In medias res

Irony

Two women at the Delhi airport. “I hate it when these companies objectify women in these ads,” pointing at a large signage that generously exposed Deepika’s midriff. As they continued their rants another lady who was on the healthier side joined them for a quick chat but left soon.

“Hasn’t she become so fat? Why is she not taking care of herself?” and they smirked, “no wonder her husband left her.”

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Pay it forward

Khushwant Singh on Women

Khushwant Singh on Women

‘Khushwant Singh on Women,’ and you are already thinking what India’s dirty old and ‘lecherous’ (in his own words) man could have written. And you guessed it right, the book has his and other imaginary tales of his raunchy adventures with beautiful ladies from around the world. I have always wondered how was he such a ladies’ man. He was not a handsome man. He himself laments about his unfortunate physical fact of life. Possibly, it was Khushwant Singh’s brain that was considered sexy by tens of successful, great looking ladies of varying age groups from across the world. And no one tells stories about the fairer sex better than him.

In this book, he tells stories of his dalliances with an American teenager, a drunken actress of yesteryear, a muslim fundamentalist from Pakistan, a tantrik sadhvi who claimed she was the mother of the illegitimate child of  Nehru and many others. Besides these pulpy stories, he also talks about his grandmother, with a poignant portrait on the twilight of her life.

I decided to give away this book at one of my favourite restaurants, Indigo Deli at the Palladium Mall in Lower Parel in Bombay. I have stopped gift wrapping the book as it makes cafe managers feel anxious. But they still had some issues with my ‘leave the book on the table’ plan. So I placed the book at Moshe’s. Another favourite cafe of mine in the same mall. The food is just fabulous here. And now they are even more dearer because they allowed me leave the book. So if you are in Bombay do visit Moshe’s and Indigo Deli. Absolutely great food, service and ambience.

So stranger, enjoy the poignant, insightful and equally wicked writing by the peerless Khushwant Singh.

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In medias res

Beautiful women

“Mrs. Babu, you have such gorgeous customers.”

I was inside the manager’s cabin of a cooperative bank on the outskirts of Bangalore. Women, should be in their thirties and forties were lining next to the teller. They were dressed up in striking green, maroon, pink, blue saris accesorised with jasmine flowers tastefully clipped to their plaited hair.

“They have come to make their monthly loan repayments. Each of them runs small businesses in the neighbouring towns. Every time they come to the city they dress up in their best saris. Most of them are widowed or their men have deserted them,” the manger explained.

A young lady with a pretty little girl next to her was making payments. She was wearing a shimmering red and violet sari. After making the payment, she turned back with a wide toothy smile and kissed her child. She bid farewell to the rest of the ladies and walked towards the doors, beaming with pride.

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In medias res

A knight in God’s army

“You should meet Preethi, will you join us for dinner?” my friend Seema insisted. Seema did not give me much detail but just ordered that I should pick her and Saadya, her adorable child and all of us would go to a Thai restaurant in the neighbourhood. “Preethi loves Thai, she will join us there.”

At the restaurant, while we waited for Preeti, Seema’s daughter taught me a game which involved driving a fork across the knots of a table mat. The first person to reach the end of the mat would be the winner. I miserably failed every time.

“Hello everyone,” it was Preethi. She strolled towards our table in a wheel chair. Seema’s husband was behind her. Preethi looked very pretty in a maroon top and gold ear rings. Her hands did not move in a coordinated manner and rest of her body remained still.

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It was 1998, Preethi only eighteen and already a state-level cricket and swimming champion was playing with her friends on the beach. A strong wave drew her inside and she dived into the water. Suddenly her body became numb and motionless. Her friends pulled her out of the water with much effort. Preethi, in a freakish accident was suddenly paralyzed below her neck. Her doctors concluded that her spinal cord had been injured severely.

“Can you imagine the irony? I love water, I love swimming, I was a state champion, but it was the same water that made me a vegetable,” and she laughs heartily. “I was attractive, athletic, with full of hope and wanted to play for the national cricket team. But after the accident, I shut myself for over two years inside the house. I could not meet any outsiders. I just cannot do anything without someone’s help. Even now I can indulge in a bath only once a week.”

Preethi, has undergone tens of surgeries in the past fifteen years. Being the only child her parents have stood with her through all the struggles.

“When my father died five years back in a sudden heart attack, I was shattered.”

“He was my only connection to the outside world. He was my friend, father, guru and god. Everything looked dark and gloomy. My mother takes care of me now, but she is not going to be there for long.”

“That set me thinking. I am sure there many others like me in this country. How are they managing? You will not believe that there are no centres that can take care of patients of spinal cord injuries in India. And it is worse for women. I have spoken to many patients who are going through hell due to lack of support from family. Then suicide becomes the only option.”

“So I have started ‘Soul Free’ an NGO that will work towards creating a care centre for patients with spinal cord injuries, especially women.”

She paused briefly and looked straight at me.

“You know Sriram, I now have a purpose for my life. I feel like a knight in God’s army. I will make my life count!”

Yes she will.

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In medias res

Chennai auto

“I slapped an auto driver this morning.”

She was teething in anger as she stepped in to the office. I always thought that she hated confrontations. Someone who kept her anger at check, but things were different that morning.

“What happened? Is everything ok with you?” I asked her in a measured tone.

“My scooter gave starting trouble this morning, so I took an auto. But for less than 3 – 4 kms he wanted 100 rupees. I was already late, so did not want to spoil my mood any further by bargaining with him,” she spoke agitated.

“A bus had broken down on the way and hence he had to take small detour. Soon he started grumbling and wanted more. I did not engage him but his nagging irritated me.”

“When we reached office, I dug into my handbag for a 100, which would normally be not more than 60 rupees. He rudely demanded that I pay 20 more. I controlled my anger and gave him the 100 rupee note and wanted to get out.”

“Quite unexpectedly he threw the 100 rupee note at my face. That really blew the fuse for me.”

Phadaar, I gave him one tight slap.”

“He was startled. I threw the money at his face and walked. I just didn’t care about the consequences.”

I could see a glimmer of pride at the corner of her eyes.

Right or wrong I am not sure, but I did feel proud of her.

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In medias res

Washable sanitary pads

“So, why washable sanitary pads? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to discard them after use? After all its blood and other impurities,” I was slightly overbearing.

“How different is it from washing one’s underwear?” she was blunt.

Kathy Walking is a gorgeous lady with a charming smile. She had invited me to her aesthetically designed small office in Auroville, Pondicherry. A beautiful kolam at the entrance welcomed me. She wore big silver ear rings but no footwear. A wooden plank that served as a table protruded from the wall and we sat on stools with cushion tops around it.

“Why do we make menstruation such a big deal? It is not gross, not dirty. It’s a totally normal biological function.”

“It is the big commerce that makes women to ‘whisper’ and warns them to ‘stay free’ and ‘care free’. Women have always been using cloth as sanitary napkins and if we could give them well designed cloth pads, that is leak proof and made of skin friendly organic cotton, why would they not use it?”

She laid out the sanitary pads on the table and encouraged me to take a look. I was surprised how pretty the pads were. They were in blue, pink and brown colours with interesting Bandhini and Kalamkari designs on them.

But, truth be told, I was a little embarrassed.

“And these pads cost just Rs. 300/- and depending on the flow, on an average a woman would just need 6 pads for a whole five years. Count the savings,” she was persuasive.

“Let me give you one more argument, a disposable sanitary napkin takes 800 years to decompose. Now imagine the mountains of napkins that are disposed by millions of women every day. It’s an environmental nightmare!”

She does make a point. Ladies, take a look at www.ecofemme.org

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Stories from far and near

Wrath of Ahalya

“I have come here to see Ram.” Senapathi was shocked at the audacity of this young lady. Before he could react, “It is important and urgent, and I would like to meet him in private.” She was definitely not a threat, but no one has ever dared to call the King of Ayodhya by his name. Senapathi was of a wise age, but was not known to be impulsive or short tempered.

She was a beautiful lady and he was specially struck by her glowing skin. “What is your name lady, and where are you from?” asked senapathi.

“My name is Ahalya, daughter of Bramma and I am from the hermitage of Sage Gautama,” she was firm, to the point of being rude. This was no ordinary woman. Women have composed songs, in praise of her virtues. He sent word to Rama, about her arrival.

Rama came up to the door to welcome Ahalya. He was not a stickler to the customs of Kings, when it came to people he loved. “Welcome Ahalyaji. It is an honour to have you among us,” Rama welcomed her with a beaming smile. Ahalya touched his feet as pranams, but smiled at him customarily. She had the greatest regard for him, for he resurrected her from the curse of Sage Gautama. She looked deeply disturbed today.

After they sat down, Ahalya began, “Lord Rama, I am very troubled about what you have done to ma Sita. I learn that you have banished Sita devi to the forest? Why did you do that Lord?” Her eyes were red of crying continuously.

Rama, already missing his Sita, was deeply pained at being reminded of the tragic loss. “It was a very unfortunate loss, and a painful decision for me to make. But I had to do it, for the sake of dharma.”

“I am very disappointed at your decision, my majesty. I could not eat or sleep on hearing the news, and I plead that you to reconsider your decision”. She held her ground.

“Ahalya, I am able to relate to your pain. I am extremely pained as Rama the husband and lover of Sita, but I am now the King of the Suryavansha dynasty. I had to take that decision for protecting the laws of Manu and for being the role-model that a king should be. I am no ordinary husband of a woman,” Rama had the slow baritone voice, which would convince even the hardest critic.

