On the same bench together for a year, why did I not become friends with him!

Back in school, in the 6th grade I had a friend. Actually, calling him a friend today would be not fair on my part. I was never really a friend to him. We sat next to each other for a whole year. I knew him since my kindergarten years. He was known to be a problem child. He would slack off from studies, would not do his homework, often get chastised by teachers, got into fist fights with other boys.

Sitting next to me for a whole year, I never befriended him. He was muslim, he lived in a place in Goregaon known popularly as a glorified slum but labelled as a colony. His life was surely nowhere close to the privilege I had.

This was back in 1992 – 93. Mumbai as a city was swept in riots. He had disappeared for several days. His muslim dominated locality was severely affected. There were many stories of killings and shootouts that had been talked about in school. I was scared if something had happened to him, to his mother and father.

I remember his mother, stoic looking, always worried about her son. He inherited her rosy red cheeks and the resemblance was striking between mother and son. I remember his father, bent, tired and ageing yet his posture showed a proud past.

One day he returned to school. I was happy to see him back. It made me think of his as a friend, as a person, as a human being more than some problematic kid who got into fights.

A couple of weeks after he was back to school, I was hit by a cricket ball. I lost vision for a couple of weeks in my right eye. I missed school for a couple of weeks. When I was back, he warmed up to me and showed a more considerate and caring side of his. We started talking more about life and the world around us.

With an extreme lack of tact and innocence that only a twelve year old could posses I asked him about muslims and how we (read middle class, upper caste Hindus) viewed them. He answered many questions and asked an equal number of them back to me.

But we never really got the time to become long lasting friends. He had a tough time in school. He flunked subjects and had to repeat 6th grade. I moved along to the 7th grade.

Our paths went along different roads. I did say hello to his mother a couple of times, who still had that worried look on her face. But I never saw my friend after school years had passed. I had heard from other friends, that he was still getting into a lot of trouble.

Today, someone told me he was found dead. Somewhere near Goregaon station and he had possibly become an addict. Society will shrug, school friends on their whatsapp groups will say “RIP” and move on to the next meme or joke.

We were sitting on the same bench together for a whole year. Why did I not become friends with him?

Conversation with an Ola Driver and his Jaffna connection

Two days ago, I visited Pune Institute of Computer Technology for something called a FOSSMosis-17 festival. It was organised by the Free Software Movement of Maharashtra. I will write more about it in some other post, this one is about a conversation I had early in the morning with a Ola cab driver.

To reach quicker, I booked a cab and got into it. He asked me if I travel to the institute everyday and we got talking about Pune and cities we came from. As it turned out he lived back in 1985 in a Mumbai suburb of Kadivali. That was sort of near where I grew up as a kid (Goregaon, Mumbai). 

He revealed that he was very young back then and joined the army. He then ended up spending much of the late 80s in Sri Lanka.

I knew what he was refering to instantly. He had been a soldier in the IPKF. Their mandate was the end the Sri Lankan civil war.

I asked him about his time in IPKF. He perked up a bit and was surprised I even knew about India’s role in Sri Lanka. I asked him about where he was posted.

He has served in Jaffna. A city held for years by Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, and often heard and read about it in newspapers as a teenager, for terrible crimes.

He opened up about his time in Jaffna. The terrible things he saw there. He lamented if ever there will be peace in the world. He saw the role of the Indian army in Sri Lanka favourably.

He spoke of the roadside bombings and guerilla warfare they faced.

He also revealed that he was thankful to VP Singh as he was not entangled in looking strong and managed to recall the soldiers back.

He was happy to have retired.

We spoke about civilians who were around where he was posted. He simply said

“Civilains were the worst off, I have seen too many of them lose everything”

I asked him about the recent nationalism and jingoism on television and media in general. He shrugged his shoulders dismissively.

“They do not know what they are talking about. Such peope do not care for lives of young boys in the army who will die.”

