Have you ever watched a movie in a theatre alone?

A close friend of mine had pre-booked two tickets for a movie at a theatre near her place. (Let’s call her Preeti). Much to her disappointment, her companion ditched her due to some some last-minute work. A couple of hours before the show, she made some frantic calls and messages on Whatsapp groups to ‘donate’ her two tickets. Given the distance and time constraints in a big city, it is not surprising that nobody was able to make it on such a short notice. The tickets were wasted.

I asked Preeti why she could not go for the movie alone. She wanted to watch it. The theatre is walking distance from her house.  She said that she did not want to go alone. It would be too weird. People would be staring at her. She would feel too conscious. I told her that it is a multiplex in a mall. Not some single screen theatre from 20 years back.

You need to be more brave in life! I said to her.

Now, Preeti is a girl who has been staying away from her family since college. She has an MBA degree. She lives with flat mates and is fairly independent. She does not remember the last time she borrowed money from her parents. She pays all her bills.  No wonder, she became defensive at my statement. She said that she has traveled alone in an airplane / train. Isn’t that brave enough? There are so many people who do not even do that.

I told her that doesn’t count. She does not have an option there. What would she do? Not go home for Diwali / Christmas break? Or search for people with the same hometown in office and align travel plans as per their leave balance?

I asked a couple of more friends. Here are few other situations we discussed:

  • No friends have showed up at office
  1. Have lunch alone at your desk
  2. Try sitting with some other group for today
  3. Go early for lunch so that there are less people
  4. Skip lunch
  5. Just go alone!
  • Friend’s birthday coming up. No company available to go shopping
  1. Keep asking all the people in phonebook until someone agrees
  2. End up gifting after her birthday
  3. Pool in with someone who already has a gift
  4. Just go alone!
  • Original example. Planned to go for movie, tickets booked. Companion ditched last minute 
  1. Ask the neighboring Aunty / housemaid to join
  2. Curse your friend, make him / her feel guilty and stay home
  3. Try selling it in black
  4. Just go alone!

I think you all know by now, I have always exercised the last option. Sometimes, because nobody was available. Sometimes by choice. It doesn’t matter. I have ended up enjoying being by myself. I have never regretted the time. It has always felt good and refreshed. (And not lonely and pathetic)!

Bottom line is, if I have company great. If I don’t, it will not stop me from doing something!

So, to all the ladies – If you ever find yourself in such situations, don’t be afraid to spend time by yourself. Give it a try at least. Don’t outright reject the thought.

Who knows, you may end up feeling very empowered and independent! 🙂

Are accidents really just ‘accidents’?

I read the post of a mother who lost her 23-year daughter in a road accident.  The girl was riding pillion wearing a helmet.  There was a pothole.  She fell, got hit by a truck.  The truck driver never got punished. Though there was an FIR, nothing much happened. It was an ‘accident’ after all.

Another post was of a woman who lost her 32-year-old brother in a hit and run case by a speeding Mercedes driven by a ‘juvenile’.  The man was simply crossing the road near his house, carefully when an over speeding car driven by a ‘minor’ hit him.  There is a video of the incident caught on CCTV. The case is going on.

These families are now crusaders for road safety.  They try to create more awareness about poor habits such drunk driving, texting while driving, not following traffic signals as well as take measures to fix bad roads.

You could read more about them if you follow the links. Needless to say, it is extremely disturbing and unfair.

How would  it feel to lose a loved one, because some idiot decided to be on the road?

I had started driving two years back.  I was a slow and careful driver to begin with.

I remember the day I had got a tiny, first scratch in my brand new car. As I touched the scratch, it broke my heart. My perfect little car had to suffer because of somebody else’s stupidity.

Since then, I have had two accidents. Nobody got hurt, thankfully. I was alone both times, and it was not my fault.  The first time, it was with a cab. I don’t think the driver had any license, or registration.  He had snatched my phone and had bullied me into giving him lots of money. Remember the movie ‘Hindi Medium’, where the ‘poor guy’ extracts money out of the guy who was driving the car, even though he had deliberately got himself hit? The scene was meant to evoke sympathy, as the guy had put his life on risk for money for his friend.  I thought it was a horribly wrong message in an otherwise good movie.

The second accident was when a minibus hit my car and another two wheeler. I have blogged about it here. This time, I was smarter and called the police. It was still a lot of hassle.

Two accidents, major repairs, and money extraction by a callous driver later, I have become EXTRA careful.

My ‘grandma driving’ has been subject of ridicule. The jokes come from all kinds of people. Even the ones who do not know how to drive. Or the ones who may know theoretically? but have never driven:

  • I insisted that my friend  who sat in my car on the front seat must wear a seat-belt.  His response: ‘You drive like a bullock cart. I don’t need a seat-belt!’ I wanted to reason that the seat-belt would protect if somebody hits us from behind because no, not all drivers on the road drive like me.  Never mind!
  • Near my office, there is an empty, broken road, with dogs and pigeons resting during the day time. Now, pigeons are supposed to fly when you come near them. But on that quiet day, and quieter street, there was this one pigeon that was refusing to move. I stopped and honked.  There were some guys nearby who motioned me to keep driving, and it would eventually fly. I thought it was cruel to take a chance with hurting the poor bird. I reversed my car a little, and then drove a distance away from it. The guys laughed at me.
  • I was waiting to take a right turn at an intersection where there are no signals. It was not a one way, and there was traffic from both sides. One of my office cabs came after me, took a quick turn in high speed, while I continued to wait. The next day, one of the colleagues who was in that cab, asked me why I was so scared to take a turn. I told him that I was not scared. I was just waiting for the traffic to slow down.  ‘Traffic will be there! In that only you have to go inside! Otherwise you will keep waiting!’ he said with a wise, broad smile. ‘No I will not keep waiting. Every day, I manage to reach home! Maybe I have to wait an extra minute,’ I replied politely.
  • A neighbor was talking to another one about how she was anxious that her 18-year-old son had just started riding a motorcycle. She felt that two wheelers are unsafe and that her son was young. The other woman laughed at her ‘unreasonable fear’. She said that he is starting out late as 15, 16-year-old kids manage to drive.

