Vinu

I remember the driver of the bus I used to take to work when we had first moved to Kerala. Those were days when I was going through the worst phase of my life- loneliness, lovelessness, exhaustion and fear. Whenever I travelled, I desperately wanted to protect my anonymity, and so, my earphones were my defence from nosey strangers who seemed to be all over the place, and did not mind intruding, inquiring. Every day, I would board the bus, sit at the same place, plug in my earphones, and look out through the window. I completely ignored the stares of the passengers and hardened the expression on my face, if I perceived the slightest threat of intrusion. However, the evening trips were different.  A bunch of school kids would board the bus, and the bus would be lit up with their din. I was particularly surprised by the way the driver interacted with the kids, becoming one with them. 

He was a young chap, in his twenties perhaps, and he was brilliant with the kids. He knew each one of them by their names. He poked them, taunted them, played pranks on them, made them laugh, and they in turn, responded to him in the same language. I found myself smitten by the magic of these moments- this picture of oneness that I saw, unfolding in the spell of those moments. The bus would transform into an abode of happiness. Though I pretended to be detached and distant, the truth was that I was soaking it all, and revelling in these moments of uncorrupted happiness- the only happiness in the darkness of my life at that point in time. But I never dared to be open about it. For one, I was not sure if they would accept me as one of them- I was so different, both in appearance, and in my ways. And secondly, I wasn’t sure what people would make of such involvement, especially since I was a woman. So I sat quietly, secretly enjoying every moment.

One day, the driver was not to be seen. In his place was another person who demonstrated no affinity for the kids, no affinity towards this journey. When the children boarded, the feeling was not the same. They sat scattered, and though they talked and laughed amongst themselves, the oneness was profoundly absent. It was then that I realized that the driver had been the soul of the bus. He had brought each one of us under one umbrella of emotion- he had awakened the inner child in each one of us, and that was the power of his spirit. I was saddened by his absence. That day, I did not plug in my earphones. Instead, I just looked out of the window gloomily. 

“Are you not listening to music today?” a voice asked me.

I turned to see a plump, wide-eyed girl peering at me through innocent eyes. I remembered her as the primary target of all the pranks played in the bus when the driver was around. 

“No. Today, I don’t feel like it”, I replied to her with a smile.

My reply helped her find the courage to ask me more questions. She wanted to know everything about me. Who was I? Where did I live? Where did I come from? Where did I work? The questions were endless. By then, all the other kids had surrounded us. They were holding on to every word I said. I was amused and I patiently answered, realizing children were so much more accepting of differences, as opposed to adults. 

Finally, the wide-eyed girl asked me,”Can I touch your earrings?”

I laughed. 

“Sure”, I said.

I could see they had accepted me. The wide-eyed girl’s name was Akshita. Her rival was a lean, outspoken boy called Mithun, who never missed an opportunity to take a dig at her. Suddenly, they were all talking to me at once. They told me their names, gave me a description of their homes and families, and also let me into their little secrets.

“So where is your driver- the regular one?” I asked them.

“He is down with flu”, they replied.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“He lives in our neighbourhood”, they replied.

“So you know him for a long time now?”

“Yes. From as far back as we can remember!”

“Hmm. What is his name?”

“His real name or his nickname?” Mithun asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.

I laughed.

“Both”, I said.

“His real name is Vinu”, Mithun said aloud. Then he drew me close to him and whispered something into my ear. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I guessed it was the nickname they had given him.

“Don’t tell him we told you”, he said.

“Of course not”, I promised.

By the time Vinu got back, the character of the bus had changed. I had become one with the children. I still wasn’t sure how I ought to react to him though, especially because society is so conservative in these places. So I avoided talking to him directly. He took the cue and did the same. I could see he was amused by this unexpected change in my behaviour, and also perplexed by what had triggered this change in his absence, but he just flowed with the change. So the bus was once again alive with taunts, pranks and laughter, just that this time, I too was a part of it all. Remarks we made were sometimes meant for each other, but we never had the courage to address each other directly. We always addressed it to the children. We also avoided looking at each other directly. Though it felt awkward at the time, in retrospect, those were the most beautiful moments from that phase of my life. In that silence between us was something so pure, so beautiful, so sacred.

I was profoundly attracted to aspects of his personality-the inherent happiness of his nature, the freedom of his spirit, the inner child in him that dominated his personality. I wondered how it was possible for him to be so happy. I desired to know everything about his life. But we never spoke to each other. It was an unvoiced rule we had made for ourselves.

And then, he disappeared again.

“He has gone to Sree Chitra with his sister. She has a heart valve problem”, the children said to me.

That night, after all the chaos at home had settled, and I was all by myself, I sketched him. I had never sketched anybody from imagination; I had only imitated. But at that moment, there was something of his spirit that came floating into my mind, and I tried sketching his side-profile, so that the features didn’t have to be clear. I tried projecting the attitude instead- him, sitting by the wheel, his chin up, the eyes looking straight ahead, and the self-confident manner in which he sat (quite unlike the self-conscious me).  I was surprised at the outcome; there was a strong resemblance. 

Next day, I hesitantly took out the sketch and showed it to the children. They instantly recognized him. They were thrilled and before I could protest, Mithun had snatched it from my hands and tucked it into his bag. He refused to give it back to me.

Next day, Vinu was back at the wheel. But he was unusually silent. I was anxious. Had the children given him the sketch and was that the reason for his silence? Or was it something to do with his sister’s ailment? I looked at his face and tried to find a clue. He suddenly turned around to look at me. I flushed.

To avoid further embarrassment, I asked him, “So did you take your sister to Sree Chitra?”

“Yes, she needs an operation”, he replied.

This was the first time that we had directly spoken to each other.

Subsequently, when the bus had stopped, Mithun took out the sketch and gave it to him.

“She drew you”, Mithun said, pointing at me.

