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Diseases of the Heart – Guest Post by Judith Narayan Vaddi

Judith Narayan Vaddi is the author of ‘Dark Shade of Black’ – a collection of 49 verses available on Amazon. I had the pleasure of spending 5 days in her classroom at a VBS many, many years ago. She remains undoubtedly one of the best teachers and genuinely good human beings I have met in my life. 

Sydney had asked me to write a bit of a bio…something I would like people to know about me and I must say I was very meflattered. I have never really looked at myself because well that was something we were never taught, to talk about oneself. So in a way, this too, is a new journey of sorts for me. :)

The one thing I am passionate about, perhaps to the point of obsession and can share unabashedly about is literature, whether it be plays or poetry or a novel. Growing up, I hardly ever played with dolls or dress up, two activities my daughter undertakes with a fierceness that surprises even me. I was always engrossed in books, nose deep in some adventure or the other, fascinated by the tales spun like magic across the inky pages of well worn, well read books.

Both my parents fed this ever growing appetite of mine and later on in school and college by my teachers and professors. So in a nutshell, writing and reading, apart from my children are then the defining and driving passions of my life.

Happy reading!

  # Diseases of the heart

Hearts that are clogged,

Valves closed

By the colour of my skin

The gender of my dress

The slant eyes of my face.

Minds that are set,

Intellects warped

By the lowness of my caste

The tattered attire of my fate

The bleakness of my estate.

Emotions that are swayed

Sentiments won

By the religiosity of my creed

Fed by the hunger, craving need

Insatiable, uncontrollable, unfathomable deeds.

Truth be told, I had intended to write about something else – the thought had come upon me as I sat and waited outside my daughter’s school just before pick up time. I saw a Traffic Sergeant bulldoze his way into why he needed to ‘fine’ us even though we park in more or less the same spot for the last seven odd months this year. There was something oddly familiar and yet at the time deeply disturbing about this scene that plays itself almost everywhere across our country.

But we’ll come to that a little later. I was struck by a question that someone asked yesterday on a social media network – are you even a … (name of an institution) girl? The person in question had some issues of her own, probably even a bad day at work or home or whatever, but the manner in which the frustration was poured out definitely left a bad after taste.

Which brings me to the question – Who am I? Am I a wife first or a mother? Am I a Hermonite or a North Pointer? An Indian or a North-east Indian? Or has been in the news lately, am I then a Hindu?

Who decides then the tags that precede us? Clearly at various points in our lives, we have introduced ourselves, with some degree of pride, as being part of an institution or church affiliation even. Trust me there is nothing wrong with that.

The danger comes when we start imposing our beliefs as to what the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ that can be, must be associated with these tags, frowning upon the misfits, the ones that do not fit the mould.

There is a danger to that because in the end, kindnesses should matter, politeness and civility should be displayed and decency in all manner and form needs to be the thumb rule for all approaches and reproaches as well.

Having said all that, I come back to the tags by saying I am not a Loreto girl. Never was. And that is because I am also an MH girl, a Carmel Convent, an SJC girl and everywhere else that I have journeyed with my father during his tenure of service as an IPS officer.

In all of these wonderful institutions, I have made some incredible friends, met some wonderful mentors and guides and I have come away with a deep sense of gratitude for all the values that they have instilled in me. It is also true that in life’s journey, one’s intentions may not always be seen in the best of light and at best be misconstrued and opinions, as such, largely differ. What matters, however, is the manner in which it is expressed.

Too often though, the level of crassness has sunk further and further and even as our civilizations expand and grow, so unfortunately does our sense of appropriate behaviour diminish, with little thought or regard for the person on whom it is vent.

I will always be grateful to be associated with these institutions, places I have been, schools and colleges where I have studied and more so, with the people whose lives have touched mine.

But it does not for a single moment define who I am – because in the end, how we live our lives defines who we are, not a tag associated with a culture, race or even an institution.

So coming back to the Traffic Sergeant, when I look at him, I am reminded of my father, how tall his stature and unshaken his beliefs. And I am filled with a deep sense of sadness and a tinge of anger because this man will never be my father, this one who takes great pride in intimidating by virtue of his uniform.

