Notes from Delhi: Places and Spaces

July 2013, Delhi

To you,

It’s finally happened. I’ve put down roots. They’re hesitant, frail tendrils with a propensity to wither at the slightest provocation but they’ve been planted. After nodding my way through conversations with potential landlords/ladies and looking at one dubious room after another, I’d wearily head back home, climb up to the fourth floor and gratefully seek refuge in my room. The thought of adjusting to a new place seemed awfully cumbersome and I was surprised to find that despite its many limitations, the place I reluctantly lived in for three years had actually grown on me.

*

I can distinguish between 19 different footfalls; I can tell you where the domestic hides the excess supply of tea leaves and tomato sauce; which step you need to watch out for while climbing up; the perfect hot/cold water combination during the monsoons; the best spot on the terrace for a moonrise; how to jiggle the wire of the blender to get it to work; I can show you how to gauge the Help’s mood purely on the basis of the sink symphony of dishes and point out the warmest place during winter.

 

I’ve gotten so comfortable with my neighbourhood. I know its geographical placement well enough to snort with derision and pretend to walk away when the rickshaw driver tries to overcharge. There’s a market a stone’s throw away, complete with a dairy, pharmacy, multiple salons, momo, egg-sandwich, filter coffee and kathi roll-man, Chinese take-out, samosa-man, Namkeen lady and stationary shop. I will remain forever indebted to the seamstress at the market who chided me for wearing clothes three sizes too large for me and refused to make my clothes to the measurements I asked for. “Your clothes,” she seized the sides of my kurtha to emphasize her point, “They are too big for you. A young girl like you. You look old”.  My waxing lady is from Chennai and is well used to my appallingly low threshold of pain.  I think I’m even going to miss the two sylph-like wretches who bring chips and coke, occupy a bench in the park nearby and watch with amusement as those of us who aren’t endowed with high metabolism attempt to get rid of our love handles.

 

If you walk on further, you’ll come to a better stocked market abundant with food shops. From a curiously located bistro serving the standard ‘fusion’ fare, a South Indian restaurant, a few bakeries to a fantastic array of street food (think shawarmas, kebabs, burghers, paani-puri, vada pav, grilled corn, ice cream, parathas). Sandwiched in-between are a smattering of clothes stores and a dance studio. The courier man in this market greets me enthusiastically and reaches for the Sri Lanka price list as soon as I walk in. My digs are extremely close to one of Delhi’s nicest clothing markets and while my friends with finer tuned sensibilities turn their nose at shopping there, my inner tourist and bargain hunter loves it. Exploring it over the years has been an endless source of enjoyment.

 

There isn’t much room for originality in housing complexes in Delhi. With little room for horizontal expansion, the box-like buildings grow vertically with very little to distinguish one from the other. A redeeming feature of my place is the terrace. A large expansive rooftop, it’s not the most picturesque and  it contains all kinds of flotsam and jetsam –the remnants of a swing which served us well for a year and then promptly collapsed in the next, a bathtub, old piles of wood.  But from my fourth floor vantage I overlook a lovely park, dotted with vast heart shaped trees (On rainy days it metamorphoses into a pool. Two views for the price of one), lights of buildings dot the horizon and best of all, I can see the metro. If you know me in real life you will know that I adore the metro and there’s something comfortingly solid about hearing it in the distance. The terrace has seen many moon-gazings, rain dances and confessions. I’ve paced it in frustration and sought refuge from all-nighters with large flasks of tea and pale sunrises.

 

If you come up to the terrace early morning, you’ll see an old gentleman on the rooftop directly opposite, welcoming the day with a cigarette at sunrise.  Always just the one cigarette, after his last drag, he’ll stretch and plod inside for his morning cuppa. The apartment on our right has had a steady stream of expats. During the first year, there were the gaggle of white boys who seemed to have perpetually misplaced their shirts both during summer and winter. The only interaction we had with them was during Holi when their eggs and water balloons would unerringly find their marks while ours would falter halfway, to our intense embarrassment. The Lost (Shirt) Boys gave way to the Staid Couple who always threw interesting parties with bad music. They had a black and white canine horror which was the bane of all the girls on the street and would try to hump everything that moved. Three years of living next door to pigeon breeders has not alleviated my phobia of pigeons. I think it’s the perturbing 360 degree turning heads and beady eyes. It’s beautiful, however to watch the handlers climb up to the cages, form silhouettes against the sunset and call the pigeons with low, musical cries of ‘Aaao, aaao’.

