Memories of Childhood

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

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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!

 

Treasure Hunt

A fictional tale of love set in a true incident of terror. In memory of November 26, 2008. To remind us that despite all the bloodshed, horror and mindless violence, love will prevail.

“Smile!”

It was an unnecessary instruction. Treasure hunt was by far Samraat’s favourite game. The challenge of locating the clues scattered along the path and the rush to be the first one to figure it all out and grab the prize enthralled him. He especially loved how the best clues weren’t really all that hidden, but instead, placed quite openly, simply masquerading as innocent objects of the general environment. He had always thought it strange for his friends to be unable to see what, to him, was painfully obvious.

He clutched the gift-wrapped box close to his chest and grinned toothily at the blinding flash.

***

“You look terrible.”

“Thank you, Samraat; you always know just what to say.”

“Seriously, Nidhi. You need rest.”

“Just go. I have coffee to keep me alive. And this is the last overnight ObGyn emergency I’m attending; I swear!”

“And the last night on the town you’re missing too. Abhinav is gonna be so mad!”

“So clubbing is supposed to provide me with all this much-needed rest? Get him a beer from my side and he’ll forget all about it. He’s your brother after all!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Nidhi checked her watch, smiling slightly. “It’s 8. I have to go.”

***

“Again?”

“Sorry man. She’s a nerd.”

“Yeah I can see that, but this is getting insane!”

“You can’t tell me you’re not used to it.”

“I am … I dunno how you handle it!”

“What’s to handle?”

Abhinav sighed as he slipped into the driver’s seat. “Sometimes you’re so stupid that I can’t believe we share DNA.”

“What?”

“You’ve lost your talent.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That.” Abhinav shook his head in disappointment, pointing vaguely in Samraat’s direction.

Samraat felt enormously exasperated. Abhinav could be such a girl sometimes: talking in riddles, expecting everyone to understand and then getting outraged when nobody did.

Samraat gave a start as his brother honked loudly to jerk him out of his reverie. “Get in the car before it’s my next birthday!”

***

Ramya laughed. “You are so funny!” Samraat was well aware that he actually wasn’t, but she was still smiling. Which could mean only one thing: he was so in!

He decided to try his luck. “Wanna dance?”

Ramya looked thrilled. “A doctor who can dance? Are you for real?”

He flashed his dimples at her. Things were going to get interesting!

There was a sudden explosion of loud music from the bar they were resting on. Samraat looked down to find his phone ringing. Talk about rotten timing!

“Hi Preeti.” Samraat answered, his tone making it amply clear to his sister that he wasn’t at all happy with the interruption.

“Are you guys okay?” She was screaming hysterically despite the sore throat that had prevented her from coming out that night.

“Of course! Why?”

“Listen; get out of there right now! But be careful!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You guys are at Prive, right?”

“No. We chose Velvet Lounge instead.” He heard a sigh of relief. “Preeti, what’s happening?”

“There are terrorists all over South Bombay!”

“WHAT?” Samraat thundered disbelievingly. Ramya looked scared.

“There was firing at Leopold’s, and now there are 2 armed guys shooting around at VT! Please get home!” Preeti was clearly almost in tears. “I know you guys are far away but who knows where the rest of these crackos are? Mum and Dad aren’t in town and I can’t be alone. Please!”

“Yeah, we’re leaving right now. Don’t worry.”

“ABHINAV!” Samraat roared as he flung cash on the counter.

“What’s going on?” Ramya asked him, fearfully.

“Terror attack.” Samraat answered shortly, as he scanned the drunken crowd for their madly-in-love siblings.

“What? Where?”

“Colaba and VT. We’re dropping you girls off and heading home right away.” He shoved his way towards Abhinav and Tanvi, pulling Ramya behind him. It seemed an inappropriate time for him to notice that she had wonderfully soft hands.

***

Abhinav, Preeti and Samraat huddled in front of the television. A news channel had a grainy CCTV video clip of a young terrorist brandishing an AK-47 at VT playing on loop, as the newsreader stated that he had confirmed news that they had finally left the premises, but regrettably, very much alive, and still armed.

An approximate death toll of 27 flashed under a banner of ‘BREAKING NEWS.’ It seemed an optimistic estimate though; VT was always teeming with people.

“Wait … I’m getting a new input!” The newsreader announced as he adjusted his earpiece and listened intently. “There’s been firing at Cama Hospital!”

There was a crash as the glass in Samraat’s hand fell to the floor. Cama Hospital. Nidhi. It took him less than a second to connect the 3 words. How could he have forgotten? How had it not struck him when Preeti had mentioned VT? The 2 buildings are within walking distance of each other. Was he really such a selfish jerk that he didn’t care about his best friend just because he was flirting with some stupid bimbo?

