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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sumitradi inspires…

She is a frail woman in her late fifties. Glasses, thick frame, a plait, trademark cotton saree, one cotton bag (jhola), and a cycle.

(c) Durba Gupta

The mornings in Pondicherry are amazing. The sun peeks through the clouds getting ready for the harsh noon, while the sea breeze, still lost in the nightly romance brushes the trees. The leaves scatter around in idle grace. Hundreds of cycles paddle towards the Ashram canteen for the morning breakfast. The cycles nod at each other, they stop by and exchange pleasantries – I believe that is the ritual, every morning. Ashram’s breakfast includes pieces of bread, milk, and one dalia sweet. They sit in lines, on the floor, young and old, Indian and foreigners, and eat their breakfasts like an ‘emperor’.

Sumitradi goes there too. Some days, she might miss, but most days she is there. She knows the menu by heart. It’s been five years.

I’ve always wanted to go to Pondicherry, may be to brush up my poor French, to capture the beautiful French quarters of the idyllic place, to have good food, to enjoy the sea, and all that jazz! So, last Christmas, I booked myself to a rather artistic hotel for a couple of nights, and took a night bus to Pondicherry. I also cajoled a colleague into joining me in the trip. The bus reached Pondicherry at 6, we took an auto to the hotel, and after few setbacks reached our destination. We explored Pondicherry the whole day and came back to a rather noisy hotel! An impromptu party was going on, loud music, and to top it all the furniture from our room was moved to accommodate the party. We were furious!

Sumitradi is a physiotherapist. She has been working all her life in a place called Burdwan in West Bengal. I imagine a small house, brothers and sisters, mother and father. Sumitradi comes across as a provider.

The next morning the hotel owner called. He empathized with our disappointment over last night’s fiasco. He offered us a free massage.

We met Sumitradi.

Sumitradi came to Pondicherry in the early nineties, for the first time. She had been coming to Pondicherry, since then. She decided that when she retires she will become an ashramite. So one fine day, in 2005, Sumitradi bade farewell to the place and the people she had lived her whole life, and took a train to Pondicherry.

However, the Ashram did not take her in. The retired lady rented a one BHK and stayed back. She became a masseuse. Everyday Sumitradi dons a saree, takes her jhola and paddles to the weary bodies. Every day she chooses to stay back and hopes for a place in the Ashram.

Sumitradi inspires me. Hailing from a humble background in a small town, her courage of conviction to live life the way she chooses to, inspires me. She chooses not to board a train back to the people and place she has lived her whole life. She chooses not to live off her pension. She instead chooses to dream, and to hope that someday she will be living in the Ashram. To Sumitradi, you inspire me…!

(C) Durba Gupta
*Name, place (not Pondicherry!) and timeline has been changed.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A bagful of memories...

I grew up in a joint family. At any point of time, there were 7/8 people sharing 3 rooms. We always had dogs, again 2 or 3 of them, ducks, who would poop as they waddle by, few chickens, a cow, and at times a goat, a goat that we would just grab from the road, milk it and let it go :). Almost every other morning, we would find some feathers in the chicken coop – remnant of a nightly cat attack. We had a guard too; he of course chose to sleep. Our dogs were uncharacteristically friendly with the cats that ruffled the chicken feathers at night! My boro pishi (aunt) was the one who suffered the most, she would have to go out and get one more chicken the next day. :(. The count thus stayed more or less the same.

While the focus was on studies, as that seemed to be the only path to salvation, we had our moments. My chhoto kaku (uncle) was a rebel (don’t know if he would agree to that!), and he always endeavored to show me the significance of not doing ‘what’ everyone wants you to do. I was the only kid in the house! So I was pampered to no ends. In 1983, the great Kapil Dev led the Indian team to history. We watched it. My mom fried dal pakodas and we served them on a plate, in front of the Black and White television when Gavaskar took to the crease – we wanted him to score big, and thought the dal pakodas would help. 

The underlying Gavaskar-Kapil Dev rivalry didn’t escape our house, either – so my father grimaced at the pakodas. Gavaskar refused to devour them, and left the crease soon.

21 years later, I dialled a certain number, hands trembling, forehead sweating! The heavy voice on the other side greeted me. I acknowledged, and told him that I needed a quote from him for a certain article. He most graciously obliged. I closed my eyes, and breathed deep. I had just spoken to Kapil Dev.

Another 5 years after that, far away from journalism, a journalist friend (Chinmaye) took me to a Ranji trophy match. A man in a trademark cricket hat smiled at me, and said, 'I have been watching you! You haven't had lunch!' I smiled and thanked him for the being the best wicket keeper in the 1983 world cup. Mr. Kirmani simply nodded!

We also used to have floods every monsoon. The water drops would make strange noises on the tin roof all night, and in the morning we would find ourselves on the bed and water all around. There would be snakes swimming by and we would struggle to get the chickens to a dry place. The ducks, as aquatic as they can be, were tormented by the rising water!!! So we fetched them too. The dogs would bark at the snakes, but shy away most of the time. The only one that would hold the fort would be the cow, we called her Kalu. No guesses there, she was as dark as beauty can be!

So there stood Kalu, in the rising water, calm as a cucumber with her big eyes, reassuringly looking at the floating snakes, swatting the flies every now and then with her tail, unperturbed by the chaos around her.

Baba said, she’s not brave, she’s just being a cow!! We felt that was mean.

18 years later, in the Markin Juktorashtro (USA), I found myself in a cold Chicago evening, gathered in the Anticruelty society for a film screening. It was an event for the volunteers with pizza, a game of blackjack and sodas. The film, no price for guessing, was ‘Cats and Dogs’. Emma sat with her little spitz, Alice. We exchanged greetings. Alice watched the film with great curiosity, while Emma and I chatted. It turns out that she has an Irish background, and cows there swim!

Ha ha – in your face, dad! Kalu always knew she can do it.

Every summer, my boro kaku used to come, when the schools were off for summer vacation. Boro kaku was fun, an accomplished singer and a great sport! He would bring with him stories, of the dacoits and the thieves, of the brilliant students and daring expeditions (being chased by a monkey, slapped by one, slapping one or even faking as a cycle rikshaw driver to get away with a prank!!). We would have a big lunch, and then he would sit on the easy chair and tell his stories. I would get a five paisa coin for every grey hair that I would pull up.

19 years later, as a Singapore cabbie drove me to the serviced apartments, I saw his dashboard full of coins from all over the world. Sure enough, there was one five paisa coin. He asked me for the new two rupee Indian coin, I was more than happy to oblige. I hope someday, for someone, it might bring back memories.

Memories make us who we are, memories help us undo what we are about to do. Memories give us the courage when we are about to take a big decision, memories warn us, when we are about to break one promise.

So whether it's a bagful, a pouchful, or a fistful of memories, know the ones we've thrown away and why, and hold the ones we have kept, close to our hearts, for some things are for keeps!