Saturday, January 31, 2015

Grabbing a Second Chance

I’ve just finished reading and reviewing The First Phone Call from Heaven, and one line from the book is still fresh in my mind. It goes: The mystery of death lies in the moment it chooses. And that helped to remind me of some promises I had made to myself.

Having watched The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman, I too made up a bucket list for myself with a staggering and impressive array of things I wanted to do before I died. But then, as often happens, daily demands of life elbowed thoughts of death out of the way. Death can come at any time, and yet we humans live as though we are going to live forever.

After the children were born, I toyed with the idea of getting one important thing done.

1) Making a will: I thought that in the event of my death, I must divide up any assets among those I loved so I could be sure that they were looked after even after I was no longer with them. We Indians regard conversations around the subject of death with morbid distaste. As if talking about it would bring it closer. Would not talking about it put off the eventuality?



There are other things that I need to do, things that I have been putting off for far too long.

2) Publish my book: This has been so long on my to-do list that I am beginning to wonder about my commitment. Surely if this meant anything to me I’d give it more of my time and energy. The book isn’t going to write itself. My dream is calling. Will I answer?

3) Learn to speak Spanish fluently: I’ve got the basics down. I can handle the grammar. I have got the vocabulary in place. I know the websites to go to. I have the books. What I need to do is to get away from the shores and sail out to sea. The longer I persist in thinking in English and translating it into another language, the longer fluency will elude me.



Will I be able to achieve these things this year? I hope so. Life doesn’t always give us Second Chances. And we don’t know when our time will be up.



This post is a part of the #SecondChance activity at BlogAdda in association with MaxLife Insurance”.




Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: THE FIRST PHONE CALL FROM HEAVEN

Title: The First Phone Call From Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 323









The book is called The First Phone Call from Heaven, but it is actually about a number of first calls that are received by some ‘chosen’ residents of Coldwater, a small town located a few miles from Lake Michigan, and how those calls completely alter the dynamics of life in the town.



Tess Rafferty receives a phone call from her mom who died four years ago.

Police chief Jack Sellers gets a call from Robbie, his soldier son who died on duty.

Pastor Warren cannot believe it when one of his congregants, real estate agent Katherine Yellin, tells him that she has received a call from Diane, her dead sister.

All three of them are touched by the calls, but not all are ready to speak of the miracle.

Meanwhile, convict Sullivan Harding, just released from prison after serving time for a crime he did not commit, is received outside prison by his seven-year-old son Jules and his parents.

By the third week, Katherine cannot keep her secret. She feels compelled to tell, and she does so at a church service. Soon there are others who claim to have received calls from the deceased. Most of the people receive calls from deceased loved ones, except for Elias Rowe, who gets a call from a dead disgruntled employee.

TV channel reporter Amy Penn reports the news, and word spreads like wild fire. The response is enormous, gripping the town and the country in a frenzied religious revival of sorts. The mayor decides to optimize on the publicity. At a meeting convened to talk about the issue, several others claim they too have received calls from the deceased. People come from out of town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action, hoping to receive calls from dead family members.

But not everyone is enamoured with the calls. When a terminally ill patient, comforted by Yellin’s words, stops fighting for his life, it results in widespread outrage.

Even as Jules clings to his toy phone, hoping Mommy will call, Sully becomes determined to expose the calls for the hoax they are. Sully knows that dead is dead, that Giselle is never going to make contact.

In the midst of all the confusion, Yellin announces that she will broadcast her call live to the world. As the day of the broadcast draws near, the pace begins to feel intangibly more frenetic.

Are the calls real or a figment of the imagination? Are people lying? How could so many people hallucinate in the same way? Why do the calls come on a Friday? And why would the dead choose a forgotten town like Coldwater to make contact?

Will Sully succeed in exposing the hoax? Or will the world be consumed by a lie?

You need to read the book to find out.



I liked the manner in which Albom connected his fictional tale to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.

The significance of the telephone as the purveyor of news about ordinary and important events is at the heart of this story. As is the love story of Alexander Graham Bell and his hearing-impaired wife Mabel, and how sound played such a crucial role in their relationship. This love story finds its parallel in that of Sully and his dead wife, Giselle.

For Sully, the investigation into the authenticity of the calls becomes an obsession, a way to calm the demons that haunt him.

I liked the fact that laypeople believed in the ‘miracles’ but the clerics are skeptical and resort to “existential wrestling.” For the media, it is an opportunity to milk the greatest news story.

The writing is beautiful, yet almost deceptive in its simplicity, and at first I could not make up my mind about whether it was a fable or a mystery. 

But the beauty of the words is unmistakable. Albom’s writing is amazing. Every section ends on the right key, with not a single note feeling out of place. Here a paradox, there an emphasis, his words make life- and love-affirming statements, and succeed in resonating with the truth within you.

When Giselle dies, Sully’s feelings are described as “learning of the earth’s destruction while standing on the moon.” I couldn’t get the intensity and the magnitude of that thought out of my mind.

In another instance, Tess cannot believe that she is actually speaking to her deceased mother, “as if death had been an airplane flight that Tess thought Ruth had taken but later found out she’d missed.

