The other day I was traveling by Mumbai local, returning to Andheri from Grant Road station. I had gone to see a film for my work. Train was a bit crowded but luckily I found a place to sit. Soon it was going to be very crowded, since it was a Virar train.
Suddenly I heard a voice trying to say something. Initially I felt he was pleading for people to give him place to move in so that he could come in. May be he was going to last station. You know some young guys block the entrance to get the breeze on their face. With a little struggle owner of the voice reached well inside. Then I realized he was a salesman. He was asking for place but not how a co-passenger would ask for. These people are licensed vendors, who carry their ware in large bags. When they find adequate space in the compartment, they display their ware and start doing special vocal tricks, which means introduction to the product. They have to attract people’s attention with a witty sales pitch. They all have made up their own dialogues, which they speak in a very funny and attractive way. They all are a bit of actors. They must make the passengers look at him, then look at the product held in his hands lastly they must find the price of the product surprisingly cheap.
So he started:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please look this side.” “Friends just a minute, look this side.” “Thank you. Here are Samsung earphones in the original boxes.”
These days everyone owns a mobile phone and most of them own a smart phone. Out of hundreds of passengers some ten may be in need of changing their earphones. So it is a good chance that in one compartment, four or five people will end up buying one.
“Dear friends can you guess the price of this good looking piece? If you go to a shop, store or a mall you will pay not less than 200 or 250 for this. (Actually he under quoted the price. Price of an earplug in a shop would be around 400 or 450) But our company (he carried on) due to its business deal is selling it for not 200, not 100, but only 50 rupees. You can see it. Hold it in your hand; even check it on your phone. No cost for seeing or checking. Please confirm that it is working and you like it, before you pull out your wallet.”
In an open challenge and trust, he held out 5 boxes to unknown people, out of which 3 people bought the product.
So, I realized his business works on smart talk, a working product and below reasonable price tag.
Arun is going to Delhi for his niece Mishu’s wedding. He has been packing his bag since yesterday. In the morning he kept it on the bed and kept pushing toiletries as and when their use got over. He has decided to wear Indian clothes, like Kurta, Pajama and Dhoti for this wedding. His wife got one maroon Kurta, another one he borrowed from his son and rest he had. Arun thought, departure time of Rajdhani (4.40 pm) was very convenient. You get enough time to pack, have lunch and leave the house when everyone is ready for a siesta.
He sat in a taxi just before 3pm to go to Mumbai Central. Other than his small bag he was carrying two gift packets, one from his family and another from a friend. But for these he might have traveled to Mumbai Central by local train. At 3.55 pm he was at the station. His e-ticket was confirmed; but he had no idea about the seat. There was a huge crowd hovering around the reservation charts. It was a difficult task, as he had to take care of his 3 baggages and try to find his name. There! Without too much trouble he saw it, B2/72. He sent an SMS in Hindi to his brother Satish, ‘B2 dibbe ka aagman 9 baje hoga.’
Leisurely he walked down to the compartment, placed his bags on top berth. He felt the comfort of air-conditioning. Mumbai had become quite hot, he thought. It is April of 2008. He was taking so much trouble to reach an even hotter place- Delhi. A dog passed in the passage. It was very unusual, but Arun shrugged it off. Behind the dog, 2 cops were in toe. Now it was all normal and made sense. Sniffer dog got off the coach and went into the next one. Arun, kept his camera ready. When it came out again on the platform, he clicked his pictures. It was a fawn Labrador.
All the seats were not taken. There were 4 people for 8 seats. In front of Arun sat a young boy. Long hair, MP3 player, earphones and a cell phone that rang every now and then, ‘yeah mom, I am on my seat. No it is comfortable. I spoke to papa’. ‘haae, yeah man! Just imagine going to Delhi all alone. I hate it. Can you imagine I will reach tomorrow at 8.30 in the morning? So many hours in this train! I have never done it. Ok dude, bye. You take care.’ ‘Yeah mom they gave snacks and cold drink. OK I will call, when I get there.’ ‘OK papa, which uncle is coming to get me? Fine, but I could go by myself… Ok, I will wait for him. Train has just started.’
