A Conversation for the Night

Siddharth walks into his bedroom post a routine conference call with his US colleagues, gulping down a bottle full of cold water. His bedside clock shows that it is half past ten in the night. Katyayani, his wife of sixteen years is fast asleep and he notices the tired smile on her face. He feels like reaching out and ruffling her hair and giving her a tender kiss.

Just as he is dwelling in a moment of transience, there is a tinkling sound that emerges from his mobile phone. He knows it’s a WhatsApp notification. He is not sure if he should pick up the phone right away and look at it. He sets up his pillow, leans over Katyayani’s face and gently pats her cheek. Then, adjusting his blanket over himself, he looks into his phone. There are a couple of WhatsApp messages from his college friend Sanjana.

She has sent some pictures and then there’s a message, “You awake?”

As he scrolls up, he realises that it’s been six months since they had caught up, even on WhatsApp. They had of course been chatting as part of their college WhatsApp group but a one-to-one conversation had been months ago.

“Hey, yes, awake…just finished a con-call. What’s up?” he messages back.

She sends a string of smileys in response, followed by “Guess what, am in Bombay for a conference. Caught up with Bindu, Srujan, Laksh, Rishi and Jyotsna. See pics above!”

Sanjana and her infectious energy and enthusiasm, he thinks and smiles.

He looks through the images. “Wow, looks like you guys had lot of fun!”

“We missed you.” She sends and within five seconds adds: “I missed you.”

Her honesty and the way she chose her words makes Siddharth’s heart race and stop at the same time. He wants to say something and hide behind the veil of his words.

He puts a sad smiley, and types “Maybe next time.” And follows it up with “So, how are hubby jaanand the junior?”

“Oh, all good. Akash is twelve, and acts like my boss. :-D”

“Haha. Your son, what else can you expect? ;-)”

“Oye, shut up, ok. I’m sure your daughters are giving you the same treatment! How are my little angels? How is Katya?”

“Doing fine. The girls are grown up enough to have gotten their own room now. Katya is fast asleep! :-)”

“And you are awake….doing what, Mr? ;-)”

“Chatting with you,” he types back almost immediately. “and smiling. :-)”

Sanjana likes this. These words mean so much to her. She doesn’t understand why. But she likes it. This late-night conversation that is moving and taking turns in gentle yet unexpected ways.

“So, what else is up? How’s life?” she asks.

“As always. Work. Home. Family.”

“Not exactly happy. Not exactly unhappy. Right?”

“Well, yes, I suppose.”

“Symptoms of growing old…LOL” she types and puts a laughing smiley.

“Hey, 46 is not old, ok?”

“Oh yeah? So 40s are the new 20s?”

“Of course. You haven’t met me in a while, so you wouldn’t understand. Well, there’s my defence!”

“Aha, I see…so why don’t we meet for coffee?”

Siddharth feels his heart flutter. There’s something very relieving about this chat accompanied by a smile on his lips throughout. He could choose to end the conversation by saying “Bye then, Sanjana, gotta catch up on sleep. Need to give an early start to the day tomorrow.” But he doesn’t want to. He chooses to continue with it instead. He feels light, and young, like he hadn’t felt in a long time now.

“Coffee date? Yeah, right, with you in Delhi, and me in Bangalore!” he writes.

“I know. :-(, the good old days. I wonder if they will come back.”

There’s a brief silence on both sides but soon they go on, with the conversation meandering from funny to serious to practical to reflective.

Siddharth thinks of the late-night calls that Sanjana and he would have during the days they worked in Hyderabad and Pune, respectively, almost twenty years back. They were best friends who had to know what was happening in each other’s lives – office crushes, boss troubles, PG accommodation-mates stories…and of course college memories.

Even as Siddharth is lost in thought, Sanjana can’t get herself to stop this WhatsApp chat. She could pick up the phone and call him but she doesn’t do that – she doesn’t want to lose the warmth and intimacy that text chatting was bringing to their long-lost interaction. How much things have changed, she muses, since they chose their respective partners and the kids arrived into their worlds. They were now living in their own bubbles formed out of their personal choices.

It’s 12:30 in the night and both of them are still typing away furiously, glued to their mobile screens, their faces being mirrors to a whole gamut of emotions they are going through.

