Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chasing Childhood

Blast... I don’t know what it is about my Delhi visits! I have travelled to many places that are way more interesting, but every time I am in this city, I start itching to talk about the place - all the time wondering why, WHY this unholy fascination for the land of unholy goings-on!

Dil-li da Maamla hai

The first day of my week-long holiday, I had absolutely no intention of doing anything useful - or anything not-so-useful, for that matter. The Delhi heat and dust had started to get to me already, and all I really wanted to do was to compete with the bedspread on my Ma’s bed. I daresay I would have won, if it was not for the obscene amounts of time that Ananya, my 12-year old, was spending in front of the TV or laptop. As I watched her soak in some puerile stuff on SAB TV, her nose barely nanometres from the screen, I felt she was in serious danger of disappearing into the set, a la Mike Teavee in the Chocolate Factory - unless I did something drastic.

So I decided to concede defeat (albeit, temporarily) to the bedspread, and brave the scorching late afternoon heat of a Delhi summer to go all the way to  Shankar’s International Dolls’ museum at ITO, and top that up by traipsing down memory lane in Connaught Place. Well, to say that the museum was a tad disappointing would be an understatement. I actually recognized the faces of many of the dolls from visits during my childhood (due to technical difficulties, I will not go into exactly how long ago that was). But yes, that time they had seemed bright and alive, while now they appeared drab and desolate. That's understandable, naturally, but sprucing them up occasionally would not harm - honestly, some of them looked like the last cleaning and dusting they had seen was when they had been handed over to the museum personally by Shahjahan, or someone thereabouts...

Luckily, Ananya has a thing for dolls - of any kind, and some of the displays were rather exotic... but MOST importantly, the place was air-conditioned! So it was not an hour spent too badly at all!

Next stop – Connaught Place and Janpath.

I don’t have the foggiest why I start getting this warm glow over me when I am in this place. I don’t know why I should feel so tickled when I see the renovated Plaza theatre... I have no clue why it gives me a kick to find that ‘Prominent Tailors’, the tailor shop I used to frequent in my teens, still exists (for those of you born after 1980 - believe it or not, there actually was a time when a girl had to get her skirts and trousers stitched!) And I start doubting my own sanity when I find I still enjoy a soda and mutton chop at Nirula’s (so what if they were our favourite during the courting days – the current establishment is more washed up than Amisha Patel.)

But the best part of the day was the walk through Janpath... indulging, naturally, in the Standard Janpath Shopping Procedure:

1. Look into the wares of a roadside shop as you pass by, being VERY careful to get the right mix of interest and disdain in your eyes while you do it.
2. Casually examine one or two pieces that interest you, all the while carefully maintaining the aforementioned look.
3. Ask the price (Shift the interest-disdain mix from your eyes to your tone now).
4. Break out into derisive laughter as soon as the price is quoted, and counter it with your own price – which should be at MOST a quarter of the price quoted to you. The shop boy will counter this with his own even-more-derisive laughter – don’t be daunted.
5. After a few iterations of the previous step, say ‘Nahi chaiye, bhaiya’, and make an exaggerated show of walking off. This is the ‘make or break’ point.
6. If you lose this gamble, too bad. It’s likely the exact same thing will be available in at least 15 other shops on the same street, or at Sarojini Nagar, so you can try your luck in any of those. And if you win, gloat inwardly - planning how you will show your ‘catch’ off to your friends later.

Oh yes, we had loads of fun! But the real adventures that day had been elsewhere...

Delhi Daredevils

No, it’s not another IPL scandal that I am talking about. It’s the cycle-rickshaw pullers of Janakpuri.

Imagine the scenario. It’s the first day of my holiday, and I am off for what I hope will be a memorable outing with my daughter. Humming a happy tune, I amble up to a waiting cycle rickshaw, do the mandatory ‘Kya baat karte ho bhaiya, TEES?!! Metro station tak bees hi hotein hain, hum toh roz jaatein hai!” routine, and then settle in cosily on the seat - looking forward to a nice, long, unhurried ride to the Metro station.

