Sunday, November 30, 2008

Heartbreak Hotel

The first time I saw the hotel, it was from the Arabian sea. I was about eight years old. We were returning to India from Muscat by ship. The journey was long and tedious and after sailing for almost three days we were desperate to see some land.

My mother shook me awake at about 2 o'clock early morning. "We have reached Bombay. Come and see the lights." Standing on the deck, rubbing off sleep from my eyes, I stood watching the twinkling lights in the distance. "That's the Taj - the famous hotel in Bombay." My mother sounded proud - as if it was something that belonged exclusively to her.

The year was 1976. The Taj Tower, whose lights had warmed the hearts of my parents, was almost brand new. It was majestic and tall and stood proudly towering over all the other buildings of the city. Next morning fresh and completely awake, I saw for the first time the Taj Mahal hotel, clearly visible from the sea. Glorious and elegant, it completely overshadowed it's much taller and newer extension. It created a lasting impression on my young mind.

Years later, when I came to Bombay as a young bride, I would often go to the Apollo Bunder, where the Taj was located, with my husband. We would walk on the promenade and admire it's old style architecture and elegant facade.

The last time we went to the Taj, it was with our friend who came from New Jersey. We took her and her son to the Elephanta caves and stopped at the hotel to refresh ourselves. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were staying there for the shooting of A Mighty Heart. The hotel and the surrounding lanes were full of curious onlookers. The polite staff never expressed any displeasure over any of this. They attended to us as if we were celebrities ourselves. I still remember the beautiful flowers in the lobby, the magnificent archways and the exquisite artwork on the walls. The sheer grandeur of the place was breathtaking..

On November 27, I sat glued to the television set, watching the the Taj again, this time on fire. Few young men, with evil on their minds, had set out to destroy this iconic structure. They mercilessly killed the guests spraying them with bullets. Innocent men, women and children caught completely unaware, lay there dying, spending the last day of their lives in fear and agony. Shards of glass, thick smoke bellowing over the domes, helpless guests frantically waving for rescue from their windows, the fire fighters working tirelessly and the marine commandos valiantly trying to save the people and the building from total destruction. The images were mind numbing. I was a mute spectator, along with the entire nation, feeling helpless and violated.

The elegant hallways of the Taj will no longer be the same. I will no longer be able to enter the hotel with a spring on my step and joy on my mind. I will hear the heart wrenching sobs of the victims every time I go there. Even after the renovation, when the hotel reclaims it's former glory, the image of it burning would always stay in my mind.

But go back I will. When this grand old beauty is ready to face the crowd once more, I will go back to the Taj defying fear and sorrow.

After all, I owe it to the people who needlessly lost their lives in this bloody carnage. I owe it those who valiantly tried to rescue the hostages, sometimes even at the cost of their own lives. I owe it to the people who saved this heritage structure from crumbling down. But mostly, I owe it to the hotel whose distant lights were once the symbol of a homeland for an eight year old.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Girls Just Wanted To Have Fun

We all had been waiting for ages for this day. Finally when the big day arrived, we could barely contain our happiness. After a gap of one and a half years we were going on a vacation. It was definitely a big reason to celebrate.

The bags had been packed. The sun screen lotion had been tucked away. Even the last minute packing had been done much in advance. Goa was calling.

There was a slight problem though. My daughter 's birthday was coming up during the break and she wanted to celebrate in style. After all not everyday a girl turned thirteen! So, after much deliberation, she invited some of her closest friends for lunch. Our train would leave in the evening that day. Surely there would be ample time to celebrate with her friends!

Turning thirteen is a momentous occasion. This was the official entry to the exciting teens. So what would a bunch of thirteen year old do to celebrate? Dress up in style? Watch a movie on DVD? Shop for some exotic jewellery? Dance to the latest hits? If you were my daughter, you would have have ticked all of the above. Life is a party.

So outfits were chosen, CDs were piled up, Pizza Hut number was memorised and the choice of topping for each friend was duly noted. Pepperoni.Mushroom and cheese. Chicken tikka masala; oh! When would the magic hour strike? Well, the clock did strike the magic hour. On October 21, around 10 o'clock, the school called up to say it was closing down. Raj Thakrey had been arrested in the wee hours of the morning and the irate MNS members had decided to go on a rampage. They burnt down public transport, broke window panes of commercial establishments, pelted stones at passersby and forcibly halted the megalopolis to a standstill. Schools and colleges shut down. And so did Galleria- the local hub for exotic jewellery. Planet M- the local music and DVD store and Pizza Hut- the saviour of all the teens celebrating birthdays.

Faces downcast and moods sombre, frantic phone calls were exchanged to salvage the situation. I could only watch with growing horror. We had only a few hours to catch the train. I had closed down my kitchen. I had nothing to offer to these girls and a mother's heart was breaking. The mob had shut down every local shop. Even the local super market had downed its shutters. And my pantry was empty. Even before the party began it had pooped .

I tried to save the day by offering the girls some hot home cooked aloo parathas but could I ever hope to compete with Pizza Hut? The girls decided to stay hungry. I guess aloo parathas did not enjoy a huge fan base. My daughter did try to infuse some cheer to the party by playing some foot tapping numbers on the CD player but no matter what, the fun had clearly gone out of the party.

We left for the station much early fearing road blocks. By then things had calmed down a bit. Markets had opened and the cars, though only few, were back on the roads. We started our much awaited vacation with a heavy heart.

The party did happen though. The five days that we were in Goa, we ate at fifteen different places. From xacuti to oysters we tried everything. My daughter shopped for exotic jewellery to her heart's content. Beads, stones , shells... she bought them all. Though not the latest hits, we did listen to awesome live bands and some groovy music. And the day of her actual birthday,we flew in from Goa to Mumbai and went on to Delhi to continue our vacation. So breakfast in Goa, lunch in Mumbai and dinner in Delhi. Top that MNS members.

