In the middle cell of a high security prison, in the end of moon’s waning 15 days cycle, a woman delivers a baby boy in the middle of the night. She was delivering her baby in a prison because the king was scared of her children. All her babies were born there. It was predicted that her seventh child would kill the king. So the reasonable King was scared of woman’s every child. How could he take chances with his own security? He had killed earlier six babies of his own sister, Devaki, right after birth. This was the seventh one. He must be killed without doubt.
To save this newborn’s life, his father was furiously thinking of ways to smuggle him out of the jail. But for this he had to pass right in the middle of armed guards, carrying the baby. Guards knew this was the most dangerous baby for the king and had to be killed as soon as he was born. And for the mother this was yet another fading hope to see her child grow up. Bitterly sobbing mother placed the baby in a cane basket, in the middle of trash for disposal and covered him with a dirty cloth. Father was to carry the basket out of the jail. Hopelessly he looks around him. As he makes up his mind to take the risk of his life, he notices that the guard near his cell is sleeping with the keys placed on the table. The man extends his hand to grab it. The bunch falls on the floor, but man quickly pads the floor with a cloth. Guard does not move. Now baby’s father opens heavy metal door of his cell, just a crack. Carrying the basket, he places the keys near the guard and moves out. Mother Devaki lying in a dark corner.
In the middle of a deep royal crisis, every guard in the jail was asleep, leaving the all the gates open. Father quietly goes out of jail. It is raining heavily. He picks up some leafs and covers the baby. Crisscrossing the lanes of town he reaches the banks of river Yamuna. He has to go across to another small town for child’s safety. River is swollen. It is mid night. Sky is clouded. There is no moon. There is no light. All the boatmen have gone home. A few are sleeping soundly under covers in their anchored boats. Situation is hopeless. But the river has to be crossed. The child has to be saved. Man takes a strong mental decision. This has to be done. He puts the basket on his head and steps into waters of swirling Yamuna. He tries to judge the depth by keeping one foot in front. He is able to find the shallow part of river. He is in the middle now. He can feel the ground but the water is beginning to rise. He is surprised. Water is up to his neck. He keeps moving ahead. Water rises further. His nose is getting splashed by waves. His concern is the child. To raise the basket further up, he raises his arms heaven wards. Yamuna rises further. Suddenly the child stirs and his right foot dangles out of the basket. Man stands on his toes, but a huge splash of wave rises covering the man’s head. Uncontrollable waves spash on the child’s dangling foot… and suddenly, in the middle of swirling floods, father notices that level of water has started going down. Man is shocked but he is too tense to analyse it. Soon he steps on land and walks swiftly towards his friend’s home.
Outside a large mud house there are hundreds of cows and buffaloes. He walks in the middle of numerous resting kettle and reaches already ajar wooden door. He knocks and walks in, shutting the door behind him. He brings the basket down. He calls softly. A calf moos. The baby turns. An elderly man appears. His wife too walks up sleepily… Through the sleeping town, same feet start tracing the journey back to the prison. He hears his baby crying and soon a woman pacifying him.
Baby’s loud cries wakes up entire household. They know he is hungry. Woman breast feeds him. He is still howling. Someone goes to milk a cow. It is too early. All the live stock gets disturbed and a din starts. Sun is rising. Hungry baby is crying. Everyone is awake now. Baby eyes a pot of butter hanging high up in the kitchen. Everyone is busy. He crawls to the kitchen, pulls himself on a settee, stands on a platform and grabs the pot.
Many years back I read a book titled, ‘The Energy of Prayer’, by spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh. The book starts so perfectly with, “urge to pray is universal. We know of no culture, past or present, in which prayer does not occur… ” The book managed to start a frantic inquiry in my mind.
Without meaning any disrespect to the book or to the prayer, I would like to put my own thoughts on this point, meaning importance of prayer. My religion allows me to have my own intellectual interpretation of religious rules or tweak the religion according to my own analysis, intelligence and needs. Well, I feel sometimes prayers work and sometimes they don’t. There are no rules that it will surely work, just like no one can claim that it will never work. But millions of people pray in different religious ways. Some people quietly drop loads on money, gold and precious jewels into the temple donation-boxes. For them this too may be a prayer. Getting rid of hard cash keeps them safe from robbers and income tax. But also their prayers are answered with more cash and even more diamonds in return. So are their prayers working? Most people in this world do remember God, mostly as a natural instinct. When I yawn I migth say ‘ooooh god’. I don’t mean to remember god, it is just a reaction. For people of all faiths, speaking out the name of their God has been a habit, part of psyche, and genetics for centuries. In my opinion prayers too fall in the same genetic habit category.
