Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sorry for the interruption!

I was surfing through the TV channels last week when I happened to catch sight of Doordarshan (DD), the only channel on our TV sets all through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. 

It was weird yet strangely comforting to see the old and once-familiar fixture on TV. Nothing had changed. The sets were still the same. The production effects had remained unchanged. The quality of the programming was as it used to be 30 years ago. 

In the 10 minutes I spent staring at the screen, re-living the nostalgia for all it was worth, the mandarins at DD were gracious enough to show me that frame with the cartoon, Rukawat ke liye khed hai. Hindi for — Sorry for the interruption. 

It took me back in time. I remembered those days from what now seems like an age ago when DD would often get its act wrong and the grownups would fume and wait for the problem to be rectified. There was nothing to do but wait. 

There was no remote control to be fought over, no other channel that you could turn to for respite. Nothing but DD across the vast expanse of television.

While the adults fretted and waited, we children would rush out of the house. The playing fields beckoned us. We used to play games like Hide-and-seek, Hopscotch (langdi), Blind man’s bluff, Dog and the bone, I spy, Leapfrog, Simon says (Shivaji mhannto), Cops and Robbers (chor police), Musical chairs, Human chain, Kabaddi, Kho kho and Lagori and numerous other games whose names I have to dredge out from the deepest recesses of my memory.

No special equipment was required for any of these games. All you needed to bring to the playground was huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm and whoops of delight and laughter. You didn't even need a playground. We got along mighty fine, playing in one another's houses, or on staircase landings. 

Certain games were the preserve of the girls. They included skipping sessions, cat's cradle, played with a long string looped around the two thumbs and fingers, Oranges and Lemons etc. Does anyone remember Fire on the mountain, run, run, run?

Chinese whispers was frowned upon by the boys that we grew up with, most of whom were the brothers of the girls. As a child, I often thought that the reason boys didn't like this game was because they were too competitive and they could not stomach the idea of a game in which there was no winner.
Boys had their own games which were generally out of bounds for the girls. They used to play marbles. Dodge ball (aba dubi) was another favourite of the boys. They seemed to derive some perverse pleasure out of assaulting one another with a ball, while trying to escape being hit themselves. The boys who were hit during the course of this game used to howl in pain, and forget the pain a moment later when they realised that the ball was now in their hands and it was payback time.

No one went home until they were called by their mothers at least three times, and then they reluctantly trudged home with the air of someone to whom a great injustice had been done.

We used to spend all our holidays and free time scampering about and frolicking. When we were exhausted from playing, we invented games. When it rained, we played noughts and crosses, snakes and ladders, carrom. Most of us had a pack of playing cards. Some afternoons, we enjoyed refreshing siestas. Other days we read — comics, novels, magazines. We expanded our minds. 

I am not saying there was nothing worth watching on DD. There were gems like Wagle ki Duniya, Giant Robot, Rajani, Malgudi Days, Jungle Book, Flop Show, Karamchand, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Bharat Ek Khoj, Surabhi, Mile sur mera tumhara, the I love Lucy series etc that were very entertaining. 

Chhayageet and chitrahaar had huge fan followings. As did Sunday evening screenings of Hindi films and Sunday afternoon screenings of regional films. 

But generally there were so few entertainment options that we often sat through the News magazine for the hearing impaired. Sometimes we were so desperate for something to watch on TV that we used to sit impatiently through the warmup sessions that DD subjected us to. 

Remember that screen with the vertical colour stripes? It used to give way to a black screen and then a red dot which would re-cast itself, twisting this way and that, until it eventually revealed the logo of the channel. All this while the most mournful and depressing signature tune in existence played on.

But the best thing about DD then was that it shut off and said goodbye. It was not a 24-hour monster. It was like a travelling circus. For some hours of the day, the TV stopped being a piece of furniture and came alive. It showed us a few images, played out a few songs, then packed up and left. 

Leaving us with those black and white pixels dancing their crazy dance to the accompaniment of the heavy rain beating down upon an asbestos sheet roof. 

Because of that enforced selective viewing, we had a life outside the idiot box. 

We didn't spend all of our childhoods and growing years in front of it. 

