Monday, 27 June 2016

For Putul and Memories.......

Have you read ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne Du Maurier? If you haven’t, do. It’s what I call the perfect ‘novel’, an incredibly well written piece of fiction that is also perfect for a re-read anytime. It’s a story of this young girl, a poor orphan who at the beginning of the novel seems destined to live out the remainder of her life as companion to rich and crabby widows and whose life is turned upside down (rather deliciously though) when she meets and falls in love with a much older man. Though it appears to be a rather one-sided affair, they get married (yes, and that too right at the very beginning of the novel!!!) and she goes to live with her husband in his ancestral home in the country. The house, called Manderlay is described as this beautiful, Gothic and mysterious country chateau and it is here that the actual plot unfolds. We are now introduced to the diva like first wife Rebecca, long dead, yet her memories haunt every nook and cranny of the house, the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the shadows of a violent secret hidden behind the Gothic walls and of course the blossoming of the hitherto one-sided love affair between the girl and her husband. It’s the perfect book to pick up on a cold foggy winter evening and read curled up comfortably on your bed, under your favourite quilt, the lights dimmed, and a cup of hot coffee steaming by your side (latte of course;  black does not team well with ‘Rebecca’!)……..
But then I am digressing and severely so. I confess I got carried away by that very inviting ‘winter evening’ image….! Now I’ll tell you why I remembered ‘Rebecca’. It’s because the novel begins with these words, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Plagiarism is an unforgivable offence in the writers’ world but having convinced myself that Ms Du Maurier would surely forgive an ardent fan such as me ‘plagiarising’ one teeny weeny  line from her novel, I’ll begin........
Last night I dreamt I went to LCR again….!
I dreamt I stood in front of its large iron gates, painted shiny black with  ‘L……….C……….R………’ written in large white letters over its centre. Those shanty shops selling toffees and what-nots still stood and the smell of the perpetually clogged drain running alongside the walls was still strong. I pushed the gates and entered. The red sanded road curved around the large garden in the front and as I walked past, I could see the sweet pea tendrils curve lovingly over the thin split bamboo frames, the scent of their pink blossoms still as sweet. I followed the red road ahead, down towards that low red building with tiled roofs and cute stocky chimneys. As I crossed the little passage between Mother Superior’s office and the chapel, my glance fell on the right where a large number of school shoes lay outside the chapel door. They beckoned. So I turned and climbed up the low steps onto the porch. The white wooden doors of the chapel looked the same, with little black ridges where the paint had peeled off and the old wood had cracked. The little white stoup was there in its place and as an old habit, I dipped my fingers into its heart, soft with the little sponge and anointed my face and chest with the holy water. I pushed the door and entered the chapel. It  was comfortably dim inside and reverentially silent as little girls with oiled hair in pigtails, blue shirts and beige skirts kneeled over shiny wooden pulpits. They looked very familiar and I knelt beside them, right there on those wooden pulpits with the thin green cushions, under the kind eyes of Mother Mary with the infant Jesus in her arms. I bent my head down to pray and when I looked up again I found myself standing in the school playground right outside Open Hall.
 I realized that since this was a Dream, the physics and chemistry of the real world did not apply here. Quite happy at this ‘Harry Potter’esque kind of situation, I walked into Open Hall. The pillars looked the same, wide enough to hide you when playing hide and seek but hard enough to give you ugly potato like bumps on your head if you happened to collide against one. Those green tables with white crow droppings colouring their tops and the green benches still stood in a row at one end of the hall. At the other end balancing beams with red and white zebra markings were stacked carelessly. Never one for physical activity, I hastily left them behind and moved on. I confess I really never could see the logic or fun of doing silly things like trying to balance oneself on a slippery beam where the danger of falling and getting painful ‘potatoes’ on your head was very real.
Moving ahead, I entered the dark corridor next to the library. Now that was more my kind of place, I thought happily. I had spent so many delicious hours in the library, curled up with a book in one of those armchairs by the windows or sat poring over books on the reading tables, as sunlight filtering in through the cream curtains turned everything to a warm gold…..!
I’ll go there later, I told myself and moved forwards towards the stairs. The high steps leading to the Teachers’ Room on the right was still piled high with notebooks covered in brown paper. Low voices emanated from the depths of the room. I just couldn’t help myself from taking a peek through the gap in the swing doors. Saree clad teachers sat correcting notebooks, drinking tea or simply gossiping. Most look familiar, some didn’t. But scared of being caught peeping, I retreated hastily before they could spot me and quickly made my way up the stairs. That was class 3A, right at the beginning of the first floor corridor, next to the stairwell, the pretty Miss Bhatnagar’s class. I walked along, past the massive cork board on my right covered with drawings of the King and Queen of Hearts , the Knave, the Mad Hatter and the disappearing Catterpillar from Alice in Wonderland and then between 3B on my right and Sister Maria’s Office on the left. Head down, I crossed this part almost in a run as I didn’t want her catching me loitering in the corridors during class hours. Then I came to a halt!
