The Photograph

A Tale of Childhood Innocence

“Wow!” Rehaan exclaimed. “Can I touch it?”

Anahita laughed. “Of course!”

His hands trembling with excitement, he slowly extended his fingertips towards the object Anahita held in her hands.  His eyes lit up the moment they felt the smooth plastic exterior of this amazing thing that had produced the image that he held in his other hand.

“What did you say it’s called?”

“A camera.”

“And this thing is?” He held up the article in his left hand.

“A photograph.”

“Wow!” He repeated.

Anahita smiled and patted his cheek.  “Would you like me to click one of you?”

Rehaan looked overjoyed. “Would you?”

“Of course!”

“Aakash! Anwar! Hanif! Ishaan! Khaled! Harish! Farhaan!” Rehaan yelled, running off to gather his friends.

Anahita got to her feet and watched as Rehaan animatedly explained to his friends what was about to happen. She couldn’t help grinning as she saw their expressions turn from curious to amazed, and she had to take a few steps backwards when they rushed towards her, all wanting to touch this astonishing black box that could somehow capture lifelike images of them.

A few minutes, several innocent questions and one heated argument over photograph location later, a decision was arrived at and the eight boys eagerly beckoned Anahita towards the end of the lane. She followed immediately, enjoying their thrilled banter as they half-walked, half-ran towards the bridge across the valley.

Anahita’s heart skipped a beat when she saw them clamber onto the wall that separated the road from the drop between the mountains before she reminded herself that they must have done this a thousand times before. She selected her frame and focused the camera as the children lined up along the wall. Looking through the lens, she watched them space out and practice smiling and couldn’t suppress her own amusement herself. She marvelled at their innocence regarding an article as universal as a camera back in the city, and at the same time, felt enormously guilty for complaining about now seemingly inconsequential things like missing her usual train while these children lived in dingy shanties and played with toys made of sticks and stones, and yet found such unadulterated joy in something as simple as having their picture taken.

“Hurry up!” Rehaan’s friends urged him impatiently. The poor boy was the tiniest amongst the lot and clearly incapable of scaling the height of the wall himself. As Farhaan bent down to lift the little kid, Anahita clicked on instinct. Before she could glance at the camera screen, she heard them beg for another picture. She spent the next five minutes indulging their newfound vanity before they were satisfied and wanted to inspect every photograph she’d taken.

Anahita spent the journey to her hotel lost in thought. Once in her room, she transferred and printed every picture she’d clicked.

The rest of the weekend photography seminar was a blur of colour and clicking. Anahita thought it focused too much on frames, lighting and the like and too little on the feel of the photograph. By the end of the seminar, she’d decided that their car breaking down near the little village was the best thing that had happened all weekend. Much to her co-passengers’ annoyance, Anahita insisted on stopping there again on the way back home.

“I won’t be long, I promise.” She quickly nipped out of the car to find the little boy whose thrilled face was etched in her memory. It took her only a couple of minutes to locate the group of eight boys running around in their dusty field of a playground. Aakash spotted her first and shouted in delight. Soon, she was surrounded by the entire bunch asking multiple questions at the same time.

When she finally managed to quiet them down, she said, “I’ve got something for you guys before I go.” Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the envelope containing the photographs. As she distributed them amongst the gleeful group, she found herself at the receiving end of several warm hugs.

“But what about you?” Hanif asked worriedly. “Don’t you want one?”

Anahita laughed. “I have all of them right here.” She patted her camera case. “But I have kept my favourite, just in case.” She showed them the first picture she’d clicked.

“Why is this one your favourite?” Harish asked naively.

Anahita shrugged. “It just is.”

***

At the end of her internship, Anahita was named the best intern and given the honour of having any one of her photographs printed inside the magazine she’d spent the past five months working for. She instantly submitted the first of the series of pictures she’d clicked of the eight village boys: the one with Farhaan helping Rehaan up the wall.

“Are you sure?” her boss asked, “You can take some time to make your pick.”

“I’m sure. This one is my favourite.”

“Why?”

Anahita smiled as she remembered Harish. “It just is.”

Memories of Childhood

There are countless of us who have our most precious childhood memories hidden in a cosy nook, lost in a book

I was maybe 3 when I developed the conditioned reflex of smiling at the sight of a book. My mother had made it a habit to read to me as often as she could, and oh, how grateful I am to her for it every day! I, in turn, was enthralled by the world that could be found in those pages. How could it be that she could leaf through this rectangle full of sheets with funny symbols on them and see such wonderful stories unfolding before her eyes? I just had to learn to do that!

“What does that mean?” and “Where is that word written?” became daily questions, and their answers seemed much more interesting than admiring the multitude of brightly coloured illustrations so many of my books contained. As a result, I was reading long before I learnt the alphabet. My love for reading only deepened as I grew older, and anyone who knew me for 2 seconds knew that a book would be the ideal gift for me for any occasion, and my library expanded at an exponential rate.

Now, as I prepare to move to the other side of the world, I find myself surrounded by things I cannot possibly carry along, however much I may want to. After donating many kilograms of clothes and shoes, today, I turned to the gigantic bookshelf I am immensely proud of.

Having recently adopted greener ways and bought a Kindle, I thought that sorting out books to donate would be the easiest giveaway task of the entire moving process. After all, I only had to list the books I wanted in my collection and that were available as e-books, and then pile them in one of the large bags strewn on the floor.

I don’t know what made me open the first of the books. But when I did, I saw a sticker staring up at me. “Miss Amrita Bhardwaj. 2nd in class. Standard IV B.” That was when I realized how many memories I was giving away too. Countless similar stickers went by (clearly I was a bit of a nerd!), intermixed with numerous birthday messages, and several more random “Enjoy the world of _____” notes from all those loving people who had always remembered that a book was always the best way to make me happy.

There were so many complete series I had bought, thinking that I would save them and read them to my own children someday. So many thoughtful messages from so many friends. How was I supposed to just let go of all of that? I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of emotions just the sight of those pages brought back, even without being read. I was surprised to find that I still remember which ones my mother used to read to me before I learnt to do it relatively independently, which ones I had read while I was sick, and which ones I had hidden from her while reading because I couldn’t bear to have a daily limit imposed on fiction.

I have donated a fragment of myself with every book I have placed in a giveaway bag today, and it has left me feeling strangely hollow, despite the fact that I am already in the process of downloading their electronic versions. I had never dreamed that I would be so attached to those bundles of paper that adorned my childhood structure of pride that now stands half-empty in my living room. (There are some books I just couldn’t find it in my heart to part with.)

There is a ray of sunshine in the situation though: by donating my prized-possessions to a free library, I have been a source of happiness to many children who would not otherwise have been able to afford the joy of reading.

All those of you who don’t understand us lovers of books: please do yourself a favour and pick one up. It can be about anything— anything in the world. It can be any length— 50 pages or 1000. Just open a book and experience that feeling of getting lost in the pages where you are given just the story and your mind is free to imagine everything else. Feel that urgency to read just one more chapter … that temptation to skip ahead to the end … that strange mixture of both satisfaction and a twinge of sadness when you finish the last page. There are countless of us who have our most precious childhood memories hidden in a cosy nook, lost in a book. Gift yourself this unique joy found only in words. You will thank me later, I promise.

Driving Lessons

20 days = 20 lessons.

  1. Anything in the driving school’s car can dislodge itself when you touch it.
  2. When a herd of animals/children who have just been dismissed from school frolic joyfully in front of the car, it is NOT okay to scream, let go of the steering wheel and hide your face in your hands.
  3. When you have just begun your driving lessons, you will be overtaken by very old people … on foot.
  4. At least ONE lever will cease to function when needed desperately (most often, the wiper during the monsoon, or the headlights at night).
  5. Unusual traffic jam = traffic policeman.
  6. Footpaths are for losers. Pedestrians will stroll along in the middle of the road and NEVER respond to any amount of frustrated honking. You are expected to dodge all of them (not to mention the multitude of stray dogs, cows and, of course, the occasional elephant). Also, it is considered a sin for pedestrians to cross at the pedestrian crossing.
  7. Any route you wish to take WILL be dug up at some point.
  8. The more enjoyable a drive down a road, the more stringent the enforcement of the speed limit on it.
  9. At least 1/3rd of the people who give the left signal want to turn right, and vice versa, and will not hesitate to do so from the extremes of lanes. You are expected to anticipate this, because you WILL be blamed for any mishap that may occur. And of course, there are some people who like to keep their intended direction suspense and drive with both indicators on. It is advisable to stay miles away from such vehicles, as they may float off along any course unexpectedly.
  10. The probability of your car breaking down is inversely proportional to the amount of time remaining for your curfew.
  11. Signals are meant to be broken. You need not stop at each one. For some, simply slowing down and cruising across at any velocity below 50km/hour will suffice.
  12. It is perfectly acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the road if you do not wish to take a long U-turn because you will miss your favourite TV programme in the process. (The reason may be different, but police vehicles are also exempted from the drive-on-the-left-hand-side rule).
  13. During the rainy season, there will never be some puddles on the road. There will be some road in the puddles.
  14. It is your fundamental right to reverse out of a one-way lane. It doesn’t matter which way you go as long as your bonnet faces the correct direction.
  15. An auto rickshaw driver has the supreme right to signal change of lane (or lanes, as the case may be) with the show of 1/300th of a finger (or alternatively, a toe), most often the little one. This too, they will do only if they are in the mood for it (in which case you are lucky). Otherwise, be on the alert for them to drift off in any direction without warning.
  16. If you are driving in the leftmost lane, you are going too fast for it. If you are driving in the rightmost lane, you are going too slow for it. Driving in the middle does not help either, because in this case, the likelihood of you sending a dreamy pedestrian on his final journey increases exponentially. Your only option is to say a silent prayer, be on your way and hope for the best.
  17. The nut behind the wheel to whom honking is music, but overtaking is a crime, will always be driving right behind you.
  18. The nut behind the wheel whose velocity is steady at 1km/year and is impossible to overtake due to transverse oscillation, will always be driving in right front of you.
  19. Always be prepared for any object (living, or thrown by living) to appear out of thin air within 2 metres of your car, when avoidance of said entity involves a series of complex manoeuvres.
  20. This is the day you will be introduced to the engine, which, by the way, is NOT a shiny accumulation of steel, but a dusty mass of grey-black stuff rotting under the hood. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FIX ANYTHING IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG. You will only end up worsening the condition or suffering an electric shock. The chances of either of these happening quadruple if you have no help at hand.

