Car journeys usually start at the break of dawn. London to Wiltshire was one such. Food, music, conversations, family – a potent mix of jollity. Few hours went by in a jiffy.
Stonehenge, a disappointment at first sight, but mesmerising on closer experience.
There is nothing instantly obvious to admire. Couple of very large stones erected in an English countryside. But you stand still for a while. Stare straight at the stones. You suddenly begin to feel them transcending their physical outfit to provide a spiritual encounter.
For thousands of years, Stonehenge has remained an enigma.
According to folklore, Merlin, wizard of the Arthurian legend, created the site with the help of giants who transported the stones from Ireland. There are some fascinating modern-day interpretations of the structure, from it being a site built by aliens, probably as their landing site, to it being a place of Druid worship. Some see the stones laid in the shape of female genitalia – as a giant symbol of fertility.
“Stonehenge” — whatever the reality, however it came into existence, wherever it came from, whoever built it – the less we can substantiate its origin, the more we will be drawn to its mysteriousness.
If stared at long enough, the spirits start to communicate. They possesses you.
Midnight is the time to reflect on the day. To feel what should have been felt in real time, but the excessively busy day would not permit. Any side I turn around, there are people. Loads of them.
I have walked like twenty-five thousand steps in one day and give or take, but mostly take, a couple of thousand on other, until I am not longer directing my legs but, instead, they are dragging me. Paralysis of all kinds, emotional, mental and physical, is à la mode lately.
Tiring but enlivening.
I see people, animals, birds, vehicles, concrete tower blocks. Stray or domesticated or wild. They are aplenty. More than necessary. In many cases, they are not there to provide comfort, but to teach to be without any company.
Life is such a waste for some. So much time. Such a long life to be alone. There are so many people, and yet so much loneliness. All that noise but not enough to pierce their silence.
Why can’t anyone see what I see?
Immunity? Selfishness? Busyness?
Busy with what? Self-serving agendas?
How are people who only think about their own welfare come to be known as the ‘kind people’, while those who like to make some noise come to be known as the nasty ones?
Isn’t it the easiest thing in the world do? To stick to one’s own selfish agendas, save every dime for one’s own self, to hell with the rest of the world as long as our own house is warm?
Charity? What charity?
How easy it is to be the kind one! Praises from all sides. Ready to be canonised.
I don’t want hassle-free. I want noise. I create noise. Because I think. I find time to think. I make noise for everything that is not right, not to attract attention to my deeds. I want answers because I ask questions.
I am not selling my soul.
How can people eat their meals in peace when there are people out there starving? How can some splurge when there is not enough for some to buy a packet of bread? How can they pay no heed to people dying avoidable deaths, not of overindulgence? How can they think only about themselves?
Since when have opportunism, greed, selfishness become virtuous traits?
These people are lonley. They are hungry, sad, ill, poor, hopeless, aimless. Deprived of everything. Stripped of dignity.
So many people near them. Not one for them. I can sit here forever with them. Watch their every move. What makes them tick? What motivates them to wake up every morning for the daily drudgery?
Pilani will always be my home. I have lived much less in Pilani than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. But I was born only in Pilani. That explains the special attachment. Same for my dad. He is a Pilaniwala at heart despite fleeing from the place in his early teens, following in his father, my grandfather’s footsteps.
The seaside city of dreams – a cornucopia of night life, bright lights, beaches, film studios, artists, film stars, clubs, restaurants, cafes, dance bars, five-star hotels, high rise, chawls and slums. A metropolis with deep pockets and abject poverty in equal measure.
My dad ‘took’ the train from Chirawa. There was no train ticket for a penniless boy. So, he leapt on the buffers between two bogies and rode sitting on it for part of the long journey. At Sawai Madhopur, where the train stopped briefly, he got off to stretch himself. A lassi seller asked him to mind his stall while he fetched some ice from a nearby shop. My dad, in that time, stirred himself a lassi glass and gulped it down before the man returned. Extreme times, extreme measures. Back on the Frontier Mail, this time hanging outside the door, persevering the exhaustion, drowsiness, hunger, soot and chill, gripping firmly on the handle bars, he forced his eyes open for he knew that to succumb was to die.
