Sunday, May 17, 2020

Chai...

I smile in anticipation after finding a piece of shriveled ginger in the fridge. With fresh ginger no longer available, this piece is pregnant with possibilities. I drop it into boiling water, and wait for the flavours to seep out.
Ginger is not just ginger. It can be adrakwali chai.
Chai!

“Thoda chai patti aur shakkar de sakte ho?”, a man asked my friend when she at the grocer.
A stranded laborer, he was getting food from the government. But it was chai he craved for.
She gave him all the money in her purse, wishing she had more.
Back in the space which his family inhabits, he will brew chai for his wife and child. As they sip the sugary concoction together, at least for a few moments, the city would feel like home.
Chai is not just chai. It never was. Chai is belonging.

I drop the Red Label chaipatti in. And wait.

In camps where stranded laborers are housed, they wait for 4 pm. Chaitime.
Today there is no chai. The camps have run out of money. They barely have enough for food.
Reduce the food, they say, but give us our chai.
Chai is not an essential, but it is necessary to stay alive.

The steaming beverage on a hot summer day. The sugar rush it provides.
Chai is belonging.
It is the feeling of being wanted.
Of letting you forget you situation.
Of making you feel that you are in control.
I pour the chai into my favourite mug, and inhale deeply. The pungency of the ginger hits me like a tsunami. Carries me away to the ocean where only chai drinkers go.
Friendship
Gratitude
Togetherness
Passion
Addiction
Joy
Necessity
Chai means different things to different people.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

To continue to be kind

I almost don’t want to go to Facebook any more. All my friends are cooking elaborate five course meals, and participating in book readings and saree challenges. But for me, just ensuring the family (including dog) is fed and clothed seems like a major achievement.
Every day is like being on a treadmill. Meals, laundry, work, worry. You are running all the time, but even after putting in your best effort, you are exactly where you stared. The meal gets consumed, and you have to think of the next one. Laundry keeps piling up.
I admire the people who are baking their own bread- crusty, melt in the mouth buns for teatime. But I cannot be like them. I will shamelessly admit that I have taught my kids to fix themselves Maggie for lunch on days when I just cannot get myself to enter the kitchen.
There are people working on embroidery projects and learning Madhubani painting. I tell myself if I do something creative, it will help. But helping solve a trigonometry problem is about all I am capable of doing in my current mental state.
To all the people saying that if you do not come out of the lockdown without having learnt a new skill, all you lacked is discipline, I will only say, ‘Good for you that you are able’. But I can’t and it is not discipline that is lacking. It is the will.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. We are worried about ourselves. We are worried about our loved ones. There are nights when I can’t sleep worrying about my mother who is alone in another state 600 kms away. I worry about her.
I worry about the economy which was in bad shape even before the Lockdown, and which will only get worse. I worry about the recession that will come. I worry about how many people will slip further into poverty. I worry about increasing violence at home and on the streets.
I know that my worrying will not help. But it paralyses me. It prevents me from being creative and productive. Every night, while going to bed, I tell myself that tomorrow I will make the effort and wear kajal. But if I even comb my hair before noon, that’s an achievement.
There is just one thing I am able to do for myself. Every evening, I fix myself a strong mug of coffee, and sip it on the balcony while watching the sun paint its masterpiece on the western horizon. It is those 15 minutes of emptiness that keeps me sane and grounded.
And I tell myself that this is not a competition. I do not have to submit samples of my creativity to be graded by anyone. I do not have to make lists of books read, and movies watched. I do not have to be smarter and slimmer. I only have to continue being kind.

For me, and for many like me, survival is enough. If I come out of the lockdown with my sanity intact and without having lost my humanity, that’s enough. Paula Radcliffe can run a marathon in 2:15:25. If I turn up at the starting line, that is good enough.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Siddhidhatri, Goddess of the Supernatural Powers


She was pure Energy, the Universe in its 
Unmanifest form. She gave shape to the Creator,
 the Protector, and the Destroyer. She granted the
 right siddhis. She is the mistress of all 
achievements and perfections, she removes 
ignorance and bestows knowledge.

