Tuesday, 30 May 2017

You Forgot to Cry for Me, Mrs Sharma

In winter last year we had taken a train ride, your family and I, strangers first then chatty train mates. On the Rajdhani, Delhi to Jammu.
While I was opening my foil wrapped IRCTC dinner, you took a quick, pitying look at the soggy, tasteless fare; and holding out a steel plate with hot alu ke parathe and home made achaar, had said, " Beta, have this!" And as we ate, your son and I, you had watched us with a Mom's indulgence.
But when today's newspaper screamed 'Army Officer on Leave Kidnapped and Murdered in Kashmir':
You skimmed the page.
You forgot to cry for me, Mrs Sharma.

At Jammu station, we had parted ways, you to the Mother on the Hill and I back to work at my country's restless edge.
On that dirty platform full of shoving pilgrims, when I had said 'Bye Aunty!' you had patted my shoulder saying, 'Bye Beta, jeete raho!'
But when my brothers lit candles for me that sultry summer evening at the Capital's Gate:
You missed the vigil.
You forgot to cry for me, Mrs Sharma.

Your daughter is to have a summer wedding.
Brother and sister had sat on your balcony, discussing deeply critical matters: the wedding photography and the wedding FB page.
Watching them together, you had sent a silent prayer to the heavens for their happiness.
You didn't think of my grief broken sister.
You forgot to cry for me, Mrs Sharma.

On the way to your favourite soap,
your remote had paused at a news channel. It was flashing my story, enough TRP fodder for 24 hours. My mother's face was frozen on screen, a crisscrossed maze of disbelief and pain.
You flipped the channel.
You forgot to cry for me, Mrs Sharma.

Your son has bagged an overseas job. In these unsure Trumped up times, that's sure an achievement.
He will leave tomorrow, on a tedious eighteen hour flight. And he won't be back home for a year at least.
You worry for him: hate crimes, refugee crisis, violence of the radicals, bomb blasts, employee layoffs.
I know that at the airport tomorrow, you will wave him goodbye from beyond the glass doors. And then when you can't see him anymore, you will turn around and weep.
And when you do, set aside a few tears.
Don't forget to cry for me, Mrs Sharma.

Monday, 29 May 2017

An Eat-Out in the Mountains

The road to McLeodgunj was lined with endless number of white cars, like a shiny white snake clinging to the mountain slope. When at one steep curve, our car (another white) slipped to a stop behind an Innova laden with tourists from the plains and when we spotted other tourists leaving their vehicles to trudge uphill on foot, Other Half and I decided it would be more prudent to turn back towards home. Of course, I had so wanted to visit that juniper shaded quaint old church called St John in the Wilderness and to wander around on McLeodgunj's main street, peeking at delicious gemstone jewellery set in sterling silver; but with the line of traffic barely crawling forward, I decided to postpone the lusting for Kashmiri sapphires and Burmeses rubies to another day.

Instead, as we turned, I sang a nag-song to Other Half: "I want pizza! I want pizza! Lets go to that pizza place near the Norbulingka Institute!"

Surprisingly, Other Half agreed at one go, without a single syllable of protest. He is not a fan of pizza, unlike me and one has to really cajole him for this dish. I was therefore quite surprised that he did not demur at all. But then probably because I would be leaving tomorrow, my nagging had worked its emotional ataychar on him......

Whatever the reason, we were now zooming down the hillside to our lunch date, to a place called ‘Joyful Cafe’, rated to be one of the best pizza places in Dharamshala.

The joint is placed quite a distance away from the road and since finding a place to park  in the hills is like finding the Holy Grail, we parked down below at the road head and then clambered up the concrete road. The slope was steep, though not too much so and was flanked by two and three storeyed houses with balconies where Tibetan prayer flags flutterd in the late morning breeze. The road was also generously marked with splotches of cow dung, all fresh and steaming and I had to really hopscotch my way around them.  In fact I was so engrossed in trying to avert dirtying my new sneakers that had I not looked up at the building in front just at that particular moment, I would have completely missed it.

It was a two or maybe three storied house, built in straight no-nonsense lines, sharply rectangular and very unlike a restaurant front. A small board said 'Joyful Cafe' and had the days specials written in pink and yellow chalk. It announced, ' New arrival : Himalayan Trout'.