There was pain, supressed pain at what he saw through a 28 year old career in in Jaffna, Sikkim and Srinagar. Suppressed pain at what he was probably forced to do, forced to see.

We had reached our destination but we chatted more, about family and life. He was happy to have retired. I thanked him for his time and for opening up with his life to me.

He thanked me back with a wide smile.

“I am an old man, nobody listens to me or asks me about my life. You made my day.”

That hit hard. Twenty eight years in the army, travelled all over India and a couple of years in Sri Lanka. He was still driving a cab to make ends meet and thanking strangers for listening to his story.

But why was’nt anyone listening to his story?

*The coversation was held in Marathi, I have translated some of his quotes.

References:

Mother’s Day & remembering her the right way

Growing up, I cannot remember being aware of  there being a Mother’s day until the late 90s when Archies Gallery shops started selling greeting cards for this particular day. Americana had arrived in urban India.

It is probably an invented holiday and has now ended up as a day – my email, SMS and push notifications, all get inundated with various discounts offers.

But today is different. It is the first one I am observing without my mother being around.

Coping with loss has been incredibly hard. The last six months remain the most difficult months in my life.

She was discharged from the hospital – and on the way back home I was with her in the ambulance. I held her hand and we joked about something I cannot recollect now. She was in great spirits looking forward to get back home and we were talking about random things. There was nothing to be alarmed about. She only had a leg infection that needed treatment.

She suddenly complained about feeling a bit giddy on the way home.

And she passed out in the next few seconds. We frantically took her to a nearby hospital within the next few minutes. She was gone by then. Decades of memories, her voice, humour, laughter all coming to a halt suddenly in those 10-odd minutes in an ambulance. All ended by an embolism.

I was consoled by being told that she had me right next to her in her last moments. My face was what she saw last. It really did not matter to me. It did not feel like a consolation at all. It still does not.

Several weeks passed before I would actually manage to get any reasonable sleep. Most times I would sleep out of sheer fatigue. I cried to myself a lot, but it took a good three months before I felt any better after a good cry.

I still drift off, lose sleep, feel a sense of horror, desperation, fear, anger and so much more when I think of her last moments.

I have hardly spoken much about this, I write today because it important for me to be okay with. I want to remember ‘Aai’ better and not through the prism of my grief or her last moments.

That started happening when I was walking in a nearby mall and the speakers were blaring out a popular song from the 80s “Wake me up, before you go go”.

I remember her playing that particular song, on her red cassette player. I broke down in the middle of strangers hearing that song. But this time it felt good. It felt liked she was around. I was remembering her differently. I had for a few months stopped watching movies, listening to music she enjoyed because it was just too difficult.

Through songs she enjoyed and introduced me to, through movies we watched together, through books we exchanged notes about, through documentaries we watched, through discussing some creative writing done by one of her students, I started thinking about her life more from her perspective, her actions and choices rather than my grief.

Grief is difficult, it is also selfish and it takes time.

Today, on Mother’s Day – I wanted to think about how she shaped me as a person.

There are many stories but this one stands out from my childhood.

I was six years old. I had a fight with my childhood friend (we are still good friends). We had a major falling out, as major a falling out 6 years olds can have. But words were exchanged. Even though he said something nasty, I remember I was not exactly the innocent party.

I don’t remember what we fought over. What I do remember is going home and telling my mom sheepishly about it. I was feeling a bit guilty about my behaviour.

She told me to go over to my friend and apologise to him. I refused. It was a bit shocking, I expected my mother to support me. She always encouraged me to speak up, to fight for something you felt strongly about. She was always in my corner.

But she insisted I apologise. We lived on the fourth floor and my friend on the ground floor of the apartment building. The apartment building had no elevator. I told her I will do it the next day, his dad was home that day and I did not want his parents to laugh at me. That I was not willing to climb down 4 stories and back up home.

She opened the door and literally showed me out and stood at the door. Told me to get moving downstairs and come back home only after I had said “Sorry” to my friend.

