He has six friends and he tells us they will stand by each other no matter what happens. Before marriage, he told his wife, “You don’t need to adjust with my parents but you need to do so as far my friends are concerned.” He talked about his wife in a gentle and caring way. He makes sure that his wife has her share of fun and enjoyment. “Just because we are men that does not mean that only we will enjoy. A woman is a human being first and she must enjoy.”
(The youngest member in our newsroom is 22 years old. I have given more years of my life to journalism. Most of the world outside sees journalism as a glamorous profession. Not many are aware of the grime, the sweat and not to talk about long working hours and less holidays. But it is definitely one profession that gives you an ability, a perspective to look at your own life like an outsider)
I am a story-teller but I am not the story. That’s why every day, I wake up with a sense of deep gratitude. It’s humbling to be a journalist. It’s the story that is much much larger than me. It’s the story that matters, it’s the face behind the story that counts. I am just the narrator bringing the story to the world. People trust me with stories which define them as individuals. Not for anything else but for the fact that I am a journalist. People bare their vulnerable souls to me and share with me stories of love, loss, success, failure, aspirations .. all in the hope that their story reaches to the world. As much as you need the stories, you need the story-teller too.
Let me take you on a retro ride. It’s March, 2002. I am walking along with my colleagues in the riot affected areas of Ahmedabad — amidst burnt houses, smoke billowing from the roofs of houses, textbooks of young children lying here and there in tattered condition, once shiny utensils now all black and beyond any shape and most importantly charred dreams. The loss is immense and palpable. Grief stricken women and men open up their hearts to us i.e strangers armed with little yellow notebooks and ball-point pens. The world calls us ‘journalists’. A woman in her early 40s wearing a pink salwar kameez and a green dupatta holds my hand and tells with tears in her eyes, “Go and tell the world what you have seen here and what I have told you. Tell the world.” I hold her hands gently and say, “I will. We will.” I am the outsider in her world. Her loss has given me an entry into her intimate world. I have a comfortable home in the western part of Ahmedabad to go back to in the night.
But here in the midst of devastation — I am the narrator, I can’t be the story. Yet, I have to be there with them without losing my sense of self. I have to bring back the story as it is to the world outside. I have to draw the boundary of not losing my self and stealing the story from them.
On another day during the same period, my senior colleague and I go on the field to do a story on relief camps. From there, committee members of the relief camp take us to a graveyard nearby. They say the smallest graves are the ones that hurt the most. Standing there among wailing men, I actually counted the number of graves of little kids who had fallen prey to mindless violence earlier in the day. There were nine of them. In moments like that, a part of me feels like an intruder and I want to move away from that deeply private moment of those grieving intensely.
But the story is the winner here and it holds me back. There’s no moral dilemma here. I have to tell to all of you who are sitting in their homes, or working in offices and who are not privy to what’s happening there. I have to be detached at that moment to tell you what I saw there — without any colour, any filter. I can’t jump into the frame, I can’t be the frame. I need to be there among the people to bring you back the story no matter how gruesome is the story or how heart-breaking it is. I believe, if you don’t have it in you to come to face to face with death, violence, loss and grief then you can’t be a journalist. You got to be somewhere else.
My best friend who worked with Sebastin D Souza ( in Mumbai Mirror), famous all over the world for his photograph of Kasab in action in CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) station in the Mumbai terror attack, which eventually led to Kasab’s conviction, asked him once, “Sebastin, didn’t you feel scared while you were clicking photographs of Kasab?” He said non-chalantly, “What was there to feel scared? I was just doing my job — shooting him with my camera.” He didn’t glorify his moment of truth, how brave he was or how put his life into risk.
Years later in an interview, Sebastian said to a leading news channel , “After all that hype of 26/11, nothing has changed. I don’t feel anything. I try to erase it from my mind. It does not seem such a big event now. Photo-wise, yes, it was a very big thing. My pictures were used across the world and helped convict (Mohammed Ajmal) Kasab (the lone attacker captured alive and hanged in November 2012).” As matter of fact as it can be.