So what do I do? Label him as a misfit, doomed to live a half-life of bribes and gaalis? I don’t think so, for that would make me no better than the others who look down upon my caste, sneer at my very obvious chinki looks and decry me for not being Loreto-ish enough…

I think I will be patient and understanding, little less pompous and ingratiating and a whole lot more tolerant. For in the end, in order for us to change how society works, thinks, behaves, we need to start with ourselves first. Always.

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Rain Dance

The following short story was my entry to the Monsoon Romance Prose Contest conducted by http://www.sulekha.com. The story now features on the Sulekha site and is awaiting moderation.

The first drops of rain that Friday morning sent people scurrying along the bustling boulevard. Office-goers darted to nearby tea stalls and department stores to keep their freshly ironed clothes from getting wet. Hawkers whizzed by each other to cover their wares with tarpaulin, their swift movements like a frenzied ballet that had been mastered over the years. Mothers held their little children tight to their sides, screaming curses at the taxis that whizzed past them, splashing puddle water on their crisp cotton sarees. Everyone was possessed with a sense of urgency to evade the cold deluge that had begun to bathe the city after weeks of stifling humidity; everyone except little Piu.

Across the street a tiny figure had emerged from under the black plastic tent that had been hurriedly set up the night before. Little Piu was all of eight years old. Her threadbare dress had a faded flower pattern that had once been a pale yellow. Her hair was matted and rough and only a shabby red ribbon kept the wisps of brown from breaking free in wild abandon. Piu stretched, rubbed her eyes and watched in surprise as the congested street transformed into a vacant avenue within minutes.

It had begun as a gentle whispering; the faint sound of drops hitting her plastic rooftop had awakened her and lured her outside. But now, the raindrops were heavier and Piu was soon drenched in the first monsoon shower. The blue sky gradually turned a dark gravel-grey. Fat raindrops danced on top of car roofs creating a mesh of wetness that filled Piu’s heart with glee. For twenty minutes, sheets of rain passed over the city, the sounds intensifying as the droplets collected on the sides of the broad street to form brown streams that seeped slowly towards the drains that ran alongside.

The little girl could not contain her excitement. She turned and twirled in delight as she tried unsuccessfully to capture the raindrops in the palms of her hands. She ran up and down the clear stretch of road with a liberty that was rare. She tried to look up at the sky but the incessant droplets forced her to keep her eyes shut. Soon her little brother and her cousin too emerged from under their plastic dwelling and the three of them danced with glee as the first monsoon rain washed over their tiny malnourished frames ; for twenty minutes their hearts were filled with mirth and the unadulterated joy of innocent childhood.

Eventually, the snaps and crackles began to weaken and the clamor of the drops soon faded into a mellow chime. The sun emerged, casting slanted beams of ochre across the rain-washed street. The glimmering puddles of water that had collected in the cracks and crevices of the tar lined roads lay still; reminding the city that the monsoons had finally arrived.

The lady under the black plastic tent began to hurriedly collect the few belongings that she had. Quickly she tied the precious plastic and aluminum paraphernalia into a bundle in an old saree. She yelled out a curt instruction in Bengali to the three children who were playing in the street outside. Soon their tiny hands were tugging expertly at the plastic strings that had held their tent together through the night. Within minutes their home and all their possessions were packed into an old jute sack. Their spot on the street looked empty and bare. It held no hint that the four of them had made it their home for one night.

The lady draped the end of her saree over her head, lifted the tiniest child onto her hip with her right hand and reached for the jute sack with the left. She began to walk as Piu and her brother followed close behind. She needed to find another place for them to sleep tonight.

As the city crept slowly back to life, Piu noticed the people cursing under their breath. Their shoes were dirty, they dusted the droplets from their big umbrellas and ranted about how the rain made everything inconvenient. They stared at their fresh clothes and scowled at the raindrops that had left dampness on them. Slowly life resumed and the day went back to normal.

As the little family of four walked on carefully maneuvering their way along the waterlogged streets of the city, nobody noticed Piu smiling to herself. While others were griping about the weather, Piu’s heart was bursting with joy. She had not had this much fun in a long time and she prayed secretly that the heavy rains would come again. Soon.

