Monday, September 18, 2023

A Sobering Thought

Pic courtesy: Herge

I have a drinking problem. And no, it’s not the sort of problem you are thinking of. 

The other day at a party, the host preened in front of his well-stocked bar and asked what I’d like to drink. When I told him that I’d like a Coca Cola (regular not diet), his eyebrows all but disappeared to the back of his head. To give company to his hairline I suppose. To make it worse, the hostess came charging at me like an angry bull who had been red flagged. “What do you mean, you will have a soft drink? We have plenty of alcohol,” she emphasized on the word soft and threw a pointed glance at the array of bottles lining the bar shelf.
At which point I mumbled that I didn’t drink. And prepared myself for the tedious exchange that would inevitably follow. The host with the disappearing eyebrows proceeded to mansplain that it was a good idea to have a drink so that I could enjoy myself. Besides, he made the best cocktails in town. He wagged a drink umbrella threateningly at me to demonstrate his point. The hostess glowered silently making me slightly nervous. You see it was her smoky eye makeup. It made her look less like Kristen Stewart and more like Valak the Nun. 
Obviously I stood my ground and weakly demanded my Coca Cola which I received with a generous serving of resentment on the side. The proceedings went rapidly south after that and I had to invent an excuse and leave in a hurry.
Over the years, I’ve found myself in pretty awkward situations having to explain why I don’t drink and how my social life is not amiss because I don’t consume alcohol. It’s not that I’ve never touched alcohol. I’ve had drinks now and then from the time I was a teenager but I’ve been sober for years. I find that liquor adds no value to my life. I don’t like the way I feel after I consumed a few drinks. Liquor slows me down. I prefer to be sharp and clear-headed when I am out with friends and I don’t need the fuzziness that intoxicants bring. I’m happy with good food, music and company. But It’s an entirely personal decision and I don’t ever find myself craving a drink ever. 
But stuck in a city where everyone and his uncle consumes liquor by the gallon, where there are more liquor stores than schools, I find myself having to defend my decision to stay sober with annoying regularity. All my friends drink and every party I go to, I find myself in a situation where the reactions range from shock to plain and simple disbelief. I feel like an outcast, a deviant. It is downright tiresome. 
I’m not asking why you drink, why do you need to know why I don’t? Both are perfectly valid choices aren’t they?
Unfortunately these days, being sober is regarded as an oddity. Especially in Gurgaon where the liquor industry is booming, sales are increasing by the minute and if that wasn’t bad enough -- the government now wants companies to allow their employees to drink during office hours. So there’s an off chance that I might be offered a drink at the workspace as well!
The situation is so bad that I’m seriously contemplating changing my circle of friends. The best bet for me would be to join an alcoholics anonymous group. That way I will have a group of friends who don’t drink or hold forth on the benefits of consuming liquor. A sobering influence if there was. Can you think of a more perfect arrangement for me?

Monday, July 24, 2023

Mackenna's Booger

Photo courtesy: MAD magazine

I have a problem with the term picking one’s nose. Some people don’t pick, they prospect. Like the man standing beside me in the grocery aisle contemplating cereal boxes. He’s not digging. He’s prospecting – as though MacKenna’s gold is buried deep within his nostrils. First one finger tentatively exploring the terrain and then two fingers aggressively going in for the kill. He’s focused on the job, eyes trained on a spot somewhere between the Fruit Loops and the Quaker Oats, not paying attention to the hustle and bustle around him, the clatter of trolleys, the piped music. Not even a glance at me who, at this point, is staring rather rudely.

Which brings me to the next booger .. sorry … bone of contention. Is there really a well-mannered way to pick one’s nose? Can one deftly insert a finger inside one’s nostril and remove the offending piece of snot before anyone around you has a clue? Or pretend to cough, cover nose and do the job before anyone bats an eyelid.


I guess there isn’t. Because the very act of picking one’s nose is not a polite thing to do. A book at the British Library, written more than 500 years ago teaches little children not to pick their nose or ears.

Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys’

Don’t pick your ears or nose, the ‘Little Children’s Little Book’ says.

