Posted in Cultures, poems, Uncategorized

“Bhoot”-kal

Dear Papa,
Yesterday I saw something that I didn’t understand.
They were walking a little ahead of me.
But walking isn’t the right word,
because there were two people
and only two feet.
It sounds like a math problem,
But nothing added up in my head.
It sounds like Vikram Vetal, papa,
But unlike the story you told me the other day,
there was no strong king or sly demon.
I saw, however, one dirty underfed boy of eight
dragging his crippled mother across the street.
Adhunik Shravan bal.
A Lilliputian on a Herculean task.
I couldn’t decipher her age.
When you’re that poor, does age matter?
Do they keep count of the days that pass by
when their aim is to survive just one?
Do they have a mirror to look into
and count the wrinkles on their face?
What does age matter to an eight year old boy
who, instead of attending school,
is hauling his handicapped mother across the road
on a seating board with wheels?
When I was that age, papa,
you bought me a skateboard
that was the exact leaf green
from my 50 colours oil pastels set.
I couldn’t see the colour of their clothes.
There was the dark of the night,
yellow of the street lights
and everything was in sepia
like the picture you showed me
of your childhood.
You once told me you were raised in poverty too, papa.
Are there different kinds of poverty?
Did you get toys to play with
or were your clothes in sepia too?
I told you this sounds like a math problem, papa,
And here’s what doesn’t add up.
Isn’t a parent supposed to hold their child’s hand
and show them how to cross the road?
I remember holding your hand,
looking left-right-left
and matching my steps
with your strides.
Fast, but never run.
Who taught him, papa?
Did he have his own papa to teach him?
How did he learn to walk fast enough
and pull hard enough
so that he and his mom made it across the road in time?
How did he find the strength if he was underfed?
He truly reminds me of Shravan bal,
because who else would carry his mother
across such distances.
I told you it sounds like Vikram Vetal, papa,
and now that I think about it, it really does.
Maybe this little boy is a young king.
Maybe he brings his vetal back home every day.
Maybe he hears her talk about her day.
And maybe, papa,
when he succeeds every night,
she saves him from an evil tantric.
An evil tantric called hunger.

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Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories, Uncategorized

Praying to Stone

My dad convinced some of the locals to take us for a trek to Kolkewadi Killa. Mom, dad and I packed egg bhurji and rotis and started off around 6 in the morning. We trekked for about four hours, and reached the caves we were headed to. There were a total of seven caves. One was underground, the mouth of one was about to be closed due to stone and soil filling it, and one was full of bats. There were some more, but the last one we went to had a clean water tank. We set up camp there, took out our rotis and egg bhurji, and sat to eat.  There were some random stones lying about, all carved and sculpted into some vague human shapes. Dad is experienced about stuff like this. After standing there and studying them, he said that they were at least a thousand years old. When they had been newly made, they had probably been exquisite, beautiful and perfect to the very last detail. Or they could’ve totally been just vague shapes. The locals who were accompanying us claimed that they were idols, and this was a sort of a temple. Some empty packets of incense were also lying about; proof that some people had prayed to those idols before. Papa indicated for me to come and see myself; I was itching to the exactly that. I walked over and peered at the stone slabs. Something seemed wrong, the way the idols were depicted, the postures, the positions. A nagging suspicion started forming at the back of my mind so I looked up at papa, mentally trying to frame what I knew might be true.

He caught my eye and said, ‘Yeah, I think its S-E-X’. He spelled it out so that the locals wouldn’t go through an uninvited culture shock. But my suspicion was confirmed, and I burst out laughing. Papa joined in, and so did mom. The whole day I was amused with the thought that people even today prayed there to sex like it was some god – burning incense, bowing their heads, giving salutations and considering it holy.

Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories

A Period.

I had just come back from the market Alore, and was looking for mom to see if the vegetables I had bought were edible. I found her sitting in the neighbour’s (also Shinde’s and my extended family) kitchen and chatting up with my two aunts. As I walked in, she updated me- ‘They’re going to Ram Vardayini and Terav temples, do you want to go as well?’ While I took a few moments to contemplate whether I actually wanted to go, one of my aunts interjected, ‘She can sit outside the temple, if there’s a problem. If they say anything, there must be a garden or something where she can sit.’

I was stumped by this, and had no clue what she was talking about or why I had to sit outside. It took me a long pause, and super-fast thinking to realize that her comment was based on the fact that I had my period. Something, which, by the way, women tend to share a lot even if it’s not their period they’re talking about. It just happens to come up in conversations. For those who still have no clue what this is all about – women who have their monthly blood are not allowed to enter temples because they are considered to be ‘impure’ for that duration.

