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Stars: Candles of our Childhood

Stars. Hot balls of illuminated gas millions of miles away, results of narrow cosmic chances.

The same stars, due to these enormous distances, appear as pinpoints of twinkling light. And so distant these stars are, that the light that left them eons ago, reach us now. And in that way, looking at them is like peering into the past. But that is not the only way stars make us look back in the past. Some of us travel time in our own ways.

When I first wondered why stars existed, I was perhaps six or seven, enjoying my summer vacations at my grandma’s house. These were times of the mid-90s, and there was less pollution than there is now. Moreover, there were frequent power failures in Mumbra. As irritated as we were due to the extreme May heat, we were helpless. This was the time when color televisions were still not that popular, but I was still happy that there was a black and white one at my grandmother’s house. In my house, however, the only electrical appliance of note was a cassette tape. But these were useless boxes during power failures. My cousin and I were little, and not too comfortable playing in the dark, so we would often sit surrounding a lit candle after sundown, and this would really annoy the adults, because our shadows were proper hindrances to their chores. Consequently, the candle would be placed atop a small wooden cupboard. This was still manageable for us, as the light wouldn’t hurt our eyes now. We would sit in the candle-lit room till power resumed, or till the only source of light flickered away and extinguished, after which we’d run to the kitchen. It had the only emergency lamp in the entire house, but we avoided it out of fear of being scolded.

Just before one of these unpredictable power failures, our mothers decided to take us to the building terrace. They told us we would enjoy the cold evening breeze, though I knew the enjoyment was more theirs than ours. Part of the terrace has a sloping roof, with one half of the slope descending toward the rest of the terrace. We liked it immediately! Due to its smooth tarring, we could slide and roll on it. We enjoyed so much that we didn’t realize that the lights had went out. About half an hour later, tired of climbing a slope rather steep for our age, my cousin and I sat at its base, reclining and looking up at the sky. It was a beautiful sight! The waning moon hardly disturbed the darkness of the rest of the sky. I knew my cousin looked up, too, because we both were quiet. Being the younger one and looking up to me for knowledge, he asked, “How does the sky have so many stars?” I was as clueless as he was, and regarding his question carefully, I looked up again. Indeed, there were a huge number of them, so many that I had never seen so much starlight in one go.

“I think these are candles”, I replied.

“Candles? Why would someone light candles so high up?” he enquired.

“Simple. When there is a power failure in grandma’s house, we light candles so we don’t get scared. In the sky, when there is a power failure, God lights candles so that those living there don’t get scared”, I said.
“What is moon then?”

“It is the largest of the candles.”
I looked at the moon to escape the discomforting ambiguity of my answer.

“A candle?”

“Of course, or why would it become smaller every day?”

“But it becomes larger too, sometimes. And look at its shape. I don’t think it is a candle.”

“It appears to be a different type of candle.”

“Why don’t we have a candle like the moon?”

I was growing irritated, not because of my cousin’s questions, but because of my own inability to answer them. I remained quiet. At the same time, I was curious, too. Were these really distant candles? How did they last all night? They would flicker, but why wouldn’t they get extinguished? And why would someone light so many small but only one large candle? I continued to wonder, while reclining at my new favorite place in Mumbra. We drew imaginary lines between stars, forming patterns, mostly letters in our names. We wrote in different styles, inventing many of our own constellations in the process. For reasons I was not yet familiar with, I felt at peace looking up. The sky had a quiet way about it. The soft breeze had put my cousin to sleep, but I wasn’t really sleepy. We remained till power resumed, and our mothers took us away.

At times, when I look up now, I find myself remembering that night. I smile at the how stupid my answers were, at my lost innocence. I try to recall the patterns we created, but I am largely unsuccessful, perhaps because I cannot find many of the stars that completed our patterns. It saddens me, but it is not difficult to not think about it for long. We live busy lives now, and we have other things to worry about. Not that our childhoods were not busy, but somehow it was far more enriching and gratifying. It was easy to be curious about something as commonplace as a night sky filled with stars.

Stars. Hot balls of illuminated gas millions of miles away, results of narrow cosmic chances.

And it is because of one of these chances that we exist, and are capable of wondering.