 

The apartment, for the lack of a better word, comfortably accommodates 7 people but houses 20, inclusive of the Help/caretaker and her son. Also, I think it may be an illegal commercial establishment. I vaguely remember when our air conditioners were removed and large calendars of Hindu deities were pasted over the gaping holes, in preparation for a tax raid.

 

The Help possesses the unique ability to translate my Hindi monosyllables into evocative sentences. We communicate through a smattering of English and Hindi monosyllables and charades.  With a penchant for the dramatic, when she talks, her hands mime gestures, her eyes widen and her tone modulates according to her anecdote. On a winter day over a plate of pakoras, she told me about her village in Nepal and her mum’s green thumb and gesturing enthusiastically to highlight the profusion of produce back in her hometown.  The Help’s back-story is intriguing. All of us are privy to her doomed love affair (tired of waiting for her, he got married last year. They still talk furtively at night and she receives mysterious gifts periodically from her ‘friend’) but stories about her husband vary on the theme of tragedy. To one girl, she confessed that he was in a mental asylum. To another, she said that he died in an accident. On my last night, while she was teaching me how to make paranthas and chapattis -mine remain woefully flat and just refuse to puff-she wistfully told me that her husband was an excellent cook and made the best lemon chicken she had ever tasted. She knows that whenever I potter about in the kitchen at night, she’ll find a bowl of pasta or chicken waiting for her in the fridge and she reciprocates by keeping some sabzi aside whenever she cooks for herself. She steps in to the role of surrogate nurse when any of us fall sick, administering an inedible watery dhal-rice concoction called kitchidi which all of Delhi seems to swear by, in times of sickness.

 

Her son, who has mysteriously remained 14 over the past three years, centres his life on cricket. If you walk in to their quarters you’ll see a shrine of newspaper cricketers adorning the peeling walls. Every Sunday, he takes out his threadbare sports shoes and carefully scrubs the remnants of the week off it. His disinclination towards school remains a perennial source of heated arguments between him and his mother.

 

Her daughter is a younger photocopy of her mother, has all of her shrewdness but none of her mother’s warmth. For a child so young, she has surprisingly adult-like mannerisms and has perfected the hand on the hip stance, the hair flick and the disapproving lip-twist. Recently just returned after a year of Boarding School in Nepal she has now graduated from cartoons to soap operas and reality TV.  Notoriously light-fingered, biscuits, clips, nail-polish, shiny things and stationary left out are assumed lost for ever.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this neighbourhood or my apartment. Despite all my romanticizing, you’re going to find imitations nestled all over Delhi, superior terraces and far more interesting flatmates. But it was my little niche in the big city. Granted, there are lots of things I could have done differently but I’ve built a life in a new country from scratch. From not knowing anyone in this city, I’ve advanced to a stage where I walk into a random literary reading and will be likely to spot a familiar face. Whether it’s being warmly greeted by a shopkeeper or a chocolate and post-it note professing affection being left on my desk, its little things like these which ward off the overwhelming obscurity and loneliness of being a small fish in a vast pond.

*

Have you seen how dogs sniff warily at a spot, circle it a few times and only then flop down for a nap? I’m a bit like that these days with my new digs. Perhaps, minus the sniffing though.

When I started this letter, I was apartment hunting. A few drafts later, I’ve said goodbye to the place I called home for three years in Delhi, and am cautiously getting acclimatized to my new surroundings, flatmates, unwelcome surprises and quirks of the place. The pinkness of my room is unsettling (The walls are pink. The cupboards are pink. The shelves are pink. It’s like living in an Aerosmith song) and I keep hitting my head on the multiple wind chimes my landlady seems unduly fond of. I’ve stacked up on biscuits and made friends with the two strays who have taken it upon themselves to guard the gate and got my game face on.

This letter is already too long and I can feel your exhaustion.

 

Yours in flux,

Me.

