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Photographic words. The everyday with the not-so-routinely stuff that makes life – LIFE

Month

June 2015

25 Year Leap

We reached home early. It was only 11:30 pm, which was early for a typical army party or any party for that matter. Tired, stomach full, and a little tipsy, I drove back home from our officer’s mess to our house, about 1km away. My wife unlocked the door and went in, while I parked the car in the garage downstairs. She went first to the ‘other’ bedroom, switched off the TV that was still on and playing a sentimental song from some new Hindi movie, as a background score to a nonsensical soap opera. These soap operas play such songs for half their running time, while the actors hold their expressions, often that of sadness, shock or despair. Why on earth do people watch this, I wondered. She switched off the light and went to our bedroom.

 
I was not far away. I entered and, like her, went straight to the other room. While all she saw was the light and blazing TV, all I saw was the motionless figure lying on the bed. I smiled and asked softly “Sleeping? You okay?” It’s curious why we ask people that, when we know that if the person is asleep then it is pointless to ask for he can’t answer and if not, then a “yes” would immediately negate it. And yet, we have this innateness to ask the obvious. I suppose it’s reassuring in some way. The figure stirred, turned few degrees to face me and then flashed a big smile and said “Aa gaye?” (Are you back?) In that one moment I flew back 25 years. The time when they would come back from such parties and she would immediately enter my room to check on me, caress me and make me go back to sleep. Her touch was like magic. The sleep that would come thereafter would be more relaxing than the unconscious state I would be in otherwise. That motionless figure was that of my mother! Our roles have reversed. Now we check on her multiple times during the night, just like parents check on their kids. We put on tv for her and change channels for her. Hold her hands so that she can walk. She needs helps with most basic bodily functions. I don’t mind all this but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish if I would get that warm reassuring caress back. The soft stroke of her hand on my hair. The way she would carefully cover me with a blanket and kiss me goodnight. She would leave one of my feet uncovered as that was my most comfortable sleep form and only she knew that. That will never happen. This is one wish that will stay unfulfilled.
Time, can be cunning.

 
Sometimes, I would feign sleep on hearing the car approaching. I would quickly switch off the TV and jump on the bed and lie very still. But my faster breathing and the warm TV screen never fooled either of my parents. Still, they played along. My mom would say “Goodnight beta. Sleep well. Don’t watch TV this late” before retiring to her room. How do parents come to know, I often wondered? They didn’t have a camera in my room, or did they? Maybe it’s some sixth sense or some parent’s sense I read about. Can’t possibly know till I assume that role myself. But it was always so reassuring to find them back in the house. Although I was a brave, rather naughty, little one and could easily hold on my own, their presence in the house meant something to me. Perhaps it would have been different if I had a sibling, or maybe not. Another thing that I would never know.

 
The wasted body on the bed was more than a body and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes, it was little more than a human machine- empty, emotionless, eroding. But today, she remembers. That smile made me remember too.
Her bright banarasi saris and gold jewelry, high heels, laughing red painted mouth, hair set in the latest trend, a big red bindi and vermilion on her forehead. She enjoyed life. She enjoyed these parties and why not, when there was good food, good company, ample laughter and a time off from the daily rut. For her, it was something to dress up for, something she looked forward to. Now the clothes she wears hung on her. The mouth, unpainted, now only smiles to herself. Her forehead is barren, no Bindi and no vermilion. Her hair cut short, scarce and few, are usually unkempt. My wife keeps gifting her new dresses, but my mother hardly cares, hardly knows the difference. That fashionable woman is hardly now a woman, let alone fashionable. Sometimes, my wife paints her nails and my mother would look at her own hands with a child like glee and a sort of open unabashed wonderment, with slow blinking wide eyes and mouth open agape. Memory, rather loss of it, brings old joys back. I suppose that is the only positive that comes from losing it.

 
I accompanied them to many parties till I decided I was too old for it all. In most army parties children weren’t allowed, and this particular memory belongs to one such party. I guess we don’t give enough credit to our memory cells. They allow us a peek into those moments in our past that we can no longer visit. I am thankful to my memory. Very thankful.
My mother, the way she was, is captured and safe in these memories. The power to recollect isn’t completely in my hands, but when these memory cells gift me with those memories, it’s precious. No matter if it happens often at odd times. I am not complaining. Whatever little I can get of them is good enough. People don’t realize how lucky they are when they have their parents around. Even if the parents are no longer agile and young. Their presence is more than enough. Their few words can get you going, pull you up and push you to live on. Their complete absence and the feeling of belonging to nobody, gives a sense of being a speck in a vacuum. You can see yourself but you can’t hear yourself, no one else does too. You are alone with your troubles, in your troubles. It cannot be completely described in words. I have only half of the pair and she is half the time unavailable. She has lost herself to an unknown world, a world where none of us exist but her thoughts. But the other half, when she is lucid, is enough- for now.

