Thursday, December 25, 2014

Mumbai Musings from a non-resident Indian

(Published first on Medium)

I spent the first two decades of my life in the bustling, ever-changing metropolis of Mumbai before I left it for the disturbing calm of College Station, Texas. As my years in the United States piled on, my physical and metaphorical distance from my city of dreams grew on. Now, I straddle two different worlds. The place where I live — the lush green Pacific Northwest and the place which I still ambiguously call home — the crazy, crowded, lively Mumbai.

I recently came to India with my wife and two sons (6 & 2) on one more of my bi-annual sojourns to meet friends, family and my city. I decided to capture my musings as I spent my time here — in essence, capturing, what every NRI experiences when they come back home. Here’s hoping some of this resonates with you.

1. I sit on the sofa on a warm November day and sip hot coffee made by my mother while reading an actual newspaper as the breeze of the fan ruffles its pages. When I come home, an old deep frozen way of life is thawed into being.

2. The ominous threat ‘Winter is coming’ doesn’t scare people of the Kingdom of Mumbai. Winter never comes to Mumbai.
(update written at the end of another 95 F day)

3. When I come to India, I carry jetlag and Seattle with me. Jetlag takes a while to get over, but Seattle leaves the system in two days. The niceties and laidback attitude are of no use the third time you get cut in line or take five minutes to cross the road.

4. The importance of home delivery and ironed clothes in a Mumbai (Indian) household can’t be stated enough

5. I am an Andheri boy to the core, but when it comes to architectural beauty, the boundary can be drawn at Bandra. Suburbs north of that have the aesthetic beauty of Lego blocks arranged by a one year old.

6. No India trip is complete without your child asking you to stop the car because of an ‘emergency’ and you temporarily relieving yourself (pun intended) of your civic consciousness.

7. The American constitution is better than the Indian constitution. No, not the legal document. I am talking about the gastrointestinal system. My American born kids hold on a lot better to good health here than I do.

8. Squishing a mosquito buzzing near you with a swift clap of the hands is an instinct you never lose even when you lose practice. Mosquito Ninjas never forget their trade. Like biking or swimming.

9. My Starbucks name in India is ‘Parth’. Bart, Mark and John are waiting in Seattle.

10. In deference to all my Parsi friends, I try to keep a straight face every time I pass Horniman circle. Hard to stifle a giggle with a name like that.

11. Your parents will have a trusted steel cupboard, most likely made by Godrej, in their house. It will almost be as old as you, very dear to them,and its groan and shriek while opening is part of its charm. Over the years, amidst its layers, a history of your family builds up. A sedimentation of memories.

12. The domestic air traveler in India is a quirky beast. Among his or her traits, the following stand out
- Jumping over each other to get into the plane. Because, you know, how can one trust seat numbers?
- Getting up to use the restroom as the plane is landing. Because, you know, instructions vinstructions
- Unlocking the seat belt the moment all four wheels have touched down. Because, you know, no one can restrain an Indian a moment longer than necessary.

13. Once upon a time, there were analog meters in auto-rickshaws. The numbers would tick, and at the end of your ride, you’d be staring at 1.80 or 3.30. The rickshaw driver would swing his head and stare into the open, as if computing the number in his head. Then he’d say Rs. 55. Your mind would be alert at the prospect of being tricked, but you were too smart to ask for a rate card. So you’d apply your own computation and then pay up or fight. The new meters tell me exactly what I need to pay. I miss the drama.

14. Parenting principles are often turned around their head in India. After having drilled ‘Wait your turn’ into my children’s heads, I found myself telling them to ‘Don’t wait, just push ahead’. Without that, they’d be standing at the top of the slide for a long time without ever coming down.

15. There is no haircut better than a $1.50 haircut (including tips). Eavesdropping on interesting conversation, listening to radio or watching an old Hindi movie playing on TV, and getting a head massage is all part of the package. The only instruction ever given: ‘Chota kaatna’ (cut it short)

16. With the last ten seconds left for the traffic light to go green, auto rickshaw drivers start a vrooming routine that mirrors F1 drivers at the start of a race. All this to achieve a high speed of 10kmph.


17. You look around the house and find little pieces of yourself left around like breadcrumbs. It is a fallacy to think that you have come back home. The truth is, you never really left.

This is in continuation with the topic I touched upon in my book ‘r2i Dreams’, which is an exploration of the return to India topic from the perspective of three immigrants. As any NRI going back to India will attest, each trip brings upon a flood of memories and a shift of perspective. Hope you enjoyed the musings.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Book review: r2i dreams

My book r2i dreams got a generous and detailed review in the Spark magazine. If you haven't yet picked up the book, here's hoping that the review prompts you to read it.

Enjoy!

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=8073


An Interview

My 50th publication (Yes, I keep count!) turned out to be a very very special one - my first interview. The folks at Spark were kind enough to interview me and I was intrepid enough to answer their questions.

As they say, the first interview is always a special one. You are not reprimanded for putting your foot in your mouth.

Read on.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

In Defense of Parents

Everyone writes about children. No one writes about parents.
Are you a parent? A hassled, frazzled, under-pressure human being? A self-admonishing, self-doubting, sincere gem of a person? My latest publication in the Spark magazine is written for you (and it should be a first in a long series). Read on.


In Defense of Parents

Childhood is the simplest time of life. To maintain the stakes of balance, parenting ends up being tough. And yet these parents, these gentle martyrs are never written about. Songs are written about the happy days of childhood. ‘Woh kaagaz ki kashti, woh baarish ka paani’ (That paper boat, those puddles of rain). Children make the best of candidates for stories. They are perfect and even when they are not, their imperfection is endearing. So, no, I am not here to celebrate children and childhood. I am here to celebrate parenthood.

Raising children has never been easy, right from the time of the Neanderthals. Imagine having to worry about your toddler rolling off the rock or warning your young kids to be wary of scary strangers and large beasts. The passage of millennia hasn’t made the task any easier.  Look at the current generation. It is a confused gaggle of parents who are told that every good idea that they have about parenting is not quite right.

If you are too attentive, you are indulging and spoiling the kids. If you aren’t present in your child’s life every waking moment, you aren’t participating enough. If they watch too much TV, you are inhibiting their development. But if they aren’t watching too much TV, hey, we are back to being all too present in their lives all the time. Your life has to be a living will and testament to the little monsters you have produced. But wait. The single reason we are bringing up a generation of self-indulgent is that we are spending too much time on them. There are helicopter parents. There are iPad parents. There are over-the-shoulder parents. There are working-on-weekend parents. There are treat-them-with-kid-gloves parents. There are let-them-run-wild parents. It is as if a parent can’t be a parent without a worrying adjective assigned to them. This group is under perennial pressure and judgment. To add to it, with many migrating away from their homes for their careers, they have no village left to help them raise a child. That leaves them little choice but to figure out this whole parenting skill by themselves. Most of them fly blind. Parenting by intuition. And trepidation. For these parents, I would like to offer moral support and some simple life lessons.

