Thursday, July 4, 2019

The teacher called Hunger



“Auntie, where did you learn swimming?”

Standing at the shallow end of the swimming pool, I was vigorously shaking my head to get rid of the water in my ears when this girl, around 10, approached me.

“Sorry? You said something?”
“Yes auntie. Where did you learn swimming?”
“Umm…in a swimming pool in Dwarka.”
“How long did you take to learn all the strokes you do. Especially butterfly?”
“I took long. Almost two full seasons. Breathing and butterfly took the longest.”

“So they taught you all the strokes there?” Asked the mother of this girl, inching closer, who was hitherto standing a few feet away. Her curiosity was piqued by now. On her shoulder clung her younger daughter. I had an audience of three.

“My girls admire you. The way you swim non-stop. And also your butterfly and diving. So we wanted to find out about your trainer,” the mum added. “Beta, introduce yourself,” she chided her older daughter who looked at me with zero interest in personal introduction and complete interest in swimming matters.

Shelving introductions, I came to the point. “Actually I didn’t take coaching back then. It used to be expensive. I would see the trainer swimming, and teaching children, and I picked up cues from there. After learning the basics, I surfed youtube for tips.”

I could sense a collective jaw-drop. Feeling self-conscious and wanting to offer practical help, I hurried to add, “There are thousands of videos on youtube for swimming, but the ones by Speedo are the best. They offer very good technical advice. Little things that can improve your strokes by a great deal.”

I tried to make it normal but their pupils remained dilated. Over the one week I had spent in that pool, I saw that trio every day. The mother was a good freestyle swimmer. The children were averse to swimming, and she and the trainer kept trying to discipline them into learning.

“Wow. You’re self taught? You’re an inspiration for my girls.” The mother was effusive in her praise. The girls grinned. I felt grateful, embarrassed, and confused. Confused because I didn’t know whether pushing children to learn swimming was the best way to teach them. I saw the mother genuinely trying and the children barely responding. Now I have zero experience in parenthood. I don’t know what the best way to teach kids is. I swear by being an example and the mother was certainly one.

“Thank you so much. With a professional trainer and a mum like you, your children will learn way faster and better than I did,” I hoped that and said that.

What I didn’t say to them was this: I had wanted to swim for as long as my memory goes, for my love of water. My parents couldn’t have spared the time and resources to facilitate that desire. So I acknowledged my hunger and nourished it through my growing years. I took to swimming when could afford to drive my own car to the pool and pay my own fee, at the age of 25. And then, I made a dash at it like it was nobody’s business.

I swam when there were 100 people in that 15x25 meter pool. I swam when I was down with fever because of excessive swimming. I swam when the chlorine level drove others out of the pool. I swam when the pool was empty on account of rain and lightening. I swam without water goggles for a week, struggling with red eyes and blurred vision throughout the day, because there was no Amazon delivery in those days. I swam the week the water was muddy because the cleaner hadn’t come on a Monday. I swam when the water turned olive green due to some chemical reaction. I swam through layers upon layers of sun-tan. I swam even when my teeth got discoloured due to chlorine reacting with high TDS in Dwarka water. I swam from 50 to 100 to even 200 laps a day. In one of those mad endeavours, chronicled here, I almost swam my way to the hospital. I swam possessed.

My mother kept my breakfast ready whenever I returned from swimming. That was help enough. I don’t know how I would have reacted in a different situation. But I know one thing for sure. My parents didn’t interfere with my hunger to swim, and that hunger was my best teacher.

“You can always ask me for any help you need,” I offered as a closing remark because I had to wrap up another 300 meters to reach my self-imposed target of 2.5 km a day. And then I swam with the new found responsibility of ‘inspiring’ young children.  



Friday, June 28, 2019

Papa



My mind has followed your words, to the last possible letter,
from you I became this, for you I will become better.

There doesn’t exist a dream, that doesn’t stem from you,
it’s you who helps me be, to myself and others – true.

Your art, your passion, your wholeness; your mindfulness and peace,
you’re a treasure trove of wealth, I was born with Paradise’s keys

For every good done by me, for every acknowledged deed
my praise, my prize, my promise; belongs to my Papa, indeed.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Discriminated


Everything was okay in the life of 8-year old Prerna. Until her younger sibling was born.

