Friday, May 25, 2012

Buried in the hearts

So much has been written about pets and their going away that any more words seem certain of sounding platitudinous. But like air and water and sun and the earth, thoughts by their intrinsic nature, are born to be shared.

If my Mom is Dad’s first love, Fluffy was his other lady love! He had a name for her, “Gudia”.

Originally a fifth birthday gift to Aqseer, Fluffy was by extension her sister because the pup’s mother Candy was my Dad’s dog and that put Fluffy laterally in the same orbit as her five year old owner. But it so happened that over the years, with our constant moves and unsettled tenures, the pooch found her way back to her original home. And there she stayed for twelve long years, until her passing away at the remarkable age of 16 years on this 18th May.

Far more through omission than by commission, Fluffy grew up to be Dad’s personal dog. During those vacation seasons of family gatherings, while the hordes gathered around Mom, Fluffy stayed loyal to Dad, dismissing all the gaiety and cheer in favour of his busy shadow. They had quite a pact. Dad would take one look at the giggly story telling session involving a bunch of excited grandkids leaping all over the prostrate yarn spinner in his master bedroom, turn to Fluffy with a crisp command ,“Let’s go Fluffy,” and the two would be off to the guest room!

It is Dad who knew the little tricks to make her finish her meal! Many a crisp, green, cucumber they have shared under the table. The doggy bag of goods with every non-veg purchase was a foregone conclusion. She received her care: the bath, the medicines, the walks, the brushing chiefly from Dad. I know the highlight of her day was a tummy tickle with his big toe! She was also partial to a demonstrative action on her little head.

Once an energetic little ball of white fur, for a while lately, age had begun to slowly but steadily creep up on her. The eyes were dimming and her limbs deflating of strength. Dad was clearly running out of tricks to feed her.  She gave off a whiff of weariness and fatigue. Most of the day was spent in a stupor. The doorbell that would once shock her into wild yelps no longer penetrated the curtain that was drawing close.

I am glad we were around to sit over her as she departed. There she lay under the fan, covered with one of Mom’s fine, new dupattas. As we drove to a calm and open place at dawn to lay her to rest, I couldn’t help but recall all those other occasions when she would be hanging out of the car window in excitement, ears twitching and tail furiously wagging. Having found a neat place under a tree, a little pit was dug up and Fluffy laid down for her final sleep.

It has been seven days. Is there a canine paradise she has gone to? Did the phantom of her mother Candy stand at the doorway, awaiting her? I don’t know but I sure am glad, she is at rest on a path that her owner walks every day.

You Fluffy, dear dog, in the truest sense, are buried deeper in our hearts!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Raison d' etre

I have been watching the skin on the back of my mother’s hands very closely! In consonance with the changing texture and folds of that organ, there has grown in my head a sketch of what it means to watch one’s parent get on in years.

There was a time when the hand was smooth and unblemished. It would deftly, with one quick sweep, craft a long bindi on the forehead; Mom used a “jooda pin” and lipstick! Blessed with an insistent industriousness, those hands rustled up an astonishing range of magic in the kitchen; her imli chutney, dahi vadas, red garlic chicken and missa praunthas came flawless, off those very grips. Her squeaky clean work surfaces continue to baffle guests. Be it the cooking range, the utensils or the utilities, everything gleams and winks! And woes betide anyone who dunks a bowl uncovered in her state of the art refrigerator!

There is a fan following to rival Rajesh Khanna’s. Her painstaking handicraft adorns a multitude of family homes. It is her energy, her thoughts, the beats of her heart, her occasional fatigue, her self-discipline, and her intense desire to make us richer, this entire maternal cocktail that toasts us from our walls and windows in colourful macramé and crochet marvels. Before the ready-made garments hit the Indian markets, she would crawl the corridors outside many a high end store, drawing inspiration from unaffordable kids wear, beckoning from the show windows. Patching, repairing, darning, altering, and beating stubborn stains…it is all in a day’s work. 

I must not leave out the drill of the milk that has been handed down the generations! An assembly line chain of setting the curd, portioning some for buttermilk, churning a part for the wholesome white butter which is then heated into desi ghee; there is religion there!  As for her knits, they are indisputable wonders of yarn.

