The Smiling Salesman

“Ma, look! Look what I found in the book!” squealed Nethra in excitement.  “What is it ma what is it?” Shoving the piece of paper in front of my face, she breathed, “Is it about hidden treasure?!”

“Okay, let me first see” I laughed at her excitement and took the paper from her while carefully closing and placing the Encyclopaedia on the side. It was an old book, much used; one that had lasted me all my childhood and now was seeing my daughter’s. The paper in my hand seemed to be a page torn out of a notebook. I curiously opened it out. Nethu was going through an explorer-pirates-old parchment-treasure phase, and no wonder she thought it was a treasure map, as the page had yellowed, and the writing was quite faded. I could make out that it was my mother’s writing though. Even while scribbling her handwriting was so beautiful…  “Its written by your patti” I told my impatient little girl. “And it seems to be a story. I think..” “Can you read it for me ma..please..?”

There he was again. Wearing a crisp blue shirt and dark blue tie and the usual cheerful smile, he was working the road on my right, expertly weaving through the vehicles. How does he do it, I wondered. How can he manage to smile all the time? That too when no one had given him reason yet to do so? I glanced at the signal impatiently, and again looked to my right. He was moving closer now, coming onto my road. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, fuming at the amount of time wasted at this signal every morning .It was one of the busiest crossroads in Pune and I always spent at least 10 minutes waiting for the signal to turn green and for my turn to hasten to my office. Why do I even hurry? I wondered today. Its not like I even enjoy my job. I looked up just then, and there he was, approaching my car with a wide smile when the signal turned green. Shrugging my shoulders at him, I whizzed past with the feeling of having been released from jail. Ironic, since I was actually rushing to one!

I got off from work early today. I had a few errands to run. I found myself at the same signal, and there he was, still. He was there in the morning at 830, and here he is still, at 630 in the evening. And yet, he was smiling. There s something to be learned from him about attitude, I chided myself as he approached me .As I rolled down the window, he recognised me as one of the regulars and said “Hello madam. Are you sure you don’t need them?” he said, smilingly pointing at the heavy book in his hands. “No, thank you” I returned with a smile and he shrugged and smiled widely again. He never ever pushed.  He was a salesman of Encyclopaedias, possibly one of the worst jobs one could have (I had to admit, even worse than mine). How often does a person buy an expensive encyclopaedia? And that too at a traffic signal? In fact, how many people even want to read these days? And yet, there he was, day after day, wearing a crisp shirt and a tie and his ever present smile, always polite, never pushy, apparently selling encyclopaedias. The thing astounded me.

Soon I changed my job, and with that changed the route I took. A year had passed when I came to be at that junction again, and I was in a good mood. My eyes automatically roamed the crossroads looking to see if he was there, my salesman with the attitude. A knock at my left hand side window had me turning, only to find a familiar smile. Smiling back, I rolled down the window. “After a long time madam?” He enquired. “Yes. How are you?” I asked. He still had the book in his hands. “Oh!” I put my hands on my belly at the kick. I was happy, and I wanted to share the happiness. I looked at the signal. It was about to turn green. “Will you come over to that side? I want to buy your book” I told him to his astonishment. “There, right there” I pointed as the light turned green and the multitude of vehicles moved as a mass forward. I stopped to the side and he soon caught up. “You will really buy, madam?” he asked, unsure. “Yes!” I exhaled exuberantly while placing a reassuring hand on my tummy again. I felt a rush of joy and goodwill. Was it my expectant hormones at that point? I don’t know, but I feel gratitude for that man, who unwittingly made me happy just by being himself. How many of us can claim such an honour?

Who knew there was a story behind the first book I laid eyes on?! Thus it was that the encyclopaedia was the first book that was bought for me, before I was even born, before any picture books and flap books and 3D books. For the first 6-8 months, my mother read to me from it. I would turn the pages curiously, looking at the pictures, probably wondering about an exotic mysterious world (This is what she told me) Much later when I was big enough, I remember many an evening spent thumbing through it, lost in fascination in this ocean of information. I was a product of the internet generation, but I retained the love for a book, a lasting legacy of my parents, and in a way too, of the smiling encyclopaedia salesman.

