Monday, December 06, 2004


Sometime last week, I found myself alone with 2 of my cousins that I hadn’t seen in almost 5 years. I had no choice but to start speaking about Harry Potter – the ultimate ice breaker with kids and certain adults these days. Needless to say, whatever ice was there vapourized in an instant and we felt much warmer in its wake.

That’s when I might have made a little mistake. I asked them to name the one character they identified most with. One smartass cousin chose Hermione, and the other smartass cousin chose Ron. It seemed to me that they gave me a chance to choose Harry because I was the older one and therefore, the chosen one. I promptly said “the boggart” and found them looking at me strangely. The older boy was a little more tactful at hiding his surprise, but my younger cousin could hardly contain herself. She asked me just as tactlessly, “you do know what a Boggart is, right ? Its not Hagrid”. I could do nothing but smile back and insist that I knew what a boggart was, and it really was the one character that I was most like. “The boggart’s scary”, she said. It wasn’t until then that I realized why she thought my choice was odd.

Assuring her that I wasn’t a scary person would have done little to persuade her otherwise. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure if I were indeed a completely non-scary person and as the older one I had a moral responsibility to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. Somehow, I managed to wheedle out of the precarious position I had landed myself in, and we were back to showing off to each other how many spells we knew, how many theories we could come up with and so on. But I was adamant about my choice of the boggart.

I have a dozen identities that I can pull on myself with ease. They are mainly masks meant to hide rather than faces that reveal. It isn’t as though I have a deadly secret that I plan to carry with me to the grave. It isn’t even as though I’m given to doing juvenile things that I’d rather keep to myself, groping for respect. Its just one of those things that I naturally do and almost invariably realize it when it’s too late. Who’s to decide that it’s late is an irrelevant question. Whatever argument is thrown at me, whatever reason is lucidly put forth, there are matters of the gut that tell me it’s too late and that’s it. I asked myself what it was that I was trying to so hard to keep within me, and yet struggling so hard to unleash. If it’s so deep within me that I can barely reach it, or even identify it, it must be something futile.

My mom once told me that it’s one of those habits that people pick up for no reason and find even more trying to give up because of lack of reason. I’m reminded of the tone in which it was said, and am inclined to disregard what she said. There had to be a reason – perhaps vulnerability. If there were a million masks one would have to remove before they can finally wreak havoc on me, I’m hoping that I’m not that important a cause. Then again, it’s this large sense of “self”, a world that’s predominantly occupied by myself alone that I believe that people even care about unearthing anything from me. I can honestly say that they’ll find nothing in those deep dark crevices within me – nothing that they’ll need.

I look within myself fervently these days to find something that’s actually worth guarding, and I’m almost dismayed when I find nothing. I could turn a little optimistic and say that every tear has dried, every scar has disappeared, every pain has stopped, and there isn’t even the fear of numbness. That would just be going back to sitting atop a high pedestal, looking down and fearing the height. There has never been a large number of tears, or scars that were conspicuous even to me, or pain that’s been unbearable.

I remain though, a boggart that creates a new face for itself depending on its surroundings. Its not a reflection of the environment as much as it’s a varying reaction to even static environments. Like the boggart, I too get startled by large crowds of people consisting of people I know, because eerily they become strangers due to an internal conflict that arises about which identity to adopt.

Regardless of whether I like being a boggart or not, its become part of me. The tendency to sprout a new face on seeing a new face is deeply etched.. The spell JK Rowling uses to ward off Boggarts has the encantation “ridikkulus”. It truly is utterly ridiculous sometimes if there’s a thousand masks that mask nothing. Perhaps I am beyond redemption. Underneath all of this though, is the comforting thought that if ever I need to hide something, I perhaps wouldn’t know where to hide, because there’s so little I know about myself and I make dumb assumptions that every cavity within me is filled to the brim with important nonsense, but on having found the place, I will surely know how to keep it there.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Oh Auntie

Two things drew me to her. One was her long shiny hair, fit to be in any shampoo ad, except that it was white ( not gray). Another was the fact that she spoke English. All at once she broke two of my prejudices- that all old people need not tie their hair in a bun, that people above 60 could speak more than a few words in English.

I remember the first time I met her. I was in the backyard, with an intense curiosity about everything in the world, with a need to experiment. She saw it differently. She called out from her backyard that was behind mine and told me that it was wrong to break leaves, regardless of the reason. I could manage only “sorry Auntie”. Aunties spoke English. Grannies spoke tamil. That was my logic. She asked me my name, and reminded me about its meaning, and somehow related it to the leaf that I was breaking. I wanted to ask her if she knew stories that she could tell me. Whatever my intense curiosity for the world was, it wasn’t as much as my craving to tell my classmate a story they hadn’t already heard.

Almost immediately I became her friend. When I’d come back from school, I’d leave the backdoor wide open, with an immense faith in all of humanity- especially in the lack of thieves. My mother called it irresponsibility. We’d sit in a little cement platform that covered the sump from which the back door of my house could be seen. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that Auntie did that so she could keep watch at my house, without spoiling my innocence, without instilling me a sense of fear – I would get it eventually anyway.

