Second Take: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

With no new movies out in the cinemas for us to review, it is high time we start revisiting some of the movies we loved or loved to hate or just hated. So in this series of #SecondTake, here is revisiting one of the Karan Johar’s least liked films – Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

A very common response of most of the viewers who saw the movie was – what was wrong with the girl? How could she not love him back, despite the boy doing ‘’so much’’ for her? Perhaps that was precisely the point Karan Johar, in his (arguably) most mature work till date wanted to make. That Pyaar dosti, nahi hai!

Yes – in a way ADHM could very well be the anti-thesis of his most popular but perhaps most candy-flossed movie – Kuch Kuch hota hai. While KKHH thrived on the belief of friendship being the first step of love, and created a generation of young teenagers who could never believe that a boy and girl can be friends, ADHM tried to address this point heads on by portraying how the two feelings are completely different and one always cannot and need not transform into other. While in KKHH, the former friend falls into love very conveniently with his old friend after his wife has passed away and he has been lonely for 8 years; In ADHM the friend never falls into love with her best friend who stands by her all along through her marriage, separation and as she battles cancer. This stark difference of thoughts – that love cannot be created or felt in response to someone being there for you – but it just happens when it has to, happens when you feel it is the point that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil tries to drive home. Also that a romantic relationship is not always the happiest culmination of two people’s journey together – it can also be friendship, as it very beautifully shows – Dosti me sukoon hai, Pyaar me Junoon hai.

But of course, the dreamy tale of boy meets girl, they become friends and then fall in love with each other will always be loved more than the one where they don’t. Hence while KKHH is a national favorite and regarded a classic, ADHM could not achieve that cult status. The philosophy aside, even otherwise the movie boasted of some great music – Channa Mereya is a classic and an anthem for the rejected lovers alright; some great performances – watch out for Ranbir’s expressions in the whole sequence of Alizeh’s wedding, they are heartbreakingly real; and a great extended sizzling cameo by Aishwarya which alone was worth the ticket’s price. In today’s times when the conversations around consent and diverse gender equations have become mainstream, maybe it is a good time to re-watch Ae Dil Hai Mushkil on Amazon Prime and fall in love with it!

Bollywood in lockdown

Of all the causalities inflected by the Corona virus, Bollywood is the most underrated one.

24th March 2020 was supposed to be the date when cinemas in hometown of Bollywood (Mumbai) were going 24/7 after a much sought after amendments in the rule. Much awaited flick Sooryavanshi was to open on this date and create new records on the box-office with round the clock shows. But alas, the sun didn’t shine and the dark cloud of Corona engulfed not only Sooryavanshi but entire Bollywood. It has been 50 days since then – all the cinema halls are shut down, shoots are halted, sets are dismantled or destroyed, stars are locked up in their homes, tv channels have run out of new content & showing old shows, paparazzi is scouting the social media feed of stars for gossip and thousands of junior artists, technicians and the on-ground staff are deprived of their earnings.

And so are we the audience, of the magic of the movies. There might be a new found interest and speculation around digital/OTT being the new medium of movies – but can a mobile/laptop/TV screen really replace the big screen? No, it just cannot.

There is nothing like watching your dreams and fantasies come alive on the big screen, with the dark auditorium being lit up by the stars on screen and a group of enthusiastic fans relishing each and every moment and the larger-than-life visuals that give us the bang-for-our-bucks. The magic of the movies combined with the popcorn, the cozied and cocooned environment of the auditorium cannot even be remotely compared to Netflix-and-chill, where the focus is more often than not on the chill part.

Bollywood is not a religion of the minorities in this country, it cannot be caged in the idiot box. The experience of cinema on the big screen cannot be replaced, and whatever it takes, the sun will shine again and Sooryavanshi will illuminate the silver screen and dazzle all of us. The show must (and it will) go on!

Motherhood

As you start discovering the joy of food, it is us more than him who beam at every bite or gulp he takes. Parenthood, an endless journey has just begun for us, and we can’t wait to take those little steps with you into each new day of it. Shephali, here is looking back at last 6 months and you growing together with our baby! On this Mother’s day, here is to your beautiful, endless journey as a mother which is off to a beautiful start.

The first month of your motherhood, I daresay, was more about you- accepting that life will never be the same and dealing the changes all around and within you- physical, mental and emotional. The special circumstances of our baby’s arrival, if anything, made it more challenging and memorable. But what is life if not for a little challenge!

The second month was about learning to realize that he was an inseparable part of you, and while learning to deal with all the challenges, loving him came as naturally to you as breathing. The extreme cold outside was beaten only by the warmth of you love towards him, and the realisation of the protective spirit that we had towards him.

As we moved into his third, it was the time of his first journey towards his home (those that he has many) and us experiencing a whole new world as parents.  By now, while your mind had erased all sense of how you lived before him – you were still learning little things about him and the new things that he did every day still made you nervous and excited at times. We had started seeing the mischief hidden in those small starry eyes.

The fourth month was more of your coming-of-age, as a new mother. You were more assured than ever of handling him, holding him, playing with him and being happy with him. Also, this was when we took our first touristy trip with him (to Khajuraho) and the delight that he was only made us more proud and happy for you and us!

