Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mrs. Dhillon

Fine, Mrs. Dhillon said, I’ll buy the flour myself.
She knew no one was listening. Her husband Jeetu was bent over his computer keyboard. Minty was holed up in her room and as if that weren’t separation enough, she had her plugged her ears with that angry music. So Mrs. Dhillon sighed a big sigh that no one heard and made her way to Madaan General Stores for the second time that day.

It was not a good day by any stretch of imagination. And that was just the weather. Mrs. Dhillon cursed her polyester salwar-suit as she valiantly tried to wipe the sweat dripping down the side of her forehead, stopping to sting her eyes before heading further south. But unless the day presented her with a tornado of fiery hail, nothing was about to deter her from the mission at hand.
Except that now she’d have to face Mr. Teji Madaan for the second time that day. Curse him for forgetting to put the atta into her shopping bag. I swear he does this on purpose…just to…just to…piss me off. Isn’t that the word Minty always flings at her? This food pisses me off, this house pisses me off, you piss me off. Mr. Teji’s crooked grin is upon her too soon.

“Teji ji. Once again you have forgotten to put full items. Please, quickly give the atta.”
“Arey, Mrs. Dhillon, good way to meet twice in one day, no? Nowadays who has the time to do their own shopping? They all send their boys. Just last month, I had to hire another chhottu because of all the home delivery calls. But these chhottus, I tell you. They want full-day salary for half-day work. Smoking and spitting and pissing just anywhere…”

There was that word again – ‘piss’. Maybe one of these days she would get through an entire day without having that vile syllable hurled at her. “Yes, yes. Of course, I understand. Yes, yes, thank you so much Teji ji. Ok then. Bye. Bye.” Mrs. Dhillon decisively brought Mr. Madaan’s rant to an end. The day wasn’t getting any cooler and now there was this 5kg sack of flour to haul up two flights of stairs.

“Hai rabba!” Thud. “Hai Rabba!” Thud. “Hai Rabba!” Thud. With every stair that she dragged the flour sack up, Mrs. Dhillon’s chappals were showered with white dust. At the first floor landing, she herself fell, thud, on the stairs and sat there heaving and wheezing, wiping her brow with her ineffective dupatta. Her hand rose to her chest and she focussed on steadying her breath. Why had Aman done this? Mrs. Ahluwalia from next door had told her not to get too upset – “These bacche, Kulwinder, they will do whatever they want. How can you stop them? Especially when they are so far away.” But still, thought Mrs. Dhillon, I am his mother. I have done nothing but support him. Even when Jeetu threw a fit about film school, she had been there, refereeing between father and son. The least she’d deserved was fair warning.

“Ma!”
Mrs. Dhillon snapped out of her thoughts. Minty was standing behind her, one step up, white earphones streaming down her ears. Can’t remember the last time she was without those infernal appendages.
“What are you doing? You’re blocking the whole stairway!” Minty scowled and then leapt over her mother and the 5kg sack. “I’ll be back before dinner.” Mrs. Dhillon knew better than to ask her teenage daughter where she was going. At least, she knew Minty was a girl of her word. If she said she’d be back before dinner, she’d be back.
She gets that from me, thought Mrs. Dhillon, as her daughter disappeared around the bend of the banister.   

************
            Aman and Chloe decided to celebrate at the spot where they first met. It was a humid, mildly uncomfortable July afternoon and only two other tables were occupied around the periphery at Bryant Park. They carried their sandwiches and waters to one of the free benches. They set their lunches down, looked at each other and burst into laughter.
            “A toast, Mrs. Dhillon,” Aman raised his bottle.
            “Congratulations, Mr. Bernard,” Chloe clinked her bottle against his.
Last week, lying in Aman’s arms, Chloe had confessed certainty that she’d found her prince after kissing a thousand frogs.
“A thousand!” Aman had exclaimed.
Now she took his face into her hands and kissed him lightly on the nose. He smiled naughtily and croaked, “Ribbid!”
            As the city boomed and rumbled around them, the two reclined on the bench, sipping their drinks and biting into their sandwiches. The surrounding high-rises seem to bend gently over them, forming a protective alcove; offering up an oasis of sense in an otherwise bewildering world.

