Tso Moriri, Ladakh

Tso Moriri, Ladakh

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. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life and Living

There’s a lot of talk these days about living life to the fullest, not having any regrets etc. This  comes with a certain level of affluence, without which one is too occupied making ends meet so that life may be lived somehow. Or in some instances, even when one can afford a certain quality of life, you get dealt with a hand that gives you no option to stay in the game of celebratory living. 

My sisters and I recently went to Kolkata, the city we grew up in, to attend a wedding. We used the opportunity to extend our trip by a few extra days so we could catch up with family and friends that we’ve known our entire lives, as well as eating our favorite foods. And while I list ‘eating our favorite foods’ at the end, there is a part of me that thinks that it may have been the primary reason for us to have spent that extra time in the city. A post of all the things that we enjoyed eating during those 10 days would run into pages so I should save it for my food blog loveequalsfood.com.

The Chugani’s were one of the families that was on our list of people to meet. They live in the neighborhood that we grew up in and we had gotten close towards the last few years of our lives in Kolkata. Their family was made up of the parents and their two daughters, who were probably 9 and 13 when I left the city. The mother was a vibrant and ‘bubbly’ lady, a go-getter with a perpetually smiling face. One of those people you don’t forget very easily. 

I hadn’t met the Chugani’s in many years and even though I had wanted to the past couple of times I was in Kolkata, I didn’t make enough of an effort to do so. This time though, when my sister, Rajni, mentioned that she had been to see them, Sujata, my other sister and I expressed our desire to visit them too. 

Honestly, while on the one hand I was looking forward to seeing them, I was also a little nervous. The older daughter, now a young woman, had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis since several years. My last memory of her running around the house had now changed to a reality of her being confined to a wheelchair.

When Alka, who has a young daughter of her own now, was wheeled into the living room, the first thing that struck me was how pretty she looked and how bright her eyes were. A little shy to begin with and not remembering who I was, she started opening up slowly. And of course when the conversation quickly moved to our favorite topic - food, she was salivating just like the rest of us, talking about where her favorite samosa’s were from and other delicacies that she enjoyed eating. While her voice was animated and excited, she couldn’t express those emotions with any sort of body movement. 

Although at no point of time was I unaware of her disability, the person inside that body, during the course of our visit, overcame her limitations and made us look beyond them. That, my dear reader, we all have to admit, is no mean feat. 

When we got up to leave, she expressed a desire for a photograph with Rajni, who she’s always known as the aunt with the long black hair. Of course I had everyone else get into the picture too and took a couple of shots, until she was happy with how she looked. Having gone through a few months of disability myself caused by an accident last year and being miserable the entire time, I was overwhelmed by her normalcy and her attitude. It was almost as if life had put me in front of someone saying ‘here’s a lesson for you to learn’. 

Shortly before we left she looked at me and said, “I remember you now - you used to live in 'O' Block, right?”. It made me happy, I guess because nobody likes to be forgotten. I also made a mental note to myself that whenever I was in Kolkata again, I would make it a point to spend more time with her. I hoped that her cognitive skills would always remain as sharp and we could create new and fun memories together.

Life and living it bravely. A lesson for each and every one of us. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring Cleaning

Turning off the alarm, he began rubbing his eyes gently as if they needed to be woken up in a separate manner. Even though it was a Saturday and Shiv didn’t have to go to work, it was a habit for him to set the alarm so he wouldn’t sleep past 9 am. Reaching out for his phone, he began checking out all the notifications from various apps. As soon as he kept the phone back on the bed, he picked it up again, knowing that there was one message he would read first. The message was almost two weeks old but he began his day by reading it, as if he had to be sure that this wasn’t a dream.

“I feel horrible doing this over text but I don’t have the courage to face you or even speak to you over the phone. I’ve met someone. Actually I met him the same week that you left. But until a few days ago, I didn’t realize that I had fallen in love with him. I don’t expect you to understand because sometimes even I don’t understand it myself. But this is as real as it gets and I have to be honest with you. I hope that we can get past this and be friends.”

Shiv had often wondered how long it must have taken her to write the message. It was well crafted, not something that she would have written in a rush. Did she really meet this person right after he had left or had it started before his move? After all he had only been gone for about 6 weeks. Can one fall in love and be so sure about it that quickly? Be certain enough to break up a relationship that was over a decade old? He hadn’t been able to fathom it. The words ‘this is as real as it gets’ had haunted him the most. It was as if she was mocking what had been between them, though he knew that it probably wasn’t her intention. 

They had met in college and somewhere during the ten years that they had known each other, their friendship had turned into love. He wondered if once the friendship line had been crossed, could one really go back to being friends again?

Shiv had never responded to Simi’s message and there hadn’t been any further communication from her. There was nothing that he wanted to say to her or even ask her. What would be the point of it? She had found ‘real’ love, something that had apparently never existed between them.

It suddenly struck him that today was Simi’s birthday. March 21st, the first day of spring. The previous year he had woken her up with a big bouquet of flowers that he had handpicked at the florist’s. He didn’t know the names of the flowers but the yellows and whites looked like spring to him. As much as he didn’t want to think about it, he couldn’t but help wondering what her morning had been like this year. 

Putting on his glasses he looked at the potted dahlia plant on the window sill, breaking into a slight smile as he noticed that yesterday’s bud had bloomed into a beautiful flower. It was the first gift he had received, shortly after he had moved into the city.
“Don’t forget to take good care of it,” Simi’s card had read. “This is my way of being with you.”
He continued to smile, thinking of the irony of those words. This is now the only way you will be with me.

And then all of a sudden Shiv picked up the potted dahlia, grabbed his apartment keys and still in his boxer shorts and T-shirt, got into the elevator. He walked across to the little garden in the apartment complex and set the flower down along with the other potted plants. You’re not my responsibility any longer, he thought. Someone else will take care of you.

The lady who lived across from his apartment was holding the elevator for him as he got in. She looked at his clothes and then at him questioningly. 
“Where are you coming from?” she asked.
Shiv let out a laugh, saying that there was some spring cleaning he had to get done.