Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Not an alcoholic

Fifteen pairs of eyes turned expectantly on me.

My mouth turned dry. As each woman introduced herself and described the agony of addiction and despair that had brought her there, my heart sank further.

By now I knew the introductory formula. “Hi, my name is Cynthia Rodrigues, and I am…”

I paused. The grandmother next to me squeezed my hand. Other heads nodded encouragement, willing me to lay my burden down.

But I couldn’t bring myself to complete the statement.

The others, veterans of many an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, interpreted my hesitation as fear, shame and denial.

Fierce confusion assailed me. The women around me, a mix of ages (the youngest 14, the oldest 73), and socio-economic and educational backgrounds, had been honest about their own truths. How would they take mine?

“…NOT an alcoholic.”

Shocked gasps escaped the lips of the women. Granny’s hand shrank back, as if it had touched something slimy. On the faces of the others, I saw the equivalent of doors slamming shut, suspicious eyes peering from behind peepholes, while I stood, suddenly unwelcome, in the hallway.

The leader of the group, a girl in her 30s, frowned at me. “You should not be here,” she said, her dulcet tones chilled beyond recognition. “You have no right to infiltrate our privacy. These are vulnerable women who are trying bravely to write a new future for themselves. How dare you make a mockery of their efforts?”

“I-I didn’t mean to intrude,” I babbled. “Didn’t Fr J talk to you? I’m a trainee reporter, assigned to do my first piece on female alcoholism; Fr J said I could interview a few women, those willing to talk, and write their stories using fake first names.”

The meeting was over. Through the veil of tears that threatened to pour down, I saw the hostility and anger on their faces and stumbled out of the room.

Stepping out of the fortress that was the Kripa Foundation-run free rehabilitation centre for female alcoholics, I walked out and sat down on a broken wall near the pavement. My spirit was crushed and crumpled up within me.

A tiny part of it was worried that my writing career had crashed even before taking off. The features editor of the newspaper that had hired me on a trial basis would not be too thrilled about the story-that-wasn’t.

But a greater part of me was thinking about the shame and the humiliation of that meeting. Of being accused of wrongful intentions. Of being seen as a betrayer. Of knowing that my dream of touching my readers’ hearts with the stories of these hapless, alcohol-addicted women was blown to shreds.

I walked to the phone booth across the street and called Fr J. At the sound of his hello, my tears tumbled out. I hadn’t falsely claimed to be an alcoholic. I hadn’t gone there to mock them. Why had they been so quick to misunderstand?

At his request, I knocked on the doors of the centre again, much subdued. Fr J’s phone call to the centre helped.

Not everyone spoke, but many did. The old granny, the teenager, a college student, a doctor, a diplomat’s wife. Together they shared their stories, hopeful that some other woman might learn from their nightmares and seek help.

Listening to them and writing about their ordeal helped me realize that there is often a thin line between our sanity and desperation. But for the grace of that line, I might easily be the one to complete the statement that I had once tripped over.

(This post has been written for the Weekly Challenge at Yeah Write.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

I surveyed our Christmas crib with satisfaction.

Dad, ever the DIY-type, had crafted a stable and a manger out of some leftover wood. Hay, stitched together, made up the thatched roof. We had strewn sawdust on the floor to simulate the desert of the Holy Land. In this humble setting, we placed the figures of the Nativity.

Wheat grass, cultivated days before, made up the foliage. A large sheet of paper painted blue with many silver dots and one golden star made up the skyline.

I thought we had done an awesome job. And yet our crib did not make it to the shortlist for the Christmas crib competition. The judges said it lacked authenticity. They gushed over someone else’s, and said it looked “sooo real.” Ours would too, I promised myself.

Mentally stripping our crib down to the parts of its whole, I diagnosed just where our crib fell short of realism. It was the skyline. It didn’t look real. It was just varying shades of blue -- cobalt, Prussian, navy and indigo, merging together, the silver dots, masquerading as distant stars, and the golden star leading the wise men to the stable. We needed real stars, I decided.

I didn’t know how to catch a falling star and the desire hung amorphously in my mind. The following April we headed to our hometown in Goa for our summer holidays. On one of our trips to the numerous beaches that dot Goa’s coastline, I chanced upon the answers to my need. There they lay along the shore. So many starfish that my eyes widened in surprise.

Excitement coursed through my veins. I touched one of them gingerly. Tentatively. It wriggled slightly beneath my fingers. Then stayed put. I looked around. My cousins and brothers were all busy having fun, laughing uproariously as they tried to ride the waves. My mother and aunt were sitting on the shore under the benign shade of some coconut trees, guarding our picnic lunch and flip-flops.

Suddenly I felt deliciously conspiratorial. I had to find a place to stow the starfish, without anyone seeing me. The idea of having starfish stand by for stars was so ingenious, I didn’t want anyone else in the world having it, not even my cousins. And I wanted the judges’ jaws to drop when they saw our Bethlehem skyline.

Running towards my mom, I peered in the bag containing our lunch and took out an empty polythene bag. Back to the beach I raced, my feet tripping quickly across the hot sand. Bending down, I picked about ten starfish and dropped them in the bag. Once we got back to my uncle’s house, I put the starfish in a Mackintosh chocolates tin, and slid the tin in the dusty darkness behind an old cupboard.

We wouldn’t return to Bombay until mid-June. There was plenty of time to pack my prized find in my suitcase. My heart at ease, I enjoyed my holidays.