I recall with a smile, my parents returning from one of those regular Army parties, there she would be, carefully folding away the saree no matter how late in the night it was, Dad accompanying the winding down process with a narration of the evening’s highlights. Having inherited the gene for cleanliness from her own mother, to the point of being finicky, you can always tell her pillow from the extra little towel cover. And I have not seen anyone else slough and scour and cream their feet with the vigour she does.

Kartar Kaur and Sardar Jarnail Singh Brar
Brought up by a stern and disciplinarian mother in the India of 1930-1960, I think my Mom learnt early on to hide her strength and keep it firmly out of sight. She had a parent who considered her craft work a waste of precious time, better spent on good, solid housework. While our daughters today, roam the world as free spirits, my mother had to account for every extra minute she spent out of home. There was no other way. Her silence had to become her armor.

I have witnessed as a child how she rarely protested excessive imposition on her personal space and time and internalized the need to keep peace, at all costs. Some may say that it is a form of escapist evasion but having lost a father she was very close to, at a critical juncture  in her life, who is to say what the voices whispered in the ears. I suspect they said, “What for? What for? What for?”

We talk today of having our own lives, beyond and away from exclusive parenthood. The theory of personal fulfilment views a desire to stay connected with the children through some furrow of the brow. There is the doctrine of letting go, of a love that is completely unconditional and space friendly. Modern gyan also extols the virtue of not living through one’s brood.

I am glad my Mom defies it all in her own unique way. Her parenthood remains the axis it was, it has just wrapped in grand-parenthood as well. A huge chunk of her fulfillment comes from the trials, travails and accomplishments of her progeny. She is like the sun, visible, life-giving but never close enough to burn.

Does she control her children? As much as an anchor does, yes! Is there fear in her love? To the degree that empathetic pain causes, perhaps. Did she ever cut the apron strings completely? In the manner of the cords metamorphosing into lifelines, of course.  Does she live through her offspring? Well, they might even qualify as the raison de’ etre.

And I am afraid, no one is complaining! As a matter of fact, I might be emulating this example of letting go in a manner that has them connected and coming back!!!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Small town dead end

I am just back from the movie Ishaqzaade.

On the face of it, a usual and the regular outing for us empty nesters, going to the movies. But this particular viewing turned out very different, ending up becoming an experience in fact.

For one, we chose to go to “Delite Diamond” on Aruna Asif Ali Road to watch this flick. It is a very different world from the DT Star Promenade. The crowds wait outside on the pavement until the hall has been emptied of the previous show. The popcorn is cheaper and less buttery, the coffee frothier and sprinkled with chocolate powder. People are aggressively unapologetic, answering cell phones in loud, completely at home voices. No one bats an eyelid when annoyed voices are raised at audible conversations.

There were several side shows in progress inside the hall, running parallel to the drama on screen. When the movie broke at intermission for instance, there came in a harassed looking man, shuffling up to the last row where we were seated.  He did not look like he owned a movie ticket. There was in his hand a tiny digital camera instead.  After a momentary hesitation, he took quick and furtive pictures of the couple sitting two seats down the row, to my right. There was a muted flurry, a subdued, almost calm suspense, broken eventually by the lady who squeezed past my feet, grazing them slightly, to go and stand near the photographer. A couple of urgent voiced exchanges later, it was established that the picture shooter was indeed her husband who had come to confront her with her office boyfriend!  I gaped as she walked out of the hall and her husband lowered himself next to the much younger Lochinvar to ask him outright and distinctly so, “Are you having an affair with my wife? I want to know. I have a five year old son.” The paramour says, “No, no…there is no such thing.” Just like that!!

A young couple entered late, again to my right! She wore a comprehensive hijab over her face, covering it all but for the eyes. The cover came off completely just as soon as they were settled into the far corner. The two proceeded to bond over intermittent lunges and a heart to heart dialogue, treating the movie hall more as a safe getaway than a space with any clear purpose.  One of their phones would suddenly begin flashing as they pored over some mutually gratifying photographs

This is India, I told myself bemusedly.