The 35000-foot view

Parenting is a duty towards society. You have been dealt a cocktail of genes from the human gene pool and a position in the societal structure with resources to go with it. Using this deadly combination, your task is to produce a progeny that will further the cause of the human race. Your parents did their bit to give you a chance in the pecking order of haves and have-nots. Your job is to do the same.

Why this rather large context to position this problem in? Well, for starters, it will make you feel good that all those sleepless nights and patient afternoons are not for nothing. You are on a mission that will ensure the continuity of the human race. That is no less than any blockbuster Hollywood makes where a bunch of people save the earth from annihilation. You are and your spouse are heroes of your own movie.

Parenting can be a sport

Oh, and a parenting is a sport. A highly competitive one. This, I am sure you have realized by now. You aren’t just raising a child.  You are raising a child better than your friends are. Than your cousins are. Than your neighbours are. And certainly better than all those parents of pesky classmates of your child. This is where confidence comes in handy. There are no right or wrong answers to parenting. There are no firsts and lasts in a child’s growth. Take the example of when a child walks or when a child talks. It is easy to get stressed about the fact that every single kid your child’s age has begun walking and talking sooner than yours. As they grow older, it will be about how well they can read. Or solve Legos. Or build robots. And you look at your child with a mixture of pity, accusation, denial. And a plea for redemption. You sit through all those ‘Little Einstein’ DVDs with them when they are young. The least they could do is solve string theory before someone’s else child does. Oh wait, redemption arrives. No one else’s child does either. They are all going to cap off somewhere or the other. Trust me. Those ‘high-achieving’ parents? They will feel crushed too, sooner or later. It is a no-win game.

What’s in a name?

Picking a name is a tough ask of parents. Imagine the consequences of a name that a child will come to regret. The results can be so damning that Jhumpa Lahiri wrote an entire book about it. To aid with that process, parents turn to the most reliable of resources. The internet. The algorithm is tried and tested. Take a tour of all the websites that suggest names for babies. If you are in a foreign country, run those names by the some locals to make sure the pronunciations are butchered like goats on Bakri Eid. These are all good things. The masses can’t be wrong. But this approach has had one unintended side effect. As I look around today, I see a lot of Arnav, Aarav, Arya, Arhan, Aarush, Aditya, so on and so forth. It is as if parents looked at the alphabet and forgot that there are letters beyond A. So, here’s a little tip: start from ‘Z’. Starting with Zoya and Zeeshan on the list and working down to Aswath. It will leave you with a higher chance of having a name for your child that starts with a letter higher up the alphabet chain and have a name that he or she doesn’t share with ten others around him or her.

Well, you turned out ok

Your parents will   start giving you a ton of good-natured advice when they turn into grandparents. They have earned the right. They brought you up in one piece. Somehow, you turned out ok. What they omit to tell you is that they were as clueless as parents are you are right now. Despite that, this ramshackle of a personality that you are, with all its deficiencies and inefficiencies, has made it good in this world. Whenever you feel lost in this morass of parenting and wonder how it is going to turn out, take a deep breath and tell yourself ‘I turned out ok. My kids will too.’



When you next see your kids, hold them, assure them and relish the blessing that they are. You’ll rise and fall in your own estimation as well as that of your kids as you try to deal with this imperfect science. These little bits of information here are mere crumbs of advice for this difficult job. Trust your instinct to tell you the right thing. For everything else, there’s the internet.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chakraview: AID India Quiz 2014

I had the pleasure of conducting an India Quiz with two fellow quizzers, Nandini and Suchir for AID. This is an annual event that my quizzing group, Seattle Area Quizzers conducts for AID, an NGO that drives a lot of good projects in India. Small contribution to a greater cause.

The questions are shared here for your enjoyment. Go ahead. Give it a spin.

Chakraview: India Quiz 2014 

Sunday, October 05, 2014

That Little Blue Car

What is your dream car? A Bentley, a Beetle, a BMW or a Bugati? In this non-fiction piece in this month's Spark magazine themed 'Desire', I talk about my dream car from a time when dreams were simpler. Read on about which one and why! The answer might surprise you

That Little Blue Car | Spark

That Little Blue Car


What is a car? Is it just a vehicle on four wheels or is it a disguise for something larger? An ambition, an aspiration, a dream, a desire? Cars have continued to infuse passion and devotion amidst the believers over years. The car lover waxes eloquent about the purring of the engine, the thrill of its acceleration, the union of the man with the machine, the aesthetic joy that the contours of a vehicle bring. It is often a reflection of the owner. A status symbol, an extension of self.

Now that I have laid out a philosophical treatise on cars, let me tell you a story. This is a story of a man and a car and that little desire in a small crevice of his heart. It is a true story. It is my story.

I was a teen growing up in Mumbai in the 1990s. Mumbai is a crazy metropolis today. It was a crazy metropolis then too. It was packed like a can of sardines, but the lid was safely on (unlike today, where the can seems to spill a little bit of its guts each day). One of the great things about the city was that you could get around without ever needing a vehicle that you owned. There was the great train service (even with its daily incidents of people getting run over or electrocuted). There were the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws with their square shaped mysterious meters and tariff sheets. And where the auto-rickshaw could not reach, you had the speedier big brother of the auto-rickshaws, the Padmini Premier taxis. Lastly, you had the BEST buses, the red behemoths of the road. BEST stood for Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport and I am sure the people of Mumbai were glad that they were allowed to travel along with all the electricity that was being transported in the buses. There was the single decker. There was the double decker. The stalling, sputtering, accelerating, exhilarating buses that every other vehicle driver feared. An elephant among the hyenas. When presented with such an interesting bouquet of options, the ordinary Mumbaikar would hardly miss the rose-shaped hole. Their own car. I was one of them.

To be precise, my father was one of them (since I had no buying power being a poor engineering student). In fact, my grandfather was one of them too. Two generations of my family had thrived in Mumbai without entering the realms of car ownership. From the vast clean environs of South Mumbai to the newly developed jungle of Andheri, they had journeyed across the length and breadth of the city without ever getting a car. Heck, they never even had a driver’s license.

So, there I was. The third generation. Dangerously opinionated. Mildly ambitious. Engineered for the future. The 90s kid. I must have traveled a hundred thousand kilometers on the streets of Mumbai, aided by the wonderful public transport system of the city. For the longest time, I was content in my state of being unattached. To not having a car, that is. If you looked around then, even in the richest city in India, you wouldn’t see the Ferraris and the Jaguars. But change was rampant in the exhaust-fumes laden air of India. In the just liberalized economy, cars of different sizes from different makers were trickling in. We had moved ahead of the exotic Impala and Contessa, the standard issue Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, the family friendly Maruti Omni and the ‘luxurious’ Maruti 1000.
But what truly captured by heart was that little Maruti. The Maruti 800. That little box that fit the roads of Mumbai, never threatening to graze its seams. That small angular hood, the trunk that ended just after it started, the tiny mechanical doors, all got an approving look from me. The pint-sized tires glided on the bumpy roads of the city in sweet motion and the honking in ‘F’ minor was a good fit in the general cacophony.  I was lucky that a good friend had one of these little marvels at his disposal. Many an evening was spent going around in this car listening to music that might not pass muster with me more than a decade later. We were whatever the equivalent of ‘cool’ was, then. There may have been other better looking, more efficient, luxurious vehicles on offer, but my mind was set on the Maruti 800.

