Marketing (grocery/vegetable shopping)

“Please give me your kaapdi pishvi (cloth bag) and some sutte paise (loose change).” These are usually the first words out of my mouth on the first morning every time I land in India. Without fail. Every single time. After the first few times, like my many other ‘stunts’, my mother got over the initial shock, and champ that she is, now even keeps these two things ready for me at seven in the morning, knowing I’ll be up and ready to step out by then.

What do I do with these, you wonder? Why, I go ‘marketing’ of course! Marketing is Marathi short-cut slang for ‘going to the market to buy groceries, especially fresh vegetables.’ Armed with the pishvi and sutte paise, I step out of the house, and make my way to the now not-too-usual mandai (vegetable market). It is a delight just to be able to walk walk WALK to the market, instead of having to drive there, like we do while not living in India. Anyway, back to the mandai. I take my time, walking amidst the many stalls of bhaaji (vegetables) there. It is a treat to see such a huge display, and as always, I feel sad that I cannot buy one of each.

My first stop is usually the paale-bhaaji (greens) waali mavshi (aunty, a term for every Indian lady who might be older than you). The greens have an aroma of their own, and I greedily sniff them, well aware that I am looking exactly like Cutey, my dog, who loves sniffing everything that is brought into the house. I digress, thoughts of Cutey do that to me. “Lai disaanni aali por. Kashi haay tu baala?” (“The girl has come after a long time. How are you, child?”) asks the mavshi. Smiling gleefully now that my senses are full with the smell of the paale-bhaaji and my heart is full with the mavshi’s kind words, I reply, “tooch saang me kashi aahe?” (You see for yourself and tell me how I am?” She narrows her eyes, “gori gori zaali tu tithe pardeshi raahoon, pann lai sukliyes bagh. Aata maaheri aaliyes na, masta khaun-peeun bharoon magg ja.” (Life abroad has made your complexion fair, but you look thin. Now that you are at your mother’s, eat and drink a lot so that you’ll fill up a bit.) ‘Fill up a bit’ brings to mind the image of a stuffed turkey. The words sound funny, especially coming from the frail, bony, old mavshi, but that’s her way of expressing love.

I buy two lush bunches of ambaadi (Gongura), and smile when she adds a tiny bunch of ambat chuka (Green Sorrel). She only accepts money for the ambaadi. Accepting her gift of love, I thank her, and hand her the tiny bottle of sprakly perfume I had brought with me for her daughter. She hurriedly puts it in her tiny satchel as if it is a precious treasure.

Moving on, I head over to my next favorite stop, the gajrewaali (flower garland lady). The fragrance of Jaie (Asiatic Jasmine) is heady and intoxicating, and I unashamedly buy 5 garlands, each the length of my palm. Seeing my childlike eagerness, the lady offers to pin one in my hair. I thank her, but refuse. The first one is always offered to the Gods in the temple in my parents’ kitchen, not as a rule, but as my custom of telling them that I’ve missed them. (I know God is everywhere, and all that, but God at one’s parents’ place is always that much more present and is listening to you, isn’t it?)

Next stop, the grocer. Ever since I was in school, I used to save paise (pennies) to buy a veg puff pastry – we call them patties. As soon as he spots me, uncle (every man older than us is uncle or grandfather in the Indian custom) raises his hand to wave at me. His smile widens when he realises I am headed his way. “Ek veg patties leke aa apni bacchi keliye!” (“Get a veg patties for our child”) Uncle orders his hired help. Almost instantly, the patties arrives on a paper plate, complete with a bottle of ketchup. Putting Jughead (of Archie’s fame) to shame, I dig into the hot, spicy patties, uncaring of the steam emanating from my ears and nose thanks to impossibly high spice level. Done eating, Uncle and I walk to the tapri (stall), where I buy two ‘cutting’ (shot) of chai (tea). The chaiwalla (tea vendor) hands us a shot glass of tea each, and Uncle and I start talking, catching up. He brings me up to date about all my school friends and their families. A lot of us have moved away from the place we grew up in, which means we visit home at different times of the year. Uncle has taken it upon himself to be our newskeeper. Over time, he has also become our confidant. It is a true pleasure to hear updates about everyone, be it those living away, or those blessed enough to still live in the same city.

By now, it has been almost half an hour since I stepped out of home. Hurriedly, I buy the ‘Funny Bunny’ as I call it, a sweet bun with tooti-frooti (Indian term for gummies) embedded inside it, and rush home with my treasures of the morning. I enter the gates, but cannot walk straight home. I must circle the entire society (housing community which holds memories of my childhood). As I walk around, I notice the grass on the main ground. Grinning like a fool, uncaring that a lot of residents here are new and have no idea who I am, I walk into the grass and pluck the durva (Bermuda grass).

A uniformed watchman runs up to me, telling me that outsiders not allowed in the society without permission. With a smile, I let him know that I am not an outsider, that my parents live here. He stares at me, “aap Kulkarni saab kee beti ho?” (“Are you the daughter of Mr. Kulkarni?”) I nod. I can see he is confused, so I ask him what the matter is. “Aap toh aaj subah aane waali thi na?” (“Weren’t you supposed to arrive early morning today?”) I nod, and explain that I did, indeed, arrive sometime around three in the morning. He wants to ask more, but the rules of class system in the Indian society are far stricter, and he will not dare to question the NRI daughter of his employers. So he bows slightly and walks away. He salutes my parents, and even my friends who still live there, but will only bow his head slightly for me, because, in his eyes, I am not exactly his employer even though I am not an outsider either. To him, I am just a guest. He has to have that one up for his own ego. That’s the way it is.

All my self-desired tasks dutifully fulfilled, I finally reach home, and ring the doorbell, smiling with my battishi (showing all thirty-two teeth). I am smiling because I am excited to ring the doorbell, another rare treat for me now, as doorbells are not that common (or loud) anywhere else. My son, who must share the same excitement, runs up to the door. I feel a surge of pride when, standing behind the safety of the closed door, he shouts, “kon?” (“Who is it?”) I announce myself, and he happily opens the door to let me in. He is jumping up and down with joy, because his aaji (grandmother) allowed him to drink milk from a saucer! “Me kap-basheetoon doodh pyaayla!” I don’t bother correcting the tiny grammatical mistake, because, one, he is trying his best to speak his mother tongue, and two, well, little joys of childhood. 

Equally crazy, I keep my shopping where it belongs, and return the pishvi to my mother, feeling a wicked joy as I sneak the remaining sutte paise into my personal stash. This stash starts the first day of my trip and on the last day, it is emptied in the istri chi pishvi, known world over as the laundry bag. For the record, many homes in India have a dhobi (laundry man) who comes every day and is handed clothes for ironing. He ties them in a pile, adding to the huge bunch on his back, and takes them to his shop/home. When he comes around the next time, he will hand you the ironed clothes, while you hand him another round of washed clothes that need ironing, along with money for services rendered. Ooh! I feel another blog post coming up, this one, about the dhobi! 

Now that I have had my ‘marketing’ run, I run to the bathroom to wash my hands, feet, and face with soap. Meanwhile, aai has made chaha (Marathi for tea), baba is busy at his computer, and sonny boy is slathering loni (home-made butter) over the ‘Funny Bunny’, though going by the amount of loni he is using per piece, I’d say he’s applying bread to the butter. The breakfast tastes divine, actually, everything tastes amazing when it is had at maaher (mom’s place), and after helping with the clean-up, I am now free to go back to ‘marketing’, this time, to shop for desi (Indian) clothes and other knick knacks that I’ll be taking back to my other home abroad, when my trip gets over.

My parents, champions that they are, stop buying groceries a few days before I arrive in India just so that I get an excuse to go ‘marketing’ daily throughout the duration of my India trip. You see, I love ‘Marketing’.

 

 

Blue Thumbs Go Farm to Table!

With 2020 packing most of us in the safety of our homes, I had to do something to keep my spirits up, to stay positive. A quick look in the kitchen revealed a bottle of fenugreek methi seeds. The discovery reminded me of an experiment I’d done as a child. Soak the seeds overnight, when you see them sprout (tiny tails at the end of the seeds), it means they have germinated and are ready to plant. I remember ‘borrowing’ one of the numerous shrikhand containers my aai and aaji always kept in the kitchen cabinets. Indian homes ALWAYS have at least a few such plastic containers lying around, neatly washed, dried and kept, to be used as quick storage solution, or when something needs to be given to someone without the expectation of getting anything in return… more on that later in a different blog. 

Anyway, the science teacher had told us that the container should have good drainage, so I borrowed the container, and carefully poked three holes at the bottom, nevermind the fact that the overzealous younger me accidentally pierced myself in my energetic attempts to break through the plastic. Now that my container, and I, had been pierced, I  filled the container with soil from the garden. Back in those days, soil was easily available and free! I keep digressing.

Next, I proceeded to spread the sprouted fenugreek methi seeds in the soil, and sat back to watch it grow. Five minutes later, seeing my crestfallen face, my baba asked me what the matter was. I told him there was something wrong with my methi plant, it wasn’t growing. He offered to take a look at it. Now, baba is a scientist and a farmer, so he was literally my best bet at figuring out what the problem was. He turned the container this side and that, then asked, “when did you put the seeds in the soil?” I replied, “AGES ago!” I remember the way his cheeks seemed to fill up with air, as ifhe was holding back a smile. With a super serious expression, he suggested I cover the seeds with a layer of soil. “Keep it thin or the plant might not be able to break through,” he advised, “and keep it loose, don’t pack it too tight.”

With very little hope, I did as he asked, and once again sat back, waiting for it to grow. Zip. Nada. Nothing. “You know what?” my aai joined us just then, “it is time for you to go to sleep. How about we let the sprouted seeds also sleep, and check what’s wrong in the morning?” Adamant, I was about to refuse, but a ginormous yawn overpowered my resolve, and I bade them both a good-night before heading towards the bedroom I shared with my aaji. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” aai asked. I stopped, turned around, “I am?” She nodded, “did you wish good-night to the plant?” Too sleepy to argue that it wasn’t a plant, I glanced at it, wished it good-night, and feeling like a fool, disappointed that my experiment had failed, I went to sleep.

