Saturday, 3 December 2016

Humanity isn't dead after all .... not just yet!





Today I made my long delayed trip to the bank. I had been putting this off post 8/11 dreading the long wait and the queues that I had been hearing and reading about. But finally, I had to make my date with the financial institutions that are seemingly holding so many lives in ransom these days. The day itself was overcast and gloomy with a slight nip in the air. The early morning trip started well with very little traffic and a quick arrival at the bank. Thanking my lucky stars, I dropped my mother at the entrance to the bank and drove some distance to park the car. I ran back to join her and suddenly found the bank shutters half down – they were actually preparing to regulate the number of people entering the bank! This wasn’t a good sign and I steeled myself for a wait. I couldn’t see my mother and panicked, asking the security guard whether he had seen a short old lady, about 5 feet in a dark pink saree, with a head full of white hair. He smiled and pointed to his chair that he had graciously let my mom sit down on while she was waiting for me. I thanked him and counted myself lucky to have had someone help mom like that. But as it turned out, this day was somewhat extraordinary.

We had to deposit money and not withdraw and so, were allowed into the bank. The queues hadn’t yet started forming and so I joined the small queue after having filled up the required forms. As the clock neared 11 AM, I saw people young and old starting to come in; each with their own set of questions. The news and social media had added so much information to people’s lives that one had sort through it to see the light and so the questions poured in thick and fast.  An old lady clutching a solitary old Re 500 note walked hesitantly up to the front desk of the bank as if she was unsure if this was the right place to be. A few hesitant steps took her to a girl who was filling up a form, young enough to be her granddaughter maybe. The girl patiently heard her out and then stopped what she was doing and escorted the lady to a staff of the bank; who then took charge of the situation. I saw the old lady about ten minutes later coming across to the girl who was in the queue and calling her ‘beti’ and blessing her, this version of the raised hand a rare sign these days. All around people seemed to smile and show their appreciation.

In front of me in the queue was a barely out of her teens girl with a cheque and an Aadhar card, clutched with a death grip in one hand and her mobile in the other. When she got to the counter, the teller told her that she couldn’t withdraw Rs 6000 and that she had to change the amount to Rs 4000. She did not know better and simply changed the amount to Rs 4000 on the cheque. The teller then found out that it wasn’t her cheque and told her apologetically that she needed to get a new cheque from whoever had written it out. Turned out that the girl was working as a household help and the cheque was for her salary. The poor girl was almost in tears and didn’t know what to do. And the gentleman next to her in the queue asked her if he could talk to her employer and explain. A short conversation ensued and then the gentleman told her that the lady of the house was writing out a new cheque. The girl virtually ran out of the bank to get the new cheque.

At the next counter, a young lady got to the counter. She seemed to have come from a Yoga session in her tights and sweat shirt, the rolled up mat tucked under her arm and was anyway getting some curious stares from people around.  Instead of presenting her deposit slip to the teller, she simply looked back and called someone. That someone was an old gentleman who was sitting in a chair at the back. As he walked up to the counter, some of the others tried to stop him and told him to join the end of the queue, brusque and impatient. The yoga girl quickly cut in to explain that the gentleman had been in front of her and she had asked him to sit while he was waiting his turn and the group quickly quietened down and the girl helped the old man complete his transaction and then continued with hers. Silence prevailed as the old man thanked everyone for letting him go ahead and then slowly made his way out of the bank.

I reached the counter finally and found that I had forgotten to bring my mother’s identification documents and had to go home to get them. Cursing my luck, I ran out of the bank to the car. On the way there, an old lady on the pavement raised her hands asking for some help. With the prevailing situation, I only had a single Re 2000 note in my pocket and had to put it back shame facedly. The poor woman’s expectant face fell as I walked away. It took me almost an hour to get back with the documents and as I crossed the old lady this time, the same extended hands greeted me. I took a couple of steps before I got out my wallet and searched it once again. Finding nothing, I was keeping it back in my pocket when my fingers brushed against some paper and I fished it out. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a tenner in the middle of a couple of credit card receipts that I had stuffed into my pocket the previous week.

