October 30, 2005

What I always liked about Diwali – apart from the good food, of course – was the lights. I liked the idea of decorating the house with candles or diyas. This was even before I knew the significance of it. What significance? Well, two that I am aware of. One, the houses were lit up in Ayodhya to welcome Ram & Co back from their sojourn in the jungle, where they had various adventures, the key message being the triumph of good over evil. Anyway, when the good trio came back to Ayodhya, the faithful citizens welcomed them back by lighting up their houses and in those pre-electric days they used lamp lights.

The second significance of the lights is to welcome in Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. There are various rituals to do with welcoming Lakshmi into the house: keeping doors and windows open, keeping all the lights on, doing puja, buying things, gambling (What? Why?? How??? Who knows!), spending money, making money etc. For my part, I like to keep the doors and windows open anyway to get some fresh air in, but on Diwali day this is not very effective because there’s no fresh air to be had anywhere in the entire sub continent, practically. Why? Because all of it is full of the fumes of fire crackers.
Why, oh why, do people have to light fire crackers? And why the ones that go Bang!? I hate things that go Bang!, and I hate them even more because most dogs get petrified and run and hide when things start going Bang! around them. Probably other animals aren’t too happy either, but dogs are definitely unhappy and, come to think of it, I don’t think babies are too thrilled about it either.

The festival of lights, people, lights. NOT the festival of noise. And I’m not even saying anything about pollution and asthma and deafness and blindness and fires and burns and child labor in making the fire crackers in the first place.

The thought of twisting bits of cotton and placing them in tiny earthenware bowls and filling the bowls with oil and lighting the cotton wicks and watching them burn is something so lovely and so peaceful. Much could be said of the alternatives to diyas: candles or electric lights. But candles are messy, they topple and leave wax all over the place, and besides, they go out at the slightest hint of a breeze. Diyas are much neater and much more cooperative, they often manage to keep burning even in a breeze. And electric lights – fairy lamps and long strings of bulbs that are festooned over the entire building – look very nice, but are missing the romance altogether. Without the effort of twisting the wicks and pouring the oil and then watching them burn in a bit of a breeze, fluttering but surviving, without that excitement, where’s the thrill of Diwali, the festival of lights?

Another thing that I think certainly doesn’t go with Diwali is bombs. Not firecracker bombs, I mean, but killer bombs, the kind that are left in shopping places to kill people. Why would anyone want to do that? Call me naïve, but I simply fail to understand why a person, any person, would get any kind of happiness or satisfaction out of killing innocent people who are out shopping to celebrate a festival – to celebrate life. All they are doing is buying gifts and sweets – small things to make ordinary people happy. Nobody is carrying out any social-religious-political agenda here. Why go kill them? The person who left the bomb there, and watched its destruction later on TV, he’s human too. Why did he (or she) do that? Why? I don’t understand.

Lights, and good food. That’s what Diwali is about. Why not just keep it that way?

On Childhood

October 30, 2005

Oh, the happy days of childhood.

Now, I am not one of those who believe that childhood was a period of unbridled bliss. I remember perfectly well the terrors and tears and finding out the hard way what was right and what was not, what would work and what would not, and who would tolerate you and who would not.

But then, it had its moments.

Most of those moments, the magical moments of childhood, were, in my case, spent in the garden. In those days we were in Chandigarh, and we lived in a sprawling (as I remember it) house with a rambling, overgrown garden at the back and a smaller, neater lawn in front. Apart from the flower bed of blood red poppies, the charms of the front lawn were lost on me. It was the back garden that I loved to wander it. Now that was a real garden – the sort you could get lost in.

It was lined with fruit trees on three sides (the house being on the fourth). Off-hand, I can remember guava (delicious when eaten under-ripe and often un-washed but sprinkled with black salt), mango (a huge spreading tree, lovely to sit in, under or behind), loquat (the only time I saw this tree or ate this fruit), lemon (or something like it), fig (I never liked the looks of this fruit but the tree was easy to climb), litchi (guaranteed to make you sticky in no time when the fruit was ripe), and chickoo (or sapota, which nobody else in the family would go near). There was also a gnarled old frangipani tree in the front, near the gate, with lovely, fragrant flowers, and a grape vine that climbed over the garage wall. A creeper near the front door had grown so old and thick and strong that you could sit in it like a swing. And there was a huge peepal tree near the kitchen door, which eventually had to be cut down because its roots were wreaking havoc under the walls of the building.

The cutting down of this tree was an event in itself. For several days after a truckload of men had come and sawn it down, the bole of the tree lay outside the kitchen door, roots sticking up in any which way. After they had cleared this away, I bravely decided to plant a loquat seed in the same place. Several days after planting the seed, nothing had happened. I think, in my impatience, I was expecting a full-fledged, fruit bearing loquat tree to be evident by then, which it clearly wasn’t. I dug up the seed, and found that it was, in fact, in the process of sending out a shoot, or something like that. I covered it up again, but nothing ever came of it.

