Tuesday, 22 October 2019

KRISHNA



Tripta did not have children.

That is to say, Tripta and her husband Nikhil did not have children. But this "childlessness" had never really bothered Tripta. It was not that she disliked children; on the contrary, a particular dormant corner of her brain that had remained childlike leapt into life whenever she was interacting with kids. Thus she bonded easily, strong and fast with them. Happy-go-lucky and uncomplicated, Tripta never worried or obsessed with the supposed 'tragedy' of her childless state. Nikhil like her, was totally unconcerned with what he categorically termed a non-issue and steadfastly had her back everytime a nosy busybody tried to make her feel guilty of enjoying her no-kid state. Of course, in the beginning, there had been rumblings of disgruntlment and stirrings of anxiety amongst her nearest family members, chiefly Nikhil's parents and to a certain extent, her own. That was understandable, given the average Indian's deeply ingrained fear of not having an heir to carry on the family name right up to the Day of Reckoning. But mercifully, both the families had had to repress their concerns and swallow their disappointment in the face of the couple's resolute indifference. Nikhil's Mom consoled herself by telling her husband: Atleast they have each other. That was true, for the two of them were so madly and irreparably in love even after fifteen years of marriage that a child would probably have felt left out in their midst.
So while their family left them alone over this issue, there were a host of officious busybodies around them, especially women, who targeted them with their unwanted counsel. Over time Tripta, the primary victim had learnt to deal with these attackers. These days, she did it with elan, hurling back at them a deadly cocktail of stinging disdain and in-your-face brusqueness. But then, apart from these inveterate nosy-parkers, there was another group of people that Tripta had to deal with often. This consisted of the ones, who on learning that she did not have kids, began feeling bad for her. In fact, they felt so bad that they induced within Tripta a feeling which she called 'reverse-pity'. This set comprised people who were basically kind and decent beings; and they felt sad only because they genuinely believed that being the good woman she was, Tripta 'deserved' the 'joys' of motherhood. Though Tripta could never quite induce herself to agree with this train of logic, she found herself feeling bad for making these nice people feel bad. Not just feeling bad, Tripta would find herself feeling positively guilty for inducing this unhappiness.

And so she devised a way to skirt this eventuality: she invented a child. This child, a son, was ten years old, was chubby at 38 kg, tall for his age at four and half feet height, played tennis, studied at an elite residential school in the hills, was good at maths, was an imp and loved dogs. He was called Titas and had a brown beagle called Tony. Tripta had by now used this Titas and Tony tale on a succession of casual acquaintances, Facebook friends, co-passengers on trains and planes with such resounding success that Nikhil nowadays teased her by suggesting that she write a series on those two. Titas, like Peter Pan never grew beyond ten years of age and Tony remained a happy eight-month old toddling dog, continuing to entertain people who felt comforted and at peace with this story of Tripta's picture perfect storybook family.

Today's trip was a sudden one and Tripta had been unable to secure a flight seat because of the short notice and the maddening festival rush. Aly, her manager was able to wrest a Tatkal ticket on the train and so Tripta found herself travelling long distance on Indian Railways, after more than a decade. It was not unpleasant and though she would never admit it to Aly, was actually quite entertaining. A case in point was this fifty something motherly woman from rural Jaunpur sitting next to her on the steel platform bench who was so intensely curious about her that she had been grilling Tripta Gestapo style over the last twenty minutes.

Where are you going? Which train would you be catching?
Where are you from?
Are you working?
What kind of work do you do?
Are you paid well?
Are you from Punjab?
Are you Christian?
Are you married?
Why are you not wearing Sindoor?
Where are your chooris?
And finally that inevitable question:
Do you have children?

Inspite of this inappropriate curiosity, the woman was innately kind for she shared her lunch with Tripta, piling her plate with more oily puris than she could ever eat, turning a deaf ear to Tripta's vehement protestations. She even made a generous pile of puris and alu ki sabji and handed it over kindly to the little urchin who was sitting on the floor beside their bench. Tripta watched the underweight, half-naked urchin boy gobble up the fresh home-made delicious poorie alu as if he had been bearing the whole world's hunger in his tiny tummy; and a warmth for that nosy woman flooded Tripta's heart. The little boy ate his share and after licking his fingers clean, placed a generous portion under their bench. It was only when a tiny black nose emerged from under her feet that Tripta realised that a tiny, brown, almost hairless pup had been snoozing all this while right under her bench. The pup matched the urchin in malnutrition, it's thin bones sharply etched on hairless flanks.
Her bench-mate was now asking the ace question and Tripta turned her attention back to the woman. She had decided that the woman was a perfect audience for the Titas and Tony saga. So without further delay, Tripta launched into an expanded version of the tale. The woman listened happily, asking questions now and then and nodding contentedly as Tripta embellished her tale with just the things the woman wanted to hear.
They talked for quite some time till their express train zoomed into the platform with long, gloomy whistles like a lonely fog horn lost in the mists.
Tripta got up and as she was leaving, she remembered the Diwali goody bag that her hotel had gifted her. She reached into her tote and handed it over to the urchin boy. The bag was a paper cake-box, crammed with chocolates, cookies and little packets of designer namkeens.
The boy was thrilled and it amused Tripta no end when he mouthed a shy 'Thank you' in English.
She patted his shoulder affectionately and when the kid added a heavily accented "welcome" she was tickled.
"Naam kya hai re?" she asked, impressed at the little thing's chutzpah.
"Titas!" he said.
And pointed to the mongrel pup.
"Tony!"

