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 works...do 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.