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On GRIEF

This I know.

Grief is hard.

It hurts, it overwhelms, it suffocates.

From the moment it appears, it seeks to settle in. A nebulous entity at first, unformed, unknown, unarmed. That slowly begins to feed on us, our mind and memories, our love, loss and longing. Then growing at its own pace, on its own momentum, gaining definition, sharpness, power. We acknowledge it, give it its due, the space in our head and heart. It may try to take control, swamp us, and we may need to wrestle with it a bit, rein it in, and we may succeed. But there are times when it refuses to let us master it. It rises in waves, flooding us through, drenching us in misery, and we are left bewildered by its enormity. Sometimes it catches us suddenly by the throat, jerking us off our keel. Or it just hangs within us, weighing us down with its burden of sorrow. We may weep, mope, sigh, withdraw, get angry, try to bottle it in and wear a brave face over it, deny it, feign indifference, whatever. But it stays lodged within, a prerequisite to healing from the affliction of loss.

And yet there is no precise formula to it. They tell us of the stages that it needs to go through, how it mutates from shock to denial and anger and sadness and, perhaps, depression, and then finally through to acceptance, but there is no clear knowledge as to how long the process or any of its stages will take and how we will cope through. When and how we can put it behind us, reach the other side of it, be done with it, be light and dry again. Or, whether it ever goes away entirely.

It could, unknown to us, linger on, settling in a corner of our being, lying there dormant, happy to let us get on with our lives. But prodded into sudden stinging wakefulness when we least suspect, exposing our vulnerability, our fragility all over again. Perhaps, when an oft heard and favoured song plays from someone else’s playlist, and we smile at first at the serendipity of it.  We listen to the words and music again, they go straight through to the core of our heart now beating a tad heavier, rejuvenating fading memories all over again. Or a whiff of a known fragrance puckers up the nostrils and the embrace of a beloved is reincarnated, our arms wanting to reach out and curl in the air, as if that presence has returned. Or the tongue savours a morsel of once familiar, shared food, and there is a resurgent longing for the contentment that was then. The way it was then, those that were still with us then, the way we were then. With that special togetherness. Those shared confidences. Golden sunsets maybe, or pristine sunrises. The texture of the time that was. The fullness that our heart once knew. A mother’s soft lap. A father’s broad shoulders. A sister’s gleeful giggle. A lover’s tingling touch. A friend’s whispered secret. Of the travels and journeys of life and the landscapes of it that passed by then. All that had slipped through the portals of forgotten time, now hurtling back loud and clear in front of our searching, misty eyes. Reawakened senses to the reawakened memories of what once was.

Then it rises like a phantom and does its quiet mournful dance again. Wringing our hurting insides again, squeezing out residues of sadness that we believed we had cleansed away, making our breath gather quick in our throat, tightening it with its vice like grip, till we shudder and see it again, shake our head again at our own folly of forgetfulness, and acquiesce to its right to live on. It warns us that the healing was a myth, at best a facade, that this is the real thing, the ache of missing. That it will live on as long as there is breath in us, and the mind can retrieve the past at will.

Yet mercifully, it does not obliterate the present, no, nor do our feet falter on the treadmill of life to be lived yet. It doesn’t embarrass us as we smile and nod through surrounding conversations, move from this to that, these to those to others. It lets us raise our head from our pillow in the morning in healthy anticipation of all that the day may bring, go through our routines, our duties, our work, our enjoyments, returning to those that still gather lovingly and supportively around us. It rarely disrupts all or any of that. No, it isn’t that demanding, nor exacting. It’s like a shadow that follows us around, hiding when the sunshine and warmth of fulfillment holds our face aloft to the glowing sun. Stretching out as the darkness descends again, of loneliness perhaps, of half-fulfilled dreams, of promised but betrayed togetherness. We shed quiet tears into our pillow, sorry for that loss, sorrier for ourself, and it watches us, watches our ache, it takes its due and then lets go, granting us relief. However temporary. It returns to its corner, letting us be.  

The grief reminds us of our essence of being human, of having loved, nurtured, cherished other humans. Of having been loved, nurtured, cherished, wanted. Of how a face lit up when it saw ours. Or how a voice sounded happy when it spoke to us. Or a hand that held ours, steadying us through the rough. How the sorrow of parting gave way to the promised joy of meeting again, and again. Until the parting became final, cemented with loss. And loss is inevitable: we are born, we will die, ditto for all others, including those we attach ourselves to, those through whom we reference our living.

But I know this too. That the healing is equally inevitable. We are born to live, to breathe, be. We are blessed with resilience, that is the forte of our species. We hunger to be happy again, our days to be full and nights peaceful again, to love and be loved again, to argue, to squabble, to battle and win and lose again, to taste and relish more, travel afresh, talk, chat again, listen too, watch and show, feel and think, be excited, sleep unburdened. We yearn for all of that again. We rise and shuffle through the mystifying darkness of loss, our eyes straining to see better, relocate our bearings, gather ourselves, look outward, reach out and gratefully grab that hand that’s waiting to guide us through to the light of life again. That hand may be our own, our love of our own self, our own impatience to be free of the shadows. I’ve held mine several times these past years. I am ready and willing to hold others’ too.

I wear my grief unabashedly. The unconditional, unquestioning love that sealed me to those that peopled my life so far, the readiness to commit to friends, family, the hurt of others that tore my heart, the joy in their joys, that was all mine to treasure, to rejoice in, why hide it? No, I don’t flaunt it, it is mine to know and feel. Mine to allow or subdue. Yet every time I am reacquainted with it afresh, I stutter, stumble, then steady myself again. I am now an old hand at it. 

For this I know. What once was is carried through to what is and will be. It will colour our ongoing story, making it richer, finer, subtler. It will be woven into the warp and weft of the entire human experience, merging with all that was already there, wriggling to make space for more, the new, the changing, the yet to be born. It is merely a part of the growing whole.

And so, I tell myself: let not my grief crowd my horizon, shadow my tomorrows. Let me wear it lightly, know that while the loss may be permanent, it need not define the life I live. I carry my memories of those that passed and feel enriched by all I’ve known and felt. I find joy in them too, and I let that joy live on.

Live on, as well as we can. That’s all we can do, isn’t it? But that’s all that we need.

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THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett: A REVIEW

Everyone’s been raving about Ann Patchett and her fabulous books. A few years ago I had heard of her Bel Canto, how well-received it was, making waves in literary circles, and I had marked the book down for a later read. But then I recently picked her The Dutch House instead, trusting my instincts of trusting an old school-friend’s recommendation! The avid and discerning reader that she is, I often blindly follow her suggestions. And I was amply rewarded. 

What a page turner! I was hooked from the start, read voraciously through, and was so satisfied in the end that I had a huge smile plastered on my face. Patchett has the masterly knack of grabbing her reader from the first word onward and she simply doesn’t let go. 

Spanning years and generations, the tale is told simply. All in the voice of Danny Conroy, the son born to the Dutch House, his memories of his childhood in it, the family that cocooned him within, his sudden eviction with the ensuing painful missing,and then the settled nostalgia tinctured with a selective rosiness that grows deeper as the years pass, colouring both home and family. The story goes back and forth in time, a memory there, a present day occurrence here, all patched together as in a richly hued and textured quilt, and we watch it take shape and substance as our Danny boy comes of age, grows to be independent, settles in his choice of profession and partner, raises a family of his own. All with the Dutch House of his earliest years remaining firmly in his sights.

The descriptions of the house are wonderfully evocative, its massive glass doors that allow the blinding sunlight to dazzle through, its spacious rooms and stairs, its hiding spaces and caches and corners, the pool at the back with petals and leaves skimming across its shimmering surface, the grass and trees and path out front, rolling down to the street that marked the address. You see the structurerise before your eyes, you go on a tour within and marvel at the paintings here and the chandelier there, the tapestry and the secret alcoves, you hear the voices whispering or laughing or quarrelling, you feel the warmth that nestles in its kitchen, you cringe at the unpleasantness that comes to fruit in it.Patchett builds its history carefully, when and how it was constructed by its original Dutch owners, why and how it changed hands, all against a backdrop ofevents unfolding around the world, stamping time and date.

The Conroy family coming in from their skeletally humble roots, struggle to adjust to the sudden leap in lifestyle, acclimatising themselves to an unfamiliar grandeur, straining somewhat to be happy in the imposing environs. The mother remains overwhelmed by the aura and proportions of her new house, mystified by the sudden shift in fortunes.  The taciturn father relishes and cherishes it all as the icing of his well-earned cake. The children torn between the two, make the place their own, marking their own territories within, etching their rights to it, only to have them frustratingly effaced, stumped by the lot that cruelly became theirs. The pretender to its ownership and her guile and wiles, her mean-spiritedness, ruthlessness. The house staff, all strongly supportive women that battle through unflinchingly, their raising of the children, teaching them values, patience, commitment, solidarity and a lot else. The intense loyalty between the siblings, Danny and Maeve, a knowing in their gut that they would always have each other, even if the world around them were to crumble away. Maeve leading the way in all that they plot, plan and do, making good their lack of resources with oodles of her own fiery gumption. And Danny following faithfully, believing in her implicitly, pressing pause on his own dreams to fructify hers. It’s such a riveting tale of circumstance and experience, all so heartfelt and earnest, that it feels lived and breathed,  endured and borne, lost and hated, won and vindicated. 