The fifth month was our first festival together and his introduction to our extended family and friends. Like a proud mother, you elated and beamed every time he pulled a cute trick and mesmerized others. Like a proud creator, you wanted to show your creation to everyone and also ward the evil eye off-you. By the end of this month, I felt you had become pretty hands-on with him and your chemistry had become as reactive as it could be.

But as they say, life surprises you when you least expect it. His sixth month was marked with a global crisis that has had the world locked up inside their homes, and hence when we got to spend more than 45 days in the house- just us and him, without a single soul or help in sight, that’s when we learnt what it meant to be hands-on. Ever since he was born, you were always surrounded by people other than us who loved, cared and tended for him; but this month with just us, it has been a whole new level of learning unlearning and taking full ownership of him. As he has transformed into this cute doll with new expressions, actions, emotions everyday – along with him, you have also grown every day. Tending to him (and me!) 24 by 7 all on your own for 50 days, has not been easy, but why am I not surprised?

Covid – 19

What can clapping and banging thalis do? Nothing perhaps, but then this is a crisis the likes of which no one alive has perhaps ever seen, and no one has a ready-made solution. So it does not really matter if it is just symbolism or a token gesture to boast morale in absence of adequate resources to fight this war. This is a war, and an unshakeable spirit of togetherness, determination and positivity are essential weapons, though not necessarily sufficient.

Who would have thought that in this time and age we would face a crisis which invokes the basic instinct of humans, that of survival! These are the times when all other problems and worries of your life suddenly start seeming silly and the well-being of your loved ones is all that you can think about. While the chirping of birds, roads and sky looking cleaner or even the endless binging of shows on OTT platforms might help us divert our thoughts and stay positive, there is no denying that this is war time, and the government and health professionals even at their best do not have the sufficient weapons to take us to victory. The only weapons that can help us are self-discipline and determination– but it will work only if all of us exercise the same and take this seriously.

That’s what this loud exercise was – a war cry, a country declaring that we are standing (and mostly sitting) together and will set an example for the world to follow. The ‘Junta curfew’ should not be considered over, it has just started. Let us all remain indoors and inspire others to follow the same. Everything else in life can wait, now is the time to maintain social distance, in order to save the society itself.

Covid – 19

Needless to say, most of us have never in our lives faced a situation like this. All of us have, with the grace of God led mostly privileged lives where our real issues have been related to ups and downs in our academics, career or relationships, which would impact at worst our self-esteem, social standing, state of mind or quality of life to some extent. But this is the first time perhaps in all our collective living memory that our very existence is at stake. There is no fear greater than that of life – yours and your loved ones’. Hence if this cannot change the collective attitude of us and the society as a whole, nothing can.

As individuals, we should be ever thankful and count our little blessings that we live daily and take for granted. Personal animosities, jealousies, mindless rat-race and the materialistic evaluation of endeavours of life should give way for an as-of-now utopian attitude towards life where we prioritise and treasure people, relations and love – and do not need another quarantine to spend time with family and connect with long lost friends. If all of us as individuals take this call, world will become a much happier place.

As a community, we must realise that while freedom is supreme, it is only equal to responsibility. Following the orders issues by an elected government, respecting those who are serving the public and doing their duties, facilitating them, not spreading rumours and conspiracy theories – these are non-negotiable. A society can fight of any menace if it has discipline – self-imposed as well as that by a responsible authority. If 130 crore people strictly follow social distancing measures to the last bit, this pandemic can be beaten without any doubt.

As a nation, the governments must set their priorities clear – healthcare and sustainability have to be given due importance. All future establishments should be judged on this very important parameter. All scientific, technological and infrastructure advancements must ensure co-existence and sustainable growth with nature. Who could have believed that in 2020 the human race could be held hostage by a virus – putting entire world in a lock down! Now that it has become a reality – it will all be in vain if it doesn’t change the discourse of polls, public administration and services and the way we elect our rulers.

As a species, we should unlearn the old way of living and learn how to exist without damaging the nature. Sustainability should not just be a buzz word but an essential and foremost consideration of all our actions. It is not something that we can just leave for ‘specialists’ to do while leading our lives the way we want. While we are relishing and forwarding the messages about how nature is healing and wildlife is reclaiming spaces – we need to remember this and think about this in all our endeavours.

Kartik

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इन मासूम सी आँखों में

नव जीवन के अंकुरित होते सपनों की चमक कुछ यूँ बिखरी सी है

जैसे सूर्योदय की पहली किरण, और रात के स्याह पटल पर लहराती सुबह की आहट

जैसे शीत लहर के बाद की पहली धूप से मिलती अंतः को गर्माहट

जैसे सूखी धूल-धूसरित धरती पर

मेघ की पहली गर्जन से जीव जंतुओं की सुगबुगाहट

 

इन सुर्ख गुलाबी होठों पे

उस चमक से खिलती जो मीठी सी मुस्कान है

निश्चलता और सरलता से भरी, दुनिया के विकारों से दूर

भविष्य के सुन्दर पलों की कल्पना व अनुमान है

इस नटखट सी हंसी में

मेरे बचपन की कुछ झलक, तो कभी कुछ आज के अरमान हैं

वो एक नन्हा सा खिलौना , तो कभी इश्वर का वरदान है

इस एक हंसी और किलकारी पर, मेरा सब कुछ बलिदान है

 

