Sunday, September 6, 2009

Monday-morning Blues

Monday morning.

The sun was shining brightly outside. A stray bird chirruped outside my window. And a gentle breeze wafted in. All seemed right with the world. The world that is, not my world.

I just turned over and continued to lie in bed. My immediate thought? So what if it was a bright and beautiful day, it wasn’t for me. If this was going to be a day anything like what the last few days had been, I did not even want to open my eyes.

The past two weeks had been harrowing. Ever since that Friday two weeks ago: the day I quit my job out of sheer frustration. It had been a nightmarish scenario where I had been made a scapegoat. Changing my job had been on my mind for several reasons. I felt I had not been really appreciated for all that I put in. Thanks to a superior who had vested interests and his own personal agenda. I tolerated it to an extent. But when I was pulled up in front of a client for something I had not done, I thought, enough is enough. There was only so much I could take. I submitted my resignation in the very next hour, took a waiver on my notice period and walked out.

I was sailing high on the cloud of optimism, for a couple of days after that. There were so many things I wanted to do. See movies I had missed. Catch up on books I wanted to read. And sign up for that 3-day Feng Shui course. In the meantime I would look for another job, one where I was recognised for my worth.

My cell phone rang, shaking me out of my reverie. I looked at it suspiciously. Of late, I was not in a mood to speak to anybody. Checking the number on the display I saw it was Sonia. I had to take that call. Sonia was my one friend at work. Yes, friend. In an eat-lunch-or-be-lunch corporate scenario, I had actually found a colleague who had grown to be more than that. We shared office gossip, our own personal secrets and sought each other out for advice. We celebrated our little job victories together. And commiserated with each other’s falls. What would I have done without Sonia!

She was the only one who consistently told me that I had done the right thing. Optimist to the core, she kept saying that I had a better future in store. Her optimism was infectious. But two weeks and several job rejections later, my optimism had lost its shine like a brass jug exposed to the salty air of the sea.
But back to the insistent ringing.

Hello”, I said dully.
Hi”, chirped Sonia from the other end, making me look up at that bird still on my window. “Still in bed? How’s it going?”
Yes, with the job search and all. How was the interview on Friday? Any result?”
Yeah, sure”, I said dryly. “The outcome was a big No. Actually, it was not a NO, it was a YES MAYBE, some time in the future. Oh, you know how it is, Sonia. I’m so fed up of this. This is the fifth rejection so far. I don’t know whether I’m ever going to get a job.” And I broke down.

There was silence at the other end. I thought I had dampened Sonia’s optimism. But Sonia was indomitable.
Do you know what I just read?” she asked me gently.
No”, I said still sniffling. And actually not really interested.
Sonia continued, “I just read an article on successful job-hunting tips by someone, I forget his name. Anyway, he’s talked about a model for the typical job hunt. He says, the more NOs you get out of the way, the closer you are to YES!”
Oh”, I said, still not getting the point.
Don’t you see?” Sonia gushed excitedly. “You have five NOs out of the way, my dear friend, it means you are getting closer to a YES!”

Good old Sonia. Wonderful dear colleague mentor friend philosopher guide. She always had the right things to say! Or possibly to read. I could have hugged her then.
Sonia continued, now in a sterner voice, “So my dear jobless friend, I now suggest, you throw back the covers, get up and start getting more NOs out of the way.”

I laughed. It was a bright, cheerful Monday morning after all.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The ties that bind

‘Here, take this tie.”

I paled. It was one of those days when we had no meetings scheduled and I thought that the strangling neckgear in the heat could be done away with. But here was my boss handing me a tie.

“But…” I stammered.

He cut me off. “You have an appointment at 2. I will speak about it later. Come back to my office in about 30 minutes. I have some important calls to make.”

That was Mr. Rao, my immediate senior for you. Curt, to-the-point, no-nonsense. I, of course, knew him as a man with a heart of gold. This was my first job and over the past three years I had come to, silently of course, regarding him as my mentor. He had in his own brusque, business-like manner taught me everything I needed to know to ensure a smooth transition from college to career. A bit like ‘what they don’t teach you at Harvard’. I really appreciated that.

