The Actor

The morning before the family wedding, I was at my post monitoring our outstation guests at the hotel. I knocked on various doors to ask after their comfort.

‘Did you get hot water to bathe, this morning?’

‘Amrita mami, will you need a car to ferry you to breakfast at the house? Your knee seems pretty painful…’

An unknocked-upon door in the hotel corridor opened at some point in my vigil, and a man wearing spectacles came out. He stared at me as I passed him. He seemed to recognize me.

Much later in the day Papa asked me to check on the occupant of room number 108. Turned out he was Omprakash jijaji, a cousin sister’s husband, who’d come alone for the wedding. The hotel receptionist said he’d gone out that morning and hadn’t come back as yet.

Omprakash jijaji loafed around the ghats and temples of the holy city for two more hours before he allowed himself to be spotted at the paan shop outside our house. His ‘errant behaviour’(disappearing all morning and indeed, paying for his own food at the hotel!) was, I was told, his way of formally protesting the lack of personal attention. Traditionally the sons-in-law of north Indian households are entertained with conversation, company, compliments and most important, constant feeding! But somehow, Omprakash did not receive enough of the above from his wife’s family and so had made himself noticeably scarce.

At any rate, once found, he was brought home and ensconced in the living room with a cup of tea and plates of wedding sweets and namkeens. Then he was pressed upon to accept an envelope containing cash reimbursement of his hotel food bills.

‘Why didn’t you join the rest of the family group?’ Mummy was asking him. ‘You must behave like the other sons-in-law of the family. Be comfortable. Fit right in! Look at Krishnakant over there…’

Krishnakant is a fifty-two-year-old man from Bhubaneshwar, middle-class and shy, with a great affection for local politics although he never would stand for election himself. He is indeed one of the best fits that the family has as sons-in-law go. He came a week in advance of the wedding and helped out more than anybody. Now he sat on the neighbouring couch, dark, moustached and looking expressionlessly, almost nobly, at the wall as Omprakash jijaji turned his curious, bespectacled eyes on him.

This was the sight that met me when I entered the living room that where the two sons-in-law were seated. ‘Will someone go sit with Omprakash?’ Papa had come tiredly into the bedroom where I was sitting to make the request. Omprakash jijaji, in the living room drinking his tea, was to be chatted with lest he feel slighted and take off again.

‘Namaste jijaji!’ I announced cheerfully at Omprakash. The hair flattened across his scalp, I noticed, was oiled and henna red. I didn’t greet Krishnakant jijaji, who had faded into the furniture as usual. Now as I plonked myself on the sofa next to the needing-to-be-pampered guest, I was treated to a happy look from the fat man. He’d just pocketed the envelope he’d been pressed to.

‘I know you,’ he said with a superior smile. ‘I recognized you in the hotel corridor. Though you didn’t recognize me, I recognized you.’

I apologized. I asked after the health and doings of his family. I asked what line of work he was in presently. He said that he ran a small investment broking service in Ranchi.

Then, with nothing left to ask or tell, I opened a magazine I happened to be carrying, and showed him an article about a member of the family who was featured there. Anurag often graces the pages of film glossies. This is something the immediate family, who live and work in Mumbai, are pretty used to. We barely bother to read about our famous brother anymore. But Omprakash jijaji took up the magazine with interest and began to hold forth on each of the films this director-son of the family has made.

‘Vulgar’.

‘Quite boring’.

‘Where does he get such strange ideas from? Perhaps walking down the street he might see someone smoking and that gives him an idea…’

I nodded through his monologue, his insistence on personally interpreting each film. All the while he was leafing through the magazine he’d placed on the table in front of him. While he spoke, guests arrived and left the living room. They each joined in the conversation or started new trains of thought. But these were left chugging in the corners as Omprakash jijaji discussed every film, in chronological order, his way. Krishnakant was silent. Whether he was listening I could not tell. My mind must have gotten onto one of the other trains just about then, because all I remember is the print on the cushion cover across from me. Then suddenly a voice broke in.

‘Yes, I would think that it must be hard to get actors to act.’

Omprakash and I turned to look at Krishnakant. ‘I have acted, myself, you know…’ Krishnakant jijaji from his corner was leaning forward a little. He was self-conscious and spoke almost in an undertone.

