Tuesday 28 October 2014

Book Review – Wings of Courage by Sanjay Kumar

The blurb of Sanjay Kumar’s ‘Wings of Courage’ introduces us to Saksham, the protagonist of this novel. In the few lines there, Sanjay portrays him as a truth-seeking hero who is desperate to bring about changes in his socio-political milieu - today’s Delhi of rapes, politicians and sting operations. The introduction makes us believe that Saksham is the messiah, the ideal human with the courage, passion and fortitude, who will show us the way out of the dirt and drama that surrounds the aam aadmi. Our expectations from Saksham’s ‘quest for a more humane world’ are sky high even before we have begun reading the book!

To be honest, the story does not seem to be the point of the book, but since there is one let me give you a quick brief. 

Saksham is son to a rich business family with a group of interestingly contrasting friends in college. An MBA seems the logical next step and joining his father’s enterprise the path cut out. However, Saksham’s mind is on a different path. The initial few chapters wonderfully portray his self-examination, with existential questions like ‘Why is there so much pain in this world?’, ‘Why did I let it all happen to myself?’ and those to do with identity and the meaningless of life. Professor Sen’s class on The Golden Rule of Ethics help forward this latent thought-process to envelop within its folds the causes and effects of social evils like rape, murder and corruption. After an accident, Saksham supernaturally wakes up to a realization of a purpose so different from his comfortable living that he decides to fake his identity and work with an NGO to help those in need. With Sneha, his love, and limited time on his hands (I say no more), the scenes move from villages in Maharashtra to politicians’ living rooms to police stations to moving buses to portray places where any form of crime breathes, and how. (And which, of course, Saksham is fighting against.) The story is not a typical page-turner and moves slowly from scene-to-scene for the most part of the book, only to spiral forward in the final chapters. 

That the story was written with an intention to convey something and what it ends up conveying form the good and the bad bits of ‘Wings of Courage’, respectively.

The Good – Intention and Realism

When Saksham, at some point in the book, fails to nab a criminal, Sneha says to him: 

What we appealed for was not success or failure. It was intention. And your intention is as excellent as it can get.

The same can be said for Sanjay writing this book. In a world where market dictates everything from the book’s content to the book’s commercial success, an author deciding to create a piece of real-fiction knowing it does not fit the bill of a typical success story is extremely laudable. That is because, he had an opinion to voice to his readers; a clear-cut intention, and a seemingly personal one. Without hiccups he lays bare his own mind, as he speaks through different characters in the story. Saksham’s journey of courage is meant to make us see with clarity the muck we live in, and why we continue to live in it. It is a book with an aim that exceeds one of mere entertainment. 

Then, detailing incidents of famous crimes from New Delhi’s recent past lends the book with a realism so dark we just cannot ignore it as fiction. Each incident is used to point at larger issues of citizen responsibility, apathy of the authorities and role of the media – the three top themes which rule the discussion roost on social media these days. It is this that makes the book a relevant contemporary read, for those who feel ‘shackled by the inertia of your self-imposed ineptitude’. For some, like it was for Saksham, seeing the idea of ‘evolution is action’ in action may just be very inspiring.

The Bad – Supernatural and Tilted Opinion

Two broad ideas make the book falter in its intent - the use of the supernatural and the lop-sided anti-establishment fervour. Let me explain them in detail.

Sanjay Kumar includes a supernatural element in his plot as a backdrop to his whole novel. To me this angle was completely  not required. Saksham, before his accident, is already thinking along the lines of serving others and solving crimes. Why Saksham needed to go on a ‘mission’ with the ‘Almighty’ escapes me, as does the complete illiteracy which the creator of the world projects about a world He Himself created. (The very human Dr. Sen knows more about the world than He does. Foreknowledge is dead!) Then, the conversations between Him and Saksham either read like essays on environment or surveys of global NGOs. The supernatural dilutes the realism that the rest of the book rests on and adds a degree of implausibility which ends up relegating Saksham to a super-hero’s avatar; almost borrowed from a movie and probably where the cover of the book was picked from.

