Thursday, April 21, 2016

‘I Was Kidnapped’ - Part Three

When I woke up in the morning I saw the family was having a mini conference. My mom looked sheepishly at me. "Did you sleep well?” I nodded numbly. Actually I had gone to bed with a racing heart but then had succumbed to sheer fatigue. 

Then my father spoke. “I will come to school with you. I must speak to the Principal. What kind of security do they have that children can be kidnapped right from outside their gates?" 

Nooo! My heart cried out. That’s not necessary! Why can’t we let this be? But of course I didn’t say a thing.  

The principal was a youngish bespectacled guy and he happened to be in the foreground of the school, in front of a 10-feet-high statue of a welcoming Jesus. He was wearing a white cassock and had a few books in hand. 

My father strode up to him. “Father, I need to speak with you." 


My father narrated the entire story to him. “How could you let a child get kidnapped right from outside your gates?"  

The principal looked my father straight in the eye. “There was no kidnapping. These three boys ran away from school after lunch. They didn’t come till the school got over. Their class teacher reported the fact to me last evening itself. All the rest is just a cock and bull story." 

My father was aghast. He turned to me. “Is that true?" 

I looked down at my shoes, tears already beginning to well up. 

“I asked, is that true?!" 

I nodded. 

My father gave me the tightest slap I have ever received in my life. 

He turned to the Principal. “I am so sorry, Father. No, in fact, I am ashamed. I got completely taken in by his story. Can you believe it, Father, he gave the same story to the inspector…that too inside the police station?!” The Principal just looked at me and laughed. 

My dad was beside himself. He gripped my right ear and led me  up the path to the school gate. We were going back home. 

My brothers were at school (a different school) when we got back home. My father quietly narrated what had happened to my mother. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She twisted my ears, and gave me the spanking of a lifetime. She just wouldn’t give up. She was not only angry but utterly humiliated. 

My father finally calmed her down. “Now we have to do one more thing,” he sighed heavily. “We have to tell the cops." 
We walked – just the two of us – to the police station. The senior inspector was at his desk surrounded by his assistant and a few constables. He looked up curiously. My father sat down and narrated the sordid story while I intensely examined the tiles on the floor. When he finished, the inspector tilted back his chair in disbelief. He looked at me and then he looked at my father. “You know,” he said, "I have been a policeman for over 25 years. I have investigated hundreds of cases and softened up the hardest criminals. And can you believe it, I got taken in by this eight year old boy?!” He shook his head. “What a story. What details. Do you know, right this moment, I have two guys asking everyone in and around Reay Road if they have seen that sardarji? And, God forbid, had we found a sardarji fitting that description do you know what we would have done to him?” He let out a deep breath. "Phew!” 

Then he turned to me and gave me a searing look which could freeze you in your step. “You… You are either going to end up here one day or may be you will become a writer."

‘I Was Kidnapped’ - Part Two

I reached home dog tired around 6 pm. Not only had we walked a lot, there was the added weight of guilt and anxiety.

My mother was waiting by the door, worried sick. We lived at King’s Circle and I usually came home by 4.30 or so. “Where were you?! Why are you so late?” she screamed at me as I staggered home. “Where have you been? Why are you looking so dead-beat?" 

She shook me up. I could see her worry had transformed into fury. I didn’t know what to say. How could I tell her I had walked out of school at lunch and wandered over all the way to Reay Road? No way. 

“I asked you something. Why don’t you answer me?!” She was really furious.

“I was kidnapped,” I sobbed.

She was stunned. “What?!! What did you say? You were kidnapped?! What happened? Tell me what happened!” She held me by my collar and shook me. Her eyes were wide with residual anger and surging anxiety.

Now there was no going back. “There was this guy outside the school gate,” I stammered. "He offered me a sweet. And then I don’t know what happened. I started walking with him. Then we walked to an Irani restaurant  on the main road near Reay Road station. The restaurant had green walls. There he gave me a cold drink and after that when he went to pay the bill I slipped out and ran. I walked all the way from Reay Road station home."
By now a small crowd had gathered in the house. My two older brothers, neighbouring kids and their parents. They were all firing away questions at me.
“How did he look?”
“How old was he?"
“Was he tall or short?”
“What was he wearing?”
“Did he do anything to you?"

And I had answer. I had to provide details for them to believe me.
“He was a young sardarji.  Not very tall. He was wearing a baingan-coloured turban and light green shirt. (Baingan is Hindi for aubergine. I had filled in violet in my alleged kidnapper’s turban). He was wearing worn brown shoes. No, he wan’t wearing spectacles. No, he didn’t do anything to me.”  

Now the inquisitors were even more puzzled. Why would anyone kidnap someone, make him walk on a public road all the way to Reay Road, offer him a soft drink, then let him escape so easily? “But just look at the little fellow. He looks so shaken and tired. He is damn lucky to have escaped." 

Dad was called up at his factory and he came rushing back in an Ambassador cab. The excited circle of inquisitors quietened down. Now it was dad’s turn to ask the questions. He looked at me and spoke softly. “Tell me everything. Right from the beginning."

I took a deep breath and repeated the story all over again, filling in an extra detail or two. Dad asked a few supplementary questions just to get the details right. Then, with a sigh he got up. “We need to report this to the police."

My heart leapt into my mouth. Police? I gulped.