It was a little awkward and slightly offensive for me, because that is one superstition I would not (could not) believe in was the ‘impurity’ of a woman based on her menstrual cycle. However, I just laughed and said, ‘Aho, we won’t tell them! It’s not like they check, right?’ Everyone laughed, changed the topic and that was that.

Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories

Gulab Rao’s Lands

Today was cloudy. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, but was more inclined towards hiding than seeking. Gulab Rao was also similarly inclined. He sat on the khat under the shed. The four sturdy wooden pillars of the shed had been hammered into the red fertile soil. The roof had been thatched with layers of dried up leaves stitched together. Not a ray of sunlight – even when the sun did peep – penetrated the thatching. Gulab Rao had taken off his shirt and hung it on the little stem that stuck out from the pillar. There was an enormous aluminium kalshi nearby that was overflowing. Gulab Rao had dipped his towel into it and used the wet towel to keep his head cool. Literally as well as figuratively. He had already fainted twice before. Now he had been instructed to stay here and entrust Vikas with the task at hand.

A little boy appeared out of the red stone house behind Gulab Rao. He carried a glass of water for the old man. The boy’s tattered shorts threatened to tear off his frail body as a strong gust of wind engulfed the hill top. There were certain benefits of being positioned on the hill top. One, there was a comfortable khat, thatched shed and abundant water. Two, the monumentous Sahyadris sheltered them from the heat. Three, an occasional breeze or gust of wind passed through. Four, Gulab Rao had an eagle’s view of all the lower land being surveyed along with the people surveying it. Five, to access the higher mountainside lands, they would have to pass Gulab Rao on their way up. This meant, he was always up-to-date with the going-ons.

Gulab Rao rubbed the dirt and sleep from his eyes. After scratching his belly and adjusting his seat, he was now ready to monitor the ant-like people going about their business in the fields below. There was no real structure to those fields. Surveyor sahab’s map ls showed perfect rectangles and triangles, but real fields aren’t shaped that way! Fields in Maharashtra had been traditionally divided by placing gigantic boulders on every land limit, and joining them with a stone bund. Some plots were divided by growing specific long-lasting trees. In the midst of this, the white spots scurried about with tall red flags. The surveyor sahab’s yellow plain table was positioned in the centre of it all. Raju Shinde’s young daughter was holding an umbrella over the surveyor sahab and his plain table. Dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt and bright red cap, the girl looked like a flag herself. Surveyor sahab could just make her stand at the different ‘fixed points’ of the land. Gulab Rao was wondering why the girl had come today. He had thought she would be tired after yesterday. Besides, she didn’t really have any business here – not in the fields, not in the survey. But here she was, holding maps, carrying the umbrella and offering water to everyone.

Gulab Rao’s thoughts were cut short as the wind carried snippets of a heated argument up to the hill top:
‘This is wrong…’
‘We know our lands…’
‘What do you mean one more landowner?’
‘You’ve made a mistake…’
Gulab Rao got up. He wore his shirt and slippers, and made his way towards the source of this disturbance.

Earlier this morning, surveyor sahab had decided that Raju’s mountainside land was to shift about 20 metres into Gulab Rao’s current area. A heat wave passed through Gulab Rao’s body even thinking about it. He paused a moment to steady himself. The amount of area that each of them had would remain the same but Gulab Rao didn’t want even an inch of his current land limits to shift. 20 metres! That was the first time Gulab Rao had felt faint today. All his rice fields would go into Raju’s possession if the limits shifted by 20 whole metres!

