To Maa, with love. (Belaseshe)

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Unbidden, I discovered that my eyes had become moist, a drop or two had slowly meandered down my cheek. 

The two hour, twelve minute long movie had struck a chord with me. I had just finished watching the bengali movie ‘Belaseshe’. Belaseshe in bengali means ‘in the autumn of one’s life’. I had read about the movie few months back, but it had slipped my mind. When I was talking to a friend a few days back, I happened to ask him for a good bengali movie to watch. When he mentioned Belaseshe, I decided I must watch it before it slips my mind again.

The protagonists of the movie are not your usual suspects. There is no tall, dark, handsome actor trying to woo a young lass, rather an aged married couple who have entered the twilight era of their lives. Their three daughters and one son are settled and (un)happily married. One of the reasons which made me look forward to the movie was Soumitra Chatterjee, a doyen amongst the Bengali minefield of talented actors. He endeared me when he sweetly sang ‘ami chini go, chini go’ to placate his sister-in-law in the movie Charulata, and he still endears me in his current roles of the sweet dadu (grandpa), disseminating all his wisdom. Playing the patriarch of the family in the movie, he collects all his family members on the day of doshomi (10th day of the Durga Puja festival) to make an important announcement. He announces his decision to divorce his wife Arati of 50 years, and sternly also tells everyone that he is not answerable to anyone and he expects all to respect his decision.

As much as the whole family and the wife is caught off-guard, such a scenario in a mainstream movie is rather uncommon as well; a movie revolving around an aged couple and the husband wanting to divorce his wife for seemingly no reason. The children rally around their mother, seething at the injustice, whereas the wife who is initially unable to accept it, acquiesces to her husband’s decision, citing that she will do whatever makes her husband happy.  When the judge asks the couple when was the last time they touched each other lovingly or went out on a walk together, the couple cannot remember any such delicate or intimate moments. Hence, the judge asks the couple to go away on a trip alone, to try and rediscover each other, before granting them a divorce.

I am not going to go into the details of the acting expertise or the narrative of the movie, but rather the important emotions and takeaways that the movie elicits. We see the couple going on walks and finally getting a chance to talk in the privacy of their bedroom. If the husband was preoccupied with his work, the wife had gotten caught in her domestic duties and chores. The husband tells her that during their first anniversary he waited with her gift the whole night, yet she never came. To which she retorts that his father was extremely ill, how could she have left him alone, without any support? And I have probably seen this many times in my own family, seen the ladies in my house sacrificing their own personal desires for others. I don’t know whether it is out of duty or out of love, but when the man is working outside and the woman has to take care of the household duties, many a times one has to make a choice, or rather the choice is already made, for both the man and the woman.

The husband keeps on reiterating how the marriage for him has become a habit, lamenting that did they ever love each other? express  their love for each other? This is one time when my heart got caught, the wife tells him that when he leaves his wet towel after a bath, she uses the same and imbibes his smell and everyday she ensures she eats her husband’s leftover. It came to me how it is in these subtle gestures, the unseen ones, the modest ones, which touch your heart. My parents have never explicitly been romantic, often my mom laments that dad is the most unromantic man ever. But when I talked to my mom last time, she recounted how dad had unexpectedly returned home from a business tour last week, without telling her the date and time. Even though mom sounded annoyed, I know she was happy, these little surprises made her day. After I moved to the Netherlands, my mom has to spend a lot of time on her own, this little surprise even if insignificant, is a signal of my dad’s desire to make her happy, to add an element of fun. Or when my mom always goes through my dad’s clothes, realising that he needs new underclothes and buys them, also since my father never seems to remember his size. If this is not love, I don’t know what is then.

Amusingly, after so many years, in the movie the husband recounts how he had bought a particular variety of fish since he desired to eat his wife’s special preparation of it. But as fate would have it, some relatives came that day and the wife ended up cooking the fish for them. The husband berates her for cooking the fish for them and not him!! worse still, not even leaving a single piece for him haha! The husband remarks that he recounted all his complaints, but what about her? Does she not have any? Poignantly the wife remarks, ‘raag obhimaan kore, sanshkaar kora jaye?’, i.e. you cannot build a life out of resentment and ego.

