Monday, April 18, 2011

The Note Bearer

The wedding hall was covered with a soft carpet. Soft and green like china grass. Pity no one could appreciate it in their high heels and rough Kolhapuris. Juhi wondered why the organisers had bothered to put it there in the first place. Juhi's father wondered how much it cost him under the hidden fees of miscellaneous expenses charged by the Wedding Planner. Last minute marriage arrangements always cost more and looked hideous. Ugly red chairs on the green carpet nodded in agreement.

The queue waiting to greet the newly weds on the flower decked platform was getting longer by the minute. Mid-April sweat carefully buried under layers of pancakes, the serpentine line looked like a designer runway exhibiting the latest summer collection. Brocaded nothings and sequined sheers held together by sparkling clasps and silk drawstrings. A visual feast for many, it also served as a cautionary tale for the bemoaning young ones who were told in no uncertain terms by their mothers that all these pretty women in minimal clothing will be seeking doctor's appointments the moment the party is over. 

Some intelligent guests headed to the dinner stands so that by the time they had stuffed themselves with all delicacies, the line would have thinned out. Some even more intelligent ones had already taken a sneak peek and settled on not having dinner at all. The vegetarian spread had put them off and absence of alcohol laced drinks hadn't done much to change their decision either. They stood in a line to get over with the formality of shaking hands, smiling, congratulating the couple, handing over the gift, posing for a photograph and hurriedly walking off the stage hoping to ease the backlog. Reality was far from that. The parking lot would be full and it would take them a long time to get out of there. They didn't want their favourite restaurants to lock shut for the day. So they walked fast and determined.

Juhi didn't have time to think about any of this. She was tired of standing and smiling at strangers.
She wasn't even the bride. She stood next to her sister Ruhi on the stage. Ruhi and Gautam were finally getting married after two years of an on-off long distance courtship. They thanked everyone who came up on the dais. Ruhi was quick to pass on the totally forgettable presents they gave to Juhi for safekeeping. People had taken 'it's the thought that counts, not the price' saying to an extreme. The grotesque pile of boxes on the table was a living proof.

Juhi tried to hide it but impatience and nervousness surfaced as tiny beads on her forehead. The evening breeze didn't do her any good. Her over-employed handkerchief did. She was on a lookout for Deepak. He had threatened her that he would land up at the wedding, no matter what. She had no clue how he was going to find her but his warning had scared her.

She had met about him three months back.
He was a cashier at a local bank in the suburbs.

Deepak was blessed with an excellent memory, a razor-sharp eye and oodles of good luck.
He was a master at numbers.
No number escaped his sight.
Especially the six digit serial numbers on currency notes.

What started as a feel good hobby had now turned into an extremely profitable business.
He would remember bithdays, anniversaries and other important dates as he tallied wads of notes. It was a good thing that most of them were not sequentially numbered. If he found a number which had some semblance to any date that meant anything to his loved ones, he would save the note. Having duly replaced it with another one of same denomination, he was free to gift it to his friends.

Slowly the word spread and people started approaching him with various numerical combinations. All he had to do was save the note with that number if he found it. He never promised delivery but more often than not, he was able to find it.

People were ready to pay him manifolds for it.
A dd/mm/yy format of the six digits sold at a higher premium than mm/dd/yy or d/m/yyyy.

A ten rupee note with the date they met for the first time had far greater value for young lovers than the actual cost of it. They were willing to shell out hundreds, even thousands, to procure just one of those to make their valentine a special one.

Deepak knew money when he saw it. He also kept a track of the chronological pattern of numbers getting in and out of the bank but they din't serve much purpose. Loose change interested him more.

He believed it was all legal.
He didn't steal.
He merely replaced a few notes.
His database grew, so did the customers.

His hawk eye vision was now more vigilant than ever. Not just at the bank but at shops, vegetable markets, while commuting and all places where money exchanged hands. He befriended bus conductors, local vendors, beggers etc. There was no end to it. He had a smooth well oiled network of suppliers. Extra income had added dimensions to his personality. On the outside he was still the friendly cashier at your local bank. On the inside he had begun to taint.

Three months ago a young girl approached him.
"My sister is getting married. Will you be able to get me a currency note which has the sequence of numbers which matches with date of the marriage?", she asked.

Deepak looked at her. She was pretty. Half his age.