At the back of the back garden was a hedge with a barbed wire fence behind it. It was not a very impenetrable hedge and we (my sister and I) used to slip through it with impunity. Of course, we had good reason: it was the only barrier separating us from the Rose Garden.

The Rose Garden was exciting for two reasons. One, it extended the boundaries of our little kingdom manifold, quite apart from opening up a vista of roses. Two, and more importantly, it contained the Ice Cream Stall. On innumerable occasions, having begged a few rupees from our parents, we raced down the garden, through the hedge and across the Rose Garden, straight to the ice cream stall with its tantalizing deep freeze of goodies.

Ice cream and fruit trees apart, I specially remember the April thunderstorms of childhood; nothing in adult life quite rivals the awe and thrill that these would generate in me. First, the wind would roar and howl, banging windows and doors shut and, as often as not, breaking a pane or two of glass. My mother would rush around trying to close everything before the wind got to it. There was quite a lot to close: windows in four bedrooms, a study, living, room, dining room, pantry, and kitchen; two sets of French windows; front and back door. Then, the clothes hung out to dry had to be whipped off the line before they became grey with dust and sopping wet with the rain that would soon follow.

Meanwhile, trees bent and swayed drunkenly, threatening to come crashing down. Dust and leaves were whipped up, whirled around and deposited everywhere. After a few minutes, new elements would be added to the action. There would be crashing thunder and lightening, and the sky would grow dark, cool and ominous. Then suddenly, a hush. Quiet. Stillness. Nature was taking a deep breath, waiting, waiting to unleash a torrent of rain with yet more thunder, lightning and gale force winds.

Amidst all this high drama, I would wander out of the house and roam among the flying leaves and moaning trees in the back garden. Usually, I was holding an endless conversation with my imaginary companions. And when the rain came down, in sheets and blankets, sometimes accompanied by hail, my imaginary friends and I would get thoroughly wet in no time at all and enjoy every moment of it.

That’s why I say that, at times, childhood was a wonderful experience. Nowadays, when it rains, I grumble about the mud and slush and the lousy drainage, am happy that my washed clothes are safe and dry in my tiny covered verandah, don’t have to worry about the windows, which are all closed, or the doors which are wooden. I stand in the covered verandah, warm and dry, holding a cup of something hot, and admire the rain from a safe distance. My imaginary friends have gone to distant places and the garden of my childhood years is nothing more than a happy memory.

Almost Drowned

October 26, 2005

It rained hard that afternoon. I watched the rain coming down in sheets, and thought that it would probably stop by the time we left office (ITPL) at 5.30 to catch our shuttles home.

It did. Except for heavy traffic on the roads, the journey home was uneventful. Three of us got off and crossed the Ring Road to Ashwini Layout, near Koramangala. As we went down the narrow lane, we met a flood. My colleague also met his roomie, who was on a bike. He authoritatively told us that the drain was overflowing and flooding all the low-lying areas. The only way I could enter National Games Village would be through the gate that was on the Vivek Nagar side. And for that I would have to go into Koramangala 6th block, skirt around the National Dairy Board and the National Games Stadium and then head for the far gate. Not a pleasant prospect. I opened my umbrella (it was still raining lightly), and set off determinedly.

The going seemed good as long as I followed his advice. I took some inner roads and kept myself fairly clean and dry. But when I exited these safe bylines and encountered the main road, I could see that the water-logging was for a very short stretch, close to the National Games Stadium intersection. I decided to take the narrow, muddy, high footpath that seemed to offer a chance of making it to the stadium entrance to National Games Village.

This muddy path was at an elevation, because several months ago, some “civic” body had started to excavate a drain at the side of the road. The mud had then been piled up on the edge of the road, and there it stayed ever since. When the rains turned the rest of the road to slush, the mud offered a highway through, albeit a rather unpleasant one. But this time this muddy embankment had itself got washed away in parts. In some places, people had placed blocks of stone that you could step over and this I proceeded to do, whenever the path broke down. At last, I was only a few steps from the turning to National Games Village. Almost home and dry.

Almost. But not quite.

At the corner, I saw a man slip and disappear into the mud up to his waist. I stopped, watching fearfully. He was too far away for me to do anything but watch. He scrambled up, out of the drain, onto terra firma. That could happen to me, I thought. I better watch my step.

But I knew this path – I walked it every day, twice a day. To the left of the mud, road. To the right of the mud, uncovered drain. Still, better be careful, I thought.

