Saturday, December 29, 2012

Down with the moustache

The Husband was standing in front of the mirror, admiring his moustache and three-day-old stubble. La Niña, all of three years old then, and I looked at each other helplessly. We had just finished impressing upon him the need to shave off his moustache.


The Husband refused to do away with the moustache. He named some random people, strangers to me, who had admired his facial hair. We grasped the opportunity to remind him that we were the most important women in his life and that that fact gave our vote considerably more weight. But he only chuckled in our faces and said, “Pran jaaye par chehre ki shaan na jaaye (Gobbledygook about how the moustache should be cared for more than life itself).”

The corners of our mouths twitched downwards. But there was nothing we could do. Right then, of course. But the fight was far from over. He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day, one practice sentence in my Wren and Martin had proclaimed ages ago. I recalled it, applied it to my situation and bided my time.

It had all started in April 2011, when I returned home from the hospital, after giving birth to El Niño. Tired and exhausted as only the mother of a newborn can be, it was some days before I noticed that there was more hair on the Husband’s face than there ought to have been. He began by denying it. Mind you, he sought to deny the very existence of the moustache and stubble, even though it was clearly visible even to my bleary, sleep-deprived eyes.

After some days of denial, he proceeded to the next stage. He said, there was hair on his upper lip and cheeks of course, but it was nothing. After all, I wasn’t the only one who was sleep-deprived. Did I think he snored each time El Niño kept the neighbourhood awake in the middle of the night? Wasn’t I aware how hard new fatherhood could be? Or was I selfish enough to think only motherhood was the tough job? Surely I didn’t expect him to waste his time on grooming himself when all his instincts called him to be useful around the house?

I cowered back, ashamed of myself for having sought to sling mud on a hero who was obviously so perfect. And he exulted, thrilled with my shamefacedness.

For a few more weeks, I willed myself not to nag him about his whiskers. Cut him some slack, I told myself. If he is honest, he will mow the lawn on his face. If not, the attack may resume.

“Tomorrow I will shave it off,” he began to insist to each of my entreaties that he take off the unwanted foliage. But as Wren and Martin always warned us in the section on Tenses, Tomorrow never comes.

Or more importantly, hundreds of Tomorrows came and went, and the illegal encroachments continued to thrive.

Once I decided to use some force. Off to the bathroom you go, I commanded, and the next time I set eyes upon your face, it should be clean shaven. To my surprise, he actually got up and walked towards the bathroom, the picture of meek obedience. La Niña and I high-fived each other.

A few minutes later, when I peeked into the bathroom to see what was taking him so long, I was horrified to see him trimming, with a tiny pair of scissors, the fuzz below his nose. If you sent off your most trusted lieutenant to demolish some unauthorized slums that had sprung up in your neighbourhood, and you caught him issuing ration cards and voter identity cards to them, how would you feel? The Husband was actually cultivating a relationship with his moustache. I was aghast.

The worst thing was that my repeated threats that I would use the one trump card I had didn’t work at all. Twirling the ends of his moustache to a sharp swirl, not unlike a Hindi film villain of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he said, “You can do what you like. The moustache is going to stay.” And then, with a wink in his eye, he added, “And your threats mean nothing to me. I’m the one with the moustache. I call the shots here. My wish is your command.”

“Only if wishes were horses,” I said, resorting to good old Wren and Martin again.

But I knew that argument had not gone the way I wanted it to. If you were to seek to intimidate your opponent with your trump card, and he were to make off with it, how would you feel?

Sadly this is all the fault of Indian traditions. In India, a moustache, and/or beard, is seen as a symbol of virility and power. No wonder that for the longest time the Guinness title for the world’s longest moustache was held by an Indian. I bet no other nationality even tried to compete in the category.

While my mind dwelt on these thoughts, I was still clueless about why the Husband was letting this undergrowth thrive. And then I got to know the real reason. I got it from C who got it from B who got it from A who got it from the Husband, (Talk about stale news and Chinese whispers). Apparently, someone told the Husband that he looked too young to be the father of two children. So the mooch was a hasty attempt to earn some credibility for himself as a mature person, who could be responsible for the well being of two brand new people.

The motive brought a smile to my face, but my mind was made up. The facial shrubbery had to go. Earlier I had thought it would be wrong on my part to involve La Niña in this quarrel. But then I remembered what Winston Churchill had once said during the World War. “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills.”

