The Mona Lisa Smile

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Sanjana was like a sunflower that bloomed in the light of love and approval. She could do so much more if he only approved. But all she heard was criticism from her spouse.

“Sanjana, you spend too much on useless things.”

“Perhaps you should do something more than just socializing. There are things called books and reading, you know…”

“You should work.”

“You should cook yourself and not keep a full time maid. You are growing fat doing nothing.”

“What do you do the whole day in the house?”

Sanjana had been married for more than two decades. She had been an accomplished dancer. But, her mother-in-law did not want her to perform on stage. At 22, when she married, she had wept to give up her bells. Her heart had split into two. But her mother explained, “You will now have to shift your focus to your home and family. Dancing may ruin your chances of having a child.”

“But that has been my life, Ma,” wept Sanjana.

“It cannot be helped. At least, they agreed to the marriage. The boy is back from USA with a degree in law. They do not want a dowry. The last match broke. That boy had a girl friend in New York. We cannot turn down this one.”

Sanjana’s heart was breaking with sorrow, fear and apprehension. She did not want to marry the boy. She loved another, but her parents refused to listen. “Abhishek is not worthy of you,” her father said.

And Abhishek’s mother said, “The beggars! They have set that witch on my Abhishek… they are of a lower caste. How dare they set their eyes on my son?”

Abhishek had proposed to Sanjana.

“Let us elope,” he said. Abhishek was a young doctor with a bright future. Sanjana was not sure what to do. She refused.

She had thought Abhishek would propose again with an eye to winning her parents approval. Instead, he eloped with a minister’s daughter who was willing…

Sanjana was left in the cold.

Her parents really mattered to her. She had wanted to keep them happy. She gave up her dancing bells for a lawyer who married her under duress from his family. He did not love her either.

After twenty-one years of marriage and a child, Sanjana sat in front of a sheaf of papers and, with trembling hands, signed on them. Suresh, her husband, was leaving her. He had had enough! He was going to marry his secretary who understood law and was smart and pretty.

Sanjana had started to put on weight after she stopped dancing. A few more kilos were added on after childbirth. Her legs and back ached as she walked. Often, she needed pain killers. Her son was in hostel in Berkley.

Suresh was what they called ‘a stud’ when he married Sanjana. He wanted a docile bride but not an unsmart one. Sanjana did not quiet make the cut. Her English was not that great. She did not read much. It was an embarrassment to take her for his client’s parties. She did not drink and sat quietly in a corner.

Suresh had married her at his mother’s insistence. Now, his mother was no more. He did not need her. He had never taken her out on his own. She was always curled and quiet. Sonia, his secretary understood his every need and loved him passionately. Suresh did the decent thing in his opinion and promised to pay for her upkeep and that of his son. Sanjana could continue to stay in their old home. Suresh and Sonia would move into a new condominium with fantastic club facilities.

Sanjana nodded quietly. She accepted everything that came her way as a docile and a good wife should…even the shame she experienced at being rejected.

But what would she do in a huge home alone with a gardener, maid and driver?

A month after Suresh left, she invited her old school friend Romila to spend the day with her.

Romila had married and gone off to USA with her husband. She returned a widow with no children after five years. Her husband, a high-end tycoon, had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Romila was initially very sad and depressed. Over time, she picked up the pieces and built a life for herself. Money was not an issue for her either. She established herself as a trainer and image builder with a chain of beauty stores. Sanjana and she met accidentally at the Shiva temple one day. Sanjana recognized her and called out. Romila took a while to recognize her.

“What have you done to yourself?” Romila asked. “You were so pretty and such a great dancer. What happened to you?”

“Aging,” responded Sanjana.

“That even I have aged. But you are looking old and sad. What’s up sweetheart?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought you were happily married…”

“No more. My husband left me.”

“What?!”

“He divorced me last month… I live alone and my son is in hostel in USA!” And Sanjana broke down and cried. With her pallu stuffed into her mouth she wept as if her heart would burst.

Romila put her arms around her shoulder and said, “Calm down… I am sorry I asked… I remember your wedding. It was so grand! Calm down… I am really so sorry… come with me to my house and we will sit and talk. I am alone too… Have been alone for long… Come…come.”

Romila led a weeping Sanjana into her car, gave her address to the driver and asked him to drive to her home, which was nearby. Romila had walked to the temple as she did every morning. Sanjana had come to seek spiritual solace in what she felt was her hour of shame and rejection.

She had not been able to eat and sleep properly from the day her husband left her. She thought it was all her fault… she was not good enough for him. He was in the right and had been decent, he had said.

Her son was twenty and studying engineering in Berkley. He was the result of the carnal pleasures of her wedding night. She was so lovely that Suresh had no hesitation asserting his conjugal rights. Sanjana was in a state of shock! But, like a docile bride, she had complied. He continued asserting his conjugal rights every night till her pregnancy was confirmed. During the day, he treated her with disdain. He did not even talk to her properly.

Her mother-in-law, Lata, was pleased with the state of things.

“You are a good daughter-in-law. A woman’s relationship is always best maintained with her husband behind the closed doors of the bedroom at night. And now you will give us an heir.”

And that is exactly what happened. Sanjana had a son. Her mother-in-law named him Sourabh. She had no say in choosing the name of her son. She did not mind.

Her husband had grown even more detached towards her as during her pregnancy as the doctor had warned him not to assert his conjugal rights till after the birth of the child. It could endanger the life of the child he had been warned. He started working late and often came home after dinner as he said he was busy. Sometimes, he came home reeking of alcohol because he had to drink in parties, he said.

He never took Sanjana with him after the first time. She had proven that she could not fit in into a party right after their marriage. He had taken her for a party organized by his friends for the newly weds. She wore a saree, sat in a corner and refused to drink or dance with his friends to western music. He found her behavior unacceptable.

His mother was very sympathetic towards Suresh.

She told Sanjana, “You must look after all his needs. Remember, he is your lord and master and women are but servants of their husbands.”

Sanjana kept her head covered with the pallu of her saree and complied with all these injunctions. Lata praised her to her neighbors and friends.

“My daughter-in-law is truly a Lakshmi and Sita. She is so docile and good. She follows all the rules, does all the work and never disturbs my son. His income has also gone up. Sometimes, he even goes to London on work.”

Suresh and his secretary had gone to London for two weeks. Suresh told them he was going on tour to London, but omitted the fact that Sonia would accompany him.

Saurabh grew up, nurtured by his grandmother and mother. He loved both very much, maybe Sanjana a little more. Sanjana helped him with his schoolwork. She had a good head for maths and science. He excelled in both. When he came in the merit list in his grade twelve exam, his father was very proud of him. “He is just like me,” he declared. “I will send him to USA for further studies.”

No one asked the women who brought him up or the boy what he wanted.

The boy had learnt compliance to his father’s wishes was the accepted way of life. He was a good boy. He complied.

That his mother and grandmother missed him and were heartbroken when he left for Berkley with his dad to settle him in was not a major issue. Sonia flew down after a few days because she needed to ‘help’ Suresh attend a lawyer’s conference in Los Angeles. When he came back, he found his mother sick. She was sore for missing her grandson.

Saurabh came home the next year in June. His grandmother was bed ridden and he was sad to see her as such. After he returned in September, she became more sick. At last, she left Sanjana all alone. Lata had departed for her heavenly abode. Suresh could not fathom the emptiness in Sanjana’s life. She had become fatter, quieter and greyer. With his mother dead and his son in university, Suresh felt the time had come to assert his freedom. He was ready for the next step… divorce.

