“Do you believe in true love?”

Do we exist in a landfill of relationship debris or is there some magic left?

Binu SivanThis last weekend, I met a young friend – someone who had got engaged a month or so back. This is the sensible generation or maybe they are just scared. They are looking at a longish engagement. I asked her, “Why?”

She said, “We need to be sure.” I almost laughed out. You are never sure. Nearly 14 years after getting married, I am still not sure. It doesn’t matter how long you are engaged. Your husband or wife will turn out to be a different person to the one you were engaged to.

As I mulled over her answer, she asked – “Do you believe in true love?”

Now, why the hell would she ask me that!

The first unthinking words almost out of my mouth were – No! I don’t. I think it is all a lie. There is no such thing as true love. Just look at the disillusionment that you find in almost all the relationships around you! We are surrounded by a landfill of relationship debris.

Even as I thought these words I knew I was missing the point; because despite the disillusionment and the neglect there was something else.

Despite my desire to be untouchable in matters of the heart (a direct result of believing that I am as cool as Clint Eastwood in his cowboy avatar), the fact of the matter is that I do believe in love. Not the Valentine’s Day shit with its cards, candlelight dinners, and roses. I don’t even believe in the we-will-grow-old-together kind of romance. Tomorrow and old age are not guaranteed.

I thought about how in today’s world a growing cobweb of disillusionment and neglect anchor and hold up the photo frames of our relationships. Relationships and marriages, in particular, seem to be made up of what is missing – small acts and gestures that we forget to, or are too lazy or angry to do for each other.

Every expert on relationships has been crying himself or herself hoarse trying to tell us that we got to work at love. ‘Falling in love’ does not guarantee ‘staying in love’. You got to work at it to keep it alive. There is no happily ever after. At best you have a “we like each other enough to want to grow old together” ever after.

So is that all there is to love?

I am not an ace at this. I never was. Time, drudgery, disillusionment, neglect, taking and being taken for granted have taken their toll. Yet I am not just a victim. I am a killer too. Love doesn’t die at the hands of infidelity and violence alone. Its butchers are many.

Like pretty much most young women who get married, I believed in true love or rather the mirage of true love as spoon fed to us by our film industry. My ever after. My one and only. A few heartbreaks and disappointments later (both parties at fault) I revisited my notions of love.

Was love the intense feeling that swept over me as they placed my new-born daughter on my chest and I knew in my bones that I’d kill for this little one’s safety? I have never felt anything close to that for anyone else.

I am married to a guy who is in finance. He loves math. I love words. He watches Bloomberg and cricket for entertainment. I watch travel shows on NG and Discovery and love to read. More than a decade of marriage hasn’t blurred these differences in our case. In fact, we can still only manage a polite curiosity in the other’s interest.

In the initial years of our marriage, he got me watches (expensive, branded ones) for three of my birthdays. The third time I got a watch, I sat him down, showed him my watch-less wrist and told him in clear terms, “I don’t like to wear watches!”

To his credit, he has been learning and has stopped getting me watches.

We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A combination of health issues and sheer frustration at juggling a highly demanding job and a growing child made me walk away from regular employment. Now I am a stay-at-home-mom and a freelance writer working on my first novel. A move I could not have made unless my watch-buying, math, and cricket-loving husband had not agreed to finance our lives.

So is this love?

Love.  In my mind, it is a gentle, soothing breeze… something that underlies and supports, and is supported and nurtured in turn by consideration, kindness, generosity and passion. A breeze that wipes away our tiredness and soothes our tired eyes and heart. A breeze that brings with it anew a slow bubbling hope. A breeze that needs a soul to brush against, slowly raising its shrouds… awakening it to the joy, peace, angst and pain that is the accompaniment to love.

A breeze that blows against a rock face or wall will not raise any shrouds. It will just be a weak wind that falters and fades away. Love is like that. One day you are the breeze, the next day… hopefully, your partner. But if you, or he or she, are the rock all the time, then eventually the breeze will die.

When young, due to my movie and Mills and Boons fueled notions of love and romance, I believed true love can be achieved only with one person. Now I know better. You can fall in love deeply many times over. You can be in love with more than one person at the same time. Love can evolve into like, hate and indifference. You can fall out of love with a person and yet love that person.

The magic of love can touch you at any time, across the labyrinth of space, age, societal mores, and even reality. You can be in love in your mind and the world would have no inkling. You can even be in love with an imaginary personification of all that you desire. This love of the imaginary person (that you are yet to meet or may never meet) is like an underground spring that waters your soul and keeps you alive.

You could be in love with a woman’s never-say-die spirit, a man’s kindness, that woman’s smile, that stranger’s eyes… you know that nothing will ever come out of it. For a few weeks or maybe just for a few days, they will add an extra spring to your step, a smile to your lips, an ache to your heart, and a song to your heart. You are not going to disrupt the status quo of your life for this smile or eyes. But just for that magical little while, love and romance brush by you again and you are alive. Just an intense crush, but for those few hours, days and weeks, this imaginary love-story in your mind is stronger than any relationship that actually exists in your ‘real’ life.

And then one day you wake up, freed from the bondages of this crush… you are out of love.

So what the hell is love? To be honest I still don’t know. I am constantly redefining it.

Do I believe in true love? I don’t even know what the hell true love is! But I can tell you this – I am a romantic.

The word romance conjures up different images for most of us – usually dictated by our age and experiences. In our teen years, it is a red heart-shaped balloon and a misspelt love note. In our 20s a public declaration of everlasting love on Facebook and Instagram. In our 30s, a partner who is willing to wake up to take care of that baby who is hell bent on driving you to an early grave.

But now I am in my 40s, and for me romance has broken the limiting walls of relationships. Let me explain…

I had always liked to think of myself as a realist – someone who sees the world for what it is and accepts it. But the truth of the matter is that I am not a realist. I don’t see the world for what it is. For me the world we see is an opaque veil, that conceals the truths that I instinctively believe in, and even know to exist. Even my personal religion and concept of God is based on this.

I believe without proof. Yet I also believe in the theory of evolution and have a deep respect for science and the fantastic mind-bending journey it, and we are on. Maybe because of this respect (and not despite it) I also believe in things I cannot see.

So how can I not be a romantic!?

Not just a believer in romance in its most commonly understood sense… but also the romance of life itself. When I smile instinctively at another person during my walks and they smile back at me, when my daughter walks into my room early in the morning and cuddles up with me, when I watch two young lovers trying to maintain decorum and distance as they walk together, jostling against each other with every step… I am more in love than I have ever been. Not with another person. But just in love.

When I read the wistful, elegiac words of poets like Rumi, Parveen Shakir, Keats, and Ghalib, I cannot help but wonder… How can this feeling, this aching yearning for another even arise in our hearts, if there was no romance!? How can it exist if there was no quest for that one love? How can someone write words that reach out across centuries and lands and grab my heart with such intensity and force? Am I not falling in love all over again when I read them?

Then there are things in this world that make me believe in a love that feels deeper and truer. When I am walking along a deserted beach, when I am watching a full moon shine brightly on snow-capped mountains at 2am, I sense something rare and fragile to my touch, just out of my reach… brushing delicately against my fingertips. It teases me into being more aware. An almost ephemeral awareness, it is by its very nature of being elusive that much more valuable and worthy of being pursued.

Right now, as I learn to live consciously and intentionally, taking steps towards certain dreams, instead of just waiting for them, my notions of love and romance are abstract.

I believe in the romance of the moment. It is a fleeting moment – sometimes submerged in the minutiae of life, buried amidst the debris of our busyness and distractedness. But that one fleeting moment can keep that flame of magic and life burning. And it is not necessarily a moment with your partner or spouse. It is the kind of romance where you are in a moment, either with your spouse or a friend (whatever be their gender) or your pet or a stranger, and you are with that person fully. It is the kind of romance that inspires you even when you are alone.

