Category Archives: Memories

David & The Land of Mahatma

It was a beautiful mellowed June evening. The sky was grey, there was something romantic about the waves hitting against the rocks. We had just reached Fort Kochi in God’s own country after a long gruelling journey. But the tiredness of the journey just melted when we saw the vast encompassing ocean.

Fort Kochi

As we were walking under the clouds, suddenly we heard a young voice greeting us with a  ‘Hi.’ We stopped and he introduced himself, “I am David. I run a restaurant here. We serve seafood delicacies for lunch and dinner.” David added, “My father is a fisherman. So he brings the fresh catch and we cook it in the restaurant.”

And then he asked all three of us for introduction. My friends live in Dubai and Mumbai. When I told him, “I am from Ahmedabad.” Immediately, with a twinkle in his eyes, David said, “Oh! you are from the Land of Mahatma. How wonderful.”

Hearing that, my heart swelled with pride. Ahmedabad is the city in which Gandhiji established his Sabarmati Ashram and changed the course of India’s destiny. I am happy that David recognised that essence of India. These are difficult times. The world needs Gandhi more than ever.

 

 

 

 

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Of six years & 100 minutes

She is one person who is really close to my heart. We worked together in Delhi years ago and became close friends. We are soul sisters but the irony is that we also lose touch with each other and then after some years we again find each other. This time, it was for six years. I last talked to her in 2012.

Few days back, I was talking about her to my younger colleagues. On an impulse, I tried to track her in Facebook but I couldn’t find her there (I have lost her mobile number). I logged on to twitter, saw her profile. I couldn’t send her a direct message. So I tweeted, “…where are you? You nut case..a slice of my heart walking outside my body.”

She started following me and then we got into chatting via direct messaging. There was so much to talk. Finally, we talked to each other on phone on Monday night (as she was having her weekly off day and I finished work early).

She had no idea that I have lost my mother in 2013. I had no idea that her father (whom I lovingly call uncle) is now lying in a state of semi coma for last four years. I had no idea that she had a harrowing  experience while chasing dreams in London. My eyes welled up in tears as I was listening to her. She said, “My dad was like a huge beautiful oak tree under which I flourished and drew strength from. And today, he doesn’t even recognize me.”

There’s no answer to loss. You can only feel loss in your heart. I couldn’t sleep on Monday night. After  six years of losing my mother, my loss paled in front of hers.

All I can feel is love for her and for her dad. It hurts me to even think that uncle won’t recognize me. But I can recognize him and remember his love for me.

After we ended our conversation, she messaged me, “Six years of my life condensed into this conversation that lasted for 100 minutes.”

 

 

 

 

Pasta in pesto sauce

While growing up in a sleepy town called Bhubaneswar, Sunday morning luxury was all about my father packing a breakfast of idli, masala dosa and sambar  from a small restaurant. These were earliest memories of pushing the creative boundaries of my palate. Having a South Indian breakfast is what we looked forward to. The same happened when I shifted to Delhi to pursue my higher studies. On some Sundays, the hostel mess used to serve masala dosa and coffee. And if I remember correctly, the girls from UP, Bihar, Orissa (then) and West Bengal were more excited to have the so called exotic Southern breakfast more than anybody else. The same emotion was recently shared by my Gujarati friend’s 80 year old mother. She told me, “I used to feel pampered and loved when my husband ordered a meal of butter naan, paneer butter masala and kaali dal in a restaurant. It was a refreshing change from the roti, shaak and khichdi at home.”

It’s a different story now in urban India.  Many of us probably took the 10 year rule of UPA government with a remote control in Sonia Gandhi’s hand too seriously. Suddenly, pasta became omnipresent. Every neighbourhood kirana shops started stocking pasta packets in different size and shape. With great difficulty, he gives you a list of Fusilli, Penne. From chicken tikka masala and paneer butter masala, urban India has graduated to pasta in pesto sauce, nachos and Mexican hotpot. Suddenly you see restaurants showing signboards displaying proudly, “Punjabi, Chinese, Italian, Mexican.” If you happen to stay in Ahmedabad (as yours truly), you will get a Jain version of everything. From Punjabi, Chinese, Italian and Mexican. You will always have a choice of Jain pizza in Ahmedabad. Please don’t ask me how it’s as I have never tasted it.

