Saturday, 6 October 2018

Persona Non Grata: Borrowed Life

In the hostel where the all the kids rescued that day were put up, Chotey slipped in an out of his mask as Ahmed like a phantom. One moment he was Chotey, and in the other when they were distributing food or any other item for personal use, he was Ahmed.

It is there that he learnt the use of identities and the meaning of a borrowed life. Or borrowed lives. He saw it happen far too often in the 90-day time that he spent there. The day an official with a cavalcade was scheduled to arrive at the orphanage, he would hear his friends being given and called out by those names. Official sounding names. Rohit, Amit, Rohan, Deepti and the likes. On the next visit, these names would be interchanged. So a Rohit would be Rohan on a Sunday and Amit on the next Tuesday when the ever smiling lady came bearing sweets.

For 90 days, Chotey became Ahmed and Ahmed became Chotey depending on who was needed when. It was in those 90 days that he learnt the importance of having names. He understood why a name was much more than just syllables.

His parents had never bothered to name him. They just called him Chotey because he was the smallest kid in the family. Even after all his elder siblings succumbed to the poor people's diseases, and Chotey had graduated to become the eldest, he was still Chotey.

Sitting on the roadside hotel where he worked, Chotey now realized that he had no use for the dual borrowed identity. He had to fend for himself in the world and it was about time that accepted that truth. And thus, he stopped protesting when people called him names. Chotey, Ahmed, Chotu, Oye. Just about anything worked as long as he got food and a his 6 hours of sleep.

How he landed work there at that roadside eatery was a mystery for everyone. Everyone but for Chotey and the owner of the eatery. After the kids were rescued, the ever smiling lady who often came with sweets came up with a plan this time. She made some presentation or some such which explained how the kids would study in a boarding school she planned to start. Approvals were given in blink and off they went to the new building, far away from the orphanage.

The first month at the new school felt like heaven. Heaven, which his father often talked about must be somewhat like the school, Chotey thought. He was jealous of his father for never having taken him to heaven despite coming home and telling his son everyday that alcohol was heaven. Like alcohol, the trouble at the school started one year later. It was the girls that disappeared first. And then then good looking boys. No one knew where they had gone. But everyone was told they had been sent across India to better schools. To better homes. 

Chotey did not want to go to a better home or school. It helped that he was ugly. Life had moved him enough, from his village, to the city, to the orphanage, the boarding school and now most likely to that dhaba. All the ugly children were sold as helpers to such roadside eateries. Chotey might have been ugly, but he was lucky. The dhaba owner promised to do right by him and he had in the last nine years stuck to most of his words. Including keeping Chotey's identity secret. Though the kid was living a borrowed life, at least it was borrowed from the right man. A righteous man.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Persona Non Grata: The Sound of Rain

How and why Chotey was working in that roadside restaurant was not known to anyone. All that the regular truck drivers, landfill workers and construction site workers knew that he was a Muslim child who had run away from his home.

Ahmed, as they knew him, never bothered to correct them. He was 15 years old now, scrawny as ever. A lot had changed in the past 9 years that he had been working there, but not his physical shape. He was stick thin despite working at a restaurant, where he ate all that he could. He has only grown taller, just enough than the average male. 

And in all these years, he was silent as ever. The occasional sounds out of his mouth were either to refuse a customer that an item they wanted to eat was unavailable or tell them how they had to pay. Chotey never demanded anything from the restaurant owner. A young balding man that he was, the restaurant owner too never had any complaints from Chotey.

In this part of the town where he worked, Ahmed often came across patrons who had wanted to take him back with them so that he could stay with them and study more. These people came in cars. Cars which were of all shapes and sizes, makes and colors. And on the odd occasion in summers, when Ahmed had to take food to the people sitting inside the car, he would wonder at how the vehicle was so cold when the Earth outside was burning hot.

