Tso Moriri, Ladakh

Tso Moriri, Ladakh

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Little Bit of Childhood

I wrote this piece almost 6 years ago but for some reason never posted it. Cleaned it up and sharing it today with a lump in my throat.

I could have gone back to bed but I was certain that sleep would not come. Besides it wasn’t important. Sitting on the couch in the living room, being one with my thoughts was what I wanted at this time. I looked at my wallet on the table, carelessly strewn across from my laptop, the credit card used to reserve the flight to Patna still outside. A little piece of plastic with so much power. 

It was early, by several hours. The only time I could remember waking up before sunrise was to catch either a flight or a train. This time however, I wasn’t the one that was traveling. A father had passed away and a son was getting ready to board a flight to light his funeral pyre. 

Memories are such a magical way of reliving the past. We were getting a new driver for a second car that my father was buying. This one too, just like the previous, an Ambassador. He was a young man with a slight frame, sitting behind that enormous wheel, easily maneuvering the monstrosity of a car through crowded Calcutta streets. 

I remember his signature handlebar mustache covering most of his gaunt face. Looking at him, all one saw were the flamboyant whiskers above his lips and his smiling, twinkling eyes. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes that twinkled as much as his did. He used to call me maalik loosely translated to ‘boss’ even though I was just a young boy. I never thought anything of it back then and I guess he did it was because I was the only male among us five siblings. I shamelessly called him by his first name without a tag of bhaiya for  ‘older brother’ or ji to show respect. 

He used to live in a little room that was below our apartment, most of the time by himself. His mornings consisted of exercising, washing the car and getting ready to take my dad to his factory at 7 am. Sometimes I would watch him doing what-seemed-like an endless number of push ups. Even though he had a slight frame, he was an incredibly strong man. My best friend and I would sit on his shoulders and he would take us for a walk. I feel horribly guilty about it now. Looking at him one could never imagine that he could be as strong as he was. You may find hard to believe what I’m about to write - if I hadn’t actually been there to see it for myself, I would laugh it off as myth. 

There was a rock that used to sit in Tilak (his name) ji’s room about the size of two bricks joined together. My closest friend at the time and I would try our hardest to move that rock from it’s spot using every bit of strength we had, with absolutely no luck. But then we were just a couple of kids and this wasn’t just any ordinary rock - it was much talked about and people would come from across the city to try and lift it, including some weight lifters. Nobody however, could get it to even budge the slightest bit. Each time the person would give up, Tilak, in his 5’3” lean frame would walk across to it, bend down and with one powerful grunt, lift it from the ground and slowly bring it up as far as his arms could go. His son, Rajesh, who now works for me, tells me that when his dad was moving back to the village, he carried that rock from the taxi to the train all by himself because no porter could handle it. I now believe that all this strength came from his mind, which was way stronger than his body. 

When, a few years ago, my mother was confined to her bed and he came to visit her, the mustache was primarily grey but the twinkle and the smile were just the same. Every morning he would wake up early, shower, shave, get into his perfectly starched kurta and dhoti and spend time with my mother, doing everything he could to make her more comfortable. We always glorify the dead but everything I say about this man is completely true. He was the nicest, gentlest, most sensitive person I have ever come across. His heart was filled with love for everyone but when it came to my mother, he literally worshipped the ground she walked on. 

That was the last time I saw Tilak ji. In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time with him - people like him are rare and just being in his presence would have been so much more enriching than my corporate career. We go through lives with such warped priorities and by the time we realize what’s really important, the opportunities in most cases, are long gone. 

I had a slight smile on my face, even though tears were streaming down my eyes. It was no small thing growing up, being blessed with the presence of such a human being. And as I sat on my living room couch, my mind taking me to places that I hadn’t been to in a long time, I realized that today an important bit of my childhood had left me. Had left me craving for more. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

My Varanasi Trip in Pictures

Last year in November, my friend Vinod and I decided to make a trip to Varanasi. I had been there once a few years earlier and something that I can't explain kept calling me back. It was the first time for Vinod and I knew that with him being a devout Hindu, I would be experiencing and learning about things that I wouldn't otherwise.