My grandfather had already made Bombay his home since the 1920s. He worked in the city but the salary could not be stretched as far as shifting the whole family there. So, he would come to Pilani during Diwali or Holi, bringing with him urban gifts and tales. My dad was crazy about Bombay and wanted to be there by hook or by crook. That’s exactly what he did. Hooked to the train, ticketless.
South Bombay, by then, was a home to several wealthy Rajasthanis from and around Pilani. Clever businessmen they were. They were mostly the baniyas, the traditionally enterprising and occupational community. Birlas being the richest in India and to remain so for the rest of the 20th century. My grandfather, being a brahmin, didn’t know the ‘b’ of business but had a penchant for reading, singing, telling jokes, folktales, fat-bottomed girls, and faking astrology. He found employment at the Birlas – the brotherhood and all, but was ‘the panditji’ on demand.
Alighting from the train at Bombay Central, my dad walked 3 or 4 km to CP Tank which was actually a water tank but the area it was in had come to be known as that too. There, he somehow found his way to Bahman Bari (home of the brahmins) where my grandfather lodged with other brahmins from Pilani and nearby towns. My dad was only allowed to remain there for a day or two before he was sent back home, this time with a ticket.
But, he attempted again. And again. Against my grandma’s wish. She is believed to have told him, ” You keep running away from Pilani, but a day will come when you will pine for it.” Which, decades later, as dad narrated the story to us, was the case.
My grandfather gave up in the end and my dad stuck around in Bombay to try his luck in films. He had the right looks but very little patience. My grandpa got him admitted to Filmistan (Studios). I somehow never thought that my dad was cut out for acting. But he did do a film or two. At the age of 16 or 17, he featured in Angan, (released 1959), with the very famous Rehman, Street Singer (1966) with Chandrashekhar, and a few more. He could not persevere for better roles, so he much later (when *I* was in my teens) got into film production. He co-produced with my mum a film titled Ek Naya Itihas (released 1984) that featured some fine actors like Hema Malini, Vinod Mehra, Reza Murad and Om Shiv Puri, and one attempted film with Rajesh Khanna, Neetu Singh (now Kapoor) and Anil Dhawan that never reached far due to lack of funds. My dad never entered films, in essence, but never left films either, frequenting Churchgate’s Gaylord and other venues where the filmi lot hung out together for the free flowing booze and the pretty pretty girls.
Opposite the Bahman Bari was also my mum’s residence. My nanaji had bought that place soon after the partition when they arrived there from Karachi. The balconies of my mum’s home and dad’s flat faced each other. It does not require a great deal of imagination to understand how they must have met. My mother was a comely, gentle, homely and industrious girl. My dad knew instantly she was the one for him.
My grandma died very young leaving the burden of one younger son and three very young daughters on mostly my dad as my grandfather was going to retire to come back home few months too late.
My dad called his brother to the city, and a year later married my mum.
The ‘hook or by crook’ attitude was now directed at making a success of the monetary kind. My mum became a mum to my aunts, his sisters, and spent some time in Pilani, a big move for a girl brought-up in Bombay of the time. That’s when I was born. We spent time shuttling between Bombay and Pilani as my dad was still trying to find his feet and could not afford a bigger apartment in Bombay until later, for the whole family, aunts and grandpa included. But they would visit from time to time. My sister, Sheetal (fondly called Bubbles) was born in Bombay. Somewhere in between came Ahmedabad and his alliance with Sanjay Gandhi who made him join the Youth Congress. He entered politics but devoted his time in supporting certain agendas than diving into it full-time. Same as with films, he remained on the fringe of politics, but never left it either. I believed he was not shrewd enough for politics despite having friends in the field. My brother, the youngest of us three, was born in Ahmedabad. Three of us, three different cities, three different seasons – summer, monsoon and winter.
Before long, dad was re-catapulted to Bombay. He started business ventures, but he too didn’t know the ‘b’ of business since he didn’t know the ‘a’ of account-keeping. A flamboyantly social guy, my dad, enjoyed having people over for dinners and drinks once he was financially comfortable.
He never forgot his real home though, Pilani. He found, and sometimes created, reasons to assemble all his siblings and their families at the family home. Pujas, havans, shraads, grandfather’s wish, and then my marriage, whatever it took to call them over. He craved to return home from time to time. He forever contracted builders at Pilani home to keep the home ‘open’ as that meant returning often to check on them.