Right now, love is this very moment.

My newly engaged friend stared dazed at me as I went through my disjointed spiel. “So does this mean you believe in true love?”

“Yeah, yeah I believe in true love.” She will have to figure this out in her own way and time anyway.

 

 

Time To Say Thank You!

He was asking for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement for what they have done… for us. The sacrifices they have made. The price they have paid. For being the kind of men and women who realise that being a soldier entails a very real danger of being torn apart by bullets or bombs, and yet sign up for the job.

A few months ago, when the issue of OROP (One Rank One Pension) for the Indian soldiers, was still headline-worthy, a leading news channel hosted a discussion with a panel of retired defence personnel and a few family members of military martyrs. The focus was not just on the problems relating to OROP but also about what exactly a soldier feels in the face of such political and bureaucratic manoeuvring. A retired air force man spoke about izzat (honour) and respect.

A word like honour can sound archaic – something more befitting a feudal lifestyle… though in India, we never wander too far from our medieval roots. However, this retired pilot was not talking about honour the way, say, a khap panchayat would interpret it. No. He was talking about something more basic. Something, neither he nor any other soldier, retired or otherwise, should have to beg, ask, protest or fast for. This is something that should have been a given.

He was asking for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement for what they have done… for us. The sacrifices they have made. The price they have paid. For being the kind of men and women who realise that being a soldier entails a very real danger of being torn apart by bullets or bombs, and yet sign up for the job.

Acknowledgement not just from their fellow soldiers and family members but from the government and the people of the nation. And it is not just our soldiers. It is our cops. Our teachers. Our municipality workers. It is our parents. It is our watchman.

The world has always been divided along class and linguistic lines, but a lack of time and even worse, lack of empathy have exacerbated the problem. And, while it’s true that not all of us have the wherewithal to change the world we live in, we can change one small thing by acknowledging the fellow human beings who pepper our lives. There is a story behind every face and a hero, a mentor, and a guide hiding in the most unassuming of people.

Listening to that retired soldier speak, I wondered how many times I have bothered to acknowledge, honour and celebrate the people who have impacted me. The answer did not reflect well on me. So I decided to do something about it. Being a writer, pretty much all my ‘doing’ is done here – so here is my rather sorry attempt at acknowledging three of the people who made the greatest impact on my life.

My Mother – The Survivor

I never had to look outside of my home for positive role models. They had dinner with me every single day of my childhood. My mom got married young. When she was 17. She wanted to study and become a doctor. Her dad, my grandfather, however, felt that it was important that she get married before she became an old maiden. She rebelled by refusing to write her 12th school-leaving exams. She rebelliously declared, “If you are not going to let me study then what is the point of my writing any exam!”

She was 18 when she had me. When I was in my grade 10, my mother decided that she was going to get her college degree before her daughter did. We were in Chennai (then Madras) at that point of time. She appeared for an examination that was the equivalent of her Class 12 exams and passed and went on to graduate in B.A. Literature from Madras University… two years before I completed my degree in commerce. She then went on to do a Diploma in Computers at Loyola College, Chennai. In her 30s, she started working. And she worked till she was nearly 55. She worked right through her cancer and resultant surgery, chemo and radiation. It wasn’t an easy journey and there was resistance from many quarters. However, she hung in there.

If today, I have the luxury of being an independent and fiery thinker, it is because of what she taught me.

My Father – The Soldier

Growing up in Chennai, many often mistook my dad for a cop, because of his moustache and deep voice. Then they would get to know him better, recognize what a softie he really is, and start laughing with him about the misunderstanding. In today’s world by all standards my father is an ordinary man. His identity today is of a retired airforce man in his 70’s who still continues to live life independently with my mom.

However, scratch the surface and ask him about his youth and the stories begin to flow. Like all soldiers, Daddy loves to tell the stories from ‘his war’. But only to those who ask and show interest. Even then, he will not tell the stories that really matter. The stories behind why he a JWO (which means he was the ground support staff and not a pilot) was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (a medal usually reserved for the airborne) for gallantry during the 1971 war. His act of bravery involved stepping out into the airfield when it was being bombarded by enemy aircraft and helping Indian fighter planes land and taxi in. He encouraged others to ignore the danger to their lives and do the same too. The medal is discreetly displayed on a bookshelf at home. For many years, he was happy to keep it locked in a cupboard until my brother and I took it out. The photograph of him receiving the award is proudly displayed in my house.

Sometimes when I see him interact with a shopkeeper, or a waiter, or his own grandchild, I wonder if they know that they are talking to a man who displayed exemplary courage and devotion to duty in the face of extreme danger.

My Teacher – The Task Master

I was in Class 5 and even then English was my favourite subject and Christella Ma’am, my class teacher was my English teacher. Halfway through the year we had, each, to work on a project. I had to do something related to verbs or tenses… I don’t remember. What I do remember is breezing through my work and submitting it the next day. I knew… just knew that mine was the best project work in class. I could see the others struggle.
Christella Ma’am took in all our submissions.

The next day we were told our marks. Another kid in class had got the highest marks. I don’t remember if I came in second or third or fifth. I remember I didn’t come in first. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. So immense was my feeling of being unjustly treated that I marched up to Ma’am and asked her, ‘Why!? Why am I not the top scorer?’ Ma’am looked at me and said, “Your work may have been the best in the class, but it was not your best.”

In that moment, she taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life. Anything worth doing is worth doing, not just well, but the best that you can make it.

It took me many more years and a tryst with a job in a stock broker’s office (for all of a week) before I realised that I wanted to write. But the seeds were sown by Christella Ma’am.

 

The Municipality Worker – This man did not impact my life choices, but he did teach me a couple of things about attitude.

There is this guy I met while visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. He is, what we all collectively call, the kacharawala. An ironic tag for someone who clears the kachara (garbage) created by us. I don’t know his name. But of all the people I met during this last holiday, he had the greatest impact on me. Why? Because of his attitude. He always greeted us with this big, friendly smile and said ‘Hello didi!’ He didn’t grumble. He didn’t whine. He didn’t look like he hated what he did. And if there is a job that is easy to hate, it is his! Maybe he did hate what he did. Maybe he never thinks about it. Or maybe he is the kind of human being who does whatever he has to do with dignity… a throwback to the kind of human being Gandhiji extolled all of us to be.

On India’s Independence Day (August 15), he greeted us with a ‘Hello didi! Aap clubhouse nahi gaye? Janda lehra rahein hai aaj. Achcha hai.” [Translation – Did you not go to the clubhouse today? They are hoisting the flag. It is good.]

Above all, I remember the vibe he spread. He was a happy man and it made me happy to just say ‘hello’ back to him.

There you go – that is my list for now. Do write and tell me about the people who have impacted you. If nothing else, definitely spare them a thought and a prayer.

 

 

 

My Post Won IndiaHikes’ March 2016 Blog Contest!

12799411_10153375733901583_8840689304820313377_n I have some great news to share with you guys. My blog post, When the Mountains Calledabout my trek to Chandrashila Peak, won IndiaHikes’ March 2016 Blog Contest. Check it out at  http://indiahikes.in/march-2016-blog-contest-winners/. Thank you for all your support. Do keep reading. You can find this post at https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/when-the-mountains-called/

 

 

Negotiations With God

This was written some years ago – when I was neck deep in fear. Am finally ready to share it. Part of my resolve to grow into a writer who will not hold back her truth – be it embarrassing or painful.

2009

It is the call that most women dread. The one from their doctor. The one where a clinical yet sincere voice tells you, “We have found a lump.” The regret in the voice is genuine and sincere. But the doctor had just got started. “Actually three. In your left breast. And there are six nodules on your thyroid glands.”

