Monday, November 8, 2010

Restless in Mumbai

It's strange really. When friends call and ask me where I've been, I tell them how hectic my life is now and how I haven't had a moment's rest. I tell them how I've been rushing in and out of my house, to and from work, up and down several hundreds of stairs in malls and shops and buildings, and am ready to die, because I'm just so exhausted. The very thought of having an endless nap is so rejuvenating; yet even on the very few occasions that I have actually had a chance to, I haven't grabbed the opportunity or hit the sack and been dead to the world.
I don't know how and when I lost the ability to relax. When my kids invite me to watch a sitcom on television or a gripping movie, I start getting antsy after five minutes. I keep telling myself that I'm wasting my time. Then, I either pick up a book to read and raise my eyes now and then to catch up on the action on the screen or make lists or cut vegetables or just get up and complete some chores. The wise advise us not to have a clock in our heads. But, the one in my mind seems to tick loudly reminding me every moment of how little of it I have.
Of course, I'd like my life to be less crowded and more evenly paced. I'd like to run my fingers gently over the leaves of the seven-odd plants that live in my house and which I water every morning. I'd like to communicate with them and let them know that I care, because I do. I do want to say more than a breezy 'hi' to my neighbour and play hopscotch with the kids in my building once in a while. I'd give anything to cook leisurely meals, have long chats with my loved ones, read a book at one go, write a short story without being interrupted, learn the lyrics of a song that has touched my soul and spend some quiet moments in contemplation or just cut up some colourful paper and make a bookmark. This is really the life I want.
But, the life I  have now is anything but restful. It runs amok, packing in more than I know I should deal with, on feet that are hardly ever put up. No, I don't fancy myself as a many-limbed multi-tasking mean machine that doesn't balk at anything. In fact, I am overwhelmed from time to time, almost every single day.
What, then, has made me such a workaholic, such a domestic drudge, such a frenzied-doer that if I get a moment's respite, I think that I'm cheating time and life? That I don't deserve a breather. That I sin when I sit or stand and stare?
Am I a chore-addict, an action-geek, a slave to expectations? If I'm the last, I wonder whose expectations I'm trying to meet. My own, my family's, my boss's? It's hard to believe that anybody would want me to gasp and pant through the day  and expend all my energy.
Methinks it's my wicked mind and the way I've conditioned it. Just last night, as Diwali ended on a note of energy bankruptcy, and I tossed and turned in bed trying to fall asleep after a frazzling week, I realised how I was a slave to my own mind and how it was relaying these messages programmed into it by me myself. Some moments of observation were enough to tell me what I had to do.
Taming the mind is a very difficult art. Mind chatter can be unnerving. It can be debilitating. It can chart a peaceful course of life for you and send you hurtling into workspace in a frenzy. That is where I was—on the move but going nowhere.
Well, the deafening noise of crackers has died down. I hope the kids in the neighbourhood don't burst ear-splitting bombs today. Most of all, I hope my mind stops urging me to run the marathon day and night.
I have some weapons ready now. Almost an hour of peaceful time. I know what to do. The Sudarshan Kriya followed by the Sahaj Samadhi. Some maun. Some quiet time spent in contemplation. In silence. In solitude.
I've experienced its magic.
But, to do that I must not allow the devilish sense of accomplishment I feel after I've cleaned and swept and swabbed the house 20 times over keep me away from it. That I managed 20 minutes of blogging time after so long might just be an indication that I'm finally beginning to understand my mind-games. Today, I think I will read Sunitabai by Mangala Godbole. It's a very restful thought. And yes, I will do the kriya. Tomorrow is another day.    

Friday, October 1, 2010

The warrior in me

Yesterday, I received an email from my society about cutting down the tamarind tree in my compound. I've written about the tree in my earlier posts. I was shocked, distressed, touched to the quick. It was as if someone was telling me that they would be cutting off my arms. I was so pained and fearful that I would lose my morning mate, the lush green that greets my eyes, when they are still longing to sleep, the birds tweeting and the squirrels scurrying about, that I felt the warrior in me rise. Exactly like the tigress who goes to any lengths to protect her cubs.
I was in a high-octane emotional state—furious, afraid, helpless and worried. I dashed off an angry letter to the members of the society, words spilling out like lava. I didn't realise then that they would hurt them, as much as their decision to cut the tree devastated me. Then, I worried some more that instead of stopping them in my tracks, my words would probably get them to react adversely. So anxious was I about my green friend meeting such a cruel fate, that I dashed off yet another letter, this time informing them that I would do everything in my power to protect it. I had decided to approach the authorities and some environmentalists in case I needed to.
Yes, I received a reply in which I was categorically told that I had used very harsh language. Generally, I am a very peace-loving person, not given to hurting people's sentiments. I apologised. This was not the time for confrontation. It was a time to befriend people, to build bridges, to do everything to garner peace and get off the collision course. Anything to save the tamarind tree.
I had sent a silent reassurance to the tamarind tree in the morning and promised it that I wouldn't let anyone harm it. I was quite surprised to find that I loved the tree, as much as I love my human friends and relatives. I also found out how much. I had not realised the huge impact it had had on my life till the moment I thought that I would lose my wonderful companion. It is possible, I realised, to nurture intense affection for silent creatures of another kind, who live with us, witnessing and perhaps, even documenting, our checkered lives.
For now, my friend lives. When I return home in the evening, I plan to stop by and pat its trunk. To tell it to be by my side forever. To express my gratitude. I think it will understand. I owe it. It's the one bright green spot in my life every morning.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My Closet

Don’t peep into my closet

I hide my soul there…

Some tears too, in a salt shaker

To be sprinkled as and when required

To add flavour to my insipid life.