"I know it's a bit late. I have been told you are booked months in advance, sometimes a year ahead. We have only three months. Could you please try? I want to frame it and surprise her", she was saying.
She was way out of his league. He liked to see that she stood there pleading, holding her college books very  close to where his eyes had wandered and come to rest. 

"Come on, you can at least try. Don't worry about the cost. Whatever you ask should be fine", she implored. He liked that the rich had time and money to pay for such frivolous things. 

"Ok. Let me try. It could be any note. Ten, fifty, hundred, thousand. Any note with that number will cost fifteen thousand rupees", he took a wild shot when he finally spoke. He had never been paid more than five thousand for any. Daylight robbery couldn't have been demonstrated any better. He took his chance and looked at her face. 

It was aglow. She was happy that he had taken up the job. She wasn't going to endanger it by trying to haggle. "Thank you so much. You have no idea how happy this will make my sister", she went on. He liked it that she still sat there even when the deal was struck.

"How much advance will you take", she asked.

Nobody had ever given him an advance. This girl was too innocent for his comfort. She shouldn't be handling cash. She shouldn't be rich. She shouldn't be allowed to go near people like him. Deepak felt protective. He had taken a liking to her. Like a fox takes to a lamb. He took no advance. She was too naive to wonder why. He didn't take his eyes off her when she left. Sighed longingly until she was out of sight. 

She called him frequently as the wedding day got closer. Many times a day. Her phone calls grew more and more impatient, inquiring if he had come across the lucky note .

He had the note. His supplier, a beggar on the Shershah fly over had called him a few days back. He wanted five hundred rupees for it. Deepak didn't bargain. It was going to be an investment well worth. He had a good mind to make Juhi wait till the last moment before he handed it over to her. He enjoyed her restlessness. Every call she made seemed like an extended round of strip poker. He yearned at leisure, making sure he played till the very end.

Almost ten days back she gave up on him and stopped calling. She neither had the time nor the inclination to follow up anymore. What was meant to be an innovative gift had cost her too much mind space and effort. She was glad she hadn't paid any money upfront.

He thought maybe she got busy with the preparations. A day seemed like eternity. He checked his phone for missed calls. Asked his colleagues if someone was here to meet him. By evening he was edgy and anxious. His concern had turned into dull gloom. He was angry with himself and her. He didn't like to be ignored. If he saw her now, he wasn't sure what he was going to do but the sadistic streak in him would have made sure that he harmed her enough. Luckily, he didn't know her whereabouts. He hoped she would call but she didn't.

Deepak waited for a few days. Still no call from her. He called her out of frustration. She told him off politely, informing that she had already bought her sister a gift hence didn't need his services anymore. He called her again. This time he was willing to whittle down a bit. Ten thousand rupees was a good bargain. She declined and told him that there were too many last minute things to be handled and she was very busy with the marriage activities. She didn't want anything from him. He called her the third time. It just rang. No one picked it up.

Deepak had never experienced this kind of fury build within him. His rage knew no bound. He intended on knowing her better and here she had already slipped away. The churning of an unknown withdrawal symptom caused his stomach to give rise to a stinging resolve. He would have headed straight to her house if he knew where it was but he didn't know anything about her except her name, cell phone number and how pretty she was. The only other thing he knew was the date of the marriage. He would hunt her down to make sure she met him, even if it meant going to all the marriage halls in the city on that particular day to look for her. He knew it was insane but lure of the forbidden drove him crazy. He wasn't going to let his lamb get away so easy.

He called her again the next day. This time he wasn't his gracious self. His wounded roar echoed louder than his voice. Juhi got scared. He sounded dangerous. Too dangerous for his plain looks. He said she would have to pay for all his hard work. He was going to make her pay, anyhow. "You think you can do this to me and get away with it? I will make sure your sister remembers her marriage for reasons she will dread. I will find you and I will be there", he swore. He kept calling. She switched her phone off. For the first time Juhi realised what a monster she had been dealing with. She vowed to change her number once the wedding was over.

Every time she thought of him, a fresh set of glistening droplets braced her forehead. The last thing she wanted was for an unknown person to make a scene at her sister's wedding. She had been a fool. She prayed for the evening to pass without a hitch. However tacky everything around her looked, the smile on Ruhi's face was priceless. This was her day. No Deepak was going to ruin it.