Tripta froze, heart hammering.
Then, she relaxed the next moment realising that the nosy woman had not been the only audience to her Titas-Tony story.
Both delighted and amused at his wit and cheekiness and also a little bit flattered, Tripta burst into her trademark loud ringing laughter. The little boy joined her mirth,tears of merriment mingling with snot and streaming down his grubby, crinkled face.

Her train was by now emitting those lugubrious whistles again and Tripta had to hurry. At the steps to her bogie she paused for a moment to look back at the urchin boy. He was now sitting on the platform floor with his head thrown back against the bench, one palm clutching her goody box and the other curled around his Tony. He was still laughing.

Suddenly Tripta felt as if she was Yashoda, watching the world's Titas' and Tonys' merge within her little laughing urchin boy....................


Sunday, 20 October 2019

Holiday Bits and Bytes



Train travel is undoubtedly interesting, especially for a two-bit blogger like me. But it is also exhausting, both visually and olfactorily (no, there is no such word; I just created it😁) due to the endless filth and the shabbiness all around. Let me support my statement with an illustrative example: The toilet of the long distance train that I had travelled in was of the stuff of horror films: the panelling peeling from the walls, the toilet-paper roll a wet mush, the basin speckled with the rich red of pan spit, pan masala and all manner of human oral secretions, the water from the tap a thin, reluctant stream..and the crowning glory of it all, the toilet bowl...Dear God, the toilet bowl! It was a seething mass of human faecal matter that threatened to erupt from the bowels of hell right into my face.....With my lunch threatening to emerge out of my innards, I narrowly escaped back to the relative safety of my seat. Bio toilets which have recently been installed in all trains are in themselves, a good concept. But the authorities in their enthusiasm forgot to factor in the clockwork of our Indian brains that regard all openings as sarkari dustbins. And therefore, these bio-toilets are a colossal failure because people use them as dustbins, stuffing them generously with plastic bottles, pan parag/gutkha wrappers, baby diapers and not to forget, the old criminal, sanitary napkins.
Ok, now that I have clarified so picturesquely as to why train travel can be tiresome, let me digress.

To something better.

I was standing on the railway platform just now, waiting for the train to arrive when a crumpled piece of discarded paper rolled down beside me. I turned to find a well-to-do family standing next to me. One of them would have thrown that piece of garbage. I was about to roll up my eyes in exasperation when a little girl, not more than four, a part of that same family toddled behind that still rolling piece of paper. She picked it up and then stood contemplating where she could discard it. A set of three dustbins stood a few steps ahead, but the bins were at a height and well beyond the little one's reach. Her Papa, a slightly rotund, bearded young man scooped the kid up right to the dustbin's mouth where she happily chucked her litter into the green depths.

We were on the bus at Kolkata and in spite of the post Durga Puja rush, had managed to find seats. As the bus zoomed though the teeming streets of the city, it began to fill up at each stop. Finally, all the seats were taken and there was now, as they say in Bengali, not even space enough for a single sesame seed. A bespectacled white-haired old man, with the ubiquitous bajaarer tholi (bazaar ka jhola) in hand squeezed himself through the crowd and came to rest before us. Our cousin RR, a handsome and conscientious young man immediately stood up and offered his seat to the old man. It was a kind and responsible gesture but then with our cousin such gestures are nothing new. He has always been like this, brimming with the honey of human kindness. But my story is not about RR. After a stop, another young man who had been sitting next to RR and who presumably had been watching the little episode, offered his own seat to RR. I was kind of surprised for RR was a sturdy young man and definitely not in need of a seat. Of course, he refused the offer, smiling in amusement. The other young man then did a funny thing. He stood up at the next stop and pointing to his vacated seat, asked RR to occupy it. Thinking he was about to de-board, RR took his offer. But this chap did not get down immediately. When RR protested, he reassured him that his "stoppage" was near. He did get down at the next stop, much to my and I'm sure, RR's relief and as he exited, I purposely took a good look at him. Thin, slightly balding, blue shirt and cream formal trousers, he was no different from the thousands of young salaried men who make their living and their life in the City of Joy.

