Life is not a holiday.


You fell in love the moment you saw him.

He stands there, oblivious.

Then his face turns and, for a split second, your eyes meet.

Your heart skips a beat, you forget to breathe.

Then it’s over.

His fiery orange body, adorned with beautiful black stripes, melts into the undergrowth.


The Daily Post: Fifty

The Voice

You woke up earlier than usual.
Too early.
You should have known something was wrong the minute you checked the clock and realized it was seven thirty in the morning and you’d actually, voluntarily, apparently, woken up before ten even though your first class of the day was at twelve thirty.

But you didn’t.

You woke up early, very early, but you’re still running late when you get to the metro station. So you board the first train that arrives, which, luckily (or so you think) also has several unoccupied seats.
You settle down in one of them, open your bag, take out R.K Narayan’s ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’, and, tucking you hair behind your ear, begin to read.

While you sit there, absorbed in your book, the train slowly fills up.

It’s at Hauz Khas that you hear it for the first time.
That voice.
Your neighbour’s voice.
She’s a hefty woman of fifty or so and, from what you can tell, she’s forcing her company, and a conversation, on the girl sitting on her other side. They’re discussing hospitals, or rather the woman is discussing hospitals, the girl is simply answering her questions, probably hoping for a close to the chat.
Well better her than me, you think.

Too soon.

The girl gets off at AIIMS.
And it begins.

“Beta aap kahaan tak jaa rahe ho?” the woman asks, pretending she hasn’t noticed your open book.

For a moment you’re surprised.
You never saw yourself as someone who looks like they’re open to conversation, even without a book. And no one else did either. You’ve spent half your life being told you’re intimidating and in situations like these, when there are talkative aunties around, you saw that as an asset.

“Kahaan utroge beta?” she repeats.
“Vishwavidyalaya” you answer, and turn back to your book, hoping that’ll be the end of the conversation.

But it’s not.
You’ve seen enough on the metro to know it never is.

“Main bhi.” she says.
You look at her and smile graciously, or your idea of graciously, which is not very gracious anyway.
But for her it’s gracious enough.

“Waise toh main Kashemere gate par utarti hoon, par aaj mujhe Kamla Nagar jaana hai na toh idhar utarna hai.”
You nod your head then lift your book in front of your face, literally, hoping she’ll get the message.

She doesn’t.

“Toh aap kahaan se aate ho?” she asks.
You resist the temptation to request her to leave you alone and answer, “Gurgaon”.
“Gurgaon? Itne door se? Bahut time lagta hoga na?”
You nod your head and, forever persevering, look back to your book, pretending to read it.

There’s silence for a couple of seconds, just a couple of seconds.

“Toh aap padhai kar rahe ho? College mein ho?” she asks
You nod your head.
You’ve tried monosyllables, you’ve tried silence, there’s no getting away apparently.

“Kya padh rahe ho?”
“Sociology, third year mein hoon.” you say, hoping the extra information will keep her silent for a while.
“Sushologee.?” she says “uske baad kya karoge?”

You mentally tear your hair out, hit your head on the metro windows and kill yourself by slashing your wrist with your metro card.

“Mass communication” you say
“Waise woh toh IP college se bhi acchaa hai”
You don’t say anything.
She doesn’t care.

“Actually maine udhar se graduation kiya tha, apne zamaane mein”
“Waise mere society mein Delhi University ke bahut teachers hain. Teachers ki society hai na. D school se, Venkatesahwar se, teachers hi teachers. Par itni baat nahi hoti hamaari. Bas woh neighbour jaise baat. Toh mujhe sabke bare mein thoda thoda pata hai. Theek se nahi. “
“Waise Sushologee mein bhi aaj kal scope toh hai. Hamaare zamaane mein options hi kam the, aaj kal itni variety aa gayi hai, itne courses……….”

You close your book.
You know when you’re defeated.

Cumbersome China Conversations

I spend a lot of time defending things, and places, and people.

I defend Delhi to people from Bombay, I defend Humanities to students from Science and Commerce backgrounds, I defend my Bihari roots to narrow minded people, I defend all girls’ institutions to people from co-ed ones, I even defend Ishant Sharma when he’s having a bad day on the field (which, unfortunately, nowadays, is almost every time he’s on the field at all).

When people heard I was going to be spending a fair bit of time in Shanghai in the next few years, I found myself having to defend that too.

I, personally, was elated at the idea of getting the chance to come to China at all, forget spend endless days walking down its streets. The main attraction was, naturally, the Great Wall, which I’ve dreamt of seeing ever since I watched a documentary on it on the Discovery Channel when I was nine. But once I got here I realized that there was that of course, but there were so many other things as well – to see, and do, and love.

But most other people I know didn’t.