“What does patti mean ma? I don’t understand! Was he a nice man?” asked my little five year old, squeezing her brows together in confusion. All the times spent with that book flashed through my head like the reels of a movie, and all the times I have seen my one thumbing through it… and I said, “Yes baby, he was a nice man”.



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.

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.


Yet another of us falls victim to that institution of mythical bliss – marriage. My brother will be exchanging rings and toasting champagne with his future wife at a beautiful park in San Francisco city while I am miles away in gloomy Pune halfway across the world. Such is Life…

It had to happen one day of course. Though we were kind of losing hope… But today I am so deliriously happy that my husband had to remind me that I had forgotten his coffee. Twice. And the quest for marital bliss (!) kills romance once again. Hehe.
My previous post eulogising my brother (yeah there was another, can you believe it) was when he was about to begin his career. Getting hitched to a job is one thing, but getting hitched to another person, presumably for life, definitely deserves to be recorded for posterity in the annals of the digital world and so, here I go again.

When Kanna came along, I was already 6 and a half years old and though I can’t remember how exactly I felt, all my memories of the period point to my viewing him as my plaything. All the motherly feelings that were buried in my 6 yr old heart came to the fore when this cute little chubby bundle came along- and boy was he cute then. I know its difficult to believe now.
So we went through all the regular phases…from Caring Elder Sister in love with cute Baby Brother to Cool Elder Sister being followed by a Pain-in-the-Ass Brother, to Selfless Elder Sister having to give things up in favour of Snivelling Little Brother, to ribbing and squabbling partners to… now sharing an easy friendship…
We have shared Hardy Boys & Harry Potter and a mutual love for books. Pontificated about Sauron and LOTR (where I was woefully inadequate) and gone on flights of fantasy. Fought for window seats on the train and first reading rights to a new book. Played endless games. Teased amma. Argued with appa…

I have listened to him rattle off the bus numbers on all the routes in Chennai & subsequently Bombay. Watched bemused as he gorged on Scooby Doo & Scooby Snacks. Ribbed him as he went through a super massive eating phase. Ribbed him endlessly. Watched him master kite flying with a Lappet! Been secretly proud of him as he worked harder and scored better than I ever could. Been amused, annoyed and amazed by his passion for stamps, coins, capitals, Eminem, Rock music, vada pav and samosas (The guy made an app to find Samosas for Gods sake!). Acknowledged his somewhat dubious superior prowess with technology. Watched him grow wings away from the protective cocoon of his family. Tried things he never did before. Felt a pang of jealously when he started running and cycling and no way, gymming! And laughed and fought and loved him through it all. All that history has somehow managed to keep us connected , and I still shudder to think what if all my teasing over the years had turned him away from me – because underneath all that crap I loved him a lot and I still do ( Don’t gag)

But then, today isn’t about the past is it? Today we savour the present moment, and eagerly await the future. He has now grown up to be smart and mature, and responsible and kind, ready to explore and experiment and take chances. He has become his own man, a man that I am proud to call my brother (though this paean on the web might be the only place I shall admit it) Yet he manages to remain the adorable goofball he has always been.

My father used to say, when my brother was only 2 or 3, that somewhere in the world, a little girl exists who will one day decide to partner him, and how he can’t wait to meet her! Well dad, your wait is now over.

Today they are getting engaged. And as they stand poised on the edge of the precipice to take this leap of faith together, all I can do from continents away is to blog my love, my happiness and my best wishes for them and yell

Jump guys Jump! but remember to hold hands!!!