Far more than anything else, there was a dissonant pathos in these alternative lives unfolding around us. In their needs clearly on display, there shone a reflection of what lay at home. The movie hall was many things to many people. A comfortable, air conditioned break for the policeman on duty, an escape from drudgery and despair for the adventurous lady and a cosy cove for the young couple.

Interestingly, the images on screen spun a similar story of the small town life in India. Against a realistic location of small landfills, grubby rail tracks, grimy toilets, sweaty and unkempt humanity, Zoya and Parma lived their curiously escapist existence. I saw a certain menace in Parma’s filial obedience and loyalty. His childish and short range reactions were as though, cries of defiance against the terrifying violence around him. Zoya’s inner world was unravelling even more make believe, if anything. From being a filmy and pampered daughter, she was cast out of the family in a cruel turn of events. Her unrealistic flights of fancy with Parma were chilling in their disconnect with what lay around her. There was sexism, there were clichés, there was a predictable end but most of all, there was a deep seated desolation in the jagged frames of Ishaqzaade. They spoke of people dying to live, of hating to love, of defying to die.

For me, the predominant flavour of the film was one of no place to go, no cause for hope, and no silver lining to the cloud. In the movie’s dim lit fabric lay a tale of chronic clan wars, deliberately cultivated male chauvinism and the validation of might being right. The only bugle belongs to the male heads of the Chauhan and Quereshi families, the rest provide the shell for their mounting.

Ishaqzaade is the dead end of the small town India. It is not about living but about staying alive.                                                               

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Talent that hurts

Talent hurts in India. We do not respect talent. We do not know what to do with it. As a matter of fact, we do not recognize talent. I would go so far as to say that ours is a culture that seeks to actively suppress talent.

I am talking about the innate, inborn ability that some people just seem to be born with. It could be a remarkable degree of flexibility, there may be a comfort level with words, or your child perhaps has the marbles for figures. The common thread is that the gift stands out in a crowd and therein lays the reason for alarm.

The logical and unquestionable thing to do would be to celebrate the flair and promote it at the highest level with the greatest possible gusto. But that calls for a certain degree of security and we are a people under constant threat of survival. So what do we do? We kill talent. We negate aptitude by ignoring it, by undercutting it, by discouraging it.

Take any field. Sports, the classical performing arts, academics; there is no discrimination; the throttling is across the board. An aptitude alone should be good enough to merit progress; it is instead drowned in a web of politics, corruption, indifference and an unprofessional ignorance. Some of our most prestigious, national level institutes of learning are manned by coaches and teachers who are at sea themselves. They train half-heartedly and with redundant knowledge and techniques. Out of touch with contemporary realities and bogged down in a maze of community favours and the quick buck, the last thing on their mind is excellence! There are huge gaps in knowledge; they have not stayed current with the happenings and are incapable of placing the skill they impart in any relevant context. 

Our academic institutions are no different. The children struggle over years and work to their bones to make the cut off marks into our top most universities and colleges, and what do they get after that golden foothold?  Intellectual fatigue, mediocrity and disillusionment. The emotion they come out with is exhaustion. Be it the IITs, the SRCC or the National Law Schools, there is an institutional indifference to any hunger to grow and learn. The thrill and excitement of ideas is entirely missing. The only value addition, if it can be called that, is the networking that comes from attending these highly reputed schools.

Take the knowledge imparters themselves. Do they have any leadership in their own fields? Have they contributed to the intellectual capital of our country? It is no secret that there aren’t all that many blazing trails of work visible on the Indian firmament. Little wonder then that we do not figure anywhere in the world rankings of ideas. The drought is not just of water!  We are quite content to be mediocre and do not rue the fact that we are irrelevant in the sphere of learning and academics.

There is no concept of individual brilliance. No culture of promoting innate talent above parochial considerations, above personal narrow interests, above community envy, above everything else. We are suspicious of any quest for excellence, attributing it to ulterior motives, more often than not. Our public spaces are crowded with ceaseless chatter of an unproductive kind. Very little peer exchange of ideas or theories or constructive critique takes place. In most office areas, the exchanges invariably revolve around grouses, entitlements, grievances, gossip and personal travails.

