Thursday, October 29, 2009

Re-visiting Srinagar

After a gap of thirty years chance has taken me to Srinagar twice this year. The last time it was in March when I went for a viva voce. And this time, again, last week, I chanced to visit Kashmir University again for a National Seminar.

On my last visit I was not happy. I kept comparing the city to what I had seen thirty years ago. Then it was different -- at least in my memory I imagined it as clean and beautiful, its people friendly and warm, its aesthetic natural charms intact. in my mind these charms had grown so much that when I was faced with reality it came as a shock! And then there was that fear in my heart that this is not a safe place to be in.That, too played on my mind. So, altogether, it was not a pleasant trip.

This time, however, there was a difference --perhaps it was all in my mind! There seemed to be pleasant vibes all around. The hosts were friendly, the people on the streets smiled and greeted us wherever we went. There were lots of tourists at the lake. I could not sense any hostility towards outsiders. And, of course, Kashmiri hospitality was at its best. Overall, it was an excellent visit. The host, Prof Aslam, was gracious and attentive. This is his picture!

What bound the various sessions of the seminar was the presence of one of the stalwarts of contemporary theory -- Prof Aijaz Ahmad. Although I have met him before this was the first time I really had a conversation with him and found that there was more to the scholar than just dry academic talk. The man has an interest in poetry too and showed some interest in attending a poetry session in Chandigarh. (I made a mental note to follow this up!)
In this picture here I am standing with Aijaz and the co-host (Dept Head), Altaf Tak --

A visit to the Dal Lake on the last evening, after the seminar ended, concluded the Srinagar experience. What I enjoyed most were the tall Chinar trees. I had my camera handy and wanted to capture the right shade of gold in the leaves but -- although I got lots of pictures -- the right gold remained elusive. Here is a poem written on the Chinar gold:


Because an idea is in my head

I can not stay indoors

I loiter in the chill instead

Awaiting its time to be born.

The sky turns pink behind the clouds

But the spark still won’t flicker on

The dry leaves rustle with words unsaid

But they are words I still cannot own.

The Zabarwan stands motionless and mute

Its head held high atop the sky

The Dal acquires a shimmery sheen

Almost unreal as the hours go by.

A lone shikara glides across the lake

Cracking the glass in a slow-motion drill

A trail of tired ripples in its wake

Against the backdrop of Hari Fort Hill.

Because an idea is in my head

I go berserk looking at the trees ---

The Cedar, the Chinar, the Hazel and its kind

All of them sighing softly in the evening breeze.

The idea hums and buzzes and grows

I can neither gasp nor moan

It forms a body, takes a shape and flows

With a voice, a note, a tone.


Eureka, Eureka, I almost bellow ---

No longer do I need to be told

That what I seek so madly high and low

Is nothing but the Chinar Gold.

The orange and the yellow and the rust of the leaves

Touched by the sun’s slanting rays

Filtering through the foliage, reverberating with ease

A golden haze in the autumn days.

I seek this gold, so green, so mellow

The trees a-blaze in a kind of haze,

The late sun, turning green into yellow

Spring into autumn in mysterious ways.

The leaves of the Chinar beckon and call

They rustle and whisper and announce the Fall.

I watch and wait, and know I will find

The idea that has long lingered in my mind.

The gold, the gold, the Chinar Gold

The warm colors of the valley before it gets too cold

The warm colours of the valley, the Chinar Gold!

24 October 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


There are teachers and teachers.
I am one myself but I am no great shakes.
Anyway, this is not about myself, so let me get to the point.

As I was saying, there are teachers and teachers. Some of us are perpetually on a popularity binge -- chumming up with students, taking them to the canteen, treating them to chai, hot sams, GJs and the like, giving them extra marks to remain in their good books. Others are the parental guidance type -- the sugar daddies and melting mummies who love beta-ing or pontificating or preaching. Yes, they say the right kind of stuff (whether they practice what they preach is a different matter altogether!) . They love it when students come and touch their feet. They are good at histrionics -- always performing: in the classroom with the kids as audience, with their colleagues in the staff-room, in their living rooms with their family and relatives for audience. Sure, they are good at it. They do well, they are popular.

Then there are those wretched tyrannical ones who believe in not sparing the rod. Thank God there are no rods now, but the metaphorical ones remain and these mini-dictators use them liberally, missing no opportunity to tongue-lash and berate those on the other side of the fence.

And finally there are those who DON'T try too hard. They just do their work and do it with commitment. Thy are the true teachers -- committed, sincere, and honest. Thanks to them the noble profession still retains its credibility.

Miss Kalha is one such teacher. An institution that did not shout its wares. A mentor who taught not through homilies but through example. Who never raised her voice, who was never judgmental, who forever remained poised and dignified, no matter what the occasion. Who did not cut corners while teaching. Who gave us more -- much more -- than what was prescribed in the course. For whom teaching was not just a source of livelihood but a vocation.