© 2018


Happy Birthday to You.
Happy Birthday to You,
Happy Birthday to You, dear Nani/ Mummy/ Bhabhi/ Didi/ Aunty
Happy Birthday to You.
The glow from 50 candles lit the faces of all the people who had come to celebrate my birthday. They were all smiling, clapping, singing. Waiting for me to blow out the candles and cut the cake. But I wanted to hold onto this moment a little longer. When would the entire family be gathered in one place, to celebrate me? Maybe never again. It was so wonderful to see them all; to know that many of them traveling a long distance to make it to this celebration. It felt so good.
And yet, was it really? When they were singing my birthday song, none of them addressed me by name. Mother. Sister. Sister-in-law. I was a relationship to all of them. Did any of them even see me as a woman? A woman with hopes and desires of her own?
I caught myself on time. This was a dangerous path to do down. Today is my birthday. Today, I will not think of any of that. Today I will be who I am expected to be.
I took a deep breath and blew the candles out. Someone switched the light on. I cut the cake, and taking the first piece looked around for my husband. He smiled as he took the first bite, then held my hand and guided the piece to my mouth. Then people descended to give me small pieces. I would have loved to sit down and have a large piece of cake, but couldn’t refuse any of them.
My son was the last to approach. With him was the pretty girl I had noticed. The girl with the kind eyes.
“Mummy, this is Apeksha. She is my friend.”
“Just a friend?”, I asked. He blushed and looked away.
“Happy Birthday, Aunty.”
“Thank you, Beta. I am glad you could come. Please don’t run away. I would love to spend some time with you after the party.”

I moved around, meeting and greeting all the guests. Making sure they were eating well, asking about their life. Making them feel at home. How many times I had played this role since I came into this family as a young bride. This was a role I played perfectly. The prefect daughter-in-law. The perfect wife. The perfect sister-in-law. The perfect mother. The perfect aunt. I was defined by the many roles I played.
I wondered if anyone even knew my name. I was always defined by a relationship. Even when I went for a morning walk with my friend, we referred to the others as ‘So-and-so’s mother’. Not that we didn’t know their names- we did- just that we had got used to the relationship.
“You should make Bade Bhaiya take you to Europe”, my sister-in-law said with a wink. “It will be so romantic. Just the two of you. In the Continent of Love.”
“Actually, I am leaving for Gharwal next week”, I told her.
“Gharwal? Why Gharwal. There is nothing to do in Gharwal. You can see everything in three days. You should make Bhaiya talke you to Europe.”
“I’m actually planning to-“, I began, but my husband materialised beside me and interjected. “Europe will be such a great idea, won’t it? Perhaps we can plan something next month.” He beamed down at me.
I opened my mouth to contradict him, but one look at him, and I held back my words. “We will see. If we go, I will certainly ask you for help.”

