Saturday, September 29, 2007

Two Lives.

There have been enough things happening around me lately for me to retire into my habitual cocoon and watch the world through the crook of my elbow. World Cups. Revolutions. My mother’s thirty-third midlife crisis attack, which made her buy a pair of bright blue leggings.

Which is why I am profoundly happy that Paati has arrived. Paati, my maternal grandmother, is one of my Favourite People in the world because she’s never given up on me, no matter what I’ve done. Nothing I say seems to ruffle her, and nothing I do is unwomanly (did you ever think it possible?). She flies down from Bombay once a year to brighten my world, reteach me the Tamil I have forgotten, and cook me some exotic South Indian dishes, the secret recipes to which are so well-hidden that my mother can never recall where she’s put them. And she never buys me anything, because she knows instinctively that I will love her all the more if she hands me the money instead. And, most importantly, she talks enough sense into my mother to last another year.

She arrived today. She looked as straight and capable as ever, but there is a stoop about her shoulders that was not there before. She moves more slowly than last year, and has more tablets to swallow. And I heard her comparing her medical evils with my paternal grandfather, and it seems like not all is quiet on the Ageing Front. I feel rather heartbroken. Two of the people I love most are getting old, and how. And though they don’t show it, there is that vague feeling of inevitability and rheumatism and ointment about their conversation. I wonder why I never noticed it earlier. Maybe it’s the horridness of having to grow up and realise things. Maybe it’s just something you have to realise sooner or later.

This post wasn’t meant to be about Paati, or about how depressing it is that people have to grow old, but now that it has turned out this way I don’t think I’ll change it. I’m lucky to have two wonderful grandparents left, and I’m thankful that they’re here now, sitting on the sofa, sipping their tea and conversing in the unique mixture of Hindi-Tamil-Malayalam that comes only to people who have lived long enough to transcend the boundaries of what words mean. These are people who know about silent company.

I did not mean to sound whimsical or nostalgic. I suppose it comes out of my incorrigible liking for stories of any sort, and grandparents are synonymous with stories. Their memories are entire universes, and there isn’t a better way of spending an afternoon than curling up in the balcony and listening to sepia-tinted stories of forgotten childhoods and long-dead romances and family scandals. For someone growing up suspended between three cultures and five languages, hearing family histories recounted is sometimes the best way of hooking on to an identity. This woman sounds like me. That is something I would have done. This is how my grandparents got married. This is what my mother did when she was three. This is why I am. There is much hidden romance in memories, and it is when they are recounted that I see how much hidden romance there is in grandparents. I just have to get the stories flowing, and the wistful wisdom comes out in ways that astonish me, till I remember that these stories are bits of their lives.

Grandparents are very exciting. Yes, I know what that sounds like. But it is true. They make my world a more interesting place, and I don't know what I shall do when they're gone.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Cows. And Karma.

Dawn breaks as we rumble in on a deceptively solid-looking Sumo, and, ironically, the first sound I hear is a muezzin’s call for prayer. Stereotypical sadhu with matted hair and rotten teeth and saffron and ashes everywhere grins at me. I grin back, taking in the beedi in his hand and the tattered Nike sneakers on his feet.

Within ten minutes of being in Benaras I know that the theories of its existence are hogwash. I have a new theory about how Benaras came into being. God (If, hypothetically, there is a God) built two armies composed entirely of streets and buildings and cowsheds, and made them have an epic showdown in Benaras, and what we see now are the remains of the battlefield. I have never seen so many twisted streets and convoluted paths turning at so many angles. Dilapidated buildings shoot out here, there and everywhere, forming narrow alleys where sunlight filters in through balcony grills and the odd shaft between terraces. A canopy of concrete with no beginning and abrupt ends.

There is much to be said about Benaras being the cosmic center of the universe, about its throbbing, unwavering intensity, about the faith that keeps it running, but it does not matter in the alleyways. They are part of a separate, magical world. Peeling paint that was once bright blue or red adorns doors, balconies, random flower pots, and at times, a rusty clothesline. A stray voice leads us into a stuffy room below ground level where a man sits grinning at us, prayer cap on head, trying to keep his henna-stained beard out of a loom holding the most magnificent silk saree I have ever seen. Silver shining through vivid pink, setting a dusty room alight. Beribboned children chase colourful hens over little ditches and canals. Windows leer out of ancient facades.

Everything looks like it will crumble to pieces if I put out a finger and touch it, and getting lost is easier than buying a bottle of mineral water. I do not like temples, and I do not care for religion. But this, this enchantment - I can live with this for three days, even grow to like it.

Cowdung is everywhere, and in all forms – caked, slushy, fresh. We cannot go anywhere without a bovine tail brushing against our legs. You cannot drive a vehicle here more than a foot wide, so we walk around, circumnavigating cattle and bicycles. And we walk further into a maze we don’t know how to exit, speaking to people whose names we do not know, watched by little eyes behind curtains. Spluttering mobikes sing along to crackling radio songs. Wafts of cigarette and incense smoke float around, creating a musty universe that seems far removed from philosophy and faith – in this world there is only life, and its living. There are only people, and their little routines. This is the Benaras away from the ghats and the temple spires. A world of simplicity and narrow-lined everydayness, living on borrowed time and tea.