Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Those 3-second connections

As we were driving down the bumpy mountainous roads from Yumthang to Gangtok, I thought of train rides we took when I was little. Our parents didn’t have too much money then and we would travel to Kerala by second class non-ac in the hot summer months. Since these trains had windows that could be opened and closed (as opposed to the A/C coaches), my little brother and I would spend our time fighting for the window seat, peering out of it, and waving to passers by. We would especially look out for children of our age; he would look for boys and I would look for girls. We would even keep count and decide a winner afterwards.We would wave – wild with excitement, hair flying in the wind, hands outstretched and flaying wildly, full of glee if a wave was returned, while anxious mothers and aunts would pinch our ears gently and tell us horror stories of how they’ve seen little children’s hands get cut off by electric poles when they stretch their hands out of train windows.. yes, they would say, so many times we’ve seen that happen in front of our eyes.

What is it about those moments I miss now?, I wondered to myself as those straggly haired urchins waved madly at our car speeding down North Sikkim’s roads. Well you see, in those 3 seconds, our eyes locked, our smiles met, and we communicated: When I see you again, I will recognize and know you. Because of this moment.
We will talk about all the lands we’ve traveled by train, all the gifts we gathered from relatives, and the people we’ve seen. We will swap stories. We will be friends. We will play make-believe. We will be best friends.
Those 3 seconds locked us tight in embrace; so what if it was only imaginary?

Ah but who has the time or inclination for such trivialities now? And so I smiled to myself and looked back into my travel guide that morning. And it struck me that what I miss most about my childhood is those simple things that cost me no money and gave me so much pleasure.

All eclipsed (July 22nd, 2009)

Today was the longest solar eclipse of the century, lasting 6 minutes and 39 seconds, visible all along a 250 km corridor across Asia, witnessed by billions, as it cut through the two most populous nations of the world - India and China. In Delhi though, visibility was said to be poor, hampered on account of the monsoon clouds (‘What’s that?!’, you said? Yes, I said monsoon. MON. SOON. Ok? Mon NOT soon at all in this case, but anyhow…)

Anyway to get back to the subject, thousands gathered all across the holy city of Benaras (Varanasi), especially at the Burning Ghats, to watch the brilliantly glowing ‘Eye of God’, better known as the Corona (the sun’s atmosphere), which is visible only during a total eclipse like this one was. Thousands all over India also took part in purification rituals by bathing in the river Ganga (the Ganges) to ward off any evil that might strike during the 6 minutes that the sun god took his eye off the planet.

Unfortunately, I missed the event of the century since I had not being paying enough attention to the news. But that is not to say I was unaffected by these celestial happenings. So that day, I went down from lab to the canteen for lunch as usual, and asked for my regular 20 rupee fare – roti (leavened dry bread), sabzi (the vegetable of the day), and daal (lentil soup).

“Aaj khatam ho gaya, madam” I was informed. (It’s all over today, madam)

“Kyun?” (why?)

“Voh aaj grahan thha na, is liye koi ghar se khana nahi bana ke layen. Sab ne yaheen se khaya”
(Well, because of the solar eclipse no one has cooked food today at home. Everyone ate at the canteen)

One of the (many) ways in which North India differs from the South is that superstition (mostly connected with religious ritual) is rife among well educated people here. Not to say it is absent in the south, but it certainly much much less prevalent. The solar eclipse (‘grahan’) is considered to be an extremely inauspicious time especially to cook food or engage in household activities.

So, for lunch I mulled eating a few samosas (deep fried pastry stuffed with spicy mashed potato), a tea time snack and also the only food item available on this particular day for consumption. It is yummy, although good neither for the waistline, the heat, nor the appetite. (In my head, I could hear my mother say – “Yes Nayan, eat all that potato. You will look like one very soon!”)

“Chalo thik hai bhaiyya, do samose hi de do” I succumbed to hunger (Fine, just give me two samosas)

“Er actually madam..., voh bhi abhi just khatam ho gaya” he answered sheepishly, as he handed the last two pieces of the only consumable item at the National Institute of Malaria Research to a lanky boy ahead of me.

“Huh?!” I exclaimed loudly, a look of immense distressed clearly visible on my face.

“Sorry madam. Vaise madam, grahan ke time par kam hi khana chahiye …” (Sorry, madam. In any case madam, one should eat less during the eclipse) he offered helpfully.

Er right, I muttered as I marched off, pulling out a piece of gum to chew and shaking my fist at Mr. sun god with my other hand …