The party went on till late, but eventually the guests all left. It was just the family that was left. My husband, my son, my married daughter, and Apeksha. Even my son-in-law had disappeared to put my grandchild to bed. Apeksha made to get up, but my daughter motioned her to stay. I noticed that. My kids were always very close, and clearly my son had confided more in his twin than in me.
“Mummy, what nonsense is all this”, my daughter began getting straight at it. “Papa tells me you want to take Sanyas and run away to the mountains.”
“Not at all. I just want to move to hills and live life for myself.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with your life here.”
“Nothing. But all my life I have been doing things for others. Finally I want to do something for myself.”
“So you run away to the hills? Why can’t you do something for yourself here?”
“Well my classmate and her husband run a SHG for women in Kumaon. She asked me if I would like to train them in knitting products that can be marketed outside their area.”
“What rubbish is all that? You don’t even know anything about teaching.”
“I think I know a little bit about teaching. Don’t forget who taught you and your brother when  you were small, and neither of you has done too badly.”
“Mummy, you can’t!!!”
“Why not?”
It went back and forth for hours. I tried desperately to make them understand why after a lifetime of doing what others expected me to do, I wanted to be myself. I wanted to explore on my own. Make my own way in life. Make mistakes. Experience life. But no matter how hard I tried, I could just not make them understand. Or maybe they were worried about what people would say.
“What about Papa?”, my son brought out the Brahmastra.
“What about him? Anyway he is traveling most of the time. He can take retirement and move to Gharwal with me.”
”But..”
“But nothing. I have discharged my duties. My family doesn’t need me any more. Now I want to live for myself.”
“You can’t do that, Mummy. I will not even see you when I come for holidays. Is that what you want?”
“No. I can come down during your holidays, and cook you all your favourite food. Or you can visit me. Bring Apeksha also.” I turned to include her in the conversation. “You will visit, won’t you.”
“I would love to, Aunty.”
“What do you mean, Apeksha. Don’t you know what you are saying.”
“I know exactly what I am saying. Just like we want to get to know each other better before we decide if we want to get married, Aunty wants to get to know herself better. And I agree with her.”
I could have hugged the young lady.
“But, Mummy. We love you.”
“I love you too. And I will always love you. But I have never had a chance to do what I want, and now that I have discharged most of my duties, I want to do it while I am still healthy.”
“But….”
“No buts. I have made up my mind. I leave for Gharwal next week whether you like it or not. But I would certainly like it if I leave with your blessings.”

_____
I am Siddhidatri, the Goddess of Supernatural Powers. The ninth manifestation of Nav
Durga. I am every woman who’s given her everything to others.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Mahagauri, the Fairest One

She's performed severe austerities, defeated the most
powerful demons. But that's not enough; she wants
to be the fairest of them all. She lets Ganga wash away
layers of grime. Her beauty dazzles, she loves being
admired

© 2018

I hummed tunelessly as I guided the brush over by eyelids, drawing winged eyeliner. Practically perfect, if I say so myself. Not bad for someone who had virtually gone without make-up for over a month.
“How much longer will you take”, my partner yelled.
“Just a couple of minutes”, I replied, starting on my lips.
“Oh come on. This is just a book release, not a cocktail party.”
“I don’t care. I want to look beautiful.”
“You are beautiful as you are. You don’t need make-up to look beautiful.”
Men!!!! They will never understand.

“You are beautiful”, he sighed when I presented myself ten minutes later. “I wish we could just stay at home.”
“I didn’t spend so much time over my make-up to stay at home.” I playfully swatted his hand away, before dissolving into a hug. “I too wish I could stay home. But if we have to go out, let’s party!!!”

The book release was in a heritage structure that had recently been restored. I loved the curving staircase and the heavy columns. “Take a photograph of me”, I said, leaning on the balustrade, staring into space, pretending I was Audrey Hepburn in my version of the little black dress.
“What’s got into you today?”, he asked, clicking the photographs.
“Nothing. I have been away from pretty things for a really long time and want to just enjoy myself today.” I pulled him into an embrace, and laughing, we entered the hall.

“Listen, I really need to schmooze a bit. Will you be okay on your own?”
“Of course. If I can take care of myself in tribal hamlets, I can certainly look after myself here.”

