A friend indeed

“Hi Anu, its me” said a voice I hadn’t heard in over two years. Pressing the phone hard against my ears, as if to make sure it was her, as if I couldn’t recognise that voice, I offer hesitantly, “Shania?” “Yes. Can you talk now?”

We talked endlessly. All through those years when we were together and apart. We met in the 8th standard when my dad was first posted in Ahmedabad. We hit it off right away, partly because she was one of the few with whom I could converse (it is difficult being a non-gujarati in Gujarat) and partly because we discovered a mutual love for reading. We studied together, we exchanged and discussed books and authors and everything else there is, sat next to each other in class and always had lunch together. We were perfectly happy in the little world we had built for ourselves where all others entered only in the capacity of a guest role. Our mums & dads got used to accepting the other as a permanent feature in conversations and occasional meal times.
The Rasheeds were successful doctors, both husband and wife. They were also well regarded as they were very active in taking up causes for the benefit of the local community. Shania got her activism from them. She was always fighting for something – the plight of the local stray dogs, teaching the children from the nearby slum, mobilising people to clean up their own society – small causes maybe, but they made her so big in my eyes. As is usually the case, we were very different. While she stood up for her causes, I was largely non-confrontational. She was used to voicing her opinions, I was used to keeping them to myself. She was unafraid whilst I had my insecurities. But we were inseparable.

“ I .. I am stuck. I am afraid. I just felt I needed to speak to you.. If in case…I don’t…”
“What? What are you saying? Where are you??” my voice urgent, because there is something in her voice I had never heard before. Fear…

She was fearless. “We will report you to the college authorities. Even the police! Then you will know the consequences of troubling women!” she angrily proclaimed to two men who had been harassing me on my way home every day after I had finally confided in her. It was all they could do to slink away in shame. She was my rock and my saviour.
We went to college together. Both of us had hopes of being writers and had enrolled for a course in mass communication. Even though I had been away for two years in between ( my dad got transferred , and back again to Ahmedabad after two years) it felt as if we had never been apart. College was a riot. We bunked classes together, hiding in the bathrooms to escape our principal doing his rounds. We rode around the city on our two wheelers and our new found freedom. Hot bhuttas in the rain near Law garden, pav bhaji at Honest, pizza at Tomato’s or dessert at Upper Crust… riding, walking, talking -Our eyes were full of dreams, heads full of idealism, and our hearts full of excitement for the future.
In the final year, however, I panicked. Journalism doesn’t really pay well. Nor do Advertising agencies. Plagued by insecurities – what if I am just not good enough? – I decided to pursue my Masters in business administration. It was safer. At first, she tried to talk me out of it, but when she saw how scared I was, she helped me with my applications. And so it was that I went on to do an MBA while she took up a job as an intern with a prominent newspaper.

“ I …am in a village in south Gujarat. Have been living here for the past few months for a feature. Something happened and … the Hindu Muslim situation in the village is on a boil. We are all surrounded by a mob…”
“We all? Who we?” I shout desperately into the phone.
“We Muslims, Anu”

Yeah. Shania Rasheed was Muslim. Of course. But back then, it didn’t really mean anything to me. In the general course of our interactions I never found anything really different about them and us (except for my family’s fanatical fondness for curd rice which I am told is shared only by other Tam Brahms) It was such an inconsequential thing in my scheme of things, that there was no curiosity in me to find out anything about our cultural differences. I was utterly ignorant and I wasn’t even aware of it! That little world we had made? There was no place in it for religion either.
Much later I wondered. How did she feel being a Muslim in our country. Did she even think about it? Was it different? Were people different to her? Much later it struck me that the area she lived in was predominantly Muslim. Was it coincidence? Could they not find a house elsewhere? I never thought to ask her how exactly they celebrated Eid. Being a vegetarian and a Tam Brahm at that, food, to me then, was just something to appease my hunger and I didn’t know what their traditions were, what did she like… how callous had I been?
Afterward, as our career paths diverged, we got immersed in our own personal lives and like it so often happens we had little time for anyone else, including each other. We still made efforts to do something special, like the time I surprised her for her 25th bday in some remote rural outpost in Rajasthan where she was holed up for work. But the moments became lesser and lesser.

