Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

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Suspended on Beliefs: Riding the faith cycle in Madhya Pradesh

(This. Because I’m on a nostalgia trip. Also because I’m wanting to run away from Big City right now. But mostly because this is one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime.)

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Our little boat is silently making its way across the river Narmada. The only sounds audible are of geese squawking farewell to each other in the distance, the melodic strains of the oar splicing through the water, and the rapid clicking of a camera — it is a beautiful clear sunset in the tiny town of Maheshwar, the kind that occurs the day after torrential rain. Our destination is the 200-year-old Baneshwar temple situated in the middle of the river, one that the more modern motorboats only circle around for the benefit of tourists. “Once we get there, take your time, take as many pictures as you want, there’s no hurry,” says Kaluram, our wizened 60-year-old oarsman.

He has an ulterior motive — while we do a quick round of the temple and dismiss it as just another one of Madhya Pradesh’s countless shrines, he shrugs off his holey rubber chappals, does swift ablutions in the river and gets on with lighting diyas, offering flowers, perambulating the temple with folded hands and eyes devoutly shut. Sheepishly, we look the other way, perhaps not wanting to invade his privacy. Once he’s done, Kaluram crouches on the steps of the temple, lights a beedi and proceeds to give us a brief history of the place.

“Every year, there’s a flood in this river — banks, houses, trees are all washed away. When the tide ebbs, this little shrine is the only thing still standing. We think of it as a miracle — which is why I come here to pray every day,” he explains. From our vantage point in the dimming light, Ahilya Bai Holkar’s massive fort looks dwarfed in the distance. Under a starry, moonless sky, we quietly make our way back to the ghat, now thronged by people sending off little betel leaf boats loaded with flowers and incense sticks into the river.

Maheshwar is a small town, quite off the beaten track, that thrives on a special kind of textile crafted here and because of adventurous tourists, mostly foreigners. Ahilya Bai Holkar, after being appointed ruler of Malwa in 1767, set up her capital here. Inside the fort, one of the few living ones in the country is a little house with a blooming angan where she used to live.

This space is now a museum stocked with her sparse belongings, countless portraits, posters and canvasses printed with poetry in praise of her piety, simple beauty and valour. Inside the fort are also countless shivlings, a school for girls, a Maheshwari cloth workshop run by old, widowed women and the poshest restaurant in town.

The people of the town seem to follow Ahilya Bai’s example dedicatedly — their visits to the smooth sandstone riverside are a daily ritual, says Kaluram. Not only does this serve as a release from the humdrum of everyday life, but it also acts as a binding force, instilling a sense of community. This spirit is quite in contrast with nearby Mandu, a more popular destination thanks to some wonderful historic architecture marvels, but which we are repeatedly warned away from due to brewing communal tensions. The issue at hand was a Hindu opposition to the Muslims offering namaaz at the local Bhojshala temple, a tradition that has continued for ages.

We’ve arrived here after a week of haphazard travelling — having hopped onto a train to Jhansi from Delhi, we headed to Khajuraho, “the land of the Kama Sutra”, as an American girl on the train put it. Khajuraho is, of course, particularly popular with the foreign tourists because it is a window to India’s heritage that celebrates all that is carnal. We cycle around the tiny cosmopolitan village that has cropped up between the eastern and western temples, populated with little hotels and restaurants serving a global menu. The temples themselves are beautiful — cut in sandstone, with statues depicting sexual positions studding the tall structures. Even the Jain temples to the west, known to be a tribute to sacrifice and abstinence, are designed thus, inspiring a sense of awe for those who are acquainted with the ways of the Hindu religion.

Pachmarhi, the Deccan’s only hill-station, is known to be an important destination on the Shaivite pilgrim’s map. Deep in the Satpura jungles is a cave, popularly known as Jatashankar, where you descend into a wet crevasse to discover a small shrine to the lord of destruction, guarded by tridents and a stalactite that looks like the hood of a cobra snake. An old woman wrapped in blue plastic sits on a rock and sings bhajans in a startlingly clear voice. When we compliment her, she gives us a toothy grin and demands I take a picture of her. Calling herself shankarji ki bhaktan, she says, “I’ve been here since I was a little girl — never married, no kids. He is my lord, my soul. I sing for his pleasure.”

