A huge tree trunk with exposed roots spreading out

Roots Are Us – Or Are They?

Where do you belong?

Where’s your home town?

What’s your native place?

Ask anyone any version of these questions, and they’ll respond in a heartbeat – showing you its precise location on Google Maps, and including for good measure the closest village, town or city; the exact distance from any of those; and transportation modes, frequencies and times, and alternatives to all of those.

Graphic of a young man with a confused speech bubble above him

Ask me this, and in the past, I’ve been stumped. I was born in one city, spent my childhood in another, came to adulthood and have lived the longest in a third, and spent a few years in yet another, with three of these being in different corners of the country and the fourth right in the centre. The concept of a home town or native place doesn’t work for someone like me. So, my response has been an all-purpose “I am a global citizen.”

While that may come across as progressive or evasive, depending on your school of thought, that may actually be not too far from the truth, or genealogy. My mom has told me the ancestors on her mom’s side came from the Middle East. On inspecting my family and immediate relatives’ physiognomies, I also get a bit of West Asia. Getting more contemporary, in a cultural profiling assessment for a US-based assignment a few years ago, I resulted more as Yankee than desi. And at a bank in one of the cities where I’ve lived, seeing my athleisure wear (when athleisure wasn’t even a term), the manager asked me engagingly, “Are you an NRI?”

However, on hearing the ‘I’m an international citizen’ bit, folk smile indulgently, but remain insistent, “No, really, where are you from?”

So, I’ve started taking the safer route, and have gone with my birthplace. That satisfies people, also because it’s on the passport. That works in the case of my family too. When probed, my parents have shared that their parents, on both sides, were born in cities different from the ones in which my parents were born. So, for convenience, my parents (and brother) too have gone with their respective places of birth. Which means… three of the four of us cite different ‘home towns’.

As cultural definitions go, though, this native place thingamajig has to be on your father’s side, and his father’s, and his father’s father’s, right up to Adam’s time. So, here too, the ladies get a raw deal. Oh, wait, there’s “mother” tongue. Which muddies things up a bit. Or perhaps not. Dad has the home but mom the voice? How (stereo)typical.

Coming back, though, the version of the belonging question that has had me the most tangled is: Where are your roots?

I mean, I get it. ‘Roots’ is meant to stand in for the terrestrial locus that is home. Roots give you support, keep you grounded. There’s also a sense of nostalgia the word evokes, like a sepia-tinted photo, a memory of a simpler time.

But, I also don’t get it. Roots might keep you down-to-earth, but they also keep you fixed – to a place, to a perception, to a philosophy. They are also below the surface, cueing a deep, dank place where the light doesn’t reach. And to get even more matter-of-fact, they are the recipients of much organic waste. Suddenly, ‘roots’ doesn’t convey so warm and comforting a place anymore; and if this is what is meant to give you identity, who would wish to identify with this?

To continue dissecting the metaphor, if using a tree analogy, why only roots? For instance, why…

An illustration of the Tree of LifeCan’t I have shoots, thus moving up, seeking the light, sky and all things higher?

Can’t I be a mighty trunk, sturdy and solid, providing support to the resting and respite for the passerby?

Can’t I be a tender leaf, offering a speck of greenery in a rapidly greying world?

Can’t I be a flower, spreading good cheer with both my appearance and my fragrance?

Can’t I be a fruit, providing sustenance to herbivores and “healthivores”?

Can’t I be a branch, bearing all of the previous three, and offering shelter to itinerant birds and housing for the nesting ones?

In fact, why can’t I eschew the plant analogy altogether, and be one of those birds? Free to rest and roost anywhere, unmindful of borders, and thus, bringing things back to that ‘global citizen’ response.

And even staying within the realm of roots, why should I be only underground roots?

A quote post, around not being fixed like a treeWhy can’t I be the aerial roots of a banyan tree, above the ground and a bit away from the parent tree, eventually becoming my own tree (technically, a trunk) yet remaining a part of the original?

Why can’t I be the exposed roots of a mangrove, delighting in all the elements – sun, sky, air, water, earth – instead of just one or two?