*************
  Mrs. Dhillon had decided to throw a party. Nothing fancy, just a few relatives. Jeetu’s two sisters and their families, her brother Parmeet and his wife. Maybe Mrs. Ahluwalia. She’d told Minty she could invite her friends too but doubted anyone would show up. It’s ironic, she thought, how Aman had always been the easy one. It’d been Minty who gave Mrs. Dhillon sleepless nights with her dark moods. She barely had any friends besides Farhat, with whom she spent all her free time. The few times Farhat was over, the two girls would lock themselves in Minty’s room, chattering and laughing at god-only-knows what. Farhat, with her lily-white skin and Pathan height was a stunning girl. Well mannered too. Mrs. Dhillon just wished Minty had more friends. Sometimes she’d have nightmares that her only daughter would end up like Jeetu’s first cousin, Roop from Jalandhar. At 21, Roop had run away from home two nights before her wedding. Three years later she was traced to Gwalior, hair shorn, wearing oversized bush shirts and baggy trousers. She ran a paan shop and was living with a sullen, dark eyed woman called Kamal.

But Aman had surpassed Minty in giving his mother heartburn, leaving her with nothing to do but prepare a humble dinner for 15 odd guests. She cursed herself for not anticipating this day four years ago when Aman emailed to tell her about Chloe. He’d attached her photograph with the email. As the image inched down the screen, a skinny white girl emerged with dark brown hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. She was studying to be a lawyer and, he joked, would make enough money for both of them. Money, that Daddy was afraid he’d never make as a filmmaker. She’d laughed at the time and written back that Chloe was pretty.

The next time he called, she enquired after her, towards the end of the conversation. “And…how is Klo?” Aman had laughed out loud, wasting three expensive international dialling minutes before calming down. “Klo! That’s priceless! Babe, you’ll never guess what my mom just called you! Ma, she’s not Klo! Her name is Chlo-ee.” As Mrs. Dhillon bristled with embarrassment, Aman’s voice grew softer, “It’s okay Ma…Do you know what she called me when we first met? Aman Dylan. Like Bob Dylan! Wasn’t she silly?”

*********
            Once the decision to switch coasts was made, Aman & Chloe’s tiny apartment began to disappear into bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. Over the week before the move, the rooms progressively took on the monochromatic hue of beige walls. The young couple’s fingers were permanently anointed with black marker ink and every so often, the sound of sneezing could be heard from one of the two rooms. Every afternoon they would step out to the local deli but the nights were always spent at home. Sitting on cartons, eating pizza or Chinese takeout; then making love on the king-size mattress that stood out like an island of blue in a sea of light brown.
After the boxes were finally sent off, all that remained was a single potted fern. When Chloe watered it after sunset, Aman stopped her, “Mrs. Dhillon, what are you doing? Plants go to sleep after the sun goes down.”
She chuckled, “What?”
“Don’t laugh,” he said, “My mother taught me that.”

************
            Jeetu was being cooperative for once. He still wouldn’t speak directly to her. It had been 5 years since he’d done that and Mrs. Dhillon had stopped questioning what she’d done to send her husband into his silent rage. Just as long as he helped around the house once in a while. Just as long as he joined her in putting up a brave pretence on occasions like today. Everyone invited had turned up and had been seated in the living room. Jeetu was regaling them stories from his college days, laughing, refilling his guests’ drinks; reminding Mrs. Dhillon of the first coffee he’d taken her out for in ’75.

Mrs. Ahluwalia joined Mrs. Dhillon in the kitchen. One pair of hands rolled out the dough, while the other manned the stove, dropping paper-thin discs of flour into sizzling hot oil. As the discs rose into triumphant, glistening puffs, Mrs. Ahluwalia twittered on about her Dimple’s misadventures in Melbourne. Kulwinder made the appropriate noises of commiseration but couldn’t shake off the heaviness in her belly that had nothing to do with the dahi-aalu breakfast from morning.

