Food for life

March 24th, 2010

I enjoy cooking a lot. In fact, I find it a stress buster. It’s great fun to rustle up something in the kitchen. It’s an experience to think of unique ways to turn perfectly simple dishes into something scintillating. And it doesn’t have to be too much effort. All it requires is a dash of imagination, a drizzle of innovation, and you’re sure to have a fabulous dish on the table.
While nothing works better than a cold cucumber soup for me (dunk it over bite-sized bread pieces), whenever I’m feeling low, I find it reassuring to have a glass of warm milk (I pour it in a bowl, again, over slices of bread, with a generous sprinkling of sugar). In winters, especially, I love wrapping my hands around a mug of warm milk (with heaped spoons of chocolate powder, some crushed almonds) with a book resting by the bedside table. Speaking of winters, another quick recipe included washing and roughly chopping a whole lot of fresh veggies (spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, broccoli), a fistful of moong dal, a spoonful of rice apart from chopped onions, tomatoes, bruised garlic pods and a humble potato. After putting oil/butter in a pressure cooker, I’d just put some asafetida (I love it), cumin seeds, turmeric, throw in the veggies, cover with enough water and sprinkle salt and cover the lid and basically just take it off the gas after one whistle. I hate straining (in any case, this soup-meal/stew isn’t too watery) so I’d opt for a generous sprinkling of chilli flakes, a garnish of cheese (it works), top it with just a little more butter (it’s so tempting) and basically eat it with bread/soup sticks.
I never really cooked as a kid (I was in the hostel for most time) and my mum often worried about how I’d be the recipe for disaster in the marriage market eventually. There were bitter fights too but we’ll save that part of the story for another day.

I think the first brush with cooking really happened when I was in the hostel where we “set” cakes – not ‘bake’ them by the window sill (oh yes, we did that). The recipe was simple: it involved Parle G biscuits, Bournvita, some water, a packet of Gems, a fairly thick cardboard piece (from any notebook, really). The method of creating these cakes began days in advance and involved, well, sacrifice. We first had to save biscuits (four biscuits used to be given to each student every morning before the morning PT class and during tea time in the evening). Saving them was a hard task since we were hungry goats. Once we had enough biscuits (around 30-40 of them), we used to crush them and bind them with water (and you must know that there was no concept of mineral water. Oh, this process was done with our bare hands in plastic mugs). After this we would also mix Bournvita (a dash of chocolate taste, you see) and take the entire mixture on cardboard torn mercilessly from a notebook. Then began the tough part; ‘setting’ the cake into shape. A ‘heart’ shape –was a big hit, it involved taking a measuring scale, the edge of a compass, and deftly scooping out extra ‘cake’ to create the shape. We decorated the cake with Gems but since it was moist (note: we didn’t always get the water measurement right), we used to leave it overnight by the window sill. Our logic: By night time, the cake would dry out. What if it didn’t? Well, there would be many more nights, of course.
I feel like puking even as I write this but back then, when we were living in a hostel, there wasn’t anything better than our biscuit cakes. Midnight feasts were a hit because of ‘bun omelets’ (diligently saved for over a week), a limp packet of chips, beer bottles (skillfully sneaked into the premises), Maggi (soaked in water that was warmed thanks to the water heating rod in an aluminum bucket, and so much more.
Food, then, is really savouring so many memories, right?

PS: I’d be delighted if you could exchange simple recipes, food stories, on the forum. Thanks.

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How black can kajal be?

February 17th, 2010

Last Sunday, my maid’s eight-year-old daughter came home and started showing me her new frock. As she twirled and batted her eyelashes, I couldn’t help but laugh at how innocent and charming she looked. “Didi, see, I put kajal too,” she purred, widening her eyes. She’d barely completed her last sentence when I heard a rude thwack! Her mother, my cook, had hit her hard on the face. “Kajal kyun lagaya? (Why did you put kajal?)”. What’s the big deal, I asked her, defending the kid whose enthusiasm had been punctured so royally. “Didi, achcha nahi lagta. Kisi ki buri niyat ho toh kya kareingey? (Didi, it doesn’t look nice. What if someone looks at her in a bad way?)” I was, of course, at a loss of words. The little girl, her innocent face, marked with tears that steadily wore her kajal away from her beautiful eyes, was so flummoxed by her mother’s sudden rage. I could read her eyes, I understood why this happened to her and not to her brother who, she told me later in a squeaky, muffled tone, “Always wears kajal to school. Mummy, in fact, applies it herself”.
The little girl took me back to my own childhood days. Having studied in a hostel, our acts of rebellion included sporting kohl-lined eyes, refusing to tie our hair, shortening our skirts to the above-the-knee danger mark, apart from various other things. We often got reprimanded but we didn’t care. Somewhere, it was fun.

