Saturday, January 29, 2011

Remembrances of 26th January Past

Last Wednesday was 26th January, the Indian Republic Day. When I was in school, it had another meaning as well. It was our school foundation day and hence the day our annual function was held. It was the day that we looked forward to most as students. We had good reason to.

Immediately after half yearly exams in December, the teachers began selecting students for various programmes that would be put up on the big day. One could either participate in the shows directly or could volunteer for other duties. But it was something like the movies, you know. Acting and dancing were the most glamorous and sought after roles.

Some part of the schedule was more or less fixed. There would be an English play, a Hindi skit and Bengali dance-drama. Then there would be the some song and dance performances put up by various classes. The students who were good at these things were largely ear-marked and were therefore automatic selections (the taller girls always played the male roles, much to their chagrin). Yet there were some surprises every year when auditions for various parts were held. I used to be a part of the function in the junior classes through the dances and in the senior school as the narrator.

We also had exhibitions – Art, Craft and Science. The last I particularly enjoyed and took active part in. it comprised various experiments that were conducted in front of the visitors. Some of the most memorable ones that I had seen / conducted included an Orange crystal tree, a mini volcano that actually erupted throwing up green ash and a skeleton that we had made out of thermocol. When were making the skeleton, we could not make the teeth stick. Ultimately somebody came up with the idea of using chewing gum strips as teeth and it worked! Fun times, those.

While the actual function was plenty of fun and excitement – I especially loved the cute little dances that the tiny tots put up under the direction of my house-mistress Mrs. Bethe (rest in peace, ma’am) – the nearly two months leading up to the big day were plenty exciting themselves.

For these two months, most teachers were engaged in organizing rehearsals and quite a few students from each class were part of them. So, in essence the classes were left to their own devices and boy, what fun we had. There were day-long antaksharis with our own Deewane, Parwane and Mastaane (take a bow Team Close-up Antakshari), dumb charades, dancing and what not. I remember once in class Seven, we had run out of songs so we had a challenge about inventing the silliest and funniest of ads. The class monitors, school prefects and house captains were all eager and active participants. The teachers turned a blind eye to all the madness and mayhem running through the school corridors, giving a building full of young girls the license to go as wild as they could within the school perimeter. And to top it all, the lovely winters reign in the city during those months. Even those who were frequently AWOL made a point of not missing school during these days.

The intensity of rehearsals built up and climaxed in the penultimate week. The morning assembly would also be suspended and those extra twenty minutes put to use in rehearsals. There were frenzied costume fittings, the detailing of sets (cardboard trees and the perfect vase), the frantic and mad dash to claim the sole tape recorder before any other show team could lay its hands on it, the catfights between teachers over girls who participated in multiple shows. It went on and on as if it would never end. The adrenaline surge and just a hint of hysteria. The desire to put up your best performance because your parents would be sitting in the audience. The attempts to check out the books that would be given away as prizes and hoping that the ones you want are the ones that you would get. Minor disciplinary transgressions were pardoned but every dialogue had to be clearly enunciated.

Finally, the big day dawned. The school was all decked up with flowers, flags and welcome signs. The participants were asked to come in as early as 6.30 in the morning so that they could be ready at the time of flag-hoisting. The teachers looked resplendent in their best sarees, with barely a sign of anxiety on their faces until you looked into their eyes or you were the one they holding onto tightly while explain their instructions. The whole atmosphere used to be charged and electric and beautiful.

The programme for the day would kick off with the part I hated most – the long winded speeches by the school Secretary, the Chief Guest, the Principal and the school manager. This was followed by the prize-giving ceremonies. I clearly remember the slight knocking of my knees as my name was called out to go up on stage to receive the prize, mumbling my thanks to the guest, walking down the stair and searching the audience for my parents. Finding them, raising my prize high in triumph and then rushing back to my friends before tearing off the covers and discovering the treasures underneath. Every year it was just the same and the feeling never grew old.

