Writing Assignment: The City Story

I write for The City Story, an independent website that documents interesting people, places, experiences and eating options in Mumbai and London. The writing is lucid, placid and devoid of attention-grabbing gimmicks. All stories are either about hidden gems in the metropolis, or urban icons looked at from a novel perspective. Each story is written in the first person and celebrates the voice of the writer. Everything is pinned onto a Google map of the city with an accompanying address, phone number, website or Facebook page, to help you explore the city on your own.

You can find the links to my stories on The City Story page of this blog.

I will, of course, continue to write here. Thank you.

THE RAILWAY CYNIC’S JOURNAL

An earnest bachelor travelling on work slides his glasses up his harried nose and attempts to tinker with his laptop while a family of seven corners him in with a teething baby, a farting grandpa, a painfully beautiful daughter, a corpulent son who strips down to his underwear, a family friend playing Antakshari with himself, a matronly housewife who rains curd-rice from the berth above and a sickeningly cheery paterfamilias who wants to discuss the stock market.

An arthritic retiree reposing on the lower berth curses upto the seventh generation of the ten teenagers who’ve spread a bedsheet over twenty legs bridging the two upper berths and are playing a very physical card-game that requires frequent ululations and screaming of the war-cries ‘doooooood’ and ‘faaaaaaaack’ in a high cackling voice that terrifies him more than the possibility of death by burial under millennials.

Merciless fathers alight at ill-lit stations in the middle of the night and petrify their adoring children by not re-appearing until half an hour after the train is in motion, twenty-five minutes after they’ve begun to wail and twenty minutes after their mother has decided to disembark at the next station or signal, whichever comes first.

The perspiring state of semi-sleep I have befuddled my tired aching cramped limbs into is shattered at the wispiest crack of dawn by the piercingly nasal cry of an ambitionless man peddling weak tea over-boiled from questionable water collected from the rusty faucet in the much-abused toilet.

Obese aunties waddle to the loo for a pre-chai prophylactic dump, scent up the closet, pant their way back to newsprint-stained vadas seared in rancid oil and the continued interrogation of a solitary girl accha beti what is your good name what caste is that Hindu only na haan haan Jain is Hindu only where is your native place mummy papa let you travel alone aaj kal ke girls na they are so modern in my time toh accha how come you aren’t married you look old enough to have two children better get engaged at least soon varna all the good ones will be taken heh heh.

Fearless lads suspend their scrawny bodies out of the overcrowded doorway, their hearts throbbing hair flying faces gleaming until the piss flies into their eyes.

Every wayside station boasts of a paan-painted drinking water fountain used to wash hands, faces and kerchiefs, a bored man listlessly waving a green flag, and a single hut sheltering a single couple, the girl bedecked and bashful, the boy staring at the horizon for a glimpse of any train to escape on.

The train thunders across a mighty bridge over a brown rivulet at whose banks women squat and beat their families’ clothes with a vehemence reserved by those who live next to a railway line and a couple of hours from the nearest station, whose menfolk have long departed for all the big places all the big trains go to.

Respecting the caste system of Rajdhanis-and-Shatabdis-first-everything-else-follows, my train spends an eternity at a siding while a sun-baked man with a damp towel around his neck cradles a fluorescent green bucket in his elbow and executes his business idea of walking along the tracks selling once-cool bottled water to the passengers of a fully air-conditioned train.

Middle-aged men wearing faded black trousers and nondescript shirts strut on the platform with arms akimbo, staring at the signal, wishing, urging, daring it to turn green so they can sweat under their collars and manfully leap aboard a train speeding at a kilometre an hour.

The train halts at a red signal in the middle of a nameless nowhere boasting of cracked earth, failing fields and an undernourished bull being worked to death by an undernourished farmer who doesn’t lift his eyes off God’s earth to look at the sky, the train or anything else.