 

Airport Observations

I hang up my phone in amusement. My ride was still at home, in a half-sleep stupor but awake enough to brush away my insistence to take a cab. I didn’t mind hanging around for a while. The arrival section of the airport is a lovely place to people watch and I’m usually in such a hurry to leave that I pay little attention to my surroundings. I settle down in a corner, with my luggage at my feet and a book on my lap so that I don’t feel too awkward.

The duration of the flight is visible on some passenger’s faces as they make their way past me. The long haul flyers have pained looks on their faces as they lug around their screaming children and attempt to balance hand luggage, infant, headache and trolley. Too tired to muster a thank you to the cleaning lady who helps them with the trolley, they don’t walk; instead they flop with fatigue towards the luggage belt.

I spot pockets of women wearing abayas but minus their head scarves. My curiosity is piqued. This is rare. The abaya is always, always accompanied by some form of head covering. I suddenly realize that the Middle Eastern flights must have landed and these must be housemaids (or Domestic Help, for the politically correct) returning home. Having landed in Katunayake, they had clearly discarded  the head covering which is compulsory for women in the Middle East.

There are certain staple characters at every airport and as I sat there, I spot a few.  There is the Frequent Flyer. Usually a business man/woman, impeccably attired – not too casual, not too formal – completely at home in the airport, equipped with a enviable mastery of being able to stuff a week’s worth of clothes and necessities in a smart, medium sized travel bag (usually a Samsonite).  I say, enviable because I’m usually the Overweight Passenger (luggage weight, not body weight. I feel it necessary to clarify this) who resolutely attempts to get the poker faced flight official to wave the few excess kilos away. I’m not proud of it but I’ve reluctantly come to terms  with the fact that I will never be able to travel light.

Then there is the Well Dressed Woman. You know the kind. The WDW is a rare species which steps in and out of the flight flawlessly attired, lipstick immaculate and hair in place. While the rest of the populace attempt to smoothen their plane hair (twice removed cousin of helmet hair) and crumpled clothes, she breezes through the airport in 6 inch heels effortlessly without a single trace of the flight visible on her demeanour.

There is the foreigner who has arrived to ‘find herself’ and immerse herself in the Exotic Orient. Harem pants, beads, tattered backpack and a Lonely Planet guide are key indicators. There is also the Elderly Traveller with a perpetual look of bewilderment, determinedly clutching onto their baggage and passport lest someone runs away with it. Every flight is a new adventure and the ET is usually the only person who pays close attention to the emergency rules announcement at the beginning of a flight.

There is always a tourist in every airport. The Tourist travels in packs or clusters of 5 or less. The more obvious Tourist is usually found with a fanny pack and sports shoes. The clusters are loud groups which congregate at the airport, cracking jokes among their peers, crumpled printed itineraries stored in their bag.

I hear someone call my name and I look up in surprise. There’s a face looking down at me expectantly and I find myself in a SSM (Small Social Pickle). I know I know this person but I can’t remember how or where I know him from or what his name is. One of the things which strike me as I struggle to place him is that he has a kind, sympathetic face and I experience a strange déjà vu  feeling of having this thought before, when I first met him years ago.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” Clearly I’m more transparent than I realize. He remembers my name and so I’m forced to lie to save face. Of course, I do, I reply. He’s nice enough not to call my bluff and after some cursory small talk, he leaves and I return to pretending to read.

The Duty Free heavy weights are making their way. A mother-son pair emerges from the lift. The mother is beaming and there is a proud (but not in an arrogant way) tilt in the son’s chin as he pushes a fridge on a trolley. A gift for his mother maybe? As I sit there, the flight crew of various airlines pass by frequently. I keep a lookout for familiar faces – a few friends work in the industry– but don’t spot any. There was a time when the travel perks of being a part of an airline had a strange fascination for me (and seemed worth the toil and flak I’ve seen cabin crew put up with). I was much younger and the attraction of a new country every week was extremely alluring.

There’s a man hunting for a pen to fill out the declaration forms for his brand new LED TV. He’s approached four people by now and the frustration on his face is apparent. He’s yet to ask me, strangely. I’m afraid my Alone Face is also my Leave Me Alone Face – a Delhi survival mechanism I have unconsciously adopted – and I probably don’t look very inviting or pen-friendly. I take out a pen from my backpack and signal him over. His furrowed face breaks out into a grin and he heads over to the other side of the lounge to fill out the paperwork.