It was one such which had rescued him from the site he was kept at with many other children of his age 9 years ago. Post the disappearance of his father, Chotey had come to the town to look for his mother. Fate had different plans. When the kid, who he first met while looking for his mother, told him he was wrong, Chotey decided not to believe him. It was for the first time that he was being told the right thing, and Chotey did not want to believe he was wrong. He thus ignored. 

Clutching the small piece of paper, on which apparently his mother's address was written, tightly in his hand, Chotey walked in to the belly of the shanty town in front of him. The kids, who should have bullied him or beat him up, were too busy fighting and abusing to notice a new leper. Chotey walked straight past them like a phantom and into the heart of the slum.

He managed to come out only a year later. For one year, he stayed in different huts and makeshift buildings inside the slum. The people he lived with always gave him food and promised to help him find his mother. That they never actually did was never a problem for Chotey. He was getting just enough food to survive and no one ever bothered him. The people he lived with often told him he must eat and get strong so that when he went to work an year later, he could be strong.

That was until one day there was a lot of commotion and the adults that lived in those buildings had started running helter skelter. Ominous clouds hung over the morning when the armed policemen and the people in cars came. Ahmed had just about woken himself up. He was sitting wondering where the sound of the rain went, when one of the policemen pulled him aside and asked him to go sit in the van. 

Before he could fully understand, Ahmed was taken to a nice hostel of sorts. Here, he would have no problem, he was told. He wanted to tell them that he had no problems in the slum either. He wanted to tell them that it was in the slums that he could be himself. That he could be Chotey. 

In fact, Chotey had slept to the sounds of the rain. He missed the pitter-patter of water drops fighting with the tin roof of his home in his village. And thus Chotey slept like a baby. The following morning when he woke up, it had stopped raining. And just like that, Chotey was Ahmed again.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Persona Non Grata: Chotey is wrong

Chotey was unsure of which lane to enter. Though the inspector had explained and written the address on a piece of paper, Chotey was unsure. Since he could not read the address, Chotey had to rely entirely on his memory which was not serving him well at the moment. Perhaps he was tired  from the bus journey. 

But he desperately wanted to find his mother and take her back home with him. He would tell her that he missed her. It would have been a blatant lie, but he wanted to say that. She had left him and his father when Chotey just 15 months old. And had not been seen since. How could he possibly miss her when he barely knew her? But he was determined he would lie to her. He would tell his mother that her husband was no more. He had either died or abandoned Chotey like she had. Like most of their relatives did. 

Chotey's father had gone out on his wheelchair one morning and never come back. That was about 15 days ago. When the alms and free food stopped coming for Chotey after 15 days, he set out to find his mother.

Being unable to find the right lane would not have hurt Chotey as much. He was often wrong. At least that is what his friends told him. His father had often told rebuked him for being wrong. At the tender age of 5, and despite being wise beyond his years, Chotey had simply made peace with the fact that he was wrong. There was no debate, no discussion around it. 

Today, however, he wanted to be right. A lot would depend on that. His back-breaking ride on the roof of the bus would be successful. The five rupees he paid as fare would be worth it. Chotey still had some money left in his pocket. His father had left that money near his pillow before leaving for good. 

Chotey also wanted to find out his mother and give her the little money he was carrying. He was not sure of how to spend or manage wisely this fast depleting resource. In the city, money melted fast and its exchange value was less. His father had often chided him to be economical when Chotey spent the odd one rupee he had saved from grocery shopping on a savoury or sweet.

As he entered the fourth lane running perpendicular to the main street, Chotey realised he was in the wrong place. Here, there were kids double his size who had a wicked look about them. Just like the kids in and around his shanty who told he often he was wrong. Adults like the police inspector were not Chotey's parameter to judge people. The tiny human beings his size were. And the sample of that size human being in front of him did not calm his nerves. 

These kids frittered around like foxes, chasing each other, often falling and getting up. They cussed freely and no one seemed to mind it. Though Chotey also abused his friends now and then, these expletives he had heard only from his father or his friends. And that too when they got excessively drunk on the cheap toddy. 