“It’s half past twelve, Sid,” Sanjana types. “We need to wind up.”

“Sigh, yes, but I wish we could talk more. Go on, you know.” He confesses.

She smiles as she responds, “Another time. But wonderful catching up. Will remember it for a long time.”

“Thank you, Sanju. I feel good. Bye. Goodnight. Take care.”

“You too,” she says and sends a waving smiley in return.

Siddharth sighs as he comes out of the chat. He feels like he has been to another world and back. He sees Sanjana’s DP and takes a closer look. He smiles as he sees the lines on her face and traces of grey on her head. He wants to trace a curve on her face with his finger – a strange and silly urge. But he chooses not to do it. Instead, he puts his phone aside, pulls the blanket over his face and waits for sleep to take him away into faraway and unknown worlds.

One Night More

By about five in the evening, a strange uneasiness began to seep into the minds of Radha, Gayathri and Kalyani. Radha was at her athai’s, her dad’s sister’s house at Trichy, over a long weekend. Radha and her twin cousins, Gayathri and Kalyani, were having the time of their lives, laughing, playing and sharing things that brought much joy to their teenaged minds and hearts that they didn’t realise how the Saturday and Sunday had flown and it was already time for Radha to leave along with her parents to Madras. The three girls sat quietly on the porch outside staring at the cycles that occasionally passed by their house. “If I had the choice, I would stay back, like forever,” sighed Radha, at which both Gayathri and Kalyani turned to look at their dear cousin’s face with moist eyes. They didn’t want her to go this Sunday night. They didn’t want the fun to end so soon.

“Wish mama and mami would consider changing their minds. Shall I speak to them?” asked Gayathri pensively, starting to get up from her place on the porch, when Kalyani pulled her by the hand and shook her head, “Don’t act too smart. You know they aren’t going to listen.” Radha wished that all three of them could go and convince her parents, somehow. But she also knew that her father was not the kind who changed his mind easily. If anything, she would be met with a stern “No” in his deep, booming voice and an even sterner look that could send her cowering to a corner.

Kalyani had an idea. “Let’s stop sulking, girls, and spend whatever is left of our time together more meaningfully,” she declared. And in a minute, she ran into the house and came back with her grandfather’s Philips portable transistor. “Let’s tune in and listen to some wonderful Illayaraja music,” she suggested. “Before they call us for dinner and it’s time for Radha to leave,” she added in a somewhat subdued tone. “Yes,” chorused Radha and Gayathri. Soon beautiful Tamil songs from the 80s including the latest hits began playing on the radio. The girls, in no time, immersed themselves in the music that flooded their beings, forgetting that they had little or no chance at all in defying their parents’ choices in matters both big and small.

As they laughed and danced around, swaying gently like slender tree branches in the breeze, the sky had turned from a mellow orange to a deep bluish-black. Soon they heard Radha’s mother’s voice in the background. “Gayathri, Kalyani, Radha…” she called out, “come over for dinner.” Gayathri reluctantly turned the radio off and began heading inside. Kalyani and Radha followed her with sullen faces.

“And oh, Radha…”  began Radha’s mother. She paused as the girls looked on expectantly. “Guess what…” she paused again, this time the silence really pushing them to the edge of their patience. “Here’s something for you to rejoice. Appa has sudden plans to meet his school friends tomorrow, so we aren’t leaving tonight. We will take the bus tomorrow night instead,” she announced with a smile playing on her lips. Radha shrieked in delight and Kalyani and Gayathri pounced and wrapped her in their embrace. The change of plan meant a night plus a day more of fun.  “Unbelievable!” cried Radha in joy as her cousins laughed out loud. A small choice that somebody else made had made all the difference to three girls, ushering in a world of unmatched joy.

(Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/vinothchandar/)

The Four Sarees

She looks down at the four sarees
spread out in an arc in front of her.
Flexing her fingers, and sighing deeply,
she wonders which one to pick –
The crimson one or the deep green,
or should it be the golden yellow one
or the turquoise blue?

She ruefully thinks if she could
chew off all her nails in one go.
The six yards of magical, smooth
silks glisten invitingly, under the
soft glow of yellow lights from above.
Since when did choices make life
so difficult?