I especially liked how Patchett’s writing changes from Danny’s childhood to boyhood, on to adulthood and then middle age. There is an innocence that surrenders to instinctive animal wisdom in his perspective as a child, a clear idea of what his needs are and who fulfils them and how. That changes as the years roll by, circumstances change and much is lost and learned. The voice becomes clearer, stronger, there is a concretisation of views and values, a defensiveness that underscores attachments, that accommodates one parent’s eccentricities, though obdurately denying the other’s theirs. All subsequent attachments remain peripheral to the central sustaining bond with his sister. And then the writing becomes brisk, as if there is an urgency to grow up, do things, finish this, move to that, regain all that had been lost. There is a brusqueness too, not unseemly, for he is recounting the years when he no longer wanted to get trapped by others’ agendas and vendettas and the lousy hand that fate had dealt them. He’s done his dues, he now does as he wants.

There are some important themes that are referenced, but very deftly. For example, there is that instance that will remain in my memory, when Danny’s sister asks him to get over their mother’s desertion, that men do it all the time and seem allowed to. What about Buddha, she asks. Sainthood has its own shadows, why condemn only the woman who chooses that path? And all through, a few questions continue swirling around, about the weight and onus of motherhood. Does a mother who leaves her children to their father’s care, deciding to live her own life free from her husband’s arrangement of it, never deserve to be understood? How valid are a child’s expectations of a mother’s unfailing presence and attention to its wants, how much of that is natural, and how much influenced through social conditioning? Must a child’s wants always trump its mother’s? As Danny grows before us as an able protagonist, marked with his share of flaws, liable to anger, un-forgivingness and selfish self-absorption,as much as to love and resilience and steadfast commitment, how willing are we to allow for his imperfections? How quickly will we judge him? Judge his mother? And the woman who supplants her in their familial home?

Of course, all is not perfect, there are some lacunae. The premise of some relations, why they cement or why they fail through the passage of time, as between Danny and his wife, seem a little sketchily drawn. The plot seems linear, somewhat predictable in parts, though it reveals itself in a non-linear way. There is a lot that is wrought by fortuitous chance. Some happy serendipity, some weird coincidences, some ultra-neat falling back to what once was, like fate coming full circle with a restitution of original rights. I could quibble with that and say, it’s just a bit much to believe, a little too pat and tidy. But I won’t. The book with all its craft and simplicity, its fine and broad strokes, its stories within stories, characters that carry their personal histories and love and animosities into their futures and still remain deeply entwined with each other, made me happy. That counts. For a lot.

Can’t wait to get hold of Bel Canto. Or, maybe, State of Wonder which my daughter recommends emphatically. Dive in again into prolific Patchett’s pages, be swept away again by her enchanting words, see through her eyes and know that the world and its stories she has searched and sensed and imagined will enrich mine. Bliss.

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O YE, OF LITTLE FAITH

I was born and raised a Hindu, embedded with a moral compass that drew largely from the Hindu religious tradition, given its pointers to the good and wholesome way to live my life, the virtues to imbibe and vices to eschew. I grew up among friends and neighbours, a mix of many religions among them: Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Muslims and Jains, as also Hindus that came from different parts of the country and did many things differently from us. I was naturally inclined to accept and respect them all. Healthily curious, I explored their faiths and customs too, never feeling that they were alien to me or my humanity. And while I wasn’t keen on the rituals, ours or theirs, I appreciated the values that made sense to my evolving being and notched them on to my compass. The consequent melded morality sufficed for conscience while I trundled on through life.

My parents were staunch believers, as were both my sisters, both older than me. All would gather around the deities in our pooja corner, sing aartis and share the prasad on all the major festival days marked on the Hindu almanac. My mother would read the scriptures, light the diya, offer the flowers, tulsi, durva and haldi-kumkum in her daily pooja, recite the shlokas in prayer and teach them to us too, in devotion to the gods that presided over her and our existence. My father would join in with reverence, bringing the idol of Ganapati home on the Chaturthi, hoisting the beautifully decorated Gudhi on our new year, doing a Satyanarayan pooja to offer special thanks to the divine forces when they had been particularly propitious, hang up the akaash kandil or lantern on the first night of Diwali and so on. He was a ruthlessly logical scientist, demanding proof of every this, that and the other, but never disbelieving of Ganesh, Ram, Krishna, Mahadev, Lakshmi or Saraswati and their individual and combined powers over us and the universe at large. The entire pantheon of gods and goddesses sat very comfortably in his rational and inquisitively searching mind and life.

And yet they were all happily accepting of that diversity of religions that surrounded us, appreciative of the different cultural expressions they came with too. As also accepting of my choosing to remain a sceptic, often irreligiously so. I would, when I was inclined, chant the prayers with them (more often lured by their musical cadence) and listen in to the complex stories of mythology, but never with belief. I was never coerced to subscribe to their beliefs, nor disparaged as the proverbial black sheep because I didn’t. They knew that I was still searching, reluctant to conform without conviction. So, I knew which shloka to recite in the evening or which before sitting down to a meal, how to celebrate every festive day, and so on, and I did some of it as part of our shared culture. As something that grew from our roots through our line of ancestors, rather than as an attempt to connect with any form of divinity. I was loyal to my tribe, if nothing else. I was also always aware that I could just as well be lighting candles or decorating a crib for Christmas or covering my head and bowing to the west in namaz before partaking of iftar had I been born differently. That while it was all different it was all ultimately the same. And that we all knew that.

That we didn’t, became clear as I grew. The realization that everyone wasn’t as secular as my folk brought an unpleasant awakening, then disillusionment and finally a lasting frustration. That many brandished scars from hostile run-ins with others, and that many more stood up in shrill solidarity with them, didn’t gel with my innocently myopic worldview of peaceful co-existence. As I read through the newspapers that came home, I discovered that many lived but were adamantly determined to not let live. And that made me uncomfortable, shaking my faith in humanity. Then the questioning set in, searching through historical precedents, the stories of persecutions and annihilations, of terror and suffering, of wars and cruelties, holy crusades and unholy holocausts, and the genesis of it all: religion itself, in all its alternative avatars and distinctly different practices. While one’s faith may teach one of the unique universality of God, there is a wariness, if not aversion, amongst his followers if others choose to call him by another name or worship him differently.

The cynic in me suspected that if it hadn’t been religion, it would have been something else, anything else. All humans originating from the same pool of the species, migrating in waves through the millennia, appropriating different parcels of the globe, settling, evolving and brewing their own distinct ethnicities in relative isolation from others. Blinded into an arrogant belief that theirs was the only right way to live, and anyone else’s wrong as an indisputable corollary. Suspicious of others, fearful of them, rather than curious and receptive. Othering in practice, strongly and clearly, compulsively too, as if it were in our DNA. While we had exited our caves eons ago, our primal instinct to hunt and fear of being hunted remained alive and kicking, the othering then exacting its toll in human lives. As I was loyal to my tribe, others were to theirs.

The aggressive othering suits some, I am aware. Earlier it gave the imperialists and colonialists the buttressing rationale to camouflage their greed with, their condemnation of others as heathen or infidels or savage, legitimising the destruction of their settlements and heritages, and at times seeking to expunge them from the face of the earth, an earth they believed was theirs for the taking. The othering continued through the churning centuries, enabling political climbers to manipulate communities and mobs and nations, tilt them this way or that, expanding and consolidating their majoritarian power base, progressively marginalizing all others. Or conversely, stoking the minorities’ fears of persecution and wedging them further away from the mainstreams. Now, I fear it’s all brazenly out, the hatred and the fear of all others, as also the drive to redress all wrongs, past and present, real and imagined. Everyone from all edges of the unholy spectrum is fighting, hollering about the exclusive sanctity of their own particulars, their god, modus of worship, custom, language, diet and on, retrieving powers and privileges they believe were rightfully theirs, screaming to restore their original occupation rights to land and all that stands on it, including places of worship. And bidding peace and coexistence a speedy road to hell.

Redressal is the buzzword today. We are in the grip of a fervour to rewrite history, literally, resurrecting some of the forgotten, unmasking some of the hitherto admired as villainous, demolishing what was built by others as they had demolished what had been built earlier. Ripping off the band-aid of collective amnesia that covered old wounds and making us wince and writhe again, fanning our lust for the reciprocal pound of flesh. But history, as we read it, has always been pliable, written with one slant yesterday, written with another today, and waiting quietly for time and tide to turn to be written all over again.