When I look back at those times, I often wonder why it was that I chose a Maruti 800 of all cars. When you don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to acquire something beyond your means, your dreams come to your rescue and let you soar on the wings of fancy. But then this was India in the 90s and this was me. The country was waking up to a new reality but my dreams were firmly rooted in the Hindu rate of growth.

It was a state of mind then. A pragmatic desire. A dream I could wrap my head around. A Maurti 800. Dark blue in color. With a functioning air conditioner. And a sound system that would gleefully take my collection of audio cassettes. There would be the cloud covered night in Mumbai where the rain would not let you see beyond the first five feet. A Faiz ghazal sung by Ghulam Ali would waft through the music system while the wipers worked overtime to rid the windshield of the pouring rain. That Maruti would glide through the lanes adjoining the sea where the waves would work hard to be heard over the rain.

I decided that the first car I would buy would be a Maruti 800. Only if to realize a dream. But that would not happen.. I didn’t know back then that I would go on to live abroad a few years later and would finally buy my first car in 2003. Not an Indian product, but a German one. A Volkswagen Passat. A tank disguised as a car. I didn’t know I would buy my second car a few years later. This time, a Japanese one. A Lexus SUV. A gas guzzler not pretending to be anything other than that. Recently, I read somewhere that production of the Maruti 800 has been discontinued. That puts an end to that flight of fancy. Even if it were available now, buying it would perhaps be an impractical thing to do. Yes, practicality. That which fed the dream will now cull it.

In a parallel universe, though, there is still that little blue charming car I would own and drive. I would just add one more thing to it to fit in with my current reality. I would make it an automatic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book publication: 'r2i dreams'

I am proud and excited to announce the release of my book titled 'r2i dreams'.

It is a part autobiographical, part philosophical, sometimes funny and sometimes introspective book about the story of three immigrants struggling with their r2i (return to India) dream. r2i is a topic of constant discussion and debate among immigrant Indians and the book explores it through the lens of three parallel life stories. Realizing this book has been a rewarding journey with my co-conspirators Ramya and Subha. Here's hoping that these tales resonate with you too!

This flight of fancy was unexpected and uncharted and yet it has taken off for the horizon. What began as an organic project with the three of us bouncing ideas turned into a full fledged book during the course of a year. It has been tough work balancing with work and kids and other commitments and I am happy I could see it through. This topic in particular is a very common course of discussion among Indian immigrants and the book captures the essence of it.

Here's where you can get a copy for yourselves
In the US :
http://amzn.to/1rUmKCa
In India : http://bit.ly/1At99Rb
In Kindle store: http://amzn.to/1uTRXCH

If you are on Facebook, please like this page and spread the word: https://www.facebook.com/r2idreams
 

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Study in Platitudes

Cliches. We all indulge in them. We all spot them and feel smug and reassured when we do. But sometimes the cliche is not what it seems and the story behind it belies its definition. 

Pleased to share my short story in this month's Spark magazine. Inspired by a very Indian cliche that I have seen in action in America. Hope you enjoy it.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=7262 

A Study in Platitudes 

Jamuna ben realized that the laces of her shoes had come off. Shoes were an inconvenient truth of her old age. She didn’t like them, but couldn’t find anything more comfortable to walk around in. On a hot July day like this, with her family circling around her, there was no choice but to put on those green colored Nike shoes her grand-daughter had picked for her and soldier along. Her knees would give way after every hundred steps she walked and her eyes would scan for the nearest seat.

Ashit rolled his eyes when he saw his mother slow down. It was tough enough being a dedicated father. Being a model son was taxing him. He wasn’t sure why he had brought his mother out today. He knew she hated it. He knew he hated it. But he also knew that neither would admit it. The pilgrimage had to be done. He adjusted the fanny pack on his stomach, wiped the sweat of his brow and lugged his pot-bellied body forward. Today was going to be a long day.

Jalpa looked into the distance with a blank stare. Her gift for appreciating history was limited. But even she had heard all about the immigrants lining up at Ellis island, with the promise of a better life, with the promise of freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Was she free? Happy? Growing up in the bylanes of Jamnagar, she had never thought of coming to America. The immigrant life was not of her choosing. Her husband too, was a suggestion her parents had forced her to accept. From the reticent bride of a man immigrating to the United States, she had grown to be her own self. With limited education and halting command over English, she had survived over two decades in the suburbs of New Jersey.

Their kids, Niti and Hiten, followed their parents at some distance. Neither was jumping up and down in excitement about this particular soiree. Niti adjusted the earphones on her iPod, letting the vagrant beats of the latest hip-hop star transport her away. She was fending off a fresh hurt from the morning. Jalpa and she had a fight over this trip – she insisted on Niti’s presence, which cued loud protests from her. Ashit’s word had prevailed in the end. Niti’s rebellion was like a cup that always managed to fill the brim but rarely spilled over. Her brother Hiten accompanied the group with the least degree of dissonance. At the tender age of nine, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Every exposure, every incident, every trip, every interaction was a welcome visitor in his palace of curiosities.

The group ground to a halt as Jamuna ben gave her troubled knee a rest. The sun was beaming down from the afternoon sky onto the courtyard in front of The Statue of Liberty. The pigeons held a conference in front of them, feeding off the grains scattered on the floor. It was a cue for the family.

They all naturally gravitated towards the only corner of the courtyard that was covered in shadow. The earth was cool and welcoming to the family in need. The collective trespasses of the day were to ready to take a break, spread their legs on the big mattress that Jalpa laid out and sate their hunger with the wholesome meal that this family would partake in.

In the wee hours of the morning, when all was quieter than usual in the eerily quiet suburb of Piscataway, New Jersey, Jalpa got up to make a sumptuous meal of theplas and alu sabzi for the hungry horde that would accompany her on the trip later that day.

They all sat around in a circle on the mattress. Jalpa took out a bunch of Ziploc bags, within which were theplasbunched in aluminum foil. The alu sabzi was neatly laid out in a bunch of plastic containers.  The pickle, soaked in oil, stained its container a deep blood orange. The spoons, forks, water and sweets were brought out, one after the other. They sat patiently, peering at the ground. A ritual steeped in habit was soon underway.

Jamuna ben took the food because she could have no other. Her constitution, attuned to seven decades of home cooked food had found no comfort in America. The only thing that worked for her diet, her diabetes and her didactic notions of eating, was what Jalpa would make for her. Ashit took the meal without question, taking it as a sign of his duty towards his mother, proxied through his wife. He would, while eating the theplas, eye the hot dog stand on the other side of the courtyard. The kids took an apathetic view of the whole business of eating. Their sensibilities were finely attuned to the switching of worlds. In one moment, Indian-American, and in the other, American-Indian. The ritual did not embarrass them, though the futility of it amused them. Why their rather rich family would not spend a hundred dollars on a meal but choose to engage in sitting around and eating this meal to the curious stares of strangers was something they had never fully understood.