“Yes,” said dad. “You were lucky to escape. Some other kid may not be so lucky. The police should nab this guy. Come on, wash up and change your clothes. You are coming with me."

I nearly died. “I am so tired!” I fussed. "I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to rest!"

My mom’s heart melted. She looked at my dad. “He’s been through a lot. Does he need to go?"

“Of course. The inspector would like to ask him questions. How else will they find their man?” He looked to me, “Come on, get ready."

It was dark by then. My dad, I and a neighbour walked to the nearest police station. My heart was beating furiously. Weaving stories to mom was one thing but to a police inspector…?!

The senior inspector was a fifty year old, heavy-set man with bushy eyebrows and a thick moustache. He heard out my father then turned to me. “Don’t be scared, son. Tell me everything. Every small thing. Don’t leave out anything at all. There have been reports in my area of some kids who have been kidnapped. He is a bad man. We need to catch him. You understand?"

I nodded. And then he asked the questions and I answered them to my practised best. Even I was surprised at the finer detailing that flowed out spontaneously from my mouth. It was almost as if I wasn’t speaking but words were just popping out by themselves. The Inspector’s assistant took down pages and pages of meticulous notes.

Then it was over. The senior inspector, heaved himself up from his chair with a sigh, and walked round to where I was sitting. “You have been a brave boy,” he said patting my head. Then he turned to my father. “I must say your son has an excellent memory for details. Half the folk who come here don’t remember a thing. They waste our time hemming and hawing. Fortunately for us, he is sharp."

We three – my dad, our neighbour and myself – walked back home slowly. Each of us was drained by the events of the day. All we wanted to do was have a quick dinner and go to sleep.

But I didn’t know there was more to come. Had I known I wouldn’t have slept that night.

‘I Was Kidnapped’ - Part One

I was probably eight years old then, studying at St Joseph’s High School at Wadala in Mumbai. It was one of those lazy summer days at school that seemed to drag on and on and on and the entire class seemed enveloped in the thick stupor of boredom. 

When the bell rang for the lunch recess, we boys dashed out of the class in a whoosh of relief. After a quick lunch from our three-compartment lunchboxes, we headed for the water fountain. What, no water?! This was crazy! What would we drink? And sure enough, just because there was no water our throats actually felt more parched than ever before! I was with two friends, Yagnesh and Prasad. Yagnesh was a sweet, conservative Gujarati boy and Prasad, well, he was the oldest amongst us, having dropped a year. Prasad was taller than Yagnesh and me, and, though not very bright, he certainly was more confident and street savvy than both of us.  

The three musketeers went around the school to see if there was a stray tap we could drink from. No such luck. We were angry and frustrated ...and thirsty. Prasad suggested we get out and look for water in some shop outside the school. We rambled out of the school gates, turned left and started asking around for drinking water. Apparently some pipe had burst and there wasn’t any water…or at least that’s what the shopkeepers claimed. So we walked further down ...and then further. 

Everything was happening as if in a dream. The hot stuffy afternoon, the glistening tar roads, the random disinterested people on the roads and time moving lazily, very lazily. And there we were, three school kids, in our blue shorts and white bush shirts, walking down the road, away from school, talking inane stuff. It really was as if we were in some kind of suspended animation. At one point Yagnesh chanced upon a still-lit cigarette stub on the road. He picked it up and took a drag then passed it to Prasad who took a really deep drag then passed it to me. This was happening almost in the middle of the road and suddenly it dawned on us that we would get a hiding if some one from our families saw us smoking. We looked around furtively to check but there wasn’t anyone. We stubbed out the cigarette and moved on. 
At some point, Prasad suggested that since we had come so far we might as well carry on to his dad’s shop which was “pretty close”. We would definitely get water there. Yagnesh and I shrugged to say, “Why not?” When we approached the Wadala suburban railway station, Prasad took a right turn which brought us to the road parallel to the railway tracks. And we walked and we walked. Nobody thought of school, and, after a while, nobody spoke. We simply followed Prasad. 

Suddenly I looked around and saw a sign outside an Irani cafe. Gosh, we had reached Reay Road! I think that was the first time I started getting anxious.  

A while later we found ourselves at his father’s shop. His father dealt in iron scrap and his shop was right on the main road. It had a small, low entrance painted in turquoise blue leading to a slightly larger cubicle, leading further on to a much larger warehouse where all the scrap was stocked. His dad was a tall, roughly-built practical man from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. He wasn’t too pleased to see us. “What are you doing here?! Why aren’t you at school?!” he yelled at Prasad. Yagnesh and I huddled by the door. Prasad may have been scared too but he didn’t show it. “There wasn’t any drinking water at school and we were soooo thirsty! What could we do? The padres should have thought of us kids, no?” The father was still gruff and upset but then here were these thirsty little kids who had walked all the way from Wadala to Reay Road just to have some water! It’s not like they had played truant to watch a movie! He gave us some water to drink from a red matka in a corner and shooed us away. “Go back to school!" 
We came out and abruptly realised it was almost 4 pm! School was over! We were really worried. We had run away from school! We would get a spanking not just from our parents but from the school too! How could we have been so stupid?! But Prasad was reassuring. “Why should you worry? First of all they wouldn’t have missed us and I am sure nobody even knows we were not there after lunch. And even if they do, what have we done wrong? We were thirsty and we went out to drink some water. Only we got late. Is that a crime?" 

