Monday, January 28, 2008

tatoo artist

Spent two glorious days book-collecting at the Strand sale. One of the pleasures of being gainfully employed is being able to buy as many books as one wants. Well no, "as many books as one wants" is always too many.

We discovered Norman Rockwell. Surprisingly, even Teja had not seen his work earlier. Dhanno loved the prints, and declared that she was not going to give them away (the way we usually do).

There's one print, the Tatoo Artist, that I would love to send to Saif Ali Khan. It's a tatooist adding a new girl's name to a list of crossed out names on a sailor's muscular arm. I don't know if Saif would appreciate the humor of this, it's a bit mean. He's fed up by now, I'm sure of the countless zoom in's to his arm. After two weeks of discussing Saif's tatoo, today the Mumbai Age had a full page article on how tatooing a lover's name shows signs of emotional instability. And yet another photo with the tatoo. The poor guy, is anyone looking at his beautiful face anymore?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Ashura

The British Council paid me 2000 rupees for this story, for the Faith issue of womenswriting.com. But never did find the link to the story while they had the rights to it. Now, that the rights have come back to me, here it is, a story for today, Ashura.

Today is Ashura. The 10th day of Muharram. Today we are all fasting, Maaji my grandmother, Mummy, Daddy, me, my younger sister, Farida and even my toddler brother, Ali. Today’s fast is different from the fasting during Ramzan, because we did not wake up in the night to have breakfast before sunrise.

I am already hungry, and so are Farida and Ali, and it is not even 10 am. We must stay without food and water until sunset. But Mummy has packed a small tiffin and a water bottle for Ali, if he starts to create too much of a fuss in the mosque. I know she also has some toffees for us, in her purse, which she promises to give us after magrib, if we are good.

We leave for the mosque with Maaji and Mummy, before noon. We have missed school today. Daddy too has missed work. All the shops in the mohallah are closed. Today is a big day for all of us, Maaji says.

Maaji gave me a fright last week. She said I would have to miss prize-giving day at school, because it was Ashura day. I burst out crying. Mummy told me that it was not our Ashura day, but the Ashura day of the Shia Muslims in the Imambara. We are Bohris, and we have a different calendar from them. She scowled at Maaji, who was laughing. Maaji likes to make me cry now and then.

At the mosque I saw Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle. They are our downstairs neighbors in Bootwala Chawl, where we stay with Maaji, in a tiny handkerchief sized home. Their names are not really Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle, but everyone in the mohallah calls them that because they are as dashing and well dressed as film stars. Today, they are not smiling as usual, but look grim and solemn, like everyone else. They are also not wearing their colorful bell-bottoms and printed shirts but white kurta pyjamas and gilt-edged caps. They look very different, not at all like the Uncles who pinch my cheeks and make me laugh.

Mummy keeps us close to her, and pushes her way through the crowd to her usual place in the mosque. Tara Maasi and Zainab Maasi are sitting beside her, as always, but their smiles are puffed up with tears. Mummy reminds us that we are not to move from her side. Usually, we play with our friends around the prayer-mats spread by our mothers. But today, we all sit quietly, as if we were at school.

The women too, are not gossiping as they do, or even bickering about their bit of space for their prayer-mats. They are listening to the Imamsaheb reciting the Wayaz, the story of the 10th day of Muharram. He is telling a story full of brave warriors, honor, courage and justice. But he keeps interrupting his story to cry, or to explain a moral. His voice cracks over the mike. The men fill the pauses with marsiyas, which are mournful songs, and the tears roll down everyone’s cheeks. The other children are crying, their faces swollen with hunger, thirst and the fright of seeing their parents cry. I squeeze my face tight, trying to get the tears to roll. But they won’t. Looking at my face today, no one will believe that my cousins call me “cry-baby.”

Ali has gone to sleep, his head in Mummy’s lap, his finger in his mouth. Farida is sucking the edge of her duppatta. I wonder if that is allowed during a fast, because the edge of a duppatta is quite tasty when sucked. Mummy is looking at something that I cannot see, the tears falling on her face, like rain outside a window, silently, her hand beating against her chest rhythmically. So, I put my duppatta into my mouth. I don’t feel hungry for some time.