For all my bravado, such parties weren’t really my thing. I had never mastered the art of small talk, and no matter how well dressed I was, I always felt like an imposter. But today, I was determined to have a good time. After all, how difficult could it be to fake it?
I grabbed a cup of tea, balanced a cookie on it, and picking up a copy of his book flipped through it. As always, the Acknowledgements made me smile. Not every day that you get to see your name in print.
“Hi, can I take a selfie with you?”
Selfie with me? Is that the new pick up line? “Sure. But why?”
“I’ll put it up on Facebook, so everyone can see.”
Putting up a selfie with a random stranger on Facebook? Whatever rocks his boat.
I let him stand next to me and smiled dutifully for the selfie.
“So what do you do?”
You mean, apart from documenting vanishing livelihoods among the tribals of Chattisgarh? I wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but.. “I am a researcher, I-”
“I employ a researcher too”, he cut me off. “She scans the print and digital media everyday to see if there are any mentions of me. And if there are she files it for me.”
There are actually people who do that? And here I am finding it difficult to update my blog on a regular basis. “I see.”
“But she is leaving in a few weeks. So if you are looking for a job, do let me know.”
If that is the last job in the world, I won’t. “Sure I will.”
“So, why are you here? Do you read?”
Only every spare minute I have. “Yes, I like reading, but I am here because-”
“I don’t have time to read. I prefer watching movies. But you have to be seen at these events, don’t you? Otherwise people will think you are not interested in culture.” He guffawed loudly. Though I couldn’t get the joke at all, I politely smiled.
“This book is set in Madhya Pradesh, you know.”
Don’t they teach geography in school any more? Why does nobody know about the Chota Nagpur Plateau? “Actually it is not, it is set in the Chota Nagpur Plateau- ” He cut me short before I could finish.
“It is set in Madhya Pradesh. My assistant has read all reviews of the book. She told me. My mother is from Bhopal, so I have a special connect with the book.”
Did this ass seriously think there were indigenous tribals roaming around on the streets of Bhopal? “Chota Nagpur Plateau is not- “
“No, not Nagpur, Bhopal. You should read the cover page at least. Otherwise you will not look knowledgeable when the writer chap talks about the book.”
I work with the tribes where the story is set, and I’ve proofread the book twice. I wanted to say, but he wasn’t done.
“Don’t worry. It is normal to get confused between Bhopal and Nagpur. Just be careful if you want to ask any questions.”
Why would I want to ask any questions when I am familiar with the matter? “Sure, Sir. Thank you for the advice.”
“Don’t be so formal shormal. Call me Yuvraj, not Sir.”
Yuvraj? Figures. Entitled brat. “Sure, Yuvraj.”
“The event is going to begin. I better go and take my place. The writer chap will be offended if I am not there. Bye.”
Like he even cares. He is doing all this because the publisher is asking him to. “Bye.”
“And remember Nagpur and Bhopal are different cities.”
Was that a wink he gave me?

The event went off really well. My partner struck the right note between keeping the audience engaged and drawing attention to the sorry plight of the tribals who’s old way of life was under threat from industrialisation.
“Where did you get the idea for the book?”, someone from the audience asked.
 “I have to thank my partner for it”, he said smiling at me. She is an anthropologist who spends more than six months a year with the tribals documenting their changing lifestyle. I was fascinated by her stories, and spent three months in the tribal hamlet with her. That was when I decided to write the book.
“Is that who you mention in the Acknowledgements?”
“Yes. In fact, she got back from the field only today, and is here now. You can give her a cheer in person.” He looked into my eyes, imploring me to join him. I got up in a daze, and joined him. He squeezed my hand and smiled at me before turning to the audience. “Whatever is good in the book is because of her. The mistakes are despite her best effort to educate me.”
The audience clapped. I shut my eyes and let it sink in. Yesterday, I was in the jungle in my jeans and crumpled kurti sharing a meal with a tribal girl. Today, I was in a linen shift and pearls, and all these beautiful people were cheering me. Both the women were me. Life was good.
My eyes sought out Yuvraj. He was the only one not clapping!

_____
I am Mahagauri, the Fairest One. The eighth manifestation of Nav Durga. I am every woman wanting to be taken seriously despite her looks.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Kaalratri, the Ruler of the Night

Darker than the moonless night, she strikes fear in 
the heart of Evil. No demon can escape her, but she
protects those who cherish her. The Dark Force of 
Nature, she is responsible for maintaining 
balance in the Universe.

© 2018

I wiped my sister’s fevered forehead with a wet cloth. “Don’t worry. Appa will be home soon with medicine. You will be all right.”
“Leave me alone. Let me die.”
“Never. You are the smartest one in the family. You will study and become a nurse. Then you will escape all this.”
“Let me die, Akka. Don’t hold me back. I am too sick. We do not have the money for medicines.”
“Don’t worry. Appa will get you medicines. I will not allow you to die, the way we let Amma.”
My baby sister muttered something, and drifted back into sleep. I couldn’t let her die. This was the same sickness that took away my mother. First the loose motions, then the vomiting. Then the fever, and more vomiting even when there was nothing to throw up. The nurse who had come to the school told us we could avoid falling sick if we boiled the water before drinking. But who has that much firewood?