But we were not a Hindu nation, not when we became free. Despite the blood spilled in gory Partition, we were encouraged to remain secular. To be respectful of all others, including those whose ancestors had once marched upon us, or who had converted, either influenced by their proselytizing zeal or as an expedient to secure survival. If not peaceably tolerant, then at least grudgingly so, letting me grow up in that convivial mix. That was the intent in the constitution that we chose to be governed by, that defined us to be a secular state. The secularity that was the inborn hallmark of my family and many more like ours.

I remember my Hindu family and neighbours sipping eggnogs and relishing a slice of cake, wishing everyone else, Christian or not, a happy Christmas. Or trotting over to a Muslim friend’s place and joining in their festivities on Ramzan Eid, exulting at the sliver of their moon. Waiting for our Parsee neighbour to share her aromatic dhansak with us, inviting her to partake of our feast on Diwali. Baisakhi, Papeti, Easter, Eid, were as integral to our social existence as Diwali and Dussehra. The faiths they spring from too. They still are, I would like to believe, as are their practitioners. I may not be religious, but I am respectful of everyone else’s right to believe and practice as they wish. And remain where they wish. I would rather religions be practiced only in the privacy of homes rather than in the public domain, altogether avoiding their inimical jostling. But that’s my unsolicited opinion.

Where will this end? When will all wrongs be righted and all grievances assuaged? And what then? Will we rest in quiet peace, fulfilled at last? I doubt that. I fear that we have fallen in love with hating, that we will find and legitimise avenues and targets to spew the bile that continues to bubble within us. Religion has been a major segregator, but it is not the only one. The othering is multi-pronged. And hypothetically though completely logically, after we have eliminated our present others, we could draw finer lines and other some amongst us, and then some more, until each of us is distanced from all in solitary confinement. Humanity lost.

Bah! That’s just ridiculously far-fetched, dystopian gloom and doom. The world won’t come to that because it can’t afford to. Everyone needs everyone else, especially in this globally spun web of commerce that we seek to survive in, prosper through. And won’t the good, just, truthful and merciful that all the saints, mullahs and sadhus praise to their respective heavens, and that firmly point north on my moral compass, prevail? As they do in all the mythologies scripted everywhere? Or is that merely unquestioning faith? Anyway, I hope they do.

Amen. Alhamdulillah. Tathastu.

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LATA, MY DEAR…

It’s a summer evening, my parents are out in the garden. She in her cotton saree, juhi buds wreathed into a gajra in her hair. He in his kurta pyjama, his thick black spectacles wedged firmly on his nose, his gin and lime idling in his hand. Music playing, always heavenly heady music. Maybe, a Vilayat Khan’s Khamaj, or a Bade Ghulam Ali’s Sainya Bolo, or a Bhimsen Joshi’s Chhaya Malhar. And she tells him about the song she had heard on the radio in the afternoon, how the dulcet call of O Sajna had spoken to her, how it had reached deep into her heart and made her tantalisingly aware of the love and longing that harboured within. And he smiles and nods, reaches for her hand and asks tenderly, “Lata, my dear, shall we buy the record?”

My father would often joke about how all we heard at home was Lata ki awaaz (Lata’s voice): his wife’s, whose word was incontrovertible law, and the singing diva’s, whose sway over listeners, us included, was unassailable. As I watched my parents’ love story grow, I revelled in the songs that nourished it, many of them in Lata Mangeshkar’s surreal voice. Yes, there were others as well, Saigal Sahab’s Main Kya Janu, Gham Diye Mustaqil, Rafi Sahab’s Tere Mere Sapne, Baharon Phool Barsao, many more, Talat Mehmood’s Jalte Hain Jiske Liye, many more of his too, but their numbers were dwarfed by the omnipresence and omnipotence of that matchless, flawless sur, the one that everyone said epitomized Saraswati herself. My Aai’s list of favourites was long, the stellar among them, Khemchand Prakash’s Ayega Aanewala, the most sublime of all Hindi film music; Jane Kaise Sapnon Mein and Kaise Din Beete, capturing the polar extremes of love’s vast domain and set in mesmeric melody by the maestro, Pt Ravi Shankar; Naushad Sahab’s Do Hanson Ka Joda, C Ramchandra’s Mohabbat Aisi Dhadkan Hai, and, of course, Salil Chowdhury’s O Sajna, Barkha Bahar Aai. 

As I grew older, I added the Madan Mohans and Jaidevs and Roshans and Burmans, father and son, to our list. As also the Marathi abhangs and bhavgeets from Shrinivas Khale and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. We would buy their records and play them one after the other. My Aai, who had lost her Aai when she was barely sixteen, would tell us how Lata Mangeshkar had guided her through life’s successive stages and experiences, given her the songs to celebrate the flush of romance, understand and respect the honour of commitment, throb with fulfilling love, be uplifted by humbling devotion, cherish the newborn in her lap, weep and be consoled upon loss and bereavement, and find peace for her thirsting soul. 

My music lessons had started chiselling my nazar, my critical appreciation of all sounds melodic, leading me to imbibe this from here and steer clear of that from there. And while Hindustani classical remained my steadfast preference, I also enjoyed Hindi film music, a different song for every different occasion, every mood, day and age. Their notes spoke to me like the words in a story, more than the lyrics themselves. And there were two schools to learn from, I discovered, one of Mohammed Rafi and the other of Lata Mangeshkar. I would listen to them both carefully, how they would enunciate every note and word and emotion in its perfectly exact measure, revealing love or pathos or reverence or merriment, but always just enough, neither underdone nor exaggerated. How their voices would glide effortlessly, taking a meendh here or a murki there, all kinds of taans too. And especially how Lata Mangeshkar’s voice never lost that tinkling delicacy, nor that crystal clarity even in the swiftest of taans. I still get goosebumps when I listen to those that her Mana Mohana in Jaijaiwanti culminate in. Pure gold. 

There were stories about how she squared her twelve-year old shoulders and courageously carried her family and its needs on them after her father’s early passing. About how she engaged a tutor to refine her diction in Hindi, so that she would never have to face rejection from composers on that score. About pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox, braving penury, confident that better days would come if one worked hard enough. About the long hours she worked, learning, singing and recording tirelessly through days and nights, and yet every note and word sounding as fresh and pristine as the morning’s virgin dew. They were all so inspiring, so humbling too, her journey so arduously complex, they taught me to face whatever measly challenges that came my way and power on. There were unpleasant stories too, about how she had monopolised the music scene and denied other singers their rightful space. I would shrug them off. So, she has a natural monopoly, doesn’t she, I asked? For there were none like her, I knew. 

One of those serendipitous miracles that life and fate sometimes bestow upon us, took me to her some years ago. Invited with my husband, her cardiologist, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I stood among the outer periphery of her guests, surreally breathing the same air she did, hearing the same sounds as her, and watching and absorbing for my eternity every nuance of every expression that drifted across her face. The joy of meeting friends, the patience in greeting them all, the gratitude towards those that had helped her overcome hurdles, the bewilderment at the ceaseless press of well-wishers, the beginnings of fatigue, the need to be alone again probably, to have her home for herself again. All to be gathered and narrated in minute detail to my waiting mother, who then saw it through my eyes, but was as thrilled as if she were there herself. Vicariously living her fan moment.

One day soon after that first meeting with her, I heard her Ni sultana re on the radio as I drove home from an errand, and I inexplicably started crying. Overwhelmed with wonderment, maybe. The lady I had seen, serene and dignified, the pallu of her white saree draped decorously over both shoulders, her hair neatly braided in two long plaits, wearing her majestic aura simply but surely, the diamonds on her person winking and glittering, but paling against the wealth that shone in her eyes, that rich, long life replete with lessons and challenges and tragedies and achievements and connects and wisdom. How do I reconcile all of that with the frolicking, simple and innocent village belle in the song? How had she sung that teasing balam babuwa with such youthful abandon? Thank goodness, she had! Time and again she proved that she could throw herself into whatever the context given, be whatever age expected of her, feel whatever emotion handed to her, and all at the snap of the composer’s fingers. 

She remained unmatched. So many wannabe Latas came and tried their luck. Many strongly sweet, some cloying, some straining, some piercing. Some succeeded somewhat. Some came up with cover versions and remixes of what had been sung before, but they all looked and sounded hapless, all sorry imitations. For, none had what she did. That natural monopoly, that gift from God, as she herself always acknowledged. That magnificently and divinely pure, surel voice, that could with a single note switch on all the lights in the universe, illuminating all in blazing bright transparency; whose unique sweetness was especially magical as it came honed with assiduous training and riyaz, combined with enormous power and presence and yet an unbelievable floating lightness; that was sustained with a huge reservoir of lasting breath; blessed with a phenomenal range; and whose dhaar or incisiveness was that of a shining scimitar that sliced through all firmaments at once, as also our mortal hearts. And who had that uncanny ability to slip inside the skin of the song so completely that it rendered the annotation in celluloid images superfluous. She matched her voice to the lyrics, immersed herself in the mood of the music, and portrayed it all with an earnestness and honesty so rare that it made the listening universe smile or weep or sigh or laugh or pray or celebrate or just be rejoicingly grateful to be alive in her time and reign. 

