Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dilli ki Baarish

Monsoon!! I’ve never had to wait for it here in Bangalore the way I did in Delhi. July, August, September…and no respite from the heat. The little rain that fell did nothing to cool anything - weather or tempers. It only made it sultrier and more unbearable. Every morning I'd get up and walk straight into the balcony only to see some scattered dark clouds with no promise of rain. Boys playing football, school children dragging their bags and unwilling feet to school, joggers in various stages of dress and undress and Mathur Uncle in the flat downstairs complaining for the umpteenth time that 'Hamare Allahabad mein toh the newspaper never came so late' - and all hoping that it must rain today.

I’d sit back and remember the rains back in Bhopal, where I grew up. It used to rain and rain for days at a stretch and when it cleared, the sunlight was mild and soothing. From our home atop Shymla Hills, I could see silver streams of rainwater zigzagging down all its sides. Wild, white spider lilies bloomed everywhere and in the afternoons we went in search of mushrooms (then, toadstools now).

Fancies too would run wild. Mud castles were built beside puddles that served as moats and had cardboard drawbridges supported by pyjama drawstrings. Colorful flowers with their faces turned downward, floating on water, would be fairies swimming in pools. And thus were woven many a tale of romance and intrigue. When the daring spirits beckoned, we’d cycle through roadside puddles and splash ourselves with slush.

Then, there were the 'rainy days’. Yes, when it rained too much, (how much exactly, we could never figure out - perhaps it depended on the whim of the school authorities) it was declared a ‘rainy day holiday’. We would be waiting at our bus stop, the water running over our raincoats into our socks and shoes. When we thought we’d waited long enough, one of the us would go and call up the school and be told in a stern voice, ‘It's a rainy day holiday’. We knew from experience that almost always on such rainy days, the sky would soon clear up and it would be time for a picnic. We’d save our lunch-boxes for that.

One such morning, Vyas Uncle, waiting with us at the bus-stop exclaimed, 'It’s raining cats and dogs!’ It was a new expression for me. He went on to tell me that a slight drizzle could be expressed as, ‘raining bulls and buffaloes’. His sense of humor came to light only when I used the expression in Sister Antoinette’s English class that afternoon.

One day in Delhi, dining with my sister’s family, my brother-in-law and I were called upon to finish some pulao between us. As he unloaded a couple of spoonfuls on my plate, I covering it with my hand pleaded, ‘Bus, bus’, (that’s enough). He insisted, ‘Array abhi kahan, abhi to Dilli ki baarish ki tarahan girain hain’.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A tribute to Papa on Father’s Day

I just have to close my eyes…

Papa visiting KG II ‘D’. Mrs Lewis, my class teacher had been his student. She scurried  about anxiously telling the class to greet him with the sing-song 'Good Morning Sir, God bless you' and this and that. All the teachers in my school had immense respect for him and in class X Mrs Paul, the staid disciplinarain, asked if he was my father and smiled!! saying 'he's such a thorough gentleman :) I always felt so proud of him. But I also felt annoyed because he could never remember my class. He’d sit in Sr Lorraine’s office and after this and that, ask her casually which class I was in. And Grewal Uncle, his colleague and our close family friend even sent me picture postcards from Japan at my school address – class, section and all.

Papa smiling at me from the audience as I sang the Sound of Silence on school stage. There were 40 others :) but I was a Soprano! it seemed to please him a lot.

Papa making potato-chops in the evenings – the aroma of fresh coriander, perfectly done cutlets (never calling it tikki) with just the right amount of pepper and salt. Cooking was a major activity in our home – thanks to his love for food and the bunches of people he invited over. Once Mummy was away and I asked him what to make for dinner. The reply was ‘dum aloo’ (when my dal-chawal came out editable on lucky days) !!. To him, the test of a great cook seemed to rest on their ability to cook stuffed tomatoes. I passed!!

Papa relaxing on the sofa on his return from a trip abroad. The whole family would be summoned. If someone was late, we waited. Then he began, so I boarded the plane - from the take-off to touchdown every experience was recounted. We loved every bit. He got to travel much and would come back with a whole new world for us. We asked him for every conceivable thing from lipsticks to dolls, to cassette players and even socks. I first heard in the ‘70s my favorite band Air Supply on cassettes he’d recorded in Japan.

Papa looking at the solar eclipse through eye-wear he had created. He was against superstition and godmen. He said people who do not want to take responsibility for their actions/decisions go to swamis and gurus. If Mummy said it was not a good day to look at the sun – he would make it a point to do just that. He did not worship any gods believing only in his karma. But on Diwali, Shivratri and Janmashtmi he would perform the elaborate puja with all the rituals. It was more for us kids to imbibe tradition.

Sitting beside him in Ravindra Bhawan watching the diamond on Begum Akhtar's nose flash and wink as she adjusted the pallu over her head and rendered in her honey-drenched voice ‘ay mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya…’. As children we seldom missed out on a classical performance and saw many celebrities perform – it didn’t matter if I understood anything. Enough it was to be there (and to keep still).

His angry, ‘Get out immediately’. Turning away visitors from the door – friends, acquaintances even relatives. Those who touched his feet or came with mithai – to get their marks increased. They were the only people not welcome in our house. Others who came seeking peace from their deranged minds, homeless or lonely were comforted and fed. For hours he patiently listened to them – read their writings and counseled them. Young men preparing for UPSC exams came for guidance and he gave them books and reading material that was most often not returned.

