The smell of freshly fried fish fingers at a cosy little elementary school in Rome.
The strong, pungent smell of garlic bread fresh out of an oven just beneath my parent’s one room flat on Via Panisperna.
The romance between Peter and Mauri on the winding stairs down from ours to the office below.
My gawking at them when they kissed wondering how they didn’t tumble-down the stairs while doing so.
The ancient, clunky lift in the well of the ancient building housing my father’s news agency and our flat above.
The sight of my father, thickly bespectacled, with scores of newspapers before him, and a cigar or cigarette perennially lit between his lips, impatiently turning the pages of what he was reading while smiling benevolently at me when I went by, on occasion, to hang out at his office.
My love of the sights and sounds of a busy newsroom.
A thick yellow light drenching my father and his colleagues. Their always seeming to be talking unnecessarily loudly in order to be heard above the din of typewriters, always clanking away in the background.
The wonderful smell of apple shampoo in our tiny bathroom.
The bubbles it made – fragrant and huge.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee from my mum’s little kitchen.
The noisy arrival of my father, his protegé, Peter, and other hanger-ons up the stairs, into our little flat, their heavy collapsing into the few pieces of furniture that we either rented or owned.
Long leisurely lunches filled with conversation and laughter often ending with someone or the other knocking down nearly empty wine flutes.
Peter playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Lennon and Genesis.
My father playing Ravi Shankar whom I distinctly remember he didn’t much care for, back home.
My playing for hours on end, behind the door leading to the small sitting room, with an immense and colourful UNICEF puzzle that consisted of putting a group of children’s hands correctly into each other’s, as they stood half-smiling at me.
The noise of Rome’s vegetable markets. The smell especially of celery.
The stink to my nose of its various meats.
The beautiful and delicious pastries down the street from home.
The numerous ice cream cones my mum and I devoured after she picked me up from a school bus-stop.
The dark, deep delight of chocolate.
The one time I travelled on the school bus with my classmate Peter to his home when mum wasn’t at the bus-stop.
His mother being so kind and attentive to me.
The game machines, rudimentary back then, in the ‘corner stores’ where I played and won small trinkets – which were always surprisingly appropriate to the desires of an eight year old girl – hairpins, rubber-bands, scented erasers.
The gorgeous stationary.
The Italian Pablo and the Spanish Pablo gifting me handcrafted leather-bound sets of colour pencils and deliciously thick crayons.
The tall, cold glass of milk at school.
My best friend Bianca so eager to learn English from me.
My embarrassment at being ‘too attached’ to my mother in comparison to her seeming independence from her own mammy. Feisty, bright-eyed, sun-speckled Bianca.
My insisting on wanting to see Venice as part of school ‘field work’ on Marco Polo.
The pigeons in Venice: so many, so tame, so willing to be fed.
One sitting on top of my head.
The wonderful way my father’s colleagues loved my mother. The open home she kept, the delicious food she made, the lovely saris she wore, the way she always made it seem as though working hard was fun, enjoyable and deeply satisfying.
The larger than life, Indian intelligence officer who loved to see me giggle when he drove us around, at great speed, in his always immense automobiles, always nattily dressed, always smelling of cigars and strong, manly perfume.
My mum getting drunk once. Really drunk. At an Indian embassy party. Her crying. My crying. My father trying to console us.
A window in the sitting room at home out of which I saw clothes flapping on lines tied between our building and the one next to it.
The easy banter between neighbours.
My speaking Italian easily, fluently. My becoming my parents’ translator.
People on our street calling out to me, ‘Ciao Bella! Indiana Bambina!’
My wanting to have ‘bangs’. The high-end barber at the end of our street turning red with embarrassment when my mum offers to pay for what he says ‘izz not, NOTTT a hair cut ATT ALLL!’
Visiting the British Council library and feeling at home in the midst of English language book titles.
Sensing, without being able to describe it, how ‘un-Italian’ the staff were.
The way the most ordinary streets were full of extraordinary beauty.
Door knobs, flights of stairs, water fountains, shop windows.
The way children were always ALWAYS heard and seen and loved.
The visit to English Vic’s Italian family.
The delicious pasta his large, gentle, bespectacled mum-in-law made. Ripe tomatoes, abundant garlic; the warm sun, the beautiful, golden Laura, then Vic’s wife. My little friend, with golden locks for hair, Lorenzo, their son.
Going out with Peter and Mauri in their car to the sea.
Riding on Peter’s back as he swam out, me shrieking in delight, him proud and happy like a young father.
Our returning late.
My worried parents.
A late meal at home. My falling asleep in the midst of it – listening to their conversation.
My writing a stupid letter to the Queen of England and handing it to Peter whose mum worked for the Queen!
My receiving a reply from her office thanking me for my wishes and my wonderful drawing!
And yet despite all this, a nagging longing for home.
My missing my aunts, the smell of earth, the rains, the trains, the people, the sounds.
Our journey back with Michella, my Italian speaking doll in tow.
Her ‘talking’ button accidentally coming on in the airport making for some embarrassed apologies from my parents and eventual joviality among the airport staff.
The flight home. Alitalia. My loving the way the word sounded and looked. So many A’s, all perfectly placed.
The memory of my aunts receiving us.
The feeling of time well spent in a magical world. Happiness at getting back.
My little girl and I LOVE squirrels.
They are tiny, quick-witted, fast-moving, with long swishy tails and perky little faces dotted with dark, shiny eyes and tiny o mouths.