A lot of my conversations around the move to Shanghai went like this.
“You’re moving to China?”
“You mean you’re ACTUALLY moving to China?”
“You mean you’re ACTUALLY moving to CHINA?”
“But why would anyone move to CHINA?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if you HAVE to move, why would you go to CHINA?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“ People there have such small eyes! / Boys there are so short! / Everything that come out of there is defective! / They eat every animal on the planet! / Their food smells funny./Are you looking to go into electronics?”

So I defended China.

But then I realized, what’s the point?

A lot of the premises for running down the country, and its people, have to do with biological differences, and cultural ones. And you can’t argue with those, because they are there. Chinese people do have smaller eyes, they are more petite, (and, since we’re on this topic, they also seem to have very good hair) and their diet is a lot more varied than some people’s. But so what?
Differences are just differences. They don’t make people inferior, or superior. It’s when they’re perceived in the context of a hierarchy that they begin to matter, that they start to become a basis for discrimination.
Feminists argue that the idea that women are weaker, or impure, because they menstruate, or bear children, is just that, an idea.  It’s a biological fact, but it shouldn’t really affect the status of women. It’s a difference between men and women, but it doesn’t necessarily put either one ahead of the other. The problem starts when this difference is used as a basis for discrimination, when its given importance that it really doesn’t deserve.
And I feel as if a similar thing is happening in my conversations with people about China. Most of the points of argument are facts that are given undue importance and misused, and the rest of the points are so stupid I don’t think I should even be taking them up. For example, the idea that everything that comes out of China is defective; to every person who says that, I’m tempted to tell them that the only thing that’s really defective is their brain.

I love China.
I haven’t seen much of it, but I love the bit I have.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I first came here. I think, most likely, I wasn’t expecting anything at all because all I was thinking about was The Great Wall. But now that I’ve spent weeks here, I know it’s exceeded any expectations I could possibly have had.
I love the landscape, and I love the fact that it has so much history, and I love the culture, which is so different, and yet so similar, to ours in India. But what I love most of all are the people.
I think, with every place, what defines it, really truly defines it, are its people. And if that’s the idea, then China’s probably at the top of my list. I’ve found that most people in China are warm, and accomodating, and always willing to help. They usually don’t understand what I say, and I don’t understand what they say, but they’re always willing to stop and take a couple of minutes so we can get there together, unlike a lot of places where people speak the same language but won’t give each other the time of day.

I love China, and I know that I’m going to meet a lot of people who will come and confidently, smugly, sneeringly, lay out their prejudices and preconceived notions of it before me. And I’m going to be tempted to clarify, to argue, to inform. But I shouldn’t. Because it’s not worth it. They know better, and I know they know better. But they prefer to ignore the fact that they know better. And I prefer to ignore them.

Ignorance is bliss.

My Constant

It’s in front of the bathroom mirror that I find myself each morning.
My appearance is disheveled,
My thoughts even more so,
My dreams forgotten.

It’s in front of the bathroom mirror that I come up with some of my best ideas-
Sometimes they’re stories,
Sometimes they’re phrases,
Sometimes they’re phrases that lead to stories.

It’s in front of the bathroom mirror that I get some of my greatest epiphanies-
The still-to-be-reached climax of the book I’m reading,
The catch in a far-fetched story I’ve been told,
The insult hidden behind an unfaltering, sweet smile.

It’s in front of the bathroom mirror that I introspect.
I reflect upon the reflection-
The reflection I’m creating,
And the one I want to create.

It’s in front of the bathroom mirror that I find myself at the end of each day.
The day that is a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.
The day that is a suffocating crowd of people.
The day that is an endless, exhausting battle.

The day that leads me back to the bathroom mirror.
My bathroom mirror.
My constant.

Exactly and Approximately

You’re standing at the Vishwavidyalaya metro station on a Tuesday, awaiting the train’s arrival. It’s four thirty in the afternoon and you’ve been up and about since seven. You’re exhausted and irritable. The Beatles’ ‘All you need is love’ is playing in your mind, except it goes more like ‘All you need is sleep’ today.
Suddenly you find your head filled with images of Govinda and Sanjay Dutt wearing dungarees and dancing with Karishma Kapoor whose hair has been strategically tied into three ponytails. The music switches to “Sharmaana chhod daal, raaz dil ka khol daal, Aaju baaju mat dekh, i love you bol daal!”, followed by Anu Mallick’s unmistakable voice going “Nahi toh pachtaayegiiii…Kawaari reh jaayegiiii!”
You wish you hadn’t watched ‘Haseena Maan Jayegi’ on television over the weekend. You curse yourself, you curse the movie, you curse television. You know this is now going to be the background music to your hour long metro journey.
This is going to be one hell of a ride, you think.
And it is.

