Aaji

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What comes to your mind when someone says Aaji? (Daadi/Grandma)
I immediately think of the real Masterchef from our childhood. I remember the one who used to cook delicious sabudana khichdi and thalipeeth for me. The one who would tell my mother “I know exactly what he will like. Let me cook it for him” with a sense of love and pride beaming on her face.

The one who narrated stories of Mahabharata to me and my sister. And also the same person who would scold my mother not to fast because ‘Gods would never want their children to stay on an empty stomach’.
I have far too many fond memories of her. Of course, I have seen her fight with my parents too. But the good parts outweigh those times far too easily.

I remember few funny incidences from my childhood. I had an aunt who lived downstairs, and the one who never got married. As a kid, I have asked my aaji at least a thousand times ‘Why does she not have children like other people?’. Aaji would burst into a laughter every single time I said that and instead of answering me, let someone else know what I had just said. I would just find it hilarious the way she’d try to control her laughter. Interestingly, she never told me anything else just to kill my curiosity. She’d rather say, “You’re a kid. When you grow up, you’ll know why.”

And I’d just add that to the list of things I was supposed to know automatically once I grow up. My next unanswered question in childhood was about sanitary napkins. As soon as the TV commercial would start, I’d demand everyone in the room to tell me what exactly was it. I had to wait all the way to my teen age to figure out why lady in the commercial was jumping around and later throwing blue ink on the Huggies-like diapers.

I think my aaji along with others cared for my innocence knowing well that that’s exactly the beauty of childhood years. I’m glad they did.

Recently, I went to meet my aging aaji. She has not been keeping well. She is bedridden and can barely stand on her own. It hurts to know that I would never see her cooking sabudana khichdi in the kitchen again like old times. I doubt she has accepted that though. I think she still thinks that she can do that one day.

When I sat next to her, she started asking me about what’s happening in my life. I told her everything was good, and asked her how she was doing.

“This lady is waiting for her daughter-in-law to cook her jalebis.”

“Who lady?” I was confused.

“This one. The one in green saari.” She pointed a finger at the television screen playing a series that she was so fond of.

She then went on to narrate the entire story plot that she remembered quite well.

In my mind, I thanked the makers of the series for keeping my aaji busy and entertained during her illness.
Thankfully, they make content for everyone. Funny how I never thought this way before.

While I was lost in my thoughts with my eyes staring at the TV, she told me to stay alert.

“What for?” I asked her with amusement.

“See, now a butterfly will come. It only listens to the little girl. This girl…Her name is Nanda. Keep watching…,” she spoke without moving her eyes off the screen.

I looked at her and the TV in turns with a smile on my face.

She was right. In the TV series, the girl whose name was Nanda then called the butterfly and an animated butterfly fluttered its wings only to come and land right on Nanda’s shoulder.

“How do they do that no?” Aaji asked with her eyebrows raised and the chin resting on the palm of her hand.

I had not seen her that curious for a long time.

Of course, I could see and knew that it was simply a computer-generated image of a butterfly. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give that as an explanation to her.

“How they must be guiding the butterfly to fly when they want and sit on her shoulder like that no?” Aaji smiled with joy as she asked me that. Her eyes were still glued onto the television set.

“You will know how. Once you watch the entire series, I think you will come to know,” I looked at her and smiled.

The bridge

There’s a lake that winds on forever.

There’s a path that no man has taken for years.

I wanted to see where it leads.

So I took a different route the other day.

I wandered a bit, honey. Even though they had asked me not to.

I took a journey to the roads that have cursed stories.

The legend says people who went there were scarred forever.

And now I have a memory weighing down on my sanity.

I came back changed. I came back scathed from the things I saw and I touched.

“There’s a forest beyond the rusty gate,” the old man had spoken.

“But don’t go in there, young lad” his words fell on my deaf ears.

How long I kept walking inside the gate, is a question now I ask myself.

All I know is that the forest got a hold of me.

I can feel it in my bones to this moment.

I saw the things stranger than ever.

And now I can’t tell the truth from the reality.

I saw you sitting cross-legged at a familiar place, once I crossed the wooden bridge.