As you see the matrix of life rotating clearly around you for a second you’d happily swap all the sincerity spilling over the mobile, for a guffaw and a gotcha! from the other end. No such luck! This is not a prank call. It is real. And you feel yourself grow cold.

It is amazing how calm one can be when one is told that you could be staring down the barrel of a gun that may be loaded with those dreaded cancer cells.

I was at work when I got the call.

I remember calmly agreeing with the doctor that most probably they are just benign growths.

I had three lumps in my left breast and a few nodules on my thyroid. What are the chances that all of them were benign? She did not say it, but we both knew – minimal. You have to be bloody lucky.

I remember standing up and saying to nobody in particular that I needed to stretch my legs. I remember walking to the corridor that ran outside my office and resting my head against the glass panels, near the elevators, that looked out at the outside world. No one else’s world seemed to have come to a crashing halt. People were busy rushing to their meetings, talking on their phones. Maybe some of them carried extra cells, and did not even know it!

The glass panel felt cool against my forehead. But I was burning with a strange fever and fervor now.

I have never believed that very deeply in detailed prayers and rituals. My prayers have always been simple – ‘Thank you.” That’s it. I have never wanted much in or from life.

Yet as I stood there resting my head against the glass, trying to absorb the cool of the glass into my being, I started negotiating with God. She is only 4. Keep me alive till she turns 18. No… 18 is not enough. I have to teach her about life, self-worth, love, strength and belief in oneself. I need time till she is at least 25. Keep me alive long enough to teach her all that is important. Keep me alive till I have hugged her and loved her enough number of times that she will have the memory of it seared into her soul. Keep me alive; take my breasts, lymph nodes, glands and whatever. I don’t mind. Just keep me alive till she is old enough to manage life without me.

That was five years ago.

The three lumps and the six nodules?

All of them were benign! I was the bloody lucky one.

I cleaned up my act for a bit. Ate healthy and exercised a lot more. I quit a stressful job and took on a less stressful one.

Two of those lumps disappeared. So did five of those nodules. No treatment. No surgery. Nothing!

2013

Yesterday I got another call.

The remaining lump in my left breast and the thyroid nodule have grown. A sudden unexplained leap in growth. More tests. More procedures. More negotiations with you-know-who.

April 30, 2016

 

20160418_095454
A simple reminder from my daughter.

 

 

It has been two years since the second scare and I turned out to be bloody lucky the second time round too. This time round I have heeded the lessons better. I have worked towards clearing the stables – emotional, physical and spiritual.

There are some of us who grow without too much of a struggle. Then there are people like me who have to be dragged through life’s classrooms to understand the lessons on offer. It is amazing how despite being aware of time being in short supply we squander it with such impudence. We should know better! And yet… we let it slip through our hands. Oh sure, we are busy. We all are busy. But how many of us are busy doing what we love… at least for a few hours in a week?

2016 has somehow been the year when I grew up. It has been a year of reckoning. Not because I hit a milestone birthday – that was three years ago. Somehow this has been the year when I have become more aware of the unrelenting passage of time. This has been the year when I stopped making excuses for not chasing my most closely cherished dreams.

This has involved going for my walks regularly, going on treks (and scaling some inner walls and mountains), making plans for my eventual move to the Himalayan foothills (even if it involves dragging a reluctant husband and daughter uphill), working (and I mean working, not dabbling) on my novel, and speaking my truth and learning to say ‘Yes’ to all the things that I am dying to do but, which scare the living daylights out of me, and finally, saying ‘No’ a bit more often to things that don’t reflect me.

Maybe it will just save me from further negotiations with God.

Travelling alone – not so unsafe after all…

Ever since I returned from my trek, I have been boring the ‘eyeballs off’ the people I know with my ongoing chatter about the trek. However, this is not about the trek per se. Well… there may be a reference or two.

This post is about perceptions and reality; with specific reference to travelling in India. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone at night.

We have all heard about how unsafe it is for single women to travel in India. Rapists, murderers, and kidnappers seem to prowl the streets of India. This is not to say that women haven’t been kidnapped, raped or murdered in India. They have been. Too many of them.

However, I would be doing a disservice to the people I met and the Indian Railways if I don’t record my experiences.

When I signed up for the trek, I was to tie up with a friend in Delhi and we were to travel to Haridwar by the Nanda Devi Express. A train that is nocturnal in nature as far as the Delhi-Haridwar stretch goes. It arrives in Delhi just before midnight and reaches Haridwar at 3.55am. Similarly, on the return journey, it reaches Haridwar at around 12.45am and reaches Delhi at 5am.

 

Anu haridwar pic
Haridwar Station wore a comparatively deserted look at 6.30 in the morning. Image Credit – Anushree Dutt.

 

 

I have always led a protected life. I have travelled alone, but on flights. I have explored a few European cities on my own during the daylight hours while my husband attended to his work. That is about it. I have never stayed alone… not until I was in my 30s and that too when my husband would go away on duty travel for a couple of weeks. And I have definitely never travelled through the length and breadth of India alone by car, bus or train. Someone, a family member or a friend, has always accompanied me.

In itself, it is not a big deal. In fact, in a way it reflects how much my family loves me. But it has always rankled. I have never been out there on my own. Would I be able to manage if I had to figure it out all alone in a place that mixes chaos and calm, with as much ease as India does?

Two days before I arrived in Delhi, my friend messaged me and told me that she had been diagnosed as suffering from whooping cough, and therefore her physician had advised her against the trek. I was disappointed, as I was really looking forward to enjoying the trek with her and another friend.

It was another moment before I realized that the real problem (or challenge) for me, however, was not going to be the trek. It would be the train journey.

The plan had been for us to meet up in Delhi at my brother-in-law’s place and then proceed to the railway station and travel on to Haridwar. Since there were two of us, it would be an adventure. Nothing to worry about. But alone! Alone in a train from Delhi (Delhi for Pete’s sake people!) to Haridwar, at an ungodly hour! For a moment I did reconsider, changing my travel plans and maybe flying into Chandigarh and making it to Haridwar with the third member of my party. However, that plan did not work out.

It was at this point that I realized that this was my chance. I had always wanted to travel on my own. Here was my opportunity. Sure it was only for a few hours, to be followed by a 10-hour drive with a fellow group of trekkers who I would be meeting for the very first time. Pretty much everyone in the trek team was travelling in groups of 3 to 5. I would be the only one travelling solo. But hey! Perfect recipe to strike up new friendships.

This is not to say that a lifetime’s habits of being risk averse and cautious just disappeared in a flash. No. The doubts were there. So was the fear. Most of us non-Delhi-ites have heard such nightmarish stories about Delhi that we are worried about even going to CP in the daytime. What we forget is that the only stories that make it to prime time and headlines are the nightmarish ones. We forget that for every negative story out there, there must be at least a few dozen positive stories. Stories and people that we never get to hear about.

It was 11.20 pm or so when I was dropped off at the Delhi railway station. A sea of people, most of them asleep on make-shift beds on the station floor, greeted me. The train arrived on the dot. I got settled into my first class AC compartment. (Before you wonder, I did my bookings at the nth moment and no other tickets were available.) This compartment had two berths. I had not had time to cancel my friend’s ticket… so technically the compartment was all mine. However, my brother-in-law cautioned me saying that if the TT (Travelling Ticket Examiner) sees the empty berth, he is within his rights to allocate it to someone else.

After I got settled in, my brother-in-law and his wife left. I locked the door and wondered what I should tell the TT. I did not want anyone else in the compartment. Maybe I could lie and say that my friend was in the bathroom. That way there would be no probability of my having to share the compartment with a stranger.

Now here is something you need to know about me – I was 9 or 10 when I decided to avoid telling lies… as much as I can. (White lies don’t count by the way. Those are the rules! :)) Not for any ethical or moral reasons. But purely for reasons of convenience. When you lie, it never stops with one. You have to utter a few more lies to keep that original lie going. Something that always gets me tied up in a knot, because I invariably slip up, speak the truth at some point or don’t hide the damning evidence well enough, and get caught.

