Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Blade Of Grass


A cousin of Rakhi, Bhai Dooj is celebrated right after Diwali, often eclipsed by the enormity and the scale of Diwali celebrations. There are many things that get eclipsed in the routine rush of our existence. Like, when was the last time you walked on grass?
The ‘I’ in the following piece is not me. I just like to take the place of people and play their part for the fun of it.

“People hardly have any time for anything these days.”
“And these festivals come like a blizzard, all at once and hardly let you breathe.”
I was eyeing the elaborate thaalis containing sweets in all shapes and sizes, my face betraying greed and ravenous hunger as my mother chatted with my uncle’s wife about the torrent of festivals that invaded as well as brightened our mundane existence.
“Get some incense sticks from the other room!”
I heard mom’s instructions and went ahead to comply.
It was another happy-busy holi-workday when some age-old rituals had to be upheld and embellished with our new age improvisations of gifts and celebratory dinners.
An array of puja stuff had  been laid out, decorated thaalis with an engraved incense stick stand and a glass of sparkling water. Laddoos and barfis lined on a large tray, salty snacks placed in another dish, flowers on the periphery of all the traditional decor. It all seemed like an offering to some deity. Obviously it is supposed to be an offering to some deity. My mother would anoint her brother’s forehead with a crimson teeka while praying for his well being and prosperity. My uncle would return the favor by blessing mom, his hands on her head, holding the customary paddy seeds, sweets and -----
“Grass. Get some grass! Quick! I had told your dad to get everything ready. Does he ever listen?”
My mother’s voice trailed into accusations as I set out to collect fistfuls of grass for the ceremony ; grass in the ritual signifies the bounty of nature and prosperity. Perhaps...
Finally, I got out, away from the alluring sight of the mouth-watering delicacies and mom’s never-ending instructions. This one was a petty task. Collecting grass. Pooh! I could get it in a jiffy. Just down near the parking lot maybe. Or in the garden.
My mother loves flowers. She had our gardener plant lovely roses, marigolds, jasmine, money plant, bonsai and so on. Our garden is a pleasing sight of ivy and vines tastefully cording themselves around the verandah railings.
No grass though. We don’t have grass in our pretty little garden. Obviously grass is not pretty. Also, our plants are all potted. Some dwarf plants do crop up in the vases but I haven’t seen grass growing anywhere. What would we do with grass anyway? It looks quite wild and unwanted as if it belongs to uncultivated land or something.
I moved on towards the parking area. What an imbecile I must be. What was I expecting to find? Grass sprouting through cement and mortar?
I decided to check out the neighbouring gardens. I saw bougainvilleas, cacti, ashoka trees, neem trees, peepul, laburnum and even those pink and white wild flowers that grow of their own accord. But I couldn’t spot grass anywhere.
My petty assignment was taking longer than I thought. I couldn’t find grass in my locality? Kids would snigger at my asininity. Just then, I hit upon my mistake. I was looking in all the wrong places. And the word ‘kids’ had given me the idea. Where do kids play? Obviously!
I just needed to check out some parks!
It came as a blow to me that my block does not have many parks, at least grassy ones. More glaring was the revelation that I had never bothered to look for any in all the years I had been living here. I came across a park which had one broken swing and a gang of boys playing cricket on sandy ground, a lot of dust accompanying their game. There were a few more in several nearby blocks where there were paved tracks for walking and a host of swings on yellowish-brown earth. These were among the well-maintained parks. Strangely, they were quite grassless. Save a few swards here and there, patches of dried yellow grass. Mom wouldn’t have accepted them for the offering. Even I knew that the ritual required bright green grass. It is said that brothers bless their sisters with grass. Grass denotes that blessings do not require anything save true devotion and feelings and even a blade of grass can be an invaluable present if you have the heart. Little did our ancestors know that soon a blade of grass would truly be tagged as an ‘invaluable present’ and plants as expensive classy gifts.
I wandered a bit more, determined to hit success in this quest of mine. Just then right between two buildings, where the water tanks are kept in a neglected space, I saw a clump of grass sheltered by a few dwarf trees of unknown origin.
Green grass! What a blessing !
I snatched fistfuls of it and filled my polypack to the brim.
When I reached our flat, my mother asked me, “Were you growing grass or what?”
I felt like saying “nearly”, I was dying to tell her about my newest discovery- that grass is on its way to extinction!  

