Friday, November 25, 2005

Back home

A long 20 days in Pune. I've gone back as a stranger for so many years, resigned to the changes, assuming the Pune I loved no longer existed. We have moved house, most of my friends have gone abroad, my other friends have also moved. The city has grown, the traffic is horrendous. Blah, blah, blah.

But shooting a film there, was the loveliest way to reclaim the city as my own. Living in the old, rambling YMCA, in the middle of Quartergate, eating everyday at the places where we had eaten during family outings, for more than 25 years, and finding the people very, very Puneri inspite of the malls, the traffic, the flyovers. Afternoon siestas prevail, 2 km distances are the other end of the world, and one can still whiz around the city three times in a day.

Shooting at Forest Castle, Silver Woods, and Satellite Towers was another experience altogether. Mundhawa is far by any Puneri standard, but the buildings are beautiful, with a Japanese austerity. They look fantastic on screen.

The children performed very well, except one of the kids, who being supremely talented, is also a bit of a monster, and definitely under-performed. We who knew her so well during rehearsals, were disappointed, imagining what she could have done with a little more concentration.

Otherwise, the usual goof-ups that happen on low-budget shoots. After watching the telecine rushes yesterday, relieved that we haven't messed up, a little ashamed at the spots where one lost control, and which immediately shows on celluloid, and wishing for the luxury of re-shooting bits that need it.

Anyway, still recovering. And getting used to Mumbai all over again. The worst was coming from the Pune winter to the Mumbai sultry heat. Back again.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Actors and rehearsals

Rehearsals with actors, have been working with them individually, some times in pairs. Most of the time it's been heartening. Occasionally, a little dejected. Have I made the right choices. I've cast everyone in the film, without a single audition. Should I trust my intuition, or should I consider myself a fool? Well, so far, nothing has led me to despair. Just a little more hard work needed. Lots of hard work needed.

The trained actors are all right. The amateurs are OK too. It's the ones who've done a little bit that are the worst to handle, because they are set into patterns that are false, and they lack the experience to go beyond them.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm running on auto, there's no time even to be exhausted. Besides, after cribbing for years about being without work, I cannot even open my mouth a micro-centimeter to complain.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

music and lyrics

The last two days have suddenly been turning points. Three days ago, Teja gave me a long lecture on music and lyrics, and how I needed to put in more work. As usual, I defended myself by saying that my work process was internal, and that, one day I would be ready. He knows that, but does get exasperated by how vague I can be at times, and thus perhaps give the wrong impression to people who don't know me.

Perhaps it was the effect of his scolding, but I woke up in the morning, with part of the lyrics for the letter-writing song, written in my sleep. And once you have a springboard, it does not take long to launch off into space. We drove off to Revdanda beach for a recce, looking for a lighthouse. We found it a few kilometers ahead of Revdanda at Korle village. 


It is spectacular, an old fort, the sea, hills, a old world fishing village. At the base of the fort, while I waited for Teja to finish taking his stills, I wrote the beach song, as well. I could not believe I had done it, as for a year, I had been proclaiming that I would need a professional lyrics writer, and I could not do it myself.

That's made me believe how powerful the mind is. Once I had done that, I could talk to my music director too very clearly about what I wanted, and what I hated. Now I feel sure that I'll get what I want, and not just accept what he thinks will be nice.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Frantic location hunting

25 Sep 05

Still struggling to find a location. When I wrote the script, I thought I was being smart, fitting my story into an apartment complex where I lived. I knew CFSI budgets were miniscule, and I wanted to make a film, which could be well-executed within the budget.

But the film took more than a year to happen, the apartment politics changed, and I am stranded without a location. And what was to be the easiest part of the shoot, right now seems to be the most difficult.

All my decisions, including secondary actors' casting, props, assistant directors, apart from the more mundane issues of hotels, food and transport are swinging around because of this uncertainty.

When I had my baby 12 years ago, what went forever was the arrogance of my youth. I learnt that one could not be anti-social if one wanted the best for one's baby. I learnt to be patient with all kinds of people, nurture relationships, selfishly for my kid. And it's the same with making a film. Once again, it's all about finding different languages to deal with different people.