I know of friends who drive recklessly. Are they ever shamed for their driving skills? No. In fact, they are considered cool and confident. One friend proudly told me how she had driven her team to an event within 20 minutes on a road that takes an hour, saving them from the disaster of being late.

We all know of people who drink and drive, and manage to get away with it. We know of teenagers, and adults who do not know how to drive, yet learn on the roads. We know of people who jump traffic lights. ‘Itna to chalta hai’ is the attitude.

Why do we take pride in putting our lives and more importantly other people’s lives at risk? Is it really something to be proud of? This must be the attitude behind the juvenile who ended up killing the man I was referring to. His parents must have thought it is not a big deal to give the keys to their minor son.

Underage drivers, drunk drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers or heavy vehicle drivers who callously drive on the roads probably may not be following my blog. But someone like the lady who trivialized driving by teenagers might be reading this. Or the colleague who believes waiting for two more minutes is a waste of time.

Is it worth it?

It is time we stopped shaming people who are doing the right thing. Let us pass on the shame to the ones who think they can get away with anything.  This kind of attitude that we have is more damaging that we think.

Next time we hear of someone bragging about their son / daughter who is driving without a valid license, let us shame them for being irresponsible parents. When we are in the car with that friend who breaks all rules, cuts into lines and has no respect for speed limits, let us not encourage him / her.

Let us ask these daredevils to join the circus. Or apply for positions of stunt artists.  The road is not the right place for them to showcase their skills.

Our roads, our legal system, other drivers on the road are all factors beyond our control. But our attitude is.

Everybody Can Be Happy. It Is So Simple.

The other day I went to sit by the pool side after returning from gym.  I was feeling very depressed.  It is difficult to identify what exactly was the trigger. Recent death of a relative, talking to a friend who is initiating divorce, reading about a young married woman committing suicide, cribbing to another single friend how there are no good men any more (left for us), or following up with my friend on her mother’s chemotherapy. Was I upset because relationships are so fragile? Or because of the cruel reminder that our health can betray us any time?  The only thought that had pretty much built a home in my mind (Please excuse my Hindi to English translation) was that life is unfair and meaningless.

My apartment building has those beach like benches by the pool side. I love sitting there after working out. It gives me some peace. At that time of the night, nobody comes there.  I like to look at the reflection of the moon in the water.

But that day my blissful ‘me time’ was suddenly interrupted.

A woman barged in with her toddler. He would have jumped right into the water, had she not stopped him. It seemed the kid had just started walking. I am assuming he had been on a walker before. He was running around without much control. It was as if there should have been a break button on him. I think he had not yet fully understood that he was not on a walker anymore.  The mother was running after him.

He looked at me. There were  tears on my face I had not bothered to wipe. I ignored him.  I was avoiding making eye contact. The mother also looked at me with a smile. I ignored her too.  Usually, when any person looks at a baby / kid they do smile. The mother must have thought I am such a rude (kharoos) person. She had put her sling bag next to my bench. But then I guess my disinterest made her change her mind.  Had she seen my tears? She moved to the bench farthest away from me.

The kid had too many questions. He was talking about himself in third person.

‘Rishi go in pool!’

‘Rishabh you cannot just go inside the pool. You have to know how to swim!’

‘Rishi go sim!’

‘No you can’t go swimming. You have to learn it first.’

‘Mamma go sim!’

‘Mamma also needs to learn first.’

After saying some more random things, the kid gave up the thought of being in the water. He thought of a new game. He would run all the way from his mother’s bench to my bench, touch it, jump, go back and repeat the same ritual on the other side.  While on the other side, his mother would greet him an adoring look, on this side I would ignore him looking blankly at the sky.  By now, the mother was sure that I wanted to be left alone. She would tell her son to not come towards my bench. But why would he listen? He continued to hold my bench and jump each time looking at me for some reaction.

Finally, I think the fifth time he did it, I looked up at him and smiled.  He immediately looked away, shyly but not without a sense of triumph.  He did this for another few minutes until his father came to take them home. At first, I was smiling at him politely, out of an obligation.  But soon, the smile turned genuine. He was quite amusing to watch!

The whole day, or for a few days, I had been talking to people who were trying to make me feel better.  But the problem with adults is they are too logical. Words do not help sometimes.  Maybe, a small child’s persistent efforts to make a disinterested stranger smile does.  He does not know anything. Cannot even pronounce his name. Does not understand the concept of swimming. Does not see tears.

But he thinks that everybody can be happy. What is so difficult? Just like he can walk right into the pool. So simple. Why complicate things?

Thank you unknown kid. The brief interaction I had with you made me feel better. Better than the well-meaning advice of mature adults.



