Sunday, February 28, 2010

Aunt Leena's Story

Leena shuffled out on to the porch in her oversized slippers, her gnarled, knobbly hands tightly clutching a china cup, the last of her few heirlooms. It was a clear morning, and the snow-capped peak shone proud and pristine in the distance, looking on at the play of Nature as the clouds did a deferential dance around their mighty master.

Settling her creaking bones into a sagging armchair, Leena gazed at her unkempt garden. The house on one corner of the square patch of land had once looked like an unsightly wart on a smooth young face; but it had gradually become part of the landscape, been accepted as if it had grown out of the earth during one of Creation's more eccentric moments. Forty-five years earlier, if anyone had predicted that she'd grow into an old maid and live in solitude with two cats for company in a Himalayan nook, she would have laughed at the prophet for his foolishness, or slapped him for his audacity. Leena had once been the prettiest, most vivacious and sought-after young woman in the vicinity. Suitors came and went like the seasons, and because Leena was born to be a buttefly, she never realised what happened until it was too late and she was past her prime. The girlish dreams of snowy veils and bouquets of red roses were discarded into a heap of unfulfilled dreams, to be cobwebbed and desecrated as time pleased.

"Firenze! Sasha! Oh, these pesky cats." Leena set down two bowls of milk for her pets and watched the cats clean themselves in the mellow sunshine.

Steady thumps and thwacks came floating up from the road outside the gate. "The sun has hardly risen, and the boys are at it again. Cricket, indeed!" She shut her eyes and felt the warmth of the sunshine on her face. Wisps of grey hair fell unheeded on her wrinkled forehead as she slipped into a half-doze, dreaming of her days of glory.

A tinkle of glass shattered Leena's reverie. She turned, saw the chipped windowpane and sighed.

"If only I'd known. What a typical spinster's life I live! Mismatched clothes, large slippers, tinned food, two cats and unruly neighbourhood boys. I really should have accepted Sancho Panza when he asked me. But how could I have lived with a man who was supposed to have ridden a donkey? What ridiculous names some people have!"

"Aunty, ball!"

"Come and get it," replied Leena in a weary voice. This was an everyday scene, in books, on television and in her 'typical spinster's life', and she had resigned herself to playing the patient, kind old woman who didn't bite or bark at the boys who came trampling on her plants. Not that there was much to trample upon, really. She had never bothered to talk to these boys, and they never said a word either, as they tore across her garden, heads bowed.

"What a dull, depressing, wasted life mine is!"

A crisp wind blew through the valley. The trees stirred briefly to life and their leaves rustled to one another. A laugh sounded down the road. A young woman was running down the street, full of life and energy, pursued by her paramour on a bicycle- their healthy voices ringing with the carefree, undefined happiness of youth. They could well have been ghosts from the past- and Leena was young once again, running down the forested slopes of the hills, picnicking with friends and singing with the larks, sunbeams catching her shiny curls and the wind flirting with them.

"And what makes you think you don't have friends any longer?" said a voice, deep inside her bosom.

A tall, scrawny boy came scrambling up the porch steps, picked up the ball, and started to run down.

"A minute, young man," called Leena, in her best imitation of a headmistress's voice.

The boy turned hesitantly, eager to join his friends, his fingers impatiently toying with the ball.

"Who do you think will replace that broken pane?"


"Do you read?"

"A little."

"Well, if you read enough, you'd perhaps know that good boys always pool their money together to replace the broken window-panes of lonely old ladies," she said firmly.


"So what are you going to do now? And no use telling me you're not a good boy, because I can see that you are one."

A pause. The boy chewed on this thumbnail with concentration, and seemed to make up his mind about something. He looked at her.

"Aunty, I've also read that lonely old ladies bake the best chocolate cakes," said the boy softly, his large brown eyes taking in the kindly lines of her seemingly stern face. Kindred spirits know one another when they first meet- and the humorous twinkle in Leena's eyes showed itself despite her best efforts to conceal it. They smiled as their eyes met, and soon, Leena was laughing so hard her sides were almost bursting.

"You are a clever young man, aren't you? Yes, I do bake chocolate cakes, and biscuits as well. Care for tea sometime?"

The boy grinned and ran to tell his friends his piece of good news. New friendships laid their foundations. Leena, to the end of her days, had a house brimming with flowers, love and young hopes. The old pain throbbed deep down on some dark days, but was always smoothened over with warmth and chocolate cake.

"What a charming, fulfilling, happy life yours is, Aunt Leena!" called the girls, as they bicycled by. And the ghosts of the past were set to rest.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Festival Night

The streets are decked up this Sunday night, psychedelic lights lining the archways erected down the streets of Little India in Singapore, the pavements overflowing with people who spill onto the roads for lack of space. Tourists from abroad watch bemused, curious and attracted by the bustle that refused to cease even at midnight. Juxtaposed against the cut-outs of lamps and Hindu symbols for Diwali are green banners that read 'Selamat Hari Raya' (Hari Raya is how Eid-ul-Fitr is referred to in Malay.)