We didn’t sit in front of the television, physically and mentally incapacitated, bored out of our wits, hoping that the next serial, film, cartoon or reality show would be truly worth watching. 

We had friends with whom we enjoyed boisterous playtime sessions. And today we have wonderful memories.

Thank you, Doordarshan, on behalf of all those who were children in the ’70s, ’80s and much of the ’90s. We made fun of you. We laughed at your inadequacies and your incompetencies. We bemoaned the lack of any good entertainment or education options. 

But because of you, we learned to read. 

Because of you, we learned to enjoy playtime with other kids our age. 

And because your programming was interrupted so often, we were able to step outdoors and get on with our lives. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Christmas is most real to a child, perhaps because the Creator of the world came to us in the form of a child.

As children, preparing for Christmas, it was a delight to do something good and not be found out. The parish priest of St John the Baptist Church, Thane, (I think his name was Fr Peter something), came up with an ingenious idea to prepare the Sunday School children for Christmas. While others cleaned their homes, we children should clean our hearts, he said.

He handed each of us a single sheet of paper on which the popular image of a heart, with numerous lines crisscrossing it, was printed. The crisscrossing lines would total up to more than 300 little squares. The idea was that all through Advent, we should do something nice for someone and offer it as our gift to God. With each good deed, we would be permitted to colour one of those little squares. On Christmas Eve, we were encouraged to place our coloured hearts, a symbol of our love for God, in the manger at the church crib. Wrapped as He was in nothing but swaddling robes, our coloured hearts would keep Him warm.

Looking back, I recall that none of my good deeds were really scale-breaking. Sometimes I may have foregone a sweet that my brother wanted. Or I may have given up watching a favourite TV programme and tried to help mum instead.

More than the deed itself, it was the spirit in which it was done that made it significant. For once, we thought of the needs of others, rather than our own. For once, we swallowed our pride and grief, if we were scolded undeservedly. For that one time in the year, we would try our best to be a little less selfish, a little more generous, a little more as God would have us be.

The Wise men came with their gifts. We brought our hearts. It was with a glow in my heart that I would place mine at the manger, knowing without the shadow of a doubt that just as the Babe smiled upon the little drummer boy in one of my favourite Christmas songs, He would look with delight upon me.

My parents never bought us gifts at Christmas. Partly because our financial circumstances didn't permit it. But more importantly, because we were just not aware of the tradition of buying one another gifts for Christmas. The way my parents taught us to view Christmas, the focus was always on the Birthday Boy, whose birth transformed the world.

So the tradition of piling up neatly wrapped gifts at the foot of the Christmas tree and pretending it was Santa Claus who had bought them for us never featured in our memories of Christmas Past. In fact, for a very long time, we didn't even have a Christmas tree.

Dad used to make a crib, a small visual representation of the Nativity. It was a small house that Dad had fashioned out of leftover plywood. It wasn't at all ramshackle as the real one must have been, but that was because Dad had good carpentry skills. With loving hands, he would smooth sawdust on the floor, place the thatched and stitched roof on top of the house and put the little statues in their positions. Even as he tried his best to make the little house as comfortable as possible, he would tell us, "The real stable must have been dirty and smelly. Imagine the trouble that Our Lord willingly accepted for our sake."

All through Advent, my excitement would be steadily built up, rising in intensity as Mum made a different Christmas sweet each day for our kuswar (Christmas goodies). One day, it would be neureos, then perad the next day, dodol the day after, and cake and kormolan the next. The following day, it would be two types of doce (the Portuguese word for sweet). one made of chana dal, and the other of local bread or pao. They were both my favourites, chonya doce and unddya doce, unddo meaning the Konkani word for bread. This would be followed by batk or bolinhas. For the local flavour, Mum would make chaklis and besan laddoos and our basket of Christmas goodies would be complete.

Day after day, our little home would be redolent with the aromas of all these sweets. It was another reminder that Christmas was approaching. As these Christmas goodies were being made at home, I would go to school with a heavy heart. Somehow it seemed unfair to miss all the excitement even for a few hours.