Being the oldest living city, Varanasi attracts hoards of tourists from across the world. Hindu's go to this Holy city to wash away their sins and offer their prayers at various important temples, Kashi Vishvanath being the holiest of all the Lord Shiva temples. Most foreign travelers include Varanasi in their itinerary because a trip to India would simply be incomplete without it. 

Whether it's religion or curiosity that draws you to Varanasi, almost everyone I've encountered agrees that it's a place like no other. Both times I was there, I took literally hundreds of photos. Here are just a few to give you a glimpse into my last stay.

What better way to start your day than with prayer. Mornings in Varanasi are really my favorite time, beginning with a beautiful sunrise, the waking up of the ghats, boats floating gently in the Ganga river and temple bells in the background. 

Mornings are also a great time to go for a boat ride. Feeding the birds is optional but so much fun.

Its time to eat! On all four days, breakfast consisted of kachoris and jalebis (see bottom), which is probably as unhealthy as one can get. Never went back to the same place and we saved the best for our last day, which was a 20 minute hike from our hotel. A brisk morning walk followed by consuming a million calories!

This photo with 5 humans and a dog clustered together makes me smile. Is personal space overrated? Does sharing space actually bring us more joy? I encounter a lot of loneliness amongst the more affluent. Have we forgotten how to share our time, our space, our joys and sorrows in the real world because we're so busy sharing our lives on social networks?

Hindu's believe that bathing in the Holy Ganga river will wash away their sins. These two are unabashedly having a great time. No sins to wash so let's just have some fun!

The choreographed Ganga aarti (evening prayers by the Ganges river) is spectacular and Vinod and I looked forward to it every evening that we were there. Varanasi gets a large number of foreign tourists, one of who from the UK confessed to me that it was this evening aarti that had brought her back for a second visit. 

Man or animal, there's a lot of introspection that happens in Varanasi

Your head finds so much that is wrong with Varanasi. Your heart, on the other hand, just chooses to look at everything that makes this oldest living city so incredibly special.
Varanasi can never be explained. It can only be experienced. You either love it or you hate it and I completely understand both emotions. The love that I have for it, sometimes even takes me by surprise.

Shortly before heading to Sarnath and then the airport,  I decided to walk around the ghats one last time. It was late afternoon, strangely quiet and I was trying to absorb the sights and sounds that are so unique to Varanasi. Even though I had been there for 4 days, I knew that there was still so much that I was leaving behind to discover in my next visit. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Girl with the Auburn Hair

Her hair looked like a brush hadn’t been through it in a while. But the auburn brown tresses fell perfectly against her soap washed face.  She looked like springtime, the dirty snow washed away with warmer temperatures, bringing with it snatches of grass and little yellow flowers. Yes it was spring sunshine that she reminded me of - the soft rays of the sun, gently falling on the ground, turning the browns to greens. 

If it was a movie, I would imagine her dancing in the fields, her skirt flowing with the breeze, a song on her lips with the sun shining not too brightly over her. She had a beautiful, wide mouth with full lips, that made her look like she was smiling even when she wasn’t. I’m not sure if it was just the way my mind worked or if she was really as beautiful as I had made her up to be. 

Sara sat in a corner of a large room full of people. Rarely did I see anyone around her in the two weeks that I had been working at the same office. Strangely, hers was the only name that I remembered when my manager had walked me through the room, introducing me to my new colleagues. So far there had been no reason for the two of us to have communicated. In fact I didn’t even know what she did but I hoped that I’d have an opportunity to collaborate with her sometime. 

One Wednesday I noticed a man, who I had never seen at the office, walk over to her cubicle. It obviously wasn’t her lunch date since it was 3 o clock in the afternoon. From the corner of my eye, I could see that they were not just having some casual conversation. A few minutes later, she took her purse and they both walked out of the room. 

Sara didn’t show up at work the rest of the week. I kept wondering who that man could have been. What was it that had obviously got her flustered and made her leave before the end of the work day? I wished I could ask someone but Sara and I had never exchanged a word, which meant that I really didn’t know her at all. I didn’t want to seem creepy and anyway it was none of my business.