But where was Appa? He should have come home long back. He said he would ask the money lender for money and get medicines. Why hadn’t he come yet?
At least my sister had managed to sleep. I fanned her and tried to ignore my hunger. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. But I had to wait for Appa to eat first. He went out to work. He needed the little food there was.
Appa came home late smelling of arrack.
“Did you get medicines?”
“That b@#%$$* refused to loan me any more money. Said I should pay back what I have already borrowed. I told him I will pay him back as soon as my sons send money home, but he refused to listen.”
He handed me the rest of the daily wages. “Tomorrow, I will go to the shopkeeper. He might give me money. I don’t know why I didn’t go to him first. The money lender is totally unreliable. That b@#%$$*. I shouldn’t have gone to him.”
I looked away. I knew the terms on which the shopkeeper lent money. But we didn’t have a choice. For the sake of my little sister, I would have to agree to them.

The next day, we took my sister to the hospital. They put her on saline. Four packets of saline. She would certainly get well. My sister had to get well. She was the smart one in the family. She would study and become a nurse. We will help her, my brothers and I. None of us was good at studies but she is. She will become someone. I will make sure she does.

Two days later, my sister was better and we could take her home. She was still weak, but she could sit on the bed, and drink the rice gruel I gave her. I heard someone calling my father’s name from outside the hut. I knew who it was. It was the shopkeeper. He had come to collect his fee for giving us money.
“I am giving my sister her medicine. Please wait. I will come outside”, I shouted out. I knew the payment he wanted. It was the same payment I made when our roof blew away, and when my mother fell sick. It will be the same payment I will continue to make till my sister is able to finish school. As long as he continues to be satisfied by the payment, we will survive.
I wiped my hand on my saree, and stepped out. He could sleep with a Dalit girl, but he would never enter our house.

“Akka, we don’t want to go to school”, my younger brother and sister told me.
“But you must go to school.” I insisted.
“But why? We can both start working and earn money.  Then you will also have less tension.”
“You have to go to school. Because unless you study well, you will not be able to make a good life.”
“It’s no use”, they complained. “Anyway we don’t learn anything. Even after we finish sweeping the school, Master never lets us sit inside the classroom. We don’t even know what he is teaching.”
“I will come and speak to your Master”, I promised. “Perhaps he will listen to me.”
I know the school teacher well. I have something he wants, maybe I could make him listen.

When the sowing season came, my brother dropped out of school. I started dropping my sister off and picking her up from school. She was young and fair. I couldn’t take any chances with her.
One day, the shopkeeper saw us together. “Hey Kaali. Where did you get this beautiful cow from?”, he asked staring lustfully at my sister.
I pushed my sister behind my back. “Don’t even look at her. She is not for you.”
“Really. We will see about that.” He licked his lips suggestively.

That night I made my way to the shopkeeper’s house. After that, I went whenever he called. But I knew he was not satisfied. He made it clear that it was my sister who he wanted. I would not let her out of my sight even for a moment.

The rains failed. There was no harvest work for any of us. My father too left us and went to the city to look for work. I was left alone to look after my younger brother and sister. We survived somehow. Men were willing to give me little money for food. I made sure they didn’t miss a single day of school.

The shopkeeper’s wife delivered a baby. She was very weak, and I was asked to help. I didn’t want to leave my brother and sister alone at home, but I had no choice. They gave me four rupees every day, and sometimes when there was food left over, they let me take it home.

One day, when I returned home, I found my sister on the bed staring into space.
“What is wrong? Why are you not studying?”, I asked lighting the lamp. “At least light the lamp. Why are you sitting in the dark.”
She refused to answer. Just started into space. “What happened?”, I asked shaking her shoulder. She refused to answer. She lay down, closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.