And so the meal proceeded in slow harmony. Conversation found its way out in as the morsels of food disappeared. A smile here, a laugh there, a comment here, a question there. The family conversed, softly to begin with, loudly to end with. Oblivious to the heat, to the teeming masses that were building around, to the history of the immigrants that had once landed there, to their own story of displacement from their native lands.

When the meal was done and the trash was deposited and the hunger Gods sated, they got up and walked towards The Statue of Liberty. A Caucasian tourist with a pair of goggles and a rotund belly was handed a point and shoot camera.

The man stared at the screen at the back of the camera. Bit by bit, they filled it up. The grandmother in the center, Ashit and Jalpa behind her, the two kids flanking her sides. On an ordinary day, in the full capture of a glorious photography, in a very ordinary way, the Patel family came together, fulfilling yet another cliché.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Entrapment

Happy to share my publication this month in the Spark magazine. Their theme for the month was 'Freedom' and I have written a short story that deals with a father and a son as the father grapples with his notion of freedom while his son sees it differently.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=7196


Entrapment



“Go to your room right now,” Akshay hollered. The voice reverberated through the living room. It wasn’t enough that his voice would have sent shivers down the spine of young Pinak. A table lamp conspired to elevate his profile to that of a towering giant across the wall. The boy cowered under the weight of his father’s anger. His eyes had a touch of defiance at the start of the argument, but he realised very soon that his insolence wasn’t going to get him too far. He shrunk in his place. Hands on the side, head bowed, he willed his legs to take him upto his room, but he was simply unable to move. It took Akshay’s loud reminder to shake him from his stupor.  The little legs rushed to the end of the hall and led him to his bed where he crashed like a meteor on earth.

Akshay stood in his place shaking with fury. His anger was half-directed at himself. The intransigence of the boy was not worth the rage directed at him. Yes, he had broken a vase in the living room, jumping off the sofas imagining himself to a superhero. But Akshay’s anger was fueled by his own frustration.  The stock of his company had plummeted that day, much like the vase his son had toppled over. The stock price had slipped to the edge over the past few days, fueled by rumours of a bad quarter of sales. Then the numbers came out, and it toppled over the precipice. Office looked like a war zone that morning. There were signs of panic all around. People leaning over their desks, phones cupping one ear. Handkerchiefs were out wiping beads of sweat that lined eyebrows even in air-conditioned rooms. Computer screens that usually ran the gamut from Facebook to Email to their actual work programs were busy tracking the downfall of the stock. The Titanic was sinking and no one had sounded the warning about the icebergs. The guardians on the watch should have said something, but they had decided to be silent. Akshay was one of them.

He knew the books, he knew the story, he knew where the holes in the ship were. He remembered that Thursday night meeting with his CEO. Sitting in that dimly lit cabin of his when everyone but the janitors had gone home, he had stood quietly like a school boy being reprimanded. “It’s ok. We can salvage it. Nothing is lost. Impressions are everything.” It was pep talk and admonishment rolled into one. It was a call to arms and a sleight of hand at the same time. He was goaded, cajoled, convinced, threatened and silenced at the same time. Akshay had waited all along for another voice to appear to contradict his boss. Something from within –  that little voice in the head, which would have told him that what he was doing was flat out incorrect. His job description had said nothing about having to cook up the books, but here he was, being asked to do exactly that.
He had bought into the mythology his bosses fed him. The invincibility of the market. The durability of appearances. The untouchability of the elites. He had always wondered what it would be like to be one of them. Being granted entry into the boys’ club. Here he was finally. A boy amongst men. Asked to give his share of the flesh. His entry fee.

He had brought his entire toolkit to this hatchet job he had been asked to do. The balance sheet was altered, the cash flow statement twisted and the income statement spruced up. Night after night he sat and figured out ways around the problem – keeping the company in the green and the investors in the dark. Papers were littered across the floor of his offices like discarded promises. It didn’t matter. This was it. He would do this one thing, this one time, and be on his way to a success story he had always imagined himself to be.

He stood in the living room, stooped under the weight of his thoughts. Bit by bit, he cleared up the floor, picking up the broken pieces of the vase, trying to steady his mind which was swirling in the maelstrom of thoughts.  When he felt satisfied at having cleaned up the mess that his son had made, he went to his room where the little boy was huddled under the blankets in complete darkness. Akshay stood at the door. The sounds of muffled sobs reached him over the constant hum of the fan.

He turned on the light, went and sat next to the bed, and put his hand on Pinak’s head, gently stroking it. Pinak turned around and buried his head into Akshay’s lap. Akshay decided to relieve the tension by telling his son a story.

“There was once a deer who loved him home in the forest so much. He played with his friends and basked in the sun. One day, a lion entered the forest. He terrorized all the animals. There was no one he spared. He would roam around the forest and pick his prey. No one was safe from him. The deer became worried. Would his turn come next? Would his home survive? He went to the lion’s cave one day. From a distance, he called him out and said, ‘Lion, I have an idea. I’ll make sure you have an animal to eat each day if you promise to leave me and my family alone.’”

“The lion didn’t care. His job would only become easier. He said yes. Then the deer started on his promise. Each day, he would lure an animal to the pond to drink some water. Rabbits, hyenas, mongooses. It didn’t matter. They came there and the lion, waiting in the shadows would pounce on them.”

“The deer felt relieved. He had saved his family. Saved all that was dear to him. He felt a little bad for his friends, but he thought to himself that it was a cost he was willing to pay.”

“Then one day, he called in a wolf to the pond. The wolf was smart. He had noticed that many animals were being eaten at the pond by the lion. He sensed a trap. That night, he went and hid outside the lion’s cave. The deer came there after a while and shouted into the distance, ‘O lion, tomorrow you shall have the wolf’, and then went away.”

“The wolf waited a while and had his own discussion with the lion. The next day, the deer went to the pond and waited. The wolf never showed. The lion came from behind the trees and jumped on the deer, eating him up. The wolf smiled in the distance at his own cleverness.”

“Did you understand the story Pinak?”

“Yes Daddy.”

“What did you learn from it?”

“I learnt that you should not betray your friends.”

“Good. Good,” said Akshay, patting his son’s head and looking into the distance. It wasn’t the moral he had in mind when he came up with the tale.

He thought of another deer who might be slaughtered some day for the compromises he made. That deer was trapped under the weight of his own dreams, trapped under the notion that he needed to do what was required to provide the best for his family, trapped under the belief that a small sacrifice had to be made to keep big ambitions alive. He wondered if, the deer in the story, in his last moments, would have finally felt free. An escape from the trap of his own making.

Monday, August 04, 2014

A Ten Year Soliloquy

Ten years to this day, I started this space. This blog. Back then, it was a great medium to get your thoughts out on the web. A great way to connect with strangers who had an opinion on topics that mattered to you. Great way to stumble upon other people who were on a similar attempt at self-discovery. For me, it was simply a chance to write my work down. My poems, short stories, ruminations on cricket, movies, the whole gamut.