I cannot pin-point exactly why the movie touched me so much. Maybe it sharply underlined the relationships in my life, or maybe how we as a generation lack patience on working hard on any kind of relationship, be it romantic, filial or friendship. It made me reflect on the relationships around me, especially my parents and my uncles and aunts. I could see they had worked hard, I could also now realise the points of struggle in their lives. When initially my parents and I had moved to Delhi, my dad had to travel a lot, which left my mother and I on our own a lot. I was too young to understand how my parents might have coped with this distance, but I can imagine it was not too easy. If anything it made me jot down points, if I am to marry in the future, I dare say, staying married would be a continuous effort. And hence a decision to be carefully undertaken.

In the movie the husband asks the wife, does she know how many life insurances they have? Can she open a bank account? Does she know how much money is there in their bank account? The wife responds then that does he know where the mustard seeds are kept in the kitchen? Perhaps importantly I realised that when living together, you handle and manage things in a balanced way. If the husband managed the finances, the wife managed the household. Both equally important, and both being an expert in their area. Mixing the two could likely confuse things. Funnily enough, the husband never is able to find his shoes unless his wife brings it to them, reminding me of how my dad is always unable to locate something until my mom looks for it! The husband however stays firm, decides that he still wants a divorce, wants to roam the world, be free and also make his wife independent.

Few weeks later, we see the wife has learnt how much money is there in the bank accounts and now teaches young girls stitching. The husband then saunters in, apologetic, realising that his wife was an important habit, albeit an indispensable one. He did not like drinking tea without her, he now wanted to roam the world with her, and for the love of God he could still not find his own shoes. If he had succeeded in his endeavour to make his wife independent, he realised that he could not be independent without his wife. It reminded me how my mom often jokes that if she dies before my father, my father will shout at the sky asking my mom where his things are kept. And as I thought of it, in the next sentence the wife prays to God that she hopes that her husband dies before her, since he was incapable of being on his own. No wonder it left my crying, because if this was not love then what was?

It also made me think of my own mother, we so often devalue their work, the little gestures they do. I remember during school time she would wait for me to return from school so we could have lunch together. If anything I realised love is not in the big gestures, expensive gifts or flattery, it was when I cried about my heartbreak to my mother and she heard me patiently. It is when my father decides to surprise my mother every time by returning home unexpectedly.

 

 

She danced her heart away.

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Sometimes you stop short, perhaps because someone you know called you out, or maybe you realised you forgot something. And sometimes something in front of you, something so mundane and regular catches your eye, but what really catches your eye is the extraordinary in that mundane.

I was in Amsterdam on a weekend. I had finally made the trip to the city since I wanted to visit the Munch/Van Gogh exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum. Post witnessing the ‘Scream’ and ‘The Bedroom’, I made my way to the Stedelijk museum. Stedelijk is a renowned modern art museum in Amsterdam. I slowly meandered my way through the museum, and I must admit, much of modern art and its meaning still remains elusive to me. I read every description of the installation present, some made sense, some didn’t, and some I decided made sense because I conjured up a meaning behind it myself! I guess that is sometimes the beauty of modern art. After struggling with the mechanisms of the modern art, I stumbled out of the museum and straight into the floating tunes of a violinist. He was stationed right outside the Stedelijk museum, engrossed in playing his instrument.

The music was beautiful, but what caught my eye was this little girl, maybe 6-7 years old. She was wearing a pink jacket and pink shoes and hair tied in two plaits. Her body was moving according the violinist’s music. Her hands and legs moved gracefully, eyes closed, she appeared in meditation. Just a few feet away I could see her mother, who was dressed in sweatpants, a jacket and had short, rough hair. She was heavily pregnant and looked tired, and kept entreating her daughter through her eyes to leave the dancing and move on. But the daughter only smiled and went back to her dancing. People walking by smiled indulgently at the little girl, the violinist seeing the girl’s zeal changed his music slightly so that the girl could easily dance to the music.

I stood for quite a long time, enjoying the scene before me and wondering how often as adults we seem to become more and more inhibited. Would I ever be as free, break free of what’s acceptable and dance like that on the street? I remember once walking with a friend in Amsterdam I got reprimanded by the friend for behaving like a child, for expressing childlike excitement and enthusiasm. But the girl dancing there was more of an adult than I was, or any of us. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was dancing in front of a museum, around milling tourists or disapproving adults. She was dancing her heart out, maybe in her imagination she was a ballet dancer in front of a huge audience and everyone was cheering for her. Or maybe she was just dancing in her bedroom to her favourite music. If only I could get a chance to have a peek inside her head and imagination at that point.

