The Bombay Writing Project

This too shall pass

Staring at the water, I realized how in the last few months, parts of my soul have risen and ebbed, like waves on the shores of a beach. While the ocean takes away some parts, it’s often kind enough to return some back, slightly altered, sometimes damaged. I think, walk and eat slower these days, mostly to keep track of my movements, my thoughts, and what I’ve lost and haven’t – so at least the bits that remain with me, I understand a little bit better, a little bit deeper.

I look around me and the sea of faces that surround me, known and unknown, seem anxious. Walking fast, but waiting in life – waiting for a proposal, acceptance, a promotion, some validation that life will be easier. The ocean has always been kinder to some, unfairly harsh with others.

But all of this is ephemeral, and this too shall pass, like the waves that come and go, I say to myself and to most others that need to listen to it. Storms will rage, and when they do they often leaving chaos where there was once peace. Sometimes, the tide takes away a little bit of innocence and replaces it with something that smells older. Sometimes when the waves are harsh, it takes away an entire soul, leaving nothing but a deep void behind.

But this too shall pass, I say to myself and to most others that need to listen to it. May we sleep and arise a little calmer with each day, each night, with each wave that comes and goes.

This too shall pass.

– Adithya Narayanan

Paperthin

When Krishna’s father came home to tell his family that he had been transferred to Mumbai he added that they would have to pack and move within a week’s time. Krishna didn’t cry or make a fuss like last time. At the age of 11 the boy had already changed 5 schools across 3 cities, and the family had been expecting this news for a couple of weeks now. The next day after the morning assembly Krishna quietly walked up to his teacher and informed her about the transfer. Before the final bell rang, he distributed sweets among his friends, returned his borrowed books and said his final goodbyes. On the way back home, Krishna stopped near the gardens past the school gates and turned around to look at his school building one last time. He closed his eyes for a second after to safely store the picture he had just taken with his eyes, and then walked away – no trace of emotion on his face.

Krishna’s father worked in the petroleum business and his company would often transfer him with little notice, an occupational hazard his family had learnt to deal with over the years. Krishna would dread the day his father would come home with the yellow envelope that had the details of his next posting, and he would spend the next few days crying in his room. The transfers mostly meant that Krishna grew up expecting to leave the friends even before he made them; he was made to step into a new city and a new school every second year only so he could leave the friends he made. It was cruel, but soon he realized that there was little he could do about it, and as time passed he began to keep fewer and fewer friends.

The house they moved into in Mumbai was much bigger than their previous house. They lived in Gokuldham society, which was a housing colony and that meant that there was a playground where Krishna could go ride his cycle or play cricket with children. Krishna was not interested in playing, but his mother made sure the neighbor’s son took him with him and after an initial awkward phase that lasted a month, Krishna soon settled into the new colony. His teachers in school liked him too; he sat on the second bench next to the window, completed his homework, and did well when the exams came.

A few years before Krishna was born, a right-wing party made it mandatory across schools in the country to teach the state language along with the National language. While there was a lot of debate around the topic in the legislature assembly, and within the education board, the rule stuck. When Krishna’s Marathi language teacher walked into class, Krishna introduced himself and proceeded to tell her that he didn’t understand a word of the language, but that he was willing to work hard in order to do well. This had worked for him in the past and Krishna expected her to smile or pat his head, but the lady looked up at the heavens, and in a grand gesture proceeded to call out to the Hindu gods to ask what wrong she had done in her previous life to end up in a school where they thought it was perfectly acceptable to take children who knew nothing in the language she taught, year after year. She then gave Krishna a solid tap with her knuckles on his head and sent him back to his place, and Krishna knew that life as he knew it then, was slowly about to change.