I remember how the trees willowed down & darkness took over.

I remember it all happened as I walked over the damn bridge.

You sat on the other side like you’ve always been there.

Younger and happier as if pulled out of an old Polaroid.

In your favourite purple jacket, zipped halfway through.

You tucked your hands inside the pockets and started to walk.

I followed you like a ghost.

Beyond the bridge and into the woods.

At a place that time cannot rule.

Is it the end of our worlds or is it the beginning? Is it a shortcut to our memories?

Out there was your world that whispered to me.

I headed into the unknown, the one that felt familiar eerily.

I have come back changed now, and I can’t unsee the ghosts I have been with.

I took a little journey into the darkness, honey.

I cheated on time and now I’m being punished for it.

I can’t tell if I belong to this time or another.

I can’t help but wonder if you’re still sitting there, with your one leg crossed over another.

Like the December of 2009.

Children of God

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By the time my niece was two and a half years old, we had bonded quite well. So, I decided to take her out on a walk one day. My niece – an adorable tiny creature walking alongside me and clutching onto my two fingers. As we walked, she looked at the world with her beaming face. Probably there was even a tinier person sitting inside her brain and recording all that she was seeing. On the other hand, I thought of how much this place had changed since my childhood. I had not been to this part of the town lately, the not-so-wide streets and the old house where I grew up.

With the town overflowing with population and creating chaos with its blaring vehicles & busy stalls, where do you take the two-year old?  The only place that I could think of was a temple of Hanuman nearby. It was the place that I used to visit when I was around her age. The temple was not really a popular one despite being very old. Probably that was the reason why I enjoyed visiting it back in the days. It was located in one of the side-lanes, little far from the main street. One had to walk down the kachha road to reach there. So I walked, marched, and matched my footsteps with those little feet. On our way over there, I showed her things that she might find amusing – a puppy, a kitten, a tall tree and a man with a long beard. When we finally entered the temple through its black-coloured gates, I imagined how my family back home would react to this, knowing only too well my relationship (?) with God.

I almost felt awkward. The way you feel when you stumble upon your ex at an event or a ceremony and immediately resort to an explanation. “I’m just here for the event, you know. What’s up, God! How have you been?”  But today was not the time to introduce atheism to my niece. As we moved inside the temple, I could see that she was already well versed with the dos and don’t s of the religious place. Where to take off your footwear, how to fold hands in front of the deity, etc. As we sat down in front of the deity, she looked up and asked me, “Why don’t you fold your hands?”  It had to be replied with a smile and me asking her, “I don’t know how to. You show me.” “Like this. See. Like this,” she gestured.

Afterwards, I showed her around the temple. I suddenly remembered that one of my schoolmates used to stay inside the temple premises as he happened to be the son of a priest working there. I looked up with a false hope as if he would still be around. His house was shut and wore a deserted look. Meanwhile, my niece was running around a tree in circles and pausing intermittently as if to check if I’m noticing her new achievement or not. It was reminiscent of the time when I use to run around this place with my sister. I loved chasing kittens and yes, also looking at this giant tree standing right in the center. My sister and I would try to guess its age. We could never reach consensus on the number but we did agree that it must have been older than any of our grandparents. I stood next to the tree and touched its bark. It was still standing strong. The wrinkles on its branches did give away its age but rather gracefully, like strands of grey hair shining on an old man’s beard. It was still holding a promise to touch the sky with its leaves on top. As a child, I always related it with a popular story of a young man who climbs the tree to enter the world of dreams.

I touched the tree with my palm and wondered if it still remembers me. I had learned in school that trees are living beings just like us and I had always wondered since then whether they too have memory. I wondered if the tree silently acknowledged its old friend.  I would like to think that it did. Maybe that’s the kind of solace every believer seeks. Hoping for a positive outcome and negating the doubts in their head about whether God really did hear the prayer. Maybe, it is all about hope in the end.  Maybe that’s why we don’t tell children that magic isn’t real, that Santa is simply their mom or dad tucking gifts under their pillow or that some things just cannot be afforded. Maybe God is another name for hope, and adults are his children who need to sleep well at night. They need not always know everything in its naked reality.