I was distinctly uncomfortable. What would he make of it? What would he think of me? Why did I do this? At that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. I saw him studying the sketch, smile, and then fold it and put it in his pocket, never once looking at me. Nor did he say anything. He just drove on, as if nothing had happened. I wondered what he would do with that sketch. Preserve it or throw it?

But after that day, there was a change in his attitude to me. A care, a concern that he demonstrated rather subtly, but I could sense it. Little things like making sure I had crossed the road safely after I had alighted, or waiting until I had seated myself. Little things like that which he had never bothered with before. He had mellowed down, and the kids took advantage of it. They roped me in and played all kinds of pranks on him, with me as their leader. He would smile and laugh, but he stopped reverting back aggressively. He liked to lose. I could sense he didn’t want to ‘defeat’ me, even though these were mere games.

One day, the kids invited me home. Vinu was surprised when he saw me get off the bus with them. The kids were excited; they wanted to show me off to their families. They made me a celebrity and I had to visit every house. The whole village seemed to know that I would be visiting and at every house, people had gathered to see me. Old grandmothers held my hand affectionately and fed me unniappams. People had endless questions to ask me, and the children would finally come to my rescue. I had no more space for unniappams, but I didn’t want to disregard their sentiments, so with Mithun’s help, I stuffed them into a paper bag. They were simple village folk, and they reminded me of the people from my childhood- warm, affectionate, and soulful. The children took me to the pastures and showed me places where turmeric grew, where water lilies blossomed and where the goats grazed, bleating occasionally. I felt like Heidi, sitting with Peter on the top of a mountain, delighted at the wild flowers, the wild berries, and the splendour of the sun rays that bathed these mountains. They also took me to Vinu’s house. His house was full of people- parents, grandparents, cousins. I spoke to his sister about her ailment. Suddenly, we heard some noise up in the trees. We looked up to see a pack of monkeys. “Your brother’s friends”, I remarked. She laughed.

When I returned home that evening, I thought back to the day. They had treated me as if I was a celebrity- a star in the sky. But they did not know that they had everything that I could only dream of. They did not know the horrors of my world- its loneliness, its emptiness, its darkness, its numbness. They did not know that there were things that money could not buy. They did not know how empty life was in the absence of human connection. I was so grateful to them. For that one day of warmth, togetherness and affection. For helping me feel the joy of life flooding through my veins again.

The next day, I was quiet. I was still reeling from the contrast of our worlds. 

“I am not very responsible, am I?” Vinu abruptly broke into my reverie.

I looked at him with a question mark on my face.

“I know I am a monkey”, he said.

I couldn’t stop laughing. 

“Please don’t stop being one”, I said to him.

We lived many more beautiful moments in that bus. But all along, I was aware it was all coming to a close. I knew the end was inevitable. But I had no complaints. People had started to interpret our association, and I wanted to withdraw before people could colour the sanctity of what we shared with the ugliness of their minds. So we slowly faded away from each others’ lives.

“Don’t ever change”, he said to me….

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Volatile

“I really like you, Pooja. You are different. I love the way you think. I love your passion for the causes you believe in. Above all, you are such a genuine person”, he said to her.

She looked up at him.

“It is mutual, Vivek. I cherish your companionship”, she replied.

“A woman like you doesn’t deserve to be single, Pooja! You deserve to be loved and cared for. There is so much beauty in you. You are intelligent and thoughtful, and wise from life. And yet, you are sensitive, so full of warmth, innocence and compassion. That makes you very attractive. I think you are being very unfair on yourself, denying yourself the joy of a relationship. Do you realize what you are missing?”

She stood still, her eyes fixed on the tiny speck in the distance that appeared to be a boat sailing in the river.

Without shifting her gaze, she asked, “What am I missing, Vivek?”

“So much! You deserve to be held, hugged, kissed. When was the last time somebody hugged you? Don’t you miss these little things?”

She looked up at him and smiled.

“Sometimes. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But I have learned to live with not having these little things in my life.”

“But why? Why should you not have these little things in your life? You need to loosen up, Pooja.”

She sighed.

“No, Vivek. I don’t wish to go back to that life. I am strong now. Relationships make me weak and vulnerable. When I lose people, it is so hard for me to come out of the dependence. It is such a hard journey back to strength and independence. I can’t afford to put myself through that again. I have a lot of responsibilities and commitments. I do not have the luxury of time anymore- the time I take to heal and recover. Life will not wait for me. No, I have to be responsible.”

He shook his head.

” You have had bitter experiences in the past, Pooja. That is why you are scared to get into a relationship. Not everybody is the same. You should not hold on to the past; let it go. Free yourself from its clutches!”

“But shouldn’t you learn from your past?”

“Of course! But the learning should not snatch away your happiness.”

“What is happiness, Vivek? Is it holding hands, hugging and kissing?”

“I know what you mean. You may be happy doing the things you do, Pooja. But a relationships brings with it a different kind of happiness. And you deserve to experience that. I want to see you happy and free in the companionship of a man. In fact, I want to be that man for you. I promise you I will never hurt you or abandon you. I want you to feel secure so that you can experience the joy of a relationship. Give me a chance and I will never let you down!”

She continued to stare at the boat in the distance. It had become more visible now.

“You want to get into a relationship with me?”, she asked.

“Yes. And please don’t get me wrong. It was you I kept seeking all along in life. I ran into many women who I thought mirrored what I was seeking. But, from a closer perspective, they failed me. All along, I have been looking for you. But when I found you, it was to realize that I couldn’t own you. You were there, and yet not there. Sort of volatile. Please Pooja, I need you. I want you in my life.”

Her expression did not change.

” Why would you need me, Vivek?”

” I need you because I want to bring in happiness into your life. I want to see you smile. And I want to keep that smile for myself. I want to go to sleep with that smile in my head.”

Unruffled, she asked, “Give me a good reason as to why you need me in your life, Vivek.”

