In Pursuit of A Selectively Spotless Mind

I am accustomed to the despair that ensues in the aftermath of losing the people I love; a covert awareness and dread of an eventual end always runs parallel to the initial rushes of love. Yet the melancholy of knowing all the while that this too won’t last doesn’t offer any consolation. Each loss leaves its own mark; fresh invisible wounds quietly await time, the good old physician, to work its amnesic magic on them.
The first time it happened, I roamed around apathetic, gloomy and dazed for a couple of years; torturing myself with worthless hopes and analysis. The second time it was just a quick spell of anger followed by the relief of escape. The third time I was over it sooner than I would like to admit, and the ensuing guilt about this self-assumed fickleness led me to repeat to myself that of course I was still in love for an acceptable period of time (which in my mind is a minimum of two years). It bothered me how soon I had forgotten the face, the voice, the laughter and how I had felt for him, that I erected my own (and completely unrelated) idea of him, cherishing this imaginary love just because I was scared of admitting that it was a mere infatuation and never had been love. I continued to fool myself because its negligible longevity ashamed me.
Then there is this fourth or rather the real first or an intermittent second or maybe intermittent third or the only persistent and subdued and very complex yearning over the years, something that had never dared to leave the shadows and move into the blinding light of realization until now, something intermingled with hope and the lack of it, something vulnerable yet resilient to the passage of time, something that defies closure, something that doesn’t seek acknowledgement or reciprocation and is sustained by its own intensity, something that is beyond fear and shame, something that is unknown and elusive yet eerily familiar, something that wants to be declared unabashedly yet lingers in a sacred veil of secrecy, something that is as pleasurable as it is agonizing. I don’t know what it is, but it is like a splinter that had gradually burrowed its way deep into my heart; and owing to its tenacity and sense of belonging, the pain is just a minor deterrent to my existence. I had made a choice and I have to live its consequences.

We all seek to love and be loved. We crave the intimacy of being the only witness to the other’s life and vice versa. We want a common bank of memories, adventures, conversations, joys and sorrows. We want to love someone more or as completely as we love ourselves. There are no guarantees, there is no definite destination and there are no definite routes. It can’t be engineered or chosen, it just comes to you. Some get to journey along the scenic route, the rest gets the messy and tiresome route fraught with obstacles and insecurities. I belong to the latter category and often find myself dragging my weary legs back to the starting line after encountering dead ends. I enjoy walking on my own, and prefer solitude to the cacophony of dissimilar wavelengths of thought; yet have a never-ending reservoir of hope that there is someone meant to walk alongside me in a journey that reverberates with love, laughter, the good unrest, binding similarities, alluring differences, pleasant companionship, mingled experiences and memories, new adventures, long conversations, continuous individual growth, shared intimacy, and looking out for each other.
But the fourth or real first or an intermittent second or maybe intermittent third or the only persistent and subdued and very complex yearning of many years has to find closure before I can start anew. I don’t feel any anger, apathy or agonizing hurt this time. It’s just a somewhat uncomfortable and heightened restlessness that is not much dissimilar to what I had felt all these years. Even this will end someday, but I don’t plan to wait helplessly till time erases him from my mind. I need adequate distractions till then; new stimuli and work.
Here are my list of immediate distractions till I attain the relative calm of a selectively spotless mind, and curb any further impulsiveness and hurt:
1. Indulge in the only agreeable distraction: books. Read more non-fiction, and some contemporary fiction.
2. Join that Zumba class.
3. Write more (if that is possible!).
4. Take up whatever shifts that comes my way.
5. Continue the ban of all information overload from my life, except for maybe occasional tweets.
6. Overcome my laziness and ennui and re-connect with old friends.
7. Go back to the pool.
8. Overcome my dread of the kitchen. Make a ritual of cooking (I use the term loosely) dinner at least once a week.
9. Delete a certain phone number, mails and messages. Already done!
10. Use that language learning software and dictionaries to learn elementary German. Ask my sister to be my tutor.
11. Enough of the slow life. Get out of home more. Explore.
12. Maintain an essential detachment from all the problems that crop up in my life or the ones of those dear to me, to avoid drowning in panic and sorrow.
13. Not curb the thoughts of the one I am trying to forget, because I would end up fuelling reverse psychology. Let it be.
14. Revive the fervour of watching more world cinema.
15. Nights are dangerous and insomnia encourages irrelevant hopes; try to sleep early.

The Wonder Years

My heart goes out to my young cousins and their generation of children who were born and brought up in big, noisy cities. They are frighteningly precocious, growing up at a pace and picking up stuff that is hard to monitor. Their talents and skills are superior to us; they can multitask and are far more articulate and self-assured than we ever were. But their childhood had been deprived of certain joys and cramped with unhealthy stress for no fault of theirs. Space is precious; apartments are cropping up everywhere and playgrounds are disappearing. Pollution and deforestation paints their world a dull grey. There is neither the space nor the time to devote to pets even if they wanted to. Families are nuclear.  Parents have to work long hours, and children are raised by a host of servants. Or after school they come home to empty apartments, heat up meals on the microwave, and gobble them while surfing the countless channels on TV. They spend their afternoons playing video games or surfing the internet, constantly distracted by a beeping mobile phone, ordering take-outs, and looking haggard after a long day of school, dance recitals, swimming, guitar classes, football, study tutorials etc. There is always some upcoming competition or exam looming in the horizon. Their playground is the empty concrete car parking in their building.
There are barely any trees, ponds, large green grounds or pure, unadulterated fun in their lives. Their minds are too cramped with exam questions to have a healthy curiosity for anything else, and are too tired to develop a reading habit. Holidays are hurried and spent in hotels and touristy sites. They cook pastas and fancy omelettes by watching You Tube videos and turn up their noses at the simple, home-made fare. Derogatory slang words pepper their vocabulary. The lack of respect for teachers and the aversion for school is alarming. They are always unsatisfied, and demand new gadgets and expensive objects ever so often. Neither the parents nor the children could do much about adapting these lifestyle changes. Urbanization demands that you keep pace with it, it can’t be helped. Things are changing, and rapidly. Even my hometown barely has any traces of the old world charm that it held. I don’t hate the busy life in a city; I like its chaos and dizzying pulse. But it leads to a somewhat deprived, stressful and precocious childhood. I am lucky to have been one of the last few generations to have experienced the joy of a childhood in a relatively unsullied and small town of Assam.

My childhood was wondrously laid-back and my parents were blissfully unaware of the need to enroll their children in extra classes that taught any new skills or sports. I had free rein over my leisure hours. I learnt swimming, or rather how not to drown, in the huge pond in our backyard. There were all sorts of fishes and creepy crawlies lurking beneath the murky surface, including a huge tortoise and once my foot had accidentally grazed its rough, scaly back. My father had brought home that tortoise when I was three and it had slid out of his palm onto the dinner table, slowly crawled across the whole expanse, and would have fallen off the other end if I hadn’t held it back. Not much brains to speak of. My cousins and I never contracted any illness even after months of splashing around in the pond that had never been chlorinated. I also learnt how to fish sans any expensive equipment. All it took was a long and thin bamboo pole, a thick string and a fishing hook. I got flour balls from the kitchen, dragged a small moorha to the edge of the pond, and sat down to fling the bait into the water. My youngest uncle accompanied us and solemnly whispered fishing tricks to all the wide-eyed children surrounding him, basking in the attention that we showered him with.

