Tag Archives: personal

New beginnings at 22?

Its been an interesting sort of day, another one where I try to overcome my own writing block and find inspiration from a perhaps unlikely quarter. Well maybe not so unlikely after all… it is a story 22 years in the making.

I started the day rather late in the morning, with these words shared on my Facebook timeline:

“Twenty-two ellipses we have travelled around the sun together on this pale blue dot. Our new year always begins on January 2nd, ever since that cold Kolkata day when I donned that denim jacket to sign on the dotted line with Kaberi, her lips still pursed quizzically. Through thick and thin we have traveled together since, and I didn’t even notice that last year our marriage hit the legal drinking age! So let me raise an extra glass to you now Kaberi, and to us…”

A short while later, our two daughters (8 and 13) had us both sit down on the couch and presented us with this painting they had labored over the previous night:

22 years  Woah

With these words on the back:

22 years  gosh


Woah, indeed! And definitely something worth celebrating, given these remarkable children we have grown, how I do not quite know!

Its been a low sort of holiday break for us all, perhaps our bodies and minds telling us they needed a break after the intense year (2013) we have all had in our family (immediate and extended, back in India). I’ve shared some of what we did in previous posts and elsewhere online, hinted at some of the darkness that shadowed our sabbatical in India, and may yet write more about them… if I can get my writing mojo flowing again.

With both girls recovering from cold infections, and our bodies exhausted from finally setting up our new home over the holidays, we couldn’t even get ourselves up to do the thing we often try to do on our anniversaries: go for a hike. Heck, I haven’t even had the energy or motivation to make my customary annual greeting card yet! But when one is feeling so burnt out…

Meanwhile, other writing deadlines make baleful eyes at me as they loom ever closer, one coming up in a few hours!

But, instead, we simply gave in to lethargy, and, at the behest of our eldest, spent the afternoon/evening watching a marathon of season  1 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series: The Newsroom. I am quite enjoying watching television shows with my teenager nowadays, trying to see some iconic shows from the past (e.g., Buffy…) through her eyes for the first time. And she had been wanting to catch up on The Newsroom for quite a while after having seen the first few episodes with me in India last summer.

So we blew through the second half of season 1 today, with the political and romantic intrigues building up to quite the climax. Our marathon was punctuated with pauses, some for me to explain to S the political and media critiques on the show and the historical context to events depicted, and some for S to exclaim in exasperation or joy, and explain to us grown-ups the finer points of the romantic entanglements of the protagonists of the show! I’m not sure I was anywhere nearly as savvy about politics or romance when I was 13! Certainly had not a shred of her passion for the world, and righteous anger at how grownups have screwed everything up.

As the show’s critique of Tea Party Republicanism rose to a crescendo through the series finale, S was literally hurling small objects around the room, livid at how short-sighted and stupid these politicians are, and how money has screwed up so much of our lives. Her passions spilled over into twitter, a medium relatively new to her, but one she is taking to quite naturally these days, engaging many of my more grown-up friends in serious discussions. I’ve tried to capture the passion in her twitter conversation in this storify.

Later, as I struggled to bring my focus back to writing the 500 words I need to submit by tomorrow, even as the rest of the family prepared for bed, S dashed off a rapid-fire 550 words on her tumblr blog, trying to distill her anger about the world and consider what might be done about it. Go read the whole post, but let me share an excerpt here:

It isn’t just hippy stuff, wanting a planet that can sustain life, wanting to put an end to useless death and hurt. These arethings that should matter to us more then money and power. We need a revolution. We need to take the Earth and land away from the ignorant and bad, and give it back to the good. And you know what? That isn’t hard to do. We need awareness. So go. Together we can put an end to the hopeless bitter war that is our world, and build a new one.

So, 22 years after starting this family, Kaberi and I have that most remarkable thing in our home: a teenage rebel with a passion for rebuilding the whole world! How and when did this happen? Where did we go right (or wrong) in our parenting?

Is my job as a parent done, now that we have a passionate, articulate, caring, strong young woman setting out to change the world? Or is it only just beginning now?

