Saturday, August 25, 2018

Summer on our Rooftops

(published on the Edit Page of the New Indian Express 24-7-2018)

Rooftops during summers were lively places before the high-rises, air-conditioners, television and, a general sense of insecurity did them in. Lying on the cots, gazing at the stars, deciphering their patterns, wondering what lay beyond, it felt ethereal as the light breeze fanned one to sleep. Though it was all (to borrow from Wordsworth) ‘quiet as a Nun, breathless with adoration’, one was encompassed by sounds – sounds which can be heard only when all is still. The chirping of crickets, a cuckoo calling her mate, the waft of an old film song or the crackle of some transistor tuned to Radio Ceylon or the B.B.C News and, the soft voices of a conversing couple or, someone narrating stories to kids, slowly faded away, as the gentle summer breeze, with a whiff of the sweet mild smell of a mango tree in bloom, lulled all to sleep.

Preparations for the nightly slumber began when the Sun went down after its harsh day’s labour. The rooftop floor was drenched with water to cool it down. The  string cots would then be brought out in the open from the shade and, bed sheets  spread on them early enough to make them cool by the time one would lie on them after a couple of hours or so.

As evening set in, the rooftops became a frenzy of activity. The young rendered the evening sky a riot of colours as their kites swirled with excitement or swam with elegance. Released from their day-long confinement, the kids hit the outdoors with a vengeance. Hide and Seek, Vish-Amrit, Chor-Sipahi, Chibbadi or Hopscotch were some of those games for which terraces were ideally suited.

Mango pickles owed themselves to sunny terraces. Whether it were their marinating with salt and turmeric at the beginning, or seasoning them with spices and mustard oil before they finally got ready to eat and also store for a long period, they had to be laid down in the summer Sun.

Those were times of early to bed and early to rise. Fracas and farce, euphemistically called the T.V. News hadn’t taken our fancy then. Families conversed and kids had stories to hear as they went to sleep. Twitter of birds, mooing of a cow somewhere, and the morning Sun’s soft rays woke them up. Our towns hadn’t turned into megalopolises and, the houses did not resemble cells of a honeycomb. Yes, it’s so different today. Closeted with four walls all the day long, we have to wrench ourselves from the communication gadgets to go to sleep amidst the monotonous whirr of the air-conditioners. The word ‘complex’ in the compound word ‘residential complex’ seems so apt. In this context, two great thinkers- Ruskin and Tagore- come to mind. While Ruskin believed that our architecture is an expression of our life and character, Tagore abhorred walls. He wrote- ‘…walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another…. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition’.

Some decades back, the roofs of the houses were lively, open and, welcoming as the then life, unlike today, when huge water tanks and dish T.V. antennas are their only adornments. Hasn’t similarly, our then openness and genuine warmth seems to have been replaced by canned emotions and digital expressions?



Monday, February 26, 2018

Musings of a newspaper addict/ The thrill of the morning

Musings of a newspaper addict
published in The Hindu - 08/10/17

How I wait to hear the ‘thud’ of the rolled bundle falling on my terrace! A few minutes late and there I am - perched on the railing, waiting eagerly to catch a glimpse of his cycle turning the corner towards my house. It sure looks fantastic. With a large bundle tied on their handles and carriers laden with another, the bicycles swim in my lane.  The satchel on their handle bars holds some more- the rolled ones. The practiced fingers nimbly pick the exact newspaper from the bundles or the satchel, depending on whether they are to be delivered to a ground floor verandah or, to an upper floor terrace and, the dexterous arm akin to an Olympian javelin thrower sends it to the desired place. All in one seamless action!
I am a confirmed newspaper addict.  Without it the morning seems bland,  the  morning- tea insipid, and, the day morose. They may have been the mornings of  a remote town, Sakti in Chhatisgarh, or a non-descript railway station where my train happened to stop during some journey , the Heathrow airport where the flight to USA took a break , or the cities in USA where I have had  short sojourns, I have gone all out in search for a newspaper. Yes, the printed version- which one can feel and smell and can hold in one’s hands. Having had one, I flip and cursorily make a mental note of the choicest and juiciest topics, and then lay it down on the lap to savour it, to chew and digest it in the celebrated words of Bacon. I even deliberately leave some of the articles unread for the next day, if  the newspaper is not to be available that day on account of  a press holiday.  I cannot let my morning tea be tasteless !
It wasn’t so in the beginning. Those were the days when we children were asked to read newspapers to improve both our language and knowledge, and it was a reluctant compliance of course. The comic strip, the sports page and, the weekly Children’s page were the initial hook-ups. The graduation to the editorial and op-ed pages took some years and the preparation for the civil services exam made it staple. The newspapers then catered to all age groups. They were meant to be read not to be merely seen as some of them now. Page three was just another page in a daily, which usually carried local news. It wasn’t an adjective then. While our teachers and parents insisted that we read the newspapers, I dread asking my kids to do that. Not only have all the well-known newspapers stopped having an exclusive kid’s space on their sheets, some of them have also gone ahead for a blatant display of patent adult stuff on them in the name of life style articles.
 ‘But why is mine so late today?’, I grumble , careening myself as if I would be able to see beyond the road-bend. Well may be some newspaper might have reached the distribution centre late or may be his cycle-tyre got punctured.  I suddenly realize that he must have left his home at the crack of dawn to be there at the newspaper sorting center. The foggiest morning of a crippling winter or,  a monsoonal one, raining hailstones makes no difference to his schedule. So, while we in our blankets, lie warmly ensconced in dreams, he is out there loading grim realities on his handle bar. He cycles dripping wet to get our newspaper dry and crisp as a papadum. I realize that this drudgery is to supplement his paltry income from some low-paid job the rest of the day.
I espy my paper-wala shooting newspaper missiles, bang on targets, of specific balconies and porches, as he speedily cycles towards my house. My reverie breaks. I move a bit back from my perch, take a stance à la Jonty Rhodes and focus my attention to catch the roll of newspapers hurled from below.

                                                        Skand Shukla