Bombay memoirs

Today my mother’s friend came to visit. She was our neighbour in Bombay. Amidst the chai (tea) and pakaoda (snacks), what we were reminiscing were the four years we spent in Bombay.

I remember the first day I moved to Bombay. I was super excited because it was the big dream city. But there was pain that is part of any relocation. Leaving friends who were very dear, the familiar house, the neighbors – the supermarket, the parlour, the regular hang out joints that were part of our everyday life. I was also preparing for a competitive exam and had left my classes. Now I would have to search for a new set of classes all over again.

The size of apartments in Bombay is the first thing that strikes a person coming from smaller towns. Somebody had once told me – You find everything easily in Bombay – food, resources, maid, the only thing you don’t find is a house.

Mom and dad had gone out to get groceries and other things to make the house livable. Grandmother was used to living in bungalows in Lucknow and Patna. But she was not complaining about the size of the house.

Where does Amitabh Bachchan live, let us go see his house.” was her first reaction.

The door bell rang. A nice looking Aunty who was dad’s colleague’s wife had come to greet my mom (who was out). The house was in a mess ofcourse – the entire household of a family contained in boxes labeled movers and packers.

Aunty was also from Lucknow. Grandmother instantly liked her. She offered to get us tea and dinner. I told her it is okay, mom dad have gone to get something.

Are there any more unopened cartoons,” she asked. I tried to control my laughter at ‘cartoons’ and felt guilty at the thought of making fun of this kind stranger who was offering so much help.

“Five more cartons are inside the bedroom, Aunty, my books and clothes.

Aunty told me about other neighbors. This complex was for people working in my dad’s organization so everyone knew everyone. There was one girl my age she said who could be my friend. She is in 10th standard, Aunty added.

I am 21 Aunty!” I clarified. I blamed my short stature for this disastrous demotion.

Aunty waited for Mom for some time, then left as Uncle was about to reach home. My parents came back, struggling to make a home out of this place that was full of dust and dirt, inhabited by a bachelor previously it seems.

I kept complaining about being unsettled – how it would take me days to unpack and find all my books. How I would fail the exam because of this reason. How my entire life would be ruined because of this one change. What a brat I used to be those days! Instead of helping my parents I would be cribbing about everything I found wrong.

Dad had got chowmein and chilly chicken for dinner. We had a wholesome meal after a tiring day. After dinner, Dad said let us go for a drive. Traffic was relatively less at this time so we dared to go explore the city.

We drove to Marine Drive. Dad told me how it is called the Queen’s necklace. There were so many people walking there at this time. Young, old, poor, rich. Mom dad also started walking.

I stood there looking at the sea. And there it was – the connection I felt with the city at that moment. All my stress and apprehensions about this place seemed to have disappeared somewhere. The sea was welcoming me – promising me a beautiful life here.

This city has a lot of chaos. Everybody is always running around trying to reach somewhere. But there is comfort and solace here too, and it is right here in the sound of the waves and the sight of the endless waters where all worries take a standstill.

Over the next years I would come to know how people here function. I had heard that people in Bombay don’t have time for each other. Let me tell you what that means – they will not interfere in your life and poke their nose in your personal matters. They will not care if you are married or divorced or living with your boyfriend. But when you need them for any help, they are there. I have had incidents of being helpless in the rain, or in the local train not knowing where to go and absolute strangers have gone out of their way to help me. And the culture and spirit of the city – that celebrates every festival whether it is Ganesh Chaturthi, or Christmas or Eid.

All of that would be another blog, another time. For now I just want to remember the sea. The sea that I cherished, that comforted me, that gave me solace, that I miss. That would make no city ever good enough as Bombay for years to come.

Moni’s school story

The year was 2005 and all kinds of luxurious cars had started finding a place on the roads of Kolkata. Nine year old Moni was leaning at the school gate, looking impatiently at the road, getting scolded by the guard almost every minute as other children’s parents came to pick them up in big gigantic colorful cars. Moni used to getting picked up by her uncle, Subroto Kaku in his bicycle. Moni’s father was a hard-working car mechanic and her mother was a tailor. How Moni ended up in this school was a story of fate.

It all happened three years back, when a senior teacher of Moni’s school, Mrs. Basu was desperately looking for a tailor to get herself a blouse stitched for an outstation wedding. It was the time of Durga Puja and all tailors were flooded with work. Every place that Mrs. Basu approached rejected her request. Until her cook offered to take her to her friend, Moni’s mother’s tailoring shop.