One promotion down the line and I thought I was settled. This was the job that I wanted all my life. I was doing well. Life was good. And I saw opportunity for growth within the organisation provided I worked hard. Mr. Rao, of course, believed in working smart. Well, ok, I thought I was smart enough to stay here without jeopardising my career prospects in this small but growing organisation.

At times Mr. Rao in his subtle manner talked about complacency and the need for change to ensure growth. I was not so sure. We always had an argument about the comfort zone at work. He felt true growth came from change. Words, just words, I thought. But then, they lingered at the back of my mind.

Half hour up, and I gently knocked on Mr. Rao’s door. The tie definitely needed an explanation. He looked up from his desktop, over his gold-rimmed reading glasses and said casually, “It’s an interview. I’ve instructed Janice to update and print out two copies of your resume. Your application was already sent last week.”
Stunned, I stammered, the second time in the day, “But…”

He continued, “You need the change. And this is as good an opportunity as it gets. I don’t think the interview should be a problem. Provided of course, you reach there on time.”

I stood there speechless. Interview? But I had not asked for it. Then why had he done it? What did I know about interviews. My last one was when I joined this place. Of course, I had grown since then. I stayed in touch with current market trends and knew my work well. Hard work. Constant updates. A finger on the pulse of the market. And of course, my boss.

Mr. Rao looked up again. “Oh yes, remember in any interview once if you really are what they are looking for, the final clincher is honesty..."

I continued gawping. Speechless.

Mr. Rao looked down at his papers, summarily dismissing me. "Now if you will allow me, I have this report for the CFO that I need to concentrate on.”

I stumbled out. The rest of the day went in a blur. Janice handed me my cv on an alabaster sheet. Along with that was a glowing recommendation letter from Mr. Rao. I knew all the right things to say at the interview. Till they asked me what was the one thing I would miss about my earlier workplace if I chose to join them.
Honesty. The word popped up in my mind again.

“My boss.” I said, “He has been my friend, philosopher and guide and I appreciate all that I have learnt from him over these years”.

I got the job.

Now I was excited about the change. I was taking one more step towards growing in my career. When I called Mr. Rao, I thanked him profusely. “Sir” I said tentatively, “how can I ever thank you for what you’ve done?“

He simply said, “ Could I have my tie back?”

(c)All rights reserved

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Flying Lesson

I could visualise him. Neel. My little wide-eyed, wanting-to-know-everything-about-everything grandson. All of six, he was the driving force of my sixty years. I could picture him right now, nose pressed against the glass pane of the window, waiting for me. Waiting for that evening at the aero-modelling club. While here I was at the Board meeting called unexpectedly, but unavoidably, on a Sunday.

I sighed inwardly. At sixty, I had retired from work. But not from life. I had always looked forward to a quality retired life. With my work having taken me far and wide, and reluctantly away from the family, when my own children were growing up, I had decided that spending time with the family would be a priority.

But work did not let me go so easily. As a member of the Board of Directors of three companies, retirement just meant that I didn’t have that corner office anymore. Meetings, seminars, conferences, award functions, still took up my time. Especially when all I wanted was time with the family. Especially the new generation.

Sometimes I wondered, was it because I was too busy when my own children were growing up? Did I lose out? Were they deprived? Then I realised that grandparents and grandchildren shared a special bond, and here I was experiencing one of those blessed relationships in life. I wasn’t going to think too deeply about it. I was just going to make the most of it.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, an article I had read began to ring true. It talked about how ‘Dads’ influenced children and their behaviour right up to adulthood. So what if his Dad was busy. I was a notch up: as a ‘grand’ Dad! I could still do my grandfatherly bit.

That’s how the ‘Grampa Sundays’ came to be. Every Sunday, Neel and I would plan a little ‘misshun’ on our own. It could be a visit to the museum, an hour at a distant park, the aquarium or simply a walk on the beach. It was just our special time together. Neel and me.

No bribes of ice-creams, special rewards of chocolates or promises of gifts from his parents could take Neel away from our little Sunday outings. On my part, I tried my best to plan something new every time.