It came as a shock to Sanjana. Saurabh was not informed. Suresh had told Sanjana to refrain from expressing their separation to him. “It might disturb him,” he reasoned. “ And in any case, he calls you up at home. You are going to continue here. Only I will move out. I will pay all your and his bills. But I think since we have nothing in common, it will be best this way.”

Sanjana had accepted her sad luck with a guilty, downcast face.

She could not figure out what went wrong, why she had to face such dishonor? She did not even tell her sister who lived in London. Her brother had moved to Cape Town in South Africa and her parents went with him. She did not tell them either.

Then, why this sudden breakdown before a friend?

Romila was very kind and sympathetic. She had heard Sanjana’s story and shared her own saga. “My husband was kind and caring and I was heartbroken. I also knew he would hate to see me sad and broken. So, I pulled myself together and made a life for myself back home. The love he cherished on me and his memories has sustained me for the rest of my journey in life,” she concluded with a sad smile.

Sanjana said, “You were lucky to have his love.”

“You are lucky to have had a son and your child’s love. And you must pull yourself together for your son’s sake,” retorted Romila. “ I will come over to your house tomorrow. And we will spend the day together, mapping out a new start for you.”

When Sanjana returned home, her heart felt lighter and she could even watch a dance performance on television without crying once…something she had not been able to do since Suresh announced his decision to leave her.

The next day Romila came in her jogging suit with a gift for Sanjana. When Santana unwrapped the gift, she found a jogging suit and sneakers! Romila had remembered that they could fit into each other’s shoes and slippers.

“ I cannot jog! I am too old and fat. I have a backache!” said Santana.

“It is triple XL. You can fit in. We will not jog. We will walk, “said Romila.

“What is the use of losing weight now?”

“ Why not? We are still not old… get back to dancing!”

“ I can’t anymore.”

“Why not? You are only in 43… you can open a dance school. I will help you. Actually, it would help my trade too!”

Sanjana was still not convinced.

“Please you could be the big story in my career. I have nothing else except that to live by… you know that,” asserted Romila.

Romila went on till Sanjana agreed to walk with her twice a day.

Three months passed by. Every morning Romila took Sanjana out. They had started jogging now. Sanjana was regaining her shape and her aches and pains had reduced. Romila had put her on a low carb diet, taken her to a beautician and had her hair cut and colored. Sanjana had started dancing a little now. She sought out her guru again, acquired a pair of bells and went for regular classes in kathak.

All this while, Suresh had paid her bills and talked on phone when absolutely necessary. He and Sonia had gone on a tour of Europe to celebrate the start of their life together. He had never been on a honeymoon with Sanjana. They had always stayed at home. Suresh travelled alone or with Sonia while he was married to Sanjana. Sanjana had never lived anywhere else except for her mother-in-law’s home for all the twenty-one years of her married life… and now she continued in the same place. Suresh went to USA on a business meet with Sonia and met Suarabh. He had still not told Saurabh about his divorce. Saurabh wanted to do a summer internship in Berkley during the holidays. Suresh encouraged him and promised to visit him with his mother.

Back in India, he called up Sanjana, “Saurabh will not come to India this year. We will visit him. I have not yet told him about our divorce. There is no need to disturb him. We will get your passport made and visit him in August.”

Sanjana complied as always.

By now, the fruits of Romila’s and her hardwork had started blossoming. Sanjana was looking good and younger than her age. She had started helping her old guru teach dancing. She was happier than she had ever been in the last two decades.

Suresh told her to get her passport photograph taken. He wanted her to send it to his office with the driver. She complied. The completed form was sent to her and she signed. The efficient Sonia had overseen all the details. Suresh was not bothered by such small details.

Her passport was ready.

July… Sanjana went shopping with Romila. She was looking very good now. Sanjana was more confident than she had ever been in her life. She was dancing, even though not on stage.

Finally, Sanjana was in the car on the way to the airport. The car stopped in front of Suresh’s house. Sonia was not coming this time.

Suresh stepped into the car and closed the door. He had not turned to look at Sanjana, who was seated in the corner in the dark.

Then he saw her.

“Sanjana?!” Suresh exclaimed with surprise.

He looked at her spell bound.

Sanjana smiled at him and said, “Yes?”

“You are looking good! What have you done to yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“You cut your hair.”

“Yes.”

“You look good. You are wearing pants…I have never seen you in anything except sarees!”

“Jeans. They are convenient for travel. You have never taken me anywhere with you till now.”

Suresh stared at her open-mouthed.

Earlier she would keep quiet and nod shyly. Now she spoke.

In the brightly lit airport, he could see she had make up on and looked very good. Young men turned to look at her as she pushed her trolley.

Suresh was stunned!

She had got her figure back.

“You have lost weight and your hair is brown!” Suresh stuttered.

“Yes. I am dancing and I color my hair,” smiled Sanjana.

When they went to the counter, Suresh asked for two seats together.

He kept looking at her as if to make sure everything was all right. When Sanjana took out a Dan Brown to read, Suresh blurted out, “So, you are reading too…”

“Yes. I never figured out how much fun it is to read thrillers. A friend introduced me to Dan Brown and I cannot stop reading his books!”

Suresh watched her asleep. How beautiful she looked, prettier than when he had married her. He would have loved to touch her, to have her as his wife again. He had been a bit peeved with Sonia of late…She was always nagging him for things the way Sanjana never had… maybe they could get back together. He had never married Sonia… Sonia wanted him to formalize their relationship with a wedding ring. He had pleaded Saurabh’s reaction… Sonia still nagged…

Maybe, he could ask her when she woke up… meanwhile, he gazed at her and then tried to read.

Sanjana’s eyes fluttered and she sat up.

Suresh looked at her and smiled. She had always been putty in his hands. Maybe, he would ask her soon…

She would surely agree! She had always agreed to anything he said… even the divorce…

Suresh waited for Sanjana to be fully awake.

Then, he smiled at her.

She smiled back.

“Feeling refreshed?” he asked.

Sanjana nodded.

“I have been thinking things through while you slept. Saurabh does not know we have separated. If we get back together, he will never know of the rift.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sanjana.

“I mean we can terminate our divorce and stay married forever.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Sanjana we could go back to being together and, if you want, we can remarry when we return.”

“Why?”

Suresh could not believe his ears.

“What are you saying? You do not want to stay married to me?”

“I am not married to you any more. I am having too good a time now to think of tying a knot.”

“Are you saying you do not want me?”

Sanjana looked at him and gave an enigmatic smile in the tradition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond Abhinav Imroz…

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Abhinav Imroz was an established figure in media by the time I met him in the 1990s. I was a student in Delhi University… and he was a celebrity…tall, lanky, hair streaked with grey and with a tremendous stage presence…

He had just been hailed as the man of the year by the Time magazine and had got an award for his autobiography. We had seen his picture on posters that lined the university but had not managed to get our hands on the magazine or his book. So, the curiosity remained… we wanted to know more…

He was an actor, an entrepreneur and a writer! All very impressive… he had been invited to talk to us on his life and experiences by the Film Club in the university. I was a member of the Film Club… I sat in the front row and waited for him to start.

