“What! Another daughter! She is not going to live, do not worry, she is such a weakling, look at her complexion! She is dark as sin!”An old woman hobbled into our house and pointing a gnarled finger at the newly born infant [me] in the crib delivered this dark prophecy.
She was bundled out of the house by an indignant father with the words, “How can you talk like that? Have you forgotten that you too are a woman? Out you go.”
And out she went, her mission an utter disaster.
My dad, a handsome man, papa to us, was Dr. Bakaya to his students, one professor of English, whose lectures were not to be missed. My mom, a matriculate, petite and sweet, knew only a smattering of English, but was most articulate. Casually elegant in her starched cotton and crisp silk saris, she was always generous with her pearls of wisdom. Between the two of them, they managed to successfully discipline a bunch of five children. [One of them an absolute brat- me!] One braided the hair of the girls, the other packed our tiffin boxes, one polished our shoes, and the other ironed our clothes. If one tongue lashed, the other nodded approval.
The word “servant” was taboo in our house, so was shirking and malingering.
“Give me a glass of water.” I shouted to the maid one day, on returning from school.
I felt the slap on my ten year old cheek, before I heard the words,
“Are you paralysed? Can you not get even a glass of water for yourself? She has been busy, since morning; even she deserves a little rest. YOU will get a glass of water for her.” I flung my satchel on the settee, and went to do his bidding. Ever since that day, I have always fetched my own glass of water.
My nights still resonate with the fine timber of his voice, ‘Baby, never ever lose your humility, always stay grounded.” So despite my flights of fancy, I have tried to stay grounded.
After dad’s sudden death, mom strengthened her deceptively frail shoulders by an exemplary will power. Now she singly carried out the familial responsibilities, ably assisted by my elder brother, who now became a father figure to us, alive to our every need, privy to our every dream.
Every day, I doff my hat to this incredible woman. Losing her on 9 January 2015, was a colossal loss, from which, I know, I will never recover. I still get up suddenly to call her, little realizing that she has crossed over.
I strongly believe, that every woman is incredible. The gypsy woman clasping her infant to her emaciated self, blowing into a pair of bellows, the village woman making cow dung cakes, the woman slogging away at the construction site, while her child swings in a patchwork hammock, in sync with her peals of labour, the octogenarian who hobbles on unsteady feet, to the park, where I go for my daily jog – are all incredible women. Selling bird fodder in a shady corner of the park, this octogenarian earns a pittance for looking after her bedridden husband, and two wastrel sons. What is not incredible about her resilience, and a weak flesh which valiantly tries to keep pace with her willing spirit?
Never can I hope to touch the heights of incredibility of these women.
I am basically a dreamer, who adores nature. My daughter tells me that I have all the time in the world to stand and stare, so I stare at the squirrel hunting for its food, the spider weaving its web, the dew on a verdant lawn, the sun rays filtering through thick foliage, and the moon peeping through skeletal branches.
My ears are eternally attuned to the birds as they wake up the somnolent dawn with their lusty chirps, and the pitter patter of rain. I have been forever enthralled by snowmen and snowballs, the icicles hanging from Pine branches, dressed in the pristine purity of the freshly fallen snow in my homeland Kashmir. Known for its rambling rivers, scintillating streams , babbling brooks, and the mesmerizing magicality of its orchards ,it is in Rajasthan that I grew up, staying mostly in Jaipur and Bharatpur, and I love this land too, with its forts , camels , elephants and vibrant colors.
MY CHILDHOOD DAYS
Life’s winged chariot relentlessly moves on.
Just the other day, I was a pig tailed girl cycling all over the university campus, in Jaipur, stumbling and tumbling my way out of my teens, into adulthood. I blinked, and here I am.
I shudder to blink these days.
We lived a life of rambunctious fun, embellished with sibling revellery, chasing butterflies and kites, climbing trees and playing pranks. We skipped and hopscotched, plucked guavas from the neighbor’s house, leaving only a pittance for the hungry parrots who grew greener with envy. Growing up in open spaces we developed open minds too.
There used to be a neem tree in the garden that dad had planted. Once in a vile temper, I vanished from the house, and after hours of a campus wide hunt, I was found perched aloft this tree with a book!
It was at that precise moment that the world decided that I had a fine sense of humour!
The First Year of My Career
Immediately on finishing my post-graduation, I got a job in a government postgraduate college for boys, in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Shrugging away the rumours about the notoriety of the college, I decided to join. The moment I set foot in the college, I wanted to race back to Jaipur. All the boys looked older than me, some wanted to know, whether I had come to teach, or study?
