Sunday, November 27, 2011

I bellow my flames: An incident of fire


What jumps to your mind? A blue tongue of a Bunsen burner?
For me, a phenomenon jumps to mind.

I was witness to a phenomenon.

Don’t mistake me to be pyrophobic to be uttering words with such a solid emphasis, but it was a phenomenon. It was the sort of flame that I have not seen this close, this destructive, this completely capable of altering my insight. Small scale was a word I would not use, even if it seems appropriate. It wasn’t small scale for me. For me, it was a phenomenon.

The day started uninteresting enough. I was stressed for my final exams, and studying was going nowhere. Unable to juggle my academics, being home after so many days and the radio show, I was clearly collapsing under the strain. I gave up trying to reason things out and decided to take a nap in the hopes that it would alleviate the mild signs of stress that were beginning to descend, hallmarks of the final season. I woke up late and grumpy. I wasn’t exactly saying thanks to anybody this season. Exams? No thanks. There was nothing to be thankful for.

I woke up to a phone call. By the time the mobile phone was off, I heard mother: ‘there seems to be a fire’. I rushed to the balcony. A fire was raging outside, spitting up flames and smoke was roping its way to the night sky. It was a sight to see. I stood up on a balcony chair for a better view as I heard brother repeat that he was scared. The fire was truly terrifying. I couldn’t ascertain if it was spreading, my brain was just numb: all I saw was a definitive presence of the fire. The chair was not balancing me well enough, and as I wobbled in the night air, I heard strict instructions.

‘Hey, get down!! Get down NOW and head out to the front. We’re trying to control the fire.’ It was a Police Officer with his flashlight. As I rushed inside to let everyone know, my heart was throbbing.

‘Quick, fire, evacuate.’ What do you take with you?

What becomes important? In that one second, everything had changed. As I sensed the importance of the moment, nothing mattered more than family. My family, a cell phone and—at the last instant, a camera. That’s all that mattered as I rushed out of the house, following many other residents with backpacks, running away. The moment was eerie. There was only a raging fire in the background and small lamp posts. The rest was darkness and the babble of people. The rest was all of footsteps and shadows. Faces didn’t matter, what mattered was being calm about this.

Many people walked away, in many directions, huddling in groups. But the interesting thing was—there was another group. Another group of people that wasn’t quite running away. They lingered. They lingered with fire in their blood. They lingered to witness something they knew was not ordinary. They wanted to stay and see what happened. They were not the confused lot; they were at the forefront, spectators of the fire with their mobile phone cameras and video recorders. The police had cordoned off the area, but they tried their best to stay within limits as the terrifying evening unraveled itself. These everyday people became journalists in that moment: they became the photographers and the media professionals. And the firefighters became the true heroes worth watching.

As I tried to push myself into the bunch that lingered, I thirsted to record everything. It was a new, acute sort of excitement—a realization that this wasn’t an everyday phenomenon, and that this was worth recording. I didn’t feel a sense of danger, for I knew I was at a safe distance. There was only that much I could do. I couldn’t run into the fire and help them calm it, but I could at least witness it from a safe distance. Now, I was completely awake and caught up. The adrenalin rush induced by the gripping atmosphere as we collectively stood witness was something beyond description. I was more than alive, I felt acutely conscious of every tiny detail. I knew the people around me without knowing them, my mind memorized where all the apartments were, what was burning, and how everyone was moving. The atmosphere was charged and shifting. The undaunted fire was recorded from various different angles until the police sternly warned me to stay back.

As the fire got slightly out of hand, we were further instructed to completely evacuate even the lawns and move to the high school ground next door. The cold night air held uncertainty as people shifted about, talking loudly. The parking lots were full of people. As we rushed to the car to get out of here, we heard that there wasn’t a way out for cars. Forced to park them in our lots, we stood around, waiting for further instructions. The Sheriff’s car was here, and the fire truck was flashing its bright lights in the distance. I suddenly felt lonely, even with family. If the fire spread, it would hit my apartment in minutes and everything that we have ever bought could be reduced to ashes within seconds. The fire now was a fierce, undaunted orange glow in the distance, blazing off the rooftops—that was all I could see. I moved to the high school grounds for a better view, simultaneously updating my facebook and twitter with updates of what was happening. It was not a foolish thing to do. I wanted the world to know currently, this part was not safe. Please, stay away. It was the inner journalist in me awakening.

I watched the fire blazing from the grounds, now from a farther distance. It was all a nebulous glow. I only felt the cold night air settle on my skin and make me shiver. I shivered not just with the cold, but also in fear. My brother and I had split apart here. I was looking for him. He called my cell phone.

‘Come up to the stadium, you can see much better from here. You can see everything that’s happening.’ I took the cue and rushed there with the rest of the family. The stadium held only a handful of people who seemed to have discovered its benefits. They were high up, privileged by a vantage point that unraveled the entire dynamic scenes before them. It was something that looked like it was from a movie.

Smoke everywhere. The fire truck, the firefighters. The hoses and the water. The endless fire engulfing and burning the wood down to ashes. Everything was visible here, a panorama, a terrifying landscape unlike anything I had ever seen. As I stood there, high up with a dozen others, I felt I was part a shared fate. As the scene before me changed from millisecond to millisecond, clearly visible and dangerous, I recorded it all. It was something that was truly unfortunate, but an unforgettable experience nonetheless.