There are so many instances of these. When Rowe throws the phone away, hoping to disconnect from the call, he remembers his mother’s words, What the Lord gives you, you do not squander, and yet he throws the phone away, hoping to distance himself from the calls, and feeling guilty all the same, “as if he’d just slammed a door against a rainstorm.”

Albom justifies the device that he has used to hinge his story upon. As Fred Harding, Sully’s dad, says, “The Bible says God spoke through a burning bush…Is that any stranger than a telephone?

Albom has shown the slight yet ever-present rivalries between the Baptist and the Catholic churches, but he has done so with an indulgent eye. The Catholic priest begins a game of one-upmanship on realizing that Tess, a Catholic, got the first call. And Yellin begins to feel jealous when she learns that others too are getting calls.

The story is thoroughly entertaining, interesting and enlightening. The writing is second person, with the omniscient narrator talking directly to us. The style of the author deserves mention. The external all-knowing perspective is understanding, critical, laughing in equal measure.

The multiple viewpoints are confusing at first, but one gets used to them by and by.

Written like a fable this may be, but a fable it is not. There is a lot of philosophy, and a bit of theology, wrapped up in a cloak of mystery.

The book is tinged with sadness. We have all experienced what it means to lose a dear one and we’ve all grieved. The finality of losing a loved one is something no one ever gets over, even though life demands that we move on.

That is why I loved the book so much. At one level, I wished for the miracles to be true. One part of me rooted for Sully, for the hoax to be exposed, and the other part longed for the miracle to be real, so Giselle could call him, and answer a little boy’s prayer.

Personally, I've always believed Heaven is real, regardless of what anyone else might say to the contrary, but it's still deeply satisfying when fiction, or fact, for that matter, re-affirm one's own beliefs.

The cover appealed to me too. The words placed one above the other against the backdrop of a starlit night gave the impression of being a stairway leading to heaven.


Read this book, and see if you can resist longing for one phone call from those you've loved and lost forever.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: THE DART MURDERS

Title: The Dart Murders
Author: James Kipling
Publisher: Global Village Publications
Pages: 145





Jane Ferrier, a 25-year-old green-eyed blonde, is killed in broad daylight, felled by a poisonous dart. A month later, Sarah is killed in a similar manner. Exactly another month later, Michelle is killed, in the same way. All the girls are attractive green-eyed blondes who face trouble in their home and love lives.

Chief Inspector Patrick Campbell is summoned to investigate the three murders. The police believe that the three deaths are the work of a serial killer. They question boyfriends, friends, family members and bystanders. Their efforts are as thorough as possible, but the collective information gathering leads nowhere.

A month from Michelle’s death, Alice is killed in a shopping mall. She too is an attractive green-eyed blonde, who has just lost her job, and has no stability in her family life or her love life. Once again the police thrash about in search of answers and clues, but fail to achieve any breakthroughs.

The book was an easy read, but that was because of the simplicity of the writing. It was too simple, the sort of thing that a first-time writer would have written. 

The author draws us into the story, piquing our curiosity about who might be the killer, but he doesn't succeed in sustaining our interest. 

All the boyfriends, and there are many of them given the instability in the girls’ love lives, have something to hide, and for a while it seems as if any one of them might be the killer. 

Another thing that I found hard to stomach was how all the boyfriends behaved in front of the police officers. At first they are afraid that they are going to be arrested, and then they comply in the interest of furthering the investigation.

The relentless questioning gives one the impression of a body of evidence being accumulated, but it is evidence that does not point to any conclusion.

The investigation itself begins after the third murder. We are not given any explanation as to why the police didn’t get its act together after the first murder, and there is no sensation of panic at the time and lives lost as a result. The police officers claim to feel frustrated, but we do not feel their frustration.

As readers, we feel no sense of emotional investment in the characters at all. The author has made absolutely no attempts to work towards character development. In fact, most of the male characters do not even have a surname, which makes it very difficult for us to see them as rounded characters with busy lives.

There are simply too many characters and hardly any description to render them real in our eyes. The back stories, whether of the victims or their boyfriends, seem haphazardly put together.

At the end of the novel, we are not filled with an overwhelming impression of “Of course, why didn’t I see it?” The so-called clues are far from obvious.

The language is stilted. There is a sense of unreality about them. People don’t really talk the way the characters in this book do. There is nothing to distinguish the lines of one character from those of another. Everyone sounds exactly alike.

There is nothing to justify the brilliance of the Chief Inspector, and even the motivation of the killer, when it is finally revealed, does not strike us as worth killing for.

The narrative voice is completely neutral throughout. I don’t know if the author was striving to achieve a clinical effect by deliberately downplaying description and character development. If that is the case, it hasn't worked.

Even though the murders happen fast enough and the cover is quite gruesome looking, we don’t feel drawn into the events that pan out through the pages.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review: MURDER IN THE DARK

Title: Murder in the Dark
Author: Steve Demaree
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 264






Murder in the Dark by Steve Demaree takes a page out of the old Agatha Christie tradition. Twelve people from varying backgrounds are invited to spend a Survivor weekend in an isolated house, surviving whatever comes their way in exchange for a host of attractive prizes. Within a few hours, just after dinner, the lights are turned out, and they remain turned out for the duration of the weekend.