 
I lost my parents 8 years back; my father to death and my mother to a long battle of schizophrenia. The day he passed away it was as if a switch was flipped. She just- left. She went into her own world of thoughts. She talked only to her own thoughts. What were we to her -strangers or shadows – I don’t know.
I know I will never get my parents back and I will never see them like that image of happy laughing pair of healthy adults, but I trust my memory to serve me well till it’s time for me to move on.

 
Today I see them. He, looking dapper in his grey double-breasted suit with a half unfinished drink in his hand, and she, looking beautiful in her red banarasi sari, both laughing. They look happy. They don’t know what will happen in future and I wouldn’t tell them too. If only they had stayed like that moving image, which replayed in my head from time to time. That’s all there is- the moving image of happiness and a wasted body lying on the bed. Both true, both existent, both not permanent. I don’t know what will I tell my future kids when they grow up and ask. Their own mother had never seen either of her in-laws when they were alive and lucid. She has only known this talking human figure with hardly any memory and hardly any life about her.

 
My wife tells me that schizophrenia is a disorder that is congenital, that it is always there somewhere- like a creepy monster hiding in the basement; but she hasn’t known the mother I have. She hasn’t seen the loving way in which my mumma got up before Sun to make breakfast and pack my school lunch. The mother who bowled endlessly for my batting practice and smiled ever so widely when I scored a six. She hadn’t witnessed the times when me and mumma used to go to my grandparents house for summer vacation and would watch Hindi movies together back-to-back, while the rest of the house took their afternoon nap. She doesn’t know the woman who cooked for the entire house from morning to night untiringly, ever smiling.
She hasn’t seen the long period of rather eventful times when it used to be just me and her, when my father went away for work or was posted to field areas where families weren’t allowed or on an exercise or camp. She hasn’t seen the person who travelled alone with a young kid and bags of luggage in trains from New Delhi to Guwahati,which took two days, to Dimapur by an overnight train journey, and then 6-7 hours by bus till we somehow finally reached Imphal. The destination was Limakong, which took another day’s journey. How tattered and threadbare this seemingly never-ending journey had made us. I still shudder and flinch at the memory and I am myself an army officer, which makes this part of my life. My wife hasn’t shared the moments me and mom did, like the time when we were posted in Babina and how we used to sit half the night, during stormy weather, holding a long rope that kept the TV antenna in place, to prevent it from falling as repairing it would have been too costly and time-consuming. She doesn’t know the woman who cried silently and stealthily, not wanting her 7 year old child to know that his father had gone to Sri Lanka as part of IPKF, while watching news of fresh casualties in Sri Lanka. The woman who would wait for one ISD phone call all day long, all week long. The woman who would walk miles to drop and pick me up from school, took me for all games sessions and birthday parties, bought gifts for kids, and managed her house in an ATM-less world. She hasn’t witnessed any of it. If that’s not normal, I don’t know what is. I don’t know if her schizophrenia was this pertinent since she was little, but I do know that it never kept her away from being a mother, a wife and the person I know.

 
I capture whatever remains of her in my head, my heart and in my eyes. I hope that together with some old black and white and technicolor photographs that I have from those times, my memories would suffice to tell her grandchildren that she lived. That they lived. I am proud of her and I hope they would be too.

50 Paise Kulfi!

Time of the year was June, better known as ‘Summer vacations’ time. Official travel time in India. At 40 degrees, Delhi was at it’s unpleasant best. The place was my grandparents home. The home to so many people always had space for the extra nuggets, that means my brother, two cousins and I.

 
Sweltering heat meant playing indoors. Cooler evenings made the park downstairs our play area. Every section of 12 flats within a block had a common park situated exactly in the centre. “Our” local park, a staple in all Delhi colonies, was a square portion of land marked by thick low cast iron fence and lined by multiple small flowering plants. The one that I can still distinctly picture is the pink-flower bearing bergenia plant. It was taller than the rest and bore beautiful pink flowers, which I was very fond of. There were two entry gates on two opposite sides of the park that had a fixed zig-zag way, one side of which was broken, so that only one person could enter at a time unless one chose to jump over the fence. There used to be a single terrazzo white flat wide bench that we used more to stand and jump from, rather than for sitting. No wonder it was perpetually dirty. The square park had a circle inscribed inside it, formed by the kids who ran amok. Grass could hardly ever survive under those small running feet. The corners of the park were less frequented which is why there was ample mossy growth there, that used to be lush, green and yucky in rainy season, and cracked and dry in summers. I remember it all for it was a special place. Other than playing, it was also a place that we retreated daily for our 5 minutes of kulfi-time.

