Saturday, December 22, 2001

Flights of fancy

That day, the entire Indian cricket team was on the same flight, and he had managed to get autographs from the lot. The most difficult to approach had been Azharuddin. It was early in his career, and the now sulky hero stood in a corner of the security lounge, gawky, his nose buried in a book, but clearly unable to concentrate.
Like any wife who revels in needlecraft, I look forward to these tales of his travels, crafting them into legends as the years go by. And Ajay, who scoffs at jet lag as the ponciest affliction ever defined, obliges every time with tales that would draw appreciative nods from Sinbad and Baron Munchausen. Chance encounters in the ether, with the image of serendipitous threads arcing and intersecting in the sky, are enchanting if not exotic.
The early morning flights between metros held the commuter crowd, which would about-face and head home by the late-night return flight. The Madras-Bombay route was thickly populated with film stars. In those days Sridevi was a regular, yawning politely and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and occasionally even the gorgeous Rekha. Delhi-Calcutta, on the other hand, held mostly the smartly suited community of businessmen. Acquaintances would hail each other happily at the check-in counter, and once on board, wait for the breakfast service to conclude before they got up to stretch their legs and congregate in small groups to chat. Arjun Malhotra was a regular on this hop, and Ajay never failed to marvel at the IT giant’s friendly outlook even to one as insignificant as himself. Today, with Arjun’s TechSpan inching towards the Fortune 500, the vision of him bending down artlessly to touch the feet of an elderly acquaintance is a precious one.
And once, Ajay was on the same flight as Indira Gandhi. This is not a story of VIP arrogance and delays – quite the contrary. It was 1978, and Mrs Gandhi was as out-of-power as anyone can be. Who could mistake that fabulous profile, or the limited-edition sari? Yet, everyone pointedly faced away, and chattered around the dignified woman (who stood waiting in line like the other mortals), feigning deepest unconcern. When Mrs Gandhi stood in the coach to the aircraft, holding onto the overhead strap, the other passengers milled around, still painstakingly ignoring her.
Was it the most obnoxious in human nature, gloating sneeringly over a dazzling star that had collapsed into the viscous scum of the gutter? Was it vicious contempt for the excesses of her Emergency? Or was it merely the stereotypical mannerless bumpkin Delhiite? If he had a seat, Ajay would surely have offered it to her. As it was, no one else bothered.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 21 Dec 2001

Friday, November 16, 2001

Blood Group

Saibhaji is one of those ethnic dishes that defines a community. Combining the nutritional riches of spinach, dal, and a basket full of various vegetables, it’s a one-item meal, tedious to prepare but good to taste.
One day I innocently mentioned that I love saibhaji, and the people I was with laughed and called me a wannabe Sindhi. Through the ancient mists of time I remembered how, as a child, my mother would have to threaten violence before I’d be convinced that saibhaji was good for my health.
Those were the days when I was an ethnic minority so rare that there were only two of us, my brother and me. It’s quite common now for young people to have origins in different regions of the country. But the trend was definitively set by my parents, and, as with any pioneer venturing new frontiers of existence, life was cold and lonely.
‘Cold’ and ‘lonely’, in fact, are words that well describe life on a tea plantation, where we lived in those days – although more positive attitudes might offer ‘enveloping magnificence of nature’, and opulent ‘quality-of-life’ (a concept yet to be defined) which were equally attendant.
It’s amusing to dwell on that social context, in which every fresh acquaintance would first inquire ‘what’ we were. In later years this evolved to a pleasant psycho-philosophical past-time resulting in self-defining moments-of-truth, but at the time, there was a sheer backdrop of pain and isolation when I was unable to shelter in any of the community niches of my compatriots.
There was no language into which we could comfortably slip – like pyjamas and slippers after dinner – and natter on with others who spoke the same idiom. It was always English, and English that brought amused smiles (or, worse, grimaces of pain) – on faces that politely turned aside to hide them – to genuine native speakers of the language. When the relatives met, they would most impolitely jabber away to each respective parent in their native tongue, words flung like unfriendly rocks over our heads, yielding but the occasional glimmer of meaning.
At meal times, we would eat what they now call ‘world food’, my mother even boasting in public that frog legs taste quite like chicken, and I bitterly envied all around me, whose staple was the formula Indian Vegetarian Meal (now revered as a coveted genre by all major world airlines).
We were always outsiders – but no one sang Paeans to our Plight or wrote Epics on our Experience. Over time, it became part of my consciousness to be constantly seeking a peer group, permanently striving to fit in: from zodiac sign, to old school tie, to IQ, waist-size and more; an insatiable hunger to find others of a common denominator.
Now, with my fortieth birthday galloping, giddy and relentless, towards me (a horrible cosmic calculation-mistake, I’m convinced), at last I’ve found where I belong. Through an inexplicable chain of events, here I am, deeply embedded in a close-knit group of intelligent, competent and highly ambitious IT professionals. A burgeoning population. Blood group? Simple. It’s C++.
First appeared as ‘Outsider’s place’ in a Times of India Middle 15 Nov 2001