“Like I said, you deserve to be happy. And I want to be the one to make you happy.”

In the distance, she could hear the purring of the boat.

“What are you thinking?”, he asked.

She turned to him and said, ” Vivek, I was thinking of how we are speaking from such different platforms. You are a married man. You speak from within the security of a family. A family that can cater to your emotional needs on a day-to-day basis. There is very little for which you have to depend on me. You are like a man standing firmly on the bank of a river, without the risk of falling. For you, this relationship is an added dimension that you can give to your life- the joy of the intellectual companionship of a woman.”

The boat was now approaching the bank. She pointed to it and said,” I am like that boat, at the mercy of the river. I can be easily shaken. I do not have the security of a family to bank on. I have only myself. And so, if I were to get into a relationship, I would solely bank on it for my emotional fulfillment. Any turbulence in our relationship would put me at risk of falling into the river.”

She started to walk. He followed.

She continued:

“You don’t really know me. How would you? You have not seen me in my moments of vulnerability or dependence. I was always vulnerable, with a very fragile self-esteem. In my teens, I did not have a father to help me overcome the feelings of worthlessness I would often feel. And so, I was always looking for the comfort of a relationship. It was my fragile self-esteem that propelled me to seek relationships. I liked that feeling of being wanted, being cherished and valued. But then, I would so easily get used to the relationship- to the presence of a person in my life, to his gestures, his mannerisms, his responses and reactions. I would get dependent on the little things that you mention- the heart-to-heart conversations, the tenderness, the holding hands, the hugs, the kisses. I would see the very meaning of my life in the relationship; I was dangerously dependent on the security it provided me. So imagine my predicament when the relationship ended. It was like being withdrawn from life support.”

She paused and sat herself on the stone bench. He sat down by her side. She spoke, almost to herself, as if lost in a distant reverie.

“It was so hard to come back to life each time- come back to being comfortable with one’s own company. It was this realization- the awareness of my fragility and dependence, that made me refrain from stepping into relationships.”

She looked at him.

“Over the years, I realized that nothing was permanent. A relationship could never assure permanence. I myself was not permanent. I therefore started filling up my solitude with meaningful endeavors that would leave behind something for the world, long after I was gone. And this made me strong for I learned to become comfortable with my solitude.”

She took a deep breath and continued:

“I have to take very good care of my mind, Vivek. I cannot afford to get used to the joy of a relationship. It would be detrimental for both of us. Of course, I will miss the little things in a relationship. But when did life promise you that you can have everything you want? These are but little pleasures- transient, fleeting moments of happiness. I seek the kind of happiness that sets me free. To me, happiness is the freedom within my mind. I want to feel free; I do not wish to be tied down by a relationship. I do not wish to be accountable to an individual. I do not want my happiness to be dependent on an individual. I want to be free- to do all the things I am passionate about. I do not want the burden of guilt- of being into a relationship with a married man. I want to be free of all such feelings that bind me.”

She looked at him with a trace of affection in her eyes.

“What I have truly missed is the joy of companionship. The kind of unspoken companionship that thrives on a silent understanding of the other’s vulnerability, fragility, struggle and pain. I cherish such companionship. Let us not bring down our relationship to anything lesser than that!”

They sat silently for some time. He stood up. She stood up too. He held her hand and they walked in silence.

 

 

To love, and to be loved

Trying a hand at fiction…

I had seen the message notification in the morning, but I ignored it, certain it was from some random stranger. It was evening when I finally opened it.

“Happened to read your publication. And also the feature in the newspaper. Beautifully written! Keep writing!”, it read.

The profile picture was that of a little girl, clinging to a man who was in all likelihood, her father. I zoomed the picture and realised that the man in the picture was none other than Faisal. 

I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. Memories of London suddenly flooded my mind.

London is not a chapter that I open often. Not because I dread the memory, but because I cherish it way too much. Like the presents we cherish and open only when we are alone and free from preoccupation. I like to open it slowly, gently, and with much feeling. And then hold it close…become one with the memory.

But now, I found myself at the doorstep of this memory, unprecedented. I was hesitant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about those years for a long time now. There are memories that I like to carry in my mind as raw perceptions. Perceptions meant to be felt. I didn’t want to touch them and spoil their beauty with analysis. So I refused to share them; I never talked about them. I felt they were alive only within me, and they would die the moment I let them out. On every occasion that I unwrapped them, they overpowered me and rendered me speechless. In the dark solitude of my life, they often made me feel rich.

I ruminated on this text message for a long time, unsure of how to respond. It was like a little comet that had landed into my world from that land of fantasy. I thought about my life then. It was so full of people, so full of love. But after the lonely battles I fought and the numbness they left behind, I wasn’t sure how I was to respond to the warmth of this text message. Its warmth made me glad, but there seemed to be an infinite distance between the numbness that had become my natural state now and the emotions that this text was calling for. There seemed to be an infinite distance between this numbness now and the emotional excess that defined me in those years. I had changed beyond recognition. Necessary for survival, but at the expense of a precious part of me that I seemed to have permanently lost. Except within the confines of my mind.

I was struck by the child’s face in the picture. She had dimples and her curly hair was tied up into a pony. Faisal held her hand and she clung to the security it provided her. The picture was blissful. I could sense the deep meaning the child instilled in Faisal’s life. She was Faisal’s world. It made me happy. Happy that his life had not taken a bad turn after we parted. Happy that he had what I could never have given him. I suddenly felt free.

“Thank you, Faisal. I was surprised to hear from you. Is that your daughter in the picture? She is very cute”, I replied to him.

His reply was instant:

” Thanks for replying. You are a wonderful human being. Yes, she is my daughter. I did not have your contact details. I stumbled on your publication one day and tracked you down. Congratulations for all your achievements! I am so happy for you!”

I could sense the happiness in those words. Once upon a time, we were really close to each other. I could decode the emotions that fuelled his words. I could sense his joy now, at having found me. His uncertainty and silent quest had come to an end. He had found me and I had responded. He was at peace with himself.