A shuffling in the chairs brought me back to the meeting. It was decided to call the meeting to a close. As I got into the car to drive back home, I casually glanced at my watch. And gasped in dismay. It was past six in the evening. Neel would have had given up on me. It was too late now to take him to the open ground where they flew the model airplanes. Neel had been looking forward to it all week. And now I had let him down. My heart sank. How was I to face those big, brown reproachful eyes? How was I going to make up for the loss of a Grampa Sunday?

Then an idea struck me. I swung my car around, walked into the nearest department store. Within minutes I was on my way home. The temperature at home could have sent the hermits of the Himalayas into deeper penance. Gingerly I opened the door to Neel’s room. He sat on one corner of the bed, and gave me a reproachful sideways glance. Inwardly I thanked myself for my last-minute thinking. I would never have survived that look.

I went over and sat next to him. I knew this was not the time for an explanation. I simply said, “Sorry, Neel. You know the time we spend together is very important to me”. It was like the floodgates were waiting to open. He burst into tears. “But you promised to take me there… show me those model planes fly! I wanted to see those aeroplanes fly!”

My eyes welled up too. I quickly gave him the package, saying, ”You know what? There’s something better you and I can do today. Look what I have got for you. ”
Somewhat tentatively Neel opened the long rectangular gift-wrapped box, glancing at me in between, trying to gauge what was inside. When he opened he gasped. It was an aero-modelling kit of balsa wood, complete with a small motor. Quickly wiping his wet nose with his sleeve, Neel looked up at me and asked, “Can we make this… now?”
“Of course, we can”, I said, “it’s still Sunday, remember?”

We worked late into the night on our model. It was that of a World War II fighter-bomber. And as it took shape, even my heart raced with excitement. Neel was handing me little bits to glue together, running around with excitement from time to time, his hands spread wide like the wings of an airplane.

Neel agreed to go to sleep only after I made a secret promise to him. The next morning, we both rose early and went up to the terrace. There Neel took out his first model aircraft. Handing him the remote control I placed the little wooden plane at a distance. At the flick of the switch the motor whirred and the plane took off, tugging at the string that held it to the ground.

Looking at Neel’s face in the gentle light of the morning, my heartstrings got an even bigger tug. I may not have been much of a father, but by trying to be a conscientious grandfather, I had rediscovered my boyhood. Finally, I was flying as a grandparent.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Remembering Uncle Sam

The movie hall darkens. As the screen flickers to life and the images begin to fade in, a strange craving overcomes me. No, it overpowers me.
“Uncle Sam?” I hiss.
A crackling bag is handed over to me. I feel the warm stuff inside the bag. I’m satisfied and now I can settle down to watch the movie.

Somewhere I had read that there were certain associations can actually help one remember. Here was one simple example: movies made me ‘remember’ samosas! For me, a movie loses its flavour without the accompaniment of hot ‘theatre’ samosas. It’s nothing new. It’s something I’ve always associated with watching films, in the theatre in my younger days, and now even at home.

So much so that way back in our childhood, samosas got shortened to ‘Sams’ and then became a cryptic ‘Uncle Sam’. In other words, no movie was complete without ‘Uncle Sam’. That hot delicious savoury once almost set a theatre on fire, figuratively speaking.

I was all of eleven at that time.
My brother, fourteen, was a teenager who was at the stage when brothers did not want to have much to do with a ‘kid sisters.’ Home from his boarding school for the holidays, we were having our share of quibbles and fights. The film, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ had just been released a week ago and I kept pestering my mother to take me to see it. Bogged down with guests in the house, my mother hit upon an idea. She delegated the entertainment portfolio to my brother.

My brother was indignant. “Take her for a movie?!!!” He looked at me like I was something amphibious that had crept out of stagnant water. I opened my mouth to protest, but one stern look from my mother and I realised that silence was golden at that point in time. I turned and left the room, glowering.

Several moments later, I realised Mom had won the case. The die was cast. My brother, resigned to his fate, came out with his nostrils flaring. I was thrilled. I put my pride aside. For me what was most important was going to the movie.

But not that easily.
I was bombarded with a volley of instructions.
“You will not walk next to me. Walk behind me like you don’t know me.”
“Just keep an eye on me, if you miss the bus stop, I’m not responsible”
“And don’t talk to me in the bus.”
“Get off when I get off”
“And don’t talk to me, at all, ok?”