Before turning in, S had one more spark of inspiration, submitting this six-word science fiction short story in response to io9’s call:

The red grass grows on fresh graves.

This girl… where did she come from?

Why I hope Sachin Tendulkar never gets his 100th hundred

Among some of my other character flaws, my parents instilled in me a lifelong passion for the game of cricket, turned me quite early into another hopeless fan of the habitually hapless Indian cricket team. Didn’t do a lot to encourage me to actually learn to play the sport with any level of skill, mind you – for that couldn’t possibly be my studious brahmin destiny; I was meant to be a Doctor! Mere hopeless passionate fandom it was for me when it came to cricket.

Many a times in my childhood, long before anyone in our neighborhood had television, Aai and Appa woke me up in the wee hours, or let me stay up into the wee hours, to follow the Indian team’s often dismal exploits on tours abroad. We would cluster around the shortwave radio, fiddle with the dial to try and catch distant crackling voices, from Australia, England, the West Indies, New Zealand, narrating the ebbs and flows of 5-day test matches from remote, exotic sounding cities and hallowed cricket grounds. I would let the commentators conjure up in my sleepy head images of Sunil Gavaskar’s perfect straight drive, Gundappa Vishwanath’s delicate late cut, Erapalli Prasanna putting the ball into magical flight. More often though, we would be cursing and groaning at why the batsmen kept hanging their bat outside the off-stump, gasping when they were trying to avoid body blows from the fast bowlers, moaning at how our bowling lacked any pace at all on those zippy foreign pitches, sighing in the habitual resignation of the Indian fan. And we would cling to that shining individual performance – that hundred from Sunny or Vishy, that five-wicket haul from the crazy spinning wrists of Chandrashekhar – even as the team as a whole routinely got thrashed outside home grounds, and sometimes even at home. You can only imagine how we celebrated when the team actually won a game or even a rare series or trophy!

I drifted away from the sport in the 1990s, having moved to America where they were passionate about stranger ballgames that could never capture my passion like cricket had. By then television had already replaced radio commentary (especially of the short-wave variety which proved impossible to catch in America), but there was no internet yet, with its covert video streams of live matches, and textual coverage on cricinfo. So I missed the first decade of the breathtaking career of that reigning star (nay, supernova) in the cricketing firmament: Sachin Tendulkar. I would read about him, try to catch glimpses of his magic with the bat whenever I was home in Bombay, hear about him on the phone from Aai and Appa, who were becoming part of the countless legions of his fans. It was his odds-defying boy-on-the-burning-deck exploits that rallied the nation even as the team continued to perform poorly, especially overseas. I am sure my parents continued to wake up in the wee hours, huddled around the TV now, hot cups of tea warming their hands, to watch Sachin bat, just like they had listened for Sunny’s straight drive a generation ago.

Judge their parenting as you may, but walking into school bleary-eyed, and dozing through classes until recess because of having stayed/woken up late/early, was as much a part of the rituals that punctuated my childhood as the series of festivals and holidays we all celebrated. And often, as we wanted to be awake for the more excitingly anticipated games, Aai would make us cups of hot tea, with just that perfect blend of milky sweetness I now try to recreate in California when I’m up again in the wee hours trying to desperately tune into some (pirated) live video stream on the internet showing me my beloved team’s exploits, which had become hugely better during this millennium even as Sachin continued to pile on the records.

I now know that on that fateful tuesday morning last week, Aai had woken up early again because she wanted to watch her beloved Sachin walk out in whites in Adelaide, in his last test match in Australia, still chasing that record 100th international century that has eluded him for almost a year now. No doubt she too had held her breath, like a billion others, every time he walked out to bat during that year, only to let it out in disappointment as he continued to sparkle in patches, but never quite seemed able to reignite the fire that had led him to this threshold of glory: the first (and likely only, for a while, or ever) batsman in the game to score 100 centuries in international games. An arbitrary landmark in so many ways, yet it kept him, his fans, and my Aai, on tenterhooks match after match, even as the rest of the team too crumpled after the glory of winning the World Cup last year, to now lose two major test series abroad in a row. Not merely lose, but lose by huge margins, getting a thrashing as bad as any I can remember even in previous generations. This farewell Australian tour for Sachin and his generation had already piled on plenty of misery. The series was lost. All that remained was the hope that he would get to that individual landmark.

