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A Vishu Story

Leela stepped out in to the cool dusk evening and looked up at the sky. It was a couple of days to Vishu, but the sound of crackers could be heard around the neighborhood. Smoke rose in the distance, and the rat-tat-tat sound of fireworks added a repetitive symphony to the evening. The cicadas and nightjars were temporarily silenced but their faint buzzing and calling continued, unheard by human ears. The kitchen was a bit of a bustle, and she wondered if she needed to go in. She decided to stay out a little longer. Her mother would be already at work, prepping for dinner. And her sister would be helping too. Yes, she could stay out some more. Vishu was a beautiful time of the year. It arrived early April, just as the sun began to turn redder and warmer, but not quite in the “hot-sweaty” range yet. And the nights were breezy and cool. How many days before the searing heat descends, she wondered.

The fireworks continued unabated. But now they sounded harsher, louder. It wasn’t the light rat-tat-tat any more. They were bringing out the “bombs.” She often wondered what the fun and joy was in them. They had no light or drama, just an ugly sound that reverberated through the homes, ears, and hearts. They were ominous, mean-sounding, and cruel. And they got progressively louder. And they lacked the repetition, so one never knew when to cover the ears. Not that covering the ears made a difference. The sound burned its way through, leaving ear drums throbbing and hearts thudding. Each year, someone would invent (or manufacture) a louder contraption that created a sound more awful than the one people enjoyed the year before. And so on it went. This is a guy’s thing, she sighed. Yet another toy that we have to endure for their sake, ugh. She hated to see the house pet Silky on these nights. The little dog would cower under the bed, shivering and whimpering. She wouldn’t be comforted, no matter how hard anyone in the family tried. Even as the kids hugged her, she trembled in their grasp. Fear showed in her eyes and paws and mouth. Leela wondered if she should ask the vet for a light tranquilizer, so she could have Silky fall asleep for a few hours, a brief break from the rat-tat-tat and the nasty bombs.

But Silky wasn’t the only one frightened of loud sounds and fireworks. Leela’s 7-year-old daughter Mini was equally affected. Diwali ended up being the worst time of the year for her. In a small flat in Bombay, there aren’t enough places for a little girl to hide. The bedroom was compact and comfortable, but it had a window that faced the neighboring apartment building. And the teenage boys who lived there spent hundreds of rupees each Diwali on fireworks. So she couldn’t hide in the bedroom for long. The kitchen was a better spot but it was adjacent to the living room which had a large window overlooking the water tank and play ground. Folks congregated out there to burn their hard-earned money, throwing it up in flames. No, it was torture, and it had to be endured, year after year.

But Vishu was somewhat different. For one, the bombs weren’t as fancy or loud, and the sounds never felt as harsh as what one experienced during Diwali. Perhaps it was the surrounding tree cover that muffled the noise, trying to comfort little souls like Mini and Silky. Maybe people didn’t have as much money to spend on pyrotechnic displays. Maybe they were more sensible than their Bombay counterparts.

Leela stepped into the home and walked into the kitchen. Where are the kids, she asked her sister. They are out front, bursting crackers. Madhu got some “flowerpots” and sparklers this morning.

The kids were out in the front yard, using incense sticks to light the “flowerpots” and sparklers and string-style crackers. It was a merry sight, their faces suffused with joy and golden light. She looked around but she couldn’t find Mini. She stepped back into the sitting room, walked through the kitchen, out on to the patio… no Mini to be found. Finally, in the bedroom, she saw her huddled in a corner. Tears were running down Mini’s cheeks, and her little body shook. Her nose was starting to drip, and she sniffled continuously. It was a sad scene, almost pathetic.

Leela closed her eyes. Aargh, she thought inwardly. Why is this child so frightened? Why is she the only one so frightened? Why isn’t she like her sister, her cousins? Enough is enough.

She opened her eyes. Yanked Mini’s arm forward. Come out, everyone is outside. No, Amme, I am scared! There is nothing to be scared, it’s only fireworks. It is just sound. Come out. No, Amme, please!