'Eeeks, FISH!' I thought. (  If you are my regular reader, you would know of my hate-hate relationship with fish.)
My enthusiasm slightly dampened by the announcement of fish, I climbed the few steps to the porch and then pushed the wooden door to enter.

The inside was dark against my sun-glared eyes but I got a general impression of wood. As my eyes adjusted, I saw wood panelled walls, mahogany colored wooden tables, thick tree trunks cut into planks to make long tables and school-room style benches and most importantly, in one corner, a cute wood-fired oven with brick lined walls....
The ambience looked encouraging, very pizza-ish; and happy, we took our place at a small polished table for four against the wall. The young man who had first greeted us with a nice smile as we entered, now came up with a thin menu card laminated in plastic. I went through it, making a beeline for the pizza section. I caught one option that said Meat Lover's pizza. Looking up, I found Other Half already nodding his acquiescence. So Meat Lover's pizza it was and along with that, while he ordered boring fresh lime soda, I went for the exotic sounding 'Rhododendron Mint and Basil tea'. The drinks arrived in about five minutes. Other Half's order looked ordinary, like any other fresh lime soda but mine was interesting, coming with a white porcelain cup and saucer and served in a cute steel baby teapot. Excited, I poured from the teapot that was really hot to my touch. What came out was a pinkish liquid, the colour of faded rhododendron flowers. Happy, I took my first sip and then was near tears with disappointment!

The brew tasted like plain hot water, totally devoid of flavour. I caught Other Half's eyes. Though he diplomatically kept his silence, his eyes were doing all the slanted commenting.  I opened the teapot and found it contained a tiny steel tea infuser with Chinese/ Japanese letters inscribed in longitudinal lines all around it. I prised it open to find it full of uncurled tea leaves, smelling very faintly of some unfamiliar grassy smell. Taking heart that it was not just hot water that I was drinking, I let the tea infuse some more. Sure enough after about ten minutes, when I again poured, the colour had deepened and that grassy smell was stronger.

When one orders something described as 'Rhododendron, Mint and Basil tea', one expects something minty and basil-y, not just pink coloured water...! And then, though I like my teas quite sweet, I was too scared to ask for some sugar.....lest they think I was a behenji......

So if you ask me for my final verdict on Joyful Cafe's Rhododendron, Mint and Basil Tea, know that I'll never order it again.

An employee was now working at the wood-fired oven and I watched with interest. He took a pail like thing with a long wooden handle, placed an iron plate with the pizza on it, shoved it into the tummy of the oven and latched close the door. In a few seconds, a faint smell of oregano and thyme filled the air, making me suddenly very very hungry....

A group of young women were eating lunch on the table behind ours. They looked foreign, with slanting eyes and talked in English with an accent I couldn't identify. It was only much later when they bid goodbye to the owner, I caught the words 'arigato godaimasu' and 'sayonara' and realised that they were Japanese. As was the owner!

She was a little woman, frail looking, short black-as-night hair drawn up in a little pony, small round spectacles, in a chiffon shirt and dark trousers and all this while because she was sitting on the table ahead of us along with an Indian family as they ate, I had thought she was a customer just like us. But apparently she was the owner. Realising this, I couldn't help but wonder about her, about why and how this little Japanese woman had left her beautiful and orderly country to land up in this hot chaotic cauldron called India, to set up, of all things, a restaurant selling pizzas....!!!!!

But I couldn't continue my thoughts further for our pizza had arrived. About a foot and some more in diameter, it had a thin, really thin, biscuity crust with a pretty serrated edge and was loaded with cheese, pieces of ham and sausage slices. Other Half immediately seasoned it with oregano flakes, white pepper and salt that had been placed on our table by the waiter. I took my first bite a little warily, after the fiasco with the rhodo tea; but I needn't have worried. This offering, unlike the tea, was really nice: the crust crisp and a little bit like cream cracker biscuits, the cheese real cheddar and not the over salty cheese spread found in Domino's or Pizza Hut pizzas and the topping of sausage and ham quite generous. Though it was a tad bland for my typical Indian palate, we easily remedied that by some sprinkling of salt and chilly flakes. The interesting thing was that unlike your routine pizza outlets, this place had only a single size, with none of that 'regular', 'medium' and 'large' confusion. And what made it great was that this single size was bigger than the so called 'large' that is offered by fast food pizza conglomerates.