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IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER

This morning, I conducted a one-person sociological experiment. Instead of falling out of bed and groping my way to a cup of coffee, I stood myself in front of a mirror and shouted, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’

Not much happened. My eyes, hitherto closed, fluttered open an angstrom. My ears, bracing for impact, thanked the poor acoustics of my room. I coughed up a mucus plug that had spent the night in my throat. And realised that I disliked the pitch of my voice during the extended ‘kiii…..’

Nothing else happened. I did not feel more patriotic, or one with my countrymen. On branch-branch, gold bird did not sit. My country’s soil did not gold produce, produce diamonds-pearls. I did not feel like my country’s bulbul; it did not feel like my garden.

I’m not in the habit of screaming slogans at my reflection. But my country’s statesmen, cutting across party lines, deem it the most important issue of the day:

Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi said he won’t say it, even with a knife to his throat.

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis said say it, or leave the country.

Maharashtra MLA Waris Pathan said he wouldn’t say it, was surrounded by and shouted at by his fellow MLA’s in the Vidhan Sabha, and suspended, without irony, for ‘violating parliamentary traditions’.

Yoga guru Ramdev said say it, or off with your heads! – at a Sadbhavna (goodwill) Sammelan.

UP Minister Azam Khan – who has abused an IAS officer, dared the Shiv Sena to demolish the Taj Mahal and claimed that Kargil’s peaks were won only by Muslim soldiers – said Mr Ramdev is spoiling the congenial atmosphere.

Mani Shankar Aiyar said say it, and say Jai Hind and Jai Hindustan too. Mr Aiyar is a former Minister of Natural Gas.

The Darul Uloom Deoband said don’t nobody say it, it’s un-Islamic, thus putting it in the same category as working women, Salman Rushdie, and shaving.

Omar Abdullah said Mehbooba Mufti, who said nothing in the 88 days she left Jammu & Kashmir headless, should say it.

The Shiv Sena said Ms Mufti should say it to honour deceased Kashmiri Pandits, thus proving that it isn’t just a Hindu majoritarian party. It is also a Hindu minoritarian party.

Khalistan ideologue Simranjit Singh Mann said don’t say it, Sikhs don’t worship women in any form – endangering Punjab’s position as a leader in gender equality.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said saying it should be spontaneous, proving yet again that in Indian polit-speak, those two words are not contradictory. He also said that saying it is part of the all-round development of youth, along with bachelorhood, Aryanisation and finally, full pants.

The Hon’ble UP Governor Ram Naik said we should ignore those who oppose saying it because they are a minority, thus fulfilling his constitutional duty of being sensitive to minorities. His Excellency also said that if we don’t say it, the world won’t acknowledge it, leading us all to imagine a future where Australia se leke America, dil chaahe bas Made In India.

Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh, whose posh Delhi flat was recently attached by the Enforcement Directorate in a disproportionate assets case, said it thrice in the state assembly and said he is a true patriot.

Party elder LK Advani said it is a meaningless controversy. No one listened to him.

Rakhi Sawant said, ‘ceiling fans haaye haaye, Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’

No she didn’t. But she will soon.

We have gone to the zoo.

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STRANGER IN THE NIGHT

Before I see her, I hear her. No, it is only her stick. Her, I never hear at all.

When her battered wooden cane clacks against the old wooden seats, we who are sitting at the front of the first compartment of one of the last locals to Borivali, look up. In the aisle stands an elderly lady, left hand clutching the hook of her stick, right hand cupped in supplication, her entire frame swaying with the motion of the train.

Thinning grey hair, straggly and uncombed, plastered against her skull into a tiny bun at the back. A fading tattoo at the centre of her sun-bronzed forehead; a caste-mark, perhaps. Her eyes are shut. Perhaps she cannot open them. Perhaps she chooses not to. I don’t know.

She wears a dark green blouse that yawns around her elbows. A green and red sari, not unclean. Bangles on her wrist, golden, perhaps gold. Not someone who was always poor. From wizened head to unshod feet, she is four feet something and sparsely built, just like my grandmum.

We are terrified she will fall over.