 
A couple always sat out in their terrace to watch over us, on two white metallic chairs with knitted plastic seats. The figures of my grandpa and grandma, babaji and maaji. Their faces carried a constant expression, that of a smile. Long chain, short chain, gallery, stone-gallery, were amongst few of the games we played. Sometimes neighbouring kids joined us. Sometimes we would go for a stroll and check the new cars on the block. Most of them were Maruti 800’s, most of which were dark blue or white, that used to have a button with company logo on their bonnet. Someone told me once in a low whisper that pressing that button would cause it to blast. “Oh God!! Would that really happen?” Naturally we had to check. We pressed it and waited with scared yet excited faces. Thankfully , nothing happened and then a guard came to shoo us away. The exploration did not end there. We discovered that the common road that ran in front of all the blocks had eucalyptus trees on one side at a little distance from our house. These trees used to shed small conical caps, along-with dead leaves, that used to line that part of road on one side. We would collect these operculums and use it like a lattoo (spin top) to play with them. Such were our days. Late mornings, late baths, but always fresh faces and fresh games. Sometimes one of our uncles, our father’s brother, would join us; usually for a game of ‘bhoot-bangla‘,where he would drape a sheet on himself and turn off all the lights while we hid from the ‘bhoot‘ (ghost). Anyone caught would become a ‘bhoot‘ himself till there was only one kid left, who would be the winner. Exhilarating!

 
My grandfather was a strict disciplinarian, and I hardly interacted with him due to unfounded fear. But there was one thing that he did, which reflected that he wasn’t as strict as he appeared on surface. Every day before leaving the house my grandfather gave my grandmother four 25 Paise coins to give to each of us to buy kulfi or ice-creams. It was our daily treat and his daily gift to us. It was an important part of our summer vacations, a memory important enough to find its place amongst other memories from those times. Of course we had ice-creams back home but this was special, for reasons more than one. This was the highlight of our vacation, an event around which our day revolved. Around noon we would leave everything and sit at the terrace or hang our faces from the bigger gaps between the white grills of the little window or clenched the horizontal part of the grill between our teeth, unknowingly licking the dirt off it. This was a game in itself – who can squeeze out his or her head between the grills. One small routinely thing gave birth to so many associated games and other things that are better known as memories.

 
The kulfiwala bhaiya, a familiar face like his kulfis, usually came around 1pm on his daily round. He called out to his loyal customers by a loud tann-tann-tann, by banging a spoon against his metal container. He must have been in his late 20s or early 30s, a simple man who wore old clothes, probably cast aways. His day started around 9 am and blocks A & B of the colony were his areas while other blocks were someone else’s. He had a small cart and he probably made just enough kulfis to complete his daily round. He probably wasn’t very ambitious and was satisfied with whatever little he gathered daily, which was enough to get by.

He had a small cart that had a big round bellied earthen pot, always covered with a red cloth that he kept sprinkling water on, few other steel utensils one of which was filled with water, and a big spatula. The cart had a sort of lid that never closed, but was used to keep the contents under shade. He had kulfis in two sizes, the big one for 50 Paise and small one priced at half. We normally took the smaller one. The kulfi extraction was like a magic trick. In 25 paise we got a plain kulfi and a magic trick. Such a bargain! He would remove the red cloth, put almost entire length of his hand inside the pot and extract four small and thin metallic cones. These metallic cones would have a layer of ice deposition from being kept inside the pot surrounded by ice. He would then dip these frosty cones in plain water, bang the cone against the metallic vessel to loosen the kulfi, and swipe the kulfi out of its metallic cones. It was beautiful- extract, dip, bang, swipe and present. The kulfi had a stick to hold it. It had a square cross section instead of round, and it tapered down to the top. The kulfiwallah bhaiya had become our friend, again just like his kulfi. He waited for us all year for that one month and I suspect he made extra kulfis for us. Naturally, he knew us by our faces and knew where we lived. If we didn’t hear the ‘tann-tann’ or took longer to come, he would wait. I never thought back then if he also came in winters when the sale was perhaps not as good. If not, then what did he do?

 
Cold milk kulfi on hot days was phenomenal. The kulfi used to be off-white in color and rigid, with flecks of pistachios all over. The kulfi stick in the middle was rarely ever in the middle. Unlike the flat icecream sticks, these used to be soft round and chewy birch wood sticks. It was a game to finish the kulfi before it would fall off the stick due to imbalance and the rapid melting of the kulfis. But it was never fun to be the first one to finish it off and look at others relishing theirs. Our feet automatically directed us to the park near which he parked his cart. We stood in the shaded area to greedily finish the kulfis till it was reduced to a stick. During this kulfi-me time we had little to no conversation and only looked up to see how much has the other finished. We entered home with only a sticky stick, which we chewed till we got the last drop of kulfi out of it.