Childhood is indeed blissful, for sleep claimed me almost the moment my head hit the pillow. I woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside my window. “Good morning!” I called out to the family in general and went about my business. It was Saturday, so no school. When I joined my family in the living room, the aroma of omelette (Indian English is based on British English. Omlet would be crossed out in huge red ink by my teachers, so I’ll stick with omelette as this post pertains to the time when I was still in school) made my stomach rumble. I gleefully dug into my omelette sandwich, which was a thick, fluffy omelette stuck between two slices of buttered bread, with tomato ketchup and coriander (Indian cilantro) chutney slathered on the buttered side, and pressed together in the sandwich maker.

“Is that a parrot I see out there?” my dad suddenly asked, staring out the window. Though parrots were a common sight, it was still too early in the season, so I turned to look, my curiosity roused. Sandwich forgotten, I let out a loud squeal, for there were tiny green leaflets (they were too tiny to be called leaves, so I coined this term) emerging from the ‘faulty’ seeds I’d sown the previous night! “My plant!” I exclaimed in joy. Smiling, my dad told me that plants take their own time to sprout and grow. They need sunlight, water, and sometimes, even food and fertilizer to keep them strong and healthy, just like us.

Excited now, I immediately wanted to water my plant. The holes at the bottom of the container took care of my overeager watering. I kept staring at the plant every chance I got, and by evening, I could swear it had grown another millimeter or two! I wonder how my parents did not get tired of my eager exclamations and running commentary about the growth of my plant. By Monday morning, it was a good inch from the soil, and the leaflets had grown a nice shade of green.

Tuesday rolled around, and I excitedly carried my plant to school, feeling proud that it had grown so well. Much to my surprise, almost everyone in the class had brought the same plant. It was then that our science teacher told us that fenugreek is a staple seed used in our food, and the plant sprouts much faster than most others, and is very easy to maintain. Of course, childhood is blessed, so we all quickly got over our disappointment that ours was not the unique plant we had thought it was.

About three weeks after first sighting the leaves, baba asked if I’d help him harvest the plant. “Noooo!” I was sad, “why do you want to cut my plant?” He chuckled, “because it will go to seed if we don’t harvest it.” Now I was curious. He explained, “left unharvested, the plant will create flowers, which, in turn will generate more methi seeds. But in the meantime, the plant itself will lose its flavour (again, blame it on the Brits) and will taste bitter. Needless to say, the thought of my beautiful plant turning bitter was beyond my imagination, and I quickly rushed to pull it out.

“Stop!” baba warned me. I was confused. “If you pull it out from the roots, it gets over. Nothing can become of it after that point. But if you cut it at the stem, the plant will give you leaves again in a few weeks, continuing the cycle.” Excited, I ran into the kitchen and fetched him a pair of scissors. He showed me how to harvest the leaves, and then handed the pair to me, urging me to go slow, to watch the stem. That evening, we had methi parathas for dinner!

Now that I am done reminiscing, I’ll proudly add that I repeated this entire process, from germinating the seed, to sowing it, to watching it grow, to harvesting, to cleaning, and finally, to making methi parathas that tasted particularly delicious! A complete farm-to-table experience.

 

The Cave in the Woods

Part 1

A few years ago, Seth, Aria, Devin, and Amir were enjoying a glorious Sunday afternoon in springtime. The corner at the end of the narrow lane that led to their houses was their usual meeting spot. “Let’s explore the woods today!” suggested Devin, who loved the outdoors. “Yes, let’s!” Aria agreed, for she loved imagining that she was a princess in a fairytale, and the woods lent a perfect background for it. An old abandoned barn was her castle. One day, she could be Rapunzel, another, she was Cinderella, and so on. Together, they set out to the woods near their home.

“Hey!” Amir exclaimed. Seth stopped, his gaze following Amir’s pointed finger. “What’s that?” Devin ran up to join them. “It looks like a trail!” Aria chimed in. Seth frowned, “we have been here so many times, and never noticed it.” Amir shook his head, “it was pretty windy last night, maybe the wind blew away whatever twigs and dust were covering it, revealing the trail underneath?” Seth and Devin exchanged a glance as an idea formed in their heads. “We must explore it!” Devin could not contain his excitement. The other two nodded to show their agreement.

A few feet on the trail, and the boys began laughing as Aria kept gushing over every colorful blossom and fragrant flower they crossed. The trail was lined with beautiful flowering trees and shrubs, and made for a lovely walk indeed. “Let’s go all the way to the other end and see where we come out!” even the usually reserved Amir could not stop marveling at the beauty around them. The wood was a tiny one, and could be covered in a couple of hours. Finding a hidden trail would cause so much excitement amidst their neighborhood, the four would be considered heroes! Who knew, the mayor might even honor them by naming the trail after them, the children began thinking to themselves.

A few minutes in, the trail which had been even and easy so far, suddenly narrowed and became steep. The children automatically fell into line behind each other, with Devin taking the lead, followed by Amir, then Aria, with Seth bringing up the rear. At one point the climb was so steep that they had to walk holding hands! “Slow down!” Amir pleaded after a few minutes of walking uphill. Devin did not comment, but he did slacken the pace, making it easier for them all to follow close behind each other.

Seth stumbled on a root, and his hands flew out to brace himself as he lost his balance. “Wait!” he shouted, rising to his feet, and dusting off the dirt from his hands and knees. The three walking in front of him stopped. “What is it?” From his spot at the head of the line, Devin looked much like a king looking down at his subjects. Seth, however, neither noticed his friend’s royal look, nor heard his question. “Are you hurt?” Amir asked.

Seth’s failure to reply to their questions prompted his friends to climb the few feet back down to him. “Look,” he said, coming back to himself when Aria placed a hand on his shoulder.

cave

The kids fell silent, staring into a dark recess between the trees. “Should we explore it?” Aria whispered, as if afraid that speaking aloud might awaken something. “I say yes,” Seth and Arim replied in unison. Devin, of course, was already itching to explore the recess. Cautiously, the four headed towards it. The recess was a huge branch of a tree, lying in a surprisingly odd way. “This has grown downwards, as if it is seeking the earth, not the sun!” Arim exclaimed in surprise. “See the direction the leaves have grown in?” he pointed out, ” they are all facing down.” Seth examined the leaves, and gasped when he realised the reason why they were growing opposite what was natural.

“Look!” he pointed, “the branch is barely connected to the tree! There is something behind it!” Devin hurried to take a closer look. “Shall we move it?” Seth nodded. On the count of three, the two boys shifted the branch, which was surprisingly heavy. They were still panting, trying to catch their breath when Aria started jumping up and down in excitement. “It is a cave, guys!”

As if by some unspoken agreement the children gripped hands tightly and set a foot into the cave. It was pleasantly cool despite the high afternoon sun, and to their surprise, not as dark as they had feared it would be. In fact, the deeper into the cave they went, the more pleasant it began to seem. The air was fresh, unlike the damp, stale air found in most nooks and crannies, daylight seemed to be creeping in from somewhere. Aria, who had sharp ears, paused, “I hear water.” Heads cocked, they all stayed still, listening. Sure enough, the faint sound of flowing water was audible.

Following the direction the sound came from, they soon came to a tiny opening in the cave, and saw a spring! The water flowing in the spring was clear, and Devin, who had been a boy scount since kindergarten, quickly scooped some in his palm and took a careful sip. “It is fresh!” he announced shortly, and everyone rushed to quench their parched throats. The water was not only fresh, but also delightfully sweet, and they giggled and laughed, splashing water on each other.

“The sun will begin to set soon,” Amir observed, “we should head back home.” Devin began to argue, but Seth agreed with Amir, “we can come back next weekend to explore the cave further.” Aria too added her weight, “our parents will begin to worry if we aren’t home in time.” They made their way out of the cave, and Seth and Devin took care to cover the entrance once again with the branch.

“Why did you do that?” Amir asked them. “So it will remain our secret hideout,” Devin replied. Seth smiled, “the branch was there for a purpose. My mother says that wherever we go, we should always try to leave the place better than we found it. Since we couldn’t do anything for the cave, I thought it is better if we at least leave it exactly as we found it.”

On the walk home, the group was silent, each lost in their own thoughts about their discovery. About half an hour later, they reached their spot, and bid goodbye to each other before heading home.

As was their habit, each child washed up well, changing out of their now dirty clothes into fresh ones. However, no one, neither the kids, nor their families and friends, noticed that each of the four kids, now had one additional tiny strand of hair, which shimmered slightly only when the four were together!

Part 2

No one, not even the families of the four kids suspected that there was anything different about them. The only mention about the Sunday stroll was, “you were gone quite a while, looks like you had fun.” The kids merely nodded their head, replying, “yes, the woods are a great place this time of the year.” And thus, the day got over, with neither notice, nor mention of the kids’ adventure.

Monday morning was bright and sunny, and the walk to the school was enjoyable. “I hope none of you squealed about the cave at home,” Devin asked. With complete seriousness, the other three shook their heads. Any further discussion of their discovery was put on hold when Tina and Sam joined them. “Hey guys!” Tina ran up to them, “you will never believe what Sam and I did this gone weekend.” The four waited for her to continue. Just then, Sam reached them, “we went to the beach on Friday afternoon, and came back just yesterday. The water was so perfect!”

Aria was first to react, “that is amazing, guys! Say, now that you mention it, you do look a bit tanned.” Tina smiled, “do we now? We hardly left the beach at all. What did you guys do? Did you go someplace fun?” Seth shrugged, “we were in town, Saturday was busy helping mom finish the chores around the house. Met these three for a while on Sunday afternoon.” The four were glad when neither Tina, nor Sam asked what they had done on Sunday afternoon, for they did not want to lie to their friends.

Soon, they reached school, and every one got busy with their classwork. When the bell rang to indicate school was off, the kids had no time to talk about their adventure, for they each had to rush home to finish their homework and attend to their extra-curricular activities. Devin had soccer pratice, Amir was excited about his chess class, Aria loved going to her ballet classes, while Seth learnt tennis, but wasn’t quite sure he enjoyed it as much. It was only because daddy insisted on playing at least one sport that he went to the tennis academy, which was right across the street from his house.

The rest of the week flew past much like Monday, and by the time Friday rolled around, every one felt like they had been running all this time just to be able to stay in the same spot, just like Alice in Wonderland!

By evening, however, the four were getting antsy, hoping they could go explore the cave again. “I know!” Seth said, as soon as they met at their usual spot, “let’s meet early tomorrow, right after lunch. That way, we’ll have more time to explore the cave!” Aria jumped up and down in excitement, “and we can be better prepared. I’ll bring my bug spray. The insects almost drank all my blood yesterday.” The boys chuckled at her description, but no one teased her about it, for indeed, the walk through the woods had meant lots of insect-bites on their arms and legs.