On a slightly chilly winter evening, I met Kalpana Gupta, a woman who had lost her husband, two kids and home in the 2001 killer Gujarat earthquake. I was meeting her five years after the earthquake had consumed her once picture-perfect life. Like a phoenix, she had risen from the ashes of pain, loss and longing. She had remarried and she came to meet me with her two year old daughter. She took me to the same apartment where she lived before the earthquake took away everything she had nurtured lovingly. She offered flowers on the door and we sat down on the ground floor of her apartment on two plastic chairs facing each other. She was living in another part of the city then and had just taken the possession of her newly built flat.
There was no question to ask her. She had to tell her story in her own words. Till now, I have not seen someone crying throughout an interview. She had no control over her tears. The poignancy of her story overwhelmed me. Yet I had to sit stoically throughout the interview and listen to her attentively. I distinctly remember walking back on the neon-lit streets of Ahmedabad with a heavy heart. But the narrator’s job begins with that.
No matter how heavy is your heart or how dark is the night, your qwerty key board is your place to go to. In the stillness of the night, you have to detach from the world around you. Then it’s just you and the story. That’s the ethereal moment when writing feels like prayer. That’s why, it’s intoxicating to be in the newsroom day after day, week after week and actually year after year. The high of holding the story within you and then letting it travel to the world. Once you let it go, you have no control over it. And it’s that juxtaposition of brutality and tenderness that has fascinated me all these years. The brutality of telling a story as it is and the tenderness of the story becoming a part of your life.
We are living in strange times. An overdose of information, fake news, issues of ethics plaguing the media, the list is endless. It’s not easy to be a journalist in today’s time. But then it’s almost impossible to resist a story. And letting it travel through the world.
I don’t remember the exact year. But it was early 1990s. My friend and I were going to Connaught place (New Delhi) in bus no 615 (from JNU). We were talking in Odia (the language spoken in Odisha) and just before we alighted from the bus, a co-passenger asked us. “Which language is this?” My friend without batting an eye-lid said, “Italian.” We got down from the bus and laughed to our heart’s content. It felt exhilarating to be able to speak in a language that somebody standing next to us couldn’t understand.
I have always relished the fact that I can speak another language fluently other than English and Hindi. I love languages and love collecting words in different languages and write them down in my notebook, mobile phone, mind and heart. Odia is my mother tongue and that’s the language I first learnt to speak.
I remember spending beautiful evenings under a cloudy sky listening to Chittaranjan Jena’s soul soothing song, ‘Mo priya tharu kiye addhik sundar, ediki manoi jiha se…’ (There’s no one more beautiful than my beloved… but she is so moody that only when she’s in a mood she tells me that she’s mine) and Shekhar Ghosh’s ‘Hridayara ei sunayata ku’ (When I ask the emptiness of my heart). I learnt English before I picked up Hindi. I loved English as a language and always scored well too, making my father feel very happy. I was equally good in Odia and my favourite leisure activity was reading all kind of adult literature (mostly novels and short stories) in Odia. Some of the stuff I read, I didn’t understand at all. Nevertheless I just read the books. For the sheer pleasure of travelling through the forbidden territory. My mother had kept away one such novel far away from me in one of her secret shelves. The little devil in me egged me to hungrily finish that novel when she was fast asleep in the afternoon. I think I read that novel faster than a Sukhoi 30.
As a child, I never felt attracted to Hindi as the teacher was not that exciting. He was an old man who was lost in his own world and didn’t pay much attention to our young inquisitive minds. I wish I had somebody to teach me Hindi well in school. I love the sound of Hindi, I love the beautiful, mesmerizing world of Hindustani. I deeply regret not exploring the rich textured world of Hindi literature. But I remember the first Hindi word that left an impression in my mind. The word was ‘kachchi dhup’. One of my friends had just shifted to Odisha from Bihar and she was good in Hindi. She explained the meaning of the word to me. I remember standing in our garden early in the morning and telling to myself, “Oh, this is kachchi dhup (tender sunlight) playing with me.”
