That Awkward Moment

The train rhythmically drones on it’s way. All the passengers are staring at you. One teenager nudges her friend, points and both of them giggle.
You fidget in your seat and wonder what’s the problem. Is it your clothes? Have you worn your shirt inside-out again?
You pull at your clothes, and the lady next to you turns her face to fix you with a hostile glare.
You sink back into your seat sheepishly. People are still staring. Small smiles are playing around some of their lips, like they’re at a circus and you are the freak.
You wish you could, like a chameleon, merge with the ugly blue colour of the train seats and gain some modicum of invisibility. You wonder again if it’s your posture – are you taking up too much space? You shuffle your feet and straighten your back.
To no avail, people are still looking.

And then you realize………….your earphone jack isn’t locked in properly. Your mp3 player is blasting music not only to your ears. The entire train compartment can hear Shakira crooning.

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This is My Life?

Daily PromptIf you could read a book containing all that has happened and will ever happen in your life, would you? If you choose to read it, you must read it cover to cover. 

“Excuse me, how much is this porcelain doll for?” I asked the ancient-looking shopkeeper with wizened eyes and a silver beard Santa Claus would be jealous of. Christmas being just around the corner I was stocking up presents for friends and family, and a rather quaint pink porcelain fairy doll in the window of an antique shop caught my fancy. I thought I would try to get it for my mother.

The shopkeeper, without even moving from his post behind the counter, pointed at the dusty label on the doll which proclaimed it’s price to be 50 rupees. A bargain by any estimate but being an astute shopper I thought I would try for more. The first rule of bargaining: don’t seem too interested in the object you are buying. So I set down the doll with a grim “hmm” to indicate my dissatisfaction with the price and looked around aimlessly. The shop was crammed with odds and ends: tarnished silver spoons, a dozen cracked mirrors (how many years of bad luck does that accrue to?) , dream catchers that have caught nothing but dust bunnies, porcelain dolls with frozen smiles and a few leather-bound books. Being the bookworm I am, I naturally graviated towards those, and froze in shock. The black leather bound book with golden edges, fifth from the right in the second row, very clearly proclaimed in its title my name in bold, engraved, and golden alphabets. A dozen possibilities ran through my mind, each more intriguing than the last: I had a namesake, who coincidentally, was also an author; I had travelled back from the future in a T.A.R.D.I.S. and this is a book I myself wrote; this was the book my parents read before they had me and named me after it. 

Intrigued and surprised I picked it up and was about to open it when a wrinkled old hand with surprising strength slammed it shut. I flinched back in shock. I was pretty sure I had left the old propreitor sitting behind the counter, at the other end of the store, only seconds ago. How on Earth did he creep up on me so fast?

“This is your book” he said. “This is your life”.

“What?” I said. 

“This book chronicles all that has happened to you in the past and that will happen to you in the future. It details your entire life. You can read it if you want, but you must read it cover to cover”.

A thousand things crossed my mind but what crossed my lips was, “It’s so short!”

The old man clicked his tongue, “Tsk, tsk! Such a typical comment of someone your age” (Why is it that grown-ups can’t say anything without making at least one comment about your age?) “You yourself are a writer of flash fiction. You should know better than to judge a story by its length”.

The idea that my life was similar to a flash fiction story written by me didn’t really reassure me. But I had more pressing concerns, like: “You read it?”

The shopkeeper shrugged, “It gets lonely around here”.

“Ohh…” I said because what else was there to be said.

“Can you give me some tips then? Anything I should look out for, a  lottery ticket number, the question paper of the final exams?” 

He fixed me with a stern glance, “That is against the rules. You must read for yourself, if you choose to…” He let his voice trail off meaningfully.

Oh man, did I want to read that book! So many questions that I wanted an answer for – did the guy I like like me back, would I get into the institute I was aiming for, would there be a Sherlock Season 4, so on and so forth. But there was also the realization that if I did I would never be able to unread it. And that meant No Surprises – Good or Bad, ever again in life, and how boring would such a life be!

