Sunday, May 1, 2011

Letter from an unborn daughter to her ‘Amma’

My dearest Amma
I wanted to tell you I love you so much. You kept me safe from everyone in the world in your warm womb and took care of me. My earliest memory is that of your sweet melodious voice. I don’t think you knew I was in your womb then, but I could hear you sing the sweetest ‘Keertana’, although through all the liquid and tissues, your voice seemed a little warbled. But still it soothed me and made me happy to be a part of you and the music of your life. I knew you were happy, as the womb that was my home was bathed in a lovely pink light and to me it felt like little bells were tolling everywhere.
The next time, I heard that sweet voice was when you realized my presence inside of you. There seemed to be a lot of turbulence also inside as I could feel my little home go up and down. It was not until I heard, Appa’s voice, stern and concerned, asking you to stop jumping that I realised with a smile what my dear Amma was doing. With a start, I realised that my home was spinning around now and I heard, your tinkling laughter, asking Appa to set you down. I heard the two of you make your plans all night long. You wanted a girl and I was so glad that I would make your wish come true. I danced around in my home, dreaming of all the things we would do together. I had made up my still unformed mind that you would teach me how to sing as sweetly as you and together we would make some truly wonderful music. I thought of all the things we would do together. I knew we would be the best of friends and I would become your confidante. I felt this strong bond which I knew defied this lifetime.
But, the pink light dimmed when I heard Appa say, his family had a tradition of begetting sons as the first born. It dimmed even further and the water around me got murky when he said he did not expect any less from you. I heard your heart skip a beat but darkness descended onto my world as you fell asleep, worried and depressed. I promised myself, that I will be better than any son Appa would have. I would study hard and be loving and take care of the two of you in your old age. Then Appa would be happy that he had a daughter. The next day, I heard ‘Paati’ tell you to take care of her grandson in your womb well and I never heard your tingling laughter after that. Why did you stop laughing Amma? I wish I knew how to become a boy. I would have done anything to turn into one in your womb if it would bring the laughter back to your life and the light back into mine.
But even then, you were the best mother anyone could get. You woke up at the crack of dawn to cook and saw Appa off to his office. You completed all the household chores yourself, in spite of your delicate condition. You took time out for your music and yet, ensured that I got the best nutrition possible. You somehow seemed to know the foods I liked and the ones I didn’t. Well at least I made sure you knew what I didn’t like by making you feel nauseous every time you ate spices or the chutneys you loved so much. My loving Amma. You stopped having pickles and chutneys for me and quietly dreamt of the great times we would have. I was amazed to look into your dreams and see a mirror reflection of my dreams in them. You had found solace in the fact that when I would be born, I would bring so much joy to everyone that it would not matter if I was a boy or a girl. This helped soothe me and brought some of the glow back in my home
But, what is this Amma. Why is everything getting murkier and darker? I am not able to see clearly any more. I thought, today of all days the pink glow would be back in all its brightness and grandeur. Today was the first time Appa and Paati accompanied you to the doctor. You seemed happy and I felt a hint of you laughter return. Although, I hated these visits to the doctor, the pricking and prodding and especially the sound and grey rays that invaded my space when they moved that rubber ball like thing over your tummy. I felt your loneliness, at having to do all this by yourself. But, today, you were not alone. Appa was there, holding your hand and I could hear the music in your heart beat at this. I could see myself on what the nurse called the ultra-something machine. It was my first picture I guess and I was mystified at how odd I looked through your eyes. I was just a blob of various dots and the nurse pointed out to different shapes as my legs and my hands but I could not make anything out.
My home was filled with a profusion of pink when I heard your laughter after so long on seeing my picture. I was so glad at hearing that much awaited sound and felt like dancing around. But then the light dimmed when I heard Appa ask the nurse if she could tell whether I was a boy or a girl. Before the nurse could say anything, I heard your frantic voice chipping in. “Isn’t it illegal to tell expecting parents the sex of their child in India. We would not want Nurse to do anything against the law.” I just heard Appa murmur something and walk out of the room with the nurse. I heard your heart beat go up but then you saw my picture again and seemed to settle down a little. But after that, this darkness seems to be descending Amma. What is happening? Why is my sight going away? The last thing I remember is Appa walking back into the room with the nurse and saying it is a girl and there was nothing to worry about. It would be taken care of. I felt your terror as you repeatedly said ‘No, No’. Something pricked you then and my world was slowly going dark.
I am very sleepy now Amma. My little home is completely black now and I can’t make out anything. I do see a silver light somewhere in the distance calling to me. My eyes feel heavy but I don’t want to close them. The silver light is calling me but I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you Amma but then I hear some more bells ringing, the music a little different this time and I know that I have to go. I have to leave you Amma. I am sorry I can’t stay to take care of you. Can’t stay to become your friend and your confidante. Can’t stay to prove anything to Appa. I only wish one thing as I go Amma. I wish that the music in my sweet Amma’s life never dies. I wish that you find your laughter again and that Appa gets the son that he wants. May be then, I will be able to find my way back to you and fulfil all the dreams we saw together. But until then Amma, all I can say is I love you. Please don’t ever let the music stop.
Your loving, unborn daughter.

PS: Some facts on female infanticide
·         According to a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
up to 50 million girls and women are missing from India' s population as a result of systematic gender discrimination in India.
·         In most countries in the world, there are approximately 105 female births for every 100 males. In India, there are less than 93 women for every 100 men in the population.
The United Nations says an estimated 2,000 unborn girls are illegally aborted every day in India.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The path to Cricketing glory - Part 2