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Black Cat

While travelling in a bus, my attention is always riveted by the variety of people flocking the cramped space from daily wage workers to IT professionals, by the calls that they make or get (which I am not supposed to overhear I am sure but I just can't help eavesdropping), by the way some women rock their babies to and fro and speak to them in a rustic dialect. It amuses me no end and I often find myself ogling at them and then roving my eyes all over the bus when they spot me in the act. This piece though is not about the pleasures of bus travel but something just the opposite. In fact, I don't think it has anything to do with bus travel at all. Maybe a little.  

A cackle sounded stridently in his ears and he forced himself awake. ‘What the hell was that?’, Mahesh wondered. "This good-for-nothing is supposed to take care of us? This one??" A round stout woman stood in the room, with one hand on her hips and the other holding a rolling pin. The room barely qualified as a room. It was a square space with a rusted iron-grey trunk, a table lookalike and a mattress, torn and holed, with a crumpled bedsheet containing Mahesh, who was trying to disentangle himself from a confused tangle of his bedsheets and sleep. He glanced at his cellphone, which was probably the first cellphone ever made. Those phones had probably stopped selling now and that was the precise reason he had managed to get a second-hand specimen.
It was 7:30 am. He had one hour to reach his workplace. It had not been an easy task to procure that job. From the intricate webs of babudom and "Office-Office" scenarios, he had managed to befriend a middle-aged personage with betel-stained teeth and a Bihari accent. Thanks to Mishraji, Mahesh was not unemployed anymore. He had managed to maintain the thatch above their heads;,the thatch that his father had created with backbreaking daily wage labour at the nearby mall construction site. Food, clothing, shelter and work-his life's aim was to successfully juggle these balls that supported his existence. Today, however, he was about to drop the ball which bolstered the others, the work ball. He rushed out of the room into the balcony, to the left end of which was a tap, beneath which stood a peacock blue bucket with a flashy red mug hanging by it. On the thick railing, lay an emaciated soap block which Mahesh vigorously rubbed himself with, while the bucket filled to the brim as the tap ran. In a few minutes, he finished his ablutions. Grabbing his black backpack, he drank down a glass of milk that his mother had set for him in a single gulp.
"You must eat a biscuit with it. Never drink milk on an empty...." He didn't wait to hear her mother finish her sentence.
Taking large strides, he reached the bus stop, already packed with people like him. As he prepared to cross the road, a black cat scurried past him. He groaned. It was destined to be a shitty day for him.
He halted at the corner most post of the bus stop so he could catch the bus as it entered. However, his efforts were not enough. There were at least a dozen youngsters like him waiting to win a paid bus ride. His daily competition started early. The day began with the race against time and the battle with sleep in the morning, proceeding further to the bus kerfuffle and the workplace chaos, consummating in household tension.
A red bus thundered by. Only a handful of people boarded it. Mahesh was not one of them. Wasting 20 bucks one-way to office was nothing less than profligacy to him. He waited for a green bus, impatiently glancing at his phone.
His prayers were answered as a green bus appeared to be coming from some way off. The green monster thundered to a halt and its preys hounded it to ultimately disappear into its jaws. Hardly a man got expelled before the jaws snapped shut.
Mahesh had failed to get sucked into the belly of the monster as the bus had parked itself far ahead of Mahesh's standpoint. He had grown panicky now. He must take the next bus or his livelihood would be in jeopardy. He fixed his eyes on the direction from which the bus was expected to arrive.
A flaming orange hulk came blundering to a stop a few paces behind where Mahesh stood. A horde of people like fireflies attracted to light, flocked the door. Mahesh knew that he had to get in somehow. The front door had not been opened and it looked as if he would miss out on this one too. But Mahesh refused to accept it. It was his last chance to reach his work on time. He shoved and heaved but could not manage to get in. The passengers started showering him with invectives. The driver pressed the race. The bus began moving. He held on to the door handle and managed to get a single foothold as the bus assumed full speed.
Mahesh heaved a sigh of relief. However, the relief was short-lived. He was still half dangling in the air when the rear doors slammed shut, inducing panic and causing him to fall back on the other passengers, earning their displeasure. He felt his back getting clamped as he struggled to free his legs from the clutches of the automated doors.