‘How’s that?’ Omprakash asked drily. ‘You’re not from Mumbai, are you?’

But Krishnakant has acted, a fact I had quite forgotten. Five years ago, the director son, assisting Mani Ratnam on the film Yuva, met up with Krishnakant jijaji in Kolkata. The scene that was being shot needed a politician’s henchman to offer some advice to his boss. Now Krishnakant, having come on the sets that day, was affectionately cajoled into playing that role.

‘Yes that’s true!’ I said, nodding to a skeptical Omprakash. ‘He has acted.’

‘My heart was beating so hard! I was so nervous at first…’ Krishnakant said.

‘Yes,’ Omprakash jijaji put in, now a little hesitant. ‘I’d have been nervous too. If I’d had the chance…’

‘When all the lights came on, I felt so hot I started to sweat. It’s uncomfortable being under the lights.’

‘But when the director said ‘action!’ I said my line: Dada!’ his voice went rough and deep. ‘Michael ko aaj ki tareekh mein chu nahin sakte. Bawaal ho jayega!’

Somehow the bustling household had stilled to listen. Loquacious Omprakash sat as if stunned. Krishnakant’s knuckles rapped on the table and jerked outward. ‘Akhbaar ke pehle panne ki khabar hai woh!’

Krishnakant’s acting lines were no pussycat’s purr, and he said them like a lion: ‘Brother, nobody can touch Michael in this day and age. Such an action would cause a calamity! The man is front-page news!’ Words of weight, and the actor, even five years down, had not forgotten a single inflection.

In the film, Krishnakant, a dark shadow, stands by a wall opposite the chair on which the star character actor, a towel about his head, sits inhaling steam. Krishnakant leans forward very slightly, respectfully, since he is about to offer his boss some advice. Then, he speaks.

‘I am ready,’ Krishnakant said to us in the living room that day, his voice lowered now, the words slow, ‘to act again, anytime. Now I know I can act.’

‘If only I could have such a chance,’ Omprakash muttered. He fell silent.

I was quiet, too, silenced by the story that had snuck up on me. Krishnakant’s life had been ordinary, punctuated by failure rather than success. He hadn’t prospered in his career as a small-time machine parts contractor in slow-moving, underdeveloped Orissa. Over the years we had learnt to “hmm” and “haan” convincingly at the family’s explanations for his work troubles. And he had become increasingly quiet in the company of his wife’s family, even us English-educated upstarts from Mumbai.

I had forgotten in all this, that Krishnakant had indeed acted in a multi-starrer. His face and voice were imprinted on magical celluloid. A million people must have heard his deep-throated advice to let Michael go, his proclamation of the ‘bawaal’ that would arise if Michael was attacked. In darkened cinema halls across the country, for some moments the audience had given his unremarkable visage their complete attention.

The after light of his moment in the sun was held now in his hooded eyes, in the dim corner of the living room where we sat. His story, that had leaped into a brief, keen brilliance five years ago, has for him stayed as starkly lit… Somewhat like an enchanting film playing in a dark cinema hall: just one show in an entire lifetime, but a show like no other.

(First appeared in Penguin First Proof long ago)

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Capable

blue scarf

Hoshang was born with long fingers. As a boy they had been delicate. His people had teased him for his weak hands, those quivering blades at the end of white palms, like the undersides of leaves. He would never be a farmer, sailor, hunter, nor a soldier. Nothing useful could be done with hands like these, they said.

What they said was not so important to Hoshang, who was just a boy. But his father’s face increasingly set like a loaf of lined brown bread kept long in the oven, when he heard people call his son incapable. His strong shoulders turned away a little, whenever he spoke to Hoshang. And so a dark space appeared in Hoshang’s heart.

Had he been born with a pinpoint of dark? Perhaps everyone is. But this point at the centre of him widened into a cloudy-edged, twig-wide hole. How deep this space was, he didn’t dare to fathom. He just worked hard to grow a lot of muscle tissue around it – a reputation for capability among his people. He didn’t know what else to do.

Time passed. Hoshang grew into a young man. It mattered little to his father that his long hands at the end of lean, muscular arms, could actually wrench a wooden wheel out of a deep rut in a muddy road, perhaps better than many others, the palms callused with labour, by now.

When he was 30, tall, fine-boned Hoshang married a farmer’s daughter from the same village. She was a big girl, with capable-looking hands, wide of hip and shoulder. A sturdy woman to work beside, a woman to have children by.