The cold night air hit us as we stood high up there, in a solitary world that seemed to be somehow distant. We were spectators. My hands fumbled in the cold, but I was beginning to grasp the severity of the situation. We stood there till the fire was calmed a little. There was such insight to the moments I stood there. Many, many thoughts flashed through my mind. I perceived life as a gift. I felt special. I felt fortunate. I felt fear. I felt insecure. I felt thrill. I felt anxiety. I felt awe.

As the night air became a blur of smoke, I knew the fire was calming. The police had cut off the electricity connection; all apartments were bathed in darkness. Multiple phone calls were visiting us and puncturing my involvement. A kind friend offered to be host. We were all shivering in the cold, and there was nothing more we could do. We walked to his house, away from our apartments, shaken by how unbelievable this evening had gotten.

A while later, as I calmed my nerves to Hindustani music and tea like nothing had ever happened, I looked at myself. I was replaying the photographs I had taken just now, they were reminding me how fragile life was. And just this afternoon, I had been thankless for my situation, my existence—worried about exams. My perception was so shallow. Right now, I was simply grateful to be alive and unaffected, as must have everybody in our apartment.

I’m back home now. It’s been five hours since the fire. It’s nearly midnight. The power is back. But the damage is apparent. My internet is not working. The parents are calling Vonage phone connection. There is a deathly calm, like an aftermath. A couple of police are hanging around. And I know that most of us have gone home.

Many people proved to be courageous tonight, and I’m proud of how they’ve behaved. I’m thankful for how nobody was hurt, and how nobody died. I am thankful for the immense courage of the firefighters. But most of all, I am thankful that everyone who matters to me is alive. Sometimes I forget that that—just that, is enough for a lifetime. I’ll not forget this evening. 

 My account of the incident: 12:33 AM on November 26th 2011

Update: The cause of the conflagration was a kitchen fire that engulfed and invaded an apartment. The fire massively spread to the neighboring apartments soon afterwards. Nobody suffered injuries, the only injury is to property, thanks to the timely manner in which the fire was handled by the fire department. I'm grateful to them. The videos I took were released to ABCNews Channel and aired.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not so Verdant, but pink

Pink is framing the horizon. She socializes there with the lavenders and blues, tempted to flirt to some romantic poetry. She is neither the moody haze of an indecisive shopper nor the brooding shyness of a wallflower. No, she is the unearthly, catchy enchantress. Mixing, she thinks she rather not be insignificant. She unravels herself in a bold, attractive display, so that the skies are all her, and even the somber, undisturbed waters hold her entire in every glowering molecule of every shimmering droplet. The blues and the lavenders of a late evening wither away, cowering before her sudden courage, and the egrets are awed. They survey her expansive brilliance on the late evening on their stilted legs, reasoning why they have turned victim to her flamboyant moods. The decision of pink is an unearthly demeanor for the skies to wear this season.  And slowly, with the ripples that affect these waters to a sudden disturbance, suspiciously like in response, the egrets lift their feathers and rush to the horizon on wings that hold earnestly: waking, enthusiastic, infatuated. They rise, rise, rise and rise above, in a transcendent love.  From a fleeting train, the beauty of the moment is witnessed, recorded and smiled at.

I have never seen a pink so bold, or marshlands so absolutely Moorish. I have never seen this from a train home, travelling alone, with just me, the marshlands and vagrant dreams for company. The writer scribbles a little into her books, but even the books don’t attract her like the skies outside her window do. She tries to sleep, but even repose cannot coax the tempted mind into opening her eyes to witness more of the melting pink, now persuaded into thawing. The egrets are still there. Surveying, stilted and out of the waters. Now, they are part of the skies, rising free. The waters have been painted, and the skies frozen in the cold. The writer is refusing to scribble anymore. I look outside, in a mild sort of way. Here, there is healing.

It helps to be young. It helps to be thirsting. It helps to find the wanderlust. But it’s best to go home. The flatlands run away, fleeing me like they were repulsed by my passivity, panicky sprints into the past I do not see. I do not tamper with their feelings; I only want to get lost. I remember the earlier shades of me: the somebody who used to get excited over random scenes like these. But yes, this is I, returning to her earlier self. Because the music on the hills await. Here, outside my window, there are endless, balding hills severely colored by pink’s fancy moods. Not so verdant, but pink today. Here, the egrets know their ways, and in this world of auspicious beginnings and soaring heights, there is an unburdened eye that collects an understanding. This is a sight I have been waiting to see. This is the sight. Because these pictures are not glaring computer screens, these egrets are not mechanized human beings, but much more than just postcards. Taking off into the eternal sky that holds everything and beyond. And as they rise and as they fly, that is what they tell me. That is what they tell me. 

