Tabassum

Tabassum means smile .

One look at her reminded one of ” Alice  in wonderland “, when she sees the cheshire cat -” I have seen cats without grins , but this is the first time , I am seeing a grin without the cat.”

She occupied the first bed , right next to the nursing station .That meant she was ill , as in seriously ill , and needed to be watched at all times. Rheumatic heart disease had affected her little heart so badly , as to cripple her . Her unused limbs wasted away like dry twigs.

She had a huge grin , framed by perfect teeth , and brilliant red lips . Then she had large, almond-shaped eyes , kohl-lined , full of mirth and mischief.

When she spoke , her voice was honey . Her laughter tinkled like cut -glass chandeliers swaying in the breeze.

She kept lying most of the time , with her coverlet pulled upto the neck . Neck downwards , she had wasted. Her skin was transparent , taut . You could see the blue lines of her veins and the whiteness of her bones , through the skin . Her elbows and knees stayed together, comforting each other in their knobliness. Folded legs and arms , like a pretty origami , crumpled,pale . Little exertions , like toothbrushing , or moving around in the bed ,left her breathless, blue and panting . It was heartrending.

Her bones would project from her skin and made her highly uncomfortable , lying on the bed . She had to be constantly turned , her pillows fluffed and two mattresses , instead of one, lay beneath her.

She was our pampered princess and the pea , but she was dying , and she knew it . So did we . But so brilliant would she appear when we arrived , like a ray of sun in the gloomy world of first year nursing , that we would dispel all thoughts of death to some deep , dark corner .

It was in this state of denial that we learnt about her. Fourth child , a daughter , and diseased , in a family of feudal Lords and fierce mustachioed farmers from the Hindi heartland. She was a blot for she was a daughter , and a blemish , for she was blue ,mostly .

But , there hasn’t been a more prettier blot , or more beauteous blemish than that.

Right from her birth , she couldn’t run like other kids . She would turn blue . “Sky blue !” She would recount joyfully , giggling and hiding her face beneath the coverlet. Turning her misery into a joke.

Once , a relative , probably , her father , left some boondi-ke -laddoos for her . She , as usual , saved some for us . By the time we arrived after our afternoon classes, the box of sweets was overrun with ants . We were distressed , she wasn’t . She grabbed the sweet box and placed it on the bed . The ants ran in all directions , all over her bed. Horrified , we shook her bedsheets , coverlet , free of the pests.Undaunted, she hauled  herself painfully up by her elbows , and blew on each individual laddoo . till it was ant-free. Then she offered us one each .  We squirmed , took the laddoos and looked away . She smilingly ate her own share.

She wore a pair of salwaar kameez , at all times . It was not required . She was covered neck down most of the time , and it was hot inside the ward . But Tabassum , she of the dazzling smile , insisted . A simple cotton frock would suffice . The parents were told so . But neither they , nor she ,showed any inclination to change the attire. It was made of polyester , gaudy blue , with pink madhumalti flowers printed on it . Perfect five petalled , pink flowers against sky blue .

Every weekend , Sundays , would be her hair washing and grand bath day. Her salwaar kameez would be washed and put out to dry outside , on the sunny verandah , while her hair dried . We took turns in oiling , combing her hair , chatting happily . She would allow , us to dress her in the loose hospital gown , for those few  hours , which for Tabassum was sheer agony , for she behaved as if she was naked. She would relax and apply kohl on her eyes , only when she was dressed back in her favourite (and only ) blue and pink dress.

This , bothered us , first years , a great deal . We put our heads together , and decided to buy two more salwaar -kameezes for her , of similar material , and gift it to her . She was almost our age (late teens ) and we couldn’t bear to see her so ill-provided. One of us , more sartorially informed , took the cloth over to the tailors , and gave her minimal dimensions , as Tabassum had shrivelled to the size of  a largish baby.

Then , one day , out of the blue , we came to find the bed empty . A new bed sheet had been stretched onto the grimy and stained mattress ,the extra mattress removed, the locker emptied of Tabassum’s belongings , and no Tabassum anywhere. The ward hummed with activities of other patients .

Then , one of us noticed . In a large bin , on the corner , the beloved blue and pink salwaar kameez lay , crumpled and hastily rolled , thrown in . It was accompanied by large number of hastily broken vials , ampoules and syringes. Tabassum had lost the battle , some where , around  midnight , the ward report told us .

The new clothes lay with the tailor , unused.

Even today , when I see Madhumalti clusters against a blue sky , I think of the girl , with a smile for a name .

 

 

 

 

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Tone deaf

Music comes

in waves

ethereal

chants

words

that lift up

spirits

provide

succour

So deep

buried

is one

in mire

of  imagined misery

that dulcet tones

pass you by

you snore

in your

dry hole

and the

ocean flows by

above

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The monk

Last year , on a train journey , I met a sadhoo. He was not an ordinary holy man . the He wore  a loose robe of saffron and was heard , in the time it took for me to insert my meagre luggage into the space beneath my legs , talking in four different languages to four different people .Two conversations on phone , two in person . One directed towards the car-attendant in bengali , one towards me in hindi. The two phone conversations were in malayalam and english respectively.