            Stop being ridiculous, I scolded myself.                                                You are no longer a student here.
            Of course, that’s correct, I smiled in relief at the realisation, and  continued ‘loitering’ down the corridor. I passed the other junior classrooms on my way, 4C on my right, 4B on my left, 5A on my right……
Here I stopped and walked in. This was Mrs Mathew’s class, the beautiful Mrs Mathew with long thick plait reaching right down to her back, two tiny moles sitting exactly opposite each other on her nose, one above and one below and her perfect British English……!
But now the class was empty except for a little girl who sat in the last row of the second column of iron benches, busy colouring something in her book. With wispy hair that resembled candy floss tied in two pigtails with sky blue ribbons, she was dark and frail. She looked so familiar that curious, I inched forward to take a better look. And when I was so close to her as to be able to see the light bounce off her candy floss hair, she raised her head and looked up at me.
Putul!!! My heart almost stopped beating, Putul……Oh my God…. Its Putul………!!!!
Tears clouded my eyes….!!!!
Putul ……Oh Putul…..Putul, Putul,Putul…!!!!
The girl smiled at me as if it was the most natural thing in the world to chance upon your school mate who had died more than thirty years ago, sitting in the same bench where she used to sit, in the same school uniform, still the very same in every little way from the top of her wispy haired head to the tips of her ballerina shoed toes.
Hi Aibee, she said, in her high pitched sweet voice and continued to smile.
 I was aware that this was a Dream and a Harry Potteresque one at that and that I should suspend all disbelief; but having done that, I was still confused about something.
You recognized me? I asked her, incredulously. Even after all those years?
Why? she countered, as if a little surprised at my question.
No, I tried to reason. Dekh, its been more than thirty years and I have changed, haven’t I?
She retorted, But you recognized me……!
That’s because you haven’t changed, silly. I told her breathlessly.
Well, you haven’t too !  she remarked and smiled,  again.
I inched forward a little more and then trifle hesitantly sat down next to her. But I needn’t have hesitated for it was my bench too, at least it had been during those days in 5A when Putul and I had sat next to each other for the twelve whole months of fifth grade. I don’t know how we got assigned our seats and when asked by my rather strict Mom, How come you being a good student get to sit on a last bench? I had had no answer. Initially a little unhappy, as I had never sat in a Last Bench, the connotations of this seat being that only failures and dropouts and bad students sat on last benches, I soon realized that the last bench was simply that, a bench that occupied the rear of a row and did not mean that you were a poor student if you sat on it. I think probably the express reason for this arbitrary allocation of seats that year by the teachers was some kind of exercise to drill this self-same thing into every one head and prevent typecasting. Well it certainly succeeded.
We had had a roaring time that year, Putul and I, on that dirty-orange, severely scratched iron bench that screeched like a banshee when moved.
Yes we did, Putul echoed my            thoughts aloud.
I looked at her in surprise, You can read my thoughts?
She didn’t answer, just smiled.
So what are you drawing, I asked her, Catechism again?
Show me.
She pushed the copy towards me.
It was Putul’s catechism copy, just as I remembered it. One side was blank while the other side was ruled. The blank side was filled with Putul’s exquisite drawings, of the Last Supper, The Resurrection, a Nativity Scene……! Putul’s handwriting was rather wispy just like her hair and the ruled pages filled with her wraith like writing in a faint blue ink gave the whole notebook an unreal dreamlike quality. Even those beautiful drawings were wispy as if you were looking at them from behind a translucent piece of plastic….!
 I remember reading her copies of that 10 paisa leaflet called Soldiers of God, reading voraciously through her catechism copy itself for not only did it contain her delicate drawings but also her assignments which often had stories from the Bible which I enjoyed. She told me all about her Catechism class, a class which only the Catholic girls took. Because of her stories, the eternal mystery of the Catechism class was revealed to me, a non Christian in full measure. She would tell me about her brothers with whom she fought tooth and nail, daily, without fail, for some reason or other. I would marvel at her drawing skills and would even tried to copy her. And thus I had stayed beside her for 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days or maybe more, reading, writing, laughing, joking, cribbing, snoozing; but never once did I get even a whiff of the fact that she was ill, suffering from childhood diabetes. It’s only when we returned from the vacation intervening classes seven and eight that we came to know that she had died during the holidays due to what I now think must have been diabetic keto-acidosis due to uncontrolled blood sugar levels, common in this particular form of the disease in children.
You never told me you had diabetes. I told her accusingly.
She continued colouring, tiny smile lighting up her face.
I kept on. You know how shocked I was when they said you had died? I still get dreams of you telling me that, no you are not actually dead, that you’d just gone away…..! Tears clouded my eyes.
She took my hand, saying, Dreams are lovely aren’t they, Aibee?
Come, let’s go downstairs.