Arun surveyed the surrounding further. An oldish retired looking man by the window and an oldish woman in blue Saree opposite him. Woman makes a call. ‘Haan main Rajdhani mein baith gayi hoon. Kal 10 baje pahunchoongi. Station par jaroor aajana. Theek hai bhaiya? Didi kaisi hain? Theek hai, kaat rahi hoon.’ A waiter approaches, ‘veg/non veg?’ Old man says, ‘non-veg. continental.’ Arun is surprised, ‘continental?’ Is he mad? May be he is an ex-army types. He thinks he is in his officer’s mess. Arun tells the waiter, ‘Dinner veg., breakfast non-veg.’ Mr. Continental asks the waiter, ‘Dilli kab pahunchegi?’ ‘8.30’, waiter said. Woman in blue is worked up. She calls her brother again, ‘haan didi, train 8.30 baje panhuchegi. Bhaiya ko keh dena station par jaroor aaye. Theek hai haan, 10 baje nahin 8.30 baje.’ She fishes out a cone of Menhdi from her bag, sits comfortably and starts putting Menhdi on her left hand. The train is shaking a lot, so her crude design is getting cruder. Whenever she looks at her hand, Arun finds her smiling. Old man has taken out a book and is reading. He does not seem to be interested in making any friends. He doesn’t even want to have a conversation. Arun wears his glasses and steals a look at the title of the book. It is a P G Wodehouse. Oh, so old man has got some literary taste. Train is at Surat at 7 pm. Old woman dusts off the dried Menhdi, takes out another cone and starts decorating her right hand with the left. This is worse. Wrong hand, moving train and shoddy patterns, all point in the same direction- ‘ugly designs’. Young boy was trying to look at Arun from the corner of his eyes, because Arun was doing the most weird thing, writing! He was doing so in fits and starts. Boy noticed Arun’s paper seemed have run out. He is using the back of his e-ticket print out.
Conductor starts supplying beddings to all. Arun has forgotten to bring soap. Luckily a small packet of paper soap is supplied to all. Old woman is sleeping. Her palm is turned upwards to dry the Menhdi. Boy is listening to music. His head hangs low. His hair has covered his face. Mr. Continental PG Wodehouse is still reading. Arun watches everyone and after a few moments, starts writing. Train has left Surat. Dinner is being served. Arun is waiting to see the surprise that is stored in food tray of Mr. Continental. He is opening a paper bag. He is going to blow his fuse at the sight of Continental Parathas. But no. These are toasts! Other cases have boiled chicken with peas, baked potatoes, curds… Arun is happy he did not make his feelings public. His head would be hanging in shame. Arun could not finish one of his two Parathas. He liked Arhar ki Dal that he ate with rice. He also liked the dessert. It was Lauki ka Halwa. Too sweet though. He leaves half of that too. Mr. Continental has cleaned up everything in his tray systematically, of course with knife and fork. He keeps his tray down, picks up his worn out toiletry bag and exits. Woman did not wash her hands before eating. Mr. Continental PG Wodehouse may be thinking, how dirty she is. She kept scraping the dry Menhdi right where she was sitting. Arun too keeps his tray down and goes to wash up.
Arun has picked up Midday newspaper, supplied by train staff. He reads cartoons and then glances at the ‘horoscope’. First sentence under his star, Libra is, ‘a long planned journey will materialize.’ He finds it spooky. He tears off that part and keeps in his pouch. Someone mentions name of Bahadur Shah Zafar. This kicks memories of two Rafi songs in his mind, ‘lagta nahin hai dil mera’ and ‘na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon.’ Arun hums both songs almost entirely to himself. He realized he can not sing well now. At 9.15 Rajdhani is at Baroda. It is only 4 min late. Arun does a few stretches on the platform to relax. Signal turns amber; he boards the train, but doesn’t want to go to his seat as yet. He strikes a conversation with attendant, ‘how do your duties rotate?’ ‘I go to Delhi, then return by the same train in evening and reach Mumbai at morning. Then I get 2 days off.’ ‘Where is your family?’ ‘In Mumbai only. We have railway quarters for us.’ Arun says, ‘that’s not bad. You get a lot of rest time for about 40 hours of work.’ Attendant agrees.
Passengers have started making their beds. Next stop will be Ratlam, which will come very late at night. Arun has kept Mishu’s gifts on his berth itself. He does not want to put them down. A large Gujarati family is making a lot of noise. The kids are screaming but no one is controlling them. Everyone is busy talking themselves. Arun is clearly getting upset. He shouts twice, ‘shut up’. No one heard him. He takes out his forecast and reads again. Last part says ‘you should acknowledge feelings that obstruct your spiritual and emotional growth.’ He thinks about it and feels better. Everyone is on the verge of dozing off. Kids are shouting softly now. Every one of them feels that saying those words before sleeping is most important.
Arun is back from the loo. Old woman goes to the loo. Young boy does not go the loo. Old man, Mr. Continental Wodehouse has been to the loo and is now in his Lungi. His worn out bag hangs above his head. Arun covers with the sheet. His fits his legs in the narrow space next to the gift boxes. He stares at the ceiling. Some lights go off. More lights go off. All lights go off… Arun is turning in his bed often. It is dark. Train is fast and unobtrusive. It is doing its job well. Only one person is snoring. Surprisingly it happens to be the young boy.
Arun is seen getting down. He seems drunk while walking to the toilet. It is nearly 5am. In another 3 &1/2 hours he will be in Delhi, he thinks. He wants to avoid a queue outside toilets, so he brushes his teeth, has a wash and comes back to his berth. It is 5.20am now. Lying on his berth, he looks at the large open window. He sees smoothly changing patterns of trees and rails on the other side of the window. He notices that exterior is soaked in a faint natural light. He seemed to be awed by the pre-dawn, soft, uniform, cool and peaceful light.