Hindi, bengali , malayalam and english . It was incredible . I could comprehend most of  what he was talking so it became imperative that I asked him -How come ?

He told me that he was a keralite , run away to a bengali sadhu’s ashrama in 1962.He was doing his M.Sc in physics then , and wanted some answers to the existential questions that plagued him . It plagues all of us , but we don’t renounce the world . He did.

The organisation he joined , ran into foul weather . There were some yogic practises which were new , and hence , misunderstood by the authorities that be . It was labelled dangerous . This attracted more  youngsters , as is true of most movements . Fame and infamy quickly spiralled into revolt , armed mutinies , murders and sedition charges .

Our sadhu found himself and several of his comrades behind bars . In India , a Sadhu is a revered  figure , even if an allegedly gun-toting one . There were other unsavoury accusations too. Too disreputable to be even documented here.

Suffice here to say that , in a span of seventy odd years of his life , this man had run ashrams , converted people to hinduism and the cult he belongs to , wrote books, cured schizophrenics( or so he claimed ) built schools abroad (Poland, Romania) , did time (12 years) behind bars, gave up his joys ( meat, fish , coffee), succumbed to coffee again and again ( “waging a continuous war”) and spoke non-stop for the entire waking hours of the journey .

He could be a con man too , except that he was too well-read . He could quote Chaucer , Nehru, sanskrit shlokas and bengali couplets with aplomb . He loved the anarchists and the marxist authors of the 1950s, 60s.

Being a strange combination of extreme right , and extreme left , he baffled my ideological frame work . Like a drug-crazed person , he was also given to making pronouncements -” In next ten years , whole of Delhi will be destroyed , gone underwater .””Congress will be wiped out in next five years.”

When he bade adieu at New Delhi , the mind was buzzing with stimulus , not unlike a drug-high.

 

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School band

He must have been six foot something in his youth, for he towered over us all . Dark, tall , muscular and with a booming voice that demanded immediate attention.

He came to our school at a time when we routinely came last in the district parade competitions and the school band was unheard of. Mr. Benjamin had served in the army for ‘donkeys’ years, as he would put it and would proudly display the scars from some sharpnel wounds, he aquired ages ago.He was a chain smoker and constantly reeked of ‘ beedis'(a cheap local cigarette).

Brass flutes materialised by the dozens, and during our music classes, he would sit us tuneless adolescents and make us go through the basic do-re-mi drill endlessly, till we got it right. Thereafter, national anthem and some marching music lessons later , we were good to go.

I remember, we were allowed to carry our flutes home for endless practice by us neophytes. We couldn’t help showing off to our family and friends and soon ‘the band ‘ was the talk of the town. Best part of the band was that the majority of the members were girls. Three of the drummers were boys , that was the entire musculine quotient.

As Republic day neared , hectic preparations were underway. Measurements were taken for our brand new uniforms(navy-blue, shirts and trousers), with dark red berets. The berets had showy white and gold plumes, with a plastic(gold painted) medallion fixed at te centre.

Rigorous hours of practice in blazing sun were undertaken, classes sacrificed, and the diminutive band practised and practised. We were let off only when our steps matched that of the music from the flutes.Steps, notes, nodding of the head, drum beats, every single thing had to be in perfect unison. That entailed many teary-eyed, bone breakingly tiring, hours long session , which saw many female forms, faint, swoon , falter; recover and then power on ahead.

Finally, the D-Day dawned on a heady , sunny, spring morning. All parents crowded the stands.Everything went perfectly, as planned and rehearsed endless times.The National Anthem, the Flag -hoisting, the march around the periphery of the ground, and the parade at the centre of the parade ground. Mr. Benjamin was our bandmaster, swirling and twirling his tassled major-domos’ tassled staff. Nothing could go wrong. As the final command was given, the silvery staff was tossed in the air with a rakish flourish, it came down in a shrill crescendo of shuddering drum-rattle and flute notes.A final beat from the bass drum sealed the performance.

The audience erupted into thunderous applause. We broke into silly giggles. There we were , thirteen of us , navy blue clad group, with our silly headgear,  a small group of girls in the centre of a huge ground, being applauded for and cheered by nearly the entire district, standing in unison. Mr. Benjamin took off his glasses and wiped them, turning back to give his proteges one of his rare smiles of appreciation.

Several rounds of photosessions later, we learnt that the District Magistrate had invited “the band” to his lawns for tea. An ultimate honour!! We were thrilled to bits.

The day, and “the band” would be talked about for years to come.

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Weeds

First 50 Words - Prompts for Writing Practice

Wild mustard, dandelion, lots of things I don’t recognize. They taunt me. They wave their heads in the sunshine and laugh at me. No matter how many I pull, there are always more of them. Each drop of scarce rain nourishes millions of them. Humans are destroying everything about the environment but weeds.

Please leave a comment with your first 50 words on the topic “weeds.”