My next step forward had to be straight into the muddy water – there was no more path and no more stones. I tested the water gingerly. Yes, there was ground under there, and it would hold. I took my next step. The ground gave and suddenly I was up to my chest in water. In a second, from Nike shoes, to Sony Ericsson cell phone, to IBM laptop to Levis jeans and pretty pink Allen Solly top – everything was full of mud.

I screamed. I could see myself becoming another statistic:

15 People and an IBM Laptop Washed Away in Open Drains in Separate Incidents

I got a helping hand – someone pulled me. I put a knee up on the road. I was kneeling, then standing. Dripping wet, but out of the drain. I was pushed roughly but kindly to the centre of the road and exhorted not to venture to the side again. Not that I was inclined to, anyway.

As I walked the rest of the way home, I was struck by two things:

  • I was now so wet, I didn’t need the umbrella anymore.

  • I still had to use the umbrella in the hope that my precious IBM laptop was not yet completely useless.

I reached home, stripped and put myself and everything that had been on me, even my shoes, straight into a bucketful of hot water. But not my laptop, of course, which I took out and inspected carefully. It seemed to be dry, much to my surprise and relief, and when I turned it on, it worked. I could not say the same for my cell phone, which had been in my pocket. Its display was blank, and a red light was flashing. I opened its battery compartment and found water under the battery and sim card. I kept it out to air, but I don’t have high hopes for its chances of recovery.

But the important thing was that I was safe and dry and so was my precious laptop. And I had learnt two very important lessons:

  • Don’t carry your cell phone in your pocket.

  • Walk in the centre of the road: it’s safer.

The Joys of Exercising

October 19, 2005

Imagine snuggling in bed, curling up with someone under a cozy blanket at 6 o’clock on a slightly chilly, rainy morning. Isn’t it the most wonderful thing in the world?

Now imagine the wretched alarm going off. First at 6, then at 6.15, then at 6.30! I feel like just destroying the miserable thing, the instrument of destruction of warmth, and sleep, and dreams, and love.

And why, pray, should I torment myself by setting the alarm for 6 a.m. in the first place, you may well ask. To get up and go for a morning walk? To give up snoozing and mooching under a blanket for vigorous exercise on a drizzly early morning? Wha..? Do I look stupid to you?

But that’s exactly what this stupid husband of mine has been persuading me to do. Sadist. Masochist. Considering that he’s the one I’m busy curling up with. What an idiot.

And all in the name of good health. Fitness. Weight loss. Humph!

So anyway, for the past few days I have been stumbling groggily around the neighborhood, sleep oozing out of my eyes. I even looked right through my next door neighbor as though she were a dream – and not of the nicest kind, either. I had to go and knock on her door and apologise to her later. I mean, one can’t afford to give offense to one’s default letter box, can one? She collects our post and couriers for us most of the time. Sometimes, when she hands it to us, she has this puzzled expression which Amit interprets to mean, “Why do you buy a flat if you never live in it?”

So anyway, off I go on my morning walk, unwashed, unbrushed, and only half dressed. One day, as I trotted around the park, I found that my socks were misbehaving. Sock, to be precise. It kept slipping under my heel and bunching up between the sole of my foot and the inside of my shoe. This was so irritating that I decided it was a sufficient reason to shorten my customary 40 minute-walk to a mere 20 minutes. Thereafter, I started wearing that sock much more often, until it finally got worn to shreds (it wasn’t in any great shape to start with) and Amit threw it out.

And then, today, he had a new trick up his sleeve. When I came back from my walk, I found him performing various masochistic contortions on the living room carpet, as is his wont (in the name of exercise). I didn’t bother to ask him what on earth he thought he was trying to do, and went about getting myself coffee, breakfast, and a hot shower. Somewhere in the midst of these activities, he appeared in front of me and said that he was trying to touch his head to his knee, which was quite impossible. “Like how,” I asked, falling into the trap promptly.

At once he got me to raise my leg above shoulder level, prop it on a handy piece of furniture, and bend over it till my head touched my knee. This, much to his irritation, I could do without major trouble. Then he got me to sit on the cold floor and try various other impossible positions, most of which I could do with varying degrees of success. Not bad!

At last, I realized that it was all a trick to get me to do some bending and stretching exercises! I don’t know what devious motives lie behind it…

And after all that, the blasted weighing scale doesn’t work properly either. It refuses to budge below 58! Useless machine.

Well, after so much strenuous exertion, I think I deserve a treat. Let me see what delicious item I can find for lunch. In fact, why wait that long, I’m even entitled to a pre-lunch snack. (I’m staying away from cup-cakes though.)


October 12, 2005

Help! There’s a poltergeist in my house!!!

First let me assure you that I am a non-believer in such things. Not a very firm non-believer, it is true, but a skeptic nonetheless. It is sometimes very tempting to allow oneself to believe in such romantic notions, but somehow one’s logical mind does not quite accept it. Poltergeists, bah! snorts the logical mind derisively.