My ego too, smoothened of its creases,

Lies neatly folded on a bottom shelf;

It will raise its head any moment, without warning.

My hurts are suspended over hangers

In a mock show of surrender;

They will have to be aired in the right season.

My sins, tied up in pure white muslin,

Are stashed away inside a tiny safe;

They knock on the door now and then.

Threatening to escape in broad daylight.

My shame is wrapped in old newspaper.

It’s been about town, a known face.

It rests in a corner, enjoying its anonymity.

Bits of my flesh cauterised by time

Are huddled close together in an airtight box

Lively accessories, waiting to be flaunted.

There’s more of me set aside in a pile

Disowned, neglected, feared, avoided…

Discarded, unwanted, forgotten, abandoned

Vying for my attention in the black hole

I’ll have to clean up my closet soon,

Evaluate each item, manage the mess,

But don’t turn the key yet,

Or open a crack to let the sunlight in.

For you don’t know what’ll enter the darkness

Or flee unnoticed, with a piece of my dignity.

- Archana Pai Kulkarni

Monday, June 14, 2010

Calm in a tea cup

Every morning, when the prospect of just lazing in bed feels inviting and there's just no way in which I can afford the luxury, I remind myself of the hot cup of ginger tea that awaits me. It's a ritual that not just energises me to take on the day, it gives me those precious few minutes to find my bearings and be with myself in silence. Actually, my morning beverage is a no-fuss affair. No chinaware and no tea pots for me. All I need are a steel glass and a steel plate and I'm good to sip.
I grew up in Matunga, surrounded by Tam Brahms. Coffee, to them, was like manna from heaven. It was their daily tipple. Our houses were extensions of each other and we could actually look into each other's kitchens without feeling like voyeurs or intruders. Every morning you could smell the fresh, invigorating aroma of filter coffee wafting through the neighbourhood windows and spot the next-door mama or mami standing in the large balcony with a steel glassful of coffee in one hand and a tiny steel vessel in the other. Then, they would begin to pour the coffee from the glass to the vessel, raising the right hand to a certain height while holding the vessel way below. The coffee would gush out in a firm, steady, stream, and fill the vessel. Then, the vessel would go up and the coffee would be poured back into the glass. Up and down it would be poured, from the vessel into the glass and back into the vessel and again into the glass several times, till it would froth. Only then would it be sipped with great relish.
Now, I'm not a coffee drinker at all. Tea's my poison, especially, if brewed with ginger and tulsi. I have very native tastes. And though I imbibed the habit of drinking my first quota of tea in a steel glass from my neighbours, I replaced the steel vessel with a plate. And, I don't perform the frothing ritual at all. I like my tea piping hot. I pour it from the glass into the plate and as I look out of my window at the lush tamarind tree  and take the first sip, the steam from the glass invades my nostrils. It generates a nice, warm, reassuring feeling on a cool, still morning. Squirrels scurry about on its branches, nibbling at something or the other. The Bharadwaj calls out, hidden among its leaves, its shiny bronze wings, suddenly flashing through them, like a ray of light. Other little migrant birds fly down and and perch on its arms and tweet incessantly, creating a sweet melody. The virginal blue sky looks down at us indulgently. A cuckoo coos, somewhere in the distance. Its mate replies and their jugalbandi shatters the silence of the dawn. 
As I sip my tea in silence, and listen to the bird orchestra, I have gathered enough vitality for the day. My mind is focused on the tea, my tongue is alive and receptive to its taste and my body senses an adrenaline rush. It's a meditative moment. Silent, peaceful, blissful and rejuvenating.
I guess, when one seeks solitude, one doesn't have to travel too far. One can find it hidden in the swirling recesses of a humble glass of tea.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Grandma, The Time Traveller

Jani, my granny

My maternal grandmother Jani will turn 99 on August 5. While she is unable to walk, she’s full of spirit and vitality. Her mind keeps vacillating between the past and present. Now she’s here with you and the next moment, she’s at her childhood home in Ullal. Now she recognises you and asks after you and in a second, she stares at you blankly. Playful and lively in her winter years, my grandmother’s an enigma today.

Inside my grandmother, an ocean roars
Outside, surf settles on her skin, like gooseflesh.
Through the hidden alleys of her wizened veins,
Her bygone childhood runs amok, carefree.
Around her bed, the air regresses and laughs heartily;
Inside, memory reefs stand testimony to her turbulence.
Outside, coral beads weave a story around her neck;
Inside, her heart beats playfully in her backyard;
Outside, she forgets the rules of the game.
Inside, she’s at the market, buying a pair of red bangles;
Outside, she examines her bare hands wistfully
Inside, she’s five, pig-tailed, a merry fish,
Gliding back in time to sit on her father’s lap.
Outside, her lips part, a cry escapes, “Anna”,
And she scans every face for his kind, loving eyes.
Inside her, words well up, wave after wave;
Outside, her parched lips whoosh soundlessly.
Tides turn, storms rage, and she’s placid again, inside;
Outside, the tributaries on her face chalk new maps.
Inside, she rows her boat through lands forgotten;
Outside her hands grope for sand from umbilical shores.
Inside, she spots her husband hiding in an oyster;
Outside, she goes all coy, a child-bride again.
Inside, she gathers the priceless pearls of her tears;
Outside, she gifts away the treasures of her life in a will.
Inside she’s a dolphin, dancing with her little friends;
Outside, the music has stopped, her soles have cracks.
Inside, messengers bring her sad tidings from a dead daughter;
Outside, her ears long for the postman’s knock, news from beyond.
As she travels back and forth, inside and outside herself,
Timelines merge, she’s tossed about, and she swims aimlessly,
Till inside, a mermaid sings a soulful lullaby;
As the ocean calms down, outside, her eyes grow heavy,
And as she grows older, my grandma is a baby again.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Knowing grief