I promised without flinching. The desire to see the movie was so great. And so we were off the very next day. I was excited. He was still sulking. He strode ahead, hands in his pockets, thinking deeply about why God made kid sisters. I scampered happily behind him, determined to keep my promise not to talk to him right through the outing.

At the theatre, I waited patiently while he bought the tickets, and then we went in, sort of, together. Ushered into our seats I settled down to watch the movie. And then it happened. Those associations. Those memories. And an overwhelming craving. Forgetting all the promises made to him, I blurted out, “Uncle Sam?”

His look to me could have set, not just me, but the rest of the theatre on fire. He glared. He hissed. And then he spat fire. But knowing he could not do anything, he harrumphed and then stood up and went out. Five minutes later, a hot pack was thrust into my lap with another look that now sent me to the bottom of the evolutionary cycle. But the smell of the samosas wafted up and I smiled and settled to watch the movie. Any promise could be broken for ‘Uncle Sam’.

As we got older, we remembered that incident and laughed. Especially every time we ate samosas.

Years later, I was visiting him in the United States. On the second day after my arrival, my brother came home from work and handed me a packet smiling.
Looking inside, I saw a Blockbuster home video of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’
And a dozen samosas.
“Welcome to Uncle Sam”, said my brother smiling.

(c) All rights reserved. Vaishakhi Bharucha

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A love for bubbles

But what will you take for her?” Nitin asked me.
He seemed almost as anxious as I was on this occasion. Okay, so that’s what friends were for… but right now he was not helping me at all.

What would I take for her? The instant answer was “Myself” but I thought it was safer not to say anything. Nitin was the earnest type and he would not like me making light of the situation. The situation? My planning to propose to Richa. Big momentous occasion on the cards. All planned by the small guy.

Did I say ‘small’? I didn’t feel that small. I felt like I owned the world. After all, Richa was almost mine, so to speak. And who wouldn’t be happy with a girl like that. She was everything I wanted in someone I was willing to spend the rest of my life with. She was fun, witty, charming and the best part was she understood me.

Well, over the last couple of months, I too was faintly beginning to understand her. Nitin’s verdict of Richa being a “good girl” notwithstanding, I knew there were many times when I could have torn my gelled hair in despair trying to figure out what was it she wanted to say when she clammed up and said, “Nothing”.

There were times when all she wanted to do was tell me about her day. Which was fine as long as she did not ask me about mine. I mean work was work, what else did one say about it? Then there was a time when she picked up a bottle of bubble liquid from a man selling balloons on the road. “Grow up”, I told her laughing, yet somewhat embarrassed. People on the streets were staring at us, though they were all smiling indulgently at her. “Why should I?” was her quick rejoinder. I had, as usual, no answer to that as a bubble settled on my nose.

But over time, I think I can understand her. No, maybe I understand myself better. I know for a fact that we are definitely different. And understanding that itself is a big step. I know that I need to lend her a listening ear time and again. She simply just wants to be heard. And I have told her that I really do not need to share every office issue with her.

I know that when she gives me space to have my night out with the boys, she is expecting that one-minute phone call to say that I still think of her. Easier said than done when you are in the middle of a heated football discussion, but I can do it now.

So what are you going to get her” Nitin interjected into my thoughts. “Do you know what I suggest?”
I smiled. I didn’t want to know.
This momentous occasion would be ours. Richa’s and mine. I was going to propose to her. The setting would be perfect. And I was going to take a bottle of bubble liquid for her.