इन नन्हे से हाथों और खुलती बंद होती मुट्ठियों में

एक पिटारा है, मस्ती और अठखेलियों का

मंत्र-मुग्ध सी और निश्चिंत सी बतकहियों का

शब्दों का आकार लेने की कोशिश में

मधुर संगीत सी अनर्गल निकलती ध्वनियों का

मेरे और हम सबके इंतज़ार में बैठी, असीमित अपार खुशियों का

 

कार्तिक में कार्तिक का आगमन

सहन कर रोग और प्रदूषण का प्रकोप

ठंडी शुद्ध हवा के झोंके के सुकून सा आया

प्रार्थना के संगीत सा, हमारा श्लोक

Quarantined

Caged by an invisible aberrant creature

We look inwards, and beyond

We talk to ourselves and bond

To our true selves, to our righteous heart

And shredding the skins of all worldly caricature

We bow down to the wrath of Mother Nature

 

In this exile from all the noise and trappings

We connect, we reflect on all our longings

And speak to them all, one for each day

For, beyond these 21 days,

Lies a world for which we pray

With hope of realizations and emotions tender

We bow down to the wrath of Mother Nature

 

My walls, my room and my balcony

Have become a cage for my sights and thoughts

Still free from the madness and cacophony

Of greed, of desire, of lust and of never ending expectations

With hopes just limited to basics

Desire just restricted to avoiding annihilation

Greed just limited to escaping elimination

Of self, of the loves ones

The lust of life never seemed truer

We bow down to the wrath of Mother Nature

 

All around, an eeriness and desolation

Nothing but chirping of birds, sight of animals as consolation

And an emergency siren on a rare occasion

Dwarf our existence and position

Ridicule our ungrateful and complaining disposition

Questioning everything that was taken for granted

Making us all but pawns in the hands of the creator

We bow down to the Wrath of Mother Nature

 

Forgiveness is what we seek

For selfishness and intolerance

For gluttony and lack of restraint

To go beyond the sickness and disease

We get rid of all vices within and exist at ease

With the myriad forms of nature and lives

With the promises of a world saner and safer

We bow down to the wrath of Mother Nature

 

Beyond these lock downs and quarantines

Lies a world of hopes and realisations

Rebuilt on our fallacies and learning from failures

Till then, we bow down to the wrath of Mother Nature.

 

Most Overrated and Underrated Bollywood movies of 2019

2019 in general has been a good year for Bollywood, with 17 movies in the 100 crores club, 1 in 300 crores club, 5 in 200 crores club and several other small budget gems scoring high on profitability. While opinions are always divided when it comes to movies, there are some that win unanimous praise or criticism from a large section of audience – as evident from social media and social interactions. Here I am listing down the movies of this year which were most underrated and most overrated according to me.  Do share your views – if you agree or disagree with this list.

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Most Overrated movies of 2019

URI – the surgical strike: Now, before the nationalists and patriots start getting angry, let me clarify. I have nothing against the movie and it was a decent watch with decent actors. But the way it caught the fancy of the nation and went on to achieve everything from box office collections to national awards had got more to do with the sentiment of the nation at that point of time which it resonated with very well. However, in terms of movie making as an art it didn’t have anything new, or which pushes the envelope or even excels in any particular area – in all of it, URI was an above average fare. If the box office success was a metric of right timing for a movie, then URI definitely deserves an Oscar.

Super 30: Without going into the debate of Anand kumar’s genuineness and authenticity of his super 30, this movie often bordered into caricature and cringe. When you are making a movie of a contemporary public figure whose life and details are easily available on the web, adding fictional incidents to dramatise and eulogise the protagonist isn’t just bad film making, but also raises suspicion about the intent of the makers. The movie was simply not a genuine biopic and only a less glamorised version of 2018’s hagiography Sanju.

War: Now I have really nothing against Hrithik. (I swear I had his posters on my wall after Kaho Na Pyaar hai) But while the world (especially the women) went gaga over Hrithik and Tiger in this supposedly the world-class action thriller, I just couldn’t go beyond the cliched plot elements like plastic surgery and back-plotting in loops, something which the Race series has made a life out of (You think you are being smart but I already knew it so I was being extra smart). While it was a decent watch, it deserves a mention here as most of the people seem to have overlooked the flaws and made it seem like the best action movie ever.

Most Underrated movies of 2019

The Sky is Pink: If it wasn’t sexist, I’d have said that biggest success of Priyanka Chopra after moving to Hollywood is Nick Jonas. (Oh wait, I just said it). Jokes aside, it seems that her stardom has faded in India after her relocation to LA; or maybe it was the pretentious title of the movie which failed to create any sorts of curiosity or popularity of this gem of a movie in the general public, leading to its dismal performance. Otherwise, it is a very well-made and desi at heart movie with tonnes of genuine drama and emotions about a couple struggling with their daughter’s terminal sickness. The handful of people who watched it (including me) shed bucketful of tears. Now if only tears were currency, this would have been a sure-shot blockbuster, like it rightfully should have been.