Monday morning came by and her cubicle was still empty. Then at about 11 o clock, I walked by the reception area and saw the same man sitting there. He looked different for some reason. Smaller than what I remembered. I'm not sure what came over me but I went up to him.

“Is Sara doing okay?” I asked. “Haven’t seen her around.”
He seemed nervous as he looked up at me.
“I saw her leave with you last week, so just thought I’d ask.”
He stood up from the chair, almost as if he wanted to feel like we were on equal ground. 
“Yeah she’s doing fine,” he said, his words coming with short pauses. “She’ll be back in a couple of days.”
I had nothing else to say or ask. I knew nothing. I didn’t even know the person in subject. So I nodded and began walking away. 
He tried to get my attention, to find out who I was. But I pretended not to hear.

Just like he had said, Sara was back at work two days later. Her hair was tied up and she had glasses on. The reflection on her lenses prevented me from seeing the hazel in her eyes. We had both reached work earlier than usual and there was almost nobody around. I figured that it had to be now, so I walked over to her cubicle and said hi. 

She looked at me with a slight glimmer of recognition. I pointed towards my cubicle and said I was the new guy.

“We were introduced a couple of weeks ago” I said. 
“Yes I remember” she replied, but she quite obviously didn’t. 
“Hadn’t seen you around the past few days, so thought I’d ....”
Thought I’d what? 
“Anyway, you have yourself a nice day,” I said after an awkward pause, as I started to walk away. 
“Wait!” she said as she stood up. “It was you, wasn’t it? That asked my brother about me?”
“He said that there was a man that was inquiring about me. He described you but I’m sorry ... I just made the connection.”
I told her that I was concerned. And I didn't know who to ask. 
“Yes, there was a crisis in the family,” she started to tell me hesitantly, but I stopped her there. I could see how awkward it was for her to open up to me, a stranger. 
“I need to get back to work,” I said. “Would you have lunch with me today?”

It was a gorgeous afternoon and as we were walking towards the corner sandwich place, I  noticed that the rays of the sun had turned her auburn brown hair into a shade of gold. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Resolutions Schmesolutions

I had every intention of writing this piece and posting it before the end of the year. But procrastination always seems to win over intention. So here I am writing at the end of the first week of January 2018 instead. Can you believe that we’re in 2018 already? And a whole week has gone by? Fifty one more to go and it’ll all begin once again. 

I’m not one for making new year resolutions. Though I’m starting to think that it probably would be a good idea to make one this year. ‘Stop procrastinating’ is apt, don’t you think? Although there is something I read many years ago that said, ‘why do something today that you can put off until tomorrow’. Made complete sense and became my mantra ever since. I was probably procrastinating even before I read that, but once something gets presented in a profound written form, it then turns into an endorsement. 

How about you? Have you made any resolutions for 2018? Besides the one where you’re going to join the gym and lose weight. So I’ve been more than a gym member for many years - I’ve actually used my membership and worked out at the gym. Yes, it’s completely true. So every year I’d be at Gold’s Gym and in January I’d see all these people who had made resolutions and the gym would become annoyingly busy. All these people who’d be huffing and puffing on those cardio machines, most of who would stop showing up by February and the rest by March. And then there’d be the same few of us, a happier lot, serious about staying fit, glad to be rid of the riff raff. 

But then who am I to make fun of anyone? I haven’t been to the gym in 2 years but then at least I don’t belong to one any longer. If I was to make a resolution on that front, it would be to not get fatter this year.

So I stopped writing this piece for a moment and googled to see what the most popular new year resolutions are for 2018. Number 1 is ‘exercise more’ which I’ve already covered. Number 2 is ‘lose weight’ which I think pretty much is the reason that most people resolve to exercise. Number 3 is ‘eat more healthy’. This is one that I could have on my resolution list. Except that I need to add a caveat to it and say ‘eat healthy when possible’. 

Number 5 (I’m skipping 4 because it’s related to the previous ones, blah blah) is ‘learn a new skill or hobby’. Maybe I could learn a new language - Spanish or Japanese. Wait, I already tried that and put if off for later. Is now later or is later still later?

Number 8 is ‘drink less alcohol’. How less is less? Am i drinking too much now? I don’t think so. This resolution is obviously for the regularly sloshed drinker (which I am not) and not the occasionally sloshed drinker (which I may be, but I’m not saying).