Winters were for badminton, and summers were for cricket. Children and adults teamed up together to play these sports; it was one of the major advantages of growing up in a large, joint family. What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm and energy, and played for long hours. My cousins and I interspersed these real sports with self-invented games and the ones we learnt at school. They were weird and highly entertaining, like ‘ghariyal pani’, ‘gold spot’ and the meat and potatoes of children games, ‘hide-and-seek’, whose difficulty level was greatly enhanced by the sheer vastness of our home and the adjoining grounds.  Our flexible limbs and reed thin bodies enabled us to hide in the tiniest of nooks and not be found for a good hour. There were treasure hunts and the whole neighbourhood, including an abandoned house, was our territory; people didn’t mind if a group of kids barged into their homes to hide a treasure hunt clue. The ambience was such that children could walk unannounced into nearly any house in our neighbourhood to demand a piece of cake, orange-cream biscuits, or even a yummy plate of ‘lushi-aloo bhaji’. Now I know nothing but the surnames of our next-door neighbours in the apartment complex I had been living in for a decade.
There was also no dearth of imagination, we wrote and enacted entire plays. The dressing up for the parts was half the fun, and improvisation was the keyword. Large cardboard boxes had the potential of turning into anything from a class room to a castle. An empty barrel was the perfect underground tunnel during the fierce battle scenes. Come Sunday mornings and all the children took their positions in front of the TV to watch Rangoli on Doordarshan; and tried to copy the dance steps in the songs that were aired. There was a lot of jostling around, faces got accidentally slapped, feet were stepped on, borrowed dupattas that we tied on our heads to substitute for long hair swished around. That was all the dance training we got, and often we would end up on the floor, doubling up with laughter. Indoor games ruled too; carom, ludo, chess, and even table tennis in a long, narrow corridor of our home. It didn’t bother us that we didn’t have a proper table, the tiny orange ball bounced back well enough off the floor. We flouted all rules, and made up new ones, but it was such fun.
Some of us constructed a swing too, that hung from the branch of an old tree in the backyard. It was so much fun to let our hair sweep the ground and the very next moment get pushed towards the skies. I played ‘doctor-doctor’ a lot, lugging around a tin box filled with tiny bottles with dubious concoctions from the kitchen and plastic stethoscope, and caught any unsuspecting victim as my patient. I didn’t even spare first-time guests to our home, plying them with orders and questions like “Stick out your tongue”, “Do you have worms?” much to the embarrassment of my family. But the people were generally very pleasant and playful, because they always complied with the orders of the six year old doctor and allowed me to check their temperature with a plastic thermometer and displayed appropriate concern on their faces when informed that they had a fever of 1000 degrees Celsius, and once I had even diagnosed an uncle with a fat belly as pregnant.
Among all the cousins and neighbourhood kids, I was the only one who was mesmerized by the world of books. I practically devoured them. The school librarian had to issue me multiple library cards, because they got filled up so soon. I splurged during book fairs; clothes and toys had never interested me much. One summer I brought home a book about dollhouses, and spent weeks making one that was four feet tall out of empty shoeboxes, match boxes, scraps of clothes, and fitted it with a tiny kitchenette and bathroom set. That was a glorious summer. We helped in gardening too, planting marigolds, roses and dahlias; and helped my grandmother in digging for sweet potatoes and carrots. I measured my height against the tall pine tree in our garden. It overshot and dwarfed me within a couple of years. We climbed and hung upside down from the  trees; picked the tiny, white Sewali flowers during spring and made fragrant garlands; ran through fields of ripe golden crops on the visits to our native village; slept on warm and somewhat itchy haystacks and played in tree-houses. Evenings were meant for long walks and buying a toffee at a small stall at the end of the road. The road seemed so long that sometimes all the cousins hitched a ride in the mini van of a neighbor. When I visited home after a few years, the same road seemed so short; the road hadn’t shrunk, but then what had changed? It baffled me.
My parents struggled to curb my restlessness and get me to sit at the study desk for more than an hour. I hated these forced study hours that cut into my play time, but the effort paid off by putting me among the top three students in class, and subsequently mollified my parents. Then I had to face a nightmarish demon: Hindi. With no disrespect to it, I prayed every night that by some miracle Assamese or English was declared the national language of India. It wasn’t long before my total percentage suffered due to my Hindi marks. I tried to divert my parents’ attention to my excellent grades in the rest of the subjects, but to no avail. And to my horror a tutor was arranged. I vehemently rebelled but soon my new tutor became one of my best friends. Unknown to my ignorant parents, we barely studied for ten minutes of the assigned hour. The rest of the time was spent playing Scrabble, telling each other stories, reading Archie comics, and going through photo albums where I painstakingly explained to him the story behind every photograph. We even listened to new songs that on my cute yellow Sony Walkman, with the earphones on obviously. He didn’t treat me as a kid, and I loved that. He had an amazing sense of humour and we often convulsed with laughter, trying to drown it behind palms. Surprisingly my Hindi grades improved out of proportion to the amount of effort we put in; maybe the laughter and fun made me more receptive to the little I studied. I still struggle with Hindi, my vocabulary and grammar is laconic and I speak it worse than the driver James in that old movie ‘Chupke Chupke’; yet thereafter I managed to get through school without unfortunate Hindi grades.
After the ordeal of homework was over, the television beckoned. In the evenings we were allowed to watch it for an hour to catch old American sitcoms like I dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Silver Spoons, Who’s The Boss? etc. On Sundays we were allowed an extra hour of cartoons or the Famous Five series, and once a month we indulged in a movie, never in the theatre though, but on the now defunct VCR. We didn’t demand any extra hours of television; there were abundant sources of entertainment: funfairs, book fairs, parks, libraries, theatrical plays, Bhaonas, the circus (seriously, where had they disappeared?), picnics, and umpteen birthday parties given the number of kids in our neighbourhood. Then there were all the festivals. Pandal-hopping during Durga Puja, the rowdy Holi, the even rowdier Diwali night when we lighted the bagfuls of firecrackers my father and uncles bought home at a time when noise pollution and child labour were alien concepts to us, Magh Bihu and Meji mornings, Bohag Bihu and the husori groups that performed at our home; and much to the alarm and despair of my grandmother, who was convinced that her grandkids had been converted at their convent school, we even celebrated Christmas with a puny plastic tree and gifts for everyone.
I loved my school. It had large grounds, quaint church, tiny ponds, a basketball court, and even an orphanage where we had fun playing with the babies and toddlers during the lunch hour break. The teachers were more of friends to us. My best friend and I didn’t even hesitate to putter around the Principal’s (Fr. Philip) office; our restless hands fiddling through the contents of the drawers and cupboards, opening fat encyclopedias in his bookshelf, and asking him innumerable questions. He smilingly indulged our curiosity and never complained. When we were in the fifth standard, we had a teacher (Angelus Sir) who didn’t hesitate to grab and throw any object within reach, including the chalkboard duster, at disobedient kids. We were petrified by his mere sight. Once during the lunch break, my friend and I strayed into the empty fourth floor of our school, exploring the cobwebbed rooms that echoed our voices, and came upon a closed door at the end of the corridor. We pushed it open to the see Angelus Sir sitting cross-legged on a small bed, slurping down noodles and watching an Amitabh Bachchan (I guess the angry young man act was adapted from it) movie. We froze in horror, but he just flashed a bright smile and invited us in. Turned out he lived there, and soon we were served steaming bowls of noodles too. Few minutes of conversation dispelled all fear from our hearts. He told us interesting trivia about any country we pointed to on the large world map pinned on his wall. He played a tune on his guitar. We spread the word about the newfound knowledge of his gentleness, and soon his room was filled with dozens of kids, eager to hear his stories and listen to his lovely songs. I don’t know if students share such a rapport with teachers anymore. They nurtured in us a healthy curiosity to know things beyond the constricted and rigid curriculum of school.
Vacations were spent in whichever town my father was posted in. My parents took us to the hills, picnicked at the riverside and explored every nook and corner of these towns. My sister and I made new friends and played long hours in the sun. She learnt to cook at a very young age, but wild horses couldn’t drag me into the kitchen. It was a period of my life when I could just eat and eat and not a single ounce of fat accumulated due to my excellent metabolism and the tireless running around during the day. Pizzas and burgers weren’t available, and lemonade was preferred over colas. Eating out was reserved for special occasions, but we never got bored of the simple but tasty home-made food. My father occasionally took us to a restaurant that served authentic South-Indian fare; because my mother never managed to cook a dosa that didn’t resemble an amoeba. Later, the kilos quickly piled up with the advent of fast food and a sedentary life.
One summer I had enrolled in the art school. Even there I displayed more enthusiasm than talent, but the art teacher never curbed my imagination and let me paint people with disproportionately long limbs, living in the hollows of gigantic trees and flying in chariots drawn by colossal eagles. My drawing pad was a riot of colours and I even learnt to sculpt clay figurines. Most of all, I loved sketching unusual trees; they seemed to me the most beautiful things on earth.
My grandmother crowded our household with all sorts of birds and animals. There were separate coops for ducks and chicken; the pond was filled with a variety of fishes and that tortoise; there was a lazy, cud-chewing cow and its calf, the birthing spectacle of which gave me nightmares for a long time; a fierce but extremely loyal dog that stayed with us for sixteen years; few docile goats; a cat that came and went according to its will; a parrot; and a pet squirrel too. There weren’t any leashes and the gates were always open; there were no visits to the vet and no fancy pet food; but these birds and animals flourished in this freedom and provided delightful hours of companionship.
There are many reasons I had so much fun growing up. It was a small and unpretentious town, without many distractions. The parents were happy to let children enjoy different experiences and didn’t impose any undue pressure or restrictions. There was also the joy of a common childhood shared with my sister and a dozen cousins, learning the value of sharing in a joint family. There was always someone we can go to in times of need, always someone to listen to us. Neighbours were akin to extended families. Most importantly, the general instinct was of an unquestioned trust and goodwill that is rapidly vanishing. The grounds were green and large, the imagination was sharp; and trees, flowers, dogs, and fishes grew alongside with us, were nurtured by us. School was a second home and teachers were extra-ordinarily encouraging and friendly.
But these wonder years were limited, and on my thirteenth year I was pushed into a world of traffic jams, a school with a dusty ground and no trees, teachers that were ridiculed by students, few classmates whose life consisted of ugly sneers, curse words and unhealthy obsession with all things adult, a tiny apartment in an apartment complex that housed two hundred other families and had a playground where kids jostled for elbow space, honking cars at all hours of the day, ready-to-eat meals replacing dal-chawal, chlorinated swimming pools where strangers kicked each other during laps, goldfishes as pets, dull hours in front of the television, a competition so fierce that tuitions classes and exam guides ate up all leisure hours, dusty roads, smog filled sky that blocked stars, and neighbours that were too busy or too nosy.
Nowadays the children lead a life that is in stark contrast to the one we led; and the only things that had survived from my childhood are my books, and a brat of a little sister to share the memories of those wonder years.

Candles, Mass Murders and Small Towns.

When I was a child I sat at the study desk every evening for a few hours, opening slim volumes of brown notebooks with a serenely smiling Don Bosco on the front cover, to draw maps, solve quadratic equations, summarize a poem or memorize the years of famous battles. I grew up in a modest locality of a small town in Assam, where the residents were thankful for a few hours of electricity every night. And till the time my father brought home a noisy power generator, a candle and a match box were as essential on my study table as a pen. Every time there was a power cut, it was the perfect excuse to plead to my mother that my eyes hurt reading the tiny print in the faint light of the candle. She knew me well, and after confirming with an ophthalmologist that I had excellent vision, she started bringing home newer sets of large candles with thicker wicks.

When I realized that there was no escape from the study desk, I decided to improvise new forms of amusement or escape routes. Once I dipped all the candle wicks in water, but got a much deserved scolding from my mother when she found out. Then there was the dissection of any unfortunate mosquito that got drawn by the flame and landed on the desk. I took out my pent up frustration of being confined to study on the poor mosquito; I trapped it, dissected its tiny wings with a compass from the geometry box, and then burnt their miniscule torsos in the very flame they had flocked to, rounding off the whole exercise with unblinking eyes and a sinister laugh to scare my little sister who watched it with horror from the adjacent table. I was cruel little pyromaniac burning up dozens of minute winged creatures every evening. My cousin had taught me the neat little trick that if one was fast enough, they can move a finger across the flame and not feel a thing. I did that too, till the fun wore off, and a painful blister erupted on my finger.
And when the electricity decided to favour us by returning after long hours of darkness, there was this race between my sister and me to blow out the candle, accompanied by a wish; a silly hangover from birthdays. Sometimes the loser initiated a quarrel, which my mother resolved by lighting up the candle and giving the chance to blow it out again with a wish. When I was in the seventh standard, I was infatuated by my history teacher and had made it my sole ambition to excel in his subject, and much to the amazement of my family,  even a power cut couldn’t budge me from the study desk. Once I had studied the various invasions of India with such fervour and attention that my sister gleefully watched smoke rise out of my hair for quite some time before informing that my curly hair had caught fire from the candle flame. It took a clever hairdresser to minimize the damages, but it was never the same.
Many years later, the candle returned to my life, albeit in a setting when lovers have the crazy idea to grope for their food in the dark, all in the name of romance. I suppressed a smile when I recalled our old hostility, and the mass murder of so many mosquitoes. But I couldn’t reveal it to the one who sat in front of me, without him questioning the unusual sources of amusement in my childhood. So I kept shut, lest he also found out about the evenings of dipping a flour-laced winnow board in the pond and taking it out after a few minutes, filled with tiny prawns. Or about constructing a swing in the backyard, playing table tennis without a table in a long and narrow corridor where the ball bounced off the floor, the long nights of badminton, striking a shot on the carom board I could barely reach as it was set on a tall barrel, catching dragon flies and glow worms and putting them in glass jars, digging for sweet potatoes in the garden, looking for a lost treasure at an abandoned house, climbing trees and hanging upside down from a branch; what can I say about the delights of growing up in sleepy, small towns of India. I merely smile at the memories.


