Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Attempts at haiku

On a sunny afternoon I watch
our dog sleeping. The flowers wilt outside-
but my tea gets cold.

Stones, pebbles, mud, gravel, thunder-
gently wiping off a tear he asks
if it is raining outside.

Faces here and there, a quiet room
A promise to return-

The last one is a bad joke referring to my continuation of the activity :P

Saturday, August 27, 2011


"Pooriyan taiyyar ho gayin kya?? Office ke liye late ho raha hai!"
"Haan!! Do minute ruko, bas la rahi hoon!...Yeh lo."

Shreedhar looked at his wife. She looked beautiful. She was setting the table for breakfast, and there were tiny droplets of water in her hair. The ever familiar scent of jasmine oil floated into the room, as she went to and from the kitchen, bringing puris with her. She stood in the kitchen, humming an old number - "Aaj jaane ki zid na karo...." The notes of the song transported him to a different world - Sudha had always been a good singer. He remembered his college days when he had first met her. He remembered, how once upon a time, he had fallen in love with that voice.

But age had a way of catching on. It was like dust... that ever familiar, permanenent layer of dust that is all pervading in Indian society - from the houses, to the dingy shops in the mohalla, the roads, the numerous small shrines dedicated to local deities found in every street. And no matter how much we Indians scrubbed, cleaned, mopped, rinsed, sweeped and wiped with a wide variety of brushes, suds and tools, to get rid of its signs, it always managed to find the most unlikely corner or nook to settle in- your kitchen, your house, your being and even in the comforts of your long marriage. Accumulating, unknown to you, before the next big party, the next guest arrival, the next big clean up.

"Saaman sab rakh liya hai?" she asked.
"Haan. Aaj mujhe aane mein thodi der ho jaaegi, zara Chaman se kuch
kaam ke silsile mein milne jaana hai. Mera intezaar mat karna."
"Theek hai. Apna dhyan rakhna", she said, handing him his tiffin
filled with hot puris.
"Haan. Chalo, chalta hoon, der ho rahi hai."

It had been a long, exhausting day at work. One of many. Business had been real tight the last couple of days. Tired as he was, Shreedhar trudged on - he had missed the last bus home, and the probability of getting a cab in Mumbai at this hour in Mumbai was as close to impossible.

The sign ahead said "Kamathipura ->", with the arrow pointing straight. Shreedhar stopped for a moment, looking at the dingy suburb ahead with slight trepidation. He did not prefer being in these areas. It made him slightly uncomfortable - being seen on these streets was sure to cause a stir in the neighbourhood. Shreedhar clutched his bag tightly and walked cautiously, looking straight ahead, pretending to be oblivious to his surroundings.

Today, somehow, after a long time, he was feeling the urge for a smoke. He used to smoke long back, in college, but had given it up long ago. But the market had been exceptionally disastrous, and he wanted to give himself the luxury of but imagining, what it would be like, if problems were as ephemeral as a mere whiff of a cigarette. Today, Chaman would have to wait.

Vapours of smoke filled the surroundings, wafting lazily, spirits emanating from the embers of a wasted life.

Shreedhar sat there for a long time, thinking, reflecting on his past, his life and his thirty years of marriage to Sudha. It was not as if Sudha was a bad wife. He had no problems with her. She cooked, she cleaned, she took care of the house and of him, she cared for him, got worried when he went for long trips, made his favourite laddoos for him on festivals, everything that is required of a good Indian housewife. Theirs was like any other happy Middle class household. They never fought, argued- perhaps. On trifles like how he ever remembered to get the groceries on the way back from office, or repair that perpetually leaking tap, ask for directions to the new restaurant in town which everyone is talking about - things like that. Like any other married couple of their time and age.