I was Miss Kalha's student in the early 'seventies. I am still her 'shagird'. If I have to pick a role model it is she -- but I know, given my temperament, I can never be like her. And yet I owe her so much. I am what I am today because once upon a time I was fortunate to be sitting in her class.

" I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over. "

This poem, "Sea Fever" by John Masefield, is deeply etched on my mind ever since Miss Kalha read it to us in class, trying to teach us how to scan the meter. I find myself thinking of it often. When I wrote my book "Spots of Time" I made use of it too, but in a different way, using Sea Fever as a sort of obsession that can be overpowering. Every year I read this poem to my class -- a different set of boys and girls each year -- hoping that it will touch them the same way, ring the same bells in them that it rings for me.

Then there was "Cross of Snow" -- another poem Miss Kalha read to us. It talked about a personal grief that etches a deep 'cross of snow' on the poet's heart for 18 long years:
"Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died."

I remember scoffing at the poem -- "But this is absurd," I remonstrated. "How can anyone carry a cross of snow for 18 years?" But Miss Kalha patiently explained the metaphoric implications of the imagery and I was half-convinced. Half, not fully convinced until many years (5? or more?) later, being tossed about on life's rough seas, I though of the poem once again and realized what the cross of snow could mean. And then I wanted to read the poem again so I went to her and asked where I could find it. (This was in the pre-internet days, when one had to go to a library to find a reference). Longfellow, she told me, and off to the library I went, read the poem, and empathized with the poet.

And then, 2 weeks ago, in Beijing, sick and throwing up after having eels at a dinner, I remembered Lord Randall of the ballads:
"O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son ?
O where have you been, my bonny young man ?
I've been with my sweetheart, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.

And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son ?
And what did she give you, my bonny young man ?
Eels boiled in brew, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.

O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son,
O I fear you are poisoned, my bonny young man.
O yes, I am poisoned, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down."
I felt like Lord Randall and I remembered Miss Kalha who had read this poem to us while explaining narrative poetry.

As I said, there are teachers and there are teachers. But sometimes you come across an exceptional one who shows you a path, opens a door for you and shows you a whole new world beyond. The choice is yours -- whether you wish to cross the threshold or stay put.

"Much have I [since then] travelled in the realms of gold".
Miss Kalha opened up the world of literature for me -- and many others like me -- to explore. In her own quiet way she has contributed much more to society than a lot of pompous, self-promoting individuals who claim to be litterateurs. Through almost four decades of teaching her life has touched not just one generation but several generations of students who love and respect her.

Words are not enough, but thank you, Miss Kalha, for showing me the way, for enabling me to pursue a career I love so well!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


September 22, 2009. Morning.

12192 meters above the ground, I am a flight from Beijing to Delhi via Singapore. Kokil is in Singapore but I do not have a Singapore visa although I have a halt for 3 hours and 45minutes. Initially, when the ticket was bought, I was given to understand that I would be able to get a 4 hour visa and would be able to go out briefly and meet Kokil. However, subsequently, on making inquiries we discovered that it is virtually impossible for (a) me to go out or (b) Kokil to come into the airport. Their rules are strict, no crossovers possible. So what do we do? At best, they tell us, you can wave to each other through a glass wall.

So here I am, 40 minutes away from Singapore. 40 minutes away from meeting Tota through a glass partition. Oh well, it is going to be a meeting of a kind, I guess. The weirdest reunion of a mom and daughter in a different country. And how will we meet? Well, may be we can wave, yes, we will wave to each other. And blow flying kisses, perhaps. But what else? Perhaps we can mime a jig through the distance, dance some step in unison, mime each other’s movements, play the fool.

What else?

Perhaps I could do some theatrics – pretend to faint or have a seizure or simply collapse. But then it might just lead to further complications – like how will I tell them I need to be with Tota if I am supposed to be in a faint?

Something else, something else. But what?

Try some emotional atyachaar? Appeal to the officers in charge, shed a tear or two, tell them how I miss my baby? How I want to hold her close?

No, I don’t think anything will work. So let me just let things be. Take the situation as it comes. I have a packet for her and I wonder if I will be able to get it across.

We are nearing our destination and the cabin call tells us to prepare for landing. Tota, here I come. Through the glass wall we shall talk.

September 22, 2009. Afternoon.

Kokil is on the train, heading for Changi airport. All the while she is thinking of how to the situation. She would be face to face with Mummy through the glass wall. Perhaps there would be an intercom. Perhaps not. She would wave to mom, mom would wave back. Then she would blow a flying kiss, mom would blow back another in return. And what then? Koki, with her sense of fun, thought she would thumb her ears at mom. And knowing mummy, she would thumb them right back. And then perhaps, running out of ideas, Kokil thought she would mime a dance pose – like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The right knee bent, hip protruding sideways, right hand up, pointing towards the sky – freeze! Perhaps mom would mirror the image, bend her left knee, point her left hand skyward and freeze right back.