For three years in school, I flirted warmly with Sanskrit and enjoyed listening to the Sanskrit news bulletin on All India Radio (AIR). It was a highly pleasurable activity for me even though I didn’t understand much. The other day in the newsroom at work, we were talking about our childhood memories and then I started, “Eyam Akashvani. Samparti bartah suniryatam. Prabachika Deepika.(as they used to start the Sanskrit news bulletin on AIR). Everybody burst into laughing. The three language formula in school gave me enough joy to fleet in from one world of language to another.
Now my fourth language is Gujarati. For this, I owe a lot to Taraben, my cook. She didn’t understand Hindi when she became a part of my home and world. So, I had to make an effort to learn Gujarati and now I can speak Gujarati and manage to read it if it’s written in bold letters. I hope, one day I will be able to read a Gujarati newspaper completely. I want to push myself. I want to do it.
Language feels like a trusted companion in my personal and professional world. I feel lost without language. We need to embrace each other for my own sanity. Language is the lover I love spending time with. I need to hold language in my heart. I need an effortless relationship with languages. Languages are not just about words. Languages are about emotions. Languages have a feel of warmth in them. Sometimes, I feel the salty breeze of Bay of Bengal in my mouth as I speak to my childhood friend of 30 odd years in Odiya. Sometimes I feel the taste of a lightly spiced fish curry and mashed potato with a dash of mustard oil, finely sliced onion and green chili, when I go through old letters of my mother written some twenty odd years ago. Sometimes it gives me a strange of comfort while sitting in my apartment in Ahmedabad, only I can relish the content of the letters written in Devnagari script. It feels very intimate and special.
As I flaunt my grey hair with gay abandon, I now look at languages with a kind of warmth and fondness. I remember my maternal grandmother who always carried a basket of Odiya proverbs with her. She was a tough lady who believed in dishing out a proverb or two at the right moment. She never missed a chance. She had mastered the art of firing proverbs with missile like perfection.
Even as India surges ahead on the path of globalization, we need to protect our languages. It still amuses me when I see upwardly mobile Odia parents speaking to their children in English or Hindi at home but not in Odia. Years ago, a young man asked me “So you speak Odissi at home?” He was then studying in a prestigious college in New Delhi. I looked at him and said, “I speak at home. I don’t dance.” (For the uninitiated, Odissi is a form of Indian classical dance.)
As I indulge myself in English literature, conversations and music, I feel I need to move a bit closer to my mother tongue now. I can no longer write a poem in Odia. The language is in the process of distancing from me as I am not nurturing it with tenderness and dedication. I have been an inconsistent lover. The touch of ‘sahitya’ is missing in my mother tongue. I am losing a slice of my love. I can’t remember when did I write a letter in my mother-tongue? May be a decade ago. But I now feel the desire to do so..
Now I listen to Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosale, Mohit Chauhan, Elton John, Cat Stevens, Mariah Carey, and Adele. I no longer listen to Akshaya Mohanty, Chittaranjan Jena and Prafulla Kar. They are childhood memories carefully tucked away in some corners of my heart. Their songs are on a pause mode for me. Their voices no longer waft through my home.
Most importantly, I express love in English. On rare occasions, I do it in Hindi. My love has a language that was never in my blood. Never in my vein. I express love in a language that has been far more global than mine actually. A language that has a limited vocabulary for fire, water, earth and sky. Leave alone love. English makes it easier for me to write a love letter. It enables me to shed my inhibitions. To create a different world than the world I am familiar with.