Friday, September 23, 2005

meetings begin

22 Sep 05

Today we had a first meeting between two lead actors, Nazneen and Suresh who are playing the roles of Bela and Tutu; Manik, Vivek's camera assistant, Manoj, my associate scriptwriter and assistant director, Vivek and myself. I read the script, and we had an initial discussion. Now that we are closing in on dates, there seems to be a huge amount of work, and little time and resources. We need a lot of action props that were going to be easy to manage if we were shooting in Challenger, in our own flat. Now that we have shifted the location to Pune, a lot of small little details will have to be worked out completely. I'm hoping that by involving people like Gauri who are based in Pune, I'll be able to manage more than budget permits.

The important job of a director seems to be to make everyone excited in the project, and give it their best.
And the most exciting moment, to hand out scripts that one has laboured on, in solitary confinement, for more than a year, and see words taking physical shape through the interpretations of others'.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Work and more work

When an adult does not have meaningful work, a purpose, she slowly withers away. The work has to be meaningful not by any one else's definition, but satisfy her own soul. For years now, though I was busy, taking care of my home, my child, earning a living in the best way I could, I felt myself shrivelling day by day, wasted. Because I was not making a film, because I was not getting funds for my ideas. I did make a documentary on DV with my own hard-earned savings, but that did not feel quite right. It felt somehow, as if I had cheated, as if I had found a short-cut in the race.

Today, when I have been commissioned by the Children's Film Society to make a film on a miniscule budget, I find myself back in action. I feel as if I have a place in this world, as if I have a voice again.

Work does lend one an inner confidence, which even money cannot. Or love. Atleast for me, work has always been an important factor of my life. Though in the way of most foolish females, I have often let relationships surmount me.

Friday, August 19, 2005

On finally making a film

After a year of waiting and working, the CFSI film is finally happening. The budget is miniscule, and they want more than I set out to give them, but what the hell? It's 10 years since my Institute days, and this is going to be my first feature film. We are used to guerilla film-making, low or no-budgets and I've been clever enough to write a "do-able" script, and not my usual mad-cap over-ambitious ventures.

The trouble is I'm not feeling elated, or anything. So many years of waiting has dulled my nerves. And I've still to realize that yes, I am making the film.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Japan's hibakushas

I've been to Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, and have many friends in the UK and US. But one visit to Japan impressed me more than any of my other foreign jaunts. I admire their love of beauty, their civic sense, their extreme consideration for others (it has it's downside as my Japanese friend insists).

An article in the Asian Age on 8 Aug 05, about Japan's hibakushas (the nuclear bomb victims) epitomizes the culture of Japan. All over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the thick of the aftermath, the survivors wandered aimlessly, injured and grief-stricken. But as they encountered other survivors - those worse off than themselves - they asked for pardon, that the other had suffered more, and that they themselves less. They said for example, "Please forgive me, for my legs were spared and yours were not." And even, "I am sorry. I regret that I am alive, and your baby is not." Even today, these witnesses of the nuclear holocaust sit patiently in the peace museums and allow visitors to probe and question them about their suffering. They relive their experiences again and again in the hope of arousing interest the world over in nuclear warfare and its aftermath.

How different from the way we tend to react to a disaster - with rage, with helplessness, railing against Government, resigning ourselves to the will of God, demanding help, appropriating it greedily even when we don't need it, and always forgetting our own part in the havoc wrought, our own responsibility.

Forgive the generalizations!

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Ride back home

Imran said we could go to Tungareshwar. It was only around 40 kms away from Borivali. I looked at him skeptically. I had been living in Goregaon and then Kandivali for the last five years, and had never heard of the place. By then, I was taking everything Imran said with a lashing of salt. But I did not want to pass on my reservations to Grace, the British producer. Particularly, since my doubts were purely instinctive. Imran had given no real cause for complaint.