BONUS LESSON!!!

21. Your driving test will consist, at most, of making ½ a turn on a dusty ground at snail’s pace; with your instructor operating the clutch and brake for you (your only job is to turn the steering wheel).

At the end of it all, when you get your license (to kill), you realise that after 10 hours of lessons for which you probably had to miss several outings with your friends (what a horrible price to pay!), you know NOTHING about driving!

 

How to Embarrass Yourself at a Restaurant: A Reliable Guide

(Note: The author is an experienced figure in the field.)

 

  1. Choose a barely affordable restaurant to execute this scheme, being careful to remain blissfully unaware of taxes.
  2. Order several exotic items off the menu, all being precariously close to the upper limit of your budget for the meal.
  3. Eat, drink and be merry. (You might as well – this may well be the last time in your life you are setting foot on the premises.)
  4. Casually ask for the cheque, preferably with an attitude suggesting you have a bank balance that surpasses any sum less than 20 digits (you don’t of course, but this is the standard procedure.)
  5. Gasp at the amount on receiving it, wondering how you could possibly have consumed enough to justify your bill, before throwing a tantrum on noticing the exorbitant tax rates. (One of you can try fainting, just to add more drama.)
  6. Calculate everyone’s share. Make sure to take at least 15 minutes to do this.
  7. Gasp at your expected personal contribution again, this time wondering whether you (or your parents) even earn that much per month. (The fainting con must not be tried here – you may get robbed by one of your poorer friends while you lie still, pretending to be comatose. Naturally, you always have the option of abandoning the scheme and reclaiming your savings, but you’ll want to retain some shreds of your dignity as you walk/run (most likely the latter) out of the eatery.)
  8. Turn out your pockets in full view of everyone in the restaurant.
  9. Fall short by several rupees.
  10. Begin emptying your pockets of small change.
  11. Count the pooled money. (It’ll be even more helpful if you forget the amount you counted and recount numerous times. It’s all part of the experience.)
  12. Rejoice, because your chillar saved the day!
  13. Leave the exact amount (and not one paisa more – they charged you 1/10th of your bill as service tax!) on the table.
  14. Get the hell out of there!
  15. Realise in horror that you counted wrong when the maitre d’ follows you out and informs you in a controlled tone that you paid Rs 10 less.
  16. 50% of the group can stay back to do a recount of your carefully collected funds. The other half can try their luck and make a dash for it! (Of course, this ruse may not work, if it dawns on you that the others have absolutely nothing left and, by God’s will, one of them stuck up there is the only one with a car to drop all you kangaals home, so you will have to fish deeper to come up with some more small change – if any.)
  17. Procure said change (assuming there is some, as there always is, hidden in the depths of your wallet) and swiftly call dibs on not being the one to go back and hand the 10 Re 1 coins to the now frustrated restaurant staff. If you were slow enough to have landed this job, do it with as many airs and graces as possible, bravely attempting to conceal (in vain, naturally, but still) the obvious fact that you have no cash left whatsoever.
  18. Get the hell out of there! Again!
  19. Pile into said car and zoom off before the restaurant sends another employee after you to extort more money.

Relax! You were fortunate enough to escape with Re 1 per person!

Silent musings of a homesick Bombayite

Life in Bombay is in no way perfect. It is unpredictable, at times irrational, and can even be downright chaotic. But only those who have lived here know that there is beauty in the chaos.

A few days ago, while talking to a colleague during some (extremely rare) downtime at work, I heard the phrase, “I would love to visit India but I couldn’t see myself living there.” And even though I have left India by choice, my impulse, of course, was to convince her otherwise. I first offered the disclosure that the only 2 places I’ve called home in India were Calcutta (for 2 years as a toddler, so I am hardly an authority on what it’s like to live there) and Bombay; so naturally, I would have to limit myself to the latter. I then began an impassioned speech about the fast-paced city life, the food and the sea, but I had to stop short because of a very valid rebuttal. Which was that that the appeal of life in metropolitan cities in other countries is that they are melting pots of different cultures from around the world, whereas isn’t India mostly just filled with Indians? Which, if you think about it from the perspective of someone who has lived in … say New York City, is quite true.

 

I admit that I was defeated, and felt pretty ashamed that I hadn’t been able to do a better job at describing the beauty of life in the city where I grew up. But then I realized that the reason I hadn’t been able to explain just what it is about Bombay that makes it so wonderful is that my city isn’t really a city at all— it’s an experience. And just like you cannot truly explain the joy of devouring one pani-puri after another to someone who has never tasted one, you cannot accurately define what it is like to live in India’s City of Dreams to someone who hasn’t been there.

 

Sure, it’s hot, crowded, dirty, polluted and even becoming increasingly unsafe in recent times. There’s poverty, corruption and a certain amount of religious intolerance anywhere you go. People can be resistant to change and will brand you immoral for incorporating new ways of life into our culture. You could talk or bribe your way out of almost anything, and still be arrested for minor public displays of affection. Life in Bombay is in no way perfect. It is unpredictable, at times irrational, and can even be downright chaotic.

 

But only those who have lived here know that there is beauty in the chaos. Where else in the world would you be able to watch a glorious sunset from a seaside promenade just a pavement away from the heart of downtown? Or buy everything from household necessities to imitation jewellery after fighting tooth and nail for a seat on your train commute to work? What other city can boast of such a staggering variety of local delicacies you can buy off the street at all times of the day or night (if you know where to go)? Where else can you set out to shop all day, every single day of the year, through 9 pm at the very least, and return home with everything from fantastically detailed designer knock-offs from an illegal roadside establishment to authentic local handicrafts from a fancy couture store (or the other way round if that’s what you’re looking for)? And where else in the world does June bring with it the intoxicating aroma of quenched earth and the cool breeze that promises both a spectacular as well as devastating monsoon?

 

Want to enjoy an evening of carefree laughter? Make your way to any one of the many comedy clubs around town. Is fine arts more up your alley? How about visiting an art gallery? Want to go out for a night on the town? Take your pick! Or perhaps you prefer a romantic evening out with the one you love? You’re spoiled for choice. Maybe you’re just in the mood for a quiet night in. Order any cuisine you fancy to be delivered to your doorstep. Looking for a lazy Sunday brunch? Just Google your options and watch your confusion compound with every mouse click. Or maybe you want to spend your weekend volunteering. There are thousands of organizations working for hundreds of causes to choose from.

 

Marine Drive. Kanheri Caves. High Street Phoenix. Colaba Causeway. Luxury high-rise urban homes. Suburban bungalows. Mild winters. Torrential downpours. Imported figs. Locally grown alphonso mangoes. Regional schools. International educational institutions. Bombay has something for everyone.

 

But do you want to know what makes this city truly magical? It’s the people. For every heart-wrenching tale of dreams crushed by unfortunate circumstances, there is a success story of a self-made man with humble beginnings. For every victim of a viscerally nauseating crime, there is a recipient of a heart-warming deed of kindness. For every enraging act of censorship, suppression or ostracism, there is a group of people going out of their way to incite a revolution to fight for the rights of people they don’t even know.

 

True: Bombay’s culture is not representative of the world population. That is only because India is still a developing country and is not yet seen as a land of opportunity by most people from outside of India. It’s probably a good thing too, because we have yet to perfect the infrastructure to support even more people and acclimatize our society to accepting cultures from all over the world. Our influx is steadily growing, and outlooks are slowly changing, but we can’t honestly be classified as a world city quite yet.

 

Also true: despite being an obviously homesick, thoroughbred Bombay girl, I have voluntarily chosen to pursue life 8000 miles away from my home, family and friends, in a cold country with a different way of life. I have been, and will continue to be criticized for abandoning my country in need for money and a better lifestyle. I am undeniably at least partly guilty of this accusation, but I believe that after studying day and night for so many years— and working in such a critical field that will truly require me to study all my life— I deserve not only to be well paid for my expertise but also to have access to the right technology and resources that will help me make a difference. So while there were many things that made this admittedly selfish choice easier than it should have been, it was still a huge sacrifice, and not a day goes by that I do not miss my home enough to want to throw caution to the wind and hop on the first flight home.

 

And who knows? Maybe one day, I will.