Thursday, October 28, 2010


The rain was drumming up a happy rhythm on the cafĂ© window, but the mood inside was rather gloomy… and awkward. Chhaya had her head in her hands. Kohl-lined tears ran down her face and her whole body shook as if a deep emotion from the very core of her being wanted to tear itself away from her and let itself out. I thought it best not to interrupt the catharsis and waited for her to calm down.

And while I waited, a montage of moments danced in front of my eyes. Th is inconsolable woman sitting and sobbing in front of me was so different from the radiant little pixie I had met more than a year ago. Those days, her smile could light up your day. I vividly remember the day Chhaya had first met my good friend Rehan at his cousin’s wedding. You could tell from that very first moment that they had a connection. What began with stolen glances, shy half-smiles, and awkward introductions soon blossomed into goodnatured ribbing, some intense ‘oh you like this…? Me too, I just love it!’ type conversations. Then came the dancing, and just by looking at them glide along the dance floor, you knew that the music could stop but they would go right on dancing to the music playing in their heads, followed by the customary long walks into the sunsets, head on shoulder and hand in hand. We would watch their silhouettes disappear into the lengthening shadows of dusk and whisper to each other and say that this was a match made in heaven.

And yet, here I was, not long after, trying to think of the right thing to say to Chhaya as she sat in front of me, hurting and bleeding from that ugly hole in her heart. Rehan had closed the door on her. They had broken up!

“I don’t know what happened…it was so beautiful,” Chhaya was looking into the distance as she spoke, and in her eyes you could see confusion and despair mingling with anger and hurt pride. Th rough Rehan, I had gotten to know Chhaya a lot better and had been a witness to the highs and lows of their whirlwind romance. “I know…” she continued, “it’s not like I think… I actually know that what we had was something special. Tell me, where did we go wrong? Why did he do this…? You know him so well…you know both of us…all of you said this was so beautiful…so this and so that…couldn’t…couldn’t you do something about it? Can’t you see he is making a mistake? Say something… do something… please…” It broke my heart to see her like that. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to say something… something sensitive and something to help ease her pain, so I said “Chhaya… er...I think, it’s too late…because you, and I’m sorry I have to say this, but it is you who pushed Rehan away. It just isn’t going to work anymore.” Yes, yes, I can hear you wince and say that it was heartless, tactless, and downright cruel for me to say that, but ladies and gentlemen, it was time for some tough love and honest truths, and if no one else was going to say this to her, I felt at least I owed it to her. After all, what are friends for?

What I’m going to say shocked Chhaya and it just might shock you too but really, nine times out of ten, if you, for the lack of a more emphatic word, were to get dumped, or even cheated on, it is going to be your fault. I’ve said this earlier on this page and I’ll say it again that most relationships, especially those we choose, are not bonds bound by contracts, obligations, and balance sheets, but organic creatures that live, grow, mutate, and die, and usually, if the relationship dies before one of the people in it, it is because the relationship was murdered. And the murderer isn’t usually the one who makes the break and walks away but the one we mistake for the victim…yes, the one who’s left standing, clutching the heart and hurting – the Chhayas of this world.

And it doesn’t just happen to women. If you had the time I’d tell you about every story I’ve heard from a heart-hobbled horse’s mouth, but for now, suffice it to say that almost every relationship I’ve seen go bust, went bust because of three classic poison darts – one, insecurity; two, ironically enough, complacency, and finally, the fatal assumption that once a relationship has begun, those in it are morally and emotionally bound, and committed to taking it to its logical conclusion and beyond.

Let’s begin with complacency. You see, partners in a relationship rarely grow at the same pace. So in every relationship, there are phases when a Chhaya worships a Rehan and puts him on a pedestal, and then comes a phase when a Rehan looks up to and is grateful that he is sharing his life with a Chhaya. These cycles can of course last for weeks, months or years, and sometimes, even decades. Th e longer these cycles last, the more the couple pushes the relationship towards its grave, because unequal partners rarely run a happy, fulfilling business. Such partnerships are reduced to mere leadership and followership. Chhaya, for instance, was so taken by Rehan’s charms that she submitted totally to his will. Everytime Rehan wanted to feel the rush he had felt when he had looked up to Chhaya, he found her at his feet instead. After a while, it was bound to get so boring that he felt compelled to look up to someone else. Love, especially romantic love, can only last between equals. Th e day you let that equation change and stop playing catch-up with your partner’s personal growth, love disappears and soon, so would the partner.