Evening trains and side lanes. Always lazy. I wonder the stars. I hear the telephone lines droop with the weight of all the conversations they carry, with the winds and sometimes with people's chitter-chatter, ferrying the whispered talks, burdened in between. A whoosh of thought. Then, I forget. The window, the lazy trains and I. Homeward bound. The world here in solitary, windy and rising free. And soon, I will be home.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Since the Book

The heart held the visions gingerly, like they were the most breakable things in the world, for when fortunes dropped them, they would shatter into shards that flew everywhere; and then the soul couldn’t dream again. It held them with a shimmering hope. Not slightly, but gripped secure with clandestine intent: wanting. Whereupon, I dwelled, in prevenient contentment of a lost somebody; in illusions now bullied to the forefront, in sporadic creativity of late-night reverie.  

I will not tell just anybody, but I will publish a book. Because Amma said that someday, it would be possible. Because someday, I will be an author. I will sit on a proud chair and sign those copies. Because I will give a speech, and tell everyone that I have always wanted this. There will be a podium, there will be people, there will be journalists who have come from far and wide, and photographers from somewhere in the dark, visible only in sudden flashes on happiness, like the moments of the past.

I typed a book that month. It was 80 pages, and it was named The Heart Remembers. I was the only person who ever read that book. Starry-eyed, I saw it in paperback. Delusions met the pride, and then, I harassed the printer to translate the abstract into tangible solidarity on loose A4 size sheets. Yes, 80 pages. 80 pages of grammatically incorrect, stupid collection of childhood stories that didn't quite match up to "mildly interesting". Yes, 80 pages of senselessness with only a teenager to vouch for its credibility. Yes, that book would be a best-seller. Definitely.

I don't know why the brain gripped so hard at that delusion. It was just something I very clearly wanted, without knowing why. I could not cleave the reasoning or philosophize it. It was just blunt wanting. I want to publish a book. 

Every year for the past five years, I have lived with that thirst. I, who typed on computers on January nights, saw these stories on paper. I, who typed each and every blog post weaved this into a grand dream; everything would be a book. Nothing would go a waste. People would hear me as I called out from the podium of my mind. Imagined applause listening, waiting to explode. People would hear.

It was no small dream. So they consoled me then when I presented the manuscript; they assured me then, when I edited it and presented the manuscript again, they told me they’ll publish it then, when I was still a teenager and hoping---repeated on a late night as I typed; when I bought up the topic, when I was depressed, when my eyes spoke the uncertainty, when I said I wanted this so badly, when stuffed away those 80 pages knowing that it will never visit the printing press. Replayed last summer, and the summer before that, and the summer before that. The 80 pages yellowed and crumbled away. 

But still the dream grew dangerously, I was still gripping the vision. I want to publish a book.

It was very very uncertain that it would happen, and the dream was on precarious ground. Why then, was it not swayed by dejection? Why not, by the sullen moods that extinguished every other rampant desire? It was unscathed by any such poison, it always endured.

Even after teenage ended. With every blog post. It has always endured. It did not just exist, it burned. Like an immortal flame for five years. Even if it would never happen, it would be the grandest dream I have ever envisioned. And it burned on, bright, blazing, beautiful.
I saw these people there, on plastic chairs. All waiting. Only the very few who even cared. I saw their eyes meet mine, and that was resplendent to the festivity of my heart. I sat with my head bowed, when unjustly eloquent praise was heaped on me. I talked a nervous speech. I heard the applause from five years past sounding exactly the way I had envisioned. The heart slacked on the dream now materializing. I saw flashes of light, like the past grazing the pastures of the certain mind, and it was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.

No gift has been better, no recognition more amazing. No degree more meaningful, no journey more compelling. And at the end of the day, happiness to me is this: to be a writer. To be turning the pages of An Amateur’s Attempts, and finding in myself the hope, the courage, the grand dream that heart cradled delicately in its insomnia that dark day. Peace had finally found me, seeping life into these struggling, difficult ambitions that had finally made it's words a book. 

I was a writer.

(Photo-credits for these pictures of the book release to Vijay raj of IClicked Photography ;
. For more pictures of the event, go here. )

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lighting a Way

* An article that I had once written for an e-magazine that was unpublished and never made it. I still found it too beautiful a true-life story narrated by a doctor to ever consider not being published. So, here, I share, Lighting a Way: a story that truly taught me a thing or two about kindness.

She came as five, scrawny and poisoned. Orango-phosphorous substance that killed rats and vermin, the young doctor recognized. The sickly invasion had patterned her skin by then, and the doctor wiped it off her. Light had cheated her eyes. The pupils were constricted. The mouth and nose were cleared by assessment. The heart cradled a slow, dull rhythm. She was still breathing.

The young Pediatrician set up a steady drip of Atropine after calculating the dose for her meager weight. The mother had come with similar fate, too unconscious for the pangs of distraught, panicking love. Then they left them to their separate battles with unfortunate adventure. It was going to be a long night.

The call from the registrar of the female ward at 2 o clock in the morning pronounced that the mother had succumbed. Luck had tested the unknowing child, orphaned prematurely in a life that would require a great deal of tenacity. She had lived to only be stranded. She had fought, only to be burdened. She existed, only as a tiny inconsequential speck in the constellation of struggling souls whose sighs heaved and saturated this hospital air heavy with anxiety. But the smile she presented the doctor showed no knowledge. The smile she presented the doctor was innocent, fresh. It was a tender awakening of an extraordinary relationship.