Brothers & Sisters

Arguments. Games. Grappling on the floor. Insults. Secrets. Humour.Tease.Laughs. Scheming against mom n dad. Confidences. Conversations. Shared dreams. Fights.Goofing off…

Doesn’t the mention of your brother or sister bring all of this to mind & more?

My brother & I have a special thing. I mean, wouldn’t you, if you had walked him, when he was but a lil baby & would grab your finger with complete trust ? Or the way he would follow you like a shadow wherever you went & not allow you a single moment alone with your friends? Remember the time during a Raksha Bandhan long ago when he gave you 1 Re as a gift , that too borrowed from dad? Or that time when you & he travelled all by yourselves on the train?

When you recorded songs together & couldn’t stop laughing ? When you could bully him into submission when he was little? And then you couldn’t really risk it anymore once he grew up to be bigger than you ? What about the time you broke the news of your intention to marry a non Tam Brahm, the first in the family to know? The times you shared your excitement about a new book or a movie? When you made up nonsensical stories together? When you simply talked nonsense which only the both of you could understand?

All this & more I share with my brother…. Now that he s been here for an all too brief two weeks , am amazed that its actually been almost ten years since we lived in the same house together. Growing up does have its side effects…

But then it does have its advantages too …as you gradually grow into a relationship based on more than just silly arguments…where you can be friends more than siblings, and where he suddenly  overwhelms  you with his grown up ness . I remember we had a pact in childhood – that no matter what happens or how much time passes or however far away we might be – we will never let anything come between us….I hope!

Today he is done with his student days & about to embark on his career , and I cannot but feel immensely proud of him.  All the best da…. (and remember to keep the dollars flowing in… especially since I have eulogised you in public 🙂 )

I really must thank my parents for having the courage to have a second child even after having me  🙂 Otherwise, I never would have known & shared all the quirky & wonderful memories  I share with him.

Siblings are the best, aren’t they?

Baba Ramdev ya Gabbar Singh?

Baba Ramdev  is holding the country to ransom.

And our weak government , already scarred by the furious popularity  enjoyed by the Anna Hazare fasting campaign across the country, sends top ministers to go haggle with him and to appease his ,well, hunger…?  Sort of like the tales of our mythology where the Gods sent the heavenly apsaras to distract  the penance of the Maharishis … Though by no twist of imagination can Pranab Mukherjee be seen as Urvashi ..!

But seriously, we are a democracy after all .Democracy is …. a Rule of the people?  So a Baba Ramdev can threaten a fast & bring the government to its knees. Anna Hazare can fast & arm twist the government to agree to pass something as dubious as the Lokpal Bill. MNS activists can cause  riots against non Marathis & cause damage to life and property , & pass unscathed. A Shiv Sena student can allege that a certain book contains opinions which are broadly insulting of Bal Thackeray & The Sena, & an institution as old & reputed as Mumbai University promptly bans the book without stopping to see if the claims are verified.

Yes, we are a democracy.

True , it is incorrect to club in the same camp the hooligans in the Sena (both of them) with people like Anna Hazare & Baba Ramdev   – but aren’t they essentially doing the same thing? While one is using its political clout & sheer hooliganism to get away with anything, the other uses the emotional clout it enjoys amongst the vast majority to get the government to agree to its demands. Who is  to decide what is good & what not? Or which method is more acceptable? We are debating the appropriateness of bringing the PMO’s Office & The Judiciary under the Lokpal, but what of these elements who hold the entire  system to ransom with abandon? What of these blackmailers?

So yes, we are a democracy. But do we deserve to be one?

I believe there is a basic  unsaid  premise of a democracy, which is a government of (mature) people, by (mature) people, for (mature) people. You can’t expect the freedom & therefore the responsibility that comes with it, to be appreciated & upheld by people who are, basically, immature. Therefore we have people like our politicians who can’t see an inch beyond their own immediate power & monetary gain, a media which can’t seem to go beyond increasing their TRPs & their circulation figures by simply pandering to whichever news is more juice worthy… and we, the public at large , who just can’t seem to cast away our apathy, mired as we are in our own selfish little worries –rise in prices, kid’s education, new job, child’s wedding  et cetera et cetera.

