Friday, March 21, 2014

Lady in Black - Finale

Read Part 1 Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 if you haven't already!

The house was submerged in a stillness it had never known before. Ramesh and Komal kept exchanging nervous glances each time Sonia was around… Sonia, she had changed. She looked empty all the time, empty of feelings and emotions, empty of tears and hunger. All she did was lock herself up in her room all day.

They were worried no doubt. But their seemingly modern mind held them back from calling in a doctor. They felt it was just some strain Sonia had which was causing these reactions. After much consideration, they decided to give it some more time before they looked out for external help. Maybe things would sort out and Sonia would get out of it. All she needed was some time… They tried to convince and console themselves, but somewhere Ramesh knew this wasn't over yet.

It had been a quiet week thus far, Komal had worked from home to keep an eye on Sonia but she had to leave for Mumbai that weekend. Sonia’s break was also coming to an end.

Saturday rose bright and sunny. Not able to stay at home all day anymore, Ramesh and Komal had to step out to get unattended chores done. Skeptical about leaving Sonia alone, Ramesh asked the domestic help to stay over until they returned.

The morning was passing by peacefully, thought Ramesh. He was glad he was being proven wrong; things were indeed inching back to normal. Happy and satisfied he decided to do a takeaway from Dominos, the veggie deluxe pizza – Sonia’s favourite. He placed the order and just as he was paying the bill, his phone rang. Recognizing the home number, his heart skipped a beat as he picked up the call.

Before he could speak, their maid burst into tears on the phone. “Anna, please come home, Kutti Ma will kill me, please Anna, please come home” she screamed between sobs. Dropping everything Ramesh rushed out of the store, ignoring the shouts he heard from behind asking him to pay.

Komal was waiting in the car when she saw Ramesh run towards her. The expression on his face told her that something had happened back home. Without uttering a word Ramesh got into the car and sped towards their house.

Within ten minutes they were home. As they parked the car, they could hear a scream and a loud voice boom through the house. Both rushed towards the main door, quickly unlocked it and dashed inside. The scene that met their eyes in the kitchen was ghastly to say the least. Their domestic help was crouching on the floor with scratches over her face and a deep gash on her hand bleeding profusely. Sonia stood trembling in a corner with a kitchen knife in her hand, staring with a murderous look at the help and yelling “I will not take it anymore Durga; you have to go… you have to go!”

Ramesh quickly ran towards Sonia and gently took the knife out of her hand and held her tight, patting her head and quieting her down. Komal had rushed to the maid and was now attending to her gash. Fortunately the cut wasn't deep enough to require medical attention. It would heal in a matter of days. It was however quite a price to pay for wearing a black sari.

After much consoling, both the maid and Sonia had quietened down. Ramesh dropped the maid home, requesting her to keep mum about the incident while Komal put Sonia to bed.

Ramesh returned to find Komal sitting at the dining table, ready with two mugs of steaming hot coffee. She had cleared the mess in the kitchen while he was gone. Sitting down, he took a few sips as they sat in silence, both lost in their own thoughts.

“Ramesh, I think it’s time we took Sonia to see a doctor” Her voice quivered as she spoke, at the same time she sounded convinced of what she was saying.

He took a long pause while he gave it a thought. Frankly there was not much to think about. Komal was right. The matter had gone out of their hands. It probably had weeks ago.

“I’ll talk to Subbu and get a reference, he would know someone” Saying that he picked up his cell phone and made the call. An hour after his call, the doorbell rang. Dr. Rajashekhar and Mr. Subramanian stood at the door. As promised they were there within the hour.

Hurriedly he exchanged hellos and guided Dr. Rajashekhar to Sonia’s room. He had already spent a good half hour with her, explaining to her the need to see the doctor. She had seemed to understand, her lowered head and stooped shoulders told him that she had resigned to her fate.

Komal and Ramesh had been pacing the corridor outside, waiting. It was over an hour since Dr. Rajashekhar had gone into the room. Mr. Subramanian had already left. They looked at the clock and began debating whether they should knock on the door just when they heard it click open. Without saying a word Dr. Rajashekhar stepped out, motioning them to be quiet and asked them to follow him into the living room. Once seated, he turned to them and said “I have sedated her for now; she will sleep peacefully through the night and hopefully will not remember much of what transpired today but…” He looked at both parents, focusing on one and then the other. He could see the genuine love for Sonia in their eyes.
“But what Doctor? Will she be fine? What is wrong with her?” asked a worried Ramesh.
“There is nothing worrying about her medical condition. I suppose the legend had a deep impact on her and that led her to imagine the Lady in Black everywhere around, made her forget her own parents and make an attempt on the maid’s life. The only problem with her is that she is quite disturbed.”
“Having said that” he continued “I think it would help her a lot if she were to be away from this house for a bit. It will help take her mind off the painting and resume a normal life. How you plan on doing that is entirely up to you.” With that, he explained the medication schedule to them and let himself out of the house.
“What do we do now?” Wondered Komal. “We have just moved here, finding a place now will take time. But what about Sonia? How do we help her?”
“Relax; let me give this a thought. We’ll have it all sorted out by morning. Let’s just be glad that she is fine, there is nothing adversely wrong with our baby” Ramesh gave Komal a hug and retired to the library. The place where he could put his mind to rest and think. 

Ramesh had confined himself to the library for most of the night, calling it a day only at dawn. When he got to their bedroom he noticed Komal was not around. Instinctively he peeped into Sonia’s room and found both mother and daughter sleeping in each other’s arms.

Saturday finally passed by and Sunday rose. It was a late morning for all three. Sonia had decided to stay in bed, while Komal fixed some breakfast for all of them.
“I think I have a solution to this” Ramesh spoke hesitantly, knowing there was no right or wrong time to have this discussion which had been on top of their minds all night. When Komal did not reply he continued.“How about enrolling Sonia in a boarding school? It is just 3 months into the new academic year, I am sure we will find a good school not too far from here. I hear they have a prestigious school in Ooty, I can try and get hold of some contacts there. She could come home during the holidays but it will give her the space she needs. Right now it would take a toll on your health if we make a move again so once our baby arrives; we can look for a new place. What do you think?” He slowly looked up; not knowing what Komal’s reaction would be on this suggestion.

She was twitching her brow, Ramesh knew that meant she was giving his idea a thought. They had their breakfast silently, and only when they cleared the table did she speak. “I really don’t like the idea of keeping Sonia away from us, isn’t that why we hesitated to go to a doctor in the first place?” she asked dolefully. He fully understood her plight but he knew this was the right way ahead.
“Think about the new baby? Would you want to continue like this and have a dysfunctional family? Is that what you want?” he asked her gently.