"Eh Seth! Chalta ha kya?" Shreedhar shot back to the present with a start, as a raspy voice from somewhere behind him broke his chain of thoughts. He turned back, and almost got the shock of his life. He almost froze to the spot, not knowing what to do or how to react. "Main...Main...woh...” he sputtered incoherently. "Main kya..?? Kuch bolta kahe ko nah hai?" Some lookers-on intervened, approaching her menacingly -"Eh! Hat! Chal yahaan se!" "Haan haan - jaati hoon Hmph! Saala fattu. Bahut dekhe hain tere jaise!"

In that sudden moment, Shreedhar felt a jolt through his being. An unexplainable and intense force gripped him, a feeling like never before. It was as if that one insult, that one derision, had sent him into a frenzy. He did not know whether it was the nicotine or the effect of the climes he was in. Was it anger that he felt? It couldn't be - he wasn't the sort to ever get angry. He barely even raised his voice. Was it lust? It couldn't be. Or was he losing control? That one quality - the loss of which can fill even the ablest of men with a deep sense of paranoia? That one quality which is ingrained into every man - from being told off for mingling with the maid's son as a child, to try as hard as possible not to stare at Mrs. Braganza's low cut blouse in English class, to being told to choose the right subjects in college which would result in a comfortable and satisfying career, to being told whom to marry. Control was something that had, with meticulous care, been ground into each one of his kin, almost like the ever-present grated baadam in the glass of milk Shreedhar had on his wedding night. Needless to say, Shreedhar couldn't feel the taste of that control anymore. He got up slowly, as if in a trance, and started walking. And he knew exactly where to go.

Shreedhar reached the place - "Gulp It Inn" . He smiled in spite of himself. The luminosity of the neon green lights coming from within the building seemed hazy. He could hear women calling out to him in a seductive tone, some teasing him, calling him all sorts of things that the otherwise immaculate Shreedhar would have found unsavoury. But today was different. He staggered on, intoxicated with the high of his recent guilty pleasure and the one waiting to unleash.

His insides were burning. " Main toh phooljhadhi hoon, maachis tu jalaa jaa......" the lyrics of a popular Bollywood number were playing somewhere in the background, with busty women suggestively gyrating to them, trying to seduce their customers.

"Give me your best," he spluttered, throwing 5000 rupees at the female pimp. Tajjobai scrutinized him briefly, and then signalled to a nearby Chhotu, smiling her signature wry smile, her paan stained lips saying "Pramila ko bolde naya customer hai". Shreedhar followed Chhotu almost automatically, as they ascended the stairs. "Yahaan se doosra room, left mein,"Chhotu said mechanically, once they had ascended. He had been doing this for a while now. Shreedhar looked at the curtain made of sea shells. His mind wandered to his honeymoon with Sudha, it seemed aeons ago. Her hair, the unforgettable jasmine oil. He pushed it out of his mind. It did not matter now. Nothing did. He peeped inside the room. No one was there. With slight trepidation, he called out - "Pramila?" He took a step inside. He looked towards the bathroom at the far end. In the darkness, he could just make out the silhouette of her back. She was combing her hair. What was going to happen next was something that he had probably never imagined in his wildest dreams. He could not wait for her. She was approaching. He could not see her, but judging by the smell of her perfume, he could ascertain that she was near. She seemed to be humming.. it was an old Bollywood number. For some bizarre reason, it seemed vaguely familiar. Where had he heard it recently..? He tried to recall. It was Farida Khanum- Sudha's favourite ghazal singer. The answer hit him like a crack of lightning, jolting him right out of his senses.

"Aaj jaane ki zid na karo..."

