Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lost & Found - and Lost

When I came out of the building, I had this familiar feeling that I had forgotten something. I looked at the items in my hand - a brochure, a leaflet someone had handed me on my way out, what did I miss? Of course. My mobile phone. I must have left it where I was sitting. 

I asked him to wait and went back. I did not expect to find it. No one can resist the sight of an abandoned phone and refrain from stealing it. At least, that has been my experience.

It was new, and it was mine. Everything that I could tell another soul and everything I could not - my phone knew it all. I could wink at it and it would know why. Losing it would be like losing a part of myself. As I walked in past the crowd thronging the building, I was certain it would not be there. I kicked myself for forgetting it.

There were so many staircases in that building - why was there so many of those, everywhere, going up and down, and every where? It was as though I was in a maize of staircases. Which one did I just use on my way out after the meeting?

One seemed familiar, and I went up. Yes, they were all there, the smiling adults and the playing children. The balloons, the toys, the noise. The phone was still there in my seat. It was not stolen! Of course, if you leave a mobile phone among children, it will not be lost. On the contrary, the children who find it would go out of their way to hand it back to you. Between childhood and adulthood springs the first inkling of dishonesty.

It was such a relief to find it again. It was not gone. Thank God. It would have been tragic. Wonder why emotions are so heightened in dreams. The immense fear of losing the phone, the overwhelming relief of finding it - but those were nothing compared to what was coming.

It was time to get out of the building, and the maize confronted me again. Which way had I come up? Are these staircases moving like those in Harry Potter stories? Why were there so many of them? Which way should I go? Why was I so confused? I don't usually lose my way. Today I feel so muddled.

I tried to remember the way I had come up. Those set of steps, then the turn - to the right or left? I had to choose one at random and trust my instincts. 

Wrong. I ended up on the other exit at the far side of the building. What was this - a mall? Vehicles were flowing out the gate. I looked back. I could see the numerous staircases all the way to the other side. I had to get there. He was waiting. That was where I should be. But I could not just go straight. I had to choose the steps.

I closed my eyes and tried to picture the location and the route. How did one get to the other exit? What did I have to do to go home? No one was paying any attention. Who can show me the way? Why were there no directions to the Exit? Why was I feeling so scared?

I was lost. I was LOST. It was just a damn building with infinite rows of staircases. And I was stuck in them. Helpless.

I opened my eyes. Daylight was streaming in. A faint sense of relief washed over me. I wasn't really lost. I was safe in my bed. But I was trembling. The magnitude of that fear remained in my mind for the most part of the morning...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Two-way mirror

There is this school bus that shrieks to a halt in front of our apartment every morning. You could hear it groan as it approaches, as the driver gently steps on the brakes. Some days I would be outside when it arrives, watering my plants or putting out clothes to dry or consuming Vitamin-D from my east-facing balcony with my cup of tea. I see the faces at the window, of sleepy, dreamy or bored children, having who knows what kind of thoughts about school and what lies ahead. There is this girl I see - she wears glasses with a black frame. She is probably in high school. I noticed her because I caught her watching me, many times. Sometimes she doesn't. I don't know if she actually sees me, or if that is a blank, half-asleep morning stare. Her chin is raised when she looks this side, suggesting that she actually sees what she is looking at.

Children are the mirrors into our past. When we look at them, we see our own past staring back at us.

When I see that girl, I remember a window through which, one day every week, we used to observe a man washing clothes and putting them out to dry in the clothes line. We called him Uthaman - because he seemed like the ideal husband. Yes, a man who helps with the laundry was well within our definition of 'ideal'. That was not the pre-WW II era, of course, but those were still the days when men and chores were considered strangers. A husband helping with kitchen, washing, etc. was a rare enough sight (or, concept) for us to drool over.

I wonder what this girl in the shrieking school bus would be thinking, if at all she is conscious of the woman with the steaming cup of tea, leaning on her balcony rails, squinting against the sun, watching the hustle and bustle of morning school time. Does the girl think about what I am doing, and does she wonder about herself? Does she see me as a mirror into her own future? Does the sight excite her or cause her dread? Does she wish that her difficult school days would be over so that she can also lounge in some balcony and sip hot tea? Or does she fear that her days ahead consist of washing and drying clothes and hanging them out to dry, and watering plants and keeping the house?
Does she wonder, at all?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Time has passed

They may say there are no accidents
But there was something in the way we met.
It just happened, all seemed normal;
But looking back, I do wonder.

Was it meant to be? Was it a wise act of destiny?
We had discovered the highway, together,
Learning the ride, making mistakes,
And ultimately paying the price.

It wasn't all fun, of course; it never is.
But a co-traveller makes it worthwhile.
Through twists and turns, ups and downs,
The journey has been rough.