The middle-aged man with hennaed hair who has just boarded at Khar, already proffers a coin. My faintly moustachioed young neighbour, who has spent the last fifteen minutes telephonically advising his associate about relationships, compromising and how not to say ‘fuck’ in front of one’s mother, tucks his phone between shoulder and ear, digs out his wallet and extricates a ten-rupee note. And I, who think myself inured to beggars of all description – wheedling eunuchs, anaemic urchins and deadpan single mothers – fish in my change pocket and draw out all its coins.

She accepts our coins without remark and drops them into a pocket sewn inside her blouse. The note she raises to her forehead, murmurs a silent thanks, and tucks into the waist of her sari.

She shambles on to the next set of seats. I find my head turning to watch her. She lightly grazes the heads or shoulders of the seated men to steady herself; maybe also to garner sympathy. I stand and lean against the back of my seat for a better view. Few are those who don’t bring out their wallets.

As Santacruz approaches, the train decelerates. She turns around, steadies herself for a moment and inches towards the door. She is too short to grasp the hand-grips overhead. The train stops with a jerk. She teeters, but does not fall.

She lowers herself onto the platform. On an impulse, so do I.

The train thunders out of the station. She uses her cane as a pathfinder, casting about in front of herself as she walks, nay, totters along one side of the platform. I stroll unobtrusively along the other, looking at her sideways. She shuffles up to a foodstall. Identifies it with her hand. Shuffles onward. Bangs her stick against a bench. Reaches the next stall. Hand flails for the counter. This too is open. She chooses to totter on, not exhibiting the measured confidence of the blind.

I follow, hopefully inconspicuous. Should I walk alongside her, I will attract more than a few stares, even at this late hour. I’m already embarrassed by what I now realise is my stalking, but am unable to stop.

She reaches a third foodstall. Taps the glass. Gestures to the attendant to pack something. A few samosas and vadas. She produces notes out her sari.

The attendant catches me watching. Locks eyes for a moment. Then shrugs, and returns to wiping the counter.

Ten minutes have elapsed. A train has drawn in, paused, and departed. I realise that I don’t need to be shifty. She is not at all aware of my presence.

Turning around, she backs up against the stall and slowly slides to the ground. Withered, veiny hands rip open the parcel and count its contents. Satisfied, she stuffs it into a cloth bag on her shoulder. One hand pushes down against the concrete. With the other, she bears down on her stick. After a few seconds of crouched uncertainty, she straightens up. Circles around a shut newspaper stall. And slowly squats on her haunches.

She is facing the stall, instead of resting against it. I am puzzled. Until I observe a small stream of something emerge from between her feet, darkening the platform.

As another train draws in, she struggles up, and advances to the edge of the platform. A man walking by warns her to go no further. She stops, and lets her cane clatter against the doorframes of the slowing train. Thut…..thut….thut…thut..thut. When it halts, willing hands pull her in. I board it too.

What will claim her first – death, hunger or a terrible accident? Will she welcome death, or is she terrified of it? Where does she find the courage to fend for herself, and for how long has she been on her own? Does anyone ever speak to her? What does her voice sound like? Where was she born? What is her story?

She goes on to Jogeshwari, a few more rupees and God-knows-what. I alight at Andheri, for a thirty-rupee rickshaw ride, dinner, and bed.

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A GAAJAR KA HALWA RECIPE

Think of S. Think of S’s mother. Think of S’s mother’s gaajar ka halwa. Focus on the gaajar ka halwa. Realise that a year has gone by since you last had some. Miss it. Crave it. Realise that it is the only form in which you consume carrots. Remember that carrots are rich in Vitamin A. Wonder how you’ve survived a year without Vitamin A. Resolve to procure some gaajar ka halwa to fulfil your body’s Vitamin A requirements. Wonder why you think of such stupid reasons to have gaajar ka halwa. Wonder why you need any reason to have gaajar ka halwa. Resolve to have gaajar ka halwa. Now.

Be an idiot. Ignore the sweetshop on the next block. Choose to make it yourself. At home. Alone.

Look for recipes online. Dismiss the one that fast-tracks the process by employing a pressure cooker. Scoff at the suggestion to use condensed milk. Decide to start from scratch.