“I’ll whistle as soon as I leave home,” Devin, whose house was on the furthest end of the lane, suggested. Amir agreed, “good idea, that way, we’ll know it is you, and we can meet you here.” With this plan set, the four returned to their homes, excited about the adventure they were planning to set on the next day.

Would they find the trail as easily this time? Would the cave be as welcoming again? What would they find in the cave?

Part 3

All four kids were ‘verrrryy hungry’ and wanted lunch as early as eleven on Saturday. “You are eating too slowly considering you were about to faint due to starvation,” Seth’s mother teased. When her back was turned to him, he hurriedly passed the food to Bruno, his dog, so she’d think he had indeed finished the food. The situation in the other three houses was no different, and the parents were amused by how hard the kids seemed to be trying to hide their excitement.

“I am off to play with the others,” Aria exclaimed suddenly, startling Leila, her younger sister, who was playing nearby. “Be sure to be home by four,” her father saw her off with the reminder as she ran down the lane, chasing after Devin. “She was so eager to go,” her mother remarked, watching from the kitchen window. Her father chuckled, “looks like the four have something up their sleeve.” Mother shook her head, sighing in resignation, “whatever it is, I hope they have a good time.” Father agreed, “it has been a long, cold winter. It is good to see the kids spending time outdoors in the spring sun.”

Seth and Amir were already at the spot when Devin arrived, Aria close behind him. “Oh you brought Bruno!” she exclaimed, dropping to her knees to hug the huge dog, who immediately left Seth’s side and ran to her. “His sharp nose will be useful,” Devin remarked. Wasting no more time, the four kids and Bruno, set off towards the woods.

The trail had disappeared, almost as if by magic, and despite their best efforts, the kids could not find it. “I am so glad you brought him along!” Amir remarked when the dog took the lead and began making his way across an unwalked route. “Slow down,” Seth commanded, looping the leash around his hand a few times to make it short so the dog couldn’t go too far.

A few minutes later, Bruno came to a stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere. “I know where we are!” Devin announced. “Then why do you look puzzled?” Aria asked. He met her gaze, “because we are at the exact spot where the cave was the last weekend!” Seth knew it was pointless to ask Devin if he was sure, for the boy scout had a sharp sense of direction and wouldn’t have said a word if he weren’t a hundred percent sure. “You mean, the cave vanished overnight, or rather over the week?” Amir asked. Devin shrugged, “I don’t know. All I know is, Bruno has brought us to the right spot. You gave him your tee-shirt from last weekend to sniff, and he brought us here.”

Eyebrows drawn together in a frown, Seth began to look around. “What are you searching for?” Aria asked him. He pursed his lips, “I am looking for a hint, a sign of what could have happened.” Amir joined him in his efforts, “I hope we can find some answers.” The kids formed a circle, each one facing outwards in four directions, eyes peeled to the ground for signs of rock, or anything that might have come from the cave. “I’d be happy if we could even spot the branch that was covering the cave that day,” Aria muttered.

“That’s it!” Seth exclaimed, as Aria’s words penetrated his thoughts. “The branch! Not only were the leaves growing downwards, with a different, darker shade of green, but the branch itself was an usual shade of brown, unlike the rest of the tree. Let’s find the tree that the branch was connected to!” Each kid spread out, separating from the others, looking for the tree. Amir spotted it, and called to the others, “guys, take a look.” His voice shook slightly. The other three doubled back to him. “The tree!” Amir stage-whispered. The four kids stared at the tree. To a casual observer, it was a regular, ordinary tree commonly seen everywhere. But the kids could see beyond that. At the very center of the huge bark was a circle, roughly the size of a coin. The circle was neither green nor black. It was a dull shade of yellow, covered with dirt and soil, as if someone had done their best to hide it.

“Should we remove the soil and see what the circle is?” Aria’s voice barely contained her excitement. “Yes, let’s!” they agreed, and Devin, ever the boy scout, stepped forward and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt with the edge of his belt. A few seconds later, he held what looked like a coin in his palm. “Is it gold?” he asked. Seth held it up to examine it better, “I daresay it is gold. Not like the one used in making jewels, this seems to be a different kind of the same metal.”

“Okay,” Amir let out a breath, “do you think there is a connection between this coin and the cave?” The four kids exchanged glances. “There might be,” Aria was the first to concede. “So what do we do now?” Devin asked, looking around at his friends. “We put the coin back where we found it, and cover it up. Maybe we weren’t meant to find the cave, maybe it belongs to someone who is conducting some experiment. Let’s leave it undisturbed.” The friends carefully put the coin back into the bark, taking care to cover it with dirt and soil, camouflaging it as best as they could.

“Thank you,” they were startled by the voice behind them. Turning around, they were shocked to see a pair of grown-ups standing there. “Thank you for keeping the coin back where you found it,” the woman smiled. Seth’s eyes grew wide, “this was a test?” The man nodded, his expression kind, “you can say that.” Devin stepped forward, “but what for?” The man looked at him, “you will know that in a few years.” Aria gasped, “years? It is so hard to wait so long for the answer!” The woman stepped forward, “don’t worry, Aria, time has a habit of flying so fast you’ll barely know how the years pass.”

Seth frowned, “how do you know her name?” The woman straightened up and smiled again, “I know the names of all of you, Seth. It wouldn’t be much of a test if we didn’t know who we were testing, isn’t it?” He nodded, “I suppose you are right. I, however, agree with Aria. It seems unfair to have to wait for so many years when we are all right here right now.” The man shook his head, “we will make sure that you do not have to worry about the cave and coin and the answers to its disappearance until it is time for you to know the answers.” Amir, who had been quiet until this moment, stepped forward, “what do you mean? How will you…”

The children looked around, confused. Aria was the first to speak, “how did we end up here? Looks like we wandered off the trail and got lost.” Seth gently shook Bruno, who was fast asleep, “time to go home, boy.” The dog jumped up and began sniffing around. A moment later, he picked up the scent, and soon, the kids were back on their usual trail. “Whoa!” Devin looked at his watch, “it is almost half past three. Time to go home.” Amir nodded, “time flies so fast when we are in the woods, doesn’t it? I cannot remember what we did today, except that we walked on the trail and talked.” Seth smiled in agreement, but his mind was stuck on Amir’s words. Time flies.

Part 4

Time, as it is prone to, flew past, and the next few years saw the children get busier and busier with their school, activities, and the general hectic pace of life. No one had found out about their long-forgotten discovery of the cave. When the four met, the strand of hair still glimmered, unseen and untouched. There were, of course, the occassions when they fought and argued, but the strand never stopped glimmering.

Now, as the kids were in their freshman year at high school, one or the other would unexpectedly dream of their childhood hangout – the woods. In there, they would chance upon the trail, and discover the cave, and would disappear into the morning mist, leaving behind a faint sense of having lost something. Often, they would try to discuss this with the others, but somehow, the topic always got lost in the midst of other, more pressing matters, like homework, sports, grades, and more.

Once, the topic almost arose, with Seth, Devin, and Aria, having had the same dream the previous night. A prestigious event in the school took precedence, and the topic about the weird dream was left unspoken. “Let’s go to the old trail this weekend!” Amir suggested out of the blue at the end of the day. Seth was startled as the hint of his dream surfaced, teasing his memory. “Yes, let’s,” Aria added her weight to the idea. All four of them agreed to meet at their usual spot just after lunch on Saturday.

Their families did not suspect a thing, for the four often tried to meet up on weekends. Bruno, however, seemed to sense Seth’s excitement, for the dog refused to leave his human’s side. Seth loved him too much and did not want to disappoint him. He leashed him, and off they set for their usual spot.

“I feel a sense of déjà vu,” Aria commented, walking up behind Devin. Seth nodded, “I know what you mean, I have been getting a strange feeling all morning, like we are about to walk into some adventure.” Not wanting to waste even a minute, the four kids and Bruno set out towards the trail. “Do you think we’ll find something strange?” Devin, ever the one for excitement and adventure, mused aloud. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into something dangerous,” Amir replied.

Seth and Aria brought up the rear.  “You seem pale,” Seth remarked, then bit his tongue as he realised it was a wrong thing to say to the girl one liked. To his relief, she did not seem to mind, and instead, nodded, “I think I haven’t been sleeping very well lately.” He was puzzled, “you think you haven’t been sleeping well?” She sighed, “yes, because I am always tired when I wake up, like I’ve been running in my sleep. I know I see a recurring dream, but it flies away as soon as I realise I am dreaming.” Seth stopped walking and turned to stare at her. “This is the exact same thing I have been feeling too!” he was glad he could finally admit to someone. “Me too!” Devin confessed, joining them. Amir said nothing, but his expression revealed that, like them, he too had been living with the same situation.

A sharp tug on his hand had Seth looking down to see Bruno straining at the leash, trying to go off the trail. “What is it, pal?” he asked, following the dog, who seemed to gain strength as soon as he realised that Seth was listening. Together, the four allowed the dog to lead them off the trail, to a huge tree, that looked like it had been there forever. “Funny,” Seth commented, “I know I have seen this tree somewhere. But where?” Aria’s eyes widened, “I think I come to this tree in my dreams!” Amir added, “as do I, but this is not the path I take. I seem to climb a narrow path before it opens up to this tree.” Devin agreed, “we came here pretty quickly. It should take us quite some time. At least, that is how it happens in my dream.”

“Wait!” Seth exclaimed, noticing something glinting in the bark of the tree. “Could it be the reflection of the sun’s rays? Amir suggested, pointing to the sun that was shining down from between the trees. Aria shook her head, “no, look, there’s the cave from our dreams.” Seth whirled around, puzzled, “how do you know I see the same cave?” She grinned, “because the three of you are with me in my dream. And if you have been having the same dream as I, then it isn’t a far stretch of imagination to think you visit the same cave!”

cave collageWith gentle hands, Seth pried the coin from the bark. He was not surprised when the cave was suddenly bathed in light, as if beckoning them inside. Speechless, the friends entered the cave, mesmerized by everything they saw. 

“This is familiar, yet strange,” Devin murmured, looking around. Where their dreams showed a vacant cave, this one was full of signs of life. With plants that had leaves in all hues and colors, flowers that seemed to jump and walk, tiny bees busily buzzed around, talking. The kids froze. “The bees are talking?” The bees, however, seemed to not hear them as they went about their work, gathering pollen. As the kids stared, the flowers seemed to open their petals to invite the bees. The colorful leaves were fragrant, more so than the flowers, and the kids could not help but simply stand and stare. In some time, the activity died down, and to their amazement, the signs of life withdrew into the ground until all that was left was the fresh air and a faint fragrance!