While there are definite benefits of not washing your jeans for a year according to a popular brand of jeans, I think I wouldn’t go so far as a year but a week definitely has a major positive!  I ran back to the woman and pushed the tenner into her hands and ran back into the bank. The queue had definitely gotten longer in the meantime and was moving slower as all people who were depositing old notes had to do a pre-validation of their account / identity proof details. Somehow, the tenner episode had left me significantly light hearted and I didn’t mind the wait at all. The queue inched its way forward and I moved with it, looking at the people around me. A mom and her daughter stood there discussing plans for a movie and a birthday party, a couple of men had brought their newspapers there and were discussing the latest income tax raids including today’s news about a man who had disclosed Rs 13800 crores of income and a few others were pretending indifference in all this and impatiently waiting their turn.

As I neared the counter, the girl who had run out of the bank to get a new cheque from her employer reappeared and stood resignedly at the end of the queue. Her phone rang and she answered the call. It was obviously her employer asking her when she was going to come. She mentioned that she would be some time as there was now a queue at the bank and then stood there listening to something that her employer said. I had half a mind to offer her step in ahead of me, when the teller recognised her and motioned her to come forward. He looked at me and I just nodded in agreement. A couple of minutes later, she waltzed out of the bank smiling like a million bucks.

I followed about ten minutes later after completing my mother’s favourite habit – updating her bank passbook! As I drove back home, the gloom had lifted and it looked like a nice breezy day, a fact echoed by the RJ on the radio station. I guess all that was required was a little perspective on my part to convert an overcast gloomy day to a nice breezy cool one; perspective with a healthy dose of humanity and serendipity that I had experienced. And it is these doses that reconfirm our belief that humanity isn’t dead after all, it is very much alive but just gets hidden in the facades that we wear and the schedules that we fill our lives up with.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Misplaced Sense of Generosity



A few weeks ago, I made a huge mistake; a mistake that I am not likely to repeat in a hurry or ever at all. It was one of those warm and balmy days, when you are not very clear about whether you want the windows all the way down or whether you want to roll them up and turn on the air-conditioning. The music wasn’t too great and after switching a few channels, I gave up and turned it off. At a traffic signal, I was waiting for the proverbial green light, looking around me in that curiously inquisitive, prying and yet not prying fashion. I noticed a man gesticulating wildly behind a rolled up window at a lady who looked like she wished desperately she was somewhere else. I felt sorry for her and wished there was some way in which she could shut the big man up when I heard a gentle knock on the car window.

I turned and almost cursed out loud that I had left my window open. There was a girl standing at the window, tanned almost black from being out in the sun every day, hair all frizzy and bleached brown at the ends, eyes straight and staring, a sort of searching look in them, as if she was expecting to see something in my face. She wore old clothes that looked like hand me downs that were at least a couple of sizes too big for her. She carried a bunch of pencils in her hand, the kind that were fat and long with a plastic animal figure at the wrong end.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those persons who roll up their car windows at the sight of every person at the traffic light who is approaching. I am what one would consider a conveniently generous person. I am not very big on people begging. And usually turn the other way - except when it comes to older people. I usually call out and give them something from the wallet. And I do not give any money to kids or young people. I always think that they can work and earn something and so my lack of a response. I am not overly generous or anything even remotely like that; just the usual Joe that gives some money to some older people. I just heard a day or two ago that giving money to people at street corners is a good way of making yourself feel better. Truth-be-told, I had never thought about it like that. But that got me thinking as to why I had ever started doing it and I didn’t have an honest answer.

So that day, I decided to break the routine just to examine my own reaction. So, I just took out my wallet and gave her a Re 10 note. And was trying to keep my wallet back in when she leaned in and asked me for an additional Re 10. My cynicism flared up and I almost retorted angrily that there was a limit to my generosity when she brandished the pencils and asked me which one I wanted. I gently tried to tell her that I didn’t want a pencil since my son couldn’t use them when she gave me back my Re 10 note. I was surprised at that and told her that she could keep the note. In the meantime, an older woman walked up right next to her and protectively put a hand on the girl’s shoulder as if I was likely to mean her some harm. The older woman seemed to ask the girl what the matter was or some such thing in a language I could not decipher at all and there was a furious exchange of words.