“I am an ordinary human being, Faisal. Leading a very ordinary life. London feels like a distant dream now. I cannot believe I lived there once!”, I replied.

“You are a determined person. I feel you can achieve anything you set your heart on. I remember your inclination for writing and art”, he wrote back.

Achievements. The word always makes me smile. From the perspective of the system, I am more of a rebel and a failure, than an achiever.

I replied:

“Most achievements come from being a nobody, Faisal. When I moved back from London, I had no plans. It was suffering, loneliness and misery that I moved back to. But I guess that enriched me as a person. I saw much that I might not have seen otherwise.”

“Can I talk to you?”, he asked.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready. 

“I need some time, Faisal…”

“Don’t worry about the call if you are not comfortable. But I am honestly very happy with your achievements. You have done very well in life!”

I wondered why I wasn’t ready to talk to him. The last we had spoken was in 2005. After that, so much had changed. I had changed as a person. There was so much I hadn’t wanted to talk about, after London. How could I explain my journey thereafter? I couldn’t. I think the one journey that is best left alone is the journey of suffering. Somehow, that is a journey that you cannot risk talking about- the journey that broke you until you were born again. That journey is so sacred that you do not wish to undermine its value by verbalising it. I cannot talk to him about the millions of wounds that now lay within me. Wounds I had painstakingly sealed, all by myself. I was more comfortable with my mask. 

I thought back to my life with him. I remember what had brought us together. It was the journey of pain and suffering that he had travelled and that I could see in his eyes, though he spoke about it matter-of-fact. His father’s early death had put an early end to his childhood. He had learned to deny himself the pleasures that children of his age indulged in. He had witnessed helplessly his mother’s solitary struggle and that had seeded in him the urgency to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of the family. These circumstances had shaped his attitude to women. He was driven by the need to protect them and to shoulder responsibility. However, he believed that beyond this, a woman had no needs. As our relationship progressed, the monotony of it weighed heavily upon me. The beauty in my life gradually faded away. His inability to engage meaningfully and find joy in the little things in life- in conversation, in nature, in travel, in hobbies and art- it suffocated me. I found them all vanishing from my life. I felt a huge barrier come between me and the world. I found myself sinking into depression.

I found it hard to communicate this to him. Especially since it wasn’t something he could change. It was probably rooted in the fact that he had alienated himself from all these joys very early in life. For him, achievements were pleasure. And that was understandable. But my personality thrived on these simple pleasures. I couldn’t do without them. Perhaps, if he wasn’t so caring towards me, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to communicate this discordance in our personalities. But he was a wonderful human being and he cared deeply. That made it difficult.

While I was struggling to find the right words to communicate, he surprised me one day by speaking out my mind.

“You are in conflict. You feel suffocated being in this relationship, but you find it difficult to step out as well.”

He sensed it. I remember the melancholy in his tone when he said this to me and my heart went out to him. 

That conversation propelled me to try harder to stay in the relationship, but I realised that the natural course of our relationship was headed towards separation and so, it was futile working against the inevitable. Our relationship staggered as we found ourselves caught up in confusion, insecurity, guilt and agony. That made us a little bitter. When we parted, we were bitter. But now when I look back, I realise that bitterness was superficial. It was only human- a transient emotion that was necessary for us to find the courage to part ways without damaging our self-esteem.

I remember the freedom I felt when I stepped out of that relationship finally. I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a cold winter morning, eager to feel the warmth of the sunshine. I remember feeling the joy as the warmth of the bleak sunshine percolated into my senses. I remember feeling ecstatic at the aroma of coffee, at the sight of people walking on the sidewalks, at the sight of the ferries on the river. I remember feeling alive again.

But today, when I read his text message, I look at Faisal against the backdrop of the years after London- the years of loneliness and suffering. It is gratitude I feel- for what he gave me, and for what I haven’t had in my life for the last several years. 

Not that I miss him. Or that I repent or regret. But today, I see the abundance in him; I see his worth. And it makes me happy to see that he got what he always deserved and longed for- a family to come back home to, to call his own.

This makes me appreciate the irony of life. We don’t need happy marriages. What we need is truth- in our relationships, in our emotions. Unfortunate are the ones who lose love and their ability to love, to traumatic relationships.

Technology: My gateway to the past

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I must have watched about forty episodes of Buniyaad by now. I have lived the life of the resilient Lajo– from her youth to her old age. The orphan Lajo, who has learnt to take life in its stride, and has learned to laugh at her miseries. “Gaiety becomes ingrained in the character of one whose life is filled with misery“, remarks her uncle when Lajo responds to Master Haveli Ram‘s practised discipline with laughter and gaiety.

Buniyaad digs into the foundation of relationships. Buniyaad essentially explores the factors that shape the human spirit- the factors that nurture the human spirit and awaken man’s humanity, and also the factors that erode the human spirit and take man away from his humanity and from his own self . Buniyaad takes us through the lives and minds of people in relation to their circumstances.

The relationship between Lajo and Haveli Ram forms the core of this story. It is the strength of this relationship that forms a pillar and holds disintegrating family structures together, preserving and protecting humanity against all odds- the partition of India, the homelessness, the economic crisis, the differing motivational drives of the youth of the family, and much more.

The story therefore dwells generously on that phase where Lajo meets Master Haveli Ram, capturing those intricate moments that bind the two into a deep rooted relationship.

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The gentle, somewhat shy and hesitant Haveli Ram, a man of principles, and the high-spirited, playful and mischievous Lajo. Their personalities contrast, and yet complement each other.