He started to talk in a deep resonating voice, the kind that dreams are made of…

“I was born in what is known as Pakistan now, in the 1940s, prior to Partition. My earliest memories are of my parents in Lahore. I remember flying a kite with my father on the rooftop. I remember singing a song with my mother on the piano… I remember playing with our old help, a thin devout man who carried me in his heart and lap… I went around in a phaeton that my father maintained… but I have forgotten what my father was called and where I lived exactly… I have forgotten what my faith was… I have forgotten what my own real name was…”

“For, I was only three years old when my parents left their ancestral home, as far as I have been told…and made a run for India with me… I remember still the haunting fear when I heard the shout of the mob that attacked our home… The little man, who took care of me and prayed ever so often sitting on a mat, was pushed and thrown aside when he tried to shut the door on the mob. My parents and I watched from behind a bush outside in the garden and made a run for India with what we had on us. I remember my mother crying as the house was set aflame…”

“The next thing I remember was the stench in the refugee camp and then, I heard, my parents died. I was put in a bus and sent to an orphanage in India, where I was so unhappy that I ran away… I slipped out of the gate one morning and no one noticed… maybe, they looked for me… The security guard was sleeping in his chair when I ran out. I was a little fellow and there were so many on the street like me that I could lose myself completely… And, then I found myself… I have polished shoes, carried loads and I managed to survive. But, I wanted more from life. When I was probably ten, I enrolled myself in a night school and learnt to read and write…Everyone called me Bittoo then…”

“In 1965, when I registered for my higher secondary exam, I gave my name as Abhinav Imroz. I had decided that I would carve out a new future for myself. I worked and studied till I finished my graduation. It was a hard existence. Then I went and joined the film industry… when I made enough money as an actor, I bought a press and started printing a magazine, then a daily… I started writing… most of my writing talks of a world beyond borders… a new day where we will not lose ourselves in petty violence over borders drawn by politicians… I call myself Abhinav, which means new in Hindi, the national language of India. And Imroz, which means today in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. I see myself as someone who believes in God, in all faiths, all religions, all cultures…. which are all but colours of a rainbow… and yet we fight, and yet we strive for borders that kill… my parents were killed as were and are millions like them…”

“Pakistan evolved when prior to what is called our Independence, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, drew a line through the homes and hearts of families in the Indian subcontinent. Divide and rule, a colonial weapon to maintain supremacy of the ruler had at last struck the hearts and hearths of millions, who were killed crossing borders. Radcliffe justified the casual division by saying that no matter what he did, people would suffer. He also admitted he fell sick in India and was eager to leave the country. The line that was drawn by Radcliffe was a need for the ‘leaders’ who took over the reigns of the governments from the departing colonial power, not for the common man.”

I still remember as he paused to take a sip of water, the resounding claps that filled the auditorium. I still have his speech in my college album. The editor of our college magazine recorded the words and then wrote it down for all of us to read….

He continued with his speech… He spoke of his successes in the film industry and as a newspaper magnate. He spoke of the role of arts and literature in the current day world. He spoke of the needs of our times and how his book reflected on all the things that had made him. Oh, he was fabulous! He rose before us like a giant of our times…

Most of us were fascinated by his life… We were so inspired that I wanted to do project with street children… there could be more like him, with his potential … who knows? Suresh, an economics major student and the president of the Film Club, thought it was a great idea. But, the others from the club said that we should do something that had something to do with filmmaking. They wanted to try make a short movie about his life…not a documentary but a story based on his life…We had all completed our final year and were awaiting our results. We had the time to fiddle around with something new. Suresh said we could take up my idea later but it would be fun to make the film together as we would soon part ways.

Everyone agreed, especially as Pran, a postgraduate student of media studies, said, he had an uncle in Doordarshan, the national channel, and he would check if they could help us.

Some of us made an appointment with Abhinav Imroz and went to meet him after our final exams. I was one of the lucky people to be included… we wanted more details… He had asked us to go to his office. The building was a skyscraper owned by him. He told us to read his Memoirs to get a more detailed account… that was the book that got him his Booker prize…

To say I read the book would be an understatement…I gorged it… he was kind enough to give us an autographed copy which we all shared.

I wanted to hold on to the book but finally Pran got to keep it.

Pran’s uncle, Mr. Das, was fascinated by the story… He asked us if we had made anything of it…

Suresh had already started trying to dramatise it. I was helping him. We had bought another copy of the book and partly written our own script. But, I still wanted the original copy with the dedication to the film club. I do not know why but I was desperate for it…

Suresh and I were working day and night on the script together. Mr. Das approved it and allowed us to continue helping. He even paid us for our story. He took the book from his nephew, read it and returned it to him. Pran thought he was entitled to hold on to the copy as he had helped the film society gain experience with professionals! He refused to exchange it with me. He said, “You can get your copy autographed again.”

“It is not the same thing,” I said. “That is dedicated originally by Abhinav Imroz himself to the Film Club. This would be only to me.”

“We are all part of the Film Club. Why would you have more right to the book than me?” responded Pran.

I had no answer.

The time had come for auditions for the teleplay and then, in walked Ambar. Ambar was cast as Abhinav Imroz in the teleplay. He was tall, curly haired, fair with grey eyes and a red mouth. He reminded me of Michelangelo’s David… His delivery was amazing. For me, he brought to life the great Abhinav Imroz… Wow! I loved the voice… it sounded the same as that of the man he portrayed, the man whose ideas on harmony and a borderless world won me over for life…

I hung on Ambar’s words. When he was around, I had eyes only for him. I was hoping he would notice me. I had a minor role, as there were very few major roles for women. Abhinav Imroz had never married… He said in his Memoirs that there were enough children in the world, who needed homes, and he had created such a home for five or six of them. They were orphans like him of unknown faith and parentage. As they grew up and launched into the world on their own, he would take in new comers. They lived with him in a palatial home and were put through good schooling and university. The children in return loved him like a father. No one knew any scandals about him.

To me, he was perfection… and Ambar portrayed that perfection!

Everytime Ambar walked into the room, my heart beat fast and I felt the blood rush into my head if he turned or spoke to me. Pran teased me about it.

“You have a crush on Ambar, Sheila!” he said as he watched me blush and stammer when Ambar spoke to me. Suresh had been asking me out after we finished out exams. I avoided him and stared at and dreamt of Ambar.

Geeta, who played a grown up Muslim girl brought up by Abhinav Imroz warned me, “Sheila, Ambar and Abhinav are different… Ambar is a rich man’s son who is aiming to make it big in the glamorous movie world… you are socially aware person who wants to make things better in this world. You think about others’ welfare and a better future for the world… Do you think the two can meet?”

I was angry and irritated by the warning. “You know nothing about me or Ambar. Then why do you say bad things about him?”

Geeta looked shocked at my outburst and said, “I am sorry I meant no offence.”

Suresh looked dejected, “I do not know where we are headed with this film,” he mused. “But after this is over, I have to apply to the law school for my masters. Maybe, we should not have attempted this… it is eating into our time…” Like me, he had a minor role.

I was defensive about the film. “It will be a great film that promotes racial harmony, maybe something like Amrita Pritam’s book, Pinjar.”

Suresh shrugged and tried his luck, “Want to go for coffee after the shoot?” he asked me.

“Let’s all go,” I said and called out, “Ambar, do you want to go for coffee after the shoot?”

Ambar shrugged his shoulders and agreed.

As we all went into the cafe, a little child in rags came and asked for money to buy food. Just as I was taking out a ten rupees note, Ambar shooed off the child, “Bloody beggar! They just have nothing better to do!” I was a bit surprised but still he was Ambar, the great actor who understood Abhinav Imroz and played him to perfection.

I dreamt of dating him… but he never asked…

I found a seat next to him in the cafe and tried to start a conversation. I asked him what he thought of Abhinav Imroz, “Great guy!” he said. “Self-made and all that… Has made a lot of money… I want that too…money… my father has lots… He has promised to let me try my luck at Bollywood. He can fund me all my life. But one needs more… you know… and I like the idea of being a famous star! Abhinav, of course, great guy too! Is loaded…!”