So with a heavy heart I kept the book down and told the shopkeeper, “Thanks but no thanks”. He gave me a mysteriously knowing smile, which prompted me to add, “Wait…you already knew I wouldn’t read it! You read it!” 

“Maybe, maybe not” he said. “Now where were we on the porcelain doll? 45 is my final offer, and don’t pretend because I know you want it”.

There was little argument I could offer to that so I meekly paid the price, and left.

Just before the door closed, he called out, “By the way, I would look out for Komodo dragons if I were you”.

“Wait…what?” I tried to push the door open but it had locked itself behind me.

I don’t know if the man was bluffing or not but I think I will cancel my trip to Komodo in Indonesia, just in case….

They Would Be 13

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They tell me I did the right thing.

If not for my ‘information’ thousands of people would have died in the attack. Innocent civilians who had done nothing to deserve such an end.

They shower me with rewards and hail me as a hero, but the voices I desire most have been silenced by the same people all others hail as their ‘protectors’.

Wild weeds grow where my home once stood, and only the burnt, bullet-holed walls remember the children whose feet once trampled down the grass.

Innocence is subjective. 

In the end, it is our choices that haunt us. 

*

Word Count: 100

Just a Phase

Dear Readers,

(I haven’t updated my blog in a very long time. I had some important exams and also a severe case of writer’s block. Thank you for sticking around till now. Today’s post, inspired by The Daily Prompt: The Guilt That Haunts Me, is slightly a personal anecdote. I am sharing it in the hope that if someone else ever faces a similar situation, they can take some inspiration and consolation from this post.)

Like many other students before and after me, I was a victim of bullying in my school years. In the tumultuous twilight between childhood and adulthood, the concept of ‘self’ is often attenuated with segregation of people into the discrete categories:  ‘people who are like me and hence good’, and ‘people who are not like me and hence bad’. A Bengali girl from Kolkata, recently shifted to Mumbai, in a school where all other students were Gujrati, I stuck out like a pus-filled pimple on a model’s face.

Constant taunts about everything from my eating habits to my dress threw me into the deep depths of depression. I cried myself to sleep regularly, gained weight, and avoided social contacts of all type. But worst of all, I started blaming myself for everything that was happening in my life. I hated myself. I labelled myself with the worst derogatory terms I knew: ‘misfit’, ‘anti-social’, ‘unfriendly’, ‘ugly’, ‘fat’, and ‘stupid’. I was filled with self-loathing, and if it wasn’t for my parents’ love and support, I would probably have committed suicide. I contemplated it often enough.

The years passed and I graduated and joined a high school. I was happy here, and made good friends. But the self-loathing had become so imbibed in me that I still couldn’t get rid of it. Every minute, every second, I kept second-guessing myself. I thought my friends were laughing behind my back because I couldn’t believe that people would actually like me. Sometimes I felt guilty about being happy. I felt it was an insult to all that I had suffered before.

It took me a long time to accept that neither being sad nor being happy is a permanent state. Life is a battle. Some days you go out there and triumphantly destroy your foes; on other days all you can do is take it one breath at a time and just survive. Either way you are a warrior. And it’s ok: it’s ok to be sad sometimes, without reason and explanation, and no one else gets to judge you because they haven’t been through what you have been through.

I would like to conclude with one of my favourite quotes of all time by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you. If you need the medication again, go ahead and take it—I will love you through that, as well. If you don’t need the medication, I will love you, too. There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.”