The road to cricketing glory – Part 2
It was 11:30 pm on the night of 2nd April and India had become the reigning World Champion in the cricketing world. The term “World Champion” still sends a delicious shiver through my body and has me smiling like a nut every time I hear it. On that night, after the presentation ceremony, watched by millions of people around the world, I was drunk on adrenalin and excitement and was trudging out of the stadium, with no real plan as to where we would be going or what we will be doing. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and turned to look at the concerned look on my husband’s face. I felt the roles had definitely been reversed and did not understand what was bothering him. He just gestured ahead and said, “In case we get lost in this crowd when we get out of the stadium; meet me at our favorite spot on Marine Drive”. Those words hardly registered, as I was in a flashback mode, going over every exciting second of the day in my mind.
I spent the first few minutes after the match started to get to know the various players on both sides. It was not easy because the team kept shifting positions after every few balls. When I expressed my frustration about this to my husband, he patiently explained why that was necessary and then even more patiently asked me to shut up and let him watch the game. Having hit a road block there, I decided to concentrate on a few balls. But the minute I did that a boundary was hit and I suddenly remembered my resolve to not see the pitch at all during the match if India had any hope of winning. So, I started watching the crowd, the fielders, the dressing room – any direction but the pitch and the ball. Which is why, if anyone to this day asks me how it was to watch the match and what I thought about some spectacular delivery or some outstanding stroke, I have a blank look because I did not see any of that. But yes, I think I gained a lot more than I lost owing to this weird decision. As I focused on the rest of the fielders, I realized the ferocious focus with which these young men played the game which somehow gets lost when we watch them on an impersonal television set. The Indian fielding contingent, led by Raina, Kohli and Yuvraj were literally breathing down the necks of the Lankan batsmen. It was the kind of feral intensity that may rob many great men of their courage and clear thinking. I could feel that these men were working with a single minded determination, cutting out the noise, the loud cheers and the music and focusing only on the ball and the bat. Nothing else existed in that moment and it felt like the only raison d’ĂȘtre for them was to stop the ball.
Every few minutes, I would try and see where some of my favorite cricketers were standing. It was easy to pick out Dhoni, in his keeper’s gear standing behind the wickets. But, to me Dhoni stood out more because of the absolute command on the game he expressed. Even from a distance, I could feel this bright young man’s mind ticking every second. Many people tell me how astute he is with field placements and plays the game with a street smartness that only exists in the small towns of this country. All this and much more is apparent in the way he planned the game and chose his tactics, ball after ball. But all this was done with a child like abandon, living completely in the now and not sparing any thought to what was and what will be. I think I fell a little in love then and was sure my husband would not mind when I saw him scream with gay abandon – “Dhoni, Dhoni”.
My eyes then searched for the man, to whom the stand I was sitting in that day was dedicated – Sachin Tendulkar. It is hard to miss Sachin because he is the most active player on the field.  If I fell a little in love in Dhoni, I fell deeply in awe with Sachin. It was amazing to me that this cricketing great, after 21 years of playing this game, still felt so involved and engaged in every aspect of it. Seeing him walk up to young and inexperienced players after every ball, giving them advice, pepping them up and just spreading a sense of calm in the team with his very presence made me realize why the millions in this country idolized him. If Sachin was all over the filed Sehwag stayed in his position, seemingly lackadaisical and uninvolved, but swooping in like an eagle for some of the most difficult matches, not missing a beat.
This seemed to have encouraged the fielding trio of Raina, Kohli and Yuvraj to have a healthy competition amongst them of who will stop the maximum number of runs. To me they signified the essence of this team that played for each other. When any one of them would stop a single or field exceptionally well, the other two would run over, pat the person on the back and praise him for a job well done. I was glad that I was watching all this happen in the sidelines of the game because these are visuals that the TV cameras would never beam into my home. It is sights such as this that made me understand the deep rooted tenet that these men played for. When I watched all the post match interviews and heard each team member say again and again that they played for Sachin and each other, I knew exactly what they meant and how they had gone about it.
I drowned myself in the atmosphere of the stadium that smelled of chips, Pepsi and the soaking sweat of all the supporters. Every wicket was celebrated with frenzy. Every boundary was danced for. Every run was cheered with such abandon that the batsmen became confused if they had taken a single or hit a boundary. I don’t think I sat for the nine hours that the game was played, remaining on tenterhooks and going mad with the cheering and the shouting. It is this sound of “Jeetaga bhai jeetega Hindustan jeetega” that reverberated in my head as I made my way down the staircase, drunken with the joy of winning. It turned out that my husband was unnecessarily concerned. I realized, only in Mumbai will people line up to not just to enter but also to exit the stadium. I think I was jostled between a crowd of close to 1000 people trying to get home, but not once was I scared or touched inappropriately. Everywhere I looked, I saw happy, excited faces who had enjoyed the day’s cricket and carried with them the memory of a lifetime. I was also surprised that in a country as diverse as India, the crowd that I saw at the stadium seemed like a largely homogenous set of upper middle class, educated, well behaved, working men and women and I realized with the base price of the ticket itself being at INR 35,000 the common man could have never been able to afford watching the match live.
But, it was not until I stepped out of the stadium did I realize the common man would not be left out of the party of a lifetime. The night that India became a World Champion, Cricket became the greatest unifier in the country. As the crowds from the stadium spilled out on to Marine Drive, they met the crowds of people who had been watching the match at home or on the big screen TV set up on the promenade and had decided to dance the night away, marking the moment history was made. I saw young boys and girls with the tri color in their hands, sitting on the bonnets of their cars or riding on their bikes, shouting with joy, telling anyone who would care to listen that India had done it. I saw older couples, walking hand in hand across the promenade taking in the scenes of this impromptu party, their faces shining with excitement and tears brimming from their eyes. My husband and I joined these crowds on the promenade, walking along with them, waiting to catch a glimpse of the team bus, hoping to see the men who had become heroes and champions in the space of a few hours. I have no idea for how long we walked or how far we got, because we kept getting stopped every few minutes by complete strangers who wanted to hug us. It felt like we had won our independence all over again. People had suddenly become large hearted and all the differences that kept us at each other’s throats seemed to have dissolved in a well of emotion and happiness. A taxi driver found us walking along some of the alleys beside Marine Drive and offered to give us a lift home. He refused to take any money from us when we reached saying that today the trip was on him.
All along the route, we saw people from every walk of life, out on the streets celebrating this victory like a war had been won. Only time will tell if a war had actually been won, but I feel a true awakening happened that night. India came to realize that 15 men, from ordinary backgrounds and nothing much to their name but tremendous confidence and self-belief had achieved a feat that no one thought would be possible. This filled the rest of the nation with the hope that if they can why can’t we. I feel it is this confidence that has driven Anna Hazare and his men to fast unto death fighting for corruption. I am not sure how this fight will end, but it surely is fuelled by the sentiment that was awakened in the Indian populace the night we became World Champions. I only hope that we are able to hold on to this feeling of invincibility, euphoria and utter confidence, because like the Men in Blue, we don’t have much more than this to fight with, but like they proved to us, these might just be the right weapons to make us World Champions in the truest sense of the word.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The road to Cricketing glory - Part 1