This is not fiction. According to science, it is not a good idea to pick your nose either because you might transmit germs into your brain unwittingly and end up with a severe infection or even Alzheimer’s. There is research to support this theory. Not a pleasant thing at all.

There’s even a gadget to discourage nose picking that looks like something Caractacus Potts invented. 

The man next to me hasn’t a clue about any of this though. He’s happily digging and by the look of it, he has enough to set up a souk near the house.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Bird at the Crossing

The other day I was waiting for the traffic lights to change at Khushboo Chowk when I got the distinct feeling that I was being watched. I looked out of the window at the cars on both sides to see whether there was a familiar face inside one of them. But I couldn’t spot anyone I recognized.

That’s when I saw it and froze. A gigantic bird on the pavement that had fixed me with a lifeless stare. 


Now I’m no bird lover. If you have been reading my blog (and my book), you'd already know that. And this particular one gave me quite a turn. I just wasn’t expecting to see it standing there staring at me with its creepy. metallic eyes. 


I found out later that the installation, made out of some 3,000 kilogrammes of industrial scrap (gear wheels and scooter panels) is a bid to draw attention to the plight of birds on the verge of extinction due to radiation from mobile towers. There is a honeycomb with a massive bee installed at another location to remind folks that bees are under threat as well. Thank heavens I haven’t spotted that yet. My aversion to bees is well documented. 

GMDA and M3M Foundation have been installing the birds and bees at strategic locations across the Millennium City. Why strategic you might ask? Well, Khushboo Chowk used to be Kachra Chowk, a foul-smelling dump site in the past till a group of well-meaning residents took action. They cleaned up the area, planted flowering shrubs and trees and renamed it Khushboo Chowk.


Garbage has always been a bit of a messy subject here in Gurgaon. As I write this, the Municipal Corporation is at loggerheads with its waste collection agency over unpaid dues leading to garbage pileups at several parts of the city. The residents are complaining, sanitation workers are on strike and the shit has literally hit the fan. The garbage mountain at Bandhwari landfill keeps growing taller and after an order from the National Green Tribunal to clear the mountain pronto, the Municipal Corporation is looking for alternative venues to divert the waste.


In the middle of a waste collection crisis, we have pretty birds and bees turning up at various spots where you'd least expect them. It’s a bit like my house cleaning. I shove junk randomly into closets and bring out the crystals and perfumed candles for show. 

But we need to get our house in order before we focus on beautification. And that's a reminder to myself as well. So instead of scrap art, we need to sort out the issue of garbage collection first. And if we must add value to our spaces, let’s consider utilitarian initiatives such as provision of drinking water for people on the go, seating for migrant workers and the elderly. Even a shelter for the urchins who sell balloons and toys on the Chowk.


Or Gurgaon’s beauty (if you can call it that) will continue to be skin-deep.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Dust to dust

Matilda "Tilly" Gooptu

The other day I found Baba’s album. It was inside a packet of old books my mother had brought with her when she moved to Gurgaon from Kolkata. 

Some of the pages inside the faded black cover crumbled to dust as I touched them – they were that old. There were pictures of his travels all over the world, neatly labelled with a few lines describing each photograph. Some pages were stuck together, many slots were empty, several pictures were lost in passage. But among the ones that had survived, were pictures of our dog, Tilly (short for Matilda) - an Australian wire terrier, with notes for my eldest sister behind each photograph. Pictures of Tilly having a bath, Tilly playing on the deck of the ship, MV Vishwa Pratap. 


Baba always been a stickler for perfection and his notes were just as I’d remembered him.


That is when the tears began to fall, without warning, surprising me. It was the first time in 42 years that I was shedding tears for my father. My Class 3 teacher might have felt vindicated had she been alive. She had tried to elicit the same response from me by placing me on a wooden stool in front of the classroom all those years ago and prodding me to talk about my feelings. My school friends tell me I sat stony-faced the whole time.


How is a little girl supposed to feel when a parent dies?


I discovered grief when I was eight years old. Only I didn’t know it was grief at that time.