Yagnesh and I nodded weakly but as we walked home our feet were tired and our hearts heavy. 

But neither of us could have known what would happen next...

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Nanaji reading the Ramayan

My maternal grandfather spent his entire life in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. A high caste North Indian Brahmin by birth, he had a peculiar problem: he could read Urdu and Farsi and English but he could not read Hindi! He could speak it, he could understand it but he couldn’t read it. The Devanagri characters simply left him baffled. When we kids would go out with him we would tease him. “Nanaji, read that sign.” He would shrug and say “Beta, main Hindi nahi padh sakta.” (Son, I can’t read Hindi.) He could read the Hindi numbers, he could read bus routes, he could read some signs on shops in Dariba or Khari Baoli but if you gave him a Hindi newspaper he would sheepishly return it to you unread. If someone wrote him a letter, he would hand it over to his wife who would read it out to him. But his Urdu was marvellous and his calligraphic Urdu handwriting would have been the envy of an industrious maulvi. He would write his accounts in a parchment paper sewn-notebook, beginning from the last page, writing right to left. Black ink, print-neat handwriting. If some official work had to be done, he would manage using his top-notch English skills. He once told me most of his dreams were in English. Be that as it may his sense of humour was largely Old Delhi Urdu-ish – wry, fatalistic, sarcastic or building on a witty play of words and puns. His laughter was deep but not loud; his eyes would sparkle, his mouth would tip a trifle to the left, his belly would wiggle like a jelly pot though the laughter itself would be more a rapid series of guffaws then a roar.  

But the most amazing experience was of my Nanaji doing his pooja. He would roll out a square rug near the living room window and open out a creaky wooden book stand. He would slowly put on his battered spectacles over his large ears and gently unwrap his Ramayan from the rich silk cloth it was wrapped in. Next he would patiently fold away the silk wrapper keeping it neatly to his left. After that he would place the Ramayan on the stand and bow his head in reverence. And then he would slowly open the last page of the book and start reading his Ramayan – this Ramayan was in Urdu and so he read it backwards, beginning from the back of the book and reading right to left!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Making God Laugh

Mom decided we ought to pay a visit to the temple town Nathdwara during our Christmas holidays. Dad made a fuss about the expense but Mom was firm: we hadn’t gone to pay our respects to the family deity, Shreenathji, for quite a while and we couldn’t put this off forever. Finally dad gave in and sent somebody from the factory to queue up at the railway station to buy the tickets for the family – which meant my parents and we three boys, the youngest of them being me and I was nine at that time.

Cut to Nathdwara.

The Nathdwara temple has eight darshans – which means, the temple gates are opened eight times a day to allow devotees to have a glimpse of the deity. The deity is adorned differently for each darshan hence each darshan is unique.

Now, if you are devout, and in love with the deity, even with its form, you would like to have as many darshans as you can. So I announced to my mother, “Tomorrow I will have all eight darshans of Shreenathji.”

“Hush!” said my mother. “You can’t say that. Say that and you’ll never be able to have all the eight. Only His wish prevails.”

“Just you watch. I will squat on the temple steps, right outsides the gates, all through the day and let’s see who stops me from having all the darshans!”

My mother shrugged. “Let’s see.”

The next day, I accompanied my family to the temple very early morning for the first darshan. After that, the family checked out the notice board for the timing of the next darshan and we left for breakfast.

I was edgy and kept checking the time on my dad’s wristwatch. But we were back in time for the next darshan. Then we hung around in the market street outside the temple for the one after that. It was close to noon when we emerged from that darshan, and the family decided to go back to the dharamshala for lunch and rest. Once again we checked out the notice board for the timing of the next darshan and left.

The family decided to skip the afternoon darshan and instead take a short nap. But I was adamant. I had vowed to myself that I would have all eight darshans and I would be damned if I didn’t. I quarrelled with my mother, who wanted me to sleep a while, and returned to my post on the temple steps.

I squatted there on the steps with the dogged alertness that comes from the reluctance to lose a bet. As soon as the temple gates would open I would scurry in, dash into the gaps amidst the adults and work my way into the front row for the darshan. This way I got two more darshans under the belt. Now there were just three more to go. It was a cinch. My location was perfect, my determination rock solid.

Now picture this. It is late afternoon. The town’s sleepiness has affected pilgrims too. There are fewer of them to been seen in the streets. There is a gentle breeze wafting across the narrow lane leading to the temple. On both sides of the lane are pavement stalls selling flowers, sweets, picture frames and trinkets. There are a handful of beggars near the temple steps, getting ready for the anticipated conversion of piety into alms. I am sitting there on the temple steps, watching all this. The temple gates are closed and the notice board clearly shows that there is still half an hour to the next darshan. I turn to watch the street scene. A few minutes later I turn back towards the notice board to give a confirmatory glance and I see a temple functionary, standing with his back to me, changing the timing on the board. I bounce up to look at the change he has made. Aw shucks! The darshan has been postponed by another fifteen minutes! I sigh and resume my vigil on the somnolent steps.

I suddenly notice a small crowd gathering in the narrow street. They are watching a madari’s monkey tricks. I stand up to see the show from the vantage height of the steps. Soon the growing audience blocks my view so I gingerly go down the steps. I can hear the sound of the dumroo but I can’t see the monkey perform so I work my way through the crowd to get to the inner line of the circle.