I am not a huge Cricket Fan. I am not even a Sports enthusiast. But I have enjoyed watching the Men in Blue play once in a while in a sporadic manner until they start losing games like a stack of bowling pins that come down all at once or until another scandal hits the game. When the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 started I knew that the men in my life would become veritable strangers to me overnight. My husband would work from home more often. My Dad would come back home by lunch time. But all this would not convert into more quality time together because the TV would always be on and would perennially be tuned to either cricket related news or to the pesky commentators giving their own version of what should and should not have been done even though they had never even held a bat in their entire lives. It was when I heard Sidhu repeat another trite Sidhuism about the team needing to be as “cool as a ball of ice in an oven” (seriously, does he stay awake at night thinking these up) once again before India’s first match that I switched off. I decided to shut myself off completely from anything to do with cricket. God seemed to be on my side when I had to travel to Philippines during India’s quarter and semi final skirmishes. Luckily Philippines does not even know the ‘C’ of cricket so I was spared having to discuss India’s chances of winning the cup and how a host country has never won it so far.
Regular calls from home kept me updated about how well the team was doing. I refused to think too deeply about this or get excited about it because I believed I was jinxed when it came to sport. Any team I supported or got emotionally attached to tends to lose in the crucial matches. In a way, subconsciously, my decision to not watch any of the matches was also so that I don’t jinx India’s chances in such an important tournament. I know – illogical and insane but then that’s how it panned out. However, when India did beat Pakistan and thank God I was not in the country to see the madness and euphoria that ensued that clash, my husband proudly announced to me on an expensive ISD call that he had managed to get two tickets to the World Cup Final match between India and Srilanka in Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium and he had graciously decided to take me along with him. I was stumped. I could not believe my financially astute and risk averse husband had spent a bomb on getting those tickets in the first place and what was worse he wanted to take me, Ms. Jinx with him for such an important match. I hemmed and hawed and even suggested that he should probably sell those tickets in black and make a pot of money. But then a visual of my husband, behind bars, dressed in the grimy black and white prison uniform and looking forlornly at a battered and bruised food vessel made me stop in mid sentence and not mention that idea again.
I tried to ignore the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I thought about going to see the Final and mercilessly stopped myself from thinking about anything to do with Cricket. I felt that by the time I landed back in India, just the day before the final, better sense would have prevailed and my husband would have either sold the tickets or found a friend to take with him. In fact, I had already started day dreaming about the spa appointment I would book for myself during the time of the match and all the well deserved pampering I would get. But, God was not on my side this time. By the time I landed back, my husband had already picked out matching Team India t-shirts that we would be wearing for the match and had also convinced another 4 couples to join us for this all important tournament. He was perplexed that I was not excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity that we could tell our kids and grandkids about. I tried to tell him about my theory of being a jinx but he just rolled with laughter for a long time and said I had given him a stomach ache.
Anyways, the morning of 2nd April saw us having a hearty breakfast as if we were going out to play ourselves and set out of home with the best wishes of the entire family, like we were warriors going on to the battlefront. While I wanted to keep this whole thing quiet, thanks to my husband’s penchant for face book and twitter, it felt like the whole world knew about what we were up to. I was amazed at the wishes that friends from across the world sent. Everyone wanted us to cheer on their behalf and ensure Indian won. When I read the message from my Dad that he wished that we would bring India luck, I silently thought, not if I am anywhere in the stadium. I decided I would just keep my eyes closed. I would not look at what was happening on the pitch and then, we might just have a snowball’s chance in hell to win. (Now I know where Sidhu gets this from J).
With my new found resolve, we lined up outside Wankhede and realized we would have to stand out there for almost 2 hours to get inside. The line was so long that we were standing on the promenade of Marine Drive, almost 2 kilometers away trying to get in. The site that greeted me was bus loads of supporters alighting on these majestic promenade, some with face painted, some dressed in the tri color and some wrapped in the National Flag, all chanting “Indiaaaaaa, Indiaaaaaaa”. On one side I saw 2 elderly gentlemen supported by their teenaged daughters raring to enter the stadium. I overheard one of the girls tell her father “It is a historic day. I am holding my country’s flag for the first time and I am so happy”. She was not more than 15 years old but she taught me a lesson with the simple sentence. To her this occasion was not about winning or losing. It was about showing solidarity with a bunch of men who were playing for a cup that had eluded us for decades. It was an occasion to revel in being an Indian irrespective of whether we won or lost. She inspired me enough to want to have my own picture clicked with the national flag. I turned to a gentleman standing on one side with his friend and requested him if he could shoot a picture of me with my flag. He shook his unruly mop of curls and said, “Not with that flag. Take mine. I had it with me when India won the T 20 World Championship in London. It will be lucky for you.” That felt like an omen to me. I felt that somewhere God had understood my fears and sent a bout of good luck to cancel my own bad luck. I took the picture with his flag and reluctantly parted with the lucky flag.
I always believed that Indians were a taciturn bunch. But that day it felt like the hundreds of people with whom we were jostling to get into the stadium were long lost friends. I heard free flowing conversation of what the batting line up should be, why Sreesanth was playing at all, what should we do if we lose the toss. I also heard some good hearted banter that a few Indians were having with the handful of Srilankan supporters in the crowd. The sense of excitement for a good match was palpable and then the floodgates opened and we all rushed in.
We were late and had already missed the toss. Owing to my new bout of nationalism, I did not want to miss the national anthem. As I bounded up the steps, with my perplexed husband who did not know what had happened to change my aversion to such boundless enthusiasm huffing behind me to catch up, I caught my first few glimpses of the stadium through the small, open gateways on each floor. The sun was shining brightly and I could see the patches of the green grass and stands filled with people and several Indian flags flying high. But when I finally broke through the final floor and entered the stand where our seats were, I was hit by a site so majestic, I could only stand and gape. Around me were 35,000 excited, cheering Indians surrounding a ground so green that one could not see even a speck of the brown earth under it. The sunlight bounced off the little droplets of water that shone on the grass and shone every little nook of the ground, brightening not just the earth it fell on but the faces of all the cheering audience around. Just when I thought nothing could beat this site, both the teams walked onto the crown to loud cheers in preparation for the National Anthem.
I felt proud of my city, when every soul on the ground irrespective of whether they were from India, Srilanka or from a totally different nationality (I also saw a few South Africans supporting India in the crowd, no doubt showing solidarity with Gary Kirsten, our South African coach) stood in respect for the Srilankan anthem. And then came the Indian anthem. As I heard the melodious words written by Tagore so many years back, break through the public address system, I saw a crowd 35,000 strong join their voices to the melody. It was a moment after such a long time that made me proud to be an Indian, standing in my country, lending my voice to an anthem that fills our heart with a deep love and gratitude. By the time we finished, I had goose bumps on my skin and tears in my eyes. And then the game to beat all other games began.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The bane and boon of being a woman

I hate being a woman. You got that right. I. HATE. BEING. A. WOMAN
There are certain times that I hate being a woman more than others. During that time of the month, when I have to contend with all the leaking, bleeding and cramps is one of them. What especially brings my blood to boil during those times is when my husband in a mock condescending tone says, “It’s OK Darling. I understand what you are going through.” I wish I could wipe that sardonic look off his face with a smack of my hand and shout from the roof tops, “No. You don’t understand what I am going through because you don’t have to go through it, month after month, for the rest of your life.”
But then, there are some times that even women don’t understand what being a woman feels like. One time when my mother was deep into her “Miracle of Motherhood routine” I actually told her, “Please ask a pregnant woman in her 9th month if bloated feet, a tummy so overgrown that she can’t see her own feet, the need to rush to the bathroom every few minutes, the never ending hunger and the equally horrifying heartburn feel miraculous in any way. Not knowing if her baby will be born normal, if she will ever fit back into her pre-pregnancy jeans, if her life will ever be truly her’s again definitely does not feel like a miracle to any woman in her right mind”. Needless to say, she stopped speaking to me for a month after that outburst.
But if there is one thing I hate more than being a woman, it is being a woman in India. In any other country, being a woman would just be an act of nature that comes with its own pre-labelled set of disadvantages. But in India, being a woman is a saga of never ending self-sacrifice and subservience. Truly the biggest tragedy of being a woman in India,  is that the women make a demi-god out the men in their life and condemn themselves and their female progeny to a life time of paradoxes.  God, I do truly hate being a woman.
But, this week, I got a call from an old acquaintance of mine who said she had decided to wish all the strong women in her life a Happy Women’s Day. Before I could snap back at her, she said something interesting. She said, “I shudder to think what kind of a place the world might be without us women.” That got my mind racing. Just what kind of place would this world be without women? I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a world full of men who along with being the supposed bread earners of the family had to now have babies, cook, clean and also play the role of nurturer for their families. This is what I saw in my mind’s eye about the life of a middle class, middle aged Indian male in the absence of women in his life.
“Mihir woke up with a start, groping around the bed for his spectacles and putting them on to see that he had overslept and was horribly late. He had tossed and turned most of the night, with his mind flitting from the big presentation he had today, to the doctor’s check-up he had to take Papa to, to the dish he needed to make for the Poker game with the boys tomorrow night. He wished he had never told them he was a good cook. They all now wanted to taste something home cooked instead of ordering out for Pizza like they always did. When he was able to pull his mind away from that, he found himself mentally running through the contents of the refrigerator and figuring out the menu for the following day. He felt dizzy having to think about so many things at one go. He had never been good at multi-tasking and with his trusted man servant of many years going on leave last week, he felt as if he was falling headlong into a bottomless tunnel of housework and office work. He finally took a sleeping pill and fell asleep in the wee hours of the morning.
He jumped out of the bed and rushed to get dressed. As he was hurriedly preparing breakfast in the kitchen, he heard his son Ishan screaming at the top of his voice. When he ran to Ishan’s room, he saw Papa struggling to get Ishan into his uniform. But Ishan was not making it easy for him, squirming and slipping away leaving Papa huffing, red faced and breathing heavily. In trying to force him to get the uniform on, Papa had accidentally rubbed against the bruise on Ishan’s arm which has made the 7 year old terror scream in agony. Ishan had been coming home sporting a different kind of bruise every day. Mihir thought, “Boys will be boys” and ascribed the bruises to sports injuries. But Ishan had been playing truant every morning, putting up a huge struggle to go to school which was leaving Papa tired and irritated. Mihir looked at Ishan who stared back defiantly and said, “I won’t go to school. You can’t make me.”
Mihir took in a deep calming breath and said in his sternest and strictest voice, “Ishan, Get ready this minute or else…..”. Ishan dithered and Mihir knew he had the advantage and shouted this time, “ISHAN”. He braced himself for a flood of tears he was expecting from his stubborn son as he saw his warm chocolate eyes brimming, but something shifted in Ishan’s expression. He looked as if he wanted to say something but then his shoulders drooped and he went to get dressed grumbling under his breath. “They don’t understand. They never listen. If only….” . Mihir stared thoughtfully at his son and felt helpless. He felt helpless a lot these days.
Mihir packed Ishan off to school and finished getting dressed. As he left the house, he turned around to see the mess he had left behind. The house looked bleak, empty, dull and colourless. The grey walls were unadorned and all the furniture was essentially functional, with clean lines and na uncluttered setting. The hall was coated with a layer of dust. The kitchen seemed as if a tornado had hit it and smelt of stale bread and rotten eggs. Mihir just shook his head and took off to office. He was late and Ninad, his Boss had started the client presentation without him. He gave Mihir a sharp, exasperated look as he rushed into the presentation room and Mihir knew that the look would be followed by a stern and may be even abusive lecture later in his cabin. He slinked into his seat and looked at the faces of all his colleagues around. All of them looked stressed and tired but he knew no one would admit it. Men in this office, like many other places in the world loved to keep up the charade of being ‘Supermen’ who could handle anything that life throws at them and Mihir was one of them. They were all in such a hurry to get the next big promotion and race to the corner office that no one ever cared about how their teams were coping, if they were satisfied with their job, if they were happy. The office and indeed the world seemed to be missing something but Mihir could not put his finger on what that was.
It had been a long day in the office with Ninad being in an exceptionally bad mood and all Mihir wanted to do was get a drink and go to sleep. But tonight was ‘Poker’ night and he had promised his buddies he would cook for them. He shopped for groceries on the way home and dragged himself to the kitchen to cook a simple meal of ‘Biryani’ and Raita. He was bone tired by the time he was done but the bell rang and the boys had arrived. There was an India Australia cricket match on and they had brought beer along. For the first time in the day Mihir perked up a little as they started playing the game. But, somehow he could not concentrate. He turned around and asked Alex, his childhood buddy, “Don’t you think something is missing”. 
“I know. We should have got some Chips to go with the beer.”
Mihir sat back ruefully and looked around the table at his closest friends. They had all known each other for at least 10 years, played Poker every Friday, were in and out of each other’s houses on a daily basis but somehow he never really knew what any of them were thinking. If they felt as alone as he did. If they felt helpless at times and wished they had someone to talk to, to share their lives with. At times, he felt so powerless with Ishan, not knowing what was the right thing to say, not knowing whether he should hug him because as Papa had drilled in to him for ever since he could remember, “Men don’t cry and they sure don’t hug”. He sighed and wished that God had made men a little differently or if HE had made a different kind of human being too then the world would be a more human and liveable place. But then, Sachin hit a 6 and everything else was forgotten.
I shook myself out be reverie, amused by my own overactive imagination and thought well if it was a bane for women to be women; it was a boon to men that there were women in the world. I am not a diehard feminist and I firmly believe that men and women are as different as chalk and cheese and they should never try to think they are equals in everything. Each one of them brings their own set of strengths and weaknesses to this world. But if there were no women in this world, men would sure miss the warmth, colour, humanity, clutter, paradoxes and empathy that we bring to their lives.
 It slowly dawned on me that while I may hate being a woman, I am also extremely proud that I am one. Without me, this world would be as dull and lifeless as Mihir’s grey home. While I am still not sure if I want to be a woman in my next life, I am grateful for the experience of being a woman in this life, with all its aches, pains, cramps and of course I must admit - a little magic. So I decided to fall in with my acquaintance and wish all the strong women in my life a Happy Women’s day. Be proud to be who you are and if you are not, well then there is always the next life.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Her name is Shantabai and she is not a doormat!

She woke up to an earthquake every day. Some of us are used to waking up to the birds chirping, some are woken up by the gentle insistence of sun rays that fight their way through the curtains, some by the insistent ringing of the alarm clock that is so hateful. But Shantabai woke up to the tireless shaking of all the vessels in the tin cup sized ‘barsaati’ she lived in with her husband and two children like there was an earthquake happening. She did not have the luxury of lying in bed, stretching lazily and taking her time to welcome the day. She usually sprinted out of bed while she was still half asleep to stop the vessels that had crept perilously close to the edge of the shelves from tumbling down and waking up the whole household. She was always amused by the fact that she slept through the various trains that passed by the railways tracks next door through the night, but the 5:15 am fast local always made her jump up and sprint.
She had a lot of work to finish before she left for work that day. She had to finish her household chores, cook, clean, send her husband off to work and pack. She was going to her village the next day to leave her children with her in-laws. As she walked over to the community toilet across the tracks with a bucket in her hand and her long, thick, lustrous hair swaying in the wind, she thought of the day when she had agreed to let her children go. Shyam, her husband was a mechanic in a small garage and she herself worked as a part time maid in 4 houses in the large housing complex across town to make ends meet in the monstrous city of Mumbai. She worked through the day and returned home in the early evening to take care of her children and loved singing them to sleep every night. But over the past two months Shyam’s owner had not been paying him. He said something called a ‘recession’ was on and the garage was not doing well. They had been running behind on rent payments. Putli, the lady who used to watch her children had refused to keep them anymore unless she paid her the last month’s due. Shantabai had got some advance for a while from two of the houses she worked in, but there was never enough money.
She remembered the godforsaken night, while she was trying to get the children to sleep and she heard the stray dogs outside barking viciously. The door to the house flew open and a few of the men from nearby huts carried Shyam in. He was bleeding profusely from the head and had several bruises on his face and body. After the men left, Shyam told her that the landlord had him beaten up for non-payment and was threatening to throw them out on the street within a week if the rent was not paid. Shantabai cried herself to sleep that night but woke up with a start in the middle of the night to find Shyam brooding at the door. He said he had come up with a plan that would save them. He wanted to leave the children with his mother at the village so that Putli would not have to be paid to look after them. He felt that Shantabai could pick up a job as a full time servant at one of the houses she worked in. This way, they would not have to spend money on her food or on rent. When a perplexed Shantabai asked him about where he would stay, he said he had worked all out. He would be a driver by day and a watchman by night, thus earning more money and not requiring a place to sleep. Though Shantabai thought this was a ridiculous plan and refused to be parted from her children, in her heart she knew she would bend down to Shyam’s will like she always did and would have to part from her children and her home.  
She finished her chores in her quick and efficient manner and left the children at Putli’s house. She did not go in lest Putli refuse to keep them, but just sent them in by themselves knowing she would not refuse the children once she knew their mother had already left. She waited for the bus and smiled as she remembered the first time she had ever ridden a bus. It was when she had run away from her village to get married to Shyam and come to Mumbai. It had taken them 2 full days of riding in buses and hitching rides in trucks to get here. It would take her that much time to go back to the village again. Her brow knit in anxiety as she thought of the excuse she would have to give in the four houses she worked at for not coming over the next few days. Though she was going away for 5 days, she would tell them that she was going only for 2 days so they would not replace her while she was gone. With all the travelling, she would not even get a full day to spend at the village.  
She knew the old madam on the 5th floor would make her do extra chores just because she would be away for the next 2 days and also cut her salary. Ritu madam on the ground floor would give her a chocolate for the children once she knew she was going to drop them off. But Anshi, the housewife on the 3rd floor and Nasreen, the accountant on the 7th floor would fire her today. When she was sick and had taken a day off, they had called Shyam and rained abuses on him. They treated her like a slave, did not give her anything to eat while she worked extra hours in their houses and always made excuses for not giving her, her salary on time. She had continued to work in their houses as Anshi had grudgingly given her some advance last month and Nasreen used to pay her an extra Rs 100 compared to the other houses. But the price she extracted for that extra money left Shantabai exhausted every day. The trip to the village would be a good excuse for her to leave these two houses. She would have to think of finding a house that needed a full time servant once she returned.
Shantabai was not the women to dawdle for long. She walked briskly to the complex once the bus reached its stop, thinking of all the work that lay ahead of her in the 4 houses. All her predictions of the reaction of the different ladies she worked for came true. The old madam from the 5th floor made her wash all the windows and the ceiling fans before she let her go. She got delayed there and was late in going to Anshi’s house. While Anshi berated her for always being late, she went about quietly mopping the floor. She searched for an opportune time to tell her that she was going away but Anshi was in a very foul mood that day and Shantabai did not have the gumption to face her in that mood. She figured she would tell Nasreen and hopefully she would pass the message on to Anshi. The scene was much the same at Nasreen’s house where she was made to clean all the wardrobes of the 5 members in the house for punishment of going away to her own home for a few days. Just as she was leaving the house Nasreen told her she was fired and gave her the balance salary. Shantabai had a sly smile on her face as she walked out that flat. She was happy to be leaving that house and also being paid early meant she could buy a small gift for the children before dropping them off at the village.
It was in this happy mood that she entered Ritu madam’s house. She found the whole house topsy turvy and Ritu madam lying in bed, burning with fever. Shantabai only did the dishes in this house as Ritu madam believed in balancing the work between maids and had a cook and another maid to do the cleaning. Her husband was out of town, she was very ill and the other two maids had not turned up. Shantabai immediately went into action. She asked Ritu madam to relax and first rushed into the kitchen to make some hot soup for her. She then swept and mopped the whole house and cleaned up. She also cooked extra food and stored it in the refrigerator in case madam needed it for the next day. She promised Ritu madam to look in on Lata, her cook who stayed next to her house and ensure that she will come into work the next day. It was already 7 pm by the time she finished all this work and reluctantly told Ritu madam that she would cancel her trip to the village if she needed her to stay. A part of her wanted the trip to be cancelled, but Ritu madam was gracious and refused to let her change her plans. She gave her chocolates for the kids as she had predicted, and some money to take with her to the village.
Shantabai returned home after a physically and emotionally exhausting day and all she wanted to do was hug her children and go to sleep. But she had a duty to fulfil first. She went to Lata’s house, admonished her for skipping work when madam needed her and made her call Ritu madam. She sauntered back home and sat staring at the walls for a while, not knowing what or where home would be when she returned. As tears filled her large and usually luminous eyes she happened to see her bag that had the chocolates and the extra money.  She brightened up knowing that there were still well meaning people in this world she could turn to for help when she needed it. She would come back and try and cajole Ritu madam to hire her full time. May be she could even hire Shyam as a driver and let them stay in her garage. It was with this hope in her heart and prayers for a happier future that she went to sleep. Who knew what the future held for her. The only certainty was that tomorrow, she would be woken up by an earthquake.
Note: This is a tribute to all the maids who are the back bone of this city. It is because of their hard work, that women like me can afford to have flourishing careers. It is high time that we stop treating them as door mats and accord the same respect to them, that we expect in our work places. This one is for all the Shantabais of the world.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Love in the times of Bollywood