“Ouch!” Amir jumped as Devin pinched him. “Sorry,” the scout apologised, “I just wanted to check if we really saw all this or if we are all dreaming again, all together.” Seth shook his head, “we definitely saw all this. My intuition tells me we have been to this cave before, and seen something then too.” Aria frowned, “we would remember something so strange, would we not?” He shrugged, “we should, but if my instinct is correct, we were made to forget, by choice or by force, and we will forget this too the moment we step out of this trail.” Devin stepped forward, “but how? and why?” Amir exhaled, “maybe it is something to do with the right time and the right moment? Maybe we cannot rush the answers to all our questions, and have to wait until the time is right?”

Seeing that it was almost evening, the four hurried back to the old trail, each silent, each lost in thought. Sure enough, by the time they reached the trail, they had once again forgotten about the adventure, and all they could remember was walking on the old trail. “Boy,” Amir commented, panting hard, “I was having so much fun that I did not even notice how fast the time went.” Devin nodded, “true, when we are together, time flies.”

No one remembered what they had done in the woods, but returned to their homes, happy and tired. The dreams continued, but did not bother them anymore. Their subconscious still had questions unanswered, but it had agreed to wait until the time was right. What none of them knew, was that the right time was just around the corner, waiting for a trigger from the other side.

To know what happened when the time was right, please read The Other Earth.

 

 

Other Earth

Prequel now available as a standalone short story – The Cave in the Woods.

The dreamer that I am, a particular scenario keeps playing itself in mind – that of the existence of an other earth. The other earth is exactly like the one we live on, the same people, the same buildings, everything is the same. Then what is different about it? Read the story to find out.

There was a boy, let’s call him Seth. He was your average college student – a group of friends, a crush who did not know he exists, the struggle to make his pocket money last till the end of the month. Like every average student, he too burnt the midnight oil and was never satisfied with the scores he earned. He was pretty good in sports, but by no means the college star. Just an ordinary player in the team, nothing special. He wasn’t bad looking, but you got it – his looks were average, no Greek God to drool over, no horrible, patchy skin to be repulsed by. Just average. As for his height, again, neither too tall, nor too short – the average five feet seven or eight inches. Body shape – you got it – average. Now that you have a picture of him in your mind, let’s read his story, and why this earthling is so important on this other earth.

Part 1

“You guys carry on,” Seth told his friends, one hand on the knob of washroom door, “My hands are dirty from helping the coach keep the equipment in storage. I’ll wash up and then join you in the cafeteria in ten minutes.” With a nod, his friends continued walking. Opening the door, Seth entered the washroom and began cleaning up, whistling off-key to himself. He had just finished drying his hands when the door swished open again, and he recognized the voices of Devin, the college sportstar, and Amir, the college topper. “Seth is a shoo-in for the next game. Coach wants him to open second,” Devin was saying. Amir seemed to be in agreement, “that guy fuels my competitive spirit. I come first, but only because I don’t want to lose to him.”

Seth was puzzled, were they talking about him? Or was there another Seth in college who he, somehow, had never seen or met?

The two boys rounded the wall and continued on their way. To Seth’s amazement, neither noticed him.

He left the washroom and headed to the cafeteria to meet his friends. The moment he joined the group, their twinkling eyes told him something was up. Noticing the way one of his friends kept looking at something behind him, Seth turned around, and felt his heart skip a beat as he noticed Aria coming towards them. “Hi,” her voice was as melodious as her beauty. He knew his own “hello” sounded gruff. “I need some help with my math homework and was wondering if you could help.” He was surprised, he was good at math, by no means a wiz, but it still was surprise that she’d seek him out for help when she could have asked any of the three math toppers. They agreed to meet in the nearby coffee shop after college, where he would help her with the subject.

Seth was confused with the way everyone around him was chatting and gossiping. We have testing week coming up! He wanted to remind them. We should be studying. Of course, he did not utter a word, for he’d realised that they wouldn’t hear him anyway over the din they were making. Aria stood a few feet away, chatting with some of the sportspersons. Her gaze slid his way before sliding back to the player as she nodded in agreement with whatever he seemed to be saying. What had gotten into her? He wondered, noticing her carefree attitude and relaxed stance. Aria was usually very shy and reserved, and rarely stood around to chat with anyone.

Later that evening, Seth was elated on his way home. His day had been good, better than good, considering he’d understood almost everything the teachers had taught. Now all he needed to do was revise it a bit to make sure it stayed in his brain. Aria had been a delight to teach, an eager student, and he was thrilled by how easily he’d been able to explain the math to her. They’d now set up a date, if it could be called that, for two days from now, and he would help her with some more math.

As he reached home, Seth was puzzled to see that the house was empty. He used his key to enter, and made himself a snack, for he was very hungry. The coffee shop he and Aria had studied in was quite expensive, and he had money only for a soda. Aria too had bought the same, so he assumed she too was low on funds at the moment, considering they were near the end of the month. He was halfway through his snack when the door opened and his mother entered, looking harrowed. This was new. Mother never looked anything less than perfect. She believed that a person should always take care with one’s appearance. She gave him a tired smile as she headed up the stairs towards her room.

The next day was much a repetition of the previous day, and Seth was happy to be able to help coach, a respectable person who took no nonsense from anyone, was confidant to almost everyone, and was loved by all. “Thank you Seth,” Coach said as they hoisted the last of the equipment into storage, “we got everything locked in, now the repairmen can rehaul the entire gym. We should have a far better gym in about a couple of months.” Seth smiled, “happy to help, Sir. Is there anything else I can help you with?” Coach shook his head, “we are finished here. It is Friday, son. Go on, have fun with your friends.” Seth was almost to the door of the gym when he heard coach remind him, “wash your hands.”

Seth entered the washroom, thinking to himself, “the doorknob gives too much static.” After cleaning his hands, he joined his friends, and gave a smile to Aria, surprised when she frowned at him and turned away. Puzzled, he walked up to her, “what’s wrong? Are you angry with me?” Now, her frown turned into a glare, “you should have refused to help if you didn’t want to. Why did you make me solve the problems incorrectly. No thanks to you, I got a zero on my homework!” Seth was puzzled, “that can’t be. We solved the same math a couple of weeks ago, and I know I taught you the correct way.” She threw the papers at him, and he took a look, stunned that she had done the complete opposite of what he’d taught her. But it wouldn’t be any use to talk to her just then, he realised, watching her storm off.

Once he reached back home, Seth was glad to see that his mother was home, a delicious snack just getting ready in the oven, and the beep on the alarm told him his father was on his way home from work too. His day had been good, except for Aria’s anger with him. “Thank you for being home for us, mother,” he hugged her. His mother raised an eyebrow in surprise, “why the sudden gratitude?” He shrugged, “just one day of you not being at home has taught me how much you do for us.” She frowned, “what one day? In the past five years since I left my job, I’ve been home at the time you guys come home every single day.” He was puzzled, “yesterday must have been an exception. You were so tired when you reached home. I even asked you if you want a snack, but you just disappeared into your bedroom.” His mother stared at him, “I was home all day yesterday, son. You were the one acting surprised to see me at home when you came back from college.”

“What?” Seth was confused, “I made a snack for myself and did not think to make one for you? Why would I? You were at home, and told me to go freshen up while you get the fresh scones out of the oven!” His mother stared at him, “fresh scones? Have you ever seen me put anything other than frozen pizza into the oven?”

Seth shook his head, trying to clear it. Yesterday, he thought, was a weird day. First, Devin and Amir talking about me, then Aria asking me for help, and to cap it all, mother being home and baking scones? 

He tried to make sense of everything that had happened the previous day. Devin and Amir had looked through him, Aria had been unable to understand much of math, and as if none of those things were enough, mother saying she had been home while she hadn’t! Just what was going on? He had to get to the light of the matter. It was too weird to ignore.

Seth smiled as an idea struck, ‘The washroom doorknob!‘ The dullest, most ignored thing in the entire school building was where he needed to be to get his answers!

Part 2

The next morning, Seth hurried to college, despite it being a Saturday and went into the washroom. With bated breath, he turned the knob, and entered. He took care to repeat the hand washing steps exactly as he’d done two days ago. When he stepped out of the washroom, he headed towards his classroom, excitement and anticipation warring with each other.

To his dismay, everything was as usual. This was not what he’d hoped for. He had hoped for things to be as they had been the day before. That would let him retrace his steps, find out exactly what had happened that day and why. He wanted answers. As the day drew to an end, Seth began to lose hope, and tried to convince himself that the incidents had simply been weird, maybe he had been dreaming.

On Sunday, he opened his eyes, surprised to see the sun already high up in the sky. A quick glance at the bedside clock showed it was almost noon. This is not okay! Seth jumped out of the bed in alarm. Even on holidays, he always woke up by seven, did his chores around the house, and liked spending the morning tending to the horses on his neighbor’s farm.  

He was halfway to the farm when he heard sound of feet running up the street. “Seth! Wait up, please!” He turned around, surprised to see Aria. “What are you doing here?” he asked her, “you live at least eight blocks away from here.” She nodded, breathing hard. Once she had caught up with him, she replied, “I need your help. I want to go back home.” Avoiding the urge to roll his eyes, he offered, “I don’t have a car, but I can ask my father to drive you…”

He trailed off when Aria shook her head, “You know what I mean.” Crossing his arms over each other to try to control the erratic beating of his heart, he asked, “why would I know what you mean, when I don’t even know how or why you came here in the first place?” Aria met his gaze, “because you went there first.” He raised an eyebrow, “I went where first, Aria? Please stop talking in riddles.”

“You don’t remember, do you?” her face fell. Seth pursed his lips, “remember what?” She exhaled loudly, “you, Devin, Tina and Aria, the four of you were invited to spend a day on earth, one at a time, you were the first one to be sent.” He wanted to pull his hair apart in frustration, but that would only spoil his image, so all he did was wait patiently, hoping she’d explain. She asked, “Do you remember anything different about Thursday and Friday?” He cocked his head, “what if I do?” Her lips curved up a bit, “that was when you traveled to earth.”

