Remember the smell of winter lurking in your childhood house?
Like your ancestors’ thoughts pinned on the brick walls?
November has brought it back enveloped in its smog.
It gives you a sweet ache for a place you could never move on from.
You know you’d seen the monsoon crawl out of the front door.
Then why do memories of June still chase you like a ferocious dog?
You think of the rain-soaked streets in August.
You miss the flickering street lamps that wept throughout July.
Maybe, we are wired to love the bygones.
We’re bound to search them again in a kaleidoscope of time.
Standing at your bedroom window,
You hear the Palm leaves whisper something to 3 am streets.
“Hold onto the November, love. While you can.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon.
The old forest is your latest hiding place.
You run deep into the woods,
where the riverbed smells like dreams, you don’t dare sharing.
The dreams that didn’t know where else to flow.
You wonder if forests know what their breathing does to your wounds,
or how often you turn to them.
How much you have already forgotten,
and how many years you would have gained,
if you were more like them – the big, old burly trees.
You like to think of forests as a poem written by you centuries ago.
Your favorite part is ‘a bird looking for a gentle tree to rest.’
And hers is ‘a tree quietly looking for lost birds who wish to be held.’
I began this day as I do most days,
Pouring coffee over the plants in my head.
Filtered pictures with a #throwback,
Make me yearn for places outside the window pane.
But I have reached the rock bottom,
The social tells me I can’t scroll no more.
A tall, sturdy tree is who I have become.
Mourning the mundane work from home.
The seasons blend in the background,
as I’m glued to yet another meeting invite.
With another tall, sturdy tree on a Zoom call.
Is this how the lonely forests are born?
Have you jumped over dried summer leaves,
Just to savor the symphony of crushing sounds?
Have you bunked enough classes,
Or were thrown out of them with your buddies?
Have you lied to your crush that it’s not your bus,
Just to steal an extra hour of waiting together?
Have you walked home with your best friend,
Balancing your feet on the tracks that disappear in a tunnel of trees?
Then consulted a stray kitten,
about the hint of rain trailing the changing wind?
Have you chatted up with your roommie about times like these,
And had a Deja Vu that you’ve had the same conversation before?
‘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.
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).
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’.
“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.
“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…’’
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.