One by one the guests started leaving. Her fear subsided as time passed. The wedding was coming to an end. Close family members surrounded the Vedi where final marriage mantras and rituals were underway. Early morning breeze got stronger. Empty disposable styrofoam glasses rolled with it on the floor. Entwined marigolds swayed to its tune. They had been still all evening. Juhi's father was a happy man. He was lucky they were able to get this venue at such a short notice. "One down, one more to go", he chuckled to his friend of thirty five years. They were in-laws now.

Juhi walked barefeet on the soft green carpet. It felt good. She sat on one of the ugly red chairs, closed her eyes and combed the fake china grass with relaxed toes. They had been clenched for too long.

"Thank God everything went off peacefully", she exhaled a lungful of gratitude. It had been a phenomenal task to hurriedly reschedule the whole wedding. Wretched ash clouds over Europe had thrown the marriage date awry by postponing Gautam's arrival by a few days. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Other side of the Mat

Six young girls and boys. Yellow tee-shirts, blue track pants. Standing on the pavement with a few rubber foot-mats each in their hand. Eagerly looking to their right every few seconds.

"When are they going to start?" One asked wearily.
"They are supposed to start at nine", replied the other.
"It is nine fifteen already, why can't they be on time?" the third one grumbled.
"Why can't we just start now, there are people running?" the first one asked hopefully.

The eldest of the lot turned around to explain,"The ones running right now are long distance runners. They are not going to pay attention to us. They are so few in number anyway. Let's wait for the dream run to begin."

It is all about numbers. Bigger the audience, sooner the message reaches the masses. They were told that by their Madam Ji.

At precisely 9:20 am the Dream Run of the marathon began.
Most people ran in this segment. Thousands of them. It was short and fun. The trend of having a Marathon was catching up in a lot of cities. Politicians, advertisers, film stars, non governmental organisations and all those who could benefit from this database of people, encouraged it.

Five of the young yellow tee gang had never seen a marathon earlier. They stood there stupefied.
"Go, Go", screamed the leader.
No one moved.

They had never seen such a sea of humans earlier which surged ahead now.
They had been working with Madam Ji for just a few days now.
They were the field workers.

"Go and place these mats in a line on the road before they pass this area," ordered the leader.

The confused youngsters ran and laid down the foot-mats on the road and rushed back to the pavement. Their job was done. The marathon runners would run over these mats. The leader took his position in the middle of the road. He was ready with his pocket camera. Just as he was about to click the first few who were sprinting past, he realised it was such a futile exercise. People didn't step on them. They avoided stepping on the shining synthetic mats. They went around it. There were hordes of people. None stepped on them. The whole idea was a flop. He came back to the pavement and stood along with the other five.

The five new recruits were looking at the carnival that passed by. Men in pink wigs, somebody dressed as God, a group of bare-bodied men, girls who looked like stuffed water droplets, someone had a hat with a tree sprouting out, someone was dressed as a tiger, some girls in a mermaid costume, some wearing huge skeleton masks.

They stared at this parade in awe. The fact that it meant anything more serious than the fancy dress it looked like was beyond them. A group of men wearing chef hats passed by with trays of food in their hand. They represented a big hotel. This reminded the field workers how hungry they were.

They were up since four in the morning to get everything prepared and load the van with these mats.

"Bhaiyya can we go and eat something now? We have done our work." asked one of them.

The leader looked at them in disgust and told them that the work was far from done.
They must wait for the crowd to pass.
Wait for it to thin out so that they can go and pick up the mats, run across the divider on the road to the other side and place them in a line before the runners returned. He had to get a picture of them stamping the mats. That was the whole idea. He had to get that somehow. Unless he got a perfect photograph, he knew Madam Ji was not going to pay them their daily wages.

They would have to request everyone to step on the mats now. If need be, herd them to it.

"No you cannot eat now," was his reply.

They stood there waiting for the crowd to return. There was still time for the fancy ones to come back. Few tired ones trickled in. They were useless. They were at the end of their half marathon of 21 kilometers and almost half dead for all practical purposes. They couldn't care less about any cause.