 
One day it happened out of sudden, the routine disturbed. My grandfather got a call on the landline and he hurriedly left earlier than usual. The house got busy with the mundane. At 1 pm we heard the usual tann-tann-tann and ran up to our grandma and extended our palms with happy excited unaware eyes. She looked at us four and stood confused. Babaji had left without the important 25 paise transaction and she had only 75 paise of loose change. That would have gotten us only three kulfis. My brother, elder to the rest of us, understood the problem. He was a mathematical genius and could easily add, subtract and deduce. He smiled and said that he didn’t want one that day. He said that he didn’t feel like but he will take the kids to get kulfi for them. At first we didn’t understand why wouldn’t he want one but we realized it. We told our grandma that we didn’t feel like having either. My grandma stood stunned, unable to grasp what just happened. We ran up to the kulfiwallah bhaiya, who we knew stood waiting for us. We told him that we can’t have one today and said sorry to have kept him waiting. He asked why and if there was anything the matter and what should he do with the four kulfis that he was paid for. We didn’t understand. He told us that he has already been paid for the kulfis and was waiting for us to take it. With that he did his magic trick and gave one each to all four of us. We thanked him and walked back confused, the forgotten kulfis stood untouched till we reached the house. Our grandma was surprised on seeing the kulfis and asked us what happened, which we narrated. The kulfis looked bigger too. Today he gave us the bigger one by mistake.

 
Our Babaji was told what happened and he called my brother and asked him to recount. We were slightly scared. We were scared because we didn’t know how will he react to it. Upon learning the story he just smiled. We breathed again and ran away. On Sunday, instead of sleeping as usual, he waited. At 1 pm he went along with us to the tann-tann kulfiwallah and handed over one 1 rupees coin and two 2 Rs currency notes. The kulfiwallah bhaiya just smiled and they conversed without words. Babaji thanked the man. The kulfiwallah bhaiya did his calculations and gave back some money, which my grandfather asked him to keep. He then said that even after deducting for last time there was still a little amount left and gave smaller change this time to babaji. He shook his head sideways in a no, pointed at the earthen pot and signalled two. Four pairs of watchful eyes, the little white window overlooking the park, and the park witnessed something.
6 big kulfis were bought that day, one for each one of us, one for babaji and one for the kulfiwallah.

 


A big warm thanks to my sister-in-law, Dhara and my teacher, Anshu ma’am for being my true critics, personal editors and for displaying immense patience with me and my drafts of stories.
This doesn’t end here. 😀

Racing, with Time

Tring tring. Treeeeeeng treeeeeeeng.

Our landline telephone rang harshly. Impatiently. “Cominggggg” said my dad. He seemed to have read the impatience, much like me. He rushed past me, towel wrapped around his waist, with half-shaven face while the other half was covered in foamy white lather. I let out a cheeky laugh. How funny he looked.
I heard him pick the receiver. I heard a loud authoritative “Hello. Major Kumar speaking.” A long pause. Some muffled sounds. Inaudible mutterings. I was a curious little one and silently, with baby steps, I went to the living room where he was talking on the telephone that sat over a hand-knitted white crochet piece. He seemed different. I have only seen him angry or laughing (with a drink in hand). I had never seen this expression on this face. What was it? He left the room, oblivious to my hiding place, and went straight to the kitchen where my mom was cooking breakfast. It was an off day and it was still quite early. Not a decent time to call anyone. Maybe papa was angry, for the caller disturbed his routine. He was very fastidious. Nothing, mind you, ever disturbed his toilet. It had to complete on time. It had to be thorough. “An officer is a gentleman first” he used to say. I think being gentleman had something to do with shaving till no hair dared to poke out from one’s face.

Uncle Sanjay came hurriedly. It was an hour or two later, same day. He said something about car or taxi or something I didn’t understand. Maybe we were all going to a picnic! Sanjay uncle and few other uncles from papa’s unit used to go with us for picnics. What fun!! I will ask Gaurav, Sanjay uncle’s son, to bring his cricket bat. “Good morning uncle” I said. He looked sharply at me, not expecting me perhaps. He quickly gained his composure and replied nicely, but it was unusual. Everything was unusual today. I asked if we were going again for picnic and he said something under his breath. I couldn’t catch it. Before I could say “I beg your pardon,” as taught to be used in such situations, papa came rushing in the room.

“Sanjay Yaar no luck at the railway station. I sent my batman but I don’t think we will get a reservation in such a short notice” said papa.
“Sir, please don’t worry. I have spoken to a man here who runs a taxi business. He has one vehicle that you can take on rent. It will cost you much more than railway ticket but at least you will reach on time. Sir, let me know and I will book.”
Papa thanked Sanjay uncle and asked him to book the taxi as there seemed no other way.