And why would anyone have a problem with kajal? I still remember the day I’d come home to Jaipur for my holidays.  I had decided to raid my mum’s wardrobe that sunny afternoon and had tried out one of her chiffons, her bracelets, her gorgeous dangling earrings and her makeup. Since she was a working woman, and my brother was away to meet his friends, I had the home to myself that afternoon. I decided to wear my mum’s salwar suit (short skirts, anyway, were a strict no-no for me) and surprise her by wearing her makeup. I was around 15 years old and quite prepared, or so I thought, to apply light makeup (my foundation, when I think about it now, was so wrong) with just a hint of kajal. I used my mum’s hair dryer, wore my hair in a bun (it resembled a nest that had been hit by a hurricane), swooped mascara on my eyelashes, readied the dining table for lunch and waited for my mum to arrive.

She did and I’ve never forgotten that look of disgust on my mother’s face. To make things worse, she didn’t say a word to me and just looked away.
Her reaction annoyed me so much that I just went in to the loo, washed my face, tore the pins from my hair and just sat in the bathroom and cried. I could hear the irritation in mumma’s voice when she asked me to come out.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I quietly replied.
“It’s not your age to apply makeup. You’ll send wrong signals.”
She hugged me later but my mother and I never mentioned that day ever again. It was locked away from memory and forgotten. Of course, many incidents took place after that day. My Math tutor molested me the next summer vacation, on another winter vacation my first cousin who was staying with us, abused me for three nights and said “sorry” when I finally got over my fears and slapped him really hard. Then, when I joined college, innumerable strangers would feel up my friends and me in the local buses. I still remember how a friend came crying to college after a man had groped her in broad day light in front of onlookers who did nothing but snigger in hushed tones. Much later, while going out for assignments as a journalist, it was routine for fat, middle-aged uncles to get down of their cars and Vespa scooters, stick their faces in front of me and groan, “Let’s go”.
No, I don’t think I wore kajal back then.

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Take that risk?

November 20th, 2009

Discovery Channel will showcase a documentary on Mumbai 26/11 on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of the brutal killings and the “hi-tech cat-and-mouse game” as the docu called it. While, of course, the docu is a very moving story that takes one back to that horrific time when Mumbai was held hostage, what I also found captivating was a young man’s confession who was, at the time, caught in the midst of all the horror and saw it unfold in front of his own eyes. “My life became a slide show in those split seconds and I realized that I hadn’t done so many things…. I hadn’t played pool… I wanted to learn the guitar,” he said and then made a last ditch effort to save himself.
He did save himself.
Amit Peshave, the restaurant manager at the Taj, Mumbai, is shown playing the pool in the last segment of Surviving Mumbai, the docu which will be shown on Discovery on November 26, 2009 at 8 pm. It’s one of the most endearing images, one that essentially shows how important the simplest things in life are, especially at a time when you’re dangling by that weak thread between life and death.
And I’m sure, many of us, without feeling the fear of death, can relate with that feeling too. On a personal — and a completely different — note, call it mid-life crisis, call it completion of 10 years of writing but I’ve now started feeling lethargic, out-of-sorts and completely withered in the office arena. Strangely enough, it’s a battle in my own head, one that I’m fighting every single minute. And, perhaps, that explains why I end up asking a good – and a very valuable — question to myself: “What is it that I really want?”
Theatre? Yes. Music? Yes. Working with kids in schools and NGOs? Yes. Working towards a completely new venture? Yes.
So, what stops me?
Risk.
But, if it wasn’t for risk, Alex Chamberlain, a guest at Mumbai’s Oberoi hotel, another place which witnessed the bloody siege, would’ve been a dead man. “I saw a door knob and I decided to escape even though there was a terrorist right in front of me. I didn’t know what lay ahead but I had to disengage myself from the rest of the group.” He tried convincing others – without much success – and managed to escape, and survived to tell his tale, along with another survivor who went along with him.
Why, Peshave too wanted to survive – “not at the cost of my guests but yes, at one point, I thought, I really should escape”. What’s more, the need to survive became so clear to him – “I had wanted to do a lot in life and I wanted a chance to live my dreams.” Like Peshave, Anjali Pullock, along with her husband, who was caught in the hostage drama confesses to thinking: “My life has never been exciting…. and I’ll just die.” Today, she holds her husband’s hands and takes the walk in the park: something that the couple was, perhaps, too busy to do otherwise.
Seyfi, another 26/11 survivor, in fact, takes his wife’s shriveling hands in his and says, “It’s a miracle to survive along with your spouse.” Today, the couple, who are, by their own admission, “madly in love anyway” don’t think twice before travelling to other destinations, helping each other in the kitchen and going for long walks and singing and dancing together whenever they get a chance.
There are two things that are common between all these individuals; tremendous luck factor peppered with that uncanny knack of taking that risk just when it was completely unexpected.
On the face of it, they’re doing nothing different — learning to play the guitar, going for a round of pool, sipping coffee at a nearby Barista, taking leisurely walks in the neighbourhood park, playing Scrabble with the spouse, going on weekend breaks. It’s no big deal, really, we might think.
But guess what? They took that one risk and survived to tell their stories. If they hadn’t there would be no Scrabble, no long walks, no dancing, no guitar, no music. Simple? Not quite, no?