Section 375: In times of #Metoo, it was very surprising that this little gem, with a very sensible view point presented as a very engaging court room drama failed to make any waves at the box-office or even in the critic circles. Perhaps it was the non-star appeal of Akshaye Khanna or the Ayushmann Khurana wave (as it released on the same day as Dream girl) that removed this small movie completely from mainstream talks. But it remains one of the best courtroom dramas that you ‘will see in Bollywood, with its bold and non-judgemental stand on sexual harassment v/s power dynamics in workplace. Do watch it on Amazon Prime video.

Manikarnika: Now I might sound like Rangoli Chandel – the sister cum manager of Kangana (*shudders*), but even though the movie managed to touch 100 crores – it definitely did not get the success it deserved. As the first biopic of one of the most illustrious female (or otherwise) figures of Indian history, the movie re-told a part-historical-part-mythological story with beautiful detailing and sentiments. Kangana’s performance was fierce and phenomenal and she embodied the Queen of Jhansi like no one else could. If any movie deserved to be in the 300 crore slot and any performance deserved accolades and awards – it was Manikarnika and Kangana. But alas, it struggled to touch 100 crores and barely managed to, with much push by the sister-the-great!

P.S. Kabir Singh is missing from this list as it already is the most discussed, criticised, loved and perhaps the most rated movie of the year, so it doesn’t really fit either of the classification above.

Before Sunrise

1730 hrs, 14th February 2017, New Delhi

The sun was inching closer to the horizon, marked by the uneven skyline of the capital. From his side of the window of the car, the outsides seemed pleasant. A perfect balance of the afternoon heat and evening, the diminishing blue with approaching black, the road full of motor cars and the birds dispersed across a sprawling sky mixed to create an impressionable image.

‘’fir aamne saamne baat hogi…fir hoga kya kya pataa kya khabar…’’

The song filled the cab with a delightful feeling; or was it just him? It was not going to be his first meeting with her, just the first meeting in some 5 years, he reminded himself. Still he was full of excitement mixed with a bit of nervousness. The reasons ranged from juvenile (It was the Valentine’s Day evening) to nostalgic (sharing a classroom for a year does bond you in some simplistic but strong ways) to troublesome (he wished he would be wrong about this).  The surroundings around the cab were colourful, with a number of florists gracing the street sides. He stopped at one of those, and unsure of the colour, eventually picked up a bouquet of pink and orange roses. The heat dominated the breeze, the noise dominated the calm and diminishing sun was further blemished by dust and smoke. The illusion that the glass window had created was quite something, he thought. Just like the one he had created in his thoughts maybe, Or maybe not.

‘’Ghazab ka hai din, dekho zaraa, Ye deewanapan socho zaraa..’’

The cab sped towards the airport, and he received the message.

Hey, Just reached T3, waiting for my luggage. J

Oh, I will still take half an hour. In the cab. Damn the traffic L

Np. Yayy. See u soon  😀

The blues had started turning a shade darker with the approaching night. The concrete jungle had started being replaced by the real wildlings as the cab moved across the outskirts of the megacity. The airport was still a good half an hour away. The time would just pass away in a blink of eyes he knew, as had the years flew by, unconcerned, unimportantly, indifferently. The anticipation of a moment or an event only resulted in disappointment, he had learnt long back. The sepia-toned past always looked more beautiful than present could ever be. Hence he tried to control his thoughts. He wished he had his diary or laptop. But that was not going to stop the words from being etched in some corner of his mind, he knew. For, occasions like this were not often, when his thoughts became turbulent enough to be carved into words. It was going to be memorable evening and a happy night for reasons more than one, he was sure.

31st December 2012, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

It turned out to be a re-union, a beautiful unplanned surprise. When his father asked him to accompany him for a day to the town where he was currently posted, he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. Yes, it was the place where he spent the major part of his childhood and the journey to adolescence; it was the place where he had learnt most of things about life; it was the place where logistically and emotionally, most of his memories of school were based. But now since he would hardly know anyone there, he had almost decided to say no when his father pointed out that it was the winter break in most colleges around the country and many of his school friends might be in the town.

A good four hours later, he was sitting on a wooden chair in the room, which he could actually call his room again as his father had rented the same house where he had spent the 8 years of his life. Looking around on the walls, the shelves in the wall, the withered wooden window frames and the decaying gardens outside them was getting dull and increasingly unnerving. They must be here anytime now, he thought. Arpit, his school friend had said he’ll bring some other people who were in town. It was about time, and the bell rang.

It was actually a re-union. 8 class-mates, meeting after 7 years, in the same town where they grew up and at 5 minutes’ walk from the school. The initial hellos and introductions melted the ice and probably everyone was relieved and happy at the realization that despite a zillion changes, they were still the same group of small town teenagers who had parted ways to bigger avenues. The distance of years was visible in their hairstyles (and in some cases, hairlines) but definitely not in their chemistry with each other. Everything was the same, and as she smiled at him, with a ‘Hey!’, it became further clear, every single thing was same, except perhaps for that red streak in her hair, which added a whole lot of magic to her already magical self; and the length of those strands which had grown in restrained curls to shoulder length from the short crop as he remembered from the past.