"What are you doing standing like that? Are you getting paid to stand or work? ", Madam Ji shouted from behind. All of them were startled. She wasn't supposed to be here. She was supposed to be at the NGO head office. They jumped when they heard her shrill voice and ran to the other side of the road with their mats on an instinct. Even as they steeplechased their way across the road divider, they could hear her. She was yelling at them from the other side. "Lazy fellows! Free loaders! Idiots! Good for nothing! One simple thing I tell them and they can't do it!"

As they ran, they tripped and fell. Some on the road, some on the runners who were finishing the half marathon and some flat on the mats they were carrying.

The bystanders and paramedics rushed to help them.
Everyone forgot about the mats and mercilessly stepped on them in the madness that ensued.

The leader quickly got up and went berserk clicking. He had to earn his wages.
He was happy he got wonderful shots.
Madam Ji was happy that her presentation for foreign funding would have some nice pictures. Maybe she could even send it for some international award in the ambient advertising section. It was her best creative.

Two runners were taken away by the medical team.
Five bruised field workers got back on their feet and started collecting the strewn mats.

One read,"Trample away hunger".
Another mat read,"Trample away illiteracy".
Yet another read,"Trample away child labour".

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Roots

"Do you know how do they make the roads?" asked her friends.

Neeti knew how roads were made. There was the gravel, the tar and the huge road-rollers. She saw them everyday on her way to school. "Maybe they know something more", she thought.

"Not really. Tell me how they make the roads", she fell for the trap.

"When you wash your face, they collect the water and make the roads from that", they explained and laughed hysterically. It was mean but not unusual on their part. They made fun of her dark complexion under some pretext or the other everyday.

Neeti lowered her head, walked a few steps trying to hold back the tears that welled up. Once done with that, she joined them back.

They always walked back together from their dance class in the evening. These were her good friends. They were nice people. Making fun of her skin colour was a regular source of amusement for them. It never occurred to them that she was getting hurt and it never occurred to her that they were in the wrong in doing so. Maybe the fact that she laughed along with them most of the time had something to do with it.

She laughed along because she had no other option.
But it did choke her up every single time.
She hid it well.

She asked her mother why was she subjected to such cruelties? Mother had no answer. She was still bearing with outbursts like, "Such a handsome son of mine had to go and get himself a dark bride like her. Love marriages should be banned. Etc. etc.", even after fifteen years of marriage. She consoled Neeti, "See even Lord Krishna was dark. Dark girls always get fair boys". It wasn't much of a detour for her innocent questions but Neeti took comfort in them.

She was only eleven.

Annual Day is a day the students look forward to and the teachers hate.
It means no school. Acting in school plays. Entertainment program. Free snacks. Prizes for those who did their best all year long. And a chance to show off your parents.

She was no longer in the primary section. Her first year as a secondary school goer had begun well as far as studies were concerned. She was a part of the school play. She had auditioned to play the young princess. She wasn't chosen. She didn't feel bad. To settle for less was ingrained in her. It was as if she knew that she was meant to be a peasant and not the princess. She accepted the role of a poor farmer's daughter happily.

Mother was very happy too. Her sister Roma was in town and she would be accompanying them, to see her niece act. Neeti was treated like royalty at home that day. Nothing should stress her out. Her performance was scheduled for the evening. Mother was going to leave early with her to help her get ready. Father, Roma Mausi and her younger brother were to arrive later.

The green room backstage was chaotic. School had appointed two ladies to do the make-up. Mother pleaded with one of them to take longer and do a good job on Neeti. She had brought her own foundation cream and powder. The make-up lady barked,"Only powder and lipstick for the students who have smaller roles, no foundation for them." Mother tried her best to have the rules bent.

Neeti was oblivious to all this.

Finally she was called in for the make up. Foundation, podwer, lipstick, kajal, eye liner, rouge, gold dust. Mother had done a good job begging.

Next day was a holiday. She couldn't wait to get back to school.

Roma Mausi came to drop her till the school bus the following day. Neeti got curious looks when she got onto the bus. Children made gestures and pointed at her. For a moment she got scared. Did she look horrible in the play? Did she not look nice? Was anything amiss? Many thoughts sprinted across her mind. She took a seat and tried hard to listen to what they said. A girl behind whispered, "Did you see Neeti's parents? Her father is so handsome and her mother so beautiful." Nobody spoke of her.They were not talking about the play. They were admiring her parents. What a handsome couple they made. For those who had missed out on the Annual Day, her classmates in the bus pointed in the direction from where Roma Mausi was still waving her a morning bye-bye.