“We Muslims..Anu”
The deathly calm in her voice as she says those words chills me. I could physically feel her fear emanating from the phone.
“Where…where exactly are you? Give me the details properly. Fast.” I say equally calmly, trying to send some support and solidarity her way. But I feel numb with fear. What can I do?

“What can I do?” I couldn’t mouth those words when I held her tightly in my arms, tears pouring down my face. I couldn’t even manage the courage to face her as her whole body convulses with painful sobs that I want to delete from memory for ever but can’t. I was practically useless, as I watched what was left of her family gather around for the funeral proceedings. The one moment I looked around distractedly, my eyes fell on a large blowup of her parents laughing together, so happy and content, unaware of the gross misfortune that was to befall them. I could say or do nothing as I mutely watched the proceedings by her side. It was the year 2002, and their society had been burnt to the ground alongwith many others. That year brought the weight of the word religion to our notice for the first time in our pseudo-liberal elitist worlds. It threw up the fact that it is a non-entity only for the privileged and the naive. The whole country was horror struck at the planned carnage revealing itself in Godhra that snuffed out hundreds of Hindu lives mercilessly. The intervening days of confusion and chaos and the subsequent mayhem unleashed on the Muslims, the reports of a condoning government and an administration complicit in the violence.. I watched my city fall apart in my mind in disbelief and horror.
That was the beginning of our moving further apart. After I joined back work in Mumbai, I completely threw myself into my job. I deliberately made myself so busy as to not have a moment to myself. I began avoiding her calls or cutting her off with an excuse the few times I did speak. She even wrote to me a couple of times, asking me what the matter was. That she needed me more than ever. I never replied. I did follow her career though. Her reporting assignments were getting meatier and her writing more confident. I watched unbelievably as she seemed to grow from strength to strength. How come someone whose life has been so rudely torn apart be so sane? How can someone who has all the reason to be boiling over with rage and venom have so much compassion, so much love? One day as I was reading an article written by her about the change brought about by mobilisation of local women in a small town in Orissa, a stray memory from college popped into my head and wouldn’t get dislodged. That moment in the past was so real that I could smell the passion I had felt back then, and the common ideals we believed in. What had happened? And just like that, something changed in me.
“What do you mean you are quitting? You can’t just do that!” squealed my manager at work when I handed in my resignation a month later. “Arvind, am actually very sick, and the doctor has advised me to take it easy. So I am taking a break” I lied, easily, already able to feel the cool breeze of freedom. I had finally landed a job in a newspaper on a probationary basis.

“Saji, I have got a lead. There’s something brewing in Arvad in Navsari. It could be big. You know Shania Rasheed right? She is there, and if she is there, you can be sure that it must be something big.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“One hundred percent. She is there on the scene. We should get there immediately” I say with some urgency. Saji, my senior and mentor considers what I have just told him. “Please…we should cover it. And I want to come with you” He looks at me. “OK, lets do it.”
After a few frantic calls and some rather nervous packing, we finally leave Mumbai for Navsari in another colleague’s car. The journey is just 4 hours, but for me its 4 hours too long. What must be happening there right now? Image after horrific image flits through my mind. I screw my eyes shut in an attempt to stop them but it seems to make them worse. “Anu, are you going to tell me what it is?” I open my eyes reluctantly. “It’s a long story” I say. “Well we are stuck in the car for the next 3-4 hours….”
“And so you cut yourself off from your best friend because you couldn’t face her for what was done to her? By your community. Our community? That doesn’t sound too extreme to you?
“They were burned alive, Saji. We did that. Us Hindus. And for what? Because they were Muslims. Any Muslims. ”
“Those people were fanatics Anu. There are enough on both sides aren’t there? And they might claim a religion but fanatics are essentially independent of religion. Of reason . Of humanity. As is friendship. Friendship is independent of religion too. If you didn’t think of her as Muslim when you were friends, why are you doing it now?”
“Guys, we are here”, warned Ashutosh, as he drove into a decrepit town, whose most striking feature was the silence that was thick in the air.
I looked around in terror, fearing the worst. Suddenly, we heard another vehicle come in from the distance. It turned out to be a police vehicle. Noticing us, the vehicle stopped, and a policeman approached us suspiciously. “Who are you?” came the brusque question. “eh.. we are from the Bombay Post. We had got a tip that there is a dangerous situation brewing here between Hindus and Muslims….” “So you came to add fuel to the fire? Eh? You journalists are all alike.”
“Hmm sir.” I ventured, diffidently. “Can you tell us what is happening? One of my friends is here and she had called me. She seemed to be in danger. Please…” The policeman looked me over, as if deciding whether this chit of a woman needs to be shoved away or pitied upon. “They are out over there near the school. There is a woman. A Muslim woman. One of your people I think. Reporter. She is helping negotiate. “
There was no doubt it was her. I couldn’t care less what she was negotiating except that it meant she was alive!! Relief almost made me faint. But I said, “Lets find them.” And we trudged along on foot, as the road ahead didn’t look too safe for our old Maruti.
As we approached the school compound, we saw people milling around, some listening patiently, some shouting slogans while a few policemen slouched about on the perimeter but all of their attention was riveted upon the figure of one woman who was trying to out shout and out talk the men. It was her.
We pushed and shoved our way to the front and soon everyone in the compound noticed the presence of strangers amidst them. It was then that she saw me, disbelief writ large on her face. I grinned, and ignoring the questions and shouts went forward and engulfed her in a huge hug. She dissolved in my arms, as if carrying the weight of the world all alone had been too much even for her. “How…What are you doing here?” she whispers.