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Rest in peace Nitin Luthra

September 22nd, 2009

My instant reaction was to delete the email from my account the minute I saw it. It was a mail from a leading private bank and it was about World Heart Day on September 27, 2009. It was about a free checkup that the bank had organised in partnership with another leading diagnostic centre.
This time, however, something had changed. For a change, the mail — which also gave details of WHO’s report, putting the number of those who die because of cardiovascular diseases at 17.2 million globally — wasn’t merely all about numbers. Suddenly, I could put a face in those million numbers.
I never knew him personally, but I’d met him very briefly — and only recently — at a party. He was from Mayo and being from the same school it was natural to smile at each other, wave our hands and go over and immediately find a connection and start talking about school, about the friends and other people that we had in common.
It was shocking, then, to wake up to the news of Nitin Luthra’s sudden demise. A close friend of mine, who had called up to inform us about his sudden death, had met him only three days ago at his place for dinner. Nitin had passed away in the wee hours of Monday morning, leaving behind his family, including his parents, his young wife and his four-year-old child.
The 33-year-old defence journalist had worked with Reuters and Dow Jones Newswire. He had moved to India Strategic only recently and I’m sure he had grand plans about the new job and for himself. What went wrong? Everything happened – it seems — almost immediately. Nitin, very unfortunately, had a cardiac arrest and had passed away.
I don’t know if there will ever be a way to console his wife, his parents. I don’t know if there ever will be a way to tell his little son just what happened to his daddy. I don’t know if they’ll ever heal. I don’t know how they’ll tell his little son that next month, on his birthday, daddy won’t be home.
I don’t know if his loved ones have even slept. I don’t know if they still think of it as a bad, bad dream wishing it had never ever happened. I don’t know how his parents must be feeling. I don’t know what his wife must be thinking.
I wonder what breaking stories Nitin was planning the next day. I wonder how he must’ve waited to wind up his work for the day, planning out his next morning, his next vacation, his next outing with his wife and child, his weekend break, his Diwali, his New Year’s Eve. Was he tired? Was his body asking him to stop working and thinking so hard? What happened? What went wrong?
Our generation is blamed of leading unhealthy lifestyles, we don’t exercise, we don’t eat, we’re junk food junkies, we’re this, we’re that… It’s all true, I suppose, and there’s no point denying that. Pollution levels in our city have exceeded permissible limits, we work too hard, in fact, we feel proud of working 24×7 and those who manage to come home from work by 5.30 pm (I don’t know anyone in my circle who actually manages to come home at a decent hour actually) are often made to feel guilty. And sure, we don’t eat fresh fruit, juices or even include enough fibre or have a healthy, balanced diet. Simply put, we are wrong, wrong, wrong. In more ways than one, we are wrong.
But once you look at Nitin’s four-year-old son, once you look at the emptiness in his wife’s eyes, once you see the helplessness and anger and rage and grief in the eyes of his parents, what is the answer that we will give them? How will we console them? What will – and what can – we say to them? WHO’s report will no longer be just about numbers for them. In that number there will be a name and a question for Nitin’s family.
 Why did Nitin die? They’ll search for an answer to that question for the rest of their lives.

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Theatre Calling

August 22nd, 2009

Confession time: I didn’t want to come back to work after a two-week break. Did I head to an exotic destination? No. Did I manage to get all the house work done? No. In fact, my home needs a LOT of attention right now. Did I just chill? Yes and no.

I joined a theatre workshop for two weeks and kept up my grueling schedule much to the disappointment of my parents. My father was ecstatic when I told him that I was taking a two-week break and not going out of the city. “Great, so you’ll stay with us for some time?” When I informed him that the leave was actually for a 10-day theatre workshop (1.30-5.30 pm everyday) he didn’t say much.