I went down and rang the bell. The worst thing happened – my friend’s dad opened the door. I asked for my friend and he called out for him.

There father and son stood in front of me. I gathered some courage and said “Sorry” to my friend. I saw my friend’s eyes showed confusion, his father thought looked on with a smile I can still remember vividly. My friend barely said its okay and I ran up back home. I felt incredibly light hearted.

Sure enough mom was still at the door. She asked what happened and as I told her how I apologised, she conjured up magically some treat for me to eat. It was reward for learning to say “Sorry” she told me.

Yes, I did. I learned it feels good to admit mistakes and correct them. It taught me to think with empathy, even though I doubt I could have spelled that word correctly at that point of time.

My mother taught me and my sister loads through such words, actions and her own example.

A week after she was gone, a student of hers contacted me. This fifteen or sixteen year old was telling me he was thankful that she was his teacher. He learned a lot about from her about life and character apart from his studies. His words now give me some perspective of how others remember her.

It wouldn’t be fair to remember her through only the prism of my grief or through those last moments I was with her. I have to remember her as a person, with her imperfections, with her incredible laughter and joy. I have to remember her well. It will take some more time, but I will get there.

Happy mother’s day to all of you.

Remembering …

My mum, Pratima Kane passed away on Friday night. She had been in hospital for the past few weeks recovering well from cellulitis, a foot infection). The end came abruptly but she did not suffer, she did not spend time in pain. I write this only to process it. I write, because that is one thing she always encouraged me to do.

It hurts that we won’t be able to talk into the night ever again, discuss politics, philosophy, religion, current afairs or even football matches. It hurts intensely that I won’t see her infectious smile again or hear her loud hearty laugh.

She was a homemaker and in my twenties she once told me how she found life conventional and boring. She wanted to do more and she did.

She started to teach students over time. Mainly giving tuitions in English. Over the past decade and more, she worked hard, was busier than ever and taught well over a hundred students, some kids as young as ten or eleven and some well into their forties. Their calls and messages remembering mom fondly, will remind me of how many students respect her and remember her fondly. It is part of her legacy.

She never judged people, and could be the most open minded person in the world. She encouraged both her children to take unconventional decisions in our personal lives and careers.

She inspired me to read, and kept telling me to write more, she would follow this blog religiously, reading every single word on every single post. And like a good teacher, she would often point out the commas and spelling mistakes I tend to make when I write.

She was happy. A happy person who laughed, made others laugh. She was my sister’s emotional rock, her best friend and so much more. For me she was happiness personified.

This is going to be very hard. But I have to find solace that she was happy with her life, with her students, her eyes always lit up when she talked about some ex-student of hers calling her up or sending her a whatsapp message. She was happy right upto the last minute of her life. And I was able to be with her in the end.

Was I ever going to feel at home?

Cricket match in progress…

Last week, I got myself a place in Pune. A new place that is small, decent and comfortable. I am now living in one of these well laid out, planned townships that were probably farmlands in 2005, the year I had previously moved from Mumbai to Pune.

Mumbai remains home. I have family there and probably will spend a good number of days every month there. But my new dwelling where I am staying much of the week, was at first comfortable and useful. Thanks to having a lot of colleagues around, my social life was suddenly pretty active and I am making good friends.

But the new place felt impersonal, new and odd. It did not feel warm as a house would (maybe the Pune winter has something to do with it), it did not feel like I belonged here.

I was a bit worried wondering if I was every going to feel at home here.

Then today, I managed to come along home a little earlier than my usual time. It was before the sun had set for the day. As I made some coffee for myself, I saw out of  my 11th floor window this view.

Cricket match in progress...
Cricket match in progress…

Some kids were playing cricket at a distance over a concrete pitch. I felt a bit at home, remembering a long gone yet familiar time of playing cricket with friends during school holidays.

This was good.  I think I feel at home.