(Image Credits: Marc Van Norden. Click here to be redirected to the  original image)

A View Back In Time

I have always believed that our brain has been hardwired to compare. Be it objects, emotions or scenarios, our mind constantly compares. We are able to distinguish good from bad, black from white, shiny from rusty; and I feel this is where lies the basis of our intelligence. In short, I think that the human race is this intelligent because it can compare things better than any other group of organisms we know.

Since I am a part of this human race, and I am what can be safely called ‘normal’, I also have this quality to compare, especially to distinguish between things I saw during my childhood and those that exist now. And I dare say, I am really good at it!  Now there are some places that really don’t seem different with respect to time, until the difference is no longer possible to overlook. Mumbra, where I have spent a decent part of my childhood, is one such place… The streets are still as dirty as they were, 15 years ago; the people still quarrel like they did, back then; and the roads there still resemble the moon’s surface. The one remarkable change that one would easily notice now is the presence of a huge number buildings now. In a short while, many  residential structures have sprung up. It is jarring for the eyes, really. I mean, would you not be startled to discover a building that didn’t exist on your last visit, about three and a half month ago? To many, this is ‘rapid development.’

Mumbra is not that bad, as far as scenic beauty is concerned. Beautiful hills adorn one side of the town, a creek and mangroves on another. As a child, I enjoyed watching these hills while sitting on the windowsill of my Grandmother’s house on the first floor of Bhoora Mahal, though it is not really the best place to allow the creek’s view. The hills had something that had me gazing at them for apparently no reason. I enjoyed the way they turned green after a few rains, sometimes enveloped by clouds. And when it was summer, their hue would turn more and more earthern, till they were almost barren. My cousins and I would watch people (who looked no larger than ants from such a distance) climb up a long flight of stairs that reached all the way till the Mumbradevi temple, situated at the side of a steep cliff. It was a great time-killer, especially during summer vacations, when time-killing had to be ‘great’ by compulsion.

The View in 1999
The View in 1999

Soon, a ‘rapid development’, like those mentioned before, happened right beside my grandmother’s building. Not only did it block the view of the beautiful hills entirely, it also barred most of the natural light from entering grandmom’s house. It was a shocking change. No more sitting on the sill, no more watching the hills covered in clouds. It could well be the most shocking change I experienced till that age (I was around 12 years old, I guess).

After that, lights in Bhoora Mahal had to be kept on 16-hours-a-day (considering 8 hours of sleep). Meanwhile, more buildings got constructed, engulfing little huts and trees in the locality. The air lost some of its freshness each day. As time passed, some of my brain cells, that remembered the view from that window, died every moment. Only a picture clicked by my elder sister, from a borrowed film camera, back in 1999, kept the memory alive somehow. I had somehow stopped missing that view because I gave in to the fact that it could no longer be a possibility. True, I could view it from other places (such as building terraces), but it certainly never felt like how it felt from the sill. And one day, the ‘rapid development’ that stood beside a much-older Bhoora Mahal, crumbled and gave away.

Three people died, from what I heard, and many people lost everything they had. Too busy with my own life (no time left to be killed, anymore), I only went to meet my grandmom after a few weeks i.e. after Bhoora Mahal was declared safe. It was a sunny afternoon,  the characteristic of the day I remember because I realized it was too bright the moment I reached the first floor. My steps hurried, taking me faster in the direction of my destination. They hurried because I started to realize what awaited me. The moment, when I stepped into the house, was special. It felt as if I was re-entering my childhood. The moment was bright, like the fresh sunlight that embellished the room I was in. My joy was at a constant ascent. And each single spec of time that had settled on my life’s own window, began to disappear, allowing me to view those moments of my past vividly. Some memory triggers are nature’s own time machines. I relived my moment, standing on the window sill and gazing at my beloved hills in the same way as I did as a child. I did so one eyeful at a time, because it was choking me with emotions. My oscillating mind began to compare two images of the same scene, images separated by a period of about eight years. As tears began forming in my myopic eyes, I looked away uneagerly. I came back to the sill many times during the few hours I spent there. In the little amount of time I spent there, I understood the true meaning of nostalgia. It is good that some things don’t change.