'High tech measures are not meant for this country', Mahesh thought. 'At least not in a country where every inch of space is claimed by some kind of a living creature.'  
The bus lurched to another stop.
"There is not an inch of space left!"
"Don't you stop driver bhaiyya!" exclaimed a few passengers. The others murmured their assent. However, where there is life, there is hope. And so with the hope of managing within whatever space was available, some brave folks climbed aboard, crushing Mahesh between two men and a woman. He was now sandwiched between them in such a manner that his hands rested on someone's shoulders, his back was taut against the woman and his legs were stiff and supported against someone else's. He dared not move in the fear of either offending the lady or losing his balance. They were all standing on the floor of the bus, jostled against each other in such a fitting manner as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Mahesh looked out of a distant window, gauging the distance left for him to reach his office when he suddenly felt incredibly light. He reached for his bag but couldn't find the strap on his arm. His heart nearly stopped. He hadn't even bought his ticket yet. His eyes frantically roved over the space around him and he saw his modest bag suspended in the air supported by someone's elbow and another's shoulder. His confidence began to return and he fetched his bag, holding it now between his arms since the strap had come off in the hustle-bustle.
He decided to buy the ticket before the TCs decided to prey on him. He tried to adjust his bag so he could take the money out. All of a sudden, he felt as if he was being smothered and his chest felt constricted. He couldn't breathe. He felt as if the crowd would converge on him and squash him flat. The thought brought out his fears in the form of bile. Claustrophobia tugged at his insides and he started retching.
"Oh God! Get this man out! What is he up to?!" a woman screamed. Others started making way. Surprisingly, space was automatically created at his retching. "Open the door for God's sake! He will vomit on all of us!" someone shouted from behind.
Mahesh couldn't have felt worse. He had never felt claustrophobic before. He was heavily mortified and yet, the uppermost thing on his mind was air. He needed fresh air.
"Why do you people drink liquids before travelling? You must have had milk or something! Are you a kid? Do you have to be taught these things now?", the conductor scolded him. As if on cue, he retched. As he was about to spew up, people parted further. The woman against whom he had been standing could not move away in time. Mahesh couldn't help it and he barfed. "Ewww!!", the woman made a grotesque face. Mahesh was sure that now he would definitely be slapped or driven out of the bus or something but as he looked down to detect the extent of the damage he had wreaked, he saw that there was some puke right between her heeled sandals. He had miraculously managed to maintain space-time complexity. Just then, the doors mercifully opened and he vomited out onto a sidewalk while holding fast onto the door handle.
"Drop him off!", someone suggested. However, an old man disagreed saying, "No, let him stay. Where will the poor lad go from here? There is no mode of transport around." And so, Mahesh leaned back as the doors clanked shut again. The day couldn't have started off worse. He was late for work, had had nothing to eat in the morning, had just ejected out whatever he had consumed the night before, had earned revulsion from the fellow passengers and must be smelling obnoxious.
The bus came to a stop yet again and suddenly there was a lot of commotion. He didn't have to look around much for the source. The day had gone a shade more awful. His worst fears had come true. The dreaded TCs were here. He tried to hand over a 10-rupee note to the conductor over the heads of the people, when an aged tough looking TC took him by the arm and carried him down the bus. He didn't bother to explain because he knew it would have looked like an excuse. He followed the Ticket Checkers meekly. Now, he would miss work, lose money and probably be beaten. Or he might be lucky enough to be let off with a lecture, which didn’t seem a very plausible prospect considering the course of events throughout the day. It looked like the black cat had taken its revenge on him.

Sunday, 5 October 2014



As Durga Pujo comes to a close, strangely, its the trifoliate bel leaves which have won a place among the number of things uppermost on my mind. Don’t worry, I am not going to expound on the sanctity of belpaata or their significance in Shiv Pujo or Durga Pujo. I don’t have the faintest idea about it nor do I want to know much. As I stood waiting for pushpanjali to begin, my stomach grumbling with the long wait for Ashtami, Sandhi Pujo and Navami aunjoli, my mind cooked up some weird thoughts. Here they are...