So sorry girls, you had to miss out on all that fun. May be we can try this once again when Ishita turns eighteen. We can listen to some music, eat pizza and dance all night long.

Hopefully, a certain Mr. Thakrey would also grow up a bit by then.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fading Like A Flower

Like all well brought up Bengali girls of my time, I was told in early childhood never to address anyone elder to me by his or her first name. As I had numerous 'kakas' and 'pishis', each one had a special name to his or her credit. So, my father's brothers were 'moni'jethu, 'shona'kaku, kaku'moni', and 'kutti'kaku and my aunts became 'moni'pishi, 'phool'pishi and 'chchoto'pishi.

My earliest memory of phoolpishi (the flower aunt), was when I was about 3. My mother had gone out leaving my brother and me at home. I was tired, hungry and crying. How dared she leave me? Didn't she know it was my lunch time?

The ever smiling phoolpishi took charge of the whole situation. She bathed me, fed me, and even told me a story, all without losing her calm. In fact, it was a well known fact that whenever a recalcitrant person arrived on the scene, phoolpishi would sweet talk and gently bring the situation under control.

She was a very charming lady in her youth. Once I had asked my mother why phoolpishi was called so and she replied that it was because she was as beautiful as a flower. She was gentle and soft and had all the kids completely engrossed in her stories. She had the ability to make wonderful things out of waste. A beautiful ring from a strip of golden ribbon, a doll from a wrapper of a candy, a purse out of a cigarette pack for the doll. All the things fascinating for a little girl and I never missed a chance to be with her.

But over the years, for reasons unknown to any of us,from the ever smiling charming lady that she was, she changed into somebody we really didn't know. She became whimsical and eccentric. She openly showed her preference to her sister's daughter over us - her brothers' children. I was anguished by so many of her inexplicable actions. She became a puzzle and I slowly shoved her existence into one corner of my life.

Her beauty, graciousness and love had withered away, leaving behind an empty shell.When old age made her dependent on her family, not many people showed much willingness to support her emotionally. I certainly did not have the patience to deal with her many whims. She was not the loving flower aunt any more and I was no longer the little girl easily swayed by songs and stories.

So when she came to Mumbai for a visit, most of us were reluctant to host her. We were busy with our own lives and it was difficult to accommodate an ageing relative. As luck would have it,she fell seriously ill when it was my turn to host her. She was in the hospital and for a while it was touch and go. When I finally got her home, I realised for the first time how illness and old age stripped off every vestige of dignity one possessed. She could not even take a bath on her own. She needed constant monitoring and was totally dependent on her caregiver for all her basic needs.

Though it was heart-wrenching to see her like this, She became an extra load on my shoulders. I already had other responsibilities and looking after her became a chore that I really did not have the time to do. My whole life revolved around doctor visits, medicines and suitable diets for her. And I resented it so very much.

One day I came home to find Phoolpishi showing my younger daughter how to make a doll with paper. Abruptly all my resentment drained off. I remembered how it was when I was a child. The day Phoolpishi took care of me when my mother was away. And now I was doing the nurturing. It seemed like a pay-off.

My childrens' patience with an old and sick lady taught me a lot that day. It taught me that life was like a flower. It blooms in the morning, giving out it's fragrance. Spreading happiness and love. And at night it slowly withers away. Its former beauty only a fading memory in every one's mind.

A Theme For Her Dream

God is in the details,or so I believed. I painstakingly planned down to the minutest detail. I was throwing a party for my daughter who would be turning six and she wanted to have something different this time. " We are sick of the same old party games...It has become pretty boring. Can't you do something better?"
So I thought I would throw the party of the year and planned a 'Pirate Theme Party' for her.
Invitation cards proclaiming "Ahoy there matey" went to all the miniature pirates. 'Captain Ayushi'wanted to call all her friends to be there at her 'pier', Large cardboard skulls, black flags, and ships were cut out by the captain's elder sister and father. A large 3kg cake in the shape of a pirate ship was ordered. It was another matter that the cake finally looked like a bus that had met with an unfortunte accident. But who cared? It was made of rich, gooey chocolate right?
An old harmonium box covered with gold paper sat in the middle of the hallway full of 'return gifts' - a sparkling sword, a black eye patch and a pair of binoculars for each child.
A game of treasure hunt was played. My elder daughter with her friend had hidden chocolate coins wrapped in gold in various places. Little pirates wearing their eye patches had to hunt for them and put them in their goodie bags. Whoever managed to collect the most would win 'The Grand Pirate Prize'.
Within seconds my house was completely taken over by 35 plunderers all desperately looking for ttheir nuggets of gold.Precious pirate theme paper plates and glasses flew in all directions. The forks and spoons were used more for poking each other.
Later, the pictures showed that I looked like a zombie - completely unaware of whatever was happening around me. My husband was single - handedly trying to guard the door as well the as the floor to ceiling windows. My home was on the 24th floor and we were trying to prevent 35 six year olds from flying out of them. My precious sofas had muddy (chocolate?) hand prints all over. The pristine walls sported various modern art. The white Italian marble floor had pepsi, cake and god knows what stains on it. Later, it took us almost 3 days to get the house back in order.
After making sure each child was handed over to his/her mom - (don't forget the sword, the goodie bag; aunty may I have another sword? I'm sure my brother would love one - and can I have one for my friend as well?. Are you sure that this boy belongs to her? they don't look similar), I crashed on my now ruined bed trying to get my bearings back. The little imp - one eye still patched up, came flying through the door, gave me a hug and said," That was cool - can I have an astronaut theme party next year?"