Since the windows are boarded up and nailed shut, there is no sunlight and the entire house is plunged in total darkness. The challenge is intensified when it becomes apparent that the Survivor Weekend requires them to survive quite literally. One of them is a murderer and is there to settle some score.


Beginning by giving us a brief introduction to the cast of characters, including the 12 invitees and the owner of the place and his butler, the author then leads us into the third person minds of a few characters, Pat McHenry, Mark Justice, Aaron Smedley, Dr Philip Bradley and Dan Larkins, besides Ridley Manchester, the owner, and Hawkins, the butler. Of these, Justice alone has multiple chapters devoted to his point of view.

The chapter from the third person viewpoint of the murderer was particularly annoying. In order not to give away the slightest clue about the identity of the killer, the author sought to avoid the use of pronouns completely, and ended up repeating the words, ‘the murderer,’ once too often. The last paragraph in this chapter contains 6-7 references to these words.

The chapter from the point of view of Lieutenant Norm Santangelo of the Robbery and Homicide division of the Lexington Police Department seems to spring out of nowhere, considering that Norm and his two colleagues are not mentioned in the cast of characters.

The writing sorely needed some tight editing. I found it convoluted, amateurish and tiresome. The writing sorely needed a good editor or at least an honest critique group.

Sample this sentence about the owner of the property: He merely planned to have guests fewer nights than those nights when he had no guests. I read this line so often and it still had me reeling, and there were many such gems littered throughout the book.

Now wrap your mind around this one: “Who knew when the next murder would take place, and take up some of Santangelo’s time. Well, one person knew when a series of murders were expected, but that person didn’t know if someone else planned to murder someone prior to that.” See what I mean?

A lot of the details seemed superfluous even at the outset. They didn’t serve any purpose, other than to achieve the targeted word count. The thing to do should have been to introduce us well to one character, and let them meet the others. The strategy of devoting one chapter each to multiple characters means that there is too much back story, and the Survivor Weekend does not begin until the 17th chapter.

The author does a good job with the conversation. The dialogue is real and lively, and the touch of humour is a relief. He also manages to build the atmosphere well. His fault is that he spells things out too much and repeats things a lot.

I have another grouse with the endless repetition of the cast of names and their professions. It comes at the beginning of the book, and then again when all the invited guests meet at dinner, they are asked to introduce themselves in detail. And if that’s not enough for us (the author must have a very low opinion of our short-term memory), the rest of the book reads Molly Pride, the librarian, did this, and Molly Pride, the librarian, did that. This reference to people by their professions is done repeatedly for all the characters, or at least those who manage to evade death.

Then there are some continuity issues. At the end of one chapter, we are told that the funeral director decides to stay in his room. And yet in the very next chapter, he is out in the basement.

At one point, Charlie pulls out a plastic bag out of his knapsack and throws a 100 or so marbles down, letting his pursuer fall. Where did the marbles come from? Why weren’t we readers told that he was carrying them? Writing mysteries requires the following of some rules. You cannot pull out random brand new objects out of the bag of Dora the Explorer.

How the murderer manages to go around committing multiple murders in pitch darkness is beyond me. It is also annoying when multiple chapters end with variations of the very same cliff-hanger – he didn’t expect to see what he saw.

Overall, the narrator’s voice is a little too smart-alecky and frivolous for comfort. Somehow I felt that the narrative tone succeeded in undoing whatever good effect the author had attained.





Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Review: SAKOON

Title: Sakoon
Author: Nishith Vasavada
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 287









Sakoon, Arabic for Peace, by Nishith Vasavada deftly marries history and fiction to create a mesmerizing tale about a nation in deep unrest that touches you with its intensity and honesty.

From the beginning, one gets a sense of tumult and turmoil, and yet in the midst of these, Sakeena Husain, whose name means tranquility, lives life as a privileged and wealthy college student who has a crush on her brother Anwar’s best friend, Rohan Qureshi, and agonises over whether he cares for her or not.

The setting is liberal, fashionable Karachi but it is the early ‘80s, when General Zia-ul-Haq is in power. A strict interpretation of Islam is slowly coming into focus, changing the dynamics of life for the people, especially women, and changing, for the worse, the face of modern Pakistan.

The chapters are told from randomly alternating first person viewpoints of Sakeena, Rohan and Munir Qureshi, Rohan’s grandfather. The author has handled successfully the tricky job of writing from the point of view of the opposite gender, as he does with Sakeena.

The story is divided into three Books, each carrying the story inexorably forward. The first Book establishes the setting, as Sakeena and others of her acquaintance slowly become aware of how their country is changing. Several chapters told through the viewpoint of Munir flow seamlessly, almost like a memoir, and give us an insight into the past and his early days in Pakistan, the land the old man chose to make his own after the Partition of India, the land that decades later continues to call him Muhajir, or refugee.

Book 2 sees the youngsters enroll at Karachi University, where events, that will have a lasting impact on all their lives, begin to unfold. Anwar and Rohan befriend Nadeem who teaches them to shoot a TT-pistol, an escapade that turns horribly wrong and ends up in Rohan committing the worst mistake of his life. Meanwhile, Sakeena befriends Kaneez, a Pathan girl, at the University. Kaneez’s mother, Mor, a journalist, proves to be a significant influence in Sakeena’s life.