If Churchill, with all the armies and ammunition at his disposal, could still look for allies and mount a multi-pronged attack on the enemy, why was it wrong if I involved her in the fight against the fuzz?

La Niña dutifully obliged. She refused to let Dadda Dearest kiss her or hug her or hold her tight, complaining that his moustache hurt her soft skin. I played my part.

Did he lunge for the nearest shaver?

And give up his symbolic power? No way.

But one fine day, La Niña and I returned home from a trip to the park and found him clean shaven. He said he had been trying to shave around his moustache and had ended up shaving a little too much.

Sure. If that’s how you want to put it.


This post is a part of the 'Shave or Crave' movement in association with

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Title: The Devil's Madonna
Author: Sharon Potts
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing

At long last, a novel that is a page-turner in every sense of the word. This one was the 'unputdownable' we always keep hearing about. The plot offered a delicious surprise at every step of the way.
Kali, a young artist, is expecting her first child with her husband Seth Miller. Happy and contented both in the marriage as well as her work as an artist, there is nevertheless an emptiness within her heart as she aches to know more about her family’s heritage and history. The loss of her parents and grandfather at a young age and the reluctance of her 93-year-old grandmother Lillian Campbell, her only living relative, to share any information about the past have always left her nursing a sense of loss and disconnection. She therefore eagerly embraces Judaism, her husband’s faith, in an attempt to restore to herself the sense of belonging that she has never felt.
When Lillian lights dozens of sacred Yahrzeit Memorial candles, the traditional Jewish symbol of repentance, and nearly burns down the house and endangers herself, Kali becomes aware of the increasing paranoia that is consuming her grandmother. She realizes that the elderly woman is in thrall of some fear associated with something unsavoury in her past. When her inlaws and husband hint that Lillian may have been repenting for some misdeed to do with the Holocaust, Kali defends her grandmother strongly.
Assuming the role of a caregiver to her grandmother, Kali becomes aware of Lillian’s fears for her own life and for Kali and her unborn child. Her attempts to question Lillian drive the older woman into a world of nightmares. Kali is unsure if the fears are an effect of Lillian’s illness and the onset of dementia, or if something sinister is afoot.
Meanwhile concern for her grandmother and the reappearance of an old childhood friend, Neil, drive a wedge between Kali and Seth. And the dangerous games being planned and played out by geriatric specialist Javier Guzmann portend a realisation of Lillian’s greatest fears. Kali’s attempts to search her grandmother’s house lead her to a small painting. The final revelation of the horrible secret that has tortured Lillian all her life exposes Kali and her unborn baby in turn to the danger that her grandmother has feared all her life.
We, as readers, are able to piece together the details of Lillian’s mysterious past in Berlin in the 1930s through her senile mutterings and the dream-like memories of her befuddled mind. Through these ravings, it becomes clear to us, but not to Kali, that she is desperately trying to hide from something or someone. Someone who knew her at a time when she was Lili Lenz, a 20-year-old actress in Germany. Someone who has waited for many decades for the opportunity to trace her whereabouts and destroy her.
As readers, we feel torn between our knowledge of the nefariousness of Guzmann’s intentions and our inability to protect Kali, who is not only vulnerable, by virtue of her pregnancy, but also in immediate danger.
I found the writing of this book very fluid. Potts has shown herself a master at building atmosphere and creating tension. As Kali’s support structures begin to fall back all around, one gets a terrifying sense of the walls closing in on the vulnerable Kali.
The only false note in the narrative was sounded when Javier Guzmann got into flashback mode and looked back on himself as an 11-year-old boy bullied at school. While Potts succeeded in painting Guzmann as a menacing and dangerous man, I could not quite get a grip on why he should have sought to make his father’s desperate struggles his own. His own attempts to win over his estranged son were another subplot that wasn’t tied up well.
I must also admit that at first I was slightly disappointed to learn that there would be no happy ending for Kali, that, bereft of all her support systems, she would have no choice but to fight her life-and-death battle alone. But as I read on, I was glad that Potts had chosen a not-quite-perfect ending. It was a reminder to me that in the real world, love does not always conquer all, and that the wounds borne by millions of people in what was the darkest period of human history would most certainly have been too poignant to have been set aside like a cloak.
The strong characterization of Kali was tremendously appealing. Incidentally, the young lead is named after Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and empowerment, or shakti. As a woman, I felt pleased to see how Kali took the responsibility of her own safety and that of her child in her own hands, without forcing herself to depend on any man.
The title is a brilliant coup, the significance of which made itself evident only once the heroine was thrust into the biggest crisis of her life. I would heartily recommend this to everyone.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chip of the Old Block

When a child is born, most people start making guesses about which basic template the child’s appearance derives from. Does he/she look like the father or mother? Or maybe the blueprint has been borrowed from the grandparents, or even an old forgotten grand-aunt somewhere?

