First impressions

It happened in a flash. The nerve endings fired, the synapses contracted, the body leaped and responded like an efficient well-oiled machine, as if trained for just such an eventuality.

 It was all over in seconds, before rational thought could parse the stimulus, the action, it’s ramifications and consequences. Sense making and analysis were indulgences which he knew were the prerogative of those who would never have done something like this. Yet Sunil was feeling a bit crushed. Physically, his clean but unremarkable features furrowed at the sight of his scruffed clothes and grimy hands. He had wanted to look good today.

What young man would risk his life and limb for an old doddering fellow? So scruffy that he seemed just one step above being termed a beggar. The man had been saved in the nick of time, just as he was about to slip his step and fall into the tracks. In the melée for the last train of the morning, it would have been easy to miss the sight of a near-vagabond disappear into the treacherous tracks. Yet, of all the hundreds who were there on the platform, it was Sunil whose reflexes were the quickest.

In moments the train shuddered out of the station, with only that particular coach being uncharacteristically uncrowded with only that old coot managing to stay focused on getting onto to the train. Those who were in that part of the platform seemed so transfixed that they realized the impact of Sunil’s act on their own routines only after the train doors clicked shut and it gathered momentum.

Among the onlookers there was a  frisson of thrill. Catching a near-death in their midst, miraculously transformed into a heroic save, was far beyond the average morning commuter’s daily quota of excitement. Women fawned over him pressing  their pillowy bosoms  into him as they kept touching him in what would been considered inappropriate places. Men too crowded round him slapping his back, pummeling him, hugging and lauding him  loudly in the choicest words of refined praise, tinged with what could be considered wholesome mock-abuse.

Sunil was naturally shy and he found his personal space under attack as he fended their advances rather ineffectually. But the appreciation didn’t abate. The next train was not due for quite some time.

 There were people dancing around him, taking pictures and asking him to pose for them. Who would have thought that there could be such a large congregation of jobless people on the bustling platform of this city! And for what? Just one moment’s reaction to a random stranger’s accidental action.

What if Sunil hadn’t seen? What if he’d seen but stayed on course in his determined bid to get a foothold in a relatively empty coach? Or what if he’d tried to save the old geezer and missed? And unbidden the thought followed – what if the old man in his panic, had managed to take Sunil down with him?

He shuddered when that thought caught up with him. His nebulous connect with his surroundings snapped as he imagined his parents back home in Kanpur being officially and coldly informed of their bereavement. And what would Savita have done. For the first time that morning the full ramifications of his impulsive action hit him. But what could he have done? Watched as an overeager old  man got swallowed by a hungry train? And the train? It couldn’t have left the station if it ran over a man, could it? So anyway he wouldn’t have been able to make it to that appointment he has promised Savita he would keep today. If he didn’t meet her old man today, Savita had threatened that she wouldn’t marry him.

Gradually there was a bit of a lull. People made all manner of gracious gestures and, short of offering him monetary rewards, had bestowed numerous encomiums on him. How many ways could they laud him and in how many ways could he thank them? Slowly Sunil began to flex himself, testing his limbs which had been thoroughly patted, slapped, thumped and caressed.

As he stood straighter, he saw a person standing by – leaning on a pillar, watching him. Sunil stood on tip-toe and boldly waved a hand at the person. And he waved back. With his graceful fluid movements, Sunil escaped his ring of admirers and glided across to the older man.

“That was a very brave thing you did, son. Only an exceptional human being could have done it. I am happy today to see that there are such youth in this heroic country. You just saved a life and have heroically reaffirmed our faith in heroism. Your parents must be proud of having a remarkable son like you.”

“Erm, Mr. Joshi, umm, uncle, my name is Sunil. Sunil Singh.  I was here to meet you today. Maybe Savita told you, we are colleagues and I love your daughter and we want to get married, with your blessings.”

An evening in the park

Seetu, what a perfect name for such a pretty little girl. From the moment I saw her, I knew that I would call her Seetu. My own darling Seetu.

She was down at the park where I could see her easily from my desk. In that pretty summery pink gingham dress with embroidered posies, she tempted me to go out wearing my matching Jessica Simpson shoes teemed with the pale pink dress I’d picked up last month. I quickly reproduced the look I had been practicing for a while and was down at the park, laden with goodies for my Seetu.


But first I had to deal with the ayah – I don’t what it is about these idiotic women that I let them threaten and overwhelm me. I’ve had my share of ayahs that are respectful and let me give gifts to the little one and pamper her. But these are few and far. Usually, the ayah looks at me sternly and shoos  me off me. Me, can you imagine anyone telling me off? Today is a good day. This one seems relieved that I am here so that she can spend some ‘quality time’ with that leery driver lounging at the edge of the park.