“Why think so much, madam?
Take them all,” the salesman says,
with a marketing smile on his lips
and a wicked twinkle in his eyes.
She wishes she could give him
a cold stare but smiles feebly instead.
What does he know of her budget?

Standing at the crossroads wondering
which way she ought to go,
Pretending to look calm and sane
through the storm of choosing,
she quickly draws a mental table.
With eyes closed, she wonders,
“Now, will this really help?”

Colour, border, pallu, motifs, price…
For each saree, she marks ticks and crosses.
May the best saree win, she decides.
The turquoise blue it is, finally.
With a resolute sigh, she gets it billed,
and walks away, packet in hand,
but not without thinking
wistfully, about the other three.

(Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/121184682@N04/ under CC license)

The Changing Face of My Wardrobe

My mother was my first fashion designer. Pictures from my childhood show me in clothes designed and stitched by her, which meant readymade clothes were a rarity. As someone extremely passionate about stitching, my mother tailored frocks to skirts to fancy looking tops in a wide variety of colours and fabrics on her black-coloured Merritt sewing machine first and later, the more sophisticated motor-enabled, white-coloured Singer ‘Fashion Designer’, on which she would do some great machine embroidery too. I still remember she experimented and came up with one of her first machine embroideries on a purple-coloured kameez of a salwar-kameez set she designed for me for Deepavali when I was a child. She would do some fabulous hand-embroidery too back then – from chain stitch to back stitch to cross stitch to satin stitch. Her books on tailoring and embroidery (published by Readers Digest) which were probably her very first purchases after she got married, still sit proudly and prettily on the bookshelf at my parents’ home.

Over the years though, especially after I moved out of home to do my graduation, the approach to doing my clothes changed. My mother and I would trip down to some popular stores located in Pondy Bazaar and Ranganathan Street, the shopping hubs of Madras. We would buy dress materials and get them stitched from a tailor. This was also the time we learnt what it is to chase down the tailor to deliver your stitched clothes on time –  a tailor delivering clothes on the promised date was by and large, a myth! Given my lean frame, it was quite hard to find the perfect-fitting readymade clothes, making stitched salwar kameez the only viable alternative. Every time I would come down home for vacation, I would return to college with a set of three to five new stitched clothes, doing my best not to repeat colours and choosing interesting shades from the available variety. College also meant getting into the sari mode for various occasions. That of course meant picking the best of my mother’s saris and getting blouses stitched to my size.

When I began working, earning power bestowed buying power. If there were two things I really spent my stipends or salaries on, they were books and clothes plus accessories. I had (and still have) a big weakness for finely designed handbags and jewellery. As a student interning in a chip-designing company in Pune, weekends meant heading unfailingly to the ever-bustling Lakshmi market, shopping for salwar-kameez materials and tops from small shops that would entice a prospective customer by displaying their fare on mannequins placed near the entrance of the shop. It also meant shopping for handbags from roadside shops that always made me wonder how the sellers managed to stock up so much material within such small spaces!

When I began working full-time, I was lucky to have worked in two cities that are quite the hubs of fashion. Bangalore and Bombay. When in Bangalore, shopping meant heading to Brigade Road, MG Road or Jayanagar. Malls weren’t still an in-thing back then. In Bombay, it meant heading to Colaba or Bandra for proper roadside shopping! This was also the time my fashion sense expanded. Jeans, formal and casual trousers, tops and skirts began making their way into my wardrobe. I could afford shopping for designer labels now and then, and it was around this time I turned a Fabindia loyalist.

A lot has changed about my sense of fashion and dressing over the years. If I have something to thank for this, it’s the fashion industry that has opened up tremendously and the thriving e-commerce scene that has thrown the doors open to a whole lot of possibilities. I now experiment more with colours too, not always sticking to the traditional greens, reds, blues and browns. Clothes these days come in such exciting colours, a wide range of sizes and the designs are demonstrative of highly-evolved creativity. I am a die-hard online shopper for clothes now and I love keeping track of trends in fashion. The fashion that defines me still tends to be largely Indian and traditional. I love flamboyant anarkalis paired with leggings or churidhar and plain kurtis paired with printed Patiala pants and dupattas. I match up jeans with kurtas or kurtis that spell minimalism and spruce up the look with an ethnic stole. I love wearing long cotton skirts with a lot of flare. I stick to cotton for everyday wear and for special occasions, switch to the rustic look that only a Tussar silk or silk cotton fabric can bring to your attire.