Dadu at his favourite spot in Indian Gymkhana
My uncle, Prabhakar Kamath, passed away on June 4. His death was not unexpected; in fact, it was very much staring him in the face for months now. Having lost my father to a rheumatic heart when I was just two months, I was brought up by him and nurtured with love, discipline, and a warm sense of security. I never lacked anything--not love, not the regular little things that are necessary to live and the special ones that make living life worthwhile. He spoke little. Very little, in fact. People in my house were careful around him. No, he wasn't an ogre but he liked his space. He spoke in monosyllables and from a very early age, I learned to read his approval or disapproval from the tone of those grunts. He introduced me to books very early in life. You could find a Chaucer nestling really close to a Shakespeare or Pickwick Papers or The Autobiography of a Yogi on our bookshelves. He read voraciously, when he wasn't at work at the Bank of India where he worked in a managerial capacity, or when he wasn't playing cricket. Yes, he was a Ranji Player, an opening batsman and all-rounder and went on to become the first Indian cricket coach to  pass formally out of a coaching college, the first one to be invited outside India for coaching (he coached Sri Lanka) and perhaps the only one to not earn a single penny out of the game. He was an honorary coach. Acknowledged by the cricket fraternity for grooming Wadekar, for contributing to Gavaskar's skills, he was also the coach of the Ranji cricket team, when Vengsarkar captained it and Sachin made his debut.
You could find us both eating our meals with either a book or a newspaper in our left hands, a habit I was told by many, was obnoxious, but which added spice to my meals. I still read when I have my lunch at work. It's a very special time for me. Disciplined to a fault about his exercise regimen, in the last few months, he was confined to his bed, having given up on life. The man who walked from Matunga to Kurla every day for years could not move at all. It was as devastating for him to accept his immobility as it was for me to watch him waste away. He stopped reading the newspaper, recognised me now and then, and sometimes his face broke into a smile when I visited him. His eyes would often fill up; I'm not sure it was because of the pain in his legs (he'd developed athlete's veins); I think it was the pain of being dependent and incontinent. It was because of the loss of freedom, the inability to call the shots, the incapacitation, the fear of turning into a vegetable. Diabetes, a surgery to repair a fractured pelvic bone, and a pacemaker--his body accepted it all, at first with reluctance, then resignation and then with indignation.  Somewhere along the way, I guess he decided that he wanted no more of this life.
I knew he would go; I knew he was in pain, yet I didn't want him to die. I wanted him to recover. When he breathed his last, I was away, at my own home. I rushed to his house, hugged him and wept but there was just no response. He was very very still and his face was surprisingly calm and serene, Buddhalike, as if he was glad to be rid of his pain. If that was so, I'm happy for him. But, what do I do about the pain in my heart? I feel orphaned. Without warning my eyes mist over and I long to see him once again. It feels like yesterday that he took me for a pony ride to Five Gardens and bought me a packet of peanuts or a large slab of chocolate. I won't be helping him scrape and grease his bats and put them against the wall to dry any more or watch him make an egg omelette for himself or share a piece of cheese with him. He held my hand and taught me to walk, he encouraged me to write as I sat by him when he wrote his sports column under the byline Hooker for Free Press Journal. He displayed my prizes and trophies in the living room very proudly. It made me want to top the class always. Today, if I try to be regular with my morning walks, it's because I've seen him do it religiously for years and know how important fitness is. If I write, it's because I've imbibed the pleasure of doing so early in my life from him. If I'm disciplined,he takes all the credit for it. Cricketers called him Joe. I called him Dadu. I was Archu to him. He's gone. I remain. And the memories too, beautiful and permanent to be relived. Don't mind my tears. They will flow, like my love for him. Rest in peace Dadu. Farewell!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Where I sit every morning

This green wooden bench is my oasis. After walking briskly for a good 50 minutes, this is the lap I seek. The lush green grass soothes my eyes. The bench gives me all the solitude I need. I sit there quietly for just about 10 minutes and feel refreshed and rejuvenated. It's here that I count my blessings, say my prayers and express my gratitude. It's my peace zone.  

The hill outside my window

I am tall
Outside my window, the hill stands guard

Hasn’t moved, winced or coughed even once

It never averts its gaze; I am pinned

Under a microscope, studied quietly.

I know it watches me every morning

Waits for me to slide the window pane

Compelled as I am to pay my obeisance

To look into its eyes, for a flicker of its eyelids

Or a twitching brow or at best a smile,

Maybe a nod of approval, even a frown…

I intrude into its space, inveterate trespasser,

My vision covers the distance in a jiffy.

