Monday, February 23, 2015

In Search Of Closure

We were waiting for Bombay Tikki Chaat…not by the side of some street cart in India, with the right sights and sounds to accompany the taste, but at the table of an eatery adjoining the Indian store in our little American town.  It was our weekly grocery shopping day. We had just stocked up on our Indian groceries – The daals, the masalas and the vegetables that hold more memories than nutrition…karela, drumsticks, methi, kundru, lauki, gilki, munnga – and were indulging in some Indian delicacies that were rare in our part of the world.

It was during this time that my eyes were aimlessly ambling around the place, taking in what I had seen so many times for the want of anything better to do, and I spotted her. She seemed new in the kitchen. I knew that the eatery had lost a young employee, who used to man the counter, to marriage; she had been around the previous time, when we were savouring our Bhel, saying her goodbyes to the aunties who had taught her so much and working with whom had been so much fun…she would try and come by whenever she was in the area. The fall in numbers seemed to have been made up for by bringing in this clearly experienced older lady.

I saw her peeking out from the kitchen once, walking up to the counter another time. She was looking curiously at a special child and her family, who were waiting for their food. The next time she came over to the counter, with no warning and no consideration for the place or the people around, she asked the mother of the special child aloud, “What has happened to your daughter?” The only response she got was, “Nothing at all!” She smiled in embarrassment, the mother looked away uncomfortably. She returned to the kitchen.

It is common for parents of special children to be harrowed by questions, mockery and snide remarks. Some people are plain curious, but not concerned. Some have no understanding. Some are uncomfortable to be around them and ask questions or end up making inappropriate remarks because they don’t know what else to do. Her question sounded like neither of those. It did not seem to carry any mockery in it. Her tone was not that of someone looking for some cheap kicks or trying to make small talk out of pity. She did not seem to mean harm. There was something deeper that one could sense in her question.

That sense took us back to the eatery later that evening. It was closing time and the lights were out at the front. We feared the door might be locked and we might not get to speak to her but the door opened when we tried. A ghostly glow from the fluorescent lights in the kitchen dimly lit the eatery. There were chit-chatting voices and close-of-business noises coming from the kitchen. We called out and an elderly man came out. We explained that we wanted to speak to the new lady; we had heard her question earlier in the evening and were curious why she wanted to know.

The lady came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron as she walked. We didn’t know how to even start the conversation; just that it was one that needed to be had. So we asked her why she was asking about the special child in the evening. She seemed to hesitate, as if we were trying to incriminate her. We tried to make her comfortable by asking our question differently, respectfully. And then she told us.

She had had a husband once. They were set to migrate to the USA from Punjab. The visas had been stamped and the bags had been packed when her husband died of cardiac arrest a day before their scheduled flights. They had sold everything. They had packed up and closed the India chapter of their lives. With no husband by her side, what was she to do in India? So she travelled to the USA anyway a few months later to start a new life.

Her daughter was with her. Within a few years of being in the USA, around the age of 15-16 years, her daughter developed a condition that rapidly incapacitated her. Within a shockingly short period of time, a teenager that was full of life was reduced to a disabled person completely dependent on her mother for everything. The girl couldn’t walk, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t eat by herself and she was completely relegated to the bed, nearly a vegetable. The lady cared for her daughter for nearly 3 years before the daughter died at 19 years of age. The doctors never had any answers and nobody ever found out what had ailed the girl.

She saw her daughter’s face in the face of the special child that evening. She was happy to see that this girl was around, alive and happy. And she was looking for answers, for why her daughter might have been taken away from her.

She was looking for comfort. For a clue. For closure. Maybe some compassion.

I see the lady sometimes at the Indian store or the eatery now. I do not know her name but I know a part of her story…one that has taught me to look beyond my own pain, to show compassion and to choose life in the face of great loss. And for that, I will always remember her.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Relationship Rasa

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. Pungent. Astringent.

Shad Rasas. Six Tastes. 

The Sweet. 
To build, to calm, to satiate. 
The Sour. 
To cleanse, to increase absorption, to stimulate. 
The Salty. 
To lubricate, to digest, to improve other tastes. 
The Bitter. 
To detoxify, to lighten. 
The Pungent. 
To clear the passages, to aid circulation.
The Astringent. 
To promote healing, to absorb, to tighten. 

Six tastes. More than nutrition. An experience. A sign of completeness. An indication of wholesomeness in nourishment. No element too important. No element unnecessary. Too much of any and the balance is lost.

In Moderation. Whether it is in a Meal or Marriage.

Image Source:

We idealize relationships without conflict. We idolize people who never disagree, never fight. We want to be like them. And we feel guilty when we face conflict with those we love. 