Or best still, why can’t I be the adventitious roots of a money plant, cut at the stem, taken away from its parent, put in a new location, and gradually prospering in this new home too?

But this discourse perhaps is too much for even the most woke millennial. The cynics pause and then sneer, “Bah, you are rootless!” I prefer the term “unrooted”. But by then, their ears are well into the ground. People’s desires to put you in a box are apparently too… deep-rooted.

So, again, I find myself turning to my parents. When I have pushed my dad about his ancestry (because that’s what the traditionalists want, don’t they), after initially obliging me, he has finally dismissed me with, “You know, I was – and still am – busy earning a living. Who had / has the time to think about all this??” Guess that is a response as rooted in truth as any.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

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B&W close-up photo of a woman's eyes looking upward with a single teardrop emerging from the eye

Chill

Water. Its first quality is to cool. You are annoyed, angry, fuming, furious, hurting, hating. Have a swig, and in no time, temperatures begin coming down. As it enters your system, the negative energies slowly make an exit.

But water is even more cooling, and calming, on its way out of your being. As the first teardrop prises out of your lid and slides down your cheek, it takes with it some of the heartbreak, some of the ache, some of the pummelling, some of the pain, some fears, some failures life has assigned for you. It even feels icy as it makes its downward journey. But that’s just its way of telling you: “Chill.”

And in case you need some more cooling, there’s the next drop.

I wrote this for the Writernamah contest on social media as a part of Times Litfest 2018, which had water as the name and was thus named Waternamah.

Grey photo shot from the back of a woman's back and lowered head

The Heaviest Thing

One tiny entity.

So much responsibility.

It has to relieve you of heartbreak.

It has to bear the load of your failure.

Failures.

It has to expunge you of your fears.

It has to make your heart lighter.

Your mind too.

A teardrop really has to be the heaviest thing in the universe.

A hammer icon about to strike an icon of a graduation cap

The School of Hard Knocks

Over the Diwali holidays, I had had some repairs done in the woodworks department. However, a couple of days later, a couple of items had gone back to working inefficiently. So, this time, I made sure I was standing close to the action as the carpenters – a middle-aged man and a young lad – went about the fixes. However, because the action was taking a while and I didn’t really have any action there, I decided to make small talk.

I asked the older guy if the younger guy, who seemed to be an assistant or an apprentice, was just a colleague or a relative, for these folk typically have their relatives work alongside them. My electrician does.

Not looking away from his work, he replied, a knowing smile in his voice, “No, not a relative.” He continued, with the same knowing smiling feeling, “Vyaapaar mein rishtedaar kahaan chaltaa hai… Gair ko hee rakhnaa chaahiye.” (Business and relatives don’t mix. In business, you should have only a stranger.) He ended by reasoning that it’s easier having a commercial transaction and conversation with someone who isn’t close to you.

I couldn’t agree more. In the two-three years I have been working on my own, I too have learnt: Freelance and friends don’t mix. If they do, the result is volatile.

The bathroom door done, he moved on to the sliding door in the living room. This was an easier job: just the bolt. Again, his eyes fixed on his task, he told me that gently should do it for the door from now on – no need to bang it. I assured him that I was gentle enough after he had fixed it the last time, but my maid must have slammed it as earlier and thus ruined it again in the process.

Again, he spoke knowingly, “That one… She speaks a bit rough…”

I first wondered if she was there when he had come the last time and then wondered if she had said anything then for him to notice anything about her. Yes, on both counts.

I responded, commenting rather than defending her, “Yes, she does speak a bit dry…” I added, again in comment and not defence, “But her work is good…”

He responded pat, “Yes, that’s why she speaks rough…”

This guy has all the answers, doesn’t he?

I wondered what other woodwork needed fixing.

Graphic of a human hand wearing a glove touching a baby sparrow on the ground

Tiny Tale | The Sparrow and the Universe

Have you held a baby sparrow? I have, or rather, needed to some days ago.