It must be where one is born that one remains strongly attached to. Pilani calls me in the same way, or maybe a little less, as it does my dad, and yet I lived there much less than in any other town out of all the towns I have lived in. Also because it is my father’s home. I miss Bombay too. Some of the best years of my life were spent there. It is my mother’s first home. She grew up there. A city where my parents met. It is where their dreams came true.
A city of dreams, still, for many aspirants who must be at this very moment clinging onto the buffers of the trains en route to Bombay, nka Mumbai.
To make the switch from what we are used to is never easy. We either do it by our free will or sometimes against it. In case of the latter, we are troubled, crestfallen and devitalised to the extent of ending in a deep calm, which essentially is a kind of numbness that descends upon us when we’ve reached a dead end trying to escape a pursuing beast at the dead of night. Its’ size and raptorial instincts leaving us feeling impuissant. You know there is no point in trying to jump over the fence when the creature is right behind you and comes with a splendid night vision as an added bonus. You stand still or move, you are going to be ripped apart indiscriminately regardless.
This was the state I experienced recently. Only the roles were played by objects. The switch of the skillset, usually a welcome change, was this time due to helplessness. Attempt to escape was actually a rescue effort with dead end being the exhaustiveness. Beast, a monster of my own creation, build from negligence and unthoughtfulness. Stress, fear, sadness and shock being the predator’s many attributes.
Numbness is real.
I cannot jump the fence. I am disabled for that purpose. I allowed the beast to get too close. I could have been better prepared, better equipped for such a contigent event. Dr Frankenstein cannot be invincible.
Is there a message in all of this? Is this life’s way of telling me, ‘”Go on, you wanted this, right?” Was this some form of tempting-providence instance of sort?
It hurts when we allow. It won’t if we defy. For now, it is painful, even in the anaesthetised state. I am sad, but won’t wallow in that state. I never do. I am a warrior. Self-proclaimed one, so be it!
For a limited time, I seem to have been robbed of my purpose, but I have many other purposes that define me. I will assume one of them wholeheartedly.
I am bound to lose some people on the way because they cannot have me in any other form than the one they accepted or have known me for. I will also retain some who will welcome my new avatar. Those who see me as a person, not as a robot. Those who don’t define me for what I do but for what I am.
A good friend once wrote to me, “It is very easy to find someone to do a lot with, but very hard to find someone to do nothing with.”
I want to be the latter for those who have the wisdom to appreciate this quote, and still want to be around me.
To do nothing.
To not remind me of my nothingness but to be a part of it and to bring more nothingness to fill where a danger of temporal activity is anticipated. To accumulate it as an asset. To earn it.
It was an early start. Ahmedabad has changed to an unrecognisable extent. I drove from there through S.G. Highway to Makarba one July morning in 2018 as per the directions given by Bubbles in a cutely sincere manner – two lefts, then right, then straight for 2 kms, then three rights, and so on. It must have been the combination of her accuracy and my ability to grasp that I reached the masjid with sheer ease. The light from the golden torch was making its way to the earth before bribing its way into the roza’s courtyard.
Bhavna stood there to greet me. Oh, what a beautiful face she had. Those eyes!! She instantly came across as a warm person willing to share her knowledge of the place. She spoke a welcome mix of educated English and raw Hindi. We entered the monument, removed our shoes, covered our heads.
A typical morning scene. Touchingly serene. A few men, unperturbed by my presence, read the morning papers. I felt at home. I kept taking photographs as Bhavna’s soft voice kept singing in my ears. We Indians are spoilt. Our history dates so far back that we casually declare a six centuries old structure as recent. We even neglect it.
This was Sarkhej Roza, once the home of sufi saint, Ganj Baksh. To one side stood a stone pavilion in a sad state of disrepair and to the other, a courtyard with a masjid and quietly guarded tombs. Several mausoleums, an old well, hundreds of wide steps leading down to a dried tank and the infinite expanse. One part of the mosque, with its tall pillars reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens. It was too much for me to take in on a short morning tour.
Once in a while a person will walk the white-painted path, that led to the masjid, to speak in private to the supreme being. This path was also taken by the Sun to kiss the cheek of the messiah who must most definitely reside in such quietude.
