Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Pain of Others

One afternoon, before Sunita and the children have joined me in Bombay, I am walking on the road leading to the Strand bookstore when I see a little family: a mother with wild and ragged hair, walking with a baby boy, maybe a year old, fast asleep on her shoulder and leading by the hand another boy, maybe four or five, who is rubbing his eyes with the fist of his free hand. He is walking the way children walk when they have been walking a long time, his legs jerking outward, his head nodding in a circle, to beat the monotony, the tiredness. They are all barefoot. The mother says something gentle to the older boy, still clutching her hand. I walk past them, but then I have to stop. I stand and watch. They come up to a stall on the pavement, and, as I expect her to, the mother holds out her hand, The stall owner doesn't acknowledge them. Automatically I find myself opening my wallet. I look for a ten, then take out a fifty instead and walk up very fast up to them, my mind raging, thrust the fifty in her hand - "Yes, take this" - and walk on very fast without looking back, until I get to the air-conditioned bookstore, and then I stand in a corner and shut my eyes.

The identification with my own family is so strong - a mother with two young boys - that I start constructing a past and a future for them. Probably they would have walked like that all day long, barefoot in the heat. A hundred times a day the boys would have seen their mother hold out her hand to beg. A hundred people would be watched by those clear young eyes as these strangers curse their mother, tell her to move on or throw some change at her. And still she would carry them on her shoulder when they were tired. Sometimes she might put them down in the dirt, and then they would eat a little rice or sleep where they were from tiredness.

All day long I feel ashamed of spending money. Everything I spend that day becomes multiples of that fifty-rupee note. Within twenty minutes of my giving money to the mother I have spent six times as much on books. The pizza I order in the evening is two of those fifties. The rent I will be paying per month on my flat will be 2000 times that fifty. And so on. What had my giving them fifty rupees changed? For me, it meant nothing: pocket change, less than a New York subway token. I haven't yet learnt to take the brightly colored money seriously. But it would probably be a whole day's earnings for the mother (I can't think of her as "the beggar"). Perhaps she will take her boys and her sudden good fortune and buy them a toy from the arcades under the Fort's arches. Perhaps she will buy the medicine she hasn't been able to afford for the younger child's cough. Perhaps she will take the money and give it to her man, who will buy six more bottles of country liquor. And that is the obscenity here: our lives have two entirely separate systems of currency.

- Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Saturday, May 21, 2005

from Protocols

What can I say to you? How can I retract
All that that fool, my voice, has spoken,
Now that the facts are plain, the placid surface cracked,
The protocols of friendship broken?

- Vikram Seth, Protocols

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Comfortably numb

Modern man likes eating in restaurants, at separate tables, with his own little group, for which he pays. Since everyone else in the place is doing the same thing, he eats his meal under the pleasing illusion that everyone everywhere has enough to eat. - Elias Canetti

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


You voluble,
Vehement fellows
That play on your
Flying and
Musical cellos,
All goldenly
Girdled you
Serenade clover,
Each artist in
Bass but a
Bibulous rover!

You passionate,
Pastoral bandits,
Who gave you your
Roaming and
Rollicking mandates?
Come out of my
Foxglove; come
Out of my roses
You bees with the
Plushy and
Plausible noses!

- Norman Rowland Gale

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Power Cut

Where did the time go? The clocks went out.
Candles are busy in all the rooms.
We move from zone to zone, still sometimes
reaching for the light switch. We forget

even though we know, as when someone
dead almost comes down the stairs before
you can stop him. No, there's no one there.
Neighbours are talking in the garden -

we didn't know we had so many.
Their voices crisscross, passing between
hedges, as their cats do. Did you phone?
And did they tell you what they told me?

We are alone, with only people
for company, and the various
insects that share our houses with us
and the long whiskers of web that feel

the dark and the candles' new-laid light.
There must be, there is a connection.
The torch-beams out in the substation
are jostling now, trying to find it.

- Matthew Francis

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Update, etc.

My brother was over from Rawalpindi for a few days and he brought back with him a stack of DVDs, including:

- Sideways (B-; dark and depressing but with one or two luminous moments; the use of alcohol as a metaphor both for the character's imagination as well as his failure and subsequent dependency was well done; not sure why they called it a comedy, though)

- Million Dollar Baby (A-; stunning, with an unforgettable performance by Hillary Swank; just wondering how necessary the ending was . . .)

- Socha Na Tha (A-; a sweet and funny romantic comedy about love lost and found; ek dum hat ke.)