I had met him about a month ago, while researching for a program on bikers for BBC3. He had a small automobile garage in Byculla. But a big reputation in the bikers’ circle as a daring rider. As usual, I wangled a ride across town on a Sunday morning from my husband. He grumbled a little that I treated him more as a chauffeur than a spouse, but the promise of a noisy beer-soaked afternoon in Café Mondegar quelled his noises.

The first time I met him, Imran came across as a well-dressed, well-behaved hard-working Muslim young man. Likeable, but not exciting television material really. But he knew everyone in the bikers’ circle, from the Indian Iranian college drop-outs on Grant Road to the super-rich kids and their imported Japanese bikes on Carter Road, to the professional racers. And the aging ones, who still raced on mud-tracks for fun. He modestly counted himself amongst the aging ones, someone who had left his wild days behind him. I was willing to go along with that. He was more useful to me if he was responsible and not reckless. I made an arrangement to meet up with him the next day, when he would take me around town, introducing me to potential “stories”. He also chivalrously promised to come to Bandra, so that I had to travel only half the way from home.

The next day, as I hopped off the rickshaw near the petrol pump, I was a bit disappointed to see that he had come in a Maruti van. I had braced myself for a motorbike ride across the town, but then perhaps it was better this way. It would be easier to talk to Imran, and take down notes, I thought. But as it happened, there was no talk and no notes. It turns out that I had been a little hasty in judging Imran. He was not well-behaved at all behind the wheel, and he had not left his wild days behind him.

Soon, we were hurtling down Turner Road, and before I could even gasp with shock, we were turning into Carter Road, where Imran seemed to get possessed by the old devil he had been. The van screeched, screamed, skidded, leaped, jumped, and the short distance down the road, was to me, a burning moment in Hell. I wondered what I had done to deserve this.

When we stopped at his “aunty’s” place to meet up with a couple of his old friends, and patch together the Carter Road scene, I was not even listening to their biker gossip, or bothered about taking names and telephone numbers. My mind was fearfully on the next drive with Imran. I no longer wanted to do the town with him, and wished I had brought my own production car with my trusted driver, Shaikh. I had often reprimanded Shaikh for driving his Sumo as if he were driving an army tank, regardless of anything in his way. But now I thought of Shaikh with regard. I also made a quick call to his cell, hoping that he would be free and would come and rescue me. But unfortunately, he was in Igatpuri with a magician client of his, who went there regularly to meet his guru.

After our meeting with Aunty D’Souza and her two handsome boys, Karl and Vicky, who predictably wanted to be models, I stood outside the van, sternly telling Imran that I refused to go with him if he was going to drive so recklessly. He laughed and said, “Come on, trust me.” At that moment, I did not even care to be polite, nor for the fact that my rudeness may jeopardize my research. I said I did not trust him, and I did not want to risk my life, on some mad-hatter ride. He took the wheel, and sighed that girls usually loved riding with him. I raised my eyebrows at that, and became all cold hauteur. “Well, I don’t.” Perhaps my marital status, perhaps the fact that he too wanted to be a part of this program, forced him into good behavior.

But over the next few days, he took every chance to rib me, sometimes teasing me for the old-fashioned cell that I carried around, sometimes trying to see if he could get away with a friendly touch here and there. I took him like I did most flirtatious men, with a schoolteacher’s prim and proper attitude. Especially since I knew that he was not even attracted to me. Flirting to him, was just part of his own self-image of a hot-blooded male. He regularly got calls from some girl or the other while we were shooting, and would walk away to coo some meaningless nonsense for a while, and come back with a smug look on his face.

Today, he was telling Grace that his group of friends could go cross-country racing at Tungareshwar. I looked it up on the Internet later at night, and told Grace that it would work for the sequence she wanted outside Mumbai. We arranged to meet Imran and his friends at Kandivali, on the highway.

They were a motley bunch of people, mostly in their 30s, but also an older man pushing 55, Mr. Irani with his youngest son, Sohrab who was 12. Imran asked me if I would like to ride on his bike to Tungareshwar. I said “No, thank you” and stayed safely put in the production car.