three different pieces of macaronis on top of black surface

If you thought that Bollywood with its all jazz and item songs is minting money, then hold on  the food industry is ahead of the film industry.  The all consuming ‘eating out economy’ is on a roll. According to a FICCI report, the restaurant industry is expected to contribute about 2.1 per cent to the total GDP of India by 2021. Eating out is big business in India. If you have not booked a table on Sunday, you will be condemned to stand in queue for hours and count the stars in the sky (if you are lucky to spot them).  In developed Gujarat, if you walk on the road on a Sunday, you might think that there’s a Kumbh Mela waiting to start soon. You have to push through forever hungry men, women and kids to find your own way in between cries of ‘one veg manchurain, one fried rice, double cheese pizza (whatever this means),’ The roads are chock-a-block with milling crowds waiting to have their share of world on their platter.
There’s a gourmet revolution happening in India. Post-liberalised India is on a platter high. And everybody is in a race to be cool. So cool that he finds it uncool to have anything other than Italian and Mexican. So, the uber cool stylish new ‘kids’ on the block are pastas, pizzas, cookies, garlic bread and hold on how can I ever forget ‘cupcakes.’  Few days ago, a colleague bought a box of cup cakes to celebrate her birthday at work. Yes, I did bite into it and wished her very warmly.  But by evening, my sweet craving was so intense that I did run to the nearest mithai shop to have my sinful share of ‘jalebi with rabri.’  Hot jalebis literally soaked in rabri. I could have died of happiness. You can call me ‘desi gal’, I will take no offence.
Yes, food needs to be celebrated and I see no harm food being looked at boundaries. After all, aren’t we living in an age of globalisation? With every other person turning into a food blogger or food photographer, I can see the winds of change sweeping our platter. There’s a glasnost happening there. Modi’s much talked about ‘acche din aayenge’ actually arrived on our plates some years ago.
It’s not just that people are tasting different cuisines at restaurants. But there’s a silent revolution happening on the kitchen shelves. The refrigerator is also witnessing a revolution. The ‘maharaj’ (the man who cooks and takes a salary) needs to be on his toes to master the perfect art of making the pesto sauce. He has to be a globe-trotter in the kitchen, otherwise there is every chance that he might become another Lehman Brothers employee in late 2008.
But I am still unable to understand why urban India is in a rush to prove its CQ (Cool Quotient) only by having pasta, nachos and garlic bread? It’s fashionable definitely. But to link your CQ to your platter might not a very great idea. Or so do I think. But you need not agree with me. India is all about having thousand opinions.

P S: Eons ago when I was working in Delhi, there was a colleague who used to come and share his breakfast menu. To be fair, I used to ask him also to derive some unexplainable pleasure. Rolling his attractive eyes, he used to say, “Oh, normal…bread, butter, omelette, bacon and orange juice.” Poor me used to go green with envy as I was munching my so very ordinary veg puff available in the canteen.
Once he fell ill and didn’t come to office for few days. Out of concern, I made a call to his home (there were no mobile phones then) and his mother picked up the phone. And we had a nice chat and in between she told me, “Beta (She was a Punjabi. As you must have realised Punjabis are capable of addressing their enemy as ‘beta’), please tell him to have his food. Before he had this fever, he used to eat a hearty meal of roti, gobi/tinda ke sabzi in breakfast and go to office.” The moment I heard this, my mind went back to my friend’s talk of ‘eggs, bread, bacon with orange juice.’ Well, the irony called life.
Should I have pasta in pesto sauce for dinner tonight? Let me think.

Marx on my mind

On May 5, 2018 — the world celebrated Karl Marx’s 200 birth anniversary. So, in simple terms, if Marx would have been alive, he would have turned 200. As an alumni of JNU, I have had the privilege of knowing some Marxists from a close distance. My spiritual/intellectual companion (so also my helpline number ) lived a substantial part of his young adult life working tirelessly and dreaming endlessly of bringing a revolution in this country. With a deep laugh, I say to him now, “I am the biggest victim of Marxism.”

MARX

 

On May 5,  I messaged him, “Comrade, Happy birthday to Marx. Woh nehin hote toh aap bhi nehin hote. (If Marx would not have been there… you would not have been here).

He answered, “Yes, let’s celebrate. Ideas never die, they just travel.”

Being in an organic, instinctive relationship for more than two decades, I knew he would call up after this. So, when he called up, I just picked up the call and blurted out, “Yes Comrade.” We then got into ruminating about his days of being a ‘Comrade.’ Once upon a time.