(c) All rights reserved. Vaishakhi Bharucha

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Happy List

The doorbell rang. Two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. I smiled. This had to be Mrs Nair, my neighbour. We had this little code between us so that you could open the door on an 'as you are’ basis. Considering that we were two single women, each of us living alone, it worked out best for us.
While I had moved out of the comfort of home and hearth in the North to strike out on my own in Mumbai, Mrs. Nair’s solitude was not chosen by her. Her two children had grown and migrated abroad and about two years ago she had lost her husband. Although desolate for a few months, Mrs. Nair soon began to adjust to her new single status. Part of a reading club and several other senior citizen’s associations, she kept herself in good spirits, soon becoming the one person everyone turned to for help. Me included.
They say, God gives us relatives but we choose our friends. I’d go a step further. I think God even decides who our neighbours will be. Heaven knows, the Almighty was in a generous mood, when He deemed that I move next to Mrs Nair. A day after I moved in, the doorbell rang. Tripping over cartons and bundles of mattresses, with my hair full of cobwebs I opened the door expecting the carpenter. Outside stood a small, frail woman in a silk saree, holding a bowl covered with a napkin.
“Mrs. Nair”, she said smiling warmly, “I am your neighbour. I just made some hot idlis and sambar. I thought since you had just moved in you mustn’t have had time to cook.”
The rich smell of South Indian sambar wafted into my nostrils, and to me that small dark lady seemed to suddenly grow wings behind her back. That was the beginning of our relationship, strongly based on a variety of South Indian ‘tiffin’. With the aroma of upma and idlis, our relationship grew stronger. We came to depend on each other for a variety of small and big things. My Saturday morning breakfast was with Mrs. Nair. She’d thoughtfully allow me to sleep in late then ring the doorbell: two short buzzes, followed by a gentle knock. Then she would quickly step in with freshly prepared breakfast, whiz into my kitchen, take out the plates and lay the table. My part of the deal was to get the coffee maker on. She loved the filter coffee that my coffee maker made. To me it was the laziest way of making good coffee. She thought every South Indian family should have one, and give away the traditional decoction utensils.
I really admired Mrs. Nair. Although she was my mother’s generation, and a retired school principal, she was amazingly modern in her outlook. I felt that we shared a bond more as friends than neighbours, and never did the age gap seem to come in our way.
Then one Saturday morning, the doorbell did not ring. I got up at about 10:30 realising that it was way beyond Mrs. Nair’s time. Alarmed I rushed next door. She opened the door tentatively. Her eyes were swollen like she had been crying. “NairAuntie!” I exclaimed, “What happened?”
“You remember the doctor’s appointment I had?”
I could have kicked myself. I had known she was going during the week. But the weekdays had flown by so fast, it had just completely slipped my mind. Now my heart sank.
“What did the doctor say?”
She broke down now. Between sobs I heard the dreaded word. “Cancer.”
I put my arms around her. That was all I could do at the moment. Then regaining my composure, I straightened up. It seemed the right time to take charge.”NairAuntie, what’s for breakfast?”Quickly wiping her tears with the end of her saree, she looked embarrassed, “Dear, I haven’t made anything today. I just could not think straight!”
“Fine then,” I said, “today we’ll have a lavish breakfast of burnt toast, butter and your favourite brand of coffee.”
Over coffee, Mrs Nair told me that she had noticed a small lump in her breast a couple of weeks ago. Thinking it would go away she had ignored it. But later decided to go to her family doctor, who had immediately asked her to undergo some tests.
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” I asked indignantly. But she just shook her head. “You have so much to do, and you are so busy with your work.”
I sighed. For once, I wished I had not been working and had been by her side when the cruel diagnosis was disclosed to her.
“Ok… what’s next”, I asked.
Step by step, I went through the next few procedures that were required. A biopsy, more reports and maybe surgery. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy. The best part was that the doctor said that the prognosis was good.
“But,” she exclaimed, shaking her head in confusion, “there’s so much to find out and whenever I go to the doctor, I forget everything that I wanted to ask him.”
“List” I said absently.
“What?” asked Mrs. Nair, puzzled. Somewhere at the back of my mind was this article I had read about cancer and how to cope with the diagnosis. One of the things suggested in that was to go to every doctor visit with a list of queries one might have. “Everything you want to ask the doctor, goes into a list. That way you don’t forget anything and you make the most of your time with the doc.”
Over the next few weeks, I made it a point to come home from office and check on Mrs Nair. And her list. She seemed to be doing well. Our Saturday breakfast sessions were restored. But over a couple of weeks, I saw a change in Mrs Nair. She seemed to be sinking into a depression.
I set up internet chats on my computer so that she could speak to her children more often. We started going for an odd movie together. And sometimes our breakfast would extend to a lunch or an evening snack together. But nothing seemed to help. I often wondered, what made her happy. What could I do to cheer her up?
“A happy list” I said, one Saturday morning over a plate of kancheepuram idlis.
“Happy list?” Mrs Nair had been very successful with her lists on her doctor’s visits. “Yes, yes” I said, snapping my fingers, thrilled with my idea. “That’s just what you need, a list of all the things that make you happy. Let’s start right away”.
Mrs. Nair gave me a bemused look. Every day, Mrs. Nair was to pick one item from the happy list and do it. I would help wherever I could. The idea caught on. By next Saturday, the list was a page long. Chatting with her children, going to the reading club meets, even the movies we went for together found their way on the list.
Saturday morning. The bell rang. I opened the door. Mrs. Nair walked in with a mischievous smile on her face. On a pretty silver tray was the most lavish South Indian breakfast I had had in ages. On top of the lace napkin was an envelope with my name on it.
I looked at it. As Mrs. Nair watched, I tentatively opened the envelope. Inside was just one sheet of paper. Titled, “the Happy List”
The entire list of twenty items consisted of just one thing: a cryptic, ‘Saturday morning’.