As an ebullient child with big eyes and continuous chatter, Prerna was a charmer, most of all for her Papa. As the first-born of her parents, Prerna was as much a mission as a gift. She obliged them as much as they doted on her. She did well at studies, at sports, and at general socializing with other children and adults. Her mom often complained about Prerna’s ‘endless’ energy to her father and others. “So what’s wrong in that? It’s lack of energy that should be a concern, isn’t it?” Papa would remark. Filling Prerna with a secret sense of pride. “Stay like this,” he whispered in her ears, hugging and cuddling her at the same time. Papa was her ‘bestest’ friend.

Prerna and Papa were the centre of each other’s universe. When Papa was around, she cared for nothing and nobody else. Not her mom, who was in any case always busy with cooking and housework. Not for her maid Aparna auntie, who she teased everyday by walking over the just-swept wet floor. Not even for Chunnu, her best friend and neighbor. For Prerna, Papa was a hero. He did only the right things, and did everything right. He told her why she should chew her food and explained how saliva and digestive juices take the roti to her blood. He showed her where she stood on a world map, and how she’d not even be a teeny tiny dot on the globe. He told her that fishermen were catching more plastic than fish every day. His stories explained the world to her in a way that she could sit still for hours, to her own amazement. It was because of Papa that Prerna carried a cloth bag when she went out shopping with Mummy. Once, she almost created a ruckus in school because another student had littered. Back home, she narrated the entire incident to papa, including the jealous looks of fellow onlookers. Prerna noticed how Papa had beamed.

A few days later, Chhoti was born.

Finally as the Didi that Papa-Mummy had been preparing her for, Prerna swelled with pride. She distributed toffees in school. She touched Chhoti only after washing her hands. She took her around on a pram, and sang school prayers to lull her to sleep. She even let her share her exclusive time with Papa in the evenings. All was hunky dory in the beginning. Papa even appreciated her for the care with which she dealt with the baby. Though she did feel a pang of jealousy whenever Papa showered his affections on Chhoti, the feeling slowly melted away. It was hard not to love the innocent little gurgling baby sister.

Initially at peace with a rival sibling, something started gnawed at Prerna’s heart. She found herself slowly, but surely, moving to the periphery of Papa’s attention. At first, she brushed it away, telling herself what her parents had told her: That she was to be an elder sister with a new responsibility. But as months passed into years, Prerna noticed that it was no longer about rivalry, it was plain that Papa was differentiating between Chhoti her. She had accepted the equal importance of Chhoti long ago. What she couldn’t and wouldn’t accept was her own devaluation in the process. That’s when she started complaining.

“Papa you always told me that you did important work on your mobile phone at bed time. How come you never do it when Chhoti is there? How come you always remember the work when I am around?”
“Papa I wore the old clothes of Sudhi didi; why do you keep buying new clothes for Chhoti? Why can’t she wear my old clothes? You only said na, that we shouldn’t waste money like this?”
“Papa why did you do the rice eating event for Chhoti? You always said that these are stupid beliefs, and that is why you didn’t do them for me. Why now?”

After all, it was Papa who had encouraged her to ask questions. “A question not asked creates a lot more noise,” he would say. Earlier, he openly praised Prerna for asking questions and being ‘her own girl’.  Not now. He seemed irritated with her questions. In fact, she felt that Papa had started disliking those very things in Prerna that he previously loved. Like her asking questions. Like her jumping around. Like her not leaving him alone for a moment. Prerna even noticed how he gnashed his teeth when she raised an uncomfortable subject. Her heart sank to her feet. Reduced to tears within seconds, she left without waiting for answers.

The fact that Mummy behaved just the same with her and Chhoti was a big relief. Prerna’s resentment towards her mom, for never giving her time and always being busy with chores, no longer bothered her because Mum was the same with both children. And that seemed fair. But Papa? With each act of discrimination done by Papa, another layer of silence piled on between the father and child. Prerna stopped playing with Chunnu. She stopped stomping on the floor cleaned by Aparna auntie. She stopped enjoying school. Suddenly, she felt very very alone.

Then one Sunday, all the hell broke loose. Papa got a Barbie doll for Chhoti because the 2-year old had insisted on it in a store.

Papa. Got. Barbie Doll.