- Spanglish (B; another film which for some reason was marketed as a comedy but is much more than that as it deals with a tide of issues like parenting and relationships and identity; I really liked the way the characters are contrasted against each other and the delicious disorientation shown in the opening scenes as Paz Vega tries to acclimatise herself to an American family. Postscript: After watching the movie again this morning I thought about it and decided to change my review to a D and fail the film because of the crude way it dresses up simple acts of kindness in sexual innuendos. That's just not on. I think the only thing that came in my way was the chubby girl who wore braces. Every time she came on, the screen lit up with love and sadness and that redeemed the film.

In other news, I'm currently trying to get through Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country. It's a good novel, written with a great deal of passion and commitment but very difficult to sink your teeth into because it's constructed not as a flowing narrative but as a series of staccato, almost journalistic observations. You can only read it in fits and spurts and the effect, albeit searing, is not very fluent.

Here's an excerpt, though:

"All roads lead to Johannesburg. If you are white or if you are black they lead to Johannesburg. If the crops fail, there is work in Johannesburg. If there are taxes to be paid, there is work in Johannesburg. If the farm is too small to be divided further, some must go to Johannesburg. If there is a child to be born that must be delivered in secret, it can be delivered in Johannesburg.

The black people go to Alexandra or Sophiatown or Orlando, and try to hire rooms or to buy a share of a house.

"Have you a room that you could let?"

"No, I have no room."

"Have you a room that you could let?"

"It is let already."

"Have you a room that you could let?"

"Yes, I have a room that I could let, but I do not want to let it. I have only two rooms, and there are six of us already, and the boys and girls are growing up. But school books cost money, and my husband is ailing, and when he is well it is only thirty-five shillings a week. And six shillings of that is for the rent, and three shillings for travelling, and a shilling that we may all be buried decently, and a shilling for the books, and three shillings is for clothes and that is little enough, and a shilling for my husband's beer, and a shilling for his tobacco, and these I do not grudge because he is a decent man and does not gamble or spend his money on other women, and a shilling for the church, and a shilling for sickness. And that leaves seventeen shillings for food for six, and we are always hungry. Yes, I have a room but I do not want to let it. How much would you pay?"

"I could pay three shillings a week for the room."

"And I would not take it."

"Three shillings and sixpence?"

"Three shillings and sixpence. You can't fill your stomach on privacy. You need privacy when your children are growing up, but you can't fill your stomach on it. Yes, I shall take three shillings and sixpence."

Friday, May 06, 2005

Speak, Memory

We drove up to Abu Dhabi this evening to see S aunty. Her father passed away a few days ago from complications following surgery and both she and her husband had been too busy after they got back from the funeral for us to find them at home together. They're both doctors. She's a gynecologist, he's a surgeon. Their schedules almost never overlap, what with one of them being perpetually on call while the other is left to tend to the home and the children. When their daughter was younger, S aunty used to do it all herself, doggedly working at the hospital on her 12 hour shifts and then coming home to cook and clean, sometimes even studying. Now that Shafaq has grown up she takes care of the house, leaving her mother with a little more time to rest. It's phenomenal when you see her, this sweet fourteen year old child managing a whole house by herself. I suppose she gets it from her mother. S aunty has always been an unbelievably hard worker, very responsible, very sincere. There is such an incredible strength about her, a quiet wisdom that expresses itself through her simplicity and her complete and utter lack of pretense.

She looked very vulnerable this evening. It was almost as if she'd shed her responsibilities for a while, all the many identities falling away to reveal a young girl remembering her father. He was a doctor, a simple and honest man who I had the pleasure of meeting when I was in Karachi. He was the sort of doctor they used to have in the movies many years ago. A homely general practitioner who dispensed as much kindness and common sense as he did medicine. She spoke about her childhood and how their home was always over-run with guests. They come from a very close family; she and her husband are cousins. They grew up in the same house. Her father-in-law and her father were brothers. She remembered her husband bathing their grandfather because his heart wasn't strong enough for him to do it on his own. T uncle and his brother would take turns reading him the newspaper. Later on, S aunty took over the responsibility. Everything was shared. Nothing was a burden.

She spoke about the things she'd learnt from her elders, mehmanon ki khidmat being one of them. I was surprised by her use of the word khidmat, which means a service but in a humble and compassionate sort of way. And even as I was thinking how quaint that sounded, an anachronism in these breathless days, my mother asked me to get her a glass of water. Instantly, both T uncle and S aunty got up and she hurried to the kitchen to get her guest a glass of water. It didn't take a moment but the reflex revealed so much. It was an instinct with them, taking care of others.

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