An unobtrusive, luminous thing


I have never thought of it like this – the special kind of ‘empty’ unstructured time you get to have when you are mainly home watching over a young child – gives you moments that you never expected – or ways of looking at the same, familiar sights, in an entirely new way.

Nearly 20 years ago, when my parents were able to invest in this house and make it their own, they took great pride in giving it personal touches to mark their particular aesthetic sensibility on its walls and interiors – my father would have thrown his head back and guffawed if he was around to read this – ‘sensibility?’ he would have said – ‘what exactly does that pretentious word mean anyway?!’

Both shared an interest in the crafts, both were drawn to simple, earthy design, and both had discovered a wonderful architect at a local Laurie Baker centre not too far from our new, and for the first time, owned home.

So even though resources were tight and a complete makeover was impossible, they found ingenuous ways with the architect, now part of the family as son and brother, to remove the sordidness of a banal, basic flat.

One of the improvements they decided to add was to cut a long room into two by building a trademark Laurie Baker feature – an exposed brick arch – which discreetly announced the separation of two spaces – a dining and living room area – and my father in his desire to add his own flourish to it requested Anna (the architect) to insert asymmetrical marble planks underneath the two half arches adjoining the main structure.

I used to be a tad embarrassed by their incongruity, the fact that they didn’t look like marble and that they were asymmetrical. But I knew better than to argue with my father about it.

Yesterday, as T and I lay in the hall, with our old water cooler blowing lovely cool air towards us and further on down the length of the house, I noticed light bouncing off the marble plank as though it were a piece of glass, and I thought to myself, what a wonderful quirky presence it brings to an otherwise deliberately draped and darkened space to stave off the hot sun; a quiet, unobtrusive, luminous thing.

And that reminded me of my father of course and I thought 9 years after his passing I’m at greater peace with my grief over his physical absence and quite certain in ways that sound ludicrous and mad that he is not and can never really be ever gone.

The magic between children


At a busy street corner, a fair distance from home, there are nearly always a bunch of street children hanging around, doing cartwheels for anyone who may want to tip them for it, coming around to the car windows and pressing their noses against the glass, shielding their eyes from the strong mid-morning sun and trying to peer in to gauge the possibility of getting some money.

Many years ago when the spot used to be part of my daily trudge to work in the centre of Delhi, I had become a known face. A young girl would always come up to have a chat about what she felt like eating on the day and I began carrying fruits for her. She wasn’t usually impressed by my wares – usually bananas or oranges – wanting chips or biscuits instead but was eventually satisfied if not pleased to take whatever it was I had.

Little T began noticing these children when she was about 2 years old and used to lunge and hide behind me or mum while wanting at the same time to take a peek.

When she was able to say what she wanted to – a couple of months ago – she asked what they were doing there, why their Mamma wasn’t around and why they weren’t wearing shoes.

I told her what I could and said there was no reason to duck and hide – that they meant no harm. She wasn’t entirely convinced but has tried since then to remain seated and more or less in the same position when the children come around asking for money.

One time, a particularly cheerful girl came by and nearly lunged her hand in to ask for money which absolutely terrified T. But when the little street girl noticed the effect what she had done had had on a fellow child (T) she cringed, tried hard to make eye contact with her and once she had coaxed T to look at her, broke into an impromptu jiggle to make T laugh.

For her sake, the lights didn’t change for a while or the row of cars in front of us didnt get to budge much keeping us stationary for quite a while. And it was only when this little girl saw T relax and smile back at her did she stop her theatrics, pleased to have broken a barrier, to have established between them the fact that she had meant no harm, especially not to T and that the two of them were after all, although separated so horribly and unfairly by so many privileges and inequalities, children first.

The memmory of that episde still brings a smile to my face – the series of expressions on that girl’s face – at first the embarrassment and sorrow for having turned off a child and then the glee and gratitude when the child she was trying to connect to yielded – and eventually generously – with the biggest smile.