 
Papa went to office and got all the formalities done. Yessssss, we were going somewhere!! But where? That question wasn’t answered. Mummy was busy packing food for journey and our bags. I think we are going for longer than 2 days. She had packed only two pairs of jeans?!

 
The taxi arrived, an old Maruti Omni. Old looking vehicle but very shiny handles. It was decorated too, with plastic flowers, God’s idols and photos of all Hindu Gods. There were three incense sticks burning inside the car, that made it smell like roses. I think the driver was a very religious man. I had only seen such devotion in temples. Maybe his car was his temple or maybe he was busy driving so made a makeshift temple in the car itself. How nice!
I asked him his name, about his car, how long could he drive in one go, where he lived and so on. He nicely answered all my questions. The first person since morning to have done so. I remembered suddenly! I went in straight to my room, picked up my cricket bat and ball. Ran up to the taxi, asked the nice man to open the car trunk and kept my bat and ball inside. I knew mom and dad would forget. Can’t take chances on vacation, can I?

 
We set off. I sat in the front with the driver at first. I came to know the destination : Chandigarh. Our grandparents lived there. What a coincidence! It will be fun. This was my first road trip. Usually we went by the train, which was fun too but this was new and exciting. Since Naseerabad was far, we were going to stay in Delhi and next day leave for Chandigarh. Few relatives stayed in Delhi, so it was all settled.

The journey began. The first few hours were okay. I counted the number of cars I saw on the road. Then counted the potholes but that was too tiring. Then counted the number of trucks that had this message written at their back “Horn OK Please”. I asked driver to honk. He laughed at me. I told him that the truck people wanted us to. They wrote “please” on the truck. The driver only guffawed at it. These elders don’t understand that when they laugh at us kids, it hurts. Anyways, then I didn’t look at the passing trucks and cars. I played around with the tapes in the car, selected one with current hits by Kumar Sanu, inserted the cassette in the recorder and played. My father asked me to keep the volume low. I obliged. My mom was unusually quiet. Only once or twice she asked about my school leave and plan. Papa seemed to be in no mood for chitchat and she left him at it. Since we hadn’t had any breakfast she offered us all the paranthas and sandwiches that she had packed. It was alright so far. Food, music, front seat in the car, passing scenery which was all a big running green. We stopped at a local vaishno dhaba for lunch. Hot tandoori rotis and steaming dal filled us up and we set off again. By late night, almost midnight, we reached Delhi as planned. Our relatives welcomed us with long faces. How rude of them. They weren’t happy to receive us it seemed. They said sorry to papa and I forgave them. We had dinner and took our tired bodies to bed. Next day was another day of journey.

 
We started early at 4 or 5 am as we were to reach latest by 1pm. The journey was much similar. Sonepat, Kurukshetra, Ambala came and went. Nothing exciting. All fields. Road was better – smoother. After all it was the grand trunk road. Why was it named “trunk” road, I wondered. Did it resemble elephant’s trunk? Who named it so? Who names the roads? Why do they name the roads? Why don’t they name the fields too? I didn’t see any sign on any of the open fields we saw. I saw white dome-like big boulders along the road. They all had a number, some name (of towns as driver uncle told me). As I sat wondering, my thoughts took me elsewhere. What was Gaurav doing at this time? Why did we leave in such hurry? I don’t think this is a picnic or vacation. Something felt wrong. It had started affecting me, the sad countenances of everyone around me. Thankfully before I could think more, sleep took over. Papa suggested I sleep in the big and spacious boot of the car. It was perfect and more comfortable than the seat. I anyways wasn’t allowed to sleep next to the driver.

HONKKKKKKK. Where was I? What’s this place?? Am I moving? Am I dreaming. Window over my head? Where’s mummy papa?
“Papa??? Papaaaa”
“Haan beta. You are awake? Come, sit in the front.”
I climbed from over the two seat to slide on to ‘my place’ – the co driver’s seat, while mom dad sat on the passengers’ seat. I realized slowly. “Oh how long did I sleep for? Did I miss something?”
“Did you sleep well beta? We will reach in 2-2.5 hours. Are you hungry?”
I shook my head in negation.

CRASH.HONK.

Truck. Horn OK Please.
A truck smashed. Car boot gone. Crushed. Pain. Blood on arm. Mom crying. Papa? Papa?
Haze. Blank.