I was hanging out of our balcony on the second floor to get a glimpse of my father as he locked up his green Premier Padmini and strode into our house. It was an everyday ritual for me. I’d hear the bell ring a little after six and drop whatever it was that I was doing and rush to the balcony to wave at him excitedly. Only it was different that day. I heard someone shriek from inside the house and saw his lifeless body being carried into the house by two men I hadn’t seen before. I learnt later that they were passing by when they’d seen him collapse in front of the house.


I was curious and bewildered at the same time, a hollow feeling inside my chest. A feeling that would return many times over the years when I encountered losses of any kind. A constriction in my chest, a feeling of not being able to breathe. Wanting to run away and hide from it all.


For my mother, it meant drowning herself in domestic routine. I remember her each evening after Baba died, sitting with piles of clothes, mostly our school uniforms, ironing with a vengeance. She didn’t shed a tear or complain and fret about the depleting finances -- she was ironing clothes with determination. Many years later, she told me that it was her way of dealing with her emotions. A catharsis of sorts. I understand it now. I feel the same when I do the dishes while the pandemic rages all around us.

Over the years, there have been many heartbreaks and losses and each time I coped with it differently. There were times I drowned myself in work, other times - in alcohol. There was times when music helped, other times I wrote bad poetry or even a book. But the hollow feeling in the chest was a constant. The wanting-to-fade-away-till-it-all-goes-away remained.


Is there any one way to grieve, I wonder? We have our own different ways of dealing with pain. I might not understand it but does it mean that it is not valid? Why are we so skeptical when people grieve in ways we don’t understand? I’m not sure what my class teacher was expecting me to do that day – bawl in public perhaps. Tears have always been an acceptable currency of grief. Perhaps if she’d just let me be, the tears would have come in due course? 



Saturday, February 25, 2023

Grumpy Gram: Smiling is NOT injurious to health!

Photograph courtesy:

There’s a woman I bump into when I go for a walk. She’s known me (by sight) for the longest time. We probably moved into the condo around the same time, twenty years back. Yet each time our eyes meet, she looks away, lips pursed. And it’s not her, there are others. They will fix you with a blank stare when you smile at them. As though there is a tax that’s been levied on smiling.

Now I can understand men not wanting to smile at other women. Especially when their wives or partners are within line of sight. But what’s with these women? There’s another one I know from back when my daughter was in nursery school. She behaves like Aamir Khan in Ghajini. The same glassy stare when he had memory loss. Only I'm pretty sure she has nothing of the kind.


Sukumar Ray couldn’t have possibly come to Gurgaon but I’m quite sure he was talking about these specimens when he wrote the poem Ram Gorurer Chana. The mythical cult of creatures for whom smiling is forbidden. Gurgaon is full of them. In fact, Gurgaon should be renamed Gorur-Gram from Gurugram. I think I’m going to write to the administration today.

Who are folks so unfriendly? Is this a Gurgaon thing or are people in other cities just as hostile? The Calcutta I knew growing up was never like this.


There are so many benefits to smiling. According to studies, it relieves stress, elevates your mood and helps you live longer - among other things. Given how fitness is a fad here, it would probably help people if they smiled more. Maybe I should offer face yoga sessions to help people smile. What say? Do you know anyone who might need it?