His humble room was like an open house with almost no concept of lock and key. Even if it was locked by chance, the key was kept there on the top of the door ledge. So, at best the lock did what the traffic lights in most two-tier cities in India do, advisory function. As the room did have floor sleeping arrangement (sorry if you are thinking of Japanese aesthetics or tatami mats), it gave enough space for the innumerable visiting comrades to lounge and brood over petty bourgeois. The room at any given time had more than four people.

And just because it was open that didn’t mean that my ‘comrade‘ was in the room. He could be anywhere but his room was 24X7 open for fellow comrades from different parts of the country. Nobody other than these comrades understood ‘atithi devo bhav’ (The guests are like Gods) better.

There was one occasion when I and another friend of mine had gone to his room late in the night to look for our ‘missing’ comrade. The room was open and dark. And we found four/five people sleeping on the floor. In our polite middle-class ways, we kept on telling, “Hello, Hello, Excuse Me.” But there was no response for almost 10 minutes. And then out of sheer frustration and anger,  my friend shouted, “Comrade, comrade..”  It worked like magic and suddenly one of them got up and told us, “We have no idea where’s he. As the room was open, we came and slept.”

There was no concept of personal possession in this world of Marx. Everything was collective. So the shirt bought for this comrade of mine changed hands in less than 48 hours. My blood pressure shot up to 500/200 when I saw another lanky comrade wearing the shirt.  These young revolutionaries lived in their own world. So no wonder then when I made coffee for them, after gulping cups of it, one of them (the brightest among them) said, “Waike hi aap chai bahut accha banate ho.” (You really make tea very well).  I wish I had an AK 47 with me.

There are many ‘comrade legends’ from Odisha I have grown up listening to. One such legend is about a communist-cum-academician riding a bicycle in his own marriage procession. The whole village gathered to see this unique bridegroom on a bicycle as even poor families go extra mile to hire a car for the marriage procession. And after his marriage, he insisted his new bride and now fellow comrade should come with him on his bicycle. His spirited bride went to her new home sitting on his bicycle. Well, this was followed by the bride’s mother weeping inconsolably and howling, “Why did I choose this rakhash (monster) for my daughter?” However, the silver lining was that the comrade bridegroom didn’t take a single item/penny as dowry.

In the neon-lit streets of India where now dreams and material desires are always engaged in a foreplay, the comrades are  a vanishing tribe. But these are also the times of jarring economic inequality. Then when suddenly you look back and you actually look at the comrades with a sense of tenderness. The beauty of being a comrade. When you are young, you dream of the impossible. There are no limits to possibilities. I have always admired them for that vision of a larger world. I may not agree with them but it always warms the cockles of my heart when I look back and remember many bright young minds looking beyond their comfort zone and dreaming of a classless world.

So, here’s to a belated Happy Birthday to Karl Marx.

Time

time

(I am writing this because often now I find people suffering from the ‘disease of being busy.’)

The year was 2003. Prasanna, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. She was in her early 30s and before cancer took over her life, she was teaching in Ahmedabad’s Shreyas Foundation started by Leena Sarabhai, the montessori pioneer. Born in 1915 to Sarladevi and Ambalal Sarabhai in the prominent Sarabhai family, Leena Sarabhai was a pioneer in the field of education.  Prasanna always had high regards for Leena Sarabhai and really enjoyed working at the Shreyas Foundation. Post her cancer treatment, she was confined to her home. Leena Sarabhai wanted to meet her but she couldn’t come to visit her at home as she was not in a condition to climb up the stairs and there was no lift.

When Prasanna was admitted in the hospital for some complications, Leena Sarabhai came to meet her (the hospital lift made it easier for her). It was a December evening. She came with beautifully arranged flowers on a lotus leaf. It was refreshing to see somebody not rushing to a florist for a bouquet.

That meeting between Prasanna and Leenaben is etched in my mind forever. Probably that will be one of the most beautiful relationships between a boss and an employee. As 88 year old Leenaben held Prasanna’s hand delicately yet intimately, tears flowed freely from Prasanna’s eyes. She couldn’t speak that time as she was suffering from a rare head and neck cancer. Just to watch Leenaben wiping Prasanna’s tears gently was subliminal.  None of us were using mobile phones then and there were no way to capture any photograph then. But then I think it would have felt brutal to capture such love and affection in a camera. Most of us in the room were crying seeing that kind of love.

After spending some time with her, Leenaben left the hospital. Some of us accompanied her till the gate. As she was getting into the car, my husband said, “Leenaben, thank you for your time.”

She looked at us and said with a smile, “What’s time for?” 

Well, there was silence all around us.