Finally, sleep claimed me.
“Akka, wake up. Sister is missing.”
I sat up with a start.
My sister was not where she should be on the floor.
“She must have run away. We have to look for her. You go near the forest, I will check in the village.”
We ran in different directions.

“Akka!!!!!” My brother’s voice reverberated from the direction of the thicket. I ran through the fields. Pushed through the shrubs, not caring how the thorns cut into my bare hands. I reached the clearing. There, hanging from the branch of the giant bakula tree was my sister. Limp. Motionless. The leaves fluttered in the gentle breeze. But she was still.
I sunk to the ground. Raked with sorrow. My sister gone. Gone forever. Dead. Dead like she never existed.

Was it the school teacher? Was it the shopkeeper? I do not know. But I know they will not get away with it. I will go to the city. I will study and join the police. I will hunt them down. However long it takes, I will hunt them down. My sister’s death will be avenged.

_____
I am Kalaratri, the Ruler of the Night. The seventh manifestation of Nav Durga. I am every woman fighting for her right to live.



Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Katyayani, the Slayer of Demons

Born out of spontaneous anger, destined to slay
Mahishasura. Mesmerised by her Beauty, he sought
her hand in marriage. She challenged him to a duel
and accomplished what none of the male Gods 
could.

© 2018

 “Please come home for a few days, Sona”, my mother implored. “Your father will just not be able to manage all this on his own, and I am worried for him.”
This was the worst possible time for me. Ad revenues were going down, and my channel was struggling to stay afloat. If I asked for leave, I couldn’t be sure there would be a job waiting for me when I returned. Not because they wanted to sack me, but because every salary was a challenge. Sometimes I wondered if our co-founder wasn’t paying some of our salaries himself- I could easily have found out if I looked at the accounts, but I really didn’t want to know.
“You will come, won’t you. Please.”
It was hard to refuse my mother. She’d been used to my father doing all the outside work, and ever since his dementia became obvious, I knew she was struggling. My sister-in-law helped as much as she could. But with two young children and a military spouse there was only so much she could do. I really had no choice. I had to go home and do the NRC filing for the family.
“What about Dada, can’t he come?” I made one last ditch effort.
“We don’t even know where he has been posted. I don’t think he will be coming home now.”
“Okay, Ma. I’ll try and come early next week. You have the documents ready, and I will try to finish it as soon as possible.”
 +
Saturday found me sitting in Ma’s kitchen, with a cup of steadily cooling chai, pouring over documents. Ma’s case was quite straightforward. Both her parents had been born in India, and their names were on the original National Register of Citizens. She had been born in a government hospital, so there was no complication. Both Dada and me could claim blood kinship to her, so we were safe.
Baba’s case was more complicated.  We knew his family had come over to Assam in the mid 1960s, because some of his uncles had joined the army and had fought in the Bangladesh war. We also knew that they had registered themselves, but the documents were missing, and proving it would not be easy.
His school leaving certificate was from 1978, and though he knew he had first enrolled in school in Assam, there were no official documents to prove it. There was anecdotal evidence. His eldest brother had passed out of school in 1971, and there were photographs showing all three brothers standing outside their home in Assam. Anyone who was sympathetic would agree that Baba had migrated to Assam before March 1971, but would the officials be sympathetic?
 +
I was at the office the next day, nervously clutching all the evidence I had gathered. The officer made a show of going through the documents. He was making me uncomfortable, so I looked away, but whenever I looked at him, I found him giving me a lascivious look.
“This is a nice story, but how do I believe you?”