Today this space finishes ten years. 387 posts, nearly 80000 page views and 3000 comments have made their way here during that time. Over the years, this blog has landed me several collateral benefits. I have gotten to know people whom I would normally not have crossed paths with. Today, they are friends who live across the globe, blog sporadically, but are people whom I am in touch with. I am very thankful for them. Some of them have stopped coming to this space but now know me personally. The shape of our interactions has changed. I have taken my writing to the next level by finding outlets to get published in. The constant practice I got on the blog helped me reach that point.

Over time, blogging as I knew it back then has died. With Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and other platforms taking prominence, combined with reduced attention spans, the personal blog of the kind this space has been, has limited possibilities. If I had started this blog today, it would die an early death.

I don't know how long this will continue to persist. I might keep posting to it, but it may be writing to void since the interactions with readers have reduced quite a bit. It is ok. I am one of the readers and I am not in a hurry to leave. Some day, my children will read this and get a glimpse into how their old man thought and wrote for a decade or more of his life.

Happy birthday dear blog! You have given me good company. Hope you stay around for some more.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Monsoon In Mumbai

Home is the first rains in Mumbai.

The violence of the raindrops
Erasing summer’s fetid relics,

Where arms outstretched, we welcomed
The Rain God to his own abode

Where our paper boats floated
Before sinking in the puddles

We giggled in their misery
Assured of a dry, safe haven

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Conversations

Pleased to share my contribution to this month's Spark magazine. Their theme for the month was 'Conversations' and I have written three byte-sized stories that revolve around conversations and end (hopefully) unexpectedly.
Some of it was experimental for me but so please go easy with the criticism Read on.


Conversations

 The Last Banter

“Did you see the newspaper yesterday?”
“No, why?”
The two thin men sat on their haunches on the wooden platform, passing to each other a fast disappearing beedi.
“There has been a shortage of onion crop this year. The prices are going up.”
“First, they will take our jobs away, and now we can’t afford onions!”
“Oh well, at least we won’t need the onions to cry. Our tears will be real.”
A moment’s pause and they both broke into guffaws.
However, silence followed laughter as both sat reflecting on the misfortune that was about to befall them.
There had been a memo stuck with pins to the notice board. It went onto inform them that their division was overstaffed and that volume of the work did not justify the volume of the staff. Some people would be losing their jobs.
The news was accepted with a sense of inevitability. These two brothers, bonded by a common labour, could see the writing on the wall. The suspense though was overbearing. Would one of them lose their job? Or, would both? Will this be their last act of bravura? Would it be the last beedi they shared thus?
“Did you check it?”
“Yes, it’s tight. Everything is in order.”
The pride in their work was obvious in their demeanour. They believed that their work was a solemn duty.
The beedi was put out.
“It’s about time. He should be here.”
A bevy of men walked in through the door. The focus was one on a lean bespectacled man in the center. He walked with the grave air of a person lost in thought.
The two men saw him and wondered who the more condemned one was. With a careful leap, they got down from the gallows.

Conversion

“What’s your name?”
The tone of the question had all the marking of a rough interrogation.
“Pinocchio.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“Italy.”
“Pinocchio is a strange name. Are you a real boy or a wooden puppet?”
The sentence was delivered in a derisory tone and laughter was heard across the room.
“I suppose you just need to see whether my nose grows when I lie.”
The laughter died out in the hall. People nervously shifted in their seats. The answer was unexpected. It was mean. It was anything but what they had expected out of Pinocchio.
“That’s a little rude, don’t you think?” the tone softened a bit. “Never mind. Let’s continue.”
“Solve this riddle for me. A man is on an airplane with his wife and child. The plane catches fire and they have only one parachute between them. What would they do?”
“How old is the child?”
“Three.”
“That means that its chances of survival by itself are fairly remote. In that case, I would say that the woman should jump leaving the man and the child behind.”
“Why is that?”
“Logically, the survival of the species is dependent more on women than it is on men.”
“But couldn’t the woman take a chance and carry the child along?”
“Perhaps, but the probability of survival would reduce too much to make that viable.”
Heads shook in the room. The project file was shut down with a large thump. The subject should no signs of empathy humans are capable of. Their only currency was logic. The plan to humanize subject CRN-11 was going nowhere. A hundred years had gone by since the Turing Test was passed. What Alan Turing didn’t know is that even when he asked “Can Machines think?” he couldn’t have imagined that the only thinking they would ever be capable of was being logical.

Perfection

Prasoon was fascinated by the ten avatars of Vishnu. There was a comic book on ‘Dashavatar’ (ten avatars of Vishnu), an animated movie on it, photos and idols of most of the avatars in the wood-crafted temple next to the kitchen, and at least one or two names in the extended family named after them.
Prasoon’s ten-year-old mind wrapped itself around the many possibilities that Vishnu had to offer as a superhero. His parents were happy that in the era of the Ironman and Superman and all other forms of men and women doing super-deeds, their son was found peering over his Hindu mythology book at quiet moments on a sleepy Sunday. What they were not prepared for was the many questions his enthrallment would bring about.
“Papa?” he asked his father, who was hidden behind the sports pages of the newspaper.
“Vishnu is very powerful, right?”
“Yes.”
“And he can take many forms at the same time?”
“Yes.”
“Can he take any form he wants?”
“Yes, he can.” said his father, a tinge of irritation building up.
“Does he always fight against evil?”
“Yes, yes, we have spoken about this many times before, Prasoon!”
“But he is always good, right? So why does he fight against himself?”
The paper was folded down and a face with a quizzical look peered at the boy.
“What do you mean?”
“In the book it says that when Rama goes to marry Sita, Parshurama comes and is very angry with him. He challenges Rama to string his bow which he claims is as powerful as the one Rama has broken. When Rama strings it, he says that an arrow has to be fired and he aims it at Parshurama. Doesn’t that mean that he is fighting against himself?”
“Why do you say he is fighting against himself?”
“Papa, you forgot? Rama is an avatar of Vishnu. Parshurama is also an avatar of Vishnu. Doesn’t that mean he is fighting himself?”
“You have a point here, Prasoon!”
After a pause, the father added “Rama was a really good man. Maybe even better than Parshurama, and he needed to prove that point. Set that standard.”
And the explanation expanded some more. “It is not that Parshurama was bad, but Rama was perfect. Not all of us can be perfect all the time like Rama. We may be more like Parshurama. Sometimes we make good choices and sometimes we don’t.”
“Are you saying that we may make mistakes and it is ok to fail?”
“Yes. You know, Rama didn’t punish Parshurama. He let him go.”
“Oh!”
Prasoon rushed into his room and came back with a sheet of paper, handing it gingerly to his father.
“Papa, can you please sign this? You are my Rama,” he said with a sheepish smile, as his father pored over the red lines in his son’s report card.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Fleeting Image Of A House

Mine was an Indian home:
Blessed by a multitude of Gods,
Drenched in incense
and deliberation

Thursday, June 05, 2014

An Unlucky Man

Very tickled at sharing this month's publication in the Spark magazine with you. Their theme for the month was 'Mirth' and I have written a humorous (hopefully) short story about an unlucky man's travails set in the city of Mumbai. Read on and let me know if it raised a smile or two.