The same Papa who had only bad things to say about Barbie. That Barbie didn’t study or work. That Barbie was just engrossed with useless things like make-up. That Barbie lacked intelligence to do anything other than cooking. Hence, she couldn’t be a toy for smart girls. The same Papa got a Barbie doll home because his younger daughter insisted. THE SAME PAPA. Whose elder daughter kept repeating his moral lectures on Barbie to the world.

It crushed Prerna. She couldn’t bear it. She stormed into Papa’s room in a mad rage of tears and anger. She yelled with the garbled agony of someone who’d been discriminated against long enough to start hating oneself, hating the world. “You are a liar Papa. A liar. A big fat liar. You got Barbie for her. You have always lied to me. A liar…a liar…you…always…said…Barbie was…you…lied…”Convulsive sobs made her speech incoherent. The usually impassive Mummy came running out of kitchen and was aghast to see Prerna in that state. Papa stood motionless where he was. Prerna remained manic in her attack, tears streaming down her neck, hair in disarray, feet stomping on floor, and a mind feverishly out of control. Aparna auntie ran to the hysterical Prerna and pulled her to her bosom. Prerna kept crying…kept talking…kept stomping…as Aparna finally carried her to her room. Before leaving work that evening, Aparna auntie told Papa and Mummy with a face that begged mercy, “If that was my daughter, I would be worried.”

Once the storm passed, the chill crept in. Having lost the fight, Prerna went into a flight mode. She started avoiding Papa actively. Chunnu kept requesting Prerna to play with him, but she couldn’t. She played with Chhoti when she felt like, which was very less. Her report cards in school indicated deterioration. Papa sought her time and again, trying to start a conversation. But it was not the same Papa. He appeared like a guilty person to Prerna, a guilty person who’s looking for someone to pin the blame on. Prerna decided to say nothing. She hoped it hurt him. She was both amazed and pained to see how easily Papa shifted the entire blame on her. “You have become paranoid…an attention-seeker…not loving your younger sister enough…irresponsible brat…,” he often remarked. Right from where they went on Sunday to what they ate every day, Prerna had receded into the background, and no one seemed to notice. Did Papa really not see how he had changed? Did he really not feel the injustice with which he treated Prerna each day? Day and night, in school and at home, awake and in her dreams, this is all that Prerna thought of.

One of those days, in an attempt to make up with Prerna, Papa got a bigger and better Barbie for her. Prerna took the doll to the terrace, and set her hair on fire. She intentionally threw the new and burnt Barbie around the living room. Papa responded with a dismissive face; a look that Prerna was inured to. That evening, Prerna realized that revenge tasted better than dinner.

In March, Prerna’s 11th birthday was celebrated with cake cutting and kheer, as usual. Papa had never liked pomp and show around birthdays and anniversaries, so a big bang celebration was neither expected nor desired. She was given a new dress, as usual. Papa had stopped pampering her, and Mummy never did that anyway. Cake slices were sent over to Chunnu’s place. Birthday over.

Then came November. Chhoti’s 3rd birthday. Prerna had no idea of what was in store, and nobody thought it was important to update her. Papa & Mummy had decided to throw a lunch party for friends and family. Papa had decorated the house with buntings, festoons, and balloons. The terrace was totally done in marigold flowers. Papa had arranged outside catering for food. Returning from school, Prerna rubbed her eyes to ensure if she was entering the right house. Aparna auntie saw her coming, and instructed her to quickly go change and join the party. Seeing the decoration with incredulous eyes, Prerna’s face started changing. Red blotches appeared on her cheeks. She looked as if she had just been slapped. 

“Birthday party? For Chhoti?” Prerna could only ask that much. Aparna auntie stopped. Prerna almost spun on her heels in slow motion to absorb the decoration and grandeur of the event. “Who did this?” Prerna asked auntie. “Your Papa..” She muttered with a heavy heart. “Papa decorated the house? Papa is keeping a party?” Prerna was rooted and rotating on the same spot. There was a strange expression in her eyes. She seemed like a building bearing the onslaught of an earthquake with apparent strength. Prerna suddenly felt like she was swallowing stones. She felt a deep stab in her heart; a crippling inability to breathe or even stand. Aparna auntie understood, and advanced to console her. As though touched by lightening, Prerna ran through the crowd, upturning trays of food and drink that came her way, her hair flying out of her band, skirt rustling as she sped, and dashed towards her bathroom. She heard Mummy shouting after her. She put the latch on, turned the water faucet to its full force, and collapsed on the floor.