He finished his coffee and said, “I am off… have a babe to meet at the bar across the street…Bye guys.”

Everybody said his or her goodbyes to him.

Suresh walked me to the bus stop. He asked me, “Should I drop you home? It is starting to get dark.”

“No. I can manage,” was my irritated response.

The day the film was being screened on television, we asked Abhinav Imroz to a little party we had organized in a hotel for the cast and crew… The party was in the evening, after the screening. We watched the telefilm in the ballroom of the hotel on a large television screen. Mr Imroz was aked to give a little speech. He thanked all of us for the great job we did and especially Ambar. Ambar was elated! He was on cloud nine. He drank glass after glass of champagne. Abhinav Imroz was a teetotaler.

After quite a few drinks, when Ambar seemed to head for the dance floor, I ran after him and asked him to dance with me. He agreed. It was a slow number. I felt uncomfortable as he held me tight. He smelt of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I discovered I did not like that much. He started groping… I tried to move away… I was embarrassed… No. This was not the way it should go, I thought. He was supposed to be respectful and decent. He was like Abhinav Imroz… Ambar moved closer and tried to press his body against mine!

Suddenly, I found myself facing Suresh. Suresh had tapped Ambar on the shoulder and Ambar was dancing with another girl, who he was holding close and groping now… looked like it did not matter who was at the receiving end, as long as the body was that of a female!

I felt sick at the pit of my stomach… I think it showed for Suresh asked me if he should take me home. I nodded.

On the way he told me that Abhinav Imroz had left after the speech, pleading a prior appointment.

I was sorely disappointed with the actor who portrayed him. Ambar was definitely not like Abhinav Imroz! Maybe Geeta was right…

Suresh was very kind and did not speak about it. He just dropped me home and left.

The next week, Suresh called up and told me he had made an appointment with Mr Imroz to thank him and to propose the project we had discussed earlier to help street children, the one that I proposed to the Film Club before we started on the film venture. My short-lived adulation for Ambar had distracted me from it through the movie making period… I was amazed that Suresh had remembered and pushed it through! Pran and the others had started working and had no time for the project, so only Suresh and I went to meet him.

We went by an auto rickshaw to his house. It was a huge house. We entered. I felt intimidated by the sheer size, though I must say the decor was tasteful and not opulent. A man in a white uniform showed us into the drawing room. Suresh settled down on the sofa with the newspaper. We were still a little awkward with each other after he rescued me from Ambar. I looked around. There were books lining a wall. I walked to the shelf and was looking at the titles when again that voice rang out,

“Hello, both of you… I am afraid I have forgotten your names again.”

We reintroduced ourselves and started thanking him for allowing us to make the film and being there for the telecast, when he said, “You do not need to thank me. You did a good job with the script and the film. I should be thanking you. But I have another appointment in a little while. So, I would really like to hear your proposal for helping the street children.”

Suresh told him our ideas. I joined them in the discussion. He promised to fund us if we turned up with a written project proposal.

Suresh and I were again at work together. I had to do most of the work as Suresh was preparing for his entrance exam in law. We were together very often. I noticed how kind Suresh was to me. He formed a contrast to Ambar. He was good for my ego…

We completed the proposal. The idea was I would start with the project with some more friends from my sociology class (who were willing to volunteer) and Suresh would help us whenever he could spare time. We were planning a shelter, where we would try to help children get back with their families (if they still had them) and we would make sure they got a good education in different schools. We were also hoping to have a little theatre group which would educate not just children but also disadvantaged adults… we wanted to educate them about the need for schooling and for standing up to bullying and crime…for all this we needed funding. Abhinav Imroz was happy to help. By this time, I was used to the voice of Abhinav Imroz.

He said, “You both are like my own children. I love your optimism and hope. Together, we can make changes. God bless you both.”

I was very happy.

As our proposal started materializing, Suresh and I drew closer. It was our baby… the project, I mean… delivered by the funding from Abhinav Imroz.

Suresh completed his studies and started practicing with a law firm. He had lesser time for my work and me. I missed his contribution as he always had a solution to every problem that we faced…

I missed his voice more than that of Abhinav Imroz.

That day, we were meeting to celebrate that he did well and had a great job and the success our project. Our project had  been written about in a major daily and Abhinav Imroz had run a feature in his magazine about our work.

I was raving about how well we functioned as a team.

Suddenly, Suresh asked me over chocolate ice cream, “Will you team up for life with me?”

I felt very shy and looked down.

“What do you mean?” I mumbled.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

I agreed.

Wedding cards went out.

Abhinav Imroz was a guest as was Pran. We were of course thrilled to have Abhinav Imroz at our wedding…

When we unwrapped the gifts, we found Pran(who had started working for Doordarshan) had given us the book autographed for the Film Club and a tape of the movie on Abhinav Imroz as our wedding gift.

With it, he wrote a note,

 

“No one deserves this more than the two of you.”

 

Now, I had the answer to Pran’s question…because, then, I had not understood why I was so desperate for the book…the book, the movie and the project tied Suresh and me together in a way nothing else could! I knew that earlier in my sub-conscious but did not acknowledge it to myself… perhaps I had to grow up…

Abhinav Imroz had been the catalyst that inspired me to act and Suresh to admire and provide support for my idealism and dreams. But the bond that drove us to make everything happen lay deeper within our hearts.

When we ran the movie, I was surprised that I had found Ambar so like Abhinav Imroz at that time and attractive. He was nothing like Abhinav Imroz! Ambar’s face lacked character and intelligence…

However, the book, Memoirs, that Pran gifted us is the pride of our home and rests on our bookshelf in the hall at last!

 

 

The Story of a Doe-eyed Jinn

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Thousands of years ago, when mankind was still young and believed in magic, there was a tiny green island peopled by simple, god-fearing fisher folk. In the little village by the seaside, there lived a beautiful girl with pale white skin, pomegranate red lips, jet-black hair. She flit from home to home through the day, bringing happiness with her good nature and helpful attitude. She would play with the children and do little tricks that kept their tears at bay. She would climb tall trees and pluck fruit for the little ones. She would help mothers and wives with household chores and she would listen to the old folks’ tales of glory till they were filled with blessings for her kind heart. She was a winsome little soul and everyone agreed that the man who won her heart would be a lucky one.

One day, a great magician came to the village in a fabulous flying carpet made of gold and silver. He glowed with a magical aura and no one could touch him. He wore a strange robe made of glistening orange and black. He had a long beard and long hair and spoke in a deep, drowning voice. He was like a king from heaven. No one in the village had seen anyone like him. No one knew why he had come to their village and no one asked. He went to the village elder and demanded shelter. The village elder fell under his spell and gave him what he wanted without any questions. In fact, the whole village fell under his spell.

They were stunned by the magic he performed for them. He could stop the rain from wetting the village. It would fall all around but not into the village. It seemed like he had built a dome to keep off the thunder and lightening. He could extend night and day for the village.

The young doe-eyed girl watched him with fascination. The magician saw her from the corner of his eyes and followed her with interest. It would be nice for him to have someone like her around, he thought to himself. In any case, he was tiring off the village and the time had come for him to move on…

The magician came from beyond the stars and the moon. He had travelled around the world in quest of a special magic that would make him more powerful than the men who ruled his home. He wanted to be a king. He was a man who loved power and lived for only his own needs. This young girl could ward away his loneliness and help him find the magic. The magician approached the village elder and asked for the girl’s hand. The village elder was totally under the magician’s mind spell. He would do whatever the magician asked. He agreed. The young girl agreed. Only her mother worried. But the magician put a spell on her mouth so that she could not utter her protests.