Ahhhhhhh, the advantages of Dreams. There was no need to do boring things like walking…….Instead, we simply wafted through the door, down the corridor, past the remaining classes, 7A, 7B, 7C, then the green hued Biology lab with the skeleton still swinging eerily on a stand next to the window, the chemistry lab on the landing, its foul smelling hydrogen sulphide for a change making me feel happily nostalgic…We floated down the stairs and I must say, one felt elegant floating, rather like a model walking the ramp. And with no one looking, I even gave my hip what I thought was an elegant wiggle, a la Jessie Randhawa. But then I had to put on hold my modeling aspirations as Putul had floated much ahead of me. So discarding all that floating, I now simply ran after her, down those old familiar stairs, their mosaic glinting, polished by the millions of footsteps that had passed over them since the day school began. And it felt real good to rush thus, just like in those old days, brakeless, fearless and free!
As we neared the IX C classroom, Putul asked me, Want to go sit on the roof?
Which roof, I asked, a little confused. We had never sat on any roof during school days.
She pointed to the terracotta tiled roof of the Principal’s office.
There? I spurted. How on earth do we climb up there?
But it was a needlessly foolish question in my current situation. We of course, simply floated up. As we stationed ourselves right there on the bridge of the roof, I glanced down. Girls had come out for recess and the playground was full. Groups of girls stood eating ‘tiffin’, some ran aimlessly on the grounds, others sat comfortably over a grassy patch and gossiped happily.
We never shared tiffin, Putul. I told her.
She nodded in agreement. Yes, your tiffin friends were different.
I laughed remembering. Yeah my tiffin friends were different. You know it was SM, DB, SK and me always at tiffin time. For close to twelve years we had eaten our lunch together.
They’ve all grown up now, Putul, I told her.
She laughed, Really?
Yes, DB and SM have grown up boys, teenagers. Can you believe it? I marveled. Putul smiled.

Suddenly, a ripple of something akin to excitement but more sinister flitted across the entire playground.  I found the girls sitting up, removing hair from their faces and patting their ponies into place, fumbling for their badges and straightening those up and I even spotted a few of them surreptitiously rubbing their shoes against their socks to bring some shine on their dust covered fronts.
Then the clippety clop of stilettos sounded on the concrete floor of Open Hall and a collective shiver ran down the spine of the crowd as each girl involuntarily stood or sat up straight. I found myself straightening up too, and there on my precarious perch on the roof, it was a movement fraught with danger and I would have actually fallen right off if Putul hadn’t clutched at me at the last moment.
Putul, Sr Maria!!! I croaked breathlessly. Think she can see us on the roof? I continued in a hoarse whisper.
Putul began giggling with an unceremonious mirth that I completely failed to reciprocate. I was thinking…If Sister Maria saw us on the roof, she would surely cook us over a spit and have our barbecued ribs for dinner……

Sister Maria was fifty-something, plump, stocky and completely un-pretty…..!But no model who has ever walked on stilettos could match up to the elan with which this nun in a white habit sashayed over the entire school on her high heels. I too am wont to wear stilettos often and though still younger to her, can’t for the life of me sashay the way she did : arms dancing, hips swinging,  blue veil  undulating…….! And she was Mother Terror, even for the teachers who were scared stiff of her. She had this habit of waving one long bony finger at a frozen-with-fear class of students and announcing menacingly, Wherever, whenever something wrong is happening, God sends me at the right time to make things right…!
And sure enough today too, wrong things were being righted down below. She had caught a girl with paint on her nails. With hot pink nail paint shining like searchlights on my nails too, I felt immense pity well up for the quaking girl as she stood head bowed, probably wishing that the earth would swallow her for ever ……!

