Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Dare2Stare Challenge

Watch this video first, a part of Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital Dare2Stare Challenge.

With this beautiful video which playfully disturbs us out of our comfort zones and shakes our conscience, Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital is doing something new; something important. It is asking us to see the world in general and eye donation in particular with new eyes and a fresh perspective. Making us play the game from our childhoods ‘Who blinks first’ with the woman in the video, and then stirring us “awake” to a reality we did not realize, hits the nail where it is supposed to – in our hearts.  But then, what next?

There is a sea of unawareness to be crossed first. Did you know?  More than 2.5 lakh blind people could benefit from corneal transplants from donated eyes. Data from the Union Health Ministry revealed that more than 50 per cent of eyes donated in 2014 had gone to waste due to infections or delay of collection. It’s time for change, not just to wake up to the ‘challenge’ of becoming an eye donor but also to know more about it. Go Dare2Stare.

There are three things I would do to change the way I see the world:

1. I am looking within, to keep in touch with what I believe in and what I think I stand for. With times such as ours, it is so difficult to lose one’s sense of being … oneself. If the world is real, so must I be. It is only in relation to my true self that I can view the world in its truest colours. Every evening I spend some time with myself, introspecting and looking back at the day’s happenings – the hits and misses, the joys and clouds of gloom. To understand what could be different. Need not be different. Must be done different. I look within to understand the world without, and its people, and hence to feel kinship and empathy. 

2. I am paying all the attention I can to what my child thinks of the world that surrounds him. His sight is my sight, his ear my sound beats. Whether it is to use my imagination as an escape from the mundane in the children’s park or to take his perspective on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a KG class and revise my moral bearings which may be ancient, already. We need to grow up as we grow old, and I want to with what my child has to see and say about the world. To keep my world view updated is to keep myself a relevant guide in my child’s eyes.

3. I am doing so myself, and I am requesting everyone reading this to take the Dare2Stare challenge. Take a pledge! It is important to share what is no longer of any use to us, but which may not just mean the world to another but even help them see the world. Your eyes. 

Register as a donor today. It takes nothing!

[This is a sponsored campaign review.]

Friday, 22 May 2015

When Mister got Mandarin Ducks; A Dialogue

Pavlov was right.

When a human being opens a present her mouth salivates. When she so much as sees the gift-wrapping a second time, she begins salivating. By the time she gets used to the husband’s foreign trips all you have to do is ring a bell to signify the plane is about to land at IGI, and she will salivate and salivate so much that by the time the doorbell rings, with his baggage in tow, he’ll walk in only to slip on a pool of it and be floored by her, for the nth time. She will flutter her lashes and ask in honey-sweet voice – ‘How was your trip, darling? What did you get for your lovely?

Oo, you’ve got me curious. It’s not precious jewelry, unless it’s a lot of it. And that would not make it very precious.   

It’s not.

It’s not what? Not jewelry or not precious or not both?

Open it. Something typically Seoul.

How would I know? Like I’ve been there before, even though my husband has many times now!

Just open it. 



Pretty duckies. For the kid’s bubble bath?

They’re Mandarin ducks, silly. It’s a couple. The red is the female the blue the male. Also called Wedding Ducks.


So? What do you think?

Um, do they open, like, you know, a piggy bank? Or, do they quack when we twist the beak. That sounds like a wedding there. They must have some … use, if you paid your Zen's worth, right? 

They are just decorative pieces. Symbolically given to new couples, and traditionally carved by best friends. Actually, I read this later, the mother-in-law tosses the female duck to the daughter-in-law. If she catches it, the first child will be a boy and ...

Oh dear, you don’t know what my friends will carve to symbolize marriage. As for the rest, how Indian-y crazy! But we’re anyway past the catchum-catch. One boy is here too. 

No but there’s more. You see, they are symbolic …

Don’t say symbolic. The last I heard symbolism is a malaise of hi-funda writers who like to complexify language to befuddle budding writers. 


Oh whatever. Back to the duckies …

Ducks! Mandarin Ducks!

Yes. Calm down. I never said they are not. See how you are feeding into those ‘singles’ who love to stereotype marriage? That we have to scream to be heard, bend backwards to please, compromise daily and boy, we can’t even know what travel truly means!