Seth knew his mouth was open, his jaw hanging low, but at this point, neither one of them cared. “If I traveled to earth, then where are we just now?” Aria now grinned, “we are on earth, only, just now, we are on your earth. Mine is the one you went to on Thursday and returned from on Friday.” He shook his head, trying to clear it, “is this some kind of a joke? I am sure I would have remembered traveling through space, landing on another planet, not to mention spending an entire day, and night there.”

Aria was smiling despite his temper, “You don’t remember because you did not travel through space.” He stared at her, not sure how to react. “I mean, you did travel through space, but not exactly,” she faltered. “Aria,” his voice was quiet, “it might be better if you explain everything from the start.” She nodded, “scientists discovered that the universe follows the law of twos. Just like darkness and light, happiness and sorrow, black and white, sleep and wakefulness, good and bad, there are two of everything in this world, including earth, and the people on it. The more they studied it, they realised that traveling between the two earths is possible, just like one moves from night to day and good to bad, etc.”

The explanation made sense to him. “That still does not explain how we come into the picture,” he reminded her. She nodded, “the scientists discovered that youth, people of our age, who walk the line between success and failure, volatile emotions, would be the perfect travelers between the two earths because our minds face extremities on either side every day.”

Seth dared not say a word as Aria paused for breath. “They opened the portal when you were not thinking about anything, when your mind was almost blank.” He nodded, vaguely remembering how he’d been whistling to himself as he entered the washroom to wash his hands. “Why do you remember it while I don’t?” he asked, intrigued. “Because I’ve overstayed my time on this earth. The scientists developed a failsafe to make sure we don’t accidentally reveal the secrets of their discovery or of the other earth. We forget everything about the portal switch, about the discussion, so long as we make the trip to and back within twenty-four hours. I remembered everything a while ago because I overstayed.”

Pieces of the puzzle were now starting to fall into place. “That explains why things seemed to be near normal, but slightly off-kilter from Thursday afternoon to Friday.” He frowned, “so how can I be of help to you?” She swallowed visibly, “you’d have to come through the portal with me, and then come back.” He stared at her, “and what if I get stuck on your earth?” She shook her head, “you won’t. Seth… I mean Seth from my earth will hold it open for you, for he’ll be escorting Aria from your earth back here.”

It was a huge leap of faith, but Seth knew he did not really have a choice. The girl had provided him with answers, and she deserved to go back to her earth. “Do we have to go back to the washroom in college?” he asked, thinking about the doorknob. She made a face, “washroom? Ugghh!” Seth could not help chuckling at her expression. She tossed her head, flipped her hair over her shoulder, “I came to this earth via the door of the library” He burst out laughing even as they headed to the library she spoke of. Regardless of the earth she hailed from, trust Aria to find the best door to enter and exit worlds.

– – –  x – – –  x – – – x – – – x – – –

Sequel coming up shortly

Watchmen – my heroes!

 

The first place most of us feel safe is … “home”. For me, home was, is, and always will be the place where I grew up – AmarJyoti Society. A housing community consisting of more than a hundred apartments. I know each and every one of those homes very well from within. Those apartments aren’t just apartments; to me, they are memories of my childhood. One of the aunties (we Indians address every elder as a sister, brother, uncle, aunty, grandfather or grandmother) wrote about her memories of their early days when AmarJyoti was just being built.

No mention of the society’s early days is complete without the mention of its two security pillars – Laxman and Mali. Today, there are security agencies that hire able-bodied people. Back then, we simply had watchmen, who were usually more able-hearted than able-bodied.

I remember how Laxman always seemed to have eyes everywhere and would appear just when we kids were planning to hide outside the gate. He would scold us and tell us to stay inside. There was this time where, once, he took it in his mind to move to Dubai, the place where dreams turned into reality. He would tell us kids that he was going to go to Doobaai soon.

Mali was the quieter one, but just as alert, and happily did all the errands the people in the society asked of him … be it fetching a packet of bread from Praful, the grocery shop that’s been serving the neighborhood since forever, or bringing milk from the dairy… he did it all, unerringly. Reed thin, with a horrible posture, Mali mama was more an authority figure for most of us. Where Laxman was jovial and comfortably chatted with us kids, Mali mama would usually just get by with a nod. And yet, when need arose, these two watchmen would join forces and become a formidable wall, keeping the residents of AmarJyoti safe.

I have a vague memory of this incident, where there was a break-in in one of the homes in the middle of the night, and a lot of grown-ups gathered downstairs to figure out a way to nab the thief, who was rumored to have a knife. Guess who climbed up three stories on a water pipe to get into the house to nab the thief? Laxman! And when the thief managed to escape him and run to the door, who was waiting right outside to nab him? Mali! Together, these two brave men caught the robber and handed him over to the authorities!

These two men were family members of our hundred-plus AmarJyoti family. Which is why, when, even after retirement, whenever they came to the society, to ask for money, or just to take a look at their karmabhoomi, their place of work, everyone who came to know they were here, would run down to meet them, to say hello. It was fun, asking them to guess who we were, for we had all grown up, our faces had changed, or so we believed. But these two were always able to recognize every single one of us, and praised and blessed us whole-heartedly; wishing us well. When we came to know of Mali mama’s passing, it was a sad day, for though he had retired ages ago, he was still very much a part of our hearts. I don’t know where Laxman is, and I hope and pray that he got his heart’s desire, to got to Dubai, and become a rich man.

Too often, we question our self-worth, thinking no one likes us, no one is bothered about us; but these two men are real-life examples, that every single person is important, that every single person we meet affects us, and in turn, is affected by us. All we need to do is continue to fulfill our duties. 

A rainy evening

Part 1

She came home drenched that evening. The summer sun had suddenly given way to rain clouds and she had been caught in the deluge unexpectedly. As she stepped home, she was not surprised to see that the power had been cut as the transformer had blown. ‘Where is Satish? How many times have I told him to get the inverter repaired, but he always forgets,’ she entered the bathroom muttering to herself. She changed out of her wet clothes in the dark bathroom and pulled on a bathrobe. She stepped into the bedroom to look for a set of dry clothes to pull on. In the light streaming through the windows, she was a little surprised to see her favorite cotton dress arranged neatly on the bed. “Satish? Are you here? When did you get home? I thought you are still stuck in office!” she called. Receiving no reply, she assumed he must be in the living room or out in their covered terrace. Feeling a little better, she went into the kitchen to make tea. Normally, she did not have tea at this hour, but the soaking rains had made her wish for tea. As she entered the kitchen, she opened the drawers and took out a few candles. As she lit them, she was surprised to see a cup of hot tea kept on the kitchen platform. ‘Wow! How sweet of Satish to make me this tea!’ she thought as she sipped the soothing warm liquid.

She then began to think about what to make for dinner. She was feeling a little tired that evening and did not have much energy to cook. ‘I’ll make some pulao! That should be filling and I won’t have to spend too long standing in the kitchen,’ she decided. She went to the refrigerator to pick out the vegetables for the dish, but the doors wouldn’t open. She tried once again, but they didn’t budge. ‘Huh? Now what is wrong with this old thing? Why won’t it open?’ she fumed. “Satish! Please come into the kitchen! I need your help! I cannot open the fridge!” she called. Still no response. “Satish?! Can you hear me?” she shouted. Finally, feeling frustrated, she headed towards the terrace to tell him in person. Knowing her way around her home, she didn’t even feel the need to pick up a candle. Just as she was to reach the kitchen entry, she banged against someone. “Thank God you heard me Satish! I am feeling very tired already and this refrigerator is acting funny. We need to call the service guys to fix the door again. It acts funny every time the power goes out,” she said and turned back into the kitchen to set the cooker on the gas stove. She measured out the rice and washed it thoroughly. She turned her head at a sound and was glad to see the basket of vegetables on the counter next to her. “Thanks Satish. You go on ahead to the terrace. I’ll join you as soon as I set the pulao in this cooker,” she said without turning to look at him. It took her a few minutes to chop the vegetables the way she liked them for the pulao and took care to add some dry fruits just the way Satish liked them. She set the cooker and thought, ‘I’ll enjoy a nice cool evening watching the rains with Satish. We can gaze at each other in the candle light and chat to our heart’s content. No phones and TV to distract us today.’

So she lit up a tea light and placed it in its holder. As she made her way through the living room towards the terrace, the tea light whiffed off even though it was covered. ‘Oh no! No one makes any quality goods these days! Even the wax seems to be defective.’ she grumbled. Wanting the much needed romantic evening, she made to go back to the kitchen to light it again. ‘I’ll carry two tea lights now,’ she thought to herself. She again slammed into someone. “Satish! Stop walking into me. One of these days I am going to fall from being walked into so much,” she smiled. But she didn’t know what to think when she was able to just suddenly walk through without feeling Satish make way for her. And why wasn’t he saying anything? She went into the kitchen, but was shocked to see that the gas flame under the cooker was off and try as she might, she could find neither the matches nor the gas lighter. ‘I am sure I had switched the gas on for the cooker. Or did I think I did and just forgot?’ she wondered. Anyway, now let it be. We can order something from outside and eat in the terrace,’ she thought. “Satish! Please call up the nearby restaurant and order something hot and spicy for us!” she called. “Or do you want to go out for dinner? We can take the car,” she suggested. A pair of hands gripped her arms from behind. “Oh! So the rains have brought out the romantic mood in my husband?” she teased. But she felt uncomfortable. Was it her imagination or were the hands gripping her so cold? And did they feel much rougher and larger than those of her husband’s? She tried to turn around, but the hands held her firmly in place.

“Please let me go Satish. I need to check the milk in the fridge,” she said. The hands released her immediately and she went to the fridge. From the corner of her eye, she saw light streaming from under the main door. ‘Oh, the power is back up. She flipped the light switch but no lights came on in the house.’ Now she was really scared. She ran towards the main door to escape, but the door wouldn’t open. She checked, but was shocked to feel all the locks and latches were unlocked, and yet, the door didn’t give an inch. “Help! Somebody help!” she began to shout. Just then, the same cold large hands covered her mouth and stopped her mid scream. Her throat went dry with fear and she didn’t know what to do. Just then, she saw something gleaming in the corner. She realized it was Satish’s cigarette lighter. She stopped fighting and her assailant loosened his grip. She inched her way towards the lighter and closed her hands around it. She quickly brought it up to her face and switched it on. He blew it off even as she was lighting but not before she caught a quick glimpse of his face. Her scream caught in her throat and she recoiled in horror.