Wow! What a performance! The monkey has such intelligent eyes he almost seems human. And he is so smart he seems to understand everything the madari tells him! I laugh at his antics, I guffaw when he mimics a spectator scratching his head, I shudder when he lunges at us, I clap enthusiastically along with the audience when he takes a bow.

All of a sudden I give a start. Darshan! I elbow my way desperately out of the crowd and dash up the steps.

The temple doors are slowly closing. I have just missed a darshan.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Streethawkers Of Chandni Chowk

It's a summer afternoon in Chandni Chowk and you don't want to venture into the drafts of sauna heat. You are ten years old and are lying on your stomach, on a huge teakwood poster bed, reading Eric Ambler's Cause For Alarm. The window to your left is open but covered with a wet khus curtain to convert hot air into cool breeze. It's neither too bright nor too dark. Just enough light to read by.

Swinging your legs in the air as you read, you suddenly hear a street hawker. He sings, "Peelay ras ganney ka!" Then comes the subheading yelled in a loud rustic voice..."Peelay thanda meetha ras wala!" He is selling sugarcane juice. Driven by curiosity, you rush to the window, lift the khus curtain a wee bit and peer down the narrow alley. There he is. A copperish brown man with a yellowed white saafa (head turban) standing next to his compact wooden press, the juice extractor, which he has stationed on the opposite building's porch. A pile of sugarcane lies next to him. Even as you watch, he cups his hand to his mouth and sends another marketing call resounding down the alley.

You drift back to your reading. It's getting closer to evening. Then you hear another call from down the lane. "Faalsey! Khhattey meethey faalsey!" Back to the window, peeking from behind the lifted curtain. There is this stocky man in a striped pyjama and white knee-length half-sleeved shirt. His ware is stocked in large leafy cones in a wicker basket and it is your favourite fruit: small, purple-maroon berry-like fruits, tangy and sweet at the same time. Irresistibly exotic for a Bombay lad like you... you don't ever get to see these in Bombay! You hastily slip on your Bata slippers, gather a few coins from the aala (a small alcove in the wall) and dash down the stairs, with your grand mom yelling indignantly after you, "Where are you going?!" But you are already down, next to the grinning vendor, buying two annas' worth of faalsey. Then you amble up the stairs slowly, picking one faalsa at a time, popping it in your mouth, relishing the fountain of taste that explodes with each lick, and then as the fruit flesh depletes you bite to get at the comparatively neutral tasting seed. You have finished half the faalsey in your leaf cone by the time you reach home.

Now it's late evening. You find it peculiar that your grandparents have dinner by seven... you are used to having dinner only after ten back home in Mumbai. But you have a voracious appetite and you can handle a largish meal any time of the day. As you dig into the puris and subzi, you hear a call from the street."Chholey! Chholey! Chat patey chholey!" You look up sheepishly at your grandmom. She scowls, but you can cleverly make out a lining of indulgence in the scowl. Sure enough, she reaches into her anti, the folds that hold up her sari, extracts a few coins and hands them to you. You are off like a hare... slipping on Hawaii slippers, leaping down darkish stairs, out in the small street. There at the nukkad (street corner) under the street lamp is the chholey-wala. (And you can swear that to this day you haven't tasted better chholey). So there you are next to him, greedy and impatient, thrusting the coins in his hands, asking for the dona full of spicy, steaming hot chholey so you can get back to having them with your puris. And having procured them, you scramble back upstairs, triumphant, grinning as if you have just bagged a continent.

And your grandparents, and your mom, and your uncle and aunt, still at dinner, are all stifling smiles at your easy satiation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lazy Summers In Chandni Chowk

Every summer vacation my mom would travel with us three kids to Delhi to spend time with our nana-nani (maternal grandparents). It would be the height of summer and Delhi would be dry, dusty and unbearably hot.

My second brother would scoot off to my Dad's uncle within hours of landing in Delhi and my eldest brother and I would stay back with mom at her parents' home in Chandni Chowk.

My nana owned a quaint two-storeyed building in one of the winding bylanes, on the mouth of a narrow alley. On the ground floor was a tyre godown, on the first floor were two tenants with large joint families. The entire second floor housed just four persons: my grandparents and my aunt and her husband.

The floor between the first and the second story was a jaal, a see-through floor comprising half-inch-thick iron railings. You could sit on the second floor and casually look down into the bustling activity in either tenant's home! It was a bit like being in a special zoo which had horizontal railings. You could not only listen and watch domestic squabbles erupting downstairs but, if you wished, even participate in them.

The tenant families were fond of my mom though they couldn't suffer my aunt. If my mom happened to be sitting by the jaal they would look up and chat with her about her life in Bombay, about our school and our academic performance, and about recipes for Gujarati snacks and Bombay bhelpuri. My nani, a kind-hearted tyrant, took her role as landlady rather seriously and frowned upon my mom's easy banter with her "bothersome" tenants.

Buildings in Chandni Chowk are stuck to one another and you could probably travel all the way to the Red Fort hopping from one rickety terrace to another.

We kids would stay indoors throughout the day, sheltered from the singing heat, whiling time chatting with my nana or my aunt, playing chess with my uncle or reading books from the Delhi Public Library. But come twilight and we kids would go up to the terrace hauling buckets of water.

As we sprinkled water on the smouldering terrace, it would turn almost instantly into vapour, releasing mellow fragrance of wet earth.