What I saw in 2013
What I saw in 2013

My Legendary Talent

Average – If there is one word that describes me, it has to be this. I have always been strictly average, right from the moment I was born, during my childhood, during my stint as a student, even now. Some friends and critics have used terms like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ as my qualities, but I guess they have been excruciatingly kind. I don’t deny them entirely, however, as I believe that we all have been blessed with a few good talents. I guess I am a good singer, though not an excellent one. And I say ‘good’ because I have won a handful of prizes while in school and college. The first time I decided to step on stage happened long after (4 years) I discovered that I had the capability to make my vocal chords dance inside my throat. I was in Grade 7 then, and having sung a deeply patriotic and wisely chosen ‘Zindagi maut na ban jaaye…’ (Movie: Sarfarosh), I won the first prize. Even to people who thought my sole talent was Being Hopeless, I was suddenly the Sonu Nigam of my school. I didn’t complain. In fact, I made it a point to participate in as many competitions as I could – Quizzes, Drawing, Singing… You name it, chances were that I was in it. As my stage fright began to diminish, my confidence climbed steadily. After a while, all I was worried about was winning prizes, which I ironically found a dearth of (A handful of prizes, true, but I have small hands).

When one day I was told that a Talent Show was to be held in our school, I participated readily. Without thinking twice, I listed ‘Mimicry’ as my talent. I believed I mimicked the voices of cartoon characters well, especially those shown on Disney Hour everyday at 5 PM. No one, not even myself, knew whether I was fit to do it, or not. Perhaps, I just wanted to be different, not only with what I was about to do, but also the character I had chosen. Goofy has not been among Disney’s smartest characters, but his was the voice I was most confident of mimicking. After waiting eagerly for close to half an hour, I heard my name being announced and proceeded on to the stage. In front of an audience that comprised students of half a dozen classes and some teachers, I began my little act. Moments after I began to speak, the microphone stopped working. I was told that I had to continue my mimicry without one, because all numerous attempt failed to revive it (the mic, not the mimicry). Placing the dead microphone on a table, meant for props for other performers right behind me, I began what one could only call ‘In-efficacious Squall.’ I had to be loud to be audible to all, but that meant I had to end up sounding like a clown.

microphone-audience
Image courtesy: michaelangelocaruso.com

Three hundred quiet faces looked at me intently. I wanted to believe that they liked and secretly marveled inside their heads at my ‘Talent’, but it was clear enough that I was wasting the time of a more worthy participant. And right when I thought it could not get worse than this, my feet disturbed the cable of the then-not-working-now-functioning-perfectly-well microphone. The cable dragged the mic, and the whole hall erupted in laughter. It was not for my act… They all thought I had farted! The position of the mic right behind me didn’t help me either. I tried to explain what had happened, but the damage was already done. Red-faced, I took the long walk back, while everyone (including a few teachers) continued their relentless giggling. As I sat back in place, the student alongside asked me if I had an upset stomach and began laughing crazily. Others followed suit. Soon, around half of my classmates had demonstrated various methods of boisterous laughter, apart from suggesting various home remedies to cure flatulence. One went as far as asking whether farting was the talent I wanted to showcase. I remained quiet most of the time, having given up explaining long back as I knew it would have little or no effect. The teasing continued for a few more days until another victim was discovered, after which my schoolmates forgot about the Talent Show. It remained etched in my memory vividly, though. It kept reminding me that even with all the lack of my fear of facing an audience, I was vulnerable to embarrassment if I did not make the correct choices. It is an important lesson life has taught me; a lesson I learnt the hard way; a lesson I value; a lesson I will never forget.

P.S.: I used this title to pay homage to the novel ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’, the first novel I ever read completely (and re-read it 5 times). This novel is written by my favorite author, Mike Gayle, whose descriptive and rib-tickling writing has been among my primary inspirations.

Death of the Dilemma

Should I go, or should I not?”

It must have been one of the rare times in the history of humanity that a person was confused between entering a building and climbing up to the third floor, or not. Most people need just the first step to convince themselves. I needed three floors. For precisely 7 minutes, I stood there and kept tackling my thought. I would not let go. My eyes remained fixed on the third floor window all the while. I turned around and left the compound. I could not take myself building so much suspense for me. “No big deal! I haven’t been there for over a year. Doesn’t matter if I did not go there today”, I explained to myself while on the way in an auto rickshaw. My other self kept quiet. My phone rang. It was Mom, who said that I had to collect some jewelry from an aunt and deliver it to another aunt in Amrut Nagar.

