Thursday, July 29, 2010

Weird

"I have a question," my friend asked a few days back.
"What is it?"
"It's weird."
"Questions can't be weird. Answers maybe," I told her, egging her on.
"Are you the hugging/cuddling type?"
"No. Unless if it's a horse or a dog."
"Horse/dog is ok. I mean human. Especially women."
"Noooooooooo."
My friend was relieved. "I am glad there are two of us like that. I thought I was the only one who felt that way, like I am weird. Do don't know how good you've made me feel about myself."
"What brought this on?"
She went on to talk about how her girlfriends made fun of her when she wouldn't hug them.
"You are what you are," I told her, "And that's perfectly ok."

The conversation ended there but my thoughts didn't.
Physical intimacy has always been difficult for me. A friend had once said that all I'd really want is someone to hold me tight - the bear hug kind of thing. Only, it's not so simple.

I've never been very comfortable sharing space with people. I'd rather say "Hi" from a distance than shake hands. And if I were to shake hands, my grip would be barely there - not the right way the etiquette experts would say. Touching someone's feet, Indian style: Fine. Them blessing me by stroking my head: Not so fine. Hugs: No. Air-kissing: Only if absolutely required as per norm as I discovered in France and Switzerland. A good friend had a habit of putting her arm around my waist, subconsciously. She would do it to all the girls around (she was more conscious around men). And though it would irritate the hell out of me, I wouldn't tell her. I thought it would hurt her feelings. Instead, I would step aside a yard away when I saw the hand coming.

Another had once started to hug me almost apologising, "I know you don't like hugs but I'll still give you one anyway for I am not going to see you for a long time." I didn't mind that, actually. It felt good, almost. 

I never thought my feeling this way could be classified as weird, till my friend told me, "Girls expect this." Probably I lack confidence in the human touch. Maybe it is because I want to use mine judiciously - like lightly placing a hand on a friend's shoulder to connect with her/him at a different level, or smoothen another's raw nerves or offer yet another one a sense of comfort in distress.

Blame it on the Bengali, European and Middle Eastern influences in my childhood, or perhaps not. Maybe I wasn't born for too many bear hugs and cuddles. I'd rather be called cold than warm if that defines it. It's about the space, the one that we forget about when we travel in crowded trains and buses. That space defines me - who I am. Close that gap and I feel stifled. Close it further and I choke. It may be weird but that's the way I am and I guess it's ok.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Will you do my eulogy?"

Book: Have A Little Faith
Author: Mitch Albom
Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 249
Price: Rs 495

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 06:08:19 PM

It would be hard for sports journalist-turned-writer Mitch Albom to better his Tuesdays with Morrie, you would have thought. But that's what makes Albom different. In Have A Little Faith, he trudges familiar ground once again, only to come up with a refreshingly heartwarming piece of non-fiction that makes you believe in and question faith at the same time.

This time Albom tells the stories of two men of God - one, Jewish Rabbi Albert Lewis who nurtured a congregation for sixty years and the other, African-American Pastor Henry Convington, a former convict who turned to God to show him light. It takes the not-so-religious Albom by surprise when Rabbi Lewis asks him, "Will you do my eulogy?"

Albom decides he needs to know the Rabbi better before he can say something about him at his funeral. Thus starts a series of interactions over a period of eight years where Albom discovers the man behind the flowing robes who straddles around his house wearing bermudas, bright-coloured socks and sandals. The hours he spends with the "Reb" makes Albom realise that the essence in life is not success or power but it's about belonging to and nurturing a community.

Mitch Albom with Rabbi Albert Lewis

The author mentions one of his conversations with Rabbi Lewis:
"What do people fear most about death? I asked the Reb.
'Fear?' He thought for a moment. 'Well, for one thing, what happens next? Where do we go? Is it what we imagined?'
That's big.
'Yes. But there's something else.'
What else?
He leaned forward.
'Being forgotten,' he whispered."