It was the middle of a relentless summer in the small city of Mysore. The emergency ward of the Children’s Hospital had always been busy at times like these. It was the time of the year when the sun mercilessly poured in the heat to burnish these tall tables covered in flaky grey paint and line the rubber mattresses covered in a green rexin sheets, announcing sickness. Up above, a couple of fans protested in their rusty frames, doing only little to dissipate the unsettling stupor. It was a bewildering landscape and that sparked fear in the now-dilated eyes of the young one. Her eyes met the doctors with a hesitant, pitiful fixation. “She looked at me for another second or two and then the most glorious light lit up her face and eyes as a smile made its way delicately into her visage.” The doctor recalled later, “She sat up more erect and I rushed towards her and lifted her blanketed light frame into my arms.” My name is Parvati, she whispered to him.

Parvati’s questions would come later, on the lap of the weary pediatrician. “Where is my mother?” A simple query with a tragic answer. The poisoning was now a police case, and none could elucidate the mysterious circumstances under which the mother and daughter had been found splayed on a hotel floor. The doctor saw the child in and around, dropping by between his routine check-ups. His almost fatherly affection for the child grew between those rounds, she melted his heart. Once, they even escaped for a fun holiday, buying popsicles from across the street. He had showed her the reflection in the mirror, with tongue turned a gaudy purple from the savoring. She laughed then and changed his life.

There was something special about Parvati, something enigmatic, beautiful and simple. She was the face of eager honesty, a natural curiousness of a growing child. She was innocence that lived in troubled waters. She was an angel; she was bundle of joy that bought cheer to this fatigued hospital space.

The days had only been rolling. She was healthy now. She could run about and squeal in recognition. She could tell the doctor her stories from a comfortable lap. She could smile with fire in her eyes. A hospital was no place for a well child to be. What was to be her fate now? The police had decided on placing advertisements in the newspaper for someone to claim her. Else, she would be stuffed away to an orphanage. The doctor then cycled all the way to the Police Station for a word with the Superintendant. The ensuing conversation was persuasive, pleading and polite.

“He could see how much I had come to care about this little girl. That evening, when I went home on my cycle, Parvati rode in the back with me. She was quite delighted and kept laughing and singing all the way.”
The doctor had made an important decision. He had saved the girl from the clutches of death, and he had now assumed the duty to save her from the wrath of a merciless world. Parvati was to live with the doctor until responses to the newspaper ads came. Here, she became Jyothi, the light of the doctor’s life, the radiance that bought peace to his household.  She came to be regarded as much more than just a somebody; she came to be family. There was a new fullness in the doctor’s heart, much like that of a proud father returning with a newborn. Jyothi scampered around all of the house, exploring with newfound excitement.

The little one was the new sensation, not just in the family, but elsewhere as well. A journalist promptly arrived on the doorstep one morning, begging for an interview. They turned him away with clever lies, protecting the child from media attention. Police Case, that’s how the papers would address her, not as Jyothi. The doctor wanted to shield her, fiercely protecting. The paperwork only found neglect in the Police Station. The replies that the ads expected never came, but a couple of people expressed interest in adoption. It was a bitter-sweet moment for the doctor who had nurtured the child so vigilantly. The attachment was strong, he wouldn’t let go so easily. He personally cycled to the place to meet with Jyothi’s prospective parents.

They met them in Bungalows, good families of aristocratic power. When Police Case and the death of the mother were explained, the couple politely declined from adopting the child.

“They feared the mother was of ill-repute. I felt a deep pain in my stomach almost as if I had been kicked by a horse.” The attachment had grown enough for the doctor and Jyothi to feel a joint pain.

Jyothi understood the rejection, even if she was too young to grasp the magnitude of such choices. It hit her hard. She only cried, and the doctor hushed her into calmness.

A second call came. This time, they were careful to not get their hopes up too much.

“I may be able to find a mother for you today.” The doctor told her. She was unusually silent, her eyes never leaving his face. They cycled again. The house was a poor one, on the first floor of a many-storied building. The family had three children, a homely mother and a loving father. Jyothi took one look at the house and fell deeply in love with it. The parents embraced her. They took Jyothi into their arms without hesitation or second thought.

The doctor knew it was time. He arranged for a familiar lawyer, and the adoption was made a quick, hassle-free process. This was a goodbye he would never forget. Jyothi, the light of his life, would light another family. She was to leave his household and find meaning in life. She flew away to the happy safety of a new shelter. He missed her often. Three months afterwards, he cycled to meet with Jyothi and her new family. They had shifted to a better locality and the little one was doing tremendously well. She smiled again and enriched the doctor’s life. At that instant, he discovered a sense of profound fulfillment within himself, a sort of calming enlightenment that comes with the knowledge of doing good.

Many years later, the doctor had migrated to England. He had set up medical practice there and was flourishing. Jyothi was a little thought in the back of his head now, a shadow, a question, a curiosity. A phone call from India from his mother informed him one day that Jyothi’s parents had visited. Jyoti was now in Singapore, happily married and mothering a baby boy. The doctor was delighted to find his answers. The parents had left for the doctor a statue of sandalwood, a mark of their respect, a token of Jyothi’s overwhelming gratitude. The little girl was all grown up now, but the thankfulness hadn’t left her.