Its body is taken; trees abound

The sky closes in; birds hover above

The breeze whooshes, the sun peeps out cheekily.

Everyday visitors staking their territorial claim

It’s undisturbed by the invasion,

Stoic, silent, still, strong…

A wizened rishi in deep samadhi,

Clad in old earthy, welcoming robes.

It emboldens me to advance unquestioned

To rob it of its calmness, to pilfer its peace

To steal its solitude, to make it mine.

As I close my eyes and breathe deeply,

I rise slowly to a full new height

I am tall, quiet and composed.

I know I can take on the world.

I am the hill…

- Archana Pai Kulkarni

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I really look forward to my morning walks. But today, the early morning sun was merciless and the walk laborious. With sweat pouring down my body, I wanted to just give up and sit quietly on a cool green bench that was braving the heat under a shady tree. But, I persisted. Like so many others who had committed themselves to attaining a certain level of fitness. As I huffed and puffed and pushed myself, I saw this burst of colour. Cool, beautiful, spirited. It made my day. I have been smiling ever since.

What I abandoned

It's been a rather long sabbatical considering that I now have the luxury of house help and some breathing space. My hands don't look like a scourer any more, I can actually see signs of my nails growing, there is more than the pungent aroma of garlic and onions in my nose (I can feel and smell fresh, unpolluted air) and the cacophony of clanging utensils doesn't reside in my mind any more. Oh, but there's always something else to do: the books to read, the songs to listen to, the calls to make, the pending long chats with friends and the bills to pay. A friend and well-wisher gave me some sound advice the other day. She said, "If you want to be a serious blogger, you have to be at it every single day, without fail." Of course, like any other novice, I nodded my head vigorously, took a deep breath and resolved that no blog of mine would be left stranded without a post—never mind, if I am going to be the only one to read it for some time now. No, it's no state secret; it's just that I haven't yet gone to town about my new-found interest and the very few who know about it think that they shouldn't be taking me too seriously. Not that I have abandoned too many projects before but I distinctly remember one of the woolly type that I did. With great enthusiasm, I had embarked on a knitting exercise—with knitted brows too, for good measure. I was to knit a sweater for my little cousin. The wool and the needles were bought and some design books too. Only the best would do for my beloved one. I chose a fairly simple but wonderful design and with the speed of a seasoned seamstress (I don't know what a woman who knits is called....knitpicker?), I knitted the border. I was at it for an hour every day of the week, diligently, patiently. Somewhere along the way, I realised that though I loved the way the finished product would look, getting there was giving me these blinding headaches and my eyes some unnecessary stress and I didn't exactly find the exercise rewarding or rejuvenating.  I had been forewarned that after some time what looks like a highly creative endeavour is actually a mechanical, taxing exercise. This came from quitters and though I kept up the pretence of enjoying myself, I had to admit that there was a lot of truth in their observations. And, I didn't want to look or feel like a quitter myself. So, I took these long breaks—some as ridiculously long as six months and then resumed knitting again, often not knowing how to proceed. By the time I came halfway close to creating something that looked remotely like a piece of warm clothing, my cousin had grown four years older. Where, earlier, she would come close to me and ask me happily, "Are you making this sweater for me?" and beam even more when I would nod my head, she now looked at me with definite disinterest, some pity and maybe some scorn too. One day, as I held the piece in front of my eyes to survey my creative work, I was forced to acknowledge that it looked like a misshapen piece of something-that-could-not-be-named. It found its way quietly into the dustbin. The other time I had abandoned work was when I had tried to knead dough to make chapattis. I took a large plate, added some flour, poured water, kneaded some, added more flour, poured more water, kneaded some more. Either the flour got flooded or it felt too hard. The whole exercise went on till the dough assumed the size of a huge ball used by tall, sinewy basketball players. If my aunt, at whose place I was conducting this culinary excess hadn't stopped me in time, I would probably have made it to the record books for kneading the largest piece of dough on earth. I couldn't dodge this ball and the waste basket didn't have the provision to accept such monstrosities of the inedible kind. The gigantic blob frightened me and the prospect of rolling out 500 chapattis made me quake so much that I started howling loudly as if someone had abused me. My tears didn't melt my aunt's heart or soften the murderous look in her eyes, but she spared me after rolling out 10 shapeless, size 18, chapattis. I didn't even wait to see what she did with the rest of the dough.
I haven't messed up my blog yet and have no intention of doing so. This makes me hope that I will be here to talk, to share, to dare, to care day after day. And I am also wiser. These days, I buy readymade sweaters if I have to gift them. My house help makes the chapattis for the family though I can knead some really soft dough. But, I know that there are some things I won't and can't delegate. Like blogging. I'll stay here for sure.
PS. I had once abandoned Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Am planning to start reading it again once I finish with  The Help and The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and some more books. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Maid arrives!!!!