Leela dragged her little daughter out of her hiding place, as Mini pulled back, frightened. Her sobs gained in intensity, her body wracked with tears and coughing. The crying only served to annoy Leela even further, and she continued to pull her daughter out, on to her feet.

Finally, Leela’s mother stepped out of the kitchen. Stop it, let her be. It’s alright.

So many years later, Mummy apologized to me for that night, tears forming in her eyes. She could hardly believe that she had been so insensitive to my fear, so blind to my pain. I had consigned that incident to a remote corner in my memory where it bothered me no more. I faintly remember the details of that night but it doesn’t plague me at all. Mummy, I think, carried guilt and regret for what she said and did. I assured her that I was fine, no damage done… I am free. And now I hope that she is too.

A Navaratri Story

Navaratri, Divine Feminine, Beauty, Grace, Power

Navaratri is a lovely time of the year. The nine-day festival is a celebration of the Divine Feminine in all her resplendent forms — mother, daughter, artiste, warrior, musician, danseuse, princess, and others.

Navaratri arrives in the Oct-Nov time frame, as autumn descends on India and temperatures start falling. Not entirely so, because summer is a tenacious season, and October heat is a real, tangible beast. But Navaratri nights were/are always cool. And this is so important, because Navaratri nights are all about dancing. This is not the slow, sedate kind of dancing but more the spirited, energetic type.

People gather every evening, form a circle (or some kind of elongated circular-oval formation), and dance. The circle moves quick and smooth, and you have to keep pace with your fellow dancers. The hand clapping is basic, but the footwork is often sweeping and elaborate. The music used to comprise of traditional melodies and simple rhythms, but today you can find a melange of movie song remixes, disco beats, electronica and funky new tunes during Navaratri. All music that is even remotely hummable is packaged into a Navaratri-friendly format, which means you can dance to it, all night long.

Navaratri is also about gorgeous Indian clothing and jewelry (not shoes, because most people kick them off before dancing), which means that you get to see women beautifully dressed in shimmering chaniya-cholis and lehengas, jewelry swinging from ears, necks, waists and wrists. Guys wear colorful kurtas and kurtis, dupattas/stoles carelessly slung around the shoulders, looking every bit as dashing and attractive as their female partners.

Each apartment/building complex typically hosts its own Navaratri dance celebration, small or large, depending on the space at hand. Some larger event venues stage mega Navaratri events featuring circles within circles with hundreds of dancers. The innermost circles are where you’d see the most experimental performers, their moves grand and spectacularly elaborate. These dancers are the prizewinning types, and if you are unable to keep pace with their whirling energies, you are better off moving to one of the outer circles where the dance steps are simpler and everyone moves slower.

In my building complex, the dances took place right beneath my apartment balcony, and I could hear them all night long. I could see older aunties moving gracefully at a steady rhythm, enthusiastic young men and women doing their fancy moves, older uncles keeping pace in their own slow way, and lots of little kids playing/dancing along. And everyone would be all aglow, smiling and laughing and chatting and dancing. The music would wind down at a reasonable hour, and the adventurous folks would head to another venue, dance for hours, rinse and repeat, all night long until dawn. Make your way home at the end of a night of dancing, catch some sleep, go to work (or not), then do it all over again… For nine straight nights.

It was a magnificent spectacle, one that I watched from afar for years, through my childhood and youth. I seriously ached to join in the dancing and merriment but I never did, not even a single time.

You see, I was a shy kid. Not that you’d ever know because I was so good at playing the role of an extrovert. I’d regularly speak up in class, and raise my hand at every question the teacher asked. I had a comment or opinion on everything, and I wasn’t shy about opening my mouth and sharing it either. But I had no friends to speak of. I spent all my years in school feeling like a misfit, an awkward outsider. I am still befuddled to this day how I projected such a confident exterior, even as I hungered for friendship and connection with my peers.

