Ignorance is indeed bliss

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.

True.

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?”

Cowistan and the Holy Matter

If you own a cow in India, you own the world, full stop. You can plonk yourself in any(one’s) territory without the fear of being objected to. Not only will the animal receive treats and tilaks but you, as the owner, will receive chay in exchange for bringing it in daily in order to put the green waste to good use. You wait, gloating at the fools. You wait until your brothers* start joining with their cattle. Residents are happy that they have cows, not dogs. It saves them the temple journeys. They can carry out the prayers right there, feed their ‘dead’ in their courtyard without wasting money on the brahmins with big appetite for their food and rupya.

*Brothers are the other men of your community. Selling milk is the occupation of your entire community. The sight of you and your flock gathered outside other people’s properties will slowly seem normal. It will be gradual to be noticed, until it is too late. Then, it really is too late. Now you want your cowistan right there. And you get it.

Even before your homes are built, the cowpats are drying everywhere. They bring extra income after milk. Neighbourhood is now dependent on you. They will be lost without the convenience of fresh milk, manure, fuel, building material, green disposal facility, and the ‘temple’. A symbiotic relationship is now formed.

An aunt of mine lived next to a gaushala in Khar West, Bombay. Gaushala is a concept very different to cowistan‘s. It is a charitable institution for cows. There will be volunteers, and the charity will depend on donations. Aplenty donations in the country where cow is revered. In some cases, people will actually ‘donate’ a cow, which will mean donating the amount that can buy a healthy adult cow, always a female. No one wants to donate a bull. It has no milk, so not so holy.

I got accustomed to the rural smell in her urban apartment. Loved it, in fact. After being there for decades, it closed down to make way for a huge hospital building with state-of-the-art facilities. Many lives will be saved, but many hearts are broken, including mine. I miss the cows and their smell. Gaushala cows are not as bright as cowistan cows. They don’t know how to claim the real estate.

I have lovingly handled cow dung – during my aunt’s chulha building and then when making cow dung rings for the Holika Dahan. It did enter my nails, even dried up in them, and I most definitely consumed the holy matter with my regular dal roti. It’s edible, so no worries. No one warned me against it. Not that anyone encouraged either, but there was never any cautionary lesson prior to the job.

Coming back to your cowistan… Wow, you now have several pucca homes with Enfield motorcycles – the Indian Harley Davidson. You still wear a dhoti, still sell milk, but you do it in style, on your heavy-duty bike. You even herd your cows sitting on your bike. You are the Indian cowboy – horsepower without a horse.

Your women are strong and sexy. Right in the middle of a busy road, they walk swaying excessively like they own it. Claiming gene.

Residents start to gradually sell their properties. You are the buyer majority of the time. You’ve acquired wealth by selling milk, plus minimal overheads. Your homes are in affluent neighbourhood. You are already a millionaire. The earlier residents’ properties are going cheap. No one except you will touch a property in a “milking” neighbourhood. You and your people are set. The cows are here to stay for good. Your sons can relocate to a new cowistan.

I love milk and the smell of the manure. I am not selling my property. Tough.

Like Rick Blaine, I never make plans that far ahead.

The year was 2011, a year or two into my street photography work. I photographed much of this part of London. This was the area I started with. This was the area I continued with for a couple of years. This was the area I returned to after unsuccessfully dabbling into the kind of street photography that never appealed to me. A consummate lover of all things classic and historical, I photographed in a manner that would retain the feel, which meant waiting at length for streets to be somewhat void of crowds.

That day was the very first time I stumbled upon this shop. Bogart did it. So did the red. Without him selling the store, there was no way I would be half as interested in stopping to photograph. For a long time after that, I called it the Humphrey Bogart store, for I thought it only sold Bogart memorabilia. I fired some half-hearted shots, with the intention of returning for some more when I would return specifically for it. In the meantime, I neglected the earlier (above) shots. My ‘I can do better’ mantra forever buzzing in my psyche. Don’t save copies, delete the files, take more tomorrow. Knowing full well the area was undergoing changes, I ignored walking past the place, even when only a few hundred yards away on many occasions, busy taking photographs of other streets, as I believed that there will be a next time, plus I might still have some low-res files somewhere in a corner of my folders. I went past it only once after that, took some shots of standing Bogart at the entrance of the shop, but was too lazy for the shot that I was after – from the street opposite.

Some other time! And I went away.

In 2018, when I was packing my gear to return, finally, to Brewer St., I was asked by someone, “Tomorrow, will you….?”

In reply, I swung my head in isolation, from side to side, like a hip-hop dancer, and spoke the famous words, “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Come tomorrow, I looked for my hero everywhere. Couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I never experienced the kind of pain I did that day at a scene that was lost forever. Brightly lit clothes shop in place of the cool, dark, old, soiled, worn, seedy, hip, noir-ish, sexy, burlesque-y red shop that sported the cutout of Bogart, the stylish seasoned smoker.

What do I do now? My files gone forever, taking my arrogance along. I could NOT do better, every time. In my dumped folders, I scavenge for the photograph from before. Now, my only hope, the low-res file, was corrupted too. When I clicked on it, it would for a split second reveal what we see above, but then go blank. So, I take tens of screenshots. One screenshot worked, and I got this scene, still corrupted, but it held a mysterious charm due to those two bands running across the image, forming a deeper-red panoramic window, creating an illusion of a private eye seated in the café opposite, making a note of the scene. Like I were the private eye with my secret camera. I love the drama that the “window” creates. Oh, so The Third Man!

I am keeping this image. This is a big part of my photography work. It has everything that I love in my work for this documentary – mystery, drama, sleaze, thrill and Rick Blaine.