The trade-off

Two years back my sister and I had both gone to our parents’ place for the holidays. My niece loves dressing up, and like most girls she wants to look good. As my sister, she and I clicked a selfie together she said to me:

“I want curly hair, like you. I hate my hair!”

“Your hair is so pretty and thick. Why do you want my hair?”

“No… I want curly hair. Mine is straight. Give me your hair!!”

She said with the defiance of a determined seven year old.

“Fine. I will give you my hair. But I will take your height in return. I always wanted to be a tall girl. You can have my curly hair but good luck standing first in the assembly line, the way I did at your age!”

“No!!! Why do you have to take my height? You could take my fashion sense if you want!”

“I have my own fashion sense. I am giving you my hair! I deserve better. Give me your height!!”

She thought for some time whether it was a sensible deal. Finally, she said, “No Mausi!”

“See. This is how it works. We don’t like some things about ourselves. And we like some things about others. But every time we want to be someone else, we forget that we can’t just get that thing. We will get their problems and lose our strengths too. So better just be happy and grateful for what we have!”

I was trying to teach her something. But it turned out to be a lesson for me.

There is no perfect trade-off in life..

I Wish I Could Write My Child’s Destiny

It was sometime in 2012. I had just started living by myself in a PG in Bombay. This was the first time I was living away from my parents. I was 24. Not that young. Still, it was very tough for me.

My parents had found a PG close to my office. My mother was thrilled to discover that in the same apartment complex, there was a lady who had her own catering business. She had personally met that lady and fixed my breakfast and lunch dabbas with her. She said she felt relieved that my “food problem” would be solved.

I hated my job. I was terribly homesick. I wanted to go back to the comforts of my home, and the affection of my parents. I would call my father, pleading to leave my job and come back home. His response?

“Small towns don’t have opportunities like Bombay. It is a great company. Work hard, build you career. This is life..You have to be strong! ”

I recently read a quote somewhere, that “Behind every independent woman, there is a father who believed in her, and not the society.”

Today, I am so grateful that my father made me independent and strong, brave enough to face everything that happened in life thereafter….

Coming back to Bombay. I had some good friends, but I was pretty much lonely and missed my family badly. Amidst all this, food was a big solace. The dabba system that my mother had fixed for me turned out to be pretty good. The owner who my mother had met was Divya Aunty. Despite living in the same complex, I only interacted with her on the phone while placing orders. She was an extremely kind, compassionate person. She would ask her staff to put a plastic spoon in my breakfast, knowing that I rushed to work and ate in the cab. When I would be unwell, she would send something light like khichdi, along with nimbu paani. Sometimes when I would get bored of the regular Indian food, she would send pasta or noodles. It was not just a business for her. She was a motherly figure. She truly cared.

I was going home for holidays. I thought I’ll personally tell Aunty to discontinue my dabba for the next week. I wanted to meet her, since she had been so good to me. I did not know much about her, except that her husband was usually away on business travel and that she had two grown up sons – probably in their early 30s.

The delivery boys who I saw everyday let me in the house. Her house was aesthetically decorated, much bigger than the place my landlady had. It seemed they were quite well off. Aunty greeted me with a warm smile. I had an image of her, based on our interactions on the phone. I had imagined a sweet, cheerful, voluptuous lady in a salwar kamiz. Instead, she was very thin, almost pale. She wore a formal shirt, and three-quarters.

I thanked her and told her how I absolutely loved her food. She asked about my mother. We engaged in some small talk. Whenever I talked to her on the phone I always thought she would be an upbeat person. But in person, she looked sad. It was the first time I was meeting her. I was not sure if I she was unwell, tired or stressed. Was she just having a bad day?

“Everything okay, Aunty?” I asked. A question probably too intrusive for a first meeting.

“I am fine beta.”

I immediately regretted asking her. Even if there was something bothering her, she would not tell me – a customer whom she supplied dabbas in the very first face-to-face meeting.

“Somebody asked me recently beta, what is it that you want.”

I was surprised at the conversation I thought had ended but listened intently.

“If someone could make a wish of mine come true, beta I would ask God to be able to write my child’s destiny. We want the best for them. We do the best for them. Still we can’t protect them from what they would face…”

Her words pierced me. So deep. So painful. What was the reason behind such a profound thought? What was her son going through that she so desperately wanted to fix, with all the fierce protection of a mother, and yet utmost helplessness?

I never found out. Why I am writing about this now?

It has been one year since Pratyusha Banerjee committed suicide. Watching the video of her mother’s advice to other girls and boys on her death anniversary was heartbreaking. Another boy in Mumbai recently killed himself, allegedly because of failing in exams and failure to launch his start-up.

What must these parents be going through? The child who they raised and loved, and taught everything about life decided to give up on it? They must have done everything they could, but could they write their child’s destiny in Divya Aunty’s words or rather change it?

No. No parent can write their child’s destiny. The child will fail at something at some point or another. It is inevitable. Be it an exam, a job, a relationship or worse. But is it really a failure or just a phase? Is there any person who has always been successful, at everything? We get to know them after the point they became successful. Do we know what they went through before that and how much they struggled?

Children must learn to be strong. If not for them, atleast for their parents. There will always be problems, but they can choose how much empowered they want to be, by the obstacles life throws at them. It is not a philosophical thought, but the ONLY way to survive.

And the only way parents like Divya Aunty can live without carrying the unfair burden of fixing their adult children’s lives on their feeble shoulders.

Indian Roads, Women Drivers and Rage

I would like to narrate an incident that took place this week.