I come from a family where, despite all the good intentions perhaps, my parents never encouraged me, beyond a point, to pursue creative activities. They were aware of my interests in singing, dancing, acting and writing but just didn’t have enough exposure themselves to tap various avenues to nurture my talent. As long as I was singing to relatives and participating in school competitions, it was okay. But a ‘career’ in singing was a firm NO. She might disagree today but I remember my mum actually stating that my horoscope clearly mentioned that a career in singing would result in “an enemy murdering me”. And, trust me, even though I laugh at the thought now, at that time – I was 13 years old — it was a scary feeling. So, if they didn’t want me to go to Mumbai (Bombay in those days) for college, I argued meekly but never fought back. If they said, singing and dancing is good as a hobby but no, you can’t think of it as a career, I thought they knew what was best for me. If they patted my back in front of others and said, “She’s a good girl. She always listens,” I was happy and content. In that sense, I lacked the drive to pursue my own dreams. I was scared of going against them.

A lot of people in the entertainment industry with whom I speak to today (in the line of duty) share similar stories, tell me about times they were regarded as outcasts, how parents always screamed and shouted at their “wastrel son” or the “stupid daughter who thinks she can be a star”. I remember speaking to actor Deepak Dobriyal and asking him if those times, those taunts, those accusations hurt? “Of course, I was very upset then. But I knew my goal very well.”

And that’s where I faltered completely. I never had any risk-taking abilities (I don’t, even today) and back in college days, instead of going to the music society (which, in my college, was also riddled with politics back then) I wanted to catch films, share all sorts of gossip and coffee with my friends. Today, I do regret wasting all that time in college. I had a fixed pocket money of Rs 1,000 in college days (this had to include my sojourns with friends, money to board buses and buy books) and silly as it sounds, it never occurred that I could ask my dad to give me more money to attend plays and concerts, stuff that I used to secretly circle in newspapers promising to watch all of those when I would start earning myself. For the record, summer job was another strict NO for me.

Anyway, the theatre workshop that I’d attended recently brought back a flood of memories of my childhood days, my earliest dreams and ambitions, the confidence with which I used to get up, look my teachers in the eye and say, “Ma’am, I want to be a singer when I grow up.”

The workshop, hosted by Actor Factor (a Delhi-based theatre company) and conducted by Shelli Koffman had a mixed age group (15 and above). Needless to say, I was the oldest in the batch and every time I walked into the hall where the sessions were being held, I gaped at the confidence of youngsters and their desire to do a summer job and use the money to enroll themselves in the workshop. I was amazed at parents who would walk into the hall and sit silently, observing their children, enquiring from them if they liked the activity. I felt secretly happy when 14-year-old Vani, a girl from DPS mentioned that her parents, having observed her at a school play, thought she was inclined towards acting and promptly got her to the workshop. It felt good to look at kids making mistakes at the final production on stage and still finding the confidence to look at the audience and laugh. As for myself; it simply felt good to be on stage after all these years.

I had a fun-filled and an enriching time at the workshop. For the past 10 days, my life has revolved around theatre and creative activities that I’ve always loved but never knew where to begin. For the past 10 days I’ve been a youngster all over again. Only this time, I was far more confident, happier and far more content.

PS: This post was written two months ago. Right now, I’m a part of an advanced acting workshop and working towards a production — 6 pm to 10 pm every day — and we’ve finalised a folktale from Bihar, just in case you’re interested in the details.

Clichéd as it may sound, it’s never too late to pursue your dreams despite your job, your home and other commitments. Ask yourself, is there any activity that you want to take up despite your hectic schedule? Share it with us on the blog.

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Friends, their babies and my puppy

May 18th, 2009

I love children. I’ve never known what it is like to dislike them like many people (including my husband) who don’t particularly like being around them. I’ve taught toddlers when I was around 16 years old and unlike most of my school friends who used to be in shock at my patience (and who are proud mothers today), I always loved being with children. My mother who ran a school in Jaipur a long time ago, and where I did most of the teaching during my school vacations, used to think of me as a savior, promptly sending me to manage chubby toddlers at the kindergarten (sometimes the number was close to 25-30 in one batch alone).

I’ve never known why I’ve enjoyed the company of little kids. I love chattering away with most of my friends’ kids (all in the age group of 3-6) and find it almost therapeutic being with them. “You don’t have to look after them 24×7 that’s why,” feels one friend while there’s another friend (whom I’ve known for the past several years) who’s even more blunt: “Oh, these people who don’t have their own babies think children are all so cute and cuddly.”