Incidentally, one of my cousins, so went a famous family story, apparently wrapped up a school exam in a fraction of the time allotted to write it because she did not want to miss out on the kormola making at home. While it was a very amusing story that never failed to bring on the laughs, dear cousin, if you read this, I want you to know that I thought your action was thoroughly excusable. :)

Meanwhile, Dad would decorate our little house with colourful buntings and balloons, even as Christmas carols would be playing on our little tape recorder. Mum would sew Christmas dresses for the two of us. The finishing touches would be put at the very last minute, often because there was so much that she had to do, while managing her sewing business too.

While these preparations were on, my excitement would be muffled, under wraps. It was only when Dad got the crib ready, often the last step in our Christmas decorations, that the warm feeling in my heart would smoulder into a full-blown fire.

Those childhood Christmases were beautiful. I remember the thrill that used to come over me at Mass on the first Sunday of Advent when the choir would sing, "Bestir thy power, and come, Lord, to save thy sin-laden race." It used to be my cue to give in to unmitigated joy and excitement because my favourite time of the year was finally here.

Truly, there is no Christmas like the one experienced by children. One casualty of being a grown-up is that unfortunately we lose the tenderness and affection that we used to experience as children. We lose the warm Christmassy feeling and merely end up keeping the date.

This year, I resolve to change all that. I resolve to become a child again at Christmas time. I resolve to re-live the excitement that was mine, all those years ago, and to share in the delight of my little daughter and son and two nephews. I resolve to open my heart again so that when I peer into the crib and look at the little Babe lying in the manger, I can feel content that I have made my heart a fit dwelling for Him.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am grateful for. . .

Two days short of the third anniversary of the heinous terror attack on Mumbai, I want to express my gratitude for:

Life: So many people go to bed and sleep such a deep sleep that the screechiest of alarms cannot rouse them.

The well-being of my dear ones. The scourge of terrorism is an undeniable reality in our lives. So many people have been killed; so many more are grieving. No country is safe.

The courage of my fellow Mumbaikars who leave home every morning unaware about whether they will return. (Unfortunately, it is courage tempered with helplessness. "If we don't work, we can't survive in this city," said a hawker outside Leopold Cafe. "What's courage got to do with it?)

The bravery of Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte, Tukaram Omble, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and his fellow commandos of the National Security Guards, personnel from the Rapid Action Force, the Army and Marine Commandos. Had they not stood in the line of fire, the casualties would have been much higher.

The concern of Indian Hotels Company, the company that runs the Taj group of hotels. Despite being a victim on its home turf, the company empathised with the less fortunate and set up the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust to aid the victims of the 26/11/2008 terror attack and their relatives, and those affected by any manmade or natural disasters in the future. Read more about them HERE.

Members of our armed forces, the Coast Guard and, policeman, and commandos everywhere, who put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I am grateful for. . .

The gift of my children for it helped me understand my parents' love.

The privilege of being able to witness and take delight in my children's growth milestones.

Friends with whom I can yap for hours at a time, with whom saying goodbyes takes forever because there is always something that must be said before we are willing to part.

Old photographs. They are always good for laughs. Incidentally, man is the only creature that can laugh or needs to.

The Internet. Manually exploring the world would have demanded many more lifetimes. And staying in touch with long-lost friends would have been well-nigh impossible.

The riot of colour and smell that is an Indian vegetable market. The sight is a visual reminder to me that God created a world of abundance.

For St Xavier's College, Bombay, my alma mater.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I am grateful for. . .

My kids. No matter how badly the day has treated me, no matter how dishevelled my hair and rumpled my attire may be, they want to leap into my arms as soon as I show up at the door.

Friends to whom you need neither apologise nor make excuses if you have been Missing In Action for too long.

The music of the '70s and the '80s, which unfailingly takes me back to my childhood.

Libraries and websites offering links to books. I can neither buy nor store all the books that I would like to read.

The blue of the deep blue sea and the myriad hues of green that surround us everywhere. Both succeed in soothing me.

The smell of freshly baked bread.

The taste of cool water on a hot, sweltering summer's day. No cola or flavoured drink can quench a parched throat as well as water can.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Who did I meet today?