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Jacobean For Life

jaco

I cried.

Despite Ms. Susan Brown’s comforting looks and assurances, I cried the day my parents first left me in Nursery B. Over two decades later as I sit here knocking away at the keys on my laptop I can feel my eyes moistening again. I begin to reminisce, I think of the box locked away in my room in Calcutta filled with memorabilia and memories of my fourteen years in St James’. While those memoirs remain stashed away in a cardboard box, I cannot begin to articulate the gratitude I carry each day and how much it means to me, to have had the St. James’ School experience.

How does one capture the essence of growing up in a school like St. James’? A simple walk down memory lane or a patchwork of phrases strung together will never really suffice. Looking back, I wonder if my parents knew the wheels they were setting in motion when they enrolled me as a pupil at St. James’ in spite of having a much easier option.

I am so proud to be a student of this great institution (I deliberately stay away from the phrase ‘ex-student’ – I’m a Jacobean for life). It gave me not only a sound education but also reinforced my family values and taught me lessons for life. I still remember my first class teacher and later a number of teachers who taught me different subjects. How can I ever forget Yasmin ma’am sharing her canteen food with me or Mrs. Joseph’s cold stare when I happened to say the S word or even Mr. Sinha comforting me when I couldn’t make sense of my grandfather’s death.

Teachers like them were of a rare breed, very different from one another and yet special and unique in their own way. If it were not for them, I would never have been the individual that I am today; I would never have even considered becoming an educationist myself. In 2007 I got to be on the other side of the fence and teaching alongside stalwarts like Mr. Sayers, Mr. Sengupta and Mrs. Ghosh was an experience like no other. Till this day they remain my heroes!

I intentionally highlight the teachers in this message, for they are the ones who made my time at St. James’ rich and memorable. Today, most teachers see themselves as service providers but their fancy degrees and qualifications don’t always guarantee that they will make a difference in the lives of their pupils. The secrets to ‘what makes a good teacher’ continue to be more complex than ancient alchemy and yet the mentors I remember fondly from my years in school had it down to an art and I salute them for it!

Forgive my verbosity, but I could wax eloquent about my alma mater and it would still never be enough. Every summer I make my way back to school for a brief visit. Today the colour of the walls are different, the parent shelter looks strange without the red cement benches, the field is not as I remember it (not that I spent too much time there anyway) , the faces are new and the stories are unfamiliar but while all of this reflects change and progress, there is a familiar feeling; a sense of some guiding force that still sets the school apart. A spirit that keeps every Jacobean grounded and yet gives him everything he needs to soar and achieve whatever he sets his mind to, just like it did 150 years ago.

Happy 150th Founder’s Day to every Jacobean, wherever you are. I hope to see many of you at the service and reunion tomorrow morning.

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Terminal Verbosity

Verbosity can be defined as the long-winded manner in which a writer will sometimes (or quite regularly) string together a number of complicated and seemingly necessary thoughts and ideas to say something rather simple that could have been said without the clutter of unnecessary wordiness in a sentence that might often confuse the reader.

;)

I apologize for that first sentence; my intention was not to give you a headache but a chance discussion with @pinktaxiblogger earlier today prompted me to think about some of my work.

Whenever I sit down to write I find that I can’t keep thoughts clutter free. No matter the content, I like to dress my reflections in complicated imagery so that readers ‘feel’ what I might have felt in a moment or to simply give my ideas some texture.  Often times though, I think it gets too much….too heavy but I don’t know how to make my thoughts staccato.

While bloggers don’t really need to consider word limits, I’m forced to consider how my students manage to work within the stringent guidelines we give them when they’re attempting a piece of writing. Ditto to writers and authors who have to strike a balance between reaching a healthy word count and still keep their editors and publishers from falling asleep on their laptops! Editing is a core skill for anybody interested in writing and I surely need to sharpen mine.

Verbose authors bring to mind the stories of Austen, Dickens, Tolkein, and even George Martin (A Game of Thrones) and while I do love their works, there were times when I zoned out of the narratives only to be sucked right back in when it got more interesting. They’re still geniuses though. Just Saying.