By the time Gulab Rao reached the group, the men were drinking tea and the argument seemed either settled or paused. Gulab Rao accepted a cup of the sweet liquid – not his preferred choice of drink – and sat in the shade. The silence reigned as everyone was engaged in drinking tea. Surveyor sahab was busy at his plain table. As soon as the tea cups were collected back, the silence was broken. Amidst all the clamouring, Gulab Rao gathered that everyone thought surveyor sahab had made some miscalculations, thus leading to recalculations.
Surveyor sahab moved away from his plain table with the big map and a pencil in hand. Everyone fell silent. Surveyor sahab asked one of the helpers to pour white paint on a rock. Breaths were being held. Surveyor sahab walked right across to the other side. White paint was poured. Sahab declared these to be the new limits. Screams, shouts, insults, insinuations – the Sahyadris were rattled by the uproar a group of four to five men made. Only two people didn’t make didn’t make a single sound – Gulab Rao and Raju Shinde. Gulab Rao’s mind was racing. These new boundaries, if declared final, would mean that four whole plots of land that belonged to Raju would become his. The entire plot that Raju was setting apart for building a house would become Gulab Rao’s. Gulab Rao’s heart fluttered dangerously. He got up hastily. The world blacked out and came back to him in circles. Gulab Rao suddenly felt someone hold him up. His eyes focused on Raju Shinde supporting him. Gulab pushed him away and sat down. Everyone was surrounding Gulab Rao. Raju took this opportunity to go talk to surveyor sahab uninterruptedly. The girl went and whispered something in sahab’s ear. Gulab Rao tried to say something but the air had been knocked out of his chest. Surveyor sahab was back at his plain table. He took the helper boy and poured white paint onto a few more rocks. This was the limit now, he said. His previous calculations had been made with the wrong ‘fixed point’. So close! Gulab Rao had been so close to gaining possession of four whole plots of Raju’s land! They had been snatched away from him! That Raju Shinde, what had he spoken to surveyor sahab when everyone had been distracted? Gulab Rao’s feeble protests of ‘that was the true limit, not this’ went unheard. Damn Raju, he was taking away Gulab’s land.

Gulab Rao wasn’t really talking to anyone. Vikas, in his stead, signed the documents stating that the new limits had been accepted by all the shareholders and neighbours of Raju’s land. Gulab Rao was ushered into Raju’s big car at the end of the day. Gulab Rao was to be taken to Alore to check his blood pressure at the hospital. Gulab Rao sat there without any protests. He was a whirlpool of emotions – anger, guilt and anticipation. Upon reaching Alore, Gulab Rao stayed in the car, unsure of what to say. Rane, Raju Shinde’s friend, turned from the front seat and held out another fifty rupee note to Gulab Rao. Just like yesterday. Accepting the money, Gulab Rao alighted from the car and made his way to bar. There was no better medicine for his blood pressure.

Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories

Gulab Rao waits

Gulab Rao didn’t mind. He sat on the cement bench right next to the narrow road. Let them take as much time as they wanted.
The tree that provided shade to both, Gulab Rao and his cement bench, swayed as a rare summer breeze raced down the length of the village.

Gulab Rao freed the end of his banyan which had been tucked into the elastic band of his old black trackpants. He lifted his vest above his bulging belly, moved his hands backwards to flick the vest on his back skywards and stretched his hands above his head. His stomach, back and armpits could now all partake the cool air of the breeze. If he hadn’t made these adjustments, Gulab Rao would still have been well-ventilated. The number of holes in his vest were only challenged by the number of holes in his trackpants.

The breeze stopped abruptly. Damn this heat! Gulab Rao remembered when the summers weren’t as hot as they were now and the temperatures didn’t rise higher than 30°C. Of course, that was before the tar roads, cement houses and motorcycles. Back then, mud and cow dung kept the walls cold and the temperatures down. Gulab Rao turned in his seat to look over to the one house in their wadi that was still made of mud and cow dung – Kishore Rao’s house. Poor people. All the people in their wadi had built new pakka houses made of brick and cement but poor Kishore Rao couldn’t afford to build one. His wife still layered the walls of their Kaccha house with cow dung.

Gulab Rao’s laugh gurgled out of his throat, got blocked by his buck teeth and escaped in little whistles through the 5 rupee gap between his two front teeth. He let his frayed blue-and-white rubber slippers drop from his feet to plop on the road and swung his feet carelessly. He smiled contentedly. Gulab Rao’s house had been the first in the village to become pakka. He had had a streak of excellent produce from his mango orchards. To top that off, he had found a customer from Mumbai who visited Kolkewadi every year. After the first time he bought a 100 mangoes from Gulab Rao, the rich man became a permanent customer. The rich man made Gulab Rao rich, and with that money he built his pakka house. But that was over 30 years ago.

Now another rich man was in Kolkewadi, but he hadn’t come to make Gulab Rao rich. He had come to steal from Gulab Rao. In all his life, no such thing had ever happened. A bead of sweat had formed on his brow. He wiped it with the back of his hand and flung it away. The water sizzled and evaporated the second it touched the road.

For over a 100 years, this land had been theirs. It had been passed on generation to generation, firstborn to firstborn. Now this Rajesh had bought the neighboring land and was getting it measured. Why Raju felt the need to get it measured, Gulab Rao would never understand. He only had to come ask, and Gulab Rao would tell him the exact boundaries of the entire land around them. Not even Gulab Rao’s younger brother Vikas could question his authority. Gulab Rao owned most of the land around Kolkewadi and had lived here all his life. Now this Raju had to come into the picture out of nowhere and start getting the government involved. What was the need, asked Gulab Rao.