Mad ideas start entering Arun’s head. Or perhaps his head is generating them. He thinks about that he has been travelling with his legs towards the engine. That means during this journey his beard wouldn’t grow too much, as the speeding train will keep it pushed in, to some extent. He wonders what would happen to his spinal disks? Would they be relaxed due to being pulled away rather or will get squeezed together. He is confused. Yes, a lot of blood will go the head that may enhance intelligence. But if his head was on the same side as the engine then beard would have been longer due to being pulled out of his cheeks. And whatever happen to his vertebrae pulled or sqeazed, he would be a shorter or a taller man when he gets off.
It was getting brighter by the minute. There is a bottle of water at the window. Arun watches the window behind the bottle and fleeting landscape behind the window. He takes out his camera and shoots a few videos of the action without actors. 6am bed tea. He refuses it; too early for him. 7am breakfast is being served. Even this is too early, he thinks. Old woman is again dusting dry Menhdi right near her. Mr. Continental is having his breakfast. Young boy is too tall for top berth. He eats up with only his head raised a little. Arun is not tall, so he sits tall and eats. Mr. Continental is back to Wodehouse. Young boy has gone to sleep again. Old woman straightens her legs on the berth and lifts her blue Saree above her knees. She looks up at Arun and turns towards the window and again does the same. She applies a cream on her legs and starts massaging. With every movement of her hands on her knees she does ‘aah, aah’. She ‘aahs’ for a few minutes and then closes the cream bottle. Smell of eucalyptus oil is hanging in the air. She is looking at Menhdi on her hands and smiling softly. Arun is wondering, perhaps she can not see too well. Good for her. She can at least appreciate the Menhdi she worked so hard to apply. Rajdhani halted at New Delhi station right on time. Arun is carrying all his stuff by himself. He is softly refusing help from coolies. After a whole lot of in-activity, some exercise would be good for him; he thinks.
Hundreds of thoughts that Arun thought about, have exited his head. They now exist only on small little pieces of paper; legible – perhaps to him only. His phone rings. Anil and Shyam are waiting outside the station for him.
Recently one of my very old wish, got fulfilled. I don’t remember when, I had read in a news paper that Mumbai gets migratory birds every year. Since I have also been a keen amateur photographer, I was very excited. But I was a little puzzled too. I thought this city seems far from a sanctuary for delicate migratory birds. I could not imagine where would they perch, what would they feed on and where would they lay their eggs? If it happens by the seaside, then where? Or is it in the forest area of Mumbai like the National Park? Of course Mumbai was not like this always, but presently entire sea coast of the city is polluted and the forest has so much encroachment and other disturbances. Much later I came to know that birds are Flamingos and they land near Sewri. Sewri? I thought! It is so industrialized and there must be so much oil spilled around due to the refineries…
Well just a few days back a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to Sewri to watch the Flamingos with him. I immediately said yes, of course! He suggested that it was better if I stayed the previous night at his house, in Bandra since we were to leave home at 5.30am. I agreed, no hassle. If a dream was coming true after so many years, anything was ok. It was important to be there before the sun rise. All was done as required and as planned. Our car rolled out of the gate at 5.30am and we were at Sewri area by 6.00am. It was our first visit to the area, so we had to ask for directions and proceed slowly. Gradually we rrealised that the mud on the edges of the road was getting blacker. The smell too changed. And the air felt a little heavier. Driving slowly and looking around we finally reached near the landmark that was told to us, the blue ‘Colgate’ building. We parked right at the edge of the slushy sea and got off. There were four security guards sleeping on a platform under a tree. I am a little wary of security guys. I had no idea whether it was allowed to be so close to sea or if we can click pictures with oil refinery in the background.
It was still dark. We were carrying a pair of binoculars. Looking through them my friend suddenly said excitedly, ‘there they are! My god, there are thousands of them!’ With my old bare eyes I too concentrated but could notice only thousands of out of focus pink dots scattered over the sea bed. As the light was still very low, I could not see them very well. So I put my specks on and then, saw them very clearly. All of them were walking about by themselves, looking down and constantly picking up something from their beaks. Obviously they were picking up food. I can only think it might be either small shells, baby crabs or fish stuck in the shallow due to low tide. I took the binoculars and realized the view was absolutely fabulous! As now I could see them very clearly and in group of 4-5. Most of them were entirely pink in color. Some were white and some had geometrical designs on white feathers. Their beaks were large with the tip turned in.
The clouds hanging over the silhouetted refinery structure in the distance were beginning to get hit by patches of flaming red color. In a while a part of the sun peeped out from behind a hill. I kept clicking away with my digital camera. Sometimes I was using full zoom to get a small patch of shimmering pink on the sea bed. We soon realized that there was no way of us walking closer to these great birds as entire sea bed was very soft to walk on. What a pity, we thought and started thinking of finding another place to get a little closer. I hid my camera as we reversed the car and drove off leaving the soundly sleeping watchmen without even a stir. Now I noticed a fleet of oil tanker trucks parked all along the road side. We moved slowly and found a tea stall from where we could watch the end of the road into the sea. I asked the Chaiwala if we could go to the end of the road to see the birds. Of course, he said.