Before leaving I saw the mother exasperated, sat down on the floor cross-legged and kept an eye on the daughter. I was secretly glad, glad that the mother hadn’t taken her away, or reprimanded her for acting too presumptuous in a public space. That day, the girl, the dancing, the mother and the music outside made a lot more sense to me than the modern art inside the museum.

Image courtesy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/5483146/art-print-little-girl-dancing-purple

In search of the undertaker..(IV)

 

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Ashes, 1925 by Edvard Munch

PART 4

The feeling of uneasiness still hadn’t left us from our last meeting with the undertaker. Her insistence on not informing her husband about the video or documentary really irked us. We felt we needed more clarity and if there was something she did not want us to probe or shoot, if so she should tell us about it explicitly, leaving no room for ambiguity.

We scheduled another meeting with her. When we arrived we were surprised to be greeted by her husband. Compared to the undertaker his frame was small, looked younger and sported a thin moustache. And we don’t know if he was some Jeetendra Kapoor fan or not, because from head to toe he was dressed in white. White shirt, white loose pants, white shoes! But then it seemed as if he hadn’t washed his clothes in aeons. His white clothes had taken on a cream, dirty colour which white takes on when not washed regularly. There was an unkempt, unruly and unclean aura to him. And I will confess now, atleast I disliked him immediately. Not only because of what later took place, but his appearance in general did not send out positive vibes to me.

The husband led us to the living room where the undertaker was sitting with her friend. We were served some coke and chips. But it was not the undertaker talking, she was sitting a bit reserved in a corner, the husband took charge and started talking to us. He mentioned how the undertaker had told him about us and the video (we were quite confused by then, all of us looked at each other and decided to remain quiet and listen to him). For about an hour then he starts telling us in minute details their financial problems, the problems with the tenant and how he was trying to find a legal way of getting rid of the tenant. By that time the man who was always hovering around had silently entered the room as well. Amidst all this the husband then asks us on our opinion about the tenant. Asking us for ‘legal’ advise, if we knew any lawyers and if need be also become witnesses! Now from our last instance where the young girl had pounced on us regarding her story of Jesus, this man had literally cornered us in their house, quite aggressively urging us to give them advise and also get involved in helping them get some legal redressal on the tenant issue. Like the girl, he was also quite forceful and it was difficult to simply say we need to leave. But via few exchanges we all understood that this was not going the way we had hoped for, and that the husband was indirectly indicating that in order for us to shoot the undertaker, there had to be certain conditions which we had to comply with. And those conditions were helping them out in both financial and legal ways. This was way more than we had bargained for. From our background research on documentary making we knew it helped to get to know the person well before shooting, but we all knew at that instant that we do not want to know anymore about the undertaker.

Just when we were looking at each other helplessly, thinking how to wriggle out of this, the tenant from above barges inside and starts shouting. She had black curly hair and a wild look to her. She accused all of us of conspiring against her and that she will complain to the police. She accused the undertaker of stealing her special spices, and she knew they were her spices because she could smell them up till her house!! She said that the CCTV she had installed outside showed how the undertaker had been stealing petrol from her car! Just when we thought things couldn’t get more bizarre, she starts hitting the man, and before we knew things had gotten violent and people were hitting each other! And we knew we HAD TO LEAVE THAT PLACE.

We almost ran out of her house. We were frightened. And we realised we were directly under the CCTV which the tenant had installed, so we got further away from it. Things had happened so quickly, that we had a hard time thinking straight, so much so that my editor in crime friend said she could not run unless she relieved herself somewhere. All of us were aghast! :O we told her woman right now we need to get as far as possible from the undertaker’s house, we were still on her street and going back for you to pee is just NOT POSSIBLE. But you know when your bladder is full and running can be the most torturous task possible? We conceded, but going back to the undertaker’s house was obviously not an option. Then moi, yes moi, had this brilliant idea, ‘hey there is a police station nearby, I am sure they have a bathroom’.