She loved him. But when people sometimes joked about his hands, with their soiled, torn fingernails, yet still so delicate-looking, the end of her mouth would lift in a smirk. It was the slightest movement, like the tail of a snake disappearing around the corner of a bush, but he felt the dark in his heart grow. Wide enough, now, to press a hard glass marble through.

Hoshang had a cousin sister who lived at the other end of the village. They had played together in their childhood. She, of all his family, was the only other who had such long, fair fingers. People might have pointed these out, said with rancor that she too was not capable… but as a woman, her delicacy was somewhat better accepted. Her name was Hiran.

One afternoon late into his 37th year, Hoshang went to meet her. It had been more than four months since he had visited her, and since he was in her part of the village to meet someone, he thought of stopping in to see her. It was a humid day and quite a long walk to her house which was on a small farm quite far from the market. He reached there, out of breath and thirsty.

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Instead of knocking at the front door, he walked around to the back. The place was quiet. Her husband and children did not seem to be about. Then he heard faint cries and calls coming from the direction of the stream. The thought of them splashing in the cold water made him feel even more thirsty.

He looked for her through a side window in her kitchen. There she was. Not cutting, cleaning or stirring, but instead, sitting alone and almost completely still. Only her hands moved in her lap. The light coming in from the western window lit them to a whiteness he almost had to shield his eyes against.

But more dazzling were the needles she held and what she seemed to be making. The silver pointed things held yarn of indigo and light blue. They lifted and tucked, and with her fingers, she gently twirled and yanked threads into a pattern she seemed to know by heart.

This was not knitting, Hoshang realised. That used heavier, duller-shaded yarn. Women in each household knitted sweaters and shawls for the family, to protect them against the biting cold of winter.  This was a lighter, less useful thing. Her hands, almost exactly like his, dug, weeded, scrubbed and cooked. Like his own wife, Hiran worked at hard, menial tasks all the year round. And her seemingly-delicate hands, like Hoshang’s, were capable ones.

She worked silently. He did not know how long he watched her, except that the light moved across the kitchen floor in that time. Her head of thick brown hair streaked with grey, was bent intently to it.  Along her inner wrists, narrow like his, a fine vein throbbed as her hands deftly repeated their dance.

Draped across her knee, but mostly along the dusty wood floor was the thing she was making. It was two metres long – a scarf like a snake. Not slipping around the bush, but instead sunning itself, indigo and pale blue, dotted with tiny yellow flowers, or faraway stars.

“Hiran,” Hoshang called from the fading light of the square window. She didn’t hear him. Her mouth moved inaudibly, counting stitches. He was aware of how his sweat was cool and hot at once, his throat like sandpaper. The wind in the trees and the rush of the stream nearby were caught and threaded by the delicate click of his cousin’s needles, into the soundscape of their truth…

His own hands, dirt-edged nails on cracked and blackened fingers, had proved him a farmer and a hunter. These hands could even belong to a sailor or soldier, so hard did he work them. And he knew – with certainty – that he would be able to make what Hiran was making. That he would even be willing to sit, like her, for hours at it, unlike other men and women who’d have thought this a waste of time… Time better spent at the pub or playing cards or dancing. He knew that this could weave the clammy, clumsy strands of dark within him, into a pattern of wholeness.

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Not wanting to disturb Hiran, he turned and walked back the way he’d come. Another day he would ask her to show him how.

Travels in Hue

Scribbles and shots from Hyderabad where I went last week to promote my story about colour.

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The plane

winds a way over

cloud, under

canopies of ether.

Look up,

up from black letters

on a dimming page.

Out to where

aftershocks of day,

brief and radiant as love,

consume the night.

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Bangle shop in Lad Bazaar, Hyderabad

Wrists

Who likes their wrists

encrusted

with iridescent stones?

Not perhaps the child hands

that glue the sharp-edged grits

into their metal tracks;

bought from Bihar, brought

over here in trains

to work.

The bangle-dealer knows

hands of every kind.

Some that make and mould,

others that emerge

from under a sleeve…

Edge carefully through

circlets of glittering colour

and become

beautiful.