“Sir, if you just let me look at the records, I am sure I can find my father’s name. You don’t have to do anything, just allow me access to the records.”
“Why should I do that?” Was it my imagination, or was he actually licking his lips?
“Please, Sir. These are public records. I can certainly file an RTI to access them, but it will take too much time. Can’t you please let me take a look?”
We went back and forth for a long time, then finally he pretended to relent. “I like you a lot and really want to help. But if I let you into the Record Room without proper authorisation, I will be in trouble. Why don’t we do one thing. I will take the file home tomorrow evening. You come to my house after 8 pm, and I will allow you to take a look.”
I looked at him uncomprehendingly. Was he implying what I thought he was implying? He did not keep me in suspense much longer.
“Come alone. And another thing. Don’t wear this silly Panjabi suit. Wear one of your Delhi dresses, the ones you wear when you go drinking with your boyfriends.”
I was too shocked to say anything.
“Upto you. If you want to look at the file, come to my house. If you don’t want to, that’s also okay.”
 +
“How was it?”, Ma asked when I returned home. I told her I was hoping to get the documents. I really couldn’t tell her the truth, could I? That I had just been propositioned by a petty government official, and I could do nothing about it.
+
I spent the night tossing and turning. I wished I could just submit the documents and be done with it- my father was old, he had worked in the tea estate all his life. They would certainly not deport him now. But I also knew that the official would make sure the application was rejected. He made it clear what he wanted, and he had the power to make me pay if I didn’t give it to him. Yet, how could I?
 +
The next day, I could barely look Baba-Ma in the eye. Would they ever understand what I was going through? Could they comprehend how it was to be in a position where you betrayed them no matter what you did- I couldn’t let Baba be deported, yet how could I sell my body?
I needed to speak to someone. I dialled my best friend in Delhi and poured the story out.
 +
In the evening, I dressed with care. The form fitting jeans that did wonders to my figure. A white crop top. The velvet jacket I had paid a fortune for. My blow-dried hair framed my face and accentuated my bright red lips. I knew I was looking stunning.
“Bye Ma”, I called out, grabbing my bag and mobile phone. “Don’t wait up for me. I may be late.”
 +
“You are looking beautiful”, he said, grabbing me by my waist. I could smell the cheap alcohol in his breath.
“Not now. First I want to see the file”, I said pulling out my headphones and turning off the music on my phone.
We argued for awhile. But finally we agreed that I would check the file first and will only take photographs of records before leaving. He gave me the file, and sad down opposite me. His eyes didn’t leave my cleavage as he took deep drags on his cigarette.
In less than half an hour, I found Baba’s name.
“Come”, he said, thrusting his face into mine.
“Wait. I need to use the washroom before that.” I pulled the bolt and dialled the number.
The doorbell rang. First once, then incessantly.
“Don’t come out of the bathroom”, he hissed. “I will get rid of whoever it is.”
+
He opened the door and found a mike thrust at his face. “I am from Guwahati Times. This is a sting operation. I believe you are selling secrets in return for sexual favours.”
I stepped out of the washroom, and held up the phone where I had recorded the entire conversation. “I have it all on tape. If you let me take a copy of the records, I will persuade my friend to drop this story. Otherwise, I hope you know a good lawyer.”
 +

“Does that thing even work”, I asked my friend’s brother who was a student at IIT and had pretended to be a journalist.
“Who knows?”, he shrugged. “But it did it’s job, didn’t it?”
 
_____
I am Katyayani, the Slayer of Demons. The sixth manifestation of Nav Durga. I am every woman who is forced to fight for what is right.


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Skhandamata, the Mother of Shand

The Mother of Kartikeya, she watches out for all
her children. She grants eternal wisdom, her 
devotees are doubly blessed