Then we would fill up surahis (narrow-necked earthenware pots) with drinking water and place them next to each charpoy (string bed). And later, when the sun was finally down, we would unroll the bedding on each charpoy and make the beds so that they would be cool by the time everybody came up to the terrace to sleep.

As night descended, there would be a gentle, cool breeze wafting across the bustling terraces. The lights in the neighbourhood would begin to flicker alive in sleepy succession, from one household to another, and the sound of the cars would seem to recede into the distance.

If you lay down on the charpoy you could see the moon framed in a clear sky and a rich spattering of stars. And you could see the feeble light and the fluttering chrome yellow flag atop Sisganj gurudwara. Occasionally, you could hear faint strains of Sukhamani Sahib.

Those summer nights on the Chandni Chowk terrace were serene, soaked in quietude, almost blissful. And you could lie there dreamily till nani or mom hollered to get you down for dinner.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Schoolboy Crush

My very first crush was a pretty girl named Lorna. I might as well tell you that isn't her real name. As they say in the newspapers, all names have been changed to protect identities. To get back to the story, I was fourteen then and Lorna was a year older. She lived in a small bungalow opposite my apartment house. The two were separated by an open plot in between where construction had been begun and abandoned.

I would stake out Lorna's place from my third storey balcony with keen telescopic eyes. They had a largish verandah on the ground floor where her brothers would hang out in the evening with friends - I could see them lounging in rattan chairs laughing, having tea, chatting, occasionally having a drink. As backdrop, there would be loud music playing from inside the house. Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, Abba, Boney M.

When her brothers were chilling out with friends, Lorna could be seen making an occasional appearance in the verandah, joking with her brothers' friends, getting them tea and snacks, and once I saw her singing to them. She was wearing a steel grey short skirt and a cute white top and she sang leaning against the door connecting the verandah to the living room. Though I couldn't make out the song I could sense it was a naughty song. There was raunchy applause as she finished.

Lorna was studying at a convent in Santacruz and I at a missionary school in King's Circle and Jesus worked it out in such a way that we were often in the same BEST bus from the railway station to our respective homes.

I would get off the local train and my heartbeat would hasten. As I walked nonchalantly to the station gate I would peer from the corner of my eyes to see if she had alighted too. Sometimes I would be rewarded. I would see her jabbering away with friends, her thick ponytail falling over the bulky schoolbag on her back. Her face would be flushed red, her hair pulled back over a broad forehead, her eyes large and bright and a shimmer of sweat glistening along the hairline. She had a throaty laugh that did things to me every time I heard it wafting across the station platform.

Lorna knew I was besotted. If she saw me in the bus queue she would be more vivacious, more flushed, more frisky with friends, more bindaas. And through all this she wouldn't even look at me.

We would both get off at the same bus stop, but she would alight first, walk ahead of me till she reached the gate of her bungalow. Then she would open the gate and skip up the little path to the verandah. And I would be trying hard to appear not to be looking but of course everything would be registering in great detail in a kind of slow motion recording.

If I walked painfully slow, I would sometimes be lucky to see her reappear in the verandah with a glass of orange squash. Still in her school uniform, she would slide up on to the verandah wall and sit with her smooth legs stretched out straight before her, taking stylish sips from her glass as she slyly eyed me pass by on the road.

I would reach home, dump my school bag, wash up, pick up something to eat and head straight for the balcony. There I would settle down with a book (just in case mom wondered what I was doing there), eyes and ears furiously tuned to what-is-she-doing-now.

After a while, as it got darker, and as the mosquitoes from her little lawn started wanting a piece of her too, Lorna would slide off the wall, collect her glass and with a sideways glance towards my balcony, vanish through the billowing curtain into the living room. I would sigh and reluctantly retreat into my room to attack my homework.

So you want to know what happened between us? Nothing. Lorna started growing up and filling up. She sprouted fair-sized breasts. Her hips became larger. Her eyes betrayed carnal knowledge, her look became openly teasing. She was not particularly intelligent but she was street smart. She was a body person, she was physical and she oozed sensuality.

And as Lorna started blossoming, the bees began buzzing around her in a frenzy. The behaviour of even her brothers' friends would change in her presence. They would woo her without appearing to. They would crack sexual jokes, rib her, give her fawning attention.

At Christmas, I would watch her family troop to church, all dressed up in fine clothes. And later I would watch the Christmas party happening on the terrace of her bungalow. Everybody wanted to dance with Lorna who suddenly looked so grown up in that sexy white dress. Even I had eyes only for Lorna. She seemed to be dancing wildly, laughing loudly, mingling a bit too much. I became a sigh specialist.

Then one day I heard Lorna had flunked her school-leaving exams. And then yet again. I had moved on to college and she was still to reappear in the board exams. Somewhere in my mind, it seemed almost as if she had stayed back in school while I had outgrown her. Our timings didn't match anymore and she would rarely be seen in the verandah.

By and by, we, who had never been close, simply drifted away.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Audience Friendly Song

It was D-day and I was jumpy. I had decided to take part in the singing competition at school and today were the finals.

I peeped out of the wings and saw rows and rows of unruly boys in the school auditorium whose rowdy buzz would have shamed the bees. These kind of competitions, I knew, tend to draw out the boos and the fangs of schoolboys in a school auditorium like nothing else. Ask me...I had been in the audience on other occasions.