Just then there was a knock on the compartment door. It was the TT. He checked my ticket (which had my friend’s and my name) and then asked me where my co-passenger was. I opened my mouth to say ‘bathroom,’ and instead said, “She could not make it.” Bugger!

I now had no choice but to tell him the whole truth. So then I requested him that he not allocate anyone else to the compartment as I was travelling alone. And if he had to allocate it, to please, please make sure it was to a lady. My head was already abuzz with thoughts of how if I screamed for help in an AC compartment, no one would be able to hear me. The TT smiled and said, “Don’t worry Madam! Aap darwaaza lock kar do. Aap akeli lady hai, issiliye, hum kissi ko nahi bhejenge.” [Translation – You lock the door. We will not send anyone else to share the compartment since you are travelling alone.]

Needless to say, I did not sleep like a baby.  Not because I did not feel safe. But because I did not want to miss the station. How I envy those seasoned traveller types who can comfortably nod off anywhere, anytime! Eventually, I did arrive at Haridwar.

Getting down at Haridwar, in the middle of the pilgrimage season (or is it always the pilgrimage season here!) I found myself surrounded by the hinterland experience and ambience. I decided to hunker down in the waiting room till 6.30am when the trek team vehicles were to pick us up. The waiting room was everything that movies make these waiting rooms out to be. Crowded. Dirty.

There were families and individuals who had come for their pilgrimages. Guys who had just arrived from wherever, walking around with a towel wrapped around their protruding bellies, after taking a shower in those dirty-as-hell waiting room bathrooms! Two little babies who could not settle down comfortably. Families who had taken up those uncomfortable metal seats en masse – like a package deal.

As I settled in I realised that I needed to use the bathroom. Dirty, wet messy affairs, there was no way I could carry my day bag with my tickets, money and mobile into it. And forget the rucksack. For a while, I decided to just grit my teeth and bear it. No way I could carry bags into those bathrooms! But when nature calls, she calls.

So I asked this lady sitting next to me to watch my stuff and went away. I came back, half expecting her to have decamped with my goods. But she was still there. So was my stuff.

Later, I wanted to charge my mobile but the only plug point I could fix my charger with its square pins into was in one corner. I was seated in the other. In Dubai, I would not have thought twice. The notion of safety and security is so ingrained into us that most of us would casually leave our mobiles charging on an unattended restaurant table if we had to. But in India! I plugged in my mobile. The railway employee who sits in the waiting room (presumably to help the passengers) bolstered my mobile with a few blankets so that it could charge smoothly and without any interruption. As I went back to my seat, a lifetime of being told to be careful and not to trust anyone, especially if you are alone, was pushing against the need to close my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, sleep won. When I opened my eyes, my mobile was still there. So were my bags.

A week and a lifetime later, when I returned to the Haridwar station for my return trip to Delhi, it was again an ungodly hour. I had managed to cancel my friend’s ticket. The train arrived and I walked up to the TT and asked him about my seat number. I was about to go into the spiel about how I am travelling alone blah blah…! Before I could say anything, he checked my ID and said, “Aap akeli lady travel kar rahi hai na? Aapke saath ek family travel kar rahi hai.” [You are a lady travelling alone, right? Your co-passengers are a husband-wife team.]

I don’t know if the Indian Railways have a system whereby they try to accommodate single female travellers and ensure their safety the best they can. Some may even think that I received this treatment because I had tickets booked in the first class AC compartment.

I, however, don’t think that is the case. Four of my friends who too were returning on the same train (different compartments), also found the railway authorities helpful. Two of them had confirmed tickets and the other two were on the waiting list. However, they had flights to catch the next day. Again the authorities helped them out.

We hear the negative stories of rude officials, corruption and lack of safety on a daily basis. I wish the stories of helpful officials, kindness, and a supportive system would also be spread with the same alacrity.

This experience also made me realise how many fears I have been lugging around with me since childhood. Most of us growing up in the 70s to 80s grew up with a litany of ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘that’s not safe’, ‘don’t even think of it’, ‘don’t go there’, ‘are you mad!’, ‘come back before it’s dark’.

Messages that encourage a safer lifestyle for sure. But these very same messages also ingrain in us a deep-rooted sense of caution intermingled with fear… denying us a shot at adventure. The differences between adventure, and risky behaviour get blurred. We were taught to not just be risk averse but also adventure-averse. Now as I slowly stretch out and deliberately do things that scare me, I realise that most of the fears that I have held on to are as ephemeral as the mist on the mountains. They melt away and let you see a few meters further as you walk towards and through them.

When the Mountains Called

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Chandrashila Peak beckons. Image credit – Binu Sivan

Winner of IndiaHike’s March 2016 Blog Contest.

http://indiahikes.in/march-2016-blog-contest-winners/

Recently I went on a high altitude trek to Chadrashila Peak (12,083 feet) in the Himalayas. If you want to read something that is packed with edge-of-the-cliff adventure, this is not that blog post. However, if you are willing to be satisfied with a few insights, read on.

I was born in a place called Malappuram in Kerala. It basically means ‘Land of Mountains’. The mountains of Malappuram are the gentle, rolling hills of the Western Ghat’s coastal face.

So I guess the affinity I feel for hills and mountains should be expected. Give me a hill station any day over a beach. I love the cooler climes, the greenery, the gentle and grand beauty that is a South Indian hill station, like Ooty, Kodaikanal, and Munnar. I have also stood humbled by the perfection that is nature, at the top of Alpine mountains in Switzerland. However, at no point did the mountains call. I admired them all and I moved on.

Then three years ago I went on a 9-days long road trip through Himachal Pradesh. Those nine days, saw me re-visit how I wanted to live my life in the near and not-so-near future. The peaks looming above me, the evergreens towering over me, the mist, the rain, the greenery… everything. These were not the gentle, green rolling hills and mountains of the south. These were not the perfect snowy slopes of Jungfrau and Rigi. This was a different beast altogether. Wild, untamed, verdant, stark and edgy they called to my soul in a way no other place ever has. The mountains didn’t just call. They screamed.

Since then, I have always tried to include a visit to the Himalayas into our holiday plans. I succeeded the year that we visited Bhutan and failed miserably the next year when we visited Lavazza, near Lonavala. Maybe it was the failed holiday plan or just plain old middle age, but this year my friend and I decided to go on that long-planned trek. “Come what may. We are going to do this.” We told this to each other over and over again, until we believed it. We then informed our rather incredulous families. Neither of us is remotely athletic and a pretty long way from desired fitness levels. Nonetheless, the decision was made. The mountains had called.

My brother, a veteran of three to four treks, recommended India Hikes to us. And just like that over a phone call, I registered my friend and my name for the Devriatal-Chandrashila Peak trek for the March 21-26 batch.

Our reasons for picking this particular trek were rather straightforward. The website describes the Chandrashila trek as an easy-moderate trek. The words ‘easy-moderate’ lulled me into believing that my rather pedestrian level of fitness and a course of Diamox would see me through.

It was not until I was into Day 3 of the trek that it struck someone to ask the trek leader, “Easy-to-moderate in comparison to what?”

The trek is easy-to-moderate in comparison to other high altitude Himalayan treks. If you are planning on going for one of these treks, please take those fitness charts, the trekking companies send out, seriously.

However, that (my fitness levels) was about the only downside of the trek for me. The rest was all… life-affirming, humbling, joyful and peaceful. Starting from the base camp at Sari to the second day’s camp at Devriatal, then the third day’s camp at Rohini Bugyal and finally the camp at Martoli, which was our base for the last two days including the day we summited the peak, and the final day’s mini-trek to Chopta and back to Haridwar, I enjoyed myself despite gasping for air like a fish out of water. I am not going to document each and every step of the trek. This India Hikes article http://indiahikes.in/deoria-tal-chandrashila-peak-trek/ does that much better. However, I would like to share moments, anecdotes, conversations and lessons that stood out in stark clarity for me.