            So when the phone rang, she immediately made for it, knowing it was imperative she reach it before anyone else did.
“Hello?”
“Hello, ma?”
Beta Minty? What happened?”
“Uff! Why do you always think something’s happened?”
“Ok. Ok.”
“Accha so…don’t get angry ok? I need you to pick me up from the Grandex Mall.”
“I can’t right now, Minty. You know the party is happening, no? You promised you’d be here on time. Why can’t you take an auto? You need money?”
“I can’t just leave, ma. You have to come.”
“I told you, beta, I can’t leave the kitchen right now. All the guests are here. I’ll send Papa, ok?”
“No! Not him.”
Mrs. Dhillon took a long deep breath. Of course, something had happened. Of course, Minty needed her and not him. Of course, the only way she’d find out was if she went herself.
“Ok, I’m on my way.”
“Thanks Ma. Bring a couple of thousand.”
“What? Why?!”

But Minty had hung up. Mrs. Dhillon whipped off her oil-stained apron and went back into the kitchen. Assured of Mrs. Ahluwalia’s support in holding down the fort, she promised a detailed report on return, gathered her purse and rushed hurriedly out the door. Sprinting past a confused Jeetu and expectant guests, she tossed a flimsy excuse of needing to pick up chocolate ice cream from Mother Dairy.

**************
Minty and Farhat were located to a back room on the 2nd floor of the Grandex Mall. The store manager, whose office it was, informed Mrs. Dhillon that the girls had been caught shoplifting a combo pack of M&S underwires amounting to Rs. 1149.
“You are lucky, Mrs. Dhillon”, said the store manager (who reminded her, suddenly, of her puffed up puris), “I didn’t report these girls to the police. Who knows what would happen to them in the lock-up? You hear such terrible stories nowadays. And I could tell they come from good families. Isn’t it, Mrs. Dhillon? Isn’t it?”

“Yes, of course”, she agreed, knowing that the appropriate mix of gratitude, apology & acknowledgement of his superiority would do the trick. Plus the cash, adding a 100% tip over the price of pilfered goods for the man’s uncommon sensitivity at keeping her humiliation to a bare minimum.

The ride back was silent. Mrs. Dhillon wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. The child confounded her. Her black depths scared and intimidated her. She didn’t know where to place her affection anymore with this one. Mrs. D kept her hands steady on the 10-2 position on the steering wheel. Her gaze unwavering from the view in front. As they drove past Madaan Stores, she passed Mr. Teji bringing down the shutter for the day. He waved a friendly wave that was not returned by either mother or daughter.

Back home, the three walked in with a story of co-incidental meeting at the street corner. Oh, how silly! Mrs. Dhillon had forgotten to buy the ice-cream. Jeetu stepped, grudging & grumping, into the night to locate the one general store still open past nine.

*************
            After the guests had gone, Jeetu retreated back into his virtual world and Minty & Farhat ferreted themselves away into her room. Mrs. Ahluwalia was sent off with a plateful of leftovers and a watered-down recap of the evening’s events. Alone in her bedroom, Mrs. Dhillon sat down with the telephone in her lap and dialled Aman’s number.
“Hello! Ma?”
“Hi, beta. Are you busy?”
“No, no, ma. Perfect timing. Chloe and I were just finishing breakfast.”
“Good. Good. You know we had a small party here. For you and Chloe. Everyone came. Parmeet Maama, Simran Aunty. They all send their love.”
“That was nice of them. I’ll upload pictures of the ceremony soon. You can send it to them.”
“Beta, can I speak to Chloe please?”
“Sure. One sec.”

Mrs. Dhillon took comfort from the sounds of the phone exchanging hands. In that moment, she wasn’t miles away from her son and his new family. She was there, watching the two exchange glances as Chloe took the phone, a bit nervously, rehearsing her opening lines. She heard Aman tell her about the party his mother had thrown in their honour that evening. She heard the involuntary intake of breath Chloe took before saying hello.