Around midnight, a group of tired girls waits on the busy streets, trying to find a cab home. The seemingly ubiquitous yellow and blue cars almost disappear in the throngs; the ones that appear are already occupied or booked.

A cab finally draws up in front of us, and we immediately pile into it, immensely relieved. We're pleasantly surprised to find a lady at the wheel- she wears a scarf and the radio plays Islamic music for the festival. She welcomes us with a warm smile and says, "You're not Muslim, are you?" For a moment, it seems strange and an awkward silence reigns. We reply in the negative, and she promptly says she'll change the radio station to something we'll enjoy. We decline politely and tell her we don't mind, but she switches to an English music channel.

She is one of the few female cab drivers we have encountered, and only too happy to ferry us girls home late at night, no judgemental questions asked. She asks us if we're from India, and if we're Hindu. She points to the coloured lights and wants to know about Diwali. She asks us about our jobs and is surprised we don't have a holiday for the festivals, at which we try to explain the nuances of working in support. She converses pleasantly; there are a number of questions I want to ask as well, but I stop short, not knowing how they will be interpreted, and if they will take on unintentional religious overtones.

We're almost at our destination; I ask her when Hari Raya is, and she says, "Tomorrow- actually, today"- because it is now past midnight. We wish her, and she is delighted. She wishes us for Diwali, drops us off and drives away. I tumble into bed, gratified by yet another warm encounter- beautiful people turn up out of the blue; for that matter, everyone is beautiful, if you get to notice it- some people let the beauty lie dormant in a prolonged fit of perversity, and you have to break the facade down to see what lies beneath.

If only love and happiness were always easy to spread.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cruelty is finding an invitation to jump the queue with a special discount on the Singapore GP tickets for 2010. They value my patronage. And I'm such a traitor.

When I'm still reeling from the Singapore hangover, it doesn't help to receive mails from the Esplanade for their best concerts and tantalising offers for F1 races. Oh, the heartburn of it all!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Of Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is a work of sheer beauty.

Tracing the life of the Morels, a family in the mining village of Bestwood, Derbyshire. They lead a meagre existence and are a perfect portrait of a typical mining family. The children, of course, have ambitions, and the mother helps them along as they try to achieve them. Tragedy strikes the family as they try to make sense of the eldest son's dreams and aspirations, and over the course of years, the burden of Mrs. Morel's expectations comes to rest on Paul, the second son.

Mrs. Morel takes over her son's life entirely and influences his decisions to such an extent that he loses all capacity to know what he really wants and allows his dilemmas to steal the very sap out of life. Paul's indecision concerning the two women he loves- or thinks he loves- is very real and piteous. His courtship with Miriam, the simple, religious girl whose ideals are more platonic than worldly, is extremely touching. They hesitate to consummate their romance, they are reluctant to own up to the fact that their need for physical intimacy and marriage is not an abasement of a love they view as purely spiritual and high. They are disturbed and blame each other for their mental state; Mrs. Morel despises Miriam for taking her son away from her entirely. The arrival of Mrs. Dawes heightens the tension between Paul and Miriam, as he finds new avenues for his needs.

The subjects of love and filial attachment are keenly explored; you particularly feel for Miriam as she tries to make sense of her needs and carve a path ahead through a society that didn't really sympathise with her wants. Mrs. Morel's overpowering sense of possessiveness might be to blame for her last son, Arthur's shenanigans; Annie remains steady and sober, a sensible woman who cares for her mother during her illness.

Paul and Annie's conspiracy came as a surprise to me- perhaps, however, it was their pain at their mother's suffering that led them to such an act.

DH Lawrence's novel finds a place among the best classics, but didn't meet widespread approval at its publication. It is complex, and perhaps open to a number of interpretations. But Lawrence breathes life into his characters- they enter you and make you live out their lives in the sooty little towns, identify with their joys, pretences and sorrows. It is one of the most memorable reads I have come across in a while.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Isn't it ridiculous that I should be feeling seventeen again?

I haven't been reading Little Women or the Katy or Anne books, or any sort of chick-lit. I haven't gone frolicking with cousins. I haven't taken a vacation. There hasn't even been a decent spell of rain.

It just seems to be the gentle afternoon breeze, an aberration on this hot, sunny afternoon. Winter is nudging me, reminding me that it is saying goodbye, that one season of nostalgia is soon to be replaced by another. February is the month of hard studying and preparation for entrance exams, anticipation of World Cup matches, farewell parties at school, pre-finals, snatches of reading amidst all the bustle- do I really want it all again? Or would I rather have the summer vacations and the endless days of indolence that they bring along?


