Seeing is believing?

Such a trite title...but as I unfurl an incident, I realise I have no other words to convey the experience.

This might appear to be about just a long drive between Lonavla and Mumbai, a distance of an hour and a half. But it woke me up in many ways to the quirks of this thing called belief… How much must one believe? Can one believe? And what must one believe in?

The expressway was spanking new and quite wonderful, but I missed the ghats of old (those familiar with Hindi films will recall many such scenes of winding cars in song/chase sequences). We stopped for coffee at a small kiosk; the man puts chocolate powder in it.

Tired labourers had lit up grass and the sweet scent was wafting towards us. We went to Sunny's dhaaba for dinner, sat on khaats with bolsters and ate the most scrumptious food -- lots of it.

It was past midnight when we decided to head back home. And on the highway, the car stalled. No fuel. The indicator was not working. This is where belief comes in.

Who would expect a cop around at that hour in the middle of the highway? He said, "Petrol station walla gadbad karega tau bolna Shinde seth ne bheja".

Who would expect a motorcyclist to suddenly pass by, stop and say, "Aapki seva mein haazir hai”?

Who would expect that most of the stations do not like parting with their cans, but this one did?

Who would expect that one of us would have a small knife, a torch for just a drive?

We filled the diesel. But the car would not start. Air had filled in.

We tried calling a towing van, looking desperately for the number.

Who would expect that just then a tow van would pass on the opposite side and stop? They tried to get the car to start, but in vain, so we were towed to the nearest petrol station. They agreed to keep the vehicle till morning.

Who would expect that at near 2 am an autorickshaw would stop here? It did and the four of us got in to be dropped at Vashi.

Who would expect a taxi to be right there a few metres away that would take us home? Reached home at 4 am, exhausted. I could not sleep.

I was thinking about belief. I suppose sometimes everything is right with the world...


What's my 'brand' equity?

What makes bizarre conversations bizarre?

The other day I was faced with an unusual remark:

“You don’t look like a divorcee.”

This was a hip woman who had seen enough of the world to be eligible for emotional qualifier miles.

I did not know her well enough. Someone just introduced me and in passing mentioned my ‘status’. She had given me the once-over and then with her heavily-kohl-lined small round eyes, she had looked at my mouth, now slightly agape, and pronounced those words.

It was as though she thought all the answers were held in that mouth.

If she were a friend I would have quarrelled with her; if she was someone I disliked, I would have been catty. She was no one. Yet, she had branded me.

I merely shrugged and, fortunately, it was time to leave.

Why are labels so important? Is this a case of projection or protection? I may never meet her again, so why was judging me important for her? Did it make her feel better or worse? So, was it about her or me?

Standing before the full-length mirror, I began to wonder what a divorcee was supposed to look like. I needn’t have bothered.

When I was married, they said I did not look married.
When I was young and innocent, they said I had been around.
When I was old enough to have been around, they said I had that pure, sublime look.
When I show them a bit of my light, they look for my shadow.
When I sit in the dark, they flash a torchlight at me.

If I listened to all those voices, I would never be able to speak. Or enjoy the tranquillity of quietude.

I am not yet ready to lose myself.

I am not ready to echo Sahir's words for myself:

Ab to phir tumse mulaquaat nahin hone ki
Mil bhi jaao to koi baat nahin hone ki
Aakhri baar faqat, zikr tumhaara karlein
Tum jo keh do to sitam, ye bhi gawaara karlein...


Death and the maidens

Two bits of news that make one wonder how alone people really are.

Hindi cinema's veteran actress Nadira died a lonely woman. She essayed mainly strong characters -- they call those vamps, don't they? -- and smoked and took the initiative with men on screen. For her time, she seemed way ahead.

She lived pretty much on her own terms. Or did she? She had an independent mind, but how often she spoke about her craving for a normal life.

Her brusque words may have hurt, but they were probably her only defence against a world that insinuates and sneaks up to you, and then tries to overwhelm you -- only to leave you stranded.

She did not complain. Even when she cried when prodded with questions in interviews, there was a silent strength in those tears. It takes courage to open yourself to such scrutiny.

She lived to be 74 despite all the daily battles she had to face, mainly with herself. That is bravery in my book.

Just when this news had sunk in, I read about TV actress Kuljeet Randhawa committing suicide. I have probably seen her face in commercials, but I cannot remember her in any serial.

She left a note saying that she could not take the pressures of life anymore. She lived alone in Mumbai and they say that she was always very exuberant on the sets; others in the building where she lived say she was a recluse.