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy loses girl. Boy fights for girl. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. This is a plot straight out of several Bollywood potboilers that all of us have grown up with and enjoyed. However, this simple two line plot has been treated in several different ways, leaving behind some very memorable cinema that has left its impact on generations and generations of youngsters. I have always been fascinated by the influence Indian cinema has had on shaping the psyche of people who sit in dark theatres Friday after Friday and watch their matinee idols  serenade each other, fight goons and face several trials and tribulations on the big screen. We have all had our own favourite stars that we have idolized and wanted to be like, whose posters we put up in our rooms and for whose releases we waited desperately. I am particularly interested to trace the portrayal of love and romance in Indian cinema over the generations and how it both reflected the reality of our society and shaped it in many ways in this valentine week.
One of the oldest movies I ever watched and that has stayed in my mind is ‘Achoot Kanya’ released in 1936. Since, this was a movie made in the pre-independence era, it dealt with the taboo subject of love between an upper class boy and a dalit girl. Memorable performances by Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani and the circular screenplay where most of the movie takes place in flashback made this movie one of the biggest hits of those times and established the pair as one of the most memorable romantic pairs of the black and white era. It was still the time when transformation of the society was uppermost in the film makers minds and romance as we know it today took a little bit if a back seat. However this is the era even right up till the 50’s that gave us gems like Sujata, Bandini, Anupama, Saraswati Chandra etc and no one is complaining since each of these movies is a master piece in itself.
Romance came in its fully developed form in the Indian Cinema in the 60’s and I truly believe that a hero that spelled Romance in the 60’s was Shammi Kapoor, one of the most original actors of all times. He has several romantic classics to his name but in a way one cannot really differentiate the character he played across these different movies. He often portrayed the scion of a rich family, who is happy go lucky, independent but still tied to the roots of tradition and does not want to take any bold step without his mother’s approval. He was ably complemented by heroines such as Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore who again fell into the mould of the quintessential Indian Woman. Before they meet the hero, they are portrayed to be bold, vivacious women with a mind of their own, but somehow a drastic transformation happens the minute they fall in love. In love, most of these leading ladies seemed to bend to the will of parental approval and became passive spectators in their own love stories. In many of these stories, parental approval is not won by the grit and determination of the lovers, but due to a random evil act perpetrated by the villain in the story that opens the eyes of the parents to the love of their children.
However, I honestly believe that the 1960 cult classic ‘Mughal-E-Azam’, that portrayed Prince Salim’s love affair with the courtesan Anarkali truly is the pillar stone for depiction of love that is bold, courageous and breaks the bounds of parental approval. This was K.Asif’s labour of love that took 9 years to make and until ‘Sholay’ happened in 1976, was considered to be the highest grosser at the box office.  There are several path breaking scenes from this movie that have etched themselves forever in the collective conscious, especially the scene where Dilip Kumar caresses Madhubala’s face with a feather. I honestly believe that a movie becomes path breaking when it creates a character that defines the direction in which society is moving. I feel the much in love, yet honour bound Prince Salim portrayed by Dilip Kumar and the passionate courtesan who while knowing her place in society still does not shy away from declaring her love, portrayed by Madhubala were characters that shaped an entire generation’s definition of love. ‘Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya’ (Why fear if you are in love) became the anthem of a generation and sowed the seeds of rebellion in the name of love in the minds of several youngsters. While the end of this epic love story is tragic, the determination and pride brimming in Madhubala’s eyes while she mouths this song, made young people of the generation want to fight for their love and stand up to their elders for this if required. I should know. My own parent’s love story reflects both the class divide and this rebellion to a large extent J.
The 70’s and 80’s were decades ruled by ‘Garam Dharam’, super star Rajesh Khanna and angry young man, Amitabh Bachan. The epithets earned by each of these stars are important to note, as they reflect a key characteristic these actors wrought in their persona and portrayed in movie after movie. The truly romantic hero out of all of them was Rajesh Khanna who has several smash hit love stories to his credit. However, I believe that what helped Khanna was his boy next door looks, wonderful music and an approachable charm. I don’t believe that in the form of character he defined anything different from what Shammi Kapoor did in the 60’s. The 80’s were probably some of the worst years for Indian cinema, where multi-starrer magnum opuses with a focus on drama and violence ruled the roost. But, the advent of the Khans, Aamir, Salman and Shahrukh in the 90’s can be heralded as the next big milestone in terms of romance in Indian cinema. It is Amir’s ‘Qayamat se Qayamat tak’ released in the late 80’s that brought the trend of simple love stories focusing on the boy and girl back to Indian cinema and Salman’s ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ re-emphasized this message. But out of the three of them, the Khan who became the undisputed king of romance is definitely Shahrukh Khan.  
‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’(DDLJ) released in 1995 is a path breaking movie for several reasons. It is the movie that for the first time highlighted the business that can be made from the NRI markets and more than that it introduced ‘Raj’ to the Indian audience. Raj, the character portrayed by Shahrukh is a spoilt, rich kid without a goal or aim in life, very different from the romantic heroes of the past. But a unique twist that to me marks the greatness of this movie is Raj’s decision to not run away with his love Simran, but to stay back and make her family also fall in love with him. This movie heralded the arrival of a hero who was truly the boy next door, who respected his woman, her parents, her aspirations and wanted her to follow her heart. He was a unique mix of modernity and tradition which made youngsters believe that there was a middle path between rebellion and surrender that can be walked to make their love stories successful. Shahrukh reaped the benefit of playing this lovable character in several movies and made a super hit pair with Kajol in many of them. Movies like ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ that said love is friendship and ‘Dil to Pagal Hai’ that spread the message that there is the ‘someone’ out there for every one shaped the expectations of a generation on  how they wanted their love stories to be.
I loved the Simrans, Anjalis and Mayas of these movies while I was growing up and they left an indelible imprint in my mind of what romance and feminity were all about. In fact, like several girls of my generation, I believed that there is someone out there made only for me. Lucky for me I got him early on in life before cynicism jaded my views J. But, I still remember a comment a friend of mine passed after watching DDLJ. She did not understand how Simran, who was so bold in the first half that she was ready to embark on a Eurail trip only with friends was not able to stand up for her love and what she believed in, in the second half. Funnily, this difference is also shown in what she wears – western outfits in the first half and the chastest Indian outfits in the second half. I did not make much of this comment then, but when I think of it now, I feel that while the romantic hero has undergone a huge transformation in Indian cinema, the heroine sadly remained stuck in the time warp of the 60’s.
But happily, the most recent cult romantic movie, ‘Jab we met’ helped break these bounds that have been holding the Indian heroine down for decades. Kareena Kapoor through the inspired madness of ‘Geet’, in the movie showed us a character who has beliefs of her own (no matter how warped they may be and how much trouble they may get her into) and more than that sticks to them through thick and thin. In fact, in many ways I felt, she was the hero of the movie rescuing Shahid when is about to jump out of a train and sticking with him till she believes he has turned a corner. For the first time since ‘Kati Patang’, there was a heroine with a past, who was in love with someone else when she meets the hero. Even in the end, Geet takes the decision in her hands when Aditya wants to sacrifice his love and goes for what she wants. Here was an endearing, strong yet vulnerable character that I want this generation to follow. She was quirky and mad but still loyal and honest. In many ways, I feel ‘Jab we met’ is as path breaking as DDLJ, as it is the return to a character based plot, where the biggest villain in the movie is not external but internal. It reflects two lost souls finding the perfect companion through the trials and tribulations in life. While it still points to ‘there is someone out there for everyone’, it also gives this generation the message that in the route to finding that ‘someone’, they may make mistakes. It is alright to make those mistakes and accept them as a part of growing up but when they find the truest love of their lives, it is good to take a risk and go for it.
I don’t know what the next cult romantic movie will be or who the next romantic super star will be, but I do know that just like in the generations before this, Bollywood will continue to make the boy meets girl kind of movies, although, I have great hopes from the current crop of film makers that they will keep it real and fresh. I also believe that this generation is more complex and difficult to understand than in the past and I guess the love stories we see today are a reflection of that. But, I am sure that like in the past Indian cinema will continue to influence our notions of love and romance for many more generations to come. So this Valentine weekend, drop the cynicism and go catch the next romantic flick that comes to town. Sometimes, leaving the head behind and just taking the heart with you to the movies can be a hugely liberating experience.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Discovering Mumbai through the bylanes of Bandra