Kulsum Maasi, my Arabic teacher, is leading the women to sing marsiyas. The voices rise higher and higher, some women swirl round and round until they fall to the floor in a heap. I feel giddy. The faces of all the grown-ups around me seem strange and different; though they are people I see everyday. We start crowding towards the railing, to see the men downstairs doing maatam.

Some men beat themselves with chains, until others pull the chains out of their hands, and push them out of the circle. The air is thick with the smell of rose water and blood. The noise of crying, mourning and chest-beating fills the huge dome of the mosque. I look anxiously for Daddy, hoping that he is not going to beat himself with the chains. He is just outside the centre, crying, beating his chest with his hands, but I feel relieved that he shows no signs of taking up the chains. I am glad when the crying subsides. Mummy’s face glows after she has cried so much, her swollen eyes look very pretty.

We sit down for the community meal. Mummy says we can talk to our friends now if we wish, but we are tired. It is only when we dip into the khichda, delicious broken wheat and meat, flavored with lime and mint, and hot ghee that we smile. Farida and I have both managed to keep the fast until the end, and we are proud. And hungry.

The next day, is prize-giving day at school. Today is the Ashura of the Muslims who live in the Imambara. Mummy says we must come back from school as soon as possible, before the crowds jam the streets. They have huge processions, with big green, white and gold flags, which are called taziyas that they take out while the men do maatam on the streets. They also have a make-believe horse, decked up in green, white and gold, which I normally love to watch. But today, I want to stay in school for as long as we can. I know that this year too, I will win many prizes, and I’d like to stay back and show them to my friends.

I go to a convent school, and our scholarship prizes are lovely, glossy children’s books, which come from England, especially for us. I love these books, even though I do not know what glens, vales or rolling fields are, no one I know has a dog, and I’ve never eaten a cucumber sandwich. But my friends and I often pretend to be detectives like the children in the books, and we also have our own secret gang.

Maaji hates it when I read these books. She thinks I should be reading the Koran instead, or learning the namaz, but I never do the homework that Kulsum Maasi gives me. Maaji often threatens to send me to the madrasa, and that’s the only threat that makes me put in a bit of work for Kulsum Maasi. I wish she would explain what all the prayers are about. If I knew what the Arabic meant, I may like to pray, because I often talk to God in English.

Despite Mummy’s hurry, we come back from prize-giving day late. The taziya procession has already begun. We climb up the steps of the soda shop. I can see Maaji, with Farida and Ali in her lap, at our window across the street, and also Tara Maasi and Zainab Maasi and all the neighbors, at their windows. But it will be hours before we can cross the street to go home. I look at my books a little, but Mummy raps me on the back. Suddenly the lights go off in the mohallah, and I cannot see the books anymore. The noise of the mourners sounds louder in the dark. I put the books to my nose, and smell their newness.

When we reach home, I don’t even change out of my school uniform. I snuggle into my favorite corner, behind the cupboard, and start reading by candlelight. My grandmother tears her eyes away from the Imambara to scold me. “One day, you will go mad, reading all these books.” Farida giggles. I ignore Maaji and keep reading. She does not like me, and I do not like her.

I know that our Ashura is over yesterday. Today, Rajesh Khanna Uncle and Jeetendra Uncle were wearing their bell-bottoms again, and even smoking near the bus stop, when I went to school. And Daddy has gone back to work. Maaji too tuned her radio today morning after ten days of silence. So I can surely read my new books.

The children in my books have a smiling grandmother, with twinkling blue eyes, who makes buttered scones for tea. My grandmother is fat and dark, and wears old, musty clothes, and she has a sour smell about her. I slip away into the English countryside, far away from Maaji and her Imambara.

Monday, January 14, 2008

bright sparks in dharavi

We were hoping to meet some girls in Dharavi. Bright, ambitious girls with plans. I call up D who works part-time as a guide at Reality Tours, and lives in Kumbharwada in Dharavi. D's family has lived in Dharavi for a few generations. The potters were one of the first communities to be relocated from the heart of the city, to the marshland used by unscrupulous, lazy builders as an illegal dumping ground, to save on trucking costs to Deonar. Around 75 years ago.

Turning off from the 90-ft road into Kumbharwada, once again you are face-to-face with the wonder that is Mumbai city, small villages, communes, areas with a life, identity, architecture all their own. Kumbharwada could be a small, crowded village anywhere in the country, with a river supplied by imagination. Small houses, small courtyards, heaps of pots everywhere.