And then Kokil thought she would stamp her left foot and jiggle her shoulders. Mom would stamp her right foot and jiggle her shoulders too. Kokil would place her hands on her hips, pout and sway to the right, Mom would sway to the left. She would wiggle her hips and mom would wiggle hers. Kokil would do the shimmy across the floor. Mom would probably follow suit. Or may be they would do the shimmy together -- the 'yahoo' kind that Shiamak Davar has revived in recent years.

And then, when they would tire of these antics, they would notice the people thronging around them – the transit passengers on mom’s side of the wall and the incoming visitors on Kokil’s side. There would be curious glances, raised eyebrows, soon, perhaps, a security official would come down the aisle and put an end to the pantomime.

Ma have to do something before then. Perhaps she would clutch at her heart and collapse. But she had never been good at theatrics and would probably burst out laughing – which would be counter productive! And then, if she collapsed and fainted, how would she ask for Kokil?

So these are thoughts when I land in Beijing. The night before I had almost despaired of seeing Tota. With a lump in the throat I had decided to call her and tell her not to come to the airport. It would be too upsetting to see her and not to be with her. But then, caught up with other matters, I forgot to call her and now here I am at Singapore airport finally, wondering what the day will be like – with Tota or without?

But it wasn’t all that bad. As I got off the aircraft I received her message telling me she was on her way. Come to level 3 of Terminal 2, she tells me. A few minutes later another sms – “ the glass has an open space,mummy, we can even talk!”

I respond, telling her I am going to try patao-ing the Immigration wallahs.

I walk to the Help counter and make inquiries from the girl – she looks like an Indian and seems to be friendly enough. I introduce myself to her –

“Good morning, I am a university professor, on my way to Delhi after a conference in Beijing. I am on transit, I have a four-hour halt and I do not have a visa for Singapore, but I would like to go out of the airport for a while. Is it possible?”

She looked sympathetic: “No, ma’am, I am afraid not. You would, however, be ableto talk to her through this glass wall.” And she pointed to the other side of the hall that was partitioned away by glass. I looked around – the glass separator stretched through the entire length of the huge hall. I wondered what would be the best place for Kokil and me to gesticulate at each other. May be we could walk together for a couple of hours, she and I, she on that side of the wall and I on this. Walk up and down, up and down until we were both tired. Then we could sit down facing each other and wait for my boarding time.

I sighed: “And is there any way I can give her a packet that I have for her?”

“I am afraid not, ma’am.”

And then she added, bless her, for she must have seen the disappointment on my face: “Do you have any other visa?”

“Yes, a US visa that is valid for another two years.” And handed my passport to her.

“Then I suggest you go down one level, try the Immigration officer. He might give you a visitor’s pass.”

I rushed down to a level below. The Immigration and Customs desks where the incoming passengers had lined up for clearance. There weren’t too many people. Half the desks were closed. The other half had officials on duty. I chose one which had a man who again seemed to be of Indian origin. Somehow it is easier communicating with fellow-countrymen. Language is a problem with the locals.

I walked up to the desk when my turn came.

“Good afternoon, sir, let me explain….” And I repeated what I had told the girl on the upper floor.

I saw his eyes narrow. He peered at me through his glasses and asked for my passport. Looked at it, each page very carefully. It is a well-used passport, I am aware, and the old one that expired ten years ago is also attached to it.

After satisfying himself, he looked up sternly and said: “Madam, you do not have to flaunt your status…”

“I beg your pardon, I didn’t realize I was doing so.”

“You said you are a university professor but for us everyone is equal, whether it is a university professor or a minister or a politician or an illiterate person. We just go by the rules. And we do not bend the rules for anyone.”

“I am sorry, officer, I was just stating my case and identifying myself.” Help, I thought, don’t let anything go wrong. I do wish to get an out-pass! So I try and sound as contrite as possible.

He does not relent. Knowing that he has an upper hand, he continues to upbraid me for being proud of my position (never before had I known that one is so privileged being a professor). I listen silently – as silently as I can for, with my temperament, it is difficult indeed to remain quiet when being scolded unfairly.

“Where do you want to go if I allow you into Singapore?” he asks.

“Nowhere,” I tell him. “If you note, I have mentioned in the form that I will be at Changi Airport. My aim is just to be with my daughter. She is a student here at NTU.”

Again he scolds me: “I am not asking you what your children are doing how well they are placed. I just want an answer to my question. We have our rules.”