I was going to meet a friend at a restaurant near my house. A very dear friend, who I was meeting after three and a half years. The excitement was apparent on my face, as people in office asked me why I was so happy.

We were planning this meeting for the past 3-4 days as she was in town only for a week. I suggested a place close to my house, as I could drive till there. I left from my house and was taking a U-turn, when a mini-bus hit my car and two scooters that were parked on the other side of the road. There was a loud bang. It took me few seconds to understand what had happened. I slowly parked my car in the left, my hands shaking from the impact. Immediately, some men ran out of the bus and started yelling at me. It was not a public bus. They all looked like hooligans and were ready to fight.

My car was badly damaged from the left. One man came and banged on my car window. He was apparently the owner of the scooter that was hit by the mini-bus. Ideally, he should yell at the bus driver for bumping into his scooter, right? But what this wise man said instead was that the bus driver was trying to “save my life”, therefore it is my fault and that I should pay the damages.

The fact that I do not understand the local language, probably gave them a better reason to take advantage of the situation. Some 20 men came out of the bus. They would stop any passer-by and the mob kept growing. Random people joined, to accuse me of causing this accident.

They told me that the bus conductor is badly injured and is “dying”. I called the police immediately, and asked for an ambulance. I also said that I am scared, as there is a mob of some 30-40 men around my car. I called my family, who would reach soon.

Now these men had started getting more aggressive. They all looked illiterate, and dangerous. They were asking me to come out of the car while I was talking to them through the window. The only person who was somewhat decent looking was the two-wheeler owner, who was unreasonable enough to demand the money for me, for damages caused by the bus. I told him that I have called the police and I will not leave until this is sorted. But I am not getting out of the car, as the mob is very frightening. One of the men who heard me, banged on my car window and yelled

“Why can’t you come with us, do you think we are animals?” I wanted to say, yes, you do look savage and calling you an animal is an insult to animals.

Then a man came out of the bus (apparently, the conductor) and lay down on the pavement. Everybody gathered around him. They asked me to take him to the hospital with them, in their bus. I refused and said that I have already called an ambulance. They insisted that I accompany them in the bus, as the man might die if there is any delay. I told them that I will not come with them, and that the police and ambulance are on their way.

But I noticed that the man who was “dying”, did not look hurt. There were no signs of blood. It seemed it was all just staged to scare me and extract money. They heard that the police is on way, so the bus driver and the “dying man” fled.

My family arrived after half an hour, though it seemed like eternity as I waited in my car. It was very dark by now, and I was scared. The traffic policeman who came did not care to hear me. Most of the mob present now had not even seen the accident. But I guess they had all decided to gang up against me. The policeman told me, “You should have been careful at the U-turn”.

I told him, “Do you know what speed I was driving at, and what speed the bus driver was at?”

My father who had now arrived added, “Mini-bus was over speeding,” to which the policeman replied “The lady was driving. How do you know, you were not there?”

I told him, “Sir, by that logic, nobody who is talking to you right now was there. The driver of the bus has left. These random people who are narrating the incident to you were not even there. Yet you believe them?”

We then drove to the nearest traffic police station. My father had called a former colleague of his for support, a senior government official who speaks the local language and was well-known at the station. Seeing her, the behavior of the officers at the police station magically changed. They agreed that it was a “clear chain accident case” and obviously not my fault.

I filed an FIR. I had to leave my car there, and it was picked up the next day after filing a report with the RTO. I enquired about the “dying man”. It turned out there was absolutely no injury and him pretending to be hurt and unconscious was just for special effects. My car is now under repair. Yes, it is insured. The bus was also seized by the station.

Here are my thoughts:

1. I was unnecessarily fighting with my family for a couple of days before the incident for the most stupid reasons. When the accident happened, all I cared about was being safe. Yes, life and health the most important things which we take for granted.

2. Our culture is undoubtedly misogynist. All the men from the bus had a sense of entitlement. The road was theirs. They were at fault but they all wanted to teach me a lesson. The scooter owner also thought it is easier to harass the lone woman for money, as it is easy to bully and scare her.

3. This is not the first time that I have seen people ganging up against the person does not understand their language. There is absolutely no principle of who is right or wrong. The fact that somebody is an outsider is enough to make people unite blindly.

4. If the senior official had not come to station, I would have had a hard time getting my car. The police would have probably asked me to pay for damages to everybody even though I was the victim in this case. In India, if you don’t have any connections and contacts, God bless you!

5. I kept replaying the incidents in my mind that led to the accident. Me talking to my friend, discussing where to meet, rejecting places that were far away, finishing a report just in time to leave from work etc, all the time wishing that I had not left home at that moment. And yet, this was not a big incident. I was not even hurt. Still, I was traumatized by it, and the whole experience of going to the police station, filing an FIR, dealing with the hooligans and then the police was very unpleasant.

My heart goes out to the people who have lost their loved ones to accidents. I don’t even know whether to call it an “accident” when certain irresponsible people who don’t care about their actions decide to be on the road. They know that they can get away from it, and there is absolutely no fear. The families of these road victims are now fighting for better road safety and fighting with the legal system to ensure that nobody else goes through the hell they went through.

I would like to thank the following groups I regularly follow, and pray for these families.