In our daily race of living, it is so easy to not have the time to notice the special people children are. If only we could provide more and more of them the kind of space that that little anonymous girl on the street had created, by herself, for her and T, we would make this a better place for them and us.

Happiness


A patch of green right in front of our flat getting cleaned up. The insistent roar of lawn mowers. A group of bored looking maalis laden with sacks of dark earth, seeds, planting equipment. Quietly busy for days on end. Coming in the mornings, leaving in the afternoons, shifting wordlessly the heavy, long pipes spouting stinky, untreated water – the only kind that can be used so generously in our part of the city for non sentient beings or so we believe.

Six cheerful neon coloured benches parked in various spots.

And already, flower beds blooming. Purple and magenta heads bobbing in the breeze and an entire swathe of smiling yellow heads – the ever cheerful sunflowers. A few bushes ringed with clutches of white, red and pink flowers with translucent petals and long, bendy, fragile stems.

The local cricket team graciously opting to play on the other side of this now fertile part.

The sun shining down, pleasantly warm. It’s occasional sting eased by a wonderful breeze.

A fraying carpet no longer too loved to always have to live the good life, now used as a picnic mat.

Little T, mum and I waiting for my friend and her girl to come.

And in the interim, a sort of march past of nearly all the neighbourhood families we know – stopping by, asking after T – our block of flats’ only or in any case most adored little person; remarking on the lovely weather, the picnic mat, while she does circles around me, soaking in all the warmth, giggling, half falling, rising, smiling.

Finally, after a seemingly eternal wait, our little troop of picnickers arriving.

T and her friend quickly getting ready with their plastic pails, picking grass, showering the flower beds with ‘grass rain’, picking up stones, coming to us each time they find an especially spectacular one, our gossiping in the snatches of minutes we get between their sojourns to us; proud, happy, ‘beached whale’ mammas.

What is wrong with us?


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.

GENERATIONAL SHIFT

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?

The State?

You?

Me?

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.

A sentimental state of mind


It sounds like such sentimental trash. But it’s true. Old friends, true friends, good friends morph themselves to do and be exactly what you need when you reach out to them.

You could have last spoken to them years ago, last seen them a decade ago, last exchanged real news of each other’s lives even further away in time gone by, and yet, when you reconnect, all the good things are right there to be had, unconditionally.

Isn’t that amazing.

They will tell you the nice lies when needed — that the clothes look great, that the grey hairs peeking out suit you, that life is a shit, (sometimes!) that your choice of restaurant is impeccable even if they drove half way across town to get there — all in all, reassure you when you are all but crumpled, and make you feel like the best thing on earth when you have all but given up.

What would I do without them?

One day I shall perhaps flesh this out and give them names!

But until then, please know, all of you out there, whom I have been so inattentive to, for so many years, that without your love and support and ungrudging presence as and when I have called around, keeps me ‘on the path’, keeps me sane, keeps me happy, keeps me keen.

What more could I possibly ask for?!

The lives people live…


The lives people live…

My current station (and it is funny how often I’ve begun using this word), as a mum working from home, gives me a great deal of time and space to really look at the lives people lead around me.

And it doesn’t cease to amaze me with what courage, endurance and grace those who have the most challenging responsibilities, carry out the various humdrum tasks that make up most everyday lives.

The other day, anxious to get a second opinion about little T’s recurring chest infections, we decided to consult a friend’s paediatric mum. Although I had met her umpteen times at the school gates, when she would replace her daughter to pick up their little Z, seeing her in her own home, made me register her physical presence as though for the first time.

A small-built, large-eyed, long-haired woman, she embodied at the same time the easy, disarming, child-friendly mannerisms all good paediatrics (and a lot of the times, female ones) assume while retaining a hard-to-miss quickness of wit and for the lack of a better phrase, a cutting and impersonal ruthlessness of one imbued with a scientific temper in the way she surveyed habits, enunciation and living conditions. (More on this, in a bit.)