I was returning from my morning walk / jog, back into my complex, when I noticed this tiny critter near the barred gutter. A little wind, and he / she would have got blown into the gutter. If he / she (instead of continuing with he / she – and he / she was too small to make out the gender – I think I’ll just call him / her ‘Harrow’: you know, harrowed sparrow) remained there, Harrow would have been in the direct line of the stationed scooter on its way out from its parking spot. Of course, before these eventualities, there is the tiny matter of this tiny critter just being squashed by an unseeing foot.

I bent down, picked up Harrow, and placed Harrow on my palm. Harrow sounded scared to the marrow. Some part of H seemed bent or broken – beak, wing, leg – but I just couldn’t make out due to H’s tiny size. But what H lacked in size and skill, H made up in survival instinct. H jabbed at my hands, more like a couple of fingers, with all the miniscule might of H’s beak. It felt like lightly squeezing the end of a couple of staples. H also either tried to gain balance on my palm, or was trying to squash it, and that felt like squeezing four of those staples. I was trying to see this from H’s perspective: to H, me, or just my hand, would have seemed as big as the universe.

Not wanting to scare H anymore, as I obviously wasn’t able to reassure H that I was trying to help, I placed H behind a small projection of the wall, hopefully out of harm’s way. I noticed an adult male sparrow on a CCTV camera, and felt the minutest bit of reassurance: hopefully, Adult would come to Harrow’s aid. I left soon after, not wanting to put any more distance between point A and point H.

The next morning, remembering Harrow’s plight, I went to the spot to see if by any chance, H was still there. He wasn’t. Any of Adult, gutter, scooter, or any of a baby’s sparrow’s million enemies could have gotten to H. Whatever, but in H’s short span on earth, Harrow could say he / she had seen the universe.

Linocut of sparrow, with illustrator's signature in the bottom right

Animal Friendly | Where the Sparrows Are

Whenever I go rental-hunting in Mumbai, I face a hostile reaction from flat-owners, and by association, brokers. Given my kind of name and that I’m single, I guess they think I plan to set off explosive devices or go around strapped with them. Very few doors open, and those that do, lead to a dump or a worse dump. I eventually manage somehow, courtesy landlords who are open-minded, single themselves or both.

This time when I started my search though, I faced traas (loosely, agony in Marathi) much before the agents and landlords and from very unlikely quarters. My friends. Reason? My choice of location. They were belligerent: it’s at best a hamlet, it’s actually a weekend destination for many city folk, the commute’s a killer, and as a final assault, they aren’t likely to visit me in a hurry here. Read our livid lips, they sneered: it’s far-out far.

Is it? Aadhaar aside, I’m not one to share my personal details in the public domain, but here’s a bit: my station of choice is the northern extremity of one suburban railway route of Mumbai. By the local, you have to cross two sizeable inlets of water to get here… after crossing the official limits of Mumbai. It takes me 1.5 hours point to point, on the lower side, for a meeting or meet-up. The cell-phone reception is patchy at times, and I go on roaming when entering the proper city. There’s no mall or multiplex. And true to their threats, my friends haven’t come visiting thus far.

One of the two sizeable inlets of water on the way to my station

One of the two water inlets on the way home

But it’s for many of those reasons that I chose this area. I’ve been working from home for some time now, so was looking for a bigger flat. My work is in the creative space, so was seeking a quieter neighbourhood. I also wanted to live closer to nature. To find all the above in official-limits Mumbai, you’ve got to either be earning millions or have inherited them.

And so far, it’s been so good. Oftentimes, the loudest sound in my study is the whirring fan. When I step out into the balcony, I see a small range of hills in the distance, the sun breaking through them at dawn. Stepping down, I see people sitting and chatting on kerbs, with nary a worry of a speeding SUV smashing into them: the roads are wide, the vehicles few. There are two verdant trails close by, one leading to a jetty, where you can repose along the passing river, the river interrupting, or aiding, your meditation with gently lapping waves. These paths go past paddy fields, where you find village folk with bent backs, a lone tree providing shade and masquerading as a giant scare-crow against felonious birds. During the monsoon, toward the end of which I moved here, the combination of hill, sky and cloud, culminating in silver rain, could inspire one to conduct an impromptu class in precipitation. And after the Ockhi thundershowers, the resulting air smelled Hill-station Crisp.