The shop was way below Mrs. Basu’s standards but Moni’s mother promised to deliver quality work within the time-frame. Mrs. Basu was amazed to see that this unknown tailor could stitch the stylish garment with such precision and finesse, in such a short time. She was also impressed by the woman’s sincere and polite nature. She had noticed Moni, a bright and well-behaved child who attended a Bangla medium school nearby. Moni’s mother had expressed how she wished she could afford to send her daughter to the most elite and reputed convent school in the city, where Mrs. Basu taught. Being a senior teacher, Mrs. Basu used all her influence to arrange for a written exam and interview, which Moni aced followed by a request for a concession in school fees. Within three months, Moni was part of the cream of Kolkata.

Or maybe not. Children can be brutally honest and insensitive. It did not matter that Moni was sweet, generous, and helpful. Everything about her was ridiculed from her uniform, to her hairstyle, shoes and tiffin-box.

When she got invited to the most popular and pretty girl, Shonali ‘s birthday party, she stood out. While she wore a long frilly frock stitched with much love and affection by her mother, other kids wore jeans, mini-skirts, shorts and all kinds of fashionable clothes. Moni especially, dreaded the last part, where Shonali was opening up all the presents.

Moni’s gift to Shonali was a long skirt stitched by her mother. Other kids all tried to push each other to gather around it, ready to laugh. Shonali was about to express some disappointment when her mother interrupted her and exclaimed,

Oh what a lovely skirt. It is stitched! So precious and thoughtful! Say thanks to your mother, Moni”.

Shonali threw the skirt in a corner. Moni returned home, feeling inadequate and unwanted.

How could Moni’s parents meet the standards of presents bought by their much wealthier counterparts? But they tried. They tried to gift something decent and useful. They tried to teach Moni that she should be grateful to get the opportunity to get a good education. They wanted her to be a kind person and focus on her studies, not on materialistic things. But at that tender age, fitting in was very essential for her.

But today, three years after joining this school, things were about to change. Moni’s parents had been growing in their professions and were doing much better financially. Her father was about to buy a second hand car! Moni was super excited and had told all her friends. No more traveling on Subroto Kaku’s cycle, her biggest source of embarrassment!

Finally the day had arrived. It was a beautiful chocolate colored Maruti 800. After visiting the temple, Moni’s father drove her around the city. Moni held her head out of the window throughout the trip!. Nothing could curtail her excitement! The following day, her father would drop her to school in the car. Now Moni would be one of them, the other cool kids.

Moni had asked her friends to come to the gate to catch a glimpse of her car. She got out of her car, with newly found pride and waved at her friends, like a celebrity. Her father smiled seeing the joy on her daughter’s face and drove off.

Moni walked towards her friends excited to see their reaction:

This is your car! It is so small, like a toy car!
Look at this Khatara!
My old car was like this. We sold it to our servant!

The worst comment came from Shonali who said that she would never sit in this silly vehicle, which was only slightly bigger than her little brother’s battery operated toy car!

Moni came home and was unusually quiet. When her father came home from work, he asked her,
“Where does my beloved princess want to go today in the new car?”
There was a volcano of humiliation and anger building up inside Moni for days. It finally erupted and she snapped:

I am not a princess! I live a small house and I hate this stupid, small car! I never want to see it again!”

The next few days were terrible. Moni’s mother was disappointed at her behavior and scolded her for not appreciating their struggles. She told her that she should be happy with what she had. If she kept looking at what she does not have, she would always be miserable.

It didn’t make any sense to Moni. She was unhappy because she had a small car. If she had a big car, she would be happy like Shonali. She was mad at everybody.

Finally, it was time for the exam results. Moni had stood second. Her parents had been upset about her recent behavior and tantrums but today they were very happy and proud. Her beaming father came to pick her up. She said bye to her friends who she would now be seeing in the next grade. As she got inside the car, she heard a loud scream and everybody started rushing towards the other side of the road. Moni’s father rushed to the crowd. Shonali, had fallen down road and hit the pavement, blood oozing out of her forehead. People started looking for her chauffeur, who seemed to have disappeared for a tea break.

Moni’s father picked up Shonali and immediately drove her to the nearest hospital. Throughout the way, he comforted her, and distracted her from her pain by telling her stories. By the time Shonali’s parents arrived, she had already received three stitches on her forehead and was better.