            The conversation was short, stretching the extent of Mrs. Dhillon’s spoken English to its limit. It was a slow, halting exchange of banal niceties with a valiant effort on both women’s part to infuse warmth into it. In the end, it was all too much with Chloe failing to understand the last thing said to her. She said goodbye and returned the phone to her husband.

            “I didn’t catch the last thing she said. Something in Hindi I think…”
            Aman took the receiver and asked his mother to repeat what she’d said. Then he smiled and telling her he loved her, hung up.
            “So? What did she say to me, huh?” Chloe enquired with a naughty grin. “Some ancient curse condemning the evil white woman to eternal damnation for stealing her son’s affections?”
            “She said ‘ Tumhey duniya ki har khushi miley. Mere hissey ki bhi’.”
“Which means?…”
Mrs. Dhillon, may you be blessed with all the happiness in the world – including my share.”

*************************************************************************
 This story was first published in 2010 in 'First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing'



Sunday, July 27, 2014

Frame

I often wonder what place I occupy in the lives of others.

I seem to get transplanted into these other worlds and placed exactly so, in a me-shaped hole that existed long before I came along. Each mindscape of intimates – friends, family and lovers – is like a painting that’s already complete but for that me-shaped hole in it.

Who I am to them depends on the painting they’ve made. If it’s a party scene then there I am holding a drink. If it’s an intimate nook then there I am suspended in a pre-ordained conversation. If it’s a port of departure then I stand with them, waiting in line for my boarding pass. It’s all as if they willed me into being there just so, regardless of my intent - like the mute apple-in-fruit bowl, forever trapped in still life.

It strikes me sometimes that my relationships might be more than that. That it’s not for me to occupy a hollowed-out silhouette; but instead, for me to change the scene just by being in it. Maybe, make it a moving picture, where characters inhale & exhale, where they evolve with the story and affect outcomes.

But of course, it’s difficult to ignore what would happen if I slowed the movie way down to its solitary frames. Then there I’d go again, slipping right back into my chalked outline in someone else’s still life.

http://www.webcitation.org/getfile?fileid=e44ce71c541a70d2fc223d64701b85c5d95a8201
http://tinyurl.com/muxdtjp

Monday, July 14, 2014

Changes

All through my childhood, I waited to grow up. I can't explain how or why, but I knew exactly what the taste of adulthood freedom would be. I knew exactly. This conviction only deepened in my teenage years, when the claustrophobia of inhabiting my current life made me more breathless than ever. I held on to the certainty that growing up would solve it all.

And it did. Through my twenties, I knew I had to spend my time becoming somebody. Not a famous or rich person but a person of definite character and values. Not necessarily someone who looked or spoke or thought like others but someone who would leave others in no doubt of what she was like, how far she would or wouldn't go for love, money, friends, family or herself. I read books, had experiences and very gravely followed the procedure for becoming this person.

At thirty, I knew what kind of professional I wanted to be. I was a diligent worker, who understood the value of work-life balance. When conflicted, I always leaned towards fulfilling personal obligations and pursuing personal passions. I tried to make my work an extension of those passions. I enjoyed my job and used it to travel and learn new things. I always stopped to be grateful and tried to be a good person. I tried to manage my anger. I tried to stay hopeful in the face of deep loneliness. I told myself that no matter what, I knew how to love another person selflessly. That it was like swimming - once you learned it you never quite forgot how to do it. I built myself a solid personality with which I proceeded to live in the world.

Today, at thirty five, I have decided to change again. I have decided that money is important and that it isn't evil to want material happiness for oneself or one's family. My parents are growing older and I am becoming a responsible adult - someone who needs to think not just about shaping her self but shaping her future (with it the realization that the two are not the same). I have decided to swing my work-life balance in the other direction - maybe spend more time developing myself as a professional, even if it means coming home later each evening and spending a little less time with those I love. Maybe I want to make investments that will carry me into old age, that will make my parents feel a little less afraid of retiring.

I see my friends from the old days of school and college and I observe their lives closely. There are those that, like me, used their twenties to become someone. They worked so very hard and built themselves from ground up. It was so difficult, this journey, that they were relieved to reach their thirties & forties. There, they stopped. 'I know how to make money. I will always make money'. 'I know how to do art. I will always do art'.