‘’Hi! Long time’’, he said.

A few moments of silence followed which were anything but awkward, at least for him.

‘’Yes, almost a lifetime it seems. The last time I was here was almost 8 years ago. My cycle was tied to the pole of that swing outside. I guess today both the swing and the cycle are no more there. But I am one hell of a stalker. I read your blog- your poems, stories everything. Hey, when did you start writing all that? I mean other than those long essays which would delight Leela Mam and Kulsoom Mam? ‘’

‘’Oh, well I don’t know, sometime around that, Hehe, teachers! Those were some days, no!’’

“Ah, yes, you are the same, Mr. Confusion!’’

His insides leapt up in joy.  She remembered!

‘’So are you, Ms. Hollywood, only more stylish and pretty!’’

‘’Ahem, and you’ve learnt to flirt’’

‘’ Well, finally I did, thanks to you’’.

They laughed. And her laughter took him back to the thousand memories kept aside in the packed boxes of childhood.

2004, Winters. Stella Maris Convent, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

‘’You’ve lost your mind, and even eyes I will say. She is not even pretty!’’ shouted Saurabh, as if it made any difference.

She had joined our class that year only. It being the big year of ‘board’ exams, the school believed in grouping the students according to their ‘potential’. I am not sure about potential, but she did manage to grab all my attention. The fact that we both were members of the school cabinet- I was the President and she the Discipline captain- ensured that we became friends easily and smoothly. Both of us had to inspect the ‘silence’ and discipline status of all the classes during the daily morning silence period, and award marks. These inspections and marks distribution ensured we had more than enough to talk, and gradually friendship took over, or so I thought. There were signs, which I being the bookish geek, didn’t really understand. But through my incessant raving about how wonderful she was, how great she looked, how wonderful it was to be with her, Saurabh read some signs apparently (as he was the smarter one, in these matters, and most matter, for that matter)

‘’Oh no, I can’t find my record-book’’, I said frantically searching for the notebook in which I recorded the discipline score of the classes, as she waited for me to join her for the morning watch routine.

‘’Oh, come on, there it is, below your desk idiot. Poor you, look at what all the studying has done to you. With great intelligence comes great confusion, I guess. From today, you’re Mr. Confusion’’ she laughed as I looked at her, lost.

‘’Huh, as if you are never confused,’’ I said (and the very moment I had to agree in my mind, yes she wasn’t). You think you’re so cool and some heroine, no less than the English ones, Ms. Hollywood!’’. The classes definitely got some generous scores that morning, and the names stuck with us, almost like I was accused by Saurabh to be with her.

The next morning, seeing her struggle park her cycle in the crowded school parking, I offered her to park it at my home. It was just at a 5 minutes’ walk from the school, and had lots of open space. From that day, my mornings became better. I would be on my gates at 6:45 am; she would reach there and park her cycle by 6:50, and we would walk to the school, discussing the upcoming board exams, teachers, future plans after the exams (since we didn’t have the senior secondary in our school) or the latest movies we saw. It became a daily thing, and yet something I would look forward to. She wasn’t the first girl I became friends with, but being with her was different. By the time our first pre-boards arrived, Saurabh had declared that I had a huge crush on her.

What did I do of it? That was not a question or even a thought then. I loved the feeling her company brought, the joy that seeing her in the morning filled me with and the happiness her vivacious voice and the interesting conversations we had gave me. The pages of my diary had become familiar with her name, and by the time we approached the end of the pre-boards (which also meant the end of school) we had to bring our duties as the score keeper of the school discipline to a culmination by announcing the total scores and hence the ranking of classes in discipline

Most of the class was in grounds either playing or watching others’ play. A few lurked in and out around the classrooms in hope of staying unnoticed.

‘’Oh, please, not again. It is just a notebook, how can you lose it every day! Wait, I’ll find it as always’’, she said as we sat together in the class to prepare the final rankings. But after some 15 minutes of searching frantically, we came to the scary conclusion that it was lost for real this time. After a few minutes of blankness when I fully grasped the weight of the situation, the horror stuck me. We had three days before we had to collate the yearly scores and present to the students committee to award (and shame) the classes for their discipline. While I started panicking with the realization of the disaster that seemed inevitable now, she sat silently with a patient and thoughtful face, as if strategizing the way out. Even in that stressful situation, I couldn’t help but notice how her short hair carefully traced the outline of her face and ended in perfect symmetry on both the sides.

‘’So, what do you think we should do now?’’ I moved my gaze quickly to meet her eyesight, and looked for a response.

‘’I…I don’t know, I am confused. Do you think we should go to Sister Irene and tell her? What do you think?’’

‘’Are you mad or what? You are the school president, you are the topper, and I am sure you will be the topper. Do you want to be that President who lost the score-diary? I have my dairy, I am sure we can make something up. Come-on we have three days’’, she said passionately.

‘’We can? I have the conciliated scores till October since we submitted that to the cabinet. We need to retrieve scores for last 2 and half months only. I will just do it right-away. Give me your diary’’.