“I have come to save you of course, you maniac” I smile.

Vested interests may time and again try to tear people apart. . Politicians and their uncles may say that Hindus and Muslims can’t coexist. But then, for many many of us, it is the truth we live in. What do they know?
It is all going to be okay.

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The coolest parent EVER

“You don’t understand!”

What mom has not heard this at some point in her life? I had realised I would too, just that I didn’t expect the realisation to come true already. She s all of 4 for god’s sake.
“You don’t understand anything ma” she pipes again, her lips puckered, tears threatening to pour down those soft baby cheeks. The first time I heard it, I stopped in my tracks, stunned. That hurt. That really hurt. And I thought I was such a cool mom (yeah well..). It dredged up memories from deep within…

“Why did you make your brother cry? (He lost the game, and so he is crying, I didn’t make him! He cries anyway!) You don’t understand!
Don’t read while having dinner (But this is the latest Nancy Drew and she‘s just about to find out who did it!) You don’t understand!
Why didn’t you come first in class? (Because I can’t learn by rote as well as others. Why is it important to come first anyway?) You don’t understand!
How come you can’t have cabbage dosai? You like them.. ( I like cabbage and I like dosas but NOT cabbage in the dosas, yuck! ) You don’t understand!
Tie your hair. Wear a bindi. (Why do I have to? I like my hair open. And I don’t like wearing a bindi) You don’t understand!
Are you going to wear that top? (Yes, I happen to like it, and its just sleeveless, not transparent!) You don’t understand!

My mom and I would have clashed a million such times over the years, hurting each other, with little understanding. All that time, I was convinced my mother did it on purpose. She didn’t understand me or my needs at all. And I vowed that when I was a parent, I would be the coolest parent ever!

Cut the Flashback. Back to the grim present.

Looking at the hurt expression on my daughter’s face, I realised with horror, I WAS my mom. I had become what I have been striving so hard NOT to become (Don’t get me wrong, my ma is the sweetest, kindest most infuriating creature on earth, though my husband comes really close. Which is really a whole new blog post for another time)
And then it dawned on me – there is no such thing as a cool parent. That it is an oxymoron, a contradiction, an impossibility. You can be cool or you can be a parent, but you cannot be both ! ( Unless you are ok with having your children grow up to be selfish, fat slobs and wastrels that make nothing of their lives… God, there I go sounding like ma again! Help! ) But really, would I want to be cool in my daughter’s eyes, and allow her unlimited screen time, give in to every sugar craving, allow her to bunk school indiscriminately and turn a blind eye to her occasional rude behaviour? Should I rather be easy going, and trust that she knows what is right or will learn eventually and leave it to her to judge?

How does one find the balance between being firm and being a nag? Balance the fine line between letting go and being easy? Forget that, where is that blasted line??!

One thing parenting does is it helps you get used to things not going your way all the time, to put it rather mildly. Now, since I do have to get on with my life, I have resigned myself to accept that my pipe dreams of being that mythical ‘cool parent’ are not going to materialise.

I am – not- going – to- be -a cool – parent.

So there are rules of course – non-negotiable rules like eating vegetables and being wary of strangers. Some negotiable rules like bedtimes and TV time on weekends . And then there are those like playing in the sand and painting with fingers and jumping in muddy puddles – where I smile and turn the other way….