________

Shubhangi Godbole’s Marathi tuition center had a notorious reputation in the neighborhood that Krishna’s family had just moved into. While her tuition center was the most successful tuition one in the entire Western belt, stories of Shubhagi’s infamous temper surfaced often. Still, she did extremely well for herself, for her student’s far outperformed students of other tuition centers. That was partly because Shubhangi knew her subject really well, and partly because she tolerated no nonsense or indiscipline of any sort. People said that once Shubhangi had a student hit so hard, that his parents had to take him to the nearby hospital. The next day, the story goes, Shubhangi came to visit the boy with a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers and a Marathi textbook, and proceeded to take tuitions for him for the next one hour that she was there in the hospital room. When the results came out that year, the boy scored cent percent in Marathi, and like most other things that end well, all was forgiven and forgotten.

When Krishna’s mother went to meet Shubhangi the evening after Krishna’s Marathi teacher had called out to all the gods, Shubhangi made it very clear to her that while she would ensure that Krishna would get a distinction in Marathi, she would do so using her own methods. Over a cup of hot tea that Shubhangi had made for herself, she assured Krishna’s mother that used the cane to discipline only the worst students, and that as long as Krishna was sincere and hard working, there was nothing for anybody to worry about. However she added, if Krishna’s mother wanted a friendlier, more affectionate teacher she could put her in touch with Mardekar aunty who lived down the road who still had a couple of vacant slots. But everyone knew that the students at Mardekar’s flew paper planes in class, and so Krishna’s mother promptly paid the fees for the year, and promised Shubhangi that Krishna was bright, well-disciplined child and that she was confident that with some initial help, he would soon begin to do extremely well in Marathi.

________

The next day when Krishna walked into the tuition center, he sat on a bench right at the back; his friends in school had warned him against sitting in the front. When Shubhangi saw him, she got up, walked to his bench and handed him a test paper. Today was test day at the tuition center, she said and all her other students in the center were busy solving the paper. An hour later, after the answers were announced and after the papers had been corrected, the students walked up to Shubhangi one by one, and explained why they got how much they did. Anyone who got less than 70% was caned six times. Krishna starred at his empty paper; he had been unable to understand a single question in the test. When it was finally his turn, he slowly walked up the aisle and handed over his empty paper. Shubhangi looked at his paper, and then back at him and when she lifted her cane, he stretched his hand and closed his eyes, but a second later when he didn’t feel the cane smack against his palm, he opened an eyes to realize that Shubhangi was pointing at his bag. She then tapped the vacant spot on the first bench in front of her and said, ‘Bring you bag here. You will sit here every day, every week, for as long as it takes you to do well on my tests.’ That evening Krishna went home and cried to his mother, begging her to send him to Mardekar’s instead. But no tamil iyer ponnu has ever sent her son to a second grade tuition when a better one is available in the area, so Krishna had to continue going for Marathi tuitions to Shubhangi miss instead.

________

After the first few months of struggle, Krishna began to perform better in Marathi, both in school and in tuition. The initial few weeks had been extremely difficult; he was petrified of Shubhangi but sitting in the front of her gave him no choice but to concentrate and work hard at learning the language he had now begun to hate so much. But Krishna never got caned in tuition – partly because he worked so hard, and partly because Shubhangi soon took a liking to the young boy, and although she barely expressed it, she had been very impressed with the growth he had made, for within a few of months he was performing on par with her other students, occasionally even better.

Soon Krishna brought two of friends his to the tuition center. Ethan and Samantha were twins who became friends with Krishna when the three of them had gotten selected to perform in the annual school play. While Krishna had scored a respectable 72% in his Marathi paper, the twins failed the exam. The next day the class teacher had pulled the twins aside and told them that their Marathi scores would have to drastically improve if they wanted to continue to be a part of the school play, and Krishna knew that the only person who could help them was Shubhangi miss, and so he promptly took them over to the tuition center in the evening. Shubhangi agreed to teach them, and enrolled them right away.