Two weeks later, Shonali and her parents were to visit Moni’s house. Moni had been very upset when she heard about it.

Why are you letting them come to this tiny house! Her house is like a castle. Now she will make fun of my house also!”

Her mother ignored her and continued to prepare snacks for the guests. Moni dressed up in her best outfit and was going eccentric asking her parents to change their clothes twice, and helping them clean the house for the first time in her life.

Shonali and her parents arrived, after a brief struggle to park their Innova in the narrow lane leading to Moni’s house. Shonali’s mother had bought a cake, and some big gift-wrapped presents for Moni. She hugged Moni’s mother immediately.

I don’t know how to thank you two. The doctors thought that you were a relative of ours, the way you took care of her. I don’t know what would have happened if..”

Over the next couple of hours, Shonali’s family mingled with Moni’s family. Shonali was also nice to everybody and played happily with Moni in her small room with her average toys.

Your daughter is so intelligent. Always gets a rank and such a well-behaved child. Shonali’s class teacher is always full of praises for her. What a wonderful upbringing”, said Shonali’s mother. Moni’s parents smiled proudly. Moni could not stop blushing. As they were about to leave, Shonali pointed to the car parked outside. “Mom, look that is the car in which Uncle took me to the hospital.”

“That’s a beautiful and unusual colour. I wanted the same colour for our car but it was only available in four colours!” said her mother. Moni’s tiny car had finally received the ultimate validation.
As they were leaving, Shonali’s mother hugged Moni and bent down to talk to her.

Beta, I had noticed how Shonali and other kids made fun of you at her birthday party. I am really sorry for their behavior.

You are very lucky, Moni. Your parents go out of their way to give you the best of the world.
There will always be people who put you down. But you should never hurt the people who love you.

You are a fine young girl, with a bright future. Don’t let shallowness of some people shatter the spirit and the beauty of your heart.

Life may have given us different things – some big and some small, some white and some black. But that’s all they are – things. It is the qualities that we have, that make us big as a person. Beauty lies in the little deeds of kindness, that we do that touches somebody else. I have been trying to teach my daughter the same thing.
But you already have it in you. Don’t lose it
.”

Shonali’s family got inside the Innova and left as the host family waved at them. Moni leaned against her Maruti 800, hugging it, her smile wide from ear to ear. Moni’s mother smiled at Shonali’s mother, as a tear rolled down her cheek. Shonali’s mother smiled back and nodded. There was unsaid gratitude on both of their faces, a look exchanged that only the two mothers could understand.

Friends – lost and found

Sarah and I were the best of friends in high school, inseparable. We were always together. She would come directly to my house after school so many times. Nobody knew me better than her. Nobody knew her better than me. There was no chapter of my life that she was not aware of. Infact, she used to sign off on most of my major life decisions (you know those silly things in high school that we laugh at now, but they were life changing events at that point of time).

Soon after high school, I moved back to India. It was shattering to imagine not seeing Sarah everyday. But we swore to be in touch forever.

And we did. We sent emails to each other every day and I even bought those calling cards for making ISD calls at a cheaper rate. I am talking about the time when whatsapp, and Facetime were not around. Facebook was already popular in the US and was picking up in India. I had created a profile on Orkut. Sarah tried to join it but did not like it. I didn’t understand Facebook. But our email communication was solid and reliable.

Skype was available, but connectivity in India was usually poor. That didn’t deter our spirit though. Despite the time difference, weekly skype chats were scheduled which worked after multiple attempts. Most of the times her face would not be clear, just an outline of some human form! But it didn’t matter! We just wanted to talk to each other.

Several years passed. We both got busy with our jobs. Relationships happened and ended and we were vaguely aware of the happenings in each other’s life. We wanted to be there for each other but given the time difference it became difficult to talk. She mostly worked on weekends and got an off on a weekday. I did not have the energy to stay up on a week night and chat with her anymore. There used to be such long periods of no communication that it was difficult to put it all together in an email. Sometimes, I used to save up on all the developments for calls. Calls that would not happen anytime soon. When they did, it was never possible for BOTH of us to share everything in one conversation. Either she would talk and I would listen and respond (and that itself took easily 3-4 hours!) or I would talk. One person’s stories remained untold, either way.

And then technology became smarter. Whatsapp texting came into our lives. So did Viber and Facetime. Suddenly there was no concept of ISD calls anymore. There were so many options available. Soon whatsapp calls became the substitute to regular calls. Money was no longer a deterrent to staying in touch with people. (Intent and time remained, probably).