‘’What’s the rush Mr. Confusion? Let’s do it after school today and tomorrow at your home. We don’t want anyone to get a whiff of what we are doing, or we will be the President and Discipline Captain who forged the score. I anyway have to pick my cycle, I will stay over for some time and we will finish this, what say? ‘’ she said with a smile. My heart just felt much lighter, and I could barely suppress my smile. Suddenly all the stress of the incident vanished and I felt happy that the diary was lost. I couldn’t wait for the evening.

‘’Wow, you really love your movies and your Hrithik Roshan,’’ she said, seeing the million Bollywood posters on my wall. As she sat on the bed in my room in my home, the realization that she was in my home, in my room sunk inside and a further wave of happiness rose inside me.

‘’What else do you like?’’ she asked me.

‘’You’’ I said, only to realize that the voice came only from inside my head. ‘’I love, whatever gives me happiness. Whatever makes me smile, or fills me with a positive and relaxed feeling, or makes me look forward to something, I like all of that,’’ I said, this time to her.

‘’And what are those things, apart from your books and topping in the exams?’’

I was used to being teased for being a book-worm and the typical nerd who topped every exam. But today I felt this strong desire to clarify to her that there was more to me, much more than just those damned textbooks and exams. ‘’Well, watching movies, reading novels especially Harry Potter ones, listening songs, meeting my cousins and spending time with friends,’’ I said, and for some reason felt conscious while saying the last part, hoping she wouldn’t read much into it. ‘’And what about you?’’ I added.

And we spoke about a lot of things – about her, her likes and dislikes, her family, her friends, her favourite TV shows, my friends (‘’Does Saurabh have a problem with me? He acts weird these days’’, she asked), the teachers, the church, the bad condition of roads in Sultanpur, the upcoming board exams and how life would change after it, since our school did not have senior secondary, which meant all of us would move out to same or different places after the board examinations.

The score dairy was almost done. We had taken the scores from her diary, and manipulated numbers to look realistically different, and basis the trends of final scores in mid-year, approximated the numbers. ‘’No one had to know – you are the President,’’ she said, and before my chest could swell of pride, she added, ‘’Correct, Mr. Confusion?’’ and laughed.

Oh, I would miss her, I thought, and wanted to tell this to her.

I mustered up all my courage. ‘’So, you would be moving to Central School from next year?’’

‘’Yes, and you will move to Varanasi’’

‘’ Hey, do you have my mobile number? Please share yours also, I will send you SMS daily. Do reply. I…I will miss talking to you’’. My ears were already red I could feel.

She smiled, and held my hand for a slow shake, ‘’I will miss you too, and we will stay in touch definitely. Don’t change, always remain like this’’

‘’And neither should you, Ms. Hollywood’’.

 

 

 31st December 2012, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

The room was the same – except that years of layers of paints on the walls had removed all traces of all the posters that he used to have; the windows were the same, except that the frames were renewed and felt like a strange new outline to the view outside; the view outside was the same, that of the dishevelled plants and overgrown trees and the road outside with boundary walls of adjacent plots; though the walls were higher now and trees and plants even more distorted and trying to outgrow each other. But he realized instantly, she was sitting in same spot as she had that evening 8 years ago, and he was sure she was thinking the same thing, and perhaps wondering if she should ask or not.

He took the lead. ‘’Well, we couldn’t stay in touch really.’’, he smiled.

She replied, ’’Well, I think we did, didn’t we? I remember your SMS’es – some jokes and that your SMS pack is about to end, and even those websites that you used to send messages.’’

‘’Yeah, but then soon I started using Whatsapp, and I think you used a different number there so most of my messages weren’t delivered. Also, you joined facebook pretty late, right? I searched you there many times, but found only last year.’’ He said.

‘’Oh yes, to be honest I am not much of a social media person. One of the few things I visit all those sites is just to see the posts and pictures of you and some other friends. And truth be told, I have hardly been touch with anyone in this room, except you’’. He didn’t know if that should have made him happy or not, but a very strong desire to know something sprung up inside him, and before he could think of a way to ask her, the group gathered there and decided that everyone would talk about the personal and professional lives of last 8 years, since most of them were meeting for the first time after school.

Arpit started. ‘’Well, I cleared the medical entrance for the Army, and am now posted at the border serving the nation! Becoming a doctor is not easy, the jokes are all correct – we end up studying for most of our lives. No time for love!’’, he laughed. Saurabh added his own. ’’After IIT, I joined Reliance in Mumbai, worked there for 2 years, moved to General Electric in Bangalore. And in all this, I somehow found time to have 2 break-ups. But now I am with someone whom I will spend the rest of my life with,’’ the smile on his face told everyone that it was indeed true.

After a couple of people, she spoke. ‘’I am one of the confused ones! I prepared for medical entrance exams for 2 years but couldn’t crack it like some smart people here, and went ahead to join engineering in biotech in Vellore. Just started my job in Chennai, and yes I have someone special in my life right now, let’s hope it is meant to be forever!’’