Number 9 is ‘stop smoking’. I don’t smoke cigarettes, which is what I assume that this resolution is referring to. The other stuff is too good to give up.

And finally Number 10 is ‘other’. Which I guess my ‘stop procrastinating’ would fall under. It just sounds too painful. I guess I’ll just wait until 2019 to do it. 

I’d love to hear about your resolutions, if you’ve made any. Meanwhile, have a great year, dear reader!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Meeting

This story is a sequel to the previous post 'The Stranger'. In case you haven't already, do read it first. 

It was a little after 4 am when Dinesh decided to get out of bed. Sleep had evaded him all night. He had tried to meditate but there was no rest for either mind or body. 

Sitting by the window, a large cup of tea in his hand, Dinesh knew that today was going to be a very difficult day. He hadn’t seen his son in about 26 years, had no idea what he looked like. The image he had in his mind was still of a 3 month old boy who he had left without saying goodbye to. That and the voice he had heard over the phone yesterday.

Dinesh was a year younger than his son was today when he got married to Naina. ‘Naina’ which literally means ‘eyes’. Would she be the one who would, along with him, see life in a way that nobody else around him did? Dinesh and Naina had just had a few formal meetings after the families had arranged their marriage. He wondered how he was letting himself commit to someone he barely knew anything about. Yes, she was pretty, educated, well mannered and belonged to a cultured family. Was that enough to get into a relationship that was meant to last a lifetime?

One time when they were out for lunch, he wanted to probe into her mind and ask her all these questions. 
‘If you could live your life without worrying about society or family, what would you be doing?’  ‘What is true freedom?’ 
‘What actions in our lives have the longest reaching consequences?’
‘What single event has had the biggest impact in your life?’ 
‘Have you ever thought about the meaning of life and how we can find it?’
’Do you ever stay up at night worrying about where humanity is headed?’
‘Why is there so much suffering in the world?’

There were so many questions he wanted to ask but didn’t. Instead they talked about movies, friends, college etc. Conversations that most people in their mid 20’s usually had. Superficial chit chat that did not delve into either mind. 

Turned out that while Naina checked all the boxes that an Indian man would look for in a wife, her way of looking at life was completely different than his. She was just like the other people he knew, wanting the same things, happy to be the stereotypical wife, daughter, daughter-in-law. He wished that he too was like them. It would make his life so much easier. 

Three months into the marriage when they found out that she was pregnant, all he felt was distress. He hadn’t been ready to be a husband and he was by no means ready to be a father. Everyone was celebrating the arrival of the new baby, but that strange feeling in his stomach would not leave him. His friends, who were still all single, joked about him being a father before his 26th birthday. 

His heart pounded every time someone said it. A father? How could he be responsible for another human being when he was still struggling for answers about his own life?

Nothing changed with the birth of Shiv. He thought that seeing the little one would bring in all these paternal feelings and he would become ‘normal’. As normal as wanting to go to work everyday, being a great dad, wanting nothing but the best for his son, being a good husband and genuinely loving his wife, being the son his parents expected him to be etc etc. Without pretending and without having to make an effort. But none of that happened. All he wanted was to run away from it all.

Which is exactly what he did. 

Tossing and turning, he got out of bed in the middle of one night, feeling like he was about to suffocate. Was he about to have a heart attack because it certainly felt like his heart would explode at any moment? Pouring himself some water, he was barely able to drink any. He began pacing up and down the bedroom, Naina and Shiv at her parents home, oblivious to what was going on. Dinesh waited for his heart to give way but instead tears began flowing down his eyes. Loudly sobbing, he continued to pace, feeling claustrophobic in a way that he had never thought was possible. 

Once the tears stopped, he sat down and just let himself breathe for a while. It felt like he hadn’t inhaled any oxygen in a really long time. It took about an hour for him to calm himself down. An hour when he did a lot of thinking. An hour after which he packed a small bag, took all the cash he had and left his home. He knew that financially his wife and son would be taken care of by both families and that was all that his young mind was ready to be concerned about.