Near the cantonment is the town Church, among the few survivors of the British contribution to this town. From a distance, it looks enticingly haunted, half-obscured by tall poplars, and we can catch glimpses of pretty stained-glass windows. But a woman selling cigarettes in front of the church intercepts us and, after some discomfiting questions (“Where are you going? Are you Christian? Catholic?”), tell us that tourists aren’t allowed in anymore. We find out much later that her tale of a mob coming and vandalising the church, post which it was only open on Sundays for mass, is a complete hogwash and just a ploy to earn some extra money on the side.

Our sojourn into the heart of India was not meant to be a religious one, but it seems that in Madhya Pradesh, faith just happens to be the driving force for pretty much everything. We leave Maheshwar with a heavy heart — our agnostic souls found peace sitting on the steps of the fort, as we watched breathtaking sunsets in silence. On the bus to Indore, the closest stop for a railway connection, we meet a maulavi dressed in a black achkan and white pyjamas, his silver beard flecked with red. We offer him our breakfast — delicious sweet and spicy poha wrapped in newspaper, for the princely sum of Rs. 5 — at which he smiles and begins talking about politics, religion and education, exalting the virtues of the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita and the Quran in a single breath.

As we get closer to the highway, we spot a poster by a local political party, calling for an end to namaaz in the Bhojshala temple and sporting one of the ‘sexy’ figurines from Khajuraho. While we’re busy guffawing at this, our new friend finds this violation of amity atrocious. “What is the point of religion if all it makes you want to do is force your ideas upon others?” he demands, his voice quavering. “I teach my pupils all the holy texts — and the only way to find true faith is to sieve the good out of these, because, I must warn you, they aren’t without flaws,” he asserts. It was ironical — he used the very factors that drive us ‘secular’ city folk into disclaiming religion to inspire a pluralist sensibility. But then again, in this land of convergence, such a manifestation of faith can hardly be surprising.

Wear-about

It is a caress gone unnoticed everyday.
Softly, flowers graze my breasts,
seeds flying wild, transported
on chiffon, floating far away
on your anguished, breathless sighs.

A bare mid-riff — silken to touch
with the dampness of down
trussed up in roses billowing 
on a petticoat the colour of summer —
is the middle, the end, the beginning

Of a new chapter, a new idea,
born in your soul, a desire that burns,
much like dry, flaky wood,
incensed by a fluttering pallu,
winging up your lustiness.

but much like that brittle bark,
your burning will be all smoke too.
six yards to seduce — is that all
it takes? I may not be as compliant,
flexible, open or ready to bend.

It’s a caress I may not feel anymore,
But my delicate chiffon will defend.
Your mind may sing, even go hoarse
thinking of my virtue, so loose. 
This chiffon, I warn you, will strangle.

Narrow Escape

That morning, I woke up wanting
only a vision to calm the restive animal
hammering to get out of  my rib cage.

That morning, my breakfast
was a few dry crumbs dissolved in tea gone 
cold. I wasn’t paying attention. 

That morning, all those years of lies
And deceit were unwanted company 
On the balcony, twirling in tune with the smoke.

That morning, the valley yonder
was a vast, relentless admonishment —
“Who do you think you’re running away from?”

That morning, I thought I’d escaped
on a blue bus, out of the city, out of the civil,
out of me. And there I was, face to face.

That morning, the wilderness was inside
me like never before, confusion reigning,
anger thrashing, the madness hunting.

That morning was just the night in camouflage,
only just beginning to descend. With fingers
clammy, it would’ve squeezed me bloodless.

But that morning turned into noon, into 
evening and into twilight, and i walked
from sunset to sunset and rainbow to rainbow
and felt the monster disengage, dissipate,
apparate as the sweat on my forehead
arrived to witness………………………………..

…………………………………….THIS.

The illogic of small big-big things.

Beware of the night, they whisper.

In the black, there are always, and only, shades of grey.

A vortex, it will slurp up the white, like a Hoover,
Burp and beam, from Jaapan to Jalandhar.