The Ganesha statue of sandalwood sits today by the doctor’s bed-side table, reminding of a blossoming, an enduring bondage, and the beauty of human endeavor.   

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Just a little note

An Amateur's Attempts has always been that first blog--the start of something. It was my first step into writing. It's made so many things feasible for me, and I'm happy about how it has aided my creative development. I hope that it always stays that way.
I had never really found the need to found another blog for writing, but strangely enough, this year has changed me in a curious way.

I used to be a writer. And then I became 19. and a photographer, painter, scientist and friend. 
Growing up, I thought I’d become better. But a channeled love, a channelled concentration, a channelled patience, found it’s diversification. I did whatever I wanted to. I painted. I drew. I clicked. all in search of the thirst to prove that i was good in so many things, wishing upon a perfection in the self.
I’m quite a humbug. And there is one power that is slowly fading in it’s neglect. I wish to pick up the pen again. I wish to pick up the pen, and begin writing, even if the day's worth of writing might come to nothing.
All the things that I write, though, don't belong here. I write these sentences, and then give up on a developing story. I proceed five pages, and then suddenly realize that the plot is dissolving. Sometimes, I halt confused. An other times, I continue and still not find it worthy enough for this space. You see, essays not always develop into wonderful things. Not all sentences become research papers, and not every thought, a story.
Yet, I decided to write, atleast a paragraph everyday: it would help me keep in touch with writing, and exercise the brain.
I began stories like so:
“The second month of the summer solstice. The heat is enervating below the mango tree, refusing to dissipate, adamant and furious. He burns her olive skin but she’s unafraid of tans. Reaching for the ripened fruits and irritated by the scratches on the palm, the thieving proves itself difficult. Before they wake from afternoon naps, she’s sprinting across the open fields, snakelike and victorious— beautiful in stolen moments, the unknown outcast.”
And didn't know how to proceed. But it was a little bit of creative writing for the day, and I didn't wish to throw it away, even if a story might never grow out of these lines. I didn't know what to do.
And such excerpts, such ramblings, such notes to self: I decided to store away in my repository. I have named her SillyIntelligence.   Aptly so.
Someday, I hope to transcribe these writings into something more fruitful.
Until these little notes, excerpts, and pictures grow to become stories, I shall put them in the little shoe box and hope for a better day.
Go here  if you wish to read up on the smaller things.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


It’s another day in K.D. Colony, New Delhi and a girl sits outside the parapet walls on late evenings, listless, swatting the mosquitoes that irritate the miserable compound. The walls are high.  In her heart are countless questions, a quiet dejection eats at her. Motivation is lacking, and the sighs repeat themselves over and over. When you have big dreams, and yet no sense of direction, what do you do?

Some girls go to Arpan. 

It’s not lavish with its blue walls of painted plaster, charts scattered here and there. A varied array of teaching equipment, a white board greets. But the humble simplicity that welcomes you is their temple of sacred motivation, where dreams are envisioned, understood and realized. It is where the cocooned pupa of hope, confidence and a love for life starts to break a shell and struggles to grow it's wings and fly,… to flutter about the imaginative minds, to reach greater heights. It is the blossoming of the most remarkable of stories. For six such girls of K.D Colony, this is home. Why is it important to go to college? they ask themselves, Why should I learn? And here, they find their answers, together. Here’s where their aspirations are sheltered. The feeling of sisterhood, a bonding, of shared experiences makes this a place of purpose, value and high regard.

This house was built with vision, too. A vision to help. “We aren’t short of philanthropists but we want to work as catalysts.” the founder had once quipped. When a bunch of students from the University of Delhi started Bodhi Tree, they were curious and excited about the project. It was something that seemed a big challenge to them: to sensitize the community to understand the importance of the financial independence of the girl child. They also wanted to help people lead a more fulfilling life. And Arpan was the early brainchild of that project. They’d achieve this no matter what, the students thought; they’d bring a change, one person at a time. It was the sort of decision changed everything for them.

Arpan today has become more than a home for Sneha and Zeba who came up with the project. Education here is free, and is supported by only a strong web of student volunteers from nearby universities and colleges. When it’s time for the people to light the lanterns, the girls huddle around in groups to relearn English, to be counseled in career development, to be educated about scholarship opportunities that might be available to them. They practice their writing in the traditional way, sitting cross-legged on the floor. They’re introduced to art, dance and theatre. Interests take shape, and creativity is unleashed. They participate; they find talents and exhibit them.  No wonder the girls must think this little place as sacred. It’s becoming a part of who they are, ingrained in their identities.

For the founders, this is their fond achievement, but they believe in not slacking when their project is budding beautifully. “We intend to broaden the opportunities available to our girls as well as train them to use the available resources to the best of their advantage.” they tell me, “Our first step is to enable them to obtain improved social standing as well as acquire better employment opportunities in the future.”

The girls look back and reflect on the year 2003—the year when the project was founded, and changed it all. It’s been a life-altering experience, a dream that brings them closer to achieving a better, more independent world. The sustenance of the project is critical for the education and empowerment of women. If you live in Delhi and have some time on your hands, pay a visit. Teach the girls English. Talk to them and socialize. And you’ll see what dreams are made of. You’ll be of much help.

