Categories
Stories

Ketchup

By Rakhi Pande

The Lucknow Residency

The month of May in 1984. Schools closed, scorching summer heat and best of all, the trip to Lucknow, where the family of five went every summer vacation, without question. Riha, all of seven years old, was ecstatic to have reached her grandparents’ house after the two-day long train journey. The house appeared to be as large as a palace to her. Much bigger than their two-bedroom house in Bombay.

That, however, paled in comparison to this –- the most perfect of all homes to Riha’s young eyes. The aangan* in the centre –- bigger than their private terrace –- with rooms all around, a green garden patch with the open water tank, dank, green water whose depth could not be fathomed by her and which, through an unerring child’s instinct, she kept at a safe distance. The steep, curving staircase with treacherous and oddly angled steps leading up to the roof which secretly scared her; which she was vaguely aware she took much longer to ascend than her cousins who lived here. But once conquered, you were on a long roof with a view of the neighbourhood – and the room on the roof. (This was the best of all houses!) Surely haunted, but only after dark as per her childish logic.

Many years later, when she visited the same house in her mid-twenties, in what was to be her last visit to it – she saw the house just as it was – crumbling and old, destined to be pulled down and replaced by a taller, sleeker rectangular block, having permanently divided the family over its sale proceeds. The staircase which had intimidated her as a child was just ordinary. Mixed feelings and some regret – perhaps she would have preferred those childhood memories to the reality of this crumbling, derelict version.

But this story is about one of the magical days from all the summers spent in that city and of only one of those many mornings. A morning from a riotous summer for Riha along with her two siblings, and five cousins that lived here in the hauntingly enchanted city of Lucknow of the eighties as viewed from the vinyl covered cycle rickshaw seat. The driver laboured over the pedals in a mesmeric rhythm, navigating impossibly narrow streets, cows, street dogs, people, the occasional cars, tempos and handcarts and the noise that was always a part of the city – the shouts, honking, bleating of goats, mingling with the call of the azaan*.

Riha was a happy, confident and an attractive child and though she would vehemently deny it later; citing ‘middle child’ as her defence; perhaps a little pampered by her aunts and uncles here. She woke early with anticipation for the promised outing – utterly excited that they were having an Enid Blyton style morning ‘picnic’, complete with a wicker basket full of buttered buns, the sweet milk bread which she loved and a rajai* and a bedsheet to spread on the grass. They had to go very early, to avoid the dreaded loo* and the heat, which didn’t bother her, but which was just a convenient excuse for her elder cousins and aunts to not play catch or hide and seek with her during the afternoon.

That morning they were approaching the gates of ‘The Residency’, in quite a grand procession of two cycle rickshaws hired in addition to the spotlessly clean and sparkling white Ambassador belonging to her ‘Advocate’ grandfather. Riha was sure they would be the very first visitors here as she had awoken at an impossibly early hour, so she was surprised to see a few people already there –- walking about with dogs on leashes.

They walked quite far from the entrance, on wide green rolling lawns, way past the museum and dungeon, quite close to another set of ruins –- just walls with no roofs bordering unkempt taller grasses. The bedsheet was rolled out, basket deployed and after a while as it got sunnier and sunnier, without quite knowing how, Riha had soon wandered into the semi-walled ruins to explore the ground for unusual stones and wild flowers, her younger brother Aahan trailing behind her as usual.

She smiled at the other girl she saw there, enchanted by her blonde hair – “Hi! Are you here for a picnic too?” she asked, arrested by the lovely crisp white lacy and ruffled “birthday dress” the other girl wore. Only birthday dresses were so beautiful! Riha looked down at her own blue cotton dress, which she had worn a lot many times.

“You’re so lucky your mother let you wear your party dress!” Riha said. The other girl looked down at her dress and that’s when Riha noticed the ketchup patch all down the front of the lovely white dress. Exactly where she had once stained her dress while eating pakodas* with ketchup when her impish younger brother had jolted her arm. She felt immediately concerned and sorry for her –- she knew her mother would be upset and if her mother was anything like hers, there would have been good chances of receiving a stinging slap for messing up her party dress like this.

“Is that your brother?” the girl asked.

Riha nodded. “My brother is here too.” Riha moved closer but could not spot the other boy –- hoping he could be a playmate for her brother. He must’ve wandered off.

“Who’re you talking to?” said Aahan. Riha rolled her eyes knowing her brother was annoying her as usual.