D's house is tiny, a room for parents, D and 3 sisters. His father doesn't make pots anymore but sells them in a small shop in Vile Parle. His uncles and other relatives continue to make pots.

D's youngest sister, in the Xth Std., wants to be a doctor. She thinks it's great how doctors are respected, worshipped like God. She wouldn't mind being worshipped. She's naughty, restless, prone to picking up fights with her sisters just to have a nice ruckus going on at home. The older one wants to get a good job, somewhere, any job, after her BCom. The eldest is away at work already.

D wants to do his MBA, specialize in Human Resources. This is an ambition he has nurtured in the last 3 years of his interactions with different people as a guide. He says he's an average student, and has to work hard to get decent grades. But he's been told by happy clients that he's good with people, that he could do well in HR. He wants to get a corporate job with a MNC, with all the perks, house, car, and move out of Dharavi. If his father agrees to move out. But he'd like to keep this house of his ancestors for life, for remembrance.

D says it won't be easy for him to get a student loan, because he lives in Dharavi. So he's making sure he saves up, with his part time work. Perhaps some of his clients will help him, as they have promised.

We also meet D's neighbor, a girl, who's been working since she was 15, cooking at homes in Bandra. Laughing all the time she talks, she only hints at a father who can't work, and a brother who won't. Mother and daughter manage the house. She's learnt to make pasta and pizza for her employers, but doesn't think anyone at home would want to eat those. Anyway, she doesn't have all the ingredients at home.

D thinks the development plans for Dharavi will make those with small houses happy. They'll get flats to live in. But what will happen to those with small industries, the potters, the tanners? They won't be able to work in apartment flats. Where will they go? Where will his community go?

The youngest scamp asks us what a documentary is. My colleague explains, "Like the programs you see on Discovery, you know, on wild animals and all." My colleague is not being rude, just struggling with her Hindi giving up after a long hard day. I think however, she's not far off the mark. We make documentaries about people who to us, are as strange, unfamiliar, as wild animals. The only difference is that we need to treat the wild animals with more respect, keeping our distance, in case they attack us, or run away. With people, particularly poor people, we can walk into their space, sometimes with little regard, for their privacy. We turn our cameras on people living, working, bathing, sleeping on the roads, sometimes without even a courteous by-your-leave.

After many years, I feel drawn to a people, like I did in Kutch. Perhaps it's the way they treat the cameras. They don't list their complaints, tear their hair, beat their chests, roll out the tears, like many unfortunately do, seeking attention for their real griefs in a trivial fashion. They just go about doing their work. The people at Dharavi are tough, hard working, but also graceful in their ability to negotiate their hardships without much ado, with dignity.

This is a good article on Dharavi, How the other half lives.
And some good pictures here of Kumbharwada.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

need a lullaby

My mind is a funny thing. The minute it realizes I plan to sleep it starts thinking of
People who I used to love, but now hate.
People who hate me (most probably).
People who died on me (no one should be allowed to do that).
People who are living and whom I continue to neglect.
Shahrukh Khan (he is the same age as me, and paying 27 crores advance tax, and I'm still wondering how many zeroes there are in a crore).
The increasing perimeter of my bald spots.
The rolls of fat on my frame (will I lose them in this lifetime?)
The newest hair on my chin.
Dhanno (what will I do when she leaves home?)
Teja (what will I do if he stops loving me?)
My mother (what will I do when she dies?)
My friends (remote in the real world, living across continents, cities, traffic jams)
My social skills (or lack of, therewith. A flagellating analysis of exactly how boring I am in company)
Myself at 16 (can't I, can't I, can't I go back, please?)

I'm sorry to report that my head doesn't think of
Global warming
Communal harmony
World peace
Social and economic inequality
Film making
Homeless children
Poverty
Farmers' suicides
Or any of the things that I like to think I think about in the daytime.

Anyway, so, I pretend to my mind that I have no desire to sleep. I lie with my head propped up against the pillows, as if I'm reading. The bedside lamp is on. My eyes are open. I roll words over in my mind, relentlessly, as if it's a book I'm never going to put down. And the mind, deceived, exhausted, finally falls off to sleep. So what if I have a crick in the neck in the morning. I've found a cure for my insomnia.