My love for sarees remains unabated and in fact, continues to grow exponentially. Cotton sarees are my favourite for the simplicity, sophistication and elegance they bring to my everyday wardrobe.  For the special moments, there are the all-time favourite silks and silk cottons. Among my picks for cotton, I am head over heels in love with the Chettinad Cotton. The colour palette on offer when it comes to Chettinad Cotton sarees is mind blowing. The motifs that range from flowers, to annapakshi to peacocks to elephants to swastiks to rudraksha to temple design to the archaic mayilkann is a true sari lover’s delight! Their affordable pricing plus the ease of shopping for them online are a bonus! What’s more, the fact that there’s the creative space to experiment on the pairing blouse, usually a printed one, makes engaging with the sari an exciting affair. Choose between the Ajrakh or Kalamkari or Ikkat fabric to stitch up a high-neck, long sleeved blouse or go for a Chinese collared variant or do up a crop top and drape the six-yard elegance around you to make heads turn! Match it up with the ever-elegant Terracotta earrings and neckpieces or black metal jewellery to complete the look. There, I have grown to the point of offering decent fashion tips!

For all the designing talent that my mother possesses, it’s a little unfortunate that I have not inherited the patience and skill to tailor my own clothes. Even today, every now and then, she would fondly admonish me to be in touch with some basic skills – like sewing a button back in its place or doing a bit of hemming. But I continue to be adamantly lazy. I suppose what I have inherited is a taste for picking clothes. So as much as I understand the need to declutter, it remains hard for me to take my eyes off splendidly designed apparel. I wouldn’t mind asking someone who’s willing to buy me a birthday gift, for a new wardrobe. There, I said it. Now that’s some serious internal conflict for someone who has religiously purchased an e-book version of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”! But what do I do? I seem to be fashion-tied! And looks like I’m going to be, for a while…

Anna & Betty

Anna has been keenly studying the photograph in her hand for about fifteen minutes now. She is surprised at how new it looks inspite of the fifty years that has lapsed between the time it was clicked and now. The photograph had been a chance discovery. It had fallen, quite cinematically, from between the pages of one of the books that Anna inherited from her bookworm mother upon her death.

The books, about five hundred in number, have remained her biggest dilemma in a long time. At fifty five, she had been bogged down by bigger problems in life but she somehow finds this alternating between choosing to keep the books and donating them to a library or discarding them, terribly unsettling. On the one hand she thinks it would be unfair on her part to give away the books on whose every single page lay invisibly, the impressions of her dear mother’s touch. On the other, she often mulls sadly over the futility of holding on to things in the name of memories.

In that moment pregnant with the indecisiveness that periodically haunts her, Anna flips the photograph over and finds her mother’s neat handwriting in green ink. “A moment of childish happiness: Anna and Betty sharing a warm joke. Giggling girls indeed. Dated 20th June 1975”. Betty. Betty, Anna thinks again, as she peers into the face of the little girl beside her own little self. Betty, her first best friend, is all but a vague memory now. Like all things that flow, Betty had moved away too from England to the U.S., and Anna remembers this because the memories of her older years have no trace of Betty. Whatever she can recall of Betty is what her mother had told her as she grew up. You know you and Betty poured an entire bucket of water over poor Rosso, your little brown teddy bear, Anna’s mother told her once, laughing a little. And she told her many more such tales of mischief with her little friend, events that Anna had no memory of.

Anna smiles a little when she thinks of how her mother would scribble little memory notes behind all photographs, in an effort to preserve moments timelessly. After all, photographs were such a rarity back then, unlike now when every damn event, however insignificant, finds a place in a mobile phone’s camera roll – something that Anna finds clearly annoying.