The kohl rimmed eyes stared straight ahead-unmoving and unwavering. There was a smile in them. It was mesmerizing to look at them. I could look at them all day long.
“Side deen please (Excuse me),” someone shoved me, tearing me away from Maa Durga’s eyes and bringing me back to earth, back from a world where Her elegance had entranced me into believing in a heavenly abode resplendent with majestic Gods and Goddesses. I stood erect, my legs going steadily limp, as I waited for the Purohit to commence the pushpanjali. I am not into fasting. I need food as soon as I wake up. Whenever I wake up, that is. I summoned all of my patience, believing it to be some sort of a test, which, if I passed would win me choice blessings from the Mahishasur Mardini. But I couldn’t put up a show for myself any longer. Soon, I came into my own, my face wearing that worn-out look, my forehead glistening with sweat. I had put on my best attire for Ashtami, had had a haircut and tried to look decent. But now my hair (previously kept open in a layered style) was up in a clumsy bun, my hand frequently running over my face in an effort to wipe away the sweat and the irritation level rising every minute. The Purohit was doing the Aarti now. A huge crowd had accumulated. It was the final pushpanjali and mom and dad had issued a caveat that I must not move from the mandap till I was done with the aunjoli
A lady stood ahead of me, her hair brushing my face every now and then. I couldn’t say much since she had a baby in her lap. The baby kept trying to reach my spectacles. I turned my head this way and that but the clever little child would manage to extend his hand and tug at my glasses. I finally changed my place, going back a few paces, earning my parents’ displeasure.
Aage aaye! (Come ahead), my mother ordered. And I meekly went to her, saying a thousand ‘excuse me’s and nudging past people with folded hands. Suddenly, I felt the crowd converging at a certain point. Everyone seemed to move left. I finally got some space. As I stood happily, dad nudged me to the left.
Ki? (What?),” I asked.
Aarti !” dad answered.   
And then I saw a huge flame travelling inch by inch from group to group as the dhaakis continued playing their dhaak, making everyone’s voices except the purohit’s (because he had a microphone) ten times less audible. There was a mad rush to get Maa Durga’s blessings in the form of that flame. It was as if the flame contained the solution to everyone’s problems.
“A similar thing happened 3 million years ago. When man discovered fire,” someone whispered in my ear.
I looked around to see T in a brand new kurta pajama, looking oddly out of place without his trademark Superman tee.
“Looking nice,” I complimented him.
“Want to impress Her you know,” he replied, winking at Maa Durga’s idol.
There were two more flame fights wherein in the first one, I managed to secure the 'essence' of the aarti and in the second, dad blessed me on the Goddess’ behalf by running his hand, that had brushed the flame, through my hair, thus imparting some of the 'essence' to me.
Finally, we huddled together, hands folded, eyes towards the basket of flowers.
Phool...phool...phool (Flowers! Flowers! Flowers!),” everyone chanted, groping for flowers as my dad managed to get me some. I tore up my flowers and gave my friend some petals. He did the same with his friends.
Ektu belpaata nei? (Don’t you have some bel leaves?),” someone put up a million dollar question. And everyone started rummaging in the basket for belpaata. My mom and dad couldn’t find any. They asked the distributor, clad resplendently in a white silk saree with a red border if they had any belpaata. She entered the mandap maze, trying to collect some. Meanwhile, someone had been lucky. A trident shaped leaf stood out amongst all the flowers, the holder of the leaf triumphant, as if Maa Durga had chosen him out of all the rest to bestow her blessings. The others looked away, trying to be indifferent and act like adults and yet, feeling that irresistible pang of envy inside. Just then, the flower woman came with another basket, bringing with her some belpaatas. Everyone fell on her as she handed the basket to a man, clad in a maroon kurta. He took over the proceedings in an authoritarian way that the woman couldn’t and started asking around if everyone had received the flowers.