Putul seemed to have had enough. She grabbed my arm and said, Chal Closed Hall chalte hain. So we floated down once more right over the heads of Sister Maria still lecturing the petrified girls of how the Devil dwelt in those who painted their nails, straight into Closed Hall.

Practice for a musical was in progress. Putul and I went and sat down with a host of other girls, right there on the floor, cross-legged.
Sister Anne Marie was perched at her little low stool before the piano and the familiar strains of ‘Way way back many centuries ago…’ filled the air.
I laughed happily, Putul, its ‘Joseph and his Technicolor                  Coat’!
This was an American musical by that famous duo, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, (of the ‘Phantom of the Opera fame) that we had staged in class IX, and that year it had taken the entire English speaking school scene in Ranchi by storm. And the entire credit of course went to the master director Sister Anne Marie, Sister–in-Charge Senior School and the Wizard of the Piano. An extremely melodious piece of work, we girls had taken to the musical like ducks to water and I remember spending all my evenings at home humming songs from the play and driving my parents and brother nuts with so much Angrezi Gaana.
Practice was in session up there on the stage. Look, I announced happily, there’s the Pharaoh. And Potiphar with his adulterous wife. And the eleven jealous brothers of Joseph. And Jacob , Joseph's Dad….One by one the well known figures passed on the stage, singing their lines, familiar and loved.
And then I spotted Joseph himself. Joseph, the handsome and good man, the hero of the play…. Joseph now in the court of the pharaoh and a big hit with the Egyptians, surrounded by the Adoring Girls who crooned seductively, beautiful sirens with flowers in their hair.....!
 Tall, lanky, with short cropped hair and an adorable flick, our classmate SS was a hit as Joseph and there were adoring girls not just on stage but gaggles of them all over the school. All through that term they either sent her little notes of mushy adulation or stood giggling at the corners of school corridors to collectively blush when Joseph passed them by. How we had enjoyed the whole thing, laughing and giggling……
Have you adored ? Putul suddenly asked me.
I looked at her, Sorry, did you say adored?
Yup! she said. Amusement glinted in her eyes.
I conceded. Yes but sparingly!
Handsome or Good ? she asked.
Only Good, Putul, only Good. I told her. And the Good are so rare….! I rued.
Ancient wisdom played across her face, But in the end, that is all that matters , doesnt it?
Yes, that is all that matters Putul, I echoed, that is all! 

On stage, Joseph was singing:
I closed my eyes,
Drew back the curtain,
To see for certain,
What I thought I knew…

As the beautiful melody seeped into my soul, Putul once more tugged at my elbow, Want to see the Far Field?And so we were now in Far Field, that vast grass covered sports ground  ringed by large leafed teak trees. The two basket ball courts were also there, now snoozing in the afternoon sun. A few bright orange basket balls lay beside the court. I ran, picked up one and dribbled it around the court, a little clumsily, being out of practice. Then the hoop beckoned. I aimed and shot and of course missed. I was terrible at sports!  I caught the rebounding ball and threw it at Putul. She was like me, the ‘un-sporty’ kind and the huge ball seemed almost to knock the breath off her frail body. But then it didn’t matter any more and we giggled happily, giggled for the sake of giggling or maybe because it felt so terribly good to be there again, there on the court under the bright afternoon sky. Then I spotted the spider lily bushes.
Putul, do you remember those?
She looked at me askance.
I recalled how she had picked a single bulb from that bunch out there, had dug it out of the soil and for some unfathomable reason had given it to me. I had taken the bulb home and planted it right beside the parijat tree in my garden. The bulb had put forth leaves, great sword shaped leaves and the entire shrub  had grown huge over the years. It flowered almost daily during the monsoons, the faint sweet smell of the blossoms filling our evenings with a fragrance I can never forget. And the flowers themselves always reminded me of Putul, with thin white transluscent petals, wraithly , so much like her.
Suddenly, the bell rang, loud and clear right across the entire school.
          I looked at Putul, Which period is that?
          School’s over, Aibee. That’s the bell for the end of the                       last period.
          I have to leave now? I asked, though I knew the                                 answer.
          She nodded, Yes, school’s over dear! You’ve got to go.
          What about you, I asked her.
          I am here, she smiled.
          Can I come back?
          Of course, she nodded. Anytime. I will always be                               here, me and all the others. Always!
I put out my arms to hug her.
           You know I love you Putul, you and all the others…each                  one, every moment…....
But instead of the tiny bony body of Putul, I felt something furry and soft against my extended arms. I opened my eyes. Mimie was on the bed, tail wagging. She had come to investigate why her human was waving her arms in sleep and also why there was salty water on her human's face.
Fully awake , I looked around the familiar bedroom with its bright orange wall, orange curtains and orange bedspread, Kuttush snoring unconcerned on his back on the floor, four limbs stretched ceiling ward, the air conditioning on full blast and bits of daylight slipping in through the window. I knew one day this present would also turn into a Memory. But the best part of Memory was that I could go back to it any time, any day, anywhere…..And like she said, they would be waiting, Putul and all the Others…still the same, unchanged forever…..!  