Interstellar

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Let’s pick a black hole to plunge into,
Let’s tumble down into the black velvet sky.
Let’s spin around the planets as tiny specks,
Until we transcend the dimensions of space and time.
Inject sunsets into my arm,
Let me feel your rush.
Let me love you violently in the privacy of my heart.
Your rib cage holds an ocean,
It’s the night we drain this sea
And plant flowers on its floor.
I think you’ve become a planet yourself,
Which is why I keep orbiting you like a dead satellite.
Turn the stars back on,
Let the moonlight slice the years gone by.
A taste of the universe sits on your tongue,
Show me how many galaxies you hold in your mouth.
Pour me a thunderstorm or two on the rocks,
Let us riot against the time.
Let’s tumble down, down, and down into the black velvet sky.
It’s the night we become one with the cosmic sublime.

Kintsugi

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Spinning little stars in a cracked marble universe.
It was the first time he wrote a story in his head.
He was five.
A kid with a glass marble held between tiny fingers.
He moved it close to his right eye,
and his left eyelid drew the curtain down.
The right eye watched the imagination unfold.
Planets spun around and their moons followed them,
like he’d follow his mother from one room to the next.
He twisted the round thing over,
and felt the crushed part with his thumb.
Imperfection. The first time he was drawn to it.
Maybe that’s what made rest of the piece so intriguing.
A world near-perfect with a slight flaw that hid a secret.
He wondered what must have caused it.
Each time he played the marbles, he could tell this piece apart.
From its beautiful imperfection.
It was the first time he cared more for the ‘broken’,
for he felt it needed a healing touch.

writing

Poetry

Poetry. She is a woman.
He ressurects her on nights that keep him awake.
She is his favourite garden dressed in black.
She drags him through the storm where the pretty things bloom.
She is made of all the sunsets he tried to evade.
She is an overdose of wildflowers stuffed in his chest.
She is his bruised knees and a pair of broken wings.
She tastes like his desires with a hint of bourbon .
They meet under the twinkle lights & he presses her against the bricks.
He caresses her like she’s his lifeline inscribed on a parchment.
She likes the way he calls her name with his hands around her neck.
She tells him things that petals confide to the Sun.
He can’t remember the first time her soul whispered to his. He knows she woke it.
But it hasn’t slept since.
Poetry. She is a woman.
A sunset chaser, star gazer.
A wide-eyed pretty little mess.

A Wormhole

author

‘Netflix Original Series – Episode 4’

I was binge watching yet another series with my flat mates in Mumbai.

10 years back, who would have thought that it would become so easy to stream your favourite series and watch it at ease?

My flat mate passed me a Budweiser pint and I struggled to open it with my teeth.

Nahi hoga tujh se saale, opener use kar le. Table pe pada hai!” my roommate mocked me as he tapped the space bar to pause the series.

I gave in to his banter and got up to grab the opener.

Poof!!

The lights went out.

What the…! Dude, is it just our place or the entire building?” He was utterly disappointed at being disconnected from internet.

It’s the entire society,” I peeped outside the window to check.

Shit! I haven’t even charged my phone.

Relax! This is Mumbai. It must be a temporary failure or something,” I assured him (and myself).

It wasn’t.

1 hour went by. My flat mates were getting increasingly worried about their phones’ batteries dying out. One guy informed his girlfriend in advance, in case it does.

I’ll go, get some Maggie from downstairs. Also, I’ll check with the security guy what the matter is,” I let my flat mates know as soon as I decided. They simply nodded in agreement.

Carefully, I walked myself out of the house. It was pitch black outside except for an occasional flash of light breaking its dominance. I could hear someone talking downstairs. It was our security guard. I walked down the last few steps to find him informing few other residents that he had already called someone to fix the problem. The gathered crowd did the formality of sharing their expertise (?) on the matter.

The guy will arrive soon”, the guard looked at me sideways and spoke.

I did not ask him a question and continued walking. He seemed pleased with it.

I stepped outside our building and started moving in the direction of the grocery store.