“How rude, Aahan!” She looked at the girl, sharing the – ‘younger brothers!’ look. “Sorry about him… I’m Riha, what’s your name and why don’t you come and play with us?” she invited, frowning at Aahan.

“I’m Mary. Look,” she pointed across the greens, “My mother is calling us –- I have to go.”

Riha could not quite spot which of the women in the far distance Mary was indicating, but she was not happy at the thought of losing a newfound playmate.

“I’ll walk with you till you find your mother and we could ask her permission to play with us – we are a big group here,” she confidently proclaimed.

“Okay, I’ll ask her, maybe we can meet near the museum after some time,” smiled Mary.

“Okay, bye!” shouted Riha, happily.

Riha looked around for Aahan but he must have run off earlier. As she left the ruins, she saw her aunt halfway there, calling her to come quickly away from the dangerous ruins.

“They’re not dangerous at all!” scoffed Riha.

“Who were you talking to?” her mother asked. “Aahan said you were trying to scare him by pretending to talk to someone.”

Riha plonked herself down on the sun-soaked sheet and glared at Aahan. Why were younger brothers such pests? Describing the encounter, she couldn’t resist remarking how the other girl had been allowed to wear such a nice dress to a park. “But didn’t you say she’d spilled ketchup on it?” retorted her mom.

With the elders finding it too hot, it was time to leave but Riha insisted on stopping by the museum to say goodbye to Mary and dragged the whole family there. After waiting for a while it was clear no one was coming there and Riha was reluctantly made to leave, with promises of one more picnic there for sure. 

Now, years later, sitting on the sagging charpai*, under the bright stars that evening in that old house, the moment triggered a memory of the picnic to the Residency. In her teens she had been quite intrigued by the history of the place and read about the slaughter of the British families including women, children and babies there during the siege of 1857. She remembered quite vividly that evening years ago, cuddling on her grandmother’s roomy lap on the same charpai. 

Naniji* had surprised her by asking for a detailed account of the girl she had met. In Riha’s world, that morning was already firmly in the past. Her grandmother was quite interested in the ketchup stain too. Later, she had noticed the elders having a discussion in whispers and looking at her.

Annoyingly, Aahan was allowed to hover around them or perhaps they hadn’t noticed. He had then galloped up to her and shouted in glee, “See, I told you, you met a ghost! That was not ketchup, it was blood!”

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Glossary:

*Aangan = an inner open courtyard

*Aazan = Islamic call to prayer

*Rajai = block printed comforter/ duvet

*Loo = hot and dry summer wind

*Charpai = traditional Indian woven bed

*Nani – Maternal grandmother, ‘ji’ a respectful suffix

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Rakhi Pande heads the English department at a British curriculum school in Dubai, UAE. She segued into this profession after quitting her erstwhile post as General Manager in the field of brand management in India. Having spent her formative years in Mumbai she has spent a decade in each profession before exploring greener pastures abroad. An avid reader and award-winning educator, while dabbling with blogging and other creative pursuits, she tries to write whenever time permits. Hopefully, there’s a book in her.

www.linkedin.com/in/rakhi-pande-362a387

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Categories
Musings

Hope never dies; not even during the times of Corona

By Rituparna Mahapatra

This feels so dystopian. The world today. The television streaming clippings of people, suddenly thrown out of work and asked to leave, to go back to wherever; just leave. Isolation is the keyword, it seems. Lock yourself in your homes, if you don’t have a home somewhere; in a drain pipe, a hole, a box anywhere. Just leave they have been told. They have been let down by the cities of their dreams, the people they worked for, the world collectively. Can we do anything about it? Nothing! And we hang our heads in shame, in our living rooms.

Panic grips as I learn, in Italy the death toll has crossed ten thousand. I don’t want to know, but the WhatsApp forwards, don’t let me be. I have heard great leaders speak that they have everything under control, the fear on their faces, still visible. I don’t believe them. I look for the latest data on a live update on the virus, my finger going touching the names of the places, I had dreams of visiting.

I live in one of the most affluent cities in the world, we have been blessed with abundance. Food, water, electricity, shelter. our city is being sanitized I hear, and I feel protected. But then fear is not far behind, every time I get to know someone, who is not supposed to have stepped out of the home; is irresponsible.