Ramesh Sippy creates magic in these moments:

The laid back evenings when Haveli Ram tutors Lajo. The innumerable memories created in that hour that form the foundation of their subsequent relationship. Those tiny moments that may appear insignificant to a trespasser, but that weave the invisible threads of a deep-rooted relationship between the two. The grandfather clock ticks in the backdrop, as if marking these priceless moments in their lives. ‘Vichhovali’- Lajo’s uncles’s house in Lahore, transforms in these moments into a house that harbours the couple’s most precious memories. A house that is eventually orphaned at the time of partition when the family is forced to move out, reminiscent of millions of houses that stood as mute witnesses to the journey of human life- to the unfolding of the human spirit- its throbbings, its pangs, its woes. Houses that witnessed the woes of partition. Houses that witnessed the demolition of the human spirit as the ‘individual’ assumed importance and family structures disintegrated,  and money and power replaced human values.

There is something very Indian about this serial. One falls in love with the traditional Indian spirit, and understands the true meaning of love, respect, mutual regard, relationships, patriotism, womanhood, patience, kindness, compassion and other human values that today, are merely on paper. I think stories of those times dug deep into the cultural essence of our country. Today, the authenticity has been replaced either by blind conservatism or by rebellion and denial.

Take Indian women, for instance. There are women who believe that in their submissiveness to patriarchal systems, they are ‘upholding’ traditional Indian values. Such women are oblivious to the big gap between traditional values and conservatism. Conservatism is only an emblem; an emblem that is to be worn for the world to see, an emblem that conceals the darkness of their spirits. And then we have women who wear the emblem of individuality. Women who do not wish to be looked upon as submissive, and who wish to break free from the chains of tradition. Sadly, many end up denying their feminine qualities in the process. For many young women, abandoning the traditional lifestyle and embracing a western lifestyle, defines individuality. Most find their identity in their lifestyle.

Where are the Indian women who taught us that womanhood was a far superior quality for beauty lay in the feminine? Where are those Indian women who taught us that individuality was about the freedom of mind, and that the mind could find its freedom even beneath traditional garbs? Where are those Indian women who taught us that courage was not about the liberalism with which one dressed, but about confronting the horrors and tragedies of life, surviving them and outliving them? Where are those women who taught us that courage was not about sitting in the company of men and smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol , but about sitting in the company of men, and being able to talk intelligently about the subjects that concern human life on this planet… from politics to astronomy!The women who taught us the difference between rebellion and revolution?

One is mesmerized by Lajo and Veeravali, as they discuss the political scenario of the nation. ‘Somehow, my heart lies more in revolution than in these textbooks of literature and Mathematics!‘, says Lajo when Master Haveli Ram tutors her.

They are all unique in their own ways- Lajo, Veeravali, Mangala, Nivedita. And yet, there is something common to them- that traditional Indian spirit that gleams in their eyes, like a raw, uncut diamond. They are vulnerable and easily wounded. But within them is a spirit that enables them to outlive their personal tragedies. It is this resilience that makes them attractive- their refusal to be victimized by the tragedies in their lives…their ability to be wounded, and yet gather themselves up and walk again.

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Somehow, Buniyaad transformed my world. In this numbness that surrounds me, I always look for emotions. The opportunity to feel. To feel without having to think. To cry, to rejoice. And with the characters in Buniyaad, that is what I have been doing. I cry with them, I rejoice with them. And I find that I am suddenly able to do the same in my life. They teach me to pause in the course of my life, just so that I allow myself to feel…so that I can rejoice, and I can cry. They teach me that its is okay to be wounded…it is okay to cry. Just that you must be able to get up and walk again.

Technology is a boon. For many, it is a gateway to the future. To unknown possibilities. For me, it is a gateway to my past- to the emotional world that characterized my past-

It is a gateway to the forgotten essence of a rich tradition and culture that we somehow left behind.It is a gateway to the forgotten alleys where an ancient Indian spirit lies, trampled by the horses of globalization. It is a gateway to the humanity that once thrived on this planet.

I had never imagined that some day, I would be watching all the TV shows and cartoons that I watched as a child, recreating the magic of my childhood.

I have now moved on to the classic cartoons. I realize that even cartoon characters in those days were inspired by life. As I watch the adorable Pluto who is carried away by his impulses, but is moved to tears by the suffering of fellow creatures, I feel that perhaps these stories that made up my childhood, have played a huge role in shaping my perspective of the world. I strongly suspect that these stories that sowed the seeds of humanity in me and have expanded the horizons of my mind to embrace all living creatures as deserving kindness, empathy and compassion.

The past will never return, but I know that I will always belong to the past. Every step that I take into the future, will always have its foundation resting in the past- a beautiful and fragrant past. A past that has immortalized itself in my soul and that shall accompany my soul in its journey from this world. This beauty and fragrance is all that I shall carry from this world to the next…

Nobody understands me!

It was Saturday night. The phone rang. My friend was on the line.

‘How is it possible for me to get back to this marriage, after all that he has done? It is a question of my integrity. He expects me to get back with him, considering the picture he has painted of me to my children? How will my children ever respect me again? He expects me to forgive him, considering the humiliation I have suffered on account of him? What respect will my parents, my relatives and our family friends have for me? I can never forgive him for this. Everybody wants us to get back together, but how? For the kids, they say. But am I not a person too? Don’t I have a right to my life? What about my feelings? Why is nobody seeing that? ‘

These were my friend’s words to me as she talked to me about the current predicament that had destroyed her peace.

I was aware of her suffering. And I was aware that this suffering was chronic. She had endured this for years now. Her husband had always failed to see her emotional needs. They remained unfulfilled. These unfulfilled emotional needs had thereby governed her attitude to life.

On Sunday, my friend sent me a voice recording of her conversation with her daughter.

‘So what have you guys decided, Ma?’

‘About what, baby?’, my friend asked her.

‘About the separation. I don’t want you guys to separate, Ma!’

‘Listen, baby. You don’t think about all this now. Your exams are round the corner. You concentrate on that. When you come home for vacation, we will all sit together and discuss about this.’

‘How can I not think about it, Ma? When people take such stupid decisions, how can I not think about it?’