But conflict, disagreement, difference of perspective among individuals is natural, even healthy. It makes for variety and diversity. It steers clear of tunnel vision. Even siblings brought up under the same roof do not always see eye to eye. How can two individuals coming from different households always agree with each other? The style of conflict resolution may vary from plain denial and suppression to blame, manipulation or a peaceful discussion. But to expect no conflict to arise at all in any relationship seems unnatural. Just like one needs each of the six tastes in moderation to make a meal complete, wholesome and nourishing, I believe that one needs all six tastes in moderation in a marriage to make the relationship complete, wholesome and nourishing.

The Sweet. 
To build bonds, to calm the mind, to satiate the soul. The tender moments. The light caresses. The thoughtful deeds. The sharing. The understanding. The sweet surprises. The smiles. The stuff that memories are made of.
The Sour. 
To cleanse the mind, to increase absorption of each other’s perspective, to stimulate conversation and debate. The disagreements, the disillusionment, the disenchantment. To help extract valuable insights into the other’s mind, heart and soul from it all.
The Salty. 
To lubricate life, to digest everything easily, to improve other tastes and make light of the heavier emotions. The naughtiness, the jokes, the laughter. The fun that brings a smile back on the face.
The Bitter. 
To detoxify the relationship, to lighten the weight of unspoken words and unexpressed emotions. The anger that masks hurt. Better said than not. The vent that prevents clogs in the relationship.
The Pungent. 
To clear the passages and allow fresh air to flow through the relationship, to aid circulation. The spice in the relationship.
The Astringent. 
To promote healing of the hearts, to absorb love, to tighten bonds. The cooling touch, the soothing words, the sorries, the special gestures for making up. All the stuff that makes you fall in love all over again.

A Sweet base with a hint of Sour, a dose of Astringent, a sprinkle of Salt, some sprigs of Bitter and a dash of the Pungent and there you have it!

With Moderation. The perfect meal. A memorable Marriage.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Friday Fiction - Lotus Pond

The sun had set on Mumbai. Most people were beginning to think of home and hot dinners, as was Krishna. It had been a long day and he had been standing for nearly twelve hours. His tired feet craved respite. And his throat, sore from uttering hoarse cries all day, craved some hot tea.

The red light district of Kamathipura was coming to life after dusk. Notes of Bollywood songs wafted through the air. Colorful lights brought on the semblance of a festival upon the lanes, a daily festival of carnal pleasures. Brazen girls dressed in bright, skimpy clothes and caked with make-up waited on the sidelines. They looked fresh at this evening hour and a lot like Krishna did in the mornings with his saree and make-up and flowers that he clipped to his short hair. A hijra, one of the millions of eunuchs in India.

His saree was creased now, his hair disheveled and his make-up streaked with sweat as he walked home through the evening bustle. He reached his house and unlocked the small brass padlock. It was a room, really. But it was his world, his home. He switched on a single fluorescent tube light that came on lazily after a few blinks, and sat down on the foldable cot, letting out a big sigh.

He felt fairly rested in a while and proceeded to wash his face with cheap local soap, change from the saree into a pant and shirt, and do his hair afresh minus the flowers. Sometimes he felt like he was playing a part in a play, this daily switch between a woman’s attire and a man’s. Presently, he made himself some tea on the kerosene stove and settled to examine his bag for the day’s gains.

There was cash – coins and notes of denominations paltry and significant. Enough to let him and his mother survive, day-to-day, month-to-month. There were a few other things, too, in the bag …things people gave away in fear and just to get rid of a hijra cursing and bothering them on the local train. Today it was some pictures of Gods, some coconut pieces that had been offered at a temple, a string of holy beads that Krishna immediately kept at the altar in the room and a packet of biscuits. He had never seen these biscuits earlier and they looked expensive. Different, too. He didn’t much care for biscuits and knew that Ma despised expensive indulgences. His thoughts immediately went to Rani. He would give the packet to Rani.

Krishna cooked some porridge and then left to get Ma from the brothel where she did some odd jobs. Today he was carrying the pack of biscuits for Rani, who was sitting with her dolls in a corner in the inner quarters of the brothel. He went to her and said, “Look Rani, I have got something for you!” The child’s eyes brightened when she saw the packet in Krishna’s hands and she grabbed it eagerly, squealing, “I’ll show it to my Ma and come!” Krishna followed her. Some of the prostitutes stood chatting in the small hall, waiting to be called by Madam for a customer. Sweety was one of the quieter ones. Krishna didn’t know her well, just the fact that she was Rani’s mother. Presently, he saw Rani showing the biscuit packet to Sweety with a lot of excitement. Sweety looked at Krishna and started walking up to him, packet in hand. She asked, “Where did you get this from?”