Mor opens up a whole new world for Sakeena, one of English literature and journalism. Of words and their impact on people and the world around them, and how they can be used as a potent tool to change the world.

To the dictum, Write what you know, Mor adds her own, Know what you write, an effective reminder not only to Sakeena, but also to me as I aspire to write my own book, that research is critical. It is a piece of advice that Vasavada has adopted unstintingly, as is visible in the manner in which he has brought Pakistan alive, despite never having lived there. In fact, the idea for the book arose out of his own mother’s longing for Karachi, the city that she and her family fled in the turmoil following Partition.

Under Mor’s guidance, Sakeena and Kaneez help with research for an article on violence on college campuses that the former is commissioned to write. The article hurts the sentiments of Islamic fundamentalists, who rough up and try to abduct Kaneez. Sakeena is away on a family holiday in London at that time.

Mor and Kaneez move to New Delhi, but Sakeena does not escape retribution either. On an outing, Sakeena’s dad’s car is ambushed; her father and Anwar are grievously injured, and she and Rohan kidnapped. There is no demand for ransom.

In Book 3, the action becomes more real and raw, as the narration shifts to present tense. Rohan and Sakeena seek ways to escape, but the noose seems to tighten around them. When ethnic riots break out, Sakeena’s attempts to speak out against tryranny and injustice through her writing, and Rohan’s own act of self-defending violence against a sympathizer of the ruling Islamic government manifest an irrevocable change in their lives.

Against this highly unstable and conflict ridden backdrop, the tumult of first love plays on.



The book is very beautifully written, but there are a few words, carelessly retained that make one wish for the services of a good editor.



The characterization is realistic and true to detail. Living on the subcontinent, it is not hard to bring to mind characters of that type.

The women here are strong, whether it be Sakeena, Kaneez, Mor or Nabeela, Munir’s wife. Vasavada has done complete justice to the female character. From Nabeela, who, as a young bride, opposes her husband's decision to move to Pakistan, to decades later, when she is returning from India, and can hold her own emotions better than Munir who finds the separation from India quite unbearable.

Another strong character is Taheera, Sakeena’s mother, who even in her restrained circumstances, knows how to get her way for herself and her daughter.

But it is Mor whose influence drives a greater part of the plot and helps the heroine to discover her calling. This woman has books overflowing out of every nook in her apartment, certainly my idea of perfect décor.


I must make a mention about the plot development. At the beginning of the book, both Sakeena and Rohan are carefree, wealthy teenagers. Naïve about life, Sakeena knows nothing about the other Karachi, one of deprivation, filth and misery that lies carefully hidden from her life of privilege. Through the course of the novel, they both discover the other side of Pakistan, and realize firsthand the turbulence that pervades the land that their ancestors have made their own. Their characters make radical choices that shape their own destinies and alter their circumstances forever.


The similarities, both good and bad that Pakistan shares with India, strike you immediately. They are evident in the wry observations when Sakeena says, “girls always get the blame no matter how badly boys behave.” As also when she says, “They (boys) don’t have to tell anyone where they’re going or when they will be back,” and worst of all, rape, “the worst revenge against a woman in Pakistan.”

There are of course the basic similarities of food and colour and the raucousness and chaos of life that strike the Westerner more often than they do us. It makes one wonder why we don’t get along when we have so much in common. But there is the other side to it.

Like India, Pakistan is mired in divisions of caste, creed and region, unable to embrace its own people, unable to live and let live. We are both deeply entrenched in the shackles of patriarchy.

We receive further evidence of how similar we are. The author describes the two nations as brothers who meant to live in separate home and visit often, but end up wanting to rip each other’s throats apart.

As an Indian born decades after India won her Independence, there is a strange love-hate relationship that I feel we, as Indians, have with Pakistan. The very concept of Pakistan both fascinates and frightens us.

Reading Sakoon, I felt a tinge of sadness for all those whose lives were uprooted in the wake of the Partition. It helped me understand the sense of betrayal they feel at how the idea that had once captured their imagination has let them down.

Vasavada offers a critique on the crumbling state of Pakistan, hemmed as it was in the ‘80s between the Soviet Union which occupies neighbouring Afghanistan, and its nemesis, India. The author discusses through the medium of conversation “the impact of political bombshells that had gone off in the past five years and how they had shaped the world.” Elsewhere, Munir thinks, “In trying to spark the genius of Pakistan, Zia had let loose the genie of religious fervor that would never go back in the bottle of its own will.

In another place, the author says, “What is history but a random collision of events and personalities with one constantly battling to control the other.” And amid this fearsome machinery struggle the common people who get trampled upon. Sakoon is the story of those trampled people.

At school, we learn hardly anything about the history of the subcontinent and how it relates to the world, and even when we do, we reduce it to a banal memorization of facts and dates. Historical fiction is an effective tool for teaching history and making it come alive.

Sakoon is the kind of story that seems made for celluloid.

If that happens, I’d still say, read the book.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The smallest coffins...

After a break of nearly a month, schools have reopened again in Peshawar, Pakistan. But there is none of the happy-go-lucky shouting on the playground that always characterizes the re-opening of school after a break. The children would still be too shell shocked for that.