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

For Debjani........and all the Others

Ekhane ekhon raat,
Dhushor, himel, sheet ek raat.
Tobe, etto bodo ekta chaand uthechhe,
Shonar jole bandhano.
Tor okhane to ekhon shokaal,
Notun bochhorer prothom shokaal
Tui message pathali, bheeshon thanda,
Borof tatano, jodiyo borofpaat hoyeni ekhono.

Ek raat theke ek shokaal e
Dui bondhute
Chat hochche ekhon WhatsApp e
Ki bheeshon moja!!

WhatsApp er screen bolchhe:
“Debjani is typing....”
Opekhaaye ami.
Moner screen e kintu tokhon dekhchhi:
Lomba ami, chotto tui-
School playgrounder shei aam gaachtar neeche dariye
Top kore hotath haath bariye
Tui ekta toshtoshe shobuj kaancha aam parli!
Ami to stunned:-

“First girl tui Debjani,
Rules break korli?”
“Mother Superior bolechhen na:
‘The mango trees have been sold,
Do not pluck mangoes, girls
They are no longer ours!’
Tor expression tokhon rebellious:-
“Dhut, school to amader, gaachh guliyo;
Ne aamta chakh, nooner shathe daarun lage!”
Ei shedin i ke jeno chobita pathalo
WhatsApp ei:
School playground er
Tana mosreen concrete e bandhano ground
Amader aam gachta aar nei.
Monta tai ektu koshto pelo!

Moner screen e ekhon koto chobi:
Tor shei tin er pencil box
Kon ek J Perumala Chetty r company.
Aar taar modhya shajaano
Onekguli kalo chokchoke pencil
Their points perfect like Jimmy Choo 

Aamar lolup drishti oi pencilgulor proti
Tui khub shabdhaane ekta baar kore
Aamake dhoriye dili
Amar haathe tokhon jeno sotti sotti
Ekta 1000$ Jimmy Choo!!!

Aar ekdin shei je
Shojarur onekguli kaanta
Jaani na kothatheke tui niye eli
Koyekta tor pencil gulir moton:
Kaalo chokchoke.
Baakiguli shaada.
Shei kaalo shaada shojarur kaanta niye
Aamra, tui, ami ar baakira
Ki je bheeshon khushi.
Happiness complete!

Purono sreeti, purono chhobi
Ekhono fade hoyeni ektuku
Ekhono glaze finish ta chokchok korchhe!
Kintu chobi to after all shudhu chobi-ee
Tai mone hoye,
Ishhh, chol phire jai
Chottobelar shei dingulite.
Toke likhe pathalam ichcheta.
Tui the ever sensible First Girl,
Palta message dili:
Thaak na dinguli sreeti hoye
Moner page e
Jibon taake egote de
Why move backwards?
Jokhon mon korbe,
Moner screen ei dekhe nebo!

Ta thik, First Girl
You’re right, as always!!!!

Tai bolchchi:
Chole aaye Reunion e
Purono friends mile,
Notun sreeti bandhbo. 

Alu and the Crown God

I had rolled barely a hundred metres down the road when I spotted her gambolling in the adjoining park. "Heyy Alu," I called ou...