The Arundhati Foundation
Mercedes Hit & Run

Mrs. Walia

It was sometime in 1998. I was in the fifth grade. I was a good student, but not as good as my elder sister who was in the same school. Now for those of you have elder siblings, that too perfect kinds, you know what it is like. Didi (sister) was academically brilliant and extremely talented. She was a dancer, painter and good at sports too. I was intelligent but naughty and lazy and didn’t study to the best of my potential. (Didi is 7 years olders than me, so by the time I got to her age I did become serious about studies).

There was a Hindi debate competition coming up for which students were auditioning. There would be an inter-school competition followed by statewide finals. It was a very prestigious event. Nobody had ever won the finals from our school but this time the principal was determined to produce a winner. Didi had been selected to represent from our school. Eloquent as she was, she had won many story – telling and extempore competitions and was the obvious choice. She was the first person to get nominated. She suggested that I participate as well, as I was 10 and it was high time, I improve in extracurriculars.

The topic for the debate was “Saaksharta hi swatantrata ki Janani hai” meaning “Literacy is the road towards freedom”. I felt smart as I raised my hand and explained the meaning of this, as half of the class did not know. But writing on it was a different game. Didi suggested that I prepare against the motion as it was the lesser conventional choice. There was so much of emphasis on education that it was difficult to imagine that anybody would refute the argument, which would make my piece more interesting. Didi wrote my speech (I am a writer now, that time I was just a 10-year-old kid) and I memorized it.

Even though I was not a writer, I was still a drama queen. So, I could emote well and my diction was good. I got selected from my class. However, the final selection from the school was at the discretion of Mrs. Walia, a senior Hindi teacher.

Everybody knew Mrs. Walia, even people from other schools. She was a legend! Her Hindi was impeccable. She was the kind whose colloquial conversation also sounded like reading a novel of Premchand. She was strict with students, and groomed them much beyond their Hindi skills. She had an opinion on their uniform, their hair, hygiene and personality and would never hesitate to communicate it, that too with brutal honesty. I had heard horror stories about her from Didi and her friends who had her as a class-teacher.

Few years back, I had received a call on our home land line number for Didi.

Kya main Saumya se baat kar sakti hoon (“Can I speak to Saumya?)”, said a female voice.

Haan hain (Yeah, she is)” “Aap kaun (Who is this)”, I had asked.

Jee hain (Yes she is)”, she corrected my language and refused to identify herself.

Embarrassed at the correction, I had run to call out to my sister. It was Mrs. Walia.

I had decided then that if Mrs. Walia would ever become my class-teacher, I would change my school. Who corrects random strangers on the phone, that too when you are the caller? When I discovered that Mrs. Walia was taking the final auditions, I got terrified.

I started out my speech a little nervous but then continued well. There were several other contestants. Mrs. Walia did not comment on how I had fared. I thought I had done well. Didi who was also watching said I was pretty good.

By evening I was told that one other girl and I were shortlisted and we must speak once again in front of Mrs. Walia, who would then decide which one of us would go ahead.

This time it was just me and her in the empty classroom. A room with just one person is supposed to be less scary than a room full of people where I had already given my speech. But somehow this was more frightening. Her face was so serious with no hint of smile. Her big red bindi, the square glasses, and her starched cotton saris, was a sight I would never forget.

I went in the center of the room and stood with my arms on the sides in attention position. I had clenched a handkerchief in one of my fists.

That is a sign of nervousness,” she said sternly.

Sorry?” I mumbled.

Remove the handkerchief. And stand straight. Your posture is not proper.”

I complied. She already hates me, and I have not even opened my mouth yet, I thought. I asked permission to drink water and dropped some on my shirt. She shook her head disapprovingly. I was avoiding eye contact with her. I initially spoke while staring at one spot in the distance during the entire speech. But Didi had taught me how to look at a make-believe audience because staring at one place was apparently not okay for a speech, and staring at real people might distract me. Towards the last paragraph I blanked out for a moment, and stared at the ceiling but then I recovered within a few seconds and completed. I stood there like a deer caught in headlights.

Mrs. Walia did not say a word of praise or criticism. She just said that I have been selected but I need a lot of grooming.

Later Mrs. Walia would tell Didi that the girl she selected was very good. Didi added that the girl is very hard-working and had practiced a lot at home. Mrs. Walia did not know that we were sisters. When Didi made the revelation, she said how it would be the first time that two sisters would be representing the school in the junior and senior category. She was probably the second most excited person after my parents.

The next few days getting trained by Mrs. Walia were excruciating for me, with after school practice sessions.

While it came naturally to Didi, I had to learn to build my craft. Mrs. Walia was a perfectionist and she guided me on pronunciation, emphasis on syllables I did not know existed, voice modulations, hand movements, and facial expressions. She would also ask me if I had any clue what I was talking about, because there was no point if I did not believe in it. It was different experience; and the first time I had put in so much effort on anything.

I performed very well in the inter school completion in our city and won the contest. Didi also won. There were teachers and parents present at the event and all came to congratulate me. People were especially impressed with me because at that age I had spoken with much conviction and poise. My parents were proud and beaming and gave the credit to Mrs. Walia.

Mrs. Walia was also happy and proud but she was not the kind who would express affection.

I want to see you win the State level.” She had said. “Nobody from our school has ever won that.”

That would be such a big one! I was quite content with my city level award and didn’t think I could win anything further. But Mrs. Walia never gave up one me. She ensured that I practise every day. She never complimented me but other teachers had been telling me that she was very impressed with my improvement and dedication. Being liked by Mrs. Walia was a bigger achievement than winning the award, and I would blush every time I heard that I had become her favourite.