Again, two different persona. She has blamed no one for her death. She was over four decades younger than Nadira -- she probably fought her battles too, like all of us do. And one day she picked up a dupatta and hung herself from the ceiling fan.

I know very little about her. Had she dragged on her life for 40 more years would she have found happiness, companionship, love, success? Would she then be called brave by the likes of me? Does anyone know how to measure uncertainty?

"ajiib daastaa.n hai ye

kahaa.N shuruu kahaa.N khatam
ye ma.nzile.n hai kaun sii
na voh samajh sake na ham

ye roshanii ke saath kyo.n
dhuaa.N uThaa chiraag se
ye Kvaab dekhatii huu.N mai.n
ke jag pa.Dii huu.N Kvaab se

kisiikaa pyaar leke tum
nayaa jahaa.n basaaoge y
e shaam jab bhii aaegii
tum hamako yaad aaoge

mubaarake.n tumhe.n ke tum
kisiike nuur ho gae
kisiike itane paas ho
ke sabase duur ho gae

ajiib daastaa.n hai ye
kahaa.N shuruu kahaa.N khatam"


I am fired!

Why do I want to be pinned down to just one thing sometimes?

This time it was my name. I never liked it. It reminded me of something conservative, or perhaps olde worlde – like a gaslight in a brass furnace.

Then, during my travels I heard people say nice things; someone said it was exotic, someone else loved its sound. Strange that what had become me saw itself only through others.

And it wasn’t so bad, after all.

So, the other day I told someone he could ask me the meaning of my name.

“What does it mean?” he queried politely.

“Wisdom and luminescence/fire…it is Persian,” I said.

“Is it wisdom or fire today, then?”

“It is wisdom turning to ashes,” I replied.

But there is more.

I do not think wisdom must be a quiet understanding; it has to go through a trial by fire; it ought to be lit by a matchstick and then test itself – does it light up or burn out?

Wisdom is fire. It starts with a spark, glows in the dark, adds warmth, melts wax, incinerates the useless, inflames passions, turns logs of wood into torches. It fights to stay alive in strong winds and, even as water douses it, you can watch the deep orange flicker in the embers. Try touching those and you will burn yourself…
- - -

I do foolish things, too.

Today, I was to get my hair trimmed and as I sat in the chair at the salon, I watched the stylist hold up a good chunk to indicate it must go. I wanted to cling to it.

He shook his head: “You have gorgeous hair…”

“Then why do you want to cut it? I am possessive about it.”

“You may be possessive, but you don’t know how to look after it.”

It was true. It is almost always true. How often do we nurture what we have?

The lower bits had become limp, like wilting stems.

In the mirror, I nodded assent and shut my eyes as I felt the scissors clipping away. I felt some feather-touches at my feet. After he was done, I kept arching my head back to delude myself I was lengthening the hair that was left!

He looked amused. “There is still a lot of it. And it will grow back.”

I know it will. Though I do miss the feel of wisps touching my tailbone.

How attached we get to wisps…


Truth or Dare?

Each time we decide to put bits of ourselves in the open -- to be scrutinised, to be accepted, to be rejected, to be seen, heard, felt, or just to dry -- we become exhibits.

People will notice what they wish to see, not what is displayed.

Is what we display our true self, then?

I often ask myself this question. My answer invariably is that most of the time – if not always – this is the kernel. The husk is anyway given to climatic changes. The hair grows a few centimetres, the nails grow…there is breakage, damage of all kinds…and with time even the renewal and degeneration of them does not come with the same intensity or intent.

Therefore, I think too much is being made about James Frey’s memoirs, ‘A Million Little Pieces’, being fake. He himself confessed to the liberties he took in articulating details about his own life, about exaggerating, about making things appear a little different than they were. This happens to be his prerogative. He controls his life, he knows about the cliff edges he had to teeter near. If he has expressed sounds different from the echoes he heard, then that is his way of listening.

Were anyone to ask one of his ‘subjects’, they would give an entirely different ‘truth’. Recollections in tranquillity or otherwise rarely depend upon the veracity of memories; they are often infused with the levity or light-headedness of hindsight.

And what about novels that seem to be autobiographical, or are at least attributed to a tangible Muse? What about the so-called objective genre of travelogues/treatises that invariably brings in the authorial voice as the reality-giver? What will happen to the Naipauls, the Rushdies?

It is the readers who are the voyeurs.

The writer as exhibitionist is merely a million little pieces put together to look like a whole.