Seetu is sweetness personified. She gurgles and giggles at the goodies, gathering them up only to throw them into the air. She starts opening the packets and things come tumbling out – all the smart shiny stuff  any little girl would love. There are gift-wrapped picture books, pop-up books, hair ornaments and clips and satin ribbons peeping out of cellophane windows and pencils in so many colourful boxes and crayons and pieces of chalk tied up in a crepe ribbon. She is pleased and plants a deep wet kiss on me cheek. I drink in her baby smells and nuzzle into her. Time goes by in a blur. It is getting to be dark. The ayah has come back without her driver boyfriend. Soon I would have to kiss Seetu goodnight.

But suddenly there is a commotion. There are far too many people in the park suddenly. Men. Why should these well-dressed men be at the park at this hour? And why is that shoddily dressed lady shouting so loudly? They gather around me. They are talking loudly, too loudly.

I can hear all those frenzied pitying words – Mrs. S has never fully recovered from the death of her baby three years ago. Oh, these hateful horrible people. They keep trying to label me, pity me, separate me from my kids.
Seetu, my love, come to mama…

Heroics and Stoics

So why read it? The old question yet again.

Over ten years ago, I joined an online support group, a community where I bared my soul and in turn, got flashed some horribly scarred souls, I would often be told by members that i would need a need a whole box of tissues for reading some parts of their life-stories. I stocked up on these – the boxes of tissues and those terrible soul-searing stories.

Like all novitiates, I faithfully participated  in these ritualized soul-baring and crying sessions with befitting gravitas.  The gorier the story, the more painful the details, the more textured the tortures, the more the respectful interest. Pornography of pain? Bring it on, I was the junkie. There were weekly, daily and even hourly displays of distress and I began to feel obliged to partake more and more intensely. The boundaries between a voyeur and a participant, never clearly drawn, became fuzzier as I started recreating those recurrent patterns in my real world as well. I became truly integrated with my addiction.  My  addiction, like all addictions, required increasing doses of more prolonged and intense spiritual suffering and emotional trauma.  I attempted, half-heartedly,  to take my own life, partly because of my depression and more because it would create a tremendous buzz. All this when I was otherwise “cheerful” and living a rich life with much to be grateful for. Let me repeat, it was support group and it obviously required sharing unreservedly and yet I felt the pressure of having suitable stuff to share. My online community had like-minded women and we used to spend hours every day being there for each other. Often I wonder how it would have been if it was a more mixed group. Surely I wouldn’t have let my guards down if there were more men there. I’d have affected my customary balanced pose rather than allowing my slide down that path.

During this phase, I sought to supplement my regular doses of emotional pain with music and books. I’d be morbidly fascinated by books filled with trauma, emotional rather than physical. The modern / post-modern dickensonian sagas?! The effete and the suicidal.  I would read them and feel for the characters. Then I would weep. No theatrics, no sobs. Just a steady stream of tears coursing matter-of-factly from my red-rimmed eyes.  My children would watch all this quiet shedding of tears mystified, yet fascinated. They knew other women were glued to soppy soaps for their daily fix of pathos but couldn’t quite reconcile themselves to their mother regularly reading anything which made her so unhappy.

After years, decades of this, they finally stepped up and said, No more Jodi Picoult. But I enjoy it, I countered.  You enjoy making yourself miserable, they asked. Yes, i accepted. That’s when I realized how I had been ill-treating myself. Gradually, I withdrew from my online addictions too. I still participated actively in the support group, but there was an increasing distance between that group and my life. It was not easy, as no cold-turkey ever is. I survived. I missed the pain, the ill-ease, the disease, the malaise, the peeks into lives too far and too warped compared to my staid routine. I felt the lesser for being boring mainstream, whole, healthy and, erm, plain happy.

In between, I did read some depressing stuff, both online and in books- but these homeopathic doses only served to reinforce my resolve not to succumb to their definitely dubious charms.

I went through all this when I recently read Roll of Honour. Such a long preface to a book review, eh? I needed to write all this to describe my response to the book.

Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu is a brutally honest book. A cathartic experience for the writer who has laid bare many of his demons. And what monsters each of them is. The story of a young boy who is studying in a military school, in large part to escape the disturbed environment at home where a stoic father has to tend to a very disturbed mother. His new-found world organized neatly by the columns of the school and rows of boys and teachers arranged by seniority. In this sharply ruled plane, there appear disturbing squiggles threatening to crush and crumple it all. The mandatory boarding school ‘ragra’ is supplemented by other shows of dominance by the seniors using sodomy as a form of self-assertion. There are also oppressive threats from the real world outside the school gates as the political and social roiling in Punjab vitiates the order within. The sodomy of boys by their seniors is used as a powerful metaphor of the martial Sikh race being targeted and emasculated by the male symbol of the state, the Indian Army.