Thursday, November 15, 2001


Hunger is when you are starving
Hunger is when you are deprived
Hunger is a tragedy that occurs
to people with protruding bones
People who lead wretched lives
Devoid of comfort and pleasure.
I am 
well off
surrounded by love
and all manner of items 
and objects of utmost beauty!
My life is full of pleasant choices!
Perhaps there is another word for the feeling
Of emptiness that propels me to eat so much.

Saturday, November 10, 2001

Marriageable age

Mausiji who lives in Narnaul
with Mausaji and their three daughters
– whom I have never met –
one approaching the age of marriage
asked us about skin lotions
and beauty creams.

We made a list for her
telling her which
would clear blemishes,
which lighten the skin,
and which 
remove dark circles,
and mausiji smiled,
relieved at the thought
that her daughter’s marriage
would be easier to accomplish
when her skin

Now I worry a lot
for my unseen cousin
(and where the hell is Narnaul, anyway)

They will find a match for her
Placing her,
at random,
in the first open situation
that seems to them suitable.
But will she be happy? will she be rich?
will he be kind to her,
will his mother torment her,
and when she goes into labour,
will the doctors be patient,
will they have clean sheets?

These are the questions
that dance in my mind
and I feel sad
that skin creams
hold no answer.

first appeared in Little Magazine Nov 2001

Friday, August 10, 2001

The Songbird on my Shoulder

My mother knew I was a writer
Long before anyone else did,
Least of all me.
When I was 7, she told me to write a poem about
And I did.
And it appeared in the school magazine.
Bitten by the lust
To see my name in print
I realised
that I must, indeed, be a writer.
When I was 11,
It struck me one day
That the words that flowed from my pen
clever phrases
catchy words
elegant descriptions
crafted metaphors
(show-off images)
Were actually automatic.
And I pondered
on their source.
So many years have passed.
I lived through
a long, barren period
in which I never wrote
a single word

but spent long years
accumulating “Material”
(quite unawares)
on which I could write.
And when I finally sat down again,
with pen in hand,
The words flowed
initially rearing and bucking
initially other people’s words,
– and even now,
When my words flow,
smooth and beautiful and artistic,
swiftly clattering
out on the keyboard –

I wonder ...
Where do they come from?
This metaphor of
the song bird on my shoulder
(for instance)
the constant and reliable companion
pouring its sparkling wit into my work
independent of my meagre consciousness –
isn’t it something
someone else
has mentioned before?