A small girl jumped and skipped on the steps oblivious to all. A spoke of the well-wheel pulley made to resemble an exotic visitor to the Sabarmati River. A cormorant or a spoonbill perhaps. The little bookshop opened early. A few men sat selling to no customers at all. Bhavna enjoyed a nice chat with them. A silvery bearded man in immaculate white clothes and matching taqiyah takes over the shop. “Maybe he’ll sell only one book today,” I thought. I buy one. But he will remain all day no matter what. Dedication. Service. We all can learn.
The cleaner, with her younger grandson in her arms, complained about her useless son-in-law. From Bhavna’s story to this – it felt like I had changed the radio station.
Her elder grandson played near the main gate. His angelic face captivated me so much that I took several photos of him. He kept changing poses. A young man sat on the chair. Maybe, that was the accused.
My gaze locked on a woman sitting outside the room that housed the tombs. She was not present there. She appeared to be talking to someone. But there was no one. She then laughed, and continued to laugh. Her ankles were swollen. She was a regular I was told. She walked out as aimlessly as she had walked in.
Outside the mosque, another lady sold balloons. “She’s my friend,” announced Bhavna. Where did these people buy such delightful smiles from when they could not even afford a decent meal? How can they afford such precious attributes?
On my drive back to Ahmedabad, and before I hit the highway, I saw the lady who spoke to the spirits. She was on her way to… nowhere.
I am pretty much bored of taking photos. There is no challenge around, nil creativity, internet deluged with mediocre work, everybody falsely praising everybody else, sycophantic and sugar-coated comments becoming the norm, and art critics dead.
Just when I thought I was done, I am able to envision images before shooting, and also getting the results. Oh, no, I am still far from being labelled an expert. Karma is playing a role here. Photography is not letting me go. It loves me. It misses me when I ignore it. It pushes itself in my face, in my psyche, my heart, my hands, and my dreams. It is entrapping me with fluke shots.
Last couple of days I have walked aimlessly on London streets. Like any other metropolis, this too is busy. Too busy to pause, look, or care. The anonymity it lends to individuals is sort of nice. I can sit, think for hours. It won’t impose on me its speed. I won’t be pushed or shoved if I didn’t allow. I am part of a slowly exposed still.
I stop noticing people. They are like a motion blur. My camera is restless. I spend money and time to be there. One good shot would be a bonus. I have shot almost everything on those streets. I start to create ‘odd’ images in my head, and then fire the camera. God damn it! I am starting to get exactly what I pre-see in my head. I have the camera on full manual settings, including the lens. I don’t want perfect results. I want blurs, poor compositions, over-or-under exposed shots, and other such results that will convince me enough that I am not cut out to be a photographer. It is not happening. Something out there is not letting me give up just yet. I want to travel. Have adventure. Spend my days walking and observing life, and nights in dimly-lit rooms in near silence. No camera to distract me.
It won’t happen yet. My camera is intelligent. It programmes itself to my visualisation. It is giving me the results with very little effort on my part except the part where I am being a fantasist. Canon baby is making my fantasies come true. This will last until I fall in love again. I have to pretend to ‘neglect’ it.
Seated on a bench, I watched the pigeon. It won’t leave my feet, hopeful for some crumbs. It then flies. I wait again. I will photograph it in flight, between those buildings, almost silhouette-y, but not entirely, as I want the lamp to have some light from underneath the white globe, and also slightly exposed buildings to give some context to the bird’s position.
Wishful thinking with an all-manual camera and an unpredictable bird.
It comes in the view, and I wait again until it is there where I want it. Will it? Maybe not! It just might!
And, it did.
One shot only. I didn’t want to do a second ‘for luck’s sake’. I wanted a ruined image. I wanted to return home frustrated, angry.
Can anyone ever get a image exactly how they imagined against such odds?
Divine intervention, perhaps.
On a separate note — I feel like the bird. Free. On my Jack Jones amidst urban chaos.
My father hates a couple of habits wholeheartedly. A few of them include swearing/cursing (expletives), raising the voice, frightening the weak, winking, smoking, and chewing paan, to recall but a few.