The face is deconstructed with the eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth and chin compared to its counterpart on the parents’ faces. Similarities and differences are minutely observed and a quick analysis made and dispensed with reference to the other parts of the body, such as the length of the fingers, the shape and size of the toes and the quantity and quality of the hair.
Regardless of the fact that the facial features of little babies alter almost on a daily basis, relatives and other acquaintances take particular pleasure in dissecting the face of the little one to find resemblance with family members, living or dead.
When La Niña was born, we had a lot of visitors from the Husband’s side. All of them insisted that the wee one was a spitting image of him. In fact, for much of La Niña’s early years, I would hear people gush, “Ooh, she’s a 100 percent carbon copy of him (meaning, the Husband).” Lest that not be enough for me, they would re-phrase for my benefit. “She is nothing like you.” This behaviour continues to this day. Just last month, we visited one of his relatives. The woman said to me, in the middle of a totally unrelated subject, “No one will ever say she is your daughter.”
Such comments, of course, pleased the Husband and he preened proudly. I, on the other hand, would be, despite my best intentions, hurt and disappointed.
As she grew, La Niña exhibited a bit of a sweet tooth. This tendency created a tiny flutter amid a family where almost everyone preferred spicy food. “This is a strange tendency,” they muttered. “Where could she have got it from?” The question perplexed them for a while. No one paid the slightest attention to me.
For a while they racked their brains, shaking their family tree vigorously, naming one distant relative after another, in the hope of throwing some light on the progenitor of this tendency.I watched the guessing game, my patience wearing thin. Finally I asked hesitantly, “Has it ever occurred to you that, in some respects, she may have taken after someone who isn’t from her father’s side of the family?” Their eyebrows rose in genuine surprise. I continued, “She could have taken after me.” Horrors! They reacted violently as though I’d just suggested that the courier boy or the milkman was the only other person in living memory who shared her fondness for sweets.
On a rare occasion, a friend mentioned that although La Niña more closely resembled the Husband, her nose was unmistakably mine. Rational as I am, I clung to that suggestion with a tenacity that would have been laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic.
Looking back, I wonder why I allowed myself to feel so disappointed and/or elated at such a trivial matter. It was indeed a most unreasonable expectation. How did it matter if La Niña looked like me or not? Why was I allowing other people’s perceptions to upset my mood? The notes of a rather cheesy Bollywood song, Tune mera doodh piya hai, tu bilkul mere jaisa hai (I have nursed you at my breast, you are just like me), wafted into memory.
Children, I told myself, are never going to be a 50:50 percent mix of both parents. There are factors known as dominant genes and recessive genes that are going to assert themselves in varying degrees. And yet we human beings, naïve as we are, take pleasure in hoping that our children will look exactly like us. The idea that elements from our gene pool are going to be perpetuated carries huge appeal for us. Even as growing children, we begin to appreciate the significance of being told that we are just like our parents.
The other thing I cannot understand is why we as Indians lay so much stress on what the child looks like. What purpose does it serve — this incessant peering into a baby’s face for real or imagined resemblances? Why does a little baby need to measure up to these yardsticks anyway?
Perhaps, at the bottom of it all, we all have a need to feel connected to those who came before us and to those who come after. I’ve had cousins who used to wear their mother’s heels and parade around the house. I know of daughters of teachers who held a ruler in their hands and tried to whack the stuffing out of their stuffed toys.
In the end, our genetic legacies tumble out of their hiding places at most unexpected periods of time. And contrary to the perceptions of some people, they are not limited to body shapes, facial features and graying and balding patterns. We see our children bent upon some task, their foreheads knit in severe concentration, and they remind us of our old grandmother who used to bend over some task in the same pose. We see our kids shouting, painting, enjoying a good book, swooning to the tune of one of our favourite ballads, and they remind us of ourselves, in a long-ago world.
Our temperaments, ways of communicating and listening, sense of humour, perceptions, beliefs and social skills, work ethics, temper, abilities and passions, likes and dislikes, they are all, to varying degrees, inherited. This discovery has done my heart a great deal of good.
I was thrilled to bits when I noted that La Niña, at eight months of age was showing unmistakably that her eyebrows were going to converge over the bridge of her nose. Just the way mine used to back when I was a little girl. La Niña also has my ability to drive her father out of his wits by mere words alone. Every day I discover a hundred things that bind her to me and to my family. The family, I have learned, is a large mirror and we all reflect one another at some time or the other.
So if there is anyone out there who still thinks La Niña is nothing like me, what can I say? You don’t know a thing.