The last time his father and the neighbouring uncle got drunk, they had come back home with a strange looking lady. She was wearing too much makeup, far more than Chotey had ever seen anyone wear. Not even the young bride who got married a few months ago. He wanted to ask his father if the lady was his mother. But before that, his father growled and asked him to sleep in a neighbouring hut for the night. 

Chotey simply did what was asked of him. 

When the lady was leaving in the morning, he asked her if she needed water. She smiled, said no, and went her way. The recollection of her make up and smile filled him with comfort. He wanted to find her too now. Though he had no idea where she lived, Chotey wanted to find her and ask her how she knew his father and if she could help them.

It was a push and a shove from a kid his size that brought back Chotey to present. The kid looked at him strangely and asked him what he wanted. He also asked Chotey to follow him in the next lane as the kids there would bully and beat him up for being an outsider. They were all orphans, he said, and protected their territory from other orphans of that area very zealously. It was as if a full scale war had been declared.

Chotey told him the address he roughly remembered. The kid at first seemed puzzled and thought for a while. After a while, he told Chotey he had come to the wrong address.

Strange, Chotey thought. Being wrong had not left his side here either. How he wished he was right. Alas! he was not. He was wrong.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Persona Non Grata: Ahmed choses a religion

Even as the constable shooed him away for the fourth time, Ahmed did not feel dejected. It was not the first time he was being chased away from a place, by a person or his memories. He was a persona non grata for most.

Ahmed did not choose to go the police station. His father had asked him to. When you are 5 years old, you do as your father says. Even if your father is disabled and can not move around much. His father could certainly not chase Ahmed to beat him. Five year olds listen to their father. He had not chosen his father either.

Ahmed did, however, chose a name on his way to the police station and quite unknowingly, a religion.The religion of the person who dropped him till the police station on the bicycle. He did not know the person was Muslim. He knew the person was different because he wore a skull cap. Unlike his father. He did not know the religion of his father either. All he knew that the person who offered him a lift on that cold foggy afternoon was Ahmed Ilyasi. And just like that, he was Ahmed too.

Having been turned away by the constable yet again, he trudged along the dirt track that led to his shanty. Today, yet again, he had the same answer for his father. That the constable had turned him away without giving any explanation as to where Ahmed's mother was. 

Except, he was not Ahmed. Ahmed was Chotey or simply, the youngest. He was only 15 months old when his mother had gone away. She was not dead yet. That he was sure of. As sure as his father was. She had gone away for work with 30-40 other women from the locality. And had not come back since. Neither had the money they were promised. 

Every month, since he had turned 5, a big responsible man according to his father, Chotey had visited the police station to ask if they found out anything about his mother. And every month, they turned him away, sometimes after scolding him for wasting their time with the same question again and again.

The next month, when he visited the station, they were surprisingly receptive. A young inspector had asked Chotey his name, which he said was Ahmed. The bearded guy asked him to sit and looked around in some files. He made some phone calls and sounded more disappointed as each call ended. 

At last, in a disappointed tone, he told Ahmed that there was no information on his mother yet. He did not assure to look for her either. He just said there was no information. 

And once again, Ahmed was on his way back home. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

Goodbyes are tough, and easy too


I think goodbyes are the most definitive and long lasting of all human emotions. A hello is curious, welcoming and unsure of why it is where it is. The smaller 'Hi' is a little more cheeky and informal. The goodbye, on the other hand, is precise and clear-cut on the message it wants to convey. It hits you hard and leaves you mellow.

Goodbyes cut out a piece of you everytime you hear them. And they happen all the time. Goodbyes happen all the time. Outside houses, schools, malls and nearly all places human beings visit. Of all the places, however, those which happen at airports, railway stations, bus stands or whatever other mode of transport you pick, are the most soul jarring. These goodbyes leave an unfinished feeling, an emotion which is complete but the effect is not yet. Everyday, at these places, millions of goodbyes exchange hearts. Everyday at these junctions, a goodbye ends a story and starts another one.