I get my friend’s point. She (let’s call her Sonal) was a powerhouse of talent in school and college but didn’t have any regular job as one would’ve expected her to. A writer with a city magazine to begin with, she got into publishing for a brief while but not before trying copywriting at another small firm. Later, Sonal married and moved to LA and there she worked with one of the leading directors on a film that never got made. By her own admission, though the job sounded glamorous, her work was to keep the coffee in constant supply for the director and his guests. And no matter how close we once were as friends, I can’t help but think of how we drifted away; a) by her constant taunts of reminding me that I’m childless, b) her own discomfort at seeing me as a career woman. What I also witnessed over time was her obsession with her child (“It’s a fulltime job, bringing up a baby, but you won’t understand it Abhi” I was told) and this includes her desire to not send her child to school because she can’t bear the thought of her child facing all that heat and dust!

Truth be told, I have gone through my own phase of depression when friends have announced the arrival of the stork, have done their bit of work to have “complete families” in that they have two children and can breathe easy when they go for social gatherings. And without wanting to sound too melodramatic, I’ve cried, even drank out of depression (okay, just twice, but I still have) and felt miserable for myself. Some relatives have advised me to keep “12 bhraspati var vrat” and sleep in a certain direction and do other (too objectionable to be written and read here) things the right way! I used to feel pathetic earlier but I don’t now and I frankly don’t know why.

foxie1.jpgMay be it’s a coping strategy or maybe I’m just so happy to look after Foxie, a stray pup that my husband and I adopted eight months ago. I love readying her breakfast, giving her a bath, cuddling next to her and watching her grow. I could be wrong but it’s a nice feeling to see my maternal instincts get channelized in what I can safely call the right direction. By that, I don’t mean pets can replace children. No, but somehow I’m more comfortable, more at ease with the situation than I was ever before.

It could be because of my friends too and through whose eyes I see glimpses of today’s parenting and understand how — and why — children are such a big responsibility. Sadly, I also find how terrible it is to just “have” children as opposed to “want to have” children. A school friend (I’ll call her Akshita) who remarried two years ago and almost immediately got pregnant (her mother-in-law and her husband only talked babies with her, even discussing her period dates to calculate her “fertile days”) was happy when she delivered a healthy baby. But her pregnancy (she conceived within four weeks of her marriage) was riddled with angst; her husband, she realized, around that time, had a drinking problem and she found herself going through tremendous depression each time he came home drunk and even remembers going over to her neighbour’s place to bring him back home. She’s been slapped and beaten too; all this while she was pregnant. Now, after two years of her so-called marriage, she’s forced to think of separation. And while divorce is still such a taboo in our society, having a child, she thinks, have only weakened her chances to get out of this messy situation.

Then there’s another friend (we’ll call her Khyati) who, having had an extra-marital affair, has moved out and filed for a divorce from her husband but not before willingly giving him the custody of their five-year-old child. The first hearing comes up in two weeks time and the child — who hated the idea of seeing “Mummy with uncle and not papa” is already kicking, beating and even biting other classmates in school. Khyati, a housewife, who had moved out of her home to be with her boyfriend, is now, naturally, pining for her child. She’s confused, “feels like having the baby back with her sometimes” while her former husband is irritable because the personal problems have meant a drastic decline in his project work. And the last time I met them (separately, of course), their first words were: “If only this child wasn’t around, it would’ve been so much simpler.” But the child is there, more cranky as ever and while I’m hopeful that he’ll deal with the situation in the long run, it did break my heart to even hear the parents say that.

So every time I talk to my friends about their children (without thrusting too many of my own opinions and views), I hear just one thing: “You won’t understand because you’re not a mum.” They are right on one account: I’m not a mum. But they’re wrong on another: I understand. And understand it only too well.

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More than just a conversation

March 17th, 2009

“I was in a medical college in Allahabad. I was so happy that my hard work had paid off and I was going to fulfill my dream of completing my medical studies. It’s tough you know; it’s not easy to clear these exams. I was enthusiastic of joining a new place, a new college. I wanted to make friends and study and party and enjoy myself too.”
I smile at the other end of the phone. I wish we could’ve met right away, I say to him. It’s so much better to meet and talk such stuff. Harsh – no, not H-A-A-R-S-H that means cruel in English; Harsh, as in, joy, that’s what your name means, silly – are you sure you want to tell your story?

“Yes. I do. But I’ll conceal some details till we meet face-to-face, alright?”

Right.

“I’m an easy-going person. I enjoy music a lot, I’m serious about my work, which is not to say I’m boring and just studious. I’ve had a good friend circle but over the years, either I’ve matured too quickly, or they’ve been left far behind. I do not know but life has changed. I am fiercely protective of my parents (like any other son). I want to think of a bright future for myself. After all that’s happened with me,” he sniggers, “I’m still hopeful.”

How did it happen?

