Thursday, October 27, 2011

Big city bright lights

In a hip south Bombay college, she stuck out like a sore thumb. She had a lovely face and a figure that wasn’t bad either, what was strange was the way she was dressed. In a shiny synthetic dress that had such an old fashioned print. Wearing shoes and socks like school kids and her hair done in a strange reena royisque manner. We all cracked up and she knew she was being laughed at. She was nicknamed phoolmati and the name stuck with her.
Over the next two days we got to know that she was from Delhi and had moved to Bombay a month ago. That explained the lack of class I sneered. She was also a state level topper in the class ten boards and that had me interested. I was the one with brains and didn’t like competition in my class. I hated her some more. We made life miserable for her and sniggered so loudly that even I was ashamed. She just asked for it, would sit on the first bench, reach early, carry a lunch box from home and go home as soon as college ended. One evening we saw her Hitler like parents come pick her up and were sure she had to pray six times a day at home. She spoke a lot in class but only to the teachers. So from that day I also started answering questions. Clearly that lead to debates and we had to both grudgingly acknowledge that we had met our match. As I was later telling a friend I quite liked that, winning over someone who had the brains was always more challenging. She wore a salwar kameez the next day and all the guys swooned. She was looking lovely and if she had any sense she would stick to Indian clothes. She clearly didn’t since she wore a bizarre top with a side ponytail the next day. Sulakshana Pandit on a bad day! Yet she topped the impromptu class test that day. Clearly teachers and students alike were noticing her. As I grew more irritable, my gang grew more vicious with her. Sameer accidentally dropped his ice cream on her hair and she had a tough time getting it off, another time her name was “inadvertently” put up as a volunteer in the cheer leader squad, the only name from our class. She was livid and in tears as she faced the class and with folded hands begged everyone to spare her. That evening I took the gang out for beer and asked them to lay off, I wanted to play fair with her and win this one on merit.
As mumbaikars we knew that come June it could rain anytime so we were looking forward to it. So when one evening after an extra class we stepped out and saw the downpour we yelped in delight. She clearly looked petrified what with all the thunder and lightning. Someone suggested bhutta at bandstand and we set off. On an impulse I turned around and asked her if she cared to join us. She hesitated, smiled and said she would love to but her parents were coming to pick her up so she had to wait. We walked away and crossed the road. It had suddenly got dark and as sameer and I were the last ones as we got into his car we heard a scream, a heart wrenching, blood curling scream. We rushed towards the sound and saw her on the road in a pool of blood in the rain. The hawker said a speeding bus had knocked her down as she stood on the kerb. We rushed her to the hospital, with word for her parents to come to nanavati hospital. My dad knew the trustee there so we got immediate care in casualty and by the time her folks came she was conscious and the doctors said the injuries were not severe. Her parents thanked us profusely and said rima always spoke fondly of me. I looked surprised but apparently she had told her mother that I was very bright and really helpful. The latter came true today. It was too much horror for seventeen year olds to handle. I hugged her mom and cried.
We went to see her at hospital the next day and then everyday when she was home. Sam and I were heroes who had saved her life. Even the principal put up a personalised thank you note on the notice board. Clearly everything had changed; she had unintentionally given me my first taste of how good doing the right thing could feel. I needed to thank her but everybody around couldn’t stop thanking me. More so when I started making notes for her and making sure she didn’t lag behind despite missing classes.
It was really strange, I was teaching my rival and if she came second it would mean I was a bad teacher. She was a good student and we both scored exactly the same marks. I don’t think I would have been happy if she scored more than me, but the truth be told at that point I was glad I got a friend for life.
We figured that she was lovely. Just different. Awed by the big city, bright lights and intimidated by the bubble gum brats that we came across as. She had grown up in small town India what with her father’s transferable job. The family stressed on academics and the good girl never disappointed her parents. Standing first in class was a given. Books to read for pleasure weren’t available everywhere so a trip to the city was a treat. They didn’t have uninterrupted electricity to even run a TV set everywhere. I suddenly looked at Rima with new eyes. English was not the language spoken at home, she didn’t have the exposure most of us took for granted in our privileged existence. Yet she had read all the classics in English and Hindi literature while we were still at the mills and boons stage.
To her credit she didn’t lack confidence nor did she feel any less privileged that she hadn’t attended Michael Jackson concert in Bombay. She also wasn’t showing off when she showed us pictures of the lake at the family farm house in Punjab or the fact that she never had less than five pets till they moved here.
My new found friend taught me how to accept people who are different, despite their differences. A lesson I learnt as a teenager and try to remember once before getting judgemental on someone new. Of course I still call her phoolmati and we still meet up when she is in town or I am in Ohio where she is a known corporate lawyer. I still rib her about her awful dress sense!