In strange ways, I now stay connected to the language I first spoke. I speak in Odia to the visiting pigeons who come and happily sit on my balcony wall and sometimes wander aimlessly in my living room. I ask them in Odia, “Are you paying the rent? Why are you going and banging yourself against the glass window? When will you have some intelligence?” I make a mental note of my ‘TO DO’ lists in Odia. When I am desperate, .I talk to my late mother in my mother tongue asking her to make things easy for me. I tell her, “Why did you go up there when I want you to be here? If you are not here, then at least make life easy for me.” I feel a sense of peace and resonance when I talk to her in the language she taught me to speak and encouraged me immensely to explore. And unknowingly, she gave me a chance to discover adult literature when I was very young, She gave me an entry ticket to the wonderful La La Land called ‘Imagination.’ I will be eternally grateful to my mother for introducing me to Dr Kunjabihari Das, the doyen of Odiya language and his seminal works on proverbs, Lok katha.
Right now, I am feeling a lot more closer to the language that runs in my blood. Even though I am writing this piece in a language that is not mine. Some emotions or memories always stay true and authentic even though you express in a language that is not actually yours.
A wandering dervish arrived in a town where the locals did not trust strangers. “Go away,” they shouted at him. “No one knows you here.” The dervish calmly responded, “Yes, but I know myself and believe me, it would have been much worse if it were the other way around.”
ON INTERNATIONAL HAPPINESS DAY (MARCH 20)
A cup of tea
Getting lost in the pages of a book
Looking at the changing colors of the sky
October … arrival of autumn
Winter morning, evening, night … actually everything about the winter
Watching children play
Decluttering drawers, desks and wardrobes
An air/rail ticket in my handbag
Glowing table lamps, floor lamps
Colourful handmade notebooks (and saving them for that special occasion… middle-class upbringing)
Conversations with nieces, nephews… kids in general
Cooking meals from memory (as once cooked by my mother)
Rice, egg curry, cucumber-tomato-onion salad
Sitting in a quiet cafe and seeing life pass by
Getting lost in the wonderful world of textiles at Ahmedabad’s Rani no Hajira/ Gamthiwala/Gurjari, Boyanika in Bhubaneswar, Nalli in Hyderabad, Anokhi in Jaipur, Baroda Prints in Vadodara…
Browsing through Fab India and thinking what can be purchased without spending a fortune
Stories dancing in my mind
Deleting whatspp group messages without reading them
Never ever opening a ‘Good Morning’ message
Looking for pickles, soaps at Khadi Bhandars
Buying glass bangles at Charminar in Hyderabad (even though not wearing them regularly)
Running fingers through my mother’s saris
Dreaming of owning a cafe in the mountains
Travelling in AC Two Tier in Rajdhani Express
Poori-aloo ki sabzi for breakfast
Watching varied moods of Bay of Bengal
Full Moon Night
Listening to Elton John, Cat Stevens, Adele, Kishore Kumar
Momos, fruit beer at Dilli Haat
Reading Lonely Planet India and imagining 1000 trips in my mind
Vivek Express, Gatiman Express, Nilgiri Toy Train and Palace on Wheels — Imagining journeys in each one of them
Istanbul, the home I have never been to…
I am not an Amitabh Bachchan fan. I interviewed him some years ago and that was one of the rare celebrity interviews I have done in my 20 year career which took place dot on time. That act of punctuality was refreshing. After I finished the interview, when I came out of the room,. scores of people rushed towards me and asked me. “How was he?’ That was my glamour moment.
I had no intention to watch Pink. My friends suggested that I should watch it. I came up with the logic that you need not convert the already converted. What will Pink tell me more?
I had a change of heart while having lunch in my office on a Monday. The day at work didn’t look menacing. It promised to end on a sweet, hassle-free note. It actually ended like that. So, there was I with my friend to watch Pink.
I am not here to review Pink. I don’t think I am qualified to be a film critic. I loved the three young women actors. They were smooth like silk in their craft.
Pink brought alive lots of dormant memories within me. Pink brought back the life I lived in Delhi in the 90s. Pink made me miss my dear friend from Manipur with whom I shared an apartment in South Delhi. Pink made me relive the horrors of living the life of independent, working women in a highly masculine city like Delhi.