On the highway, the bikers weaved in and out of the traffic. Imran was showing off, but so were the others. By then, we had filmed enough bikers to know that they all did that. They loved to speed, but they also liked someone watching. All of them had Enfields. Black, simple, powerful. They also had a Jeep following them laden with big vessels full of chicken biryani and tandoori chicken. Imran said there was no food available at Tungareshwar.

We stopped on the highway, just before turning on the road to Tungareshwar. All the bikers, and our drivers tucked into samosas, jalebis, and sugary tea. Grace and David, the cameraman busied themselves with taking shots. Imran too surprisingly stayed away from the snacks, and made a face when I decided to have some tea there. “It’s not too clean”, he said. I ignored him.

Then, began the unbelievable ride to Tungareshwar. Our first stop was the temple, where we left behind the jeep and the food. Imran also advised us to drop some of the luggage from our car if we possibly could. But David and Grace refused to forsake any of the shooting equipment from their car. The bikers began to whirr and whoom seriously, and in the tranquil quietness their noise was magnified a hundred fold.

The track from then on was “kaccha”. Just mud, and a lot of it flying as the bikers raced and turned and twisted. Grace and David got busy. There was only so little that I could do now to be useful. I had found David an assistant to carry his tripod, and fetch his batteries, etc, so there was nothing for me to do but hang around. I wandered off a little, astonished that so much beauty laid virtually at my doorstep. The cliffs, and the valley below were a different world, from the highway we had left behind. A couple of years later, I was to read about panthers being found in Tungareshwar, and could imagine why they would seek the sanctuary of those green mountains, away from the confusion of the Borivali National Park.

A few hours later, Imran got the boys to spread our lunch in a small shack near the temple. It was a bit odd eating chicken outside the temple, but the people running the tea-stall did not seem to mind, as long as we promised to take the bones back home with us. Imran was at his best bossing everyone around, seeing all of us ate well. He did not eat, even then, high on the excitement of biking and being filmed.

Grace and David too ate very little, impatient to get back to filming. I finally agreed to go with Mr. Irani and Sohrab on their bike to the top of the cliff. Imran looked a bit miffed at this treason, but Grace called him just then for a shot, and he went off obediently.

A little while later, we could hear the other bikers roaring towards us. Mr. Irani laughed and raced off towards them. I had hopped off, preferring to meander at my own pace. The cell phone was off, without any signals, and it was good to be away from Grace and David. We had been shooting for the last week, and I was a bit weary of their demands, legitimate though they were. But then, that was my job.

I went back to the production car that had appeared around the corner, and began chatting with Shaikh. It turned out that he had come here before. Of course, tourist drivers get to see a lot of the world around them. He began to tell me there were some interesting caves there, which I should come and see some time. Just then, we saw David furiously racing towards us on a bike. The bike’s owner sat behind rather helplessly. David barked at Shaikh to give him the car keys, and before we knew what was happening, David had driven off with the car. The biker, Manas who had brought David here, told us that the equipment car had broken down with the load of the equipment. Shaikh had told David to distribute the equipment between the two cars, but David was more comfortable having all his equipment with him all the time.

By the time, we reached where the others were supposed to be, they had already gone off somewhere else. Imran had told them about a small village near Tungareshwar. It had a pond, where they could bike in wet mud, and where they could also “do” the sunset. Manas, not wanting to miss any of the shoot, hurried off, to find them. The broken down car was left in the middle of nowhere. Its driver had taken Shaikh’s car, fortunately, because David, impatient and angry was not in the right frame of mind, to drive down the hill.

Shaikh and I looked at each other, and at the abandoned car. There was some equipment in the car, and Shaikh and I both agreed that we must take the car at least up to the highway. A couple of pilgrims helped to push the vehicle to the edge of the slope. From there, we descended for half-an-hour in neutral, without brakes. Down a hilly road, with it’s fair share of twists and turns. No wonder that Shaikh and I became firm friends since then. He proved that he was a good driver. Like most people in desperate situations, I was calm and resigned. What was the option?