While Ethan, Samantha and Krishna walked to the tuition after school together, they couldn’t sit together, for there was no place for the twins to sit in the front. Ethan and Samantha would take their seats right at the back while Krishna continued to sit in the front. The twins knew nothing in Marathi, and because they sat at the back and had joined extremely late in the year, they continued to perform badly for weeks even after they joining the center. Shubhangi didn’t like the twins very much, something about them put her off, and she never forgave their mistakes the same way she had forgiven Krishna’s during his first few weeks at the center. The twins too began to hate Shubhangi, and often-made fun of her on the way back home. When the Unit test results were announced, everyone in the tuition center did well except Ethan and Samantha. They had failed their Unit test again. The next day when Ethan forgot to bring homework notebook, Shubhangi caned him fourteen times in front of the whole class, six times more than the usual. The next day, Ethan and Samantha’s parents came to meet Shubhangi, and threatened to file a child abuse complaint against her in the nearby police station. Needless to say, they pulled Ethan and Samantha out of the tuition center and soon, a week later when the twins failed another Marathi test, the class teacher removed them from the play as well.

The incident deeply affected Krishna; for it seemed to him that Ethan and Samantha, and their parents seemed to think that he was to blame him for the incident. Shubhangi too had began to behave in an extremely cold manner with Krishna- there was no need for the boy to have brought his two friends along during the middle of the year and create all that commotion. Soon, he was made to give up his front seat, and sit at the back with some of the other children who did not study too well. This affected his work and during the weeks leading up to the final exams, Krishna didn’t perform well in his tests. When the final exam results were announced, he managed to secure only a 42% in Marathi.

________

A week before the final exams, the tuition center shut, and Shubhangi called for a meeting to announce that she was getting married over the summer. She assured the parents that their students would perform very well in the upcoming final exams, adding that her marriage would in no way affect the functioning of the tuition center. Krishna from secretly hoped that her husband would take her away someplace far so he would never have to worry about seeing her again.

The entire summer, Krishna spent dreading the first day of tuition center when he would have to walk up to Shubhangi with his final Marathi exam papers. 42% was dismal and Krishna was convinced that he would get caned more times than Ethan had during his first day back after the summer, and unlike Ethan’s parents, his parents would do nothing about it, and all summer long he couldn’t take his mind of it.

After the first day back in school, Krishna slowly walked up the street leading up to the tuition center, his yearly tuition fee and his Marathi paper and in hand. He had decided over the summer that he would quietly take the beatings, proceed to work extremely hard over the next few months, and ensure that he got an 80% in the first Unit test. When he reached the tuition center, he noticed that it was locked. There were no other students around. He waited for a while, and then walked up the stairs to the third floor where he knew Shubhangi lived with her mother. He hesitated before ringing the doorbell, and it occurred to him for a fleeting second that he could run away, tell his mother than they had moved and that the house was locked and never come back, but having never been blessed with the courage to carry out such daring acts, he rang the doorbell. Shubhangi’s mother opened the door, and when Krishna asked about the tuitions, Shubhangi’s mother told him that she had gone away and that the tuition center would be shut for a while. Krishna was just about to leave when, he noticed Shubhangi at the far end of the corridor, from the corner of his eye and when she realized that he had seen her, she asked her mother to let him inside.

When Krishna sat down on the sofa next to the table fan, he saw that Shubhangi’s eyes were puffed; it looked like she had been crying. He had never seen her like this before and he sat cowed down, feet together, his hands on his lap. When her mother gave him water, he drank it quickly and placed the steel tumbler on the tray before her mother could put the tray down on the table next to him. When Shubhangi smiled, he noticed that her lips were pale.

When Shubhangi asked Krishna about his final exam, he Krishna handed over his paper and burst out crying. He didn’t understand why he was crying, she hadn’t even hit him yet, but the tears rolled on and on, and he could do nothing to stop them. When Krishna finally stopped crying, he looked at her and asked her if he could go home. She nodded and told him that she would call and inform him when tuitions would resume. After closing the door, through the iron grill he caught a glimpse of the marks on her back as she turned around to go inside. He put on his slippers and began to walk home.