My phone rings. My ride is here.  I’ve only read 6 pages of my book. As I clumsily get my belongings together, I realize that I’m exhausted. The frantic dash during a brief transit was finally taking its toll.   It feels good to be back. I wish I remembered that guy’s name though.

Adventures in solitude

The first time I went out for coffee alone I was horribly uncomfortable. I felt awkward, conspicuous and acutely aware of the groups of people congregated at the coffee shop.  I skulked over to the nearest table, took out my book and started reading. I tried to flag down a waiter repeatedly, but failed spectacularly. Then to top things off, the menu flew up and hit me on the face (it was one of those open air coffee places. Also, rather windy that day) Mortified, I stuck it out for a few minutes trying to hide behind my paperback and then picked up my dignity and fled.

Things have improved considerably since then (touch wood). I like to think I’ve reached the ripe old age where I’ve shaken off the need to be surrounded by a pack of people all the time. It started off going for art exhibitions alone – none of my friends were keen on art and I didn’t want them to be compelled to come with me – and then gradually shopping, random exploring, working/studying in coffee shops etc. Nothing too big, just baby steps. I’m yet to go for a movie alone or to a proper restaurant. I think I could do movies solo after a while, but somehow a meal alone, well, just seems rather lonely.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not completely anti-social. I’m not the biggest extrovert but give me good company and a good atmosphere and I’ll purr like a kitten. I’m just comfortable being by myself and I quite like being my own master. I do feel awkward sometimes but keeping a book in your bag at all times helps. You don’t feel so aware of yourself (what do I with my hands? WHY is she staring at me feet?) and it keeps you adequately occupied. I won’t lie, there are moments when I do miss the conversation and the company but given a choice between people you’re not entirely comfortable with, forcing yourself to make small talk and being by yourself, usually the latter is preferable.

On rereading

I wish I could tell you that I regularly revisit Proust. I wish I could tell you that I peruse Swann’s Way frequently and that I get reacquainted with Tolstoy, Joyce and Kafka every now and then. I really do. The truth is while I try and read as much as I possibly can and my book case is brimming with my recent purchases, very rarely do I revisit everything I read.

I feel like some context is necessary so let me backtrack a bit.

When I walk into the British Council in Colombo, the old hands at the library greet me like an old friend. I’ve been going there since I was 8. My ideal Saturday outing was a day at the library (I was easy to please). I would curl up in a beanbag in the children’s section and then went home and read some more. As a child, I used to be the kid who had a membership in four different libraries. I didn’t just read books, I ate them for breakfast. I lived in books. I conversed with characters.  My best friends were fictional. I stubbornly read in candle light in between the electricity outages which plagued us a few years back.   Somewhere down the line, life got in the way and books became a luxury instead of a necessity. The only books I read these days are the ones related to my academics.  My 12 year old self would be spectacularly disappointed.

I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the reading bandwagon again and despite my growing ‘to be read’ pile (the age old lament of the bibliophile – so many books, so little time) I’ve noticed a tendency every now and then, to gravitate towards old favourites. The thing is, reading and rereading are two very different things. We all have our reasons for reading but why do some of us (I’ve met many people who refuse to revisit books) reread? Why, when there are so many undiscovered books waiting to be read and savoured, do we sometimes almost instinctively pick a well thumbed favourite in favour of a new one? And more, importantly what do we reread and what is it that keeps us coming back?

I can’t vouch for other re-readers, but it isn’t always literary merit which keeps me coming back to a book. Nostalgia plays a large part in my rereading. Old favourites include Enid Blyton’s Faraway tree series (the day you’re too old to climb an enchanted tree which leads to magical lands is a sad day), Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, Austen, the Narnia series, the dark materials and Sherlock Holmes.

Jean Webster’s 1912 novel ‘Daddy Long Legs’ has always been a firm favourite and was the initial book which kicked off my fascination for epistolary novels. Sometimes, revisiting old books and characters are bittersweet experiences. Over the years, you’ve changed and sometimes your interpretation of the novel may have changed. My most recent re-reading of the novel left me perturbed by the fact that Judy refers to her future love interest as ‘Daddy’ through the course of the novel but it probably won’t stop me from reaching out for it in a few months.