When someone screamed, or swore, he would ask, “Do you live in the slums?” Because he believed that only those who have hard lives do not have time to correct their behaviour as they are preoccupied with earning their next bread. Incivility, under those circumstances, can still be excused, but never under any circumstances otherwise.
When I was small, I would go into the neighbour’s garden, sometimes to sit on their swing, and at other times to pluck flowers for my prayers. They had a dog named Tiger. He was small but ferocious. I took the risk daily, and Tiger invariably chased me out. One day, as I sat on the swing, waiting for my school bus, Tiger darted towards me, with the most nasty bark. I flung from the height and straight on to the hard floor, landing on my chin. Briefly unconscious, bloodied uniform, first-aided by the landlord, etc. Once conscious, I was sent on the bus when it arrived. Few days I walked around with a plaster-beard. I still bear the (real) scar as a reminder.
My small hands made garlands for daily prayers from the plucked Champa flowers. Was I religious! In return, the neighbour received the daily prashad. The neighbour had a huge house, and also a tenant living on the first storey. The landlord found me pretty amusing when I cleaned out their flowering bush but their awkward tenant had a problem. One day, he came down and screamed at me, and shooed me out. I cried, told my dad, and it was left at that. I didn’t think about it much until one day, many years later, in our new home, I saw on the TV that the same guy was arrested by the police. It didn’t make me happy or sad, as I was indifferent. I had been too young to understand what holding a grudge meant. But, I later found out that even though my dad had not expressed his annoyance at the man’s behaviour towards me when I was younger, deep inside my dad waited for the right moment to unleash his wrath. He had taken upon himself to find out every little thing he more than possibly can about that man, and discovered that, at some stage many years before, the wretched man had been involved in several dubious activities, in another city. The trail had gone cold. But, there was one person (my dad) digging the dirt on him. The man should have known better before trying that behaviour with my dad’s daughter.
“How dare he raises his voice at my daughter? Did he think he will get away with that behaviour? Never. Not with Ram Avtar around,” my dad uttered, watching the TV.
That’s when I knew my dad had avenged my tears.
My dad, our bhaya (we call him). He has always loved all sorts of people asking him for help. “People only ask when they know you could,” he says.
There is no “impossible” word in his dictionary. He is now old in age, but the challenges he takes are equally tough as the ones he took when he was younger, which were way more than many young people I have met take.
He still phones people up to say, “Please use me while I am able.” Ha ha. My mummy, Asha Devi, made that possible for him, for it was her who had to put up with the people that came to our house seeking his help. She was left with the task of cooking and accommodating them in her very very very clean home. It was such a rare household. We children, myself and my two siblings, also started bringing people who needed help over to our house. It was like we were attracted to helpless people. My mum started to call our home a dharamshala. There was always plenty of food, clean bathrooms and tidy beds with freshly washed linens. Every person I have met has stayed over at my house, eaten my mum’s food, used her clean towels, been chauffeured in our cars, and much more. Some have been shamelessly thankless.
My dad’s take on that – “No one takes from us unless we owe it to them from our previous life.”
Ha! My family must have been thugs in the previous life then!
My dad, a rare man. A bit crazy, but a dynamic crazy. My mum, a ruthlessly, undiplomatically honest woman. She hates liars. Unfortunately, she met so many that she lost faith in people. She is proud of her children. That’s what counts.
We siblings do what we were brought up doing, helping people out. We sing the same song that our dad still sings to us, much to my mum’s annoyance, “Apne liye jiye to kya jiye, ae dil tu jee zamane ke liye (what good is living for own self, oh my heart, live for the world)”.
I have, since, known people stoop down to gutter level. I am now a grown-up. Can fight my own battles. I do like to continue helping people, but some days when I feel hurt, I do feel like yelling, “I should peel the sticker ‘Use me’ off my forehead.” Some days, I’m left feeling that I’ve been taken for granted. But then, maybe I owed it to them from my previous life, Or, they will owe me in the next life.
If there is a next life!
I will not yell. I feel good this way. I come out stronger.
Surely, it is their ignorance that makes them behave a certain way. They know no better, and hence feel no remorse. Their foolishness makes them feel proud of their behaviour. They feel big by shouting someone down. Why else would they repeat it? But this does not mean I continue to put up in this life what I haven’t grown up believing. If my dad could hear them, he will surely ask, “Do you live in the slums?”