But I feel, once again, like I did as a child. Like I can't wait to be free again. I've enjoyed being the somebody I was for the last fifteen years. Now I want to be a different kind of somebody - a somebody I once made fun of for being boring. I want to see what it would be like to live that kind of life. I want to see if I am set in stone because 'now I am too old yaar' or if I am an ever-changing human, who is capable of surprising herself. 
It's the only way I know how to keep things interesting. It's the only way I can think of to enjoy being alive from here on out.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

You People Work On Commission, Right?

If you wish to picture where I am in the food chain of my profession, think of an earthworm. 
The underground, slightly slimy (or sexy depending on what your preference is), creature that does all the work of aerating the soil so that plants can grow happily and bear fruits that bastard birds can get fat on. All the while, dodging the bastard birds, who might fancy a bit o' 'worm for breakfast.
I am said earthworm, making documentary films. The TV Channels are big bastard birds.

Senior earthworm & I went for a pitch-presentation this past week (which is basically earthworms groveling for Bastard Bird jobs using 15 Power Point slides or less). The Executive Producer (representative of Bastard Bird) was a young lady half my age (which comes to 17, so no, she wasn't half my age), who had just smoked a fat doobie of pure corporate power before stepping into the meeting. 
She told us to go get comfortable in a conference room. Once we did, she told us to get out of the conference room, since she hadn't booked it and in fact had forgotten to book one altogether (which is why I say that working from a one-room, airless hovel is so much more convenient. You don't have to book anything. It's all yours, down to the roaches). 
We disconnected our laptops from the projector and wondered where we would journey to next. 
It was the cafeteria, where instead of a projector, was a noisy table of people high on Red Bull. Executive Producer seemed to think they were one and the same thing, so we were told to begin. As soon as we began presenting the idea we'd laboured on for a week and had hoped to pitch in proper style, she developed an urgent need to check and answer every email sent to her since 2005. 
Undeterred, we continued, naively hoping to impress both her and her smartphone.

When we were done, she said some token patronizing things before informing us that hers was a fancy channel unlike the folks we usually work for (government-run national broadcasters) so we would have to step up accordingly. 
At which point, senior earthworm lost his cool and informed her that we'd been in the business since the time she first lost her milk teeth and that we knew what we were doing.
Having suitably annoyed us, the EP left the table. She had succeeded in reminding us that no matter how many awards our films had received, we were still earthworms, while she worked for Bastard Bird.
We would've stormed out immediately but decided to hang around in the fancy office a bit longer because the furniture was so nice and the air-conditioning worked so damn well.

All of it sort of reminded me of Pretty Woman. One day I too hope to be a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-who-gets-what's-rightfully-hers:



Shop assistant: “Hello, can I help you?”
Vivian: “I was in here yesterday, you wouldn’t wait on me.”
Shop assistant: “Oh.”
Vivian: “You people work on commission, right?”
Shop assistant: “Yeah.”
Vivian: “Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.”

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Selfies

You know what?
We need to take more selfies.

I've been in the dumps lately. Thinking I have no life, no friends, no social calender, no 'these-are-the-days-of-our-lives' moments anymore. And then I look at selfies of people in restaurants, eating a burger and I'm like: I go to restaurants. I eat burgers. Why, I did it last week. With friends, too.
I look at photos of people with pets, babies & boyfriends and feel sad for myself. Till I realize: I don't want pets, I don't want babies and I have a boyfriend, who is very nice.

The key then is, take selfies. Take lots of fucking selfies. 

http://www.ivillage.ca/sites/default/files/imagecache/preganancy_article_main/culkin-gosling.jpg  

Friday, May 16, 2014

An Optimist's Take on Election 2014

First off: Amit Shah, if you're surveilling, HI! Love what you've done with India. Totally amazeballs. Keep in touch, yeah?