"It is such joy to empower people, to help them to help themselves." is the message that Arpan sends. And the smile in the eyes of these six girls speaks of the same joy, the same sense of purpose, the same aspiration…and dreams crafted of a sincerely strong resolute will.

(*Many thanks to friends and founders Sneha Thakur and Zeba Rizvi for the pictures. And tons of thanks to Bharathwaj Narasimhan for introducing me to the Arpan Community. I'll always be indebted. Tons of love to you guys!!!

Link to Arpan's Facebook page is here

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Painting Classes

The medium of instruction was noise: the kids were to be messy, noisy, and themselves, recording all that in their sketchbooks. Sunkad sir of the Indian Institute of World Culture was no ordinary man, and his expert painting skills called for much attention. I was ten when Amma dropped me off to painting classes in the hopes that I’d blossom into the next Michelangelo. I’ll be modest and say that I almost got there, but in my defense, being terrified does things to your bloated self confidence. The Indian Institute of World Culture was an old building. I was petrified in the beginning—scared of  the oils and acrylics that stared down on me from every corner, uncanny creations of vivacity, skill and drama. It was a strange, ancient place—a living relic.

The outer verandah was all of a roomy vastness, filtered lights, and walls decorated with a gaudy relevance: it was the documentation of the works of previous students, a history recorded in progression.  It was beneath these proud paintings that the teenage artists huddled in groups, squeezing bright colors on the palette. Occasionally, one could crack a joke and the laughter would awaken like a whiplash, travelling around the room—with a loud, raucous, crackling brashness that would eventually saturate the space. In an attempt at bravado, I’d smile: trying to belong in jokes and groups that I hadn't understood. They'd ignore me and continue like Sunkad sir wasn't listening. He’d say something mild then, from inside his office. But the chortles would effectively drown him out. I was afraid.

The less experienced painters and the little miss-nothings would squat in the very back, on smaller tables designed just for them. It was dark with the shadows here. He called for the new students on the first day and asked us to paint whatever we wanted, a freedom in choice, medium, and ideas. I had heard nothing like that before. I painted thoughtlessly, weakly….enjoying it, a little less scared. I would grow accustomed to this place.

As the days rolled, the weak sketches turned into fearless strokes, and the brushes became more varied. Newer sketch books: I was progressing at an amazing pace, and yet nobody would have guessed such rapid improvement by how calm I appeared to be when I was sitting there with my colors, thoroughly absorbed and concentrating. Those were peaceful and languid evenings: lazy, beautiful and creative...where possibilities tiptoed into my head as I moved my brush now with a more refined, gracefully natural cadence, where I balanced color with sensibility, mixed emotion with acrylic. Those evenings  exuded an easy charm that I now nostalgically recollect: when I packed my things to head back home, it was always with the sense of profound contentment and achievement: today, I had created something new that nobody else in the world had painted the exact same way, with the exact same brushes, with the exact same ideas. The very thought was appealing.

The people who had graduated the low tables sat on high chairs at the long wooden benches in the inner verandah, and they were vigorous sketchers. They stayed away from the misbehaving teenage painters of the outer hall, and were marked by many lines of wrinkled maturity on their faces. There was a density to their talks, sketches and everything about them. The HB 2 pencils lay scattered around as they produced images with such terrifying accuracy and expert skill that I’d stand in awe and gape. I wanted to earn a greeting from them. I wanted to get there.

I understood what inspiration meant. I understood how images could create emotion, how they could stir feelings. I learnt so many things as I sat there on the low benches, in the shadows with my Camlin paints. I was beginning to learn harder. Aspiration started bearing fruit in a creative head. Sooner or later, the high table with the society of the best sketchers would call on me. Three sketch books later, one painting had made it to the art exhibit. And it was already the end of the year. The high table was still oblivious.

“It’ll take about five years to get there,” Sunkad sir used to say. And I was truly waiting for that day.

I'm still waiting

Art—a favorite childhood pastime was buried in my love of books that dominated all my other tastes, interests and choices. Nothing I’ve ever done has found a more abrupt halt. The love for the written word robbed my interest in images, and in case, I was moving away from Bangalore.
I remember bidding farewell to the place.  From then on, I’ve never picked up a paint brush, never found the inclination to, never even desired.

Until yesterday.

I don't know what prompted me to pick the brush up again. I was reading R.K. Narayan’s “Bachelor of Arts” recently, and flipped through the pages. Vivid images of how I imagined the character of Chandran flashed into my conscious thought. I decided ten years was long enough a wait. It was time to pick up the brush and paint—however clumsily, however pathetically, however crudely.

And “Penance” took shape.

The beginnings of “The Penance“—before I got to painting the beard.

This is with increased saturation standards, just for fun, I was playing with it in Picasa.

The sepia gives a old-worldly, nostalgic effect that i find an essential component of the painting that I couldn’t bring to focus, so i took a little help. 

Every stroke was discovery. I felt contentment so complete that I’ve never felt anything like it in the recent years: it was the silent joy of rediscovery, the kind of joy that escapes sensible thought. Every stroke took me back to the peaceful evenings in the verandah's of the Indian Institute of World Culture, where I used to walk past the high table, in hope of belonging with the expert painters.