“This is an ode to Mumbai. My muse, my whore, my wife”.
These are extremely profound lines mouthed by Aamir Kahn in the recent movie ‘Dhobi Ghat’ and I felt they sum up this city to its lovers so aptly. It is truly the exploiter and exploited in every sense of the word. It is many things to many people and the more you discover it, the more mysterious it gets. I came to Mumbai as an outsider 8 years back and the city enveloped me as if I always belonged. I remember in my first week here, I was sitting in an auto outside Andheri station and felt mankind walk past me in a hurry to be places and do things. I still see the wonder and awe of people who have newly moved to the city in the initial few weeks while they are still coming to terms with its frenetic pace and trying to get rid of the pangs of homesickness they suffer in an alien city. It is these people who come and join it from various walks of life and distinct cultures that make Mumbai a truly cosmopolitan melting pot of people, cultures, cuisines, architectures and ways of life. No other part of Mumbai bears testimony to this fact as strongly as Bandra, a small hilly suburb in Central Mumbai which historically was a marsh land inhabited only by rice farmers. But, today this is an up and coming neighbourhood where heritage bungalows fight for space with new developments and swanky pubs and is considered to be the ‘it’ place for all young people to hang out in.
I have been as mesmerized by Bandra and its eating joints as I have been of Mumbai and jumped at the chance of discovering more about this neighbourhood and its roots when I saw the invitation for a heritage walk around the by lanes of Bandra that would trace its churches and villages.  This was a walk conducted by an organization called ‘Beyond Mumbai’ run by Mumbai enthusiasts who make a living out of discovering the ‘off the beaten’ track details about this city. Our starting point was the Mount Mary Church, one of the most well-known churches in Mumbai that attracts people from all faiths and religions since time immemorial. I myself have been to Mount Mary innumerable times to pray and to find some peace and quiet in an otherwise chaotic city. But it is through the walk that I discovered some very fantastic details about the church and its history.  I found out that the statue of Mother Mary that adorns the church was first sculpted in the early 15th century by Portuguese merchants who considered Bandra to be only a lookout point to see if their merchandise was reaching South Mumbai docks safely. Apparently, the statue was stolen and thrown into the sea three times but miraculously recovered each time by the sea faring fishermen or ‘kolis’ of the Bandra village. This repeated rescue by the locals made the natives believe in its miraculous healing powers and it is they who constructed a small make shift church using wood and mud for Mother Mary which in 1904 was turned into the magnificent structure that we see today. The locals felt a part of the legend of Mother Mary and hence, visited her shrine often to pay their respects, hence starting the tradition of people from other religions visiting the Mount Mary Church
Mount Mary Church, Bandra
I also learnt that the road leading up to the Mount Mary church which also houses the Mount Mary fair every year is one of the oldest roads of Mumbai. On that cool January afternoon, there were only a few stall selling candles for worship open. But these were not normal candles. I saw several candles shaped like eyes, legs, ears, heart and even cars and houses. On speaking to a shopkeeper, I found out that the locals believed immensely in the healing power of Mother Mary and believed that if they lit a candle in the shape of  the body part that needed healing, their wish would be granted. Of course in modern times this belief had extended to other areas like career, property etc. So today, there are also candles shaped like aircrafts being sold for people who want to make a career in the airline industry and hotels for people who want to enter the hospitality industry. Well, I must say as our wishes and aspirations have grown, we have learnt to be very specific in what we pray for to God and leave nothing to chanceJ. Do visit these stalls and buy a candle of your choice if you visit Mount Mary church the next time.

Wishing candles outside Mount Mary
As we meandered down the lane, we came across another church called the St Stephen’s church built at the end of the road. While I crossed this church many times in the past, I never stopped to take a look at this little building which seemed almost obscure in front of the grandeur of Mount Mary. But I learnt that as the East India Company started making Mumbai and Bandra its strong hold, it started posting more and more officers in the Bandra region as it considered this to be of tactical importance in its trade in India. These British officers did not feel comfortable worshipping in the Mount Mary Church along with several locals who thronged the building and hence built the smaller St Stephen’s church for themselves. St Stephens is also a protestant church while Mount Mary a catholic church. I wish I could have gone inside to see how the churches of these two faiths are different but unfortunately the church was closed, though we did get the chance to rest for a bit in the garden outside and spoke to Father Benedict who ran the church. Funnily enough, he said he was good friends with the Fathers who ran the Mount Mary Church and was an active participant in the Mount Mary festival. It was heart-warming to see these men of cloth overcome their differences and co-exist together proving that though methods of worship are different, God is one.