On December 16, Pakistan suffered a terrible terror attack on its soil, one that did not even spare its innocent children. Jumping over a nearby graveyard wall, seven Taliban suicide bombers entered the school and proceeded to unleash terror and death upon the hapless children and a few teachers and the principal. At the end of that seven-hour siege, 150 people, including 134 students, were massacred to death.

How cowardly must those seven Talibs have been that they would stoop so low as to attack little children?

Today, everywhere the voices are silent, subdued. Children will walk by, still dazed and stunned, tears threatening to spill over, as they see the empty benches upon which their friends once sat. Perhaps the school will have made attempts to wipe the blood stains and clear up the reminders of what happened that day.

But the trauma will remain with these children, and their very presence at school is an act of sheer bravery on their part.

As a mother of two young children, the youngest of who has not yet started formal school, I stand in sympathy with all those parents who have lost their children. I am also touched by the courage of the parents of the surviving children who have dared to send their children to school, in defiance of the anxiety and the fear that will now weigh heavy on their hearts.

Reading through the news reports, I read of children who stuffed their ties in their mouths to stifle their own screams, and thereby prevent the terrorists of learning of their hiding places. Some kids spoke of how they heard the terrorists shout to one another to look under the benches, in the cupboards, everywhere, to smoke out the kids, to spare no one.

My heart goes out to the mother whose pain will be tortured further by guilt. She said, "He didn't want to go to school, but I forced him to go to his death."

Going to school should not be the equivalent of stepping on a landmine and yet that is what it has become.

It is easy for those of us who have not lived that heartbreaking ordeal to say that if we don’t send our kids to school, then the terrorists win again.

Nobody can fathom the depths of agony that the parents of those children suffer, that they will continue to suffer. To have to bury or set afire the pyres of those that were your pride and joy and strength – could there be a greater loss? The smallest coffins are indeed the heaviest.

Following the terror attack, the government demanded that all educational institutions install CCTV cameras and build higher boundary walls to secure their premises. Those institutions that complied, numbering 118 out of a total of 1440 in Peshawar, were given no-objection certificates and allowed to resume their normal routine.

Sadly, there will be no routine for the children and the teachers of Army Public School, and also for many other children in other schools. The dastardly attack by the terrorists has made going to school an activity that is fraught with danger and peril, like going to the battlefield.

The students themselves realize that normalcy is forever lost. The airport-style security arrangements at the entrance and the elevated boundary walls with steel wire fencing leave no doubt about that fact.

As I iron my children's school uniforms and prepare their tiffins, I think of the state of mind of those parents whose children survived the brutality. How often they must have kissed, hugged and caressed their children in the last few days, knowing how close they came to losing them forever.

And then I think of those whose children died that day, those whose hearts stopped when they came to know of the news. Those who ran with their children's bleeding bodies all the way to the hospital. How their eyes will weep as they rummage through their children's belongings. How they will long for future milestones that will never be.

What a sad world we live in, compared to the one we, the parents of today, were raised in. Back then, we didn't need barbed wire fencing to keep us safe.

I am grateful to God that I have my La Ni
ña and El Niño to love and cherish.

I want to leave you with this sound clip of a song composed by a young Pakistani, Talha Anjum. I was in tears at the end of this song. In case you don't understand the lyrics, I've made a feeble attempt to translate the words. In case I have made a mistake in understanding any of the lyrics, please point out my errors, and I will correct the words.




Gaye the haste haste, Pehen kar apne bastay,
(They had gone amid shouts of laughter, wearing their school bags)

Ab tak wapas nahi aaye, Kya bhool gaye ghar ke raste?
(They still haven't returned. Have they forgotten the way home?)

Subha to bohot khush the, Kya ab naaraz ho maa se?
(They were so happy this morning. Are they angry with mother now?)

School hi chhoda tha, na jaane kahan chale gaye wahan se?
(Dropped them at school, where did they go from there?)

Uth rahe honge maa baap ke dil mein yeh sawal,
(These questions must be arising in parents' minds)

Is maa ke laal ka uniform ho gaya laal,
(Why is this mother's darling's uniform red?)

Ek hi baat pe duhai, Ke yeh nahi se aayi,

(________________________)

Jism ke dard se jab chhoti chhoti aankhain bhar aayien ,
(The ache in my body brought tears to my eyes)

Har taraf cheekh pukar, Lekin nai koi andaaza,
(Screams and cries everywhere, but no idea)

Ye shayari ziafat nahi, Is ko samjho taqaza, taqaza
This poetry is not ____________. This is ______)

Ke kal tumhare bhi bacche honge, Ye nai bach sake, Kya zamanat hai woh bach sakenge?
(Tomorrow you too will have kids. These did not survive. What guarantee is that they will?)

Hamare main to, itni si bhi gherat nahi, fajar tak jaagte hain, Par zara khuda ka zikr nahi,
(______________)

Wo sab kuchh de kar wapas lena bhi jaanta hai,
(If He gives us everything, He well knows how to take it back)

Phir bhi tu khud ko jannat ka thekedaar maanta hai,
(And yet, you think you are the owner of heaven.

Chorus:
Naraaz na hona hum se, Hum hain tumhare dum se,

(Don't be sad with us, Our happiness comes from you)

Tum se hi to hai ye jahaan,

(Our world is good because of you)

Koi bata de mujhko, Sahi bata de mujhko,

(Somebody tell me, tell me the truth)

Aakhir ye JANNAT hai kahan?

(Where is this heaven?)

Ammi, maine kaha tha na, Aaj mujhe school nai jaana,
(Mom, I had told you that I didn't want to go to school today)

Dekhen aaj un logon ne mujhe kitna zyada maara,

(See how much those people have beaten me)

Shaheed ka kya matlab hai, Sab kehte hain ke ki main wo hun,

(What does the word, martyr, mean. Everyone says that's what I am)

Aap ro rahi hain, Meri aankhain bund hain kaisay ro-oon?

(You are crying. My eyes are shut, how do I cry?)

Sab kehte hain shaheed hona achhi baat hoti hai,

(Everyone says it is good to be a martyr)

To phhir aap puri raat Zaar-O-Qataar kyun roti hain?

(Then why do you cry_____ all night?)

Main bhaaga dar kar jab wo goliyan chalayin,

(I ran away in fear when the bullets began to rain)

Main bohot cheekha, Kya aapko awaz nai aayi?

(I screamed so loud, couldn't you hear me?)

Meri teacher ko jalaya, Wo jagah se nai hileen,

(They burned my teacher, she didn't move from her place)

Aur kuchh nazar nai aaya, chhupne ki jagah nai mili,

(We couldn't see anything else, there was no place to hide)

Aap kehti theen ke Kalma padho to khush hote hain Allah ji,

(You used to say read the Kalma, Allah will be pleased)

Maine Kalma padha unho ne goli chala di,

(I read the Kalma, but they shot me)

Main bohot pyasa tha, kaash thoda paani mil jaata,

(I was so thirsty, I wish I could get some water)

Patti bhi kar leta, agar doctor ban jaata,

(I would have bandaged those wounds were I a doctor)

Wo mujhe maar ke khush the, Matlab ki main bura tha,

(They were happy after killing me, which means I am bad)

Seene main goli lagi bohot zor say gira tha,
(I was shot in the chest, I fell down to the ground)


Bohot khoon baha, ammi, Kapde bhi gande ho gaye,
(So much blood flowed away, mom, even my clothes became dirty)

Aap has kar kahain naa, ke tum apne kapde khud dhoge,
(You will laugh and say, wash your own clothes)

Jaisay aap kehti theen jab bahar khelne jaata tha,

(The way you used to say when I would go out to play)

Mujhe pata hai ki main aapko bohot satata tha,
(I know that I used to trouble you a lot)


Baba, aap ro kyun rahe hain? Woh bhi aaj pehli baar,
(Daddy, why are you crying for the first time today)


Aap to kehte the rona hai bohot buri baat,
(You used to say that it was wrong to cry)


Ammi, maaf kijiyega main Khuda Hafiz nai keh saka,
(Mom, please forgive me, I could not say, Khuda Hafiz, to you)


Aapki khidmat karne ke liye zinda nai reh saka,
(I could not stay alive to look after you)

Main aasman mein taara ban kar aap ko dekha karoonga,

(I will be a star in the sky and will look upon you)

Achha ban kar rahunga, Kisi se nai ladoonga,

(I will be a good boy, I won't fight with anyone)

I love You, maa, aur aapki bohot yaad aayegi,
(I love you, mom, I shall miss you a lot)


Lekin, maa, kya aap mujh se milne nai aayengi,
(But, mom, won't you come to meet me?)


Bas thodi der ke liye, warna bohot darunga,
(Just for a little while, or else I shall get frightened)


Bas aap ko dekhunga aur zor se hug karunga,
(I shall just meet you, and hug you tight)

Ammi, aap to muje saari batein batati theen,
(Mom, you used to tell me everything)


Kyun nai bataya school ke raste main jannat aati thee,
(Why didn't you tell me that heaven lies on the way to school?)


Chorus:

Naaraz na hona hum se, Hum hain tumhare dum se,
(Don't be sad with us, Our happiness comes from you)

Tum se hi to hai ye jahaan,

(Our world is good because of you)

Koi bata de mujhko, Sahi bata de mujhko,

(Somebody tell me, tell me the truth)

Aakhir ye jannat hai kahan?

(Where is this heaven?)



Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A David and Goliath story

Every Goliath encounters his David at last.

But not every David uses a smooth, round pebble pinned to a sling to bring the big man down.



Priya*, my train friend, was having a hard time at work. Work was drudgery, but she plodded on. Her husband's garage was doing rather badly and they were still paying their home loan off. Giving up the job was out of the question.

Every evening, Priya ranted about the troubles she had faced during the day. The telling brought her immeasurable comfort, even though both she and Rohan*, her husband, knew that it would be the same story the following day, and the day after.

Sudarshan, her boss and the owner of the small firm where she worked, was a tyrant who believed that the best way to ensure productivity was to keep employees under control. He strictly forbade any discussions between co-workers on any subject other than work. There was no laughter, no fun at the workplace. Employees had to eat at their desks and finish faster than the others. The one who ate the quickest was allowed to get off work the earliest -- 30 minutes after closing time.