Buy half a kilo of carrots. Marvel at how cheap they are. Wonder why you haven’t cooked gaajar ka halwa before. Cradle five carrots, each as long as your forearm, in your forearms, and hum lullabies as you walk home.

Wash carrots. Drop one in sink. Wash carrots. Drop one in sink. Wash carrots one by one.

Peel carrots. Hey, this is easy! Wonder why mother rarely accedes to requests for gaajar ka halwa.

Chop carrots into pieces as long, as grater is wide. Commence grating first piece. Keep grating. Continue grating. Glance at clock. Note that ten minutes have passed. Notice that only half the carrot piece has been grated. Note that twenty-four pieces remain. Realise why mother rarely accedes to requests for gaajar ka halwa.

Accidentally grate fingers against grater. Drop carrot. Cry out in pain. Stick fingertips in mouth. Repeat until most of your dermis and all of your epidermis have been similarly processed.

Grate grate grate. Become aware of stinging pain that started off from fingertips, camped in joints, migrated up phalanges and finally settled in knuckles. Wipe palms on boxers and check if titanium knuckles have been invented. Ponder about what would happen if you bunged all carrots in mixer and gave it a spin. Realise you would end up with carrot juice. Resume grating.

Resume acquaintance with pain, which has now garbed itself in guise of ache and crept up to biceps which, after eight months of living incognito in gym, have chosen this moment to announce their existence. Attempt to dry palm on soaked vest and Google average waiting period of Zonal Hand Transplantation Program.

Turn grater around, scrape carrot towards you instead, and manage to stab yourself in stomach. Imagine tomorrow’s headlines:

Authorities broke into the house of a deranged young doctor after neighbours reported his screams of ‘S’s MOTHER IS MA ANNAPURNA’, ‘WORSHIP WOMEN WHO COOK’ and ‘CAPITALISM RULES!’ The police have registered a case of attempted suicide as the victim was found impaled on a carrot stick, which he had evidently tried to insert directly into his intestines via his belly button.

As paramedics provided first aid, the victim allegedly overheard a policewoman say that she might take the grated carrot home to make a salad. Psychiatrists opined that this may have caused the victim to jump out of the stretcher, tackle the policewoman and knock her out cold.

The authorities have additionally charged the victim with assaulting a public servant.

Finish grating carrots. Admire an hour’s worth of labour. Consider cryopreserving few strands to show off to great-grandchildren. Wonder whether some can be embedded in glass paperweight to place on mantelpiece. Begin transferring strands that had fallen on kitchen counter or floor into dustbin. Pause. Laugh dementedly. Add to heap.

Slap some ghee in saucepan. Melt it. Fling in copious amounts of raisins, and indiscriminately chopped cashews and almonds, to at least increase, if not double bulk of dish. Fry until raisins resemble cataractous lenses and other two look like they hiked mountain but forgot sunscreen.

Dunk in some more ghee, because this is dish for Gods. Add carrots, and mix until shoulder dislocates. Wonder what average global temperatures were before you started cooking. Wonder if sweat is chef’s secret ingredient. Wonder if carrots should be sizzling, roasting or frying. Look at saucepan, and recoil with horror at modest lump of carrot mush trying to hide in corner. Read Wikepedia article which informs you that carrots are 88% water. Fling phone away.

Add milk. Be grateful that you didn’t have to buy cow and milk it. Let it condense. Bury it all under heaps of sugar, because Indian dessert is essentially sweetened cholesterol.

Peel few pods of cardamom with your toes because fingers are on sick leave. Pound them in mortar with pestle between your teeth because you can’t make fist anymore. Add along with fried dry fruits. Mix well. Call your mum. Tell her you love her. Pass out.

*

Halwa is…perfect. Cool. Put in freezer. Have one teaspoon a day and give thanks that your fingers, after months of daily physiotherapy, are beginning to regain motor function.

Buy gun to shoot people who want to taste some of your preciousssss. Gollum gollum.

Think of S. Think of S’s mother. Think of how long it’s been since she’s had a chance to make you gaajar ka halwa

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