The smaller and more obscure St Stephens Church
As we walked away contemplating the spiritual oneness of the churches, Shriti our guide told us about the Bandra of the past. Bandra or Vandre as it is known in Marathi was a small collection of villages whose main occupation was fishing and rice cultivation. It is the Portuguese who first saw the potential to make Bandra an important docking point for merchandise and as more Portuguese merchant presence was seen here, traders from nearby parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and the Konkan areas also started coming to Bandra and made it their home. It was with the influx of so many Portuguese officers that the need was felt for a place of worship and several churches including the Mount Mary and St Andrews came into existence. Slowly, Bandra became such a bustling neighbourhood that the Portuguese were forced to appoint a Mayor for this village who would be responsible for its governance and upkeep. Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy, an eminent Parsi merchant was given the charge to be the first mayor of Bandra in the early 19th century. In fact, the credit to make Mount Mary and Bandra more accessible to the general public from the villages and the mainland goes to the Jeejeebhoy family. Legend has it that when Jeejeebhoy saw the throngs of worshippers coming to Mount Mary increase on a daily basis, he had the famous staircases constructed on either sides of the road of the Church. Also, that was the time when Bandra was connected to the mainland only by ferry and not by road. When Jeejebhoy’s little son fell critically ill, his wife Avabai used to visit the Mount Mary church almost every day for an year by ferry. When their son recovered, Avabai had the ‘Mahim’ causeway constructed so that worshippers from the mainland could access the church more easily.  It is touching to see a family of foreign faith; in a public office do something voluntarily to make the life of common man easier. One wishes that we had more people like them in the public office today. Indeed the Jeejebhoy’s contribution in making Mumbai and Bandra what they are today is immeasurable and not easily forgotten.

Steps leading to Mount Mary constructed by Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy in the early 19th century (One wishes that the roads constructed today are as sturdy as these steps that have stood the test of time for over a century)
Holden Caulfield in the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ said that he liked the education he got from detours rather than sticking to the beaten path. I too discovered the thrill of a detour when the group I was with decided to go and see the Anish Kapoor art exhibition that was on at Mehboob studios. While I had heard about Anish Kapoor, I am not a big art lover or follower and find modern art a tad too esoteric for my taste. But, the New Year was supposed to be about trying new things and I tagged along with the group for this crash course into Anish Kapoor’s art. At the beginning, when I entered the hall, I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I saw that the exhibition was just a large hall with mirrors of different shapes and sizes hung at interesting angles on the walls. I couldn’t wait for the group to finish their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ so that we could re-commence our tour that had taken such an abrupt detour. It was only when the guide pulled me to see a live exhibit of Kapoor’s interpretation of the blood and gore of war that I sat up and took notice of what he was trying to say. The live exhibit consisted of a cannon that fired a blood ball onto a wall opposite it and the wall depicted the carnage that is left in the aftermath of war. I was sorry I could not take a picture of it but it was the hardest hitting piece of art (if that was what I can call it) that I had seen and it was only then that I tried to understand what Kapoor was trying to say through his various exhibits. The mirrors were cut and hung in a way that one got a different image from different angles. I realized it truly reflected the human perception because we saw reflected on it only what was reality to us and the only truth that exists is our interpretation of it. Of course, I would not have got this profound insight if I had not cheated and read the literature on each of his sculpturesJ. But it was a once in a life time experience for me and I am glad we took the detour.

Altar at St Andrews
We proceeded to the St Andrews church from there, one of the shining examples of Portuguese workmanship and art situated bang in the middle of Bandra.  St Andrews gave us an insight into the people and families that had accepted the faith in Bandra and chose to live generation after generation tied to the church and its philosophy. The compound around the church was full of gravestones where generations of a family were buried and it was all I could do to not step on any gravestone and have someone’s soul turn over in their graveJ. It is here that I learnt about the genealogies of several Christian families in Bandra and the difference that existed in the Portuguese conversions and the British conversions of the locals into Christianity. The guide told us that when the British aimed to convert people, they started with the high classed Brahmins and explained the gospel and the rituals to them such that they converted not just in terms of faith but also in terms of way of life. But, the Portuguese targeted the poor farmers and families from the lower class where conversion was the only chance for the farmers to keep their land in the family. So the conversion was more about change in faith but not so much the way of life. This fact is seen in the interesting cuisine that is served in the houses of the Portuguese Christians which still retains its local flavour and in their way of life which is an interesting mix of Christian and Konkan living.

A traditional family gravestone at St Andrews. Some gravestones can have as many as 25 family members buried under them across generations
The last stop on this culturally enriching sojourn was the Ranwara village. I learnt that Bandra was a collection of 24 traditional rice producing villages and Ranwara was one such village that had maintained its old world charm. The village consisted of houses built in the traditional rice farmer mould with a cluster of houses congregated around a square. The square was used as a community meeting place where ladies watched over their children play in the evenings and where social events and parties took place in which everyone from the community participated. Certain squares also had small oratories built in them where religious feasts took place.

An oratory situated in a square at Ranwara village

A 1000 year old house in the Ranwara village still maintained in pristine condition
Legend has it that a wedding in the Ranwara village lasted for all of 7 days in which the ladies from the community cooked all the meals. Th
is tradition still persists though the wedding celebrations have been cut down to 3 days now. The architecture of the houses was also unique with an emphasis on space conservation, so much so that even staircases were built outside the house instead of inside to save on space. I found the square concept fascinating, as it ensured a strong sense of community and that one never felt isolated living in such a village. It was sad to see that most of the squares today were being used as parking spaces for vehicles but some squares were still functioning and in good shape.

The villages were also cleverly constructed such that each of them would lead into the bazaar that served as an integration point to all the communities, where they could sell their wares. These bazaars would in turn lead to the docks from where the merchants could ship their merchandise. I wondered that in the past, even rice farmers seemed to have given a deep thought to town planning and built their houses and places of trade in a cohesive manner. Then why can’t we with all the technology that is available to us today be so organized about urban planning. The trip into the village did make me wish that I lived in a place where the sense of community was so strong and where the biting isolation of living in a big, bad city like Mumbai fades away amidst the sounds of community cooking for feasts and lusty songs sung at weddings where one forgot who the host was and who the guest was. We rounded off the walk with a drink and some music at one of the well known pubs in the vicinty, thus rounding off the Bandra adventure in the truest of spirits :-)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A King called Ram and a Messiah called Jesus – Part 2