The view outside was not usual. Unlike most other towns in our country, Mumbai rarely faced any electricity issues. Today’s unexpected power outage had forced people out of their matchbox-sized houses. Few were seen using their smartphones’ torch function to walk just a few feet away. Headlights of the moving vehicles on the street were generously offering some of their light.

It was the mid of June and weather was quite pleasant. The cold breeze was reminiscent of monsoons gone by and it was quite soothing to stroll. Therefore, instead of buying Maggie, I decided to first take a walk for a while. I headed towards my favourite spot – the long pathway behind the last row of buildings, the one that was adjacent to the hill.

Those days, I used to often take long walks with my roommate every night after the dinner. It was a stress buster for both of us. We used to consider ourselves fortunate to be staying in one of the few societies in the town, that were still blessed with dense trees looking over the walking track. It almost seemed as if trees from both sides of the pathway held hands together and watched us from above.

I marched faster with the passing time as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I could hear voices coming out of open windows that would normally be shut or be reflecting light from television screens. I walked further into the night and towards the narrow passage. I had always loved the soothing sound of water gushing down the crevices of the wall that failed to hide the small hill sitting behind.

Two green eyes shone brightly in the black night and a feline jumped into the bushes watching me move in its direction. Walking further, I reached a point where it was almost difficult to view anything ahead. But then, I knew the path well.

Few more footsteps and I heard some noise. Few voices were chatting somewhere close by. I was intrigued and paced towards that place robotically. The voices grew familiar as I inched closer and the visibility enhanced drastically. It was almost as if the dust had settled down after a quick sand storm.

I could see the rough path leading to a house and a porch. My eyes widened looking at the sight. There was a veranda outside the house where few people, rather a family sat close together. They surrounded what seemed like a lantern. Their faces were lit up with the yellow light emitted by the lantern and a candle. Yes, there was a candle too. It was picturesque, like a postcard.

I felt warm just by looking at the view and watching them from distance.

It was us. Gathering around the candle on the evenings when electricity would decide to take a leave. It was me running around and being asked not to wander too far into the darkness alone. I watched the little kid looking back at me from far. He had joy written all over his face. Pure joy, unscathed of any worldly matters. He looked at me and nodded his head before responding to his mother’s call. She seemed to have brought a tray laden with tea cups for everyone. She placed it next to the candle and gently scolded a kitten not to come close to it. The kitten straightened up its tail and rubbed itself against her foot. Daadi on the other side, seemed too busy trying to adjust the flame of the lantern and my sister sitting next to her – wondering if she would ever learn to use it when she grows up. The father, later, informed the family that power would not be back for another hour or two. The family seemed rather unfazed with the news and continued to enjoy the hot tea under the twilight.

I smiled at the innocence of that scene. It had gently pierced through the boundaries of my space and time. It felt like I had looked up from my phone screen after a long, long time. Standing there & watching them, I felt I was too far to cherish the moment while forgetting everything else in the world. And yet, I felt oddly close enough to sense the warmth as the younger-me fidgeted with the flame of the candle with his forefinger.

I think memories sometimes act like black holes, don’t they? They suck us in and all we can do on the way is to watch the kaleidoscope of moments stuck in their orbit. 

I was shaken up by a tap on my shoulder.

Dude! Where are you lost? Power is back.”

What?” I turned around to see my roommate standing there with his eyebrows raised.

Let’s go. We are hungry. And where’s the Maggie? You didn’t get it?” He looked at my empty hands.

Without saying anything to him, I looked back. But the house, the porch and the family – they all had disappeared. They were replaced by a pathway illuminated by the street lamp. Similar to how magician’s assistants quickly changed the background on the stage.

There only stood a tall hoarding at the gate displaying an ad by a network provider –

‘At lightning speed. Stay connected with the ones that matter’.

 

A 50-Rs haircut

Kisiki muskaraahaton pe ho nisaar,

Kisika dard mil sake to le udhaar,

Kisike waaste ho tere dil mein pyaar,

Jeena issi ka naam hai…”

The All India Radio FM sang the classic song in the background on a rusty-dusty radio equipment. The old chap at the salon adjusted the radio’s antenna in a specific angle to make the song more audible. It was almost as if the salon was immune to the marching of time and decided to stay back in the 70s.