Thinking. Is this the author’s way of saying we cannot have a humane and compassionate living being fighting for injustice without divine intervention? That for all Sakshams to pronounce ‘my life has finally found a purpose’ with an awakened conscience on hospital beds we need none other than God Himself? I don’t know!

The over-arching opinion that the book is largely propagating can be summed up as – anti Government (‘evil minds’), pro society (helpless pawns) and saintly NGOs. Which is to say, the enjoyable opinion that you and I love to share over gins and Tweets as we forget citizens' role and put the onus on those in authority for rape, murder and corruption. Sanjay makes all efforts to redeem society, to the extent that while the word ‘corruption’ is used numerous times (and often in the same breath as rape and murder) the word ‘bribe giver’ is not, not even once. Sanjay hangs all the blame on constitutional failures of politicians, parties, police and whole governments. Except a stray ‘we have learnt to betray our hearts’ for a society which turns its face away on seeing a naked rape victim on the road, Sanjay’s book seems uncannily unwilling to hold a mirror to all aspects of humanity. With similar naivety NGOs have been aggrandized beyond any dubiousness. The anti-government fervour comes down like a house of cards when at various places you realize that governments are in fact doing what he is making NGOs do in the book. 

Sweeping brush strokes like saying that within the police service ‘authority is favoured over rational and creative thinking’ and that for our leaders ‘it is a perfect world for them already; they have all the luxuries they ever wished for. For them, changing the world is like shooting in their own foot’ make the opining seem simplistic. The author in turn seems to want to create two homogenous sects - of Authority on one side and People on the other. Is that possible, really?

The only thing I wanted to know now was what alternatives the book was offering to do with all that is amiss with the country. Which then takes me to a very grey area of the book!

The Grey – When courage means to kill

For all the talk and deeds of conscience and humanity that the book begins with, in Saksham and in Prof. Sen it strangely ends up endorsing cold-blooded murder in the name of justice. If the book was a self, this would be its contradiction. This also seems to be the only ‘solution’ that we are being offered against corrupt politicians or for juvenile rapists who have been allowed to walk free. 

It may with you, but this ‘freedom fighter’ idea does not agree with me. I have a problem with donning a Bhagat Singh mask and shooting at will. Because, isn’t letting a well-meaning citizen shoot down a criminal (who the courts set-free) actually a creation of an alternative system of individual authority which is as arbitrary and whimsical as the judicial system is made out to be? (When I say Khaps, do you understand what I mean?) 

Each Youtube video that Saksham creates to rouse the public conscience is so similar to political speeches and those of inspirational gurus that one cannot help but smile at the irony, especially because a murderer by all constitutional standards was now propagating (I quote) ‘meaningful action’ and ‘virtue of humanity’.  The final nail of irony is hammered down when Saksham, the police man who murdered at will, pronounces at the end of the book – ‘Are we more answerable to our seniors than our Constitution and our duty?’ 

Thus, when I finally read Saksham’s solution to eradicating the evils that beset us (‘crime, corruption and bad governance’) I could only read in wonderment him using ‘the path of moral constitution – humanity, unity and excellence’ as a way forward. Or laugh when, in his defence, he equates killing as an act of violence with embezzlement, inefficient governance, polluting rivers, mediocre health facilities, etc.  

While I was still undecided if Sanjay had tried to create an anti-hero in Saksham, I realized it had become impossible for me to read the message in this bottle any more.


Never before have I felt the need to recommend a book I had so many problems with as ‘Wings of Courage’. I recommend it precisely because its ideas and opinions, theories and solutions and even armchair idealism need to be read about, mulled over and discussed and discussed. It promises to provoke your thoughts and at so many places provokes to be discussed (look how long this review is). Pick it up to see where you stand in the grand scheme of things, for as it sums up our surroundings for us it might just prove to be a call for action for those who agree with Sanjay’s version. 

