was this mandatory waving I had taught her to do, and say 'tata'. That was a must, every morning after the school bus picked me and every night before she retired to her house.
I found it impossible to fathom that she did not know the alphabet. Even little kids knew it. I made it my job to teach her. So I would take my slate and chalk and ask her to repeat after me, simultaneously showing her the symbols I drew on the slate. 'Aaaaa'-'Aaaaa', 'Beeee'-'Beeee', 'Ceeee'-'Sheeee'. That was it. I could never go beyond C, for at this point, my mother, sympathizing with the look of distress on Lakshmi's face, would promptly drag me away.
Later, as I grew more 'knowledgeable' and 'worldly wise', she had to adapt to new kind of roles, including playing an utterly confused Skeletor to my He-Man and a surrogate underarm bowler to my swashbuckling batsman when my friends were not around, though I must admit it was rather annoying to come down the pitch (read 'the corridor outside our flat') almost to where the bowler was standing so as to hit the ball before the second bounce. Lakshmi loved cricket, never mind that she did not quite follow it. It was enough for her to know if 'we' (the Indian cricket team) were winning or losing, a question she asked me every half an hour since the beginning of a match.
But times change. And so do people and the things they do. Counting crows gave way to shooting them in TV-video games. School buses made way for BEST. ( School buses were for kids, I was now older you see!) School was over in flash and I was in college. And while all this was happening, with every passing month, Lakshmi's health was deteriorating. She couldn't work any more. The most major setback was her back problem, which worsened to the extent that she could barely manage to stand. The medics declared that the only way for any improvement might be a surgery, but were not sure that at her age, she would be able to take it. Her family then sent her away to their native place to live with their relatives. This happened about four years back. I was wistfully hoping then, that it wouldn't be the last time I would see or hear about her. After I came to the US, I've been regularly asking my mother about Lakshmi's health, and she has been telling me what she hears about her from her family - that her condition hasn't improved and that she is simply living because she is still alive. And I would try not to imagine the worst.
Cut back to the telephonic conversation. Honestly, all I remember is that I was ecstatic, and that I asked her about a dozen times how she was doing, a dozen times she told me she was perfectly fine, we wished each other a Happy Diwali and she asked me to plan a visit to India soon and come see her. My mother then told me that she seems to have recovered completely, can stand erect, walk and also climb stairs. Miraculously. I didn't think how. Maybe the medics had been wrong. Maybe it wasn't as big a problem as it had appeared to be. I didn't care. All that mattered was that she was okay.
Over the years, I have become a bit more detached from people, other than my closest relations and friends, and the people who matter at the moment. I haven't really made any specific attempts to stay at home when my relatives come visiting. Nor taken any special efforts to track, trace or keep in touch with long lost childhood friends. All that has mattered to me has been my career, my enjoyment and my current friends. Everything I do has been about me. And of late when I have reflected over this, I have inferred that I am now so full of myself that there isn't much space for too many emotions any more. That I have turned myself into some kind of robot, oblivious to reminiscing about good old days and good old people, unmindful about what people might think or say about me, not caring if I wasn't being particularly gentle to someone who was knowingly or unknowingly invading my personal space. And I have been thinking that this change is irreversible. That there is no going back. Some of the emotions and innocence I once had in me have been lost forever to time. Maybe this is how everyone...well...mutates. Maybe this is how it was supposed to be.
So, after hanging up, as has become my nature, I tried not to think of the joy I was suddenly feeling and the reason for it. I tried to close my door to the memories that I've described above. I tried to stop that emotional lump from forming in my throat. I failed on all accounts. I couldn't help thinking. I couldn't close the door. The memories came gushing through into my mind. The lump did form. And I was happy. Happy that not all has been lost. Happy that I can still feel when I ought to feel. Happy that in a time punctuated with tragedies, I can still expect some miraculously good news. Like my little Diwali gift.
Hang in there Lakshmi. Stay healthy. Time flies. You know it. You've seen it. In a few years , you will be in the balcony again , helping my kids count crows. They will be needing someone to hold their hand and take them across the street to the school bus stop. And yes, I shall make sure they resume teaching you the alphabet from where I left. You are not going anywhere before you learn D to Z.
(Photo Courtesy Google Images and www.quirkworks.com)
Friday, June 29, 2007
I wrote the following poem in the wake of the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002.
An Ode to You, My Hateful Friend
There were times we drank to each other’s health,
Had no love for hate, no lust for wealth,
And a friendship that was zooming uphill
Till the day you broke the glass of goodwill.
Bitter thoughts were all it took
For you, my friend, to take another look-
You chose religion at camaraderie’s cost,
And since then you forever lost
The path to the One you set out to find
But left this trail of blood behind.
A cut, a jab, a stab of your knife-
Waiting for death to gift me life,
I screamed a lowly silent scream,
Wishing it to be only a dream.
Down on my knees, for mercy I begged,
“Kill him now” the Hate Merchants egged,
“Spare my life,” I pleaded in vain,
But hatred brought bloodshed in her reign.
And amidst my turbulent despair,
Hoping for hope of some pity and care.
But hatred had made you so very blind,
You didn’t mind the blindness; you had lost your mind.
You slit my throat, you stopped my breath,
Smashed my skull, bludgeoned me to death.
Kill and destroy, break and burn,
Are there lessons we shall never learn?
But I promise, if I had any clue,
I’d rather not this fate befall you.
How much strife can you give and take,
Just a heartfelt lament I’d like to make,
With which I shall end my woeful verse-
Communalism is a bloodthirsty curse.
