Tuesday, August 15, 2023


When I die

Don't anyone say,

That she let her grief kill her.

That her heart was torn to shreds,

And the shreds could not beat.

That her mind was tortured by nightmares of memories,

Till it could not hold any other thoughts.

That she searched for herself in the broken mirror,

But she was nowhere to be found.

That her story was rewritten by others,

And she started believing in the abomination.

When I die

Instead, tell everyone,

That she put her grief in the backseat, most of the time.

That her broken heart could still beat weakly

To the drums of distant hope.

That the rubble of the nightmares shifted, 

And her mind could still find some light.

That she found her lost identity 

Reflected in the shards of the broken mirror. 

That her true story was written in indelible ink,

And she carried it in her heart, till the very end. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Lost Love

I heard a story the other day of a tribe that lived deep in the deserts of Western India. The chieftain of the tribe was a charismatic man, strong and proud. He had a son, who everyone loved. 

One day, the son, a young man, decided that he wanted to see the world, beyond the endless deserts of his home. The villagers were shocked, the father angry. He was after all the heir, the future! How could he leave? So, the wish was denied vehemently. 

But the son had wanderlust. He left one night in the dark, telling no one, taking nothing with him but the clothes on his back. The morning brought great sorrow to the entire tribe, especially to the father. He was broken, but maintained a stoic front. 

Days passed, then weeks, months and years. Everyday, someone or the other would come by and ask the chieftain if there was any news of his son. Each question brought fresh sorrow to the father. So one day, he announced that no one was allowed to talk about the son. His name was not to be mentioned. The tribe went quiet. Questions remained in everyone's mind but were unspoken, unasked. 

The chieftain had a young daughter. She was just five when her brother had left their home. Initially, she missed her brother, but as years passed, her memories of him began to fade. It didn't help that no one in the village spoke about him. 

One day, while she was out grazing her favorite sheep, she stroked its soft fur and remembered that her brother wore a coat made of sheep's fur. That started a flood of memories. She spoke to the sheep about him, tears streaming down her eyes. The more she talked, the more memories were stirred, the more tears she shed. 

Upon her return to the village, she began talking to everyone she met about her lost brother. The villagers responded to her innocent chatter and soon everyone was once again talking about the chieftain's son. 

The chieftain heard about it and was angry with the villagers and his daughter. Seeing the anger in her father's eyes, the little girl hugged him tightly and said "You knew my brother before I was even born. I want to know about the games he used to play with you, his favorite animals, his hobbies, what made him happy, and what made him sad. I want to know everything about him, father!" 

Faced with the innocent girl's questions,  the father's anger melted. His harsh eyes softened, his stoney face crumbled, and he began talking. He answered all her questions and some more. He spoke about his son till the one who was supposed to listen was fast asleep. 

The next day, a new rule was announced in the tribe - You cannot wipe out the memories that you cherish. You cannot deny the beauties of times that have passed. 

Just because things didn't go the way you wanted, you cannot lose the love that you have in your heart. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

I Accept

How arrogant was I to think that just because I had some serious struggles in life, everything will be okay from now on. Things go wrong in everyone's life. Why should mine be different? How arrogant of me! And how foolish!

How am I any different from the young woman who once told me that nothing bad can happen to her siblings because hadn't she lost her elder brother to illness? I had pitied her and thought to myself "How foolish of her to take that as a given. People don't just have a fixed set of sorrows. How foolish it is to assume this." Was I any less foolish?

So, my son has become a stranger to me, and I to him. So, he sees every action of mine with a twisted judgmental lens? So what? Is my suffering so bad? Is it more or less than a mother who has a terminally-ill child? Am I better off or worse than a woman with no escape from a repressive marriage? Do I suffer more or less than them?

Suffering is suffering, different in nature, yet all the same, part of everyone's life.

We humans invent a god (or gods) to whom we pray for protection against sorrow. And when things do go south, we believe we didn't pray enough, so we pray more. We invent the concept of karma to understand why we suffer. And when that doesn't work, we believe it's something we did in our past lives to deserve the pain. Guilt all-around.

When an ant is accidentally crushed under our feet, is it her karma? Is her god unhappy with her? Who feels guilty about her accident? Is it not something that just happened?

I accept this suffering as part of life. I accept this as my ant-like life having been crushed accidentally. It happened, that's all. I am done blaming myself, blaming him, defending myself, defending him, feeling guilty, feeling ashamed. I am done.