Komal winced when he mentioned the word dysfunctional. No, that was not what she wanted. Never. She turned to him with tears brimming in her eyes and said “I guess you are right, this is probably the right way ahead…. But let’s speak to Sonia together about it. Okay?”

As he got up to make a few calls and get in touch with Mr. Subramanian, Komal reached out and held his hand. “Thanks for everything Ramesh. You have been a wonderful husband but an even better father. That too to a daughter who is not yours.” She held him tight and sobbed uncontrollably

* * *

Six months had gone by. Sonia was well settled in Ooty and there had been no complaints about her from the school. In fact she had begun to flourish and had made new friends as well. There had been no untoward incidents after that stormy Saturday. They had found a new maid who would also double up as a Nanny once the baby arrived.

Komal had given birth to a bonny baby girl and they were coming home from the hospital. The baby had already swept Ramesh off his feet and had him wrapped around her little finger. Ramesh had given the maid the day off, he wanted to decorate the house on his own, without any help. Decorate the house to welcome his wife and the baby. Their baby.

He wanted to do everything. Put up the balloon and the streamers. Light the “Welcome Home” cake that he had specially ordered for the occasion. But before all of that he had an important task to do.

He picked up his tool kit and walked up to the landing. Very cleverly he unhinged the painting from the wall and took it down. The painting that wouldn't budge was brought down in minutes. “You have been such a darling, had it not been for you, I wouldn't have achieved my dream today. My dream of having my family to myself – without any outsiders”. He lovingly ran his hand over the Lady in Black and carefully placed her in a bag.

Legend indeed, he thought as he fixed himself a cup of coffee and relaxed in his armchair. He had the 'Legend' planned right from the day he had first visited Chennai after his promotion. Just a few days before he had got the news that they were expecting. Finally, he had thought. Finally he would have his own child. Finally he could put an end to the facade he had built all these years calling Komal’s child from her first marriage his own. The only reason he had done so was because they had never managed to conceive. And when they did, he no longer wanted Sonia in his life. In their life. He had to find a way to keep her out, at least at a distance so that she would not be a part of their immediate world. But the problem was Komal, she loved her daughter to pieces and would never agree to part with her. He had to come up with a plan such that Komal would be forced to keep her away without having any reason to have a fallout with him.

He remembered that day when he had decided to go house hunting in Chennai while Komal and Sonia were still in Mumbai winding up the house. He had thought he would do a preliminary check and shortlist a few houses. But when he came across this bungalow where the previous owners had left behind a painting, his mind worked overtime and he conjured this plan. That the house matched Komal’s idea of a dream home was an added bonus.

He hired a group of struggling actors to make the whole drama appear as real as possible. Lalitha, Subbu, the maid from the 'maid agency' and the domestic help… all did a fantastic job, he thought proudly. He had known earlier that the neighbours in that area were not comfortable with non-Tamilians entering their neighbourhood, he had used their hostility to add to the story. Always making it a point to be the one reaching out to the neighbours and local vendors for anything they needed. He knew that convincing Komal that the painting couldn't be moved, would be an easy task. She placed blind faith in him and her trips to Mumbai had her busy all the time. She wouldn't pay much attention to it.

Once Subbu had planted the legend in Sonia’s mind, he got Lalitha to drape herself in a black Sari and sashay around Sonia first near the kitchen back door, then in the garden. Lalitha even went to the extent of climbing the mogra tree next to Sonia’s window. When Sonia only seemed shaken by the sighting, he himself slashed all the photographs on the wall; he knew that would spook her out a bit. He had marveled at the unexpected bonus his plan got when Komal had worn a black suit; she had unknowingly batted for him so well. He always took care to ensure he never went beyond a certain degree; all he wanted to do was scare her till she was visibly disturbed. The final act was the maid draping herself in a black sari that fateful Saturday. Before they returned home, she had done a god job with marking the bruises and cuts but gone overboard with the gash. He knew she would charge him more for that extra drama. She had then got Sonia cornered in the Kitchen.

Oh it had been a fool-proof plan indeed. The finale had Dr. Rajashekar, another actor step in and give his 'medical advice'. That was enough. He had both Mother and Daughter fall for it and he knew he could now send Sonia away. He had already spoken to the boarding school and worked out a seat for her. So getting her to move there had been a piece of cake. After that, Komal had been so busy with her pregnancy that she did not notice that Mr. Subramanian never visited them again.

He would have to deal with Sonia’s visits during the holidays but he could figure something out when he had to cross that bridge, he thought angrily. Ramesh had never taken a liking for Sonia but he had always been good at putting on the act of a loving father. The same good father who wanted the best for his elder daughter! He thought, a wicked laugh escaping him.

If Komal noticed the absence of the painting, he would make up an excuse about how he got some henchmen to take the painting down while she was at the hospital and they would both crib a bit about how Mr. Subramanian’s paranoia had affected Sonia. She probably would suggest bringing Sonia back home, but he could handle that. Getting Sonia out was the only bottleneck he had ever had. He would think of ways to keep her away.

The doorbell rang and he pushed all thoughts out of his mind. His family had finally come home. He rushed out to open the door, tearing up and crumbling each piece of the Lady in Black and dumping her in the dustbin. Her purpose had been served.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lady in Black - Part 4


Read Part 1 Part 2 and Part 3 if you haven't already!

It was a week since Mr. Subramanian had come home for dinner but it seemed just like yesterday to Sonia. The story from that evening was still fresh in her mind. Could it be possible that it was Durga she had seen that day in the kitchen? What did that mean? Was there a ghost living in the house? She shook her head with vehement conviction, no there was no such thing. Each time she crossed the landing, she felt uneasy, as if Durga had her eyes on her all the time. She got back to her homework but that nagging thought though pushed away was still there, very much there. While Ramesh and Komal had laughed off the legend, Sonia had not.

She was not herself anymore. Her absent mindedness had shot up and her interest in school down. She was forgetting little things like combing her hair, ironing her uniform, even washing her plate; things that were very basic and ones that she was habituated with. Both Komal and Ramesh had noticed the sudden quiet and the preoccupation Sonia seemed to have with the painting. They did their best to make her feel better but were never sure if they had succeeded. They firmly believed that things would fall into place and decided to let her be.

And things did seem to become normal in due time. Komal’s travel had increased as she was due for her leave in a couple of months. She was spending all her time in Mumbai now, leaving the house pretty much in the care of the domestic help. Sonia’s midterm exams were on in full swing and she was busy preparing for her papers, the painting had taken a back seat.

“Finally, that shadow Subbu cast, seems to have receded” thought Ramesh, as he saw Sonia bounce happily down the cobbled path on the last day of her exams.