Two days before the contest, I was having cold feet. This competition was so huge that it was happening at a place which was as big as a cinema hall.I was scared. I went to Mrs. Walia. I told her I wanted to quit. I was afraid I forget the speech and put her and the entire school down. I would not be able to speak in front of so many people. I had shared the same thought with Didi and my parents who had told me that I should just remain confident and that I was good and an opportunity of this sort should not be missed.

But Mrs. Walia said nothing like that. She said that if I want to quit I could but then I would never know what would happen. She said I have nothing to lose if I go for the competition, because even if I lose the contest, I would gain an experience. Whether I stumble or forget or mumble or blabber all that is an experience and experiences matter in life.

I don’t know if it was because I understood the depth of what she said at that age, or I thought that I had got the license to forget from Mrs. Walia. But whatever she said worked on me and I decided to go for the competition, well prepared.

The State level competition was very tough. There were very good speakers from different schools and cities. The
hall was huge and crowded. I was looking for Mrs. Walia but she was not there. It was very strange. Didi called on her home phone but nobody picked up. Other teachers also had no clue where she was. Was she staying at home to pray for me?

I spoke well and my parents said that they were hopeful although there was one tall guy who gave me tough competition. The senior category awards was announced first and Didi had not won. That was very unlike her, but then there were very good speakers and participation was important, said my parents. They finally reached the announcement of winners in my category. I thought of the pluses and minuses if they announced my name. Plus – I will win! Minus – I would have to walk all the way to the stage and what If I fall?

I won. There was a huge applause. The trophy was beautiful. Didi was happier than she would have been had she won. I again searched to find Mrs. Walia, maybe she had come late. But she was not there. I couldn’t wait to show her the trophy the next day. She would be so happy!!

The next day, I went to school like a celebrity. I was carrying chocolates to distribute among the class and sweets for Mrs Walia. My name was announced in the morning assembly and I flaunted my trophy as the entire school cheered for me. Now that my part was over, I started feeling restless and I wanted the assembly to get over soon. But it seemed there were some more important announcements.

I regret to inform you that yesterday morning, Mrs. Walia’s son (her only child) met with an accident and died on the spot. He was 28 years old and had just been blessed with a baby boy a month back. Mrs. Walia rushed for Bangalore along with her husband. We pray to the Almighty to grant peace to the departed soul and strength to the family.”

I never saw Mrs. Walia again. She had left the city and nobody heard from her ever again. For months to come, I would have dreams about her, in which I would say thank you.

Something I never got to tell her personally.

Aunty! Aunty! Aunty!

The other day I was having lunch with my colleagues. (We are all in our late 20s by the way). One of the girls (25 years old) mentioned that her landlord and his wife are a very nice couple. Since her kitchen is not yet set, they offered her to have a meal with them.

“No Aunty, I’ll eat out.” She had said to the landlady. They are very nice people, she added. Husband, wife and a 3-year-old daughter.

“They have a 3-year-old kid, and you call them Uncle-Aunty?” I asked in disbelief.

“What will I call them?” she blurted out, annoyed.

“Is it necessary to call her Aunty?
” I asked.

All the other people on the table (men and women in late twenties) looked at me as if I have come from Mars. How else was she possibly supposed to address them? They vetoed the following alternatives with instant rejection:

1. Addressing by name – Disrespectful!
2. Calling Bhaiya Bhabhi – Mere relation mein thode hi hain! (They are not related to me!)
3. Sir and Ma’am – It’s not office!
4. Don’t call anything – ?

Some things are peculiar to India. I remember studying in the United States when I was in school. I had realized as a kid there that every man and woman you meet is not to be addressed as “Uncle” and “Aunty”. Even friends’ parents were addressed as Mr./ Ms followed by their last name. I once referred to a Chinese friend’s Mom as “Aunty” and then quickly apologized, attributing to it to Indian culture. The friend clarified that it is the same in their culture, and that when she goes to China she has a hard time figuring out who is a blood relative as everybody is called Uncle / Aunty!

Back in India, when I was 20, I was attending my 2-year-old niece’ birthday party. A small kid called me Aunty. I didn’t mind. Her elder sister who must be 10-11 years old corrected her matter-of-factly:

“She is not an Aunty, she is a Didi (Sister). Not yet married!”

Coming from a kid, this logic was adorable. But I have seen many adult women follow this logic too (as in the case of my colleague).

A married woman is an Aunty! Period! Her age (or your age) does not matter!! Case closed!

I know we love being pally pally with strangers. People we meet in supermarkets and elevators who we don’t know. Unlike in some parts of the world where we have no clue who our neighbor is. Our culture preaches respect for elders. All this is great..

I just don’t understand the unstoppable urge of calling women a few years older than us ‘Aunty’ as a sign of respect?

One of my dear friend’s 14-year-old daughter calls me by my first name and I love it. I don’t feel offended. I know she respects me and is fond of me, and I find her completely adorable. Neither would I be offended if she did, because by virtue of my friendship with her mother, she has the right to call me Aunty, if she so wishes.

It is her choice. More importantly, it does not mean anything, certainly not a sign of respect!

Bombay memoirs

Today my mother’s friend came to visit. She was our neighbour in Bombay. Amidst the chai (tea) and pakaoda (snacks), what we were reminiscing were the four years we spent in Bombay.