The girl went off with the magician on his flying carpet…

For the first few days, the girl lived as if in a dream. They soared among the stars and the moon. From the carpet, which turned invisible and became like a big home, she could see the aurora borealis, fabulous sunrises and sunsets, even the whole Earth as she flew further towards the moon with her magician. Oh! How the girl loved the magician as she saw the wonders of the universe soar past her…the fabulous nebulae, the distant suns, the stars with their swirls of gas and fire…oh! She was fascinated!

At last, they landed on the snowbound ice-cap of the polar region. The magician said, “Now, I will train you and then will begin our real work.”

First, he created a home for them under a warm glowing dome where the temperature was as warm as that of the doe-eyed damsel’s island. It was like a little oasis of warmth in the cold desert of ice and snow. There, he started training her. Sometimes, they would step out into the cold and create a fire with a powder. Sometimes, they would create illusory landscapes, like a volcano or a flower garden. The magician taught the maiden how to keep her body temperature constant in cold and warm weather. He taught her to change into a bird and soar the skies. He taught her how to control her and others’ minds, how to move objects from a distance. She learned fast.

After six months of intensive training, the magician told her it was time to start work…to look for a new magic…

They set sail on the magic carpet and soared the world, visiting deep caverns, river and sea-beds for ancient magic. And the doe-eyed winsome girl became an expert magician. She could turn to dust a predator lurking in the deeps of the sea, swim like a mermaid into underwater caverns, create light and darkness…just like her magician. In addition she had a pure heart, a necessity that the bearded magician for all his charm lacked. It was with the echoes of her heart that she would be able to feel the pure magic. Unfortunately for the magician, his heart was tainted by personal ambition and greed. It could not sense the echoes of magic that needed a pure heart. He had searched everywhere on Earth for the magic but it was lost to him.

Another six months passed. The magic was still concealed from them. Then, one day as they delved deep into a dark cave on a mountainside, they found the magic in a rock. It echoed in the doe eyed girl’s heart. She heard the echoes and told her magician. The magician took out a ring and put a halo around the rock. It floated up, became tiny and swept into an empty socket of the ring. It was strange magic. The magician was very happy. He said, “I know this is the right magic because it responded to the call of the ring.” That day they went to a nearby village and partied with the villagers. They had visited the village earlier and the villagers knew them as a devoted couple. They had fireworks and fancy food. They sang and danced late into he night.

That night they all went to bed late.

The sun caressed the doe-eyed damsel with its morning rays. The doe-eyed damsel woke up to an empty bed. Her magician had left with the ancient magic, ring and carpet. He left a note bidding her farewell forever. The doe-eyed damsel wept till her eyes were swollen and red.

When the villagers heard of her plight, they condemned her as an abandoned woman. Her husband left her because she was flawed, they said. The doe-eyed girl cried and cried and then decided to return home. She took to the skies like a swallow, alighted at her village and returned to her original form. When she returned without the magician and wept out her tale, people turned their faces away. Her mother hung her head in shame for an abandoned wife was considered a valueless and shameless commodity in the world of men. Her mother could not take in the shame and died of a broken heart. The doe-eyed one no longer brought smiles to the villagers but, in their opinion, only bad luck.

She lived in the outskirts of the village and perfected her magic. One day, embittered by a sense of rejection, she took the form of a black crane and flew all the way to the desert sands. There she haunted caravanserais for a few years hoping her magician would return at some point and find her. When the bearded one did not return and men jeered at her and wounded her self-respect, she started turning them into lizards and cockroaches. People began to regard her as a woman with a black heart. Only the wicked came to her for magical help and she obliged. She was a woman who had lost her senses in a battle to survive with honour.

Sometimes, she would turn herself into a whirlwind and baffle men who had jeered at her. Sometimes, she descended like black smoke on unsuspecting wayfarers and frightened them with ugly faces.

One day when she descended on a group of travellers as a whirlwind and started making frightening faces at them, a clever trader outwitted her. He said, he did not believe that she was a powerful magician. The doe-eyed one wanted to convince him. She asked, “What can I do to convince you? Should I turn you into a worm?”

He replied,“ I will believe you are a really powerful magician if you can get into this tiny jar” and he waved an empty wine bottle under her nose.

“Oh that is easy,” she replied and turned into black smoke and entered the jar. The trader promptly closed the jar. However much she shouted, he would not let her out. He took the jar to the next caravanserai and threw it among all the empty bottles that littered the garbage area.

The doe-eyed one waited patiently for someone to open the bottle. She turned herself invisible and made a home in the old wine jar, waiting for more than ten centuries to be let out…

 

 

The Storm

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A shooting star zipped across the sky, studded with pinpricks of lights that twinkled against the blackness of the velvety night, a night that throbbed with music on the lawns of the exclusive club where Dolon and Suresh were celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. The star went unnoticed by all except a figure that sat at a distance wrapped in what seemed an extension of the night sky, a sinuous black sari speckled with tiny silver spangles. The figure smiled with happy thoughts and perhaps made a wish as the shooting star disappeared into oblivion.

The sumptuous party with turbaned waiters and long white tables swung in it’s own beat. Guests draped in expensive saris, suits, jewelry and perfume expressed their satisfaction with the opulence of the affair. Besides Dolon and Suresh, stood their daughter, Brishti, and son, Sreshth. Brishti’s fiance, Arjun, came and whispered in her ears. Brishti gave a shy smile and looked at her parents. Dolon smiled and the young couple took off towards the dance floor, a little raised stage in the middle of the lawn where the younger moved to music.

“ I think all the guests are here except for Subir da. He is late as usual,” said Suresh.

“ Then let us go and mingle,” said Dolon.

“I am off to my gang then,” said Sresht and went off to a gaggle of young men talking and laughing.

Dolon and Suresh went first to the woman in black, the star gazer who occupied a chair near the entrance of the party. She had a face similar to that of Dolon but looked a little older.

Didi, I am so glad you could come all the way,” said Dolon to her elder sister, Damayanti.

“And how would I not? On such an important occassion…” said Damayanti with a smile. Suresh came and touched her feet. She blessed the couple from the bottom of her heart.

“Go and mingle with the others. I will sit here and wait for Subir. He is late as usual,” said Damayanti with an indulgent smile. Subir was her husband. She was five years older to Dolon and her only daughter, Sreya, was married and living in South Africa.

Damayanti sighed and gazed at the figures of her sister and brother-in-law moving among the guests. How happy they looked together, happier than her and Subir, whose inability to be in time distressed her! And yet, she could not help but recall that night almost fifteen years ago, a day after her sister’s wedding anniversary celebration, when she got that horrifying call that Dolon had slashed her wrist and was hospitalized…

She would never forget the nightmare. Subir and she had driven recklessly from their home to the nursing home. It was surreal for her. Her lively younger sister Dolon… the one who always smiled, was always so sure of herself, always got her way, was so strong to oppose wrongs to women, to children , to anyone, was so loyal in love… why would such a positive and strong person try to commit suicide?

At the nursing home, their father, Harihar, was pacing up and down. The young children were clinging to Seema, their grandmother. But, where was Suresh and why had all this happened?

After a few hours, Dolon regained consciousness. The family were allowed in one by one and asked to be quiet. The children went in with their grandmother. Then the rest followed slowly. The doctors asked them not to talk to her or agitate her in any way.

What had happened? That was the question on everyone’s mind but no one dared ask. And why was Suresh not there?