© 2018
I rushed into the office lobby as fast as my pregnant body would let me. Of all days, did I have to be late today when we had the Unicorn presentation in the afternoon? I glanced at my watch in dismay as the lift took its own time coming down. Why didn’t I get up when my alarm went off? Why did I hit the stop button instead of pressing snooze? I had spent the night tossing and turning, trying to find a comfortable position. I should have pulled myself up.
The lift arrived, and I tried to control my thoughts. I’d been working on the Unicorn account for nearly six weeks. And today was the final presentation. I couldn’t afford to mess up. I had to concentrate.
"Hi. Boss would like to meet you now", said his secretary as I passed her desk.
"Right now? Okay". I left my bag at her desk, ignored my full bladder and pushed open his door. "I'm sorry I'm late. But I finished all the work on the account yesterday before leaving. Didn't you get my mail."
"Sit down", he waved. "It's not about the presentation. You know we have been having a tough quarter, and we really have to economise. There has been a restructuring and I'm afraid your position has been merged with another." He paused, and let the words sink in. "As per policy, we have to give you 30 days notice, which we will. You are, if course, free to leave earlier as long as you finish your complete handover."
"Are you firing me? But I've not done any wrong." Why?"
"I know it is a shock. But there is nothing I can do about it. I was asked to let go one member of my team. I'll give you a good reference, of course."
"But why me? I've been here for four years. I've always been a consistent performer. Why me?" My baby sensed my agitation and started kicking wildly. "Is it because of the baby? I'll join back after a month. But don't ask me to leave. Please."
"It's not because of your condition. It's a management decision. Please understand. Now I'd you don't mind. I think you have to prepare for the meeting. You are late, as it is."
I rushed out and made it to the washroom just in time. My baby continued to kick, and gradually, I calmed down. 'Don't worry, Sweetheart. Mommy will be fine. We will forget all about this and do our job. In the evening, we will tell Daddy about this.'

My baby gave a soft kick and went back to sleep. I splashed water on my face, reapplied my kajal and got to my desk.

The Unicorn meeting went off really well. The Founder was one of the smartest people I've worked with. She immediately grasped our points and her questions were insightful. When she thought I wasn't looking, I shot covert glances at her. With her pretty saree, tasteful jewellery and subtle make up, she made me feel dowdy. Someday, I wanted to be like her. She caught me staring and flashed me a smile. Embarrassed, I looked away.
"Really good work", she said to my boss. "Give me a couple of days and I'll get back to you." She went around the room shaking hands. "You did a fantastic job", she told me. "I love some of your ideas."
"Thank you", I beamed back.
“Could you tell me where the washroom is?"
“I’ll show you where it is.”
“That would be very kind". She smiled back. “So when are you due?”
“Not for another three months. Mid-December.”
“The third trimester is the easiest. Enjoy yourself now. See all the movies you want. Take a holiday. Once the baby comes, you will have no time for yourself. Pamper yourself now.”
Tears came to my eyes at her kindness. She broke off, and put her hand on my shoulder. “What happened? Did I say something I shouldn’t have? Is everything all right? I’m sorry if I said something wrong.”
“No. You didn’t say anything. It’s just that, just that”,  tears streamed down my cheeks. I gulped and the words came out in a rush, “It’s just that I have been asked to leave.”
“BASTARDS!” Though no sound came out, I could read her lips. She controlled her rage. “Why? They can’t just fire you like that. Not after all the work you have put in.”
“They said they are restructuring. But I know it is because they don’t want to pay me during my maternity leave. Only I have been asked to leave. Nobody else. I tried telling them I am willing to join back sooner, but they told me to finish my notice period and leave. Maybe they will take me back after the baby..”
“Nonsense. Don’t even think of coming back here.”
“But I have never worked anywhere else. I was so happy here. I don’t even know how to start looking for a job.” I was blabbering on, and I knew it.
“Well, you could come and work for me. Instead of outsourcing my work to this firm, I could hire you to do it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Are you serious?”
“I wouldn’t joke about something like this. I have seen your work. More importantly, I have seen how professionally you conducted yourself today. Only thing is, I cannot afford to pay you full wages during your maternity leave, so I will have to take you on as a consultant. Let’s grab a coffee tomorrow if you are interested, and we can discuss the terms.”
“I don’t know what to say”, I stammered.
“Don’t say anything now”, she smiled. “If we are going to work together, there will be lots of time to say things. Now smile. You baby doesn’t like it when you are sad.”

_____
I am Skandamata, the Mother of Skand. The fifth manifestation of Nav Durga. I am every woman struggling to survive in a workplace that is not conducive to women.

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