“Amrut Nagar?”, I confirmed and mother responded in the affirmative. I was returning from the same location. It was the same place where I stood under that building, lost in confusion. In no time, I was going back there, a box-ful of ornaments in my hand. “Sometimes, all you need is a sign”, my other self gave back a long-pending reply. Quickly, I delivered the box to my aunt and looked at the remnants of my deliberation about my visit to an old friend’s house.

When I say ‘friend’s house’, it would hardly appear to be a matter to be so perplexed about. But it DID matter to me. I had not been there for more than a year and five months (Yes, I kept a track of the time). All this time I had avoided that place as much as I could. There had been many such moments when I had stood and stared at the third-floor window, wondering if I should go upstairs and meet my second family (I would call them this). Every time I would return, just explaining to myself some way or the other. And all this was for a reason.

It is said that people with true friends are lucky. While I don’t really doubt this saying, I believe that there is hardly a person as fortunate as the one who is also loved by his/her friend’s family as one of their own. My friend’s family loved me dearly, and I realized my superior luck very soon. It was only a matter of time when they were my mother, my father, my brother and my sister. The only wrong thing that they did was they lived right next to my ex-girlfriend’s house. When I was planning to marry her, my second family tried to help me. In return, they were banished by their own neighbors. And then, they banished me. The only thing more painful was that they never said it to me by themselves. It was a long day, I recollect.

It only took a phone call to my present girlfriend to end this mental disarray. She encouraged me to go and meet them. When my mind was waist-deep in confusedness, she de-cluttered it in one moment. Some people understand what calms you down more than you can ever understand. I walked away again, but this time, I wanted to buy something to eat. When I get worried or nervous, food helps me (and maybe, this is one reason I am turning so fat now). But I did not want to eat alone, so I bought some shawarmas for them and a huge pack of chocolate for my friend’s little son. While returning, I watched daylight fade, and since I was walking in Mumbra, surroundings began to lose visibility as there was no power, not even on the streets. I reached the building and was on the stairwell without a second thought. As I stood in darkness on the third floor, the heat of freshly-prepared shawarmas warmed my fingers , as I continued to gasp out of exhaustion. I did not want to change my mind midway, so I ran as fast as it was possible for me. I knocked the door and waited for what I felt was an enormously long minute. The door creaked open, and lights began to glow. Power had resumed.

The Entrance

The Agony of Age

Around two months ago, on August 25, 2013, my sister gave birth to a sweet girl. She brought with her, a truckload of joy and happiness. Such an angel, the little girl. I believe all infants are more angels than humans. They know nothing bad, they do nothing bad, because their thoughts are pure. My niece is too young to think, right now. She recognizes me, though, sometimes only sleeping in my lap or when I pat her. She also recognizes my mother, and smiles looking at her. Most of all, she is able to identify her own mother, even by her voice. I feel the little girl is now understanding the world around her. She cries sometimes, mostly when hungry. It seems that she has concluded somehow that she will get food once she cries. All this when she is just about a couple of months old. I wonder how I used to be when I was that young. I am sure, I was not as smart. Children, these days, are much smarter. My mother tells me I had Jaundice when I was born, and they kept me in the hot afternoon sun to “cure” me. When I wailed for food, rarely opening my eyes because the sun was so bright, my mother stood at a distance and cried for me. She knew I was hungry, but she could do nothing. I guess I did not get a chance to be as smart as my niece, because I was busy sunbathing.

The Cradle

I am in the twenty-fifth year of my life now, and it has been one fine ride, so far. Of course, there have been difficult times, but they have only helped me understand the true value of the good times in this journey. But the biggest difference between the then-me and my now-me is perhaps my ability to choose between what is good and bad. I have understood that like all humans, by default I am programmed to make mistakes as I grow up. Perhaps, this is what helps me learn things.

I wonder what it would be like to not be able to think, to be like an angel, to just cry and get food. I am not that old, and would like to believe that I have a long way to go. But the agony of age will catch up. Responsibilities will continue to pile up. Looking at my niece, I wonder how was it for me to know nothing bad, to do nothing bad, to have thoughts that are pure. Or to have no thoughts at all.
However it was, I guess I will never find out.