When technology became smart, we got smarter. Earlier, if one of us did not respond to each other’s emails, we used to get concerned. What happened? Is she okay? But with so many stalking options available, we can’t really say that we did not hear from someone or did not see someone.

There could be no reply to my email, but there were updates on Facebook.

Sarah commented on Lisa’s profile picture.

Lisa?

I could not believe that Sarah and Lisa were still in touch! They never even spoke to each other in high school. We didn’t even like her, found her annoying and swore to hate her all our lives! And now Sarah had the time to comment on Lisa’s picture and not respond to my emails?

I was not spared from Sarah’s technological analysis either. Two blue ticks meant that I had seen her messages, and yet didn’t care to respond. Or even worse. I was last seen at 3 am IST. Which means I had been chatting with somebody else, somebody more important than Sarah.

The friendship that we had managed to savor for 10 years, despite the distance was falling apart. After a long time when we finally did get to talk, it was a nasty outburst of emotions. We both blamed each other for not putting in enough effort to nurture our relationship, for ignoring each other, for not being there, for having better things to put our time and energy into…

Just like a friendship, a relationship also does not break-up in one go. It was followed by a series of unpleasant exchange of messages. It is strange how much the human tongue is capable of hurting somebody, somebody we loved (and probably still do). The bitterness of few months seemed to weigh much more than the fondness of years.
Words that are once spoken, cannot come back. But we shoot them out anyway. Hurt people hurt people.

Sarah blocked me on Facebook. It was the ultimate insult. How could she be so immature! I did not want to let her have the final say in this war. I wanted closure. So I sent her an official final goodbye message.

Few days later, she responded. Of how she is not angry with me, just disappointed. Horrible disappointment. She told me that she had been distant lately because she was busy.

But ofcourse! I thought.

There was more. She was busy because her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. She has had surgeries and got several organs removed. She was undergoing chemotherapy and had become very weak.

Sarah was exhausted emotionally and financially and could not bear to have this conversation with me.

I was speechless. I could not believe that so much had happened in Sarah’s life and she had not told me about it.

As she was going through the biggest ordeal of her life, she could not find the comfort to share it with the person who was once her best friend. I had become a different person to her.

I had failed her. Miserably. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I was ashamed of myself. I thought of all the times that Sarah would have wanted to reach out to me, but held herself back.

The time when she was waiting for the reports..
The time when she got to know for the first time…
The surgery, the first day of chemo…

How alone she must have felt. How I should have been there to tell her that it would be all okay.

I called her immediately. She talked about her mother’s health, her struggle and her hope. I said sorry. She said it’s okay. It seemed despite the disappointment and pain that I had caused her, she still wanted me to be a part of my life.

Sarah and I have been in touch regularly ever since. I keep thinking of her mother, the way I remembered – pretty and stylish and could not imagine her with her lost hair and other things that Sarah had told me about. She is recovering and we pray that she gets better very soon.

Our friendship almost got ruined. It took something as devastating as this for me to realize that we should be there for each other?

Good friends are hard to find. And yet, we were both almost on the verge of losing each other.

Life is short. What we don’t realise is that we can’t afford to lose the precious people that we have cherished and savored for so long. We try so hard to save money, to save our jobs. Save all the materialistic things in the world. But no amount of money can compensate for friendship and nothing is worth destroying it.

A Letter To My 18-Year-Old Self On My 28th Birthday

I have turned 28 today. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed at the thought that I have spent ten years of my adult life already! Somehow, today I distinctly remember myself at my 18th birthday. It was the first year of college. I was wearing a pink top and blue jeans. I had tied my hair up that day, in an attempt to change my look. I always had my hair down, so this was the unique birthday thing. My friends had gifted me a light brown lip gloss. Smoky kohled eyes and natural lips was in at that time.

I reminisce that day so well because I thought it was a big milestone in my life. How important and mature I felt at that time! At that age, we have so many dreams to be chased – to change the world, to conquer it. We feel so powerful!

Hum hain naye, andaz kyun ho purana…”

Yahaan ke hum sikandar, chahe to kar lein sabko apni jeb ke andar..”

Magar yeh toh, koi na jaane, ki meri manzil hai kahaa…”

I want to talk to that vibrant ten years younger self of mine, on her 18th birthday – to the girl in the pink top blowing the candles, or her friend who is handing over the present , or the guy in the back happily capturing the moment in his camera phone.