For me, ‘Wings of Courage’ failed to rise above popular opinions seen in social media forums to give the reader a thought-out judgement of why what ails our society and how we can get rid of it. It is for this reason that I say the book is not for a niche audience but actually for all of us who like to discuss a little bit of sarkar with our morning cups of tea! 

Author: Sanjay Kumar
Publisher: Notion Press

[The review was commissioned by the author. The views are my own.]

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Ab Montu Bolega; A campaign by Strepsils

What’s new? Montu!

Montu is someone who speaks his heart out, you know as they say ‘Khol Ke Bolo!’ He is someone who cares not only for himself but also for those around him, and so he speaks up for what is right! Is he you? Could be, why not! There is a Montu in all of us. We all, in our little ways, can motivate New India to raise their voices for the good of others and speak fearlessly. 

But Montu, as a face of the youth of India, needed a face. That is where actor Saqib Saleem of “Mere Dad Ki Maruti” and “Hawaa Hawaai” became him, in order to lend his voice to the recently-launched campaign “Ab Montu Bolega”.

The Campaign

As the global leader in consumer health and hygiene, RB (formerly called Reckitt Benckiser), has launched a new campaign on Strepsils “Ab Montu Bolega” – a digital campaign encouraging people to speak their mind with a ‘healthy voice’. Love the connection how Strepsils, the leading sore throat medicine, is encouraging people to speak their mind without any inhibitions.

Bollywood celebrity, Saqib Salim, steps down from his starry pedestal to become just another man-next-door, called Montu, who expresses himself to family, friends and colleagues san any inhibitions. The campaign captures his journey through various interesting situations in his life where Strepsils provides him with a healthy voice and courage to speak up on issues which matter the most to the youth today.

The campaign is digital at heart and resides on an exclusive online platform www.abmontubolega.com.

The aim of the Campaign

The campaign is essentially a platform to connect, build trust and help create support for citizens to speak up for what they think is right! The entire campaign is designed keeping in mind the few most important pillars of our society like Education, Women Safety/Empowerment, Environment, Infrastructure, Cricket and many more.

So, would you too like to join Montu in his honesty, fearlessness and will to help others?

Visit for more – www.abmontubolega.com
Find out what's up on - www.facebook.com/strepsilsindia

Friday 17 October 2014

The fault in our laughs, on Karvachauth

Let me begin this post by a status update Sfurti Sinha shared on the morning of the Karvachauth fast. 

Whether I am fasting or not - NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Whether my husband is fasting or not - NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. My life is mine, not yours. You are not in my marriage. Freedom and equality in true sense means choosing whatever I want to do, whatever makes sense to me. There is a fine line between having an opinion and sounding judgemental. Your opinions should be the basis your life, they shouldn't sound like a judgement on others.

On a day when she had much else to take care of, Sfurti was ‘driven’ to vent publicly thus. If I wasn’t around in the same place last year, I would not have understood why. But I was. So in a way, I have been meaning to write this post since a year now. I waited because I wanted to see if rituals other than Karvachauth garnered loud amused laughter too. Not that I noticed any and certainly not equal in magnitude to the humour that surrounds a woman observing a fast for her husband. 

Here is me now, thinking aloud.

Humour is important. We have all read its various forms in different genres of different media. For instance, Theatre has used ‘uncomfortable laughter’ in the audience as a way to hold a mirror to their lives – political, social and even marital. Slapstick comedy shows a man slipping on a banana peel with similar intent; it could be you up there. Scatological references make us laugh because shit and spit is best seen on the other’s person. On television, we see stand-up humour including in its funny tentacles commentary on the government, the news channels and the entertainment industry.

While humour in the various arts was named and came with a larger purpose, the picture in the tweeting-updating social media is often like a mock-epic of what was once classic. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is no crime, but then really, what may be the point? Except wondering at the end of a virally-sharing day - whose line was it anyway?

On Karvachauth day, it doesn’t take much to realize that loose laughter is not just directed at the patriarchal ritual of fasting for a husband. The butts of the jokes become the women following it. Those laughing? The women who do not believe in it, of course. While what’s between the husband and the wife stays where it is supposed to, between them, everything else associated with Karvachauth occupies centre stage and space in the minds of those who have half-baked ideas about the ritual and none whatsoever about the fasting woman’s idea of it.

Thinking …

Is poking fun the best way to ‘guide’ a woman out of a deep-rooted patriarchal discourse? Isn’t it as unfair a ‘peer pressure’ as was given to her by those who made her embrace those traditions in the first place? How does our lackadaisical ‘promotion’ of an antithetical thought-process towards a redundant tradition differ in lack-of-substance from the stoical one of far Right. Are we, in our fun and games, creating but a poorer alternative even if at the other end of the spectrum? It is for this reason that I liked #FastForHer movement. It did nothing to do away with the day. But for now, it got men into the fray. A constructive step towards re-examining the necessity of it all by being a part of it. From inside the circle. A much better, more understanding way, to reverse trends. More sensitive too. 

Because …

We are not providing that line-towing woman sensible alternatives to a symbolism codified over generations, one she has believed in and which provides her with comfort. A kitty of jokes may get us a few giggling followers, but nothing more. The shell we want to break is built on three very thick layers – obedience, belief and comfort. If we are so desperate to break it, we'll need to know more about it.

But, why do we laugh?

Are we, in the larger scheme of things, trying to show her sense or poke fun at what we see as obsoleteness that she surrounds herself with? A bid of one-upmanship and modernity, maybe.  At the same time, furthering lines of difference based on our ideas of modern and ancient, tradition and revolution. Disservice is what we are doing, by making her feel outdated, conscious, stuck and worst of all outcast in lobbies which don’t fast. When the idea of feminism grew this mocking army amidst all the painstakingly-built theories and practice I know not, but I wish we remember what the movement we so glibly use essentially stood for. One word – Choice, as Sfurti’s status above signifies. 

Interestingly …

The tray that a woman carries for her Karvachauth puja holds a few symbols of matrimony. Most of those objects are found in most women’s dressing drawers that you and I anyway may use as a matter of routine, or during festive times. The difference is, she wants to spend a day with them while you may freely reserve the biggest bindis for your designer saris or Durga Puja times. (Yes, you may include that idea of a parlour visit in this, which for so many is one of the greatest social outlets in a year). To not eat is not so much of a suffering as it is made out to be, that too by those who are eating their three meals anyway. Concern doesn’t mock. It helps. But first, it has to try to understand what is wrong to understand the ‘victim’ of it all.

Did you who jest know … 

We don’t have to dress up as brides on Karvachauth. We don’t need to use sieves to look at the moon. Henna is not compulsory and neither is touching the husband's feet. I blame popular media for propagating limited understanding of this tradition. Which does mean, more groundwork needs to be done before the laughing party decides to become a mouthpiece carrying the cause of fasting women on its shoulders.

Manjulika did this for her mother-in-law.
Tanya created 'American Karvas'.

I think … 

Humour cannot alone help cut through years of nurture. Not even shake the idea of obedience to elders and fear of Gods; especially for rituals created around husbands’ well-being, because they are based on a relationship. It also will never stand ground against the idea of Choice, which women like me make when we decide to fast or not fast. If we are to liberate minds, we need to show them how our freedoms are worthy of emulation. In all the mindless cackling, the voices of sanity who seek to deliver women from coerced and oppressive rituals get drowned and lost. 

We need to question traditions to see how they affect gender narratives and we need to reinvent some of them to better suit the changing times, or do away with those which we no longer agree with. How we do it is the point, and the key to it is in each one of our hands or in our homes.  Read these lines shared by Hrishikesh Bawa:

Fasting does not lead to anything … Love and respect for each other is more important," said a woman’s mother-in-law to herI think a hero is not just the guerilla rebel. Sometimes, she is the one who is a part of the system too. Likewise, the one who impulsively jumps out of the ancient window might just have been a hasty fool.

This was probably my last year of observing this fast. My husband’s tank of patience with it is full. I no longer have to give company to my mother-in-law – in deed or in spirit – by not eating with her and enjoying the evening katha too. Next time, I will probably go to the other side of the fence, well aware of what made me follow the Karvachauth ritual and promising myself not to forget it. Perhaps, that will help me remain sensitive towards those who wish to do as they please.

Because you know as well as I do how private choices get played with on public trampolines all in the name of jest.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Community Service - Your entire community — however you define that; your hometown, your neighborhood, your family, your colleagues — is guaranteed to read your blog tomorrow. Write the post you’d like them all to see.]

Wednesday 15 October 2014

‘Cheer a Child’ the Réal way, this Diwali

There is good news to share this festive season!

Réal, India’s most preferred packaged fruit juice brand today, joined hands with Prayas Juvenile Aid Centre Society to launch a mega social initiative – Cheer a Child

This Diwali, ‘Cheer a Child’ campaign seeks to spread health and happiness amongst children of  the underprivileged sections of society. This initiative helps forward Dabur India Ltd’s mission to touch the lives of thousands of children across India.

What is ‘Cheer a Child’?

A signature campaign across major cities in North and West India, covering Delhi-NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra will be launched today by Réal and Prayas Juvenile Aid Centre Society. Big markets across these states will be visited by a team from Real who then will channel support for neglected children, those in exploitative jobs and even children living on the streets.

The signatories will be educated and made aware about the nutrition needs of underprivileged children and asked to become a part of this campaign. Here comes the important bit. Against each signature, Dabur has committed to give one pack of Réal fruit beverage to a child in need! 

Do know, that “this initiative is no way linked to any product purchase. All they need from the people is a signature or a wish as a mark of their support,” said Dabur India Ltd Marketing Head-Foods Mr. Sanjay Singal.

There’s more …

Consumers across major cities in India get a chance to bring festive cheer in the lives of under-privileged kids. “All one has do is to give a missed call on 07053123123. By placing this missed call, consumers will be confirming their participation for this movement. An automated call back would request the consumer to record their festive wish for these underprivileged Children. For every wish recorded also, Dabur has committed to give one pack of Réal fruit beverage to a child in need. The consumers will also get a chance to bring happiness on the faces of these underprivileged kids by spending a day of fun and frolic with them by logging in to www.realfruitpower.com/cheerachild,” said Mr. Singal.

Pledges from people will be collected through Social Media such as Facebook and Twitter, where the campaign will be amply promoted. 

Dabur has also announced the launch of Réal Greetings, an exclusive range of special Diwali gift packs of Réal fruit beverages. These special packs have been designed to communicate the goodness of fruits and the concept of ‘Wishes of Good Health’ that Diwali symbolizes. “Traditionally, in the Indian culture, fruits have been considered as auspicious and are an integral part of all festivities and celebrations. This stems from the fact that fruits are considered a form of life and a sign of vitality. Réal Greetings Gift Packs encapsulates this idea,” Mr. Singal said.

Meanwhile …

Prayas JAC Society and its more than 50,000 children across nine states/UTs of India are glad to be a part of this ‘Cheer a Child’ Campaign! 

Mr. Amod K Kanth, General Secretary of Prayas and former Chairman of Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, said: “I strongly believe that this initiative of Dabur India Limited is certainly going to touch millions of underprivileged children across India in touching their dreams and aspirations.” 

Prayas was set-up in 1988 as a joint initiative of Delhi Police, Delhi School of Social Work and Shramik Vidyapeeth in response to the crisis-affected children in the slums of Jahangirpuri, Delhi started with 25 children and, today, it caters more than 50,000 children, youth & women. For the past 25 years, Prayas has been and continues to be involved in meaningful, development-driven initiatives that distinctly impact the quality of life of the weaker-sections of the society

Join the endeavour and ‘Cheer a Child’ the Réal way this Diwali. 

Like the Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/RealFruitPower 

Follow all the action here https://twitter.com/realjuices

Monday 13 October 2014

Of Mangoes and Mango Chutney

Stories are like mangoes. You pick and pluck at will. Then, you eat them the way they taste the best to you.

Some use a spoon and as objective eaters experience the taste without getting their hands and heads too involved. I want to have some light fun. Plus, it’s just another mango!

Others trust and thrust their teeth deep into it; pull, gnaw, chew and with the first bites still in their mouths say ‘That was so sweet. Brilliant!’ or pucker up their faces instantly and spit out a ‘Hey! Sour and unripe.’ Quickies, so to say.
Often you find people chopping them into tiny pieces, then poking tooth picks into each geometric piece, tasting them that much longer, trying to understand the mango to pronounce verdict. I’d like to believe they know what they are doing!
One category does buy the mango just to prove the tree wrong. To prove that the guthlee is bigger than the juicy yellow part and the fruit a failure. They would pay just to prove that. Rich, but so poor. I wish them peace.

So strange how much I can metaphor-ise on mangoes and stories, isn’t it? I must be missing them a lot as autumn dawns. Or maybe, I was simply waiting for the noise around ‘Mango Chutney’ to die down. After months of being the cynosure, the first short story anthology I am a part of is resting – away from Facebook clamour and Amazon glamour. However, sitting snug and smug on a pedestal of pride, in my heart and mind. My first you see, as dear as dear can be, for reasons aplenty.

27 short stories by mostly first time writers were selected to be published by a new-kid-on-the-block, Rumour Books, with Harsh Snehanshu as its Editor. I don’t think this young man slept much those days. Inboxes rang with new messages in the middle of workdays and ‘Please see and revert ASAP’ mails dropped by at 3 am. Okay, I exaggerate a wee bit but only to tell you how passionately he led this project. How democratically too.

At every step the writers were kept in the loop and their opinions sought. It was ‘our’ book in its truest sense. The cover was selected by consensus. Each story went through phased edits and was mailed back to us for approvals. Sadly, this very democracy swung the pendulum both ways. 27 people took their time and turns to approve edits, Microsoft Word’s Track-Change played tricks, the print deadline approached and ‘Send’ was pressed with a heart-beat skipped, and a few commas and full-stops too. Unforgivable, true. Looking forward to a cleaner Edition II.

The book was is successful. Professional numbers I don’t know but personal sentiments I heard, about the book as well as my story – from well-known authors, the book’s co-authors, family overseas, long lost friends and so many strangers on social media. It affirmed to me that the naysayers’ belief that no love and support is unconditional, is rubbish after all.

Mango Chutney’ had variety to offer its readers, in terms of genre and style, context and geography. In terms of quality too. Some stories soared confidently while others sat with their legs crossed, somewhere in the background. Some stole the readers’ hearts instantly and others disappointed them with their mere presence. 27 different authors, their ideas and moods, their use of language cannot please homogeneously. I bare my heart to tell you this that it did not me! What I learnt? The ‘quality’ of a story lies in the eyes of the reader to a very large extent, especially because each printed piece is received uniquely by every pair of reading eyes. What better proof of that than learning that the stories which some called the weakest links were hailed as favourites by others? 

How interesting the act of creating becomes then, ridden with not just flair but fluidity too. And helpless fear.

I remember how pills of Lomotil vanished into my stomach on the days preceding the launch at Oxford Bookstore, in New Delhi. I wonder why? Maybe because it was my first time. Or that some were betting their knickers off that money’s worth will not be found in the book? (I am hoping in their eyes too they stood naked after they read the book). The Lomotil-fed butterflies from my stomach reached my knees and I decided to wear a sari to keep the knocking from showing. I lie! I decided to dress as special as the day was to me, and not according to venue, age, company or the fact that I was just 1/27th a part of it. After all, on number 25 was my story ‘On the Other Side’ – one I stood by before I pressed ‘send’ and the one I know I could not have written any better, certainly not then. The gush of appreciation has ebbed, but the already burgeoning inbox will stand evidence to that.