I hope the high table is proud of me. If they aren’t, well, I’m still trying. As I used to say, ten years ago, Someday, I'll get there. Trying is all that matters.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dearest Uncle Pai,

Dearest Uncle Pai,

There were days when I used to open up my window to see the world like never before. Those were the days when I was ten, and fairytales were as real to me as the sun, moon, and school.  Those were the days when I used to dream up silly stories, or scribble to myself. And even if the world wouldn’t listen to those little stories, there was always this reassurance that you would, someday. Because you see, the folks at Tinkle listened. Shikari Shambu listened when I told him about that purple tiger that I had hunted down on an android in space. Tantri the Mantri listened when I talked to him about an exotic flower in Cambodia whose fragrance was super deadly. And I knew that you would listen. You always did.

I felt heroic when I was backseated on Amma’s rickety Luna on the way to a cousin’s house where I would get to read my tinkles--- when she visited that Tailor shop, I would snoop away next door to the paperwaala to haggle some older copies with my piggy- bank money. I used to sneak them into school, and read them below the benches when Nalini Ma’m taught Romeo and Juliet. The tinkle book labels you sent me were all over my Science and English books. The Fun Time with Uncle Pai’s and the Say it yourself competitions—I solved them with fervor. I felt proud to be recognized as a tinkle kid—to tell them that you were my inspiration. I told that to anyone who listened. And I truly meant those words. You were my HERO.

You know, when people laughed at my stories, I’d go cry and recite them to you in my head all the way home. And somehow, I always felt that you were listening.  It made me feel so much better. It was such comfort to somebody who didn’t really believe in herself back then. 

As if talking to you within my head wasn't enough, I one day I mustered enough courage to walk up to the post office to mail you that first letter with my story. I remember the wait. And I also remember that hand-written letter that came back, asking me to “never give up.” And so, I listened. I retold you my stories all over again---and you made my dreams come true, like a beautiful, beautiful miracle. That exotic flower in Cambodia that was super deadly became “The fatal fragrance” in May 2008 issue, and my first fight with a best friend became the “The Rivals” in 2006. You shaped the writer in me, gave her that much confidence to believe in her dreams. And yes, I never gave up—and it was only because my favorite person had asked me to.

And I hope you’ll believe me if I say that no pay-check I got was more beautiful than that one handwritten letter that I’ve been meaning to frame, or every memorized word of that message you sent me wishing me all the best for Bangalore Amar Tinkle Club. Its unbelievable how much you’ve changed my life for the better, how to instilled confidence in me, how you became much more than a role-model, how you truly impacted my life... I wish I could write all that down and just mail it all to heaven. That’s still possible, right? 

And oh, if you do meet Mr. Ram Weerkar up there, could you mind telling him that I’m still his hugest fan ever? I used to skunk my way into the school library just to read his Pyarelal series when I was fourteen and everybody else was already reading the Sidney Sheldon’s. It was to show them that in my heart, I'd never outgrow tinkle even if I become as ancient as the oldest banyan tree in all of India. Those were the little things I always wanted to tell you. You kept that little ten year old in me alive. You still do.

And yes, as you said, I’ll never give up. You know this little starry-eyed fan will always listen to you, right?

And yeah, I’m asking Janoo for a little help with a magic potion. It’s called the potion of immortality. She promised to give it to you. Or else I’m riding Wooly Woo all across the seven seas and the open sky to battle the rakshasas and fire-spitting rascally demons  to bring you back. Such an adventure that will be!!!

I’ll miss you so much, really. I’m still waiting for that last letter that never came home. Please come back. I need to tell you about how I started a storytelling page called Tellmeyourstories and how you are an eternal inspiration to the storyteller in me. I need to tell you how you will always be, and how dearly I'm missing you with every single second. I'm waiting for the letter that never came home. And the wait, dear uncle, is with a fervent sincerity.

Affectionately yours,

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Knitted with Love: A favorite sweater story

The cardboard box had arrived late that evening and I wasn’t particularly charmed. They had practiced hoarding these boxes like it was all a matter of safety, by some insane standards of measure. When another was dragged in, I was presumptuous enough as to think they’d take it back to the storeroom to craft something of their proud garbage. But they left it abandoned at my feet, partially opened.

I wish, time allowing, I could explore the intricate mysteries of unopened boxes. You are quite a happy humbug sitting there idling your time—place a cardboard box beneath your feet and it changes the whole equation. Oh, the insurmountable curiosities that eat you, at the sight of these things!! Elusive opportunities slinking away and smiling, a weird temptation that refuses to abandon tugging—it is a compelling sort of gravity. I had to concede, and this would turn out all different.

I gaped at the little box that I had stumbled upon. The shadows were shiftless, somewhat solid. From within, the unknown fed anticipation and thousands of speculative wanderers traveled my electric roads, flashing their thoughts and disappearing again. Which might it contain? Books? A gift? An exotic foreign souvenir? A lamp? Kitchen equipment? Clothes? Woodwork?

It was a submersion into a well-known curiosity that hung tenaciously from the child-like mind, anticipating. I was eager. The hands knew no manners as they pried at the contents, and everything was scattered on the floor: a disappointing arrangement. But then, the blandest of prizes struggled to make itself conspicuous from among the rubble. I had chanced upon a prize, hiding in the spoils.