I guess this is what the fifth phase of grieving is all about. After denial, anger, negotiation and depression, comes acceptance. Not really in that order, and not once linearly (how I wish), not closing once the cycle was done, not even when you reach acceptance.

I accept. For now, for today, I accept. 

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Tik Tik Kadin Emegi

We had just arrived in Cappadocia after a couple of harried "tourist guided" days in Istanbul. I hadn't yet figured how to pronounce the name of the town our travel agent had chosen for us in Cappadocia-  Urgup. 

I had played no part in selecting this town and I couldn't be more grateful for it. Had she asked me, I would have said Goreme, because I had such wonderful memories of time spent there with mom and Atta a decade ago. But as I found out later in this trip, Goreme has changed totally. From a laid back quiet quaint town of my memories, it was now a "cheap" tourist town.  Not inexpensive cheap, the other kind. Urgup was different. 

We had arrived mid morning at our lavish cave hotel and decided to walk to the town to have lunch. After walking for about 10 minutes through the winding narrow empty streets, we reached the main road. There were no restaurants to be found. The one place we thought was a cafe turned out to be a wine shop. There was hardly anyone on the road that we could ask. Aloka and I were puzzled and totally famished. 

It was then that I saw a sign on a stairway with an image of a woman holding a bowl. Could it mean food? What were the words- Tik Tik Kadin Emegi? Hungry and curious, we climbed up. 

It was a good decision. We had the best meal of the entire trip in a small tastefully decorated room with just three tables. Looking at the very limited menu, we ordered Tik Tik, which turned out to be a delicious ravioli dish served on a bed of curd. We also had the most delicate melt-in-the-mouth-no-nonsense baklava, so different from the sugary heavy baklava we had in Istanbul! Despite the language barrier, we made some conversation with the woman serving us and figured out that this was a woman's cooperative of some sort and the food we ate was made by the local women.

Of course, we were back at the restaurant the next day. A different woman served us this time. She started by lightly pinching Aloka's cheeks, who blushed red. After our delicious meal of tik tik and baklava, I peeked inside the room at the back where I could hear some talking. A most delightful scene awaited us. Four middle-aged woman sat on the floor, working feverishly with their hands and chatting. One of them looked up and nodded at us. That was all the encouragement we needed to enter the room. 

By very clear hand gestures, Aloka was invited by one of the women to sit next to her. Her cheeks got patted/pinched some more. They all seemed to like her instantly. Soon, the woman was teaching her to make ravioli. She was a bit apprehensive initially but soon got the knack of it.  I joined in and we worked in the kitchen for over an hour, making tik tik, the delicious ravioli we just had. 

Sitting on the floor in their kitchen, with no common language between us, I learned the names of all the women, and they ours. We also figured out how many kids we each had. When I had trouble reciting their names back, one of them managed to convey that it was okay because while they had to learn only two names, I had to remember four. There was so much laughter and shared joy among total strangers. I felt totally at home. 

Before leaving from that beautiful place, we bought a few packets of tik tik that we had contributed to making. We had them for dinner a few times after we returned home, each time transporting us to the lovely afternoon spent in the quiet quaint part of Ugrup, Cappadocia. 

It was only later that I googled the meaning of "Kadin Emegi"- Women's labor! So happy that  now it includes our labor too! 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Spring Mornings at Firmly Rooted