Harihar had received a call from the housekeeper that her madam was lying in a pool of blood and the children were crying with fear… Harihar instantly called a private ambulance and rushed her to the nearest nursing home. He was also not clear what had happened… and why they couldnot find Suresh anywhere.

No one wanted to question Dolon much…

Brishti and Shresht went to their grandparent’s home from the nursing home. Brishti said Dolon had asked them to go to their room when Suresh mentioned he wanted to talk to her alone. Then they spoke and their voices became loud and incoherent. The door banged shut. The children could hear Dolon crying as if her heart would rend. Slowly, the weeping seemed to stop. And then they heard a scream from the housekeeper. They came running out of their room to find their mother with her wrist cut. The housekeeper called up Suresh immediately. Suresh’s phone was switched off. So, she called Harihar. The arguement had happened while she was in the market. When she returned, Dolon had been weeping in her room and Suresh was missing and the kids were in their room. She only came into the room when the weeping almost ceased thinking Dolon had calmed down. Instead, she found her lying in a pool of blood.

From the nursing home, Dolon also came to her parental home. She was very depressed and quiet. The doctors had prescribed anti-depressants. No one dared question Dolon. Harihar continued to call Suresh but his phone was still switched off!

Damayanti, Subir and Sreya temporarily moved into Harihar’s home to try and ease the situation. Also Dolon was closest to her sister. Everyone was hoping she would tell her what had happened.

After two days, Harihar had a call from Suresh. Suresh had returned home after two days, unkempt, unshaven and heard the story of Dolon’s wrist slashing from the housekeeper. He wanted to talk to Dolon. Harihar asked him to come over and explain what had happened. Suresh came, looking unkempt, anxious and abashed. He first wanted to talk to Dolon. But Dolon didnot want to talk to him or see him.

“What is the matter? Will one of you tell me what has happened? Why Dolon had to resort to such extreme measures?”said Harihar with impatience.

Suresh found it difficult to say anything. He just left.

The evening of the day Suresh visited them, Dolon opened up to Damayanti, “He wanted to leave me and go with his secretary… It seems she has been in love with him from the first day she saw him… whereas he thinks I have no time for him… I love him so much. Life has no meaning without him. I married him to spend the rest of my life with him…where did I go wrong Didi? …It really hurts…I was only looking after the kids and home. I have always been there for him… He is the one who is always busy. He has no time for the kids or me… He doesnot know the kids’ teachers or friends. He sees us only on weekends practically. He is always taking clients out for dinner and getting home near midnight… he is the one who spends more time with his secretary and work than with any of us…yet, we have never complained…”

Damayanti was furious, “Divorce him! Divorce him this instance… we told you not to marry the orphan…but you still did. And now…” Suresh was an orphan. He was brought up by his aunt, who died before Dolon met him. She knew him for twelve years before she slashed her wrists.

“My life is over,”said Dolon. “Why did you save me?”

“What about the kids?” Said Damayanti. “If you and Suresh think only of yourselves, what of the kids?”

Harihar was furious too, “He is banned from coming here! Dolon will divorce him”

But when the kids left for school the next day, the bell did ring. And there was Suresh.

“Get out!”said Harihar.

Suresh forced his way in despite that.

“Please let me see Dolon once,” he begged. “I will go away forever if she wants after that. Please let me apologize. I was wrong. I do love her.”

Dolon came in.

Everyone was silent.

“Do you really?” asked Dolon. “Then why did you say all those things and disappear not letting me have my say…”

“I was confused…I cannot live without you…Please give me another chance. I will be a good father and husband. I will change my ways. Please, please Dolon I beg you.”He knelt. He bowed his head and pleaded.

Dolon said, “Okay. One more chance is all I will give and then if it happens again, I will leave, not die, with the kids.”

“No Dolon. Do not believe him,”said Damayanti.

“He will hurt you again,”said her Seema.

“He is not worthy of you,”said Harihar.

Subir, who had just returned after dropping the children to school, collared Suresh, “If you come near us again, I will hand you to the police.”

“Stop.”shouted Dolon. “For my sake stop.”

Subir let Suresh go.

Dolon deliberately walked over to her husband. She held his hand and said, “Let’s go.”

Brishti and Shresht returned home that weekend. And Subir and Damayanti returned home with Sreya. Dolon’s family kept urging her to divorce Suresh. But, Dolon ignored them and their rebuke. Damayanti didnot know what Dolon did, but it had all worked out. Dolon had been very strong through it all, siding with her husband, supporting him with love and trust.

Once when Damayanti questioned her on why she forgave him so easily, Dolon said, “Our children need us both.”

Her children never knew exactly what happened but they were attached to both their parents. Initially, the family ignored Suresh. Then, seeing how good he was being to Dolon, they started relenting. Suresh tried to win back the family too as he had none of his own.

Infact when Harihar developed cancer, Suresh was the one who paid for most of the chemotherapy, his argument being that he had no one else except this family to care for whereas Subir had his parents too. Suresh stood by like a rock for his mother-in-law when her husband passed away and he was by her when she died two years later.

One day when the two sisters were having tea, Dolon had confided in Damayanti, “The past that threatened to tear us apart has drawn Suresh closer to my heart. He has softened. He seems kinder…to understand me better …perhaps because he started giving us more time… life is good now.” That was about a year after their mother died.

Strange how people were…

That the lively Dolon could be so strong and take a positive step towards rebuilding her life despite the family suggesting otherwise was amazing! That she had succeeded was fantastic! That she found it in her heart to forgive her erring husband was so kind and loving, and so unlike the reaction people would have expected from the fiery Dolon… A waiter with a tray of drinks stood before her, “Would madam like something?”

She jerked back to reality…

The moon had risen higher and the waiter waited with his tray. “No, thank you,”said Damayanti.

Where was Subir?

Someone tugged at Damayanti’s saree. Damayanti turned around and looked. It was Subir. He whispered in her ears, “What were you thinking? You looked lost and lovely…”

There was tinge of sadness, concern and accusation in Damayanti’s glance as she looked deep into Subir’s eyes and wondered why he was always late. Why could he not ever  be in time…Could it be another…?

She wiped the disturbing thought. And smiled back with a sense of regret.

The party continued to swing.

Hello 2017!

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At the end of every year, I feel so many things have rushed by and there is so much more to do. At the start of every year, I feel time stretching out just as at the start of a new day or a birthday…

As 2016 draws to a close, I am filled with a hope that we have reached the end of a dark phase in the history of mankind and now things can only get better! This year has been a year of refugees displaced, of people unwilling to share their countries, of terror triumphing, of partisan deals made by world leaders, of de-globalization and the trumping of Trump. On the brighter horizon, were the demonetization of currencies by India and Venezuela…perhaps the start of a rainbow after stormy skies…

2016 had exciting books and movies…JK Rowling’s two stories around the Harry Potter series, though not her best, rang a note of hope in the heart as I always feel uplifted seeing how against all odds a child makes it in the world and how there are always benevolent and tolerant people who make sure that good triumphs over evil. One had to read the book to enjoy the movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Star Wars returned with a not so star studded cast. It was disappointing to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) killed by his own not so powerful but villainous son and there was too less of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. That Princess Leia, if at all she features in the next Star Wars, will have to be played by someone else is tragic! The second Star wars, Rogue One, was too violent with everyone annihilated at the end…I would like to see a Star Wars filled with hope and Jedis again.