Lying supine on the bathroom, biting the back of her hand to muffle her screams, Prerna wailed with all her silence and strength. She cried for all the times that she had told her school friends that she didn’t celebrate birthdays because Papa found it better to donate money to the needy than spend it on entertainment. She cried for all the poems she had learnt by heart so that she could recite it to Papa, and see the look of pride on his face. She cried for all the lies that Papa had told her…that Papa had told to the world. She cried for the day when she came home with a bleeding nose after winning a taekwondo game, and her Papa had rushed to get her medical care. She cried because now, it was Papa who was bleeding her with heartless discrimination. She felt lizards creeping up her spine. She wanted to die, and she wanted to never ever face Papa again. She cried because she felt that only Aparna auntie would feel bad if she died. She cried because Papa had become a new man, a blind man, a liar man.

The water overflowed the bucket, slowly drenching her hair, face, school uniform, socks, shoes…until one couldn’t discriminate her tears from water.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Camaraderie

“Ae sun, main tera naam bhool gayi” (Hey there, I forgot your name). She remarked with cocky impudence, pointing her index finger in his face.

“Shukriya bhagwaan ka ki bhool gayi” (Thank God you forgot it). He spat back with matching distaste. Face deadpan. Eyes challenging.

Two seconds later, they burst out laughing. She slapped him on the back, and he jumped as though bitten by a snake. Smiling ear to ear, the two proceeded in opposite directions. She, the store GM. He, the pantry boy.

This is what the woman looked like, smiling and professional, draped in a perfect sari 

All this transpired in ten seconds, while I was waiting my turn for using the washroom.

Rewind 30 minutes. I was out shopping at this store in Connaught Place with my mother. We were trying (like all good Indian buyers) to get some discount on the stated price. That’s when we were introduced to this woman, the Store Manager. She heard us patiently on how we’d sworn by the store for the last 26 years. She assured us of support, went behind the glass doors, and came out with a pittance of an offer. We took it. She offered us coffee, and this pantry boy served us on her humble request. She maintained her warm-yet-distant demeanour with one and all. The pantry boy continued to serve guests like us with brisk and smiling efficiency. As always, this place was professionally run. Efficient and helpful staff. No-nonsense speedy atmosphere.

It was only after the billing that I went to use the washroom and tasted a slice of the inner work culture of that store. Judging by the strictly professional appearances of this store, one could not have guessed the undercurrent of informal and totally non-hierarchical camaraderie of this workplace. But it did exist. And I found another reason why I would remain loyal to this store.

Friday, April 5, 2019

तुम तक





ट्रैफिक की आपाधापी. गाड़ियों की बेइंतहा समंदर सी भीड़. स्टीयरिंग पर बेचैन होती मैं, इधर उधर कहीं से भी रस्ता बनाती मैं, घड़ी में सेकंड की सुई को कोसती हुई नज़रों से धिक्कारती मैं. यूँ कहें, हर शाम ऑफिस से घर आती हुई, तुमसे फिर मिल जाने के लिए, एक बार फिर, बेताब बेकल मैं.

ट्रैफिक की ऊब से लेकर बाहों में खो जाने का सुकून - ये सफर तुम से, तुम तक.
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कानों में शहनाई का स्वर. घर भर में पूजा की सी खुशबू. केले-अगरबत्ती-रोली-धूप से सराबोर सुगन्धित हवा. दिसंबर की ठंढ और शादी के मूड से रूमानी होती हवा. बंद दरवाजों के पीछे बल्ब की पीली रौशनी में संवरती मैं. दरवाज़े के दूसरी ओर माथा मलते तुम, जल्दी करने की गुहार लगाते तुम. जल्दी कहीं जाने की नहीं. जल्दी मुझे देखने की. वो भी तुम्हारी दी हुई साड़ी में. नारंगी साड़ी, काला ब्लाउज. न के बराबर मेकअप. खुले बाल. बड़ी बिंदी. कम से कम ज़ेवर. तुम्हारी पसंद में ढलती, खुद से और करीब महसूस करती, तैयार होती मैं.

चिटखनी खोलते ही मुझे सर से पैर तक, अधीर आँखों से पीते हुए तुम. स्तब्ध सन्नाटे में रोम-रोम से झर-झर प्रेम बहाते तुम. गहरी सांस भरकर, एक गीली सी मुस्कान पहने, "सिंदूर लगा दूँ?" पूछते तुम.