It was a good cup of Mumbai’s famous ‘cutting Chai’. We parked the car well before the end of the road. Ships were berthed on both sides of the road that was actually a jetty. It was a strange site. So many people were exercising and doing Yoga right on the edge of the jetty, overlooking the distant sea and the Flamingos! I thought what a difference in life. Here I am who has struggled so hard and waited for many years to watch these birds and here are some people who are engrossed in themselves right in front of these amazing birds.
By this time the light had come up and I could see their activity more clearly. I took a lot of pictures until I was happy. I am very fond of the ambiance of ships and shipyards and also trains and their associated atmosphere. I shot pictures of those ships tied to the huge pillars with giant sized ropes. Due to low tide ships had no life in them. They were totally still. I sometimes wonder, why visuals and sounds of trains and ships excite me so much. Last but not the least, there is (actually was) this little known ‘Sewri Fort’, right there. It is not a very large fort, and it is certainly breathing its last. Nothing is right about it. Its walls have crumbled down. Trees have grown on walls that have not yet broken. There is a lot of garbage dumped all around. The fort has been encroached upon from all sides. Slums have come up everywhere. Worst of all, all those slum dwellers use the fort as a toilet. From top of the roofless fort I could watch the sea, the Flamingos and the drab blue structure of Colgate factory.
As I kept my eyes glued on the birds I got lost in thoughts. Slowly, I noticed that distant structure of Hindustan Petroleum refinery, started fading away. The ships and the jetty were gone. As I turned my eyes away from sea, I realized blue Colgate building too had vanished and entire area looked bare but green. I had no idea where I was. Suddenly I heard stern male voices in typical British accent.
As I looked in their direction, I saw many British soldiers adjusting canons through the peepholes of the fort. Some of them were watching the sea through large binoculars. I am very scared of security guards, so I was worried in case someone noticed me. And one guy in red uniform did! I froze. He started moving towards me. I nearly wetted my pants. I shut my eyes. Crisp sounds of his metallic soles passed me and went away behind. I tried to wipe the sweat off my brow. I could not feel it. I looked at my hand, there was nothing. There was no me any where. For miles there was only green earth and blue sea with thousands of shimmering pink dots.
I don’t drink alcohol any more. I started in 1971, as trial or experiment, then more tasting, enjoying, offering friends, on the verge of addiction, and finally to 2 drinks of social drinking… but after 27 years I gave it up suddenly in January of 1998. Jan 25, 1998 to be precise. I have a great will power, so I did not have to reduce it gradually. On Jan 26, I announced loudly, ‘cut’ and the role of liquor in my life was over. ‘I have had enough of it – for life’, I said. I had enjoyed it, hated it and suffered it too. Some thought I was a fun chap after a few drinks, but I know after booze, if someone tripped on my toes, it made me mad and following scenes would be ugly. One fine day I felt responsible for one of those ugly scenes and decided to give it up for ever. That day, I think I was going to earn the ugly tag of ‘not a nice chap’. So in spite of really loving my drink, it was far from painful for me to call it a day. Interestingly raising of my first glass of alcohol too had not been without serious pains…
Background of this lies in the fact that for generations nobody had ever consumed alcohol or ate non-vegetarian food (including eggs) in my family. Some time even ‘Tamasic’ garlic was not allowed in our house. I had never seen a bottle of booze even in a shop nor had I seen anyone carrying it or drinking. I had seen only villains in movies ripping the chicken legs. Many years back as kids, we would slyly point to a house from far and say ‘you know they cook non-veg or one old man in that house, drinks!’
First time I saw someone drunk was when I was 11 years old. We were in a small town called, Bhagwanpur. My father had taken me on his bicycle for shopping. In the market he met an acquaintance, also with a cycle in the market. They both stopped and started chatting. I noticed that man’s face was red and he was not steady on his feet. I found him looking like a dangerous criminal; perhaps like a dacoit. I was trying to hide myself behind my father. Just as they finished talking the man bent towards me unsteadily saying, ‘so this is your son’ and my breath got filled with an unbearable and unknown stench. He almost dropped his bicycle, while bending towards me. I freaked. My father was holding my hand tight, in case I run away…
Ten years later when I was 21, I found myself picking up my own first glass of an alcoholic drink. I was studying in Poona, far away from my family. I remember it was in the hostel room of an editing student, Madhu Sinha. There were 4-5 students huddled in a dark moodily lit and smoke filled room. I don’t think in that group anyone was well off. So it was very difficult for them to offer some of the precious black rum to me. I saw their faces; they were clearly giving me dirty looks, because I was over staying in their room with a definite purpose of bumming a drink, my first drink. Finally I was given 1mm of rum in a glass and it was topped up with tap water. After glasses stopped clinking and everyone finished whispering customary ‘cheers’, I brought the glass rim to my lips and… sipped it. I knew it was not going to be pleasant; but I had no idea that it will be so horrible. I looked away to hide my disgust. Slowly I kept sipping it and kept eating lot of salted stuff right under their dirty looks. I was happy that I got a chance to experience this horrible tasting stuff. It helped me reach an important decision right there- ‘I was not going to drink again’. Another thing that I was working on was, to find its effect on me. I could not discover anything, then. But soon I realized that I had stopped talking. I would answer everyone with a nod and sat there with a smug smile pasted on my face through out. After others finished their much larger drinks, my glass too got empty. We all split for dinner.