Then came the invigilation duties. During invigilation, my eyes fell on a monolith of a student, busy cheating, a dagger stuck in the desk. Those days the college was known for its bad elements. While the other invigilator, a senior lecturer, looked the other way, I picked up the dagger and stormed into the principal’s chamber, the boy’s threats following me. “Dekh loonga. Mera career barbaad kar diya.”[I will see that you pay for this. You ruined my career. ]
In the evening, I met him at the railway station, he was going to Mathura, and I to Delhi. I walked up to him and said, “Aapney kaha tha dekh logey, ab dekho.” For a moment, he was absolutely flabbergasted, then he fell at my feet babbling in apologetic profusion.
I wrote limericks in school, [there are at least 200 of them still lying around] and was convinced that I was Edward Lear reborn. When dad saw an essay of mine on Charles Dickens, which had been highly commended in school, he flung it away, “Work on your style, read a lot.” That was indeed a turning point in my life, in the sense that in a bid to improve my style, I read every book in the house which was a bibliophile’s paradise, where David Copperfield stared at Anna of the Five Seas, Tess embraced Oliver Twist and Don Quixote stood whimsically next to The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White stood looking jaded with a tired spine as though trying to discuss spinal matters with Doctor Thorne.
Well, in short, books of every variety stood cheek by jowl, and we had our fill of these biblio-delicacies, while the culinary delicacies came from mom’s kitchen.
A postcard from Khushwant Singh is still lying in my treasure trove, wherein he had asked me to immediately write down the thought which came to my mind, even if it occurred at midnight. So I have been doing just that, to the intense discomfiture of hubby and daughter.
But jokes apart, they have supported me all along, even enduring my so called creative tantrums, and being discreet enough to laugh at me, only behind my back.
My Writing Adventure
In school, Sr. Theodora had prophesied that I would write a novel one day. I went on to write three mystery novels for young adults, and even translated the first one, The Mystery of the Relic into Hindi, adapting it for stage. Later, I got caught up in so many other things, that I had no time to get the other manuscripts published. They are still gathering dust somewhere. I am also editing my latest novel, Sanakpur Shenanigans written in the backdrop of Kashmir.
My writings used to be scattered all over Facebook, then came Joyce Yarrow, an American author and friend who browbeat me into compiling my essays. Thus was born Flights from My Terrace, an e-book on Smashwords.
I also dabbled in poetry occasionally, but ever since joining the incredible writers’ group Rejected Stuff, I took it up seriously, completing my long poem Oh Hark which I used to post in the group in installments, under the prodding of administrator and friend, Dr. Ampat Koshy. It fetched me the International Reuel Prize for writing and literature 2014.
Ballad of Bapu, a poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, was triggered by a remark of one of my M Phil students, when I told him, “first read Gandhi and then criticise him”.
“We do not need Gandhi, Hitler is the need of the hour. I am a poet, if you write a poetic biography, then I promise, I will read”. Said the wannabe poet with a smug expression.
That day, I went home and wrote the first few stanzas of Bapu’s poetic biography. It will soon be published by Vitasta Publishers, Delhi.
My Dad had written a novel, and some poems. He had plans of getting them published along with his thesis on Robert Browning when he had the time, but, he never had the time.
It is almost an obsession with me to get my writings published when I still have the time.
“When is the book launch?” Mom asked in that last phone conversation on 8th January 2015, and on 9th January she was no more. She was a pillar of strength for all of us, the pillar has gone, the strength has depleted.
I can never forget the way my dad used to recite, “The owl and the pussy cat”, strumming an imaginary guitar. With his impressive baritone booming away, he tutored us for elocution contests and debates. We lost some, won some.
What was it that H. W. Longfellow had said? “I am still achieving, still pursuing”, learning the ropes and nurturing hopes. I was called the Mad Hatter at school, as everyone was convinced that I was a trifle mad.
Robin Williams, one of my favorite actors, had once remarked that everyone has a spark of madness and one should try not to lose it. Well, all along I have been injecting some madness in the rampant sanity by writing and trying not to lose that spark of madness.
“When will you grow up, mom?” is my daughter’s perennial refrain, but, honestly speaking, the child in me refuses to grow up, much to my daughter’s chagrin.
My husband and daughter often call me a social embarrassment, because I have this unsavoury habit of eavesdropping into total strangers’ conversations wanting to embellish my stories with bits and pieces thus collected. .No amount of nudging, elbowing, shin- kicking can deviate me from eavesdropping. They tell me I am always on a high.
Well, yes, I am high on life, the small pleasures of life give me immense satisfaction.
I am the happiest when I am somewhere, at the station, bus stop or airport and suddenly someone shouts excitedly, “Madam, remember me? I was your student …..”
Many years from now, I still see myself, slumped on the writing table, writing away, my rheumy eyes still poring over books, and like Oliver Twist asking for more.
Some more time, some more years, so that I can write some more, read some more.