I am out on my own now, living with people I don't know, but I'm not regretting it. Because there does come a time when you have to move on and actually do all that you've been dreaming of. If, as a sixteen-year-old, I dreamt of Scottish Highlands, now is the time to go see them. Call it a bucket-list if you will, but some time, you do have to start ticking off all the things you wanted to do and populate your 'Done' list.

I might be horribly wrong and this just might be one of the usual bouts of meaningless dissipation. But I feel adventure in my bones, a lot of girlish vigour, and a curiosity that promises to carry me through whatever lies ahead. Amen to that.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We're only building grandiose places to live in, not the manners to go with the lofty ambitions we have.

I was at the head of the queue at the clubhouse this evening, waiting to place my order. Along came this lady who'd been selecting ice cream for a long while at the refrigerator nearby. She shoved me aside and pushed ahead to make her payment- why, indeed, the hurry, especially because there was some more dilly-dallying before she finally made her purchase? It is not the first time this has happened- I have seen people cluster around the counter, insolently regardless of the few people who do bother to queue up.

Superficiality abounds at the township I live in. The disparity between the rich and the poor comes to the fore- not that people are to blame for living comfortably (defined in relative terms), they deserve what they get if they have worked for it. If only people could also realise that everyone should be treated with civility, and that purchasing power isn't a determinant of how much respect one deserves. Faux accents, branded bags and designer clothes do not conceal their lack of civic sense; this township is an extremely good place for case studies. The amount of time the well-dressed ladies here invest in looking other women up and down and making loud judgements could be better spent introspecting and working towards more reasonable causes.

I have always lived among people who have believed in simplicity and frugality; a year in Singapore with its high-end malls every few streets didn't make me feel like I lived among people who wore Armani nightdresses. This is my first real look at 'high living', but let me make it clear that I have nothing against the prodigal children whose pockets overflow with more than they can spend. (I am so reminded of Ka-Ching here.) There is a point, though, beyond which a good lifestyle dissolves into self-centred ostentation. Hopefully, the specimens of 'sophistication' I've seen aren't all as callous as they look and know that there is something we have to give back- because if appearances are to be gone by, we don't have a very healthy future in certain aspects.

PS: On a tangent, I saw a heavily made-up girl (who must have been twelve or thirteen) last evening, and she was reading as she waited for her order. Excited, as usual, to find another reader, I tried to get a peek at the name of the book. What I did manage to make out from the bright pink cover was the name of the author- Meg Cabot. I just hope the girl reads other writers as well to neutralise the effects of heavy-duty chick-lit.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Eyes to the Sky

Sing to me tonight.

Bring me the songs you stole from the sea; ask the wind to carry you hither. Give me the solace I seek from your music, fill the air with your wondrous voice, let no one question the futility of your arrival.

Don't, in a fit of misplaced perversity, wander away to those fertile coasts where no one cares for you. It is this starved desert that needs you and pines for you. There are no sentinels you need to hide from- come in majestically, full of pride and noble intentions. Let the earth open her arms to your gift and touch all creation with her fragrance. Wash away those layers of filth and black dust. Allow the flowers and the birds to drink in your mirth. Make everything clean and pure once again.

I see the silver lining, and I know you're here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The best way to top off a day that I thought couldn't get any better- beautiful rain, spattering against the window-panes, the spray in my face, the wind in my clothes and my hair. Relentless, reassuring.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Come out and see the rose-tinted clouds.

If you're dejected, they'll give you a reason to live.

If you're at peace with yourself and the world, they'll encourage you to give thanks.

Monday, February 08, 2010

To the man who stopped his car when the traffic signal turned red and all the other motorists were still passing by, flouting the rules blatantly- thank you. You set an example for the people following you, and hopefully will continue to do so.

To people who insist on driving/riding on when the light turns red, preventing pedestrians from crossing the road- I'll start walking the moment the light turns red. You will be forced to stop. You don't own the roads. There are sensible people like the aforementioned gentleman who will embarrass you and teach you a lesson, if you aren't too thick-skinned to learn.

A Prosaic Ode to Summers of Old

Soap suds, runaways, chillingly lukewarm water from the tank in the tree-shaded courtyard, the raucous harmony of crows blending with the plaintive calls of the koel.

Summer is here, and so are childhood (mis)adventures.

If you delve into ancient history, you will find that summer wasn't an unending series of summer camps and coaching classes, a race- even as school let out to allow some breathing space- to keep ahead of your mother's neighbour's son- that is how you view these impersonal, perfect, robotic beings, who can dance and swim with clockwork-like precision and always score more marks than you do in every examination.

