Thursday, July 28, 2011

Of Mumbai, of India

I bitch about Mumbai a lot. It is dirty and incomprehensible and bursting at the seams with humanity, adding more all the time, everyday. There is no fit between our personalities. Mumbai likes it raw and in your face and stripped of all beauty. I like to cover all ugliness as best as I can. But we are stuck to each other for good. I feel guilty about criticizing it, it being my karmabhoomi after all but still, ranting against it is in my grain. We have an uneasy relationship at best. I think it knows that I'd rather be in a more intimate town, less people, cobbled streets and pretty roadside cafes. I went to Brugge once and after wandering the streets for an hour, wondered where all the people were. I will never have that happy problem here. My sister spent some time in Edinburgh and said that I would have liked it. Basically, I have not been giving Mumbai a chance and that's unfair, I decided. My children were born here, for them, it is also the janmabhoomi, they know no other home. It occurred to me that maybe I should take them to the parts that I do like. Our first step was Prince of Wales museum. I have written about it here. It was incredible to hear Adi look at the buildings of South Bombay and turn to me with shining eyes and say, I like those buildings, mama, they are so old. I could have burst open with joy. I spend so much time controlling his life, the toys he plays with, the shows he watches, the children he makes friends with that I have forgotten that there are some things that I have passed on to him just by the virtue of being his mother. When I look back at these years, I know that 'look, mama, old buildings' will be one of the moments I will remember and cherish. I took him to the Gateway of India and tried to give him a mini history lesson. He heard me out patiently and said, yes, but what is on the other side of the gate? Could we go there? We could but we'd fall into the sea, I said. Then we bought him lunch at the Taj. Most posh, though I cannot go into the Taj without remembering the horror of the attacks. The city has been peppered with bomb blasts as invisible landmarks. Look at that, that is the Bombay Stock Exchange, the artery that pumps money into this economy, it was attacked in 1993. That is The Oberoi Hotel, terrorists struck there too and look, this is Dadar station, close to your mum's ex-office, there were blasts in trains there too.

How do you explain a country to your children when you don't understand it yourself?

The weekend after the museum-trip, I took them to Taraporewala Aquarium. He liked the fish but was most fascinated by the whale skeleton on display, The aquarium is somewhat clean, there are signs everywhere exhorting people not to spit. How is it that we have been civilized for five thousand years but still don't know enough not to spit in the open? I read in a book by Shivani once that an old woman had silenced a couple of English ruffians who were troubling two young girls travelling with her with just a few words - this is very un-British of you. I wonder if we have ever responded to being called un-Indian as an insult. I watched this documentary recently. Nothing new there, what baffles me is how we went from there to here. How did we forget so much?

There are potholes on the streets right outside where I live, the manhole covers are missing on the pavement. There are claims made that complaints can be registered online. I did so. It's been many days but no one has responded. I am determined not to ask of my friends - arrey, BMC mein kissi ko jaante ho kya? I am determined to walk the right path, if only to see how long it takes. My next step is our ward representative. Just finding his name is a struggle. If even that fails, I will ask to see Priya Dutt, the MP from Bandra. That I will have it sorted out, I have no doubt.

After the aquarium visit, the family was carted off to Swati Snacks, that divine cornerstone of the chaat culture in this part of the nation. Much food was consumed.

This is only the beginning. When you start, you figure there is just so much to absorb. The malls don't stand a chance.