So then we rushed towards the police station, eager to put as much distance as possible between us and the undertaker’s house. Never in my wildest fantasies had I imagined eagerly going to a police station to pee! We rushed inside and asked the policemen where the bathroom was. They pointed towards the backside and we went there. In our hurry and fearful state we did not realise that our friend had entered the men’s bathroom. But too late, she was already inside and a man came out looking completely astonished. He said it is the men’s bathroom! I responded, ‘chalta hai, bahut zor se lagi thi’ (it is alright, the pressure was too high!). Like wow, I am laughing as I write this!! After our friend came out we headed to the entrance of the police station when we saw the husband standing there!! He looked at us and was like oh oh ‘so you have come to complain, great, tell them what happened’ and with that he left the police station. We looked at each other aghast, and quickly went to the backside and exited from there. We then hurtled amidst the chaotic mess that the Karol Bagh market is. Trying in our hurry not to crash against the multitude of people and vehicles. We eventually made it till the metro station. Once there we stood to have a proper breadth. Wordlessly we blocked the number of the undertaker. Wordlessly, we knew what was going on in each other’s mind. Too much had happened for us to comprehend or fathom its consequences.

Then wordlessly we boarded the metro to our respective destinations and later texted each other to inform that we had arrived at our homes safely.

In search of the undertaker ..(III)

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Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport by Martin Johnson Heade (sourced from Wikimedia commons)

PART 3

Flushed with our success on finding the undertaker and having a fruitful conversation with her, we scheduled another meeting with her at her place. We wanted to dig deeper into her psyche, we wanted to pursue the interesting tidbits and strands of information revealed in our previous conversation.

We reached her place at the appointed time. Today there was even a cat in her courtyard, quietly skirting and jumping around. She was feeding her parrot when we arrived. This time instead of sitting in the living room, she made us sit in one of the smaller rooms, which was visible on the right side of the courtyard when you enter the house. The room was a high ceilinged one. The types which had existed before the matchbox sized rooms became mainstream. You would recognise it from its wooden beams on the ceiling and the natural cooling and insulation such a construction facilitated. The furniture was the basic, a high bed, a low cupboard to one side and an aluminium almirah on the other side.

The man who had led us inside the house the first day got us some tea, chips and biscuits.  I would admit, and so did my group members, that the man never quite fit into the family picture. He was always hovering yet we could discern he was not living there, even though the undertaker had said he was a cousin. We however had felt no need to probe and were indifferent, but now I feel even if we didn’t probe, we should have kept an eye, should have kept a note and should have realised that instant why some things were not right.

The undertaker then entered and after the initial courtesies and questions on how we were doing and about our families, she proceeded to show us pictures of her as a young girl, her parents and family and her wedding pictures. While explaining about the pictures, there she was again, the enlivened girl, as she regaled her with her childhood stories. She was like this young grandma surrounded by enraptured girls, hanging onto her each word. I would say we hung onto her words too much, becoming blind to the things around us.

She had been looking rather tired and forlorn. We couldn’t help but ask her the matter. She then started explaining how the tenant living above her house was giving them troubles. Apparently the tenant had been the same for many years. The undertaker’s parents had rented out the room to a couple who had a daughter. Now the daughter had grown up but would create troubles in paying the rent every month. She had been accusing the undertaker of stealing some stuff and keeping a constant eye on her. She would even file police complaints, with the result that the undertaker had to deal with regular police visits over petty issues. The undertaker mentioned money was always a problem in the house, and with the tenant and rent issue, the finances only got exacerbated. Her husband too had been trying to reason with the tenant, but to no avail. At that moment another string of her visitors entered the house. It was a young girl of our age.

The girl had just returned from her college and decided to pay a visit to the undertaker and chat with her. On spotting us she was delighted. The undertaker left us girls in the room as we introduced ourselves to the girl. The girl was extremely petite and slim, she had long smooth hair that was tied up in a pony tail. She was dressed just like a regular college going girl in Delhi, in a jeans and a shirt. When she talked, she talked openly, enunciating every letter and word. Her diction was flawless and I could not help but wonder that she would make an excellent debater or maybe an anchor. She had a certain forceful style of talking, which would make anyone difficult to wriggle out incase you did not want to talk to her anymore. After our introduction and telling her why we had been looking for the undertaker, she requested us if she could tell us a story. Not really having an option, we told her to go ahead, we are listening.

She said a few years ago she had been under extreme depression. She was unable to sleep and everyday seemed to become darker and bleaker, with absolutely no hope in sight. It got worse and worser over months. Reading the hanuman chalisa everyday or even the Gita did not help her in her misery. Then she said one night, a small gnome like figure came to her, told her she was following the wrong person, reading the wrong scriptures and handed her the Bible! The gnome figure apparently told her it will be Jesus who will ultimately help her see the light. Since she was utterly miserable she decided to give it a shot. And after that she claimed, she has not been the same person. She discovered Jesus indeed was the one true light and the truth. Following him is the only way one could become enlightened and be on the right path. At one point she also mentioned how Gita (the Hindu holy book) was completely atrocious, and that it was the Bible which was the right book.