As I have discovered: Smiling is easy. Writing funny stories is much harder.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=7009

An Unlucky Man


Nimish Hiremagalur was not a lucky man. No Sir, he could not be accused of it. Lady Luck gave him the slip at the worst of moments. He once went gambling, won a lot of money, and promptly got robbed on the way home. On another occasion, when he came home early to surprise his wife, his wife had a surprise ready for him – a hairy man waiting in the closet full of clothes with very few clothes on him. He got so fed up with his life once that he decided that he would run away to wherever his dart landed on the map of the world. He hit his home city with great accuracy. No Sir, there was no escape for Nimish, there was no respite for him. No good things happened to him, and when they did, there was always a trip and a fall waiting for him. The Universe must have believed he was unlucky. Nimish certainly was convinced of it. He was sure that he lived at the bottom of rock bottom.

It was in the midst of this deep conviction that he stumbled home on a February evening. Most people would have probably missed it in the fading light of the day. A little brown blob lying on the road. But Nimish always looked down while walking. He saw it and it made him stop in his tracks. It was a wallet. Thick,  dog-eared, lived in. Nimish stared at it like it was about to explode. He thought about what he should do next. For the first time in a long time, he looked up, then left, then right, as if he were about to cross a road. He gingerly picked up the wallet, half expecting the police, the income tax department, a SWAT team and perhaps an entire contingent of news reporters with their mikes and cameras, to swarm on him, accusing him of having pulled off a great heist. That eruption of people never happened. No one came. It was just him and that carefully held wallet in his hand.

He opened it curiously. The wallet had two compartments. The first had an infusion of cash. A wad of notes dangled at him. Several thousand rupee notes were neatly arranged together. He turned the other flap open and looked for any signs of identification. There was nothing he could find that spoke about its owner. No license, no credit card, no photographs of a beloved. Just a slip of paper with an address. “Razzak bhai, Dharavi”. And a picture of a gun drawn on it. It seemed like the calling card of a Bollywood star. That definitive style of a man who expects the world to know who he is. Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, home to many Razzaks. But clearly, as the man must have believed, only one Razzak bhai.

Nimish’s eyes lit up. This seemed like a mystery wrapped in an enigmatic thrill. A man not trained to trust his luck suddenly found himself wanting to go on a limb and show some faith. Perhaps there was a story to be pursued here. A story to brighten up his life. A story to make his bygone be bhai-gones. He would return the purse, triumphantly, to a don of Mumbai. The don would offer him a reward that he would refuse. The don would be touched by his gesture and give him a gold chain that he was wearing, as a symbol of brotherhood. If he was lucky, he would even part with his favorite red colored scarf. If the stars were aligned, he would ask his moll, Rani, to pour him a drink. And if the stars really aligned, maybe he could spend some time petting the don’s pet tiger, Shera. Yes, yes, Nimish thought. Why not? Perhaps all his unluckiness had accrued as tax he was paying, for a day like this. His imagined don and the imagined don’s imaginary largesse was waiting for him three kilometers (or as they say in Mumbai, one hour) away.

Nimish hailed an auto-rickshaw and told him to head to Dharavi. He held the wallet very close to his heart. When the rickshaw coughed and sputtered along the Sion-Bandra link road, doubts began to cough and sputter within Nimish. Where would he start? Who would he ask? Will they take him in? Or take the wallet and shoo him away? Will he ever get a chance to talk to Razzak bhai himself?

“Sahab, kahaan?”asked the rickshaw driver, pointing out to him the obvious flaw in his grand plan. Standing at the mouth of Dharaavi was like landing at Ellis Island and having the whole of USA to explore. He asked him to stop near the corner of the universe. A paan shop, around which all the comings and goings of the neighborhood found their orbits. One paan shop in Dharaavi, one of the many in a hive of local news hounds. Could he find his lead here?

“Razzak bhai?”he went up and asked as the owner greased a fine Banarasi paan with choona.

“Razzak bhai,” the paanwaala responded?

“Yes. Razzak bhai,”he said, handing him the card from the wallet.

The paanwaala gave the card a glimpse. The choona froze in its tracks. A look of disdain crossed his face.

 “Wait here,” he told Nimish. He reached out to his side and picked up a cell phone. Frantically, he punched a few numbers, never for a moment taking his eyes off the man with the card.

“He’s here,” were the only two words he uttered.

Nimish’s excitement paled and was replaced by unease. He wondered what the paanwaala had made of that card. All it had was a simple name. When Nimish had asked him about Razzak, had the paanwaala treated it like a question or a statement? Was he assuming the he was Razzak bhai?

His answer was swiftly delivered to him. Three burly men with flowery shirts with their top three buttons open, closed in on him. One held him by the hand and led him to a narrow by-lane. Nimish started saying his prayers. This was going to be the end of him.

“Do you have it?” the largest man with the squeakiest voice asked.

“What?”

“The money”

“For what?”

“The guns.”

“Well look, I am not really here for the guns. I am here to meet Razzak bhai.”

“He can’t meet you. He has gone away.”

“Where? Dubai?”

The smallest fellow laughed. “Dubai? No, to his village. In Uttar Pradesh.” After a pause, he said, “The money, or else, I’ll have to call the police”

Nimish stood confused. What goon uses police as a threat to sell guns?

“How much?” he asked.

“30000 rupees.”

Where am I going to get this kind of money, he wondered? And then it struck him. His flight to a great life, that wallet, was loaded with cash. He took it out and simply handed the whole thing to his corpulent new friend. Not the don, but his right hand.

The counting of money was done meticulously and Rs. 2000 returned back to him.

“It’s good. Now take your guns and go,” the man said, handing over a rather heavy bag to Nimish.

Nimish didn’t dare open the bag. He didn’t dare look them in the eye. He simply took the bag and walked out of there as fast as he could. All the way home, his eyes nervously looked for signs of police trolling the streets.

When he got to his building, he paid off the rickshaw-waala handsomely and ran up the stairs. He nervously opened the door to his house, latched the door and ran to his bedroom with that bag. Sweat poured from his temples and his sweaty palms almost lost grip of the bag.

Nervously, he opened it. There they were. The guns. Nearly a 1000 of them. All made to order. By someone whose wallet he had accidentally found on the road. Nimish looked at them with new eyes. This could be the start of something new. Something exciting. A career in arms dealership perhaps. The lucky break that could alter his life for a better path. Nimish, no longer the loser.

With renewed vigor, he picked up a gun to examine it. The disappointment came sooner than the feel of the gun could register in his hand. It was February. In time for Holi. All these guns were built to fire was colored water. His face fell. Good fate had tempted him only to turn its back on him. That merchandise seemed to laugh slyly at him. The receipt of goods taunted him a bit louder. It had the name of the company that made them. Razzak bhai’s company.

“Lucky Waterworks”


Saturday, May 17, 2014

An Indian Immigrant's Penance

My latest publication on this fine site for poetry - Every Day Poets. This is the second time I have gotten my work published there, this time over a gap of two years, as is evident from my bio that did not get updated in time :) Read on.

http://www.everydaypoets.com/an-indian-immigrants-penance-by-parth-pandya/ 

Monday, May 05, 2014

A Mumbai Reprise

Mumbai. My muse. My city. My home, always. Mumbai, where I come from.