The Elephant in the Room

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A week ago, I reposted an opinion piece on my Facebook page. It said that our present government is appointing not-as-well-respected heads to prestigious government institutions. These men and women are in favour with Hindutva groups, and that too would be alright, except that they do not have much of a standing among their peers.

The first comment my post received was from my schooldays friend, Katya. She wrote back an angry rejoinder about “left-of-centre, so-called-liberals” who were “undermining Hinduism” with their criticism of our government that is “just trying to stem the age-old rot” of the previous (secular) governments. She said she hated the word secular, too.

I was shocked by the phrases and the fury. My response was to delete her comment. I worried that the post itself may fuel negativity… in my mind, life, and on my liberal-artist Facebook page!

I deleted the post.

I sat thinking, sifting through albums of memory – pausing to examine pictures from a time when we were 14 years old, like my own daughter is now.

Katya and I were in the ninth standard together at a school in Bangalore: both of us slender children, of medium height. I was below average at Maths and Science and quiet, a follower. She was good at every subject, not just Maths and Science. She spoke with an American accent, having just returned from a few years in the U.S, standing out for her quick humour, clever mind and leadership skills. I was in awe of her stories of the boys and girls she’d shared a class with through her years at a public school in Alabama. Our school here was a strictly-run all girls Convent where we wore our ties tight at the neck, and spent most daylight hours in chilly, bare classrooms in a grey granite building. Katya, with her stories and her teasing laugh, stood apart.

She decided to pick on and bully Rina, a stolid curly-haired rather serious classmate, who in the first weeks of the ninth standard was the third member of our group. We crept up on her and littered her curly mop with bits of paper and other waste, and secretly marked her notebooks with ink blots. We wrote her notes, calling her pig-nosed and fat. We ignored her patience with us… an overture of friendship in itself.

That Rina neither confronted nor complained about us seems strange now and I don’t know how, but to this day, I remember the jet-black gaze that followed us unblinkingly. Her dogged silence soon bored Katya into turning to other things. Katya and I continued that year and the next, to be best friends. Rina sat alone for some days, then made new friends. I didn’t notice her much. I didn’t notice anyone that Katya didn’t bother with.

After we graduated from the 10th standard I moved to Chennai to live with my parents and to attend school there.  Katya wrote me long letters full of descriptions and news of her new junior college and her sisters whom I had gotten to know well. I did not reply to any of them.

She phoned up months later to ask me, gently and worriedly, why I would not write back. I said I had been busy, and not knowing what to else to say, she asked me to write to her sometimes and hung up the phone. Bullying Rina had left me with guilt that I did not want to deal with. I’d been bullied in my earlier years in school so perhaps the feeling was magnified.

Years went by and we lost touch. Then I moved to Mumbai to study for a degree in English Literature. I had a cousin in Pune and through other friends, Katya and I crossed paths again.

Being young and free in Pune meant breezy scooter rides, steaming cups of chai and vada pav under the trees at the outdoor canteen at Pune university, and discussing books and boyfriends and well, life, late into the night.

Katya and I started anew. Slender 19-year-olds, light-hearted with tentative ideas of the world. She was a bit under confident, had become a keen listener and laughed very easily, especially at herself.

She was in love and talked about him all the time. She’d given him a funny nickname after an Enid Blyton character and told many sweet stories about their friendship.

He left her and she was like a lost child: bewildered. The smile remained, but it was shadowed, though she never cried in front of her friends.

She left Pune after completing a Masters degree in Science and over time, I stopped going to that city. The old haunts, so ordinary without Katya and the others in our group, would not have been the same.

We kept in touch, this time around, with letters and phone calls. She married a man of her parents’ choice. He was good to her and they were happy together for a time. But his parents treated her in ways she simply could not understand. She wrote that no matter how hard she tried to please them, they were nasty to her. Her husband got a job in the U.S and Katya and he moved away.

By then Katya had developed a weight problem from stress. The slender, yoga-keen girl I knew, who was completely vegetarian and never ate from greed, became overweight. She worked out obsessively, cycling and running in the faraway University town where they lived, to lose weight but also to counter depression. When she’d eventually fought her way through her issues with her in-laws, she had a baby. There was trouble after trouble, with her health, her little son’s, her husband’s, her parents’ health and bad luck with jobs and money. For me by now also busy with my growing children, her life’s troubles were beginning to blur into phrases of lament on sms.  Until the day she sent an sms that said, how much more ill luck will god give my son? On top of eczema, he’s been diagnosed with very poor vision.