Replete with satisfaction, it will leave red.
In your face, on the road, on your sheets.

And then Society will come a-knocking.
And all they’ll be able to see anymore is the mud.
Horrors. No blairwitch, this. “She wouldn’t listen”
Is all they’ll have to say, passing it on.

*Facepalm*. Life’s sucha bitch.

THE moment in Kasol…

…was digging into Banoffee Pie (which was an Israeli delight according to Pinku bhaiya, the sweetest simplest waiter at Sasi Restaurant who hailed from Mandi and prattled on cheerfully about life, love and loss and kept us satiated with conversation while we waited for our Shakshuka plates or Enchiladas to arrive) on a candle-lit check-cloth covered table under a star-studded clear sky, with the white Parvati raging endlessly to our left and the solid black mountains of Himachal all around.

Never had i thought that bananas could taste so delicious. Some Parle-G or chocolate biscuit crumble, honey, condensed milk, glazed bananas, almonds and walnuts, cream, butter, your expertise at layering and voila! you’ve got an eighth of an orgasm in each bite. Oh, and it is very much an English invention.

Of course, apart from partaking of such wonderful food, we did the usual frolic in the hills, dipping into cold water, emerging from shivering trances to take walks along green winding roads, talking, playing catch like children. Meeting fresh-off-the-Army-bus Israelis who loved India and chai and ‘gulab jabun’ and travelling. Scouring tiny shops for semi-silver cheap trinkets. Sitting on a lovely big balcony, wrapped up in sweaters and music and good company, sipping chai, breathing pine scent, feeling life re-coursing through one’s veins. Embalming bad patches, building reservoirs of energy to brace against more rough wind. Praying there wouldn’t be any.

Planning it would’ve been to ruin it. We went with the flow, wherever our mood and the buses took us. If vacations are about suspension of reality and taking a chance at living out a fantasy, this was IT.

This story is not about undermining a woman’s choice to wear or be what she wants.

…It is about perceptions and generation gaps.

So, a couple of evenings ago, ma and i were gluttonously popping pani pooris at that famous stall in GK1’s M-Block market. We were also silently indulging in our second favourite pastime in markets (no prizes for guessing what is at number 1) : Voyeurism of the Venus-ites. It is by now common knowledge that while men check out women everywhere, women, too, check out other women more often than they size-up the mans on the prowl. And what is it that we’re checking for? A quick 5-second once-over can take in clothes, make up, hair, shoes, accessories, nail color, waistline, other lines and sizes and come to conclusions as to the nature and character of the studied specimen (speciman? speciwoman?). If you add another 2 seconds, judgements can be doled out if you have the ‘right’ company: all you need to do is raise eyebrows and make eye contact at the right moment. The smile is passed, the shoulders are shrugged in a it-takes-all-kinds-to-make-a-world way, and some bitchy part of the soul is satisfied at the one-uppance. There is nothing monumental about this process – it happens everywhere, all the time. But, I theorise, and thereby digress from my story.

So, ma n i have moved on to aloo chaat and somehow look up from the plate to take in this sight: three young women whose figures suggest they practice anorexia regularly, doddering up the street in painful high heels. The shortest of them wearing what seemed to be only a corset ( of the undergarment-of-yore variety, and therefore decidedly not classy ) and tight, terribly low-slung jeans, poker straight hair, heavy eyeliner, thick mascara, a peachy pout. Extremely conscious of herself, she has the air of one whose feet are barely making contact with the ground, she’s so high on how good she thinks she’s looking. Frantically gazes down at herself to check that just the right amount of skin is visible. Comes off looking like a brainless tart.

The mother and i quickly look at each other, smile. Grimace is more the word actually. We’re both tch-tching in our heads till the tittering trio are out of earshot.

And then, ma says, she’s clearly a small-town girl grown too big for her boots. Iske toh par nikal rahe hain, aur dekho kaise!

I say, yeah, well, what can one do? more tch-tching happens.

And then it occurs to me, hah! look at us, how arrogantly we talk, like we were born into the big-moneyed, big-city ranks. 11 years here and just look at us!

We laugh at ourselves. But then comes the punchline from the learned one: True, we’re middle class people, belonging to small towns. We’re bourgeois to the best of our abilities, but we never EVER behave like that. Never have, never will.