“Ha ha, you want to really move very quickly, huh?”
No, no, I’m sorry, it’s not that. I…
“It’s okay. You don’t have to explain yourself. Explaining oneself is very difficult. I know it. I’ve done a lot of explaining to the teachers, to my parents, to some of my friends, to the bureaucracy, to government agencies, to the police. All I did for two years was to try and explain myself to others.”
Did you succeed?
(Dry laughs on the phone for half-a-minute at least)
Did you succeed?
“I don’t know if I did. I’m not a doctor, you see. I never finished my medical studies.”
You called it quits because of what others did to you? What’s wrong with you? You lost out on your dream of wanting to become a doc?

 

“Oh, the same set of dialogues. Wish people would at least say the same thing in a different way. Like, say it with a feeling, in a tone that’s conveys anything but frustration. Say it like you were sitting in a fancy café, sipping on cappuccino and just, you know, discussing your recent shopping jaunt with a friend. Or, like you were on a picnic, or on a long walk with a pal, and just talking, y’know, just chatting.”

 
Hey, sorry, I just blurt it out. I didn’t mean to…

 
“No, it’s okay. Like I said, I’m used to it. My own voice shakes when I talk about it. I mean, it’s alright for me to talk about the incident — or incidents, because it went on for one whole month, every single day, every single night – but I often shiver and feel the tremble in my voice. I want to control it, catch hold of my neck and say, “Shut up, and talk properly,” but that would mean I’m turning into a villain too. What would be the difference between them and me? Yes, it happens. Stanford has done research to find out why bullying exists, why people become rude, why youngsters – and children too — are ragged. Very often, the research found out, victims become perpetrators and that’s why stuff like bullying and ragging exists.”

 
You’re right. I remember when I was in the first year of college. I promised myself – along with others in my gang – that I’ll rag simply because I’ll be in a position to. I’m hopeless at debates, I’m pathetic when it comes to fighting for my rights, I barely have a voice with which I can defend myself even as a 32-year-old. So I cry, I cry even today. But, listen, this is your story. Please go on.

 
“Hmmm, alright. But bullying, rude talk can happen in offices too. It’s alright to cry, it’s alright and it’s not stupid.”

 
A friend, in front of whom I cried about some office matter, said the same thing yesterday. And I felt much, much better. But, listen, would you go on with your story, please? I don’t want the attention on myself.

 
(Sighs jokingly) “Women are always so impatient. Okay, I was ragged. I was ragged very, very, badly. I won’t give you more details but you can let your imagination run wild. I was unable to face myself. I thought, ya’ar, this is the done thing in college. I can’t be so chicken, after all, I’m preparing to be a doctor. But every night (I was scared to even shut my eyes, by the way) I thought it was becoming unbearable. I spoke to the principal and he was sweet; he patted my back reassuringly. It felt nice, very nice, in fact, and then I waited. I needed action. I waited. I deserved speedy justice. I waited. I needed to set things right. I got ragged that night by a group of seniors who came into my room and then asked me to … I waited. I cried. I waited. I ran to the loo. I got ragged there too. I screamed. I waited. I begged. I waited. I packed my bags. I waited. I cried, ‘Mamma’ like a 4-year-old who had been hit in the mud by four bullies. I wanted to hug my mum. I also wanted to pee very badly. But I was so scared to go to the loo. I waited. Yes, I just waited.”

 
By this time, I start crying. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I can’t hear anymore.”

 
“I couldn’t bear to stay there any longer. My parents fetched me, we came back to Delhi. For two years, I ran to get admission in any other medical college and authorities, seniors, elders laughed. My parents persuaded me to go back. I didn’t flinch. Yes, parents we can bully no? So I didn’t budge. ‘I’m not going back,’ I told Pa. They sighed. Their dreams of seeing their son as a doctor were shattered. Some professors came to meet me. Sweet na? They told me, ‘Beta, you are lucky. You didn’t spend six months in a hospital; that’s how ragging can be — and has been — in this medical college.’ At that time, I wanted to bear my soul and show them the scars but that wasn’t possible. I mean, you can’t rip open your heart and tell these profs, ‘See Sir, I’ve been hurt here, and here, and here.’ Even Majnus and Romeos never managed that.”

 
What do you do now?

 
“I wasn’t given a seat in any other medical college in the country and after two years I decided that I’d had enough. So, along with two other guys with whom I was in touch on an online anti-ragging community, I decided to run and support an anti-ragging forum. Anytime, anyone needs us, we’re there to show our support, our understanding. I wouldn’t use lofty words like, ‘mission’ or ‘aim’ or ‘goal’ to describe our forum, but if anyone wants to connect with us, we are there. We hope to sensitize people at large, we pray that ragging (which isn’t ‘fun’ or ‘easy’ as most people believe) will get eradicated someday. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

 
You are a brave-heart. And you know what, you’re still a doctor. You are, after all, treating the society at large.
 