Huh? How would they know?

Exactly! Exactly what I think and on top of that ... 

Right. So, about the ducks, I do feel you don’t like them.

I certainly do, darling. As much as I liked the pink organic cotton Imambari Muffler you got from Japan, with cotton from our own Andhra Pradesh, exported, I’m sure. About the ducks. I’m just somewhere between like and love. I do love the colours though ... 

Love reminds me. These ducks signify ever-lasting marriage and life-long love. Mandarin duck is the only duck which mates for life, with one partner.

Ha ha ha ha!


Nothing. I like the significance. I would kill for it if it were otherwise. Heh heh!

Hm. So, these ducks stand for fidelity, peace and plentiful offspring.

Great. Shall we go to bed with them and plan a second?

You don’t like them, say so!

I do! I do! Oh come on! And I’m quite happy to see this romantic side in a man after all these years of marital bliss and one foreign family vacation and so many fridge magnets you have got for the fridge after all your official trips and …

You don’t like them.

I most definitely do. So, where do we keep them, these, um, prettily coloured duckies. Ducks, ducks I meant!

Now here comes the interesting part …


When the couple is in harmony with each other, the ducks are kept bill-to-bill..

Aww. Like kissy-kissy.

 … and when they have a fight they are turned looking in opposite directions. So everyone in the house can see …

Who do you mean?

Traditionally, like in big houses. Big families. Lots of people staying together.

Why? In Seoul couples never scream at each other enough to announce their disharmony across the wooden walls?

Er, those are in Japan.

Whatever. Same thing for me. Like I have seen either!

Fine. How do you want me to keep them right now? 

Bill-to-bill. I don’t want the ‘single’ marriage “stereotypers” to see the bills looking away. I like being married. It’s fun, enriching and makes you grow up as you grow old.

Great! Top shelf of the book rack. What say?


You have never agreed so quickly before. You just don’t like them!

Stop saying that. I absolutely adore them. How can you force such assumptions into our relationship, using the ducks as scapegoats? Look at the intricate carving and the lush colours, the neatness and all the symbolism attached. Go now. Do the deed. Wait! What is this thread around the girly duck’s beak? 

Oh, that. It’s just a sign that silence is a virtue and the wife should be quiet and support the husband…

Pavlov knew only half the story. What may have ensued you all know. 'Singles' even more than 'doubles'. The duckies Mandarin Ducks are up for sale. They signify peace. Wait, why would you not believe me?

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Ruskin Bond and ‘A Gathering of Friends’

(This is going to be a long one, for who can stop talking about Rusty?) 

When I first read Ruskin Bond as a young girl in Doon, I hated him. He made me believe that if I yawned under a peepul tree at night without covering my mouth, a spirit would enter my being. My nani’s house had a peepul as old as the house itself; a century. Without looking up I would hurry my steps and even stop breathing lest a truant yawn escaped my lips. I used this modus operandi while passing under all trees post dusk. Who wanted to risk it? That I was the leader among four inseparable cousins, obliged to instill confidence in the young ones, made me practice much deceit. I wished them away, longing for Rusty instead! Then, as academic fate would have it, my convent school in Dehradun included ‘The Blue Umbrella’ in the syllabus. With every reading I realized what deprivation meant. I lusted to be Binya of the prettiest blue umbrella, minding cows down jealous slopes of Mussoorie, and not just gazing dreamily at them from my concrete balcony on Rajpur Road, a full 30.5 kilometers away. 

How dare he, this Ruskin Bond, write about my hometown as if it were his own, and trouble me so? This sentiment combined with burgeoning inquisitiveness and I asked for and read all of him on my eighth birthday. And I am still reading him. (Don’t tell him this, but that hate turned to adoration and then admiration somewhere before Miss Mackenzie slept for the night and just after time stopped at Shamli.) 

Today, on his 81st birthday, I am attempting to write about his recently published collection ‘A Gathering of Friends’ – 21 of his short stories cherry-picked by Bond himself. I ask anew - Why have Ruskin’s works unfailingly held their charm over the reader and sit challenging the seed of the writer I carry within? How does he continue to make me feel, like Kiran did to a man in Shamli, ‘a nostalgic longing for childhood – emotions that had been beautiful because they were never completely understood’? 