Friday, January 20, 2023

Why I love Gurgaon

I love Gurgaon more than the city of my birth - Kolkata. Before you raise your eyebrows, let me tell you that it wasn’t a love-at-first-sight kind of story for me. Rather, a love that developed, matured over the years and stood the test of time. The best sort of love really! In fact, I would go so far as to call Gurgaon my muse. Most of my novels and short stories have been written about this place that I now call home.
Twenty five years ago, when I arrived at this dusty hamlet, my first instinct was to hop right back on a flight headed to Kolkata. I still remember the first sight of Gurgaon from the airplane window, in between the cotton wool clouds, as vividly as though it were yesterday. Wide, open spaces everywhere I’d looked, not a building in sight. 
A bumpy touchdown later, I discovered that the hamlet was bustling with life. There were multinational corporations and call centres. Genpact and car manufacturer Maruti were the star attractions those days. There were condominiums, bungalows and a smattering of grocery shops, tailoring boutiques and hole-in-the-wall eateries selling rajma chawal, tandoori chicken and jeera aloo. There were no fancy malls, restaurants, lounges or pubs to hang around in. It was North India’s equivalent of a quiet little Gaulish village.
The years brought globalisation and rapid economic growth.  The sleepy Haryanvi hamlet was transformed into a throbbing, bustling urban hub. The empty spaces got filled up by glass and steel skyscrapers, the grocery stores turned into supermarkets and the local boutiques run by homely Punjabi women morphed into swanky malls and designer stores. Rajma chawaland jeera aloo became passe. Sushi, bulgogi and imported truffles were de rigeur. There was an influx of migrants from all corners of the globe.
The contrasts and contradictions of this rags-to-riches story were too obvious to ignore. With the glitzy hub having come up almost overnight, Gurgaon didn’t have the infrastructure to support the demands of development. There weren’t proper roads, lighting or sanitation.  Come monsoon season each year and all hell would break loose. The roads would be submerged (if they were not caving in, that is) leaving residents and officegoers stranded inside their fancy condominiums. In winter, there was the problem of heavy fog and inadequate street lighting. Add to that, the incessant power outages. 
Gurugram’s success story was developing holes. Almost as deep as the ones on its roads. The earthquakes only made it worse. Gurgaon was high risk seismic zone IV. 
The BPO boom also had an unlikely beneficiary. The language of the rustic hamlet had changed overnight in a manner that would have put Danish linguist Otto Jespersen out of business! People were now conversing in a language that can, at best, be described as a fusion of Haryanvi, Hindi and English, peppered liberally with Americanisms.
There were other, subtle changes in the colour of the place that were hard to spot at first. While, on the one hand, wallets were getting deeper due to the industrial and property boom, there were people living in abject poverty. The construction boom had also made the air in the city unsafe to breathe. Air quality index in Gurgaon had touched the 700-mark making it the most polluted city in India!
You may ask, where is the silver lining in this rather gloomy story? Well, I’ll tell you.
The best part about Gurgaon for me are its people. A motley crew that has gathered here from across the world – literally! The same bunch that gathered at Leisure Valley Park recently to protest against air pollution. It is Gurgaon’s community that gives the place a warmth and vibrance I have not found anywhere else in the world. Some of my closest friendships have been forged at Gurgaon. My human and book babies were conceived here. This place has given me a lot.
In fact it’s not just me. I’m sure the canines would also agree. Take a walk to Galleria, Gurgaon’s answer to Khan Market, that happens to be a few steps away from my house. You will find the strays well looked after -- blankets to sleep on, water and fresh food provided by kind-hearted Gurgaonwalas.
A few years back, I fell and became unconscious outside my condominium while returning from a grocery run. A young woman and some auto-rickshaw pullers found me, retrieved my mobile phone and dialed the last number called (which was home) to say I needed help. I will never forget their kindness. That to me, is the essence of Gurgaon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

A Christmas Carol


I was woken up this morning by a ghastly sound. At first it sounded like someone was being electrocuted. 
Aaaah eeeeeeeeehhhhh eeeeeeoow
I jumped out of bed in alarm trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. It seemed to be originating from the school next door so I pressed my face against the window trying to make sense of the horrific cacophony. I soon realized that no one was dying a painful death. A woman was singing Christmas carols over the loudspeaker.
Aaaah eeeeeeeeehhhhh eeeeeeoow
Saanta Claus is comeeeeng to taaaoouuun!
Don’t get me wrong. I love carols. There’s nothing that puts one in the festive mood like the sound of voices singing in perfect harmony. Divine voices. Angels we have heard on high.
But this carol singer had a spectacularly bad voice. She'd managed to scare off the pigeons on my ledge. And that is no mean feat. I felt like opening the window and yelling at her.
Lady, if you keep singing like that, forget Santa - no one will be coming to town! 
I didn’t obviously. It did cross my mind, however, that now would be a good time to try the ice bucket challenge. Mental peace is as good a cause as any.
But Christmas is all about feeling sisterly and charitable, blah blah blah, so I closed my windows with a crash and decided to sulk all day. 

A microphone, in the wrong hands, can be a weapon. I hope Santa gets me a pair of noise cancelling headphones this Christmas.