Mumbai, you bloody beauty, I continue to be in two minds about you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The street

I spent some time out on the street today. I don't walk anywhere anymore. I don't even drive. I have become the much-dreaded, much-reviled 'Driver, gaadi laana' memsaab. Anyway, the driver in question was on leave today. Although Pramod, well, his job description goes much beyond driving, doesn't it? He is what Jeeves was to Bertram. I am Bertram, yes, in my bumbling, absent-minded ways. But I like to flatter myself that those are traits borne of my writerly life. Who knows where the truth lies? To come back to the point, I went to pick up Adi from his school-bus. I was terrified I'd forget and recently Padma had told me a story about how a kid from a nearby school had been dropped off at his regular stop. Except that no one had come to pick up him. He was found later, crying and bewildered, by some passerby who noted the mobile number given on his id card and called the parents. Yes, these are the stories that parents have to live with. It's a surprise we are able to sleep at nights at all. And so I reached half an hour in advance. Fortunately I'd carried my book along. Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith for those interested in details. Fine book, for those interested in reviews. I stood under a tree on the pavement and tried to focus on the text but given that I normally read in the plush confines of the car, this turned out to be awkward. I gave up after some time and looked up and down Linking Road and decided to people-watch instead. A few minutes later, the car right next to me, in the same spot where we park everyday got towed away. It was all most exciting. Three lithe young men in dirty overalls got down and rammed their rods of steel under the car. One of them opened the door-lock in a surprisingly swift and effortless move with a steel ruler, released the parking gear and lo, the car was gone. Lo, as in take, aye lo, yeh toh gaadi le gaye. Lo, as in lo and behold too. Being rather shamefully mean, I wanted to hang around to see the car owner turn up and to witness his expression of dismay which I thought would be most comical. Then I remembered how years back, my own car had been towed away and suddenly things were not that funny anymore. I looked away and saw rats diving into the gutter than runs underneath the pavement. How removed I am from this world, how consciously I avoid all forms of dirt and filth. What an escapist I am, in my life and in my writing. Just no place for the ugliness of the world. Even the book that I am reading, its comforting presence under my arm is delicious because it is gentle, because it describes a London that is warm and people that are far from being cynical. A cyclinder-wallah passed by, in that funny facing-the-wrong-way cart of his, filled with LPG cylinders. He stopped abruptly by the side of the road and took out an empty cylinder and placed it on the pavement. Then he sat down on it and took out his snack, a vada-pav wrapped in a bit of newspaper. He ate quietly and without hurry and I looked at him surreptitiously, aware that it was rude to stare while he ate but unable to help myself. A couple of other parents arrive and I try to make conversation, a little awkward like I always am around strangers but determined to forge ahead anyway. The school bus pulls up and the kids swarm down. Should we take a rickshaw home,  I ask the sweaty, tired little boy with his hand in mine. He looks up at me and I am startled by the eyes once again, so much like mine. Naah, let's walk. And so we do.


I picked up the book because it was co-authored by the brilliant Jerry Pinto. For that, and for the pretty face on the cover.

The pretty face belonged to Leela Naidu, once described by Vogue as one of the most beautiful women in the world. I did not really know anything about this woman but Jerry's writing is always insightful and humorous and we would see who this Leela was.

I soon figured that Leela had already touched my life on various occasions.

She had played the role of Dona Maria Souza-Soares in Trikaal, one of those movies that have haunted and puzzled me since childhood.

She had played Anuradha in the black and white film of the same name that stole my heart, one late night while I watched television on my own.

She was also the wife in The Householder. I always meant to check who the actress was when I went through a Merchant-Ivory phase, watching everything that they had made. Somehow I forgot to do it. The lapse may have been because the gorgeous Shashi Kapoor played the lead.

Leela: A Patchwork Life is the story of a woman with a sometimes charmed, often chequered life. She was born to a leading Indian scientist and a French journalist. She travelled and lived all over the world with them. She married Tikki Oberoi, yes, of the Oberoi hotels. She also married Dom Moraes, the poet. She spoke French and English and Hindi and read poetry and played the piano and loved Chopin and had twins and experienced firsthand racism of the worst kind while she was still a child and made documentaries for JRD Tata and met Mahatma Gandhi when she expected to meet Mickey Mouse and more. Much more. Hers was a life full of experiences and people and wonder.

It is difficult not to admire her. It is more difficult not to envy her. All that beauty, elegance, enigma, spirit and courage seemed to be too much to be fitted into one slim frame. It seems to be a strange coincidence that she died a day apart from Gayatri Devi, that other blend of the Indian and European.