Pahadi Rasthe (Mountain Paths)

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The climb from Sari to Devriatal. Image Credit – Yash Mehta.
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The trail offered stunning views in all directions. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.
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The trek through the forest was a dream come true.

I have read some great poems about mountains, open roads, and walks through forests. Wordsworth, Whitman, Frost et all have to step aside, though. One of my favourite lines was the one quoted by our tempo driver – Vicky – as he drove us from Haridwar railway station to Sari base camp – a gruelling 10-hour drive. I don’t remember the context in which he mentioned it, but he said, “Yeh pahadi rasthe zahreele saanp hothein hein. Sambaloge nahin toh das legi.” [These mountain roads are like a poisonous snake. If you are not careful, they will strike.]. I had never, despite my crazy imagination, looked upon these curving, twisting stretch of tar, gravel, and rock as a living, breathing entity. Now I can’t think of it as anything but!

My second pahadi rasthe comment came my way courtesy Sunil – one of the trek guides and the designated ‘sweeper’, the guide responsible for ensuring that no trekker is left behind. Guess who made up the ranks at the rear. I, me, myself and Sunil. It was Day 3 and we were on the interminably long trek from the Devriatal campsite to the Rohini Bugyal one. The trail was a combination of gentle ascents (more about these later), descents and in Sunil’s words ‘seedha rastha’.

I have lived my entire life in coastal cities, where seedha rastha basically means a flat, straight path. Half way through that day’s trek, I am dead. Seeing my condition, Sunil told me that up ahead is a seedha rastha, and I trekked on in hope. After thirty minutes of hanging on to hope as we climbed up and down, and turned this way and that way, I turned to him and asked, “Where is the seedha rastha?” He looked at me innocently and told me that we were on it. Then he added, by way of explanation, “Pahadon mein seedhe rasthe aise hi hothe hein.” [In the mountains our straight paths are like this.] Sunil is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met, but I could have killed him in that moment.

Saved from Lifelong Regret

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The last stretch to the top. Mountains are not simple triangles and it takes longer than you think to cover even a few meters.

Basically, you ask yourself – “Can you do it?”

As I prepared for the trek, I told myself – “Of course, I can!”

If I had not summited, the answer I would have had to live with for the rest of my life is – ‘No. I could not.”

Of course, there are many trekkers who have failed at summiting their chosen peaks but then have gone on to defeat their inner demons and climb the same and other peaks.

However, if I had failed at this one, I doubt I would have had the will or the courage to try again. My greatest motivator was the knowledge that I would not be able to cope with this regret. I was saved from this regret not because I am a great trekker (I am not) or I am tough as hell (you guessed it. That is not me.), but because I got bloody lucky with regards to the human beings I got to trek with, and because the mountains decided to let me climb its slopes.

I also need to mention that while being fit enables us to enjoy the trek better, completing a trek is not dependent on fitness alone… it is dependent largely on one’s will. Ironically enough, this holds especially true if you are not a fit-as-a-fiddle trekker.

Helping Hands

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The team posing in front of the dining tent at the Devriatal campsite. Sitting in front wearing the blue full-sleeve tee and hat is Rajuda, the trek guide who led from the front and the one member of the trek team I got to know the least – because I was at the back with Sunil. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

When I signed up for the trek, I had rather romantic visions of trekking easily in the lap of nature, enjoying the silence and solitude of the mountains a la William Wordsworth. When I found out that I would be one of 25 other trekkers (average age 25) in the March 21st, 2016 batch, I got worried. ‘There is going to be a traffic jam along the way!’ I thought. ‘What have I signed up for!’ I worried.

Karma of course worked its beautiful magic and I never got caught in a traffic jam at the top. Not because the number of trekkers came down, but because I was always the last one crawling into a camp or arriving at the summit. Humbling lesson learnt.

I have heard that a trek is a great teacher. I was a willing student and the ‘real’ lesson that this trek held for me was truly beautiful. When I met my fellow trekkers, with the exception of my friend, everyone else was a stranger. Day 1 as I lagged behind, I wondered – what will the others think? By day 2, I realised that they were not bothered about analysing my speed, rather they were more interested in cheering my arrival at our smaller ‘break’ spots and our day’s campsite.

Thanks to my speed I did get to have my Wordsworth inspired moments of solitude, but I was also blanketed by the warmth and support of 24 other trekkers, 4 trek guides and PE sirji, the man in charge of the two mules that carried the rucksacks of the nine trekkers who had chosen to offload. (Apparently, he was famous or infamous amongst the kids in Sari, for making them do a few jumping jacks, squats and stretches every single time he came across them. Luckily he spared me that trauma. He would just smile kindly at me and tell me ‘ho jaayega.’ [You will be able to do it.])

I loved most parts of the trek, except the ascending bit. I know. The irony. It was on those ascending bits that Dushyant and Vishal, the trek leader and assistant trek leader, took turns to keep me company, with general chit chat, stories, jokes and even songs. Given that my response to everything and anything was usually just a grunt (I was conserving oxygen) you can imagine how hard these guys had to work at keeping my mind occupied.

On the last day, we stepped out at 2.20am with our day bags. It was the day when the rucksacks were left behind at the Martoli campsite, as we were going to return to it. Yash, one of my fellow trekkers, took my day bag from me saying, “I don’t have a bag to carry today. My friends are carrying my water bottles for me. I will carry your bag.” By now my ego was suitably humbled and I gratefully mumbled my thanks. Yash, and his friends, and then Sunil carried my bag the whole of the final day.

While coming down, Shubham bravely accompanied me as I kept sinking into knee deep snow. Every time I sank, I ensured the poor guy took a dunking too. Alok helped me through the slippery icy bits near Tungnath temple. Dhyey kept me company while we came down the Tungnath trail. On the previous days, Polika would happily splash my face with water whenever we neared a stream. Preety taught me how to control my breathing so that I did not feel that my heart was conspiring to jump out of my body via my mouth. My friend, Reva, would wait for me to arrive so that we could eat together. My other fellow trekkers would always have a word of encouragement for me.

And on the last day, Dushyant walked with me up a mountain. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath, not letting me sit too long, especially near the peak (knowing fully well that if I sat down, I would not get up again), as he reminded me again and again, why I was doing this. Some of my fellow trekkers have similar stories about other trekkers. Poonam swears that without Vishal and Dhyey she would not have made it. Bonita was awed by Ambuj and Jasjot’s willingness to put her comfort ahead of their need to summit in time to witness the sunrise.

At no point, did I ever ask for help. At no single point did I have to ask for help. Was it the mountain air that made all of us better and kinder human beings, or did I just draw a trekker’s dream lottery and land up with a trekking team that was peopled with such beautiful souls? I don’t know. All I know is I am deeply grateful.

When we do something that tests our limits, within a day or two we are shorn off all facades, and we are reduced to being exactly who we are. Did I walk with strangers? Maybe on day 1. By the time the trek ended, I knew I had been fortunate enough to walk with people whose histories and life stories I may not be aware of, but whose real self I was privileged enough to have had a glimpse into.

Holy Cow!

 

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Tungnath Temple – the highest Shiva temple in the world. Click on name for the Tungnath legend.Image Credit – Binu Sivan

 

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My cow. Image courtesy Poonam Mahindre.

 

I am a hard-core non-vegetarian, but, now, beef is one item that is off the menu for me. This is what happened. Day 2. It is the day we had that interminably long trek. Like a fool, I was lugging an SLR with me too. About 4 hours into the trek and with another 4 hours to go, I was questioning my sanity and wondering why I did not opt for a luxury spa holiday.