Well, time never stands still and as the musical landscape changed with sound and rhythm and tempo trumping melody, other voices emerged and shone and notched up their coteries of fans. Lata Mangeshkar withdrew gradually but gracefully, occasionally returning to sing something composed by Rehman, the songs themselves choosing her, as she said. The changed popular music lost its appeal, for both my Aai and me, the newer songs ruling music charts for a brief while and then quickly sinking into oblivion. The burnished gold in the old still gleamed powerfully, and we stayed tuned in to its timeless allure, Aai listening faithfully to her Bhoole Bisre Geet on Vividh Bharati before falling asleep. Where her Lata still sang to her, resurrecting that train of rich memories, the mementos of a life well lived. 

My mother left eight years ago and ever since Lata Mangeshkar has helped keep alive that circle of love. Every time I hear Ayega Aanewala or O Sajna, my heart breaks in acute unabated grief, and then heals itself again in the infinite beauty and grace of the music. And then this year, she left too. I mourned and wept all over again, not only for the passing of the earthly Saraswati but also for the one that had worshipped her from afar. I foolishly hope that they’ve met. I sometimes fondly imagine her singing in the heavens, maybe with her trail-blazing father, or perhaps with that other Bharat Ratna, Bhimsen Joshi, whom I idolised since my earliest memory, maybe all the other musical greats are there as well. Maybe it’s an eternal mehfil for them, each regaling the other, each applauding the other. And since I’m imagining it all, maybe it’s summer there again, and my parents are listening in again, he in his kurta pyjama, she in her cotton saree with her juhi gajra. And he looks at her and smiles. Lata, my dear. She smiles too, fulfilled.

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QUIET PLEASE!

Discourse is becoming increasingly fractious, I find. Frivolously fractious too. So much so that labelling it as discourse is an insult to the word. There are more verbal brawls today than there are respectful discussions.  

Am I growing out of date, I ask myself, when I fear I cannot keep pace with the histrionics that pepper otherwise routine conversations, sometimes spiralling them into slanging matches. Eyebrows drawn together, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, breathing rapid, fingers wagging, fists thumping, that is how normal genteel people I’ve known all my life have begun speaking. Everything is exaggeratedly terrible or praiseworthy, everyone is fit either for worship or for the gallows. Hyperbolics are exhausting, when they aren’t disgusting. 

Societies are becoming more and more polarised they say. Ironic, isn’t it, in this era of globalisation. This and the other. Us and them. Ours and theirs. It is as if demarcating lines are drawn clearer for combat and it is our duty to recognise and defend the territory we occupy, political, ideological, social, economic, religious, regional, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, artistic, sartorial and on. Ambivalence about whether and how we pray, unsureness about whether or not we support a paradigm, reservation about whether or not a government deserves our support, that could be construed as the vacillation of the typically weak. We must belong. This side or that. Not that everyone on the side we’ve picked necessarily knows all about the side they are defending. One may know nothing, but one still needs to voice opinion in support, all in the spirit of proud partisanship. The speaking voice must be loud and clear even though the substance of speech is shaky and hazy at best.

I’ve stopped watching the news on our TV. I find the tenor there an insufferable effrontery. The decibels are deafening. Even when I mute the newscast to salvage my ears, the myriad contortions of newscasters’ faces are voluble enough. And the debates are a farce. Harangues, rather. When a motley group of guests is invited solely for the host’s pleasure of pulping them in public view. Why they continue to accept invitations is a mystery to me. Masochism? Maybe. Or then, losing face is just a staged sham and there is something bigger to be won off stage. 

Yet these debates are consumed avidly by our citizenry. It is prime time entertainment. When allegiances are put to the test every night, when questions are thrown in the face of the other while denying any reasonable room to answer, when their hapless discomfiture and their ineffective dancing around to edge a word in are pounced upon gleefully as vindications of their contemptibility. When tables overturned bring forth wrath, the more intense when the embarrassment is larger. I find this appetite for aggression, the addictive excitement of anger rather disturbing. When viewers vicariously quarrel with all their ‘others’, badgering and berating their opponents paraded every successive night on that idiot box. And it is this style of address and debate that has seeped into our living rooms. Where we see ourselves as legitimised in breaking into quarrels, shouting above each other, slanging one another viciously, sometimes even without provocation. It is as if there is a contagious itch to fight. An itch we don’t wish to cure. One that we are growing fond of. 

The itch gets exacerbated during the seasonal tamasha of elections. Head honchos of political outfits bellow through megaphones at their captive audiences shepherded forcibly to the rally grounds hours and hours ahead on the promise of darshan of their lords and masters and, of course, some pitiful lucre. But the address is to the entire constituency, not merely those hapless heads arrayed ahead. The target audience is the mohalla, the state, the nation, whatever the pie up for contest. And the spicy snippets of their speeches become the screaming headlines in the press, print and electronic, and thence the theme of the subsequent debates. Our excitable citizenry is agog, alert on their chosen warpaths, ganging up with their ilk against their adversaries. Often, there isn’t much that differentiates the two really. 

Group chats on digital platforms are also at times irritatingly LOUD. Yeah, the capitals go with the volume of the impact our netizens want to make when typing words to match. Many have an ongoing angst to share. Really? Where is the energy for this coming from? Oftentimes the angst has been formatted for them, I suspect, with an insidious reaching in for whatever discontent that might have been simmering in them already and purposefully deflecting it and exploiting it for other agendas. So then we have positions and counter-positions, posts and counter-posts, forwards and counter-forwards, people gathering on their respective sides, defending their threatened echo chambers, picking up virtual cudgels to battle it out on their phones and tabs and other what-have-you-s. Emojis get deployed as missiles. Exclamation marks abound. And then the labels fly thick and fast, that these so-and-sos are this-and-that-and-the-dreaded-other and that they must be challenged, made to rescind their traitorous opinions and beliefs, silenced and perhaps hounded out of chat groups. Wordy warriors wearing their judging hats oh-so-seriously. Oftentimes the labels regress to uncivil name-calling, but hey, civility is an old-world virtue, passé for this volubly brash world of today. 

Hmm. I am out of date. For I miss the even tenor that marked debates earlier. That of gentle persuasions, resigned acceptances, the agreeing to disagree and still being respectful of the other. When questions poked but did not bludgeon, when answers were substantive and not mere rhetorical theatrics, when the speaking voice was polite though clear and firm, when the listening ears paid attention not merely to rebut but to first absorb and reflect and then accept, qualify or refute as the case may be. 

Yeah, I’m probably a misfit, I guess. And you may agree with that and may have already condemned me with pursed lips and frowning foreheads. No matter. I assure you that when you want to be heard, I will lend an ear. And I will try to reply without the theatrics. 

Anyway, shush for now. From me too. 

Rohini Paranjpe Sathe

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A PLACE CALLED HOME

Returning home has always been an absolute joy for me. Howsoever fascinating and fruitful the sojourn abroad, the promise of retrieving my own customary space to reclaim myself, my own bed to dream in, my own land and sun and soil, happily lures me back every time.

I remember one morning on reaching home from the US, being immediately assailed by the unmistakable aroma of curry leaves sizzling in hot oil. Breakfast in my neighbour’s kitchen, all so comfortably familiar. I stood a moment longer at my door, debating, pohe or upama? And instantly wanting a plateful of both. It isn’t as if these options aren’t available outside India. But it is their alchemy with our own exclusive contexts, the unapologetic glare of the sun shining outside, the heat I typically sense on my skin, the sound of the fan whirring overhead, our voices raised in our speech with our own idiosyncratic intonations and accents, the jabbering of the mynahs and bulbuls in our champa and gulmohar and amaltas trees …. all of that and more that makes it so distinctively and uniquely ours.

On a lighter note, it’s a relief for me to again stash away those bulky jackets, sweaters and scarves, all that swathed my tropical-raised self while braving the bracing chill of the temperate lands I roamed. I remember wearying of the bleary blues and blacks that swamped the sartorial there, my eyes hungering for the unabashed riot of colours we have at home.

Of course, it isn’t just about the trappings, the sights and sounds and senses that I feel myself at home with. It is much much deeper. I am rooted here, completely and thoroughly. That is, I am not merely a sentimental or serendipitously patriotic Indian. Not that I would flaunt my patriotism on my sleeve even though it is the ruling flavour. But yes, I am utterly convinced that this is where I was and am meant to be.  