There are many thoughts criss-crossing each other in Anna’s mind. Her forehead creases in interesting patterns reflecting her thought process, following sincerely and meticulously the various emotions raging in her head: Curiosity, Longing, Regret, Realisation. She tries hard to recall what she and her dear friend were laughing about. She wishes deeply that her writer-mother had added a few lines about what the two little girls were talking about. Despite the restlessness that seizes her heart as she tries to demystify a conversation from fifty years back she has no clue about, she can’t help but admire her mother’s artistic eye. The way she has composed the shot, Anna thinks, is so beautiful. She imagines that her mother perhaps decided to not be an intruder and disturb the moment of childish innocence and union but capture its uniqueness, timeliness and essence by staying the non-invasive outsider.

It’s hard for Anna to think of herself as a child that she even wonders if she could have ever been one. Life, with its whole bundle of experiences and challenges, Anna thinks, leads to one feeling like a solid, inert mass of flesh, and wondering helplessly what it would have been like to be a little human being throbbing with life and freshness. She suddenly feels like letting out a huge wail as she yearns to be a child and go back to living life all over again. She would then undo so many, so many things! But wail she doesn’t, for her age forcibly clamps down on her, a reminder to maintain her decorum, and therefore, she weeps, quietly.

Where would be Betty be now, Anna wonders next. What would she be doing this very moment? Would she remember Anna, her first childhood friend? What would life have given Betty in all these intervening years? Would she have lived through a similar set of experiences like Anna had? High school, college, love, marriage, kids, career, divorce in that twisted hell of a thing called life. Would she too have peaked with confidence and fallen to the lowest levels of self-esteem at various times? Would she too have longed for that soul mate of a friend during times of distress? Would she be like those self-confident women who put themselves above everything and everyone else? Or would she have turned out to be a woman who was trampled by the reckless forces of patriarchy? And then Anna wonders how Betty would look now. All grey-haired and wrinkled, ageing gracefully? Or would she be a picture of someone worn down by the brutality of existence? And lastly, with a tinge of fear and anxiety, Anna asks herself the worst question: Would Betty be alive at all?

As Anna, with a head full of thoughts, draws a deep breath and looks back at the picture, a short and round woman turns restlessly about in her petite bed in another part of the world. In her dreams, she sees a woman in a black dress holding a photograph in which there are two little girls giggling. Betty sees herself and the other girl, and in her sleep, her lips part to utter a name. Anna. Anna, she says again, now with her eyes slightly open. A smile punctuates that utterance and Betty falls asleep again. Elsewhere, Anna puts the picture back into its place between the pages again and postpones the decision over her mother’s books to another day. That, she thinks, can wait. For some more time.

My Amma’s Rasam

When I was a school-goer,
after I had stuffed all books
and notebooks into my bag
and pushed the soul-puncturing
inertia to the back of my mind,
getting ready to leave for school,
the aroma of rasam,
my amma’s rasam
would come wafting into
the room, from the kitchen…

Its heavenly fragrance, so enticing,
and uplifting, would soon fill
every corner of our little home,
raising our spirits magically.
A perfect amalgamation of tangy
tamarind water, tomato puree,
salt and asafoetida, and a sprinkling
of fresh green coriander and curry leaves,
bubbling poetically on a medium flame…
(but) that’s not all that makes
amma’s rasam, the magical potion that it is.

It’s the rasa-podi, as we fondly
call, the mustard-coloured powder
that amma would meticulously
Get ground by mixing right amounts
Of Toor dal, Dhaniya and red chillies.
“Amma, you should patent this rasa-podi
recipe,” I often tell her for, amma’s rasam,
with her signature kai-maNam*
Is unmatched in its alluring taste and aroma.
And, from aunts and uncles to cousins,
from appa’s colleagues to Sister’s friends and
mine too, it has had fans far too many!

So much for one rasam, you may think,
but my amma’s rasam is my comfort food
that I’d run back to during college vacations
or when I was working, and still do.
My amma’s rasam is a warm hug,
it’s my tangy connection to my past.
It’s my companion in my journey of growing up,
the epitome of my childhood nostalgia.
It’s my idea of belonging –
Of my feeling and being
At home.

* A Tamil phrase used to describe the unique, personal touch that one brings to food that he/she cooks, giving it a distinct taste

Pic by https://www.flickr.com/photos/glassofhoney/