When Ruskin wrote he ‘had to make up some stories to meet the demand’; of fiction, not the market. His characters, as real to him as alive to us, are set in stories which leisurely proceed at the speed of drinking hot tea and then, like the fog blinks and clears on a hill top, that suddenly they end. And yet, we never feel cheated. The characters are very young or very old, or middle-aged men in love with settings as stark as ‘a town consisting of one station, one pony and one man.’ And yet, they are sensually and visually complete. Like ‘the atmosphere of Fosterganj that discouraged any kind of serious work or effort’ are his books, written to be read in similar environs. 

But my love for them wants to tease them into threads. Not a review, but more like unwrapping a present knowing whatever it holds within will forever please me. But then again, what makes it so flawlessly timeless? 

Characters we put our own faces to

My characters were the story. I began with a character, and ended with that character, and the story belonged to him or her.

The narrator in ‘Love is a Sad Song’ tells us how ‘adults are much slower than children at sensing the truth.’ Ruskin’s fiction is teeming with the laughter of many children . We remember Rusty, and we also remember Ranbir and his friends who ‘forgot ... the problem of the next meal’ while playing Holi with him. There is the ambitious Bisnu who walks five miles to school because he wants to see the world beyond and there’s Suresh, the most beautiful ‘crooked and bent … boy in the world,’ tugging at our heart’s strings.

There are adults of course; some like the ‘Diabolical Sushila!’ or the ‘amoral scamp’ Sudheer of ‘Friends from My Youth’, while others like Roberts are invented by invented characters themselves (meta-characterisation?) as ‘a dream of myself'. Miss Mackenzie of ‘The Prospect of Flowers’ is ‘far from being the typical frustrated spinster of fiction’ and Susanna of the seven husbands fame was in a movie! Ram Bharosa is the shop keeper who covets an umbrella’s ‘beauty to be mine!’ and a few pages later you meet the beauteous Gracie, ‘a terrific combination of genes and hereditary traits.’ 

So human, in thought, deed, desire and variety.

And how does Ruskin give them breath and shape before our eyes? 

She was not young. And she was not old. She must have been over thirty, but had she been over fifty, I think she would have looked much the same.

Through the slightest of whispers and details, habits and confessions, they reach us. Like the narrator in ‘Time Stops at Shamli’ who ‘never had the patience to wait for second thoughts’ or Kiran, the talkative girl in the same story, who ‘seemed to be in a hurry to grow up’; unlike Sita of ‘Angry River’, who ‘put herself last … only with great difficulty.’ Much is left to our mind’s eye too, like the passer-by in ‘Hassan, The Baker’ who ‘was less than beautiful but more than pretty. A face to remember!’ And we would remember all of them. After all, we were made to paint their faces with our own imaginations. 

Some characters are also drawn from real-life figures – met by happenstance or connected through genes. But mostly, Ruskin turns the lens on those dwellers of villages and bustling cities who remain invisible to our naked eyes. Including, actually, the elusive writer from the cottage himself! 

Have you noticed how even objects are characters in some stories?

Like the ‘lonely little platform’ the narrator feels sorry for in ‘The Night Train at Deoli’ or the moaning river in ‘Angry River’, which ‘was a good river, deep and strong, beginning in the mountains and ending in the sea.’ The charming blue umbrella ‘casts a spell’ over a whole village, becomes a “character” revealing humans to us. The tunnel, the cherry tree and even ‘Foster’s home-made brew’ are nothing short of central figures. With Nature being the grandfather of them all!

But what are all these concocted characters doing in his stories?

Those wildly invented situations, in villages and in cities

Give Ruskin an empty dining room and he will fill it up with the most unimaginably delightful characters. Give him an empty platform and he can show you how love looks through two pairs of eyes, or how motherhood is born, one of a different kind. Give him a running bogey and he’ll make parallel lives meet, in the darkness of sight or of tunnels. And make him climb a hill to show you what wrinkled loneliness lives among the flowers. Or, just give him a tiny flower-bed and see a cherry tree bloom in your mind’s garden, ‘taller than Grandfather, who was older than some of the oak trees.