And sometimes, I whoop and join her.Shed the burden of being a parent and breathe the uninhibited joyousness of childhood.

And tell myself, I can be cool, its just that I will be the

Coolest GRAND parent EVER!

(That’s why they are called GRAND parents- they have the GRANDEST job in the world. Being a grandparent must be the reward for those hard years of parenting. They can just stick their thumb out at their hapless children sweating it out with their own and say “Ha! So you thought you could better us eh? Whatever you do, we will always be the cool one! ” )

The look in his eyes

Our eyes met again.

I hurriedly looked away, while an eerie feeling engulfed me, feeling his eyes still on me. Shuddering as I drove away, I decided once again that I will take the longer route to the bus stop starting tomorrow.

Tomorrow finds me hurrying my baby along as she jumps and skips to the car. I check my watch. Nope, no time to take the longer route. Its pouring heavily and I can barely see a feet ahead. I take a deep breath, and take the shortcut to her bus stop through the slum at the back of our society. The slum provides us with all the work force that run societies like ours – the bais (housemaids), the dhobis (washer men), the drivers and watchmen. There are also daily labourers, who congregate on the roads every morning, I presume waiting for contractors to come hire them for the day. There are always men huddled together in groups every morning all along that narrow road that I use as a shortcut for reaching my daughter’s bus stop. There are tiny cramped houses with peeling paint and flapping clotheslines almost on top of each other spilling onto the road on both sides so that you feel boxed in. Women can be found filling water in vessels or washing up right outside their tiny houses, practically on the road. The rain has turned an open garbage dump nearby into a stinking decaying mess and there are children rollicking in the slush and the puddles that have formed all over the pot holed road. Every morning when I enter the area, I feel a familiar wariness creep over me, as if I shouldn’t be here, that I stick out here like a sore thumb. And I drive extra cautiously so as not to hit any wayward children, staring straight ahead trying not to have eye contact with anyone. Lest they see the disgust and the fear in mine. Except, he saw me.

He was one of them, dressed in a cheap shirt and trousers and waiting. Waiting, and looking. One day when momentarily I had forgotten my rule of not looking around, I caught him looking at me. He was clean shaven and his clothes were as clean as they could be, though rumpled. But his look had me unsettled. What was going on in his mind? Was he right now thinking about the unfairness of it all? Was my presence there an everyday reminder of all that he could probably never have? Hurriedly I looked straight ahead again and adjusted my top. Was I dressed inappropriately? I felt vulnerable..

“Ouch! Sorry sweetie” I said to my daughter as the car lurched over a pothole I could not see due to the lashing rain. My car harrumphed like a wheezing horse and then spluttered and died. Just like that. Suddenly the only noise I could hear was the steady beating of the rain and my little girl squealing “yayy muddy puddle…” Stumped, I kept staring at the steering wheel as if somehow that could get the car started, when a tapping at my window made me jump.

It was him.

I froze. No, no this can’t be happening to me.. My vision blurred as my mind raced through a hundred different possibilities none of which ended well…I frantically searched in my bag for my mobile to call my husband when there was a louder tap on the window. I spun towards the window expecting to meet leering menacing eyes. Instead I saw questioning eyes full of concern. What? Have I fallen into a delirium? He seemed to be saying something and beckoning towards the back of the car. With my heart beating loudly enough for the whole locality to hear, I slid the window open an inch. “Start the car, we will push. Your wheels are stuck in a pothole” He had to repeat it again, slower this time, since I was displaying all the understanding of a gargoyle. Somehow I managed to nod, and turned the key in the ignition. It was then I noticed that a few other of those men were all standing at the back of the car ready to push.

Ever get the feeling you are part of something unreal? That’s what I felt when a bunch of strange men I wouldn’t generally associate with heave- hoed me out of that hole with my little girl playing the cheer leader. As they came around to the front, I still couldn’t get up the courage to get out of the car, but I felt relief and gratitude wash over me. I tried to put all of my feeling in my “thank you so much” when blushing, he said “Didi, my wife works in your society looking after a kid. Roma? You had given your cycle to her?”

I started to turn back home with my delighted daughter, too late to catch her bus, a multitude of thoughts welling in my mind, but most of all knowing I wouldn’t feel unsafe on that route again.