It's the frenetic morning of election results in India and it's pretty clear that Gujarati Santa Claus is going to be our next PM, with the RSS finally in power (they tried with Vajpayee but he just wasn't that into them). 
It's going to be good for the oppressed Hindu right wing. Question is, will it be as good for us?
[By 'us', I mean people like me - with lady bits (or respect for people with lady bits), liberal views, sympathies for minorities & the marginalized and expectations of social reform along with economic development. In short: People who may not live the Hindu way.]

Here's my optimistic take on the matter: India is not the same apathetic country it was in the '90s or early 2000s and while the BJP/RSS may enjoy routing every other party, there are large sections of society that aren't going to sit quietly as they push their Big Balls patriarchal ideology on to us - however surreptitiously. The fact that the AAP has emerged in the last 2 years and that women are not as accepting of their second-class status as they once were, are two trends that suggest that this will not be smooth sailing for the right wing.

Let me get even more optimistic: There are going to be hairy moments in the next few years, where besides economic bonhomie, the RSS and its bretheren may be challenged to update themselves and their narrow world view. I would love to see how that unfolds and just for that reason, I might even be glad that Mr. Modi is now in power.

Inshallah, all will be well.

Or the government will succeed in numbing the vocal middle-classes with goodies and such, in which case: Hey Amit Shah, you're looking good. Have you lost weight?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In Wonderment of Jose Mujica

Sometimes the robotic clicking of a remote can lead you to fantastic things.
Like this Christiane Amanpour interview of Uruguay's president Jose Mujica.
Read the CNN article here:


It's so refreshing to see someone in political life, let alone a president, who doesn't talk like a slick car salesman.

On relations with the US:
What is it like for a former Marxist guerrilla to enter the White House, that most potent of Western’s symbols?
“I cannot deny reality,” he told Amanpour. “I don't know whether I like this planet or not, but I have to accept it.”
There is not just one “United States,” he said. Yes, the country wields tremendous – “scary” – influence in Latin America, and the relationship between the region and America has a troubled history full of attempted coups and CIA operatives.
“However,” he said, “there's also a big debate in the States. There's human progress. There's a technological and scientific development that helps the whole of humanity. So we cannot just put everything in one bag and just say one word to describe the U.S.”
“I know that the U.S. is a bit of a global policeman, but I also recognize something really positive about the U.S. which has helped humanity.”

On Uruguay legalizing marijuana: 
“It is a measure against trafficking, drug dealing. We are trying to snatch the market away from them, because it's 80 years now that we are repressing drug use.”

“So like everywhere in the world, repression by itself doesn't do the job. We are trying to find another way.”
Regulating use of the drug, he suggested, could even lead to a decrease in usage.
“When you surround that with this forbidden aura, you are actually calling the younger to take it up. However, if you place it as a controlled product that you can purchase at the chemist – like some other drugs like morphine, which is used for certain prescriptions – then we are taking the mystery out of marijuana and we hit the drug dealers.”

On his past life as a political prisoner:
“If you catch a black ant, a normal common ant, you grab her with two fingers, you put her right inside your ear, and you hear it scream,” he told Amanpour. “But of course you need time to do that. And you have to be really lonely.”
“When you spend a long time by yourself in solitary confinement, a frog, a rat that comes to eat because you leave some crumbs there – it's life. It's the life you have there.”

On being the 'poorest president in the world':
He donates 97% of his salary, drives a 1987 Volkwagen Beetle – the original “peoples’ car” – and sells flowers with his wife at their home.
Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla, lives in the same modest Montevideo house he always has, forgoing the presidential palace.
“I do not need much to live. I live in the same way I used to live when I wasn’t a president and in the same neighborhood, in my same house, and in the same way. And I am a republican” – small ‘r.’
“I live like the majority in my country lives. It was a majority who voted for me. And that's why I identify with them. Morally, I do not have the right to live like a minority in my country.”

*****

On a totally whacked-out tangent, the only other politician who seems to be (relatively speaking) a straight-talker and someone who doesn't beat about the bush (too much) when answering journalists' questions is the mega-creepy Amit Shah.
Watch his interview with CNN-IBN's Rajdeep Sardesai and tell me if I've lost it: