Monday, March 14, 2011

My Guardian Angels

It was 1978 and I was a starry-eyed young woman, barely out of my teens. The standard courses offered for post-graduation in Indore did not interest me. I was fascinated by the world of the print media, and wanted to pursue it. The closest city from Indore where you could take a course in Journalism was Mumbai, called Bombay in those days. I had my eyes set on it, and even though it must have been a difficult decision for them, Aai-Baba--my parents--agreed to send me. As luck would have it, I secured a seat at the renowned Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for a 1-year diploma course in Journalism. I was happy and thrilled. But there was a problem. We had to make arrangements for my stay. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan did not have any hostel facility.

Photo by Mayuresh
This is where my father's close friend Achyutkaka and his wife, Ashatai came to our rescue. They opened their doors for me and invited me to stay with them in their flat, on Senapati Bapat Road in Mahim. Now, this was a small, one-bedroom flat and they had three young children. I became their fourth child, and the eldest one at that. Aai-Baba found it hard to send me away, but at the same time they were relieved because I was going to be under the loving and watchful eye of their most trustworthy friends.

Achyutkaka was (still is) a stickler for discipline, order and neatness. I made sure that I hang my clothes to dry in perfect symmetry on the clothesline. When I took off my slippers, I set them straight against the wall, with the toe-side touching the wall. Achyutkaka was particular about everything and paid attention to the smallest detail around his house. Footwear left on the floor in a haphazard manner, beds covered with sheets that were wrinkled and slack instead of being taut, and anything in general that was not placed neatly, bothered him. He was very straightforward and vocal about it. His children often got quite an earful from him. I may not have lived up to his exacting standards in spite of trying very hard, but I must say that he never let me know that in any way. He would regularly advise me on how to go about in my chosen field of study. He used to tell me about how I should conduct myself in a big city like Bombay. 'If you have any problem, confide in Asha', he often told me. After all, they were responsible for a 19-year-old, who had come away from her parents for the first time.

Even though he was an executive with the Indian Oil Corporation, acting was Achyutkaka's passion. He was active in the theatre circuit and I remember going to see many plays with him at the Chhabildas High School in Dadar. Chhabildas was a great venue for playwrights and directors to showcase their creations. It provided a platform for quality theatre that was not purely commercial, but experimental and low-budget. I don't mean to name-drop, but I got to see Pandit Satyadev Dubey,  Rohini and Jayadev Hattangadi, Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande, Nafisa Ali, Nana Patekar, Amol Palekar, Sunila Pradhan and many others from close quarters, either on stage or as part of the audience or in an informal meeting, thanks to Achyutkaka. I can't recollect names of all the plays that I saw there, but the two that stand out in memory are Badal Sircar's 'Juloos' and Mohan Rakesh's 'Aadhe Adhoore'. And I certainly haven't forgotten the zesty batatavadas from a nearby stall, that we used to be treated to, after watching a play.

Photo by Govind
If I have to mention one more of Achyutkaka's 'likes', other than discipline, order, neatness and acting, it has to be his evening drink. He has been having his pre-dinner drink every single day for years. I can still picture him, sitting in a chair that was kept between a window and a steel cupboard in the small Mahim flat, nursing his drink. His tastes in food are simple. He is happy with his daal-roti, the daal has to be served in a big bowl though, not in the small vaati or katori in which it is traditionally served in Maharashtrian houses. And the pinch of sugar that Maharashtrians add to all the dishes is a strict no-no in his house. Ashatai's cooking has always been free of that dash of sugar. In fact, there is a delightful North Indian touch to her fare, as she hails from Jhansi. The family was mostly vegetarian. Occasionally, there used to be some fish and the children tried their best to cajole me into eating it, or at least trying a little portion. But I was, still am, a vegetarian by choice and therefore did not succumb to their pleas.

Life was simple. School for the kids, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for me and office for Achyutkaka. Ashatai was a homemaker then. She started teaching at a school later. Sunday evenings were reserved for sitting in front of the TV and watching whatever movie Doordarshan threw at us. There used to be an intermission--a break when news was telecast--that all of us enjoyed with some munchies. The favourite items were puff biscuits and hard and crispy boondi laddoos which Achyutkaka used to get from some shop in Dadar.

Time flew in these congenial environs and before I knew it, my course was over. I was fortunate to be selected as a trainee journalist at the Bennett, Coleman & Company, publishers of the Times of India and many reputed journals. Soon, I moved into a hostel for working women. It was not too far from Achyutkaka's place. I continued visiting and meeting him and his family till I got married and moved away in 1982. When we were about to set up our home in Delhi, Achyutkaka gave us an Indane gas connection from his discretionary quota. That was one of the most sought after things then, a precious gift indeed that is still keeping our kitchen fires burning.

Achyutkaka and Ashatai visited us in Delhi and in Bangalore. They came when Aai-Baba were with us so that the four of them could spend some nice time together. Achyutkaka and Baba have been friends for more than six decades now, but what is remarkable is that their wives are each other's best friends too! During his visits, I found that he is still his old self...inspecting cupboards, arranging newspapers in a neat pile, washing and arranging teacups in the kitchen...and so on. His actions told me that he felt completely 'at home' at our place. This is exactly what he would have done in his own house.

Well, that is Achyutkaka for me.

A bit of information for those who don't know: Achyutkaka is Achyut Potdar who played the role of the father of leading ladies Urmila Matondkar ( in the 1995 Hindi film 'Rangeela')  and Vidya Balan ( in the 2005 film 'Parineeta'), and a cameo of a professor in 'Three Idiots' (2009). You may have seen him in many other Hindi films,  TV serials and advertisements. Kudos to him for keeping his passion alive and being actively involved in it so many years after retirement.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Holi Is Around The Corner

When the nights started getting warm and the days warmer, when the woollen clothes felt burdensome every now and then, when you thought that you better open your windows, you knew that Holi was around the corner. The palash (flame of the forest, tesu) tree outside our window would come alive with little orange buds every year at this time. Soon, the whole tree was a riot of bright orange blossoms, their flames leaping towards the sky, leaving the tree completely bereft of its green foliage. This was my favourite harbinger, marking the turn of the seasons.

Photo by Santosh Chandran, CC-BY-SA
Holi, in Delhi brought the winter to an end. It came at a point when winter left Delhi, and summer was yet to arrive. It was the perfect time to shed your winter clothes, shed your inhibitions and join the party. But for years, we kept away from all the hullabaloo. We just did not like the loudness, the aggression and the mess that Holi brought with it. Why get doused with strong chemical colours that were not only hard to wash off, but were hazardous too? We wanted to avoid all this and preferred to stay put indoors, watching our neighbours who were hidden behind layers of powders and paints, from the safety of our home.

This went on for a few years. But our neighbours decided that they would not let us have the vicarious pleasure of playing Holi from the confines of our living room. So one fine Holi day, they rang the bell and knocked at our door, asking us to join them. We knew that they were armed with coloured powders, pastes and water bottles (pichkaris), ready to pounce on us as soon as they could, and so we decided not to open the door. The mob outside, though friendly, turned furious at our temerity and started pounding at the door with their fists. Some others kept the button of the bell pressed, making it shriek continuously. We were not sure if  keeping the door shut was wise, but we stuck to our stand anyway. The poor bell could not cope with the incessant pressure and fell silent. The thumping went on for some more time and then stopped. The group of revellers gave up on us and moved away, leaving us clean and dry, secure in our territory.

Even though we got what we wanted, we were somewhat uncomfortable because we had turned our neighbours away from our door without greeting them. We lived on the campus of an academic institute where my husband taught, so they were not only neighbours, but his colleagues too.

At the next Holi, we decided to participate in the celebrations in our campus. When we offered no resistance and went from door to door willingly with other people, they treated us as one of them and did not attack us with their deadly powders and coloured water, as they would most certainly have if we were to hide in a corner and show reluctance. Sure, they threw hot purple powder in my hair, and painted my face with fluorescent green, red and yellow, but the 'attack' was friendly, not ferocious. We followed this practice every year and soon became a part of the gang. The situation with chemical colours improved considerably as there were several campaigns against them in Delhi. People became aware of the dangers they posed and opted for organic colours that were safe.

Around noon, when everybody had played with colours to their hearts' content, a kind and generous neighbour used to invite all of us to his home for some refreshments. They had a neat garden outside their flat. Some of us sprawled on the lawn, while plastic chairs were hurriedly pulled out for others. The hostess disappeared in the kitchen to send platters of snacks for all of us. We felt very comfortable in each other's company in spite of all the mess on our clothes and bodies. It was at that instant that I understood the spirit of Holi. The Holi colours had the magical powers of hiding our formal demeanour and bringing out our true selves. We sat in that garden, sipping tea, munching on the savouries and soaking in the 'feel good' air around us. Taking a shower, washing the colours off our bodies and changing into clean clothes could surely wait for some time, couldn't it?