I think in the hour that she talked, and it was really difficult to stop her from talking, it was only about Jesus and imploring us to follow Jesus too. She mentioned how once a beggar asked her for money and she told him she could only offer him Jesus’s love! Now needless to say, all of us at the first instance were completely caught off-guard by the turn in her story. Then throughout her monologue on Jesus we all vacillated between pure annoyance, exasperation, anger and amusement. We would frequently exchange glances with each other, wondering when will this girl ever stop and realise that her story was clearly NOT working on us. I am not a particularly religious person, and neither were my group members, but firstly, we certainly did not appreciate someone pouncing on us as a predator, secondly, Gita, Bible or the Koran are equally important and hold value for their respective religion, to say some religious book is atrocious was quite unwarranted, especially if you have not read any of them, and lastly, the gumption of someone like the girl to assume that we would fall under her spell, fall for her story!! We also hadn’t quite appreciated the way the undertaker had disappeared in the meanwhile.

The undertaker reappeared just as the girl finished her ‘story’. The girl smiled at us and then said she had to rush home to finish her college assignments. In the meanwhile she said we could ask the undertaker for her contact details if we wanted to talk to her further. Well heck no! I think the next time any of us spot that girl we will take a 180 degree turn and walk or run away before she can catch us. The undertaker then looked at us and gave us an apologetic smile. It appeared she knew this would happen and had happened before. Till now she had appeared to us an independent woman, making her own decisions and striding on her own. But after her recounting of the tenant problem and unable to stop the girl from launching into us, it appeared perhaps our first impression about her was indeed the last impression. We had out of courtesy and politeness remained quiet in front of the girl, but she as the owner of the house could have perhaps told the girl to tell her story some other day. Perhaps as you read it, you might think it not a big deal, we did not think that much of it either. But when you look at things occurred from a vantage point, like now as I am replaying this incident in my head, I think the signs were already there. We had perhaps been too naive and excited to make notice of them.

Another thing she mentioned which made us uneasy was that she explicitly told us not to tell her husband that we would be making a short documentary on her. Whenever she spoke of her husband, and she hardly did, it was always unsure, and a bit terrified too. We were left baffled. If we were to shoot inside her house and her husband was there, he was bound to know that something is happening. It had been getting rather late and we had to leave, but we left on an uneasy note. We decided then that we should schedule another meeting, talk and bring clarity as to why she did not want the husband knowing, since that might create problems for us.

Little did we know that during the next meeting problems would not only emerge, but also erupt!

In search of the undertaker….(II)

Mainbazar

PART 2

So yes, we had finally managed to land right in front of the doorstep of our much hunted undertaker. Like pilgrims who undertake perilous journeys to their destination, well ok yes yes, our journey was not perilous, but it had its share amount of disappointments and apprehensions. So finally reaching our destination was like nirvana for all of us. We simply could not stop smiling.

Before we could ring the bell, a man approached the door, and he was carrying a bag full of groceries. We asked him if we could meet the undertaker and he gave us a benign smile and invited us in. We found ourselves in a cozy courtyard dotted with wild plants and pots. To the left was the kitchen, to the right were rooms and the bathroom and right ahead in front of us was the living room. Judging from the facade, architecture and materials of the house, one could discern the house was extremely old. The chaotic mess of the outside became a distant lull within the cool, pleasant environs of the house. Despite its oldness, mustiness and the disarrayed objects lying around, the house felt warm and welcoming.

The man led us to the living room, during which we happened to spot two stray dogs sleeping in a corner and a parrot sleeping inside his cage! We were intrigued and fascinated, eager to learn more about this undertaker. She soon entered, dressed in plain house clothes, hair tied in a neat bun. She appeared simple, yet a closer look into her face, the lines and the wrinkles, the greying strands of her hair; indicated a hardened life. Yet when she smiled and her eyes crinkled up, you could not help but just listen to her. She recounted how her father had never wanted her to carry on the undertaking business. She explained that her father’s family had been involved in this since many generations and they had overtime built a good reputation. Consequently they had generations of families approaching their family when someone died. She had developed intimate relationships with most families. Her eyes lit up when she told us how she would accompany her father to many of his undertakings, observing how embalming is done, learning, questioning, and building a rapport with the workers who would dig the graves and build coffins.