Tonight is the Uruka feast and I am away from my hometown. Even if I had been there, the rush of arrangements to erect a large tent on the ground, gathering firewood for the early morning Meji, cooking enough food for whatever fragments of the family were present would seem like such a poor replica of the Uruka feasts of my childhood, it’s better to abandon the feeble attempts to recreate it. People grow up, move away and priorities change. Families fragment, takes roots in new places, and jobs or other obligations prevent them from returning home. I blame it on the convenient scapegoat, ‘circumstances’.
A decade and half ago, on this night, I would have been buzzed with excitement in leading a pack of ten unquestioningly obedient cousins in preparations for the Uruka feast. I’d order them around, assigning a few to the peeling of peas and potatoes, few to guard the bamboo fence on the far right boundary of our grounds, and the rest to just follow me around to be assigned for little tasks as they came up. I did nothing but revel in the sense of authority they bestowed on me. The women would be decked in their finest mekhela sadors, and the men could be mistaken for political cronies in their starched white kurtas. An enormous tent would be erected on the lawn, the responsibility for which would always fall on two of the most enthusiastic members of our household, the house-help (who had been with us for more than 26 years now) and the driver da. One word would persist throughout the night, chaos.
One of my uncles would be responsible for buying firewood for the bonfire, Meji, set to be lit the following morning. He would spend the entire evening arranging the firewood in various permutations and combinations to avoid being asked to assist in other chores. Another uncle would gallantly ask the womenfolk to move away from the large vat set atop a fire, surrounded by whorls of peeled vegetables, soaked rice, mutton, numerous containers of spice and oil; as if to suggest that his cooking skill was fine enough to be displayed only on festive occasions, just like the new and shimmering clothes everyone wore. Modesty wasn’t a virtue we valued within the family and this would be proved again and again in the night that followed. Bragging was rampant; about who cooked the most succulent chicken, who fried the fish to just the right amount of crispiness, who was the best poker player (and my youngest uncle slyly emptied the wallets of his elder brothers later in the night, every year, some people never learn, especially one of my uncles who always took this defeat to heart and sulked for days), who could imitate the nuances of Bhupen Hazarika’s vocals better (and the uncles would be humming various songs throughout the evening in what they thought to be a not so obvious way of outdoing each other, especially when one of my cousin fuelled this feud by strumming the guitar to accompany the songs of one of the uncles at random, infuriating the rest).
Liquor would be concealed under the chairs at the back, below the stairs, behind a bush; and it was really amusing to pretend we didn’t know why the men disappeared for few moments only to return beaming at everyone, and sometimes even breaking into a spontaneous jig. My youngest uncle, who never brought into our relationship the conventions of unwavering respect and strict boundaries, who was more of a friend and alliance in the pranks we played on unsuspecting members of the family, would be lurking in some dark shadow behind the tent and pester me to keep supplying him, unnoticed from all eyes, a steady supply of peeled peas or fried fish that he required to munch while gulping down beer. I agreed on the condition that he would allow me a few sips of the beer. He reluctantly agreed; soon I was the one beaming at everyone, and quietly stole a plate of fried fish for him. I was only thirteen then; and secret sips of beer on the Uruka night became quite the unlikely tradition for me through my adolescence, until the novelty of it wore out.
No one had the faintest idea who was responsible for cooking what, when would dinner be ready or what dishes were being cooked. We just left the consumption of a sumptuous meal to destiny.  Surprisingly, there had never been any compromise in the taste of food. Even the rival cooks reluctantly acknowledged it.
Sometimes a disagreement would break out into a full fledged fight and this excited all the children. Our eyes lighted up with the promise of entertainment and drama, and some even placed bets on the potential victor. Whatever commotion arose, it always died down soon enough, and everyone sat down to dinner in a show of great solidarity.
My father would always mysteriously disappear sometime during the course of the evening only to emerge just before dinner, beaming at everyone. My grandmother wouldn’t budge from the spot that she would chose early in the evening, strategically located away from the smoke and cold draft of air, but one that provided the warmth of the fire. She would speak about the days gone by, about the Uruka feast in the village, to any willing ears. The women would find some way to be busy; cuddling a child to sleep, making pithas, catching up on the latest updates of births, deaths and marriages in the various branches of the extended family.
Often few neighbours and the families of my uncles’ friends joined us. The gatherings never consisted of less than fifty people; more than half of it being the family itself. The children and the women would retire to bed sometime around one in the morning, happily exhausted after a night of delicious food, long conversations, and if lucky, some emotional drama. All but one of my uncles would stay awake to forget all blood ties and loot each others’ savings in a friendly game of poker. My youngest uncle always won, perhaps because he managed to stay the most sober. The uncle who went to bed early was a teetotaler and made sure that his disapproval of the behavior of his brothers was conveyed through grumbles and grunts. With the guards (the children) gone, a few urchins from the neighbourhood would steal the bamboo fence bordering the adjacent ground on the right, and use it for the bonfire.
We would wake up frighteningly early and had bath before sunrise on a freezing January morning. Then with wet hair plastering our skulls, we would bow down before the leaping flames of the Meji fire. I never bothered to inquire which God to invoke, how to phrase the prayer and what to pray for. So I called on one representative God from every religion known to me (so that no one got offended!), asking them to protect from any harm my family and friends, and ended with the only thing that stuck from being convent educated, ‘Amen’. I would have been mortified if anyone had the faintest inkling of the contents my prayer.
The men would be groggy, nursing hangovers and the grief of empty wallets (except for my youngest uncle) and sat grumpily around the Mejifire. The women were more pious than them, and bribed the Holy Fire with pithas, betelnut, coins etc. The children, led by me, would roast sweet potatoes in the fire and eat them with relish. These simple traditions were repeated every year, and just its comforting regularity provided such joy.
Last year a few of us had gathered in our Jorhat home for Bhogali Bihu, and it recreated some wonderful childhood memories for me, reaffirmed the importance of family ties, and filled my heart with a new love for my roots, for the place I spent my childhood in. Jorhat.
Tonight we would visit the home of my youngest uncle, who is the only other fragment of our scattered family in Guwahati. We would eat uruka bhoj at the dinner table instead of an outdoor tent; we would have fewer people to converse with; we won’t have a Meji waiting for us tomorrow; we would miss the boisterous feasts of the past. But the laughs would be just as loud, the food would have the same flavor of home; and the hearts would be just as content in holding onto a beloved tradition.
Happy Bhogali Bihu to everyone!

Here are a few photographs from last year’s Bhogali Bihu celebrations at our home in Jorhat:

My youngest khura (uncle)

preparation for the bhoj

My peha

My father, aita, pehi, cousin

sitting down for dinner

a pack of cousins, all grown up now


I read a hilarious blog post on my college senior’s blog, about a rickshaw puller’s unwanted fatherhood looming large in his near future and his hopes of being the local do-gooder by donating sperms to his childless sister-in-law! As bizarre as his family dynamics sound, such preposterous encounters are more common than you think. The post reminded me of a similar incident in March when I was posted in a God-forsaken remote village in Kamrup under the NRHM scheme.
The Setting: Last autumn I found myself standing precariously on a boat of questionable strength and crossing a river to get to my work place. The official quarters I was allotted had a rickety roof populated by giant owls that did a midnight jig right over my bed, and doors that refused to be bound down by locks. Add to that electricity with a mind of its own and patients that seemed (to me, at least) to leap out of bushes at 1am to shout out loud about babies about to pop out (which is a valid emergency) or a back itch/wrist pain that is suddenly unbearable (seriously?WTF!)! 
There were good moments, in the calm and undisturbed country side where people still danced to 90s film music, and newspapers were shared among ten households. Cars were a rare sight, so was Maggi noodles. Strangers stopped you midway and ask where you were going and where you were coming from, that’s the sole conversation-starter. It felt refreshing to be cut off from all the noise and the polluted air and the need to stay connected; but the sameness got on my nerves after a while. 
There are only so many beautiful sunrises you can marvel at after umpteen sleepless nights of delivering 4kg babies of petite seventeen year old mothers, who on repeated questioning admits to being a recent teenager! My mind went reeling at such shocking disclosures and my attempts to educate them on the proper age for childbearing or use of contraception only turned them hostile. They fretted over girls who remain unmarried at the ripe old age of fifteen; ‘such burdens’, they lament. The unfortunate girls who failed to strike a matrimonial alliance by the time they had turned seventeen were married off to old widowers or became the second/third wife of pot-bellied men older than their fathers. The women look old; they look fifty when they are twenty. They asked me if my kids were in school, considering these women turn grandmothers before hitting thirty! I didn’t want to shock them out of a decade’s growth that I’m 26 year old and unmarried, so I tell them that my kids are studying in the sixth standard and they feel satisfied at the familial progress of my life.  They breed like rabbits. Half of their lives are spent with a pregnant belly. Contraception is a dirty word; and as one husband, who had brought his wife for a third abortion, sagely put it, “We can’t deny what God gives us“. But they don’t hesitate to kill it when it had just started to sprout limbs! The women with bulging bellies stand at the threshold coyly, a baby at their breast and a trail of toddlers chewing peanuts and rubbing noses on their mothers’ sari. It’s surreal; these people, these lives, this place.
The INCIDENT: A blind man of eighty came to the health center towards the end of OPD hours. He was escorted by his wife who looked haggard. The man had a luxurious and flowing white beard and reminded me of Father Christmas, and in this case he happened to wear a blue checkered ‘lungi‘ (as absurd as it sounds!). He was reluctant to state his complaint and instead smiled creepily, almost lecherously. It disturbed me and I turned to his wife, but she looked too defeated to answer. It was two in the afternoon and a sumptuous lunch awaited me, so I conveyed my urgency to go home. The nurse who had come to close the windows in my room scolded the old man for his reluctance.
After much dawdling, the man said “Baideu, mur ‘sexy’ eke bare nai.” (Translation: Sister, my ‘sexy’ isn’t there at all)!!! What on earth was that? I went through stages of disbelief, facepalm, more disbelief, trying to maintain a straight face, furtive looks exchanged with the nurse who was equally dumbfounded; all in that single second when time stood still. Suddenly I could no longer face the man even though he couldn’t see me; because it was difficult to fathom why this eighty-year old Father Christmas look-alike had walked five miles to this remote hospital to complain about a dwindling sex life! To my utter embarrassment, his wife’s indifference and the nurse’s delight, he began to boast of the sexual prowess of his heydays and how he had managed to impregnate his wife ten times and even the first time they did it! I wished I had left for home earlier. I stopped his monologue and asked him his medical history. He didn’t have any major problems, and reports of a routine health check-up done at his grandson’s (!!!) insistence a few months ago were within normal limits.
The dilemma that I faced now was what medicine to prescribe; I was at sea when it came to such ailments. The only topics taught by the visibly embarrassed professor during my undergrad days were the causes and diagnosis of erectile dysfunction and the side-effects of sildenafil. That’s it! I didn’t even know of the availability of any medicine apart from Viagra. So, I jotted down sildenafil (quite certain that it won’t be available in this remote corner and he had to source it from Guwahati) and the lowest possible starting dose (25mg) and when to take it, which posed another problem because I just couldn’t bring myself to say out aloud the sentence ‘Take it an hour before you have sex’ to a man older than my grandfather. The nurse helped in conveying the directions. Thank God for that. 
I went back to my official quarters which was just a stone’s throw away, glad that the ordeal was over. I had just sat down to lunch when there was a knock on my door; it was the boy who ran the local pharmacy and the Father Christmaslurking behind him! He had come to inform that they had the tablets “Dr.X”(What a name! What a name!) in stock and was it okay if he gave them to the old man. I turned crimson, looked at the composition (sildenafil) and mumbled yes. The old man looked ecstatic. His wife cowered in fear about what awaited her at home!

In retrospective the incident is hilarious but in that moment I wished I was anywhere on earth but there. To my dismay and the pharmacist’s delight, the word spread among the circle of old men in the village and Dr.X’s sales sky-rocketed.

I am still recovering from the shock of such incidents.