Part 2

He looked like something that had walked straight out of a horror movie. His face was distorted and his hands were huge. As he edged towards her, she saw that his legs were bow shaped. He walked with a slight limp. His hair looked dirty and disheveled and his eyes… oh my God! His eyes were blood red! She wanted to shout for help, she wanted to run, but she was frozen in place with fear. Her brain had ceased to function and she couldn’t think. She felt around for anything that she could use to her aid, but everything seemed so far away. Her brain finally kicked into gear and she managed to stand up. ‘He doesn’t want to kill me. I am sure he would have killed me ten times over by now had he felt the desire to. He even helped me by bringing out my clothes, fetched me the vegetables from the fridge… he was here all along. Why didn’t he harm me then? And what does this monster want from me?’ she wondered. She tried to look all calm and relaxed her tense shoulders. She even mustered up a smile for the looming monster and said, “I am sorry I screamed. But as you must already be aware, I was scared by the presence of an unknown person in the house.” At her words, the monster stopped in his tracks and looked at her. He raised both his hands as if in surrender. She relaxed when she saw him go easy. And then… he lunged. She screamed. There was no sound at all for a few minutes and then, she opened her eyes. The monster was getting off the floor and held a bloodied knife in his hands. She could see a pair of legs on the floor. “Who have you killed? Let me see!” she shouted. He pushed her back and stood in her way. She tried to look around him but could not see anything beyond the legs.

With her heart trying to jump out of her throat, she moved back into the passage. The monster guided her towards the bedroom. He pushed her to sit on the bed and went out and locked the door. She was completely off balance by now and had no idea how to react. She just sat there like a stone and trembled over the past hour. In just a few short minutes, she heard a scrape at the door of her bedroom. She turned around, fearful of what might come next. The door opened and she nearly fell off her bed in shock. Satish walked in nonchalantly and asked, “Why are you sitting alone in the dark? Why have you not switched on the lights?” Before she could reply, he flipped on the light switch and the room shone with brightness. She was shocked. She could not form coherent thoughts. He walked towards her and she flinched fearing that the monster might leap out any moment and kill Satish. ‘But why was Satish so calm? Hadn’t he seen the body lying on the living room floor? And how had he gotten in? The door had not moved when she had tried.’

“Satish? When did you come home?” she asked placidly. He went to her and replied, “I have just come home. And I am very hungry.” She suddenly remembered the pulao and said, “Oh! I am so sorry. You freshen up and get changed. I’ll serve you dinner in a few minutes,” and rushed out of the bedroom. She was completely in a daze and could not understand the events of the past hour. As she stepped out of their bedroom and made to go towards the kitchen, the monster came out of the living room. Now she was really worried. She didn’t want the monster to see Satish or harm him. So she went to him thinking she would reason with him. But before she could say a word, the monster pulled her into the living room and she stumbled with the force of his grip.

It took her a moment to regain her bearings and as she looked up, she broke into a huge smile. The entire living room was decorated with flowers and all her friends and family had gathered there. A huge placard on one of the walls read, “Happy Birthday”. Satish walked in carrying a huge birthday cake. But wait, why was the monster heading towards her husband? Much to her shock, the monster and her husband exchanged a high five and the monster in all his scary gory look, turned towards her and sang “Happy birthday to you” in the most gruesome voice. Unable to bear it any longer, she went to him and took off his mask. Her squeal of delight could be heard five stories down… it was her son who lived in the United States. He had come back to surprise her on her fiftieth birthday! And the legs and the bloodied knife? Well, they were all an act to scare her!

Part 3

The birthday party was a rocking success and she was elated to have been in the midst of family and friends to celebrate her special day. The presence of her son was the best gift she could imagine. Later in the night, once everyone had left, and it was just the three of them, she thanked her husband and son once again for such a special treat. “I am glad you have finally learnt to brew a good tea!” she smiled to her son. “No ma, I am still very much a coffee drinker and have no desire to learn to make tea,” he replied confused. She turned to her husband, “Since when have you mastered tea making?” she asked. “No, I am still very lazy in that department,” he replied. “Then who had made that tea?” she asked. “What tea are you going on about?” questioned both the men in her life in unison. “The cup of hot tea that was ready and waiting for me when I came into the kitchen after freshening up. Who else but you both know that I like to drink tea on a rainy day? And nobody else even knows about my cotton dress!” she exclaimed. “What are you talking about Rajani? I wouldn’t know where to begin looking for your dresses in your messy wardrobe!” said Satish in exasperation. “But this is impossible. Rahul, did you not walk into me twice this evening?” she now asked warily. “No mom. We slammed against each other just once,” replied her son. Now Rajani was really worried. She had definitely not dreamt the incidents and here were her husband and son claiming they had had no part to play in them! ‘Wait a minute! Let me check the cup I drank the tea in.’ Rajani rushed to the kitchen to check on the utensils. But the birthday guests had been served cake and food and too many utensils had been used in the process. The dustbin was almost full and there was no way of checking for used tea leaves.

As Rajani made to head out of the kitchen, an unusual sight caught her eye… her tea strainer was lying in the kitchen sink. ‘Aha! I was right! I was not dreaming!’ she thought to herself and walked back to her bedroom. She lay on her bed thinking about the incidents of the evening and made herself believe that Satish and Rahul were simply playing a prank on her. ‘One of them must have brewed my tea and readied my dress,’ she reasoned. Thinking so, she closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but sleep was not easy to come by tonight. Something kept nagging at her. She must have fallen asleep, for sometime in the wee hours of morning, Rajani woke up with a start. ‘Rahul was speaking the truth! He walked into me only once!’ she realized. The first time that she had walked into someone, the person had seemed stouter and taller than both Rahul and Satish. So it could not have been either of them. ‘Then who was it? And how did he or she get into my wardrobe and know which dress to prepare?’ she wondered. Sleep was by now a forgotten hope and Rajani walked out onto the terrace to think clearly. In her mind she was back-tracking the events of the previous evening. Finally, unable to arrive at any answers, she reasoned it must have been one of the guests arrived early. Maybe it was her brother or some friend who had played an extended prank on her to bide time till Rahul started his monster trick.

‘Time to get ready and head to work,’ she thought to herself. As she made to turn around and head back inside the house, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. A prickling sensation all over her hands and feet warned her that someone was near… very near… someone who was not Satish. She whirled around and almost fell off the balcony in shock. “You? This can’t be! You can’t be he! He can’t be you!” she screamed. He advanced and she took a step back. It brought her closer to the edge of her prized terrace. “I am hallucinating. This is all a dream… a bad dream!” she exclaimed. He took one more step further. She was now balanced precariously on the edge. “Hello Rajani, how are you?” he smiled. At the sound of his voice, she lost all control and slipped off the ledge. He caught her wrist at the last moment and held her dangling from her sixth floor apartment. “You are real? But how?” she asked. His smile turned grim as he replied, “I was always real Rajjo. You are the one who refused to see me. I was real when you broke your promise. I was real then and I am real now.” “But I saw you die. I saw you being carried away. I was even there when they performed your last rites!” she stuttered! “You saw what the others were supposed to see. I had promised you I would come back for you. And you had promised me you would wait. You forgot your promise, but I didn’t,” he grunted as he pulled her up and back from the edge of the terrace. The two went into the living room and sat. “No! No! No! This can’t be real!” she said again. “You should have known it was me by the first sip of the tea you drank yesterday, the dress I kept on your bed – don’t you remember I always said yellow looks good on you? How could you forget it? How could you forget us?” he asked. “I honestly thought you were no more. I grieved over you and I lost my senses. My parents let me mope for a while, but when I showed no signs of coming out of my depression, they carted me to this town and took me to a psychiatrist to help me. I met a very nice man on one of my visits there and we got married. But what I don’t understand is, why now? Why today? I have been married for twenty five years – where were you all this time?” she asked. “I was right here Rajjo. I was right in front of you all this time!” he answered. “Then why didn’t I see you? You didn’t show yourself when I needed you. Then why now?” she demanded once again. “Because it wasn’t time then; it is now.” was his curt reply. She looked up at him, but her eyes met thin air. Then where was his voice coming from? And why had Satish and Rahul not come running when she had screamed?

Part 4

She woke up in her bedroom drenched in sweat. The sun had risen high in the sky and her table clock showed the time to be almost noon. ‘What? How can this be possible? What happened early this morning?’ she wondered to herself. She looked at her phone and saw that she had not missed any calls or messages from office. ‘How did this happen? Why is nobody at work looking for me? And why didn’t Satish wake me up?’ She dialed him but his call was not reachable. She got up from her bed in a panic to get ready and rush to office, all the while working up possible excuses to provide for her tardiness. Suddenly, a movement near the window caught her eye and she whirled around to see it. And she was shocked. Her bedroom, or what she thought it was, was not in her house anymore… she was in her bedroom, but in the sky, higher up than the clouds! What she had seen was an eagle! ‘What in the world is happening? And how did I get so high up here? That too, along with my room?!’ Now she was really scared. Hearing a sound at the door to her room, she turned around, and saw… HIM. “What are you doing here? What have you done?” she asked! “Calm down Rajjo! I’ll explain everything!” he replied. She sat back down on her bed and held her head in her hands.