The book drew me in completely and I was often tempted to check or re-check the various literary and cinematic references contained within. When I finished the book, I was saddened, feeling as though I had witnessed the sorrow that she had experienced in the loss of her children, of her parents. There is a quality of the unattainable about the story too, almost as if she was flowing with the flow but hoped to find salvation along the way. Perhaps she was too sensitive to this world but she also did something about things that affected her. It is ironic that she did not want the narrative to be one of female pain and yet, the strains of melancholy are almost palpable, in spite of the numerous funny anecdotes that the book is peppered with, including one with a naked Russian Count.

I am planning to watch and re-watch some of her films next. I may have found my next obsession. Specially since I am done with Woody Allen, having watched every single movie the man ever made over the last few weeks.

This is not a review, not by a long shot. There's something to be said about Jerry Pinto that he was able to move away completely from the book and make it Leela's story by Leela. By the time I turned the last page, I had forgotten why I had picked up the book in the first place.

Friday, July 15, 2011

On the first day of school

The iDiva column will be something of a regular feature from now on. Do read the one about the first day of school here and I have no Facebook likes yet so press that button, yes? 

I can't believe I just said that.

Friday, July 8, 2011


I recently showed up at the gym where I keep an annual membership. The security guard took one look at me and moved to block the door. Under 'reason for refusal of admittance' he wrote - have never seen her before. It took some convincing before I was finally let through the glass doors behind which lay the key to eternal youth and fitness.

Gyms are funny places. You just need to take a look around before you start seeing the broad types of people who haunt these centers. There are the walking-talking advertisements of gyms as a whole. Found in both male and female types, these folks have a simple and single motive - to make others feel awful about the way they look. You will be trudging along on the treadmill, taking a look every now and then at the timer and wondering if it was working alright because it seemed to be terribly slow before one of these specimens swoops down on the next machine. They will start gliding at speeds that make you giddy and then decide that they had a good warm-up and now may be a good time to push it a little bit. This is when they fire themselves with a bit of plutonium and really start to whizz by. I often take my glasses off at this point and clean them, convinced that the blurry vision is caused by an errant speck of dust. It isn't. It is just Ben Johnson here running as if chased by a packs of Dobes.

Then there are the sulks. These people don't want to come to the gym. They would much rather have a wrestle with the Dobes once they are done with the racers above. But their doctor thinks otherwise and the family, bloody ingrates are in cahoots with the medicine wo/man. They move around slowly and look at everyone with such mournful eyes that the sun gets blighted by a grey cloud cover and everyone feels that they will never be happy again. I have often seen the people who work out next to the sulks burst into howls of misery, such is their power to suck joy out of life.

There are some young men and women who probably treat the gym as a place to scope the dating field. They are dressed attractively and hair is opened and tied up many, many times, sometimes with a becoming swish of the head. Make-up is in evidence and lashes are fluttered. The men are obviously very humorous because these young ladies are often found in the throes of helpless giggles.

There are also the models. We are not worthy, the gym people want to scream and fall down at their feet. With their perfect legs and toned midriffs, the models keep to themselves, working out with a stern 'we are people too' look on their faces.

I could also tell you about the corporate paunch and the housewifely saddle-bags but it is not in my nature to be mean.

The first step in the noble endeavour to regain fitness is obviously weight training. Obvious to the trainer, that is. The first week was tough. The trainer would hand me some weights and ask me to rock some squats or burpees or presses or *insert choice of torture*. Two minutes later, he would tell me that I could start whenever I was ready. I am ready, I squeaked from under the weights, but I don't think they want to be lifted. Tch, tch, went the trainer, look at you, long break, no stamina, no yoga also aa, oho, oho, chalo koi nahin, we will make double the effort.

Double the effort is trainer-speak for double the pain.