Neeti knew that her mother never got a chance to go out and sit with her father the whole evening. She was busy helping in the green room.

She should have turned around and said, "No that wasn't my mother. That was my aunt." But she kept quiet.

So what if they made fun of her. At least they thought her parents were good-looking. She didn't want to dis-illusion them by revealing who the pretty lady with her father was that day. She let them believe that the beautiful woman waving at her right now was her mother.

She waved back with added enthusiasm.

Seeds for a whole new generation with the same old mindset were taking roots.

Indumati

Indumati could give anyone her age a serious competition.
Not only is she gadget savvy but also ever willing to learn more.
Not many people at ninety-two are.

She knows how to operate a remote control. She learnt it years back. An occasional, "Ram Krishna Hari" chant isn't such an uncommon utterance while she is glued to the television. These deodorant commercials with hundreds of women in bikinis running to a man make her squirm and remark, "why are these girls running in Hanuman Chaddis ?" The fact that the root cause of all this commotion was a heavenly whiff of the famous body spray escapes her.

Her great grand-daughter chirped," In another five years we will celebrate your centenary. We will call everyone!" She glared at her great grand-daughter duly correcting her,"I am only ninety-two not ninety-five".

She knew her math. She had learnt it the hard way.

Oh how they fought. She and her husband! It was a fight for survival that had taken the shape of daily squabbles. He was a government servant, mostly away on revenue inspection to other villages. She stayed back home with seven children, ailing father in-law and a sister in-law who was old enough to be her eighth child.

Everyone remembers the day India got independence as a historical moment.
15th August, 1947.
So does she, but for a completely different reason.

Indumati wasn't even thirty then.

Tiny cough syrup bottles refilled with kerosene, served as excellent lamps when infused with homemade wicks. No study tables, no table lamps and no separate room for children. They all huddled around such lamps and studied to become officers of repute in their lives.

Indumati was lucky. There was a street light right outside their house.
Electricity was rare and she was happy to have one beam right into her kitchen, free of cost.

She would light a lamp in front of brass statuettes of different Gods. An oil lamp, not a kerosene one. Children would sit in a line to say their evening prayers. She insisted they sing in rhythm but they rattled them off as if they were reciting counting tables.

After that, they would open their books and study while she cooked.
It was sheer pleasure to cook in a room full of light, albeit borrowed. She had the most prized corner in the house to herself. The kitchen. She deserved it. She had earned it. 

On the morning of the fifteenth of August 1947, she had a few worry lines that sat stubbornly on her pretty face. They refused to move. Her husband traveled for 25 days, stayed home for a week and would leave again. Being a circle inspector in Bombay Regency was a tough job. He would hand over money to her for household expenses every month. This time it was different. It had been over a month and a half since her husband was home. They lived a hand to mouth existence and the rations were down to the last morsel.

Her youngest son came home crying.
The village shopkeeper had refused to give groceries to them on credit anymore.

She handed over two huge copper pails to her eldest son and asked him to trade them for some money from the local moneylender. Just as he was about to leave, her heart sank. These were a few of the items her parents had gifted her in the wedding. She didn't feel like parting with them.

There was just enough ration at home for two more meals.
She thought she would somehow stretch today. Hoping against hope that her husband would arrive by the evening bus. She called her son back. They were not going to mortgage the pails yet.

It was a peaceful afternoon. General happiness lingered in the air even though there were not many festivities related to the independence day. Evening went on as usual. The street lights came on, children went back to their studies, she started cooking. Her husband wasn't back yet. There were just three fistfuls of rice and nine mouths to feed. She had never been to school but she knew this math was difficult. As with all women those days and now, she wasn't a part of the math. It was given that she would have to go hungry.

She was about to separate the rice water from the cooked rice to make Kanji when the street light suddenly went out. That had never happened before. The only light she had now was that of the wood chulha. Things were going wrong one after the other. It was quite overwhelming as she tried to contain a sigh. She was pouring the rice water into a vessel when she heard a knock on the door.

Tears rolled down as she expected familiar footsteps to walk in.
She was right. Her husband was back. She could now go to the grocer and prepare a good full meal for everyone. She ran to greet him but was taken aback by his condition. His clothes were torn.

