Friday, February 22, 2008

The Mango Tree

Today...... or sometime very soon
Virar, Mumbai

"Nirmal. Jaldi bhaag." (Nirmal, Run soon) screamed Ganesh as they saw the Ramu kaka run with his stick shouting "Aam chor" (Mango Thieves). Of course their 11 year old legs were more agile and able than the 68 year old Ramu kaka, who seemed to be running even slower than the heroes running in slow motion in mindless movies. By the time Ramu kaka came near the fence, they had passed the grove and were beneath the Neem tree near their house.

Nirmal pulled out the small key chain pen knife which his Singapore uncle had gifted him on his previous birthday. He cut the mango into 2 halves while Ganesh opened the Mirchi which was neatly folded in the Indian Express newspaper. Ganesh sprinkled the mirchi generously on the top of the Mango as their mouth watered to finish it off that instant.

WOW!!! Mangoes taste so good….and in particular stolen Mangoes really do taste like Manna from heaven.

15 years later
Syed Alwi Road, Singapore

The list read 'Ring - 1 for Anand (6 years)'. Nirmal was not sure how he was supposed to ask for a ring for a 6 year old. What the hell was a 6 year old kid supposed to do with a golden ring? What….was he was like Frodo of Lord of the Rings?

Well…either way all he was supposed to do was not think, but just get it. Anand was his Aunt's relative’s son and Nirmal made it sure to impress her to remain in the good books of his uncle. While Mustafa remained crowded as ever, Nirmal found it difficult to find the right size with the right design which would fit in the right budget.

After comparing over a dozen rings and thinking of all possible permutations and combinations, Nirmal chose for a ring which had a nice "A" embossed with some glossy design. Now that should make his Aunt happy. He struggled to get past the weekend-or-not-but-we-are-always-crowded Mustafa to move to the Cashier counter. As the cashier processed the bill, Nirmal checked if he had managed to cover everything in the check list.

Nirmal and Ganesh seemed lost in the taste of the mangoes.

"Nalla irukku illa?" mused Ganesh in tamil. (It’s nice isn’t it?)

"Tu aur tera tamil. Hindi me baat kar re" (You and your tamil. Speak in Hindi)

Having lived in the same colony ever since they remembered, Ganesh and Nirmal often used to tease each other with generous dose of their respective mother tongues. Nirmal was an Uttar Pradeshi by birth and Ganesh was a tamilian or madrasi as they are called in this part of the world. But then childhood doesn’t know about any barriers of language, caste or creed that are set by the vicious adult world.

They had roamed around arms in arms, playing pranks, breaking window panes with cricket balls, watching Shahrukh's latest movie in the deluxe theatre front seat and so on. They kept 3 slices for their friends Manish, Ganpath and Rakesh. Rakesh in particular loved Mangoes. He was sure to go bonkers.

As they entered their colony, they witnessed something they would remember for the rest of their life….and possibly after life.

Making sure that everything was bought as per the check list, Nirmal carried the 4 heavy Mustafa bags which were laden with every possible thing he could lay his hands on. Stepping outside, he called for a cab and loaded the 4 bags and sat next to them puffing and panting in between. Thank god!!!The cabs in Singapore come fitted with Air Conditioner. It was such a relief to have some cool air breeze on face (so what if artificial) after spending hours in sweat. As the cab rushed into the condominium apartment in Bedok, he took out his purse and paid the cab driver.

After showering for 20 mins, Nirmal made few last minute packing with some items he had bought. The rest of the items would be carried by his Uncle and Aunt who would start a day later. Nirmal called a cab near his house and put his suitcase in the trunk while he retained the cabin luggage with him. He opened his travel bag which contained his passport. On any day he could have got a Permanent Resident pass, but he chose to retain his nationality. He read the words inscribed on the passport with the same hatred and his blood boiled in anger as it did when he read them for the first time years before.

It read "Passport" on the top and beneath was inscribed with the words "United States of India".

The only words that could have described the scenario are Chaos and mayhem. People were running helter shelter and there were cries and shrieks of "HELP" heard from every possible corner. Some houses were torched and the cries from those houses were at higher decibels. There were some men who had bands on their head and were shouting "Jai Maharashtra…jai Maratha". Some were carrying torches and seemed to be burning houses as per their whims and fancies.

Nirmal had read about some problems in nearby localities regarding disputes between local Maharashtrians and Biharis and Uttar pradeshis. There was a sudden outburst to drive all outsiders from the state. It was like a domino effect and seemed as if all the pieces were falling today. One mad guy ran near an old woman and shouted to her "Thuvaa Maratha?" (Are you a Maratha?)