The world is not taking note of us in their “intellectual reputation” rankings. Perhaps we need to accept that our strength lies in our diverse cookery, intricate handicrafts and the amazingly talented Bollywood! We ought to lay claim on leadership in these fields. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The golden PTM

On the face of it, this is just a regular Parent Teacher Meeting. There is general sprucing up of the premises, the usual written circular has done the rounds a day prior, carrying the official guidelines on an appropriate conduct with the parents, the ceremonials are out, bulletin boards updated, PTM related papers in order and come the day, the families begin to troop in.

The air is thick with emotions. There is nervousness competing with pride; guilt trading with fear; need switching between finger pointing and placing appreciation on record.

It has been several years but I have not been able to tell who dreads the PTM more , the teachers or the parents. It would be accurate to say they both experience mixed feelings. Teachers have been known to fret over the exhaustive number of adjectives they feel pressured into using; for the parents it is a day of personal validation, a tick mark almost on the authenticity of their parenthood.

Something clicks the moment parents lower themselves into those chairs facing the teacher. The curtain parts and the mist lifts, a lot many things fall into place for both of them. With experience, I have learnt to read between the lines and use that awareness to advantage for the child sitting sandwiched between the two points of authority in her life.

The format being what it is, a lot of the discussion happens over the child’s head and in his face. Quite a chunk is made up of annoyed words from both sides at times. There are serious expectations, acute disappointments, an impotent rage sometimes. I remember a father who began a forceful tirade, “Ma’am, she does not listen to me. That makes me very upset.” The mother looked on, maintaining a helpless silence as their daughter and my student visibly shrunk into a ball. I reached out and pulled her close, watching her mother’s eyes speak to me. There was a watery reflection in her eyes as the father and I thrashed out parental prerogatives.

Oh yes, tears are not uncommon. There is a lot at stake in the course of a typical PTM for everyone involved. It is the time for self-authentication of all!  There was this mother who was concerned about her child not reading enough, not studying enough, not researching enough! She had a busy job and was desperate to put whatever time they had together to good use and understandably so. In all her agony and fear for her child’s future, she had stopped seeing the child. I jogged her gently to try and picture what his typical day out of home subjected him to. She saw soon enough that what her child needed most was her acceptance and at the end of what became a counselling session of the mother, the two walked out of the room happily enough, hand in hand.

Another face is imprinted in my mind of a mother whose eyes welled up when her nine year old daughter turned on her with an abrupt, “How are you going to take care of my uniform? You are never at home!” And a father again, expressing anguish at how the family was not able to provide their son the care he needed and deserved because the mother worked in another town.  A flash another time, from a defiant eight year old, telling her Dad in no mean terms what activity club she intended to join up!

There are lessons that jump at me from this close brush with one of mankind’s most complex preoccupations in life, the fool proof raising of their children. The understanding is nearly crystal clear now, with the benefit of hindsight, the 6/6 vision that comes in retrospect, always but always and invariably when you can no longer use it.

The biggest and the most important of the golden rules is that the children need us and that they do heed us. They are knocked around so hard and fast outside; they do not have to be badgered at home. They ought to be able to come in to an unconditional acceptance. They do watch their parents very closely, absorb and learn almost a facsimile of the example being set by them and even though they may not emulate right away, the images endure, surfacing many a times, years later.

Parents exert a tremendous influence on their progeny. We need a lot more faith in the way we bring them up therefore! 

If we are OK, there is no way our kids are going to be anything but OK.                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The heritage crisis


Monuments and sites?!

Well, this news did not make the headlines but the world observed Heritage Day on the 18th April this year.

If you were to stop the average John, Jaani, Janardhan on the road with this story that did not break in India, he would shrug it off! In a country struggling under the crushing weight of poverty, illiteracy and corruption, any mention of heritage is treated with incredulity, “People are dying here and you are talking about preserving history!” Oh no, we are not a nation too high on heritage walks or recording of ruins! The appreciation of a glorious history is a luxury, as far as we see it, befitting races that are developed beyond the basic sustenance mark. Those are people who have sublimed beyond survival, with refined antennae for finer levels of cultural assimilation. 