The independence day celebrations in the Taluka (district) headquarters had been a burden on the delicate and scarce electricity supply. All the surrounding villages were under forced load-shedding blackouts. It was a wonderful night for the thugs and thieves.

Now there were three fistfuls of rice and ten mouths to feed, her not included.

That was the last day anyone ever slept hungry in her house. The pails and anything remotely expensive went into mortgage. She stepped out and started taking up odd jobs which ranged from making 30 feet long Rangolis in marriages to chaperoning the rich.

Children studied as usual and had one student - their mother. 

"No one will ever go hungry in my house again" is a resolve that can bring about seas of change.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shopping List

What is so scientific and methodical about choosing which clothespin to buy? Simple spring loaded clips which help you fasten the clothes to a clothesline. Mother wanted wooden ones. "Who uses wooden pegs in this time and era?", thought Raman. In case the wooden ones were not available, the plastic ones had to be sturdy, flat, have a long coil and be in muted colours. Cheap coloured ones left imprints on clothes in the summer, or so he had been instructed.

Shopping for household things was a bane. However much he searched or bargained, mother would always say,"Oh this is available for half the price" or not be happy with his purchase anyway. Where was the point in sending him to the market??

The only reason he was always willing to step out for buying these mundane inane things was that he could finish buying them fast and meet his sweetheart Tanu. The vegetable shops were such a convenient place to be seen together without anyone raising an eyebrow . Setting up these clandestine meetings was the best part. This was their first year of college. School was fun. They met everyday. Why did girls have to have a mind of their own these days? Why couldn't she join the University just like him? They had extra classes in the afternoon. They could bunk a few and be together. But no, she had to go and join an all girls degree college!

Questions, questions and more questions. His mind was full of them. Some intelligent, some forced. He couldn't fathom why wisdom was always associated with the older lot.

He picked up the plastic clips. There was time to kill before she arrived so he searched and picked up a few other things on the shopping list. Mom would be happy. This list had been pending for quite some time. He seldom bought home the complete list. There were always a few things that he couldn't find or weren't good enough. That happened when Tanu arrived before or on time.

This gave him a sense of adulthood, however false though. He did with ease what most men found difficult. He had cracked the empirical formula to keep wives and mothers happy at the same time.

All that was left was to get a new clothes line and the list would be done.

He called her to check how long she would take.

"Kavita Calling", flashed Tanu's cellphone.
She smiled.

"Where are you", he asked.
" I have been waiting near the saladwala for past ten minutes. Where are you?", she asked in return.

This was rare. She reaching before time. But it wasn't impossible so he rushed and started walking fast. He forgot all about the rope.

They met on borrowed and stolen time. A cord could be bought later but no amount of money could get him back the moments he would miss out if he reached late.

It was a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Thick of winters ensured that everyone was buried under heaps of clothing which made it difficult for people to recognise each other. The monkey caps and shawls added to the disguise. They were free to walk hand in hand without any fear. Oh what bliss to be a teenager in love!

An hour flew by in minutes.

He was late. He rushed back. By the time he reached home it was 2:00 pm.

Mother was setting up the table for lunch. There is something about mothers wanting their children to eat well. They can never scold them at mealtime. As soon as he walked in, she asked him to wash his hands and feet and call everyone for lunch.

It struck him that today was the weekly laundry day. Mother washed heavy washloads. Bedsheets, sweaters, table covers. She was saving up to buy a washing machine in the new year.

He ran to the terrace.

He saw what he feared the most. Two rows of freshly washed clothes were lying on the ground smeared with dust and dirt. The clothesline was the first thing he should have bought. The old one was knotted at many places, holding up on sheer will power and luck. It had breathed its last this quiet afternoon.

He came downstairs with a heavy heart. Mother smiled and poured dollops of buttered dal in a bowl for him. He didn't have the heart to tell her what he saw. He just nibbled on some salad. He wasn't hungry anymore.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ginger Tea

The pounding on the kitchen slab was gentle and familiar. Every morning at six am these cheerful moderate thuds made her smile while she was still in bed. Rishi liked to get up early and prepare ginger tea for both of them. Beating the ginger pods with a stone was something he did without knowing how it made her feel.

He had taken her to Shimla on their tenth wedding anniversary. The recently released Hindi movie had made it a popular destination. Her in-laws insisted they leave the children behind and take this much needed break.