Mobile phones had to be switched off in the office premises. Phone calls were only allowed through the office line. The telephone operator was advised to maintain details of who received and made how many personal and official calls and for how long they spoke. To make sure that she could distinguish personal calls from official ones, the girl was unabashedly told to listen in on all conversations, in the interests of the company.

The poor girl did as she was ordered, for the most part, occasionally turning a blind eye and deaf ear to some of the personal calls, especially those to and from family members.

And that was how Priya used to receive one phone call each day from her young son, Kian*, all of five years old. The little one would give his mom an account of what had happened at school, squeezing in every last bit of the news he had to share before she excused herself and tried to cut the call. It would never do to be caught red-handed on a personal call by the boss.

Sudarshan prided himself on being process oriented. Appraisals were his idea of a fun-time. It gave him an opportunity, as if opportunity were a thing he lacked, to watch his employees squirm in their seats as he slung accusations of bad attitude, indecorous behaviour, unsatisfactory work, and generally anything he could think of. With the job market being tight, everyone on his payroll was desperate and unwilling to take risks, and so Sudarshan continued his reign of harassment.

Since employees were forbidden to fraternize with one another, there was no option but to go home and spew venom against Sudarshan, a necessary step if they were to preserve their sanity. Everyone knows that those who don't come up with healthy means of releasing stress cave in soon enough.

And so, with the TV cackling in the background, Priya laid down her day’s burden upon the ears of Rohan, who listened patiently. It was all he could do.

Kian was often privy to these conversations. After a day spent in the company of the boss from hell, Priya wouldn’t always remember to withhold the complaints until the little one was out of earshot.

In any case, the TV was on, playing some inane cartoon or the other, and the couple used the time to talk about how their day had gone.

And so it went on, day after day, week after week, month after month. The stress began to tell on Priya. She became more short-tempered, more frenzied, compensating for the crap she took at work.

Something had to give. 


And it did.



One afternoon, just after lunch, all the employees of Sudarshan's firm, including my friend, Priya, came across a most unbelievable sight. Sudarshan seemed out of sorts. He wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, and he was strangely subdued. Unaccustomed to such odd behaviour on his part, the employees began talking about it. But he was too wrapped up in himself to even notice the flouting of his rule.

It was only later that they came to know the reason behind it. Apparently some child called the company, asked to speak to Sudarshan and proceeded to shout at him for being mean to his mother.

They got the story from the telephone girl. She relayed the entire conversation to her eager audience, relishing every word. After all, she had only been obeying orders when she had listened in. Sudarshan did not get personal calls, and never from children.

With a child's disregard for tact, the boy had got straight to the point. “You’re the horrible man who is mean to my mummy and her friends?" he asked. "Because of you, my mummy is always worried. She does not sing to me, and she cries a lot. She has no time for me. And why do you send her home so late? Who will check my homework? And she is so tired, she can't cook. And we end up eating what daddy makes. I don't like this, okay. You start behaving yourself from now on. Don't make me come after you," he threatened, very angrily, his childish prattle an echo of parental scolding lingo.

Throughout the one-sided conversation, Sudarshan tried to get in a word of his own, and failed. The boy wasn't done yet. "You send my mummy home on time, okay? I'll be watching out for her today. Don't make me call again."

And then just as suddenly, Sudarshan heard the click. That the telephone operator was listening must have affected him somewhat.

He spent a few anxious days watching his female employees, wondering which one had put her child to the task. It was hard to guess. All the married women had young kids. The mystery of the caller remained.

It would be easy to say that Sudarshan was a changed man. But then this is a true story, not a fairy tale. But he did go easy on a number of his rules, and even allowed employees to keep their phones on, and chat with one another, and yes, go home on time. The mood got lighter, although the pressure of work didn’t and appraisals continued to offer opportunities for mental wrestling.

Several employees, including Priya, left in a few months. Priya got a job close to her home. The new job allows her more time with her son, and she's happier than she's been in a long time.

But there's another happy ending to this story.


On the day that changed everything, Priya went home on time, a smile on her lips. By the time Rohan brought Kian back from the creche, she was already in the kitchen, making banana fritters. Kian immediately hugged her tight as if he would never let go. When the burst of initial joy had subsided, Priya complained, "I missed your call today. Why didn't you call?"

"I did," he replied, before digging into the treat.


PS. The names of Priya, Rohan and Kian have been changed to protect their identity from the tyrant Sudarshan, very much his real name.


Monday, January 05, 2015

Biological Bad Luck

I read the news report on the 1st of January, and for one moment I was so confused that I had to tear my eyes away from the story to check out the dateline. Surely it must be the 1st of April, was my first dazed reaction. How else could one explain such a ridiculously unbelievable headline on the front page of the newspaper? This was the sort of news item that was more suitable for April Fools’ Day.

“Cancer caused by bad luck,” the headline shouted, making light of a disease that continues to haunt mankind in spite of the advances in medical science and technology. 


The report said that the dreaded C-word, cancer, had precious little to do with bad behaviour or risky actions, in most cases. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University studied 31 cancer types and found that 22 of them, including leukaemia and pancreatic, bone, testicular, ovarian and brain cancer, had nothing to do with bad genes or the environment or any faulty lifestyle choices. They were caused by random mutations that occur in the DNA when cells divide. 

As the researchers explained it, essentially biological bad luck. 

