Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Losing everything

A month and a half ago, a minor fire broke out at my workplace. It was caused by a short circuit in my boss’s cabin. Fortunately, it occurred in the night when no one was around, and even more fortunately, it was spotted by security personnel who quickly contained it even before the fire brigade arrived. But the cabin was completely destroyed. One half was a black, charred mass of paper and wood; the other half was covered with soot and embers. The soft board, once a colourful collage of photographs and Post It’s, was scorched to bits, exposing the wooden frame behind it. The telephone was a mangled, fused heap. There even was a black spot on the 25-foot high ceiling.

My boss was in a mild shock that day. She lamented about losing her papers, photographs and other paraphernalia which she’d accumulated over the last 18 years. As I brushed away the embers from my desk, a sudden fear gripped me. What if the fire had spread to my cubicle which was adjacent to her cabin? My thoughts immediately went to the printouts of all my work neatly stacked in the drawers. I’d harangued the art director for almost a year to collect all those printouts. What if the fire…? I quickly made plans to transport all my work home.

It took a moment for the absurdity of that plan to sink in. If tragedy chose you, there was no escape. I was as vulnerable at home as at any place on earth. The reality and inevitability of loss never hit me harder. I did a quick mental inventory of all the things that were dearest to me. My heart lurched when I thought of my precious books. Anything, but them, I decided.

This half-forgotten incident and the accompanying thoughts came back to me as I watched the tsunami coverage on TV. There was that phrase repeated over and over again… ‘People who have lost everything...’ Amid all the heart-rending scenes of loss, there was one that disturbed me immensely. A Muslim man was offering prayers alone in a corner of a dargah. The reporter mentioned that ‘he’d lost everything’. Everything included three children and all seven grandchildren. He spoke in a sad yet calm voice while the translations appeared on screen. ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. It is the cycle of life.’

Perhaps he was numb with shock, but his calm acceptance disturbed me more than all the grief stricken images I had seen. My mental inventory of a month-and-a-half ago never featured people. It was just too terrifying to do that. I cannot imagine what coping mechanisms he, and others who’ve lost ‘everything’, will use. I cannot imagine what the days ahead will be like when the numbness wears off. I can only pray, and help in a very small way.

P.S. Amazing efforts at Tsunami Help. A never-before reaction to a never-before calamity! Do visit and help.

Monday, December 20, 2004

SWADES: A review

It was a rare event for me – watching a Hindi film, and that too on the weekend of its release. But the unusual publicity stills of Swades and the buzz surrounding it, had peaked my curiosity. Luckily, J had extra tickets and I tagged along, despite the fact that it was a 10 p.m. show. My brain usually downs the shutters at midnight and everything after that is a blur.

But I had no problem staying awake, even though my neighbour on the left went into a mouth-agape slumber post interval. That’s one thing that can be said about Swades; it’s an engrossing film even though it proceeds at a bullock cart pace.

The theme of an NRI coming face to face with the real India has been explored before; in Hyderabad Blues, for instance. But where the protagonist of Hyderabad Blues feels disconnected and disillusioned, Mohan Bhargava of Swades gets into action right from the start. Whether it’s pulling down caste barriers, canvassing for education, bringing electricity to the village or charming the uptight school teacher, he does it all in fewer than 5 weeks. Hindi film heroes!

However, despite the crusading, Bhargava comes across as earnest and credible. He starts out as the unwitting do-gooder, but the turning point is when he goes on a journey and sees the poverty-stricken face of rural India. The scene which underlines his transition is poignant; the Bisleri-toting Bhargava buys a cup of water from a waif at a railway station, and tears roll down his eyes as he drinks it. The Non-Resident Indian finally becomes a part of the Indian reality.

But symbolic gestures are few, and the film does get rather preachy at times especially about Bharatiya parampara and sanskriti. But Bhargava echoes my sentiments when he tells the village elder who gloats about India having values and culture, ‘That’s what we always take refuge in.’ He even boldly goes on to say that India isn’t a great nation, but has the ability to become one. He lays bare all of India’s shortcomings, but most importantly, gets down to action. Like he says, everyone blames the system, but we are part of the system. So rather than passing the buck, he gets the villagers to be participate in generating their own electricity supply.

For once, it seems like reality has caught up Hindi cinema. No designer villages, no buxom gao ki goris doing ‘item numbers’, no photogenic mustard fields. The faces are real. The problems are real. The dust and grime is real, disconcertingly so. Only the frequent songs remind you that you’re watching a film.

It’s hard to imagine Shahrukh Khan minus the hammy, bumbling act. But his is an amazingly restrained performance in the film. As an NRI struggling to come to terms with an India stuck in a time warp, he is credible and endearing. I can’t say the same of the female lead though. Her manicured nails and dainty mannerisms stuck out in the ‘real’ picture. Call me picky, but Bhargava’s nanny, Kaveriamma, also struck a discordant note. A fine performance notwithstanding, I couldn’t help wondering what a south Indian was doing in a distinctly north Indian village. Or did I miss a national integration message here? Hmm… maybe I should leave logic at home next time.