Good God! I feel like banging him on the head but force myself to smile and say, “Certainly, sir, I wouldn’t like you to bend your rules for me. Please follow your rules, and if it is possible, please allow me a few hours’ liberty.”

He has a frown on his face and I am holding my breath, wondering what is going to follow.

Finally he looks at me over his glasses and says, “Ma’am, I am giving you a 96 hour visitor’s pass but the boarding time for your flight is in three hours. Make sure you do not miss it.”

Yes, yes, yes, thank you, sir. And I run before he can change his mind.

I am heading for Terminal 2 where Kokil is waiting at the intercom. I take the train from Terminal 3 to 2, ask for directions and move on with mounting excitement.

As I near the ‘Intercom’ as it is called, I see Kokil standing with her back towards me, facing a glass partition, looking over the counter. I have my camera ready to catch the surprise in her face when she seems me on her side of the glass.

She turns with an exclamation: “Mummyyyyy!” and I click her picture.

“Let’s go,” I tell her. “I am free to be with you for three hours.”

“How did you manage it?” she is incredulous.

“I really don’t know,” I tell her. “I simply told them I have a daughter here and I wish to meet her. And here I am!”

She cannot believe it at first. She has to call her Papa and then Bulbul to tell them both – “Hey, mom is so cool, so cool, she even managed to come out!”

We sit at a restaurant in the airport for a while. Sipping a cool drink, she tells me excitedly of the various things we can do in the given span of time. And then we decide to take a cab, drive around for an hour and come back to the airport.

The cab driver takes us to along the coast, then up a hill. This is a new area for Kokil, too. She has never been to this little “Jewel Box” as it is called, up a hilltop. The view from the top is truly magnificent. You can see the sea all around.

“That is Sentosa,” she tells me. “And that side is Malaysia.” She has another story for me – how two days ago she was getting bored and decided to go to Malaysia for a dayspend. Took a bus. Five hours on the road, five hours in Malaysia, and another five hours on the way back. She had gone all by herself and enjoyed it. She sounds happy and I am happy in her happiness.

The islands in the distance look almost as though they have come out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Two islands joined with a narrow neck of land. Both islands are covered with a lot of foliage. It is the kind I have seen in a diagrammatic representation of Golding’s book.

Signs of hectic construction dominate the scene. It looks as though a lot of capital is being invested in buildings. Kokil explains what kind of condos they have, the laws that govern rentals, and how families rather than live-in couples are preferred as tenants. She tells me about Raffels who

was responsible for the growth and

development of Singapore, of the F-1 Grand Prix that is around the corner, of the bicycle track and the way they go cycling around the island through the night on certain days. Apparently Singapore is a safe place.

This is the world in which Kokil lives. She seems to be

well-adjusted and happy but looks forward to getting back to India.

By five o’clock we are back at the airport, having coffee and snacks at Starbucks. A quick hug and good-bye, I leave for my flight and Kokil heads back home. Different directions, different worlds, but worlds that are linked together. Worlds that support and nourish each other.

I leave Singapore behind as the aircraft soars above the ground. The sky takes on different hues and the ground assumes shades of blue and grey.

I am going back home where Raju waits. Waits silently, without complaining, without demanding.

PS: THE PACKET, THE PACKET! Yes, it was handed over personally to Tota while on the taxi ride. She put it in her shoulder bag. The contents, incidentally, were -- a box of Chinese sweets, one chocolate, a blouse to wear with her trousers. (and lots of love, intangible, but in evidence!)

Going up the Bada Ling

I went up the Great Wall of China.
Up and up and up.
It ain't all that easy. At times the slope is so steep that you need to crawl on all fours. At times it rises at an angle of 60 degrees or more. Sometimes the strong winds threaten to blow you off the road. But we all went up -- about fifty of us.
And at the highest point, with the other trekkers as witness, I called out to the sky and the clouds and all living creatures to be my witness -- that i was thinking of all my dear ones. my friends and family and loved ones!

Missed you all folks! Here are some pics.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009



Somewhere in the distance
You hear a cackling sound –
The quacking of ducks
On the far side of the lake

Somewhere up in the sky
A meteor shoots across
Blazing a fleeting trail
In the dark canopy up high

Somewhere in the ring of hills
On the outer edge of the horizon
A blaze still smolders –
The aftermath of a forest fire

Somewhere from across the waters
Floats the lone cry of a peewit
Breaking the hush that has descended
Telling you that the evening has ended.

The glasses empty, conversation dropt to a whisper
You grope for a tag, a label, a sticker
For that feeling without a name
For the magic that pervades
For the calm, the nothingness
Engulfing you like an empty-headedness
When you know that the charm is over
But the magic continues to linger
When you become a part of the scene
And the evening a part of you
On in one, in harmony together
With you to stay, yours forever
This magic by the lakeside
This lakeside sonata!