 

The Bohri Food Coma

One of my mother’s persistent concerns is that because me, my sister and indeed most of my friends and cousins show a minimum interest in learning to cook the traditional Indian recipes, passed on from mother to daughter over the ages, shall slowly wane into ignominy due to the pervasive influence of western dishes like pizza and pasta, fast food and ready to cook meals. She continually bemoans her staunch belief that my children shall never be able to taste the delicately spiced traditional Indian food her grandmother’s generation used to cook. Yet in his home-dining experience, Mr. Munaf Kapadia, addressed this very fear of my mother. Along with his mother, Ms. Nafisa Kapadia, a home cook par excellence, he introduced The Bohri Kitchen: a home dining experience where patrons can enjoy traditional Bohri dishes cooked at home, using the traditional methods.
The family belongs to the Bohri community among Muslims, and every weekend they throw open their doors to 16 guests who are then treated to authentic cuisine of the community. I, along with 15 friends, had the good fortune to recently be among the lucky diners to be invited to the Kapadia residence.
On arrival we were welcomed with chilled glasses of coconut water with blended malai – it doesn’t get more refreshing than that! Our host, Munaf Kapadia, explained to us how traditionally the Bohris eat their meals together, seated on the floor, from one communal thaal. Realizing that members from other communities may actually be uncomfortable in eating from a communal thaal, TBK introduced the concept of the ‘Scam-thaal’: the dishes are served on one communal thaal or plate but the patrons eat with individual plates and cutlery; kind of like an ersatz buffet. Soon after this a humongous plate showed up. Even as we gaped at it, our host informed us with a smile that this was “only the medium sized thaal”!

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The scaam thaal arranged with the different sauces and condiments

The meal began with a traditional ritual where the youngest member of our party served each guest a pinch of salt to be had as a palate cleanser. The size of the thaal had us all salivating in anticipation and soon after that the first course arrived: smoked chicken samosas and for the vegans, smoked daal Samosas served with green mint chutney, a beetroot chutney, a sweet dates chutney, pineapple bondi raita (my personal favorite) and the omnipresent tomato ketchup. In my life I have scarcely tasted a better appetizer than piping hot samosas with cold mint chutney! After that the non vegetarians got a second appetizer, just as delicious as the first, boneless chicken kebabs.
A unique Bohri tradition is that after every savory course, they have something sweet to cleanse their palates with. So after the warm and spicy kebabs we were served cold Doodhi Halwa packed with dry fruits and as delicious as a dessert gets. Now it’s my staunch belief that desserts are the best part of any meal and nothing can be better  than being served dessert bang middle of the meal!

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After our palates were thoroughly cleansed with double servings of the halwa it was time for the maincourse comprising of succulent raan (the thigh of a goat) marinated for more than a day and cooked in a special homemade masala. The style of eating this particular dish is rather “primitive”. The meat is so tender that it falls apart at touch making it nearly impossible to serve and thus you serve yourself with your hands by tearing out chunks of meat from the bones. It’s a rather messy and thus inevitably fun exercise.

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The Raan was complemented by slices of bread and glasses of rose sherbet. After the last of the sauce was polished off the plates there emerged from the kitchen a big bowl of spicy mutton biryani. We were also served the third beverage around this time: chilled Jaljeera soda. You would think after all the other dishes we would be full by now but the fragrant rice dish packed with spices and pieces of boiled potatoes would not be denied and between the 16 of us we actually managed to empty the bowl.
The conclusion to this wonderful meal arrived in the form of handspurn milk ice-cream. We were served four different flavors though my personal favorite was the mango ice-cream. Among the other three flavors one unique flavor that demands mention is the paan flavored ice-cream, and for those who would rather prefer the actual thing that was available too. It was quite a scrumptious lunch and I would highly recommend it to all.
To book your seat contact The Bohri Kitchen at 9819447438 or contact them on their Facebook page. They do deserve all the patronage they can get.