Yesterday, life changed suddenly. I would love to say 'for the better' but I am wary of throwing a party so soon. Let me wait and watch and be sure. Guess what? At around 10.30 am last morning, a woman dressed in a yellow sari and matching blouse rang the doorbell. The watchman who guards the lobby during the day had sent her because he knew that I was in trouble and needed help around the house and felt sorry for me. News had travelled to him through the society grapevine. Honestly, I've never liked the watchman. He doesn't look like he is man enough to keep a watch on trespassers or grab a thief by his throat. He comes across as someone, who'll look disinterestedly at a stranger sauntering into the building, let him explore the premises and do his job without any opposition or questioning whatsoever. The guy has apathy written all over his face. But, for some unknown reason, the residents of the building are under the needle of his suspicion. At least that's what he conveys when he looks at us from under his forever knitted bushy eyebrows. You smile at him and he goes hrrrrmmmph. It can be unnerving, disturbing and infuriating. It's as if he sits in his chair the whole day, because he's been dumped there by someone, a sagging sack, with drooping shoulders, bent back and lazy limbs. And the guy actually felt sorry for me, the stone-hearted Sad Sack, who looks like he's incapable of generating any emotions, the way he wears his face, taut and unmoving. The ogre turned out to be an angel in disguise. Never had my judgment about people gone so wrong. But, what I learnt later sort of diminished my new-found liking for the man. I got to know that he gets a huge cut out of the whole exercise. How naive I was! But then, the fact is, he found a maid for me. Went to the end of the earth to get her, he told me. I think I heard him speak for the first time that morning. I did say that he is a grump who doesn't move a muscle, certainly not a facial one. And the maid did not come with an instinct to scratch. There's no way she'll get even the seven-year itch, as she's been married for 10 long years and is divorced now.
My mom scrutinised her neck carefully to check whether she had a rash and found none. But, this time, I'd beaten my mom to it as I'd done a quick check on that at the door itself. My mom also puckered up her nose to detect body odour but gave up. She made her pass through everything but the ink blot test and smiled approvingly. For the first time in days, she looked genuinely happy. Oh, I would have rolled out the red carpet for the maid but because of the super quick exits done by those of her ilk earlier, I decided to keep the grand welcome and celebrations on hold. No, I'm not a pessimist. It's just that my experience has trained me to be cautious. In the case of my earlier house help, well begun was half done. The proverb has to be applied to them differently. Oh, they begin really well and then flee, leaving more than half of the things undone.
Today, I found the time to blog only because she washed the utensils and swept and swabbed for me. I guess that's a fairly optimistic beginning. Hope is a poor drudge's friend.
By the way, my house help goes by the name Mamta, meaning love. I hope she lives up to her name and falls in love with my mom. Considering that my mom was asking me to help her so that she doesn't feel burdened and leave is, I hope, an indication of the time to come. She hasn't spotted her scratching even once, she hasn't nagged her at all and she actually addressed her as 'my child', a demonstration of endearment that even I wasn't subjected to, not once during my drudge days. This is nothing short of a miracle! Now, what does this one have that the others didn't? Actually, she doesn't have it--the ex-factor. I think she's here to stay. Shall we drink some chilled, minty vegetable juice to that?
I am suspicious of the watchman but can't help but feel grateful to him. I smiled at him the other day and thanked him profusely. And, he actually looked at me through his bushy eyebrows and beamed. Maybe I was wrong, Maybe he has a heart. Maybe it's not the sweat money he got. Maybe, he really felt sorry for me. Maybe.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The maid saga continues

I know I've been whining about the maid for a really long time. But you would too, if in the middle of some seriously challenging moment at work, you were compelled to count the number of spoons in your house. I've never done that kind of exercise before. Taking stock of the cutlery in my home from my workplace, which is a good hour-and-a-half drive away and that too when the pressure of meeting deadlines did not exactly leave room for this kind of mental calisthenics. But, this bit of unscheduled activity was not optional. It never is when I receive an order from the high command at home—my mother. A frantic call from her is always an emergency. This time, she complained of her blood pressure shooting up because one spoon had gone missing from its safe resting place inside the cutlery drawer. And let me tell you, she never misses to take stock of them at the end of every day. She was a banker; so everything has to tally. But, to fuss and hiss over a tiny little spoon was carrying things a bit too far. But, I know my mom. I also know what rising blood pressure can do to her and to me and to the temperature at home. So, I told her that not only would I check my bag, but that I would call up every soul who's ever eaten at our home with a spoon (and lived to tell the tale) to ensure that the goddamn missing spoon would find its way back home unharmed. It was wiser to count the spoons than count sheep at night because if that solitary spoon wasn't found, I was sure to lose a lot of sleep over it. At the end of a 25-minute intensive search, the spoon was located and my mom's blood pressure returned to normal. I will not tell you what happened to my boss' heart beats because of the unforeseen and highly embarrassing delay caused at work. At the end of the day, I was still counting—sheep and cows and buffaloes and herds of elephants and deer. Why? Because the maid, who was subjected to some hard-core interrogation, regarding the wayward spoon, by my mother decided to quit. She told me that she had never felt so like a criminal. This is the same maid who had declared on day one, in pure Bollywood blockbuster style, "Tum bhi majboor ho, main bhi majboor hoon." And she had thrown her head back, I suspect, a little mockingly. What an equaliser that statement was! If I had any illusions about being the employer and in a position to dictate terms, she'd shattered them with that one dialogue. Clearly, she was doing me a favour by agreeing to work for me, was going to get paid an obscene amount of money  for it and was also going to give me some gyan in return. Oh, I wanted to tell her off, and not look too happy that she was condescending to make my burden lighter. But, my nails hadn't grown for a whole two months with all the scrubbing, sweeping, washing that I had done. My hands felt like a metal scourer and my dreams had invariably begun to have a backdrop of the kitchen, the cooking platform and the sink. To think I endured all this ignominy and bullying only to be felled by a spoon! I told the lady that I was sorry if she was hurt but that she may have misunderstood my mom. But, she was clearly humiliated. Looking directly in my eyes, she hissed in Bollywood proud-destitute style, "Main majboor hoon, par chor nahin." I was touched to the quick and actually answered her back. Dialogue for dialogue. I'd to show her and convince myself too that I was still boss in my house: "Main bhi majboor hoon, par laachar nahin. Main kaam kar loongi." Even as I said it , I knew that I was erasing whatever little hope there was that she'd change her mind. And that I would get my hands back. I hoped my eyes would show the same fire as hers and my words the same sting. Deep inside my stomach, I felt a ball of fear rise. I tried to calm myself down, gave myself some pep talk. "Hey, you'll lose some weight," etc. The prospect of shedding excess baggage always excites me, but I didn't want to lose any by being a drudge again. So, the maid left, but not before telling me that she had dozens of spoons in her house and that she didn't need to rob one. Half an hour after she departed, I saw my mother emerge from the kitchen, ashen-faced and ridden with anxiety. "A ladle has gone missing." she said. Then she wagged her forefinger at me and continued triumphantly, "I'd told you so." This time, I decided not to join the search. As the once-again, new, full-time maid, I prefer to use my energy for bigger things!
Also, I eat with my fingers, these days.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