Insecurity, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. Ideally, when complacency knocks you off your pedestal while your partner is evolving every day, it should drive you to rediscover, reinvent and recreate a better, more layered, and more interesting you, who surprises your partner and pushes him/her to play catch-up, and it is this dance of growth that makes life and love interesting. But that’s the tougher path. Instead we tend to deal with our insecurities by trying to control and micromanage our partners. When Chhaya got insecure, she tried to push Rehan into tying the knot sooner than planned and became suspicious. Others become jealous and possessive, and see infidelity in every word or gesture. This only makes the relationship bitter and claustrophobic…it dies of asphyxiation.

Lastly, the unspoken contracts - these darts are the most venomous of all, for they create expectations and a false moral high ground where none should exist. Th e only universal law in a relationship is that we, and the nature of our mutual needs, evolve constantly, and the only secret to a happy, loving relationship lies in our commitment to constantly try to understand our partners as they evolve and trying our best to keep pace with, and even outstrip their growth. It is this false sense of expectation that pushed Chhaya into asking questions of destiny and me instead of her own self.

Chhaya hates me for saying those things to her that day but I know that one day, she’ll understand, and in case you are wondering what gives me the right to get so preachy, my apologies, but I happened to make those classic mistakes…and survive, as did Samara and Rohit (see issue October 31, 2010). But more of that next week…


Thursday, October 14, 2010


This one’s difficult… I’m going to be telling on my friends. But don’t worry; they’re ok with sharing a bit of their lives if those bits could help you out with yours.

It’s the story of two brothers, both good friends of mine, who met two exceptionally attractive ladies, and fell in love with them at a wedding. Today, all four are good friends of mine, but while one couple is happy, together and totally in love, the other couple has fallen out… of love, and with each other. So what went wrong? And what went right? Are there lessons to be learnt, or are all tales of togetherness mere puppets in the hands of fate and chance? Well, here’s a ringside peep into four lives, with insights that could help your loves and mine. And it’ll help if we approach their lives seeking not to judge but to understand.

Rehan and Rohit Gadgil played cricket with me in college. Their father was working with a merchant ship and spent a lot of time sailing. But their mother, a homemaker, has done a very good job of bringing up the boys. Blessed with sharp wits and kind hearts, Rehan and Rohit never lacked for company and yet, as far as we know, have always respected every relationship. Rehan is 29 years old today and works in Glasgow. Rohit is a 27 year old banker, currently living in Delhi but will move to Michigan any of these days. About three years ago, their cousin sister who’d studied with us was getting married to this boy from Kolkata, and celebrations were planned over ten days; wedding in Delhi and reception in Kolkata with parties and ceremonies sprinkled between the two big days.

The Gadgils are a popular family and had a long list of invitees. Since I also happened to be on that list, I took time off and hopped on to the wedding wagon. And there we encountered the other two protagonists of this story – Chhaya and Samaira, the groom’s colleagues and good friends. Rehan and Chhaya got along like a house on fire. They talked, they laughed, they danced and the evenings oft en found them taking long walks in the lawns. Rehan was mature, worldly-wise and elegant. Successful and suave, he had the bearing of a prince. Chhaya on the other hand had the irresistible charm of a child who knows she’s cute. When she smiles, her eyes would sparkle like diamonds under soft white light. Her bubbly effervescence was contagious. They were opposites that attracted each other with a strange playful intensity.