Many months ago when I first heard excerpts of this book read out in an august gathering in IISc Bangalore, my first impression was – how brutally, boringly male the excerpt sounded. The author, Amandeep, had laughed at my comment and said that there was little tenderness he could have injected into the narrative.

A kind teacher whose army husband was at the border, some surreptitious kisses and embraces stolen from a fellow schoolboy, these just go to emphasize the absence of tenderness, rather than providing it. (Takes me back to the point I made about the abandon with I swapped and shared misery on a nearly all-woman forum. Something about mixed groups being healthier for all, hm?!)
This sense of malaise lingers throughout, reaching occasional flash-points in the discovery of a mutilated body of playmate, destruction of a precious personal patch of plants or the excruciating bestiality of the hormone pumped up boys. There is no let-up. Not even in flash-forwards to when he is  studying as an odd-boy out in Hyderabad University,  away from all the madness in far-off Bangalore,  visiting the Sikh-riot affected settlements in Delhi.  No, there is no let -up.

Amandeep, my heart bleeds for you – my friend, my brother. I’m afraid I can’t participate in the love fest over your book on facebook. I can’t pretend that I liked/ loved/ enjoyed your book, I didn’t. But I feel for you. I salute you for being a Hero. You figure on my Roll of Honour.


If he is addicted to other women, gambling or drink
She wouldn’t want to live with him, one’d think,
Yet studying our prime mythical story
I’m no closer to unraveling this mystery

Draupadi, that acme of Indian polyandry,
She was no drudge; she was known to get angry
Brought up as a precious princess girl,
On occasion, her lips would curse and curl
She was not known to be as docile
As Sita was, in her forced exile

With each of her husbands having personal wives
Why didn’t Draupadi leave them to their loves and dice?
Why, if she could subvert chiraharan,
did she choose the life of a common char-woman?

When all her husbands had crucially failed her,
she turned to cosmic Krishna for succour –
why then, did she continue to be by them?
Engaging herself as their menial pro tem.

If Draupadi had recourse to divorce
Would she have fared any worse?
Gambled away by her eldest suitor
The second having to live as a neuter
The big middle one, by her, couldn’t do much
And the twins, they were quite out of touch!

Dharmaraj Yuddhistra was unrighteous
Virile Arjun, reduced to shikhandii
Powerful Bhima was, for her, powerless
Nakul and Sahadev mere have-beens

With five husbands and on her own,
a personal revenge she had sworn.
And yet she bedecked other princesses
while she didn’t tie her own tresses

A princess, a natural queen to-be,
why did she acquiesce to ignominy?
Is there any algorithm to explain-
Why some divorce but others refrain

Not opting out, staying on – till their defenses are worn
Is it that some have a lower threshold,
while others have a lower still self esteem,
or martyrdom, a search for a higher being?

Is it love for a self-indulgent big child
who makes the right public noises but privately cries?
Is it response to a defence-less spousal position,
Or simply passive masochistic destruction?

Or is it a final irony that the addict ‘s addiction
Creates and supports in the family, a mirror position?

Memories/ yaadein

A rough translation of a Ahmad Faraz Ghazal:

Again the foolish heart says let’s forget them memories
Life’s end draws near yet still there’re these memories
As if our parting happened just today
As if they can reopen all the scarred memories
If it were but possible like paper boats,
To set adrift in streams of abandon, these memories
May that season dawn when for you, my faithless one,
They shed piled carpets of flowers, these memories
As if desire were an offence, such a crime, that
Its sentence is a lifetime of memories
To forget them briefly is a small respite, Faraz,
Else they overpower and possess me, these memories.

Here she is:

aaj phir dil ne kaha aao bhula dein yaadein
zindagi beet gai aur wahi yaadein-yaadein
jis tarah aaj hi bichde hon bichadane wale
jaise ek umar ke dukh yaad dila dein yaadein
kaash mumkin ho ke ek kaagzi kashti ki tarah
khud-faramoshi ke dariya mein baha dein yaadein
woh bhi rutt aaye ke ae zood-faramosh mere
phool patte teri yaadon mein bicha dein yaadein
(zood-faramosh=jaldi bhoolne wala)
jaise chahat bhi koi zurm ho aur zurm bhi woh
jiski padaash mein ta-umar saza dein yaadein
(padaash=zurm ki saza)
bhool jana bhi to ik tarah ki ne(h)mat hai Faraz
warna insaan ko pagal na bana dein yaadein

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