Dear friends, if you know of any person, organisation and/or forum, working towards the cause of eradicating ragging, please inform me on my id abhilashaojha@gmail.com

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Gurgaon to Delhi (everyday)

March 2nd, 2009

I moved to Gurgaon in 2002 and lived there till 2006 before shifting to Mayur Vihar. Though people knew that commuting there was a hassle (still is, I hear) a typical reaction of friends was: “Wow! Gurgaon, huh. That’s where all the malls are.”

Despite the so-called malls and multiplexes, Gurgaon was a miserable, hopeless place. In fact, what you read about Gurgaon in the newspapers today are problems that had started a long time ago. I remember commuting in those “RTVs” (small, match-box sized buses) and jostling for breathing space everyday before reaching office in ITO. It took me close to 1.5-2 hours every day, one way. We used to have a chartered bus leaving from Sushant Lok-I everyday at 7 am and another small bus that left at 9.30-10 am. Oh, we were promised another bus at around 12.30 pm but we could bet a million bucks and be sure of the fact that it was an invisible bus. The conditions of these buses were hopeless with creaking seats and parts (such as nails) jutting out from the seats. The buses (if - and when - they moved) drove at maniacal speeds and the thought of elderly people sitting wasn’t ever a consideration. The buses dropped us to AIIMS and from there used to begin another journey; haggling with auto-wallahs for the fare to reach ITO. By the time I used to reach office, I used to think of it as a job well done. I used to pat my back, eat some food, pray for death, get some work done and quickly start planning how to get back home. 

If reaching Delhi from Gurgaon was a trip, going back to the “mall village” was another adventure. You see, a bus left every day from INA market at 5.30 pm. There was no way that I could go on that bus because of office commitments. Anyway, my target used to be trying to catch the 6.30 pm bus (another RTV) which used to leave, most of the times, by 6 pm. “Bus full hoh gayi toh nikal gaye (The bus got full so we left)” was the perennial excuse given by the conductor. In this scenario, I had two choices; either reach Mehrauli and then take a bus to Gurgaon, or brace myself to get into those call-centre cabs where drivers were charging Rs 10-20 (the fare depending completely on whether it was a brand new SUV, or a rickety one). 

It used to be a challenge; jostling past people, running to nearest traffic signal (since the traffic cops didn’t allow these vehicles to stop near AIIMS) and praying all the while to manage a seat. There were times when I was lucky to get the corner seat and I just didn’t want the journey to end. It was so tiring to run after vehicles that finally, when one did get a chance, it was a treat to soak into the luxury of a partly-torn seat while also listening to some music. The rising whiff of body odour, the cheap comments made by some men in the same vehicle, a middle-aged “uncle” feeling up and saying sorry every time his hand, under the briefcase, brushed and brushed and brushed your thigh till you looked him in the eye, smiled and said aloud, “Uncle, please don’t do that. I hate it,” was usual, par for the course. The vehicle (if I arrived at AIIMS later than 6.30 pm) would drop me outside Bristol Hotel or near one of the malls and from there I used to hail a rickshaw for Rs 50! (I was mugged too, right in front of the lane where I used to live, while I was sitting in a rickshaw one evening, by two young men on a bike). By the time I made it home it used to be 8 pm and after a quick dinner and some TV watching, it was time to crash out to start another crazy ordeal. 

The next morning? Oh, it was just another day.

PS: Please don’t send comments like, “Don’t you know how to drive?” I don’t. I don’t think I ever will.

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Ours really is a water tight apartment

February 20th, 2009

“Bharat mein doodh kee nadiyan behtee hain (In India, milk gushes forth like streams)” This is the sort of stuff one read in schoolbooks, watched in Manoj Kumar’s films and I think I may have even sung some sort of anthem in school’s morning assembly sessions. Anyway, what I studied and watched and sang as a kid is what I believe — finally — today as an adult.

Oh yes, India is the land where milk is in abundance – I only buy tetra-pack stuff and even keep milk powder just in case my pet dog — or I — have midnight cravings for it. India is also the land where you’ll find the right stuff to mix in the milk too. No, not just coffee, there’ll be Maltova, Bournvita, Boost, Horlicks - for kids, growing kids and women too - besides others. Then there’s hot chocolate, cold coffee, ice-cream, dahi, probiotic milk, there’s everything.