The Grandfather in My Father’s Stories

I had a spare grandparent. I was three, when I realized that despite losing my maternal Koka (grandfather) a couple of decades before my birth, I still had four grandparents. I did some quick calculations intelligible only to me, that if I were to lose a grandparent every decade, at least one will be around to see when I am as grown up as my parents were then. This unique family structure felt like quite an advantage that no one else I knew shared; and I delighted in the fact that my grandparents will be around for a long time since there were so many of them. All but my spare grandmother died within the first decade itself.
In January 1989, my paternal Koka died. He was ‘Pitai deu Koka’ to me; since I heard my father and uncles call him ‘Pitai deu’ (father). I thought it was his name; it befitted his gaunt face with soft, white hair curling around his ears, tall and muscular body; his crisp white dhoti and kurta, a blue sweater and a khadi jacket; and very large feet in old, worn-out khoroms. He died when I was three and my memories of him have faded over the years and only a few images remain. He taught me to fly kites; fastidiously trimming bamboo, cutting old newspapers and gluing them together; reveling in the delight that arose in my eyes as he handed me the kite string. He consoled me if I fell down and scraped my knee, on the newly cemented driveway. He brought me animal-shaped biscuits in a brown bag from an old bakery in Jorhat, each time he came home from our native village in Teok. He affectionately called me ‘Majoni’ and ‘Mamu’, which are quite common pet names for girls in Assam. I was quite a treasured grandchild of his, owing to my birth seven years after my parents’ marriage. My mother says he had barged into the operation theatre when my mother was undergoing a Caesarean section for my birth, such was his restlessness to ensure my mother’s and his grandchild’s well-being.
He died within a month of being diagnosed with terminal stage gall bladder cancer. I knew he was ill, but didn’t know that I’d be losing him forever, and preferred to spend my time in my room with my crayons and coloring book. I was tired of the fact that he was always in bed, surrounded by people; and eating Cerelac out of a bowl, a habit I had long outgrown.  The family was troubled by the idea of losing him, and a multitude of relatives frequented our home. Two of my younger uncles got married (one arranged, one arranged-cum-love) on the same day, within two weeks of diagnosis of my Koka’s illness. Life happened at a rapid pace to accommodate as much happiness and joy into that one month for my Koka. He wasn’t aware it was cancer, and was angry at his sons for not taking him to Guwahati for a surgery, that he believed would have cured him. The evenings brought out the fragrant odor of incense, while my aunts sang hymns from the Bhagvad Gita at his bedside. One day he asked my father for his sandals, as he would be going on a long journey soon and pointed to the bright, blue sky (the same color as his sweater) outside his window. My father scolded him for saying such absurd things, in an ironic role-reversal, parenting the parent; and went off to office. My Koka died a few hours later that day, while I sat cross-legged over a pile of pillows and colored with my crayons.
There was great hue and cry, my mother and aunt fainted, and I saw my father smoke a cigarette pensively in our garage. A huge tent was erected on our lawn, and they took my grandfather wrapped in a white shroud. My father and uncles shaved off their heads, all of them looked similar; huge, brown bodies wrapped in white dhotis as the five sons slept in a row on the floor.  A few days later a lot of people came for a ceremony where the frightening ‘taal’ was played. I ran scared to my neighbor and stayed there the whole day eating ‘lushi and aloo bhaji’, while they were praying for my grandfather’s soul. It took me some time to realize the significance of death, of never seeing my grandfather again; apart from the photograph in our home, in front of which my mother placed fresh marigold garlands. That’s when I felt sad, as I saw the mourning household. But the feeling lasted only a few days and was replaced with horror, as I realized they have cut off my grandfather’s thumb and preserved it along with his ashes, to be immersed in a holy river later. I had nightmares about the thumb, and I was glad when my father got transferred to Guwahati a few months later.
I knew my grandfather years after his death through my father’s stories. As my sister and I lay our heads on my father’s cushiony tummy after lunch on Sundays, it was a cue for him to begin his stories; his childhood anecdotes far surpassed a fairy tale. I visualized everything-the village he was born in, the river he swam in, the cows he brought back home every evening, the pranks he pulled on his friends and his teachers, and the frightening consequences of such actions at home; my father’s stories weaved for me a personalized Axomiya version of “Malgudi Days”. And the stern father, the imposing figure of my grandfather always featured in his stories as the one to keep a check on my father’s natural aptitude for mischief.
That’s how I learnt about my Koka, through my father’s stories. My Koka was the headmaster of the village school where my father and uncles studied. He was extra hard on them so as not to run the risk of being labeled as favoring his sons. He was a strict parent, authoritarian in fact, and this had extreme effects on his sons; my eldest uncle became the studious, obedient one and my father played the truant schoolboy. But never did his sons disrespect him.
The image of my Koka as a stern schoolmaster was so set in my mind, that I was shocked when I learnt much later that he used to work in the police force earlier and was equally feared by his colleagues in that field too. His profession didn’t shock me as much as the thought of him wearing trousers instead of a dhoti!
He led a life of struggle trying to raise a large family, five sons and two daughters, with his meager monthly salary of fifty-two rupees.  He married young, as was the norm in those days, and was childless for twenty long years. It was a social stigma then to remain without an heir to carry on the family name and he was married off to my grandmother, who was still in her early teens then. It’s horrifying to think of it now, to think of the huge age difference between my grandparents, but that’s the way it happened more than sixty-five years ago in rural India. A large family soon followed, and I am still astonished how he managed to keep two wives in the same home for so many decades without much turbulence! And to my young mind hearing these stories for the first time, it created much awe. 
During the floods of the Brahmaputra in 1965, my grandfather lost all his land and life savings, and suffered a breakdown at the prospect of bringing up his family without a job at hand.  He gave up, but his children took over the responsibility of looking after each other despite their young age. I wonder what went though my Koka’s mind, seeing his children struggle to make ends meet and earn an education at the same time while he was a mere spectator, defeated and helpless. I ask my father sometimes whether it made him love his father less; and the answer is always a vehement ‘No’. They idolized him, despite his failures late in life. This reverence for parents, despite all short-comings made me think about the low tolerance level we have for our parents’ deficiencies nowadays; it humiliated me.
My Koka died in January, and my sister was born in October of that same year; and this nine-month gap led me to torture my sister for a long time by stating that she was Koka’s re-incarnation and she had even inherited his dark feet. This thought confused her for a long time, as she actually began to wonder if she was her father’s father! My aunt once told me that my Koka had stored a few currency notes, his treasured savings, underneath the hay in the ‘bharal ghar’ in our native village; and later broke down when he saw the currency notes chewed to bits by the mice. I found this tale very tragic.
I had never until my Koka’s death, seen a ‘Shradhha’ being held; and I so strongly believed  in the stories that the dead come to visit their loved ones around this time, that even now I have dreams of my Koka in and around the end of January, near his ‘Shradhha‘. My youngest uncle was quite reckless in his youth, and used to return home in the wee hours of morning after a night of partying at the local youth club. I remember being mortified when he once told me he saw Kokastanding near the pond in our old home at 3am, a few days before his ‘Shradhha‘; and I didn’t question if it was the alcohol. I stopped looking out of the window after dark for a long time afterwards. I enquired his reaction on seeing his father’s ghost, and he shocked me even more when he said that he spoke to the apparition! A ghost, I reminded him, it was a ghost! But even my father said he wished every moment of his life to speak to his father once again. The idea of wishing to talk to dead people scared me when I first heard it as a child, but only now I understand the significance of that wish. 
To lose a parent is the biggest void in life, and the desire to re-connect the dearest wish. I wish I had the opportunity to know my Koka a few more years, but he is and will always be very much alive in my heart , a heart that has my father’s stories.

The Blur of my 20s

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Of all things I didn’t expect my ’20s’ to resemble the opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities“.

Everything overlaps in my memory. I can’t pinpoint what happened when.

My 20s has been a blur: the years, the events, experiences, people who drifted in and out, people who lingered, the hard-earned and the surprise successes, the vicious cycles of failure, the ennui of adulthood, the simple or extravagant joys, deceptions and lies, the foolish heart that refuses to learn lessons, the heart that has learnt to be and even accept indifference, journeys of self-discovery, the indirect search for the meaning of it all, nights of fervent prayers, indulging in frivolities, still reading books with the same love and worship for the written word, still being the pampered daughter and doting sister, paranoid driving, learning compassion and responsibilities, healing others and not just because it is a job, learning the hard way to follow the advice of my parents, waiting for I know not what, laughing at how far I’ve come along yet how long I have stood still, sometimes mourning an untarnished memory, kicking myself often for wavering in the most important thing in the world-discipline, uncertain steps into writing, accepting deficiencies and along the way accepting myself, wondering what my ten year old self would say when my dreams of a settled career and being happily married and traveling the world by the time I turned twenty seven seems impossible now, telling my ten year old self that it’s okay the way things are now and meaning it, still skeptical about most of the people I meet, creating my own happiness, and not even close to learning how to cook.

When I was sixteen, a person who was over twenty-five was OLD, a fossil. Today I have turned 26. I don’t feel like a fossil. I have yet to embark on many journeys. I have yet to find the utopian true love. I have yet to get kicked in the guts by life and learn few more lessons. I have yet to find contentment. I have yet to make my parents proud. I have yet to travel to places I’ve read about in books and compare my mind’s imagery with the real beauty. I have yet to do something meaningful for the causes I believe in and support.

Miles to go…

(Photo Courtesy: kikimatters)

I wish I was in your class again.

“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth’.”

You might remember me only as a face in your classroom. But I will always be grateful for your support, belief in me and guidance at crucial points of my life. I feel blessed to be your student.

This is for you:~

Ma’am Deepti Singh: For that encouraging smile, a pat on the back, and developing a healthy competitive streak in me. And it touches me that you remember me even though it has been fifteen years since I last sat in your classroom. You were, are and will always be my favorite teacher in the whole wide world.

Sir Bijoy Handique: You were a lot of firsts for me. You were the first person to notice the ‘biggest introvert’ (me) in the classroom, the first to appreciate my work, the first to believe that I could achieve something big, the first to create a genuine interest to learn something instead of mugging up for exams and what do you know, you were even my first crush! I will always like history 🙂 And the fact that you still remember me as the little girl in a grey skirt, wearing tiny, hoop earrings and traveling to school in the old fiat…delights me no end.

Ma’am Manjula: Your smile comforted me on the first day of kindergarten. You taught me the alphabet. You didn’t laugh when I said that I sent my sports shoes to the ‘barber’ for cleaning!

Ma’am Ruprekha: I still remember the first thought that crossed my mind when I first saw you, “If my grandmother dressed up in chiffon sarees and wore lipstick, she too would look as beautiful as Ruprekha Ma’am”. I think your maternal aura made it impossible for anyone not to like you. How you patiently listened to my fanciful imaginations about ETs, doppelgangers and the ghosts in the school church!

 Ma’am Anita: You were the woman of 2011 in 1994! You made learning such fun. You brought beautifully crafted jewellery boxes to class when teaching about indigenous craftsmanship of Jammu and Kashmir, you taught us to appreciate the beauty of a song’s lyrics (the example was ‘ek ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga‘), you striked the perfect balance between being amiable yet someone we didn’t dare anger!