Soon, I found myself telling her my deepest, darkest secrets. For an 8 year old, my deepest secret was to be A’s best friend and my darkest secret was a hatred for B with whom A was best friends with. I’ve always felt that my mom never read enough child care books. Any complaint I had would be brushed off with a “it happens”, or a “ be friends with C”. My dad came home at 11 or later, and could never quite understand the best friend pledges. Looking back, I think they handled me well. It helped quell my obsession for a best friend. Eventually, almost magically, I did become best friends with A, B and C. For an 8 year old though, all I needed was someone to tell me that I was better suited for B than A, and that C didn’t deserve me. Auntie never did that, but she nodded her head as I recited every opinion animatedly. She would smile at the way I moved my hands. I’d take it to mean that she agreed with me and it was a perfect arrangement.

Her husband had been a high commissioner with the Indian embassy. He’d been all over the world and so had she. I saw photos of her standing next to Nehru, next to Rajaji and a lot more people who in my mind were as fictional as Darrell or the O Sullivan twins from Enid Blyton. My respect for her was ever increasing and so was my awe at how big the world really was, or rather how small it was that I knew someone who knew Nehru. She spoke of cocktail parties and ballroom dancing and dips for chips. She would speak about compassion, about faith, about honesty which was just as interesting as everything else.

I remember when she spoke about dreams. She said that when the eyelids act as a projection for dreams. My obsession with dreams, with building castles in the air or indeed everywhere started then. Somehow if there was a theater somewhere in my head just so I could see things at night, they had to be important. Getting my wishes to be projected on that screen was therefore as real as making them come true itself. Often, when I tell people this conclusion, I get a laugh. Sometimes it’s a reaffirmation of their belief that I’m a slightly wrongly wired person. I feel that all the time. But while most of my friends were vying for A’s attention I was planning bigger things in a childish fashion, and that made the absence of A a lot more bearable initially, and later not even missed.

Haven of peace was what she called her home. That was what it was. Spick and span, tidy, everything had its place, and everything was always in its place. The sink would never have unwashed utensils in it. There would never be a bucket with clothes waiting to be dried. It wasn’t a castle that was elaborate with decorated with gorgeous silk. I didn’t feel lost like I would in a castle that was grand and disorienting. There was a little swing that fit me in the hall. Everytime I went there, I’d sit on it for 5 minutes, singing loudly, listening to my voice, listening to my echoes. When I got much older, she took me upstairs where there was a room that had wooden swings- two small ones and one big one. Adjacent to it were many trunks full of books. I never got to reading all of them, but by that time I knew what “haven of peace” meant.

She had two children. They were almost as old as my parents. One of them, I was told got lost in an avalanche in the Himalayas. The other was in the US. The relationship we had was perhaps symbiotic. I filled a void of a missing daughter, of loneliness that she felt without her children and I felt without siblings. It was the first time I saw in a person unshakeable belief. When she told me about her daughter, I blurted out, insensitively “ is she dead ?”. I got a calm reply, “she’s not. She’s there somewhere. Perhaps she’ll still come back. Perhaps she won’t. She’s somewhere though”. Her faith in God was equally unshakeable. With my parents maintaining a strong silence about God, limiting themselves to the prayer said during festivals, with my dad telling me that the diya lit in the pooja room was simply saying thanks to the energy of life. It was unnerving when she’d recite Sanskrit slokas and try and to explain its meaning. She told me to choose an idol, merely as a symbol of faith, or belief that my dreams will come true and left it at that.

Some of her stories were imagination. I gobbled them all up, the line between reality and imagination always receding. If Nehru was real, so was the incident about the shadow of a man standing atop Eiffel tower, seen in the sky. Later, I’ve had to sort it all out in my head, with some difficulty, but with a love for all things magical. We shared a kitten. A beautiful cat named Leoni. She gave him solid food. I gave him milk and a place to come sharpen his claws in. It deepened the bond that we had. So much so that I became a proud owner of a new best friend.

She’d write a series called “Oh Auntie”, based on our talks. I’d read them every evening with a sense of pride that I was being mentioned on paper, with fascination that I was capable of saying so much, and sometimes taking home the subtle hint that would be left there to show me that I was wrong. For a very long while, she was a big part of my life. The major part of my evenings would be spent with her on that cement platform, with her stroking my hair and telling me that I had wonderfully large eyes. “You’ll have trouble lying with such expressive eyes”, she said. I do. Not because of large eyes, because she grilled in me, the importance of honesty. When I was much larger, she said “ you’d have trouble eloping. I don’t think you can keep love a secret”. I think I blushed, because the entry in the “Oh Auntie” series said I did.

When her husband died, she began maintaining a distance from everyone. I had been gone for almost a year, and when I came back, I saw an Auntie who was looking dejected and despondent. My parents told me to leave her alone, and I did. The last time I saw her, she wished me all the happiness in my life and I felt a sense of finality in that statement. It was one of the few times I came into the house from the foreign front door, instead of the familiar fence in her backyard. I held her hands tightly, hiding my tears. She looked at me “ you still have trouble lying, I see”. I didn’t know what to say. She seemed to know and bid goodbye. With almost a bollywood style, I turned back and told her that A, B, C and she were my best friends. It was time to leave her – forever.

But there are memories of her that I continue to savour, an obsession for dreams that I continue to cherish as well as an obsession to keep the child within me alive. Everytime I pass by the now reconstructed house, I look at the window on the right side and imagine the swings, and the number of days I spent there with the creak of the swings as solace. Everytime I pass by that house, I get transported to a haven of peace, and I am determined to be there for longer and longer.