The child had started crying.

I listened to the entire conversation, including the child’s conversation with her dad. There was only one question that the child was struggling with:

What about my feelings? Why is nobody thinking about me? Why is nobody understanding me?

I was devastated after listening to that conversation.

The subsequent week, my friend’s parents had come over to meet me.

‘She is our daughter. And while we do understand that it is difficult for a woman to put up with such psychological assaults, she is equally responsible for these issues. All along, her solution to all the problems in her life was escapism. Her life style, her friends circle, and the current predicament, is as much the outcome of her flawed ways, as her husband’s flawed behaviour.’

These were her father’s words. He added:

‘I have long given up on my daughter. She does not know the value of relationships. Her relationship with her parents and with her own children are very shallow. She lives in the belief that she is wise, but in truth, she is a fool. Being proficient in your job or being technology savvy have very little to do with the wisdom of life. I wonder when she will understand this. Has she ever thought about our sorrow as parents? There has not been one gesture on her part that has ever made us feel that she has any concern for us. Her mother is only an unpaid servant in her house. Not once, will she sit down with her mother and have a conversation. Not once has she called me and asked me about my well-being. Our simplicity is no longer acceptable to her. It no longer matches her status.’

I sighed. These parents were also struggling with the same feelings-

What about us? Why doesn’t our daughter understand us?

After they left, I sat down at my desk. As I ruminated on the issue, my eyes fell on the DVDs that I had piled up on the table. I scanned through them. I stopped when I came across the poster of ‘Sneham‘. On an impulse, I decided to wathc the film all over again.

Sneham, written by T.A.Razak, who passed away recently. Director Kamal had written a long column on his memories of T.A.Razak. I started watching the film.

Sneham is the story of Padmanabhan Nair, who is compelled to take up the role of a father to his younger siblings, on account of the untimely death of his father. Padmanabhan Nair manages the household to the best of his abilities and caters to the emotional and financial needs of his siblings. His deep reverence for his father forms the basis for the meaning he derives from this role. He keeps to himself his struggles and hardships. The siblings fail to understand the hardships and sacrifices that have gone into this journey, and refuse to acknowledge this. They choose their own paths and devalue the merit of their older brother. Despite Padmanabhan Nair’s shock and hurt at the insensitivity of his siblings, he accepts their inability to understand or value his feelings. This acceptance enables him to move on, despite the fact that his altruism causes him to sacrifice the very woman he had loved and intended to marry.

As his siblings desert him, he shifts his attention to the invalid Manikutty who is his neighbour and who is paralyzed and bed bound. Manikutty has no expectations of life; she regards herself as worthless and her physical dependence on her mother causes her much sorrow. Manikutty liberates her pain in her paintings and creative pursuits. She lets the world come in through the window of the room that she is confined to. The window is her window to the beautiful perceptions of a world that is denied to her- the breeze, the rain, the sunshine, the darkness, the light of lamps in the darkness, the thiruvathira songs that come floating in the silence of the night…

Manikutty’s fragile world is sustained solely by her mother for they have no family to fall back on. One night, her mother succumbs to an acute abdominal pain and dies. Manikutty’s world is shattered.

I started crying as I watched this part of the film. I paused the film. I always cry when I watch this segment of the film. Those helpless and lonely moments that are lurking in the darkness, waiting to throw us off balance, while we go about our lives, unsuspecting.

We spend all our lives, complaining about not being understood. We believe that others are responsible for our misery because they do not understand us and do not value our feelings. It is only when life snatches those elements of our lives that we have always taken for granted that we learn to appreciate the abundance in our lives.

Lohithadas once said:

Life will not warn you. It will not ask you if you can swim. It will just throw you into the sea…without warning. You will cry and scream, but nobody will rescue you. And then, you will learn to swim in the sea. For that is the only choice you have! You will swim and survive, or you will drown.

You cannot question the unfairness of life. You cannot expect life to understand you. You have no choice but to embrace all that life metes out to you.

I think once this understanding seeps into us, we become more accepting of life and of people. And that acceptance often moulds us into individuals who have immense potential at resilience. And resilience is a far superior trait in the art of survival, than is intellect or logic.

It is not the strongest of species that survive, but the most resilient- the ones most capable of change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These paths-6

She stood in front of me, smiling. I blinked.

Eight years had passed. It was unbelievable. But today, as she stood in front of me, smiling as she always used to, I felt nothing had changed. The years in between vanished from memory. I felt as if I had never left Anjarakandy.

You haven’t changed!’, she said to me.

Neither have you’, I replied.

I have a baby now!’, she said to me.

I know’, I said.

You never kept in touch! I tried contacting you on so many occasions. Your number had changed. I even thought of visiting your house to get in touch, but I thought you might have locked up the house and gone’, she complained.

Life changed a lot, you see. It was a tough battle. The situation was worse than it was when I used to work here. I just found myself drifting with the flow’, I replied.

I remember how it was for you’, she sighed.

We were both silent for a moment, lost in reflections of the past.

Dad passed away. In 2011’, I continued.

We talked about life after Anjarakandy. I told her about the events surrounding my father’s death.

What about your father?’, I asked.

He passed away too. In sleep. It was a good death.

I nodded. I remembered her account of her life with her father. He had never given the family a moment’s peace. I couldn’t believe there could be fathers like that. Her brother had taken his place. He used to run the household from a young age. The clashes between father and son were severe. The son would walk away and the father would vent out his anger on the women. The women were the ultimate victims. They had learnt to accept it as their lot. They had reconciled with the fact that it was a man’s world.

How about ECG ummumma’?, I asked her.

She laughed.

You remember her? She passed away too’. She replied.

How could I forget her? The lady who had put to good use the ECG recording and used it to fuel the chulha! How could one forget her?’, I replied.

So how is your married life? How does it feel to be married?’, I asked her.