Of all the places, however, airports have the toughest goodbyes. And perhaps the easiest too. Easy because they end in a flash. Goodbyes at airports are easy because you don't have to stay with the heavy departing emotion for very long. Some family member will crack a joke. Some last minute advice from a senior member of the elder generation will be passed on. A precaution to take, a medicine you must not forget.

The shy new bride, who got married only three months ago in this family is also present. Occasionally, she steals a glance at her husband, who is at least a couple inches taller than her. She is tall too. And for today, she is decked up as well. Another tall couple nearby exchanges glances with this one and knows what they feel. Perhaps the former are accustomed to this feeling now. Of letting someone go without uttering goodbye verbally. Eyes meet and they say a lot more than goodbye.

There will be grim faces of fatherly figures, overseeing the proceedings, oblivious of the chit chat, trying to maintain composure. These fatherly figures are ready to act the moment they sense something wrong. Nothing will go wrong. Hopefully. Passports have been checked, the tickets verified. The documents are all in position.

It's time for the goodbye.

Fellow travellers who are behind wait patiently for the hellos and the final handshakes and waves and the good-bye to get over. They remember their first time. The first time they flew, they were nervous too. Someone came to see them off to. There was a line behind them as well. The then flier behind them in the history did not egg them to make it fast. Perhaps they are returning the favour.

Once the flyer is past that glass wall, past the first of many security checks, they are gone. Off into another world. Now, those hand waves are hardly seen. People nonetheless try. On both sides of the world separated by glass walls. Uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces on either side of the glass wall say goodbye. Once inside the terminal, the flier is alone again.

Some people move with a clinical precision, as if they know exactly what is where on the airport, like the back of their hand. Others are nervous. Perhaps the first time fliers. Unsure of what world is going to consume them once they are inside. An air hostess also checks in. It's work for her. Perhaps she does not like coming here. Who, after all, likes coming to the office daily?

Goodbyes are toughest on airports. Its tough because all you have now are a few thoughts to hold on to. At airports, you can not even have that one last glimpse, one final drop of love for your parched soul. You have said your goodbyes, but those are not enough. Nearly not. It is tough holding on to those departing words. You are unsure of what to feel. The glass door, opening and closing as one approaches and leaves is perhaps the best example of goodbyes. Easy and tough. Goodbyes.

Goodbyes are easy. And tough too.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Say hello....say hello...say hello

To the fishes in an aquarium,
And the love in moratorium,
To the birds that don't fly high,
And the questions that ask why,
The people who're awake for us,
And dreams they caught for us,

Say hello....say hello...say hello

To the beautiful girls we date,
And women who we love 'n hate,
To the places that treat us right,
And mornings that blend in night,
To the last morsel of food they save,
And the last drag of cigarette we crave,

Say hello..say hello...say hello...

To the Santa who comes bearing gifts.
And my father who thinks in what ifs,
To the people who said I could not,
And voices that said deny I must not,
To the final might of a dimmed candle,
And the people who flew of the handle,

Say hello...say hello...say hello...

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

सुनो, शोर ना करो

रात का कोई आवारा टुकड़ा
शहर से अपने मिलों दूर पड़ा
कहीं गर्त में बैठा, यूँ पड़ा पड़ा
जीने के मायने खोज रहा है
शोर ना करो, शहर ये सो रहा है

कीट पतंग भी भनक भनक कर
ऊब चुके हैं टूटे हिस्से पर बैठ कर
हाथ से हौंक कर डूबे सूरज को दूर करके
शहर मेरा जाने कैसे, उफ चैन से सो रहा है

कल भोर तो होगी, बेशक माथे तक चमकदार
फिर रात का वो आवारा बेखबर टूटा टुकड़ा
इक कमरे की खूंट पर सपने सारे टाँग कर
चैन से, जाने कैसे , फिर बेखौफ सो रहा होगा

सुनो, शोर ना करो।