It was like a story unfolding out of a movie script. All of us friends would see them as they walked away, their heads tilted gently towards each other as they spoke, saw and felt what they thought to be the very essence of the other. Chhaya had a half smile that never seemed to leave her mouth. And her eyes… they danced and laughed and revealed a thousand secrets whenever Rehan was around. And Rehan, the quiet and reserved gentleman who was brilliant at his job, played golf to ‘contemplate’ and went camping on the weekends, had evolved into this live-wire who couldn’t stop talking animatedly. It was as if he’d suddenly found wings. He floated around all day, laughing and talking. And in the evening, when Chhaya was around, he was sweet and charming, and opened up to her like a tulip to the sun. That day on the terrace, those of us who saw their silhouettes disappear against the moonlit night on the eve of the wedding knew that this was a match that was made in heaven. In fact, we still talk about that magical moment… all of us but for two others…

Samaira and Rohit were there all right but they were usually just too busy in the kitchen to notice. No, no it isn’t what you are thinking… that came much later. For what was brewing between them in the beginning was not romance but intense competition. Samaira in her younger days, was, to put it plainly, rather obese. Looking at her statuesque proportions today, you’d never guess that she was once the rather grotesque, hulking figure in the photograph she carries in the flap of her phone (a reminder in case she drift s too close to the desserts). Since she couldn’t run around much with that weight in school, she picked up the shot put during her “games period (!)”. Eventually she got to be good at it. As her confidence soared, she started training for her sport. She’d always been good with books but the shot-put gave her physicality a new-found confidence. She could now hurl the put further than most of the guys in her class could and all that training in the weight room had sculpted a whole new person out of her.

Samaira now worked in publishing and was a supremely confident individual. Rohit was perhaps a little intimidated by her in the beginning. She was elder to him by a couple of years and though attractive and sweet natured, the two of them got off on the wrong foot. Actually what took off when they met was this little debate. You see, Rohit was once an aspiring fashion model. He’d sculpted his physique to a fair degree of perfection and done a few shows. He wanted to be the next Milind Soman, a male super-model, but alas it wasn’t to be; he wasn’t willing to make “the required compromises” he said. But he’s still passionate about the industry and his workouts. So when Samaira and Rohit got talking about their fitness regimens and Rohit tried to exchange notes, Samaira ribbed him a bit and said that male models were ‘pansies’ with ‘worthless bodies that looked too fluffy to be any good’. Sensitive and mild-mannered, Rohit was shocked and confused. He didn’t know how to respond without being rude to someone he’d just met. They were at a wedding after all. He avoided conversations with Samaira from then on…

But Samaira had meant no harm. So she apologized and invited him to join her for an early morning run through the city-forest. Things got a little better from there. They jogged and trained together in the mornings and played squash in the evenings. And they spent the rest of the day in the kitchen ‘experimenting’ with that rare and elusive (and some might say mythical) food-group called the ‘lick-a-licious health foods’. You could tell though that even when they’d run and made up, there was always this undercurrent of intense but cordial competition between the two.

All through the ceremonies, the families were happily speculating about a good time for a Chhaya-Rehan wedding, and at the same time bracing themselves for a moment when the veneer of cordial competition between Samaira and Rohit might collapse and they might have to intervene before things got a little unpleasant which might embarrass the families. However, the wedding week ended without incident and we went back to our old lives, richer and rounder for the experience.

Chhaya and Rehan however picked up from where they had left off in Kolkata. And while we were waiting for them to announce their ‘next step’, like a bolt from the blue, Rohit and Samaira announced their engagement…

But all that happened three years ago. Today, one couple is still inseparable while for the other, love disappeared like dew in the desert.

What is the glue that holds one together, and which is the river that divides the other? The answers…? Next week….!


Thursday, October 7, 2010


I wrote bits of this article a few years ago, but here’s a post script that completes it.

“Shona! Otho shona Buduuu…!!” I was hoping she’d stop, but you know how mothers are. It must not have been a minute after four in the morning, and she kept at it till I woke up, all bleary eyed, to the strains of a mesmeric voice chanting on the radio. That happened when I was four, and it happened again today morning, 27-years later, just as it has, on this very day of the Bengali calendar for all the intervening years (and mom, you better keep at it for decades to come).