I remember the time many years ago when I was mulling over some tricky choices. Whatever ambiguity I might have overlooked in other respects, there was one, among a few, that was categorically non-negotiable: I would never live elsewhere. I can be happy in any corner of this country, I averred, not abroad. I belonged here. All my people were here, all my contexts came from here, my music grew here, I was fulfilled here and imagined myself to continue being thus fulfilled in the years to come as well. Then why forsake this for any other?

Or, was I not brave enough, adventurous enough to pack my bags and try to make my life elsewhere? Test new waters, new climes? Was I playing it safe?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I was raised by parents who believed passionately in the concept of India, who themselves were raised in pre-Independence years dreaming of unfurling the tricolour one day. Raised by men and women who fought determinedly to free this land, to nurture and educate its children, to inculcate values of free and rational thought and expression. Growing up I would hear stories of my grandmother being battered in lathi-charges or being locked up in prison and my mother pining away for months on end without her. My other grandmother worked hard to rescue our women from their travails, to empower them, as also to help found a school for children. I heard about my grandfathers who supported their wives’ dreams with a dedication that did them proud, me too. I know how my maternal grandfather would step in to write editorials in his wife’s newspaper, sustaining her readers’ spirit and morale while she suffered incarceration. My other grandfather helped balance the women’s council’s books when his wife had torn her hair out in frustration at the unconquerable magnitude of the task. So many stories, so much pride in my clan, my people and my land, all that bound me to them. Why not revel in it for all time? Why play with loyalties?

And that is what I happily did all these years. Yes, there is plenty that ails my home, land and people, plenty that has gone awry from what had been imagined and dreamed of by my parents and theirs. This is not the India that they had fought for. Nor is this entirely the India I wish to wake up to every morning. Agreed. It is what it is. But that still never made me question where I had chosen to be. Migrate? Not for me. Not that I had any quarrel with those who did cross overseas, nor did I ever judge them their choices. They had their valid reasons to leave, I had mine to stay on.

And so, as and when those of the diaspora that I knew came visiting their old home, spending quality time with their ageing parents, hopping around to the corner for a batata wada, catching a night of music at Sawai or a home-grown natak, refreshing old memories, I knew that some of what they had left behind still called them back. And when we holidayed in locales abroad, soaking in their air and life and customs and systems, traipsing through their palaces and chateaus, museums and galleries, serenaded by their violins and cellos, forging connects with people there and breaking bread with them, we lived and did as them. All global humans for every happy while. But home was always where the heart finally was.

Until our daughter left for the US. And made her own home there with her husband. The years rolled from one to the next and we watched closely as she made her life there, studying, working, living, growing. Rooting herself in another land. Building her own tribe around her. Melding all that she had carried from here with all that she chose to embrace there.

Then we predictably and routinely juggled with time zones, picking convenient hours to call and chat, imagining her comfortably asleep while we worked through our days, praying that her days were productive with zero glitches while we slept. And that she stayed safe, happy and healthy. I suppose she did the same, but I’m guessing not with my intense fervour. She might have outgrown her umbilical attachment, but I’m still holding tight.

Many parents do the same, worldwide, we are not unique in that. They all do it bravely, some easily, some less so. They swallow their concerns and their worries so that their children don’t feel weighed down by them. It is how it is. But it feels all the more challenging when the physical distance that separates us is so punishingly vast that we need to travel long hours and days just to be together again. Yet I would gladly do it every single time. I did, through those rolling years.

Now when I look at the hills that surround the suburb she lives in, when I stroll through the spacious park close by, see the brilliantly blue skies overhead, spy the tiny hummingbirds flitting through her garden, see her neighbours stop and say hello when she is walking her dog, hear their music playing in their cars and malls, drive by their majestic evergreens lining their wide roads or their southern magnolia flowering magnificently in their summers, it also feels reassuringly familiar. And when I see her happy face in the midst of all of that, it feels right.

I make my pohe and upama in her kitchen and she smiles her satisfied smile that says, Just like home. I know it isn’t, her selective nostalgia notwithstanding, but how does that even matter? Isn’t home where the heart is?

So, what holds me back in my land today, I ask myself. My parents have passed, many of my tribe too, yet their history remains. I know in my gut that I still nurture myself and my life here. Much of me is still anchored here. I still despair at the grim stories that crowd our headlines. I still cheer when our young raise our flag in sporting arenas. My ears perk up with interest when I hear spicy chatter in colloquial Hindi and Marathi. I smile when the koel calls from the kamini blossoms in our garden. I luxuriantly inhale the petrichor from the first monsoon showers on our parched soil. My heart warms when my bai celebrates her children’s school grades with me, popping a pedha in my mouth.

And yet all the while my treacherous heart feels perversely and wretchedly torn between this home and our daughter’s, longing for them to somehow coincide. Knowing they won’t.

And then, when we came back from our recent visit to the US, after I thought I had well recovered from my moping and missing our daughter and was again glorying in my life here, I caught myself suddenly longing for another glimpse of those Californian hills. My eyes began to wander through her neighbourhood, going through its corners and turns as if they were my own. My ears pick up the sounds of a familiar western number from a passing car, my head beginning to bob in rhythm and I am washed with a brand-new nostalgia. My hands now long to cradle an ice-cold margarita, pair it with some chips and guacamole, and immerse myself in that idyllically lingering twilight. My fingers always itch to call her, hear her voice, see her face, see my son-in-law’s head nestled beside hers. Watch as she stirs her coffee in the mug we had bought together. Ache to be there again.

And I think, heck! There are loves and longings and loyalties, aren’t there? I know that what I feel for her transcends everything else, it is how it is. That makes me adopt what she has claimed as hers, that makes me want to join in on some of her adventures, that makes her new contexts mine as well, that makes my heart happy when my mind and memory conjure her familiar surroundings again, no longer as foreign.

Then am I no longer as loyally Indian, are my roots breaking loose? Or am I being clingingly maternal? Neither. I still love my land, my people and I believe I am as fiercely respectful of her space as I am of mine. I guess I’ve only now realised what many already have before me: that there can be another wonderful place to call home. It need not coincide with the one here. That I would be just as full of joy to return there. For the heart is just as happy there.

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LEAD THE KIND INTO THE LIGHT

Kindness attracts me immensely. There is a quiet luminescent glow to it in comparison to which the brightness of wit and the radiance of genius pale.

Of course, I admire men and women of intelligence. We, of the human race, benefit from their curiosity and their inventiveness, the questions they ask and answer, pushing the frontiers of our knowledge. I wouldn’t be writing words, discerning and labelling each one of my thoughts and sentiments, typing them out on a computer and sending them to you to read, if it weren’t for the humongous advances that our gifted proponents of the sciences and the arts have made over the millennia, propelling forward that ongoing evolution of us sapiens. 

I also appreciate that genius doesn’t grow overnight. It needs accurate spotting, careful nurturing, and sometimes ruthless pruning, cultivating it along productive channels, much like that tree that bears bountiful fruit only upon the painstaking efforts of a dedicated gardener. Society invests heavily in genius for it is selfishly interested in its fruit. And that is only natural.

I find wit good company too. It is entertaining. It can also be rewardingly insightful and illuminating. A sharp pleasantry, an acerbic but apt comment may relieve many a dull moment and may alleviate an otherwise banal conversation. A chance or calculated pithy remark by the witty wise may open my eyes, opening up a person, a situation, hinting at covert agendas, and other such interesting details. Opening windows that were hitherto closed, prodding me to look beyond, probe further.

When talents are put to productive use society rewards them, handsomely at times. The size of that reward is, of course, determined by the relative scarcity of that talent: the scale and urgency of the need for its output vis-à-vis its availability. The everyday unavoidable market scissors of demand and supply that supposedly impartially decide price and thence incomes. The impartiality begins only after the initial distribution of resources, wealth and human capital, has been accepted as an unchangeable given. That could be cruelly unequal in itself. But that is a matter of discourse on equity. 

And that’s the thing. Equity, and similar goals that may render humans humane, is not the goal of unfettered market decisions. Our market and trade paradigms that explicitly or covertly hail maximisation of self-interest (read profits, incomes, utility) as the efficient guiding motive of decision making, don’t give a damn about equity. They are not supposed to. And that is only expedient. And then popular clamour to factor in humanitarian concerns prompts the powers that be to tweak the system, blunting those market scissors somewhat, trying to secure a minimum decent dispensation for the less privileged (including those that had been left out in the cold in that initial distribution of socio-economic resources). Welfare, subsidies, and so on. Beyond that the markets continue to do their work.  

So, that rare talent that could effectively carve out a monopoly of its much-in-demand produce, earns at a premium rate. A neurosurgeon will earn several multiple times what a janitor does, and that is but fair, given that the surgeon has invested that many years of sweat and money in training herself, to render herself worthy of people trusting her to do right by their ailments cerebral and neural. Maybe the janitor didn’t have the talent and/or appetite and/or opportunity for higher studies and specialised training. Though I could ask the surgeon if they have the talent and the appetite for cleaning office spaces every day for a living?