Then it was the woman’s turn. She took the note from the girl and gave it to me saying that they wouldn’t accept anything for free. I could buy a pencil for Rs 20 or take back the note. I saw the flash of pride and self-respect in their eyes and couldn’t help but admire the principle on which they stood while the afternoon sun beat strongly on their nearly frail shoulders. And I wished the earth could open up and swallow me then and there as I had tried to do something that I had in principle not ever done. Suffice it to say that as the light turned green, I was the proud owner of a long blue pencil with an elephant at one end and was lighter by Rs 20. I gave my son the pencil that day and he turned up his eyebrows but started using it for the sheer novelty of a pencil that big. I don’t consider myself a bigot but I sure as hell had a bias that might not sound as severe as a racial one but was as bad when you think of it. And I am sure happy that people can stand on principle even when faced with adversity and don’t have to be national heroes or martyrs to be able to do that.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

My Father’s Son to My Son’s Father …









A few days back, I saw a beautiful sight, a father and son running together. They turned a corner and they both started sprinting. With the father being my age and the son around 14, you can guess what happened. As the son crossed me and the father ran about 5 meters behind him, through the sweat and effort on his face, I could see a proud smile. The father was happy that his son had beaten him.

And it reminded me of meeting some of my son’s friend’s parents just outside his school gate. It was one of those Saturday exam things and I was waiting for him to finish and drive him back. We were standing in a circle and there were some parents there that I did not know and I introduced myself to them as my son’s father. I reflected back to that moment and how many of them laughed at what I said and clearly felt the same way. Not one of them felt that they needed to be known as anything else.

This brought back a third memory of my dad and mom talking about me to some of their friends a long time ago and telling them exaggerated, blown up versions of my so called exploits. While I felt that they were bragging and later picked a small fight with them on the topic, I look back and can clearly identify with that moment when they felt proud enough about me to talk in that fashion. I do too, on many occasions, talk the same way today. And I brush it off as a parent’s pride, no longer calling it bragging now that it is me in the dock.

That got me to thinking. What parent does not want his or her son or daughter to be a bigger, better version of their selves? Which one of us does not see their children beating those very same challenges that we could not overcome? Which of us does not want to prepare them for meeting all those challenges? And hold them over every step or stone on the way and take out the thorns from the path they are on. Many reams of paper have been written about parenting styles now and every such action of ours is dissected to death by psychoanalysts. All I can say is that while parenting styles might have changed with the onset of nuclear families and may have adapted to the changing needs of the new generation who question more than they accepts and choose to follow their hearts, there are certain home truths that have remained.

Which of the boxes in the 2 x 2 matrix do we fit into? Who wants to be labelled an authoritarian parent or an indulgent one as we stand in front of our kids and ask them why they did something or they didn’t as the case maybe? Do we fall into the bracket of Asian rooted parents who are so driven for their children to succeed that they either control their lives completely or are we extreme parents who abandon our careers to be part of our children’s lives? The answer is a difficult one for me at least as subjective as I am in the decision making as I don’t think I fall into any one style. I am a convenient mix of styles depending on the situation and my desired outcome out of my son! Now that we have got that complex bit of psychoanalysis out of the way, let’s move onto the actual matter at hand.

We feel happy if our children grow taller than us and rejoice when we lose a tickle match to them. We are floating when we are unable to beat them at arm-wrestling or football. We want them to excel at extracurricular activities as well as academics. Grades are scanned and tuitions arranged in subjects which are less than exciting. The kid probably goes through a Spanish inquisition each time a grade card comes, a second one after the one at school! Of course all this may mean performance pressure on the kids and therefore pushing and prodding and raising the bar with all its frustrations and psychotic facets that might manifest when the kid is an adult. But, hey, that is the kid’s problem to deal with, right?

Does it mean that we live our lives through our kids when we are too old to chase our dreams on our own? Do we force our dreams on our children and does this prevent them from having dreams of their own? In any case, this whole thought train was not at all about the pressures that we put on our kids, though I would be an elevated parent who was into more wholesome upbringing of his kid if I did. But that is another chapter for another day perhaps. The point is that I am still one of those parents whose heart seems to swell up impossibly when their kid does something they could not. When he is playing football, I want him to be able to run faster than the next kid, shoot harder and aim truer too. And when he is playing his guitar or trying his hand at a quiz where I have no clue of the answer he has just spouted, that full feeling comes back again. It is seemingly irrational and baseless, but always there.