He has you… God gave you to him, so he is not unlucky, I replied. I think it eased her somehow, that message. She said she hadn’t seen it that way. She would have smiled that shadowed smile. Even though we were far away, in different cities, I imagined it.

In all her conversations with me Katya spoke of an uncle who was a guru to many, who had started a retreat on the banks of a river in a village in Andhra Pradesh. She thought of him as her guru and adviser. I was often glad for his presence in her life. It seemed to give her strength. Was that her introduction to feeling her political identity as a Hindu very strongly? Or her troubles, like the huge boulders you see from the train window when travelling through middle-India’s hill country, that she’d had to grit her teeth and struggle against… I wonder about it all now.

Her Facebook comment and my knee jerk response to it didn’t leave my system. I was uneasy, more at my reaction – my instinctive blocking out of the whole debate – as if I couldn’t address an opposing take on the issue.

Still upset the next day, I went through my Friends list… and found her gone. She had “unfriended” me, possibly right after scripting that comment. While I, the liberal writer, had sat sifting through our memories, as people like me are wont to do, she had used a simpler, unequivocal way to deal with things.

Do I understand her action? Perhaps not, but I accept it. In a liberal, left-of-centre world too, you rave and rant. But the practice of envisaging new worlds and new circumstances helps you concede that each is entitled to her view. And that there are many worlds and no dearth of ways to live and die.

Some questions remain. If not for Facebook, would Katya and I have kept in touch? Perhaps we would have. Possibly our emails and phone calls would have been an exchange of family news, a sharing of confidences. We’d have steered clear of political viewpoints – the elephant in the room. The only animals visible would’ve been her or my child’s stuffed toys and we’d have laughed over those.

The quest for a lost horse at 14,000 feet

Well-worn travel notes on days in Ladakh, meeting women, children, dancing monks and a bodhisattva. One July, many moons ago.

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July 7, Leh

It is the evening of day 3 in Ladakh and finally I want to write. The first day was dedicated to ‘high alti’ sickness as our kind waiter Babloo from Jammu put it. Day 2 was about slowly, stiffly shedding the insecurities and suspicions of city living.

Today was pure peace. Especially now as we saw the sun trail a slow goodbye over the hills and snow clad peaks of the Himalay. There is a brown hill behind the Shanti Stupa. Lit by the orange of the setting sun, it actually shone with brown, grey and green specks. I felt that the surface of the old hill echoes the hide of the elephant and the thick skin of the undersea whale.

Then, even in the death of the day when the mountains were their own colour again, the passing clouds danced, were lifted in swan song. Rolling ones reminescent of the flower-like clouds painted on thankas… one took the shape of an old man in a traditional Ladakhi hat, bending low as if in prayer. Little floating clouds orange in the still, clear blue sky, rose in shapes that changed by the second – from four wild ducks taking flight to a distant horserider from ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’.

Then the wintry breeze swept through my clothes, brushing aside all thoughts but one – to get back to the warm hotel room and grab pen and paper.

Now from my window I see that the sky is all grey, white and some pastel blue. As I write this, the clouds have turned to pouches of snow. In the mountains, summer ends with the day. The only light that remains over this Land of High Passes is the electric crescent moon. Only it is high enough and fortunate to still see the sun.

More interesting than the Shanti Stupa, painted bright for great effect, was the village of Yurdhong on the slopes leading up to the Stupa. There were crops of potato, mustard, cauliflower, carrot and medium-sized trees with foliage like clumps of corn on the cob casting a gentle shade. The stone-and-wood houses overlook lush green fields. Just above eye level, the rugged and rocky hills flank everything.

The Sankar Gompa is quaint and clean, the frescoes are indigo and maroon, woodwork rickety. We met a group of well-turned out older Italian tourists. One handsome man among them held forth on the spread of Buddhism in India, as they rested on the stone steps leading up to the gompa. The glorious evening light lit up the ornate roof and colourful prayer flags strung over the head Lama’s house. A little ahead, in the narrow winding alley that leads into and out of the gompa, in a pile of sand, was a small Ladakhi girl. Round brown curious eyes, bold in her fair, pink-cheeked face, she was drawing with two sticks in the sand.