Close your eyes. Summer is back. These faux winter mornings blaze white with the sun inching up the sky more rapidly than it did a few weeks ago; come afternoon, the sun burns on your neck and reminds you of the buds on the mango trees, ready to come to fruition and titillate you with their ripe golden prize. Your grandmother lies in the cool, dark hall, curtains drawn, and you lie beside her, feeling the comfort of her cotton saree against your skin, the freshness of her delicately-scented talcum powder on her wrinkled neck. The curtains are drawn close to keep the searing heat of the sun out; not a breath of wind stirs outside, and the leaves droop on the branches, lifeless and dry. Mothers and sons are embroiled in their tussle as old as time itself- stay home, says the woman, while her child plays truant and seeks entertainment in the dry drains and withered sticks by the roadside. You will have a sunstroke, she calls out- the boy, heedless, watches in fascination a dead bird being picked apart by a cat. What does he know about a sunstroke, and why would he care?

The potato chips and the appalams have been laid out on the terrace on large swathes of cotton cloth. The middle-aged and the elderly are all gathered around for a gossip, and when the power goes off, they will sit in the moonlight and talk of distant cousins, the dead and the absent. They lean over gates and praise their grandchildren to the skies- there is no baby prettier and smarter than that child of the son in the States. Filter coffee flows in rivers in the kitchen as the men make themselves comfortable on the floor, to talk business, politics and the state of affairs. Oil sizzles in pans and snacks are made aplenty. The grandchildren are coming over tomorrow, you see, calls out a grey-haired matron to her neighbour across the fence.

Outings, movies, visits galore. The daily supply of orange and white flowers twined together with green leaves, bought after endless bargaining with the vendor who cycles up promptly at five in the evening. The tinkle of bells in the pooja room, the special treat of bricks of ice cream after dinner. Hide-and-seek in the rambling old house, drives in the evening with all the cousins squeezed anyhow into one small car or a jeep. The youngest cousin of whom you are jealous because he receives special attention. The cousin who tries to run away because he thinks people don't care enough. The anguish of being the 'middle child', belonging with neither the grown-up cousins nor the babies. Precious innocence and the total abandonment of academic worries.

You must be deluded if you think summers are still the same.

Friday, February 05, 2010

I never knew watering plants would bring me such peace.

It was a sort of visit to the past, to those distant years of single-digit-aged childhood when I'd joyfully grip the faded yellow hose-pipe with both my hands and watch the water spout out of the aperture; cover half of it with a thumb and marvel at the many streams of water that flowed out, dripping, gushing in song onto the sun-baked mud. It was a hot area- marked by dust storms, the loos of the north- the water must have felt like ambrosia to the parched plants.

All this ignorant mind knew then, though, was the delight of white foam on brown soil, bubbling and gurgling in small swirls and puddles that seemed to stand still, but were in fact slowly being sucked thirstily in. I'd watch till the pool disappeared and the soil turned refreshingly moist, the fragrance wafting up to my eager nostrils. Nothing gratifies unaccustomed senses like nature.

What 'watering plants' first meant to me was dousing the drooping plants in water, letting it rain over the leaves and stems and watching the drops left behind in fascination. A little enlightenment led to the realisation that it was the roots, in fact, through which nourishment reached all parts of the plant, and not the ritual bath that I persisted in giving them.

I gave the plants names and spoke to them long before I heard of the theory of conversations with plants promoting their growth. I don't know if it really helped.

And today, watering an absent roommate's plants after repeatedly forgetting to do so, I had to say good night to the forlorn orange rose, relegated to a dark corner of the balcony. I had an exaggerated, misplaced sense of doing good- but how fulfilling it was! Is this what it means to find happiness in the little surprises life brings you?
They live in small shacks and tents with little furniture or possessions of any sort. Temporary houses that strong gusts of wind or a heavy downpour could bring to total ruin. They build a small fire outside their huts with the narrow doors and sit around it, clapping and singing. The radio plays alongside. Does it help them forget the chill in the air? A young woman in a bright yellow saree skips rapidly, perhaps keeping count in her head, her little children looking on. A herd of pigs runs around nearby. The tents are pitched not too far from the graveyard, where simple platforms topped by plain crosses rise over the dead. How eerie do they look in the moonlight? A family or two stands in mourning, a priest in attendance. In the morning, ashes smoulder at the cremation ground right next to the cemetery, and a man keeps watch. A soul has just been freed of its earthly prison.

And of the people who live in extreme poverty not half a kilometre away? They're at play as usual; laughing, clapping and chattering at the tops of their voices. The scenes of death tell no exotic tale. Clear, high laughter rings down the road, untroubled by ambition or jealousy- all they have to worry about is their next meal.

Monday, February 01, 2010

To motorists-

A red light means you need to stop, and not honk indignantly at people who are crossing the road- they aren't blocking your way, you just aren't following the rules. You cannot keep going at 60 km an hour and mow down people mindlessly. You don't live in a lawless country.

And please, please don't drive when you're drunk. The publicity you get out of it isn't pleasant.