There was a point I felt in the company of us young girls she felt enlivened, happy to share her thoughts, reminisce her younger days. Perhaps for a few hours with us, she was able to isolate her family problems (which turned out to be really messy and making things worse for us, but that’s for a later post!). You know when someone is passionate about their work from the way they talk about it with a smile, or the lengths they might have gone to get some task completed. She gleefully told us about a man who loved his wife so much, he wanted her grave to be designed in the form of a chocolate bar! since the wife had loved chocolates. And the undertaker decided that she would build a chocolate grave as an ode the husband’s love for his wife. Later for our field research we did visit the cemetery where the chocolate grave is still there. There was just one inscription on the grave, ‘I hate you.’ The husband had hated the fact that his wife had left him so early in their marital bliss together. The story touched our hearts, but importantly what touched us was how the undertaker had not dismissed the husband’s desire for a chocolate grave as juvenile. Perhaps as an undertaker she had been able to mediate between the dead and the living. More so as a spiritual medium, able to channel the desires of both the death and the living’s relationship to the death.

Perhaps this innate understanding of spirits also explained her relationship with the animals and birds around us. She recounted how once she had a pet cock. A cock who would get supremely jealous when any man hugged the undertaker!! The symbolism and literalism of the cock had us in splits. Not only that, apparently someone had even filed a case against the cock since the cock had attacked that particular person. I am forgetting the name of the cock that the undertaker had given, but since the complaint was filed on the cock’s name, the policemen assumed it was a person. On arriving and discovering that the complaint was actually against a cock, well it is no surprise they were not at all pleased. They were pleased at the cock’s antics though and returned all hail and hearty! Stray dogs and cats were regular visitors in the undertaker’s house. Sometimes staying a few days, sometimes disappearing for days before reappearing. In addition to the animals and birds, there was a constant flow of people in and out of her house. They would come and sit, talk, chatter or gossip. She never said no to anyone. Everyone was welcome, and maybe that’s why it was so easy for us to enter her home, talk to her. She not only allowed us to glimpse into her home and work, she let us enter into her life. Let us become a part of her life. Maybe in retrospect we became too intrinsically involved in her life….

As much as I tried containing myself, I could not help but ask her if she had ever had any paranormal experience during the course of her work in so many years. She burst out laughing. She said the dead are dead. They are neither vulnerable or dangerous. They become just flesh and blood. And no she had never encountered any paranormal activities. Though one time she mentioned there was a plane crash and the dead were brought to her to immediately embalm and build coffins for them. What scared her were the conditions of the body, mangled, bloody and beyond recognition, it was to her equally sad and fearful. That was perhaps the only time she felt any fear. I still remember something that she had said. She said that ‘the coffin is like the home for the person, it needs to be built with love, faith and care.’ At that moment when she said that line, she had completely turned around the idea of death and funerals for me.

It had been quite a few hours since we had been talking to the undertaker when we decided it was time to leave. Weaving our way across the quagmire of the Karol Bagh market and then boarding the metro, her statement on how the ‘coffin is like a home’ kept resonating in my mind. what a beautiful thought. What an enlightening way of looking at the same thing, and all of us were looking forward to this exciting prospect of being able to shoot such a dynamic woman.

To be continued…..

 

In search of the undertaker…

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This blogpost will be in parts. Why? Because the incident that I am going to narrate has a lot happening and occurred over days. The incident perhaps now that I look back was one of those that leave an impregnable mark on you, and in order to illustrate that, one blogpost won’t suffice. So let us begin…

PART 1:

Once upon a time….

Yes, you read that right, once upon a time, actually to be precise in 2013. It was the last leg of the masters in communication in Delhi that I was pursuing. In ten groups of five we had to pitch our story ideas for a video, TV or film. The five of us in the group, which consisted of my ghost sister and editor in crime (both of whom have been mentioned in an earlier blogpost), decided our first preference was video. Now the pressing question was, what should we pitch? Our classmates were equally competitive and brilliant. We had to have something meaty, something unique, something which would make the faculty automatically give us video.