The book tells a story of a young kid losing his pet white mouse, who has walked into a hole. Kid prays for 2 hours, but the mouse does not emerge. Kid is upset. He derives prayers do not work. Later the moral of the story is revealed, ‘since the kid was not praying for the wellbeing of the mouse; but was being selfish to get his friend back and that is why his prayers did not work’. Well isn’t everyone attached to various things and people around them and pray for the welfare of those. There would be no reason for anyone to pray unless there is something to pray for. But as soon as you have something to pray for it becomes a selfish motive. Asking God for upturn in your fortune, good health of a friend, getting a son, getting admission in IIM… is asking God to run errands for you. Praying with benefits in mind is reducing God’s value… Let me analyze my own life as a sample case. I do not pray to anyone or any God. I am not a praying type, period. I believe in science and logic and thus do not find prayers logical. Praying is no way to get results in life. I cannot depend on prayers for success. In my younger days I too wished, prayed hard and worked hard to get so many things, but whatever I wanted never came to me. On the other side whatever I have got in my life has fallen in my lap on its own. So, prayers did not come in the picture. It is a simple law; ‘you get some, you don’t get some’. As the Urdu couplet goes, ‘har kisi ko muqammal jahan nahin milta, kabhi zameen to kabhi aasman nahin milta’ (people’s wishes do not get fulfilled entirely, sometimes the earth and sometimes the sky is missing) So if you want something in life, use all the faculties God has already blessed you with like intelligence, strength, cunning, will power, smartness… and what have you. Just use these and get your piece of cake in life. You don’t need to pray for anything. Getting results on your own merit makes you more content and happy, than struggling on your knees and then getting it. People always have more respect for things they earned the hard way. If you have received a gold medal in a field, you would value it much more than all the expensive gifts that family receives every X’mas or Diwali. No one will ever part with any medal; but all the easy coming gifts are hauled away into a dark loft, to be lovingly gifted to other praying mantis, later on. In recent times there has been only one occasion when I prayed desperately hard to get a certain result. It was because the nothing was in my hand, neither the action nor the result, only prayer was. But I did not pray to any usual, run of the mill known, but unseen and unfelt God. I chose to involve real entities like mountains, rivers, sun, moon, rain, sea, wind etc. I asked for their strength. Well, the result did go in my favor. If I want I can easily call it as my victory; but I don’t want to. It could have gone the other way too. It was only a matter of chance. Logically I doubt the effectiveness and dependability of prayers. For example ‘if you prayed for something and you got it, can be one part. But there is no proof that if you didn’t pray for it, you will not get it!’ For this you have to repeat the scene with same and not similar situation. It is not even a take 2. Take for example a Sikh couple in Punjab prays hard for years, to get a son as their first child; and they get it. Now to complete the experiment there has to be another but same situation. Same couple has to be used to determine the sex of their first child, but this time without prayers. It is impossible to do it. And that is a lacuna. There is no way to check both sides of the story; unless of course we ask the superman to turn the earth around in reverse direction and take the couple back in time, before the wife conceived for the first time. Prayers are a way to keep oneself content and happy, especially if things do go wrong. We can say, ‘we did pray hard for this but hard luck.’
Here I will narrate an incidence that happened in my family. Long ago an astrologer told my aunt that her son, Suresh (name changed) had a fatal confluence of planets in his birth chart. Obviously everyone at home got worried. Astrologer recommended a full course of ‘Maha Mrutunjay Yagna’. It was sincerely performed at the earliest available date. Years passed, after his education Suresh joined Indian Air Force. He used to enjoy flying and he was good at it. Soon he got married and had a daughter. In due course he was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader. One day he was taking his wife and the baby girl for an outing on his motor cycle, when a speeding truck driven by a drunk driver smashed into them. Sunil died on the spot and other two thankfully survived. If I take astrologer’s true reading as a ‘constant’- which means that the accident has to happen. The lesson that I learn from this story is that if ‘Maha Mrutunjay Yagna’ (prayer) was not performed and same accident would still happen; then the entire family, especially the parents would have never forgiven themselves till eternity. But performing it, kept them away from the guilt and scare of the eventuality, until the very day, it happened. And even after the accident, they would not feel guilty; since they did, what was in their power to do.
With every passing day this planet will go on becoming harsher and less inhabitable. Day to day survival will depend on your own strength, alertness and reflexes. You may find this statement entirely nonsensical, since today no one is ready to think this way. All the religious blabber has been so ‘politically correct’ for centuries. But after a century we will say, ‘who needs God, I have to do it myself ’, or ‘you can sit on your bottom and pray; but I am going out and getting it done.’ Obviously the world will grow less dependent on prayers, gods and religion; until a day will come when the ‘Word’ would have lost its significance… and forgotten. (Collection 2008)
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.