 Written on March 25, 2022

We finish our yoga class at 9:30 am, all of us calm and almost sleepy after the last 20 minutes of meditation. Mom makes tea for the two of us. We sit outside on the swing in the front deck, the warm sunshine beating down on us. The sunshine we were vying for just a week ago is now something we are beginning to avoid.
Aloka walks out into the deck with her special haldi tea and sits across from us. It's her favorite thing to talk about a strange dream she had the previous night, describing it in full details. Sometimes, she brings up a recipe she had seen on YouTube, knowing fully well that this sucker of a mom will try it out that very night for dinner. We talk of random things, sometimes teasing mom, sometimes laughing at jokes and word-plays. Every time mom is stuck at Wordle, she regrets telling me because I give her subtle hints, which she complains about but (I think) secretly appreciates. Mom slips into stories we have heard many times before, but no one stops her.
Birds seek our attention by their squeaking and preening on trees and bushes surrounding our boundary wall. We discuss the Eagle nest atop our Khirk tree and the other favorite perches of the resident eagles. Flowers that are just beginning to open up get our attention and appreciation. Mom tells Aloka the names of various flowers every day, hoping she will remember them.
Asha, our house-help, peeps out from the door to say Namaste, her mask in place. She has been told not to take her mask off as long as she is in the house, and she has held on to that promise for the last few months. Mom always has something to say to her, at times appreciating her fancy sweater and at other times asking her to pull in her paunch. Asha giggles at the attention.
Aarti, our gardener, walks in through the garden gate, in all her finery. Mom appreciates her shawl or sweater or her kurta. I talk to her about the vegetable patch. We ooh and aah at the vegetables growing well and share our disappointment about those that didn’t take off that well. Our individual gardens are strangely coordinated in their success and failures, despite being in different places. I sometimes wonder if Arti underplays the success of her own garden just to make me feel better.
Subhash ji greets us loudly as he enters the house to take the car keys. On days his hypochondria is active, he talks to us across the garden gate about various symptoms. Mom and I exchange glances and surreptitiously roll our eyes at his descriptions of strange illnesses. If he crosses the gate to talk more, both of us become alert and take him more seriously.
As soon as the tea is drunk, I walk to my happy space to harvest some peas or to look proudly at the flourishing coriander patch or sadly at the struggling spinach plants. Sonika walks out into the deck with a plateful of boiled eggs and the fancy salt and pepper cellar. She peels the eggs and offers to all of us. Aloka will not touch the egg yolks, so they become a treat for the dogs Gullu and Sula. Sonu invariably sparks off more laughter by mispronouncing words and immediately realising that she would be caught. No mistake goes past Aloka and me. Sonu is by far the most amused by her mistakes.
No one wants to leave the outdoor breakfast table, but one by one we slink off to do other things. Another beautiful spring morning at Firmly Rooted comes to an end.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There are no Strangers in a Village

We were walking through the village and I had just talked to a woman about the load she was carrying on her back. It was a fairly innocuous exchange, a salutation, a few questions from me and her responses. 

So I couldn't understand when my son (who is a citizen of Singapore and currently a resident of Switzerland) commented that I had treated the woman as a lesser person. Had I? That not my intention. And she certainly hadn't looked unhappy talking to me. So was it something in my tone that he had noticed? 

He said just the fact that I had stopped a total stranger and asked her random questions was an act of superiority. As if I had a right to engage her.  Would I do something like this to a person like myself in a city? He also noted that no villager had stopped me to ask me about my day or life. It was always coming from me. 

I listened to my son's observations deeply, as I always do. He is one of the few people who has challenged my convictions successfully.

His comment stayed with me for a long time. Years actually. Everytime I spoke to village folks, I observed my words and their reaction. I noticed that indeed they never initiated the conversation, but once I did, they were very comfortable and extremely happy to talk. 

Then last month, after having spoken to another woman from a village while out on a walk, I finally brought it up to Sonu. 

She didn't think my initiating conversations was an act of superiority. In fact, quite the opposite. That I have conversations with them, according to her, is a sign of my interest in them as important human beings whose lives I find interesting. That is not an insult, she said, but a compliment. As to why they didn't initiate conversations with me, she said they were wary of city folks who are quite often snobbish.

Not fully satisfied, I asked her "So, you mean, if I didn't look so obviously an outsider, they would engage with me? Is it only because I look different that they hesitate? Do they normally engage with a stranger they meet, provided the stranger looks like one of them?" 

Her response, which took some time coming, had me floored. 

"Puja, there are no strangers in a village!"

Thursday, September 30, 2021

My Kamla

Unlike many people who have written about Kamla in the last few days, I didn't know her for long. I was not connected to her professionally either. I was just an ordinary person she chose to befriend in Rakkar, her second home. 

I first met Kamla in 2013, a few months after I had returned to India and settled in a small town in Himachal. Within a minute of meeting her, it felt as if I had known her my entire life. She heard my life story without interrupting me and declared that I was at once a fool and someone special. "Tu to badi pagal hai!", she said and added "this village is lucky to have you here!". 

This was the start of  friendship like none other. She got to know of my picnics in the mountains and wanted to be part of them. She climbed trees with my friends and daughter. She joined Aloka in her Hula Hoop sessions. She made mom sing Bengali songs. She would have us in splits with her riddles and jokes. She enjoyed my cooking and came over for lunches, oohing and aahing at everything I made. She joined us for our mango eating outings to a friend's orchard, where we all sat around a bucket full of mangoes that would need to be topped up ever so often. She joined us in our expeditions to our khadd to cool down on hot summer days. She became my brand ambassador when I put up a chicken schnitzel stall in the village fair. She was just one of us crazy women. 