But there is a crisis now and we need to change that perception quickly and how?

We are a country at a cusp in time. India was shining, and then the circus of coalition took over. Today we live in spaces wherein the traffic is berserk, the TV channels completely cacophonous and an entitlement oriented citizenry clamouring for their rights 24/7. We are so caught up with internal and external security threats that no one is watching the back door out of which, unknown to us, our history and heritage are quietly vanishing.

A far greater number of people study Sanskrit outside of India today, for one. Hindustani music and classical dances have more and more takers outside the country. The most authoritative and best researched books on our history, our culture, and our socio-religious nuances are written by non-Indians. We are oblivious, indifferent, and dismissive of our phenomenal legacy. If pushed, most Indians will claim a sense of pride in what is known as the “5000 year continuous civilization” but scratch some more and the shocking fault lines will show up.

In a typical Indian home, any talk of the hoary past is synonymous with excavating buried ghosts and likely to invite impatience! There is little sense of lineage or history inculcated in the children. Most learn from watching their family elders who do not respect or recall family lore. The contempt for what has gone before extends into school and colleges where History and Sociology are trashed as subjects inferior to the analytical Sciences and requiring only rote memory at that. There is nil acknowledgement of the urgent need to infect the new generations with the desire to claim, take charge of and guard their own historical narrative.

We forget that we are only as good as our stories. And to grow unscathed beyond our diversity, we have to come to grips with our past, outlined in our own idiom. To move forward with vigour and conviction, we need to constantly look back at our common cultural wealth. Those are our survival coordinates. It will give us strength and lasting power to know and interpret our monuments, our sites, our deities, our traditions, our beliefs ourselves rather than have others tell us what we are about.

I shudder to think, how wretched my daughter Asawari would have felt on a foreign campus, to meet others who perhaps knew more about her history and heritage than she did.

What is the matter with us, one wonders? How did our records come to be in such a terrible state of disrepair. It is no secret that we hang clotheslines on archive balconies and house our historical treasures in rooms with broken windows and leaky roofs. Pigeon poop on priceless papers is not unusual and the less said about the ill-trained and destructive staff, the better. Arguably, of the 1000 plus heritage structures in Delhi alone, many are soot covered on the inside from the squatters’ chullah smoke!

One does not hear any talk of the crisis need to preserve our heritage sites on any popular and mass forum. The deplorable fact is that there is no domestic labouring or analysing or applying or studying of our past. The state of our mental bankruptcy is such that we mock the intellectual scholar, declaring she is too serious! The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has been desperately looking for Heritage Walk Leaders to lead their week end meanders, to quote one such symptom! 

Jaya Basera
I have been on some of their walks with Jaya Basera, a young and passionate advocate for heritage conservation. The average size of the group she leads is about ten in all, an atom of the ocean that is Delhi! But the stories she relates and the facts she quotes, bring to life an achingly beautiful echo from the days done. Hidden under the dust and grime and foliage are sounds, sights and smells of a bygone era, a foundation on which we stand today. Ironically, India’s conservation quick fix for all these hauntingly charming monuments is to put a lock at the entrance and keep out the intrepid urinators, dogs, romancing couples and future cricketers.

Are we a nation then, not rich enough to afford the preservation of our past or not wise enough to sit up and take notice of the time running out? Is it money that we lack or do we suffer the debility of attitude and desire? Do we really care about where we come from? Or are we too caught up in the mundane grind to hear historic notes straining to reach us from our crumbling glory? What is the state of our common legacy? In what condition does our combined heritage exist? 

It costs just fifty bucks to take our kids on one of the heritage walks and sow the seed that might one day fill this void in our national portrait. 

The truth is that if you were to take away from us our history, literature, culture, we would cease to exist!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The real tragedy

Something about the Aarushi Talwar case tugs at my heart. I feel transfixed every time the TV splashes Aarushi’s childhood pictures and videos. The normalness of the images is chilling in that they bear no hint, not a shimmer of the terrible fate that awaits this family round the corner.