Long ago once I was taking down some stuff from the loft in my house, I found a huge bunch of bank pass-books, exhausted cheque-books and deposting slips. I called my chartered accountant and informed him that I wanted to junk this bunch. They approved it instantly. I started tearing them and dumping them in a plastic bag, to be trashed later. But slowly as the period started receding back, I realized I had opened a tunnel of memories with real documentary evidences right in front of me. Real books, real dates, real deposits, withdrawals… I could not believe my eyes when I discovered the oldest pass-book was of 1969! From Central bank of India, Tilak road branch, Poona; SB A/C # 5671. The account was opened on 19 July, 1969. It was my first independent bank account, during the period, when I was a first year student in the Film Institute, Poona. I was very unsure then, very cautious, even scared. I used to receive mostly monthly ‘money orders’ from daddy, so the dealings were strictly cash. The pass-book displayed princely depositing sums like Rs 855, 144, 300 and the withdrawals were of the order of Rs. 50, 60, 30 and sometimes even 20. The financial transactions were of the similar scale for the entire 3 years period in Poona. Respectable figures appeared only when Institute’s fees was to be paid. Among the earliest of Bombay chapter, I found a pass-book of SBI, Girgaon branch, A/c # 1044, opened on May 22, 1972. I had deposited Rs. 300 on this day to open the account. When I came to this city on May 3, 1972, I had just a few rupees brought back from Poona. I realized that my finances will not be able to buy me even a week’s meal. I wrote to daddy to send some money. I knew it would take not less than 10 days for the letter to reach and money order to follow. As soon as I dropped the inland letter in the ‘letter box’, I promised myself that this would be the last time I asked for money from home. I also knew that I will have to manage coming 10 days within those 300 rupees. Daddy sent me 500 and it was the last time he did so. So, to spot this mile stone entry was very important for me, as it denoted the end of a very important phase. Further going through the same pass-book, I came across a cheque deposit of 2000/- on 20 Oct, 1974. Instantly I realized that this was my first cheque from Navketan against the film ‘Ishq Ishq Ishq’ – another mile stone for me. It was the biggest amount I had received from anyone in Bombay, till then. At that time my heart was beating hard and I wondered, what will I do with so much money. Funnily, I also developed a phobia for income tax, because that year I paid my first income tax of 250/-. Coming back to that Navketan cheque, I remember, when I went to deposit it, the clerk noticed the signature and he announced loudly that he was holding a cheque signed by Dev Anand himself! With a chorus of staff, ‘let me see, let me see’, the cheque left his hand and went to each and everyone in the bank. They all looked at me too with a lot of interest. Some of them asked me if I was acting in the film. But they were able to maintain a fair amount of interest in me, even after knowing what I did for living; which was NOT acting. They made me a minor ‘VIP’, as staring at Dev Saab’s signature on the cheques became a pattern. After that, whenever I would make any deposit or withdrawals, I did so sitting in a chair in front of Mr. Rathod (now no more), an officer there, who soon became a close friend.
Do you know how old is this earth? It is billions of years old, 13.77 billion to be precise. Man did not exist at that point of time. On the time line of eternity man has evolved very recently compared to earth’s age. We have all came up from a single cell organism to this present state. Some theories say we evolved from fish, to birds, to monkeys as our ancestors. According to a scientific study, if entire time of the earth’s existence is condensed into 100 hours then evolution of modern times would measure only a few seconds. By modern times we can say when spoken word developed and we started using intelligence for our benefit. We started staying in groups to avoid being attacked, robbed or killed by other groups and to flourish. As the time flew many inventions kept coming, starting from rough stone tools for hunting, to the wheel, then to clothing to save us from acute weather conditions. We started keeping animals as pets to serve us, either for milk, meat, or even to carry us around and later to work for us in agricultural fields. Sometime later psychology and mind games entered human domain. For the first time the leaders ruled over their group for everyone’s safety. A good reason or even scare was developed in the community, in order to stay together, to fight the enemy jointly and keep the produce, women and children of the tribe safe. Somebody must have been too intelligent to order the community ‘when in danger, always gather under such and such (strategically located) tree, a stone or a certain person’. I guess this was the beginning of politics and religion. Leaders learnt that ‘leading’ gave them immense power over people and that was very beneficial and intoxicating. So from that time onwards we have only been the victims of these two social orders, religion and politics. The benefits reaped by that world by the use of religion and politics, have much out weighed the harm by its misuse, in our so called civilized world. Due to the religion, we have gone through the worst period of wars, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, Jehads, countries breaking up etc. I seriously question the utility of religion for providing any benefits what-so-ever, to human race. A sensible businessman will just drop harmful and useless items or activites from his list, which costs much more compared to the benefits from it. ‘Religion balance sheet’ shows only losses. Religion is not a necessary condition for anyone to be a good human being. People can be ‘good people’ and do very well in any field without the contribution of religion in their lives. People who are busy making money to look after their families may have no time for it. If a beggar starts praying in place of begging; without doubt, he will have to starve. Well, I hope sooner than later, constructive people will get to know the value and real utility of conventional religion and they will revolt against this concept. Charity begins at home. So, I have put religion out of the list of ‘important things’ in my life. Hoping that some others too may be thinking like me, the process may have already started. I sincerely feel it is worth trying to live without religion or at least reduce its importance in our lives and check out the so called ‘balance sheet’. I am sure we will have more time to meet friends, play with our children and do our jobs well at the office. Any changes on these lines will be possible if other than only eating, talking, traveling, sleeping, having sex, exercising and just surviving, we allocated ourselves time to ‘think’! We have never thought that it is important to close our eyes and ‘think’, which is such a constructive mental exercise. Think about new ideas; think how to solve a mystery or find creative solutions to family’s problems. To make our lives fruitful, we need to think what is useful in our life and what is not and then work on weeding out the useless parts.
