Saturday, 28 January 2017

Shorts IV: Of Monkey Caps and Humanity

It's freezing. The rain is endless, cold and sleet like, falling in icy sheets. There's a crazy wind blowing that is absolutely demented with no sense of  direction or propriety, blowing tin sheets off rooftops and felling trees in maniacal glee. Other Half is shivering, teeth chattering, face ashen.
'It's very cold!' he manages to blurt out between his chattering teeth.
I laugh.
He's covered in layers and layers of winter wear as if he is back on the Glacier;  thick fleece lined inner wear, a warm T shirt, a jacket and a wind cheater. And as if that's not all, he is also wearing thick pure wool socks and thicker gloves, not to forget the wool cap pulled low over his ears in true Bong 'monkey cap' style.......!

'And yet you're cold!'
I giggle again as he gives me a dirty look.
An otherwise hardy, athletic chap who loves the Outdoors, he is surprisingly defeated by the cold.
'Getting old.' I tell him and he makes a face at me, unable to say much more between his trembling jaw muscles. I stick out my tongue at him in retaliation.

That was a few days back. The weather since has improved, the wildflowers have bloomed, the snows begun melting in the hot afternoon sun, the bulbuls have commenced their serenade in the garden, life is springtime like once again. And it is now that Padfoot has made her appearance in our lives.

She is a black stray dog but unlike my old black short-coated pal Kaaloo, she is very furry, like all mountain dogs and I can make out from the white fur salting her jaw, that she is much older than Kaaloo. Someone tells me that she's a Bhakkarwal. I've heard that these Bhakkarwals are fierce, unfriendly creatures and coloured jet black with that thick fur surrounding her skull like a lion's mane, I tell myself, she's just like the Grimm from Harry Potter, that magical dog shaped creature who portents evil with its appearance.

But of course, I'm totally wrong as I find out soon. She's nothing at all like the Grimm. In fact she's just the opposite, friendly, playful and when she brings her two adorable male pups to meet us, I am forced to eat my fears. And so I decide to name her Padfoot instead, after Sirius Black's Animagus form.

Intelligent, Padfoot soon becomes aware of her new name and even begins to respond to it. I'm thrilled, though I think she responds more to my voice and tone rather than the name I've given her.

Meanwhile, Other Half, like an errant school boy, takes to feeding Padfoot and her little family at breakfast and lunch everyday, without fail. We are in a guest house and our food comes from the local canteen; hence Padfoot's food perforce has to be pruned off our share. At first it's just odds and ends and left overs but slowly I find Other Half siphoning off great portions of food from both our shares, chunky chicken pieces, rotis, great spoonfuls of rice, large potato bits...!

Now, I like dogs, that's true but I love my breakfast and lunch too...and when he begins rationing my portion saying that I am anyway ballooning out with too much eating and need to cut down on my food intake, I put my silver stiletto clad foot firmly down in protest. And since hell hath no fury greater than a woman denied her Chhole Bhature, Other Half is made to retreat quietly. But now, instead of rationing my portions, he surreptitiously doubles the rationing of his own breakfast and dinner. And he being the incorrigible bull head that he is, there is little that I can do to stop him.

Now it's freezing again. The clouds have descended down the mountains misting the foothills in grey. It's raining cats and dogs. The wind is playing bad boy again, unceremoniously rattling tin sheets, window panes and bending the silver fir trees into awkward angles. And it's been like this since yesterday evening.

Other Half is restless: his Padfoot has not been seen, neither she nor her two sons since dusk yesterday. Their share of yesterday's lunch and today's breakfast lie forlorn in my microwave-safe-dirty-green Milton casserole dish with the broken lid. Other Half's eyes are worried, his normal happy-in-spite-of-everything demeanor absent. Every now and then, he peers out of the window into the grayness outside or asks me, 'Can you hear them?' But all I can hear is only the wind howling against the gray mountains.

Suddenly, there is a high pitched, almost subsonic mewling somewhere outside the door.


I yell out to Other Half, 'They're here!'

As I rush to open the door, he rushes for the green Milton casserole dish with its broken lid.

Outside, taking advantage of a respite in the rain, Padfoot has come to have belated lunch with her brood. Other Half rushes out with the precious casserole dish to that stone table where he usually places their grub. The dogs bustle around him excitedly.

The wind picks up speed again and I retreat indoors to pick up my jacket. When I return outside, I find Other Half standing protectively above the dogs, arms crossed against his chest, watching them eat.

The wind resumes it's mad dance and its crazily cold once again. My hands and feet are frozen numb and my teeth are chattering. As I pull my jacket tightly around me, I suddenly realise Other Half is clad only in his Tees and a thin track pant. No fleece jacket, no socks, no gloves, not even the monkey cap, nothing....!