She woke up early to catch the start of the Adelaide test beaming live on the television. And, as usual, she went to make herself a cup of tea. Perhaps she was too distracted by the game to notice her sari catch fire. The Indian team’s misery continued over the next four days while she battled for her life in the hospital. They lost the match not too long after she gave up her life. Sachin once again did not manage to reach his coveted, cursed 100th hundred.

I hope he never does.

Sari. Stove. Fire.

Sari. Stove. Fire.

Ingredients of life and death for women in India. Elements of sustenance, and of nightmares. Fatal accidents, not uncommon… often but euphemisms, for suicides, for dowry deaths.

Real accidents happen too, just from mixing those ingredients.

She had escaped one such accident, I dimly remember, back in my childhood when all we had was a pump-action kerosene stove. Her pallu (that lovely, deadly, end of the sari that women fly like a banner across their shoulders…) caught the flames. She was alert and quick enough to unravel the sari and drop it to the floor even as my sister ran to stomp on the flames.

Not this time. All she wanted was a cup of tea, not a fight for her life.

She’s much older now, bent with age, and chose to live on her own some years after my father died. Tired of being cramped in her daughter’s small apartment, perhaps. More likely – simply, finally, wanting that room of her own. She seemed happier being on her own too, by all accounts, although it was harder for me to reach her on the phone. It is the phone that brought me, in fragmented conversations laden with shock, despair, anguish, news of her latest brush with sari, stove, fire.

She woke up early that morning, as usual. And as usual, she needed her morning cup of tea. On a gas stove this time. I’m not sure if it was the pallu this time, or gas in the air from her having left the valve open too long. There was a flash, perhaps a small explosion which blew out windowpanes. And her sari was in flames, spreading too fast for her slowed reflexes to stop them. Yet she remained alert and strong and practical (she always was practical) enough to open the door and shout for help. Help, from neighbors, my sister, even the police, arrived within minutes – yet too late for her skin. perhaps too late for her life…

Emergency medical care. Hospitals. Nightmares of their own for most in modern India (Shining). Police investigating the fire sent her off to the ill-equipped, overloaded civil hospital. In my sister’s car since the ambulance didn’t show up in time. Several hours she sat in that hospital, mostly unattended. She is too old the doctor said, to hope for recovery from such burns. Even though she was still talking, even laughing at the absurdity of the accident. Take her to the national burn center in Airoli, they said. She is too old, said the burn center over the phone, filtering her out in their triage… over the phone… Seventy-three is old in India, to the surprise of my American friends. Human life is abundant in my bustling country. Abundant, and cheap. And ages rapidly. Too abundant, too cheap, in a culture too fatalistic for anyone to do anything about the ever-present epidemic of sari, stove, gas, fire. Accidents, real, and also staged, murders labeled ‘dowry deaths’. So at 73, she is too old for anyone to give any hope of recovery. Even as she lies in a private hospital bed, conscious, in pain. Alert enough to ask if she can sleep. In control enough to ask if she can sit up upon waking. Although 95 of her skin has peeled off, and the doctors won’t offer any hope at least until the first 48 hours have passed. As I write this, in the airport, waiting to board my flight from America to go see her, it has been 40 hours since the fire. She is fighting for her life.

All she wanted was to make herself a cup of tea, in that room of her own.

Sari. Stove. Fire.


POSTSCRIPT  (27 January 2012):

About 6 hours after I arrived at her bedside, tried to get her attention, she finally gave up the fight. It turned out to be too much even for her stubborn self. She did hang on long enough for me to reach her while she was still alive, barely. Whether she registered my presence at any level of consciousness, I cannot begin to guess. All I know is: Aai is no more. She fought the effects of that devastating fire for 3 full days. I have just consigned her to the flames again, beseeching Agni to finish the job.