Albom draws parallels between the lives of the rabbi and the pastor, Henry Convington. Unlike the singing rabbi who had given his life to a congregation, Covington's leap towards faith was more like an act of redemption. A hardened drug addict who was convicted for a murder he did not commit, Covington turned to God when he saw his life slipping away. A skeptical Albom watches the pastor build a congregation in an old dilapidated church, he watched Convington give the homeless shelter in the church and give sermons to drug-addicts who're not yet willing to enter the church from the wall. He watches, feeling a twinge of guilt, as Covington preaches to a small audience in a plastic tent on the church premises:

Mitch Albom with Pastor Henry Covington

"When people tell me that I'm good, my response is, 'I'm trying.' But there's some people that know me from back when - anytime I make that trip to New York - and when they hear I'm pastor of a church, all of a sudden, it's like, 'I know you're getting paid, boy. I know you gettin' paid. I know you.'
He paused. His voice lowered.
'No, I say. You knew that person, but you don't know the person I'm trying to become.'
'You are not your past.'"

While the rabbi and the pastor are important characters in the book, central to the book is the author himself. The book is journey Albom embarks on to rediscover faith through the deeds of the Lewis and Convington and finally, a little of his own. He transcends the barriers of his own Jewish prejudices to buy a tarpaulin cover for the broken roof of Convington's church and later by writing newspaper columns about the church's desperate need for repairs. After all, no religion says any work done for the poor is bad!

Tender, deeply-moving and amazingly simple, Have a Little Faith - with its stories, sermons and anecdotes - answers all those questions about religion, God and man that could help resolve eternal conflicts. If only man could be satisfied with such reason...        

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Graveyard Shift

"Somewhere over there, is my grandmother's." I looked in the direction Elton's finger pointed to. More Crosses there. It all looked the same. It was eerie. What else did I expect in a graveyard? The caretaker had told me, "I can't tell you whether there are ghosts. You'll have to go in there to know." I flinched at the thought. Elton continued walking, calm as usual.

This was my idea. Most people in Mumbai would have found a better way and a better place on a Sunday afternoon. Certainly not cemetery tours. I was on a journalistic assignment - to find out whether there were enough places for the dead to rest in peace in the space-starved city. My colleagues had chickened out when I had suggested we tour together. "You're on your own on this one," they had told me. I was scared to do this alone. The fear of the living preyed more on my mind than the fear of the dead. Mumbai's graveyards were encroached upon by drug-peddlers and petty criminals, so I had heard. I would certainly have to take someone along. That's when I thought of Elton. Not that my mild, lanky six-two-footer of a friend would be a deterrent to criminals, but still company was company and Elton's was desired.

I had known Elton since college. From being just a patronising senior who would draw my biology diagrams, he had become my friend, philosopher and guide. There were friends and then there was Elton - the one who would take the plunge when others were still testing the water. Why he'd even volunteered to step into a coffin to give me a sense of its size earlier that day. (The undertaker had asked him to reconsider saying, "You aren't dead yet.")

I surveyed the graves - there were thousands of them, all with white marble Crosses that had turned grey. The symmetry was strangely unnerving. I looked at Elton. His face was calm. He could have been strolling down the beach lost in thoughts. Only Elton could walk through a dreadful place like this, I thought. We read the inscriptions on the tombstones - some elaborate marble-granite ones dating back to the 1800s, others that cost lakhs of rupees and belonged to rich businessmen of the 1930s. Elton stopped, suddenly. "This one is Granny's," he whispered. It didn't look very different from those around. There was a small picture of her and some flowers. Elton was silent, as if he was praying secretly. We paused for a few minutes and then moved on.

Elton talked about how the spirits of the dead would enter the crows (there were just too many around). I asked, "So once I die, I'll become a crow?" "You can choose to be something else if you want to. You know more birds than most people do," Elton said, referring to my knowledge of ornithology. Only he could find humour in a place like this. I managed a smile. This was supposed to be a difficult assignment, even scary. And here, I'd spent over an hour at the cemetery. And I had liked it too - so much that I did not want this to end. As we walked between the graves back towards the exit, my humour was back. I said, "We're walking down the aisle and even the dead can't keep us apart!" Elton chuckled.