We ate happily, both of us and as we did, I watched the young waiter going about his job. Young, thin and clad in an ink blue T shirt and a faded brownish low slung trousers, he was indistinct from any urban Indian young man. But somehow, to my people-reading blogger brain, he appeared exotic: curled unshorn hair, thin beard, slow, soft voice, large quiet eyes and a long calm face full of something I can only describe as piety or mercy or something like that. He in fact looked to me like Rembrandt's painting of the Christ......or maybe it was just some oregano induced hallucination on my part.

The bill when it came was ridiculously reasonable and a happy Other Half declared to me, ' We must come here again!'

As we walked back to our car, tummies content, slipping down the sloping road, little monks clad in maroon and yellow crossed our path, chattering like sparrows. 'Monklets!' declared Other Half making me giggle.

As we walked on, the benign Dhauladhars smoked vapour in the midday heat, cows snoozed in the middle of the road, Tibetan men sat on open rooftops surfing the world wide web on their laptops, Himachali women picked washing from their porches and bermuda clad tourists from Delhi crowded around the entrance of the Norbulingka Institute to get a glimpse of life in faraway Tibet....

And I thought to myself : how peaceful it all was here, this mingling of cultures and peoples and religions, Buddhists, Indians, Japanese, Italian.......

The rest of the country could do well to take a leaf out of Dharamshala's book, I told myself. For it was truly, a good book!

Friday, 5 May 2017


The original aim and plan for this week had been to write about surviving without a refrigerator. But having endured six days of what can only be called an 'ordeal', my previous enthusiasm for blogging the experience has evaporated . And all that I can say, is that it truly is an unpleasant business, this living without a fridge.
And an air conditioner.
And a water purifier.
And a microwave.
And a four burner gas stove and a food processor and toaster and a washing machine and a......................

The entire experience is proving to be rather sordid, full of fast souring milk, wilting veggies, rotting lunch, 38°C drinking water on a 39°C afternoon........... and all such things devoid of poetry, of beauty, of melody.... and of freeze. Since I find words refusing to emerge in such poemless situations, when my third packet of milk soured into a queer smelling probiotic culture, I lay down my pen in abject defeat and retreated. And thus Operation Freezing at Forty was aborted, ignominiously. For good.

Instead, this post is a short one about 'it'. 'it' is a just-arrived-into-our-world cat progeny, the thing that is also known as a 'kitten', those adorable balls of fluff topped with melting green eyes that routinely adorn greeting cards, WhatsApp good morning messages and laptop backgrounds and Profile pictures. I've examined the creature and because I'm unable to figure out whether it is a 'she' or a 'he', it is as of now 'it'.  Now 'it' is tiny and black and incredibly ugly with nothing in the least 'adorable' about it. In fact even its ugliness is not the Shrek kinds which is a 'cute' ugly, but of the Gollum kinds, all big bald head and stick like limbs, crawling in slow motion inside the cardboard box,  just like we saw Gollum do, slinking up and down the grassless black mountain of Mondor. 'it's eyes have not opened yet, the fur on its body is sparse, its tail like that of a malnourished rat and missing bits of fur on the end and if that's not horror enough for you, it was riddled with big fat fleas when I first brought it in. In fact, I had to spend a few sadistic minutes crushing to death about fifteen to twenty obese, self important fleas just after 'it' was installed in my room. I suspect I have now gained infinite notoriety in the cat-flea world as the Butcher(ess) of the Orange Room and will go down in the annals of their history as the perpetrator of the Flea Genocide of '17. Seeing that I have not gained fame of any worth in the Blogger World, this does not sound too bad now. Fame of any measure ( ok, notoreity, if you say so) even if it be in the menial flea-world, is not exactly unwelcome. But issues of notoriety apart, I am happy to inform you that 'it' is now totally free of fleas.