I think it all began in my kiddie days. I was painfully sensitive as a child. Our apartment building was inhabited mostly by Gujarati families, and most kids spoke Gujarati among themselves. My family hails from Kerala, and Malayalam is our native tongue. I spoke no Gujarati, and I was too shy to go introduce myself to the other kids. So I stayed home. And no one came looking for me. I spent my childhood immersed in books and reading, fantasizing about friends and fun times. I played little, preferring to spend time with books, dance, music, films, and so on. I had no friends at home or at school.

It felt like I lacked a basic gene or something equally fundamental that prevented me from connecting with others my age, and this seemed to follow me everywhere.

I have felt like a misfit, many times in life… and not just at school. And I have been regarded as a snob, an uppity kind of personality. Again, this befuddles me, but it seems that this is not an uncommon experience, after all.

Anyway, this isn’t a pathetic story about a lonesome childhood. It is an honest attempt to describe a childhood, and it may not be all that unique an experience.

A child’s life isn’t always simple. It isn’t about friends, play, or fun all the time. A child has a complex inner world, and the pain and nervousness is real. There is genuine confusion, and fear of judgment, and awkwardness, and all of that. There is internal conflict about self and the other, about fitting in and standing out.

And some of us experience this more acutely than the others, yes.

A Friendless Childhood

Driving home this evening, I heard a piece on NPR about a book club for young readers. Both books for the month had a common theme of immigration, loneliness, bullying. It reminded me of my years growing up in Bombay.

Lonely, friendless – who, me? If you know me in real life, I doubt you would ever think of me as a shy, sensitive or lonely kid. But I think that about describes me. I was too shy to speak with other kids my age, so I spoke with older people. And they thought that I was one smart girl, so well-spoken, so intelligent. Intelligent and well-spoken, I was. Smart, I don't know. I was (and continue to be) quite naive in many ways. Unfortunately, all that smartness and articulateness led other kids to believe that I was a snob. I was half-aware of this presumption but I didn't know how to change it. I tried to reach out, be friendly and I thought I had a few friends. But at the back of my mind, I knew that I had none. Oh, I was one of the school toppers (ranked 3rd). I don't think anyone was more surprised than I. I thought the other kids were way smarter, studied harder… But maybe I was smarter or luckier. Anyway, I graduated with great marks, went to junior college.

There, I met a great bunch of kids. We hung out together, had great conversations, fell in and out of love with each other, became good friends… and continue to be good friends. One of them who also happened to be from my school told me, many years later, that for the longest time, he used to think that I was a snob. Up until he met me in college and came to know me better. I remember wondering, what did I do (or not do) to merit such a description? The guy had had zero interaction with me, yet he seemed to have a clear idea of the kind of person I was.

This long-winded (and slightly pathetic) story is not to establish my lonely and friendless childhood (there, that sounds even worse!) but to explain that kids have it tough also.

I know that most people characterize childhood as a period of innocence and freedom. Yes, it is a time for fun, mischief, play and friendship. However, it may not be so for every kid. I was nervous playing sports. Since I had hardly any friends, I never went out to play. I sat at home and read instead. See how I became the smartest cookie in the class? The one who got great marks in English, whose grammar was impeccable and wrote the best essays? All those years of reading did that. But this also meant that I couldn't catch a ball. Or ride a bicycle, for the longest time. That made me nervous during PT class.

Anyway, I am alright now. Actually, I am GREAT. If you have been a long-time reader of this journal of mine, then you know that I have come up a winding path, learning a lot along the way. I am happier now than I can ever recall, I feel fulfilled and contented, and I know that I have many gifts to share. And I know that my experience as a smart little kid in Bombay will help me to show other little kids that you can be smart and talented and have friends too. That it's okay to be a little shy. That there is no need to be nervous about playing sports. That books can be great friends. That there are other nice kids out there waiting for you to go play with them.

Before you think that this is an issue only faced by smart girls, let me assure you that it isn't. If you are a class topper, I think others automatically assume that you must be terribly vain and hardly interested in fun activities, regardless of gender. I really didn't study that hard, and when I did, I got the results. And you know that type of student who studies hard but doesn't ever say so? People thought that I was that kind. There you have it… such a silly situation, no?