The Kolkata Metro is not as swanky as the Delhi one and because it is so old, it is rather shabby. Still, it is convenient and comfortable and I'd rather travel by the Metro than by those speed-maniac Kolkata buses. This time the whole family was travelling together and while we women easily got a seat each, the men were not so lucky. Other Half's Dad is 75 years old and definitely needed to sit. Though we women had a seat, we couldn't offer him one as these were in the Women's Only section. Our Masi, whom I shall refer to as HS or Honey Sweet , for she is sweeter than honey, even stood up but of course Dad didn't take her offer. Just then, a man standing before his seated wife, gestured to her (the wife) to get up, escorted Dad over to her seat and made him sit. Though this seat too was in the Women's Section, the whole thing happened too rapidly for Dad to react or resist and so the remainder of the journey, he found himself sitting between two rotund Bengali Kakimas with a beatific expression on his face. And what was interesting was that no one protested: not the women flanking him, not the women standing because they didn't get a seat, not the men who spotted an old man sitting in the Ladies' Section....no one.

Huda Kattan's lipstick range, sold under her brand name of Huda Beauty are a rage these days. Her shades are exquisite and if they had not been so expensive, I would have definitely gone for one. Her immense popularity has spurred a huge market of fake products in India that are sold with impunity, not just in the gullies of Karol Bagh and the pavements of Chowringhee, but also on Amazon India. This time I couldn't resist picking up one of these for myself, inspite of knowing that these were, without an iota of doubt, fakes. The runt of a young man from whom I bought the lipstick didn't mind when I tried out a swatch on my wrist. The colour was beautiful, a pinkish nude with hints of brown, a colour I'm in love with. It kind of resembled the original Huda Beauty shade called Trophy Wife. How much, I asked. सौ। He said nonchalantly. My purse was empty. Other Half's Mom who is my usual partner in crime in such shopping forays, helpfully handed me an orange note of 200 bucks. I paid the man with that note, picked up my fake Huda and got ready to jaywalk through the traffic.
O Madam, kitna diya, the boy yelled at me. I whirled round ready for war when the man said, दो सौ रूपया दिया दीदी.
Oh, I bit my tongue. He gave me back the hundred rupee change that I had forgotten to collect; and as I took it, I looked into his face, eye to eye and smiled my best smile. Something softened in his face and lit it up from within.
I don't think I'd ever dare wear that fake Huda for I'm wary of what toxic chemicals went into making it. But it will always adorn my dresser, hob-nobbing as equals with my M.A.Cs and Estee Lauders.

And so, in spite of the ravings and rantings on social media, I'm letting myself dare to believe that my country is changing.... if only one microscopic step at a time, still it is changing, and for the better.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

The Devi is Wearing Pink this Pujo



Swathes of Kaashphul, an azure sky and swirls of white clouds, like rich vanilla ice cream welcomed me as I stepped onto Ranchi station. The platform was teeming with people: some getting ready to go home and some like me, who had already gotten home. We negotiated the crowds and the coolies and managed to arrive all in one piece at the autorickshaw stand. Our Gem of an Uncle (will be referred to as Uncle Gem henceforth) like a conscientious host, was busy haggling with the auto-rickshaw wallahs over the fare. It wasn't easy, for they were not ready to budge by even a single Naya Paisa from the quoted one hundred and seventy rupees. This was twenty bucks more than the actual fare and for Gem Uncle and Other Half to accede to this would be a compromise of their principles. But because for the autorickshaw wallahs, we looked like the golden egged goose, they were loathed to let us off at one hundred and fifty. And so the haggling continued in true desi style as I stood watching with amusement alongwith my MIL and FIL. Suddenly a timid voice queried from behind my back: "जाना है क्या?"
I turned around to find a woman in pink standing behind me. Pink cotton coat, the kind you wore at the chemistry lab over a pink salwar kurta.
She repeated her question to me, "जाना है क्या?"
I took a few seconds to understand the situation: she was the driver from the Pink Auto Service. I had heard of these pink autorickshaws driven by women for women in other parts of the country; but I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar service in my little town. I replied happily, "हां जाना है.... ।" and would have hired her then and there out of a sense of sisterhood. But I held back a bit and like a good, thrifty desi, enquired, "कितना लेंगे?"
She replied without hesitation: "डेढ़ सौ।"
Thrilled, I yelled out to Other Half, "এ্যইইইইইই।"