To read the article that was published in Downtown Plus, (now called The Times of South Mumbai) click here

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Someone might, I won't"

"This is it!" I looked at myself in the mirror. The last time I'd worn this deep-neck lycra top, he'd had difficulty taking his eyes off me. This time I had bettered it by accentuating my neckline with a stunning silver-and-blue stone necklace. My hair, for once, was in place. Even if I had to be objective, I'd say, "Gorgeous." I was ready to take on the world. I glanced at my reflection again. A furrow had formed on my forehead - a sign of doubt. Self-doubt. Rachit was my best friend. I could share all my secrets with him. Then why couldn't I tell him just as easily about how I really felt about him?

We had known each other for a year. It didn't take us long to become friends, good friends and then best friends. We lived in two different cities (he in Vadodara, Gujarat, I in Mumbai), but that didn't matter thanks to two recent inventions of mankind - the internet and the cell-phone. If I had something to tell, something to share with anyone, it would be him. I had told him that I adored him. Several times. But to say that in front of him, looking into his eyes instead of typing out the words in a chat window was always going to be difficult and different. Nobody said life would be easy!

"Give it a try. Swallow your pride, just this one time," I kept telling myself as the taxi drove me down to a restaurant at Mumbai's Marine Drive. I liked the place. It allowed for comfortable privacy, away from the prying eyes of waiters and fellow diners and yet busy enough to allow for enough distractions in case things didn't go the way I wanted. Rachit came late, as always. But this time I didn't frown. I had wanted the delay to help me think things through again. In the quest for a boyfriend, I didn't want to lose my best friend. I'd have to be tactful. "You look nice," he said. I flashed my widest grin.

As we sat sipping sodas, he couldn't take his eyes off my neck. "What are you looking at?" "Nothing," he mumbled and rested his eyes on the salt-and-pepper shakers. "I've got something to tell you. A surprise. A big one," he said without looking at me. "Oh!" Would he actually save me the trouble and say those three words himself? I waited in anticipation. He whipped out a white business envelope and put it on the table. It was addressed to him. I opened it nervously. Two words seemed to jump out of the page - "job" and "offer". His first job! And the company was sending him to Kerala for training for three months. "Wow!" This was sure a surprise. Not the one I had expected and painful in a way I hadn't thought it would be. He would be going further away from me (in terms of kilometres at least). But I was his best friend. And I had to be more encouraging, even enthusiastic. I forced my vocal chords to utter, "Congrats! That's the best thing that could happen to you." He replied, "Thank you!"

Two days later, we met again. This time at a busy burger joint. This time I didn't dress up. I'd put love aside for the sake of friendship. He seemed a little nervous. Job jitters, I thought. I focused on the trivial for conversation. I didn't want to go back to what happened two days earlier. I kept turning back to the TV screen to watch Michael Schumacher's red Ferrari lap the other cars on the circuit. Rachit had been telling me something while my eyes were glued to the screen. I'd just got the last sentence, "What do you think?" He looked at me nervously. I covered up my ignorance with stupidity. "Schumi will win for sure." He seemed disappointed but didn't say more. As we said our goodbyes, he shook my hand and said, "I hope someone doesn't run away." My phone rang before I could answer him. I remembered the dentist's appointment and bolted, without even turning to look at him frozen there. There were no calls or messages that night.

Next morning, I remembered the courtesies. I sent him an SMS. "Wassup? How r u?" His response read like he was relieved: "I thought someone had run away." I replied, "Someone might, I won't." He called. He sounded relieved and extremely happy. "I'm so glad someone will not run away. Thank you so much. I'll call you later. Have a nice day." It was only after the call I realised what had happened. My best friend had professed his love for me the day before hoping I wouldn't run away from him (that had been my standard response to 'suitors') and I had done just that, leaving him dejected. There was only one way I could make amends. I sent him a message, "I love you." I kept checking my cellphone for a response. Those five minutes seemed like eternity. Then it beeped. “I love you too.” Nothing, absolutely nothing in the world could wipe the smile off my face!

Six years later, as I replay the events in my head, I wonder what Rachit might have told me at the burger joint. I’ve asked him many times. I ask him again. He just smiles mysteriously and says, “Isn’t it enough that we’re husband and wife, now? It shouldn’t matter anymore.” That’s the difference between a husband and a friend. Husbands keep secrets, friends don’t!

This piece was published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul. On Friendship edited by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Baisali Chatterjee Dutt.