This invocation to Goddess Durga – Mahalaya, was my introduction to that grand Bong affair called ‘Durga Pujo’. And since that day to this, autumn leaves, the voice of Bhadra and the beats of the dhak, herald the coming of the Goddess, and while I’m not much of a Bengali, nor an idolater, there is a certain magic in the air that touches the core of my being when I see the ‘pandals’ go up. It is impossible to remain untouched by the festive fervour, especially if one has been brought up in that infamous Bengali ghetto in North India called Chittaranjan Park, and I, for one, rejoice in it. It is the only time of the year when I feel connected with the Bong bit in my roots, and wallow in the nostalgia of Puja shopping, pandal hopping, and seasonal community dating.

Let me explain the last bit (these are rare insights into the psyche of the ‘Probasi Bangali’, so both non Bengalis and non Probasis pay heed). You see, my parents and many of my friends’, victims of a strange Anglo-Banglo colonial hangover, insisted on sending us to these terrible institutions called ‘Boys only convents’. Now in an environment where for most of the year, the only unrelated, teenaged, female you can sit next to happens to be your principal’s matronly Labrador, things do get a little desperate. So, come puja time, my friends and I would try and join one of the ‘jatra’ (theatre) or ‘orchestra’ (music bands) groups that would hold auditions and rehearsals in preparation for the stage shows during Durga Puja, in the hope of discovering the joys of conversing with at least one female teenager who wasn’t a relative or a dog. Such voyages of discovery oft en lasted till dashami (Dussehra) and then, thanks to a misplaced sense of propriety, hit the sand bank… till it was time for ‘rehearsals’ again.

With these and other such happy associations to celebrate, there isn’t an event in the year that I look forward to more than Durga Puja, and for the same reasons, I hate dashami and it’s sense of closure. On dashami, the idol is removed from the pandal for bhashaan (immersion) and taken in an open vehicle in a long procession, like a carnival parade, where the celebrations are perhaps wildest, and then immersed in a local waterbody, a symbolic return of shakti to nature. But I find the sudden calm of an empty pandal absolutely heartbreaking. A Durga Puja pandal is that rare platform where long lost friends meet once a year, where families distributed over colonies and continents reunite, and for a brief period of four days, are a family again, and where socially starved boys and girls get a crash course in the lessons of life. But every dashami, the fairy tale comes to an abrupt end, and no, not everybody in this happy multitude gets to live happily ever after. I’ve seen young couples celebrate a puja together and then separate, as the romance refuses to sink deeper, and seen couples much older, wrenched apart by the Grim Reaper. And yet, after every bhashaan, the revellers return to the now barren pandal, and stand, heads bowed, as if mourning the dead, waiting for the priest to bless all with ‘Shantir jal’ (waters of peace), and hope that they could live in peace and prosperity until it is time for the Goddess to return.

But you don’t have to be Bengali to be touched by the magic and romance of Durga Puja. Ask my friend, a Columban, a Christian, who met the first non canine teenaged female of his life at one of these pandals, fell in love, and after consistently meeting the same girl for four days every year for about 15 long years, got sick of waiting the whole year and married her instead...and his is not the only story. Durga Puja, like most great celebrations of the world, is about celebrating life and love, and neither your language, nor your god, ought to stop you from joining us in this celebration… so hope to see you at a pandal this puja…

Post Script : But there is a reason why I still have that sinking feeling every dashami…No, it’s not as much because I would miss the high and euphoria of living and breathing in the intoxicating presence of the goddess and other divine beings, but because I’ve grown to know that this celebration is not about bonding over prayers alone but over murder… Every year our sins start long before the pujas, when brushes dipped in toxic death anoint the goddess once she’s taken shape in straw and clay. The paints, heavy with lead and mercury, replace natural dyes and when on dashami the goddess is immersed, with it flow our callous sins, and the paint…

There the lead and mercury in the paint kills the fish. Yes the very fish that finds its way on to your plate and poisons you, bit by little bit, with cancer, liver damage and worse. The environment our celebration pollutes isn’t a river far away, but is in our bodies and our lives.

This year, a heartening change is sweeping through a fair section of Puja committees. Toxic paints are being dumped for eco-friendly dyes. And even if some are only paying lipservice, the winds of change are surely blowing this autumn. The onus is on you and me to insist and ensure that our local Puja isn’t poisoning the very waters that sustain us.