When we reached the highway, we felt we had come home. To the city, where everything was manageable, everything was possible. I forgot the green hills and their tranquility. Shaikh called his boss, who arranged to come with a towing van to pick up the car and us. We waited patiently, drinking some foul tea. And going over and over the bizarre incident.

I was angry and shocked that David and Grace had left us and the car, in the middle of nowhere, in their hurry to complete their shoot. Without any communication. I knew they would not even remember us until the sun had gone down and the shoot had been wrapped up. Just then, Imran called. He said Manas had just found them, and told them of the incident. Imran wanted to know whether we were safe. I forgot all his annoying ways, touched by his genuine concern.

As the towing vehicle came in sight, so did Imran on his bike. He had raced away, as soon as the shoot got over. He had also told David what he thought of him, for his irresponsible and arrogant behavior.

Shaikh settled down at the back of the tow truck. I looked at the truck, wondering if I should hitch a ride back home on it. I did not even want to meet David or Grace, until my anger had cooled down. I’d call them later. And arrange to have the equipment dropped off to David’s hotel.

Imran said he could drop me home if I liked. I said. “Yes”. Finally, I sat on Imran’s bike. I was too preoccupied to even think about the stunts he would pull off, now that he had persuaded me to sit pillion. But after a few moments, I noticed that he was riding with extra care, mindful of the bumps, mindful of me sitting behind him. I realized that my first impression of him had been right. He was a well-behaved young man. Occasionally wild. As befit his image. But not bad.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Alias

Razia Bi alias Sunita Jadhav alias Penny D’Souza was a shrewd woman. No one would guess it looking at her face. She was tiny, plain, her hair tied up in a tight bun. Her face was so insignificant that she could switch identities at will. She was anyone, and no one. The only distinctive features in her face were her eyebrows. Black, arched like impetuous question marks flung into space, quivering over tiny, brown bead eyes.


She wore faded cotton saris. Un-starched, wound tightly around her wiry frame, she seemed ready to catapult into action every moment. She was not a criminal by nature, but had learned to switch roles with ease, tell lies with impunity, and yet sleep with an easy conscience. She was not thick-skinned, just that she was so tired by the end of the day, and the hours of sleep so short anyway, she did not have to woo sleep.


Anyway, she did not even think she was committing any crime. It was hard work, she did. Very hard work. And she didn’t even get paid enough most of the time, but that’s the way of the world.


She had forgotten even when she started on this life of aliases. Perhaps, it was the fat, very fat woman with her diamond earrings, on a huge swing, suspended in the living room. The swing did not swing at all with the fat lady’s weight. She looked her up and down, and suddenly asked, “What’s your name? You’re not a Muslim, I hope.” She stood still for a moment, then glibly said, “My name is Sunita. I’m a …”. The fat lady held up a fat imperious hand. “Your caste doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not a Muslim.” She got the job, though she didn’t keep it for very long. The house was huge, and had to be mopped twice a day, her back hurt, and the fat lady was stingy.


But after that, it seemed to her, that wherever she went, people asked her what religion she belonged to. She learnt smoothly to be a Muslim with a Muslim family, a Catholic with Christians, a Hindu with Hindus. Her faded saris and faded silver chain around her neck, green glass bangles on her arms did not brand her and she was safe.


The slum where she lived had the poor of all religions; they were the same in their poverty, and the same in their joy in festivals. She knew the nuances of most religions more than the people she worked for, and it was easy for her to pretend that she was fasting during Ramzan, that she was going to be busy making sweetmeats for Diwali, that she was observing Lent, or that her son wanted a new shirt for Christmas.


As the years went by, she herself forgot who she was, her real name, her real religion. Living became more and more expensive, and her weariness did not satisfy her needs. She did not see or hear the unrest around her. She did not see the houses in her slum re-align into communal groups. She crossed the dirty lanes, the smelly 'naallah's, and the tiny hovels absentmindedly every day, not noticing the hostile glares, the muttered grumbles.