Friday, June 12, 2009


“Dance pe Chance kar le”.
This has been a dream summer. One of those long, lingering, lethargic, snoozy summers without the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. When life seems to carry on at an uninterrupted pace. When regular work takes a backseat. When the stewpots from the backburner finally get attention.
No, before you get me wrong, let me hasten to add that by no means have I been idle. Or slumbering, or snoozing. Or hibernating. It’s just that after many, many years I find myself free of regular examination and other academic duties through the summer. This lull between two academic terms is a welcome break. Some activity carries on – like my duties with the Sahitya Akademi or IAS Centre, but they are non-pressured activities, without a deadline.
So how does one spend the summer? A summer with the daughters having flown the nest, the husband earning bread-butter in a different part of the country, and Raju in a more or less stable (thank heavens for that!) state of health?
Swimming, of course. The pleasures of the pool. Those languid hours spent in the blue waters. Floating on my back, looking at the deep blue of the sky, the scattered clouds and the high-flying eagles. Sometimes, hovering a few feet above the water are dragonflies – but they usually appear after the first monsoon showers.
Sure, there’s nothing like a good swim on a hot summer evening.
What else? Yeh dil maangey more!
Some Game perhaps? But the last time I played badminton I had a tennis elbow that refused to heal for six months. Soperhaps I should think of something else.
Idly, I browse through the newspaper and come across this ad announcing Shiamak Davar’s Summer Funk in Chandigarh. Dance workshop for two weeks. Sets me thinking, it does. But, but, but – do I dare, do I dare?
Two years ago when I had enrolled for a Salsa class I was laid up with a bad knee for a while. Do I risk it again?
With some ho-hem I finally join the group.
“This is the Adult batch,” I am told at the desk.
“Adult? Meaning about my age?” I am relieved.
But, not so fast. They clarify: “Adult means 12 years and above.”
“Thank you very much” is all I can say in response.
Okay, the classes begin.

Our instructors are young and wiry. A young man called Ankit who can bounce like a rubber ball, and a sprightly young girl called Madhura who moves her body like she’s made of jelly.
We are a batch of forty students. I think I am about the oldest. “Partners, partners,” calls Madhura. I get paired with a cute young boy – very shy, very sweet, AND all of twelve years old. He does not look me straight in the face. He fumbles with his steps. I tell him – “Beta, your shoelace is undone. Aap gir jaaogey!” He blushes and ties them up. After a few minutes they are undone again.
We begin and end each class with a prayer. When was the last time I prayed? I don’t remember. But the summer funk makes me God-fearing. I have never prayed so fervently – O God, don’t let my back or knees give way – let me go through the dance class without any problems. I am straight, direct, and honest with god. Sure he should appreciate that!
A few days later I am given another dance partner. This one is a punkish looking lad – he chews gum, has his hair jelled and spikey, wears a gold chain and a look of arrogance. I thaw him out with a compliment on his designer shirt, so he deigns to smile at me every time we are face to face. In one of the classes he and his friend (they could easily be twins) are sent out of class to spit out their gum. Iron Lady Madhura did it, enlightening them on the dangers of choking over chewing gum while exercising.
And then there is an exchange of partners and I find myself briefly paired with a 30-year old IIM graduate. Well, not bad – a 12 year old, then 18, now 30. I seem to be doing pretty well at the dance class. Life seems to be looking good, indeed.
Madhura is thin and fragile. If she had to go out in a strong wind she would surely be blown away. “Like a candle in the wind….” But don’t get taken in by that frail appearance – she is a tyrant if ever there was one!
Everyday we begin with warm-up exercises and a roll-call. The exercises are strenuous. At least for someone my age they are! She shouts – “Come on, all of you all. Stay down. Touch the ground. Bend your knees. Now the piano position. Now flex. And point. Flex and point.” She is merciless. Ankit is only a shade better. When it suits his fancy he comes walking through the rows of human beings doubled up in crunches, pushing them further to more strenuous degrees.
Whoever said dancing was an art easily acquired? These bones are more than half a century old, my dears, I try to reason with those young tyrants. Try, try, I am told. They fail to understand. The creaking bones refuse to cooperate.
By the end of the fourth day I am wearing a corset to keep my back in place and my right knee is encased in a tight knee cap. I am limping. Whatever happened, people ask. Nothing, nothing. Just a twisted knee. How? Did you fall? They ask.
"No, sweetie,” I tell them. “I was dancing.”
The dance class lasts for an hour. But the rhythms do not fade. The songs linger in the memory even after they are heard no more – how Wordsworthian, like the solitary reaper’s song, huh?
The walls of my study are full of 'dance notes' taken during class. I try and practise the steps learnt. the post-its on the walls help me remember. If only I had the music I'd do much better!
I am filled with positive energies for the rest of the day. Sway me more, sway me more. The rhythm colors the drabness of the world. It casts a spell on the most ordinary of tasks I engage in. It infects all my actions, my thoughts, my very being. I dance through the day. Dance through my daily chores. Dance in the pool in the evenings, as I float on my back, the rhythm divine stays with me.

This heady feeling,
Intoxicating as wine.
The world so appealing
This summer of 2009.

Thank you Ankit.
Thank you Madhura.
Three cheers for Shiamak Davar’s Summer Funk.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Srinagar today

Srinagar. March 16, 2009.
I try to spot familiar landmarks from thirty years ago. Nothing seems the same. Apart from the Dal Lake – which seems to have shrunk miserably since – and the imposing backdrop of hills silhouetted against the clear sky, duplicated in the silent waters below, nothing seems the same. While the rest of India seems to have progressed, this part of the world seems to be caught in a time-warp.

Srinagar, sleepy, grey, dull. Nestling in an age-old hollow, guarded by Shankracharya Hill on one side and the Hari Fort on the other. Somber sentinels, silent witnesses to turbulent phases in the history of the province. Shikaras glide half-heartedly across the glassy surfact of the Dal. The embankment by the lake has some activity -- families promenading on the walkway. Men, women and children with red apple-cheeks. Tall bearded men in windblown phirans, loose sleeves flapping against lean bodies. Hawk-eyed, rugged features. Peace seems to have returned to the valley although the tourist biz is yet to pick up.

But is it really peace or an uneasy clam? I sit through an academic session, part of a seminar where the women sit on the left side of the hall and the men on the right. The women – most of them – have their heads covered with the hijaab (is that what it is called?) but a few daring ones are bare-headed. I am told that they love wearing the head-scarf as it "gives them a sense of security and an identity". All of them wear salwar-kameez. Some are in burquas.

A group of young women crowd around the visitors and ask – “What does India think about us?” The question takes me by surprise. I do not know what to answer.

This is a seminar in honour of the golden jubilee of one of the Departments. Several alumni have been invited and are honored with the gift of a Kashmiri shawl. They have come from other states, some of them have returned to Kashmir after several decades. They are nostalgic, talk about their youth on the campus, and generally feel good about returning to scenes of the past.

And then, in one of the seminar sessions immediately following the "honoring" ceremony, the host turns aggressive. He starts belting out an impassioned speech on “Kashmiriyat”. Anti-India sentiments are whipped sky-high, Kashmiri nationalist slogans are raised. A good number of us visiting from outside Kashmir remain silent and frozen but the delegates -- all academics, students and teachers -- clap and cheer. The speaker, encouraged with their response, becomes more vocal. We, the visitors who have been honored just an hour ago, squirm in our seats. This is an academic seminar. We wonder why it is taking a political turn. Outsiders “from India,” we feel trapped.

I feel terror creep down my spine I tell myself it can’t be true. I must be dreaming it.

Mercifully, the session closes. Really closes. Perhaps the hosts have recalled their duties as hosts because anti-India sentiments are not revoked again. Tentatively, gropingly, we try and normalize interaction with the locals.

Why are girls so timid? So withdrawn? They have gone through so much, comes the answer. They have been abused, brutalized, raped. A local delegate informs me that he has personally supervised the burial of 43 members of his family when – at some point of time – there was open fire on their village.

Open fire? By whom? – I want to ask. But my question remains unasked because I am afraid of the answer. I do not wish to know. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” With the previous display of hatred against India and the Indian army, I think it best to leave some questions unasked.

Being driven around the city in the assured safety of a host’s vehicle, I look around and take in what I see. Crumbling walls, broken doorframes, smashed glass, and blackened windows – all mute witnesses to a not-so-old history. These were homes of Kashmiri Pandits who were driven out of the valley two decades ago. Ruins that once belonged to them have been cordoned off. There are boards sealing the area, keeping out encroachments.

Desolate. Dilapidated. There was life here once. This rubble was once a happy home with life and activity. The patter of children’s feet in the courtyard, Family dinners around a bukhari. Sounds of happy voices in times that were green and golden.

What do I see now? Remains of happier times, dusty and bare. Dry torn branches with a stray rook cawing in desolation. A curious cat sniffing around a heap of garbage. On the remains of a blackened first-floor window sits a dog silently surveying the scene. Like an alert sentinel on guard looking down at the aftermath of a battle.

Where have all the flowers gone?
This is not the Kashmir I wish to know. This is alien territory. I have seen enough.
Let me go back home now.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Khooni Rakshak

I shall dedicate this page to Khooni Rakshak.
That’s how I refer to him. In a bit I shall tell you why.

We are in Manimajra. Raju and I. I have brought along Raju's wheelchair, a basket of food, and my laptop.