Then the entertainment began. The English play was generally the first performance of the day and I always was in awe of the beautiful things that they put up. My favourite however was a modern interpretation of Cinderella, told in flashback style by one of the step-sisters. The Hindi drama more often than not highlighted the social issues and the Bengali dance drama revolved around some mythological story or the other. We clapped and cheered every performance and on one memorable occasion, all the students actually stood up and provided the chorus to a dance celebrating national integrity.

When the day was finally done and we trudged back home with the sweets and confectionary, there was the triumphant joy of a job well done and of a yet another beautiful memory made. I miss those days. I miss those 26th of Januarys.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dilli Dilwalon Ki*?!

The reporter stood on a busy flyover from which a young girl returning home in the evening was thrown over by a mugger when she refused to part with her purse. The time was around 9 p.m. and the city was the national capital, Delhi.

The girl turned out to be the sister-in-law of somebody I know. That turned the incident from just another news item to shake my head over to an issue about which I have always felt strongly about. The safety of women in our national capital.

I first visited Delhi about fourteen years ago. That was the time before CNG buses. So, my first experience was that of foul, polluted air, stinging eyes, burning nose and an extreme inconvenience as we were stuck in traffic endlessly owing to the frequent passage of some VIP or the other.

Over the years, I have been to Delhi several times and quite regularly. There are things that I like about the city – the now clean air, the wide roads and flyovers, the shopping in Chandni Chowk. Some of these things are to be expected – hygiene factors, so to speak – in any metro and more so, in the country’s capital. But these are so rare in most Indian cities, including my own home town, that I cannot help but admire these.

Yet, I have never liked the city (including Noida and Gurgaon) as a whole. I always have this uneasy premonition and am always looking over my shoulder in the city. Not necessary that something unpleasant does happen but just the instinct, you know. And the sense that if you do land in some kind of trouble, you are probably on your own. This feeling is so different from what I would feel in my own hometown that it colours all my experiences of Delhi.

Take for instance, the incident that I cited at the start. It could happen anywhere. Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai – anywhere. After all, we do not live in a utopian, crime-free world. However, the chances of it occurring in a city other than Delhi are less. As a woman, I feel safer in the other metros. Not quite so vulnerable.

Adding to this general sense of menace and unease is the infamous statement of the chief minister, Mrs. Sheila Dixit, about the safety of women in the city. When cornered by the media on the issue after the murder of journalist Soumya Vishwanathan, Mrs. Dixit implied that the “adventurous behavior” of the murder victim while travelling home after work was to be blamed for the crime.

No wonder Delhi always projects this feeling of you-are-totally-on-your-own if you are out in the city. From men brazenly refusing to get up from seats reserved for women on the buses to a bunch of uncouth and rude auto-rickshaw drivers trying to cheat you on the highway connector between Noida and Delhi. From being followed by rather suspicious looking characters in Gurgaon at only 9 in the evening, only a stone’s throw away from a swanky mall to being ignored by the cycle-rickshaw driver when implored for road directions.

And I am not alone in possessing such sentiments. Our national capital is perhaps one of the most unsafe places for a woman. Every second day, there is some news flash about violence against women. Some are very high-profile like Jessica Lal murder and the rape of a seventeen year old girl returning home from tuitions in Noida and Aarushi homicide case. Others manage to garner only a single mention in the news ticker. But each tragic and senseless.

I do not have the statistics of such crimes at hand but they are likely impressive in an unflattering manner. It’s a really ironic state of affairs in city which is home to some of the most powerful women in the country.

And until some effective steps are taken (and that does not include staying at home, Mrs. Dixit), I will continue to wonder if Dilli is truly Dilwalon Ki*.

*’Dilli Dilwalon Ki’ is an affectionate sobriquet given to Delhi (Dilli) which means that the city belongs to those with a heart.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Flight of Fantasy

She stood on the edge of the cliff. It was so far above. And the water so far away. And she was so scared.