Tuesday, August 7, 2001

Everybody else is mad, except me

Everybody else is mad, except me.
In complicated discussions
rooting to the deeper meaning
of an elusive end
I suddenly find myself
all alone.
People understand, but only up to a point.
Thereafter they flounder, 
and I have to leave them
stranded on the rocky beach
of unreasonableness
while I swim happily away 
– far, far away –
safe in my private sea
of superior wisdom.
All this leads me to conclude
That all around me
are insane.
I hold on strong
to every thread of logic 
and am a bulwark of
In a world of insanity
surrounded by 
idiots and madmen
I give deep thanks
to the higher intelligence
for sharing some of it with me.

Friday, May 25, 2001

Lovely short pants for madam

“Poora Bombay mein AC lagne wala hai!” and he swept his arms in a huge circle to demonstrate, wriggling his eyebrows and wagging his head knowingly to provide that extra bit of entertainment for the yokels gawking, fascinated. “Agli bar Bill Clinton aayega to aisi garmi nahi na hogi!”
The yokels, who giggled on cue, were my teenaged Pune-bred children, and we were on our quarterly pilgrimage to Fashion Street, Mumbai, to stock up on some essentials. We had stopped now at stall No. 61 A, owned by Bobby Roy, entrepreneur and entertainer.
When Bobby confided, in an early encounter, that he is also a dancer and sought-after dance teacher, I couldn’t help gazing with fascination at the long line of men – young and old, crude and sophisticated, friendly and surly – each positioned in front of a ramshackle wooden stall hung higgledy piggledy from top to bottom and side to side with garments of every size and description. Here they stood, remote in time and space from the villages of their birth, calling out with great guile and persuasion, “Madam, Baby, see this side, no!” and “Lovely shorts, come here Madam!” “Best price, for you only!” “Sir, shirt for you, you son?” (and so on) to the ardent bargain hunters. I wondered how many more gems of purest ray serene the dark unfathom’d stalls of Fashion Street bore.
The goods are largely unremarkable, but with some patience, and a bit of luck, you can take home garments of excellent quality, at a fraction of the dollar price quoted on the labels they invariably sport. For those who frequent Fashion Street, treasure hunt is an exciting hobby. Each piece must be checked carefully for fraying, uneven warp, crooked necklines, and other minor defects; deep colours that might bleed to death in the wash are regretfully rejected.
Bargaining, naturally, is an institution. Some Fashion Street familiars go by a fixed formula: offer half, or a quarter, or a tenth, of the price initially quoted, and work up to a mutually acceptable mean via the age-old courting dance in which feigning shocked disbelief, and outraged demands that the other party come to their senses forthwith,  play an important role.
The other, more sophisticated, method is to take a good, hard look at the garment under consideration, and make an offer based on what it’s worth to you. Pre-requisites to this free-market act are a strong sense of micro-economics, and stable self esteem. These will ensure that you close the deal at your price – with the Fashion Street ace of “okay, fine, but just add five rupees to that. Five rupees is nothing to you, right?” Which is fair enough.
At Bobby Roy’s, where my kids outfit themselves with jeans, ‘cargo pants’ and an astonishing range of  trousers, whipped with a flourish out of wooden crates like rabbits from a hat – we pay what Bobby recommends. It’s invariably a bit above the market, but a reasonable margin for his jokes and enthusiastic personalized service (Bobby even remembers our myriad waist sizes!)  when we visit the frantic, unfriendly city.
By contrast Mahadev, another long-time supplier, is sober and professional. His stall is the single major contributor to my own wardrobe, and we operate on a flat price established years ago. I now enjoy the facility of one who slips in discreetly, selects independently, offers a secret bundle of freshly counted notes (thereby confounding other shoppers still engaged in price debate) – and quietly departs with a large white polythene bag suspended from two fingers.
The other day, Sara, an American friend, admired a flower-embroidered t-shirt I had bought at Mahadev’s, remarking how beautiful it was. “That would be the height of fashion in the US!” she exclaimed.
I glowed inwardly, and wondered if I should be shameless enough to say aloud what I was thinking: “Naturally it’s the height of fashion. I bought it at Fashion Street, didn’t I!”
first appeared in Times of India, Mumbai 24 May 2001