Weekending. Good fun.

First let me introduce you to him – Khooni Rakshak is Raju’s new night attendant. He has been working for me / us for almost two months now. I had to hire him (in addition to Krish who looks after Raju during the day) as my back started protesting even more and I could no longer hoist Raju when needed. For some time I kept struggling with bad back, but then I decided to give in and hire help for night duties, too. Plus Raju would stay awake all night sometimes. I would keep awake with him and it would affect my work the next day—so many reasons, all related. Anyway, to cut a long story short, this boy, quite inexperienced as household help, was looking around for a job. Seeing him sturdy and willing to work, I asked him to step in and he did.

He seemed to be about 16 or 17 years old, a ‘bhaiyya’ from UP/Bihar, crude in his ways but with an open, endearing look about his face, and an ever-ready smile. That’s what made hire him – a cheerful young man to do night duties with Raju. Finally I would get decent sleep at night! From that day on I took my pillow and razai to the upstairs bedroom every night and left Raju downstairs in the living room with his attendant.

They seemed to be doing well.

“Check his background,” my friends advised him.

I don’t know how to, I told them. I just know his uncle who is the caretaker of our Manimajra house. That’s it. (-- Our suburban villa, you know. Ahem, we go there for a holiday occasionally!)

No, but it isn’t safe! I was warned.

I sighed as I told them – “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant taste of death but once. Let me think I am being valiant.”

And all was hunky dory.

Until the other evening. Let me re-live the scene --

We are in the living room. I am having a late cup of tea. The boy sits in the living room on a chair opposite the TV. His eyes are glued to the screen. Cricket seems to be his passion. From time to time he claps his hands and jump up in delight. When Sachin missed a catch he is livid.

Next to him, in another chair, sits Raju, propped up by pillows. He is not as restless as he usually is. His knees are drawn up so that his feet rest on the seat. With one hand he clutches his sweater, as though hanging on to it. With the other he holds the Boy’s sleeve. His sightless eyes are not turned in the direction of the TV but his head is tilted at an angle as though he is concentrating on something. A smile hovers on his lips.

When I catch the boy's attention for a minute I continue my tirade – I am admonishing him for breaking traffic rules.

“If the traffic police gets you they will put you behind bars,” I try to frighten him.

He shrugs nonchalantly: “Never mind, Aunty, then can’t keep me for long.”

“Why?” I am puzzled.

“They can’t keep me for more than a week. Even if the police catches me, they cannot hold me in prison for more than one week. It is against the law.” He has a broad grin on his face.

That rings an alarm bell.

“O, my God,” I gasp, “How do you know?”

“Because I have been in prison, Aunty.”

"You mean you have been arrested?”

“Yes,” he says casually

I gape in disbelief.

“Seven years,” he continues, without batting an eye.

“What did you do? Robbery? Cheating? And why did they give you seven years.”

“For khoon, aunty, I did not rob or steal or cheat. I don’t do such lowdown things. I killed a man.”

Gulp! I almost choke over my biscuit. The tea I have sipped comes out in a splutter.

“O my god! You are joking. Who was this? Why did you kill him?”

“My mother’s marad.” He says nonchalantly.

Marad – man, lover I presume.

I do not know what to say. He continues –

“He was cruel to me. Used to beat me. So I just did him in.”

I have to look at him again. I had thought he was just 16 oir 17 years old. But if he has already spent 7 years in jail then he must be older.

“How old were you then?”

“Eleven,” says he.

That should make him about twenty now, I guess.

So this is the boy I have hired for Raju. This boy with the endearing smile, the honest look, the friendly face, who has spent seven long years in juvenile prison for killing a man.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is a sturdy young man who can hoist Raju, put him on his chair, wheel him around. I can’t.

He wakes up nights attending on Raju when he cries, changes him when he soils his clothes. Allows me to have an undisturbed sleep so that I can function normally the next morning.

Raju is happy with him. Laughs when he sits with him. Misses him and cries the nights that he doesn’t turn up.

He is Raju’s attendant. His Rakshak.
So what if he is Khooni, too?

Khooni Rakshak has made life somewhat easy for me, too. For which I am grateful.



Throw it out of your system.
All the impurities, all that is base.
Purge your system of the carbon, of all that pollutes.
That’s it – again, now. Repeat. Once more. Carry on for fifteen minutes.

I’m talking about Bhasrika.
Oo – dat?
No one, sweetie! It’s a breathing technique.
Baba Ramdev has made it popular.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Take in the goodness of nature. The pure air, the oxygen.
Huff – breathe in. puff – breathe out. Throw out your breath.
Breathe in the good, exhale the bad.
No, not that way – you gotta throw out the air when you breathe out.
Yes, that’s better.