Twenty six years had passed and today he was about to meet a young man who shared his genes. The restaurant they were to meet at, opened at 11 am and he was waiting outside when they did. After consuming endless cups of tea, at 12:50 pm he left and stood out on the street, turning himself invisible in the crowd. Exactly at 1 pm he saw Shiv enter the restaurant, looking nervous. He observed him for a few minutes and suddenly realized that the anxiety he had been experiencing all this time, was no longer there. 

Taking a deep breath, Dinesh walked into the restaurant. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Stranger

He walked into the restaurant at exactly 1 pm, which was the time that they had decided to meet at. It wasn’t a very large place and a quick glance showed that it was mostly empty. 
Shiv requested for a table for two. “How about that one?” he said pointing to one in the far corner. 

Seating himself, he self consciously began reading the book that he was carrying. The fact of the matter was that the book was only a crutch and the words meant nothing. Over and over he kept reading the same paragraph, unable to absorb any of what was written.

Barely a minute had passed by and Shiv jumped up, noticing a man in his 50’s standing beside him. Unlike Shiv, the older man looked somewhat composed, with a slight smile on his face.
“May I?” he asked gently, pointing towards the chair across from the younger man. 
Shiv nodded but words wouldn’t come out of his mouth. In fact he felt himself freeze, except for the feeling of his heart pounding, until the man gently touched his arm and asked him to have a seat.

The waiter came by to take their lunch order and Shiv managed to find a little bit of his voice. Very few words had been exchanged between the two men, mostly because Shiv would respond to everything in monosyllables. 

Their lunch order arrived in a few minutes but neither one of them made any attempt to even begin eating.
“I can imagine how awkward this must be for you,” said Dinesh. “It’s just as awkward for me too.”
Dinesh continued speaking as Shiv, refusing to make eye contact, began playing with his food.
“You’re probably wondering why I got in touch with you. Why, after all these years, I wanted to meet you. I have no idea what you think of me but I’m sure whatever it may be, isn’t very good.”

He paused and looked towards Shiv, who now began glancing towards the older man. Dinesh couldn’t tell if those eyes were filled with hatred or indifference. 
“I don’t hate you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Shiv quietly, almost as if he was a mind reader. “It’s hard to hate someone that I have no memory of.”
There was silence for a minute as both of them began picking on their food. 
“Yes I do dislike my dad,” continued Shiv. “But I can’t think of you as being that man. I have no mental picture of my father so no, I don’t hate the person sitting in front of me.”

The wave of emotion that had overcome Shiv upon seeing his biological father, had passed. Always articulate and well spoken, he had regained his composure and was somewhat in command of himself once again.

“You’re probably wondering why I wanted to see you after all these years,” said Dinesh once again.
‘Are you dying?”, Shiv blurted out. 
The older man smiled but didn’t say anything.
Continuing to speak, Shiv said, “For the longest time I wanted to meet you, mostly just to see what kind of a man leaves his wife and 3 month old son and doesn’t care to even find out what condition they may be in.”
“I’m not proud of what I did," Dinesh responded. "I thought I was the modern day Buddha and wanted to attain Nirvana.”
Shiv laughed out loud. “And?”
Dinesh didn’t respond. He seemed to be getting more flustered with every passing minute. Shiv almost began feeling sorry for the man sitting in front of him, who all of a sudden looked older than his years. 

‘Your grandfather passed away a couple of months ago,” said Dinesh. “He left all his money and property for me, but I have no use for it.”
“Neither do we,” said Shiv getting a drift of where this was headed. “Giving us money isn’t going to make everything okay.”
“I’m well aware of that, but as I said, I have no use for it.”
“So give it away to charity,” said Shiv curtly.
Dinesh, dug inside a small bag that he was carrying, pulled out an envelope and pushed it towards Shiv, who at this point was starting to get angry.
“I don’t want anything from you,” he said, louder than he had intended to.
Dinesh stood up to leave. “The cheque is in your mother’s name. Do me a favor and give it to her. That’s all I ask.”
Shiv felt his eyes turning moist. 
“I’m not asking for your forgiveness,” said Dinesh. “That would be unrealistic. But if someday you decide to get in touch with me, maybe we can get to know each other. Not as father and son, since I've never been a father to you. Just as two human beings.”
The young man couldn’t speak and turned away, embarrassed to have gotten emotional in front of a stranger. By the time he  turned back, Dinesh had left. 