“On the train.”
“On the train?”
“Yes, from a gora. You know, foreigner?”
“Oh. It must be good if it is from foreign.”
“Initially the gora wouldn’t give me anything. But I didn’t budge. He gave me some loose change and this packet.”
“It does not say biscuit anywhere. What is it?”
“How do you know? What does it say?”
“I read it. It says right here, see? Trader-Joe’s-Gluten-Free-Crispy-Crunchy-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies.”
“You can read? And I don’t know what it is then.”
“Looks like biscuit only. And it has some free gift also. It says gluten free no?”
“Like those free stickers Rani got with the bubble gum?”
“Yes. She will like it. She has never got a foreign gift before. Thank you.”
“Oh it’s nothing.”

Sweety then went to Rani and announced that only if she got good marks in the exams, she would get to open the packet and take the free gluten gift. Rani immediately took up the challenge and ran away to study.

Sweety resumed her place at the back of the group of girls while Krishna made small talk with them. He had always felt safe there in the brothel. He was a eunuch and was no threat to the girls. They were bodies for their customers but around Krishna they felt like people. Krishna, too,  felt like a person in their midst instead of a fearsome, loathsome hijra, since some of them treated him like a friend…talking to him about his day, teasing him, sometimes even sharing their fears and worries in the garb of jokes. It was the closest Krishna had to a social life and friends.

As Krishna and Ma walked back to the room that night, Krishna noticed Ma’s deliberate pace and put his arm around her protectively and to support her.
“Tired, Ma?” he asked.
“Oh no, just the usual.” Ma dismissed him.
“Why do you still work there, Ma? It’s not too much money and it tires you.”
“It’s all I know, son. I came to Madam very young. It’s a wretched place but it’s familiar.”
“Ok Ma, tell me how did this Sweety get to Madam?”
“Why do you ask?”
“No, generally. I found out today she knows to read. What is she doing here?”
“Poor girl. She used to be married in the village once. Seems to have studied upto eigth standard before getting married, too!”
“Her husband’s family had always troubled her and one day they attempted to burn her for dowry. She fled with an infant Rani in her arms and took the first train that stopped at the station. The last stop was Mumbai.”
“But how did she end up here?”
“Pimps. They can smell girls who are lost from a mile. They brought her to Madam. Her name used to be Swati but Madam thought Sweety was better for trade. That’s how that innocent girl got caught in this web with little Rani. God! My back hurts!”
“We’re almost home, Ma. We’ll eat some porridge and then you can get some rest, ok?”

Krishna was aware of the challenges a single mother could face in Kamathipura. Ma had been one and she had struggled to protect Krishna at every step. And there was only so much protection a prostitute could give her child.

Krishna remembered the string of holy beads that he had got while begging that day. Krishna was not religious but Ma believed in God and His power. So the next evening, Krishna took the beads along and gave them to Sweety for Rani’s protection and studies. He wanted to help Rani and Sweety somehow. For some reason he felt like protecting this quiet girl who had got trapped in the flesh trade and was working so hard to give Rani a decent life.

Two gifts in two days was enough attention for Sweety to make her curious. In the tired hours of the next morning when Madam sat massaging her arthritic legs, Sweety asked her if she knew anything about Krishna. Madam’s manner in these mild morning hours was quite unlike her sharp-tongued demeanour during business hours. Sweety was massaging pain balm on Madam’s legs and soothed by that, Madam started talking softly.
“Some people are just born with bad luck, I tell you. Like our Krishna.”
Sweety continued the massage hoping that Madam would continue talking, afraid to interrupt.
“First, he was abandoned outside a temple as an infant. That’s where Soni, his mother, found him. Now how can a woman walk away from a crying, hungry child, tell me? So she took him as her son and brought him here. You see, she was also one of my girls back then.”
“Oh really? I didn’t know that, Madam.”
“Then what! Rub some more balm on my left leg. So yes, the boy started growing up here spending time inside the quarters for most part. Never went to school. I tell you, Rani is lucky to go to school.”
“That is true, Madam. I want her to study very hard.”
“That she will. Krishna never got the chance. As if it wasn’t enough to be abandoned on the streets, he got kidnapped from these lanes one day when he was playing with the slum boys. Didn’t come back for two days. Two days later, he turns up castrated and in very bad shape.”
Sweety let out a sudden gasp and her nails nearly scratched Madam’s legs.
“Oh! What are you doing? My legs are already hurting!”
“Sorry Madam! It’s just that it’s so horrible.”
“What to do. No one knows who did it but I think it was the local hijra mafia looking to add numbers to their troupe. Krishna must have fled. Soni was heartbroken but she didn’t give up on Krishna. She has always considered him to be her son, a man, but God knows what he is.”
“He has truly suffered a lot.”
“Worse, he couldn’t find any work when he grew up and was forced to join those same gangs of hijra beggars to make a living. Now he begs with them on trains every day, dressed up as a woman. And at other times, he dresses and behaves like a man to be Soni’s son. What a life, what bad luck.” Madam said as she began to rise to retire to her quarters.