Minor peeves aside, I liked the film. The director has bravely sidestepped many of the clichés one has come to associate with Hindi films. I liked the fact that Bhargava chose to leave the village despite being guilt-tripped about sanskriti and parampara. And that his decision to return isn’t impulsive but well thought through. The supporting cast is excellent, especially the postman and the dhaba owner. The humour isn’t forced, thankfully. Little gems stand out. For instance, the nanny asks Bhargava, ‘Tumhara nasha kaisa hai?’ and it turns out she’s asking about NASA!

Images from the film were still unspooling in my mind, when we trooped out of the theatre at 2 a.m. It was extraordinarily late, even for a late night show, but that’s because the 10 p.m. show had started at 10.45. The reason for the delay couldn’t have been more ironic - a power failure during the earlier show!

Yeh jo des hai mera…

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tuesday with Teresa

Continued from An Introduction to Spain

I had asked Teresa to meet me at the Regal Cinema in Colaba. As my cab reached the venue, I spotted her looking a trifle lost. She was wearing what appeared to be a cross between a kurta and a nightie. On closer inspection, I decided it was a nightie.

‘Can I hug you?,’
she asked, ‘It’s a custom in Spain and it’s been so long since I hugged someone.’

I was too bewildered to refuse. But I was struck by her candour. And her loneliness.

‘So what did you do in the last two days,’ I asked. We were standing on the steps of Regal Cinema. Except for a few stragglers, there was no one around.

Teresa began to reel off the tourist spots that she’d visited, occasionally consulting her Lonely Planet. I was impressed.

‘You went on your own?’
I asked.

‘No, the security guard in my hotel came along,
’ she replied.

But she ended up seeing a lot more than the Lonely Planet recommended. Apparently the ‘Mumbai darshan’ had ended at Chowpatty. And as they sat on the beach eating bhel puri, the security guard decided he’d found the love of his life…

‘He tells me I love you and want to marry you,” she said, arms flailing again. ‘I say, it’s ok. You’ll meet someone else. But he starts hugging me. And kisses me on the cheek.’

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Teresa someone saw this amorous exchange and alerted the police, who promptly took them both to the police station.

‘The police tell me such behaviour is not tolerated in our country. I tell them I didn’t do anything. But they say I shouldn’t go with such people,’ she said, all too rapidly.

The police interrogated her for a couple of hours. Later, one of them softened a bit.

‘He explains how I must not trust people, how I must be more careful. And he tells me, if you don’t have a friend in the city, I will be your friend.’

Uh-oh I thought. The sordid saga continues…

Thankfully that was the end. The police detained the security guard and allowed her to leave.

‘Did you complain about the guard to the hotel in-charge,’
I asked, knowing her reply fully well.

No,’ she said, ‘I didn’t want to get him into trouble. He’s very young boy and just very lonely.’

She brushed away all further objections and asked instead, ‘What you think of my dress?’

I made polite noises about the nightie while she raved about the colour and the print. She chattered happily. The ‘sight-seeing’ incident of the morning was now behind her.

We walked down Colaba causeway looking for ‘Indian clothes’.

We stepped into one of the export surplus stores, with clothes spilling out of boxes and racks, almost onto the pavement. I tugged at a pile of clothes, so did Teresa. One thing became clear; our tastes didn’t match. So I let her do the tugging.

She settled on three pieces, preening in front of the mirror. The owner refused to bargain, curtly pointing to the ‘fixed price only’ cardboard sign. Teresa paid up and we exited from the cramped, airless store.

‘Thank you, Layla’, she said, when we could breathe again, ‘now you must let me take you for a meal.’

Sure, I said, feeling no need to be coy and polite with Teresa. I suggested Kailas Parbat, a place well known for North Indian snacks.

Oh yesterday this lady invited me to her house for Indian food…’ she said casually, as we walked down Causeway.

I was immediately suspicious, quite expecting another unpleasant episode.

Over ‘bahut bahut kam teekha’ pani puri and dahi sev batata puri, she shared about her dinner experience. She had been sitting on a bench on the Apollo pier and had struck up a conversation with another woman there. After the usual pleasantries, the woman on the bench insisted on taking Teresa home for dinner.

Teresa went on, ‘I had dal, roti, something made of brinjal, and lots of water,’ she said waving a hand in front of her mouth, as if to put out an imaginary fire.

We laughed. Thankfully, the dinner didn’t have a dark side to it. But I told Teresa that she shouldn’t trust people so easily.

‘I know, but people are so nice too,’ she said, her eyes shining. ‘I trusted you and see…’

I didn’t know what to say. I felt a bit protective about her because she was alone. But she seemed to know what she was doing and was ready to accept all outcomes. I marvelled at her equanimity.

