Friday, November 30, 2018

Rebel

Manju had always been a rebel. At 6 years of age, she’d loudly refused to stop wearing her brother’s pants, insisting they were more comfortable for climbing up trees. At age 8, she’d kicked and screamed, when Baba suggested pulling her out of school to learn “feminine” skills like cooking and housework. She was a good athlete and a better student. And a constant source of concern to her parents.
“One day Maa, you’ll see! I’ll get a big job. Then you can sit back and rest easy!”
It was often futile to argue with Manju. From the corner of the house, Baba sighed as Maa hung up his work boots to dry. A poor family, sometimes dreams were all they could afford. So they said nothing. Nodded and sighed and worried about school fees.
Manju worked evenings at the local market. She fetched endless cups of tea and cleaned up after the vendors. A paisa there, a rupee here. She kept adding them to her little tin box. One day, she found out they couldn’t afford school anymore. She was a rebel but also a realist. So she hugged Baba and set about working harder. That tin box grew heavier as weeks turned into years. Baba and Maa wished her well, but never aloud. Instead, they now sighed and worried about wedding costs.
“Marriage? What are you talking about, Maa?” she asked when their whispers became unbearable.
“Well”, Baba hesitated. We hoped you might settle down now. “You’re almost 20. Most girls your age are married with kids,”.
Manju chewed her lip. The realist inside her thought hard too.
“I want to work some more!” she announced. “Not just at the market. I’ve saved money and now I want to put that to good use,”.
“But, what about Marriage? You can work after, surely. If your husband agrees.”
Manju snorted and traipsed away, head filled with ideas of her own. Marriage and its woes were not at the top of her list.
So prospective grooms came and went. Her parents grew weary and a little less hopeful, each time Manju shook her head in refusal. But they said nothing. They sighed and worried about inflating costs as the calendar pages flew with a life of their own.
Winter of 1995 was drawing to a close. A weak sun shone on the busy railway station. No more than 2 feet away from a rather worried looking young girl, Manju and her fellow vegetable vendors sat down for a breather.
“I hope the next train is empty”, said Savita Didi, rubbing her neck. She looked curiously at the girl nearby who was now fidgeting with her dupatta. Probably waiting for a boy, she thought and smiled. The juice stall man whistled a leery tune as Didi turned to Manju.
“So, did another man come see you yesterday?”
Manju nodded as a loud honk announced the next train rushing in. She stood up and placed the basket of vegetables on her head. She remembered the rather skinny man who’d come home yesterday. Baba and Maa had exchanged dubious looks as they took in his faded shirt and scuffed pants. He had the kindest eyes and a rather toothy grin. (Oh! And the way he beamed as if he found her so refreshing).
But mostly she thought about his dreams and his vision. He’d spoken of swimming against the tide, with no trace of arrogance. A simple man, honest in all the ways it mattered. Maybe he even had a little tin box of his own.
She boarded the carriage, helping Savita Tai behind her. As the train puffed and left the station, she saw the young girl talking to a boy. Something about the flash of joy on the girl’s face resonated with Manju. That sense of belonging with someone who wanted the same things as you.
The train picked up speed as Manju grabbed a corner of the compartment. She planned to meet him again. And instead of marriage, she’d ask if he would be her business partner. Equals in every way, dreamers alike. Together, with their tin boxes, they could build something worth fighting for. Marriage and its woes could wait.
Summer of 1995. Big companies and bigger jobs everywhere. Everyone had somewhere to be.

And finally, so did Manju. She was a Rebel after all.




Monday, November 26, 2018

1995









1995. Winter drawing to a close.

“Chal jaldi! We’ll miss the train,”.

Palka looked back at the station. A hundred different faces, except the one she hoped to see. 

“Palka, yaar! The train is moving. Chalo bhi!” 

A few more people climbing down the stairs. She spotted a pair of jean-clad legs. Her heart beat faster. 

“Ok, I’m leaving! I don’t want to miss the exam. Tum baithe raho Romeo ke liye,”. 

Not him. Dammit. Dammit.

Palka didn’t notice her friend walk away in a huff. She paid no heed to the Juice Stall man eying her butt with open interest. She didn’t even see the vegetable vendors giving her curious looks as they settled down their laden baskets, hoping the next train would be empty. No, 16-year-old Palka stood half turned, in the middle of the crowd, focused on the broken steps of the busy station. Where could he be? 

The Juice Stall man whistled a catchy tune, breaking her out of a reverie. Glaring at him, she fidgeted with the edge of her dupatta. Two girls nearby were discussing the latest Yash Raj film. Palka rolled her eyes, oblivious that she herself was in the middle of a little love story. (He’s just a friend. Nothing more). And today, she needed to see him.