I watch him standing tall, one hand holding that battered green Milton casserole dish with the broken lid, the other in his pocket, silhouetted against the gray mountain, in that blinding gale and pouring rain, sparsely clad, unconcerned of that excruciating cold, watching his wards have lunch, a contented beatific smile lighting up his dark, cold-crunched face.

And I think to myself: to be human, that is so easy, it doesn't require anything special of us; to feel joy, sorrow, pain, dejection, cold... that is all but natural; effortless and automatic. We all feel these things, for we are all humans.
But to have that is an altogether different ball-game; for in spite of all of us being humans, strangely and quite Ironically, not all of us possess humanity........!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

An Afternoon Under the Mountains

I was powdering my nose in the afternoon light at the window, my tiny handmirror stuck into the window pane handle at a precarious angle and telling myself unhappily how the cold had turned my large olfactory appendage red like that of a clown's, when I heard the taps. Two sharp ones in quick succession and then repeated, urgent. At first I thought it was my handmirror threatening to leap off its perch in protest against the forced reflecting of the horror that was my large red nose. But as I peeked out of the window, I found the culprit peeking back at me.....a typical Roadside Romeo in smart gray and black, complete with the latest hairstyle, a tuft arising from the centre of his head dyed gray. Floored with so much attention in boring middle-age, I almost collapsed with thrill when my little admirer flicked his tuft at me and tapped once more on the pane with a tiny beak, a good substitute to a catcall. Rooted to the spot, powder puff still held aloft in hand, I gazed back at him in adoration, something he acknowledged chivalrously, tilting his gray feathered head and winking at me with one, tiny, beady, black eye. That done, he then whooshed away into the bright afternoon sun in a flutter of tiny wings, leaving me pining for more......!

This place is like this, full of magic, this place of mine under snowtopped mountains. And its this place's afternoons that are the best. Afternoons here find me gobbling down lunch and rushing outside to sit in the sun to soak up its heat greedily as if I were a cold blooded animal that needed to store this heat in my cells. There is a concrete, ceramic tile -topped bench on the grassy patch just outside my room, but I prefer a piece of flat stone that lines the pathway to my room. This stone, flat topped and quite comfortable to sit on, seems to be a piece of mountain granite left behind for some unknown reason when this area was cleared off to construct the colony. It's gray in colour and though some finicky soul has painted it white, the paint has peeled off in streaks, leaving the stone to resemble the snow streaked mountain top that must be it's brother. There's another piece of white paint streaked granite opposite this one and though larger, it's surface is a little ragged, appearing not too comfortable; and so I always sit on this other, smaller, flatter one.

On clear days, the sun's usually quite warm in the afternoons and in this biting cold, very soothing, almost like wrapping yourself up in a white cotton quilt. I sit on my granite throne and snooze, sometimes waking up to meditate on this and that and sometimes to gaze up at the mountains, the skies and at the grassy verge at my feet. Though birds call and mountain water gushes down the storm drains in chatterbox gurgles and the tiny cowbell hung on the porch of someone's home close by tinkles in each gust of wind, it's still very quiet here. I call it 'soul quiet', the kind of quiet that absorbs all your noisy, clamouring thoughts, fills both mind and body and then settles down comfortably at the bottom of your soul, leaving a peaceful silence all around.

The birds here are many, most of them tiny; a few, fluorescent sunbirds, most others, the sparrow-like Himalayan Tits, flicking their little black tails up and down in such profusion that you get dizzy simply by watching them. There is a Himalayan Gray Tit couple that probably has a nest on a tree just behind me and while watching them play hide and seek around it, my attention was drawn to the tree. It's an interesting tree: it's trunk a jet black and its leaves a deep olive green, branched like fan-coral, sprouting directly from the trunk. Looking at it, the contrast between the green of the leaves and the black of the trunk is something that really grabs your attention. Another funny thing about the tree is that it's leaves look as if someone has taken bunches and then stuck them with Fevicol at different niches on the trunk, arbitrarily, on a whim. I've been trying to find out what this tree is called but have failed till now. Maybe you could take a look at the photograph and shed some light on this mystery.

There are other birds too, like the black-as-sin rooks that sometime swoop down to sit on light posts and croon, their harsh caw caws sounding plaintive and even melodious in this rarified mountain air. I've also spotted the drongo, long, forked, graceful tail following obediently behind as it glides from tree to tree.

Then there's that little loner, the white capped redstart with its burnt sienna body, which fishes silently at the edge of the storm drain. I don't know why, but whenever I spot him, Tagore's 'एकला चलो रे' comes to mind, maybe because this little bird's demeanor is a kind of 'Me Dont Give a Damn; Me is My Own Boss!'

