Thursday, January 17, 2008
Two of my earlier writings...
Go Freshie Go
There were a group of them sitting on the hostel steps, sizing up newcomers, zeroing in on their next prey.
And they found one. Me.
"Freshie!" yelled one. "Which room, ha?"
"Thirteen" I said.
"Get ready for us this evening," she said. The rest giggled and smirked.
Is this what I was getting so excited about? Is this what I came all the way from Assam to this big metropolis of Bombay for? To be picked on?
I continued up the stairs. The building was buzzing with people. Newcomers like me, lost and scared, old timers or 'seniors' as they would like to call themselves checking into their new rooms and giving high fives, parents hugging their daughters and saying tearful good-byes...
I entered my room nervously. I had just said my goodbye to my dad, who had accompanied his favourite child, his only daughter, all of 17 years. I was sad to see him go. Without him, I felt lost, insecure and very alone.
My insecurity heightened as I began to unpack. My room was spacious, colonial style with big French windows and low ceiling fans that you could possibly touch if you stretched high enough. Four small wooden cupboards, for each occupant. Yes, four of us will be together for almost the entire year!
I was apprehensive, yet eager to meet my roommates. Would I get along with them? Or would they be too hip for a country bumpkin like me?
I looked at the Naga shawl that lay in my suitcase. A beautiful red-and-black embroidered shawl my dear mother had given me as a parting gift. As I picked it up, the door opened with a bang. There were five of them. I held the shawl to my chest tightly. For strength.
I started to pray, asking God to help me through this ordeal.
"What's that in your hand?" asked Senior No 1. A short but very fierce-looking girl.
"A Naga shawl," I replied, trying to keep my head high, my voice controlled.
"A Naga shawl? Wow, that means you can entertain us tonight with your Naga dance!" said Senior No 2. Smiling wickedly, she looked at her partners in crime for approval.
Naga dance! I didn't have a clue! Fear gripped me. I needed to say something. Now!
"Bihu! Yes, that's what I can do for you," I said. "It's not the Naga dance but it's as ethnic as the Naga dance."
Silence. They all looked quizzically at me. "Bihu? What's that?" one of them asked.
"It's the Assamese dance, you dodos," said another voice. An attractive, pleasant girl stood at the door. "Just like we have Lavni here in Maharashtra, they have the Bihu in Assam. And by the way, she is not from Nagaland but from Assam!"
She picked up the shawl that had fallen to the floor, dusted it, and gave it to me. Then, with the friendliest smile I had ever seen, she extended her hand.
"Sanjana Mehta," she said. "Pleased to meet you."
I wasn't sure how to react to her. Was she a friend of my attackers? I returned her smile cautiously. Somehow she made me feel at ease and comfortable.
"I am your new roommate, at least one of them," she said, looking at me protectively.
Sanjana, I was to learn later, was a 'senior' herself. She had joined the hostel after her 10th grade, and had shared a room last term with one of my tormentors. But this year, she had opted to be with us 'freshies'.
"Don't you hassle her anymore," she said.
I couldn't believe what I heard. I was beginning to thank my lucky stars when Sanjana spoke again, standing on one of the beds, having fashioned a microphone out of a newspaper as if she was making an important announcement.
"Guys, don't you worry," she said. "You will have your fun. But it will be on my terms."
I looked at her horrified. She stepped down and came to where I was standing. "You said you would do the Bihu, right?"
"Yes," I mumbled.
"Well, then you will do the Bihu. But you will have to perform it while singing an English song! One whole, complete song!"
Before I could reply, they all hustled me to the common area. An audience had already gathered, of at least 50. All strangers, 'seniors', thunderously chanting, "Go, seniors, go! Boo, freshie, boo!"
Suddenly I was in the centre. I felt like a deer caught in the headlight. The chants had died and the room was silent now. They were waiting for me. A couple of hours ago, I was this confident young girl all set to conquer the world. Now I wasn't so sure.
I closed my eyes, said a silent prayer.
I could feel my body moving as I started singing. And in a few seconds I just let go of myself.
The overwhelming need for 'acceptance', the desire to be wanted, to be loved turned me into a performer. Performing not for the 50 seniors, not for my roommate, but for myself.
I found myself getting into a rhythm, an acceptable rhythm. I was dancing, singing aloud.
Then I heard it. Somebody else was singing with me, moving with me. I felt a tap on my shoulder and opened my eyes to see the short, fierce-looking senior who had stormed into my room some time ago. She was dancing trying to do the same steps as I was, singing along. And she was smiling. Generously.
We weren't the only ones on the floor anymore. One by one everybody started joining us.
"Go, freshie, go!" they chanted.
Joy. Relief. I couldn't believe I had pulled it off! My seniors were patting me on the shoulder, acknowledging my existence with open smiles and warm hugs. And the newcomers, they looked at me as if I was their saviour, their leader.
I quietly made my way to my room, away from the chaos and excitement. As I entered, I saw Sanjana smiling at me. I smiled back.
"How was it?" she asked. "Did you have fun?"
"How was it for you?" I countered her. "After all, it was your idea."
She came forward, took me by hand and led me to the hallway. Music was on. The girls were still dancing.
"What does it look like from here?" she asked.
"It sure looks like a party."
"Well, you are the one they are celebrating," she said. "You gave them a reason to have fun."
Before she turned to head back, Sanjana added, "You know, you did good. You are okay. Welcome, and enjoy your stay in Sophia."
Bhaity- Little brother. That's what we called Basistha Deka.
The year was 1972. I had just taken my first baby steps when he entered our lives.
He must have been around 12 then. A lanky, confident lad, he had come with his elder brother to our city in search of work to support his big but poor family in a far-off village.
In the beginning everybody was unsure what Bhaity was capable of doing. But as years passed, he proved himself to be an asset. He was good at everything. He went on to stay with us for the next 15 years.
Life was simpler because we had Bhaity -- Bhaity the cook, the errand boy, the driver, the gardener...
As years passed, Bhaity, who came to us a fourth-grader, finished middle school. And my mother got him employed at the local hospital.
It was time for me to leave home, explore the world and pursue my dreams. Like me, Bhaity too had dreams. He expressed his desire to 'settle down'. My parents found him a bride. And Bhaity the cook, the errand boy, the driver, the gardener became Bhaity the husband -- and, in the years that followed, Bhaity the father to two wonderful boys.
I was living far from home, struggling with life's realities, when Bhaity developed early dementia as a result of serious road accident. Forgetfulness took over him. He regressed and became old at 38. Despite medicines and constant care, he never recovered. Life began slipping away from him.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I was on a plane homeward bound. To be with my family but moreso to be with Bhaity. His days were numbered and fate was looming at his doorsteps, ready to snatch him away. And I needed to be there, to say goodbye to him.
He looked peaceful as if he was just sleeping, resting his tired self. As if he had managed to free himself from the pain and agony that had engulfed him the last few years.
Bhaity the cook, the errand boy, the driver, the gardener, the husband, the father... Bhaity my friend, my beloved brother, had finally found serenity.