(c) Vaishakhi Bharucha June 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Something inside me...

“The project”, she said in a weary tone, that children sometimes use when they know their parents are not going to comply.

“Oh yes”, I said, somewhat absently. School homework was something I was trying to put past me for many years. Unfortunately it had reared its ugly head again through my children. This time it seemed that there was no escape. Eight-year old Niyati had a science project on butterflies. To be submitted the next day.

But principles were principles. I drew myself up to my full parent height and said, “It’s your project. I can help you with it, I cannot,” I emphasized, “do it for you”.

“But all mothers do it”, she said petulantly. Then with a huff she stomped out of the room. I was familiar with the eerie silence that would follow. The flinging on the bed. The tear-stained pillow. The refusal to eat. And the constant muttering about how “other mothers weren’t like this”.

By evening, the project was more important than either of our egos. And soon I was helping her get material on different butterflies. It was difficult drawing the line between what was legitimate adult assistance and downright cheating. Every time, ‘other mothers’ were placed before me. I still held my ground.

We finished late in the night. A completed chart with, what we had discovered was the “Painted Lady”, a brilliantly coloured butterfly found almost the world over. The next morning, she left with the project in sullen silence. I knew I had not been forgiven. It hurt. Then I remembered something I had read. A magazine article that had talked about being a patient parent. I smiled inwardly, knowing my turn would come.

By evening the project was submitted. And forgotten. Or rather simply not mentioned.
Come Sunday and we were off to the nearby lake for a community picnic. Racing ahead with her friends, she was as excited an eight year old as you could get.

The sun was warm and flowers seemed to bloom everywhere. I too was welcome for this change of scene. Suddenly I felt relaxed. Something inside me told me everything would be alright. And then I saw it! The Painted Lady! I raced to Niyati’s side, and excitedly pointed it out to her. She jumped up and down with glee. Rounding up her friends, she animatedly explained to them what the butterfly was all about and all the scientific data she knew about the little creature. When she finished holding her little educational conference, she looked up at me. And smiled. Finally, I was better than the ‘other mothers’.

Secretly I thanked the ‘Painted Lady’. A butterfly responsible for parent-child bonding! Finally, I had got a good grade in my project.
(c) Vaishakhi Bharucha 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

Many lives, many stories

It's not impossible. Sometimes you can reduce the largeness of life to one single word :relationships. The characteristic way in which each of us deals with people around us - those we love, those we know, even those we hate. A mother and a daughter. Two colleagues. Neighbours. Somewhere within these relationships is the real -albeit simple - meaning of life.I started to portray one little glimpse of someone else's life.
The first one was easy. The butterfly story came from a picture. The characters came from life. As more stories developed, the line between fact and fiction slowly started blurring. There were incidents from real life that got woven into the fabric of the story. But where the warp of the fabric was reality, the weft was fantasy.
Each character got a texture of real life and yet was not someone that I knew. Each story said a little bit about a character but a whole lot about life.
Each relationship explored brought out a new meaning into my relationships with others.
Each time I was a different character and yet each time I was the same.
And every time a new story fell into place and got completed, I had opened another door into a new relationship.
Now that I think of it, the relationships that I can explore are countless, the stories that emanate from there are limitless.
Something inside me tells me life has many more stories to tell.