The clips reveal a regular, attractive young girl celebrating, dressing up, posing; laughing and generally being her own self.  She is quite obviously a child, well cared and well provided for. The vignettes are of regular domestic bliss; a birthday party in one, a ceremonial function in another, a shopping session with her mother in the third. There is a lovely, vulnerable, slightly self-conscious smile on Aarushi’s face in most of the shots. She bears an air of being at ease in secure surroundings. There is also a certain sense of style and self-awareness in her bearing.

I remember the one frame though, that struck a jarring note in this otherwise idyllic visual stream. It was a clip of Hemraj braiding Aarushi’s hair. I could never make up my mind whether it was a slightly off key degree of familiarity there or just the usual comfort level between a family loyal and the teen whose childhood he has been a part of. It is not unusual in Indian families to have a steady and consistent domestic over several years, someone almost at home. Even so, there was a dissonance in that space, perhaps it had to do with their respective years. I am unsure but there was that care in the gentle manner he was folding her hair with that belied what should have been to me, a strictly no-nonsense and business like chore. But it might just have been the affection of an old retainer.

There were other punctuation marks in this story that winked at me. Aarushi’s school; my kids attended its namesake at R K Puram. The Talwar family lived in a Jal Vayu Vihar flat, that could have been us, and we did own a home in a similar society once. I thought of the couple, coming from this milieu, working to give their daughter the best possible life in their power. They would have laboured over her inoculations, her nutritious diet, the milk and non-veg protein routine, her school paraphernalia, research on personal gadgets such as phone and camera and the iPod. They would have had plans for her, on what she would be when she grew up. I would certainly have identified with their agony over her fevers, allergies, the invariable indispositions. They would have harboured fears over her security, worries about her being eve teased or threatened in any other unsavoury way.

This frequent and on-going empathetic reverie of mine is what is intermittently and  rudely interrupted by the media accusations of public voyeurism even as they bang out the “in your face” coverage and go to town with their distasteful allegations and theories.

Am I being intrusive, morbid, and salacious in associating with the Talwar story in thoughts?
Oh no, my conscience is clear. There is no guilt because I know the tragedy’s hold on me arises out of its incongruity, the bizarre and tangential turn of events as they happened, so out of character with a seemingly ordered configuration. I admit too that there is a deeper sense of identification owing to the demographic commonality. There is almost a need for personal validation; to have it proved beyond doubt that there is more to it than a mere twisted and sensational spectacle created by the TV channels and newspapers, lending itself to an impatient dismissal at the most.

It cannot be! There are flesh and blood humans involved. Surely it is more than a fluke tragedy in one of its kind accidental mode? Is there, in all of this mess the germ of a lesson for us, a mirror and a wakeup call; the reflection in fact, of our lifestyle choices?

If a healthy, educated child of a professional couple living the comfortable regular, ideal life meets this end, do we not owe it to ourselves to examine the incident in broader, universally applicable terms?

The middle classes’ antenna is forever quivering in anticipation of any threat to their heavy investments; the children in short. What must the couple be going through since her passing away, I shudder at that thought?

There are other related reflections that come to mind. It is clear that one really doesn’t know what is going on behind closed doors in civilized neighbourhoods. The family had to have been in extreme and extraordinary pain to have manifested this dreadful event. One wonders too at the strange connections and dynamics that can arise between people in a group, occupying that space called modern living, and irrespective of their status or position in the group hierarchy. Can one turn a blind eye as well to the natural tendency of teens to dive into whirlpools of attachments that no one can see them in, let alone extricate them from. And most tragic of all, that as a society we do not have the emotional wherewithal to survive any errors of judgement by our children. 

Where was the extended family while some dreadful mishap was taking shape in this small band of members? What happened to the buffers when the fear got out of hand? How did the Talwars get so alone and lonely in their hour of need?

The tragedy that is the Aarushi Double Murder case is a mirror to us, the Indian society. It is the very same conservative anonymity that we take pride in, that proved fatal for this family like ours.