That's how I sound when I open my mouth and try to talk. I form the words clearly, stress on the syllables, get the intonation right and deliver the sentence with a flourish. But, all the effort is wasted as I sound like a sick frog with a broken croak. The cough's back! And this time, I've discovered the source of my by now almost chronic ailment. The maid! Rather, my absconding maids. Now, before you get any wicked ideas about how I lost my voice, let me clarify that I DID NOT scream at the maid. Do you think I would have the audacity? With tons of vessels piling up in the kitchen sink day after day, with loads of smelly, sweaty clothes to wash and large meals to cook for an ever-hungry family, I wouldn't dare. Even when my mother complained bitterly that the maid was scratching herself all day and that she was probably not washing her hands before kneading the dough for the rotis (gross, isn't it?), I shushed her. I attributed it to her over-active imagination and her allergy to live-in maids (I was trying that arrangement out for the first time). Even when the watery daal in my bowl looked suspiciously like the broth a wicked witch would cook with frogs and salamanders to poison her victims, I convinced everyone that she was merely being thrifty. That the astronomical price of daal had compelled her to make the runny concoction and that she was being kind to our pockets. That it burnt my throat as I tried to push it down with a forced smile on my face and is probably one of the reasons for my damaged vocal cords is another matter altogether. The point is that even when I wanted to throttle her or use the choicest cuss words to chastise her, I kept mum. Such is maidpower. It makes you a dumb doll. It makes you a blind bat. It makes you a deaf doormat. All because you want to be spared the mundane and pursue the creative. Well, the maid left. The next one left too and the one after that.....If ever there was an unbroken chain reaction, this was it. Like I said, I didn't say a word to the maids. My mother did. Now, now, before you pass any judgment on her, let me remind you that all mothers are like that only. Mine is no exception. She sees what I don't see, hears what I don't hear, smells what I don't smell, and speaks when I keep mum. I know now that she can't stand maids who scratch, cough, spit, sleep or get a headache and they all do exactly that. She then suspects that all of them have a dreaded disease and that they have broken into our house with the sole intention of passing it on to us. I challenge you to challenge her. It's a no-winner. She said all that should have been left unsaid (to the maids) and that has left me speechless. I cough, I scratch too (the Mumbai sun has made me break out into prickly heat). I don't spit. I sweat but use a deodorant. And I make yummy daal. So, it was decided (by my mother, of course) that I would make a great replacement, quite forgetting that I am the original who needed a replacement in the first place. At that point, I barked at all and sundry. I showed them that I could be a b*t*h. I think it's then that my throat protested and I coughed like I've never coughed before. My coughs are full of venom, anger, the helplessness of the downtrodden, the hope of a victim. And now, my voice has gone dead. I guess, all that venting has taken its toll. So, now, I am the silent sufferer from Bollywod films. Fancying myself as one helps me a bit as I go about doing my endless chores, feeling like a victim. Like the Bollywood film heroine, I hope for the day I'll be rescued from the drudgery by a shining maid in armour, who'll sweep me off my tired feet, plonk me in a recliner with a book in hand and endless cups of steaming hot tea. Till then, I'll shed a few quiet tears (I can't sing those doleful songs), write when I can, and keep praying for help that'll come without an instinct to scratch. I've done a net search on anti-itch powders and ointments. Just in case. Well, I can't be here too long. There's the floor to sweep, the dust on the furniture to wipe,'s a loooooooong list. Have to go. Cough...Crrroaaak....