Yet, the market governed hierarchy of professions also determines the quotient of respect that they earn. More often than not, an investment banker will consider herself superior to the teacher in a municipal school. Money talks, as they say, and people listen. Respectfully. Earning that kind of money is the prime aspiration of many. And however much pastors preaching from pulpits and priests praying in temples may warn common folk about the shallowness of the lure of lucre, lucre does lure. And I am not convinced that that is sinful at all. 

But what I do question is the badge of respect it flaunts. Respect that even the most corrupt politicians command from their hapless constituents just because they are willing to flex their material muscles to squash them. Respect that celebrities earn because of the cars they drive and jets they fly, the diamonds they flash, the mansions they can afford, aspirational for so many. That allows them and their ilk to, for example, jump queues, because ordinary citizens accept that they deserve that preference and deference because their time is not to be wasted waiting, their time is money. 

It is this equation of respect and deference with material reward that I am not comfortable with. Just because my child is not as smart as yours, does not top the ranks, or win competitions, bag that to-die-for-job, invent the next life-saving medicine, search for life on a remote astral body, have that rare gift to do what you are willing to pay money for, does she not deserve to be respected? Not pitied, allowed for, consciously included, accommodated (read, lumped and dumped) in the lacklustre category of also-rans, but just plain respected for who and what she is? 

I could shout from rooftops that my child is loving, nurturing, helpful, empathetic and downright kind, but really who’s listening? Is she a professional healer? A life-counsellor? Does she have a CV or a list of achievements that define her worth? If not, well then all those attributes are near redundant. Not just because they are not accompanied with a societal certification of her merit which I accept is more valid than just my word for it, but more importantly, because none of those attributes can be monetised. 

Intelligence, genius, talent and so on are then proven to be so when there is a societally agreed reward attached to it, actual or potential. Seeing someone in need, lending them a hand to help them out of the hole they are in, giving someone a shoulder to lean on, lighting up someone’s day just by your attentive supportive presence, spotting all situations where you can help, being kind to a stranger on the street, are not slotted in the categories of recognised talents. There is no premium attached to them. They don’t command respect. 

But they are the backbone of our humanity. Of how we get through crises, swallow tragedies, heal ourselves and live fruitfully the next day and after. When an earthquake strikes, the janitor helps pull the neurosurgeon out from under the debris she may have gotten buried under. Free of charge. Maybe she was cleaning toilets when the surgeon was examining patients. And she was kind enough to risk her own life and help. Or, when the next Mumbai monsoon deluges us and we are stuck in our cars in unmoving traffic, the hand that knocks on our window and hands us that bottle of water and that pack of Glucose biscuits, is probably just the nondescript sweeper or unglamorous vegetable seller or even the failed derelict human living in a nearby hovel or hole, just trying to be of help. Or when our old helpless parents or grandparents are gasping for breath, their frail bodies blazing in a debilitating fever, and we are stuck in a frightening pandemic in a city far away from theirs, an out-of-work rickshaw-wala coaxes his vehicle back to life, braves contact with Covid and ferries them to the nearest hospital. So that they may breathe freely again and then so can we. These uncelebrated ambassadors of kindness respect us as fellow human beings and recognise our need. 

Do we respect them? Their needs? Equally? Enough?

Not just because they have been of service to us when we were in need, but because they have it intrinsically in them to be kind. They disregard the layers of neglect that their lives have been cloaked under for all those years, the wretched losers in the original distribution of socio-economic resources, and stand up for us when we need them to. How much are we willing to pay for that? 

And then when we’ve moved on from our tragedy or crisis or upheaval and are in the thick of shining things again, will we remember those kind hearts? Or will we look for them only the next time we are in need? Will they inspire us in turn to be kind? To reach out and help? Maybe, make us understand that all that we’ve learned and earned and are proud of in our happy lives is just a fraction of what this human race is about. That maybe we still have to learn that vital bit, the being humane bit. And learn to prioritise the respect we give that. 

Well, kindness and genius are not mutually exclusive. This is not a them and us situation. But the kindness that may rest in the genius even, how highly do we value it? On par with the genius itself? Not at all. In fact, the attribute of genius adds a sheen to the kindness, makes it a tad attractive. Which is why a good deed by the already celebrated is hailed whereas the same by a non-entity goes unnoticed. If the neurosurgeon from the example earlier were to rescue the janitor from the debris in an earthquake, that would make headlines. Not the vice versa.

What if it were the norm to shine the spotlight on the obscure good Samaritans amongst us? And the applause rang longer and louder for them. And these kind and nurturing humans were held up as examples to be admired and emulated. Above all else. The first among equals.

Well, every morning when I wake up, I tell myself: Be kind. Whatever else I may or may not be and do, I must try be kind. And when I see that kindness in you, my fellow human, believe you me, I become your fan. 

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The Sun That Sang

It was in the middle of the afternoon on a regular weekday. I was driving to school to pick up our daughter. Well, the car practically drove itself for I was hardly conscious of steering it. It was on its customary route, taking the usual turns this way and that with indicators flashing accordingly, stopping at traffic signals turning red, buzzing through those that were still green, honking a slow scooter out of the way. I registered none of its movements. It was as if all were on auto cruise and my car understood better than to disturb my mood. 

The sun was searing from up above, not a cloud between it and the wilting humans beneath. Pelting and melting as was its wont. But I felt it not. For I was in the land of Vrindavani Sarang, in the cooling shade of serene melody, listening hypnotised to those lilting notes and that majestic voice that called upon them with the love that only he knew, suffused with the like love and devotion that he inspired in all us acolytes. The sun was in veritable song. Tum rab, tum saheb, an ode to divinity in a languid loop of the ten beat Jhaptaal. 

I had been addicted to that voice ever since my childhood, it echoed from my earliest memories. My parents, both his ardent fans, buying their first LP with his Maru Bihag and Malkauns. Then buying another and yet another with every paycheque every month. As their record collection grew, there came more Ragas that he had sung, and then were added more voices and instruments too. A Pandit Paluskar, a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib and an Amir Khan Sahib. A Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Vilayat Khan Sahib and a Bismillah Khan Sahib. Our library of music grew richer over the years, my mother carefully choosing the programme for the evening, lovingly removing the jackets and carefully prising out those mysteriously shining dark discs from their sleeves, gently blowing away the rogue specks of dust she spied on them, positioning that sharp needle on the outermost edge and then with breath drawn in in expectation, lowering it to play. Aah! 

Rasiya! I would hear that voice call in earnest entreaty and I would listen as if compelled, as if nothing else mattered, as if that Maru Bihag was all that there was of any import. That stoic shuddha ma, the genteel ga, they had become my friends before I even knew them by name. Tadpat raina din, he would confess his yearning for a glimpse of his beloved and I, all of two years old then, would be in harmonious sympathy. 

The sun blazed on, my car was at the school gates, children were pouring out. Mine came too, satchel dumped on the backseat, door slammed shut and the music changed from the CD that had been playing to her favourite Radio Mirchi. I drew my car out from my parking slot and drove back home, listening to her excited chatter and the equally animated radio jockey.

Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the lustrous and illustrious gem of India. Swar Bhaskar, the voice of the sun and the sun among voices. Estimable and knowledgeable Panditji. Fond elder Bhimanna or simply Anna. We of this prosaic material world came to know and address that musical giant amongst us according to our closeness or distance from him. I knew him as my first repository of true music, the sachha sur, my own revered musical deity and my reference for all issues melodic. My ears had been trained listening to him right from my cradle. My sensibilities musical had been defined by him, resolutely in favour of the leisurely build-up of a Raga’s ambience in its khayal, the sombre and stately alaaps progressing measuredly against the protracted dhin dhin of the favoured ektal on the tabla, graduating to a quickened tempo and traversing through all three octaves in boltaans and taans, some in blinding speed, simple or complex, rolling with rumbling gamaks or cutting through like flashes of lightning. I was already familiar with it all before my formal training in Hindustani classical music commenced. And while I enjoyed the five-minute film songs that ruled the popular roost, I found that their flavour faded soon. In contrast, the Ragas that the maestros sang sustained and endured, resounding and resonating long after their last tihai.

I remember a concert from many, many years ago, a private mehfil that I had been privileged to attend along with a few dozen invitees. Bhimsenji had begun with a Darbari Kanada. Diving in introduction into the well of the lower octave, that all important mandra saptak in Darbari, he had at once drenched us all in its thick swirling currents. Enunciating each note with polished precision, clarity and mellifluousness, then blurring and merging them in gliding meendhs and Darbari’s trademark andolans or oscillations, and then standing poised and still on the bedrock of his reverberating kharja, he had woven his magic over us all, connoisseurs and laypersons alike. Then climbing up through the middle and higher octaves, steadily approaching and gathering in every successive precious note, he had structured layers and layers to that magnificent edifice of his khayal. Regal and assured yet deeply introspective, melancholic in some phases, caressing tenderly in some others phases, supplicating piteously in yet others, it was a continuing alchemy of overwhelming emotions and I listened mesmerised. His voice, the most robust that I have ever known, would roar in command and then whisper in intimacy and then again plead in all humility. There was heroic power, abject pathos, stark asceticism, all in a glorious and wondrous mix, transporting us to rare other-worldly bliss. I had forgotten myself, forgotten my surroundings, rapturously lost in the darbar of his majestic muse. I doubt any other singer I have ever heard could match the impact of that night’s rendition. It washes over me still. Darbari was his, his alone. 