Until they turned their noses up, wondering about the smell of dried fish. Had tom hidden a dead rat somewhere?

The holidays became dreary. I longed for school.

No one owned up.

Dad noticed the air of despondency. And the story tumbled out. He didn’t say a word about selfishness or greed or the loss of life. And yet how keenly I felt his unspoken disappointment.

The starfish were buried in the backyard. No one else cried.

The new judges that Christmas thought our crib looked refreshingly simple. I thought of those starfish then.

I still carry that dead weight.

Being eight is no excuse.

(This post has been written for the Weekly Challenge at Yeah Write.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Speaking a thousand words

Tata Capital's DoRight campaign is certainly doing the right thing by actively seeking to do that which is good, that which exemplifies the value system and ethos of the Tata group, to which the company belongs.

The Half Stories campaign sees Pankaj, an itinerant photographer commissioned by Tata Capital to traverse 2000 km across the length and breadth of India, to look for ordinary stories in the lives of ordinary people. Stories that clamour for our attention on the strength of their mere simplicity. Stories of struggle and difficulties which deserve to come to fruition, but which fail to achieve their simple dreams for lack of a crucial resource: money.

As I write this post, the Half Stories campaign has already touched the lives of three people in Dharamsala and Manali in Himachal Pradesh and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand.

For its latest Half story, Pankaj found himself in Mumbai, where he was privileged to spend time with the speech- and hearing-impaired children of a school called Koshish School for the Deaf. Named after the Hindi word for effort or attempt, the school admirably tries to train these children to live their lives by working around their disabilities. 

Here Pankaj encountered ENT Dr Ajay Kothari, also a trustee of the school, who trains the children to communicate their thoughts and ideas to the world. The school itself employs numerous means, including the graph method, lip reading, touching the throat to make out the sounds of the vowels etc.

Having spent time with the children, Pankaj zeroed in on Shahin and Chetan, two young boys who were fascinated by the camera he carried. And so was born a new seed of an idea. What if these two young boys were given cameras and the freedom to show us their unique perspective of the world? What kind of treasures would it reveal?

Over the course of three days, Pankaj offered them some basic photography skills on lighting, composition, aperture etc and the passion and enthusiasm of the boys filled in the gaps for them. In order to equip them with the means to capture their vision for the rest of us to see, it was necessary to give them their own cameras.

The effort required Rs 31,500, an amount that was mobilised quickly when other ordinary hearts across the online space came to know of this unique wish-granting campaign of Tata Capital.

Suddenly it wasn’t such a noiseless world at all. Shahin and Chetan had a fantastic opportunity to show us, noisy, talkative people a slice of the world that we have never seen before. It was an entrancing sight.

Surely if photography skills were taught to more of these children, it would enable them to express themselves like never before. The lack of sounds and words would no longer limit their world. Photography could also pave the way for a career option for the talented among them. 

A photograph could actually speak more than a thousand words.

In the days to come, the Doright campaign will continue to touch other lives, and complete other Half stories. Let’s hope more of us bolster their efforts to do the right thing.


Title: Her Royal Spyness
Author: Rhys Bowen
Publisher: Berkley Hardcover
Pages: 336

You know that the heroine of Her Royal Spyness is decidedly unique and singular when she admits, in the second chapter, that she had a life-changing experience while on the commode. And then to make things better, for someone, who is a minor royal, she admits to being clumsy and unladylike, with a tendency to, gasp!, sweat. And then, she will talk about sex and admit to not getting any, and all this in 1932.

Her Royal Majesty, the Queen of England, desires a marital alliance between Prince Siegfried of Romania and Georgie, her cousin, 34th in line to the throne, as part of Britain’s strategy to cement ties with potential enemies in Europe. Georgie cooks up a story about a friend in London needing her help in making wedding preparations.

When her brother’s marriage and her sister-in-law's unsympathetic nature, and the lack of any suitors or marriage prospects, forces her to think about her life, she moves to London to get away from it all. In London, she finds herself wholly incapable of performing simple tasks such as lighting a fire or getting the boiler to work.

When accidents begin to happen to her, no one finds it suspicious. After all, Georgie has always been accident prone. But now she is forced to admit, that there is someone among her circle of acquaintances, who is out to kill her.

Then the dead body of an unpleasant man shows up in their bathtub, and the police find her and her brother guilty. And that really perks your interest in the whole proceedings. But that happens only at the end of Chapter 11, just when you’re about to give up on the insipid romance between Georgie and the uninteresting Darcy. Yes, he is boring, in spite of the Austenian name he is endowed with.

Too much time is spent on stressing Georgie’s and Binkie’s dire financial straits. It is only when Georgie starts her business airing the London homes of country-based gentry that things begin to look up.

This light read does have its moments though. The couture accident bits are described well and make you laugh. And Belinda Warburton Stoke is the kind of friend to have around when you are in a crisis. 

The writing isn’t very good though. Almost every sentence begins with I, and that makes for very weary reading for the hapless reader. 

Every character in this hodge podge of a tale is quirky and interesting. Unfortunately, the sub-plots don't seem to come together.

There are so many things happening here, and none really taken to a conclusion. But then I read that this is the first of a series of books on Georgie and her escapades, and I realized the author was only trying to set the stage for the rest of her books.

With a title like Her Royal Spyness, there seemed so many possibilities that Georgie could have found herself in. But she got too busy trying to find love, and became uninteresting herself.

(I received a free Kindle version of this book from NetGalley.)


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