He began his tale, “You remember I had asked you to wait for me? And I did come back Rajjo, I had come back for you in a month. But I couldn’t find you anywhere. I looked everywhere, asked everyone we knew, but nobody seemed to know where you had gone. It was as if you had disappeared off the face of this planet! Then, after a few minutes, my boss called me back to the workplace. We had built a tele-bridge between pseurtd and earth. They wanted me to lead the team heading there. Duty beckoned and I had to follow my boss’s orders – I had sworn to follow them until death.” “Wait a minute,” she interrupted, “let’s backtrack a little bit Vsijsay. What is ‘Pseurtd’?” He smiled at her tenderly, “I am coming to that. Please allow me to finish the tale my darling Ransjostnee. Anyway, so I followed his orders and traveled to earth using the telebridge. After landing here, our orders were to simply observe the earthlings and meld in with them. We were under strict orders not to reveal our true identities for fear of being captured. Pseurtd is a planet parallel to earth and we look exactly like earthlings. The moment I landed on earth, I was stupefied to see you here. I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would find you on a planet far away from Pseurtd and that too so quickly.” By now Rajani was in a daze. “So you are telling me that I am a Pseurtdling and that my life on earth, my family is all a sham? And if you found me within minutes of losing me, why did you wait for twenty-five years to reach out to me?” she questioned. “Rajjo, Rajjo, Rajjo, you have always been too courageous. My love, it had been only twenty five minutes since we lost each other that I found you and reached out to you. But in those twenty-five minutes, you seemed to have gotten married, raised a family and even borne a son!” “Now you are truly talking nonsense Vsijsay! You are saying twenty-five years of my life have happened in just twenty-five minutes? You must be truly mad then! I am leaving this madhouse right now,” so saying, she went to exit the bedroom. But she stopped as soon as she opened the door. There was nothing outside the bedroom door. She would be stepping out on thin air! “What is the meaning of all this?! Take me home right now!” she shrieked. “You still haven’t understood Ransjostnee. This IS home. I have been in the research lab trying to understand the weirdness of the situation. One of the scientists told me that time on earth moves much faster than time on Pseurtd. One minute on Pseurtd is one year on earth Ransjostnee. That is why, while I was wasting precious time looking for you here, you had landed up on earth with all the earthly trappings! But what I don’t understand is why you could not remember me in all this time. I met your father and he told me that one of the anti-depressants they gave you to help you with your depression, was too strong and caused memory loss! After that you just disappeared and your parents had no idea where you had gone to. All their search attempts had proven futile!” “But I have a home on earth Vsijsay. I have a husband who I love very much, a son who is my life, my adoptive parents who have given more love than I can imagine. I cannot live without them now,” she cried.

“Think well before you choose Ransjostnee. Here, you are in the land of women power. Your wish is my command. I will be your husband and your servant all life long. Moreover, since time here on Pseurtd runs much slower than that on earth, you will again revert back to your young age and get to enjoy a long long life. If you now choose to go to earth, you will revoke all your relationships and powers that a Pseurtdling enjoys,” said Vsijsay. Rajani took not one moment to decide. “No Vsijsay, it was my destiny to fall away from you. I am destined to be an earthling and that is what I wish to be. I have lived twenty five years with you on this planet, but forgot everything in one dose of a medicine, but the twenty five years that I have spent on earth, are etched on my heart. I choose to be with them. May God grant you Pseurtdlings all the happiness that you deserve, I bid you no hard feelings,” she chose. “Ok then. You shall be back on earth in a few moments and all your memories of this place shall be wiped off. May God be with you Rajani. Take care,” he wished her.

The next moment, Vsijsay was nowhere to be seen and Rajani’s phone was flooded with messages from her colleagues at office asking her where she was. A note on the side table in Satish’s writing said, ‘You looked tired and pale this morning. So I switched off your alarm and sent a text to your boss stating that you are unwell and might come in late or not at all.’ Rajani smiled to herself and kept back the note lovingly. She replied to the texts saying she was feeling a little tired and would not be coming to office today. ‘Why not make the most of this unexpected holiday?’ she decided and called up Satish. The two went on a  lunch date and had a nice time that evening strolling in the park. It was raining, and they got wet. While enjoying a cob of corn and a cup of hot steaming ‘chai’, “I love you Rajani,” said her husband of twenty five years.

rain

Fitness – the category 5 storm

“Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” An automatic shake of the partner’s head, eyes glued to the phone. Fast-forward three months, and this question has sort of changed in shape and form to, “does this dress show off my arms and my almost flat belly?” The partner’s head has now learnt to nod instead of shake, but the eyes need to be trained to come unglued from the phone screen. 

Sweat is the new glam make-up du jour. From yoga to zumba to pilates to boot camps, fitness centers are coming up at every turn, on every street, and every single one of them is packed to max capacity. People are waking up earlier to hit these gyms. There are even twenty-four hour fitness centers to accommodate those who cannot make it during the usual business hours! Even the basic gyms, those that house a mere treadmill, stationary bike, and some weights, are seeing an increased attention, especially in offices, as more and more office-goers opt to use the one hour lunch break to work out and then have a quick power lunch at their desks.

Keto, intermittent fasting, small meals every few hours, there are now so many different diets to choose from. The underlying concept of them is still the same, the age-old wisdom – eat your veggies. Fried, sugary snacks are slowly fading away, to be replaced with healthier options. Gluten-free, low carb, no triglycerides, sugar-free are the new favorites to write on packaged foods. 

Fitness is now a huge industry, with companies sponsoring hundred-day challenges, where people are encouraged to document their hundred day fitness journey, from exercises to food choices, multinational brands are now actively involved in sponsoring and advertising even street-level fitness challenges and runs. Ten thousand steps is not just a number on your fitness tracker any more, but one of the many fun challenges in good old nine-to-five organizations! Employees are encouraged to form teams and set step goals. The team that achieves the goal first, gets a reward and recognition on the company’s social media page! 

With more and more celebrities flaunting their no make-up, sweaty fitness routines on social media, sweat has achieved a social status of sorts. Miranda Kerr, Jennifer Lopez, the Rock, Brad Pitt, and so many more famous faces (and bodies) have their own fitness channels. Stars like Jennifer Hudson, Alec Baldwin, and Mariah Carey, have famously transformed themselves, shedding the excess weight to looking leaner and fitter. Social media is inundated with pictures of celebrities with their trainers, burning carbs and building bodies, lifting weights, pushing bars. The older the celebrity, the greater the interest in seeing them do things one would expect from someone half their age. Yoga, traditionally seen as a boring, slow routine, is now a world-wide rage.

Fitness trackers strapped to wrists are enabled to vibrate at regular intervals as reminders to get up from the office chair and walk, and even to drink more water. There are apps that help document food intake. They even count your calories for you! You really have no excuse anymore now, do you? All this points to the underlying good news – health is finally receiving its due! We all know that physical activity helps keep many life-threatening illnesses away. The fitness storm around the world has just been upgraded to category five, and no one will be spared. “I am too busy to work out!” is now passé.

The Dance Party

Someone was calling her name. Ira woke up with a start and was surprised to see the sun already shining in the sky. How had she overslept today?

And then it all came rushing back to her. Ira had gone to a party last night. She’d had an awesome time amidst her friends. They had sung and danced for a long time. One of her friends had dropped her home just before four in the morning.

No wonder she hadn’t heard the alarm ring at six. Ira hurriedly scrambled out of bed and dashed to the bathroom. Once she was clean and fresh, she stepped into the family room and wished her family a good morning.

Her mother was in the kitchen, and Ira could smell the delicious pohe (beaten rice) being prepared. As the tempering sizzled and the pohe changed colours from white to a golden yellow, Ira’s stomach grumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten much at last night’s party.

A few minutes later, she heard the unmistakeable clang of the spoon on the rim of the utensil, and Ira knew her mother would be calling them all into the kitchen for breakfast in the next five minutes. She stepped inside her mother’s domain and hugged her from behind.

“When are you going to learn to cook something, Ira?” her mother asked her, only half-joking. “Mom! I plan to earn a lot of money and have a lot of maids to do all this,” Ira shot back. This was their usual banter, but this time, Ira’s father strolled into the kitchen following the aroma of the delicious pohe now cooking and warming on the stove.

“No Ira, your mother is right. It is not about keeping maids, or girl-duties or boy-duties, my child. You need to be able to cook for your own survival. What will you do if you get admission into a college in a different city? How will you manage so much in such little money?” he asked her wisely.

Ira bit her lip. She realised he had a point. She decided to start experimenting in the kitchen from the very same day. After breakfast, Ira set about clearing the table while her mother left the kitchen to get ready to leave for work.

A few minutes later, Ira too set about dressing up for college. She quickly picked up her heels and dashed down the stairs from their first floor apartment as she heard her mother honk impatiently.

“Sorry, mom,” the young girl apologised as she climbed into her mother’s old, but comfortable Maruti Alto. Her mother only shook her head at her and smiled, easing the car into the crowded main street. Ira’s college was enroute to her mother’s office and she was glad not to have to take the bus.

As they waited at a red light, Ira glanced at her mother’s profile. Her mother still looked beautiful and stylish despite her age. “Why the saree, mom? Anything special?” she asked her. Her mother smiled at her and replied, “No, Iru. Nothing special. I just felt a little extra-feminine today.”

Ira’s mother normally favoured chudidar-kurtas and had a huge and fantastic collection of them in her wardrobe. Sarees were for special occasions; whereas western attire had a separate place in a corner of her wardrobe, seeing the light of the day only when the family went out on picnics or vacations.

Ira’s mother said she preferred chudidar-kurtas for they were easy and quick to pull on, not unlike the jeans and tops that Ira wore, and were easy to wash and dry.

Ira loved the beautiful bindis her mother always wore on her forehead. They were sometimes studded with colourful stones, sometimes with tiny pearls, sometimes had a beautiful moon-like shape, and were sometimes simple and round, like the one today.

Ira always found her mother’s simple round bindis the most fascinating of all. The red dot on the forehead never failed to mesmerize the young girl. Ira’s gaze slipped down to her mother’s mangalsutra.

Today, her mother was sporting a simple mangalsutra of black beads and a gold pendant of two tiny bowls. Ira loved her mother’s huge collection of mangalsutras. She had them in all shapes, sizes and colours.

Ira was always fascinated by her mother’s attire and outlook. To her, her mother was a Goddess who could do everything. Ira knew her mother had a demanding job as the owner of a shop, and also as the lady of their family. But her mother seemed to juggle all the roles with equal finesse.

They reached the college and her mother expertly weaved the car through the crowded drop-point. “Bye mom. See you. Love you” Ira said in the typical exuberance of a typical college student, but stopped as her mom called out, “Ira, wait!”

Puzzled, Ira turned around to face her mom, never noticing a huge SUV that whizzed behind her. The huge car was too fast and Ira would’ve been hit by it had her mother not stopped her in time. “What is it, mom? I am getting late!” the young girl said, in her rush to enter the college before the bell rang.

“You forgot your assignment in the car. Here,” her mom said, and Ira quickly felt guilty for having been rude to her mother. She apologised, but her mother was her cool self as always.

Ira was grateful to her mom, for the professor asked for the homework assignments to be turned in, and gave extra work to the students who failed to do so. After a gruelling day at college, Ira went to the nearby coffee shop with her friends where they exchanged gossip and notes, all together.

All of a sudden, Ira realised that she had bought a few books yesterday and had emptied her purse of cash. She had forgotten to ask her parents for cash when she left this morning. She would have to borrow from her friends today.

But much to her surprise, when she opened her purse, she saw two hundred rupees in her purse, along with a neatly folded note. She opened it, and in it was written, “I saw the bag from the book store and thought you might need some cash. Love, Dad.”