Now this এ্যইইইইইই is the war cry cum clarion call of the Bong wife to her husband. It dates back to the days when the good Bengali wife never brought her husband's name to her tongue and called out to him using various euphemisms: "o go shunchho" (अजी सुनते हो), "Potlaar Baba" (पोटला के पिताजी) and other such romantic epithets. Slowly, over the centuries, the Bong wife's tongue sharpened, her patience shortened, her anchal expanded and her power heightened and the "o go shunchho" got abbreviated to the terse, business like and very powerful "Aieeeee." Each Bengali wife has a typical Aieeee which is specific to her alone and is broadcast at a particular frequency. Her husband's hearing apparatus has evolved so that he can pick up only her Aieeeee. There is never a cross connection, ever. This call is so efficient that it transmits easily over and through air, water and earth and though it can be softer than the sound of dew falling on the morning grass, it is louder than the loudest foghorn. I can personally vouch for this, because I have experienced it myself: at crowded melas, at thedeathly quiet golf course and of course at the railway station like today.
Other Half responded to the Aieeeee by looking my way askance, "Ki holo?" (What happened?) I told him, pointing to the pink lady. He didn't demur even a second. He called out to Uncle Gem, "She's willing for a hundred and fifty! What says, Uncle?"
At the first instance, only a "Oh! Ladies!" escaped Uncle Gem's lips. It did not sound too confident.
Now Uncle Gem is just that, a gem of a person and the dearest amongst all our combined clan of relatives. He is both, a father-figure and a friend-figure, a not so easy role to fulfill. But Uncle Gem does it with elan. That he is also a closet supporter of the women's emancipation movement was something that I had always suspected but I never had proof. So when notwithstanding his initial incredulity, he approved of the Pink Auto Service with a empathetic "Ok. Good!" I knew that my assessment of his closet women's emancipation support was amply vindicated.

And so the pink auto wove through the over-crowded streets of Ranchi towards our home. I sat behind the pink-clad woman driver and did what I do best: observe.
The auto body was not new. It was decorated with gaudy pink rexin trimmings and the seat we were sitting on was of the same loud colour. Our driver's uniform in contrast to the shabby worn out interiors, was clean, well fitted and pressed. I noted the slight giving away of the seams of her coat at the armpit on one side, probably caused by the sudden jerks of the steering handles. Her wavy hair was done up in a loose pony cum bun and cutely fastened with a tiny pale-pink rose clutch. She wore no jewellery except for a single black iron kada. On the glass before her were pasted pictures of her Gods, Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin Mary.
As the auto made its way towards our destination, I sat at the edge of my seat, holding onto the iron rods that framed the driver's back rest. No I wasn't scared, not of the drive but of the Pink Lady making a mistake, of her being proved a bad driver, of her failing, of me having to concede to myself : nah, she couldn't do it. But I needn't have worried. She drove beautifully; weaving skillfully in and out of that mad, unruly, hodgepodge of a traffic without glitch. She did not break the speed-limit nor did she drive timidly. She drove just like any male driver; but without the unnecessary and dangerous risks that some male autorickshawwallahs are wont to take. I will attribute this to the prudence that comes naturally to our gender. We reached our destination safe and sound and in good spirits and as Other Half rummaged in his pockets for the hundred and fifty bucks, I requested her for a photograph. She obliged with a ready smile, posing in her driver's seat. I asked her name and she told me it was मग्दालिन (Magdalene, after Mary Magdalene, one Jesus Christ's followers.) Later, as we discussed Magdalene, Other Half remarked in admiration: The lady drove so well. And not only did she drive well, she got us home almost fifteen minutes ahead of Uncle Gem, who had followed us in his car. She was able to do so because being familiar with the road and gali network of Ranchi, she had chosen the best shortcuts (without Google) to make sure we reached home in record time.

It would not have been easy to be an autorickshaw driver in Ranchi. Even though this Pink Auto Service is a government funded and supported scheme, I know it would not have been easy for a woman like Magdalene. Driving around in your own car in the city streets can never be compared to driving a commercial vehicle. The mad traffic, the jaywalking, the uncertain character and behaviour of the fare you pick up, the weird hours, the lonely destinations, the omnipresent fear of personal safety, the threat of being molested, the negative vibes from other male autorickshawwallahs and to cap it all, the common man's (and woman's) lack of faith in a woman's ability to drive (or fly a plane or man a ship or fire a weapon) would have made Magdalene's journey a tough one.

But as far as I was concerned, there was no doubt that she had made it and had emerged in flying Pink.

Pink is one of my favourite colours. I remember an incident from my past when I had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting and I had made it on a pale pink background. My senior colleague (someone we respect and are very fond of) had been both amused and aghast at my choice of colour, for in my hyper-masculine organisation, pink is an anathema, the colour of sissies. Of course, I had had to change it, something I did in bad humour because I felt it was so sexist to assign gender to colours. That was many years ago. Today, I am quite happy that Pink is a woman's colour. It is now the colour of feminity, of freedom, of emancipation, of self confidence and of success. As a reader has just commented, Pink is the Force.

And so, this Pujo, the Devi is wearing Pink.

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...