Now, logically, I wish, I’d learnt that India was also the land where simple H20 too gushed from the zillions of streams. In Delhi’s Saket area, where I’ve been residing for the past one-and-a-half years, you’ll find everything, milk (okay, fine, I’m saying it the last time), Bisleri bottles (in 1- 2- 5- and 20-litre bottles respectively), Baskin Robbins, Häagen-Dazs, gelatos and what have you. And there’ll be healthy juices served at your doorstep from the neighbourhood grocery store.

But, but, but… there’s no water here. At least in the area where we live (where “kothis” cost over Rs 1 crore easily) there’s never any water. Ever.

Our area’s “water slot” is from 3-5 am and 3-5 pm respectively. Since we’re a working couple, the question of filling water (except on Sundays when there’s usually no electricity) in the afternoon doesn’t arise so what do we do? Wake up every other day and start our day at 4 am, fill water for an hour and then try and catch up on our sleep. I hate it and never before have I had this urge to turn housewife, just for the sake of ensuring there’s enough water in the house to last at least a week.

The domestic staff is already calling us a mad, water-obsessed couple. I’m beginning to see why I hate all those serials and films where the hero looks forlorn into the mirror while the water from the tap fills up the sink. (Mr Ramadoss, forget smoking, someone should ban this). I feel like putting buckets of water when rain sequences are shown on TV. I don’t feel like swimming in the Sports Complex pool (actually,I don’t know how to swim), instead, I want to bring buckets and fill water for my home. I get excited when I see coloured buckets, drums in shops and even dreamt some days ago that I was filling my semi-automatic washing machine with water. Oh, and I hate the growing pile of dirty clothes but there’s precious little that one can do, not when there isn’t enough water. I feel nervous inviting guests over, wondering how many times they’ll go to freshen up, how many times they would need to wash their hands, how often will their children beg to “please, can we splash water in the sink aunty”.

Yes, in my life, I plan - no, not the menu - for parties (if there are any) just how much water needs to be there when guests arrive. My home is a growing chaos of baltis and drums and chilumchees but then that’s too bad. Taking showers is a strict no-no. We only take baths with the good ‘ol balti – (not more than 10 magaas; that’s my count). Even when I need to check if water is flowing in the taps, I make sure to collect it in a mug and transfer it to another bucket. Shekhar Kapur wanted to make a film on the water crisis, I’d heard. Maybe he could pay my humble home a visit and start his research.

Oh, by the way, did I tell anyone that I’m now used to washing my face with mineral water?

 

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I’m making a movie

February 16th, 2009

Director Anurag Kashyap walked up to director/actor/anchor/rock singer Farhan Akhtar and said, “Your sister has outshone you. She’s had a fabulous debut with Luck By Chance. She’s number one, you’re number two.” Farhan replies: “Yes, we decided to keep it in the family.”

I saw Luck By Chance and Dev.D recently and couldn’t stop wondering as to how incredible 2009 will be for “indie” films. I met an ad professional in Delhi’s messy Nehru Place and guess what, he was a producer too (for a Rs 5 crore film Jugaad. The film was destined to flop, it didn’t look right but the producer insisted that he had looked into the logistics and that he would recover the amount. But more importantly, he said, he wanted to tell a story (the film tells his own story, the producer had said to me). “It couldn’t have been possible in any other era. It’s only now that even I can thump my chest proudly and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve made this film.’” And he gives me glowing examples of many others like him; an IIT graduate, a mass communication instructor, a graduate, an LA-based software engineer; all individuals who want to produce or direct films. Forget, for a moment, the fate of these films at the BO. Isn’t it simply fascinating that we are living in an era where people like you and I can actually dream of writing scripts, directing and even funding movies? Why, I find it doable to actually sit with a bunch of like-minded friends for a get-together, work on an engaging script and chip in to even fund a film. What’s more, in today’s day and age, it just might work and who knows, we could even break even.

No wonder then that the “Indie” fest in India is a mini-industry in itself. You’ll have Abhay Deol working on films that he believes in, you’ll have Farhan Akhtar acting in films despite the fact that he doesn’t have the face of a “conventional” good-looking hero (if you know what I mean). Then there’ll be directors like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Neeraj Pandey, Sriram Raghavan who’ll make films that are closest to their hearts, scripts that appeal to them. Talk to the makers of this kind of cinema and they’ll tell you that it’s way to early for the “indie” movement to take off (Deol even said that our industry is now at a stage where Hollywood was in the 70s). But most of them are happy that they’re experiencing celluloid at their own pace, in their own style. 

And to feel the charm of the celluloid spill over to individuals like you and me is even more fascinating. So if there’s a story in your head, take it seriously and translate it into a visual delight. Who knows, you could be toasting it in the next film festival in LA!

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