As I sat down for yet another 2-minute break, a black cow joined Sunil and me on the trail and stood near me. I moved aside to let it pass, but it waited with bovine patience. As I trudged along, it kept walking with me for a while. At one point I turned around and the cow was not there. I thought it had got bored and moved on and said so to Sunil. The next bend we turned, we saw the cow waiting there on the mountain side. I felt secretly thrilled. I began to entertain myself with ideas like, maybe Lord Shiva sent the cow down to encourage me and tell me not to give up. Please don’t theorize about Nandi being a bull. I am sticking to my idea of my cow being universe’s messenger. I began to think that maybe… just maybe, I will make it at least till Tungnath temple (which is 700 feet below the Chandrashila Peak) on the final day. The idea did not make me walk faster. But, it kept me walking.

As I walked on I caught up with some others from the group who had lagged behind to take photographs. When they made way for the cow, it moved on ahead and stood on a knoll nearby and then turned around and waited. The others moved on. I followed with Sunil. And the cow followed. I stopped. She stopped. I walked. She walked. This went on. Not for a few minutes or even an hour, but for the rest of the day until I reached the campsite a good four hours after meeting the cow for the first time! She hung around the camp for a while and then moved on. I did not see her after that.

In the next trek, if a hen accompanies me I am turning vegetarian.

Gentle Ascents… More or Less

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Picture perfect villages nestled in the lap of the mountains. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

People who are born in the mountains or those who have adopted it as their home have a peculiar code. They are tough people, but they are also gentle. Maybe it is this gentleness that prevents them from telling you exactly how far you have to go, how long it is going to be and how steep the path up ahead is. Either that or a perverse sense of humour.

Our trek leaders and guides would egg us on by saying, “Bas thodi dhoor aur.” [Just a little bit more.] Invariably we would walk for another hour or two after that statement. Trails were described as having ‘more or less gentle ascents’. Trust me unless you are a billy goat or a pahadi (by birth or choice) there was nothing gentle about those ascents.

Truth be told, these ‘gentle ascents’ and ‘thodi door aur’ did see me continue with the trek. Hope, after all, springs eternal.

 

Gharwal

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Pink burans dot the slopes.

Trekking slowly up and down the mountains of Gharwal and through its beautiful rhododendron forests with Sunil, I had the opportunity to learn more about the people and the culture of the land. I learnt that the rhododendron is called the burans in their dialect and that the juice of the red burans is delicious, but the pink and purple burans are considered poisonous (apparently the animals and birds don’t feast on them either). In the village shop, if you want the juice, you should ask for burans juice. If you ask for rhododendron juice, they will give you a blank look. Oaks are called karsu, and if I am not mistaken, pine, fir and deodar trees are all called devdaar.

I learnt that the smoke coiling up on the distant mountains were not caused by forest fires, but by the fires that farmers set to their fields to get rid of old roots, and help the soil revive. I learnt about the choolah room – a room adjacent to the kitchen which may lie unused in summer. The room truly comes alive in winter when it becomes their makeshift bedroom with everyone piling into it for warmth.  Something similar happened on days 2 to 4 at the campsite, when after sunset the temperatures would dip and we would all pile into the dining tent and stay there until bedtime, talking and swapping stories (scary and otherwise), because that was the largest tent in the camp and all of us wanted to bask in human warmth.

On day 2 as I was sitting down on a flat-ish piece of rock for my hundredth break, I looked back at the distance we had covered so far. I could see Sari (our base camp) lying nestled in the laps of mountains. I must have crossed a few mountains and ridges! For a veteran trekker that maybe no big deal. For a computer bound writer, it was gobsmacking awesome. It is a beautiful piece of land. However, Uttarakhand has experienced nature’s fury. Parts of it have been ravaged by the 2013 deluge – we can still see the damage in places like Rishikesh. Still up here, nature was at its benign, beautiful best – at least for the duration of our trek.

A calm beauty that is reflected in the Gharwalis. Without exception, every single woman, man, and child I met had a smile to offer and that smile always… always reached their eyes. Kind and loving – those are the words I associate with the people of Uttarakhand. Now, back in a global megapolis, trying to assimilate back into ‘normal’ life, it is no longer alright to look into someone’s eyes and smile. If you do, you are usually met with a stony stare or a look that translates into: ‘stay away from that crazy lady who smiles at strangers.’ Sigh.

 

Mindfulness

Off late, the concept of mindfulness had been vying for attention in my packed-to-the-gills life. I realised that I could no longer multi-task efficiently. Then the trek happened. The first two days were spent just trying to get my act together. The third day was better. But everyone knew the last day was going to be a killer. We started out at 2.20am. It was dark and the trail was lit only by our headlamps and the moon. We didn’t really need the torches or the headlamps. The moon was shining so brightly. Kind of apt, given that the peak is named after it.

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At the top! Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.
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During the Maggi break, the India Hikes team takes a break too. Image Credit – Binu Sivan.

Our trek leader knew that it was going to be tough for me, so he stayed back with me and told me to focus on just two things – every single step and every single breath I took. That is how I climbed on the last day of the trek. It was an interminably long day (including an almost hour long team Maggi break on the way down) for me. I summited at 8 and got back to camp at about 1.30pm. 11 hours of ascending and descending. I made it because of the attention I was made to pay to every single step.

I was told – Keep it small. Bigger strides will tire you in the mountains. Don’t try and climb straight up. It will tire you. Opt for paths that zig-zag. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth at a steady pace. Don’t rush. It is not a race.

As I sit typing out this post, I find that these words have become the symphony playing on a loop in the background in my mind. As someone attempting my first novel, I am able to extend these words to story maps, character-development and chapter divisions. And through it all, I remind myself to breathe… slowly and deeply.

 

Passion

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The sun colours the sky pink as Dushyant and Vishal talk us through the next day’s trek. Each day’s trek was followed by stretches, games and briefing sessions. Image Credit – Supriya Kathare.

Most trek leaders were usually working at regular day jobs until their first trek. (The exceptions are the ones who are born in these mountainous states.) The first trek almost always led to a love affair with the mountains. They then either underwent further training or embarked on more treks, and then quit their day jobs and opted for a career as a trek guide and leader. It is a career path that may never find mention in an MBA case study.

Yet, almost all of us – corporate lawyers, sales executives and managers, IT specialists, doctors, traders, writer and educationists (people who made up our motley trek team) – knew that at least one of these guys had found his calling.

To witness a man doing what he absolutely loves to do and be exactly where he wants to be – it is a joy. To witness his passion and energy for the mountains and nature and for his job – it was a wake-up call that most of us carried away with us. Life is too short. We should be spending our hours doing what we like… not what we should be liking.

Like I said earlier, the greater Himalayan foothills have cast their magic on me. They have definitely called. It is up to me to heed.

Thanks for reading.

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View from the top. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.
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Devriatal – the legendary lake of the Yaksha mentioned in the Mahabaratha. Locals and trekkers are careful not to dirty the water by putting their feet in it. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.

 

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Bhagirathi (L) and Alakananda (middle) join together together to form the Ganga (R). Image Credit – Dhyey Ahalpara.
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Temple dedicated to Goddess Ganga at the top of the peak. Image Credit – Smruthi Sb.

 

 

Mindfulness, and a Slice of Heaven

For the last few months, I had been getting increasingly overwhelmed by it all. This amorphous ‘it’ was also eating into my focus… taking me away from my writing. And while I had decided on not making any new year resolutions, an idea I was toying with since January this year was to quit all Whatsapp groups

As a child I could sleep standing. Any time of the day.

It was a quality that drove my parents insane. It was a quality that I was secretly proud of. Having a child put paid to that. However, as she grew older and more independent, things began to return to normal. I could sleep through the night without a hitch. And then something happened. I couldn’t sleep through the night. Occasionally it was because my kid had a nightmare or was unwell. But increasingly it was because of… nothing. I was awake.