When Sweety saw Krishna the next day, she felt tenderness that she had rarely experienced before. What was his fault? What had he done to deserve being abandoned and then castrated? She felt compassion for him and smiled with kindness when their eyes met. She saw surprise in his eyes but then he smiled back with admiration.

Over the next many months, Krishna started to actively collect knick-knacks for Rani, sometimes even buying them and passing them off as gains from the day’s begging. He wanted to see Rani happy. He wanted to see Sweety happy. Sweety, too, started to talk more with Krishna. It was nothing in particular but Krishna had never felt so happy just making small talk. They talked about all kinds of things - Bollywood films, Mumbai, people Krishna saw on the train…and about Rani. Sweety’s eyes lit up every time she spoke about Rani. She wanted Rani to study a lot and be able to leave that place for a better life. Krishna really enjoyed seeing her gleam like that.

Once in a while, when no one was watching, Krishna managed to hold Sweety’s hand. It had taken a lot of courage the first time. He didn’t know if she would like being touched by a eunuch or if she would feel repelled. He had tried anyway. That first brush of their elbows had only elicited a shy smile from Sweety and Krishna had known – she would be the only one after Ma who would see him for a person. They had continued talking and it had been Sweety who had placed her hand gently on his knee as she laughed at his description of a fat priest he had seen near the temple. They held hands every chance they got now, and those few stolen seconds made life worthwhile for Krishna. He had found a companion to talk to and to give whatever he had to offer – a hand to hold and a shoulder to lean on.

It had also been Sweety who had asked, “Will you be my family? Rani’s and mine?” Krishna had drawn his hand away, whether in surprise or shock he did not know himself. He couldn’t find the right words.
“I am a eunuch! Not a man! How can we come together?” He had never considered the possibility. He was happy to just have a nameless something between them. A sense of solace maybe.
“Man? Man! What good did it do me to marry a man, Krishna?”
“Sweety, I…”
“Was he man enough to protect me?”
“But Sweety…”
“And what about the man who tricked me and brought me here?”
“Sweety listen…”
“And what about the men who use my body every day here?”
“Sweety, what about Rani?”
“What about her?”
“What will she tell people? Am I her father or mother?”

Sweety felt weak. She leaned against the wall on the terrace of the building and said, “All I know is that you have been more fatherly to Rani than her own father, Krishna. You care about her, make her laugh, help her grow. Remember the holy beads you brought for her? And that packet? She studied so hard for those cook…cookies and the free gultan…gluten gift, that she got third rank in class! There was no gift in the packet by the way. It was a trick, these foreign companies. For the first time I feel there is someone other than me who is watching over my child. If that isn’t family, what is?”

Krishna said, “Sweety, I love you and Rani. But I am a eunuch and I don’t want the two of you to be hurt because of a eunuch’s love!” Saying this, he walked away and Sweety saw him disappear into a blur brought on by her tears.

Krishna did not believe in God but he had a personal God in Ma, who had saved him, protected him and loved him. That night, his thoughts fought a battle so furious that he was forced to pray to his personal God. He told Ma everything that had happened but instead of being horrified at the idea, Ma had smiled.

“Do you know that your name was not always Krishna?” She said. “I named you Krishna the day you returned after the kidnapping because Krishna, the beautiful dark God, had once taken the female form of Mohini and fulfilled a devout warrior’s wish to be married before he died in battle. That day when you returned maimed and stripped of your gender, I decided that you were that God…man in spirit, woman in body.

“If you decide to make Sweety and Rani your family, it will be a divine union. You both will be everything to Rani, and Sweety will not have to bear the burden that I had to. I am happy that you have a chance at experiencing the happiness that a wife and child can bring. I never thought you would. Think about it, son.”

Krishna stopped at the temple the next day, on the way home but didn’t go inside. He had no need. He changed clothes in a hurry that evening and went to meet Sweety before the day’s trade began. When he saw Sweety, he saw hurt in her eyes. He dragged her aside and pulled out a lotus from his bag. She looked perplexed and asked, “What is this?”

“Will you and Rani be my family?”
“You brought a lotus flower to propose?”

Krishna smiled and said, “Ma always says the lotus is a flower that grows and creates beauty even in a dirty pond. That is what we will do. We will come together like lotuses in a pond of dirt…this pond of dirt…and create beauty. Ours is a divine union and this lotus is my offering.”

Tears streamed down Sweety’s face as she took the flower. Krishna wiped her tears and they both smiled warmly. Just then Rani came running from the room and saw the lotus. She squealed and took the flower from Sweety’s hands. And Sweety and Krishna watched together as their child began prancing around, humming to herself with a lotus in her hand.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make sense.


This piece was written for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015 with the assigned prompts being: 
Genre - Romance
Subject - Gluten-Free
Character - A Single Mother.