After dinner that night, Ramesh retired to the library while Sonia headed back to her room. Just as Ramesh had settled into his armchair and begun leafing through his book he heard a blood curdling scream echo through the whole house.

Instinctively he ran towards the kitchen but it was empty. Turning back, he ran up the stairs, taking two at a time to make up for the time he had already lost. Panting heavily, he banged on Sonia’s bedroom door, almost toppling over through the unlocked door. Sonia was crouching in the corner of the room, terror written all over her face. She was shaken beyond measure and kept mumbling “Durga is here, Durga is here” with a trembling finger pointed in the opposite direction. Looking in the direction she pointed in, Ramesh saw the window wide open and the winds crashing against the pane causing a loud banging sound. He ran across to Sonia and reached out to comfort her but she shrank back screaming even louder “No! Don’t touch me Durga, I know you want to kill me, don’t touch me!” Then she fainted. Ramesh picked her up and settled her on the bed; next he closed the banging window and sung a lullaby to make her fall asleep. There was just one thought on his mind, she had failed to recognize him.

The night never seemed to end. After what seemed like eternity, the sun finally decided to make its presence felt. The darkness faded away but did not take with it the gloom that had set in the previous night. It was a Sunday, the maid’s day off. Komal had to stay back in Mumbai that weekend to get as much work done as possible. Ramesh wondered if he should call her and tell about the previous night’s episode but then he decided against it. Komal had enough to keep her occupied and worrying her about this would affect her health and the baby’s as well. No, this was best kept away from her. A sudden noise behind, shook him out of his thoughts; he turned around to see Sonia standing at the kitchen door. Before he could say anything, she took off “Daddy, Good Morning! What do we have for breakfast?” Did she remember the incident? Wondered Ramesh, but decided to shelve the discussion for now. At least till breakfast was done.
After a sumptuous breakfast of bread and eggs, he turned towards Sonia and asked her gingerly “Princess, did you sleep well?”
“Oh yes, I guess it was the relief of the exams ending that made me sleep like a log” she said, beaming at her father. It was as if nothing had happened.

From then on, Ramesh decided to keep an eye on Sonia whenever he was home. That day she wandered about, reading her books and talking to her friends on the phone. It was as if things were back to normal. But he knew they were far from it when he heard the second scream within twenty four hours. This time it was coming from the kitchen, he was sure.

Sonia was still screaming when he sprinted across and took her into his arms. “I saw her again Daddy, she was there in the garden, I saw her reflection in the pond!” she yelled. “She wants to kill me, doesn’t she? Why does she keep coming back?” He did his best to console and tell her that she had imagined it, but this time it took much longer to convince her. After an hour of cajoling and a hot mug of chocolate, her nerves finally seemed to calm down.

“You must be right dad, I must have imagined it” she said as she headed to her room. She did not come back down for the rest of the day.
* * *

Ramesh decided to work from home for a few days, at least till Komal got back the following Friday. He wasn't sure why Sonia was behaving so differently, so weird. But he did know that she couldn't be left alone. He wondered if he should contact a doctor, but then he decided to wait it out and see if the incidents would subside on their own. Despite their contemporary mindset, visiting a 'Shrink' was not an idea he could get used to.  

Sonia seemed to have quietened down. She remained flustered and on the edge all the time but nevertheless quiet. Her friends kept calling her out, to spend their break having fun but she showed no inclination to go. He worried about her but decided to give her the space she seemed to be silently begging for at the moment.

An uneventful day passed by. With the recent happenings, a day such as this was a dream come true. The thought that things were stumbling back to normal made way into Ramesh’s mind, but then each time he had felt some normalcy, something had happened. Maybe, this time things would be different he thought, walking up the stairs. Lost as he was deep in his thoughts, he did not notice Sonia standing on the landing staring at the wall. Only when he rammed into her did he realize that she had been standing there, stoic in her silence. She didn’t seem to have noticed him.

“She must be looking at that painting!” thought Ramesh, turning towards her, only she wasn’t looking at the painting, she was looking around it, once again the same look of terror plastered all over her face. He looked at the wall and realized what had affected Sonia to this extent. He gulped as he saw all family photos slashed through and the frames cracked all over. All the photos on the wall were beyond repair but the Lady in Black. She was intact, just as she had always been.

Ramesh was shocked. He had no idea how to deal with this situation anymore. He looked over to his daughter feeling numb, probably as much as her. Slowly she turned towards him with a distant look in her eyes and said “Daddy, you are right it is probably nothing” and walked up to her room, locking it behind her. Within minutes he heard that terrifying scream all over again. This time he did not move.

He would have remained rooted to the same spot all night long if the doorbell had not rung, breaking the eerie silence with its shrilling sound. After a long pause, he slowly walked towards the door, opening it to find Komal waiting outside, looking very happy to be home.

Ramesh relaxed on seeing his wife after so long. He quickly engulfed her in a hug and let out a sigh of relief.  “Is everything ok Darling?” As always Komal had sensed the tension running through his body. For a moment he hesitated, wondering whether he should tell her all that had happened. But then he decided to wait, she had just come in after a long week; she and the baby needed their rest. “Nothing dear, it’s just good to see you back” he said, hoping she wouldn't probe any further.

“Hmmm, I suppose Sonia is asleep, let me not wake her up now.” She tried to stifle a yawn. Ramesh jumped at the opportunity. “I think you better freshen up and sleep, you need the rest” Nodding, Komal went up to their bedroom, not noticing the slashed photos on the landing.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Ramesh carefully brought down all the frames from the wall. He retired to the library, trying to figure out what was going wrong, who could have done such damage? Would Sonia be fine? Why was she hallucinating so much? Or was it for real? Hundreds of questions attacked his mind, making him restless. It was only in the wee hours of the morning that he finally fell into a disturbed sleep, right there on his armchair.

Komal found Ramesh in the library, slumped in his chair, fast asleep. She had sensed that something was wrong the moment she had come home but had let it drop for the night. Sonia hadn’t stepped out of her room either. It was so unlike her not to greet her mum when she returned from her trips, especially a long one. Something was definitely wrong. She made two mugs of strong coffee and placed them on the table, seating herself opposite Ramesh. She knew he would stir within seconds; the aroma of hot coffee always woke him up. She was not wrong. In no time, Ramesh began to stir; he opened his eyes and looked up.

“A coffee, first thing in the morning! Komal you are such a…” He saw the nothing-you-say-will-work look and knew that he couldn’t get away from the conversation anymore. He had to face it.
“What’s going on Ramesh? Don’t tell me everything is fine, something has happened while I was not here, something that has shaken you up completely. Has Sonia acted weird again, the way she did that first week?” The perplexed look on her face told him that it made no sense to hide things from her anymore. She would stress over it and given her condition, that wouldn't help either.