When the rioters came to her house, she looked at them curiously. They had swords and iron rods and burning torches, their faces were distorted with cruelty, but she did not know what they wanted of her. They asked her name, she looked at them as she did her prospective employers, wondering what answer they wanted her to give. Were they Hindus, or Muslims, or Catholics? Who should she be – Razia Bi, or Sunita Jadhav or Penny D’Souza? Her confusion kept her silent. Her silence saw her dead.

* naalah - gutter

Friday, July 08, 2005

Women Writing in India

I've been reading this amazing anthology of Women Writers in India, from 600 B.C. to the present (1991 to be exact). Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, the anthology in two volumes, is very well-researched. Because most of the excerpts are from Indian language writing, and beautifully translated, they brought to me a literature that I had otherwise no real access to. Sometimes, more interesting than the actual excerpt itself, is the biographical essay accompanying each piece, a little bit about the author, her times, the context in which she wrote, how her work was recieved and who her contemporaries were. These short biographical sketches pieced together a social history. It made me realize how many freedom fights were fought over the years, how many were won, and how many still remain to be fought.

In a lot of communities, reading and writing for women were caste taboos. One of the most evocative pieces is an excerpt from the simply written autobiography, in Bengali "Amar Jiban" by Rassundara Devi. Written in 1876, it is the first autobiography written in Bengali. The author was an ordinary housewife, who taught herself to read and write in secret, and her account of how she learned to read is one of the most moving pieces of social statement. The anthology is replete with examples of women who broke social barriers again and again to reveal their extraordinary intelligence.

And the battles were not always against the obvious evils, those were relatively easy to fight - but the subtle, subconscious battle against gender discrimination existed even in the past. Women did not accept their subservient roles as silently and placidly as one believes. What amazes me not that women did write so extensively then but the fact that for ages, women have written about freedom, about their yearning for their individual beings, freedom from social fetters.

In fact, the first polemic against gender discrimination, a 40 page tirade "A Comparison of Men and Women " was written and published in a Marathi newspaper, by Tarabai Shinde, in 1882, as a response against the death sentence passed on an unwed mother. This was almost a century before Simone de Beauvoir wrote her acclaimed "The Second Sex".

Check out this link if you want to know more.http://www.english-literature.org/essays/indian-women-writers.html

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Scavengers all




The dogs scamper through the debris, when they hear voices. They have a glazed look in their eyes, intoxicated with a surfeit of flesh, bones, blood, meat. Glutted, they look through us. After a moment, they slide back into the crevices only they know of. There is enough there to feed them for seven generations.

“Our shop was 120 years old”, he tells us. “My great-great-great grandfather hawked cloth through the city. Carrying a trunk on his head. Who will buy cloth now, in this city?”

Gold, cloth, silver, sweetmeats, flung out of crushed cupboards, and grabbed by opportunistic hands. Diamond rings cut off a sixteen year old girl’s fingers. A woman’s neck, arms, feet cut to sever the gold ornaments off her.

Wealth accumulated over seven generations, crushed under sand and stone, a huff and a puff, in a minute. Naked hands claw at twisted iron rods in broken concrete slabs. Hands jump to grab pieces of iron from a running truck. Kilos and kilos of iron to be sold. Business has never been so good.

A dead body retrieved from under three slabs of concrete by hands and spades. Cameras flash. The retrievers pose with the dead body, hunters with their trophy. One more good deed done.

Everywhere there are powerful pictures, touching sound-bytes. Let’s make the most of the disaster. Let’s retrieve all we can from the debris. There’s enough there to last us all, for seven generations.

The Hour of the Kites

"The parrots used to come here once", she said.

I can imagine that. Droves of parrot resting in the trees, and suddenly flying out into the sky, as if the tree had flung out hundreds of leaves. The air must have been full of song, because those were the days of color, of joy, of music.

Music is lost now. In its name, are helpless screeches, trying to be heard, above the ceaseless din of the city. The parrots have gone away. They are more sensible than us. No one notices that they have gone. No one notices that the birds can't be heard singing anymore.

Now the kites come. Scores of them. They sit in rows, quietly sullen, on the concrete roof ledges of the school outside our window.