We exchanged email addresses. And she surprised me by signing her name in Hindi.

‘I can write a little, but I can’t speak much,’
she laughed.

‘Oh, you have a year to learn’,
I told her, and instinctively hugged her.

I haven’t heard from her yet. But I’m sure she’ll pop up in my inbox one of these days, relating some adventure, some experience. I only hope they’re good stories.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

An introduction to Spain

I met Teresa at the 1-day Vipassana course at Gorai last Sunday. She was a plump Spanish girl, ostensibly in her late 20s and spoke English with a charming accent and with much flailing of hands. She wore a white kurta and beige cotton trousers, and said a respectful ‘Namaste’ to everyone who smiled at her.

One of the assistants asked if I could drop her off at the railway station. I agreed. Another middle aged woman in a bright yellow sari volunteered as well, presumably captivated by Teresa’s profuse Namaste’s. The three of us walked to the Esselworld pier to take the ferry to Gorai.

I didn’t want to seem intrusive, but I was curious about Teresa, about what drew her to Vipassana. She had no qualms sharing, thankfully. She said that she worked in a bookstore in Spain, and was introduced to Vipassana by a friend two years ago. But there were no introductory courses in Spain at that time, so she travelled to France. ‘I stayed at the centre for 3 ½ months,’ she said, ‘I did a 10 day course each month and assisted at the centre for the rest of the time.’

She laughed at my incredulous expression and offered by way of explanation, ‘After I did the first course, I felt I wasn’t ready to get back into the world, so I stayed there for a while.’

In the ferry, the yellow sari lady pulled out a single toffee from her bag and offered it to me. I made polite noises and declined. She offered it to Teresa who accepted it delightedly. The yellow sari lady looked very gratified and boldly pushed another toffee in my palm.

‘Your country is very nice,’
she said, ‘but not so nice for me to buy things here. If I go to buy Indian clothes, they charge me double.’

I sympathised with her, and impulsively offered, ‘Would you like me to take you to some places in town?’

She readily agreed, without any coyness. Her trusting nature amazed and worried me.

The auto drivers on the other side of the creek called out respectfully when they saw the three of us, ‘Yes medem, Boroli teshun?’ Respect turned into belligerence when I flatly told them I would only pay by the meter. Finally, one acquiesced and we headed back into the chaos of the city.

‘Obviously Vipassana made a big difference to you, since you decided to come here…’ I murmured, hoping it didn’t sound nosy.

She nodded and added, ‘But everyone in my family thinks I’m…’ She tapped the side of her head and pulled a comic face. ‘My friends say, we respect your decision, but they don’t understand it. I feel so lonely in my country.’

So that’s why she headed eastwards. She had a year’s visa, an open ticket and no plan. She was to go to Igatpuri, do a few courses, serve at the centre and then head out to the Vipassana centres in Bodh Gaya or Nepal.

‘I feel good being here. I feel happy,’
she said.

She was either supremely equanimous or supremely naïve, I decided. She’d just told me of the harrowing morning spent going round in circles and getting fleeced by cab drivers on the way to Gorai.

We were stuck in an almighty traffic jam for a while. Finally, the ‘source’ of the jam lumbered into view. An elephant!

Teresa clapped her hands and exclaimed, ‘Oooh, Ive never seen an elephant before.’ I started laughing and almost had a choking fit when she said, ‘Aaj main bahoot khush hoon.’ Even the hitherto unimpressed auto driver gawped at her in the rear view mirror.

The hordes at ‘Bolivari station’ (as Teresa called it) played the usual ‘avoid-subway-dodge-traffic’ game. I looked at Teresa to see if she was overwhelmed by it all. She seemed caught up in the adventure of it.

The yellow sari lady couldn’t keep up with the conversation in English, so I stopped every few moments to translate. Suddenly Teresa asked her, ‘Aap khush hai.’ The yellow sari lady blinked in surprise.

Teresa turned to me, ‘Is that an inappropriate question?’

I guessed the yellow sari lady had a problem understanding the accent and translated. She looked surprised again, like the question had never occurred to her, and said bemusedly, ‘Main khush hi to hoon. Khush na hone ki kya baat hai.’

She went away shaking her head. Meanwhile, Teresa was captivated by the food stalls at the station. ‘Do you want to have a juice?’ she asked. I looked warily at the nimbupani wondering if she had the stomach for it. She seemed keen, so I suggested a Frooti. She sipped it and smacked her lips, marvelling, ‘In my country the juices are so watery. This is so tasty and thick.’ I couldn’t help laughing, because I disliked Frooti for the same reason.

‘So we meet on Tuesday?’ she asked a little anxiously. ‘If it’s out of your way, I could come to Bolivari’.

When I assured her that it was no problem, she thanked me and then hugged me.

‘Um… hasta la vista,’ I murmured. She threw back her head and laughed.

Next: Tuesday with Teresa.