One look at the gleeful, anticipating faces and I broke out in sweat. The chatter of a few hundred kids rose to an excited crescendo till the principal signalled Miss Rosemary to launch the proceedings. One withering look from the veteran and everybody hastily lowered their volumes to mute.

As Miss Rosemary got set to introduce the first singer, I sighed deeply. There was no going back now. Any retreat would mean loss of face in the classroom. In fact, it would be akin to social suicide: the blackguards in the class would be ragging and sneering for months to come.

The first contestant got on stage. He stood bewildered in front of the mike, paralysed for a few moments, like a deer who has just turned the corner to find himself staring at a smirking tiger. Then, gathering courage, he began.

The song he had chosen was from the Rajesh Khanna blockbuster Aradhana.

Poor guy, he really put his heart into the song. "Kora kagaz tha yeh man mera", he sang soulfully, "likh liya naam usme tera..." And before he could blink, the ruthless audience had promptly picked up the refrain... "...tera, chouda, pandarah," they chorused.

It was slaughter. The aspiring Kishore Kumar was reduced to tears.

And I can't tell you what the episode did to me. I was scheduled to go on next and guess which unfortunate song I had chosen? OOOh Khilona jaan kar humko.... C-a-n y-o-u b-e-l-i-e-v-e i-t?!!

You see, this touching song from Khilona began with a plaintive 'OOh' which tremulously hung in the air for nearly two seconds.

I had a sinking feeling about my fate but shuffled onto the stage regardless. Standing before the microphone, I looked around at random faces in the audience, willing them not to do what I knew they inevitably would.

Then, taking a really deep breath, I began, "OOOh...". And sure enough the cooperative audience immediately picked up the plaintive cue and chorused a full two-minute "OOOOOOOh" before I could even move to "Khilona..."

Imagine. You are a eleven year old kid, alone on stage, with wobbly knees and a cold steel microphone glaring at you...and the audience gleefully and viciously steers your song away from you.

Disaster. Sheer, unadulterated disaster.

I never took part in a singing competition ever again.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Blue Hawaii Slippers

Soon after our school final exams in May, my mother would set off with my two brothers and me to spend the one-month summer holidays in Delhi with my nana, my maternal grandfather. I hated Delhi summers (still do) because I found the dry heat unbearable but the trip was an unavoidable ritual: that was the only time my grandparents got to spend with us kids.

The preparation for the train journey included a heavy wicker basket with the food (puris, two varieties of dry subzi, mango chutney, pickles and fruit), napkins, disposable leaf-plates and stainless steel glasses and spoons. Then there were two hold-alls with the beddings and towels (and later my novels), and a small, almost inconspicuous, rectangular wicker basket wrapped in a silk cloth carrying the family gods. My mother couldn't leave her pooja (altar deities) behind while she travelled...after all, the gods needed caring too. The silk cloth was to insulate the holy basket from "unclean" influences during the journey.

During the journey from Bombay to Delhi, my mother's rules for us boys were strict: don't eat anything from strangers (decline politely), don't reveal personal details to co-passengers (where you lived, what your dad did), don't litter (only gawars, the illiterate louts, did that), don't get down at stations (unless you want to get left behind on some forsaken station) and wear slippers the minute you step down from your berth.

There was yet another rule which was selectively bent by her consent: don't eat cooked food from the railway platform vendors. But, as I told you, this rule was a trifle elastic. We kids, and my mom too, loved the chivda at Baroda, the spicy sev at Ratlam, the tea in kullads at Biyana, and the pedas at Mathura station. Since I was the youngest, I had to stay back with mom, while my older brothers were dispatched to get the pardoned foodstuff from the platforms of the respective stations. And till they returned, my mother would be peering from between the window bars to keep an eye on them and to admonish them if they strayed too far from the bogie.

Once, I made a huge fuss and got off at Biyana station with my brothers to fetch the trademark tea in earthernware mugs. I remember it was early morning when the train steamed into the station and I was wearing green shorts and blue 'Bata' slippers. My mother was anxious that the train would start any minute and was calling out to us to forget the tea and climb aboard. And we overconfident boys kept calling back, "Just a minute more, bhabhi!" (As I told you elsewhere earlier, that's what we kids called our mother).

Then the train let out a long whistle and there was minor panic. Gathering the tea kullads and thrusting money into the vendor's hands we rushed back towards the train. My anxious mother was now at the door, peering onto the platform. I can still conjure her leaning out of the bogie door, in her black georgette sari with cheerful large paisley prints.

My brothers were faster and made it to the train first, and with a smart swing were on the footboard and then up into the bogie. I was a wee bit slower and though I managed to climb aboard even as the train was just beginning to gather speed, I felt the slipper slip off from my left foot and fall between the train and the platform. I was dismayed. I had just bought the pair the day before. There was absolutely no way to retrieve the slipper and the train was now impatiently hastening out of the platform.

My mother saw the slipper fall, heard the train rattle faster and she took a lightening fast decision. "Quick, fling out the other slipper too!" she called out to me over the growing racket of the train. After the briefest twinge of reluctance, I hastily took off the other slipper and dropped it on the last lap of the receding platform.

My mother must have felt as sad as I did at losing a new pair of slippers but she didn't glare at me or scold me. She just gently patted my head and said, "At least whoever finds the slippers will be able to wear them. You couldn't have worn a single slipper, could you?"