When the train draws into the station, you allow yourself to be swept in by your co passengers, holding on to your bag for dear life. Once inside, you look around. It’s almost rush hour. The train is practically bursting. You consider getting off and taking the next one, but that would probably be just as crowded, if not worse. So you decide to rough it up.
You make your way towards the seats and manage to find some space to stand, squishing yourself between two women, one of whom, as always, is listening to loud disco music on her useless earphones. You wonder what’s worse, the song in your head or the songs on her playlist. Tough choice.
You’ve been standing there for five minutes when you suddenly remember you had dumped P.G Wodehouse’s ‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’ into your bag just before you left home in the morning.
Maybe you can get rid of this ‘mental’ music after all, pun intended.

You open your book, ready to engross yourself in the world of Bertie Wooster and the subtly enigmatic Jeeves, when the doors open at Kashmere Gate and the woman occupying the seat before you gets up. In the blink of an eye (do not try this at home), you close your book, make way for the de-boarding passenger to leave, subtly nudge your competition away, and grab the place.
It’s only when you’re settled that you realize you’re going to have to pay a price for your cunning.
You never did like the idea of Karma.

You’ve just opened your book and read a couple of lines when the smell reaches your nose.
Your eyes stop mid sentence, your voice stops mid curse.
You know what the smell is, you hope pretending you’re oblivious to it will make it go away, much like Ostriches think stuffing their head in the ground will make danger disappear.
But it won’t.
And it doesn’t.

While you sit there, cursing your luck, your neighbour continues to blissfully devour the apples in her tiffin, not minding the stench they’re giving out.
You have terrible self control, you have to look.
The fruits are cut in remarkably identical proportions. She’s got talent, you realize, and considering she can’t smell the disgusting odour, a cold too.

You lift your hand to your nose and smell your wrist, glad you decided to spray on some perfume this morning.
You can do this, you tell yourself, you’ve been in worse situations.
You’re confident, nauseated but confident.
It can’t possibly get worse, you tell yourself.
You couldn’t have been more naive.

You don’t realise when she sits down next to you. You notice the smell before you notice her. It’s the smell of overripe fruit mixed with garbage. Luckily you had lunch at twelve. If it had been any later, you probably wouldn’t have been able to keep it down.
She’s a plump woman, probably in her forties or fifties, dressed in a simple salwar kurta, wearing a shawl, her hair tied in a bun, prominent flakes of dandruff beautifying it.
You’re surprised. You never thought a person could give out such a horrible smell. You wonder where she’s coming from. Must have been a terrible place, you imagine. You feel a little sorry for her.
You lift your palm to your nose to seek refuge in your perfume, but the smell isn’t strong enough, it knows when it’s defeated.
It’s all right, you tell yourself, just read, distract yourself.

And you try to for a while, until you realise the smell is getting worse.
The train is at Malviya Nagar now, just fifteen minutes away from your station. You wonder if you should get off and take the next one, or just give up your seat and go stand in a less ‘fragrant’ part of the compartment, but you decide against it. You’re too tired to stand, and you won’t get seating space in another metro at this hour.
The stench is getting stronger by the minute. You wonder how that’s possible, but you’re too scared to investigate further, conscious that it may be rude to stare.
Then you hear it, the inescapable sound of chewing.
Mouth open, mouth close, noise.
You look.

The lady is carrying a tiny piece of paper torn off a newspaper in her hand. It was rolled into a ball when you first noticed her, but now it’s open, and a single flower rests on it.
A Gende ka phool.
It looks sad and dejected, and it stinks.
So that’s where the smell was coming from, you think, enlightened.
You’re just about to get back to your book when the lady’s hand approaches the flower. It wavers, then it scoops in, pulls out a single tiny petal and moves towards her face, towards her mouth, into her mouth. It then comes out of her mouth, empty.
Where did the petal go? You wonder.
Then it hits you.
The chewing sound.

Her head turns towards you, and even while you sit there, staring in disbelief, she opens her mouth, chews, closes it, and repeats the process.
You look away, pretending to read your book.
But your mind is elsewhere.

Monsoon Wedding.
That’s your first thought.
Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, P.K Dubey, and Gende ka phool.
Then your mind runs to your college friends, and their (and your) constant obsession with the movie.
You can still smell the flower, you can still hear the chewing, but now you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

You’re sitting there, holding your book in your hands, contradictory emotions and urges battling within you, when you suddenly see the second silver lining. The first was the Monsoon Wedding memory, the second is the disappearance of Haseena Maan Jaayegi Music.
But now you’ve remembered it.
And it begins again- the music, and the image of Sanjay Dutt, Govinda, and Karishma Kapoor, dancing as if they’ve been electrocuted.
And it accompanies you all the way home, exactly and approximately.


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