A long, mournful whistle announced the next train arriving. Around her, the crowd moved, ready to take on another day of soul crushing work. The juice stall man wiped down his counter, swatting away at the lazy morning flies. The vegetable vendors adjusted the little cushions on their heads before donning their baskets of colorful greens. And Palka waited in vain. 

A gusty wind blew across the station as the train slowed to a stop. A little fight broke out in the ladies compartment, as women going in different directions, jostled about madly. Two young men from the adjacent carriage catcalled before catching the eye of the stern female constable on the platform. Palka felt herself getting pushed into the compartment. Dejected and weary, she was almost inside the train, when someone tapped furiously on her shoulder. 

The train screeched its way along the platform as the last stragglers got on board. Then silence for a while before the other side of the platform came to life. 1995. Bigger companies and newer jobs were coming up. Everyone had somewhere to be.

Even the slender girl who stood there, smiling shyly at the tall young man next to her. He apologized for his tardiness. Mentioned something about a devious alarm clock and a broken water heater. But Palka heard none of that. All she wanted to do was stroke his lush, (slightly) long hair and stare into those green eyes. But she didn’t. He was only a friend. 

“Don’t you have an exam today?”

“Yes, in 30 minutes”, she answered dreamily. 

“Oh, you’ll be so late! You’ll miss the start!”

But Palka didn’t worry. Something told her, she would not only get to the exam on time but also ace it. Like she always did. Just as she knew she would one day marry this boy and live the rest of her life with him. The enormity of her emotions caught her by surprise. She wanted to blurt out her heart, shake him as if to say, “Don’t you see how madly I love you? Don’t you see?” 

But she said no such thing. Because it was 1995. And because for now, he was only a friend. A lifelong rule abider, Palka wasn’t yet ready to break the mold. And besides, there was something rather exciting about working up to the moment. 

“Mohit, listen…”.

He looked up, as the late morning sun bounced off her dark hair, before settling into her twinkling eyes. For a second, he felt breathless, as if something large and wonderful was blooming inside. Then he blinked and flew back to the dusty old station with its funny smells and grimy walls. 

“Hey Mohit, I know I’m late. Do you think..?”

That tingling in his heart again. What was going on? Just another day with a childhood buddy. What had changed?

“Yes, Palka?”, he said trying hard to conceal the tremor in his voice.

“Do you think, we have time? For a glass of juice?”

Mohit laughed. The smells and sounds of the station faded as he put his arm around her shoulder and walked to the juice stall.  Not yet, a voice spoke inside him. Soon, but not yet. She was just a friend. Unbeknownst to himself, he hummed a love song from the newest Yash Raj movie. Palka looked up, her heart beating rapidly. Then she ever so slightly leaned into him and grinned a secret smile.

The Summer of 1995. What a time to be in love.






Sunday, November 18, 2018

I was entirely indifferent to the news of his death

I put down the eye liner and studied my reflection in the mirror. Too much mascara? Grandma always told me I had the prettiest eyes. Smiling, I pulled my hair into a loose braid. Where was my lucky pebble? Oh there. Now I was ready.

My parents were in the kitchen. I peeked at them, searching for the slightest trace of anger, that flicker of grief. But all I saw was two middle-aged people, with rather kind faces. Worried about their daughter, hoping she’ll be fine.

“Avery, honey,” my mom began, “I know this is scary, but we’re with you. Every step of the way.” 

“Yes, kiddo. Your mom and I will be in that waiting room the whole time. Dr. Matheson is the best. He’s even published a pape-”

“Brian, don’t stress her out. Not on the day of the procedure,”.

“Karen, I’m just giving her informatio-”

“Shush, now. Let her breathe for a second.”

Dad rolled his eyes, behind mom’s back. I smiled, terrified inside, but still thankful for the banter. 

“Did you take your pills, honey?” 

I’d been on those “pills” for 15 months now. They’d helped some but weren’t enough. Every morning in the wonky bathroom mirror, I’d stared at those lumps on my body, willing them away. When Dr. Matheson brought up the surgery 2 months ago, I’d looked at my parents, eyes blazing with fearful hope. Dad had a hundred questions. For once, mom hadn’t interrupted. 
Here we were 9 weeks later, in the kitchen, on a cold October morning, while Dad downed his second mug (Hospital coffee is the worst, Karen, everyone knows that!). Mom was looking fondly at a family picture above the fireplace. 

“Was this in 2009 Brian?”

“Huh? Oh, that? 2010, when we went upstate to see Grandma for Christmas.”