Sir Joseph: You introduced me to the world of books…novels, poems, short stories, essays, and even limericks. You let me borrow 4 library books every month when the rule was a limit of maximum 2 books. You played chess with me and didn’t make a big fuss when I bunked PT class. You also bought me pastries in the school canteen, when the queue was long. You are awesome 🙂

Ma’am Srivastav: You always saw through my trick of feigning stomach ache when it was my turn to read a passage from the Hindi textbook, but you didn’t scold and embarrass me in front of the class. You gradually let the love for the language grow on me, even though it never reached substantial heights. But you managed to hold my hand and walk with me through my living hell of writing Hindi essays!

Fr. Philip: I am yet to see a person as dashing and as charismatic as you. I doubt whether I’ll ever see one. The way you spoke, the way you walked, the way you taught us the values of life was awe inspiring. But during tiffin break you patiently answered the questions of two enthusiastic little girls, my best friend and me, ranging from the contents of your lunch box to ‘why bad things happen to good people’. You let us rummage through your personal library every day. And when I left my hometown and joined a new school, you uncomplainingly passed on my long letters, addressed to the school principal, to my eagerly waiting friends in that old classroom. Yes, I will never meet anyone like you again.

Sir Angelus: You were aggressive, and you never missed the target when you threw a chalk piece at an errant student. You scared me when you threatened to clip my long nails in front of the whole class. Yet, when I came to know you better, I thought you were the most gentle person I had ever met! Your razor sharp wit, your quirky assignments, your exciting tales, and the fact that you were the lone inhabitant of the school at night (as your living quarters were on the spooky top floor of the school) made you quite the interesting character. You disciplined us when we needed it the most.

Rafida Ma’am: You taught the most boring subject on earth. Social Studies. Yet, I never dozed off in your class. You helped me adjust to a new school. You handed me important responsibilities, so that I felt more involved in the alien environment. You advised in hushed tones to each of the girls individually when it was their time to start wearing a bra. I anticipated the dreaded moment and it lived up to the most awkward conversation (or was it just nodding my head) of my life. You left us all bereaved early this year, but I would always remember you fondly. RIP, Rafida Ma’am.

Sir Ratul Rajkhowa: You instilled in me a love for life sciences and consequently medicine. Your tuition classes were so much fun. You showed us the bottled gall bladder stones of your wife while solving genetics problems, you showed us your Bihu music cassette while classifying bacteria, and told us about your stint with the Indian Navy when we discussed ecological hazards! I so enjoyed those two hours of biology tuitions every morning.

Sir Balwant: I excelled in mathematics in school because of you. I was a dunce when it came to numbers, but your teaching showed me how mathematics could be fun. Your black diary with the toughest mathematical problems, invoked in me such a competitive streak to solve all of them before anyone else, that it scared me. You are such a down-to-earth and humble person. I will always appreciate your confidence in my abilities.

Sujata Ma’am: English seemed more than substance writing and grammar. Poetry awakened dreams instead of being monotonously mugged up for exams. I loved that you understood and took care of the individual needs of each of your students. You are such a witty, and for a lack of a better word ‘spunky’ woman. I liked your ideas, and everything you had done in life. You will always remain my idol.

Sir Jnanendra Sharma: I can’t picture Gauhati Medical College without you. You are a great teacher and one of the most tirelessly hard working person I’ve ever met. During undergraduate days, you always encouraged this “Jorhat’or suwali” to work hard, and I really did during Pediatrics, which still is my favorite subject. Even when I was going through a bad phase of severe anxiety and cut myself off from the whole world, you were the only teacher who was supportive and gave me hope. You are a busy man and you didn’t have to care if your past pupil was having a problem, but you did. And I will always be thankful for it. You didn’t even make me feel awkward by questioning about my past problems, when I resumed my normal life. You made it very comfortable for me. I hope someday this “jorhat’or suwali” will be able to make you proud in her own small way.

Sir Sahid Ali: You are knowledge personified. And you are genuinely interested in sharing your knowledge with all your students. You care. A lot. And that’s why I respect you so much.

Ma’am Gayatri: You are an epitome of intelligence, hard work and positive attitude. I always wanted to work hard in your classes. Especially pediatric ward classes. You are one of the finest women I have ever met.

Sir Suresh Chakraborty: I always looked forward to your questions about Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Satyajit Ray at the end of the psychiatry class. You made psychiatry come alive. I loved when you encouraged us to make diagnosis, validate it with strong arguments, and supported it with that happy smile of yours. You had always encouraged me to write during my undergraduate days in GMC, and I’d always be thankful for that.

Probodh Da: I hated it when you cut short the evenings, meant for having fun with my cousins, with boring homework assignments. But you never missed a class for 8 years, and made sure I stick to the books. I enjoyed the chat sessions at the end of the class, and playing scrabble with you.<

Published with Blogger-droid v1.7.4

That Old Diary

There’s something about opening an old diary with its moth-eaten faded brown jacket; leafing through the smooth yellowed pages and breathing in the faint odor of memories cocooned over years. The writing is familiar but the words seem to tell about long-forgotten stories, and I feel guilty about prying into my own thoughts, as if delving into the mind of another person.

Memory can be a tricky thing and we modify, glorify or amplify it over the years. But the old diary quietly holds onto our real memories, good and bad, unchanged over the years. Few instances seem so new I wonder whether it actually happened to me. And some feelings are so out of sync with what I feel now I am left wondering whether I had actually imagined those feelings! It its like reading fiction.

Sometimes I feel sad reading the innermost child-like thoughts of a younger version of me; unsullied by grief or mistakes, blissfully ignorant of the harsher lessons of life awaiting her. I feel elated at her joys, want to comfort her when she had a bad day, encourage her, warn her about wrong judgments and protect her.

To get to the end is exhausting; it’s like living many lives. There’s a sense of wonder that it’s me all along; all those experiences, all those thoughts shaped by what life had to offer and how I tackled it. It’s still me who had loved so passionately, laughed so heartily, worked so hard, wept so quietly and felt so much over the years. That’s how I came into being.

And these written words, childish scrawls to elegant scripts, with doodles every now and then; are a witness to my life. There’s a sense of joy, calm, pride, a little regret too, and a lot of hope.

Now new pages await to be filled up and in a few years from now I’d again marvel and even laugh at my twenty-five year old self’s thoughts and wondering, ‘seriously, what were you thinking?!’

That’s the thing about opening an old diary; going through petals pressed against the days of first love, tear streaked pages of loss and smiley doodles signing off happy days; it’s like coming home.

The Wondrous World of Bhaona

My father’s childhood tales were an integral part of my growing up years. Every weekend after lunch I would lie on his tummy, and listen to these tales which were occasionally filled with funny Bhaona anecdotes. Growing up in a village, my father’s family was intimately involved with Bhaona (a play based on mythological events and staged in villages usually). All my uncles and aunts took part in it during their childhood, with the exception of my youngest uncle who continued to act in it till he was thirty-five.

One of my aunts played ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and her moustache fell off during the act; a student playing ‘Rama’ took full advantage of the chance to beat up a mathematics tutor, who played the ‘Ravana’; and many more. My father once played ‘Krishna’ and his elder brother played ‘Balaram’. When the time of their entry into stage came, ‘Balaram’ was missing and even after a frantic search backstage they couldn’t find him. Without further delay, only ‘Krishna’ entered the stage and while mouthing the dialogues his eyes suddenly fell on his mother (my grandmother) sitting in the audience. My eldest uncle, who was playing ‘Balaram’, was sitting in my grandmother’s lap and nonchalantly chewing ‘chanaa’ while still wearing ‘Balaram’s costume!! He evidently felt bored and decided not to act at the last minute! Such goof-ups, wrong or forgotten dialogues, and funny wardrobe malfunctions made these locally staged plays totally entertaining.

My father’s native village is in Teok, and every year we would make it a point to attend the Bhaonas held there. My youngest uncle was very much into acting in theatrical plays and every Bhaona season he was flooded with offers to act in it. He was always happy to oblige. He often ended up enacting roles of ‘Asuras’ or demons, owing to his 6’2” height and bulging muscles! He played ‘Kansa’ (during Raas Leela), ‘Hiranyakashipur’ (in ‘Bhakt Prahlad’), ‘Ravana’ (in ‘Ramayan’), ‘Duryodhan’ (in ‘Mahabharat’) etc. How he relished portraying these evil characters! Creating terror in the audience, nearly making the kids pee out of fright!

As the Bhaona night drew near, my excitement knew no bounds. Every night I would sit with my uncle while he rehearsed his lines in that deep baritone voice of his; looking smug at having such an enthusiastic supporter near! My mother dreaded the approach of the Bhaona season because it would mean the sacrifice of an expensive sari from her wardrobe. My uncle would ‘borrow’ a sari to wear it as a dhoti, as Bhaonas are famous for gaudy attire. He would sheepishly return it the next day with tears and cuts that were usually beyond repair, much to my mother’s dismay.

And then the day of the Bhaona arrives. I would see off my uncle in the evening with a thousand “All the best” wishes. At around 7pm the whole extended family would miraculously fit into two cars and drive off to the Bhaona venue. We would endure a two hour drive sitting in the most awkward poses to free up space to squeeze as many individuals in the car! There would be a stop over at a road side Dhaba (a food stall) to eat delicious ‘tandoori’ food. Post dinner we would pile into the car again and indulged in a mellow conversation; the effect of a tummy filled with delicious food.

A huge tent would be erected at the Bhaona venue; a central stage around which the crowd, seating on the ground, happily jostled for space. The atmosphere was replete with laughter and conversation, and the anticipation was palpable. The lights would dim; artificial smoke filled the stage; sound of drums (Dhol) announced the entry of the ‘sutradhaar’, welcomed with hearty applause. Then for the next hour or two the audience remained mesmerized as the drama enfolded. Collective shouts of joy greeted the entry of the ‘hero’ (Rama, Krishna, and Prahlad etc; depending on the play) and collective gasps of fear marked my uncle’s entry! It was indeed a fearful sight; the painted face, the long-haired wig, the huge moustache, the heavy costume, the weapons he carried (even though fake), the careful lighting and the dramatic sounds of ‘Dhol’ and ‘Taal’ made my uncle look scarier beyond belief. His entry was cue for the little kids, including my sister, to hide their faces in their mothers’ laps. The fights were funny with psychedelic red light portraying flow of blood and the costumes were amateur; but the dialogues were riveting, and the acting good. The audience was thrown into laughing fits when the ‘ladies‘ entered, because very few females participated in Bhaona and the ‘heroines’ were mostly reed-thin, slightly effeminate men dressed as females.

During the intermission I had special access to the actors green room backstage because my uncle always kept the Bhaona organizers informed that his family might visit. A family friend once went to visit my uncle backstage. The organizers inquired his identity and he replied, “I’m Kansa’s brother, let me go” (“Moi Kansa’r bhaiyek, muk jaabo diyok”); and the organizers burst out laughing at this weird identification!! My initial euphoria of a peep into the Bhaona backstage died when I saw the actors, in their frightening costumes, towering over me. The actors with heavily painted faces, wearing ladies costume and leisurely puffing a cigarette looked more frightening than those playing the demons. Surrounded by ‘Hanuman’, ‘Sita’ and ‘Surpanakha’ sharing a smoke; ‘Ravana’ and ‘Rama’ in an animated discussion, backslapping each other; ‘Vibhisana’ quietly eating pakoras at a corner; it was one surreal experience to go backstage in a Bhaona. The Bhaona would go into the wee hours of morning, and the sleepy but happy audience would give the actors a standing ovation at the end. And then it was dozing back in the car for us on the way back home, and waking up at noon the next day.