 
Betaaa.. can you hear me? Beta you are fine. Get up, get up.”
I was fine? We were fine? But a truck smashed our car. The boot in which I slept 5 minutes back gone. What if? What if I were in the car’s boot. What if I hadn’t woken up? What if I hadn’t come to sit in front? My mom was crying. Probably riddled by the same questions. Papa had a bloody stain on his head and had one hand pressed to the spot to stop the blood. Mummy too had injury marks but they said they were okay. And I was fine. Little scratches on hand and neck pain from the big jerk, but other than that I was fine!!
Wait till I go back and tell Gaurav and Prashant at school. They will be so jealous. What a story. What an adventure.
Children can think and say the weirdest of things at times. The glass is always half-full. What would have repulsed or shocked an adult, would only interest a young child. I was thoroughly impressed. It felt like an adventure.

Papa shook me and asked me to gather myself. “Beta we have to go. We need to go on.” He told mummy that another taxi has been arranged and we need to go. We can’t get late. We had to reach by 1 pm. We started again. I resumed my place next to the new driver. 9:30 am.

One hour gone. Our thoughts came back. The ‘what ifs’ were back and then a loud pop. This ‘new’ car wasn’t so new and something had gone kaput with its engine. We were getting late. I saw papa tense up. We were going to get late. He kept saying “We can’t afford to get late.” Both me and mummy sat dazed and a little scared of papa’s rising temper. The previous incident was still fresh in our minds. Our senses weren’t back yet. The shock still possessed us. “Come on move. We will need to take a bus or a lift if we are lucky”. We came out of the car. Air was warm outside. It was near noon. Our sweat-drenched clothes told us that although it was still early in the day, the temperature was already high. 10:30 am

North India gets hot in summers. But how bad it was I realized that day. I have lived in north India in summers of course, but usually we would stay indoors, well hydrated or played in shade. Standing on the road with luggage and signaling with our thumb for lift, wasn’t exactly exciting for me. One hour went by. Mummy sat on one of the bags. The water, whatever little, was long gone. What if we never ever got a lift or a bus? There was no PCO booth nearby. No police station in the distance till our eyes could see. It looked like a dead end. This sure was an adventure of a lifetime. 11:40 am

A car stopped. A small light-green colored Maruti 800 carrying a family. They heard our story. Took pity and took us. They were going the same side. Thankfully they agreed to take us till our destination. I had to sit between mummy-papa this time. On my favorite seat an uncle sat. I think we all need to make sacrifices. 11:45 am.

Oh God what will happen next? This was getting more and more exciting. Wait till I reach school. This summer holidays my essay will be about this journey. Wow.

 
12:45 pm
We reached our grandparents house. Oh, why was this such a secret? I knew they lived in Chandigarh. Why didn’t mom dad tell me before? But summer vacations were still far away. Why then we came now when we anyways go there every summer holidays? Dad made us both go in while he discussed something with the Maruti 800 uncle, which was none of my business (as I was told). There was nobody in the house but my grandma and aunt, wife of my dad’s elder brother. Both looked identical. Wearing white-ish clothes. Sad faces and tears. My mother too joined them. They took us in to treat our bruises, nicks and cuts from the accident. Mummy told them about the journey but she gave them only plain details. It was not even half as exciting as it will be when I retell the story to my friends!! How the truck rammed in our car and I got a big jerk. How I was thrown away. How the two vehicles locked each other. Oooooooooo. And then the other vehicle and the way it broke down, with black smoke coming from its nose. How we stood on the roadside asking for lift. I will teach them how to signal for lift. I am sure they wouldn’t know.
Where did papa go? “Mummy I want to go with papa.” “Beta, your papa is leaving for… Go ask him if he hasn’t left. ” I ran outside and, reached just as my father was thanking the Maruti 800 uncle and getting into the car. I insisted to come along and papa gave in, not wanting to cause further delays. 12:50 pm.

I jumped in the car and we sped off.

 
1:05 pm
We reached. Chandigarh, thankfully, is not that big and this strange place was not too far. Papa thanked the Maruti 800 uncle. He gave him all his money. Maruti 800 uncle refused but took the money and left.

1:06 pm.
We entered. It was a big empty place with a group of white-kurta clad men standing in a big wide group. In the centre was a pile of woods. The kind we alight on lohri but laid out horizontally instead of in a cone shape. On top of it was someone lying. I saw my uncle, dad’s elder brother, taking a long rod like thing in his hand. Someone lighted it up and it became a torch! He then proceeded towards the pile and lowered the torch to touch one of the lower wood logs.
We ran with all our might.

Papa called out “I’m here. We reached.”
Uncle looked our way. He wiped his eyes to see clearer. His face relaxed somewhat. He stood like a statue. We ran up to him. Papa hugged him. They looked at each other. Said nothing. Papa held his hand and they lit the pyre. I came up close and recognised the sleeping man. Only he wasn’t sleeping and he was not just ‘a man’. He was my grandpa. My grandpa ! “What happened papa? What are you doing to grandpa? He will get hurt”

Papa looked away. They set the pyre on fire. I ran away. I didn’t like it. We came for this? To hurt grandpa?