I walked up and stood next to mom. It was a nice photograph. Mom had that ridiculous Christmas Sweater on and Dad appeared a second away from bursting into laughter. And between them a little boy who looked so much like me. I reached out and traced his face. Those beautiful eyes, that square chin showing the earliest signs of stubble. 

“Will you miss him terribly, mom?” My throat felt tight.

“Of course! He was my firstborn. But I hope he’s happy now. It’s been a long time coming,”.

Dad looked away, blinking furiously as I hugged mom. We put on our jackets, (Brian,you need a new coat!) and I looked back one last time. The faded scuffs on the walls, the cozy breakfast nook. Grandma’s voice (You’ll be fine, Avery darling).

Nothing would be the same anymore. After the surgery today the boy in the picture would cease to live. For someone who’d existed as him for 19 years, I was entirely indifferent to the news of his death. 


Because I would finally be reborn as the woman I was always meant to be.



Thursday, November 15, 2018

Beanpole






Grandpa (or Thatha as I called him) was a very huge presence in my life. He was this skinny, beanpole of a man, full of wit and laughter. Self made, he came from poverty and settled down in Bombay with Paati (grandma), back when The Union Jack flew proudly over most buildings. He worked for a large National company and together; they raised 2 beautiful daughters with grace and humor.
My childhood is peppered with memories of him cooking for us with grandma yelling out directions, regaling us with bedtime stories in that intense voice (he condensed the entire Ramayana in 10 minutes, without missing a single important point!), playing lazy afternoon games of chase. He was one of my first friends, evolving from play partner to the person who taught me all about grammar and the Oxford Comma.
I lost my Paati at that tender age when childhood is slipping away and my brain was at the mercy of puberty. I was sad, shocked and mostly furious because she had baked me my favorite sweets, just the night before. Was that to be my last memory of her? Wiping her face as she worked at the stove? I grieved for days, hugging her old sari, her entire life now reduced to tears spilling from my eyes.
The rest of the family was busy with the funeral, so I moped by my lonesome and embraced some of that newfound teenage angst. My first experience with death- predictably unpleasant and traumatic. But what would haunt me for a lot longer, were the nightmares, where other family members died in an orderly, rotating schedule and I woke up, sweaty and breathless with grief.
Throughout my teen years, I kept a close watch on Thatha. Every cold he had, every time he complained about his knees, I worried. Was he at death’s door? Would the Diabetes kill him first or the Ingrown toenail? At 18, I got into Med School where I learned newer and fancier ways of dying. And when he had his first stroke at 81, I blamed myself for not diagnosing him sooner. At the hospital, under the cold gleam of the fluorescent lights, Thatha assured me he intended to live for a lot longer than 81. I nodded and squeezed his hand, grateful for the promise he had no real control over.
The 2000s passed in a blur. I graduated, got married, moved countries, had a baby. Thatha had his own milestones. His third angioplasty, his first bypass surgery, endless doctor visits and insurance claims. His grandkids now spread across the globe in their own pockets of success. Pride in his chest, encapsulated by a thin layer of heartache. We called him dutifully and visited when we could. Life was now a time lapse video, as he grew a little older, a little thinner every day. We worried about his failing health with every hospital visit. But he always came back home.
It was a cold winter afternoon. My mom texted earlier that day, letting me know Thatha was fading fast. When “the call” came in a few hours later, I put down the phone and breathed out. For someone who was so obsessed with his mortality, I was entirely indifferent to his death. Possibly because it was a gentle event. He’d prepared us with little rehearsals all year. An overnight stay at the hospital. Sometimes two days, sometimes a week. And finally, when we were strong enough, he died. Honoring that promise, he’d made me 17 years ago.
A whole year has passed since and I still miss him terribly. The cheeky humor, the clever jokes. The warmth in his voice when I called him every Sunday morning. I see glimpses of him in my children. My son’s nose, his lazy half smile. The way my daughter has bony knees. The first wrinkles appearing on the edges of my eyes as I smile.
My daughter found thatha’s old eyeglass case, yesterday. She played with it for hours, marveling at the faded writing on the leather, the little magnetic clasp at the top. Suddenly, it was a car. Ooh! Ooh! Now it is a little bed for her doll. An ordinary thing, made extraordinary because she could see the magic in it. Much like my thatha.
An average, skinny beanpole of a man, who would pluck stars out of the sky for his little family.

Disclaimer : This isn't meant to make anyone sad. I wrote this piece to celebrate the wonderful life my thatha lived. If you have a grandparent around, go give them a hug. And an extra one from me