She didn’t respond as she didn’t understand Marathi. The man took out a knife and stabbed her. Cold Blooded murder. Nirmal and Ganesh watched this horror happen just before their eyes. They ran for their lives before they too would be consumed. As they went near their house….they saw them torched down to ashes. The door was bolted from outside which meant that his parents were trapped inside and ....... Burnt to ashes.

Nirmal got his passport stamped as he arrived at Mumbai Airport. He would have to get it stamped in Telangana (formerly Andhra Pradesh) tomorrow when he would have to rejoin his Uncle and Aunt. This was the same country where you could go around without being asked. Without being questioned. Without fear. Without any barriers. And now you had to get it stamped whenever you cross any boundaries.

Now all that remained were pieces. He still remembered the interview of the politician who had started the "Maratha Aandolan".

Q: There were so many casualties because your party men were involved in massacre. What are your comments on this?

A. In any movement there are casualties. Such things do happen…but they are for greater good.

Casualties. Hundreds died. Thousands were orphaned. Lakhs lost their job, home and life. More than the loss of their kith and kin, they had lost their identities. And that son-of-a-bitch termed them all as casualties. And when he got arrested for all this, he smiled and waved as if he was Lord Christ taken out for crucifixion. Every politician took cue from his victory and they reduced INDIA to UNITED STATES OF INDIA. The only thing that united the whole country was Misery. Corruption. Anarchy. Oh can be added to the list.

Nirmal ran to the door and knocked it down and saw his parents who were reduced to charred bodies. He could not even touch them as it was still hot….but lifeless. Nirmal cried. He cried as loud as he could. But his wails got lost amongst the hundreds of cry for help and anguish. Everything was reduced literally and figuratively to ashes. 2 days later Nirmal's uncle came to take him to Singapore as he had no one left to take care in this world. Ganesh left to his relative’s house in Tamilnadu. But what about the hundreds of others who had no one to look after?????

As Nirmal boarded the train from Virar station to leave to Mumbai Airport, he saw the Mango grove.

There was no Ramu kaka, no vigil near the Mango trees.

But the Mangoes failed to entice him.

On the next day morning, Nirmal caught a train to Virar and went to his colony. Oh…what was his colony. There was some shopping complex built in that area with everything written in Marathi. The same place where his parents were reduced to ashes without their own approval. There was no Rahim chacha’s Biriyaani shop, no Grace aunty’s tailoring machine sound, no Ganesh, no Rakesh, no amma-appa……nothing.

Everything seemed to have been wiped clean just as a wave washes away writings on beach sand. Unable to bear the sight he walked past the grove. The Mango trees remained. Maybe because they were mangoes and they didn’t have any caste, creed or religion. Lucky Mangoes.

"What Sir? Seems like you have lost your way? Shall I help you?" asked an out-of-work teenager.

Nirmal wanted to say least something. All he managed to say was

"I think I can find my way." He hoped someday his country would find one as well.

P.S: Inspired from the horrendous Nashik Incident.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ever After

"This is your last stop sahib" said the soft spoken bus attendant to me as I woke up from my customary evening nap on my company bus. I don’t know exactly if he meant it as a metaphor or it was just those grey cells in my stupid mind made them feel so, but I had to get down for sure.

Sheepishly I picked up my bag and climbed down the bus. After 5 minutes of useless hesitation, I managed to cross the road after making sure that there was not even any approaching cycle which could hit me and lay me six feet under. What was so different about today than the rest of the days?

Let me guess. I woke up, showered, dressed, went to work, ate and now I am back.
Hey...seemed normal. But why do the people (in particularly youngsters in my team and around) seem happy? There was a grin on almost everybody's face, and there is an air of expectancy. And then it struck me. It was feb 14th.

Aahhhh. There we go. Valentine's Day. It seemed as if everyone else was looking forward to this day except me. There is a happy Valentines Day board outside a shop. I wanted to go and scream “You didn’t have a Happy Independence day board before dumb ass. What are you...some valentine pimp?”

But that’s not fair. This is a democratic country and except Shiv sainiks, RSS folks or Muslim Haji everyone had the right to freedom of expression. Damn! Why am I dragging politics now? It seemed as if this day was invented by the Archie’s & Hallmark or by Dee Beers & Nakshatra as their shops seemed to be filled with eager customers. Oh gosh! There we go. Either these love birds are sending SMS or calling and giggling or walking hand in hand. Why am I so jealous?

