Thursday, April 28, 2011 9 reflections

The girl in the restaurant

So it’s that time of the year again. J and I, like last year, are once again etching out a near perfect plan of stay in India this July over our extremely brief three week ‘vacation’. I quote the word vacation since we spend so much time in Mumbai and Bengaluru traffic that watching idle vehicular exhaust and unimaginative grocery store names automatically becomes a big part of our stay there. Hopefully this time around there will be some respite from that. Anyway, among the top things we always include in our trip is room for fantastic gastronomy. She recommends a long list of places to go and try food at in Mumbai while I dish out choice eateries from in and around namma Bengaluru. Over such a conversation recently I mentioned the famous restaurant chain Adigas. Having tasted the food there a few times I thought it was time J too had the opportunity to do the same. But then, the mere mention of its name took me back a few years to a peculiar incident that took place in that restaurant in Malleshwaram one evening. This blog, hence, is a reflective piece of the same.

A friend and I were returning after watching ‘Superman Returns’ in hope of enjoying a deservedly hearty meal at the restaurant after having been subjected to a dud of a movie. As is customary in such famed places we had to wait for about half an hour with other eager faces and grumbling stomachs in the reception before we were ushered in. Once the doors came ajar and the person there helped us to a table, we realized that we would have to share it with four slightly loud middle aged men. But then the allure of the delicious meal was so tempting that to put up with their cacophony seemed liked the least worrisome thing to do. So we settled down exchanging pleasantries as, moments later, a family came and sat down at the table next to ours. It was a family of five people – the parents and their three children. The eldest one was a girl, about twelve years old; the second was a boy, slightly younger than her, maybe ten and the last was an infant asleep in its mother’s arms. Their dress indicated that they possibly came from the lower middle class and the extra shades of talcum powder on their necks indicated that they probably didn’t go out as much and that this outing to Adigas was something the family had been looking forward to for quite a while. This became even more apparent as the girl grabbed the menu that was given to them by a slow moving waiter and whispered sharply to her brother – ‘See! See! I told you they had it!’ – emphasizing on the ‘it’ to indicate that they both were anxiously awaiting some particular dish. The enthusiasm on their faces made me smile a little as I thought back of my childhood days where we would sit in such high end restaurants and have tomato soup with a piece of hard bread floating in it with much pride.

The friend and I then got busy with ordering our meal and I didn’t notice much of the family after that. A few minutes later though, my friend got a call and she stepped out to take it. That was when I had the chance to notice something peculiar. As it appeared the father was not very pleased with the prices of the dishes. It was clear that it was possibly not within the budget they had in mind. Noticing their reluctance the boy began whimpering as he now knew what was coming. The girl, on the other hand, maintained her optimistic smile and continued to listen carefully at what her parents were discussing. The slow waiter returned with that condescending look you get in restaurants in India where you get gauged by these fellows by merely looking at what you are wearing. A repulsive attitude that refuses to go away. ‘People are waiting outside sir!Hurry up!’ he moaned as he noticed the family fidget with the menus. The father then inquired about a few dishes to which the waiter carelessly kept nodding a NO and looked on dispassionately at their discomfort as if secretly enjoying their public ordeal.

Finally the father gestured to the daughter and without a word the family began to get up. As the parents walked away with an apologetic grin on their faces the waiter returned and said something to the little girl I will never forget ‘You can have the water if you want. It’s free.’ She, instead of frowning or ignoring him completely simply smiled back as she had done so gracefully until then, added a genuine laugh and responded ‘Thank you uncle!’ She then comforted her brother who was now in tears as the two slowly walked out hand in hand from the restaurant without having consumed a single thing there.

Something cracked inside me silently that evening. Amid the din of the crowd that sat gorging on a dozen dishes and guffawing in the cool comfort of their wealth, I could clearly hear the crackle of that little girl’s young broken heart. Her brother had chosen to let his tears bring him relief while she, still a child herself, had battled the public scene with such grace and determination. Today as I think of her I sincerely hope that she finds much success and that well deserved spotlight of fame to reward her refreshing optimism in this cynical world. I also wish that someday she can take her parents and siblings back to such a restaurant and order a big fat meal that will contain every dish she has ever wanted.

Saturday, April 23, 2011 1 reflections

How big are we?

During a search for some tunes meant for soothing the stressed mind, I came across this piece developed by the American Museum for Natural History. It is essentially a view of where the Earth is in the grand GRAND scheme of things in this endless universe of ours. The tabloids are filled with scams from around the world with columns running deep and red with facts and accusations. Then there are the demi-Gods who have, for centuries, been convinced that they are indeed the center of the universe and have absolute command over everything and everyone. We have obnoxious celebrities and politicians with their gigantic egos and larger than life 'aura' walking around with their eyes in the clouds. I look at places like Twitter where a hungry need for instant and constant validation goes on each minute as people desperately try to get new followers each day or on Facebook and YouTube where they add absolute strangers as friends thus ensuring their consistent ego massage happens unperturbed. So much is happening on this little blue and green marble of ours and yet we seldom realize just how overwhelmingly dwarfed we are in this infinite universe that surrounds us. For having helped me a bit with that perspective, I truly enjoyed watching this presentation. Of course, the fact that this video is juxtaposed with a wonderful rendition of Mangala Charan shloka only makes this piece even more likable.