Friday, March 12, 2010

Coughing up

I now understand why the term 'coughed up' is used when police get convicts to confess. It's because the convict's confession is a tormenting, unwilling admission that must take a huge toll on his body, a violent, painful act. Coughs are like that. They make you double up, they give you cramps, they ensure that your rib cage reminds you all day that you are under a virus attack. Why am I going on and on about coughs? Why else? It's become a permanent resident in my body. It lives in my throat, travels up to my mouth and then down to my lungs and up again and down once more, up and down and up and down till I lose track of the direction in which it's attacked my system. It makes me teary at least 15 times a day, gasp for breath, double up helplessly, turn an angry red and feel insignificant, as it has managed to get the better of me again. Water doesn't silence it, cough syrups don't scare it, home remedies don't cure it and the doctor too stares at me helplessly, as if I invented it and am doing something sinister and secretive to hold on to it. Now, why in hell would I do that? One thing has changed though. Instead of tormenting me all through the night, it assails me throughout the day and...night. It's a challenge now! Whatever it takes for me to shut it up, I shall do it. Cough, cough, cough, cough........

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Good Scrub

A Good Scrub

I hang my life on a clothesline

Flag-marked with apparel.

Washed clean of my sins,

Assorted pieces, secured in place

With firm pegs.

Lest they fly away

Taking with them

Valuable shreds of evidence,

That I’ve indeed been chastised.

I’m averse to storing my sins

In the laundry basket

Because, in time, they give off

A vile odour, whose source

Can be traced back to me.

Make no mistake.

I wouldn’t deny having erred

Or broken the rules

Or crossed my boundaries.

But I dislike biased courtrooms,

Self-styled lawyers,

Poor judgments,

And naked spectacles.

So, at the end of each day

I take stock of my misdeeds

In complete seclusion,

Soak them in stinging detergent,

Dirty linen, in need of a good scrub,

And wring myself dry

Of hate, anger, jealousy, guilt,

Dust, grime, sweat, silt,

Life’s unwanted gifts.

Till purged, I wear a fresh face

And walk out into the world

Vulnerable to being sullied again.

- Archana Pai Kulkarni

A Fantasy

This poem was published in the January-March 1995 issue of the Indian P.E.N. when Prof. Nissim Ezekiel was its editor:


One day, this dhoti-clad chap

Borrowed somebody’s khadi cap,

Thought he was the only heir

To the country’s coveted chair.

He called a meeting of his boys,

Addressed them in an important voice.

Said, “It’s election time again;

So buck up all you saffron men.

Somehow we have to grab each vote,

Perhaps by shelling out a note.”

“But—protested one from the gang,

This idea will have to hang;

Because the leader from the opposition

Has already put forth that proposition.”

“Then, may be, we can feed them to their gills,

Distribute a few birth control pills?”

“No”, said another perky guy,

“That’ll make our finances dry.”

“What carrot do we dangle, then?

What can possibly lure those men?”

Said one, “Let’s pray to God the Great,

He’s been neglected too much of late.

Let’s pick this God, this good guy,

And build a temple for him, by and by.

Let’s take him back to his place of birth,

Let’s choose a suitable spot on earth.

Let’s destroy what comes our way.

This good God must have his day.”

“With God on our side,” he said with a chuckle,

The majority will have to buckle.

On a chariot, let’s spread the word,

Make sure it’s well heard.”

This God was watching a trifle amused.

He couldn’t help feeling used and abused.

He decided to spring a surprise

On this chap and his coloured guys.

Seething with anger, trembling with rage,

He shook hard this vote-seeking sage.

Said, “Who told you I need a home?

Which you plan to build by breaking a dome?

There certainly isn’t a dearth of space,

I happen to own this universe, this space.

So, before you use me as a pawn

In your game with tridents drawn,

I expect you to think twice.

Be ready to pay a heavy price.”

“I’ll leave you in the lurch,

Settle in a mosque or church.

To me, they are all the same

Call them by any name.

Fancy using good old me

For want of a better strategy!

Change your mind and mend your ways

If you want to see happier days.”

Shamed into silence, the politician cried

For the campaign that had just died.

He knew now what the score was.

He had to take up a genuine cause.

He was a sadder but wiser man,

And God had just won another fan.

- Archana Pai Kulkarni,

Women's Bill and rapist husbands

It's been a terrible weekend. The cough persists. The voice has undergone transformation. Have been having a tough time convincing callers that it's me and not my son and not a man on the line. I have lost my voice. For a woman used to voicing her opinion on every matter—significant and insignificant, this is a distressing development. As I write this, the parliament is debating over the Women's Bill. As a woman, I must exult but I am totally against reservations of any kind and I've seen enough of their misuse to know that they just don't work except to divide a fragmented society even further. This may sound cynical, pessimistic but given the dismal political scenario, I can't but think of how men will misuse this new weapon to field their wives, mothers, aunts, daughters and continue ruling the roost.
I was quite shocked to read the Chief Justic of India, K G Balakrishnan's statement that a rape victim's autonomy to marry her rapist or have his child should be respected. Just when women are rooting for more severe punishments for rapists, the CJ had to make an irresponsible, shocker of a statement. Are rape victims in the right frame of mind to take decisions? If the victim marries the one that perpetrated the crime against her, there will be no room left for justice. The crime will go unpunished, as the victim will be forced to withdraw the complaint, once she takes him for her husband. It will give a lot of opportunities to a lot of men to rape and then marry, to drop the wife, rape again and remarry once more. It's crazy how a wise gentleman sitting in a position of power, makes loose statements that can have a huge impact on those not given to rational thinking. Need to raise my voice against this. Croakkkk...When I find it.  