The visits to gompas are punctuated with friendly old faces. Ladakhis all speak good, if accented Hindi, even the old ones. We visited the Stok Palace and Museum. When approaching this place you see the looming Stok glacier, popular with trekkers. The Museum is well-maintained by the King’s family. The whole thing is built as two stories around an open courtyard with a lovely view of the town of Stok. One room has stone-studded jewellery, ornate headgear and teapots of the kings and queens of the Namgyal dynasty. I most remember the huge pieces of turquoise and coral. Can’t say they were very attractive.

Two more rooms had prayer articles and thankas. Here the concept of the thanka was explained – how the artist, a Buddhist monk would choose a theme, and after prayer and blessings from the Lama, begin at an auspicious time… After the piece is complete, they pray that the spirit of the deity depicted enter the work. One of the rooms of the museum had just the Buddha with his hands in various mudras. Then the paintings of various Bodhisatvas, all placed in another room were amazing, if dimly lit.

There was a smiley old man wandering around opening and closing rooms and issuing tickets. Monks stared curiously and simply, like children.

On the lowermost floor, a door leading away showed a nicely wooded floor, a showcase with good crockery and a large old Alsation dog sleeping in a corner. We guessed that this is where the king’s family still lives. A clean, beautiful, simple dwelling for a king could be come upon only in these mountains that echo with Buddhist prayer. I haven’t seen such a palace anywhere. It is no wonder that photography is strictly forbidden.

We were headed to Mathoo monastry, when at the heart of 12 noon we saw a couple struggling up the barren road. We gave them a ride. He was Simon, an Israeli and she, Juliana an Australian.

Mathoo Gompa is on a hill with a wonderful view. It has everything. The green fields and dwelling places of Mathoo village, flanked by brown hills and snow-capped peaks on one side. On the other, a vast brown desert and distant, continuous rolling hills in the direction of Leh. “Why do monastries always have the best view?” Simon asked. Perhaps they are perched as high as they comfortably can, to be close to their gods. Then again their gods and gurus are infused in the thankas blessed by the Lamas, created with great devotion by the ordained artists.

So we met a group of self-conscious monks at Mathoo. One young man sang Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost, to me in a Ladakhi lilt. They unscrolled a one-storey high thanka of Guru Padmasambhava and played their cymbals and trumpets, amidst some giggling. The older monks chanted seriously. We drove back to Leh, hot, dry and hungry. It was 1:30 pm and the heat and dust of the desert was upon us.

July 8

What can I say about the trip to Pangong Lake, except that the mountain journey was riotous with rocks of every hue. But most of all, the people of the mountains, the cowherd tribe… the simplicity of the women particularly touches the heart.

Our driver, Mr. Hussain, a big Balti man who never changed his shirt all the time that we were there, said that the cowherd tribe were fools. They were too undemanding of life, he said. They are nomadic, moving from one green artery to the next on the higher inclines in the heart of these harsh mountains. They live purely off their livestock. Maybe they could have a better life in the cities, but they are content.

We gave a ride to one shy woman and dropped her a couple of kilometers away. Smiling, she told our driver in Ladakhi that her horse was lost in the mountains. She was trying to find it, so she’d hitched a ride with us to the general location it had last been spotted.

The quest for a lost horse at 14,000 feet, spanning those sprawling, rocky, rugged mountains! Here, searching for a misplaced rubber band in the bathroom puts me in the worst of spirits.

Yesterday the hotel owner took us to see a traditional kitchen. There too there was the customary homemaker bustling quietly around, her kitchen garden lush, her kitchen clean and aromatic. Just a simple smile and ‘julay’ for us visitors.

The owner, Sonam Chespal, told us about his mother, just fifth standard pass and an active social worker. She helped to found the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, was the Director for a while and is now heading the Ladakh Buddhist Association. She works on traditional handicraft skills, laying stress on preserving Ladakh’s indigenous traditions of language, dress, attitude. She goes from village to far-flung village.

July 10

Went for day two of the Hemis festival. It was more a parade of people from so many ethnic groups and cultures. Everyone was curious. Most were decidedly let down by the incomprehensible masked dancers. It was one big question mark.