Like him, for better or for worse, I still don’t make plans that far ahead. And like him, I too once smoked sutta very professionally, as a good friend, a keen observer and writer, flatteringly, wrote about me in his book. More on that another time.


Cocktail in New York. Pheras in Paris.

My family and myself were in a car driving through the lesser known streets of Jaipur. There were shops alongside residential areas — greengrocers, motorcycle repairers, barbers, stationers, street vendors, metalsmiths and stonemasons. Building smaller replicas of famous statues and other landmarks seemed to be the side business of the metalsmiths and stonemasons combined, as I saw quite a few statues scattered, part finished, part unsculpted.

Libertas, that attracted millions of visitors daily in the West, had almost zero admirers on that street. She stood on a shoddy unpaved muddy sidewalk in 48°C (118.4°F).

We were instantly amused, but also bemused. What was that statue doing there? There was clearly a demand for these. In the habit of always carrying my camera, I got off the car to take a couple of photographs. The men on the site found my actions as hilarious as I found theirs.

I asked where the statue was going. “It’s for a wedding.” It saddened me to learn that these men on meagre wages were building these enormous figures for an evening party. “What pleasure exactly could be derived from these cheap replicas that cost many times more than those workers’ combined monthly wages?” I wondered. “Were they trying to fake the location through these?” “Were the business families uploading the party videos on YouTube, captioned, ‘Cocktail in New York’?”

What next? A demolition party? Where do these statues go? Submerged into the waters like Kali and Ganesha? But this is the desert state – so, no sea. Recycled? Maybe! There might just be a second-hand market for these for smaller budget weddings. Who knows!

I never found out.

Later that evening, just when my camera packed up (probably due to the heat), I saw an Eiffel Tower in the middle of a garden in an affluent residential area. The bungalow was getting ready for a wedding (one can tell of the nature of the event from the extent of the embellishments). That was definitely a wedding.

I bet there is a YouTube video of the pheras in Paris.

In my next trip, I would like to know of the fate of these non-permanent structures.

An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.

There but for the grace of Dr. David Lefroy

St. Mary’s Hospital, Praed St, Paddington, London W2 1NY

Roughly 9 years ago, I was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in an ambulance that jumped the traffic lights with its rotating blue beacon and deafening siren. I lay there thinking, ‘This is so embarrassing. I am still conscious. I can walk this distance. Probably even run, if I tried.” I was only out to get my reports from the local clinic when I was ushered to the ambulance, on a wheelchair. I looked ridiculous, being transported this way when the elderly waited. “You are not a fraud, Mrs Sharma (this was in response to my request for a comprehensive heart screening, which they thought was a rather odd request from someone my age at the time, and also looking perfectly healthy). You have a serious heart condition called Ventricular Tachycardia, and the episodes are frighteningly frequent. If you were to collapse on the streets or your home, we won’t be able to revive you. You have to remain with us and get treated straightaway.” explained the consultant at the West Mid cardiology department.

“Who would make my children’s lunch? Who will do their laundry? They don’t even know I’ve been admitted.” No one cared about my ‘bigger’ worries.

Oh, well!

Few hours later, plus an exciting ambulance ride, I found myself in the operation theatre. In front of me stood one of the finest cardiologists in the whole of the United Kingdom, Dr David Lefroy, who carried out the treatment. It was my lucky day.

Right from the outset, Dr. Lefroy came across as a gentle, caring, efficient, and a thoroughly professional gentleman. My gut said I was in good hands. Years later, I know I was.

I was brought to him at an advanced stage of V-tach. I had suffered blackouts doing most mundane of things, like standing in the garden, walking down the streets, cooking in the kitchen, etc.. Landed in the hospital after every blackout. The usual blood tests and X-rays later, I would be sent back home. No one even remotely questioned the functioning of my heart, until a time came when I had to thump my heart to keep it from giving up on me. I could feel it was struggling to keep up. The stress of my husband’s brain haemorrhage exacerbated my symptoms. The thumping got harder, and I feared I’ll have an accident while driving. This was the time when I pushed my local clinic for a heart monitor. The rest we know…

Dr. Lefroy briefed me on what to expect. He performed the ablation. One treatment only, and I was back on my feet the following morning. He exceeded all my expectations. I never had to return for another treatment.

(I learnt about his impressive credentials only after I returned home).

Image result for dr lefroy st mary's heart treatment
Dr. David Lefroy, Photo credit: Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust (Google search)

Nine odd years later, my heart still ticks, sometimes beats heavily, even palpitates, and not exempt from hurting (emotionally). But, this is owed to my lifestyle, my erratic sleeping pattern, the habit of over-working myself, both physically and mentally, and excessive thinking, etc.. I now laugh about having a sexy-sounding condition (V-tach) that I suffered from for years until it was diagnosed.

I am alive, and VT is not sexy in reality. It got me close to death on numerous occasions in ten years preceding its discovery. The consultant was right about the ‘revival’ bit. Good thing he was indifferent to my worries about the domestic chores.

Coming back to St. Mary’s….I never got to see the hospital building. Paramedics drove through the special entrance at the back of the building. 7 yrs later, on my way to a photography commission, I stumbled upon it. I exclaimed at its astonishing beauty, took several shots with my camera, spared a thought for all the patients that were in there, and of course, thanked, with all my heart, Dr. Lefroy. There but for the grace of ……

P.S. From time to time, I also thank my heart for being a good boy, being responsive, and behaving ‘himself’. I scratch his back too, mostly by skipping some of the alcoholic beverages that don’t suit his muscle. I’ll need to do a bit more than that. A regular sleeping pattern would make him happy, I know. Little more physical (recreational) exercise. I am getting there.