Gradually things that had been an integral part of my growing up years and had brought me so much happiness are slipping away. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw a Bhaona. My uncle doesn’t act any more; the families that happily piled into the car have scattered all over India; and things just aren’t the same any more. But the memories of Bhaona are still in vivid in my mind with its endearing eccentricities.

Photos: Of my uncle during his Bhaona performances.

As I Chew On Bon Bogoris…

I ate wild plums today.

Bon Bogori, for my Assamese readers. Red, juicy, salted ones.

Food can be a source of comfort and often trigger nostalgia. I think ‘wild plums’ and I am transported back to my school days. The ride back home from school, shirt sleeves finally rolled back, tie knot loosened, slouching on the backseat of the car (a white Fiat), listening to the same cassette of Kishore Kumar songs and eating wild plums I had bought during lunch break from the vendor outside school. This routine rarely varied during the half an hour ride. Except on Thursdays when my sister and I got pocket money to buy an ice-cream. I would keep reminding her from the previous evening onwards that we had to collect the ice-cream money before leaving for school the next day. Because there was a high probability of forgetting it in the early morning rush of bathroom queues, last minute homework, reading my favorite Archie comics while having breakfast, jostling for space in front of the mirror while combing our hair, tying shoelaces (a pain even now), packing my school bag and lunch box; and I used to wake up just an hour before school started!

I remember a very comical situation I got into (and I have an innate talent for such kinds) during that 7am ride to school once. There was this girl in my class, PKY, whom we used to call tubelight owing to her much delayed understanding of what was being said. Once on the way to school, I saw PKY waiting for the school bus. I told her that I’d give her a lift but she smiled and replied that she doesn’t want to bother me. But I was insistent and she agreed to travel the remaining three kilometers to school in my car.  I had to buy a notebook on the way and stopped at a stationery shop. While waiting for the shopkeeper to find the two-lined notebook, we saw PKY’s bus go by and we smiled and waved to our friends in the school bus. But when it was time to pay for the notebook, I realized I had forgotten to bring my purse. And my purse was in my school bag! I panicked. I had no option but to send our driver back home to get my school bag while PKY and I walked two kilometers to school and reached quite late. She never took a ride with me to school again! I still remember the look on her face that day, trying hard to suppress her anger and mumbling curses against me while I was trying very hard not to giggle. I’m still not able to suppress my giggles every time I’m reminded of PKY.

"Things I wish I hadn’t said in school" aka "What was I thinking?!?"

1. “I am absent”

(In response to the query why I’d not submitted my homework the day before)

2. “Miss, she took my copy and (longest pause of my life as I’d the sudden realization that I didn’t knew about the existence of the word ‘tore’) fali dile.”

(‘Fali dile’ is the Assamese translation of ‘tore it’)

3. “My mother is blind”.

(Because I couldn’t explain to the teacher that my mother is myopic and had difficulty helping me with the school project at night)

4.“Pride has a fall.”

(Because the two guys sitting immediately in front of me were making a huge racket and I wanted to say something to quieten them!)

5. “Sir, I can’t attend the sports drill today.”
“Personal problem of a girl, Sir.”

(And worse…I used the ‘personal problem’ excuse nearly three times a month and felt smug about conning the PT teacher!)

6. Teacher: “How come you failed on the spelling test?”
Me: “Because I was trying to fail the guy who sat next to me!”

(Once there was a spelling test, and the guy sitting next to me didn’t know anything and was trying to copy from me. I thought I would mislead him, and deliberately wrote the wrong spellings which he copied while I was sniggering all the time. Then the teacher announced we have only two minutes left to submit our papers. I panicked. I erased all the wrong answers and she took the copy from me before I could write down even a single spelling. The guy who sat next to me and I, both of us scored ‘zero’ on the spelling test. But the teacher said at least he attempted to write the spellings, while I submitted a blank sheet! My parents were called to school the next day!)

7. “I couldn’t wear the sports shoes today because my mother gave them to the barber.”


8. Teacher to me: “Nice Haircut. Who cut it?”
Me: “Mistry!”

(I was seven, and my father used to take me along with him to the local saloon, where the barber was called ‘Mistry’ by everyone as is the habit in India to call the common workmen so. I hadn’t learned the word ‘barber’ yet!)

9. My friend: “He called me names. He called me a cow.”
Me: (in all seriousness) “Don’t feel bad. At least he didn’t call you a lizard or crow. Cow is a useful animal. You can give milk and dung to everyone!”

(Our friendship wasn’t as strong as earlier after that pep up talk I gave my friend)

10. “Avoidable reasons” on my absent note.

(I missed school one day because I overslept. I vaguely recalled a friend once writing “avoidable” or something on her absent note. She had written‘Unavoidable reasons’. It was a big word for me and I could only recall it entirely. Thankfully, the teacher had a sense of humor and didn’t scold me)

"Life of ‘Pee’", nervous boyfriend and hawk-eyed parent…perfect recipe for my first date!

I went after lunch to two of the few book stores in Guwahati which can boast of a good collection of books, from the latest bestsellers to the classics, covering a varied and interesting range of books. “Western Book Depot” and “Papyrus”, situated at Panbazar. If you happen to spot a fat female browsing through books at these two bookstores often, oblivious to the world around her…well, that most probably is me. I had spent many happy hours browsing at these bookstores every month, and save money all year round to splurge on visits to these shops. By the way, I bought three books today…Milan Kundera’s “Slowness” and “Ignorance”, and “Recess: A Penguin Book of Schooldays”. Reviews are due next month after I complete reading them.

Anyways, this post is not about the pleasures of endless hours of browsing at bookstores. I had already written about my fascination for book stores. Today I want to share a very memorable incident in my life that occurred at the “Western Book Depot”. My first date. Or my first date turned disaster. You must be thinking what’s wrong with me to have chosen a bookstore as the location for my first date. Read on to know why.

I fell in love for the first time four years back when I was 19. I was never interested in the guys I had grown up with, or studied together. And the whole concept of casual dating and testing the waters for a few months is something I can’t identify with at all. Add to that my introvert nature …and I would’ve remained single till I was 50 if I hadn’t met him! He was 5 years elder to me. Completely different backgrounds…he was an MBA student at IIT, Kharagpur, while I was a second year medical student in Assam. We met online. And I liked him instantly. He was witty, intelligent, caring and I absolutely loved talking to him. Friends first…and then in a year became a little more than friends. But we had never talked about meeting; and were quite happy with our conversations online. I admit I was scared that the comfort level in our relationship might change when we meet in person…scared of awkward silences in conversations, or that we might not have anything to talk about. When he got his MBA degree, and was about to leave for his new job…one night I received a phone call from him, saying that he’s on his way to meet me and arriving in Guwahati the next day.

May 14, 2005: To say I was petrified would be a huge understatement. My father is way too protective of me and my sister, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere alone. I had no other way but to seek permission and go. That day I told my mother about him…the most awkward conversation of my life! She was OK with it but forbid me to meet him alone. Back to square one! He called up on reaching Guwahati, and I told him of the dilemma I faced. He was quite supportive and didn’t sulk. But I so wanted to meet him, I was ready to do anything just to see him once. I told my mother I had to buy a new book and have to urgently go to “Western Book Depot”. My mother, who was already suspicious after I mentioned him to her, was adamant on accompanying me to the bookstore and worse insisted on taking my sister and aunt along too! I was on the verge of tears. But this was my only chance to see him. I frantically texted him to meet me at the bookstore and warned him that my mother would be with me. He said he didn’t know the way around Guwahati and would accompany a friend to find the store. I was in such a hurry…I forgot to even comb my hair on the way out! That too the first time he saw me! The last thing I cared was how I looked; all I wanted was to see him once. We reached the store at 6pm. My mother got down along with me, while my aunt and sister waited in the car. I pretended to search for medical books. After about fifteen minutes, my mother said she would wait for me in the car. I was so relieved. As I waited for him, I decided to gift him a book. He had mentioned a few days earlier that he wanted to read “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. I got the last copy of the book available in the shop for him. At around 6:25pm, I heard two loud, excited voices in the shop. My back was turned towards the entrance and when I turned around; I saw him and his friend. I smiled at him. But he didn’t reciprocate. I was taken aback. Didn’t he recognize me? After a moment’s confusion, I realized he was deliberately trying to feign that he didn’t know me. The reason: there was a lady in the book store who he thought was my mother!! He came and stood beside me but carried on the little act of being strangers, and instead turned to a man behind the bookstore counter, and asked whether “Life of pi” was available. The man answered, “Life of ‘Pee’ toh nahin hain. Last copy inhone (pointing at me) purchase kar liya.” (“Life of ‘Pee’ is not available, she purchased the last copy”).We were all trying hard not to laugh at the man’s pronunciation of the book title. I then turned and gave him my gift, the same book. He smiled at me, and by now had realized that my mother wasn’t in the shop as he had earlier thought. As he took the book from me, the bookstore owner went, “How kind of you, ma’am! Giving him your book. And that too free of cost!” They hadn’t yet realized that we knew each other and I turned the kind, helpful girl in their eyes. I had already spent a lot of time in the bookstore, and was worried that my Ma would come in and find him near me. I asked him to leave, quite reluctantly though. It was hardly for ten minutes that we saw each other that day…the first time…and he had to leave. As I walked out of the shop five minutes after him, I saw that his bike was parked right next to my car!!! Of all the places available, he had to park near my car, with my mother sitting in the car! I hoped that she hadn’t realized who he was. And I drove off, without daring to even look at him a second time in my mother’s presence. After few minutes, my mother remarked, “So you met him? He seemed nice.” I nearly had a cardiac arrest, when I realized that my mother had recognized him. How on earth did she know? Turned out that when my guy had parked his bike right next to our car, she overheard him tell his friend that I had asked him to meet me in the bookstore. And after all the trouble we both went through to keep the meeting discreet!!
That relationship ended long back, and he is happily married now. But I still can’t stop smiling thinking about my funny first date-turned-disaster, the nervous look on his face that day, my hawk-eyed Ma on the lookout for a tricky Romeo out to trap her daughter and instead finding a bumbling fool, and me savoring each second of those ten minutes of my first meeting with my first love. Short and sweet, a memory so special that it would last a lifetime. And, the bookstore will always remain special too.

Heavy Petting

First the updates:

1.We’ve new additions to the family…six new goldfishes, named after the entire cast of F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

2.My little “dramebaaz”(her histrionics has earned her the nickname) cousin, Pooja, feels her social life is ruined. She lost her front teeth! It makes me sad that she’s growing up so fast. Just the other day she was born…

Pooja, a few days back:

Pooja now: (The kid has every reason to get scared!)

3.A trip to my hometown, Jorhat (in Assam) is due next week. Superrrrrrrr excited. The best-est place in the whole world.