The sun is quite warm now in this mid afternoon and scared of its wrinkle causing rays, I turn my back to it, hiding my face. And in the shadow that I now cast, I shift my attention to the ground around my feet, covered with cropped green brown grass. I spot ants scurrying around, hundreds of them, some carrying white things in their mouths. Are these eggs, I wonder, that they are carrying away to safety because there's going to be rain soon? I ask the same of AccuWeather on my cell phone but the lazy 2G connection has no answer for me.
But I am glad I have taken my attention away from the trees and the birds to the ground, for to my delight I spot tiny wildflowers there, a lovely purply blue colour, blooming in profusion all over the grass patch. I take a closer look and find that though just short of 'microscopic' in size, they are perfectly formed, ten petalled, each petal ending in one or two graceful ladylike points. As usual, they are अनामिका for me, but I think I'll call them the 'Blue-Star' flowers for they are just that, blue stars on earth.

Thinking of stars, my mind swivels to the sky and I look up. It is a deep, piercing blue today and full of kites drawing great, invisible arcs high up almost near the snow line of the mountains. In contrat, the mountains are black-brown and streaked with green in places where pines cling to them in vertical clusters. Near their peaks is the beautiful snow, blinding white in the noon time sun. I had seen these mountains before the snow fell and I find that I like them better with the snow, not only because it's more beautiful but also because the snow softens them and, where earlier they had seemed implacable and terribly dogmatic, they now appear more understanding, as if the snow has coated them in a mantle of the wisdom that comes with age......!

These mountains, a part of the Outer Himalayas are pretty old, in all probability older than Man himself and I wonder: what do these wise old hills think about us humans that live at their feet? How like those little black ants in the grass we must be appearing to them, tiny, inconsequential......How they must be watching us, the ant people, living, working, playing, loving, dying....... watching in amusement, a little indulgent, trifle fondly and maybe even a little sadly: knowing the pointlessness, the pettiness and the futility of our little human worries, concerns, sorrows, conflicts and ambitions..............!

A musical twooot too too too breaks sharply my reverie. I look up in the direction of the sound and find my Romeo perched atop the pruned jacaranda, whistling at me again. This time, in the sunlight, I get a better look at him. He's some kind of a bulbul, only grey not black, a little larger than the bulbuls from the plains and instead of a red streak on his tummy, he has a bright yellow one. He's a Himalayan Bulbul, or a Pycnonotus leucogenys, as I find out later; but at this moment neither of us are much bothered about his Latin name. We are both busy, he whistling cat calls at me and I admiring his gumption and that cocky little tuft atop his head. 

And suddenly, I feel very nice and very content, being thus admired by this precious Bulbul, here in the golden afternoon, beneath this crystal blue sky, under these snow capped mountains......

Now, right at this moment, life's very good, I tell myself, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world............

And my Romeo echoes me, 'Yessss Sweetheart, life's good, twoooooot, troooooo, tooooo..........!'

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

An Invitation to Tea

The hill behind is sprinkled with sugar-snow;
The sky's a clean blue slate.
High up, against this blue,
Few kites glide:
Black dots, in slow motion.

Down here, under the old, gnarled jacaranda,
The sun's a warm purple mass.
Beside me, in the hedges' green
Yellow sunbirds flit:
Fairy lights, in quick flashes.

I've laid tea today, in this warm afternoon sun;
Golden Darjeeling, curled long leaf.
There are muffins too, gooey brown:
Date and Honey-
Fresh off my brand new oven.

As for your salt-tooth, no I've not forgotten-
Its paneer pakora, crisped;
Sprinkled with chat masala;
Tangy, lightly spiced-
Foil to those sweet muffins.

My tea things are bone-china, old and very dear;
White with pretty peonies
In shades of deep dark pink.
They're fine and fragile-
Fleeting, like dreams at dawn.
I had sent you an invite, not too long back,
Cream coloured envelope.
The letters in deep black ink
Lucida Calligraphy-
My favourite font, very ornate.

It must be lying somewhere on your sleek teak desk
Between your black MacBook Air
And your Silver iPhone 7;
Or perhaps, unopened
Under your little black diary.

Oh, I know quite well this diary of yours,
Shiny, leather-bound.
Your writing, firm and precise
With its tall, upward flourishes:
So confident, very ambitious!

This diary I know, is all brimming over now,
With your meticulous plans,
Goals - long term, mid term and short;
Strategies, schemes, schedules
-Deadlined in one jostling frenzy.

They say your schedule is sardine-packed today:
Two Takeovers, three Deals.
In this, your NDA, USP, RIF maze,
My tea invite, forlorn
Has lost its weary way.

And out here now, the sun's pining away,
Night shadows drawing close.
In this freezing moon-rise
The world's turned grayscale-
And your tea has long gone cold.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Of Alices in their Wonderland..