I watched their body language. They all had turned much louder and aggressive. It was a way of telling the rest that they have had the privilege of having a drink. So don’t mess. I did not want be a part of that group. I don’t like aggression that might get physical. I came out of the hostel and decided to take a walk on the path. I was concentrating hard on studying the effect of that tiny drink on me. I was delibearately conscious, too conscious. My arms in place of swinging normally; were fixed by my side. Anybody would understand that I was trying to be steady by mentally shackling myself.
Next morning I got up and headed for the bathroom with a towel wrapped around me- a dress code for students going to bathe. Someone passed by me giving a strange look. Then a friend stopped in front and said what has happened, your whole body is red! I looked down at my stomach… legs, my arms. They were all deep red. I was shaken up to the core! I went back to my room, picked up the small mirror and did detailed checkup. I was red all over, on my back, behind the neck, except my palms, soles and face. My heart was beating hard. I had no idea if this was permanent or what. I might have to go to a doctor and will have to admit that I had a drink. I thought that horrible ‘rum’ was the biggest mistake I had made. That was my life’s most disturbing day. I am supposed to be here for educational purpose, on my father’s hard earned money and I have committed a sin. That is how I have been brought up.
Well, I picked up courage, wore an old shirt and went for bath. As I poured water on me, I got a shock. The feeling of flowing water over my body had changed drastically. I felt as if my skin had thickened with some rash and the sensation of any touch had changed totally. It was strange kind of a pain. Enduring the pain I soaped myself and used as little water as possible. Worst was yet to come. As I used the towel to wipe my hair and neck, I felt my skin was getting peeled off. I just sat down in pain and shock. Slowly I touched the back of my neck to check for the blood. It wasn’t there. I started dabbing myself softly to dry and gingerly come out. Wearing clothes also was a pain and then while walking to my class, trousers and shirt rubbing against skin too was horrible. I knew that I was in deep shit. I had to tell my friends that it is the reaction of a drink and I was never going to drink again. It does not suit me…
I did not go to any doctor and took no medicine. I couldn’t. It took ten full days for the rash to subside on its own. Few months later I entered my final year. I was very tense and had been studying real hard. I friend of mine asked me to share some beer with him. I said no way. He said don’t worry; beer is not a hard liquor. I had that beer and next morning my skin again erupted with the same violent reaction. I cursed myself for having to face all that discomfort all over again. But I noticed this time the skin condition got cured in 6 days.
In my heart I was encouraged, but I thought it was not worth it. My studies-schedule was very tight, but I friends cajoled me to have a small drink, on and off. I too was checking if my body was getting accustomed to alcohol. If it was, I thought it would be a good sign. The skin reaction time kept falling from 10 to 6 to 4 to 2 days and finally it was all over. It took almost a year to achieve this…
I remained a faithful friend to alcohol for 26 years and then respectfully parted company; for good. Now sometimes I would sniff an open bottle of a good whiskey or a red wine for an appreciation purpose only. I have a lot of respect for a good drink and for people who respect their drink. Even the doctors say that having 2 drinks is healthy at my age. But since I have totally detoxed myself, I would not like to complicate matters once again. So I feel I will be fine without those 2 drinks, even if doctors are fine with it.
In life when we all move ahead to achieve our goals, be it just reaching the office or improving the bottom line of a manufacturing unit, we come across various obstacles. As a person moves ahead on a certain path, he meets so many obstacles or doors that are shut, breaking his progress. Obstacles have to be overcome and the doors have to be opened in order to move ahead in the direction one has chosen. So what do we do when see a door shut on our path from a distance itself? Do we stop in out tracks right there, or reach the door then see what happens, or may be slow down the speed and watch if the delay helps or just move with confidence? And finally when we reach the door do we just push open it if it is still shut or find an alternate route without even touching it? The kind of decisions that we take tell a lot about our attitude to life. We could be a pessimist, optimist, unconfident, over confidant, scared or couldn’t careless types. There is no denying that everyone’s life has challenges, obstacles or if nothing, tricky situations. And if anyone has to get anywhere he has to keep moving in the chosen direction. What I do to go about in life could be considered between optimistic and reckless. I must be having it from my childhood. I remember when I was just 12 years old I used to cycle very fast. I was in Allahabad, which is fairly a big city. I had to cycle about 5 km one way between my home and school. I had to cross many heavy traffic zones. Although there were mostly bicycles, cycle rickshaws, few cars and scooters, but I went fast right till the point I met the real stop point. My reflexes were good and I was confidant of myself. But what I realized that mostly I went through the traffic in the same speed, because I found some gap that got created by the time I got there. That was an attitude of an optimistic to the point of being reckless. It is also true that I would have definitely braked if I was going to bump into something in front. So somehow I got trained into acquiring that attitude in life. No sensible person really would kill himself on purpose. There is no way through the two head lights of a truck, obviously. After all of us are carrying a lot of responsibilities, of our family, work, our health and social ones. But the attitude of always playing safe can eat into the height our success could have reached, if we were a little bold. I feel most of my decisions have gone right. I jumped into studying films without knowing the consequences. I was just so excited. Living so far from Bombay, I had never thought that movies could ever be my career. I was fascinated. I never imagined that I will be making money from those stars, whose films I would not be able to watch because I had no money. I only dreamt about them day and night. Even when I got my admission in the film school I was not sure where I was headed, after I finished. But I went ahead, studied hard and when I reached Bollywood, the doors just opened. Now I have been around here since 1972 and did fairly well too. I am not trying say that this is the attitude to be followed. I am also not saying that all of my decisions have been right. I am only trying to put across that if someone does not walk with a resolve of finding the doors open by the time he gets there, then a lot of his time and valuable opportunities may be lost. Perhaps one should consider the doors and obstacles in your path more like illusions rather than reality and just keep walking.