2:05 pm
We came back home. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to. Everyone looked sad. Nobody said a word. Sometimes I would heard a soft cry, a muffled sob. I was given food and made to sleep. While I slept papa and mummy went to doctor to get their injuries checked and came back with white bandages. They were fine they said. Why didn’t they take me too? I would have gotten bandages. That would have made my story more real. I would have gone back like a Hero!

 
5:00 pm
Papa called me. He explained.
“We all are in a journey beta. Yes, a journey similar to what we had. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s saddening, sometimes scary and sometimes very happy. But sooner or later it ends. Your grandpa’s journey ended yesterday morning beta. He left us all. ”
“He died papa?”
“Where did you learn that word? Do you know what dying means?”
“Papa, I know. My friend’s dog died and they buried him. They said that he just went to a long sleep. He will never wake up. Is it what happened to grandpa?”
“Yes beta. He had a full life. He made friends, he did good deeds. He raised us all. He loved us all. It was time he moved on. Everyone moves on.”
“Papa if he had gone, why did we hurry to reach?”
“Because son, we must honor the dead. I wanted to see him off. Say my goodbye and wish his next journey be pleasant” “I understand papa but I will miss him.”
“So will I son.”
A single tear rolled down his eye.

 
—————————————

 
A single tear rolled down my eye too as I sat remembering the day my father fought against all odds to reach his father’s cremation on time. I had just placed the receiver back on the cradle. The news had not sunk in fully. My papa no more? I am serving in the valley, a captain in Indian army, just like my father.

The valley is disturbed. Lot of militant activities in and around the area. It’s not safe to travel and not recommended. But I will reach in time for my papa, no matter how; just like he reached for his father’s. I must have been 5-6 years of age back then. Everything was new and exciting back then. I do not remember much from that time but I remember his words well. I remember his face from that time, the way he looked back then. How different he looked. He was young. I know that now of course. Back then I just felt my parents were so old, much like every other kid who thinks that all grown ups are “old”. I remember the journey, our journey.
His journey ended too. Too soon. But his son will be there to see him off. To say his last goodbye.

Happy journey papa.

 


 

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Dal like Dida’s

We lived in a small one bedroom-hall-kitchen government flat in south Delhi. They were our neighbours who belonged to West Bengal. Bengalis, as Indians would call them. We Indians have a way of tagging people. Instead of simply calling them as Indians we give them tags. So they were Bengalis, while we were Punjabis. The lady’s mother, a 5 feet tall lady in her early 70s, was called Dida (grandma) by her two daughters. I too called her that.
Such a pretty word : dee-da. Like a song. Deeda.

I used to come back from school at 2pm sharp and my brother, whose classes ended a little later, would reach around 2:30 pm. My mother and father both worked, so Dida used to help out us kids with after-school meals. Everyday, she would come to our place in her signature blue-bordered white sari, keys tied at one end of her sari flung over her shoulder, her (mostly) salt and (hardly) pepper hair always covered by her sari pallu and her squarish face that had a large forehead, pug like nose, hooded eyes, always carried a warm smile. She lovingly warmed up lunch, cooked early in the morning by mom. Sometimes she would bring something from her own kitchen. She was an exceptional cook! My little Punjabi self, with her little Punjabi sense of taste, loved her ‘dal-bhaat‘, which was thankfully a frequent visitor. The pale-yellow colored dal subtly flavored, without being overpowered by spices unlike the robust Punjabi curries are, nestled snugly inside the ‘bhaat‘ (boiled rice). It was a vision. It was like looking at a pretty little pond set amidst white balloony mountains. That’s how I saw it. For her own grand-daughters, along with dal-bhaat, she would also keep a boiled potato and some salt on the plate, and would crumple a fresh leaf of lemon plant. The beautiful tangy smell it emanated still fills my nostrils whenever I remember ‘dal-bhaat‘. They had a small plant of lemon for this purpose, from which we were also given those leaves. I loved the entire crumpling action, the result, the smell and the taste. Back then I didn’t know whether it was the smell or the taste of the lemon that brought about the difference. Whatever it was, it went so well with the dish.