I am a Murderer!

What is the true value of life?

This question has puzzled philosophers and scientists alike for centuries. Sometimes, people who are not from either of these two categories (read ‘Average people’) are also put in amazement by this seven-worded interrogative sentence. Mostly, they need a trigger to make them wonder about life. For me, the trigger occurred at around the age of 10.

It was the summer of 1998, and my vacations were on. It was always an awesome feeling to worry about almost nothing. Of course, my area of responsibility was limited to my school tasks. And this was the time when all I thought about was playing and my pocket-money. I have to say that I miss that time a lot. A lot of my friends started keeping pets, mostly birds. I wanted a bird, too, and the only thing I could afford was a baby chick. So I went one day to this roadside seller and had to wait a decent 15 minutes till my turn came. There were always so many children wanting to buy baby chicks and raising them. I had never thought about raising one, I just wanted to own it. I loved the way they chirped. The sound always had a soothing way about it. I wanted to buy a couple of chicks. I asked the seller how much would two cost. “Rs. 3 per chicken”, he said rather rudely. I checked my pockets and found Rs. 5. After trying a few minutes to bargain with the man, I returned home with one yellow (my favorite color, then) chick and two one-rupee coins. Mom was immediately pissed, not because she hated pets, but because she thought I should have bought at least two chicks. “They don’t like being alone. It will die if it does not have a partner”, she said. I was not willing to go and buy another one. Mom let me be.

tiny_chick

I started taking care of my new little friend, feeding him, cleaning him, taking him along if I ever went downstairs. It was a very good feeling. I had my own pet, my first one. I never talked to my friends about him, though. I don’t know why, but I felt they would disturb him. I wanted to name him, but I could not come to a conclusion. Perhaps, I thought there was no name cute enough to suit him. He would often follow me when I went out to play, and I would have to keep him in a shoe-box that I had punched holes in for him to stay. I can say he liked it, because there was hardly any sound he made once inside that box.

As he grew, I noticed that he started getting irritated. There were times he would just stand still. I asked Mom what could be the reason. “He needs a partner”, she said. I thought for a while and replied that I was his partner. I was proud. Mom did not respond, squaring her shoulders and leaving me with him. This really got me angry. I started to walk out of the house, the chick in my hand. He suddenly started making a lot of sound. But his chirps, that I once found soothing, were now infuriating me. As I stepped outside, he bit me. I could not believe he did this to me. In a fit of hot-blooded rage, I threw him on the ground and proceeded to move ahead, not looking at him. It was only once I heard rapid fluttering of wings that I turned around. He was struggling to get up, flapping his wings wildly. They were no longer of my favorite color. They were red, soaked in his own blood. I panicked, taking him in my hands and looking at him helplessly. I was so shocked, I could not even manage to cry. And there was a moment when all his movement ceased.

At the age of 10, I murdered my best friend.

To say that I miss it would be wrong. But yes, I regret being angry for that moment. He had done nothing wrong. He did not choose to be painted yellow. He did not ask me to buy him. I held him captive, when he was supposed to be enjoying under the warmth of his mother’s feathers. I called myself his partner moments before I killed him. Though I was only a child at that time, it is a matter of great shame for me. To this day, I have not had another pet.

That day, my pet chick not only caused me to wonder what is life, it also gave me the answer:

“Your life is only worth how much you value the life of others.”

Image courtesy: goldenmillinc.com

The walls we try to break…

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Imagine there is a wall. You believe it will break, and you keep punching it. Every time you punch it, you get hurt. But you want it to break… and you don’t give up hope. You keep punching, it keeps hurting.
After a long time, you realize that there are a lot of doorways. But you continue to punch the wall, because you want that reward, that satisfaction of having broken it, because you spent so much time and energy on it. But what you don’t realize is that since it is not going to break, there won’t be any satisfaction. You are thinking too much about the wall.

Just like this wall, there are people. No matter how hard you try to get into their hearts by breaking barriers, they don’t care about what you feel. And they don’t change. Even if you get hurt.The wise thing is to stop punching. Just let the wall be.

No one… Absolutely NO ONE has the right to take you for granted!
Not even a wall.
No matter how much you love a person, if your feelings are not understood and reciprocated, then you are just punching that wall.

Look for a door. There may be an open one.

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