But then so were Puriya, Marwa, Shuddh Kalyan, Mian Malhar, Miyan ki Todi and many more. Yes, I enjoy and follow other classicists’ interpretations of these Ragas too but I still return to Bhimsenji, not merely from fond nostalgia but with a sure knowing that in him I will find only the Raga in its purest and most sublime form, not a projection of he himself or his prowess. Whenever he sang it seemed as if he, his voice and body as also his spontaneity and virtuosity, were all possessed by the Raga itself, commanded unto its bidding. And the bizarre contortions of his face and torso and arms that became his caricatured personality, were simply in driven blind-eyed pursuit of the next magically musical phrase. 

Some of his contemporaries and critics would denounce the limits of his repertoire: “He sings the same few Ragas everywhere! And the same thumris and abhangs.” And his loyalists would bristle in anger: “No, his repertoire is wide enough! His reach in every Raga is the most profound! And his Teerth Vitthala is matchless!” Well, all I knew was that his every performance in any given Raga would be different every single time, revealing this face of a Miya ki Todi today, for example, another tomorrow and then yet another the day after. Yes, like all other artists he probably had his share of off days too, when his heart and mind refused to apply themselves to the Raga at hand, his mood refusing to submerge into the Raga’s, when magic refused to happen. And yet there are priceless recordings of a Yamani Bilawal or a Multani or again a Komal Rishabh Asawari and many more that I play and replay again and again, for days and months on end, unable to escape that magnetic pull, unable to pack in not only the strength of his notes but also the golden honey-like Kirana gharana sweetness that he doused them in. 

Two of my uncles had been privileged to be among his friends. Doctors by profession their hearts, I suspect, beat happier in tandem with the tempo of khayals and bandishes. I would be hungry for all the interesting anecdotes that they had to share, tales of his sharp wit and mischievous humour, of historic benchmark performances, of hobbies and interests. I would read all I could lay my hands on, his interviews, the stories about his formative years, his crazed obsession with music, his scouring through the length and breadth of the country in search of a Guru. The rigorous discipline and arduous training under the famed Sawai Gandharva, the Guru he was blessed to find, his long hours of gruelling riyaz, the swallowing of personal pride and notions of privilege to be merely allowed to remain in the vicinity of a handful of melodious notes, the unswerving loyalty to his Guru. His rapport with other luminaries of the music world, his encouragement to young artists. The commitment and dedication with which he organised the annual Sawai Gandharva music festival, inviting both established maestros and upcoming artists, looking after their comfort, tuning their tanpuras, listening to them in humble attention while they performed. And then capping it all with his own magnificent performance in the last session of the last day, his resplendent homage to his departed Guru. I devoured it all. I learned of his eccentricities, his failings too, but I judged him not for his human frailties. For all I ever saw in him was his divinely sachha sur, the sur that continues to reign supreme. 

The sun still sings for me. He still propels my day forward, guiding me through its gradually changing texture and complexion, showing me the fledgling streaks of orange in a day-breaking Lalit, a little more of light and warmth in a Ramkali. At burning noon, he coaxes me into the resuscitating shade with his Sarang, then shows me the morphing world in the evening’s Puriya Dhanashri. Later, he slips away beyond the horizon leaving me the riches of a Bihag, a Yaman, a Chhaya, an Abhogi, many and much more to revel and rejoice in, to nourish my searching soul. 

Many sang after him, many stake ownership of the stage, many have won millions in audiences and admirers. Yet to me none can hold a candle to him. The singularly luminous star that burned so unbelievably bright that he lit up all firmaments, the earth, the sky and the universe beyond. The one and only Swar Bhaskar.

Photo Credits : Sateesh Paknikar

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Coping. Rebooting.

It hasn’t been easy, has it? This year and more of struggling, surviving, losing, coping, adjusting, wrapping our heads and hearts, minds and bodies around the new emerging normal. All yet fluid and floating, unsettled and undefined, allowing this today, prohibiting that tomorrow, and then perversely changing everything all over again. 

At first life threatened to stagnate or worse, disappear. It began to stand still not just within our isolated spaces but also in the stoic scenes outside the walls of our confines. Birds sang, dogs barked, bees swarmed as busily as before, but our own species seemed somewhat stifled, somewhat muted. Justifiably so. Hunkered down. Waiting. Watching. Breathing. Praying that breath would not cruelly forsake us.

Of course, there were those who still continued to scream shrilly. Out of TV boxes, on social media, in newsprint, in living rooms and, shamelessly flouting all consideration to the vulnerability of others’ lives, in indiscriminate public gatherings. At each other, with each other, sometimes at the virus itself. Go Corona! 

Corona didn’t go. But jobs went. Bread on tables dwindled. Migrants marched home, some died on the way. Shops shut. Manufacturing reduced to essentials. Construction halted. Temple and churches and mosques became silent. Buses, trains and planes hung around in their depots and sheds and hangars. Schools emptied. Play stopped. Hope flickered thin. 

Hospitals burst at their seams with the bloating influx of the infected, the coughing, the gasping, the sinking, the dying. Beleaguered and bleary eyed, doctors and nurses struggled to piece together a line of treatment to fight a brand-new unknown variable. We thanked them sincerely, profusely, bestowed upon them bouquets of gratitude. Sometimes brickbats when they could not save someone we knew, was dear to us.

Breath faded quietly. Ventilators hummed loudly. We lost some of our own, some dear, some admired. We mourned. We looked on others of our species with suspicion, would they be the harbingers of our demise, we wondered. We clung to our old trying to save them from being snatched away. Then the not so old and then the younger. 

Somewhere in between those two pandemic waves many cast their vulnerability aside, refusing to get beaten by that frightfully microscopic parasitic entity that was looking to lodge in our lungs. They stepped out as before, meeting, gathering, thronging, a token mask dangling on their chins. Breathing in and out unconstrained, daring disease, daring death. Unto themselves as unto others. We called them foolhardy, myopic, irresponsible and so on. I guess they were all of that but they were mostly fed up of being cooped in. Of being idle, unemployed, un-fed. Many did what they did to survive. What if there is no roof over one’s head or means to earn food for the belly? Starve to death in fear of the virus catching one alive? Conundrum. 

Those fortunate and privileged to remain safely ensconced in their well-equipped houses became smarter. Children and youth, students alike sat glued to their screens, “Yes, Teacher! No, Teacher!” they chorused as the teaching community tried to salvage their education, teachers retraining themselves, learning new skills so that they could still faithfully discharge their responsibilities. Many woke up in the middle of the night to record lessons in the quiet that they were denied during regular school hours. Many pined for the tea breaks on campus, the chai as hot as the gossip that was shared. Most stayed the course.

Men and women continued to work from home, hunched over their computers, tapping away on their keyboards, calling, dealing, Zooming, beaming. Protecting their incomes. Spending and shopping online. Ordering in food. Insisting on contactless deliveries. Hygiene and sanitation and safety, they demanded. Some barking at delivery boys who scurried around fulfilling customers’ orders to feed their own bellies. Some whining about the number of phone calls they had to answer to confirm addresses, some about the bungling of orders, some suspecting that their food had been contaminated, perhaps sampled on the way or worse spit into. Congratulating themselves on doing their bit to save the human race: staying home, staying safe. Outsourcing danger to deliverers.

During the first few months of the nation-wide lockdown the great Indian middle class moaned and groaned about having to clean their houses, cook their food, tend to their gardens. They believed it their birth-right to outsource all of that to the underprivileged women and men who worked in their homes for a pittance. They now cursed the necessity of picking up brooms and applying elbow grease in scrubbing the burnt bits off pots and pans. The Indian diaspora in the west sniggered about how housework was not a new burden for them, perhaps privately welcoming the denial of domestic help to the brethren they had left behind in their motherland. As soon as it was legally permitted, we opened our doors and welcomed back our maids and cooks and gardeners and drivers. We sighed with relief. Husbands who pretended to have been harassed by belligerent wives turned their backs once more on the piles of dirty dishes and laundry, expecting all to be cleaned, sorted and stored again just as before, that is without their having to lift a finger. Yet the sexist jokes on women subjugating men into domestic chains continued to abound.  