The arrangement worked beautifully,for her and us. For us it meant warm food and surprises from her kitchen. For her it meant fresh company, a peek in Punjabi cuisine. It made her feel wanted and loved.
So, she would come on time everyday and would pick two plates, heat up the chapattis and sabzi, made by mom earlier in the day. Then she would call us and we would carry out plates to the table. She would then produce her own culinary works and I would jump with joy. How contrasting were the flavors and how I loved them both- equally. Every time she made her special date-jaggery infused rice-milk sweet, that she called Paaesh and I called kheer (cheekily correcting her), she would bring it over in a small bowl specially for me, complete with a square spoon that I grew so fond of that it was later given to me. I still have it with me, but it isn’t used anymore. It digs Dida’s date-kheer, but we won’t get to see it again. I can’t dare use it for anything other than her kheer. That would be blasphemy.

 
My mom loved Dida. She was like a mother that mom lost when young. Dida introduced mom to Bengal – the place, the language, the cuisine, the festivals, the rituals, the mannerisms. We loved that world. It was so different from ours. Maybe that’s why. We often joined in their celebrations. I remember the multiple red ‘aalta’ painted feet, shuffling busily and peeking from underneath the saris. I remember getting my own little feet colored red, just like the pretty aunties and didis. I remember the auspicious loud synchronized sound made by the ladies during the pujas, which sounded like ‘o-lulululu’, produced by moving their tongues from side to side. I remember the Durga Puja. I remember how the family dressed up like they were going to a wedding and would go to the ‘pandal‘. The grand pandal would have a grander idol of ‘Durga maa’ and loads of people, all laughing, dancing and eating. It WAS like a wedding! The lovely ladies all dressed up alike and yet not so much. The food was plenty and it was sumptuous. I distinctly remember the sweet spongy-dripping-with-sweet-syrup ‘roshogullas‘, the wholesome and fragrant ‘khichadi‘, the ‘luchis’ and the other dishes. Oh, how far back was all that and yet it was only yesterday.

 
We moved when mom-dad bought their own place and the connection with the family got thinner. They came to visit us once with Dida, minus the two daughters. It was she who wanted to meet my mother. The mother-daughter bond between them was not thinner; it was just how it was when we had left. She looked frail and tired. After the wedding of her elder granddaughter she had started losing life. She had lost someone who was her own. This granddaughter was the reason for her existence, the reason she left Bengal to join her daughter’s family, the reason why she stayed with the family even after the kids grew up. This granddaughter was Dida’s favorite. This granddaughter wasn’t very sharp and was always bullied by parents for just being who she was. Maybe that’s why Dida loved her. She was much in the same position. All alone and unloved. Dida saw her honest heart, which loved Dida back. Dida became her world and she Dida’s. After she left, Dida’s world suddenly became smaller. As much as the elder granddaughter loved Dida, the younger one disliked her. She found a fault in everything Dida did. Maybe because she saw the biased love between her sister and her grandmother or maybe because, much like her father, she felt that Dida was an unwanted fifth spare wheel in their four-wheeled family. After the elder granddaughter married away, the balance of love got disturbed for Dida.
The spark in her eyes had dimmed. Her bright white plain cotton sari looked paler and crumpled. Her nails were long and shabby. Her feet callused. She seemed to have stopped taking care. There was no reason perhaps. She met mom and some of the light returned in her eyes. It was the last time we saw her. Last time she had mom’s food and said “Khoob Jhol” (very spicy), last time she brought her Bengali kheer for me and the last time anyone called my mom ‘Chanchala’, with an extra “aa” in the end.
We never know when the last time would be the last time. If only we had known.

 
She left soon after. We got the news from her daughter on telephone. She had gone away peacefully, remembering two people- her elder granddaughter and my mother, both of whom she could not see for the last time before passing away. I saw mom’s tears. I saw mom and dad leave to pay their regards for the last time and I sat remembering. I remembered the old lady and the smell of food that emanated from her. The smell that permeated every cell of her skin. Her kitchen was her temple. She cooked for all her kids. We were her kids too. We didn’t mind the little thief in her, who would sometimes steal an apple to give to her elder granddaughter or some vegetable that she would nick from our refrigerator to add in one of her curries as a way of experimentation, which her son-in-law otherwise wouldn’t allow. She collected coins and loose change lying about in our house, but only to buy little birthday gifts for us kids. I remember I told my mom once how I saw Dida stealing! It was a big crime in my little perspective. Dida, the chef, the friend, our Bengal guide and smile harbinger- a thief?! My mom had just smiled and said “I know. It’s okay.” I never understood that back then, but now I do. It’s okay.

 
I remembered her today and cooked ‘dal-bhaat‘, just like her’s, for her. The 7 year old me was pleased. The 30 year old me was emotional. I don’t know if Dida would have liked it or not. There is nothing much that I can do now but I can show her still how much I loved her food and appreciated her.

 
Few people and things leave a mark in your heart. She was one of those for me. I would never get to taste again the food she so lovingly prepared, but I want her to know that she is remembered and was loved by us too!
The little thief with a big heart.
The cook who never lost her art.

 

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