Now back to the original blog post. At the risk of earning the wrath of all the people who read this blog (there are few, right??), I want to confess that I am not overly fond of animals. I don’t hate animals but not an enthusiastic animal lover even. I love dogs. And I absolutely detest birds. I’m terrified of birds and my allergies start acting up even if I see a stray feather. The goldfishes are the first pets we have after ten long years.

My father had brought home a pup in 1980, five years before I was born. His name was Tipu (after The Tipu Sultan); don’t ask what made my father name it so. After I was born, Tipu had been my constant companion for eleven years. He used to follow me around everywhere and was very protective of me. Once when I was around five years old, I was playing in the neighborhood park and accidentally fell down and bruised my knee. A man sitting nearby came rushing to help me get up from the ground, but he was in for a shock! He had to be rushed to the doctor for anti-rabies shots in the next few minutes. Tipu didn’t let anyone apart from family to even come near me. He used to sense my arrival even before I reached home after school. I never took special care of him. Apart from the regular baths and half-yearly visits to the vet, there were no fancy pet treatments, no regular walks and no special dog food in our pet care routine back then. He used to accompany us on walks, play with us in the evenings after school, ate whatever was cooked at home; complete fuss free pet. And he lived for sixteen years and was healthy till the last couple of months of his life. He died when I was 11 years old. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Their bond was the most special. My father had brought him home and took care of him for 16 years. The loss of a pet can be very distressing. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that Tipu won’t come running to greet me each time I came home. I lost the first friend I had, my constant companion. I sulked for days. My parents began to worry. They got another dog, named him Tipu too; but I was even more hurt and angry that they were trying to replace our first pet. I avoided the new pet for few days but he was way too cute to be ignored. But he was killed two years later by some miscreants, when he had wandered out of home one night. No one in the family could bear the loss of another pet and resolved not to bring in anymore.

Our house back then was full of birds and cows and goats at the farm in our backyard that was run by my grandmother. And still is. But bringing home a proper pet, like a dog or a cat was out of question. And now our family has shifted to a new city, new apartment, which lacks the adequate space to rear a pet; and the lack of dog lovers in the neighborhood doesn’t help either. But as of now, I’m happily watching the antics of Phoebe, Rachael, Monica, Joey, Ross, and Chandler (our new goldfishes)!

Memories on Meji

Yesterday was Bhogali Bihu, an Assamese festival to celebrate the harvesting of crops. I missed going to my hometown to attend the celebrations this year. Exams are knocking on the door. Waking up yesterday morning, and knowing that I won’t be able to see the “Meji” fire (a bonfire lit on occasion of Bhogali Bihu), catch up with my cousins, have the whole family around me…I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. My parents and my sister were also going through the same emotions. And then the calls started coming in from all my relatives; the distance barriers were overcame and the families were united again. Catching up with all the people stretched the phone calls for more than three hours. It felt awesome talking to everyone. In the evening my youngest uncle’s family came over to our home. And as we sat down for lunch, we missed being with the rest of the family but comforted by the thought that no matter where life takes us…the bonds are too strong to be weakened by distance. And festivals like these are a constant reminder of these bonds of love.

Since my childhood, I’d been a great enthusiast of festivals…and Bhogali Bihu was no exception. Some of my fondest memories are of the Bihu celebrations in my hometown, the huge gathering of all the members of our extended family (at least 60 people) at the “Bhoj” (a feast) the night before Bihu. Since the evening before Bihu…preparations for it would start on a grand scale. A huge tent would be erected on our front yard. Carpets and mattresses would be laid on the floor. Firewood is purchased. Pithas (different varieties of sweets prepared during Bihu) would be cooked. Everyone in our joint family would gather in the tent by eight pm. There was a distinct fervor and excitement in the air. There was so much to do. A meal for sixty people was no small feat. The women of the household, my mother and my aunts, would gather at one corner of the tent and busy themselves with the meal preparation. Their duty was to chop the vegetables, marinate the chicken and fish, and gather the required spices. Their duties ended there. The food was always cooked by the men folk. And since they rarely ventured into the kitchen, these festivals were occasions they eagerly looked forward to flaunt their culinary skills. The fire would be lit after some time, and different items were cooked in turns. There were about five-six different dishes. As the food was being prepared, few of the people would gather around the fire to protect themselves from the cold January night. My grandmother was always one of them. She would quietly supervise everything from her cozy seat next to the fire giving occasional instructions. Since the fire wasn’t large enough to provide warmth to sixty people…there would be few small coal-lit stoves and the rest of the people would be huddled around these.
The older children would be sprawled lazily on the floor mattresses, chatting and listening to music. The music system would be brought out to the ground, and it’d be on full blast playing everything from the popular filmi music to traditional Assamese songs. Few of my uncles would go out for a smoke and stand outside the tent carefully shielded from the elder members of the family. Alcohol was consumed occasionally by a couple of people who would hide the glasses under the chair! But after some time it would become evident that they were drunk when they began to exhibit their dancing skills. It was more energy than style. A very amusing sight. There would be a constant chatter…Many conversations going on at the same time…and I loved the buzz. These were the occasions when everyone would catch up on the family news…news of births, deaths, weddings, new jobs, and even the gossip. Childhood stories would be related. My grandfather’s presence was missed all throughout the celebrations. Sometimes there were heated arguments and a long forgotten quarrel would be revived. The children would get all excited and even place bets on who would win the argument! And all of us would be sorely disappointed when someone would mediate peace between those on the war path. One of my cousins would bring out his guitar; few of the children would dance. New nicknames were generated, old ones were relished, and everyone would compare bits of their most embarrassing incidents and silly goof ups ensuing loud laughter.

What would I be doing? I would roam around the whole ground with my own group of followers. It consisted of nine of my younger cousins and since there was a good four to eight years difference between them and me, they would obediently follow me around everywhere. I would assign different duties to each one of them. A couple of them would assist my aunts in chopping vegetables. Sure, they were offering help but not without any ulterior motive. These “helping acts” would provide plenty of opportunities to sneak out salads and fish fry and snacks. Few of the cousins would be assigned the duty of guarding the wooden fence that formed the boundary wall on one side of our ground. It’s a tradition on the eve of Bihu to “steal” wooden fences for firewood. And given the huge number of family members, we always had enough enthusiastic little guards waiting fervently in anticipation to nab a thief that night. We never did. No one dared to approach our home on seeing the large number of people gathered. And by midnight…the food will be ready. As the dishes were laid out, the kids always created a huge ruckus over the seating arrangement. But soon everyone was seated and the food was served. It was always traditional Assamese cuisine. Non vegetarian dishes predominated. I always relished the prawns and the roasted sweet potatoes. I loved these long drawn out meals, full of animated conversations, laughter and the genial ambience. After the meal, those who were feeling drowsy would retire to bed. Few would lie on the floor mattresses and chat late into the night. And few of my uncles would have a friendly game of cards. Bets were made and money was won and lost within the family. My youngest uncle derived great pleasure from winning huge sums of money from his elder brothers that night. He is unusually lucky. And as he is my favorite uncle, sometimes I would help him by innocently peeking and using sign language to tell him the cards dealt to my other uncles. I always used to get a hundred bucks in reward. It was all done in a fun spirit. By two in the early morning, everyone would go off to sleep. Only to wake up after hardly two hours of sleep. It was the day of Bhogali Bihu. And the ceremonial bonfire “Meji” would be lit. The “Meji” would be constructed of a tall heap of wood stacked one over other and covered with a stack of hay on the top. Since the lit “Meji” fire is considered holy, one has to have bath before approaching it. This would lead to long bathroom queues, followed by the painful experience of taking a shower at 4am in the cold, cold January morning! By sunrise, everyone would be out in the grounds again, sitting in a huge circle around the “Meji”. We would all be shivering in the cold. And then the fire would be lit. As the flames rise, everyone would bow their heads in unison and pray, and the women would throw certain offerings into the fire. I loved this moment. There is this profound calm that prevailed at that very moment and the comfort of the whole family gathered together on this occasion. Soon after, the conversations from the night would be continued, few would sit quietly soaking in the warmth from the fire, the children would attach sweet potatoes to bamboo sticks and roast it in the fire, and all these would be followed by a sumptuous breakfast. The merriment, the joy, the comfort, the laughter, the whole family gathered together for the occasion…sitting around the “Meji”, engulfed by its warmth….I will always treasure these memories.

Years have passed since those days. The extended family has scattered all over India and abroad. The “Bihu” celebrations are still held at our home the same way. But the number of people attending it has considerably decreased. Every year someone or the other is prevented from attending it due to job responsibilities or because of a clash with exams at college and school. I don’t know when the whole family would re-unite to attend such an occasion again…and I long for those earlier days.


“Crush” sounds childish. “Puppy love” sounds even more childish. “Infatuation” seems dignified and blog worthy. But this is my personal blog, I’ve every right to write whatever I want and proudly display my lack of good vocabulary too.
I was 12 when I had my first crush. Year was 1997. I grew up in a small, laidback town in India. And at that age my world consisted of school in the morning, chatting with my best friend, playing with my cousins, quarrelling with my sister, painting in the afternoons and watching old American TV series’ that were aired on Indian television in the late nineties (think “I dream of Jeannie”, “Who’s the boss”, “Different Strokes” etc), and animatedly telling the events of my day to my parents during dinner. That’s my life back then summed up in one line. I hadn’t even known what romantic love was, I knew it existed when I saw these people mouthing “I love you” in movies and the all-knowing classmates who gave us the wisdom about the going ons of the adult world. But that was about it. That was the period when the girls who had considered the boys gross, rowdy, loud and extremely sweaty, suddenly found the very boys “cool” (whatever that meant!). And the boys too were more than enthusiastic to allow girls to be a part of their games. Territorial rights gave way to a new equation between the boys and girls of my class. There were occasional shy glances, the incessant giggling if a boy approached a group of girls and the most horrifying scenario…when a guy was caught “just talking” to a girl alone without any friends of his hanging around. The teasing that followed was cruel. There were no boyfriends or girlfriends at that time. The concept hadn’t caught up with our small town in the late nineties. Just the teasing. But even that seemed horrifying to me. And I never wanted to be the victim. So I carefully avoided being in such scenarios. That wasn’t too difficult considering the fact that I had always been a huge introvert. And I was least interested in the new thing that we had discovered, “love”. I was happy and content in my own world. I didn’t even find any of my classmates particularly good looking (that was the main criteria back then; shallowness ruled). Seniors and juniors were a no-no. So I knew I was safe.

Little did I know what lies ahead! I was an above average student. Study was a chore. I wasn’t the competitive sorts, nor was there any parental pressure as long as I got an A in all the subjects. I didn’t abhor books. I loved them. But not the ones in the curriculum. But still I completed my studies dutifully, and since I was good at math and science, the teachers liked me too. I hated the arts (social sciences, history, and geography). I prayed for the months to pass quickly so that I can get into eighth grade and toss the history and geography books for good and buy my copy of advanced math.