Kise kaafir kahega, kise kaayar kahega
Teri kab tak chalegi ho
Arre mandir ye chup hai, arre masjid hai gumsum
Ibaadat thak padegi ho
Samay ki laal aandhi, kabristan ke raste
Arre latpath chalegi ho
Arre neendein hain zakhmi, arre sapne hain bhookhe
Ki karvat phat padegi ho...
-from the song 'Bandeh' by Indian Ocean, OST 'Black Friday'
He knew not how to walk; he crawled on all fours, but as gracefully as he could,
Then with all the strength in his tiny limbs, the baby carefully stood,
And looked out through the window, a gleam in his little eyes,
Singing merrily through the air, arrived a tiny winged surprise.
‘How nice to see you birdie, on a day so bright and clear!
A bird so small yet so beautiful, tell me, what brings you here?’
Now perched at the window, it gazed at him for a while,
Then in one magical moment, returned his toothless, priceless smile.
‘Oh little one, O dear little one, with a mind so very pure,
You see I am a young one too, you’ll be my friend I’m sure!’
‘Certainly I’ll be! That’s sweet of you, saying thus you’ve made my day,
For I have nothing that’s mine, except a name I’ve not learnt to say.’
‘Oh little one, O dear little one, with a mind so very pure,
And thus that day, that splendid day, on that bright and blissful morn,
One that the baby would never forget, his first friendship was born.
So the next day again, and the one after that, and others in succession,
The bird and baby met at the window, lost in sweet conversation.
And on one such day, that this sweet friendship brought,
To the baby’s longing mind, came rushing a thought-
‘Birdie, you’ve wings, and so you fly,
I presume with ease, you can scale the sky?’
‘It is a gift I have, you’re right, it’s true,
But why this query, little friend, out of the blue?'
'I don’t have wings, but I have a thought, over which I ponder,
If some day, I flap my arms, can I too fly, I wonder?’
‘Your innocence speaks for you, and its sweetness I much admire,
I’m glad you’ve told me what you feel and expressed your desire.
You’re not winged, it’s not your fault, just one of nature’s little things,
But don’t let that smile fade from your face, for one day, you’ll fly without wings.
You’re so small you haven’t learnt to walk, so impossible though this may seem,
You’ll fly some day, make your wish come true, for in your eyes, I see a dream.
Live this dream, give it wings, mark my words, my friend,
Let nothing thwart your dream, beyond all bounds let it transcend.
You’ve a lot to learn, a long way to go, little as you are,
Never cease to dream, for you will see, it’s your dreams that will take you far.
Believe me, you’ll fly, let no weakness fruitless your quest deem,
Keep in mind, every success you see, was once just a miniscule dream.’
With this the bird left, and the baby thought: ‘There is a dream in my eyes,
A dream that I must pursue, a dream I shall realize!’
That night he dreamt as he lay asleep in his bed,
He dreamt of his friend the bird, and the wonderful things it had said.
He dreamt that he was flying high, way above the world,
Sands and seas bowed down to him, mountains shrank and rivers twirled.
Now he saw a house, a sight he knew would loom,
Down he flew and softly perched, at the window of a baby’s room.
When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.
-‘The Alchemist', Paulo Coelho.
Monday, May 14, 2007
And then it happens. The downslide begins. They suddenly seem to change their attitude towards you. What was okay just some time ago, suddenly becomes taboo. They no longer seem to be as enthusiastic as they were before. You try and convince yourself it is only temporary. There must be something else on their mind. Some problem perhaps, which they cannot quite talk about. Or maybe they are simply busy with truckloads of work. You wait for some time to let things rectify themselves to normalcy. They don't. In fact, they get worse. Your friend seems to be quite comfortable with their other friends and colleagues. You ask for some time together. Maybe a movie. Or a coffee. They don't have time. You believe them. You know it is true. But you are astounded when you learn, much later, how they managed to find time to indulge in those very activities with other friends. Then comes the apparent difference in their behaviour with you and their behaviour with them. A difference so evident, it hurts. You question them about it. They categorically deny any such thing. You insist that they tell you what is wrong. They tell you that you are imagining things; that you are delusional; that you do not think beyond yourself. You don't let go. Further tensions arise. The rift widens. If only you knew what you did wrong, if only you knew what went wrong and where, if only they told you...you'd do anything to get those old times back.
It doesn't end here. You are clueless. Clueless about what happened. Clueless about what you should do now. Clueless about whether you should do something in the first place. Clueless. Completely clueless. You reminisce the sweet moments you had. You cannot forget them. You wonder if they were true. They keep coming back. Hitting you. Hurting you. Mocking you. Now you know they are true. You feel angry. And jealous. Jealous when you see other people get close to them the way you did, while you languish, a pathetic, whining creature, unthought; you are not even a speck on their mind. And it isn't as if they don't want anything to do with you anymore. They do talk to you. Treat you like they do know you. Like you are supposed to feel happy they atleast do this much. If you told someone what good friends you once were, they'd laugh at you.
You do not claim to be flawless. The whole thing might very well turn out to be your fault from start to end, through and through. And you are open to that possibilty. But you'd rather they tell you this on your face. You just wish they did. You just wish they said something. Anything- 'You give out an unbearable stench' , 'You sweat too much', 'You are all the crap in the world rolled into one and an embarrassment to be seen with', 'You bore me now', 'I have more interesting friends.Thanks.' - anything. If only they gave you a freaking reason you'd yourself make sure your ways didn't cross. If they didn't want you, they shouldn't have made friends with you in the first place. And if they still claim to be a friend, why don't they behave like one anymore?
You think. You keep thinking. When it gets too much, you try to get them to talk about it. They tell you that you have too much time on your hands, and that you are wasting theirs. There is frustration. And the frustration of not knowing what hit you is much more than the frustration of being hit. You cannot think of what to do. You do not know. You can only write a blog entry, you whimpering piece of muck.