He heard it, and for a moment had the feeling that he had when he was rejected in the final interview of his dream company, or when his much planned family trip to Europe was cancelled. It was the feeling of not being shattered, but feeling the pinch of unbecoming of something that he was looking forward to. What exactly was he expecting here, he asked himself, but it was already his turn to speak

‘’I did the most clichéd thing – engineering and then MBA. Despite that, I have always been alone, still looking for the right girl!’’ he heard himself say and immediately wondered – why did he have to say this?  Suddenly he thought of Ayesha, her face and voice, and how his B-school friends would react if they heard him say this. They, who had been accusing him all the time of being obsessed with her since last 6 months, and at the same time encouraging him to tell her how he feels- would most certainly have not appreciated such response from him and would have shot nasty looks at him. And suddenly bringing him out of this reflection was Saurabh’s comment- for which till date he is not sure to be angry at him or thank him.

‘’Well, since we are talking of special someones, Lokesh – I think its high time she and everyone knows about your special feelings for your Discipline captain, isn’t it? Or should I still not talk about it?’’ said Saurabh, with a wicked and full-of-satisfaction smile.

‘’What-the-f***, are you mad? Now don’t create stories, I will kill you for this’’, he could barely mumble over the loud voices of people laughing and giggling.

“Oh, that’s sweet. But guess what, I was crushing on you too, Mr. Confusion’’, said she.

It took him a moment to register if what he heard was not hallucination. Saurabh looked at him with a look that said it was not, and any remaining doubts were removed by the combined whoooo-ooo-ooo from everyone. He felt he would start blushing (Or was he already?), and avoided looking at her directly, but then everyone took over and the next person started talking.

For him, rest of the day was blur, what remained was perhaps only that moment, though neither he nor she bought it up in any further talks.

 

1815 hrs, 14th February 2017, New Delhi

He was about to meet her today after  about 4 years, and yet that moment still remained fresh in his memory. The descending planes had started being visible to some extent, and he was hardly 10 minutes away from meeting her. So, he tried to summarize the multiple thoughts in his mind – So, 12 years ago they both had secret crushes on each other, perhaps a first for both of them; 4 years ago when they met, she was seeing someone, yet admitted in front of everyone about her crush, and he lied about him being forever single to her and everyone; and now that they were meeting again, he was single, and so was she, as she had admitted to him a few days ago on Whatsapp. Wasn’t all this adding upto something which he felt was inevitable and what he maybe always wanted at some level? Her flight ahead was only next morning, which meant she would have to leave just slightly before the sunrise, they had the entire night to themselves and he was sure by that time, he will have all the answers!

..’kuch to hua hai, kuch ho gaya hai, do char din se…’

Well, I will find out – he thought as the cab’s playlist also seemed to be in sync with his mind, or heart, or whatever was it – causing him the anxiousness. He thought of the last image that he remembered of her. Somehow, that meeting 5 years back had not altered or added on much to his memories of her, apart from the mutual admissions of crush, that is. But was that a lack of confidence or the fear of rejection that kept him from perusing her in last 5 years, he was not sure. But if all goes well, before the next sunrise, I will tell her clearly, ask her how she feels and finally start the much awaited chapter of our story, he thought.

Well, there she was, looking her cool self. But maybe a 40 hour flight from New York had some effects as she was far from the radiant self that used to make him conscious while talking to her. The curls of her hair had turned straight and color looked like a confused mix of brown and black. Nonetheless, he felt pleased to see her and smiled as she greeted with a side-hug, and they got into the cab towards his place. The playlist continued.

..’Ek ho gaye hum aur tum, to ud gayi neendein re…’

‘’Oh, not again. This song is everywhere I go. The movie was just about okay, did you like it?’’ he said, feeling suddenly very comfortable.

‘’ No yaar, I hardly get to watch movies there in the states – there is only one multiplex which screens Bollywood movies in my town, and with the hectic schedules I hardly get time. I could have done with one tonight, but I am so jet-lagged that I just want to rest. Hey, thanks a lot for giving me a shelter for the night – I could not imagine spending 9 hours at the airport. ‘’ she said. He felt his anxiousness gradually reducing, though somehow he would have preferred if it stayed.

‘’Not a problem, I am happy that we could meet again. Remember that 2012 mini-reunion? I think I have never seen any last minute plan work this well after that.’’ He said.

‘’Oh yes, how can I forget that. Hey, did you have no idea that I was crushing on you in high school at all? I think I knew you were to some extent’’ She did bring up that. Was she also thinking what he was thinking?

‘’No, I didn’t know. Oh we were total kids, weren’t we?’’ he heard himself say, but a part of him bewildered, why did he have to say that?

..Yoon lagta hai, jab milte ho, ke aaya mausam dosti ka….

‘’Hey, Happy Valentine’s Day’’, he said, and just remembered the flowers that he had got and were pushed behind his back as they sat. He gave her the bouquet along with the Valentine’s Day wish. She thanked him. ’’Oh, what are the odds, today is 14th February and look at you, I ruined any possibility of your date night, didn’t I?’’ she laughed. ‘’Well, you never know!’’, he added. They spent the rest of the time in cab talking about their love lives or the lack of it; laughing at their experiences, teasing at the embarrassments and memories of school. He felt good, and started missing Saurabh, Arpit and some of his other friends. By the time they reached his place, it was already 9 pm – they had already called up both of them and spoken to them, and then made plans for the night – scrolling through school photo albums and stalking everyone they could find on the internet and creating an all-inclusive Whatsapp and Facebook group for their batch of SMC (Stella Maris Convent) and ensuring both of them take the responsibility of being the group admins as seriously as they did that of being the President and Discipline captain!