On Another’s Grief

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
– William Blake

No matter what words I use it is beyond my capabilities as a writer to capture the poignancy of the event I am describing so I shall stick to sterile facts: one of my co-passengers on the train, a young girl around my age, learned while she was in the train returning home that her father who had been  admitted in the hospital was no more. I don’t know this girl, and I will never see her again, but even as a complete stranger what was difficult for me to watch was the way she broke down. It takes unimaginable proportions of grief that I shudder to imagine to forget all societal conventions and weep copiously in front of strangers.
The entire compartment was stunned into silence. She was separated from us by her grief, and there was nothing that we could do or say that would mitigate her pain.
What I felt at that moment was a weird conflagration of conflicting emotions: empathy and sympathy for sure, but there was also an emotion of relieved gratitude that it wasn’t me, and an acute realization that someday in the future it could be me instead of her, and that is a terrifying thought. Indeed so terrifying that I had an ardent desire to call up my father, but my rational mind snapped at me to not be a sentimental fool and disturb him.
In the end I would just like to conclude that I sincerely hope that girl gets the strength and courage to face her loss. My prayers shall be with her and her family.

The Stories That Intrigue Me

The lone sandal buried in the sand, the solitary marble under the berth in the train, the scrap of paper with half a signature, the flying page expostulating on the mountain tribes of Tibet, the venerated stone idol under a tree surrounded by dead flowers….these are the stories that intrigue me. Ordinary objects that have no business of being somewhere and yet they are there, and I often wonder why?
Under what painful circumstances was the lone sandal torn asunder from its pair? Where did the pair go – was it too discarded by the fickle owner or did he hop his way home with only one shoe? Why did he foresake the other?
What business does a marble have to be in a train? From where is it traveling and to where? Did it fall from an unfortunate soul’s bag, fell off a charm bracelet or jumped off a necklace? Does his owner mourn its loss?
Which eminent personality wrote the treatise on the mountain tribes of Tibet, maybe living with them to conduct his field study, so that some academic student someday could gain knowledge from his experience?
Which god sits under the tree, braving the natural elements? Whom does he bless and what does he protect? Why has his devotees foresaken him in his humble abode surrounded by dry petals and worshipped only by the street dogs?
Each of these objects have a story that fascinates the dreamer in me. Someday I would like to hear the story of lost things.

Book Review: ‘Panther’ by Chhimi Tenduf-La

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Chhimi Tenduf-La’s latest novel, ‘Panther’, is a gripping tale set in a hostile environment where communal tensions, bloodlust and vengeance rules. He has set it in Sri Lanka…but honestly speaking, it could be any country: from the war-ravaged East to the civilized West, where they don’t speak of it. In the end, it’s a tale about human nature and the fight of humanity against evil forces that often may exist in your own mind. It reads like a poem and reminded me of these lines from ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

A haunting tale that will inevitably remind you of all your troubles back in high school. The novel traces the journey of Prabhu, a young Tamil boy and a cricket protégé growing up in Sri Lanka, who is admitted to an elite school of rich boys. But Prabhu has a past that his classmates who have lived comfortable lives guarded against all harm cannot imagine: he is a former child soldier and had been once closely associated with the fictional terror group of ‘Panthers’. With a past that refuses to be silenced and memories that abruptly rear their ugly heads, Prabhu has to learn to overcome the onerous burdens of high school.

What is noteworthy about the author is his incredible talent to poignantly pen on paper the angst of adolescence, for all boys, rich or poor. Some problems like finding a perfect date, scoring good marks in your examination, gaining popularity among your peer circle, impressing your crush and living up to your parents expectations, or more pertinently, them living up to yours, are universal themes all adolescents can connect with. But at the same time, the novel deals with darker themes like the plight of child soldiers, or simply of children growing up in a war-ravaged nation. Children growing up in an environment where tensions are high are forced to make impossible choices between right and wrong, good and bad; sometimes with no proper guidance. More often than not, they end up emulating their parents and other elders around, but the real question is: what happens when the elders are prejudiced and misguided? The vicious cycle of hate pervasively present in so many South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western nations has been pain strikingly taken apart by the author and presented to us in vivid detail.