Anyway, I know several of you who read these posts are writers yourselves and I’d like your help in deciding where I stand on this. I don’t want to be stuck with a case of terminal verbosity. So, how do you deal with garrulity? Do you prefer staccato sentences or the wordy ramblings that give you vivid details every single time?

Where do you stand?

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Growing Up In Gaza

Over the last 10 days an estimated 227 people have lost their lives in Gaza while close to 2000 individuals have been seriously injured. Of the 227 deceased 30% are believed to be below the age of 17.

This is a simple and original short story that voices my personal belief that such brutality will only make matters worse. Tragically, the vicious cycle will continue.

A thick blanket of smoke covers the city. It hasn’t lifted for the past ten days. It just gets worse.

And worse.

He was taught to run and hide every time a siren rings. They live in fear, afraid that the sky might breathe fire again or that the peace of the evening will be shattered and destroyed by the drones that rip through their homes and make rubble of their lives.

The fields that once surrounded his home are ravaged, the green olive trees are charred black and the soil is seeping with chemicals. There’s no place to go, nowhere to hide and more importantly nobody to run to.

But he was prepared for this. His parents had taught him well and his teachers had explained it to him. In Gaza you’re taught to survive, to endure, to bear. But there was no time to luxuriate in rumination now. He needed to get out of the bunker. He needed to find his way to the little shop; to his Hiyam; his sweetheart.

Somewhere in the distance he hears an explosion, the ground reverberates, there’s a shattering of glass. He sees men with red and white scarves trying to escort a group of women to the adjoining street without being seen. The women are hunched over. He knows the sign well; they have infants in the folds of their heavy cloaks.

He chooses his moment, crawls out from behind the rubble and dashes across the road. He’s careful to avoid stepping on the debris. Expertly he zigzags his way down the stretch of land.  Glass pieces and severed limbs litter the thoroughfare but his moves are swift and agile. He has done this before. Too many times. He’s already sixteen.

There’s a group of men huddled together on his left. In their arms lies the body of a comrade. He’s covered in scarlet and is attempting to sip the water they offer him.  But his breath will stop soon. This is the end. In Gaza you can learn to tell such things!

He runs along.

As he reaches the road he stops for a moment. He stands there bewildered. Did he take a wrong turn along the way? Perhaps he ran too far. And then it hits him, his stomach churns; he screams her name as he runs down the street that’s now been razed to rubble. There are no buildings there. No signs of life. No signs of her.

Someone grabs him by his arm, yells something at him in Arabic and drags him off into a makeshift shelter. His body trembles. His head is spinning. His eyes well up. She was all he had left.  He wipes his tears with the back of his sleeve. Growing up in Gaza you’re taught to stay calm and to keep rage locked away inside you.

Growing up in Gaza you learn that your life can be destroyed. Your dreams will be destroyed. You lose the ones you love.

He vows revenge, steels his heart to hate the enemy who did this to him; the Israelis. He’s never met a single one of them but he hates them anyway.

Growing up in Gaza you learn to do that.

 

 

 

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Soul Food, Calcutta Style!

Ask any Calcuttan living abroad what they miss most about the city and ‘food’ will be an almost instinctive response. While I’ve often waxed eloquent and sometimes romanticized my city, (I guess that’s allowed when you’re feeling nostalgic) I have never written about the average Calcuttan’s love of food. You’ll probably say that food is a part of our cultural identity and people across the world love their food, and while all of that is true, in Calcutta, food is more than just a passion and that’s putting it mildly.

Growing up in the city, I was lucky to have a wide-range of gastronomical experiences. With a large number of communities calling it home, the city is a melting-pot of cultures and traditions and this has without a doubt led to it becoming a virtual Mecca for Indian food lovers.

One of my fondest childhood memories is waking up at the crack of dawn on winter mornings, along with the rest of the family for a special breakfast treat that visitors to the city might not know of. Let me explain.