Enjoy my latest publication, which is an ode to the maximum city

Mumbai Reprise


Where I come from
Street after street
Stands silent witness
To the constant triumph
Of Darwinian principles

Where I come from
Dreams burn in a cauldron
And the ashes disperse
In the waiting arms
Of a moonlit sea

Where I come from
The greatest steal
Is a few feet of space
The greatest prize
A few quarantined thoughts

Where I come from
There’s beauty still
And a pulse that never
Subsides, late into the
Smoggy arms of night

Where I come from
Your constant companions
Amidst the teeming hordes
Are an ascending emptiness
And a clandestine pain

Where I come from
(sigh) Where I came from
I wander still, in my dreams
A city of penitent angels
A city of cavalier djinns

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Morning Song

I heard the morning song;
Stiff notes stretching
Their sinuous arms

Dawn races those
Who are racing it 
To beat it to coffee

Critters, birds sing hymns
Light filters through
"Aarush" carries 
The blessing of "Ushas"

Aarush - first ray of the sun
Ushas - Hindu deity of the morning, dawn

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Flight Of The Monarch Butterflies

Taking a break from writing short stories to publish a poem in this month's Spark magazine. The theme for the month was 'Journeys' and the poem draws upon the journey of a monarch butterfly, a creature that has always fascinated me, and its contrast with that of humans. Read on.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=6858

The Flight Of The Monarch Butterflies


Each year it happens this way
Each year those million monarchs
Are born, sprout wings, and fly off
To a warm place, a continent away

Something living goes there, puts down its luggage
Collapses on the bed, kicks off its shoes
Orders room service, hatches some progenies
And then without apology, promptly dies

A life with no correction,
No retraction, no redemption
No reset, no egress
No nostalgia, no regrets

We too could be monarchs
We too could journey with no return
Never turn to wonder at ‘what if’
Never have a chance to go back

And yet, nature’s scripts for us differ
Not for us the singular sense of purpose
Our journeys are bound to a leash
Our future tied to the past

Fly, O Monarch, fly to your tenacious end
We fly forward only to look back
We travel in circles, in our hearts
Our beginnings married to our end

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Before The Equinox

Come here and see
The last leaf has fallen
From this winter-ridden tree

Come, be with me today
When all truth is true
And all hope is asleep

Come here, in this moment
Where you and I can just 
Be

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why I Hate Helium

This story dates back more than two decades. I was coming to the end of my twelve glorious years at my school. Jack of all trades, master of some. The mastery did not rear its head on the athletics field too much, though I could hit a mean cover drive and defend my stumps with the ferocity and tenacity of Tipu Sultan. I was considered to be among the lot that did well at extra-curricular activities not involving sports. Writing, debating, you know the works. To my horror and I am sure to that of everyone in the school at 7.25 am each morning who heard it, I was also part of the school prayer group that trudged to the principal's office and sang the glory of Goddess Saraswati and the like each morning through a solitary microphone. Quizzing however wasn't one of those activities. In fact, quizzing wasn't an activity at all in my school, the best I can remember. We seemed to have skipped the ability to do simple question and answers in my alma mater. So it came as a complete surprise when my first official quiz was to be not in the school premises or that of another. It was meant to be on the All India Radio. Yes, our good old AIR, of Vividh Bharati and cricket commentaries in Hindi. I don't know how it was arranged, but arranged it was, and me, of the extra-curriculars fame was picked from the three divisions along with my very good friend Mohit to represent the school. Why us? Maybe we could name more states in the Indian Union than others or knew a little more about the basics of physics than others. Or, more importantly, we conveyed the impression that we did.

So, there we were, packed off with our school librarian to the AIR recording studio. I think it was in Prabhadevi. I was expecting a fierce round of competition there. Tough teams from all the top schools in Bombay (which is what it was then). I had fresh memories from a disappointing performance at a Hindi debate competition I had participated in at the Jamnabhai Narsee School. The winner was clearly leagues ahead of me and a lot of the other competitors there. With that in mind and with no experience in quizzing, I wasn't sure how this could ever end well. We waited, and we waited some more and the teams arrived. Correction, a team arrived. It was from the Cannossa High School in Andheri (E). A couple of girls trudged in with their teacher. Was this it? Did the rest just now show up in fear? I was willing to believe that narrative. What's more, of the two girls, one was in the 7th grade. We might as well have collected our prize and gone home.

We were waiting nervously in a lobby waiting to be called inside. A classical singer came out alaap-ing with passion. We were ushered in. A round table awaited us. Microphones were kept there. The quizmaster asked us our names. I dug deep and came out with the heaviest baritone I could manage. Parth Pandya, I said. Can you say it one more time? Parth Pandya. Aah, I see. Welcome.

Now there are two types of quizzes. There is trivia and there is the kind where the question is phrased as a clue. For eg. you could ask the question 'Who is the highest run-getter in the history of test cricket?' or you could ask the question 'Which cricketer born in the great city of Mumbai, was once compared by the great Don to himself and was named after the famous music director S.D. Burman?' The answer to the two would be the same: Sachin Tendulkar. The latter, more refined form of quizzing, wasn't something I was introduced to until I got to my engineering college. This quiz on AIR was just that - trivia. Either you knew or you didn't.

The rounds started and the questions came flying thick and fast. There were some about dinosaurs and some about history, some about geography and some about inventions. The answers came, in fits and starts. Some from us, some from the girls. It was't the cakewalk I was expecting it to be. In a few minutes, we forgot all about the fact that we were recording for the radio or that this was a setting very alien to us. Quizzing, after all, is all about ego. Let no quizzer tell you otherwise. Knowing an answer or cracking a clue gives most of us to that moment of finite glory, and we savor it.

The rounds went on, the figdeting in seats continued, until the quizmaster (or radio personality, or both) told us duly that the last round was coming up. The scores were tied - the contest down to the wire. There were four questions left, and like boxers punching and counter-punching, we took our turns. They got two, we got one. This wasn't happening. We were losing. To a team with a kid two grades lower than us. This was it. The moment of reckoning. The moment where the collective intellect of Bhavans A.H. Wadia High School was to rise spectacularly and save the day. The fingers were on the virtual buzzer (I think it was just raising the hand to get to answer first then) and raring to go. For broke.

"What is the lightest metal?"

"Helium", blurted out an inexperienced quizzer

"No", shouted his partner

The ship had sunk. The gas, though, would have escaped! 