He will really need to straighten up his talk and tell her or ask her what he wanted to, before the night starts hinting of the sunrise, he thought as that cab took the last turn before reaching the destination. Why was he not feeling even half the anxiety of what he was feeling before he met her? He always thought the anxiety was what stopped him from doing things, but now he realized it was what pushed to go ahead and take chances. The absence of it was certainly not helping. But, he told himself, he will need to do it quickly without thinking now. Or, will he?

As he entered his flat along with her, the realization sunk in – they really were kids back then. Some memories do not only seem more beautiful in memories than if you were to live them again, but also the perception of the feeling from the lens of age and time changes it a lot. He certainly didn’t have to ask her anything.  The sunrise was still at good 7 hours away, but he had got reasons to be happy much before – two good friends meeting after long and reminiscing memories and connecting to other friends was indeed a happy way to walk into the sunrise. They were, and had always been very good friends and there was nothing else which would give him more happiness, at least in this story, his and her story.

‘’Let’s stalk the internet, Ms. Hollywood! We still have close to 6 hours for the sunrise’’

‘’Yayy! What’s the password for the wi-fi’’?

‘’Mmm…let me check, it was lokesh123 or was it lokesh1!’’

‘’Well, you haven’t changed, Mr. Confusion’’ she laughed.

Oh, I have Ms. Hollywood. He thought to himself, smiled, at that little realization about himself.

Banaras

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Pristine as the age-old traditions and contemporary as the new world order – if ever there was a perfect blend of two ends of the spectrum, it is here. Varanasi is, as commonly said – older than history, older than tradition, older than legends and looks twice as old as all of them put together. This being the poetic abstract of the spirit of a culture, an ideology and a set of people bound by it, takes its share of creative liberty, yet isn’t far from truth. A city located in modern times and geography by relativity, yet caught in a time warp of its own, Varanasi, or Banaras as its people call it affectionately – is a beautiful bundle of paradoxes, a curious collection of contradictions and a delicious design of dichotomy – of religion and spirituality, of advances and soul-searches, of faith and rationality, of Gods and humanity. As a result, what transpires is a beautiful bonhomie of various colors of chaos, bound together by as aspiration towards a common purpose – some call it salvation, some moksha, some nirvana, and some simply love.

The holy river defines, guards, purifies and herself becomes the city itself – Ganga is Benaras and Benaras is Ganga. There are many a cities that the mighty river has given birth to, by purifying and fertilizing the soils around it and inviting the native dwellers to reside by its side and develop their settlements, but none of them share a connection deeper than what links the soul of this city to the river. The eighty ghats (places for religious activities along the river side in form of stairs) that form the lifeline of the city may be the only land pieces which actually touch the holy Ganges, but the soul of every resident is drenched by the pious water, and as they reverently call her, Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges) remains the most essential part of the people’s life and practices. The city that is sprawling now beyond its borders and stretching its feet to accommodate the growing influx of people from all over, is also at the same time striving to preserve the richness of its ancient form, and that is something difficult to take away from it. So strong are the footprints of mythology and history of world civilization here, with the ever lasting impressions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam among other faiths, that it is impossible not to feel the presence if you take a casual stroll along one of the lanes in the city. From the tales of Lord Shiva’s and Goddess Parvati’s union to the destruction of the 80 devils or asuras on the ghats; from being Shiva’s favorite place to place where Gautam Buddha first taught the dharma; from witnessing the attacks on its heritage by invaders to preserving the relics of even the faiths that damaged it, along the original symbols of its faith – this city has the tales of past written all over it so clearly that it always has and will keep inspiring the artists to express its story, and often finding their own stories in it, expressing it in most beautiful forms. No wonder then that the city has been the hosts to some of the most revered musicians, writers, dancers and men of spirituality in recent history. A city which inspires others to find themselves however, is not easy to find its own way. Varanasi is not easy – with its small lanes that try to fit the wisdom and history of centuries within them, it is easy to lose your paths here. With a temple on each corner, and lanes and settlements named after Gods, and often vice versa, it is often disorienting to adjust to the places here. With humans, cows and the river cohabiting a limited space, which also is trying to adapt to the progress in the worldly sense, it often screams of a chaos. But what meaning does peace hold without experiencing chaos? Who has even found his way without choosing some wrong paths first? And there was no one who attended salvation before unlearning all that was assumed true. Therein lies the soul of Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi.

Welcome to Varanasi, it is a world where you can lose yourself, physically and metaphorically, to the endless trips of all pleasures of life – sight, food, pleasure, love, lust, pain, injury, salvation and realization, that the answers lie within us. If a city from 11th century B.C. with its 2000 odd temples and the ghats that date to the period as old as humanity can cohabit its relics along with developing its new temples of modern times – of education, entertainment and employment, there is nothing that stops us from being what we want to be, without losing what we are.