Baba Ramdev & Anna Hazare are loved & respected by millions of Indians and have the enviable position of being close to ordinary citizens while being in a position of influence. They would do well to engage with the government & the people  in a mature manner to bring about sweeping change.

Coffee at Mani’s Cafe

So here I was in Sri Rangam, which is a busy little temple town in the district of Tiruchirapally in Tamil Nadu, and that also, happens to be my hometown. I had come to visit my grand parents & my mom who was camping there and guess what- it was turning into an impromptu mini reunion! Suddenly there were aunts & uncles & cousins and it felt like the good old times when we would gather during summer holidays or during someone’s wedding…lots of people, lots of noise, lots of food & lots of fun…so well, one of the days my dad has a brilliant idea- that we all go out to have breakfast. We all set out, at 7:45AM, an unearthly hour in Pune, but there, we were already late. If you have been to Sri Rangam, you would know we have narrow streets lined with little shops & pavements brimming over with hawkers & the roads a mumble jumble of people hurrying towards the temple and bicycles tinkling away & cycle rickshaws & the odd honking autorickshaw, all bustling & bursting in & around the huge temple complex of Lord Ranganatha. If you were lucky, you could meet the temple elephant ambling away slowly, probably taking a walk? I remember I used to be thrilled when I caught sight of him…Now on one such street, just beyond the Raja Gopuram, was Mani’s café, a little place which you would have totally missed had you not known it was there…

Have you ever been to Tamil Nadu? Well the men usually wear a lungi or a veshti ( essentially a dhoti) which is worn folded by half so that its sort of like an above-the-knee wrap around – which I think is quite the appropriate garment for the sticky heat of that state. The veshti is always white, worn usually with a crisp white shirt.We south Indians revere all things fair & white.Well one such veshti clad man waved us into an interior chamber at Mani’s (probably the owner, I don’t know) and we somehow managed to save ourselves from the waiters rushing hither & thither juggling their plates of masala dosai & jugs of sambar, & plonked ourselves at two tables…with benches instead of chairs.. One of the men came forward immediately ( he had a folded crisp white towel that hung on one side of his shoulder – which gave one the feeling of military like efficiency & also that here was a man of importance.) He reeled off the menu with a casual confidence that comes of repeating it for probably the fiftieth time that morning – “inniki enna kidaikkum?” “idli-vada-idiappam-dosai-puri masala-pongal” (yes, my mouth was secretly watering) We all gave our own orders , and before we knew it, our leafy plates were laid out before us. Food here was served the traditional tamil way, that is on plantain leaves – trust me, it’s a lot of fun, if you know how to ( my brother still doesn’t) And just think about it- it’s a brilliant cost & time saving mechanism – since it does away with crockery completely & therefore someone to wash them, besides being supremely eco friendly- nature’s very own disposable plates! One of my cousins, who like myself, is a pretext for a tamilian, whispered urgently into my ear “they don’t have plates here! ” & I had the smug satisfaction of telling her this is how it is…
Our orders came in one by one..I had asked for a masala dosai. I was just about to bite into it when one of the Sambar juggling waiters came & poured a torrent of sambar right on top of my dosa! Before I could protest at this, in comes another guy to pour chutney right on top of the sambar- so now I had this soggy dosa-sambar-chutney mix topped with my irritation – apparently they didn’t believe in bowls in this place. But still, soggy or not, my dosai was beckoning to me & soon I was tucking into it with gusto, as were all the others. Between seconds & extra helpings we soon finished & the famous filter coffee was ordered. Coffee is the staple beverage in South India & if you were a non coffee drinker, like me, well, you could get looks ranging from astonishment to bewilderment to the kind of look one gives to a neighbour whose girl has run away to marry, O Lord, a North Indian 🙂 –- pity? Yes that’s what it is, I think…Anyway, the coffee is had in a davara-tumbler – davara being a cylindrical katori with a flat rim, and a tumbler being , of course a tumbler. The steaming hot coffee is then poured back & forth from davara to tumbler till the time it cools down a bit & the coffee becomes light & frothy, & sipped slowly while chanting our thanks to the gods for this manna from heaven. Now Mani’s Café had an innovation to add to this- they gave us black coffee in the tumbler, which was tilted upside down in the davara, while the davara itself had the milk separately in it!! Probably to give us a feeling of having made good with our colonial upbringing…