So, how many days of stay this time?” the barber asked me while choosing the combination of scissors and a comb for the haircut. He used a water spray to wet my hair, and few water drops found their way down my forehead.

Oh this time, I’m back. Back for good. Permanently,” I said looking at him in the mirror.

He paused and sported a genuine smile on his now-wrinkled face. He was attuned to me visiting the small town every alternate weekend from the Capital city where I worked.

That’s really good. Mummy and Papa will be very happy, no?

More water was sprinkled on the backside of my head followed by scissors running through my curly hair.

They are happy, yes!

He is a local barber at my hometown. ‘Our family barber’ would be an apt description.

The first time I entered his shop was as a two-year old child holding my grandfather’s hand. My grandfather had very proudly introduced me as his grandchild. I don’t know if I cried like most kids do when they get their first haircut. But my grandfather would often tell me how I was an immediate favourite of everyone at the salon that day.

My grandfather was loyal to the salon throughout his life. My father followed the suit. I did too, for a long time. After my grandfather’s demise, I would visit the salon with my father. I remember him asking me how my father is coping with his loss. His father too joined my grandfather in few months. He told me that my grandfather need not worry now as he will get his haircut from him in heaven. I kept picturing it in my head for a long time. Him getting a haircut sitting in a chair that rested on clouds.

He is getting a moustache. Your son is a man now” the barber once told my father while giving me a haircut. In response, my father lifted his head up from the newspaper in his hands and retreated back to the same after a formal smile on his face.

But as I grew up, I could not manage such a long-term commitment to the barber shop. I came across fancy salons and parlors in the cities that I visited for my college, work, etc. So I sort of cheated on the local barber shop.

I remember the first time I decided to ditch the local guy and get a haircut at one of the newly-opened air-conditioned parlor. It was a luxury for a middle-class person those days. I must be in high school at that time. I had saved extra money especially for this occasion. I was bored of a routine haircut and wanted to try out something special.

I entered this posh salon which had opened not more than half a kilometer from my house. The staff welcomed me with a kind of half-hearted smile that airlines staff gives you as you enter the plane. You almost feel sad for them having smiled at you.

Would you like a hair wash with a shampoo first?

No, I don’t think so” I tried to sound confident as I wondered if that was a ritual in these parlors. I sincerely hoped it was not.

What kind of a haircut do you need?” the guy with blonde hair only on the left-side of his head asked me. I felt that I had seen him somewhere. I couldn’t place him where though. Was he the same guy who used to sell vada pav somewhere nearby?

I want to do ‘spikes’,” I said. This was going to be a game changer. Not just a routine reduction in hair length but a super-cool haircut.

The guy took out a pair of clean scissors and placed them in the pouch that he wore on his waist. It was like being a superhero barber with a plenty of scissors to choose from. I found it quite cool.

I stared at the variety of hair creams and gels set on the shelves in front of ads from brands such as Loreal and Garnier. Few men in the adjacent chair were getting a haircut or beard-shaving done. One of them was getting some sort of a skin treatment. I wondered how much would that cost and whether all of them too felt equally awkward walking in the parlor for the first time.

Do you want to colour your hair? I think it will look great on you” the guy surprised me with a question.

No, not really,” I said trying to recall once more how much cash I had on me.

It was followed by few more attempts of him tempting me with their add-on services and me safeguarding my honour every time by rejecting each one of those moves.

Finally, my haircut was done. I glared at my reflection in the mirror. It was not exactly the kind of hairstyle I had imagined in my head. But then the very next moment, he removed a hair gel tube from one of the drawers and applied some of it on my hair. With his deft fingers, he made my hair stand in a fashionable way.

Good? Anything else?” he asked me.

I checked myself in the mirror again for no reason and asked the most important question of that day.

How much?”

100” he said and called the next customer in to sit at my place.

On my way back home, I checked my hair again in one of scooter’s mirror parked on the street. As I was about to enter home, the uncle staying downstairs gave me a look as if hundred pigeons had pooped on my head.