How do we see ourselves as parents? I remember my own parents, busy enough with their lives making a mission out of being able to provide better options for us as children, putting every demand of ours before their own. Is it our mission in life also to provide bigger and better options to our children and encourage them to follow their dreams? Or do we all want our children to be more independent and stronger versions of ourselves who can beat our records and our achievements hollow? Is that what we consider our achievement, to create a better us and rejoice in their victories and celebrate their successes, shielding them from bitter storms and harsh deserts? Is this the legacy that we hand down to our children, the learning that supposedly passes through the DNA which results in the salmon swimming upriver to where it was spawned? Are we born our father’s sons and do we die as our son’s fathers?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Oak's Rings of Life






He stood at the edge of the browned out field, solitary in the deepening gloom of dusk,
his age showing in his limbs, deep veined, gnarled and almost impossibly twisted,
like a coiled rope that a wanton kid at play had twisted up and tied into wicked knots,
thin and bent as a much used wire, hunched against the cold wind that blew at him.

He remembered a time when he had been oh so young and so very full of dreams,
jostling for space with other saplings in a meadow that had been full and bursting,
blustering forth with the gaiety that is life itself, strong, straight and proud they stood,
ready to face the anything the world could throw as only a young innocent could.

Standing in the shadow of the other old oaks in the meadow tall and proud,
Like roman columns as ancient as time itself and thicker than one could even dream,
like kings towering over all else, overseeing the land that they seemingly ruled,
not one of their heads bowed, their bark an armour against anything at all.

He stood beside his father and his uncles, a mere stripling trying to match them,
barely reaching the end of their roots, knotty, curled up, running deep aground,
like a lambkin peeping out from in between the legs of a herd, wonderstruck,
watching, seeing and listening to everything around, absorbing everything like a sponge.

In the summer of his youth, when he had grown into a lad trying to be a man,
and stood stronger and taller than many of his cousins, a natural leader in the making,
he still stood in the shadow of his father, watching him and learning from him,
like clay that was still being formed, moulded and baked by his father’s hands and eyes.

And when he grew tired of pretending to be a grown up, all strong, tall and resilient,
it was his mother’s gentle whispers and soothing touch that comforted his young heart,
and made him want to stay by her side and fall asleep listening to her soft voice whispering,
stories of his ancestors proud, inspiring dreams where he would be as great as they were.

Then came a cruel wind that blew in men with their axes and saws, cruel and biting,
glinting in the sunlight with each swing that cut into the life and limbs of his uncles,
he watched with tears that he could not stop, the sight imprinted in his young eyes,
as each of his elders  wise fell, heavy and lifeless, in a heap that shook the very ground.

His parents were among the ones who fell to the cruel blades, all that was left of them,
a stump that marked their gravestones, an epitaph that had not even been written as yet,
his dad a man who was cut down in his all his glory and his pride, leaving behind a child,
that was still trying to walk in his footsteps, measuring each stride against his dad’s.

His mother a strong woman who lived with her heart as much as his dad lived by his mind,
a comforting touch and a soothing word for everyone around, an angel who lived to love,
t’was her voice and her words that he missed, leaving a cold and empty space that burned,
with each tear he shed, a black hole that yawed open where his heart should have been.

Soon the meadow was forlorn and half empty, all the elders having been felled in their prime,
only the too young or the too old left there, unwanted or unusable in the eyes of the brutal men,
everybody was left bewildered and directionless, like paper boats carried along by a raging river,
not knowing where to turn, what to do, standing motionless and yet buffeted by the tides of time.

The son of the leader, the leadership mantle fell on him, a burden whose weight he keenly felt,
but one that was equally his responsibility, a cross handed from father to son to carry forth, 
needing to appear strong and decisive by day, even when his heart quailed and trembled,
desperately each night for the strong hand of his father and the comforting one of his mother.

Time passed and he grew stronger than he himself had imagined in his boyhood dreams,
towering over the remaining few in the meadow, a new clutch of young ones now sprouted,
filling the emptied spaces and adding to their numbers, bringing  cheer to their darkened hearts,
and the oaks thought life would go back to being normal and peaceful, the way it once had been.