I want to tell you all, on the verge of your adulthood, ten things I wish all of you knew. I am sure you have a beautiful vision for your future, but there are things that nobody may have told you, or maybe they did, but you failed to ponder on.

Take it from me, I am you, yet ten years ahead of you.

1. You have turned 18, you are technically an adult.

You argue with your parents, elder sisters/ brothers with the misconception that you are a grown up now. But you are still a kid and very immature. You don’t have innocence anymore. Your ignorance was a bliss but your half knowledge is dangerous!

2. The world will make you feel like this is the most important year of your life.

Whether it is cracking the CA exams, or the IIT entrance, they will tell you that you need to work very hard and your whole life and future happiness depends upon it. The very thought would be very pressurizing for you.

Yes, you need to work hard. But you would need to work hard all your life. Cracking the CA entrance will just be a starting point. Not making it to IIT will not be the end of the world.

3. Speaking of career, I think you are at a very young age to have the sense to determine one.

What do you know, you are barely out of school. Two years back your gamut of choices was dissected into three limited streams – Science, Arts and Commerce. You did not like physics, and found history boring. You always hated your Math teacher who made you feel dumb.

Your career choice, was probably made through the process of elimination.

4. Studies have nothing to do with what job you get.

Years ahead, you may realize that the studies that consumed the time and energy of your youth does not give you any happiness, and it has no connection whatsoever with the job that you end up in.

You will find your calling and passion in something else. Don’t regret it then. Be thankful that you finally found in this lifetime, whatever it is that gives you happiness and fulfillment.

5. You will not look the same as you did today for the rest of your life.

You will put on weight. Or maybe lose it. You hairstyle is bound to change. The curls that you flaunted in college will become unmanageable as you start working and managing a household. You may fall for straight hair. You would have 100 different looks.

Enjoy every part of it – the chubby look, the skinny look, the pierced nose, the salwar kamiz days at work, or the short black dress you will repeat at all parties. Years ahead, you would look at all those photographs fondly.

6. You want your independence.

You see a lot of your friends have moved out and live in hostels, PGs, shared apartments and what not. They seem like they are having so much fun! You feel like you are missing out. You crave that opportunity.

Let me warn you, the only place where you will ever feel at home, and peaceful is your parents’ home, whereas the stress of adulthood would rob you of your sleep at your own house. You may have your place, the one you cherish so much with your hard earned EMI. But you know what, all your life, in your dreams you will always dream of mom and dad’s house as your home, the one where you grew up. Your subconscious mind will not accept anything else as your abode, ever.

7. You may feel that your parents are the ones in this whole wide world who do not understand you.

You would confide in random friends and give in to peer pressure. But you are blatantly wrong! Your parents are the only ones who will love you unconditionally all your life. Nobody else will. Love them. Respect them.

8. Speaking of family, spend time with your grandparents.

You are lucky to have them. Cherish them. They may not be around 10 years later. Even if they are, they could become weak, frail and may even forget you or remember bits or pieces of you.

Make sure you don’t forget them before the cruel ageing process makes them forget you.

9. Be kind.

I know you are at that age when you are discovering yourself. Your personality is shaping up very strongly. I know you want to tell everybody that you won’t take nonsense from them. You can speak up for yourself.

But the harsh things that you say in your zeal, may be very hurtful to many and you may regret it later. You may realize it was not even worth it. To be happy, you need to spread happiness. What goes around comes around. Negativity and bitterness will not help you. Channelize your aggression. It is the little acts of kindness of yours and others that will keep your faith in humanity and make you a better person.

10. You have seen much less that what you will see in the future. And yet, life is short.

From time to time, I have a dream, in which I am about to do something exciting: something as adventurous as jumping off a cliff on a parachute. Or as simple as asking out a guy who I like. Or as embarrassing as singing karaoke at a restaurant.

I dare myself to do it. But I chicken out at the last moment. Then I wake up from the dream.

It was not real! I wish I had done it! I wanted to know what could have happened, what chapter could have unfolded.

You may feel that way about your life too when you look back. You will wonder what if, you had done a lot of things you wanted to do. You need to decide which episode of your life is worth unleashing, and which one is better remaining curtailed.

Your 28 year old self may not ask you “Why?” but she may want to know “Why not?”

Author’s Note

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is the regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. ” – Sydney J. Harris

Originally published at akkarbakkar.com on November 13, 2015.