This post was originally written for, on online community for parenting-related issues. You can read the original post HERE.


Title: 14 Hours: An Insider's Account of the 26/11 Taj Attack
Author: Ankur Chawla
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: 164

Four years since time stood still.

Four years since November 26, 2008, the day on which terror attacked Mumbai on multiple fronts and left death and destruction in its wake.

Four years since the terrorists sought to break the spirit of a whole nation by attacking carefully-selected targets across one of its prime cities and unleashing fear and death everywhere.

Those who lost their dear ones on that day sought closure recently when Ajmal Kasab, the lone terrorist captured alive, was executed by the Indian government.

Against this backdrop, we see the launch of 14 Hours: An Insider’s Account of the 26/11 Taj Attack by Ankur Chawla, a survivor of the attack. An operations management trainee at the hotel at the time of the terror attack, Chawla’s book seeks to capture the 14 hours that he was forced to spend in the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel, hiding and in fear. The book, however, leaves a singularly insipid taste in the mouth. 

The style of writing is banal, and it is really hard to believe that the author could actually have spent 14 nerve-wracking hours, fearing for his life. As a piece of reportage, it merely consists of Chawla recounting the events of that night, without giving us any understanding of his feelings as he lived through that horrific night. The fact that this wasn’t an ordinary game of hide-and-seek but one in which they were hiding from the raw fear of death hovering very close doesn't come across to the reader.

Outside the Hindi news channels were going berserk with their pronouncements of maut ka tandav (dance of death). The English news channels, only slightly restrained, drew our attention to the game of mayhem that was being played in the stately halls of the Taj. And yet, Chawla, caught in the cross hairs of that bloodbath, remains curiously unmoved. His narrative is devoid of emotion.

There is no deep sympathy expressed for Karambir Kang, the general manager of the hotel then, who lost his wife and two children (not three, as Chawla has noted) that day.

The Prologue smacked of self-promotion. Chawla started the book by launching off into a detailed description of how he came to do a course in hotel management and how he landed a job at the Taj, as if it were a piece of chick-lit he were attempting.

There are some instances which are funny in spite of the gravity of the situation and Chawla has done a good job of describing these. These incidents include the refusal of the casual hire to part with his phone even though the phone that Chawla is giving him is four times more expensive and the case of another casual hire who is able to fall fast asleep in the midst of the extreme threat.

The cover depicts an image of the iconic dome of the Taj on fire. It is an image that has seared our consciousness. Unfortunately, the narrative fails to live up to the expectations created by that image. Besides the casualness of the narrative, the book also suffers from many typographical and grammatical errors. Through the course of one telephone conversation, Chawla’s mother refers to him as betaji.

Instead of a lengthy prologue, the book would have been better served by an epilogue briefly describing the casualties at the Taj, and the attempts made by the Taj to help those in need of help.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, however, the pace did pick up. It is only then that the gravity of the danger they face seems to assail a lot of the people within. Until then no one is really sure of what has happened, and understandably so. We on the outside had recourse to the media which kept us informed, but for those on the inside, it must have been even more frightening considering the fact that for a long time they did not know what they were up against.

Chawla has also managed to bring out the details of the thousand and one things that are required to keep a 5-star hotel running well.

If only Chawla had avoided the chatty tone and sought to infuse more sensitivity into his account, this would have been a book that I would readily recommend to others.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The last tree speaks

This used to be a forest, you know. A forest where animals prowled and the tiger ruled. For hundreds of years. Now the tiger will never hunt in these parts again and the forest will never be.