But there is so much associated mythology, so many stories we don’t know. None among the maroon and yellow-clad monks explained. The ‘director’ of the show definitely showed his ire at the crowd, hitting a pesky photographing tourist with his staff every time the man ran into the dancers’ performance space. Then there was this bullying boy wearing a large mask who fell upon tourists with his red stole. It meant a blessing that they had to then pay for in currency notes. The foreigners were comic in their response – the older ones stiffly angered and the young ones prancing about with him, hugging him back, refusing merrily to pay. I glared at the mask’s eyes, daring him to come near. Years of dealing with beggars at Mumbai’s signals were showing!

Before the event started there was a crowd gathered around one spot. Mostly photographers, pushing each other, competitive like they were in a ration queue fighting for the last kilo of rice. I asked a few people what was going on. No one answered. Then we pushed forward and saw it was an old couple from a remote part of Ladakh. They were dressed in traditional costume, squatting against the wall in a corner. Posing or just sitting I could not say. They were the cynosure of the cameras with their sophisticated lenses. Old people with thick glasses, squinting short-sightedly about. It seemed not right somehow, crowding to capture in an instant, culture and a people centuries old.

Even as I write this, the colours of beautiful Thiksey are before my eyes. Mustard and maroon walls intricately painted with the icons of Buddhism – the dragons, the Buddhas, the Dorjes, the Bodhisattvas…

In one dark, low-roofed sanctum was a golden Maitreya Buddha, sitting in padmaasan. More striking, indeed unforgettable was the life-like Avalokiteshwara on his right. The statue was also gold, maybe 8 feet tall. It stood next to a small opening in the wall. A single shaft of light lit it dimly, it was mostly in shadow. Long faced, neither male nor female, slender-featured with a hypnotic gaze, was the Buddha of Compassion.

“Kaali?” One ill-informed foreigner asked me. I shook my head. I could not take my eyes off this Buddha. I also could not shake the feeling that the figure was alive and watching me back.

A Few Good Men

Yesterday I went for a run on the beach in the rain. My first run in the rain, this monsoon: The grey sky, thrashing waves and open wind on (garbage strewn) Juhu beach, were deliciously enervating.

It’s been raining heavily in Mumbai since the start of the monsoon, around June 7th, and hasn’t let up a single day. Still, Mumbai folks, save for two days last week, waded their way (wielding various pieces of raingear), to schools and to workplaces. Yesterday the fasting month of Ramzan began and this morning, school children celebrated Yoga Day, saluting the absent sun with surya namaskars.

But this piece is less about rain in Mumbai, and more about a particular man in my 14-year-old daughter’s life. How he sees rains in Mumbai, is an interesting signpost to his personality.

Our athletics coach, Firoz Ustad (32) has been an affectionate and awe inspiring part of our lives for six years now. Come rain or shine, Firoz Sir trains his group of about 25 students (including my daughter) on the road, at the muddy Mhatre ground and on Juhu beach.

Last Saturday, a rainy morning, a parent called Manish Parekh phoned Firoz Sir at 6:15 am.

“Sir, is there training?”

Firoz: ”Why?”

Manish: ”Because it’s raining.”

Firoz: ”Training will be cancelled when the floods come – and I’ll let you know when that happens.”

Manish and I cackled over this as we walked together on the drizzly beach this Saturday. The same evening, our daughters returned here to train in pouring rain, soaked to the skin, their shoes waterlogged – miserable as cats.

The way to winning your race is by never losing out on a single training session, unless your coach gives you time off. That’s Firoz’ way. As far I know, Firoz, who was an athlete and cricketeer himself, never let a single day of Ramzan go by without keeping Roza. He would train hard without food and water. It’s about commitment and developing resilience/ strength of mind.

Even as there is a formidable side to the young man, there is a desperately gentle side that many of us that interact with him everyday, sense about him. He’s kind to our children, bending to tie the littlest one’s shoelaces, to jog along with the least talented runner, knowing she will never perform in the competitive arena, but deserves encouragement anyway. He brings an egg roll or a chicken sandwich for the vegetarian children (with parental consent), to nourish them after the gym sessions. He prays at the Mahim dargah for any of his athletes or their family members that may be facing trouble – health, personal or professional.