Ira blinked at the sudden tears that came to her eyes. Once, around two years ago, she had asked her parents for privacy. All her friends locked their bedroom doors, and never shared their phone passwords with their parents.

Ira had had a long argument with her parents, demanding the same freedom and privacy as her friends, but her normally easy-going parents had remained staunchly against her demands. “You will lock your bedroom door only after you are married, Ira. Not before,” had been her mother’s dictat.

Same with the phone. Her parents never allowed her to go out saying she was going out with ‘friends’. She had to tell them the names of the friends she was hanging out with, she had to tell them the tentative plans, and what’s more, they insisted she leave the contact number of at least one of those friends at home, just in case there was any emergency.

After some time, Ira had gotten accustomed to this condition of her parents, and by now, all her friends had been to her home, and shared a lovely relationship with her parents.

Her father had once told Ira, that she could drink as much alcohol as she wished, but only when one of the family members was around. Never without them. She had understood and agreed to his terms, and enjoyed the occasional glass of beer or wine with one, or both her parents.

Her friends often told her that they envied Ira this relationship with her parents. She felt so comfortable with them, that she never thought twice about confiding about a crush or a love interest with her mother.

She valued her mother’s opinion and advice over that of anyone else’s. Her mother gave her the most solid, reliable and non-judgemental snippets of guidance. For example, once, Ira had confided in her mother that she liked a guy and he too seemed to like her, but he often teased her saying she wasn’t cool enough. And when she asked him what that meant, he said that she didn’t go to discotheques and late night parties like he did.

Her mother told Ira to invite him to her cousin’s mehendi ceremony the next week. The boy had been stunned when Ira passed on this invitation and had run with his tail between his legs. Ira and her mother had a hearty laugh at that.

Someone was calling her name. Ira woke up with a start and was surprised to see the sun already shining in the sky. How had she overslept today? She opened her eyes to see Vihaan hovering over her. She tried to get up and groaned as her old muscles screamed in protest.

Vihaan’s concern and worry were still apparent in his eyes. “Don’t worry, honey, I am alright. Just a little tired from last night’s dance party, that’s all,” she replied, her eyes twinkling with mischief.

“You and your dance parties!” he said, shaking his head. “I often wonder if the orphanage we grew up in was not an asylum for crazy people,” he teased her affectionately.

“The way you keep referring to your mangalagauri and jaagran pujas and bhajans as dance parties, someone might wonder if you have gone senile in your old age. Come on now, our family is waiting,” he said, as she went in to the bathroom, and came out ten minutes later, fresh from her shower, draped in a beautiful saree.

The couple went to the puja room and did their morning prayers. “Good morning family,” Ira said to her family, her eyes shining with mirth as she looked fondly at the various pictures and idols of Gods in the puja-ghar, as the aroma of delicious pohe being cooked in the next-door thela wafted to her nostrils and she could almost savour the taste of them on her tongue.

“I’ll make some sevai for breakfast today,” offered Vihaan, heading into the kitchen, as Ira sat down to pen a new ashtaka that she had thought of in her sleep last night.

 

The Warm Yellow Light

Let me begin with my sincere apologies for being away from the blogging scene for so long. I was busy enjoying the books of the local library, and was too lazy to boot up the laptop. But this evening’s experiences and musings compelled me to shake off my laziness and start up the smart-machine and key in my thoughts and reflections.

It is Sunday evening, not even a fortnight to Christmas now; and there is a definite cheer in the air. We have had a lovely weekend, and I urge the husband to step out with our little one and me to take a stroll around the neighbourhood.

I have always been a sucker for festive lighting. Reluctantly, the guy agrees, if only to get me to shut up about sparkling lights. He lays down his one and only condition – we are driving, and not walking this evening.

I shrug and agree, I don’t care either way as I’ve already had my quota of my daily walk and then some more earlier today. In fact, I’ve been out walking almost all day thanks to a sudden burst of lovely sunshine after more than two weeks of cold, wet rains.

We step out and get into the car, with who else, but the husband volunteering to drive since I am loathe to carry my wallet and my driver’s license and my phone. I want to be hands-free, you see.

He keys the car, and all of a sudden, it is as if he’s the one in the festive mood! He weaves the car in and around our neighbourhood, and I happily roll down the window, clicking random pics of gorgeous and tasteful Christmas decorations.

As he zigzags the ford from one street to another, I am mesmerized by the beautiful houses that people have so lovingly built and decorated, and I start day-dreaming about having a house of our own someday – complete with the riff-raff of two-storeys, a patio, fence, backyard, and of course, a dog or two.

The world runs on dreams, my dearies!

And the man suddenly points to a gorgeous white picket-fenced house and says, “look at that one! See how charming it is! Of course, a house is a house only if it has yellow lights. White lights kill the look.”

That sets me thinking, for in India, we swear by bright white tube-lights, and glaring white CFL and LED bulbs. It always takes me a couple of days when we fly back to India from whichever country we are posted in at the moment. The adjustment from the soothing, natural-seeming yellow lights to the bright white ones seems a bit jarring and shocking to my senses.

And then I go down the memory-lane. As a child, we always switched on the special yellow-lights chandelier whenever we had guests; and this history is true amongst many of my friends, who vouch for the warm welcome feel that yellow lights afford.

The typical dreamer me starts imagining a warm fire in the hearth of the home, exactly why, a lot of houses even today boast that the kitchen is the heart of their families – it isn’t just the food, albeit the greedy me would give food the top rank. It is the heat, the warmth of the cooking fire, oven or microwave.

Why are we so attracted to this yellow light? Is it because the natural sunlight seems yellow to us? Why is man the only animal to be enthralled by fire, while all other animals shy away from it? Is it because our intrinsic nomadic cave man tendencies are still ensconced deeply somewhere within us despite all the fantastic ‘progress’ that we have made?

Man and his love for fire dates back to cave-man ages and probably even before.

Being the voracious reader that I am, I remember reading once, that man used to light fire just at the entrance to his cave to ward off predators. In some other stories – both fact and fiction, probably pertaining to the era after cave-men, I have read how man would travel from place to place in hunt for food, and how he would feel relieved whenever he saw the fires at a distance, which would signal to him that there was human population there.

Even in today’s modern times, when there are beautiful decorative electric candles and lamps and light strings available in the market, we feel the need to light an oil lamp/candle while offering prayers to whichever Deity we follow.

Whichever part of the world we may be from, not one of us can deny the feeling of safety, of comfort we feel when we enter a home and see a homely fire in the fireplace or in the kitchen. It is what keeps us grounded to reality, to our roots, and to ourselves.

Fire-lamps placed outside homes lend a magical quality to the home. I feel as if such a home can never be touched by anything evil, and that the tiny lamp outside ensures continued happiness of the people inside.

The fire, the yellow lights, remind me of the inherent power of mother nature – the rays of the sun. How we need her magic to show us the path from darkness to light. How we need her magic to beat the cold. How we need her magic to help us stave off our hunger. How we need her magic to survive and to live.

This is the reason why yellow lights are so appealing – they signify warmth, welcome, and well-being.

Season’s Greetings people!

ABCD – American Born Confused? Clear! Desi

abcd

Happy Diwali everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve penned my thoughts, so thought I’d key them in as soon as a few passed through my brain.

Been a month since we’ve moved to the US. Must say, lovely place, lovely people and lovely weather. This evening, on the auspicious occasion of Narakchaturdashi, we visited the local Hindu temple.

The Indian Cultural Association of Birmingham hosted a Diwali evening there, with a fee, of course. (There are no free meals in the world, blah, blah, blah) and frankly, I agree. You don’t value something until you don’t pay for it.

Anyway, back to the point, I felt as if I’d stepped out of Birmingham, Alabama, into the auditorium of Ram Ganesh Gadkari Rangayatan, Thane.

The scene that I stepped into was that of colourful sarees, kurtas, chaniya-cholis, lehengas. This view was accompanied by jingling bangles and twinkling zumkas. The bindis on the foreheads of several ladies would’ve given even jewellery designers a run for their money, so beautiful and artistic were they!

Two high school girls stepped up behind the dias, and began announcing the program of the event. And my flight flew full-throttle, non-stop back from India to USA.

Wait, what? These desi-looking girls were mouthing English in a completely American accent. But of course, that was natural! They are American Born Confused Desis, or are they? Let’s see.

These beautiful English-speaking people, have lived all their lives in the US, probably visiting their mother country only for a month or two during their vacations. To them, back home, means the US.

And then, the curtains were drawn back and these very same American accent trotting people, suddenly flew me back to India. Now I was totally confused. Where really was I?

The music system was switched on and select desi numbers began playing in a fixed sequence. And the ABCDs began to perform to those numbers.

What a bewitching sight! From the very desi thumkas to the very classy latkas, the ABCDs did it all, in the most perfect, ethnic, Indian, sanskaari way. And they performed them even better than some of our very desi Bollywood artistes.

And the best part is, these ABCDs managed to find time to set these performances and practice to them in between managing their own American schedules and practice.

They have mastered the art of balancing basketball and yogasanas. They rock to Rihanna’s hip-hop beats, while learning bharatnatyam or kathak. They mouth Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ and hum the ‘atharvashirsha’ with equal finesse.

They hit the guitar and strum the sitar with equal dedication. And the biggest one, they do not have vacations for Diwali; they juggle their time and prove their performance in a dual identity; and they triumph in both.

They enjoy a good steak with their pals, as much as they relish the simple roti-sabzee.  They may speak broken hindi, if at all, and their accent when they speak their native tongue may sound funny to our ears, but how many of us have ever bothered to try and do what they do?

We have our struggles in our lives in India. They have their own share of struggles in their lives here. They must balance two identities in place of one. I, for one, would be confused if I had to do so!

I met a girl at the desi party. After enthralling the audience with a scintillating performance to ‘India waale‘, she rushed out. I was fortunate enough to meet her on her way out and cheekily asked her, ‘not waiting for dinner?’ and her reply was, ‘I’d love to, but I am on my way to a friend’s place for a Halloween party’.

Now I am the one who’s confused. And I am not American-born. In India, we all feel a little envious of our NRI counterparts. But I can bet my last dollar on this, we have a long way to go before we can live this ‘double life’ (pun unintended) with such panache and expertise as these ABCDs do.

And yeah, am now signing off the way one of the ABCDs at the event wished me today, “Shubha Deepavali!”