I prayed too soon. Because that was the year I fell from my history teacher! I was head over heels in ‘looooooooooooove’ with him. That was what I thought it was back then. He was a new teacher. He got in that year, ’97. He was just like any other teacher for the first six months but a good one though. He made the classes very interesting. He made us think and told us interesting trivia and held fun quizzes and I gradually found myself getting genuinely interested in the very subjects that I had hated so much up till then. And I enjoyed attending his classes and looked forward to learning rather than studying history. I went to the library to get books on history, researched for my assignments which was unheard of in our school back then. My parents too were shocked at this sudden transition.

Then came the half yearly exams. It was the first exam where I had actually enjoyed studying a subject instead of plain memorizing. So when the question papers were handed out, I noticed that few questions were wrongly published. I was very timid back then, standing in front of the whole class to say something was a big task for me. But I did get up and pointed out the mistake to my history teacher. He was surprised at my noticing the mistakes that even he had overlooked, and corrected them promptly. That was the first time he noticed this timid girl. And he smiled at me, patted my back and told me that he hoped I do the best in the class in his subject (and yes, I later did.). I was so happy. A sincere compliment from the first teacher I appreciated. And I can’t exactly pinpoint what, but something in me changed that day. I fell for him really bad. I suddenly had an attack of coyness when he looked my way or talked to me. After the exam was done, I remember it was raining outside, and taking the rain as the excuse I stood in the corridor next to the staff room stealing occasional glances at him. I didn’t know what came over me. It was a new emotion I was experiencing. And on that very day, summer holidays began for a month. I wouldn’t get to see him for a month! I came home and that afternoon drew a sketch of him. In the blue and black check shirt that he so frequently wore.

When school re-opened, everything was the same except that I had a heightened sense of awareness whenever he was around ,and whenever he talked to me I would be too shy to even look directly at him. I told no one about it. Not even my best friend. He was my secret. My first crush was way too special and personal to share with anyone. He was always appreciative about my work complimenting me always. Once I remember he held a quiz and our team won, but he had only one bar of chocolate in his hand. Everyone started shouting that they wanted it. And I was sitting at the extreme corner and was too self-conscious to act like the others when he was around. Maybe he saw how quiet I was from the rest of the kids, and when he threw the chocolate bar in the air, it fell on my lap. I still remember that moment, this small, insignificant gesture on his part felt so good. And once he punished the whole class, and kept us in during the entire recess period, but when there were only 15 minutes to go, he called me and let me go out because he felt I was always obedient and didn’t deserve any punishment. So I walked out happily leaving a bunch scowling and angry classmates.

Little gestures meant a lot. It wasn’t like I fantasized romantically about him, he was about fourteen years elder to me! And I was only 12! It was just that I admired him so much, and even a little appreciation on his part kept me smiling for days. I acted very awkward when he was around. My unusual coyness and few silly goof-ups made him know that I was infatuated with him for sure. He never told me that he knew, I would have been mortified. But I knew that he knew. I would remember those classes, those gestures, his words in my autograph book, the one time he bumped against me while hurriedly getting down the stairs,his left arm grazing my right arm, the confused scowl that he wore, the warm smile he had, the appreciation. I know I can’t get across my point clearly and there’s nothing special or extra-ordinary in what I wrote. But it was a very special phase of my life.

I transferred to a new school, new city the next year. And the last time I saw him, it was on the last day of my seventh grade. I told him I was transferring to a new school; he said he would miss one of his favorite students. And those were the simple parting words that I would remember my whole life

My first crush; the freshness and innocence of which still lives a lingering a feeling of happiness even 12 years later. The last time I visited my home town I visited his home; but he wasn’t in town. I got his phone number. I messaged him asking whether he remembered one of his favorite students, least expecting him to do so. But he did. He remembered me, and was happy to hear from me. He was married with a kid, and a new job in journalism. It felt good hearing from him. It felt even greater that he remembered me. I excitedly told my best friend and my family about it. For the first time, I shared the secret. So many years have passed since that day in December ’97, and still how vividly I remember the details. After all, a “first crush” is always special.

P.S: I forwarded this post to my history teacher, so that he knows about this confession too. I was a rather lost kid back then, going through the mundane school life without any significant memories, and thanks to him, I not only got a renewed interest in studies that year, but also have some really sweet memories. Hope I will always remain one of his favorite students.

Comfort Foods

I’ve always been a fussy eater. I am a vegetarian. But I hate green, leafy veggies. I avoid them like the plague. And I occasionally eat prawns. I hate dairy products except for butter and ice cream. If I set out to list the food items I can eat without wrinkling up my nose…the list won’t even cross the hundredth mark. I don’t eat stuff that I’ve already decided would taste “yuck” just by the look or smell of it. And refuse to even taste it. But I’m forced to do so at times by my father who would drive himself up the wall seeing me play around with the food (something I must have decided to be “yuck” earlier) and counting seconds till it’d be appropriate for me to leave the dining table. He has made it his mission in life to shovel nutritious, wholesome food down my throat even if that meant running around the house with a salad plate in hand, chasing me the whole day. It has become a game for us now. If he’s stubborn…I’m no less. I don’t do this to irritate him. I’ve a very narrow range of food items I prefer, and I’m happy eating that simple fare daily. But it’s a tough for everyone at home to accept that. They too have a reason apart from worrying about the lack of nutritious food in my diet. My fussy food habits create a lot of problem when we visit someone’s home. My relatives and close friends know by now what are the basic dishes I love eating…and I get them whenever I visit their homes. It’s the new acquaintances I dread visiting. I hardly stay for meal times…often bringing up some excuse or the other to go home. I still remember the day I visited a friend of mine whose mother served four different varieties of green, leafy veggies for lunch and a thick, creamy glass of ‘lassi’ as an after dinner drink. Time stood still that day for me as I painfully gulped down the food. The food was tasty for everyone present…I know. My friend’s mother is a good cook…I even know that. But how do I explain to them my eating habits? And now that I’ve grown up that has become a major issue in my life. If I find myself in a situation where the food I prefer is not available for a considerable amount of time and I risk starving myself…I eat whatever is available then. But I can’t continue it once I get back home.

It’s not that I ever regretted my lack of interest in tasting new dishes. I am happy with my choice of few simple dishes…everyday fare in most homes. They are way too simple…almost boring. But these items have etched very fond memories in my mind. And that’s what I want to share with you today.

1.My earliest food associated memory that I still fondly recall would be “orange ice-cubes”. My mother used to fill the ice-cube tray with orange juice…and by the time I’m home after hours of playing out in the sun…I would have those “orange ice cubes” waiting for me!

2.Coffee. I’ve a nagging doubt that I’ve more caffeine running in my veins than blood. The pleasure of waking up to a hot, steaming cup of coffee beats everything. Just the smell of it…that rich aroma…is so comforting for me. It makes the job a lot easier when I stay up late to study for exams. Just writing about it makes me crave for another cup of coffee now. A caffeine addict? Not yet. But on the verge of becoming one. Need desperate control measures soon.

3.Buttered toast dipped in dal. This had been my evening snack for years as far as I can remember. With a gap of two years in the middle…when I shifted to hostel where the rule was “maggi noodles” for lunch or dinner. Mostly out of laziness after a long day at the college hospital.

4.Come rainy days and there are a few things that I look forward to…Pakoras dipped in imli chutney, roasted corn, samosas, and hot jalebis.

5.POTATOES!! Bake them, roast them, fry them, mash them…cook them any way you want…And I’ll love them. That explains the extra flab around my tummy. Aloo(potato) parathas on Sunday mornings, roti and aloo ki sabzi a couple nights a week, mashed potatoes with chopped chilies and onions eaten along with rice…have been part of my every day diet always. And aloo chops. There was this shop in my hometown where I ate the best aloo chops ever. It was triangular in shape, about 2 inches thick, no stuffing, just plain boiled potato fried in little oil and few select spices and an amazing chutney go with it. Unfortunately the shop closed down a few years earlier…And I knew I’d never taste the chops that I was so fond of ever again. My mother knows these are the select few dishes I really love eating…So she prepares them without fail since so many years. Waking up on a Sunday morning and knowing what exactly would be laid on the breakfast table…two aloo parathas, mango pickle and chole…the taste rarely varying all these years. And that’s why I find it so comforting.

6.I love tea. No milk, no sugar. And the biscuits from the local bakery. Salty ones preferably. I love orange cream biscuits too…Licking off the orange cream in between first and then eating the biscuits.

7.Prawns. Only exception to my vegetarian diet. When I was about ten years old, I used to catch prawns for dinner myself. There’s a huge pond on the backyard of my home where I spent my childhood years. On Sundays and holidays…I used to carry a wide bamboo basket with some bread crumbs in it and kneeling down on the edge of the pond would dip the basket in the water. And wait. Without making the slightest movement. And soon enough I would see tiny prawns swimming into the trap to eat the bread crumbs. And I triumphantly ran into the kitchen with the catch of the day, handed it over to my mother to cook for dinner later that night and asking her to cook them as spicier and crispier as possible.

8.Ice creams. Love vanilla and chocolate flavors. Hate strawberry and butter-scotch flavors. During my school days, my mother used to hand me and my sister money to get one ice cream each on our way back from school. Once every week. Always on Thursdays. My sister would excitedly wake me up to remind me it’s Thursday and we would spend a good half an hour on the way to school debating which flavour of ice cream to buy that day. We weren’t allowed to have aerated colas. But we didn’t protest. For us the mango drink “Frooti” ruled! As it did for most of the kids growing up in the nineties.

9.There was this food stall run by an old man outside the primary school I attended. He used to sell a lot of snacks…paani puris, chole bhature, aloo chops etc. But it was the chole along with the spicy chutney that I was interested in. Some days I used to carry an extra tiffin box with me to school…a small round steel dabba. And bring back home the chole to eat for lunch.

10.And now onto what has been my staple diet all these years. It’s rice and masoor dal. Simple dal- chawal. I crave for nothing more. The other items to go with it vary…but not too much. It’s either stuffed capsicums, soybean curry or mashed potatoes. That’s it. I’ve ate this for lunch and dinner every single day since the past 20 years almost. Since the time I was capable of voicing my opinion about what I’d like to eat. Every single day. And I never got bored. I still look forward to it after a busy day in college or hospital, or after coming back from a trip. I associate it with “home”. I associate it with my ‘mother’, who by now has perfected the art of making these days just the way I like them.

Going through the list you must have guessed why parents panicked over the kind of foods I loved. My parents used to force me to eat spinach saying it’s good for the eyesight and I would end up with thick glasses by the time I’m 20 if I carried on with my unhealthy diet. But within a couple of years, everyone in my family started wearing glasses for poor eyesight. I still have perfect vision. That’s why I don’t fuss about my unhealthy diet. I know I don’t eat most of those healthy foods. But I was growing up well. So the nutritional requirements of my body had been met. I must be eating at least something right. If not everything! I recently turned 23…still staying with my parents because I attend college here. I know in a year from now…I’d have to leave home for further studies. And I would have leave behind my comfort foods. The sense of security I feel coming back home each day…knowing my mother would be at home…and has kept my favorite dishes ready to eat. I know once I leave home…my fussy eating habits would stand no chance in the hectic pace of life that I’d be thrown into. Maybe I’d be eating a spinach sandwich for breakfast a year from now! But as of now I savour these comfort foods…And I will always savour the memories.