“Look, a sweater.” I held it close, and carried it away—a simple, oversized sweater, and a story, knitted with love.

Later that day, the reflection wasn’t anything that made me catch my breath in surprise. I could safely say that the sweater accentuated my hideousness by a very good measure, oversized as it was. On its strands, a coffee-brown competed with navy blues and magentas, giving off a dull, obvious effect. But I liked it. I liked it for the warmth, for the simplicity, for containing me. I liked it for the imperfections, for knowing that I could be spilling my tea on it next morning and not fuss. There was an awful familiarity that was threaded into its fabric that traversed through it, and snugly surrounded all of me. I felt loved in that sweater. I felt happy, I felt me. It was just perfect for my winter days. Maybe not beauty-pageant worthy, definitely, but this piece of coarse wool would belong in my closet: my only sweater for now.

It’s hideous. It’s used. Throw it away.

It was brutally honest opinion, and I couldn’t argue the judgment of connoisseurs. But knowledgeable as I was, the sweater…came to stay. Varied excuses were pronounced, laziness showcased, the complains whined and cloths arranged. There were a splendid variety of reasons to throw the sweater away, but no reason was simply good enough. Call it my attachment, but the sweater came to remain a permanent part of my closet. It was like retaining a lovely secret, because I knew I could never outgrow it.

The commonplace holds in it more pleasant, nostalgic joy that I seldom find in everything else, it is something of a particular rarity, something that we can overlook. And the sweater had come like some naive misfit in my heap of cloths: beautifully unique, absolutely special.

I wore it all through the winter of 2009, even to college. That, of course, could be termed as a loss of sanity: I risked not appearing human. But more worn the sweater, the less hideous it appeared. It became my personal invisibility cloak, the dull coffee-brown allowing for the effortless merge into the common masses, rendering me unnoticeable. I loved it for its apparent humbleness, for being so unmindful of fashion, design or priority. The coarseness had a brave, determined originality to it, and the sweater told me it’s story: when I was slouching on the couch, when I was hugging my knees in it, as I admired the snow when I was holidaying in Tahoe, on new year’s eve as I screamed my throat off to a song, as I flipped through my physics book spilling food all over it, as I walked home in the freezing cold, grateful for the crude wool that surrounded me.

It didn’t seem like much, but it actually was—my favorite sweater. And it was part of some spectacular memories. It travelled with me through so many experiences, always exuding an air of ancient, persevering love. I often wondered who knitted it.

A classmate seemed to notice after millions of years, “Seems like your grandmother knitted, no?

It was an obvious generalization, and it would have been easy to lie as a justification. Yes, the only reason why I wear something so hideous is because my grandmother knitted it and it’s of a sentimental value. Or else, which fool would wear something so appalling? Instead, I told her I was absolutely clueless. She must have gone home thinking I was thrifty enough to pull off stuffy unknown sweaters from Goodwill store, but I didn't really care. It just made me love the sweater that much more.

A few days ago, a guest was expected. The proud and proper dresses were all lined up and waiting. I picked the hideous sweater instead and smiled. I somehow seemed to look winsome. The guest had apparently been father’s good friend, and dropped by to say hello.

His exchange of pleasantries was the strangest of conversations.

“Hey, where’d you buy that sweater, if I may ask?”

It was an interesting question, and I had but an honest answer. “It came with a box of cloths that my parents bought home in a carton box once. I didn’t really bother to trace its origins.”

“That’s the sweater my mom knitted for me, couple of years ago, you know.”

The amusement hit me like a bullet.


“Umm-hmm. Jeez, I didn’t know what happened to it! I searched all over the place for the sweater and gave up after a while. It’s very special to me. My mom was suffering with a case of dementia during those days, and was wildly hallucinating. Being left home alone was her nightmare…she found herself helpless, agitated and unable to distinguish the real from the unreal. During those times of horror and despair, knitting was something of a respite to her. It eased her nerves, and she did it beautifully. Even though everything appeared so confusing to her, there was a dedicated expertise to what she wove, it was so wonderful. It’s maybe because she knitted with love, you know? Every cross-hatch on that sweater was healing to her. I know that she cannot knit another sweater like that anymore….now she’s nearly blind in one eye. ”

When they said that history contributes to value, I guess they meant this. Somewhere, in the back of my heart, there was a gentle tug. It was like I had known the sweater’s incredible story somewhere, like I had realized its value: whispered in secrecy. And today, I found a reason—a reason for having retained the sweater as a favorite. I could now turn back to the classmate and complete the answer: “Do you know how special this is? It was part of a healing process for an old lady with dementia…but more than all of that, it was knitted with love.”

I had the answers. I had the justification. But I wouldn’t have the sweater anymore.

I watched the sweater leave me, as suddenly as it had entered my life. The guest didn't ask for it, but I thought it was only too proper to have it wrapped up and returned. As I touched the coarse, shabby fabric for one last time, I was grateful for having experienced that love for at least that much longer. For all it’s worth, I knew today that the best sweaters weren't the cashmere that you buy at extravagant shops like Macy's. They are those which keep you warm not only because they are expensive. There is a  magic ingredient to such things.....and it's called love.