I’ve found that Roald Dhal improves with age. The older I get, the more I tend to marvel at his expansive imagination. A child who is gifted a chocolate factory, a boy who stumbles onto a witches’ conference and a woman who murders her husband and feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the murder – You really can’t go wrong with Roald Dhal. I’m yet to reconcile myself to Quentin Blake’s illustrations though. I was a puritan with my illustrations and Blake’s scrawls left me feeling cheated as a child.

The Anne series (Oh, Walter, Walter, Walter) was also a favourite. As I reread them, I preferred the later books in the series – teenage Anne talked in such huge, chunky paragraphs, it got annoying sometimes. Her kids were far more interesting. Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, more of L.M. Montomery’s books, Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairytales , Harry Potter and Asterix are other frequent revisits. Asterix was another series which improved with age.

I grew up on a steady diet of gender centric, good-conduct fiction. I’m still guilty of glancing through them every now and then when I go home and am in need of a quick read. Rediscovering old poems is another favourite past time– Grace Nichols, Cummings, Dickinson, Neruda, Atwood, Bukowski, Wendy Cope, Plath, Agha Shahid Ali, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, etc  are all old acquaintances.

Growing up, I was blessed enough to inherit a vast collection filled with books my family had amassed. With access to four more libraries, there was really no necessity to buy books either. Whatever few books I purchased were tried and tested before buying and carefully added to the library. When I started working, the hedonistic prospect of being able to spend my carefully earned money on books blew my mind. I started buying books a few years ago and I haven’t been able to stop.

While, there are few things more satisfying than a well-filled collection of books, what I’m uneasy about, is the initial conundrum mentioned previously – the fact that I don’t always revisit most of my recent purchases. Apart from Perec and one or two names, I haven’t been inspired enough to pick up and reread any of my recent reads which has me wondering if I’m reading the right books or if quantity has taken precedence over quality.

Do you reread books? If yes, which ones and if no, why not?

Ps: wrote this a few months ago.  Dug it up after coming across this post of PP’s and this recent article on authors and their rereads. With people rereading the great Gatsby, Proust and Toni Morrison, I feel a little ashamed to own up to the fact that I reread Enid Blyton and fairy tales.

Photography and I

Photography and I fell out of love a while back. It wasn’t pretty. Tears were shed, tantrums were thrown, hearts were broken.

My fling with photography started off about five years back. I took pictures for three years with my trusty camera phone before I advanced to a compact point and shoot, which has accompanied me since. There were instances when I was unfaithful. More talented, capable friends lent me fancier cameras to play around with and I was only too glad to accept their equipment to meddle around with. I’m not proud of my moments of infidelity but I would be lying if I say I didn’t enjoy them. There’s this exhilaration and an inexplicable high that taking a great picture brings which my compact (I’m very sorry. It probably wasn’t you. It was me) has never given me throughout all these years together.

I entered photography with the unbridled enthusiasm I leaped into marble papering, candle making, art and all my other abandoned relationships along the years. You may say I have commitment issues, I say you’re young once. The early years with photography were beautiful. You know, the twilight days where your rose tinted glasses are still firmly wedged on your face. No dish was too menial to be digitally immortalized; no event was complete with multiple pictures and I could not pass a flower or a baby without kneeling down to photograph it/her/him. Quantity took precedence over quality (I think I have 20 pictures of a tiger lily in my garden. At least a 100 of my cat) In a flood of mediocrity, there were a few good ones. There were moments when I would be inspired but they were few and far between. When I moved to India, I was dizzy with delight. This place is a photographer’s haven. All the Indian clichés you have seen in Hollywood movies unfurl around you, alas, minus the exotic, Eastern soundtrack in the background. I was going to conquer Delhi, one mega pixel at a time.

Somewhere down the line, the romance fizzled out. I’d take pictures reluctantly, as though it was something I had to do, not because I wanted to do it. The experimentation stopped abruptly. I even stopped gazing wistfully at the many SLR toting people I’d encounter. The once tangible chemistry was no more, the conversation, dried up.