In the many summers that passed, he found a soul mate, one who was unafraid to stand at his side,
one who would look him in the eye and tell him if he was wrong, unwavering in her support always,
their shared dreams painted a picture of a tomorrow that he had been afraid to think of by himself,
the hole in his heart filled up slowly with each passing day they spent entwined in their togetherness.

Peace reigned in the meadow and the birds came back to roost, building nests and chirping about,
it seemed like life itself had come back in full bloom as the oaks finally felt the peace and quiet,
and he looked upon his subjects and smiled a smile of contentment, holding up a nest of mynahs,
in the crook of his shoulder, the very same one that bore the weight of the world over the years.

There was that time when a woodpecker decided to nest in the that knotted cavity, going rat-a-tat,
at odd times in the day, often times waking him up in his siesta or breaking his train of thought,
making his mate laugh out loud at his attempts to shake the bird off, even as she pecked harder,
his subjects shook to stop themselves laughing, the whole meadow quivered in seeming delight.

On the turn of one such happy summer, came a stealthy blight, mutilating all that it touched,
causing ugly warts and curling up new leaves and killing, causing even before the end of summer,
until the trees stark and brooding stood, like victims waiting for the inevitable axe to fall,
cutting off life’s blood, turning a full blown tree to rotten wood, withering life in it’s very prime.

He watched his family, his friends around the grove wither and drop, life ebbing with each day,
the canopy of green that had shielded the ground from the sun, wind and rain above, disappearing,
brown and ashen leaves strewed the ground below and withered bark powdered under birds feet,
his own branches succumbing to the sweet disease that stole through his veins, a cold trail of death.

He and some others lived to see another summer when the cold turned back to the late summer heat,
the cold blight running from the heat that returned to save their brood from being wiped out entirely,
like someone had just taken an eraser to a beautiful drawing and completely negated its existence,
leaving the sheet as blank as when it had all started, save for a few lines that hadn’t been rubbed out.

While he had lost his limbs and now felt like a cripple who needed the help of a crutch to stand,
but the blight had robbed him of his mate and her empty space beside him felt like a ghost limb,
a raw wound that would not heal, oozing out blood every so often as freely as his tears flowed,
for the one who was no longer at his side and the brood that had nearly disappeared in the twilight.

Now there were precious few of them left, scattered like chess pieces at the very end of the game,
each waiting for the next master stroke that they believed would be the last, scarred by fear,
with nothing to look forward to than mere living out their days, holding onto their fading memories,
like so many others who choose to find meaning in the past, ignoring their current meaninglessness.

And he then stood nearly all alone, bereft of all he could call his own, with no kingdom to oversee,
like a shepherd who stood without purpose at the edge of the field, with no more sheep to tend,
his wizened appearance that of one who had aged too early, an artist donning makeup for a part,
in a play that had been written by the master creator, controlled and directed by an unseen hand.

The player whose presence was never felt in the game and yet who had started the game itself,
who made it felt that he was in control until each such lesson where he ruefully learnt otherwise,
that control was not even an illusion in his own mind, but just a mere sleight of the creator’s hand,
a hand that equally blessed and took away, whose wisdom only could decide which was to be when.

And so he lived, while all others fell beside him, wishing he wouldn’t wake up the next morning,
and opening his eyes to another dawn that broke as if only to mock him of his useless wishes,
as ever so often another fell in the dust, the meadow being cleared slowly as if by a magic hand,
irresolute and unshakeable in is path, slowly but surely approaching the final chapter in the book.

And so the summers went, each one marking its passing on his hardened and peeling bark,
now hanging like tatters of a ruined garment that had been overused, his branches now bereft,
of the leaves that once stood out like a veritable forest themselves, a canopy that protected all,
his once proud mien now withered and stooping, scrawny limbs stretching out in every direction.

And looked out each day as the sun marked its path across the sky, untiringly marking its path,
waiting for his turn to come, as the meadow dried up around him and all that was living died,
the once proud purveyor who wanted to stand tall in his father’s shadow now bent down with age,
feeling his head cradled against his mother as her soft voice whispered to him another night’s story.

As he held the hand of his loved one and stared out into the setting sun, feeling her warmth,
and her strength even after all these years, the one he talked to and the voice he listened to,
as he spent each sleepless night wondering if it would be his last, an end to this living that wasn’t,
for solitary we must go as we came this life, one marked only by memories, others and our own.