Belpaata! Belpaata! Belpaata! (Bel leaves! Bel leaves! Bel leaves!),” came the exclamations from different directions. This must be the only time when leaves get more importance than the flowers. 
My dad tore the tiny scrap of leaf he had managed to get. 
“Its okay I don’t need it,” I said as dad gave me a part of his ‘blessings’ or the coveted belpaata. I didn’t pass it on this time. I had gotten a small enough piece, barely visible.
Chheedbenna paata chheedbenna (Don’t tear the leaf),” someone protested against the tearing of the leaf to pieces. But that is how we humans are. We want to get as much as we can, take as much as we can manage, try as far as our last efforts let us.
With the amalgam of gainda phool (marigold flowers) and bits of belpaata between our palms, we closed our eyes and chanted after the purohit.
The purohit’s commanding voice seemed to bewitch us as we repeated after him. “Namostute!” A kid in front of me exclaimed in a mock-purohit voice.
“You asked me to repeat after him. He spoke like that I swear!” the kid said in his defense as his father reprimanded him for insolence.
“Where are the rest?” I asked T as another bout of flowers and belpaata began.
“Who? A and B? Come on! When have you ever seen them praying?”
“Well, last year you know.”
“They were in XII grade last year.” He gave me a look that said ‘isn’t that obvious’. “That’s why I am here this year. Else I would have been at home. Sleeping and enjoying my hols. What about you? I always see you in the devotee line. You a fan?”
“Umm...I guess I am one of those flowing-with-the-tide kinda people. And...yes I sort of, am a fan, I guess.”  I replied.
Another round of chanting ensued.
“Flowers?” a friend of mine offered me some in the third round.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” I inquired, a little surprised at seeing her otherwise uppity self delving into the nitty-gritty of the Pujo proceedings.
“Why? Doing some pujo work what else!”
“I thought you didn’t fast.”
“Well I didn’t. So? You need the spirit, not some bullshit rituals that decide whether you can do pujo work or not,” she said with a self assured flourish, giving me a paltry amount of flowers sans belpaata (as an answer perhaps to my curiosity) and moving on, with a wave of her hair this way and that.
‘I guess I am one of those who go by the rule book.’ I thought to myself, as I threw the flowers at Maa’s feet with all reverence after the chanting.
The final round of prayers doesn’t require you to pray with flowers. We chanted with a namaste pose, me all the while wondering what to pray for after the chanting ends. That little amount of time between the end of pushpanjali and the consumption of charnamrito always had me in a fix. I just didn’t know what to say. I sorely wished I had some more mantras to utter. That space, that silence always made me uncomfortable. It was like I was on a phone call with the Goddess and I didn’t know how to open the conversation.
‘Hello? How are you?’ again.
‘Hello. Thank you for your blessings. I would like it very much if you could get me a nice job with a nice pay. It would be great if I could learn how to cook, how to take decisions and how to not be awkward. I would love it if…’
And the list would continue. And then I would feel guilty that I was asking for too much. But my heart would crave for ways to say that I wanted miracles to occur in my life, that I wanted to be loved like the princess in the fairy tales, that I wanted to find the answers to all the doubts I have ever had, that somehow somewhere I wanted everything to be just perfect, that I wanted to be assured of a utopia, that I wanted to know why we live the way we do- why we think, behave and act the way do, why we were born at all, and most importantly, importune the God to somehow exist. I was always in a terrible fix and my views swung wildly between atheism, agnosticism and theism. I didn't want to be caught unawares at the end of my life. I wanted to know now. Then I would check myself thinking that I should pray for serious stuff like health, wealth, joy and happiness. Aaannnnnd….TIME OUT !
Charnamrito arrives and the phone call ends. Tada!   