This one's another 'Short', a really small one, perfect for an FB or WhatsApp direct post rather than an individual piece for a blog. But then because my Blog is my partner-in-literary-crime, I think it's dutybound to abide with me through all kinds of writing, small and big, tall and thin, good and bad.....! And therefore, I will definitely post this piece on the Blog, even if it's just a 'small'!

The other day, I was watching an old Agatha Christie film on YouTube called the Seven Dials Mystery. A typical BBC production, slickly made and quite charming, it had one of its characters quote 'Alice in Wonderland':
'You must learn to believe in a minimum of six impossible things before breakfast!'
Later it turned out that this fellow himself was the villain and the murderer, an unfortunate anticlimax, not only because he quoted Alice, but also because he was rather good looking. Anyway, this handsome villain's words served to transport me back to 'Alice in Wonderland' after a very, very long time.
How I had loved that book as a child, reading it voraciously, sketching and colouring its characters, memorising its evergreen dialogues for school plays......................

Not having a hard copy, I now hunted through the World Wide Web and sure enough, found a site with the complete, unedited version in html (and thankfully not as a PDF which take ages to download on my forever ailing 2G network).I spent the next two hours going through the beloved book once again, page by page, line by line, stealing a read whenever possible in between my boring old office work. And I'm quite sure my office boys on finding the usually grumpy me giggling and grinning all to myself, were convinced that I had finally gone bonkers. As I read enthralled, the book somehow seemed even better than before, the humour not just humorous but subtly profound and much more relevant to me now as an adult.

And of course, this re-read also set me off inundating my long suffering WhatsApp contacts with early morning sleep-breaking quotes from the book, thieved from the Internet. Thankfully, while all of them bore the deluge politely (read 'did not block me off ' ), a few, good naturedly even talked back to me of the book, reiterating what I've mentioned before, about how it was even more relevant to us now as adults.

And then suddenly, an acquaintance wrote back,
"You know, in school, my teacher used to tell me that I was an 'Alice'!"

I know exactly what she meant.

For I too am an Alice, just like her; caught in a Wonderland that only I can see. This Quantum Theory obeying, geometric, trigonometric, algebraic, achievment-centric, much-too-practical world is not mine. We Alices, we live on it, that's true but that's about all. This living that we do, eating, sleeping, talking, working...are all just to make you believe we are living alongside you. It's a diversionary tactic. While it's true that we do dwell in your world, the fact is that this is only on the physical plane. On the plane of the mind, we dwell elsewhere, as Lewis Carroll, a fellow Alice described,
'In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die....'

We live amongst you, but because we do not fully belong to your world, I think we are pretty rare. Of course, I maybe wrong; there may be more of us but because we camouflage ourselves even from others like our own, we often miss identifying a fellow Alice.

But we are there, very much there. You might even spot us if you knew that we exist and were dreamy enough: we're the madcaps that stare up at the sky while crossing a busy highway, we're the nuts that see castles and dragons and ice-creams in clouds, we're the basket-cases that talk to stray dogs and cats at street corners, we're those crazies who like a chap just because his dog has kind eyes, we're the demented who set alarms for midnight on Christmas Eve just in case Santa did climb down a nonexistent chimney and leave a present for us, we're those oxymorons that covertly step out in the middle of a winter night to catch aliens land in their flying saucers on that deserted meadow outside, we're the psychotics that lift up wild toadstools on monsoon evenings to see if a forest pixie is sheltering there, we're the schizophrenics that take a peek into your eyes and catch a glimpse of your soul.............!

Because we live with our heads in air and our minds in a perpetual dream-world and also, maybe because we are only part denizens of this world, we have little or no ambition in the way 'ambition' is defined in this world; and hence little or no drive to achieve anything much. In fact, some of us are so incorrigible that in case, rushing down the lane of your ambition, you bump into us, we'd quickly step aside, flustered and let you pass. It is good that we are so rare on this planet. Imagine a world overrun with the likes of us ...... it would surely never get anywhere at all!

Lost thus in our Wonderland, its no surprise that we Alices do not achieve anything too earthshaking in this life; but then, there's this one thing: see, if ever you find your earth shaking in a not-so-great way, you can count on us to put out our hands to hold yours till these 'shakings' go away. And as we do that, hold your hands that is, we would also tell you a wondrous fairy tale, a tale that'll give you a moment's escape from your nasty 'earthshakes', a bit of a much needed respite and a bit of a longed-for rest!

And it's in this little thing that our worth to you lies, ours, the Alices of this world.....!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Why do you waste away, my friend....
Sharpening arrows,
Greasing guns,
Counting bullets,
Building cannons,
Mounting tanks?

Set them aside awhile.

Come take my hand instead.
Climb snow-mountains,
Plant cherry trees,
Feed green parrots,
Read sad poems,

Sing old songs...................

And perhaps you'll find
They're all your songs
That the enemy sings!

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...