Friday, May 11, 2007

Waiting for Father

Can a 'family film' traumatize a child? Well, this one did. I had tagged along with my mother to see an Ashok Kumar film. I don't remember what the film was called and I don't remember the storyline. I just remember that it was a family drama in black-and-white, typical of the family dramas produced by Gemini Studios. And I remember too well the single sequence that absolutely traumatized me.

It is late night and the hero (played by Ashok Kumar) has not returned from work and his wife and child are waiting anxiously at home for him. The child catches the mother's anxiety, without actually knowing why her mother is anxious. The mother's face is taut and she rises hopefully every time she hears a sound in the street. Now she paces, now she tries to console the child by holding it close, now she dozes off to wake up with a start. The entire restless night passes away and the father doesn't return. The next day they learn he has died in an accident.

May be it was because I was about the same age as the child in the film, may be because I knew my father ran a factory with large machines or may be it was the fact that my father often came home late at night...that scene from the film seared my consciousness. Every time my father was late I was convinced he wouldn't come at all. I was convinced he had been run over by a cab while crossing the road or been injured by the monstrous machines in his factory.

That is when I took to waiting in the balcony for his return. As the evening dissolved to night I would stoically take position by the balcony rails, my lips tasting the painted wood and my teeth gnawing reassuringly into the railing. I would stare blankly at all the passerbys right from one end of the lane to another, looking for the familiar figure in white gabardine trousers and sandals. And as the night grew, so would my anxiety. This will be the night when it finally happens, my heart would dread.

I had once heard an aunt say that when someone hasn't come home, you should place an empty tumbler upside down. "It always it and you'll see the person walk in through the door in no time," she had said snapping her fingers. So I mentally created a deadline. If my father wasn't home by then I would furtively go to the kitchen and turn a tumbler upside down. As back up, I would fervently begin mumbling a prayer my mom had taught me: shri krishna sharanam mamah, shrikrishna sharanammamah, shrikrishnasharanammamah, shrikrishnasharanammamah, shrikrishnasharanammamah...

And then, when my mind was reconstructing scenes of mourning I had seen in the film, I would get a glimpse of him enter the lane. I wouldn't say a word to anybody, just dash wildly down the two storeys of the wooden staircase, out into the gas-lit street, straight into his arms. Before he could recover from his pleased (and later, anticipated) surprise, I would have grabbed his brown leather office bag and dashed back up home, beaming from ear to ear. This amused everybody at home. Often they would learn of my father's arrival from my desperate dash.

Of course, they all saw it as a touching demonstration of my love for my father.

Nobody knew that it was more than love. It was sheer relief. The anxious kid's prayers had been answered. His father was back home, for now.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Suicide In The Neighbourhood

It was late afternoon, probably around 4 pm, on Ram Navami day. I was lazing around at home, doing the usual things that seven-year-old distracted boys do on lazy holiday afternoons. Suddenly I heard a huge commotion. I saw my mom and the other neighbours on our floor rush to Chetana's apartment. Chetana's mom, it turned out, had doused herself with kerosene and set herself afire after a particularly bitter scrap with Chetana's elder sister, Hansa.

The door to the apartment was clogged by anxious neighbours. Chetana must then have been 12 years old and her sister around 17. Though it was a bank holiday, her dad was at work. When Laxmiben had set herself afire, Hansa had panicked and poured buckets of water on her to douse the flames.

I tried squeezing in between the legs of the elders to get a dekko but was firmly prevented from doing so: the scene was truly horrendous, the lady was screaming, the neighbours were shouting contradictory instructions and Chetana was somewhere in the left corner of the room, wailing.

My tender heart was beating furiously and my mouth was dry. Leaving the commotion I turned back to my home, climbed up onto the bed and reached for the telephone. I dialled 101 calmly, told the Fire Brigade control room that a lady had set herself on fire, gave them the complete address and, when they asked for my name, I bravely gave them that too.

The fire engine was there in minutes and the firemen came pounding up the wooden staircase to the second floor where we lived. They wrapped Chetana's mother, by then silent, in a woollen blanket and took her off on a stretcher. Then they came asking for the guy who had called up. When they asked for me by name the neighbours were surprised.

"Why do you want him?" they asked curiously.

"Because he is the one who called us up," they said.

"He called you?!" they asked incredulously.

"Yes. Why, what's the matter?"

The neighbours pointed to me. The firemen looked at the two-foot-something boy that was me and shook their heads in disbelief.

Chetana's mom died late that evening and I remember my family was so terribly depressed no one felt like touching dinner.

We moved from that apartment building a few years later but I remember that the two sisters withdrew into a shell. They would keep to themselves and refuse to mingle with neighbours. And once we left King's Circle I met neither Chetana nor her sister ever again.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Romance Of The Gaslight

Around the time we children grew up in King's Circle in Mumbai all the lanes had gaslights. During monsoon I would stand in my balcony and watch the rain at twilight. I was a short five-year-old boy then and barely came up to the verandah railing so I would have to stand on my toes to watch the street. As the lane would get darker, the 'gaslight-man' would come cycling into the lane wearing a black Duckback raincoat with a large hood - somewhat like the murderer in I Know What You Did Last Summer.