On a personal note, 2016 has been a most exciting time for me. I turned fifty… completed half a century of earthly existence! This has also been the first year where I was acknowledged as a poet in a gathering of intellectuals…though in my estimation, I continue a mommy and wife who writes for fun…

I am left dreaming that with my writing I will, at some point, bring happiness and hope in the hearts of readers. Maybe, people will learn to think of themselves as part of mankind, part of this universe, part of a galaxy, a speck in the universe … perhaps they will find a new dawn on January 1 st, a magical dawn where a rainbow will encompass the whole world and bring hope and colors.

Wish you all wonderful dreams in the New Year!

My new publication

(In reverie, An anthology, poetry by ten contributors, 2016)

http://www.amazon.in/dp/9383785373?_encoding=UTF8&m=A27OJUQ7QXJ7N6&qid=1482819105&ref_=sr_1_4&s=merchant-items&sr=1-4

My old book

(In the Land of Dragons, prose, humor, about life in China, 2014)

Amazon link

http://www.amazon.com/In-Land-Dragons-Mitali-Chakravarty/dp/1490704337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394358194&sr=8-1&keywords=mitali+chakravarty

India link

http://www.amazon.in/In-Land-Dragons-Mitali-Chakravarty/dp/1490704337/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1396481959&sr=8-6&keywords=In+the+land+of+dragons

The Journey

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Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. Her whole family, her two son and their offsprings, had gathered to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday. She was now the grand old matriarch. Her grand children were just returning. She could hear their voices as the front door closed.

“Oh! Where is granny?” her fourteen-year-old grand daughter, Sheila, was asking her mother.

“I think she is in the balcony,” her mother replied.

“Alone?” asked Ron, her seventeen-year-old grandson.

“Yes,” and a discussion followed in muted voices.

Sushma knew her sons, their wives and children were planning something big… but she did not know what… no one would tell her. She played along.

The balcony door slid open and her two grandchildren stepped out. They were her younger son’s children. The elder one’s son was married and expecting a baby. He was posted in Singapore with his wife. They lived in a separate apartment and would be joining the rest of the family later.

Ron and Sheila plunked on chairs near her.

“How was your jog?” asked Sushma.

“Great!” replied Sheila as she sipped a cold apple juice from a tall glass.

“We saw a komodo dragon!” exclaimed Ron. He was really excited, as they had grown up in California where such creatures were unusual. “And Sheila was screaming with fear.”

“I was not. I was shocked seeing it cross our path so casually.”

“It was running too,” said Ron. “Obviously, it was scared of us too.”

Sushma smiled and intervened, “Good. I always love to hear of your discoveries.”

“Grandma, today you will tell us your stories. Will you again tell us the story of how you and your mother moved here?” asked Sheila. “I always love to hear it. Maybe, someday I will write it down.”

Sushma smiled affectionately and said, “I also love recalling my past. It rekindles my sense of hope and happiness.”

“I was born in an army cantonment in a city called Kanpur in India in 2014. My father was a soldier in the Indian army. When I was six-months-old, he was killed in a terrorist attack in his border camp. He died fighting and was declared a hero. My mother was only twenty-four and heartbroken. My grandmother was inconsolable. Medals were given to my father posthumously. But medals did not bring food to our plates or gladness in our hearts.

My mother was always sad. I do not recall much of the early phase in my life except everyone seemed dark and gloomy. There was no laughter, no sense of hope.

We were poor. We had to leave the army cantonment. My grandparents moved in with their second son, who lived in Bombay and my mother went back to her parents in New Delhi.

My mother’s in-laws did not want her and the baby as they said we had brought bad luck on the family. More than the terrorists, they blamed us for losing their beloved son.

I do not remember much of that time but, I believe, my mother’s family let her to go back to studies. My mother had been a bright student and had married at twenty under family pressure. She had not been allowed to complete her graduation by her family or that of her husband’s. There had been no time after all the housekeeping in her husband’s home. Her parents-in-law also lived with them and expected her to serve them, do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry.

Now that she was widowed and had no home to service, my mother went back to her studies. She bloomed, studied economics, got a fellowship to Singapore and we moved.

This time, her parents did not halt her progress despite criticisms from relatives and friends. My mother said they probably realized the pleasure she got from it was necessary for her survival. Also, her fellowship brought her so much money that her parents, who had come from a small town called Pilani to the capital New Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father had been a clerk in the Indian Railways. He had three daughters, the eldest being my mother. The other two were married by the time we came to Singapore. So, he had very less left in his pocket after giving his daughters ample gifts and spending on the functions.

I was six-years-old when we moved to Singapore.

My grandparents did not come with us. They had been my main caregivers in India as my mother spent her time studying. For my mother, it was a very big and bold step. She had never travelled on her own. Even during her journey back to Delhi, her father had gone to pick her up. This was not just a trip. It was her first trip on plane and that too to the first country outside her own!”

“Amazing! Isn’t it? Imagine not having flown at all till the age of…how old was she grandma?” observed Sheila.

“It was not unusual for lower middle income families in India then. My mother was thirty. She was a strong woman and over a period of time had become quite an outstanding person. She was tall, fair and beautiful with grey eyes. Over the years, she had learnt to speak English well.”

“My mother had taught me the basics of English at home but my first language at the age of six was still Hindi. I did pick up English fast, though, as no one in the campus understood Hindi, not even the Indians as their ancestors were mainly from Tamil Nadu and they spoke Tamil,” continued Sushma. “ I remember we rented a room in a house in Buona Vista. There was a double bed and an attached bathroom.

My mother took me with her to the university the first day. People were very kind to us. Initially, she put me in the university childcare. Then she moved me to an international school. The university paid for it, I believe. Eventually, my mother was absorbed into the university faculty. We moved into our own home in the campus. The school bus would pick me up at eight and drop me home at four-thirty. My mother saw me off and was home when I returned. If I fell sick, she would take leave but then, eventually she kept a full-time Indonesian lady to help her out.

I had a good childhood from then on…fun, frolic, work and home…

When my grandparents came to visit us, they found it hard to adjust, especially to the fact that their daughter wore trousers, mixed with many races and ate all kinds of food. I remember how my grandmother harangued at my mother for an hour one day for abandoning what she called her ‘culture’. They also did not want a Muslim helper in the house. They did not want to eat food prepared by her as they were strict Hindu vegetarians. When they came, they would cook their own food. We also ate vegetarian and did not tell my grandparents that we did consume non-vegetarian food when they were not around, which was the larger part of the year. They very much disapproved of non-vegetarianism.

During their last trip, they left after a couple of weeks in a huff and never returned or entertained us. They never saw our faces again.

It all started when I invited my best friend, Lydia, home to surprise my grandparents. Lydia  loved chicken rendang . I loved chicken too. I had requested our Indonesian aunty to make chicken rendang, thinking my grandparents would be okay with it as long as they did not need to eat it. Also, as they were always indulgent to me, I thought they would not mind. When my grandmother found chicken meat in the kitchen, she questioned the help and me. She told my grandfather. They neither wanted to have Lydia home nor wanted meat in the house. My grandparents were really angry. They called up my mother in a huff. My mother was teaching and could not attend to them. They were even more upset when I tried to reason with them. I cancelled Lydia’s visit looking at the situation at home. They tried to lock me up but could not as all locks in Singapore opened from the inside. The helper, who I called aunty, texted a message to my mother about the uproar in the house. They told aunty to leave. Aunty went and stood downstairs, waiting for my mother. My mother had to take leave and come while my grandparents stood guard over their errant grand daughter. I was thirteen then. Aunty came up with my mother. My grandparents did not want aunty to enter. I was more attached to aunty than to my grandparents by then. My grandparents asked us to choose. They also would have us return with them then it self. My mother refused. My grandparents would not listen to reason. There were laws about foreign workers in Singapore. We were not allowed to violate them, my mother tried to convey that to them. They packed their bags and left for the airport. My mother was driving then. But they would not go in her car. They left in a taxi and that is the last we saw or heard from them.