मेरा हर श्रृंगार, भीतर से बाहर तक, तुम से, तुम तक.
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ऑफिस में काम का पहाड़. काम से बढ़कर एक से एक अहम् की लड़ाई. नितांत निर्दयी होता माहौल. बेमतलब के डिमांड. बेतुकी सी बातें. बेहाल से सब लोग. इन सब के बीच जूझती, खिन्न होती मैं. धैर्य अधैर्य के बीच कहीं झुंझलाती मैं. "तुम जब भी, जहाँ भी, जितना भी अच्छा करोगी, मेरा सीना और चौड़ा होता जाएगा," अन्तःमन  में स्वतः गूंजते तुम्हारे शब्द. साथ याद आता तुम्हारा मुझपर अडिग विश्वास. प्यार लुटाती सराहना भरी तुम्हारी आँखें.

चेतना के किसी स्पष्ट छोर को पकड़कर फिर हिम्मत जुटाती मैं. जो कुछ 'अच्छा' बन पड़ता, करती चलती मैं. मुश्किल परिस्थितयों में भी डट कर लम्बी सांस भरती मैं. आँखों में पानी, जुबां में लहज़ा, दिल में नरमी...तुम सी बनने का प्रयास करती रहती मैं.

मेरा होना, मेरा चाहना, मेरा बीतना, मेरा जीतना - परिभाषित होता - तुम से, तुम तक.
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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The gift


The bohemians were about to meet me. The boho girl with twinkling eyes. With her equally zany partner with his ear to ear grin. My favourite couple, this.

Love and excitement welled up within me. The way it always did. At the thought of her. At the mention of them. At the mere prospect of meeting these jovial people. Play. Mischief. Banter. All good feelings flooded my heart.

The reunion happened on the swanky sidewalks of Gurgaon Cyber City. Her hugs were always brief; she never seemed too comfortable with cloying show of emotions. His were the languorous kinds. One could never have enough of the both of them. After receiving and giving snug hugs, we settled someplace for lunch. She next to me, he right opposite.

I don’t remember what the name of that restaurant was nor what we ordered. But I do remember, with HD clarity, the moments that will remain etched in my memory forever. The talk was about their Kashmir trip, from where they had just returned. Given her classy and saucy wit, she did most of the talking. He contributed, as usual, through brief but legendary observations. She, the food. He, the salt. I simply relished and rejoiced in the blissful stream of their joie de vivre.

He asked the waiter where the washroom was, and went to the indicated place for a loo break. I was therefore surprised when seconds later I found him right behind me, his arms wide open, holding a beautiful Kashmiri shawl with flowered embroidery. Before I understood what was happening, he simply wrapped me in the shawl with a warm hug and said, “I thought you must be cold.” She watched on with eyes pouring out love. Time stood motionless in the immortality of that moment. That feeling. That love-soaked completeness.
Love, when draped, looks like this
To love them, and be loved in return, is grace enough. But the gift, and more importantly, the way it was gifted, is the kind of story that should be saved for posterity. And for everyone who loved, and was loved.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

तुम्हारा ऐसा होना

तुम्हारा चेहरा नीचे करके एकाग्र ध्यान से सामने वाले को देखना
तुम्हारा बातों को वैसे सुनना जैसे छोटे बच्चे का माँ को
तुम्हारा खड़े होकर अंगड़ाई लेना
तुम्हारा औरों का आभास इतना बारीक होना
तुम्हारा माथे पर बल न आने देना
तुम्हारा आवाज़ को कर्कश न होने देना
तुम्हारा हमेशा न तैयार होकर भी तैयार रहना
तुम्हारा हमेशा सब कुछ जानना और कुछ न तौलना
तुम्हारा चलते फिरते किसी भी शीशे में बाल सेट करना
तुम्हारा गंभीर मतभेदों को भी हँसते-खेलते झेल जाना
संगीत सुनते ही तुम्हारे सिर का सुर में हलके-हलके नाचना
तुम्हारी बातों का कानों पर वैसे बीतना जैसे बारिश की बूंदों का होठों पर
तुम्हारा अक्सर हंसना और हंसी बिखेरना
तुम ही कहो, तुम्हारा ऐसा होना
अगर खुदाई का गवाह नहीं,
तो और क्या है?