Stories of domestic violence started doing the rounds. Whispers about the shouts that came from this house and that. A wife longing for the lockdown to end so that she could get some respite from her ever-present abusive husband. Children watching in fear as they saw their parents quarrelling, sparring, fighting. Staying safe from the virus but not from the ugliness that lurked within themselves. Tempers frayed on the enforced togetherness, small homes growing smaller, noisier. Tight budgets growing tighter as each child, each adult demanded their own exclusive internet access. Bills accumulated, savings shrank, patience thinned, words and objects flew. A few searched for a stretch of rope to end it all.

One wave receded and work resumed, shops and factories opened up, labour turned up at the gates again. Temples and churches and mosques opened their arms to their believers again. Roads grew crowded again. Festivals. Weddings. Funerals. Gatherings. Rallies. Protests. Melas and melees. Another wave washed over us taking away many many more. Oxygen grew scarce. Hospital beds were scarcer. Governments and their oppositions harangued, blamed each other and this and that and then slammed rhetorical what-abouts to silence already timid lay voices. Netizen and other volunteers stepped up to steer the sick towards healing, sending ambulances to their homes, securing admissions in hospitals, medicines for recovery, oxygen to breathe, food to eat. All moved by compassion. Experts warned of a third wave that could take our children away. Fear grabbed us by our throats.

Working quietly, whisked away from the everyday drama surrounding the virus, men and women worked diligently yet speedily in labs, decoding the enemy, mapping its structure, studying its behaviour, trying this, testing that. A process that normally took a half-dozen years was heroically squeezed into months. Brave ordinary humans offered themselves as guinea pigs in trials. Success, scientists announced, the vaccines were ready. Hurrah! Their pharma patrons rejoiced too, their investment was to bear noble fruit. Vials were packed and distributed. Hope consolidated. We hurried to immunise ourselves, outsmart that evil cunning Covid. We had survived, we felt lucky. We would survive, we were confident.

I watched it all from home. I swung from hope to despair to hope and all of that all over again. I wrote. I read. I sang. All with as much conviction and energy as I could muster. I laughed, I quarrelled, I reconciled. I brooded, I introspected. I talked to myself. I unearthed old memories, made new ones. I bonded virtually with a few old and new friends, some old and new colleagues. Checking and re-checking that all was well with them. For some it was not. I learned of them suffering. I worried. I learned of their passing. I mourned, I wept. I consoled, I comforted. I longed to reach out and hug, kiss away that hurt of loss. I didn’t. I stayed at home. I stayed safe.

I survived. As did you. Of course, I am no longer the same. Nor are you. But that’s okay. For this is our new normal. Whatever the hell that means.

Photo Credit : Copyright free images Canva and Pixabay

WHAT DO WOMEN DO, ANYWAY?

Image Courtesy : Wikipedia

What I like about TV and web series is that they come with the luxury of time and space, allowing the arc of the story to develop in enough detail. Events unfold at their own pace, and personalities reveal their inner complexities, measure by interesting measure. That additional time and space also allow the viewer to digest a different idea or perspective before moving on to the next. Happily, modern-day OTT platforms have brought us wealth in viewing from all over the world, but the content serialised on our homegrown TV channels is still frustratingly stagnant and disappointing. 

However, there is one series that I watch faithfully, Aai Kuthe Kay Karte, in Marathi (based on a Bangla series). The name roughly translates to: What Does Mother Do, Anyway? The story of a powerless stay-at-home mom and of her slow transformation, stepping out of her circumscribed existence to carve a life of her own, for herself, by herself, and on her own terms. I started watching it on a very bored afternoon a couple of years ago, willingly seduced by the promise predictable in the title, that mom would eventually do a whole gobsmacking lot. In the initial stages (that I zipped through in fast-forward), it felt as regressive as all the mother-and-daughter-in-law-syndrome driven content that has ruled Indian television for decades. Arundhati, the middle-class, middle-aged, unglamorous housewife, slaves to the beck and call of her arrogant husband, his parents and her children, gets trampled upon like the proverbial pathetic doormat, has no money, few rights, and no respect at all. But she carries on regardless, convinced that in her quiet uncomplaining service lay the greater good. I cringed in disgust as I watched her societally formatted martyrdom, but stayed patient, waiting for the inevitable flip, curious to see how that would be handled. 

And then it began to redeem itself. Yes, the production values remained awkwardly poor, the direction meandered around the sub-average, the episodes often stretching with stale ploys and juvenile inanities, the plotting more formulaic than inspired, and the scripting regressing off and on into stereotypical ideals about family values and women’s responsibilities. Phew. But somehow over time, it got a hold of itself, and developed something resembling a spine. The writing broached societal and inter-personal issues in their subtler nuances; the dialogues stirred, some dramatic and powerful, some quietly catalysing introspection; and the varied greys in most of the characters became believable and were convincingly portrayed. It all seemed to rise a notch, progressively so, and I felt vindicated as successive episodes worked through incremental changes in Arundhati and her situation. A growing awareness of the gap between her actual and desired status as woman, wife, mother, nurturer, thence a realignment in her attitude to the world and people around her, a gradual shedding of her crippling inhibitions and fears, and a gritty resolve to embrace a life radically different from all she has known hitherto. One of self-reliance, financially, physically, mentally and emotionally. Arundhati has now divorced her cheating husband, has a job and career, rented her own accommodation, and seems reasonably upbeat about her future. It spoke to me so loudly and clearly that it’s now become a compulsive watch. I’m hooked. 

A longish but relevant side note: 

I remember learning about the concept of value added in our national income accounting course in Economics. Specifically, imputing it where it wasn’t reflected in monetary payment. I remember the discussion around the bonded labourer, that human beast of burden beholden to landlords in an exploitative arrangement that typified erstwhile agricultural society, his value added subsumed in the coffers of his masters. And I remember my young mind drawing a parallel with the archetypal housewife and asking, who computes the value added by her? Her toiling through a ceaseless stream of chores, washing, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing, cooking, serving, caring, counselling, nursing, nurturing, all through the day. And satisfying her lord and master at night, sometimes against her will. All without the prospect of retirement. Does she not add value? Then why isn’t her contribution accounted for separately in our GDP? Our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers and all the women before and after them, working assiduously, shouldering all responsibilities at home, enabling the men in their families to participate in the labour market and be paid. As Arundhati asks, if we have a societally sanctioned/enforced division of labour, why is working at home of any less value than working outside?

The answer, of course, is payment in money. That incontestable measure of value, source of power, yardstick of hierarchical status. Well, if every act that was done by the homemaker were to be monetised, she would have a hefty bank balance against her name too, no? Get real. That doesn’t happen. For her work is supposed to come from love and duty. Which are expected free of charge. Her time and energy and effort are owned by the collective of the family. But the pennies earned by her keeper are toted against his name, handed out as and when, providing for everyone (including her) to be fed, clothed and sheltered under his roof. Not that the keeper is necessarily cruel or callous, that may not be in his nature. But it is in the nature of the system that empowers him and not the euphemism of his better half. 

Well, women have travelled a long way since this archaic division of labour and many of them are now doing it all. Giving love, doing duty, earning money. And demanding love and duty from those they are with, though not always getting as much, for the men have been slow to adjust. Arundhati is but a late entry to this fluidly dynamic mix, but she will soon realise that one aspiration she aims for, that has hitherto eluded her: Respect, as an equal.

And yet there are millions and millions of Arundhatis all over the word who are still doomed to live their lives in the shadows of their patriarchs, still toiling without relief, often slave to that burgeoning and exacting master, the sacrosanct joint family. Denied that passport to freedom, a means to earn money, their own livelihood. And conversely and perversely, there are many, many women who own that passport, but are afraid to use it. Trapped by their conditioning, swallowing the narrative of the woman’s inescapable responsibility in home and hearth, teetering through that precarious balancing act between office and home, pressured, pressured, pressured, managing it all but still deferring to the male in the home as the legitimate voice of authority. The over-worked bread-winning maid getting battered time and again by her abusive indolent husband is just one obvious example. There are many among the upper classes that are similarly victimised by the same mindsets, that also laugh self-deprecatingly at the sexist humour that contemptuously ridicules the female and her feminism. Education is their means to money and money means to power, undoubtedly. But one needs the conviction to use it. Have-wings doesn’t necessarily translate to will-fly. 

Well, I applaud all the Arundhatis everywhere who have suffered, protested, braved a new life, and learned to safeguard their self-respect. All are not as viciously virtuous and irritatingly infallible as the one in the TV series, most are as grey as you and me, and their stories are probably truer and more inspiring than the one televised. But until we discover those, this one will have to do. Though I do wish that the one on TV would fumble a little, be a little selfish, get swayed from the smugly virtuous, be a little less correct. So that those who are in her situation but aren’t Miss Perfects like her could still believe they have a healthy chance to reclaim their lives for themselves. And while I’m wishing, Arundhati, please tighten your leaky water taps. Rather than getting my sympathy, your pathological crying makes me swear with impatience: What the hell did you expect, woman? Steel yourself. And move on.