Soon, this too was over & we were ready to go. Or rather, they were ready to let us go – it was a busy place, & not really one where you could dawdle over your cup of coffee with a book… we decided to move. Breakfast was over, & chatting & laughing & squinting in the sun, we left for home.

Its amazing how you never really see things when they are all around you. Actually you never see things until they are not there for you to see…and then they are suddenly so clear. Srirangam & Tamilian traditions were all somewhat of a drag for me till the time I married a North Indian (yes, I was the one, though I didn’t run away 🙂 ) I somehow see both with new eyes today, in fact , I feel I am really only seeing them, now. Its only when you go away, that you have perspective. And only then you realize what it is you had up close. I remember wondering briefly about having an identity crisis marrying a Lucknowite, but surprise, surprise, I think am more Tamilian now than I ever was before….Yes, I might still look uncomfortable with flowers in my short hair, and I might still prefer chai over filter coffee, But I most definitely believe that chilled curd rice with pickled raw mango is the best thing in the world……hmmmm…

Street Outside theRaja Gopuram, further in is Mani's Cafe

You can hear the whistle blow a 100 miles…

As the train finally started moving, I could barely contain my excitement. Pressed to the window, watching the people & the hawkers & the waiting room & the Wheelers Stall all pass by with increasing speed, my mind crowds with multiple emotions- excitement, anticipation, & somewhat strangely, a peacefulness.
I love train journeys. I am traveling with my dad to my native town in interior TamilNadu, and apart from the excitement of meeting all my relatives, the most awaited aspect of this vacation was this – the train journey! That I am traveling with my dad, after ages, brings back a flood of nostalgia…and the landscape outside changes to twenty five years of flashes of memories…

Train journeys – how much preparation went into them! Days before we (us kids) would decide what luggage to take & argue with mom about the clothes to carry, the number of books & comics, what games to fit in. Travelling games usually would be Uno, Memory, Ludo etc. There was this phase when all the kids in the neighbourhood, probably the country, went crazy after WWF cards, and Racing cards & what not & my brother was one of them. So these would be carried along too.

Food preparation used to be a huge activity in itself. Now that I have seen more of the world I have realized that every family has its own staple travel food- For example,My husband’s family, who are from UP, used to carry parathas or puris with a dry aloo ki subzi. In fact, we are carrying some of the yummy stuff with us right now. Many of us must have seen Gujaratis or Marwaris travel- boy- I don’t think they have any separate journey food- They somehow manage to carry the very same meals they have at home on travel too, from farsaan to salad to pickle!
For us, Tam Brahms that we were, Idlies & thayir sadham (Curd Rice!) was the most common staple. Mum would prepare idlies by the dozen & would carefully smear each with an oil & gun powder paste, instead of carrying the usual sambar-chutney which would spoil. Sometimes instead of idlies we would have puliyodharai (tamarind rice) or lemon rice. Curd Rice however was omnipresent. It was fragrantly seasoned with coriander & curry leaves, green chillies & ginger for a subtle bite with a sprinkling of mustard seeds & urad dal. If it were summer, we would have freshly cut pieces of raw mango with salt & chilli paste to go with- merely the thought of this combination is making my mouth water! Its true – curd rice & Tam Brahms are inseparable-whatever part of the world they are in or however many cuisines they enjoy! Now apart from the food we carried, there would be a lot of intermittent snacking going on, where every hawker who passed by was stopped, his wares examined, & more often than not, sent on his way lighter.. and what about all the chais & coffees?