I think I go into some kind of an exercise-induced trance once the session is over. Spirits, the evil kind, mind,  take over my body and soul and everything in between and demand sacrifice. We want carbs, they chant, bring forth a loaf of bread and sacrifice it at the altar of your fitness. And don't forget the butter. I don't really want to eat bread, or pasta, or paranthas, or anything that tastes super-duper divinely delicious, as long time readers will testify, with or without their hands on Jane Fonda DVDs. But there's only so much I can do with the supernatural. Only after I have stuffed myself to the gills are the spirits somewhat appeased. Then I need to take a long, long nap to shrug off the remaining effects because one cannot really be too careful with these things. I normally wake up after four hours with a 'where am I' trembling on my lips and a ravenous appetite brought forth by the exorcism.

A few days later after starting the program, I weighed myself with the trainer watching on. And the fat, like a loyal friend, had stuck to me though thick and thin. The trainer looked at the scales with a sense of amazement and wonder misting his eyes. I too tried to look puzzled. What happened, what happened, he moaned. No clue, I said because I know him to be a man of science and logic and my account of the ghost figures wouldn't have gone down very well. I think this impacted the good man a great deal. He has since decided that personal training is too fast-paced a profession for him and has taken to one-legged yoga in the upper hills of the Himalayas. Beats the traffic, I say.

I love exercise and cannot recommend it enough.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Yes, we do need an education

It's been a strange mish-mash of a week. Adi started kindergarten. At a big school. The kind with strict teachers and seniors and prefects and tiffin boxes and diaries that need to be checked. I did the drop and pick-up. I always think that he would have a tough time letting go of me, giving myself more than is due clearly. He didn't cling when he was two and started playschool and he didn't look back now. The teacher is always the greater goddess. 

This was the first time I was forced into the whole school-gate parent phenomenon and I found myself surrounded by hoardes of mothers, each with her own set of insecurities and anxieties and nervousness. We all give ourselves too much credit, don't we, believing that we can and should control each and every part of our children's destinies. We are actually just the folks who buy the post-school lollipops.

I looked at my boy and he looked so tiny in that huge auditorium. I looked at the prefects and had a quick surge of nostalgia, of remembering just how important that was back in the day.

I accompanied him in the school bus amidst much excitement from him. He peers at every single bus on the road, hoping that it is his. Come Monday and there will be no Mama to remind him to take his school bag, assuming of course that she remembers that little detail. 

I am struggling with the tiffin, figuring out the perfect meal that will be
1. not messy
2. not sticky
3. not dry
4. not oily 
5. palatable
I have finally zeroed in on cut fruit and have since had the pleasure of opening the dabba to find it empty.

I looked at the kids in the school bus and they looked perfectly normal to me. Somehow we are always being told that kids are beyond comprehension these days. I think at best they are significantly more informed than we were, what with the internet exploding and similar. A ten-year old was immersed in an Agatha Christie, a couple of younger boys were discussing Raold Dahl. A very charming young thing told me that she likes reading science fantasy fiction. As far as I am concerned, kids who are reading will do just fine. Books even out a lot of wrinkles in the otherwise messy fabric of life. Just a personal belief, that's all.

I come home to find that the little one has been driving Mahesh bananas.After Adi steps out, she insists on packing a bag with a tiffin-box and a water-bottle, puts on her shoes and points at the door and screams. Today I had to take her out for a drive just so she would quieten down for a few minutes. This may be taking hero-worship to a different level. I think we may need to send her to preschool earlier than was planned. Tragic. I wanted to hold on to her a little while longer. It's a paradox of parenthood - you wait for the time they would start school and let you have a few free minutes to do your own thing and then when they do, you find that wasting time on the internet is not that fantastic after all.

Yes, I am writing. The novel is well into its middle now. I have no idea how it's reading. Mahesh likes it but well, he likes staying in this house.

Last evening Adi told me that he needed to buy a Mumbai Indians t-shirt. So we went to a nearby store and he helped pick out a Metallica tee for me too. I am preparing for the concert, you see.