Two lanes away from home, Krishna stopped and stood next to a temple in silence for a while. A minute later, he walked into the temple, put his tuition fee inside the donation box, said a small prayer for his teacher and then proceeded to run home.

– Adithya Narayanan

The Stereotype

Growing up in the big city, a lot of people told me I was too young to know what love is, and that one needs to grow up and experience life to know what love really means.

I couldn’t disagree more.

I think it is when you are a kid and don’t know better, that you are capable of surrendering completely to a feeling of the heart. You build too many walls as you grow up to be so vulnerable again, and it is often when you don’t know love, that you really are, in love

She wasn’t perfect, like how she’d be if she stared in a movie. She was clumsy, she laughed too loudly, she tripped more often than others did, and she wasn’t even that pretty.

But a famous band, once in one of their songs said that true perfection had to be imperfect, and I remember those lines only because every time the song played, I could see her trip and fall, and every time I play it in my room at night these days, she trips and falls again.

I loved the fact that she wasn’t pretty, it meant that she was real. I could talk to her, unlike most other people her age, who were often prettier. But they were all vain and failed to look beyond their looks, and spent most of their time grooming themselves, while she’d spend the time reading a book or watching a movie instead.

Also, I’ve learnt that pretty women are seldom satisfied. They always think they can do better in life, that there’s someone better looking always lurking round the corner, and there’s too many movies made these days that fuel vanity and I don’t like them, and so I’m glad she wasn’t pretty.

The prettier ones also take too many photographs, I feel.

I never liked girls who posed for photographs. I don’t mind them now, but again, that’s probably because there’s too many of them around.

I cannot remember her taking a single photograph of herself.

She wasn’t one of them anyway.

For some odd reason, I cannot remember the colour of her eyes, I usually remember these things. They weren’t of any striking colour or anything; I remember them just being nice to look at and talk to. I looked into them more often than I can count, in fact everytime we spoke.

All was good, until the day that she decided to leave me. She had her issues with life apparently.

Still, she was the best thing to have ever happened to my life.

Its funny how I didn’t even know it when I had her around.

She taught me a lot of things, things that I cannot even put into words, only feel.

I have a stereotype; I am told in the girls that I look for, the girls that I like.

I think she IS my stereotype, the girl I look for, in the girls that I like.

I was 18, and in awe of her when she left me.

And I don’t think she’ll ever realize the impact that it had on me.

 

But it is okay.

 

I hope you like the flowers I have bought today, mother.

The sky is a little brighter tonight.

– Adithya Narayanan

 

Freshly pressed and neatly folded

In a strange way, everything Shyam Sunder stood for, seemed to go against the flow of the city, against the ebbing tide. Shyam Sunder was terribly slow, not to mention exceptionally delicate with his daily routine.

Standing under a blue tarpaulin sheet held together by four long bamboo sticks, Shyam Sunder was an istriwala, someone who ironed clothes for a living. Brought up in lower-caste family in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Shyam Sunder came to Mumbai after failing his secondary school exams. Initially, he worked as an assistant in his uncle’s retail store, but he soon, he set up his own istri shop outside Dayanand colony – a posh colony in the suburbs of Bombay where hundreds of families would soon render his services.

Every morning at the break of dawn, Shyam Sunder would open the first bundle of clothes; and patiently turn each cloth in the bundle inside out. Picking up the first cloth in the pile, he would sprinkle water on the cloth, before laying the cloth to rest on the table. Using his hands, he would spread out the sleeves first, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom, as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The cloth would then be ironed, crease after crease, twice over, before Shyam Sunder would gently return the cloth to its original state. Ironing it once again, he would fold the cloth place it on the side of the table and proceed to pick up the next cloth on the pile. This, he would repeat unfailingly nearly two hundred and fifty times a day.

During the monsoon, when you could hear the rain and the wind mercilessly rattle windows, Shyam Sunder would stand shivering alone in his stall, performing his duty with the unwavering diligence of a soldier standing atop his post at the border. Someone lesser may have hastened the process, but Shyam Sunder was unmoved and unchanged; the city had failed to do what it had done with many others – it had failed to make him one of it’s own. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded.