We tossed around many ideas. We would sit in the lawns, mostly munching samosas and the editor in crime consuming Parle G biscuits with her tea, noting down the usual, unusual, mundane or the bizarre and the most grotesque of ideas! When the ghost sister recalled reading about the existence of the only female undertaker in Delhi. Now most of us were perplexed, my only association with the word ‘undertaker’ is that of the WWF wrestler! But she explained that undertaker is the term used for people who are responsible for the embalming of dead bodies amongst the Christians. They also build coffins as per the family’s wishes and arrange the requisite funeral paraphernalia in addition to giving advise to the family on the funerary aspects. As the sole girls only group in the class and being feminists, this idea of the only female undertaker in Delhi immediately clicked with us. Not to mention it faired well with mine and the ghost sister’s affinity towards anything related to cemeteries and spirits!

The good thing about the ghost sister is that she is highly organised and extremely meticulous. She had saved the article from around 3-4 years ago. All of us read it and also tried googling about the undertaker. There were a few more feature based articles on the undertaker, but none mentioned where she lived or operated from. In one of the articles, a church in Delhi was mentioned from where she often got commissioned for coffins. We decided that our first step in trying to hunt down the undertaker was to make a pit stop at the church mentioned in the article. In retrospect I realise now what a foolhardy quest that was. To search for something or someone in such a vast city like Delhi, with no proper signpost or even some address, was a Herculean task. Had it not been for our collective excitement, in other time or world I would not have even bothered.

On arriving at the hallows of the church, hallows because it was so empty and such a deathly silence pervaded the entire premises, that a bunch of youngsters blabbering away appeared sacrilegious. Since the ghost sister had studied in a convent school, she knew more of  the Christian ways and propriety, so we pushed her forward to hunt for whoever is the person we can ask questions to in a Church. We managed to find a lady, though now I do not remember her designation within the church. She gave complete blank looks to our questions on the undertaker. We mentioned her name and her work, yet she was completely clueless. She then said maybe she was only making coffins for Protestant Christians. That church was apparently Catholic or Protestant (must ask ghost sister about this, since my memory about whether the church was a Catholic or Protestant one is vague).

Disappointed we walked out of the church, now discussing on our next step. As I had mentioned in my earlier blogpost, the ghost sister and I would often like to explore the cemeteries in Delhi, and there was a big one nearby. It was one of the cemeteries we had visited earlier. And we also remembered there was a fresh grave being dug out, and we thought to ourselves, why not go there? The cemetery was bound to be in touch with many undertakers, and the one we were hunting could be one of those that the cemetery regularly dealt with. We then trudged towards the cemetery amidst the chaotic traffic.

We were in for some luck!! On entering the cemetery we could spot some workers digging the earth. Hurriedly we made our way to the spot. A man who seemed to oversee the digging looked at us, puzzled. Cautiously we mentioned the name of the undertaker, and voila! He said yes, he knew her and many of the graves and coffins in the cemetery had been overseen by her. We then asked him if he could offer us a contact number or address for her. At that instant he then looked at us again, thought a bit and asked us WHY? and WHO are we people? From his vantage point I can imagine he must be suspicious, a bunch of girls asking around for an undertaker! We were careful to mention that we were just students and it was for a research project. Realising that the man was being doubtful, we thought it wise not to say we also wanted to shoot a short documentary about her. Sometimes people run away from the media and journalists alike. But I do not think he was satisfied, and in an incoherent manner told us he has lost her number or that the number is not working. We requested a few more times yet he did not budge. So then we asked ok maybe you can tell us where she lives? Though I was not too confident that he will give her address if he could not give us her number. All he murmured was that she lived in the Christian Colony in Karol Bagh. And that was it. There was a finality in his tone and we knew we could not probe further.

Disappointed again we converged to discuss what should be our next course of action. We realised now how we were trying to hunt for a needle in a haystack. Striking at every twig or lay branch that came our way. This was not going to be easy. As a last resort we made our way to the Christian Colony in Karol Bagh. Boarding the Delhi metro we reached Karol Bagh and finally reached the colony after stopping at various points to ask multiple people ranging from the police, hawker, men on scooters etc. for the directions. A narrow lane next to a church led towards the Christian Colony. Because of our previous experience with the man in the cemetery, we were unsure if we could just barge into the Church asking for an undertaker. The next best idea was to go inside the colony and perhaps search for a nameplate with the undertaker’s name. And if this search did not result in anything, then we would have no choice but to go the church.