I remember the first day I moved to Bombay. I was super excited because it was the big dream city. But there was pain that is part of any relocation. Leaving friends who were very dear, the familiar house, the neighbors – the supermarket, the parlour, the regular hang out joints that were part of our everyday life. I was also preparing for a competitive exam and had left my classes. Now I would have to search for a new set of classes all over again.

The size of apartments in Bombay is the first thing that strikes a person coming from smaller towns. Somebody had once told me – You find everything easily in Bombay – food, resources, maid, the only thing you don’t find is a house.

Mom and dad had gone out to get groceries and other things to make the house livable. Grandmother was used to living in bungalows in Lucknow and Patna. But she was not complaining about the size of the house.

Where does Amitabh Bachchan live, let us go see his house.” was her first reaction.

The door bell rang. A nice looking Aunty who was dad’s colleague’s wife had come to greet my mom (who was out). The house was in a mess ofcourse – the entire household of a family contained in boxes labeled movers and packers.

Aunty was also from Lucknow. Grandmother instantly liked her. She offered to get us tea and dinner. I told her it is okay, mom dad have gone to get something.

Are there any more unopened cartoons,” she asked. I tried to control my laughter at ‘cartoons’ and felt guilty at the thought of making fun of this kind stranger who was offering so much help.

“Five more cartons are inside the bedroom, Aunty, my books and clothes.

Aunty told me about other neighbors. This complex was for people working in my dad’s organization so everyone knew everyone. There was one girl my age she said who could be my friend. She is in 10th standard, Aunty added.

I am 21 Aunty!” I clarified. I blamed my short stature for this disastrous demotion.

Aunty waited for Mom for some time, then left as Uncle was about to reach home. My parents came back, struggling to make a home out of this place that was full of dust and dirt, inhabited by a bachelor previously it seems.

I kept complaining about being unsettled – how it would take me days to unpack and find all my books. How I would fail the exam because of this reason. How my entire life would be ruined because of this one change. What a brat I used to be those days! Instead of helping my parents I would be cribbing about everything I found wrong.

Dad had got chowmein and chilly chicken for dinner. We had a wholesome meal after a tiring day. After dinner, Dad said let us go for a drive. Traffic was relatively less at this time so we dared to go explore the city.

We drove to Marine Drive. Dad told me how it is called the Queen’s necklace. There were so many people walking there at this time. Young, old, poor, rich. Mom dad also started walking.

I stood there looking at the sea. And there it was – the connection I felt with the city at that moment. All my stress and apprehensions about this place seemed to have disappeared somewhere. The sea was welcoming me – promising me a beautiful life here.

This city has a lot of chaos. Everybody is always running around trying to reach somewhere. But there is comfort and solace here too, and it is right here in the sound of the waves and the sight of the endless waters where all worries take a standstill.

Over the next years I would come to know how people here function. I had heard that people in Bombay don’t have time for each other. Let me tell you what that means – they will not interfere in your life and poke their nose in your personal matters. They will not care if you are married or divorced or living with your boyfriend. But when you need them for any help, they are there. I have had incidents of being helpless in the rain, or in the local train not knowing where to go and absolute strangers have gone out of their way to help me. And the culture and spirit of the city – that celebrates every festival whether it is Ganesh Chaturthi, or Christmas or Eid.

All of that would be another blog, another time. For now I just want to remember the sea. The sea that I cherished, that comforted me, that gave me solace, that I miss. That would make no city ever good enough as Bombay for years to come.

Moni’s school story

The year was 2005 and all kinds of luxurious cars had started finding a place on the roads of Kolkata. Nine year old Moni was leaning at the school gate, looking impatiently at the road, getting scolded by the guard almost every minute as other children’s parents came to pick them up in big gigantic colorful cars. Moni used to getting picked up by her uncle, Subroto Kaku in his bicycle. Moni’s father was a hard-working car mechanic and her mother was a tailor. How Moni ended up in this school was a story of fate.

It all happened three years back, when a senior teacher of Moni’s school, Mrs. Basu was desperately looking for a tailor to get herself a blouse stitched for an outstation wedding. It was the time of Durga Puja and all tailors were flooded with work. Every place that Mrs. Basu approached rejected her request. Until her cook offered to take her to her friend, Moni’s mother’s tailoring shop.

The shop was way below Mrs. Basu’s standards but Moni’s mother promised to deliver quality work within the time-frame. Mrs. Basu was amazed to see that this unknown tailor could stitch the stylish garment with such precision and finesse, in such a short time. She was also impressed by the woman’s sincere and polite nature. She had noticed Moni, a bright and well-behaved child who attended a Bangla medium school nearby. Moni’s mother had expressed how she wished she could afford to send her daughter to the most elite and reputed convent school in the city, where Mrs. Basu taught. Being a senior teacher, Mrs. Basu used all her influence to arrange for a written exam and interview, which Moni aced followed by a request for a concession in school fees. Within three months, Moni was part of the cream of Kolkata.

Or maybe not. Children can be brutally honest and insensitive. It did not matter that Moni was sweet, generous, and helpful. Everything about her was ridiculed from her uniform, to her hairstyle, shoes and tiffin-box.

When she got invited to the most popular and pretty girl, Shonali ‘s birthday party, she stood out. While she wore a long frilly frock stitched with much love and affection by her mother, other kids wore jeans, mini-skirts, shorts and all kinds of fashionable clothes. Moni especially, dreaded the last part, where Shonali was opening up all the presents.

Moni’s gift to Shonali was a long skirt stitched by her mother. Other kids all tried to push each other to gather around it, ready to laugh. Shonali was about to express some disappointment when her mother interrupted her and exclaimed,

Oh what a lovely skirt. It is stitched! So precious and thoughtful! Say thanks to your mother, Moni”.

Shonali threw the skirt in a corner. Moni returned home, feeling inadequate and unwanted.

How could Moni’s parents meet the standards of presents bought by their much wealthier counterparts? But they tried. They tried to gift something decent and useful. They tried to teach Moni that she should be grateful to get the opportunity to get a good education. They wanted her to be a kind person and focus on her studies, not on materialistic things. But at that tender age, fitting in was very essential for her.

But today, three years after joining this school, things were about to change. Moni’s parents had been growing in their professions and were doing much better financially. Her father was about to buy a second hand car! Moni was super excited and had told all her friends. No more traveling on Subroto Kaku’s cycle, her biggest source of embarrassment!

Finally the day had arrived. It was a beautiful chocolate colored Maruti 800. After visiting the temple, Moni’s father drove her around the city. Moni held her head out of the window throughout the trip!. Nothing could curtail her excitement! The following day, her father would drop her to school in the car. Now Moni would be one of them, the other cool kids.

Moni had asked her friends to come to the gate to catch a glimpse of her car. She got out of her car, with newly found pride and waved at her friends, like a celebrity. Her father smiled seeing the joy on her daughter’s face and drove off.

Moni walked towards her friends excited to see their reaction:

This is your car! It is so small, like a toy car!
Look at this Khatara!
My old car was like this. We sold it to our servant!

The worst comment came from Shonali who said that she would never sit in this silly vehicle, which was only slightly bigger than her little brother’s battery operated toy car!

Moni came home and was unusually quiet. When her father came home from work, he asked her,
“Where does my beloved princess want to go today in the new car?”
There was a volcano of humiliation and anger building up inside Moni for days. It finally erupted and she snapped:

I am not a princess! I live a small house and I hate this stupid, small car! I never want to see it again!”

The next few days were terrible. Moni’s mother was disappointed at her behavior and scolded her for not appreciating their struggles. She told her that she should be happy with what she had. If she kept looking at what she does not have, she would always be miserable.

It didn’t make any sense to Moni. She was unhappy because she had a small car. If she had a big car, she would be happy like Shonali. She was mad at everybody.

Finally, it was time for the exam results. Moni had stood second. Her parents had been upset about her recent behavior and tantrums but today they were very happy and proud. Her beaming father came to pick her up. She said bye to her friends who she would now be seeing in the next grade. As she got inside the car, she heard a loud scream and everybody started rushing towards the other side of the road. Moni’s father rushed to the crowd. Shonali, had fallen down road and hit the pavement, blood oozing out of her forehead. People started looking for her chauffeur, who seemed to have disappeared for a tea break.

Moni’s father picked up Shonali and immediately drove her to the nearest hospital. Throughout the way, he comforted her, and distracted her from her pain by telling her stories. By the time Shonali’s parents arrived, she had already received three stitches on her forehead and was better.

Two weeks later, Shonali and her parents were to visit Moni’s house. Moni had been very upset when she heard about it.

Why are you letting them come to this tiny house! Her house is like a castle. Now she will make fun of my house also!”

Her mother ignored her and continued to prepare snacks for the guests. Moni dressed up in her best outfit and was going eccentric asking her parents to change their clothes twice, and helping them clean the house for the first time in her life.

Shonali and her parents arrived, after a brief struggle to park their Innova in the narrow lane leading to Moni’s house. Shonali’s mother had bought a cake, and some big gift-wrapped presents for Moni. She hugged Moni’s mother immediately.

I don’t know how to thank you two. The doctors thought that you were a relative of ours, the way you took care of her. I don’t know what would have happened if..”

Over the next couple of hours, Shonali’s family mingled with Moni’s family. Shonali was also nice to everybody and played happily with Moni in her small room with her average toys.

Your daughter is so intelligent. Always gets a rank and such a well-behaved child. Shonali’s class teacher is always full of praises for her. What a wonderful upbringing”, said Shonali’s mother. Moni’s parents smiled proudly. Moni could not stop blushing. As they were about to leave, Shonali pointed to the car parked outside. “Mom, look that is the car in which Uncle took me to the hospital.”

“That’s a beautiful and unusual colour. I wanted the same colour for our car but it was only available in four colours!” said her mother. Moni’s tiny car had finally received the ultimate validation.
As they were leaving, Shonali’s mother hugged Moni and bent down to talk to her.

Beta, I had noticed how Shonali and other kids made fun of you at her birthday party. I am really sorry for their behavior.

You are very lucky, Moni. Your parents go out of their way to give you the best of the world.
There will always be people who put you down. But you should never hurt the people who love you.

You are a fine young girl, with a bright future. Don’t let shallowness of some people shatter the spirit and the beauty of your heart.

Life may have given us different things – some big and some small, some white and some black. But that’s all they are – things. It is the qualities that we have, that make us big as a person. Beauty lies in the little deeds of kindness, that we do that touches somebody else. I have been trying to teach my daughter the same thing.
But you already have it in you. Don’t lose it

Shonali’s family got inside the Innova and left as the host family waved at them. Moni leaned against her Maruti 800, hugging it, her smile wide from ear to ear. Moni’s mother smiled at Shonali’s mother, as a tear rolled down her cheek. Shonali’s mother smiled back and nodded. There was unsaid gratitude on both of their faces, a look exchanged that only the two mothers could understand.