“Nidhi.” Samraat whispered in shock. Abhinav was already watching him apprehensively. Samraat swallowed once, stood up and grabbed the car keys off the table.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Preeti demanded to know.

“Nidhi.” He replied stupidly.

“What?”

“You’re staying here.” Abhinav informed him, reaching for the keys.

“Nidhi!” Samraat insisted urgently.

“Sam, there’s … nothing you can do.”

“But—”

“Maybe she left early.” Abhinav said, rather too optimistically. Even he knew Nidhi too well for that.

“No, she—”

“Even if she didn’t, she’ll be fine.” Abhinav was clearly increasingly beginning to lose faith in his own words.

“You don’t know that! I have to go there!”

“The area is sealed, Sam.”

“But I should be there! With her!” Samraat could only repeat the single thought in his mind.

“Do you want to get shot?” Preeti look terrified just at the thought.

“I don’t care, I just—”

Abhinav sympathetically pulled him into a comforting hug. In a flash, the hug seemed familiar— the emotion was just like it had been the only time Samraat had lost a game of treasure hunt at a birthday party— and Abhinav’s girly riddle from earlier that evening suddenly made perfect sense. He was right. Samraat had lost his talent of seeing what everyone else couldn’t … in fact, now he couldn’t even see what everyone else could. He was losing his treasure hunt. Worst case scenario: he’d already lost it.

He blinked a few times to clear his suddenly-blurred-vision, only to feel 2 warm streaks making their way down his cheeks.

***

Loud guitaring jerked Samraat awake. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep in the middle of such a nightmarish situation. He jack-knifed up and grabbed his phone, desperately praying for it to be Nidhi responding to the service text she should have received alerting her about the 100-odd missed calls he had left her. An unknown number flashed on the screen.

“Hello?” He bellowed into it.

“Hey, Samraat!” A happy female voice chirped, as if the horror his best friend was going through was just in his imagination.

“Who’s this?” He snapped angrily.

“Ramya!”

Samraat made a disgusted click with his tongue and hung up. Gone were all the illusions of her cuteness. Who wanted a spineless suck-up for a girlfriend? And what real use were soft hands, exactly, if they were attached to someone that brain dead?

“What’s happening?” He asked his siblings as he redialled Nidhi’s number for the nth time.

“There’s been one death at Cama.” Abhinav said solemnly.

Samraat froze. There was a short pause, during which he heard the same recorded message he’d heard countless number of times within the past 2 hours: ‘The number you are trying to reach is out of coverage area.’

“It’s not Nidhi.” Preeti grinned.

A wave of relief swept over him. He laughed before he could stop himself.

Abhinav gave him a thump on the back, grinning widely.

Samraat jumped to his feet and turned to Preeti. “Now can I go?”

“Are you really that stupid? You’re staying here until this is all over.” Elder sisters can be so bossy!

“But—”

“Look, she’s a hard-working intern in a hospital that just got attacked by terrorists. She’ll be busy.” Abhinav had never been so sensible.

***

It had been 3 days and Nidhi was still there. Samraat should have known she’d stay back and help to the point of exhaustion, even though she’d just gone through the same nightmare as them. He watched her from outside the Labour Ward. Her hair was a mess. Her eyes were red and swollen from lack of sleep. Her apron was spattered with blood. And she still looked beautiful.

For a moment, he contemplated barging into the room and dragging her away from the delivery he couldn’t believe she had energy left to be assisting. Then he thought of how overworked she must be, and decided she didn’t need more drama from him. He’d waited 3 agonising days … what were a few more minutes?

1 placenta later, he saw Nidhi pull off her gloves and head to the basin to wash up. Another 2 minutes and she was out, looking ready to collapse.

Before her tired brain could register his presence, he had enveloped her in his arms— blood and all. In no time, she was sobbing into his shirt, mumbling things about showers of bullets, evil bastards and a dead ward-boy. He kept his face buried in her hair as he stroked it lightly, muttering, “Its okay … its okay …”, until her breathing evened a little.

Then:

“I … am a huge idiot.” He pulled himself free and gently cupped her tear-stained face in his hands.

“Colossal.” She corrected him, her mouth twitching. She clearly already knew exactly what he wanted to say.

Impossibly, standing in the very building that had witnessed gunfire 2 nights ago, they laughed. And shamelessly, in front of an entire corridor of expectant fathers, he kissed her.

“So … I love you.” Samraat whispered goofily.

Nidhi almost glowed. “I know!”

As he pulled her into an embrace again, he caught sight of their reflection in the bullet-hold-ridden elevator doors. This was it. His most important treasure hunt was over. And he’d won. Barely, but still. He’d won! There they were … the way it was always supposed to be … true perfection … Samraat and Nidhi: the king and his treasure.

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 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.