The streak of disinterest and mediocrity continued and the rough patch snowballed into an estrangement. I stopped making an effort and feigning interest and the fissure gradually deepened more and more.  Long hours spent watching youtube post processing tutorials and stalking my favourite photographers became a thing of the past. My incessant need to document Delhi abated and I started listening to a lot of Adele. What was once the pride and joy of my life was banished to the depths of my cupboard along with the Kiran Desai book I’ve picked up countless times but never been able to get through. In retrospect it was a strange time. Even people around me noticed the absence of my better half and saw through the veneer of my watery excuses.

Like all broken relationships, I played the blame game. There was nothing wrong with me, I told myself firmly – it was my camera! And the answer, I made up my mind, was a very fancy, very expensive SLR. Upgrading, I am told is the norm.  Your clothes, your car, your phone, your computer, your house; maybe it was time to end things with my compact? Hell, if the 16 year old kid on my Facebook friend list could own a SLR, take a bad picture, stick a vintage vignette, chuck in a profound quote and call it photography, I could too.

Fortunately or unfortunately, financial practicalities prevented me from immediately sauntering in to an electronics store and I dislike running to my parents every time I want a new toy. Plus, the timing didn’t seem right so I reluctantly accepted that I was stuck with my compact for better or for worse, or at least for the time being. I wish I could tell you that we patched things up perfectly and walked off to photograph a red and gold sunset but Walt Disney lied. There are no fairy tale endings in the real world.

Things haven’t been all that bad though. I like to think the romance is still there. A few weeks ago, I stopped to check the ISO settings and played around with the composition. While on holiday recently, I switched on to trigger-happy mode and went a little crazy with the picture taking (picture beautiful people, mountains and the bluest of blue skies. You couldn’t be immune to the atmosphere if you tried). Another day, I even opened up photoshop.

People have overcome bigger ruts, made tastier lemonade and every chick flick I have watched has informed me that all relationship have its ups and downs. I haven’t taken a picture I’m proud of, in a very long time but I like to remain optimistic. Let’s see how everything goes over the next few months, shall we?

 

Eid at Home

At this time back home, our house will be brimming with activity. The 27th night of Ramazan as always is spent in prayer but afterwards, there’s a sense of anticipation which blurs the final days of fasting.

 Every year, a week before the festival, my mum will announce that she won’t be making too many food items for the table. Each year we nod and agree knowing well enough that when Eid dawns, our table will be creaking under the weight of all our favourite food items. Each year, we tell my dad firmly in uppercase that the day will be spent with FAMILY ONLY. Each year, he nods and acquiesces but the night before, he would sidle up to my mum and casually mention that X uncle might drop in at night and do we have enough food to go around. My mum (armed with years of foresight to keep the freezer well stocked) would sigh and feign impatience and say yes, yes, we just might have enough food. Oh brilliant, my dad would sigh in relief. Then, he would wait till we get back to our work and hurriedly mumble that therewasachancethatafewmorepeoplemightdropin and then swiftly make his exit before either of us could register what he said.

 The day before Eid is chaos. I’d run around in a rare mode of domesticity dusting this and washing that. My sister would help my mum in the kitchen and my dad would be sent out no fewer than five times on varied errands.  The cat would lounge about everywhere, gazing at us languidly and tripping everyone over. I remember as a kid how my mum, aunt, grandmother and our faithful domestic who used to work for us before she became a nun (that’s another story) would get together and make sweetmeats weeks before. My grandmother would bring out all her utensils which her mother had used and our domestic would be coaxed into the daunting task of stirring the sticky, sweet mixture. I say daunting, because the mixture for muscat is incredibly heavy and has to be mixed by hand. Mixing it required immense upper body strength, fortitude and alarming amounts of patience. My favourite though, was making palaharam. The dough was made, rolled out and then cut into minute squares. Once they were cut, we would sit around the table, catch up on general chit chat and twist the squares into dainty shapes. Once the dough was ready, they were fried and coated in sugar syrup – A homemade recipe for a heart attack, if there ever was one. The food during Eid was fantastic. Our table would be filled with thakbir, date cake, donuts, marshmallows, cutlets, nuggets, cheese rolls, samosas, egg shaped moss jellies and cupcakes for all the visitors who came throughout the day.