Ironically, they have plans for reviving this forest. At least that is what I heard some of them saying. I nurtured faint hopes for a while, particularly when they made some attempts to knock me down and went away. I told myself that they had changed their minds. That I would not be the only tree alive in this vast wasteland. That it would be as it used to be.

The hopes didn’t last long. The bulldozers returned – to finish the work they had started.

And the plans became clear. Apparently, the reason they had demolished the forest is because they planned to clear the land and construct a massive housing complex here. Even to my ears, it sounded ridiculously ambitious. The complex is to consist of more than a 100 buildings of 15 storeys each. They say there is need for this monstrosity.

I heard them describing the layout. The buildings will be spread across this entire 100-hectare area. About 50 yards to my right, they plan to erect a state-of-the-art entertainment and recreation centre called Giggling Stream. Ironically, it was the very site where a giggling stream used to flow for hundreds of years. Until they filled it up in an exercise they called a reclaiming of land. And the real giggling stream was no more.

All around me was a huge grove of trees, mango, coconut, the stately Ashoka, the banyan, the palm tree, the sandalwood tree, and so many others whose names bring tears to my eyes. We all lived together in harmony. Your ancestors were wise people. They believed in green wealth. When they ate our fruits, they were grateful, and they showed their gratitude by plowing the seeds back into the soil and harvesting it with the sweat of their brows.

Ironically this grove will now play host to those apartment buildings that I told you about. And the complex is to be called Natural Harmony. Each building is to have similar names, evoking the beauty and splendour of nature. How strange indeed that while the trees hold no appeal for them, humans are hugely enamoured of the monstrosities that will sport our names!

You see, the builders like to prove that they are cultured folk. So some of those names will be in Sanskrit and others in English, and some others in Spanish and Italian, but all will evoke nature. I also overheard them say that the entrance to each building will be graced by an interesting fibre glass display which will offer glimpses into the origins and uses of the specific tree that the building is named after. That’s good, huh? That will give your children the chance to know more about the gulmohar and the mimosa and other trees. It will give the residents the illusion that they are truly surrounded by nature.

A team of landscape designers has been contracted to work on the site. This looks like a wasteland right now. But that will soon change. These landscaping chaps will transform the area. Once the buildings are constructed, they will swoop down, and work their magic. Freshly manicured lawns will unfold and beautiful potted plants will be placed at certain sites to enhance the beauty of the place.

In a matter of days, no less. It will be so much of an improvement over us trees that used to hold sway here. At least, that is the message the brochures are proclaiming. Ah, you should see the pictures there. I wonder if the forest looked like that when all the trees were alive and thriving. Unfortunately, no one ever thought of immortalising us into a brochure.

They even plan to get in some birds into the premises. So that when the residents pick up their first cuppa in the morning and head out to their spacious balconies to savour it while they read the daily quota of bad news (to supply which, by the way, thousands of trees are killed every day to make newsprint), their ears will be treated to the sounds of the koel and its friends.

Take my word, it won’t last long. No matter how much you spend to bring in these birds, they won’t stay here if there are no trees. Those wooden birdhouses aren’t going to interest them. They need trees for shelter. And birds aren’t easily fooled. Your language has a word, bird-brained, but make no mistake, our two-legged feathered friends are wiser than you. They won’t be taken in by the artificial gulmohar and Himalayan mulberry.

Nature is an intricate mechanism in which each creature, no matter how large or humble, depends on others for its existence. You upset that delicate balance when you felled all those trees.

Some of the wild animals that you displaced have begun to encroach on your civilised life. That bothers you. And yet you won’t take responsibility for this mess.

I miss my friends, all of them. Above ground, it seemed as if each one of us stood proud and tall, unmindful of the others. But beneath the ground, our roots were entwined. And when you uprooted the first, you struck against all the others.

You don’t realise it yet, but that is how it is with everything. You cannot destroy the least without destroying all others and ultimately, yourselves.

And now, in case you’re wondering why I’ve escaped the fate of my friends, I must tell you it was only because they found my wood too strong to cut down, so they’ve gone to the next town for reinforcements. They should be back any time now. Ah, there they are.

Ironically, we trees survive drought, disease and storms, but are powerless in front of fools.

What is that? You want to know if I have any last words.

Oh yes, I do.

Here they are:

I really must stop using the word ironically.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda 


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