Our neighbour whose courtyard is flooded with sunlight for nearly as long as the sun is in the sky has over many weeks and months got a loyal following of a large group of squirrels.
She feeds them peanuts and grains and sometimes even makes them special rotis often embarrassing her teenaged children’s sense of cool.
We went to join her one afternoon and were soon surrounded by these little darting creatures to little T’s delight.
But since they hadn’t yet made an acquaintance with her, they sped away the moment she tried feeding them peanuts after prising open their shells after long spells of concentration and effort.
She looked up at me and asked – ‘why aren’t they stopping for me?’
‘They dont know you yet, T, and maybe they are scared you may harm them,’ I replied.
‘But all I want to do is feed them, mamma! And I LOVE them! How can they not know??’
Well…what could I say?
Our neighbour intervened helpfully and suggested – ‘why dont you stand close to me, and try not moving too much, they may come to you then’.
And happen it did. First one little furry creature and then another and then a little crowd of them came towards T, emboldened by her staying impressively still and her clutching on to a fist full of peanuts.
Once they came closer, she too felt more confident and knelt down to prise open peanut shells and then proceeded to make little squishy bits of them ‘because their mouths are SO small’.
One little squirrel whom she nicknamed Tum Tum then proceeded to come and eat exactly those little bits that T had so lovingly made bite-size for him/her.
The joy of that communion!
Nothing comes close to the delight of seeing young children and the younglings of other creatures play together – without props, without gadgets, without prompting, without pre-set rules and even in a way without the expectation of wanting to repeat what had happened in exactly the same place or same way.
Thank god for kind and generous neighbours, the sun, squirrels, peanuts and little ones.
Sociologists are often ridiculed for being unnecessarily interested in questions about social cohesion.
‘What set of factors makes a collectivity, tick?’
I am not a certified sociologist.
But I did spend a considerable chunk of my valuable 20s engaged at least formally in its study.
THE DREAM OF BELONGING
And I find I am struggling to apply what I had heard, picked up, learnt during those years, especially the time I spent under the rough and brilliant tutelage of an exceptionally insightful, original and charismatic professor, to the horrific gang-rape that has sparked a genuine mass movement in Delhi and beyond.
One of the first things that comes to my mind, when considering the brutal episode is how unconcerned and unthoughtful most of us are about the larger collectivity we are part of.
As so many journalists rightly say, most of us, (by which I mean the privileged, English-speaking, income earning, middle class) live and flourish by making it an effortless habit to curtain off our lives and routines from the ‘general public’ because we can afford to and because it does, most times, keep us ‘safer’ than we’d be, if jostling with the aam aadmi.
I mean who would I be kidding if I say walking out and getting on to a regular bus to go even a few stops from home is a truly pleasurable experience?!
And yet, I do think there is a subtle shift in the power game on the streets from the time I was a college student and used to ‘rough it out’ on the infamous mudrikas that ply Delhi’s Ring Road.
I remember even the bravest amongst us would just choose to not pick a fight when it came to jeers or leers or ugly pokes and innuendos from the numerous louts travelling on the buses.
I remember travelling usually in packs.
I remember just knowing that it was probably in my best interest to not be on my own, or as I thought to myself, ‘unnecessarily daring’ when darkness fell.
Now, when I see college students waiting to board a bus or for that matter a metro train, I see a confidence and courage that I think my college mates and I lacked.
I see it in my 21-year-old niece who travels mostly on her own, on public transport, to a prestigious school for Mass Communications.
They, like the young girl who died after an incredibly spirited fight against her attackers/rapists, do not subscribe to the gentle admonitions of their doting mothers, or aunts for that matter!
THE NEW FEARLESS
Empowered by a radically more connected world, awareness of their rightful place as equals in this society, and their very youth, they stride out fearlessly and demand to be treated with respect; fight back, even if mainly verbally, to any and every kind of abuse or harassment and are ready to demand fearlessly their right to travel, study, work and live in freedom and dignity.
And yet, entire swathes of the city are still home to women far from empowered, too often poorly educated and often ‘illiterate’; bound to debts in the village they had to leave behind or flee; bound to their men, family, children; slaving away in our homes to just make it through; dutifully tolerating drunken, abusive, disloyal husbands, who view them as their slaves, and who, in their women’s seeming submission, continue to think that the world outside is just an extension of their homes.
Ram Singh, the main accused in the gang-rape is said to have confessed that they were out on a ‘joy-ride’, hoping to ‘catch’ some sex workers, failing which any woman sighted on the roads would ‘do’.
A ‘REVEALING’ ADVERTISEMENT
There is an advertisement for an online clothing and shopping company called Myntra which comes often enough on television.
A few weeks ago, when i saw it for the first time, I thought to myself the girl who features in it does seem rather cheeky and yet pleasantly or at least entertainingly so.
Now, when I think of it, I am quite sure what Ram Singh would think.
Which is not to say that everything needs to be made keeping his demented, misogynist perspective in mind but that you can be sure, that if he were to watch it, he wouldn’t get anything about the video being a kind of victory for freedom of expression, not to mention an individual’s right to sensuality.
The problem I think is that a nuanced discussion of individual right to freedom of expression doesn’t make much sense to an incompetent, troubled, anti-social lout. (Sorry, that’s become my pet word for this post.)
What does, is possibly therapy, community involvement, skill upgradation, family counseling and a whole host of other compassionate, inclusive and reforming actions.
But who can do this?
For unless, there is greater engagement and awareness of our reality as a collectivity, such brutal instances are not going to stop. It’s a long, hard way ahead but I think the protests and the collective rage mark a promising beginning.