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 

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.

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!”