Nostalgia for rituals that comfort me no more…

[youtube kGNgbR3McBU]

The following is an attempt to express my thoughts / emotions upon hearing the above song after many years. It is no doubt playing (even blaring from loudspeakers) all over Bombay right now, for the festival of Ganeshotsava started last Saturday, on Sep 11th.

I remember
splashing through the mud, barefoot,
trying not to slip in the slick rain
while holding the precious earthen statue
of that elephant-headed lord Ganapati
favorite deity of my childhood
Appa walking by my side carrying
Madhuri in one arm, in the other a bag
full of garlands, jasmine and marigold
and clusters of precious durva-grass.

I remember
Vaijoo holding the umbrella
trying to keep dry my head
and Ganapati (more importantly)
as we hastened home
from the statue maker’s shack
under the darkly dripping skies
of the slowly waning monsoon
I know now, although
we did not speak of it then,
she was the one who
really wanted to carry him,
share my duty as the son to inherit
the rituals that gave structure
if not meaning to our childhood
And she is the one who hosts
Ganapati in her home, every year
even now, long after I gave up.

I remember
the five days Ganapati stayed with us,
our living room transformed
part temple, part art gallery
and part music room resonating
twice daily to the aarti songs
As the ritual gave room for our stifled
artistic and musical selves to breathe
freer of the constraints of school and
a social milieu that valued these
only when in service of the gods

I remember
Aai, who had given up music,
her classically trained voice
seething silently in revolt
against the shackles of marriage,
relenting just for the various gods
singing now the twice-daily aartis
entreating Ganapati, with us in chorus,
Sukhakarta dukhaharta…
giver of joy, disperser of sorrow…

I remember
(before Lata joined us via cassette
singing as you can see now
in her YouTube incarnation)
Vaijoo’s untrained plaintive voice
mixing with Madhuri’s, and
my own, discordant sound
joining to finish the aarti
and follow up with other chants,
except hers would fall silent
for the Gayatri mantra,
a secret meant only for brahmin boys,
even if its name invoked a goddess.

I remember
the feasts especially,
good little brahmin boy that I was
first in line to eat the meals
with extra dollops of ghee
entitled to the best, with Appa,
as the only son standing out
bracketed by two sisters,
memorizing mantras and chants
(many of which I can still recite)
without learning what they meant
reciting them when called upon, then
pocketing the dakshina as if by right
when offered by family and friends.

I remember
not really thinking/feeling too much
about the gods and rituals
that peopled my childhood,
set the rhythms of the tropical years
and brought me some riches
six times a year or more
But Vaijoo felt deeply, keenly
calling upon gods in earnest anguish
burning the midnight oil, literally
whenever I was ill (which was often)
even placing the gods’ icons
in water, under siege until
they let her little brother go!

I remember
walking incessantly until
our legs could bear us no more
through the alleyways of our town
and neighboring ones
visiting one pandal after another,
gaping at the displays astonishing,
Ganapati and a cast of supporting gods
shapes carved out of earth, glass, steel,
styrofoam, and even vegetables,
arrayed in surreal tableaus
recalling tales mythic or modern
some from the silver screen
others even of politics contemporary.

I remember
pausing nervously on the banks
of the river Ulhas, her shriveled waters
dark and malodorous
from years of industrial abuse
yet ready to accept the hundreds
of Ganapati statues, if we dared
step into her troubled flow
wondering later, as an ecological
conscience grew in me, if we had
honored or further befouled
both Ganapati and the river
in blindly following ritual.

I remember
even miss those rituals
that gave structure
if not meaning to our childhood
even if it’s been 20 years
since I last celebrated
Ganesh Chaturthi

I remember
even if I may seem not to,
having abdicated my rights
and responsibilities as the son,
refusing to carry to new shores
those blind rituals passed on
from father to son, but I do
take some odd comfort in knowing
that Ganapati still visits my sister’s
home annually, just as he did ours
all those years ago.