He froze in his tracks as the smell of jasmine oil wafted in the air.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


It is often said that the mood of the writer tends to creep into his work. I have a friend, who loves to write stories, who validated this statement. Being an amateur, she says she is able to write her best stories when she is experiencing some sort of extremity in her mood- extremely happy, extremely angry, extremely sad, and so on. She has not yet been able to fully capture her moods and nurture her abilities accordingly. I recently saw X-men : first class, which shows how the X-men came into existence. They showed Magneto as a child - the first time Sebastian Shaw asks him to show his ability to him. He tries, with a frustrating concentration, applying his entire energy to moving the coin with his powers. But he is unable to do it. Shaw calls in his mother, whom he has captured. He tells the boy, “I will count to three. Till then, if you are not able to move the coin, I will shoot your mother.” The boy is aghast at the repercussions of the failure of this transaction. He looks at his mother, with trepidation in his eyes. His mother, helpless, tells the boy it is okay, and he will be able to do it. Magneto concentrates. His entire energy is on the coin. “One”. The camera closes in on him, his nerves pulsating with tension. “Two”. The coin hasn’t moved. His mother looks on, nervous, telling him it’s okay. “Three”. Gunshot. Magneto watches in despair as his mother falls to the ground with a thud. He screams in anguish. And then, it begins. Sebastian looks on in wonder as his troops’ metal helmets are destroyed, still on their heads, his office is wrecked, his entire lab is destroyed. Thus, the world is introduced to his superpower, in its entirety. “Anger, and pain”, says Sebastian, taking his hand, “is the key to unlocking your powers. And with this, we are going to have a lot of fun”.

Fast forward. Similar scenario, different person. Magneto is now standing with Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, who is training him to use and control and harness his powers. He tells him to move a satellite dish towards themselves. Magneto says it is not possible, since he needs the anger and pain. The emotions are not present. Then Charles Xavier says something beautiful. He says, “I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” Using his telepathic powers, he controls the mind of Magneto, taking him to a beautiful memory with his mother. It is so beautiful that even watching it, Charles gets tearful. “I didn’t know I still had that one”, Magneto says, awed by the sudden revelation, experiencing something he had not felt ever before. He turns towards the satellite dish, with complete calm, and laughs, like he has never laughed before, as he sees the miracle before him, he watches and learns, how he can do the exact same thing, and yet feel so different, not make himself go through hell as he does it. Even the nature of things that entail, have a different effect. No more crushing helmets, for a long time, at least.

Everything that we do has our inbuilt signature in it. Even a simple thing as making a cup of tea, when made with the right mood, makes it taste different. The doer lends a little of himself to everything that he does. My friend says that no mattr what, however she is feeling manifests itself in some way in the story. It may be an object, a person, anything. This one time she sent me a story about a boy who is going home dejected after an examination, and talks about his adventured with a beggar who was once the son of a successful businessman, who lost everything. The beggar gives him a toffee and tells him to not get disheartened, and so begins a lifelong friendship. The story was beautiful. Just one thing. She wrote this story right after getting her results. And yes, you got it. They didn’t go very well. These things struck me a few days back when I was reading an article on a mother who had a problem with ’too much pink’ and did not want her daughter to follow in the steps of the little mermaid, who gave up her voice for a man who ultimately, she did not get. The story talks about sacrifice, maybe, stupidity, even, I would like to think so at least. I decided to find what other people think. One thing led to another, and very soon I was reading on Hans Andersen and the other stories written by him. There seemed to be a recurring pattern of sadness, or darkness in all of his stories. Be it ‘the ugly duckling’, ‘the little mermaid’, and several others.

I mean think about it. Andersen’s life was one full of feelings of ostracism, alienation, a deep inferiority complex, unrequited love, the works. And his stories always have some element present in it, which shows one or more of these, it is just difficult to grasp sometimes. It says somewhere that after the death of his father, Andersen travelled to Copenhagen to pursue an acting career at the Royal Theatre. Under the patronage of the Theatre’s Jonas Collins, he attended the Copenhagen University which were formative but difficult years for him. Coming from a humble provincial background he had to adjust to bourgeois life in the capital city and competitive realm of the theatre. *

‘The poor duckling didn’t know where it dared stand or where it dared walk. It was so sad, because it looked so ugly and was made fun of by everyone in the duckyard.’ ‘The Ugly Duckling’.

'"Poor little ugly duckling!" the Mother Duck would say. "Why are you so different from the others?" And the ugly duckling felt worse than ever. He secretly wept at night. He felt nobody wanted him.'

