Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Armchair World

Bungalows with gardens, as residences, were taken for granted till we finally settled in Bombay in the mid sixties (it was still Bombay then!). That was when I was introduced to the boxed in way of life. The size of the box depended on social and financial status and, of course, inheritance. The smaller apartments were classified as either ‘shoebox size’ or ‘matchbox size’ and not much imagination is required to visualize these homes.

We finally moved into a one-bedroom apartment, small by the standards of the time but spacious by today’s. I found it claustrophobic. Yet, there are those who make their home in an 8 x 10 room, furnished with a bed, some folding chairs, a table, a cupboard, a fridge and a TV. The kitchen is a small platform at one end of the room and the bathing area a curtained-off alcove. Families of four, six and more have grown up happily in such cramped spaces. I have often wondered how.

In the last few months, we have had to share our living space with a burly, hirsute Haryanvi – the ward boy who cares for my husband in the daytime. Since he has, necessarily, to share the bedroom, I take myself off to the armchair by the window in a neighbouring room. When I am not cooking or pottering, this chair becomes my comfort zone – a place to read, to crochet, to daydream, to pray and to watch the cats or the rest of the world go by. There is elbow room for my cup of tea and the reading of the moment – books which take me to different places and through other people’s minds. Thread, hook and pattern dwell in the bag by my feet.

The chair, transformed by antimacassars and cushions, observes the seasons too: Christmas, Easter, Summer and the monsoon. Christmastime is special because I can sit next to the Nativity scene and take in the beauty of each hand carved figure, testament to a talent lovingly employed. At Easter, the aroma of Easter eggs fills the air; some received, some waiting to be gifted. Summer exposes me to the full heat of the sun, no tanning parlour required! And come the monsoon, the displays of thunder and lightning fill the window frame. The smell of freshened earth rises in the steam of the first rain and as the clouds let down their bounty, I sit snug and secure in my little world, appreciating the ‘awesome wonder’ on the other side.

It is a small space, confined and clearly demarcated. If I stretch my arms, I can almost touch the walls on either side. And, yet, here I am extraordinarily content. Could it be because the heart is at home?

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Take note. We have been invaded!

I am a dog lover. Ask anyone who has been owned by a dog and they will tell you that they possess you body and heart. Dog lovers are as distinct from cat lovers as dogs are from cats. My neighbour is a cat lover with a vengeance and every sighting of, or interaction with, a cat is faithfully reported.

Feral cats have been part of our surroundings from way back when. I know because our dogs delighted in chasing them or barking them up a tree. We have been dog-less for many years and I ceased to notice the cats, until now.

Every morning at seven thirty, there is moggie roll call. This morning, I counted thirteen. A cat coven? They come in one by one: some from over the wall, some spring from ledges off the building and others amble in off the road. Breakfast is the gleanings of the meat handed out in generous measure from Olympia – the restaurant. Sated, the cats disperse. Some to languidly snooze, others to whatever business they need to transact. The younger ones play.

Then there are the bank cats. They drape themselves on the steps leading to the ATM, on the parapets holding the lamps and sometimes on the sofa intended for the elderly. They are indifferent to the customers coming and going but they love the watchman. Occasionally, they infiltrate the bank but do not stay long.

Overlooked by our bedroom window is an office complex. Here too, cats have made a home, a playground, a maternity hospital and a crèche. We are, at different times, treated to the sounds of importunate males, cautionary mothers and hungry kittens. The other night, we were serenaded by a feline four part harmony in true Walt Disney fashion. And as they sang to the soon to be obscured moon, our neighbour also aping Walt Disney quenched their chorus with a well aimed bucket of water. So much for budding quartets.

The church, too, has its customary cat. Ours is a traditional structure replete with belfry (but no bats), steeples and mice. So, the cat completes the picture. It is well fed and content, occasionally choosing to nap in the porch or on well cushioned kneeler depending on the weather and the temperature. The church, outside service times, is dimly lit, cool and cavernous, a haven to those in need of peace – human and cat alike.

Finally, there is the orange tom who befriends my cat-loving neighbour, in exchange for a saucer of milk. He also visits every doormat and bestows fur and fleas without discrimination.

And so the encounter with cats has become a part of the daily ritual. The invasion is complete.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Childhood yesterday, today, tomorrow?

Thunder and lightning greeted daybreak and looking up at the stormy skies, I waited for the deluge with anticipation. Sure enough, the rain came bucketing down, thrumming on the weather shades and splashing off the sills and panes. I revel in the noisy fanfare that heralds a goodly shower, thanks to remembered childhood tales of the Norse gods who threw thunderbolts or hammered enthusiastically on heavenly drums. The rain, of course, was the result of heaven’s floors receiving their annual wash down! There is a lovely anecdote which tells of a child looking up and smiling at every flash of lightning because ‘God was taking her picture’. It is incidents like these which recall a childhood filled with magical moments. And it is these moments that we carry through to adulthood even though we also belonged to the ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ generation.

Over the last few days, the newspapers have spoken to us of the death of a child – a little boy who committed suicide because he was caned by his headmaster. And as part of the media focus, a prominent columnist, a ‘bad girl’ by her own admission, has stated her point of view. No stranger to the Principal’s office, I too received my share of whacks: smarting palms, stinging calves and strident scolding were battle scars - of skin and ear - to be endured. And we are certainly here today to tell the tale with, perhaps, a hint of bravado? Suicide was definitely not on the agenda and despite the ignominy of the label and the cane, life was for living and living to the full.

So, why would a little boy want to throw away his life? Are today’s children more sensitive, more vulnerable? He brought stink bombs to the classroom which, in my time, would have been paid for by a good long kneel, on a very hard floor, hands to ears and copious tears. An additional whack from a parent for good measure reinforced the message that stink bombs were a no-no. Perhaps caning is also a no-no. But the trigger for suicide? Surely, there must be more than that.

Childhood begins in the home. That place where attitudes and abilities are formed and the armour to face the world is built up bit by bit. And home is where we need to look. Tragically, the life that has been lost cannot be brought back, but other parents can open up to the heartfelt message – cherish your child. A child that is well grounded and secure can communicate and be reassured in return. A child that is loved in a stable home environment will not blow out of proportion the anger, or punishment, meted out by an ‘outsider’. A child which can interact with its parents does not need to internalize fear. And a child that knows the rough and tumble of the real world, rather than the virtual one of television and video games, can face up to almost anything this nasty old world will certainly deliver.

Blame and shame are deterrents but not the solution. The solution lies in truth. A child is dead and with him the truth of the situation has also died. But there are other children with lives to be lived. And care and counseling of both child and caregiver will help them realise that wonderful truth.