Pink made me think of all the men with whom I had some kind of relationship/friendship. Pink reminded me of a friend who laughed when I was recounting the horrors of being molested near my house. Pink reminded me of one of my high-brow friend’s statement, “You are such a nice person. Why are you sharing a house with this chinky girl? ” As if that was not enough, he added, “They all are so easily available.” (Never knew, women are products.)
It’s rather unfortunate that for the women of India, the mean streets are becoming more brutal. In the midst of all shining superpower talks, woman are being attacked, raped, murdered. A woman was brutally stabbed and murdered in broad daylight in Delhi on September 20. Her only fault was she said, “NO” to her stalker.
I have three young nieces. I hope, they will have the power to say ‘NO’ and there will be young, liberated men in their lives who will respect that NO.
I am still feeling the ache of memories buried deep within me. Almost all my male friends are parents now. They all belong to the creamy layer of society. I am wondering how are they bringing up their sons? Are they teaching their sons about respecting consent in a relationship? Are they teaching their sons to help their mothers in clearing the tables after dinner? Are they teaching their daughters to fly high in the sky without worrying about the length of their skirts?
There’s a kind of dull pain in my heart. I feel like writing a note to my Manipuri friend. I feel like hugging her, sharing a drink with her and looking back at the years that have passed by. She lives now in Melbourne and I am missing her a lot now. I hope our travel plans materialize and we will be able to meet soon.
There’s something tender about art, poems, films and music. They make you go slow. They make you remember moments. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes not beautiful. But they make you remember.
Remembering is a beautiful art.
(The other day, I was having a conversation with my friend about SEO titles. She told me it’s a bad idea to put a film/song name in the headline. Well, I can’t think of anything else other than Pink)
(When your parents are there (and if you share a happy relationship with them), you talk to them, write long letters in your curved hand-writing. You call them may be six times in a day and then laugh telling, “Just because I am calling you again doesn’t mean I am not busy’. In between phone calls, both of you recognize love. But it’s not all sugar syrup too. You get angry with them, shut doors, throw tantrums, use your secret weapon of refusing to eat. But the dust always settles in the end. And when you miss them so much that you can’t wait and you book a train or flight ticket to arrive home. To collapse in happiness. To recharge yourself. To fill your senses and soul with lip-smacking home cooked food.
What do you do when they are gone? If you can weave memories into words, you write. Writing is sacred. Like the way your parents love you or you love your parents)
It’s exactly two years since my mother left us on October 18, 2013. Today, I sit in front of my sleek beautiful black qwerty keyboard and let it all flow. The sound of the keyboard feels like music to me. )
I remember coming back to work in less than two weeks after I lost my mother. I walked into my office and they all huddled around me. Somebody told me with all sincerity, “It was good that she passed away (My mother fought a bitter battle against cancer).” The timing of that sentence was wrong. I wanted to cry. I love my work. I love my office. This vibrant work space in the dusty city of Ahmedabad has given me four really close friends and a soccer-loving, guitar playing cool Godson. But that day, I felt like a stranger in my familiar world.
Somebody asked me to check a page, we needed a better headline (my junior colleagues now call me as ‘headline queen’), I was so hurt. How could I check a page and give a peppy headline when all that I wanted to do was cry? I thought of the memory of cutting a delicious kiwi cake in my office to celebrate my mother’s birthday just three months back. I had asked the baker to carve ‘The cub wishes her Tiger Mom’ on the cake and everybody had a good laugh as I cut the cake. I was a happy cub then. The space is the same. My desk looks the same. But I was feeling so wounded remembering that cake cutting act.
Half way through the painful day, I made a call to my mother-in-law to tell her that I was feeling very tired and I wanted to sleep. I wanted to be with her in her bedroom. I was wanting to be with people who are far more older to me. That gave me a sense of comfort. Strangely it still does.
The world of strict deadlines doesn’t allow to you to grieve generously. Speed matters in my work world. We are all always in a hurry. But I wanted to linger, to go slow. I wanted to linger, pause and look back at the memories I weaved with my mother. I did not want to move then because moving meant leaving Ma behind. I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted her to be with me. The world around me was impatient. ‘Move on’ was the silent command from the world around me.