Despite which, however, one finds oneself unable to deny that certain mysterious things do happen around the house from time to time. Around this house, in particular. In the kitchen, for instance, dishes move for no apparent reason. Put it down to a cat, or other forms of wildlife, invisible though they may be to human eye. (Much of the wildlife is admittedly all too visible, namely the hundreds of cockroaches that seem to appear and disappear at will.) The lid of a kettle slides along the kitchen counter in front of my eyes, blithely and completely ignorant of Newton’s laws of motion, which state, in effect, that motionless things ought to remain motionless and ought not to move around without any very good reason to do so.

In the bathroom, a shower that hasn’t worked for months suddenly starts to stream water. When nobody even turned it on! Put it down to increased water pressure, a leaky washer, whatever. Then, one day, as I leave the bathroom cursing after having been thus unexpectedly sprayed with icy water in the middle of winter, the mug, which has been hanging quietly where it should be and minding its own business, suddenly takes it into its head to rest on the floor a while, and slides there of its own accord. Put it down to a draft created by me in passing, though I didn’t, didn’t even break wind, not even slightly, honest.

But what happened late one Friday night put the seal on it. It was final and conclusive proof of the presence of poltergeists in this house built on a graveyard, with cracked, sloping floors which leak moisture in the monsoons — probably coming up straight from the graves: the cold, dead breath of souls restless and at unease.

Anyway, back to that Friday night. Was it Friday the thirteenth? It may well have been. In any event, it was a dark, stormy evening and the wind was howling menacingly around the built-over graveyard, when there was an electricity failure. Suddenly, in addition to the wailing wind and the lashing rain, we were surrounded by complete darkness. Ominously, this darkness descended on very few, one could almost say hand-picked houses: those around the back had abundant light. Even the street lights remained. Only very few houses had an electricity failure, of which ours was one.

Candles were duly lit, and since there was really no storm, they did not flicker and go out, but were amenable to being carried around by various members of the household as per our individual needs. Eventually, for want of anything better to do in the miserable dark, we all drifted to the front verandah (enclosed) and sat down – my mother, my sister and I: my father was out – with one candle placed on the bookshelf, where it started to burn the flowers that were residing in a vase thereon. When I pointed this out, the flowers were hastily removed to safer abode the candle was left where it was. Eventually, after maybe a quarter of an hour, electricity came back.

But nothing happened, you say. Flowers burnt by a candle flame do not a poltergeist signify, you remonstrate sharply.

No, but blood stains on the floor do. And that’s what we found when light returned to our lives. It was bloodstains on the floor that opened our eyes to the presence of poltergeists unseen, unheard, but quietly bleeding.

Not that we believed it immediately. Candle wax, said my mother. I rubbed it with my slipper and it was soft. It should have set by now, I pointed out. Besides which, the candle never came anywhere near here – “here” was a good three or four feet from the bookshelf. Everyone examined this statement from the point of view of their movements while equipped with candles prior to our seating ourselves down, and came to the conclusion that I was right (as ever) and no candle had ventured there. Besides, another few moments had passed and the “wax” still hadn’t set. Touch it, suggested my mother. I demurred, but bent to get a closer look and involuntarily got a good whiff of it.

Blood, I pronounced.

Rubbish said my mother stoically, but it indisputably smelt bloody.

So we all checked ourselves and each other, and especially the dog, for signs of injury. None. Meanwhile the servant came in and wiped it up, having been told that it was candle wax, and vouchsafed independently her unasked opinion that it was blood. Then my father came home and was informed of the happenings. Cats, he said. Rats. The cat killed a rat. The dog killed a cat. The injured rat walked across the floor, he hypothesized, getting somewhat carried away.

And disappeared into thin air? I asked. Besides, the blood was in drops on the floor, the way it would be if you cut your hand and it bled onto the floor. Or the way candle wax might drip. But candle wax doesn’t smell of blood.

Poltergeist. That was the only possible explanation. Not your friendly, harmless kind of poltergeist either, bleeding all over our floor. Was it a sign? Were we to follow up clues of a long ago death on just such a night at the very same spot hundreds of years ago? Would we have to talk to neighbourhood elders to discover the truth buried in years of deceit, a la Agatha Christie?

Unfortunately no, as we discovered shortly. Simply a defunct flashlight, whose batteries had been left in too long, and had started leaking. Someone had picked it up in the fond hope of light, and had dripped pseudo-blood on the floor.

Come to think of it, we never did find out who had picked it up.

It wasn’t me, nor my mother. Maybe my sister, but to this day she stoutly denies it.

Maybe… our friendly poltergeist…?

After all, there is someone moving things about in the kitchen and bathroom, so why not in the verandah on a dark, stormy winter’s night?

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