An image of two trees in the middle of a field, with the text 'Living Far Away'

But it seems I was brought here by a greater pull of nature, or rather, smaller. Sparrows. These tiny, hop-happy ovates of fluff, who I’ve hardly spotted in main Mumbai the more than two decades I’ve lived in the city, are in merry abundance here. They bounce about ceaselessly, from one morsel or twig to another, with no fear of arthritis or plantar fasciitis. They swoop in to pick up fallen sprigs, while accomplices keep a watch perched atop, well, CCTV cameras. They puddle- and mud-bathe and relay it with such joy, you sigh at the cheerful communication their inspired creation, Twitter, was purported to be. It’s when they squabble with each other that they sound more like present Twitter.

A male sparrow with his leg on the beak of a female sparrow

I regularly sight a couple of furries in the process of, erm, coupling. I hop away sparrow-like myself at this, wanting both not to embarrass them or keep them from creating the only beings cuter than sparrows: baby sparrows. I’ve also come across a fluffy in another act of privacy, but this time, I couldn’t get away fast enough. After all, such a small being takes hardly any time to… poop. The pellet popped out the colour and size of a Tic-Tac, and I’ll stop here because I think I just ruined that mint brand for its consumers.

A sparrow bathing in a puddle of waterThe benign birdies clearly relish the space and green this area offers them. Possibly lending weight to the popular theories why they have all but disappeared from the cities. There are fewer cell-phone towers here (and so my unsteady reception). But then too, there are fewer pigeons, or at least not as predominant as they are in the city. Actually, both species seem to get along fine here. Outside grocery stores, where benevolent store-keepers cast grains in the morning, both winged gangs peck away amicably, albeit in broadly segregated zones, much like the zebras and lions slaking their thirst in a call of truce at the African watering hole. Closer home, they take turns going down my balcony railing to roost in the vacant flat next door. Only, the pigeons waddle clumsily, the sparrows bounce buoyantly.

But perhaps, not for long. ‘Progress’ seems to be slowly taking the local train and landing up here. My suburban railway line now goes up to a station further north, placing my location half-way between the starting point and this new end point. A few buildings are taking roots near the paddy landscape, and after stealthy breaking and entering, will convert it into ‘landscaping’. Confirming the real reason why the critters are disappearing from cities, as ornithologist and conservationist Bikram Grewal shared at a session I attended recently: concretization. Like most areas embracing megapolises growing in beast mode, there’ll eventually be a property boom here too. The people, residential and phone towers, and pigeons swooping in will drive out the serenity, silence and sparrows. I might then move out again to someplace quieter. Maybe, to that new northern extremity. Or, to wherever the sparrows are.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

B&W pic of a woman with a dog in the distance

Pat

You return from your morning walk, jog, or whatever you do to keep fit. You see your favourite neighbourhood street dog lying on his side on the cobbled footpath. He faces the east, as if readying for a sunbathing session. But the sun seems to be firmly behind the clouds.

You go up to him. From the front, never from the back or side, no matter how well you know him. Not because you think he could suddenly turn rogue one day, but because he has cataract in one eye. So, to help him identify you easier. By the way, should that be ‘dogaract’?

You utter his name softly, so that you don’t wake him if he’s asleep. “Rustom.” But Rustom is, obviously, a dog and hears low frequencies well, so his ear perks up. Ear, single; the one not pasted to the ground. He perks up himself right after. Begins wagging his tail, or in this case, slapping it against the cobble-stones.

You lower yourself to his level and pet him to your heart’s content – and his. Head pat, back stroke, belly rub (Rustom seems very yielding today), bum pat, whisker flick, nose rub (well, if the sun won’t warm him).

Rustom is satiated. He droops down, his tail slows down too. You raise yourself. You look up, and then around you. Here, a group of school-kids waiting for their bus stares in amazement at you. Next to them, their parents look agape. There, the security guys look in #respect. Suddenly, this dirty, biggish, and therefore possibly scary, street dog doesn’t seem dirty, biggish, scary anymore. And what do you know, he even has a name.

Success can be defined by where and how you live. And it may be defined by how you help others live.