Nine am on a trafficless road a few blocks away from my office building: I was ambling along slowly, marvelling over how desolate the road appeared. It seemed as if the world wasn't up yet? Was I early? I checked my watch. The dial indicated 9.05 am.

Where then were all the people? Did everyone have a day off? Was today a holiday that I had forgotten about? Or had aliens abducted all those who worked on this street?

I was walking along the pavement, pondering over these mysteries when a vagabond, hobo, bum, call him what you will, suddenly sprang up just a few inches in front of me. Shaggy and rough he was, with a beard that tapered as it reached the top of his scant belly.

He had seemed to materialise out of nowhere. In truth, he must have just sprung up from the platform of an adjoining shopfront where he must have been sitting.

He was so gaunt that I could have knocked him down with my elbow. And yet I stood there dazed, wondering what I was going to do if he attacked me. Where are the crowds when you need them?

He stared at me for the briefest of seconds and then his lips parted to reveal a set of off-white teeth.

And then he spoke. "Hello, girl, I am God."

With that, he sprinted away as fast as he could. Relieved, I laughed aloud and turned to look after him. I was still laughing when a middle-aged office-goer turned the corner and came face to face with me. My laughter must have sounded unreal to him because he turned to look at what had so amused me. There was no one there.

I turned away, as the strains of a Joan Osbourne classic drifted into memory. "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us, Just a stranger on the bus, Trying to find his way home."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Back after a long hiatus. Hopefully back for good

Writing is the hardest work in the world. It requires one to stare at a piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead, said a far wiser mind than mine.

When I just started on my freelance career, I would naively answer the question, "What do you do?" with one standard response — "I write." For my pains, I would be greeted with an incredulous stare once in a while, and derisive laughter more often. When the initial reaction subsided, which was very soon, I would be told, "Ha! I write too. Everybody writes. No big deal about it. It's the easiest thing in the world. Now what is it that you really do?"

So to rephrase the opening line, writing is the hardest work in the world. For a writer, that is. The others get along mighty fine, writing lists, notes, letters, emails, smses, accounts and a hundred other things without a care in the world. Only writers tear their hair out over what to write, which word to put first, which is the better word, struggling over the fumbling incompetence of the pen (or the keyboard) even as epics and magnum opuses inside our heads raise a noisy clamour, beating down upon the walls of our minds, shrieking to be let out.

If that isn't bad enough, one struggles with the mundaneness of life. Muses go underground and inspiration gently snores as we juggle the menace of writer's blocks with the need to cook meals, clean homes, nurture families and children, hold jobs, earn wages, commute in cattle-class conditions (this one especially if you live in Mumbai and need to take the train to get anywhere), keep up with friends, eat, sleep, pray.

Writing is a very fragile art. The creative spark will not stand and jostle with the rowdiness of the marketplace. Nor will it come with a flourish if you park yourself in front of a blank sheet of paper. It cannot be summoned. It comes unbidden, sometimes at odd hours and odd places. That is why they tell you to have a notebook handy. How many gems haven't I lost because I didn't write them down and trusted in my memory to retrieve them at will?

Great writers fight the ennui by giving in to their own individual quirks, to which they cling with pride. Edgar Allan Poe wrote with a cat on his shoulder. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Nabokov wrote standing up. Colette picked the fleas of her cat and then wrote. Friedrich Von Schiller kept rotten apples under the cover of his desk. Then when he needed inspiration, all he had to do was open the lid, take a deep breath and voila! Inspiration came with a rush.

What do I have to offer in comparison? Just the desire to write longhand even though I have the computer’s word processor at my disposal. Pretty tame, I think.

My laziness and desire to procrastinate have served me right. From now on, I shall discipline myself to the rigours of the writer's life. I will cook and clean and put excitable children to bed and even as I do that, I will watch with bated breath for inspiration to strike. And I shall be prepared.

If you've been with me so far, I'd appreciate it if you would drop by occasionally and say some cheery words to me in the Comments section. The writing life imposes a solitude of sorts. One can get so lost amid the characters and world that are of one's own creation that it is a pleasure to know that one is not ranting in a wilderness.


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