And that is when it happened. Powercut. Ahhh....I hate darkness. I took out my Sony W810i and tuned into some radio channel which was playing some mindless stuff. Whatever! As long as it keeps me away from madness. Have you ever walked around a busy road with headphones in our ears which plays loud music? should try it. It seems as if the whole world is dancing to the tune of the song that you are hearing and you can relate to every gesture and every action on road in sync with the song.

The world remained the same everyday. I saw the same people today as I did on every other day. The Mithai shop uncle who barked at his customers, the grocery shop owner who seemed to reinvent multi processing, the vegetable vendor and house wife who haggled for every penny, the old beggar who knew I would never oblige and still never gave up and asked me for alms. It seemed as if we were all held captives in the prison of time. I reached my home and switched on the light. Bloody routine! It was pitch dark still. I switched on the light on my W810i which suddenly felt like some beacon on beach.

I threw my shoe, socks and bag and rested on the sofa. When you live alone in a house, no rules of neatness or decorum are applicable. Why am I alone? Oh...don’t bother. I closed my eyes with the headphones on and wondered what the hell was going to play next. And out of the blue, they decided to play THIS Lata Mangeshkar song. And I get reminded of her. Kalpana.

Lag Jaa gale,
ke phir yeh,
Haseen raat ho na ho

Shaayad, phir is Janam mein
Mulakaat ho na ho.

(Come and hug me,
This night may be there or not

We may or may not meet
in this birth.....)

Memories seemed to flood like an avalanche. This was the song for which we both had done tango in our small bed room and laughed at our stupidity. There was nothing in the room except our laughing voices, Lata Mangeshker's haunting voice....and our love.

How happy were we? How good those days were? We cared so much for each other. We were so madly in love. Those days of hand-in-hand roaming around the streets, those afternoons of stomach and heart filling lunch where food was just an excuse, those evenings in the garden, those nights together where everything else seemed like oblivion. It was a world where no one existed other than me and her.

What had happened to all that? All because of some stupid tussle. Coming to think of it, I can’t even remember why we fought in the first place. Perhaps all fights are like that. It was all in the heat of anger. It had been almost a week since we had talked and she had been living at her friends place.

Ego. Bloody ego. We both had been so adamant as if we would melt if we apologized I had been angry about Valentines Day just a few minutes before and now I was yearning to hear her voice. Strange how the human mind works. Suddenly the lights came back alive. The sudden surge of light almost blinded me. Like a baby just out of its mother's womb, I shrunk my eyes. I sprung from the sofa and shut out the lights.

Darkness. It seemed better in darkness. Only her memories, Lata Mangeshker's mellifluous voice and darkness. Like every other thing in this world, this song too came to an end. Something tasted salty. Ahhh....tears. Like raindrops on the other side of a window pane, she seemed so near....yet so far.

Throwing aside my ego and inhibitions, I decided to give her a call. I picked up my mobile and decided to talk, beg, and plead...whatever it takes to bring her back into my life. As I punched her number on my key pad, it happened.

My mobile came to life with her incoming call.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Scent of a Woman

To someone else it may have seemed too small an accomplishment to throw up their arms in air and yell "Yippie" and do similar antics that you watch Shohaib Akhthar do on a cricket field. But as far as Anjali was concerned she had done it and she was ecstatic. On this occasion all she managed was a smile. She had managed to silence her alarm clock at exactly 5.58 AM and stopped it from letting out its outburst at 6 AM.

Almost a month odd before Anjali had never ever seen the morning sun (except on exam days) before 8 AM. Anjali used to sleep for so long that she was nicknamed Lady Kumbhakaran in her family and friend’s circle. She would dream about every possible thing that she could relate to in her sleep and worse of all she would remember it to detail next morning and wonder what it meant.

But that had all changed once she got married almost 20 days before to her loving hubby Aakash. She looked at Aakash who was snoring so loudly that she wondered if it could be counted as noise pollution. She reminded herself to pull his leg about this when they would go to bed tonight.

She fumbled to switch on the rest room lights as she was still yet to be accustomed to her new home. She brushed her teeth slowly and gently making sure that her toothbrush touched every possibly reachable teeth and glowed it to perfection. Nearly 10 minutes later she looked in the mirror and wondered if her teeth looked bright enough to be featured in the Happy Dent White ad.

She changed her attire from nightgown to salwaar and walked out of her bedroom. She remembered that she used to roam around in shorts and tees in her home and hostel a month before. The moment she saw her mother-in-law her memory switched to play mode from the flashback mode.