The hypnotic light of the ubiquitous TV flickers over her face, ravaged not by the past, but by the increasingly non-comprehensible present, slipping away from the mind's grasp. She looks at the kites, stoically, trying to make up interesting stories about them. But the kites don't care.

They are sullen. They sit watching for the prey. A schoolchild who makes the mis­take of opening her lunchbox on the ground, a timid sparrow, a careless rat, a dead body.

The kites are sullen, cruel. They don't sing, they are dull brown. They are concerned only with their prey. The stories she tries to make up about them come out hoarse from a long silent throat, dull with pain, predicting sure doom.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Dealing with disaster

Found an old article I had written about my film "150 Seconds Ago", based on life in Bhuj after the earthquake in 2001, through a friend. It brought back so much of how and why I made the film, how it changed me as a person.

">http://www.upperstall.com/150secondsago.html

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ammi’s Shawl

I still have Ammi’s shawl. Big, black, warm. Beautiful.

I’ll always remember her as she used to be in the mornings, huddled up in her shawl , warming herself at the stove, sipping her first cup of tea, while the rest of the house still slept, in their voluminous blankets.

We would walk across Mall Road from the bus station, and the cold, clear air and the clean, blue lake would almost bring tears to my city-weary eyes. We’d cross the horse depot, and I’d smile at the smell of the stables. I felt so happy. Then the fork, and the cobbled path up to the back of the house. I’d be gasping for breath. The walk seemed shorter now, but I always remembered the first time I walked there with Anwar, and it had seemed like miles to my city-lazy body.

It took me almost 3 or 4 years and that many visits to mark for myself, the door of our house. The second door after the tailor’s, across the big, ugly plastic water tank. The wooden door hammered with tin was sure to be open by then. The servant boy, after lighting the wood stove for Ammi, must have hurried out, a few minutes ago, to relieve his bursting bowels.

The door would swing with a loud creak, as we walked in. My heart beat fast, anticipating Ammi’s pleasure on seeing us. Her hoarse voice would cry out, “Who is it?” And we would not answer. But tiptoe in quietly, wanting to see her surprise and her joy. Her face would light up.

She was so beautiful, her skin like ancient paper, slightly yellow and translucent, with age. Her eyes bright. Her long hair, black over her frail back. Later, when Anwar’s older brothers died in a car accident, it became white in one go.

Anwar would hug her, and make raucous noises, as he always did. She’d punch him, and complain, and get mock-angry, but she was happy. I’d beam silently in the background, and she would look over his shoulders at me, with love.

Her face registered disappointment against her will, at my plainness. If only I was beautiful, she would have been happier still. But I was nice anyway.

Each time I went to Nainital I loved her more. But each time I went with my heart more and more burdened with sorrow. Each time I was more and more torn apart between the urge to lighten my own heart of its despair, and the reluctance to lend her more pain. But sometimes I would burst out into tears, and she would know. She knew my pain more than I did, because her son had given her the same pain for many more years than he had me. The difference was that she continued to love him, and I grew to love him less and less. Chafing at the bond of marriage.

There came a time, when the lake, or the air, or the horses, or her love, could not tempt me anymore. I came away. With her shawl. I have it still. Her love, I don’t. He is her son after all. And I divorced him.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The bonesetter

The bonesetter is a part of my childhood memory. My father would wake up, in the middle of the night, screaming. An old cricket injury, that troubled him when he was tired, had had a hard day, or just when he was turning in his sleep. His left arm would slip out of its shoulder socket bone.

My mother, my little sister and me would sit in our beds, rubbing our eyes, trembling, while he cursed us in his pain. He’d pull on his trousers, drag on a shirt on one arm, pull the other sleeve over his shoulder, slip his feet into his slippers, muttering that he would die alone, while we woke up, from our beauty sleep. We children would whimper as our mother dragged us, and followed him.

Luckily, we did not know about death then, or we would have been terrified that he was dying.