“Cha—i—ya, chai-yya…” “Bhaiya- ek chai dena.” As I sip on my third chai of the journey, I can’t help but think how those days have undergone a change.
Those were the days when second class travel was the norm and AC a rare luxury. When train bathrooms didn’t give you nightmares from days before.When train food was fun & hygiene was simply a word in the dictionary. When hawkers added to the excitement instead of being a nuisance. When time was our own and no one was in a hurry….
You know we would usually reach the station about 2 hours earlier, because , well, my father is a cautious man , to say the least. So that would mean a good 2 hour time pass at the station – as a child I guess a railway platform is a fascinating place – there s so much happening! Now, all that I can see is an unbearably dirty station, stinking & smelling of the sweat of all the people jostling each other for space with railway carts, luggage, hawkers, beggars & the odd stray animal. Hair raising to say the least, but then, I am the one who has changed…

I like to simply look out the window… the whizzing varying landscape fascinates me…here field after field of sun flowers.. there you have mangroves for miles.. rice fields pass by now, with a solitary farmer trudging along side his crop…then a beautiful serene vast expanse of water- was that a crane that broke the surface?…then a bridge comes & the steady clatter of the wheels changes to a slower deep baritone & I look in awe at the river flowing beneath, always thinking, what if…? Here comes a city..a line of impatient lorries & cars & scooters straining against the level crossing….the window is actually like a bioscope..
There usually would be a mini World War between my brother & me- who would get the window seat? Usually, I being the elder one, always got to be the larger hearted one & had to give him whatever he wanted. The many sacrifices an elder sibling has to make for the ever-demanding never-satisfied greedy younger ones is not funny  Well anyway we would arrive at some kind of amicable arrangement for the window…I remember this one time when he & I were traveling all by ourselves for the very first time- from Chennai to Hyderabad to meet our cousins. Boy were we excited or what! I remember we kept chatting & giggling non stop throughout the journey….

Its getting dark as I am writing this now. I am snuggled beneath my sheet with my curtains drawn & my little over head light shining a little round spot on this page as I write…I think am sleepy now.

As I switch off the light & lie down, I am happy & peaceful as my eyes are lulled to a close with the soothing rhythmic movement of the train echoing in my sub conscious…


Why isn’t running the same anymore as it used to be when you were young? Why isn’t running the closest thing to flying anymore? And why is a non exercising lazy bum like me asking these questions, you wonder. Well, I run these days. Yes! One Part inspiration, and three parts-tension, that he, may grow fitter while I, grow a paunch & a double chin and also not wanting to throw away pots of money into a gym, I decided to run too.

Remember when we were young, running used to be the most natural & effective way of motion…Oh how I used to love it! Didn’t all our games involve running – Lock n Key, Chain Sisters, Seven stones, even Hide n Seek, Kho- Kho( I used to love this game, do they even play it anymore?), Dodge Ball and millions others whose names I cant remember…but I do remember running all the while and I do remember the whoosh of joy while taking off with the wind trying to avoid getting caught …

Soon enough though, we seemed to grow up, and girls no longer wanted to play.Things like propriety & appearances & complexion ( ! ) became more of a reality than games that were suddenly childish… time passed by, places, people, schools changed…my own priorities changed…probably Badminton was & is the only game I took forward with me for whatever little while at various points in my life after that…

Anyway, since the last two days, I have been reliving those memories and trying to feel again the sheer exhilaration that I used to feel then, while doing my morning run…yeah I am constantly pulled into reality by my groaning old muscles and the zillions of to-do s zooming in & out of my head – go to the bank, finish that assignment, talk to the boss, shit we are going to end up over spending this month, what exactly did he mean when he said that and so on & so forth– but then, just for a few minutes, I remember, and I fly.