There’s humour, for two lovers of the same Sushila are wondering aloud together – ‘Do we both wait and let her make a choice?’ and there’s ‘untrammelled cruelty’ because there’s a boy somewhere who ‘likes to be teased and beaten.’ Oh! There’s uninhibited laughter too, when you encounter the grandfather hanging on to the wing of an enraged ostrich or sit with Her Highness pit drunk at an empty bar in the Savoy, Mussoorie, with a hungry birthday party in tow.

Those who have read him as much as I have will visualize each story above. Those who will read now will realize how pregnant with emotion simple imagined acts, like of willfully forgetting an umbrella at another’s table can be, or how joyous to read that a brother finally got bangles for his sister.

Wacky or wild, somber or serene, the situations around the characters involve you till you get transported right where the action is. It could be the city, or it could be a forgotten village with a still smaller hamlet in the hill and a jungle beyond. The watchman in ‘The Tunnel’ knows ‘it is safer in the jungle than in the town. Nothing happens to me out here. But last month, when I went into town, I was almost run over by a bus.’ And what is Ruskin’s choice?

In Delhi, you grow old. In Deoli you are trapped in a time warp and stay young forever.

Ruskin’s heart is where his hearth is, and it shows beautifully in all his works and through his characters’ situations. What also makes his stories unforgettable are relationships, a theme that strings these 21 into a garland of winter lilies. 

Love, friendship, and a bit of loneliness 

Remembered passion grows sweeter with the passing of time.

I have looked at Ruskin Bond’s stories with a little girl’s eyes and now as a woman’s. What makes his fiction ‘rust-free’, as David Davidar calls it, is more than just delightful characters in delicious situations. There are emotions involved, and how. Love is not ringing bells, but tip-toeing towards carriage doors to peep at a girl or telling us its sad tale in the calmest of voices, like still pond waters, disturbed now and then by a falling leaf. Friendship is giving a ‘wrestler’s hug’ to the fair-skinned boy and a moment later, the gentlest pat.  More often than not, the reader is left to label on his own the nameless feeling of simple ‘tenderness and responsibility that I never felt before,’ which so many of his characters, across ages, feel. And this, dear readers, surpassing it all …

Have you been in love before?
Many times. But this is the first time.

When characters are central, their relationships become important portrayals. But in times of solitude, the poignancy of loneliness creeps in. Why did Anil come to see Miss Mackenzie so often? ‘Sometimes a boy of twelve can sense loneliness better than an adult.’ But was Miss M lonely? ‘It was lonely, but at her age it would be lonely anywhere.’ But Sita, floating on a tree in the flood waters thinks it ‘better to have a crow for company than no one at all.

Bond’s stories have made the young meet the old, white meet brown, city meet town and love meet solitude in variously touching ways. Imaginative ways. Involving ways. And evergreen ways. Who can escape unmoved, then, visualizing …

And then the old English lady and the small Indian boy sat side by side over cups of hot sweet tea, absorbed in a book on wild flowers.

From an 8-year-old girl to four times that today … 

Where was I once? Yes. How dare he, this Ruskin Bond, write stories about my hometown as if it were his own? Maturely rephrased, I wonder what makes his voice the voice of an Indian writer? Simply put, because he belongs where he sits and writes, and it shows. When he writes he is ‘leading me by the hand along old familiar roads’, like his father led him, in Dehra or elsewhere. We follow in kinship because we see in him a loving understanding of what it means to feel one as you become old; with the milk-sellers and shop keepers, pretty little girls and rugged men, gardeners and panthers, trees and streams, birds, cottages and writing desks. 

Just like my gang of cousins, Rusty has been family. He found his "gathering of friends" in us, and he found his home amongst ours. 

His fair hair was tousled and streaked with colour, and his eyes were wide with wonder. He was exhausted now, but he was happy. He wanted this to go on forever, this day of feverish emotion, this life in another world. He did not want to leave the forest; it was safe, its earth soothed him, gathered him in so that the pain of the his body became a pleasure …

He did not want to go home.

A collector’s item, this book, for those who want to relish the eternal freshness of the favourite stories of their favourite author. I did. And I know I will continue to. 

'A Gathering of Friends' by Ruskin Bond is an Aleph Book Company publication, 2015.

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

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