Down the rickety wooden stairs, on the road, looking up and down in the dark night for a cab, afraid that the mongrel dogs sniffing at us, would suddenly decide to bite.

While we looked for a cab, my father would already be running ahead, along the grimy streets, luckily not as crowded as they were during the day.

The bonesetter’s shop was a street away, but it seemed a long, long way.

We’d bang on the wooden door, with the iron chain. After an eternity, while we pondered his absence, the door would open, and a man would come out. Then my mother and we girls, started breathing again. The bonesetter was at home.

We were not frightened then. He’d do something to our father, twist his arm, and heave it, and magically, the bone would be back in its socket. My father would groan. Sometimes, the bonesetter asked us to hold our father, while he pushed and pulled. Sometimes, we would faint while doing that. My father and the bonesetter would laugh.

Then he’d put a warm ointment over my father’s shoulder and back. It smelled lovely. Then he’d bandage the arm and shoulder most beautifully. My father would sport that bandage for a week, not having a bath, washing himself around it.

After the bandage came off, we would all forget the bonesetter, until my father woke up screaming again, one night.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Clueless

Sometimes, Indu woke up with the wrong clues. She knew then, the day would be a puzzle she could not solve. All she could do was wait for it to fall apart. She would continue to lie in bed, in despair, until her bowels forced her to move. Perhaps, tea, cereal and the morning papers would redeem the day, yet. But she knew that was not to be. She switched on the television, and numbed herself to the day’s screeching calls. Outside her window, the world was too far below to pull her. Inside, she did not switch off the answering machine that she switched on at night. Sarla was there to deal with the doorbell.

Sarla was used to Indu’s uselessness. Quietly, she entered the house, at a given time. Quietly, she went about her defined, determined tasks for the day. Her days did not change form and color like Indu’s did. For as long, as she could remember, her days had been relentless, gray sea. One day, when she had got married, a pink glow had hung over the day, and she had looked up with hope to look at it. But the glow had vanished in a few hours, when her husband’s alcoholic breath fell on her face. Then, when her sons were born, the days had turned red, but those too had soon congealed into black, as her sons went their own way. Many, many days had made Sarla as tiny and insignificant as a speck of sand. Every day, the sea brought in dirt to her, and every day, it washed her clean.

In the afternoon, Indu switched off the television, and moved from the settee in the living room, back to her bedroom. She drew the curtains, shut the door, switched on the fan and lay down in bed. Her skin was burning, itching; her legs shook in jerky spasms. Her body was heavy with unused energy. She switched on the air-conditioner, and covered herself with her soft blanket, hoping to calm herself down. But the thoughts within her, banged around like so many frightened bats. She lay inert.

When the bedroom door opened, Sarla quietly put the water to boil for the evening tea. She put a cup of tea before Indu, who was sitting on her armchair, looking around with stupefied eyes. “Where is Nayana?” she asked. It was the first sentence she had uttered in the day, and her voice grated on her own ears. Sarla said quietly, “She’s gone to Anu’s house to do her homework. She said she’d be back late.”

Indu wished now that Sarla would go home. Sarla had already cooked the evening meal for Indu and Nayana, and put it in casseroles. She was washing the cookers, now. Then, she would fold the washed clothes, and keep them away. Then, she would mop the kitchen, before leaving. Indu knew that Sarla would take another hour to finish here. After that, she would walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, walk to her home after the bus-ride, wash the lunch utensils at home, cook the evening meal for her husband and sons, wash the utensils again, watch her husband drink and hope that he would not get into a fight that day, wait for her sons to switch off the television, so that she could drop off to sleep. It would be midnight by the time she slept, and she would wake up again at 5 the next morning, to fill water, wash her family’s clothes, clean the house, prepare the lunch for her husband and son, and then leave for the bus stop to come to Indu’s house.

Indu felt tired just thinking of Sarla’s day. Her guilt at her own idleness erupted into irritation as she watched Sarla, bent over the kitchen floor. “Can’t you go home now? I want to be left alone.” Sarla did not answer, but finished mopping up quietly.

Indu switched on the television again, waiting for the day to end.