At each streetlight the lightman would alight from his bicycle and then slosh through the rain with a tall bamboo pole in his hand. The pole had a metal hook at the top and once he reached below the lamp post, the lightman would peer through the rain at the gaslight and then pull a lever with the hook. The rain would be falling hard and the light would come on slowly, ever so slowly, becoming brighter till it became a blazing glow. But by that time the lightman would have already cycled to the next street light, the rain pelting mercilessly on his shiny wet black raincoat.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Lunch That Went Flying

I have always hated carrying lunch with me. More so in school. I simply hated being bogged down by the lunch box, especially the empty box after the lunch recess. My dear mom would wake up early to pack my round lunch box which would typically have a paratha (Indian bread) and some dry subzi (vegetable dish).

One day when I was in the second grade, in my first school, I went out to the school grounds to have my lunch with a friend of mine. I must have been about six then and I was a shy boy and did not like having lunch with the others. Besides, the boys tended to get rather boisterous during lunch and were prone to giving you portions of their lunch even as they whacked portions from yours. This horrified me since I was a vegetarian and most of the boys weren't.

My friend and I hunted out a shaded spot on the field and had just opened our lunch boxes when, swoosh, came the shadow of a large wing and the next minute my lunch was in the beak of large kite! Before I could recover, the kite was a already a speck in the sky. I was close to tears. Not only would I have to go hungry but also have to face my mom when I returned home.

But events turned out differently in the evening. When I told my mom what had happened, she first peered at me to figure out if I was fibbing and then...she burst out laughing! And immediately she felt so sad for her little son who had gone hungry that day at school. She hugged me tight and gave me some snacks and Bournvita. When my father came home from work, she narrated the Kite Who Got His Lunch Box story to him with a sweetly disguised smile.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Random Impact

After my running-away-from-school fiasco, my parents moved me to my brothers' school, in the hope that my two elder brothers would be able to keep an eye on me. I was in the fifth standard then and had been shaken very deeply by my ability to cook up a story. My mom told me glumly that at the rate I was going I would be in jail one day. In my little heart I knew this much: I didn't want to be a criminal. I didn't even know why I had lied about my "adventure". I was just an eight-year-old child then and I was as freaked out by what had happened as by my conservative family's reaction to my escapade.

That is how I decided I would be a "good" boy from then on. A decision that was to become a weighty albatross round my neck because I got into the habit of being good in order to be perceived as being good. It took me many years to see this and to finally become comfortable with who I was.

Meanwhile, an incident happened in my new school that was to influence the course of my life deeply. One afternoon my fifth standard class teacher was taking the Moral Science class. She was speaking to us about right and wrong. I remember distinctly I was sitting in the middle of the second row from the door, looking intently at the teacher with my chin cupped in my right palm. And suddenly she said something that impacted me deeply.

She said the only way to judge anything or anybody was by "stepping into the other person's shoes."

It was a simple enough remark and she didn't even lay any special emphasis on it. I am sure she would have been very surprised if told that it had touched a deep chord in the heart of the kid sitting somewhere in the middle of the class. But the fact is, it did. And this "stepping into the other person's shoes" became my most important yardstick as I grew up...and remains so to this day. That simple remark, I like to believe, gave scope for patience and compassion to bloom; and it helped make me somewhat less judgmental of other people's traits and angularities than I would otherwise have been.

Though I can picture her vividly to this day - this young "Catholic" teacher standing on the class "platform" wearing a long dress with a small floral print and sporting a plain-looking "bob-cut" hairdo - I just cannot for the life of me remember her name.

And I have no way to thank her.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Runaway Son

I was always threatening to run away from home, even when I was five or six years old. Till it got to be a family joke. Some kids sulk when they are unhappy. I would say to my brothers, I am leaving home. And I was all prepared for this. I had a golden-yellow rectangular tin toffee box from Ravalgaon sweets which was about three inches deep. In it I had placed an array of personal effects: there was a neatly folded old handkerchief, a comb, some paper, a ballpoint pen and a tiny bottle of scented hair oil. There were some loose coins but absolutely no foodstuff. Interestingly, the cover of the toffee box displayed a splendid, peaceful Buddha. It was as if he was inspiring the sentimental child to take sannyas.

Each time I threatened to leave, the entire family would conspire to mock cajole me into not going, probably suppressing the urge to burst out laughing. My eldest brother would say, "Look, why don't you leave tomorrow? Bhabhi's (that's what we called our mom) made some nice dhokla today?' At other times, my other brother would call out to my mom, "See, what he is taking with him!" and grabbing my sannyas tin box from my clutches he would dash off to show off its amusing contents to my mom...and they would both burst out laughing. And I would fume, determined to show them. Oh, how they would miss me when I was gone! They wouldn't be laughing then, would they?!

I never did run away from home. But I did run away from school one day and that created such a furore because I conned not only my worried-sick parents but even a senior police inspector. But I will tell you that story another day.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Hundred Mosaics Make A Mural

Looking back, it is clear that what I consider my life is just a stringing together of incidents and memories.

As I look back, snippets of frozen time become fluid only when there is a 'me' to correlate to it. The whir of the seven colours makes white, the restless lines of the TV create the illusion of a steady image, the crawling minute hand creates an hour where there was only a moment and then another and then...

Memory plays tricks too. The favourite memories are endowed a rosy tinge, the nasty ones are abbreviated till they become insignificant. Some thrilling memories have become brassy by exaggeration and over-narration and other feel-good ones drip mushy syrup. But everything is sepia.

Well then, here are my sepia tales...chronicles of a life untold.