I think the best life is to have the luxury of solitude. My husband is a good man. So are his parents. But marriage has brought with it responsibilities that I had never anticipated. Also struggle of a different kind’, she replied.

The first question many people asked me was about marriage. Lakshmanettan was the worst. He wouldn’t just let go of the topic!’, I said.

Why can’t people leave others alone? There is a throbbing and bleeding mind within each one of us. Only we are aware of how it throbs and bleeds. And so, we are the best judges of what we want in life. Why can’t people understand this?’, she introspected.

I was surprised by her maturity.

Lakshmanettan still lives in the old world, Fousiya. He means well, but he doesn’t realize that times have changed and people have changed dramatically. Relationships and marriages are no longer what they used to be’,  I said.

Yes, that is true. He still lives in the old world’, she repeated.

At times, it is fun to answer these questions. Usha sister had asked me the same question. She had advised me that it wouldn’t be easy at times when one needs help and support. To that I had replied-

It certainly isn’t easy now either. I feel both marriage and singlehood come with their own set of risks and problems. It is just a matter of which type of risk one is willing to take. You were more comfortable with taking the risk of marriage and I was more comfortable taking the risk of being single.

She didn’t say anything further’, I stated.

Her jaw must have dropped’, she replied.

You bet!’, I said.

We both laughed aloud.

After you left, I lost my laughter. I didn’t realize, but the other sisters would always say that I had changed after you left and that I rarely laughed’, she said.

I was touched by her warmth. Her ability to preserve the sanctity of those moments. The truth in her emotions. Something I miss in modern times. Something that I feel only when I watch an old movie. She was full of old memories. I could hear their tinkle in her mind. I always feel drawn to people who cherish memories and talk about them with nostalgia. I feel they are capable of much good. Lohithadas had said that too.

How much we used to laugh when you were here. Remember Subeesh? What a team we were. So much so that the Nursing Superintendent had shifted me from the Medicine Department because she couldn’t bear to see us so happy’, she recollected.

But that didn’t kill our happiness. We found our own ways to get past all those hurdles. In truth, we were knee deep into problems, but that made us cherish these moments all the more’, she added.

I was silent. The silence that communicated the joy of those years. The memories that I guard in the sanctum sanctorum of my mind. That phase of my life could have found a place in Basheer’s novel.

I tried committing suicide’, she said.

I snapped out of my reverie.

What? When? Why?’, I asked.

My engagement was called off. I had got into a long-distance relationship. A relative had introduced me to him. We had never met, but we used to speak for long hours. I grew dependent on those conversations. Our families went ahead with the engagement and a date was fixed. My brother arranged for all the gold. We had our house painted. At work, everybody knew. After Ramzan, he came down for the wedding. When we finally met up, he said I looked very different from what he had seen of me in the picture. He backed off. There were no further conversations. I had got used to them. I couldn’t bear the void I felt within and on an impulse, I swallowed some pills. I was at work then and I managed to get hold of a random assortment of pills. Antibiotics, antihistaminics and whatever I could get my hands on. I fainted and was admitted. Nothing happened though. I was discharged after a day of observation. I applied for medical leave and was home for quite some time. Those days were probably the worst times in my life. I couldn’t lift my spirits. People in the neighbourhood were making up stories about my wedding being called off. Eventually, I decided to get back to work. I was in need of distraction. I had never wanted to get married thereafter, but my brother wouldn’t marry until I was married. There was a lot of pressure, and I eventually gave in to an arranged marriage. I talked to my husband about this tragedy and he was very accepting and considerate. And thus, I got married. But I hadn’t come out of my misery. Misery slowly gave way to numbness. But my husband was accommodating. He left to Dubai after a month’, she explained.

My husband is nice. So are his parents. But the financial responsibility of the family is on him. He has two siblings. Also, he suffers from Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome. Until then, I hadn’t even known that something like that existed. I thought that was the end of my world. It took a long time to come to terms with that. Eventually, I spoke to a lot of doctors, read up articles on the internet and consulted physicians. I saved up enough to buy a CPAP for him. Also, I got to know a few others who suffer from this syndrome. That gave me some consolation. My husband always feels he couldn’t give me any happiness. But I tell him that my priorities are different. That he understands me and trusts me is most important to me. He would often push me for a divorce, but I would convince him eventually. Things are better now’, she concluded.

My eyes welled up with tears.

I took up BA English distance education. I cleared my first set of papers’, she said to me triumphantly.

I held her hand and said to her, ‘Fousiya, I think your life is beautiful. It is rich for it is so full of meaning. The little steps you both take to overcome the obstacles in your life and materialize your dreams, will add value to all your achievements. I remember my PG days. They had been so full of struggle. There was so much pressure from home and from my HOD. But when I eventually got my degree, there was a special sweetness to that degree. So don’t ever give up.

She nodded. ‘Why are HODs like that? Our department HOD is also the same. She tortures her PG. The PG is a very nice girl. She is a divorcee and has a child. Despite all her problems, she works hard and does a good job. But the HOD always finds fault with her work. Sometimes she goes into her room and cries for hours. I console her and give her as much encouragement as I can. Why can’t people spread happiness? Why is it necessary to blow out somebody’s happiness in order to feel happy?’, she wondered aloud.

The world is like that, Fousiya. BTW, what should I get for you from home?’, I asked.

You don’t get me anything. I will make something for you one of these mornings. Remember the time you had come home for Ramzan? Those days were so much fun. We used to go out so often’, she said.

We can go out now as well. But what about your baby? Wouldn’t it be difficult?’, I asked.

No. He loves going out’, she replied.

In that case, we will go out. I must try getting in touch with Sri Devi too. I can never forget our trip to the paddy fields in Rasna’s village’, I said.

Are you writing anything these days? You used to write so much!’, she said.

‘Oh yes! I just finished writing my first book. But it will take time for it to be published. Perhaps next year’, I said.