“Lord, what about your dharma as a husband? What about your commitment to her? You have vowed before Agni, that you will take care of her, at all times, in happiness and sadness. You will have complete faith in her and would consult her in every action of yours. Have you forgotten?”

“Ways of men always surprised me. Why are you men so selfish when it comes to women? Your work, pride, dharma and everything else, takes precedence before us? Did you ask her side of the story, before you banished her to the forest?”

“Exactly the same way, Sage Gautama made me a stone. This news brought back all the tragic memories of the terrible day, when Indra preyed on me. Why was I reduced to a stone for no fault of mine? How easy is it, for you men, to pass judgments on us?” she was livid. Her fair skin had become dark bluish-grey.

Rama remained silent, but actively listened to her.

“I will tell you something that Maharishi Viswamitra did not mention, the day you resurrected me,” she continued. “I was entrusted to Sage Gautama by my creator Bramma. He sincerely and wholeheartedly fulfilled his wishes. He was both my father and guru. He was a mother too, for I learnt to distinguish between affection and love. But he should have stopped it there. He didn’t. He married me. Even if Bramma gave me as his bride, why did he take the offer? Did both Bramma and the Sage ask me, just like the way you never consulted Sita devi, but judged against her, not once, but twice?”

“Someone who was like his child became his wife. Did I have a say in this matter? Never!” she paused briefly.

“Why do you men, lose all your senses, when it comes to women? You men don’t care a hay for your wives. The butcher made the eater happy. The eater made the butcher happy. But where did the lamb disappear? The poor lamb has lost its identity. From lovely lamb to meat, from mutton to food, from delectable dish to feaces and from foul-smelling feaces to earth again”, she was furious.

“So what right does he have to curse me, when he did, what he did to me?”

“If banishing Sita devi, was about upholding dharma, how is it that your father had ten thousands wives? What happened to the laws of Manu then?”

Rama showed displeasure, when she referred to his father, but allowed to vent her anger.

“Without sounding ungrateful, I was so happy, locked inside the stone, for I had no man lusting me, no man judging me, no man banishing me, and no man to rescue me”.

“Rama, you have lost your wife, Sita devi. She is beyond the petty morals of mortals. Like me, I am sure she does not consider living in the forest any hard, but she would have been shattered, when you broke her heart, and her trust in you”.

“You might be the mightiest of kings, and world might praise you as the upholder of dharma and virtue, but you have lost the respect of a woman, who loved you, and you alone”, she got up.

“Rama let me tell you something, I have not shared with anyone. When kama Indra was making love to me in the guise of my husband, for a moment, I realized that it was no Sage Gautama. But I was so consumed in the pleasure that I gave in. Yes I was guilty to that extent”, she paused, “but Rama, your Sita, did not even raise her head to see the mighty handsome Ravana. How can you give her up so easily?”

“Rama, I came here to plead for mercy and request that you reverse your decision, but in hindsight, destiny was right. You could have not got a better punishment than this, for abandoning your wife. You will always be lonely Rama, and the guilt will eat you till the seas part”, she left the room without waiting for his response.

Rama stayed in his throne, while his disturbed eyes searched for his Sita.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

Sitayana

“What’s so wrong about loving someone passionately? Would noble men and Rama himself, judge me differently, if I was fair, beautiful like Sita and not a rakshasi?” Surpanaka cried profusely. The rakshasi who coveted Rama and attempted to kill Sita once, and had been savagely repulsed by Rama and brutally mutilated by Lakshman, and who was instrumental in waging the war against them, to seek her revenge.

It was all over. Ravana was dead and Rama lived happily with Sita in Ayodhya. Surpanaka was a woman depressed with the pain of unrequited love.

“If I can’t have Rama, then Sita shall not have him too. War and violence is not an option anymore, but deceit?” For death alone would stop Surpanaka.

Surpanaka shape-shifted as a cat, and was peeping into Rama’s private chambers, from the branches of a tall Arjuna tree. Her cat eyes penetrated even the pitch darkness of the night. She could not find him. She remembered Rama’s handsome muscular features. At this nostalgic moment, Sita walked into the chambers combing her lustrous long hair. “Sita is an epitome of beauty, no doubt, but she can never match me, in the pleasures that a woman can give a man”. Surpanaka was teething in anger and greed. She wanted to confront Sita and warn that her happy days are counted, but resisted venturing into Sita’s quarters.

Next day, a hermit wished to meet Sita. Surpanaka had disguised herself as the hermit. Ayodhyans always revered hermits and gurus. Sita was surprised, why a hermit wanted to meet. After the customary welcomes and prayers, Sita inquired the reason for his visit.