A lottery of sickness that you win, without buying a ticket.

The upshot of all this was that the best way of treating these types of cancers was through early detection, when they are still curable by surgery, giving the body a better fighting chance against the disease.

Of course the remaining 9 types of cancer, including colorectal cancer, smoking-related lung cancer, were the exceptions to this odd phenomenon. Incidentally, the study did not cover all cancer types.

But in a scenario where two-thirds of the types of cancers could strike a person unawares, it was essentially very unsettling news. Being a health freak, and living a clean lifestyle could not guarantee you a long life. On the other hand, those inclined to continue with unhealthy lifestyles, trusting to the odds that this news seems to put forth, are just making life more difficult for themselves.

We’ve all known of people who have led clean lives and then been diagnosed with cancer. The little child, the housewife with two children less than five years old, the young man or woman who is adored by family and friends.

Why? That is the first question we feel compelled to ask.


All this while people with a severe addiction to smoking and drinking go on to puff and gulp their ‘weaknesses’ into their seventies and eighties, and then die peacefully in their sleep.

Another reminder of just how unfair life can sometimes be.



There was another reason why the news report rattled me.

A day later, the Husband’s cousin was diagnosed with cancer. It can’t be, we all shook our heads in disbelief. She was a hardworking woman, working with her husband in the family enterprise, two young teenage kids.

No vices, no family history of cancer.

Why her?



The news report helped me correlate its findings to her situation, but it still didn’t make any sense.

I suppose even the researchers understand that. That is why, even as they advanced their theory of bad luck, they advised that people live a healthy lifestyle in order to avoid the misfortune of “adding” to the bad luck.


Science has long been known for trouncing that which has no explanation, for insisting on reasons for every phenomenon.

And yet, deep down we’ve always known that science does not have all the answers.

It can't, for example, tell us how to go about avoiding that bad luck.


The more we know, the more we know how little we actually know.




Thursday, January 01, 2015

15 goals for 2015

A whole new year is upon us.

2015.


For some strange reason I cannot explain, there seems to be some sort of finality about this one. Like it’s meant to be a milestone year of some sort.

And so I’ve come up with this list of things to do. Things to get done.


Some of them… heck, who am I kidding…almost all of them are repeats from previous years. Which brings new meaning to that phrase, shifting goalposts.

What better than to recycle those old goals then?

In the hope that this will be the year in which I get things done. So here they are.


1) SEW: A skirt, a bag, even a dish cloth. My mother’s sewing skills have always been extraordinary. I guess my obsession with achieving some skill at sewing has to do with proving to myself that I am cut from the same cloth.

2) GET CRAFTY: La Niña loves to tinker around with pen, paper, colours, scissors etc. She is always trying to save stuff from ending up in the garbage and giving it new life. Getting crafty will enable mother and daughter to spend more quality time together.

3) BAKE MORE OFTEN: The kids love my baking attempts. So far, they’ve always turned delicious. The baking attempts, that is, not the kids, though they're sweet too.


This year, I’m going to try my hand at cake decoration too. If that calls for taking a few classes, I’m game.

4) ACHIEVE FLUENCY IN SPANISH AND PORTUGUESE: The Internet is our biggest friend when it comes to learning a new language. I’ll keep you posted on the sites that help me on my journey. ¿Vale?

5) COMPLETE A NOVEL THIS YEAR -- ANY GENRE: I made an attempt with the NaNoWriMo in November 2014, but had to give up a week into the challenge. 

Maybe a whole year will be kinder to my challenge than a single month was.

6) COMPLETE AND GIFT AT LEAST 3 CROCHET PROJECTS TO FAMILY AND FRIENDS: If you knew how much yarn I have, you’d wonder if I wasn’t a little batty. I have a compulsive desire to buy more yarn. This year, I hope to put it to good use.

7) COOK MORE OFTEN: When I say cook, I mean experiment. Try something new. A dish from another cuisine. Or from a food blogger’s blog. I used to do that a long time ago.

8) GIVE UP NAGGING: Not doing something that provides such sweet release to the spirit is going to be difficult. But this will be my New Year’s Gift to the Husband.

365 days of No NAGGING.

I wonder how I will vent out my frustration though.

9) READ 50 BOOKS THROUGH THE YEAR: Last year, I signed up for the GoodReads Challenge, promising to read 50 books. A few months later, I revised my commitment to 75 books, and fell flat on my face, having read just 33 books in the year. 

This year, I am going to be more modest and stick to 50.

10) SAY THE FULL ROSARY EVERY DAY: I’ve said this before, but it bears repetition: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” 

If you need a prayer, I'll pray for you too.


11) VOLUNTEER FOR A GOOD CAUSE


12) WRITE AND PUBLISH MY FIRST BOOK: This will be a lead-out from something that began on my blog. If you are a regular reader, you can guess what it is.


13) WRITE MORE THAN 100 BLOG POSTS


14) COMPLETE TWO PARTIALLY WRITTEN SHORT STORIES


15) WORRY LESS


There is a famous quote attributed to Woody Allen that says that if we want to make God laugh, we should tell Him our plans. Will mine cause Him to laugh? I’ll guess I’ll know this time next year. 


And on that note, I declare this to be a Happy New Year 2015.





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