For the longest time Shiv kept sitting in the restaurant, having sent away his plate of food almost untouched. Each time the server would come towards him, he’d order another coffee. After ignoring several calls from the newspaper’s office he worked at, Shiv had switched off his phone. Finally when he felt ready to leave, he turned his phone back on and began going through his call history. He stopped at the number he had received a call from yesterday. From a man who wanted to meet for lunch. 

Shiv saved his number as ‘Dinesh’. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

It's a Minuscule World

A few years ago I went to Hong Kong to spend a couple of months with my cousin who was struggling with cancer at the time. While she is sadly no longer with us, she was an exceptional host and always enjoyed having people over. Which was a really good thing since food would be a diversion from her disease and the two of us would spend a lot of time discussing menus. Meals at her home were always elaborate with multiple appetizers, a large main course and at least a couple of desserts. Dessert was a weakness for both of us and was what we ended up spending the most time over. We’d google recipes so there would be the excitement of creating something new, shop for ingredients and do a taste test before the actual meal. 

My brother-in-law would often invite colleagues who were visiting from other countries, over for lunch. Which of course, was also a production! It was on one of those days that 5 of us were at the dining table making conversation over indulgent Punjabi food. The gentleman, an Indian living in Houston, sitting next to me was, I figured about my age, very tall and sharply dressed. Over the course of the meal it was discovered that both of us grew up in Calcutta. And that’s when we began interrogating each other.
“Which school did you study in?” he asked.
“Don Bosco,” I replied.
“Me too! Which batch?”
The batch was mentioned and he happened to be in the same one. This was becoming more and more interesting, although there were 4 sections in every class/grade and about 45 boys in each of them. Obviously it was impossible to know everyone.
Until we found out that we were in the same section.
“What’s your last name?” we both asked almost in unison.
At that point we realized that while we were never close, we of course knew each other. He was the tall, lanky, quiet guy who usually sat in the last row. Our transportation after school, before I was old enough to use public buses, would often be late and we’d be shooting hoops at the basketball court or playing marbles when the court wasn’t available!!

For the longest time, this became a story to tell. It just seemed like the biggest coincidence that a classmate in Calcutta (we were together until the 10th grade) happened to be sitting next to me, having lunch at my cousins home in Hong Kong. 
Until last month, when the world became even smaller.

I was staying at the Taj in Kumarakom for a couple of days with family that was visiting from the US. On our second day we came across another Indian family visiting from Atlanta, consisting of a lady, her two young boys and her parents that had just checked in. They looked like a friendly lot and we stopped to say hello to them. The next morning at breakfast our tables happened to be at close quarters and I overheard them speaking in Bengali. Which of course immediately got my attention!

Turning towards the mother, who was sitting closest to me, I asked her if they were Bengali. Which, in retrospect was a stupid question. Why would they be speaking in Bengali if they weren’t? However, it was a conversation starter and she nodded yes.
“How about you?”, she asked.
“I grew up in Calcutta,” I replied. “But am not a Bengali”
I could see that I had her attention now.
“Oh really?”, she responded. “Where in Calcutta?”
I said that I was from New Alipore.
“So was I!”, she exclaimed. “Which block were you in?”
I was in O Block.
“I was too!”, she said. “Number 617”
617? 617 was where I lived. It was just a 3 storey building with one apartment on each floor, so I obviously knew everyone. How could this be?
“Are you Ratan?” she asked.
I replied that I was, still a little puzzled about not making a connection.
“I’m Jayshree, the landlord’s daughter!”

In my defense, I was just a child when Jayshree got married and moved out of the building and thus have no memory of her. The rest of our landlord’s family, I am of course intimately familiar with. However, the fact that we grew up in the same address and were sitting right next to each other in a town that neither one of us lives in, seemed a little more than just a coincidence. 

In a country with over a billion people what are the chances of running into someone you were so closely associated with at some point in your lives? Very high apparently! So many people, such a small world.