The first time she saw her mother-in-law, she was reminded of Cruella Devil from 101 Dalmatians. But she reasoned that maybe few decades later she herself might look even worse. Her mother-in-law always woke up bang at 5.30 AM and would prepare coffee for herself and her husband. i.e. Anjali's father-in-law. Anjali walked into the 300*300 kitchen and started to prepare coffee for Aakash. Aakash always liked his coffee extra hot, strong with 2 spoonfuls sugar.

She woke him and gave the coffee which he received thankfully with sleepy-eyed thanks. She had always found the practice of bed-coffee disgusting, but she did not advice Aakash about this as she wanted to give him his space. After sipping a mouthful of coffee Aakash smiled. You might think that in return she would have smiled and they would have kissed and cuddled that moment.

But that is something that happens in your regular pop-corn flicks where hero and heroine break out for duets in Snowy Alps where still heroine alone is supposed to roam around is dresses that are typically worn in Sahara desert. Real life love stories need stomach full breakfast and box full of lunch to survive the day and after.

An orthodox family that it was, her mother-in-law still preferred to cook for herself and her husband and Anjali was left to cook for herself and her hubby. Anjali ran helter shelter as if she was commissioned in the Iraq war to make Upma while her mother-in-law made idli with minimum fuss with the alacrity of a Zen guru.

Anjali wondered when she would master that kind of artistry over her culinary skills. Either way it would come to an end in another one month when she would be joining as a lecturer in the nearby college. She was so eager to bid good bye to kitchen and household chores.

She made sambhar and potato curry for Aakash and packed it neatly in the Tiffin box. He came dressed perfectly to the dining hall where he ate the upma without a word of neither praise nor disdain. He carried the Tiffin box and his office bag and bid good bye to her and his mom. That was the moment which she hated the most in those 24 hours. Oh yeah....the hours till he would arrive back home do get added to it. Just then she remembered that she had to complete her morning nature's call and she rushed to the rest room.

The moment she entered, she blurted an almost inaudible "shit". Being used to western type lavatory all these years, she found the Indian type rest room in Aakash's house the toughest to handle. In fact she had started to eat less just in order to reduce her time in relieving it. Aakash had told her that he would get another one built in a few weeks time. She wished these weeks passed by soon enough. Having nothing else to do Anjali sat before the computer and started to check her mails.

Her inbox was flooded with orkut scraps from her friends who had been wishing her a happy married life. Possibly everyone in their college batch had known about her love affair with Aakash and they all had come for their marriage. It was not a very happy marriage as it seemed as there was resistance from both the sides considering the usual differences of caste and status. But since nothing concrete was found to shake it up, the parents obliged half heartedly. Anjali did find it hard to breach the wall of defiance between them, but it seemed to take forever.

Somehow time ran by and it was around 8 PM. Anjali had prepared Roti and cauliflower gravy for Aakash. Her in-laws were watching some weepy soap on TV and Anjali had no choice but to read an already read Sidney Sheldon novel. Not finding it engrossing she tossed it aside and waited for Aakash to jump in. Almost 30 mins later Aakash came in and gave her a tired smile. He changed to casuals and sat on the dining table as she served him the roti and the gravy. Without any word Aakash ate it and went mechanically to the bed.

Anjali was devastated. She had not asked for the sun, moon or the stars. It was so unfair. A woman leaves her home, parents, siblings and every possible thing that had been with her since her birth and trusts some total stranger to take care of her for the rest of her life. Right from the brand of toothpaste, the toilet, the tube light switch in the bed room, the bathing soap, lunch and dinner timings, surroundings and up to the TV programs, every thing is new to her.

She has to reprogram every habit of hers to match this new home and its people and all she expects is nothing much but just a few words of love and affection. The worse part of this whole affair is that when you show your displeasure about any small thing, you are branded arrogant and non-adjustable.

How much of an effort is it to show your appreciation or happiness?

10 words? 5 minutes?

Was it too much to ask for?

Sad and desperate she lay on the bed without a word as Aakash read the Sidney Sheldon novel. At that instant she wanted to strangle the already dead Sheldon. Just that instant she felt a hand crawl by her hips and some one whispering in her ears.

"Hey darling. Did I tell you that the sambhar and potato curry was amazing today?"

She turned towards him and buried her face in his hairy chest and started to whimper. Her rain drop like tears wet his chest.

Aakash looked confused wondering what wrong had he said to cause this sudden overflow of tears.