Point noted, O mother. There’s a lesson in decency to be had somewhere in there.

On a related note, I urge you to walk the talk, get down and dirty at Slutwalk Delhi on June 25. Talk about inverting roles, taking to the streets and taking back the power!

Nirmal Tower, 26/27, Barakhamba Road

For the many visions
arrived at through
glass skies,
for the friction of
intent footsteps and
curt glances,
for the echoes of
jostling numbers on
rustling sheets,
for the imprints of fresh
black ink on
twiddling thumbs,
for the many souls
that have lost themselves
in my hallowed hollowed
skeletal being,
for the many sins
that have transpired,
for the plots conspired,
I stand here, but
a sad ghost of a
ringing past.
You may hack at
my pride, leave me
grey, maimed, naked.
but you cannot have
me crumbling, for
in the shambles will die
all your concentrated
dreams, lies, empires.
So when your warring words
become redundant,
weed me up,
air me out,
i’ll be right here,
ready-to-use again.

…It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can actually never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?

— Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006

Different Strokes

One evening in the not so distant past, at about 8.30 pm, standing alone at the Maharani Bagh bus stand, I rejected the ninth auto driver because, like all those who stopped before him, he’d asked me for double the usual fare ( this was before auto fares were hiked and metres made mandatory ) . A traffic police vehicle had just pulled up a few minutes earlier. As I grew more desperate to get home, a tall, lanky policeman approached with the auto driver in tow. “Did he refuse to take you to your destination?!” he demanded loudly. I hesitantly said that I had refused to go with him. Already, a tittering crowd had gathered to watch the fun. On being demanded the reason, I told the policeman that he’d asked for too much money. This instigated two tight slaps across the auto driver’s face, who stood meekly in front of the tirade: “How many times have I told you to not do this?! You idiots from outside never learn. Madam, get in! He will take you wherever you wish to go by meter.” I wasn’t going home in an auto whose driver had been assaulted and publicly humiliated because of me, so I just told the policeman that I didn’t trust their meters either and tried to ask him to stop hitting the man. He yelled at me for trying to stop autos at the bus stand and moved on, shouting into his walkie-talkie. The crowd reluctantly dissipated now that the show was over. Somehow, I was getting even dirtier looks. And it was clear that there was no sympathy for the driver – somebody even suggested putting him into jail. I closed my eyes to block out the static as my cheeks began to burn and willed my stars to get me home in one piece, even fearing that the man might still be around to avenge himself in some horrid manner. Eventually, I did get home safe and sound, but was beside myself with an unreasonable rage, somehow directed at the auto driver.

Yet another day, there apparated before me an auto driver who looked like he had had a really good day, such was the smile on his big-whiskered face. The police vehicle was nowhere in sight this time, so I charged myself up to haggle with him. However, he did not give me the chance – saying that I could pay him whatever I thought was right, mumbling something about there being more important things than money. Taken by surprise, I quoted my price and got in after he benignly acquiesced. Once on our way, I took out my Ipod, when he clucked his tongue and again mumbled something about today’s generation. Despite myself, I demanded an explanation, to which he responded with a chuckle and a quick glance in his rearview mirror. He said that in his youth, he wanted to soak in the world, drench himself in its beauty. I retorted, well, so did I. He said that the world is not what books and TV can tell you, it is what you see and hear on the go. If you block off the sounds of life, there is not much you’d learn. This did shame me into pulling off my earphones. He was a chatty old fellow, so he told me how he’d come to Delhi having completed his graduation, in search of a decent job but wound up doing this instead. He told me of how he was still trying to pay off the debt on his brand new auto, which he had finally acquired after saving up the down-payment amount for 15 years. He said he knew this was not the easiest or the most dignified way of earning a living in this country, but he was happy because this gave him a steady income, his independence and a chance to see many lives lived. He was still raving on when I pulled out my wallet to pay him. As I was leaving, he thanked me and by way of blessing, gave me this important nugget of his painfully acquired wisdom: it takes all kinds to make this world, beti. It sure did, I smiled, and shook his hand before he drove off.