Thursday, April 14, 2011 4 reflections

Now that Delhi is far away

'Does it snow there?' was one of the most popular and most juvenile of the many questions we had bombarded our tired father with when he had disclosed to us that he had been transferred to New Delhi and that we would have to spend the next few years of our lives in that city. Having stayed in rural Andhra as infants, in Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai as kids and in Bengaluru as blossoming teens, the prospect of living in the capital of our nation was, according to us (and by us I mean me and my younger brother) was the perfect gateway to the good life. As we boarded the two and a half day KK express towards Delhi, our minds were filled with the colorful images of India Gate, Jantar Mantar, Qutub Minar and Palika Bazaar. Images that we had only seen in strong black ink illustrations in our social studies textbooks published by NCERT. Images that had lured us with their historical greatness in our Tinkle comics. Images that, we knew, would be part of us forever.

With such ambitions aboard, our train finally chugged to a halt in the 37 degree boiling pot called Delhi one merciless afternoon in June 1992. A gush of hot air (of an intensity I had never experienced ever before) rushed into the compartment and wrapped itself all over me as I stepped into the din of Delhi's cacophony. Loud noises that claimed to be speaking Hindi (but sounded nothing like the kind we had been taught in our modest CBSE schools) welcomed us as we zoomed past fast red line buses and faster speaking Dilli wallahs towards our flat in Narayan Vihar (we later moved to Inderpuri). I can still recall a sense of being in an absolutely alien place my first few weeks there. Given the velocity with which the twangs of Delhi Hindi swept across us, me and my brother – who back in our schools were famous for our pristine enunciation of the language – were now feeling somewhat shortchanged at the hurling of 'le liyos' and 'aa jaiyyos'. In fact, it was in my second week there that I had whispered to my dad – 'Can we not go back to Bangalore next year?' indicating to him of confirmed trouble ahead.

But nevertheless we continued to be surprised at every fresh piece of information Delhi kept flinging our way. The first trip to see our new school in Lodhi Estate seemed like a two hour journey as we got a chance to be a part of the mayhem that was peppered all around the roaring capital of the nation. I distinctly remember my brother, wet with reluctance, pleading to dad that he couldn't imagine going this far to school each day even as my poor father consoled him by telling him there would be a school bus for all that. Narrow streets that seemed friendly and welcoming suddenly opened up into generously wide spaces which were lined with large mansions of politicians and guarded by grim looking soldiers standing behind large sandbags with obvious weapons in hand. As we looked in wonderment at the residential areas of the likes of Murali Manohar Joshi or Advani or VP Singh, we couldn't help pondering how we would spend the next two to three (maybe more!) years in this concrete puzzle of a place where people spoke something that wasn't exactly Hindi and had armed soldiers guarding residences.

Then something happened. Once school began, we found more children just like ourselves who had come from the broad horizons of our grand nation and were equally intimidated by their new surroundings. They too, like us, were learning the fundamentals such as a Punjabi and a Sardar are two different things and that there can be Punjabis who don't wear turbans. Together, we were taught that 'liyo' was just another way of saying 'lo' and that screaming 'Oye!' at someone wasn't rude at all. A lyrical collection of such newly acquired tones began coming together as a song while we mastered the art of getting off buses without waiting for it to stop. We juggled with 'aa jaiyos' and 'de diyos' with finesse as we traversed the length and breadth of that grand city exploring everything from panchkuian to Noida to Safdarjung Enclave to Karol Bagh to Rajendra Nagar to Janakpuri. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond our radius of possibilities. I even participated boldly in the under-18 painting contest held at the Lalit Kala Academy and submitted two pieces from my prized collection. That I didn't win anything is another matter but one of my pieces was actually showcased as part of their eventual display. School life ushered in a whole new lease of confidence as the art of haggling with a bus conductor became as easy as biting into warm jalebis near Chandni Chowk. Yes – we embraced Dilli as it gracefully complimented our gesture. Within a few months we had become such regulars in the city that it was impossible for anyone to say that we were the same uncertain and shaky kids from Bangalore who had wondered how they would get to school each day.

Even though I left that city more than 15 years ago I still think of the place as a spot that had given me so much without ever judging me or smearing me with labels. I still think of my school in Lodhi Estate. I still recall the faces and the names in that edifice with fondness. The sight of the misty India Gate in the distance which I would pass each day on the way to school still remains fixed in my mind's eye. The smells and sounds of Jama Masjid still linger within me every time I hear the name in a passing reference. The gasp of excitement we would feel every time our car passed the majestic Parliament building is still very much in the pages of my past. The punch of disappointment we would feel every time we spotted out number 18 bus near Pusa Bhavan each morning still unfolds when I close my eyes. Yes – being the city that patiently endured the pains of my critical teenage years 'that Delhi' will always remain a prominent member of my memory club.

Today, in 2011, I sit back and think of moments from those bygone days as I read horrifying stories from that city. I read of such inhumane acts of violence on children, women and men that a shudder runs down my spine questioning me if this was the same city I had spent some of the best days of my teenage years in. What happened? When did that 'dilwaalon ka shahar' become so ruthless and gory? When did the love in the big hearts of those people turn to muck? Why has the skies seen so much innocent blood and tears spilt on those city grounds? Why? How? When? Questions and more questions. As I watch heated debates unfold across the Internet accusing Delhi and calling it names, a part of me feels blue since in many ways I have always carried a bit of Delhi with me wherever I have gone in the world. The image I see of it today certainly does not match the beauty and grace of that muse who sits within the canvas I have built for it over the years. It probably never will. Not with the way each new day brings more horror and wails of woe from within those historic city walls. As I sit in shock and read about the catastrophes unfolding there I am more convinced that the Delhi I had once seen and experienced is now invisible to the naked eye. Gone, possibly, for good.

I am reminded of that 1957 film which was titled 'Ab Dilli door nahin' (Delhi is not far now). According to me that Dilli of my fond past is now beyond my mortal reach. This time, that Dilli of mine, is definitely far away. Ab woh Dilli bahut door ho gayi.