During the course of the day, Shyam Sunder entertained many visitors, however today; Shyam Sunder had a new visitor. Standing next his shop, on a bicycle was a young boy, staring at a girl who was lighting firecrackers across the road with the rest of her family.

________

Nabin was a young schoolboy, barely out of his teens, who lived with his grandparents in Dayanand colony. On most evenings, you could see Nabin riding his bicycle through the lanes of Ashok Nagar – often running an errand or two for his grandmother, aimlessly wandering around by himself most other times.

Nabin’s parents lived in Wazirpur, a village 50 miles north of Delhi, where they owned a farm. Nabin spent most of his childhood in Wazirpur, but moved to Mumbai early last year, to live with his grandparents so he could use his grandfather’s influence to attend a school that would better prepare him for life.

Nabin kept to himself, in school and at home, and in many ways, he was similar to Shyam Sunder – they were both outsiders who had not allowed Mumbai to change them as people. Content and satisfied in their own monotonies, the both of them had no greater ambition – they did not wish for more. Nabin had no interest in pursuing engineering, in fact for most parts; he had no interest in pursuing anything. Nabin had no special talents either, but he never let any of this ever bother him.

However, while Shyam Sunder found meaning in even the most menial jobs he performed through the day, Nabin had until now, found no meaning or purpose in life – not at home, nor in school. He was happy passively attending school in the morning, aimlessly riding his cycle around during the evenings.

________

On the eve of Diwali, Nabin removed his cycle from the parking garage. Had he been at home in Wazirpur, he would’ve been bursting firecrackers with his family, but today he was on his own. Nabin took he took his usual route through Ashok Nagar.

Nabin’s grandmother had warned Nabin against taking the cycle outside. Too many families will be bursting firecrackers outside their homes Nabin, she said, but Nabin wouldn’t listen to her. He didn’t want to sit at home alone with his grandmother today. Too old to hold an argument with her grandson, she relented.

Cycling down the streets of Ashok Nagar, Nabin saw that the streets were just like his grandmother had described them – families dressed in their best clothes were lighting chakras and fuljadis while remnants of Diwali bombs lay strewn on the streets. A few times Nabin had to stop his cycle and pause for families to light phatakas or wait for them launch rockets into the sky; once or twice, his reflexes were regularly tested by irresponsible chakras. Against the backdrop of all this light and colour in Dayanand Colony, Nabin stopped his bicycle outside the colony gate, and watched a large group of twenty to thirty people lighting firecrackers across the street from Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.

Through all the smoke that separated him from them, Nabin saw a girl he hadn’t seen before, with thick long hair, light bombs the others were too scared to light themselves. He hadn’t seen her in Ashok Nagar before. Once or twice, Nabin thought the dupatta she wore around her neck would catch fire – she was not as careful as she should’ve been with it, but nothing untoward happened for the few minutes that he stood watching her. Nabin followed her as she weaved in and out of the crowd, her bright red skirt following her footsteps, right up until the moment she looked at him. Standing across the street, he was caught off guard, and he sheepishly got on his bike and hurriedly turned quickly around. When he looked back a few seconds later, she was still looking at him, her eyes sharp and piercing, and Nabin turned around and rode faster that he had, through the smoke, the crowd and the firecrackers in Dayanand colony, until he reached home.

________

During the days that followed Diwali, Nabin roamed around Ashok Nagar, sometimes trying to catch another glimpse of her, his evenings suddenly full of promise. The first time he saw her again, he spotted her walking down the street that led to the apartment where he had seen on the eve of Diwali. She was with another girl, and Nabin, on his cycle, immediately looked away, lest he catch her eye. Seconds his curiosity got the better of him, and as he turned his head to look at her just before he crossed her and she looked back, her eyes as sharp as ever, but in that moment he knew that she had recognized him too.