He took a deep sip of the coffee and began the tale. He told her how he had noticed the change in Sonia ever since Mr. Subramanian’s visit. He told her about the visions Sonia had had in the previous week. He left out the photos part, lest it scared Komal. She didn't need any of that in her delicate state. He could always tell her that he had taken them off to get them dusted or something on those lines.
“So that’s what it is. I don’t know how to deal with it. Should we just let her be, or take her to a doctor or just talk to her… I really don’t know what to do”

Komal cringed as she watched her husband look helpless and lost. She had never seen him in such a dire state before. She had always known that Sonia was a sensitive girl, but this time things seemed to be getting out of hand.
“Let’s give it some time, I’ll try talking to her, in fact let me do it right away” Saying that she walked out of the library before Ramesh could stop her. Visiting the 'Shrink' was still not a conversation they were willing to have.

Komal knocked a couple of times on Sonia’s bedroom door, after a few minutes she heard the lock click open. Quietly she entered the room and saw Sonia sitting in the corner, crouched on the floor. Her hair was all tangled and eyes blood red. She seemed to have cried all night. Not letting her shocked feeling show on her face, Komal sat beside her daughter and held her hand. After a few minutes she started talking to her in a gentle manner, telling her that there was nobody other than them around. The Lady in Black was nothing but a folk tale, one that had no meaning in real life. She looked at Sonia for some response but there was none. At least she seemed to be listening to her, thought Komal. That was a good sign.

She let a few minutes go by before she got up and said “Everything will be fine, you are a smart girl, and you know all this is just a figment of your imagination. Now, freshen up and come down for breakfast, I’ll make your favourite Aloo Parantha “ She saw Sonia slowly nod her head, satisfied with herself, she turned towards the door but stopped when she heard a sound from behind.

“Durga, why did you wear a black suit today?” asked Sonia with a fearful look in her eyes.
Stunned, Komal looked down at herself. She was dressed in a black salwar kameez. Horrified, she looked at her daughter who had not seemed to recognize her own mother.

To Be Concluded...

Read on for the Finale...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lady in Black - Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't already!

Ramesh and Komal had always been very proud of their open mindedness and modern outlook towards life. Neither were extremely traditional nor did they hold any superstitious beliefs. They were a modern family and that was precisely the reason why both let the incident with Sonia slip by. It was but a random incident caused by tiredness and fatigue, they thought. The painting, they decided meant nothing more than an example of what a good adhesive could do and hence would continue to stay on the landing, with a lot of their family photographs to give it company.

The Sharmas finally settled into the new house and got busy with their daily schedules. Sonia had always been good at academics and extracurricular activities, so it didn’t take her long to adjust at her new school and start developing a friend circle. Komal was in Mumbai most of the week, it was a strenuous routine for her but she knew that would change once she entered her third trimester. Her boss had agreed to let her work from home then on. Ramesh had adapted as well, to the new office, the southern culture that dominated the workplace and had even begun to pick up Tamil in bits and pieces. They had also managed to get a domestic help through Ramesh’s office contacts. She came in everyday in the mornings to prepare their meals and clean the house. All seemed well and the initial hiccups they had were fast fading away. The painting too would have almost been forgotten had it not been for Mr. Subramanian, Ramesh’s office colleague who came home for dinner one weekend. 

It was after dinner, that Ramesh had insisted Mr. Subramanian see the house. After seeing the garden and admiring it, they had headed for the first floor but never managed to get there. On reaching the landing, Mr. Subramanian had stopped. He was rooted to the spot sporting a similar look to that of Sonia’s, the day she had broken the china. To Ramesh, it felt like a déjà vu. 

“Anything wrong Subbu?’ he asked.
“This painting… where did you get it?” questioned Mr. Subramanian.
“Well, it actually came with the house, we did try removing it but-“ 
Before Ramesh could complete his sentence, Mr. Subramanian interjected “You were not able to right? So the legend is true, it had to be true!” he exclaimed loudly.
Thoroughly confused, Ramesh asked him to explain what he meant by that. By then Komal and Sonia had also joined them, their curiosity roused by the loud voices they heard. 
“I think we better move to the living room, this might take some time” said Mr. Subramanian, leading the way back down.

Nursing a much needed drink in his hand, Mr. Subramanian began his tale.

“That painting might seem normal to an onlooker but there is a story hidden behind it. Around fifty years ago, there was a lady named Durgalakshmi who lived with her husband and his family in Chennai. She was a small time village girl who was married away to an educated city boy in exchange for a huge dowry, including a beautiful bungalow for them to live in. With money and the property being the sole criteria for her marriage, she was ill treated right from the beginning by both her husband and her in-laws. If that wasn't enough, her inability to expand the family tree made her endure more torment. Little did her in-laws know that their son never considered any relationship with her. After a year of suffering, she finally gave in to the pain and committed suicide. But before she did so, she left a note blaming her husband’s family for her plight. They were arrested the next day. The lady you see in black in the painting is Durga – painted by her brother, an artist from the post independence era. Once the house was empty, Durga’s parents put it up on sale; they did not want to have anything to do with it anymore. The house kept changing hands, but if there was one thing that always stayed with it, it was this painting. No one was ever able to remove it. The legend also says that some people have seen her around the house….” With that he stopped, looking at the three expectant faces that were completely focused on him during the narration.

“Oh, that is such a sad story, but you mean this house? This painting?...” said Komal.
“Yes, now after seeing the painting I can confidently say the legend is true. This is the house” said Mr. Subramanian.
“That’s all fine, we do not believe in such things” Ramesh began to brush it off.
“But, I am not done; do you know what the worst part is?”
“What?” Asked all three in unison.
With a hesitant look towards Sonia, he whispered “Durga was just fourteen when this happened to her”.

To be Continued

Read on for Part 4

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lady in Black - Part 2

This is a part of an ongoing story, if you haven't read Part 1, you can catch up with it here.

The next day dawned hot and bright. The Sharmas, delirious in their excitement for having found the right house, quickly checked out of the hotel, rented a cab and drove down to their new address – No. 6, 6th main road, Porur, Chennai 116. 

As Ramesh fiddled with the keys, he looked up at the house for a brief second.  “It looks as alluring as it did yesterday” he told himself, banishing from his mind the meeting they had with Lalitha that morning after leaving the hotel.

Lalitha had looked nervous to say the least. She had seemed on the edge as she handed over the papers for him to sign. He had asked her if she wasn't feeling well, but she had insisted that everything was fine. Though not convinced, Ramesh had not pushed any further, but the drop of sweat he saw rolling down her brow in the air conditioned room and the sigh of relief he was sure he had heard when the papers were signed, told him a different story. He had felt unsettled all through the drive to the new house. Komal had seemed to notice it as well but made no mention of it.