There is so much to write about when you are back home after being exposed to a new environment, new colleagues, new culture or even a new location. It is easy to get excited and fill pages with the stories of important people, places and heartwarming incidences. But this incidence in 2007 that I am writing about falls in the category of an ‘encounter of the insignificant kind’. While shooting in Mcleod Ganj, we were staying in a hotel called ‘Spring Valley Resort’ at Bhagsu Nag, though we spent the first night in Hotel Triund. Triund is the name of a snow capped peak visible from our hotel. One can trek to this peak in 4 hours. On the off day I decide to be rebellious against the weather. I wore my shorts, T-shirt with a short sleeve sweater and went for a walk, up hill towards the Triund. The sun was good and so was the gentle breeze. After half an hour I came across an open-air restaurant called ‘Haifa’. I came to know later that Haifa is an Israeli name. Place was totally empty. Maybe it was too early. I took a table in the sun and noticed that the soft music being played was actually Indian Bhajans sung by foreigners. I was the first customer there and the kitchen perhaps hadn’t warmed up yet. A Nepali waiter very politely took my order. While waiting I fell ‘in like’ with the Bhajans’ CD that was playing. I asked the boy about the music. He said it is Kirtans by Krishna Das. Next I asked him if I could borrow the CD to make a copy. He apologized and said that the lady who owns the place is not here yet. Understandably he could not give anything to a total stranger without his masters’ permission. It was fair. So I told him that I will come back sometime when she is around. The breakfast was a massive meal with a large bowl of corn flakes with fruits and cold milk, 2 eggs omelet, 4 toasts and a large glass of tea – not to forget Kirtan sound waves floating in the air. I left after struggling to stomach the last sip of the tea. After a few days my room-mate Pinaki and I walked to Haifa to try my luck with the music CD. I met the small made Nepali lady and asked her about borrowing the music. She went to the counter, picked up the CD and handed it to me. Just like that! I was nonplused. I told her hurriedly that I will try my best to make a copy right away and get it back within an hour; if not definitely by tomorrow evening. She said ‘no problem, but don’t forget to get it back as many people keep asking for it’. If I was in her place and a tourist asked me the same… well, let us not talk about that. I did make a copy in less than 30 min and Pinaki went to return it. After that I decided to make another copy of it to give it to her as a spare; just in case if someone is not able to return it. Pay it forward. I am able to extract a lot of wisdom from ordinary incidences and ordinary people. This practical demonstration of trust may be more useful to me in my life than the blessed Khata I received from HH Dalai Lama. As the distant future turns into present, I don’t know who all I will talk about and how much; but the Haifa lady’s story titled ‘Trust’ will remain a good one to narrate for a long time. In fact just like her I too find it much better to trust people in my dealings and loose something small; rather than stay tense in mistrust and later realize that it was a wrong to do so.