Flying High

I had a long day and was on a mid night flight. All I needed was some peace and quiet to sleep. As soon as I settled in, I noticed this mousy looking man sitting next to me all fidgety and shifting in his seat. A nervous flyer was all that I needed. While I tried to get into the winding down mode I was irritated with this nerd. On the seat behind me was a woman who was snoring and wheezing. And her two teenage daughters who were talking non stop about their wardrobe for some wedding they were going to attend in Bangkok. So much for my sleep dream!
The cabin lights were dimmed and I could hear the nerd next to me typing away on his laptop. Being a light sleeper is not easy....suddenly there was a sound that could rouse the devil out of his stupor. The woman in the back seat seemed to be having a heart attack.
The cabin crew rushed to her, the lights came on. Her daughters were hysterical. The pilot made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board. There was stunned silence. I couldn’t take my eyes of the genteel lady who seemed to be hovering between life and death.
Suddenly nerd in the next seat got up and I must have looked very shocked. Dentists are doctors too, he offered. He went to the lady and then asked everyone to move away. Made her lie down and asked the airhostess to get the medicine box. Next he asked for the captain. They were in a huddle and the rest of us were clueless.
Suddenly he was in charge and in command. With the captain next to him, he spoke. He said she needed prayers but the immediate danger was taken care of. If she got medical aid soon she would make it. There was a collective sigh of relief. The captain announced that we were making an emergency landing in Nagpur and the flight would be delayed.
I saw an elderly man across the aisle taking out his prayer beads. When I went to the rest room saw an adorable little child with his eyes closed and hands folded, praying earnestly. My faith in humanity was restored.
Back on my seat I kept observing this miracle worker who was cradling the lady’s head in his lap and talking to her like she was a child. He gestured to me and asked me to tell the daughters to calm down and talk to their mom. She had to stay awake and talking. If she didn’t chances of her slipping into coma were high.
Soon I was watching from a distance as the two daughters and the good doctor were rubbing her palms, the soles of her feet and talking to her. Telling her stories of the wonderful times in the past....plans for the future. Her pulse rate was returning to normal. Her breathing was getting even. The prayers of two seventy odd people seemed to be working.
On touchdown in Nagpur, like the movies, there were ambulances and cops on the tarmac. Paramedics rushed in and she was gently lifted onto a stretcher. The dentist went along till the ambulance. I saw him on the tarmac as the ambulance sped away.
When he boarded the plane again, he met with a standing ovation. The captain shook his hand and said I am so glad you were on this flight Dr Rao.

proving dadi right

“Mark my words, I will be his bride someday”, she always said it with such confidence. I was one of the few die hard romantics who believed her! I knew my friend sonam and also knew that how she always got what she wanted. Post college we barely kept in touch and forgot all about Jaideep, the handsome young turk, who lived in the mansion across the road from college.
Eight years later, I was having dinner with Sonam and it was like we were back in college. That’s what is wonderful about old friends, you can pick up the threads like the years in between didn’t happen. I told her all about my life in Bombay and how exciting my career was. She of course, didn’t need to fill me in on details as far as her work went, she was a successful model and had clearly done better than most of us. What was lovely was that she had developed no airs or fake accents. She was also as hyper and as much of a perfectionist as she had been in college. She asked all about my husband and our life together. She was genuinely interested in what I was saying and I could tell that she was happy for me. By the time we were half way through the second wine bottle she suddenly said she had something to tell me. She was keeping her word and marrying Jaideep. The money bags Jaideep, who was on the cover of the latest issue of Business Today. The guy she had a crush on ever since she was eighteen.
Maybe it was the wine that made me candid but I had to know all the juicy details. They had met a year ago at a yoga class and the chemistry was instant. She didn’t want a casual fling and that was what he had in mind. He couldn’t possibly marry a model. She fought back tears as she told me, how hard it was to stay away but she wasn’t willing to settle for just an affair. The small town girl came to the fore...
He also realised that she wasn’t a dumb bimbette like he had thought she was. She also wasn’t a gold digger like he feared. Yet they both knew how tough things were. She was just a girl wanting to be with the man she loved. Thankfully he understood that and after much deliberation popped the question. Of course, his family was horrified.
A month later, I got a call from Sonam. The wedding was in a week. His family had agreed and she was on tenterhooks. She needed me in Delhi.
Once I reached I realised how stressed she was. Everything had to be perfect and the in-laws had to see that their son wasn’t making a mistake. The project had to work. Everything was on a war footing and she was calling the shots. Each of us was assigned duties and we had meetings morning and evening to mark the progress. She was like a woman possessed and her focus was amazing. If she could, she would have ordered the weather for the day as well!
Her mother was upset at how this girl was driving around town all day and wouldn’t do anything brides to be did. Yet, we got it, as her friends. She told Jaideep, that she would only see him at the wedding. From the venue, to the menu, to the flowers, to the music, sonam was overseeing every detail. Her friends were wonderful. Designers, hoteliers, make up experts. Everyone knew and loved her. All of us wanted her dream to be just right.
She was physically tired and taking this project too seriously. Never had any bride scrutinised mehndi designs with such clinical precision. Finally two days before the wedding as she was yelling at her designer pal, he gave it off to her. Amidst tears and hugs we all yelled at her. Asked her to calm down and enjoy her wedding. Nothing would go wrong. She looked baffled and stopped in her tracks. She was marrying a man who loved her. Not going for the miss universe pageant. Someone had to say it and I did. She looked lost and vulnerable.
She looked radiant on the morning of her wedding. Jaideep sent her orchids and her favourite brownies. Yet, we could sense how tense she still was. While the ceremonies were on she was making sure we updated her on her blackberry. She would nod or smile to acknowledge each message. We joked about how she would make the perfect ceo for one of of Jaideep’s companies.
While her make up was being touched up and jewellery worn, we were all reporting in on the progress at every front. She finally said a silent prayer and left for the venue.
They made a lovely couple and he was clearly crazy about her. She was accepting the compliments graciously, yet her mind was racing at thousand thoughts a minute. She was anything but coy and finally I had to whisper in her ear that deep breathing is what was what needed. The guests couldn’t stop praising the arrangements and the food.
Her in-laws were suitably impressed. His grandmother blessed them saying she was the best bride her grandson could ever have got, sonam’s eyes moistened. She’s been proving dadi right for the last five years...