The gentle thud and clinking sound of the key bunch falling out of his hands and onto the ground shook him out of his thoughts. He opened the door quickly and they entered the house they would call their home for the time to come. 

The first few weeks saw the Sharmas busy settling down in the new home. But they seemed to face obstacles which were unusual and hard to resolve. Like the hunt for a domestic help. They left word with the local grocer and vegetable vendor but no one turned up for work. Even when Ramesh went personally to inquire about maids in the neighbourhood he was met with unfathomable stares whenever the door was not slammed on his face. Unable to make out what was going on but not one who would give such behaviour much thought, he dialed a maid service agency and hired a help to assist with the moving in process.

Cobwebs had created a thick coat across all ceilings while the bookshelves and inbuilt cupboards were layered with inches of dust. No wonder the dusting had taken more than a week, but finally the house was beginning to smell fresh and airy and things were falling into place, he thought feeling happy when the maid came running down to him, with a frown etched all over her face.

“Sir, there seems to be a problem” 
“What is it now?” 
“The painting on the landing, the portrait of the lady, it is rather dusty and…” 
“Oh yes!” said Ramesh cutting her off. “I have been meaning to take it down; probably the previous owners left it behind… take it off, now is a good time to get rid of it”
“But Sir, that is the problem, it cannot be removed” said the maid. The frown had turned into a look of fear. 
“Cannot be removed? How is that possible?” asked Ramesh as he made his way up the stairs to the landing area.

There it was, a life size portrait of a young girl who seemed to be in her teens, draped in a black sari, sitting on a chair. She had dark piercing eyes and a solemn look; an expression that seemed to want to convey a message to the person she must have been looking at. The painting was nothing special, nor did the artwork seem out of the ordinary. What stood out were the lady and her expression. They were enough to make a shiver run down the spine of anyone who took a good look at the painting.

Ramesh tried repeatedly, but the painting wouldn't budge. He brought out his tool kit and tried to wedge it off the wall but it stayed put. The lady seemed to be mocking him with that stately look, a look that suddenly made him feel all cold. A feeling that reminding him of what Lalitha had said the day before.. of the house being cold... had she meant this he wondered just as the sound of breaking glass reverberated through the entire house.

Quickly he and the maid ran off to the kitchen, that’s where the sound seemed to have come from. They found Sonia standing there with a stricken look, frozen to the ground.

“Are you ok Princess?” asked Ramesh, closing his hand around Sonia’s and giving her a hug. He had sensed from the look on her face that this wasn't the time to question the damage or what had caused it. He silently gestured to the maid to get a glass of water which he made Sonia drink.

“I don’t know Daddy, Mummy had asked me to wipe the crockery and arrange it in the cabinet. I was busy doing that when I saw a shadow loom over the wall but there was nobody in the room other than me…how could there have been a shadow? When I turned around I thought I saw a lady near the back door but she was gone before I could see her properly…it was scary!” her teeth clattered and she broke down into sobs as she clung onto her father.

“Shush…It’s ok Princess, it must have been your tiredness showing up. You have been helping out so much and have hardly had any sleep”. Ramesh consoled his daughter till she had calmed down. For how long they sat there at the dining table, he did not know…when he looked out of the window, the sun had almost set and the first specks of darkness had begun to make their appearance. Komal was yet to get back from the market and the maid had left for the day.

He got up to fix a quick snack for the two of them when on an impulse he turned around and asked his daughter “Sonia, can you tell me what you saw exactly?” he was hoping his question wouldn't make her break down again but her reaction told him that she had gotten over it, for now at least.

“I don’t remember much Daddy” she said after much thought. Ramesh decided to let it go and had just turned back towards the kitchen counter when Sonia called out frantically “Wait Daddy, I remember… she was draped in a sari, a black sari…”

To Be Continued...

Read on for Part 3

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lady in Black - Part 1

The Sharma family was on the move again. After three years of stationary life in Mumbai, Ramesh Sharma had been promoted to become the Vice President of Bajaj Metal Holdings, the company he worked for. The promotion not only meant a hefty raise in pay but also a move to Chennai to take charge of the company’s Head Quarters in the south. It was a big move, what with his wife Komal having to fly to Mumbai every week for work and Sonia, his fourteen year old daughter having to change school just as the new academic year commenced. It would have still been fine had Ramesh and Komal not been expecting their second child. It had been a few weeks since they had got to know the good news and this move would mean a lot of adjustments on the personal front. A child after fourteen years was an important event in their lives, one that both had been eagerly looking forward to. This move was indeed momentous in more than one way.

A move in June from the thundering yet refreshing south west monsoons to the sweltering heat of Chennai was never going to be easy. To help smoothen out the change, Ramesh had done some research before their move and found a real estate agent in Porur, which was a comfortable distance from their plant and the school which they had identified for Sonia to continue her academics. The agent was going to help them find a house as soon as they landed in Chennai.

Ramesh shuttled between Chennai and Mumbai for a few weeks till they wound up all affairs and were finally ready to move down south. They flew to Chennai and checked into a hotel close to Porur. Their first impression of the city was that of hesitant surprise. Having never lived in the South, the sudden change in atmosphere, the temple architecture, signboard and bus numbers written in Tamil, the constant smell of “malipu” mixed with coconut oil… everything was strange to them. Esp. for Komal and Sonia who had never been there; not even for a visit. The weather did little to add to their comfort with the southern Sun scorching their skin to a lovely shade of roasted brown. Feeling hot and humid, they headed out to meet the real estate agent and begin their house hunt. They were extremely particular about living in an independent house and had shared their requirements with the agent in advance.

And a hunt it was. They saw numerous houses but none seemed to satisfy their requirement. If the yard was the right size, the rooms were too small. If the rooms seemed roomy, the kitchen was dingy, they lamented. Finally the list was exhausted and there was not a single house left to see. 
Dejected Ramesh turned to the agent and asked,
“Lalitha, isn't there any house that meets the requirements we gave you?”
Lalitha thought for a while, “Well, there is one that I haven’t shown you but…”
“But what?” asked Ramesh sensing the hesitation in her voice.
“Well, nothing really, but many have found the house to be a bit umm… cold you know?” She threw the words out as if her mouth was on fire. 
“Oh, is that all?” laughed a relieved Ramesh. “That’s perfectly fine, we can see it and then decide how cold or hot we feel it is” said he, laughing loudly at his own joke. 