Did you even get a haircut?” my mother asked the question which was usually reserved for my sister.

Show me. Come here” she called me and pointed out how he had done a shoddy job.

He has not even cut them in a straight line over here” she said and I just ran to another room.

As I grew old, I changed cities for my college and later jobs. With the change in location, I tried out different barbers and salons to experiment on my hair.

Sir, would you like a head massage? That will be 50 Rs extra. 100 Rs extra. Would you like to get this hair treatment done? 200 Rs…” the conversations were repeated with few more additions in questions.

Every time I visited my hometown, I made it a point to get a haircut at the local shop just to avoid all these questions.

Sitting in that shop which still wore a familiar look would bring back my childhood memories. It was like a cheap time machine. He still treated me like a kid who entered his shop holding his grandfather’s hand. I felt comfortable sitting in that chair despite the extra water sprinkled by him which ran over my forehead. I even started paying him 20 bucks extra.

What kind of a beard is this?” he asked me with a grin.

It is called a goatee beard. Do a simple haircut. Medium length.

Okay,” he started the job that he had acquired from his family. His son adjusted the radio antenna and increased the volume.

“Maana apni jeb se fakeer hein,

Phir bhi yaaron dil ke ham ameer hein,

Kisi ko ho na ho hamein to aitbaar,

Jeena isi ka naam hai…’’

A ghost

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You tell me you don’t miss home anymore

You stare at the faceless portraits of people you come across

You wait until midnight to listen to your favourite song

In the new city that sucked you in

Just a month before

 

You tell me it’s hard for a ghost

To be dissolved in such a crowd

You tell me you can’t as much work on new art

You stare at rusty drafts that hoped to breathe life

Just a year back

 

You tell me you take the longer route back home

You chew on daydreams more than before

You stumble upon a broken tree and

The old abandoned houses try to pull you in

You wander the city like a ghost from another time

 

You tell me you don’t miss home anymore

As I get ready looking right at you

You mimic me until I smile

Then you draw a half smile in reply

I leave for the new office in the brand new town

You stay back on the other side of the glass

 

Political correctness and a cranky generation

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Photo source: claremont.org

I’m fairly sure you have seen a kid or two in your family throwing tantrums or faking tears when you ask them to do things they typically dislike such as going to the school. Adults have their method of doing it too – ‘getting offended’ is the latest trend. Our generation gets offended at the slightest of opposing view or even humour. Being politically correct or (overly) sensitive is what most believe an ideal way to address any topic under the Sun.

However, I sincerely believe that political correctness never helps solve issues but rather exasperates them. Be it talking about the religious extremism, casteism or racism for that matter. What really makes sense is to open up the conversations on these so-called sensitive issues. But the general population is far too happy participating in debates that hover around the surface of the problem instead of directly addressing it. Because we are always afraid that it might hurt sentiments of someone or the other.

For instance, the liberal left shuns any conversation on Islam by accusing anyone who attempts to talk about it of being an Islamophobic. This doesn’t help reduce the hatred towards Muslims or the radical Islam from spreading. In fact, this restricts any attempt of actually focusing on separating the normal Muslim population and the radical Islamic teachings. The right-wing leverages on this to convince the masses that the left are nothing but Muslim appeasers. The real issue of radical Islam stays untouched.

Other issues such as racism are victims of political correctness too. We put too much emphasis on silencing people to even utter the word ‘black’ and replacing it with coloured. It hardly helps solve the problem and instead makes people too wary of talking about these issues altogether. Ideally, we, as a population should be living in a society where we can openly share race, cast or community-based jokes with one other. Because here, we are not inherently racists or casteists but are creating an easy, effective mode of communication to address these topics through humour.

Personally, when I sit down with my close friends, we banter about the basic traits of communities that we belong to – such as we Marathis being rude, UPites being migrants, Gujaratis being money-minded, Muslims marrying within the family, and Christians attempting to convert others. These open conversations is what we often need to address the social issues.
Because being ‘politically correct’ while debating is like drinking a decaffeinated coffee that gives you a satisfaction of having a coffee but doesn’t really wake you up.