Desperately trying to fall asleep. Refusing to get up and accept defeat in the face of a friend who had always stood by me but who had now just… pffffftt… disappeared!

The results were obvious – fatigue, irritability and lack of productivity.

The causes were not so obvious – deficiency of vitamin D and mindfulness, and an excess of social media. Addressing the vitamin D deficiency was the easy part.

Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in. The constant sense of being rushed. The balancing of multiple roles and responsibilities. The juggling act that we fail at on a daily basis.

For the last few months, I had been getting increasingly overwhelmed by it all. This amorphous ‘it’ was also eating into my focus… taking me away from my writing. And while I had decided on not making any new year resolutions, an idea I was toying with since January this year was to quit all Whatsapp groups. I am in one too many. Unfortunately, for me, I am not good at ignoring messages. But I could not just quit. What would others think? Will they be offended? How will I know what is happening?

Then I came across a friend who had quit social media and was happier for it. And I came across a post by a Facebook friend who had quit Whatsapp groups and seemed alright. It was like the universe was sending me messages. So a week or so ago, I quit the groups. I also reduced my time on Facebook.

The first two days I was like a junkie desperately sneaking a peak at my mobile. One or two friends had messaged me directly. Mom and dad had messaged me supporting my decision. Another friend had gone into a panic thinking she had offended me resulting in my decision. Otherwise, silence.

The initial sense of being adrift was however soon replaced by something deeper. The sense of being overwhelmed… of being available 24/7 had receded. I am beginning to enjoy the quiet time. There is a strong sense of reclaiming myself, my space and in many ways, my soul.

Of course, I don’t know what is happening in everyone’s lives anymore. But surprisingly that has not caused me any harm.

I also finally gave in and downloaded an app that guides one through basic meditation. Yesterday, I did some meditation with my 10-year-old before bedtime. The results were almost magical. Yesterday night, she had a good night’s sleep after a long time. No nightmares, no coughs, no midnight bathroom breaks. And, after a very, very long time, I slept well too. Out cold by 10.30pm and my eyes flew open at 5.30am! The rest of the time I was asleep!

The joy. The humbling joy of a good night’s sleep.

This morning I packed the husband and the kid off to work and school respectively. After lazing around I walked into the kitchen to make my morning cup of tea. I did not feel like making a proper breakfast, so settled for a basic sandwich. But I was not in the mood for brown or whole-wheat bread. I wanted to celebrate the quiet in my head. I wanted processed carbs and something sweet.

And then it happened. I had laid the two slices of white bread on the table. The Gods conspired in my favour and the butter was just right and I spread it evenly on the two slices. Spread some mint chutney and sandwiched a lettuce leaf in between. Toasted the sandwich lightly. Strained my tea and cut myself a slice of chocolate cake that I had baked for my daughter the previous day.

I placed the cake, sandwich and tea on a tray and took it into the living room. The sun was streaming in through the French window that opened to the balcony. I set the tray down on the floor and sat there on a slightly chilly wintry morning in my patch of sunlight. Deep breath. The sun’s ray’s warms my skin. I bite into the sandwich and experience true happiness. Heaven. My piece of heaven. There is something to be said about mindful living after all.table-1031148_1920

MY FATHER’S DAUGHTER

This is a short story I had written for a contest. I hope you enjoy it. Please do take the time out to revert with feedback, opinion and criticism (gently does it) in the comments section. Love, Binu.

MY FATHER’S DAUGHTER

I am sitting in my room… plucking photographs from an album and putting them in an envelope. Randomly picking out photographs that remind me of the good times. Appa, amma and I. Appa and I.

Neither Appa nor I are the kind to smile into a camera. But Amma had an obsession with recording events and non-events. Most of the photographs of the three of us would have Amma grinning broadly, and Appa and I trying hard to not squint or shut our eyes when the flash all but blinds us.

Sifting through these memories, I find myself smiling. The tears, however, take me unawares. This is an unexpected reaction for me. My normal gear is stuck at calm and cool. The only emotion that comes easily to me is anger. But I know how to handle and use my anger.

My basics had already been packed into an overnight bag. I didn’t need much. Anyway, I am not going away forever. I am sure I will be back. He can’t live without me.

I have another 15 minutes before I leave. I had not planned on taking the photographs. But then I had changed my mind. What if my mobile crashed and I lost everything!? What if… what if I don’t come back? I needed the photographs.

There is a knock on the door.

No, no, no please don’t let it be him. I can’t face another argument. Not now. I have to leave soon.

But it was him. Standing at the door. Not entering. Waiting for permission to enter.

“Amu… “

There is something odd about him today. Something that is new and at odds with who he really is… diffidence. That is what is odd.

He is a short man. But he has always made up for his shortness in height with a larger than life personality. But today he is not looking as tall as he usually did to me. His nervous self-awareness filled the space between us.

And then he stumbled in along with a rush of words, as though he had been practising these lines in front of the mirror for the last few hours.

“Amu you are right. I am quite rigid in my own way. I know that! I think I … I think… I did understand you. Now… I am trying, but I don’t think I have… I don’t think I have understood you.”

I am staring at him. Sheer shock prevents me from falling down in shock. He has never backed down from his point of view. Ever.

*

I have just been lucky that all these years we have been on the same page. About everything. Music. Architecture. Friends. Aikido. He has always understood me and backed me.

I have seen what he can do when he disagrees with you. He uses his intelligence and logical mind as a weapon and there is no way I or anyone else can argue with logic and win.

Amma used to just bang down whatever she was holding and walk out of the room. I never knew how she put up with losing every single argument or how he managed to make it up to her. But the next morning or even a few hours after the argument, she would be smiling at him and laughing at his anecdotes. He adored her. She was the centre of his universe. Maybe because she let him rule hers.

When she dropped down dead of a stroke in the middle of the living room, his entire world was sucked into a black hole. The only thing that kept him alive was me.

And we had never argued. Ever. Funny when you think about it. Maybe all the disagreements, complaints and grouses were being set aside, over the years, on a shelf for later, when I would need them.

*

And then I met Mithun. Carefree, hardworking, loving Mithun. Mithun of the average intelligence, who had no time to read plays or biographies. Mithun who hated to debate or argue. Mithun who treated me with respect. He calls me masterni, because I have an explanation for everything. Mithun, who my appa thinks is sweet and harmless and utterly unworthy of me.

He never let an opportunity slip to let me know how wrong I was to consider Mithun a potential life partner. Initially, I laughed it off. But after a while, my laughter jarred and I began to snap back. Argue. Explain.

However, nothing prepared me for when he turned around one day and said, “I think you will be better off getting a dog.”

I had blinked at him for a second and then asked, “Better off?”

“Yes, yes. You will be better off getting a dog than marrying that silly fellow. You will not get bored of the dog.”

That was the final straw. The argument had raged on for weeks.

Neither one of us willing to give in. I had not known it. I had always considered myself to be more like my mother. But I was actually my appa’s daughter.

I don’t think that he had realised it either. Every single verbal parry of his I encountered. We, the lovers of logic and analysis, passionate worshippers of poems and prose, philosophy and psychology, met as equals in the battlefield of my future.

The last argument had begun quietly enough among the leftovers off dinner. Mithun had come over for dinner. It didn’t matter to Appa. You see, he likes Mithun. He looked him in the eye and said, “Son, I like you. Which is why I am advising you against marrying my daughter. She will eat you alive. And you will bore her to death. Yours will be a match made for burning.”

I hated that Appa could pun at a time like this. I hated it even more that Mithun didn’t get it. We sat at the dining table and argued while Mithun cleared the table and left for his home. I did not even hear him go.

As he was going to his room that night, Appa turned around and told me that I would be better off having a pet dog. I will not have too many expectations then. The words punched the air out of me. Tears stung my eyes and I stood there wondering what kind of a woman my father thought I was?