The truth is, none of us is safe anymore, anywhere. Dubai, New Delhi, New York, Madrid, Rome, Paris; all of them vulnerable, and heartachingly weak in the face of this Pandemic. I try and think of something cheerful and look at a picture of our friends on my phone at the last house party.  So, we decide to meet online, the familiar faces smiling back to me from a computer screen. We laugh, chat and raise a toast. It feels like ‘almost normal’.  It will be a while till we get to hug them touch them, till then these smiling faces are good enough. I am thankful for them. This will be over soon. This surreal life that we are living in.

Our kids are attending school from their bedrooms, sometimes huddled in their beds; their identities shrunk to initials. Their beloved teachers are just faces attempting to cheer them up while teaching. They struggle to focus on solving that equation, while the pet dog lying at their feet is vying for attention. Dogs and cats are immune to the virus, I am told. You can hug them as much as you can. That for me seems to be the only silver lining.

I share pictures of my cooking with my friends, a beautiful watermelon and feta cheese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar. I have stocked up well to cook exotic meals so that my family is not bored. I have planned our meals for days in advance, every meal promises to be a surprise, to bring a twinkle in the eye. While I bask and revel in my culinary and ‘disaster management skills’; a friend shares a picture of an old lady walking alone towards home thousands of miles away, since transport has been shut for the Pandemic. More pictures come in of people swarming, towards a place. A place that will be safe for them. Does such a place exist? What do these people know of social distancing? Social distancing is a privilege, for them.  I cringe, my stomach churns and I feel terribly uneasy. The privileges I have are the reason, I am devasted by them.

This — I am told is grief. Oh, is it?  If this is grief, then it’s good. I am relieved. My greatest fear was that one day I will be sanitized to all these happenings around me. The face of that old woman is going to haunt me. I feel guilty of being blessed with an abundance of food, of shelter, of feeling happy, after chatting with my friends. Since, when has this crept into our lives? Since when has ‘feeling happy’ become loaded with so much of heaviness and helplessness. This is becoming too much, these ramblings in my mind. These are calamities I can do nothing about. I still have to cook, sing, paint, write; do things that make me happy and keep me sane.

Suffering has always been there in this world; even before I was. Every time someone laughed, there has been at least one person somewhere in utter sadness. I grieve for all things lost, for everything that shouldn’t have happened. I have tremendous respect for the health workers, the cleaners, the researchers looking for an antidote. Each one of them, who have risked their lives for mine. And I am not going to just clap, I will do more, I promise.  While most of the things look grim; I have hope. Hope for humanity to bounce back. This is a time for great learning, at every moment. We will do our bit in our way when we are ready.

The world has shrunk, we all have come together. There is no superior nation, no superior power anymore. We all have been battered equally; we stand broken. And we will come out of it collectively, till then we have to hold on to each other. Cherish every happy occasion and shed a tear for every death, in every corner of the earth. Because that is the balance, the fulcrum on which this world will keep going. My family back home, are making bread at home to distribute to the stray dogs. They are making sure that the wages are paid to the employees. These small things; are hope personified. I am sure there are many like this amongst us. We just have to find ways. There is a way. There always is. I smile; this time without feeling guilty. I sigh and cup my face with my hands. Someone shrieks, “no don’t touch your face”. I dash towards the rest room, wash my hands, reach out for the sanitizer bottle, and say a prayer!

Rituparna Mahapatra, is writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of Kitaab.org; and teaches creative writing in English.

Categories
Poetry

Saturday Morning Musings

By Sheldon John Dias

Gazing into a mirror on a Saturday morning…

As I gaze into the crystal flattened and stretched

I search for meanings – of life and of memories etched.

Who am I?

Where am I?

Why am I?

Here?

I ask myself these questions till I faintly hear :

You are chaos

You are the cosmos

You are light and darkness

Shining brightly through prisms of uncut gems.

Alive in a spectrum of life and death and then life again.

You are the elaichi in kadak chai

The icing on macaroons and

Pani in the hands of the puchkawala.

You are the dal in the khichdi and

every grain of atta in your paratha.

You are the pandal blocking the road on Durga Puja.

You are the magician at the end of his Act saying, “ Ta da”.

You are a drop of rain. You are the ocean.

You are the sun and moon and stars altogether.

You are the highways and by-ways

And dead ends of a one- way street to bedlam.

You are the question and the answer.

You are the lie and the truth.

You are no one and everyone.

You are a mystery of this universe

but not a mystery to you!

Sheldon John Dias is an Educational Supervisor and a teacher of English and Drama at GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai. He has also served on several examination boards and panels. He is passionate about theatre and elocution and is currently working on his first book