Looking back, I think 2014 was the darkest year of my life. Even though I bought a house for myself (Banks should call it House loans not Home loans, you don’t buy a home (Home is not a commodity), I had lost all sense of my own self and home. I had no sense of home.
We are living in aggressive times. We all want to give it back, hit back, score a point. Always in a rush to surge ahead. At the same time, when loss hits us hard, all we need is tenderness. There are very few who will allow you to grieve, to let you be in that ‘still’ mode of grieving.
After my mom’s death, I lost something which was sacred within me. I was desperate, I was not kind to myself. I became the person I have always hated. I had hit the rock bottom. I had moved away from being a generous person. I neglected my home, both real and virtual (this blog is my virtual home which lets me to express myself. I love being here.) I had stacks of books on my table yet I managed to read only Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend for most part of 2014. I was reduced to pulp. I was just fleeting in and out. Aimlessly. Too desperate, too eager, too mediocre to fit in everywhere and anywhere. Just opposite of what I am.
I have learnt my lessons. Loss/ Grief/pain is like a dish cooked over slow fire throughout the night. Grief is not a two minute instant noodle. Grief is not even your so called gourmet dish ‘Pasta in pesto sauce.’ Grief takes its time. Let grief sit on the fire, don’t be in a hurry. What it will offer you in the end will simple purify you and your soul. After days of intense darkness, you will arrive at light. May be you will be all alone to revel in the joy of light, but it will be soul-elevating.
I am arriving there. I am almost home. I have started falling in love with my home once again. I look forward to being at home in the evening. I am not waiting for somebody to rescue me and hand me over a slice of fleeting happiness that has all the potential to destroy my soul, my essence. I am just happy being home. Home doesn’t eat me up as it used to. Home loves me now. I love my home. I look at my home with tenderness now. I read, I write, I look for light and shadow inside my home, outside my home to capture it in my camera. I write innumerable notes on my laptop, on my phone. On India, identity, Hindus, Muslims, Gandhi, loneliness, isolation, dissent, love, longing. I write, I just write. I have found the words. The words have found me. We are happy to be together.
Just few days back , I opened my eyes to beautiful sun rays streaming through my curtains. I put on my music, made a cup of Earl Grey tea and then got into the act of cleaning my kitchen pantry. It almost felt like prayer. My mother was the queen of her kitchen. She loved that space. Being in the kitchen now brings her closer to me. I cook the food she once cooked for me. On many occasions, I used to call her up to check the recipe while cooking. It’s a luxury, I miss now terribly. But sometimes when I finish the dish, I just look at it and say to myself, “It exactly looks like Ma’s dish.” I put emphasis on the word ‘exactly’. I know it from the color, from the smell. From the texture. There comes a time in life when you don’t look forward to travel far. You just want to sit in the comforts of your home. You feel content. Everything you have loved/love is all within you. The world calls it memory.
All you who are grieving for someone you have loved intensely and lost (a parent, child, lover, companion, sibling, friend, pet), just hold on. Don’t be in a rush. There’s no end to grief, there’s no end to love. A day will come when your love will be merged with grief. And the other way too. And you will be home then. You will love more, better. This love will make you feel beautiful from within.
Today I am at work. I’ m wearing my mother’s beautiful black and white ikkat sari. This sari was bought by my father some 40 years ago. In this sari, both my parents’ lives are intertwined. I wrap myself in their journey of togetherness. The sari is actually three of us. I eat the same food which my mother cooked for me, I am essentially the same story teller they had encouraged me to be. My food comes from the way they brought me up with their values, the education they gave me and their willingness and kindness to let me fly.
I am almost home. I am a better lover now. I can be strong and fragile too. Without worrying much about whether I am fitting into the image the world has created for me. “I am my mother’s daughter”, I told my colleague with a hint of pride when she complimented me for looking so elegant in a sari.
Yes, I’ m my mother’s daughter. I AM. Almost home.