*

The same night I called Mithun and told him that we will run away and get married. A court wedding actually.

He was happy yet concerned.

“What will your father say?”

A lot. But that is nothing new. I can handle it.

Mithun agreed to give the notice of intended marriage. It would be another 30 days before we can tie the knot.

I was willing to wait. Now that the decision was taken, I could deal with Appa’s constant snarky comments about Mithun and my future.

But the wait was not peaceful. Appa continued with his sarcastic needling and I reacted. But instead of arguing and losing my temper, I responded with cool, off-hand retorts that would drive him insane with anger. Now it was his turn to bang things and walk out of the room.

Oh God! I wish amma had been there. She would have laughed to her death at the sight of Appa losing an argument and his cool.

The massive arguments would be followed by a few days of tense peace.

The last big argument was yesterday. A day before the court appointed date for my wedding.

I think Appa sensed that something was off kilter. We had both, in the last three strained months, forgotten how to talk to each other. This was the man that I could sit and dissect a movie or book with for hours. This was the man with whom I had shared my every single thought and idea to solve the problems of the world! When I had felt hurt, angry or left out at school or college, when I had trouble with friends or teachers, I turned to Appa. How could we now not talk!

I think he must have been haunted by the same thoughts! When I got back from work he was waiting for me with a peace offering of a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the tea which was much needed was accompanied by advice that I didn’t want to hear repeated. The tea was left half-drunk as I stormed out of the room, but not before snarling that I can’t imagine how I ever thought that he understood me!

*

And now here he was, standing at my door. Telling me for the first time that maybe he was wrong.

The sun may have as well set in the east.

“Amu you are right. I am quite rigid in my own way. I know that! I think I … I think… I did understand you. Now… I am trying, but I don’t think I have… I don’t think I have understood you.

To me, you have always been my mirror image. While other fathers talked about not understanding their kids, I stood proud and even laughed at them. We were so alike that I forgot that you and I are two different people.”

Mithun would be waiting near Café Coffee Day around the corner. He had decided to come by auto instead of bringing his bike, because of my bag. I had agreed to be there on time. I didn’t want to start our new life on a tardy note. I sneaked a look at my watch. I have to be there in 10 minutes… but I will have to leave now.

Appa was running his hand over my table and my files. He did not seem to notice that the photo frame with the photograph of the three of us smiling and squinting into the camera was missing.

“Do you remember the time amma and I had had that big argument about attending your second cousin’s wedding?”

Yes, I did! Amma wanted all of us to go to Chennai for it. I did not want to go to Chennai and deal with all the “yeppo kalyanam panna pore?” (“When are you going to get married?”) Appa didn’t want to go and have his routine disturbed. That was the one time that amma and he had not made up easily. The argument and the suppressed anger had simmered for nearly three days.

Appa had kept trying to convince her over and over again as to why it was not necessary for all of us to attend every single wedding in the extended family. But Amma wanted us in Chennai. She was sick and tired of making excuses for Appa’s absence. Or maybe she had just had enough of giving into Appa.

She had given him and me the cold shoulder for the next couple of days. Appa was amused. This was a new Amma and he was intrigued. But even he was not prepared for her announcement at dinner on the third day that she had booked her train ticket to Chennai. Before Appa could protest that he did not want to go, she said firmly that she had booked only one ticket. For herself. And she would be back in 5 days.

Appa had accepted defeat though not too gracefully. But he didn’t push it. Even he could see that something was different this time.

Amma returned after 5 days, full of laughter, happy memories and a lot of photographs. She had even posed in some of them. The smile was there. But she had looked old and frail and alone in them.

Two weeks later she lay dead on the living room rug.

Yes… I remembered that fight.

*

He was looking out of the window… at nothing in particular.

He turned and walked away. I nearly sighed in relief. He was leaving.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath, readying to take my bag and jump out of the window and make a dash to the café.

“I have always believed that if I had gone with her to Chennai, she would still be alive.”

The words sliced me. To hear him form words that brought to life my own greatest shame and regret numbed me.

“I still feel I was right. There was no need to go to Chennai. But I did not go. I could have. Five days are a small price to pay in the larger scheme of things. But I let my pride and ego get in the way. I didn’t want to lose or give in.

I don’t want to lose you either Amu. I know what I know. I know he is a nice boy. But you need something more. I know this because I know you. But you are right. I could be wrong too.”

My mind stopped tracking the time. In that moment, I also lost track of all my reasons for wanting to marry Mithun. Appa never allowed himself to lose an argument because of his ego. I was going to marry someone for the same reason… to prove Appa wrong.

What was it? Was it that a lifetime of being in agreement had resulted in a need for a tectonic shift in our relationship? Was this my way of drawing new boundaries and building a few essential walls? Or did I just want to confound him and make him wonder who the hell I was?

Why did I think marrying Mithun was a good idea? Did I just want a third person in my little life to ease the intensity of living with an intellectual giant? Maybe I just wanted a break from Appa or maybe we need to be a threesome as opposed to an intense twosome.

Any which way, it was not because I could not live without Mithun.

I am going to have to call Mithun.

*

And then maybe… I will go to the pet shop.

 

– Binu Sivan

 

Once Upon a Time…

one-dayWhen we were kids, my mom would entertain us with stories from our ‘childhood’ and hers – growing up in the magical, mystical yet harsh reality of Kerala. Dad also had a plethora of stories. Stories from his rather wild, free and extremely mischievous childhood… his Airforce days and gentle tales by Vaikom Mohammed Bashir, his favourite author. He also loved to (still does) recite poetry – English and Malayalam. A particular favourite of his was the Malayalam poem (depicted as Kathakali and Ottamthullal performances) about Hanuman and Bhim (Bheemasenan). (Check the link if you are interested in this particular story.)

A few years down the line, I had the wonderful blessing of studying in a school that believed in literature. Charles Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Edward Lear, Oscar Wilde, R.K. Narayan, Munshi Premchand… and so many more – they were all familiar friends by the time I was 16 years old. Somewhere along the way, I read our epics in their entirety. Ramayanam (as any South Indian kid will call it) didn’t do it for me. But the Mahabharatham… ah!! it stirred my soul and my imagination. I fell in love, hated with all my heart, felt helpless and stood humbled and awestruck.

Not surprisingly, the stories started forming in my head. However, I used to brush them off as my teen imaginings and daydreams. When it was time to select a college major, I opted for commerce, because science scared the daylights out of me and English… English… “what are you going to do with a degree in English?” asked the voices in my head. And I listened.

My first job with a trading firm (a job that I got through my dad’s contact) was a revelation. The first day an elderly person surrounded by files (this was before the advent of laptops or emails) told me what I was supposed to do. He then went out to meet fellow traders and trade at the stock exchange – I presume. I sat surrounded by files and looked at some of them… did not understand any of them and spent the rest of the day looking out of the window at a digger dig a foundation in the empty lot next door. I was fascinated.

And then it happened. I started writing poetry. Just like that. Two to three a day.

This series of daily occurences were repeated for the next four or maybe five (I don’t remember) days. Then I called up my dad on the landline (no mobiles either in those days) and told him that if I stayed on at this office, surrounded by musty files with numbers for one more day, I may throw myself in front of that digger.

I quit and within a short span of time walked into the offices of a neighbourhood newspaper – Anna Nagar Times. I have never looked back since then.

I will not bore you further. But over the years along with the poems, I have also been working on a story here and a story there. Those characters and imaginings were finally being put down on paper – partially because the cacophony in my head was getting to be too much. I have finally built the courage to share some of them – some short stories, and dialogues and a few excerpts from a novel I am working on.

I should let you know at the very outset, that I don’t know if these are any good. However, I would love it if you could read these posts and give me your feedback so that I could hone my story writing skills. Will be posting a short story tomorrow to begin with.

Thank you.

Binu