(Leena Sarabhai passed away in 2012)

 

 

 

 

Grey love

They were on skype. He said something, she said, “What do you think? I have got grey hair for nothing.”

He smiled and said,  “With every new grey hair, my love for you grows and deepens.”

The next morning, she received an sms asking, “Wanting to get rid of your grey hair. Our product assures that. Contact us… ”

She simply deleted the message.

 

 

Saris and an almirah

sari (2)
(Tonight is the first day of Navratri.  I started my day on a beautiful note by wearing my mother’s this crisp, beautiful ikkat sari. I feel a deep sense of love and happiness when I wear my mother’s sari.)

Every time I look at my wardrobe before going for a special evening, my standard dialogue is “I have nothing to wear.” I stand in front of my almirah with hands on my waist, look at it closely and shuffle through the items and repeat the same line again and again almost like a faulty gramophone. It can’t be more contradictory because the shelves in my cup board are choc-a-bloc with clothes of different designs, colours and textures and handbags collected from different places. Yet I end up complaining that I have nothing.
Even as I write this, my mind goes back to my mother’s Godrej almirah. The almirah was/is always sparkingly  clean. Not a single sari could ever be found in a crumpled state. The locker was in the middle and unlike the new-age cupboards available in the market now, the length of the locker was the same as the other shelves. The locker had my mother’s saris meant for special occasions. She called them ‘bahar ka sari’ (meaning the ones you wear when you go for a wedding, for an engagement ceremony, for a musical/dance performance or to pay a visit to a relative living in a different town). During my early childhood, I clearly remember there were exactly nine saris in this ‘bahar ka category.’ This collection also included her two wedding saris and she kept mothballs to keep the insects away and for that ‘fresh’ smell.
I have always seen my mother wearing only saris. Well, I find nothing extraordinary about it though today if I wear a sari and come to my office, colleagues keep on asking me, “what’s the special occasion.. birthday ya marriage anniversary?” “Nothing”, I say with a straight face. Pat comes the reply, “Come on, it can’t be true. It got to be some special occasion for you to wear a sari.” The best (sic) comment came from a senior male colleague when he saw me wearing a beautiful hand woven ikkat sari, “oh…today MTV has become Doordarshan.” Well, my mother had been wearing saris everyday with no special occasion attached to the day.
Her other shelves included cotton saris meant to be worn at home only. The saris were always perfectly ironed, neatly stacked up in a clean vertical line. There was a different shelf for her blouses and petticoats. And it’s not just about a wardrobe or her saris. It’s also about memories tucked away comfortably lovingly in her wardrobe. Her aging and slightly yellowing black and white wedding  photographs, letters written by me and my sisters, letters from my dad when he was away from her on work and cards sent to her on different birthdays of hers over the years, special Durgapuja edition of literary magazines, medals won by us for essay-writing or for being the best girl of the school—- the wardrobe has it all. The almirah also has her gold jewellery and no matter how much we persuaded she had resisted for long all talks about opening a bank locker for storing her jewellery. It was her complete world which was so very intimate to her and to her children and in the end she could just lock it up and sleep peacefully.
One of our favourite leisure activities was to tell her to open the almirah and then all of us would lie on the bed together to have close intimate awestruck look at her world. Every time I went back home during vacations, I loved sitting in front of my mom’s almirah and looking at her new additions and reveling in the old treasures which are my memory now.   Every sari has a story of its own. Every ‘vanity bag’ of hers has a tale to tell. The stories never got boring or repetitive. And her locker had many many more saris bought by her daughters from different places of India. To be fair, my dad also had a major contribution in adding vibrant colours and hues and of course numbers  to her nine-yard collection.
And now we have many  more wardobes and almirahs in our house. My sister definitely has a much larger collection of Baluchoris, Maheshwaris, Mysore silks and Banarasis. But the romance of intimacy lies in my mother’s almirah. Not in my sister’s.
And most importantly, times have changed. She left this world in 2013. But the almirah is still at the same place where it has been for years now. I have now some of her saris in my wardrobe. And these saris are my rich possessions. I carry forward the legacy of India’s rich textile heritage.  And every time I wear my mother’s sari and walk, I feel as if she’s walking with me.
But most importantly, unlike me I have never seen my mother standing in front of her almirah and telling “I have nothing to wear.” One day when she was fighting against cancer, I had asked her about those days of ‘nine bahar ka sari’ days and she said “It’s essential to be happy with what you have.”

(A longer version of this piece was published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Mother’s Soul)