Note: This is the concluding part of a two part series on the lives of Ram and Jesus
 Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in history who left an indelible impact on the world at large in several respects ranging from spiritual to political to sociological. The faith initiated in his name has touched millions of people and governs the lives of several generations across the world. I discovered Jesus in school through the annual Christmas crib competitions and plays we used to put up. But it is now that I realize how little I knew of the real Jesus and his life. In fact large parts of Jesus’s life are shrouded in mystery. After his birth in the manger which is the most highlighted episode in his life other than his death and resurrection, Jesus seems to have disappeared, until his famous journey into Jerusalem on the donkey where he was anointed as the messiah and started preaching his beliefs and principles. Very little is known about where he grew up and what were the key influences he had in his life and I believe that this hampers our true understanding of the man and the faith he wanted to espouse. Several books ranging from ‘Holy Blood and Holy Grail’ to Da Vinci code have tried to delve into Jesus’s true story and his relationship with Mary Magdalene. These controversial books say that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and spouted a royal blood line that may still exist in this world, hidden and well preserved. A lot of research has gone into understanding the life of Jesus and just like with Ram, I don’t think he can be fully understood without delving into the life and politics of the era he existed in.
Jesus according to several texts may have been born in the 4th century BC in a time and civilization that was dominated by the powerful Romans. Several Roman emperors had strived to capture Jerusalem and the Jewish temple and make it a part of the Roman Empire and finally succeeded around the time of Jesus’s birth. A number of bloody wars resulted due to this and sprouted several resistance groups amongst the Jews who tried to get their independence and the temple back. It was against the backdrop of these bloody times that the baby Jesus was born. He was considered special even before his birth because he united two very powerful bloodlines of those times. His father belonged to the line of David or the Kings of the Jewish people and his mother to the line of Aaron priests who were second only to the Kings. It is because of this interesting mixture of bloodlines that Jesus was considered to be a messiah who had come to save the Jews and lead them into the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.  If one reads the Old Testament carefully, one will realize that Jesus was not the first messiah whose coming was predicted by the ancient ancestors of the Jews. A few messiahs appeared even before Jesus as early as 2nd century BC but unfortunately, the rebellions that they started were mercilessly crushed and the messiahs executed before they could complete their mission in much the same way that Jesus was executed. But Jesus was special because he was the mixture of two precious bloodlines of the time and lot of hopes had been resurrected with his birth. He was also very powerful because the impact he had was so far reaching that Christianity as a religion took root almost 400 years after his death and apparent resurrection. Why is it that Jesus had such  a large impact even on posterity and continues to be such an influential figure even centuries after he ceased to exist on the face of this earth? What set him and his teachings apart from the earlier self-proclaimed ‘messiahs’? I have always felt that it was the freshness of thought and a deep rooted mystical spirituality that Jesus brought to a war ravaged time that set him apart and earned him so many followers. But these beliefs were so unique and so different from the thinking of those times, that it was not possible for Jesus to be growing up in or around Jerusalem and stay so untouched by the political turmoil which was evident from his teachings
If a particular section of historical records are to be believed, fearing the huge burden of expectation that may fall on their only son and as a means to forge a more peaceful life, Jesus’s parents fled to Egypt when he was still a baby. Egypt may seem like a strange choice to us today but in the 4th century BC, the Jews in Egypt were supposed to have constructed an exact replica of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which offered a safe haven to all the Jews in Egypt. It was in to this relatively peaceful haven that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus. He seemed to have grown up amongst the temple priests of Egypt who were also torch bearers for several mystical spiritual practices of those times. While many reports show Jesus’s profession to be that of a carpenter, a more believable story is that Jesus was pushed into the study of spirituality and trained by the priests in several healing practices that aided his campaign later in Jerusalem. If one looks at a lot of things that Jesus spoke about, one will find strong evidence of a strange mysticism in his belief that good deeds in this life can help one transcend into heaven. Unfortunately, his parents could not shield him from the conflict in Jerusalem for long. A certain faction of the rebellious Jews found out about him and convinced him to come back to the real Jewish temple and take his place as the rightful Messiah of the Jews. It is important to again note the social context of life in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ re-entry into this historic city. The rebellious factions wanted a huge civil war to break out by instigating the Jews to not pay any of the taxes levied on them by the Romans. They thought that this money could help them fund their revolution and help them cut off the financial support that the Romans received from the Jews. Hence, it seems a little too convenient that Jesus’s dramatic entry into Jerusalem happened against the backdrop of such a critical event in history. If a section of the records are to be believed, Jesus was brought back at a time when the people needed a Messiah and the express task given to him was to convince the people not to pay the taxes. Words such as this coming from the anointed Messiah would be taken as words coming from God and would provide the wind under the sails of the fledgling rebellion.
However, what happened next was most unusual and interesting to understand. Once Jesus was accepted as the one who would lead the Jews into the Kingdom of Heaven, he was asked by the people in a public conference if the Jewish people should pay the taxes to Romans. It was Jesus’s answer to this question that showed his own rebellion that he was waging. His answer seemed to point to the fact that the taxes should be paid to the Romans, as it is not deeds like these that will help them gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven but deeds that were far more spiritual and generous in nature. In a way this was an open declaration by Jesus to the rebels that he would not tow their line and that he had his own agenda and principles by which he would live. This probably paved the way to the eventual treachery that he suffered in the hands of his own followers that resulted in his death. But, this also displays the great strength of character that Jesus had and the vision for a peaceful life that he wanted the Jews to have in co-existence with the Romans. He was able to hold himself away from the politics of the time and espouse principles that he truly believed in. He wanted to establish the importance of kindness, generosity and empathy in a people and a time that had lost the meaning of this over centuries. He was ably supported in this cause by his followers and most importantly, Mary Magdalene who according to certain historical records, he may have married. But unfortunately in making Jesus divine, the importance of Mary Magdalene in his life was diluted to such an extent that most popular texts state that she may have been a prostitute that Jesus saved. If Jesus had lived longer and had the chance to finish everything that he wanted to do, may be the image of Mary Magdalene in specific and women in general as portrayed in several gospels may have been very different.
I stated earlier, that Jesus’s impact on the people was so powerful, even in his short life and it is this impact that won a lot of converts to his way of life. I say ‘way of life’ because Christianity before Constantine’s time was not so much a religion as much as a ‘way of life’. However, Constantine saw the divisive forces that were at play in the empire during his time and thought that a new faith that would bind people together was needed for the Empire to be more unified and manageable. He probably did what Jesus may have always wanted to do. He created a faith that mixed beautifully several beliefs and rituals of the Romans with the principles talked about by Jesus and created the initial form of Christianity. There are some texts which point that Constantine was not sure whether in the new religion, Jesus should get a divine status or not and he took this point to vote in the Roman council of ministers. The ministers supported the idea of divinity by a vote of 273 against 3 who were against it. This was probably the beginning of the delineation that happened between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. The Jesus of faith was the Son of God and divine in every respect, whereas the Jesus of History may have been a revolutionary who wanted to change the way of life of millions of people through his gentle beliefs and spirituality. But again, in the divification of Jesus, we probably lost the essence of what he wanted to preach and created rigid dogmas may not be relevant in the modern world. I wish Jesus had lived longer than his short 34 years and had recorded his thoughts and beliefs in a manner that could have stood the test of time, so we could truly understand what the Jesus of history wanted.
But whether it is Ram, Sita, Jesus or Mary, what stands out for me is that these were great figures, who lived by principles and beliefs that were unique and different in those times. They truly believed that these principles would lead to a happier, more contended and intensely spiritual life and held their lives up as an example of this. They did not believe in the rigid dogmas and rituals of those times and forged ahead to create something new and in the process built true faith in the lives of several generations. I am sure Ram and Jesus, wherever they are will be saddened by the mindless violence they see perpetrated in their names on issues like their birth and death places and which piece of land they considered the Kingdom of Heaven. It is time that we set aside our own rigidity which is based on popular gospels and books that may themselves have been twisted by the perspectives of the authors and try to understand the men behind these texts and their true teachings. Ram and Jesus stood for change and a new way of life in troubled and turbulent times. May be it is time that mankind took them seriously and realize that every generation and every period requires fresh thinking and principles that are relevant to those times. May be if each of us develop the empathy and virtue of Ram and the spirituality of Jesus, the earth will be a much happier planet to live on.

Important: The views expressed in this blog are personal and not meant to hurt or influence the sentiments of anyone

The Jesus Papers by Micheal Baigent
Holy Blood and Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln
The Fall of Jerusalem by Brandon
The Dead sea scrolls and the first Christians by Eisenman
Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas
Ramayan by Kamban and Valmiki
In Search of Sita by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale