Beneath A Rougher Sea

I have been writing since 1982, mostly in Odia, my mother tongue. Somehow I did not get around to doing any substantial work in English, a language that I have been comfortable with since my childhood. It only remained a dream for a long time. Two weeks ago, my first novel in English was published. It is a novel on mental health. How my debut work in English finally happened is a story by itself.
Mental health is not an easy subject for a novel. When I was growing up, I had no clue about it. All I knew was that in our world most people are “normal” and then there are some who are not. These are the “mad” people.
When Subroto and I decided to get married, he told me that there was something I should know: his father had schizophrenia. I had no real idea about the disorder. In those pre-internet days, all I knew was that it was something serious and scary. But as I actually got to know my father-in-law, I was pleasantly surprised. He was brilliant, affectionate and kind hearted. Where was the shadow of schizophrenia? Soon I realised that the schizophrenia was managed well because he was under periodic psychiatric care. Most importantly, the family was not in denial; they loved him and supported him. No one hesitated to talk about his schizophrenia and were always watchful.
As time went by, I became more and more aware of mental health issues. By 2003, I had realised two things: first, that there is a wide range of mental health issues and, second, that just about every family, not just mine, has someone impacted by it in one way or other. I felt a tug in my heart: I should write a book on the subject. But I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. So how, I wondered, could I do justice to such a topic? But the subject continued to haunt me for years, so much that I finally decided to talk to a psychiatrist friend, Dr. Vivek Benegal.
Vivek, like some other committed psychiatrists I know, is very passionate about the subject of mental health. Over many hours and days, we talked about the spread of mental health issues. He also steered me towards meaningful research. What I discovered in the process was mind-boggling. The conversations with Vivek and the research reinforced my assumptions about the spread of mental health problems and the ignorance, denial and stigma surrounding them.
At the end of eighteen months, I had the data and the validation that the book should be written. I shared my thoughts with Subroto. Though he was more aware of mental health issues than I was, he was stunned with many of the facts I had gathered. He said that I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t write the book that could reach a large set of readers.
I got to work. The voyage began.
Let me confess that it wasn’t easy. The usual high and low tides were normal, but what I had not anticipated was the emotional upheaval that I would have to go through. I would have to relive the lives of most of my characters, who were so real to me. All these things are familiar parts of the writing process, for any author writing any novel. But with this novel, I felt my characters’ pain more keenly. There were, of course, smiles and soaring of the spirit, but those were few and far between. Even then, I did not give up, because retreating was just not an option.
And so I continued the journey.
‘Beneath a Rougher Sea’ is the result of that journey.

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The Sound of “Music”

We wanted the vacation to be perfect. After all, it was the first time Niti, our younger daughter, and I were taking a trip together. It was very easy to decide the destination. Since we did not have a lot of days to spare and both of us lived in two separate continents eight thousand miles apart, the place had to be somewhere midway. Rome. Niti, the student of Latin, took seconds to decide. I agreed happily. Though I had been to Rome earlier with my husband Subroto, it had been a short four-day trip. This time it was going to be for eight days. And it was an added advantage to be with someone who spoke manageable Italian.

Once the destination was decided and air tickets booked, we looked for a place to stay. Both of us agreed on one thing – no hotel for us. It had to be an apartment in the centre of the city and close to some of the major attractions. This apartment should also have a small kitchenette, where we could rustle up something if we did not feel like eating restaurant food.

Finally with the help of a popular trustworthy website, we found a two room furnished place between the Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. We were excited that many other attractions and the popular shopping street were only minutes away. The posted pictures of the third floor apartment were very appealing and we liked the email personality of the landlady, who was a successful architect posted in London. I paid for the apartment and we were all set.

Soon it was March and time for us to fly. Niti came from New York; I started my journey from Bangalore. We met at Frankfurt airport and flew to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport together. By the time our taxi reached the apartment, it was two in the afternoon. We were so tired and sleep deprived that we decided to have a quick bite at the next-door trattoria and crash for a few hours. Once we were suitably rested, we would start our real vacation from the evening onwards.

The bed was comfortable and the heating system worked perfectly. In a matter of minutes, we were fast asleep. We would have slept for quite some time more, but we were rudely awakened by a cacophony of sounds. Groggily, I looked at the watch. It was only four. ‘What on earth is that?’ a jet-lagged Niti complained. I moved the curtains of the bedroom window and looked out. At first I could not figure out the source of the noise, but soon realized that it came from the apartment on the opposite side of the road. The windows were shut, curtains drawn and I could not see the interior, but there was no doubt about the origin of the racket. It was a strange concoction of flute, keyboard, drums and some unidentifiable musical instruments.

We could not take the assault any more and quickly changed and stepped out of the apartment. As we crossed the apartment from where the offensive sounds came, Niti looked up and tried to decipher the small board hanging from one of the windows. She started laughing. ‘It is a music school of sorts for kindergarten students.’ Thankfully, the music classes were from four to seven in the evening, when we would be definitely out of our apartment. We shrugged and walked away.

Our Rome vacation was absolutely delightful. Along with the usual touristy rounds, we did a lot of off-beat things. The mother-daughter arguments were almost non-existent and we started talking about the possibility of doing this more often.

The problem started on the sixth day, on our way back from the Vatican. We had planned to take a public bus from the Vatican to go and see a small museum. ‘Can we take a taxi instead? I am feeling a little tired,’ Niti said.

That was the beginning. When we reached our apartment after a pasta dinner at a highly recommended restaurant (which Niti barely touched), Niti started coughing. I made some saline water for her to gargle and she promptly went off to sleep after that. She woke up in the morning with some body ache and the cough persisted, but she refused to stay put in the apartment. After all it was the day she had set aside for shopping. Again, instead of public transport, we took a taxi and Niti bravely tried out clothes in small stand-alone Italian dress stores. After lunch, it was clear that she had no energy and she really needed to lie down.

Once we reached the apartment, I realized that she had started burning up. Her face was flushed and eyes were watery. I got worried. Usually I pack some first aid stuff while travelling, but this time I had forgotten. Niti definitely needed some paracetamols right away, as her fever always shot up unless controlled in the beginning. Moreover, she had to take a long flight home in a couple of days.

I put on my coat, grabbed my purse and rushed out. Unfortunately, there was no medical store in the residential area where we had rented the apartment. But I remembered having seen one when we had walked towards the Trevi Fountain. The question was whether I would be able to find it or not. Anyway, I followed the road signs to the Trevi Fountain and continued to walk. After a while, I did find a pharmacy at the corner of two lanes. It wasn’t the same one though. As I picked up the essential medicines and stepped out after paying for them, I gathered that I was on an unfamiliar road. No issues. I opened my purse to take out the city map. That was when I realized that in my anxiety to get to a pharmacy, I had forgotten the map on the coffee table in our apartment’s living room.

I am usually very good with directions. But this time I was quite confused. I knew that our apartment was in the opposite direction of the Trevi Fountain, but should I take the road that veered towards the left or should I continue on the one that bent towards the right? After taking several blind turns in the labyrinth of lanes, I had no idea where I was. There was no point in asking anybody about the road where our apartment was, because it was siesta time and very few people were there on the roads of that residential area. The few whom I saw did not speak a word of English and I spoke no Italian.

With a slightly sinking heart, I realized that I was lost. Refusing to be upset, I stopped and looked around. It was true that nothing seemed familiar, but all was not lost. I could see a direction towards a horde of shops and hopefully there I would be able to hail a taxi. It would be an unnecessary expense, but at least I would reach my destination. The only nagging fear was what if there were no taxis there. I refused to be pessimistic and tried to walk confidently.

Suddenly there was a shrill sound of a violin coming from somewhere behind me. I stopped short. The off-key sound was familiar. Soon the violin blast was accompanied by out-of-tune vocals, clumsy thudding of drums and inelegant shrieking of flutes. It was the same cocktail of unmelodious, jarring noise that had rudely assaulted us on our first day in Rome, but at that moment, to me, it sounded sweeter than a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I turned and followed the cacophony. Very soon, I was on our familiar lane. As I unlocked the door and walked into the apartment, Niti said, ‘That was quick. I was so worried that you would get lost. You forgot the map here. You really are good with directions.’

I smiled and said nothing.

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The Stranger

The end came swiftly. One day the man was there. The next day he was gone, leaving behind a stunned family – a mother, a wife and a grown-up son. However, the man was the wise and the organized type. His accounts were in order, as were all his papers. So though the loss was insurmountable, his wife did not have to run from pillar to post trying to streamline her life-after.

After the funeral was over, the man’s mother went back to her village. The son had a good job in a far-away place and he too could not stay away for long. The wife had a large enough support group and she braved staying in the same house where they used to live in the city. But the memories of being together, of the years of their married life, hounded her and at a point in time, she thought of moving.

Her own siblings and even her son encouraged her to move to another town – one that was hundreds of miles away from the current one and had the added advantage of having her aged parents nearby. She was not averse to moving to the small town, where her parents resided, but having lived an independent life for so long, she had some hesitations. So before resigning her job, selling off her house and making the commitment, she wanted to try out the small town living. The town was not new for her, because she had grown up there. But in some ways she was a stranger now, having stayed away for almost twenty-six years. She decided to stay with her parents for a couple of months in the beginning.

That was when I met her. Her family is distantly related to me and since I was in the same town on some work, I thought of visiting them. Though I did not know her or her siblings that well, I do have a lot of affection for the elderly couple. One is a retired professional and the other one, before arthritis restricted her movements, used to chair a socially-conscious organization. They are kind and help out people in need, and are looked up to by the people in their community.

I reached their house around eleven and it was the daughter who opened the door and led me into the living room. She used to work for a multi-national company in the city she had just left and I had heard that she was extremely good at her job. Her move would probably now mean parting of ways with her long-time employer. That must have been a tough decision.

What she was planning to do here, I wondered.

She did have a few choices, she told me. There were a couple of good schools very keen to take her in. The organization, which her mother had chaired for a long time, had also reached out. But she had not come to any decision: she was still looking around.

Why was that, I asked.

She was very forthright in her answer. Though she lived in this town during her growing up years, sometimes it felt that she had outgrown it. It did have a small-town way of thinking.  She was not sure she could handle being watched and judged at every step after living in the selective anonymity and the relative independence of a big city. Once she could come to a finality of decision, a job of her choice should not be a problem.

At that point, her parents walked in. They were, as I had seen them a few years back. Except for the labored walk. They were genuinely happy to see me. We had tea. A little later, their daughter excused herself. She had to meet someone for a job interview.

As she left and it was just the three of us, I sensed for some reason, that the mother was not very happy. Something was troubling her.

How her daughter was coping emotionally after such a huge turmoil, I asked.

‘As best as she can. What is left for her now? Is there any life for a widow?’ The mother said.

I was taken aback. I have heard these words before in other places, but coming from the lady whom I considered enlightened and forward looking shocked me.

‘But she is still young. And I see her trying to put her life back on track.’

‘That is the problem.’ Now the father spoke. ‘She does not realize that people here talk. A widow has to maintain certain decorum. But look at her. See how she dresses and how she conducts herself.’

The mother added, ‘Work at a social service organization has a lot of dignity. But she is thinking of a job that requires travel and interaction with a lot of outsiders. How does one put some sense in a woman who is almost fifty?’ It was more of a lament than a question.

I was silent. Soon the conversation veered towards a few inane things. I left shortly after.

I have not met them ever since. But the last that I heard about the daughter was that she moved away to a different city. Far away. Someone told me, she has bought a nice apartment in the new city and now leads her life the way she wants to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Something Fishy

After the sudden cancellation of a weeklong engagement, my husband and I were at loose ends in Europe. Impulsively, we decided to take a vacation – a writing vacation. Since we were already in Frankfurt, we thought of looking for a place in Germany itself.  Soon, we zeroed in on a small town called Bad Neuenahr; the deciding factors were the Ahr River and the lovely apartment in a vineyard on a week’s rental.

The comfortable studio, set at one end of the vineyard, had all you needed – a designated sleeping, living, dining and kitchen area. I intended to cook simple meals for the two of us. Getting Indian spices would be a challenge since it was far off from the hub of Bad Neuenahr, but basic things like rice and vegetables should not be a problem, I figured.

Well, actually it was. The labels were written in German on the items of grocery and the folks at the store spoke no English; but we could still manage to pick up some rice, pasta, cereal, milk, prawns and vegetables.

The first three days of our writing vacation were divine. The days started with a walk in the vineyards followed by breakfast, then a few hours of work and a light lunch. The afternoon siesta was inevitable and then again a long walk by the riverbank. Evenings saw us working some more and then a cooking expedition. Eating out options were limited and since I do not eat meat, we did not experiment much.

My husband went along sportively, but the first murmur of discontent surfaced on the fourth day. He was tired of the shrimp-pasta and vegetable-pulao routine.

‘Let us get some fish today.’ He prodded.

‘Sure.’ I agreed readily.

We went to the supermarket. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to figure out the fish, because everything was cleaned, cut and packaged neatly. The otherwise friendly staff at the store could not help us, as none of them could understand or speak any English. Finally we went through the frozen section meticulously and managed to pick up a packet that looked like fish fillet with herbs. We could not make much out of the German label, but the letters present were ‘f’, ‘i’, ‘s’. We paid for it and happily marched home. I could sense my husband’s expectations build up.

On reaching the apartment, I cooked a cup of rice, sautéed some mushrooms and finally started frying the fish fillets. Usually frying fish does not take much time, but even after 15 minutes of frying, the fish looked uncooked. That was strange. I spent some more time and effort cooking the fillets and finally, still somewhat unsure it was cooked well, we sat down for lunch. As I took one bite of the fish, I knew something wasn’t quite right.

‘Maybe it is some kind of a tough fish,’ I said with a grimace, ‘I am sorry, I don’t think I can eat it.’ My portion of the fried fish went into the garbage, but my husband valiantly finished his. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind. I scooped out the discarded fish packet from the garbage bin. The printed label was still in tact. I opened my laptop, determined to unravel the mystery of the tough fish, and I typed out the letters from the label on Google translate: German to English.

The Internet was fast and the words that stared at me on the computer screen were ‘swine flesh’. Pork!

I have no religious discrimination against meat, but the very idea that I took a bite of something that I am not comfortable eating, repelled me. I was in no mood to experiment with food for the rest of the stay and my dear husband dreaded the idea of surviving on salads for the next three days.

As we went on a long walk that evening, he pointed at a Chinese restaurant with pictures of several dishes on the glass window, and said, ‘Let us have dinner here.’ He knew of my fondness for Chinese cuisine.

‘No way!’ I was vehement. I was not taking any chances.

He did not persist, but was somewhat lost in thought, as we returned to our apartment and sipped some tea. Suddenly his face brightened and he took out a white sheet of paper from his bag. The next few minutes saw him hunched at the dining table, while I checked my mail and Skyped our daughters.

Later that evening, he again suggested that we try out the Chinese place and somewhat confidently assured that I would have no problems. I was still apprehensive. Even the Chinese did not speak English in Bad Neuenahr. But more out of sympathy for him, I agreed. Before stepping out, I made sure that there was some emergency backup for me in the fridge.

At the Chinese restaurant, I took a corner table while my husband went to the owner at the cash counter. I saw him show the owner the piece of paper he was working on at the apartment.  The owner looked bewildered and then he burst into a loud guffaw. Immediately, he called someone out in Chinese, most probably his wife, who doubled as a cook, and showed her the paper. The same bewilderment crossed her face followed by a big smile and a nod. My husband came back to join me at the table.

Soon the food came. I gingerly took one forkful and knew that there was nothing to be suspicious about. What followed were some appetizing prawn-fried noodles and spicy chilly fish.

‘How did you manage that?’ I asked my husband in surprise.

He took out the same sheet of paper that he was working on in the evening and had just shown the owner and his wife. On it, he had managed to draw what looked like a cow, a pig, a lamb, and a chicken and there were bold crosses on top of each. Then there was a picture of a fish and a prawn that looked more like a lobster. These two had big tick marks next to them.

Now I started laughing; the picture indeed was worth a thousand words.

***

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The Other Draupadi

Draupadi’s fame preceded her. It was told that she was talented, had a beautiful voice and could reduce spectators to tears with her emoting. The musical was not to be missed.

A chatty middle-aged housemaid reported this in a hushed manner to my cousin Sujata and me, when we were spending a long, humid summer at our grand parents’ house. Our curiosity was aroused; we threw tantrums and demanded permission to see the musical.

This musical or ‘jatra’, as it is known in Odisha, was a whole-night affair and there was no way anyone would allow two little girls – ten and twelve – to attend it alone. Then the impossible happened. Our grandfather, a fair and just man with a major weakness for music, decided that maybe we, along with our two nine year old male cousins, could be allowed to watch just the first one hour of the jatra. After all, the venue was a temple right across from the house. An uncle would make sure that we were seated in the front row and he would again bring us home at ten, when the first act ended.

This was not to our satisfaction, because the thrill of staying awake whole night was snatched away, but it was better than nothing. We ate an early dinner and, by nine p.m., we were seated in the best possible seats.

The jatra started. The first few scenes were all about Draupadi, who indeed was dazzling in all her finery and costume jewellery. Her voice was, however, a little disappointing for us.

Sujata and I had begun music lessons in earnest a couple of years ago and, though we were yet to reach our peak, we realized that Draupadi’s voice was somewhat fake and nasal. Her rendition was soulful, but it lacked a certain something. However, the lyrics by a famous ancient poet and the plagiarized melody from a popular Bollywood composer made up for the deficiency.

All too soon, the first act ended and it was time for us to return home. We reluctantly walked out of the suffocatingly warm room to the temple courtyard and waited for our uncle to pick us up. We felt cheated because the next part, after the brief comical interlude, would be the scene where Draupadi and the five Pandavas were to roam the forests, sans all finery and escape the fire tragedy. The housemaid had told us that Draupadi’s acting in this scene was superb and heart wrenching.

Our uncle was late and the male cousins were getting restless. They forgot their assigned duty as our Praetorian guards and ventured out to the veranda to look for our uncle. I was tempted to join them, but Sujata held me back. She felt that it was not safe for her to be outside at ten in the night. I did not see her point, but could not abandon her. Curbing my impatience, I sat on a stone bench next to her in the temple courtyard.

Suddenly the door of the green room opened and Draupadi stepped out with an assistant. Clearly it was the stifling heat that had pushed the Queen out of the tiny green room. We watched as the assistant carefully removed the jewellery piece by piece from Draupadi. Then he proceeded to take back the box inside. As he was leaving, Draupadi said something to him and, to our shock, a beedi was produced and lit for her.

Draupadi stood against a pillar and smoked contently. The assistant returned soon with a simple sari, which would be Draupadi’s attire for the next scene. ‘Hurry up and change,’ he said and rushed inside for his next errand.

Draupadi threw the beedi aside and disrobed almost to the underclothes right there in the temple courtyard. As she expertly tied the simple sari and finally put one end on her head demurely, her wig gave way. She cursed aloud and tried to reattach the piece. Draupadi, sans her gaudy jewellery, bright clothes, and now the elaborate hairpiece, did not look elegant. The theatrical makeup, still in place, now looked distasteful to us. Moreover, the flat chest, short hair and coarse demeanour had their own story to tell.

Draupadi caught us staring as she veered into the Green room for help with the wig. She stopped for a second and winked lasciviously at us. Sujata and I realized with a start that this Draupadi was no dazzling queen. She, rather he, was a man.

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Teachers… glorified, yet short-changed

I have always loved mathematics. My fondest memory from high school days is spending hours with my grandfather solving hundreds of problems.
One Sunday, during my mathematics marathon at his home in Cuttack, I got stuck with a geometry problem. I took it to my grandfather, but the solution escaped even the wizard. Finally, he said, “Ask your teacher tomorrow.”
It was not a very helpful piece of advice, as the entire class was terrified of the math teacher. I was better off than most because I was good at math, but the stern disciplinarian filled my heart with dread and going to him with a problem was not something that I looked forward to. However, the problem needed to be solved. So, the next day, I gingerly walked into the staff room.
My teacher, preoccupied with a huge pile of answer sheets that needed immediate action, said, “You can come over to my place on Wednesday morning with your father.” I nodded and scurried off. It never occurred to me that this might be a disproportionate effort for solving just one problem.
My father, then a lawyer, was quite willing to take me to the teacher’s house.
On Wednesday morning, we reached my teacher’s home, which was in one of the narrow lanes of Cuttack. You had to jump over a stinking drain, carelessly covered with a slimy, moss-covered stone, to get to the door.
A short, portly lady, looking older than her mid-thirties, opened the door. She was my teacher’s wife. Hanging on to her sari were three scruffy-looking children with faded clothes and curious eyes. . The house was small and dishevelled. The main door opened into a courtyard of sorts, with warped doors leading to a couple of rooms and a tiny kitchen.
The entire picture left me shell-shocked. My teacher, an aristocratic-looking man, was always dressed in starched whites and I had imagined a matching environment at his home.
He was helping a few students on the verandah on one side of the courtyard. Seeing my father and me, he came over and told his wife to take my father inside, while he took a look at the bothersome math problem. I showed him the question and he took just a minute or two to solve it. It was, as my grandfather had expected, a minor deduction that had escaped us.
I was ready to return home, but my math teacher’s wife had prepared a cup of tea for my father. As I waited, I listened. The lady knew my father well and she was sighing over the sorry state of things in the family. The salary was never enough. The house needed constant attention. The children’s health was another issue, as the filth all around made them sick.
I was 14 then. Yet after all these years, the distressing picture and the lady’s laments are fresh in my mind.
Sixteen or so years went by. The early 1990s saw my husband and me in California, where our two daughters attended an elementary school. I volunteered to assist the Grade 2 class teacher. After a few weeks, the teacher became comfortable with me and we would chat about this and that during lunch.
One day, she was visibly agitated. When I asked her about it, she blurted out, “I’m exhausted. I have two growing daughters and I am a single mom. With my kind of salary, I cannot afford to employ regular help at home.” Before I could react, she added, “You probably do not know that the janitors in our country are paid more than our teachers.” There was bitterness in her voice. “I have nothing against the janitors. It is good that they are paid well, but should the teachers be ignored?” She stopped, took a deep breath and said with an embarrassed smile, “Sorry. I was just venting. This month has been tough, with the mortgage, the car loan and non-stop bills.”
Another 16 years passed.
Our older daughter Neha finished her undergraduate studies. Having long been passionate about education for poor children, she decided to become a schoolteacher. Her first job was teaching English to teenagers in New York’s South Bronx. The school was in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the U.S. and notorious for gang violence.
A month or two after she moved into her rented apartment and started teaching, I visited her. I was surprised on seeing the stacks of unpacked boxes lined up haphazardly by a wall. Neha is usually very particular about setting up a new home, but now she simply had no time. She would return home from school, quickly eat what I had cooked, and immediately get to work grading or creating lesson plans. I had to wonder what she ate when I wasn’t there.
One evening, after dinner, she wanted to step out. “I am going to the grocery store to buy some granola bars. Do you need anything?”
I was quite surprised and asked, “Why granola bars?” Neha had never been particularly fond of them.
“No, not for me, Mama. For my kids. Most of them don’t eat breakfast. Some just eat a bag of chips in the morning, and maybe drink some soda. That makes them cranky and restless in class. I can’t expect them to learn anything if they’re hungry.”
I noticed that things did not end with granola bars. Neha would buy paper, sketch pens and storybooks. One day, she went to a ramshackle hardware store near the school to buy rope and long wooden boards. She carted these to her classroom and fashioned them into bookshelves so that her students could have a “library.”
“The school is paying you back, right?” I asked her one evening, eyeing the latest round of purchases. Neha laughed, putting her arms around me, and I felt my heart contract. As a teacher, she had a pay check-to-pay check existence. Obviously, it was not easy for her to incorporate the extra expenditure.
Now, a few years later, Neha works for a multinational consulting firm. She misses teaching, she misses the kids, but when we talked about it recently, she said, “I feel guilty saying this, but I don’t know how I could go back to that life. For the first time in my adult life, I am actually able to save money.”
Coming from India, I had always thought that underpaid, underappreciated schoolteachers were particular to our country. But it definitely is a global issue.
I have heard many a lament that the days of good, dedicated teachers are gone. But when a profession comes with such distinct disadvantages, how many people can afford to be idealistic?

*This was published in The Hindu Open Page on September 2, 2012

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A Voice Within

When the Information Technology (IT) boom happened in Bangalore in the mid- nineties, its echo reverberated in the world of real estate. House rent went through the roof, causing a lot of despondency. We found ourselves in that situation, when the landlord asked for three times the current rent to renew the lease of our rental accommodation. That was beyond our means and we had to look for a new place, far away from the heart of the city. Frustrated after looking at many possible places that would be within our budget, we finally just decided on one in an unfamiliar, out of the way locality.

It was a newly constructed, independent house on a busy street; the vehicular noise sometimes drowned our conversations, but the house was aesthetically built, it was well ventilated and the huge glass windows ensured that we had enough natural light. It did entail quite a bit of stairs inside, but we were young and healthy. And the constant stair climbing would definitely be a boon, as it would absolve the guilt of foregoing a regular exercise regimen.

However, the biggest advantage of this house was that it had a large bedroom on the ground floor, next to the dining area. That was a primary requirement for us, as my mother –in – law stayed with us, and being totally blind, she could not have managed the stairs easily.

The legal papers were checked and finally, the contract was signed. Three years. Unless there was any major upheaval, we were safe in this house for at least three years. By that time, the house that we were constructing would be ready, and we would be all set.

The packers came on a Friday. And on Saturday morning, after a heavy breakfast procured from a next-door Darshini, the move took place. The newly rented house had been cleaned earlier, but we had to do some additional scrubbing. Then there was the herculean task of unpacking our personal stuff, which obviously could not be left to anybody else. In between the cleaning and unpacking, we were whisked away to a friend’s house for lunch, and again elsewhere, in the evening, for dinner.

It was close to midnight when we retired to bed, exhausted. We would have liked to sleep in late, the next day being a Sunday. But that was not to be. Early the next morning, the crackle of a loudspeaker shook us rudely awake, and we took a few moments to register a muezzin’s thick voice calling the faithful to prayer with his cry of ‘Allah ho Akbar’. Shocked, we realized that not only was there a mosque right behind our house, but that it was even sharing our boundary wall. We had failed to notice this while checking the locality, and this could have changed our decision on renting.

I should mention here that we have always lived a very secular life. We have close friends from all religions. Our house prominently displayed, and still does, a cross, an Islamic Nazar and a Jewish Menorah. Our Puja room has the scriptures of all religions and we feel comforted by that. But in this case, we were really worried. Worried about the possible reaction of my mother-in-law, a very religious woman and a devout Hindu. She never criticized other religions, was equally affectionate towards our Christian, Sikh and Muslim friends, but she would probably not take it kindly if her morning Puja and meditation were disturbed with Azaan every single day.

The house came to life soon after, and the usual bustling of the morning began. After the breakfast business was over, my mother-in-law pondered over her tea and asked, ‘Is there a temple next to this house?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘When I was doing my early morning Puja today, I heard the Gita being recited in a rich voice. It was an exhilarating experience.’

My husband Subroto and I exchanged looks, convinced that old age had probably affected her hearing. We could have let it go, but we did not want to withhold the truth from her. Subroto then hesitantly admitted that there was actually a mosque, not a temple, behind our house, and that the voice was not reciting the Bhagavad Gita; it was the Azaan – the muezzin’s call to prayer.

We expected disappointment and disapproval. We braced ourselves to receive her chastisement for poor diligence on our part. But there was none.

My mother-in-law remained quiet for some time, mulling over the information shared. After what seemed to us like a torturous period, she said, ‘Oh, I see. You know, I think this particular mosque must be very special.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because the One who is worshipped there must be very powerful.’

‘Why powerful?’

‘Don’t you see how He makes the Azaan sound like the Gita recitations to a non-Muslim like me?’ She smiled.

 

*published in Deccan Herald on 14th April, 2012

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