And then, there are Vijay and Prakash, the young men that shadow him. Vijay is a dark, muscular young man from a distant slum colony, who came to Firoz two years ago to train under him. Men’s athletics is highly competitive and although Vijay is quite fast, he realised soon enough that he wouldn’t make it as a professional athlete. After much joining and leaving training (it takes a lot to stick around, given the number of hours in the day you have to train and the food you need in order to sustain it), and also his desperate need for livelihood… Vijay recently returned, to stay. When he is by Firoz’ side, he displays an unspoken adherence and respect. He seems to listen constantly for what Firoz might need from him.

Vijay rides five kilometres on his cycle to get to our training venues by 5:15 am every morning. Recognising his need for livelihood, Firoz lets him take fitness sessions for some of the grown-ups who accompany our runner kids. Vijay is terrifically diligent. He performs each exercise with gusto, even as he instructs his students only in English… what English he knows is enunciated sans articles, but most sincerely. And whatever his daily circumstances – a widowed mother who works as a cleaner, an alcoholic brother – Vijay smiles a lot.

Firoz, on the other hand, scowls a lot.

Now about Prakash. Prakash is a short man, about 4 feet ten inches. He always wears a loose white t-shirt and loose yellow shorts that come up to his knees, from under which very thin but muscular, veined calves emerge. He has a head of flat, curly hair. A small smile hovers hesitantly on his bony face. The eyes are hooded with secrets. He barely speaks. He makes his way by bus and on foot , to training, and never accepts more than a lift from anyone. Not a pair of shoes (he runs barefoot), not food, nor even a sip of water.

Firoz says Prakash is somewhat eccentric. He’s tried asking him to wear shoes and to eat better, but the young man simply shakes his head. One day he brought results of his psychological tests to show his coach. Firoz read them, placed them back in their cover and handed them back to Prakash, with instructions to be on time for training the next day.

A month ago, walking down the beach, to my surprise, Prakash was running with a group of state athletes from a different coaching group. The other coach is Firoz’ unofficial rival… older and more established in the athletics scene. He officiates at local meets and is slated to head a local athletics association as soon as the current head retires. What was Prakash doing with his group? I smiled hesitantly at Prakash. A hint of unease passed over his face and he didn’t smile back.

When I returned to our part of the beach, I found a group of angry parents and athletes all discussing how Prakash had been a spy in our midst! He must have trained with Firoz in order to figure out his training routine and pass the information to the other coach. Firoz had spotted him too. He was worried and strangely, regretful. ”When he stopped coming some days ago, I called him up,” he told me. ”I felt guilty that I hadn’t managed to pay him anything.”

”Pay him,” I exclaimed. ”Why would you pay him? He was getting trained for free already!”

”No, but he needs to earn,” Firoz said. ”I told him to come back and that I’d figure something out for him…”

We parents were not as calm or self-reflective. ”I’m going to go speak with that fellow!” ”What does he think of himself?” ”He can’t get away with this…” But no one actually went down the beach again to collar scrawny, shifty Prakash. It was as if he wasn’t really worth the effort.

Then a couple of weeks ago, at the shed where our kids do their drills training, Prakash was back and training with our group again.

”Inky pinky ponky or what!” exclaimed a parent indignantly, referring to the rhyme that kids use to select a team at the start of each game. Prakash seemed to be swinging between the two rival groups at his whim. And how was Firoz Sir allowing him to come and train here with us again, knowing he could be a spy!

It was 7:30 am and in the brief pause between one drill and the next, I motioned towards Prakash and asked Firoz, ”what’s he doing here?” Firoz’ face was very young at that moment. His brow was unfurrowed. He smiled just a little, shrugged and said, ”who am I to tell him not to come?”

It takes a few good men (and women) to make the long days in the rainy city worth living. I feel I’m lucky to meet them at athletics training every morning.

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Often my story

The rains in Mumbai call to mind an idyllic monsoon week spent in Pokhara, Nepal, many years ago. Then too, I was playing in my head with stories, like they were clods of earth that could grow, quite organically, into a mountain.

Hard to accept that when the earth quaked the mountain must have trembled, raining clods…

Here’s something I wrote then, about a story and the mountain –

Often my story

begins like dawn,

is like a baby born,

Or runs in breathless late.

But today she’s gone

To sip morning tea

at a small café

by the lake in Pokhara.

The waiters watch

This one alone, resting in the steam from her tea.

Her gaze stays on the cloud

That swathes it head to toe…

She sits waiting

for the fish-tailed peak

of the Annapoorna

to show.