You see, Calcutta is not an early waking city. Take an early morning stroll around town and you’ll probably discover a taxi driver or two washing their cars or a number of tea stalls firing up their kerosene oil stoves, but food is difficult to find as the city is gradually coming back to life. That is unless you go to Terreti Bazar, a fascinating street that’s Chinese yet Indian.

momoEnter the little street near the India Exchange Place and you’ll find vendors selling all sorts of Chinese street food. Soup noodles, steamed buns, dumplings in both steamed and deep fried variations and fish ball soup are everyday breakfast options here. Early morning enthusiasts, joggers, call center executives and a host of Chinese breakfast fanatics flock here every morning to get their dose of Chinese goodness. The thoroughfare is lined with little makeshift stalls selling everything from Chinese sausages to prawn wafers and is without a doubt, a foodie’s paradise. This is probably what they mean by soul food. Food that warms your heart.

As a child I would watch in rapt amazement as old Chinese men and women lining the streets would pull out the most delectable of treats from their steaming woks and pans. The older generation would usually sit on the sidelines reading the Chinese newspaper and sipping tea from earthen cups as they yelled instructions to younger companions or workers who had accompanied them. The air was always deliciously smoky and the experience was a treat for the senses.

Breakfast in Terreti Bazaar is definitely not a fine dining experience. The timings are odd as the breakfast literally starts at the crack of dawnpow and ends before the first tram trudges out of the terminal. Everything is served out of make shift stalls and eaten on the pavements and people overly concerned about hygiene should keep away. But in spite of all odds the Chinese Breakfast of Old Chinatown remains one of my favourite things to do whenever I’m back in the city and judging by the satisfied smiles on the faces of all the people downing their dumplings, I am not alone.

But the truth is that like many other Calcuttan’s, my knowledge of the city’s Chinese population was pretty much limited to Indianized Chinese food and the boisterous New Year dragon dances that terrified me. I had several Chinese schoolmates in the city, none of whom are around any longer having migrated to the West years ago. Most people still remain ignorant about the community’s troubles and the dwindling number of Chinese in Calcutta. Today, the issues that threaten this vibrant community are manifold and have led to an exodus of the Calcutta Chinese.

This Sunday we saw four Chinese people in the bazaar. Just four.

I hope the state Government will realize the importance of the Chinese community’s contribution to our economy. Chinese tanneries, restaurants, schools and businesses used to flourish at one point in the city. A walk through China Town today won’t give you that impression anymore.

Thankfully, there are still some Chinese people left in Calcutta and if you want to get a feel of how they live and the scrumptious food they dish out, make a trip down to China Town, eat at one of the city’s many authentic Chinese restaurants or shop for your Chinese condiments at Stella Chen’s Hap Hing and Co. If you do happen to visit that last shop be slightly weary of the woman behind the counter. While she calculates costs on her wooden abacus or shows you the pickled plums and bottles of green chili sauce that line her crowded counter top, she might just convince you that weed is good too and have you leaving her Diagon Alley like store with a little stash of the treats that she keeps hidden away under the counter! ;)

 

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Stuck

July 11th, 2014
10: 44 AM

So, in the middle of my ‘must complete my assignments’ frenzy I am also attempting the difficult task of constructing an original short story. I actually started writing this story a few months ago but didn’t get past the exposition. Fortunately the twittersphere is replete with tweeps who have similar passions and @pinktaxiblogger was able to coerce me back onto the writing bandwagon.

The problem is, I find that I’m stuck. There are days when the language just comes to me in a spurt of inspiration. On other days (like today) I can stare at a blank computer screen all morning and come up with nothing!

I whimper and whine and before you know it, “I can’t come up with a good idea” becomes “I’ll never come up with a good idea ever again.”

Presently, I have about five Word documents on this laptop that contain the beginnings of new stories. Some are jam-packed with ideas for stories that I thought had brilliant potential. But after they’ve stewed for a night or two, I quickly dismiss them as ‘not good enough’. I try to get it perfect in my head and never do, so I never complete them. The expositions keep adding up, I get busy with my work every day and well, fiction doesn’t stay a priority long enough. So now here I am, stuck again, because sometimes the words just refuse to come out right.

Just Saying.

“…writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all…”
Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems

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