Now we travel at the ends of the street
Not holding hands, out of reach.
Wasn't it narrower when we started?
Time has passed, the roads have widened.

We're not who we were, we've grown;
Dragging ourselves like tramps, up and down,
Shoving forward, though exhausted, beaten;
With only one purpose: the end, the end.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Once Replaced

It is not easy to get over the feeling that we had been discarded. 

Flowers will bloom and wither, leaves will fall, and many monsoons will come and go, but the memory would still sting.

As time passes, however, once we have learned to convincingly pretend that we have put the bad times behind us, it becomes easier to let our emotion roam without the fear of anyone connecting it to our past. That's very important - to not let our weakness show, to cloak it in indifference.

We may become old and frail, and have other achievements in the course of life, but this little pang would forever remind us that we were not perfect, we had fought hard battles and not always come out successful. The question 'what could I have done different?' would forever hang over us and torment us. 

Because none of us like to think that we have been replaced.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Road to Liberation: Why can't we?

Another Women's Day has come and gone. All the right words were tossed in the right places - liberation*, equality, feminism, empowerment and such glorious words that generate goosebumps all over the place. All the right questions were asked in the right forums -  including, Will women ever be really free? Wherefore art thou, Romeo? To be or not to be? and such pertinent ones. After the fun was over, everyone left: the people went to have dinner, the chickens went home to roost and the cows went home to probably catch up on their nap. Until the next women's day or the next time liberation is set on fire.

A few days ago, I read a tweet (unfortunately I lost its trace) which said that in Saudi, the laws that restrict women are typically upheld by older, traditional women themselves. Frankly, I don't find that surprising at all. It is not because the older women are jealous of the youngsters (or such rubbish). It is a very simple (and well-known) fact that if we grew up believing something, it is not easy to change it. Allow me to take a few detours.

One day, in the nineties, I was watching TV with a woman as old as my mother. Let's us just say that she had not quite caught up with the developments in the entertainment industry. After watching a song-and-dance sequence from a movie, she asked me if 'they were all really women, or if they were men dressed as women?' I replied that the dancers were really women. She didn't comment, but I believe she was wondering how women could actually wear such clothes and dance, in front of so many people. Today we have gotten used to the idea (and worse). The shock has since worn off. But on that day, I don't think the lady approved of what she saw. I don't think the notions of 'liberty' or 'equality' or 'empowerment' were at the top of her mind; she merely found the sight distasteful. Given a chance, she might have suggested that these dances be banned. Of course, I am speculating now. She had not said a word.

Another scene. There was a cultural program in our college. As the evening wore on and the latest hit songs were being played, boys began dancing in the auditorium and some of the excitement caught on to us girls, too. We don't need booze to get high, we just need the appropriate music and an incessant pounding in our ears. Some of us got up from our seats and began dancing. Needless to say, there were many eyes on us but we did not care. We had to dance. There would never be another chance. Naturally, some people thought we were doing it to attract attention. To their cramped minds, any other possibility does not exist.

The next day, we had an audience with the Principal -  a few of us who were 'responsible' for the rest of the ladies were summoned. He asked us about the previous night and informed us that it was very irresponsible behaviour. He did not know who the 'culprits' were, he said, as he looked at me pointedly. I did not blink. He wasn't harsh or anything (and I now wonder if his mind was completely in it), but warned us of the consequences, should it happen again. Yes, I apologised on behalf of the girls (though I was not one bit sorry for having a little fun), and of course, it never happened again. I wonder if he went and said the same things to the boys too. Maybe a general warning was issued, which, he knew, will never be followed. After all, boys will be boys.

Truth is, there never was another chance and there never will be. I don't think I ever had (or will have) the guts to get up and break into a dance, anywhere else. What would people think? I would rather squash all thoughts of 'having fun'.

Those who have watched The Namesake might not remember a fleeting scene in which Tabu peeks over the crowd to see the first ceremony (probably naming) of her infant son. Her son! And she, the most important person in the baby's life, is standing a few feet away, straining herself to catch what's going on. She does not look sad, she is happy for him, but anyone who could really see through the mother's eyes would know how much she would have liked to be right there, holding her son.

It seems strange that for a long time we never even thought about questioning anything, because that is how things have been. That was tradition. That was how it was done. We get used to the idea.

I grew up hearing that girls had better keep a low profile and dress properly and stay out of sight, for their own safety. And if anyone was a little too 'forward' (however exciting it appeared to me), I saw that she was frowned upon. No, I did not grow up in a 'repressed society' or anything. My generation will know what I am talking about.

Somewhere between then and now, the idea began to seep in: Why can't we? It's our right.