Andersen wrote novels, poetry and drama, and began to experiment with the fairy-tale. Most of his work was autobiographical. Its reception, though generally favourable, was not without its critics – amongst them the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Andersen was acutely sensitive to criticism and longed for the approval of the intellectual and social elite. *

In May 1835, Andersen’s first four fairy tales were published under the title Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children). The reception was mixed. Some saw their appeal immediately; others took longer to recognise their worth. Between 1835 and 1842, 15 further tales were published, many based on folk-tales which Andersen had heard as a child. For his second collection, Nye Eventyr (New Fairy Tales, 1843-48), Andersen wrote some of his most important and famous stories. He moved away from traditional folk material towards creating tales that came from his imagination. The words ‘told for children’ were omitted from the new title as Andersen sought to engage adults and children alike. He had found a genre in which he had a unique voice. *

‘Oh, to travel, to travel! If only one could spend one’s life fluttering about! I feel as if the world is my home and I shall, I must, frolic about in that home.’ - Mitt Livs Eventyr

"Oh, how I'd love to go up there and at last see the sky, which everyone says is so pretty, and hear the voices of humans and smell the scent of the flowers!" - The Little Mermaid

In both books, the ugly duckling and the little mermaid, you always find common elements of the ‘big, bad world’. The mermaid’s family warning her not to go into the world of men where she does not belong, but she does so, giving up her voice to the sea witch in exchange for legs, and once she reaches there, she only finds despair. The ugly duckling is ridiculed wherever he goes due to his inferior looks. Nobody accepts him. They are both misfits, longing for acceptance. She, from the prince, he, from society. And both these elements are reflected in Andersen’s life. He faces a spate of rejections from his objects of affection, and longs for acceptance of his work, and himself. There is a deep sense of ambition in both characters. What seem like innocuous parables to us, belie deep, unsettling feelings of loneliness and want.

As the duckling, he gets a happy ending, as the beautiful swan. Everybody bows down to him, humbled by his beauty and grace. An excerpt from the passage -

““Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.

Into the garden presently came some little children, and threw bread and cake into the water.

“See,” cried the youngest, “there is a new one;” and the rest were delighted, and ran to their father and mother, dancing and clapping their hands, and shouting joyously, “There is another swan come; a new one has arrived.

Then they threw more bread and cake into the water, and said, “The new one is the most beautiful of all; he is so young and pretty.” And the old swans bowed their heads before him.

Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder-tree bent down its bows into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

This incident is reflected in his acceptance and literary praises showered on him. He received the Knighthood of the Red Eagle from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1846, and the Maximilian Order of Art and Science from King Maximilian II of Bavaria in 1859. He was made an Honorary Citizen of Odense in 1867.

But sadly, there is no such happy ending for our mermaid. She is shown as a girl who gives up everything for love. Her feet hurt with every step she takes, she leaves her world behind, gives her voice away, but she endures it all, for love, hoping the prince would return her love. But he is in love with someone else. It pierces her heart, and she longs to go back to the sea world. Her sisters give her a knife which she can use to pierce his heart and make her tail reappear. Blinded by despair, she almost does it, but at the last moment, throws it away. She walks away from the kingdom and throws herself in the sea, casting one last disdainful look at the world behind her. But just as she is about to die, she hears a voice. She becomes an angel, for her love, kindness and purity. This all seems very noble, and maybe I am being a little harsh, but i would not encourage any girl to do something like this. She was a dreamer, she longed to see the world, did so much for love. Call me cynical, but I would not endorse anything like this. And this again, to some extent showed Andersen’s own predicament. In the original version, some say, the angels do not appear, but I suppose it was added to sugar-coated for bed-time story consumption.

So, all in all, I feel, that the next time you are reading something, google a little about the author. You never know what you might find. Maybe if Andersen would have found his love eventually, perhaps the little mermaid and Sebastian would’ve got something going on, eh? I always loved that crab :)

*Wikipedia, several links