“Devi, could you paint the picture of Ravana?” Sita did not feel comfortable at the request. “I have never set my eyes on the demon ever. All I have seen is his feet”, said Sita. “Then can you paint his feet” insisted the hermit. It was considered discourteous to ask why. Sita paints Ravana’s big toe and gives it to the hermit. The hermit leaves after thanking her.

Surpanaka was happy at the success of her mission. She completes the rest of the painting herself; strong ankles, thighs, waist, broad chest, shoulders, hands and the head. It was the painting of a handsome tall dark muscular warrior that Ravana was. She takes the completed picture to Bramma and pleads that he gives life to the picture, so that she could see her dead brother alive again. Bramma was pained at her request. Ravana was an earnest Shiva bhakta when he was alive and makes him come alive in the picture.

It was noon and Sita was having a pleasant conversation with Urmila and other sisters. Surpanaka appeared before her out of nowhere. Sita shuddered at the sight of Surpanaka in her room. It reminded her, of the cruel times from the past.

“I am not here to harm you, but wanted to remind you of a life, that could have been, if you had chosen Ravana over Rama”, said Surpanaka.

Sita was surprisingly very calm and did not raise any alarm. To the contrary she felt deep sympathy for her. Sita closed her eyes to pray Mata Devi. Sita wished that peace fall upon Surpanaka, so that she forgets her pain and anger. When she opened her eyes, Surpanaka had vanished, but there was a picture floating in the air. It was the same picture of Ravana that Bramma had brought to life.

Sita was very unsettled with the sudden turn of events. Ravana’s picture starts pulling Sita. She gets very perturbed. Urmila and all the maids, try to get the picture off Sita. They decide to start a fire and destroy the picture. Urmila throws the picture into the fire. The paper and the painting stay intact. “Let us throw this wretched thing into the old well”, exclaimed one sister. The picture flew back immediately, only to get stuck with Sita. Sita was desperate. She chants ‘Rama’ japa and surprisingly, that subdues the picture. Everyone has a breath of relief.

All of a sudden, Rama walks into the chambers. Everyone decide, to not make much of what happened and retire to their rooms. “Sithe!” Rama always addressed her that way, when he longed and missed her. Rama had just returned from an official visit to Videha. Rama and Sita had become closer after the war. They missed each other’s presence, a lot more than before. Love liberated Sita from her worries and depression that she had suffered in Lanka. However Rama became more possessive and protective. Sita liked this side of Rama too. “I am going to leave you one day”, she would tease him. Rama would seal her lips and assured her that he would never allow that to happen. After great persuasion, he confessed to her, that he thought of committing suicide that day, when he stood powerless, when Ravana took her away.

Today was an extraordinary day. Things had suddenly unfolded and Sita did not have the time to inform the elders. She quickly hides the subdued picture under the bed. Rama affectionately approaches Sita and embraces her. He unties her blouse and tries to make love. Sita remains distracted and does not reciprocate. Rama does not understand but leads her to the bed. When both of them sit on the bed, the picture below the mattress kicks Rama out of the bed. Rama is on the ground and is very unsettled. Sita couldn’t get a grasp of what happened. Rama is angered and he wonders why Sita had kicked him out of the bed. He regains his composure and decides to approach Sita and his eyes land on the picture of Ravana lying on the bed.

“Sita, what do you have to say for this? So the dhobis, did speak the truth? You did have an affair with Ravana and you have chosen to keep this picture in his memory. Women are twisted and unreliable”, Rama was delirious.

She had not seen Rama consumed with anger, like that, ever before. She froze hearing his accusations.

Hearing the screaming, Urmila, Kausalya and other women rushed to her chambers. Urmila pleaded to Rama about what had happened. Rama was possessed by anger and he was unwilling to listen to their reasoning and justifications.

“Sita will be banished to the forest for this action”, Rama makes this statement and leaves for the Royal court.

Sita was still unwilling to explain or speak her mind. She had completely withdrawn. Sita was still coming to terms with what was happening to her. Her Rama doubted her again, when she was pregnant. “How could he doubt me?” this thought was continuously ringing in her mind.

Urmila, Mandavi and Srtakirti, all the wives of Rama’s brothers go to the court to defend Sita’s case. “You think that Sita is in love with Ravana. All of us are in love with him, so send us all to the forest. He was a rakshasha, no doubt, but he never laid his finger on Sita, when he had all the powers to do so. He was evil, but he never questioned the integrity of his loved ones. By questioning Sita, you have shown the impurity of your heart to the world. Be warned, that generations to come will remember and discredit you for this action. Just because we are women, did you think you could pass any rules against us, without any objection?” Urmila was furious.

Rama remained silent and while he was coming to realize the gravity of his decision, Sita relinquishes all her clothes, jewellery and was on her way to the forest.

He had lost her.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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