You could use these meanings:

Aarti- A part of puja, in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities
Ashtami- Eighth day of the Hindu lunar calendar
Aunjoli- Offering to God with folded hands
Belpaata : Bel or Bael or Bengal quince leaves
Charnamrito- Sweet drink offered after Hindu prayers to break the fast
Dhaak- drums
Dhaaki- people who play drums
Durga- Hindu Goddess
Gainda Phool- marigold flowers
Mahishasur Mardini- Slayer of Mahishasur (a demon) referring to Goddess Durga
Mandap- temple porch/ temporary platform for puja activities
Navami - Ninth day of the Hindu lunar calendar
Pujo- The act of worship
Purohit- priest
Pushpanjali- offering of flowers to Indian Gods. In Sanskrit, pushpam means "flower" and anjali means "offering with folded hands".
Sandhi Pujo- A puja performed at the juncture of the 8th and 9th lunar day
Shiv-  Hindu God

The Night Music


A disclaimer is needed for this post. This post is dedicated to my brother with MJ style hair (Bhai insists it is HIS style, not anyone else's since he has always pictured himself with long hair. Okay dude! Cool it! ) and a hat and his Jimi Hendrix fandom. I was recording his band performance when his ardor and the spirit with which the band members-his friends sang and played the guitar got me thinking. Guys! This is not a description or a report of your performance. Maybe this has nothing to do with you guys. It’s just my thoughts going haywire.

The night invites you to immerse yourself in her darkness
To drown your shadows in her deepest recesses
The night calling to each in her own special way
To rest and revel, to sing and sleep, to think and unthink
To come into your own and to break down the barricades and
Bonds of your own making, bonds of love and hate, of dilemma and determination
To allow the night to penetrate into your lives
To clothe yourselves in the blackness of the night
To camouflage yourselves in the music of the moment

“The performance will begin in a little while. Please be patient while the stage is being set.” An announcement blared from the backstage. The audience prepared to wait another few unbearable minutes. It was 12 am already. Many families were bidding goodbyes, marking the end of this year’s pujo. Some were heading to the food stalls to have a dinner of sorts; while others chatted on as before, indifferent to stage shows or the time of the night.
A little music wafted from the curtains. A little testing was on. It was a local band. Three to four music enthusiasts had got together a year or so ago and had been given the final slot of the final day of the pujo. It was a trend that had started two years ago. It was their third year and none of them had planned on this year’s performance. They had not sought a slot since they had not yet formed a formal band. However, everyone wanted the trend to continue and hence, in response to “we want a performance”, “you have already been given a slot” and such persistent statements, they had got a few people together and were planning on singing whatever songs they could remember. After the noon bhog and before evening, a little singing and a little strumming was all the rehearsal they could manage. The rest, the night would tell.

The audience had visibly thinned. Only the performers’ families remained. And some others of course. Friends, music lovers and pujo revellers. And a few pandal hoppers too.

“How much more time?” an impatient kid prised open the curtains and peered into the stage.
“Done, nearly done. In a minute.” said a lanky guy in a greyish kurta and blue denims, patting his long tresses under a black-blue hat.
As if the kid had given them a warning signal, the curtains parted within a minute. Four chairs were placed side by side, with all the singers and the guitarists seated on them. Three guitars and two extra chairs completed the scene. The seating arrangement looked like it won’t be a rock night after all.
The first song set the tone for a romantic gig, a soulful mellifluous night. The singers had succumbed to the night’s amorous lilting clutches. Song after song took one to their personal utopia, their favorite fantasy haven. The stage gave them a chance to live out their ideas, to express their idiosyncrasies cloaked under the shadow of the night and to be their alter egos without sacrificing their existing identities.
After almost every song though, the singers came back to life, stopping to recollect, looking at each other to ask about the next song, changing places and preparing to get engrossed in their next musical number. When they stopped singing, there was chaos. Confusion. Awkwardness. Embarrassment.
A woman waved to a singer on the stage. She mouthed, “Let’s go. Its late” showing her watch. The family of one of the singers was leaving and he was in a dilemma wondering how to get home. They were taking the car. He didn’t know if the others could drop him home. The others lived nearer and could simply walk. But he had some distance to cover.
He missed a beat. They had to start the song again. Some of the people from the front row had left. But the requests for songs kept pouring in. They knew that their music dilly dallied between their passion and the others’ indifference. There are only two kinds of responses to music- either you are an ardent fan or you have nothing to do with it. It's your luck if the people you live with plug in their earphones to listen to music or to get away from it. After a while though, the first category slides into the latter as their obsession clashes with the tolerance of the people they live with.  

With a time ballpark in mind and the thinning crowd, they concluded their show with a final song request. It was over. Their musical camouflage had ended. Now they were back to their own lives, replete with responsibilities and dependencies, to-dos and pendents. The stage time was over. The alter egos were sent back to their havens, waiting for a time they could come out in the light of the day and be accepted.