I sank my head in my hands. The battle was lost. In the coming years, I would quiz again. I would win. In quizzes and places far more challenging than this. I would start quiz clubs where I would see others participate in this shared joyous activity. But I came to hate helium from the bottom of my heart that day and it hasn't changed since. The unbearable heaviness of being a quizzer that lost his first quiz thanks to his faith in his eager ears and a gas most foul (well, I'll grant that it is odorless) stays with me till date. Some day, there will be a quiz question with my name on it; I'll go for it because my gut says it is the right answer and the right answer will be Helium. Maybe then, I'll get closure.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Niloufer's Birthday

Happy to share my latest publication in Spark. Their topic for the month was 'She'. I am excited to share my short story, set in a Parsi house, about a woman whose presence permeates the air even when is not there physically. Read on.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=6783

Niloufer's Birthday


“Her shoes. I married her for her shoes”, Ardeshir said, his hands leaning on the table.

The ten-year-old boy was toying around with his fork when his grandfather’s statement made him stop.

“Shoes, Bapawajee?” asked a wide eyed Cyrus.

Ardeshir smiled and looked to the wall.  A young Parsi girl dressed in the fashion of the sixties, mounting a Mona Lisa smile, smiled back at him in black and white. His wife. His Niloufer.
He had sought out Niloufer before they got married. Spent time around where she lived, stalked her at her college, slipped in notes to her, and finally mustered the courage to ask her out on a date. At least, that’s what kids would have called it today. Back then, he simply scribbled a few words on a chit of paper, asking her to meet at Bandra bandstand at 4 pm on Sunday. That she came was a surprise for him. That she spoke to him was beyond his wildest imagination. Niloufer had saved him from the curse of solitude, for it would have been none other for him.

Jawa dene dikra, you won’t understand”

“Pleaseeeeeee Bapawajee”, insisted Cyrus.

His mother Kainaz gave Cyrus a stern look which made the boy go silent.

“How’s it tasting, Pappa?” she asked, changing the topic to the dhansak she had made for the evening.

“It’s good. It’s good”, nodded Ardeshir vehemently.

“I have to thank Mamma for teaching me this. I remember the first time I tried it after I married Rustom. I don’t think my mother’s dhansak was a patch on this.”

Rustom raised his eyebrows a little, looking up from his plate and smiling mischievously at his wife. “I love the bonhomie, my dear wife. I wonder if your memories of your early days in this house are a bit clouded. You and Ma rarely agreed on anything, remember?”

“Who hasn’t disagreed with your mother? Maybe not you, you Mamma’s boy”, replied Kainaz.

Ardeshir stopped to look around his house. Sixty years he had lived here, but there were two chapters to his life here. The second had begun after he had met her in Bandra that fateful afternoon. They got married six months later.

He remembered it as clear as day. She, a resplendent bride, in her saree. He, the reticent groom, in his jama-pichori. They sat opposite each other, separated by a cloth curtain. The priest placed his right hand in hers. He then fastened them with raw twist, which he put around the hands seven times. That girl was inextricably tied to him for life.

“Are you back in the sixties again, Pappa?” asked his daughter Khushnum gruffly.

Ardeshir looked at his daughter gently. She had an anger that he could never assuage. An anger that always simmered on the surface.

“I think you could grant me that today, couldn’t you, Khush?”

“Why this ritual each year, Pappa? Why this need to talk about her? Why take your family down this memory lane? Not everyone has fond recollections of days past!”

“She is the tie that binds us. We gather to celebrate her, Khush. Not every story has a happy ending, but for you to say that there are no fond recollections of your mother is disingenuous.”

Cyrus shifted uneasily in his seat, not understanding the discussion going on, but fully aware of a sense of tension pervading the room.

“She may be the love of your life, and she may be Rustom’s favorite parent and she maybe Kainaz’s hero, but I don’t worship the ground she walks on.”

“Khush!” said Rustom, finding his own voice rising.

“Now you speak up, big brother”, Khushnum continued, sarcasm dripping from her tongue. “Where were you when your mother, our mother, was messing with my life?”

“I didn’t agree with her Khush. I didn’t side with her, but I respected her choice, just as I respected yours. You could have done what you pleased. Walked away to a life of your choice”

“That’s easy for you to say. My own mother opposed me, my father was not willing to support me, my brother remained silent through it, my sister-in-law …. Forget it!”

Kainaz was waiting for the time she would be dragged into this conversation. “We all have our reasons, Khush!”

“But of course Kainaz. Why would you go against your mother-in-law? Why would you ever go against a woman who accepted you despite your weakness for getting pregnant before you got married?”

“Khush!” shouted Rustom with more fervor, barely containing himself from slapping her. Ardeshir’s face turned to stone – he was shocked at the words and worried about their effect.

Kainaz was stunned at that utterance from Khushnum. Never since the wedding had this topic been brought up in the house. She thought that everyone had accepted the past and moved on. She was wrong. Hurt ran deep in this house.

Khushnum realized she had crossed the line. The wound had been inflicted and she now felt overcome with guilt. Quietly slumping into a chair in the corner of the room, all she could do was mutter “sorry” under her breath to anyone who was still in a position to listen.

Kainaz was shedding gentle tears in her chair. She thought of the woman who had accepted her with open arms when she and Rustom had timidly stood before her, with Ardeshir telling them that they had committed a mistake. Ardeshir was not willing, but Niloufer had convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

Rustom paced around the room with his head down, willing himself to calm down. His mother was the one who had always helped put a lid on his temper. He missed the cool comfort of her voice, the way she held him as a child when he would cry out with nightmares, the friend he confessed to even when he was in college. He admired his father, but loved his mother. She was the parent he preferred. Today, he needed her more than ever.  He was mad at Khushnum but was also sympathetic to her plight. He finally walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
Khushnum looked up to him with pleading eyes, begging for understanding. “If she could allow you, why not me?”

She was in her teens when she had fallen in love with a Maharashtrian boy, who lived just outside their Dadar Parsi colony. Niloufer, for all her liberal attitudes, was staunch in her stance. Parsi girls should not marry outside their religion. Khushnum had pleaded, protested, tried everything to convince her, but failed in doing so. She had considered running away and marrying that boy, but couldn’t bring herself to abandon her family. She remained back, and the hurt festered within her.

“Because she was flawed. Because she loved you.”

Khushnum raised her teary eyes and looked to the balcony. She recalled sitting in the warm summer evenings with her mother in the balcony, enjoying the light breeze that filtered through the concrete jungle. It had always been an easy relationship, no matter what they said about mothers having testy times with their teenage daughters. It was never meant to change. And yet, she had gone from loving her mother to hating her. But she never could build indifference towards her, no matter how hard she tried.

The ghost of Niloufer hovered in the room, filling the silences that stood between them. Niloufer was gone. Lost to the family that mourned her, celebrated her, reviled her, loved her. Each year, they gathered together on this day. Each year, Niloufer brought them together even when she wasn’t there.

“Cyrus? Do you still want to know about why I married her for her shoes?” said Ardeshir, acting oblivious to the storm that had passed.

“Yes, Bapawajee”, said Cyrus meekly.

“I was nervously waiting for your grandmother the first time we were supposed to meet. When she arrived, the first thing I noticed were her shoes. She was wearing flats instead of heels. I knew right then that this woman was caring and understanding.”

Before Cyrus phrased another question, Ardeshir clarified with a smile. ”She didn’t want me to look too short.”

He then looked up to the picture on the wall and muttered, “Happy birthday, Niloufer!”