Friday, October 28, 2011

Born Punjabi

Of all my guilt afflictions, the strangest has to do with having been born a Punjabi. Vulgar, no-culture, unabashedly consumerist, all sound and no substance, gaudy, one-dimensional, paneer bred, gold digger…. I have heard pretty much the entire perceptive gamut and it is enough to make me want to reserve a permanent berth at the confessional. But where would I begin?

Let’s see. I admit that I grew up in an environment imbued with Santa Banta jokes rather than the exalted strains of classic literature. Music was folksy far more than pure raga based, not counting the shabad kirtan interludes. Even though we were fed some mandatory and cursory diet of Sikh history, literary forays extended to bedtime stories and Punjabi riddles. If that made me practical and range of the moment effective, is it such a tragedy?

What’s more, since I was born Punjabi, I came kitted with the dance chromosome. No particular effort or training involved. I just raised a leg, thrust two arms out into the air, fingers pointing heavenwards and the spasms followed. It was more about joie de vivre than technique. Aesthetic non-violence was not all that paramount, participation was. If you happened to be amongst Punjabis and they came to be celebrating, you would do yourself good to join the wiggles and leaps. It bespoke of poor grace to stubbornly stand outside the floor just because in your culture, you either danced only perfect lines or worse, because dance was associated with ‘bad’ women back home!! What really distinguished the Punjabis was not their form but their determination to undulate, against all odds.

Take our pre-occupation with appearances. Of course we like clothes and jewellery and cars and gadgets. What if we never lived again or worse, bypassed the Punjab completely in our rebirth. Our abiding faith has always been with the bird in hand. There is something affirmative about lifeless goods to us. Acquiring expensive articles is a celebration of life, a reinforcement of our vigour, potency and self-esteem. Our life lens is made of grains called prosperity through which living looks amazingly abundant and feasible. Where I come from, there is always a way out. Troubles and mishaps are irritants, swat them like you would the buzzing flies and get on with life.

Let me admit more. I ate rice only when sick and ailing, a glass of milk was the cure for all ills, mustard oil went into everything beginning with the hair and ear to sewing machine and tractor machinery, pure ghee was manna from heaven and pickle either meant mango or big red chillies or lime, that’s it. I happily wore polyester; it did not strangle my skin or cause any great itching. Apples were eaten whole, no slicing, afternoon siestas were discouraged and there was always work to fill the hours, embroidery, stitching, weaving. 

Welcome and seeing off gifts of small cash or clothes were de rigueur. And it was quite done to pull out all the gold one owned and don it in its entirety on ceremonial occasions. What's more, if there happened to be two Pinkis in the family and it was hardly unusual, we gave it a little twist, one Pinky bacame Pinka, easy to tell now. Life should be "tension free".

Punjabis are far from perfect but their arrogance lies in not caring who is. And although I did not choose to, I would pray to be born Punjabi every one of those seven times we are promised.

Chak de!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Turbanators

I am surrounded by them. There are variations in length, the fabric and colour preferences but in spirit, the men who sport these contraptions share traits and tendencies. I should know. They are my family!

There is that same possessiveness about and a hawk like eye on their turbans. Woes betide a shabby starch work or a bad rinse; frenetic and frantic actions will follow. They each have their personal rituals for their head swathes. One will dip the meters only in water and dry the cloth exclusively in shade, another likes to give his turban just that swish in light starch, there is even a brief hanging over the tap component.

It is quite a process. Stretching, tweaking, tucking, pulling, pinning. The pin cushion and the sikhometer execute a giddy roundabout as the voil and rubia crowns metamorphose into proud headgears. So critical is it to get the last tail end just the right length that very often, the household will fall silent and await the final tuck in with bated breath. My Dad is not shy of emitting a nervous hissing sound during the turban tying task. There is a collective sigh of relief at the successful conclusion of this sartorial segment!

It is the most time consuming task of a turbanator’s dressing ritual. He is lethal and quick as lightening once the turban is out of the way.

Shopping for turbans is a project. Families understand and appreciate the effort and time involved in the matching, finishing, dyeing of these drapes. They will pronounce with an appropriate solemnity the fact that their Singh has gone “turban acquiring”.

Some amount of fretting is expected over the exact shade and hue, there might even be heartburn over an inaccurate colouring. An occasional foul mood over this head wrap does not surprise and the non-turbanators know when and how to skirt and tiptoe around the prickly issue.

Heaven help those ignoramuses who put the turban to rest any place low and in a manner considered casual or dismissive. The turban is a symbol of a man’s pride, of a Sikh’s honour. A blemish on the turban is a blot, an insult to the wearer's person. To snatch away the turban historically meant subjugating a person and humiliating him.The turban will therefore, always go atop someplace high for that rest. 

Whether nokdaar, atpati or Patiala shahi, mixed or matched to contrast, gota patti or shiny starched… the turban is a sacred heritage. A heritage of dignity, self-respect, authority, stoic courage and the crown of spirituality.

That it adds up to an imperious and handsome look, barely does any harm!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


“What did your daughters study in senior school?”
“He he, hmm..humanities’!”
“Oh..I see..well…”
“Actually they both scored above 90% in their Xth but chose to study History and Psychology.”
“But of course. Why not? Humanities have their place.”
“They did Economics with Maths as well!”

This would be my standard exchange while the girls were in senior school, the last sentence being my trump card! I felt I had to explain that they were not sitting in the Humanities department because they didn’t have the requisites for admission to a Science or a Commerce group. It had to be made clear that they were there by choice and not by coercion.

The “Humaniacs”, as they are known in school, get a raw deal in our country. The epithets they earn are rich in meaning and character, ranging from “lallu” to “passovers” to “timepass”. It is quite done in senior schools for the staff to motivate the laggards with threats of moving them to the “F” section, the presumably less challenging and laid back, humanities division. Regrettably unaware of what a disservice they are doing to the cause of knowledge by running down an entire field of study, the harm done is compounded when heads of academic institutions also join this uninformed disparagement. I understand this bias coming from parents and the lay public but educationists? Surely something is sorely amiss here.

One of the consequences the girls and I talked about during the process of filing their stream preference after the Xth was that they would have to be prepared for these derogations. I told them not to be surprised at being passed over for the odd school appointment as well. The latter did not happen but being Indian students with good scores, they felt duty bound ever since to explain the “obvious waste of two good brains”.

They faced obstacles in the form of a generic, cavalier attitude to their choice of subjects. I do believe their environment made them feel a bit less so for having opted to study anything other than engineering and medicine or accounts. So omnipresent is this IIT lens of ours that we disregard the subjects that give a context and meaning to life completely.

It is dangerous for an India on the rise to continue to reinforce this debilitating dichotomy. If we are to be believed, technology is important, values need not be studied. The truth of the sciences is superior; the art of thinking does not deserve our best brains.  Given our diversity and pace of economic progress, we risk making self-destructive choices if we continue to debunk and devalue the humanities in favour of pure sciences. It is the former that make and assess that which defines us as humans: meaning! 

Sunday, October 23, 2011


“Why on earth would anyone want to get married? And if they did for some unfathomable reason, why then, would they follow it up with kids?”

This came from Aqseer, all of twenty one summers young. Asawari, if anything, was a shade more virulent on the subject.

I appreciated their lack of appreciation of the marriage and parenthood phenomena because I felt similarly at their age. There were no ‘shehnai’ notes ringing in my ears, nor was I taken up with the associated colour and ceremony. What I saw instead in my arrogant young head was a huge table and a blue coloured Jonga that I drove to work at a company I owned! Of course, it turned out later that the big desk in fact was my current Resource Centre table and the blue Jonga was the service Gypsy used by my husband until recently!

The point is: why marriage? Why not unmarriage?!

Back in the 1980s, it was one of the things you did. A lot was presumed, more was taken for granted. Not many questions were asked. Everyone went along with the flow and life took care of the rest. The traditional mind-set viewed male and female life cycles differently. For a boy, it went from college to career to marriage while for a girl, it would typically be college to marriage with a brief recreational detour to career.  

It is a different world we inhabit today. Girls don’t necessarily need providers and it is about a lot more than just in-house procreation for boys. With women’s education and work potential, there has come a new expectation of the marriage institution as also revised parameters of acceptance. Marriages are happening but there is greater tolerance of what were once considered aberrations. It is not unusual for "happily married" couples to echo the question right back at you, "You are right, why marriage? Good question!"

To start with, the onus for discovering the right person has shifted just that shade from the parent’s plate on to the eligible young. Unlike the TV serials and films, girls are not just delaying but even forgoing marriage. The median age for tying the knot has gone up. Mothers of daughters are encouraging them to adjust but most certainly not at the cost of their personal welfare. From a family focused alliance, the shift is towards maintenance of the couple’s relationship. The girls’ family is nearly as equal in laying the stakes. And should the domestic-partnership movement and child support legalities become better known in India, it would remain to be seen what advantages marriage really offered. And let’s not forget the school of thought that says one could love another too much to marry them!

Notwithstanding these shifting sands, one day, I know the light bulb will go on in their heads and they will don the auspicious red. Perhaps it will be about emotional security, companionship, personal growth and a partnership on all fronts including the home. Irrespective of whether they do it to fit in, or because all their friends are settling down or for the straightforward matter of love, it is going to be a win win situation I am confident. 

And even though as their Mom, I wonder at the number of choices they have the luxury of facing and am in fact, wary of too fairy tale and romantic an expectation, I essentially believe in marriage. It is a critical milestone in a person’s evolution if one took care to remember that it is no protection against the outside world and there certainly is no man or a woman for every season. 

I read somewhere that the married partner fulfills a very basic human need for a constant and close witness to one's life. The desire for at least one person in this world you can trust completely and to whom you are the axis of their universe. With some luck and focused work, it could well turn out to be the synergistic magic that will power a complete and fulfilled life.

What marriage can therefore be is an absolute friendship, a growing together, a real conversation, that wonderful and all important zone of mutual acceptance, the knowing that you are essentially OK! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Jagjit Singh.

The Ghazal Virtuoso is no more.

This is not just a piece of news that you hear, cluck over before moving on to the next channel. This is a sense of loss tinged with something very personal.

I didn’t know him, had never met him. The closest I had gotten was within four feet or so as he rushed out along an aisle, on his way off the stage and yet his voice touched me in ways that defied description. 

I often cried as the gravid lyrics floated out and over the pensive melody. There was a wise, all knowing, accepting pathos in his voice that reached into my thorax and rendered a cardiac crunch every time his ghazal came alive. I have swallowed lumps in the throat, breathed deep and long to clear tautened lungs, even rushed to open the doors because his music brought on a sharp sense of lonesomeness, even desolation. I would think of my youth long over, some half remembered notes, the roads I used to ride, there would be an unbearable sense of being suffused with melancholic nostalgia and poignant recall. 

That was the hallmark, I think. It was the signage of his music, this instant transportation to a solitary canvas across which flickered snatches of one’s life gone by. The highs and the lows, the losses and the gains, the agony and the ecstasy, all the colours and shades that make existence human; the hues would come plopping, swishing, streaking, bringing with them a wistful longing for all that might have been.

There have been troves of treasured voices that have expressed the poetic expression of pain, separation and an implied unattainability that is the ghazal. Think of Begum Akhtar, Ustad Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum and so very many others but it was always and every time, Jagjit Singh who carried the relevant conviction the most authentically for me. His voice put a curtain around, shutting out the immediate and the peripheral. It brought on existential reverie, a stillness of memories, and a periscopic projection into the years to come. Nothing like his ghazal to span life, zoom in and pan out. Woh kaagaz ki, kashti woh baarish ka paani……. Woh tooti hui choodiyon ki nishaani….
Ishq-e-haqiqi or ishq-e-majazi, Mirza Ghalib or Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sufi poets like Rumi or Hafiz; it was insignificant that I did not understand all the lyrics and could not tell the ragas. I loved the shape Jagjit Singh gave to the ghazal. Ghazals have been sung not only in Gujarati, Kannada and Telugu but also in English, the first anthology of English language ghazals having been published by the Wesleyan University Press. But where in the world would you find such gems as:
Thukrao ab ke pyar karo, mein nashe mein hoon

Zindagi dhoop tum ghanaa saaya

Aaj phir hamne dil ko samjhaya

Woh chotti see raaten, woh lambi kahaani

Log zaalim hain, har ik baat ka taana denge

Kya gam hai jisko chuppa rahe ho

Jin zakhmo ko waqt bhar chukka hai

Rekhaon se maat kha rahi ho
The last I listened to Jagjit Singh was on this 9th Sep at Sadhana’s home in Los Angeles. The party was over, the guests had long departed and his voice was billowing over the lazy contentment of an evening well spent. Sadhana, Salil and I let the music wash over the silence as we lay still, heads flung back, eyes closed, alone in our hushed worlds. I remember thinking, “This is life!”
Thank you Jagjit Singh, for adding so much to my story.

All pics by Asawari

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fairy tale childhoods

Something intriguing and fascinating is afoot in the air. The mere memory of a place is regenerating and revitalizing lost and even non-existent connections.  A certain band of people, well into their forties and fifties, who once knew each other as children in a never-never land called Pachmarhi, are reaching out across continents, countries through charged cables with words of affection and excitement at the prospect of meeting after what seems like a lifetime.

Is the connection sprouting afresh from the charm and magic of the place? Is it the memory of a secure and carefree childhood lived out in the verdant security of this captivating hill station in Madhya Pradesh? Could it be that they derive their affinity from a life lived together in an isolated bubble, cut off from civilization by the ghats originating out of Pipariya? Was it the ordered, friendly and intimate cantonment that left such an indelible mark on these young minds that they are able to take off from where they left off merely at the mention of this one name: Pachmarhi. 

Pachmarhi O Pachmarhi, tu hai badi jaaadu bhari……

The Pachmarhi Cantonment, also known as “Satpura ki Rani” was historically the capital of the kingdom of a Goand tribal king called Bhawut Singh. It was Captain James Forsyth of the British Army who chanced upon the area in 1857 to quickly set up a sanatorium for the British troops in the country’s Central Provinces. With a population of approximately 10,000 persons today, this incredibly rich forest home of immense biodiversity was added to UNESCO’s list of Biosphere Reserves two years ago.

There wasn't much back then. A tiny township, a small bazaar, a single movie hall, the solo club and a redundant airstrip. These were all that made this saucer shaped valley a perfect frame for some fairy tale childhoods. Dotted with streams, waterfalls, caves, natural bathtubs, rock formations and priceless timber, it was not unusual to sight the occasional panther or even a tiger in this exotic home.

remember clearly the cavernous Club with its thick drapes and wooden flooring during the weekly Tambola sessions. Who would ever forget the Holi ruckus in the Officers’ Mess ? There were no electronic distractions and plenty of cycling, tree climbing and running. Life was an endless picnic.
The friendships I talk of evolved in and around alluring spots such as the Bee Fall, the Pandav Caves, Chauragarh, Dhupgarh, Handi Khoh, Jatashankar, Fairy Pool, Duchess Fall and Jatashankar. These were associations carved in elements: stone, forest, water and sun. The lot roamed the mountains just as Lord Shiva once did, in the same manner as Bhima, not very different from Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor during the shooting of Asoka, not to mention Dr Rajendra Prasad and the first Liril girl !!

If you haven't walked downhill like them on a rocky, treacherous and steep path inhaling the crisp green air, you have not known the illusion they have known and you are way short of that million dollar feeling of being completely alone and in blissful togetherness, all at the same time.
Teraa koi saani nahin, tu Pachmarhi ki sar zameen, Pachmarhiii...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Narayan no?!

“Why Bete, why Laxmi? We wanted a Narayan no?!"

This was one side of the phone conversation when Aqseer’s father called home with news of her birth.

Two years later, it was Asawari, a Laxmi again. One of his juniors at work caught hold of the second time father’s hand and pumped it sympathetically, “Not to worry sir, I am sure it will be a boy next time.”

Not India, nor Egypt, neither Europe. This resigned emotion at a female’s arrival in the world is endemic. It is not that the daughters are thereafter not brought up with love and care, they are. But it is the wary and second best welcome that lays the seed of a lifetime of bewildered and resentful hurt.

I was the first child and born dark, this is another big emotional non-starter for a new babe in our country. When my sister arrived a year and a half later, my grandmother who had come to help with Mom’s confinement took ill with the event and ended up on the adjacent hospital bed. My own Nani whose only child was my mother, spent her years on earth living down this debilitating truth, as though she had measured short at a critical level.

In many traditional Indian homes, a son’s arrival is announced with the stringing of a festive vandanvar over the front door. In Punjab, the third gender comes out in full force to sing and dance in ceremonies surrounding the birth of a boy. First Lohri, in the event of the birth of a male child always assumes a larger significance, the feasting and merry making is just that shade vehement. It is as though the family has risen in status, the woman has paid back with what she was brought into the family to do. I remember being unfavourably compared to the family help once, nothing wrong with that except that I had been found wanting, she had given her husband three sons and here I was, nursing my second girl infant.

This is a recurrent chapter in my life’s theme song. I wrote about it on:

It has come floating up again courtesy the scotch hands of perfectly aware and educated adults who do not make the effort to look more closely at what is being addressed:
In the average public reaction to Slutwalk Bangalore, you see the same devaluation of the female. It is common knowledge that a high mortality rate persists at every age level up to 35 years for women even now.  As to the child sex ration, less said the better. No one contests anymore the existence of a differential in health care, education and nutritional status of girls. Couple all this with foeticide and you have mapped a woman’s total, negative social worth.

But I have faith in today’s generation. They are a bit weird at times; they are wired and worldly but there is an evolutionary quality in their confidence and readiness to align with the larger picture. If they have decided to walk the Slutwalk, I believe they have reason to do so. In this giddy grand prix age of speed and sound, bluster is needed to call attention to issues. I want them to believe they can change the world.

One look at the page will make clear all the thinking and cerebral chewing they are doing constantly including all the agonizing they did over the name!  One parallel that springs to mind as to their choice of protest is the very poignant and heart rending “Mothers of Manipur” case and their nude protest against AFSPA, a kind of reverse psychology.

Whether it is Tahrir square in Egypt or Brigade Road in Bangalore, the world has become one for our young, it is only a matter of degree. 

I think this is a great time to be a young woman. And her friend!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sadhana Atri

Sadhana Atri
208 Sipri Bazar, Jhansi, Pin 284001.

Thirty five years, countless letters and a concord kept alive over chronology, countries and continents. An association that has become such a given that it takes effort to stand back for any view.

If I so much as begin, there is that perfectionist neurosis that takes over my typing, jamming the keyboard every instance I try and document my friendship with Sadhana. All I do is hover over the pads, looking for that perfect string; accurate, appropriate and acute enough to capture what this affinity is about. Several attempts later, I turn away only to come back with renewed vigour to the laptop; I have to get this out. The tsunami of thought resumes.  Is it too beautiful a friendship not to acknowledge or is it too spectacular a league to pull out and behold thus?  Some oscillation later, it is settled. I want to. I have to go down this particular comity corridor, recording and acknowledging the affection, the closeness, the esteem.

Sadhana has been my friend since 1976. To me, she will eternally be Sadhana Atri. Most people we know, family and friends, are aware of our ‘Best friend’ status. We have been in school together, cycling in skirts and marching on sports day, she was the Blue House Captain and I led the Green House. A gifted artist, her Biology diagrams would be skilled sketches while mine struggled to stay in definition. Her skirt always pleated sharper than mine! There was neatness around her, an economy of movement and expression. We were girls, attending music lessons at the St Francis Convent, sharing our tiffin and giggling through the school annual function.

For an Army brat, used to the caravan way of living, the move from Jhansi was surprisingly traumatic. I doubt my parents had any inkling of how sick to the heart I felt and how much I pined for the town. It was the only time I ever experienced the raw and physical sensation of hankering. I think I grieved for Jhansi, it was an agonizing yen. 

Must have been my age partly, those very impressionable early teen years when life is larger than itself. To my blessed relief however, the departure from Jhansi did not cause any break with Sadhana. There was the snail mail and believe it or not, catch up sessions on the Jhansi railway platform, through the compartment railings. It would be the summer trip highlight. I would inform her of our impending transit through and there she would be at the junction, carrying the trademark snack box. Somewhere along this long distance communication punctuated with micro meetings, it began to dawn that the friend was metamorphosing into a swan. I registered the distinctive and tasteful personal style Sadhana was growing into. Our life paths extended in different directions thereafter, at varied paces but the crossing remained a constant feature.

Right through adulthood, partnerhood and parenthood, the emotional cable remained humming, to greater or lesser degree depending on the passage we were charting. We attended each other’s weddings and generally remained in the know of how life was treating the other. There is a belief that some souls travel together in groups through millions and billions of years in galaxy, to be able to learn, grow and help each other. Perhaps we were sisters an aeon ago or it is quite feasible that I was her mother or she my grandfather, but soul mates at some level and therefore this reconnection and that inexplicable attachment in this life.

Sadhana today is an accomplished and motivated teacher, a concerned mother, a proactive wife and a thoughtful daughter. Her sense of style has if anything evolved further. She is on a constant strive to give life meaning with friends and family. Like me, she will go the extra mile to get the most out of life’s moments.

Charming and radiant with energy, Sadhana is my BFF.

Best friend forever!!