Sounds of spoken words or speech would be the most heard sound among all the other sound waves that are stirring the air around us. I speak, my friends speak, my wife, my father speaks, my mother speaks and my grandfather too speaks, shop keepers, doctors, cops, politicians, businessmen, actors, singers, beggars, watchmen, servants, salesgirls, priests all are filling our ambiance with spoken words. Our sound-scape is full of colorful speech patterns. But it is certain that all the vocal sounds have different effects on us. Some fill us with affection and another fills us with anger or despair. Of course yet another may not make much difference. But is it ‘the words’ that really do the trick? Or is it the person? Is it the way of speaking? Or it is just my perception that the words from some people affect me in a certain way. Why is it that when your daughter speaks you feel that you are being reached out. When your son speaks to you, you feel important and equal. But your father’s words may fill you with dejection and breathlessness. I could never be comfortable in front of my father. Whenever he enters my room from one door, I get up and leave from other door. And try to find another place to sit. My father’s presence always makes me uncomfortable. I never find him friendly. His presence never relaxes me, because I could never be myself in front of him. So his ‘words’ do not matter or may urge me to get away. He had an overpowering personality. On the other hand my mother does not throw me off balance. I can put my point of view in front of her, sometimes even fight with her. I just thought I could handle myself much better in front of her. I have realized now, that words do not matter. It is the person who speaks matters, because we already have an impression about him/her. When I hear the voice of a brother of mine, I feel relaxed, while another one may make me tense; although both may be giving me the same information over telephone from different cities. We feel differently in the presence of a certain doctor or a car mechanic. An FRCS doctor may not necessarily make you feel better and thus may not be able to cure you easily; while a simple GP may just do the trick because you feel easy with the quality of his voice and the way she speaks. In the same way a qualified automobile engineer might make you uncomfortable, while you may leave your car confidently with an illiterate person in a small town. I guess there are people who grow your confidence and space in their presence, while others squeeze it off. This is what makes them popular or unpopular with you. There is some magic in the way people speak. It is not the exact words people use that matter, but it is our experience of their total personalities from the day we have known them. A hundred different persons asking an innocent ‘how are you?’ could make you feel alerted or angered or make you fall in love.
I am quite excited to be writing about a part of my early childhood (mid 50s), which is associated with the nostalgia of writing instruments, or ‘pens’. I am also happy that in my life as a young student, I got to use ‘pens’ of various kinds, from downright primitive to current. I guess today’s generation will be missing out what we had to use 50 years ago. Most basic pen that I used was made of ‘straw’ that grew wildly on the roadsides and was found in abundance in villages and small towns. Thankfully it was also, no one’s property. We just had to pull out dried plant of straw, cut it to a suitable size with a kitchen knife or a discarded shaving blade and make a pen. Length and thickness of the pen should fit my (student’s) hand comfortably. One end of straw would be sliced off diagonally, making the side narrow and expose the hollow of the straw. This was sliced further from both sides until the point reached the required thickness of alphabets. For me in the 1st standard the point must have been about 0.3cm to 0.4cm wide. In the beginning of my school, I learnt to write the alphabets and digits on what we called as ‘Takhti’. Takhti was a single piece of flat rectangular wood, measuring about 1.5ft X 1.0 ft and weighing about a Kilo. Its surface would be either black or white. On one side a handle was carved out to hold and carry the Takhti comfortably. Takhti could be used only once at a time. If it was to be used again, one had to go through a long and laborious process of repainting its surface. So every time I came back from school I had to wash the Takhti clean, re-paint it with black or white liquid and leave it to dry for next day at school. It had to be done every day. Initially my mother did it for me, but when I grew a little older she asked me to learn to do it myself.
White ink was made by dissolving chalk (white Khadiya) in water and for black ink I used a charcoal based stuff. Both looked like small pebbles. Sometimes we also drew lines on the Takhti, to be able to write in a straight line. My alphabets would be about 2 inches tall. With that thickness of my straw pen, I could barely write about 5 alphabets in one row. Takhti had 4-5 rows. Sometimes one side of the Takhti was used for writing alphabets and the other for numbers.
Then came the up-grade in writing technology and I got to write with a ‘nib and holder’. Holder of the nib was again a comfortable sized piece of wood, at the end of which was a slot to hold a writing nib. This piece of wood was factory made. The nibs also came in two kinds, one for Hindi and the other one called ‘G-nib’, for writing in English. The nibs had a fine cut in the middle that held a little ink and was right for writing English alphabets. Hindi did not need the slit in the nib. For writing, the nibs had to be dipped in the ‘ink-pot’ frequently, as they had no arrangement for storing ink in them. You could write only 2 to 4 alphabets after dipping it once. So, the idea was to master the art of dipping it just right to avoid a drop falling on the paper and nib not drying off soon enough. Even this ink was made at home. I remember I used to buy blue or red color, dry ink by the weight. It looked like crystals, the size of sugar. I would put some crystals in the old ink bottle, add some water and then stir it until it dissolved. The darkness of the ink could be increased by adding more solid stuff and vice versa. After a while fountain-pens appeared and I found them so very convenient. I could fill the ink in it and that eliminated the problem of dipping it frequently in the ink pot. Initial fountain pens seemed ahead of time then, but in reality they were very crude. First fountain pen I remember was the type in which its nib assembly had to be separated by unscrewing it from its ink storage to pour the ink in it and tighten the nib assembly back on. Though it could take hardly 2cc of ink, but you could do a whole day’s work with it.
Initially we filled the fountain pens, directly from the inkpot. But soon I learn that it was a good idea to always fill the ink, away from my lap or any other item. Later to avoid messing our clothes we got medical droppers to fill the ink more efficiently. Many times after filling, the ink did not flow down onto the paper while writing. To solve this problem, the famous action of giving a few jerks to the pen was used. With this action drops of the ink would escape out of the nib and that meant that, pen will surely work now. Again, here too utmost care was advised to be very careful while jerking the pen, in case the drops of ink fell on the table cloth or on your teacher’s white Pajamas.