She ushered us in, in to her pleasantly sunlit sitting room and while asking me about T’s symptoms in great detail, she kept an eagle eye on T as she slowly got comfortable in the place, encouraging her to explore her terrace garden and stopping me from checking her about using the toddler bicycle parked in Z’s guest room.

While simply watching T in this fashion, she fathomed that although T did still carry the reside of a viral infection, she was definitely on the mend given that she was jumping around trying out the doctor’s furniture and that she was not wheezing while doing so and that she was talking to us quite animatedly in the midst of her antics.

In a couple of minutes, encouraged by the doctor’s sincere openness and generosity, T ventured into the recesses of the house and discovered there was an elderly grandpa resting in a room.

Although my friend had told me about it, I didn’t quite know how to broach the subject. But once my little girl chanced upon him, I got a great way to ask whether that was indeed my friend’s granddad.

The doctor said it was — her 98-year-old dad who had been living with her and the family for the last 10 years.

And then just as she began talking about him, her ‘professional’ face fell. She became, just the grown up daughter of her elderly dad who was thankfully (for himself and her), still mobile, coherent, expressive and communicative but at his age of course, frail, and in need of frequent rest.

And I thought, how ingeniously people and especially women find ways of carrying out their responsibilities as mothers and grandmothers; as wives and daughters, and when needed, all at the same time.

For not only does she care for her elderly father in her home (which she runs along with her husband), she also babysits her granddaughter when she is back from playschool and of course loans her home and all its well-oiled services to her lawyer daughter when she needs to run to court to attend to any pressing case.

And although each role doesn’t necessarily overlap with the other, in the work she needs to do and the attention she needs to give, she finds a way of somehow doing them all, energetically, with great involvement and in a spirit of optimism.

God bless her and all the other people I have had the opportunity to know in the last few years who do so much, without ever thinking they are, and without ever acknowledging how pivotal they are to the sanity, health and happiness of so many around them.

And I am proud to add, even if as a postscript, that this of course includes my wonderful, never tiring, ever loving mum who is now far more little T’s grandmum than my mum!

A clash of cultures


Being on opposite sides of the work-flex debate probably only fueled our already obvious differences.

The head of editorial and production at a large publishing and printing-house began the exchange badly by asking whether I thought I was the only parent in all of Delhi who had a child at home.

And worse, actually said, with all sincerity, that a three-year old child did not deserve to be called little anymore.

The immediate cause of her ire was that I, despite being shortlisted for what she certainly thought was a hot job at her organisation as head of copy, had the gall to enquire if I could do half days simply because I did not want to be at the other end of this large, sprawling city for more than a couple of hours.

Now, a few hours after the rather unpleasant and unbecoming exchange, I can actually feel compassion for her. And I don’t at all mean it sarcastically. (Well, okay, a tiny bit…: )

I mean this is what all of us are drilled with day in and day out.

The cost of living is rising, a good education costs a lot, the older you get, especially as a woman, and even worse, as a mother, the less desirable you are to the work force, children need to get used to the harsh realities of the world and not be molly coddled, they can thrive equally well in the hands of an ayah and so on and so forth.

I can’t dare say the first few concerns don’t affect me but I am quite sure that suitable work, preferably not too far from home and preferably not full-day, will eventually work out.

Simply because things do have a way of working out.

Or so I believe so far.

And until then I can bask in the glory of being told by our favourite cab company’s head on the same day as this godforsaken job interview that he was very touched when I corrected the little three-year old when she called him (as a lot of people unfortunately in this culture and this city do), ‘driver’ — as though he were a job, not a person.

He said it had meant the world to him that there was at least one young child who was being taught to not mindlessly replicate the predominant abhorrent etiquette of addressing those considered beneath their class or station, by their occupation, rather than their names.

Hurrah!