Sunday, 15 April 2012

Early mornings from Himachal

Early morning scapes around Bikrama's house, starting with this retired soldier who'd taken up seeding for all the neighbors who asked, this is him scattering corn seeds.

Bikrama Devi's Pallo

I shared Bikrama’s roof for a week in a small valley in Himachal. When my bus crawled into the little town leading up to this valley, I was alone and it took some getting used to. I didn’t think much of it till I had to get to finding a place to stay for the night, that’s actually when the valley opened up to me. The big valley and its deep plunging little paths felt like they were all mine, waiting to be picked through, I felt light.  I lugged my bags forward looking for the right signs, the feeling was quite like walking between the book racks in a book shop and waiting for a single book to call out to you. That’s when I saw those two guys up there. Between the fresh hay, the potted flower-sill and the tree branch supports I knew I’d stay in any place they had for sharing.

This would be the typical dinner sequence at Bikrama devi’s house. Pallo would be finishing the last of her homework in the courtyard outside, Bikrama’s husband sat near by breaking the firewood into smaller pieces for the kitchen fire.  He never said much. He was a carpenter, he’d built the entire house himself, he doted on Pallo the most, she’d told me in the evening.  During my stay there, Bikrama sat to talk every evening, about how this valley was so quiet, everybody so soft spoken it got to her head, sometimes she felt like getting out her dholak and walking down the streets singing loudly, these confessions amongst questions about meditation and why so many people from other lands came to this valley to meditate. I tried my best to explain it to her, but she shook her head half way through, saying the others were lucky, they had an education, they knew how to be silent, find silence, she had too many things to look into like the kids, the goats, the field, the oncoming winter. I stopped myself from saying anything else. I’ve learnt a little after walking through villages for some time around the country.

This is Pallo’s face as her mother brushes her hair down into two tight plaits for school every morning.  

Early mornings

In Mumbai, the city, waking up really early in the morning holds out so much more to the day, to my day. It’s so much better to catch the city when it has just woken, it’s much warmer, less suspicious, people still have a sense of humour.

It’s funny how different the early morning in an Ahmedabad is in comparison, the people are so at ease with their every day routines, the old women in the street rush to meet at a friend's house to sing a few hymns to their favorite diety, a woman leans on the railing of her balcony, combing her hair, she watches me stand at the door of the house below, taking pictures. The old women finish their singing and hand out some prasaad* to me, flashing a fast smile my way as they head back hurriedly to wherever it is they came from. I’ve often thought of picking one of these old grannies and spending the day following them around their curiously busy days. They remind me of my own grandmother's routine in Quilon in central Kerala, a morning with her would mean she’d go look into the cow broth set on the wood fire in the outer kitchen (a delicious smell of wet earth-dry coal and burnt wood wafted out all at once when you stirred that broth), go get her basket and climb up a few yards up our rubber tree hill to pick some herbs (I could never figure if they were for the hair oil or for the kitchen masala), she’d take a quick look at some of the dry coconut holders collecting gummy latex from the rubber trees, and then, right there, still leaning against a tree with one hand, she'd give this wordless, wide eyed look to the high tree tops waving in the morning breeze for a moment before leaving.
I’d follow her back down as she went to see if the dry hay had been set out for the little calf and get back to the kitchen in time for the fisherwoman’s visit. I’ve always wondered what it was exactly she thought when she looked up at those treetops, sometimes she'd look down into the well in the courtyard with the exact same expression.
For now, I have to settle with early mornings elsewhere, and the secret lives of so many other silently whispering souls.


Here's me stepping back to get the bigger picture.

*prasaad : blessed sweet meats handed out just after an invocation of a deity, the pooja

Friday, 13 April 2012

Old white cement bag

This is the old man who lives down my street.
He has two posts between two trees on the street, one on the floor mat of the bookshop at the corner, and the other on the pavement in the path of all walking by. He doesn't really interact. When it's raining you can usually catch him at exactly these same spots getting wet, like an old white cement bag.

He only let Anu treat his mange, hold up his tail, and hold his foot out while she bandaged it. The first time I saw Anu, 65, grey-white short hair, she had on a blue dress with white flowers peppered on, she was trying to talk the old man into being still while she checked his leg. I offered to talk to him so she could get on with the inspection, and she smiled. We exchanged numbers, and then the day after Diwali when old man ran away from his prime outposts she called me. He must have gotten scared of the crackers, she said. Sure enough, when I walked by that night, he wasn’t to be seen. 
A friend volunteered to walk with me through the crisscrossed streets in the neighborhood to look out for the old man, he wouldn’t stand a chance looking after himself in another street. He wasn’t even friendly, and young Mumbai dogs are very aggressive about their territories, we knew that. We didn’t find him that night. My friend started calling me to describe white dogs when he was out by himself on the street in the night. I didn’t have a photograph of him to help, I found myself describing his eyelashes over the phone.

I couldn’t bear to see his spots on the street empty when I passed by after. It made me feel terrible about the city. It made me think of firecrackers and how senselessly loud they must have been for him to run away, it made me think about fixing the streets of this city, designing a system where everybody really cared about the occupants and public works around their house or shop. Somebody taking ownership for something! I remembered the pot hole I fell through last monsoon, how I’d thought of getting a product designer friend to design a new way manholes could be covered, get graphic designers to design the top covers of the man holes, like the beautiful ones in Japan, businesses and designers and individuals could have their names or logos or whatever emblazoned on, did we really have no alternative than concrete blocks with three pieces of metal holding it straight over a 5 foot deep manhole?! I didn’t fall in that day, because my foot got wedged in the two metal rods running through the concrete, I broke my fall just 2 feet above the dirty dark water. A taxi driver who saw me go down, had to hold both sides of the broken concrete down to pull me out.
What would my old white man manage to do for himself in such a city.

A week passed before Anu called again, this time at 2 am.
She was smiling, I could hear it in her voice. The medical shop owner called her in the night, the old man was back on the street, and was sitting at his place on the pavement in front of his 24hr med store. He said he saw a woman in a car drop him off at the corner in the night. We never found out who the driver was, Anu and I.  But the old man is living proof of why I can’t stop holding out some more, just a bit more, for the people around in cities, in villages, in the worst alleyways of this country, in the worst of systems, these systems which never fix the manholes on the street. 
We run on chance. And in that case, I will be a provider of such chances. And I've got a lot of training ahead.

The ends of the streets

My father was an officer in the Indian Army, it meant I changed spaces every two years.
I always vomited the first day of school. New people, new faces, I needed to started talking all over again. We grew into quite a nuclear family. As I grew older, it got better.. .I'd look forward to a new place, new corners in the houses (we always shifted at least five houses in each place, each stranger than the last, the British left behind many queer dwellings), I'd plug a walkman in, and spend hours walking around the streets near my house. My taste in streets got sharper as the years went by, I'd go for the one where the kid's ball rolled out of, or the one which looked like it blocked out the street sounds, or the one the knife sharpener went through.
I was walking around the busy streets of the Ahmedabad old city, when I saw one of those familiar paths I'd always looked out for, leading away from the marketplace through a narrow alley between two buildings. I found the beautiful tree and this abandoned primary school, up there, at its end.
I took these pictures for the 14 year old in me who would have been thrilled at having a camera along. She'd have sat on the stairs over there and stared at the tree, she'd have climbed up a floor of the building and reached out for the branches extending into the balcony, she'd have wished the branches were stronger so she might have been able to scale down the trunk right from the balcony, she might have thought of all the kids of the school who might have thought the same.