________

Neeharika lived in the apartment that stood across the gate from Dayanand Colony, where Nabin had seen her during the eve of Diwali. She was a college student, who took the same 5pm BEST bus to come back home with her friend every day. After the first meeting, Nabin avoided the route for a few days, but slowly he mustered enough confidence to ride his cycle down the road that led from the bus stop to her apartment.

Riding his cycle, he would spot her from afar, first pretend not to notice her, and then attempt to catch her eye right seconds before he crossed her. Soon, this became daily practice and Nabin ensured that he left home at exactly 5.23pm, just in time to share 3 seconds of undivided attention with her every evening. He could swear that her gaze had grown kinder as the days passed by.

________

Six months after Diwali, Nabin wrote his final exams and packed his bags, ready to go back home. As he sat on the bed, he realized that it was very likely that he wasn’t going to come back to Dayanand Colony. He would do well in his exams, he knew and there were a few good engineering colleges around Wazirpur in the outskirts of Delhi. His parents would want him to stay at home after being separated from him for two years.

Nabin wondered if he should speak to her, maybe ask her for phone before he left. He had never approached a girl this way before, and he sat on his bed for hours contemplating, nervously biting his nails. At 5.23pm, he got onto his bicycle, but he had no plan in mind.

As he reached the entrance of Dayanand Colony, he paused next to Shyam Sunder’s istri stall. Dropping off a bundle of clothes that his grandmother had given him stall, he continued to cycle on the road where he had seen her everyday for the last 6 months. Breathing deeply now, he pedaled his cycle, his heart beating louder each second.

When he finally saw her, he pressed his brakes abruptly a few hundred meters away from her. He knew he had to do something, and he got off his bicycle on the other side of the road, but he panicked and his feet refused to move as she approached him. Suddenly, he felt a strong urge to tie his shoelaces, and he bent down crouched behind his cycle, and waited until she had walked past. Slowly, he turned around and stood there watching her back, his feet still glued to the road, until she saw turned left to enter her building. She hadn’t noticed him, crouched behind his bicycle on the other side of the road.

Nabin immediately got back onto his bicycle, but now there was nothing to be done now.

He rode back to the entrance of her building, stopping across the road where he had seen her first. Maybe if she knew that it was his last day, she would come to the balcony, but how would she know. Nabin parked his cycle and sat on the wooden bench across Shyam Sunder’s istri stall.

Maybe this was the end of his little love story, maybe this was how it meant to meet it’s end. He hadn’t even looked at her, during his last evening there.

Shyam Sunder snapped the young boy back into reality – the clothes were ironed, it would cost him a total of twenty rupees. Nabin put the clothes at the back of his bike and slowly dragged his cycle home.

________

Twenty minutes later, Nabin was back, standing at the entrance of the building again. In his hands, he held a folded red skirt. Nabin walked up the stairs, in slow anticipation, his eyes searching for flat number H – 12.

The istri wala had swapped grandmother’s green kurta with a bright red skirt, and Nabin had been promptly instructed by his grandmother to return the skirt to it’s rightful owner. Shyam Sunder directed given Nabin to go to flat number H12 in the building across his istri stall.

Gently Nabin knocked on the door, and she opened the door.

“Hi,” he blurted.

“The istriwala has replaced your skirt with my grandmother’s kurta. I wanted to return your skirt.”

There was minute’s silence as they looked at each other.

“Come in,” she said, her face turning red.

Downstairs, Shyam Sunder opened a new bundle of clothes, and turned each cloth inside out.

Sprinkling water on the new shirt, he laid it out on the table, using his hands to spread out the sleeves, and then the body, meticulously from top to bottom as if it were a necessary pre-requisite before bringing out the coal iron. The discipline in his daily routine had ensured that no cloth ever went missing, and not a single cloth had been misplaced. Each bundle went back to the same family, complete and finished, freshly pressed and neatly folded. The city would never make him one of it’s own.

– Adithya Narayanan