That is how all my ties with India ended.

Initially, my mother wept but she would not have them treat me as they did. She wanted me to grow open and strong, able to take on the world. It had been a struggle for her to come this far and she was not going to give up!

Her sisters kept her informed through letters … they did not know how to email at all. They could not also afford air travel to Singapore!

After about four-five years, she heard from her sisters her father had passed away and, subsequently, her mother. Her parents had left express instructions that she was not allowed to visit or mourn them with the rest of the family. I know my mother mourned many years privately shedding tears. She turned at times to a friend called Major Diwan who consoled her and helped her get over her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure of one thing … she did not want herself or me to return to the earlier life she had.

For our vacations, we explored the world. We walked the Great Wall together. We visited Disney Land. My mother even took me to India as she felt I should be in touch with my roots. My grandparents were living the first time. They refused to see us. We stayed in a hotel and had a grand time. My aunts did not live in New Delhi. And we were doing New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay that holiday.

My mother’s sisters lived in Daulatabad and Bhopal. When we went to see Ajanta and Ellora, she did try to arrange a meeting with her sister in Daulatabad, but somehow it never happened. I think my mother’s family had cut her off as an errant one.

Anyway, we had a good life though my mother was every now and then sad about her family. She did have a strong friendship with Major Diwan. He was like an anchor for her. He was a widower and an orthopaedic surgeon. He used to visit us often. Sometimes, he even accompanied us on our trips overseas… He was very sad when my mother passed on… and in a year or two, he passed on too… Sometimes, I wondered if I had not been around, would my mother have taken the plunge with him… not that I would have minded if they did… you see, I had no memories of my father…

Life was smooth for me here. I did well in school and started university here where I met your grandfather. He was my professor, young and dashing. We married after I graduated. I continued with my studies and then you know the rest of it….”

“Thus, ended my childhood ,” said Sushma with a smile.

“Our great grandmother was really a brave and outstanding woman,” said Sheila. “I love to hear her story, how she made it despite all the ties that would hold back most people. She must have been a very strong woman!”

“That she was,” said Sushma. “ And she never let me feel left out. You know, the aunty who my grandparents wanted us to send back, stayed with us for twenty years! She only left when I married Paul. Then, we insisted my mother move in with us. I was lucky in Paul because he was so kind to my mother… and having her was an asset as she helped look after your father and uncle. She also loved Paul very much. She looked on him as a son she never had. Yes, our later years were filled with happiness … all for the one step my brave mother took!”

Ron looked away and wondered, “ Grandma why were they so rigid in India in those days? Why were the social norms for women so restrictive? Are they still that rigid?”

“I couldnot say my dear… in any case after the regionalization of the world, things have changed very much. Perhaps, you can go back to India again at some point and check out what it is like now….” replied Sushma.

Towards Driving to a Century…

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What was it like to wake up the day after having crossed half a century?

Did I become wiser, greyer, more dynamic or more decrepit?

I woke up looking forward to finishing the new play on Harry Potter co-authored by JK Rowling. It was again a racy read after many days. I also reached a new high score while playing Sudoku on my ipad and started writing this piece.

Many might say what frivolous preoccupations or how childish! But, believe me, nothing could be better than tucking up with a new Harry Potter at the end of half a century of earthly existence.

And an interesting earthly existence I have had over the last half a century…

The last decade I walked the Great Wall four times, wrote and published my first book, fought with publishers (a number of them), decided I preferred being labeled a mom and wife to all things. By thirty, I was a first time mom and by forty, I had two kids. Thirty to forty was a great decade…went frolicking with my twosome and did things with them, for them and appreciated handiwork by them. I tried being a democratic and docile parent and my sons appreciated it by telling me I had the makings of a great dictator! The thing is most kids would not tell their mother that they were like dictators. Mine could, did and still do!

Twenty to thirty was the period I fell in love. What could be more enticing! I also published poetry and many pieces of somewhat immature writing in newspapers, quit journalism in disgust…went to universities, did theatre, travelled on university funding (a profoundly happy experience). Ten to twenty…I grew up…climbed trees, broke rules, had fun, almost got kidnapped once, fell down a number of times, fought with people, made some fabulous long lasting friends who never forget to greet me on my birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Zero to ten… I dreamt, sang (a trifle off scale) sitting on trees with my best friend (who sang more out of tune than me), danced, played games and pranks, fought and generally thought I would turn into a blonde-blue eyed princess when I grew up.

I definitely did not turn blonde unless you can refer to my silver grey hair (which I dye dark) as ash blonde…and my eyes remained a steady brown but I lived my life the way I wanted, the way I thought was right, with personal integrity. I lived out my dreams…a trifle differently perhaps… always wanted to write a book on China and did.

I keep writing … have done that from grade three. I miss writing when I don’t the way you miss a favourite TV show.

Now, as I browse over the old Harry Potters and write about the magical completion of my fiftieth year, I wonder if Nicholas Flamel of Philosopher Stone fame felt as I do. Did he also think that fifty was the start of life? Did he want to learn on at fifty? After all …. I just feel I am at the brink of life in its prime. In some Asimov’s, there are people that are a few hundred years old. So, fifty is really sixteen for them! Even in Hobbits, adulthood starts very late in years compared to our current society. So, life does start at fifty and learning an essential skill at that age is just great! The essential skill that I talk of is driving!

One of the reasons I do not possess a valid driving license is that driving instructors do not quiet appreciate my skills. I am very considerate. I was one of those people who stopped in the middle of a road (in the training school) when I saw a trainee driver driving in front of me. I merely gave way to a newcomer. My instructor mistook my consideration for panic!! He assured me what others achieved in five lessons, I would not achieve in fifteen. He did not appreciate my concerns about the other driver’s nerves.

Obviously, the instructor did not know my father used to get jumpy when I drove at eighteen. I had a valid driving license then. And somewhere along the way it expired and I had my husband to drive me…Finally, when I went for a refresher course, my instructor lacked the necessary attitude to teach me! Then, because I was expecting a baby, the doctor banned me from driving. I think I saw my instructor heave a sigh of relief when I gave him the news. Then, we moved to China where we were not allowed to drive but were given a chauffeur driven vehicle 24/7. Being docile and obedient by nature, I was happy to comply!

The joys of being driven is great! You never need to know the way to anywhere. You do not need to know left from right. This has always been a challenge for me. My husband has his first ride on the bike with me indelibly etched on his memory… He was driving and I was directing. I was saying right and pointing left. He figured out early in life left could be right and right could be right too. And left could be left or right. After all these are all names. And as Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose


By any other name would smell as sweet.

My husband had it all figured out then itself…. more than twenty-six years ago….before we tied the knot.

He used his common sense. There was no right turn and he turned into the only available turning, which was on the left.

Now that I am out of China, I have resorted to taking cabs when I go out on my own. I figured out cab drivers are not familiar with Shakespeare. The problem with cab drivers is that they ask for directions and get angry when you give them your own directions. They seem to lose their calm if you say left instead of right. They get even angrier if you mix up names of places and roads!

It has come to a point where I am thinking of self-reliance as an option. What better age to start at than my present one … fantastic, fabulous fifty!

Surely, despite automatic self-driven cars, my newly acquired driving skills will be well honed by the time I hit a century!