To wrap it up, I recently read that the amount of happiness that science and technology have given us in the last 100 years much out-weighs the happiness given to us by religion in the past 2000 years!
‘What the hell are we doing’, isn’t this enquiry justified now?
At my Mumbai home, everyone was out on work. I was relaxed, creative and home alone, yet again. Lazily I walked into my balcony and checked the potato and onion basket. There were about 8 small potatoes and a few onions that were beginning to look neglected. Suddenly a 40 year old flash-back struck me! One evening during a family chat session my father, late Prem Sagar Sharma, narrated a simple recipe to us. I remember he called it Dahi Aloo. Living alone in his early working life, my father had to manage his own cooking. Thus preparing simple and quick dishes must have been a necessity for him. And that is how this potato recipe was; short and simple. In my parent’s home, I never cooked anything entirely on my own. My mother late Shakuntala Sharma, may not have allowed me to do so. She was a very uncomplicated, at the same time very competent cook herself… Well, it is difficult to say, how this recipe stayed in my mind. But good it did; because along with it memory of my father also was revives. Main points in its favor were that it was simple to cook, did not need too many ingredients and did not take long. It should be done before anyone returned home. Also there was not much investment at risk. After all a few potatoes and a bowl of left over curds was all that I needed. I decided to go ahead and do some cooking. Ingredients: Potatoes: 6-8 medium sized/ peeled and chopped thin in length Onions: 2 medium sized/ chopped thinCurds: 1 ice-cream bowl sized full/ Grated garlic: 1 Tb spoon full Green chilies: 2/ cut each into 4 parts for visibility Oil: 2 Tb spoon full Cumin seeds (Jeera): 1 Tb spoon full Doing it: After cutting the potatoes leave them in water to soak in a dish. Put a wok on fire and pour 2Tb spoon oil in it. After it is heated add Jeera (cumin seeds) and let it splutter until it turns light brown. Then add sliced onions, finely chopped green chillies, grated garlic. Sauté it little till it gets soft and onion loses its crispness; but garlic and cumin seeds should retain their aroma. Too much sautéing will kill it. Add the potatoes now and start turning them to mix everything well. After the potatoes get a uniform coat of the spices/masala, lower the fire and keep turning it with a spatula until potatoes look well marinated. It may take 3-4 min. Add a bowl of water to Dahi and whip it a little with a spoon, to mix it. It may look a bit like Punjabi drink Lassi. Pour it into the wok. Now add salt to taste, stir until the mixture smoothens. Cover the wok and let it cook on the medium fire for first 3-4 min. When potatoes become a little softer; then turn the fire slowest for last few minutes. Because this is supposed to be dry dish, keep checking it in case potatoes are getting stuck/burnt to the wok bottom. It should not take more than 12-15 min to cook. When potatoes are cooked well, turn the gas off, cover the wok and let it rest for a few minutes. When it is ready, color of the dish should look whitish bland. The steam from it should smell a little sour. Depending upon the strength of the chilies it should be pungent to taste and carry a definite sour taste of Dahi broken down with heat. According to seasons you get potatoes that cook faster, some don’t. So check them out by their look before hand. Amount of water mixed in Dahi will depend upon the quality of potatoes. Hard potatoes will need more water. In another variation you could make this dish with thick gravy too. In that case please add some more water to the Dahi. You could also increase the quantity of Dahi to one and a half ice-cream bowl. You could replace garlic with 1Tb spoon of ginger. In this case use 1 green chili or none in place of 2, because ginger has its own hot taste. Taste of sour curdled curd is the main idea, so don’t let other stronger tastes override it. When I last cooked this dish, I had used a bowl of left over curds. It had been lying in the refrigerator for the last 3 days and thus had turned a little sour already; just like those neglected potatoes. My children totally endorsed the way the dish turned out. My daughter’s colleagues at work tasted it and asked her for its recipe. Some time things do work out. So, don’t be anxious like, ‘hope it doesn’t taste bad’; be anxious ‘suppose it comes out great and everyone loves it’?