Later on the ink filling technology improved when small inflatable rubber tubes were introduced for filling and storing ink. They were attached to the nib assembly. This mechanism worked by squeezing the tube to create vacuum inside, dipping the nib into the ink pot and then releasing the pressure to get the tube inflated back again; there by sucking the ink inside it. I felt this was a brilliant idea.
Then for a short while there appeared a piston type arrangement for filling ink. You push the piston down to create a vacuum, dip it in the ink and pull it out. Just like our Pichkari, used during festival of Holi. Most of these pens were not really fool-proof (read leak-proof). So many educated people shyly wore a patch of blue ink around their shirt pockets, as everyone would sport his pen in the shirt pocket. To some extent this could be tackled by putting Vaseline on the threads of the pen. There used to be some pen thieves too. They would borrow your pen in a post office and then walk off with it. To tackle this smartness you did a touché by not parting with the cap of your pen. So, if a thief pocketed your pen without its cap; he would certainly be caught red handed, by being blue pocketed.
For hand-writing the last instrument to arrive was the ball point pen. They were accepted very well are still reigning supreme. With these, the trouble of keeping ink bottles and filling ink was completely taken care off. But economic conservatives initially said it did not make sense to buy new refills every time. Indian banks too took time to accept forms or cheques filled in with ball point pens. You know how resistant governments and its employees are to think beyond what they have been doing. They did not care if the figures or signatures on cheques got washed off with a drop of rain water. They stuck to their point, ‘ball pens are not allowed!’
It does not seem to me if there are any advanced technologies in hand-writing instruments are waiting in the wings. In the present age of flying emails, I feel using those straw pens was literally like being associated with the stone-age, rather ‘straw-age’ of hand writing.
Not too distant in the past, I noted three news items concerning the respectable field of education that came into the limelight from different geographical areas of India.
First story is from a Madhya Pradesh town of Ujjain, dated March 2012. In this scene on the right of the frame is a very agitated, but not very young looking man using his index finger to make a strong point to an older person on the left of the frame. The dialogues were being delivered only by this, not so young person, supposedly a student of Ujjain College. The background is that the student union body elections are being postponed and the professor seems to have taken this decision. The student leaders do not like it. After all it may be a stepping stone for their entry into the world of real politics. They would not allow anyone to mess with or delay their political careers. We can hear the student threatening the professor in a chilling tone, ‘We will tell you what does Gundagargi mean?’, ‘Be ware of the consequences’, ‘We all know what you people are doing in the name of education’. Many beeps had to be inserted in his long dialogue sequence to self-censor the sound bytes. It was a very lengthy single shot in which the so called student leader delivered his lines without any hesitation or fumble. Third important person in this scene was standing in the middle of the two main characters and was wearing a police uniform. For some vague reasons he was also wearing a metal ‘riot helmet’. I guess they over-dressed him. His uniform was ill fitting, as it was hanging loose on his body. This guy in the middle did not deliver any dialogue and no visible action was assigned to him too; quite like a C-class ‘junior artistes’ in Hindi films. He only adjusted his pant once by pulling it up. All he did was to shift his look left and right between the professor and the student leader according to the punch in the lines. The scene ended with the leader exiting from the right of the frame, followed by the so called cop. Next day the perhaps camera could not pickup the thrilling action sequence in time. But promises (read threats) made in the previous unrecorded scene seemed to have come true, behind the camera. 3 professors were beaten up by would be Indian leaders. Camera picked up action when the professor was already unconscious and was being lifted into an ambulance. He was declared dead after that. The professor who was a part of ‘scene one’ placed on left of the camera is now confined to wheel chair due to severe real beatings.
In the reversal of the roles, the setting moves to a very small school in small village in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir. Some very young children with pink cheeks and runny noses are happily running around in the school compound. Walls of the school have been raised higher to keep the terrorist’s bullets away. But no one can predict a known teacher to do the unexpected. A teacher comes calmly out of the laboratory with a bottle in his hand and started spraying some liquid on the young ones. It may have taken a few moments for the kids to realize that the liquid had actually started burning them. Only then they all decided to pick up their bags and run! In the beginning a 6 year old boy got the liquid on his face, while others got their backs and clothes burnt. A girl of 9th standard, carried a boy for 7 km on her back to reach him home! The teacher had been missing from the scene.
DAV Girl’s College, New Delhi. A cell phone rings in the classroom; a student picks it up. A teacher feels very let down. The girl student gets a tight slap for using a cell phone in the class. The college goes on strike. The girls go on flash strike and protest by clapping and singing slogans. A girl jumps the high gate to enter in principal’s home, another one is trying to break the gate by banging it with a stone.
Do these 3 episodes educate us in any way? It can be hazardous guessing game for me. But generally I would imagine that however irresponsible and disrespectful students may get, the teacher is a teacher. He or she still holds the responsibility of retaining their mental balance and composure.
Very idealistic sure, and should be so too, but what about the teacher spraying acid on his little students! What about that teacher? Any ideas, anyone?