I still remember my first day in Anjarakandy. The day I had started writing. The most beautiful day in my life.

Oh! That is so nice! Am I a character in that book?’, she asked.

No, Fousiya. This is a book on Malayalam Cinema’, I said.

Oh! You always said that I would certainly be a character in your book’, she said to me.

Yes. You will be a character in my second book. There is enough of life in you to be a character in a book. My second book will certainly be set against the backdrop of Anjarakandy. It will explore my bittersweet relationship with this place. Somehow, it reminds me of Shivapuram village in the film Mazha– the village that Bhadra is attached to. Nashtapetta Neelambari. Anjarakandy is truly that to me’, I replied.

We spoke some more, trying to remember every little perception that had created ripples in our mind.

In the evening, as I drove back home, I hugged this feeling. This ripple in my mind. This tinkle of memories. How else can I describe it? I drove past groves that were so dense that not much sunlight penetrated into them. Only the hum of crickets and the chirping of birds could be heard in their silence. I passed quaint little shops with wooden planks for shutters. They hadn’t lost their rustic charm. Age had made them beautiful. I passed paddy fields. I passed old gardens that continued to believe in the beauty of common flowers- hibiscus, rose, mandaram, jasmine and chethi (jungle flame), to name a few. The Anjarakandy river was not far away. This rendezvous with these old paths had now become a significant part of my day-to-day life here. They transported me back in time. For they remained the way I remembered them. Time hadn’t done too much damage to them.

These were my thoughts then:

Some stories cannot begin where they ended. The end is the end. It is a permanent closure. For people change, circumstances change and we ourselves change.

Change irreparably.

 And so, I am still reeling under the effect of this strange continuum of a long forgotten story in my life. Like I once wrote, I was never really comfortable with change. I long for people and places to retain their raw charm. I feel a deep sense of loss when circumstances and the battle with life robs them of this rawness and peels off their warmth, sensitivity and vulnerability- elements that define this rawness.

It is gratitude I feel. I feel grateful for this ability to feel. Grateful for the kind of people who have touched my life. Grateful for the beautiful memories. Grateful for this warmth that surrounds me here at Anjarakandy.

 

In the album of the mind

The 30th of August, 2008. These were my thoughts on that day.

Now, we all have our role models. Many a time, they are people from day to day life. Of the numerous souls we interact with, there are those few souls who silently and stealthily creep into our minds.

If we were to search our souls, we would find them there- engraved into the depth of our souls.

They are people who are passionate about life, and yet it is a passion that is no longer needy. They are people who intrigue us. For buried in the story of their lives, is the story of our own lives. They are people who inspire us to plunge into the depths of our own lives, for they give us a glimpse of the crux of life, and help us believe in its beauty.

In the past, as a child, I had no scarcity of role-models in my life. In family, among peers, in school and in college, there were so many people who set standards in terms of life. Today, as I look around me, all I see is people lost in the rat race and money game, chasing shadows and mirages. The pace of their lives and the internal conflicts they portray, can never inspire. In modern times, I have found a profound dearth of role-models. This post is an attempt to reflect on some of the role models in my life. It is a tribute to them as much as it is a revelation to me.

The first person that I shall talk about is the dean of the institution I work for.

Raised in a small town before having joined the Armed Forces Medical Services, his ascent has been a very gradual process, and the fact that he has experienced the struggles and joys at every step of the ladder, is reflected in his modesty and maturity, and the ease with which he interacts with people from different walks of life, with a very deep understanding of the differing needs and attitudes at different planes of life. A tall, lean, mellow person- I found him so receptive that I ached to know the person beneath those credentials. It took me a while to get to know him. For in all the settings we interacted, he thrust the dais back at us, listening to us, attempting to understand us, and gently steering us to help build perspectives and arrive at decisions, while he stood backstage, absorbing us in totality. Eventually, I realized that this was the secret to his insight into each one of his employees and students at an individual level.

Our relationship grew with time. So much so that I now find myself deeply bonded to him.

I do not know if the absence of a father-figure in my own life makes this feeling stronger, but looking into those eyes, I have always felt that peculiar mix of love, admiration and respect that only a father can evoke in a child.

This brings me to the realization that true freedom can be discovered only within the realms of one’s mind. Here, there are no rules and conventions to abide by. Here, there is only the truth of emotions.

On every occasion that we have interacted, I am left with a residual feeling of wanting to be a better person. He sets my standards and defines the standards that I aspire to meet. He seeds in me a desire to do things that would make him love me and feel proud of me. I never want to let him down, for in the realms of my mind, he is my father.

 

The mind is beautiful in that it paints its own picture of human relationships, independent of convention and scientific facts. Perhaps girls my age dream of prospective life-partners. But I have often conjured in my mind precious moments where a father listens to his daughter attentively, absorbing all her passion and zeal, absorbing all her intellect and stupidity, absorbing all her innocent joy, reveling in it and basking in it. Moments where a father guides his daughter, gently steering her towards what he knows is right for her, helping her arrive at that plane of thought. 

It is not by virtue of his knowledge that I look up at him, but by virtue of his wisdom, and the underlying human being within that wealth of wisdom- a warm, sensitive and caring soul beneath that infinite wisdom.

I aspire to be his best child. I aspire to borrow from him- in mind and in soul. 

On some days, he smiles at me affectionately. On such days, I find myself in high spirits. On days when we converse and exchange thoughts, I feel a deeper sense of contentment. On days when he condemns me, I am upset and disturbed. It gnaws at me until I find myself a little child, running up to him, and accounting for my behavior/act. When he smiles at me, I see sunshine around.

At that moment, I am a little child basking in my father’s reassurance. 

To me, he is a voice of the value system of the past. He strengthens my belief in myself.

In the album of my mind, there is a picture that my mind guards passionately. It is a picture of a father and daughter, basking in the sheen of their relationship. I can see their faces clearly; there could be no element of doubt.