The setting sun was spreading vibrant hues of orange and red across the sky when they reached the house. Slightly isolated from the rest of the neighbourhood; It was a beautiful bungalow with terracotta tiled roofs lending it a rustic look. A gorgeous garden skirted the house with shrubs of Roses, Hibiscus, Marigolds and Frangipanis falling out from everywhere. A sturdy white picket fence ran along the edge of the garden complementing the earthiness of the roof with its pristine whiteness. Right by the entrance was a tiny pond with sparkling blue, gurgling water that sent out ripples each time the tiny white duckling broke into a dance, flapping its little wings and sending out showers of water all around. The cobbled pathway that led up to the house was draped with a sheet of Mogra from the majestic tree that stood guard near the main door.

Feeling immensely satisfied with the exterior, they entered the house and stared with their mouth wide open. It was probably the most beautiful house they had ever seen. French Windows opening into the garden ran across two walls of the living room with the third wall opening a door into a well thought out library with never ending book shelves. The rest of the floor comprised of a modern state-of-the-art modular island kitchen with a cozy cove laced by corner windows for a dining area, and a spare bedroom. With the living room and library on the left and the bedroom and kitchen sitting pretty on the right, the corridor in between ended in a regal wooden staircase that led the way to the floor above, into four spacious bedrooms, a storage room and a big sprawling terrace. Ramesh,Komal and Sonia looked at each other instinctively, their expressions said it all. They had fallen in love.

“We’ll take it” said Ramesh, turning towards Lalitha who was hovering near the main door. She had been reluctant to walk in, something the Sharmas had failed to notice, busy as they were admiring the place.

“Sure, I’ll draw up the papers and you can come in tomorrow to sign and collect them” said Lalitha, “You can move in anytime, here are the keys” she threw the bunch into Ramesh’s hands and made a quick exit. The Sharmas again hardly noticed.

Once outside, Lalitha let out the breath she had been holding all the while. She knew she had behaved rather strangely for a Real Estate agent, giving them the keys without having the papers ready. But she was just glad she had managed getting the house off her hands; her nerves had also been on the edge all the time, making her justify her behavior. Putting it all behind, she stepped into her car and instantly pulled out of the garage, wanting to get away as fast as possible. The house had always felt cold, she wondered how the Sharma’s hadn't noticed it but then they hadn't noticed the painting on the floor landing either. Should she have told them about the Lady in Black? She wondered; pushing the thought as quickly out of her mind as it had appeared.

To Be Continued...

Read on for Part 2
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Friday, March 14, 2014

Sold our souls… have we?


Imagine writing a strong and emotion charged op-ed on who Americans should vote for as their next president? Such an earth shattering piece that it leads to heated arguments and discussions on the eve of elections. What do you think would happen? Probably United States would conduct a secret espionage assignment and get the Author dumped into the Arabian Sea? No, wait. That’s an exaggeration. Maybe it would just be a phone call to the Indian Prime Minister who is sitting on the edge of his seat wondering if he needs to vacate 7, Race Course Road or not. Whatever it is, there would be a reaction.

But imagine an American writing such a piece about India. A journalist, writing a powerful piece about how Indians are crossing the moral line when it came to voting for the government meant to rule it for the next four years or more. A thought provoking piece indeed and with a lot of substance to it -What do you think would happen?- It would lead to hundreds of polarized views no doubt; give a platform for frustrated Indians to vent out their anger against the forlorn state of Indian politics and the momentous (un)doings of its headless politicians. But more importantly it would make the article go viral on social media and make this lesser known Author, a celebrity overnight.

And that is where the issue lies, the fundamental truth behind the very basis on which Thane Richard gave birth to his controversial article on how Indians can leave behind morals and ethics and make a vote based on “your privileged view of India’s future”- the Indian society and its impulsive yet bigotry attitude that has put it in the shameful state that it is in today.

As emotional and spontaneous that we are being in going gaga over the article, we have been just as impulsive in deciding the future of our country over all these decades. Like it or not, our politicians are made from what we have been as a society. Waves of Communalism have risen because of the lack of interest we have shown as a society. Our entire political system has been damaged today because of the lax we have shown in bringing it to order. Somewhere we are responsible, be it for what we call sixty years of misrule or communal riots such as Godhra. Why? - Because we have been fast asleep all these years.

Sandip Roy reciprocated his thoughts on Thane’s piece in a fairly eloquent manner. No doubt Modi should be held accountable for Godhra, but just as much as Congress should be held responsible for the 1984 bloodbath. 2004 being just ten years apart on the timeline to 2014 does not in any way overshadow what happened thirty years before. Just because we were children running around playing hide and seek in 1984 or probably not even born then and have one significant genocide memory fresh in our minds does not entitle us to take just one politician to the guillotine. Blaming one politician for communal violence when it has been entrenched in our history by no means seems fair. Thane might not have intended to convey that however the excessive mention of Modi made the already charged audience to read it that way.

Now we have woken up. And there couldn't be a more positive sign for India than that. If nothing, the rise of AAP proves that we no longer want to take things sitting down but the damage that has been done cannot be easily undone. Years of unruly governance cannot be set right overnight. Precisely what Thane writes somewhere in the middle of the clarification he wrote based on the heated response he got on his article.
This one is a pickle. I said upfront in the piece that this was not about whether you thought Rahul Gandhi was better or not.  If, after working backwards and eliminating all the murderers and rapists and extortionists and thieves, there is still not someone good enough on the ballot, then we have a much bigger problem. Who’s problem is this? Ultimately, yours: the voter’s.”

Unfortunately this is not how most read his article. This piece that went viral was read as becoming “MODIfied” and not “Justified” in our voting. It made us throw daggers at each other on the opinions each of us is entitled to have on the right candidate. The right candidate? Like it or not we do not have much of a choice today. And harping on the same string, we are responsible for this lack of choice. Maybe Modi isn't the right person to rule this country but nor is Rahul or Kejriwal or Mamata or Amma. We as a society have called this time onto ourselves, for now we have to live with it, make the choice that we feel singes us the least.But what happens next? 

Economic growth is a prerogative now, regardless of the past we have unknowingly helped create. But do we continue to sell our souls to purchase economic growth as Thane, an outsider has so painfully voiced out? If he can feel the pain, why can we not? Do we brand ourselves as Kumbhakarnas who woke up from the deep sleep to fight just one battle? Or do we sit up and ensure that four years down the Thane Richard’s of this world have no premise left to write another such piece?

The choice is ours. 

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Monday, March 10, 2014

The Goan Paradies

When external agents such as wind and water remove soil and rock from the surface of the earth we call it erosion. There are different types, splash, gully, sheet…. Geography explains this for us.  But what geography fails to recognize, are the new kinds of erosion that are getting added to the list, erosion of the culture and values of a place, of course not geographically but through a much more tedious process -  the  growing ignorance of the human mind.