About half a month back an official notice reached the house. It said that the land was going to be surveyed for three days of May and all the neighbours of Raju’s land should be present on those days. This morning, Raju brought the surveyor sahab in his car. In his big car with AC and a lady that spoke directions. The surveyor sahab walked around the land, asked all the land limits of each neighbour, then set the plain table and started taking measurements. The land that had been measured this morning wasn’t adjoining Gulab Rao’s. That would be tomorrow, and tomorrow Gulab Rao would definitely be present to make sure none of his land was given away to that Raju. So what if he was also a Shinde? While Gulab and his family had lived in Kolkewadi all their lives, Raju’s family had left for Mumbai when Raju was a little boy. And now suddenly, out of nowhere, Raju was back in Kolkewadi with his big car and hefty wallet changing things that hadn’t changed since Raju left for Mumbai all those years ago.

Naam liya shaitan hazir – Speak of the devil and the devil appears. Raju Shinde’s big car appeared on the road’s bend. Gulab Rao shifted in his seat – trying to fake nonchalance, but excited. Gulab Rao watched the car like a hawk as it passed by. It passed by! Gulab Rao’s excitement turned into dejection and dropped into his stomach. A few metres ahead, the car came to a halt. The little ball of dejection soared back from Gulab Rao’s stomach to his chest. The old man rose from his cement seat, slipped his slippers on, tucked his banyan back into his elastic belt and ambled towards the car. Bastards. Making an old man walk all this way. As he reached the car, a window slid down. Rane, Raju Shinde’s friend, held out a crisp fifty rupee note. Gulab Rao took the money from Rane and tucked it safely into his pocket. As the car caught speed and vanished from view, Gulab Rao took to the road as well. Eventually, he would reach Alore – the market place – where he would order his daily drink. But today, he would not have to pay for it from his own pocket.

It made the wait worth it.

Posted in Cultures, Uncategorized

My Skirt Celebrated My Womanhood

Women’s Day. Nice day, Women’s Day. The one day that everyone is supposed to believe in women and promote feminism (and for those of you hate that word I suggest a synonym – gender equality). The one day that everyone wants to celebrate womanhood.

When my professor asked me to take part in the women’s day celebration in college, I was curious. I was supposed to role play as Elizabeth Loftus and represent our Psychology department in the event. As amazing as Elizabeth Loftus is, I immediately agreed at the chance to even pretend to be her for a mere 5 minutes and tell non-Psychology janta about this remarkable woman. Background? She proved memory can be altered and false memories can be implanted in people because of which eyewitness testimony can be false. Saved billions of lives, she did. She’s still alive, by the way.

Anyway, I was to tell the audience a few of my experiments as if I were Loftus herself. My professor’s asked me to wear a skirt and shirt so I could portray the Western woman all the better in western wear. If you know me, I ride a bike to college (which I didn’t on this specific day, because skirt, duh) and am found in Jeans. I asked my professors if I would be allowed to enter in a skirt and they said I just had to tell the security that I was performing at the Women’s Day Program. Very well. After spending over an hour dressing (which I never do for any event) in a skirt of suitable length, I went to college in a knee length skirt, a high neck t-shirt and a full sleeve shirt to top it off. All despite the glorious heat that has made its early appearance this year.

The lectures proceeded as usual. During break time, we began to rehearse just a little bit when a troupe of (my college?) girls passed by. They looked at me like I was an alien life-form sprouting some sort of tentacles and proceeding to devour my classmates alive. I ignored them. My phone rang just then: ominous background music like the opening track to a day of horrors. My professor asked me to come down to the staff room. As my friend and I walked there I told her that I had a feeling that they would say that my skirt was in issue. And it was. Ta-da. Much surprise.

They asked me if I was carrying a spare skirt (longer one, of course) or pants that I could change into. Of course I did! I had this tiny string purse that I carried around my body which could be reached into the depths of and extracted fabrics from. I was Hermoine Granger. I was taken to the principal’s cabin so I could be granted permission to wear a skirt for the duration and purpose of celebrating Women’s Day. Before going down, I entered the washroom and pulled down (tried to) my skirt as low as possible so that my knees would be covered even when I sat down. To be very fair, my professor said I didn’t have to go out of my way to become uncomfortable in pulling the skirt down. I appreciated that. Anyway. We waited outside the principal’s cabin to seek audience with her as a peon passed me by. Please note, the skirt had been pulled down enough so as to cover my knees even as I was sitting down. And Mr Peon looked at my legs, looked at my face and looked at my legs again. But then, he didn’t really say anything offensive or cat call anything ashleel so I had no right to be offended. I stayed mum and didn’t create a scene.