She was Kammo for mom. She in turn addressed my mom as didi. She insisted Aloka call her Kamla nani. And she frowned upon me when I called her Kamla-di, something I had heard everyone in Jagori calling her. So she was simply Kamla for me. 

She trained and traveled often in the three months that she was in Himachal, and was free for only about 15-20 days scattered over the months. I made sure I spent at least some time with her on these days. She did too. If there was a meeting with someone interesting nearby, she would take me along. She made me organize mehfils and get-togethers. She introduced me to everyone she thought would be good for me. These summer months were the highlight of our year, thanks to Kamla. 

In our very first meeting, she asked me to teach English to the staff of Jagori. "Tu to acchi Angrezi bolti hai. Tu Angrezi parha sab ko", she had said. Though I had never taught English to anyone in my life, I said yes, because you don't say no to Kamla. That was the beginning of my journey of teaching that has sustained me in all these years by giving me purpose. It has also connected me to the village and the kids and youth. I have received so much love from numerous people because one woman saw something in me that no one else saw, including me. 

She kept seeing in me things neither I nor others saw. When people applauded the dancers in a dance workshop held at my home, they saw me as one of the dancers, just as I did. But she saw me as someone bringing Indian Classical dance to the village and making it accessible to village kids. When people applauded my school students for their performance in an English play, they saw me as a volunteer teacher with whom kids had fun, just as I did. But she saw me as a person transforming the lives of village kids. To be loved is one thing, but to be seen is quite something. 

The more I got to know her, the more I realized that I knew very little about feminism. I attended two days of her gender workshop one time and that's it. The rest I learned by talking to her and reading her books and articles. I had many questions and initially I asked them with diffidence, questions cloaked as observations. Her responses to me were never direct. She left me with oblique half-answers and I believe it was because she expected me to figure out things for myself.  

"Kamla, I was treated the same as my brother growing up. There was no discrimination at home" I remember saying to her once. Her response was oblique. "And what was outside of your house? What did you step into when you stepped out of your door", she responded. Once there was an uproar on Facebook when she shared a video of Sadhguru talking about women dressing to please men. I called her and asked why was wearing whatever women felt like not an expression of their freedom? Her response was once again brief. She said "In an ideal world, it would be, of course. But don't forget that we are all operating within the boundaries of patriarchy." When I said I wanted to attend her workshops to learn more from her, she said to me "No one knows everything there is to know, not even I".

Whatever I may have thought of her, she always considered me as her equal, as her friend. I realize now what an honor that is. This foolish girl never considered herself worthy of being a friend to Kamla, but she had no doubts about it. Once, while introducing myself to someone who knew her, I added that Kamla is my mentor. Kamla slapped me lightly on my leg and said "What mentor shentor. We are friends." I felt somehow that I had offended her by calling her my mentor. 

She used to call me once or twice a month for a chit chat. She would often complain that I was always too busy and never called her. If I called her and she was busy, she would always return my call. If I wrote to her, she would be prompt with her response. How could a person who had an abundance of friends accommodate me in her life so easily? How does a heart become so expansive?

This changed only in the last few months of her life. She didn't respond to my message when I wrote expressing my anguish at the diatribe against her on social media (that's an elephant in the room no one's talking about, perhaps because its irrelevance is obvious now). She didn't respond when I wrote to her after her diagnosis. But I didn't give up, messaging and calling till she finally said "Tu aaja". 

I spent a week with her in Delhi in early September, taking care of her jointly with two other friends of hers. I got scolded by her countless number of times that week for not being prompt enough, for not understanding what exactly she wanted me to do, for offering to hold her hand when she walked (I am not that weak!) and what not. I will cherish that scolding all my life. I didn't get to rest or sleep much that week, managing her oxygen and medicines and being on call at night. I will cherish each moment of that whirlwind week all my life. 

She was losing strength fast but not her sense of humor. When I said a couple of times that I am sad that her nephew is leaving, she said "Lo dekh lo Puja ko. Woh Delhi se Indore ja raha hai aur isko itna dukh hai. Yahaan mein duniya chhorh ke ja rahi hun, uska kya?" We laughed together. I cried alone in my room later.

Kamla, my mentor (sorry), my mother, my sister, my dearest friend, I am so honored and so privileged to have you in my life.  The force that you were cannot vanish. The love that you were cannot dissipate. You live in me, in Aloka, and in the thousands of people for whom you had space in your big big heart. 

I am filled with thoughts and memories of you. I am bereft.