Since stories are like mangoes, pride must be the last drop of sweet mango juice still stuck on the lips and which is so lovely to realize and lick a few moments later. Like right now…

Metaphors, metaphors, how I love you but spare me now, will you? A mango. A mango carved from the rarest stone I need placed on my writing desk. Or maybe, a book with a picture of a mango on it.  

(That’s a lot of mango now. Time for another Chutney! Wait, hasn't the rumour mill told you yet?)

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was -Michelangelo’s YOU - Your personal sculptor is carving a person, thing, or event from the last month of your life into the glistening marble of immortality. What’s the statue and what makes it so significant?]

Thursday 9 October 2014

Kemon aso, Kolkata! Got some change?

When my husband asked the bored driver of a bright yellow taxi in Bengali if he would take us to Ulta Danga from Howrah railway station, I understood nothing apart from the name of the place our government guest house was situated in. Even that, I did not much understand. Ulta I knew, Danga sounded like a weapon. After getting his feet down from the window of the taxi in slow motion and looking for his slippers near the gear shaft the driver murmured a yes, accompanied by ‘khujra ache to?

No, khujra is not a weapon either even if it was asked for in a tone matching an epee’s point and an eye turned to the big red sticker announcing his membership of a union of taxi drivers. ‘Khujra’ means change. My husband nodded a yes and we both huffed our just-married suitcase between us two, as the driver spent his 10th minute looking for his second slipper. At that point, crossing the Howrah Bridge in the back seat of the taxi, I had no idea how important change is to live, just be and breathe, in Kolkata.  

Ready rattling coins in change!

This was in the December of 2007. While we younglings sat holding on to our singular suitcase for dear life, stealing finger-tip kisses on bumpy roads and bumper-to-bumper braking I looked out the window which had refused to roll up and deliver me from the warm gusts. 

Kolkata did not look like a bride to my visiting eyes. It looked like a woman ageing so charmingly you wouldn’t want it to dye its hair or remove the high-backed, puff-sleeved blouses it insisted on wearing. Still. The quaint windows and ornate jaali on huge buildings seemed to have lived their lives. Paved streets were lined with flower-sellers chit-chatting with rishka wallas taking a breather. Somehow, miraculously almost, tiny plastic cups of afternoon tea were seen in every hawker's hands. A picture which made me enjoy its rustic charm yet wonder if it was free will that made it sit in a time warp or just the times.

I remember getting out of the taxi at our guest house in Ulta Danga and struggling to figure out why the place smelled of a bunch of incense sticks when all my eyes beheld was a tiny post office, an STD booth-cum-provision store, a garbage lined lane leading to the main road choc-a-bloc with traffic and Shona beauty parlour next to a monstrous, hexagonal guest house. I did not obsess with the smell of cheap incense in the air almost everywhere, but in no time I realized how the whole of Kolkata was obsessed with collecting and retaining its khujra.

Yes, obsessed! 

The egg noodles guy in a bright blue shack, whose business boomed just after the sun set when podiums for political stages came up, was obsessed. We would order our plate, sit on two broken plastic chairs, watch him toss into the seasoned wok an extra helping of pepper (was that the secret ingredient that made the chow like no other?) and to the tune of the fish-seller bragging off his wares right behind us dig in. Not a single time did he not ask for loose change, even before opening his drawer to see if he had Rs. 3 to return. While the plate always cost Rs. 7, he never did have change. Neither did the sweet shop which seemed to thrive on the sale of gur rasgullas alone and where I popped a handful to abate the pepper-effect. While my obsession with those faded-yellow delicacies sky-rocketed his sales, not a single coin from his heart melted my way. ‘Khujra dao’ it was, always!

One day, my husband got free from work early. His phone call began 'reach me!' followed by directions on how to take a rickshaw till Shovabazar Station, metro to Maidan and then exit at a certain gate. In the train, I found myself sweating like a pig next to a girl who just could not help staring at me with her big, round eyes. The microphone announced ‘Assplanaad’, I smiled, she didn’t get the humour but we got talking anyway. She couldn’t believe how I was travelling alone in the metro in a foreign city and I couldn’t make her believe how safe I felt here compared to Delhi. While the rickety metro rattled away, she zipped out a cellphone just to tell her friend of the phenomenon that she made me out to be, screaming my name into it with a few extra ‘h’ after the first ‘S’. Then, she noticed a tiny-yet-heavy sac hanging from my belt. ‘Oh! Just loose change. You need it everywhere in Kolkata, don’t you? I’m loaded now!’ I swear to you I saw respect in her eyes for me which was once reserved for just Tagore, as she poked the suggestive looking pouch. I was a girl braving it out, I was loaded with change, all for meeting my lawfully wedded husband at the end of the tunnel. Everything here was in keeping with the character of the city.

The husband bit too. Why I say that?

In a local Kolkata bus we were made to sit separately en route New Market for some shopping. The bus was divided between the sexes right down the middle. My knight implored with the conductor that we were man and wife, 'notun biye, notun biye' but the doubting Thomas's heart of stone refused to budge. So, my love kept looking back from where he sat across the aisle and I kept staring at his head, wondering when the snaking through busy streets and the light drizzle would end. Noticing also how my beau’s black crop was the only one not shining with three layers of oil or his clothes with as much embroidery. ‘Teekate. Khujra dao!’ came the conductor for it was ladies first and a lovelorn I could only say in the crispest of Hindi ‘Khujra wahaan baitha hai! Jao ley lo!’ I was angry. I had spent 45 minutes with a woman whose bags my lap nearly carried while hers remained baggage free, playing with the red and white bangles on the wrist.

Or, did I not pay for the ticket because I too getting a tad obsessed with my pocket of change?

From the famous puchka walla outside Birla Planetarium to the award-winning Jhalmuri guy on Russell Street; from Giggles (that Archies gallery) on Park Street to Flury’s with its pastries; from museum and zoo ticket booths to the famous Indian Coffee House, everything needed coins. Even dishes were priced with complete fidelity to the idea of how essential each penny is in the larger scheme of things!

The only person who did hand me a one rupee coin was a cobbler who fixed my shoe somewhere on College Street. The glue was all over my Khadims sneakers but who cared any more. He had given me change. Change! I almost bit into it to check if I was dreaming. It was real. 

It turned out to be a lucky coin, indeed.

A coconut walla squeezed the metal out of us because the humidity combined with the long human chain outside Dakshineshwar made us crave coconut water worth a tree's Xylem. And then, I needed to pee! ‘25 p for one use’ said the board outside the public facility. Even in such pressing hurry, I stared. 25 p? Were they not extinct the year I was born? Shock turned to surprise after I bunny-hopped in and breezed out. When I handed over that lucky Re 1 coin I got 75 p back! On this last evening in Kolkata, the sight of three 25 p coins in my hands made me teary-eyed. I couldn't help but wonder - is this a sign that the city has adopted me as its own? Also, is this, the natural exigency to relieve oneself in the right place, the reason behind the whole of Kolkata collecting coin after coin after coin?

On my train back to Delhi later that night I caught myself wondering if after 3 weeks, I was a Roman too. What else could explain the pang of jealousy I felt when I saw how much fuller the toilet minder's coin drawer was as compared to my potli!

Maybe I will go back Bengal-wards one day to find that change is no longer on the most wanted list. However, something tells me that ‘Khujra dao!’ will always be around, just like the smell of incense in the air, no matter how many Park Streets take over Ulta Dangas in this unique city called Kolkata.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Can’t get enough - Have you ever been addicted to anything, or worried that you were? Have you ever spent too much time and effort on something that was a distraction from your real goals? Tell us about it.]

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