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The weekend that was

It hasn't really been a great weekend. I had thought I would make full use of the three-day vacation to read, write, read more and write more. All I managed to write was a long grocer's list, a very very long to-do list and another giant list of new resolutions. As for reading, I only managed to read the titles of the books by my bedside wistfully and reminding myself that I had a huge pile of books bought with every intention of reading but not opened, leave alone read. While the world was playing with vibrant colours, I was seeing red, because my house help had decided that she wanted to paint the town psychedelic and watch the colour drain away from my face. I did change colour though intermittently. I turned green with envy at intervals as I watched and heard people play Holi and become unrecognisable.
To add to it, I had and still have a nasty cough that decides to make its vexing presence felt, when I am in a meeting or talking on the phone. While my sides are aching from it, my throat is hurting and my head bursting, it continues to stay put. I feel exactly like Leela Chitnis, the ubiquitous mother in yesteryear Hindi films, who coughed her head off and died coughing. I hope to live on for some more time, and not die of something as unimportant and unromantic as a cough. Please, I don't want any suggestions for remedies. I have tried them all—spicy, sour, bitter—and in every form—liquid, solid, gaseous (yes, I've been inhaling boiled cabbage fumes, Karvol plus fumes and plain steam).
In fact, I also looked up Louise Hay's book which says that we cough because we've bottled up something we want to say to someone. The last few days, I have said all that should have been said and a lot that should have remained unsaid to a lot of unsuspecting people and earned many enemies in the bargain. What I could not say to their faces, I have spoken into a special pit dug for this very purpose and buried it all in the ground. I've coughed up all of it. It's been like a marathon confessional. All in the hope of stilling the cough. But it's stubborn. Like me. I'm hoping someone will call me up and remind me that I've forgotten to say something to them, and I will gladly speak my mind. Anything to get rid of the thorny feeling in my throat.
So, while everyone's back at work, with some remnant colour on their face, all raring to go, I'm sitting at my desk with a tissue, some warm water and lozenges bracing myself for the attack, hoping that my colleagues won't hate me for breaking the silence with my incessant coughing and worse, do something sinister to silence me.
The only silver lining is that I've managed to write, so what if it's about a #@+$#@#&***#@ cough? For a change, I'm not coughing. I'm smiling :).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Busy At Work

It's almost the end of a work day—there's still an hour to go. We just closed the March issue of New Woman. This time, the closing dragged a bit. Otherwise, it's always insane! Pages come and go, your eyes scan them, read but sometimes don't see anything; you spot some errors at the last minute, want a few changes, argue with your art director and then make peace. You blink a hundred times to clear the fog born out of reading fatigue to check the folio lines. You see your colleagues drinking endless cups of coffee, decide against emulating them but settle for tea.
The best part of closing is the food. Every evening, hunger pangs gnaw at your tummy and then there is a huge debate on what to order to keep the mouth occupied agreeably and to silence the rumblings within. This time, it was bhelpuri and sevpuri from the roadside stall and Subway sandwiches. The roadside food does test our digestive system and there is always some doubt about who'll be laid up in bed the next day with a tummy upset but the taste makes up for it all. Playing safe all the time can be so boring. As the forms are sent to press, there's the excitement of having created a whole interesting issue. Then there is a lull. Some ads have still to be confirmed. We wait and we wait. We tell each other how time has stopped still. We tweet and we blog. We talk a little about the next issue, give up and do our own thing, intermittently asking our ad department how long it's going to take.
Of course, most of the time they have no idea. They assure us that the forms will be cleared by the afternoon. Then, they promise that it will be done by the evening. It shifts to the next day. We know that's how it will be. Yet we ask. We pretend that we believe them. They pretend to give us real deadlines. Month after month. The forms go when they have to. Never before or after.
When they do, there is a huge collective sigh. The issue has been packed! Everyone who's held their eyelids open  with great effort can now allow them to droop. You can sense the fatigue now. It's kindness time. Time to allow the mind to lie fallow. Time to think of nothing, write nothing, say nothing. Time to refurbish the energies for another creative burst for the next issue. The lull dies. Tomorrow, the brainstorming begins. Over coffee and tea and some eats from the canteen. Nothing that's a gourmet's delight. But it will have to do. It does add a bit of spice to the editorial meet.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Making Choices

It starts right in the morning. To get up or catch a few more minutes of those much-needed winks. I tell you, springing out of bed without succumbing to the just-five-minutes-more temptation makes all the difference. It means that I might just manage my 50-minute morning walk and probably spot the elusive Bharadwaj or hear a birdsong. It means I don't have to rush through my fruity breakfast and gulp it down without being able to identify the fruit. It means I can actually have some decent conversation with my sleepy kids and not just bark a "Get up lazy lumps" or some such irritant in their direction. It could mean a 10-minute read in the washroom on the pot. It means I can take over from my angel-helper who cooks like the devil and actually prepare an edible meal and eat it without turning up my nose at work. It means being able to travel without encountering as many traffic snarls as are mandatory, when one is late. Today, the choice I have to make is between "My Name is Khan" (yes, I haven't watched it yet and it's got nothing to do with the infamous threats) and "My Name is Red". This evening, I'll see red. The movie will have to wait for the weekend. But then, during the weekend there will be another contender to the movie—"Karthik Calling Karthik". No despot has threatened to stall its release—yet! Actually, I'm not sure I'll have Pamuk for company today. The British Council ebrary just sent me "The Personal History of Rachel DuPree" by Ann Weisgarber. Of course, I asked for it but didn't call for this stalemate. I'll toss.