From paedophiles who rape orphaned boys, to terrorist leaders who brainwash child soldiers to fight wars they don’t understand, to army soldiers who shoot and torture even those who surrender, to families forced to sacrifice one child to the ‘cause’ to save another: this book (some may find it disturbing) expostulates on the worst side of human nature. It talks about everything society would rather push under the rug. Yet, as is atypical of this author, the serious is peppered with moments of hilarity. This extract, for instance, is one of my personal favourites:

…the letter ‘A’ pendant cost six thousand rupees, but they had a discount on the letter ‘I’ pendants. He deliberated for a while. Since Achala’s name began with ‘A’, the ‘A’ pendant might have been the more appropriate, but he knew he couldn’t ask Indika, whose name began with an ‘I’, for more money. So the ‘I’ would have to do.

Indika and Prabhu’s friendship is one of the most humane bonds of friendship that I have ever read in a novel. The characters of both boys is so well-developed that you would feel you know them personally. In many ways the novel is also a ‘coming of age’ story, as different characters evolve and grow in different ways as the novel progresses. The concluding chapters especially have a beautiful point of climactic twist in certain protagonists’ personalities, but saying more would be giving out spoilers, and for a book as captivating as this, it would be a cardinal sin.

The only minor point of contention for me would be the excessive use of abuses in the text, but I guess it does help set the mood, and my prudish love for ‘proper’ language would probably be judged by most to be orthodox. We all do have our points of squeamishness, don’t we? The style otherwise is unique: the narrator, who is incidentally also the protagonist, shifts from second person, to third person and even to first person narrative. Sometimes it feels like he is narrating a story to us, while at other points the readers are standing next to him, watching an event unfold. The style is such that all passing thoughts and sudden observations are noted down in vivid details, for example a page devoted only to a cockroach on a cricket pitch. Yet the details aren’t random or arbitrary. In many ways this book has a firm foundation in psychology and these seemingly random details, in the end reveal a lot more than one could imagine. The language is simple and easy to understand, but hard to gauge. You might just find yourself turning the pages for one more read.

A Dream From The Past

It has been a year since I published this post. Sometimes when I go through my old works, I realize with a pang of certainty how much I have changed, over the years.
Some other times, I am pleasantly surprised, and can even think, “Did I really write this?” Looking over this post from last year was one such moment. I don’t think, even after a period of 365 days, I would change much, except maybe a verb or two.

Life - Half Glass Full

flashficShe takes a deep breath and inhales the salty wet smell of the ocean. The breeze lifts her hair and it flows behind her like a veil. She screams – a sound of pure, unrestrained joy! She is 18, and Life stretches in front of her like an ocean of promises. 

She is 42 looking at a faded photograph. The walls of her house in the suburbs suffocates her, like a caged canary, who forgot how to sing. In the photoframes on the mantelpiece she searches for an innocent, carefree teenager; eyes brimming with wistful dreams. She sees a dutiful wife and a doting mother. In the mirror she meets the disillusioned eyes of a middle-aged woman.

The king-sized bed with its satin duvet is too soft for her – she longs for the granular sandy ground under the nylon sleeping bag. In the sparkle of the chandelier she searches…

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A Stranger Witnessed a Fight

She screamed into the phone, “Where are you?! I have been calling you for so long!”
He replied, “I already reached home”.
“You went home?” she screeched. “I told you I was going to come, didn’t I? It’s my birthday. We were supposed to meet!”
“Well…” his voice trailed off apologetically.
“Fine! Just tell me what to do now?” she demanded.
“Why don’t you come over to my place?” he suggested.
                             *
She opened the door to reveal a darkened room. Suddenly the lights popped on and her friends jumped up:

SURPRISE! Happy Birthday!

With a wrapped box in one hand he walked towards her and kissed her cheek, “I hope you forgive me now”.
                            *
This is an oneshot story I wrote after I overheard a girl talking angrily on the phone. The conversation forms the first part of the story. I only heard her part of the conversation and imagined the rest. It is highly probable she wasn’t even talking to her boyfriend but a female friend or a relative. But my overactive imagination constructed it into a lovers’ quarrel. The second part of the story is entirely my own imagination.