What? We have rights?
You mean, we can actually do what we like? Dress the way we like? Go to places we like, when we like? We can actually dance in an auditorium, without having to explain afterwards? 

It was new and it was huge. It was difficult to believe it; but once we wrapped our minds around it, it became like an addictive book - you can't put it down, and you are hungry for more. But not everyone can get adjusted to the idea. It goes against everything we have been taught and believed since we were born.

Cue, the tweet on Saudi. We blame the older women for wanting to 'uphold values'. But that's what they have been brought up on. It is not easy to suddenly shift from a lesson that has been etched in, for centuries, to a more 'liberal' view. Change is not easy for anybody. It is easier and simpler to cling to what we were taught for generations. We were brought up right; and we were safe. We hid behind the numerous constraints and we did not mind. Why can't you do the same? You make changes, and you are going to regret it.

It's not only about right and wrong. It is about trying to change mindsets that have become as hard as granite. I too find myself occasionally struggling to check the urge to say, "Be careful. Don't do anything that will get you into trouble."

Things will change, but we have to struggle through many more such layers of inertia and resistance, and many more phases of unlearning and re-learning. There are many battles to be endured and many damages to be borne and many barriers to be broken and many mindsets to be changed.

Things will change, for better or for worse, because they must. 

* Is anyone else reminded of Nithya Menon in Kerala Café when they hear the word 'liberation', or is it just me?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Temple of Time

In the days of Doordarshan and DD-2 (for those who remember the era), my sister and I watched a movie which left a huge impression on both our minds. It was an Australian film titled Picnic at Hanging Rock. About ten or twelve years old at the time, I knew precious little English and the accent was beyond us in many ways. My sister explained the story to me, as much as she could follow. The ending was too mysterious and intriguing. We spoke of (and in all likelihood, argued about) nothing else for weeks, perhaps months. We - at least, I - thought our limited grasp of the language was to blame for our confusion.

I never got a chance to see the movie afterwards.

But its impact on me was such that, over twenty years later, it led me to consider writing a short story titled "Temple of Time" where a couple of children vanish inside a mysterious temple in Kerala. Soon I realised that it was not a concept I could shrink into and contain within a short story. It dawned on me for the first time - I had a novel in my hands.

Temple of Time took two years to write. I had to pause writing as life took me through its ups and downs and shifting of priorities. Occasionally I had to give in when short-stories took precedence over the novel. Nevertheless, I came back to it every time, when the plot became much clearer and the characters developed themselves in my mind.

I finished writing Temple of Time in 2011, but it still had a long way to go. I punished a handful of people by making them read the first draft. Their feedback brought me to the unhappy conclusion that a major chunk of the plot had to be removed. Anyone who has rewritten their own work would know how gruelling a task it is.

Finally in 2013, it was ready (sort of). After a year and a half of futile attempts at finding a publisher for the book (as well as doing a million rounds of editing) and hopes rising moon-high several times only to dash back to the ground, I decided to put it up on Amazon and see how it fares.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the world my first novel, Temple of Time.

Abstract of Temple of Time
Abhijeet was ten years old when his elder brother was lost, believed dead, during a college tour in the hills of Northern Kerala. Twelve years later, Abhijeet is knocked out of his dull and mundane life by an eerie dream in which his brother calls out to him.

Soon afterwards, Abhijeet finds to his shock that his brother is still alive, but in a horrifying condition and on the verge of death, at the very same place he was last seen. Abhijeet is left with a curious last message that he tries to decipher, for he feels the answer to his brother's disappearance lies in it.

He embarks on a journey to the past, to piece together the events that led to the fateful day years ago, seeking to discover his brother's footprints and finding himself in the process.
Read Temple of Time.

I know many of us prefer print books (I do too), but as of now, it is beyond my capability to offer Temple of Time in print. I hope you will all download and read the book, and I hope some of you will like it, and I hope you will all let me know about it.

Click here to purchase Temple of Time from Amazon

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Don't call me, sunshine...

Don't call me, sunshine,
I have chores to do;
We're near, though apart,
And my heart is with you.

Don't tempt me, bright day,
I can't come to you;
My days are hollow
But I've no time for you.

Don't prod me, rain clouds,
When I try to forget;
I can see you there,
And I'll catch you yet.

Don't seek me, cool wind,
I'm out of your reach;
I yearn your caress,
I long for your touch.

Don't lure me, blue sky,
I've no time for regret;
Your vastness, your freedom,
The colours you spread.

Don't smile at me, moon,
I know what you think;
You and I, we're destined
To live on the brink.

Don't miss me, my friends,
Our dreams seem futile;
Don't wait up for me,
It'll take me a while.