The old lady sits in the park doing Bhasrika. She rewinds and replays the Baba’s instructions in her mind. Somehow they don’t seem to help. Her breath doesn’t seem to come right. Perhaps she should try a bit harder.
Pouf – breathe out.
Hrr-r-umph-ph – breathe in.
No, not that way, she thinks. Let me try again.
POUF –that sounds better.
HRR-R-UMPH-PH. Even better.
She is satisfied.
Sitting on a bench in a children’s park, she tries to discover hidden energies within herself in the gathering gloom.
She feels the knots unknotting in her brain. The mind loosening up. The body relaxing.

She has her eyes shut but the inner eye is wide open. Her mind is detached in space and time but her ears are attuned to the myriad sounds of the park. The chatter of the birds in the trees, readying for the night. The occasional giggle and murmur of a couple on a bench behind the bush. The snatches of conversation floating with the wind – passersby chatting as they take a walk. A couple of kids in the distance, playing with their dog. The regular turning of bicycle wheels as they as they go past her.

Bikes in the park? She wonders. Some kid perhaps. Oh, yes, she can hear the scratch of supporting wheels on the concrete pathway – it’s probably a kid’s bike.

The sound of the bike comes nearer as she huffs and puffs. It slows down just in front of her, then moves on. Almost reluctantly.


Through her noisy breathing she can hear the bicycle wheels coming to a halt. A pause, then the sound of movement again in a reverse direction. The kid returning, perhaps.


The wheels slow down and grate to a halt in just in front of her bench. She registers it all but continues her noisy breathing.

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Take in the goodness of nature. The pure air, the oxygen.
Huff – breathe in. puff – breathe out. Throw out your breath.
Breathe in the good, exhale the bad.

A gradual stillness descends on the park.
The birds stop twittering in the trees.
The excited chatter of kids, the playful barking of dogs – all that peters down as a hush takes over. A kind of hush – she remembers the old song – all over the land tonight….

She remembers days of her youth. A brown-haired young man on a mo’bike singing this for her.
She smiles through the Bhasrika.

Whatever happened to Yankee Doodle as he was called? The last she saw him he had a bald pate and a humongous beer-belly. And she had caught him in hilarious situation.

She was returning from the sabzi mandi, when she had heard a commotion behind her. Turning with curiosity she had spotted a huge man trying to shoo off a cow eating spinach out of his shopping basket. He was running, trying to dodge the cow but the cow was adamant, had her head buried in his basket and was making a meal of the fresh green leaves. The man was shouting, trying to run from the animal but the cow, nose-in-basket, was trotting along happily after him. A cheering crowd had gathered on the roadsides.


She is still doing Bhasrika. Her eyes are still shut but her smiles turn into laughter and she starts giggling. Then laughter overpowers her and she begins to laugh.
Slowly at first, then louder. And louder.

She still has her eyes shut.

Let me concentrate on Bhasrika, she thinks.

The park is now enveloped in stillness. It must be late. She is tired, perhaps she should go home.

She opens her eyes slowly, rubs them and looks towards the sky. Yes, it has darkened.
She looks around and finds herself staring straight into eyes rounded with innocent astonishment.

A midget-sized boy on a kid’s cycle is standing right in front of her. Apparently he has been there for a while. He has incredulity writ large on his face. His eyes are the size of saucers, his mouth wide open. What is the old aunty doing? is the unasked, unspoken question.

She returns his unflinching gaze. He shows no response.

She smiles. He still remains frozen. Like a statue. Eyes unblinking, mouth wide open, one foot on the pedal.

“Hello,” she says, leans forward and holds out her hand.

The boy suddenly seems to come to life. He blinks, lets out a scream, turns his bike around and flees.

She wonders what the matter is. Has he seen a ghost? A gargoyle? A phantom?
Tut, tut! She shakes her head disapprovingly, these kids are brought up on too many horror stories these days. His imagination is probably running wild.

She gets up from the bench and begins walking towards the exit gate of the park. It has been a nice peaceful evening and she is satisfied that now she has mastered the art of Bhasrika.

The little boy, meanwhile, has fled at top speed, without looking back even once. He has a story to tell his friend, Bunty, when he gets home. This time it is a real-life story of how he saw the old aunty from the neighborhood in the park.
The old aunty and how she seemed to be sleeping as she sat on the bench.
And while sleeping, how she made noises like the noises their Maruti 800 makes when it refuses to start on a cold wintry day.
And how she could even puff like a railway engine.
And smile and laugh all by herself.
And how she tried to call him – may be she wanted to catch him.
What if she had indeed caught him?
Would she then have taken him home, cut him up into small pies and cooked him for her meal?

Grown-ups are so wierd, Bunty, so frightening. If you promise not to tell anyone I’ll take you with me to the park. May be she will come again. Then we can hide behind the tree and watch her.