That ignorance was hogging the limelight when I visited home this one more time. As I took in the salty fragrance of the sea shore and felt the comforting breeze from the swaying palm brush against my face, I knew I was home. But then I made my first mistake – to open my eyes. The sight that greeted me pushed away that feeling of being home away into oblivion. Its place was taken by horror as I painfully watched the glittering sands losing its sheen as the piling mount of Bacardi bottles hid their rendezvous with the sun and screwed my face to the ghutka flavours that now adorned the squeaky clean streets. Yes, erosion was in its best form in the tiny state of Goa.

However short this trip was, I meant to travel. Reacquaint myself with the beaches I grew up along and explore what I could of the coast line – All that was my childhood and all that so many across the country create a hullabaloo about.  This was the second mistake I made.

Was it Miramar and Colva or Chowpatti that I visited? It was hard to make them out anymore. Covered with people all over, if there were no feet, the space was covered with litter. From the corner of my eye I could see the locals shying away from the crowds and enjoying a quiet moment along the outskirts of one beach, but at others they were driven away completely.

Russian menu boards are a common sight
Tourists dared the savaging high tide waters, turning a deaf ear to the warning calls from the lifeguards. After much fun, dipping around, the sight changed over to the public toilets. Clad in towels and accessorized with beer bottles, there were people everywhere, trying to wash of the sands from their bodies but ignoring the filth they created all around. But what stood out the most, to etch more horror on to my mind was watching a five year old inch into the deep waters completely unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. After all, he was but a child… born to ignorant parents who just looked on. It took five desperate warnings from the guard to make the father lift his lazy behind and make his son return. Five calls where there should have been none. Waters, be they Goan or any other, need to be respected and feared. As much as they soothe and calm the soul, they can turn the fury on and swallow you down. A simple fact usually ignored. Lady luck had been sitting right next to those parents, only if they knew enough to appreciate her presence. That day the water looked angry and not as serene and friendly as I remembered it to be. Was it the growing disrespect that had come its way that made it so? I can only imagine but truly never know. I looked away, that was all I could do.

Then I committed the third and probably the worst mistake of all. I decided to discover the Anjuna Flee Flea market. As we crossed Saligao and headed towards Anjuna, it felt like entering a different world. The Goa I had always known seemed to be left behind, and the Goa I saw emerge was nothing but new to me. More than locals, I came across foreigners on the roads, in the cars next to us and all around. No they weren’t tourists, not anymore. We had slipped into that role. As we drove around in those areas, we came across shacks which the Goan beaches are known for. But these were different, on the boards outside each shack the menu was written in English, and Russian. Yes, you read me right. If only it had stopped there.

Anjuna Flea Market
We finally reached the flea market, the anticipation which had tapered down, suddenly shot up. I had heard about the origin of the market from my uncles and aunts, the bazaar that took place when home bound foreign tourists would sell the stuff they couldn't take along for the lack of space or money. With that image in mind, I entered the hustle and bustle. The market was huge and the stalls countless. I strained my eyes but found it hard to find any tourist selling their wares, instead there were tribal’s from “they-only-know-where” to be seen all around. Slightly dampened but nevertheless eager we waded through the shops only to experience what it must feel like to be an outcast in life. It was not just us; anybody with a slightly brown skin was ignored. However politely we spoke to the hawkers, we were ignored. If any of us were privileged enough to receive their attention it was to be glared at or be cursed. Most domestic tourists seemed unmindful of the treatment meted out to them but then they were too busy enjoying their new found “freedom”. Only the white skin was welcome with greetings written as well as spoken in Russian. It was a shocking experience, watching the tribal's speak fluent Russian and accented English as they sold tiny figurines worth no more than Rs 300 for thousands of rupees. No wonder we were not wanted. There were a few locals who managed a few stalls, all giving us helpless looks when asked about what was going on. To cut a long story short, we were the strangers and heavily outnumbered.

Subdued but angry I returned home to the news of illegal encroachments on beaches by hotels and illegal purchases of land by celebrities. Real estate honchos gaining back door entry to build their “villas with a serene and majestic view” without any consideration for the landscape that provided the serenity or hotel chains illegally claiming land and beaches within no development zones - It wasn't a particularly bright day.

Erosion it was, of a beautiful place known for its squeaky clean beaches and abundance of nature. Erosion it was, of the the respect it ought to be given and of the culture inherent to the place. Erosion it was, of its soul and mere existence.

Random incidents these; but all adding up to a rather worrying future – one that is being created not only by ignorant tourists but also by greedy politicians and illegal immigrants. There is a lot being said and beaten around on this topic, but while the debates and discussions exhale the frustrations built within, Goa continues to be smothered. While we spare a few moments here and there to wonder over the ifs and buts, the condition of the state deteriorates, hoping for relief but losing the race.

My vacation was finally over and I headed back to Bangalore with heaviness in my heart and a wave of homesickness washing me over. Nauseated by all that I had seen, I now worried about what would await me the next time I went home. How fast would its identity fade away? Would I transform into a stranger in my own home?

I left Goa, knowing I would be missing a lot more than just my family while I was away. 

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book Review: Sorting Out Sid By Yashodhara Lal

When you finally put this book down, what strikes you the most is how apt the title is - Sorting out Sid. Yes, right from the start till you have read the last word on the final page, all that is happening is Sid getting sorted out. Not by him or his friends or his colleagues or his parents or his wife. But by you and me as we leaf through the book, at times chuckling at his wit, sometimes rolling our eyes at his seemingly desperate attempt at pleasing his bosses or simply shaking our heads in exasperation at the superficial “always-the life-of-the-party” act. There are so many Sids within this Sid, that you as a reader are left with no choice but to keep sorting him out, wondering whether by the time you reach the end you would have peeled off enough layers to know the real Sid. That’s the journey Yashodhara Lal takes you through with her latest book; His life and the people that contribute knowingly or unknowingly to the various layers that define him.

Sid could be any of us. He exists in everyday life with his marital problems, dull yet ambitious career, childhood friends who have stayed for life and his grudging love for his over protective parents. These are facets of life that we all experience at some stage or the other in our lives, how we respond to these is what defines us as individuals.  How Sid responds to it, defines the “Party Sid”, “Work Sid”, “Uncle Sid” “Friendly Sid” “Avoiding Sid”…  that we get to see all through the book.

At parties held by his best friend Aditi, he puts on the “Friendly Sid” or “Party Sid” cap with much ease, cracking jokes and amusing all with his wit and humour. At one such party he meets Neha, a single mom who forms an integral part of the ups and downs he goes through.