She loved the place. It was cold and beautiful. After much coaxing, she agreed to cross a small stream bare-feet. Scared and jittery she twinkle toed her dainty self away. He used to tease her that if it weren't for her mangalsutra, people would think she was still in school. She turned around to look at him from time to time to make sure he was right behind.

At one point when she looked back, he tossed something at her. She caught it but slipped in the bargain and sat with a splash in the middle of the shallow stream. What he tossed at her was this very stone. She sat in knee deep icy cold water holding it tight and watched him come near. She wanted to to be angry with him but couldn't be. He laughed with such joyous abandonment and picked her up in his arms that any heart would melt. She simply clung on. The rest of the crossing was one of the most beautiful moments of their trip.

This smooth white stone which looked like a shapeless potato had been with her since then.

They married young. Both were nineteen years of age. Played together, studied together, grew up together.

She was to marry her father's business partner's son when she was 16. As the business fell apart so did the marriage plans. No one said anything, no one heard anything. Everyone behaved as if the marriage plans never existed. But the young bride to be was crushed. In the next two years she finished her matriculation and stayed at home.

That is the time Rishikesh and his parents had come over to her house. It was very clear that they had come against their will, only for the sake of their son's happiness. They lived in the neighbourhood. Now she understood why he taught her how to ride a men's bicycle cross leg, how to change a light bulb even when she didn't want to learn it and how to write a nice love note in disguised handwriting to her then 'would be husband'. His eyes gave it away.

The marriage was simple. She turned out to be a great wife and a daughter-in-law but for one handicap.

She could never get up early in the morning. Rishi got up early. Prepared tea. Poured them into tiny ceramic cups. Placed them on saucers and called out to her. She would place them on a tray, cover her head with the saree pallav and knock on the door of her in-laws.

Every family has secrets. This was theirs.
It kept changing with time from being a tell-tale gossip to a funny story to a romantic legend.
Now it was a tradition.

The children had planned a grand get together for next year.
Their sixtieth wedding anniversary.

Rishi walked in with two cups of tea.
He propped the pillows and picked her frail body up to make her sit.
She didn't want a celebration.
She didn't want the world to wish her.
All she wanted was to get her ginger tea in bed as long as she lived.
She knew that the day the stone stopped pounding, her heart would too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Tree Ghost

The wandering spirit took a quick dip in the river and emerged refreshed. It had no where to go. It decided to go and live in a tree. A nice, big, safe tree.

There was one by the road. "What luck", he thought and snuggled inside the hollow of the giant tree.
There was a lone traveler resting under it in deep sleep.
"How wonderful it would be to live in this tree and shower tired passers by with some delicious fruits", exclaimed the ghost. 

There was an overwhelming deluge of juicy ripe mangoes when the traveler woke up.
He picked them all. Tied them tight in a sac and went away singing.

This made the tree ghost very happy. He had done something good. He was a little sad too as the man didn't look up to acknowledge the Ghost's magnanimous gesture.

"Never mind", thought the contented spirit.

The next traveler came along shortly. He was going to rest for a little while but as he sat down, the ghost shook the tree and flooded the poor man's mat with a downpour of mangoes. Some were ripe, some not.

The man was taken aback but happy. He collected them all and rushed home to tell his family about it.

This broke the tree-ghost's heart. No one acknowledged his deeds.

He decided that the next time someone came along, he was going to do something different.

A group of young maidens were returning from the river. They decided to rest a bit.

This was his chance. He shook the tree and made a lot of noise.
Nothing happened.
He made more noise and shook the tree with all his might.
There were no mangoes left on the tree. None fell.
But the girls were swamped with broken branches and leaves.
This scared them and they ran away cursing the wicked tree.

This angered the tree and its inhabitants.
Not only had the ghost done away with the fruits but had also brought the tree a bad name and destroyed many a nests. The tree asked the ghost to leave at once.

The spirit departed with a heavy heart.
He couldn't understand what had gone wrong. He was just trying to be nice to the travelers.

Spirits are meant to wander, trees are meant to be unmoved, fruits are supposed fall on their own and the travelers are meant to earn their rest. This was the simple law of nature which it had failed to realise.

Oblivious to all this, the tree ghost drifted away across the mountains in search of another tree that would house him willingly. Such is the blissful bond of ignorance and hope.