Barely 100 metres into the ride, my hopes of a pleasant ride are dashed quite firmly. The rickshaw-walla, obviously suffering from the delusion that he was Michael Schumacher, started racing away like a maniac. And that too, on a road which someone seemed to have dug up and forgotten all about - a bed of spiky stones and dust. It was a ten-minute-long torture session - with me sitting there trying to divert myself by counting how many motor vehicles we overtook, while my insides felt as if someone was making a nice tossed salad with them.

The rickshaw-walla with the Schumacher Delusion...

And let me tell you, if you thought there could not be more than one rickshaw-puller in Janakpuri with the Schumacher syndrome, you would be wrong. If we got Schumacher on our onwards journey, on the way back it was Schumacher-With-a-Death-Wish. The guy actually rode (at top speed, naturally!) on the wrong side of the road - AGAINST the oncoming traffic! (For a stretch that seemed to me like 20 km, but was probably just 200 metres or so.)

Well, the bright side of these rides was that I returned home enlightened – with a hugely enhanced vocabulary of ma-behen expletives. You have to admit - there are some things in which Delhi never disappoints! 

And I think I finally have this fascination for Delhi kind of figured out. You remember those colourful 'goggles' sold by hawkers who used to move around selling cheap plastic toys once upon a time? The ones in which the 'lenses' were simply two pieces of brightly coloured translucent paper inserted into a cardpaper frame? See, the moment I get on to a plane/train to Delhi, I subconsciously put on one of those, and keep them on throughout my trip. Everything I see or do in Delhi is filtered through these - these psychedelic glasses named 'childhood'.

Yes, when I come to Delhi, it feels like coming home. Coming home to childhood.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

These Are The Days

Like it or not, we live in the days of ‘Days’. Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Before that there was Women’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Earth Day and Blah-blah Day... and after this there will be Friendship Day, Youth Day, Chocolate Day and Whatnot Day. The problem isn't with having all these days crowding the calendar, but the hype, hoopla and air of expectation generated around them. People often ask me, “Do you believe in this stuff?” More importantly, I often ask myself, “Do I believe in this stuff?”

Well, let’s see.

There was a time when life was simple - uncomplicated by all these ‘Days’. Back then, I did believe in the few that existed – Teacher’s Day, for instance, was always special. But then, the whole world and its auntie started competing to have ‘Days’ earmarked for anything and everything. Now, it’s come to the point where you have ‘Jelly Bean Day’ and ‘Dance Day’ jostling with ‘Hug a Plumber Day’ and ‘Squirrel Appreciation Day’. Yes folks, come January 21, you must go out to your backyard and shake the paws of the squirrels you meet, and give them a handwritten card. And don’t forget to dish out the jadu ki jhappi to the plumber on April 25 every year, to be assured of free-flowing drains and a stink-free home...

(I do NOT exaggerate. In fact, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Doubters, please visit

Anyway, coming back to the point... with each growing 'Day', my belief wobbled and weakened.

And on went the wobbling, till the day I walked into a neighborhood novelty store just before Friendship Day, and saw youngsters buy ‘friendship bands’ and gifts - all in multiples of 50. While the man at the counter grinned gluttonously and counted the obscene amounts of cash being handed over by these kids. That day, my belief crashed completely.

It was nothing but crass commercialisation, the adult in me rationalised. But even so, the child in me wanted to believe. Fuelled, I daresay, to a great deal by the tamasha the world around me was putting up...

You see, till a few years ago, it was easy for me to turn my nose up at people who asked me about Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day, with a “You really don’t think I believe in all this meaningless, commercial bullshit!” – in a tone that would have chilled a polar bear. But now the world around me is making this bullshit harder and harder to ignore.

Just look at what happened yesterday. I got up and unsuspectingly picked up the morning papers - to be immediately bombarded with stories of people with boundless love for their mothers, and outsized commercials holding forth on the virtues of various items as gifts for your dear Mater – from diamonds to Volini balm. The TV, and Friends On The Telephone or FB are no better. Whatever 'Day' be it, the world around you seems to conspire to remind you that celebrations are afoot... and you are not part of it. 