At work, he puts on the “Work Sid” cap despite his dislike for the job he does. From portraying that all is always well in his life and cracking forced jokes filled with smelly office humour to plastering a superficial smile on his face and enacting fake laughter, Sid rises up the ladder not for once wondering whether he really cares for what he does.

When his parents visit him, “Avoiding Sid” comes to life. Finding ways to stay away from his over-expecting father and over-protective mother, yet finding it hard to break their hearts with the news of his impending divorce, “Avoiding Sid” knows to do just one thing. Avoid.

As his friendship with Neha deepens, “Uncle Sid” surfaces, befriending Kippy, Neha’s two year old daughter and making you wonder if he really is as averse to kids as he makes it to be otherwise. 

What surfaces with the different faces of Sid is his love to please others. Even when he brings his guard down when he is all alone lounging on his bean bag “Brownie” with a couple of beers at hand, he can’t help but file away wise cracks he thinks off for future use. He can’t stop loving the different layers more than appreciating what he truly is. In all these faces however, there is one that stays strikingly absent – The “Husband Sid”. Right from the beginning, the cracks in his marriage are evident but does he do anything to figure out what went wrong? No. At one point, it made me wonder whether the different personalities that are Sid, sparked the discomfort for Mandira… There is an obvious communication gap and lack of effort from Sid’s end despite various jibes from Mandira which could have triggered a need to resolve matters. But no, Sid is too busy donning on his other masks to bother about this relationship. As far as he is concerned it was a failure even before he tried. Mandira is one person he does not care to please.

With his life the stage and his near and dear ones the actors, he sails in and out in each act with a different role and a different dialogue each time, letting his presence of mind effectively cordon off his true feelings and close the door to his inner self.  Eventually the wall he has built around himself begins to show signs of weakening, when Neha comes into his life and he connects with her, especially her paintings. 

Quotes by two characters in the book sum up what the book is all about for me. At one point Neha tells him “All you do is use people to feel better about yourself”. At another, Krish, Aditi’s husband says on the topic of his divorce “If you don’t find yourself difficult to live with, you are unlikely to find anyone else difficult”. For me, these two statements define the premise of Sorting out Sid. Throughout his life, Sid had aimed to feel better about him. His parents, friends, colleagues and his wife, in some way or the other have contributed to reinforce this self made goal that he has always had. They might have had his best interests in mind, but none really bothered to truly understand this nature of his. None, other than Neha. Does Sid finally get sorted out? Not overnight, no. 

Overall the book was a quick read but it did have some highs and lows which stood out for me.
Pros - Yashodhara sprinkles a delightful dose of wit and humour through the book. The “So! When is the baby due?” statement on seeing a women’s belly is a question every woman fears in her lifetime. She makes it as hilarious as it can get with that and many more. Another instance that stands out is her reference to India TV. “Ek sahasi murg ki kahani”… it can’t get funnier than that. With humour under her belt, next she targets the superficiality in the corporate world, esp. the references to “broad framework” and false deadlines. Extremely detailed descriptions, Yashodhara does a good job of playing back the current gen lifestyle. Across the book, she also spreads out a few gems that make you smile, be it the reference to how Ravi a marketing intern reminds Sid painfully of himself in his younger days or the beautiful manner in which she describes Neha’s attempt at discovering a subject for her to paint – only an artist (of the written word) could have described it so well.

Cons- Sorting out Sid takes a tad too long. There are moments where you get the feeling the story is dragging on its feet and could do with a bit of a push to make it move along. Overall a rather simple plot, there is not much to keep the reader engaged and glued till the last page. The story line demands a casual and simplified language but given that this is a piece of English fiction the “colloquial” ness in the conversations seems to go out of proportion at times, esp. when Hindi makes way into the writing.  If the Author wishes to cater to an audience beyond those who speak the two languages, the idiomatic tone might not connect instantly with the reader.

Despite the length, in general “Sorting Out Sid” is a breezy read, made so by the humour Yashodhara provides in generous doses all across. If you want to relax with a chilled beer on your bean bag, this is a book worth picking up.

Rating: 3/5

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Monday, March 03, 2014

Book Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck ClubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having never heard of Amy Tan or her work meant I did not hold any expectations from the Joy Luck Club. All I knew about the book was what the blurb on the back cover had to tell me; but what got me ticking was that it had received a quote from Alice Walker - an author I admire and love to read.

Joy Luck Club is a group of four Chinese women who in the year 1949 are recent immigrants to San Francisco and meet regularly to play mah-jong and relive stories of the world they have left behind. Each having a history of their own, they unite in their loss and hope for their daughter’s to have a brighter future than they could ever have. Their daughters, oblivious to their mother’s experiences find little to revere in their advice and set out to build American lives of their own only to discover that their Chinese roots are deeply entrenched into their very existence.

To me, the stories of Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong and Ying-ying St. Claire gave a much needed peek into the Chinese history, culture and traditions that existed during those times. Not only did their stories bring to life the folk tales that I have heard from the region but they also stood testimony to the Chinese culture we know of today. While on one hand Amy gives words to the tragedies the mothers faced through their life time, on the other she strings together the discord the lives of their daughters spell. Having never been exposed to their Chinese background except through the stories their mothers had to tell, the daughters sing a different tune much to the dismay of the Joy Luck Club.

The folk lore and the beliefs, none seem to make sense until you read the stories of the daughters and how each value their mother’s believed in starts making its presence felt. Through the tales that she weaves, Amy displays an in depth knowledge of the Chinese culture and the disconnect it has with the western way of living.

And that sums up Joy Luck Club for me. Other than the journey it took me through the Chinese way of life and the trauma people went through during the war, this book did not hold much substance for me. The book begins with a narration of the stories of the lives of the mothers and daughters and ends with just that. The impact the mother’s past has on their daughter’s present is dealt with but not in as much detail as the buildup has been. The plot ends just as it had begun.
As far as the narration goes, what works are the stories and superstitions Amy tells from China. For the uninitiated, they are truly an eye opener and tend to hold your attention as long as they last.

Take for example

“One was about a greedy girl whose belly grew fatter and fatter. This girl poisoned herself after saying whose child she carried. When the monks cut open her body they found inside a large white winter melon.”

“When you lose your face, An-mei,” Popo often said, it is like dropping your necklace down a well. The only way you get it back is to fall in after it”

Anecdotes such as these, charm you throughout the book but the dryness you sense in the stories of the children leave you feeling ambivalent about the whole novel. What does get left with you is the deep sense of attachment the Chinese mother’s feel to their country of birth despite the agonizing trauma it had let them suffer.
The Joy Luck Club opened a door into a world I didn't know to exist, but it stopped at that. Do pick it up, for all you know it might make you venture further into it.

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