On Eid itself, we would be woken up at an ungodly hour. I would wake up only when my mum would storm into my room yelling at me for sleeping while everyone else had been up for hours (Every. Single. Year. I kid you not) I would, as usual be the last to bathe and saunter to the breakfast table in my pyjamas while everyone else was squeaky clean and attired in their new clothes.

The first thing that pops to my mind when I think of Eid is the abundance of family (no, it’s not all about the food).  The mosque is, as can be expected, overflowing with people of all shapes and sizes. Relatives I haven’t seen for months would troop into our house (and we, into theirs) as we wish each other for the season. Thankfully, most of the extended family has migrated abroad so the list of houses we visit isn’t too extensive but it can be an overkill sometimes. There’s only so many times you can politely answer that you’re not going to get married just yet and make small talk about the weather before you start yearning to throw objects at someone. But I usually avoid family functions and gatherings the rest of the year, so I suppose one day doesn’t really hurt.

The loot definitely helps ease any mental trauma. I used to get the funniest gifts. The loot ranged from money, cosmetics, clothes to the slightly more eccentric ones like chopping boards, digestive biscuits and underwear. Earlier, my parents would go out of their way to buy personalized gifts for the kids who come visiting but as the years went by the kids became harder to please so instead every kid who comes home now leaves with a handful of crisp notes and a mercenary smile on their faces.

Lunch is always a family affair at my grandparents. Biriyani, achcharu, green pea and cashew curry, tandoori chicken, raitha and of course the crowning glory – the watalapan. I love watalapan and I don’t know if its a Sri Lankan thing, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere over here! The afternoon is usually a food-filled stupor with a bevy of uncles, aunts and cousins and after a quick breather, the evenings are spent entertaining the guests who come over.

There’s an uncle who always, always comes over just when we’ve called it a day. Every year, after we dust away the vestiges of the day and gratefully slip into the comfort of our ‘regular’ clothes and are about to turn in, the doorbell rings. We’d look at each other in almost comical dismay and groan audibly. Happens like clockwork every year. I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I tried.

So that’s a snapshot of Eid back at home. I’ve glossed over some details, but here’s the gist of it –prayers, family, friends and food. I used to crib about the visiting, the food and bustle while I was back at home but absence really does make the heart grow fonder – I guess that’s why I was seized with a sudden desire to document it.

Eid Mubarak everyone.

Notes from Delhi: The Black and White Couple

Hauz Khas Village is a nice enough place with plenty of cafes and shops, but there’s something about the place which I can’t put my finger on. It seems like it’s trying too hard and its general atmosphere exudes hipster-kitsch, which doesn’t help things sometimes.

After lunch at a cafe at Hauz Khas last week, we came across a vintage store crammed with an assortment of some of the most random stuff I’ve ever seen in a shop. From buyable stuff like vintage posters, postcards and antiques to arbitrary stuff like old photographs and stamps. The sales person was friendly and good naturedly let us root through the place to our hearts content.

On an impulse I rummaged through the box containing old photographs and came across this.

The black and white couple

Don’t you think this couple have so much scope for a story? I mean, look at them. Ignore the complete lack of body language to indicate the fact they were a couple – if you root far enough through old family pictures you’ll come across a gamut of awkward pictures of people sitting ramrod straight in studios glaring at the camera – their faces itself are immensely interesting.

The man’s (unusually well shaped, may I add) eyebrows have the slightest hint of defiance in them and the flare of his nostril and thinly drawn lips are telltales of a stubborn personality. I’d love to guess at his age, but his hairline recedes into the darkness of the background and as far as I can see there’s no indication of greying.

There’s a barely visible slump in the woman’s shoulders and well, I think she looks beautiful. I was inclined to dismiss her as a ‘typical’ Indian housewife at first glance, but her eyes beg a second glance and (I’m probably reading too much into things here) there’s something achingly poignant about her face.

The couple and the composition of the picture was so out of place at that exact moment, in the sweltering heat as my friends laughingly burrowed among vintage posters and browsed old pipes.

The basket was overflowing with similar vintage photographs; I can’t put my finger on why I was so drawn to this picture. I just can’t help thinking there’s a story behind this couple.  I wish I knew what it was.