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Tiger chase

At the gate of the Panna tiger reserve, our jeep driver confided that a tiger had killed an antelope and now lurked nearby. Just the previous day, he had driven in some foreign tourists and as the tiger gorged the remains, the tourists feasted their eyes. And two days ago, his jeepload had seen all of four tigers.
Until that point, I’d been sceptical. I grew up in an area replete with wild life. We drove through the nearby sanctuaries dozens of times and I never once saw a tiger in the raw. I had come to the philosophical conclusion that to see a tiger in a jungle, stepping haughtily through the undergrowth, was simply not in my scheme of things. But now there seemed new hope.
We drove through wild tracts of great beauty, ignoring acre upon acre of golden grassland that would have driven Van Gogh’s reapers green, intently scanning its deepest reserves for streaks of stripe. Every rustle in the thicket drew the jeep to a halt. The guide generously pointed out wild boar and sambhar, antelope and spotted deer, mongoose, langur and birds of every kind. We resented the lot, knowing that if they roamed free thus, no tiger lurked nearby. When he indicated a tree with massive claw marks running down its sides, all we could think of was Baloo skipping along, singing about the ‘bear necessities’ and carelessly outwitting Shere Khan.
We stood over the Ken River in a remote tree house restaurant, and it flowed gorgeously blue and shimmering in the morning light, rapids rippling over elegantly configured rocks, and dense thickets encroaching down to the water – but what was the use? There simply wasn’t any tiger, crouched on the banks, sipping of its bounty.
We stopped again at a picnic spot, with what was probably a stunning view of a slate-encircled gorge, and the guide leaned gallantly over the protective fence, shouting, “Hello! Hello!” to the resident echo and I pleaded, “Tiger! Tiger!” in the hope that someone would hear and do something.
Several bumpy hours later, all covered in fine clay-dust, we drove, dejected, towards the exit, musing bitterly that we hadn’t even seen tiger pug marks. (Everyone I know has come home having seen at least pug marks).
And then it happened. I gasped. A dim, majestic shape loomed in the distance, merging subtly with the trees in the forest light. My heart leapt with joy. But then my eyes focussed and it took form. How embarrassed I was to realize that this was only another sambhar. Tall and beautiful, wild and proud it was – but, for god’s sake, it was not a tiger.
From Panna to Pune is but a short syllable away and soon enough we were back in the big safari park in which we live. Dog committees congregate on street corners, yapping canine concerns deep into the night. As we drive along the road, herds of plodding water buffaloes amble, pendulous and ponderous, out in front of the car. It’s true that ‘Buffalo, buffalo, burning bright …’ doesn’t have quite that ring to it – but for the time being it’ll just have to do.
Fewer buffaloes are herded through Pune traffic in 2011 - though the bikers and motorists are just as unsightly and dangerous.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 17 Apr 2001

Wednesday, January 31, 2001


5.30 a.m., when the alarm bibbibbibbips
and you stumble out of bed
with only three or four hours of rest inside you
for the business dinner that went on late,
… good food, good deals
so you’re not complaining,
not complaining, just exhausted … 
and spend the next few hours 
cooking breakfast
seeing your lovely kids
off to school,
packing dabbas
(each especially catered to a different taste
because you do enjoy indulging them)
and then,
rush to get ready for the office
and you’re still not complaining
because you only have to walk to office,
not take the commuter train,
and in any case, once there, they all call you Madam,
and do your bidding entirely 
– no,  not complaining, just exhausted – 
and finally get home, along with the lovely kids
all jabbering fast
so much to tell! so much to share! so many complaints!
so many jokes!
but there’s still laundry to be done
and dinner to be cooked
so, of course, you do it,
and in between when you need a rest
you sneak into the loo
not to smoke a cigarette
which is what you actually want
but it’s too smelly and besides 
if you won’t look after your lungs, who will?
so the cigarette must wait
but you can reach for your little
hand-held video game
and waste a little time, having fun.