As I entered the cabin, the principal looked at me like our parents look at a fridge’s exterior before buying it. My professor explained the circumstances, and the principal said, ‘Oh, that’s why she’s dressed like this’. As if I needed a reason to wear a skirt. She proceeded to say that I couldn’t wear a skirt because our college had strict rules and I was to wear pants. She even suggested I buy new pants. Well, that’s only logical I guess. It was my fault I wore a skirt to college for a Women’s Day event and it was only reasonable that I buy new jeans for a five-minute performance. We exited her office.

So angry was I that I stormed into my class, hiked up my skirt enough to show more skin than the bite your friend takes from your burger and sat on top of the table. I calmed down within 5 seconds (there has to be a 5 second rule about how fast a girl is supposed to gulp down her feelings, no?) and pulled my skirt back down to a modest level (which, according to my college, is at par with ankles).

My professors suggested that I head back home, change into the requested clothing and head back for the performance. There was still half an hour before the performance after all! I politely requested that someone else take up my role as they could read my dialogues out from a sheet I had prepared. But my professors thought I was an excellent orator and no one else could really take my place on the stage. One of them even offered to take me home on her scooty, wait till I change and then bring me back to college. I kept making excuses.

Excuse 1: My house is too far, it takes Rs 70 to Rs 80 one way and I wasn’t willing to spend Rs 200 on five minutes.

Excuse 2: It’s too hot to ride on a scooty back and forth for such a long distance.

Excuse 3: I’m too lazy to change clothes.

Excuse 4: I would prefer to go home only once and sit to study rather than shuttle back and forth.

Excuse 5: It wasn’t really fair what had happened.

But my friends and professors all requested me to take up my role because ‘I had taken so much effort for it’ and ‘I deserved it’. And a girl is supposed to give in to pressure, so I did. We found a classmate whose pants would fit me. I changed into them and went on to deliver my 5-minute performance about an intelligent woman. Once it was done, I changed back into my skirt and trudged down the stairs and out of the college all the while being either eyed head on or from the corner of people’s eyes (all genders and ages, so I guess that’s equality or something).

But it was a nice day over all. I got five roses for being a woman today.

Posted in Cultures, Short Stories

Candle Light

I opened the door. I had left the house to find relief downstairs from the oven that it had become. But the electricity still hadn’t returned. The faint light from the corridor that illuminated the house revealed tan leather shoes near the shoe closet. Not in it, but near it. Dad was home.
I shut the door, flipped a few switches just in case electricity had made a sudden appearance, and then trudged dejectedly towards the room. ‘There’s no electricity’, I declared, even though I was pretty sure Dad had figured that out since the last half an hour of lying on the bed in darkness. I sat on the bed next to Dad. ‘How am I supposed to study now?’ I asked. (I assume) he smiled and replied saying, ‘We have candles in the house’. I involuntarily let out a snort of contempt. In the pale glow seeping in through the windows thanks to the streetlights, I saw my dad half rise from the bed and turn towards me. ‘Why are you laughing? Seriously! There is nothing better than to study by the light of a candle. Do you know why?’ he asked. I nodded harder than Noddy, and said, ‘Yes, yes. Lamp, knowledge, light, enlightenment. Metaphors. I know all that.’ At this, my dad got up completely, sat up straight and leaned forward. ‘No’, he said.
‘A lamp or candle’s light lets out a single flame in a dark room. That single flame illuminates only the immediate area surrounding it, and not the entire room. If you study under candle light then the flame will only illuminate the book. Everything else will remain dark, and therefore there will be no distractions.’
I just stared at him as this sunk in. And I realized that this was the more traditional and probably the most effective way of ensuring ‘out of sight, out of mind’. No wonder we heard all these stories growing up of the generation before us who studied under candle light or ‘burned the midnight oil’ and ended up successful. Our generation has practically everything but maybe that’s our bane. Switching off your phone and keeping it on the table next to you doesn’t do the trick, but keeping it on airplane mode in some other room of the house does. Switching the TV or laptop off does nothing to help you study. But cutting off the cable does. Closing your door and sitting in your room may still not help you. But studying in the dark under a single candle flame might.