And sick. Of being scared. Of playing safe. How did anyone know that being safe was better than sorry? What if you were sorry because all your life you have been safe? Never stepping out of the mundane, humbug life. Never knowing the grand adventure of doing something terrifying new.

Yes, she was sorry. But it was all gonna change. She would shun safety.

She looked down at the deep, blue ribbon that was deceptively calm. But she knew it was not. She could hear its roar even from the height at which she stood poised.

She looked above. Here the blue was not a mere ribbon. It was beautiful and endless. She wanted to fly into that blue. All by herself. Know and remember the exhilaration. Have the feeling as her most precious memory.

But she could not do that. She remembered a quote from somewhere: If God meant man to fly, He would have given us wings.

She flung a soft “Ha” at the single white cloud passing above her head and jumped.

She finally flew.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Sales Siren

I am not a shopaholic like Sophie Kinsella’s heroine and do have some ability to resist the temptation to buy every pretty thing I come across.  Nonetheless, I really, really love shopping. And season-end sales just give me a reason to go out and shop.

Devious things – these end-of-season sales. They advertise in big, bold words – 50% off, upto 90% off, flat 60% discount. And lured by these sirens, I step into these stores, confident of buying great stuff at bargain prices. I start fantasizing about when and where I am going to show-off that oh-so-chic top or those really sexy heels.

Alas, the feeling lasts only until the time when I start browsing through the stuff on sale. If I have managed to visit the store at the start of the sale, I might be lucky enough to snatch some good things but woebegone any shopper who goes towards the end. All you are left with are – well, leftovers. In every sense of the term. The stock is near depleted and whatever is left, is well-nigh revolting.

Any sensible person in such situations would walk out of the store with minimal lightening of the bank account. Not me. I feel obliged to buy something since I have graced the shop with my presence. So, what do I do? I begin to wander among the fresh arrivals. And sure enough there’s that cool peasant blouse that I ought to buy (never mind, that my near zero-active social life does not provide me with enough opportunities to wear it) or that knee-length skirt that would look great with the red top that I have. Down come the items from their shelves and a quick swipe of my card ensures that I am several thousands poorer. Like today. The culprit? Westside 50% sale.

I am not even counting the nail-polishes and lipsticks and junk jewellery that I buy at every turn. I am not too bad about shoes – possibly because I generally want strappy, skinny heels which are not so easily available nowadays, except in some exclusive stores.

Anyway, this flatter-to-deceive nature of sales is not just limited to fashion. As I have said so many times before – I love books. So, any kind of bookstore sale (even a measly 10%) is bound to catch my eye and I feel it is my duty to take advantage of it. I waltz into the bookshop dreaming of all the beautiful, lovely books I am going to feast on and at such affordable prices! I am brought down to earth when I see that most books on discount are the ones that I do not really fancy buying – cookbooks, political treatises, Shobhaa Des and Chetan Bhagats. The latest Archer or Grisham have no discounts marked. Neither do the classics or Wodehouses. Or if they do, they are inconsequential. Yet, I succumb and buy the ones that I want and at their full prices.

This has happened to me so many times that I should have learnt my lesson. But of course not. There is no such thing as a reformed shopper or a wise shopper. Or if there is, it sure ain’t me.

Until the next sale call, ciao.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ten Commandments for the New Decade

  1. Thou shalt practise patience and not just consider it a virtue.
  2. Thou shalt learn to relax – that entails leaving work at work.
  3. Thou shalt crib and complain less.
  4. Thou shalt learn to care less about everyone’s opinion. Not everyone matters.
  5. Thou shalt spend more time with thy family.
  6. Thou shalt pay more attention to thy hobbies – they are worth more than you think.
  7. Thou shalt not brood.
  8. Thou shalt take care of thyself. Pamper, sometimes.
  9. Thou shalt see more of the world.
  10. Thou shalt learn to be as happy as you can.