And it definitely does not help that half of my closest friends are teachers. It naturally follows that they have a gaggle of students fawning over them and deluging them with cards and goodies at the drop of a hat... and as for Rose-day, Chocolate-day, Teachers’-day, Valentine’s day, Friendship Day – I suspect they need to get special cupboards built for the booty they collect!

The rest of my friends are in the “Have Money. No Commitments - Except to Spend Money” age bracket.  And they just can’t keep their big mouths shut around Friendship Day or Valentine’s Day or Whatnot Day. They start talking about gifts and cards a month before D-day... and afterwards, follow it up with discussions related to the loot.

And the feeling of inadequacy deepens...

Meanwhile, this Mother’s day came and went just like umpteen others did before that - uneventful. Well, almost - if you don’t count the slightly drooping stem of lilies my daughter brought me. She and a friend had each swiped one from the decorations on the car of a newly wedded couple in the neighborhood – with the noble intent of gifting them to their respective mothers!

Well, what the heck! I guess I’ll have to make do with that for now - after all, she was willing to take a risk for me!

And meanwhile, the jury inside my head is still out, debating, “To believe, or not to believe, that is the question...”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Of Birds and Birdbrains

Last Sunday was a day of discoveries for us - one large bird, and a large number of bird-brains...

Just as we were starting our Sunday with an animated discussion on what was to be made for breakfast, and much more importantly, WHO was to make breakfast – the watchman informed us that there was a ‘chidiya’ stuck in our backyard, in dire need of being rescued from crows and stray cats.

An injured sparrow, thought we, and walked casually to the garden. Well, it wasn’t a sparrow. It was a full grown barn owl – a magnificent specimen! Not injured, but stuck in our garden and unable to fly away across the raised fencing in harsh daylight.

Hedwig, I presume...? Our Sunday guest

As we noticed the crows hovering overhead, we realised the owl needed help. And we could not do it ourselves, as it would just fly off the moment someone approached it.

Thus began Operation Owl Rescue.

The first call was to 101, because though an owl was a novelty, the fire brigade had in fact, in the past, helped us retrieve and rescue a snake that had got stuck under the inverter in our garage.

But clearly, this Sunday was not our lucky day. No answer at 101. It was 8 in the morning.

And then the hunt started in all seriousness – the hunt to find an animal welfare organisation that could help us out.

And oh boy... what specimens we found!

The first animal ‘welfare’ organisation we called informed us rather grumpily that they would not move their ass, or for that matter any other part of their body, until they received express orders to do so from the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation ward office. On a Sunday, we asked? Yes, said they. And off, went Sud. Leaving Ananya and me to watch over the owl like two protective mamas.

The NMMC expedition turned out, as we always suspected it would, utterly fruitless.

More calls, more specimens. One call, answered by a lady - in an accent that seemed to proclaim “I just live in Mumbai, but my heart belongs to Manhattan, you know” – informed us that while their organisation would not be able to help, we should try calling so and so...

There were others who we could almost visualise raising an eyebrow at having their Sunday disturbed for the sake of a mere owl... “Is there a leopard in your loft? A python on your potty? No? Then don't bother us!” their tone seemed to suggest.

(By the way, ALL these organisations had claimed in their online profiles that they did bird rescues!)

We even called up the Bombay Natural History Society, as some of the welfare organisations had suggested, to be told peremptorily – ‘It’s Sunday’, before having the phone slammed on us. So sorry folks, we will now revise the Animal School curriculum, to teach the animals days of the week, and caution them that they are NEVER to get injured, sick or stuck on a Sunday.

Operation Owl Rescue had turned into Operation Wild-Goose Chase!

On the verge of giving up (and resigning ourselves to the fate of guarding the owl till nighfall), we decided to try the fire brigade one last time. It worked! In 15 minutes, there were 6 strapping young men, dressed smartly in white bush shirts, shorts and gumboots chasing the owl from one end of our garden to the other, and back again. The distressed one was not ready to be 'rescued' so easily!

But finally, they did manage. The bird was captured and taken away to be released at an appropriate time and place.

And we returned, with a feeling of contentment, to our favourite Sunday pastime – arguing over who would cook the next meal...