Never slowing down, never. Either away at work or busy with visitors at home. I don’t remember spending time with him much. But I will always remember and cherish what he gave me – the freedom to be me – the freedom to choose my subjects at school, my first job as a sub-editor ( he had hoped I would choose teaching), to drop my Ph D midway to pursue other trivial interests, the list is endless. Gradually, I learnt that if I did not get an answer from him on a specific problem it was because he believed that he never needed to guide us explicitly – to tell us what to do. He was sure of the upbringing that Mummy and he had given us and trusted us to make informed decisions ourselves.

Always the guide. When I took up the cause of rash driving of Red Line buses in Delhi, and others looked the other way, I felt unsure of myself. I called him and he asked me to carry on, ‘Do whatever you think is right. Why are you afraid to go to court? If anything, you’ll see how it all works.’

Always the teacher. When I was in college, on our daily walks, he talked about painters and artists, poets and philosophers. His erudition annoyed me at times. When I was going to Sanchi for a college tour, he sat through the previous evening, explaining the intricacies of the sculptures – what to look for and even explaining the Sanskrit engravings. His knowledge made me feel inadequate. I never showed him my writings. But when I realized that time was slipping away – I shared some and just before he went into hospital, he read my story, Maya, which he seemed to like.

He had several names for me – Sheffuddin is my favorite.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mango Jelly?

‘Mango jelly, mango jelly’, the child at the store was insisting, wrestling his mother’s arm. I had just bought some sweet-smelling mangoes and thinking mango jelly would go fab with it, I reached out for a pack. Lo! inside the packet lay a slab of golden yellow - paper slim layers of guess what – sticky aam papad! My mouth filled with its sweet-sour taste as the mind delved into its inner recesses to bring forth sweet-sour memories.

Those naughty afternoons when Mother went off to sleep giving us strict instructions to not make noise, to not step out and to not eat any more. But bored with the fights over Chandamama and Ludo, we hadn’t much to do besides raiding the fridge and the jaali ki almari that had all the home-made treats - besan ladoos, namkeens, matthis and shakker-paras. One greedy afternoon, my sister and I stole and finished a packet of aam papad – nearly finished – but then we thought that if we left nothing maybe it wouldn’t be missed at all. We were right.

A couple of days later, Sis proudly claimed she could make aam papad. I challanged not because I disbelieved her but because of my craving for aam papad. She took out a mango from the fridge after close examination. Leisurely, she went on to wash and dry it. She rolled it between her palms till its insides became a smooth pulp. Then pressing around its eye, just a little, she discarded the first white fluid – which mum said causes acne. She took enough time to create that air of mystery that experts have which frustrates you but keeps you still and quiet lest you disrupt a great creation. With flourish, she squeezed out the thick pulp on a hot griddle. What happened next the mind chose not to remember – maybe the swishing of the griddle woke Mother up. The aam papad sure did land in the garbage bin for I don’t remember having eaten any home made ones, ever.

Another time, I accompanied Mother and Bua, my aunt to the supermarket. Bua was not keeping well and could not climb the stairs so I was left with her as Mother went off to the floors above. I was discreetly told to keep an eye on Bua who was a diabetic and could not keep her hands off sweets. As soon as Mother disappeared, Bua dear disappeared. Before I could panic, she reappeared with a thick slice of aam papad. She tore off a small – a really tiny bit - and thrust it in my palm and hurriedly finished the entire pack herself. I made sure everyone came to know of it.

Mango jelly can never capture the essence of aam papad. It can never bring back such vivid childhood memories nor reveal your fondness for people lost to you. It’s dreadful to call aam papad, mango jelly.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Bargad Tree

Sitting under the sweeping Bargad tree, I looked up at the little red round fruit hanging from its branches. Tempting these might seem to others, but I’ve tasted the fruit as a kid and know that the outer shell is sour and the inside full of poppy like seeds and fuzz. But it brings back memories of a particular day when mother would worship the banyan tree. It was called ‘Bargadahi’ and the offerings consisted of sweet puris and gulgulas – made of jaggery and flour that looked just like the bargad fruit, only so delicious that whole thalifulls disappeared in minutes.

For years, a distant cousin of mother would get her a branch of the banyan tree on Bargadahi and she would perform her puja. If he got late in sending it, mother would scold him lightly and he would proceed to tell his tale of difficulties. It was recounted to each member of the family.

It so happened that one Bargadahi neither Mamaji turned up nor was the branch sent. Mother was piqued but wouldn’t say so. She instructed Bai, the maid, to get a branch from somewhere and went on to do her puja.

A few months later, Mamaji arrived for rakhi. Mother was still sour and at the appropriate moment commented how little ‘Diddi’ mattered to him as he did not even remember her on Bargadahi and how she had to wait till it was almost noon and then send the servant to get a branch and how her puja and everything else got delayed because of it. Mamaji was aghast. He took us out and pointing to her potted Rubber plant said he thought mother had a bargad growing right there in the porch. The whole afternoon was spent in hearing his defense.

Mother rushes to conclusions easily. She decided that it was pointless to depend on Mamaji or for that matter, on anyone and so a banyan sapling was bought and planted just outside the backyard. From then on, every year on Bargadahi, the tree wore a festive look with roli (vermillion) smeared on it and moli (the red thread) tied around its trunk. A small diya also stayed lit a few hours after the puja.

Now, visiting the house 20 years later, I walked around to the backyard as the house was locked and saw the sprawling bargad majestically standing, its aerial roots touching the ground. Wonder if anyone still remembers to worship it on Bargadahi? Do kids still wait for the puja to get over to pounce upon gulgulas?