After having installed this thing of ugliness into a cardboard box lined with bubble wrap and a pair of old cotton pajamas, I attempted to feed it. But the fella seemed to be on some kind of a bhookh hartal and refused to suckle on my cotton wick soaked in milk. Fevered internet search for 'kitten, eyes closed, feeding' and frantic messages to my famous vet schoolmate in the UK followed. Thanks to Sabi who responded with a whole page of very, very useful, practical and scientifically sound info on rearing ugly kittens a few days old, I was soon trying to poke 'it' with a small 2 ml syringe filled with a home-made kitten formula feed of Amul milk, egg yolk and a bit of Saffola cooking oil. 'it' is not exactly impressed by my modified feeding strategy but we are making progress. I'm learning patience and 'it' is learning to adjust. I'm learning to stick to routines while 'it' is learning the feel of my human touch. 'it' is definitely a faster learner than me. Over less than seventy two hours, 'it' has learned that its new world is an unpredictable place, that the warm fur ball that gave it food with unerring regularity and licked it to sleep is not coming back, that if it wants to get rid of that unpleasant sensation in its tummy, it has to learn to drink from a hard unyielding tube that ejects tasteless food in hesitant spurts, that the darkness all around has many textures, cold and hard, soft, and warm, that if one yells in suffuciently loud spells, a soft thing might just arrive and tickle it to sleep and many other such useful things.

'it' and I were not supposed to meet. I am quite sure of that. I am quite sure that it was some mutation ( a mutation is a completely random change in the genetic blueprint of earthlings) in the Great Universe's scheme of things that resulted in us crossing paths. Let me explain why I say so.

My after-office routine has, over the last seven odd days, been fixed: return, change, gobble some partially in-edibles posing as lunch and then retreat into my orange molehill not to emerge for the next fifteen hours or so. But that day, after having lunch, I stood at the rear window watching an elderly lady picking washing off the clothes line on her roof. There's nothing the least bit interesting about an old woman retrieving dried clothes, but I found myself watching her without any purpose in my mind, thinking this and that sundry thoughts. Then my attention was caught by the brood of neighbourhood stray dogs sniffing very interestedly at the edge of a fallen eucalyptus trunk. At first I thought that it must be a dead bird but then I saw that the dogs were pouncing and retreating playfully, tails wagging at a moving object of interest. My first instinct was to conclude that it was a snake waving its hood in warning. Alarmed, I opened the window pane and shouted at the dogs. They looked at me surprised but then returned to their pounce and retreat game. As I leaned out of the window, I got a clearer glimpse of the thing and it was definitely not a snake. It appeared to be a baby bird but from my first floor window, it was difficult to be sure. So I ran downstairs, shooed the dogs away and found that to my surprise that the thing was not a baby bird but a little kitten, mewling at the top of its little voice. Hesitant to touch it with my naked hands, I picked it up gingerly with a पोंछे का कपड़ा that someone had discarded and brought it up inside.
So you see, I was right when I said that we were not supposed to meet. For one, I was not supposed to be standing day dreaming at that window in the first place. And second, those strays were not supposed to be prancing around playing छुईमुई in the middle of a furiously hot afternoon when normally they are found at this time snoozing more than 100 metres away in holes they have dug out below various trees.

Though I brought the creature in fuelled by my belief that all life has the right to a chance at living, I was pretty sure the fella would not survive. So I refused to give it a name. Names give things presence and named things have this bad habit of stealthily creeping into your heart, staying there and creating unwanted complications. So it is, as of now, 'it'.

But I cannot help but wonder: was it really a random mutation in the Universe's preordained agenda? It's of course easier for me to believe that it was just so, an unimportant, random coincidence rather than believing that the Universe with its infinite number of infinitely more important issues actually went through the pains of realigning the cogs in its wheels of Destiny to allow this unimportant aimless woman meet up with this equally unimportant (and ugly) kitten.

For now, I think I'll let these important issues be, for there is only so much that my average brain can process. Of course, it would be nice if 'it' survives, though I'm still not too confident that it will. I know the whole thing depends on how well I can substitute for a female feline, how strongly 'it' wants to continue its experience of our world and of course how much Luck is on our side.

I'm very matter of fact about this whole business and find myself not investing emotions or poetry into it, but as I write, a picture flashed into my mind just now :

A wild-rose hedged garden under the hills where a white dog plays fetch-the-yellow-ball with an ugly black cat as a brown dog snores in the Summer sun, all four legs heaven-wards.

It is an enticing picture I have to confess. And it threatens to creep stealthily into my heart.........

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...