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Benediction

The river was in spate.
Women wore frilly, blinged dresses, with flowing silk, colourful, perfumed dupattas; men wore cowboy hats with that string forever dangling beneath their chins.
It was a recipe for disaster.
Women squealed, shrieked, and ‘omg’ ed their way across. Someone’s raw leather shoes were ruined , someone else dropped her Faux -hide bag into the stream , and one lost her dupatta to the fury of monsoon Gods, billowing away into the gray skies.Another sacrificed the gold embroidered hem of her ornate kurta, as it emerged dripping wet, all its golden glory muddied.
A cowherd, sitting on a mound of green , some distance away , found it really funny.He just kept pointing and slipping into paroxysms of uncontrolled mirth.
The men followed, their footwear and cameras, held aloft like a torch, whooping gleefully,while the trouser legs had been rolled up to reveal manly hirsuteness.

There is a vicarious pleasure to be derived from peeling caked mud from one’s carefully depilated limbs. Almost like an impromptu mud-spa for free. Except that you are doing this in the middle of a rice -field , balancing on slippery”Pugdandi”while goodness-knows-what-insect has just crawled up your lycra leggings, making one emit howls of most un-civil nature, every twenty steps or so.

All were miserable , except for one.

He was in his elements. Jeans rolled upto thighs(“Sheesh,such shamelessness!! almost revealing his balls , as it were”) shoes tidily dangling from his neck (” wasn’t the shoelace biting into his neck omg. dont even look at his mud splattered vest”)he clicked snaps of everything, the muddy stream , the gray sky, the rolling-with-laughter cowherd, the flowering reeds on the bank, the injured-bug-that-a lady-almost-squashed-as-it-emerged from her undies.
It was as if he was in heaven , and he didn’t want to miss any moment of this trek.

It was an amazing and pathetic / hilarious sight to witness. There was this group of wet stragglers, grumbling and dragging themselves, and there was this man totally oblivious to his wet and muddied state, soaking up every sight, hungrily.

Once they reached the top of the green mound,the sun broke out.

Out of nowhere, the gray clouds parted, and heat and light poured forth. A gorgeous sight welcomed them. A green and gold carpet rolled out at their feet, in every direction, as far as they could see.

Even the most wet and complaining matriarch was silenced.They shook themselves dry , as dogs, and kept looking on , in awe-filled silence.

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The Opium peddler

The Godman sat gesticulating and expounding loud wisdom from the “podium”, a ramshackle wooden structure, raised on rickety stilts, and pathetically festooned with garish, zari-bordered , strips of clothes. A large , dusty peacock feather duster, swung slowly , from one corner to the other.
The “baba” himself was adorned, as loud and garish, as an enthusiastic entrant to a child’s fancy dress competition.
Facing a forest of tired,dusty, deadbeat faces, upturned in abject indifference.
Periodically, a wave of enthusiasm would course through, as the crowds parrotted a slogan after a mike-wielding crony at the base of the stage. Most of the time however, the poor kept up their vacant stare. It was a farce , on a huge scale .
Or as Marx would put it , the people were drugged, with that “opium of the masses.”

Slowly, the sun started setting, but the show went on. People continued to chant, occasionally, roused by the mike-wielders.Large rotis and lukewarm, tasteless subzi, the gravy dripping everywhere, were passed in the name of” langar”. Preparations were underfoot, for another round of “show stopping ” rock-show, to be conducted by none other than the “baba” himself.

As the night fell,large speakers materialised, revolving disco-lights, tv cameras , huge screens swung into action. It was an entertainment extravaganza on an unbelievable scale .The dusty and sad looking arena transformed into a stadium of gladiatorial proportions. Although, it was being performed in the name of a person ,a human, venerated as a God, a religion of the most dubious nature.

The number of cronies multiplied. Now four of them appeared, at a stage of their own, dressed in shiny outfits, holding pages of rehearsed script. This was getting really serious now. To loud salutations and chantings, the “Lord ” himself made an appearance, as an Elvis caricature. White and gold tasseled and blinged , bejewelled outfit.Even the white sneakers were not spared the “gold-ness”. Apparently, the “Baba” himself, designs his costumes, writes his songs, composes music and rehearses them . Truly “god-like”.

Everytime the cameras swung in their direction, the “devotees” would go berserk, chanting and shouting the “God’s” name, jumping up and down. The enthusiasm was pronounced in the female enclosures. I, a mere bystander to the grand spectacle, was frequently being coaxed by my companion, an ardent “devotee”, to do the same .It was not just silly, but a positively, “out of body” (LSD-like) experience to see my friend, a qualified pathologist, dance to a “Baba’s”tune.

The hirsute “baba”, his every curly body-hair, enlarged million times on the giant screen, presented a very hilarious and entertaining sight, had it not been marred with sundry accounts from “devotees” about how the “God” had wrought “miracles” in their miserable existences.

The “God” himself , seemed more focussed on performing his rustic, raucous songs than hearing paeans of praise and dismissed every “miracle ” with an impatient wave of his tasseled hand .

All said it was entertaining, albeit unnecessarily marred with un-called for “religious fervour.”

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