Now to give you a picture of how colonies can grow and evolve and become a nebulous space in Delhi. With complete disregard for rules or sometimes because there are no rules, many colonies in Delhi have dilapidated, narrow roads. Often jutting balconies are vying for space, so much so that the blue sky gets consumed. Lanes are crowded with vehicles, everyone jostling for space, rather you jostle and push around to make your own space. Wires hanging dangerously low from electricity towers. Perhaps one word to describe it would be ‘mayhem’. But also such colonies grow organically, moving in whichever direction they get space in. Moving, growing, convoluting. To someone unused to this, such a colony can be a maze, a labyrinth one can easily get lost into.

When we entered the labyrinth of Christian Colony we quickly realised this was not the most wisest of ideas, to hunt for the name plate of the undertaker! Simply because we could enter further and further into the deep reaches of the colony and come up with nothing. It would take us some time to figure out the labyrinth to move in a systematic method. After a few seconds, we looked at each other’s tired faces, and then I spotted an old ragpicker lady! And a sudden brainwave seized me. Now the ragpickers go from house to house picking up trash, they go from house to house, year by year, so much so they know who lives in which house. I stopped her and asked her about the undertaker. She was caught off guard and responded she knew no such person. We tried explaining more but to no avail. Tired from the exhaustion of the day, we decided it was time to turn back and perhaps think of a different way to search for the undertaker or even a new idea. But before we could turn back, the ragpicker called out to us. She asked us if we were looking for the lady who digs graves!! All of us echoed YES YES!! And would you believe it? Just the spot from where we were about to turn our backs, just a house away was the door with the undertaker’s nameplate!!

We had finally found our undertaker!! 😀 😀

 

To be continued….

Image: Nicholson Cemetery of Delhi

 

Journey to the Holy Land

bhubaneswar-temple-1820-2.jpg

I was going through my folder named ‘journo’, the folder wherein I saved all my writings from the time I was pursuing a bachelors in Journalism. I chanced upon an article I had written for my college magazine. It caught my attention because it was one of those rare moments when my father on reading it had become quiet, and then praised me for the imagery, sounds and tangible feelings that had been evoked in him while reading it. I think the whole day there was a certain  skip in my gait, since I couldn’t help but bask in my father’s praise. Perhaps that is the reason I am sharing this piece, because it still managed to evoke in me the same imagery, sounds and tangible feelings….

 

The word temple evinces a loud wince in me. But three years ago I found myself on a train, travelling to the Indian state of Orissa for a religious sojourn to the renowned Hindu temple in Puri; the Jagannath Temple. All I can concur now is that my mom’s bribery about beautiful beaches and the scrumptious seafood had me enticed. We reached late at night and as the sea-line became visible, an instant calm enveloped me.

My stomach’s rumbling woke me up early the next morning, and my father and I traversed our way through the narrow paths, punctuated by the sounds of early morning chores and the wafting smells of food. After a quick breakfast at an inconspicuous food stall, we made our way to the beach and the child in me threw off my sandals and proceeded into the ocean water. As the cold waves washed my feet and I walked along the beach, a dead turtle, just a stone throw’s away caught my eye. In no time there were few crows around the turtle trying to feed on it. The scene before me served to display a curious interplay of life, death and livelihood, and yet all in tandem with each other.

Later in the day we made our way to the temple. However, I was intrigued by the heavy presence of monkeys, who appeared to be oblivious to the pilgrims around them, jumping in and around the temple premises. The temple’s sheer size and the intricacy of the carvings awe you. Perhaps more than the deities themselves, it’s the toil and labour of the sculptors and builders which inspires reverence in you. But I was in for some more surprise, as a certain section of the temple were embellished with various love making positions. Not surprisingly it was a source of multitude of blushings and mortified expressions from couples and parents alike, it forced me to introspect about sex being a natural constituent of our lives and an expression of love. I felt their presence in “temples” implied embracing our inner desires, endowed to us by “Gods” and not shy away from it.

A gentle breeze blew when we sat on the ancient ground opposite the temple to eat our bhog; the pure vegetarian food offered to Lord Jagannath. Maybe it was the sea and wind, or maybe it was the pilgrims milling around, or perhaps the unusually ‘disciplined’ nature of the monkeys over there, from the first mouthful I took, there was a tranquility I had never felt before. The last mouthful was to signify this trip as a gateway to spiritual, food, life and sensuous learning, unlearning.

 

 
Image courtesy: http://jitumisra.com/2013/08/31/depiction-of-monuments-and-lives-in-odisha-in-1820s-in-water-colour/